Is it over already? (PoemTalk #73)

Steve Benson, 'Did the Lights Just Go Out?' from 'Open Clothes'


On February 8, 2003, performing at the Bowery Poetry Club without prepared text or notes, Steve Benson improvised a long poem composed entirely of questions. His transcript of this performance later appeared in the book Open Clothes (Atelos, 2005) as “Did the lights just go out” [text].  Later, Steve McLaughlin created two excerpts from the full audio recording:

Excerpt 1 (2:55): MP3
Excerpt 2 (2:37): MP3

For PoemTalk episode 73, Patrick Durgin, Thom Donovan, and Tyrone Williams joined Al Filreis at the Kelly Writers House to talk about a passage from this performance.

Tyrone noticed a similarity to the “talk poems” of David Antin (although acknowledging their different ideas about improvisation): for each it is important to understand how entering a room, unprepared, leads to work that comes from reacting to the space and particular environment.  The relation between a text and the space in which it is performed is always a significant matter, but never more so than in this unpredictable mode.  Pondering Benson’s idea that some of the material he utters is only intermittently “accessible to [his] attention,” Thom observes that what distinguishes Benson from other Language writers is the way he’s developed an improvisational practice in order to make himself “radically vulnerable.”  He knows the transitions in advance but doesn’t know what will fill in the spaces (the “body” of a work — the typical carrier of content) between the transitions, which are in this case the only semi-stable aspect.  This work unfolds as a way of “mediating or providing structure” to the fact of “becoming naked before his own interlocution,” in Thom’s phrase.  Patrick notes that a way of enjoying this work it is to deem it composition. “What you witness,” Patrick notes, “is not a performance but a composition. [An audience] is there as a piece of art is being composed.”

Three nights after the Bowery Poetry Club performance we used as the basis of our discussion — by then Benson has traveled to the Writers House in Philadelphia — he again improvised a long poem composed of questions, although on this occasion he then responded at length to inquiries about the method from the audience. His transcript of this performance also appears in Open Clothes — as “If you stop to listen to yourself think” and “Is your thinking about the words.” A full audio recording of the event, including the Q&A session, can be heard here.  Again, Steve McLaughlin created excerpts:

Excerpt 1 (2:25): MP3
Excerpt 2 (1:42): MP3
Excerpt 3 (2:27): MP3

In May 2011, Eric Baus wrote about Benson's improvised questions for his Jacket2 commentary, “Notes on PennSound.” In 2006, for Jacket issue 31, Rob Stanton reviewed Open Clothes and made reference to the transcription of the 2003 Writers House Q&A.

PoemTalk is produced by Al Filreis, was engineered this time by Steve McLaughlin, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin. The series is sponsored by PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation. Program notes are hosted among the podcast series, of course, at Jacket2.

Four introductions to John Ashbery across five decades

Kenneth Koch, Richard Howard, David Lehman, Susan Schultz


The 35th episode of PennSound podcasts presents an anthology of introductions to readings given by John Ashbery: Kenneth Koch in 1963, Susan Schultz in 1996, David Lehman in 2008, and Richard Howard in 1967. Nick DeFina selected and edited the introductions from Ashbery’s PennSound page; Allison Harris hosts and introduces the podcast.

General introduction to Oulipo in 15 minutes

by Harry Mathews


In 1999 the Literature faculty and the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT invited Harry Mathews to present on Oulipo. The complete recording is available at Harry Mathews's PennSound page. And we have segmented the audio — making available separate links to audio recordings of his introduction, his remarks on the Oulipo group, a brief Q&A session, and several readings of lipograms and N+7 writing. As a service particularly to those who don’t know much about Oulipo, Nick DeFina at PennSound has created an edited 15-minute excerpt of Mathews’s general overview. Now Emily Harnett offers an introduction to this 34th episode in the PennSound podcast series.

PennSound 10 years after

Featuring Michael Hennessey's recollections of his own work with the archive


On November 18, 2013, Steve McLaughlin hosted a celebration of PennSound’s 10th anniversary. After introductory remarks offered by Al Filreis, there were short talks each by Charles Bernstein, Michael Hennessey, Danny Snelson, Katie Price, Steve McLaughlin himself, and Benjamin Behrend. Hennessey was not in Philadelphia for the event and had prepared a recording to be played. In this PennSound podcast, the 33rd in the series, we feature Hennessey’s retrospective (along with clips he prepared from various bits from the archive). Allison Harris edited the podcast and introduces it. Full audio and video recordings of the event are available at the Kelly Writers House web calendar entry.

John Ashbery explicates

PennSound podcast #18


Rare it is that John Ashbery explains one of his poems. But, in a radio interview in 1966, he did that just. He read “These Lacustrine Cities” and then went line by line offering various sorts of explanations - paraphrase, sources for phrases and words, a sense of the process of composition. Here is a PennSound podcast, the 18th in our series, featuring this recording, which aired on WKCR. The podcast is 18 minutes long.