No spell broken (PoemTalk #94)

CA Conrad, two poems from '(Soma)tic Midge'


Trace Peterson, erica kaufman, and Gabriel Ojeda-Sague joined Al Filreis at the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation in New York City to discuss two poems in CA Conrad’s chapbook, (Soma)tic Midge, published by Faux Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts (2008). Each of the seven poems in the series was written while the poet was under the influence of a color — worn, ingested, or otherwise enveloped. We discussed the green poem and the white poem (“Say it with Green paint for the comfort and healing of their wounds” and “From the Womb not the anus White asbestos snowfall on 911” respectively).

In 2007, before Faux Press released the book, Conrad walked into the PennSound studios and made a complete recording of the series, engineered and edited by Michael Hennessey. The recording is carefully segmented on Conrad’s PennSound page. Here is a link to the green poem, and here to the white poem.

As the group discovered during the course of a wide-ranging conversation, (Soma)tic Midge is about hyper-apathy, didacticism despite disempowerment, the relationships between resistance and (physical) occupation as between militarism and the environment, and what it means to be what we eat and to need a lover during wartime. In a review of the book written some years back, Al Filreis offered the following:

“Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.” Mark Twain wrote that. C. A. Conrad’s book of poems (Soma)tic Midge proves that exactly the opposite (opposite in every element) is probably the truth. Eat what you must, and let the food fight it out on the outside. Fortunately for us, the outside is this writing.

The somatic poetic practice strives to affect that outside.

Special thanks to Susan Fisher and Mimi Gross of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, which we urge PoemTalk listeners to visit and explore at 526 LaGuardia Place in Manhattan. And thanks to Zach Carduner, who traveled to New York to engineer and direct our session and, as always, then assumed his role of editor and made this episiode possible.

Next time on PoemTalk, back in Philly, Al Filreis will be joined by Rodrigo Toscano, Michelle Taransky, and Laynie Browne for a conversation about Rob Fitterman’s project Sprawl.

Above, left to right: Al Filreis, erica kaufman, Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, Trace Peterson.

Dreams not spoiled by roaches (PoemTalk #93)

Helen Adam, 'Cheerless Junkie's Song'

Helen Adam; screenshot courtesy Ron Mann's "Poetry in Motion" (1981/82) (c); republished by The Voyager Company (1992)


Corina Copp, Laura Sims, and Richard Deming joined Al Filreis in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House to talk about one of Helen Adam’s poem-songs, “Cheerless Junkie’s Song.” PennSound’s Helen Adam page consists (so far) of three items. First, a full recording of the 1977 performance (aired on WBAI radio) of the 1963 lyric play called San Francisco’s Burning. Second, a recording of Adam being interviewed by Susan Howe and Charles Ruas on Pacifica Radio in the late 1970s. And, third, our poem, “Cheerless Junkie’s Song”: Adam performed the piece on film, in Ron Mann’s documentary Poetry in Motion (1981).

The group first tackled the major question of whether and how the ballad form can be integral to Beat poetry and poetics — and/or to politically and aesthetically resistant poetry generally. The answer, we concluded, was certainly yes, but in a manner as eccentric and counter-intuitive as Helen Adam herself.

Then we pondered this junkie’s song. The junkie seems to track the well-trodden course influenced by Manifest Destiny, downtown New York City (after escape from the suburbs) to San Francisco (and perhaps back again). This is the course of the Beat language and lifestyle, and the song-poem follows closely as that movement goes off the road, as its figure becomes the degenerate “poet type” gawked at by passers-by seeking to be freaked out by the freaks. On this point it seemed to the PoemTalkers that Helen Adam was offering a deep formal critique of the formless (or, anyway, anti-formalist) Beat mode, as she attempted to cajole it — via Allen Ginsberg for instance — back to a properly irrational history of the dark ballad. Such carefully perfected irrationalism might have spared the junkie his particular negative directionlessness.

We happily felt the need to recommend Kristin Prevallet’s editorial work on Adam, especially in The Helen Adam Reader. Corina also described her own visit to the Adam manuscripts in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Adam is one of those poets whose work is often difficult to behold only on the page, and that might be one of several reasons why she is not better known.

This ninety-third episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Zach Carduner and Ivana Kohut and was edited by the very same Zach Carduner.

Cheerless Junkie’s Song

Seeking love upon a day,
A day of summer’s pride,
I left Long Island’s suburbs
For the Lower East Side.
The train it roared and thundered,
And I sang above its scream,
There’s a cockroach coming towards me
But it cannot spoil my dream.
Love! Love! and l.s.d.
It shall not spoil my dream.

Blue moonlight over Tompkins Square.
“Drop out, tune in, turn on.”
The village all around me,
And Long Island’s suburbs gone.
In a pad far down on Fourth Street Soon
I welcomed the approach
Of the rat that loves the twilight,
And the nimble footed roach.
Love! Love! at eventide,
The grey rat and the roach.

I’m always where the action is.
I blow my mind all day.
While on Long Island’s tennis courts
The bland suburbans play.
And I was born suburban!
Who would ever credit that?
No chick who saw me frugging
With the cockroach and the rat.

It’s Ho! for Horse, or methedrine
To spark the swinging mood.
While rats run up my trouser leg
Roaches share my food.

Rats and roaches nuzzle me
When it’s dark and hot.
Love! Love! It’s all the same
Mixing Speed and Pot.
First a rat, and then a roach,
Or both as like as not.
If I can’t find a fix tonight
My marrow bones will rot.

Goodbye transcendent Tompkins Square
I haven’t long to stay.
A double jolt of heroin and I’ll be on my way.
Let rats and roaches bury me.
They’ll bury me in state,
As they march from Verrazano Bridge
Down to the Golden Gate,
Clear across the continent.
Yonder let me lie,
In the gutters of Haight Ashbury,
To freak the passers by,
Till all the tourists gape, and say,
“Brother! He died high!”
Let rat tails write my epitaph.
Brother! He died high!

The above screenshot from Ron Mann’s Poetry in Motion has been reproduced by the Poetry Foundation web site in Daniel Nester’s interview with Ron Mann (2012).

Brian Teare interviews Brent Armendinger

PennSound podcast #51


The Los-Angeles-based poet Brent Armendinger visited Philadelphia and the Kelly Writers House in April 2015 during a book tour for the release of The Ghost in Us Was Multiplying, which Bhanu Kapil has described as a book that “traces the index of an intense need: the kind of contact that can’t be assuaged by touch alone.” Armendinger read from the book and then spoke with Brian Teare about queerness and medicalization of the body, about how poetry can explore the relationship between ethics and desire, about metaphor and embodiment, and more.

Armendinger was born in Warsaw, New York, and studied at Bard College and the University of Michigan. In addition to The Ghost in Us Was Multiplying, he has published two chapbooks, Undetectable and Archipelago, and published in Aufgabe, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Pitzer College, where he is an associate professor of English and world literature.

We were happy to welcome Brian Teare for this second of two interviews he conducted in the Wexler Studio in spring 2015 (the first being with Rachel Zolf, PennSound podcast #48). Teare, an assistant professor of English at Temple University, is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Companion Grasses, as well as a number of chapbooks. He also makes books by hand in Philadelphia for his micropress, Albion Books.

An abductee, in theory (PoemTalk #92)

Bob Perelman, 'Confession'


Al Filreis convened Kristen Gallagher, Kathy Lou Schultz, and Bruce Andrews for a conversation about a poem by Bob Perelman, “Confession,” which the poet once introduced (jokingly, yes?) as “the inside story of Language writing.” “Confession” was published as the first poem in — indeed, arguably it serves as a proem to — Perelman’s book The Future of Memory. Its speaker satirically imagines that avant-garde poets had been abducted by aliens, in the manner of 1950s science fiction. As abductees (the speaker concedes he is one) they have been ... well ... transformed into the poets they are. At several points in his confession, the speaker wonders whether his and others’ modes haven’t indeed been programmed — haven’t resulted from an alien intervention, been “inculcate[d] … with otherworldly forms.” Perhaps the “variety” of poetic styles and forms is actually, when read through the sci-fi conspiracy theory, a totalized monoculture hatched by coup-minded Body Snatchers. In the course of this poem our poet-speaker begins to snap out of it, perceiving the putsch and feeling new self-doubt. And: “Why don’t [the abductors] ever / reveal themselves hovering over some New / York publishing venue?”

Beyond the comic, clever skein of Manchurian Candidate-ism in this poem, our panel reads the poem’s expression of anxiety over whether its speaker truly is a card-carrying member of the avant-garde, devoted to breaking completely free from what such poetry’s detractors deem inhuman and automatic, the result of brainwashing. How much does the poet by this point lament the absence, in his poems, of “That old stuff, the fork / in my head, first home run, / Dad falling out of the car — / I remember the words, but I / can’t get back there anymore.” As thus a meta-poem, the poem does indeed “get back there,” but only to wonder whether such formative personal scenes, the poetic stuff of the lyricized self, belong sincerely to the work of the poet whose exclusions are the result of the lamented inculcations. Kristen, Kathy Lou, and Bruce have a good deal to say on this point, and come to various conclusions about the extent of Perelman’s poetic nostalgia. Is this poem a confession of its longing for pre-ideological origins? The future of memory for an aging poet might be the present, as memory fades, as the stretch of the poetic drift runs long. But here the future of memory is indeed memory, and seems to require this difficult, though hilarious, rethinking of poetic identity. (Above at right, from right to left: Kristen Gallagher, Bruce Andrews, Kathy Lou Schultz.)

This 92nd episode of PoemTalk was produced by Al Filreis, engineered and edited by Zach Carduner. It happened to have been recorded on the day Bob Perelman was celebrated at the Kelly Writers House on the occasion of his retirement from teaching.

* * *


Aliens have inhabited my aesthetics for
decades. Really since the early 70s.

Before that I pretty much wrote
as myself, though young. But something

has happened to my memory, my
judgment: apparently, my will has been

affected. That old stuff, the fork
in my head, first home run,

Dad falling out of the car —
I remember the words, but I

can’t get back there anymore. I
think they must be screening my

sensations. I’m sure my categories have
been messed with. I look at

the anthologies in the big chains
and campus bookstores, even the small

press opium dens, all those stanzas
against that white space — they just

look like the models in the
catalogs. The models have arms and

legs and a head, the poems
mostly don’t, but other than that

it’s hard — for me anyway — to
tell them apart. There’s the sexy

underwear poem, the sturdy workboot poem
you could wear to a party

in a pinch, the little blaspheming
dress poem. There’s variety, you say:

the button-down oxford with offrhymed cuffs;
the epic toga, showing some ancient

ankle; the behold! the world is
changed and finally I’m normal flowing

robe and shorts; the full nude;
the scatter — Yes, I suppose there’s

variety, but the looks, those come
on and read me for the

inner you I’ve locked onto with
my cultural capital sensing device looks!

No thanks, Jay Peterman! No thanks,
“Ordinary Evening in New Haven”! I’m

just waiting for my return ticket
to have any meaning, for those

saucer-shaped clouds to lower! The authorities
deny any visitations — hardly a surprise.

And I myself deny them — think
about it. What could motivate a

group of egg-headed, tentacled, slimier-than-thou aestheticians
with techniques far beyond ours to

visit earth, abduct naive poets, and
inculcate them with otherworldly forms that

are also, if you believe the
tabloids, salacious? And these abductions always

seem to take place in some
provincial setting: isn’t that more than

slightly suspicious? Why don’t they ever
reveal themselves hovering over some New

York publishing venue? It would be
nice to get some answers here —

we might learn something, about poetry
if nothing else, but I’m not

much help, since I’m an abductee,
at least in theory, though, like

I say, I don’t remember much.
But this writing seems pretty normal:

complete sentences; semicolons; yada yada. I
seem to have lost my avant-garde

card in the laundry. They say
that’s typical. Well, you’ll just have

to use your judgment, earthlings! Judgment,
that’s your job! Back to work!

As if you could leave! And
you thought gravity was a problem!

The body in pain (PoemTalk #91)

Gil Ott, 'The Forgotten'

From left to right: Jenn McCreary, Pattie McCarthy, Frank Sherlock


Jenn McCreary, Frank Sherlock, and Pattie McCarthy joined Al Filreis in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House to discuss a poem by Gil Ott. The poem is called “The Forgotten” and it was published in Public Domain of 1989. PennSound’s recording of the poem comes from a performance at the Ear Inn in New York City on February 19, 1989. In No Restraints (an anthology of writings about disability culture), Gil Ott’s contribution is about invisible disability. Pattie notes that “The Forgotten” enacts this notion, especially at the beginning when it “points so much to the interior” of sourceless hurt, of forgotten wound. The “wound too great to finish telling.” The disappearing pain opens the poem and opens up the stanza. Jenn sees that the way Ott moves around in the four stanzas of the poem explains in part what he means by the phrase “the illness moves,” and in the discussion she closely tracks that sort of movement. Ott is in control of the way the poem moves, from idea to idea, trope to trope and, crucially, sound to sound (and kind of sound), but what he’s saying ultimately is that he is unable to discern the origin of that constant discomfort which makes such control possible.

Frank takes this point and looks in turn at the poem’s unmistakable references to place and neighborhood and the forces that make one move — at, in short, displacement (as in: “being wheeled to a poor neighborhood”). This reading connects disability and personal pain with the world as it can be perceived by such a subjectivity. “Not only that the personal is political,” Frank observes, “but the physical is the political.” And: “There’s a gentrifying force that is the illness.” Pattie then supports Frank’s reading by taking us through words and forms of inwardness at the beginning of the poem and following shifts toward a vocabulary of out, opening, spreading, and externality.

The three PoemTalkers (and also their host) are all long-time Philadelphia people, and this episode ends with a series of observations about the lasting effects of Gil Ott’s community work — in the beyond-academic world of arts organizations; in the local small-press publishing world; in the network of advocacy for people with disabilities — and on the ways in which his interlocking commitments can be read in the poems. “Hard” here is not just “difficult,” as it is mostly or solely in some avant-garde poetry, but hard is hardened or beat, as in the effect of experiencing life’s day-to-day difficulties. “A chorus of hard comparisons” is a concept challenging any easy linguistic likening yet affirming the democracy of song.

PoemTalk’s episode #91 was engineered by Zach Carduner and Tyler Burke and was edited by Amaris Cuchanski. This is the last episode Amaris will edit (at least for now) and we at PoemTalk and the Writers House want to express our gratitude to her and are gladder than merely glad that as she begins her career as a teacher she will continue to be associated with us through our free and open online course called “ModPo.” Thank you, Amaris!

(Photo above at right: Gil Ott, second from right, wearing his “Not Dead Yet” t-shirt at the October 2001 Ott celebration held at the Kelly Writers House.)