Claude McKay, 'If We Must Die'
Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Kathy Lou Schultz joined PoemTalk producer and host Al Filreis to talk about Claude McKay’s widely anthologized sonnet, “If We Must Die” (1919). Its content advocates counterviolence in response to racist violence; its form is the exquisitely constrained Shakespearean sonnet, aligned with English poetic mastery. Does pushing through this formal constraint bring McKay’s speaker toward freedom or fatedness? Does the sonnet as a formal choice befit a cultural inside or an outside? Is the Anglophone literary tradition itself at risk if the super-talented Afro-Jamaican sonneteer is killed while fighting back, and what might it mean if McKay put it too — the tradition — in harm’s way? And what of the poem’s lack of explicit racial marking? The political positioning of this poem (published first in the radical-left Liberator) seems clear enough as a matter of its semantic sense, but such a stance opens wide when one reads the poem as a formal intervention — broadens so much that our four-way conversation inevitably ranges across numerous interpretive options. There is defiance as well as constraint in the message of the poem about a heralded proud response to the awful Red Summer, but, so too, both defiance and constraint in the poem as a poem.
This episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Zach Carduner and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin. PoemTalk is a collaboration of the Kelly Writers House, PennSound, and the Poetry Foundation. It is published as a podcast series in Jacket2 and available for subscription and download in iTunes. In your iTunes store searchbox, type “PoemTalk” and you'll easily find us.
If We Must Die
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Erín Moure is a poet, translator, and communications specialist living in Montreal. She was born and raised in Calgary, and later spent two decades working for the Canadian passenger rail service Via Rail Canada. Erín’s great-grandfather was born in the Galicia region of northwest Spain, and as an adult Erín began visiting Galicia regularly. She picked up the Galician language, and has since written poetry in Galician and translated the work of Galician poets including Chus Pato and Rosalia de Castro. Chus Pato joins us toward the end of our conversation to read a few of her original poems alongside Erín’s translations. Erín has also translated works from French, Spanish, and Portuguese into English.
Erín’s most recent collection of poems is The Unmemntioable (House of Anansi, 2012), preceded by O Resplandor (House of Anansi, 2010). Her essay collection My Beloved Wager was published by NeWest Press in 2009. Erin’s translations of Chus Pato’s poetry are Charenton (2007), m-Talá (2009), and Hordes of Writing (2011), and her excellent commentary series for Jacket2 is titled “T r a n s l a t i o n ’ s__H o m e o p a t h i c__G e s t u r e s.”
Laura Mullen, 'Bride of the New Dawn'
Amy Paeth, Michelle Taransky, and Steve McLaughlin met up with PoemTalk’s host Al Filreis to talk about one of the poems in Laura Mullen’s book Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides (Otis Books, 2012). Enduring Freedom is a coherent project; its poems constitute a series — a number of approaches to the problem of war’s strange but also surprisingly obvious and true convergence with weddings (and wedding planning in particular). The poem we chose is “Bride of the New Dawn.” Our recording of Mullen’s performance of the poem comes from a reading she gave in October 2012, in Berkeley, as recorded by Ross Craig; it was a reading in which she read fifteen of the Enduring Freedom poems.
The poems — including ours, to be sure — strip bare the idea of the wedding as auratic life-moment. This concept — and the book’s subtitle, its allusion to Marshall McLuhan’s 1950s take on industrial folklore, the connection between Mullen’s performance and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, and much else — suggests a relationship between this poet’s twenty-first-century project and Marcel Duchamp’s modernist “bachelor machine,” The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923). The wedding industrial complex has wrought its lasting post-effect on the home front. The poems in a sense are PTSD sufferers. Is the wedding traumatic? As you read Mullen’s prose poems you become caught in the fog-of-war confusion of lexicons, never quite able to discern, one line to the next, whether the figurative registers come from wedding planning or military strategy (or natural disasters). The wedding ceremony, “a ritual meant to extend a magic present,” can be seen now as a martial quagmire. “Enduring Freedom” is of course the name given to the US war in Afghanistan. “Well, on to the slaughter,” reads the book’s epigraph from the clever Goodrich-Hackette screenplay for Father of the Bride at the time of the Korean conflict, its “well” being a sigh of horrid-yet-plucky inevitability. Typically, in American life and language, bride and soldier complement each other, but here, in Mullen’s performance of cultural languages, romantic and martial, the two roles become strikingly the same. “[H]ere to hear the I do as a couple of hard blows: that flesh-blunted sound of bone on bone dislodging as cough a caught morsel not thoroughly chewed. Back out, back out, quagmire …”
PoemTalk is produced by Al Filreis. For episode 70, our engineers were Zach Carduner and Chris Martin. And our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. Next time on PoemTalk: Salamishah Tillet, Herman Beavers and Kathy Lou Schultz join Al to discuss Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” In the photograph above, from left to right: Michelle Taransky, Steve McLaughlin, Amy Paeth.
Bride of the New Dawn
She appears to be recognized as herself and not herself, new because endlessly recycled, not what she was but not what she will be — see? Not married and not not married, the processional’s a ritual meant to extend a magical present, until the head of this pin is the size of a rented hall and all of us angels stepping out on the long blank train of her on-going gown. To go in single and come married out is easy enough, what matters is to enlarge the interstitial, to live as long as we can in the not exactly no longer and the not quite not yet also. Where organ music drowns the ill-digested vows and the empty stomach growls. Hesitant. The BND goes down slow as a pill we can’t really swallow, stuck chunk in a stalled gulp between yesterday and tomorrow, at one and the same time belated and punctual. It’s the system itself we’ve come to see (open the plug of that rubber-edged rose window), not me and not you, but we: the marriage of church and state made visible, audible, available. Here Dearly Beloved’s an embarrassing gurgle, and the costly gown so much densely crumpled bathroom tissue backing up one overworked way in and out of the usual world. From the mouth to points South, scrawl that in soap on the vehicle? From “will you?” to “why don’t you ever?” on the march to “irreconcilable.” Hey — whoa! Away with you hand-wringing nay sayers: be here now now now now. … Cheeks are flushed and eyes overflow as we grasp her new handle, here to hear the I do as a couple of hard blows: that flesh-blunted sound of bone on bone dislodging as cough a caught morsel not thoroughly chewed. Back out, back up, quagmire, circle: proposed solutions involve the usual budget expansions, extended tours of duty, and additional troops.
Laura Mullen has kindly added the following context: My version of “cut piece” (a homage to Yoko Ono – & Helene Cixous) is not directly connected to the book or concurrent with my readings from it. The “cutting of the wedding dress” was done in the context of a multi-media performance (created for AdFemPo in 2009 and done last at &Now in Paris in 2012) which involves a nonfiction meditation on class and race situated in the early days of the Obama presidency. There’s a film of the piece (known as "White Inc.") up on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/46107108. But the “bridework” involves multiple layers: I see that Jacket has posted a picture of the “Trash Bride” piece done for/at Naropa in 2011 (again, not a reading from the book), and there is extensive documentation of the way the “bride of big oil” was mobilized here in Louisiana (2010) as a part of political actions in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident, as well as related videos on my Vimeo site ("The Veil" and "Bride Journal"). While I have read from Enduring Freedom in a wedding dress twice (at the book launch in Baton Rouge, where the wedding cake had soldiers on it, and at Otis, on Halloween), the dress I read in is specific: it's the gown that was cut up in Paris (for "White Inc.") and then, with friends, “up armored” (“up-amoured” is my joke) or “Frankensteined” (as we say of the vehicles which were sent into battle in Iraq with inadequate protection and had to be patched up). The marks of vulnerability, damage, and love are upon it.
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Rod Smith is a poet, editor, and publisher from Washington, D.C. He’s a co-founder of Aerial Magazine and founder of Edge Books, which has published titles by Joan Retallack, Anselm Berrigan, Robert Fitterman, Benjamin Friedlander, K. Silem Mohammad, and many others. Smith, along with Friedlander and Mohammad, is a member of the Flarf Collective. Since 1993 he has managed Bridge Street Books in Georgetown.
Rod Smith’s books of poetry include Deed (University of Iowa Press, 2007), Protective Immediacy (Roof, 1999), and In Memory of My Theories (O Books, 1996). He co-edited The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley with Kaplan Harris and Peter Baker, to be published by the University of California Press in January 2014.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, sections 16 & 29 of 'Draft 85: Hard Copy'
In a special long episode of PoemTalk, Ron Silliman, Jessica Lowenthal, Randall Couch and PoemTalk’s producer and host Al Filreis gathered to discuss two sections of “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” which is the 85th “draft” or canto in Rachel Blau DuPlessis's ongoing long poem Drafts. “Draft 85” is itself a long poem, running from pages 42 to 71 in the book Pitch: Drafts 77-95. This big draft was written between February and May of 2007. All forty sections of “Draft 85” were recorded by the poet for PennSound, in our studios, in October of 2007. We decided to focus on two of those forty sections — sections 16 and 29. The forty sections of “Draft 85” are mapped onto George Oppen’s important long poem, Of Being Numerous, a typescript copy of which Oppen in 1965 had sent to Du Plessis, and to which she responded then, and has, in a sense, been responding here and there since, although never more fully than here in “Hard Copy.” Section 16 of Du Plessis’s poem, like Oppen’s 16th section of his earlier poem, deals with Yahweh’s command to Abraham that he sacrifice Isaac. Section 29 of “Hard Copy” responds to Oppen's 29th section about his relationship with his own daughter by retelling the story in Genesis 31 of Rachel’s theft of the teraphim belonging to her father.
This episode of PoemTalk was directed and engineered by Steve McLaughlin, who, among other things, co-produces PennSound Radio, 24/7 curated streaming from the aural treasure troves of PennSound. The episode was edited, as all installments of PoemTalk are, by the very same Steve McLaughlin.