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.)

The fuck-you bow (PoemTalk #90)

Gertrude Stein, 'How She Bowed to Her Brother'


Maxe Crandall, Julia Bloch, and Sarah Dowling joined Al Filreis to talk about Gertrude Stein’s “How She Bowed to Her Brother.” It was written in late 1931. The text can be found in A Gertrude Stein Reader, edited by Ulla Dydo (564). On PennSound’s Gertrude Stein page, which has been edited and annotated by Dydo, one can hear a recording of Stein performing the first section of the three-section poem. The recording was done in 1934, during Stein’s visit to New York that year.

Stein here experimented with the period as a punctuation mark, using it sometimes as one would a comma and at other times when conventionally no punctuation at all would appear. So the reading (aloud — but also, we think, it’s the case with silent reading) is typified by frequent disruptive pauses and stops, adding to the already strong effect of fragmentation. Above from left to right: Sarah Dowling, Julia Bloch, Maxe Crandall.

“This is a poem that is interested in relationships as performance,” observes Maxe. The bow, all four PoemTalkers agreed, was a gesture of theater that can be interpreted any number of ways. Gertrude Stein either did or did not bow to her brother, Leo Stein, as they encountered passing views of each other accidentally in Paris traffic one day many years after the sister and brother, just two years apart, had had a permanent falling out. The ambivalence of the gesture in the Stein biography — Maxe observes, as author of an in-progress biographical study of Stein and men — is amplified in the poem. The frequent use of the period only adds to the ambiguity of each restatement of the bow in the poem.

Sarah offers a reading of several lines of the poem in which it seems clear that there was some reciprocality in the bowing. Al naively wonders whether a bow can be ironic, and then, with quick unanimity, the group affirms that indeed there can be what Al dubs a “fuck-you bow.” Julia reminds us that there is “another brother” in the poem (Maxe helps us identify this as Michael Stein), such that soon it is not even clear which brother is being doubted. “All of a sudden,” Julia notes, “I get the impression of all these people, in the scene.” The bowing of Gertrude to Leo “is modernist silence because it’s a modernist moment. It’s Paris, in the 1930s!”

Toward the end of the discussion we attempt to make sense of what Stein calls in this poem a “union between reading and learning.” Sarah wonders if Stein is lamenting the situation: if reading and learning have converged, “now everyone reads but no one thinks.” Stein might be looking back fondly at a prelapsarian moment (with family as a touchstone or analogy or metaphor of relationship but also a relational literality) when there was “an intense bond that was taking place between reading and learning” deeply inside the Stein family — and no separation, in this ideal mode, between intellectual functions.

After Sarah offers this reading of the poem’s marking the significance of the break in the family, Al pushes toward a psychoanalytic reading of early, premodern unindividuated or unalienated intellection, a phase the end of which is signaled by the open gestural bowing. Yet, as Sarah notes, as much as that prelapsarian ideal familial connection was precious, Stein needed to mark the distance in order to continue to develop as an artist on her own — she needed, in short, to stop bowing to her brothers. There are as many ways to see in this poem that Stein did not bow to her brother as ways that she did.

This ninetieth episode of PoemTalk was recorded and engineered by Zach Carduner and Tyler Burke and edited by Amaris Cuchanski. Please subscribe to PoemTalk in iTunes. If you subscribe, you will automatically get each new PoemTalk as it appears monthly.

Requiem so sweet we forgot what it lamented (PoemTalk #89)

Nathaniel Mackey, 'Day after Day of the Dead'


Tsitsi Jaji, Herman Beavers, and William J. Harris joined Al Filreis in the new Wexler Studio at the Kelly Writers House to discuss a poem by Nathaniel Mackey, “Day after Day of the Dead” (text).  The poem appears about a third of the way through Mackey’s book Nod House (New Directions, 2011). As is typical of Mackey’s work, especially in recent years, the book includes poems that are individually new installments in one of two ongoing long poems, one called “Mu” and another called Song of the Andoumboulou.” Our poem is the 48th part of the “Mu” series, and it follows immediately after the 68th “Song of the Andoumboulou.” Our recording of “Day after Day of the Dead” comes from a “Close Listening” show hosted by Charles Bernstein at the Kelly Writers House in February 2011, some six months before Nod House was published. 

Tsitsi comments on the appearance and also the disappearance of the “we.” Billy Joe reads “we” as lovers, at points, but wonders what traumatic break this “we” has endured here. Disaster of some sort. A flood? (Tsitsi mentions New Orleans.) An attack? (There are references to the 2004 Madrid bombings earlier in the book.) Herman suggests that the collective journey could remind one of the Middle Passage. This for him partly explains why the ensemble in the poem no longer wants to know what soul was. “You actually try to forget what soul is,” Herman offers, “so it cannot be taken from you.” All agree that the speaker and his cohort or “philosophical posse” are survivors of some sort, and that the poem is marked by the effort at witnessing and testifying to others’ deaths and (for the speaker and his colleagues) one’s own near-death. They eat with great appetite — glad to be bodies, glad to be alive — yet the repast is morbid (“knucklebone soufflé” is on the menu).

There’s so much more to discuss: echoes of The Waste Land and in them a “response to modernist formalism”; changes that occur as they do in a jazz solo; “Mu” as a rudiment of MUsic; “the collective thinking one has to engage in if you are an ensemble of musicians”; art as a response to scarcity; the pure poetry of drones and hisses; Mu as the epic story of humanity; the poetics of reprise; certain kinds of wholeness that are not available to us; and making something positive or at least productive out of “discrepant engagement.”

PoemTalk #89 was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner and Tyler Burke, was produced by Al Filreis, and edited by Amaris Cuchanski. You can find PoemTalk at Jacket2 of course, but also in iTunes. If you subscribe to podcasts, please subscribe to ours.

Gabriel Ojeda-Sague interviews Emji Spero

PennSound podcast #50

Emji Spero
Emji Spero


Emji Spero, an Oakland-based artist and poet exploring the intersections of writing, book art, installation, and performance, visited Philadelphia and the Kelly Writers House in April 2015 to talk about their book almost any shit will do, which uses found language from mycelial studies, word-replacement, and erasure to map the boundaries of collective engagement. Spero is a cofounder and editor of the “art-cult” Timeless, Infinite Light and has described their books as “spells for unraveling capitalism.”

In this interview at the Wexler Studio, Spero spoke with Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, a poet living in Philadelphia and author of the chapbooks JOGS (Lulu, 2013) and Nite [chickadee]’s (GaussPDF, 2015), about personal trauma, queer longing, surveillance states, public/private access, the Baltimore riots, and a new work on violence as the static and quotidian. The interview concludes with a ten-minute collaborative reading by both poets from almost any shit will do.