Clark Coolidge, "Blues for Alice"
Brian Reed (in from Seattle), Maria Damon (Minnesota), and Craig Dworkin (Utah) joined Al Filreis at the Writers House (Philadelphia) in a rare and — we think — rather fluid convergence of poetic minds prepped to figure out how to talk about an instance of verse bebop. The bop was Charlie Parker’s, as a model for languaged sound (by poet Clark Coolidge), and the template song was “Blues for Alice” (Coolidge’s poem uses the title), and among the possible Alices are Alice Coltrane, Alice Notley, and Alice in Wonderland. We speculate about Alice Coltrane and Alice in Wonderland, but as for Notley: Brian Reed finds evidence that Coolidge meant to dedicate his poem version of the standard bop dedication indeed to Notley. This leads Maria Damon to wonder about all these women dedicatees – these recipients or objects of blues syllabics — in light of such strong male performative struggles, or attempts to “get in on the try,” managed by creative men: Coolidge and Parker, or course, but perhaps Ted Berrigan too, and surely also Jack Kerouac, whose bop-inspired babble flow is very much part of the PoemTalk conversation. The key source for Coolidge’s working out of Kerouac is his important 1995 article published in American Poetry Review on Kerouac’s babble flow and his improvisation generally.
So let’s line up your sources for a full appreciation of this discussion. For especially studious PoemTalk listeners, we might even suggest that you reckon with these materials in this order. First, listen to one of the available recordings of Charlie Parker performing “Blues for Alice.” Then of course read Coolidge's poem (below and also here). Then read at least part of Coolidge’s essay on Kerouac. Then, finally perhaps, read Ron Silliman’s overview of the importance of Coolidge’s critical approach to Kerouac as an aid to our understanding of an “enormous sense of dedication to craft and to the idea that the meaning of form is intimately connected to what you can do with it”; Silliman is talking about Coolidge’s Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac & the Sounds.
Or, alternatively, forget all those ancillary materials; maybe we should all critically “Step down off our whelm lessons.” Perhaps in the end PoemTalk’s 60th episode will serve best as a model for how the meaning of a poem consciously worded from improvised sound can be conveyed through a close reading of its sounds without the producers of such a reading ever shying away from biography, discography and the specific literary histories of influence.
Our engineer for this episode was Chris Martin and our editor, as always, is the incomparable Steve McLaughlin. We wish to correct information conveyed in the discussion: Rachel Blau DuPlessis was indeed the source of the reel-to-reel recording, which she held for many years and then gave to PennSound, whereupon it was digitally converted; she was part of the 1985 symposium at Temple University where Coolidge performed, but did not make the tape.
Paul Blackburn, "7th Game: 1960 Series"
Paul Blackburn performed his poem “7th Game : 1960 Series,” which had been written in 1960, on or near the first day of the 1971 baseball season, during a reading he gave at SUNY Cortland. The poem was later republished in Blackburn’s Collected Poems (here is a PDF copy). The New York Yankees (Blackburn’s team) were heavy favorites in their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and vastly outscored the underdogs in the seven games. But the Pirates won on a home run by a light-hitting second baseman in the final at-bat of the final game (what we now call a “walk off”). As Blackburn introduces the poem, the Cortland audience laughs; listeners to the audio-only recording now might be confused by this, but we think you can safely guess that Blackburn had just put on his Yankee cap.
Ron Silliman, Daisy Fried and Joel Lewis join Al Filreis to talk about this poem, and about Blackburn’s poetry generally. Ron looks closely at 1960 as a year during which Blackburn, usually prolific, wrote almost nothing, our poem being just one of a handful he produced. Is there anything in this poem that helps us understand its compositional context as a time of reticence? Joel contributes, among other things, a rather precise sociological reading of the Cortland student body of the moment the poem was performed, the politics of that moment, at the end of the Sixties, being relevant to the story of 1960 being told in its lines. Daisy discusses baseball as “a numbers game,” and observes the poem’s use of baseball’s numbers as ideational and peri-metrical markers — offering a poetics of a sort. All four talkers worked through the image of Fidel Castro, who struck us as an important figure here, although shadowy and subtextual. Castro was of course still very popular at the time the poem was composed, a threateningly attractive cultural force as well as a talented baseball player, and his final emergence coincides with the end of the imperial reign of the Yankee, who now must go home despite retaining much greater firepower than the light-hitting small-time opponents, among them an explosive, soon-dominant Caribbean, Roberto Clemente, whose proud subversion of the Yankees was more potent than that of the accidentally powerful Mazerowski. Reading out these political valences — and aren’t we always reading baseball allegorically? — it is hard to discern which side Blackburn is on. Our understanding of his celebration of the exclusive focus of the male New York fanatics, whose temporary obliviousness to the pretty young underage girls (“jailbait”) who pass them by, is complicated by the prospect of the gaze naturally returning to its focus once the dynasty has finally been destroyed. Is that a reason to cheer, not lament, the end of the Yankee? Is that a reason to stand on the Left either in ’60 or ’71?
Chris Martin was our engineer once again for this episode of PoemTalk, Al Filreis the show’s organizer and producer, and Steve McLaughlin, as ever, its one and only editor.
Bernadette Mayer, 'The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty'
Most of us who have read Bernadette Mayer's poem, “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty,” encountered it in Andrei Codrescu's anthology American Poetry since 1970: Up Late (1987), where it was joined by her “Laundry & School Epigrams” (written in the same spirit) and eight of her other poems. PennSound’s recording of “The Tragic Condition” comes from an Ear Inn reading that took place in October of 1988.
As we note from the start, the poem’s subtitle is “A Collaboration with Emma Lazarus” and it begins by appropriating lines 10 through 14 of the famous Lazarus sonnet, “The New Colossus” — lines spoken by the giant statue, the “Mother of Exiles” that now stands in the harbor of New York, Mayer’s own beloved wretched town. Here is Lazarus, the appropriated lines in italics:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
PoemTalk this time was experted engineered by Chris Martin, produced by Al Filreis, co-sponsored by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, PennSound, the Kelly Writers House and the Poetry Foundation — and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.
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Joey Yearous-Algozin is a full-time man of letters living in Buffalo, New York. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program, co-editor of the journal P-Queue, and a member of the TROLL THREAD publishing collective. Joey’s books include The Lazarus Project: Friday the 13th (Gauss-PDF, 2011), Poor (Minutes Books, 2012), The Lazarus Project: Alien Vs. Predator, The Lazarus Project: Faces of Death, The Lazarus Project: Night and Fog, and Buried (TROLL THREAD, 2011–12). You can find his essay on the street performances of Hannah Weiner, “No One Asked You,” in Wild Orchids.
Gregory Djanikian, 'Armenian Pastoral, 1915'
When Gregory Djanikian’s book, So I Will Till the Ground, was published in 2007, it was celebrated at the Kelly Writers House. (Later a Writers House podcast was released to give a sense of the event.) Al Filreis gave an introduction (MP3) as did one of Djanikian’s students, Sam Donsky (MP3). Djanikian read the hilarious “Immigrant Picnic” (MP3), a poem from the part of the book dealing with the life of the poet's family after the genocide left many of his forebears dead and dispersed the rest to places like Alexandria, Egypt, where our poet was born. Most of the book, indeed, deals with the effects many decades later of the Armenian genocide (or “Meds Yeghern,” the great calamity). But the first poems in So I Will Till attempt to represent mass killing. Among them is a poem Djanikian also read that night in 2007: “Armenian Pastoral” (MP3), the poem we discuss in this episode of PoemTalk. It is more focused on the linguistic capacities of traumatic memory than any other poem in a book that is nonetheless full of consciousness about the relationship between genocide and naming.
At left, from left to right: Peter Balakian, John Timpane, Jamie-Lee Josselyn. To discuss this poem, and more generally the problems attending the making of verse “about” genocide, PoemTalk brought together Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who has helped teach a course on representations of the holocaust for many years; John Timpane, poet and editor of the commentary page at the Philadelphia Inquirer; and Peter Balakian. Balakian’s own story of a poet's life grappling with the history and effects (and denials by others) of the Armenian genocide he has told in numerous books — in poetry and prose.
We took advantage of Peter’s trip to Philadephia (from Hamilton, New York, where he teaches at Colgate University), and organized a poetry reading that took place just a few hours after we recorded this episode of our podcast. The entire audio recording (MP3) is available at the Kelly Writers House site (here). This episode of PoemTalk was convened and produced by Al Filreis, as always, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.