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.

An interview with William J. Harris

PennSound podcast #49, with an introduction by Harris

William J. Harris with Susan Harris, 1969.


This interview tracks my genesis and early development as a poet and intellectual. My artistic and cultural education occurs during the late 50s, the 60s and the early 70s and takes place primarily in and around academic institutions: the liberal college, Antioch, which is in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and the nearby black state university, Central State, in Wilberforce, and the story, if not exactly concluding, comes to “a momentary stay against confusion” at Stanford University in Northern California where I did my MA in creative writing and a PhD in English.

My main education came mostly from students, not professors, because the students were in contact with what was happening in the culture. This was the time of the New American Poetry, the postwar avant-garde movement, and free jazz, the radical new black music. Even though I was not a student there the students at Antioch and what I read there taught me about the New American Poetry and at Central I learned a little about free jazz. Well, heard it anyway. Listening to it with a group of black militant students, I found it incoherent; they didn’t. It would take me years to make sense of it. Also at Central I met the future black philosopher Leonard Harris — no relation — who not only became a prominent black philosopher but was one of pioneers of the emerging field of black philosophy. At both Antioch and Central I edited student literary magazines, Trinculo at Antioch and Gem at Central. At Stanford my understanding of the New American Poetry and experimental writing deepened: not only by my talking with fellow students and Al Young but also by meeting the black novelist, Ishmael Reed. There I was associated with the black student magazine, Brilliant Corners, named after a Thelonious Monk tune and edited by Bob O’Meally, an undergraduate. Among others it published Nate Mackey, Robert Stepto, Al Young, Jon Eckels, Johnie Scott and me.   

Even though I had wonderful teachers, including the poet Wendell Berry, the modernist poetry scholar, Al Gelpi and poet-critic Donald Davie, once again most of my real schooling came from the students. Nate Mackey, now a major poet, Bob O’Meally, now a major jazz scholar, and the amazing Al Young taught me about jazz. Al wasn’t actually a student but a Jones Lecturer, a teaching fellow at Stanford, but he hung out with us. As important to my jazz education as these folks was one book, Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, which I read in 1967 in Yellow Springs simply because I was reviewing it for the liberal journal, The Antioch Review. It became my bible and I knew it well before I knew the music well. My Stanford friends helped complicate its story. At Stanford my understanding of the New American Poetry and experimental writing deepened. Not only by talking with fellow students and Al Young, but also meeting the black novelist Ishmael Reed. Al Young being our literary ambassador had introduced us to him. After hearing Reed read I remember a fellow black graduate student — I think, Fred Johnson — say, “I want to write like that, not like Richard Wright. I am sick of naturalism.” Ish opened up new worlds for us. And so did his experimental multicultural lit magazine, Yardbird Reader. “Yardbird” is the nickname for famous bebop saxophonist, Charlie Parker. (The journals’ titles, Brilliant Corners and Yardbird Reader, reflect the centrality of the music to the literature.) The Reader published such people as Jeffery Paul Chan, Amiri Baraka, Nate Mackey, Anne Waldman, Jay Wright, Simon Ortiz, and me. Reed was from that other world — Berkeley — where black writers wrote wild stuff and college students got involved in tear gas-filled uprisings. I hope my encounters with these times, the shifting social and political attitudes, the people, the New American Poetry, the New Black Writing, bop, post-bop and free jazz, will throw some light on them for both me and the listener. I certainly wasn’t the center or at the center, but I have lived through some important cultural and social moments.

Brian Teare interviews Rachel Zolf

PennSound podcast #48


On March 18, 2015, Canadian poet Rachel Zolf visited Philadelphia and the Kelly Writers House and came into the Wexler Studio to record a conversation with Brian Teare. Zolf and Teare discussed Zolf’s most recent book, Janey’s Arcadia, which Teare described in his introduction to Zolf’s reading at Temple University in November 2014 as a work that “situates us in a Canadian national history in which the ideology of nation building prescribes genocide for indigenous people, and enlists all its settler-subjects in the campaigns of conversion, dislocation, assimilation, and disappearance.” Zolf created a film, a sound performance, and a number of polyvocal actions related to Janey’s Arcadia and has written recently about the “mad affects” generated by the reading/audience event.

Rachel Zolf’s five full-length books of poetry include Janey’s Arcadia (shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award), Neighbour Procedure, and Human Resources. She has taught at the New School and the University of Calgary and is completing a PhD in philosophy at the European Graduate School. 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.

This interview was recorded in the Wexler Studio at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia on March 18, 2015, and you can read a transcription of it in Jacket2 here.

Me no one will take (PoemTalk #88)

Kathy Acker, 'The Diseased' & 'The Slave Trader'

left to right: Maria Damon, Cathy Wagner, Kaplan Harris


PoemTalk took its show on the road this time. Al Filreis convened with Maria Damon, Catherine Wagner, and Kaplan Harris in Greenwich Village, New York City, before a wonderfully responsive live audience, to talk about two poems Kathy Acker inserted into the middle of her novel Blood and Guts in High School. These are poems written “by” Janey Smith, the 12- or 13-year old central character of the story. Those with copies of the book will find our two poems on pages 103 and 105: “The Diseased” and “The Slave Trader” (or “To Slave Trader”). Texts are presented here, below. The novel was published in 1978, and on November 13 of that year Acker read with Lorenzo Thomas at the Ear Inn as part of the Segue Series. She performed our two poems in addition to excerpts from Janey’s “Persian Poems,” as well as several other pieces. As we listened to “The Diseased” we included Acker’s introduction, in which she fascinatingly — and in character, you might say — sets up the context for the intrusion of these poems into the prose of the novel.

The book is more than a novel, of course, as we note. It is a mash-up of different genres, and at one point the group creates a long and even then incomplete list of the genres at work. Moreover, Acker invites us to wonder if she herself is a mash-up. The poems are translations of the love elegies of Sextus Propertius. They are at points so literal that Janey/Acker preserves the Latin word order in the English. Janey says elsewhere in Blood and Guts that translation is a crying out in response to pain. Janey has written a book report on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and the text of the paper is included (of course) in the novel. It is, the group observes, a perfect summary of the text yet written in “the monosyllabic, resentful, crude style” of the heretical proto-punk girl.  Acker turns Hester into Janey and there you have it: the punkification of the sort of internal exile Hawthorne was exploring. Referring to Dimmesdale as a fool, Janey writes: “Teach me a new language, Dimwit. And language that means something to me.” That impulse to want to recreate language in the context of eros and taboo, and of the social underworld, is a utopian aim to which Acker dedicated her life and work. “The whole thing about punk,” Maria Damon notes, “is that you do brilliantly ambitious things very stupidly.” Our discussion keeps returning to the details of the amazing effects created by this disjuncture.

We are delighted to add to the main PoemTalk session a bonus track — nine minutes of conversation with the audience, an excerpt from the open discussion that followed the main session: MP3.

This live-audience PoemTalk was recorded at the Hudson Park Library branch of the New York Public Library at 66 Leroy Street in lower Manhattan, where librarians have been serving the entire public without any discrimination since 1906 and where Marianne Moore worked as a library assistant from 1921 to 1925 (her commute to the job was a total of 42 steps). We are grateful to Alexandra Kelly and Miranda Murray of the NYPL staff. PoemTalk’s regular director and engineer, Zach Carduner, traveled to New York from Philadelphia with all his equipment, set up elaborately and skillfully obtained a clean sound despite some acoustical challenges. What challenges remained in the initial audio were met by the talents of our now-regular editor, Amaris Cuchanski.

The edition of Blood and Guts in High School we used — the pagination of which we refer to in the discussion — is the 1984 Grove Press book, identical in its hardcover and paperback editions (the hardcover ISBN is 0-8021-3193-X). Here is the text of the poems as they appear in the novel:

To Slave trader

Are you really crazy, doesn’t you my love mean anything to?
Do you think I'm than icy more frigid Illyria?
To you so valuable, whoever she is, does that girl seem
That without me controlled by the winds to go you want?
You hear can the raging of oceans under bridges,
brave? on hard cold floor how to sleep you can know?
you, delicate and scared, survive chills and frosts
you can, not used to the slightest snow?
Let winter's be double the length of solstice
let be dead ‘cause of late the sailors Pleiades
let no your from the Tyrrhenian be freed ropes muck
let not unfriendly my throw away winds pleas!

But, let there be no double winter dead winds,
if you on a speeding carry away the waves ship
from me prisoned on this empty and allow shore
you horror with clenched to threaten wrist.

But whatever happens whatever I, horror, you owe,
I hope Galatea brings you luck
may be sailed-by Ceraunian cliffs by oar felicitous
let in Oricos with calmness.
Me no one will take away from you
but I, life, in front of your house bitter puss will keep screaming
and not I may fail ever sailor to ask passing-by,
‘Tell me, in what port in prison my boy is?’
and I will cry, ‘It’s possible on Atracian he's set down shores
or it's possible in Hylaeia, he my future is.’

The diseased

I want all of you out there to shut up.
I'm going to live the ways we want to live.
What do you want of me now?
Liver, blood, guts?
The only thing left is madness.

You too’re gonna drive yourself to the pits:
You're gonna walk on coals through blazing fires:
You're gonna drink down the world's most painful poisons:
That's what wanting love is.

My man isn't like other men.
He can keep you in prison.
He can make you do anything.
I know why all of you want him.

But worse, what happens
if my Slave Trader
for some stupid reason
happens to like you?

Then you’re screwed:
no more sleep
Nor will he let you keep your eyes.
He compulsions alone can fetter forces wildness.
How many times a spineless being you'll run to

all the weaky friends you formerly despised,
tremulous sorrow will arise with tears shuddering
warts and pimples and fleas’ll appear on your skin
all your wishes’ll go, words are no more,
you'll never again now who you are.

You'll learn to serve him, girl, to be whatever he wants,
to disappear whenever he wants you to go.
You'll learn why people who want, want to die
why the whole world are lies.
Your rich parents ain't helping:
cause Love's more powerful than social climbing.
But if even small you have given footsteps of your failure
how quickly from such a reputation you will be a murmur!
Not I then I will be able to comfort to bear to asking you

‘Cause I'm sick too.
At this point sicker than you.
My disease is forever.
I know no comfort.
Since we're both maniacs,
let’s be nice to each other.
I myself want to live.
I want to burn.
all I ask is no one loves me
in return.