Into the Field: Ara Shirinyan

Photo by Harold Abramowitz.
Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Ara Shirinyan is a poet and publisher living in Los Angeles. He runs Make Now Press and is a co-founder of the Poetic Research Bureau with Joseph Mosconi and Andrew Maxell. The PRB hosts a long-running reading series, publishes books, puts on exhibits, and generally advocates for experimental writing culture. Ara is also a co-founder of The Smell, a legendary L.A. punk venue. Ara’s books include Syria Is in the World (Palm Press, 2007), Your Country Is Great: Afghanistan-Guyana (Futurepoem Books, 2008), and Julia's Wilderness (Poetic Research Bureau, 2014). You should check out Eric Rettbergs recent essay on Shirinyan in Jacket2"Laughing at Your Country is Great."

My other country (PoemTalk #77)

Lorine Niedecker, 'Foreclosure' and 'Wilderness'

The cottage where Lorine Niedecker and Al Millen lived on Blackhawk Island. Photo courtesy of Friends of Lorine Niedecker, Inc.


Jessica Lowenthal, Michelle Taransky, and Dee Morris joined Al Filreis to talk about two short poems by Lorine Niedecker, “Foreclosure” and “Wilderness.” The recording of these poems was made by Cid Corman during his visit to Niedecker’s home in Wisconsin in November of 1970. All the poems Corman recorded were posthumously published in Harpsichord & Salt Fish by Pig Press in 1991.

As a house is being foreclosed in “Foreclosure” the speaker resists by turning the bankers’ legal language around and by mocking it (“their parties thereof /and clause of claws”). She then concedes the house but wants to keep the land, demanding that “the land” be “scratch[ed] out” from the agreement, and finally delivers an edgy benediction, cursing property and also prose with elimination. Only then will the speaker of this poem find peace. The ending suggests that prose is to property as poetry is to the concept of land defying ownership. The ratio reminded the group of Dickinson (“I dwell in Possibility” with its house fairer than prose).  The floating wounded doe at the end of “Wilderness” also reminded us of Dickinson (“My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun”) and not surprisingly we read it several ways. Michelle recalls being a student in one of Dee’s classes, where they confronted William Stafford's “Traveling through the Dark” with its own wounded doe seen from a masculine vantage at “the top of the mountain.” Niedecker is not seeing the doe as a metaphor necessarily, notes Michelle. “She's trying to figure out the Other.” Dee observes that the poet is “making this non-formulaic in terms of gender.” Still, “the man” and “my other country” are one, and both make it “hard going” for the speaker. In each poem, as Dee notes, Niedecker shows “incredible tonal nuance.” She begins with toughness (the very word “abutment”!) and then she “gets cute” (puns on the legal language), and finally she becomes quite serious, ending with a kind of lyric prayer. Both of these poems are “incredibly nimble” — indeed, says Dee, “like a deer.”  Jessica described amazement at the smallness of the voice we hear in the Corman recording. “It matches the work and yet it doesn’t, because I think of her as so large.”

This episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Steve McLaughlin and edited by Allison Harris. It was a happy (and, we like to think, very productive) teacher-student reunion: Michelle and Jessica, at different times, had both taken courses with Dee at the University of Iowa.

We are grateful to Linda Falkenstein, who has contributed the following comment: “I was recently listening to the discussion about ‘Wilderness/Wild Man’ on Poem Talk #77 and wanted to comment on the line, ‘you are the prickly pear.’ The discussion seemed to take the direction of this being an indication that Niedecker had to be referring to the desert here, but, prickly pear cactus are native to Wisconsin. You'll find them in sandy soils on south-facing slopes.”

I'm coming up (PoemTalk #76)

Anne Waldman, 'To the Censorious Ones' ('Open Address to Senator Jesse Helms')


Orchid Tierney, Stacy Szymaszek, and Pierre Joris joined Al Filreis to discuss a poem by Anne Waldman sometimes called “To the Censorious Ones” (occasionally with the subtitle “Jesse Helms & Others”) and sometimes in performance called “Open Address to Senator Jesse Helms.” It's been published most prominently in In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems 1985-2003 (Coffee House Press; p. 239). The recording available through Anne Waldman’s PennSound page comes to us from the Naropa Audio Archive, a collection of live performances given at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics between 1974 and 2002. From internal and contextual evidence, the PoemTalkers date the performance to around 1990, the time that the Culture Wars, waged by congressional conservatives such as Helms, focused on performance art (among other apparently seditious forms), especially that which had been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Our discussion ranged across many topics. Among them: Waldman's ongoing work as a cultural activist; belief by her, and others, in the “magical efficacies of language as a political act”; poets’ support for alternative art communities; the relationship between the work of curating and institutionally “making” poetry spaces and the poems that arise from such work; the feminist project of “thrusting into [the censor’s] point of view,” a gesture in equal parts writerly and political; and the importance of reasserting myths of the woman rising from below, coming up, coming back, and opening the box. Ultimately, we decide, the very question of “artistic merit” (that vexed — and, as it turns out, hypocritical — phrase in the NEA charter) is answered in this poem through its own responsive performative daring. In art that tempts the censors to repeat their censorious work, is merit really still relevant? Political response emerges as one way to deal with the problem of aesthetics!

This 76th episode of PoemTalk was engineered and directed by Steve McLaughlin and edited by Allison Harris. Next time on PoemTalk: Jessica Lowenthal, Michelle Taransky, and Dee Morris join Al Filreis at the Kelly Writers House to talk about two poems performed by Lorine Niedecker as recorded in 1970 by her friend Cid Corman.

Into the Field: Steve Roggenbuck

Steve Roggenbuck is a twenty-six-year-old Internet poet from rural Michigan. He has spent the last several years giving readings and talks all over the country, sleeping on couches, selling books and t-shirts, making thousands of friends. His full-length collections are CRUNK JUICE (2012) and IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASS HOLE (2013), both released in the public domain and available at steveroggenbuck.com. He recently founded Boost House, a publishing collective and actual house in Brunswick, Maine. You should follow Steve on Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube.

Strange galvanics (PoemTalk #75)

Will Alexander, 'Compound Hibernation'


Tracie Morris, Kristen Gallagher, and Michael Magee gathered together in PoemTalk’s garrett studio to discuss a poem by Will Alexander: “Compound Hibernation,” published in Zen Monster, then performed at least once at a reading (Alexander’s Segue Series performance at the Bowery Poetry Club in March of 2007), and then collected in the book Compression & Purity (City Lights, 2011). The text of the poem is now available at the Poetry Foundation site, reproduced with the poet’s permission. The recording of the poem in the Segue event is available, also with permission, at PennSound’s Will Alexander page.

The group began by discussing the poem’s relationship to the Ellisonian strategy (or condition) of invisibility, in which one “ingest[s] ... a blackened pre-existence” through a glaring, nine-sun-sized brightness while maintaining the feeling that “Those who glance about me / ... cannot know me.” Its poetics — or “galvanics” — presents a speaker residing in “a pre-cognitive rotation” in an “invisible tremor” yet made of a complex compound, and “aloof” because of such “interior compounding.” Mike Magee observes that Alexander is attempting to locate the speaker “in an other-wordly space,” possibly inside the sun, the ur-source of our light. Tracie Morris adds that magic (including sleight of hand) is about dispersing light, teaching us the misdirection of seeing, “making you distracted by not seeing what is in front of you.” For Kristen Gallagher, all during the discussion, Alexander’s interest in surrealist writing practice seemed not just important to our following, or not following, the words of the poem, but helpfully connects with the magic of distracted vision Tracie sees in misdirected (in)visibility. (Kristen later notes that relevant here is Alexander’s work on Haiti and specifically voodoo; from that one sees here the poet’s engagement with an identity established not by denotative declaration but through “possession,” a non-Western tradition of declaring selfhood that doesn’t presume location.)  Tracie adds that writing about space becomes here a strategy of talking about blackness — space being a site pre-existing, an imagination "before racism," a sphere not predicated on whiteness. “Before light there was space.” Mike notes that one senses from such an aesthetically eccentric (as perhaps distinct from concentric) poem, as too from the poems of Harryette Mullen (whom he quotes), that “‘it's dangerous to be the only one,’ so you try to figure out a way to be both inside and outside the circles.” And “Compound Hibernation,” Mike feels, is a very canny poem in that way.

Following the PoemTalk discussion, Tracie Morris wrote an additional note on this poem; Jacket2 is pleased to publish that short essay here.

PoemTalk this time was directed and engineered by Steve McLaughlin, created and produced by Al Filreis as always, and edited by Allison Harris, whom we gladly welcome once again to the PoemTalk community as the new editor of the series. PoemTalk is cosponsored by PennSound at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation.