How can they write and believe? (PoemTalk #78)

Muriel Rukeyser, 'Ballad of Orange and Grape'


Amy King, David Abel, and Mytili Jagannathan joined Al Filreis for this 78th episode of PoemTalk to discuss a poem by Muriel Rukeyser about urban activism. “Ballad of Orange and Grape” [link to text] appeared in Rukeyser’s 1973 book Breaking Open, and is perhaps the best known poem from the end of her career. The recording we feature here is from a 1977 LP release of a recording produced with the 92nd Street Y in New York. But we make reference to a recording of the poem performed after a long discursive introduction by the poet for students and teachers at the University of Warwick, England, in 1971. The introduction provides us with a full context for the narrative: the speaker is the poet (initially self-addressed in the second person, later “I”), having finished her day’s work as a teacher of writing in East Harlem; she ponders returning home (thus we know she does not live locally — comes to teach in Harlem as an outsider), but delays her departure by stopping at a streetside hot dog stand, where she observes a vendor pouring orange soda into the container marked “grape” and grape soda into “orange.” This, as Amy King notes, is an arbitrary binarism, so what is wrong with the vendor’s indifference to the labels? This disjunction prompts the poet to consider a litany of binarism about which it has seemed difficult to be indifferent. Finally, Rukeyser wonders whether the resistance to such binaristic thinking has the power to alter her writing pedagogy. “How are we going to believe what we read and what we write and we / hear and we say and we do?”

Rukeyser had come of age poetically in the 1930s, aligned with the communist movement at a time when many poets of the radical Left (Genevieve Taggard, Ruth Lechlitner, Max Eastman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Claude McKay, and others) engaged traditional poetic forms for the purpose, they variously contended, of eschewing aesthetic insularity and reaching a prospective mass audience. But Rukeyser began her career writing documentary poems (in U.S. 1 of 1938). She rarely if ever wrote in a ballad stanza, yet that’s what we hear in “Ballad of Orange and Grape.” It’s surely a significant choice. Are we to associate the choice of ballad stanza with the theory of representation that enables — and indeed, in a certain kind of liberal teaching, reproduces — the binarisms of white/black, love/hate, enemy/friend, etc.?  The vendor’s indifference to correct signifying stimulates the opposite in the poet-teacher-speaker, whose list of binarisms in the penultimate stanza gives way to an unordered, atypological list in the final stanza: “garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape, / forgetfulness, a hot street of murder, / misery, withered hope,” lines in which “rape” and “hope” are a near-rhyme at best, an obviously significant dissonance. The non-binaristic list coincides with the partial demise of the ballad form and the poem’s apparent overall emphasis on what “could be” as an alternative means of teaching writing in a mode that undoes the writing/doing opposition rather than creates yet another choiceless choice between expression and social problem-solving. As Al notes in his summary comment: “It’s a meta-pedagogical poem.”

For just the second time since we began producing PoemTalk as a monthly podcast in 2009, we have made a video recording of the discussion in addition to the edited audio. The video is embedded below. The audio, as always, can be found here at PoemTalk’s home within the Jacket2 site, on iTunes (search PoemTalk in your Music Store), and at the site of the Poetry FoundationPennSound’s Rukeyser page includes both recordings of “Ballad of Orange and Grape” as cited above, and many other recordings, beginning with our earliest Rukeyser, dated 1944.  PoemTalk #78 was recorded at the Kelly Writers House and was engineered (and filmed) by Zach Carduner and Chris Martin, and it has been edited by Allison Harris.

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.