Rosmarie Waldrop’s book Shorter American Memory consists of prose poems collaged from documents collected in Henry Beston’s American Memory, a book of the late 1930s evincing an Americanist zeal for early documents. Beston's historicism seemed a liberal effort to restore and include in the American story, as it was being retold during the Depression, a wide range of Native American as well as both obscure and classic “founding” or “first encounter” Euro-American writings. By appying various constraints to these documents, Waldrop rewrites Beston by “taking liberties” — an intentional pun on her part — with the gist of the anthology and its very length. In doing so, (to quote her publishers at Paradigm Press) she “unearths compelling clues into America's perception of its own past, developing a vision of America vital for its intelligence, wit & compassion.”
We at PoemTalk decided to take a close look at one of these prose poems, “Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence.” A performance of this poem, preceded by a short introduction, was recorded at Buffalo in 1992. The main work of that reading was to present many chapters from Key into the Language of America, a project related to that of Shorter American Memory in several ways we mention in our discussion. As a warm-up to Key, she read three of her writings-through Beston: ours on the Declaration, a second on Salem, and a third on “the American Character According to [George] Santayana.” Here is a link to Waldrop's PennSound page, where these and many other recordings are linked.
This playlist is comprised of recordings related to questions. Bhanu Kapil, in her recent post on Harriet, Notes on Mutation, asks: “What is a question? How do questions work in your writing? What do they perform? What happens when you ask them?” Today’s commentary might be considered an appendix to Kapil’s post, paying particular attention to the relationship between composition strategies, recording technology, and public performance. I’m also interested in grouping these recordings together in a playlist so that the questions from one piece might circulate through the others.
I’ll begin by quoting more from Kapil’s notes: “A question: Literally, it’s a way of gathering information but not of processing it. As a mode of enquiry that’s also, linguistically, founded on doubt, on not having the words for what happens at the end of a relationship, the question seals space*.” I have excerpted a portion of Kapil’s comments contextualizing her own book of questions, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, from her Kelsey Street Press audio page. At one point in her discussion, Kapil describes the weaving together of the disparate material she has gathered from interviews as well as from her own answers to her questions as “a shared space for voices.” On PennSound, you can listen to an excerpt from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers recorded in 1999 at the Left Hand reading series in Boulder.