Editorial note: Charles Bernstein and Will Alexander had a conversation about Alexander’s work for Clocktower Radio’s Close Listening at PennSound’s Carroll Garden Studios in Brooklyn, New York, on October 19, 2016. Some of the topics they touched on include: Alexander’s works, philosophy, connections and citations and references and sources, mythology, genre, aural properties of writing and performance, jazz, drawing and sketching, identity and politics of writing, location, and the writer’s mindset.
“The mind is a blazing that gives off embers,” Will Alexander writes in the inscription in my copy of his blazing ars poetica,The Contortionist Whispers.) These three books from 2021/22, from Action, Roof, & New Directions, are an astounding contribution to North American poetry and poetics.
On October 25, 2016, Edwin Torres and Will Alexander gave a double reading at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, and then joined together in conversation. The program, organized by Edwin Torres in collaboration with the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania, was titled “Paradigm Shifting.” The event was recorded and is available in both audio and video. Details of the event are archived at the Kelly Writers House web calendar here. Now, thanks to the efforts of PennSound staff editor Luisa Healey, the recordings have been completely segmented; one can listen to individual poems read by each poet, and the conversation has also been segmented by topic. This new addition can be found on both Alexander’s and Torres’s PennSound author pages.
Will Alexander talks with me about his early immersion in the work of John Coltrane and its abiding connection to his own jazz-process/Surrealist poetry and discusses his “constellation” of mythological and scientific sources, the influence of Aimé Césaire on his work, the politics of his poetic form via resistance to colonization, the role of the black poet in America, the necessity of performance, and his aim to bring the reader into a state of “supra-mind.”
Listen to the thirty-minute program, produced for Clocktower Radio in association with PennSound >>>>> MP3
Erica Hunt sets this reading up by calling Alexander a metaphysician. One of her students said “like Jimi Hendrix.” Hunt says yes and also Aimé Césaire, Jayne Cortez. How are they all metaphysicians? What permutation of Black Magic is this political postmodern grimoire? What is it evoking?
Just before reading my bullet points and notes on Will Alexander’s poem, I read a story, saw a video that speculated on how Mars looked before it lost its atmosphere. There are speculations about how this happened, how it lost its magnetic poles, but it went from earthlike with seas and air and clouds to a rusty tomb, where our small land robots search for evidence of microfossils from billions of years ago. I thought about this kind of sifting from a whole to atomic, from the big bang’s busting to dust.
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 bookCompression & Purity (City Lights, 2011).
One of my first encounters with poetry that overtly addressed theoretical physics and cosmology was Frederick Seidel’s book, The Cosmos Poems (FSG, 2000), which I read, without any knowledge about the author, as soon as it was published. This would have been a year after I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, when I was teaching innumerable sections of freshman composition and a literature course in fiction. In my copy of The Cosmos Poems, the corner of the page with the poem, “Who the Universe Is,” is turned down, and I drew a small star. Or is that an x?
A beacon beaming rays through the mists of an inclement realia not unlike a lighted mount above a sequestered alabaster grove. This being Beyond Baroque, a refuge for imaginal practitioners. Not a mirage mind you, but a living amplification of language, operative since the latter '60's, prior to all the poetic bureaus and seminal presses of the present era. It pioneered, took chances, paved the way as an alchemic hive, as a living poetic habitat.
Not a mirage, but a three-dimensional facility, housed in the old Venice City Hall, constructed circa 1908. As stated, it remains a poetic refuge, but more than a refuge, it is a zone where poetic combustion transpires.
The caption to Subhankar Banerjee’s photograph of migrating snow geese reads: “Nearly 300,000 snow-geese arrive from their nesting ground in the Canadian high Arctic to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in early autumn. They feed sixteen hours a day on a type of cotton grass to build fat before they start their long migration south to places like New Mexico (my home), California, Texas, and Mexico. During spring and summer months nearly ninety species migrate to the coastal plain from all six continents to nest and rear their young, to molt, to stage, and to feed. In my mind through migrations of these birds, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gets connected to every land and oceans of the planet. For several decades, the United States Government has been pushing hard to open up this coastal plain to oil and gas development.”
Banerjee’s Arctic images (which have become ubiquitous in media about climate change) are balanced with attention to the life ways, opportunities and challenges of the peoples most closely tied to the Arctic ecosystems (Gwich’in, Inupiat). His own personal politics as an artist who has forsworn the financial speculation of the gallery system, extending his “art” into a range of political engagements, also adds to the meaning of his images. Above all, this image speaks to the fact that every person, and every species, on this planet is connected to the fate of the Arctic ecosystems, in part through the epic migrations of species like the Snow Goose.
I’ll begin with a playlist of PennSound recordings having to do with letters. While listening to this playlist on repeat, I was interested in the ways the tracks expanded, derailed, parodied, critiqued, or otherwise complicated the idea of intimate address. The addressees include imagined ancestors, public figures, an owl, various abstractions and inanimate objects, as well as the workings of language itself. Recently I’ve been listening to this playlist on random and I keep noticing new connections and contrasts between tracks.