Steve McLaughlin represented the Kelly Writers House on a committee steering the University of Pennsylvania through its “year of sound” (2013-14). Needless to say, sound is right down our audiophilic alley. Steve organized an event as part of the theme year at the Writers House — held on February 4, 2014 — and it featured experimental radio host and producer Benjamen Walker. Audio and video recordings of the full program are available, but today we are releasing a Kelly Writers House podcast, number 35 in the series, that offers a 15-minute excerpt of the hour-plus-long program. The excerpt was edited by Matt Bernstein.
Benjamen Walker's work has been heard on the BBC, NPR, and the CBC. His current podcast is called “The Theory of Everything” (a member of the brand new PRX podcast network RADIOTOPIA, toe.prx.org). He also hosted a program called “Too Much Information” on WFMU. He uses both fiction and nonfiction in his work and often interviews his friends as well as experts.
1997 was a relatively quiet time, between the first and second Intifadas, in Israel/Palestine (Wiki here): a period of sustained tensions but relatively few new acts of violence after the 1998 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, with 1100 air strikes, Hezbollah counterattacks, and numerous civilian casualties, which led to the 1999 election of Ehud Barak and withdrawal of Israeli troups. In 1997 there had been three major suicide bombings in Israel, one at a centrally located cafe in Tel Aviv in March, and two in Jerusalem markets in July and September. These were the present politics in which the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, collective editors of the journal Poetics Today (published by Duke University Press), invited three Language writers (myself, Charles Bernstein, and Bob Perelman); four American critics (Charles Altieri, Maria Damon, Jonathan Monroe, and Tyrus Miller), and a small but focused group of international scholars (including Mihhail Lotman, Koji Kawamoto, Toshiko Ellis, and Alison Mark) to present their work. Sponsors included the American narrative theorist Brian McHale and Israeli scholars Meir Sternberg, Tamar Yacobi, and Karen Alkalay-Gut. The conference was attended by faculty and students from Tel Aviv and other Israeli universities and, significantly, one scholar from a Palestinian university—who traveled to the conference via Cairo. By all measures a success, the conference led to much productive work, significant exchanges, and a two-volume feature in Poetics Today (20:4 and 21:1).
I want to put this event into the context of the present—not to retrospectively apply any form of current judgment, but to acknowledge that the political situation has changed dramatically. The ASA call for an academic boycott, and the BDS movement itself, comes after an acceleration of not just "tensions" but of sustained human rights violations that affect millions of lives, in the absence of any resolution to the fundamental questions of Israel/Palestine. Rather, we are aware of a constant background of resisted diplomacy; construction of settlements; housing demolitions; travel restrictions; and intolerable living conditions for the majority of Palestinians. But there is a second half to the political response to this ongoing, intractable situation, namely the use of an academic boycott of Israeli universites—and thus the breaking off of precisely the kind of scholarly contact and exchange that I participated in in 1997. I have argued, in the preceding post, that two forms of universal right involved here are not in conflict—human rights and academic freedom—and that the willing suspension of academic freedom as a political gesture of protest involves a faulty means-end rationale by the best account. The question then rises: what precisely is being given up when intellectual and cultural contacts, scholarly and creative exchanges, are sacrificed on political grounds?
To assess the value of the 1997 conference, one could simply look at conventional, professional measures, such as the quality of the work produced and its importance for the field(s)—namely poetics and avant-garde studies. The double of issue of Poetics Today is without doubt an outstanding collection of essays; its publication helped revive the theory to the avant-garde (arguably stalled since the general acceptance of Peter Bürger's historicist critique in The Theory of the Avant-Garde), and it placed new forms of experimental practice squarely at the center of this revision. I contributed a key chapter of The Constructivist Moment, on Language writing as an avant-garde social formation, which I wrote specifically to give at the conference. The conference also brought the formalist/structuralist methods of its founders, who invited Roman Jakobson to deliver a lecture at its founding in 1975, into contact with new movements who took language and the avant-garde as primary, but not simply as "the tradition of the avant-garde." There is a larger discussion to be had about the nature of "poetics" as a discipline and a zone of experiment now, but this event could be seen as a significant transitional moment from a formalist (and Eurocentric) paradigm to a reconfigured global poetics with a necessary component of the avant-garde. But even these critical frameworks are too restricted for coming to terms of the larger cultural politics of traveling to Israel/Palestine for an academic conference on avant-garde poetics, between intifadas, in 1997. It is the minor details of that event that are of greater significance, in both positive and negative terms.
The first minor detail was what it meant for scholars (not to mention avant-garde poets) to travel to Israel at that time (and how that compares to restrictions on travel that are the subject of the MLA's recent resolution). I booked a flight that changed planes at Amsterdam, from Northwest to El Al, and that was the first wake-up call. Alone in an underground room with three Israeli security officers, I was grilled about the conference, asked about my paper, and told to rehearse its argument. I had to produce a copy of the paper to back up what I said, I recall. Once on El Al I had my first, revisionist, take on what the state of Israel might mean: I found myself in an ethnically homogenous group of Israeli citizens, not an international flight; if felt as if I had already arrived in its territory. There was something markedly populist about this group—they were the people, not business travelers, not the elite—and this registered in turn the socialist as well as Zionist aspects of the state. Meanwhile, a welcome message began playing on the TV screen—in fact, a propaganda clip in mourning for the assassinated premier, Yitzak Rabin, who was seen by many as the last hope for a negotiated and peaceful solution. I have always found the definition of collectivity as an act of permanent mourning to be deeply suspicious, and Rabin was portrayed as only the last of many sacrifices. It was the relation of the politics of mourning to the homogenous passengers that gave me my first insight into where I was going. On arriving, I remember finding the Tel Aviv airport to be remarkably small, cluttered, inconvenient, and tense. One's first impulse was to get out of that place, which I did—arriving shortly at the concrete block beach hotel, on the corner of Max Nordau Street, that would be our residence over the next week. I like being in the "zone"—defining a zone as a territory that is both removed from and continuous with everything else—and this was, a bit ominously, one of them.
[In the next post, I will continue on the politics and poetics of the conference, and further travels in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem that were as much a part of the event as its academic content. In reading back from the present moment, and the politics of academic boycotts, I will want to assess the ethics of the conference itself—again both positive and negative—but also the loss of knowledge that would result from foregoing such an experience.]
[EDITOR'S NOTE. My own concern with minimal forms of poetry & verbal composition goes back to the 1960s & discoveries I was making & creating in Techncians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin & connecting to experiments in our own time by poets like Ian Hamilton Finlay & others connected most specifically with what we were then speaking of as concrete poetry. That there was a complexity of thought & act behind this was another point I had to make – both “there” & “here” – & still that point seemed obvious enough. I called it, for Finlay & others, “a maximal poetry of minimal means,” & where I got into it myself, I found it helped to cool off, to set another temperature for what was otherwise my work. It’s with thoughts like this in mind that I approach Seymour Maynes’s long-running project of what he calls & practices as “word sonnets.” In their one-word verticality I’ve found a strong resemblance too to the look & feel of Chinese poetry that led Ernest Fenellosa to see in the immediacy of the Chinese graphic/visual ideogram (set one per line) “a splendid flash of concrete poetry.” The following, then, is from Maynes's recent gathering, Ricochet (University of Ottawa Press), composed over a short period of time & conceived by him as a single & unified series. (J.R.)]
The word sonnet is a relatively new variation of the traditional form. In essence, it is a fourteen line poem, with one word set for each line. Concise and usually visual in effect, this “miniature” version can contain one or more sentences, as the articulation requires.
Each of the word sonnets in the following sequence attempts to be a pithy and suggestive poem in its own right. Many draw on the seasons and also aim for a compact resonance that may attract the reader to return to them again and again.
Copyright © 2004 Seymour Mayne.
All rights reserved.
In my last post I posed the question: how did I discover and engage with Clark Coolidge's poetry in the first place? Every reader will have her own story to tell in this regard; here's my story. As is I suspect the case for most English Majors graduating from U.S. undergraduate programs in the early 1990s--and perhaps still today? more preservers of tradition than innovators, universities and their English departments in particular are notoriously inept at addressing the contemporary--Anglo-American poetry in my formal education ended with Pound and Eliot. (Gertrude Stein I had to discover on my own, though my own avant-garde eanings in the late 1980s also led me to Kerouac, Burroughs and Artaud). I knew names of some contemporary poets and has some familiarity with the Beats (a hardbound copy Ginsberg's collected poems was one of the first poetry books I ever bought, at the Strand on some early trip to New York City), but I had no way of orienting others: no sense of distinguishing an Ashbery from a Hollander, a Creeley from a Lowell, let alone connecting them up to the present moment.
In beginning my graduate studies in the mid-1990s, it was in the context of studying postmodern literature and theory that I first engaged with Charles Olson's work, as well as, in the midst of Fredric Jameson's now classic theories of postemodernism, a curious little poem called “China” by Bob Perelman. I remember throughly enjoying the discussion we had in class about what kinds of speakers could offer these seemingly disconnected bits of observation and experience, though my full initiation into what was being called “Language Poetry” would take place a year or so later, upon hearing Charles Bernstein read his poetry at the 20th Century Literature Conference in Louisville in 1994. I enjoyed the sound-and-sense play of his work: it reminded me less of any “poetry” I knew and more of Captain Beefheart. Back home, I checked out and devoured with great relish Dark City, the newest Bernstein collection at my university library.
As is my inclination, when I find something of interest I read everything I can find about it; this “language poetry” seemed to be something that connected up in the present moment back to the great Modernists I knew (Pound and Stein; someone named Zukofsky was completely unfamiliar to me), creating a living tradition in the wake of what my academic training lacked (or more likely willfully ignored). And the more I read about “language poetry,” the more the name Clark Coolidge kept appearing. Clearly he warrented investigation.
At some point in the next few years (mid-1990s) I picked up his book Solution Passage: Poems 1978-1981, a dense book of poems for such a short span of years through which I did not immediately find a clear way. In December 1997, I took a trip to Toronto to do dissertation research (on my first and soon to be abandoned topic), visit friends and see the city, reporting in an email to my friend Logan Esdale that I had found a copy of Barrett Watten's essay collection Total Syntax at a used bookstore in Toronto. Watten's discussion of Coolidge's poetry was a revelation for me, especially for the passages from the early poems he included. I had been hearing and reading how key the “early Coolidge” was for Language Poetry and yet had never seen these books before and had no immediate way of obtaining them as they were all well out of print at this point. (Remember, this was before Project Eclipse or abebooks.com.)