PoemTalk travelled to Bard College, where we gathered with Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Bard’s own Joan Retallack to talk about Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). The project was composed in ten parts, one part each for sections (sometimes called “decades”) of Ezra Pound’s lifework, The Cantos. We chose to discuss the penultimate part of Mac Low's diastic written-through work, a poem based on phrases, words, and letters drawn from — and in some sense about — Pound's near-final cantos, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII. Mac Low’s constraint, for which he preferred the term “quasi-intentional” to the term “chance,” involved the letters forming the name E Z R A P O U N D. Words, phrases, and letters were extracted from the original cantos based on those letters and on their placement within words. Charles, Pierre, Joan, and Al Filreis explain this in detail, although we cannot quite agree as to whether Mac Low was being absolutely strict in the application of the diastic method. As Bernstein notes several times, this particular procedure is one of the more complex Mac Low used. Nonetheless, it’s the sense of the group that when semantic meaning seems to be created, it has about it, as Pierre Joris happily notes, the special pleasure of serendipity, and means all the more.
Eileen Myles wrote “Snakes” just as they were assigning children in a friend’s Provincetown poetry workshop to write a poem with the following not-so-constraining-seeming constraint: “Be any age and go down the drain with it.” Their poem, then, is something of a pedagogical model, an exercise in teaching by participation. Or perhaps the assignment they gave the students simply felt so alluring to them — befit their own aesthetic so well — that they couldn’t help but try it themself, regardless of their role as young writers’ guide. This was in 1997 or so. By January 1998 they were reading the poem at the Ear Inn in New York. It was published in The Massachusetts Review also in 1998.
Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, and Bob Perelman joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem in a sixteen-poem series by Fred Wah going under the title “Discount Me In.” That series and several others were brought together in a book called Is a Door. Our poem, “Race, to go,” is the first — a proem of sorts — in the “Discount Me In” group, and we have occasion during our discussion to talk about the several valences of discounting. I don't count. The census misses me because I fall between the cracks in racial categories. The neo-liberal moment has cheapened me. Both positively and negatively racially charged language around food, freely punned and intensely oral, turns casual by-talk into rebarbative backhand (creating an effect distinctly pleasurable) and brings into the poem the entire story of official Canadian multiculturalism.
Ammiel Alcalay, Gary Barwin, and Danny Snelson joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem by John Wieners for which we at PennSound have two recordings. The version used as the basis of this PoemTalk discussion was part of a brief two-poem performance at the Poetry Project in New York, in 1990. (He also read "Confidence" that day.) “The Acts of Youth” was written in the early 1960s and published in Wieners's second book, Ace of Pentacles, in 1964.
The eighth section of Nathaniel Tarn’s sequence Dying Trees is titled “Unravelling / Shock.” Dying Trees was first published as a chapbook in 2003; later, in 2008, it was included entirely in Tarn’s New Directions book, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers. When the Dying Trees sequence was still unpublished, Tarn gave a reading at the Kelly Writers House (2002) during which he read several sections of the then-new poem, including the one discussed here by Marcella Durand, Burt Kimmelman, Erin Gautsche, and PoemTalk’s producer and host, Al Filreis.
The setting is certainly Tarn’s parched American southwest. Drought is killing the trees; a cancer diagnosis is delivered; nationalism has brought more warring. The convergence of the three forms a “web.” “A hole [has been] torn in the fabric of the world.” News travels bodily; leaders fail to lead; beetles pierce bark; a demonic mouse – “wee” and yet terribly efficacious – compounds the morbidity to the point of body-snatching. It happens as an ecological, medical, and political simultaneity, and the speaker is not in a state to be much concerned about keeping the categories separate. Thus the poem is itself “the whole infernal weave” – a quality more obvious in this eighth section of the poem than in others.