Catherine Wagner, 'This Is a Fucking Poem'
Rae Armantrout, Laura Elrick, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis joined PoemTalk’s producer and host Al Filreis to talk about Catherine Wagner’s “This Is a Fucking Poem.” The text of the poem is most readily available in Wagner’s book My New Job (Fence Books, 2011). It was previously collected in a chapbook, Hole in the Ground, published by Slack Buddha Press of Oxford, Ohio, in 2008 (5 1/2" x 8 1/2", 28 pages). The Hole in the Ground poems form a sequence, even beginning with a poem setting out “The Argument.” On their site, the Slack Buddha folks say mildly (but, to be sure, accurately) that these poems “explore [...] the mores of interpersonal relationships.” The PoemTalkers say much the same thing of “This Is a Fucking Poem” in particular, but perhaps, in the spirit of our poem, more bluntly. The fucking poem, which includes child sexualization through insectization and (self-) cannibalism or body mortification and brutal socialization (“Send her to school // ... her eyes will retract inside // ... nobody will hurtcha”), asks us right away not to “expect too much” and then nevertheless “go[es] into the / fucking human tunnel” headlong.
Wagner here is writing “under the sign of Armantrout,” as Rachel points out. To the clear influence of the writings of one of our own PoemTalkers (Rae herself humbly did not bring it up; we others did), we also add these styles (“allusional zones”) to the always striking Wagernian mix: Emily Dickinson; Sylvia Plath; Franz Kafka (“I woke up and I was turned into a little girl-bug” — per Rachel); Perrault’s/Grimms’ fairy tale of stalking-become-mastication, “Little Red Riding Hood”/“Little Red-Cap”; and Olga Broumas’s key feminist poem “Little Red Riding Hood.” To quote from the famous Broumas poem:
No child, no daughter between my bones
has moved, and passed
out screaming, dressed in her mantle of blood
as I did
once through your pelvic scaffold, stretching it
like a wishbone
… go into the
fucking human tunnel
I'm going …
shudder out the little-girl
legs with a little
girl head mostly eyes …
Stroke her riding hood
Settle down, little
nobody will hurtcha
by breaking off your little legs,
six little legs,
if you come.
The poem raises haunting questions. Is there always a threat of being eaten by someone in disguise as a loved one? And — frightfully — can that threat be transposed onto or even into oneself? What does all this have to do with child-getting, child rearing, and birthing? (With Rebecca Wolff, Catherine Wagner is editor of Not for Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child Rearing .)
The recording of Wagner performing “This Is a Fucking Poem” comes from the reading she gave at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 26, 2011. She also read several other poems from the Hole in the Ground series. These and many more recordings are available at PennSound’s Catherine Wagner page. PoemTalk this time was directed and engineered by Steve McLaughlin, and edited — as always — by the same super-talented Steve McLaughlin. Next time on PoemTalk: Charles Bernstein (coming back to Philadelphia from New York), Aaron Shurin (visiting from the Bay Area), and John Tranter (with us all the way from Australia) join Al to discuss a poem by Ray DiPalma, “It makes of nonsense.”
W. B. Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"
Taije Silverman, Max McKenna, and John Timpane joined Al Filreis to discuss William Butler Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” [text], surely his most famous early poem (written in 1888; published in 1890) and a staple of his poetry readings into the 1930s. Yeats’s father had read Walden aloud to him; Thoreau's pastoral simplification had been alluring for him as a teen, when he fantasized living on an uninhabited island in Lough Gill (near Sligo) — Innisfree. In the poem, the speaker, now longing for an orginary Ireland “while I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey” of the city (presumably London), expresses his desire to build a small cabin on the isle and, like Thoreau, to plant rows of beans and “have some peace there.” The romantic torque generated by such Irish/English splitting produces at the same time a brilliant but makeshift, extra-cultural — one might almost say, dramatically dislocated — prosody. The striking sound made by this poem is a topic that draws special attention from our three talkers.
PennSound’s Yeats page includes three recordings of Yeats performing this poem: the first recorded sometime in 1937; the second recorded on October 28, 1936; the third sometime in 1932. At another 1932 — on October 4 — he took two minutes to introduce the poem. Here is a transcription of his commentary on our poem: “I am going to begin with a poem of mine called ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ because if you know anything about me you will expect me to begin with it. It is the only poem of mine which is very widely known. When I was a young lad in the town of Sligo I read Thoreau’s essays and wanted to live in a hut on an island in Lough Gill called Innisfree, which means ‘Heather Island.’ I wrote the poem in London when I was about twenty-three. One day in The Strand I hear a little tinkle of water and saw in a shop window a little jet of water balancing on the top. It was an advertisement, I think, for cooling drinks. But it set me thinking of Sligo and lake water. I think there is only only obscurity in the poem. I speak of noon as a ’purple glow.’ I must have meant by that the reflection of heather in the water.”
This 66th episode of PoemTalk was directed and engineered by Rebekah Caton and Christopher Martin, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin. Above, from left to right: Taije Silverman, Al Filreis, John Timpane, Max McKenna.
Anselm Hollo, the widely admired Finnish poet and translator, died on January 29, 2013. He lived in the United States from 1967 until his death. Hollo translated poetry and belles-lettres from Finnish, German, Swedish and French into English. He was one of the early translators of Allen Ginsberg into German and Finnish. Hollo taught creative writing in eighteen different institutions, among them SUNY Buffalo, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Colorado at Boulder; and starting in 1985, he taught in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. PennSound’s Hollo author page includes three segmented recordings of full readings dated 1991, 1999, and 2001. For the 30th episode of the PennSound podcasts series, Nick DeFina and Amaris Cuchanski have put together an anthology of Hollo recordings.
On the occasion of the publication by the Library of America of Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters (edited by Langdon Hammer), Samuel R. Delany, Brian Reed and Charles Bernstein gathered at the Kelly Writers House to talk about Crane's life and poetry. The event was co-sponsored by the Writers House, Penn’s Creative Writing Program, Temple-Penn Poetics, The Poetry Society of America, and Penn’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. The session took place on January 24, 2007. The full recording is available at PennSound.
Lisa Robertson, 'The Weather' ('Monday')
In October of 2000, Lisa Robertson presented along with Steve McCaffrey at the seventeenth episode of PhillyTalks. She read from a then-new work, The Weather, just a few months before the book’s publication by New Star in Vancouver (2001). Here are the segments from that 2000 reading: ”Monday” (2:10): MP3; “Tuesday” (7:06): MP3; “Wednesday” (2:14): MP3; “Thursday” (6:38): MP3; “Friday” (9:16): MP3; “Saturday” (4:02): MP3. The book-length project, organized as such by days of a/the/every week, was in part stimulated by the poet-researcher’s experience during a six-month Judith E. Wilson Visiting Fellowship at Cambridge University: as a non-local, she found herself listening to late-night weather and shipping reports on the British radio, discerning there and elsewhere a specifically localized language that seemed abstract and was yet radically precise.
For PoemTalk we chose to talk about the “Monday” section of The Weather, and invited (shown left to right in the photo at left) Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kristen Gallagher, and Michelle Taransky to gather at the Kelly Writers House for the purpose. The group discusses the way in which a poetics can derive from meteorology and its importance in contemporary culture and history. We variously observe how the language of the poem brings together pastoral poetry, meteorological prose, Anglo-centric subjectivity, the Wordsworthian problem of sincerity, and the cloudy concept of the universal.
Robertson has written and spoken with remarkable cogency about the project, and certainly the quality of our discussion owes a great deal to her own suggestions and analysis. Before she began reading from the typescript at PhillyTalks, she gave this 3-minute introduction. And here is a relevant excerpt from an essay she wrote before a Washington DC reading — “The Weather: A Report on Sincerity,” a piece mentioned and quoted several times during the discussion:
I'm interested in the weather. Who isn’t? We groom for the atmosphere. Daily we apply our mothers' prognostics to the sky. We select our garments accordingly; like flags or vanes we signify. But I'm interested in weather also because cultural displacement has shown me that weather is a rhetoric. Furthermore, it is the rhetoric of sincerity, falling in a soothing, familial vernacular. It's expressed between friendly strangers. I speak it to you. A beautiful morning. You speak it back. The fog has lifted. We are now a society. To say insincerity is foreign to weather is precise. Weather is the mythic equilibrium of the social, rising and falling in the numbly intimate metres of the commonplace. For a long time the rhythm’s opaque to the stranger. Haltingly you begin to sing, during the long cab ride from the airport, the long chorus of place. You enter a new weather, an unfamiliar system of sincerity. You learn it by example. You begin to adjust, to settle; put in order; regulate. But you are a spy in sincerity. The real knowledge of weather is indigenous.
Should it come as a surprise that Britain's most profitable television export is not costume drama but weatherporn? Weatherporn. An atmospheric condition dallies with some lives and we drink its lusty spectacle from the screen. Description pries up, frees itself, briefly phatic, expresses a gestural plenitude, framed by but untied to the sociality of objects. This loosening is diction as rhythm. It crosses borders. The weather becomes a flickering social prosody. As it abstracts into rhythm it becomes commodified, universal. Really. It was a fireball, right through the front door, and out the back.
It’s real. It’s mythic. It’s wild. It’s a vernacular. It’s didactic. It’s boredom. It’s ceaseless. It’s a delusional space.
PoemTalk #65 was hosted and produced by Al Filreis, engineered by Steve McLaughlin, and edited (as every PoemTalk has been since #1) by Steve McLaughlin. The text of the "Monday" prose-poem from The Weather has been made available, with permission, at the Poetry Foundation site. The text of the Robertson-McCaffrey PhillyTalks event is here. At the end of the PhillyTalks reading, Robertson and McCaffrey interviewed each other, and took questions from the audience; that session was recorded and is available here. A video recording of the entire event was made and is extant only in RealVideo format. (PhillyTalks was hosted by Louis Cabri and engineered by Aaron Levy.)