Transcription of PoemTalk #47 on Rosmarie Waldrop

'Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence'

Eilish Hansen has created a draft transcription of episode #47 of PoemTalk. We are making this available now and will improve it over time.—A.F.

Host: Al Filreis
Guests: Jessica Lowenthal, Julia Block, and Johanna Drucker

AF: I'm Al Filreis and this is PoemTalk at the writers house where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and  poetics to collaborate on a close but not to close reading of a poem - we'll talk maybe even disagree a bit and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners and I say listeners because PoemTalk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive — Today I am joined here in Philadelphia as usual at the Kelly Writers House in our third-floor garret studio by Jessica Lowenthal poet, teacher, associate publisher of Jacket2, maker of the most fabulous poetry and poetics events, super talented arts administrator which is to say director of this very Kelly Writers House former Brown University denizen which might be relative to our discussion and author of As if in Turning and by Julia Block veteran of Bay Area independent and progressive publishing at Tikkun, Curve and other venues, a widely published poet author of Post Psychiatric Sonnets and a series of letters to Kelly Clarkson these are being published soon yes? By? [they are by Sidebrow Books] ahhh that’s fantastic and I read them in manuscript and they're great, or some of them anyway and who along with Michael Henesey is the new editor of jacket2 and by Johanna Drucker book artist poet and scholar whose work focuses on the history of the book and print culture critical studies and visual knowledge representation who's passionate to say the least about collection development and book arts among whose many, many books, of all kinds, are; 'The Visible Word: Experimental Topography and Modern Art' and 'Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity' - Hi everybody [hi - hi - hi] Julia Jessica good to see ya [hello] again everyday I see you which is nice and Johanna [it's so nice to be here] thank you for coming to the Writers House [thank you] all the [thank you] way from LA - so we're here the four of us to talk about one of the sections one of the prose poems I guess you'd call em in Rosemarie Waldrop's book 'Shorter American Memory' which was published by Paradigm Press in 1988 in this book Waldrop derives her text from sources classic and some not so classic historical American Documents that had been collected by Henry Beston in his book 'American Memory' of 1937 or maybe 1938 the text we'll discuss or which will at least anchor our discussion of what Waldrop is doing in this book and perhaps in her work over all is called 'Shorter American Memory' and our poem 'Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence' our PennSound recording comes from a reading Waldrop gave in Buffalo in November of 1992 during which she read three of the pieces in this book so here now is Rosemarie Waldrop reading 'Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence'
[Recording of Rosmarie Waldrop performing the poem.]
AF: so she says she calls this 'shorter American memory' and the reason she gives in her little introduction the thing is a little disarming she says the reason it's called shorter is that it's only twenty two pages and she rendered uh this Henry Beston who'd produced a big book in a small [???? indistinct] is there any thing any other reason why it might be called shorter Johanna?
JD: Well I guess Rosemarie's memory of America would be shorter at that [laughter] point sooo I [cut off]
AF: Born in Germany [right] and spent a good deal of time in France [cut off]
JD: In France and then I think you know part of what I think she's marking here is her own relationship to um these you know these sort of canonical American texts so her own memory of them um is really within a very different you know a kind of telescoped timeframe uh of her own you know frames of personal reference and so forth that would be my thought what are your guys thoughts are there
JB: She's also taken sort of the most sound bite-y part of the declaration I think and really
AF: It's the second paragraph.
JB: Yeah really.
AF: We hold these truths.
JB: And the cadences really come through in the reading even though even though the text has been um deformed and so in that way it seems to I mean I read it also as this form doing this kind of commentary on short memory on short historical memory or a lack of historical memory - it could be a political critique here even if it's accidental [talk over] —
AF: So it's an accidental political critique or not accidental in the sense that she created the devise and knew it would come out with something [talk over] —
JB: It's aleatory even if it's not accidental, yeah.
AF: Jessica your thoughts?
JL: I would agree that there's something critical and probably not accidentally critical that shorter American memory shorter than another sort of memory some one else's memory a German memory
AF: What's n plus seven what's the the she she describes the method but we could describe it a little further anybody? Jessica?
JL: Yeah you select each noun and look it up in the dictionary and count literally seven nouns later and substitute though I I think she's
AF: You think she's playing a little with it?
JL: I think she's fudging it
AF: You think you can find the ah the dictionary she used.
JL: No but manatee is uh before men [yea] in the dictionary [yea oh]
AF: Ah, oh.
JD: No it can't be it has more letters than man [men men plural] —
AF: M-e-n.
JD: Ohhh oh men rather than oh I see what you're saying [talk over] —
AF: Wow, what are you saying, Jessica?
JL: I think [talk over] she's monkeying with it [maybe she went backwards she went back] —
AF: She's messing with it —
JL: And some of them do seem clearly after but once I saw that one - I thought well it seems some of the words seem particularly gendered or sexualized or something may be they're [indistinct] of choices —
AF: Well she says, - I am it's only after the reading of this that she refers to the n plus seven it could be mis-remembering she could also be referring to a certain structure that she varied - before she reads it she said 'I was taking liberties' - I love that liberty [liberties] 'I was taking liberties with American sacred cows' - can we read something into that?
JB: Well of course we have 'sea cows' in the poem [laughs] it self [right] you've turned the idea of being endowed by one's creator to being endured by by a creditor and these manatees who are being credited with something and so it's it's weird kind of you know um economic language that she's put in there.
AF: Can we talk about sound because I think that if you if you f focus on there's a way in which you can see this immediately as a critique of American sacred cows of American ah polity but you could also see it as incredibly celebratory [hmm hmm] to what extent would we say that or if we did what would we say —
JD: Well I agree Al I mean one of the things that would be interesting to know I mean what dictionary was it you know an American collegiate dictionary was it um a standard American dictionary that has a particular editorial moment or date of publication - so after all the era of the declaration of independence is one of the great eras of the beginning of dictionaries as well - so thinking about the dictionary as a as a kind of um device for manipulating this text which with which it is some ways contemporary [talk over] —
AF: In other words it's appropriate that a dictionary would be used [yea] to write a declaration —
JD: They're enlightenment projects both of them right and they have to do with rationalizing language and putting it in some kind of order and then invoking the notion of reason and so forth —
AF: So this is actually participating in the rational project [hm hm] as opposed to undermining it.
JD: In some ways it is.
AF: I feel like singing the [I know] [laughter] star spangle banner or something [laughter] [um so] that would be anachronistic
JD: Yes it would —
AF: But what about sound [well] it does reproduce this marvelous Jeffersonian [hm hm] what do we call it these they're more [cadences] than periodic sentences [yea] these 'that' clauses —
JD: They're Ciceronian sentences [laughter] you know [laughs] —
AF: Thank you [laughter] exactly right —
JD: Exactly because we know where these people learned to write they learned to write by reading the classics and the classics are filled with these uh elaborate um sentences with their qualifying clauses and I think of them as great thunder clouds of sentences that begin and build and build and build.
RW:  'We holler these trysts to be self-exiled that all manatees are credited equi-distant, that they are endured by their Creditor with cervical unanswerable rims. that among these are lightning, lice, and the pushcart of harakiri. [laughter] That to seduce these rims, graces are insulated among manatees, descanting their juvenile pragmatism from the consistency of the graced.'
AF: If one wants to be allegiant um this is either good news or bad news it's it's good news in the sense that um the semantic sense isn't necessary so much as the sound and that we all have this in us and it it's comes shining through as [hmmm hm] as Rosemarie said - the bad news is that it doesn't matter that the creator becomes creditor [right] and that might be a problem for someone who's feeling allegiant [right right] —
JB: At the same time I can't help but think there is something kind of American about these substitutions [laughter] you know in addition to what ever dictionary it might be that Rosemarie is using - and it would be great to know that but um there's a tremendous playfulness here  because of these choices they're they're kind of ridiculous and silly and but ah but the word 'grace' appears four times here it gets it where it previously —
AF: It's a substitution for what?
JB: For government uh and the idea of grace being so foundational to American early American history —
AF: Not to mention Newtonian grace —
JB: Not to mention Newtonian grace exactly um new government becomes Newtonian grace [hm hm] uh and so [that's great] to me there's a real allegiance  to this to this history even in these shortened you know kind of perverted forms.
AF: Wow we're coming down on the side of allegiance I mean Henry Beston was a very unusual figure ah hehe I'm looking at the title page [reads] 'American memory being a mirror of the stirring and picturesque past of the Americans and the American nation reflecting the forest and the Indian [yea] the colonist and the hearth uh he's kind of gone wild  [hm hm] and um I I when I first listened to Waldrop's ah rewriting of this I thought well there's got to be a satire of this ridiculous man [hm hm] and of his chestnuts [hm hm] does anybody want to pick up on that?
JD: Well you know the thing that struck me.
AF: Or of the pedagogy of that.
JD: Well the thing that struck me was looking at the Beston table of contents is how how much earlier it is how much the kind of first world encounter [hm hm] the captive narrative the you know the sense of the wilderness and the forests and the way that Cotton Mather and the language of of you know the kind of colonial um expansion movement the first encounter moment is present but this is a different moment and it's interesting that this the piece she took because we wouldn't nes I mean we love the language for instance in 'True Grit' the way that the language has that kind of authenticity of structure to it and ah and of syntax and of vocabulary but um we wouldn't recognize those narratives they wouldn't have the familiarity to us in terms of the uh kind of just repetition in our own lives - and so I think you know that she picked you know this is significant um because again it's the canonical work I mean you know you you pick the lords prayer if you're going to make a parody you know  you don't pick some um th th you know something that's said at the feast of the thirteenth epiphany [laughs] you know on St Georges [laughter] you know child's day you for you know the little town of you know neo Bethlehem and the far reaches of the you know para-textual you know Palestine [Al laughs] because [laughter] it wouldn't have resonance for us [laughter] or maybe it would for you Al.
AF: I don't know [laughter] but you know I think [talk over] —
JB:  This is not lodged in the public memory in that way.
JD: It isn't lodged right.
AF: Two minutes after I thought this is a satire of Beston um you know who really is a character collecting these things um I thought the other way around because I'm familiar with um Rosemarie Waldrop's 'A Key into the language of [yeah] America' derives [yeah] from Roger Williams and takes something that could actually be a bad uh you know a a a imperialistic [yea] and violent rendering of the Narragansett people actually turns it around and finds all kinds of [hm hm] things worth recovering from that [hm hm] so it may be that she's doing the same with Beston - Julie you seem to have something to say in addition.
JB: Yeah I'm really Beston has this kind of I think endearing passage about the American character drawing from formal literature and the private letter and to me that's the whole problem of the American character that Beston was interested in that De Tocqueville was interested in was always this balance between the private individual and the polity of the public sphere or the community um and I think there's something about this procedure that kind of captures that problem [hm hm] because to to do N plus seven is a very idiosyncratic practice and you're always you're constantly making little adjustments um and having your own attachment to the words you wind up with at the same time you're working with this deeply public text.
AF: So what is Waldrop's take on the American character is she adding to it is she qualifying it is she undoing it or would she be opposed to the very notion that there's such a thing as an American character Jessica?
JL: Ah I think I don't know how she'd answer that but certainly she's declaring some sort of independence here she's taking that liberty so she's participating and so —
AF: [laughing] You're just rolling out with the puns [laughter] [yes] her declaration of aesthetic independence first.
JL: Perhaps but also you can take such a public text and do to it is a declaration it's it's a powerful one it's one we can all do so it's also generative and generous an I think that’s part of a certain kind of  American spirit —
JD: You know I and and I guess what I would sort of say and and you know kind of building on what you're saying but maybe take it in a slightly different direction is just there's the sensitivity to the cultural history of language and to the historical significances of what you're calling these documents that have this incredible public impact so I think part of what we see here is again her encounter with American poetics and American um linguistic formations is part of what she's engaged with and I think it's also the outsiders test of understanding in other words I think I know what this means but I know it in translation so if I do this kind of a translation then what do I know about what I know and what does that say back to those of you who know this document and what you think is the original because the original after all comes to  us across  a great space of time and encodes it's own cultural history so there are concepts like liberty or the pursuit of happiness or a term like common sense which is a very you know complex concept in um eighteenth century thought and it it doesn't have a self evident meaning [hm hm] but it comes to have one through these discursive formations and discussions of engagement and critique so I really see this as as also you know a way to understand language through translation.
AF: So it's a kind of translation [hm hmm] and so it's a translation based on the sound of the words in a way [hm hmm] as opposed to a translation into you know her she she often talks about her she's been in the United States many many years but she thinks of herself as having an immigrants point of view one of the reasons why she identifies with Roger Williams who after all in the seventeenth century was an immigrant himself so translating the declaration of independence by using by essentially going to the upper limit of poetry where music lies [right] you know able she's sort of a musical or homophonic translation of [hm right] the American [talk over] —
JF: But it's not a strict pun translation it's not like - I don't know  I won't remember the reference - but you know there's that literal translation of Mother Goose that's done sound by sound and then rendered or you know something [that the work of ??] [talk over] —
AF: It's clearly not that because she's using the dictionary [talk over] —
JD: Where he'll literally take the sound values and find a another set of sound values that's a different sematic meaning —
AF: This is less pure [much less pure] wrong word [??] but this is also as we noted before when we were talking about the dictionary this is also engaging in American culture itself [hm hmm] [hmm] by simply going deep seven seven deep [hm hm] into the American language [hm hm] and finding a way of reproducing the declaration of independence by finding other American words and I'm speaking of the American [talk over] —
JD: But they're not all American words because I mean harikari [right] raises another question about what what date this dictionary published and when does the term hara harikari come into um the English language and Amer and or the American language —
AF:  And it's spelled in some what antique —
JD: Harakiri.
AF: Yeah harakiri.
JD: Harakiri.
AF: H-a-r-a-k-i-r-i-  and those are our rights [yea] we we have a right to lightening lice [laughter] and the pushcarts [talk over] of harakiri [exactly] that's just funny we're laughing [talk over] —
JD: It might be not rights at this point lice might actually be —
JL: Julie was saying it was very American earlier and all I kept thinking was 'lice?' —
AF: Lice are inalienable if you've ever experienced them. Julie, what were you going to say?
JB: Oh that it's not 'rights' in this text it's 'rims' and to me that was so wonderful [hmm] to think of a right as a rim [hmm hm] something that encloses you something that draws a boundary from one place to another place from one state of being to another state being.
AF: Jessica, you were a student at Brown and you worked with both Waldrops [yea] do you have something to say about how this might connect to the larger project [well] dare I use the word project —
JL: Well I guess [??] Rosemarie's teacher I think this is a teaching poem - this is a kind of work we would do in the classroom all the time this and other projects in the school —
AF: In her own class?
JL: In her own class - I mean N plus seven but other procedural approaches to poetry to get us away from what ever it is that you think is poetry when you're a freshman so for me um this is what poetry is eh all of her work but this in particular this book I think —
AF: Very nice - Julia any thought on Waldrop in general that we can get from this?
JB: Yeah it makes me think of her work 'Love, Like Pronouns' and ways in which she concretizes um concepts and ways of being ways of feeling in language and then kind of detaches them again and and defamiliarizes them for us and this poem um I ah I just really enjoyed it because it was so suffused with memory and history and feeling at the same time that it was making you know reminding us how material language is as Johanna was saying —
AF: Might we even be so radical as to say that it's good to have a shorter memory?
JD: Some of us are getting to the point where we have no choice [laughter] —
AF: Where we have no choice what were we talking about? what poem is this?

JB: I think the risk is always to sort of set memory in the stone and think that we can't be critical or questioning of it in some way ah um you know she she's her poem is really thoughtful about what memory is whether it memor or memorialization or untouched history or a sense of something being you know totally static.

AF: I guess I would almost this is almost a bibliographical note but um but those who are coming to her for the first time will want to know she spent many many years translating Edmond Jarvaz [right] he of course is obsessed with um and writes beautifully about the problems of memory post Holocaust memory [right] and representation and nationhood or belonging to a nation and those are all relevant I think to this - Johanna your thoughts on this question of where this gets us to a larger appreciation of Waldrop's work?
JD: Well I guess I uh appreciate very much her um her seriousness and her sense of precision about language but um I think the other thing that I see I see two things here that are really central for me and one has to do with again her life as a translator that this is somebody for whom language is almost always about translation because of her own displacement but what that also does I think is make her relationship to subjectivity and selfhood um within the production of poetic language uh really one step removed from any sense that the lyric voice or the authorial voice is somehow already there or already given that it's always a construction in relationship to received language and cultural position so for me that's really quintessential in the way these moves take away as you were saying Julia any sort of possible uh I mean Jessica any possibility of simply seeing poetry as this you know sort of lineage of you know expressive voices or lyrical voice instead it's a self conscious construction [hm hm] in relationship to received text received moves received ways of producing composing and thinking about the basic materials of of language syntactic as well as semantic um so —
AF: And the long-time project of The Burning Deck Press makes her one of those people like you, Johanna, who thinks all the time about the book and it seems to me that when I read this chap book uh 'Shorter American Memory' all I could think of was the relationship she had with this Henry Beston Book [yea] and the way in which she was doing a book of a book [hm hm] and so forth I mean I think that seems quite crucial to her I kept thinking that I was reading the rewriting of a book —
JD: I think that's true even the I love the little head pieces which we can't see on line but the uh decorative elements on the top of the work the line engravings um and again um it gives a kind of period flavor to the way in which the work appears on the page so those kinds of cues those kinds of graphic notes also introduce a kind of historical resonance in the piece yes this is a contemporary move to make but it's a contemporary move on a historical text —
AF: Yeah it's a nineties rewriting of the thirties rewriting of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The design you guys know more about design than I do but the design is not colonial so much as thirties it's a Henry Beston kind of this was the great moment in the depression of th the kind of consolidation of certain you know movements within historians [talk over] historicism —
JD: Well the thirties yea the thirties is is a period after all when uh you know the humanist reinvention of [exactly] hu humanist typography has gone back to the renaissance and to you know the period of incunabula for it's inspiration and then it's absorbing modern sort of streamlining linear you know organic forms and you see that in these pieces so it's both of those things so it's deeply humanistic but it's very much modern [hmm] so it's a moder it's a modern humanism um in terms of the design
AF: So let's before we gather some paradise let's go around and and I want to invite each of you to say one thing that you haven't had a chance to say about this poem or what it suggests to you Jessica a last thought?
JL: This isn't something I didn't get a chance to say but I want to dwell in a word that Johanna used which was um 'encounter' 'encounter' it seems that that is such a good word for describing what's happening here encounter is such an important American word it's a critical word it's not without weight
AF: key to the American language key to this moment in her work so that's a great suggestion, Julia Bloch.
JB: I'm also dwelling on a word which is um cervical which use to be certain in the original certain unalienable rights has become cervical unanswerable rims and tha that word [laughter] cervical um you know it has to do with the cervix but also generally with the neck and generally with the space where speech comes out and and words come out and so to me that was also such a such a wonderful accident slash choice slash [laughs] whatever it was in Rosmaries dictionary.
AF: She knew more about the jeffersonian sentence than he did by thinking about it as the um as you know sort of the rhetorical mode is so much more important than the semantic meaning some time in Jefferson.  Johanna, last thought?
JD: Part of what drew me to this work is the reverence which I'm always happy to see in any work of art and it's humor which you know I believe that um humor is the road to enlightenment and also to think about [laughter] the fact that there's um a wonderful history to proceduralism and to conceptual work and this is in the eighties but there's a prehistory to this um and it it just points back to um a wonderful anthology from the nineteenth century called 'Je Defie la Logique' in which the kind of procedural moves that are currently part of uh anti expressive conceptualism get a lot of play and I think to do the archeology on these activities is also to um re-inform ourselves with um other moves that can be made and the pleasures of um these kinds of acts of deformists.
AF: Fabulous well we like to end poemtalk with a minute or two of what we call gathering paradise which is a chance for several of us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather a little something of what's going on in the the world of poetics or book arts or whatever the case may be ah so I would invite each of you to gather some paradise and uh why don't we go to Julie for the first little bit of paradise.
JB: I want to gather some paradise elsewhere on the Penn Sound site if that's ok which is the newly posted for us recordings of Lorinne Niedecker including her wonderful poem about Thomas Jefferson been having a wonderful time with those recordings —
AF: It was complete luck that we refound the Niedecker recordings in Penn Sound they were there but we didn't even know it [wow] it's extraordinary and I and I do recommend that people listen to that Jessica Lowenthal gather some paradise —
JL: I'd like to point to Erica Baum’s Dog Ear which I  that isn't what I was going to talk about today but I'm thinking of it's very textual material nature it's little folded pages that bring together [AF: dog ears] dog ears [AF: it's the corner] corners corners of pages so interesting [AF: that reproduces different texts] encounters with um words [AF: and published in Jacket2 or at least part of it] um just parts just parts —
AF: That’s great Johanna Drucker gather some paradise [sure] can I just say it's paradisal to have you here at the Writers House [laughter] —
JD: Thanks. You know Anna Arner's wonderful study on stuff on Mallarme's 'Un Coup de Des' and other work just come out from the University of Chicago press under the title The Book as Instrument it's a magnificent publication quite large in format and filled with color images and it's an exemplary  piece of scholarship about um about Mallarme but also about how we can look at poetics in relationship to larger cultural activities in the crises in publishing in the 1880's and 90's and uh problems of fashion and um also of pedagogy and so forth so I highly recommend it's a it's a fantastic work —
AF: Thank you and I guess I'll just recommend Mike Magee who wrote a little poem called 'Pledge' at one point which rewrites the 'Pledge of Allegiance' in a in a slightly different way but look it up I think it's on line and it's lot's of fun well that’s all the lightening lice and harakiri [laughter] we have time for on PoemTalk today PoemTalk at the writers house is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House of the University of Pennsylvania and the Poetry Foundation thanks to my guests Julia Block Jessica Lowenthal and Johanna Drecker and to PoemTalk's director and engineer James Lamarre and to our editor as always Steve McLaughlin. Next time on PoemTalk Jerome McGann, John Timpane, and Tom Devaney join me here to talk about Edgar Allen Poe's very weird poem 'Dreamland.' This is Al Filreis and I hope you'll join us for that or another PoemTalk.