Anybody of the 20th Century
Poetry Conferences 2000
As an MFA, I spend a luxurious amount of time thinking and reading poetry. But no workshop or bedside stack of books can compare to experience of receiving poems from live sources, as I did this past summer, hitting the road to attend three gatherings of innovative poets.
The three conferences the Northeast Modern Languages Association (NEMLA) convention in Buffalo, April 7 and 8; the National Poetry Foundation conference on North American Poetry in the 1960s at the University of Maine in Orono, June 28 to July 2; and the Third Annual Boston Poetry Conference, July 21 to 23 served different purposes. NEMLA is populated by graduate students and tenure-track faculty from literature and language departments across the Northeast, and aims to serve no god as well as the almighty curriculum vita. The National Poetry Foundation conferences, on the other hand, are more intimate affairs, catering to a loyal crowd of poets and scholars out of the modernist tradition. BoPo is infinitely more casual than the previous two, completely unassociated with an academic institution and dedicated to providing a reading space for emerging poets. And I'm sure someone could have gone to all three and found very little in common, but I ended up attending panels, lectures and readings at all three which offered compelling views of contemporary poetics.
Only two hours from my current and bemoaned home in Syracuse, NY, Buffalo seems, from here, something akin to Eden. On a previous trip, I spent half the day looking at rare avant-garde little magazines in the library's magnificent poetry collection, thanks to Michael Basinski and his staff, and then hours more in Talking Leaves, one of the best independent bookstores in Upstate NY. That night, I joined a capacity crowd at a knock-out reading by Susan Howe at Cornershop, a jewelbox gallery space run by a UB student.
When I arrived again for NEMLA, things looked a bit bleaker: it was chilly, and I got to the downtown Hyatt late on Friday morning too late, in fact, for a Charles Bernstein reading I had hoped to make. Everyone was zipping around the hotel wearing suits and name tags. I shuffled off to a reading by Robert Creeley: my first Creeley experience. The room was packed and when Creeley asked for requests, people shouted out poem titles like it was a Stones concert. He talked almost as much as he read, describing himself as "gentle, sweet and good-natured" ... and it seemed true. He proposed teaching a class entitled "Anybody of the 20th Century," and thought that in the future he should read one line of a poem, walk around the building, come back and read the next line. A delightful reading.
Later, after an unenlightening performance poets panel, I headed to my motel, up near the South Campus of UB, past aged candy shops and car washes. By then I was feeling lonely and tired, but I'd seen a little Xeroxed flyer taped to a coat rack announcing a reading that night at the Steel Bar by Chris Alexander and Tim Davis. I didn't know the names, but it seemed a needed alternative from the Hyatt, so I headed back out in the pouring rain and went to find the Steel Bar.
The Steel Bar is where Jonathan Skinner holds readings, and it is one of many interesting art organizations in a huge former warehouse: an inspired and civic-progressive use of industrial space. The Steel Bar itself was silvery and bare, a filing cabinet for a bar, and people stood around in smart-looking glasses having intense conversations. Tim Davis, a graduate student in photography at Yale, read first, from his book Dailies (The Figures). The poems were rapid-fire and fiercely funny a fake blurb read "more a kind of woken, spurred than spoken word" and he possessed the amazing talent of reading the poems as if for the first time, which allowed the listener to discover the hairpin turns along with the poet, and made for a very engaging reading. When I commented on Tims style during the break, he said that he felt like he was reading the poems for the first time: he hadnt looked at them in awhile. I bought his book. Chris Alexander began by reading through a special contraption, which made it sound like he was on a 1930s radio. I was reminded of Jack Smith in some ways: a dapper and very dry wit.
The next day I attended a panel on the Electronic Poetry Center (a UB project under the direction of Loss Glazier) during which several people spoke simply and eloquently on what it means to make hypertext, pointing out that through the computer, a visual/oral presentation can be achieved in which the two are entirely disconnected from one another: playing with chance, with speed, code, crashing, etc., can provide its own ends. "An extraordinary time of synthesis." Miekal And performed with his son Zon, and I was fascinated by what it would be like to be Zon, a smart, outspoken kid who lives in a hypervillage with his cultural anarchist father. After this panel I stepped out with my partner Rob in the snow and shopped at Rust Belt Books, which was in the middle of building itself a performance space.
That afternoon was an event I was highly anticipating: the poetics program panel. On the panel were Graham Foust, who read very vivid and short pieces with total deadpan irony; Ben Friedlander (now at Orono), who read one-word-stanza recreations of his earliest childhood memory which was something like a sacred chant and something like great slapstick; Richard Deming, with very difficult work; and Linda Russo, who presented a piece on gender and poetic production which skipped from genre to genre while making profound and elegant arguments on behalf of Hettie Jones and other women poets. I was struck for some reason during the Q&A by the fact that 1970s America seemed obsessed by sailboats. Afterwards, I introduced myself to Linda, because Id been so impressed by her piece, and to Ben, likewise. They were very nice and invited me to a party that night. But I felt pretty shy and so skulked off to a panel on postmodern magazines, at which someone I knew from the poetics list, Tom Orange, was presenting, and Linda was moderating.
Both Daniel Kane, who spoke about Ted Berrigans "C" Magazine, and Tom, who spoke about the origins of the term "Language poetry" as seen through little magazines, gave really exemplary talks, in which they explicated some important points in lively presentations. I specifically remember that Tom illustrated how with all the Language/post-Language brouhaha, we may be losing our opportunity to really examine the historical moments and contexts of this movement. A third presentation on the influence of deconstruction on magazine design by Elisabeth Joyce was a bit harder to grasp, but Linda brought everything together with a good open discussion afterwards about the poetics of production. I wrote, cryptically, in my journal: "the millennial fear of loss of the self meaning as social occasion." And then ran away to my own panel, in which poets chosen by Ellen Smith read our work and talked about it. It was a slightly zany panel: Ellen had done a good job finding diverse voices, but things ended up a bit heated when Elizabeth Savage and I joined forces against Brooke Horvath, who was arguing for a kind of straight narrative sentiment as the only way to reach an audience, while the fourth participant, Jerry Wemple, was left behind. I was really happy, though, that some of the Buffalo contingent snuck in the room in time to hear me read, because I felt sort of adopted by them, and hung around afterwards to chat. As I often feel that the poetics list is the only thing which saves me from isolation while at Syracuse, personal encounters with actual and very kind Buffalo folk sent me soaring. A really good bottle of wine at dinner Chateau Potelle red zinfandel ended the conference very nicely indeed.
The National Poetry Foundation Conference
on North American Poetry in the 1960s
Rob and I decided to turn the conference in Orono, Maine into our summer vacation, and spent time on Cape Cod and camping near Acadia before pinning on our National Poetry Foundation nametags. The first night there struck a chord which was to be repeated throughout the conference: how do we as a community of poets, and/or as a community of academics, address "the poetry of the 60s." The categorization itself is at issue. Commenting on every session would be impossible, but I found the conference to be useful in making problems visible (but not offering, necessarily, any solutions). This was most vividly illustrated by an argument between Amiri Baraka and Barrett Watten: after Watten gave an "I Was There" talk using clips from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement documentary and connecting it to Language poetry, Baraka rose, furiously, from the audience, to ask how Watten dare compare the petit bourgeois concerns of the FSM to the Civil Rights movements of the same era. The answer may have been given at a later debate I decided not to attend, but the aura of the question lingered: what role, exactly, did a bunch of mostly white mostly academics play in talking about the 60s? Was this canonization, and if so, at what cost?
Further problems arose when John Wieners was called up to do a reading on Friday: visibly confused, he mumbled and wandered through an incoherent speech while the audience looked on in (pitying? respectful? awed? disquieted?) silence. To me, it felt exploitative; I wasnt sure Wieners knew where he was, everyone sitting in the dark watching him. It was poignant, surely, but I dont know if it was responsible. I also had a problem with the male-heavy roster: overall, thirty-eight men and thirteen women read, and of the fourteen featured poets, only two were women. The crowd was also overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly geared towards the modernist/Language vein. This was not the picture of the 60s I had in mind. Many of the names one most closely associates with that era were not present, and while readings by Rosemarie Waldrop and Kathleen Fraser were highlights for me, I wondered where all the women (African-Americans, Beats, etc.) of the 60s were.
Nonetheless, it was a compelling and exhausting conference, with panels beginning at 8:30 AM every day and activities running straight through to open readings which started after midnight. Excerpted on Orono from my notes: "the margin is a made place (Linda Russo)," "the hybrid identity of the woman editor-poet (Linda again)," "who occupies space? Men" (from a panel of experimental women poets), "I dont think this is experimental poetry I think it's ego-driven, cold-hearted autobiography with abstract theorizing" (target unknown), "the poetry of K. Fraser and R. Waldrop became more experimental in reaction to internal divisions and political/personal reactions where the level of feminist content parallels the level of innovative form" (Lynn Kellers talk on Fraser, Waldrop, and Fanny Howe), "Some of the older poets and Lee Ann Brown are recording everything. It's funny because Michael Burkard is always asking did they tape it? A "need for documentation I have less of," "being at play in Language poetry and Fluxus is the point see the trees rather than the forest" (from Bill Howes talk on Fluxus).
Other highlights: Lee Ann's screening of poetic films (in pristine prints) from the 60s; a hysterically funny and sweet sequence of poems by Keith Waldrop; Natalie Basinski's practiced and charming ennui as she sold books and collaborated with her father; Maria Damon's ethnographic and ebullient talk on Bob Kaufman. Great sadness: missing a reading by Kristin Prevallet (and missing meeting her altogether) because it started so late and we were so tired. A final highlight: our subsequent time in Belfast, ME, where the community is rallying around maintaining the integrity, vitality, and locally-owned glory of their downtown.
The Boston Poetry Conference
Only a couple short, hectic weeks back in Syracuse before heading out once again for New England: this time, no academics, but more non-stop poetry at Aaron Kiely's 3rd Annual Boston Poetry Conference. Aaron and his cohorts curated a mix of fun informality and more serious innovation. I came in contact with both favorite poets Keith Waldrop read again, declaring "The world lasts only as long as it lacks balance" and was also introduced to some amazing voices Id never heard before, including those of Sean Cole ("or nature nature nature that's what they call me in nature"), Tracy Blackmer ("I drove with twins you know, two women"), Michael Gizzi ("A sweeping look at hard candy") and Brenda Coultas ("Hi. I am an adorable discontinued beanie baby)." Brenda seemed to be the unofficial "winner" of the weekend; everyone I met after her reading proclaimed their new crush on her sweet demeanor and loose, humane, political poetry.
The BoPo crowd, held as it was at an art school, was also the site of more good design both on the people and by the people than previous conferences. Rebecca Wolff wore an old housedress and her hair messily pinned up and looked beach-swept as she read wonderful poems; she had a tattoo I wish I'd thought of: the alphabet circling her ankle. Jill Stengel's a+bend books are the most beautiful little things you've ever seen. Mark Owens is a great poet who also makes visual art out of window screens and is moving to Mexico to be with his girlfriend. Nada Gordon looks like every unicorn-obsessed eleven-year-old girl's dream but her poems belie this ethereality with razor-slice insight. Forrest Gander pounded on the podium and seemed like the young friendly preacher all the local girls adore. The best outfit was worn by an African-American woman: a yellow head-wrap, orange earrings, an orange knit halter over a multi-colored sunset tank top, khaki skirt, knee-high fringed suede moccasins and neon yellow nail polish. She looked so interesting and seemed so nice when I spoke briefly to her that I was hoping beyond hope she would read, but she didn't. The readers were sadly mostly white. So was the audience.
I wonder what can be done to improve the diversity of these kinds of gatherings. I am discomforted by the limits that seem to be in place around how issues of race, class and gender are manifested through non-narrative poetry, and/or that the avant-garde poetry communities still seem to rely so heavily on a few token African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and women. In Orono, Barrett Watten argued that Language poetry (and I think you could extend this to other innovative poetics) is a poetry of liberation, but who exactly is finding liberation? I look to Chain and similar magazines as evidence that people in less privileged positions are finding access to their own voices through innovative writing which seems to me the whole point. I would love to hear more of those voices at conferences such as the ones above.
Nonetheless, hearing poetry read out loud, and hearing people talk about poetry, is a great gift, and I am thankful to the organizers and participants who filled my summer with language. I wonder if, with the rise of "spoken word," other areas of poetry not considered "spoken word" tend to place less emphasis on reading out loud and on hearing. That would be a mistake. Poetry even, or perhaps especially, non-linear poetry benefits from a good mouth and a good ear. And I am grateful for being able to spend so much of my summer doing that work, even if it meant a bit less time for swimming holes.
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