Aaron Levy

PhillyTalks Online

PhillyTalks // PhillyTalks Online is a dialogue with contemporary poets. Its newsletter features responses by two poets, each to the other's poetry; each are made available on-line and in hard copy at least one week prior to the event. "PhillyTalks," the event, presents both a reading by the poets and a panel discussion. The panel format is an invitation to extend the conversation together. All proceedings are recorded and made available alongside transcripts through the website.  PhillyTalks is curated by Louis Cabri, PhillyTalks Online by Aaron Levy.

What follows is an open letter addressing the future of PhillyTalks. The letter is a deliberate stylistic intervention into the issue of time. The letter form is often antiquated vis-a-vis the digital; by slowing down the potentials of digital media, may it fully embody its own time.

November 2000

Dear Louis:

How often I find myself asking after our merits in facilitating dialogue and reflection on contemporary writing – be that as event, online “event” and/ or archive.   And how often it does strike me to what degree our own friendship and correspondence is all too quietly overshadowed by the beautiful, intense frenzy required of us to enact each PhillyTalks in the midst of life entire.

There is, to be sure, a lot going on here within that generic term “PhillyTalks” – the event, the transcript, the audio/ video archive, etc -- albeit in no certain order.  And of course, there is our incessant proselytizing of the series in the name of a poetics all too often overlooked.  It is a seemingly inexhaustible approach that stands, by my reading, somewhere in between a “live” political-cultural manifesto and my personal yearnings for an elusive aesthetic community.   And gently seizing upon this elusive poetic community -- akin to my desires as a photographer -- requires that I ponder, before you, the relative successes of the PhillyTalks presence online.

So I dare to begin by asking what PhillyTalks should not look like. What would it take to unravel a PhillyTalks, to violate or merely ignore its founding myths?  The question seems simple and organic enough – and it sits docilely enough on the page, or in the confines of the Writers House.  But the series has now come into the fore electronically, less supplanting than joining with and enlarging the scope of the initial “event” itself.  And so my attempts to formulate answers prove elusive as ever.   Is it reducible to the location or the live event, the informed participation of the audience, the poets themselves, even the subject of the series itself -- namely, contemporary experimental poetic practice?  And in regards to the digital, how might one begin to qualify the contours of the “event” itself, or informed participation, for that matter?   I feel the most affinity, if not allure, for using experimentalism itself as the benchmark for defining the contours of PhillyTalks -- and what it should not become.  And yet, innovation as means to self-definition is all too often arrogant, and all too often misplaced -- if not exhausting as well.

There has been a tragic sense that writing as the avant-garde would have it fails all too often.  As a practice it seems to fail almost in direct proportion to the very invocation of its name.  Such consistency is sadly comical, and particularly so today, for where else in the social milieu can one seize upon such consistency?  But I digress, perhaps, for I am most curious to know how your original title for the series plays into the fated struggle of the avant-garde, and how you account for the odd stability and maturation of the series through past years.  No interpretation will do the stubbornly generic nature of the term “PhillyTalks” justice, but what I see PhillyTalks as a concept doing is essentially struggling to contemplate, thus articulate, however naively, a horizon for contemporary writing practice by turning backwards upon the socket.  PhillyTalks thus aims less to model and manifest future practice, than respond to past conditions of the course.

The overtly careful, pragmatic nature of this thesis speaks to my recent concerns.  If anything, it risks comparison with my reading of Benjamin’s all too beautiful (if clichéd) angel, who, in turning around to observe history itself, blindly piles herself upon the wreckage of the future.  Indeed, one problem with technology is that it can often be a distraction, and recent technological innovations on the communicatory front seem to support this statement all the more.  As you eloquently (if disturbingly) write in a footnote to your recent article/memoir on hole magazine and the Experimental Writing Group (ewg):

Contrary to what I imagined on first hearing about poetry listserves, and to my initial enthusiasm, my experience of them is that they sometimes enhance, if not actually induce, the sense of a private, rotating blank – nevertheless (or, should I say: “even worse”), a “blank” of poetic discourse, rather than a blank of “silence.”  By silence, I mean a buried-alive feeling, in which, as Eugene Jolas once wrote, “There is no more talk” and “All the mouths are pinched with waiting.” (Cabri, on hole magazine, 2000, p. 4)

Whether I am capable of articulating the precise contours of this poetic “blank” is not so much my concern; nor am I troubled by what others might perceive as undue criticism of poetry listserves.  (Note: there is no question for me that the Buffalo poetics listserve bespeaks a magisterial presence and is responsible –- perhaps singularly -- for facilitating and strengthening the poetics community here in the states.)  Rather, I am incessantly dogged by the following question: is PhillyTalks as live “event” socially innovative, while technologically conservative as online venue?  And what should PhillyTalks online offer its “participatory community” so as to avoid Jolas’ buried-alive feelings, his silences, his poetic estrangement breeding “no more talk?”  By technological conservativism I mean any application of technology that willingly hinders talk, or more importantly, determines retroactively the legitimate status of a “participatory community.”  It is this later concern, that of legitimizing discourse, that impels me to ask after the archivist leanings of PhillyTalks.

There is something pathological about the usual archivist’s attachment towards words, but writers at their best have to do without archivists, without the sense that their utterances are and always will be preserved in writing.   My formal relationship to PhillyTalks as “archivist” (and as a writer), then, is somewhat paradoxically that of insuring PhillyTalks does not become stagnant.  Stagnancy drags behind itself the usual problematics of power, time and timeliness, as well as access.

Thus do I personally constitute the online PhillyTalks more as a library and less an archive, collaborative venue, etc.  Perhaps it is not for me to decide the relative merits of this claim, but libraries are constructions at once more porous, more flexible and personal.  My use of the personal can be reduced to the following meaning: unimpeded access to resources on one’s own terms.  And flexibility is precisely what traditional archives shun in the name of preservation and exclusivity.   Thus have I sought to minimize both my role and yours in the production of an online presence for PhillyTalks.  The material is accessible everywhere, free to everyone, and at no point do I actively or intentionally constrain communicatory potentialities.

I do, however, believe I could improve upon these same ends by the following actions: 1) means for contacting the poets themselves while reading or observing the respective PhillyTalks transcript/ event (in a way that safeguards privacy), 2) a separate listserve, however infrequently used, for the discussion of PhillyTalks transcripts and events, rather than mere announcements, and 3) as you suggest, a comments page, however dry at first glance, on which readers and viewers could leave comments and suggestions in “public” fashion.   Thus, future alterations to the current minimalist -– and intentionally so -- site are as follows:

1) Introductory Page

a. archives
b. calendar

1) Introductory Page

a. archives & contact information
b. listserve / comments
c. calendar

At this point, I am curious to probe the organic limits of the series.  Earlier I spoke of PhillyTalks as generic being encapsulating – all at once -- the event, the transcript, as well as the audio/ video archive. Ours is an odd philosophical framework in which these various components suddenly arise, almost mythically, at once, to form what is known as PhillyTalks.  To continue in this vein: can PhillyTalks as “live” event take place without the transcript being published and distributed previous to the event?  And now, with the web as the simultaneous “other” for the series -- a fulcrum that follows after the origins of the series but becomes equally originary -- does "phillyTalks" now truly denote the entire gamut of components?  Or is it still, in your eyes, primarily a dialogue between persons, and in front of persons, that assumes the digital form only after?

The questions enlarge before us: an online audience of roughly 1000 persons accompanies each PhillyTalks release on the web, while roughly 25 accompany each PhillyTalks “live” event.  It is not my intention to express disappointment here with attendance; I indeed share with you greater concern over the quality of participation, be that mine own or that of others.  And, like you, I am aware that my own expectations are often illegitimately high.  I use the word "illegitimate" here because at times I ask too much of PhillyTalks, and of the poetics community at large. Perhaps I should not so readily define the realization of a participatory community.  What might be the relation of this somewhat antiquarian, if heavy-handed, behavioral model of mine –- demand shorn of expectation -- to successful community interaction?   I would be interested in your response.

To circle back: can PhillyTalks as series take place as a newsletter alone, absent the “live” event itself?  I’ve indeed given much thought to this question lately.  Recall your previous correspondence with me, in which you wrote the following:

I'd venture that perhaps if you only had one person talking, even with/to an audience, it would no longer be a PhillyTalks (PT). And if you just had the newsletter (assuming - which is a lot, I think - that you could motivate two poets to do it) then also I think you'd have a different event: more along the lines of an interview, possibly, since there would not be a sense of need to find something to talk about in person (even if in person that talk never happens). And if you had three people instead of two, you might have a different event as well, in that the sense of dialogue would change, but how exactly, I haven't really thought about it. (Cabri, email to Aaron Levy, Nov. 2, 2000)

Your conviction that a minimum of two people is required for community is highly convincing, yet somewhat uncomfortable for me to accept.  I agree that one person interacting with an audience would not constitute a PhillyTalks, and should not be encouraged on those grounds; however, I am adamant that it would constitute a community, albeit sub optimal.  I look forward to continuing this discussion along those lines in the future.  What interests me most is your last question, in which two-person dialogue is suddenly thought anew; the possibility of participation swerves upon different pivots.  From the point of view of the audience, what does it mean to watch the audio/ video recording in place of the “live” event?  Such viewings of PhillyTalks proceedings –- even if part of a “live” webcast -- are often absent the participatory element of belonging to a “live” discussion-oriented audience.  This is all less in the way of observation than philosophical question (akin to Arthur Danto’s investigations of much of contemporary art).  For as I suggested earlier, I believe PhillyTalks occupies today an organic space –- as live event, as transcript, as archive; originally it was centered around the “live” event alone.  And now it finds its actual audience overwhelmingly composed of persons unable to be present physically.  How should we shape PhillyTalks –- and must we? -- to reflect this shift away from our origins, and how might we differentiate the “event” from the digital “event?”  These are paradoxical, if at times unpleasant questions for me to attempt to answer, somewhat akin to Descartes’s rather perverse attempts to retroactively segregate the body entire into free-standing components.  Indeed, all too often we formulate the guiding paradoxes and principles of our digital communities upon the ruins of non-digital ones.  Does this constitute a valid approach; what might alternatives be?

So I leave off with a quizzical expression upon my face:  to what degree do you find each and every "singular" PhillyTalks event oddly bifurcated, and not merely geographically, in its output?  Is it possible that y/our ideas are themselves reproducing in non-similar ways?  Might we be producing, in the guise of the singular, two wholly different products?  I am more and more convinced that the non-digital and the digital fulfill and create their own audiences with remarkable solitude and perseverance – and success.  My error here is perhaps to have read my way backwards into the real, asking of the non-digital that which the digital so fantastically offers up to us.  Ease of access, disregard for spatial distances, significantly larger audiences, incessant -- if electronically mediated -– discussion.  Oddly enough, I am perhaps guilty in reverse of the very charges by which I have accused others in the past.  I would venture to say that both approaches towards textual production and the facilitation of participatory communities have a healthy future ahead of them.  And both methods have paradoxically become dependant upon the other for continued growth and success.   It is in this manner that the term organicism should perhaps be invoked here.

Sometimes, I suppose, the way around these kinds of philosophic impasses – and impasses multiply all the while when unaddressed -- comes from proposing another set of possible descriptions that the subject in question might be seen to “come under.”    By this lead it might be better to think of PhillyTalks – for the sake of focusing this discussion -- less as a growing events library than as a humble, organic, time-based project.  It is an iterative model for living poetic, and perhaps one of the few that allows for maturation, and self-correction over time.  Here, though, I am reminded of your critically beautiful praise for poets’ talk as avant-garde practice in your same article on hole magazine and ewg:

Did ewg aspire to a sense, however imaginary, of the “avant-garde,” as the name might suggest?  Inevitably, naively, unapologetically, I think ewg did (and was not alone in this). (Cabri, on hole magazine, 2000, p. 14)

I wonder to what degree is PhillyTalks necessarily haunted by similar aspirations?  Lurking behind my every word to you is this very question and concern.  In the end, are our desires to redesign the possible, to pursue what you call “political and community ambitions that remain largely unrealized and unrealizable,” reducible to what Robert Hughes has termed mere “amateur therapy?”  I had forgotten his embrace of the disparaging term until you mentioned it to me in our recent correspondence.  Perhaps these are questions without answer.

Louis, timeliness asks my leave, and all too soon for comfort.  I should try to define my terms better next time; it will not be easy.  The entries under the word “PhillyTalks” and its cognates in the Oxford English Dictionary, revel -- really a bit vulgarly -- in their having gone missing.  Ideas?  Below please find my proposed submission for an entry all our own:

Philly-Talking, the event, is and of library, two or more poets required, see PhillyTalks
'from Philly-Talking, min. two people?  Obs. or dial. Also 1 philly-talks, philllytalks. (e, talking, poetics). 2 dialogue, speaking communities. Altered form of poetics, poetic thought, manifesto practices, speculation.  sb. By association with thinking thought sb.: cf. French Revolution.  A window.  Pseudo-etymologizing of modernist avant-garde manifesto form, itself a practice bearing no relation to actual practice(s).  Cf. poet’s talk, “Table talk,” 17th century Diggers and Levellers, Great Conversations, England, Boswell, Perelman and/or Bernstein, democratic (?) possibilities. (Note: + is not to live up to its own manifesto, should claims be made. Cf. open question:  what would not constitute a “PhillyTalks”?  What would not constitute a participatory archive?)  Originally a modeling of social discourse, “PhillyTalks” now generally denotes the grand imagining, if not the enactment, of the self addressing (or: self-addressing) poetry “communities”.
from library. unimpeded access to resources on one’s own terms.

Do you think they will allow us entry?

Your friend,


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