Tina and Peter and I arrived at Orono in the evening of Thursday, June 12, the second day of the Poetry of the 1970s conference, in time to hear Bruce Andrews read at 7:30 at Minsky Recital Hall. He gave a fantasic reading, more or less a retrospective of his work through four decades. The eloquence and the biting humor of his work has never been more evident than it has been in recent readings, including the last two he gave at DC/AC in Washington. In the first of these, last year, he read from his "White Dialect" project, using language culled from midwestern vernacular, and in the second, this year, he presented another sequence based on Appalachian dialect. One goes to a reading by Bruce Andrews with all the expectations appropriate to his deserved reputation as someone whose body of work is a significant achievement in contemporary poetry. However, this does not prepare you for the experience of hearing him perform his dialect works. They are astonishing in their concentrated music and in their almost mystical delving into the depths of language. The text of Libretto from White Dialect Poetry may be found at /ubu editions There has been some discussion regarding social issues relating to the poet's attitude towards his sources, but this seems to me to be cavilling in the face of this extraordinary achievement.
Although I regretted having missed the reading given by Fred Wah on June 11, the reading given by Bruce seemed to me the perfect start for my experience of this event. I first read his work during my first months in the US when I was shown the initial series of chapbooks published by SOUP, including Bruce's Edge, and I continued to read his work from that point on.
Photograph by Tom Orange
I've heard him read many times in DC and in New York, and I know him some. There's no better representive of the poetry of the 1970s in my view. Also, the 1980s, 1990s & 2000s..
At 10:00 p.m. that Thursday evening in the Black Box Theater upstairs from Minsky Recital Hall, Barett Watten, Steve Benson and Kit Robinson read from The Grand Piano project, an experiment in collective memoir involving Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Mandel, Ted Pearson, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten, currently up to six of ten planned volumes. Like Bruce Andrews, these three poets and their Grand Piano cohort are famously associated with the creation of what became known as Language Poetry, a name that is useful in describing something that did not exist, actually, but was any number of events, positions, developments, etcetera. The Grand Piano project us all about recasting memory, memory as imagination, imagination as a collaborative ivvestigation. The reading was as much about a rendition of process as a rendition of text, complete with trading passages, overlaps, spontaneous composition being folded in, and I thought it was a riot, a gratifying riot, and, like the original texts, a perfect model of revisioning. There is an excellent report by Lytton Smith at thoughtmerge.
There was more of Barrett Watten at 10:30 a.m. on Friday morning, when he presented "Late Capitalism and Language Writing in the 1970s." I can't tell you what this was about, not because of any lack of clarity in the presentation, but because it was too perfectly integrated to allow a successful dismantling for the purpose of summary. The presentation was delivered under the designation, "Periodizing the 1970s" and one particular argument it contained was in resistance to the idea of Language Poetry as a period register or genre. I've gone to the Thesaurus three time already, writing this paragraph -- the anxiety of inaccuracy. Also, the presentation included a reading of Watten's poem "Tibet" and some well-worked power-point material. It was a completely exhilarating event, and this extended to the questions from the audience, most especially the first question, asked by Chris Nealon.
The DC panel followed at 1:00 p.m., and at 2:30 p.m. I attended a panel titled "Fluxus, Intermedia, and Hypertext." This involved the one unhappy moment during the conference for me. Because of time restrictions, presentations by Patrick Durgin (on "Becoming Literature: Jackson Mac Low and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E of Intermedia") and Kasey Mohammad (on "Bern Porter and Dick Higgins" Blank Structures and Found Poetics.") were cut short. Presented in abbreviated forms, these two statements whetted the appetite for more, given both the compelling material and the obviously outstanding work of the presenters. Patrick Durgin's work can be found here.
The 4:00 panel I attended was on Clark Coolidge, with presentations by Michael Golston, "Clark Coolidge and the Allegorical Imperative," Tom Orange, "The Uncollected Clark Coolidge," and Paul Stephens, "Coolidgean Ex-cavations: Landscape, Memory and Masculinity in the 1970s Poetry of Clark Coolidge," with Coolidge present as respondent. All three presentations were brilliant and absolutely convincing, but there was an amusing disconnect between the material presented and Coolidge's own perceptions, made evident by his response. Of course, this said less about the validity of the considerations of Golston, Orange and Stephens and more about their creativity. I came to Orono with some anxiety about the possibility of being exposed to academic posturing, but this was not the case. On the contrary, I always wanted more. Panels would end at a point where they might have started, at a point where extended discussion would have been in order, including this one, as well as Barrett Watten's after the comments/questions by Chris Nealon, Joshua Clover, Aaron Kunin and others, and the DC panel, expecially after the exhanges between Peter Inman, Barrett Watten and Bob Perelman. As Phil Metres asserted in his report on the conference, "Even though there is great beauty in the harmonies created at Orono (and there were also plenty of creative dissonances as well), a part of me always holds to the Blakean principle: There is no progression without contraries." I would have been happy to have had those harmonies and dissonances continued.
Around 7:00 p.m. I went back to my room and crashed like a house coming down.
The DC poets reading was at 11:00 p.m. in the Black Box Theater -- more about that in a separate post.
After the DC poets reading, I stuck around for the open reading, also in in the Black Box Theater, graced by the presence of Bill Howe. Rod Smith and Mel Nichols were among the readers, all of whom were more than worthy of full-length readings. My main regret regarding the conference was that I missed the other open readings. There was something about the poetry of the 2000s that gave great resonance to the poetry of the 1970s.
photograph by Ben Friedlander