Friday, July 4, 2008

Poetry of the 1970s part 2

Clark Coolidge and audience
(including Lee Ann Brown and Eileen Myles)
photograph by Ben Friedlander

On Saturday morning the conference moved from the Orono campus to the Colby College Museum of Art, where there were exhibitions by Alex Katz and Joe Brainard, and plenary readings by Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge, as well as a gallery talk by Ann Lauterbach on Joe Brainard's Nancy works. Mayer and Coolidge have both been closely associated with the "New York School of Poetry" and "Language Poetry," both of them having appeared in An Anthology of New York Poets (1970) and In the American Tree (1986), seminal anthologies representing the two "movements" respectively (the latter published by the National Poetry Foundation, incidentally). I don't imagine that any school or movement in the world of alternative poetry would not want either of these two poets to be associated with them, such are their achievements and their reputations. Their readings befitted their status. It was a great treat to hear them.

I didn't get to really see the Alex Katz exhibition. As always at this conference, there was much more offered than one had time to enjoy. I did view the Joe Brainard exhibition. I've been a Brainard fan forever and a fan of Nancy since Terry Winch turned me on to Ernie Bushmuller long, long ago. Not for nothing did the second issue of Dog City have Nancy on its cover, shown via power-point by Joan Retallack during the DC poets panel. Ann Lauterbach's gallery talk was a tender and moving reminiscence, as well as a finely detailed account of the Nancy works. It was another very memorable moment.

Ann Lauterbach
photograph by Tom Orange

Back at Orono, I attended the 4:30 p.m. panel "All Middle": Tom Raworth and Ted Greenwald, where Kit Robinson talked about (and read from the work of) Ted Greenwald, and Keith Tuma talked about Tom Raworth's Writing. These were two perfect matches. Like Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer, Greenwald and Robinson fit within both New York School and Language Poetry parameters, although I don't believe that Kit has ever been speciifcally associated with the New York School; come to think of it, I'm not sure that Ted has, either. Of course, the key is disjunctiveness, maybe less obviously so in Greenwald; and both poets have tremendous wit that runs the range from disarming to fierce. Kit's talk about Ted's world was more than a reading, it was a kind of personal recognition of value; it brought to mind the focus of meditation in the first volume of The Grand Piano, the collaborate memoir by ten poets associated with San Francisco: love. Tom Orange has posted this video clip of Robinson reading from Ted Greenwald's You Bet. I just wished that Ted had been there to read some of Kit's work.

Keith Tuma and Kit Robinson
(+ Clark Coolidge right)
photograph by Diane Tuma

Anyone with more than a passing familarity with Tom Raworth's work would be familiar with Keith Tuma's attention to it. Just google his name and it will lead you to various examples of this, or, better still, read his "Collaborating with 'Dark Senses' " in Removed for Further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth, edited by Nate Dorward. Tuma's talk was a good complement to Robinson's: intimate, contemplative, and open rather than instructive, regarding Raworth's Writing. It was possible to sense in Tuma's approach a correlative to Tom's plain refusal to make himself the subject of his work, as respondent at this panel. As noted above, Tuma and Raworth was a perfect match. What Tuma's presentation gave me was a sense of possibility, a generous investigation of Writing as a text that resisted contexualization, but invited reading.

Where could one go from here? Exhausted and energized at the same time, I went to the 4:30 plenary panel, Queering the 70's, to hear Dodie Bellamy ("The Feminist Writers' Guild"), Kevin Killian ("John Wieners' Transvestite Passion") and Eileen Myles ("Queerness, Perforamance and Prose").

Eileen Myles
at the Queering the '70s reading
photograph by Tom Orange

These three were amazingly, fully present. Each one of them was courageous in their presentation, displaying a degree of humanity that obliterated any division between self and text, celebrating the moment and its context, totally giving. Dodie Bellamy provided what was for me the most telling line of the conference, "Back then we answered each other's telephones," (fairly accurate paraphrase). It underlined the difference between then and now, between the community of the 1970s, when poets enjoyed the luxury of greater connection with each other and with some kind of meaningful struggle, and the 2000's, when such connections must overcome increasing isolation exemplified by the cell phone. All three brought passion and humor to their recitations of history, and they made it clear why we were all there at Orono. It was a magnificent performance.

The last event I attended was the 8:00 p.m. plenary poetry reading at Minsky Recital Hall. No one has more gravitas than Tom Raworth. No one is more admired and respected. No one is more intense as a reader. No one has sharper wit or greater social relevance. His reading of Writing was really pretty good. Yes it was. Writing would have to be on any list of brilliantworks of the 1970s, and this might have been its definitive reading.

Tom Raworth
photograph by Tom Orange

There was so much at the Orono conference that I missed and wished I hadn't: just in terms of my DC compatriots, Barry Alpert's presentation on his legendary magazine, Vort, Chris Nealon's presentation on John Ashbery, and Kaplan Harris on "The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation." I missed readings by Fred Wah, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Eileen Myles, Jayne Cortez, Ann Lauterbach, Nicole Brossard, and Rae Armantrout. And so much more. Browsing through the Poetry of the 1970s program, I was so sorry to have missed so much.
But that was a tribute to the value of the conference. To paraphrase dialogue from the end of a less than spectacular Howard Hawks movie, when one character asked another if he thought history would remember something, another replied, "I know I'll never forget it."