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."

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Poetry of the 1970s part 1

Photograph by Tom Raworth

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..

Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Kit Robinson
photograph by Tom Orange

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.

Barrett Watten at the banquet
Photograph by Tom Orange

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.

Bill Howe
photograph by Ben Friedlander

Saturday, June 28, 2008

DC in the 1970s

Here is the substance of my talk during the DC panel at the Poetry of the 1970s conference at the University of Maine at Orono, somewhat extended.

I want to talk about validation.

I believe that during the 1970s we were the beneficiaries of a transition that had been going on for a long time. I’m talking about the shift from what had been an underground literature to what became an alternative poetry network. Among the crucial factors in this change were, first, a huge increase in the number of younger practicing poets during the 1960s, many of whom identified with the poetry and poetics that had been represented in Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry. Second was the continued rise in popularity of public readings, which had begun with the celebrated performances of Dylan Thomas in America, and had blossomed with the advent of the Beat Generation. Third was the development of new and improved publication technologies such as offset printing and Xerox. Fourth was the intense interest in community fostered by the counter-culture. No doubt there were other factors, also.
(I have always preferred the term “alternative” to others such as “experimental” and “avant-garde,” because it is not a critical term but a descriptive one, referring to the publishing apparatus that allowed an separate poetry network to develop outside of the literary mainstream.

This new population of poets formed communities in cities across America (and in Britain and elsewhere), as well larger national and international communities independent of what Charles Bernstein has famously called “official verse culture.” During the time of the Beat Generation, the term “underground” was used to describe literature that was outside of the mainstream, known only to an “underground” audience until something of its form or content or both lead the established literary world to pay attention. Quite often it was a term used in a patronizing manner, intended to put whatever potentially offensive material was at hand in its place. This was the time of literary trials, when the publishers of such works as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Howl and Lolita were prosecuted for obscenity. Validation at hat time came only via the established literary world, and was often critically qualified. By the 1970s, alternative poetry’s population was sufficiently developed to provide its own validation, with enough intellectual vigor and literary finesse to enter its own house justified.

It is impossible to talk about alternative poetry in Washington DC in the 1970s without talking about the Mass Transit readings above the Community Bookstore on P Street near Dupont Cirlce, and associated events and publications, such as Some Of Us Press and the reading series at the Pyramid Gallery, also on P Street, And it is equally impossible to talk about alternative poetry in Washington DC in the 1970s without recognizing the importance of Michael Lally, Lee Lally and Terence Winch, all of whom were crucial to the creation of the DC community, And it was at the time of Mass Transit in the early to middle 1970s that the poetry community was most closely aligned with the counter-culture. And it was the creativity and work of those involved at this time that made everything else possible.

What created such excitement and incredible energy during the 1970s in Washington was the fact that recognition and validation did not require endorsements from the established literary world. It was available through our own resources. Thanks to everyone and everything that had been represented in the New American Poetry we were all free of the oppressive conformity that had ruled poetry and writing previously. And as it was in Washington, so it was elsewhere in the US and abroad.

I believe that the alternative poetry network continued its transition to the point where it became to some extent a doppelgänger of the larger literary world. The enormous growth of Creative Writing programs at American universities created an ever-increasing flood of new, younger poets. The advent of Language Poetry with its emphasis on theory in some regards took alternative poetry back into the academy, previously one of the major resources of mainstream literary culture. As a result, alternative poetry has become a kind of demographic in which literary and academic careers are negotiated via alternative poetry publications, readings and so on. It is something of an industry now. This is not a complaint. I have the greatest respect for the younger generations of poets, those born in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. I think it is much tougher for them than it was for us who were born in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s there was a kind of intimacy in alternative poetry, a sense of shared projects and thinking, and even the illusion that one could pretty much have a sense of everything that was going on, and the knowledge of pretty much everyone who was involved. That was an illusion, of course, but it was possible to sustain it them. It would be nowhere near possible now.

As a footnote, I will say that my favorite personal account of the transition from underground to alternative poetry is in Aram Saroyan’s memoir, Friends in the World.
It was Aram who caused the most publicly dramatic conflict between alternative poetry and the established literary culture, when the latter was represented by President Ronald Reagan’s railing against “one word poems” being supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (soon thereafter to be eviscerated), because of his one word poem, “lighght.”

And as a footnote to my footnote, please know that Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Having a Good Time

In coversation with Ben Friedlander at the Poetry of the 1970s conference at Orono.

DC at Orono

Retallack, Inman. Darragh, Lang, Dreyer, Rosenzweig
Photomerge by Tom Raworth

A group of DC poets (and DC expat poets) went up to Orono two weeks ago to participate in The National Poetry Foundation’s Conference on The Poetry of the 1970s, at the University of Maine. Tina Darragh, Lynne Dreyer, Peter Inman, Joan Retallack, Phyllis Rosenzweig and I constituted a panel to discuss Washington in the 1970s. The same group plus Diane Ward gave a reading. Kaplan Harris, Chris Nealon and Tom Orange presented papers. Rod Smith and Mel Nichols gave great support and read in one of the late night open readings. I was also glad to see Barry Alpert there. It was very gratifying to be there with everyone, and the whole conference was rewarding, inspiring, enlightening and fun. For me it was a completely new experience, since I’d never been to an academic conference before. Although I’ve taught at an art school for 40 years, I’m not an academic by training or inclination (not a pejorative statement). But this was just fantastic – a large gang of people all talking about and reading poetry. The one odd thing was how few women were involved. I’m not getting all PC here, it was just something you could not help noticing.

The conference schedule was intense. A typical day had five panels from 9:00 to 10:15 a.m. Then a single (plenary) panel from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p,m. Then five more panels at 2:30 p.m., and five more at 4:00 p.m. Following this, one (plenary) reading at 7:30 p.m. and another at 8:30 p.m. Then a group reading at 10:00 p.m. and open readings at 11:00 p.m. The fact that there were often five panels running simultaneously that you might want to attend was both frustrating and exciting. There are links to reports, photographs, and other material (including a link to ThoughtMesh where some of the papers presented at Orobo have been uploaded) at The National Poetry Foundation

I'm going to write about the DC panel and reading here and write about the conference in general elsewhere.

On Friday, June 13th at 1:00 p.m., there was the plenary panel: DC Poetry in the 1970s. Tom Orange introduced the panel. Joan Retallack presented a paper titled The New Spirit in Dog City, and remarks from the rest of the panel members followed, as well as questions and answers. Joan gave a really terrific account of the DC scene in the late 1970s, as expected, and ended with a powerpoint(?) display of pages from the two issues of Dog City magazine, which were published in 1977 and 1980 respectively. Peter and i had both prepared short statements and I had circulated mine to Joan and Tom and the rest of the panelists via email, but neither one of us read our statements. I felt totally anxious during the time before I was to have an opportunity to read, and I was particularly anxious about the possibility of my nervousnees being apparent to a room full of people that I so admired and respected, some of the best minds of my generation as it were (including the other panelists). Fortunately, I realized that I was feeling pressure to be something that I was not, and as soon as I decided to just be myself and to just talk, I was fine. I talked very well. We all did. The question and answer period was very lively. It was all very exhilarating. I loved it. And we finished on time, which was a serious rarity at the whole conference. My favorite moment came duringthe Q&A with a rhetorical question from Rod Smith. During my talk, I had mentioned that in DC during the Mass Transit days, the alternative poetry scene in DC was closely aligned with the counter-culture, at which point Peter interjected a remark (clearly humorous) that he had never used drugs during that time. Later, during the Q&A, Peter was engaged with Barrett Watten in a discussion of the apparently minimal interest shown in theory among the DC poets in the 1970s, at the end of which Rod asked Peter if he thought the fact that he had not taken drugs explained his lack of interest in theory back then.

I will compose an approximation (and slight extension) of what I said in my talk in a separate post.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bicycle Day

Bicycle Day bt Mel Nichols is a beautifully made chapbook containing 21 poems that will make your life better.

I am sure that it may be found at Bridge Street Books in Georgetown.

Or, it may be acquired from:

Slack Buddha Press
4724 Bonham Road
Oxford, Ohio 45056

Friday, September 14, 2007


I love this book.

Rod Smith, Deed, University of Iowa Press /
Kuhl House Poets (2007)

“The great thing about Rod Smith’s work is that it is all risk all the time. In Deed, he has built a substantial architecture whose ‘perilous upkeep’ is dazzling. This is a truly wondrous book.”—Peter Gizzi

“A master poet among us? I’d vote for Rod Smith. With the sweeping vision of Whitman, the noun-play of Gertrude Stein, and the slant political commentary of the New York School, Smith chisels out a place of his own with a tremendous integrity of vision. Deed contains the best of what American poetry has to offer: a place to pause and reflect upon the beauty of language and love flowering up through the mayhem of the world.” —Lisa Jarnot

+ go here and read about it, if you haven't done so already: