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From Peter O’Leary: Poetry of the 1970s, Day 1
Your guest blogger with Tom Raworth and Clark Coolidge, Orono, June 2008”
The day before I left to attend the “Poetry of the 1970s” conference held every four years by the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine, I was asked whether I wanted to cover it for Harriet. Mos def, I thought (in the words of D’Angelo Barksdale), settling things on Wednesday morning, June 11, in a phone call to Nick Twemlow while standing against the wall in Helmut Jahn’s cavernous, light-filled United C-Terminal at O’Hare, where Eno’s “Music for Airports” should be on a permanent loop. When I went to my gate, C-20, I saw people lining up to go to Singapore. I’d misread my seat number, 20C, for the gate, and needed to dash back to the B-Terminal, where I found my traveling companion, Chris Glomski, relieved to see me. In a clockwork schedule, we were flying together and renting a car from Boston to Orono, picking up some other mates along the way – Ross Hair in Boston (who was flying in from Southampton, UK), and Joel Bettridge in Portland (who was flying in from the other Portland in Oregon). Chris doesn’t have a cellphone. Running idly through his mind as he waited for me to show was the thought, What if O’Leary misses the flight? But I showed, we bought some sandwiches, and were soon seated in two rows entirely to ourselves, a bonus of traveling mid-morning on a Wednesday.
I first attended the NPF conference in Orono in 1996, when I was still a graduate student at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. I presented a paper on Ronald Johnson’s ARK, on a panel chaired by NPF’s associate editor, Sylvester Pollet. Even in the viridian glow of my greenness, I could tell it was a special gathering: panels, plenaries, and readings all devoted to poetry in the experimental/avant-garde/innovative idiom so vital to me, all under the rubric of “Poetry of the 1950s.” I made a number of good friends, met some superstars, and vowed to return to the next gathering.
Which, as I mentioned, has happened every four years since, under the benign aegis of Burt Hatlen, who, until passing away this past January, was the Zeus-like director of the NPF. Like anyone who has attended that conference in the past several years (there were several before I started coming), I owe him gratitude. But my thanks to Burt extend beyond those of organizing kick-ass conferences. Not long after the 1996 event, I submitted a longer version of my Ronald Johnson essay to Sagetrieb, one of the two NPF journals (the other is Paideuma). When Burt wrote to accept it, he did so only under the condition that I rewrite many of its paragraphs, tortured as they were by my brutal syntax. Included in the envelope was my essay, meticulously copy-edited. It was my first such publication. In 2000, there he was at my panel. (Poetry of the 1960s.) I was presenting on Frank Samperi. Do you, gentle Harriet reader, know about Frank Samperi? I didn’t think so. Burt did. And that’s why he was there. (He actually cheered when I said Samperi’s name.) In 2004, we shared with Steve Fredman a panel on the poetry of Robert Duncan. (Poetry of the 1940s.) As we sat down at the front of the auditorium before the panel began, he leaned over to me to say that he’d read my book (Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness had been published in 2002), that he liked it, but that I had failed to cite him in it. I didn’t take this for academic sour grapes; I took it for a dressing down I deserved for failing to pay respect where it was due. Among the things learned about Burt upon his death were the loyalty of his former student Stephen King (who continues to help support the NPF and whom I met outside the banquet hall in 1996 – he’s really quite tall) and that in spite of writing dozens of articles he never published a scholarly book. The 1970s conference was dedicated to Burt’s memory, and included a remembrance by Marjorie Perloff that was read during the lobster banquet on Friday.
It was also dedicated to the memory of Sylvester Pollet, who died this past December. In addition to his role as associate editor for NPF, Sylvester published the Backwoods Broadsides series from his home is Ellsworth. The series ran to 100 parts over the course of twelve years. My poem “Watchfulness” was published in 1996 as Backwoods Broadsides 21. It was my first real poetry publication.
Steve Evans has inherited the role of conference director. To this year’s proceedings, he’s added a virtual component, inviting all participants to contribute to ThoughtMesh, which evidently both lists and integrates abstracts and papers into a network of connections. I first saw Steve (meeting him briefly) at the Poetry of the 1950s conference in 1996 where he gave a talk on Frank O’Hara on a panel with Ben Friedlander. By 2000, they were both professors at Maine. After experiencing the conference Steve put together, aided by his collaborators Jennifer Moxley, Gail Sapiel, and Betsy Rose, I’ll readily predict the next conference (Poetry of the 1980s (?!))is already in good hands.
This time, there was the same heady, non-stop barrage of poetry, theory, talk, and boozing, but there was also a decided emphasis away from strictly scholarly talks to more poetry readings from the keynote speakers – Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Nicole Brossard, Clark Coolidge, Jayne Cortez, Ann Lauterbach, Bernadette Mayer, Tom Raworth, and Fred Wah. A nice touch, added to by several plenary readings – on Language poetry, the Black Arts Movement, the No More Masks anthology, Queering the 1970s – and various panels that similarly emphasized creative community and connection.
When Chris and I arrived in Boston, we were surprised to see Ross in the baggage claim area waiting for us already (his flight wasn’t due until thirty minutes later). Once we secured our upgraded rental sedan, we blasted up to Portland to retrieve Joel, and then on for another 2-½ hours to Orono where we arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the Queering the 70s reading, featuring Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, and Eileen Myles. We had already missed Kevin’s and Dodie’s readings, but Eileen Myles was memorable. She stood in the center of a small theater and commanded the audience, rolling through a series of rollicking stories (I assume she was reading prose) that involved girlfriends, New York, relationships, Mary Mother of God, and descriptions of different vaginas. It was riveting! And a fine beginning to a memorable five days.