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From Peter O’Leary: Poetry of the 1970s, Day 2
Thursday, June 12 began with me waking up at 6am as the light slanted through the blinds in my gulag-like but nevertheless comfortable dorm room on campus. Despite staying up late, and despite being away from my kids, who wake me up every morning at the same time, I couldn’t sleep any later. Instead, I sought out some breakfast with Ross Hair, who was still addled with jetlag, and then took a walk in the fabled Maine woods that surround the campus at Orono. We saw cedar waxwings, bluebirds, goldfinches, a great blue heron, many crows, and a deer grazing in an opening.
And then hit the ground running in full-on conference mode. One of the challenges of attending a conference such as this one is deciding which of the panels to attend. I’m generally motivated by the desire to hear a talk on a topic or poet I’m interested in, but I’m also drawn to seeing friends present work on the topics they’re thinking about. I’m not particularly a devotee of Ashbery’s work but was lured to an Ashbery panel because, as a result of a couple of cancellations, my friend Tom Fisher, who like Joel Bettridge had come in from Portland, Oregon, was presenting his talk on Bob Kaufman.
Gregory Hazleton spoke about the prospects of eco-criticism in Ashbery’s The Vermont Notebook, noting that “environmental is a critical term” (i.e., a negative term) in Ashbery’s lexicon. Mark Mendoza focused his talk on the qualities of deprivation and difficulty to be found in “The New Spirit” in Three Poems (among others). Both talks were intelligent and lively, beginning the argument that stretched across the conference that Ashbery perhaps is the poet of the 1970s. (There were lots of Ashbery papers at the conference. Along with lots of Bernadette Mayer papers. Go figure.)
Tom Fisher, whom I met when he was a graduate student at SUNY-Buffalo, and who wrote a dissertation on poetic silence (think Oppen and Rimbaud, for instance), spoke of Bob Kaufman’s silence that lasted from 1963-1973, from the Kennedy assassination to the ceasefire in Vietnam. During this period, though he wasn’t writing, he was speaking occasionally – “Hi. You got a cigarette?” – but focusing his creative energies on reclusion, remove, and not doing anything. (I realize the meaning behind Kaufman’s silence is more nuanced and vexed than this summary of Tom’s talk.) Evidently, Kaufman’s silence was broken by the recitation of his poem “All Those Ships that Never Sailed” and lines from Murder in the Cathedral! Now that’s the kind of lore I go to these things to learn.
The morning panel was followed by the first plenary session on the poetry of the Black Arts Movement. Before it began, there was just enough time for Joel and I to hustle up to the book sale to lay our hands on copies of Ronald Johnson: Life and Works, edited by Joel and Eric Selinger, just published by the National Poetry Foundation. This anthology of essays on the work of Ronald Johnson has been in the works for nearly eight years; seeing it was really the main inspiration for me and Joel to come to Maine. Reader, do you know of the works of Ronald Johnson? Even if you do, now you can read what dozens of very smart people have seen for themselves in this poetry. Reader, it is time for you to embrace the life and works of Ronald Johnson for yourself; this beautiful anthology – which concludes with the memoir of my poetic apprenticeship with Johnson – is a lovely place for you to start.
The Black Arts plenary didn’t disappoint. There were four papers presented: Grant Matthew Jenkins on Nathaniel Mackey’s relationship with Black Arts, as well as his conscientious use of materials from John S. Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophies; Fahamisha Brown’s discussion of the relationship between Black Arts and black feminism in the work of recent Lilly prize-winner Lucille Clifton; Lytle Shaw’s reading of Amiri Baraka’s reconception of his work in the 1970s, radicalizing and revolutionizing it in the light of and through the publication of In Our Terribleness in 1970; and finally James Smethurst on the poetry of Tom Dent, whose poetry was new to me, from New Orleans, and the poets assembled in the journal Nkombo. This panel was responded to by Jayne Cortez, who would give a keynote poetry reading later that evening. Her response to these four informative, rich talks was brief, insisting that the Black Arts Movement was above all a freedom movement, and that it’s still ongoing.
Following lunch, the next plenary panel featured respondents to the No More Masks! anthology, edited by Florence Howe, and published originally in 1973. I didn’t attend this one, I must admit; our afternoon panel on Ronald Johnson was slated to follow it immediately and I wanted to be prepared for it. In any event, it ran a little late, which is always a sign that it was an engaging set of talks.
With the Ronald Johnson anthology newly published, I conceived of the Ronald Johnson panel to address the question of what next in terms of scholarship for the work. Our panel was competing with one on the Long Poem and another on Alice Notley and Joanne Kyger. We had a nice little turn-out nevertheless. Joel spoke about the quality of density on Johnson’s work, suggesting from this a poetics. Ross Hair provided a detailed reading of the use of bricolage in Johnson’s poetry, and then I plotted out a narrative of the friendship between Johnson and Robert Duncan. Go to ThoughtMesh to read all about it!
My choice for a 4pm panel was clear: my old friend Alicia Cohen was giving a talk on Susan Howe, one of my favorite poets. This was an excellent panel: Alicia presented a talk on Howe’s early work Hinge Picture from 1974, which she described as Howe’s transition from painting to poetry, pointing out how at this early stage her poetics arrives fully formed. Her main claim about this work is that it defined space as the primary inhabitation of language in Howe’s work. Alicia’s talk was followed by an equally excellent discussion by Elisabeth Joyce on the environmental force fields at work in Howe’s Cabbage Gardens from 1979. This involved thinking through notions of branding and marking in Howe’s poetry, for instance open space v. cleared space, and the idea of a garden as an intermingling of form and wild nature. Because there were only two panelists, there was a lot of room left for discussion, which went on for a good thirty minutes. Very provocative; I pulled down my copy of Howe’s Frame Structures from the shelves as soon as I got home.
Alicia Cohen with Jonathan Skinner
The evening of this second day involved three serious poetry readings: Bruce Andrews, who read through selections from his oeuvre, with an initial focus on the 1970s; Jayne Cortez, who did the same; and then a group reading from The Grand Piano, Barrett Watten’s serial project to commemorate the formation of Language poetry in the Bay Area in the 1970s, featuring Watten, Steve Benson, and Kit Robinson.
What an unexpected juxtapostion in Andrews’ and Cortez’s readings. You wouldn’t connect these two poets – one a cornerstone of the East Coast Language school, whose poems arrive as avalanches of bizarre language, social critique, and dick jokes; the other a founding figure of one of the New York poetry and performance scenes for black writers. But their readings resonated. Andrews’ work relies on a process of repeating three or four key moves: a cliché followed by seeming nonsense followed by carefully selected words followed by a retraction, as in this from “Sun 9” in Lip Service (Coach House, 2001):
every dog has its day
insolently curtailed deflation harbinger wants
how poisons work, what miscegenation is—
I take back all I say
Cortez relies principally on anaphora in her poems, repeating a word or a phrase at the beginning of a line to generate the momentum in her poems. These were much easier to follow than Andrews’ crazy-seeming abstractions but the similarities of procedure were startling. Here’s her poem “There It Is” (taken from the Modern American Poetry website):
There It Is
And if we don’t fight
if we don’t resist
if we don’t organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is
These similarities of procedure and presentation might be hard to register in a blog report but it became transparent as Cortez delved further into her reading. An interesting, unexpected resonance.
Since everything was running late, I don’t think The Grand Piano reading started until nearly 11. By then, gentle reader, I’d been quaffing poetry for seventeen straight hours. My expectations, given my waning attention span, were low. Plus, I’m not particularly a fan of Language poetry. At least that’s what I tell myself. But lo! The reading was dandy. Watten, Benson, and Robinson sat at a long table with piles of books in front of them as well as notebooks and legal pads they scribbled on conscientiously. Behind them was a grand piano. Later, Ross asked me, “So no one’s going to play the piano, are they?” Nope. Instead, they read, primarily from installments of The Grand Piano but also from various other texts piled onto the table – one assumes they were texts germane to the memories being excavated in the texts. At times, rather wonderfully, they would read over each other, usually at the same volume, producing this potent effect of overlap – overlapping thoughts, overlapping memories, and some of the competition that seems to be enacted in The Grand Piano itself. Gentle reader of Harriet, I must say, my attention was kept, particularly by Kit Robinson, whose delivery is perfectly at ease: I found myself simultaneously more relaxed and paying closer attention every time he spoke.
Kit Robinson with Kevin Killian
When that reading – which lasted over an hour – succeeding two previous hour-long readings ended, I had not the heart to stay for the open readings that followed. Instead, I hastened back to my dorm-room bunker for bed, satt, as the Germans say, needing rest for tomorrow.