From Peter O'Leary: Poetry of the 1970s, Day 3
Friday the 13th of the Poetry of the 1970s began much the same as the previous day: up early – the birds of Maine with their dawn chorus – searching for breakfast and then striding through the lovely piney woods. Even without the sleep I needed, I was feeling oddly refreshed.
And the morning started strong. I opted for the panel with the provocative title, “The Avant-Garde, Language, and Opposition,” with two papers by two thinkers whose work I admire both from the Pacific Northwest: Jeanne Heaving from Seattle, and Miriam Nichols from Vancouver. Check out these paper titles: “Marking the Avant Garde” and “Writing Opposition: Determinate Negation and the Imago Mundi.” Nice.
The shared motivation of this panel was the desire to make theoretical claims for the ongoing importance of one of the strains of experimental poetry that, in my mind, was underrepresented at the conference, namely so-called “projectivist” verse and its descendants. This is also, not incidentally, the poetry lineage I’m most interested and invested in. I’m not suggesting that Olson, Duncan, and Creeley – the latter two producing (if not exactly publishing) some of their most important work during the seventies – weren’t part of the conversation, but there was a sense at the conference that interest – theoretically speaking, at least – was more directed toward the phenomenon that was gathering force in the seventies, namely Language poetry. So, when Jeanne Heuving claimed in the midst of her talk that “we need to move beyond the materiality of language as the divining rod of the avant garde,” I applauded with both of my ears.
Heuving’s claim – that what she was labeling “introjectionist projectivist” poetry, which stresses irrationality over critique (the mainstay, in her reading, of Language poetry), has been sold short as a representative &/or standard bearer of the avant garde in American poetry – was impressively complemented by Miriam Nichols’ grand taxonomic juxtapositions, in which she argued for the reassertion of a poetry of cosmicity whose reflexivity is presently out of phase with itself, owing to the rise of current “oppositional” poetries, whose strategies of negation tend toward an “antinomian Puritanism” of language. At one point, she posed the cosmicity of the New American poetry, exemplified by Olson, against the negation of Language poetry, exemplified by Ron Silliman. What both of these talks gestured toward, in my mind, was that resonant, Tolkienesque, hopelessly retrograde word mythopoeia, coined in the 19th century – when Shelley was alive – but put to work in the 20th, when Pound was around. (Heuving used Shelley and Pound to stand for figures of the projectivist impulse.)
Things shifted decidedly back toward Language in the morning plenary: Barrett Watten’s talk, “Late Capitalism & Language Writing.” I find this talk hard to summarize without retelling it like the Dream of Irma’s Injection in The Interpretation of Dreams. Here’s some of what happened, some of what Watten said: the power of PowerPoint, the slideshow authority of technology; the seventies were the shortest decade; what it meant to write in the 70s was to negotiate the totalizing imperative of the 60s; we were destabilizing available forms of expression and inventing new ones; the advent of Neoliberalism happened during a period of global economic crisis; Watten described what happened in the Bay Area during the formation of Language poetry by appropriating what happens in some of Roberto Bolaño’s novels; psychic injuries at the hands of the 70s; prospective v. retrospective readings of Language poetry; aggravation at ongoing retrospective readings, ones that insist on Language as a “period style”; reading of his poem “Tibet,” with text on PowerPoint, interspersed with images of tanks & tankas (Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings); get it? tank/tanka?!; anti-heroic agency of Language & its poetic of uneven development… It goes on, several pages of notes in my little notebook.
A photo of me & my notebook by Scott Pound.
When he ended, Watten professed his discomfort at the habit of “Oedipalizing” the story of Language poetry. Yet, I couldn’t help but think of the central story to Frazer’s Golden Bough, that of the rex Nemorensis, namely the priest of the grove sacred to Diana at Nemi who obtained his role by slaying the previous guardian of the grove and who held that role only so long as he could ward off the attacks of his covetous successors. The first four questions fielded from the audience were from Christopher Nealon, Joshua Clover, Aaron Kunin, and Franklin Bruno. Were they smelling blood? Can you tell that I dig me my Freud?
Many interesting panels beckoned in the afternoon: Bernadette Mayer, Fluxus, Olson & Dorn, Coolidge, Post-Coyote poetry, performance. And the famed lobster banquet. Reader, will you blame me for skipping these events to go to the ocean? Will you hold it against me that I strode upon the ancient granitic schist that begins the land of These States? For I did skip out on the afternoon events to drive to Acadia National Park with four compatriots: Chris G., Ross H., Tom F. & his lovely daughter. And we did see the ocean surging. And would you believe me to hear that gods do float in the azure air of Maine, bright gods and American? And would you believe me that little tubs of melted butter are waiting for you to dip lobster meats into, and that it is succulent and buttery to eat of these massive insects? And would you blame me at all?
Though we missed the plenary poetry readings by Ann Lauterbach and Nicole Brossard, we made it back in time to attend the “Special group reading by Washington, DC poets.” This was held in the aforementioned Black Box Theater. (Or did I mention it? Its name is incredibly descriptive; this is where all the open poetry readings happened.) Outside was the always hopping Cash Bar. When I arrived, I ran into Tom Raworth. He was wearing sunglasses (it was 10.30 at night) and a t-shirt on which was printed a bullseye with over which a hand was giving the finger. He told me the t-shirt was unique & it was meant for the DC Sniper. Could I love Tom Raworth more?
In spite of the hour, this was another good, rousing reading. It featured Tina Darragh, Lynne Dryer, Doug Lang, P. Inman, Joan Retallack, Phyllis Rosenzweig, and Diane Ward. Each poet’s reading centered around works originally published in Dog City, an evidently legendary DC poetry journal. Tom Orange introduced the reading by conveying a convincing sense of how he’d been welcomed into the DC poetry community when he lived there; the poets impressed with a sense of friendship and good humor. They also all read for a very brief amount of time – a nice touch! But even though the reading stretched toward midnight, I noticed that most of the poets invited to the conference – Raworth, Coolidge, Andrews, the Grand Piano poets – were there, holding strong.
Stronger than I. For once again, bushed, I laid my weary head to sleep before the open readings began. (And in spite of friends urging me to stay…)
Attentive crowd, photo by Scott Pound.