From Peter O'Leary: Poetry of the 1970s, Days 4 & 5

By Michael Marcinkowski

Saturday June 14 of the 1970s conference began with a field trip. Conference participants were rounded up onto two huge tour busses to drive an hour from Orono to Waterville, home of Colby College, and its very fine Museum of Art. We were drawn there to see two exhibits: a number of Alex Katz portraits – many of poets – selected for the NPF conference (including one of Ann Lauterbach, who gave a gallery talk that morning); and a sneak preview of Joe Brainard’s rather hilarious “If Nancy Was” exhibit, which is comprised of visual speculations about what it would look like if Nancy, from the daily funnies, was something else – like a building in Manhattan. Or a ball. Reader, will you be in Maine this summer? If so, you should visit this museum, which is full of wit and light.

Because we had a rental car, my crew and I were able to take our time departing Orono and hauling ass to Waterville. As such things go, everything was moving kind of late anyways. After milling about the lobby of the museum and peeping at all the enormous paintings in the large, tasteful galleries, we were led into an even larger gallery where we awaited a reading by Bernadette Mayer, which was introduced by Jonathan Skinner, he of ecopoetics, one of my favorite poetry journals. Jonathan gave a rousing “Alphabet of Bernadette Mayer” while the poet sat next to him near the podium occasionally guffawing. She then read for a solid hour, maybe even longer, joined at one point by Clark Coolidge, who read from a piece they collaborated on.
To be honest, this was my first extensive encounter with Mayer’s work. I’d known of it, had read some of it, but it was interesting to acquire so much of the work first hand: some of the sonnets, some of the journals/diaries, several long sequences, a very wry, dry sense of humor pervading.
Coolidge came to the podium next, already a good 45 minutes behind schedule (I could see Steve Evans sweating the situation as the afternoon panels would have to be pushed back in order to accommodate the return bus trip): Tom Orange, who has expertise in Coolidge’s poetry, introduced him; Coolidge is a tall guy. He loomed over the lectern reading in a surprisingly staid voice – surprising to me, I guess. I’d never heard him read before and expected a more staccato delivery, I suppose. Another solid hour of poetry. I’m a fan of Coolidge’s work – I’d been looking forward to this one. I’ll be honest, though: my attention was waning. The acoustics in this gallery were lousy: the amplification somehow swallowed the brightness of speech while ricocheting the bass sounds. And lunchtime was looming.
When the reading was done, there were sandwiches in bags for all of us and a perfect, bright Maine summer afternoon beckoning outside. With many others, I retired for the porch to the museum, sipping ginger ale and eating lunch. I snapped this photo of Tom Raworth and Doug Lang in the bright sunlight. Their lunch consisted, initially, of cigarettes.
The drive back to Orono after lunch was smooth, lubricated as it was by a stop at the Dairy Queen in Waterville on the way out of town. Have the summertime praises of Dairy Queen been sung enough by the poets of America? The first set of afternoon panels provided many temptations: Kit Robinson on Ted Greenwald and Keith Tuma on Raworth; Andrew Epstein and Scott Pound on Silliman; Ed Foster, Eric Hoffman, and Burt Kimmelman on Bronk; a Hannah Weiner panel. I opted for the New Order concert: “Periodizing the 1970s: The Adolescence of the Spectacle and the End of the Post-War Boom in Debord, Ashbery, and Others” featuring Joshua Clover on synthesizer, Christopher Nealon on vocals, and Bob Perelman on analog programming.
The panel started with Clover’s talk on “The Sunday of the Seventies, The Saint of the Negative.” It was about Guy Debord, a Rolf Dieter Brinkmann poem, the Situationist International, and about the advanced use of PowerPoint. Comparing Clover’s use of this medium with Watten’s from the previous day, I would say where Watten was playing a Casio keyboard, Clover was playing a Grand Piano. (Did I just say that?!) The computer is a splendid instrument in his hands. His presentation was easily the most beautiful I saw. Truly: beauty in an academic presentation! It didn’t even matter what it was about: there was a film soughing gently in the background, text superimposed, Clover lankily underlit by the podium he worked at. His talk included the phrase “habitual dithyrambs to debauchery.” I have no idea what any of it meant but was mesmerized.
He was followed by Chris Nealon, who gave an immediately, transparently intelligent reading of Ashbery’s poetry, focusing on many of its aspects, but especially – at least my notes tell me – on “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” He framed this portrait in a reading of the New York of the 1970s – investment bankers and corporate traders, “the spectacularization of capital” the Twin Towers represented. He referred to poetry as a kind of anti-violence, being political simply by not being war. He explained that a poet is a minor figure for living in a system of divided labor in which he can never be whole. And then he read through Ashbery’s poem as the exemplary speaking subject for the 1970s. It was all kind of mind-blowing.
Followed by Bob Perelman’s talk on “Democracy & Bathos.” Tracking bathos back through Pope to Longinus, Perelman claimed it to be at the center of new poetry, calling it “the very soul of Flarf.” (Or was that me, in my notes?) He keyed his sense of bathos to two of Ashbery’s poems, “Calypso” and “Fugue on a Theme,” insisting it is the precision of the wrongness in these poems that is most striking. He then shifted focus to Flarf, reading two poems of Ben Friedlander’s as examples. He seemed to dig Flarf, as far as I could tell. I left this panel with the theoretical lobe of my brain emitting low-grade radiation.
And went immediately to a Bernadette Mayer panel, featuring Lee Ann Brown, Kimberly Lyons, Jennifer Moxley, and Jonathan Skinner. What I liked about this panel was the way it represented the work of its subject. Brown provided an alphabet of Mayer’s work, keying in on Getrude Stein’s influence on Mayer, among whose slogans is “Read the Steins!” (Gertrude, Wittgenstein, and Einstein.) Brown also quoted this from Mayer, “Sometimes I want to have sex with everyone in my zipcode.” Lyons focused on Mayer’s Studying Hunger from 1975, speaking of it in terms of the burgeoning ecology movement in the 1970s, but also in terms of its use of Native American mythologies and texts. Moxley focused on Mayer’s memory constructs, thinking through Mayer’s use of the form of the journal, wondering why this form is considered “conceptual,” at least in avant-garde practice. She also distinguished Mayer’s practices from those of the so-called Confessional poets, particularly what she called their “histrionic high artifice” presented “as unedited raw truth”; Mayer’s textual practice, by contrast, was an Augustinian exploration of memory as the same thing as the mind. Skinner finished with another reading of Studying Hunger, which he thought through in terms of its resonances with Thoreau’s Walden. There was an interesting discussion that followed, and I found myself wanting to get better acquainted with Mayer’s work.
But not before attending the “Queering of the 1970s” panel, featuring Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, and Eileen Myles. Unfortunately, this plenary coincided with a brief dinner hour window. There was no way to attend this panel and have dinner at the same time, unless you would be satisfied with sandwiches from the student commissary. I opted for hunger, at least temporarily, listening with rapt attention as Killian described John Wieners’ transvestite passions in vivid detail: in the 1970s, drag entered culture in a large way, said Killian. Wieners rode the wave. Bellamy read from a more memoiristic piece about how she came into being a queer writer in San Francisco in the 1970s, associating with a group of feminist writers before connecting with the experimental community with which she’s usually associated. It was a interesting piece about shifting transitions and the use/value of different communities at different times in one’s life. The plenary finished with Eileen Myles, whose performance matched that of her reading on the opening night of the conference: when she started speaking you could feel oxygen entering the room. She read from a paper but extemporized avidly, describing the development of writing and performance in queer/experimental communities in New York in the 1970s, at one point making a bold comparison between the digital reality of today’s poetry and the analog reality of the 1970s. (Am I remembering that correctly?)
When the panel ended, many of us fled for dinner, hoping to rush something in before Tom Raworth’s reading in 45 minutes. I’ve seen Tom read several times – he’s one of the most surprising and revelatory poetry readers there is, rushing through his poems at hyperventilated velocity. Given that most of the keynote poets were going long, I figured I’d make it to most of this reading. But the rapidity of Tom’s delivery confounded my desires: I caught only the last few minutes and the rapturous applause afterward.
Photo by Scott Pound
The final keynote of the night was Rae Armantrout. I’d never seen her read before, but admire the poetry quite a lot. This was one of my favorite readings: something about the size of her poems and the acidity of her delivery made them both memorable and digestible. By the time her reading started, I was on my twelfth hour of poetry – but her delivery and presence soothed and compelled. The applause that filled the auditorium when she finished were well-deserved.
But the evening wasn’t over. Pods of poets and scholars were already floating around the cash bar outside the Black Box Theater, awaiting the late night’s final event: the last of the open readings. It was nearly midnight but I couldn’t resist. After days of thinking seriously about poetry, there is an exhilarating freedom to the open reading. One person after another, for five minutes, working the afflatus of language, sucking air into it and then squeezing hard to blow it out. Earnest engagement, outright humor, bizarre experiment. It’s the good stuff, reader. And to experience it, you’ll need to plan your trip to Maine in 2012.
By Day 5, Sunday morning, most participants are fried to a crisp. Nevertheless, there were two sets of panels Sunday morning to conclude things. The early morning panel I attended turned out to be one of my favorites: Bruce Holsapple spoke about Philip Whalen’s poems with obvious passion and intelligence, making me eager to dip back into the library copy of his Collected Poems I have in my study; Stephen Motika, of Poets House delivered a talk on Leland Hickman, who is probably best known for editing the journal Temblor in the 1980s, but whose stranger, even alarming poetry (at least in Stephen’s account of it) is soon to be republished; and Mark Silverberg spoke of Kenneth Patchen’s late, last poem-paintings, with many slides and images of them. What I liked about this panel is that it involved three people talking with dedication and passion about three somewhat overlooked subjects: in all three cases, these were the only talks on these subjects given at the conference.
The conference ended for me with a roundtable discussion, led by Joel Bettridge, of Ronald Johnson, with special reference to Ronald Johnson: Life and Works. Have you bought your copy yet, reader? If not, now there is a direct link to the book on the NPF pages.
Blowing out of town at noon to rush down to Boston to catch afternoon planes back to London, to Chicago, and to Portland, Oregon, we kept running into people from the conference: at the sandwich shop in Orono that Jennifer Moxley had directed all of us to visit to grab some lunch, at the rest stop near Portland where Patrick Pritchett was leading a crew toward the Burger King, and even at the airports – Logan, O’Hare. Poetry – it’s everywhere, especially after dispersing from its momentary epicenter in the middle of Maine to the rest of the continent and beyond.
Since I began attending this conference in 1996, the internet has replaced correspondence as the means of communicating “what happened” as an event such as this one. I think, overall, this is fortunate (though I miss the privacy of exchanging letters or phonecalls about such things). But in the case of the National Poetry Foundation conference, this is especially fortunate: Steve Evans has compiled an ever-changing page of responses to the conference, including links to many Flickr pages with lots of photos of the events, as well as blog recapitulations and other musings. This also includes a direct link to the conference ThoughtMesh website where you can read abstracts and participant essays as they are posted.
Eventually, and presumably, Steve’s page of responses will include a link to Kevin Killian’s “Orono Fashion Report, 2008” or something like that. The Electronic Poetry Center has a link to his “What I Saw at the 2000 Orono Conference”. These were all initially posted to the Buffalo Poetics List. One of the pleasures of going to Orono, for me, is getting to bump into Kevin over the course of five days, to hear what he’s up to, and to hear what he thinks about what’s been going on. His accounts of these conferences are as good as it gets. (Mine pale in comparison.) When I first attended in 1996, all the meals were taken in this outmoded cafeteria. It was a daunting time to be surrounded by all these poets but not to know anyone. Kevin, having introduced himself to me, proceeded sweetly to join me for most of the meals that week, introducing me to everyone he knew, which was pretty much everyone at the conference. So, in the spirit of gratitude for that gesture, I’d like to dedicate these unfashionable Orono reports to Kevin, with love and admiration.
See you in 2012.

Originally Published: June 25th, 2008
  1. June 26, 2008
     Peter O\'Leary

    Andrew Epstein has informed me that the Ashbery poem referred to in Bob Perelman's talk that I tried to summarize above is called "Variations, Calypso, and Fugue on a Theme by Ella Wheeler Wilcox," rather than the confusion I pulled from my notes. This should tell you was a novice Ashbery reader I still am, but more importantly, what a good reader & scholar Andrew is. If you haven't read it, you should get a copy of Andrew's Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry," which includes lots of good stuff on Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, & Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka).
    If I've misrepresented anyone else's talks in any ways, please post a correction. Otherwise, visit the ongoing experiment that is ThoughtMesh to read the actual papers.

  2. June 26, 2008
     Peter O\'Leary

    Andrew Epstein has informed me that the Ashbery poem referred to in Bob Perelman's talk that I tried to summarize above is called "Variations, Calypso, and Fugue on a Theme by Ella Wheeler Wilcox," rather than the confusion I pulled from my notes. This should tell you was a novice Ashbery reader I still am, but more importantly, what a good reader & scholar Andrew is. If you haven't read it, you should get a copy of Andrew's Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry," which includes lots of good stuff on Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, & Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka).
    If I've misrepresented anyone else's talks in any ways, please post a correction. Otherwise, visit the ongoing experiment that is ThoughtMesh to read the actual papers.

  3. June 26, 2008
     Don Share

    Stay tuned for an essay by Vivian Gornick which discusses literary and other friendships, taking into account Andrew Epstein's fascinating book - it'll be in the July/August issue of Poetry, about which more very soon!