Me & Annie & AC (1982)
I think David Rattray introduced Annie Finch & I and I already knew AC Chubb, a saxophone player who I had a crush on. And I had received a grant that year for poetry so naturally I bought an electric bass. It was kind of hot for poets at that moment to be in a band. I had one lesson with Mark a guy I generally got very drunk with and the lesson went well and that was the end of my tutelage. It was a noise band moment in the East Village so not being able to play was not a liability. It was a state of nature and an aesthetic statement. I think Annie got us this gig and I think Annie was playing a fiddle. Our styles had no dovetailing. I thought Annie looked sort of British pre Raphaelite with something folksy and dark pink on. AC was all waspy punk. I was certainly wearing a jean jacket and sneakers while carrying my bass. We were on the subway heading uptown and all I could think was I can’t play. I felt a little sick. We arrived at a junior high in the Bronx. Somehow we got ourselves inside the building. Like an irritated principal let us in and no one knew what we were talking about. I think we had a little pig-nose amp. Finally we were told we could set up in the schoolyard. If it was recess the kids were cowering (or maybe jeering) on the other side but I don’t remember anyone there at all. We got our instruments out and just made a lot of noise for as long as we could bear it. I seem to remember Annie seeming intent and graceful, AC sort of irritated but having some kind of musicians code to bear the unusual and I just kept making erratic deep notes on my guitar. Nobody said a word to us. It was just like we were crazy. Then we packed up and went downtown and I hocked my bass very soon after that.
My whole poetic education if I think about it was all about suturing and using. If you’re looking at a painting you just transcribe what you see, yet it might occur to you that the blue wanted to tell a joke, and you allow that to be part of the transcription. It could be the intervention of the imagination on the transcription process. The form of the poem seemed to arise out of my own response to the materials I chose. The materials were the occasion of the poem. The meaning was an accident, arbitrary. Certainly I chose a certain meaning-feeling. But the poem came out of the sort of studio situation of choosing some materials and possibilities and seeing what came. If you pulled a bunch of words out of a Keats poem someone had just read aloud the task then would be to keep changing the order, dropping things and repeating others until the pattern of what you had been using began to feel like a poem to me. It was a kind of blending operation. When you, Annie, say you start with some found words and you cook them, transmute them I really literally don’t know what you mean. Because cooking is a metaphor. What could that mean in poetry. I’m really asking that question. How can it be true?
I also like the word craft if I think of clay, gimp, ceramics, I associate all those things with a world of peace in grade school when I could stay out of the house until dinner. When I read Walter Benjamin talk about demystifying art, and that it was not longer magic but a kind of fabrication (with political implications) that felt quickening to me. I liked the no nonsense postmodern approach to materials so if I can take poetry really literally and think of the cut up and improvisational techniques I practiced on and practice as a kind of making that is full of accidents well I like that kind of craft. I like stuff. Even if I used the stuff on my desk symbolically and made a poem out of that I like that there’s some random unplanned material to start with. I feel like I’m filming some stuff. By the time I turned around and wrote some entirely personal-seeming poems I knew I was making a pastiche of a self making an unreliable speech. I was using stuff in the room, things I had been thinking about from my reading, news of the day, a boom from the street, and even a stab of love for my condition or another’s. I feel there’s some really important relation to how you think about the world of things you’re drawing your poem from and it’s in a sort of a philosophical relationship to how you imaginatively structure “the real.” It’s an allegorical self. There’s no flies in me. There’s no me at all. Just a writing self. Then there’s an Eileen. But that’s something else. Finally the poem feels to me like an allegory. So what part of that is found or accidental. It seems utterly planned in terms of thinking and training but I didn’t make the world. Now when someone teaches craft in poetry or talks about the craft of poetry or gives a craft talk I’m chiefly disturbed in relationship to perfection. I think that is the aim of that craft talk. A relationship to the beautiful, the good. The better poem. And that seems antiquated to me. Because now is perfect, is beautiful, though deeply flawed. I believe in a historically assembled moment and a poem is a reflection of that. An assemblage. It’s made out of time, literally. So there’s no craft, but I can talk about time and making and art. Almost any art in some way but poetry. The problem with my bass playing is I didn’t spend any time with it. I didn’t hold it. I didn’t strum it repetitively for hours. I didn’t have that kind of time so I knew I was a fraud going up there to play for those kids. I did know something and it wasn’t that so I was ashamed. Finally the thing I want to say about rhetoric is that that’s a label I put on a poetry that talks too much.
Or maybe we just disagree about when to stop. When it’s already a poem. And I think that does have some relationship to the Duchampian thing where the audience completes the work. You shouldn’t steal the reader’s right to silence. So in honor of that you don’t complete thoughts for the reader. Once Marie Howe got up and started to read a poem by Heather McHugh at the Fine Arts Workshop. I thought uh oh because I’m not a big Heather McHugh fan. The poem was about Giordano Bruno and it seemed to me to have too many words but I like Marie and I was listening to it. The title of the poem was
WHAT HE THOUGHT.
The poem was about being in Rome with a lot of poets and at some point in the poem the poet points to something in the square and tells us:
“The statue represents
And then the poet tells the story about the heretic martyr who was burned at the stake and
“they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.
That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone.
And I thought that was the end of the poem and I was in awe. Heather, that’s very smart. And Marie I can see why you liked the poem and WHAT HE THOUGHT was a great title because we don’t know what he thought yet we are left with our own thoughts.
But sadly for me the poem was not over. And this is what rhetorical means to me. Heather McHugh continued to explain:
(we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)-- poetry
is what he thought, but did not say.”
See that killed me. Suddenly instead of being thrown back on my own depths I instead felt like I was in boy scout camp. The poem explained poetry away. Rhetoric makes me sad.
Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. They gave their first reading at CBGB's and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where they studied with Ted...