Bugging the Circles: A discussion of David Antin’s “War”
Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at The Writers House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our pennsoundarchivewriting.upenn.edu/pennsound. Today, I’m joined here delightedly in Philadelphia at the Kelly Writers house on our wexler studio by Diane Rothenberg, anthropologist, editor, collaborator who’s been an active participant in the long ongoing conversation about ethno-poetics, who is co-editor to Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward Ethnopoetics, California Press 1983. Author of Friends Like These: An Ethnohistorical Analysis, 1976, author of Mother of the Nation, whose many essays include “Corn Soup and Fry Bread”, “The Economic Memories of Harry Watt” and “On the Insanity of the Cornplanter”, a historical account that touches also on the poetics and problematics of vision in traditional Indian cultures. And by Ariel Resnikoff, poet, teacher, talented poetry community collaborator, who’s most recent works include pamphlet Ten Four: Poems, Translations, Variations written with Jerome Rothenberg, and a chapbook called Between Shades, who curates a reading series here at The Writer’s House called Multi-Lingual Poetics, a series hosting Jerry and Diane Rothenberg’s visit on this very day, and who’s new poems and translations can be found in Jacket2, White Wall Review, Mantis and elsewhere, and who is working on the poetry of the Yiddish modernist Michel Licht’s. How did I do pronouncing that? I’m getting better.
Ariel Resnikoff: Very good.
Al Filreis: Wonderful. And by the aforementioned Jerome Rothenberg, internationally celebrated poet, translator, anthologist, essayist, performer with over 90s books of poetry and at least 12 assemblages of traditional and avant-garde work such as Technicians of The Sacred, Shaking The Pumpkin, and with Jeffrey Robinson and Pierre Joris the three volume Poems for the Millennium, who was a Kelly Writers House fellow here in 2008, who’s Technicians of the Sacred, the 50th anniversary of which we are celebrating at The Writers House on the day of this recording, has guided and taught several generations of poets, artists, scholars and readers. Jerry and Diane it’s such a delight to have you back at The Writers House, thank you for being here.
Jerome Rothenberg: It’s such a pleasure to be here.
Diane Rothenberg: It feels like coming home.
Al Filreis: These visits are always wonderful. And Ariel Resnikoff, you’re our regular. It’s great to see you every time you cross the threshold. The four of us are here today to talk about the late and much missed David Antin. Specifically a talk poem he performed at Buffalo in 2003 called “War”. It was presented on March 26th, 2003 to be precise, 6 days after the United States invasion of Iraq had begun, the second invasion. So far as we know, the piece has never been transcribed. The audio recording, done as usual on Antin’s own recorder, is available on David Antin’s extensive PennSound page. We recommend that Poem Talk listeners hear the entire mesmerizing 50 minute and 35 second recording, but we now will hear and focus our discussion, at least to start, on two excerpts. The first which we could call the Archimedes section, runs from 4:55 into the whole recording up to 10:30. The second clip which we could call the Metonymy section runs from 17:37 to 22:05. Here now are excerpts from David Antin’s performance of “War”.
David Antin: So it was a nice idea, I though it was terrific. I knew that war was hanging over our heads like a Damoclean sword, but I didn’t expect for the war to open up just at the moment I was going up to do a talk at Los Angeles. On the way up to talk in Los Angeles I had a feeling that everybody would be there was the day the war opened, it was in the evening at 7:30 and I’m driving up 130 miles to Los Angeles wondering, what in the world am I going to do? If I don’t pay any attention to the war, their minds will be on it at any point. But on the other hand, we’ve heard so much about it. We’ve heard this war over and over again, every argument for and against the war has been presented over and over again. The rhetoric is tiring, ultimately. The point is most of us are saying we feel like we’ve been highjacked by a mad President who doesn’t know what he’s doing, and a group of peculiarly weird opportunists who’ve been feeding him this information that in fact he’s going to reconstruct the entire world of the Middle East. Probably after that, everything else. Since he was a man who probably couldn’t find Norway on a map of Europe, it seemed unlikely that this was an idea of his. It led me to think maybe I should talk about the question of motivation, but then I basically didn’t even have the heart for it. I went up there and did a talk on my experience as a child of war, having war as having gone on for all the time I remember. But I don’t want to rehearse these things. What I feel is most offensive about the problem of the war is that it’s so profoundly irrelevant, however devastating and damaging it is, that I feel a little bit like Archimedes who was in the middle of the siege of Syracuse during the second Punic war in which Syracuse was caught in the middle between Rome and Carthage. Archimedes was one of the greatest mathematicians of the classic era. He was interested in working out pi to the most infinite number of places, pi as a number that basically one of these transcendental numbers basically constructed as a ratio and doesn’t have a definitive quantitative number you can give, it approaches a limit asymptotically. It can be .1416, we all remember the relationship between the radius of a circle and the circle’s circumference. He was interested in this even though he’d designed the weapons of war and hooks of various kinds, grappling hooks for overturning ships, doing all this. He really wanted to work on mathematics. I’m beginning to feel a great deal of identity to him as he was sitting in the sand, working on the relationship to the circle. He’d drawn this carefully designed circle. I would guess one of the ways of dealing with pi is to inscribe a polygon around it and then take the same polygon and inscribe a smaller version inside it. Between computing the ratio of the sides of the polygon to the circumference of the polygons, these two polygons would stand in a similar relationship to the ratio. He would locate it between two polygons that would get larger and have more size. First he would put a hexagon inside and a hexagon outside, then it would be a much larger polygon of 12 sides, of 30 sides until finally he was able to squeeze it between the narrowest possible of limits. That’s the way I imagine he solved the problem because that’s the way I would have approached the problem if I didn’t have other methods for doing it that weren’t available in those days. I kept thinking, there he was in the sand working with these multiple sided polygons, getting larger and larger and larger. In the mean time, the Roman invasion force was coming in. At one point the Roman soldier, sword in hand approached and Archimedes thought he’d really gotten this thing down rather beautifully, but you had to look really carefully in the sand because when you inscribe a large polygon in the sand the lines can’t be completely straight. The smallest disturbance of the sand will obscure the polygons and he might forget exactly what he was doing. This Roman soldier blundered into one of his circles, sword drawn in hand, and he looked up and said “Stop drawing my circles”, and he killed him. My guess is that’s the worst part of this war for us right now. We’re not up there in the war. Only adolescents are being killed in this war on the American side. They’re probably killing everyone they can on the other side while we receive glorified accounts, sanitized accounts of the war that come through media like Fox and CNN, the great cheerleaders of this insanely stupid event. The stupidity of which seems to outweigh anything else. In thinking about it, I got into the kind of idea that it’d be interesting to me to discuss human motivation. We always talk about Presidents having ideas and desires, they want to do something. But how do you decide somebody has been motivated to do something in a real sense? What does a motivation amount to? Just starting from the idea even of George Bush. Freud asked what the women want, my thing is, what does George Bush want?
So maybe the black box received has separate channels for receiving economic information and military information. Maybe that’s not the only thing. Of course there was also the issue of terror. Weapons of mass destruction could fall within the hands of terrorists. Terrorists seem to be identified primarily with the group of people who caused the profound destruction of the World Trade Center. The difficulty of connecting the two of them is rather considerable, because although George Bush and his advisors typically repeat in their sentences terrorism, 911, and Sudan Hussein, there seems to be no credible relationship between the two. We imagine that George Bush has some sort of a poetical sensibility. They relate to each other by the celebrated principle of metonymy. Sudan Hussein and 911 show up in proximity with each other, and if one uses the rather unfortunate Jakobson essay “Dealing with Two Types of Aphasia” which produced an outrageously bad idea to begin with. But we can’t escape it because American academics, both who read French and those who read English versions of the French years later seem to have found all the French structuralists and then later the deconstruction all took for granted the effective positioning of the term metonymy and metaphor derived from the most casual usage from a great linguist Roman Jakobsen, who’s essay is a disaster but it’s been used regularly in the schools. I try to stamp it out when I teach. I try to point out that as an essay it’s idiotic. I know it sounds terrible but I love Roman Jakobsen and I wish he’d never written the essay because it’s stupid. It’s stupid in a very demonstrable way. For example, Roman Jakobsen pointed out that metaphor and metonymy work differently. These are two antique rhetorical tropes and he wished to give them a linguistic characterization. He decided to call metaphor, because some noun substitutes for some noun in a primitive account of metaphor, to call it as employing the notion of the substitution set, that is to say, a paradigm. For those of you who have studied Latin, you know that the paradigm for example are the cases of the Latin noun. If you include the vocative I guess there are 6 cases of the Latin noun, in the singular and the plural. According to the paradigmatic theory as offered by Sosiura, that is to say for phenology, phonemes derive their meaning from their contrast with other possible occupants of the same phonological position. For example, “pe” and “be” represent distinctive phonological entities, two different phonemes, because they’re distinctively different and could occupy a similar environment. The one problem with the whole theory that metaphor works this way; for example say, “The seasons and a nervous king, I’ve entered into my season of discontent”. It doesn’t work as if somehow you say well, what could replace winter? What is winter replacing? Like he’s reaching into a terrible a period? There are a nearly infinite number of possible substituents that could replace winter. “I’ve entered into the Sears and Roebuck of my discontent”. Maybe he couldn’t have, but I could make him enter into anything, I could enter into the defective automobile of my discontent. They sold me a lemon, I have entered into the general motors of my discontent. We could do a lot with it, but the point is there isn’t a finite substitution set for metaphor, and it doesn’t work by substitution anyway. When a metaphor operates, it operates like the production of an overlay. That is to say one thing gets overplayed on something else like a screen. You print the two images, one on top of the other. Whatever the consequences of that may be, that’s what you’re doing.
Al Filreis: The second of those two passages, what I’ve told the Metonymy section, of course it’s about the false equation of Saddam and 911, but it’s Antin at a way at his funniest. Maybe we should start with the comedy of it? Obviously it’s a deadly serious topic. But Jerry, this is typical Antin comedy, can you give us some examples?
Jerome Rothenberg: I don’t know if it’s typical Antin comedy. It’s Antin turning his comic sense toward the academic for which he’s very much familiar, the rhetorical historical which he’s very much familiar. A lot of scorn goes into it also. He’s making his version of the metonymy metaphor distinction. Clearly, metonymy in the case of Saddam and 911, you keep putting them together …
Al Filreis: What’s funny about it is the high low, he’s got an audience of poets and academics at Buffalo and they’re all laughing at this, the high low juxtaposition of George W. Bush who couldn’t find Norway on a map let alone the Middle East, and on the other hand Sosiura and Jakobsen and all this high level phenology, the two together don’t work so it’s funny.
Jerome Rothenberg: Yeah, but what’s missing in contrast to other talk pieces of David’s is the lowest level he can find is George Bush. That’s okay. But the world of ordinary things and ordinary people that populate so much of David’s talk, poetry, don’t really come into this one with the possible exception later on of the dog Francesca, Franny, whom he mentions, but that’s just in passing. He’s into something else here.
Al Filreis: So it’s 6 days, I believe, after the war begins. And he’s recollection driving up from San Diego to LA to do a talk that he keeps referring to, but it wasn’t this talk. That’s before the war, this is 6 days after. So maybe, Ariel, the answer to Jerry’s question about where is all the low stuff is that he was trying to be kind of politically serious. Maybe that’s one of the flaws of this piece. Dan wants to say something about that too.
Jerome Rothenberg: He may have left the war in Los Angeles?
Al Filreis: He may have. What happens when you’re talking about dogs and there’s a war on, so you’ve got to be a little more high flute. What do you think about that?
Ariel Resnikoff: Yeah, I do think that there’s this level of anxiety that you hear which is not typical, usually. He’s quite comfortable in the way he speaks, and I would recommend to anyone to just go and listen to some other talks in comparison. But in this case he seems to be trying to figure out for himself what it means to talk in a time of war.
Al Filreis: So let’s go back to Archimedes for a second. We can get back to Metonymy.
Ariel Resnikoff: Yeah, I think for any number of the “facts” that David gets wrong in the piece … we talked a little bit earlier before we recorded the piece about specific historical facts — in a way he’s speaking in advance, and he’s really speaking to a climate that we’re facing right now in a really intense way. If you took out some of the names and replaced other names, you could think about what he was thinking about very much in direct relation —
Al Filreis: The black box, for instance.
Ariel Resnikoff: Exactly. And the ways in which performance becomes the central mode of how a government works, the Trump administration is even more about this.
Al Filreis: Can we say that before it was more about the Archimedes connection, and this is also unusual for Antin, he is making a very clear point — Archimedes is me, the poets and intellectuals. He says at the end of that passage, “That’s the worst part of the war for us”. Actually, for Archimedes in the story it’s pretty bad. He gets killed by the Romans.
Jerome Rothenberg: Yeah, the comparison to Archimedes breaks down a little. The worst part for us David is saying, and reiterates us at the end, is it distracts us from doing what we want to do by this terrible war, although it’s happening somewhere else —
Al Filreis: Bugging my circles.
Jerome Rothenberg: It keeps us from thinking straight or getting our circles right.
Al Filreis: This may be the flaw. Right Dianne?
Diane Rothenberg: Right, and that’s what I really don’t like about this piece. I think seriously the war is more significant than simply being a distraction of the mathematician or of the poet. If that’s all you can say about why this is so terrible … And I don’t like it because I don’t think David is usually so casual about life.
Jerome Rothenberg: And it is also a piece he chose not to transcribe. If a piece had meant more to him, it would’ve been transcribed. The lack of a transcription is something I find a little bothersome also. We’re not present for the live performance, we’re hearing a recording. And we’re not seeing the final version of it, because the final version of the talk poem is not the oral experience, but it’s something on the page where a lot of care has been put into putting it on the page.
Al Filreis: So this is the moment. We’re going to go back to the big issue of our seeing this as an anomalous performance in Antin’s career. First we need to stop and define for a lot of people listening to this podcast who don’t know what an Antin talk poem is. Anybody please pipe in, here are a bunch of questions. 1) did he invent this particular form? What does he do? I know he has strange lineation when he transcribes. How much change does he do? He has an obsession about recording himself, he always talks about it at the beginning. How much is improvised, how much is planned in advance? How many of us have heard talk poems that include set pieces that he wanders into improvisation-ally. What is a talk poem, any of you? How do we start with this?
Jerome Rothenberg: Well, he invented the talk poem. Did the talk poem invent before he invented it, that is to say did it exist before he named it, yes it probably existed.
Al Filreis: If anybody would know this it would be you Jerry. You wrote the 800 page anthology.
Jerome Rothenberg: They would recognize this too. The famous Antin quotation, “Not wanting to be a poet if Robert Lowell is a poet, not wanting to be a poet if Robert Frost is a poet, but if you tell me that Socrates is a poet, I’ll consider it!” Socrates did not write his poems down, he did not versify them. What Socrates talked, David Antin says, was his poetry. He at least would put one of his ancestors back at the time of Socrates, and in fact, Socrates himself as a talk poet. Following the path of the philosophers from Socrates, we can move to in the 20th century, Wittgenstein. He is a great influence on David
Al Filreis:— and is very poetic
Jerome Rothenberg: Wittgenstein himself describes doing philosophy as a kind of poetry.
Al Filreis: Ariel, Jerry said something not controversial but provocative, which is it’s not done, not finished until it’s transcribed.
Ariel Resnikoff: I think that’s a difficult question. There’s a number of stages to these works. Remembering in a talk, hearing him talk about how he came to the talk poem, which is in the car with Eleanor Antin his wife now widow, listening to a talk he had given off the cuff at Pomona College and realizing actually, this is a poem. Of course, that was before he ever conceived of how he would write it or that he would write it. There was something about the liveness that did something the poetics. He writes in various places, or talks in various places, about the fact that he feels that the writing of a poem at home and then performing at a reading is like somehow rehearsing and then playing the role of a poet, but the actual work of poetry is done in that space of liveness.
Jerome Rothenberg: He changes the order of things, though. The poem will begin with the talk. The talk is intensify because he’s talking in front of an audience. In other words, David does not go off into a closet with a tape-recording and start talking. He goes out into a live audience. I don’t know what he sees in an audience, if he’s taking cues there, but it invigorates him to be out there and talking in front of people. He gets it all down on his little ancient cassette recorder and then takes it home. Either he or someone else transcribes it. But that’s only part of the process because transcribing it is like a block of prose. David is going to visually make sure that you don’t take this as prose. It’s a visual experience. What we’re left with is the visual experience. We rarely go back and listen. I did once. I borrowed from David one of the tapes that had already been turned into a written piece, and I could see how much that was work. There’s a lot of work that goes into the visual version of a talk.
Al Filreis: David consented to give us the recordings for PennSound. Something changed. Less so in your case, because you’ve always been interested in performing the written poem, it’s originally oral but my point is you perform it and you’re happy to have PennSound provide the recording. But in this case Diane, we’ve got a whole website now where people can listen to the raw audio only before the poem. You just heard Jerry say that his experience of the audio was later, once in a while. But in this case, we only have the audio. And you’ve been in the audience many times to hear David do his pieces. What’s the relationship between that experience, hearing the audio as a recording much later, and reading it. Do you think we should put the three together.
Diane Rothenberg: I have several thoughts about it. One thing is David with the tape recorder to start with. The fact that he stands up, and I’ve never seen a performance where he doesn’t make something of a fuss, the way Jackson Mac Low always used to make a little bit of a fuss —
Al Filreis: Can we pause you for a second? Can you play the very beginning of this thing where he stumbles? He has a cough and he stumbles, I love that. I think you’re implying that was purposeful, that stumbling. Can we listen to it, and then Diane, you’ll comment?
David Antin: Thanks guys, I have to turn this thing on. I’ve said many times before I don’t turn it on because I know that I need it for eternity, but I’m not really sure what I’m going to say. (Cutting). It’s not that I’m occasionally unsure of what I’m going to say, I’m always unsure of what I’m going to say.
Al Filreis: Diane, I’m crying here. That’s so beautiful. What is going on?
Jerome Rothenberg: I don’t think he transcribed that in writing.
Diane Rothenberg: No, no, no. He doesn’t transcribe that in writing. I came across something in one of the essays, “How Long is the Present” where he refers to the research that he does prior to a talk poem. He’s not saying he always does research, but the notion that this is a totally spontaneous and unprepared performance.
Al Filreis: That’s obviously wrong.
Diane Rothenberg: I don’t know if it’s obviously wrong or —
Al Filreis: I’m sorry to interrupt you. At the end of this piece, the very last line is, “Watch out intellectuals and professors, we could suffer the fate of Archimedes”. That was 47 minutes after he did the Archimedes stuff. He clearly knew there I think that that was the point he wanted to make. I think I disagree with you about this piece, Diane. I know it’s different, I’ll accept that. But what he’s saying is we’re all Archimedes types, we don’t want anyone to bug our circles. There’s an invading army, and this could happen to us too. I took that as a kind of, this is a special night and he’s sort of warning us in a maybe more serious way than we want in an Antin talk. Anyway, I’m sorry.
Diane Rothenberg: He often likes to pretend that there hasn’t been preparation. That the title is given to him almost off the cuff, he wasn’t sure what the title would be, he didn’t know what he was going to say. I think that’s probably not true.
Jerome Rothenberg: In another sense, his whole life is a preparation for the talk. David was in a constant state of preparation. The intelligence was terrific. It would often turn up in less formal occasions, sitting around the dinner table or in the living room or in a restaurant. David talked freely, but not talked freely in the same way that he would do at a performance, because he was also a terrific listener.
Diane Rothenberg: David would talk about talking to discover, so there was that notion of as he talked, he was developing things. He was thinking and things were developing and being discovered as the piece progressed.
Jerome Rothenberg: Some pieces feel very much that way. He’s been going here he’s been going there, there’s a general topic he has in mind. Then there’s a sudden conclusion that he comes to at the end of the piece, what it means to be avant-garde.
Al Filreis: What I think is happening in this piece, Ariel, and if that piece is a sort of meta-commentary on the avant-garde by talking about the uncle and his widow, this is a meta piece because it’s talking about the terrible destructive tragedy of the fashionableness of metonymy. Of how we could get away with the easy substitution of “the winter of our discontent” and “the Sears Roebuck of our discontent”, of “Saddam” and “911”. That is what we poets, that’s what he says, George W. has a poetical sensibility, everybody’s laughing. He says my whole art is about free flowing improvisational metonymies, and look where it’s gotten us.
Ariel Resnikoff: I think he’s troubled in this piece, I said that before and I’ll say it now. I think the question of precision of words, what I love about being able to listen to this work is you really hear those details in the orality of it. A number of times he actually chooses a word very specifically, and you hear him choosing it. I think that is something that’s going on for him, he’s dealing with the fact that the metonymic aspect of his work is actually perhaps problematic in this context.
Al Filreis: He stages it in a piece of this talk that we didn’t hear. He stages it by doing a little quick pneumonic free associative thing where he ends up with his aunt Tilda and the bee sting. He started somewhere, and it sounds like a talk poem in germination; I’m going to go from this word to this story. I wonder if we could listen to the very end of the metonymy section. It’s something like 21:45. We’re going to listen to him say, “That’s what you’re doing”. Then we’ll talk about it.
David Antin: The one problem with the whole theory that metaphor works this way; for example say, “The seasons and a nervous king, I’ve entered into my season of discontent”. It doesn’t work as if somehow you say well, what could replace winter? What is winter replacing? Like he’s reaching into a terrible a period? There are a nearly infinite number of possible substituents that could replace winter. “I’ve entered into the Sears and Roebuck of my discontent”. Maybe he couldn’t have, but I could make him enter into anything, I could enter into the defective automobile of my discontent. They sold me a lemon, I have entered into the general motors of my discontent. We could do a lot with it, but the point is there isn’t a finite substitution set for metaphor, and it doesn’t work by substitution anyway. When a metaphor operates, it operates like the production of an overlay. That is to say one thing gets overplayed on something else like a screen. You print the two images, one on top of the other. Whatever the consequences of that may be, that’s what you’re doing.
Al Filreis: “Whatever the consequences of that may be, that’s what you’re doing”; you are putting the two together. Is that an indictment of poetry? Is that an indictment of the metonymic style? Is that an indictment of improvisation? It’s self-critical, I’m just trying to figure out how and why?
Jerome Rothenberg: I wouldn’t take it as a condemnation of poetry.
Diane Rothenberg: I wouldn’t take it as self-criticism either. I don’t think David was inclined to do that. He might be criticizing someone else.
Al Filreis: Well, George W. Bush and the black box were doing the overlay.
Jerome Rothenberg: Right, but he’s not doing them — George Bush poems David does not take as talk poems.
Ariel Resnikoff: I think he’s dealing with the stakes —
Jerome Rothenberg: I don’t know what he would do with Trump talks.
Ariel Resnikoff: I think he’s dealing with the stakes. This is a question of what the stakes of not only metonymy but also digression and free association, and the various things we use for poetry, which when they’re used in other contexts can be quite dangerous. I don’t think it is a condemnation actually. I think it’s a celebration as the talk poem as such against say what politicians do.
Al Filreis: Let’s talk about Antin’s art in general. Let’s talk about what it’s like to be in the audience to hear one of these talk poems.
Diane Rothenberg: It was variable. Sometimes, I thought they were absolutely wonderful. They were intimate, they were inclusive… They were never a dialogue, we know that, even though sometimes David at will … he has one piece called “Dialogue”. But they’re not a dialogue, nobody else gets to talk. Jerry points out that personally it often was a dialogue, and I gave a little talk at David’s memorial and what I emphasized particularly was David’s intellectual generosity. David always made you feel very smart. Sometimes in the talk pieces David sometimes left me feeling a little stupid because I felt inundated with a kind of series, theorists, as in this piece with, first I have to visualize the polygons with the circles inside the polygons, and then the whole linguistic thing where he got into metaphors and metonymy, and on we go. Sometimes I felt intimidated, and sometimes I felt very amused because David could be very humorous. The stories he told about his other for instance with her Mickey Mouse slippers and things like that.
Al Filreis: In this piece, the dog that takes a tiny little bite out of the veterinarian’s thigh. And the dog knew something about that vet because everyone else in the clinic was kind of happy that the dog had done that. That’s a very funny moment. Jerry, what’s it like? You’re thinking as you’re listening, where’s he going? Or you’re trying to look at the structure of scaffolding of it, or you’re just listening?
Jerome Rothenberg: I’m just listening. I’m interested in where he’s going. I’m not listening to it the way I would to other poetry. I’m listening to my friend talk, and it’s really the language of talking.
Al Filreis: So it’s not the generic difference, it’s this is a close friend and this is the way he talks difference.
Jerome Rothenberg: He’s a close friend, but it’s a person talking. The person talking also has a kind of reverence for poetry that makes him so eager to assert the idea that he’s not just talking, he’s talking a poem. He’s a poet talking. It’s very important to get that across even though I think I pointed out to him, if you put these philosophical investigations into a book, the publisher is going to print on the back of the book the category, “poetry”. David wanted very much for this to be recognized as poetry, and we came to recognize it.
Al Filreis: And he is one of those poets that expanded the definition of what got to be counted as poetry.
Diane Rothenberg: I presume people know that Antin wrote poetry in a traditional way, verse, before the talk poems.
Jerome Rothenberg: And did it very well.
Diane Rothenberg: And was recognized, was a published poet. For a long time.
Jerome Rothenberg: We watched him as he backed away from that, put that aside and discovered talking, talking to discover himself also in this art he was creating.
Al Filreis: Final thought, final word, something you want to put into the record here about David Antin?
Ariel Resnikoff: I was just going to mention, in the spring of 2017, I taught a course at University of Pennsylvania on the lineage of the talk poem in the memory of David.
Al Filreis: A whole course on that? Who knew?
Ariel Resnikoff: My students! The response from the students and the ways in which studying, first beginning with David, the first session on David and then trying to sort of trace back the various lineages that could have lead to this, including for example Rebegna, one of Wittgenstein, the Hebrew prophets, but also Homer, including a number of figures —
Al Filreis: Wait, the Hebrew prophets were in the talk poem course?
Ariel Resnikoff: Indeed.
Al Filreis: I love it. Give us thirty seconds on that.
Ariel Resnikoff: We read Jeremiah alongside Homer.
Al Filreis: So Jeremiah was a metonymus, topic changing.
Ariel Resnikoff: We talked about in that case the stakes of poetry and talking. In the case of Homer, the question of entertainment and the question of community and sitting around a fire and being together. In the case of Jeremiah, catastrophe. Actually, we might come closer to Jeremiah in this talk poem we listened to today. That is, stakes which are about violence and not —
Al Filreis: This is a Jeremiah, I’m glad you put that in there, thank you. Diane, I’m going to try to shape your final word because I want you to have a chance to say something for the record in memory of David, a dear friend of yours. Is there something that people should know about this writer and this person?
Diane Rothenberg: Well, we were friends for more than 60 years.
Al Filreis: That’s a lot of time.
Diane Rothenberg: A lot of time. David, as I was saying before, he was an extremely generous person, and encouraged other people’s intellectual activity. I came away from an evening with David feeling very smart. I don’t always feel very smart, but after an evening with David when he told me how smart I was, I really felt it. I miss him. I’m very sorry he’s gone.
Al Filreis: Jerry, same invitation if you want to speak personally about this dear friend of yours.
Jerome Rothenberg: We met in 1950, that puts it at 67 years ago.
Diane Rothenberg: Then that’s how long I knew him for.
Jerome Rothenberg: Dianne met him maybe a month or two afterward. I always prided myself as we got older that I remember David with a head of black hair. Of course the alopecia got to him shortly after we met. It was an awful experience for him, at a time when
Al Filreis:— that was not a thing.
Jerome Rothenberg: When the covering or uncovering of the head was fairly rigidly defined. But with David, the discovery of poetry came to both of us simultaneously. We could talk about that. He was an remained my closest friend in poetry. That meant a great deal. The talking with David, and it was mostly telephone communication in New York, and meeting outside or having dinner together at our place. I think in the early poetry, before the talk poems, there was a closeness of voice and method between us. Clearly, we were different people and different poets, and then David went off into the talk poems. I was with him then and he kept referring to me as an ongoing lyric poet.
Al Filreis: A little edge to that!
Jerome Rothenberg:(LAUGHING) I don’t know if edge.
Al Filreis: Did he actually say that phrase? The ongoing lyric poet?
Jerome Rothenberg: Something like that. But with the ethno-poetics, also he was the one I think had the most conversation with beside from Diane.
Al Filreis: Well thank you, all three of you for that. My final thought is actually going to entail quoting Jerry Rothenberg. This is one of my favorite pieces, it’s an old piece from 1975 called “A Dialogue on Oral Poetry”. Even if he thought of you as an ongoing lyric poet, the two of you shared very much the space of exploring what it meant to do poetry in a non-academic way, in a non-academic setting, and to do it orally, which is to try to nudge it back to origins and so forth. Here is a fantastic paragraph; I’m sorry Jerry, you’ve heard me quote it before, but I just really think it says a lot about you and David Antin together. You’re responding to a question that was posed to you in an ongoing conversation.
As for poetry belonging in the classroom, it’s like the way they taught us sex in those old hygiene classes; not performance but semiotics. If I’d taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would’ve become a monk, and if I’d taken college English seriously, I would’ve become an accountant. But I do teach from time to time, so realize the classroom becomes a substitute for those places, coffee shop or keba, where poetry actually happens, and where it can be learned, not taught, in action.
Jerome Rothenberg: And reading that, Al, I realize how close David and I were to each other. In the same way that our voice over the telephone was often mistaken one for the other
Diane Rothenberg: By me!
Jerome Rothenberg: By Dianne (LAUGHING).
Al Filreis: Well I’m very moved by your saying that, because you heard yourself, I’m quoting you, saying that “the coffee shop and the keba”, or the sitting around a fire. This is, when you said it in 1975 and before, a great challenge to where poetry was going. I think both of you in different ways, but also in similar ways, the talk poem is saying something about talking. About where we talk, what it means to be listening to someone performing a talk. And that is poetry at the largest, and it has very little to do with what you were learning in your English lit anthology class, which would’ve turned you into an accountant. Alright, we like to end Poem Talk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, which is a chance for all of us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather something really poetically good. To hail or commend or praise someone or something going on in the poetry world, or in the film world, or in the visual art world, or in the music world. Ariel, gather some paradise.
Ariel Resnikoff: I’ll just note two works. The first is the third edition revised and expanded Technicians of the Sacred which we’re celebrating tonight at Writer’s House but you can get it any time. As soon as this poem talk comes out, you’ll be able to order it. It’s wonderful and quite different from the second edition, certainly different from the first edition. I highly recommend that. The other thing is the Supplement, Volume 2 which is published by the Kelly Writer’s House and the Creative Writing Program. Supplement, this is the second volume. It’ll have work by poets from Nathaniel Mackey to Cecilia Vicuña. It should be a wonderful volume.
Al Filreis: And a footnote to your program note, by the time people are listening to this Poem Talk, you’ll be able to go to the Jerome Rothenberg Penn Sound page, and you’ll hear various people reading in celebration of Technicians of the Sacred. Name a couple of people who will be reading.
Ariel Resnikoff: Charles Bernstein, Laney Brown, Richelle Owens, George Economou, Ron Silliman, myself.
Al Filreis: A lot of long time friends. Great. Diane, gather some paradise.
Diane Rothenberg: This may sound very silly to you, but I’m reading Wilkie Collins.
Al Filreis: You mean a biography?
Diane Rothenberg: No, I mean Women in White again, I’ve read it before. Because we’re traveling and I take the nook, and because I don’t want to buy books for the nook, I am a specialist in the 19th century, they’re all public domain. I have the complete Wilkie Collins, and it’s amazing how modern a writer he is. He’s a contemporary of Dickens, they were very good friends. He doesn’t sound at all like Dickens who’s one of my favorite writers, he sound very modern. That’s my little bit.
Al Filreis: Diane Rothenberg, no one in a 120 something episodes of Poem Talk has ever recommended Wilkie Collins. So you are an original. I’m serious, that’s a great recommendation. Jerry, gather some paradise.
Jerome Rothenberg: I would just call attention, which would be obvious attention here, to the selected talk poems of David Antin which have absorbed me over the last couple of weeks, preparing to come here and to talk about David talking. The title is How Long is the Present and it’s published by the University of New Mexico Press and it’s edited by Stephen Fredman with a wonderful introduction.
Al Filreis: Would you do us a favor? Open up the table of contents and shout out the names of two talk pieces that are gems that you’d like people to listen to.
Jerome Rothenberg: The title piece, “How Long is the Present”. I already mentioned “What It Means to be Avant-Garde”.
Al Filreis: Maybe one more?
Jerome Rothenberg: One piece that’s missing here, maybe in another edition here, is called “What Am I Doing Here?” It goes back to a reading we did together at the Poetry Centre at San Francisco State some number of years ago. I read my poem “Cock Boy with a Question” in a fake Yiddish dialect.
Al Filreis: You do a fake Yiddish dialect?
Jerome Rothenberg: What am I doing here? (LAUGHING) And David changed it into “What Am I Doing Here?”
Al Filreis: Great recommendation. Steve Fredman if you’re listening to this, you missed that one. For my gathering of paradise, I have a copy of this new edition Technicians of the Sacred. One of my favorite pieces in it, and it’s been expanded for this edition, it’s called “Genesis One”. It’s a marvelous piece. I’m sorry Jerry, but I’m hoping I can slide the book over to you and you’re willing to read, perform some part of it or all of it, whatever you feel like.
Jerome Rothenberg: It was an oral piece, but it’s here as a great long block of prose.
Water went they say. Land was not they say. Water only then, mountains were not, they say. Stones were not they say. Trees were not they say. Grass was not they say. Fish were not they say. Deer were not then they say. Elk were not they say. Grizzlies were not they say. Panthers were not they say. Wolves were not they say. Bears were not they say. People were washed away they say. Grizzlies were washed away they say. Panthers were washed away they say. Deer were washed away they say. Coyotes were not then they say. Ravens were not they say. Owls were not they say. Buzzards were not they say. Chicken-hawks were not they say. Robins were not they say. Grouse were not they say. Quails were not they say. Bluejays were not they say. Ducks were not they say. Yellow-hammers were not they say. Condors were not they say. Herons were not they say. Screech-owls were not they say. Woodcocks were not they say. Woodpeckers were not they say. Then meadowlarks were not they say. Then Sparrow-hawks were not they say. Then woodpeckers were not they say. Then seagulls were not they say. Then pelicans were not they say. Orioles were not they say. Then mockingbirds were not they say. Wrens were not they say. Russet-back thrushes, blackbirds were not they say. Then crows were not they say. Then hummingbirds were not they say. Then curlews were not they say. Then mockingbirds were not they say. Swallows were not they say. Sandpipers were not they say. Then foxes were not they say. Then wildcats were not they say. Then otters were not they say. Then minks were not they say. Then elks were not they say. Then jack-rabbits, grey squirrels were not they say. Then ground squirrels were not they say. Then red squirrels were not they say. Then chipmunks were not they say. Then woodrats were not they say. Then kangaroo-rats were not they say. Then long-eared mice were not they say. Then sapsuckers were not they say. Then pigeons were not they say. Then warblers were not they say. Then geese were not they say. Then cranes were not they say. Then weasels were not they say. Then wind was not they say. Then snow was not they say. Then frost was not they say. Then rain was not they say. Then it didn’t thunder. Then trees were not when it didn’t thunder they say. It didn’t lighten they say. Then clouds were not they say. Fog was not they say. It didn’t appear they say. Stars were not they say. It was very dark.
Al Filreis: (LAUGHING) That’s great. Thank you. Wow, that was great. That’s all the bushy and metonymic poetics we have time for at Poem Talk today. Poem Talk at The Writer’s House, it’s a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org. Thanks so much to my guests, Diane Rothenberg, Ariel Resnikoff, and Jerry Rothenberg. And to Poem Talks director and engineer today, Zack Cardiner, and to Poem Talk’s editor the self same amazing Zack Cardiner. Shoutout to Nathan and Elizabeth Light for their very generous support of Poem Talk. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us for another episode of Poem Talk.