Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Monday, July 30, 2007
Speakeasy started in the fall of 1997 (my sophomore year). I'd taken an English 10 creative writing class with instructor Rebekah Grossman the previous spring, and she emailed my friend Emily Cohen and I to see if we wanted to get involved in this new under-construction venue called the Writers House. I came up with the cheeky (annoying?) slogan "poetry, prose, and anything goes" and drew that sketchy mic-man as our "symbol." We recruited fellow classmate (and Wharton patron) Adam Kaufman to help with marketing, etc. Our first semester, we held the bi-weekly event in the basement of "Chats," a cafeteria-style, windowless space across the walk (currently home to a Starbucks, I believe?). We chalked up Locust Walk with big arrows, put flyer-tents on all the Chats tables and plastered all the telephone polls on campus. Alas, our attendees consisted mostly of our friends and roommates and a sprinkling of suspicious onlookers. It was only when we plugged into the now-officially-built Kelly Writers House that we acquired the resources and support we needed to grow and thrive.
For us, back then, Speakeasy was a way to connect to the writing community on our own terms. It was student-run -- which, I think, seemed less intimidating to burgeoning creative types. They weren't being graded. They weren't being judged. In fact, with Al's blessing, we even compiled submissions from regular participants and published a "Speakeasy Anthology." (Do they still do that? They should!)
Now that I'm a bit older, and a bit more settled into a regular writing life, I know that having a creative community is INVALUABLE to a pursuit that can feel overwhelming and intimidating and even isolating. It's why I went to graduate school (twice) for creative writing. It's why I loved going to Bread Loaf. It's why I joined a writers group in Brooklyn. And it's why -- though I may not have been able to articulate it then -- I felt disproportionately attached to the Speakeasy experience and the Writers House at large.
In October 2001 an episode of "Speakeasy" was recorded after it was webcast live. You can see and hear that recording here. For his Notes from the Green Couch series, Eric Karlan has written about the history and impact of Speakeasy.
Somehow I do not care much about Lucera. I imagine her standing in the bushes at night watching your lamp a little way off and wondering what in the world you are doing. If it was she, she would be eating. No doubt she wonders whether you are eating words. But I take the greatest pride in now knowing Pompilio, who does not have to divest himself of anything to see things as they are. Do please give him a bunch of carrots with my regards. This is much more serious than you are likely to think from the first reading of this letter.
Excerpts from three letters are here--as well as a few other links. The book is called Secretaries of the Moon.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
See a later entry for link to and description of a PENNsound podcast that includes a reference to "The Way" and Armantrout's discussion with Bernstein about the poem.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Monday, July 09, 2007
“The few days at Frost Valley were wonderful for me. I had been feeling overburdened and distracted in general. Those three days were like a different world. I think people become better somehow in that environment. And the opportunity to be there and to concentrate on poetry did create magical moments. On a more practical level, it’s hard to believe that there is so much clean air so close to New York. Anyway, even I wrote a poem when I got back, before reverting to my more prosaic self… That you have to read poetry to write it, is true. I immediately understood, on a deeper level, what poets are trying to, and in the case of what we read, did, accomplish.”--Liz Seeley
"For me Some Trees is a true retreat. I do not retreat to vegetate in the sun – I don’t like the feeling of emptiness when I return to the details of my daily life. I prefer to stretch myself, to test my limits. Sometimes it is to challenge myself physically. Sometimes it is to dig deep into my spirituality. Sometimes it is academic and cerebral. And then there is Some Trees, three days and nights that encompass all of these possibilities in the most enjoyable way. I will not wax poetic about our marvelous leader. Suffice it to say that he has brought us the best poets from whom to learn, given us the loveliest environment for discourse and contemplation, enthusiastically led us outdoors to remind us what a wonderful world this is, and most of all, gathered us together to be enriched by each other. I took some heat for being out of the office for half the week, and it was worth every raised eyebrow."--Carol Clapp
Here is a video about the 2006 retreat (the format is RealVideo). The project has become known among the participants as "Some Trees", after the early poem by John Ashbery that has become the one poem discussed every year, a kind of keynote.
These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Sunday, July 08, 2007
This course is about the enormous difficulties faced by those who felt the urgent need to describe their own or others' experiences during the genocide of the European Jews, 1933-1945. We will explore the complex options they have faced as narrators, witnesses, allegorists, memoirists, scholars, teachers, writers and image-makers. Some linguistically (or visually) face the difficulty head on; most evade, avoid, repress, stutter or go silent, and agonize. Part of the purpose of the course is for us to learn how to sympathize with the struggle of those in the latter group. This is not a history course, although the vicissitudes of historiography will be a frequent topic of conversation.
I dread the semester going in, and sometimes still feel dread at the end. But this time the students' response was extraordinarily good and positive--notwithstanding the confusion the course (the topic but also the course as designed) creates. You can get a good sense of the students' response by listening to what they had to say on the last day of the semester: mp3 audio.
Back in the heyday of claims about "the internet revolution"--I'd say 1997 was a peak year--there was naturally a backlash. I sympathized a little bit with the backlashers, since so many people who knew nothing about computing and information technology participated in the hype. But mostly I did not sympathize. In '96 or so I was asked to write a short review of Barry Sanders' A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (Pantheon, 1994) and I used it as my chance to respond to those who fretted about the impending demise of the book. (I knew Barry a bit from our days researching together at the Huntington Library and actually--from those good conversations in which he seemed no troglodyte--I was surprised when reading his book how much I disagreed with him.) Here are the first two paragraphs of the review (the rest can be found here):
Some anxieties become merely historical. One is surely Barry Sanders's. His book A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (Pantheon, 1994) is full of worries that the flow of data across the screen is replacing the cozy curl in the armchair--frets about the death of the book. I'm not really much concerned with the problem of making a rejoinder to Sanders, or to Sven Birkerts, whose book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber, 1995) eloquently joins the trend of English profs become anti-computing Jeremiahs. I'm more concerned, actually, with the way in which the logic of Sanders and Birkerts and others affects our thinking about universities at a critical moment when teaching, the intellectual relation of teacher to student, and basic university structures, can dramatically change for the better if we take a few conceptual cues from the information age. The parallels between the two situations--how electronic media alter the book and how they alter education--will have to remain somewhat implicit here, for lack of space. (But, partly to prove my point, I invite discussion of the animated sort these printed pages won't enable; see below.)
For Barry Sanders, computers are intellectually fascistic. He thinks that when young people read books, as opposed to electronic text, they experience a kind of authority (the author's) that is engaging and not forbidding--entreating interaction. Horrified, he imagines that when a "young person...enters into an electronic world, [it is] one in which the rules are immutable and pre-established.... He or she comes to know that authority, real knowledge, and skill, reside in the machine, dictated by an anonymous disembodied programmer.... Authority resides in the book as well. But it is authority, not technological ukase." This so completely mistakes electronic text that one hardly knows where to begin. Sanders is wrong about the relationship between the authority of the programmer and the individual reader of e-text. If anything, authority is both more transparent and more effectively open to response in the new media for reading and learning than in the context of print--and here is where we might conceive of a powerful author-reader/teacher-learner relation for the near future.
And my final paragraph:
Authors and teachers have as a new tool a kind of text that can "meander" by virtue of its form as well as its content, literally urging the reader to make choices at every turn. To the extent that we can resist the easy characterization of this mode of reading and learning as inhuman and "dictatorial" - with its anxious view of cultural authority as residing not in the individual creator of text but in the creator of the system syntax - then, I think, we will be better able to face a few of our problems as educators.
I suppose in those days I was sometimes accused of participating in the hype. I went around the country giving a lecture called "The End of the Lecture" (paid well to do so). Yet I do believe we should and will see the end of the lecture as we know it. More on that in some later post. Meantime, do watch a short version of that talk that was videotaped as part of Val Ross' "60-second lecture" series: here.
above: "NO OW NOW," the electronic mantra, reproduced from the exhibit "from USCO through Intermedia, 1962-1979" at Thorpe Intermedia Gallery, which opened on September 9, 1979, assembled by Michael Callahan, Gerd Stern, Zalman Stern, Lind Von Helwig (Sparkill, New York)
Saturday, July 07, 2007
be more present on campus and more involved in the life of the university's neighbors, I think it surely worked in my case. The main force behind this innovative program--and the mortgage incentive system was just one part of it--was Judy Rodin, then president of the university. In the fall of '06 I invited Judy back to Penn (she'd left to run the Rockefeller Foundation) to give a talk about the urban university. We recorded this talk, and I also produced a podcast about it.
Friday, July 06, 2007
See my Holocaust site for much more.
enjoyed his time with the students and the other people of the Writers House community, as he said so, generously, a few days later. Eric Karlan has written a nice summary of that interview. "Angell concluded his several-day stay in Philadelphia," Eric writes, "with an excerpt from a piece on the 1975 World Series, the infamous Game 6 when Carlton Fisk willed the ball fair for the game-winning home run. As he does so well, the longtime New Yorker writer provides a fresh, provoking perspective on an event. He leaves the Writers House thinking about 'caring.' Despite being a fanatic, Angell recognizes the triviality of baseball in the grand scheme of life. And that is why, as he imagines people across New England giddy and elated at the Red Sox victory, he reminds all of us not only of how odd it is that we dream through sports teams, but how it has seemingly ceased to matter to everyone what they care about - 'as long as the feeling is saved.'" You can hear other Angell clips (on the early Mets, on NYC as the capital of baseball in the 1950s, on Bobby Thompson's homer, on Willie Mays, on the Red Sox 6th game victory in 1975, and on Babe Ruth's final weekend) by going to the 2005 Writers House Fellows reading list. Listen to Angell read from his essay about the 1975 World Series.
By now I have read Primo Levi's The Periodic Table a dozen times. It defies categories. It is partly a scientific treatise, partly post-Holocaust ethics, and partly a modernist prose-poem of fragments. For me the book always bears re-reading, inspiring me toward true interdisciplinarity and an ethical modernism. Neither at Auschwitz nor during most of the years afterward did Levi fit well as a person. His writing, certainly at first, similarly fell between categorical cracks. He dared to see in organic chemistry, the "lesser" of the chemistries, a powerfully figurative organicism. In this very special case, organicism--usually thought to be about wholes rather than fragements--served to enact a modernist sensibility in the very leaves of a book telling autobiographically but non-narratively of the dangers of inertness, and, finally, of the wonderful possibilities of the shifting present discernible in the marks we put here and now on the page.
This last point ("here and now on the page") refers to the stunning ending of the final chapter, "Carbon." Oh, blog-readers, read that!
My former student Randi Feigenbaum was a big-wig at Penn's student-run daily newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian at the time the Writers House at 3805 Locust Walk was just forming. It was in those weeks and months known as one of the "pilot" projects of the "21st Century Project for the Undergraduate Experience" at Penn. Randi's news piece was published in the December 7, 1995 issue of the DP. It gives a pretty good sense of what we were trying to get started there. To this day, Randi is a big supporter of the Writers House.
Tom Devaney wrote a poem to mark my 50th birthday back in March of 2006. It was recently published in Arts Poetica and here's the link. The poem that Tom read at our post-9/11 event - called "Finding the Words" - I found very beautiful and moving, even though--as Tom pointed out--it had nothing directly to do with the World Trade Center attacks and had been written six months earlier.