Wednesday, April 30, 2008

new listeners

A magazine called SAS Frontiers features PennSound in its latest issue. I'm very pleased because it means, for one thing, that some of the thousands of Penn-affiliated people, mostly alumni, who will read this will have a listen to the archive. We want to extend our reach far beyond the poetics community.

now on art radio

This week Art Radio airs my interview with Charles Bernstein as part of his "Close Listening" series.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

he's our guy

There will be other, better photos of Jerome Rothenberg at the Writers House last night, but here's the one I have at hand--appearing with the article about JR's visit that appears this morning in Penn's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. Here's a bit from that article:

KWH Faculty Director and Professor of English Al Filreis teaches the Writers House Fellows Seminar, which is the program that brings prominent authors to campus. The goal of this class is to give students the opportunity to study the work of an author in-depth and then interact with the authors themselves during the course of the semester.

In his introduction, Filreis commented on the profound effect that Rothenberg has had on the poetry world.

He emphasized that the attitude Rothenberg embodies as a poet is exactly the spirit KWH tries to create with its programs. Filreis hopes to continue to preserve this atmosphere at the Writers House by keeping its events free and open to both students and community members.

"Rothenberg is our guy. We would like to fill the space with this spirit," said Filreis.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

down with would-be sincerists

A little more than a year ago, back in February 2007, we hosted a "Flarf Festival," featuring--you guessed it--several Flarf poets. Nada Gordon, Mel Nichols, Rod Smith, Sharon Mesmer, and Gary Sullivan. Sullivan was the first to use the term Flarf to describe this kind of poetry, or, perhaps better put, this anti-poetic attitude. Audio recordings of the whole event and of each poem read by each poet are available on PennSound. I also did a podcast about this event.

What's Flarf? Easy enough to define, harder for some to appreciate, harder still perhaps for some of the flarfists to stay with it (in any particular sense) after the months or years of excitement about the mode has worn off. Then again, a number have managed to keep the excitement up.

Surely a flarfist himself or herself wrote the Wikipedia entry on "flarf poetry"; it's quite a good little essay on all this. "Its first practitioners practiced an aesthetic dedicated to the exploration of 'the inappropriate' in all of its guises. Their method was to mine the Internet with odd search terms then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts." Joyelle McSweeney expressed my own relief and delight: "This is utterly tonic in a poetry field crowded by would-be sincerists unwilling to own up to their poems."

Flarf is alive and well, even as its definitions widen. I read Gary Sullivan's blog called "Elsewhere." This very weekend there's a conference being held in lower Manhattan. The title seems to be "2008 Holistic Expo & Peace Conference" but the poster announces "FLARF IS LIFE." Go to

And flarf is all over YouTube. Drew Gardner's performance of "Chicks Dig War" has been viewed 3,027 times - not bad for a poem.

And Michael Gottlieb has written well about flarf for Jacket.

At left: Drew Gardner performing "Chicks Dig War" at the 2006 Flarf Festival.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

on the verge of chaos at Bread Loaf

No, this--above--is not the chaos I have in mind. The photo here was taken in 1984 at Bennington, at a summer writing workshop: there's Richard Ford at left, and Alan Cheuse at right. If you are an NPR listener, you will know Cheuse for his good radio reviews and other All Things Considered literary contributions. No, the chaos I have in mind goes back to 1960, when Cheuse was a quasi-bohemian figure who'd gotten to attend the Bread Loaf end-of-summer writers' workshop as a waiter, and caused some trouble, at least from the point of view of those who wanted the Old Ways at Bread Loaf to be restored. I've written about this today on my 1960 blog, so please go there and get more.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Share shares

Don Share's blog is "Squandermania and other foibles." Last month he wrote an entry about my book. He begins:

Like a number of folks I've been in touch with lately, I've been reading Al Filreis's fascinating new book, Counter-Revolution of the Word: the Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960, which shows that there was what we now call a right wing conspiracy against modernist poetry.

And ends:

the greenest month

It's been a cool April in the mid-Atlantic - not much in bloom when this photo was taken a few weeks ago - but the Writers House, set back from Locust Walk in the mode of the Victorian "nostalgia cottage," always seems verdant. Come on in.

Monday, April 21, 2008

the rose is obsolete

Whenever I discuss with my students William Carlos Williams' poem "the rose is obsolete" (from Spring and All (1923), we begin with our sense of the rose as it is. Is it just a rose? No, the students say, it's become a huge commercialized symbol. WCW wanted a new rose, the rose that is the rose, the non- or pre-symbolic rose, "Sharper, neater, more cutting..." He wanted an infinite, endless rose, a rose that was somehow not really soft--made of "copper" or "steel." A wonderful adult student in one of my all-online versions of English 88 - a businessman who lives in China and does his business all around east Asia - took some time to create the Hallmark Card image of the poem's position. Here it is, above. And here, below, is the opening of the poem:

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air--The edge
cuts without cutting
itself in metal or porcelain--

whither? It ends--

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry--

Sunday, April 20, 2008

I want a ditty with heat in it

Pins and Needles was a hit musical revue in 1937, performed by rank-and-file members of the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) who worked all day and then practiced the show three hours at night; it took a year of practice before the show was ready to open.

Until Oklahoma came along, Pins and Needles was Broadway's longest-running show ever. Harold Rome's song - a meta-song if ever there was one - "Sing Me a Song with Social Significance" was a favorite of audiences. Don't keep singing me silly songs; after all, now is a time which "history's making" and "nations are quaking," so why doesn't the popular song try something serious and significant? "Sing me of wars, sing me of breadlines." Editorialize "in syncopation" - sure, go ahead.

Sing me of crime and conferences martial,
Tell me of mills and of mines,
Sing me of courts that aren't impartial,
What's to be done with 'em? Tell me in rhythm.

Most of all, songs should be about "new things." This was a new Broadway song about what's wrong with the old kinds of songs. Here's another verse:

Sing me a song with social significance,
All other tunes are taboo.
I want a ditty with heat in it,
Appealing with feeling and meat in it.
Sing me a song with social significance,
Or you can sing till you're blue,
Let meaning shine from every line
Or I won't love you.

"I didn't realize," Harold Rome said, "that the big attraction was that the garment workers themselves were doing the show and singing to the audience, creating a rapport which is very rare in the theater."

All the lyrics are here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

qwerty top row only

Nick Montfort decided to write by constraint, limiting himself to the use of the top row of his keyboard: q w e r t y u i o p, and no other letters. He wrote a poem and called it "Top Row Retort." It was published in 2000 in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics.

- - - -

Top Row Retort

I tore out type ere I wrote, to type up top:
upper typewriter row, pert repertoire.

Reporter, I quote to you: To write, pop type out.
Retire typewriter row two. Your tri-row?

Rip it out, too. Tour your top row territory.
Queer tip, you retort? I worry your poor typewriter?

To torque it out -- typewriter terror?
You require row two, your tri-row prop?

You pout, try to quip. (Poor etiquette.) You titter.
(Poorer propriety.) You utter uppity output?

Quiet, you! Quit it! You purport to write.
I tire to peer to your rot, your petty writ,

to eye your wire report. You write pyrite,
terrier to torpor. I pity you, preppie yuppie.

I tutor you, tyro, to uproot your trite tree,
put type to pyre. Rupture type. Write to write.

I erupt. I riot. I prototype pure power
to write. I, upper typewriter requiter.

I outwit you, too. To perpetuity, I write poetry.
You, to put it true, putter out rote poop.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

computers & genocide

Edwin Black's book about how IBM helped automate the Nazi death machine in Poland is stunning, even though most people who think about the European genocide of the 1940s won't be surprised by the overall fact of it. It being - to say it plainly again - IBM's connection to the Nazi final solution. It was a strategic business alliance. Perhaps more frighteningly, it was the dawn of the era - ours - in which what we now call "information technology" tended to help destroyers and mass murderers more than advocates of democratic values. It's all about the real dangers of human taxonomies - identifying a person in a fixed (1's and 0's) sort of way.

Here's a link to a summary article Black himself wrote for the Village Voice in 2002, around the time his book was published. And here's a link to Black's home page. The book is called IBM and the Holocaust.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

revolution of the word, right here

"The significance of Jerome Rothenberg's animating spirit looms larger every year. ... [He] is the ultimate 'hyphenated' poet: critic - anthropologist - editor - anthologist - performer - teacher - translator, to each of which he brings an unbridled exuberance and an innovator's insistence on transforming a given state of affairs." - Charles Bernstein

the Kelly Writers House Fellows program
Jerome Rothenberg

Monday evening, April 28, 6:30 PM: reading/performance
Tuesday morning, April 29, 10 AM: brunch & interview/discussion

at the Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, Philadelphia

Seating is limited. RSVP: or (215) 573-9749.

Jerome Rothenberg is the author of over seventy books of poetry including Poland/1931 (1974), That Dada Strain (1983), New Selected Poems 1970-1985 (1986), Khurbn (1989), and most recently, The Case for Memory (2001) and A Book of Witness (2003) and Triptych, a book that takes the poet back to the issue of the Holocaust. Describing his poetry career as "an ongoing attempt to reinterpret the poetic past from the point of view of the present," he has also edited seven major assemblages of traditional and contemporary poetry, including Technicians of the Sacred (1985), comprised of tribal and oral poetry from Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, Revolution of the Word (1974), a collection of American experimental poetry between the two world wars and two volumes of Poems for the Millennium (1995, 1998), which won the Josephine Miles Award in 1996. In 1999 and again in 2001 he was a co-organizer of the People's Poetry Gathering, a three-day festival, under joint sponsorship by City Lore and Poet's House in New York City. Rothenberg was elected to the World Academy of Poetry (UNESCO) in 2001.

For more about Writers House Fellows:

Kelly Writers House Fellows is made possible by a generous grant from Paul Kelly.

Monday, April 14, 2008

JFK at the end of ideology

Solutions to our national problems are not political but technical. Not great, but fine.

On May 21, 1962, John Kennedy said: "I would like to say a word about the difference between myth and reality. Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint, Republican or Democrat--liberal, conservative, moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems, or at least many of them that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of 'passionate movements' which have stirred this country so often in the past. Now they deal with questions which are beyond the comprehension of most men."

What we need, in other words, are technically trained people - experts in solving fine-tunable administrative problems - to take over our political life. We don't need people with political ideologies, the "great" (big, capacious, comprehensive) types whose "passionate movements" should worry us. Let's not get "stirred" by political disagreements. We've progressed past that now. The real problems (real as opposed to mythic) are so complex and nuanced that their solutions are beyond our knowing. We need experts.

I see white-lab-coated, horn-rimmed bespectacled men calibrating our political differences by turning dials on room-sized computers in the basement of the White House. Modern politics circa early 60s.*

This isn't the only time JFK made this point. At the 1962 Yale commencement, he said the following:

Today...the central domestic problems of our time are more subtle and less simple. They do not relate to basic clashes of philosophy and ideology, but to ways and means of recasting common goals--to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.

What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need are not labels and cliche's but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

...[P]olitical beliefs and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solutions.

...[T]he problems of...the Sixties as opposed to the kinds of problems we faced in the Thirties demand subtle challenges for which technical answers--not political answers--must be provided.

* And oh my, wouldn't the two candidates in the '64 election challenge this view! It's a view that, I'd say, had its heyday in the years between 1957 and 1963.

Friday, April 11, 2008

the odious machine

Ron Silliman, who knew Mario Savio fairly well in Berkeley, tells me that Savio did not seek out his leadership role in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement - that he was shy; that he would rather, finally, have been studying his Philosophy. Anyway, his FSM work certainly distorted his life. He had a history of heart trouble and (since this blog is not official biography, nor history, etc.) let's just speculate that the heroic role and its aftermath shortened his life as well. He died at 53 in 1996.

In my own top ten list of great speeches, somewhere up around 5th is Savio's brilliant, stirring, apparently improvised speech on Dec. 2, 1964, spoken from Sproul Plaza in front of Berkeley's main administration building. I have always been stunned by the aptness of his analogy between the big research university (the way it used to treat its undergrads--and to some degree still does) and the factory machine.

I admired this because Savio is turning around the metaphor Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr already used to describe postwar higher education: it was, said Kerr proudly and patriotically, a "knowledge factory."

I admired the speech even more when I learned that Savio's father was a machine punch operator.

"There is a time," he said, "when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

In my 1950s site, I've reproduced the New York Times obituary.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

writers without borders

Today the Philadelphia City Paper is running an article about our new series, "Writers without Borders".

Our first WWB event features Cecilia Vicuña, acclaimed Chilean poet, filmmaker and performance artist, who weaves time, space and sound to evoke ancient sensory memories.

From the article:

Since the beginning Kelly has hosted international artists, but until now the Writers House has never before had an official international series. Al Filreis, Writers House faculty director, English professor and director of Penn's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, explains, "If you have a place like the Writers House and you leave it to its own devices, pretty much anything will come through the door. The one thing that won't naturally come ... will be people from New Zealand and China and Nigeria and Chile. It's expensive [and] administratively time-consuming to arrange for the visit of an international writer. There's not an ideological problem, there's no vision problem; the problem is practical."

Oppen at 100

The other night we celebrated George Oppen's 100th birthday. Tom Devaney and Rachel Blau DuPlessis organized the proceedings. Ten of us spoke for ten minutes each. Fifty minutes, a break for food and wine, and then another fifty minutes. It went fast. I could have listened to people to Tom Mandel and Ann Lauterbach and the others for hours more. You can have a look at the program printed for the occasion. And you can already go to the PennSound page with links to audio recordings of each of the 10-minute talks.

My own talk was about the poem "Myth of the Blaze." Here is the recording of that talk. And here is the poem read aloud by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Here is the text of the poem.

In the previous entry I've presented a slightly revised version of that talk, entitled "Oppen's Antifascism: Guilt in 'Myth of the Blaze.'"

myth of the blaze

The blaze in George Oppen's “Myth of the Blaze”, a great poem of war and political ethics and guilt, is the burning bright of Blake's “tyger” in the poem (and spelled that way).

Blake’s “forests of the night”: the woods of the so-called Bulge in the horrendous battle of that name, the Rhineland campaign of winter 1944, through France to the Rhine.

“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” This is a story of tiger and lamb.

The tiger of antifascism beyond theory: In November 1942 George suddenly moves to Detroit, thus triggering the lifting of his draft exemption, and off he goes to fight in, as it turns out, some of the war’s more horrific battles. To fight – in spite of fear, and an inner pacifism (George the lamb here) – and, most startingly at the time, perhaps most dangerously – in spite of the state policy of the Communist Party of the United States.

“Myth of the Blaze” is the most sensitive poetic expression I know of the impossible moment for the communist left of the time, between September 1939 and June 1941, when the party asked its members to support the Nazi-Soviet Pact by favoring peace over war, nonaggression over rapid armament, to turn against the united front against fascism.

We know that George and Mary were most active in the party between 1936 and 1941, and that of course includes two years of suppressing their political impulses. Already feeling guilt over his failure to go to Spain in 1936 and ’37, George goes to war in ’42, now his politics once again aligned, tiger and lamb lying down together, fearful symmetry between Soviet Union and United States struck.

The “myth” in “Myth of the Blaze”: First, the imagination’s burning bright, the folklore of the alluring forest, just a myth. Bunk. Not real. “This crime” – in the poem – “This crime I will not recover / from” or “I will not recover / from that landscape it will be in my mind / it will fill my mind and this is horrible / dead bed.” Second, on the contrary, the myth is real. The imagination is the only thing. As one lies in a foxhole. He is bombarded by mortar fire, and wounded – all those he’s with are killed. More guilt. All he has, his mind and heart racing, are a lyric of Wyatt and “Rezi’s” (Reznikoff) “running thru my mind / in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre of the War.”

The blaze is real, the fire this time. The blaze is real and not a myth.

The blaze – in Rezi’s poem about the blaze of the real in the imagination – is the myth. Guilt about thinking poems when the world is coming to an end, while one’s friends are dead and one is alive. (“[W]hy had they not / killed me – why did they fire that warning?”)

Guilt about surviving. Guilt about suppressing one’s political instinct for the two years of the party line. Coming to help Europe, to stop the slaughter of the Jews, too late. Where were we when they needed us?

Guilt about (now that the war is over) the awarded Purple Heart awarded, about leaving the party for the return to poetry, to the beautiful quiet peaceful “shack on the coast” of Maine (looking back out across the Atlantic), doing nothing much but smelling the scent of the pine needles. A scent that, anyway, reminds him of the French forest.

The knife at the end of the poem is perfectly opaque: the knife of the lamb – merely to butter one’s daily abundant American? Or the sharp killing knife-likeness of the war, the war-like imagination.

George Oppen at 100 bespeaks the reason to – and also the reason not to – affirm the reality of the political act outside the poem. The best thing about the problem is that, here, it is inside it, as follows:

I believe

in the world

because it is


I believe

in the world

because it is

To hear a recording of the above, and to get some context for my interpretation of this poem, see the entry just above.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

not enough

The fifth episode of PoemTalk has been released - a 25-minute discussion of Ted Berrigan's list poem, "3 Pages." Joining me this time are Linh Dinh, Randall Couch, and erica kaufman. The program notes (on the PoemTalk blog) are here. The link to the Poetry Foundation site is here; you'll find a listing of all five PoemTalks there as well.

Friday, April 04, 2008

measure for measure

Suzanne Vega at the Writers House last night. We talked a bit about her New York Times blog, "Measure for Measure." With Anthony DeCurtis leading the conversation, she discussed - and played a few songs from - her new album, Beauty & Crime. She also performed a fabulous a capella "Tom's Diner." It's the Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium at the Kelly Writers House, in its second year; the inaugural event last spring feature Rosanne Cash. Hear our recording of Rosanne.

photo by John Carroll

Thursday, April 03, 2008

teaching artificial simplicity

I've been reading the blog of a former student and now someone prominent in marketing (his field is "persuasion"). The blog is called Artificial Simplicity. Here's an advertising guy who quotes George Oppen: "Clarity for my sake. That I may understand my life..." and commends Jane Jacobs.

Scott's entry today is called "Innovation in the classroom: an homage," and it's, in part, about my teaching. "He taught and taught me that the point of the humanities classroom was not to communicate a particular idea but rather to get students excited to think in a new way. (It's still my goal for early meetings with a new client). What his methods--now widely adopted--created was an ongoing discussion and debate which went on all week."

...and Shelley was six feet tall

Working in a pickle factory made Theodore Roethke - oh, call him Ted - a regular guy and a poet apt for Americans' appreciation, since they appreciate big, strapping regular guys and poets are big, strapping regular guys.

Okay, so I exaggerate. But only a little. Click here for my account of a Cosmospolitan essay about poetry that pretty much makes this argument.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

form(ulas) can be democratic

Gerald Graff is now arguing for a pedagogical formalism. What is apparently a counter-intuitive argument is--to my mind anyway--consistent with his advocacy of meta-pedagogy, a teaching of subject matter that is always in some sense about the teaching (the form of the teaching), such that "content" matters less than one might think under the liberal rubric of "teach the conflicts." In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Graff and a colleague argue in favor of "formulaic" teaching. Here's a paragraph:

Unfortunately, bad formulas have been so pervasive in American schooling that it has become easy to dismiss formulas altogether. In attacking formulas, we feel we are being democratic, striking a blow against top-down oppression and defending the diversity of student voices. If it is true, however, that certain formulas can help students engage in true democratic dialogue, then it's time to rethink that logic and stop using "formulaic" as if it were a four-letter word.

Here's a link to the whole article.

And here's a link to an earlier entry here on Graff's early 1990's proposal that we teach the conflicts.

Thanks to Val Ross for sending me in the direction of this piece.