Tuesday, December 30, 2008

turn the page, please

Joe, made-off, follow (as in subscribe), subprime, 2.0 (used as a suffix), so (used to begin two of every three sentences), bailout, TARP (something to get under?), shovel-ready, mavericky, twittering, ponzi. Toast. Game over. See ya.


I took a break this morning to look at photos taken by Kaplan Harris at the June 2008 conference on poetry of the 1970s held in Orono, Maine. I missed this gathering, but back in June followed it somewhat from afar.

Hem as poet

Man, Ferlinghetti and company were bold: announcing that their edition of Hemingway's poems was "PIRATED." For more, click here.


"WORM WOULD BITE-CHEW" begins the wording on the oft-eccentric jacket of an issue of the Wormwood Review, edited by the pharmacologist Marvin Malone for 30 years from 1960 to 1990. On my 1960 blog I took a breezy foray into Malone and the mag's founding.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

this is the color of my dreams

Philippe de Montebello — whose long career at The Metropolitan Museum of Art has spanned nearly a third of the institution’s entire history — is retiring after more than thirty-one years as director. Now the curators of the various departments have each dug around in their collections and chosen to feature acquisitions made during the de Montebello years, their favorites. And that's one of the current exhibits. Some pieces have been chosen more because the story of the acquisition is fascinating than because the artwork itself is tops. So it's a hodge podge, arranged, room by room, according to the date the work came to the museum rather than its year of creation. So you'll get whiplash moving from the 18th-c. wooden bust of a powerful Russian politician to Segovia's favorite Spanish (actually Austrian) guitar to some Tahitian faces drawing by Gauguin in 1899.

Jane and I went last night. We saw an especially large Brancusi bird-in-space sculpture, made in 1923 and acquired in 1995. We saw and loved Jasper Johns' 1955 White Flag. Prior to getting this big canvas the Met had never owned a single Jasper Johns. The director and modern painting curator went to Johns' place in Connecticut to purchase it from the artist himself. White Flag is the largest of Johns's flag paintings and the first in which the flag is presented in monochrome. It's been described as having a "lush reticence," and I'd say that's exactly right.

And, to my mind, the most compelling piece in the show: Miro's 1925 "Photo: This is the color of my dreams," a fine instance of peinture-poesie. Miro was thinking about a photograph and then painted a painting "about" it while at the same time making not effort to reproduce the photo visually. It's not a painting about a photograph but, rather, a painting about the poetics of photography.

Damn, I forgot to bring my good camera and so took these not-so-clear shots with my phone. Forgive me, but you get the idea.

- - -

The Miro painting/anti-painting show at MoMA is open until January 12. "I want to assassinate painting," said the artist in 1927 and these works date from '27 to '37. (Thanks to Kaegan Sparks for reminding me of this exhibit, which I haven't yet seen.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

have app will travel

Using a new iPhone application called blogwriter I'm able quite easily to create text entries on any of my blogspot blogs from the phone. Not that I will do so very often but the extreme mobility of the mode seems apt. I'm composing this at the gym after 60 tough minutes on the crosstrainer made unboring only by the great Bookworm podcast interview with Marilynne Robinson I listened to. I learned once again that among cultural conservatives are a few very very interesting people.

rest in peace, H. P.

In the later winter of 1976, in London, I saw Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. The most memorable combination of acting, staging and playwriting I've yet seen.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

your daily Al

Today's daily Al. Get it every day.

"school of quietude" genealogy

Tom Devaney is publishing a short essay on Poe for an exhibit catalogue accompanying a Poe show at the Philadelphia Free Library (the show is up through February '09, titled "Quoth the raven"). Tom has long had a keen interest in Poe, and so I read the proofs of this essay with pleasure. And came upon this footnote:

The phrase the “school of quietude,” which is attributed to Poe, has been used and amplified by Ron Silliman on his blog “Silliman’s Blog.” There is no direct citation where Poe uses the exact phrase, yet the general point is correct. The phrase first appears in Claude Richard’s article “Arrant Bubbles: Poe’s ‘The Angel of the Odd’,” Poe Newsletter, Vol. II, No. 3, October 1969, pp. 46-48. According to Richard: “Poe took an active part in the squabble between the ‘Young Americans,’ who were the proponents of a muscular and popular literature, and the Boston poets, who were attached to a more genteel, more traditional, more quiet conception of literature.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

utterly sad

Charles Bernstein's blog entry (posted just a few minutes ago) on the death of his daughter Emma: LINK

good bad ugly '08

Over at Lemon Hound, we have a good, bad, ugly roundup of the year in poetry & visual arts (and a bit from other genres too). There's this:

"The big American poetry sites: Ubu.Web and Penn Sound thank you, thank you, thank you Kenny, Al Filreis, Charles Bernstein--these resources are amazing. The Poetry Foundation comes third after those two, and yah, the PF has much, much more money. But money is only useful if its used. And used with vision. The Harriet blog is a fantastic start. How did Kenny Goldsmith create UBU? More people should be talking to him about that."

And also this:

"Poem Talk has some great episodes."

Note that PoemTalk is a collaborative project: PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation.

Monday, December 22, 2008

inaugural poet

When Elizabeth Alexander was chosen to give the inaugural poem, there was some stirring in Philly. Elizabeth got her PhD from Penn and put down some roots here. John Timpane wrote a story about her, with a "local angle," for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and asked me for a few comments. I thought about the context (four poets have read at inaugurals) and told him that she didn't have the stature of Frost (Kennedy) but was a better poet than Maya Angelou (Clinton).

PennSound has an Elizabeth Alexander author page. It features recordings of poems she read a few years ago at the Kelly Writers House. Among them is "War", which is the poem she should read on January 20 if she can't write a new work for the occasion.

A critic of the choice of Alexander writes: "Now granted, one can't determine a presidency by its poet. Or can you? Robert Frost for Kennedy, lots of glitz and stirring end rhyme with a seedy underbelly and a lack of much substance? check. Maya Angelou for Clinton, lame pandering to the masses and a seeming unwillingness to look beyond the ego of the poet? check. I guess it remains to be seen exactly what sort of poet and president this combination will bring us."

teaching with telephony

Paul Baker reviews Liz Kolb's new book about cell phones as learning tools.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

rhetoric failing? roll out the poet

Rod Blagojevich, in a speech for the annals of political bluster, quoted a dozen or so lines from Rudyard Kipling's ubiquitous, stalwart, quoted-on-all-occasions "If." About a half dozen bloggers and journalists asked me to comment on this. Not sure why. I assume it's this: I've been on the web so long (since '94) posting pages and writing commentary on poetry that I tend to come up early in web searches. I'm not a Kipling guy, for sure. Am interested in but finally indifferent to the fiction, and am absolutely tired of "If," recited either as evidence of personal triumph or as pep talk for bedraggled groups (employees, students, summer campers). Bill Lucey of The Morning Delivery quotes me in today's entry: here. There are minor inaccuracies in the quote but he gets the gist of my view.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

season to be generous

fire in winter, a little pulse

Louis Zukofsky's poem "Xenophanes," which begins

Water, cold, and sweet, and pure
And yellow loaves are near at hand,
Wine that makes a rosy hand
Fire in winter, the little pulse.

--was not apparently a poem that Zukofsky liked to read aloud or indeed ever read while a recorder's reels were turning, so far as we knew from the readings we have on Zukofsky's PennSound page. I had gone looking for it there, but no luck.

But wait a moment. It's there. The poet created a home-made tape recording for the Library of Congress on November 3, 1960. He read 39 poems. The 16th was "So That Even a Lover." He hardly paused after reading that short poem and then read "Xenophanes." We missed it when segmenting the mp3 we made from the reel-to-reel tape. If you listen to "So That Even a Lover" long enough you'll hear "Xenophanes."

We'll re-segment and add the link to "Xenophanes," but enjoy it in the meantime as an encore, a bonus track.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ashbery on memory and age

Here's an audio clip of John Ashbery talking about memory and old age. (And here's the context for that statement.)

anti-existentialist existentialism

Brion Gysin is that he is and that's all there is to it. LINK

memoir of a lost mother

Yesterday Jessica Lowenthal and I spent some time talking with Jamie-Lee Josselyn about the (first) book she's writing - a memoir of her mother, who died when Jamie-Lee was just 12. And we recorded it for the Kelly Writers House Podcasts series. It's 45 minutes long, so you'll, I hope, want to download it to your iPod and listen en route to your holiday destination, on trains, planes, cars.

[] directly to the downloadable mp3 LINK
[] to the Kelly Writers House Podcasts series page LINK

Thursday, December 18, 2008

snoozing over Eliot

Q: Robert Lowell wrote a poem called "Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid." What supposedly immortal poem puts you to sleep?

Ron Silliman: The Four Quartets does it best, since it makes dreaming impossible. But most anything by Lowell will do just fine unless I've had tea after 9 PM.

Q. What poem do you love, love, love, but don't understand?

Ron: Hart Crane, The Bridge. Or (which I love less, but also understand less) John Berryman's Dream Songs.

Q. Can you name every teacher you had in elementary school? Did any of them make you memorize a poem? What poem(s)?

Ron: No, thank heavens. I can't memorize haiku. But Vance Teague in fifth grade made us write for an hour every Wednesday and never told us what genre. He made me a writer as much as anyone.

These are just three of many questions Ron Silliman has answered. See the rest.

mere alphabetic adjacency

Tan Lin is turning me on to the work David Bunn, who some years ago took possession of the entire Los Angeles public library's card catalogue. Tan had noticed my interest in Erica Baum's word-centered photography of old catalogues and suggested I get to know Bunn's project.

Leah Ollman wrote an article for Art in America on Bunn in 2000, and here are two passages:

As libraries replace their card catalogues with on-line databases, the cards themselves--obsolete, bulky, worn--are usually discarded. Artist David Bunn rescued two million such cards and, in his elegant installations, directs our attention to the strong poetic voice still coursing through them.

In 1990, David Bunn took possession of the two million cards in the Los Angeles Central Library's catalogue somewhat in the manner of an eccentric heir claiming the unwanted portion of an estate. To administrators at the library, the card catalogue was not so much an inheritance as the deceased itself. Its contents had been made available on-line several years earlier, and it sat, an unwieldy, inconvenient corpse, awaiting suitable disposal. Why fill a storeroom with information that can now be saved on a chip the size of a postage stamp?

And later in the same article:

Strains of both Dada and Duchamp course through these found objects rendered into found poems. Mere alphabetic adjacency is the operative force, making close neighbors of utter strangers and catalyzing all sorts of disarming associations. Some of the poems are more like quips--"Sometimes a great notion/ sometimes a hero/sometimes a little brain damage can help" (1996)--while others offer swatches of casual beauty: "The sea is a magic carpet/the sea is also a garden/the sea is for sailing/the sea is for sailing/the sea is strong" (1997). The multiplicity of meanings and contexts for a single word, the very thing that stymies subject-driven computer searches and causes them to produce a cumbersome load of search matches, is what makes these snippets blossom on the page.

The poems often read as lists, oral recitatives drummed into memory, the rhythm of repetition building density, layer upon layer:

And the band played on/and the bride wore ... / and the bridge is love/and the children came too/ and the dawn came up like thunder/and the desert shall rejoice/and the doctor recovered/and the floods came/... and the flowers showered/and the morrow is theirs/"and the next object ..."/ and the river flowed on/and the sound of a voice ... / and the third day ... / "and the two shall become one flesh"/and the walls came tumbling down/and the years roll by.

The catalogue enables Bunn to narrate what he calls "a whole constellation of stories," some focused on a particular moment in time or a brief thread of plot, others conjuring the grand, seamless narrative of existence, without beginning or end, shape or evident purpose.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

a blog for the "Best"

Philip Metres, the author of To See the Earth (2008) and recent co-editor of Come Together: Imagine Peace (2008), was asked to contribute to the "Best American Blogs" gathering and I'm delighted to say that when asked "What other poetry-related blog or website should I check out?" he suggested this one--this one right here--yes, mine. What nice affirmation. Keeps one going. And here's the Best American Poetry blog version.

Above you notice the wording is "What other....?" Of course the one besides which this is the other is...Ron Silliman's great blog at http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/.

old man look at my life

My son Ben and I saw Neil Young here in Philly at the Spectrum last Friday night. Wilco, warming up, was terrific. Jeff Tweedy astounds, is downright experimental with lightning-fast register and genre shifts. But Young: he was really young. "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," etc., but also some raw new political (economic) anthems, such songs seeming to us rusty even though weeks or even days since written and scored. My former student and former Writers House regular and staffer Nate Chinen reviews Young in concert at Madison Square Garden in today's New York Times, page 1 of the Arts section.

More about Nate: here's a link to Nate-only entries in the NYT Arts blog.

now twittering

I'm now twittering. Go here and sign up to receive my twitter updates. Or here to get started yourself.

Monday, December 15, 2008

writer without borders

The Philadelphia Inquirer cover Breyten Breytenbach's recent visit to the Kelly Writers House. Here is your link to the article. Breytenbach's presentation was part of our Writers without Borders series.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

elegy for psychoanalysis

One of my favorite early poems of Jack Spicer is "Psychnoanalysis: An Elegy." Check it out in Peter Gizzi's and Kevin Killian's edition of the The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (subtitled "my vocabulary did this to me"), on pages 31-33. (Wesleyan published this fine book. Get thyself a copy soon.)

After reading around in the Collected, I decided to go back to our PennSound Spicer page, and listened again to this remarkably confident, resonant and yet slightly weird baritone voice. A radio voice, was the phrase we used to use for such a person. Yes, Jack Spicer had a radio voice. Which is unrelated--or, then again, perhaps entirely related--to the poet's penchant for using the radio as a conceit in his digressive commentary. See, at the bottom of this entry, my favorite Spicerian comment the wanders into radio.

So I listened to Spicer again. I noticed that we at PennSound have made available an undated 4 minute, 52 second recording of his reading of "The Song of the Bird in the Loins." Nearly 5 minutes to read that short poem. Hmm, too much time for that piece. Perhaps, I thought, he reads the poem and then offers some commentary. So I listened, eager to hear more than that one poem. Lo and behold: the recording is not just that poem but three early works. The other two are "The Dancing Ape" and..."Psychoanalysis: An Elegy." So there's my poem! Now we've unpacked the three, made separate mp3 recordings for each, and now I'll recommend that everyone reading this blog have a listen to this "elegy," a smart, luminous, and slightly unhinged rejoinder to the triumph of the therapeutic.

Q: Are you actually going through a transition in your writing?

Jack Spicer: I'm going through a transition. In fact, I don't have no job, and I...

Q: No, I mean in your actual writing.

Jack Spicer: Well, if the radio set has three batteries which are gone and one that's still left, that isn't a transition in the radio broadcast. It's a transition in the radio set, namely that you don't have very much power. And these things that happen to you in life are like that. If you're only going on one transistor and you're a four-transistor radio, you're not going to be able to get in the outlying stations very easy. KFI doesn't come in.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

when Susan Sontag wanted to enter a closed museum

I spent three days with Susan Sontag in 2003--utterly memorable days. She had just published Regarding the Pain of Others, which I had just read. As we drove in my little old Toyota from the train station to the Writers House we talked about the book and in effect she quizzed me on what she had written. I breathlessly dove into the most nuanced distinction she makes in the last part of the book and got an "A" for my paraphrase. Susan then warmed up considerably, having decided that I could hold my own with ideas. Once we got settled and I had a chance to tell her what we were trying to do at the Writers House (create a salon for writers of all kinds, maintaining a good deal of independence while using university resources) she really started to get into it. During the three-hour session with the students (who were very nervous at first) we talked about her novels primarily, which they had read and discussed carefully in the month prior to her arrival. While she was dismissive of some students' responses and questions, there was always a baseline of gratitude that we were talking about her fiction, about which she cared a great deal, to the point of frustration sometimes with folks who kept asking her about her essays on radical styles and postmodern art theories of the 1960s. That night she read from her fiction and took questions. Then we had a home-cooked dinner, with about ten people, in the dining room of the Writers House. The next morning I walked her from her hotel back to the House and she and I talked for an hour or so, taking audience questions.

The recording of that discussion is now available as a downloadable mp3. I haven't listened to it myself--ever. But I'm sure I'll hear it in the coming days.

After the interview we had a few hours before her train back to New York. She wanted to go to the PMA to look at a huge surreal-yet-realist photograph by Jeff Wall - a staged psuedo-documentary of dead Russian soldiers scattered in a trench in Afghanastan shortly after a rocket attack had hit them. She had written about this photograph, called "Dead Troops Talk," in her new book but had either never seen it in the original or had only seen it once (I think the former). She knew this huge gruesome fantasy picture was on display at PMA and was bound to see it, but not alone. She did not like to see art alone, so in a very social, upbeat, can-do sort of way convened a bunch of us to drive over to the museum to have a look. We went in two cars. Problem, though: there was a blockbuster show and (if I'm remembering this rightly) part of the museum was closed, the part where the big photo hung. This wasn't going to stop Susan Sontag. It happened to Blake Martin, my assistant and coordinator of the Writers House Fellows program, had a friend who worked at the PMA. Blake called her and said that Susan Sontag wanted to be admitted to a closed section of the building. Somehow special entry was all arranged. Susan Sontag is coming! Susan Sontag is coming! A museum comes to attention. So, after some VIP handling, the skirting of long lines awaiting the blockbuster (was it Degas?), there we were, maybe 8 or 10 of us, standing in a huge otherwise empty half-lit gallery--we and several curators who had come out of the woodwork--looking at this devastatingly fine photograph about pain, watching Sontag watch it, hearing her talk about representations of suffering, about war, about the cold war and art, and we stood there for what seems to me, as I remember it, a long long time. Mostly standing in silence. Learning again to look at art with an intensity modeled by one of the most intense people of the late twentieth century.


Three Penn partners created The Common Press - a letterpress project - at few years ago, happily: the Fine Arts Department of the School of Design; the Van Pelt Library; and us, the Kelly Writers House. The Common Press blog gives a pretty good sense of the types and range of projects undertaken at the press. Johanna Drucker has been a big supporter of this venture (as those who know Johanna's work as a maker of art books and an historian of art books will easily imagine) and during Johanna's last visit she and some Writers House people went to the presses and created a collaborative collage-y broadside. Below you see photos of the broadside, of Johanna and Kaegan Sparks, and of most of the gang including Mike Hennessey, Erin Gautsche, Michael Tom Vassallo and Mike Van Helder (roughly from right to left).

Friday, December 12, 2008

writing out Emily

Yesterday I spent the day at Harvard and met a number of very interesting folks along the way. One was Zachary Sifuentes, who has written out all of the poems of Emily Dickinson and created a powerful visual effect which Zach also suggests conveys something of the sound (or at least, I guess, the idea of the sound) of Dickinson's poetry. "What does sound look like," he asks, "in Dickinson’s poetry? With their associative logic, tangential reasoning, and circuitry, Dickinson’s lines hint at a shuffling of the mind. In other words, the linear behavior of her poems is anything but linear. Instead, her lines are large flocks of starlings, or cormorants, or even sparrows, fugitive from apprehension." At Zach's web site you can see photographs of the writing on display, both close-ups and far-offs. And you can watch a video of the writing in process. Here's your link to the Complete Poems project, and be sure, while there, to explore his other works.

Cynthia Ozick

My hour-long discussion with novelist Cynthia Ozick is now available as a downloadable mp3 recording. Cynthia came to the Writers House as a "Fellow" in 2006. Our conversation took place on March 21.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

College Board loan scam

Don't let this scandal - one of the biggest in the history of American higher education - go unnoticed. The New York Times ran only this AP wire story, a few inches long, on a back page. Hard to believe the College Board would still be in business after having done this.

Monday, December 08, 2008

my vocabulary did this to me

I've been re-reading Jack Spicer's Thing Language. I find very helpful three passages from Ron Silliman's "Spicer's Language," in Writing/Talks, ed. Bob Perelman (1985):

[] Spicer, both as poet and linguist, rather aggressively disputed the valorization of language within the process of the poem. "Words are," he said in Vancouver, "things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else's head.... The words are counters and the whole structure of language is essentially a counter. It's an obstruction to what the poem wants to do." (p. 191)

[] [On the first poem in "Thing Language":] I take it as no accident that the first word of the first poem . . . is "This." The assertion of presence is language's most fundamental claim on subjectivity, at once both referential and illusory. (p. 168)

[] [Spicer contends a] concept of an absent presence, the notion that you can have your cake and have (always, already) eaten it too; though, from either perspective, one is left hungry... Spicer achieves this effect by yolking together two nouns, thing and language, into an adjective:noun relation.... The result is not quite an oxymoron, which woulid be too simple. The use of the nominative thing in the place of an adjective is more in line with the abominations of Leviticus, that thing and language shall not lie down together. As any linguist would know, things are not signs. They are not, in a linguistic sense, significant.... Yet both the universe of things and the system of language are total dimensions of reality. An inarticulate universe of all that is real versus a system of articulation which, as a whole, can communicate nothing, and which serves to isolate the individual, both from the universe and from others. This is a vision of language, of subjectivity, as total oppression. That is the fundamental premise of the book Language [where the poetic sequence "Thing Language" appears]. Later, it will be the thrust of Spicer's dying words, "My vocabulary did this to me." (169-70)

Here's the first poem in Thing Language:

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

"These three passages," writes Murat Nemet-Nejat, "show Spicer's profound pessimism about language, its insufficiency (as opposed to Duncan's optimism). The first one particularly about the thinning of language, disputing its valorization, is nothing less than a poetic revolution, shifting the center of gravity from words themselves to the empty space surrounding them, creating a new space. It all starts I think with Homage to Creeley."

imagists on the web

Up at MIT Nick Montfort--embodying the perfect mixture of engineering and literary backgrounds--has his students do some serious web work in (I'm almost tempted to say) the old-fashioned put-it-up-on-the-web mode. One student project has been to make Des Imagistes of 1912, Ezra Pound's gathering of imagists, available for the first time ever on the web. They've done a beautiful job of it. And even the URL - www.desimagistes.com - is elegant. There it is. Gotta love that typeface, 1912's version of mod. "This website uses a font stack of 'Futura, Tahoma, Arial, sans-serif.' Futura was designed between 1924 and 1926 by Paul Renner, and while Renner was not associated with the Bauhaus school of design, Futura is frequently used in connection with Bauhaus-related topics. The Bauhaus school was founded two years after Des Imagistes' publication, and its aesthetics harmonize well with the nature of imagistic poetry."

Saturday, December 06, 2008

welcome to modern & contemporary poetry, one poem at a time

A happy PoemTalk update.

my chat with David Sedaris

Back in March of 2001 I spent an hour talking with David Sedaris. A downloadable audio recording of that discussion is now available. Here's a direct link to the mp3. Be sure to check out our Sedaris page for some context, and if your machine runs RealVideo (if you have a "RealPlayer") click here and watch the same convo. The night before my conversation with him, Sedaris read selections from his stories and essays. The photo here was taken in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House.

our nonbiological thinking

The "Age of Spiritual Machines" guy, Ray Kurzweil, came to Philadelphia three years after that book had come out and gave a talk to the otherwise dull two-day conference sponsored by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Kurzweil is never dull, though. Even a routine account of his presence at that 2003 confab published in the Philadelphia Inquirer suggests the sort of things - e.g. machines that wrote poems - this always-ahead-of-his-time fellow had in mind. "Our biological thinking is fixed. But our nonbiological thinking will grow exponentially."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

the people

In 1999 I helped bring out a new edition of a fabulous noir-ish novel by Ira Wolfert, called Tucker's People (1943). Now Google Books has made the text of this book - including my introduction - available on the web. Go here and read. One of the novel's ideas: the underside of the American economy is fascist. (See an earlier post.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

audio: 35 whole Writers House programs

We're just created a new iTunes channel for a selection of audio recordings of entire Writers House programs. So far there are 35 such recordings, ranging from PhillyTalks (two avant-garde poets reading poems and interacting) to a Kennedy clan memoirist chatting over lunch about the familial basis of his addictions. Go to your iTunes music store and type "Kelly Writers House" in the searchbox. Choose "Kelly Writers House Programs" and hit "subscribe." Or just follow this link and you'll be taken directly to our new channel in your iTunes.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

perform the name of the dead

"A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore" was created by Jackson MacLow in memory of his friend Peter Moore, who in photographs documented the doings and performances of NYC Fluxus and other artists in the 1960s and early 70s. The text or, more properly, the score is filled entirely with words (960 of them) drawn from the letters in the name of "Peter Innisfree Moore"; words like smite, opinion, freer, re-import, Semite, fen, minister, and smote circle around one another in various hand-drawn shapes and sizes.

Richard Kostelanetz writes, "This visual-verbal text can then become a score for a live performance in which any number of readers are encouraged to read aloud whichever words they wish, at whatever tempo they wish, for indefinite durations; and Mac Low's instructions for this particular piece suggest that the individual letters can be translated into certain musical notes (and, thus, that the same text can be interpreted as a musical score)."

One performance in the summer of 1975 was managed by MacLow. Here is a 6-minute excerpt from the audio recording of that event.

Earlier today my students and I discussed this work. Some didn't find it beautiful; some had doubts about its effectiveness as an alternative mode of elegy or memorialization. Most found it beautiful, worthy and a great alternative to the usual methods we use to describe or narrate the life of a dead friend or colleague. You can hear a recording of the entire class session (1 hr 20 minutes).

Other links:

[] an article about Peter Moore
[] elaborate performance instructions issued by MacLow for this piece
[] a profile of MacLow written by Charles Bernstein not long after MacLow's death

Monday, December 01, 2008

so that we can do our living

John Cage on why he wanted to make English less understandable:

I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, ... that what was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it's understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears --and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, and he said, "Syntax [which is what makes things understandable] is the army, is the arrangement of the army."

So what we're doing when we make language un-understandable is we're demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living....

It's a transition from language to music certainly. It's bewildering at first, but it's extremely pleasurable as time goes on. And that's what I'm up to. "Empty Words" begins by omitting sentences, has only phrase, words, syllables and letters. The second part omits the phrases, has only words, syllables and letters. The third part omits the words, has only syllables and letters. And the last part...has nothing but letters and sounds.

Here is a recording of Cage making this remark (in an interview before the performance of "Empty Words).

twenty minutes of Rich talk

In a recent PennSound podcast, I feature a 20-minute except from an hour-plus conversation I had with Adrienne Rich in April 2005. Click here for the audio recording of the podcast.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Frank Cieciorka, the man who designed the fist emblem for the New Left, died on Monday. He was an early opponent of American involvement in Vietnam, opposed the Johnson intervenion in the Dominican Republic, went to Mississippi during Freedom Summer in '64, became a field secretary for SNCC.

When he returned north after Freedom Summer he made a first woodcut of the now-famous fist, modeling it (of course) on previous 20th-century leftist fists. Only later did he realize that the design was being adopted everywhere and by seemingly everyone. His version of the first for the 1967 Stop the Draft Week was the one that really became iconic.

From the New York Times obit: Mr. Cieciorka had seen the clenched-fist salute when he participated in a Socialist rally in San Francisco. When he returned from Mississippi, “the fist was a natural for the first woodcut in a series of cheap prints,” he noted in an interview with Lincoln Cushing, a political art archivist and historian. “It wasn’t until we made it into a button and tossed thousands of them into crowds at rallies and demonstrations that it really became popular,” he continued.

Later he did watercolors and painted rural California landscapes.

from Jersey City to Jesus

I first started to look at Erica Baum's art when she did her Card Catalogue series: close-up photographs of old library card catalogues that showed several of the card tabs imprinted or typewritten (and sometimes, for really old cards, handwritten) to indicate subject headings, categories, etc. Several of these photos show the catalogue drawer labels. My favorite of these is "Jersey City--Jesus." Anyway, that was 1997. Erica has done several interesting projects since then, all exploring the visual qualities of language as photographic subjects; words in the visual ambience, just there for the looking. Ubuweb has a pretty good collection of PDFs marking the progress of this art. Have a look.

“The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation.” —Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

I wrote about Erica Baum's work about a year ago.

Obama 2.0

Dick Polman in his daily American Debate blog writes about Barack Obama 2.0, the (alleged) remaking of presidential communication with the people through e-interactivity. I tend to feel the same skepticism Polman does: "[A]s for this idea of engaging in a two-way online conversation, with feedback from citizen participants . . . well, we shall see. Speaking from firsthand experience, I can stipulate that the online world is particularly unruly, a virtual Wild West where the perpetually aggrieved shoot first and think later, if at all."