Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Since you asked (well, okay, one of you asked)--a full report on the grad student reading last night.

The most impressive thing was the turnout. The Terrace Room holds about 50 people (which, depending on whether you believe Ron Silliman or Jim Behrle, may or may not be a lot of people) and it was standing room only--probably more people than we had for Myung Mi Kim and Harryette Mullen combined. (I guess that's why you have six readers--they bring a lot of friends.) I was trying to put my finger on the demographic there--it looked like about evenly divided between other Ph.D. students and folks who looked like undergrads, plus two professors. I didn't see any creative writing or Stegner people, although honestly I'm not sure I would know.

Michelle Rhee, the first-year grad student who put the event together, had set up what got dubbed "the altar" up front, draped in a blue cloth and with ten tealights on it (as Joann remarked, one for each of the Muses, plus Michelle). There were also two stools. Everyone seemed to have to distinguish themselves by their use of the set: I, very conventionally, just sat down on one of the stools; the next reader stood; the next one had an assistant reading; another sat on the table itself.

I read first. I understand now why bands need an opening act to warm up the crowd--people didn't quite seem to know if it was okay to laugh at the funny parts. (Well, that's the explanation I prefer.) I started with a couple of my card catalog poems, which use and rearrange material from discarded cards from the Stanford card catalog. The rule: I have to use every piece of language on the card and can repeat as much as I want but can't add anything. Example:

AC899.A52 P c.1

The door of modern
history: in’s-graven-
hage includes
the doctrine of
Peters, indexes
899 p. of
jihad. STK
CSL inserted.
In Amsterdam
Islam and colonialism mout-
on: door
c.1 in Dutch: Jihad.
Rudolph in Amsterdam
includes indexes, the doctrine
[2] p. inserted. Thesis:
Amsterdam. Summary
includes jihad [1979?]
in Dutch, bibliography’s
Gravenhage. 23 cm
of modern history, the
of doctrine, 242 p.
p. 201-225: Jihad,
Islam and colonialism,
09/02/80 AM.

It's a challenge to know how to read things like abbreviations and numbers, but I discovered to my surprise the first time I read one of these poems that they could actually be quite funny, if done right.

I followed with comic relief, reading a poem, "Eden," that I wrote in response to Bernadette Mayer's experiment "Write a poem that alternates between love and landlords." Not as much laughter as I was expecting, though people were smiling.

I did a couple poems from a series called "Elephant & Castle," which in part uses names of stations on the London Underground as its linguistic corpus:

Cue the garden’s
bearing; return

by quayside, hard
cross-harbor down.

You stone
mooring. You surly

liver-light run
out beyond the canning.

Perhaps arch
over greenward, bypass-

ing mudchute and
high-holy horse

underfoot. But who
bounds the crock-

shot chapel, who
can say what bridge

or borough courts
the right of way?

These proved to be the most popular among the academic crowd; one of the faculty members and several grad students came up to me and complimented me on these afterwards.

I read a couple of the postcard poems I wrote with Cassie Lewis back in January, then finished with the obligatory war poem, "Campaign of Half-Measures," which seemed to get a decent reception.

In listening to the other readers, I was struck by the diversity of practices; I think I'd been expecting their work to sound more like mine, but it was quite different. Ian Bickford, who read next, had a much more performative style; he recited from memory, stream-of-consciousness poems that focused on relationships. Very charismatic--the crowd responded well--and good at using vocal rhythms. Michelle followed with a remarkable long piece--seemingly autobiographical, focusing on a mother and daughter--that featured a play of voices and a second reader who often overlapped with her voice, creating a great sound structure and intensity of tone.

Noam Cohen (the one who sat on the table) followed with several witty, clever poems, many of which were marked by nostalgia for New York (though not New York School)--a casual but wistful quality. There was one poem which seemed to be a tribute to Kenneth Koch, who I believe Noam studied with at Columbia.

Joann Kleinneiur gave a wonderful reading, beginning with two poems from a series based on the life of the Renaissance painter Artemisia (I hope I have that right)--psychologically and linguistically charged and intense. She then departed from the script a bit to read a poem by H.D., "Heliodora," from a wondeful first edition that she's received as a gift.

Giles Scott was the last reader; his work probably most resembled my own. He's working on Zukofsky and Niedecker, and his pieces borrowed some numerological traits from Zukofsky--he began by reading a series of poems of 16 words each, often reveling in difficult vocabulary (I remember hearing "plinth" several times).

The crowd response definitely warmed as the reading went on. But contrary to some of my expectations, it didn't seem to be a crowd primed for avant-garde work; nor did the readers seem to gravitate very strongly in that direction. I suppose now that Marjorie Perloff has been retired for a few years, the critical mass of her students has diminished and no longer dominates poetic discussion on the Ph.D. side of the department; and undergrads, by and large, are taking writing courses with the Stegner fellows or Jones lecturers.

Afterwards we were all remarking how great it had been to be able to have this kind of discourse among ourselves--to actually be able to share creative work and to know each other on a level that was neither just in the classroom nor merely personal. I'm hoping that we'll be able to continue this poetic discourse among ourselves. I wonder, though, whether this will go any way toward breaking down the barrier between the grad students and the Stegner fellows and other creative writers; we Ph.D. students may have found different ways to talk to each other, but I don't know if we found a way to talk to them.

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