Steve Farmer & Ron SIlliman at Moe's Books in Berkeley

Last night Jim Brashear and I dashed over the Bay to Moe's Books in Berkeley to catch Steve Farmer and Ron Silliman's reading. Steve, whose work I've reported on here before, read from a collaborative anagrammatic project with Nathan Johnson. Some of this work has appeared on Thom Donovan's always engaging blog Wild Horses of Fire. Here's what Thom posted about this meeting of words and play:
Check-out the latest Others Letters, featuring poems and correspondence by Steven Farmer and Nathan Johnson, who via an anagram generator called "Anagramania" mediate a current semiotic terrain of NeoCon fascism in the US, with warm and exuberant interludes about baseball, friendship, and much else.
The words and names Farmer inserted into the online anagram machine here included everything from John Boehner and Christine O'Donell to the names of baseball teams.  Farmer extracted gems such as "tobacco guy nuking Troy" and composed poems from lines the anagram generator spat out at him.

Next up was Ron Silliman whose work I've written about in my dissertation; some of this will see the light of day in other forms soon, I hope. Silliman is on a x-continent reading trip, making his way into Canada and through various U.S cities and towns. His reading at Moe's marks the temporal mid-way point of the trip.  Ron read from some short poems composed on cell phones and PDAs. He mentioned a digital sign near a bridge somewhere in the mid-west (I think) that was going to broadcast poems for all the truckers who travel across this route. I didn't catch all the details and perhaps his short cell phone poems were composed for this sign or with it as inspiration. Anyway, I like the idea of a digital sign (it might even be solar powered) broadcasting brief poems into the sky, across bridges, over highways.

Ron then launched into reading a portion of a  new ongoing work called Revelator.  Like much of Ron's work, Revelator is a long poem with an epic scale. I'm impressed by its sheer capacity to keep moving, collecting details, observations, bits of dialogue, landscape, and conjecture. Its mode is full of verve and energy. There were moments of humor, lines that made me crack a smile, and others that reminded me of themes and stances from the earlier books, Tjanting and Ketjak, though Revelator seems to have made what I might call a kind of "peace" with the idea of the person as it might be mobilized in the poem. It is also clear that Revelator, a poem containing and constructing a capacious fabric of language, experience, and the world, is written by a poet in his 60s whose perspective on the future and the work at hand is marked by a sense of the limit of a human life against the backdrop of a speeding and long-lived universe.

It is pretty impossible to keep up with Ron's reading and transcribe any of his lines at the same time. But some phrases and lines I did manage to jot down include:

bumble bee wonders
am I his flower?

I pause two poems three
pages before book's end

we all scream for what is unnameable

words themselves learn to resist

always make mistakes is the program

air syntax out

hum means mosquito right at ear

how many words do I have left

scribbling anything to be free*

Ron was handing out his "baseball" type cards. I've included pictures of the front and back of these. For all of you who might have collected baseball cards as a kid, wouldn't it be fun to collect poet cards?
*as always, my note-taking at readings is compromised by failures in hearing and who knows what else, so you, dear readers, should never take these notes as exact transcriptions!


M. NourbeSe Philip at Mills

Tuesday was a crazy day for me, running from one thing to another, but it was gloriously sunny after weeks of rain here in the Bay Area. An hour before I was to leave to venture across the Bay Bridge to hear M. NourbeSe Philip read at Mills, I got a call from Sally Doyle and invited her to come with me. Our afternoon impromptu adventure entailed getting a little lost on the serpentine drives through the pastoral campus of Mills in Oakland. Who knew it was such a lovely campus, even if the bell tower across from Mills Hall where Philip read is a little tacky, a tiny version of a monumental bit of architecture, a cracker jack toy (though I will concede that the sound of the tolling bells in the background of Philip's reading was eerily apt).

We arrived right behind Erika Staiti and Cynthia Sailers, Samantha Giles, following us, just minutes before the reading started. The room was hot and packed with one of the more diverse poetry audiences I've encountered in a while.

Juliana Spahr introduced Philip, noting that Philip's book Zong! is one of the most provocative and haunting  that Spahr had ever read.

I have not yet read Zong! in its entirety though I long to. Sadly, it is difficult to get. The local and consortium libraries from which the San Francisco Public Library can borrow don't own it. I've tried to borrow it from friends, some of whom lent their copies to others and never got them returned. You can read excerpts printed prior to the book's publication in various places, such as here at Fascicle. and here at Facture. It is also available in boundary 2 (2006) but to access it online you have to have a subscription.  You can buy the book here.

Zong! is a book created using constraint. Philip, who is also, I believe, an attorney, used as a source text  the legal document Gregson v. Gilbert which details how the Captain of the slave ship Zong threw overboard 150 slaves in order to collect insurance money. From this text which excises the horror and trauma from the historical fact, Philip used its 500 words to create what she calls "dictionaries," lists of words that she has then written notes and comments on. Culling from her dictionaries, she wrote Zong! 
Interestingly, she discovered that the white male European voice (the writer of the legal document, I presume) comes through her text. At the same time, the language of her text bodies forth the pain of the murdered Africans. Language opens, is flayed, tumbles about in a slow cacophony of syllables, bits of (I presume) various African languages, disintegrating English, language and human beings swallowed and suppressed by water, legal discourse, privileged subjects.

NourbeSe Philip's reading was transformative. In the Living Room of Mills Hall, she arrested us, held us suspended in sharp and rapt attention, which several audience members called trance-like. After her reading, Philip mentioned the evolution of the work not only on the page but in performance, noting that she has come to score the silences, and indeed I felt that. The careful articulation of sound and silence.  I have the sense that the earlier versions of some of the Zong! pieces published in the places noted above don't quite capture how the work has evolved and is probably printed in its book form. Philip pointed out that as the printed version developed, she made a point to insure that no words or clusters of words were located directly above others, as the words (like the slaves drowning in the ocean) "are all seeking the space/air above." She also explained that as she reads/performs this work, a work which in some ways can't be written or performed, a story that cannot be told, she has allowed herself to improvise, to read whatever words and phrases her eye falls upon, so that the reading and the text are different every time.

As I said, her writing and reading brings forth the body, linking language and the human body and the violence enacted on it, marking that which the law denied: the fact that Africans were human beings not things. In her pieces published in Fascicle, Philip writes that:

In its potent ability to decree what is is not, as in a person being no longer human but thing, the law approaches the realm of magic and religion. The conversion of human into chattel can be considered an act the equal of transubstantiation which converts the eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

NourbeSe Philip's Zong! attempts to use the law's denial of its own recourse to magic and religion not to restore the facts or experiences of those on board and those thrown overboard--since that seems impossible--but to raise the spectre of what the legal text buries, what happened to the 150 human beings murdered for profit.

The writing we heard Tuesday was mesmerizing. I can't reproduce the text here faithfully because I have not seen it and had I, I still could not score it as it was read, because the reading departed from the text. But some evocative pieces, some shards that stood out include these:

the sum of Negroes

the rest

in themselves


frenzy   (from Zong! 3)


the law
does  not




suppose the law not

a crime

suppose the law
a loss


no one bears witness
for the witness


Of course, these line breaks are wholly inadequate and inaccurate. These are recorded lines as I heard them, but I can't capture here the sonorous tangling and disentangling that Philip channelled with shards of languages, with moans and resonant hums that almost felt like they were inside us.
Amazing work.

Here's what Cristanne Miller has to say about Zong!

“Zong! pushes its readers to understand the Zong incident in the complex contexts of both African spirituality, languages, and regions and the British (Western) slave trade and law, with its assumed racism yet sincerely attempted pursuit of justice. The poems work powerfully at the individual level and even more powerfully as a sequence to call attention to the scantiness of our knowledge of the history of African enslavement from any perspective but that of slave holders or legal documents and to question the assumptions about ‘fact’ and ‘value’ assumed by that perspective. Like reconstructed archaeological shards, Philip’s poems give us pieces combined in different orders and to different effects, building a story in such disjointed terms that it implies the tale cannot be simply known or told. As Philip herself says, she is finding ways ‘to “not-tell”’ the story of the Zong—just as Toni Morrison both relates Sethe’s story in Beloved and declares ‘This is not a story to pass on.’”—Cristanne Miller, Edward H. Butler Professor of Literature, University at Buffalo SUNY

You can read a piece about Zong! by Kate Sutherland here.  You can visit M. NorbeSe Philip's web page here.


Our Beloved Lena

Ocean Beach, San Francisco December 2010

Lena & Alex December 2010
Lena, part of our family for the last 10 years, passed away on Sunday March 20, 2011. She will be missed more than I can say.

Lena, Clay and Robin Bernal Hill Dec 2010

Lena w/ Buena Vista Elementary Soccer team 2001/02?


SPT's The Document: Field, Morrill, Cobb

Monday morning, quick, before work: Queen Helene’s “Energizing Avocado & Grapefruit” masque on face, steel cut oats with blueberries to the side of the keyboard, bites in between words and keyboard. The need to tell you about Friday night: Courtesy of Small Press Traffic, Thalia Field, Allison Cobb and Erin Morrill at Macky Hall, Oakland Campus of California College of the Arts

Miranda Mellis introduced Thalia Field, whose work I'd first heard about from Emily Abendroth. Earlier this year I checked out of the San Francisco Public Library, Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard after having photocopied (sssh! )most of Point and Line (2000) last summer. Field is endlessly inventive. She re-enters and imagines the possibilities of form and formal investigation, producing playful crossings that revel in critical assessment and coagulate with linguistic and witty pleasures. Miranda has written a bright and insightful piece using one of Field's lines. It is called "Are you sure species exist?” Mellis writes:

Field’s book is, among other things, science translated into the discourses of poetry and theater. There is an ethical, interdisciplinary vision underlying the recursive image of a gang of students milling around Bird Lovers, Backyard, replete with notebooks and saddlebags, doing amateur science. They ask questions, connect dots—they’re a chorus. And Field’s books are staged as much as written.

You can read the full piece at the Brooklyn Rail here.

It was great to hear Field read several pieces I am familiar with from her Bird Lovers book and to hear a selection from A Prank of Georges, a collaborative piece she wrote with Abigail Lang, a product of Cole Swensen's Paris Translation workshop.

It was also eerie to be listening to Field read about Bikini island and to be thinking about toxicity and tragedy and the politics of it with the earthquake in Japan and its compromised nuclear facilities on all of our minds.

Field's "Apparatus for the Inscription of a Falling Body" from Bird Lovers, Backyard can be read here.

Here's a little snippet from her book Ululu Clown Shrapnel:

the audience grows intrigued: a husband making millions from selling copies and yet she critizes him for not making more? "You Warhol! You Apellos! You Kostabi!" What exactly is she after? His art factory already fakes her precious alchemy  To weakened knees a violin solo  more agonizing than a hyena screeching "Lap at  my genitals, lay in my lap"  "lapis"   "lazy she offers inspiration, not organization.  "This marriage be   this bondage   this border this lounge act"  "Here, drink!" ULULU says, "Drink this Elixir!"  And so many men turn their heads, mouths dry and they step over, cupping their imaginary hands on ULULU's bosom, despite themselves, liquid stone flows through the silk of breasts, one loud midday Hypatia feeding thoughts of immortality (despite the frigidity of the rage)

        ULULU: Now that's how to sell a painting.

                                Audience: Sold!(63)

Field was followed by Erin Morrill’s performative investigation of the archive, privacy and public space, a meditation on living and dying, travel and documentation, loss and accumulation. Her piece consisted of a slideshow of 260-some-odd images culled from her archive of daily photos. Morrill stood behind the screen, her body obscured from view, her voice rushing out as she told us she is an amateur photographer who has been taking pictures for some years now. The performance was simultaneously haunted by the loss of Morill’s archive of her personal and family life, once stored in a public storage facility, but now gone, I can’t remember why, something about payment of fees? Or did I just make that up??

Morrill began by announcing that her piece should not be documented or recorded in any way, expressing frustration about the public documentation of events and people’s lack of participation in the event itself. Like a good narcissist, I felt stung by this and immediately put down my pen and notebook, having been aware since the inception of xpoetics, that reporting on events in order to offer a bit of the event for those not present compromises me. I am an as-yet-again-split, split subject as I multi-task trying to be in the events and also recording some sort of “faithful” version of them, to be transcribed and re-envisioned later (as in right now--though "now" has now become evening, work and daily life intervening).

After the event, I complimented Erin and assured her I would not document her piece at which point she said she did not mind people writing about it but had in mind friends who chose not to come to the event because they figured it would be recorded and they could experience it digitally. So, as I discovered, much of what we take to be directed at us (perhaps particularly a problem in the worlds of writers and artists, those worlds of fragile and soaring egos!), has nothing, or very little, to do with us-- often, anyway. And I’m in agreement with Erin in her frustration with people somehow equating the recorded event with the event itself. My friend Jim tells me that this is a huge issue in the world of performance and performance studies, particularly with dancers, who often do not want recordings of their performances, which can never capture an art absolutely predicated on three dimensional space, not to mention the depths of sound that porously enter our bodies during such a performance. I suppose there are also the facts of temperature and the olfactory to account for. The uncomfortable wooden or steel or cushy plush chairs we might be sitting in, the microscopic forms of life that might also inhabit those chairs, the carpeting...……Anyway, I enjoyed Merrill's performance which also acknowledged the recent death of Akilah Oliver.

Lastly, but not least Allison Cobb closed out the evening with a reading from her book Green-Wood, named after a 500-acre cemetery in Brooklyn. Cobb’s book is an investigation into history, etymology, poetry, landscape architecture, the dead. In a way, the cemetery and Cobb’s book is yet another take on the archive.

From Green-Wood
Author’s note: Green-Wood is named for a 478-acre Victorian cemetery across the street from me in Brooklyn, NY. It opened in 1838 as only the second “rural” cemetery in America, after Mt. Auburn in Boston. The piece is a poetic meditation on my experiences in the cemetery, and on the history surrounding it. *


I walk through fall and winter. I walk through spring. I walk against the backdrop of war, the toppling of the Hussein statue, declaration of end of hostilities. Continued bombings. NAMES OF DEAD in paper. I walk by bulldozers, mowers, pesticide sprayers with yellow warning placards: KEEP OUT FOR 24 HOURS. 

                       Tree I trace 
                       from the root spelled "rot"     
                       to “worm” a proto-word 
                       subtracting wildness

let earth conceal them from our sight 

A few fine old Brooklyn families—the Lefferts, Schermerhorns, and Bergens—traced their title to land on the Gowanus Hills back to their Dutch ancestors. The depression of 1837 spurred them to sell out to the cemetery. 

Smaller landowners refused to relinquish their holdings, a vexation that kept the cemetery at first from deeding for burial a single rood. An echo of “wild wood” reduced to “twig” or “rod,” a measuring stick, a measure of land, then the cross, an instrument of execution. 

Weeping Beech 
London plane tree
Cedar of Lebanon
Austrian pine 
American holly, female
Yoshino cherry
Mulberry from China 

each tagged with a metal I.D. number 

You can read more from Allison's fine work here

Read more about these authors on SPT’s website:



from Sally Doyle's Kafka Psalms

Kafka's Butterfly
made out of paper and transparency  by Sally Doyle


(On writing Kafka Psalms)

Recently in my struggle with illness and despair, I happened to take a book of Kafka’s journals off my bookshelf and I immediately became absorbed in this work in a different way than I had been in the past—I felt as though I was reading my own journals. My journal entries and Kafka’s journals and letters connected through the themes of abuse, illness, self-torture, writing, and a longing for love and an other in life.

Intuitively I began linking our voices together on the page. This manuscript is the result. Kafka’s words are italicized, and mine are not. I feel awe and wonder because the reading and writing happen together at the same time. This book is so much about reading. It is a testimony of the most intimate exchange a writer and reader share. Kafka’s words become my words, part of my text. His words tangle with mine, blossom in my poems, and cut into my poems. Sharing the page with Kafka has given me strength to write. Kafka has helped to carry the weight of my burdens.

This is the power of literature that I know he understood too. Writers “come to us” or we to them, at the times in our lives—when we need them. Kafka has come to me now, and somehow I think in our coming together we’ve made something different from our isolated, individual despair. This book is my testimony that finding the “other” through suffering is part of the “meaning” of suffering.

Scarlet Butterfly, Screen printed on xray by Sally Doyle

Gradually my excitement underwent a transformation,
my thoughts turning to writing,
I felt myself up to it,
wanted nothing save the opportunity to write,
considered what nights in the future I could set aside for it,
with pains in my heart crossed the stone bridge at a run,
felt what I had already experienced so often,
the unhappy sense of a consuming fire inside me
that was not allowed to break out, made up a sentence—
‘Little friend, pour forth’—
incessantly sang it to a special tune,
and squeezed and released a handkerchief
in my pocket in accompaniment as if it were a bagpipe.
                        This inexhaustible running girl--
   physical sensations of hammering and sparks
linking brim to overflow,
ache of words refusing to cross
immensity of either way.


This psalm begins with
the more delicate, more distracted, 
more hopeless noise
led by the voices of the 2 canaries.
I have lost in the mist of life
the hills I walked upon before waking.
[I have lost] the gleam of yellowish light 
around my body.


This is why I cringe before you
with sad requests…
 The debris from an ordinary day is enormous.

I want to give instructions to my sad body,
the thin breath of a page

                          From the dash on---

dirty little barefoot girl
running along in her shift 


Under these diary pages
                  galoshes slosh.
A chill pursues me.
A woman pulling me to school,
a hand pushing me through
the doorframe.
The round table of nervous people
Begins to tremble.
I have probably caused a disaster.
A car door slams.
Light comes too soon.


The hole refuses the pin.
But it makes no difference—
                             this refusal—
pin pushes through anyway—
precise   careless 
 the suffering it causes.


Why have you enclosed butterflies 
with brackets and parenthesis?

[Complete standstill ] (Unending torments)


Butterflies born  
in the dark poem,
if we could see,
we’d read patterns 


then gone



It has become very necessary 
to keep a diary again.
The uncertainty of my thoughts,
the ruin of the office,
 the physical impossibility of writing
 and the inner need for it--
Trying to push myself 
through the pen 
to the tip 
of existence.


Sally Doyle and James Joyce

Sally Doyle is a poet living in San Francisco. She received her MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She teaches poetry through California Poets in the Schools. Her chapbook, Under the Neath was published by Leaf Books. She has also published her poetry in Temblor, Central Park, Avec, How(ever), O Anthology, five fingers review, Lipstick 11 and recently in Rattle. She is currently working on her manuscript, Kafka Psalms.


Having Missed David Wolach

When David was in the Bay Area recently, I was at home, on one side of the rainy traffic-jammed Bay Bridge and David was on the other reading for Small Press Traffic in Oakland, and then Saturday found me fielding questions on the reference desk at the library while he gave his nonsite talk, so alas, I missed him. Twice.

But I have his powerful book Occultations, and I am posting some excerpts of it here. Throughout this collection which consists of the following sections/poems: transit, riverfire, modular arterial cacophony, your nerve center taxonomy, book alter(ed), body maps & distraction zones, Wolach stages various experiments and interventions in language and action. His is an art of appropriation, material & social palimpsest, somatic experiments, archaeological & political excavation, performed remixes, embodied imaginative flourishing and decay, all in an astonishing variety of active poetic experiments. David's book strikes me as a primer on how to write, right now, in doubt and in common.

from transit


who are you who embraces our poisons?

mouth stuffed nearly i can see the smoke

bracket evening were i to see you, who

with faith in the receding pines,

certain the wailing trees will

recuperate our gains and losses,

turn ash into act, you wishper i hear

you whisper, breath into breathe       (45)

from your nerve center taxonomy: eight staged distraction zones in miniature

Distraction Zone Staging: one person reads from two different texts; another person writes in response and reads what they are writing; a third person (me) writes in response to both audio inputs. Texts used: 1) Adorno's Aesthetic Theory and 2) leaked torture memorandum from Assistant A.G. Bybee, 2008.

6. (under_standing abu ghraib purchasables_)


A photo isn't a leg blown off
a struggling contradiction isn't yr Adorno's dialectical acrobatics
A text working overtime isn't working overtime
A crystallized conundrum isn't yr deep painterly meditation
A language rammed up against silence isn't what I witnessed
A happy garden isn't yr flaunting the chrysanthemums between
misplaced have-to's
A replica of yr washing machine isn't the imagerie of this either/or
tea trade in failures


Cramped, we expectation
Cramped, we complicit our techniques in a
Cramped, we verb the stress
Stressed, as water needed
We grasped
We body-farmed
We faxed sea-collar mines
Cramped, we mouth-sounded alarms
Cramped, we spread fingers spread
Spread, we wall the nameless several laughter
Shuts off & this is guilt's mechanism
Cramped, we muscle fatigue so many nouns tonite
Cramped, we nounds our open-eyed apology posture
("The body" is defined by capture of an incommensurate
Absence, of the area not yet wounded)
Wound, an archive archived
Wound, a side effect
Cramped, we insect
Cramped, we redaction brackets the loudest in hiding
Cramped, we water the eyes
Water, the blood when red is read as dying
Water, we comply with incipient panic
Panic, we does not breathe for seconds need
Breathes, we lift
Lift, we repeat
Lift, we review a they in a warmth kitchen wrapped
Cramped, no harm resolute goes the written as times sinking alibi
Harmed, without incident
Harmed without pulsing his leave is our evening  (124-125)

about your nerve center taxonomy, David writes:
your nerve center taxonomy  is a series of "staged occultations," where, owing to somatic practices a la ca conrad and others, work here uses both filters--repeating phrases or, in this case, conceptual frames--and rituals--predetermined activities/procedures--in order to be(come). they are, like "modular arterial cacophony,' poets theater pieces, intended to be reciprocally performed by others. in contrast to some of conrad's (soma)tics, which belong to a hugely important lineage of embodiment writing practices most profoundly associated, i think, with hannah weiner's work, these poems desire to be occulted (punished?) along with/ as extensions of their bodily environments, to be partially drowned out by their rituals (or vice versa?), rather than to emerge from their rituals.

all movements here seek to remain partially occulted, and the poetic writing is part of the ritual itself--where the ritual, or activity, divides the poem-space's attention, such that one does not write from notes afterwards, but one's notes are the poem, and the poems are the notes of the body signing in space and time. unlike the transcription practices of williamson or goldsmith, these "notes" are not jottings, descriptions, or pure dictation, but are rather staged writing acts in which the body seeks articulation thru a poetic mode from the outset, the transcriber attempting to write the poem on the spot, to, in a sense, claim itself, as mediated by and contiguous with its environment. this is to say that though the poems in this section are transcriptions, the object was to create an environment, a "distraction zone in miniature," part of which would be the "subject-body" attempting to voice thru signing, thru lyric, thru direct address, its struggle to "enunciate" or "speak" or "articulate" its fractures, multiples, constrictions, and, it turns out under such circumstances, its univocality, not to compile or to shape what has been compiled.



I plan to carry this book around with me for some time.  You should too.  It is available, as are most books mentioned on this blog, at Small Press Distribution.