Aaron Shurin, Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye at Small Press Traffic

Last night Kelly Holt and I raced from a tasty meal at Crepevine where we were discussing Jack Spicer and Nathaniel Mackey, to Small Press Traffic to hear Aaron Shurin, Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye read and perform. Autumn has begun its reign and so it was already dark as we slipped in at about 7:45.

Aaron read first.It has been a long time since I've heard him, though I've always loved Shurin's work and years ago sent him a copy of my first chapbook. I believe he sent a little missive in return and I wonder where that note is now.

But back to the evening's events-- I was mesmerized by Aaron's sonorous voice and beautifully paced reading. He read from his new collection of personal essays King of Shadows. These pieces are as much about Shurin's love affair with the glittering city by the Bay as they are about his passion for literature and language and the city's nascent (in the mid 1960s) and ever evolving gay scene.

Here's a gem from "In the Bars of Heaven and Hell," a piece he read from last night:

"...Imaginary metropolis, fleur de ciel, balm for a wound and the wound's own inflamer, city of promise or pleasure or pain, city of the heathenly heavenly gate, city of all gratification given or lost in place, still there, still here, still there..." (132).

Aaron didn't read from "Morning in the Valley" last night, but I like this piece, so here's a little morsel from it. The scene is a Hot Springs resort where the narrator spots an attractive man, and then I skip forward to the piece's closing:

"...His body's an urban primitive canvas of torso-wide geometric tattoos; his pierced dick's weighed down by an alarmingly large silver ring.) I can see now that the extended pictographic lines across his back and shoulders are the wing bones of what I think is the skeleton of a pterodactyl, whose body of pure bones is suspended from the nape of this guy's neck.The archaic--no, the archaeological!--conjoins the contemporary....For the sake of compositional accuracy I pick up my books and towels and go looking for the illustrated man, to find out what the pterodactyl image really is. I want to ground my fancy in his imagination. But he's nowhere to be found, of course; he's gone from the valley, gone home. I'm left with the image that I've constructed, my ideogram, my remedial tattoo. It broadens my shoulders and aligns my back, a corrective wingspan of meditative synthesis. Taken from his torso it fits me like a fact.

I flex the page and stretch" (60-63).

One wonders "how does he do it?" How does he manage to write sentences that both soar with romantic excess and are unafraid of the exacto knife; sentences of desire and its extension to the world, a sharp edge so precise and dangerous?

Shurin's reading was followed by Anne Waldman accompanied at the end by Ambrose Bye on keyboards. Waldman performed "Red State, Blue State," which managed to be chock full of everything from Enron to Oppenheimer, Homeland Security, the Library of Alexandria, jackals, writing dances, and a wail about wanting to strangle Dick Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfeld. Another piece on manatees posited "manatees thinking archivally," an image that interested me. It's a pleasure to watch Waldman. She so inhabits her body and moves with(in) it.


Geyser! a New Play by Kevin Killian and Wayne Smith

The picture isn't good, but the play was.

Small Press Traffic hosted the premier of Geyser! on Friday, September 12, 2008.

Geyser! takes place in a small town in Oregon where the short-lived TV series Geyser was filmed. Many locals appeared in the series and although the town's geyser hasn't gone off in 30 years, the town is hosting the convention of the Geyser fan club. Geyser, the TV show ended with the death of one of its stars, Lawrence Kansas, shot on location. His murder is unsolved until the close of Geyser! the play.

I arrived just before it all began. The cast was huge including:

Kala Milosevich as Kitty Potter, host of "Kitty Corner" (She purred her way through the piece in the most delicious southern accent! I could listen to her all day.)

Rex Ray as Rick Penny, host of "Rick Penny Among the Many" (Slippery, so slippery! Rick and Kitty are rival talk show hosts.)

Wayne Smith as Crimmins the beleaguered butler of a great star [Marjorie Cantrell]

Kevin Killian as Marjorie Cantrell, the first lady of the American theater (She hasn't left her home in thirty years. No make-up for this gal--just lots of sunscreen. She's photophobic!)

Gerald Corbin as Celebrity Stylist Maurice Anton (So smooth!)

Craig Goodman as Jared Oriole of Sherman Oaks (What was the line? --He's the sparkplug around which everything revolves. He's the organizer of the Geyser fan club. He's supposed to to be marrying Anouk at the fan club conference but instead marries Klanglar from Iceland.)

Tanya Hollis as Anouk, Jared's fiancee from Brittany (So French, so moody, oui! oui!)

Mac McGinnes as Wilford Hall, town clerk (Perfectly doddering.)

Jocelyn Saidenberg as Klanglar Gunnarsdottir, from Iceland (Her high-pitched voice and inverted syntax, those furs and glasses!--Jocelyn, was that really you?)

Laurie Reid as Mayor Constance Strode (So Palin-like in her glasses and suit with her hair swept up. But Constance has a heart and a long lost son.)

Colter Jacobsen plays Charlie Strode, Mayor Strode's son, a local fan and a clown, known as "Buttons" (Charlie dropped out of RISD to join the Radical Clown Collective, and needs to ask his mother for money to pin on the trees in the forest.)

Glen Helfand as Michael Carson, local fan and owner of a bed'n'breakfast place

Lindsay Wagner, a dangerously deluded fan is played by David Brazil (He and Tanya, aka "Anouk" draped around each other were fab.)

Donna Mangiafranni, fan from Florida was suavely underplayed by Margaret Tedesco

Stephen Boyer played Teddy French, life partner of Michael Carson (His crossed leg swinging boyishly.)

Suzanne Stein played Molly Martin, Twin Cities fan (Her room sports a blown up photo of Dennis Quaid, close-up of his midriff, I believe.)

Taylor Brady as Gypsy Kincaide, truck driving fan (Who could have believed Taylor, one of the more articulate speakers out there could so convincingly play someone of so few words!)

Cliff Hengst as Bobo, clown leader (Charismatic as the leader of the radical clown collective. Cliff and Kevin (Marjorie) perform a duet at the play's close of "Send in the Clowns.")

Anne McGuire as Buttercup, a clown

Scott Hewicker as Dennis Quaid

Timken Hall was packed for the play and a good time was had by all. At some point in the middle of the play, there was a momentary lag, but it was only momentary. The theater was filled with bouts of raucous laughter. The cast obviously enjoyed themselves too. Kudos to all.


Nick Robinson's Poets Theater

Nick in Eileen Corder's play Mister Sister (1980)

Poets Theater Program Notes
originally written for Small Press Traffic's
Poets Theater Jamboree 2007
Nick Robinson

By 1979 I was done with school and trying to figure out what to do with myself. Should I move to Vermont and join the Bread & Puppet Theater Company, as my college acting teacher had advised? Or get more involved with practice at the SF Zen Center, in spite of the martial tone that prevailed there. I applied for a Fulbright to study music in Bali, and while waiting for my free ticket in the mail I learned a few banjo tunes and cast about for a DIY theater project. I was living with Eileen Corder on York Street off 24th. Tinker Greene’s brother John had the Studio Eremos space in Project Artaud, and he let us rehearse and perform there for free, maybe we collected a little money and gave it to him but basically this was off the grid.

Carla Harryman and Steve Benson and I had done a one-night performance of Frank O’Hara’s Try! Try! at the Grand Piano, but Eileen and I had bigger ideas and wanted to do plays like we’d been doing them for the past 4 years in college in Michigan and Santa Cruz – real productions with rehearsals, direction, sets, costumes, lights, multiple performances. The poets were ready. I don’t remember having any trouble getting people to commit to 2 or 3 nights of rehearsal per week for a month or more, and a couple weekends of performances.

We’d show up at the studio around 7:30 and the actors would trickle in from their day jobs, or just from their days. Sometimes they’d already be in character. The dreamer, the bad boy, the cranky kid, the con man, the princess. Everybody seemed to have a shtick.

I didn’t have much idea of poets theater except I knew I didn’t want it to be like a staged poetry reading where everybody would just stand around and read their lines. I wanted something to happen between the actors, and I wanted that something to be expressed physically. So I leaned on what I’d learned from improvisational theater, much of it non-verbal – Viola Spolin theater games, 60s NYC experimental theater exercises a la Open Theater, El Teatro Campesino improvisational exuberance, Grotowskian plastique exercises – and I just started throwing it at the poor actors who probably wondered what any of it had to do with the script. But they stuck to it and let me lead them through all sorts of physical and vocal experiments. After a while they started to enjoy it, and then they started to play together. When I saw this I knew that I could start giving them lines from the script. As soon as they got their lines they’d stop playing together and start “acting”, which would be terrible, so I made the improvisations more structured and demanding so they wouldn’t be able to resume their habitual shtick, even though they wanted to. In this way, at times, the actors would surpass themselves.

Of course I tried to focus and score the improvs into a kind of physical/vocal/emotional subtext that bore an intentional relation to the text, but with texts like Third Man, Particle Arms, and Collateral (which Eileen directed) there was a lot of leeway for defining that relation.

The results? Mixed. There was a lot of excitement. We had big crowds. People laughed and cheered. Everybody learned something about the processes of making theater. Some of the writers plowed that knowledge back into their work which it continues to inform to this day.

It went on like that for a few years. When it ended for me (“… and so castles made of sand…”) I was still trying to figure out how to bring all the elements together in a dynamic and vital balance. Each time I watched a rehearsal or performance was a new chance to notice what was really happening between the actors and the text. That was the part I enjoyed the most. So it’s with pleasure that I join you for a viewing of selections from plays done by SF Poets Theater nearly thirty years ago.

Original manuscripts, correspondence, audio and video recordings, photos, programs, posters, and director’s notes to the productions are housed in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.

Some of the plays are published in: This 11, Spring 1981; Hills 8, Summer 1981; Hills 9, Spring 1983; Busy Wrong: Two Plays, Eileen Corder, Jimmy’s House of Knowledge, 1986; Animal Instincts: Prose, Plays, Essays, Carla Harryman, This, 1989; Crowd and not evening or light, Leslie Scalapino, O Books, 1992.

Nick Robinson lives in Albany, California, works as a librarian at UC Berkeley, and plays in several Bay Area string bands. His group the Ragtime Boyos will perform Sunday September 14 in the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention Cabaret from 3-6pm at Jupiter in Berkeley. Check out their video.

Here's Nick with the Imaginary String Band (2007).


Poetry, Politics & Class

Earlier this year in an article about the Clinton
vs Obama primary race I was struck by the following quote:

"You campaign in poetry,
but you govern in prose."
--Hillary Clinton, Nashua, N.H., Jan. 6.

Clinton was suggesting that Obama's discourse is poetry
and her own prose. By setting up this dichotomy--on the
one hand, poetry as that which persuades or stuns or
lure's an audience versus prose which, on the other hand,
is the discourse of logic and policy and the stuff of action--she
constructs their differences but also makes an implicit value
judgement and assessment about the relationship of each
to the social world. Poetry is powerful, seductive (a formulation
as old as Plato's banishment of poets from the polis in The Republic)
while prose is practical. Such a formulation also points out that
each is shaped by and the instrument of ideology.

Clinton was also participating in the construction of
ideologies about both. With this figure, she capitalized
on an existing belief that poetry is the stuff of sentiment
and insufficient for governing, dangerous even. It is
more suited to the passions. While banishing poetry
from a portion of the public sphere, she also assigns it
other powers; its power of otherness. This is all
entangled in a mess of exoticization and contradiction.
And interestingly contains all kinds of reverberations
about who actually gets to participate in the polis.
Who counts.

There's more:

David Orr on The Poetry Foundation web site in an
article entitled Poetry & Politics provides another
example of poetry's appearance in the public sphere
as a way to launch his own examination of poetry's
relationship to politics:

"Shortly before Ohio's Democratic primary, Tom
Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists' union
and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, took to the
stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay
the wood to Barack Obama. 'Give me a break!' snarled
Buffenbarger, 'I've got news for all the latte-drinking,
Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies
crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a
round against the Republican attack machine.'
And then the union rep delivered his coup de
grace: 'He's a poet, not a fighter!'"

In this quote, the speaker clearly disparages poetry,
associating it with an elitist demographic and
juxtaposing it to the figure of the "fighter."
McCain, near the end of his speech on Thursday
night, invoked over and over this figure of the
fighter, the warrior --get up and fight! According
to such rhetoric (which harkens back to the Romantics
although if we take it back to the troubadours this
becomes problematic as they eventually
came from the "lower classes," and were people
who worked with their hands!),poetry is for
lovers, not fighters.

Interestingly, in this quote too, poetry and Obama
are each figured as other and each gets aligned
with a particular class location: poetry (and Obama)
elitist; prose (and the working class) the language of battle,
and for the speaker above, the language of Hillary Clinton.
Neither Clinton, nor McCain and his seven kitchen tables,
nor even Obama currently qualifies as working class.

Poetry & Natinoalism: If I had time here, it would be
worth thinking through poetry’s relationship to
nationalism. And perhaps the connection between
creative writing programs in primary schools and
democracy as DG Meyers outlines it in The
Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880.
But there isn’t time at the moment!

Poetry, Politics & The San Francisco
Bay Area:
This discussion about poetry
and its relationship to politics at the
present political moment is interesting
to me because I've been at work
writing about the San Francisco Bay
Area poetry in the 70s and 80s. During
this period, poetry's relationship to the
social world is one of the central animating
debates of these decades.

Here are a few quotes to illustrate:

"Writing itself is a form of action."
(Ron Silliman. The New Sentence 4)

"My theme probably has most to do
with a very strong feeling that telling
stories actually has an effect on the
world, and that a relation is achieved
between the one telling those stories
and her or his audience and history"
(Bruce Boone. Century of Clouds 42).

"The political is an ordeal. Or rather,
to undertake politics properly is to
undergo an ordeal. Not poems then,
but poetry and the dialectics of
writing (Ron’s ‘Not this. What then?’):
If the polis could serve as a site for the
appearance of writing, might not writing
serve as preparation for the polis?"
(Lyn Hejinian, The Grand Piano Part 2 75).

In 1988 an article entitled, "Aesthetic Tendency
and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto"
is published in the journal Social Text. Ron Silliman,
Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson,
Bob Perelman, and Barett Watten
co-authored this article and constructed
it as a direct response to the types of
criticism lobbed at this group of writers
frequently identified as Language Writers
though they themselves problematize this
identification (for example in their refusal to
use the term Language writing until the
twelfth page of the article) while valorizing
the group as community. Despite the
problematic nature of group identity,
these authors articulate themselves as a
"community of writers who read each
other’s work"(261). The article states
"we are arguing for the significance of a
group against the canonical individual
of the ‘expressivist’ tendency, itself a
social movement" (273), one that is
naturalized so to appear to "provide
an ideology of no ideology" (264).
The authors provide examples of
the problematic construction of a
transcendent, isolated individual
proffering personal experience in
a variety of poems and assert
that in such cases, "authorial ‘voice’
lapses into melodrama in a social
allegory where the author is precluded
from effective action by his or her very
emotions" (265). It is "this kind of
worked-over accounting of ‘experience,’
we think, [that] is primarily responsible
for the widespread contemporary
reception of poetry as nice but irrelevant" (264).
Such poetry, this article argues, accounts for
the public perception that poetry is
ornamental but irrelevant in the social world.

In his introduction to the magazine Soup in 1981,
editor Steve Abbott offers a brief description
of New Narrative. He writes: "New Narrative is
language conscious but arises out of specific social
and political concerns of specific communities...
It stresses the enabling role of content in determining
form rather than stressing form as independent
or separate from its social origins and goals."

Robert Gl├╝ckwrites:
"Whole areas of my experience, especially
gay experience, were not admitted to
this utopia [of language writing],
partly because the mainstream
reflected a resoundingly coherent
image of myself back to me–an
image so unjust that it amounted
to a tyranny that I could not turn
my back on. We had been
disastrously described by
the mainstream–a naming
whose most extreme (though
not uncommon) expression was
physical violence. Political agency
involved at least a provisionally
stable identity....Bruce [Boone] and
I turned to each other to see if we
could come up with a better
representation–not in order to
satisfy movement pieties or to
be political, but in order to be.
We (eventually we were gay, lesbian
and working-class writers) could not
let narration go ("Long Note on
New Narrative" 26-27).

Class: And then there are issues of class and its
relationship to poetry and the Bay Area
writing community. Dodie Bellamy takes
up the issue of class in a post on her blog.

This excerpt is from my review, forthcoming
in Crayon, of Mike Amnasan’s novel Liar:

"In a recent email exchange about class and
the San Francisco Bay Area writing scene,
Amnasan wrote:
'To talk about class issues was considered
an attempt at one-ups-man-ship, trying
to get special attention through an illegitimate
means that no one was going to take seriously.
A lot of middle class writers felt that if a
working class person learned from the
books and resources that they themselves
had learned from they became middle
class with the same privileges....I think
the basic attitude among a lot of language
writers was that the social class of an
individual had become too hard to
distinguish with all the different kinds
of labor and vocations people now had
so that class was no longer valid as
criteria in regard to individuals and
so it was simply no longer interesting'
(June 16, 2007 email from Mike Amnasan).

So, these are just a few quotes that suggest some
of the contentions around politics, poetry
and social engagement, and class.
Just the tip of the iceberg!