Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Were the 70s a time of crossover between visual artists and poets? It is a proposition that we would see tested over and over again in the days that followed. What a shame that Liz Kotz couldn’t make it to the conference, Liz Kotz, the art historian whose recent book on the 60s artists who made the “turn to language” is so daring and convincing—she would have been great to consult on this question. Reading her book you get the feeling that at a certain point, the art world, like Pacman of a later date, opened its fierce jaws and simply gobbled up language as yet another treat. Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art came out from MIT just last year, hardly enough time for its thesis to become common parlance, but I predict in four years’ time, everyone will have this stuff on their tongues. In his report, Barrett similarly bewailed the lack of critical work about the intersection of 70s art and poetry, but I think had Kotz been able to make it, he would have found the analysis he found lacking elsewhere. Reading Sentenced to Light in its light the individual works Fred Wah wrote for assume a sudden clarity, it’s easier to see the outlines of his total achievement. Both books have that serious, deep blue color, streaked with black, that denotes to me an engagement with an occluded or prettied-up reality, an underground stream still burbling, like Joan Greenwood’s speaking voice.
Presently Steve Evans appeared and released Fred from his purgatory of the broken cordless mike, and dragged an old fashioned mike stand in front of his face. The relief in the room was palpable, he could be heard throughout, and the reading finished on one strong point after another. Afterwards it was our turn: me, Dodie, and Eileen, asked to reconvene on the next floor in a dramatically different theater space that reminded me of the mise-en-scene of A Chorus Line—a totally black box theater with bleacher seats all down the length of the room, while a pair of shorter rows filled one side of the stage, so that when one was speaking one didn’t know which way to face, not really. It was tremendously theatrical and would be a great space for putting on a Living Theater production of cruelty like The Brig. Yikes, it seemed like a daunting proposition to get up there and read, but since this was going to be the site of many of the group readings and the after-hours open mike series, somebody had to go first. As it turned out, it was I.
Were people out there in the dark leaning to each other and whispering, he has the biggest cock in California? Doubtlessly, yet I was nervous anyhow, sensing the clicking of the folding chairs I couldn’t see, the heavy thump of the padded doors when someone came in late.. I did sort of the same set of poems I had read in New York in April, on the principle of, they loved them there, they’ll love them again, and because this was the 70s conference, I leaned heavily on my 70s repertoire, ending up with “Is It All Over My Face?” my elegy for the musician Arthur Russell. I asked the crowd, do any of you know Arthur Russell? And when no one replied, I swallowed and just tried a little harder. Afterwards a number of people told me they indeed knew Russell’s music but they were just too shy to yell out. Such diffidence would be a thing of the distant past by Friday or Saturday, but this was still only Thursday. Suffice it to say I tried to slay them—in show business terms only!—but in light of the “Aggression” conference at Small Press Traffic—maybe an unfortunate term.
Dodie read (a section from) her essay/memoir on the London-based artist Tariq Alvi, Eileen read, part of her Inferno novel about the life of a young poet in the 1970s and her encounters with problematic colleagues, male and female alike. It’s all up on YouTube—I forgot that this would happen —it slipped my mind that everything I write here you will be able to check up on! I feel like the painters of the 19th century when they realized that photography had usurped their narrative function. Years ago I started writing about these conferences in terms of fashion reports, but today you can see what everybody had on at every day of the event, and judge for yourself—though as the days go by some outfits loom larger and larger as exemplary conferencewear, while others sink comfortably, like Kate and Leo on the Titanic, deeper and deeper into icy fashion hell. While reading I found myself culturally and sexually excited by the complementary presence of a particular cameraman, Jimmy Sharkey his name was—who must have been hired by the conference to provide complete documentation, as he went everywhere with us, and when he couldn’t be at several places at one time, he’d run into a classroom for a particular panel, swivel his camera around to get the general mise-en-scene, then go running out to find another grouping.
Myself (left) with Jimmy Sharkey, conference photographer. Note indistinct, murky, atmospheric theater floor and walls.
We saw him in bits and pieces, but when one was centerstage, as I was this evening, and moving at the lectern with a microphone, one felt oneself being danced around in the most sinuous and agile way, by this man Jimmy from Ireland; he’d sink to one knee to capture one from below; he’d poke that camera right up to your chest; he’d swirl around your body like Nureyev circling the aging Margot Fonteyn in Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand (1963). Well, one couldn’t help reacting of course, if one has an ounce of “playing to the camera.” Kind of quiet and retiring when you got him on his own turf, on yours Jimmy had no shame and would do anything to get his way with you. As I say you can see it on YouTube, you can’t see him but you can see me making faces at him—making eyes, as my grandma used to say.
Outside of this performance space in the tiny, rhomboid shaped lobby university employees had set up a cash bar and oh, how I wish I still drank! I must say the level of drinking at Orono seemed to me falling considerably short of previous years, but maybe I was just missing out on some memorable bacchanals because I wasn’t at Doris Twitchell Allen Hall falling down on the furniture? The bartenders did get busy that’s for sure. I couldn’t keep up with what they were doing with their forearms, but all I wanted was a humble Diet Coke. In this beseeching posture I met Chris Glomski, a Chicago poet whose book, Transparencies Lifted from Noon, belies its kooky title with some of the best writing I’ve seen in a long time. I had met Chris at New Years, at the MLA convention in Chicago where I had accompanied Dodie who was giving a paper. Organizers had put together a vast reading of the “Poets of the MLA” and somehow I had wangled an invitation in order to justify to myself, my own voluntary visit to the MLA floor.
Fifty poets, two hours, in the ballroom of the grand Chicago Art Institute school. How they get any work done there is beyond me, if it was me studying there I’d just be blinking and gasping all the time at the rococo and the gilt. Glomski has an amiable, sharp-eyed face and he had caught my attention the previous evening when some of us made an informal wager about who looked the most seventies, and my money was on Chris Glomski’s wonderfully thick and expressive mullet. I asked him if I could take his picture, once, twice, trying to get all that hair into one picture was like trying to capture the double rainbow that had heralded our evening. I introduced myself to Tom Orange, thanking him for the work he had done in organizing what promised to be the single grandest event of the conference, the assembly of Washington DC poets of the seventies, several of whom I had never met—people whose names were redolent of legend for me, mythic figures of a vital poetry scene that had to it a bit of the Camelot magic. Well, anyone who has read any of Joan Retallack’s memoir-cum-essay “The Dupont Circle Circle” knows what I’m talking about. Tom Orange looked weary for a moment, then brightened considerably when I declared myself a fan. The Washington DC poets just didn’t seem like conference type people to me, I said. Indeed I expect some of them had never been out of DC before: like Antaeus they drew strength from keeping a foot on their native grounds. “They’re not all here yet,” Orange said. “But I’m hoping for the best.” Orange himself looks almost scarily like the young Philip Horvitz when I first met him, his height, his wave of hair, his open and friendly gestures, his eyes—what am I saying, he could play my dear Philip in the movie version of his life. Do you see it? I wondered if Ben would agree—Ben Friedlander, who knew Philip before I did, who probably knew Tom Orange too? Maybe it was just me, and a middle-aged penchant for seeing old faces in new ones, a way to hold on to ghosts and to extend to their new avatars some of the love the grave fritters away.
Bill Howe shepherded a long line of open mike poets through their paces, in the dark, black auditorium behind us, but after awhile I felt my knees begin to give way, possibly from having thought about things so much. I remembered being here in 2004 and, as I was leaving, Burt Hatlen pressing his hand on mine and saying, “And now you will return to San Francisco and give us a novel?” He wasn’t talking about my own novels either, just my propensity to expand my fashion reports into three decker length. I knew it was time to return to Steve and Jennifer’s house and try to get my thoughts in order, for this was only the beginning.