Kevin Killian: What I Saw at the Orono Conference 2008, part 21

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dodie and I were thunderstruck arriving at the panel on “New Narrative and the New Sentence” and to find so many people there in the audience. Especially because the New Narrative panel was running opposite so many others that I would have guessed to be much more popular.

I sat in the back of the classroom and jotted down the names of those I recognized. But you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that this panel was a subject of some interest among the Grand Piano crowd. Barrett sat right in the middle of the row—very far up—super close to the panelists, almost where a teachers pet would sit, and then in the long row directly behind his I could see Steve Benson, Rae Armantrout, Kit Robinson and Bob Perelman, like his wingmen. It was a striking visual picture and later the panelists each confessed to a moment of dizzying fear when they saw “Barrett and the Jets” in this particular grouping. Rembrandt should have painted them, my words are inadequate. But beyond the Language poets, if I may still call them that, the room was pleasantly filled with brains. Carla Billitieri was the chair of the panel, facing Lytton Smith and Stephen Motika, Eileen Myles, Ben Friedlander, Rodney Koeneke and Stan Apps, Jeanne Heuving, Chris Glomski, Steven Zultanski, Tina Darragh (perhaps should be grouped with original Language poets? but didn't line up with the wingmen), Patrick Durgin, Tim Kreiner, and others whom my notes tentatively identify as “green beard guy” (now, that’s got to be wrong!), “woman with red hair,” and “bear looking tall guy with beard.” All in all a distinguished crowd. If green beard guy, woman with red hair, or bear looking tall guy with beard happen to be reading this could you step forward and identify yourself for purposes of rejection of closure?

Robin Tremblay McGaw

The New Narrative of the 70s I missed basically, because I didn’t arrive in San Francisco until 1980, but the panelists made a strong case that some decisive turns in its development had already occurred by the time I signed up. Dodie and I nodded approvingly through Robin Tremblay-McGaw’s thorough and assured account of the intersections between New Narrative, what we then called Language Poetry, and other social and political movements of the period. Kaplan Harris went all forensics on us as he attempted to track down and interweave scattered accounts of a long ago Marxist study group that included almost a comical variety of principal players of each movement—a group which apparently fell apart within six months, but out of which came great things, as well as great schisms.

Kaplan Harris urged into the well-known "Chloe Sevigny" pose by the photographer. In this pose you, like Miss Sevigny, drop your head down so that you are staring at the photographer's feet, then slowly—slowly!—you lift only your eyeballs, leaving the rest of your head in its original downward-facing shoe gaze. Miss Sevigny is said to allow only photographs of herself to be published if she checks first to see that she has adopted her trademark pose. It's seductive, all that white of the eye showing, and the upturned brow it entails.

By this time most everyone in the room must have been convinced, or nearly so, of the panel’s principal argument—namely, that Language Poetry as we know it was severely (perhaps "helpfully" is a better adverb) detourned, rearranged, and basically had its ass handed to it by the gadfly gay voices of the original New Narrative movement, Bob Gluck, Bruce Boone, and the late Steve Abbott. It came Rob Halpern’s turn to speak and he produced a smoking gun (and distributed what must have been the largest and loveliest handout of the entire conference). This was a blow up of a few pages from Soup magazine, the “house organ” of New Narrative of that date, and yet a journal that published quite a few key Language poetry documents as well during its brief four-issue run (in the 1980s, so I was there for that).

Mainly the spread showed Bruce Boone’s article, “Language Writing: The Pluses and Minuses of the New Formalism,” perhaps not one of Boone’s best articles, but that’s like saying, oh, that Lake Mead isn’t one of God’s best lakes. The salient thing was that, as a kind of sidebar to Boone’s article, Bob Perelman’s poem “China” first saw the light of day. Halpern then was able to demonstrate that it was thanks to “China’s” appearance in Soup, and Boone’s frenemy-ship with Fredric Jameson, that the controversial poem first found its way into Jameson’s heart, resulting in a memorable description of Perelman, and by extension Language writing in general, as schizophrenic.

Next was our panel, the one I’d been looking forward to, and dreading, for weeks. Originally I had made a bid to speak, as I had at three previous conferences, on Jack Spicer. Oh, why not? Even though Spicer died in 1965, I thought that I could concentrate on Blaser’s edition of Spicer’s Collected Books (1975), for which there’s loads of new information now that Blaser has made his working papers available at the Bancroft Library here in Berkeley. I was tracing back issues connected to the reception of the book (issues I now realize probably had much to do with my own anxiety about the imminent release of the new edition of Spicer's writing that Peter Gizzi and I have prepared and which will appear in December.) But then Eileen Myles called, saying she had landed Liz Kotz and Dodie, and she wanted me too to sit on a “queer panel.” Somehow the dry, textual sort of paper I had planned didn’t seem right, so I "went with" (as it were) John Wieners, and in a larger sense I would try to deal with the larger issues of cross-dressing and sexual difference I saw as emblematic of the 1970s (perhaps my own 70s).

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