“I think we can… you can sort of talk generally about the forms of life: birth and death, and need for sustenance, and language, and breathing and all that. But nobody has the right to say how it is for anybody else. That’s a luxury that no one has.”
Paul Ebenkamp, October 1, 2015
The first four Poetry Center programs that took place this Fall 2015 are now available as professionally recorded streaming video documents (with downloadable audio files) at Poetry Center Digital Archive. This is the first time in the 62-year history of The Poetry Center that we’ve been able to make what we do so readily available to people beyond the live audience, present in the room. The work is posted online quickly, it can be seen and/or heard by anyone on the planet with an internet connection, it comes at no direct cost to the viewer, and it looks and sounds great.
Here’s how our new archival situation works. We’ve initiated an arrangement with the Documentary Film Institute (a.k.a. DocFilm) at SF State, and we’ve hired one of their best graduate students in Cinema, Russ Kiel, out of Atlanta, who’s becoming known within the program as a valued cinematographer. Russ is charged with recording each video, working with sound correction and minimal editing, selecting brief video “highlights” from each program (clips anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes), saving archive-quality uncompressed video files plus an MP4 version readied for streaming, preparing comparable audio files, and forwarding each finished program to our partners at DIVA — where some fifteen collections based at San Francisco State are housed and made publicly accessible online. Meanwhile in the background, Poetry Center staff are generating catalog notes on each program to accompany the new video and audio documents. We’ve been working with Kimberly Gomes, graduate student in Creative Writing, our Associate Director Elise Ficarra, and myself, to write and edit helpful and accurate notes: metadata.
As of November 22, just two months after our initial program went online, our first eight videos have been played 1,757 times. Just under 100 people have downloaded audio versions of these eight programs. I like the audio option: it’s a fairly unique aspect of our Digital Archive. Audio’s easy to play on earbuds or in the car, the files are small enough to keep, and — since for everything we post online we’ve secured Creative Commons Atrribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licensing — people can do pretty much what they like with the audio: remix it, play it on non-commercial radio, create animations, splice it into “mixtapes,” etc. As long as you don’t start charging anybody for it, the audio is free to use and re-use. So is the video: show it in classes, at parties, impress your friends.
A quick view of the first four of these new programs, four occasions:
We’re presently in what might be the third wave of publications from John Wieners (1934–2002): the first of his initial books, a fairly short period from the late 1950s really to the mid-1970s; the second, of Raymond Foye’s excellent and substantial editions of selected poems and “outtakes” for Black Sparrow Press during the mid-to-late 1980s, during Wieners’ later life; and this present and posthumous period, with several volumes of notebooks having now appeared, letters and a biography in preparation, and a new, and third, selection of “selected poems” in hand. Robert Dewhurst, presently of Los Angeles, where he moved after completing graduate studies at SUNY Buffalo, and Michael Seth Stewart, having moved this summer back to his home state of Alabama on completion of a doctorate at CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan (where he worked with Ammiel Alcalay’s Lost & Found program), are editors, respectively, of Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners (with Joshua Beckman and CAConrad, from Wave Books, 2015) and Stars Seen In Person: Selected Journals of John Wieners(City Lights Books, 2015). As there was a celebratory evening at City Lights Bookstore in early September, we thought it made sense to invite the two of them to talk with an audience, and one another, about the work they are involved in around John Wieners, his life and writings. Here are clips of Dewhurst reading and introducing Wieners’ poem “Viva,” and of Stewart reading an excerpt from one of his notebooks.
A terrific feature of this program is the inclusion of the outtakes from Richard O. Moore‘s 1965 “USA: Poetry” public television documentary featuring John Wieners in San Francisco along with Robert Duncan. Since these are outtakes we get to see what’s usually kept under wraps, rescued here from the proverbial “cutting-room floor,” all that falls outside the original 15-minute public TV program. And, after the video within the video, there’s a handsome complement of poets in the house, just to round things out.
Once I asked David how he got into Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. It’s a great story, and if I can paraphrase, it goes something like this:
“I was working at the Discovery Bookshop on Columbus Avenue, and every week Robert Duncan and Jess would stop by after doing their grocery shopping in Chinatown. I would give them the ‘love discount.’ One day Robert went into the bathroom, and came out raving: ‘Who left this book in a shithouse?! And it’s a library book!! It needs to be in circulation!’ I thought, since Robert was so excited, I’d better check this out. It was Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. I’d always avoided Jewish subjects. And I hated it. Though gradually something started to take, and then it blossomed. Jack Hirschman was on a similar path, and pretty soon I was doing Tree[magazine], Jack was translating everything, and there it was. When I get interested in a subject, I like to study everything I can. It’s what I’ve always done.”
Brilliant anthologist, autodidact, jazz head, musician, teacher, poet, David Meltzer reads from and discusses the newly revised and reissued edition of his book Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook (City Lights Books, 2015), a kind of “book of books” culled from avid reading, mostly in the deep shelves of UC Berkeley’s Dow Library, from the days before they buried it under the landscape, when ordinary folks could still roam the stacks at will and stumble on the unfound. We also convinced him to read some poems from his early book Harps (Oyez, 1975), and David’s Copy: The Selected Poems of David Meltzer (ed. Michael Rothenberg, Penguin Poets, 2005). Clips include the opening and a later excerpt from Two-Way Mirror, and a reading of “Lamentation / for Jack Spicer,” an on-the-spot eulogy from 1965.
Katy Bohinc, late of Washington, DC, and presently living in New York City, where she works on Tender Buttons Books, rents a room in poet Lee Ann Brown and actor Tony Torn’s apartment, and otherwise does things with math involving marketing, has written an outrageous and beautiful book. More or less on a dare, she started concocting a wild series of love letters to esteemed French philosopher Alain Badiou, taking up the 2400-year agon between poets and philosophers, insisting in her writing that if there wasn’t any space for conversation here, well, there had better be — either poet and philosopher could learn to listen to each other, or else! Taking the work a step further, she sent Badiou her letters. And Badiou wrote back. They met a few times, had dinner, and now they’re scheduled to present an evening together in New York, where they’ll be hosted by Verso Books, one of Badiou’s publishers. The philosopher is preparing to present a formal response, before a live audience, to the poet’s book, Dear Alain (Tender Buttons, 2014).
In advance of that meeting, Katy Bohinc had the chance to share some stage time here, at The Poetry Center, with Paul Ebenkamp. This is the kind of happy match (and neither knew each other before this date) that works to everyone’s favor. Paul lives in Berkeley, where with Andrew Kenower he runs the long standing Woolsey Heights reading series out of their house, a few blocks West of the Ashby BART station. He edits books, writes, makes music (“noise music”), and does administrative work at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, over the bridge and through the tunnel. His first book, The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen(Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), is exceptionally unusual work, delivered in a focused, intense manner, and aimed rather than at references and marks of knowledge at, as he says here, “a different kind of process of learning and identification.” The conversation segment of these readings has been, I swear, pretty remarkable almost always and for some time, though the 32 minutes Paul and Katy share in public together after their readings is a stand-out. As a bit of evidence, here’s Paul Ebenkamp musing on a question from the audience:
“And we all have so much in common. It’s unbelievable, that we’re just sitting here and basically understanding the same thing that’s happening, and that this all holds together somehow? It’s a really incredible situation. So it’s a really interesting problem, that what I feel is what you feel, though not at all, in some other profound way. I think we can… you can sort of talk generally about the forms of life: birth and death, and need for sustenance, and language, and breathing and all that. But nobody has the right to say how it is for anybody else. That’s a luxury that no one has.”
The posthumous publication earlier this year of Michael Gizzi’s Collected Poems (The Figures, 2015), edited by his friends Clark Coolidge and Craig Watson, was a revelation. “All of the poet’s books are here,” the copy reads, and I look at the poems with recognition — “I know this… I remember this…” — and with astonishment, that these, “plus more than 100 pages of unpublished poetry covering the years 1975-2010,” amount to a tome that tips the scale in this grand manner. Alan Bernheimer and Kit Robinson organized this reading in tribute and memory of Michael, and in celebration of his work, while The Poetry Center sponsored the evening, along with The Green Arcade, favorite small bookstore in San Francisco, Patrick Marks, proprietor.
Michael’s been gone for five years. I miss him. A wonderful man, wonderful to talk to, good humored, like they used to say. Generous. I think it was Alan Bernheimer who says it, during his reading, that if you’d ever spent a couple hours with Michael you came away with the sense you’d found a new best friend. It sounds, I know, like a bad cliché, and yet in this case it ain’t. Or it’s a good cliché. In a clinch. His work loves the peculiar, the off-pitch, the aslant.
This being a democracy,
one should resemble a description,
and not a rumor to oneself.
Naïve to think relationships are equal.
Human nature is a public nuisance,
humanity a bully after all.
Are you experienced?
Does water experience the ocean?
Freedom’s useless if you can’t eat.
The world is enormous,
then you leave the house.
Michael Gizzi (1949–2010)
Twenty-odd people read from his work, and nobody got up and left the room. Clips include Clark Coolidge indicating the works that he’ll read, “not by Mike,” rather several pieces (by Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, and “Exile’s Letter,” Ezra Pound’s 1915 translation of Li Po) that he’d previously read at a memorial for Michael Gizzi “in Jamestown, Rhode Island, June 25, 2011, the day that Mike’s ashes were scattered into Narragansett Bay,” then a two-line poem by Keith Abbott. Susan Coolidge — “My first poetry reading” — and Steve Dickison, reading “Off Minor,” a poem dedicated to him and sent to him by Michael Gizzi in July 2010, from the “Last Poems” section of Collected Poems.
And yes, the image is degraded, though what is there (the poetry, the performance) comes thru. It’s curious, to me, how the degraded image isn’t just a “poor” image — I’m writing up now my remarks from the Oakland conference last October on a half dozen Poetry Center videos of Alice Notley: have to listen to what I said there and come up with some kind of transcription. There’s a poet’s measure of seeing video that’s very different from the consumer model of quality control, sharpness, fidelity.
—to Patrick Durgin, June 9, 2015, on a 1983 video recording of Hannah Weiner
[R&B fanfare comes on. Woman singer: “I feel so good…” Cuts off abruptly.]
Soundcheck. . . . Actually, I looked for that song for many years. I heard it on the radio about fifteen, twenty years ago. The title is “I Feel So Good, I Must Be Dead.” And about three or four weeks ago it turned up on YouTube. Well, there you go. But I’d asked everybody, nobody’d ever heard of the song. Now it’s on some anthology of R&B from the ’50s.
I’m going to talk about the fact that The Poetry Center at San Francisco State has hosted readings by Alice Notley since 1976 — the first one — and, just literally within the past two days we managed to get these videotapes transferred and online. And I wanted to just start by thanking Jiri Veskrna, who transferred a number of them, recorded a number of them; he’s been with The Poetry Center for a long time. And also Elise Ficarra, who’s very much behind the creation of this platform called Poetry Center Digital Archive. And then, the first of these two recordings that we have now available, from 1976 and 1984, they are in a format that we can no longer play. They’re on ¾-inch U-matic video cassettes, and our players burn out over the years. They’ve been transferred, along with some NEA funds — the funds were given to BAVC, the Bay Area Video Coalition, here in San Francisco, and they give us a very deep discount because of the subsidy through the NEA. Anyhow, there is that credit that’s due.
We’ve been slow at getting video online. So, really, these are the first of our videos to actually be available online. Video at The Poetry Center starts in 1973, with a reading by George Oppen and Robert Duncan, that has now been digitized, and it’s headed toward the internet. It’s really a question of labor. We have like zero staff to do this, basically. At some point there were five people that worked for The Poetry Center. Now there are 2.1 persons that work, and the .1 person is the one that has to do everything.
So, I’m really happy that we’re able to debut these videos. I just want to talk very briefly about each one, and then play a little bit from one of them. The first is [February 18] 1976, it’s Alice Notley with Bill Bathurst. Lewis Mac Adams is directing the Poetry Center at the time. Our notes say she’s visiting from Chicago; I believe that comes out of a spoken moment in the introduction by Lewis. And this is in the Student Union at San Francisco State; they were calling it the Barbary Coast Room at the time, I guess for local color. It’s a color video. Bill Bathurst comes in about midway through, so it’s split between the two of them, all on one tape. I don’t think I’ll play any of that, actually, but just mention that’s the very first of the recordings here. And it’s from the era of Chicago magazine. So I’m really happy that Kaplan [Harris] is here, giving some of this history as well; this is very parallel.
Then in 1984 [May 3] the reading — which I think I will play a little bit of it, to end this brief talk — is a reading where Margaret and Dusty has not yet been published, but some of the work that’s read is from that, and some of the other books [e.g., Waltzing Matilda] that are coming into print around that time. Shorter poems for the most part, but “My Bodyguard” is a longer poem that ends the reading. For this one, Laura Moriarty was on the same bill, but she wasn’t on the same tape. We sent the tape off to BAVC, the Alice got transferred, and the Laura did not get transferred. We’ll get there one day.
[April 25] 1991, then, is the “Scarlet” era, really — Scarlet magazine is taking place; The Scarlet Cabinet is yet to be published, which collects the work that Douglas Oliver and Alice Notley are doing together at the time. Poems in parallel, a very large tome, The Scarlet Cabinet. But this is a very early reading of The Descent of Alette, which was included, then, in The Scarlet Cabinet, and then was published by Penguin several years later. Douglas reads for about forty minutes from his work. He reads a short poem from his book Kind, which was a British publication, and then “Three Variations on the Theme of Harm.” And he does this very funny thing where he’s trying to do the American voices, so there’s this very exaggerated attempt at giving street speech from the Americans — putting that across in his poems. Eventually he gets Alice on stage to do the American voices. So then, she appears in part one, and then part two, here, is Alice’s own reading, and that’s from the first and third books of The Descent of Alette.
In 2001 [November 10], a decade goes by; we host a reading together with Aaron Shurin, who was at USF — the University of San Francisco starts its writing program and he’s hired to be a co-director. He had been formerly with The Poetry Center, so this is a fantastic full-time job for Aaron, and we were all very happy to have him there running that program. I came to The Poetry Center in 1999, and so we co-hosted this between SF State and USF. It’s at what was called The Gershwin Theater, and I always joke — they took away the name eventually, as I say, they discovered the Gershwins were Jewish or something, at the Jesuit college, and they renamed the theater. It’s a beautiful theater; it’s a packed house, as I remember. The poems that are read are three long poems: so we’ve entered this era of the new longer work. White Phosphorus is one of them. It’s being read, because, what’s happening in the Fall of 2001? September 11th is happening. The invasion of Afghanistan is underway. So Alice has said in the recording here that she’s been reading from White Phosphorus on this tour, which is a poem written in memoriam to her brother, who had died after being a Viet Nam War veteran and having PTSD. So White Phosphorus is read, and then a selection from Disobedience, a new Penguin book that is just out at this time, and then her version of Iphigenia, which Belladonna later put out, the following year. Aaron Shurin does the welcome, I give the introduction. A beautiful reading.
In 2006, The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan has been edited and has come into print from the University of California Press. And so we are hosting an event to celebrate The Collected Poems, but two days prior to that — that was Saturday night at the Unitarian Center, a lot of local people came out to read from that book, a beautiful evening. Two days prior [March 9, 2006], we had — Anselm [Berrigan] and Edmund [Berrigan] and Alice were all in town, and it was a fantastic opportunity to have the three of them read together. This took place at San Francisco State, in our Humanities Auditorium. Part one is Edmund, followed by Anselm reading, and then part two is Alice’s reading. It’s all pretty much new work that’s being read, on that occasion in 2006. And then a couple days later we do the tribute to Ted, based on The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan.
And then the final recording that we have up is of a recent reading, from 2012, in December [December 1]. Many of you were probably there in the house. [Laura Woltag introduces, for a solo reading co-sponsored by The Poetry Center and Small Press Traffic.] It was at the Unitarian Center, a very rainy night. Remember rain? Alice gave a very generous reading, that [on the video] breaks into two parts. Culture of One is being read from; Songs and Stories of the Ghouls; and then an unpublished poem. About twenty-five minutes or so of this new work is read, and one of the highlights is an intervention from a geriatric heckler, and Alice — without skipping a beat — snaps “Fuck off!” and goes back into the poem. That’s about three minutes before the conclusion of part two.
My sense about this material is that . . . Richard O. Moore is the gentleman who produced in the 1960s the programs that were called “USA: Poetry.” The Poetry Center has the outtakes, and we’re working to get those online. Richard Moore’s sense is that these were produced through public funds, so they’re public property. They should really be out there. They should not be “controlled” by WNET, regardless of what they are, in New York, and so forth. So hopefully we’ll have these “outtakes” on line very soon. But that’s my sense with this work, too. It is produced through public funds. It’s our work. So getting it online and publicly available is something I’m very invested in doing. Hopefully some of the resources are going to come forward to make that a little more possible.
I’d like to just watch a bit of this 1984 reading, which for me at the moment is the most intriguing. I wasn’t there. I was there for the subsequent readings. This is at San Francisco State, the Student Union. It is a color recording, a color video. BAVC has done some beautiful work on it, in order to bring it into the condition that it’s in. So you’ll see color appear a little bit. It looks almost sepia-toned, but somebody walks onstage and a shirt will show up. I think I’ll just play a couple minutes of this.
[Video plays: Audience chatter. Poetry Center Director Jim Hartz introduces: “Alice Notley is going to read now. Also, she is reading tomorrow with Philip Whalen. And the time and the place exactly? Eight o’clock at New College, tomorrow night. Alice has eleven books to date, including Doctor Williams’ Heiresses, which was originally given as a talk at 80 Langton Street some years ago, that Tuumba Press brought out. Also, How Spring Comes, which won the Poetry Center Book Award for 1981, which was judged by Kathleen Fraser and Jack Marshall. And also Waltzing Matilda, and Sorrento, which is a forthcoming book. Alice Notley.” Applause.
Alice Notley [moves the microphone]: “Should I tamper with this? Can you hear me? [pause] Are you sure you can hear me? Is it better if I lean into it? It is? How can I do that? Dammit. Can I make it higher? [the microphone gets adjusted] That would be wonderful. Thank you. Okay.”
AN reads “Margaret and Dusty.”
AN reads “History of the World.”
AN: “Boy, I really blew that one.” Video paused.]
For me, all the time, much of the value of these recordings is in the marginalia: the fact that this reading by Philip Whalen was happening the next night. With Philip Whalen, at the New College, so that history comes in. Beautiful. All the things that you can’t go off and read in a book, that are there. Thank you, I think that’s it.
October 25, 2014 / posted June 27, 2015 Steve Dickison