Early and Late: “Unreleased” Poetry Center Videos On View at SFMOMA Open Space

John Ashbery, May 1973 — Ishmael Reed, October 1973 — Al Young, May 1974 — Diane di Prima, June 1974 — Lucia Berlin, February 1984 — Raúl Zurita and William Rowe, April 2009 — Akilah Oliver, February 2010 — Cecilia Vicuña, February 2012 — Fred Moten, November 2013 — Judy Grahn, February 2014 — Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, April 2014 — Erica Hunt and Marty Ehrlich, April 2014.

The kind folks at SFMOMA’s Open Space, editors Claudia La Rocco and Gordon Faylor, asked Elise Ficarra, Poetry Center Associate Director, and Director, Steve Dickison, to dig into our video archives for their latest issue of their polymorphously expansive online magazine. Open Space, Issue 4, The View from Here, is assembled under the headnote:

These microhistories — all in and of the Bay, give or take — enumerate the local and the particular. They plumb the archive for the body and the body for the archive, unearthing tensions between the collected and recollected, included and excluded, participant and fugitive. They seek to celebrate, to complicate, to reconfigure. The narrator is unreliable, the spectator is emancipated, and the facts only side-eye the truth.

Together, our selections out of the archives — early and late, 1973 to 2014 — cull representative works out of a span of over forty years of all-original video-recordings, as housed in The Poetry Center‘s American Poetry Archives collection in our facilities in the Humanities Building on the SF State campus, now part of the College of Liberal and Creative Arts.


Diane di Prima, June 21, 1974, at San Francisco State University. Poetry Center video still.

Elise Ficarra’s “Getting Love Right
takes its title from a line of late beloved poet Akilah Oliver — Just a little time, to get love right  — and delves into aspects of mythic time, political time, intimate time, “the sacred space of no time” (Ficarra). She ranges across multiple selections for each poet out of The Poetry Center’s video-documentation of  Diane di Prima, some few years after relocating to San Francisco from her native New York, at the time of her composing Loba (collected and published four years later, in 1978, as Loba: Parts I-VIII by local Wingbow Press, also publisher of the first collected edition of Edward Dorn’s [Gun]Slinger, both poetry “blockbusters” of their day). Al Young, early on a novelist (Snakes, Who Is Angelina?) as well as poet and writer on music, like di Prima a fairly recent transplant to the Bay Area at the time, reads — and sings (he’d been on stages and coffeehouses as a folksinger, and he’s familiar in musicians’ circles most his life). Akilah Oliver leapfrogs us into the near-present, and also the irreparably lost: she left us, too young, in February 2011, just one year after this Poetry Center date. Extraordinary Chilean poet Raúl Zurita is joined by poet-translator and renowned Latin Americanist William Rowe, from Great Britain; in Spanish and English they work a territory occupied by the lost, Chile’s disappeared of the Pinochet dictatorship, via Rowe’s translation of Zurita’s outstanding 2004 work of poetry, INRI. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, reading from her recent book Hello, The Roses, plays at “closing the distance in consciousness between people and plants” (Ficarra).

Steve Dickison’s “For Mnemosynedwells on memory-work, opening into the daily news of late-summer 2016 re-soundings of all too real echoes from Chile, September 1973. Ishmael Reed launches into a responsive celebration of Pablo Neruda, only days after the grand poet’s death that month and the death by U.S.-backed military coup of the Chilean Republic. Cecilia Vicuña — who grew up in the Santiago of Neruda, of beloved folklorist and singer Violeta Parra (gone before she was 50) and the Parra clan that includes antipoeta Nicanor Parra (who’s astoundingly still going at 102, his birthday this past September 5), and of assassinated folksinger/poet Víctor Jara, et al. — addresses that same September “moment” from 39 years later. Lucia Berlin, who spent her teenage years in Santiago, in what turns out to be a rare reading from her on video, is featured delivering two very short stories, little one-page gemstones, in 1984. John Ashbery‘s at SFMOMA before it moved to its present south of Market site, the former San Francisco Museum of Art having served as site for some of The Poetry Center’s readings since the mid-1950s. Judy Grahn tells an extraordinary story — partly on the fly, partly reading out of her autobiography, A Simple Revolution — that winds from “humble” origins, early military life and forced exclusion (as a lesbian) from that situation, into college years at premier historically Black school Howard University, and her studying there with Nathan Hare, who later turns up, as does Grahn, as “part of the insurgency” (Grahn) at San Francisco State in the late ’60s. Hare was a prime mover in the historic 1968–69 Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front-organized student and faculty strike that brought about the first Department of Black Studies (now Africana Studies) and only College of Ethnic Studies at a U.S. public university. Fred Moten follows, meticulously taking apart and re-assembling the meanings and values of Twelve Years a Slave, hours after the movie had opened in Oakland. A few months after this date, New Yorkers Erica Hunt (who had an early turn working here at The Poetry Center) and stellar multi-instrumentalist/composer Marty Ehrlich are in performance at the Center for New Music in downtown San Francisco, churning Erica’s poetry and Marty’s music into intimate, reciprocal voicings.

Erica Hunt and Marty Ehrlich 2014

Erica Hunt and Marty Ehrlich, April 4, 2014, at Center for New Music, San Francisco. Poetry Center video still.

Early works. At the moment, what we have access to as digital material among the thousands of “unreleased” videos in the Poetry Center collection are 1) early works — circa 100 of which have been transferred, by San Francisco’s Bay Area Video Coalition and their NEA-funded Preservation Access Program — from vulnerable magnetic videotape in various increasingly difficult to access formats, and 2) digital-original documents from recent years recorded direct-to-drive. The early video-works we have begin in 1973, though include, significantly, video transfers of original 16mm film outtakes from the late poet-filmmaker Richard O. Moore’s 1965–66 “USA: Poetry” programs: what ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor from the production of just short of twenty 15-minute public TV shows made for KQED when Moore was station manager. We’re presently seeking the resources (time, focused labor) to get all these early works online. Got ideas for generating funds (and/or for semi-skilled labor)? Please contact us: poetry@sfsu.edu

Late works. The newer works — we went back as far as 2009 for our Open Space selections — we are now in the process of migrating online to Poetry Center Digital Archive. New programs have been posted in streaming video (with a downloadable audio option) beginning September 2015 and continuing through Spring 2016 into this Fall 2016, by way of The Poetry Center’s collaboration with SFSU’s Documentary Film Institute. These documents are complemented by a growing collection of terrific brief “highlight” clips culled from the full video programs, available in an accumulating sequence at Poetry Center Video Highlights. We are also moving “backwards,” beginning with Spring 2015, then to Fall 2014, etc. Streaming videos from Spring 2015 will debuted this Fall, beginning with our “all star” 50th Anniversary Reading of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems at McRoskey Mattress Co., on Market Street in San Francisco, the spectacular location we were also at (in collaboration with our friend Patrick Marks and The Green Arcade bookstore) just last month again, sadly this time, for a Memorial Tribute to dear Bill Berkson. Bill, to be sure, is prominent both in the poems and on stage at the O’Hara Lunch Poems celebration. He also happened to read for The Poetry Center in February 2015, twice, at two locations (on campus in our Poetry Center Reading Room and off-campus at The Lab, co-sponsored by Steve Seidenberg’s False Starts reading series at that great venue, revived in the past couple years by remarkable Dena Beard). For both of these February dates Berkson is joined by his friend Duncan McNaughton. These programs are all part of the first batch of Spring 2015 video (and, in one case, audio-only) documents we’ll be posting online this month for free and open public access, with Creative Commons Share-Alike licensing. From there, the rest of Spring 2015 goes up, then Fall 2014, Spring 2014, and we’ll keep rolling, theoretically at least, right back into the 20th century.

Like Cole Porter says — and hey, Shania Twain apparently sorta says so, too — from this moment on: backwards, ho!

October 10, 2016

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