Tuesday, January 02, 2007

I Went to the MLA

...and all I have to show for it is the beautiful four-volume complete edition of Beckett that they were practically giving away at the Grove Press booth at the bookfair. Not bad, really. I also got to see friends old and semi-new, and I attended one day of panels on "The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound" theme, courtesy of MLA President Marjorie Perloff. Did not make it to the big off-site reading on Friday because none of us could remember where it was. Oh well. Next year in Chicago maybe we'll have better luck.

From where I'm typing this in the Ezra Cornell room of the Tompkins County Public Library I can see a flag flying at half mast up on the ridge, presumably in honor of the 38th president. But all I can think about is the summary execution of Saddam. I wasn't keeping up with the news in Philadelphia, but there's a long corridor at the convention center there between the hangar-like lobby and the ballroom where the bookfair was, and it was lined with TVs tuned to CNN on which I kept reading the crawl, "Hussein Execution." I had no idea they were going to do it that fast; when I read that the execution could take place within thirty days, I naively assumed there would be some kind of appeals process, or that at the least they'd want to keep him alive to testify about his other crimes. But no, the Shi'a wanted revenge and probably so did Bush, and they took it. I don't have illusions about Saddam: he did monstrous things. But the death penalty is always barbaric, and in this case they didn't just murder a defeated and delusional man, they murdered the history he might have illuminated for us. As Hamlet might have said, "O, most wicked speed!... It is not nor it cannot come to good."

What follows are some adapted excerpts from my notes on the "Sound of Poetry" panels on Thursday, December 28:

The opening roundtable at 10 AM features Marjorie Perloff, Yoko Tawada, Susan Stewart, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Kenneth Goldsmith. Susan Stewart kicks things off with some lyrical but hazy reflections on rhyme, asserting several times what strikes me as a rather naive analogy between rhyme and the forms of nature: rhyme as a by-product of our sense of rotation and return in experience. "Rhyme is a means of freedom," but her argument suggests an ideological "naturalization" of traditional forms.

Susan Howe is next with a presentation centered on her own "Articulations of Sound Forms in Time," a long poem centered on the hapless wanderings of a seventeenth-century missionary from Deerfield, Connecticut with the unlikely name of Hope Atherton. "Every mark has acoustic power," Howe says. As I've come to expect from her writing, Howe's talk mixes poetry with autobiography—she celebrates the access she acquired to Princeton's Sterling Library after her husband's job caused their move to New Haven in the 1980s. Images flash on the screen of excerpts from histories in which Atherton's expedition features, with the Indian names leaping off the page in their polysyllabic palpability: "Allinnackcooke," "Taukkanackcoss." Howe: "I wanted to transcribe words with soil sticking to their roots." Cites Thoreau's "Walking." "I wanted jerky or tectonic details to oratorically bloom." Not only a celebration of nature: "I wished to speak for libraries as places of freedom and wildness." Overall a wonderful introduction to her own work and a celebration of documentary poetry.

Charles Bernstein's is a typically virtuosic performance, beginning with clapping hands and blowing static into the mike to emphasize the subject of the day, sound. Claims an ontological difference between live reading, recorded ("gramophonic") reading, and visual reading. Why do poets always read their own work? "I would welcome cover versions of poems," and he imagnes William Shatner reciting Leslie Scalapino's "Considering How Exaggerated Music Is" or Harold Bloom intoning Ashbery's Girls on the Run. "Performance is the ultimate test of the poem," with test meaning something like "stress test." If performance is, as David Antin says, "a private occasion in a public place," then listening to a recording of a poet is a public occasion in a private place. Social materiality of the voice versus "typographic idealism." The gramophone provides a "thicker description" of the voice than the alphabet can. Paraphrasing Camus: "After a certain age each poet is responsible for his or her own voice." Quotes Zukofsky's "Brooklynese" translation of Cavalcanti's "Donna mi priegha": "A foin lass / bodders me." "Shtick" translation—a good description for what Bernstein himself does, as he well knows. A call for "midrashic antinomianism—a new field that I am launching here this morning."

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese writer living in Germany who talks about how she associates the term "native speaker" with the tape recorder that pronounced English for the classes she took as a child in Japan. Thus the native speaker is a machine, not a human being. Dubbing of actors in films as a form of shamanism. Remarks on how her experience with alphabetic language made her able to "empty" the significance from Japanese ideograms, to turn them into valueless ciphers.

Kenneth Goldsmith makes a great visual impression—nattily dressed in a pinstripe suit and purple power tie, and mustachioed to boot. Repeats, slowly, the phrase "I love speech" several times throughout the talk. "I am an American, and so I only speak one language. But I will not speak to you in my native language, but in English, which neither you nor I can understand." Seeking to make language purely formal and concrete, to bring about "the utopian situation of willful ignorance." Cites Cage who, like Thoreau, is a master of simply noticing things. "I used to be an artist, then I was a poet, then I was a writer, and now I'm only a word processor." "Because when you do something exactly wrong, you always turn out something." "I'm interested in a valueless practice." "The act of listening has been replaced by the act of archiving." "The act of acquisition [of information] becomes the content. I am my information." A paradoxically charismatic performance by a writer manifestly interested in boredom.

This roundtable is followed by a "workshop" on "Sound Poetry." (I never learn why some panels are called roundtables, others workshops, still others sessions. They all follow the same format.)

The English poet Caroline Bergvall gives a paper titled "Indiscreet Ghosts," which is apparently derived from de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life. Talks about two German artists named Heiner, Heiner Müller the writer and Heiner Goebbels the composer (disconcerting how they both have the last names of Nazi war criminals), who collaborated on a sound project, Shadow/Landscape with Argonauts that integrates texts by Müller and Edgar Allan Poe. Bergvall: "The social saliva located in the speaker's mouth adds a new layer to the text." Cites Nick Piombino on the phenomenon of "oral ellipsis... work that can act as a 'holding environment.'" Also uses the phrase "dissemination environments." She plays excerpts which include people on the streets of Boston reciting, often with puzzlement, the phrase "landscape with argonauts," which is followed up by an adaptation of Poe's short story "The Shadow" into a very beautiful Middle Eastern-sounding song. Cites Zukofsky's "upper limit music lower limit speech" by claiming that the third limit is space and the fourth limit is time. Radio as an intersection of public and private. I don't get it all, she talks very fast, but the overall impression is brilliant.

Christian Bök gives a tour-de-force performance of an excerpt from a work in progress, "The Cyborg Opera," with "Opera" being short for "operation." Very much a student and adept of beat-boxing as well as poetry. Talks about how jazz, the usual paradigm for sound poetics, has become antiquated: he prefers "spoken techno" as a descriptor for what he does. The Japanese appropriation of English words as objects on t-shirts and lunch boxes: playing with the language of globalized capital. Performs a piece called "Mushroom Clouds" that sounds just like someone playing Nintendo, faster and faster as the "level" goes on. He's as good as Michael Winslow at making sounds with his mouth—I can't believe they're sequentially scripted, because it often sounds like he's making many sounds at once. "Machinic language." Cites some of the performers who appeared on Björk's album Medulla, which features no instruments, only an electronic mix of human voices and sounds.

That's all I have time for right now—I'll present the rest of my notes later.

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