Friday, June 22, 2007


The first time I ever read an excerpt from Ketjak publicly, at a restaurant on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, either very late in 1974 or possibly early ’75, my co-reader was (or was to have been) Kathy Acker. I say “was to have been” since instead of showing up herself, Kathy sent three surrogates whom she had instructed to talk about what she was like as a lover. Peter Gordon, whom I believe may then have been Kathy’s husband (a distinction both seemed to take very lightly), was one speaker. Composer (and later a longtime researcher at the famed Xerox PARC think tank in Palo Alto, a job he segued into having been a successful programmer of music for early generation video games) Rich Gold was the second. I forget just who the third was, tho it may have been either Clay Fear (pianist Christopher Berg) or possibly Phil Harmonic or even Blue Gene Tyranny, other composers from the electronic music scene around Mills College. In fact, they never discussed what Acker was like as a lover, certainly not in the usual sense of depicting her as a sexual partner. Rather, the trio talked instead about what it might be that would have caused Acker to think (a) to do this, what the role of gossip or possibly gossip plus sex might be in the art scene, and (b) why she would think that her lovers in particular could sit down side by side & have a reasonable conversation on this topic in public. It was a utopian moment, albeit one delivered with some puzzlement & bemusement. It was apparent that all three cared about Kathy much more deeply than I think she ever would have acknowledged.

I had thought that my new poem – I was reading Ketjak out of the green notebook in which the early portion of the text was composed – was going to sound quite revolutionary, all this reiteration & weaving together of different themes. But in fact I’d been trumped by Kathy’s marvelous sense of self-mythologization & theater. Years later, I once heard a poet who’d been there recount almost verbatim the discussion between the three panelists. Who else had been on that bill, I asked. He couldn’t remember.

Last Sunday, I found myself in a not completely dissimilar situation at the Zinc Bar in Manhattan, once again reading the opening half hour of Ketjak, once again following a firebrand young writer with a strong sense of theater. As I’ve noted before, Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar is a work in which ambition just flat out leaps off the page. If you have any bias against strong women, you are absolutely going to hate this book. Since she is now the age I was when I first composed Ketjak, this means that OFC was written when Smith was between 23 and 25. That much talent combined with that much ambition can seem quite intimidating. In her blog note for Monday, Jessica asks “Why does the audience cower?” I think the answer is that we’re still at least a generation, probably many more, away from the time when people are comfortable being close to that much power, especially when its source is female.

Smith began her reading by distributing a dozen or so copies of OFC to the audience, roughly one for every three people there. She then announced that she was going to read the text on page 43, and proceeded to read it. Silently.

This is, I think, an impulse every writer who has ever given a reading must have felt somewhere along the line. But never before have I actually seen someone act upon that impulse. As a move in a reading, it’s brash, “right,” obvious & “juvenile” all at once. It’s the complexity of all those different aspects working in unison (or at cross purposes) that probably stops each of us from proceeding to act on this impulse. Smith’s gift is that she acts where others demure.

Smith followed this by reading, really reading aloud, most tho not all of Exile, the first of three works that make up the Topology half of Organic Furniture Cellar. In some fashion not entirely evident to me, Exile is a read-through of James Joyce’s Ulysses (this reading occurring on the day after Bloomsday). Hearing her proceed through these poems made me conscious of the degree of organization in OFC: one half, or movement, dedicated to time, Chronology, the other to space, Topology, each composed of three suites, at least one of which perceptibly deals with the dimension of the other half of the book.

Smith is, I’ve decided, a formalist who thinks deeply about large structures. In this sense, her work does resemble the writing of Steve McCaffery (whom she acknowledges in the surprisingly straightforward ten-page introduction to OFC, a manifesto calling for a “plastic” poetics) as well as certain works by such dissimilar writers as Barrett Watten & Jack Spicer. OFC is a closed poem in rather the same way that a sestina is closed, or perhaps a better analogy might be The Odyssey. Even as each page looks like a testament to the ludic, its very existence depends upon the whole.

In her critical writing – Smith’s acknowledgement’s page is every bit as detailed & serious as the book’s introduction – she is very clear that these “works on paper” (OFC’s actual subtitle) are not to be thought of as spoken & that she wants to challenge the lazier habits of reading as well:

With plastic poetry, I want to change the reading space in such a way that the one who reads is forced to make amends for new structures in his or her virtual path. The words on a page must be plastic in virtual space as architecture and sculpture are plastic in real space.

One way to mark this in a reading obviously is to disrupt the readerliness of the event over & over, by reading a text silently or by saying, as Smith did of The Wandering Rocks section of Exile,

I really like this poem. I read it all the time in my head, but I’m not going to read it right now.

Having read the opening suite of Topology – Smith’s source of Ulysses being something of an icon of the geographically centered text¹ – she turned to Canal Series, the first suite of Chronography, OFC’s opening section, which might be said to document Smith’s move – more than just physical – from her home state of Alabama to Buffalo, New York. She described the suite as her “cultural shock” poetry.

The only passage of Smith’s reading that did not come from the opening suites of OFC’s two sections proved to be the one she read silently, the “Nightwalks” poem of Shifting Landscapes (the third of Chronography’s suites). It’s a poem that in part articulates the experience of driving as well as a need to demarcate the distinction between “inside the circle” & “outside the circle.” Given that Smith had just driven for eight hours from Richmond, Virginia, for this reading – the drive should have taken six, but the usual Sunday I-95 coagulation was made that much worse by Father’s Day traffic heading home -- and that Smith arrived with something like ten minutes to spare before she went on, the interregnum created by the silent reading proved not unlike a moment’s meditation, creating the spacing in which a reading could proceed. Not that Smith doesn’t have, as she has announced both on her blog & at the Zinc Bar, “problems with reading.”

I gave my reading, pleased to see all the folks in the audience, to see among them Kit Robinson (in town for a family event), Ted Greenwald & Charles Bernstein, as well as younger poets such as Brenda Iijima & Douglas Rothschild, & younger poets still, such as Adam Golaski & Eric Gelsinger (neither of whom I’d met before). I reminded myself that Smith is really part of this last cohort, and that in fact I wrote Ketjak five years before she was born. That is a humbling situation.

The instant I was done, Smith hopped back up, announcing that “I want to read some more,” in response to what I’d just read. She then proceeded to read The Sirens section of Exile, which does indeed echo the self-same chapter of Ulysses, bronze by gold, albeit in Smith’s version the capital letter isn’t the b as it is for Joyce, but rather the n since its spelling out a mid-word acrostic that reads vertically NEON LIT CHURCHES. Keeping her reading persona intact, one part Kathy Acker, one part Scarlett O’Hara, as well as her poetics (upper limit Cage, lower limit the performance-centered wit of a Steve McCaffery), Smith commented “I like poetry as litigation.” Indeed.


¹ All those Dublin tourists following their maps of Ulysses from station to station.

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