Thursday, July 12, 2007

 

I’ve been thinking about poetry readings & their importance, especially to poets from my own generation. It’s not an accident, for example, that the collective autobiography in which I’m currently participating is called The Grand Piano, since that reading series proved the catalyst to what became known as language poetry on the West Coast. Nor is it an accident that Charles Bernstein has put such energy into preserving the sound of so many readings, from his early Ear Inn CD – functionally the New York counterpart to The Grand Piano – to the volume Close Listening, the various radio shows with which he’s been associated or the monumental PENNsound, the largest archive of poetry MP3s on the web.

In 1977, when Tom Mandel & I took over curating (nobody used that word for coordinating a reading series back then) the Grand Piano on Haight Street, we tried very hard not to let the series become too closely identified with just our kind of poetry. For one thing, both of us read more broadly than that, and both of us understood that an important part of the argument for “our” take on poetry was not only our poems themselves – tho we’ll happily stand behind them – but also how they reflected on a wide range of other kinds of writing. In a sense, our broader mission was not so far removed from that of this blog, to shed light on a lot of interesting kinds of work, to see how they fit together and, at times, how they might clash as well.

Our very first reading featured David Melnick and Morgan Wines. I’d known Melnick’s work for a decade at that point, had had a hand in helping him finalize some of the poems in Eclogs, and love (to this day) everything he’s written. Wines was the young poet of the moment at UC Berkeley. But our second reading went to Eugene Wildman, the innovative fiction writer who had edited the Chicago Review in the late 1960s. Mandel, like Melnick, had gone to the University of Chicago & the Review had been the first “major” magazine to take my work seriously, to use it on multiple occasions.

The following month we devoted two of the evenings to individuals in greater depth, Simon Ortiz & David Gitin, and we did the same again in March with Steve McCaffery & Mary Oppen. We had Richard Tillinghast & Robert Dawson, two former students of Robert Lowell (both of whom had, at that point, “abandoned” writing¹, tho Tillinghast took it up again later). We had readings by Actualists (Darrell Gray & Cary Gunn in one reading, G.P. Skratz, Victoria Rathbun & Michael-Sean Lazarchuk in another), Latino activists (Luis Talamantez & Dorinda Moreno), feminists (Judy Grahn & Paula Gunn Allen, the latter subbing for Pat Parker who was too sick to read). These were sometimes frustrating readings, in that I wanted the Piano’s regular audience to hear these poets, but if we strayed too far from the post-avant our audience stayed home.

A much better model was mixing poets from different, but compatible, aesthetics. Michael Palmer read with Lorenzo Thomas. We got Ted Berrigan to read with George Stanley, still the single most exciting reading with which I’ve ever been involved. Each seemed to bring their own audience of roughly 55 people – the Piano held maybe 80 people & this one was way over the fire code I’m sure. Many in each audience, it seemed, had never even heard of the other poet. Both gave great readings, but followed this later on with two very separate parties.²

Solo evenings, an opportunity to hear somebody in some depth, went to Norman Fischer, Johanna Drucker, Joanne Kyger, Clark Coolidge, Ronald Johnson, Robert Duncan, Andrei Codrescu, Larry Eigner, Kenneth Irby. Bob Perelman’s production of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-24 (voices by Steve Benson, Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian & Carla Harryman) was one night’s event. Another night – the summer solstice of 1977 – was a reunion of poets active in the Haight during the Summer of Love a decade before. Still another was devoted to poets reading their “first” (or at least first saved) poems, which was honestly advertised as a “wonderful night of terrible poetry.”

My sense at the time was that I had a pretty good handle on what was going on in poetry around the Bay Area & whatever I didn’t know firsthand Tom seemed to have been reading for years. For one thing, I’d been going to two readings a week for the previous five years I’d been in San Francisco – something I did pretty much without fail from, say, 1970 (when the readings I got to were mostly in Berkeley) right through to about 1990. In retrospect, that’s maybe 2,000 readings. If the internet is one thing that makes the lives of poets today different from what existed when I was in my twenties & thirties, readings separated my age cohort from earlier generations of poets. How many readings did William Carlos Williams give over the course of his very long career? Or Ezra Pound? Or Gertrude Stein? Or Louis Zukofsky? Even the New Americans – the poets who made the reading the center of poetic activity in the 1950s, both in New York (where the key figure was Paul Blackburn whose events turned eventually into the series that begat the Poetry Project) & in San Francisco (where the reading at The Six Gallery in 1956 had proven pivotal) – never had the opportunity to go to as many decent readings as were available to poets from the late 1960s onward. Still, in all the years I lived in the Bay Area I saw Phil Whalen give a solo reading just once, in a bookstore on the occasion of the publication of On Bear’s Head.

Actually, when I returned to San Francisco in 1972 (I’d lived in the Haight in 1966 & ’67), there were just two regular long-lasting series in town, the mid-day readings out at San Francisco State & the series at Intersection, which was then on Union Street in North Beach, just down from the San Francisco Art Institute. By the early 1980s, Poetry Flash was regularly listing five readings a night in the Bay Area, a number that proceeded to grow. I may have been more diligent (or at least more obsessive) about it than others, but poetry readings were my education as a poet, much more so than college had been. I felt ready to publish almost the instant I began writing – which meant in practice that I would be making all my mistakes in public – but I went through several stages of relating to readings before I felt ready to put one on or to coordinate a series.

My first readings were part of an open mic affair that was held every Sunday afternoon at what was then Rambam Books on Telegraph Avenue, now Shakespeare & Company. Some of the other readers there at the time included Pat Parker, Richard Krech, John Oliver Simon, Gerard van der Luen. It was when “our” open mic series was pre-empted for a “birthday” memorial reading of the work of Jack Spicer that I first heard Robin Blaser & first discovered Spicer’s work. My own first “featured” reading was on a bill with radical right gadfly Stephen Schwartz at the Coffee Gallery on Grant Street in North Beach. That was sometime in late 1965 or ’66. I read around as much as I could in those days, then stopped pretty much cold sometime in 1968 or early 1969. I was concerned that people were enjoying the humor in my poetry too much and I was watching other poets turn into literary standup comics (tho hardly to the degree I would see a decade later with the Actualists). I started reading again as part of the antiwar readings around UC Berkeley in the summer of 1970, where I found myself on bills with David Bromige & Peter Dale Scott, Ken Irby & Harvey Bialy. When I moved back to the City two years later, I was able to get a reading at Intersection because the organizers there were really interested in my proposed co-reader, Irby. For the next three years or so, I would read once a year with Barrett Watten, but it was not what you would call a regular process.

The first reading I ever put on was a benefit for the prison movement group with which I was working at the time. They’d held a benefit in San Rafael with the Tubes as headliners, thinking that the fact that the Tubes had a number one record that year ensured that they would rake in the cash. But the band was not well organized & the event, which they controlled, wasn’t controlled at all. They gave away so many free tickets to this rented nightclub that it was impossible to recoup even the small outlay the group had put forward. Afterwards, disgusted with rock culture – I was not a Tubes fan to begin with – I said something like, “I could raise more money with a poetry reading.” And was challenged to do so on the spot. I got Robert Creeley, Joanne Kyger & Edward Dorn to read together at the San Francisco Unitarian Church, sold 400 tickets at $4 each (a very high ticket price for 1973) and we ended up making over $1,000 net for the organization. You can still hear Edward Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apachería³ and Robert Creeley’s “The Name” from that very reading, thanks first to John Giorno’s Disconnected & now Kenny Goldsmith’s Ubuweb.

So it’s worth noting that when Tom & I ran the Piano series, I looked around as best I could to see if I could find any “new” poets to introduce to our audience. Even with the Piano every Tuesday night, I had time to get to at least one, if not two, other readings around town and I made a conscious effort to attend readings where I did not already know the work of the readers. There was just one reading that I attended, really over the two years that Tom & I were co-coordinating the series, where I came back and said to Tom, “We gotta book these guys.” It was a reading that David Highsmith put on at Third Floor Books, his attempt at an art book store up in a loft space just South of Market. Most of the floor was given over to an art gallery run by Carl Loeffler – there were quite a few similar spaces in the South of Market area during those years as businesses emptied out in advance on the forthcoming “urban renewal” that turned into the Moscone Convention Center & all the surrounding venues, from the new art museum to the Marriott Jukebox.

Highsmith had told me of these poets, neither of whom as new to the Bay Area, tho new to me. Just as Rachel Loden & I can tell that we were around the same scenes in the region from the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, which we both attended, thru at least the 1970s, but ultimately met over the web, I somehow had been in the same circles as both Keith Shein & Ted Pearson for years, but somehow had not bumped into either before. Shein was understandable – he was working as the tennis pro at Dominican College in Marin and living in Novato, sort of the anti-Bolinas of that county, the sort of bedroom suburb where lots of the residents worked in San Francisco as police or firemen. I never did figure out how Ted & I managed not to run into each other. We knew the same people at SF State & his interest in the Objectivists & the rigorous side of the Black Mountain thing was obvious the instant you heard him.

So we booked Keith with Steve LaVoie, a lanky young poet who had some aspects of Actualism & some of what would come to be called langpo about him, but who seemed to be steering his own way. The next week, we booked Ted with Alan Bernheimer, which got him introduced to a new audience.

 

¹ We talked with them about this as we set the event up, since we didn’t want either to feel uncomfortable. Basically, the story as we got it was that the terms in which they’d learned writing – pure School of Quietude – proved not to apply in the “real” (read “off-campus”) world. Tillinghast was working with a Sufi orchestra at the time, Dawson had become a photographer.

² I attended both, tho they were in different parts of the city. When some of the Actualist poets started telling Berrigan how great he was in comparison “with that other guy, he stopped them cold & gave a great, and fairly lengthy, lecture on all the wonderful things there were to hear in the poetry of George Stanley, things he had heard that very evening, and of the whole importance of the Spicer Circle & in the poets in that Circle beyond just Spicer. I had never heard Berrigan “lecture” before, but it was a terrific – and totally honorable – moment.

³ Comment readers who imagine that I’m out to “get” Ed Dorn, please note.

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