Monday, December 11, 2006


The best reading I’ve heard in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the past couple of years took place last Thursday night, upstairs (and in the back – you had to know about it to find it, since there was zero store signage to indicate the event) at the Bryn Mawr Barnes & Noble. The readers were Jena Osman & Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Not counting the readers, there was an audience of exactly twelve. Maybe half of these were there at least partly to participate in the open reading that trails the featured readers. It felt odd to be in this bookstore within five miles of several great colleges (Bryn Mawr, obviously, but also Villanova &, to the south, Swarthmore, plus at least a half dozen smaller schools – this stretch of the western ‘burbs of Philly is second only to Cambridge in the density of high learning establishments) to have such great readers & such a small audience.

The reading wasn’t sponsored by any of the colleges, nor by any other public institution such as the Tredyffrin Public Library, where I’ve seen both Osman & DuPlessis before, in front of considerably larger crowds, albeit well outside of the “college belt” of the city’s inner suburbs. Instead, Thursday’s event was part of the Mad Poets’ Society’s (MPS) somewhat dizzying roster of readings. MPS has been around now for just under 20 years, having gotten started as a poetry support group in Delaware County. One way that MPS reaches the broadest range of people is precisely by not settling in on a single venue, but rather rotating between eight or nine locations. Nowadays, it sponsors readings everywhere from Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus all the way out to West Chester. There’s another network out in Reading, PA, that covers the territory from out there all the way up to Kutztown State University just west of the Allentown/Bethlehem metro. And there’s a group out in Harrisburg (and it would seem Lancaster as well). Indeed, I get the sense that I could stitch together a loose network of such reading scenes pretty much all the way to the Pacific. I ran a writer’s workshop in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the late 1970s & while the participants may have been somewhat different than the folks in Bryn Mawr – I had drag queens & junkies & prostitutes, seniors who’d waited until they were in their seventies to escape from abusive marriages, plus all manner of everyday street people¹ – the scene itself was remarkably continuous with what I saw last week at Barnes & Noble.

These are, for the most part, people who write poetry passionately, but who don’t read that much of it, certainly not enough to establish a historical sense of writing over the past century, say – the young woman who introduced DuPlessis referred to George Oppen as George Open. That she mentioned him at all meant that she’d been diligent enough to do her hosting homework, but could she have talked about the role of Objectivism in American poetry, or of Oppen’s relationship to that? Unlikely.

There was a time – 1965, to be exact – when I was myself in just such a space as a writer. The open reading series on Sunday afternoons at Shakespeare & Company books in Berkeley gave me an opportunity to test out my new work and, perhaps even more important, to make contact with other poets who were not necessarily further along in their careers than I. John Oliver Simon & Pat Parker were occasional readers, and Gerard Van der Luen was positively a star in this environment. None of us grew up to be the same kind of poets as one another – Van der Luen was an editor at Penthouse for awhile before getting into the tech side of things.

It was when our open readings were pre-empted in January 1966 for a memorial reading for somebody whose name was entirely new to me, that I first heard of Jack Spicer, and where I first saw Robin Blaser. And it was through this series that I first connected with small presses that began to publish my work.

I stopped participating there after I’d gotten to a point where I knew that I could get the best possible reaction by putting jokes into my poems, and then began to worry about the poet as stand-up comic manqué. That wasn’t who I wanted to become and, as much as I liked humor, that wasn’t exactly how I wanted to use it in my work. I don’t think I could have articulated this all that clearly back then, but what I really needed to do at that point wasn’t to read aloud, but to read the work of others voluminously. And when I first got to SF State that next autumn and couldn’t get into all the classes I wanted, that’s what I did. I read the poetry section of the library literally A to Z. Even then I was blissfully unaware that Blaser had been the poetry buyer there and that, at that moment in time anyway, the poetry collection at SF State was remarkably complete, especially on the emerging post-avant side of things.

Osman & DuPlessis gave great readings last Thursday because they’re superb writers at the top of their game, and wouldn’t do less just on principle. Among other things, Osman read work for a libretto she’s writing & it’s wonderful. I can’t imagine how it would sound set to music (and, introducing the poem, Osman conceded that this was a mystery to her as well.) DuPlessis read two sections of Drafts, one literally built upon doggerel, both as form and institution, and it’s a loopy, daring, questioning & wise poem, perfect for this audience in a curious way, but even more well suited, say, to the Segue readings at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, where people would catch its neo-Brechtian layer, its relationship to the poems of Charles Bernstein & post-Saussurean linguistics. It was one of those evenings where the poetry sticks in your mind for days afterward, tho I wondered just how many people in that audience heard the same reading that evening.


¹ The late Eskimo poet & novelist Mary Tall Mountain was an active member of the Tenderloin Writers Workshop, and, later on, Roberto Harrison was as well.

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