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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.