The Grand Piano reading at NPF gave me this idea, which I offer in the hope some of us will actually do it. This is very closely based on the "ant wort/brat guts" exercise (see Grand Piano Vol. 1, among other places). Two versions below, dependent on the size of your collective.
An Exercise in Collective Collapsible Autobiography, or What Participation as Writing Readers and Reading Writers
Version 1. Assemble a group of 10 people, along with copies of Grand Piano (for 10 people, you need 9 copies; it'd be cool if everyone had their own complete set, to date, so that people could technically end up reading the same passage). Each person is also asked to bring 4-6 texts which speak to them autobiographically but which they have not themselves authored. (For instance, if Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of my Nervous Illness is formative, for whatever reason and in whatever way, include that). 9 people read simultaneously, while the last scribes; the readers alternate between GP and the supplementary texts. The choice of how to alternate and how often must be left to the individual: follow a whim, roll dice, draw lots, etc, as suits your own habitual methods of negotiating the texts of the world as they compete for your attention.
In theory, and if organized in advance, the reading/writing should result in all of the existing sections of Grand Piano being read, and everyone writing in response to them. That completeness isn't vital however.
The resultant writing should be scribed by one member of the group and sent round to the rest, to re-shape and re-use whenever and however wanted. (I'll also post here anything anyone produces; keep me posted.)
Version 2. Pretty much the same, but with only 3 people, like the original ant wort/brat guts sessions. Might be more viable.
(Note: this is close to what was done at the NPF reading, though with more people, so I'm not claiming this is a new exercise; what I'm interested in is the effect on polymorphous identity, on the I-am within the group we-are and we-are-not, when other people's autobiography and autobiographical tendencies impact on our own selves as formed within, through, and despite language. I'm suggesting that for someone outside of the so-called Language school, outside, that is, a certain generation in San Francisco in 1975-1980 and also outside a group most verbally but incompletely represented at present in the ten writers of the Grand Piano undertaking, for those people to perform a writing and reading exercise by means of Grand Piano constitutes a very different engagement with collective autobiography. The method is duplicated but the experience not retained, partly because of the changing involvement with revising and, to quote MKH's comment, re-visiting.)
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
(photo from Tom Orange's Flickr)
In the Class of 1944 Hall there is a Black Box Theater. On Wednesday 11th June it was fairly empty. Around midnight, some people with language written down gathered and they read that language while other people listened. Most of you missed it, but that's okay - those who were there will read again.
The next night, 11pm, same Black Box, but this time with a grand piano, silent and unacknowledged, in the back of the room. Hardly anyone mentioned it, this citation of the San Francisco Grand Piano reading series, this quiet joke, this recreation of...what? atmosphere? scene? the setting for when the famous poet I forget began to play music through/in accompaniment to/despite the other famous poet's reading but was silenced? And what is a famous poet anyway?
The occasion was the group Grand Piano reading, featuring three of the ten people engaged in a collective autobiography effort to chronicle, engage, and even revise, the period between 1975-80 the way a part of San Fransisco experienced American and the ending of an in any case arbitrary decade.
"Instead of 'ant wort' I saw 'brat guts'" records and explains Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten's way of explaing the "Brat Guts" reading process (in The Constructivist Moment ) by which members of a group produce writing in response to the reading aloud of writing by other members of the group. This process was performed on 6/12/08 in that Black Box, backed by that piano, which was not but could in any case have been the piano against (or at first towards) which these 3 readers (Steve Benson, Kit Robinson, Barrett Watten) read, as did the other 7 writers of the collective autobiography project (some at the conference but not part of this group moment, audienced rather than reading/writing; some absent from the conference), as did dozens of other writers, some almost never mentioned with the so-called Language poets too easily and too erroneously grouped together (Philip Lopate, for instance, read in the series).
What the reading performed, then, in its method and in its visual props, was a layering of (competing) experiences, (competing) symbols of experienced, and (competing) articulations of experience. Readings overlapped, so one had to tune out one of the two, or let the mixture work. Readers read from 5-6 source texts in addition to the issue of the Grand Piano from which they were ostensibly reading. All the while, readers were writing, but not (at least as far I could see) reading what they were writing (experienced left unarticulated for now, experience of what). Lines were shared but, identical in the letters and ordering of letters that comprised them, they were not identical in the different uttered iterations.
I'm writing about the Grand Piano group reading not because I enjoyed it, or was there, or found it a new experience, a different type of reading. The event - as Ron Silliman titled his post today, "Writing as Event," a familiar but needfully repeatable phrase, worth further thought - is itself layered within a group experience of the "Poetry of the 1970s" conference which includes the experience of those there, of those not there but in some way a participant in the decade (there at the time, reading of it later, etc), and all the differences that encompassed.
Indeed, one tension at the conference, hopefully headed in a productive direction, is between the New Sentence theorists (at times equated, too simplistically, with the so-called Language poets) and the New Narrative theorists (at times equated, too simplistically, with anti-Language poetry, with minority poets of various definitions or anti-definitions). There's not space now to write in a nuanced enough way about this debate, save to say that the New Narrative panel offered some interesting and vital glimpses onto the blurred quality of group identity, as well as the danger of seeing the 1970s in relation to a Language school of poets which is, for whatever reasons and with whatever validity, at odds with itself and often denies its own existence).
The process as well as the content of the Grand Piano group reading thus stands as part of a greater engagement with not just the Poetry of the 1970s but the articulation of group experience in ways that allow for difference without essentializing it. A record of an event can be always in revision because writing is itself event; the need for a record to be revisable, and not monolithic, does not preclude works of record and chronicle providing those works recognize and encode their own status as process.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
After a long silence (moving apartment, finishing up the semester, hiding in rural England and drinking much ale) I'm back, but not in NYC: I'm in Orono, ME, for the Poetry of the 1970s Conference hosted by the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine, Orono. Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Nicole Brossard, Clark Coolidge, Jayne Cortez, Ann Lauterbach, Bernadette Mayer, Tom Raworth and Fred Wah are among some of the many, many folks here.
I had planned to liveblog the conference, but then on evening one, before evening the opening Art Reception, featuring some of Bernadette Mayer's "memory" installation, my laptop died. So this is a change of plan, a sort of "NPF Today" round-up each day.
The first two of twelve (count 'em, twelve!) readings tonight, featuring Fred Wah, who's new to me and whose reading I really enjoyed, particularly a longish poem in two voices he read (but which I didn't get the name of - mic troubles) and his closing poem, on mis-uses of his last name, particularly by spam mail; and then Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, and Eileen Myles, who will be on Saturday's Queering the 1970s panel. Thanks to the four readers, and the beer and wine on hand, we had enough energy to (sort-of) have the first of four Open Readings, curated by Bill Howe, who reminds me of someone I just can't place (I think for this reason I keep staring at him foggily). Highlight was probably Tom Orange's impression of Apocalypse Now veering into taking pictures of the audience and then being compared to Robert Frost. All very non-linear, which is how it should be.
Really interesting panel at lunch on the history behind No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, which was edited by Florence Howe and Ellen Bass. I was struck by the range of ways this anthology was discussed. Ellen Smith, who chaired, situated it within academic conversations involving key favourite theorists such as Kristeva as well as important thinkers such as John Retallack; Judith Johnson's approach offered a more free-wheeling narrative that addressed the problems collectivity alongside individualism, what it meant to be a unique human being identifying as a poet, a Second Wave feminist, etc, etc; and Florence Howe herself gave a personal narrative of the anthology coming into existence that spoke to the happenstance of its origins, as well as to the stunning need for it, even as late as 1973.
I don't want to privilege any of these responses as a more valid way to proceed, but rather to suggest the interplay between modes of discussion, recollection, situation, and understanding is invaluable because productive. Some of the other panels I've attended have presented excellent academic arguments that have pushed my thinking and revealed new ways of reading the objects of their gaze. They have, however, also threatened to mask their texts, to place the texts at least alongside if not behind a reading of the text after-the-fact. The No More Masks! panel kept present the urgently creative and pedagogical (in the widest, least strictly institutional sense) possibilities of writing, editing, reading, making, etc.
So that's where my thought is tonight, before heading of to see Bruce Andrews and Jayne Cortez read, followed by some Grand Piano collaborators, and another open reading extravaganza. Jerry Springer style, my thought of the day is that discussion of created works, from punk zines to literary manifestos, from Ian Hamilton Finlay's aggressive gardening to a ground-breaking anthology of poetry by women, work best when they allow the works to continue to be creative events, in process even if published and technically created. This conference is pleasing in part because it's not only about academics (or writer-academics) talking to one another; it brings together people moved to think and respond to a time-period, in disparate modes and methods. Here's to that continuing through Sunday.
(Apologies for typos...I'm going to be late for the Andrews!)