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Jim Cummins
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I was watching Charlie Rose one night years ago when Bill Styron called in and said he didn't "get" David Letterman. Styron said, "Yes, he's mildly ironic, but ..." Letterman is from Indianapolis, which is one of the towns I'm from. I think I "get" Letterman pretty well, but that's another story. I thought of this quote as I was prowling around the recent AWP conference in Chicago. Are we poets too mildly ironic? Is the Midwest too mildly ironic, and poets are chameleons, therefore become too mildly ironic when they visit? Mulling this over as I rode the elevators, I thought maybe it would be interesting to post another poet's response to a midwestern conference many many years ago, as recorded by Richard Howard in his great book on American poetry, Alone With America: "Not long ago, at one of our recurrent poetry conferences which suggest with all the force of an Euclidean proof--just look at those celluloid identification badges, typed with each poet's name and (of course) his university--that we are, even in our most notoriously dissident callings, a nation not of joiners merely, but of members; at one of those chapter meetings, then, in the endless volume of our self-concern, I listened to an address by a celebrated poet, an elderly professor it was, who had rised to the Collected Poems level and who, before arriving at our conference somewhere in the midwest, had reached for the wrong speech among (I imagine) several on his desk, thereupon regaling his fellows with a description of the bare-breasted beauties of Nigeria intended surely for the National Geographic Society. A married man, the father of daughters, it came as rather a shock to hear him extol the rare privilege of moving among a race of women proudly nude, and precisely then (though his own performance was not scheduled until much later in the program) Allen Ginsberg ... performed! He got up from the ring of chairs where the ulterior speakers were waiting for their turns to read their own poems, to speak their own thoughts, to do their own thing, and advancing solemnly--bearded, intent, unmistakeable--toward the old eulogist of noble savagery, he stepped up onto the dais and without a word, without a smile, without a single deprecating gesture, Allen Ginsberg took off all his clothes." Lest we forget. Continue reading
Posted Mar 27, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Along with approximately 10,999 other registrants, I attended the recent AWP Conference in Chicago earlier this month. I also attended the first Woodstock, in August, 1969. They were similar events, minus the rock bands and the loudspeaker announcements about bad acid. On the other hand, Chicago had poetry in the elevators; a tape loop of poets reading their own poems played continuously in the elevators throughout the conference. This was obviously a social-networking device on the Hilton's part to help people break the ice, in lieu of mud, good vibes, and the aforementioned bad acid. As I understand it, a few years ago the Poetry Foundation made a number of tape loops of poets collaborating with visual artists; the one that played in the elevators at this year's AWP was also available in its entirety on the in-house channel 44, on our room TVs. I remember poems by Mark Strand, Todd Boss, our own DL, a number of others. I thought the tape loop was wonderful, sort of the equivalent of the rock groups at Woodstock--the background sounds of human contact, interaction. In the morning I'd get on an elevator crammed with poets, and Mark Strand would say, "I don't want to be an American poet anymore," or something like that. "The black flies are after me." People would shift from foot to foot, except there was no room, so we'd all bump shoulders and hips, and get to know each other. At 2 or 3 in the morning, I'd stumble into an empty elevator, and there would be Mark and those flies again, or somebody telling me about how un-hip she was in New York City. I loved those poems, those voices. Most other people didn't; instead of being grateful for the ice-breaking gift, they complained about how un-hip the whole process was. Poems in the elevators! How, I don't know, pathetic! I began to ride the elevators instead of going to the panel presentations, just so I could hear how people responded to the tape loop. I began to volunteer information about the poems, which I'd listened to about a hundred times each by then. I told them about Channel 44. I began to carry a clipboard on which I could note down personal information, such as whether they were poets, or fiction writers, non-fictioners or children's book people, that sort of thing. Several people told me this made them a little uneasy. Occasionally, I'd follow them out of the elevator to their rooms; sometimes the conversations got a little heated. "I'm a poet, too!" I'd say, as the door would close in my face. "Those are my brethren!" I began to pick out women in the lobby, follow them into the elevators. I wanted to see what they thought about the poems. One morning there was a knock on my door. I opened it and two beefy men in suits came in; they very politely asked me to stop following women into the elevators. I assured them... Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 21, 2012