Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Stunned by this 1975 photograph of John Taggart, George Oppen and Ted Enslin included in the Taggart feature edited by Matthew Cooperman for J2. Credited to Jennifer Taggart, the overcast setting of the photograph complements the austerity of the stones upon which the three are seated. 1975.

The J2 feature—which includes commentaries from Peter O'Leary, Karl Young, Pam Rehm, Mark Scroggins, Joseph Donahue, Stephen Ratcliffe, Patrick Pritchett, Brad Vogler, Marjorie Welish, Jon Thompson, Eléna Rivera and Robert Bertholf, along with work from Taggart himself—reminds me of the Taggart feature edited by CJ Martin and Thom Donovan in the 2009 number of Little Red Leaves. Rather than commentaries, the LRL festschrift includes poems written for and after Taggart by Ted Enslin, Pan Rehm, Eléna Rivera, Joel Chace, Kevin Holden, Frank Sherlock, Martin and Donovan. The LRL feature also includes an incredibly useful selected bibliography compiled by Robert Bertholf while the Bertholf piece on Taggart at J2 focuses on two books: Unveiling / Marianne Moore (Atticus / Finch 2007) and There Are Birds (Flood Editions 2008).

As I understand it, There Are Birds contains the whole of Unveiling / Marianne Moore. Both titles are remarkable, each carefully attending through their construction to the poems they embody. The cover for There Are Birds offers what is perhaps one of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's grittier, least representative and more phantasmagoric photographs. But the earlier Atticus / Finch title is somehow starker and considerably more desolate in appearance. Designed, printed and published by Michael Cross while at Buffalo, the lines from Unveiling / Marianne Moore included on the back cover are congruent with the starkness of the book's appearance: "Skinny tree sparsely branched lacking | a felicitous phrase to begin."

Given Taggart's enduring affinity for Oppen, such lines could easily serve as a descriptive epigraph for the whole of Oppen's oeuvre. Spot on in the most curious way. Sparse—the austerity of this—that language, like bread or milk, is not to be wasted.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


From the opening editorial for the Spring 2014 issue of Mosaic by publisher Ron Kavanaugh:  
On February 4, at New York University, poetry love, and hundreds of black arts devotees filled two rooms to honor activists Jayne Cortez (1934 - 2012) and Amiri Baraka (1934 - 2014) for their key roles as artists, teachers, and their influential participation in the Black Arts Movement. 
Baraka's death on January 4 was still fresh in the minds of many attendees, of which included Sandra Maria Esteves, Rashidah Ismaili (event host), Linton Kwesi Johnson, Felipe Luciano, Haki Madhubuti, Arthur Pfister, Askia Toure, Quincy Troupe, Ted Wilson, and Marvin X. All of whom took the stage to play the blues.  
Ironically, the event was organized by Baraka to pay tribute to his friend poet Jayne Cortez. Sadly, after his death, Baraka became one of the event's honored ancestors. 
During his life he never seemed to suffer fools well. His response to a question or issue was always refracted through a spared-down honesty. In 2010, at The Studio Museum in Harlem, Baraka (in conversation with writer Norman Kelly) challenged the audience to stop criticizing white-media control and start contributing to the discourse by creating our own publications. Mosaic was already in its twelfth year but I needed to hear this. I needed to hear from someone who understood the selflessness of belief—making a way out of no way is important. 
Baraka's death, which was preceded by a hospital stay, was not the abrupt cleave of a traumatic end. There was time to think about a world with less fire. His words will continue to burn. The voice will strengthen, edges smoothed as his literary heirs steer his legacy towards the center—as the academy deems worthiness. This is to be expected. What cannot be filtered was his commitment to courageous thought.   
And Conor Tomas Reed, "Amiri Baraka: Rest in Perpetual Power" (Mosaic Spring 2014):
In mid-2013, I finally met Amiri at a CUNY Graduate Center event celebrating his friend the poet Ed Dorn. Amiri was stooped, lean, and measured, a compact man who seemed his age ... until he took the podium. His loud melodic voice had the room rolling with bawdy jokes, then murmuring at how he and Dorn tried to fuse poetry and historiography in a time of enforced forgetting, and then stone-silent as he described how Dorn's time-loop kinship to white insurgent John Brown needed to be woven again by people in that room. And with a final blued note of mischievous gratitude, he stepped down and took his seat. 
As ruling-class eulogies now choose to excoriate and obscure Amiri Baraka—some having been written before he even died—I urge us all to share his work widely, and listen to the reflections of those who directly encountered his fiercely inspiring, radically loving presence. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014


The image above is one of the more striking photographs taken during the 12 April 2014 anti-austerity demonstration in Rome. Notice the image of Pasolini encapsulated in the median-qua-barricade to the left where the barricade doubles as a view screen or billboard. My first assumption was that the photo must have been doctored, digitally modified. But the image is an Agence France-Press photo and the barricade is in fact located within the violence as an advertisement promoting Pasolini Roma, an exhibition which began 15 April and runs through 20 July.        

Cf. Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives (University of Toronto 1994): "Pier Paolo Pasolini's response to the events of May 1968 was highly controversial. He sympathized not with the student revolutionaries but with the police. The real victims of society, said Pasolini, were not the students, the spoilt products of corrupt bourgeois culture, but the police, the sons of the proletariat, forced by lack of educational opportunity and chronic unemployment to take the jobs nobody else wanted. Pasolini interpreted the confrontations between students and police differently from most left-wing intellectuals, not as the first step in a liberation but as confirmation of the extent to which bourgeois ideology had taken control of every aspect of existence."

Cf. Luke Roberts, "AGITPROP (AN ODE)": "The poet dreams of totality, | but Pasolini sided with the police | and you nearly lost a finger in the fleece | when it was time to get to grips with disappointment, | become didactic, slipping in and out of uniform | as it suits."

Cf. Pasolini on anti-bourgeois bourgeois theater ("Manifesto for a New Theatre" 1968): "As we’ve seen, this theatre has the following characteristics: a) it addresses itself to the educated bourgeoisie, drawing them into its unchained, ambiguous anti-bourgeois protest; b) it seeks non-traditional places to perform; c) it refuses the word, and thus the language of the ruling class, in favor of a diabolical, counterfeit language, or pure, simple gestures intended to be provocative, scandalous, incomprehensible, obscene, and ritualistic."

Cf. Luke Roberts, "AGITPROP (AN ODE)": "This is what you get for playing dumb, | a whole generation of writers playing dead, | fixing up their brands and flawless assets | in advance, switching larynxes at leisure | quoting Pasolini and the opening chapters of The Class Struggle in Ancient Greece. | And the police get over-time | and they get to wear protective clothing. | And the peasants over time | begin to dream of protective clothing."

See: "AGITPROP (AN ODE)" in Internal Leg & Cutlery Preview, ed. Pocahontas Mildew (Critical Documents 2014); Luke Roberts, Left Helicon (Equipage 2014). NB: Both publications are still yet to be formally announced but should be relatively soon.      

Saturday, April 12, 2014


From Will Alexander's preface to the expanded edition of Sotére Torregian's Age of Gold (Kulchur Foundation 1976; Rêve à Deux 2014):
Sotére Torregian's The Age of Gold has come to poetic fruition in a healthless psychic environment, in an American environment subsumed within a degenerative epoch. He has been compelled to survive its tensions by means of a riotous imagination. I'm referring to the treacherous condition which was the New Jersey of his youth, fraught as it was with galling racial schizophrenia. To paraphrase the historian David Brion Davis, racism remains as the DNA of America. At best it persists as a susurrant nettling to all who exist inside its borders. This is a realization registered early on for such an advanced adept as the young Torregian. Given his racial complexification, and ancestry which includes "Ethiopian", "Arabic", "Greek", and "Moorish"amongst others, there is no surprise that Sotére defied and continues to defy assigned racial limit. He could not and cannot be limited to its defined "performative expectations." In this sense he is not unlike Aimé Césaire ...  
Let me say that our species has inhabited for some time this tenuous zone which constitutes the apocalyptic. Within this circumstance regularity can no longer evince itself, so collective habitability on terra luna is now called into question. It seems fraught with abruptness, not unlike the length of a waning December sun. Knowing this to be the background from which Sotére's poetry projects, there can be no preconceived regalia, no constricted oxygen in the writing. Instead it emits a consciousness which leaves one dazed, much like facing the paradox of dawn on Venus. 

Monday, March 31, 2014


Reading last week through the various fragments of Dudley Randall's selected writings (2009) and Melba Joyce Todd's extraordinary biography of Randall (2004) available online, I found myself thinking somewhat distractedly about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, and other class-based organizations that emerged in Detroit through the late 1960s and early 1970s. So to complement the Randall and Todd readings I returned to Finally Got the News, the 1970 Black Star film produced in collaboration with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, if only to think further about the completely startling first stanza of Randall's "A Poet Is Not a Jukebox" (1980):
A poet is not a jukebox, so don’t tell me what to write.
I read a dear friend a poem about love, and she said,
“You’re into that bag now, for whatever it’s worth,
But why don’t you write about the riot in Miami?” 
Dudley read widely, admired Keats and Shelley, and whether intentionally or not, these lines distantly echo a comparable concern Coleridge actively grapples with in "Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement" (1795):
Ah! quiet Dell! dear Cot, and Mount sublime!
I was constrain'd to quit you. Was it right,
While my unnumber'd brethren toil'd and bled,
That I should dream away the entrusted hours
On rose-leaf beds, pampering the coward heart
With feelings all too delicate for use?
Beyond wondering if the political force of Randall's poetry is in fact strengthened rather than diminished by his refusal to reduce his practice to something akin to cheap punditry, I found myself puzzling over the various forms of cultural and class particularity built into prosody and sound patterning. Across the past few years, as I struggle to more firmly grasp the mechanisms that enforce the reproduction of class, and as I continue to marvel at the endlessly twisting face of the freshly resurrected culture-of-poverty debate, exploring the link between prosody and class politics has never felt more vital.

Thinking about the clip immediately above from Finally Got the News, there seems a kind of lyricism built into the rant that begins the video (0:00 - 1:48)—that is, there seems something embedded in the sonic architecture of this resonyng complaynt that makes of it a music which is not conspicuously poetry but is arguably aesthetically immanent, and so I find myself wondering about a prosody of class-specific modes of informal protestation, kitchen talk, table talk, and I am reminded of speech patterns, ways of saying tangled up in thinking and seeing, in class-specific modes of perception, in scoring when writing, which tend to be devalued or dismissed until elevated to the level of the aesthetic, and I am reminded mostly of talk, table talk in break rooms at various factories, packaging plants and other places of work, or the violently lyrical rants and conversation and arguments I grew up around, the sound patterns and intuitive linguistic impulses that reproduce themselves endlessly, as though the throat itself were inscribed with or scarred by a kind of geographically inflected socioeconomic specificity. Such utterance hurts, it registers hurt, and it is a way of coping with that hurt just as it participates in reproducing that hurt, and it can pose a meaningful challenge to that hurt. Paradoxically, such utterance—utterance which simultaneously responds to and enables class violence—has neither any discernible cultural value nor any quantifiable market value until wrenched from the originary scene of its performance and absorbed into the larger architecture of an aesthetic undertaking that renders it somehow legible to an audience beyond the dissatisfaction and longing which compels it. But I would like to think otherwise and to understand this kind of utterance otherwise, to hear it and think it and feel it otherwise.        

Wednesday, February 05, 2014



                    ITINERANT HOBO: Work? It's a disease.

                   GOLIATH (ROBESON): Well I wish I could catch it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Sitting in a reading room at the O'Neill Library, Boston College, with Boyd Nielson about six or so months ago tearing through the entire run of the US culture and politics quarterly Socialist Review, I recall now how absolutely dumbstruck I was by an article from the March-April 1987 number titled "Pete Seeger and the Avant-Garde." Written by Ron Silliman, who was then executive editor of the journal, the essay is most immediately a riposte challenging an attack on Seeger and Si Kahn that appeared in The Nation under the sneering title "I Dreamed I saw MTV Last Night." In The Nation article Jesse Limisch, then a professor of history at SUNY Buffalo, lambasts folk music and radical film, specifically the documentaries Seeing Red (1983) and Union Maids (1976), as "aesthetically retrograde and deeply out of touch with the realities in America today." According to Silliman, however, what lurks beneath the desire Lemisch expresses for instances of cultural representation and production commensurate to this (or, more accurately, that) technologically advanced moment is, in the end, a desire for modes of cultural authenticity capable of accounting for developments on the terrain of mass media (i.e. MTV), deindustrialization, the rise of neoliberalism, the advance of globalization and so forth. But rather than merely savaging and discarding Lemisch's position, Silliman locates within it an opportunity to think the more troubling assumption upon which Lemisch's argument is built:
[T]o dismiss his position because it's empirically flawed fails to recognize it as the symptom of a deeper more serious issue: the uneasy relation between contemporary mass culture, thoroughly commodified, market governed, chock full of bourgeois and technical mystification, sexist, racist, you name it, and any art forms that aspire to offer an alternative experience of life. For Lemisch's argument is, in reality, a traditional complaint, although one aimed more often at what seems to be the furthest end of the spectrum from Si Kahn and Pete Seeger: those incomprehensible formalists of the avant-garde.
Silliman's critique is a canny, awe-inspiring thing to marvel at and a touching defense of Seeger against banal charges of cultural irrelevance. The essay undoubtedly wears its moment on its sleeve; the terms and phrasing deployed in the essay bear a timestamp that ruthlessly binds it to the coordinates of a dated debate between mainstream and fringe, center and periphery, inside and outside, corporate and grassroots. But Silliman's identification of an oppositional folk culture ridiculed for gazing nostalgically back toward greener pastures with a forward-looking, intellectually sophisticated and technologically savvy cultural avant-garde concerned primarily with formal innovation is a fascinating gesture that most certainly merits further consideration. Take for example the following passages:
So where do Si Kahn and Peter Seeger fit? As drawn by Lemisch, the boundary around market culture excludes folk music and if, as he implies, only the market is pertinent to the life of the masses, picking up a banjo would indeed be a self-isolating gesture. But if these borders are permeable, or if folk music and other oppositional genres actually fall within the circle, then what is needed is a radically different conception of their place, their role and their politics.  
Here the history of the avant-garde has a lot to offer. If folk is an ensemble of practices centered on musical genres that, because they were mostly rural, preceded market culture, then a major, if not primary, political function of folk music is, by its very opposition to commerciality and commercial technique, to foreground those same institutional structures of which it refuses to partake. Like the avant-garde with which it shares so many of these features, folk has a politics implicit within its form.  
What Silliman here frames as "commerciality" obviously refers to the culture industry at large and in its totality. The assumption of course — the correct assumption — is that nothing escapes capital, nothing escapes the limits of the market, and Silliman appears to imply that this inescapability is something Seeger and other folk artists are very well aware of. The three-quarters of a century Seeger devoted to activism, to actively organizing and challenging power, would certainly seem to suggest as much and, while Seeger insisted on the enduring efficacy of seemingly outmoded cultural forms and practices, he seems to have suffered no illusions.

Unfortunately Silliman never republished this essay from Socialist Review, presumably due, if only in part, to the narrow specificity of the debate with Lemisch to which it is tied. But there are indeed some startling moments within the essay and against whatever troubling claims and assumptions occasionally emerge throughout the essay I find myself deeply admiring the scope of the material Silliman handles and the contradictory links he forges in defense of Seeger.

NB: 1.29.2014: Silliman transcribed and posted "Pete Seeger and the Avant-Garde."