After the “Very Contemporary” panel I joined poets Ron Silliman & Bob Perelman for a late afternoon lunch. It was 4 in the afternoon, & we ate like we were about to run a marathon, except in our case it was the poetry marathon that night. The poets were wonderfully generous conversationalists, but I’ll defer the details because I want to keep this post shorter than the last one. Well, I will mention a tiny thing. I remember that Silliman looked at me with concern when I described my treacherous work commute across the ski country south of Buffalo. He said, “Remember Betty Olson crashed & died near there.” Thank you Ron for that morbid reminder! I hope avid readers of all things poetry-related never turn on their computers & see my picture splayed across his blog.

While the rest of the MLA attendees descended on hotel cash bars, the poetry crowd reconvened for an official roundtable to celebrate 20 years of “Off-Site Readings.” The room was pleasantly packed, partly because the event was open to the public & nobody had to resort to fake or stolen badges to get past the security desk.

The poets read in reverse alphabetical order with Aldon Nielsen playing host (cf. his pictures of the event). Timothy Yu, who would have gone first, could not make it to the convention, which was a bit disappointing because my thoughts are still swirling around his excellent Race & the Avant-Garde, a book in which I made more marginal comments than any other last year. Yu’s absence meant it fell to Elizabeth Willis & Tyrone Williams to warm things up.

Willis read a long poem “Blacklist” that must be new because I don’t recall it from the last two times that I heard her read. “Blacklist” is a mostly a list poem, one that’s premised on the idea that “the ability to understand the language of the enemy is a sign of being a witch.” The witches she cited were multiple and sprawling: Objectivists, political poets of the 1930s and Cold War, communists, feminists, LGBT activists and more. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a witch. Williams stepped to the microphone next. One poem that he read was “Character” from On Spec, the only book that I’ve ever won from an on-line contest (my kindest thanks to his publisher Omnidawn).

Rodrigo Toscano followed with a one-man, one-act adaptation of “Feel Your Media–Bitch” that was extracted & compressed from a longer work for his Collapsible Poetics Theater. “Are you interested in culture marketing? Want to see culture marketers doing it?” I’ve heard Toscano read his poems in the past, but it’s been a while, & I can’t recall him previously infusing his performance with the physical gestures that I witnessed this time. If you’ve ever seen Edwin Torres perform, then you’ll get the idea. The difference is that Torres choreographs body movements that are generally more optimistic than what Toscano does. E.g. at one point he stepped in front of the stage & knelt to simulate a holy prayer that quickly morphed into a prisoner-style hands behind the neck (reminiscent of Abu Ghraib pictures). Next was Rod Smith of Bridge Street Books who is currently teaching at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Rod organized the original Off-Site reading 20 years ago on December 28, 1989, & his young falsetto voice can be heard introducing the first wave of poet-scholars on the recording.

Evie Shockley & Jennifer Scappettone then made a second appearance that day. Shockley began with a globalized feminist mashup–I think the title was “Circle Poem.” It was similar to Hannah Weiner’s “Radcliffe & Guatemalan Women” but it managed to out-Weiner Weiner by citing the experiences of women across multiple continents. Scappettone read from work which is a kind post-human, post-Humament aesthetic. Bob Perelman played to the convention theme by reading two translations from across the arc of his career. Laura Moriarty previewed her forthcoming poem-essay A Tonalist (cf. excerpts in A Semblance, though I’m eager to read the entire work from Nightboat Books soon).

Patrick Durgin, founder of Kenning Editions, was feted throughout the week for the just-released Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985, edited by Kevin Killian & David Brazil. Copies were on prominent display at the SPD book exhibit, & it was all I could do to keep from buying a second copy since mine hadn’t arrived in the mail yet. For the panel reading, Durgin channeled the theatrical impulse with a new composition “PQRS: A Drama.” He read in perfect timing with a speaker from which issued a prerecorded voice in Hangul (Korean) — which I later learned belonged to Stephany Lee, a painter & friend of his. A third voice was added to the mix when Rodrigo Toscano stood up from across the room & belted out his part.

Charles Bernstein, sporting a new beard in the brisk East Coast weather, was the final reader of the event. He memorialized the centennial of Klebnikov’s “Laughter” with a new translation. He also read a poem on “Morality” that sputtered statements of accusation & blame in a looping, halting pattern that hearkened back to tape-splicing experiments by sound poets more than 25 years ago–except now he executed the effect by voice alone. Bernstein closed the event with three poems for his daughter Emma. If you know someone who was in the room, I hope you will ask what it was like to hear “All the Whiskey In Heaven.” I can’t imagine there was a pair of eyes without tears when the poet reached the closing lines of the poem.

Next week I’ll get to the Off-Site reading itself.

(UPDATE: check out a recording of the events above over at PennSound.)
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Kaplan Harris relocated from DC to Buffalo two years ago & now teaches at St. Bonaventure University. His work appears in American Literature, Artvoice, Contemporary Literature, the EPC, Jacket, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He is also editing, with Peter Baker & Rod Smith, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley for the University of California Press.