MLA 2009 Scenes in Philadelphia – Part 3 (of 3) – The Off-Site Reading

Some people dislike marathon readings. I like them a lot. At this point I’ve attended a couple of the MLA Off-site readings, two in DC, two in Philadelphia, one in San Diego. The readings are an all-too-rare opportunity to step into a room & recognize a sea of faces. Normally that happens only at funerals & weddings. Poets from far-flung places descend on the same city & pay outrageous hotel & restaurant bills, but at least they get one evening for listening to other poets they might never see in person again. The length of the event doesn’t bother me. If a poet fumbles on stage, it’s a fleeting thing because the next poet will come up soon.

I’ve heard it said that the Off-site reading is the nerve center of North American poetry, at least for one evening a year. No surprise with the lineup: CA Conrad, Frank Sherlock, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ron Silliman, Gregory Laynor, Aldon Nielsen, Bob Perelman, Adrian Khactu, Danny Snelson, Bill Howe, Carlos Soto Román, Jamie Townsend, Laura Moriarty, Jenn McCreary, Chris McCreary, Lisa Howe, Tyrone Williams, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Chris Carrier, Ryan Eckes, James Shea, Eric Selland, Charles Cantalupo, Jennifer Scappettone, Thomas Devaney, Pattie McCarthy, Evie Shockley, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, Michael Hennessey, Ish Klein, Norma Cole, Suzanne Heyd, Kim Gek Lin Short, Jason Zuzga, Nava EtShalom, Ron Silliman, & more.

The event took place at the Rotunda on the edge of the Penn campus. A hand-painted sign informed readers, “Please enter around the corner.”

Sure, rotundas don’t have corners, but this is a minor detail. Inside the multitude spread out in the comfortable seats. California poets tended to sit towards the left aisle & East Coasters towards the right. One set of locals Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ron Silliman, & Bob Perelman sat up front, while another set of locals CA Conrad & Frank Sherlock sat in the back. Another local Jenn McCreary sat off to one side & knitted a scarf while readers took turns on the stage. The event included locals & out-of-towners all in one. The event curators Julia Bloch & Michelle Taransky wondered if they had a wider array of local poets than are often included in these things. But I don’t think anyone has sat down to run the numbers.

And what a planning job on short notice. Michelle & Julia had their first conversation about curating the reading at a Kelly Writers House party on Dec. 15. They started planning in earnest when Julia got to California on the very next day. By midday on the day of the big event (Dec. 29) they were still confirming readers. It was like a shotgun wedding, except for it was for the love of poetry. Thus the barebones feel – no merchandise tables, no foundation support, no catering, etc. And talk about self-sacrifice. While hauling over party supplies Julia sprained her ankle! She was forced to wear clogs instead of heels, & she had to MC the event from a seated position to stage left. Still, she did a flawless job, pronouncing every name correctly.

The event started right on time. Unfortunately my ears were still thawing from the frigid weather, & I was so deeply absorbed in the penetralia of the building that my impressions were a bit lacking for the early readers. I did like show-opener Matthew Landis’s poignant humor, with ramped-up emphasis in lines like “If you write a triptych, you must be well-hung.” I think a lot about masculinity & lyric form, & all that was in good order.

Ish Klein & Gregory Laynor kicked off the second half-hour. I’d heard Klein’s name several years ago when I asked Linh Dinh (at a reading in DC) to tell me about the most exciting poets among our Philadelphia neighbors to the north. Without hesitation he said Ish Klein, & now here at last I was able to personally confirm his recommendation. The poem that she read, “Lockdown” (at 2:40), was dedicated to “anyone who feels like they’re in an incomprehensible prison.” Greg Laynor read a poem “The Opening of the Field of Cultural Production” that was dedicated to Rodrigo Toscano (who had been on stage not minutes before in his trademark blue jeans & tucked-in shirt). Laynor’s poem was a self-dialogue that asked, “Is it scary not having a poem to read?” My favorite among many of his lines: “Is it scary to go to school without Gertrude Stein”? The end was also good in a mischievous way: “Is it scary not having a poem to read? Just call it a poem. Nobody knows the difference.”

The slow poet Dale Smith was scheduled to read about then, but alas he never showed up.

Things were flowing by the time Normal Cole opened the 8:00 block with “Face Time.” Frank Sherlock soon followed with a poem that he recited entirely from memory. CA Conrad read a poem “Anoint Thyself” that I heard a few months ago when he read for Buffalo’s Big Night series. Have no doubt the paint chips came flying off the walls when crowed started applauding for Conrad.

A new discovery for me was Danny Snelson, a rocketship in the Philly scene. Later I was pleased to stumble upon his full Segue reading here, including the found material in “Brute Force List.”

Bob Perelman read a short poem “We” that was 25 years old but still managed to evoke the “We” of the audience seated before him: “We’ve come here today to be plural…” Kudos to Perelman for limiting himself to 1 minute & passing his other minute forward. Laura Moriarty previewed a new chapbook from Slack Buddha (with a nod to her publishers Bill Howe & Lisa Howe, both present to read as well). Evie Shockley made a third appearance of the day — an MLA hat trick! Her poem “Explosives” was predicated on the slippage between actual munitions & their metaphorical deployment, e.g. “We request a bomb shelter”; “She’s a bombshell”; “This poem is about to blow up.” Ron Silliman, sounding as richly romantic as Blake, read for less than 1 minute. He chose an excerpt from Revelator, which according to Wikipedia is part of his new long poem Universe. (A line that reminded me of home: “intolerable southern sun.”)

The one reader who made us all stop to think about the holiday season was Lisa Howe. Her poem was “The 100 Greatest Christmas Bummers” & included the following,

Me and the sibs raced around back alleys
to create an assemblage of strange seasonal
totems & mystical plans
for escape. We’d all fantasize about how
we were all gonna go out for Abominable
Snow Monster steaks & brandy & make
gingerbread women & eat only their crotches.
Yet, despite my ample “post-rationing” backside,
I somehow managed to land
instead on my vestigial pig-tail, a shining
example of moral leprosy in a society that revolves
around the grotesque, abject, & artificial.

This sounds like it was composed using the divine afflatus of google. What’s interesting is that many lines (not just above) reflected on the writing process itself: “a rapid talker / inspired by human / voice recordings.” Take a listen after the jump.

It was a varied evening with intellectual sensibility shining through in different ways. Poems included translations, visual poems, excerpts from long poems, abstract lyrics, list poems, flarf poems, conceptual poems, cultural detournements, poems composed with a limited vocabulary, excerpts from collective autobiographies, short short stories (a la Lydia Davis), & more. Future curators take note: the event came in under schedule. The longest reader was Barrett Watten at 6min30sec, but Suzanne Heyd was right on his heels at 4min59sec. The organizers inform me that Ryan Eckes clocked in at an impressively restrained 59 seconds, & Chris McCreary read for 2min precisely. For taking up the least amount of time, Elizabeth Willis deserves an honorary mention because she showed up & listened attentively to everyone without even being scheduled as a reader.

UPDATE: Recordings of the event are available on PennSound (sound) & Aldon Nielsen’s blog (video). Highly recommended.


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.

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