Reading Reports

Reading Report: My Vocabulary Did This To Me: Panel & Reading for The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer

[This event took place on Friday, May 15th, 2009.]

Last Friday night, the Poetry Project celebrated the release of Jack Spicer’s collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me. The room was packed (well both rooms, but I’ll get back to that) and, though Mercury was in retrograde, disrupting communication all over New York City, the Martian signal at St. Mark’s was coming in crystal clear. In addition to celebrating the release of the new collected poems, participants and audience members alike paid tribute to the memory of the recently passed Robin Blaser, who, besides being a terrific poet in his own right, edited the first widely distributed selection of Spicer’s work, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, which introduced thousands of readers to Spicer’s poetry and revolutionary poetics.

The night got off to a crowded start. To say it was standing room only for the panel in the Parish hall would be a gross understatement, as a steady stream of over 125 people poured into the room, while the staff and interns scurried to make space for all of the warm bodies. Kari (my spouse) and I sold books at the card table in the back. The “breathing room only” crowd was treated to short statements about Spicer’s poems by a panel that included George Stanley, Samuel Delany, Dodie Bellamy, and Jennifer Moxley, and was moderated by Kevin Killian. There was also some good gossip about the publication history of the book, but I’ll leave that nugget for those who were there.

Stanley mused on Spicer’s investigation of the difference between “good” and “power,” saying that Spicer often saw power masking itself as good, manifest in poets such as Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. Bellamy read a piece on Spicer’s preoccupation with pulp fiction, particularly detective novels. Delany recalled his first encounter with Spicer, which was as a young teen, when he read the famous “San Francisco Scene” issue of the Evergreen Review. He compared the poem “The Dancing Ape” to the “Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me” by Delmore Schwartz, a comparison I’m not sure people quite bought. Surprisingly, Delany was also the first (and only) participant to raise the specter of East Coast v. West Coast poetry, saying West Coast poetry is more interested in objects, while East Coast poetry focuses on the poet’s experience. I always thought it had to do with the difference between the poem and the serial—the little and the big P. I also thought those distinctions were meaningless in the age of total mobility and internet connectivity. Whatever, the guy wrote Dahlgren—I’m not going to argue (although Douglas Rothschild looked ready to—he even left his sleeves at home).

Moxley presented a three-part micro essay, tracing her ambivalent (correct me if I’m wrong) appreciation of Spicer’s poetry. She began by discussing how she felt Robert Duncan has been underappreciated, while Spicer’s stock has continued to climb. She told a story about how a younger “established” poet had told her that Spicer was more important because people want “shit” not “alas,” then explained how that interpretation was based on a misreading of the letters in After Lorca. In her second and third parts she examined, what she reads as, Spicer’s foregrounding of the poet over the poem—that the act of correctly being a poet (read: following the rules) was more important than the poems themselves—and how she developed a renewed appreciation of his work while she prepared for the panel.

After a short break, we reconvened in the sanctuary for the reading. Jim Behrle stopped by the transported book table, sculpting the tomes into a proper display and “accidentally” leaving an anthology of lesbian vampire erotica (Daughters of Darkness)  in Kari’s bag. Then the reading began before a sizable audience, proving, as if there are any doubters, that New York poets don’t only remember Spicer for his cameo in Frank O’Hara’s poem “At the Place.”  Harris Schiff led off the reading with a multi-voiced rendition of the “Imaginary Elegies”  parts I-IV. Dodie Bellamy and Douglas A. Martin read excerpts from The Book of the Death of Arthur and “A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud” respectively. During Lewis Warsh’s reading of “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy,” I was reminded what a pleasure it is to hear him read. He always sounds like he’s telling you the most exciting news in the world, but just because it’s exciting doesn’t mean that he has to rush the delivery.

Rod Smith read a grab bag of poems, including a selection from “Homage to Creeley.” Rod’s choice of poems, two of which took digs at Ginsberg and Ferlingetti, echoed George Stanley’s earlier comments on masks of goodness. Rod is a poet, who in his own work, takes some of Spicer’s poetics and puts them to good use, if only to brutalize and twist (lovingly!) into his own shapes. After Rod, Peter Gizzi gave some thanks and read some poems (including “Poem without a Single Bird in It”).

Just before the mid-way break, Kevin Killian conducted a wonderful interview with Deborah Remington, a former student of Spicer’s and one of the founders of the 6 Gallery(!). She talked about how, as her communications teacher (how fitting, right?), Spicer made the class perform exercises, during which they examined the relationship between the constitutive parts of language and their impact on communication. For instance, she told the audience that Spicer had a policy that his students would not receive their final grade unless they were able to get a “letter to the editor” published in a newspaper. Before Deborah went on, I saw Stacy Szymaszek writing a note, saying that Deborah had to go on soon because she had a surprise party to return to. I think everyone was glad she stuck around to talk.

Kevin Killian began the second half by giving his respects to Robin Blaser. Like I wrote earlier, Blaser was in the thoughts of all, but reverence doesn’t always mean somber, and in this case, it allowed everyone to simultaneously celebrate both the book and Blaser’s life.

Basil King went “off program” and read the poem “Narcissus,” dedicated to him, from Spicer’s first dictated book, After Lorca. Planned move?

Julian T. Brolaski gave one of my favorite readings, presenting work from a number of places, including Admonitions and Billy the Kid. One of the questions I pondered throughout the reading was how individual voices interact with Spicer’s poems. Spicer’s use of deadpan, irony, and rhetorical shiftiness, can make it difficult to read his poems out loud (especially aided by mechanical amplification), without flattening them somewhat. Julian did a great job of clearly articulating the poems as they exist on the page—that is, taking the individual out a bit and letting the poems into the air on their own terms.

Everyone was really fantastic, and with every reader, the audience got the privilege of experiencing Spicer’s work in different tunings. Karen Weiser gave an excellent reading from A Red Wheelbarrow, making me believe that “love ate the red wheelbarrow,” then passed the poetry bat to George Stanley, who like an experienced baseball player, adjusted to the room’s pitch, before knocking sections from Language out of St. Mark’s, clear across the East River. His pacing and tone was just incredible, allowing each word to ring out of the feedback just long enough that it didn’t get muddied by the rest of the line. Stanley’s new book, Vancouver is excellent, by the way.

The last three readers provided a great cap to the night. After Anselm Berrigan read from A Book of Music, CA Conrad gave an expressive reading of “The Unvert Manifesto,” which, whether a reflection of Spicer’s personal philosophy or not, is a complicated, and devastatingly witty psychosexual treatise (Mertz!). Samuel Delany ended with two of Spicer’s letters from After Lorca. It felt fitting to turn the transmission off at the point where it really began in Spicer’s work, with the letters from one dead poet to another, concerned with the life of language, which outlined the course Spicer would follow throughout the rest of his work.

After the reading, participants lingered and chatted, taking pictures and planning the night’s next move, while the staff, interns, and volunteers, “rearranged the furniture” in the sanctuary (no joke), though according to the church’s floor plan, instead of Martian communications.

-Dustin Williamson