[This event took place on March 10, 2010]
Report by Alice Whitwham
“I’ve never even been to a reading here,” Stephanie Young said, stepping up to the podium. She was nervous, but excited – New York is a bigger place than Oakland. “I’m also deeply over-stimulated. ”
Young began with the first poem from Picture Palace, a collection which, as Stacy pointed out, quoting Stan Apps, engages with memoir “as process rather than product.” The Gaston Bachelard epigraph – “We are unable to relive duration that has been destroyed” –was followed by Young’s qualification: “And yet it has not been / I set out to write a memoir / a plot of originary relation.” Young’s refreshing, immediate excitement gave the next sequence of lines an energy – a kind of pressure that pushed against the constraints of a frustratingly resistant syntax:
One church is a building on Wadsworth Ave.
[…] one opens onto a series of schools
One is a marriage, itself having taken place inside another church
One is the father’s workweek […] church that supports the other churches.
One thought she-child could eventually step outside. She found she could not.
A pause followed. The audience still. The list of church, schools, marriage, wages—opening into, enclosing, supporting each other—confronted us as a system as rigidly constructed as the lines themselves; the anaphora felt inflexible, stilted, the sentences caught on a repetitive loop. The monotony of the sequence only made the possibility of escape seem more remote. Ending in the she-child’s disappointment, it felt like a disappointment I had already been anticipating.
Following this plotting of structures that contain, construct, constrict, Young brought us closer to the she-child’s attempt to position, and reposition herself within them. What occurred was a giddy-making shift from hopefulness: “Instead she found it everywhere. Repetitive arrangements with more than one side” to suspicion: “But she couldn’t stick with it either; couldn’t ‘spelunk.’” What was that? Spelunk? Either excitedly diffuse, or awkwardly disoriented, the she-child seemed to be losing it.
Young read the next few lines with a dead-pan matter-of-factness, allowing their comedy to emerge:
Nevertheless the attempt seemed useful.
I bashed it with a stick (keyboard).
I couldn’t see what I was doing anymore than I could see what I was running into.
I loved these lines. They reminded me of a section from one of CAConrad’s (Som)atic Poetry Exercises, in which he impels his readers to take recordings of wolf howls out into the busy city streets (with volume turned up!): “Sit where you can drift out of view to watch everyone in the howling frame. How do you fit into the world you see? How do you not fit into the world?” Being able to see, and to reflect on yourself within the frame of your seeing, presupposes distance. Young’s she-child was coming up so close to the world without that she could neither make sense of it, nor of herself as somehow involved in it. Young’s reading turned the she-child’s confusion into a kind of unwitting complicity –something humorous, and discomfiting.
Then came the intervention of the image. Young slowed down. Again, a feeling of hopeful anticipation, this time mingled with a peculiar mystery, gathered around the lines:
I watched some scenes of some movies over and over again, in order to perform alongside them.
I thought I might be able to see
Watching what congealed there, of the order’s dominance
We got distance here. But it didn’t feel quite like the kind that the she-child had earlier been unable to find– the decisive separation, or relation, which would allow her to see—both “what she was doing,” and what she was “running into.” The she-child’s effort to find herself in the depthless, lifeless “bodies” on screen seemed to re-inscribe her, more permanently and more hopelessly, in a milieu of longing and loneliness: “Some went away […] I, too, went away and returned.”
But the impression that lingered was, as ever, undercut with a casual wit:
The memoir thing falls apart.
From Picture Palace, Young moved on to read, “My Life in France.” In her introduction, Stacy had drawn attention to Young’s “highly esteemed” contributions to the blogosphere. Stacy’ confessing that Young was “the first person to make my name appear on the internet, which gave me the feeling that I had somehow ‘made it,'” garnered a wave of laughter from the audience. But as well as pushing her into a spell of existential confusion (“unhinged self-searching”), Stacy emphasized that Young’s bold “technological engagement” had crucially brought to a collection of “social, if awkward” poets both recognition and a sense of community.
Composed and still, hands behind back, Young began with a series of long, run on sentences, in which she hardly stopped for pause. Echoing JA Prufrock, She playfully posed as one burdened by a bourgeois fragility, musing on everything from travel, to her interactions with social networking sites, to the internet’s destructively capitalist function, to the state of her body as inseparable from the mind, to the problem of being so acutely self-aware about speaking “collectively.” It felt like Young’s opening compelled the audience to re-adjust, to re-gather the energy and concentration required to keep up. These were some lines that really resonated:
after having vacationed in a time-share condominium in Palm Springs
after reading Julie Powell’s new blog and speaking dismissively of it, realizing we are of the same age
after feeling hurt by facebook and unable to explain these feelings to myself or others
after tea and cake and ices, after standing up and cum running down my leg
certainly I was anxious […] of my hormones and how they might act upon my travelling body
I’m a poet of the communities
but I say it to myself
Young had introduced “Life In France” by explaining it had been composed following an email dialogue with Dana Ward. They had agreed to write something for a conference organized around themes of “location” and “exchange.” Young contemplated these things in testing ways, seeking herself out in multiple surfaces and structures—in the word, in the body, in the poem, on the Internet, in the media: “A face is not a location / a poem is making possible / “I can’t feel my face” […] is a location / a relation a word is making possible?” The lines probed with unnerving pressure, before collapsing into a sudden surge of feeling:
It’s like a reading rainbow up in here
A motherfucking conjunction junction
I can go anywhere
This hit me as a kind of vicious anti-lyric apostrophe. Confronting herself as projection, as sign, unable to feel her face, unable to articulate, the “I can go anywhere” cut with resentment.
Young’s reading continued to engage with “location” in terms of her social construction— as poet, as intellectual, as woman. She playfully deployed quotation—at one point, Young sang the Stevie Wonder lines, “I don’t want to bore you with it but I love you / I love you” in a way that was both lulling and disconcerting, and, after a chatty discussion of the evils of timeshares, plopped in, “These violent delights have violent ends.” She worked in newspaper caption, idiomatic expression (“a story of not seeing the forest for the trees”) and internet entry (“argument in the comment box”). The stability of the subject came to feel impossible.
Young’s dictionary-like definition of female poets was brilliant:
Instead of washing their hair […] they sit in the room they grew up in and ponder some text.
They make no dough and have no credit.
G strings chafe them.
They can’t take a compliment.
The audience erupted into a laughter that took a while to die down. Young was forced to pause. The comedy continued when Young appeared to position herself as Julia Childs, at work on publishing a French cooking book with friend, Simca. Hamming up the histrionics, the sequence was hugely entertaining —“Simca and I arrived at the NBC studios [….] black French shopping bags filled with knives,” “There I was, in black and white, a large woman sloshing eggs / Looking at the camera talking too loudly,” “Simca was a veritable fountain of recipes […] “Non, non, non!””
Stacy had said that, “Young sees the state of being overwhelmed by language as a prerequisite for something to happen to her person and by extension the person of the reader.” Young’s reading marshalled language in ways that seriously questioned the possibility for poetic sincerity, and underscored artifice as immanent in the conventions of the language we have. But the reading pushed beyond irony. The overwhelming linguistic excess, estranging and alienating, deeply complicated reciprocity —“I never know whose speech is available / I never know how or when to ask.” (I keep thinking of a line from a Veronica Forrest Thomson poem when I think about this last line— “Words were made to prevent us near.”) Though it unsettled, Young’s reading was oddly heartening. It felt to me as though she really was making something “happen”—replicating to disrupt and reframe our modes of participation in the social.
Introducing George Tysh, Stacy described his response, in the book Dream Sites, to a Dieter Roth drawing “2 Times 5 Trophies”— a bust of 2 facing each other beneath speech bubbles each containing the word “trophy.” Tysh’s winning lines ran “Poetry / dreams up / it’s own rewards.”
“I don’t usually like to talk about my poems,” Tysh began. But he explained that the two books he was going to read from—Echolalia and The Imperfect—remembered and echoed the time he’d spent in Paris in the sixties. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal had been formative. Opening with two one line poems from Echolalia, Tysh readied the audience for something light-hearted—he disclosed that that his inspiration for these was the TV comic, Henny Youngman:
Proposition—The hard on will be any length desired.
Enema—There must be nothing left but a kind of glove.
Tysh’s “very hot brain” (Bob Holman’s words) so effectively channelled into such a minimal, concise form prompted chuckling from the audience. Tysh again hit with his wit in “Everyday Life”: “what prevents us / devoting ourselves / exclusively to any one vice is the fact / that we have several others.”
Shifting to a more serious key, Tysh moved on to read from The Imperfect. We are “never perfect because never finished,” he began. He started with “Silence”— “in these poems / breathes from a gentle / moment of indeterminacy.” He stopped. I could sense the audience’s quiet anticipation. “The / Viola in My / Life; / Rothko chapel; / For Frank ‘/ O’Hara,” it closed. And then “The Still Clear”—“deep in words morning arrives / the lamp glows.” As he read these words, slowly, pausing to sound the breaks, Tysh’s images seemed to appear gradually before us, as though they were developing in a dark room. At moments, I felt like I could see and feel them.
Tysh read next from a section of The Imperfect entitled “Four,” which had been influenced, he told us, by his deep engagement with the work of Georges Bataille. The eroticism of “Link,” was pronounced:
the contents of a hallway seen through doors
the fuck of death
The lines felt voyeuristic, and aggressively nostalgic. In the next poem, “Affinities,” Tysh again allowed each line to linger, to gather force: “We must hope to die, heartbroken / […] False to imagine that breaking means / a return.” Contemplating breakage—of the heart, within time—the silences between lines at this point communicated a loss, a desire, which weighed heavy.
“Bridging the broken years / between then and now,” was the Thurston Dart epigraph that began the next section. Again, the line seemed to stay, resounding beyond its speaking, this time imparting hopefulness to the words that followed. Some lines in the sequence that struck me:
the spatula lifts off
helping halving handling
the grace of tears
a hopelessness they do not contain
that piece of
work in a dream
Tysh’s verbal arrangements became even more sparse when he read from the section, “From Chah Shih-piao” which, he said, was modelled on a style of Chinese visual art— landscape painting from the Ming Dynasty: “distance and downpour / at dawn / adrift.” As Stacy had emphasized, Tysh uses language in ways that allows poetry to lead “to the same place as all forms of eroticism—to the blending and fusion of separate objects” (Bataille’s words). In his reading, Tysh used linguistic fusions (“outlines of manliness,” “tears / and tearings,”), allowed his lines to hint at ones previous in order to make the things they describe somehow blur, and let his words breathe and grow in the silences he let them inhabit. Resisting the separateness of words, and the objects they represent, Tysh’s dream-like landscapes resonated with possibility.
As he drew to a close, Tysh kept us on our toes by taking us through sequences that changed in tone and tempo. It got a bit bleaker when he read a couple of poems from a section entitled “Aperçus désagreablés” (Unpleasant perceptions), which Tysh told us he had dedicated to Ron Padgett—“it just seemed like I wanted to load these on his shoulders.” In “Unforced Landing,” Tysh left us sranded on “a tarmac / stained with memories […] under an unblinking sun […] from which there is no shelter / their common implacable destination.” Ouch.
We got some light relief with two poems from the section, “Cogito”: “Death Magazine,”—“When I discovered it had no pictures / and no words, I let my subscription expire,” and “From”—“cheese / to Chinese / on bended knees.” At the giggles that followed, Tysh broke into a wide smile. He seemed to be having as much fun as we were. Especially when, in “Out of Last Pieces,” he paused to comment after “a mook / up your ass”—“I don’t know where that came from.”
He ended the reading with a meditation on death. In “Maladie,” we were given a gloomy (and pretty funny) image of death rolling around in a smallish box, making the “brain wander in / its skull.” But the poem ended with the surreal, ghastly image of death making the brain “spill” out from the head. It was an image that suggested something bold, decisive, a wilful wish to exceed limit. Tysh brilliantly addressed this wish in the Bataille quote with which he ended:
The night is my nakedness
the stars are my teeth
I crash among the dead
dressed in sunlit white.
Forcing us to contemplate death as something that shatters, extends and illuminates, these lines were more than bracing. Tysh’s reading understood limit and desire not as things which separate and sadden, but as things which can be re-utilized to connect and liberate. A perfect finish.