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Date:         Thu, 6 Jul 2000 22:39:40 -0700
Reply-To:     UB Poetics discussion group
Sender:       UB Poetics discussion group
From:         Kevin Killian
Subject:      What I saw at the Orono Conference 2000, part II
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii" ; format="flowed"

What I saw at the Orono Conference on Thursday, June 29, 2000

I woke up startlingly early. Breakfast, 7:00 a.m., seemed so early but then I figured, oh, if I was in my regular life I certainly would be up by 6.30, so managed to fool myself for quite a while. I crept out of my room to have a cigarette and was confronted in the hallway by an amazing number of beer bottles, empty half-pints, soda cartons and crushed plastic cups brimming with old Kool butts. The Capricorn in me rebelled and I pulled a big trash liner to one side and began cleaning up, my thoughts roiling, nervous for some reason. In ordinary life I work for a large janitorial company and in my head I could imagine the scorn and contempt with which the Orono janitors would be thinking about the poets and scholars they were cleaning up after. This was so Felix Unger of me I could hardly believe it myself, but all of a sudden a finger's tapping my shoulder and a courtly voice speaks through the gray dawn, "May I be of some assistance, young man?" Curtly I grunted, turned around and came face to face with John Wieners, whom I hadn't seen in ten years or so. "I slept like a top!" he cried out, "Then I came to my senses and wanted a smoke." He looked great. Okay, not great, but if you'd been through what he's been through you'd probably look worse.

We sifted through the glass debris like a pair of rag pickers from a painting by Jean-Francois Millet. Chancing upon a disgusting bottle of Labatt Blue, Wieners paused. "This beer is Canadian-Fred Wah must be here," he deduced, growing agitated like Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. "I must see Fred Wah and his two children and Pauline!" He speaks a bit more slowly, haltingly, than most Bostonians I've known, but with exacerbated finality and righteousness. But also a kind of sweet demureness I've never known elsewhere.

"I have a present for you," I said, hauling it out of my pocket. Have any of you seen the new book "The Blind See Only the Blind" (Pressed Wafer/Granary Books) in which 30 or 40 poets pay tribute to John Wieners? The volume climaxes with a new poem by Wieners himself, in which he waxes lyrical about forgotten stars of his youth, including the one and only Edie Adams, a blond comedienne/soubrette who long ago starred in the Broadway musicals "Wonderful Town" (1953) and "Li'l Abner" (1957). The day the "Blind" book came in the mail, Dodie and I had a chance to meet Edie Adams and we took the book to her gingerly enough and asked her to sign it "to our friend the great poet." She claimed to have known, in her Hollywood heyday, both Allen Ginsberg and Carl Sandberg ("all the burgs," she boasted) so poetry was no big thing for her. "Was John Wieners ever in San Francisco?" she cried, a tiny wrinkle crossing her forehead. "Then I met him in 1959 with Ernie!" (Ernie Kovacs, her late husband.) As this was just possible, I nodded bumptiously, showed her where to sign. I produced the book now for Wieners. "Look what she wrote, "FOR JOHN WIENERS, HOW EXCITING FOR ME, I LOVE YOUR WORK, LOVE, EDIE ADAMS, SAN FRANCISCO 2000."

John held the book from different angles, peering at it above and below his face-a-main, as though it would bite him. "I thought she must be deceased!" "No, and Dodie took pictures of her signing it." "Please let me examine the shots," he begged. I showed him two which I'd tucked into the book-one shot of Adams grinning into the camera, her white powdered face bigger than the Cheshire Cat's. The other showed her querulous profile as she sat lost in thought, trying to remember the good old Hotel Wentley days I assume. "I'd like one of these, Kevin, for my own," John said. "But only one. And I can't decide which shows the sheer insouciance of Miss Adams to best advantage. May I decide later?"

"We are all so excited you are here among us," I said. It's hard to talk to someone with Wieners' personality without lapsing into his particularly affected lingo-at least it's hard for a Capricorn. "Take all the time you need!" So saying I slung my garbage bag over my shoulder like Ralph Kramden and went to breakfast and a day of panels.

The regular panel sessions: always or so it seemed, so many good ones all at the same time so that one was forced to make these agonizing decisions and usually they each turned out wrong. For example, the first choice was among a panel called "Echoes of the 1930s," then one on John Ashbery, a separate panel on NY School poets, a Baraka And Others panel, and one called "A sense of place." I don't know, I just figured, A sense of place sounds dull, though maybe I'm wrong. So that was out. "Echoes of the 1930s?" That was a good possibility because the abstracts of the papers sounded so intriguing and sometimes one feels, oh why go to a panel on someone like Ashbery, why not go and find out something about someone more obscure, how else will I ever learn anything? So this "Echoes" panel had papers on Ramon Guthrie, Carl Rakosi, and Thomas McGrath, poets who were still active in the 1960s tho productive as early as the 1930s, and I know a little bit about Rakosi and McGrath but nothing about Ramon Guthrie & I still don't. I wound up taking the better part of valor, by attending a panel I knew would have at least one good paper, because I had heard Lytle Shaw give a paper before and knew he'd deliver value for money, so to speak. This panel, chaired by the dapper, French-cut, exhausted Steven Evans, was on "In and Around New York," and Lytle's paper outlined the possible connections in life and in poetry between Frank O'Hara and Ezra Pound, a subject on which I had never thought it possible to write even a sentence let alone 20 minutes worth of paper. Turns out that O'Hara had written a poem on "The Pisan Cantos" and later, in a different frame of mind, a mind turned 100% towards Personalism, made Pound one of his subjects in "Biotherm"! From these two angles Lytle developed a theory that clarified the different attitudes towards audience that O'Hara and Pound each worked from. Funny that Pound wound up outliving O'Hara, who must have thought Pound such an old man when he began to write. At Orono these kinds of thoughts came to one often. I looked at the classroom we were sitting in, and remembered back to 4 years ago. This was the very classroom in which the top of my head came off after a particularly brilliant brace of O'Hara papers given by Steve (Evans) himself and by Ben Friedlander during the 50s conference. And now, as though it had been some sort of audition, both Evans and Friedlander have been hired by U Maine Orono! This must, I decided, spell good luck for Lytle Shaw!

After the first panel, all spilled out into the lobby of "Corbett" Hall and drank coffee and talked about which panels and papers had been the best. All papers, or so it seemed, given by anyone named "Jonathan" had been noteworthy. (I didn't hear any Jonathans, alas, during my entire stay.) Dee Morris introduced me to Richard Quinn who, or so everyone said, had just given a great paper on Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and Amiri Baraka on the "Baraka and Others" panel. I wondered how the "Sense of Place" people had done, and then the program book told me there were two upcoming readings at 10 and at 11 by Ted Enslin, Nathaniel Tarn and Toby Olson, people one would never ordinarily get to hear in San Francisco, and this made me reflect that "Sense of Place" studies were never stronger than in Maine.

In the afternoon, after lunch, I didn't have as much choice about what to see, because I had committed to chairing a panel, and so had Dodie. We both missed the "Baraka and Others II" panel, the panel on Brooks, Rukeyser and Rexroth, and the panel on Dickey, Eckman and Snyder. Again a few Jonathans took the field. The first Louis Zukofsky panel was in this slot too, and apparently this was one of the very best of the week. Dodie told me hers went very well, with Linda Russo taking off on Barrett Watten's Hettie Jones take, and Matthew Pifer giving a research-based paper on Detroit's twin streams of counterculture and revolutionary mimeo work in the 1960s (like John Sinclair). Alas, our dear Nick Lawrence did not appear due to illness, a virulent South African fever felling him, ironic since his paper was to have been called "Mimeo Fever." (He eventually did arrive at the conference, a bit frail, and some were heard to make ebola jokes.) The panel I chaired was great, even if I say so myself, for I had leapt at a chance to be the chair for a panel featuring 3 of my favorite poets, Tony Lopez, Marjorie Welish, and Kasey Mohammad on "The New York School." Welish speaks so precisely and learnedly and wittily in every sentence--some unexpected verb or adjective pins down her thought like Nabokov his butterflies. Kasey whom I now regard as one of our California homeboys did us proud by giving a very very close reading to a particular Ashbery poem I can't remember which one now (but it's the one that ends a stanza with the word "The"), and Tony Lopez brilliantly read Ted Berrigan's sequence "In the Early Morning Rain" as a way of explaining how the Sonnets were constructed, managing to inject some controversy by soundly rebutting some other recent article about Berrigan by Libbie Rifkin, an admirable scholar indeed. Afterwards Tony said ruefully, "Maybe I shouldn't have come down so hard on Rifkin, for they do say she's gorgeous."

I was startled then to see Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop walking through the hallway, for their lack of interest at conferences has long been a truism of poetry, like the reclusivity of Jess or the hair of Jorie Graham. But there they were, she, with the piquant looks of a younger Luise Rainer, and the voice of Glinda the Good Witch, and he, with that freaky Charles Manson hair and beard that might scare a child, except he has the open, sweet, appealing face of one of the Teletubbies. "Why are you here?" I called to them in disbelief. Turned out they had shown up out of personal loyalty to Steve Evans and to Jennifer Moxley.

The plenary sessions that evening were just as intriguing. One was by Frank Davey on "Regressive Poetics of the 1960s." Briefly he described the ways in which Canadian poetry was turned on its head in the 1960s in ways which had not entirely positive effects for its state today. Davey was part of a large Canadian contingent we were very happy to greet, as the conference this year had changed its emphasis slightly to include the formerly rebuffed or excluded Canadians, I wonder why? Anyway Frank Davey wins our Fashion Award hands down with his beautiful Haspel suit, in a lightweight cotton so highly pressed it seemed metallic, bought (or so we later learned) on the eve of a trip to India in April 1982. Barrett Watten followed Davey with a slide and video presentation about the Berkeley Free Speech riots of the mid-60s and their aftermath. This was a talk with a lot of carefully wrought argument that was wonderful to look at and listen to, but in the end it all wound up being extraordinarily personal, as though the breakdown of the revolution had resulted in one salutary effect, Watten's own graduation from UC Berkeley in 1968 and the birth of the Language Poetry movement (foretold when, asked for his opinions about some Berkeley protest march at which he was present, Allen Ginsberg thought for a minute and then began emitting a Sanskrit mantra, resulting in a perplexity and turning inside out of language that Watten, et al, were to take to even greater heights). This is the event that Matt Richardson has reported on to us on the List, in which "Baraka attended this reading and finally lashed out at Watten for being a "hyper-rational pseudo-radical" and for "pimping"radical politics for his own academic benefit." Coming in late, but carrying a whole sheaf of notes, Baraka called out from the audience to Davey and Watten, "I don't know your names, so I'll call you First Person and Second Person." He accused them of character assassination and of trashing the 60s so that their academic careers would prosper. The debate grew so heated that a conference organizer (Ben Friedlander) took the unprecedented step of scheduling an ad hoc panel in the middle of the cafeteria on another day to stage a formal debate between Watten and Baraka. But more of this later.

The adrenalin high, the bar opened its doors, and happily there were Liz Willis and Kristin Prevallet who, shopping at the local IGA in Orono, came upon a display of Tab, the 1960s Coca-Cola-made soft drink to which I became addicted quite early, and which was withdrawn from sale in California about 3 years ago. And Liz and Kristin brought me a case of it, the best gift I ever had, and so I spent the remaining days of the conference quite drunk on Tab which, I understand, took its name from a NASA prototype and stands acronymically for "Totally Artificial Beverage" the way "TANG" used to mean "Totally Artificial Nutrient Group," thus completing the 60s motif (for me) through a regressive synaesthesia. And then the open reading started up and I read and Dodie read and we felt well-attended and safe, far from home, and that was Thursday, pretty much.

More later.

Kevin Killian

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