October 03, 2016

For Mnemosyne

What is that knowing that is available to us? […] We are cut off from it because we think we are cut off, only.

— Cecilia Vicuña

Maybe this is all an exercise to keep Mnemosyne occupied.

Maybe it’s just me. I gravitate to the margins of the recordings. What you can hear and see on the edges. (Is this inside or outside?) And to how I find that, when listening for what’s almost there, the space/time locutions of yesteryear become activated right now.

Over the radio today, August 10, 2016, via BBC World News, one of these moments went by. Maybe you recall that woman — a young, attractive, literary type — in Roberto Bolaño’s novel Distant Star (Estrella distante), who with her assassin husband — an American agent — runs a literary salon out of their house, where dissidents scooped up by the Pinochet government police get tortured in their basement. It turns out her real life counterpart, Mariana Callejas, has died. So the radio told me. Then it was just a month ago, wasn’t it, when a jury in a US civil trial declared erstwhile Chilean Army commander Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez (thirty years afloat in this country, now resident of Florida and a US citizen whom this government has refused to extradite to Chile to stand trial) personally liable for poet/folksinger Víctor Jara’s September 1973 torture and extrajudicial killing in Santiago. The jury of Floridians “awarded” Joan Jara Turner, his widow, $28 million “in damages.”

I don’t know, I’m just listening to the radio, putting things together. And then we’re in the poetry archives.

Ishmael Reed, October 4, 1973, read his work for The Poetry Center, recorded as one of the earliest original videos in this particular collection. We’re in San Francisco, twenty-three days into the CIA-backed Pinochet September 11 coup d’état against Salvador Allende’s government, nineteen days after Víctor Jara’s murder, and eleven days after the death in a Santiago clinic of Pablo Neruda. The poet was known to have prostate cancer. Also there was said and reported to be a doctor-administrated injection or oral dose of something deadly in the mix.

Reed closes his reading with “Poem Delivered Before Assembly of Colored People at Glide Memorial Church, October 4th, 1973, Called to Protest Recent Events in the Sovereign Republic of Chile.” This is raw, immediate poem-as-response, which he tells us is part of a manuscript version of his great novel of “pathological” Black acts for freedom, Flight to Canada (1976). Though the poem won’t remain in the novel as published, it’s retrieved in Reed’s New and Collected Poems, 1964–2006.

“Next time you kill a poet you better read his poems first.” Ishmael Reed, October 4, 1973, at San Francisco State University.

Cecilia Vicuña, February 16, 2012. Student, installation and performance artist, painter, and poet, Cecilia Vicuña was living in London during that coup and its awful aftermath in Chile, her home country. She had been studying art at the Slade School, and making the book of visual images, poetry, and diary entries she titled SABORAMI (also rendered Sabor a Mi), which Chainlinks so brilliantly resurrected for us, publishing a beautiful and affordable Spanish-and-English edition (out of Oakland and Philadelphia) in September 2011. The book she’d been engaged with for seven years, since she was eighteen, had to mutate under effects of the disaster, under the effects of whoever one can become, in intimate proximity and vast geographic separation (both) to what get called events.

“It’s critical intimacy, not critical distance. So you actually speak from inside.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak chiming in, from an interview and podcast published last week at the Los Angeles Review of Books, her gloss on her own sense of what it is to read (words, objects, sounds, artifacts, events) when “you are doing it from the inside, with real intimacy.”

The precarious, cf. precarios, the ephemeral objects and installations Vicuña has collected and arranged for half a century. Part — often a great deal — of what anyone has to read in the archive is damage and loss, technological failure, erosion, accident; the brand new recording that’s irreparably “off,” the image that loses definition, colors and forms that won’t hold. The face that’s speaking when it’s turned away from you. So I’m drawn there — to what’s marked by interruption, distortion — for what’s “missing” and for what’s available. Our ears like to substitute for our eyes’ disappointments. The audio record is lavish with noise, sensation, echo and undertone. Actual world-in-a-grain-of-sand audio minutes, grain-of-the-voice music scattered all over the surface. Increments of time slipped into fractal or quantum, can’t-be-measured-with-whatever-ruler breakdowns. Uncontainables.

Cecilia Vicuña is at The Poetry Center, four and a half years ago already, in town to debut her ecological-musical film Kon Kon (Chile, 2010), to address the resurfacing of SABORAMI, and to speak to unearthing, insurgent indigeneity, rude music, impossible translation, divination.

“It needs to be heard. It needs to be touched, to be caressed, to be alive.” Cecilia Vicuña, February 16, 2012, at The Poetry Center, San Francisco State University.

Lucia Berlin, February 24, 1984. To get here via Vicuña, via Reed on Neruda, we could draw a thread out of Santiago, and one not at all unconnected to “the events” of September 1973. She does as much, e.g., in her story “Good and Bad,” set in her teenage years, when she lived with her family in Chile. Her life (1936–2004) and its geography extend across the breadth of the seventy-six short stories she published: Alaska, Montana, Chile (her father worked in mining); Mexico, Albuquerque and the Southwest; the Bay Area, especially Berkeley and Oakland, where her books were first published by small local presses Zephyrus Image, Turtle Island, Poltroon, Tombouctou. This past year (counting years from their middle like we’re taught to do in institutions) involved the extraordinary surfacing of these stories, across the European, Asian, and American literary worlds. The foreign editions of the selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), as edited by her friend in Oakland, Stephen Emerson, now number better than twenty, which is stunning.

The writing is more stunning. Early in 1984, Berlin was recorded, one of her rare readings documented on video. The audience, from sonic evidence, features a full house of friends among scattered students at Newspace, New College of California on Valencia Street. She delivers two incredibly compressed little chef-d’ouevres: “The Pony Bar, Oakland” (with its reverie of another Santiago) and “My Jockey.” Only the second of these stories appears in the book; happily for us in the twenty-first century there’s another book of the “unselected” stories still to be collected and revived. She reads here a total of not even two pages. “There are certain perfect particular sounds.”

“. . . like in Mishima where it takes three pages to take off the lady’s kimono.” Lucia Berlin, February 24, 1984, at Newspace, New College of California, San Francisco.

John Ashbery, May 16, 1973, is at the San Francisco Museum of Art, pre-SFMOMA, at its location on Van Ness Avenue. If you look you can see the museum in re-runs of Ironside, the contemporaneous TV series, with its hot Quincy Jones theme song. Raymond Burr (following up on Perry Mason’s nine-year run) plays a determined ex-cop in a wheelchair who still works solving late-60s/early-70s era crimes for the SFPD. It’s Ashbery’s first San Francisco reading, Kathleen Fraser having invited him here as part of the celebration of The Poetry Center’s twentieth anniversary. (I imagine him staying with Bill Berkson in Bolinas, and now can’t call up Bill to ask him.) He reads poems that will get included in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), the book they would throw all the poetry prizes at, and from The Double Dream of Spring (1970).

The poet is mustached, black leather-jacketed, in striking profile. Anxious maybe, every bit the swank gay figure cut in the nervy, open-collar full-body portrait shots on the covers of my 1970s Viking and Penguin paperback editions of Three Poems and Self-Portrait. There’s a forest-green cast to the early b&w video (credit for the restoration, as for all these early videos, goes to Bay Area Video Coalition and its superb Preservation Access Program). There’s a David Smith-ish metal construction sculpture in the background, directly behind the poet. There’s a mic to be tapped for percussion. There is smoking on the premises, with an uncanny houselights-out legerdemain when the match ignites. “…Yes, / It is being free again, the air, it has to keep coming back / Because that’s all it’s good for.”

“Is there no state free of the boundary lines / Of before and after?” John Ashbery, May 16, 1973, at San Francisco Museum of Art, Van Ness Avenue.

Judy Grahn, February 20, 2014. Two years prior to Ashbery at the Museum, and two years after the Stonewall riots in New York, Judy Grahn participated in a March 2, 1971 Gay Liberation reading hosted by The Poetry Center, with Robert Duncan (then fifty-two, he’d published his essay “The Homosexual in Society” at twenty-five); Thom Gunn (ten years younger than Duncan, his book Moly out that year); Alta (of Shameless Hussy Press); and Paul Mariah and Richard Tagett (of Manroot magazine and small press). Grahn’s first book — and there was none other like it — Edward the Dyke, is printed in 1971. Forty years later her autobiography, A Simple Revolution (2012), follows the anthology, The Judy Grahn Reader (2009), both from San Francisco feminist press Aunt Lute.

It’s the marginalia to the readings of the work, per se, where so much of this value rises up, again and again, through the documentation. I want to say there’s value to be located in the camera’s and microphone’s “awareness” of fugitive singing voice speech that says what isn’t written. It’s as if audio/video documentation “adds in” what can’t be consulted in print: all the untranscribable aspects of speech, minutiae of gesture, and formlessness of noise that open up in the space between listeners. The words Judy Grahn uses start here with, “as I grew up, and left my parents’ little apartment, and went out into the world…,” then move across the continent, back and forth through overlapping spaces and conditions. The line she traces in these few minutes moves between lesbian solidarity in the 1960s and the solidarity of black activism.

“No one was allowed to speak to me, I was unspeakable.” Judy Grahn, February 20, 2014, at The Poetry Center, San Francisco State University.

Fred Moten, November 3, 2013. Those of us who were there in CCA’s Timken Hall to hear and see Fred Moten were audience to an unfolding movement of thinking, speaking, and sounding (they really can’t be separated). And of listening to our listening. The brief background being that Moten was invited, the night before by Linda Norton, to go out and see the Steve McQueen movie of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave (Wikipedia says the film was released in the US November 8, and they’re wrong). Between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Moten writes an against-the-grain critique of the film (in light of Northup’s narrative, in light of acclamation for the film that was broadcast, from Black Studies scholar Tavia N’yongo, on Twitter), which he delivers, with interjections, concluding with “Two Theses on the Undercommons,” an extending riff on the 2013 book he and Stefano Harney wrote together.

The film can’t recognize what Northup comes to know, which is his own “becoming fugitive” against an order that cannot offer or bestow on him, or any other black person, freedom. “That’s all the film is ever doing: to allow you to look at the degraded black worker through Northup’s eyes, up to the point at which he is no longer able to distinguish himself from them,” and he can “recognize his shame.”

Moten: “‘However, the undercommons is unashamed.’ […] And I’m deluding myself into thinking that what I’m getting ready to do now follows from that.”
Voice from audience: “Bet it does.”
Moten: “Okay, I’m going to read some poetry.”

“But I don’t think he ever goes back to being free, because he realizes he was never free in the first place.” Fred Moten, November 3, 2013, at Timken Hall, California College of the Arts, San Francisco.

Erica Hunt and Marty Ehrlich, April 4, 2014. Sometimes you let the music and poetry take you. Sometimes it says what it says for itself. Sometimes the document comes out fluid and sound. Sometimes the audience that isn’t present in the tiny house doesn’t know it isn’t listening. Sometimes the voice without any words and the voice that takes the words inside itself sing the same song.

“Mad hornets in the mouth, inedible / refuse routine and hold the thread of music.” Erica Hunt and Marty Ehrlich, April 4, 2014, at Center for New Music, San Francisco.

The video clips featured here are all from “unreleased” videos, a small selection out of approximately 5,000 hours of original recordings housed in The Poetry Center’s American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University. Most of the audio-only collection, 1954–1973, is presently online or soon to be posted as streaming and downloadable audio at Poetry Center Digital Archive. Some thirty recent programs, from Fall 2015 through Spring 2016, recorded and edited by arrangement with SFSU’s DocFilm Institute, are available as full streaming video programs (with a downloadable audio option). “Highlight” clips from these recordings are at Poetry Center Video Highlights.

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