Over the past fifty years, the Poetry Project has been a place where progressive new works find a home among friends and fellow travelers. This who’s who of American writers and performers has included a number of California poets, from Joanne Kyger and Diane di Prima to Lyn Hejinian, Cedar Sigo, Robin Coste Lewis, and David Antin. Oftentimes, writers visiting the Project have found the space conducive to experimenting with the act of reading itself, or have felt comfortable testing out difficult material that might not otherwise be launched into the public sphere. Larry Eigner and Robert Grenier’s 1983 series of readings, talks, and workshops at the Project; Leslie Scalapino’s 1983 reading from Considering How Exaggerated Music Is; and Will Alexander’s 1998 reading, which includes, as a sort of coda, a reading from his book of philosophy Towards the Primeval Lightning Field (published by Scalapino’s O Books that year): Such moments give us insight into the social and philosophical stories of these writers and of the Poetry Project as an institution.
By the time Larry Eigner and Robert Grenier made the journey to the Poetry Project in 1983, Eigner had been living on the West Coast, in the same house as Grenier, for four years. The trip east was not an easy one to make, in particular for Eigner, who moved by wheelchair. A nearly full week of events at the Project around these two writers highlights the rarity and importance of the visit. What seems most pertinent in this reading, and something tangibly heard in the recordings, is the way in which Eigner’s concentration on rhythm is so tied to his field-based writing. In “5 ½ Million Trees,” for example, one can hear in his vocalized line breaks a keen attention to a poetics of cognition. Eigner breathes into the words, “colors for sale to eat/ in these stores” and in closing repeats “brilliantly,” bringing the sensation of color to the fore.
Grenier’s reading from the same night, which begins with selections from his book A Day at the Beach, is indebted to Bernadette Mayer’s then-recent Midwinter Day and Eigner’s poetics of perception, and is meant, he says, to be heard as a rhythmic unit. When we listen to Grenier, we should keep in mind his handwritten script; this mode of composition, key to Grenier’s poetics, particularly in his more recent ongoing “drawing poems,” recalls Eigner’s use of the typewriter — as the latter notes, “I can only play one note at a time/ (and I’ve got ten fingers) This is the piano.” In these excerpts we hear the way these two poets perform their writing at the pace of their own bodies, centering their practices in the hand and in the voice.
Another selection from 1983, this one a reading by Bay Area poet and playwright Leslie Scalapino, exemplifies the author’s engagement with what she calls the “autobiographical impulse.” There’s also a textural presence that Alice Notley, introducing Scalapino, calls a “Rubik’s Cube […] except some of the sides are unexpectedly hairy or wooly.” In the poems which Scalapino calls “sequences,” we see how, through accretion, temporal spatialities are synthesized, simultaneously releasing language, sex, and time. Scalapino’s voice turns these thoughts over and again toward each other and, so, to the audience.
In a form complementary to Scalapino, Will Alexander’s pieces, which he terms “rhizomatic” (after Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s philosophical concept) at his 1998 reading with Samuel Delany, seem to encapsulate the fissile nature of language. In reading from Impulse and Nothingness, “these dense geranium surges of thought” loom without “doctrinal image” or “fixed event.” In Alexander’s work, there is a great refusal, a leap into “nothingness” where one is “spat upon by contemporaries.” Alexander reads into the literary space (one that is four or five dimensional, perhaps, as he writes in Towards the Primeval Lightning Field), demanding that we not make writing new, but immediate, present, and incisive. He notes that the subject, then, “remain[s] suspended between light and the imageless arcana of extinction…”
In selecting these excerpts from the Project’s archives, just three woven slivers of the over 4,000 hours of audio and numerous archival boxes being digitized and cataloged by the Library of Congress, we can begin to see the ways in which poetic line extends not by its easily comprehensible linear history, but through subterranean networks of discourse, affinity, and experimentation.