EPC - Assembling Alternatives

Assembling Alternatives

An international poetry conference/festival

held at the University of New Hampshire, Durham

29 August-2 September, 1996

Anthologies: Conductors of Chaos | Future Exiles | Out Of Everywhere | Floating Capital | The New British Poetry

Date: Tue, 3 Sep 1996 15:12:36
From: Loss Pequeño Glazier (lolpoet@acsu.Buffalo.EDU)
Subject: Assembling Alternatives

THE NEW ENGLAND CENTER sits like a nest into a boulder-spattered wooded hillside on the edge of the University of New Hampshire campus. "To assemble," "one or other of two," etc.--well, here it was: "Assembling Alternatives" sang like a bird's egg, snug in the downy center of its forest loft. And what could be more to the point? Robbin' these words from all points of the compass! Like the Vancouver conference of last summer, this conference enjoyed not only splendid weather (made even more delicious by the impending--though never arriving--sledge hammer of hurricane Edouard aka Hugo Ball rolling up the coast) but a similar (though not author-based) focus and an exhilarating sense of multi-Englished poetries. (Aussi avec un peu de Quebécoise!) For a brief few days, New England became New Englishes, words falling ah from the clear blue skies.

Unlike larger conferences (and the word "conference" shouldn't even be used here) where words tend to sediment into a drone, Assembling Alternatives offered a gourmet feast of language leaping electrified across continents, seas, and islands. The talks were terrific, the readings offered one after another exemplar of how experimental writing (also sometimes called "linguistically-innovative" writing--among other terms) might propose itself--and how also it might NOT be limited. Despite the wide range of pronunciations, dialects, sets of vernacular, tropes, themes, perspectives, and forms, Assembling Alternatives allowed a multi-voiced rendering of innovative language-languages that never once sat still nor relented on their challenge to the gourmet-fed, sleep-deprived, conversation-charged, tone-ecstatic, grammar-doubting assemblers.

As I mentioned in the talk I gave--and this was completely earnest--listing the linguistic predecessors to electronic poetries--

Following World War II, the examination of system in Olson, Duncan and Blaser's serial works, Creeley's numeric determinations, Bernstein, Silliman, Grenier, Howe's radical typographies, the explorations of language by Maggie O'Sullivan, Karen MacCormack, Joan Retallack, and Hannah Weiner--and the work of all those listed in this conference program--and the alleatories of Mac Low and Cage point in different ways to various forms of nonlinearity.
--that present in New Hampshire was a regiment of innovators that pointed in all these ways (as Gertrude Stein puts it: "a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing.") There could hardly be a better assembly in this day and age to put forward what I wanted to say. It is hard to mention any specific participants (this is my point!) without doing disservice to the fact that the quality and strengths of nearly all of those present, were unveeringly strong. However, evening readings through the penultimate night alone offered the likes of Maggie O'Sullivan, Kathleen Fraser, Ken Edwards, Joan Retallack, Tom Raworth, Pierre Joris, Leslie Scalapino, Allen Fisher, Catherine Walsh, Steve McCaffery, Robert Sheppard, Karen MacCormack, Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Denise Riley, Abigail Child, Barrett Watten, and Nicole Brossard, among other great readers.

What, beside this extraordinary talent, made the conference so useful? One fact was the significant presence of women poets. (Out of 39 evening slots, for example, 16 were occupied by women--not yet representative but a sight better than most events.) Further, typically marginalized areas of working were brought straight onto the stage.

One of these was performance poetry. The wide participation by performance poets was inspiring--and the final night's reading turned out to be a state of the art fête, gala, grand … FESTIVAL (after all, this word was right on the conference program!) on how experimental poets might perform the word. In one evening, in a sticky Portsmouth theatre briefly stolen from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, performance/artists/poets such as David Bromige, Fiona Templeton, cris cheek, Paul Dutton, Caroline Bergvall, Hazel Smith, Christian Bök, and Seán ÓhUigín each took to the brightly-colored, multi-leveled stage. Sound poets Dutton and Bök performed at the apex of sound poetry's possibilities. cris cheek provided a multi-voiced tour de force. Bergvall may've stolen the show with her understated style, her poignant delivery, her arched body which seemed to act as a catapult hurling her taut, multileveled sensual incantations sizzling into the top rows of the Seacoast Repertory Theatre.

Another marginalized area brought into the spotlight was witnessed by the inclusion of electronic media in the event--not only as a footnote but somewhat prominently. Though this was conference was not about electronic poetries let me congratulate Romana Huk for being one of the first to recognize, by including such a panel in the discussion of issues about innovative writing, that the formal issues about writing at the heart of experimental poetries ARE THE SAME ISSUES being explored by the literary electronic media. This is the first time I know that in a literary conference this kinship of language concerns has been addressed. This plenary session on electronic media included John Cayley, Jim Rosenberg, Chris Funkhouser, and me. The question period for this session was extremely animated. The main question: are the electronic media torturing the word by their hidden codes? Or are they providing tools to be used in an exploration of the possibilities of language? Though this matter wasn't brought to a final rest, the afternoon readings that day, with poets working in electronic media asterisked (my spell checker just suggested "ostriches" or "austerities" here) certainly helped to suggest an answer to this question.

This is perhaps a poet's perspective. Events such as this can always, in hindsight, be found to have shortcomings. But as a venue for listening to such poets reading and talking, the conference was an intense aural glee over too soon. And now? Many more books (and writing in other forms) to read. Edouard? Extratropical to the south of Nova Scotia, so says the Florida State University Meteorology Department. Thankfully, I still see pine trees and can now more vividly sense Irish intonations as I read…

Date: Tue, 3 Sep 1996 11:09:06
From: Marjorie Perloff (perloff@LELAND.STANFORD.EDU)
Subject: Re: POETICS Digest - 1 Sep 1996 to 2 Sep 1996

I have a question for all my dear friends on this List:
if, as Alan Golding reminded us in his paper, there isn't supposed to be a real divide between poetry and theory, if, as "linguistically innovative" writers have been saying for 20 years or more, genres are fluid, hybrid, etc etc., why is it that at "Assembling Alternatives" the critics were absolutely second-class citizens? The poets got to read for 20 minutes and give 20 minute papers; the critics and scholars got to give 20 minute papers, often in slots where there was no time for discussion. The poets are listed in the brochure, with pics and bios; the critics, all of whom paid their way to this conference (in my case over $1,000) were invisible in that regard.

Do we then still believe in the secondariness of critical discourse? Would critics have been allowed to spend their 20 minute "papers" schmoozing about this and that as some of the poets who gave papers did? And if so, how is all this "linguistically innovative" discourse any different from the good old poetry festival attended by poets only?

A second important issue which also relates back to the Orono conference: I think that when there's no time for discussion, as there wasn't here, really strange things happen. People will make authoritative statements that may in fact be just plain wrong. No one calls the person on it, no one takes up the issues--and there we are. Philip Mead came all the way from Australia for the conference, spoke for 20 minutes on the situation in Australian poetry which is fascinating and that was that. No questions, no responses.

There were many exhilerating moments and wonderful readings and for those of us from the U.S. it was very exciting to meet (however briefly in the endless marathon) the British poets. But it remains wholly unclear to me who was allowed to read or perform, what makes some of the people who read or performed "linguistically innovative" or "alternative," and so on. I wonder if anyone else shares my frustration.

Marjorie Perloff

Date: Tue, 3 Sep 1996 15:33:26
From: Bill Luoma (Maz881@AOL.COM)
Subject: New Hampshire Briefs

a short report from an unprofessional New Hampshire conference crasher. I only saw events from Sat evening thru mon, so missed lots of good things. also missed lots of early morning stuff. apologies.

I did buy Randolph Healy's book 25 Poems (from the Beau Booklet Series) (16a Ballyman Road / Bray, County Wicklow / Republic of Ireland / $10) and love it.

Readings that stuck with me:

Paul Dutton, mercury.
Deanna Ferguson, good sparse.
Lisa Robertson, repeating amazon over & over.
Miles Champion, 5 words at once.
Chris Stroffolino, eyes rolled back in head.
Hazel Smith, backwards.
Juliana Spahr, wanting to go to the beach.

I enjoyed the drive up with Tony Door because an '81 80 Langston Street tape of Berrigan's sonnets magically appeared in my mailbox on friday afternoon along with The basement tapes thank you anonymous donor, stopping in Boston friday night & sleeping on the floor of a studio apt with 5 others then having breakfast with Dan Bouchard Ange Mlinko Joe Torra and the twins, trading books, Margy Sloan with a streak in her hair saying that women usually asked her about her rings, chris cheek (who looks like mephistopheles according to JJ Moxley) walking up to Marjorie Perloff during his talk gyrating his hands and saying I am exciting the molecules in front of your face and you will breathe them in and be affected, trying to talk Paul Dutton out of his disillusionment with baseball, Miles Champion who reads faster than Tom Raworth, seeing Jim Rosenberg's screen of overlapping words & realizing it to be a representation of Miles Champion's tonal clusters yes I find hearing Miles Champion read not to be a diachronic event, Juliana Spahr saying there were three poems with monkey penises tonight, Peter Culley saying well what would Ted Berrigan do, meeting John Wilkinson who really saw the marginalization of Rodefer and we thought maybe Rodefern gets more popular in the uk and then Helen Vendler discovers him, sleeping on the floor of Miles Champion's & Peter Gizzi's motel room & yakety yak, watching the weather channel hysteria of eduardo, Lisa Robertson and the tie question (shorter is better), Tony Door tying it short the wife's job, Charles Bernstein drawing a graph of his educational riser on the chalk board in the bar (slope=4.7) while he told the story of how Clayton Eshelman once gave me an F in Vallejo/Artaud,

The Q & A session:
Q. Where are the brits?
A. In the bar,

drinking scotch with my friends and sitting on the ground at 2:30 in the morning, Tom Raworth wanting a pizza, Deanna Ferguson poking Bob Perelman in the chest repeatedly and saying you're more macho than Bruce Andrews, that's pronounced matcho for all you yanks, asking directions in a car from a local old guy and riffing with Steve McCaffery, Miles Champion, Tony Door, & Karen MacCormack:

take the    spaul
  sp  shc  sh   shpalll
  sp   scshpaulding
Romana Huk being gracious and doing a great job, Fiona Templeton taking the skirt off the plenary session table, Steve McCaffery wanting to install trousers on its the exposed legs, noting that the daughters of albion took their breakfast together, Barrett Watten saying Eliot was most British when a) he was refusing to incorporate popular culture into his pomes or b) not having sex, Tony Lopez calling Barrett Watten ignorant & Barrett Watten saying he didn't appreciate being addressed in that manner, Billy Miles saying he's sick of americanocentrism, wondering about the assumed center of language poets in the "experimental community," Tony Door saying he always thought experimental meant like Jackson Jackson and that l-poets weren't experimental in a scientific sense, Barrett Watten saying his first degree was in science & usually people criticise him & camp as being too lab coaty oh and Joan Retallack is rigorous, lots of folks wondering where the people of color were, hearing only two men showed up to my panel which was composed of women, writing a Jeff Derksen poem on the drive home with Peter Culley Lee Ann Brown & Tony Door, I smell interstate.

Date: Tue, 3 Sep 1996 16:45:14
From: Robert Archambeau (Robert.T.Archambeau.2@nd.edu)
Subject: Re: POETICS Digest - 1 Sep 1996 to 2 Sep 1996

I understand Marjorie Perloff's frustration about the lack of time for discussion at the New Hampshire poetry conference/festival: the best discussions I had there were informal and private, and I feel that many of the most interesting questions didn't get asked in a public forum. But to some degree at least I think those who came as critics (a group in which I include myself) were responsible for this state of affairs: I noticed that people tended to go over the allotted time limit, even when they skipped passages of the essay that they'd come to read. Had all of the papers actually _been_ 20 minutes long, there would have been time to start some interesting discussions.

As far as the question of the status of critics goes, Marjorie raises an interesting point. Although I have nothing to complain about personally (I had the opening slot on the first plenary session) the critics did only get to speak once, and the poets tended to both address critical issues and to read from or perform their work. There is a bit of a conundrum here, though: if poets are restricted to only one activity, we are deprived of the "poet's prose" that can often be so valuable, especially with experimental work; if critics are allowed to read twice in order to receive as much attention as poets, conference schedules will be even more crowded than they already are, and there will be even less time for discussion. The real solution, of course, would be to have longer conferences, but who has the funding (or the time)?

All that aside, I look at my schedule from New Hampshire and realize that it was a miracle that this conference came into being, and think that Romana Huk deserves our thanks for pulling it all together.

--Robert Archambeau

Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 00:16:47
From: Susan Schultz (SSchu30844@AOL.COM)
Subject: my two senses

Dear all--to those of you who were in New Hampshire, it was delightful meeting you again or for the first time. Best to Romana, who did an absolutely terrific job.

A few comments, following Marjorie Perloff, if not exactly on the same subjects, and perhaps too autobiocritical:

--I felt least at home toward the beginning of the conference when I encountered utter culture shock moving from a place (Hawai'i) where Caucasians are a minority to a place (the conf) where there was hardly anyone else and I had the sense that differences were being hidden under a rhetoric of assembling samenesses;

--I felt most at home at the end of the last panel during the postcolonial moment (this was when the culture shock wore off quickly!) when suddenly the Welshman was chiding the Englishman for colonizing the concept of "bard" and the Irishman was critiquing the American poets for being provincial and the Australians were silent perhaps because they were not even on the billing, though Phillip Mead and Ann Vickery and Hazel Smith were very much in attendance and participating brilliantly, and I felt compelled to make trouble about the lack of multicultural input from my peripheral perspective in mid-Pacific (actually, I'm now in New York state, but no matter, I'm still jetlagged by several hours).

--This reminded me of local Asian American writers in Hawai'i telling mainland white writers and critics that they didn't know enough about Hawai'i and were getting things so very wrong. It reminded me of Hawaiian writers and critics telling both local Asian writers and mainland haoles that they were appropriating the place for their own interests. It was so damn contentious that I felt right back at home.

--So I'm glad we met and listened to too much stuff and looked at pictures of some poets and heard critics through the interstices (cf. Marjorie P). And I'm actually glad that we fought a bit.

--In response to something Steve Evans, whose work I greatly admire, said to me. No, I don't think that I was assuming that this conference as normative and that we should invite others to participate in it. Rather, I think we should change the entire rhetoric of our "alternative" conferences to include--in a REAL sense--writers who are not white and who are marginalized in very different ways from Language writers--marginalized by class and language and race, rather than by position or stance, such that a genuine and noisy dialogue would ensue. How's about Language writers (we all know their names!) and Hagedorn and Yamanaka and LKJ and Brathwaite and Barry Masuda (a former student and wonderful local/Language writer) and others and others all together under one hothouse roof?? This involves more than just inviting people. It involves re-figuring our rhetoric about ourselves a bit. And it would be exciting--to cite just one imagined example--to see cris cheek perform with a dub poet and to hear the music of what happened (to quote a name much hissed at).

--This is where I admired Bob Perelman's brief plea for intelligibility. Yes, the poetry should be, can be, as unintelligible as possible. But the explanations need to be there and be good. In my classrooms the explanations are rewarded with some interest. Otherwise, any Language writer, no matter how revolutionary and subversive her rhetoric is "just another white guy" in Hawai'i--or other places off the beaten monocultural track--and will not get noticed except as another imperial presence. Ten people, all of them lobbied frenetically, will show up to her reading in a large auditorium, because they've already seen, or think they've seen, too many such "white guys" before. Unless that engagement is entered into, and shouted about, certain assumptions, which are often untrue, will govern. This is not a sell out, but a possible connection with writers who are doing similar, if different (of course!) projects, and who would not be reached or reach "us" without the effort.

--My aol bill is increasing geometrically! A fond good bye to all.


Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 07:02:03
From: Ken Edwards (100344.2546@COMPUSERVE.COM)
Subject: Assembling Alternatives

I write in a state of exhaustion & jetlag, so forgive me. New Hampshire was quite overwhelming, and I share the sense of excitement in Loss Glazier's and Bill Luoma's posts.

In reply to Marjorie, with the greatest respect to her and her critical kindred (and I was very pleased to meet her for the first time -- her energy & erudition reminded me somewhat of the late Eric Mottram, whose irascible shade I felt hovered over New Hampshire like that hurricane that never arrived): I was glad to be part of an event in the academy in which poets prevailed. Speaking for myself, I would not have been able to attend if I hadn't had financial assistance from the conference -- thanks, Romana. It was right that poets without access to the institutional support of the academy should have been helped in this way, and that they were the focus of the event (embarrassing as those pics in the brochure were!). I too was sorry that Philip Mead's excellent paper on the Australian scene provoked no discussion, but perhaps this was not unconnected with the fact that there were no Australian poets present, so it was decontextualised.

I think some of Marjorie's points are answered quite well by Robert Archambeau, so I won't take any more space here. My only beef about the panel sessions was that people tended to turn up to those panels addressing subjects they already knew, rather than seeking out, um, alternatives. (I am amazed that anyone at all turned up at 8.30 in the morning to my own talk on British small presses, but disappointed they were mostly Brits who knew it all backwards anyway.)

Revelations for me (here I disregard the British contingent, and others whose acts I already know & love): Lisa Robertson's fierce intellectual girlishness, Leslie Scalapino's spine-chillingly wonderful voice, Rae Armantrout's humour, Abigail Child (including such of her films I managed to catch), Christian Bok's virtuoso vocals. There was an unfortunate sense that the afternoon readings were second-billing to the evenings, and I wish I'd caught more than the last five minutes of Jeff Derksen; I also enjoyed Lee Ann Brown, Peter Gizzi, Deanna Ferguson, Juliana Spahr and Chris Stroffolino, among others.

The strong showing by women poets and critics has been mentioned. Good to see an Irish contingent, and Maurice Scully in particular was as great as always, but the older Irishmen seemed strangely out of place here.

I'm sad it's all over, looking forward to the book and the video, a little more hopeful that national barriers are coming down. The difficulties and shortcomings are hugely outweighed by the thanks we owe Romana Huk for this extraordinary thing happening at all.

Ken Edwards

Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 09:26:26 EST
From: Keith Tuma (KWTUMA@miamiu.acs.muohio.edu)
Subject: Re: Assembling Alternatives

Still too sleep-deprived to wash off the gallon of coffee I just poured over my head, so a longer post will have to wait, if it's forthcoming at all, but here's a few brief remarks regarding NH:

1) You were there (or weren't) the day that "language poetry" died its most public death. But it was already dead. Now that Frankenstein has been put to rest, the question is whenceforth,and I expect that "language poets" will--as they have begun to--provide SOME of the most provocative suggestions and examples.

2) Marjorie Perloff has been slugging it out on behalf of SOME of the most vital work (in the US) for years in the crucial site (cf. my conference remarks) of the academy. She was the only academic critic of her gerneration at the conference and deserved more time. Money is another matter: Mills and Catherine Walsh both work part-time in Dublin. Etc. etc.

3) American self-absorption and provincialism has been and is a problem (cf. my conference remarks). But anti-american sentiments have been (and are) a problem too. All of these things have a history: "americanocentrism" (what a word) is an abstraction. The whence now question involves a thinking-through of the problems of distribution. Allen Fisher, cris cheek, Peter Middleton, Trevor Joyce, Alan Golding, and the zombie now typing had hoped to initiate a public discussion of possible SOLUTIONS to these but the crush of events prevented it. This here little list might take up such a discussion. Or it can whine about this and that.

4) Everybody (I hope) knows we have to rethink "alternative" with more attention to ethnic, regional, class, and racial particularities. But we also have to reconsider its value in group formation (cf Peter Middleton), audience- building and poetic practice (cf. Perelman), and political praxis (cf. Watten). Charles Simic was at several of the readings. Tapes should be sold cheap to Helen Vendler, who has now (almost I'm told) managed to acknowledge Mina Loy.

5) Re #3 above: not only distribution but critical and institutional practice vis-a-vis poetry and poetics.

6) Open-panel discussions with poets and critics, more public space, mats for free-style wrestling. But Romana Huk deserves a medal, if she hasn't already won one in long-distance running.

7) More coffee please and some of those sour grapes. Numbers 8-1997 forthcoming asap. Hello again Saddam!

Keith Tuma

Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 09:57:43 -0500
From: maria damon (damon001@MAROON.TC.UMN.EDU)
Subject: Re: my two senses

i appreciate susan schultz's comments. even tho i wasn't there an NH, the matters she brings up are ones that are not limited to that conference but extend to this "scene" in which i've found myself a happy and (as far as i can tell) respected player (i never thot i'd be here; it's been wonderful to have interlocutors). don't get me wrong, i enjoy the list, the scene, the folks. but we're not as eclectic as i'd like us to be; not as inclusive (and i don't mean that in the grande-geste patronizing piety of much "multiculturalism") etc etc...well y'all know what i mean, i won't go on and on...just came back from sf it was grand so maybe i shd lay low a coupla daze before blasting back onto the list; saw dbkk, steve carll, charles smith (thanks for coming all that way, charles), norma cole, mpalmer, kush, whom i haven't seen since shortly after kaufman's death, jay schwarz (are you on yet jay?), some stein fans i didn't know, beverley dahlen bob gluck mostly folks i was meeting for the first time. anyway, it was fun and so i shdn't come back blasting off. bests, maria d

Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 11:23:56
Subject: Re: Assembling Alternatives

More New Hampshire post-mortem:
I don't think I share Marjorie's sense of grievance at critics being treated like second-class citizens at "AA." Frankly I was happy enough to hear from the poets twice over; their talks & readings were information-rich even when they didn't succeed particularly well. But I second Marjorie's complaint about the lack of discussion-time. Not only did good papers not get the responsesthey'd earned, but also people didn't get called often enough on statements they ought to have been called on.

An example: at least twice, speakers casually knocked ethnopoetics, & there was no opportunity to demand that they explain/justify themselves. Well, we all know that ethnopoetics was benighted -- racist -- neocolonialist -- primitivist -- don't we? It sure is lucky that we're enlightened now .... I find it amaz- ing that with all the constant chatter about historicizing this & historicizing that we're (first-person plural to spread the blame around) still ready & will- ing to apply present standards a-historically to past moments. (Retrosepctive self-righteousness is one of my favorite attitudes.)

Not that we shoudn't judge the past. But a little fairness, please: remember that the ethnopoetics project changed over time, & that its practitioners cor- rected or repudiated earlier missteps; remember how valuable the whole project was in expanding our collective sense of what "poetry" could be, of what "con- temporary" could mean, etc. In short: without the contribution of ethnopoetics (among many other things) we wouldn't be in the position now to criticize retro spectively the benighted neocolonialism, primitivism, etc. of ethnopoetics.Pity the poor ladder: folks use it to climb, then just kick it away.... End of ser- mon.

Apart from that, "AA" was a gas. All honor to Romana Huk. Brian