LIVE at the Kelly Writers House

Ron Silliman's blog
April 12, 2003

Live at the Writers House is a radio program that has been produced out of the Kelly Writers House at Penn from its earliest days -- back when the building was a comparatively funky shell of an old cottage with little more than folding chairs, a couple of PCs and a student coordinator who slept on--site to make sure that the PCs didn't disappear. XPN, the Penn radio station, functions less like a college station and more like a music--centered NPR outlet -- its motto is "true musical diversity," which in practice translates into 90 percent alt--Americana post--folk music -- and, through affiliates, has a reach that extends from northern Virginia up into north--central New Jersey. Having won a "Best of Philly" award from one of the local weekly papers its very first year, Live has evolved over seven seasons into a remarkably tight and well--crafted event that is now produced by the poet Tom Devaney and hosted by Michaela Majoun, one of the most widely recognized names and voices on the Philadelphia airwaves. The final show of the current school year airs this Sunday evening, April 13, at 11:00 PM. You can pick live XPN programming on the web here. And soon enough, the broadcast will join the web--accessible archives that are in the process of being made available here.

The secret to Lives' success these days lies in Devaney's careful curating of poets and balance with the music. For the April 13 show, Devaney brings together six fairly different, yet consistently post--avant poets: Jenn McCreary, Mytili Jagannathan, Frank Sherlock, Joshua Schuster, Andrew Zitcer, and your humble correspondent. All are local to Philadelphia -- NYC ringer Alan Gilbert cancelled because his partner Kristin Prevallet is in the last days of her pregnancy -- which means that all have appeared on the program before; in fact, Jagannathan and McCreary have appeared together on Live before.

In addition to the poets, Need New Body, a rock band that to this untrained ear is situated somewhere between Pere Ubu, the Sun Ra Arkestra and The Police, performs three high energy, exceptionally witty and listenable songs. In addition to his lead vocals, Jeff Bradbury plays an amplified banjo that at different points -- and I'll be curious to hear if this comes across over the radio -- sounds like everything from a sitar to a balalaika. It's quite a tour de force tucked inside this sextet . One thing radio listeners clearly won't be able to make out is the mask that drummer Chris Powell wore during the first song. Composed of a black stocking with shards of mirror glued atop it, rather like a disco ball, it wasn't immediately evident to those in the Writers House Arts Cafe that Powell could even see those drums, but he certainly could feel them.

One of the curious phenomena of the radio form is that you do a run--through of the show, make whatever changes people deem appropriate -- I added a second poem, for example, and Need New Body switched two of their three songs. One of the things that in--person listeners can do is to hear the same event twice in the space of only a little more than two hours. Talking with Jagannathan, Bradbury and outgoing Writers House director Kerry Sherin afterwards, one thing we all agreed on was that the simple fact of the run--through transforms everything. The readings the second time are all smoother, more confident. I'm not always sure that smoother is better in the case of my own poetry, but I was happy not to stumble the couple of times that I did in my first reading. I wasn't happy to be asked a question by Majoun in between poems that I hadn't prepped for and which wasn't included in the rehearsal. My answer is the verbal equivalent of air guitar -- you can see (or hear) me flailing away, but don't look too closely for any content.

Of the five other poets, McCreary is the one whose work I know best, having just finished doctrine of signatures. She and Jagannathan are the most complete and self--assured in their presentations -- each sculpts meaning almost effortlessly. Hearing them together -- Need New Body and Andy Zitcer come in between -- I realize that to someone unfamiliar with post--avant strategies, these two poets might seem superficially similar. Both use relatively short units -- phrase, line, sentence -- to construct elegant and powerful works. But their writing is, in fact, radically different from one another. McCreary's bias is toward formal strategies, Jagannathan moves more thematically. Each is interested in the social, but I'll wager that they have a fairly dissimilar idea as to what that means. Because I went first and McCreary immediately thereafter, I didn't have the wits about me to take notes during her reading, other than to register the fact that the work read was more recent than doctrine, generally more open--ended shorter pieces. Several of Jagannathan's phrases from a piece that's still in progress (holograph edits were evident on the page) are still ringing in my imagination: "spoonful of cellophane," "orchid feverishly wants aloe" -- that sounds like a terrific header from a personals ad -- "crouch is a gesture to readily understand," "if name is temporary password," "I don't want powerless no more" -- there's not a missing word there, which makes that gap all the more dramatic.

Andrew Zitcer is, for want of a better description, a community organizer of the arts, in the process of getting an M.A. on Planning in the Arts at Penn. Involved in more projects than I can even imagine, a former producer of Live at the Writers House himself and a one--time production assistant for David Dye's World Cafe, XPN's most widely syndicated music program, Zitcer's work here is, as he describes it, is a text with a "backing track." In fact, the entire piece is an aural environment that reminded me a good deal of the use of sound in the best of Godard's films -- think of the scene in Weekend when the lovers plot the homicide, where the most crucial portion of their dialogue is drowned out by a rising soundtrack. The text Zitcer himself read really is just one of several simultaneous tracks -- aurally, it works exceptionally well, but I'm not as certain that the text would resonate in anything like the same way on the page. It's also not clear to me -- I hope to find this out when I listen to the program -- if Zitcer's reading, at the electronic move imposed by recording, carries anything like the live vs. taped aura that it had at the event itself.

La Tazza co--curator Frank Sherlock reads "Night Margins," a sequence that you can find in the first volume of the ixnay reader. A series of long--lined couplets -- the second line is always indented -- paired at the very top and bottom of the page with a horizontal dividing line that gradually moves down the page as the work progresses -- there's no decent way to represent this work adequately within the limitations of the blog format. Nor can you hear this aspect of the work when read aloud. Though the format visually references the divided page of Jack Spicer's Heads of the Town up to the Aether and Sherlock is fond of the Projectivist shorthand for with -- "w/" -- what I hear most clearly in his work is a surrealism in which the emphasis falls on that word real. It's a witty, challenging piece and I like it a lot.

Josh Schuster was one of the first poets I met when I moved to Philadelphia in 1995 -- he was an undergraduate at Penn at the time. Most recently, I heard him read at the Social Mark symposium at Slought. His work there -- as here -- had (actually, I think, chooses to have) the roughest quality of the poetry presented. Intellectually, it's also the most daring -- Schuster strikes me as absolutely trying to get into his work all of the qualities of Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Adorno, Kafka, Levinas and Jabes. It's one of those impossible -- and impossibly ambitious -- projects that is almost certainly going to.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that many of Schuster's peers shake their heads at his work -- it's so consciously anti--poetic -- not at all unlike the way Benjamin's friends rolled their eyes at his grand failures and incomplete ventures. But, over the years, I've come to trust very much the artist who puts all their cards on the table and Schuster right now is taking as many risks as any poet I know. "Anatomy of Public Safety," the piece he read here works and doesn't work and works again on whole other levels. I'm fascinated and would love to see into the future to find out just where all this is going.

Again, let me note that you can hear all of this "live" Sunday night at 11:00 PM on radio XPN.