The Grand Piano: A Collective Autobiography
"Among the thousand or more simultaneous voices of the chorus, only two are heard."
Against Professional Secrets
Saturday's reading at Poet's House included 8 of the ten poets who have been working on the ten volume experiment in "collective autobiography" since 2006 realizes perfectly the kind of literary experience this blog was dedicated to exploring when it was opened in 2003, which was, as I somewhat lightly called it, time travel (my idea of time travel intended to synchronistically reconnect the present and the past). The two poets who were unable to come were Rae Armantrout and Lyn Hejinian. Towards the end of the presentation Ron Silliiman talked about the fact that this group has kept in touch, and that these books represent one expression of the relationships that have continued among the West Coast language group poets over a period of 35 years. Tom Mandel mentioned the importance of digital technology in making this collaboration possible, and then Ron mentioned another Language Poetry collaboration of many years ago titled Legend that was composed entirely through the mail. Although I am not a literary historian I tend to think that this 35 year span as historically unprecedented. As I listened to the beautifully orchestrated reading (at one point Ted Pearson showed the musical chart he had constructed to lay out the parts) my mind kept criss-crossing over the years that I have known and have been reading the work of each of these poets. As Ron Silliman once put it, language poetry was a moment, not a movement. But when you consider the significance of Sarah Palin announcing today in Wisconsin as a victory the recent decision in Wisconsin to deny the right of union collective bargaining and what that decision means for the Tea Party, and the horrific reality this represents for our country, you realize just how important the solidarity of this group of poets (and their Eastern friends and cohorts, including Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, MIchael Gottlieb, Erica Hunt, Andrew Levy, Lee Ann Brown, Pierre Joris, Susan Bee, Francie Shaw, Joel Lewis, Burt Kimmelman, Lynn Behrendt, Marc Nasdor, Nada Gordon, Star Black, Kimberly Lyons,Toni Simon and Larry Price, who were in the audience) is to our culture. It was in this spirit that I listened to the voices of Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ted Pearson, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman and Barrett Watten sing out their experiences and ideas in the hall at Poets House. Also, as I listened, I realized how much I have taken for granted over the years having to do with the group of poets I chose to identify my work with since beginning to write for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978, and even before that as I excitedly and eagerly read the issues of This that Barrett Watten edited in the 70's as they were published, and the Tuumba series of chapbooks edited by Lyn Hejinian, among them one of my favorite works of Charles Bernstein, Senses of Responsibility. During the panel discussion there was some conversation about the "differences" that emerged in the group about the structuring of the collective autobiography and it brought to my mind the whole issue of differences that take place between friends and poets in the course of the years. But these differences should challenge us to not lose sight of the more significant total picture. And that makes it all the more moving and admirable that this group, brought together by Barrett Watten, could compose a ten volume work together some 30 years after the first connections among them as illustrated by the original talks at the Grand Piano. After the presentation I talked briefly with Barrett who- perhaps jokingly- asked me if I had any thoughts about the "psychodynamics" of the presentation. But I answered him seriously to say that one of the things that most excited me was to be brought back to remember how important the idea of transcending the self was for me in the mid to late 70's, especially following my experience of the 60's, and how the poetics of the language group at that time was consciously set in firm opposition to what I would now identify as literary and artistic narcissism. I didn't get a chance to tell him that I have just completed an article that is partly on the topic of artistic narcissism to be published in a psychoanalytic journal. This five year experiment in literary collaboration illustrates exactly how writers as part of a literary movement can work together to try to avoid the worst pitfalls of artistic grandiosity. And, ok, I understand artists and writers have to have some of that in the tank to add some pizzazz, but lets face it, too much will doubtlessly clog the engine and blind the driver to the other cars on the road.
I for one am eagerly looking foward to delving much more deeply into these volumes (I have read many of the pieces in them, but in, as I see now, an unfocussed way), and as I read them all the more carefully, I know I am going to enjoy the process of using this time to renew my appreciation for the roots and branches of a movement that has enriched my personal and literary life so much. The link for the Grand Piano volumes above includes recordings of some of the earlier readings of the collective autobiography.
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Lawrence Schwartzwald Photos at Poets House 4/16/11
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Star Black Photos at Poets House 4/16/11
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