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Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Practical Water (Wesleyan, 2009) is Brenda Hillman’s eighth book of poetry and third installment of a “proposed tetralogy of the elements.” It also happens to be a particularly ambitious work, both aesthetically and politically. With quiet determination Hillman works to secure the seams of the political, poetical, and personal realms with this collection. Yet it’s Hillman’s willingness to be present in her poems that’s perhaps most appealing and provocative. In many ways her work is characteristic of the Black Mountain tradition, from which, it could be said, Hillman hails, though she does so in singular fashion. Hillman’s lyric experimentalism offers an unlikely mediation between two principal and voluble poets of Black Mountain, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Whose falling out over aesthetic and political concerns has been widely discussed and hardly need mention. In addition to their meditative quality, Hillman’s poetry provides an occasion for being rather than an occasion for speech. Political opinions and aesthetic preferences aren’t “expressed” in her poems but rather originate and exist in the measure of each poem resulting in a “singular compact” of life and art. Hillman’s concerns are urgent and as vital as the metaphor she has chosen to scrutinize in her latest collection of poems.
I met with Hillman at a coffee shop in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley, California, to discuss her new book and other issues related to poetry. What follows is an excerpted version of the lengthy interview taken from the occasion of an afternoon with Brenda Hillman.
PL: We began by discussing Robert Duncan, the Black Mountain tradition, and living and writing in the Bay.
BH: Robert Duncan is an inspiration in that he provides a personal, aesthetic and spiritual vision in his lyric experimentalism. So I follow his lead though I have lots of other interests as well— something I like to think of as eco-feminism but may just be witchcraft. That impulse is being developed in a lot of different ways; in this book I was provoked and inspired by ecological engagement and political action as well as by the varieties of life in poetry, and the varieties of presence in a poem.
—It’s interesting that you ask about the Black Mountain— like Rexroth’s original San Francisco Renaissance writers, those poets were interested in bringing fresh insight, social conscience and a sense of process into their poetry. It’s hard to live in the Bay Area and not be interested in those things. I’ve also been inspired by the tension between wildness and freedom you find in many Bay Area experiments in poetry— the impulse of free verse of the beat poetry jazz instinct in conversation with the use of formal devices and constraints of counting or procedural poetry brought from OuLiPo via Language poetry. I make little arithmetical or numerical tasks for myself and then break the rules because of some emotional wildness
PL: On the various impetuses behind Practical Water
BH: Some my muses in this book, besides California, are water and earth, Duncan and numbers, and of course weird words— and the women of CodePink. There are a lot of visual elements here and poems that occur with numbers. Additionally, I was really challenged by the letters of Duncan and Levertov writing this book. I felt a desire to mediate. I’ve been interested for a long time in theosophy, in Gnosticism and in other esoteric traditions. These disciplines fit perfectly well with the more counterculture idea of poetry and with poetic experiment-- the gnostic occult. Practical Water is part of a proposed tetralogy of the elements; if you start something like this in a sense you’re casting yourself a task that has to do with a single word, with an element, with interactions between definitions and materials. But of course this is a time of real environmental and political crisis that I wanted to address--so the word “water” speaks to the crisis of the water in our bodies and in our ecosystems. But basically I work from poem to poem, not with a larger project in mind— I think that can mess you up. The importance of being present in the world and being a poet can occur exactly simultaneously, and in a sense I feel a little bit defiant toward the idea of pure art. We all must be engaged in the task of the artist as the first thing and for me being a poet has got to be a kind of circulating presence of different kinds of action. Poetry matters as we take it out there.
PL: On the lyrical
BH: The "lyrical" to me is not a type, it’s an impulse, and it’s a way of carrying the mind in the world and finding the language and bringing it to various people. Poets have a mighty task, Yeatsian and Blakian-- to take reality of inner language out there and I don’t mean a self-announced prophet, I mean being quietly determined to carry the lyric otherness as powerfully as possible, which means existing in negative space.
PL: On contemporary poetry, and inflecting the quotidian with the symbolic and vice versa, and Rob Kaufman on Adorno
BH: A lot of writing now has gone very far in the direction of symbolist work, and symbolist work is completely amazing, and Baudelaire and others inspired in us the wisdom of dream states. I was thinking about Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project-- his discontent with surrealism because it like staying in an opium den. Today, you have to pay your PG&E bill. But the mix is important-- How does your quotidian get inflected with the symbolic and vice versa, how does the symbolic world get carried to the quotidian. I just feel like the literal and representation of history and even one's sense of the acts of nature can get a little drowned if it's only symbolic and I’m interested in bringing those things together because it a very wild time to be writing-- Barbara Guest and Gary Snyder come to mind. We are working very hard to stay alive, our social lives as artists has to include a lot of elements.
I don’t think the arts should be exclusionary even though we all form friendship groups and aesthetic fidelities. I am so glad for the presence of poetry and I read many different kinds of poetry to stay in love with it. We can challenge ourselves to find new forms and make communities with our poetry because in some ways artists working at the edge can get remote and in a way that’s what needs to happen. The poet can bring poetry out there and not compromise a sense of powerful aesthetic interest and involvement with social issues. Many non-poet folks I know, some of whom are involved in political and environmental activism couldn’t read a lot of the poetry I’m personally interested in. That is a concern in some ways but in other ways not. I want poetry to be deep and strange and stimulating in ways that are dynamic and I don’t want to compromise aesthetic ideals to appeal to a mass audience; at the same time people who work in social activism can learn to enjoy a lot of challenging modernist poetry and not just really accessible art.
The artist pushes consciousness toward the unknown and the poet's job is not the same as the person who serves on the city council; the poet's job is to stay confused and maybe even emotionally raw and messed up when that is what is most accurate. So I feel it's very poetic to protest the wars and occupations and global expansionism -- it's a poet's job. I love Robert Kaufman’s work on Adorno—we carry the experiment outside and redeem the language and help people integrate what seems drastic about beautiful forms of art into their lives. I guess I feel less separation as time goes by. Poets are unlikely to be legislators, but legislators can read poetry-- of course! I’m interested in crossing various bridges or boundaries and re-educating the public about what’s possible. Perhaps we all need to be blockade runners and I'm holding up my dowsing rod.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
giovanni singleton, a native of Richmond, VA and former debutant, is founding editor of nocturnes (re)view, a journal dedicated to innovative and experimental work of the African Diaspora and other contested spaces. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including Aufgabe, Callaloo, MiPOesias.com, Alehouse, Beyond the Frontier: African American Poets for the Millennium, the Best of Fence: An Anthology, and is forthcoming in What I Say: Innovative Poetries by Black Artists in America and Writing Self and Community: African American Poetry After the Civil Rights Movement. Work from her AMERICAN LETTERS series was selected for San Francisco’s 1st Visual Poetry & Performance Festival. Her recently completed manuscript ascension is informed by the music and life of Alice Coltrane. She collects bookmarks and enjoys figs and greek style yogurt.
ali lanzetta is a linguistic, musical and visual artist who is enamored with the giraffe. ali is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at SF State, and is currently uncomfortable with genre distinctions, but might get back to you on that later. ali was born and raised in a forest in New Hampshire, whose state motto is "Live Free or Die." hardwired into her system is a resulting affinity for maple syrup, porcupines, thunderstorms, old things and autumn. ali writes all of her own music, and plays it almost exclusively in her bedroom, to a one-dog-audience named Olive. The heart of a giraffe is over two feet long.
Brenda Hillman is the author of eight collections of poetry, all published by Wesleyan University Press, the most recent of which are Cascadia (2001) and Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), which received the William Carlos Williams Prize for Poetry, and Practical Water (2009). She has also published three chapbooks. With Patricia Dienstfrey, she edited The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan, 2003). Hillman teaches at St. Mary’s College where she is the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry and works with CodePink, a social justice group against war.
readings 730, sharp
donation for entry
365 45th st
Bart is MacArthur
Monday, September 14, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Truong Tran: This is a great question to start our conversation because it just so happens that this is where I’m at in my own work right now. Let me begin by saying that I see myself as both a visual artist and a writer. “Words on a page” are of the utmost importance in my work because they are really never just that. I always tell my students that if you are writing poetry, your words don’t just sit on a page. There is a symbiotic relationship at work. The page has the capacity to hide or reveal. The page holds meaning. The act of turning the page holds meaning. I’ve tried to push the page and this idea of words on a page to its limits. In my current practice, I am trying to extend the poem beyond the page. I have been writing but the writing does not seem to want to inhabit the page as of late. The poems are finding their way into my art. I guess the art I am creating now is an extension of the page or the book...
I got so carried away with the question that I think I failed to answer it in some respects. You asked about words and I ended up spending most of my time on the consideration of the page. I do place value on words but words are not always reliable. I should say that the last statement is inclusive. My last book is all about the unreliable nature of words, both my own and that of others. Take the word diversity for example. It is such a meaningful word and yet it is so often used as a diversion. Its lip service for what is really lacking. As far as I'm concerned, it’s a catch phrase. Writers are wordsmiths. We're always manipulating words to fit our needs. It can be both good and bad. The page has the capacity to invoke silence. There is often truth in silence.
LR: It seems that in your earlier works the attention was not so much on the contingency and unreliability of the word-itself, yet those poems, at least for me, are much more opaque than the newer texts. Do you think that by coming to terms with some of the more uncomfortable and uncontrollable aspects of language your work has become more accessible? Maybe, accessible by syntactic and lexical gestures of inaccessibility?
TT: Coming to terms with language means that I'm coming to terms with the politics of language and the politics of writing. In my twenties, I had stories to tell and endings to arrive at. I thought I was being authentic but in fact I was writing into an expectation of who I should be as a writer. I don't regret responding to those expectations. I was expected to deliver the boat story and in a way I did just that. I am less inclined to do so now that I'm 40. I'm bored of that familiar story of identity. This is not to say that my writing is no longer about identity. I write what I know and imagine what I do not know. My identity will always be embedded in that equation. It’s just that identity is far more complicated at 40 as opposed to my twenties. I’ve given myself the permission to be private in my writing. Part of my writing process now is to take meaning back. The experiential component of my work is private. It is mine and mine alone. What the reader gets from this engagement is entirely theirs. Is this what you mean when you talk about accessibility? I would never write in an effort to exclude but I am more private these days.
LR: The word I wish I used, now that I have your response, is reciprocity. I read the newer works and I feel that there is an interpersonal dimension that is more intimate and constructed by reciprocity but also there is an embedded solitude which becomes, in many ways, the crux of how far I go inside of the work. I used the word accessible to simply, but I think sloppily, say that the new works stick to my bones with more force and more exhilaration.
As I’ve made attempts to get a more expansive evaluation of your oeuvre I am unceasingly brought into the works and simultaneously shot out into different points of reference. An all too obvious one is the “Targeted” forms, which take me to Jasper Johns and, as with much of the work, the New York School of Poetry. Is there a school of poetry/art that particularly interests you? And what do you think of, in a general way, the contemporary landscape of poetry?
TT:I agree with you entirely on the notion of influence. Almost everything we do comes from a tradition that precedes us. I am always reminding my students that they do not work in a vacuum. That is why reading is such an important act to the development of writing. I have to say though that I have never been compared to the New York School before. I am a big fan of O'Hara but beyond that, I cannot say that I have too much knowledge of that movement. I find myself gravitating towards those writers who share an urgency for language. And yet so often this urgency arrives on the page in a mode of silence. My influences include Harryette Mullen, Myung Mi Kim, and Edmond Jabes just to name a few. I'm also a fan of Nicanor Parra for his sheer audacity. These poets don't fall into a categorization of schools so easily. It is precisely why they are so interesting. I find that once we arrive at the naming of a particular way of writing, we often create a haven for writing that is too safe. I think that is a word that I could use to describe the landscape of contemporary poetry right now. It is safe and competent but is it the type of writing that will truly matter a hundred years from now? I remember a jolt running through my body when I came upon the line in Ginsberg's poem that said, "Holy the angel in Moloch." It mattered when it was written, it still matters. As for my influences in art, I'm all over the place. I go from Judd to Cornell and yes, Jasper Johns is definitely in there. I am a bit schizophrenic when it comes to my art. There are days when I want to be a minimalist as an artist and create what could be described as a gesture. There are other days when I want to beat my viewer over the head with the story in the art. I cannot seem to decide. I am currently working towards a solo show for Feb. of 2010. This dichotomy is becoming more and more of an issue.
Truong Tran is a poet and visual artist. His publications include, The Book of Perceptions, Placing The Accents, dust and conscience (awarded the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Prize in 2002), within the margin and Four Letter Words. He is the recipient numerous awards and fellowships including two San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist Grants in poetry, The Arts Council of Silicon Valley Grant, The Califoria Arts Council Grant, The Creative Work Fund Grant, The Fund For Poetry Grant and most recently The San Francisco Arts Commission Grant in Visual Arts. Truong lives in San Francisco, teaches at SFSU and is a Visiting Professor at Mills College. He will have a solo exhibition of his artwork in Feb. 2010 at The Mina Dresden Gallery in San Francisco.
Lucas M. Rivera lives in Oakland, CA. He is an associate editor and the distribution manager for the poetry magazine LETTERBOX. He is currently working as a librarian at California State University East Bay and doing research on Dialogical philosophy with Dr. Marek Bielecki.
Truong Tran and Gillian Hamel read on September 4th.
Doors at 7
Reading at 730 (for reals)
donation for entry
wine and beer by donation