from Ron Silliman's blog
entry dated Sunday, December 8, 2002
Rachel Blau DuPlessis gave a reading Tuesday night at Kelly Writers House at Penn & it was wonderful. It was wonderful because Drafts, the long poem that DuPlessis has been writing for the past dozen or so years is a rich, intelligent, multi-faceted project that offers a deep vision of what poetry at its very best can be. It was wonderful because DuPlessis has the experience to know what works in a reading & how best to deliver her work – to hear her read is to be in the presence of a master. And it was wonderful because DuPlessis gave herself a full 45 minutes to read. It was a remarkably short & intense 45 minutes & could have gone easily for another 30 without seeming the least bit long.
I recall Bruce Andrews years ago telling me, only half in jest, that you could tell a West Coat language poet by the fact that they read forever whenever they gave readings in New York. The underlying reality, I think, was that readings in San Francisco, at least in the late 1970s through the mid-80s, often ran 40 minutes or more per reader. On the East Coast, two-person readings were (and still are) often completed within an hour, even with a break between readers.
It’s not that everyone on one coast was desperate to get to the bar after the reading in order to gossip, flirt, philosophize & schmooze. In the comparatively hard-drinking ‘70s & ‘80s, both coasts had that routine down to a fine art, whether the post-reading establishment of choice was the Ab Zum Zum Room on San Francisco’s Haight Street or the Ukrainian National Home (“Ukes”) on Second Avenue in New York, or Spec’s or Tosca’s in North Beach.
No, I think that people in San Francisco had something of a different idea in those days about what you might get out of a reading, how you approached it as a listener as well as from a reader’s perspective. The real reading doesn’t begin until the reader can hear the audience audibly shifting in their chairs – it is literally a matter of body language – settling in. The audience isn’t completely engulfed in the reader’s voice or world until about twenty minutes into the reading, which – if the reader is any good – is when the event begins to take on a special quality, when the ear can hear as well as the eye can see, when a good poem genuinely can transport a listener not only into a different universe or world, but into the most minute points of the text, all those little features that are inaudible until then. For example, how often DuPlessis uses “so” as a connector between sentences – perhaps her one Poundian trait – and the relative elevation in rhetorical tone that one little word lends to a text. I’d never noticed that before & I’m not at all certain that I would have if DuPlessis had only read one section of Drafts & kept the reading to 15 or 20 minutes. Nor might I have noticed how she pronounces certain words differently than I do, such as “barbaric.” For her, those first two syllables rhyme, whereas I flatten the “a” in the second syllable almost to a nasal twang: “bar-bear-ic.” I’m not sure what that might be telling us about our relative histories and placement on a linguistic geography, but the reading made me realize that, intellectually at least, I prefer her version.
Any good reading brings so much new information to a listener who knows, at least in general terms, the work of the reader. In Draft 12: Diasporas (p. 85 of Drafts 1-38, Toll, Wesleyan, 2001), DuPlessis filled in the blanks of “X---xes” as ”Xeroxes,” subtly registering that company’s well-known allergy against the generic use of their corporate name. The word ties that line more completely to the discussion of photocopying and intellectual property &, frankly, it’s obvious on the page – I’d just been clueless previously. So the reading offered me new depths & twists, throughout. A good reading of familiar work is not like seeing a favorite movie the second, third, or fifth time nearly so much as it is seeing an entirely new production, say, of Lear that enables you to imagine the play from a whole new vantage point. Which isn’t the poet’s necessarily, although it is one very much informed by how the poet understands his or her work.
San Francisco in the very early 1970s was, in a curious way, virgin territory for poetry readings. There had been a lull in the scene for a few years – I might trace it back to the death of Jack Spicer & the diaspora of poets up to Vancouver, but since I wasn’t really old enough to see the “before,” I’m just guessing. In 1972, however, there were only two regular reading series in town: one out at San Francisco State, mostly held in the daytime mid-week, constrained by academic class schedules & inaccessible to people who worked; the second held at the Intersection, then on Union Street in North Beach, held on Tuesday evenings. The series at Intersection in those days was erratic & unfocused. They could have Michael Ondaatje or Jim Carroll one week and then go three months before anything interesting showed up again. The result was that there was no continuity of audience from Tuesday to Tuesday, the key to the sort of ongoing feedback that makes a reading series more than just a presentation forum. Short-run series, such as one held in the press offices of Empty Elevator Shaft books out in upper Noe Valley (where I first met Kathy Acker), were relatively rare. So when Michael Bono & Barrett Watten started up a reading series at the Grand Piano coffee house in the Haight, there really wasn’t any established reading protocol. Nobody told anybody that readings needed to be 20 minutes or less. So people gravitated naturally to what proved most valuable. Which in turn meant that the standard reading was two poets reading for 45 minutes each with a healthy break in between & everyone retiring to some common venue for discussion afterwards. A reading that took less than two hours was considered a rip-off of your $1 donation.
I think that some of what came out of San Francisco in the mid-1970s can be traced back to people giving more in-depth readings & the audience feedback that ensued. This wasn’t restricted to just four or five people – it was pretty much everybody, regardless of aesthetic. One ironic result of course is that when some out-of-towners came in & gave short readings, it made everybody in SF think that these auslanders weren’t really working very hard. Which no doubt was unfair & really ultimately inaccurate, but it reinforced the idea that everybody locally was trying their very hardest & that the result was turning out to be something special. That sense of something special going on also propelled people to strive to do both more & better.
So that in a nutshell is my secret sauce for how to make a scene a really happening one, just make the readings longer & get everyone to go out for a drink & a chat afterwards (Writers House often has a sumptuous spread, which is a perfectly acceptable alternative).
It was wonderful to hear DuPlessis the other evening give the kind of reading that brings out all these extra layers in her work, especially to an audience that included Eli Goldblatt, Al Filreis, Tom Devaney, Jena Osman, Samuel R. Delany, Bob Perelman & some 40 or so other very lucky people. & what made me happiest was that she gave herself – and us in the audience – the time to really hear that work.