Returned yesterday from the Louisville Conference on Literature & Culture since 1900, anxious a little to be back in south Florida's warmth, more than a little weary after 2 1/2 days of nonstop socializing, polite listening, & – well, partying: in short, conferencing. The Ronald Johnson panel organized by old friend & co-conspirator Eric Selinger went off well: Joel Bettridge presented an overview of the forthcoming Bettridge/Selinger-edited Ronald Johnson: Life and Works; Peter O'Leary read a goodly and riveting portion of his memoir of being mentored by Ron in the art of poetry; Eric gave a lovely account of his quarter-long experiment of guiding a class of students thru the implications of a two-line Johnson poem, something between collaborative "thick description" and Holmesian sleuthing; & I tossed out some piffle about anagrams. (Ask me why "love" is like a "vole" sometime.)
The picture above captures the panel in full glory: Peter in characteristic towering handsomeness; Joel doing a imitation of Lou Reed imitating Brad Pitt; Eric with an intimidating growth of Absalomian curls; me – er, I suppose every 4-piece ensemble needs the homely drummer to make the front men look better. Anyway, it was fun.
There was much more on offer: formal presentations by a range of smart & diverting people – Kristen Prevallet, Tom Orange, Robert Zamsky, Norman ("not that NF") Finkelstein, among many others – and a keynote address by Aldon Nielsen which featured video of Nathaniel Mackey accepting his National Book Award & Jacques Derrida visiting Nelson Mandela's cell & photos of Derrida dueting with Ornette Coleman. Deconstruction, whether adumbrated by M. Derrida or the fantastic African American poet Russell Atkins, may never be the same.
The main attraction poetry-wise was a reading by Nathaniel Mackey Friday afternoon: as usual, a riveting event, tho marred by the facts that a) Nate's presentational style is a very definitely low-key affair – ie, he does not project, nor does he try to, and b) for some reason, the auditorium did not have a microphone that could reliably pick up his voice, which would have been okay but that c) the damned heating system in the room kept cutting on and drowning out the low subtle bits for the folks in the back rows. But as usually for Mackey, an excellent reading.
Reprised in part at a Saturday night party at Alan Golding & Lisa Shapiro's, where Nate read another section from Bass Cathedral, among a cloud of other poets (too many to name). A great party, followed by a night of carousing in good company (which of course followed two other nights of the same). (Needless to say, I slept on the plane home, when I wasn't reading Paul Auster's – possibly sleep-inducing – The Brooklyn Follies.)
A definite recharging of the batteries, both intellectually & socially. I haven't been to a conference in some time where there was such a concentration of alt-poetry scholarship & talent. But Nate Mackey – that reminds me:
Splay Anthem, Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions, 2006)
I've been following the nomadic wanderings of Nathaniel Mackey's sequences "Mu" and Song of the Andoumboulou for a couple of decades now, thru his first three volumes of poetry – Eroding Witness, School of Udhra, & Whatsaid Serif – watching as they've circled around one another, coiled, braided, & finally, in this magnificent latest volume, virtually merged. I'll admit I've put off reading Splay Anthem for some months, for wholly selfish reasons: Mackey's simply so good, the dense and tasty music of his verse so entrancing, his play with pun & anagram so fertile, that whenever I spend time with one of his books I find myself irresistibly drawn to slavish (& mawkishly inferior) imitation. Like School of Udhra & Whatsaid Serif, much of the early part of Splay Anthem follows its speaker(s) thru a dreamlike, surreal, cross-cultural pilgrimage, always surprising, always lively. It's grand & lovely & consistently unexpected – rather like being astonished by what Don Cherry & Ed Blackwell will come up with next on the Mu albums that are one of "Mu"'s referents. The real surprise in Splay Anthem, however, is the horrid spiritual & geopolitical stasis of the final section, "Nub" – "the imperial, flailing republic of Nub the United States has become," Mackey writes – one of the most impressive & horrifying visions of George Bush's American one could imagine.