Monday, May 31, 2010

what I saw at the ALA

or rather, what I saw in San Francisco over the past weekend. It's kind of axiomatic for me that the broader the scope of a conference, the harder it is to find things of specific interest. The very best conferences I've been to have included two LZ events in 2004 (Columbia & Chicago), separate Ronald Johnson & Bottom: on Shakespeare events at Buffalo, a Sir Walter Scott do in Eugene, Oregon, & of course the sequence of massive poetry-fests mounted at the University of Maine. I find the University of Louisville's "Lit. & Culture Since 1900" conference pretty consistently stimulating, & I get a hankering to attend the Modernist Studies Association every year, tho I've never quite gotten around to it.

The American Literature Association casts its net of presentations a bit too broadly for my taste, I must admit. I love Twain, & I love Cooper, but do I really want to see the Twain-Cooper contretemps restaged between representatives of the Fenimore Cooper Circle and the Mark Twain Society? Try as I might, I can't muster the slightest bit of enthusiasm for talks about John Steinbeck or any American realist author. And like the MLA, the ALA is strikingly poetry-poor.

So I was seesawing back & forth until the very last minute as to whether I'd even show up to give a paper on this panel on biographies of 20th century American poets. I had reasonably priced airline tickets (which I knew I could exchange if need be), but I waited till the last minute to book a hotel. Alas, the conference hotel – the brutalist, brutally dated Embarcadero Hyatt Regency – was booked solid; the back-up hotel, 1 1/2 miles away, was far out of my price range. So I took a chance and booked a room in the "charming" Aida Plaza Hotel, pretty much in the heart of the Tenderloin district. Not bad – at least I was never lacking for company in my strolls to & from the hotel, since the neighborhood is plentifully supplied with panhandlers, crackheads, drug dealers & assorted street personages. If I needed entertainment, there were two strip clubs on the block (tho if I wanted "company," the Hotel charges a $30 "visitor's fee" to allow someone into your room). Somehow, between an iPod with David Harvey's collected lectures on Das Kapital and a briefcase full of books, I managed to entertain myself alone in my 14' x 14' room (taupe plaster walls, vintage 50s-era furniture, television with 3 working channels, linens & towels that didn't bear too close inspection); after all, this was San Francisco, right?

Frankly, I wasn't expecting much of this conference, or of the trip in general. The semester had left me bone-weary. I wanted to fly in, give my paper, & get the hell out. But the weekend turned out better than alright. First, there were bookstores: I'd been to City Lights some years ago, & found myself for some reason unimpressed. Perhaps I was reacting apotropaically to the whole beatification of the Beats, the "shrine" aspect of the place. This time around, I spent some serious time with the poetry section, which is flatly excellent. On Friday, I hiked to The Richmond to visit Green Apple Books. Now my usual out-of-town 2nd-hand book haunt is The Strand in Manhattan, & my MO in the poetry section there is to pile up everything I see that I want, add to it things that I might want, & buy that. In Green Apple I found myself having to reject all of the "might wants" outright, & then performing a kind of 2/1 triage on things I really wanted. & even then ending up spending a good deal more than I'd expected. It made for a back-breaking carry-on bag on the flight back, mind you, but I've got enough poetry to keep me busy for some time. (Which doesn't mean you shouldn't send me your book.)

Lodging... book shopping... what else is there to conference-going? Oh, right: Food. A couple of splendid Italian meals, a mediocre Indian lunch buffet – but the grand find: trudging around the fringes of the Union Square district, I finally rediscovered the Indonesian place I'd visited back in I think 1991, where I had a fantastic rendang the color & consistency of 2-year-old motor oil. It was just as delightful and piquant this time around.

Yes, the Conference: well, the highlight for me was a reading by my old friend Cecil (CS) Giscombe, beautifully delivered & ecstatically received. Cecil, whom I've known for almost a quarter century now (!!), has made the big time – a job at UC Berkeley, prizes, widespread recognition, etc. And he's still as warm & delightful as ever. I saw more old friends & acquaintances than I'd expected – Aldon Nielson, Katharine Wright, William J. Harris, Lyn Hejinian, Richard Flynn, Laura Barrett, Joan Retallack, Juliana Spahr, Alec Marsh (himself at work on a Pound bio). Marjorie Perloff whisked in for a panel on Gertrude Stein, where she delivered a rousing defense & analysis of Stein's language, took a few potshots at what she saw were misguided readings of Stein, and called for a new "renaissance," on the order of the whole Modernist revolution, in contemporary poetry. I was struck by her evocation of Wordsworth's Preface to the 1802 Lyrical Ballads, with its attack on the "inane & gaudy phraseology" of contemporaneous poetry, & her call for a similar revitalization of poetry. Who's to do it, tho – or who's doing it?

My own panel was something of a repeat, with a slightly different cast, of the similar panel I was on at the 2008 MLA (also in San Francisco). I found myself afterwards having supper with a group of biographers and Kenneth Rexroth fans – more Rexrothians than I knew existed. Don't get me wrong – I'd been reading Rexroth lately, and finding him a very intelligent and sometimes moving poet, but it's unnerving to be dropped into the midst of a bunch of folks for whom one particular guy is DA BOMB, pure & simple. (Yes, I know – it's the same way with LZ events.) Weirdest moment of the evening was when his biographer related some hair-raising tale of Rexroth's amorous goings-on – something to do with inviting both his wife and his mistress to the same apartment in Paris, with a couple of local pick-ups involved as well – and the women present simply sighed & smiled, and someone said, "I guess he just loved women." And everyone present nodded knowingly & sympathetically.

The weekend's very best moments happened outside of the Hyatt Regency: A lovely afternoon on the Embarcadero with Cecil and Roxi Power Hamilton, a friend who was tremendously important to me back in the ambiguous days of my graduate studies, but whom I haven't seen in 19 years (& have only been in touch with recently thru the magic of Facebook). That same evening I was taken for a brief tour of North Beach & an excellent Italian dinner by poet Susan Gevirtz and her partner Steve Dickison, director of SFSU's Poetry Center. I don't know why they wanted to know little ole me, but I had a great time; good talk, good food, good company. (Hey, isn't it time for the PC to do an LZ event?)

It seemed unseasonably chilly in SF for late May; most of the time I was wearing my big leather coat & feeling quite comfortable. When my plane touched down in Fort Lauderdale Sunday night, however, I knew I was back in the steam. I'd worked up quite a lather, overdressed & hauling all those books in the 85 degree, 90% humidity twilight, by the time I got to my car in the parking garage. Only to realize, as I turned over the ignition, that my air conditioning isn't working. Welcome back to Florida.
R.I.P.: Peter Orlovsky and Leslie Scalapino. that they were at the beach: aeolotropic series (North Point, 1985) was probably the first Language-related book I ever bought, at Books Strings & Things in Blacksburg, VA, after having been seduced by a large chunk of the book printed in of all places the American Poetry Review. The start of a very long journey for me; it will take me some time to process this passing.


Amy Letter said...

I agree the City Lights poetry section is a thing of beauty. And often there are little children's laundry hanging in the alley out the window, or live chickens clucking down below, which are sights and sounds I now associate with discovering amazing new poets.

One day we have to tell you our Tenderloin story. ;)

Steven Fama said...

Okay, City Lights's poetry room is far better than most any other bookstore, but if it's Monday through Friday regular business hours nothing beats the SPD warehouse, only about 15 miles away, in the Berkeley flatlands...

The weather here this weekend was a tad on the cool side, but not that unusual for late spring, or even summer . . . as you probably know, it tends to be the warmest in September and October.

Archambeau said...

Just wrote a big-ass review of Cecil's Prairie Style (with a quick tour of the whole career added at Don Bogen's request) for the Cincinnati Review. Unlike a lot of the guys who make the majors, he deserves to be there.

By the way -- how did you find out it cost $30 to bring "company" to your hotel room? Just askin'...


Ed Baker said...

when you mentioned "Roxie" my heart lept as I thought that you were gonna say


just what we needed another conference... I read the list of their presenters...

99 pages of people presenting papers...non-stop just the titles were a "giggle"

just what is needed another Pound biography!

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