Saturday, July 22, 2017

8. Summer camp

Last weekend I picked up my younger daughter from her “performing arts” summer camp in the Catskills; yesterday my older daughter got back on a Greyhound from her oceanography summer camp at Woods Hole. Tomorrow I send her off to another camp, and then Tuesday I see the younger one off to yet another camp in New Hampshire. 
I didn’t “do” summer camps when I was a kid. I suspect my parents didn’t see the point in paying good money to get me out of their hair, when I was so quiet and introverted that I could be relied on to shut myself up in my room with my books and records and comic books all summer. It’s true that during high school I spent most weekdays with my Latin club associates at our Latin teacher’s house, doing “study groups” in preparation for the end-0f-summer national Latin club convention competitions. And one summer I spent a couple of days at a church-sponsored summer camp nearby, just to find out what it was like (I didn’t like it one bit).
I’ve always thought of the Orono University of Maine/National Poetry Foundation “decades” conferences as a kind of concentrated “poetry summer camp.” I went to my first one in 1993, a conference on poets of the 1930s, and it’s not exaggerating to say that it changed my life. I was astonished by how many Zukofsky papers had been presented there (I’d just finished an LZ dissertation); walking on campus at twilight, I said to Peter Quartermain, “someone ought to edit an LZ volume from these.” “You do it,” he said, and I was astonished at the audacity of the idea—me, a nobody... That became Upper Limit Music, my first book.
I came back over the years, sometimes talking about LZ, sometimes about other poets. The conferences were a wonderful, concentrated three-ring circus of poetic interest—poets I’d read for years and held in breathless awe, critics and scholars whose work I’d admired from afar, and most importantly what seems like scores of younger scholars and poets who’ve become what I think of as my own “cohort” in the poetry world.
Burt Hatlen, who ran the NPF and edited Sagetrieb and seemingly did everything useful and good—except for attending to publishing his own multitudinous essays in book form—was the linchpin of those conferences. I missed him last month in Orono, at the “Poets and Poetics of the 1990s” conference, and it made at times for a bittersweet feeling. Yes, it was a very good conference: smaller than I had remembered previous events being, but with a perhaps more concentrated dose of poetic energy. A series of wonderful readings, illuminating papers, wonderful conversations.
Oddly perhaps, this was the first Orono conference I’ve been to where I didn’t to some degree feel like an outsider, an intruder, someone faking his way into the inner circles. I’m not sure why that was; perhaps it’s merely a matter of time: if you hang around long enough, the work you’ve done—as flawed and flimsy as you know it to be—acquires a kind of acceptance, becomes a part of the furniture. It was a very good time.
So thank you, Carla Billetteri, Steve Evans, Ben Friedlander, and Jennifer Moxley. I hope you’ve gotten some well-deserved rest.

7. Celebrities

[This note dates from a month ago; I haven't been keeping up with this cross-posing business very well.]
My brushes with celebrities have been few and far between. We were on the East Side the other week, walking past the Campbell funeral home, and I thought someone hip must have died—I’ve never seen so many hipsters in ties smoking outside of here. And then, lo and behold as we turned onto Madison, there were Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa loading themselves into a big black SUV, presumably for the ride back to New Jersey, or perhaps the interment.
The one that sticks in my mind happened in Orono, Maine, at the National Poetry Foundation “American Poetry in the Fifties” conference a bit over twenty years ago. I was in a crowded room, with far too many academics and poets and far too much booze, amusedly watching a Hugh MacDiarmid scholar hitting on an avant-garde poet, when someone poked me and said, “Look, there’s Becky!”
He pointed at a young blonde woman across the room, conversing intently with a knot of poet-types. Yes, I said, she looks exactly like Becky, the older daughter in Roseanne. “No,” said my friend, “that is Becky. That’s the actress. She’s in college now, and she’s interested in Beat Poetry. So she came up to Orono to hang out with Beat Poets, and learn stuff.”
So I looked things up (harder then in those pre-Wikipedia days), and found that Lecy Goranson was indeed an undergrad at Vassar, an English major no less. Good for her, I thought at the time—and a good choice of conferences to attend. The MLA, for instance, would be just the place to kill dead any young person’s passionate interest in contemporary writing.* But the Orono conferences—free-wheeling interactions of living poets, critics, theorists, places where at times one could see literary history actually in the making—that’s something else altogether.
Looking forward to being in Maine next week, in short. Keeping my eyes open for celebrities!

*I’ve been to plenty of MLAs, and had just wonderful (and abysmally awful) times—but the ambient job-market angst and savage careerism on display... well...