The first A Tonalist group reading was a success, if I do say so. Fun was had all around. The A Tonal jokes flowed like the wine we brought and the fizzy water we freely dispensed. For me, it was interesting in a number of ways. The readings were a little like watching my own play or novel coming to life. A Tonalist is an essay poem not a fiction, though it does include sections about several of the people who read and, as it happens, Standard Schaefer and I are actually writing a novel that includes aspects of the current poetry scene, but that wasn’t why it was like that. What came to life for me was the particularity of each poet’s work, line to line, and their attention to the realms of thinking, making a living and making work in what passes for the world these days.
I was reminded again that A Tonalist or A Tonalism is a gesture or a question or an experiment involving autonomous actors. Even though I have written about and imagined their alleged A Tonalism, what they write and read is up to them. This is obvious, but I experienced it with particular piquancy at the reading. The work was not only good but good in unexpected ways. For example, Alli Warren maintained a tension in her emphasis on words that was complicated by her multi-level use of what seemed like all of the possible readings of what she presented, refuting and complexifying everything as she went along. The framings never stopped, except for when she made some bald statement. "Juliet is gaseous now." I thought she chose pieces that were a little more dense and less speechy than when I heard her read last, but I couldn’t swear to that. Alli indicated that she had been asked recently by people from I think Iceland, maybe in was Finland, if she was a Flarfist. She didn't say how she responded.
Brent Cunningham’s engagement with rhetoric or perhaps it is with categories, which I experience on many levels on most days of my life at work, as well as his fascination with science and adventure, which I share, made his reading of a piece from Journey to the Sun delightful. It was too bad his technique of using the machine voice of the Microsoft narrator (who sounds like Stephen Hawking) by holding it up to the microphone didn’t work because it would have been perfect. Not to complain. His troubling of categories can occasionally be annoying in daily work life but it makes for some great writing.
Scott Inguito read what he said were older poems because lately he has been focused on painting. This persuasive and often funny work, one poem written in front of the television and one in the car on the way to work, reminded me of the difficulties of sustaining a writing practice while making a living. I was thinking of these issues anyway as I have been preparing my talk for the Labor Conference coming up. His painting is in a show that is up now. Info on the show and also pictures of the paintings can be found here.
When Sara Larsen read I thought how her work has become better and better since I first heard it a few years ago and that she reads with a lot of confidence. There is a certain wildness and sexiness to it I very much appreciate. Serendipitously, Sara referred to the legendary Bay Area magazine Semina in her reading, as did I in the piece I read from A Tonalist.
Taylor Brady read from a project I have heard before called Pamphlets, Rants, Tracts & Ballads. He said something about Berg just as he was starting that I quizzed him about over email. His reply, quoted below, makes a lot of sense with this work that insists on having it both ways. It is historic, anti-melodic, relentless, dense, ribald, explanatory and procedural but it also works in a word-to-word, line-to-line way that has something to do with lyric. Every once in a while it just sings.
As a reminder, Anton Berg was an Austrian composer. He was a member of the Second Viennese School with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Their work has been called atonal – “atonality” is the word that is usually used -- though all of them disliked the term.
Here is Taylor:
“The Berg thing was my attempt at a pretty imprecise analogy for something I'd noticed in the work I've been doing lately -- it starts by taking recorded/transcribed text or utterance as a kind of "tone row" that can be subjected to various permutations, a la Schoenberg's systematization of the twelve-tone method. (That part is actually fairly precise as far as it goes, but I'll save you the full explication of how a semantic analogue of retrograde inversion actually works).
What I noticed, though, is my own willfulness in wanting then to harmonize or euphonize the results, which is in some ways akin to the way Romantic/late Romantic/proto-modern melody and harmony keep sneaking back into Berg's music, especially in the two operas. Of the "big three" in the Second Vienna School, Berg is always the one who finds consonance and elements of tonality lurking behind atonal music. The "impurity" of his dodecaphonic writing is one of the reasons Adorno's book about him is so marvelously ambivalent.
This is actually where the analogy breaks down, though, because while in some cases Berg finds these Romantic atavisms through sheer force (i.e., breaking away from twelve-tone writing and just inserting a 19th century chord or melody wholesale), in other cases it's more a matter of him working according to the twelve-tone "rules" but finding ways of using them that allow these moments to emerge from within them. "Who's that hiding behind the tone row? Why, it's Mahler and Strauss!" Rather than the moments of pastiche, I think it's this revelation of the incomplete or less-than-total nature of twelve-tone writing vis a vis traditional harmonic practice that gave Adorno a fit. So much of his writing on Schoenberg really hinges on reading the consolidation of the twelve-tone method as the liquidation of harmony as such...”
Instead of reading from Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems, just out from City Lights, Andrew Joron also read a procedural poem. He recently completed the index for Robert Duncan’s The HD Book which very happily is about to come out from UC Press. To make the work, he keyed on a phrase Duncan used a lot in the book -- “in back of,” as “in back of Joyce you have Homer." This turned out to be a cunning procedure in that it produced a sort of automatic essay on the book and on Duncan. Andrew wondered aloud if such a procedure could produce an A Tonalist poem. It was quickly apparent that it could and had.
Yedda Morrison read from Darkness, a book about to come out from Displaced Press. Dark has been erased from Heart of Darkness. To find the words Yedda took out the human elements from the original text and retained a sort of verbal landscape that is very evocative and about as A Tonal as you could get. By that I mean that it is, in fact, dark and is haunted both by the story that is not present and by the bioforms intimated by the words that remain. I had started the evening by invoking the Tonalists, who painted around the time of the Impressionists but who were as much about the dark as the Impressionists were about the light. The Tonalists were shadowy, often pink and might tend a bit toward being Parnassian in subject matter – which is to say they might have pillars and shepherds even if, as with Martinez, the shepherds they painted might be real ones. Think Isadora Duncan and her ancient looking scarves. Bringing up the visual art context framed Yedda’s work nicely. She is an accomplished visual artist whose work very much relates to plant forms which could be thought of as another way to think about landscape. I was glad to find an extensive site of her work, thinking that the myriad forms and shadings of these visuals illuminate Darkness in a useful way.
I closed with a short section from A Tonalist called “The Romantic Future.” I was struck by the really fine attention I read into, even at the end of the evening. It is an enormous pleasure to read to a group of people who completely get your deal. I look forward to more of these experiments.
Here are a few pictures from the event.