Friday, September 21, 2007

Robin Blaser at SF State

At the tail end of the Nonsense Company's trip to San Francisco for our performances in the Fringe festival, I managed to get to Robin Blaser's reading at SF State. I came away stunned, and remain so.

The reading was framed by an introduction by Norma Cole and the presentation of a Small Press Traffic Lifetime Achievement Award by Robert Gluck; both of them gave moving speeches that, unfortunately, have been erased from my mind by the poems themselves, and the talk between them.

I don't go to a lot of readings (not many opportunities here in Madison), and when I think highly of a reader it's most often due to the clarity of their delivery, the way they make the poems as comprehensible as possible. Blaser goes way beyond this. He knows exactly how to use his rich, musical voice, sliding between plain speech and a kind of half-sung incantation that recalls the way Pound would have read if he'd been less obsessed with his cultural authority and had been able to vary the song from that repetitious, irritating two-or-three-pitch range you hear in recordings (say, of the "usura" Canto). Blaser's reading always serves the poem. I was transfixed in a way I've never been at a poetry reading (and I pride myself on attentiveness at performances).

He began by voicing his gratitude for the fact that both Jack Spicer's and Robert Duncan's collected writings are in the works (which excites the hell out of me as well, especially as regards Spicer), moving on to read his "Great Companions" poem for Duncan. He then read Spicer's letter to him from Admonitions, followed by a couple of sections from Fifteen False Propositions Against God and the "God is a big round white baseball" section of Book of Magazine Verse--and then read all three of them again, without comment, a little faster but with every pitch curve the same as the first time. Then we got to hear half an hour or so of Blaser's work from this century, some of it from the last year, all wonderful. Ten minutes in he asked, "am I reading too long?," and everyone (a lot of people), a bit shocked that this question was possible, answered, "oh, no."

I won't go into a detailed account of the rest of the reading, except to say that the long standing ovation was moving and heartfelt. Afterwards I briefly met the Itinerant Poetry Librarian, who had draped Blaser's table with a beautiful cloth she informed me had "been to eleven countries and absorbed a lot of poetry." I wanted to talk with her, and others, more, but my mingling abilities, never great, had already been drained by the Fringe experience, and the idea of chit-chat after that reading seemed utterly innocuous and embarrassing.

I bought the expanded Holy Forest and The Fire, Blaser's collected essays, against my better financial judgment but with no regret, sunk in the writing on the Muni train back to the Tenderloin, in bed in the morning as a nasty cold came on, in the car and the motel on the way back to Wisconsin, last night when I couldn't sleep after thirty hours on the road. This is such important writing; Charles Bernstein's comment in his afterword to the Holy Forest seems right on: this poetry seems to have more to do with the future of the art than with the past. So fresh, so varied, so unabsorbed by us, we writers in Blaser's wake. Such political and intellectual commitment, such music, such weaving of motifs, the incorporation of the lyric and the epic with the essay and the diary. A poetry of capaciousness that always looks for a way to let more in, like Pound, Olson, Zukofsky, Duncan tried to open their work to the widest possible range of phenomena, like Silliman and Hejinian have done in much of their work... Blaser has an openness of his own, a freshness of thinking that sets him apart.

I can't do much more than rave at this point, still without a good night's sleep. I'll just say that Blaser looks extraordinarily good, not just for a man of 82 but in general, brimming with life that I can imagine taking him to 102. I hope so.

This is work one lives with.



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