Secretly, yesterday's reenactment of Jack Spicer's last lecture was the event in the Scream's line-up that I was most excited about. I suppose this makes me a nerd of the highest order. Or a poetry fan. Or both. But it was a great idea; old poems get read all the time, but old lectures? old interviews? Outside of, oh, the Gettysburg Address, how often do lectures get re-presented?

The lecture was given at UC Berkeley, as part of a series of lectures given by the New American Poets from the Allen anthology (Ginsburg, Olson, Creeley, etc.). The topic was "politics and poetry", and Spicer's message, to oversimplify it, is that if you want to have a political effect, you're not going to achieve it by writing a poem. This is a contentious thing to say to a bunch of UC Berkeley students in 1965. Much of the lecture consists of Spicer asking for questions from the audience, and the audience trying to convince him that, yes, poems can have political effect, and Spicer being utterly unimpressed with the examples they bring up.

(If you haven't noticed, I'm more or less in Spicer's camp.)

The one person in the audience who brings up an example that Spicer is down with is Mary Norbert Körte, who at the time was a Dominican nun. She suggests that 1930s labor and civil rights anthems had some political effect, though perhaps they don't count as poetry? Spicer gets excited by this idea, and breaks out into a verse, "You'll get pie in the sky when you die." But he's not sure poetry achieves that effect very often.

It's a nice and meandering lecture, where both Spicer and the audience are thinking the issue through -- it loses focus at times, brings in other elements, starts with a firm conclusion and ends up less certain of it, you know, all the typical "thinking" characteristics.

So. Jesse Huisken (of This Ain't The Rosedale Library, yet another great little independent book store in Toronto) (unexpectedly on display there: Doug Nufer's Negativeland) came up with the idea of re-creating or re-presenting this lecture. Stan Rogal played Spicer, Jesse played the panel moderator (and, delightfully, Peter Gizzi's footnotes to the published transcription), and those of us in the audience played the people who were in the audience at the original event, ad lib. I ended up asking Mary Norbert Körte's question, for instance. And we sat on the concrete lawn in front of the bookshop, the sun blazing on us with a picnic table umbrella offering only so much protection, and we worked our way through the lecture.

The general feeling afterwards was that everyone was itching to ask a question of Spicer that wasn't in the script, because how often do you have a chance to ask Spicer a question? And we were all reacting to the issues brought up by the lecture, but we were thwarted from doing anything with our reactions unless it happened to be something that someone in 1965 asked. But Stan Rogal isn't a Benjamin Franklin impersonator (or whatever the Canadian equivalent would be -- are there John A. MacDonald impersonators?) and presumably wouldn't have felt comfortable answering for Spicer in that way.

Anyway what I want to say is obvious enough: There is a certain type of attention that a performative moment -- even one so barely performative as an amateur re-presenting like this one -- encourages, and it's one of the reasons why people go to lectures in the first place, and we sometimes re-present poems, but I think re-presenting lectures or events such as this one should be done more often, as a way of reading, or of pointing, or of paying attention.

. . .

My books arrived here in Toronto on Friday, so I got to spend the morning doing my every-few-years rereading of Spicer's Language, and I had a few things to say about that, but I guess I'll save it for another time.

. . .

I went to another event last night, and I don't have much to say about it. (OK, I have this comment: The piece based on Jordan Scott was based on a recording, and pulled some fun scattering rhythms from his stutter, but the thing about stuttering is that it's unpredictable, and the precision playing and the carefully lain out composing didn't recreate that -- not that it had to, but that was the aspect of Jordan's speech patterns that I was most interested in hearing "translated" into music. But that's my expectations being foiled, rather than the piece itself lacking anything -- it was a different piece than what I was hoping for, is all.) OK, I had a little to say about it. But I don't want to give Torontonians the idea that I'm always already going to endlessly blog about every little thing I go to. I am far too lazy for that.


  1. Sam Lohmann said...

    Wow, that sounds great. Maybe it should have been followed by a seance in which you could pose your questions to Spicer's specter. I bet he would have liked that. Do give your new thoughts on's LANGUAGE.  


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