Pepys Diary erasure project enters third year

When I started blogging erasure poems based on the Diary of Samuel Pepys on January 1, 2013, it was with the understanding that I would only do the interesting entries, and stop as soon as it got boring. Two years in and I have yet to skip a single entry of the diary—not even the one-sentence ones. It’s become this weird compulsion. Maybe it’s a crutch, a way to avoid having to think up poems on my own? Nah. It’s actually quite a bit more time-consuming. But it’s teaching me a lot about invention and discovery, the observer effect, and the shadow text—which, like a shadow government, thrives on its own irrelevance. Within a few months of beginning the project, I switched to a fully digital style of erasure using HTML. And in the latter half of 2014, I began to use erasure to teach myself how to compose better haiku — one of the most difficult kinds of poetry to get right.

What better way to celebrate two years of erasing Pepys than with a videopoem by one of the best in the poetry-film business? My friend Marc Neys, aka Swoon, surprised me with this in late December:

But even now, I’m sure I can stop erasing Pepys anytime I want. I just don’t want to yet.

2014 highlight: ZEBRA in Berlin

Me with the ZEBRA zebra
Me with the ZEBRA zebra (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

London, Cornwall, Belgium, Berlin… 2014 was a year of traveling. Somehow or another, people seem to gotten the idea that I know something about videopoetry/poetry film, so I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at the biannual ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin this past October. They paid me and everything. It was nuts! The best part was, Rachel came over from London to join me, and we spent a week exploring Berlin and taking in poetry films from all over the world in a grand old theater, in the company of friends old and new.

The panel was titled “Poetry Films in the Digital World,” and it was surprisingly well attended, by which I mean that every seat (100 or so?) was taken—at least until the one-hour mark, when we took a break and half the audience fled. The thing I liked about it was that it was a real colloquium discussion, not one of those wretched series of Powerpoint presentations that passes for a panel at most American academic conferences. Then again, this was a festival, not a conference. Our job was not just to inform but to entertain, and I did my part as best I could in my usual, hyper-caffeinated, words-tumbling-all-over-each-other fashion. Also, there was simultaneous translation into German and English! It was just like being at the U.N. The two translators took turns, and they seemed equally good. I was in awe.

ZEBRA colloquium line-up
ZEBRA colloquium line-up: Alice Lyons, Cathy de Haan, Christiane Frohmann, Harald Ofstad Fougner, me, Thomas Wohlfahrt (photo by R.R.)

After the festival was over, Rachel said: “You’ll get more invitations to attend poetry film events around the world, I’m sure, but this is probably the last time you’ll get paid to do it.” I imagine she’s right. Of course, as with all conferences and festivals, a lot of the important stuff happened at the nearby pub. In part as a result of the new connections I made — and the new energy I felt from attending so many screenings — I converted the old Moving Poems forum into (ahem) Moving Poems Magazine, and created a Top Ten Films feature to help newcomers quickly get a feeling for what the genre is all about. (Judging by this post from a Swedish books blog, it’s working: “A great way to explore the material is to start with the top lists,” they write.)

The trick for me, I think, will be to keep the work-load manageable. So far it has been. I feel particularly fortunate to have gotten a new columnist, the artist and animator Cheryl Gross. Yep, we met in Berlin.

I posted two photo-illustrated posts about the trip to Via Negativa: “On Berlin walls” and “Berlin in black-and-white.” I also had a great nature walk right outside the Stockholm airport on the way there, and a very memorable flight home. As for my summer jaunts, I blogged about “Embodied Belgium” as well as a bunch of stuff from the U.K. One of the latter is due to appear in a print publication, I’m told — more about that if/when it arrives.

My words in “Vibrant Words” and “Words/No Words”

Vibrant Words coverTo say that I don’t actively pursue publishing opportunities would be an understatement. Nevertheless, from time to time my writing does find its way into various sorts of publications. It’s especially satisfying when those publications are as fun, off-beat and well thought-out as the two collections I’d like to mention today.

The first, Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets (PushPen Press, 2014) is a collection of poetry writing prompts edited and mostly authored by Erica Goss, a terrific poet and the current Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California. I’m one of eight other contributors besides Goss, and I must say my tongue-in-cheek piece “Delusions of an Erasure Poet: The Shadow Text” seems almost laughably unhelpful compared with most of the other prompts, but perhaps Erica wanted it in there for comic relief. It’s paired with one of my Pepys erasures, following the pattern of the other chapters where a brief exercise is generally accompanied by an example or two for inspiration.

I wish I had had a book like this 30 years ago, when I was beginning to get serious about writing. The prompts are wide-ranging and the examples (many by Goss herself) powerful but at the same time approachable, by which I guess I mean they don’t bristle with dense syntax, obscure allusions, or other trappings of “difficult” poetry. One thinks “Wow!” but also, “Hey, I can do that.” The prompts include “Parking lots as inspiration,” “Something about the birds” and “Stalked by Walt Whitman,” as well as more standard chapters on strong first and last lines, political poetry, ekphrasis, writing in various forms, and so forth. Throughout, the tone is genial and conversational, and Goss includes a generous list of books for further reading. I would recommend it without hesitation to poets at any level, and am tickled to be in it.

Words/No Words cover artThe other recent publication in which one of my poems is included takes the physical form of a cassette tape. No, I’m not joking — along with the growing interest in vinyl records, apparently the kids these days are also getting into cassettes. Yay, analog media! (says the guy who never would’ve had any of these opportunities without the web).

Fortunately, I am enough of a fossil never to have abandoned cassette tapes in the first place. Poverty has its virtues. The entire CD revolution passed me by, and a boombox still occupies pride of place in my living room. So when the musician/composer Marc Neys, AKA Swoon, handed me a copy of Words/No Words (Already Dead Tapes, 2014) this past July while I was visiting him in Belgium, I knew I’d be able to play it as soon as I got home. And so I did. (I hasten to add that it’s also available as a digital download, a code for which is included in the cassette.)

The title is a literal description of the contents. Pieces with audiopoetry alternate with pure instrumentals (if that’s the right term for music created electronically). I’m hardly an expert in electronic music, which will be seen by the two composers this reminds me of: Swoon’s music is like a mash-up of Edgard Varèse and Nine Inch Nails. Except, of course, when it isn’t. My only criticism of the cassette is that the tiny white letters on black background are difficult for us fossils to read without magnification, and I had completely forgotten what Marc had told me about the contents. So there I am, listening to the cassette for the first time while doing something else, when the fourth track comes on and I hear the familiar tones of Nic Sebastian reading my 12 Simple Songs — the composition that became the soundtrack for the videopoem Marc and Nic surprised me with last year. Nothing like being surprised twice by the same thing!

I’ve listened to the cassette three times so far. The pieces do work together as an album—the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts—and I like the way the “no words” tracks cleanse the palate between audiopoems. Suffice it to say that, again, I’m very happy to have been included in such an innovative project. The other poets on the cassette are Paul Perry, David Tomaloff, Michael Dickes, Dena Rash Guzman, Erica Goss (yes, it’s true—we’re all members of an online poet mafia), Luisa A. Igloria (another especially delightful surprise on first listening) and Meg Tuite. You can listen to three sample tracks on the publisher’s page.

Twelve Simple Songs still in print

Twelve Simple Songs coverI promoted my poetry-and-photo chapbook Twelve Simple Songs back in February as a Valentine’s Day gift without realizing that the link to order the print version had stopped working sometime last year. I’m selling it at cost, so it doesn’t affect my pocketbook any, but still, the point is to have a pretty artifact for anyone who wants it. So I was pleased to discover that it was only a minor change to the URL; Peecho didn’t delete the publication, much less disappear in the middle of the night or anything.

So my apologies to anyone who has tried to order it only to encounter a broken link. Now once again you can get your choice of hardcover, softcover or magazine formats — or download the other (free) versions from its page here.

Staying alive

Poems, Places & Soundscapes exhibition
Poems, Places & Soundscapes exhibition – photo by Mark Goodwin

“Publishing: where content goes to die.” So reads a slide from a recent talk by media scholar Ernesto Priego. I thought of this an hour later when I happened to check the website for an exhibition of sound-enhanced poetry and film-poems at the Cube Gallery in Leicester, UK last month, and discovered that even more of my poetry had been included in the film reels than I had thought would be: in addition to my own videopoems Note to Self and The Banjo Apocalypse, Marc Neys’ film Taking the Waters, which includes a prose poem of mine, was also among the videos projected in a continuous loop onto the wall of a gallery for three weeks. And my soundtrack for Shackleton’s Banjo was available at one of the listening stations.

That’s an almost embarrassing level of exposure for a writer who rarely bothers to send anything out for publication. My attitude tends to be why bother, when I can just post stuff to the web? Besides, any time I don’t spend on my own work is devoted to curating other peoples’ work at Moving Poems. But I sometimes wonder how many web visitors watch anything longer than a minute all the way through, or read any poem longer than ten lines.

The quality of attention of gallery- and museum-goers, on the other hand, is in a class by itself, something a skillful curator can turn into a kind of active participation. I gather that the listening stations and film-poem screens at the Poems, Places & Soundscapes exhibition were deliberately juxtaposed in such a manner as to encourage visitors to make connections between unrelated audio and film footage. And that’s pretty wonderful, I think.

But whether it’s YouTube or an art gallery in the UK, non-traditional venues offer as well the always-tantalizing possibility that one’s poems will be heard by people outside the sometimes claustrophobic community of professional poets.

Which is not to say I don’t also value the kind attention of my fellow writers, of course. I was honored this winter when two of the poems from my Bear Medicine series were remixed into videopoems via The Poetry Storehouse, one by Nic Sebastian and the other by Donna Vorreyer — two of my favorite poets. Translating a poem into another language or medium entails a special kind of very close reading, as I know from my own experience, so it was gratifying to realize that writers this good were reading my work in that way.

*

*

Thanks to Nic, Donna, and Marc, as well as the organizers of the Poems, Places & Soundscapes exhibition—Mark Goodwin of air to hear and Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press—for helping to keep my web-published content alive.

Review of “Breakdown: Banjo Poems” at Switchback

The online literary magazine Switchback has just published Robbi Nester’s review of Breakdown: Banjo Poems. Nester draws attention to the serious play at work in the collection, as well as to the questions it raises about American history and culture.

Even divorced from these racial overtones, it may be hard to take this instrument seriously. We might even agree with Bonta’s playful admonition that “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise / than for a man to hear the music of banjos” (“Banjo Proverbs”).

As these poems reveal though, if we take this view of the banjo, we have judged the parody without a clear understanding of its source. By discounting this history, we have further undermined the people the minstrel shows sought to mock.

[…]

Bonta has made a career of revealing the power of other humble implements in his previous work. For example, his book Odes to Tools, published by Phoenician Press in 2010, the poet considers the hammer, plane, and other instruments of labor in a way that will make it impossible for one to regard them with indifference.

Indeed, to read this writer’s poetry, his blogs, and all the other works of his busy hands is to see the world in an entirely new way.

I am not sure I recognize the fabulous writer Nester is describing here, but this review sure makes me want to make his acquaintance! Gosh. (Read the rest.)

Review of “Breakdown: Banjo Poems” at Love During Wartime

Blogger-poet James Collins has just posted a very favorable review of Breakdown: Banjo Poems at his site Love During Wartime. What’s great about the review for me, however, isn’t so much that Collins liked the book (though that was nice), but that he appears to have read it slowly and deeply. It surely helped that he’s Biblically literate as well as conversant with American history and roots music. It was useful to see my own book through the eyes of such a good reader.

I don’t understand authors who claim they never read their reviews. It’s such a great chance to learn what one’s book was really about — because so often, the author is the last to know. Anyway, check it out.

Sassafras-Black Birch Beer

Brewed on 2 October 2013.

Grains

  • Pale 2-row pale malt, 8 lbs.
  • Munich malt, 1.5 lbs.
  • Vienna malt, 1 lb.
  • Caramel 60°L, 0.5 lb.
  • Caramel 120°L, 0.5 lb.

Herbs

  • yarrow, dried tops, 1 packed quart (infusion with 2 gals. water, made the evening before and chilled in sanitized bottles to add to finished wort)
  • fresh sassafras root shavings, 2.5 oz.
  • fresh black birch (Betula lenta) root shavings, 2 oz.
  • dried spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries, crushed, 0.25 oz.
  • dried bitter orange peel, 0.5 oz.
  • dried juniper berries, crushed, 0.5 oz.

Yeast

  • Safbrew S-04, two 11.5 g. packages in starter with 1/2 c. dried malt extract

Procedure

Tie together the last five herbs in a nylon bag and set aside. Mash grains in 3.5 gallons (American, not imperial) of water at 155°F until starch conversion is complete. Sparge with 3 gallons at 180°F. Bring to a boil and reduce to approx. 3.5 gals. Add spice bag 10 min. before end of boil. Add chilled yarrow tea to precipitate cold break. Pitch yeast starter at 80°F. Put herb bag into fermenter and let remain until bottling. Bottle in two weeks.

Results

I originally called this “Tree Beer,” but decided to get a bit more specific in the recipe title. There are of course many other trees I could’ve drawn upon (and spicebush is actually a shrub), but the trouble with brewing concept beers — which I do love to do — is that flavors don’t always blend as easily as ideas do. But this time I got lucky. Sassafras and black birch (i.e. wintergreen, more or less) are the dominant notes here; the other flavors blend into a citrusy background. This is a refreshing, summery drink, a bit acidic — imagine a cross between unsweetened herb tea and a nice mild ale. I probably could’ve added a pound or two of wheat malt, but even without that, I managed to prove to my own satisfaction that traditional root beer and birch beer flavors don’t have to be married to a stout- or porter-like grain bill.

For background on sassafras as a brewing ingredient, see my post at Via Negativa, “Sassafras beer: a short history.” Black birch, also known as sweet birch, was the traditional source of birch beer, and if you have maple tapping equipment, you could tap a couple birch trees in the spring and brew with the sap instead of water — or, of course, boil it down into syrup and add that as an extra sugar, perhaps at bottling time so the flavor really comes through. I decided to use the root bark because I happened across a nice long birch root while I was digging for sassafras. The two trees often grow in close association here in the Appalachians, since both are shade-intolerant, colonizing species that thrive on dry, rocky slopes, filling in canopy gaps caused by wind-throw, fire or lumbering.

Reading with videos

poetry reading ina bookstore under a sign that reads "foreign language"
Because poetry IS a foreign language (photo by Jason Crane)

I gave my first fully video-accompanied poetry reading last Wednesday at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe in State College, PA. Though I’ve given four readings in recent years with audiovisual components of some sort, this was the first where I experimented with reading along to “karaoke” versions of videopoems. I had a blast! It was organized and very engagingly emceed by Jason Crane, as part of a new monthly reading series.

I have a full report up at Voice Alpha, a site devoted to the art of reading poems for an audience: “Reading poetry with video: some first impressions.”

Tenth banjo videopoem completed. Where do I go from here?

Shackleton's Banjo thumbnail (penguin with ship)With the completion of Shackleton’s Banjo last night, I’m up to ten videopoems for one little chapbook, and a couple of questions naturally arise: Why am I doing this? And how many more videos will there be?

I kind of answered the first question in this morning’s post at VN: I’m doing it because it’s fun and exercises a somewhat different set of mental muscles from those used for writing a page-poem. It’s not mainly about promoting the chap, even though they take the form of book trailers — at least for now. Very shortly I’ll begin work on a new incarnation: an amalgam of all the banjo videos so far without my readings in the soundtrack for karaoke-like public performance. I have a reading coming up at Webster’s in State College next week, and I’m planning to project this amalgamated video on a screen behind me while I read. Obviously it would get pretty repetitive to keep mentioning the author and book information before and after each videopoem in a live performance, so the credits will have to be altered, which will entail additional editing as well, I’m sure. So that’s the short-range goal.

In the long term, I would like to explore making a print-on-demand DVD, and I have definite ideas about how I’d do that. But I don’t look at that as a goal per se, because I don’t want to feel pushed to make videos that are less than inspired. I’m pretty pleased with the quality of what I’ve made so far, which I think happened in part because I was just focusing on making one at a time and enjoying the process.

I do have an intermediate goal: a free-to-download audio chapbook of as many tracks as I can produce for the collection. This will be going out under somebody else’s label, and we have a handshake agreement, but I won’t say anything more about that until plans are finalized. I’ve also been uploading some of the audio tracks to SoundCloud. I’m not hugely active there, but I feel that since I’m using the site I should also be giving back.

As for the presentation of the online videos, I continue to update my Videos page here, and have also just added links to the process notes about each video (including the Swoon videopoems) to make the page more useful. They are also grouped together into a YouTube playlist and a Vimeo album. And they’re all included in the Breakdown series at Via Negativa, which at some point I’ll reorganize so videos follow the texts that prompted them.