Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ron Silliman in Ottawa: informal lecture/talk and reading

On Saturday, March 10, The AB Series brought American poet, critic and blogger Ron Silliman to Ottawa for the first time, with an informal talk during the afternoon, and evening reading.

During an engaged and highly comfortable talk, Silliman began by talking about his own history as a writer, fortunate enough to be part of a community early on engaging with “the real discourses,” having “face to face conversations about poetry.” He made the point that a lack of post-secondary education is “not an impediment to writing,” citing himself as an example, or even Denise Levertov, who didn’t complete high school. Silliman’s broad knowledge of literary history is staggering (even aware that Rob Manery and Louis Cabri ran a reading series at Gallery 101 in the late 1980s and into the 1990s), and his talk went in all sorts of corners, from the historic relationship of poetry and the academy, San Francisco/Bay Area poetics of the 1960s and 70s, Louis Cabri in Philadelphia, the School of Quietude, the internet and blogging, and numerous other topics.

Some highlights included his assertion that more Americans should be aware of the work of the late Montreal poet Louis Dudek, suggesting that Dudek and Robert Duncan were writing “mirror works” until Duncan encountered Black Mountain poetics in 1966. As Silliman called it, “the importance of Louis Dudek from an American perspective”: had Duncan kept on his particular path, it would have been similar to what Dudek continued.

In large part to the internet, he said, literature and literary engagement is “a different world geographically” now, more than it has ever been. In the early 1970s, there might have been a thousand English language poets actively publishing in America; the number since has exploded to some twenty thousand, giving Silliman, in his youth, an “unfair advantage” over the poets writing today. And as far as the border was concerned, he gave the Kootenay School of Writing a great deal of credit for communicating back with American writers, and the largest reason why a knowledge of so many Canadian writers and their works have freely crossed the border.

During the evening reading, Silliman read from a recent chapbook, Wharf Hypothesis (Red Hook NY: LINESchapbooks, 2011), a fragment of the work-in-progress “NORTHERN SOUL,” which is a part of the much larger, ongoing project he calls “Universe.” With thirty-some sections, he said, he’s managing but one a year; might it ever be complete, or even appear as a single unit? He read from this, and a longer piece published in Poetry magazine. When a writer of his caliber appears, it becomes interesting to see who appears in the crowd, and the mid-sized crowd included writers such as Phil Hall, Mark Goldstein, Amanda Earl, Pearl Pirie, Christine McNair, jwcurry and John Steffler. Impressive, indeed.

Part of the intrigue of Silliman’s work, apart from the sheer scale of his projects, is in the accumulative quality, read as less a list than a montage of just about everything, including this fragment of Wharf Hypothesis that mentions the late Montreal poet Artie Gold (mentioned, most likely, since British-resident American poet Barry Schwabsky is a contemporary to and old friend of Gold’s). There are barely any Canadian references to Gold anymore, and this one comes from an American poet, via a British recollection, writing:
in vast quantity

United puts away the Arsenal

to reach the finals

canals everywhere

Ten percent of the people

own 90% of the land

ergo 90% of the people

live on just ten percent of the land

The streets thus are crowded in the


Locals discern a course tongue

Wyston Curnow & Barry Schwabsky

in the very same room

Asparagus ravioli

Fleet Street being shorter

than I’d imagined

Cutting short Artie Gold

vomiting between sets

as the turntablist samples

Willie the Shake

photo shoot by the Roman fort

speed at which

towns blur by

feeling blurby – Simon

mit Garfunkel, always

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