I am thinking about time, how it divides and separates. I have been attempting to locate myself in the present, and I think I am getting better at it, but it is hard work. The mind wants to slip back into the past, to glory over supposed triumphs and fret over past defeats — or to pump itself up over things it is looking forward to or cower over things it is apprehensive about. Yeah, you know the drill. But to be in the present, when one can achieve it, is a gift to oneself, and ultimately to everyone else as well. Meditation is a practice for this, and so is going to poetry readings.
I’ll always remember an early poem of Anne Waldman’s called “Things That Make Me Nervous” — and the entire poem reads “Poetry readings. / People. / Dope. / Things I really like.” Which, back in the day, all went together. I looked up the poem and found it in Waldman’s collection Baby Breakdown, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1970. It was in a period when major publishing houses thought it made sense to go with the zeitgeist and try publishing some far-out poetry, almost as though they were record companies, gambling that one of these books could be the Next Big Thing. Others in this class include Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire, published by Holt Rinehart and Winston in 1969, and Tom Clark’s Stones, pubished by Harper & Row, also in 1969. These were hardcover publications with dust jackets and very sharp design, seemingly because the decisions were left to the poets. Joe Brainard blanketed Padgett’s book with white stars on a royal blue jacket, cover and endpapers. His hand-lettering of the title and author’s name is exquisite. Clark’s book also has jacket design by Brainard, in this case a large piece of yellow swiss cheese on a black background with the author’s name on the vertical axis. Brainard also contributes a blurb, which begins, “Ron Padgett is a poet. He always has been a poet and he always will be a poet. I don't know how a poet becomes a poet. And I don’t think anyone else does either…” Ted Berrigan’s “liner notes” for Waldman’s book are typically effusive. He starts out casually, “Anne Waldman is easily the most exciting poet of her generation, and Anne and her poems are among the great pleasures of everyone’s generation. Half the population of America is under 25, and Anne Waldman, at the age of 25, is a star. It seems she can do anything, and she has, and does …” Later, he adds something as true today as it was in 1970: “She has altered all our lives for the better simply by her presence, for she is no wielder of power, but simply a presence that permits everybody to be themselves and more often than not their best selves in the world…” He concludes, “This book is an ordinary miracle.” I love that Berrigan dated this blurb, printed on the book’s dustjacket folds, “May 18, 1970.” Baby Breakdown is really a far out book! The half-title and title page are hand-drawn by Waldman, and the inside of the book also features experimental typography and layout.
Tonight I heard two poets reading their poetry, Bobby Byrd, from El Paso, Texas, and Todd Colby, from Brooklyn, and they both, in very different ways brought me back into the sound of a human voice. That seems obvious, but it’s not. Too many times, at readings, there’s a different sense, an overriding thought, usually, of how is this going to come off, what’s my percentage in it, the calculation of a laugh, or a particular point of view that will give the poem, or more to the point, the poet, support. Poetry doesn’t work like that, nor do poets. First of all, it has to be about the poem, or the poetry, not the poet. Not that poets are not glamorous, fascinating, and fun to look at. And not to deny that they are the authors of their work. But there has to be a moment in the reading when you forget all about the poet, who they are, where they live, what they are wearing, who’s that sitting in the back row, and you are left floating, coasting on a wave of words that takes you to a place you simply could not have imagined before you came to the reading.