Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Mac Cormack, McCaffery & mARK in Portland, 3/2/08

Because I’m feeling just Portland enough to bike to readings now, I arrived late for Karen Mac Cormack at the burlesquey Someday Lounge. That and a low mike let me catch just enough of Implexures to pick up a multilayered history of place, and placelessness, as sensory details from (presumably) Mac Cormack’s family "polybiography" in Zambia mixed with allusions to other theres that aren’t quite there for its residents, except by an act of poesis, like the Athens that reminds the Australian tourist exactly of Adelaide’s Greektown.

Steve McCaffery
followed a terrific intro by David Abel—who’d just heard Frederic Rzewski play in Seattle—that compared his work to that of a composer/performer, exploratory and ‘finished,’ conceptual and well-executed at the same time. McCaffery opened with a poem addressed to its reader, listing all the things she may hate about the poem, anticipating her reasons for reading on anyway, imagining her circumstances (prison, class assignment), justifying itself (and by extension, poetry) through its wit and its sympathy with the reader’s own motives and needs.

That kind of teasing, game-like approach to the reading ‘contract’ wove through all the work McCaffery read, which stitched together crazily disparate frames of reference, Greeks to Google, into texts thick with homophones, spoonerisms, and puns. The effect was sort of George Carlin meets Italo Calvino in Jarry’s graduate seminar on Barthes; a serious play of concepts that emphasized the glassy surface of language as thought’s medium. He closed with a bravura poem dedicated to cardiologist Joseph Perloff, which took us at warp speed from Shakespeare's Sonnet 109, to bookish commentary thereon, to an intricate conceit that had phonemes clustering into syntax like cells, to a breakdown of (I think) the sonnet into its originary vowel sounds, spit out like rivets then returned to poetry. McCaffery’s endowed with a rich Yorkshire (?) accent that makes everything he says, for this life-long West Coast colonial anyway, sound twice as melodious and smart. He read mostly from manuscripts whose names I didn’t always catch, one of which is forthcoming from Chax.

The artist formerly known as mARK oWEns—for now just mARK—took up where McCaffery left off by turning his reading into an actual game: six players pushing lettered balls around a table and making song and sound with the results. I picked up the sung phrase “American Hiroshimas” several times, but otherwise couldn’t guess the formal principle structuring the chaos; who’s got time for structure when everyone’s rolling the English around having fun? “Experimental” poetry often gets stereotyped as dour and labcoaty; Sunday’s reading reminded me of its roots in puzzles, stutters, wordplay, and the primal pleasures of sounding out vowels.

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