Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Off the Record" Orono (Part 1)

The fun of getting so many poets into a single dorm in inland Maine should be the gossip, so here are a couple “off the record” items.

In a way this was the Mayer/Coolidge ‘70s. There was a buzz in the air about their presence, they were scheduled to respond to panels on their own work (creepy), their back-to-back plenary readings at the Colby Art Museum took on the gravity of ritual as we loaded onto buses, entered the gleaming vestibule of the state-of-the-art gallery, wound confusedly past Brainard Nancys and Alex Katz cut-outs into the echoey bowels of the facility like Theseus seeking out the Minotaur of Poetry.

Everything about the event suggested a Canonical Moment: here’s our ‘70s, it seemed to announce, shorn of the dreck, the paupers revealed to be princes, crowns set on proper heads.*

Mayer and Coolidge dealt with the pressure in different ways. Clark and Susan Coolidge attended every plenary reading I did, no matter how late the schedule ran, nodding and applauding poets whose work seemed the kind Coolidge saved us from. I spotted them between panels, at mixers, talking to poets new and old. Their engagement with just about everything that was going on seemed to deflate any idea that this Orono was a secret Coolidgepalooza; the feeling I got watching them move through the conference was that it was less important to be plenaried and CLARK COOLIDGE than it was to just be in the band.

Mayer struck me as more Coyote: sly & funny, with a strong dash of the trickster. She arrived later than scheduled, so missed the chance to respond to her own panel (itself a very ‘present’ sort of absence). She was there for the big lobster banquet though, where Steve Evans gracefully delivered a passel of thank you’s, and Marjorie Perloff remembered by proxy Burton Hatlen, taking a dig along the way at how “corporate” this once-cozy conference had become. With the ‘c’-word still hanging in the air, the University president got up to unveil the Burton Hatlen Room—apparently the only air-conditioned room in Neville Hall—that the English Dept. will be building to his memory.

However kindly you eye it, there’s something inherently official and yes, a little gold-watch-at-retirement-corporate, about the dedication of a memorial room at a banquet. It had me thinking about what a different ‘70s a future university president—even a kindly Berkeley liberal one—and a Bernadette Mayer must have occupied.

Suddenly, in the middle of the proceedings, someone started laughing. Light and friendly, not derisive exactly, but loudly, enough that I could hear it in the front, and so could the President. It was Mayer, of course, a famous laugher, who could have been chuckling at just about anything, but in this situation, whatever the intention, it was like someone had opened a window from the “other” ‘70s and attentions bent gratefully in the breeze.

*“Paupers” I mean in the eyes of “Official Verse Culture” (or mainstream verse or “prized” poetry or whatever), whose '70s look so different, as Phil Metres points out. I like his phrase “OVC people”—"We aaarre ... OVC People."

1 comment:

William Keckler said...

These were delightful vignettes, Rodney. I found them through Jack Kimball's blog, and it was a great pleasure to breathe in the essences of Coolidge...and especially Mayer...who are (we can see through your Dr. Faustus-clear apparitions) the people we believe them to be when we read their poems.