Monday, June 23, 2008

Patrick Durgin's Hannah Weiner's Open House: The Poetry Project Performance

Patrick Durgin, poet and and publisher of Kenning Editions, recently released Open House (2006), a selection of the poems of Hannah Weiner, an experimental poet whose work has become one of the bridges between New York School and Language Poetry, and then took her work on the road, as in the above performance at the Poetry Project.

Durgin and Koeneke both pointed out that Hannah Weiner had the third-most panels at the recent Orono conference dealing with her work, after Bernadette Mayer and John Ashbery, which suggests that her once-marginal position may be shifting. Weiner's "clairvoyant" poetics invites a blurring between the formalist operations and the performance trajectories of the avant-garde (another way of saying that she is writing a poetry that is both text-centered and invites performance), and so Durgin's staging of her poems is a natural leap that the work itself coaxes.

Durgin's work on Weiner has already been widely praised, by Ron Silliman no less, further cementing his role in the Experimental Poetry Community as a team player in the best sense of the term. I asked him to share with me any words of introduction to the Open House performance, and he kindly gave me his tribute talk, which I give to you here:


An identical impulse set this book and this event in motion. It was the conviction that the vitality of Hannah Weiner’s work is, at this time, equal to the degree to which its historical importance has been under-appreciated. I owe Stacy [Szymaszek] for being some kind of silent teacher and creating this gathering. As for the book, since I am both editor and publisher, I could say a lot, but I’ll address something I haven’t done before.

Clearly it requires great care to set the type in a book of Weiner’s work, especially her work from the 1970s; and I address this in the introduction. But I simply didn’t have the mechanical reasoning required also to design the cover. And so I collaborated with Jeff Clark, aka Quemadura. We decided to replicate, at an elegant angle, the invitation Weiner printed for her “Open House” event. That’d be the front cover. We’d use a dull matte gloss on the front cover and the spine, and use what they call a “spot varnish” on the text. The intended effect was to make the text gleam. The back cover, filled with blurb, was printed in reverse—the white background is glossy and the text has a duller matte finish. All of this trickery cost the equivalent of printing a full color cover, so it’d at least be nice to see it pay off somehow. When the books came back from the printer, though, the effect was so subtle that it goes unnoticed—some texture would have helped. However, I gradually noticed that the ultra-high-contrast black and white, the negative and positive and other bogus oppositions are undercut by the reverse patina, which by chance manages to render the blacks a very dark grey. If you hold it at the proper angle, that is.

Weiner might have seen this coming. As a successful clothing designer, she had an enormous capability for mechanical reasoning. And this is worth mentioning because this was surely an enabling factor in what might have been her greatest achievement: the creation of a new and enduring poetic form in response to particular lived experience. And this is why, when we encounter Weiner’s work, we are met with the shocking recognition that the autonomy of lived experience is a pernicious hoax. A thorough retooling of the all-in-one and all-or-nothing ethos that pits us against one another, by the hand of commerce or otherwise: this is what so many who are new to Weiner’s work respond to in it. And if it’s familiar, it’s because its value persists, says Ben Friedlander for this year’s “Attention Span”:
the impression of omniscience …the sort of poetry I hate most these days is written [to produce]…depends precisely on the exclusion of language that allows for embarrassment, stupidity, simplicity, banality, conventionality, confession. Hannah Weiner’s writing (its “clairvoyance”) stands as a rebuke to all that.
What’s more, readers are responding to something consistent and logically developed over decades of various methods and media. This consistency is what I hoped to make visible in putting this book together.

In October, I went on a book tour with three other poets, editors, and translators in their thirties—and we collaborated on performances of texts from Hannah Weiner’s Open House. Over two weeks of doing this up and down the west coast, a passage from what you might call Weiner’s middle-era, from her long poem “Written In,” became alternately a set of introductory or closing remarks. Tonight, it stands to manifest the clarity of purpose Weiner’s work happily evokes for several generations of artists, poets, readers, audiences:


This is principle to sacrifice comfort
for a long line equi-distant between
margins and sleep on the floor between walls
Between walls is where all the furniture is
and the books and the people


That is space longer across than down
that I write on and contrary to habit
The white space stilll goes from left to right
and we read the words across and then


This is sleep we could write this in
or read this in the sleep of consciousness
which imposes no telling the truth (seen)
is just telling a little tale alertness
to grasp meaning or language


This is language this is written in but
the ordinary form of the simple spoken


This is omitted – thedifficulty and
pleasure of language used to open
and tempt the mind of the reader
to new experience and new form


This is objective although this is also
my personal experience as a writer
and the personal experience of writing
goes down with each word on the page


This is word spelled backwards is drow
which is how English amuses me
because you can draw in the a


This is impossible to finish at one



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