Thursday, August 5, 2010

Boston & Bangor

Hey gang. I'm beginning today's post from the Greyhound bus, en route from Bangor, Maine to Montreal. Curiously enough, Greyhound doesn't run buses from Maine to Canada. So I have to travel back down to Boston (over five hours), then head north from there. Pretty annoying.

My last update ends just before my interview with Stephen Burt, so I'll pick up the thread there. I caught the T in Brookline and made my way over to Harvard Square, where I walked up to the Barker Center to meet Steve. His office was in fabulous tumult. Books filled his wall-to-wall shelves and overflowed onto his desk, floor, and every other surface in the room. He's a guy who gets a lot of review copies in the mail, and I guess this is what happens in the summer. It was great — something of a dream, really. Our interview lasted nearly an hour, and boy can he talk. Every point was lucid, every argument detailed and thorough. It's clear that Steve has spent a good deal of time honing his teaching skills. It's also clear that he has a very well-defined idea of what poetry is and how it should operate. He read a handful of poems for me, both his own and others'. A highlight was the sonnet "Mysterious Night" by Joseph Blanco White, which he explicated on tape from top to bottom. We may have a few aesthetic differences, but I found his breadth of knowledge and rhetorical crispness rather stunning. Afterward he took me to Felipe's Taqueria for lunch, and I had a very good chorizo burrito.

Stephen Burt

I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around Cambridge and Brookline, reminiscing. I lived in Cambridge for a summer a few years back, so I took great pleasure in taking a walk from Harvard Square to Central Square, my old neighborhood. Bought a used copy of H.D.'s Hermetic Definition for $2.50. Passed by my old place, picked up some groceries at Trader Joe's, and headed back to Tanya's to eat dinner and read. I had eggs and rice noodles — simple and tasty.

In the morning I woke up to an empty apartment, left the requisite "goodbye and thanks" note, and took the train to the MIT campus to meet Nick Montfort. I somehow never realized how huge MIT is, but I got to take a pretty thorough tour when someone on the street gave me bad directions. Ended up walking 20 minutes out of my way with all my gear on my back. Nick's office, once I found it, was a pretty amazing place. There are old computers everywhere — 5, 6, 7 of them set up? I walked through the door sweaty and out of breath, and within two minutes Nick was demonstrating things for me with childlike excitement. Most impressively, perhaps, he has a arcade version of "Asteroids," the technical innovations of which he explained while I set up my equipment. Then he powered up his Atari and started playing the inferior mass-market version of the game, telling me all about the differences in graphics and strategy. It was great — seems like he's really made a little paradise for himself there.

Nick Montfort

For the recording, Nick read some pieces from his forthcoming book Riddle and Bind, which is a collection of riddles and constraint-based poems. Really great stuff. We went on to talk about ppg256, his recent series in which he's been writing poetry-generation programs in Perl with a maximum length of 256 characters each. I've read about these on the web, but never really understood the method — so it was nice to take a look at the source and see them run in real time. His approach to the problem is quite novel. Tune in to the podcast for the full explanation.

After our chat, I had to head straight to South Station to catch my bus to Bangor. It was a fairly smooth ride, and Steve Evans was waiting for me at the station when I got there. After five hours on the bus, though, I was a little too tired to jump right into recording, so we decided to put it off until morning. Steve and I went to dinner at Sea Dog, which is the restaurant associated with the brewery of the same name — a familiar brand from my Cambridge days. We sat outside on a deck overlooking the Penobscot River, and talked and talked. I got a lobster roll, which was just splendid.

After we ate, Steve drove me to Ben Friedlander's, where I was to spend the night. Ben and I sat in his kitchen with glasses of wine and chatted for perhaps an hour, and then I hit the hay. After coffee and an email session in the morning, Ben and I sat down for our interview. The conversation ranged all over, from Ben's years in San Francisco in the mid-'80s to his time with Creeley at Buffalo to his more recent life as an archive trawler. He read a lot of recent work written in the context of the Flarflist, including some very personal and actually quite melancholy uses of the form/style/genre/meme. I think it went well.

Ben Friedlander

Then Ben drove me to Orono to record Steve Evans, which was an interview I'd been especially looking forward to. Steve isn't a poet, only a critic — something we talked about. His particular specialty is writing about the recorded poetry reading, a topic I clearly have a lot invested in. In the mid-1980s, while an undergrad at UC San Diego, Steve spent three years making archival copies of Paul Blackburn's reel-to-reel tapes (among other materials), and I was particularly interested in that experience. Blackburn is a bit of a hero of mine (in some respects), but very few of his recordings have circulated beyond the archive at UCSD. So I got some answers to nagging questions, with the result being that my curiosity is piqued more than ever. I'll be in San Diego in a few weeks, so I'm hoping to get a chance to spend at least an afternoon with the collection.

Steve Evans

I should note, by the way, that Steve was quite generous with his help as I was planning the trip. We got in contact by email and phone a few months back, and he had heaps of suggestions on who to look up. Come to think of it, we were also in touch years ago when I was working on my thesis. His blog, The Lipstick of Noise, is one of the few — perhaps only? — poetry mp3 blogs out there. So it was excellent to finally cross paths in meatspace.

I'm finishing this post about 22 hours after I started it, so at this point I've made it safely to Montreal. I ended up having a four-and-a-half-hour layover in Boston last night, which was unexpected and unfortunate. Nonetheless, I made the best. I strolled from South Station up to Boston Common, then back down to Chinatown, where I had a dinner of udon noodles with shrimp. When you haven't eaten for ten hours, there's just nothing like big fat chewy udon slathered in hot oil. Yum yum.

I'm meeting Sina Queyras at 4:30 today, so I'd better get back to prep. I'm meeting Darren Wershler tomorrow, Erin MourĂ© on Saturday, and Paul Dutton on Sunday. So — more soon —