Larry Sawyer Visits Rockpile

Just Don’t Call It a Symposium, Rockpile Visits Chicago

Having seen many a poetry reading in the city of Chicago over the past 8 years and being immersed in curating the Myopic Poetry Series as well as editing a long-running literary magazine and as I was reading Alfred Jarry and Vicente Huidobro (and if that weren’t enough as a cold, sloppy rain set in on the city as winter approached) I looked forward to the Chicago visit of Rockpile.

Rockpile (being David Meltzer, Michael Rothenberg, Terri Carrion, Bob Malone, and on this occasion poets Art Lange, Larry Sawyer, and Francesco Levato accompanied by Spider Trio led by Dan McNaughton and also Dan Godston’s band Calligraphy) was on a collision course with the city and for weeks I’d been in the planning stages for their visit. Because I was in the mood for something different — something that moved.

The collagist, hybrid techniques of the Chicago poets that I know (many of whom were recently dubbed a New Chicago School by poet/critic Kent Johnson) are a volatile mix of sensibilities and the buzz and interest in the Chicago poetry scene of late was (and is) palpable. Of course, Chicago already had a long history of poetry that extended even farther back and the tent is large indeed, (saloon poetry, slam poetry, hispanic poetries, black arts movement poetries, surrealist poetries via the legacy of the Rosemonts and all else I have unintentionally overlooked) but since the days when Ed Dorn and Ted Berrigan lived in this city and imbued it, somewhat, with an imprint that was somehow a bit more poet maudit, a bit more bohemian I had not seen anything like what I saw that night at the Hideout as Rockpile took the stage.

My relatively short time in this city didn’t allow me to be a part of much of what was mentioned previously but as I book readings for the Myopic Poetry Series I’m in a unique position, as I’m able to hear some of the most exciting innovative poetries as their authors come through Chicago. With Rockpile I had hoped that I’d see an event that encapsulated something different and I was right.

I knew after speaking with prime mover and Rockpile poet Michael Rothenberg, who also edits the well-regarded Web site, that music would play a primary role in the upcoming performance at the Hideout. This was what gave the idea the edge that I looked forward to.

It is possible that these simulacra for Rimbaud and Verlaine on their travels in this Facebook age had a plan that was a bit too far reaching and that bringing disparate poetic communities of each respective city that they planned to visit along for their ride would be such a difficult task that it would be tough to pull off effectively, but I knew once I saw David Meltzer, Michael, and Terri Carrion (accompanied by Spider Trio, Bob Malone and Calligraphy) that they’d really done it. The audience knew.

Francesco Levato, who is the director of the Poetry Center of Chicago, along with Art Lange, who edited the seminal poetry anthology Moment’s Notice with the poet Nathaniel Mackey and who from 1981 to 1987 was editor of Downbeat Magazine, also performed that night in what will be remembered as peak performances. Levato read from his recent book War Rug, accompanied by Bob Malone on piano and Lange read as Calligraphy backed him with angular grooves that sharpened Lange’s staccato aural jabs. Both wowed and I knew that I was up next. Bob Malone backed me and I was glad to be a part of such a weighty event and the Hideout was the perfect locale. (We missed poet Tony Trigilio who couldn’t make it that night because of an early winter malady and poet Ed Roberson who was knee-deep in editing a forthcoming collection of poetry.)

Perhaps it was the proposal that was most difficult indeed. Poetry as an art has covered much aesthetic ground in the past 10 years and poetics as a field of study has reached a level of importance on par with the poetry itself, but Rockpile, on their retro/futurist, open-road walkabout, was on a mission to spread a funky new word that begged, borrowed and stole from some postmodern anti-tradition but also blew it apart. (As David Meltzer described in conversation to me they were driving cross country and from that front seat all seemed somehow like one big corporate plantation. Awareness therefore being the prime concern and David, you’re right, complacency is the real enemy.)

The key to this improvisational poetics might be that, in large part, the work comes into being during each performance and that’s what gives it such prescience. The audience then bears witness to the creative process firsthand (that will be somehow different during each subsequent performance).

One thinks of the dada experiments at Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich circa 1916 and the work of Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth during the 1940s and 50s spinning words to jazz accompaniment, where risks are taken and mistakes left in. Sacrifices are made for the sake of the performance, which had such a fresh-air breath that night at the Hideout.

Seeing Dan Godston’s band Calligraphy and being able to read a few of my own poems with pianist Bob Malone made for a mofungo that night that provided a few new ingredients that might have been lacking in Chicago. Something with a few rough edges. It was more than just a passing glance from David Meltzer in his long and storied career that includes kabbalah scholarship and years of editing poetry anthologies and writing the poetry that helped to define the New American Poetry alongside his contemporaries such as Robert Creeley and John Ashbery.

Defining the nature of existence, ontological and esoteric concerns: Too dicey for a cold and rainy night in the city of big shoulders? It all went off without a hitch despite the long weeks of planning when it seemed questionable whether it would really come together and I feel truly lucky to have witnessed these poets and the culmination of their craft.

During Terri Carrion’s performance as she was up on the stage that night at the Hideout smiling I realized that the details in these poems have a West Coast exuberance and provide a unique, multi-faceted awareness of elements that I would like to see more often in the poetry written here in Chicago. Sensory details that ground a poem, yet no lopsided concern for realism. Frenetic panoramas of travels across what these United States portend.

Rockpile’s journey thankfully allowed me to witness something profoundly new and with each stop along the way I have no doubt that their vision restored some sense of ecological/political/aesthetic awareness to all those with whom they collaborated (and I am also sure that during their travels all with whom they spoke realized that these are poets and musicians who are doing nearly the impossible, using creative music to broaden the concept of what poetry is and does but ultimately just enjoying themselves). Imagine that!
— Larry Sawyer

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