Cascadia Poetics LAB


Thirteen months ago I started facilitating workshops again and I never knew how much joy and inspiration could come from engaging people at a deep level via Zoom poetry workshops. And before I get far into this missive, please listen to Pat Martino’s rendition of Jobim’s How Insensitive:

You may just want to put that on repeat and listen for a few hours.

The workshops I have been facilitating started under the banner of Poetics as Cosmology. It was probably Diane di Prima who first put into my head that “poetics” was not just a way we make a poem, but it is the way we make a life; the way we navigate reality; the way we create a cosmos. From her poem “Rant

there is no way out of a spiritual battle
there is no way you can avoid taking sides
there is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher

you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making your world
you have a poetics: you step into the world
like a suit of readymade clothes

or you etch in light
your firmament spills into the shape of your room
the shape of the poem, of your body, of your loves

Not long after facilitating a visit by di Prima to the old SPLAB in Auburn, WA, I went to Vancouver, BC, to conduct what was to be the last interview ever done with Robin Blaser and I was very direct about the question of the intersection of poetry and cosmology:

PN – In the title essay of your new collection The Fire, you say early on that the real business of poetry is cosmology. A couple of pages later you discuss the scientific basis for the proprioceptive process of Charles Olson as being, in the words of Margaret Mead: “a human instinctual need for a perceptual relation to the universe. [In an Orphic sense it’s more about having entrance to rather than power over.]” Can you discuss the cosmology behind your work, and Olson’s and the similarities of those writing in the open, or projective?

RB – That’s a biggie! (Laughter.) I begin with poetry and other poets like Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan and the painter Jess and all this time also reading the great moderns Joyce, H.D…I think that it was the cosmology that attracted all of us together. Spicer is a cosmologist in a very extraordinary way, which I could return to. Duncan was cosmology from beginning to end and was very clear. His entire work is a cosmological structure, which is one if its great pleasures. And it also opened to both Jack and me that this was writing poems that are never really by themselves. That is to say a book by me or a book by Spicer, a book by Duncan is a continuous poem and you read it that way, you don’t really narrow it. And all of us were against the lyric because it left you with your musical voice and it was just you. The others meant that you could find an entire ground, which was very important, particularly with Spicer, whose ground was so complex and difficult, to step in for the rest of us. Spicer was more experimental than Duncan or me in those days.

I find it fascinating when I am asked questions like this that all three of us were drawn to a cosmological direction and you didn’t know what to do with that because what was a cosmos? In those days in Berkeley we didn’t have a cosmos. The university didn’t teach poetry as though it proposed a cosmos, or talked toward a cosmos, or even gave you a cosmos. You never talked about that…AS a consequence you couldn’t read William Carlos Williams with any decency at all so he wasn’t taught. Ezra Pound was simply dismissed as a complexity of some kind that nobody wanted to handle. In the meantime of course, we’re meeting in our own group, especially the three of us, Duncan, Spicer and myself, reading all of that stuff, independently, because you couldn’t read it anyplace else. And also as a consequence, our differing poetics structures coming out of that ground…and we mustn’t leave H.D. out of this. H.D. is a special writer of this day and I know nothing good written on her. I think it’s time somebody did. I just don’t want to do that sort of thing anymore. But I think that H.D. needs some attention. SHE’S a cosmologist of great fascination.

I think it took me 15 years to chew on this.

After just over a year of facilitating workshops targeted to people interested in spontaneous composition, many of whom participated in our annual Poetry Postcard Fest, so much has become clear. To see how workshop participants respond to course materials, to hear their questions and to have them sending you content that echoes this unity of method and world view, teaches so much. The way to learn is to teach, sure, but also the wealth of information that you get exposed to, how resources just drop into your lap and the rabbit holes you fall down all help the cause of aligning poetics with cosmology. Is that why much of contemporary poetry seems flat? Because its cosmology is really capitalism or the materialistic paradigm which serves as its substrate?

Then Pat Martino dies. A brilliant Jazz guitarist. As soon as I heard the news I went to my pocket jukebox, Spotify, and pulled up a Martino playlist and got stuck on his version of the Jobim tune. How art allows grief an outlet! Tears for the deaths of the mothers of class participants and tears for how Pat Martino was there the whole time, ready to demonstrate by example poetics as cosmology. From the brilliant New York Times obituary:

As Mr. Martino grew more experienced, his view of jazz evolved, largely shaped by Eastern philosophies; he did not, he told The Examiner in 1975, consider himself a jazz musician.

“Jazz is a way of life,” he said. “It’s not an idiom of music. Jazz is spontaneous improvisation. If you ever leave your house with nowhere to go, and just walk for pleasure, observing and looking around, you’ll find that you improvise.”

And he did not consider himself a “guitar player,” he said, though he once did.

“I no longer view myself that way because I don’t want to be depersonalized by my instrument,” he said. “I’m an observer of my environment, including the guitar; I see the guitar in everything.”

The workshops continue in January and registration is open under the banner Seriality: (A 2022 Workshop as serial form is the next step once the fear of spontaneous composition is mitigated. It is not a method for everyone, as it is most difficult to write spontaneously, but then what risk is there in composing spontaneously? None. The risk is SHOWING someone what you wrote and that’s some of the power in your hand as Diane noted in Rant.

One last note. A workshop participant yesterday sent me this quote:

“Every poem is an experiment and every one is a failure. Some fail to a lesser degree than others, but none have ever encompassed the enormity intuited in the act of composition; none have done more than scratch the surface of the articulation possible in the successful poem.” And this: “You will still have failed, but with a certifiably human sweetness that makes you forget for a while that you have.”

That makes sense to me. Of course, the participant pointed out that I wrote it in 2013 and published it as a blog post entitled Fail Large. Thank you Laura. And the failure continues…

R.I.P. Pat Martino.