Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Michael McClure, Holloway Reading

The following is the introduction which fourth-year graduate student Megan Pugh gave for poet Michael McClure on 14 October 2008. A podcast of the reading that followed will soon be posted here.

I’m honored to introduce Michael McClure. McClure’s one of our most exciting and prolific poets, and has written some 20 plays and 14 books of poetry since his first appearance on the Bay Area literary scene at the famous Six Gallery reading with Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and Phillip Lamantia in 1955.

Since then, he’s become something of an icon, famously reading his poems to the lions at the San Francisco Zoo, triumphing over censors who tried to ban his Obie award-winning play The Beard, and reciting Chaucer in Scorcese’s The Band’s Last Waltz. Greil Marcus told me that “If James Dean had lived, it's not hard to imagine that Michael McClure is what he might have become.” It’s a lovely thought experiment: Dean’s rebellious and charismatic angst matures into a poetry with direction and careful attention to the world it’s a part of. Pauline Kael called James Dean—who said as much with his gestures as with his lines—a “beautiful, disturbed animal.” And McClure’s poetry, restless and gestural, reminds us that we’re all animals.

The opening of his poem “Oh Hail to Thee Who Play,” for example, turns the epic into the biological:



be me, be I, no ruse

In the 1960s, McClure began blending human language with “beast language” to discover what he calls “the energies a-roar,” the inner workings of the body—both spiritual and scientific. It’s part of a larger, ecological project designed to show us that all living things are connected—and for McClure, poetry’s part of that connective tissue.

McClure has described his poems as complex organisms. He usually centers his lines, creating a kind of spine that gives the poems organic solidity; but the structure also suggests that the words are always reaching out, moving away from themselves and toward the rest of the universe. They’re explosions of energy.

I think you’ll find that explosiveness in his reading tonight, too. McClure’s books often include instructions on how to experience the poems—“READ ALOUD AND SING THEM,” says the back cover of Ghost Tantras. We’re lucky to hear them as intended, relentlessly physical, traveling from mouth to air to ear.

McClure describes his own poems as ears—and shoulders—in the forward to September Blackberries, where he gives a beautiful summary of the kind of work poetry can do: “Poetry is the way that we extend our inner life. The real inner life is cut off from us—but we can put it out there and call it a poem. We stand on poetry—like a steppingstone in a torrent—and are more free.”
Please join me in welcoming Michael McClure.
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Summer Travel Tales

The beginning of the fall semester means that members of our department make their way back to Berkeley from many corners of the globe. Though many students and faculty stay around campus in the summer, there are just as many that jet off to far-away places to learn, study, research or, sometimes, just to have fun.

In fact, two grad students from the English Department spent this past summer in Europe doing preliminary research for their dissertations. Ruth Baldwin, currently a fourth year in the department, won a grant from the Center for British Studies to do summer research at the British Library in London and the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Ruth is beginning work on a dissertation that investigates the way that the early nineteenth-century novel re-imagined criminality by poaching on "real life" biographies of famous criminals. She spent her days elbow deep in criminal biographies and crime novels of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Back in Berkeley now, Ruth is turning this research into important insights about the the way the novel form enabled the mythologization of criminal figures.

At the same time, John Lurz, another fourth-year graduate student was wading through the bureaucracy of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris to find an ever deeper morass in the manuscript notebooks of Marcel Proust. Having won a Summer Research Grant from the Graduate Division, John was examining Proust's unconventional treatment of his manuscripts, the way he liked to paste in long extensions to the tops and bottoms of his notebooks pages to add a passage or give himself more room to write. While Proust doesn't exactly fall in the middle of the English-language canon, John's dissertation focuses on the way the modernist novel started to conceive of the materiality of print and writing as something that could influence a writer's and a reader's relationship to a literary work. Though he reports spending hours looking at microfilms of Proust's indecipherable handwriting, he also was able to request to examine a few original notebooks, a thrilling experience to be sure. Back in Berkeley, John is trying to conceive what to do with his pages of notes but says he has confidence that something will come of it.
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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Beat Poet Michael McClure Reads at Berkeley

As part of this year's Holloway Series in Poetry, Michael McClure will be reading on October 14th. This is the second year in a row that McClure has "performed" at UC Berkeley. Last year, he was a guest lecturer in Lyn Hejinian's undergraduate survey course, ENG 45C: Literature in English from the late Ninteenth Century to the Present.

As always, McClure put on a good show. He regaled the undergrads with stories of psychedelic experimentation, mind-expansion and what it was like to live in the Bay Area in the 60s. At first, many of the students were as put off by his wild stories as they had been by his difficult poetry. They had good reason to be perplexed by the selections from Ghost Tantras that Lyn had assigned them. For example, take the first poem of the collection:

Grah gooooor! Ghahh! Graaarr! Greeeeer! Grayowhr!
looking for sugar!
But, once McClure explained his thinking behind the series of poems, the way he wanted to think of a new language and to think of inarticulate "baby language" as having as much expressive power as more conventional forms of speaking, some of the students started to get pretty excited. One undergrad said that he had never been so fascinated or entertained and he was surprised at how much meaning he had taken away from McClure's performance of the poems. When asked to articulate that meaning, he wasn't sure how to proceed, but said that he just liked it. "You know, it's like what the poet said it was: 'cosmic breathing.' It makes me think."
Certainly there are many here in Wheeler Hall who love to think and who are looking forward to the next installment of McClure's cosmic breath. Look out for a report on the reading!
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Our New Faculty

The start of this academic year has been especially exciting here at Berkeley because we begin with six new faculty members, five of which are new Assistant Professors! Below is some brief info about these new junior faculty.

Namwali Serpell recently received her PhD from the Harvard English Department for a dissertation called “The Ethics of Uncertainty: Reading Twentieth-Century American Literature.” Her interests include ethics and literature; theories of reading; twentieth-century novels and plays; world literature; aesthetics; and the literary essay. This fall, she is teaching a lecture course on the twentieth-century American novel. In the spring, she will teach a junior seminar on post-war American fiction and the problem of evil and a graduate seminar on the phenomenology of reading.

Steven Lee finished his doctorate from Stanford's Modern Thought and Literature program in September 2008. His dissertation traces the interactions of American and Soviet conceptualizations of difference, focusing on how socialist internationalism shaped ethnic literatures and liberal pluralism in the U.S. In 2001-02 he was among the inaugural group of Fulbright students to conduct research in the Central Asian Republics, where he compared Soviet Korean and Korean American literatures and histories. For 2008-09, he will be a postdoctoral fellow at NYU's Center for the United States and the Cold War.

Emily V. Thornbury is an Anglo-Saxonist who joins the English Department as an Assistant Professor after almost nine years in Cambridge, England. While there, she got her PhD in 2004 through the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, and afterward was a Junior Research Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge. Some of her other adventures in medievalism while in the UK include discovering the worst Mexican restaurant in the world while on a trip to look at manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library, and viewing the mummified hand of the seventh-century St Æðelðryð, foundress of Ely, which was nearly as alarming as it sounds. Most of her work has been on the poetics of Old English and medieval Latin, and she is currently at work on a book about how people became poets in Anglo-Saxon England.

Elisa Tamarkin received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2001, and joins English at Berkeley after several years in the English Department at UC Irvine. She specializes in American literary and cultural history before 1900, with special interest in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Her research and teaching focus on transatlantic cultures, slavery and antislavery, theories of style and social form, the intersections of class and race, and the history of literary studies in America. She is the author of Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion and Antebellum America and is currently at work on a book project entitled "Irrelevance: The Scholarly Life in the Age of News" on ideas of relevant and irrelevant knowledge since 1830 and on the relationship between the academy and the press. Professor Tamarkin is the recipient of an ACLS Fellowship, a President’s Research Fellowship in the Humanities, and, in 2007, was named Chancellor’s Fellow at UC Irvine.

Mark Goble comes to Berkeley after six years as Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Irvine. He received his Ph. D. from Stanford in 2002, and specializes in twentieth-century U. S. literature and media studies. He is the author of Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2009), and has published essays on such topics as U. S. poetry and visual culture, cinema and the avant garde, and Henry James. His current project, “Downtime: The Twentieth-Century in Slow Motion,” examines the relationship between the experience of slowness and the limits of high technology from early modernism to contemporary digital art.

Nadia Ellis joins the Department as an Assistant Professor. She works on twentieth-century trans-Atlantic culture -- on the circulation and intersections of Caribbean, British, and African American cultures. She has traversed the Atlantic a few times herself, completing her undergraduate degree at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and an M.Phil. in modern English literature at Oxford. There followed various study and research stints on such Atlantic coasts as New Jersey and London. Her dissertation, completed this summer at Princeton University, focuses on affect and the West Indian subject in Britain. It includes readings of work by CLR James, George Lamming, and Andrew Salkey, as well as the archival record around West Indian immigration and homosexuality in 1950's Britain. Other research and teaching interests include post-colonial studies, modern fiction, and African diasporic popular culture.

STAY TUNED for a profile of our newest senior faculty hire Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe!

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