Saturday, September 6, 2014
by Anne Becker
I’ve always loved it, the title of Black Box 8 published in 1976, an all-Washington issue of the first poetry magazine in audiocassette tape format. For me, these words, Love & Death in Demon City, speak of the heat and turmoil of the period; of possibility, ferment, passion in the face of danger. This was a heady time to be young, it was easy to live on little money, undertake projects on a shoe-string and make them happen with hard work, the support of friends, little sleep and seemingly boundless energy.
Black Box was the brainchild of Alan Austin, poet, son of a Southern preacher, who in the late 1960’s was poetry editor for Motive magazine, a radical publication of the Methodist Church (this could happen in the ‘60’s). He came to Washington, DC from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he was working on a graduate degree and became a fellow at the Institute for Policy Study (the left-wing think-tank) thinking about the uses of technology in democratizing education. At some point, according to Alan, IPS wanted him gone (although the reason always remained vague) and he was given a small grant to start some enterprise of his own. So, in 1970, he did what any true activist worthy of his salt would do—incorporate as a non-profit, educational foundation which he called first “The New Classroom,” and later changed the name to “The Watershed Foundation.”
Alan’s thinking, his visions, were always expansive and inclusive. His idea of using technology,
What Alan did best was articulate his ideas, create and maintain structures to embody them and attract other poets with lively, discerning minds, good humor, energy and love of the craft, who would transform his ideas and bring them to fruition. Black Box/Watershed became a hub, a node of poetry activity in the Washington area.
Black Box 8 began as the Washington DC Poetry Tapes Documentation Project. With a $5,000 grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Alan’s goal was to record “all of the working poets in the Washington, D.C., which we have tentatively estimated as being between two to three hundred people.” In spring 1975, an invitation was sent out for opening recording sessions at the Black Box office, then at the Dupont Circle Building, on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. During a sixteen-month period, Julie Huff, then managing editor of the magazine, and Alan recorded over three hundred local poets. Ahmos Zu Bolton, Co-editor for Blackpoetry, E. Ethelbert Miller, Mac Wellman and Robert Hinton assisted, identifying poets to be recorded, getting them into the studio, and then helping to make the selection of 37 poets whose work would be used in the issue. In addition, Alan recorded a number of reading series around town, and material from those readings was included. Sterling Brown was recorded as part of the series Betty Parry organized at the Textile Museum in 1973. Others were recorded at the Martin Luther King Public Library, thanks to Octave Stevenson, at Columbia Station, a bar/coffeehouse, whose series was hosted by Ira Brukner, and at Ethelbert’s Ascension Series.
Highlights of “The Washington Sound: Love and Death in Demon City” are performances by Adesanya Alakoye, Jane Flanders, May Miller, Patricia Garfinkel, Ann Darr, Sterling Brown (who introduces his Slim Greer poems, “ I do not often read these to a mixed audience, but now that I am growing old I am less cautious and I do not think I will set back the cause of race relations by this tall tale . . .”), Myra Sklarew, sounding young and carefree at Columbia Station, reading “The Reason I Can’t Invite You in for a Drink” and “Walking into Fire,” and an always exuberant Grace Cavalieri ends the show with “The Good Life,” “ . . . a library card in bed with me in Washington D.C., the poetry capital of the world.”
Finding it difficult to distribute Black Box, Alan researched how other producers of “spoken word” recordings sold their cassettes. Out of this research he identified most of the poetry recordings commercially available in the U.S. as well as number in Europe, and proceeded to develop The Poet’s Audio Center, with a comprehensive mail-order catalogue. And, understanding that magazines are congenitally hard to sell, added Watershed Tapes, individual cassette albums of nationally and internationally known poets. The first titles in this series came from the special issues of Black Box which presented two poets, with national reputations, each reading for an hour: Sonia Sanchez, Robert Bly, Julius Lester and Muriel Rukeyser. Finally, bringing in Louise Cleveland, an independent producer to supervise the project, we expanded into public radio as The North American Poetry Network, developing two literary series, “The Poem that Never Ends, using material from the Watershed archives, and “A Kind of Hearth,” featuring interviews with small press and magazine publishers, and readings by the poets they published. The first program in TPTNE series, featuring William Meredith, Philip Levine, Carolyn Kizer, Lou Lipsitz, David Ignatow, Lucille Clifton, Siv Sedering Fox, and Charles Simic, was the first poetry to be broadcast by satellite, in 1980.
During this period of expansion, Watershed staff included Elizabeth Wray, managing editor of Black Box and first producer of Watershed Tapes; Mary Ann Larkin, assisted by Chris Llewellyn, was our development director; Frank Bullard, engineer and producer; Liam Rector and Steve Waldhorn, sales reps concentrating on college and university libraries, book stores and other institutions; Steve also was program host for TPNE; Sheila Crider, production assistant; Elizabeth Brunazzi organized a series of summer workshops. Heather Banks, Karen Greene contributed, and Sue Goodwin served as an intern. In the early 1980’s Katherine Mattern started as an intern and later became production manager of Watershed Tapes. Frances Lang and Verna Gillis produced some of the tapes, as well.
After graduating from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, in 1977, I began volunteering at Watershed while looking for a “real” writing job. When the CETA program Arts DC began subsidizing employment for artists, Alan was able to hire me as Director of the Poet’s Audio Center. A good part of my time was spent as a mail clerk, packing and shipping the orders, or preparing mass mailings, sticking address labels on the catalogues, bundling them by zip code. But I also had to listen to the tapes in order to write descriptions of new ones, and to be able to advise customers to make sure they got what they wanted. “Poetry must be heard!” the catalogue exhorted. I had grown up in a family where we all read out loud to each other; I was probably seven when my father decided to read the Bible (the King James version, of course) to my siblings and me—not as religious instruction but as great poetry; my brother and I taught our younger sister to recite Sara Teasdale’s “The Falling Star” so she wouldn’t embarrass the family when she went to kindergarten. And had listened to the Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas, Gertrude Stein, Albert Camus—I’d listen over and over to particular lines that physically touched me.
For a poem to be recited to a living audience is its big break in show business. A poem in the air is not the same poem as it was on the page—the drama and charm of its unfolding is completely, particularly alive and intimate as it passes from one body into another. ~Tony Hoagland
Some days I listened to poetry for 8 hours straight. This was my true education in poetry. This was my dream job. Alan was a difficult boss, but perhaps the best kind of teacher. With a minimum of guidance, which also allowed for a lot of freedom—the old “sink or swim” theory of pedagogy—I was given tasks and learned by doing. I progressed to producer of Watershed Tapes, then Associate Director of Watershed.
The last issue of Black Box was released in 1978, but Alan had always wanted to do another all-Washington issue. So in the early 80’s we began planning a two-cassette anthology of area poets who had never been included in the magazine. Listening to “Natives, Tourists and other Mysteries” twenty years later, I am again moved by the voices of Marguerite Beck-Rex, Robert Sargent, Katharine Zadravec, Michelle Parkerson, Bill Holland, Jacklyn Potter, Kathy Elaine Anderson, Chris Lllewellyn reading from “Fragments from the Fire”, Ken Forde, Russell Spicer, Rhea Cohen, Essex Hemphill, Charlise Lyles, Jean Nordhaus, who reads from two haunting poems, “Under the Sign of the Palm” and “Peter Above the Mines,” David McAleavey, Garth Tate, Candida Fraze, Greg Orfalea, Rick Peabody, Barbara Lefcowitz, Jonetta Barras, Judith Hall, Joan Retallack, Sheila Crider, Michael Collier, Jim Beall.
Over a more than thirty-year period, Watershed released about fifteen issues of Black Box, approximately 130 Watershed Tapes, and two series of poetry programs broadcast on 250 public radio stations. Our cassettes were purchased by individuals and institutions all over the world. But, in the mid-1990’s, when a major portion of the archives was destroyed in a flood, Alan’s wonderful, stubborn, perseverance reach its limit.
He did make sure, however, that the master recordings of Black Box, and all of the archive of Washington poets (1973-1986) found a secure home in the Special Collections division of Gelman Library at George Washington University. https://library.gwu.edu/ead/ms2172.xml will take you to a finding aid to access this archive. In addition, Jennifer King tells me that Special Collections has a complete set of masters and cassettes of all issues of Black Box, and that there are plans to digitize this material. The masters of Watershed Tapes Alan deposited at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. While there are no current plans, Sunil Freeman, the Associate Director there, would like to find the funds to digitize these recordings.
I have tried to acknowledge and honor the many people who contributed to this enterprise but I know I’ve left many out. I want to prepare a comprehensive history of the Watershed Foundation, and would love to hear from those I missed in this preliminary essay. If you have more information and anecdotes please contact me at email@example.com.
Anne Becker, September 2014
Friday, August 22, 2014
August is ushering in leadership changes for the Splendid Wake Project and you will hear more about this soon.
I'm introducing Jacqueline Jules as our new go-to person who will assist contributors in getting their essays posted on this blog. Thank you Jacqueline for stepping forward to help. We are all going to enjoy working with you!
I'm introducing Jacqueline Jules as our new go-to person who will assist contributors in getting their essays posted on this blog. Thank you Jacqueline for stepping forward to help. We are all going to enjoy working with you!
Jacqueline Jules is the author of the poetry chapbooks, Field Trip to the Museum, published by Finishing Line Press, and Stronger Than Cleopatra, published by ELJ Publications. Her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications including The Potomac Review, Sunstone, Minimus, Soundings Review, Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, Christian Science Monitor, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Red Booth Review, Gravel Magazine, OffCourse, Third Wednesday, Poetica, Imitation Fruit, Connecticut River Review, and Pirene's Fountain. She won the Arlington Arts Moving Words Competition in 2007 and was the first place winner of the Spirit First Contest in 2014. She is also the author of two dozen books for young readers including the Zapato Power series, No English, Sarah Laughs, and Never Say a Mean Word Again. You can visit her online at www.jacquelinejules.com
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Slanting, Scattering, Squeezing Rhymes—and Historical Sequences—Judith McCombs
“Are you a formalist now?” asked my Writer’s Center boss, the poet Sunil Freeman, when he saw my "Slanting, Scattering, Squeezing Rhymes" workshop title.
“Semi-formalist,” I said.
“Sort of dressy casual,” I said. And so it is.
Midway, as a college student at Ohio Wesleyan and Univ. Chicago, I tried to imitate Robert Frost’s rhymes & Shakespeare’s sonnets, won poetry and fiction prizes—and wrote my first published poem, in Fiddlehead! That followed W. D. Snodgrass’s visit to
Many have been taught that anapaests are for light, rollicking verse. But the King James Psalm imprinted most deeply in my mind and memory was crammed with anapaests: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me . . . .” The King James translation was made by a committee of 17 (!), who would say lines aloud to hear which version sounded best. The old border ballads, created by illiterate Anonymous, used anapaests freely and seriously. Coleridge followed their example in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,/ Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”)
Few poems in my first three poetry books are end-rhymed. Most have four strong beats, held together by a net of internal slant-rhymes. Their form owes more to the older, out-loud traditions than do most poems written nowadays. Perhaps more to the right-brain music of remembered, echoing sound. Bit by bit, now and then, I was edging and leapfrogging away from free verse—and getting lost in time, while searching rhymes.
English is poor in rhymes, compared to Italian or Spanish—if by rhyme we mean only perfect rhyme. But English has a huge vocabulary—borrowed, pieced, stolen, invented, from many languages—and its slant rhymes are multitudinous. Yeats snuck slant rhymes in.
While belatedly moving back into slant rhymes, I was reading historical fiction, which, along with non-fiction social history, was gaining ground. Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain I read more than five times; Alice Munro’s “Wilderness Station” and View from Castle Rock even more times, for teaching and articles; John Prebble’s Scots social histories showed ways to re-imagine lost lives. History was full of stories, conflicting and contradicting; as tangled and fascinating as memories, headlines, myths and lore.
After Roots, family histories and social histories, of ordinary, non-prominent people, proliferated. Why? the Web & Ancestry.com spread family trees far and wide; people—mostly older people—went to
Lately I found myself writing family and clan narrative sequences, mostly in simple ballad or couplet form. The first sequence traced my father’s father, an adventurous farmer-carpenter who left home very early, going four states West when he was about five, to find a lifelong, loving family. The rhymes for him are mostly slant; perfect seemed too fancy. (That sequence won the Maryland State Arts Council’s one highest Individual Poetry Award in 2009.)
Now I’m writing slant-rhymed couplets in the voice of a real 1600s Scots sorcerer, one Patrick McKommie, who lived apart from my small, dispersed
Rhymes—and voices--do come more easily now—or is it only that I go more readily to the places where they are?
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
THIS BUSINESS OF CREATIVITY
By Patricia Garfinkel
As writers, we take pride in our creativity, its mystique and uniqueness, the magic of putting pen to paper and out of words as ordinary as our conversation, make unimagined structures of thought. Beyond this elation there is sometimes a pretence that art – writing, painting, musical composition – requires the indefinable “process of creativity” while fields such as science, mathematics and engineering require only high intelligence to elucidate an ever increasing array of facts. While we tend to see art as creating something new, as artists we are apt to view science as merely unearthing something that already existed but that until the moment
of revelation we were not smart enough to see.
However, the process, if we can call it that, for art as well as for science, is fundamentally the same, despite the obvious – that the results differ in form.
What appearance in nature prompted his outrageous guess? And in what odd sense is this guess to be called a neutral record of fact?” When Copernicus wrote, “The Earth conceives from the Sun,” he could not have concluded this by filling endless notebooks with myriad routine calculations. First he had to make the giant leap of imagination that would catapult his focus to the Sun, from whose perspective the orbits of the planets seemed simpler, more logical.
In the creative process, the artist and the scientist alike, bring forth an image, whether it be, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet black bough,”or the Sun as the center of the universe. Bronowski is more concise when he tells us, “To the person who makes the theory, it may seem as inevitable as the ending of Othello must have seemed to Shakespeare.”
C.P. Snow described art and science as two distinct and separate cultures despite the fact that he lived in each. As both a scientist and a writer, with 11 novels to his credit, he insisted that “in the process of making a discovery, however humble it is, one can’t help feeling an awareness of beauty.” The subjective experience, the aesthetic satisfaction, seems exactly the same as the satisfaction one gets from writing a poem or a novel, or composing a piece of music.” I would also challenge that one surpasses the other in universal beauty.
Perhaps what we cannot challenge in this amorphous process of creativity is that, in all its forms, it brings order out of chaos. The artist faces this chaos before being able to bring about the integration of the work. The scientist faces similar fragmentation in an effort to comprehend nature. Both must risk giving up the more conscious and analytical frame of mind to be open to the lower-level primary
process thinking of the unconscious that scans a million possibilities and then projects the missing order into reality.
Neither artists nor scientists own the territory of creativity. Each is blessed with a gift that enhances and advances the world.
Sunday, June 1, 2014
This unpublished book manuscript from three Washington conferences,
featuring twelve poets, is now archived at the Gelman Library
During the war in Viet Nam (1968, 1969, 1970), the University of Maryland, with some grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts, convened three conferences, bringing together each time four or five poets and about 20 “delegates” (editors, teachers, and other poets) to grapple with the issues of war, poetry and propaganda, race, education and morality, and the nation’s changing identity.
The availability of poet Reed Whittemore, a faculty member at the University of Maryland who was widely experienced as an insightful, effective moderator, guaranteed that these annual conferences would attract wide interest and adequate funding.
We called in as panelists some poets who had been writing about these matters. They were placed at a table onstage. Just below them was a section of seats reserved for invited delegates, with access to microphones. A fairly sizeable audience was in attendance. During each morning and afternoon session the poets read “position papers” which were discussed among themselves and with delegates. These proceedings, the heart of the conferences, were recorded and later transcribed and edited for possible book publication. Each conference ended, appropriately enough, with the panelist-poets giving an evening reading of some of their poems, selected for their relevance to the conference topic.
The very active delegates for each conference are too numerous to mention. Most of them were poets or editors or teachers of poetry from the Washington area. The 1968 conference is where many of the Washington poets of that time first got to know each other.
With Reed Whittemore as moderator, the specially selected panelist–poets for each conference were as follows:
1968 – James Wright, Louis Simpson, and Daniel Hoffman.
1969 – Robert Bly, Senator Eugene McCarthy, John Unterecker, and Ted Weiss.
1970 – William Stafford, Howard Nemerov, Raymond Patterson, and Denise Levertov.
A final conference, in 1971, was no longer related to the issue of national conscience and was not recorded. The panelist-poets in ’71 were William Mathews, John Logan, Donald Hall, and Michael Harper.
Editing the recordings into a publishable typescript was a large and time-consuming task. Because the recordings were sometimes faulty and indecipherable, there was a good deal of back-and-forth with the poets and delegates for final approval of their words. The assistant editor, my graduate assistant, Eugene Harding, worked hard and well, but we couldn’t keep pace with history. As the war was winding down in 1971, Harper and Row, having shown interest, decided (wrongly I think) that this creative and imaginative response to war would not survive the actuality of that particular war. By 1972, other publishers sensed that the country wanted only to forget the war. The book was never published.
However, on the occasion of the recent founding of the Washington Poetry Archive, a growing collection of books and documents being gathered at George Washington University, the manuscript of Poetry and the National Conscience is now available to scholars and other readers. By way of transfer from off-site storage, it is available in the Gelman Library’s Special Collections unit, on the 7th floor.
The poems read by the poets in the evening sessions having been deleted, the manuscript is now 173 pages.
For purposes of this blog, here are some sample quotes from some of the dozen poets. They seem to me fully as penetrating and important as they were during the American people’s part in that war and in the concurrent struggles for racial equality.
Louis Simpson: In America the wish to destroy other people has never been so
strong because we will not transform ourselves into better men. . . .The next problem is the impulse to self-destruction.
Ted Weiss: We must not luxuriate in that last pleasure, guilt.
Raymond Patterson: . . . a death-dealing confrontation with the cultural bias in the language, a bias that has to do with things black.. . .
William Stafford: A pattern that others made may prevail in the world, and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
Denise Levertov: [The poet] has an obligation to put his own body where his words have preceded him.
Howard Nemerov: The world does not respond to these eloquent chidings by getting better. . . .I am backing away from putting my body where my words are. I want my words to be freer than that. . . .
Samuel Allen: . . . black consciousness [is] a form which slouches toward the continent of its integrity to be born.
James Wright: Those great polemical poems from the past and the bad poems about the war in Viet Nam [are equally] the will trying to do the work of the imagination. . . refusing to think.
Posted by Rod Jellema at 4:29 PM
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
In the mid-70s two projects in particular lay the groundwork for establishing an MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University: the designing and implementing of a course on Washington, D.C. as a learning resource, and an annual Writer’s Conference.
Today, the University’s links to the vast resources of Washington are well known, but forty years ago this was not the case. The huge reservoir had scarcely been tapped. And thus we put in place a program for incoming freshmen and transfer students that embodied everything from the Congress, Department of State, the courts—from small claims to Supreme Court—international organizations, State Department, archives and libraries, Smithsonian, walks through our diverse neighborhoods led by young people from those neighborhoods, performing and fine arts, the media, lobbying organizations, religious organizations, the environment, including a journey on the Potomac River kindly provided by the National Park Service on their Wood-duck Barge at 5 A.M., usually in the pouring rain with Smithsonian Castle Curator James Goode who pointed out significant buildings as we sailed along.
And the great generosity of key figures in these organizations in helping to teach our students will be remembered. We never could pay them but we would set up a table in the Gray Hall ditto room—the size of a closet—and serve elegant lunches to congressmen and Supreme Court aides to justices—Justice Douglass’s for one who saved the C & O Canal when there was a move to turn it into a road by requiring members of Congress to walk with him from Georgetown to Cumberland along the beautiful Potomac River.
At the same time, Georgetown University was the only university in the area that had had writer’s conferences and they were beginning to wind down their annual summer program. So we started what turned out to be an annual Writer’s conference. Of course we had no funds and had to raise all of it, which we somehow managed to do. Jane Stanhope, a stronghold in the Literature Department, once gave me a gift of bed sheets on which she had signed the names of dozens of famous writers from Dante to Longfellow in various styles of handwriting, as a commentary on the fact that it was my job to house, feed, transport and somehow come up with honoraria for the guest speakers and readers. When I invited John Barth to come for $25 (no travel or housing) , he wrote back: "Your fee is $25; mine is $1000. Shall we dance!
Sunday, March 16, 2014
A SPLENDID WAKE: PART II: UNUSUAL LITERARY PROGRAM TO TAKE PLACE MARCH 21, 6:30-8:00 P.M., Gelman Library, George Washington University, Suite 702, 2130 H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. Free and Open to the Public!
"In the Shadow of the Capitol" is just one of three unusual literary topics to be discussed March 21 at George Washington Universitys Gelman Library.
Part of "A Splendid Wake," a project to document poets and literary movements in the nations capital from 1900-present, poets and panelists will report on experimental contemporary poetry, warrior poetry projects, and on D.C's African-American intellectual/creative activity during years of segregation in Washington.