Across from Studio Not 2B: Up with Speedway and Swan

Now that there are twenty-four hours, a full sleepless day on Earth, of Speedway and Swan Poetry Radio for your listening pleasure, now that it’s been around for about a year—monsoon season to monsoon season in Tucson—now that I’m about to get the hang of hosting and engineering the thing (I keep saying to myself), it feels appropriate to take a moment to reflect on the two dozen episodes we’ve made, with two dozen very game guest co-hosts, in this partnership between the University of Arizona Poetry Center and KXCI Community Radio.

Speedway and Swan began when I brought the notion to Poetry Center director Tyler Meier and to KXCI’s General Manager Cathy Rivers and Community Engagement Director Amanda Shauger (themselves excellent deejays and program hosts): a ninety-minute, free format show in which two people would choose poems that matter to them, with emphasis on new and noteworthy work from the “new shelf” at the Center, read them to each other and alternate talk segments with music, songs that would be, as I came to describe them, “variously compatible and offbeat” context for the poetry. We’d also feature archival recordings from voca: the incredible audio/video archive of more than fifty years of readings at the Poetry Center and in Tucson. The partnership was a fit, the station was interested in new weekend programming, and everybody was in, provisionally: if the show was any good.

We worked out the sound engineering and production training I’d need, KXCI would provide the studio space (Studio 2B, across from Studio not 2B) on site in downtown Armory Park Tucson, Amanda and Cathy suggested I record a demo episode, and they’d listen and assess. My first stroke of genius was getting Richard Siken to play co-host for the pilot show, and my second was asking the phenomenal singer-songwriter Sam Christopher what he’d need (about $200 and the help of two other excellent local musicians, Prabjit Virdee and Mike Barnett) to arrange and record a version of Phoebe Snow’s sweet, floaty 1973 hit “Poetry Man.” Richard agreed and joined me for a long afternoon at the studio’s guest microphone, and at the last moment Sam rushed over the rough cut of the theme music, a rendition slightly more demented than the original, suggesting a demimonde behind a carnival tent, but in a different galaxy. Luckily it was a lot of fun, because it was also a lot of work: the first show took about twelve hours to prepare and record and edit.

So when KXCI offered, with some pointers, to give it a go and asked if I could make the show two hours long and weekly, I hoped they’d agree when I counter-proposed a one hour show to run biweekly. It could be a fortnightly! Phased to the moon, and so forth. With their indulgence support I suggested I would also make an annotated playlist of each episode and it would be listenable and archived at the Poetry Center site. The character of the show was coming together, a community effort.

Cybele Knowles designed a logo for the show, Annie Guthrie posted the episodes and playlists, and Brandon Shimoda was a great support in several ways, promoting on social media and also being one of the influences of the show: his New Lakes Poetry radio show on KBGA college radio in Missoula, Montana, in the Aughts, hosted also by Lindsay Bland, was a forerunner. The late composer Dale Sherrard, my friend, made me comfortable on a sound bed that still plays on between my headphones.

And the co-hosts. I cannot believe so many poets and readers of poetry have been game to volunteer for three hours, to assemble a set list and cart in (often wheelbarrowfuls of) books that matter to them. Some of the highlights for me are:  

Brenda Hillman reading and speaking about Denise Levertov and politically engaged poetry; Farid Matuk reading John Wieners from the micropress Hanuman edition of his poems, TC Tolbert reading our friend Samuel Ace’s “I Met a Man” from the trans and genderqueer anthology that he co-edited, listening with Jane Miller to Adrienne Rich’s reading at the Poetry Center more than forty years ago; playing out one episode with Karen Brennan with several minutes of Caroline Bergvall’s performance “Via”; closing another episode with Chris Nealon’s intimate reading of Pier Paolo Pasolini; and Srikanth Reddy presenting Lisa Robertson’s The Men “as if Gertrude Stein wrote The Iliad.”

And that’s just the poets. One of the things I treasure about the show and its directive is that the co-hosts need only be readers to whom poetry matters. I’ll never forget former Tucson City Councilmember and longtime actor Molly McKasson digging out Marianne Moore and Theodore Roethke poems—the paper softened almost to tissue from age and use—from a sandwich baggie in her purse; and Calexico frontman Joey Burns trading a song he loved (Villagers’ “Courage”) for a poem I loved (Eduardo Corral’s “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome”), a song and poem that seemed thereafter to live together; LGBTQ homeless advocate and activist Ian Ellasante reading a sure, tender Audre Lorde love poem; and sound scholar John Melillo curating a set of poetry and wavesounds, “dissipative drone” and restorative laving, that included M. NourbeSe Philip and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Incidentally, it’s in this episode you can hear Sam, Prabjit, and Mike’s full version of the intro song. It comes in at about the 35:00 mark.



The best thing about the show for me, during a time in my life otherwise rather devoted to nonfiction prose, is its demand that I stay current in contemporary poetry. The books I’ve sampled on the new shelves at the center, and especially those I then read cover to cover, contain some poems that are topmost in my foot locker of poems I need near me: I’ve loved reading (and listening in playback to) Nathaniel Mackey’s “Stick City Bhajan,” Ed Pavlic’s “Summertime, or Somewhere Just (South of) Above My Head,” Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” Spencer Reece’s “Hymn,” Robyn Schiff’s “Gate,” Danez Smith's "summer, somewhere," and Bernadette Mayer’s “Carlton Fisk is My Ideal”—which FCC obscenity guidelines prohibited me from reading on the air. The titular catcher’s crouch—“denying orgasm”—is pleasing to the speaker of the poem in a way I recommend. (Here it is as a Boog City broadside.)

But my favorite moments from the show spike at the transitions from end of poem to beginning of song: I relish the moment, a few days after the Orlando massacre, that Evan Kennedy’s heraldic poems from The Sissies give way to Julius Brockington’s “This Feeling (Freedom)” and the moment TC Tolbert’s reading of CA Conrad’s short poem “(Frank hammers carrots all day)” gives onto “All the Gold in California” by Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, and The Persuasions doing an a cappella cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” just after the recording of Ofelia Zepeda reading “Blessings for Water” at the Poetry Center’s Politics of Water conference, and—ooh—when Elaine Kahn’s sharp little lyric “Be a Friend” rolls over into The Muffs’ “I Don’t Like You,” and in the most recent episode, I love the moment that the late Ralph Stanley’s preternaturally eerie “Children Go Where I Send Thee” follows Susan Briante’s reading of Juliana Spahr’s “Went Looking and Found Coyotes.” The sound of my Primitive Baptist childhood, I had the song queued up, having heard it on the great country station out of Wilcox, AZ, KHIL, when Susan told me off air that he’d died the day before.

One regret I have is that there’s at least another day’s worth of conversation off air, between segments, that would make equally good radio if it had been recorded. But there’s more to come: I’m excited that Mary-Kim Arnold, Corina Copp and Eric Magrane are already signed up to be a part of all tomorrow’s parties. Meantime, my thanks to all my partners, especially those swiveling at the mikes with me, and any listener attuned. 

Brian Blanchfield is the Classes and Workshops Coordinator at the University of Arizona Poetry Center and creator and host of Speedway and Swan. He is the author of three books of poetry and prose, most recently Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books, 2016). More about him is here.