Diving into the Archive: A Potential B-Side


I spent weeks wandering through the Voca audiovisual archive in order to choose three poems to feature on my own episode of the Poetry Centered podcast. And I found three! I was able to narrow it down, ultimately deciding to prioritize writers who were circling around themes of return, transformation, history, and the future. I also gave preference to writers who were in the Voca archive but who had never been featured previously on the podcast.

And yet, the three featured readings were just one small piece of the journey. I was wandering: “Diving into the Wreck” as Adrienne Rich puts it in one recording on Voca. So I thought I’d write this essay about some of my meanderings, about some of the riches that I came across but which were ultimately left out of the podcast. The podcast was the A-side, and this post would be a potential B-side.

There were moments of vision and connection that propelled me into other imaginations and other possibilities. A feeling of lightness brought on by listening to the voices of poets—especially those of previous generations—what they put into the world, with their banter and their poems. My mind magnetized, and I was able to ride the waves of their verses or immerse myself in them, allowing those shifting pulses of liquid poem to hold me for a while.

I ended up thinking a lot as I wandered through the archive about the energy marshalled before the poem is read. I questioned what the waiting might be, what is that anticipation before the poem. For a while I figured I might make a podcast all about banter.

The podcast would have been me bantering as I introduced recordings of poets bantering between their poems. Never quite arriving, the whole episode would just be banter between poems with no "poems." I love this poem by CAConrad, “Oblivious Imperialism is the Worst Kind" about glamor and walking, “glamor fatigue” and “napping” and “bullet holes.” The way CA throws all of it in our faces, all the mess and the violence of the U.S. Empire.

And yet, I return even moreso to the "Remarks" section in this reading. They talk about Plato and his bad rap, because Plato wanted to censor the poets, exile them from the city limits. And it wasn’t because of the poets’ attachment to the occult or fantasy, but CAConrad argues the poets were exiled because they were a threat to the Republic, calling for Plato to give up his slaves or let women vote. CAConrad doesn’t like Plato, and they make a case for poets speaking up against the war machine. And then CAConrad leads the audience in saying Om; they read from the Bhagavad Gita. “Don’t call them drones, call them ‘flying killer robots,’” they say. CA discusses being at a residency and watching the novel writers bragging about their big word counts, and while they compared the size of their production, CA says, “I was having a great time getting rid of words.” I love CAConrad’s banter, how it works, what it says about their own relationship to poetry and the world.

I’d been led to name this talking-between-poems as banter after I read and re-read this essay by Douglas Kearney, “I Killed, I Died Banter, Self-Destruction, and the Poetry Reading.” He writes, “Banter serves, too, as a compositional problem when seen in a structural relationship to the poem it precedes and, sometimes, follows. I had used banter as many do, as a guard against the audience turning on me.”

In a reading and talk at the Poetry Center from 2012, Kearney does a long introduction to his poem, Big Thicket: Pastoral. He introduces the poem with an extensive amount of banter to introduce the killing of James Byrd in Jasper. He tells the story of Byrd staggering home and found by white supremacist gang members. The banter lasts a long time: “Let’s imagine the lectern is the back of the pick-up truck,” he says and he shows the positioning of Byrd’s body by using his own body. He goes into agonizing detail. He makes jokes about “Warner Brothers style” while laughing, and the audience sometimes laughs awkwardly, tentatively, but mainly inhabits a silence that feels deeply uncomfortable. Almost five minutes of banter is followed by almost two minutes of poem. It is as Kearney says “an educational moment.” The discomfort of humor, the commercial and educational necessity of banter: everything Kearney discusses in his essay is audible in this recording of his own banter plus poem. The poet provides the poem, the banter, and the critical discussion for his own work. No rest for the working poet.

Another poet who I found myself obsessed with is Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. I’d recently done a Flow Chart Foundation Zoom workshop with Kimberly Alidio focused on the poem “Texas” by Berssenbrugge. I needed a slow, patient unfolding of the poem and the group reading-through / thinking-through to come to inhabit the work of Berssenbrugge. The workshop brought me into her world, as well as this profile of Berssenbrugge at Southwest Contemporary.                                        

I felt happy to spend more time with her work in Voca. I really wanted to include her poem “Chinese Space” because of how it talks about a return to a house, the house that the poet grew up in but does not recall. Her mother sketched a picture of the space, and so she can return to it through the gate on the street. I was listening to her poem "A Context of a Wave" as I thought about what I wanted to say, how I wanted to structure my podcast: “a sense of a perception of place” and “so that I make you a microcosm,” how the poem takes more than a half an hour and how it filters through and flitters over my body in a thin, delicate way.

Another poet who I spent a lot of time with was Samuel Ace, particularly his poem, “I Met a Man.” These on-going transitions, the way a body can move along the river of identity, continually meeting itself, themselves again and again.

I loved this poem by a poet and Italian translator I’d never heard of before: Geoffrey Brock, "Day of Settlement: Dec. 2, 1859." It is a poem that deals with violence and John Brown, and thus the legacy of white resistance to white supremacy, white resisting itself or pushing back on itself, a white man beating a nation, white fathers beating white sons. I was taken by the differences in the published, written version of the poem and the version that Brock read that day in Arizona. The poem is based on an account by John Brown’s son about the punishments that the father unleashed on his children. Beatings given each Sunday on the day of “settlement,” i.e. the day to settle the score, to pay what was owed, to receive the punishments. The tears of the punisher. The insistence from the punisher that he receive the punishment and turn the victim into a punisher. I get lost in the poem and can listen to it again and again. How does one continue to embody the structures that one is committed to undoing?

As I read on Twitter the other day as auto-translated by Google from the Korean posted by Eunsong Kim: “I think that if colonialism and capitalism disappear, of course I will also disappear.”

Returning to banter, I was taken with Lorna Dee Cervantes in 1991 bantering about San Jose freeways, barrios, drunks, hobos, and sharing "urban renewal" stories and explaining the Spanish words before reading the poem "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway." Also the poem “For Edward Long.” The story of a borracho hobo, a homeless drunk who knew more than this society could recognize. The poet recognizes and insists on another scheme of value. I was happy to hear Lorna Dee Cervantes featured on Juan Felipe Herrera’s Poetry Centered podcast focusing on issues of compassion, action, and protest.

I became transfixed by two recordings of Adrienne Rich: “Trying to Talk with a Man” from 1974 and “Contradictions: Tracking Poems in 29 Parts” from 1989. It is strange to me that no one has featured Rich yet on a podcast for Poetry Centered. Perhaps it has something to do with her alliances with trans-exclusionary thinkers, and despite those connections, I still find myself returning to her poems—and her raspy, deep voice with its lilting almost British tone—despite it all. As Rich herself wrote, “I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevailed.”

I want to close this B-side blog post by talking a bit about some of the other podcast episodes that moved me. In order to make the podcast, I listened to almost all of the other podcast episodes, often on long drives around Texas or long walks around the neighborhood where I live in the East End in Houston. It seemed critical to learn the form of this podcast, before working with the form. I am that kind of obsessive nerd, I suppose.

Wendy Xu did a beautiful homage to Joyelle McSweeney, as she introduced her wild fun weird performance / speech work. One poet geeking out on another, building a connection out of attention and respect. On my walk through the humid, too-hot Gulf Coast streets one morning, I loved hearing Xu talk about attention and her love for McSweeney.

Khadijah Queen’s episode of Poetry Centered totally blew me away, with a lecture by Rachel Zucker on the Confessional, “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Confessional and What We Should Be Talking About,” and francine j. harris’s heartrending poem “katherine with the lazy eye. short. and not a good poet." Queen’s episode and the work within it really set a model for me. So much shockingly good work in Voca, and such a joy to wend my way through it. 

These days, when I think about “poetry” and its use or uselessness, its political potential or lack thereof, when I think about how “poetry” has become a commodity in the US American academy and the worlds of art, when I think about the “poetry” biz and how the gates guarding publication are so very high, I can get depressed.

But the voices of these poets in the archive are a balm.

And now as I write this piece, I fall back into the archives, listening, searching, feeling, ending up with Lucille Clifton in 1983: “reach for the mountain / the mountain will ignore your hand.”

JD Pluecker works with language, that is, a living thing, a material of history and feeling. They have translated numerous books from the Spanish, including Writing with Caca by Luis Felipe Fabre (Green Lantern Press, 2021) and Trash by Sylvia Aguilar Zéleny (Deep Vellum Press, Forthcoming 2023). Their book of poetry and image, Ford Over, was released in 2016 from Noemi Press, and in 2019 Lawndale Art Center supported the publication of the artist book, The Unsettlements: Dad. From a decade, they worked as part of the transdisciplinary language justice and literary experimentation collaborative Antena Aire. JD is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writing Grant and has exhibited work in spaces at Blaffer Art Museum, the Hammer Museum, Project Row Houses, and more.