There were many great moments at the just-concluded 2012 Orono Conference on The Poetry of the 80s. I’m being kind of partial here, of course, but I think the panel I organized on Michael Palmer, “Estranging the Logos,” with brilliant papers by Richard Deming, Peter O’Leary and Norman Finkelstein kind of rocked the house. I’m normally pretty unflappable (Editor’s note: actually not true, but it sounds good as a lead-in) so I stayed cool as I saw the room gradually filling up. At least 50 people, I’d say. Even Marjorie Perloff’s presence didn’t ruffle me since I’d rather counted on her coming.
But reader, when I looked up as I started my introduction and seated there, several rows up, right at eye level, I saw Nate Mackey, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe, gazing down at me with a cool, implacable Olympian calm, I confess, my heart quailed. I mean here I was, claiming with a straight face that the 80s were Palmer’s decade. I was too rattled to improvise in front of the poetry gods, so I just stuck to script and plowed on. No one remembers the introductions to these things anyway and the panel was so exciting it really just didn’t matter. By the time we got to the Q&A I was myself again.
I’m not going to set out in detail even a summary of all the talks I heard. That would require a Herculean effort. I’ll just mention some of the quirkier highlights and pleasures.
The glamorous Star Black orchestrating a madcap photo op with about 20 or so of us, including Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, in the University’s student union after lunch.
Aldon Nielsen and I cheering when we watched the cable news feed of the SCOTUS ruling. Throughout the conference Aldon wore two hats. But not at the same time.
Chatting with the charming Donna Hollenberg about some of the juicier bits in her forthcoming biography of Denise Levertov.
Laura Moriarty fondly recalling Michael Palmer’s early mentorship.
Pen Creeley, period.
David Need lying supine on a bench outside Corbett Hall reciting from Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight.
My Freudian slip in the Gustaf Sobin talk where I called Wordsworth’s “Ruined Cottage” “The Ruined College.”
Alan Golding’s Colbertism, in his Armand Schwerner talk: “hoaxiness.”
Charles Bernstein reading his heart-rending translation of Goethe's "Der Erlkonig."
Susan Howe holding up a copy of Lee Hickman’s magazine Temblor, at her plenary reading.
Marjorie Perloff declaring, as a respondent to a panel, that San Francisco as a literary scene was “over.” And Kevin Killian saying, “I could talk your ear off about that.”
Kevin Killian in general, but especially his deeply moving plenary talk about AIDS.
A major critic stating flatly that In The American Tree is just unreadable anymore.
Talking theology and Duncan with Peter O’Leary.
Talking Sobin with Joe Donahue.
Talking trash with Bob Archambeau and Grant Jenkins.
Keith Tuma’s sly sense of wit.
Talking Ed Dorn, Baraka, and Naropa with old Boulder friend Joe Richey on the drive back down to Portland.
Nate Mackey brandishing his cane as he strolled by Norman Finkelstein, Joe Donahue and myself and threatening to whack us with his “ugly stick.” Which conjured up the cover of his From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, with its image of a flute terminating in a hammer head, and which, of course, I took to be a classic instance of gnostic contagion.
That was my Orono conference, in part. And I missed a lot, especially at the after-hours poetry readings.
Huge thanks to Steve Evans, Carla Billiteri, Ben Friedlander and Jennifer Moxley, for making it all happen. Bring on the 90s!