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Troubadors of Post-Modernity

Poetry didn’t always reside in the neatly formatted volumes that line our bookshelves. Before the age of Gutenberg — let alone Kindle — poetry existed mainly as performance, spoken or sung by traveling bards, epic balladeers and troubadours. It was a living, communal experience vastly different from the solitary reading that informs our encounter with the genre today.

To turn the clock back, two California poets, David Meltzer and Michael Rothenberg, conceived the idea of a gigantic poetic road trip across the United States, full of planned and spontaneous performances, ecstatic reunions with old friends and unforeseen collaborations, seminars, gatherings and feasts: the Rockpile Review.

Meltzer, now in his 70s, grew up in Brooklyn at the intersection of Orthodox Judaism and radical socialism. As a teenager, he moved west and became an important Beat figure. Aside from writing poetry and reciting it with jazz musicians, he led a psychedelic folk band, Serpent Power. Later he edited Tree magazine, which explored poetic and philosophical dimensions of the kabbalah. For a while, he was the poetry editor of Tikkun magazine, but resigned, having grown, as he put it on the phone in an interview, “sick of poems about bubbes and Holocaust… wanting real and not ideological poetry.”

Rothenberg, now in his 50s, is Meltzer’s longtime student and friend. A major poet, he published a number of collections and edited Big Bridge magazine, as well as various poetry volumes for mainstream and offbeat publishers.

Rothenberg’s partner, Terri Carrion, successfully applied to the Creative Work Fund in the San Francisco Bay Area for a Rockpile Review grant. So, in a beat-up van, borrowed from Rothenberg’s ex-wife, the troubadours were on their way. Carrion joined the two poets on their journey as manager, muse and — on occasion — fellow performer on an American tour that visited Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Rochester, New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., among other places. At each stop, they adapted their act to perform with local poets and musicians.

For Rothenberg, one of the trip’s greatest highlights was collaborating with the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band in New Orleans. The funk band, assembled on stage behind the poets, condensed their swinging groove to a whisper, allowing the words of poetry to flow clearly and distinctly above the music. Rothenberg recalls looking up and seeing people dancing — dancing to poetry! Rarely, since the days of Chaucer, had this happened to poetry in English.

The poets did not denounce technology, but instead used it to their advantage. While touring, they blogged, unfolding a travelogue strewn with photographs and video footage. Their comments sections burst with follow-up conversations.

Old and new poems appear on the blog — polished works, as well as improvisations, such as:

stomach inferno
need new glasses
funky & gunky
in a massive Comfort Suite
great for post reading blast
tossing berets to the ceiling
sealing wall cracks w/
LP hot wax melted over
:boosted chianti bottles
from the ’50s Musee

This piece, like numerous others, is an ecstatic fusion of joy and kvetching. On the Rockpile blog, “I don’t know how people do this… I’m so beat” is almost immediately followed by: “There is a revolution taking place. We just need to start getting together and talking, jamming, dancing and all will be manifest…”

The travelogue also features such gems as a video recording of the two poet tourists fressing huge sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli in New York and a particularly touching photograph of Meltzer, on his crutches, posing in front of a New York street billboard advertising the “Young Jewish Professionals” network.

Perhaps most important, a strand of web entries engages in a discussion of the project’s poetic process itself — specifically the ways in which words and music come together. Although Meltzer explored this genre in his youth, he had concerns about playing with musicians from a younger generation, many of whom he’d never met.

Web entries show him worrying about the Rockpile concept and the execution, doubting the project and himself. Yet this angst is not at all disconcerting. If anything, it inches the poets closer to their readers by revealing something so intimate. The Internet aspect of Rockpile is no mere tour diary, but another simultaneous dimension of this troubadour experience.

Amid the hesitations and attempts to pin down the mission on the go, Meltzer quotes one of his older pieces, “Impossible Music,” an esoteric anthem to the endeavor of merging poetry, music and mystical performance into one:

Jazz Kabbalah, the black & white of it, the page, the letters, ink,
its black absence its white presence
describe the revolutionary harmonic shift wrought by Debussy, Ravel,
Satie, a jazz pianist said, ‘Yeah, they’re playing the black keys’
the sounds made are colorless until pulled out of the air &
transcribed, not even trance-scribed, but blacked onto white onto
black lines of the page…
we riff our ruin into say-no amulets & say-yes run-the-lotto-down
dream-book number code
moving the move to alert
Publishers Clearing House to reroute its TV crew in the new SUV to my
front door

Reaching a kabbalistic measure of complexity, the poem weaves together art criticism, poetics, jazz, pop culture, jive and rhythm. Throughout, there’s a sense of synesthesia — musicality of words, melodies of colors, mathematics of music.

Overarching it is the intellectual side of desire — of over-reading, of deliberate and sensual overreacting to images and letters. Rockpile itself presents a similar sort of synesthesia: of written and performed, ancient and modern, intellectual discourse and street ranting.

Theory aside, the heart of the project is the interpersonal experience of art: meeting people, collaborating spontaneously and seeing what transpires.

In New York, the poets appeared with Marty Ehrlich’s jazz collective at the Gershwin Hotel. As with previous performances, hardly any rehearsing or preparation took place, nor was it necessary. Ehrlich, a mainstay of the New York klezmer-jazz scene, dashed around the stage spontaneously orchestrating the music, blending it with poetry in real time, interpreting, interacting. The room was filled to the brim and enthusiastic.

A single show did not suffice. The poets altered their schedules to stay around to attend a symposium on art and social activism, hosted by the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Then they had another session at the CUNY Graduate Center with young academics under the auspices of Ammiel Alcalay, university professor and scholar of all things hip.

The spontaneity of the decision to prolong the encounter with New York’s art scene was entirely in the spirit of this freewheeling road trip, but how ironic that troubadour spontaneity was engaged in such an intellectually rigorous manner.

Now back in California, the poets are hard at work organizing journals and editing materials into a single book. They keep postponing the “grand finale” United States performance in San Francisco, not wanting their tour to end. Instead, they’re dreaming of a European road trip next year.

In the meantime, ad-libbed Meltzer on the phone, there’s the precious feeling of being “reassured that art is still there, creating its own communities — which is what poets need to retain their own dissidence. Once you join [the system], you’re chopped liver.”

Jake Marmer writes about poetry for the Forward.

Watch David Meltzer perform with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band in New Orleans:

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