Monday, February 22, 2010


My trip to the Conference Formerly Known as the 20th Century Conference began and ended with poetry. I met poet Mary Jo Bang on the way to her opening reading, and saw that she was an active participant throughout the days of the conference, especially the poetry panels. And the closing party traditionally hosted by Alan Golding and Lisa Shapiro featured a group reading.

You can join that group reading, still in progress, by clicking here!

The first critical keynote was offered by poet/critic Michael Davidson, who spoke from his work in progress on George Oppen. This, too, found its conference-enclosing echo in the panel I chaired during the last concurrent sessions, including an intriguing paper on Heidegger and Oppen.

In between came the usual wealth of intellectual sustenance and collegiality that has kept me coming back to the University of Louisville off and on across two decades of Februarys. One highlight was the panel presented by Lynn Keller, Linda Kinnahan and Dee Morris, with papers ranging from Paul Muldoon's "Horse Latitudes" through Bergvall's poetry to a meditation on New Media poetics.

. . . and I won't soon forget the noisy minutes when an entire classroom full of us rearranged the furniture so that Chris Cheek could conduct his shadow through the projected space of an entire Louisville wall. By the way, that's Bill Howe projecting on the opposite wall of the same room for a talk on card poems and gaming poetics.

My own paper was one of three devoted to African American literature on a panel Saturday. I spoke on Melvin Tolson's modernisms as traced through his revision process across three decades.

Then it was on to a final keynote by Rita Felsi, who adopts the peripatetic mode of address, giving a talk that sounded suspiciously like a critique of suspicion.

Followed by a sampling of Kentucky's Mexican cuisine and the annual stumbling efforts to find Alan and Lisa's house.

As always, I met many wonderful new people, some of whom are pictured here among the many friends I've made at this conference over the years. Hope to see y'all there next year.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


My father took this photo this morning in Northern Virginia.

[photo by Aldon D. Nielsen]

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ken Irby Collected

I believe I first knew of Kenneth Irby by way of his early 70's book, To Max Douglass. The book, which had caught my attention in part because of its mention of David Bromige in the opening, also served as my introduction to the late Max Douglass, whose collected poems were published not too much later by Chris Weinert's small press, with an assist from Andrea Wyatt. When I spoke at the University of Maine's conference on poetry of the 1970s, I made that book and those three poets the center of my paper, looking at the shift from the "New American Poetries" into the yet newer.

I got my first, and so far only chance to hear Irby read a bit later, when he read in Baltimore. Barry Alpert offered me a lift over from D.C. Barry's interview magazine, Vort, had done a special issue on Irby. I'd read that with real interest, and the special issue of Credences also dedicated to explorations of Irby's works. That's where Robert Kelly taught me the word "deictic."

In the following years I made a point of following Irby's books as they appeared. I read Riding the Dog while riding the bus. Seemed appropriate. What I didn't see much more of, though, was strong critical response to Irby's poetry. He remains one of those poets who really should be better known.

And maybe this will help. A while back I got an email from Billy Joe Harris alerting me to the fact that there would soon be a Collected Irby. I expected a good sized volume, what with it being a collected, but when the book arrived, with its gorgeous cover, I was taken aback by just how rich an offering this book proved to be. Despite my previous readings, I'd not known just what a sizeable iceberg had been signaled by those few books I'd gotten my hands on over the years. My experience is in some way summed up by the lines of one of the poems:

"to be claimed in the end by the fate of some old poem
dying its life

the unprotected sop of experience for size
hotter, for having been off on its own for 30, 40 years
come home"

You can order the book here. Sorry to say there's no Kindle edition; but the thing earns its heft.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Luis Leal

One of the more frustrating conference moments of my career came at a gathering to examine American Literature of the 1950s as I heard the repeated claim that Chicano literature began to "happen" in the 1960's. (This by way of partial explanation of the total lack of papers on the subject at the conference.) Now, I'll cop to being an old guy, but it shouldn't have been all that hard for people who consider themselves scholars of American letters to notice that Tino Villanueva's landmark anthology Chicanos dated to the fifties. (I'd read the 70's era reprint.)

I was recalling that moment this morning as I read news of the passing of Luis Leal, one of the real luminaries of literary study in America and of the community life of Santa Barbara. Professor Leal began publishing his own literary scholarship in the 1950s (specializing in Mexican and Chicano fiction) and as of last count had some 45 books to his credit. Now he was, admittedly, 102 years old, but even so, I often found his level of production as daunting a prospect as it was inspiring.

This photo is one I took of him not too long ago at the Santa Barbara Book Fair, which presents an annual literary prize in his honor. Leal was really enjoying visiting with the many school children who were at the fair that day, and he particularly delighted in showing his still current driver's license to a friend I introduced to him that afternoon.

Luis Leal was a true role model, even to writers like me who had little use for the concept of the role model. He was a great friend to literature, a real scholar/writer, and he was a great friend to his community.

Here's the link to Amazon's page for the recently released Luis Leal Reader.