Full Nelson

Los Angeles
02.22.08

Left: Writer Maggie Nelson. (Photo: Steve Gunther) Right: Poet Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson. (Photo: Annie Buckley)


The thought of driving to downtown Los Angeles on a Wednesday evening, gray skies threatening rain and traffic reaching its peak, is enough to make most Angelenos reach for their cell phones and cancel plans. Nevertheless, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at REDCAT two nights ago for an evening of readings and performances in celebration of poet and author Maggie Nelson’s new book, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions.

Before the evening reached full swing, Nelson gave a slide lecture, essentially a whirlwind tour of the book, offering an in-depth look at the contributions of women in and around the New York School. Despite the fact that a small group stood up to leave on hearing the word lecture, the woman of the hour was undaunted, saying with a smile, “I know talk is scary, but that’s what I’m going to do, talk. It’s a New York School thing.” What followed was an incisive commentary on the book’s two sections—the first an overview of the era, the second career studies of the poets Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, and Eileen Myles (who was to perform later in the evening). One of many challenges she faced in writing the book, Nelson explained, was “the difficulty of bringing a feminist perspective to bear on artists who bristled at using the words artist and woman in the same sentence.” The talk was punctuated with choice quotes from Notley and framed by enormous projected images, including one of Joan Mitchell that Nelson said inspired a colleague to dub the painter “the Joey Ramone of AbEx.” Her account was followed by an intermission, and the crowd, among them KCRW Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt, filmmaker Silas Howard, Semiotext(e) coeditor Hedi El Kholti, and painter Rebecca Morris, filled the lobby. An opening for graphic designers Ed Fella and Geoff McFetridge’s “Two Lines Align” was just getting underway in the nearby gallery, and the bar was bustling. Tara Jane O’Neil, a musician and songwriter, remarked on her set list for the evening: “At first, it was really hard, but then I just abandoned the idea of responding to the book. If we had all done that, then we would just be up here trading anecdotes and stories all night.”

Left: Artist John Lucas with poet Claudia Rankine. Right: Musician Tara Jane O'Neil with the Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra. (Photos: Annie Buckley)


As guests trickled back into the theater, CalArts writing program director Brighde Mullins introduced “the sublime and indefatigable” Nelson, who described the juxtaposition of performances by noting, “This might seem incoherent, but that’s partly intentional.” Canadian poet Anne Carson began with “A Lecture on Pronouns in the Form of 15 Sonnets,” integrating her reading with an enigmatic recording, an enthralling video featuring three Merce Cunningham dancers, and a series of choreographed movements performed by CalArts writing students (aided by Bob Currie, Carson’s frequent collaborator). Between performances, presenters’ names loomed rock-star large on the screen behind them. The visuals were certainly excessive, but on a night dedicated to women who had remained largely ignored by written histories, the gesture was decidedly apropos.

Critic Bruce Hainley added yet another name to the mix, dedicating most of his allotted time to a reading of the riveting last chapter of stalwart Greenwich Village modernist Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Poet Claudia Rankine followed, accompanied by the oversize projected image of a green sports field. The infamous end to the 2006 World Cup played out in infinitesimally slow motion to a recorded sound compilation featuring Rankine’s melodic recitation of a poem about the insult of racism, one of four riveting sound-and-image collages she made for the occasion with artist John Lucas. The next three focused on the Katrina disaster, 9/11, and the Obama campaign, bringing the light of Nelson’s corrective historical vision to the present day. The work’s rhetorical force seemed to stagger the audience, which remained quiet as the last image faded, as if uncertain whether the projection was complete. Finally, someone broke the silence with a single, timid clap, which soon broke into full applause. Myles took the stage and quipped, “I almost feel redundant standing here.” Yet with graceful confidence and wit, she proceeded to alternately soothe and energize listeners with funny, moving stories from her forthcoming “poet’s novel,” exploring life from the center of her experience as a poet, a lesbian, and a seeker of truth, sex, God, love, fun, and just about everything else.

O’Neil, bathed in amber light and with a visor hiding her face, rounded out the evening with an homage to Yoko Ono and several of her own hypnotic songs. Accompanied by two musicians on drums, bells, and tambourines, O’Neil appeared lost in sound until she somewhat abruptly stopped, glanced up at the crowd, and announced simply, “I think that’s the end of the evening.”

Left: Anna Ekstrom and REDCAT associate director George Lugg. (Photo: Annie Buckley) Right: REDCAT gallery director and curator Clara Kim with Thomas Lawson, dean of the School of Arts at CalArts. (Photo: Steve Gunther)