Pre-road advisory with David Meltzer, Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion ~
photo by Jean Bartlett
photo by Terri Carrion
photo by Ira Cohen
Poetry readings can be the stuff of empty chairs and time slowly ticking away, that dry hack that echoes from the back of the room.
This is not ROCKPILE.
Sometimes, in this world, there is something that passes beyond the walls of the self, something that flows through and out of flesh, blood and bone creating without apology and in turn giving us all permission to do the same.
This is ROCKPILE.
ROCKPILE is intense, wild with words, celebratory – it is even for people who never, ever go to poetry readings. It is a happening.
ROCKPILE began some months back as poets and friends David Meltzer (renowned Beat poet, novelist, essayist, musician and so much more) and Michael Rothenberg (poet, songwriter, editor of Big Bridge magazine online at www.bigbridge.org, and also so much more) discussed the importance of reconnecting poetry to its fundamental social and cultural role, and the relationship of poetry and music to the troubadour tradition.
Terri Carrion (poet, fictionist, nonfictionist, photographer, assistant editor and art designer for BigBridge.org) took this idea of David and Michael’s and made it real through The Creative Work Fund Grant and with the support of The Committee on Poetry.
“ROCKPILE is the idea of mixing it all up, musicians, poets, artists, let’s all get together and create,” Carrion says. “Here we are, alive, with physical bodies and voices and we need to connect on that level, not just in the brain.”
This is ROCKPILE.
Rothenberg explains that ROCKPILE relies as much on the movements of those who attend as those who perform. It is a collaborative celebration of creativity and the creative spirit.
The official ROCKPILE journey begins on Thursday, October 8, when Meltzer and Rothenberg step on stage at the 295-hot pink leather-seated Billy Wilder Theater in the Los Angeles Hammer Museum, 7 p.m., to do a poetry and music ad lib groove with: Theo Saunders on piano, Johnny Lee Schell on guitar, John B. Williams on bass, Joe Sublette on saxophone and Debra Dobkin on drums and percussion.
That’s the official start of ROCKPILE’S 10-city, 18-gig, 8-week tour. However, there were 2 pre-tour gigs. The 1st Pre-Ramble was in April at Bird & Beckett’s in San Francisco. The 2nd Pre-Ramble took place on the 29th of August at the top of a Pacifica mountain in Northern California. And I was there.
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Shelldance Nursery stage before ROCKPILE
photo by Jean Bartlett
The Shelldance Nursery in Pacifica (www.shelldance.com) sits high above the great sea blasts of the world’s largest ocean. Born of 50s architecture, the Nursery’s greenhouse gardens overflow with exotic bromeliads and orchids. Spanish Moss and Maiden Hair ferns drape from the ceilings, and around the weather worn windows, which look out past the rolling hills and cypress, to where seagulls disappear into the mist. At the far end of one of the five greenhouses full of strange and beautiful plants, is a performance stage, where a stone lion quietly sits and waits for the next event. On the evening of the 29th, Meltzer, Rothenberg and Carrion were joined on this stage by the San Francisco-based psychedelic rock and protopunk band, The Rabbles. This (and the previous) ROCKPILE Pre-Ramble, collaborative, a primarily improvisational performance, was not a rehearsal so much as it was a test of the troubadour waters, to see how the audience might respond to such a spontaneous experience.
The crowd that gathered was friendly, often elbowing and winking at each other, breathing in the pulse of the air, happening.
The bass-driven Rabbles launched into opening notes – thunderbolts of synergy, beautifully driven riff slides. Michael Rothenberg, in a black fedora and black satin guayabera, stomped his feet as he performed his poetry. Terri Carrion, in a platinum blond wig, button-pressed and keyed her amplified accordion with a rage. In the audience, eyes widened – then heads and bodies swayed in a collective groove.
This is ROCKPILE.
Michael: “Entertainment Vampire!”
Terri: “Bring your own provider. Makes all the sense in the world. All chatter, noisy brain compound.”
Michael: “Three days, rain, mud stained, white sheet sarong, barefoot mescaline snake …”
Rothenberg and Carrion grabbed it all through voice and song.
Then David Meltzer changed the tempo to the walking blues when he took the stage. He sang, “Bye-bye baby, why don’t you pick up your mess,” and his whole word thing moved like a dream wave.
ROCKPILE’S pre-ramble was transformative. It began with a pensive look over that familiar threatening cliff but this time, discovering, the near forgotten sacred self freed, and leaping on a trampoline.
Every audience member responded.
There was thrilled silence and booming applause. There was chatter among strangers and text messages fired to friends to share the excitement and the moment. ROCKPILE is something that grabs right at the soul and stirs. It should be supported. This writing is my ROCKPILE proclamation.
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David Meltzer and Michael Rothenberg
photo by Jean Bartlett
If Yeats and Liszt came to town, wouldn’t you go? (http://www.bigbridge.org/rockpile/)
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The list of collaborating musicians on the ROCKPILE tour is phenomenal.
• In Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 15, 7:30 p.m. at the Outpost Performance Space, 210 Yale SE, David Meltzer and Michael Rothenberg perform with the Thunderbird Poetry Orkestra plus special guest Terri Carrion on accordion.
• In New Orleans, Louisiana, October 25, 8 p.m. at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., Meltzer and Rothenberg join Blodie and members of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
• In Washington D.C., November 4, 9 p.m. at Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW, Meltzer and Rothenberg will share their stage with Burnett Thompson & The New Columbia Orchestra.
(For further bands and details, check out http://www.meltzerville.com/tourcalendar.pdf and make your plans.)
Some performers Meltzer and Rothenberg know from their own musician experiences. Others are friends of friends of friends. Many hear the limited size of the ROCKPILE grant making this journey tour possible and they offer to play for free.
“These are incredible musicians and they should be paid,” Rothenberg says. “But they are not taking much because they want to be part of this project. And they are so into it. One of the guys in D.C., when I told him how much we had in the budget he said, ‘Let’s start the conversation over again. When I ask you what it pays, tell me you don’t have any money and it’s a joint collaboration project and I won’t be offended and I can say absolutely, I can do it. I don’t want the money. You are not going to have enough money to pay us.’ When I told him I was going to be somewhere else in that neck of the woods doing something, he asked if we wanted them to come play there too. Again, these are top musicians. The camaraderie of this tour and the people who are offering to participate and what they are willing to do it for is enough to kick our asses!”
“He means that in a good way,” Meltzer laughs.
News of ROCKPILE is spreading beyond what even the poets can track. Already they have been contacted to perform next year in Victoria, BC, London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Chile.
“We are challenging ourselves and we are challenging the musicians who are sharing the stage,” Rothenberg says. “At first I thought, David has been working with musicians for so long, let’s just give him a bass drum and a trio and he’ll just bebop his way in. But it is really happening and expanding. It’s exciting to create on the spot!”
“‘Spontaneous bop prosody,’ that is a quote from Kerouac,” Meltzer says. “That really defines ROCKPILE. It’s improvisational, but it’s like jazz, you move around that form where the give is.”
The name ROCKPILE actually has its beginnings in a book by David called, Rock Tao. Rock Tao was a big prose book about music and the youth culture and it analyzed lyrics of songwriters such as: Chuck Berry, Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan. The book was set up in type, Meltzer still has the galleys.
“I got a phone call from the publisher saying, “We can’t print the book. All these agents of all of these different artists are wanting so much money that it will just break the bank.”
Shortly after that, David and his wife Tina got involved in the folk scene and the folk rock scene as musicians. And from that experience came another book about the making of their music and all the people involved in that journey. David called that book, Rock Pile.
“Part of that tale was doing interviews with survivors of that particular moment, from 65 to 70, who mutated from the folk movement into the folk rock and psychedelic rock movements,” Meltzer says. “Record companies were coming into the Bay Area then to cash in on the music. That was what the book was about, making music in the 60s, talking to people who survived the 60s. And of course there was the double meaning, you know, chain gang, and then just Rock ‘N’ Roll becoming a pile of caca!”
“So the birth of the new ROCKPILE happened,” Rothenberg says. “The times seem to be calling for it and we want to do something, now.”
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This traveling van of poets is newer to Terri Carrion then it is to David or Michael. Meltzer and Rothenberg have known each other since 1992 and have traveled a great deal together as poets over the last 7 or so years at campuses, bookstores and bars in such places as: Milwaukee, Chicago, Albuquerque, and at Duff’s, the famous restaurant/bar which hosts St. Louis legendary River Styx events. They recently traveled together to Victoria, Canada to participate in the Pacific Festival of the Book.
“I met David at New College in 1992,” Rothenberg says. “David was Professor of Undergraduate Humanities and Graduate Poetics. But I had known about David since 1977 when a friend of mine gave me a Broadside, which is like a poster, with David’s poem “The Blackest Rose” printed on it. It’s beautiful. I still have it.”
Michael Rothenberg and David Meltzer
photo by Jean Bartlett
New College, now closed, was a progressive, nontraditional San Francisco College, 1973-2008. Meltzer taught there from 1977-2007.
“I was a returning student entering a Masters program,” Rothenberg says. “After a variety of first semester professors, I convinced the Department Head to sign David on as my only professor and thesis advisor.”
“It was very hard to find a ‘poetry teacher’ who really knew the music industry,” Rothenberg continues. “Or knew the dilemma of songwriting and poetry, you know, the questions about that, like is poetry song or is song poetry? He just taught me an enormous amount about a lot of things. He definitely appealed to my sense of the archetypal, the spiritual and the musical. David is one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever known in my life and he is not entrenched in the ‘ivory tower.’ He is real!”
“A blowhard!” Meltzer laughs. “Michael was my mature student and obviously not a beginner. There was his role as an editor at Penguin Books for people such as myself and Joanne Kyger. He has edited these collections of Edward Dorn and Philip Whalen. He’s done an amazing amount at Penguin Books and we have so many friends in common. I enjoyed Michael because he was ambitious and he was good. You know some people are ambitious but hopeless! How he and Terri have put this thing, ROCKPILE, together – it blows my mind.”
Terri Carrion and Michael Rothenberg met in Miami.
Michael was there taking care of his ailing mom and eventually stayed on to take care of her estate after her death. He went over to Florida International University, just to see what the poets were doing. Terri was at the desk. She was working in the office, editing and designing the University’s literary magazine, Gulfstream. Terri told Michael, “Oh yeah, I’m doing this poetry reading at this coffee shop.” He went with her to the local Luna Star Café and they started hanging out.
“I was at the end of my MFA and things had really changed, everyone was totally career driven – get published, teach, move up the academic ladder” Carrion says. “I thought the mindset was totally wrong.” Terri, who earned her MFA at FIU, where she also taught Freshman English and Creative Writing, started the reading series at the Luna Star Café. She was also Program Director for the Study abroad Program, Creative Writing in Dublin, Ireland 2002. She and Michael have been together for seven years.
David, Michael and Terri have traveled together before (for those who think they will never last the 2 months on the road) from San Francisco to Joshua Tree National Park and on to Tucson, Bisbee and Albuquerque. Essentially they spent 2 weeks together, did poetry readings, and found an easy camaraderie. But they have individual needs, which they try to respect, to keep everything smooth.
For David that means when the day is done, he wants his own room in a motel with a TV set hooked up to the Turner Movie Classics.
“I don’t have a TV and that’s the only time I really get to clue into the madness of America.” David laughs. “I really like the Turner movie channel, because I am a geezer!”
“Once David goes into his room he does not come out until the next day around 11 a.m.,” Michael says.
“But because of this project I’ve got a laptop. So we can Skype from the next room if necessary!” David says.
It is important to note here that ROCKPILE is not just about the performances and the lectures and the after parties, it is also about documenting the trip, which includes a book to be put to press in late 2010. It also includes the ongoing documentation that ROCKPILE will put on line during their tour. Already they have vimeos from their pre-ramble ROCKPILE shows. (David, http://www.vimeo.com/4187314. Michael and Terri, http://www.vimeo.com/6418563.) And the night before the tour, David and Michael will both start blogging.
“I’m not a blogger,” David says. “But I will, blog. I don’t like the word itself. It reminds me of the sound you make before you hurl. You go – blogggg!”
“The thing about David is he absolutely just goes and goes,” Michael shakes his head in admiration. “12 o’clock at night, after hours and hours of performing and partying with people, someone says, ‘David, would you like to come back to our house for a night cap?’”
“And I say, of course! As long as I have morning coffee, what’s not to like?”
“That’s ROCKPILE, interaction with community!” Michael laughs.
“In terms of not only cyberspace, but also wherever we are going, we will be drawing a community of musicians and poets,” David continues. “Centuries ago, poetry became song, because that is how you could memorize the news and then go sing it and deliver the news. You didn’t have type – or blogggg! It was the storyteller and the singer. This is a way of remembering. Because basically we are on the planet to remember, to bear testimony, to bear witness – no matter what. And everyone has their stories and they are theirs alone and if they don’t tell them, we are bereft. We are lessened by not hearing that. It has nothing to do with the page; it has to do with breath, sound, ear, heart, riff.”
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Terri Carrion is learning to play the accordion.
“It is fun but it’s heavy,” Carrion says. “I took lessons when I was a kid, but I don’t really have a memory of it – just me in a picture looking goofy. I was inspired to pick up the accordion after a trip to New Orleans and after seeing a video of an anarchist band in St. Louis. I just keep coming across these really amazing accordion people! It’s very diverse. It covers a large range of music. It’s such an odd thing and such a beautiful thing! And you just can’t be too intellectual or sophisticated with an accordion,” Terri laughs. “That appeals to me.”
When she was a kid, Terri says she couldn’t pick an instrument to stick with and decided to play baseball instead.
“I would go a year and a half on piano. I did flamenco dancing, ballet and guitar. But really, I ended up doing baseball and skateboarding. I was much more of a tomboy. I got a little bit of flavor of a lot of things. As you grow up this helps you develop in a more diverse way. In this country, ‘Master of nothing, jack of all trades,’ has a bit of a negative connotation. I think it is very cool to know a little something about a whole bunch of stuff.”
The daughter of a Galician mother and a Cuban father, Terri says her thinking and her writing really comes from two worlds.
“I am a first generation American and my first language is Spanish. I learned English in kindergarten and then spoke English in school and Spanish at home. My mom still doesn’t speak very much English. That does something to the brain, developing language skills bilingually and in two very different worlds. I think it definitely comes across in my writing, the way words come together.”
Carrion will read with ROCKPILE at several venues on the road. Both Meltzer and Rothenberg, more accustomed to the reading experience, want her to read more. Meltzer sites Carrion’s chapbook, Lazy Tongue, published by D Press, summer of 2007, as a marvelous presentation of prose poems about being an adolescent in L.A.
“You read Lazy Tongue and immediately understand how good Terri is,” Meltzer says. “She comes out of a different cultural historical context. The fact that she is Cuban American, that too comes into play with what she writes. It is a superb work. I think after this trip, we won’t be able to keep her down.”
The Title work from Lazy Tongue by Terri Carrion © 2007
Suddenly, I’m in speech therapy, a mirror in my hand, a thin gringa hovering over my shoulder, asking me to repeat, sarsaparilla, seashells, somersault, while she points at her tongue to show where mine should be, because it’s lazy, refuses to rise to that spot behind my top front teeth to form the perfect S sound, snakes, sweat, stereo, she is recording me now, so I can hear when I accidentally get it right, remember how it feels, do it again, stupid, spic, soledad, the gringa is persistent, says I must practice everyday at home, my tongue needs exercise, skateboard, summer, Estevan, my tongue is heavy, collapses from exhaustion, takes up more space in my mouth than before, like I’ve bit off too much of a Cuban sandwich, saliva, sucia, stink, I think of my mother buying cow tongue at the meat market, that big slab in the frying pan, suspiro, somnambulist, system, the gringa says that’s enough for today, sends me back home, stucco, stained glass, San Lazaro—where my mother stands in the kitchen, slicing cebollas and singing those strange Galician songs with all the wrong kinds of S’s.
Carrion says that at first, as a graduate student she wrote fiction. “But my main character had no goals and didn’t want to do anything! Which is totally not acceptable for a classic plot structure, you know, the quest and all that.” Terri laughs. “So I ended up in a memoir class. My father had passed away the year before and so I wrote a story about my father and me called Dominoes. I found nonfiction to be much freer and more experimental. I sent the story off to a national university academic magazine and won the $1,000 prize and I thought, this is kind of bizarre, wow. Now what.”
Rothenberg says he relies on Terri’s “instincts as a poet” and her “amazing eye.” She works with Rothenberg on his material all the time. “She has her own voice, her own angle and she is very original.”
What does Terri think about being the ‘newest’ member of this performance traveling team?
“I think it feels great,” Carrion says. “It is an endorphin release. It is fun. I’m very lucky, because this is a once in a lifetime experience to travel like this and create and hang out with great writers and artists and musicians.” Terri laughs. “And just in the nick of time for my mid life crisis!”
“Terri is ROCKPILE’S Artistic Director,” Rothenberg says.
Carrion thinks David’s crutches should be glitterized for the road trip. Maybe some hot glued smooth studs and a little spray paint.
“I can have the ‘Liberace’ of crutches,” David laughs. “I’ll be styling!”
David’s got forearm crutches. They are hard to notice or at least difficult to continue registering. There is just too much wonderful stuff going on with the mind and personality of David Meltzer.
David begins. “I have a blood disease that accelerated – blah, blah, blah. I’ve been getting my blood taken out for something like 30 years. My blood disease is called hemochromatosis and it is the exact opposite of anemia. It’s like too much iron in the blood.”
Once a week on the road trip, the trio will stop at what Rothenberg calls ‘filling stations’ where David will be “vampire-ized.”
By taking out some blood, you fool the iron.
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Some people wonder where poetry’s place is in today’s society.
“Poetry has never left and it is always part of everything,” Meltzer says. “From the most obvious to advertising – they use language with the same kind of care as a poet. Certainly a return to a preliterate culture of hip hop and so forth goes back to an oral performance of poetry. It goes beyond the book and beyond the page as there was before there was a book – before there was a page.”
“What does poetry do in this culture?” Meltzer continues. “We have all been influenced by poetry, especially people who distrust it. For instance Marianne Moore, she wrote this poem, ‘I too distrust it.’ She was one of these wonderful early modernist American poets.
We are raised up on: lullabies – poetry; skip rope rhymes – poetry. All kinds of things. We inherit this whole oral poetic tradition. We tend to think in rhymes, in meters, in rhythms and so forth. We never left it. It never left us. It’s just how these things become sort-of isolated.”
“We’ve been in a period where everything has been isolated for purposes of exploitation,” Rothenberg says. “Whether it be universities or whether it is some sort-of culture club, some kind of trend, a commercial trend!”
Meltzer pauses for emphasis. “We are talking about the academy taking something that is so natural to all of us – and we all are poets in a way – and trying to rationalize it, and systemize it and this and that and it becomes like auto shop.”
“And it gets them prizes and awards and public positions based on some kind of institution they created for themselves,” Rothenberg says. “I think about the whole thing of what we are doing, the synthesis of ROCKPILE, is what is the essence in my mind right now – it is the parties, the parties in New Orleans, it’s the parties in Los Angeles. I don’t mean a party, to go out and get shit faced. I am talking about party in a communal social gathering a place where you break bread, a place where you listen to music, and you tell the stories, and you share culture and you celebrate. And it is ecstatic or thoughtful or whatever, but that is why it is happening and that is why it is going so well in terms of people responding to us, to ROCKPILE, because people know it is inclusive.
I want people in the audience to feel included, not walk in and say/think/feel, ‘Oh, this is poetry and I better like wear my Sunday best and sit down and go uh-huh and ooh and uh-huh.’ I want people to hoot and holler and celebrate and say, ‘That’s Fine!’ and ‘That’s Fun!’ I want it to go beyond social clubs and racial clubs and academic clubs. I want it to be transcendent, so it is inclusive.”
“We take what we are doing seriously, but we are not serious!” Meltzer says.
“Celebration is a big part of what ROCKPILE is about,” Rothenberg says.
“We are not starting a movement here,” Meltzer says.
“We are enablers,” Rothenberg shouts. “We are saying, ‘You can enjoy poetry too. You can take chances and improvise, too!’”
“By example you create possibility, as simple as that,” Meltzer says. “Robert Creeley, a great, great poet and such a good friend once said to me, ‘In a sense, what we do best is give permission.’ And I think that is what we are doing, giving others permission. People who want to do this need permission to get out of that cage. A lot of times Academies try to remove poetry from possibility. It’s this primal stuff we all have and it is loaded with possibility.”
“It’s really about opening up to other people,” Rothenberg continues, “and giving each other the chance to be, without apology.”
This is ROCKPILE – real artists, painting a real doorway with stanzas and strings, so that all of us can open ‘our door’ and dream. Performances are free and/or by donation. Free yourself. Treat yourself. Go!
David Meltzer and Michael Rothenberg on an Avenue in Oakland
photo by Jean Bartlett
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Revving ROCKPILE with David Meltzer, Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion ~ September 2009 by Jean Bartlett for BAASO Magazine on Jean’s Magazines (www.jeansmagazines.org) © 2009.