Talking about Talk in Poetry

I was really delighted to have the chance to do a reading and conversation with John Gallaher about conversational rhythms, tones, and rhetorics as sources of inspiration towards poetic forms. John’s new book Brand New Spacesuit, is excellent and his previous collection, In a Landscape, was an important influence on me as I was writing RUE and looking for ways to weave intellectual and personal materials into poems that can hold my love for scholarly discourse and foul language, not to mention rhetorical flourishes and genuine authenticity, in the same breath.

Danny Caine of The Raven Bookstore (who also writes chatty poems that weave the political with the lyrical like these) hosted us via crowdcast. Before the reading, John and I put together a list of books that have influenced our thinking about talk. We touched on lots of these titles in the course of the hour, which you can watch a recording of here.

Here I want to share our list (my part was made by pulling books off my shelf about which I thought I might have something to say, until I had a very large stack), and reiterate a few of the comments from our talk, as well as elaborate on some of the works we never got around to discussing in depth. You can support The Raven, a fantastic independent bookstore that so generously nurtures writers and literary communities, by ordering a few of these books from them directly at

The Talking about Talk Book List (An Incomplete and Growing List)

Lyn Hejinian, My Life – Conversational poetry, sometimes referred to as Ultra-talk, is often understood as an extension of narrative poetry. However, in our conversation John cited a number of poets more commonly associated with experimental poetics as important influences on his work. Our conversation suggested that many poets working with a conversational tone as much or more influenced by performance art as they are by traditional notions of narrative in poetry. Cole Swensen, Claudia Rankine, and David Antin are other writers on the list, sometimes thought of as experimental, who often cross over from literary spaces into the world of visual arts and performance art, or vice versa.

Adrian C. Louis, Ceremonies of the Damned – Ultra-talk is sometimes presented as being an apolitical mode (you can read one of the definitive critical articles on the style here), though I’d argue there’s no such thing as an apolitical mode, only the mode of being problematically in denial about the politics one is enacting. The lack of engagement with politics in the writings on this style makes me reluctant to enthusiastically claim the moniker “Ultra-talk poet!”

Personally, I see a lot of aesthetic similarities between the ultra-talk and other kinds of conversational poetics (the Gurlesque is just one that comes to mind) in which casual talk is used in a decided political way. Adrian C. Louis is among the writers I see attending to how language that spirals, like conversations tend to, among the political and the personal and the friendly and the ticked off. In this collection he has a really long poem, “A Colossal American Copulation,” that creates a litany of f*** this and f***. The lines move between cursing the encounters with racist good ole boys at the carwash, against genocides and thefts of land, against petty domestic inconveniences, against ducks, against the dementia that has taken the beloved’s memory – I very much admire the way this poem, and some of Louis’s others, move between small griefs and massive historical ones, between the personal and the collective, and the way the poem captures the simultaneity of being people in societies, in ecosystems, in history, in family, in friendships all at once.

I see a similar capaciousness in the voices, lines, and subject matter of Jaswinder Bolina, Daniel Borzutsky, Tommy Pico, and Denise Duhamel on this list.

Cathy Park Hong, Dance Dance Revolution – In Dance Dance Revolution Cathy Park Hong created a new dialect for a tour guide to an invented city. Many of the poems in the collection are monologues spoken by this tour guide. I am mesmerized by this book every time I pick it up. At first I found the dialect difficult to understand, but was drawn in by the way the poems were enacting a post-colonial critique of language as an engine of empire and a method for its transformation. As the book went on and I was immersed in the language I felt as if the poems were teaching me how to read them. I loved being carried into meaning and into a language that put itself in a complicated and critical position towards English as a language of colonization. The experience made me think differently about the work conversational syntaxes and grammars are doing to hold us to each other in conversation.

I think there is a similar kind of aesthetic effect in Jos Charles’s book Feeld, also on this list, which borrows from middle English to create a non-binary language the exposes all the ways grammars can limit or open up one’s capacity to imagine possibilities in and around gender, but also love, identity, community, the spirit.

Bernadette Mayer, Poetry State Forest – Ultra-talk poetics are often positioned as descendants of New York School poetics. Kenneth Koch’s playful, meandering poems do model a kind of carefree relationship to language, the line, and formal discourse. And you can hear me go on about Frank O’Hara’s brilliant and funny “Personism Manifesto” in the crowdcast.  Of all the New York School poets, Bernadette Mayer (who I first learned about via Maggie Nelson’s groundbreaking Women of the New York School) has been the most influential for me. Her poems sound more like a person talking to herself than to an audience, like the raggedy edges of a conversation had in and with your own mind. They are exciting in the way they catch a kind of addled disjointed inner monologue, one I recognize well as common among those of us raising small children, the attempt to find the thread between politics, art, feelings, and laundry. I found a great deal of inspiration and permission in the way she cultivates a kind of rhetorical honesty.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

John Cage, Silence

David Antin, Selected Talk Poems

Jaswinder Bolina, The 44th of July

Jos Charles, Feeld

Douglas Kearney, Patter

Mark Halliday, Jab

Denise Duhamel, Blowout

Cole Swenson, Gravesend

A.R. Ammons, Tape for the Turn of the Year

Mary Ruefle, Dunce

Craig Morgan Teicher, Brenda Is in the Room

Jillian Weise, Cyborg Detective

Rachel Zucker, The Pedestrians

Tommy Pico, Nature Poem

Becca Klaver, Ready for the World

Leanne Howe, Savage Conversations

Anne Carson, Short Talks

Daniel Borzutzky, Lake Michigan

Chen Chen, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

John Gallaher, In a Landscape & Brand New Spacesuit

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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