Reflections on Jerome Rothenberg @ 80

By: Kendra Sullivan

On Friday, December 9th, thirty-three friends and collaborators gathered to honor poet, translator, editor, and anthologist, Jerome Rothenberg on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Organized by Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Steve Clay, the evening featured tributes presented by: Ammiel Alcalay, Bruce Andrews & Sally Silvers, Homero Aridjis, Steve Clay, Peter Cockelbergh, Monica de la Torre, Rachel Blau duPlessis, Al Filreis, Michael Heller & Jane Augustine, Susan Howe, Robert Kelly, Basil King, Ligorano-Reese, Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Pete Monaco, Charlie Morrow and Maija-Leena Remes, Rochelle Owens & George Economou, Nicole Peyrafitte, George Quasha, Jeffrey Robinson, Diane Rothenberg, Hiroaki Sato, Carolee Schneemann, Danny Snelson, Anne Tardos, Lee Ann Brown & Tony Torn, Quincy Troupe, Ian Tyson, Anne Waldman, and Mark Weiss.

In Jeffrey Robinson’s remarks, he quotes Jerome naming poetry a “sacred action.” Going further in his own words –  a sacred action “by which a human being creates & recreates the circumstances & experiences of a real world.”  On December 9th,  it was clear that by collecting and transmitting these sacred actions through his many publications, Rothenberg had managed to create & recreate a real community around his intrepid poetics.

Performances were broad-reaching, varied, and poignant. Bruce Andrews read a poem, Sally Silvers danced alongside. Homero Aridjiis commented on his first encounter with the poet in Mexico City half a century before: “I first met Jerome Rothenberg in 1960. Yesterday.” He proceeded to translate a letter Jerry had written to him that year into English: “The air here is very humid and when it rains every afternoon, the streets become filled with water and are only passable by boat.”

Performers seemed relaxed, humble, and happy to have the opportunity to honor Rothenberg. I overheard one attendee say “People can be themselves around Jerome.” Praise came easily, as did dance and song. Of America Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, where Rothenberg teases out the visionary and prophetic thread in American poetry, Susan Howe said, “I owe you a tremendous debt for that. It’s never stopped. It just sort of fired me up and got everything going.”

Sound artist Charlie Morrow and his partner Maija-Leena Remes formed a small conch-shell marching band. Tony Torn and Lee Anne Brown staged “What They Wore: A Play for Actors in Five Acts, by Jerome Rothenberg.” On stage, they robed and costumed one another as “He wore a shadow. She wore a calendar. He wore a scarf. She wore a field of wheat. He wore a lightning rod. She wore a message. He wore a dangerous display.” Michael Heller and Jane Augustine performed a “chant and cheer” for Jerry and Diane, his wife, whose 80th birthday also falls this year.

Rachel Blau duPlessis read a “joyous epistolary ode to Jerry and Diane” that praised his insistence on inclusivity. “He eludes to this unceasing dialogue between particularist and universalist social locations both the Jewish and the human, but always rejecting chosenness or any claims of exclusive culture.” Peter Cocklebergh presented an early draft of an online archive composed of magazines produced as part of the Deep Image movement, “or moment” in New York in the 1960s. Hiro Sato read from “Howling at the Moon,” Nicole Peyrafitte performed a haunting song, Monica de la Torre read an article from The New York Times, printed on July 23, 1970 alongside a photograph of “Maria Sabina: High Priestess of the Mushroom Eaters,”  Diane Rothenberg spoke movingly about her husband and their life together, and  Anne Waldman gave voice to old man in a Russian Polar Bear Cult, describing him as “a man expert in song. This is a man expert in lore.”

Steve Clay of Granary Books, who curated an exhibit of books, magazines, and collaborations by Rothenberg in conjunction with the event, sums up the affective power of Rothenberg’s work succinctly: “When I first unearthed New Wilderness #11 in the library of Carolee Schneeman, it was like discovering another planet. Isn’t it always the case when discovering one of Jerome’s anthologies for the first time?” Artist Carolee Schneeman projected slides of candid snapshots taken at parties in the past, picturing many of those present in prior incarnations. While the images scrolled by in grand scope behind her, she photographed the Rothenbergs, the audience, and the evening’s festivities from the stage, adding December 9th to her personal archive of images from their shared lives.

The evening served as pointed reminder that the work we do matters. That it matters to each other. And that friends bound together by a common objective – this evening, poetry – can collectively make a sound that would singularly remain unsounded. If felt as though Jerome Rothenberg had motored open a double set of doors for each presenter: the first revealed the “real world” of the text, the second offered real access to a lasting community knit together by and inside this world.

At the close, Jerome read a few lines of his own. “This morning/ all the voices in my dream/ spoke with one voice./ I feel privileged to be here among you./ from now on we will live/ on borrowed time.”

- Kendra Sullivan is a painter, poet, curator, and boat-maker. She works at the Center for the Humanities.

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