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Miami University – Leonard Theater – Oxford, Ohio – 3.31.05

Lisa Jarnot was born in Buffalo, New York in 1967. She attended the State University of New York at Buffalo and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Since the mid-1990s she has lived in New York City. She has edited two small magazines (No Trees, 1987-1990, and Troubled Surfer, 1991-1992) as well as The Poetry Project Newsletter and An Anthology of New (American) Poetry (Talisman House Publishers, 1997).

She is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck Press, 1996), Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001 and Salt Publishers, 2003), and Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003). Her biography of the San Francisco poet Robert Duncan is forthcoming from University of California Press and she recently completed a novel called Promise X.

She teaches at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Long Island University, and Brooklyn College and has given lectures and readings throughout the United States and Europe.


by Keith Tuma

I was thrilled when Lisa Jarnot agreed to come to Miami University as the sprint poet working with graduate and undergraduate students this spring. I’ve been reading her work for many years with great pleasure. Lisa is a graduate of SUNY Buffalo and Brown University and lives in New York City, where she teaches at a couple of institutions, including Brooklyn College. She’s co-editor of an anthology called The Anthology of (New) American Poetry from Talisman, one of the more interesting anthologies of younger American writers, and the author of several chapbooks and three very different and very fine collections of poetry: Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck, 1996), Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001; Salt Publishing, 2003), and Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003). She has a poetry and music CD called Poems from Black Dog Songs. She’s completing a biography of the poet Robert Duncan for the University of California Press and has recently starred in the movie The Time We Killed by Jennifer Todd Reeves. You can find out all of this and more at her homepage. It’s also worth your time to check in at her blog.

It’s hard to characterize Lisa Jarnot’s poems in a brief introduction, in part because her three books are so different. I’m tempted to invent a word to describe her poems, not so much the poems in her first book, which is perhaps her most “experimental” book, as that word is used, but rather the poems in the two more recent books. As you can tell by the title of the most recent of those books Jarnot also sometimes calls her poems songs. In thinking about the structures and use of repetition in some of those poems and the great musicality of all of her work I am thinking that maybe a word like “pongs” would do the trick to describe these texts—easy to rhyme with, somewhere between poem and song, new but as if you’d heard it before.

Like one of her influences, Robert Duncan, Jarnot’s poems are self-consciously “derivative,” not least of the playful, quasi-Steinian side of some of Duncan’s earlier work, as well as of the work of late Robert Creeley and Bernadette Mayer and other of the great poetry of recent generations. It’s always been tempting to me to read Duncan’s remarks about the “derivative” nature of his own work as an intervention in a slightly vulgar if also academically produced version of a modernist discourse that had erected a cult of originality, as of course Duncan’s work like Creeley’s and others among the so-called New American poets did pursue and manage to create a signature and sui generis work via extended engagement with the traditions of poetry, primarily western poetry. Lisa Jarnot’s activities as a poet are in this tradition too, and thus it doesn’t surprise me to hear this week that what she is doing right now is translating parts of Homer’s Iliad. Despite an early interest in cut-ups and disjunctive syntax as deployed in prose and prose poems, and perhaps because of her continuing interest in the semantic as well as sonic effects of rhyme and repetition, she never strays too far from the founding genres of poetry, particularly lyric poetry.

You can hear her mentors in her work, not drowning her out but right there in the back of many of her poems--Allen Ginsberg would be another of some importance to her. A certain fidelity to the Greeks and the canon is probably indicated, and I don’t think ironically, in the decision to call a poem an ode, but there’s nothing cultish about her fidelity to the roots of poetry, nor would she seem to want to use any kind of critical or promotional discourse about form, and for that matter “tradition.” What is familiar and also not so familiar these days in Jarnot’s poems has more to do with patterns of repetition in syntactic forms and with the “tone leading of vowels” than it does with counting thumps and pivots. The work has become more lyric as she’s gone along, even as she’s sustained her interest in the prose poem. I was looking the other day at this passage in the first book:

When i saw that my partner. we set out north for mountains then for george. the fir terns rock pile. at a bank. there were no trucks, only planets circling, with two in the wrong house at the dark and equalled chaos his guitar. the city in the inland of the terns. drawn from the flesh of the banjos. next to haven across the firs. of planets. don’t forget the firs we cash inside of planet. next to civil in the tow. in terns across the median. remember scam in median. remember her in piano. remember who in dream collided he, my partner. he, my partner, was just being friendly, slightly malarial. having knocked the reindeer off the porch (Some Other Kind of Mission, 69).

That’s Bob Dylan’s Isis cut up and mixed and scrambled with other material, and as a block of writing it interests me most toward the end of this passage, where I think I see that it’s not the prose collage that’s allowing text and meaning to be generated and shaped but rather rhyme and echo, repetition as it makes possible not only pattern but also variation, contrast. There’s maybe a little prefiguring here of the two more recent books in this passage which is from a book otherwise more self-consciously “experimental” and perhaps most truly innovative not in blocks of prose like this one but rather in its pages given over to the visual—to collages of treated and/or found material.

I’m going on too long now and there’s really no way to introduce a poet that’s as efficient as letting her do it herself, so here’s a more recent poem called “Lisa Jarnot”:

When you do grow up
you’ll be able to write
poems and things will be
like they are now,
except there will be
more sardines, and all the
grilled cheese sandwiches
on white bread will move
away and it may still snow
on cold nights when the
dogs bark, wrestling in
the dark, but all the stars
are the same, and you
are the same, still wavering
in the hall light, unbridled
light not dark.
(Black Dog Songs, 40)

Please join me in welcoming Frank O’Hara, the late but never to be last Robert Creeley, all the rest of the poets and in their company Lisa Jarnot.

Revised from improvised remarks introducing Lisa Jarnot on 3.31.05 at Leonard Theater, Miami University, Oxford Ohio.