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An Overview of ROCKPILE




Michael Rothenberg



I thought that ROCKPILE was quite an amazing project, program, vision, and rare in the field, and therefore expected it to be more celebrated. Celebrated because it spoke more of opportunity, expansion and cultural and arts exchange than mostly everything going around for a long time. And while it was a successful program I do feel it was under appreciated. More people get hot thinking about the next AWP.


How often do two poets like Meltzer, Terri Carrion and me get a 40,000.00 dollar grant to tour the US to perform with groups like The Dirty Dozen Brass Band or musicians like Burnett Thompson, Johnny Lee Schell or Marty Ehrlich?  And what about all those seminars we set up with a wide cast of characters to talk about Art and Activism? I must be crazy but it sounds to me that the whole ROCKPILE thing was ground breaking as an overall program. And maybe people know that but are challenged by it. Or maybe they just don't give a shit. Maybe it was too rock and roll. Too ecstatic? Too sixties? Too eclectic? Too jazzy? I don't know. I know one thing and that is that the only academic institutions that backed it were RIT, CUNY, University of Missouri, and Columbia College. I contacted many others and put out the word but seemed like the Universities didn’t get it or didn’t want to get into it.


St. Louis had the strongest turn out. Of course, Michael Castro had the magic in getting the community out. And St. Louis was the most diverse culturally and integrated artistically. And the least academic. There are some great minds there in St. Louis. We had a really large audience there for two nights in a row. And they want us to come back and we want to go back.


My overall assessment of ROCKPILE is that it was a success because everyone who came to the show dug it entirely. And we loved, loved, loved, doing it. I mean the audience raved. You could see it in their eyes, they were blown away. I don't mean to hype and inflate ROCKPILE but it was obvious how turned on the audience was. We heard comments in DC like, "You make us feel like we are a part of something bigger." In New Orleans people got up from their seats and danced while we were reading because the whole vibe was ecstatic and moving. Can you imagine, dancing at a poetry reading? Many people said they felt we had found a new way of performing poetry and music that was fresh and innovative. I don’t know if that was true but we heard it an awful lot. 


We worked with a brass band in New Orleans, a free jazz player in New York, an alternative rock band in SF, so ROCKPILE was cross-genre. Maybe that was new? Or was it how we collaborated? That musicians and poets listened to each other!


We don't come off to people as some "poetry & jazz" caricature of beatniks in a coffee shop. That's not our approach. (I am more rock, for sure). It may have something to do with our general approach to collaboration, that the poet is an instrument, part of the music, and music is not a backtrack or landscape for the poem/poet. It involves a lot of listening to the musicians, and the musicians listening to the poets, so that we are actually interacting with each other. Collaborating. The performance is in the moment. It involves singing the poem when it gets to that, if it gets to that. Literally singing the lines when the music goes there, to that place, when the feeling is right. When you hear the music inside of you, and the line can only go that way, you sing!


But it is hard to characterize our work as to why it is different because we are too busy doing it.


We had about 150 people two nights in a row in St. Louis, about 100 in New York, 85 in Albuquerque, and 100 in LA. These cities were pretty good turn out. New Orleans was light, about 30 people. Some say it was the location and day of the week. DC was very light too, at about 40 people, and that was a mind bendingly sublime show with Burnett Thompson and Joseph Cunliffe and The New Columbia Band at the Busboys and Poets which is a great space. We had this great Portuguese vocalist and Burnett Thompson's band was impeccable and spirited. People wouldn't leave the room after the show. You know you can tell a lot about how a show went by the amount of talking that goes on after an event, people were buzzing electric! They didn’t want to leave the performance space. I can't explain the low turn out in DC. Believe me we did a lot of outreach.


Usually, we would do a seminar, a social gathering and a performance in each town we went to try to meet people and make ROCKPILE a community event. This was only partially successful, in my mind. We did a seminar at Columbia College a couple days before the show. Ultimately, the Chicago event had about 50 people which was a bit disappointing. And there seemed to be like 50 guest readers (just kidding) in Chicago and we had some pretty well known local guest performers so I was surprised by the turnout. But I hear the Chicago crowd is fragmented community-wise, and therefore hard to reach. Larry Sawyer did a wonderful job, though, getting things together at the Hideout and so the people that did show up all had a blast. 


You know, I just think I have an inflated view of what ROCKPILE is. I feel we should have had about 100 people turnout everywhere. But we didn’t. We really didn't get any press, mainly calendar listings. And I sent out press releases everywhere! It is a difficult project to describe in promotion.


The supplemental funding from different venues was mostly nil. We got almost no financial support from universities. Therefore, if we didn't have the main Creative Work Fund Grant (a miracle in itself) we wouldn’t have been able to do ROCKPILE at all. If we were in the academic world we would have been sponsored in each city by a college and probably made money. The professors would have black-mailed their students with extra credit for attendance and filled the auditorium. 


Well, ROCKPILE isn’t a commodity. I don't think of this program as product. It is about art and that is a great, great thing. I fully see the installation, happening, the experimental, cultural value of what we have done. And you can't imagine how fun it was, blissful to perform with awesome accomplished musicians. We are jonesing to go back out. Seriously, performing with those musicians! The Dirty Dozen, Burnett Thompson, Marty Ehrlich, the LA musicians, all legends themselves (who have played with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Majal, Rolling Stones, Ella Fitgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, etc).  And all those great friends we made and spent time with in each town. Unforgettable. And then what a blessing to spend two months on the road with David and Terri.


But I am a celebratory kind of guy. I just wanted people to come out and join us and celebrate themselves. We had guest readers in each town and mixed it up so it wasn't about the glorification of Meltzer and Rothenberg and Carrion. It was about community. I wanted the audience to see that poetry is ecstatic, and participatory, something celebrated not dreaded.


One thing I know for sure is that now that we are back David and Terri want to do more. I am speaking with people in St. Louis, New Orleans, New York and Chicago and we have new ideas for programs and ideas on how to re-mix the program to make it clearer what we are all about. ROCKPILE is scheduled in 2011 for Amsterdam. Paris, Berlin and London are in progress. We’re headed to Rochester and Buffalo in September. We had a great time there during the tour and made lots of friends. And we’re working on a few gigs with The Rabbles, a great Bay Area experimental rock band this summer.  Jason Braun from St. Louis is working on a program for the fall with hip-hop and spoken word poets in a gathering of voices.


You know we have another big fragmented community here in the USA, which includes performance, hip hop, and spoken word poetries. They are very inbred, cliquish, and not much for mixing it up. I am sure they have fought hard for their “money”, their place in the “scene” and audience. And I am sure they have built in defences, because they have been ostracized by the academy and other "real poets". But personally, I tend to think art and culture and celebration, not politics, fame and power. St. Louis got it entirely right, as far as I’m concerned. It was a total mix of academicians, black, Hispanic, hip-hoppers, spoken word, beat poets, anarchists, cross generational, cross-cultural, and such. The audience was roaring, and people are still writing me about how fabulous the show was.


But where are the reviews of the ROCKPILE event? I am expecting one review in a very prestigious national paper, The Forward.


But that is it. Well, okay, no more. Thanks for letting me rant!





copyright© Michael Rothenberg





Michael Rothenberg is a poet, songwriter, and editor and publisher of Big Bridge magazine. His poems have been published widely in small press publications, including Berkeley Poetry Review, Exquisite Corpse, Milk, Golden Handcuffs Review, Jacket, Prague Literary Review, Tricycle, and Zen Monster. His poetry books include Man/Woman, a collaboration with Joanne Kyger, The Paris Journals (Fish Drum Press), Monk Daddy (Blue Press), Unhurried Vision (La Alameda/University of New Mexico Press), and most recently CHOOSE, Selected Poems (Big Bridge Press). He is also author of the novel Punk Rockwell (Tropical Press). Michael Rothenberg has edited the selected works of Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer and Ed Dorn (Penguin Books) and the Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book of poems, My Youth As A Train, will be published in Fall 2010 by Foothills Publishing.