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July 2, 2008 Paoli, Pennsylvania From the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Ron Silliman was born on August 5, 1946 in Pasco, Washington, and raised in Albany, California, north of Berkeley. He attended San Francisco State University, Merritt College, and the University of California at Berkeley between 1965 and 1970 but left in his senior year during the Vietnam War to perform alternate service as a conscientious objector to the draft.

While still in college, Silliman had poems accepted by many of the more traditional journals of the 1960s, including Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest, and Southern Review. By the time he published his first book, Crow, in 1971, however, he had become part of a group of Bay Area poets that later became known as the founders of Language Poetry. Others in the group included Robert Grenier, Barrett Watten, Rae Armantrout, David Melnick, and, as the decade progressed, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and Bob Perelman.

Silliman's anthology, In the American Tree (1986), remains a primary resource for readers interested in this literary movement. His book of talks and essays, The New Sentence (1987), is reflective of Language Poetry's interest in critical self-examination. The book's title essay became synonymous with a resurgence of the prose poem, especially in longer formats.

Throughout the 1970s, Silliman worked in activist positions in nonprofit organizations working with prisoners and inner city low-income neighborhoods. After teaching at San Francisco State University, the University of California at San Diego, and New College of California, Silliman became the director of development for the California Institute of Integral Studies, a position he held for several years before taking over as executive editor of The Socialist Review, one of the leading activist journals that emerged in the 1960s.

Since 1974, Silliman has been working on a single poem entitled Ketjak. The title is taken from a Balinese chant performed by a circle of over one hundred men that reenacts a battle from ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana. Silliman's Ketjak project is composed of four works: The Age of Huts, Tjanting, The Alphabet, and Universe. With the exception of the book-length poem Tjanting (1981), each of the other projects is also a compilation of texts. Ketjak is also the title of his book-length prose poem published in 1978, which serves as the first section of The Age of Huts, and marked Silliman's emergence as a force in post-avant poetics.

Among his over twenty books of poetry are Crow (1971); ABC (1983); Paradise (1985), which received the Poetry Center Book Award from San Francisco State University; What (1988); Xing (1996); and Woundwood (Cuneiform Press, 2004). He is also the author of a memoir, Under Albany (2004), which was named a book of the year by Small Press Traffic. About Under Albany, the poet Charles Bernstein has said: "This constructivist memoir provides an exquisitely rich exploration of the relation of context to reference, subtext to meaning, back story to presented experience, and composition to poetics. All of Silliman's work unravels and reforms in this exemplary and exhilarating act of attention, recollection, and reflection."

In 2002, Silliman's interest in critical discourse by and for poets led him to create one of the earliest weblogs on the subject of poetry. Within three years, Silliman's Blog had received over 500,000 visitors for its daily examination of poetry, the arts, and contemporary society. Silliman is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and the Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He has received a Pushcart Prize and been included twice in the Best American Poetry anthology series. Today, Silliman is a principal analyst with Gartner, Inc., an information-technology research organization. Since 1995, he and his family have resided in Chester County, Pennsylvania.


Ron Silliman, 1946

                    For Cliff Silliman

If the function of writing is to "express the world." My father withheld child support. forcing my mother to live with her parents. my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can't afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing "We shall not be moved." My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale's speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle. kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won't read it. Television unifies conversation. Died in action. If a man is a player, he will have no job. Becoming prepared to live with less space. Live ammunition. Secondary boycott. My crime is parole violation. Now that the piecards have control. Rubin feared McClure would read Ghost Tantras at the teach-in. This form is the study group. The sparts are impeccable1 though filled with deceit. A benefit reading. He seduced me. AFT, local 1352. Enslavement is permitted as punishment for crime. Her husband broke both of her eardrums. I used my grant to fix my teeth. They speak in Farsi at the comer store. YPSL. The national question. I look forward to old age with some excitement. 42 years for Fibreboard Products. Food is a weapon. Yet the sight of people making love is deeply moving. Music is essential. The cops wear shields that serve as masks. Her lungs heavy with asbestos. Two weeks too old to collect orphan's benefits. A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph. You get read your Miranda. As if a correct line would somehow solve the future. They murdered his parents just to make the point. It's not easy if your audience doesn't identify as readers. Mastectomies are done by men. Our pets live at whim. Net income is down 13%. Those distant sirens down in the valley signal great hinges in the lives of strangers. A phone tree. The landlord's control of terror is implicit. Not just a party but a culture. Copayment. He held the Magnum with both hands and ordered me to stop. The garden is a luxury (a civilization of snail and spider). They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs. Her friendships with women are different. Talking so much is oppressive. Outplacement. A shadowy locked facility using drugs and double-ceIling (a rest home). That was the Sunday Henry's father murdered his wife on the front porch. If it demonstrates form they can't read it. If it demonstrates mercy they have something worse in mind. Twice, carelessness has led to abortion. To own a basement. Nor is the sky any less constructed. The design of a department store is intended to leave you fragmented, off-balance. A lit drop. They photograph Habermas to hide the harelip. The verb to be admits the assertion. The body is a prison. a garden. In kind. Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland in 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus. cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and "in defense" the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table.

From ABC (Tuumba Press, 1983) by Ron Silliman. Copyright © 1983 Ron Silliman. Used with permission of the author.

From ABC (Tuumba Press, 1983) by Ron Silliman. Copyright © 1983 Ron Silliman. Used with permission of the author.

Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman was born in Pasco, Washington, in 1946, and raised in Albany, California, north of Berkeley.

by this poet



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The flower sermon:
critique is like a swoon
but with a step increase,
the awkward daughter who grows
to join the NBA.  All we want
(ever wanted) was to be on that
mailing list, parties at which slim caterers
offer red, yellow, black caviar
spilling off the triangular crackers
while off on the bay


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