PFS Reading Habits

The main Philly Free School participants were all idiosyncratic. Because she was a tall, leggy blonde who liked fashion (for instance), many Philadelphians would stop at the surface and assume Mary Harju ended there. Then, they would see the paintings and make an amended judgment. Yet, the complexity and richness of Mary's character went deeper than just her paintings. Mary was an avid reader, and made a fetish of Victorian novels. Among her favorites, Wuthering Heights, which she frequently re-read, seems to have made the deepest impression on her. She approved of the Catherine Earnshaw Romantic ideal, and loved the dramatic intensity of deep-set longing and tempestuous passion. Naturally, the Bronte sisters worked for her as well, and her imaginative life was stimulated by what enchantments nineteenth century Albion had to offer, specifically for women. Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Keats we shared— down to the fact that Mary claimed not to understand free-verse. This meant, of course, that anything I wrote which was not strictly formalist tended to go over her head. Since her paintings were largely Renaissance-derived, from her habits I learned that the two periods— Regency/Victorian England and the Renaissance— constituted a cognitive bedrock foundation for her art and life, even if, where her clothes were concerned, she maintained a contemporary stance. Texts addressing depictions of Jesus in Renaissance art were of particular interest for her.   Because her imagination was fertile and she read constantly, Mary was also able to churn out first-rate academic writing when she needed to. So, the Grace Kelly veneer had much more beneath it than acquaintances (especially customers and co-workers at B & N) thought. As was disappointing for Mary and I, Abby Heller-Burnham was not a reader. She couldn't be— Abby was plagued with a kind of visual dyslexia which made it impossible for her to focus on texts. Numbers on pages and certain word sequences drove her crazy. When I bonded with Abs, it could be about music or her teaching me about visual art; she never showed any real interest in my poetry. Fortunately, we were both absorbed in the same social nexuses and activities, including PFS, so I didn't notice that much.

Matt Stevenson, being an avid reader of science fiction and comic books, also had a catholic streak about literature and could enjoy anything well-written and intelligent. Thus, when I would occasionally do a reading at Tritone or the Highwire with Matt accompanying me with his keyboards/effects pedals rig, his choices, from poem to poem, were always thoughtful and germane. Matt's intelligence had a polished quality which made an amusing contrast with his ragamuffin appearance. What was habitual about Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum on these levels was a contradiction. He had an English degree from Villanova; had already founded and edited a successful literary journal ("d") from Villanova and Manayunk; and had established himself as a publishing poet on a national level, from Philadelphia. Poetry jargonese was perpetually on his tongue— anaphora, enjambment, parallel structure, etc. He championed my poetry and his critiques were helpful. It's just that Jeremy had a books problem— he didn't like them very much. Pound he stuck to as to an obligation (the English department as Villanova being crammed with furious, inchoate Poundians). It was impossible not to notice, as the Aughts progressed, that Jeremy's affair with literature had soured. Once the split with literature, by 2004, was made concrete, Jeremy could be seen with random, obscure texts in public (usually avant-novels in the vein of Pynchon, John Barthes, for instance) and not much else. It also needs to be stated that much of the poetry Jeremy published, in the Columbia Poetry Review and elsewhere, is interesting enough to merit consideration. But when he moved to video, photography, and graphic design, the move was more or less final. He did still have a gig drafting proposals for Venturi, Scott, and Brown in Manayunk; I met Robert Venturi through him in the mid-Aughts, who even bothered to come once to a PFS Highwire show; but Jeremy needed personal space around him which literature impinged upon.

I myself picked a BA and two graduate degrees in English Literature over the course of the Aughts. This meant that I was reading constantly. I managed to assimilate the entire history of poetry in the English language, from Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder to Tom Eliot to Thom Gunn. Yet the movement wound up being a circular one, in that I finished where I had started in the early Aughts— leaning heavily on the major English Romantics (sans Blake) and Milton, and not much else. Philosophy I had done a mountain of at PSU, with literary theory under its aegis, and a mid-Aughts foray into Deconstructionism proved fruitful, as did a poetic nod to Logical Positivism. Conversely, thousands of pages of novelistic prose and academic criticism did not leave any lasting impression, and academic scholarship ("scholarly rigor") left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, of an enterprise more racket than not. I was also, of necessity, steeped in the work of my precise contemporaries, poets born in the 60s, 70s, and 80s; out of this arose P.F.S. Post (Philly Free School Post), and avid readers can decide for themselves how relevant this is, with a smattering of occult texts thrown in as well.