Friday, December 24, 2004
This is as close to the North Pole as this blog is going to get. Karri Kokko in Helsinki, Finland, ran a nice fat quotation from my blog last Monday in his weblog, commenting “Miten lie muilla, seuraavassa kuvaus siitä kuinka Ron Silliman kirjoittaa runoa. Muunneltavat muuntaen, siinä voisi olla puhe Poem in Reversestä.” To suggest that my Finnish is nowhere nearly as good as his English would be to pretend that I understood Finnish at all. The one time I found myself in Helsinki, in 1989, I negotiated entirely in English. Nor am I aware of any good Finnish-English translation program on the web. I am, however, bright enough to ask. So I did. He sent this reply which raises a further question worth asking.
Nice of you to ask. It could translate into “I don’t know how other poets do it, but this is how Ron Silliman describes his method of writing poetry. Mutatis mutandis, he could be talking about Poem in Reverse.”
A few words, if I may, about Poem in Reverse. It’s a poem I started in September. I had a few premises. It’s going to be a long poem. I’m going to write it daily and I’m going write it in public view. There will be no preparation; I’ll just start to write and let’s see where it will take me. And finally, I will do it from the bottom up. The last point came up naturally; the medium set the form, so to speak. I thought, how I’m going to solve the blog problem – that every new entry comes on top and not the bottom as it normally is the case when writing? I thought, I’m not going to make it a problem; I’ll put all new material up front and not at the tail end of the poem.
I started out with one line. The next day I had three lines altogether. Soon the lines started to pile up. Themes occurred. Light, Paris, what a painting is: an oily mess / takes your breath away / represents fabric. Questions: What does it mean that the readers (who read the text starting from the top, of course) know something that I, the writer, doesn’t know yet (and vice versa). It soon became apparent that it doesn’t really matter which way you write, or read, a poem. It’s arbitrary and it’s a convention. It makes as much / as little sense as doing it the standard way. Most days I made it easy for myself – I left the text starting with a capital letter, so that I could start fresh and not be dependant of what was said the day before. But sometimes, just for the hell of it, I left the top line in mid-sentence. No problem. Nothing to it. Smooth riding all along. (We with the batch of 100-plus sentences always at the ready, never have trouble going on.)
It’s been easy because I gave myself the permission to do some light editing at the daily seams. Most days I’ll read (aloud) what I’ve written the past few days and I’ll make some slight revisions – I might cut a word or alter it, but there will be no cutting and pasting, or moving stuff around. That’s the one thing I’m committed to, and this will be the rule of edit when the writing is over. My original plan was to go on “for months”, well into next year, but I didn’t set a definite date. I thought, the poem will know when it’s done and ready. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed Febuary 3 is name day for Valo, which means “light” in Finnish, the one constant that’s been with us since day one. That could be the day. We’ll see.
And finally, Ron, do you know if this has been done before?
Kokko’s poem looks fascinating – but again, I have no way of actually reading it, so all I can get are a crude rendition of the sounds & a vision of stanzaic & line values.
My answer to Karri was/is that I’m not aware of such a poem, although David Antin once suggested to me that he thought Tjanting and Ketjak might have been written that way. It’s an interesting prospect since “violating” time’s unidirectionality would seem to go right to the heart of poetry as a temporal medium. And while I’ve seen other poets use time as a conscious element of composition – Steve Benson has a series of pieces somewhere that each were written in the length of time it took for his computer to boot up – I’ve never seen anyone before Karri Kokko turn time on its head. Does anyone know if other such example exist?
Thursday, December 23, 2004
All these years I’ve associated Red Grooms – his given name is “Charles Rogers Grooms” but I’ve never heard him referred to as anything other than Red – with a particular era of art in his adopted city of New York, a moment late enough in the history of Pop Art that a concern for the materiality of practice, so Abstract Expressionist a value, could re-emerged without any sense of the artist having gone retro. That’s true enough & it’s something that one could use to link Grooms up with some other fairly dissimilar artists, such as Jim Dine or Philip Guston.
But what I hadn’t realized is that Nashville-born Grooms is also sufficiently late in the history of Pop that his sense of mass culture really is a generation or so apart from Pop Art’s standard palette of icons. His reference for cartoons, as such, isn’t Nancy & Sluggo, but R. Crumb & the underground comix of the 1960s. The concepts too loud or too busy really don’t apply. So that when you see a set of portraits of other artists or prints executed in a “Japanese” style, it makes you suddenly aware that all this ruckus – a favorite Grooms’ word – in his more congested works is a choice. And when you look at the 3D pieces close up, such as the wonderful portrait of Picasso above, literally constructed out of paper, prints that can entail 20 or more applications of color, you get a sense of extraordinary care confronted with an almost wild wit (check out the little blue bird next to Picasso), an imagination as busy as Times Square with the patience of a traditional Renaissance master in visualizing & executing all this detail.
Grooms has a show right now at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA, not really where you might expect to find such an event. It’s only there until January 2, but if you can, you should make the trip to check out the master of 3D paper construction.
The conflict between these impulses is fascinating to contemplate. In order to achieve these crowded, detailed scenes – Grooms’ scenes & cityscapes are my favorites just because they accentuate this – which graphically look rushed & hurried, sketched rather than drawn, Grooms has had to become the most meticulous of craftsman. The feel & surface of his art is exactly the opposite of its process.
What, I wonder, would be a literary parallel to this disjunctive process? Certainly, from Henry Miller to Kathy Acker to Judy Grahn, there have always been writers who self-presented as members of the masses while in practice functioning as the most careful practitioners of craft. But there is a difference between the studied artlessness of a work like “A Woman is Talking to Death” & something has consciously high-styled as Grooms. The almost Swiss-watch precision of his print making feels radically different from, say, the far broader aesthetic decisions an Acker must make to write Pussy, King of the Pirates.
The tension between these two layers of Grooms’ work is, I suspect, a big part of what keeps it so fresh after nearly 30 years in the public eye. Neither the Olde Watchmaker nor Mr. Natural is ever going to win this debate. So a third element that often enters in & ends up displacing the standoff between craft & spontaneity is Grooms’ portraits of other artists. Picasso, Lorca & Hemingway are among the patrons of a bullfight. A 3D Gertrude Stein portrait is hung alongside a print of its individual pieces, flat “cut outs” on a two dimensional surface looking exactly like what they are: the parts to a paper doll. Artists – painters, writers, musicians – represent a separate vocabulary for Grooms – there is a wonderful painting of artists in the Cedar Tavern, with the figures in front flat & sketchy, those in back full of depth & action (Grooms puts himself in this picture, at the edge in the middle distance, looking “off canvas,” away from the scene). There is an affection in these portraits, even when there’s more than a little satire – Dali presented as a “pre-packaged salad” – it’s not that there’s no affection in his other work – it is, if anything, the dominant emotion in Grooms’ art – but that he’s freer in these portraits expressing such feelings. As with the formal standoff, the issue here is choice. Grooms is somebody who has made a conscious effort to not only enjoy his work, but to allow us in on the big secret – this is great fun! By the time you leave the retrospective, you’ll find it impossible to argue with this optimistic art.
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
The Blake Test
When I compared Brian Kim Stefans’ Please Think Again (Poem for Airports) with Carla Harryman’s Open Box on 13 December, I set off a flurry of responses on the ubuweb listserv, some of them defensive, one or two of them uncharitable, and at least one openly ageist:
It strikes me that Ron is admittedly very old fashioned, rather conservative, and stuck in his ways (perhaps as an artist of his age should be).
I got what I deserved, I suspect. I was trying to do one thing (explain why I liked Carla Harryman’s work so much) & veered off into another realm altogether (setting up a quick comparative chain between her piece, Stefans’ and the deliberately “uncreative” writing of Kenny Goldsmith). I might have been able to articulate that connection more effectively had I taken the time & space to spell out each of my ideas along the way, but instead I compacted it into a couple of paragraphs. Everyone – even Carla Harryman – pointed out that I was failing to note all that is excellent in Brian Kim Stefans’ work. It was, Harryman wrote in a Squawkbox comment, “an apples and oranges comparison.”
As Harryman, Stefans & Goldsmith all noted, conflating Brian & Kenny together, especially in Please Think Again, was a misdescription. It fails to capture what either is doing. Trying then to link this imaginary union back to Carla’s work just sort of turns into so much mumbling. The logical structure was A = -A, therefore B. Not my finest moment.
So what was I getting at? What precisely do I mean about the Blake Test & what is it about that apples & oranges comparison causes me to prefer apples to oranges, so to speak? Vispo Geof Huth took up the challenge of making sense where I had not, especially since he came to conclusions that, in his own words, “differ remarkably” from my own. In his first post, he examines the Blake Test itself. In his second post, he contrasts Harryman’s text with Stefans’, finding that Brian’s text integrates the verbal & the visual while Harryman’s is, in Huth’s words, “essentially a text trapped within a meaningless carapace.”
I don’t agree with either of Huth’s conclusions – no surprise there – but I appreciate his ability & willingness to take on the question in pretty much the same terms as I posed them. You can’t ask much more of a reader than that.
At the core of where I disagree with Huth is, I suspect, the stance he takes vis-à-vis the Blake Test, that the poem, if it be a good one, prove to be “platform independent.” There are, according to the Amazon database, over 1,200 books currently in print by, about or significantly including William Blake. These range from some really magnificant facsimile editions of Blake’s own illuminated manuscripts to pocket-sized gift books that turn him into so much neat rime & good feeling, perfect for that nephew whom you have heard is “vaguely literary.” The remarkable thing is that while it is manifestly clear that Blake understood his poems as fitting into the richly textured graphic presentations he gave them, they manage to survive the awful redaction into cold Bembo type in a mass market pocketbook.
Huth does something interesting in his reaction to this phenomenon, something actually not so unlike my conflating Stefans & Goldsmith in my original muddle of an argument. Using “The Chimney Sweep” as his test case, he concludes that Blake does indeed pass the Blake Test. “Certainly, the words . . . can stand on their own.” So far so good. But Huth continues: “but that only proves that Blake has written two different poems,” one visual, one verbal. One oranges, one apples, we might as well say.
Huth doesn’t quite get my position right when he argues that “I find it easy to understand why a poet would believe that the language of a poem must stand on its own: Words have primacy to the poet.” That’s not actually what I said, or at least not exactly what I meant. I’ll come back to that in a bit.
It’s Huth’s other definition that interests me most:
The visual poem is not platform-independent. It depends on a certain operating system, a particular software, and sometimes even a certain piece of hardware to be its intended visual self.
This I think is more problematic, although I would agree with Huth that this does seem to be the current state of practice for most visual poetry. Huth’s description of Blake’s “two poems” draws this problematic out:
One of these poems is the bare text itself, haunting and woeful. The other poem is that Blake created by combining his poet’s pen with his painter’s palette—by devising a hybrid presentation that is both exceptionally visual and definitely verbal.
This “hybrid presentation,” any upstanding Junior Woodchuck who has earned his Deconstruction Badge could tell you, is an oxymoron. One does a “presentation” precisely because that which ought to have been immanent turns out not to be, in actuality, present. Insert all the discourse on supplements & absence here.
So what’s missing? Not the words – they’re still here. Rather, a connection between the language of the poem – the same language in either case – and its connectedness to the system of writing & its social instituions, ranging from doodling & drawing all the way to fine press printing. It’s exactly the failure of the “bare text itself” to call forth that dimension that forces Blake – indeed, any visual poet – to create a “hybrid,” to augment textuality.
Now this is not necessarily an argument that the bare text approach is any better than a hybrid one. It really depends on what one is after. But what is especially important, from my vantage point, “old fashioned, rather conservative” as it may very well be, is that these two kinds of textuality differ decisively in the state of being they seek to attain. The integration of the visual & verbal that is the goal of vispo is pretty much beside the point from a “bare text” perspective. But what exactly do we mean by “bare text”?
It’s not, in fact, the words. Or not only & possibly not even most importantly. Rather, it is what comes through them, is embodied by them, comes into being through no other means. Syntax for one – a dimension that Robert Duncan equated with God on occasion. The self-presence of consciousness itself. The cornocopia of the vertical – each word a selection out of so many possible alternatives. As I put it, writing of Harryman’s Open Box,
There is that instant of cognitive depth – no one has ever defined more acutely than Bob Grenier in “On Speech,” “the word way back in the head that is the thought or feeling forming out of the ‘vast’ silence/noise of consciousness experience world all the time, as waking/dreaming, words occurring and these are the words of the poems . . . .”
Grenier is an interesting case in point. He is, after all, some kind of visual poet, making his living by selling his poems in limited fine press prints through art galleries. Consider, for example:
This poem reads
and is rather characteristic of recent texts of Grenier’s. Here, reduced to “bare text”, are some other poems of Grenier’s from 2004:
These are not necessarily the poems as they appear on Grenier’s page, but rather the language involved: words, sounds, syntax. Anyone who has read Grenier’s work going back the last 30 years or thereabouts will recognize concerns & strategies in these poems that are absolutely consistent with his writing in the now-classic “Chinese box” edition of Sentences. That work, which began as a deck of cards – no two boxes were in the same sequence – now lives on the web, it is worth noting, in a flash version thanks to Whale Cloth publisher Michael Waltuch. These poems pass the Blake Test in flying colors.
Huth uses a poem of his own for a sample of his test:
Much harsher on his own poem that I would be inclined to be, Huth writes that it
seems to me to be not very much at all when reduced to
In fact, the poem’s elaboration of possible displacements that might extend out of one of the English language’s rare instances of a muted or hidden consonant (o’er for over), that old Shakespearean rag, strikes my ear as playful & incisive. It is not at all self-evident to me that the poem is “reduced” when extracted from its graphic format. Ditto, I must say, for the Grenier above.
Huth’s poem “ope(“ has a clearly defined sound element that enables it to move across formats effectively, as do all of Grenier’s. Some visual poems, however, eschew that realm:
Hmmm. This piece, Huth’s own “The Letter Three Hairpin Turns,” involves sound only incidentally, or at least this is how I hear it. That Huth would think to design this poem & say of his own “ope(“ that it “seems . . . to be not very much at all” suggests that Huth’s interested in language as sound is only incidental – nice to have when it pops up, but not necessarily vital. Certainly not central or decisive.
This seems to me a vital & useful distinction between poetry & vizpo: the former “refers” or “extends” back to the domain of language in the classic ways that linguists have referred to language for the past hundred or so years. Vispo, on the other hand, refers to the system of writing, graphical & silent, a system that is not necessarily “secondary” (again, the old Derridean commentaries are calling), but which is certainly less well understood as a system. Huth is absolutely correct when he asserts that the “visual poem is not platform-independent.” All writing systems, from brush & papyrus to Macromedia software, are in some sense historical. If we’re conscious of this in our generation, it’s because we live in a time when these tools are coming into existence at a dizzying pace. A poem such as Please Think Again (A Poem for Airports) wasn’t even physically possible when I began writing in the 1960s, save in film (and there only using animation techniques that seem crude by today’s CGI standards).
If we have entered an age in which vispo is flowering – and I would think that this is pretty safe argument to put forward, frankly – it may be (in the larger sociohistorical frame) precisely because we as readers & writers have become hyperaware of these new methods of writing / printing / publication. Huth, who may be the first serious theoretician of visual poetries, has been trying out a lengthy series of propositions in his blog. Among these – further evidence for the flowering thesis – is an attempt at a thesaurus entry for visual poetry. But the one that comes closest to my Harryman / Stefans argument is Huth’s application of trobar clus:
Visual poets create visual poetry for visual poets, just as poets create poetry for poets.
This acknowledges – as the “Ron is old-fashioned, very conservative,” etc. argument does not – that the relationship between poetry & vispo is not temporal, the latter succeeding the former, but rather that they’re different genres altogether, at least as different as poetry vs. fiction. Or, say, the way different modes of music co-exist, even as we can trace their “origins” to different points in history. Otherwise, John Zorn & Fred Frith would be “old-fashioned” compared to Will Smith simply because the former “come out of” jazz tradition whereas Smith derives from rap.
Like Grenier, Stefans produces work that often has some relationship to both traditions, both genres. One glance at Please Think Again –
– and it’s self-evident that the work has a relationship to vispo. Less evident – to my eyes – is the relationship to poetry that Stefans & others insist that this piece has. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have one. It does mean, however, that it’s less successful because at least this reader can’t see it. In that sense, this poem is more like showing up for the Blake Test without a sharpened number two pencil. You might get 800s on both verbal & visual, but we may never know. At least not without a “translation,” not unlike the one above for the Grenier scrawl pieces.
What’s the bottom line here? For me at least, it’s a need to acknowledge the separateness of the two genres, poetry & vispo. I have an interest in visual poetry not unlike my interest in film: it informs what I know about the world and my times therein, but neither is a genre I’m ever apt to practice personally, and largely for the same reasons. Contrasting Harryman & Stefans, then, makes as much sense as contrasting Harryman with Douglas Sirk or Ousmane Sembene. Or Stefans with Ed Ruscha or Jenny Holzer. Goldsmith, whose work is conceptual & process oriented, and whose books are documents rather than texts, as such, is a different kettle of fish altogether.
There is, after all, a true tradition of poetic intermedia – not just works that operate within both poetry & vispo realms, but between, say, poetry & fiction, such as Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate or Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. My sense is – maybe this is my primary thesis after all – that any of these art forms is best served not by attempting to achieve perfect balance between genres – I actually suspect that this is impossible – but rather by artists who are thoroughly (thoughtfully) committed. Grenier, for example, is a poet who uses some of the tools of vispo. His work may be distributed, at least in part, in the same way as a Ruscha or Holzer, but it’s as a poet that his greatest & most long lasting value is to be had. It’s much harder to imagine Grenier the computer-phobe a century from now as being a key figure in the evolution of vispo; he could very easily play that role for poetry. A work like Huth’s “ope(“ is a visual poem that uses some of the tools of poetry. Harryman is a poet who allowed her work to be represented in a mode referencing vispo. But when Harryman wrote to me, she compared her process with web designer Deb King to her work elsewhere with directors & actors in theater. One might hear, thus, an echo in the title “Open Box” not only of stanza & other famous art boxes, but the open-walled box that is the stage.
Ж Ж Ж
NB: Special thanks to Geof Huth, from whom I appropriated all but one of the graphics above. Anyone interested in these topics should spend a fair amount of time at his weblog, dbqp.
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
David Milofsky, who has a column in the Denver Post, asks the following:
(W)hat I'd like to know is what function you see the blogs providing in the literary world, who you imagine your audience is and whether or not, in time, you think blogs and bloggers will build a sufficient audience to provide a real alternative to the straight book press. I edited literary magazines for fifteen years and came away feeling rather disillusioned by the experience. I had imagined that there was a large literary audience out there ready for the kind of challenging fiction and poetry we were offering but if there was, they weren't buying our magazines and books. Do you imagine this kind of impassioned discussion of writers and book will work on the web but not in the bookstores?
I guess I should start this at the end of that first burst of questions: I never imagined that “blogs and bloggers will build a sufficient audience to provide a real alternative to the straight book press,” mostly because that alternative already exists in the extraordinarily rich world of small press publishers. At most, two or three percent of contemporary poetry ends up in books brought out by the trade presses – see that list of eight presses that have popped up, year after year, in the New York Times Book Review’s annual list of “notable” books. Because trade press volumes do get broad general distribution, it’s a shame that, as poetry publishers, they aren’t any better in their selections than most small presses. But they’re not – most are really their own little scenes, friends of the publisher & the friends of friends.
This insularity prevents trade presses from really functioning as a meta-level of publishing, weeding out the chaff, etc. and giving the greats access to large audiences. The trade presses are much more filled with chaff than such good small presses as Flood Editions out of Chicago, Minneapolis’ Coffee House Press, Chax Press from Tucson, or Oakland’s O Books. And those are really just the top tier of small press publishers, relatively large operations with serious lists. The reality is that the basic unit in American poetry isn’t the book at all, but the chapbook, saddle-stitched or even stapled, more apt to be 12 pages or 20, rather than the 100-page volume. For every book of poetry with perfect binding today, there must be twenty chapbooks published in America. But if you’re at all interested in poetry, it doesn’t take that much effort in the age of the internet to connect up with a lot of these publishers.
So the answer is that I don’t see blogs as a replacement for what doesn’t need replacing. What I do see them doing is taking up slack that exists in the discussion of poetry. There is a huge gap between academic conferences, to which I’m personally allergic, and the sort of chatter that goes on at the bar after a good reading. Poets who write & talk about their work push themselves in different ways, I think they’re far less apt to simply accept the easiest possible route to a new line, a new stanza. They can turn each other onto new things, new writers or books, or just cluck their tongues at some shabby business. The ideal circumstance, I’ve always thought, was the writer’s talk, less formal than a paper given at a conference, aimed not at the tenure process but to inform & persuade friends who might also be poets. For awhile in the 1970s & ‘80s, there were some talk series going on in San Francisco, New York & elsewhere that really pushed poetry forward & made everybody work harder & smarter. That face-to-face thing has died back somewhat, but the advent of the net gives everyone a chance to have this conversation on pretty much a daily basis. In less than two and one-half years, my weblog has had just under a quarter million visits, an amazing number for something that discusses poetry & poetics, especially with a post-avant slant.
I always think of my audience as other poets – poetry in that sense is a very democratic medium. Poets function much more socially than do novelists, which is why groups form from time to time, and the social relationships between poets – even middle-aged white guys like me – tend much more to the camaraderie one might associate in music, say, with the early days of the rap scene, people hanging out, showing each other their moves, their latest samples. I am often reminded of the troubadour poets of Provencal, writers who had two separate oeuvres, one for the masses and another – they called it trobar clus – for their friends & colleagues. The evolution of literary genres – the book itself as a social institution, the rise (and later demise) of the novel, the role of cinema in becoming the “mass” form for narrativity in society – these have pretty much eliminated the need for poetry’s work as a medium for the masses, and poetry has responded by having its trobar clus expand into a rich, multi-faceted literature.
Think about it: as Naropa poet Anselm Hollo has noted, in the 1950s a young writer – as he was then – could buy every book of poetry published in America by large press or small in a good London bookstore. That’s literally because there were so few books, so few publishers, so few poets. Today, my weblog alone lists the blogs of some 400 other poets and the vast majority of poets have yet to begin blogging. I’m not suggesting that everybody on that list is Shakespeare, or Anselm Hollo for that matter. But that is a huge transformation that hardly anybody has begun to account for as yet. What poetry means socially in America is becoming something very different from what the trade presses could ever hope to represent. Or bookstores. With less than a dozen exceptions nationally (Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, City Lights in San Francisco, Open Books in Seattle, etc.), bookstores have become almost completely irrelevant to poetry. Why? Because they don’t stock chapbooks, which means that the vast majority of volumes of poetry are just never going to be found there, good, bad, or indifferent.
Yet poetry is thriving in America, moreso now than ever before. Not only is more poetry being written, but more good poetry is being written than at any time in the nation’s history. What is also happening tho is that the economic equation is shifting. The poet with an audience of thousands is being replaced by many poets with audiences of hundreds. The web is a perfect way for those writers & readers to connect up if – and this is the big if – they can hear about one another. So blogs are a perfect means of connecting all these poets & readers together, seeing to it that this new condition of poetry in America doesn’t devolve into a hundred little local scenes, each isolated from the other. In this sense, the weblog doesn’t replace anything. What it does is give the world of poetry a commons, which is what connects all these other elements together.
Monday, December 20, 2004
Stan Brakhage – Still from The Text of Light, 1974 (Collection MoMA)
Another question from Mark Tursi:
I agree that the word “stream,” even if disjointed and 'restless'hasn’t ever been adequate enough to characterize consciousness. This is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of so-called Postmodernism; i.e. a celebration, or, at least, a manifestation, of this instability. Your characterization of Ketjak (finding a form to break from the habits of continuity) seems a great example of this. But, my question is itself a bit discontinuous. And, that is, your mention of Brakhage, albeit brief, piqued my interest, especially in relation to your own work and these notions of consciousness. As you note about your memory of Morris, my memory of many Brakhage films (and I’ve seen a lot!) is often not an image – especially in terms of the hand painted films. In a sense, it is almost impossible to recall one of these Brakhage panels, because they seem hell-bent on resisting just that. So, what we’re left with is a feeling or a disquiet or an unease or even elation at times. I find this similar to reading Ketjak (or Tjanting and much – but not all – of your other work for that matter). That is, I find it hard to remember specific images, passages, or even ‘chunks of language.’ This could be my own memory lapse, but really (and I find this true of Stein’s Tender Buttons and Stanzas in Meditation too), it seems the altercation in consciousness and perception is what sticks most. That is, it’s not the language or the ‘signs’ as it were – it’s the feeling I’ve had after reading the complete text and then days later (sometimes weeks). So the question here is, would you agree with this comparison to Brakhage? That is, is there a similar intention towards a kind of reconfiguration or altercation of consciousness in some of your work that resists, as Derrida might say, leaving ‘traces’? And, question two: Brakhage characterizes his own practice in this way: “I want to leave something like a snail’s trail in the moonlight.”¹ How would you characterize yours?
I’m duly impressed when a poet – whether it’s Jane Miller or Ivan Zhdanov – can just shut their eyes and recite great quantities of their poetry. I’m lucky to be able to recall a few lines here, a few lines there, mostly the passages at the very beginning of a work or something that foregrounds a sound element, rather than an image or expository track. Still, there are people who come up to me to ask about the “exploding honey” passage of What or the “septic shock” passage of Xing, and I realize that they’ve held onto those moments as if they had been short stories plunked mysteriously into an otherwise poetic text.
That’s a hard comparison for me to make. For one thing, I tend to read my own poems only when I’m writing them, when I’m preparing for a reading, or when I’m in the midst of the painful process of proofing a book. There are readers out there who appear to have spent considerably more time reading my poetry than I have. When I’m in the midst of writing the poem, it proceeds in my head in a process that I can only characterize as extremely sensuous – in a work such as Zyxt, I tend to have at any given moment somewhere between 100 to 150 sentences that I’ve “collected,” whether through crafting them on my own, overhearing (including mishearing) others talking, appropriated language from all sorts of sources. I can, in my own head, hear where the poem is going, it’s almost as though I were listening to music. Not in any traditional instrumentation but through the language itself, as sound & as signification. When I come to the point where I’ve last stopped writing I literally look through my current collection of gathered materials to see if something there is what I hear as next. If it is, I insert it. If not, I’m apt to craft a new sentence that fulfills whatever demand I’m hearing. If I have something that is maybe half-right, I’m apt to rewrite it to “fit.” But I don’t think I could ever tell anyone – even myself – what that intuited, ongoing score might be. It’s clearly there in advance of the words, but not necessarily in a fixed form. Rather, I’m very aware that, of my usual batch of 100-plus sentences to chose from, there might be as many as four or five that might somehow fit, represent a possible next moment, although each would instantly transform into a new stroke or beat that would then set up whatever would then come after that. The experience I expect might not be so very different from what some non-writers get out of surfing or snow-boarding, that constant sense of having to shape motion while in motion.
I always try to practice my readings out before I give them, maybe once to go over whatever selection I’m making, then a second time to get the timing & phrasings down. I almost always have to have the house to myself to do this, far more so than in the writing process itself. I sequester myself in my study, which is an L-shaped finished basement lined with bookcase, my two computer desks (one for the job computer, the second my own system), a large table that is covered with various stacks of paper (as is a couch I have down there). I can be very loud & overly flamboyant when practicing my readings because I’m trying to overstress the phrasing elements I feel I have to get right, so that I’ll remember them later in front of an audience. If I’m making good choices & the practice is going well, it can come very close to my original experience of the music of the poem. And if it’s not, it’s really profoundly horribly not – and then I have to stop and rethink what I’m doing & start again almost from scratch.
I don’t have this experience proofing a book – that process is so full of stops & starts that it’s impossible – and I’ve only occasionally it experienced when actually reading to an audience. The closest I get to it in front of a crowd is in the sense of hyperventilated exhaustion I have at the end of a reading – that’s a familiar, very comfortable feeling. Whenever I’m involved in any of these activities, there must be a lot of endorphins flying, more or less literally.
Is this an “reconfiguration or altercation of consciousness”? I think that it must really depend on the meaning you give to those words. Certainly it’s all about the shape of consciousness at some level, but the level of ongoing motion within the poem, literally its inertia, can be so very powerful that I often feel rather as if I’m holding on for dear life.
Where Brakhage, say, or any of the two or three generations of film-makers who learned from him, from Warren Sonbert to Abigail Child and Henry Hills, comes into this is that Brakhage understood the narrative organization of film better than anyone, as the unfolding of meaning in time. If I make a musical analogy above, it’s because this is how I can best understand the process, but it is every bit the same narrative rush that one gets in film that is constantly reorganizing itself, reinventing itself literally frame by frame. Time is very much at the heart of all these processes. That may be why so many poets responded, say, to the work of Jackson Pollock when it first became widely known in the 1950s – his drip & splash method is so close to that very act of riding time in the painting that you can see it & feel it even in the static residue of a canvas a half century later. There’s that “snail’s trace in the moonlight,” it’s in every stroke.
¹ Brakhage, Stan. Chicago Review. September 2001.