Monday, February 24, 2003


Rob Stanton in the U.K. asks an interesting question:


Reading back through your blog's archive I notice that you've referred to Rae Armantrout a couple of times as a poet you feel has a very different writing process to your own (involving meticulous revisions, etc.). You actually give an example of this in your intro to Veil, comparing "Manufacturing" with an earlier version, "Veer." At the Factory School site I came across the recording of you and Armantrout reading Engines, your collaboration. . . . I am intrigued that the two of you should have worked together in this way, given the differences you pinpoint between your respective writing 'styles' (producing a poem Rae obviously likes enough/thinks is an important enough example of her work to include it in her Selected). I had not actually realised either, until hearing the recording, that Engines represents part of The Alphabet . . . . I was wondering if you'd mind telling me something about the thinking behind Engines, how it came to be written, and what the writing process involved. You seem happy enough discussing your work habits in your blog, so I hope you don't find this question too cheeky.


I'm writing this initially from a hotel room at a business conference without access to any of my books or manuscripts, so am forced to wing it, although I'm listening to the recording as I work. Armantrout might remember every single detail here differently.


Engines was written in the very early 1980s, at a time when the poets I knew didn't have access to computers & had never heard of email. The poem was published in Conjunctions 4 in 1983. Armantrout was living in San Diego & I in San Francisco. We had known one another already for over a decade &, although I would agree that our actual writing processes are radically different, I already knew that I felt closer to her poetry than to that of any other writer I had known. Nearly twenty years later, I still feel the same way. Possibly, it's because she's able to concentrate so many different kinds of intelligence into the smallest literary spaces, far more than I've ever been able to, but does so in ways that I find completely accessible & available to me. I always learn from reading her work.


I have never felt that there was one right way to compose a poem, and certainly never felt that if such a thing might exist that my own quirky ways came anywhere close to them. I already knew – I remember telling this to the graduate writing seminar I led at SF State in 1981 – that there were some things about poetry that could not be taught & that the metabolism of one's own process was one of these. I do, however, think that one can learn about one's own processes by exploring differences & variations. One part of the process of The Alphabet has been just such an exploration. Every section of the project is an attempt to push my work in a different direction. Even at the outset, I knew that one section of The Alphabet would have to be a collaboration. I don’t know that ever I thought for a second about anyone other than Rae with this in mind.


So we knew at the outset, particularly once we'd settled on the title, that this piece would be that, that it would become a part of my project, and that it would also have a completely separate & different existence within the framework of Rae's own writing. I actually think that this double life was one of the things that excited us – or at least me – during the process of composition itself. Another distinction within the framework of my own project was that this was my portion of the piece was written directly on the typewriter – the only other section of The Alphabet so composed are the prose paragraphs in "Force." I would type a paragraph and send it to Rae in the mail. She would add one and send it back. We suggested revisions to one another's paragraphs & played off of the themes as they arose – my helicopters were a direct translation of her angels, for example.


We also discussed paragraphs over the phone and, at one point, Rae simply rejected one of my paragraphs as too something, too tacky perhaps. I sulked for a few days, then wrote another paragraph (no, I can't tell which one it is today). Materials entered into the process at odd angles. For instance, the sentence that reads "How will I know when I make a mistake" was a comment that Bob Perelman originally made to me about my own writing processes – I was always bemused at Bob’s stance on this, as I’ve always wanted a poetry in which “mistakes” were includable – but I believe that it was Rae who inserted the sentence into the final text.


There is at least one noteworthy antecedent for a poet bringing collaboration into a longpoem, Celia Zukfosky's composition of "A"-24, using her husband's texts but without any other visible input from him into her process. In some sense, I always felt that she solved a problem that had stymied Louis. For me, that text has always raised a lot of issues, both for what it says about LZ’s incapacity when confronted with the end of a lifework and for the too-pat conclusion it gives to a work that really reaches its apotheosis in the great pair of pieces that are "A"-22 and -23. Maybe I don't know when I make a mistake, but I have some sense about Zukofsky in this regard.


Whenever I've worked on collaborations, dating back to the literary card games I played with David Melnick & Rochelle Nameroff back at UC Berkeley – one of which made it into my first book Crow – or later with Darrell Gray or later still in the composition of Legend with Ray Di Palma, Bruce Andrews, Steve McCaffery & Charles Bernstein – talk about writers with difference processes! – or with Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten & Michael Davidson in Leningrad or the larger collective process that has lurked behind The Grand Piano, I've been struck not only with a sense that a collaboration is always about what happens in a poem when the individual consciousness of a poet surrenders control, but also by the observation that almost all good writers are what we used to refer to back in the 1960s as raging control freaks, me most of all. This of course creates a certain shall we say tension in the age of reader participation in the construction of any text's meaning. What happens when this participation isn't simply only something that the poet "factors in" to the composition of a text, but actually shows up & plans to write the next line? The breezy collabs of the New York School always struck me as never confronting that particular issue – I'm sure they might say that this is because they were never half so uptight as I was – but for myself, these pieces have always been opportunities to explore the boundaries of self & other within the immanence of a textual "voice." Engines presented me with an opportunity to test this thinking with the strongest poet I know.

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