Sunday, August 24, 2003

This completes my selection of “essential works” for Peter Davis’ anthology.


Kathy Acker, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula

In 1973, Kathy Acker was writing and self-publishing this novel one chapter per month, handing out individually bound chapters each month at readings around San Francisco. Indeed, these short pamphlets listed their author only as The Black Tarantula, a persona Acker used during much of that period. The only woman in San Francisco that year to have a crewcut, Acker came across as the essence of punk generation extremism, although once you got to know her – a woman whose book crowded apartment included parrots named Art & Revolution & hamsters or guinea pigs named Cage & Mac Low, you realized that the persona was exactly that – a protective shell than enabled Acker extraordinary freedom as both individual & artist. When you read the chapters, already stamped with their distinctive genre formula of plagiarism + pornography = autobiography & realized that this was not a con but an attempt to re-invent fiction from the ground up, the bravery of it as a writing project just made your jaw drop.


I use the word plagiarism, which Acker did as well, especially after she was sued by a hack novelist, but in reality what Acker did was to appropriate texts in ways that foregrounded their social presumptions. In this sense, she carried the use of found materials beyond the primarily combinatory functions found, say, in early works by Jackson Mac Low to a mode that has more in common, say, with the films of Godard or the murals of Diego Rivera. To this material, a second layer of discourse derived from the most exploitive modes of porn was superimposed, a method that allowed Acker to approach & address the abusive conditions of her own childhood. Thus, in fact, she could write a work that was, at one level, precisely about the construction of the master tropes of fiction, such as character, while in the same moment presenting autobiography almost in its purest form.


While Acker’s genre was always fiction, her use of the devices of writing as a primary mode of intellectual investigation made her an integral part of the poetry community, especially in San Francisco. From her and Grenier, in particular, I learned that one must be willing to go exactly where your vision leads you, even if that place seems not to exist or otherwise be impossible.



Barrett Watten, Plasma / Paralleles / “X”

I’ve been influenced by every book Barrett Watten ever wrote, including Radio Day in Soma City, but the one that has had the greatest impact on my own writing, the one I’m still apt to find myself reading in a dream, is this Tuumba Press chapbook from 1979. In it, Watten uses a combination of syntax, surrealism & philosophical investigation (both with & without the caps) to arrive at a New Sentence entirely different from anything any other of my peers had ever written. The opening passage of “Plasma” is as powerful anything I have ever read:


A paradox is eaten by the space around it.


I’ll repeat what I said.


To make a city into a season is to wear sunglasses inside a volcano.


He never forgets his dreams.


The effect of the lack of effect.


The hand tells the eye what to see.


I repress other useless attachments.   Chances of survival are one out of ten.


I see a tortoise drag a severed head to the radiator.


They lost their sense of proportion.   Nothing is the right size.


He walks in the door and sits down.


It gives me shivers just to type that up. Watten here has arrived at a space in which the referential content of the language can be seen clearly for the machinery that it is. Rather than draining syntax of its power the way, say, Clark Coolidge’s long poems from this same period do, Watten underscores the grammatical imposition of drama. All three of the pieces in this collection work, to one degree or another, from the same principles, demonstrating that the most investigative & intellectually demanding writing can employ all the devices of fiction without ever surrendering to them. If for me the lesson of Grenier’s Sentences was how to hear the phrase & how to recognize the beginning, middle & end of even a single vowel as separate moments in the poem, Plasma / Paralleles / “X” taught me how to read within the sentence as a dynamic architecture. That’s a lesson I use every day of my life.