Lisa Robertson on poetry as citizenship
What constitutes poetry, and how might it serve as a vital, even undeniably necessary act of citizenship? In her address to the North of Invention audience, Lisa Robertson eloquently addresses these questions while discussing the inextricability of subjectivity, social relations, and language. Her talk, one incarnation of a still-evolving paper initially presented at a conference on citizenship, invokes the ideas of French linguist Emile Benveniste. Benveniste tracks institutional change — in its broadest sense, encompassing speech and other socio-cultural institutions as well as the actions integral to them such as buying, siring, and hosting — through the permutations of language, thus rendering such changes transparent. For Benveniste, language, as medium in which change is recorded, stands as an argument against institutions’ tendency towards fixity.
One revelation here is the evolution of Roman terms civis and domus to refer to institutional and material ideas, when their original meanings instead refer to collective and reciprocal concepts of citizenship. Robertson, following Benveniste and his linguist-poet disciple Henri Meschonnic, stresses that discourse is central to the inextricable states of individual and collective citizenship, birthing us simultaneously as subject and co-subject. “Co-citizens,” Robertson asserts, “are those who speak together, and their home is the vulnerable shelter that speaking together offers them.”
Meschonnic applies Benveniste’s principles to poetry, claiming the art as critique of fixity through the reopening invited by rhythm. Here, vernacular, the lived and ever-shifting enactment of language, can dissolve the determination of fixed discourse in the invitation of new possibilities. Only in such continuous action, as Meschonnic believes, can the subject emerge as ethical. Echoing her French philosophical forebears, Robertson dares us to resist the institutional enshrinement of poetry and enter into its creation as an engaged act of reclamation.
An introduction to Adeena Karasick
I first saw Adeena Karasick read at The Idler Pub in Toronto in the nineties, when I was somewhere in my early twenties. It’s a bit embarrassing to remember because I had no clue what she was talking about or what she was doing. As someone whose experience did not yet include experimental or conceptual poetry, I felt strangely threatened and a little dubious. But I also felt exhilarated. I realized little by little, word by un-word, that she was doing something wild with — and to — language. She was actually dismantling words and reconstructing them in new ways.
I immediately wanted more. I wanted to Figure It Out. I think I can pinpoint hearing Karasick as the first time I realized there could be more to poetry than the lyric — something fun, fiery, mysterious, and potentially politically charged. To challenge the accepted, normal use of language is more than a geeky wordster habit; it has revolutionary potential. To do so as a woman, a feminist, a Jew — well. Karasick has a way of opening up meaning and language so that suddenly we are faced with more possibilities, more excitement. There’s hope for change and for questioning. For something better than where we are, stuck in a world of clichés and repeated, soul-damaging truisms.
This recording of Karasick reading at North of Invention is an excellent entry point into her work. Although her poetry is equally (and differently) stimulating on the page, experiencing a live reading helps listeners make connections we might otherwise miss the first time around.
In her opening piece, “Phat Freitag,” Karasick eases us into her sensuous, almost giddy language play. She throws us puns and rewritten sayings or clichés, like “Life is a cabernet.” She bubbles a fun sound-poetry mixed with the performance of a character. And this is a Karasick trait — she never reads as herself. She is always bigger than life, goofy at times — like when she says “froth sauce” with an affected, accented inflection. Throughout “Phat Freitag,” meaning becomes clear, then muddies, then changes again. And despite all the silliness, Karasick leaves us with the uneasy laugh of “an Islamist sandwich, toasted awry.”
Next Karasick moves us into her newest work, “This Poem,” from TalonBooks. “This Poem” is a tour de force long poem that tells you exactly what it is, in no (un)certain terms. Using the structure of repeating the line “This poem …” Karasick takes us on a rhythmic, alliteration- and rhyme-obsessed, sometimes musical, breath-heavy journey. Quite literally, “This poem is living beyond its meaning.” Karasick brings words to life in such a vibrant way that you feel they have physical substance. Words caress or smack you upside the head, but also get inside it so that you never become fully immersed in just the sound or feeling. “Verfremd me,” says This Poem, aptly.
Karasick then treats us to three older works. “Poemology” is an amusing piece on how to construct a good poem. Re-creating the language of advertising, she has fun with fixed ideas about writing, giving advice like how to avoid “contextual disease.”
The next piece, “Rules To Text By” plays with a text by Ellen Fine and Sherrie Schneider called “The Rules,” the topic of which was advice on How To Get A Man. Instead, Karasick tells us how to read or, “how to get a text.” The piece is full of humor, like much of Karasick’s work, and is also an excellent example of her unique explorations of the, um, sexiness of poetry. Karasick delivers the piece sensually, and with the kind of bawdiness usually only men get away with. For all its seemingly cheap laughs, the piece is inherently feminist. “You are in control of your own textasy,” it tells us. Serious writing doesn’t have to be cold and sexless, or more specifically — “genderless” (i.e. male).
Karasick closes this section of the reading with “Typographilia,” a poem that plays with slang and pop/tech culture. This is one of Karasick’s great gifts; she takes the everyday, the now, and twists it up with history in a linguistic way. She is on top of what the kids are talking about, so to speak. When she wrestles with something troublesome, with one of the many difficulties of navigating the postmodern world, she asks questions like, “What the font?
The reading closes with another section of “This Poem.” We’re left with its “fleshy hashtag” demarcating the ways in which we are creating memes, changing language, moving into new territories of communication. Karasick’s work shows a refusal to be bogged down by language, old or new. She makes it fresh and vital, asks it difficult questions. She plays it like an instrument — and also lets it play her.
A collage and embroidery dialogue
After swift exchanges at a University of Pennsylvania conference on April 13–14, 2012, Maria Damon, with a practice of weaving and cross-stitch embroidery, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, with a practice of collage and collage poems, decided to ask each other some questions about this work, their desires to do it and its rationale, given the full-scale scholarly careers that they both have. That is, they decided to talk to each other about their visual texts. So each sent questions to both, and both answered all the questions. They propose their discussion as a way of finding more out about these practices and their meanings. The exchange was conducted by email in April through June 2012.
Links to some of their visual work to be found here:
Question 1) How and when and why did you begin doing them [i.e., visual art items]; what was at stake in this decision (also what relation does this have to your “other” work-in-the-world — teaching; writing)? When did you “begin to decide” to do embroidered texts (MD) and collage (RBD) — how did you instantiate this decision to begin? About how long has this been going on? Elaborate! I should have used the word “praxis” in this question.
Maria Damon: I began to “do” counted cross-stitch as a child (eight or ten or so) in Denmark, where my mother would take me and my sisters during the summers when my father was conducting fieldwork in Turkey or the Solomon Islands. Mother’s family was centered outside the city of Silkeborg, and we spent our summers in the farmhouse, more like a manor house, where her father lived. It was a somewhat stultifying peasant-aristocracy/provincial environment, and other than the English-language books we stocked up on before leaving the States, handwork and consumption of rich dairy products and baked goods with elderly relatives were among the few diversions available. Once or twice during the summer we would go to downtown Silkeborg to the shop of Frøkken Ingebord Lund, an elderly lady who had made my mother’s wedding outfit (a black skirt/suit and a cream-colored silk blouse with eyelet embroidery), and pick out cross-stitch kits for pillows, bellpulls, etc. Eventually we stopped going to Denmark when the airfares for children were no longer as generous — after my older sister turned twelve. In the early 1970s I found some old cross-stitch pattern books from the 1950s among my mother’s things and also at around the same time (first year in college, 1974) started collecting the calendars put out by the Håndarbejtet’s Fremme (Handcraft Guild), which featured one cross-stitch pattern per month along themes (herbal or medicinal plants, roses, seasonal berries, horoscope signs, etc.). My favorites were by a designer named Gerda Bengtsson; try Google-imaging her name and you’ll see what I mean. I often made little flowering herb pieces for friends and family.
Incidentally [here Maria responds to Rachel’s question about knowing Danish] my Danish used to be far more confident, but at a child's level, where it has remained to the extent that it still exists at all. I can talk about barnyard animals, sibling squabbles, and the like. Apparently my sister and I had strong enough Jysk (Juttish, peasantish) accents when we were little that a Danish lady (a Copenhagener) noticed it in Harvard Square, followed us to our source, and became close friends with my mother for some years.
The embroidery habit became literary much later, in 2000. I felt inspired by Lee Ann Brown’s visit to Minnesota in 2000 for our Poetry as Theory/Theory as Poetry symposium to make her a little piece with a phrase from one of her poems, the phrase “Tender Buttons” (after her press), and a few rosebuds from a Bengtsson pattern. I have no image of it because it was a gift and it took several years before I imagined that these little tokens could become worthy of documentation; they were simply gifts. Next came a far more ambitious piece, “X(exoxial)-stitch,” for my collaborator mIEKAL aND, who operates Xexoxial Editions and was a founding member of the Xexoxial Endarchy “multi-arts” nonprofit organization. The piece was a series of X’s, E’s, and O’s drawn from a small pamphlet of letter patterns I’d filched from a royalist apartment I’d stayed at in Paris when I was eighteen on scholarship from my girls’ school and en route to college. I had also, in the interim, had the ambition to stitch a skirt with my favorite literary sayings on it, but I only got as far as two: Genet’s “We cannot suppose a creation which does not spring from love” and Stein’s “In the midst of writing there is merriment.” I still have the skirt but can’t fit it anymore, plus it’s white, which is a stupid color for a skirt.
The third piece, “Reveal Codes: Real Ode for Reality,” I made on sabbatical (2002–2003), for internet scholar Rita Raley, who had been a dear colleague at the University of Minnesota until she left for UC-Santa Barbara. Next, after the US invaded Iraq and there was heated discussion about it on the Poetics List, I made a couple of pieces for Nick Piombino (whom I did not know and had never met) and Stephen Vincent (whom I had met once in SF), because of a dream Stephen reported on Poetics, about our all protesting the war by embroidering the word “POETRY” on our sleeves. I also made “Tiny Arkhive” for Adeena Karasick after I started working on a paper on her long poem “The Wall” for a conference in Edmonton, which eventually developed into the chapter in Radical Poetics/Secular Jewish Culture (in which both Adeena and Rachel have chapters also).
Still I didn’t think of these as part of my literary practice, but a private and relational hobbyist tributary running a course parallel to my scholarly and poetic activities. It wasn’t until several years later when a few visual poets were organizing a show in Miami through Spidertangle, the visual poetry listserv mIEKAL had initiated, that mIEKAL suggested I send a couple of pieces to the show. After the piece for Lee Ann, I had developed the practice of sending the pieces to mIEKAL for him to scan, and then sending them on to their intended recipients. (I’ve since gotten my own scanner.) It was and continues to be important for me that this practice function on a gift economy rather than an exchange economy, though there have been exchanges later, particularly in 2008, when I asked people to whom I’d given x-stitches or weavings to respond in some way (see several responses here). I only had images of “X(exoxial)-stitch” and the piece for Rita Raley so I sent those. Imagine my surprise when they were accepted. Imagine my surprise when they have continued to be accepted into shows, visual poetry blogs, poetry journals, etc. I applied for a few residencies with text/textile projects and am amazed that the doors seem to be opening: the Electronic Book Review had “Electronic Text + Textile” residencies in Latvia and Switzerland, so I was in Riga in August 2008, and two weeks in Basel in June 2009. I had a residency at the UMN’s Institute for Advanced Study (spring 2008) in which I brought my loom to my office for the semester, and then a two-week group residency at the Banff Center for the Arts, in February 2011.
I forgot to mention above that my weaving practice began in 1969. The summer of Woodstock I was a sulky fourteen-year-old and my mother signed me up for a few crafts classes at the Falmouth Arts and Crafts Center. The pottery didn’t take but the weaving did. My teacher was Fran Dandridge, a one-armed woman who would rest the cones of warp-yarn on her elbow-stump while she demonstrated how to string the yarn on a warping board. My mother told me many years later that I said of her in wonderment: “She uses bad English and doesn’t know it.” My parents bought me the loom I still have, a Nilus-Leclerc four-harness, thirty-six-inch floor-loom, the following October, and over the next few years I paid them back.
At first I thought I would be writing reflective and theoretically-tinged essays on the text/textile nexus, but these, while not nonexistent, have taken a decided backseat to the practice. Cross-stitching is a good practice at conferences, meetings and social occasions; it is soothing and helps me process the excitement that’s stirred up by hearing a good paper or poetry reading; or, on the other hand, if the meeting is boring, it helps address the frustration that I’m wasting my time nonproductively. Weaving, as the floor-loom is non-portable, is a more homebound activity.
I kept a blog for about six months, encouraged by the leaders (Fred Wah, Lance Olsen, and J. R. Carpenter) of a Banff Center for the Arts residency in 2011, “In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge,” in which I explored etymologies, scavenging, text/ile musings, etc.
Currently, I’m executing two projects: first, as a fan of Iggy (Pop) and the Stooges, I’m weaving scarves for the band and members of the entourage, and x-stitching Stoogey words appropriate to the person. For James Williamson, the guitarist, I made the scarf out of white silk and “wrote” in red cotton the words “Raw Power” and “Kill City,” as those were the albums on which he appeared, and for which he wrote the music, in the 1970s. This scarf was featured in the Text Festival at Bury, England, in the summer of 2011, much to my delight and amazement. It was actually the reverse side of the stitching that Tony Trehy, the curator, liked; he happened to see it on Facebook and contacted me. The other scarves have been black cotton (more rock’n’roll in color). For Scott Asheton, I “wrote” “Rock Action,” which is his nom de rock; and so forth.
The second current project is much more modest: some months ago there was a brief Facebook meme, in which I participated, in which people vowed to make handmade items for the first five respondents. So I’m making small things for Susana Gardner, founder of the Dusie Kollektiv, Katie Price, a doctoral student at UPenn, and a few others.
Maria Damon, “Open Up and Bleed: For James Osterberg, Jr.” Damon: “‘Open Up and Bleed’ is for Iggy Pop (James N. Osterberg Jr.). Iggy has a serious self-sabotaging streak but also a strong libidinized spirituality. There’s blood pouring down his chest and silver ejaculate radiating upwards. The word is ‘Obsess.’ You can’t really see it but some of the letters are edged in silver and of course I left the needle in the center to give him a choice.”
Rachel answers the same question: How and when and why did you begin doing them [i.e. visual art items]; what was at stake in this decision (also what relation does this have to your “other” work-in-the-world — teaching; writing)? When did you “begin to decide” to do embroidered texts (MD) collage (RBD) — how did you instantiate this decision to begin?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: First part: the long saga of beginning.
I decided to do this collage practice, you might say, over forty years. This is so comic that I can barely bring myself to say it. But when you look at the dates, it is true. Only now have I “instantiated” — that is, really continued — doing works I had clearly been interested in doing since — OK — let’s say it: 1964.
In 1964–69, I made several talismanic collages — still have them. Here’s a list:
— RAGE. (With Paris-Nord to London Victoria ticket material on it, and a ripped beer label — Courage and Barclay.) Summer 1964. One of the first if not the first made.
— Poems, Wallace Stevens cover/orange soda label. Might be the second made, 1964.
— Impasto of tickets, now mainly faded. Actually dated, signed Blau, 1964. That helps me date these.
— On wood, with wheel of thread. Very early, 1966?–1970.
I was involved at that point in an Upper West Side artistic group, The Eventorium, folks mainly from Columbia University and its approximate literary surround (but not the poet-undergraduates who would have been influenced by Kenneth Koch). These folks were often quite immersed in French materials. The group had a very surrealist orientation; we did surrealist plays and poets theater; we translated from the French, and so on. For example, Michael Benedikt was a regular, along with Serge Gavronsky and Michael O’Brien.
The “leader” was Frank Kuenstler. He was a denizen of the underground film world, a poet, and a collagist. Kuenstler was the initial inspiration for my making collage (but not for my seeing it and looking at it — that was earlier). He also was in some undefined sense half-connected to the (contemporaneous) New York School, downtown. And to other movements at that point — there was a bit of Fluxus in him. For instance, he now reminds me of a straight Ray Johnson (another contemporaneous collagist), and so I got that “feel” or “touch” quite indirectly. Frank was a bricoleur, a marginal person, and a creative one. (Incidentally, his selected poetry, The Enormous Chorus, is available from Pressed Wafer Press  and there was a revival reading in NYC in which I participated.) I don’t know whether his collages survive; I liked them very much then — they were filled with street gleanings — wood, furniture bits, paper — the lot. Frank has a daughter, Emily Kuenstler, who is the executor of his estate.
This group had a magazine called The Eventorium Muse, but generally did not “go downtown” (i.e. to St. Mark’s, but to other sites as well, like Judson Church). At least many of its denizens did not. I did not — first, because I was a girl grad student during that time, and busy. But also I did not because of the really strong dangers for juicy young females at that time (to be wasted, used up, destroyed), me being very self-protective. Mainly I think I was wary/frightened because I did NOT have the adequate defenses against being used up nor the interest in risk elements of some of my actual age-mates. This (my not going downtown) is pertinent to my poetry, but it is also pertinent to collage. Collage now might be a way of reconnecting with that past and reclaiming it. Collage is certainly a promissory note — a debt to myself that I felt I had to pay. Or to redeem.
I know now that Notley was making collage during that approximate time. Barbara Guest, too. Collage was certainly a key medium for Joe Brainard, and now we know, for John Ashbery, too — at that era, it was very New York School and very art-world oriented. One of its modes, of course, is surrealist combinatoire, often witty, comic and knowing. My early poetry was more surrealist than what happened when I entered the objectivist zone after meeting George Oppen in 1965. But I’d say that the collage impulse shifted in and for my poetry from being image-based and lexicon-oriented to being structurally based, about the suggestive and semantic conjunctions of blocks of material. That is, collage became a vital and central poetics for my current poetry, but more on the level of structure than in the realm of individual image juxtapositions. More on that in a minute.
Later (way later, in Swarthmore, PA, up there on the third-floor in my study) I made one turning point work for my poetry around the time of beginning Drafts, 1986. Typically, I did not date it, but it may well have been 1985 or 1986. It can be dated because I still had and could use a typewriter. This is a one-off in which I took a brand name label, a Tree-Top apple juice label, to be precise. I rolled it into the typewriter and intuitively typed two pieces of advice. “Apprentice yourself to yourself” and “Dry up your minimalism.” I still have this artifact. It is incredibly important advice, although I thought it was nonsense then. (This moment and message also appear in the later “Draft 56: Bildungsgedicht with Apple.”) I took “Dry up your minimalism” to mean that objectivist purity, the modernist purifications and my pre-feminist blockage and lack of fluidity were doing me in. I had a major perfection hang-up and the pure-word minimalism (of my first, long-belated book, Wells ) was a way of expressing — without curing — the desire for a perfection that I would never reach. (This Montemora Editions book was posted on Duration Press Online Out of Print Book Archives, in 1999.) Since Wells came from that purity, plus a resistance to beauty, it’s a wonder there was any book at all. Writing poetry almost didn’t happen; this was my condition for many years.
“Apprentice yourself to yourself” meant that I had done enough with the poetic tradition. I knew it well enough, but too vaguely — to be self-sardonic for a second. Let’s at least say I was not innocent. I just hadn’t used ”the poetic tradition” for me. I was too awed by it, and insufficiently narcissistic, grasping, egotistical, ruthless; this is, of course, a completely comic remark, being rather narcissistic and egotistical. I could, however, learn a bit from myself because I knew poetry well enough; thus I could (safely) apprentice myself to that self and not be excessively deceived. What followed from that acknowledgement were some key questions for making art — IF THIS, then what? And what was I going to do about it? What did I come here to tell you that only I could? So finally, I had better start; it was almost too late. It was in fact already too late. So I stopped worrying about how to begin, and simply began. That is, I begin Drafts.
Clearly that visual event was like a divining rod. But it did not lead directly to more visual artworks.
The third “episode” in this saga of beginning. In April 2002, you could say, I was beginning (ahem — slowly …) to decide to make collage. I got one of those attractive blank bound books — regular journal size, bound in red. I began pasting into this book — making a few collages. I called this my Fed Up Collage Book — fed up with not doing this yet. It was an indication that I wanted to do collage. Again, to understand my not doing this or doing it much, you just have to understand that I was busy Mom-ing, teaching, writing poetry and prose, editing things (working on journals) … Busy busy busy. That is, speaking in this way to you, Maria, about our visual arts works, focusing only on that, it makes it seem as if I should have been doing this (in my spare time — yeah, right …) all along. But we understand why not.
So this was an unfinished red notebook/sketchbook with writing and collages made on the page, some now razored out for scanning [see Six Vispo works, Drunken Boat 10 (July 2009)]. In many ways, the book mode (the codex) was inhibiting, while I had thought it would be a good idea. It is hard to make free art works in a bound setting. I do like “WHAT … loss of aura” (Sept. 2002), also “I Miss Liberty” (17 Feb. 2005; post-Bush). Both of these are one decontextualized piece of paper, often with a statement that “de-turns” them. That is, they are not quite full collage, but rather an artifact with a comment. Curiously (probably from the diary motif — these were made in a book looking like a diary) these are all assiduously dated (but not signed). One of these days, maybe I will. It is interesting to think of the inhibition around “signature” — or perhaps, it’s simply unnecessary to say “RBD.” I know who made them, after all.
In 2006 or so I began making these artworks again. It is hard to know why/how/what was/were the triggers, after this long history of not starting. One really wonders. I can think of two reasons and then some. First, I knew about the career of collage maker Anne Ryan. She did much work of high interest, often with fabric. I knew she had begun doing collage in her later years. I sort of remember — in her 60s but maybe her 50s. I thought I would do this too, and I was getting to that point — or past it. Second, I have a friend, who is an art historian and independent curator and lives a life filled with art — artifacts all over, a beautiful house. She told me she wanted to do collage, and had collected many items, papers, etc. for this, but she could not begin. I thought, well, Fuck Me. Time to begin. I know this sounds amazing but it is true. The vulgar, face-it statement is a way of saying: What was I waiting for?
I can’t fully track the relationship of this realization to what became The Collage Poems of Drafts, because as always my sense of my own chronology is really blurry. I would have to see whether I said anything in a journal. But of course I had always known about Mail Art as a “movement” and had found it fascinating. (See, by the way the Musée de la Poste in Paris that includes a room on one mail-art exchange.) So I know I wanted to do an homage, or something tapping through to Ray Johnson. R. J. was a collagist. A mail-art denizen [inventor, some say]. and my absolute anti-type. Wanting to do “Mail Art” was part of my application to Bellagio where (stroke of intense luck), I went in early 2007. I did in fact make most of “Draft 94: Mail Art” there in 2007. It was always intended for Drafts; it was not mailed. I also wrote first versions of “Draft 85: Hard Copy” (the “Oppen poem”) there. It was a pretty fruitful month. I’d observe that Drafts was the maternal “cover” for this little seed of collage finally to germinate.
Similarly, I am not sure how I got the idea thereupon to make “Draft CX: Primer” — it just seemed totally and immediately logical. There is a lot of alphabet material in Drafts as a whole, and this poem simply ratcheted that up by doing a whole alphabet as a primer. Both works were “given” by their titles — this is often how I conceptualize the work in Drafts. So that work was done, as you can see by the dates on the twenty-six letters and a coda, in 2009. In summer 2009, in Italy, I made the collages, and then when I brought them home, I knew I would put bits of writing on them, mainly in November 2009. This was an amazing extended creation over a number of months (and two continents).
I knew, when Pitch: Drafts 77–95 was published, that it would be impossible for “Mail Art” to appear in color, so a smaller selection of the black and white collages, or ones that would reproduce was made for that book. That put a premium on arranging for The Collage Poems of Drafts to be published in color. This happened, happily, in 2011, also by Salt Publishing and with the help of the Pew Foundation. One of the interesting aspects of The Collage Poems of Drafts is that the two poems in it appear in two different “books” of Drafts — that is, the visual texts bridge across the boundary of the codex, which, in all of the books of Drafts, is based on the number nineteen, or a multiple.
I have always tried to choose the covers for my books of both criticism and poetry (and have succeeded in doing so for most of them, even with university and trade press publication). For the past couple of books of poetry, I have also made the covers — collages for both Pitch and for The Collage Poems. I also made the collage cover for one of the early (pre-Wesleyan) publications of Drafts (Drafts 3–14, from Potes & Poets Press 1991). Plus I took the photograph for Drafts 15–XXX, The Fold (from Potes & Poets Press 1997), and made handwriting covers for both Renga: Draft 32 (BeautifulSwimmer Press, 1998) and Draft, unnumbered: Précis (Nomados, 2003).
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Green Shadow.” 5 x 7 inches, 2010.
Making collage poems is something that I could see happening more, now and in the future, and so I have done some recent works — none in a big series, but just individual works. I’ve also made collages without words. I have become interested in image-text relations as you clearly are, too — one thing that has led to our talking to each other like this. But “image-text relations” are hard to figure it out — to “theorize”? — particularly without an ethos of the illustrative, an ethos, I (naturally) resist. As for “theorizing” — I am more inductive, on-the-ground, pragmatic and into praxis — how does this one item work, not how does one conceptualize this “as a whole” (for I am not sure it can be).
I do this artwork throughout the year, sometimes intently, sometimes in a desultory fashion. I do this in Philly (I have a little workspace for it in the guest room) and in Italy during the summer. The issue over these years has rapidly become how to feel my way to an even more serious practice. How to know whether I like individual works and what “like” means. How can I make the works better? And what “better” means in the context of a very loose and “let’s fool around” feeling to the practice.
Francie Shaw and Susan Bee recently talked to me about glue — basically both simultaneously told me to stop using Dollar Store glue sticks. So I have two kinds of better glue, some brushes for it, a board to try to “center things” (ha) — a ruler board, and some commitment to better paper as the matrix.
Question 2) What sources and analogues for this work do you have, if any? Do you look at or seek out (exhibits of) such work or related work?
Damon: I see what I’m doing as folk art, and also a somewhat bourgeois lady-work. We could call it semi-skilled. Anybody can do this, like breathing, or like playing in a punk band. So although I’m full of admiration for other poets who work in textiles, like Jen Bervin or Cecilia Vicuña, and who are trained in the visual arts, I feel my own work to be close to the ground rather than fitting into a fine arts category. By keeping the pieces small and personal I can stay close to the moment and respond to an impulse before it wanes. I did go to Pricked: Extreme Embroidery at the Museum of Art and Design in NYC a few years ago, and was duly impressed, but only a few of the artists executed their own designs. I only related deeply to the work of an Italian artist, “The Death of the Blind Philosopher.” I was much more generally moved, for example, by the Gee’s Bend Quilt exhibit several years earlier. Since then my range has expanded, though, and I would probably enjoy the fine art work a bit more. I am crazy about the yarnbombing movement — it is furtive, nocturnal, illicit and vibrantly colorful — and am trying to do something like this with one of my poetry classes. I adore Cecilia Vicuña’s work and especially the way she integrates verbal and textilic elements both thematically and structurally in her works, and the social content of her projects.
Last year I went to the Textile Museum in St. Gallen, where there was a wonderful lace exhibit, and this year I saw the Madagascar-based spider-spun silk at the Victoria and Albert Museum (amazing!), as well as the Musée d’Impression sur Etoffe (printed textile) in Mulhouse. I find these visual experiences enthralling, but I can’t really say that they enter my own work (except perhaps obliquely), which remains primitive and based in the person-to-person.
What you say below: “Because I am an untrained artist, I identify with the outsider ethos. Yet I couldn’t be more different in social location,” is an apt summary of one way I locate myself. As you know, much of my scholarly work investigates outsider writing, and there’s clearly a reason for this, however deeply buried and refracted it may be through educational, social and economic privilege, etc. I recently saw a wonderful Adolf Wölfli exhibit in Prague: just so moving and profound, beautiful. And from the magnificent Christine Wertheim (co-originator of the crochet coral reef project, among other things), I learned about about a French outsider writer named Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837–1919), who believed that humans evolved from frogs, because the sound frogs make is close to the syllables that express metaphysical wonder among (French-speaking) humans. Henry Darger is another hero. Opal Whitely and the French child-poet Minou Drouet — although none of my work, in any genre, is anything like theirs.
2) What sources and analogues for this work do you have, if any? Do you look at or seek out (exhibits of) such work or related work?
DuPlessis: I feel influenced by a) Anne Ryan b) John Heartfeld c) Hannah Höch d) Jess [Collins] e) Ray Johnson f) Kurt Schwitters g) Romare Bearden h) Theodore Harris (an African American Philly artist — we have traded studio visits) i) John Evans j) Bettye Saar k) Sheila Hicks [a textile artist with a collage sensibility in my view — at least in some of her pieces] l) Richard Tuttle m) Martha Rosler n) Joseph Cornell o) Joe Brainard. No particular order to that list, but Schwitters is prime.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much Schwitters and small constructivist work — Hans and Sophie Arp — (and maybe even Paul Klee in his “watercolor/collage modes) has been important. And I mean ever since I was a “little girl.” Thank goodness for MoMA — which was in my hometown. (That is probably why, when I picked recent covers for the “feminist trilogy” Pink Guitar, Blue Studios, Purple Passages, all were work from the constructivist/cubist teens of the twentieth century — Juan Gris and Francis Picabia.)
I have always liked small scale, focused, witty, elegant, and “to die for” work like that. I swear, whenever I am in any museum, my fantasy “one artwork to steal” is almost always a Schwitters. I am also interested in the social commentary that can be made by some collage (e.g. Heartfield, Höch, Saar). Bearden is just a bit too representational for me — and yet — he is very important and I like to look at that work too.
I also am fascinated by any work that has writing in it — Colin McCahan — a New Zealand contemporary/modernist is one such, whom I saw on my recent two-month jaunt and residency at the University of Auckland.
Curiously I don’t really like Max Ernst and that mode of collage. It seems hokey and dated.
I do seek out this collage-based work a lot — for example I am on the mailing list of Pavel Zoubok gallery in NYC which is a pretty-much 90 percent collage gallery — and a terrific educational site for me. Francie Shaw and I took a day to drive up to the Schwitters show that came to Princeton last spring (2011). I will linger over collage work/that kind of work (boxes, constructivist collage-assemblages) in museums.
I also have a folk art/outsider artist aesthetic. A lot of the work I admire in that regard is assemblage — like The Philadelphia Wireman. (I have a poem to him — “Draft 22: Philadelphia Wireman” — and also use the work on the cover of the 2004 Drafts called, in my shorthand, Pledge/Preçis, that is, Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft unnumbered: Précis.) That is small scale work — I am also inordinately fond of a lot of outsider art that takes shape as site-specific sculptures, yard decorations, weird “temples” like those made by Simon Rodia and Le Facteur Cheval and James Hampton. (I have this in common with long-poem writer Ronald Johnson.) I have visited those sites/installations at various times over the years. And visited others, too. A crazy “park” in France where the person made a whole metal mini-town complete with a train running overhead. Vollis Simpson in North Carolina — metal sculptures looking like some cockamamie ferris wheel, state fair rides — fantastic — and BIG. That kind of thing. Two days ago (April 2012) in North Philly, I grokked a crazy car that had been decorated in an outsider art manner — yum! cruising along — also broadcasting music from two speakers on the roof (!!!). Incidentally, here responding to your note, I was totally turned on by the quilts of Gee’s Bend, an exhibit I saw, appropriately, when I attended the Lorine Niedecker conference in Milwaukee. And the textile museum in Mulhouse, too! Bob and I visited this recently; indeed, the little free swatch of printed textile that they give you as a ticket went into the collage called “Quilt” up at Alligatorzine.
Reusing, recycling, refashioning, repurposing, de-turning — all these are central to my aesthetic and ethical perspective.
Because I am an untrained artist, I identify with the outsider ethos. Yet I couldn’t be more different in social location. However, I think the impulse to make, to do, to accomplish poesis is widespread among the population — that many people are creative — this is my Deweyan ethos.
Question 3) Did you have a “poetics” or an “aesthetics” for your artworks beforehand? (That is before you began to do this artwork in earnest.) Do you have one now? Does it matter? Or is there a better question for getting at what satisfies you in a work?
Damon: I’m not sure I can spell out a “poetics” for myself, and that word is in fact not one that I’ve considered in relation to my textile work. In terms of textile work’s appeal for me and my orientation toward it, then:
Weaving is a way for me to immerse myself in color and pattern, and it is materials-based: I revel in making the pieces as chaotic as possible, threading the loom with several different patterns and mixing textures freely: metallic next to thick nubby wool, shiny embroidery floss up against cotton bouclé, etc. When I was a teenager my mother would complain about my use of ribbon among otherwise natural fibers: “It cheapens it,” she would say disdainfully. I would unravel all the half-made socks or discarded sweaters with worn-out elbows in the house and incorporate the yarn into my shawls. So the scavenging element, now known as upcycling, used to be a strong presence in my work. Now that I can afford to buy yarn, and now that I’ve long since used up all the scraps of wool in my mother’s house, I avail myself of new materials. Also, having realized that I have more yarn than I can use up in a lifetime, I have stopped begging friends and family for scraps from their project leftovers.
Maria Damon, detail from “Psychedellic White: Bollywood Ringtone Suicide.” Damon: “This is part of a wall-hanging I made for the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, where I was a resident in spring 2008. I moved my loom into my institute office and titled the piece after the other residents’ projects: Arun Saldanha hada published a book called Psychedelic White;
Jigna Desai was working on global Bollywood (Hmong kids doing Bollywood-based dance numbers in St. Paul basements), Sumanth Gopinath on the ringtone industry (which went obsolete as he worked on his book), and Hoon Song on Korean internet teen suicide clubs.
In my teens I was particularly drawn to warm browns, grays and whites — they struck me as invitingly soft analogues to the wintry New England landscapes that surrounded me. Now, living in Minnesota where the landscape is even more barren and monochromatic and the winters twice as long, I find I crave color.
X-stitching was somewhat by-the-book, color-by-number until recently, when improvisation has come increasingly into play. In “Spore-form,” for instance, I started the piece with the enormous “O” of “Form” and realized I’d never have room for the others letters if I used the same “font,” so I improvised the F, which ended up looking a bit like a T-Rex dinosaur attacking the “O.”
As I’ve said, my aesthetic is crude and folk-based; for weaving I use the Appalachian-based A Handweaver’s Pattern Book, by Marguerite P. Davidson. This book was doctrinal for weavers during the 1970s crafts revival and has remained so for me.
Repeating Question 3) did you have a “poetics” or an “aesthetics” beforehand? (That is before you began to do this in earnest.) Do you have one now? Does it matter? Or is there a better question for getting at what satisfies you in a work?
DuPlessis: So what is it about these works — the ones I mentioned, above, and my desire to do this work, too. I am really answering this question as if it were “What is your aesthetics of collage?” Also everything I said above modulates into the question of poetics or aesthetics. I have never really sat down to formulate this, so here goes, as a first try.
1) The impasto of paper. Paper, paper, paper — what a turn-on! (sometimes with pens). And sometimes other materials. The materiality of the materials. The smell of fresh paper. The rupture of first use, first association into a remade, “repurposed” use. Also I love color and texture.
2) The recycling element. This is where the Benjamin citation I will often quote comes in. You know the one I mean: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (Benjamin, Arcades Project 1999, 460). I want the debris, the refuse — I want to point to it, via collage. (The word debris comes from another translation of the same passage.) Collage is a deictic practice of debris.
This involves the transposition of junk. The picking up of packaging, ripping it randomly. An a-consumerist détournement. A turning things, you know, inside out. The familiar kind of paper that suddenly you see in a new light. Re-contextualizing the “scavenged.”
3) Social frisson; the social play of the edge. I am interested not so much in isolating the original sources, purposes, or referents of the materials and nullifying these as in sometimes evoking that source, meaning and using it. Part of the clash of collage is this, I believe. And also some of the wit of collage. (The social references of this conjuncture, the projection of an ideological play of the edge.) In contrast, Schwitters himself said (according to that show I mentioned) that he wanted to nullify the Eigengift, the inner poison of the original reference — like its existence as a bus ticket or something: “the original function of the materials as well as their thematic and historical particularities” (this from the signage at the Princeton Museum show in May 2011). But I disagree. And I think he is not totally fair about what his actual impact is — that is, his stated poetics and the effect of the work somewhat contradict each other.
4) And of course the visual play of edge. The utterly surprising effects one might get from putting one color/shape next to another color/shape. The way to inhabit the little space. The size of the smaller and the larger Dollar Store frames. I also sometimes like to use threat and fabric scraps. [SIC!!! I meant thread] I don’t have too many of the latter, alas. (Note — having said this, a few weeks later, I actually scored some at a textile store in Umbertide — glad to have said it — told me what I needed.)
I am not great at all of this — I don’t manage plumb lines well, I get askew. Off-center, off-plumb line, inexact. As someone said — a few degrees to the left … A little messay. [another SIC] Sometimes planned things fall off by chance from where I wanted them. So that becomes part of the play. You “see the glue” — you see the edge (especially in how I present things — by scanner). I decided that this is OK — that IS the ethos/poetics of my work.
5) Relationship to my poems. Viewed from the perspective of collage (especially Schwitters) — Drafts are a “Merzblau.” It just seemed perfectly logical to begin to do collage poems, or to incorporate text into collage, or to play between these media.
6) Schwitters finally said or thought that he was doing a Gesamtkunstwerk, combining all branches of art [except sound!] into an artistic unit and effacing the boundaries among the arts. I admire that he did this on such a small (i.e. non-bombastic) scale. There is some of this aesthetics in Drafts. Long poems often have a totalizing (without totality) or encyclopedic propulsion. An “everything poem.”
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “jeu.” 5 x 7 inches, 2011.
Question 4) What’s the relationship between your textual work and your hand/art/visual work? Did one grow out of the other? Are they parallel but not overlapping? How/where to they touch, what are their contiguities — or is one a break from the other?
DuPlessis: This is of course somehow the $64 million question, and it is correspondingly difficult to answer. I think that there is a special sense in both my poetry and my artwork that collage is central to both of them, as a root mode of practice. In terms of poetry, serial sequencing by collage-style juxtaposition is a very normal part of it. That is, individual segments are most often built using syntax (and argument — hypotactically), but the way segments join is at root by collage (paratactically). And yet the collage juxtapositions also create an argument as well as a mood, an emotional arc, a trajectory. That is, most often the “collage” of juxtaposing blocks of closely-knit text makes a new “experience” — one most often not tracking something that actually happened. (The writing up of a poem from an experience [one single “moment” or its spun-out elaboration] — this mode I long-ago rejected.) My works create a new (often odic, extended, meditative) experience on the page. This is somewhat projective, but it is also built by evaluation and changes. First thought is not hardly best thought where my writing is concerned. I make lots of revisions to and versions of a poem before it settles down.
Collage and my poetry were simultaneous impulses back then in the 1960s (that is, they “grew together,” to cite you), but I could not do everything, and so, as I said above, I simply put the impulse actually to make collage on a kind of back burner (I was going to say “on ice” — disparate freeze and burn metaphors) for many years, until, as best I can tell, 2002.
But collage is absolutely a root mode of my textual work in poetry: The poetry works by the juxtaposition of various materials to make a new “whole” — a new art object. I put “whole” in quotation marks because the relation of segment to completion, part to whole, element to overarching structure is one of the fundamental things in play in Drafts. Basically with an essay such as “For the Etruscans” and some others as well (the Duchamp essay in Pink Guitar; the essay called “Manifests” in Blue Studios), I have the sense that some argument-leaping and quick shifts of attention come into the essays, too, from collage. (Or, to use the term more proper to a set of juxtapositions unrolling in time — from montage.)
At the same time two other things are true: actually making collage down there on the piece of paper with other pieces of paper and glue is a new, pleasurable and amusing use of the powers of choice, observation and decision that one also uses in making any artwork. It is like a deck-clearing move from all the poetry to get back to ground again: choice, evaluation, decision, observation — repeated as best one can. It has a fun feeling. Put that red next to that black! In this sense, visual art is a bit of a break (citing your word above). That’s because the stakes are more in play than in a career as partially “made.”
Further, sometimes I want to combine little bits of text (aphorism, mystery, enigmatic lines) with collage as a visual-textual object. So I want the two arts to intertwine and inflect each other — this being a specific kind of challenge that I am also committed to.
Did I mention that making something is passionate activity?
Again question 4) What's the relationship between your textual work and your hand/art/visual work? Did one grow out of the other? Are they parallel but not overlapping? How/where to they touch, what are their contiguities — or is one a break from the other?
Damon: Your eloquence in response to the previous question: the “social frisson,” the aesthetics of the “edge,” appeals to me deeply. I’m not sure my x-stitch practice plays at the edge in the way that I could argue that my scholarship does. Perhaps the relationship is simply one of complementarity? But that’s too facile and dismissive. What I see as the “thru-line” (thread, af”fil”iation, etc.) is a preoccupation with relationality. Although it’s experienced as solitary, writing is essentially a social practice. And as I’ve said, my handwork has no meaning except insofar as it participates in either gift or on-the-ground exchange (barter) economy. Very person-to-person, very immediate and direct. I think of Nicole Peyrafitte’s integration of cooking with performance; she gives to the audience in substantive and sustaining ways that highlight her talents, to be sure, but does so thru media and materials that can’t be disentangled from their relational web. My poetry is almost entirely collaborative at this point, and my scholarship, though still produced on a single-author basis, concerns the ways in which interior lives and expressive cultures are woven through and mutually constitutive of social locations. Even the most eccentric writers whose loneliness forms the core of their writerly identity — especially these writers, in fact (Bob Kaufman, John Wieners, etc.) — appeal to me as subject matter for scholarship because their experiences of solitude and the community networks in which they were embedded are so closely related. In fact, perhaps this is tautological, because loneliness itself was a social (and sociological) trope of great power in the 1950s and early 1960s when both Kaufman and Wieners formed their identities as poets.
Maria Damon, “EM: For Emma Bernstein and Family.” Damon: “I used phrases from Charles and Felix Bernstein’s talks at Emma’s memorial service. Felix told me that he got ‘The beautiful room is not empty’ from Kafka.”
Question 5) How/when do other people enter the picture: do you consult with others before, during, after a piece? Is it a solo semi-secret enterprise or is it, like x-stitching a sociable pursuit?
DuPlessis: I don’t really consult, but I will show my work once it is finished. Sometimes I show Bob [DuPlessis] after I make a collage, and he has his likes or dislikes which do or don’t connect with mine. I don’t get destabilized by his opinion (though he does have a good eye), as it’s just one register of an impact. Sometimes another person is very struck by a piece that I like but wasn’t wowed by. I have shown the work, so to speak, privately, and people get very surprised or interested or fascinated: people who have seen work in the house include Susan Bee, Susan Howe, Francie Shaw (who gave me a crit last year about not gunking things up too much — giving things more space), Chris Martin, Julia Dreshler, Amy Sadeo, Tom Devaney, Jena Osman, Amze Emmons, Jennifer Scappattone, Kathleen Fraser. In Italy, the sculptor Liliane Lijn. The folks on this list who are “real” (professionally recognized) visual artists are kind of “yeah, not bad …” so far as I can tell. Some work has appeared online, and of course some has appeared in the book as The Collage Poems of Drafts. So it is not semi-secret, but it is definitely solo.
As with my poetry, I never consult with anyone when the work is in process, except — interestingly — with a few recent poems at the “end” of the project called Drafts, as it turns into whatever else it will now be. I’d say that over years of art making and decades of poetry making, flying solo is definitely my way. The exceptions are miniscule — one in a hundred.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “[Red].” 7 X 10 inches, 2012.
Damon (answer to 5): I consult often, as often as I can but not as often as I wish (I don’t want to overburden my friends with demands). I have certain go-to people for certain writing endeavors: Mark Nowak, when he lived in the Twin Cities, was a constant and faithful giver of feedback on my scholarly work. For x-stitches I will often ask mIEKAL to give me some ideas. He was especially helpful with “Cobza, Maya, Yayli Tanbur” (suggesting the black frame) and “EM.” I’ve learned from students that my color palette is outmoded (“jewel colors are so 1980s”) so I consult with younger colleagues who have good and sure taste, or students whose style of dressing I admire, how to put together a color scheme for a weaving. And of course, for baby blankets (and formerly for tallitot, prayer shawls in the Jewish tradition), I ask the parents (and the bar/bat mitzvahs) what colors they like. Consultation is yet another form of sociability. At the same time, I don’t like to be told what to do — who does? So I ask questions and entertain suggestions and more often than not adopt them.
Question 6) What do you DO with the work? Where is it kept? Do you give it away? Keep it? What is any “bibliography” of its circulation? What would be some ideal ways of circulating it, if you wanted to do more? Do you document the items in any way?
Damon: I’ve only kept one of the pieces, because I don’t know whom to give it to. It’s the “Text, Textile, Exile piece in Meshwards (“my Bible story”). Generally they’re made with someone in mind and then given to that person. In addition to the vispo x-stitches, there are woven pieces that are less verbal; these have functioned as gifts for far longer than the cross-stitches, and perhaps because there’s a narrative process (a beginning, a middle and an end) to weaving on a loom and the patterns and processes are highly rhythmic, until recently they have seemed more like poems than the x-stitches. Perhaps that’s because for decades I followed patterns created by others for the x-stitches, whereas the weaving was more expressive until I also started designing my own x-stitches.
I should really compile a “giftography” of these pieces. On my residency in Riga, I asked people I’d given pieces to over the years to respond; Chris Funkhouser published a nice piece in Jacket about my weaving gifts for his family, and others sent beautiful poems, mini-essays, and the like. My intention was to compile this material and I published quite a bit of it on my blog and in a piece in EBR. Renato Rosaldo, my ethnography teacher at Stanford, wrote a sweet poem that I haven’t done anything with yet. Maybe I’ll take the opportunity of this dialogue (or parallel monologues) to construct such an -ography.
Again question 6) What do you DO with the work? Where is it kept? Do you give it away? Keep it? What is any “bibliography” of its circulation? What would be some ideal ways of circulating it, if you wanted to do more? Do you document the items in any way?
DuPlessis: Well — to understand this practice, I first had to recognize that I was doing it — and, as I said, that took time. Now I try to do the following things:
Record the collages I have done on a list that I update.
Date, title and sign them, too (mostly).
Some are hung in our house, as you saw. Some on the second floor, too, that you didn’t see. So I can see them, even some really bad ones.
I don’t give work away. In fact, this is hard to contemplate. I’ve given some privately to Bob as valentines — indeed, doing a few valentines was another path into this practice. This is very lady-gift-exchange of me.
I have a set of files (actual pieces) — of “Mail Art,” of “Primer,” of the collage work that I was doing in January 2012 (some are up on Alligatorzine). I also try to scan them so I have a virtual file of good ones or ones that interest me. This is a very uneven practice — all the “good” ones have not been scanned. I don’t (yet??) own a scanner — so I go back to Temple University to do this work at the Instructional Support Center — individual people there are thanked for their help. When I was at the National Humanities Center, Phillip Barron helped me a lot with scanning and photo-shopping for the Jacket publication of “Draft 94: Mail Art.”
People have made vague, imprecise noises about my showing the work. I think that it would be enormous fun to have a show. Am I ready? Almost. Sometimes. Maybe not. I think I’d have to accept the sale of work (if it occurred). I’d also (more fundamentally) have to feel seriously competent — that this is worth showing in an official kind of venue. It takes more than ten years to learn to do an artwork that might capture the attention of other people and not be self-indulgent in a public forum. I have never wanted to go into the world bearing half-assed work that had my name on it. (This is why my visible career, even in poetry, is so belated.)
Here is a dream I had in 2011, in November. (I suspect real artists dream like this all the time.) I dreamt of hanging my collages in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, secretly, just before a Duchamp show. The affect of the dream was very positive. My works were present to my dream eye, but none of the ones I have already done, none recognizable, and none remembered in waking life. The curators, all very obscure, began ripping them down, but then recognized them as art, as an art product. Still they came down. The dream ended with them looking for me to give my works back to me.
Or, frankly, it may be counter-intuitive (or delusional) for me to think of the normal art world methods for visibility. Perhaps continuing to show the work on the web and in books — something I have already started doing — is more idiomatic for me and for the project.
Question 7) Where do you get the materials and how do the materials turn you on? What are the dialogues between the materials and the artifact?
Damon: Oh, the materials, the materials! Yummy! I’m like Nate Mackey in a record store when I enter a yarn store. Although, as I’ve said, I have more yarn than I can use up in one lifetime, I can’t walk out empty-handed. The colors, the textures, the look and the feel; above all, the tactility. The history and human labor of culling, gathering, shearing and spinning, of developing dye-stuffs from plants and animals (wode, beets, onion skins, Murex snail shells for Tyrian purple, insects for cochineal/carmine, etc.) all embedded in every skein. Yarn stores are ubiquitous and thriving, thanks to the knitting resurgence of the last ten years. For the embroidery, I’m fortunate to live near a Scandinavian import store, Ingebretsen’s, which fetishizes Minnesota’s Scandinavian settler heritage. The thread I use almost exclusively, Danish flower thread, which is the material of the Håndarbejdet’s Fremme, is a matte cotton thread that comes in many shades of glory. The skeins are twisted-up, curly little things that, in their jumbled togetherness, emulate the brain’s folds and complexities. Although in the store they’re in neat color-coded rows in their divided drawers, in my sewing bag they are a riotous jumble of thrown-together all-thereness. I often prefer the look of the unused materials, sumptuous and vibrating with potential, to what they become as objects. My loom room is festooned with skeins of unevenly spun, highly textured yarn, and I sometimes wear a skein of yarn, esp. silk, as a necklace for certain festive events. I’ve also been increasing my use of metallic thread, gold or silver, for outlining letters to enhance either the flashiness of the piece (such as “Open Up and Bleed,” the one for Iggy Pop) or the illuminated-letter effect (for “Exile” or “EM”) that ties the practice to that of making sacred cloth (Torah covers, altar-cloths or priestly vestments) as well as manuscripts of sacred texts. The word “encrusted” has a powerful vibration, and although my use of metallic thread is relatively modest, I like the understated relationship it indicates to heavily ornamented, sumptuous liturgical textiles that one could accurately describe as “jewel-encrusted” or whose metallic elements rise sharply out of the surface of the piece to create an almost topographical landscape of color and texture.
Maria Damon, “The Millay Sisters Learn to Talk Dirty: for the Millay Colony for the Arts.” Damon: “Norma Millay describes how, when she and sister Edna moved to Greenwich Village, they adjusted to and adopted their bohemian pals’ rough language while doing their mending. V is for Vincent and other feminine relevancies; the natural details — wild strawberries, wild thyme, a butterfly burning at both ends — nod to the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York, in high summer.”
5) Where do you get the materials and how do the materials turn you on? What are the dialogues between the materials and the artifact?
DuPlessis: I guess I am a natural hoarder — that’s the first thing to say. With collage, I collect materials, I try to be careful to use them up as fast as I can — or fast enough while honoring why they struck me in the first place. Insofar as paper or colored bits of things are a turn-on (in an erotic — “I think I’d like to do something with you” — sense), you can’t defer making something for too long, or else you don’t want to do it any more. I have a nice wooden box of materials in Philly (typically — I picked the box off the street …), and in Italy, we have — this is wonderful — an old stone sink in what used to be the kitchen (now my study) where I pile up materials. At home, I will sometimes use small things that have a long resonance for me — a doily that has been in my family for a while. (My mother was a hoarder, too …)
I do try to obey the impulse when it comes. I got very turned on by the Sheila Hicks show at the Philadelphia ICA (particularly her small pieces) — and in 2011, I made some collages that “punned” on weaving and sewing, like “Odd,” and “Useless Patches” and “Loom.” (See collages here.) Recently (in April 2012), I did my “13 Rays” — which turned out to be fourteen collages using the same postcard photograph of Ray Johnson as a base. I had built up a head of steam about it — and so I did it! This is one advantage of retirement, but I still have bad habits of deferral built up over years of discipline (mainly the semester discipline). It takes a while to realize I can do what I want almost when I want to.
For materials — I have picked things off the street. In fact, I generally want to pick more off the street than I do, but feel a little odd doing it sometimes. (I probably need a plastic bag and plastic/latex gloves, to carry everywhere.) When we were in North Carolina, I saw some little piece of metal in a parking lot that I repressed wanting. Two days later, Bob and I scoured that same parking lot to find the little piece! We found it! It’s now in a collage!
I use Dollar Store frames. I often still need a frame to “see” the work, though this is changing a little. I admire both Susan Bee and Joe Brainard for their assiduous use of notions stores and el cheapo things. Like Brainard’s PRELL shampoo altar.
Utrecht Art Supply here in Philadelphia makes me drool, even though I hardly know how to use one single thing in it and have to ask naïve questions all the time. They are very nice.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, from “13 Rays.” Postcard size, two altered images of 1968 photo of Ray Johnson (unidentified photographer?), 2012.
Repeating question 7) Where do you get the materials and how do the materials turn you on? What are the dialogues between the materials and the artifact?
Damon: I think I’ve responded to this earlier. When I first started, I simply used all the available yarn in the family house. For a number of years my mother imported handknit sweaters from Denmark, so there were yarn samples in the attic, as well as old garments or abandoned knitting projects (everyone in my family has hoarding instincts). Also, there were a number of cotton mills in Uxbridge, MA (see, for example the Stanley Woolen Mill or Bernat Mill), who would sell mill-end yarn on cones very cheaply, and a few times a year my mother and I would do our mother/teenage-daughter bonding by making a day of it: driving out to various mills and buying up “supplies” — warp-yarn on huge cones that would last me years. These experiences would somehow touch me; the mills were dilapidated, the people humble and warm, the yarn initially very good quality but declining noticeably over the years.
Now I buy yarn at bargain bins in yarn stores, or for specific projects I go to certain stores that have yarn not just for knitting (which comes in balls or skeins) but for weaving (which comes in cones). Often I don’t buy for projects at all but just go by what appeals. There used to be a discount store in Minneapolis, Banks’s, that carried all kinds of wares. Once about twenty years ago they had a shipment of many gorgeous and exotic yarns because a yarn shop in my homestate MA suffered a fire. I bought $600 worth (and this is at a 75 percent discount) of angora, silk, wools, cottons, etc. simply because it was pretty and cheap, and still haven’t used it all up. For a while I wove tallitot for kids who were going up for their bat or bar mitzvah, and would order undyed silk from Henry’s Attic, whose products I adore. That was fun; the kids would pick out what colors they wanted and a general design, and I’d start in; about halfway through I would have the kids come and do some of the weaving themselves.
A few times I’ve inherited sewing kits that include “notions” (great word, no?) [Rachel: yes!], knitting needles (for which I imagine I’ll someday have use when I learn to knit), miscellaneous tapestry thread that I incorporate into weavings, etc. I have many of the poet Anne Blonstein’s sewing notions. It gives me a special feeling when I use these “legacy” materials or tools (measuring tapes, pins, etc.) because again I sense that I’m participating in a tradition of practice that crosses generations, indeed, the line between the dead and the living, and I try to make something with the materials specifically for that person. Here the materials were not actually Anne’s but I made it shortly after I acquired them, to be presented at a memorial celebration for her in November 2011 in Basel.
HOW DO THEY TURN ME ON??? HOW CAN I COUNT THE WAYS???
Maria Damon, “Listen to Your Mothers! for Adeena Karasick.” Damon: “S, M, and A (shin — the tooth, mem — water, aleph — the ox) are referred to in Kabbalistic hermeneutics as ‘the three mothers,’ and they spell out ‘LISTEN.’ Adeena Karasick and I wrote a piece that draws on the feministic text/textile pun ‘shma’atta’ (the text at hand) and ‘shmatta’ (rag). The ox’s horns double as moms’ megaphone here.”
Question 8) Under what circumstances do you make your art? Late at night? With music on? Spread out on the floor of a room in your home? At a different desk from where you write? What prompts a piece: a conversation? A nagging feeling that something must be done? A shape, color or word in your mind's eye? All at once in one go or over the course of a few weeks, months, etc.? Is there "revision"?
DuPlessis (answer to 8): Time — any time. Music, less so with collages than with poetry and other writing.
Place: my ultimate fantasy which I have had from day one of being a baby writer is to have a gigantic room which is all desk around the walls, where it is not bookshelves. The nearest I can come is one desk and one table. The desk is where the computer is and it is often CLOGGED with paper and books. Eeek. That’s in my study. (Or “that’s my study”!!) And that’s where I write. For making collage — the table is in the guest room (“Koré’s room”), an old card table with a plywood top that can be folded up when there is a guest, or just to de-clutter. I have that wooden box with collage materials in the corner of that room. But I actually do make collage in either place. The Ray Johnson series that I just made, I had contemplated and needed to DO, and since Caroline Bergvall was in the guest room for three nights, I just made it at the desk here in my study. You don’t need a lot of room for scissors and glue.
I also do collage in Italy. There I have a table and a desk in an L-arrangement, and I just make the collages on either. Also a small narrow table I just put in my study there I collect materials there too, and either use them by the end of the summer or throw them out. I cannot imagine shlepping paper (etc.) across the Atlantic. Though I did bring a little back from New Zealand. Of course I bring the collages back.
What triggers a collage is also a great question. Sometimes I somewhat visualize them, or visualize the potential in a color or shape. This is uncanny to myself — I didn’t know I had it in me to do this. There’s a wanting and a needing around a color. Or there is a weird scrap of something. Other things then “fall into line.” It’s stepwise on one level (put this next to that and see what happens), and global (how does it look as a whole). These are simultaneous and also disaggregated judgments. The timing/tempo of judgment is fascinating — I am familiar with this issue from writing poetry. How shape and color get inter-involved is a terrific fascination and to some degree a mystery — it’s like I am re-inventing the wheel. Or I get turned on by some crazy label stuff. I love the color separations on the inside of cardboard packaging from the supermarket. I walk down the street and eye the garbage …
Sometimes, there is the material and the nagging sensation that there’s a collage in that/from that. For the Ray Johnson series that I just mentioned, I had snagged about twenty [free] postcards from the Arcadia College Art Gallery at the end of the show — the cards were of an apparently anonymous [at least unattributed] photo of Johnson taken in 1968. I began thinking — I have to “do something” with this. Or I have a piece of paper — junk mail, fund appeals, stuff with interesting colors on it. Sometimes I think — I’ll buy a frame (bless the Dollar Store!), which is how I feel a collage coming on.
The story of the Walter Benjamin collage (2012) is staggering to me. In 1966 (this is not a typo) I bought a sheet of stamps in France (like one centime stamps, the whole costing one franc or something). Bob remembers that I did this deliberately for a collage. I never used it. I saved it. About ten years ago, I pasted them on a piece of cardboard from a pad of paper (A bad idea, by the way — too acid; can’t remove it.) Still no buzz. Again I put it away. This summer, after a friend [Auxeméry, my French translator] sent me some info about the Walter Benjamin show at the Jewish Museum in Paris, I saw (visualized) what to do — and found this sheet of stamps (forty years old, untouched for thirty and then ten years … that itself is a miracle) and found an online a photo of Benjamin — his haunted passport photo — that just fit the stamp size and pasted two on the sheet, and called it (after much thought) “Commemoratives.” It is really something. (That one is up on Alligatorzine.)
I also save materials — that sheet of stamps is probably the most exaggerated and intentional case, though I am somewhat of a mini-hoarder as I said before. But sometimes these materials go sour, and the potential in them seems to evaporate before I get to them. And sometimes the materials seem over-determined — I had a scrap of pretty fabric from a jam jar someone gave me, but it was not working, because of the all too “calico” readout of the fabric. This might in fact be what Schwitters meant by Eigengift — but it is more like the social meanings and references that the scrap accumulated were too much because too specific. Like using the wrong typography for a text.
Sometimes when there is “too much” intention — the things end up looking really bad. Too much “idea.” I did a series of five collages last summer on the five rooms of Buddhist meditation (you know, blue, red, yellow, white, green in some order) and frankly, they were, as a series, very labored. Kind of dull.
I don’t like when they look labored — sprezzatura is the thing. Click — it all fits together in odd and interesting ways.
Many are done almost at one go — or sort of, but sometimes I leave them to evaluate what’s there and see what’s going on. Knowing when to continue and when to stop is of course another key “art activity” that I am familiar with in poetry — “what’s too much, what’s not enough” are always the great questions.
Sometimes I overload them and don’t like them. So I do occasionally revise — rip up, cut and take only part, prune something. Or add something. Sometimes that works, but sometimes it is just a bust.
A word generally does not trigger a collage, but a title as part of a project could — like [the word] “primer.” I am possibly working myself up to a number sequence. Which of course could be endless. I have 1, 2, 3, 4, and another 4. It is a very odd idea — there is all this junk around with numbers on it … I am getting quite interested.
Question 8) repeated: Under what circumstances do you make your art? Late at night? With music on? Spread out on the floor of a room in your home? At a different desk from where you write? What prompts a piece: a conversation? A nagging feeling that something must be done? A shape, color or word in your mind's eye? All at once in one go or over the course of a few weeks, months, etc.? Is there “revision”?
Damon: I start to feel a little crazy if I’m not doing something involving color, especially in the winter months in Minnesota. Often a project simply starts with that restless, irritable feeling that life has become brittle. [Interruption from Rachel — that’s when I know I have to be writing a poem — yours is a great description of this state.] So with weaving often I just plunge in, at odd moments between daily or professional tasks. I start winding the warp, some generic color that I can match with a lot of my palette, on the warping board. Then step by step as I have time I set up the loom. Some steps of that process, such as threading the heddles, are becoming more onerous as my back feels its age. (One thing I love about weaving is the childishness of many of the words for the paraphernalia: bobbins, shuttles, spools, heddles, treadles, needles, raddles, tabby, woof as a common alternate of weft, niddy-noddy, etc.) I used to have music on, now, since 9/11, it’s usually the bland, soothing tones of NPR. Or the raucous, joyful intensity of Iggy and the Stooges. With x-stitching, it’s most often an exchange with a literary interlocutor that plants the restlessness seed. I have a sharp memory of being at the Diasporic Avant-Gardes conference in 2004 organized by Barrett Watten and Carrie Noland, and during someone’s talk (Bruce Andrews’s? Kamau Brathwaite’s? I can’t remember) became suddenly possessed by the need to give form to the word “form” in the context of diaspora. What kinds of new cultural and expressive possibilities did this matrix, of form and displacement, generate?
Question 9) About how big are your works in general? Is there any inhibition about size or shape? That is, do you want to make smaller or larger works? Do you want to make related kinds of works (such as…)?
Damon: The woven pieces are either baby-blanket sized (three by three feet), scarf-sized (six and a half by seven inches), or shawl-sized (three by seven feet) because of the restrictions imposed by the width of the loom and the nature of the artifact. The x-stitched pieces are far smaller, five to eight inches square or so. I would like to make wider woven things, which I can only do if I sacrifice pattern. I like the size of the x-stitches; I think of them as tokens, like Creeley poems, easily transferred from person to person, through the mail or face-to-face, fitting into a manila office folder, I like Vicuña’s term, “precarious,” to describe the small scale of the objects, though she uses the term to describe far more fragile and ephemeral pieces than mine.
Question 9) repeated: About how big are your works in general? Is there any inhibition about size or shape? That is, do you want to make smaller or larger works? Do you want to make related kinds of works (such as…)?
DuPlessis: This is an interesting question for me. The basic sizes are five by seven inches or eight and a half by ten inches. This is true for the majority of my collages. It is very hard for me to go bigger, though my Benjamin collage is eleven by fourteen inches. Before we left for New Zealand (February 2012), I was making a conscious effort to see whether I could go larger than my initial comfort zone. (So I bought a bigger pad of good paper.) It was very hard. It’s a question of how much space you can “control” or “be in charge of” without becoming flaccid or uninteresting. So I guess I am tentatively exploring what it would feel like to use a larger space, and I have made some works that I like on this larger scale. Scale is an astonishing fact of art — and a very intense choice of mechanism. I see this now. You’d think I’d have seen it earlier, given the scale and size of Drafts.
There’s no way to end this — but as I close (we are e-editing back and forth) it is clear as clear can be that these individual practices are aesthetically, emotionally, and semantically vital to both of us, “despite” their not being anything like our professional identity. Yet these visual works have grown organically and powerfully and waywardly from the other work we do. It is striking to feel this need and desire in another person. Thank you, Maria.
Damon: Thank you, Rachel, for having shown such interest in my work. Our “hand/eye,” tactile practices are, as you say, intimately related to our professional practices, sometimes predating them, and I see this conversation as a significant gesture in the interest of disalienation.
Bob Grenier's 'CAMBRIDGE M'ASS'
Breadcrumbs would violate library rules, so I tore up notebook paper to leave my trail. I was in the Poetry Collection in the library of the University at Buffalo reading CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, a book-length poetry broadside, 49 by 40 ¾ inches, with about 275 poems by Robert Grenier scattered across it. A diligent scholar, wanting to read it through without getting lost, I needed a way to mark off each poem as read or not and to count them. Reading it this way was like going for a walk in the woods and trying to count each tree individually, marking each one off so as not to miss or repeat one.
That’s a foolishly obsessive way to go for a walk in the woods — or to read this work, shoehorning a work that demands a unique reading practice into familiar codex sequencing. In a codex’s predetermined sequence, each page seconds and builds rhetorically upon the page and the pages before it. In a codex collection of poems, someone has already laid a trail through the woods, and conventional reading practice is to follow that trail from the first beaten step to the last. Robert Creeley’s 1968 Pieces impressed Grenier with its ambivalent structure: each part an autonomous moment of attention, each part a cumulative contribution to the series. He has described that formal shimmer in Pieces as “parts are wholes / parts of a whole” and as “the one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion.” Rather than sharing poems out one to a page in standard publishing practice, it ran groups of lines and stanzas together with sometimes one, sometimes three bullets between them. The bullets either divided off individual poems or linked items in a series. (There’s a theory of time involved here: each moment is distinct, yet each follows directly from the one before it and proceeds into the next — autonomy and contiguity.) The precise function of the bullets is ambiguous, as rhetorically multifunctional as a line break — a level of punctuation stronger than the strophe, but not quite so strong as that next level up, the page-gutter breaks between poems.
Pieces made explicit a neglected aspect of standard reading practice. Each poem in a typical poetry collection is autonomous, but we read it in an arranged sequence. Poems follow one another — “follow” in the sense of both spatial/temporal priority and rhetorical build. As a sequence of images in a poem or a sequence of paragraphs in an essay has its rhetorical/ordinal place, arranged for the sake of some effect, so also does a sequence of poems in a collection have its rhetorical order, each poem its spacio-temporal and rhetorically determined place.
The next step of formal innovation, as Grenier saw it, was to break the sequence apart, to find a way to publish a group of poems such that there was no sense of predetermined order, no sense that any individual poem is building upon or toward any other particular poem in some cumulative rhetoric or even that they have to be read in any particular order. (Sure, one can flip around in any book, but page numbers indicate a prior arrangement that the flipper flouts.) He said in an interview:
So anyway, I thought that Pieces had so much accomplished the serial form, opened up the one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion, that somehow the only thing to do was to “stop it” and look at separate pieces, because, actually Pieces invites that, invites that possible “development,” and so it’s just a common history of the form, which wouldn’t be interesting except to writers. And so out of that came the desire to reassemble things in sentences for other persons with a tolerance of the difference between one sentence and another. They wouldn’t have to “follow,” but you could build up some kind of continuum which wasn’t a series but was some kind of made juxtaposition of separate elements. But I’ve never actually been interested in build-up of the more-than-one. I always liked the oneness of whatever something is, in itself. I’ve been puzzled by the problem of assembling the single things, which have their own integrity, if you look at them — and after all, it keeps you from being devoured by the onrush of “multi-tasking” responsibilities. I like to look at things singly, and think about them multiply. I don’t like to pile too much stuff up on top of each other, because I get dizzy and actually I can’t think anymore.
Grenier has addressed that “problem of assembling the single things” several different ways. His 1978 book Series: Poems 1967–1971 includes some poems in Pieces-like bullet series (including one called “For Robert Creeley”), and the longest part of the book, “Fall/Winter Family Home,” consists of seventy-four unnumbered pages, two very short poems to a page. In A Day at the Beach (1984), he pushed that practice still further. The whole book lacks page numbers. The one word “MORNING” appears centered on the first page. A third of the way in, a page has only “MIDDAY,” and another third along, a page says, “AFTERNOON/EVENING.” On a watchless day at the beach, those would be the only rough temporal categories that matter, since there would be no necessary or scheduled time to do anything in particular. What time is it, and where are we? Not 3:14 pm or page 61, but just somewhere in the afternoon. All the other pages have three very short poems each. In a typical poetry collection, a page number creates a sense of location. Abstract numeration stretched across the whole book irrespective of content provides the poem’s place, a place within the numerical sequence of the book. In the numberless format of A Day at the Beach, however, a poem’s location has less to do with a place in the overall series (one cannot easily say that a poem is on page 42, but only that it’s — after some paging around to find it — “here”) than with its place on a particular six-poem page spread. Its place is not defined by some transcendent order beyond the page, but by what is right at hand.
The dedication on A Day at the Beach is “for the six directions,” presumably the possible movements in three-dimensional space: up, down, forward, back, right, and left. Such motion would be contiguous, into the immediate space in one of those directions. In abstract numerical space, all numbers have a noncontiguous arithmetic relation to all other numbers. If a poem on page 51 reminds a reader of a poem on page 17, that reader can leap back thirty-four pages and compare them. Where all the pages are alike and numberless, such a search is more difficult. The other poem is back there somewhere, and the reader needs to blaze the trail back to it afresh, scanning pages for landmarks in roughly the area it might be. The looked-for poem is like a ring dropped in the woods: one can’t say exactly where it is, but can retrace steps and scan the ground. Each short poem in the book is autonomous, of course, but it appears as part of a group of six that have a defined spatial relation with one another. These few linguistic incidents are directly at hand, all others vaguely somewhere before or after. Yet the groupings and the sequence of groupings have been given to the readers.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
A more extreme knot-cutting solution to the “problem of assembling the single things” is just to print them all up separately. In the 1970s, Grenier was writing hundreds of short poems, each with Pieces-like attention to the moment. Many of them caught bits of ordinary language. He typed them onto cards so that each poem is presented as a separate object, not as a leaf in a codex attached to and sequenced with other leaves, but as a distinct object of attention. Grenier reports that he displayed them in a room at Franconia College when he taught there in 1971 and ’72 — he claims, perhaps in self-deprecating hyperbole, that nobody ever saw it. A former student of his from Franconia, Allen Bramhall, offers a slightly different, fuller memory of the display:
I remember him hauling out his batch of cards and saying he didn’t know what to do with them. [S]ometime after that he filled a hallway, that was normally given over to displays of photographs and prints, to a … well I want to say a performance of his cards. he pinned them in neat rows and columns on the corkboard. I remember seeing him at it, and there was something of a graffiti artist’s earnestness about where he was doing this. the hallway was rather dark but with the white cards notably brighter. I did not expect the visceral effect of seeing so many of his pieces on display.
This “performance” prefigures both Sentences (individual poems on cards) and CAMBRIDGE M’ASS (wall display of a great number of poems all at once).
In 1978, Michael Waltuch published Sentences, a box with five hundred five-by-eight-inch cards, each with one short poem in the center (as well as a few paratextual cards: title, author, copyright, colophon). The sides of the box fold down to expose a stack of cards, so a reader does not have to dig them out or upend the box to get them out. The box unfolds into a bird shape, and the stack stands upon that bird-shaped base.
The poems are all in the IBM Selectric typewriter font in which Grenier wrote them. The evenly spaced typewriter font gave Grenier control over spacing and disposition of words and letters that, in those pre-PC days, he would otherwise have to cede to a typographer. And besides, is an “l” really so much less important than a “y” that the “l” should cede space to it? An example from the ongoing exchange between father and daughter scattered throughout Sentences:
As I type that on my computer right now, “could you” is longer than “stay here” even though they both have the same number of letters. In Sentences, on the other hand, those two lines are exactly the same width, a solid, stable little block of IBM Selectric typewriter font rather than the slightly top-heavy and leaning Times New Roman on my screen. The only imbalance in the Selectric text is the space between the words, inclined, as is the nature of a request, toward the one being asked something; in the last line, that space moves to center, the four-letter words balanced to either side, enacting the stability of “stay here.” Nor is the Selectic “AMY” such a large, urgent presence over the rest of the text.
Asked by Charles Bernstein, “What’s the relation of one card to another?,” Grenier replied, “None. But you can make one.” That’s superficially true in any collection, of course, with each poem in its own autonomous page-space, but rhetorically and materially bound to the others in a specific order. Sentences, however, offers a potential material form to that ambiguity. One could remove a card from the stack and isolate it. Somebody who owns a copy and finds a particular poem especially evocative could put it up somewhere on its own as a little broadside. Or a reader might arrange and rearrange the cards according to some personal or ephemeral rhetorical impulse, set up small stacks and sequences, or reshuffle the deck to experience novel juxtapositions. The arrangement, order, and juxtapositions can become the reader’s. Elsewhere, in discussing the break from ordinal rhetoric in Sentences, Grenier writes:
Meanwhile, the world was willed to chance, to change, by guaranteeing the separateness, but still finite (at large) possible relations among the communities of the different cards. “Necessary” alliances shewed to be structurally absurd by apparent abundance of actuality-in-possibility, “narrative” would be brought to a stop (but be seemingly infinitely jumping) by the (halt) (oxymoron) brought about by the author, arbitrarily, perhaps, but still in the service of — THAT that rules the waves.
It’s an exuberant & perhaps “youthful” aesthetic/athletic delighting in the actualization of any sequence as a “sentence” that appears to contribute to & record, that that happens — that did happen — over against the myriad things as sequence-structures in language that “might have been” & “weren’t” for that time, that were evident as articulately clattering nonetheless ghosts of possibility & figures from the past — formal resources vastly more potential, all that “didn’t” or “hadn’t” — were constantly struttering about, as possibles-in-actuality always almost before one’s nose?
More force to the democratization of syntax sequence! Demote the fixed! Totalitarian view of what looks like the “normal course of things” inevitably nowadays downfall toward depletion of given planet, begone! Faith in the miracle of the middle structure-world apparently needed/occurring in language, as its process reality (why this one rather than another one — or nothing — here?) — that’s “narrative” in Sentences.
All the possible arrangements and sequences that a codex foregoes, Sentences makes possible. The unbound cards imply all possible stacks and sequences as well as maximum rhetorical liberty for readers. There is no one way to read it, no authorial rhetoric beyond the humble arrangement of letters on each particular card.
And Grenier finds further amusement in the possibility that any given box of cards may be unique. When Waltuch had the cards printed up — five hundred poems for an edition of two hundred boxes — he had the daunting task of assembling 100,000 cards. John Batki (to whom, along with Anselm Hollo, CAMBRIDGE M’ASS is dedicated) offered Waltuch the students in his fiction-writing class at Harvard as a collating crew. Grenier raises the likelihood that a student may have occasionally missed or duplicated a card by mistake. Therefore, except for Grenier’s draft box in the Stanford University Library Special Collections Department, there may not even be a definitive set on which to run the permutations.
But readers do not always encounter Sentences as an object so radically manipulable. Even if the deck has been shuffled, one first encounters it in a particular order. Then, in the process of learning what is in the stack, one might begin to manipulate it. A reader on that first encounter does not, of course, have to read the cards in the order they are stacked, but might cut around in the deck. Flipping the next card or cutting the deck to a card deeper in the stack, one doesn’t know what is coming next any more than one does reading the cards one by one. It’s a blind movement on toward something else unknown (pretty much like life itself). Either way, card by card or in random cuts, a new reader experiences juxtapositions and sequences that neither the author nor the reader has chosen. But the very manipulability of the text means that there is no necessity to this order of the encounter, no authorial intention hanging over any particular sequence, which can be puzzling or even irritating for many readers. It could be in any order; it just happens to be in this one.
Even so, readers tend to respect the order of the stack. Waltuch writes, in an online exchange with Jessica Lowenthal, that he had not expected that sort of obsessive orderliness: “There’s no prescribed way to read the ‘boxed version.’ I do remember observing that most people were careful in their handling of the cards, although this surprised me. One can read the cards one at a time, stacking them back up on top of each other on a new stack, one can lay them out in groups of one’s own arrangement, one can shuffle them, one can pin them to a wall, etc.” In response, Lowenthal writes, “As to your surprise about how carefully readers manipulated the cards: I suspect that now the cards are handled with more care than ever before. I was afraid to touch the version I saw!” The copy of Sentences in the Poetry Collection of the University at Buffalo, for instance, shows precisely this sort of auratic respect. A look along the edge of the stack shows evidence of handling of the top cards (an ever so slight graying from the clean hands of scholars) that decreases to nothing toward the bottom. Obviously we scholars have respected the order and have been reading it as though it were a codex, the form we are most accustomed to.
Somebody who does not own a copy of Sentences (on sale in 1978 for $10 [Watten]) is likely to encounter it in a library’s rare books collection or in a private collection of rare modern poetry. Rarity creates aura. The unconventional form of the box (unfolding onto a plane from which the stack rises rather than untopping to reveal a cavity that contains the stack), the box’s cloth cover and faux-ivory clasps that hold it together, the heavy and broad cardstock of the text: these material details mark the work as something special — as does the lack of easy access to it except through special institutional or personal channels. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “The definition of the aura as a ‘unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be’ represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception.” Sentences is, thus, a relic in the cult of modern poetry, untouchably distant for many readers even as they hold it in their hands, too precious to alter — such intimacy would seem irreverent. So though the form of Sentences suggests there is no necessary order, many readers end up treating some fortuitous order as sacred. Though Lowenthal “was afraid to touch the version [she] saw,” she goes on to write, “I watched as the owner of the box flipped randomly among the cards, producing a reading experience sort of like the online version (without the script), in that I read a set of cards randomized by an external hand.” The owner had a familiarity with the object that the scholar-pilgrim would not presume.
Lowenthal mentions the online version. Though Grenier liked the idea of making Sentences more widely and easily available, he was hesitant to allow it because he thought at first that it would permanently fix the order of poems, creating a canonical sequence. When he learned that Waltuch could write a program to shuffle the sequence for every site visit, he then approved the project. Through the Whale Cloth Press website, the text is no longer rare and difficult to access (though, of course, the box and cards still are). One reads the online version the way Lowenthal read the box someone else owned: “a set of cards randomized by an external hand.” Each access to the site generates a unique random sequence; a reader can go forwards and backwards within that sequence, but upon leaving and then reaccessing the site, repeating a sequence is astronomically unlikely. Nobody can establish any lasting order. When a juxtaposition creates some interesting effect, it is purely ephemeral. The one who delights in it can’t preserve it. Log off, and it’s gone. Having little in the way of temporal extension, those effects occur in a precious present. In a standard codex, I can turn back to a numbered-sequential page spread and resavor a delicious juxtaposition. In A Day at the Beach, I can page through till I find that combination-upon-a-page that I especially liked. If I owned a copy of Sentences, I could save out and set together a combination of cards. The material objects preserve meaning combinations across time and allow a reader to reaccess them.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
The online Sentences emphasizes more than anything else by Grenier the autonomy of each poem within the group. When I read a poem, I am, in the sequence of the reading experience, only here, an otherwise unmarked place within an unmarked expanse. It’s in no designated place that I can return to via a page number or bookmark, nor can I draw it out (abstract it) from the rest of the group and, like a card, give it its own place beyond the group. Because I don’t know where it is, I can’t return to it except by chance encounter. On a particular walk, I can’t place it except via direct contiguity with those next to it, and if I want to return to it, I can’t make a leap that abstracts from the text (no bird’s-eye view from above the woods such that I can see a shortcut), but only by following each poem (“one-one-one, things-following-after-each-other in the enactment of the occasion”) like a string of breadcrumbs back to the place I was looking for. Turn away, and the program eats all the breadcrumbs; finding one’s way back is a stumble through a freshly trackless wood.
That freshness with each reading is exhilarating. Reading the box with familiarity and intimacy (rather than with a sacred awe), a reader can manipulate the text, blaze a path on which to return, build meanings, and make connections that aren’t necessarily ephemeral. With “a set of cards randomized by an external hand,” it’s like reading a codex once again, with an order the readers have had no say in, even less say since readers cannot mark their own way around.
CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, on the other hand, has no obvious order, or even an obvious starting point — no first page, no top card. Without a grid, there is no easy way to follow from the top left corner across and down to the bottom right. That top corner, however, is actually an unlikely starting point.
Geof Huth nonetheless reports trying to read it that way:
As I read the book I read from the left across and then down, but I read in blocks, trying desperately to read every poem and not to read the same poem multiple times. The latter proved impossible, and I’m not sure I’ve read every poem on the poster, but I probably did. After a while, I began to use a ruler to mark my reading.
The work thus invites unconventional reading practices, alternatives to the grid.
Lyn Hejinian, whose Tuumba Press published CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, calls it a “field work,” more like a map, a “poster/map,” than like a conventional book. In such “works,” she writes, “the order of the reading is not imposed in advance. Any reading of these works is an improvisation; one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections, to words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly.” On a map that lacks a latitude and longitude grid, sites have spatial relations with edges and with other sites on the map, but not with any external, abstract organization. Nothing is (unless with the external aid of Huth’s ruler) specifiably this far right and that far down.
The arrangement is too large and scattered for the eye to form an overall constellation. The large number and lack of any repeating cluster pattern means it is also not quite clear how many there are. (Michael Gottlieb’s 1980 review says there are “c. 265 poems” on the sheet. I counted 275 when I marked them off with paper scraps. But I counted only once, so I have no reason to believe my number is less approximate than his.) Like the number of trees in the woods, they are an imprecise many.
A map-reader doesn’t count up all the towns on the state map, but looks for routes and spatial relations. Nor does the map-reader necessarily begin at the upper left: that area has no special status. One can begin anywhere. If I’m looking for a good route to Galesburg, I’ll begin where I am. I’ll begin in the upper left corner only if I happen to be starting from the Northwest. Otherwise, the starting point could be any place.
Two possible surfaces on which to lay out CAMBRIDGE M’ASS for reading: a wall or a table. Depending on how it is mounted on a wall as well as the height of the reader, different poems would land at eye level and would make for natural starting points. From there, as Hejinian wrote, reading would proceed “in curves, swirls, and across intersections.” As attention wanders out of eye-level range, the reading experience would engage more and more of the body, not just the hands and eyes as in conventional reading: a tippy-toe neck-crane to reach the high ones, a crouch for the low ones. On a table (as I read it), the low ones were the most immediately accessible, and so my reading began most easily at the bottom of the page. Once the reading extended far enough along, I stood up, leaned over, and walked around to the left and right.
Since there was always a decision to make (where to next?) and a repeated need to reposition my body — that is, without the conventionally passive and still acceptance of whatever comes next — the mental and physical aspects of the reading process were full of self-conscious breaks. There is no simply getting absorbed in the text, but always a consciousness of the reading process. This text is something one is doing and enacting rather than just receiving.
Once the reading has begun, where to next? Reading can proceed along many paths and principles, contiguity only the most familiar one. When I read a codex, I read poems in contiguous sequence. Here, without sequence, there is still contiguity, but without a conventional structure for deciding which one is next, the choice is the reader’s own arbitrary ramble. Affective chance selects this one next for its shape or length — a shorter one (perhaps one of the many one-line or one-word poems) because it will take only a moment or a longer one (maybe nine whole lines) because I’m ready, after some short ones, for the heave of attention — or a word that leaps to the eye, maybe a word that echoes something else recently read.
Clusters of connection form. For instance, this poem:
where is a name
stands to the right of
is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one in
and just below
in use long after I
Those title lines — “LAURA,” “KIT,” and “YOU” — seem to suggest these three are about or addressing specific people, but it would take some ingenuity to find a thematic connection between them in the rest of the text. The connection, such as it is, is tenuous, a link of attention rather than of rhetoric.
In Sentences, the texts are isolated in the center of broad cards, inches of white space around each one. One can, of course, as Grenier said, make a connection between them, but it isn’t necessary. So something like “l o i k e w o i s e” (spaces between the letters) appears in splendid isolation so that the reader can appreciate the oddness of the expression on its own. But when the same poem appears in CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, it stands in a small white rectangle, the margins, like those of all the other rectangles, trimmed to fit it. The expression is a response, part of a conversation, apparently a response to something else in the crowd of texts around it. One possible vector of connection begins with this poem:
unable to bear
of the trees
upward fall as
air to heaven
Then it proceeds downward to the right to another instance of natural beauty: “the roses from across the street.” And then to the right of that, an ironic comment on the shared romantic sensibility of those two poems: “l o i k e w o i s e.” Or it may be a comment on the poem above it and slightly to the right, a sort of ironic “yeah, me too” to this:
no pattern of self as
straight line or crooked
meanderings of history as
lived as example for me
“[T]o words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly.” A repeated word suggests a rhetorical connection: three poems widely spaced across the sheet begin with the title line “POPLARS,” and since that word is capitalized, the eye may break the contiguity rule to leap a gap between them. Such links create constellations across the sheet. For instance, in the upper right corner, a word picture (very Ian Hamilton Finlay here),
cemetery cove cemetery cove cemetery cove
It connects via “cemetery” with,
— depending on how one decides to punctuate it, either an invitation to another stroll or a bizarre command for those who happen to be standing up for a second. And it connects even more closely with the imagery in,
quarry road sleep
quarry pond sleep
And it links further across the sheet to another with shared imagery and title line:
Attention, therefore, might not always be forward-directed toward completing more of the reading, but backward toward something read before, read anew as part of a constellation rather than as an isolated point of attention. These movements would be nonrectilinear, like the gridless vectors and shapes of the natural world.
And a scholarly reading would, of course, want to be complete, backfilling an area covered by a leap of attention or rounding off the poems in a sector or on an edge before moving onward.
It was originally, of course, sold as a poster, not as an object of study but as something to tack up on a wall and live with. On nonarchival paper, it would, used that way, eventually fall apart. In daily use, on the wall of a home or office, reading would likely be far more casual, less obsessive. Since the poems are all short, it would be easy to take a moment to read one, then read another contiguous one or else another that visually rhymes with it or that in some other way catches the eye. Such casual attention is likely to begin at some arbitrary place and then shift and twist around in no systematic way, unbound by any prior order or transcendent Cartesian-grid pattern of organization — aimlessly free. A reader who lives with it may well return, out of habit, affection, or proximity to eye level, to the same ones each time, come to recognize new or (with different readings) shifting patterns of connections and constellations across the sheet. Without an analytic plan (no ruler, no paper scraps, no breadcrumbs), a reader who lives with it most intimately may never read them all.
Photograph by Geof Huth.
One of the paradoxes of broadsides is that once we put them on our walls, we don’t usually read them anymore. The visual design becomes an icon, a citation of the text, a right-brain gestalt that includes the text and communicates what we remember of it without regularly demanding the focused and detailed left-brain attention of literal reading.  CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, however, overcomes that tendency by promising that the left-brain demand will be small: just a few words or lines. Might as well pause and read one; there are always more, and it will take just a moment. Icon, yes, but one that invites further and deeper readings, one dip at a time, rather than seal it off, as most broadside designs do, as a completed experience.
Though reading might proceed without plan and by impulse, Grenier did have a rough system for the placement of the poems. The title could have been shuffled into the mix, another sarcastic little two-word poem. But since it is separated off by extra black space in the lower right along with a few unmistakably paratextual boxes (dedication, author’s name, press name, copyright), it seems instead to have that special status. It’s a rude good-bye to New England and to the academy — both of them, in his subjective geography, centered in Cambridge — as he moved permanently to a nonacademic life in Northern California. Expanding outward from there, he selected some poems from Sentences, but mostly other poems from his notebooks of around that time. (He has called CAMBRIDGE M’ASS an “outtake” from Sentences. He typed them up on cards in the same Selectric font he’d used for Sentences, and he pasted them on the largest sheet that Hejinian could arrange to have printed offset in San Francisco. Grenier recalls that he was thinking of it as a rough and subjective map of the Boston area, centered on Cambridge, spreading out in the topography of memory, a “bird’s-eye-view” rather than, necessarily, cartographic accuracy. The black of the right margin would be the Atlantic Ocean, and the middle of the black edge at the top Ipswich Bay, Cape Ann the upper right and Connecticut the lower left — a map of mental relations. He also says he may have been thinking of Charles Olson’s references to Samuel Champlain’s 1607 map of Gloucester Harbor.
So there is a Louis Zukofsky reference toward the lower left corner, presumably toward Zukofsky’s New York, “L.Z. // ‘history their figment of miracle’”; near the Cambridge area in the middle, “who walked home from downtown Boston you and I”; near the upper right Cape Ann area, “sound receding steady toward shore dome tower // same three back again flying their shadows”; and in the extreme upper left (in a sort of New-Yorker’s-view-of-North-America foreshortening), “WINNIPEG / an hour’s variance.” Since the poems are arranged along the vectors and arcs of Grenier’s own memory, however, the places where he had lived or spent a lot of time will bulk larger than other areas where he did not, so any attempt to plot meaning onto conventionally scaled cartography will be pointless. Only experienced relations matter.
The spatial organization of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS reflects a sense of space Grenier says he found in New England. He has discussed how he found the sense of space there different from the sense of space he grew up with in Minneapolis. Two-dimensional Midwestern space, generally uninterrupted by hills and stretching across broad plains between its rivers, is generally laid out in grids, as is much of Minneapolis, including the neighborhood of Grenier’s childhood. In grid space, the relation between two addresses is easily calculable as an abstract and rational mathematical function. New England, however, was not laid out in arbitrary grids, but according to the contours of the land. Roads did not necessarily follow straight lines, meet at right angles, or respect the compass directions. The sense of space would spread out irregularly from a focal point. Routes would ray out from roundabouts along nonperpendicular vectors, and a journey might twist and shift from one roundabout focal point to another, vector leading to vector, from town to town toward a destination. Unlike a Midwestern grid, where distance is always easily calculable (so far west and so far north, say, along a grid of urban rectilinear blocks or rural mile-apart roads), New England distances and directions are more felt than calculated, more a matter of lived aesthetic awareness tied to the topographic contingencies of this specific place than a matter of abstract and generalized mathematical reasoning. To go from, for example, Cambridge to Gloucester, therefore, is to move along a series of twists and shifting vectors rather than smooth arcs and straight longitudinal lines. The layout of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS was to reflect that sense of space, where irregular contingencies have not been bulldozed away.
The boxed version of Sentences has the potential — for a reader willing to use it with intimacy and familiarity rather than with awed respect — to break standard sequentiality, to leave each poem standing in relation to the whole rather than to a rhetorical sequence or cluster arranged by an “external hand.” But as for CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, there is no way to read it in rhetorical sequence. Any ordering will be by the reader’s own arbitrary decision or impulse. Each autonomous poem always stands in relation to the whole work because the whole work stands within the reader-viewer’s field of vision — never hidden on other pages or deeper in the stack.
According to Grenier, copies were sold or given to friends, and as for the rest, some were rolled into shipping tubes, and some lay on the floor in stacks for years in the little room where Hejinian kept her hand press and her back stock. There was little interest in the work, and sales were negligible. Eventually, because she needed the room, she threw the remainder away.
2. Deep thanks are due to Robert Grenier for sharing with me his memories of how this broadside was composed and published, also to James Maynard of the Poetry Collection in the Special Collections Library of the University at Buffalo for his invaluable assistance and expertise.
3. Robert Grenier, Attention: Seven Narratives, A Curriculum of the Soul,28 (Canton, NY: Institute for Further Studies, 1985), 12.
7. “Grenier in Conversation with Charles Bernstein,” Program 2, Close Listening, PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, 20 Oct. 2006, mp3.
8. Ron Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, Jan. 24, 2003.
9. Grenier, Sentences (Cambridge, MA: Whale Cloth, 1978), np.
10. “Grenier in Conversation.”
11. Grenier, Attention, 13–14.
12. “Interview and Discussion on 1964–1970s with Grenier, Al Filreis, Charles Bernstein, and Michael Waltuch in New York City, on March 19, 2010,” interview part 2, PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, mp3.
13. Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, March 12, 2003.
16. Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, March 12, 2003.
18. Geof Huth, “SCHENECTADY, M’ASS,” dbqp: visualizing poetics (blog), Feb. 9, 2010.
24. Nonetheless, Grenier provided a list of places he had lived in New England that he considers relevant to the organization of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS. Along with each address is the length of time he lived there — perhaps a suggestion of the magnitude of each place in memory and, thus, the relative area it governs on the poster. Here is the list:
Weld Hall, Harvard Yard 9 months
Fall 1959–Spring 1960
… Ellery Street (rooming house) 6 months
c. Nov. 1960–April 1961
57 West Cedar Street 2 months
Boston, MA (cellar on Beacon Hill)
… Putnam Avenue; 598, & later 429 Franklin St. 28 months
c. Nov. 1962–June 1965 (minus 5 summer months in Intervale, NH)
6 Duley Street 12 months
Gloucester (Lanesville), MA
Sept. 1970–August 1971
21A Washington Avenue 25 months
June 1976–July 1978
+ of course visits to various other spots around & about (e.g. 2 apts of my wife’s parents on Crafts Street in Newtonville, MA). (Grenier, email message to author, August 7, 2010.)
Also relevant is an interview in which Grenier discusses where he lived and what those places meant to him during his college years and early twenties in New England. “Interview and Discussion of 1959–1964 with Grenier, Al Filreis, Ron Silliman, and Bob Perelman at the Kelly Writers House, on October 27, 2009,” PennSound, University of Pennsylvania, mp3.
26. And still more radical are Grenier’s drawing poems, written in four colors and published on cards. The cards are photoreproductions of the notebook pages in which he writes them, including on the flat card, the image of the notebook’s page gutter. The lines of the letters and words overlap one another, and the orthography is highly unconventional, so the reading process involves figuring out what the letters are, as well as how those letters arrange into words and the words into an overall text. These minimalist poems bring the reader back to that long-ago moment when reading was a new skill and the process of mentally assembling and interpreting lines and loops of ink was an intentional process, not the second nature it’s become. So the reader becomes conscious not only of the mental work of sequencing, but also of the basic literacy work of decipherment. Some examples of this series include the box of cards What I Believe transpiration/transpiring Minnesota (Oakland, CA: O Books, 1991) and the online set Penn Scans, Whale Cloth Press, 2009. See also his comment on that series, “Penn Scans Note,” Whale Cloth Press, January 3, 2010.
Listening to ‘The Sea-Elephant’
Williams has remained a foundational poet for me for decades: the exuberance, variety, and transparency of his formal experimentation; the surprising eloquence amid his sometimes bumptious democratic stylistic affirmations; the complexity of the political-formal negotiations throughout Paterson; his unflagging honesty — there are many ways his writing remains of the greatest interest. However, during the decades I’ve been reading and rereading his work, there have always been the lesser moments in poems I value very highly, the not particularly notable pieces, and even some downright clunkers like “Tract”: “I will teach you my townspeople / how to conduct a funeral —” My intuition is that the problems are quite closely bound up with the strengths.
“The Sea-Elephant” has moved from somewhere in clunker/not-interesting territory to become a poem I find quite fascinating. This is not due to any perspicacious reading on my part; rather, it’s because I listened to Williams reading it.
This experience has split “The Sea-Elephant” into different objects. As a poem on the page, its quatrains enact the typical Williams tussle between syntax, prosody, and lineation. The four-line boxes display a visual metric that has little relation to the sound, at least as Williams himself voiced it in the recordings we have:
the strangeness of the sea —
a kind of
Ladies and Gentlemen!
sea-monster ever exhibited
Here, as throughout much of Williams’s verse, we can see (i.e., read) his polemic, as he uses democratic American materials to attack that doubleheaded ogre of his poetics, England, an opponent that was both passé (sonnets, iambic pentameter) and more fashionably advanced than Williams’s own work (think The Waste Land). After decades of Williams’s quasi-hegemonic influence on American poetry, such quatrains may look normative to us, but line breaks such as “a kind of / heaven” and “exhibited / alive” were unfathomable for many readers at first.
Much the same polemic can be detected in the oral performance, but in that medium “The Sea-Elephant” takes up the battle quite differently, dramatizing Williams’s American (anti-Eliotic) poetic principle in a suite of voices, with what I call a ‘poetic’ voice recurring amid interruptions from a circus carny, the sea-elephant, a fussy woman, and ending with the poet breaking out in a sarcastic parody, halfway to a falsetto [MP3].
It takes only the briefest introspection to be reminded of the foundational difference between listening to a poem and reading it. To bracket the complexities memory would bring in, let’s make it a poem read or heard for the first time. I will bypass the complexities of neurological processing and speculations about the tangled relations of sight and sound. I am concerned here with the middle ground of human perception.
Reading is voluntary, whereas with listening there’s a basic passivity. While I can listen carelessly or even with hostility and thus I have some control over how the sense is being made, nevertheless, this control is secondary: the speaker’s words, affect, timbre, timing, volume, pitch-contour, and intonation are inescapably primary physical facts. But with reading nothing happens unless my eyes activate the poem, and any instant that desire flags, reading ceases. On a bad day, with a poem I’m not interested in, my reading-motor may stop every few seconds. It’s not exemplary behavior, I grant. But whether it stutters or not, reading provides a more capacious temporal vantage than listening. While construing the clumps of letters at the focal center (i.e., reading words), my eyes simultaneously receive a sense of the words and spaces on the rest of the page or screen. It’s an unfocused sense, but it means that in a bare way to read is to see a bit into the near future (and, symmetrically, the near past). When listening I’m more confined to the present, though there is some sense that holds the sound from the near past together while syntax and semantics are being construed. (Again, I’m ignoring the case of re-hearing a piece where I can sense a future vantage as I anticipate certain passages I know will be arriving next.)
Beyond such simple facts of sensory processing, in my experience there’s been a most basic difference: my emotional set toward what I read is critical, hard to please, while much of what I hear I tend to like or accept. Am I home to two distinct sensory beings? Or does reading push in the direction of privacy (autonomy, solipsism) while listening is irreducibly social?
It’s tempting to dramatize this difference. William James writes that the separation of one mind from another is absolute: “Neither contemporaneity, not proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together which are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature.” Can James’s dramatic, eschatological language apply to a more intimate, counterintuitive breach: the breach within a single mind between the eye and ear, reading and listening? Perhaps so; but then again it’s a breach that is constantly traversed in commonsense discussion. As we listen to the poet read the written poem, we can attend to slips and surprising emphases, but these are simply matters of performing a score; any distance between reading and hearing is continually normalized by the fact that we’re forced by the language we use to say “The Sea-Elephant” is the same sequence of words whether it’s read or heard, i.e., the same poem. Still, it will be more interesting here to explore the different territories of listening and reading than to map the two onto one another.
Listening has fundamentally changed my judgment of the poem, not only adding qualities I had simply missed in reading it but eliminating an irritating fuzziness that only existed on the page. Reading (at the “high end” at least) is in the service of exact reproduction. Take two quite different examples from both the arts that can be perceived by reading, music and poetry: there is Olson’s familiar claim that the projective poet is to use the typewriter to make the page a score, thus unifying the written and spoken poem; and there is the antique anecdote I picked up in my days of reading record jackets that has Brahms being asked if he’s going to the concert and him replying, no, he’s just read the score and heard a perfect performance of the symphony in his head; it would only get botched in the concert hall. Brahms and Olson are quite distinct, I’m sure we all agree, but both are asserting that reading is an exact activity. The guarantors of this exactitude are the poem on the page and the musical score, both of which insist on perfect, reproducible performance.
My initial reading experience of “The Sea-Elephant,” as I try to reconstruct it, was hardly perfect. But its imperfection supports my sense that reading aims at exactitude. As far as I can remember, I never would actually finish reading the poem. My reading eye would always bump off it, noticing only the quatrains, mostly two- or three-word lines with single-word lines appearing unsystematically, reinforcing my sense that Williams’s line breaks were always a seat-of-the-pants operation. The only specific that stands out in memory is an irritant: “Blouaugh!”
I had never liked reading Williams’s nonlexical moments. Poem XX of Spring and All: “The sea that encloses her young body / ula lu la lu”; the 10/30 entry from The Descent of Winter: “To freight cars in the air / … / pah, pah, pah / pah, pah, pah, pah, pah”; “The Trees”; and “For a Low Voice,” among others. And of course not to forget the locus classicus from Paterson: “And, derivatively, for the Great Falls, / PISS-AGH, the giant lets fly! good Muncie, too.”
These moments were all downers, but “Blouaugh!” seemed especially annoying. Some non- or quasi-linguistic sounds are more favorable to transcription than others. “Ula lu” and “pah” at least look precise — one knows what they’re supposed to sound like. But how is “Blouaugh!” pronounced? One syllable or two? Was it “Blow” + “augh!” or was it more like a stretched-out “Blog!”? Not being able to tell instantly (and “Blouaugh!” appears three times in the poem) would always push me on to some other poem.
But listening to the “The Sea-Elephant” changes that. “Blouaugh!” is no longer an ungainly phonetic blur to vex the exacting lone reader: its differing manifestations are key parts of the oral narrative of the poem. “The Sea-Elephant” is a publicly performed tragicomedy of poetics.
It’s as if the technologies of sound reproduction have reversed the moment of Pisistratus (the tyrant of Athens who, the lore has it, instigated whatever process it was that got Homer written down, transforming the Iliad and Odyssey from variable oral poems into fixed texts). But now, the fixed letters of the text can be performed variously as the following versions of “Blouaugh!” [MP3].
Just as the three instances of “Blouaugh!” differ, one performance of the poem can differ greatly from another. The one I will be focusing on is from an MP3 (1:52) made from a Williams reading at Princeton in 1952, followed by Williams’s comment (1:39) that is at least as interesting as the poem, if not more so [MP3].
Here, I will be a phonological docent for this performance, one that, as I say, completely changed my idea of the poem, making it into a specific event, more capacious and less self-similar than the printed poem.
Typical of many an oral performance, Williams makes a mistake in the reading, dropping the “too-” from “too-heavy,” but that fact is of little note. Much more significant are the social, sonic, and rhetorical dimensions clearly dramatized by the soundscript. A second performance of the poem is available on PennSound, from a reading in 1955 at UCLA where Williams sounds much more damaged, still a trouper, but forcing the sequence of social tones and dramatic turns through a voice that can’t pronounce or modulate all that well. Nor does it sound like he’s seeing the page very clearly [MP3]. This less felicitous version makes clear how much one performance may differ from another, but it also reveals Williams performing the same soundscript (i.e., the same sequence of voices and the same schema of accentuation in the phrasing). The second version takes longer: 2:15, and is tough sledding, especially if you go on to listen to the long comment (7:40) where Williams slowly discusses the variable foot and his invention of the stairstep line (which “The Sea-Elephant” does not use) then rambles on about the need for American poets to overcome iambic pentameter, which he tries to define but gets wrong [MP3]. It’s interesting evidence (if any more were needed) about how central an obsession metrics were for him from pre-WWI Imagism to the end of his life, although listening to the earlier reading (i.e., turning back to the 1952 recording) must remind us of the crucial fact that his practice would often, as it does here, far outstrip his theory.
Somewhat analogous to the Homeric situation, where you could hear a sketch (a barebones narrative with basic ornamentation [epithets to fill out the meter]) or you could order the full-dress elaborated performance (I wonder if they charged by the simile?), I’m proposing, tongue not totally in cheek, that we consider the performance here (poem + comment) as a more complete version than the printed poem. While this is an homage to a favorite performance moment, the temporality of the situation is multilayered. The poem was written in 1929; Williams is reading and commenting in 1952, post-WWII, post-stroke, and post-heart attack; and we are retrieving his voice via twenty-first-century technology. To my ear, this version resolves some of the awkwardness of the poem, redeeming its touching openness from the bumpy satire it keeps falling into.
To underline my interest in the comment, I’ll print it at the end of this piece, lineated to mime the printed poem. The transcribed comment contains almost exactly the same number of words, so my lineation works nicely until the last quatrain. Embedded in the playfulness of my gesture is a serious proposition concerning Williams: I want to dramatize the distance in his work between text and voice. The two frames are not opposed, but they are doing very different things.
In giving my sense of the 1952 performance, I will be counting in the bits of audience participation that are audible; for instance, the satisfied surprise and shock of the listeners dissolving into screams and laughter as they re-hear the second, louder and louder, “Blouaugh!,” Williams and the audience both expressing wants and fears via the lower half of the phonological apparatus without much syllabic fuss at all from tongue, teeth, and lips. Their instantaneous oral negotiation is audible: a sturdy play-contract has been established, on the fly: it’s as if the poet has said, I’ve scared you again, but you’ll recognize that there’s nothing scary, I’m not a sea-elephant, you’re not a fish, you’re not a victim of the raging appetite whose crudity I’ve forced you to hear again. The audience laughs and screams like kids at Halloween, shocked into a skittish glee by the unpredictable irruption of the now-recognizable monster [MP3].
To one whose knowledge is produced and ratified by reading, the sonic medium is elementary and vague: [MP3]. In the sound universe we no longer read Williams for line breaks with all the (scholastic) drama of those decisions: quarrels over metrics are replaced by social agons. Nor are poems machines made of words as Williams’s oft-repeated claim has it; rather than the word, the phrase becomes the unit, with contestatory foregrounding of various social voices, some pushed more toward quoted presentation: [MP3], some more thoroughly caricatured: [MP3]. We no longer hear Williams railing against he once called the medieval masterbeat, iambic pentameter. In the history of Anglo American modernism, to iamb or not to iamb was a charged matter — “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave” — but in the sonic universe of “The Sea Elephant” such battles cease. [MP3] is a particularly well-balanced floating stretch of regular beats, which could be a snatch of iambs, or trochees, indifferently.
In the naive, echoey world of sound, what does it matter if we hear TRUN dled / FROM the / STRANGE ness / OF the / SEA — catalectic trochees (final syllable missing) — or TRUN / dled FROM / the STRANGE / ness OF / the SEA — acephalous iambs (first syllable missing)? Either way, [MP3] is a symmetrical stretch of stressed/unstressed syllables enclosed by stresses, which is then followed by its inverse, [MP3], a symmetrical stretch of stressed/unstressed syllables enclosed by non-stresses. What could sound more sea-like, womb-like (trundle bed, bundle of joy), than the sum of these two phrases with their syntax withholding the subject of the sentence and thus reinforcing the sense of unending suspension? [MP3]
The subject of the sentence then bursts upon us, fulfilling, in some technical sense, the syntactic contract. The sentence-construing listener is owed one subject (something is trundled from the sea, but what?), which is then provided. What the ear hears, though, is not syntactic completion but the brash interruption of a different intonation. At least, that’s what’s in the soundscript: Williams himself doesn’t initially realize he’s inhabiting a different speaker until he’s halfway through the phrase.
No more saline, womb-like undifferentiation; we are now gendered beings, and are addressed as such: either ladies or gentlemen, fractions shied through Life’s gate, as Melville had it. And the fractures don’t stop there; we’re customers, we’re classed (we’re at the circus), and we’re regional (as the Bronx/Jersey nasality informs us). Via accent and denotation, the carny’s voice has made it clear that the greatest sea-monster ever exhibited alive, the gigantic sea-elephant! [MP3] is, precisely, not Moby Dick.
But the poet cedes no ground. He grabs the mic back (so to speak) and using a slightly lower pitch and a non-nasal seriousness pronounces the fact that although the poem has just quoted commercial speech it nevertheless it has serious designs on articulating the poetic sublime.
The carny-voice was using the American commercial vocative: the address to the customer. In reaction from this, Williams’s poet-voice addresses the sublime using the Latin vocative [MP3] (and there’s a real argument to be made that “O” in that construction is not English, but Latin). But once we take the part of the sea-elephant (something the vocative suggests that we do), how do we feel about what the voice is saying to us? The tone seems concerned, but we hear, first thing: [MP3] — that’s not a compliment. But then again, no, it turns out that a solicitous question is being asked: [MP3]. But no, again, without warning another insult: [MP3].
Throughout the poet’s speech the rhythmic emphasis is earnest, as is the tone and the speed of assertion: everything hinges on the series of stressed words the poet punches out, fraught with insistence. An odd sequence when they’re listed in print: WALLOW FLESH FISH APPETITE STUPIDITY SICK SMALLNESS LEAVES LIEF ENORMOUS SEA SPEAK! Note the dying falls, not just on APPETITE or SMALLNESS, but the monosyllables, too: SICK, LIEF.
In one way, the poet and carny are saying similar things: for both the sea-elephant is monstrous. But where the carny offers mastery for just a quarter, the poet is making complex, not to say contradictory, demands:
A lot is being asked of the sea-elephant here. On the one hand, he’s a sublime wallow of carnality, Pig Cupid’s big brother. He’s an ally in the fight against The Waste Land; a monster to use against some genteel April which often seemed to Williams to have Eliot’s copyright on it. Eliot’s well-known “April is the cruellest month” is, of course ironic, but Williams seems to have disregarded this to give vent to his annoyance here and in poems such as “April Is the Saddest Month,” which depicts the aftermath of dogs mating.
Beneath his undeniable cynicism Williams shows himself (here as so often) capable of being jejune, smitten with spring, Keats-ish. Via a sonic pirouette (leaves = lief), what were the trite symbols of spring, [MP3], become a site of his own desire as he insists that [MP3]. “Lief” is a word, though not one the ear hears much at all, an odd, rusty adjective, adverb, even an obsolete noun (= dear, sweetheart), but mostly used in “I had as lief …” Here and elsewhere Williams uses it as his own idiosyncratic noun to indicate some sort of utopian leafy permission. In “Asphodel” he writes: “A thousand tropics / in an apple blossom. / The generous earth itself / gave us lief. / The whole world / became my garden!”
But if the battle is to rescue modern poetry from old-fashioned docility (descriptive seasonality), the cry [MP3] is an odd-sounding call to arms. If the goal is to bring poetry and the present into closer alignment, then wouldn’t the carny be more contemporary than the poet? Perhaps the would-be modern poet, tangled up in disgust and desire by long e’s in [MP3] had better turn the mic over to the sea-elephant:
Does one hear this as rebuke, release, self-satire, or affirmation? If we imagine a scale of earnestness stretching from the religious awfulness of the Eliotic Thunder’s DA to a bad boy pretending to puke on the marble floors of culture, just how solemn-sarcastic is [MP3]? The primary aggression could be directed at the carny (O blasphemous venality of the commercial world, [MP3]), or Eliot (O pedantic smallness of poetic ambition, [MP3]), or himself (O overblown poet commanding the enormous sea to speak, [MP3]). Each alternative sounds plausible:
The poetic voice’s subsequent elaboration will not resolve any ambiguities. It begins in the first person as if the poet were ventriloquizing the sea-elephant, but quickly switches perspective to the poet observing the sea-elephant.
Just as it is not easy to tell if [MP3] was a cry of ejection or incorporation, desire and disgust are not disentangled here. Is this eating or spitting up? Authoritative, kingly appetite or childish puking? This equivocation extends even to the idiosyncratic verb “gulching back”: the sea-elephant’s gullet is an insatiable gulf that vomits fish back out.
As if to comment on such gorging messiness, another voice is heard:
On the page, the enclosing parentheses, “(In // a practical voice),” is meant as a stage direction for voicing. Awkward though it may seem on the page, it demonstrates that Williams was thinking of the poem as a soundscript, to use my earlier term. For the listener, however, the phrase is simply redundant. Here, the sarcasm of Williams’s tone is dominant, and it’s hard not to assimilate this woman to a stereotype of the anticorporeal matron (second cousin to Loy’s English Rose, say, in “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”). This sense is quickly reinforced by repetition, as we soon hear the woman again, a little bit more emphatic in dismissing the historical mysteries of the sea-elephant, the old gender-bending mermaid.
Having set up this woman as a satirical target, Williams then uses the full volume of the sea-elephant against her. There is no ambiguity here: this is the sea-elephant as emblem for Williams’s rejection of domesticity.
As if the sea-elephant had just spoken for him, the poet uses the beast’s undifferentiated massiveness to dismiss all craft and cleverness. The immediate referent for the following would seem to be trained seals (Williams wrote “The Sea-Elephant” after a visit to the circus in 1929); but on the page these lines seem emblematic of Williams’s lifelong struggle with line breaks.
Swing — ride
on wires — toss balls
contort yourselves —
Rather than engage in such prosodic cleverness, why not just bellow one’s own presence? You other trained, contorted poets may worry over the damn line breaks, but for me it’s all desire, all the time. At least, that’s what poet-as-sea-elephant is saying. In fact, the actual line breaks are an excellent species of Williams’s own prosodic contortions.
As I mentioned earlier, here Williams ventriloquizes the sea-elephant as Aphrodite, rising from the sea.
But if the sea-elephant is the poet’s democratic love-goddess of insatiable appetite, then the third “Blouaugh!” becomes the approved cry of triumph, appetite asserting its priority:
Positivity is harder to pronounce. Sea-elephants can interrupt poems, but they don’t seem to do as well in writing them. Williams tries to make the sea-elephant emblematic of his own poetic enterprise, indulging in a small fantasia of hetero carnal bliss:
But the bounty of such triumphant identification proves ephemeral and the poem suddenly switches without warning back to literary polemic. The target is some vague bolus of Pound (whose catchy but ultimately nondescript satire is quoted: “Winter is icummen in”), Eliot, and ye-olde Britishness. The poem ends with finicky, aggressive sarcasm:
This makes the audience laugh (of course, the “Blouaugh!”s, the carny, and the woman had softened them up). Throughout the reading, Williams seems to have had a strong hold on the listeners. (This will become even clearer in the comment.) It’s not that much of a stretch to compare Williams’s repertoire of vocals manners in the poem to the carny’s behavior: both are examples of “aggressive outreach,” call it. The product the carny is urging on the public is a sighting of the sea-elephant; with Williams, the product that is recommended so sharply is his poetry. And if we remember the context of Williams’s career at the time of the writing, this final sarcastic turn can sound rather sour, a grumpy realization of his secondary position. Rather than an omnipotent male disporting in the sea, the poet is a married man in New Jersey, probably taking the kids to the circus. Aggrieved masculinity chafes within petty rituals of renewal. It’s 1929, and poets still have to write about Spring.
Listening to the poem, this intense deformation of the poet’s voice at the end makes an odd conclusion. The emotional level — what old-fashioned terms the sonic universe seems to bring to mind! — seems not far from grade school sarcasm. Perhaps some of Williams’s polemic is directed toward his own practice as a poet: he is conflicted about his own partially repressed Keatianism, but is the aggressive inarticulation of the sea-elephant any way forward?
Before I turn to the comment, I want to reflect on the temporal issues of my procedure. “The Sea-Elephant” was written in 1929 in the midst of Williams’s polemic over the place of his vision of poetry in America and Europe. He had, at that time, only equivocal evidence that he wasn’t losing that fight. By the time he read the poem and commented on it in 1952, he was a few years into the physical battering (strokes, heart attacks, bouts of depression) that would unravel him, but he had also begun to live the life of the acclaimed poet, reading at universities, being listened to, etc. And here I am, belatedly realizing that new technologies make for new ways of writing and reading. Still, I find the comment quite a concentrated example of the qualities that seem to remain most useful for poetry.
The way the audience picks up the vulgar suggestion in Williams’s nearly whispered rumination shows how closely they’re listening:
This was not an isolated trope for Williams. Discussing another reading (NYU, 1949) where “he had read one or two confessional pieces that had not intended to read, he told the friend who had arranged the reading that he felt like he had been ‘talking into a felt mattress.’ Confessing in public felt as if you have pulled ‘back your foreskin (if you have one) in public.’”
But the moral here, to my ear at least, is not that Williams was an unreconstructed phallic monster. “The Sea-Elephant” can certainly be read as a phallic attack on femininity/feminization. But in the comment Williams finds his wife’s remark informative, and it leads him to a complex perspective on his own aggressivity. To be “rough” is, finally, to display one’s “timidity”:
Semantically, what follows is a non-sequitur: [MP3]. Logically, this explanatory “Because” is puzzling. The intertwining of masculine display/fear is caused by arguments over poetic decorum? But on the emotional level, such sudden leaps into the arena of modernist authority have been occurring throughout the poem.
In what follows, Williams begins with an earnest attempt at decorous discussion:
The key word here is “belittle.” Williams is not (ostensibly) belittling them; but they, as we will hear in a moment, have already belittled him. Meanwhile, as he warms to the rage he’s about to vocalize, he shouts out his most paradoxical poetic credo:
I find this very moving, if endlessly complicated. One can take this as another version of the real language of people, but that doesn’t account for much of the substance of the poem, not to mention the framing. The audience is the poetry, but needs the poet (apparently in a superior position) to sublate them. I won’t attempt to untangle the complications of this. Again, my intuition (the same faculty that saw Williams’s strengths and flaws as a baggy unity at the beginning of the essay) suggests that this may be an unresolvable knot.
The poet may be in a superior position, lifting the audience up, but, typical of Williams’s sudden reversals, his next position is low indeed:
The audience’s loud laughter is ultimately as impossible to parse as “Blouaugh!” But it strikes me as entirely plausible that one element animating their explosion of pleasure is some sense of the kinship of the sea-elephant and the worm. Both fit easily into the tragicomedy of phallic authority we’ve been hearing. Whether or not one grants this connection, the audience’s pleasure is a palpable fact and fleshes out Williams’s insistence that the audience is the poetry.
Ladies and Gentlemen!
there fish enough for
Flesh has lief of you
to let them glide down
a practical voice) They
is that woman’s
Swing — ride
contort yourselves —
hates to expose
more sensitive … feelings you
rough. At least it’s a
one as I am, at
belittle them — such as
an aura that
This project is an experiment in critical address for which I owe great thanks to Louis Cabri, guest editor of ESC, where a version of this piece appeared; and to Michael Hennessey, who started, and to Sarah Arkebauer, who completed, the process turning segments of the Williams MP3 into clickable sound-quotes. And that such MP3 files are available thanks are owed Charles Bernstein for assembling PennSound.
Quotations by William Carlos Williams are from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939, copyright ©1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
A version of this essay appeared previously in ESC: English Studies in Canada 33, no. 4 (2007): 37–53, as part of a special issue on poetry and sound edited by Louis Cabri and Peter Quartermain.
4. See Jay Bochner, “Mina Loy and W. C. Williams, the modern poetic line and the gendered city,” for a great account of the initial shock of Williams’s lines. In Bochner, An American Lens: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz’s New York Secession (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 162–181.
6. Of course, one can read faces, paintings, skies, etc. And parole in liberta, calligrammes, the vast variousness of lettrist writing require quite other notions of reading. But for this discussion, I’m intending a plain denotative sense of reading: sequential processing of marks on paper.
7. The actual practice of Western music loosens or even attacks this precision: think of Cage and post-Cage procedures. This turning away from exactitude can be traced back to the sprechstimme of Cage’s teacher, Schoenberg. And prior to that there are the traditions of cadenza improvisation (Mozart, Beethoven) filling in figured basses (Bach).
13. See Eric Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982) and Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales, ed. Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
16. Pig Cupid is from Mina Loy, “Songs to Johannes” in The Last Lunar Baedeker, sel. and ed. Roger L. Conover (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 53. Williams’s sea-elephant is mostly male, though the gender story is tangled. Halfway through Williams mentions a beard (and that could be ambiguous); he next ventriloquizes the sea-elephant as female (if you accept the low-key allusion to Aphrodite rising from the sea); and then near the end the sea-elephant is triumphantly depicted as disporting with his harem, while always remembering to eat.
19. This is another Keatsian facet of Williams, who was never shy about hosting other consciousnesses: cf. one of Keats’s less famous sound bites on negative capability: “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel,” from John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. Maurice Buxton Forman, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), 74.