Barbara Guest

A conversation with Aaron Kunin

The poet's novel

Laynie Browne: Recently a show at the Morgan Library in New York City celebrated the 1913 publication of the first of the seven volumes of Swan’s Way. Here one could see some of Proust’s original handwritten manuscripts and notebooks, some of which have never left Paris. In one notebook, considering his book in progress he writes:  “Should it be a novel, a philosophical essay, am I a novelist?”

In your novel The Mandarin, the question is potently raised in various ways, who is a novelist? What is a novel? I wonder if you could comment on this.

Feature: Barbara Guest

in Jacket 36

Barbara Guest, Sermoneta, Italy, 1968
Barbara Guest, Sermoneta, Italy, 1968

[»»] Matthew Cooperman: Envy and Architecture: On Barbara Guest’s Realisms
[»»] Rachel Blau DuPlessis: ‘The other window is the lark’: on Barbara Guest
[»»] Ken Edwards: Pageant of creativity
[»»] Catherine Kasper: Barbara Guest’s Career: Defensive Rapture
[»»] Erica Kaufman: On “The Location of Things”

St Mark's Talks (1985): Erica Hunt, Bruce Boone, Peter Inman, Jackson Mac Low, David Antin, Barbara Guest, Lorenzo Thomas, Steve McCaffery, Kathleen Fraser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Nathaniel Mackey, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Anne Waldman, Nick Piombino

In 1985, Eileen Myles was the new director of the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York. She asked me to curate a lecture series, the first such program at the church. I modelled the series at the Poetry Project on my earlier series New York Talk, giving it the amusing title, given the sometimes seeming resistance to poetics at the St. Marks at the time, St. Marks Talks. And talk it did.

Barbara Guest

Photo: l to r: Barbara Guest, Hadley Guest
Photo: l to r: Barbara Guest, Hadley Guest

It’s good to see Jacket2 continuing to focus on the poetry of Barbara Guest, a forceful writer of uncompromisingly modern tastes.
I am pleased to say that at a reading for Carl Rakosi in San Francisco some years ago (where Carl read  his short poem “The Laboratory Rat”) I was able to meet Barbara Guest. I mentioned that Allen Ginsberg once lived on the same street as she did, in Berkeley, at the time he wrote “A Supermarket in California”.
“Well, it’s a very long avenue,” she replied sweetly. “I think Allen lived somewhere on the downtown end.”

Hadley Guest and Kathleen Fraser talk about Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest (left) with Hadley Guest (right)

Kathleen Fraser interviewed Hadley Guest about Barbara Guest in Berkeley on July 17, 2007. The complete recording lasts two hours and 31 minutes and is available on PennSound’s Barbara Guest author page.

  1. introduction (0:23): MP3
  2. Hadley Guest reading "The Next Floor" by Barbara Guest (0:51): MP3
  3. Kathleen Fraser on being introduced to Barbara Guest and her work (13:46): MP3
  4. Barbara Guest’s friendship with painters (9:33): MP3
  5. Hadley Guest on growing up around poets and painters (5:15): MP3
  6. the division between uptown and downtown in the New York art world in the 60s (12:31): MP3
  7. Barbara Guest's refusal to be pigeon-holed (2:23): MP3
  8. the cruelty of the downtown scene and Barbara Guest’s erasure (18:31): MP3
  9. Hadley Guest on living with Barbara during the last few years of her life and hearing about her first marriage to John Dudley (7:18): MP3
  10. Trumbull Higgins and social position in relation to money (11:33): MP3
  11. Barbara’s uptown studio and her strong family feelings (16:55): MP3

Complete works

Image by Noah Saterstrom

This playlist includes recordings of authors reading the entirety of a book or chapbook. I find that longer recordings allow me to become immersed in the textures of the work, to register the ambient sonic environment, and to perceive other small shifts and variations within and between pieces. I sometimes listen to one long recording that allows me to settle into a particular mode of listening and then follow it by listening to another recording that suggests another form of attention. I like the feeling of becoming engrossed and hypnotized by a recording and then using another recording to snap myself out of the experience so that I can see the initial recording with more critical distance.

While listening to the following recordings over the last few weeks, I was reminded of Christine Hume’s review/essay “Carla Harryman’s Baby: Listening In, Around, Through, and Out” published in How2.

"Back of"

Index, bibliography, catalog, list

Image by Noah Saterstrom
Image by Noah Saterstrom

This post explores the poem as index, bibliography, catalog, or otherwise arranged list. I want to consider the ways each piece overflows, suggesting threads that the listener might follow or complicating the idea of order under the guise of an ordering structure. I want to pay attention to the ways these recordings open up into the works of other writers and artists in addition to reflecting back upon the concerns of their respective authors.

Tribute to Barbara Guest

We at PennSound have now segmented the entire audio recording made of the Barbara Guest Praise Day Tribute at The Bowery Poetry Club, October 21, 2006. These people performed selections of Guest's poems, offered interpretations of them along with reminiscences: Lewis Warsh, Marcella Durand, Charles Bernstein, Africa Wayne, Charles North and Erica Kaufman. The event was hosted by Kristin Prevallet. Anna Zalokostas has nicely arranged all the readings on our Barbara Guest author page. Lewis Warsh, for instance, remembered Guest in connection with The New American Poetry of 1960. Africa Wayne read "Negative Possibility." Charles North read "Roses." Lytle Shaw read "Sante Fe Trail." And much more.

Oh, Yes, Subject Matter

Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest in reply to a question about subject matter:

"Oh, yes. The subject matter. The subject matter. I know I was talking to some students in Santa Fe and they were very worried about when I said well what have you been writing, and they said, well, not very much. I realized that they were disturbed more by what they thought was in front of them that they didn’t want to write about, so I told them that the subject matter wasn’t important. And this released them. They were thrilled. They went around for days saying she said the subject doesn’t matter. Because the idea is that sometimes you find the subject as you proceed with the poem. It’s a good rule. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a good rule."

Air for roses (PoemTalk #24)

Barbara Guest, "Roses"

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Listening to this show, this discussion of Barbara Guest’s casually and yet densely allusive poem “Roses,” you will hear about Juan Gris-style cubism circa 1912 (in his own “Roses”), about William Carlos Williams’ famous celebration in “The rose is obsolete” of a new kind of rose – the metal rose, the sharp-edged rose, the lovely unlovely rose – and also about a memory from the age of 8 that Gertrude Stein often retold as a way of explaining her views on the difference between art and nature. Is that difference a problem – an anxiety, a cause for reluctance - for the modernism-conscious poet who comes after modernism, such as indeed Guest, who has an instinct to make room in her writing for the ill person requiring real air to breathe?

Al and sometimes the other PoemTalkers felt that this is a rebuke of modernist airlessness. Natalie Gerber (at right) and sometimes the others felt that this is more likely an expression of skepticism about postmodern art and perhaps a fresh return to the moment of 1912 – the thrilling New Era of collage-y paintings such as Gris' “Roses,” which is (arguably) dated 1912 and which was a canvas Gertrude Stein herself owned. Randall Couch points out that the poem looks at a fork or divergence in the modernist evolution or modernist family tree, a turning point Guest feels is worth going back to. Michelle Taransky (at left) notes that the art in the poem is an art already encountered even as the poem itself imagines the possibilities of a fresh encounter.

As Natalie aptly puts it, we are discussing a poem that is testing out its stance in response to the modernist approach to representation.

Here's one version of Gertrude Stein's telling of her early encounter with painting:

It was an oil painting a continuous oil painting, one was surrounded by an oil painting and I how lived continuously out of doors and felt air and sunshine and things to see felt that this was all different and very exciting. There it all was the things to see but there was no air just was an oil painting. I remember standing on the little platform in the center and almost consciously knowing that there was no air. There was no air, there was no feeling of air, it just was an oil painting and it had a life of its own.

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