Commentaries - September 2007
My interview/conversation with John Ashbery, which took place on March 26, 2002, is available as a RealVideo recording. It was delightful - utterly - although I wouldn't say that J.A. answered my questions about his poems with any sort of directness. Not that I was expecting that.
"When one goes at ideas directly," he once said, "with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg." There he's circling around, but I'll note that (a) his topic is the circling-around of good writing, and (b) it's about as precise a way of describing his poem's relation to ideas as he could give.
Someone once said to him, "I remember having writing teachers insist, 'Write what you know!'" Ashbery's response: "But one doesn't know anything! That's the problem." What does it mean to know something? Still more tentatively: What does it mean to learn something?
As he put it once in a poem, in school all the thought gets combed out. In "What Is Poetry" - the title is not a question but the phrasal description of a category (and categorical problem) - he wonders if poetry is
Trying to avoid
Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it
As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:
What was left was like a field.
When I saw what Erica Baum was doing with photography a few years ago, I knew that it was closely related to what I was trying to teach my students about modern and contemporary poetry, so I invited Erica to visit us at the Writers House. It was a great visit.
Her photographic art captures only alphabetically related terms and puts them into new context. Her photographs are archaic storage systems of knowledge yielding randomly found commentaries, creating landscapes of words, as "subject headings" appear over the vistas of information sheets formed by unexposed cards in card catalogue drawers. How much a particular set of words is revealed, by the angle of the shot, is the essence of Baum's humor. "The self-consciousness" entailed in the act of cataloguing the catalogue, wrote Christopher Chamgers in NY Arts (9/13/97), "intimates the transcience and fragility of human accomplishments. It is our learning that makes the endless concatenation of teaching ironic."
In Baum's art, "the act of information retrieval is turned into a journey," writes Josefine Raab, "--of seemingly unknown destination." Baum will produce a picture of related terms (words and phrases) in alphabetical order, so that for instance the term "Subversive Activities" will appear next to "Suburban Homes" (from Untitled [Suburban], 1997, gelatin silver print, 20x24 inches, shown at Clementine Gallery, New York). The result is what Alice Thorson sees as "a form of found minimalist poetry." Words photographed from an index are lineated like poetry, for example:
cause of, 59-63
what to do when lost in, 185-186
Baum's photographs of such index fragments appear to have been taken from grainy and enlarged photocopies, a setp that engages them in a dialogue with abstract painting while also invoking the pervasiveness of technology.
Baum exposes a Dadaist absurdity perhaps closer to Fluxus puns than to Duchampian metaphysics. Textual without becoming didactic, Baum's linguistic play is informed by the poetics of our era.
"Fragments of an index," Baum writes (in a statement dated April 2000), "reveal the unexpected fictions, rhythms and poetry hidden with a book's internal system of reference... A tension is created between what is absent, the book, and what is present, the concatenation of sounds and meanings wrenched from their source...."
Charles Bernstein’s breakthrough book called Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford, 1998) is full of good essays on the aural ellipsis, the poet’s voice, speech effects, and a history of the contemporary poetry reading, but only Damon’s essay, for better or worse (I say mostly better), really engages the irony and dissonance and difference in the writerly critic’s act of setting into print the problem presented by oral/performance poets such as Benjamin Zaphaniah, whose line “But dis is de stuff I like” becomes Damon’s own intrepid critical refrain (“I’ve tried Shakespeare, respect due dere / But dis is de stuff I like”). When Damon sets the line
into roman type, outside quotation marks, the phrase becomes consciously her own. After that, her brief summaries of open readings and the slam movement have about them the intimacy she hopes to achieve, not an easy feat in a fancy book published by Oxford University Press.
Maggie O'Sullivan will be reading at the Writers House on October 11. She will be joined by cris cheek and, after their reading, Charles Bernstein will moderate a discussion that will include the great collector and curator of concrete, visual and sound poetry Marvin Sacker, and Matthew Abess. It is Matt who has put all of this together--the culmination of two years' work on Bob Cobbing.
At left is a page from Maggie O'Sullivan's online work, "murmur", which is subtitled "tasks of mourning" and was created between 1999 and 2004.
Saul Bellow's review of Invisible Man praised Ralph Ellison for his independence from what was then called Negro writing. What he meant, among other things, was that Ellison was consciously not Richard Wright and that he would resist whatever ideological training had been (as Bellow imagined it, partly from his reading of the novel's narrator's experience) forced upon him.
Negro Harlem is at once primitive and sophisticated; it exhibits the extremes of instinct and civilization as few other American communities do. If a writer dwells on the peculiarity of this, he ends with an exotic effect. And Mr. Ellison is not exotic.
I was keenly aware, as I read this book, of a very significant kind of independence in the writing. For there is a way for Negro novelists to go at their problems, just as there are Jewish or Italian ways. Mr. Ellison has not adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone.