Commentaries - March 2011

Bernstein asks Andrews

Are you writing poems?

During a LINEbreak show, hosted by Charles Bernstein in New York in 1995, Bruce Andrews was asked: "Do you think of yourself as writing poems?" Here was his answer:

That's an interesting question. I do now. I guess when I started, I started writing in the 1969-1970 period, I thought of it as a kind of literary writing or experimental work in writing, more than I thought of it as poetry. Poetry I think of now as an institutional designation, so as soon as I began publishing and getting in touch with other writers, it was clear that any future for anything I did or anything they were doing was going to be under the category of poetry as defined by other people. So, over the years I've just accepted that. I remember, for instance, when the term 'language poetry' started getting thrown around, and my original nervousness about the term stemmed mostly from the P word rather than from the L word. You know, that I thought of it as language writing, a term that I wasn't all that displeased with, because it suggested almost a new genre or a new sub-genre possibility that hadn't yet been defined, so that it would be a type of writing that had the certain way of foregrounding the way meaning was produced and operated on in a social world, rather than language poetry, which then implies that language is the adjective referring to a sub-category of what we already think of as poetry.

Here is an audio recording of the LINEbreak show featuring Bruce Andrews.

It's Too Hot

Ted Berrigan

Ted Berrigan on the radio: "In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets," originally broadcast on Berkeley’s KPFA-FM and hosted by Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson, August 11, 1978. In this excerpt of a transcription made recently by Michael Nardone for Jacket2, we join the three about 10 minutes into the show:

BERRIGAN: You just mentioned the secret actually of all my entire poetry, which is that it has to do with planes of reality, of perception. Not of reality, because that sounds theoretical, but with planes of being coming not in a theoretical sense but in a sense of trying to get accurate. I am talking to you but he is thinking about it while I am talking.

ROBINSON: And they, they said something about this, too. And other peoples’ voices come into your work.

BERRIGAN: They are over there, though, and I is here. And he is a little bit over there but is near.

ROBINSON: So there’s an incredible sense of location.

BERRIGAN: Yeah.

ROBINSON: Like when you say three hundred and sixty degrees, you get a center.

BERRIGAN: Right.

ROBINSON: And you get a circumference, and a point of the center.

BERRIGAN: There’s something feminine if you can actually get three hundred and sixty degrees, which I didn’t realize, I suppose, until a few months ago that you could have planes and still have a circle, which is a really nice idea.

HEJINIAN: Right.

BERRIGAN: All that sounds so abstract, and it’s not abstract when I’m doing it. It’s simply trying to have something exist without describing it. To name its parts rather than describe it. Description is slow. I can’t keep up to the pace of my metabolism when I am using description usually. But I can do it while simply naming things. You know I don’t use images much but I will name an image. I mean I will say a tree. I don’t try to make a picture of a tree for you. I assume—

HEJINIAN: What about in your novel, in Clear the Range?

BERRIGAN: What about it? I mean, that’s another story entirely. I mean that’s a poet’s novel. I wrote it as this poem, was writing it. It’s a genre work, a genre which I was thoroughly familiar with, the Western novel. And I used the genre then to make everything be very slow and to make this setting in which there was a hero and a villain. Almost like Commedia del Arte. Then there was a girl. And then there were various other characters, including a horse and a mule. But, I mean, the main thing that was going on was that the villain and the hero were constantly having these Western confrontations, in which they didn’t finally pull out their guns and shoot each other. And they were very similar sort of, except that the villain was obviously villainous, and the hero was obviously the hero. Anytime one of them did anything like go into a restaurant or a bar, then the other one was a waiter or the bartender, and they had these confrontations every minute. I think I thought I was making something similar to Camus’ book The Stranger, in which the guy, Meursault, the hero, walks around and becomes totally bemused by the sun smashing on his brain every minute and he ends up, it seems, that he killed somebody. He doesn’t quite remember, or he does remember but he doesn’t know why he did it or any thing in particular, but he did it for a very good reason: it’s too hot.

- - -

Here is the recording of the original show, how housed at PennSound.

Male Absence Is the Subject Position of the Poet

A Retrospective Thought on William Carlos Williams

Photograph of "Antique" Plate by Matthew Abess (note reads: "Daddy's Home")

Having internalized the way in which "Young Woman at a Window" (W. C. Williams) beckons toward (a) readers, (b) WCW himself, somewhat mischievously looking in from outside, and (c) the absent, waited-for father, Matthew Abess took to the American road, and found, in Centralia, Washington, a decorative plate for sale, entitled "Daddy's Home," yours for just $2.50. I assume Matt bought it.

She sits with
tears on

her cheek
her cheek on

her hand
the child

in her lap
his nose

pressed
to the glass

Where Is This Leading Me?

Some Thoughts on Improvisation

Reggie Watts

Reggie Watts on improvisation in Artforum: People usually end up thinking, What the fuck is he doing? At some point in a set I’ll start doing stuff that’s not funny. It’s weird or depressing. Or on the verge of depressing. Or just confusing. Then I do something absurd, and there’s a release––and then we’re back on track again. There isn’t an obvious or logical nature to it. I’m recontextualizing things, or taking two disparate elements and making them clash. And when that happens there’s a reaction. Usually it’s something laugh-y. Or maybe the audience is just laughing because they’re nervous. Or just like, huh? Hopefully it provokes some kind of reaction. But it’s really just about absurdity. I like going down the road and taking people way down this path through the thorns and thickets and then, at a snap of the fingers, they’re in a McDonald’s and wondering, how did I get here? I like humor that really goes somewhere and takes chances. I think every joke is an experiment. The experience of performing is very similar to channeling. The more open I am, the more these ideas come into mind ahead of time. I’m performing but I can see these options in the future and can continue performing. It’s like in Tetris when you see the preview of the next shape coming. You’re playing the game in real time and you’re placing the block, but you’re also aware of the next one. I’m performing live, and I get a preview of a potential idea. I can use it however I want. I can rotate the shape. I can put it over here or put it over there and create a strategy in real time. When I’m open, I see more pieces ahead of time. I like abstraction because it frees you from structure. As an audience member listening to or watching Bill Cosby, or any of the masters, like George Carlin, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what they have to say because you feel like you are there with them. But their style also follows a familiar logic. I mean, they throw some curveballs at you because that’s just the nature of the comedy. But when I’m watching Monty Python or Bill Hicks, at times they have this way of creating a psychedelic experience. I think it’s the psychedelic that I’m interested in, because after a while people ask themselves, What’s the joke, where is this leading me? And then I fail to lead them anywhere they expect. And then they let me try it again. And after so many times of being let down, you have to either go “I hate this. I’m leaving,” or just surrender to it. Then you can just go along for the ride.

Why I Dislike "Schindler's List"

A Film Very Friendly Toward Soverignty

I have long been a sometimes unreasonable antagonist against Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. It's a film about the Holocaust with an ideologically ironic Master Narrative feel, and Oskar is presented as an I know/You don't, I am/You aren't, I have/you want relationship to Jews individually and collectively. The power dynamic gets sexualized (Oskar is physically attracted to a Jew's weakness in connection with his strength - although he knows the difference is merely a result of the era and will change later). The film uses Oskar relentlessly as a focalizer of our view, and so (despite what I take to be Spielberg's good intentions) this movie gives us the Holocaust of a German (indeed a member of the Nazi Party) when so many other perspectives are narratively possible. When we see the little girl in the red coat, we see her only and precisely from Oskar's point of view (which is to say Spielberg's) and there is no visual choice. We see what he wants us to see. In an otherwise black and white film (pseudo-documentary) her coat is painted red. Get it? Sure, we get it and how can we see anything else. It's a fascistic camera. No formal replication of the chaos, the utter chaos, the multiple views, the self-reflexivity, the varying degrees of complicity, the painful-to-watchness, the who-knows-what's-happening historiography of works like Maus or Shoah.

In '94 the Village Voice hosted a terrific symposium on the film. To me this is the finest way of understanding the issues the film raises about representations of the Holocaust.

Gertrude Koch, a panelist, says, "Who has the power? Who has the power to give life or death? That's what the film's about. I think the film is very friendly toward the concept of sovereignty, in the sense that Spielberg is always reproducing it."

Click here and read the whole symposium.