Commentaries - August 2011
Over the course of the next few months I will be performing as a commentator for Jacket2. I will be collecting, recollecting and commenting on a wide variety of digital texts and contexts operating in the inter-zones where digital media, literature, visual art and performance practices meet. Some of these texts may be more about language than about literature. Some may be more about reading than writing. Some may seem to be more about the social than anything. Some may be visual art, or net.art, or media art, or sound art or some other art or all of the above or something in between. Some will refer to the literary without containing a character of text. And some will be live moments, never again to be realized.
There are terms for these ways of working. Writing in networked and programmable media. Transmedia storytelling. Hypermedia. Multi-media. Multi-modal. Cross-art-form. Art Writing. Performance Writing. For me, this last term incorporates all the elements I am most interested in, which is why I have placed the word performance first in my title.
What do I mean by Performance Writing?
In “What do we mean by Performance Writing?” a keynote address delivered at the opening of the first Symposium of Performance Writing, held at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England, on 12 April 1996, Caroline Bergvall proposed that “the performance of writing would be this observation which seeks to locate expressedly the context and means for writing, both internal and external to language, whether these be activated for and through a stage, for and through a site, a time-frame, a performer's body, the body of a voice or the body of a page.” The performance of digital texts both internal and external to code languages may be activated for and through a CPU, a network, a browser, a hand-held device, a < body > tag, a performer’s body, the body of a voice or the body of a page.
One of the principal tenets of Performance Writing is: context is everything. The European context, of course, comprises many different countries, cultures and languages, each with wildly divergent art histories, digital infrastructures and social realities. Although, or rather because, I already have certain writers, works, venues, events and organizations in mind, I actively seek suggestions on others. Send names or links to Commentaries Editor Jessica Lowenthal.
On nonfiction, and C.S. Giscombe
Inland suffers its foxes: full-moon fox, far-flung fox—flung him yonder! went the story—or some fox worn like a weasel round the neck. Foxes are a simple fact, widespread and local and observable—Vulpes fulva, the common predator, varying in actual color from red to black to rust to tawny brown, pale only in the headlights.
It’s that this far inland the appearance of a fox is more reference than metaphor. Or the appearance is a demonstration. Sudden appearance, big like an impulse; or the watcher gains a gradual awareness—in the field, taking shape and, finally, familiar. The line of sight’s fairly clear leaving imagination little to supply. It’s a fact to remember, though, seeing the fox and where or, at night, hearing foxes (and where). The fox appearing, coming into view, as if to meet the speaker.
Push comes to shove. Mistah Fox arriving avec luggage, sans luggage.
I wanted to quote this poem by C.S. Giscombe, from his collection Prairie Style. There are contingent reasons, like the fact that I have somehow found myself shadowing Giscombe over the last several months. We were on a research poetics panel together at the Washington, D.C. AWP, where we discovered a common love for foxes, coyotes, wolves, the midwest, and Amtrak; I ran into him at Point Reyes, at a Michael Ondaatje reading, and drank whiskey with him in Oakland; we discovered we have Maine connections in the same neighborhood; I got a hunch he might like my latest book (full disclosure), and I asked him to blurb it, which he generously and eloquently did; I was in Bloomington, Indiana for a conference, one of Giscombe’s old stomping grounds, and then immediately caught up with him again, in Boulder, where we shared more whiskey; finally, I am now heading for a week of studying wolves in Alberta, near the epicenter of two of Giscombe’s best-known works. More to the point, his poem “Far” locates something important to ecopoetics, what I like to call the “nonfiction impulse.”
The fox is a “fact,” Giscombe says, its appearance “more reference than metaphor.” This recalls for me the statement of a poet important to Giscombe, Lorine Niedecker, in a 1958 letter to Louis Zukofsky: “For me, when it comes to birds, animals and plants, I’d like the facts because the facts are wonderful in themselves.” Niedecker’s in some ways is a quintessentially Objectivist statement: why impose the elaborate scrim of human meanings on the fact of the fox? (Even wonder itself may be an imposition.) Giscombe’s “fact” makes me think about the dominance of “nonfiction” in creative writing about the environment—where reference is privileged above almost all other tools in the language kit. (No wonder the “language” poets and environmental writing never got along.) It brings to mind all the maps in Giscome Road. Giscombe’s fox also points me back to his own venture into nonfiction/ autobiography, the prose work Into and Out of Dislocation (reviewed here by Stephen Collis).
While Giscombe’s work is concerned with the dis/location of “facts” (such as supposed geographies of skin color—“Inland, one needs something more racial, say bigger, than mountains”—not to speak of “disability”) it doesn’t set landscape, body, eros free from fact and location. (The fact that Giscombe is alluding to Langston Hughes’s “Racial Mountain” essay doesn’t set a careful reader free from the absence of mountains on the inland prairies.) Giscombe’s title, Prairie Style, sites the book in a milieu of architecture, class and race relations, but not exclusively. Metaphor is the writer’s trade, as it is commonly construed, and Giscombe calls metaphor the verb for location, for the kind of arrival that a name is: “Names rise from locations, the metaphor comes from water (what water does), is the verb for that kind of arrival, the verb for location” (Giscome Road “The Northernmost Road,” 23). Giscombe’s movement in and out of location (which might be one way to explain the allusive, highly elliptical nature of his work) travels, in pursuit of a contingency of names (Giscombe/ Giscome), bodies, and locations, far upstream of metaphor.
CRY ME A RIVER
Generally, value exists in relation to opportunities for exchange—seeing something in terms of something else—but for the sake of argument say that the shape of a region or of some distinct area of a city could stand in for memory and that it—the shape—is a specific value because it’s apparent and public, and that way achieves an almost nameless contour.
I’m drawn to the persistence of these “nameless contours” in Giscombe’s work, however they get called: the Fraser River; inland prairie; a fox; a certain welling of the sky above Veterans Parkway in Bloomington, Indiana; Ella Fitzgerald, singing “too plebeian.” Giscombe inverts the usual reification and authenticating of value (as location), answering with location: “any value is a location to be reckoned with . . . location’s the reply, the obvious statement about origin” (“Downstate”). In his notes to Prairie Style, Giscombe puts down the addresses of the locations where the book was written (Juliana Spahr does the same for her latest book, Well Then There Now); he also notes, “Portions of this book were written on Amtrak.”
In conversation with Giscombe, while walking around Boulder this summer, when the topic of FedEx Kinko’s came up (a vital address for many Naropa writing program faculty), I was struck that Cecil referred to Kinko’s as the site (at Pearl and 28th) “where you first see the prairie.” There is the persistence of location in a name: “now, mostly, the structures themselves are gone though the location persists—as do the places named Giscome—in various descriptions. The name’s the last thing to disappear” (Giscome Road, “A note on the cover”). And then there is the nameless contour, the shape that stands in for a memory. Individual foxes, as a “simple fact,” a “common predator,” like most “wild animals,” do not get the dignity of a name, just “Mistah Fox”—as many such beings do not even get the distinction of being recognized as a particular species, remaining nameless to the human forces (both individual and collective) that crush them. (I recall Joanne Kyger’s objection to the use of the generic “bird” in poems, exclaiming, “give the thing the dignity of a name!”)
Of course, the name cuts both ways: “some fox worn like a weasel round the neck” reminds me of Niedecker’s
The brown muskrat, noiseless,
swims the white stream,
stretched out as if already
a woman’s neck-piece.
In Red Russia the Russians
at a mile a minute
pitch back Nazi wildmen
As I wrote of this poem, in an essay for Elizabeth Willis’s volume Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place:
Fascist racism (and sexism), communist ideology, and colonial exploitation are constellated in this juxtaposition of the “brown muskrat” swimming the “white stream,” with “Red . . . Russians” pitching back “Nazi wildmen,” who are “wearing women” (the way Russian women might wear furs)—in a manner that simultaneously suggests and undercuts a comparison of communist Russians with “red” Indians and of Nazis with the “white stream” of fur trappers and traders. . . . Communist resistance to fascism may itself—the poem seems to say—be predicated on a putting to death of other species (and of other humans, as communist sympathizers would soon learn, to their horror).
“When it comes to birds, animals and plants, I’d like the facts,” Niedecker says, but what of humans? She pulls her punch in the letter to Zukofsky, but I think (as I argue in my essay) that much of her verse negotiates the complex of values arising when humans, animals, and plants all get the level, Darwinian treatment.
Like Niedecker’s, Giscombe’s locations are disquieting rather than grounding, let in along a balancing act of inclusive attention—to the figurative exchange as well as to what resists this trade, to the “apparent and public . . . almost nameless contour.” (Any of us could go there, wait, see what turns up.) With Giscombe—who revels in the complex metaphoric action of place, which echoes poems and other places—reference, it seems, keeps the poem (or poems) partial, subject to revision, unable to stand in for the world.
It is tempting (as some ecocritics have suggested, and as countless works of “environmental nonfiction” remind us) to make reference the master figure of ecopoetics—noticing appearances, the fact of a fox, where and when, remembering what came into view. Surely, there cannot be much to an ecopoetics without reference, at least as a habit of awareness. (“No walk, no work,” says artist Hamish Fulton.) I think of the insatiable fascination with maps, scientific texts, field experience (over the obsession with narrative and stylistic analysis that characterize so much literary study) common to readers and writers of ecopoetics. But reference, maps, facts, are themselves figures (to state the obvious), especially susceptible to the market for experience, and for “reality,” that so adeptly stands in for, and masks, injurious relations.
I think that for Giscombe reference is a mode of resistance insomuch as his writing straddles both sides of the figure, unpacks all the baggage of “facts,” at the same time that the writing lets contingencies be (constructing entire books around them): “Location’s a jumble of proximities and coincidence,” he writes, in his essay on the boll weevil (published in the anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy). So much inheres in what isn’t said (the ellipses), in an allusion whose key Giscombe buries in an “Acknowledgment” that is really a note, in an Ashbery-like abstraction that becomes concrete, once the reader grasps the unstated context, in the connections between books across different styles and genres—all digging away at the same location(s)—in a kind of wily appearance, as if to meet the reader, so much so that Giscombe himself begins to resemble the proverbial (if not factual) fox.
Giscombe sings the complications of a nonfiction impulse—when we go back, revisit the neighborhood, to let our proximities be more than “a little fishtail in the substances” (“Palaver”). One whose ecopoetics do not simply push experience but let it come to shove: “Mistah Fox arriving avec luggage, sans luggage.”
@ PennSound Cinema, with commentaries by Mimi Gross and Yvonne Anderson
FAT FEET, a Yellow Ball / Ruckus Films Production, 1965-66
An animated film, ca. 20 min.PennSound Cinema Link
Director: Red Grooms with Mimi Gross
Photography: Yvonne Andersen ( Falcone)
Storyboard: Mimi Gross and Red Grooms
Art work: Mimi Gross, Red Grooms, Yvonne Anderson
Flat animation: Red Grooms and Mimi Gross
Set, construction, props and painting: Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, Yvonne Andersen,
Visiting artist and filmmaker George Kuchar
Various visiting students and friends
Stop Action Animation (actors and life sized props): Everyone around
Editing: Yvonne Andersen, Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, Dominic Falcone
Sound: Yvonne Andersen, Dominic Falcone, Red Grooms
Costumes and make up: Mimi Gross
Dominic Falcone: “ policeman”
Mimi Gross: “ old lady” , “ bum”, “ druggist”, “black face walk-on”
Yvonne Andersen: “woman of the night”
Red Grooms: “ black haired fatfoot man”, “candybar eater” “firechief”
Edmund Leites: “street sweeper”
Susan Leites: “woman of the night”
Paul and Jeanie Falcone: “the kids” (various parts)
With students of Yellow Ball Workshop, and dear friends living in the Cambridge and Boston area (1965)
Produced by: Dominic Falcone, Red Grooms, and Mimi Gross
Remembering the time of making FAT FEET
by Mimi Gross (August 2011)
As I worked with Red at various intervals of time and projects, from 1960-1976, our collaborations became increasingly intense, and often lost the boundaries of ideas, aesthetics, and in the real time of making, craft and painting.
FAT FEET (1965-66) was directly inspired by the early animated films of Georges Melies, Emil Kohl, and the marvelous movie, The Invisible Moving Co, all of which we saw from the collections of Joseph Cornell (via Robert Whitman and Rudy Burckhardt). In 1962-3, together with Rudy Burckhardt, we made a 16mm film called Shoot the Moon. It is a direct homage to Georges Melies. There are some brief scenes with stop-action animation .Red and I made little cut outs, and Rudy showed us how he filmed the scene. A few years later, we experimented with animating life-sized props with live actors (long before “green screens”).
When Yvonne Andersen and Dominic Falcone visited us in New York, we planned to make a film together the following summer where they lived near Boston. Red and I had just moved into lively “Little Italy”(1964), a neighborhood where daily fires, violence, and long term elderly residents lived near the Bowery, filled with bums, and (pre-immigration quota) Chinatown. I was busy drawing in the streets, and making objects based on street life, and Red was obsessively chasing fires, fire engines, street life, he was incorporating into his work.
The explosion of making FAT FEET resulted from our excitement living in the new neighborhood. Later, we made an ad, and called FAT FEET: “A day in the life of ‘nervous city’!’”
There are few funny stories making the film. It was pure blood, hard work, but in the end it came out very funny.
We lived at the Falcone’s house (at the time ten feet wide, then a new extension, was added. ) The old lady’s garbage scene took 8 hours to film in 90+ degree weather, heavy face puddy, foam rubber hump, and heavy winter clothes. She was inspired by a typical neighborhood elderly person. Red, as a candybar muncher, was inspired by his gallery dealer at the time. The street sweeper scene was inspired by “the Invisible Moving Co.” The burning building scene took 14 hours to film, using heavy cut out flames of different “life size” scales (little, medium, large, and then variations). We were given a local fire station to film the cardboard hook n ladder and firetruck, very early in the morning. The street scene with the different firemen and trucks was filmed in 2 frame stop action animation near the Boston Fine Arts Museum.
A storefront was rented for one month, in Arlington, Mass (about 75’ long and 25’wide, 8’ceiling).
“Homasote“ (cheapest non warping when new thick cardboard)
Cut with jigsaw, painted on both sides, with removable wood frames.
Lumber and hardware: 1 x 2’s, quick metal connectors, screws, glue (pre hot-glue) staples, hammer
“Savage” seamless paper
Gothic Concentrated Theatrical Paint (black, white, some red and yellow)
Costumes from local thrift shops
16 mm film, Bolex camera (now dvd, and on-line)
Lots of volunteer help!
George Kuchar visited, and helped paint some of the set, but he got out alive before the filming took place! Rudy Burckhardt , Yvonne Jacquette, Tom and Jacob Burckhardt visited while we were filming, and Rudy recommended our calling his old friend James Ackerman whose kids came and helped. My old friend from high school days, Edmund Leites invited his friends at Harvard, and we had students from Yvonne’s workshop helping almost everyday. The title had a specific reference to “being earthbound”.
The nature of making films is collaborative, in retrospect, one can follow the momentum, we easily incorporated working with helpers for the painted sculpture installation projects following FAT FEET.
When the film was shown we dedicated FAT FEET to the firemen who died in the Chelsea (23rd St) fire of 1966.
THE MAKING OF FAT FEET
as remembered by Yvonne Andersen, August 24, 2011.
Dominic Falcone a poet, met Red Grooms a painter in 1957 when they were both washing dishes at the Moors Restaurant in Provincetown, Massachusetts. When Dominic learned that Red was an artist, he sent him over to see me at the Sun Gallery, owned and operated by Dominic and myself,1955-59.
We showed Red’s work there and gave him his first one man show the following summer. Dominic told Charles Rogers Grooms to call himself “Red Grooms” when he painted his name on the window of our gallery at the time of his first one man show. Later Red created the first “Happening” which used live actors at our gallery in the summer of 1959.
Red, Dominic and I shared a loft in New York City one winter, where we created a publication called City” that we printed on our own small hand printing press. Later Dominic, Red, painter Lester Johnson and myself worked together on a giant billboard project at Salisbury Beach Massachusetts. I made a short animated film with Red called “Spaghetti Trouble. Mimi Gross had shown some of her work at the Sun Gallery.
In the winter of 1966, Dominic and I were visiting Red Grooms and Mimi Gross in New York City, when we got the idea to work on a film project together. Red and Mimi moved in with us for the summer. Dominic rented a studio for us near our house in Lexington Massachusetts to make the movie “FAT FEET.”
Red was the writer, director, and acted as a fat man munching a candy bar, a fur coated lady walking her cardboard dog, a fire captain and other characters. I was the cinematographer, editor, and acted in one scene in the movie as a” lady of the evening.” Dominic played the pivotal part of the policeman. Mimi helped with the writing, and played two of the main characters, a witch, and a street bum.
Each morning the four of us along with Dominic and our two children Paul, 7 and Jean, 5 went to the studio to build the sets and props. We painted cartoonish black and white buildings on the paper walls of the set, painted and and constructed ¾ size flat automobiles with movable wheels from heavy building cardboard. Red built a dog which could be animated to walk in front of a live person.
Red was creating a cartoonish atmosphere depicting the types of city people who might be seen walking the street of a big city. For this reason the people wore giant shoes to connect them to the sidewalks. Those shoes were heavy! A normal shoe was screwed into a giant shoe manufactured by Red.
In the beginning this was supposed to be a four person project, but people heard about it. Each night people came to be in the winter crowd scenes. Some were friends of Red and Mimi, some were my animation students and neighbors. We got old coats from Morgan Memorial and there was a large make up table. People could come in, put on a coat, do their own make up, and become who they wanted to be for the evening.
It was summertime and unfortunately our studio had no air conditioning, so we worked on the sets in the day and filmed at night when we could open the doors to disperse the heat of our lights. One night a real policeman walked in, glanced at Dominic in the policeman’s uniform and mumbled in a dissatisfied tone that he heard the name of the film was to be “FLAT FOOT.” We asured him it was “FAT FEET, and he left without further comment.
FAT FEET was a combination of cut-out animation, pixillation and live action on a sureal cartoonish set. The fire scenes were shot in color, but the rest were shot in black and white for financial considerations. The film was produced by Red Grooms and Dominic Falcone in 1966, and is the winner of many awards at film festivals.
A Yellow Ball/Ruckus Film Production.
These video recordings are being made available for noncommercial and educational use only. All rights to this recorded material belong to the creators. © 2011. Used with the permission of Mimi Gross and Yvonne Andersen. Distributed by PennSound.
new digitial editions
Charles Bernstein's My Way: Speeches and Poems
University of Chicago Press (1999)
E-book $7.00 (for 30 days), $30.00
On My Way:
Paul Quinn in TLS
Geoff Ward in Boston Review
Brian Henry in L A G N I A P P E
Timothy Gray in American Literature
cover image by Susan Bee
Publisher's catalog information:
"Verse is born free but everywhere in chains. It has been my project to rattle the chains." (from "The Revenge of the Poet-Critic")
In My Way, (in)famous language poet and critic Charles Bernstein deploys a wide variety of interlinked forms--speeches and poems, interviews and essays--to explore the place of poetry in American culture and in the university. Sometimes comic, sometimes dark, Bernstein's writing is irreverent but always relevant, "not structurally challenged, but structurally challenging.
Addressing many interrelated issues, Bernstein moves from the role of the public intellectual to the poetics of scholarly prose, from vernacular modernism to idiosyncratic postmodernism, from identity politics to the resurgence of the aesthetic, from cultural studies to poetry as a performance art, from the small press movement to the Web. Along the way he provides "close listening" to such poets as Charles Reznikoff, Laura Riding, Susan Howe, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Gertrude Stein, as well as a fresh perspective on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine he coedited that became a fulcrum for a new wave of North American writing.
In his passionate defense of an activist, innovative poetry, Bernstein never departs from the culturally engaged, linguistically complex, yet often very funny writing that has characterized his unique approach to poetry for over twenty years. Offering some of his most daring work yet--essays in poetic lines, prose with poetic motifs, interviews miming speech, speeches veering into song--Charles Bernstein's My Way illuminates the newest developments in contemporary poetry with its own contributions to them.
Full texts on-line from My Way:
•Autobiographical Interview, with pictures, with Loss Pequeño Glazier
•Beyond Emaciation (RIF/T 1.1)
•Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word
•"Dear Mr. Fanelli ..."
•A Defence of Poetry with discussion, from the Cybergraphia site (sound file--mp3--of poem from Kenning)
•Gertrude and Ludwig's Bogus Adventure
•Hinge, Picture (on George Oppen)
•I Don't Take Voice Mail
•Introjective Verse (Chain)
•Poetics of the Americas (this version corrects several errors in the printed text)
•Provisional Institutions: Alternative Presses and Poetic Innovation
•excertps from "Revenge of the Poet-Critic" (Michigan Quarterly Review)
•A Test of Poetry (on translation)
•Unrepresentative Verse (on Ginsberg and Eliot) (Poetry and the Public Sphere, Rutgers)
•The Value of Sulfur (Jacket no. 5)
•Warning Poetry Area: Publics Under Construction
from Kirkus Reviews:
An imaginative mensch fruitfully complicates poetry. Bernstein ... is one of the most sophisticated readers and writers we have. And he's also a wag, but seriously. His alternative perspective can only rejuvenate, partly because he's both a teacher (SUNY-Buffalo) and a student (by temperament), both the critic and the criticized, earnestly engaged with and yet also helpfully detached from poetry and its ongoing politics. Combining commentary on general intellectual issues (e.g., multiculturalisms move into the academy) and criticism (of Ezra Pound, Charles Reznikoff, et al.) with interviews and even poems, which here tend to double as philosophical or aesthetic credos, this excellent collection could serve well either as an introduction for newcomers or as the latest installment, for familiars, of a continuing conversation with the author. For, more than is true of most literary thinkers, Bernstein remains a committed personalist (without downsizing the scale of his investigations): You hear his voice as though he were sitting beside you, offering an amazingly mixed bag of wise asides and sensibly contrarian discussions.... Bernstein's pluralism, favoring the goal of finding the possibilities for articulation of meanings that are too often denied or repressed, is in fact anything but politically correct; as a founder of language poetry, he has always chosen to side with outsiderhood. Its remarkable how much more persuasive his renegade stance now seems than that of the poetic mainstream. For, as Bernstein so eloquently shows and tells us, ``Language, along with outer space, is the last wilderness.'' (12/15/98)
from Rosmarie Waldrop:
This is froehliche Wissenschaft indeed. Turbulent, open-ended thought mounts a much-needed attack on sclerosis of word and mind--and will have you in stitches as it pits PC ('personal cappuccino') against the 'ideopigical,' sound poetry against unsound poetry, and the 'refractory insouciance of the intractable' against tone lock, frame freeze, and mediocracy.
from Marjorie Perloff:
My Way is, quite simply, one of the most brilliant, exciting literary books to be published in the nineties. It is unique in its imagination, its bite, and above all, its deadpan and dazzling wit.
One of the leaders of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry, Bernstein is a poetic gadly, uncompromising in his questioning of what language is, why we use it as we do, and what values are conveyed with our linguistic choices. Bernstein will make few readers comfortable; there is something here to irritate almost everyone, beginning with Bernstein's radical vision of language ... American poetry needs Bernstein to keep it radcially honest, and he is, playfully and annoyingly, delighted to meet that need. (--Patricia Monaghan, 12/15/98)
from Peter Straub:
My Way is an entirely apt, allusive, and irreverent name for the latest of Charles Bernstein's demonstrations that the persistent application of a freely responsive and inventive intelligence to the idea of the text and its manifold uses enlarges both literature and those who read it.
from Rob Wilson (via Amazon.com):
"My Way" offers a contrarian and Emersonian shakeup (and shakedown) of US poetics and its normative liberal pieties. I find these mixed-genre essays to be stimulating,energizing, dismantling, inventive, taking the grounds of "a poetics" into a newfoundland of play, risk, and stylistic mixture. By this, I mean that the prior senses of voice and forms of genre, not to mention the stabilities of "poetic diction," are taken into stranger post-ego areas of language risk, secular conversion, and fun. Sinatra did it "my way," and Charles Bernstein (like a zanier Bob Dylan watching a Marx Brothers movie while reading Deleuze and composing the Greenwich Village Joe Hill Blues on a used mouth harp) did it his, and "official verse culture" in the United States will never be the smug same old poesy again. Not for those whose version of pastoral is still made of petunia flowers, tylanol, and sheep.