Commentaries - December 2011
In this episode of Close Listening, Rachel Blau DuPlessis discusses her long poem Drafts, the relation between poetry and politics, and the contemporary state of gender issues in writing with host Charles Bernstein, and reads a selection from Drafts.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Close Listening recording session, University of Pennsylvania, April 27, 2005
Conversation with Charles Bernstein
Draft 20: Incipit (Drafts 1-38: Toll, 2001)
Draft 25: Segno (Drafts 1-38: Toll, 2001)
Draft 63: Dialogue of Self & Soul (Torques: Drafts 58-76, 2007)
Draft 46: Edge (Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft, unnumbered: Précis, 2004)
Draft 64: Forward Slash (Torques: Drafts 58-76, 2007)
from Draft 51: Clay Songs (sections 4, 5, 10, and 12; Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft, unnumbered: Précis, 2004)
Draft 61: Pyx (Torques: Drafts 58-76, 2007)
The conversation begins with DuPlessis describing Drafts’ formal motivations stemming from “my impatience with the lyric, my resistance to the short contained poem […] [having] something to do with gender issues and something with the iconic poem for gender; the short poem often is invested in female figures [….] Drafts are like many modernist long poems […] [that collect] almost an encyclopedic array [of sources] […] and I repeat that gesture because of an encyclopedic urge.” She acknowledges Drafts’ formal decision of adding notes as historically being the gesture of The Waste Land, but specifies Marianne Moore’s practice of citation as “much more to my taste, she simply says that she cites because people said things and you can’t possibly say them better, you can’t possibly paraphrase them. So the gesture is in her case democratizing. In Eliot’s case it seems to close off and make arcane the move to write a long poem.” In response to Bernstein’s question, “Do you write a poetry of ideas?” DuPlessis responds, “I write a poetry that tries to be very capacious […] a poetry of not so much ideas cold but ideas as filtered thru a feeling […] the person as a totality.”
Bernstein shifts the conversation to poetry and politics by invoking the Poetry and Empire: Post-Invasion Poetics gathering a year and a half before during the early phases of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and asks, “What’s possible in respect to poetry, poetics, and politics?” DuPlessis responds by describing “many of these poems [in Drafts as] deeply, deeply invested in a sort of a political grief […] they’re poems of a commitment to justice without being poems that tell you how to get to that place, they’re not polemical poems, they’re not agitprop.” Regarding poems’ political efficacy, she continues, “Do they have an impact? […] Does that constitute an adequate politics, just writing a poem? No, it does not.” Toward an adequate politics, poets can engage in both literary and non-literary activities: “All poets are citizens and all poets act in a civic manner within calling the shots as they see them […] or making the gestures that they need to make, whether they’re specifically linked to writing like manifestos or broadsides or poetry readings against something just so that you say ‘I’m against it,’ or whether they go on marches or vote or do the political activities or write polemics in other modes [….] For me, there’s no doubt the seriousness of the long term crisis of […] clerical authoritarianism that we are in in the United States.”
Bernstein interrogates this torqued relation of difference between poetics and political perspective: “But now your poems don’t make statements as explicit as what you just said, and don’t you think that a poet who has the political views that you have has a responsibility to make poems that make explicit political statements, that are understandable to almost anybody who would hear them or read them?” DuPlessis defends her poetics declining explicit political statements in poems by ethically expanding on her concept of the citizen: “You could say ‘Do not do this’ but taking that subject position constitutes an order which you have no right as a fellow citizen to say to other people in my view.” She offers Robert Duncan’s “litany of the Presidents” section in “Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” as an exemplary explicit political gesture enabled by being “contained within a poem that’s saturated with many other gestures [….] One wants to make a poem that’s saturated in many, many modes and many, many modes of thinking. Therefore to simply say ‘Vote here,’ ‘Don’t do that,’ ‘Do this,’ is an inadequate poetry, while it might be a good politics. Might.”
The concept of the citizen in “all poets are citizens” cannot mean the concept of the citizen in a nation-state juridical definition, as some poets are non-citizens of nation-states. This concept of the citizen suggests the idealized metajuridical conception of the global citizen, which does not materially exist. The specified ethics disallowing polemics augmenting itself with this nonexistent metajuridical order illogically constricts potential political praxis. The concept of “all poets are citizens” also confines poets’ political praxis to the confines of the citizen, the authority of the law that inaugurates poets as citizens. Poets can conceivably act beyond the bounds of citizenry in illegal political praxis. Once the ethics disallowing polemics are subtracted from poetics, it is conceivable to make a poem saturated in many modes that also includes compelling polemics. However, it is the decision of Drafts to not include polemics that produces its particular richness: polemical contamination and purity are incompatible.
The conversation shifts to the contemporary state of gender issues in writing. On women writing in contemporary times, DuPlessis suggests that “to set out now as a woman writer is probably an adventure that is different from the adventure we had in part because the layers of women who are […] openly writing in the world frankly, some about female types of issues, about gender issues, frankly about other issues. It is a much different and richer period. The other thing that is really important is the generosity of spirit of male writers who understand gender issues.” She suggests a present horizon of a practice motivated by gender issues: “Without that generosity of spirit, we don’t have really a saturated equality, which is all that is wanted, not extra help.” Bernstein complements this with a personal account of this generosity of spirit’s mutual enrichment for men: “Some men, certainly me […] benefited from a very radical feminist and lesbian feminist critique when we were young [….] I had the advantage of that feminist critique which enabled me to write more interesting ways and to go out of that kind of Western box.” To explain the present state of social relations of women writers who strongly engaged with second-wave feminism, DuPlessis offers the theory of “a female nexus, using the term from The Objectivist Nexus [….] We’re not a group, in fact sometimes […] the relationships were not always totally friendly among these various formations because a lot of the women came from a variety of formations, New York School […] Language poetries, and so on, but it’s now a nexus, because what they were galvanized by was not a single essay the way the Objectivists were galvanized by Zukofsky’s essays, but rather they were galvanized by the Women’s Movement and had to take up a position with regard to it.”
DuPlessis proceeds to read a nonsequential selection from Drafts. The composition dates of Drafts’ poems overlap but progress chronologically overall. The nonsequential selection demonstrates Drafts’ poems’ immanent coherences not buoyed to an authoritarian plotting points structure which enables their reordering in the composition of the poetry reading. DuPlessis’ carefully paced dramatic reading style emphasizes Drafts’ intricate surprising shifts oscillating between trajectories of concepts and referential descriptions. A triumph of Drafts’ poems is the poems’ multitude of gestures’ resistances to being paraphrased in forms or concerns. They can only be sketched as encouragement to experience them wholly, such as time and memory in “Draft 20: Incipit” and “Draft 25: Segno,” political heartsickness and justice in “Draft 46: Edge” and “Draft 51: Clay Songs,” women’s struggles in “Draft 51: Clay Songs,” and Benjaminian Jetzeit in “Draft 61: Pyx” and the reading’s ending (“Now it’s time”). Drafts’ richness rewards close attention, relistenings, and rereadings, as their experiences of thinking are different every time.
Drafts as a work of exemplary dynamic thought patiently composed through a long duration of changing political conditions implicitly argues for its continued dynamism of thought in the changing political conditions ahead, or at least enables a lengthy historical perspective for reflecting on the relation between poems and changing political conditions. As DuPlessis’ aesthetics are augmented by a political ethics to “act in a civic manner,” the political paradigm shift of the referent of United States protest from Iraq to an alignment with the civic space itself necessitates renewing this model’s particularity for the present.
Next commentary: Ron Silliman, The Alphabet Reading at the Kelly Writers House, February 17, 2009.
“A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore” was created by Jackson MacLow in memory of his friend Peter Moore, who in photographs documented the doings and performances of NYC Fluxus and other artists in the 1960s and early 70s. The text or, more properly, the score is filled entirely with words (960 of them) drawn from the letters in the name of “Peter Innisfree Moore”; words like smite, opinion, freer, re-import, Semite, fen, minister, and smote circle around one another in various hand-drawn shapes and sizes.
Richard Kostelanetz writes, “This visual-verbal text can then become a score for a live performance in which any number of readers are encouraged to read aloud whichever words they wish, at whatever tempo they wish, for indefinite durations; and Mac Low's instructions for this particular piece suggest that the individual letters can be translated into certain musical notes (and, thus, that the same text can be interpreted as a musical score).”
One performance in the summer of 1975 was managed by MacLow. Here is a 6-minute excerpt from the audio recording of that event.
A few years ago my students and I discussed this work. Some didn't find it beautiful; some had doubts about its effectiveness as an alternative mode of elegy or memorialization. Most found it beautiful, worthy and a good alternative to the usual methods we use to describe or narrate the life of a dead friend or colleague. You can hear a recording of the entire class session (1 hr 20 minutes).
 an article about Peter Moore
 elaborate performance instructions issued by MacLow for this piece
 a profile of MacLow written by Charles Bernstein not long after MacLow's death