Commentaries - November 2012

Pierre Joris: From “Double-Gazing Semes after Babel Sequestering” (Some Notes on Collaboration)

Pierre Joris, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, circa 1990s, a collaborative port
Pierre Joris, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, circa 1990s, a collaborative portrait

[What follows is the opening of Pierre Joris’s introduction to Synopticon: A Collaborative Poetics by Louis Armand & John Kinsella (Litteraria Pragensia, 2012). That my own interplay with Joris has been essential to my life as a poet goes almost without saying. Along with him & others I have come to see collaboration, not as a threat to identity, but as part of the arsenal of poetic means that has long been at our disposal. There is more to be said about this and the collective enterprise that it implies, but I‘m willing to take his testimony here as truly more than a beginning. (J.R.)]

 How to talk alone about collaboration? When Louis Armand suggested I write an introduction on collaboration for his & John Kinsella’s Synopticon, I had misgivings, yet accepted gingerly. Bear with me. These misgivings were based on the fact that I have never collaborated in the writing of poetry or prose, that I have never had any desire to do so, despite the examples of a number of friends & despite years of theorizing about the death of the author & ensuing claims concerning the autonomy of the text. Well, I have collaborated — in the making of anthologies & the composition of commentaries & introductions, & in one of the latter, Jerome Rothenberg & I suggested that the fabled death of the author may in fact be “much exaggerated,” probably a further reason for my uneasiness.

But then I accepted, perhaps gingerly, but I did accept because the idea of collaboration not only fascinates me, but seems to gain an evermore central place in the practice of writing & in the thinking & theorizing about writing — with Synopticon, the book at hand, a superb example of a quasi-alchemical fusion of the practical & theoretical sides of the question. I also accepted because despite all my above denials there is no way around it: some would claim — & I have no way of disagreeing — that as a life-long translator, I have collaborated, am a collaborator. Only with friends, not with enemies, I want to shout, hearing the word collaborator in its French meaning of a treasonable “collaborateur” or in the Italianate pun “traduttore, traditore,” if we want to stay in the fields of literature. Furthermore, have I not argued in essay after essay that all writing has its origin in translation, that language itself is always already a translation, & therefore, as translation is de natura a collaboration, one could also argue that all writing however single-handed or -minded is de facto a collaboration. QED. Whom am I trying to convince?

Alone here — “all-one?” — I am staring at the word “convince” trying to move on from there. Convincing can’t be done alone, it takes at least two, “con-vaincre” to vanquish or win together is what right now I hear in the word, more than the sense of imposing an idea on someone else (where “con” doesn’t point to the “with” of shared communality, but to the “con-fidence” of men known to abuse exactly that communal trust as con-men.) How could you convince yourself if you are alone & not always already several? Which immediately brings to mind what for many years has been my favorite quote on collaboration, namely what Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari say in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus: “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.” Which saves the day & may set me on my way as I remember how I altered Rimbaud’s Je est un autre to make it read a century later I is many others. And so we have to learn how to be many selves, how to assume (in the French sense of “assumer” = “take upon your self”) our many selves, rather than to irritably reach for the certainty of some imaginary singular, coherent self.

Two modes for the single author to work through this & toward a sort of collaboration have stuck in mind. Many years ago Allen Ginsberg instructed me on the need to “write through” others, loved ones, admired ones, departed ones — as he had done writing through Kerouac & Burroughs, & others. Collaboration in absentia, you could say, though Ginsberg had called it “writing through someone’s mind.” Closer to my own sense of poetry, I have been intrigued & awed by the writing through of texts (rather than minds, though who is to say they are different?), with Robert Kelly’s (writing through Shelley's) Mont Blanc my favorite achievement in this practice. And yet, in our context, is this true collaboration? Such practice does propose a “co,” is clearly “labor” intensive, & constitutes an “oration” of sorts, a discourse, certainly, & one that often plays the voice of the text against/with the voice of the one who intervenes.

And yet, & yet — all this doesn’t exactly speak to the act of collaboration under hand, Armand & Kinsella’s Synopticon. Could I make this introduction a collaboration via quotation, insertion, transcription? Loan words? What fascinated me in Synopticon right away were the techniques used to cut through matters of space & time. As the authors’ note tells us, it took ten years to create this sequence of texts via email. This time-frame alone makes one aware that collaboration — at least in this case — can also involve slow processes of empty time (rhyming with John Cage’s “empty words?”), spaces of forgetfulness, willful or otherwise, calls & recalls, sudden moments of intense exchanges, or, to use the authors’ words “numerous promptings & erasures, sorties, advances, feints.” Note a strangely military or at least sporting terminology, two gentlemen by a river in early morning light, fencing, dueling? Ah! Could this be where some of my misgivings came from? Some fear that collaboration could at moments become or at least feel like an act of violence? But then, doesn’t all writing that takes itself & its relation to language seriously imply such an act of violence, of wrestling with some angel or other, if it wants to “make it new?” Or am I just indulging in some old-fashioned musings, some romanticisms of egoic/heroic compositional prejudices?

Yes, indeed. For as soon as one begins to read the texts/poems that make up the sequence, one’s thinking is changed by the process of immersion, as one witnesses variations of speed, arrays of lines of intensity, planes of consistency & inconsistency, the capture & redirection of language matter, scalpel incisions at molecular seme-level (artificial in-seme-inations?), & more. The authors are not trying to pull some theoretical punches behind the scenes, out of sight of the reader. What I’ve called elsewhere “process-showing,” i.e. the propositions inside the text that speak of & to the text, giving the reader a handle on the text’s formal moves & methods of composition, these are a user’s manual that is not added to the package as some external supplement, but incorporated into, part of the text itself. Take these lines from “Zoning Discourse: Synoptical Echo Pangenesis,” the opening poem:

             … double-gazing of cathected
             sea-like creatures “depositing
             about a place they might term
             landscape” … qua
                                                    meta-physical & (self-)
             erasure in counterfeit anatomies—
             elevating myth to gestalt therapy
             or lyrical solipsism (rodin-achilles?)
             or engenderment
                                       or simulacra
                                                    simulating pre-socratic
             denunciation of origins—

 These lines seem as good a description of the processes at work in Synopticon as any a critic may propose. They also show the ambition of the poets, imagining the poet as “the last scientist of the whole” (Robert Kelly), i.e. as a last generalist (we shall go in fear of specialists) for whom all knowledge whatsoever is of use; a definition that also proposes an ambitious dimension for the work: how to bring the vast range of contemporary knowledges — be they facts, perceptions, realizations, readings, dreams, speculations, criticisms, variations, whatever — into an open field that is not pre-striated (in Deleuze/Guattari’s sense of overdetermined). Obviously depositing such fragments in the smooth space on the open field/white page will immediately create striations, organization, thus limitations — & this is exactly where the importance of collaboration becomes visible, as it provides the ability of double interference that again & again is able to re-smooth or, better, re-open, redirect, re-cathect the field by re-inscribing new fragments that disrupt any possibility for established striations to congeal into formal fixities.

“But do we need to know a second language to translate?”

leaving Pierre Dorion...
leaving Pierre Dorion...

There is a sense in which every reading of a text by an individual is a translation, because ink and paper, or pixellated light and darkness, are “read” through a body, an individual apparatus impossible to replicate in terms of its cells and experiences and the ways that experience has affected its neural maps and capacities. This body may not even know its own filters and how they act when it “reads”. Because of this, we can study literature, which is the act of sharing readings and benefitting from other filters: in reading groups, in university classrooms and cafeterias and libraries, and on-line with brilliant teachers, in cafés, in living rooms, on ferries, at bus stops.

One question I am sometimes asked is: given this, is it possible to translate without having a second language? It’s a sly question, for people know very well that Elisa Sampedrín, my nemesis-polynym who has no interior, has done this.

Elisa is a reader so avid she does not shy from what she does not know and cannot read but tries mightily to pass it through her body and end up in words she can share with those around her. She already has at least two languages, Galician and English. She has a biography, thanks to Chus Pato, so she has an exterior. But the rest of us? If we do not speak a second language, is what we do when we look at the non-English language poetry of another always appropriation, or is it reading?

Much of this is undecidable; cases differ. We must respect the work of the other. We must give our own linguistic borders a porosity that lets the works of others in other cultures into our own. Beyond these insistences, decisions must be made. By human bodies struggling with their filters.

I will say this. We always already speak a second language: we call it our mother tongue. Our first language is silence, the silence before speaking (Agamben, Kristeva), and some of us can remember that language. All of us, however, retain this language in our body, in our ability to feel fear, uncertainty, passion, or any kind of sensory arousal upon presentation of something or someone in our visual or tactile field. All those things that are displayed in Sampedrín’s Galician in the subjunctive tense, a tense that has almost drained out of English, leaving us to express doubt as certainty in our shared idiom.

And we retain it in our ability to engage with flowers and trees and smells and the taste of coffee on the tongue, or papaya when we wake up in Rio de Janeiro, or our lover’s shoulder. Delight is perhaps the name of this silent idiom.

It is impossible to be a translator without a second language, but we all already have at least two languages. We need to learn to access our language of birth all over, for our mother tongue can shut it down. That silence that operates as listening. Knowing a third and fourth language helps us know how to access the first one. Which is, in another sense, never a first one. There is always language that precedes us.

Roundtable: On the Origins, State, and Future Perspectives of Finno-Saxon

A roundtable with Charles Bernstein & Leevi Lehto with Frederik Hertzberg, Teemu Ikonen, Karri Kokko, Hasso Krull, Leevi Lehto, Olli Sinivaara, and Miia Toivio at the Kiasma Art Museum, Helsinki, August 24, 2004

Charles Bernstein and Leevi Lehto. Photo courtesy of Kirsi Poikolainen, Manhattan, New York 1994.

"But the basic conception that we realized last night was that there’s too much proliferation of the many languages in the world, and we need to understand what the root or the ur-language is that is behind all languages, the pre-Babelian state, and we are proposing that Finno-Saxon really is the mother of all languages, the deep language that underwrites all other human languages … because if we can establish that, we really could create much more stability in international semiotic exchange."

read the full transcript at The Conversant.

Olivier Brossard: The Last Clean Shirt

A film by Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara, 1964

Still from the film «The Last Clean Shirt», 1964
Still from the film «The Last Clean Shirt», 1964

Where they’ve come from. We’re not even up to 23rd Street yet. Sings a little song in middle. ‘I hate driving.’ — Frank O’Hara, ‘The Sentimental Units,’ Collected Poems, 467.

In 1964, American painter and film maker Alfred Leslie and poet Frank O’Hara completed the movie The Last Clean Shirt. It was first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1964 and later that year at Lincoln Center in New York, causing an uproar among the audience. The movie shows two characters, a black man and a white woman, driving around Manhattan in a convertible car. The Last Clean Shirt is a true collaboration between a film maker and a poet since Frank O’Hara wrote the subtitles to the dialogue or rather the monologue: the woman is indeed the only character who speaks and she furthermore expresses herself in Finnish gibberish, which demanded that subtitles be added.

Olivier Brossard’s article (with stills from the movie) is 9,000 words or about twenty printed pages long. You can read it all here, in Jacket 23.

SLS Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Prize for Innovative Poetry

new poetry contest

photo © Charles Bernstein

Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) is proud to announce the first annual Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Prize for Innovative Poetry

Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (1946-2012) was a remarkable, groundbreaking Russian poet and prose writer, whose lifelong literary project sought to accelerate the movement of thought and deepen the philosophical cognition of reality by means of expanding and transcending the boundaries of language and its rhythmical arrangements. Wholly and selflessly dedicated to the noble literary endeavor, he was a resolute risk-taker in every aspect of it, be it writing against the grain of the mainstream, canonical Russian poetry or working tirelessly to bring closer together the new, forward-bound strains of Russian and international (in particular, North American) poetry. Having come to Leningrad from his native Ukraine as a young man, he quickly became the center of the city's burgeoning underground/"samizdat" literary scene. Virtually every single interesting project in second-culture's underground in Leningrad could count him as one of its primary originators. A close friend of several decades’ standing to some of us at SLS, he was an ardent and early proponent of the SLS-St. Petersburg program; and he subsequently, as program's poet-in-residence, took part in every one of its ten ('98--'08) sessions.

Above and beyond everything else, he was, simply, a very good man, an individual of great decency and integrity; a rare, light-filled man.

 SLS would like to commemorate his life, if only in a small way, by establishing a literary prize in his honor. Participation is open to everyone, regardless of  previous level of accomplishment or native language. All entries must be in English. We will look for poetry that Arkadii himself would have liked: interesting, thoughtful, inventive, unafraid to be bold, driven by strong inner rhythm, breaking the linguistic barriers -- in a word, innovative, where innovation is not just a concept but a necessity

Charles Bernstein, the esteemed American poet and long-time friend of Arkadii's, has agreed to be the final judge for the Prize. The winning entry will be published on Bernstein’s commentary page at Jacket2, a widely read site for new poetics. In addition,  winner will receive free tuition and $1000 in travel funds to attend the 2013 SLS-Lithuania/East-Central Europe program.

 For full contest guidelines, please follow the link:

––Mikhail Iossel