Commentaries - February 2013
In this story
ripening on the vine so to speak
In this story a warhol-like
a vinyl fruit of desire
bringing millions to their knees
In a dream of a hermaphrodite
elegant the fusion of human and bird
l’amour impossible l’amour possible
the physical poetic
iridescent her pelvis his/her body
inside a dark purple fruit
the core divided
In a dream of a boy warrior
with bright red lips
her skin berries and apricots
languid the tendrils of pubic hair
a flush of wet hot air burning
her neck and face
Sorcery of his female brain
In this story a warhol-like
her teeth overlapping licking
a clot of blood
A hunter gatherer meat nuts fruit
his platinum blond curls
bringing millions to their knees
Love of the hermaphrodite
like a white swan
her hollow bones sculpted delicate
elegant the fusion
of human and bird
his hollow bones glowing under
a black light
magnetic her hollow bones
glowing in the dark
Meek sweetness the face the face
of the hermaphrodite teasing femme/homme
Out of the hole of Baudelaire
emerging from the mists of Cumae
A long curved fingernail
tracing a circle a cleft tracing
the pink mauve folds
tracing the flower vulva
the mother misery the father terror
a slit in the stalk blood seeping
green and pale the scrotal lily
In this story a warhol-like
a vinyl fruit of desire
bringing millions to their knees
[NOTE. Rochelle Owens' latest book, Out of Ur: New & Selected Poems 1901-2012 is now awaiting publication by Shearsman Books. Of her poems here & elsewhere I wrote: “There is a voice in Owens’ work … like a fierce and unrelenting force of nature. Sharp and visual, she combines a landscape with a poetics, the domestic with the mythic, machines with the organic living world from which arises a construct and a fused vision: poetry and life.”(J.R.)]
A question for Lori Emerson
A fair amount of contemporary writing and art would benefit from media-historical analysis. What media at what time made this work possible? What media are brought together in this work? When we want to analyze form in the contemporary, are we not sometimes talking about technical supports, the bridgings between various media the work relies on? Works like Goldsmith's American Trilogy for example, are not simply archiving the language we find in the books. They can be analyzed in terms of their technical supports, or the crossings of various media the enabled the art or writing to happen in the first place. American Trilogy couldn't have happened without news radio and recording technology; Chris Alexander's McNugget would not have been possible without the database management systems undergirding a social networking / micro-blogging service like Twitter; a "book" like Kieran Daly's Tentatively nullpropriated assay from Gauss PDF’s 36 (missed by two) engages so many layers of technology one might not even be able to address them all adequately in one essay.
Digital poetry, or e-poetry, began almost as soon as the personal computer became available, and was the first movement in avant-garde poetry to take advantage of the programmable nature of the computer to create works that are interactive, or use generative or combinatorial approaches to create new kinds of text and text/image objects. When we were studying together as Ph.D. students in the Buffalo Poetics Program, Lori Emerson was working on a study of e-poetry. Now she's Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Director of its Media Archaeology Lab, which she describes as "trying to both preserve and provide access to several interrelated aspects of our cultural past: historically important works of electronic literature, generally from before the era of the WWW, along with the platforms they were created on and for; and historically important computer hardware and software, such as the Apple IIe, Apple Lisa, Apple Macintosh, NeXT Cube, and Hypercard." Her forthcoming monograph, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, Spring 2014), will no doubt perform just the kind of media-historical analysis I'm looking for. But rather than wait until 2014, I asked her to share a little of her work now:
Why archive dead media?
The Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) is an open space for hands-on, experimental research and teaching actively using now-obsolete hardware and software. While the MAL does concern itself with trying to maintain access to dead media (or zombie media as nearly everything in the lab still functions) at the same as it tries to preserve early works of digital art/literature created for these dead media, it's still mostly preservation for the sake of active doing, not to create yet another museum.
In addition to landmark computers such as the Commodore 64 from 1982, the Vectrex Gaming Console also from 1982, the NeXT Cube from 1990, the lab also houses a number of working Apple IIe’s, an Apple Lisa, and Apple Macintoshes. All three computers are particularly important for understanding the history of personal computing and computer-mediated art and writing; while they were released throughout 1983 and 1984, the shift in interface from the one to the other, and therefore the shift in the limits and possibilities for what one could create, is remarkable. The Apple II series of computers all used the command-line interface and they were also the first affordable, personal computer while being open and extensible while the Apple Lisa was the first commercial computer to use a Graphical User Interface and the Apple Macintosh was the first affordable personal computer to use a GUI...one that began a legacy of the closed computer in the name of the user friendly PC encased in an aesthetically pleasing exterior that continues today with the iPad.
A work such as First Screening by bpNichol - a series of kinetic digital poems created in 1983-1984 using an Apple IIe and the Apple BASIC programming language - uniquely depends on the MAL for, the need to preserve these works aside, we cannot understand it if we view it only via a media translation. Everything about the Apple II system, its entire hardware and software system, offers both writer and reader an utterly different set of experiences than when they read or write on, say, a MacBook or a PC or when they read First Screening by way of an emulation on a system that uses a Graphical User Interface. The Apple II whirs, buzzes; the keyboard clacks; even inserting the 5.25" floppy disk puts you in direct contact with the material limits and possibilities of the computer as you wait with baited breath, listening to the scratchy sound of the computer processing the data, for the triumphant 'beep' that lets you know the disk loaded. It's a kind of friction that actually helps us understand the contours of the medium at hand that we no longer have access to in the current era of seamless computing and so-called "invisible" interfaces.
In other words, I see the MAL's collection of dead media as a thinking device: providing access to the utterly unique, material specificity of these computers - their interfaces, platforms, and software - makes it possible to defamiliarize or make visible for critique contemporary, invisible interfaces and platforms. Without having the ability to tinker with the countless different computers and operating systems that existed in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, without actually experiencing what it's like to operate a computer whose target audience is the DIYer, the tinkerer, the curious, I would never have understood to the extent that I do now the way in which an ideology of the user-friendly now determines the shape of contemporary computing - in which we are mere consumers of readymade content and 'user-friendly' is largely a marketing slogan.
With Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford
Alejandro Crawford practices poetry at one of its most experimental edges, where it crosses with and benefits from the special capacities of computing. Crawford has done impressive work already in both fields; in 2007 he won a Fulbright and moved to Lisbon, Portugal where he had been commissioned to perform his operation “transmutilation” working, in part, with Orpheu, the magazine published by Fernando Pessoa and friends. Crawford’s radically recut remix based in part on poems from Orpheu is titled Morpheu (BlazeVox 2010). In 2009 Crawford moved to NYC to study in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU Tisch. His ongoing work with electronic communications media has expanded his arsenal of poetic technique to include things like video and sound-mixing and the reappropriation of video game hardware to run text-manipulating algorithms. But what he does is not only technically cutting edge, it's weird and funny and fun.
Take for example his recent work with Chris Sylvester’s Total Walkthrough. Sylvester’s project already crosses multiple media; it creates a a composite of several walkthroughs of a Legend of Zelda game (media 1: video game) derived from user-generated narrative accounts of game play uploaded to the public FAQ section of a gaming websites such as IGN or GameSpot (media 2: public user review sites), alphabetizes each line (media 3: spread sheet), and Troll Thread publishes it as a book (media 4: book) on Lulu (media 5: print on demand constrains aspects of the book's design, makes it available for purchase one-at-a-time and forever or available instantly on your computer, meaning you save a tree). Crawford then takes the text of Total Walkthrough and, with software he has written for Xbox Kinect (click here to learn how Kinect works), translates movements from within the Kinect-field into the appearance of lines from Total Walkthrough on the computer screen, but potentially also via projector. Moreover, “Link” adds the further constraint of the computer screen's dimensions. No matter how long the line in Sylvester’s book, in Crawford’s version every line is limited to 40 characters so as not to roll off the screen.
C.P. Cavafy’s introduction to the English literary world was accomplished largely through the efforts of E.M. Forster. Forster met Cavafy during the First World War in Alexandria where, as a conscientious objector, he served with the Red Cross. Already a successful novelist, he was intrigued by both the poet (Daniel Mendelsohn characterizes Forster’s interest as a “crush”) and his work. He composed a vivid portrait of Cavafy, published in 1919 in The Nation and the Atheneum and again in his collection Pharos and Pharillon, which included the description — by now a cliché — of “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” This essay also featured a translation of “The God Abandons Antony.” After the war Forster brought Cavafy’s poems to the attention of T.S. Eliot, who published “Ithaca” in The Criterion in 1924, and Leonard Woolf, who published “The City” in The Nation and the Atheneum the same year. The translations of all these poems were made, with Cavafy’s involvement, by George Valassopoulo. Woolf also tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade Cavafy (who did not publish a book of his poems in Greek during his lifetime) to let the Hogarth Press bring out a collection of Valassopoulo’s English versions. Cavafy and Forster continued to correspond until the poet’s death.
Forster, who had been an undergraduate (and member of the Apostles) at King’s College, Cambridge, returned to the college as an Honorary Fellow from 1946. A familiar if unobtrusive figure around the Wilkins’ Building and the courts, it was his habit at the beginning of term to invite the handful of undergraduate King’s men reading English to his rooms for tea and conversation. Among the handful reading English in 1954 was a freshman named John Dixon Hunt.
As Hunt recalls it, Forster told the group that while he was shy and tended to look at the ground when he walked, they must not hesitate to address him by name if they wished to speak with him at any time. Taking him at his word, Hunt approached “Morgan” later in the term in order to write a short piece about him for a Swedish newspaper. The following year Hunt, like many at the time, became intrigued by the evocation of Cavafy in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, and resolved to read the poems in the original. He spoke to Forster about the possibility of studying modern Greek. Forster’s generous response to Hunt’s interest in the poet was to lend him, among other things, the Valassopoulo translations, most of which were still unpublished.
The young scholar made good use of them, reading them against Mavrogordato’s collection and the French versions of Théodore Griva as he set out to augment the classical Greek he’d learned at Bristol Grammar School. By June of 1957 he had written a concise and perspicuous appreciation of Cavafy’s work (reproduced below; click to read a full-size PDF version) for Granta, then the university’s undergraduate magazine. Quotations in the essay show that Hunt had also read Bowra’s essay “Constantine Cavafy and the Greek Past” from The Creative Experiment as well as Edmond Jaloux’s prefatory study to Griva’s translations.
Formed at a time when Cavafy criticism in English was sparse, Hunt’s judgments were consistent with those of his mentors as well as the consensus of later critics. In a note of acknowledgment appended to the Granta essay he wrote: “Cavafy’s collected poems have been published by the Hogarth Press in the translations of Professor John Mavrogordato and they are the only edition available. They often lack the essential magic that is such an important aspect of the poet and which has been captured with greater success by Mr. George Valassopoulo.”
Many readers will know John Dixon Hunt as an internationally eminent historian and theorist of landscape, gardens, and placemaking and as a longtime professor at Penn. He began his academic career, however, as a literary scholar and maintains a lively interest in poetry. I’d like to thank him for sharing this personal link to Forster and to Cavafy and allowing us to overhear the “great conversation” as it passes from one speaker to the next.
In a 1951 article, reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy, Forster said of Valassopoulo, who was born in Alexandria but studied in England, that of all the people who had tried to translate Cavafy, he was “most to his taste.” “He had the advantage,” Forster went on, “of working with the poet and he has brought much magic across; Cavafy is largely magic.” Even as an undergraduate, Hunt clearly shared this opinion. Besides, like Forster and Hunt, Valassopoulo had been a Cambridge man, and Mavrogordato was a professor at that other place.
A giant feature in Jacket 38
[»»] Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens: The Lord of Orchards: Jonathan Williams at 80: (Excerpt:) Throughout his life in poetry and the arts Williams preferred active involvement with artists and the world at large over cloistered study or administrative labor: “I clearly did not want to become a Byzantinist in the basement of The Morgan Library; or an art critic for The New Yorker; nor did I want to live in the world of competitive business.” His work in the arts thus demanded direct and persistent engagement with the world — a form of engagement that gave rise to both enduring friendships and irreconcilable conflicts.
[»»] Jonathan Williams: A Life in Pictures
[»»] Basil Bunting: Comment on Jonathan Williams
[»»] Dear JW: Erica Van Horn
[»»] James McGarrell: Mountainside Reader; for JW
[»»] Ann McGarrell: À mon cher Stodge
[»»] Anne Midgette: On With It
[»»] Bob Arnold: Swept in with the Rain
[»»] Charles Lambert: Acts of Kindness
[»»] Diana C. Stoll: Jonathan Williams: More Mouth on that Man
[»»] Gary Carden: The Bard of Scaly Mountain
[»»] Harry Gilonis: from Pliny: Naturalis Historia XXVII. xvi 58
[»»] John Mitzel: Jonathan Williams: An Appreciation
[»»] Michael Rumaker’s Last Letter to Jonathan Williams
[»»] Robert Kelly: Colonel Generosity — Saying Thank You to Jonathan Williams
[»»] Ronald Johnson: A Microscopic/ Telescopic Collage of «The Empire Finals at Verona»
[»»] Simon Cutts: Anglophone Digressions
[»»] Thomas A Clark and Laurie Clark
[»»] Thomas Meyer: Kintsugi — with a Foreword by Robert Kelly
[»»] Guy Davenport: Jonathan Williams, Poet
[»»] Charles Olson: For a Man Gone to Stuttgart Who Left an Automobile Behind Him
[»»] Charles Olson: Nota to «Jammin’ the Greek Scene»
[»»] Robert Duncan: Preface to Jonathan Williams’ «Elegies and Celebrations»
[»»] James Maynard: Some notes on Jonathan Williams and Robert Duncan
[»»] Jed Birmingham: William Burroughs and Jonathan Williams
[»»] David Annwn: Mustard & Evening Primrose, the astringent extravagance of Jonathan Williams’ metafours
[»»] Eric Mottram: An Introduction: “Stay In and Use Both Hands”
[»»] Jim Cory: We Were All Beautiful Once (or) Never Bare Your Soul to an Asshole
[»»] Jonathan Greene: Jonathan Williams: Taking Delight In Two Worlds
[»»] Kenneth Irby: “america’s largest openair museum”
[»»] Ronald Johnson: Jonathan (Chamberlain) Williams
[»»] Thomas Meyer: JW Gent & Epicurean
[»»] Jonathan Williams: Image Gallery: 24 photographs by Jonathan Williams
[»»] Richard Deming: Portraying the Contemporary: The Photography of Jonathan Williams
[»»] Vic Brand: Burr, Salvage, Yoke
[»»] James Jaffe: Jonathan Williams, Jargonaut
[»»] Kyle Schlesinger: The Jargon Society
[»»] Tom Patterson: If You Can Kill a Snake with It, It Ain’t Art: The Art History of a Maverick Poet-Publisher
[»»] Michael Basinski: Some Facts and Some Memories: The Jargon Society Archive at the Poetry Collection State University of New York at Buffalo
[»»] Dale Smith: Devotion to “The Strange”: Jonathan Williams and the Small Press
[»»] Jonathan Williams in conversation with Richard Owens,1 June 2007
[»»] Robert J. Bertholf: The Jargon Society and Contemporary Literary History
[»»] Jargon Society: A Checklist
[»»] Jonathan Williams: A Checklist