Commentaries - February 2013

Ashbery's silences sampled

'It reads a kind of ecopoetics back into the poet’s auditory performance.'

In the spring of 2012, Christian Hawkey was invited to participate in a festival celebrating John Ashbery at the New School (called How to Continue: Ashbery Across the Arts). Each participant — poets, dancers, filmmakers — was invited to engage his or her work using a variety of media and disciplines, and Hawkey chose to explore his audio archives, or rather, the various recordings of John Ashbery that Pennsound has compiled over the years, beginning with his 1961 reading for the Living Theater

He became especially interested in listening to the room tone and background noise in all the recordings: the recorded texture of the room, the sound made by the recording device itself, and the non-vocal presence of Ashbery himself (a page turning, lighting a cigarette, sipping from glass of water and swallowing). Working with a friend, the artist Simone Kearney, Hawkey scanned the roughly 45 extant recordings on Pennsound to find, in each one, a clip of “silence” — a brief 3-to-7-second non-vocal moment (longer proved impossible to find) between poems, or between commentary and poems, or between title and poem. They then assembled the clips into one audio file.

It was surprisingly difficult to do this, they found, since most sound engineers remove as much dead sound and background sound as possible, or they snip off the silence at the beginning or end of a reading.

Ashbery: 64 indispensible poems

In the past two months I've systematically re-read every poem John Ashbery has published, from earliest to current (Quick Question, 2013), and in the second half of that time I've taught (or, rather, led discussions with my students on) several hundred poems. For whatever it’s worth (I don't suppose much), here is my list of 64 poems I deem indispensible to a whole understanding of Ashbery’s writing. Note that six of these 64 “greatest” are from his newest book.

Mr. Rubenking's 'Breakdown', by John Tranter

The utilisation of digital computers in the deconstruction and reconstruction of writing

Mr Rubenking's Robot
Mr. Rubenking's Robot

“History works through hindsight; and the spectacles of hindsight are tinted with irony. The model of art versus disorder was renovated early in the Industrial Revolution in the service of a Romantic idea: the construction of a role for the author as a unique creative presence rescuing spiritual value from chaos — the aristocracy were dead, God had fled, and Nature was covered with factories — and whose job it was to certify the value of a literary work on behalf of its consumers, the bourgeoisie.

How it works I: Technical supports

Featuring Chris Alexander

who is never not on twitter

“How It Works” is a column where I ask contemporaries for new ideas and terms to help us describe and analyze writing happening now. For my first guest I've invited Chris Alexander, my partner, the esteemed author of Panda, CEO of United Plastics, and co-editor, with me, of Truck Books, is a poet, professor, and graphic designer who reads a lot of German Media Theory, and also works on Robert Duncan. First, a little background on my assignment for him.

A few years ago, there was serious talk of creating an anthology of critical essays on conceptual writing. A number of people started essays, but then many aspects of the project were abandoned by different people for different reasons, and the anthology was not made. Then, last summer, Steve Zultanski was asking anyone who wanted to write collective manifestoes about contemporary poetry. These were both useful exercises for many of those who participated, but ultimately I think what emerged was the realization that few of us agreed on much, that people were coming from all manner of position on what was important, and that having emerged from different traditions gave us very different frameworks for imagining the situation. This difference is useful and good for learning and dialogue, not so good for group definitive statement-production.