Commentaries - February 2013

Charles Olson: "Poetry and Truth" at Beloit College on PennSound

  • Lecture I, Cosmology: March 25, 1968 (54:46):  MP3

  • Lecture II, Belief 1: March 27, 1968 (52:10):  MP3

  • Lecture III, Belief 2: March 29, 1968 (56:34):  MP3
       Poems read in Lecture III:
    38:26 - 39:29: "*Added to making a Republic in gloom on Watchhouse Point" Maximus III 190 / 584
    53:32 - 54:40: '"Additions", March 1968--2' ["Wholly absorbed / into my own conduits..."] Maximus III 191 / 585
    55:05 - 56:20: "That there was a woman in Gloucester, Massachusetts..." Maximus III 189 / 583

  • On Black Mountain: March 26, 1968 (1:18:45):  MP3

 

May 26, 1968 reading from vol. 2 of Maximus.

Muthologos: Olson's Lectures and Interviews

use our new PennSound media player (second button)

Writing 'The Structure of Escape': The Linearity of the Arc

By Murat Nemet-Nejat

from left to right: George Economou, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Bob Perelman - January 31, 2012 at the Kelly Writers House

Poet, translator and essayist Murat Nemet-Nejat’s most recent work includes the poem The Spiritual Life of Replicants (Talisman House, 2011), the translation of the Turkish poet Seyhan Erozçelik’s Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds (Talisman House, 2010), and the memoir/essay “Istanbul Noir” (in Istanbul: Metamorphoses in an Imperial City, Talisman House, 2011). Nemet-Nejat’s translation of the Turkish poet Birhan Keskin’s book Y’ol (Ro(a)de) will be published in 2012. He is currently working on “Things,” part VI of the seven-part poem, “The Structure of Escape,” of which The Spiritual Life of Replicants is part V.

On January 31, 2012, Murat visited the Kelly Writers House and read, in part, from The Spiritual Life of Replicants and spoke about the structure of “The Structure of Escape.” I recommend to readers of this commentary the audio and video recordings of that reading.  After the event, I asked Murat if he would like to write for Jacket2 about his seven-part project, and he agreed.  Here, below, is what he has written. — Al Filreis

*

Writing "The Structure of Escape": The Linearity of the Arc, by Murat Nemet-Nejat

I. Traces  

The Structure is about movements of thought, not as philosophical strictures, but linguistic tissue; as sounds, words jostle themselves into existence, the sensuous reality of this process — the precise momentary beauty of their existence, its allure. Thoughts carry (must carry!) within themselves the seed of their own disappearance.

They are cadences, period. Like waves, they strive towards a crystallized idea — approaching a mathematical limit of a division, by zero — coalescing almost there a figment of a moment and dissolve, restarting the process. Language progresses towards, for an instant is, a way station (a dot at the end of a sentence, an torturously crystallized idea, an exhalation of “o”s, etc.) in a stream of longing.

Eda: “The underlying syntactical principle is not logic, but emphasis: a movement of the speaker’s or writer’s affections. Thinking, speaking in Turkish is... a record of thought emerging...  Eda is the play of ideas through the body of Turkish.[1]

II. Performance      

I Did My Best Work During A Writer’s Block (Poem Title, “The Disappearance of Time,” The Structure)

The Structure, I realize as I am writing it, is an experiment in the Spicerean serial poem (not merely a long poem), ignited first by watching a badly damaged copy of Robert Bresson’s A Prisoner Escaped in the middle of the night in 2004. Spicer in his Vancouver Lectures asserts that a serial poem must satisfy two conditions: must be written against the grain, its sections must remain in the chronological order in which they were written. At the first view, there is a thrilling contradiction in these two assertions. While the former implies a strong, almost oracular faith in the power of his “low ghosts” (the inherent motions of language) to transform themselves into Logos to be seenheard once the furniture obfuscating them is cleared, the latter insists on a chronological literalness.

In discontinuous darts, time turns four dimensional in a serial poem, entering a space — becoming a sight/site (“see the silent herd” of words[2]) — escaping the chronological condition of its writing. This occurs only because the natural, automatic, rhetorically repetitive connection of a word (or a thought) to another, the direction it wants to take, is thwarted. It is forced to move against the grain, creating a void, a tabula rasa space of undefined, half formed, almost inarticulate meaning—a process into which the poem (and the reader), to continue, must quantumly jump.

That emptiness is the poem.[3]

          the frame

me saying needles, but it was more slender
me saying string, but it could teach dexterity to a sewing machine
a swatch, the long long night in her eyes
where were my dreams, when deeper deeper than my sleep      

A wife, a mother, who is she so beautiful!
I looked
and looked.


The frame of a Bresson movie is a jail
the escape is going outside that jail
it all starts with the noises one hears,

becoming one, knowing what the noises are.
that’s freedom.

There is an act and the demonstration of an act.
the demonstration occurs in speech.
its act precedes or follows it in the frame,

step by step, painstaking step one after another,
the door opens itself.
the painstaking step is the expression of time as now
the future always, recurrent outside the frame
which becoming one knowing what the noises are
is escape.  
(“The Disappearance of Time,” The Structure)

In a space of continuous now, an opening is enacted in a mental fugue, sight split from words/speech  (“there is an act and the demonstration of an act”), in a cat and mouse game of visionary escape towards a “future” of unity and rejuvenation that can only occur beyond the frame of the scene, of the single individual poem, beyond a single language itself.

Language’s longing in The Structure (language has a longing in the poem) is to metamorphose itself from the confines of denotations, words intended as true or false, exist or do not exist, etc. to an space where every word, because freed of linear syntax by the eye and able to move in all directions, potentially possesses every possible meaning.

The signified of all the signifiers become infinity, the void pointed to by and surrounding each word and the words beyond it

The Structure translates filmic language into words and the agglutinative syntax of Turkish poetry (its music of cadence and motion) and its poetics of Eda into English poetry.

III. Disintegration

“A deep ambivalence underlies Benjamin’s analysis of translation. While its impulse is idealist, Platonic, contemplative, it is pregnant with disintegration, as if unity (the mind) and explosive fragmentation pun in this transparent arcade.” — “Translation: Contemplating Against the Grain, 1999”

A word repeated twice erodes and creates a new meaning, escaping its own self. Puns, tautologies and accidental aural and visual echoes are the archway to the language of paradise.

Here is the poem fragment that kicks off The Structure:

       Rhap

Spinal violins
in haunted homes.

s-
t-
r-
aps.

vo-
lume

end-
ures,

lashes
and eyelashes
of Altaic
joy,

sin,
sing!

out
break-

ing

ski-
n                    up the river
[4]

(“Prelude,” The Structure of Escape)

IV. Text

The Structure consists of seven parts of which four “Prelude,” “The Disappearance of Time,” “Steps” and “The Spiritual Life of Replicants” are complete. 7 has nothing to do with a plan, a logic, areas to be covered or mystical arcana. It was the emptiness I felt at the instant I conceived the poem: a gesture towards the length of the soul. I knew absolutely nothing about its “subject,” except that it was an emptiness to be filled. Now I am in the middle of number five.


 

NOTES

1. “The Idea of a Book,”  Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, 2004.

2. “Buffalos in the Desert,” The Structure.of Escape.

3.  In my view Spicer discovers this space first in Homage to Creeley where the mismatch, the lack of clear correspondence between the top and bottom of each page injects an undefined potency into the space in between.  The Turkish poet k. Iskender’s poem cangüncem/ souljam (Eda: An Anthology, pp. 291/312, 337/43) is another example of this process towards emptiness.

4. Doesn’t Spicer refer to a river, poetry being the clicks log[o]s make in the river, rubbing against each other?

Kevin Varrone's emerging book of prose-poems about/from baseball

'Box Score'

I was honored recently to be asked by Kevin Varrone to read and record a section of his emergent long series poem on baseball, Box Score.  Above is the section he asked me to perform, and here is the recording I made for him. I can’t wait to see (and listen to) this book.

What is performance writing?

Before attempting to make judgments of specific works outside of any critical framework, what might we mean by performance poetics/poetry/writing? I use the term ‘performance writing’ here to try to generally indicate forms of experimental writing that work with/in/out of performance, and to distinguish such forms from an emphasis on ‘performance poetry’ (slam, spoken word, etc.) or performance art practices that are not driven by non-narrative and/or avant-garde poetics. As we shall see, the term (as far as I know) comes from the UK (where it has become institutionalized, if still purposefully under-defined), where various practitioners have helped formulate some of the questions and fields that inform a lot of my thinking here.

(Big Caveat #2: I am NOT interested in clean definitions or drawing lines between what is and is not performance writing/poetics. However, I do think that provisional semi-pseudo-categories might at least be useful in helping tease out helpful distinctions that different practices bring to the work of poetry in the field of performance [and vise versa]. Hopefully such questions can help elucidate what might be new/compelling/‘useful’ for writers and critics, at least…)

We could begin with the proposition that what defines performance is that it is live — durational, embodied, and located in the present and non-repeatable moment of its enactment.

But once we begin thinking about poetry, it’s hard to know what ‘live’ means – is it simply when an author reads her work aloud that performance occurs? Could it also be the moment of writing itself, even if the time of writing doesn’t match the ‘time of the poem’? What about chance or appropriative or machine-composed poetries, where the author might be seen as more of a functionary than a font of subjective expression?[1] Forms of writing that are designed specifically for performance — the script, the procedure, the score, etc. — aren’t considered ‘live’ until performed, though we often still think of such writing as performance texts (and in the world of theater, treat playscripts as forms of literature in and of themselves). Likewise, written documentation of live performance is also often thought of as performance writing, even if once on the page it is no longer live, and the text may have not in fact ever been publicly performed live as it is presented (having been edited, or simply by virtue of the difficulty of ‘capturing’ a live, embodied performance onto the page).

Further, in recent debates in dance and performance studies, the privileging of live performance over documentation is being interrogated, especially as the history of contemporary performance art grapples with how to engage the residual traces of an art form whose liveness was part of its initial intervention against museumification and the commodified art-object. Video, photographs, and written reports are usually considered necessary, but ultimately insufficient, tools for the historian (and increasingly curators, as performance art enters the museum), never able to fully capture the essence of performance’s presence. However, critics and historians are beginning to question the privileging of the live in how we think about performance, noting that documentary forms are also aesthetic practices (and never ‘neutral’) and that questions of documentation do not necessarily always ‘come after’ performance.[2]

Other critics define performance simply as that which is done in front of an audience.[3] For our purposes here, this would thus include any public poetry reading (and I do, of course, consider all poetry readings performative, regardless of intent). But what if there’s no audience present? Or if my ‘audience’ is simply a video camera, framing what I’m doing in duration and document?[4] Is it enough to merely imagine an audience, or construct a technologically-mediated audience-by-proxy?[5]

Certainly the notion of audience opens up interesting arenas for thinking about performance, especially once we move from the theater/reading space (and its institutionalized distinctions between performers and audience members) into more contingent public spaces as, say, the city street or the dance floor, where we are always both performer and audience for each other (not to mention for the surveillance cameras), whether or not we are consciously aware of such roles.

For our purposes we might want to ask how certain social frames and contexts are constructed such that an audience ‘knows itself’ as such, as a perhaps necessary requirement for a performer to be, well, performing. How such audiences are called into being range from the traditional — “come see so-and-so read at the Project tonight” — (where one agrees to into the social contract of performing one’s role as an audience member) — to the more interventionary — if I start yelling poems on the street, until ‘onlookers’ are brought into being as an audience simply by gathering and looking at me; or if I run into a crowded firehouse and start describing a film to the presumably nonplussed (if, in this fantasy, still hot) firepersons. Even in the latter cases, however, it seems as if I am still dependent on audience members to consciously perform their roles in order to be able to claim that what I’m doing is performance (and not just, say, ‘acting crazy’ — by which, of course, we mean not-acting, not-performing, but being ‘crazy’), though I’m sure we can all think of instances where we’ve chosen to ignore a street performer and yet wouldn’t claim she isn’t performing simply because no one stops to watch or listen. Still, though I’m not particularly interested in drawing a clean line as to what is or isn’t performance once we move outside of conventional milieus (the theater, the auditorium, the reading, the gig, etc.), it remains unclear if we can usefully define performance without just falling back on something like ‘I’m doing it when I say I’m doing it.’

OK, so. (Pauses and takes a drink of water. Audience shifts audibly in their seats.) What if we approached the question by starting with/from poetry?

I suppose we can begin by agreeing that all poetry is of course to some degree a performance, and all text-based performance has to some degree a poetics (to the extent that it uses language shaped to the purposes of performance).

Certainly, when I write a poem I’m performing something, I suppose, and the pen/typewriter/computer/microphone/page/whatever are the technologies that mediate and archive that performance. But I’m after something different here, or at least less general…

So: is it the reading of poems? OK, sure, though again this simply means all poetry readings are performances (they are) and thus forestalls any useful distinctions by which we might think more critically about the question. Additionally, too often the poetry reading is used to confirm the unique power of the otherwise autonomous text, instead of leading witnesses into what cris cheek calls “exegetic microtopias of ‘live writing.,’” where performance is “an occurrence of conversations between process and product ongoing.”[6] Likewise, all poems are potential performances, which doesn’t help much either if we want to distinguish more specific modes of cross-disciplinary work from simply ‘all poetry’ and ‘any kind of performance’.

How bout poetry written specifically for performance? Again, like other texts written for performance, such poems—especially in the more avant-garde traditions—certainly get us closer to thinking about how writing can open up spaces where performance might take the work ‘elsewhere’. Here, though, I’d again like to distinguish what I have in mind as performance writing from ‘performance poetry,’ which often reads/sounds as if the poem is simply an inert script awaiting a star turn to ‘bring it to life’ while the poem itself often remains more or less dead on the page (like song lyrics often do without their singers and musicians).

I guess I want to argue for work that is compelling both on and off the page in different ways, such that both the writing and performance bring something new and unpredictable to and out of each other (regardless of whether the text or the performance ‘came first’). Again, I’d like to argue that, but how to do so without simply resorting to personal taste is tricky.[7] At the same time, entering into an extra-poetic field that is still in the process of understanding itself allows for a great deal of experiment, conjecture, and critical inquiry, even if all we have at our disposal for purposes of self-definition (and the resistance there to) is a set of exemplary cases, and the historical precedents that the emergence of new aesthetic tendencies can’t but help rediscover.

To some degree, we can see the emergence of the field of performance writing think/work itself into legibility in the UK, where PW has become somewhat institutionalized in various university graduate programs, while, at least from a distance, appearing to have resisted any rigid codification in the process. Of course, I may be idealizing these programs from afar, but there is something to be said for creating laboratories for rigorous experiments and critical reflection upon new modes of literature and performance, even if the institutional frame of the academy is something that we need remain skeptical.[8] 

I’d love to hear from UKers who have direct experience with such programs to learn more about them (and will do some research for a future post), but from my limited understanding I can at least suggest that we take a look at Caroline Bergvall’s 1996 keynote at the first “Symposium of Performance Writing” at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, where the first PW degree program was established. Note the use of interrogatives to pursue some provisional definitions of an as yet still-emergent field in relation to multiple already established genres:

“Is it not Performance Writing to site some text in a space or on a wall or on electronic boards or is that not installation art? or is that not public art? Is it not Performance Writing to treat spoken writing as part of a sound composition or is that not music? or not sound art? Is it not Performance Writing to inscribe words on a canvas, spray them on a wall, layer text into photographs or carve them into wood, steel or other solids or is that not visual art? or is that not graffiti art? or is that not poetry? Is it not Performance Writing to use text as part of a body-related piece or is that not performance art or is that not dance or theatre? Is it not Performance Writing to bleed a word into flesh or is that not Jenny Holzer? or is that not tattoo art? or is that not activism? Is it not Performance Writing to generate text for the page or for the screen or for a book or is that not video art? or is that not literature? or is that not visual art? or is it electronic art?” 

Here we can see a productive troubling of definitions when considering the manifold forms of practices that manifest in the interstitial spaces between genres and media, where the hyphen in ‘cross-genre’ or ‘multi-disciplinary’ can mean more than ‘more than one’ but highlight a dialectical frisson can spark new works that bring multiple methods and traditions into creative protagonism:

“So rather than entertaining ideas of aesthetic orgy or formal fusion, anything goes as long as there's something like a bit of something which looks like writing in it and leaving it at that, my sense is that Performance Writing would wish to inscribe itself within debates that revel in conflict … Conflict at a formal as well as an ideological level.”

And again, as with any other new aesthetic formation, a set of antecedents suddenly becomes legible that helps us see new connections (and contestations) that might otherwise be occluded by conventional literary history.[9] For instance, just as the conceptual turn in contemporary US poetry has helped us look at artists such as Marcel Broodhaers, Hannah Weiner, and Adrian Piper as having much more in common than if we categorized them by medium, the continued articulation of what ‘performance writing’ might be now can help us consider what it ‘might have been,’ if only from the perspective of today’s critical vocabularies. Might we think of shamanism as performance writing? How about the dozens? What would that enable us to see or understand about both such practices when put into conversation with each other and, say, Kenny Goldsmith’s Soliloquy? What’s at stake in articulating such counter-traditions?

And, finally: why now? Why does it seem that so many poets are turning to performance for new avenues of exploration, composition, and presentation? This is something I hope to explore in a future post, so until then…  (chop &) screw sonnets & work the dozens...


1. Please note that I am not suggesting that such practices are only composed by soulless bureaucrats. Some of my best friends are algorithms, yo.

2. cf. Rebecca Schneider's Performing Remains, Amelia Jones' "'Presence' in Absentia", and Carrie Lambert-Beatty's "Moving Still: Mediating Yvonne Rainer's Trio A"

3. Yvonne Rainer: “My god! Can theater finally come down to the irreducible fact that one group of people is looking at another group?”

4. Thought experiment: if I told you that I’ve been videotaping my composition of this post and plan on posting it to Vimeo later tonight, will that have made this writing a performance? (Don’t worry, I won’t. Unless you believe watching someone sit with their dogs and drink scotch while staring at a screen inherently interesting.)

5. We might try to sidestep this issue by calling all performance done exclusively for video 'video art', but that ship’s sailed, and certainly would not be able to come close to addressing the incredible range of performance on youtube alone.

6. “Implicit,” in Additional Apparitions: poetry, performance, and site specificity, eds. David Kennedy & Keith Tuma, Cherry on the Top Press, 2002

7. Though I guess that’s why Al Gore invented blogs: so one can pass off taste as critical judgment.

8. In contrast to non-professional counter-institutions and ‘schools’ such as Kootenay, Oulipo, Black Mountain, Cave Canem, The Nonsite Collective, etc.

9. cf. Borges’ brilliant “Kafka and His Precursors,” for instance.

WHY spam?

A question for Angela Genusa

Angela Genusa is someone I have only known from afar, via Facebook and email, but I’ve been excited about her work as it engages the relationship between computer programming and writing. This, as other pieces in this column will reveal, is an in-mixing of generic aptitudes I’m excited by. Genusa is one of many writers producing works that would otherwise be impossible without the computer. She’s also the author  of a statement (as a facebook status) we like in my household, “from now on people will have to be more interesting than my iPhone,” or words to that effect. Her focus on, knowledge of, and artistic uses of technology have continued to interest me, and I think poets working in that direction are opening up all kinds of possibilities for writing, even for those of us who are less tech-savvy. Genusa’s latest project, which she describes below, is a bibliography of her spam box. I could have asked her about bibliography as a formal choice (and that’s a topic people like she and Tan Lin are interested in, so maybe one day I’ll stage a forum on the topic) but what is there to say about spam? So I asked her: Why spam? Here’s her answer:

Just as artist Kurt Schwitters said, “I don't see why (rubbish) couldn’t be used as painting materials just like factory-produced paints,” I don’t see why spam (e-mail spam, blogspam, usenet spam) can’t be used as material for poetry. My spam mailbox is the digital equivalent of the Buddhist charnel ground, which illustrates the impermance of everything, which will inevitably decompose into nothing (“messages that have been in spam more than 30 days will be automatically deleted”). “For me, however, rubbish is as eternal as life itself,” said Russian-American conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov. “Thus I already see the brightly colored poster in shreds on the ground. It transforms itself into rubbish and will exist eternally as such.” Kabakov differentiates between two eternities, however: the eternity of rubbish as the inevitable permanance of waste and the eternity of literature and art.

In the early to mid 2000s, poets such as Rob Read (O Spam Poams) began treating spam as literature using text from emails that were generated with stochastic algorithms designed to pass Bayesian spam filters by scraping literary works from Web sites such as Project Gutenberg.

My current year-long project “Spam Bibliography”—part documentary, part autobiographical, part constraint-based, and completely appropriative—is a daily bibliography of my spam mailbox. (Are bibliographies—paratextual material presented as textual—poetry? See Tan Lin’s PowerPoint works “Bibliographic Sound Track” and “The PhD Sound.”) Spammers selling everything from Russian porn sites to Canadian online pharmacies, from payday loans to “male enhancement” products, from auto insurance to weight loss programs generate emails employ a variety of methods to pass spam filters.

Most of these emails land in my spam mailbox, but some of the most creative actually reach my inbox by embedding Markov-generated phrases in the Subject line, From field, or body of the message. One recent email from a Canadian online pharmacy placed a long gibberish URL (click here!) ending with the phrase “into the bulky cumbersome pressure suitmarkov.php” in the body of the message. Googling reveals that “into the bulky cumbersome pressure suit” is a phrase from the science fiction book Voyagers by Ben Bova, whose main character happens to be named, of all things, “Markov.”

Works Cited

Lin, Tan. Bibliographic Sound Track and The Ph.D Sound. Penn Sound:Tan Lin. Penn Sound Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, University of Pennsylvania, 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.

Neville, Brian, and Johanne Villeneuve. "Beyond the Archive." Waste-site Stories: The Recycling of Memory. Albany: State University of New York, 2002. 78. Print.

Read, Rob. O Spam Poams [i.e. Poems]: Selected Daily Treated Spam, September 2003-January 2005. Toronto: BookThug, 2005. Print.

 

Check out more of Genusa’s work using spam here and here