Commentaries - March 2013
KG: Your work as a curator seems to happen in and around interdisciplinary nexii. Maybe I see it that way because of my sense that in the contemporary moment we’re seeing increasingly blurred genre boundaries. I wanted to talk to you mainly to get a sense of whether or not you think of your work as inter-generic curating. You've curated talks, films, live drawing performances, sometimes all in the same event; you curated for a couple of years for the Segue Poetry Series; within your art curation there have been books, art with language and writing as a major feature.…
KS: Over the past few years I've produced exhibitions and events under a wide spectrum of parameters—from simple one-artist exhibitions (or two-poet readings) to collaborative models that I formulate and solicit participation for, to freelance curating where the work is pre-selected and I'm expected to synthesize, manage, and optimize the presentation. Each particular matrix of strictures and priorities has been productive and hugely rewarding for me, in terms of flexing my muscles as a facilitator of discourse in different contexts. So beyond focusing on formal variety among the cultural material I work with, I’m more interested in talking about the inter-structural status of my organizing itself—especially per curated events in a museum context, which for me have a bearing somewhere between poetry reading and exhibition.
Drafts, a program series I’m organizing at The Drawing Center, is conceived around a network of collaborations—the image archive of the Reanimation Library (comprising e.g. instruction manuals, hobbyist books, and general interest encyclopedias mostly printed between the 1950s and 1970s) precipitates each program, and selections from it evolve among the programs themselves, as an inherited (if unwieldy) line of thinking. I invite a sequence of cultural producers to “revise” or resituate an image selected for the previous program among a new set of images, and each set forms the basis for a program of responses from a variety of creative practitioners.
KG: Are there particular challenges or benefits to inter-structural organizing?
The apparatus of Drafts, for example, tries to circumvent my own one-off arbitrating and instead foster a collaborative and somewhat self-generative engine, where connections depend on a framework beyond simply my tastes and expectations. I’ve yielded some control over the direction of the series, so that holistically it operates more like a conversation and less like discrete units. This to me is a crucial break from, or compromise between, the conventional profiles of event and exhibition (the event is contained, and yet to some degree unpredictable; the exhibition is micromanaged, but has space and duration). Drafts has a framework and a “narrative”, like an exhibition, and it is ongoing, though staggered. In fact, the intermittency is really ideal—like neither one-night event nor traditional exhibition, the series has the opportunity to adapt per reactions to each hand played; comments and suggestions from perspectives I hadn’t thought to consult really do actively shape the programs to come.
If not specifically intended for and attended to, though, the sort of roll-with-the-punches nature of organizing events can prove inhibiting. One reason I've made the purview of Drafts explicitly broad is that I was frustrated with curating poetry readings. Specifically, those with a template of two readers that organizers must file in tandem to fit a rigid schedule (not to name any names). Every satisfying event is just a perfect storm, but I found it increasingly difficult to produce readings that resonated when aesthetic choices fell sway to logistics. Another ingrained challenge to ‘syncing’ readers in a poetry context is that the protocol necessitates inviting a pair based on a perceived aesthetic affinity—which of course derives from some subjective idea of a writer’s work, which is often too specific or too cumulative (and thus reductive)—and as many times as not poets read something that deviates from that caricature (not to mention your introduction!). This can disrupt the chemistry—though not always unproductively—as curatorial oversight is fairly limited.
KG: In November of 2012 you curated an exhibition called Prolonged Exposure for an organization called Recession Art at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn. The call for work you wrote centered around boredom. First, why boredom? Second, your curation seemed focused on the multivalent object, so I saw the inter-generic thing happening there too. Could you address some of the work from that show that challenges genre, or called upon your inter-structural skills?
KS: In terms of my practice, the topic the show hovered around was less significant to me than the parameters I had to work with—this was an open-call exhibition (meaning we solicited submissions publicly) and Recession Art is focused on featuring affordable art for aspiring collectors, so there was a market-based factor that really affected the selection. The price point was supposed to be under $1,000 and any inclusion of video and new media was a compromise (that said, I did manage to show a lot of video). The open call in particular was really challenging to work with, in that I'm totally wary of prescribing a thematic assemblage top-down—here the topic could not arise from a perceived conversation among works; instead it had to precede it and call it into being. So I formulated the call as more of a provocation than anything else and let the project and its concept evolve from there. Notions of boredom, idleness, and restlessness are both critically interesting to me as charged or ambivalent, non-cathartic affects (I've been thinking a lot about Sianne Ngai, and had just finished her book Ugly Feelings at the time), and are also simply and universally applicable. One of the most successful elements was actually the programming that came out of it—in particular a program of films and poetic performance I co-organized with Eddie Hopely.
KG: I find it interesting that your beginnings as a curator happened in a literary—mostly poetry—venue, the Kelly Writers House. Do you think this created a special opportunity or made more obvious the choice to do inter-generic curating and inter-structural organizing?
KS: Certainly the literary aegis there was formative for me in all sorts of ways as my tastes developed—and much of my initial access to contemporary art was via writing at Penn, particularly per Kenny Goldsmith’s lead. In terms of having a foot in both worlds, he’s a prime example, and facilitated many relationships at that threshold that are very important to me: artist Erica Baum, for example, whose work I exhibited at Penn and with whom I maintain a working relationship.
At The Drawing Center, I'm something of a poetry-world emissary. My boss studied at UCSD and hung around West Coast Language poets during his undergraduate years, but his attention has since veered—I'm the only one there who's actively invested in it. Consequently I find the performance work I'm commissioning for Drafts to be poetics-bent. At KWH Art (now Brodsky Gallery, at the Writers House) the reverse was true, and in that arena the visual work I exhibited was often language-based, following the inclination of the institution, and also my own interests at the time. Besides Erica’s show, another example which you mentioned is the exhibition I organized in 2008 around Darren Wershler-Henry’s The Tapeworm Foundry, commissioning realized artworks from his pastiched instructions.
KG: Maybe we can end with a little musing about the future. What do you see coming in the future of curatorial practice? And maybe you can offer us a glimpse of a future, or even a dream curation of your own?
KS: I’m really beginning to focus on curating events, not as subsidiaries to shows, but as creative systems in and of themselves. A big influence for Drafts was Alex Klein’s amazing Excursus project at ICA Philadelphia—she has a really compelling perspective on what programs can do, the type of contrapuntal dialogue or constructive interference they can provide to exhibition-based environments. I do think it’s an alluring frontier these days; more and more curators are taking the possibilities of ‘ephemeral’ programming more seriously.
To critically different ends than the minutely tuned, and often protracted course of preparing an exhibition in most museum settings, I find time-based interactive frameworks often accommodate a more constructive exchange, not only through facilitating real-time conversations among different publics, but also precisely because of their mutability and susceptibility to disruption. The conceptual grounds of Drafts tease out, on a content-level, the structural conditions particular to the event as platform (of risk, of digression, of surfing—what Claire Bishop recently called the 21st century derive, or “the logic of our dominant social field, the Internet”). It also registers a similar valence in the activity of drawing, or drafting, as a conjectural operation, a testing ground for caprice and revision. Of course, this formal analogy could be extended to writing—how shaping an event or confluence of voices that shift relates to the act of writing, and editing. This was a purposeful ambivalence.
A couple of triggers (or harmonics) for this sort of model are Alexandre Singh’s current exhibition at The Drawing Center, based on imagined tangents and corollaries to interviews he conducted, and the idea of “rhapsodic” conversation, replete with daydreamed cul-de-sacs, and Blanchot's idea (borrowed from Valery) of conversation on a Riemann surface. The latter is a spatial metaphor for dialogue alternative to a cumulative, linear progression. Each speaker develops thoughts on multiple sheets of paper asynchronously to the conversation itself, following their projection of where the exchange will go. And yet because one can never accurately anticipate her interlocutor's reaction, which will defer and detour where she thought she was going, many unspoken digressions remain embedded in a conversation. (For more of my rambling on this, see my book I Want So Much To Tell You, forthcoming from bas-books). I wanted to give voice to as many digressions as possible with Drafts, from the image selection to the events to the addenda on The Drawing Center’s blog.
Drafts: Phase II will take place on March 12, 2013.
A debate continues
One October 11, 2012, I hosted a debate on Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Well, not quite a debate, but I knew that I, sitting in the middle of four poets, would be on the fence, as it were, with two on a side. The live webcast, hosted by the Kelly Writers House, was associated with the 36,000-person free online course "ModPo," and was viewed synchronously by dozens in the room with us and thousands watching digitally around the world. We made a recording immediately afterward, and have posted it to YouTube here (1 hour, 9 minutes). (And here is a recording of Frost performing the poem. We began our discussion by listening to it; the performance is certainly important to at least the beginning of the debate.)
The differences between the sides, two versus two, didn't really emerge until the end of a fascinating discussion, but they did indeed emerge, Rachel Blau DuPlessis first finally expressing concerns about the attitude of the poem’s speaker, then Bob Perelman joining the view, pointedly. To be sure, all four poets — Bob, Rachel, and John Timpane and Taije Silverman — spent much of the time assembling a full close formal (and meta-poetic) reading of the poem. Its thematics — and politics — derived, as is apt, from the poem's quality as itself an instance in form of the speaker's impulse to have and also to keep apart from the stilled human object of his beautiful but empty annual cultural rite. Later John Timpane thought some more about his own position on the poem’s speaker; I'm pleased that he has given me permission to publish his statement here.
The Speaker in “Mending Wall”: Exactly How Much Should We Dislike Him?
An amicus curiae brief
How should we feel about the speaker in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”? Many readers feel discomfort – but what degree of discomfort is appropriate?
Not to pre- or proscribe anything; I speak only for myself. I wouldn’t be writing, sure, unless I had an opinion I think is best. As with Anne Elk and her Theory of the Brontosauruses in Monty Python: “this theory, that I have, that is to say, which is mine, ... is mine.”
To the speaker. Is he a prig? A cad? An overweening would-be dominator? A human juggernaut laying low all before him? An untrustworthy, double-dealing, snide, cowardly, monomaniacal amphibologist?
Donnez-moi une break.
The worst thing the speaker does in “Mending Wall” is to credit himself with greater lateral awareness than his neighbor has. This act is, to be sure, unattractive. And the portrait of the neighbor in “Mending Wall” is at least potentially (we can’t really know for sure) unfair.
What makes us uncomfortable, however, isn’t really the fairness issue. We have every reason to suppose we’re reading a reasonable self-assessment, and a reasonable, if partial, assessment of his neighbor. It’s the speaker’s attitude that grates. He’s a crusty bird, and a tease; nothing obliges us to like him. But he seems an aware, trustworthy guide to the moment, able to say and see worthwhile things – while patching a wall he knows is going to fall down. He also likes conversation and tries to invent some, to little avail. True, this is the way he wishes to appear. But that doesn’t kill it. Maybe he is justified in that wish. I’d just as soon this speaker as another.
The neighbor doesn’t talk much, responding to the speaker’s two sallies, short jest and longer jesting argument, with the same proverb. Like many readers, I, too, want to know more about his neighbor, and it does seem a trifle (but maybe not too much more than that) unfair to compare him to an “old stone savage armed” who moves in “darkness.”
But harsh? No. It is unattractive and holds us at arm’s-length from the speaker; we can’t cozy up to him. We like our speakers to be nice. It isn’t nice to tell us, over-the-shoulder-like, “I’m smarter than this guy – he doesn’t get it.”
Neither, however, is it totally uncalled for, at least not within the world conjured up in the poem. Again, I acknowledge, very unsurely, but I acknowledge, that perhaps the speaker is being unfair. We will never know whether Frost’s neighbor (if Frost really is the speaker, and the neighbor is really meant to be one of his actual neighbors) was really like this. Perhaps, after a hard day of pine-pruning, the neighbor eased shut his door behind him, donned his smoking jacket, poured himself a tall flute of Veuve Clicquot, set a disk of The Firebird Suite on the phonograph, and opened his volume of Pindar. If you’re smiling, you, like me, doubt it. If you’re smiling, part of you somewhere agrees there’s a damn fine chance the speaker’s assessment of his neighbor isn’t too terribly off the mark.
Back to the speaker. He begins by calling his neighbor and inviting him to meet “on a day” and walk along their shared wall to repair gaps and holes, replacing stones where they have fallen out.
When the speaker gets to the arranged place and time, however, suddenly this spring ritual, repeated immemorially between farmland neighbors, seems strange, an old motion-gone-through, all but needless between neighbors who tend not cows (which could escape through holes in the fence) but trees (which normally could not): “He is all pine and I am all apple orchard.”
When he picked up the earpiece to phone his neighbor “beyond the hill,” he seems to have been all business; otherwise, why call at all? Now, however, a playful alienation strikes – none the less playful for being alienated, and none the less seriously alienated for being playful. As sometimes happens, what we do all the time loses its trappings of necessity, and mending wall seems “just another kind of out-door game, /One on a side. It comes to little more.”
We can locate the moment the speaker leaves seriousness and takes up play, a point of view that fruitfully undermines the two men’s ritual. The first 15 lines or so of the poem are seeming-businesslike, listing things that don’t love a wall: weather, hunters, rabbits. Once the two men start doing the work, though, exactly when you might think greatest practical seriousness is required, it gets into the speaker’s head to toy with the way the two of them set certain stones and more or less hope they’ll stay: some of the stones
are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
The early-20th-century exclamation point functions to mark not only a raised voice, but also a point of irony or humor (a once-common function). Stones cease to be stones: they are loaves, nearly balls, objects to address as though sentient. And they don’t fit. That means my neighbor and I are not doing the best job. When physical labor fails, use spells.
Here on, the speaker can’t see mending the wall as he once did. He’ll perform it and see it gets done; he owes that to his neighbor, who’d be sore if his neighbor, having called the meeting in the first place, suddenly ran off. This moment dislodges the speaker, however, not only from his work but also from his neighbor. Aware, acutely so, of their apartness, he tries a joke, and it brings out the difference:
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
His neighbor is not in the same mind. Literally and figuratively. He’s a lousy audience; he won’t play. He doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t nod. He doesn’t honor the joke, which, shouldn’t I note?, would not kill him. He does get its intent, however, answering with his father’s sober, ambiguous proverb.
(It might mean opposite things, at least: both “good fences ensure neighbors keep apart” and “ensuring good fences gives neighbors something to cooperate on, a task that brings them into neighborliness.” And that’s only for starters.)
The speaker locates his momentary dislodgement in the time of year: “Spring is the mischief in me.” But the neighbor, for whom it’s spring, too, stays very much lodged.
The speaker responds to this resistance by trying “to put a notion in his head,” as if no notion there resides at the moment. (Unkind and unattractive, but not exactly grounds for a lawsuit.) His argument extends the previous jest – and adds that walls may embody a hurtful exclusionary impulse:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Serious raillery. Since we can’t really wall out the hunters, rabbits, groundswells, frosts, and change of seasons, what, really, are we walling in or out? And might not offense lurk in this neighborly mural mania?
The speaker does not mean his argument to be sound and does not expect a response in the same terms. He’d like some banter, but he already knows his neighbor won’t engage him on the same level. He thinks his neighbor either is incapable of it (not smart enough to understand the humor, or the worthwhile concepts it broaches) or just won’t (considering it a waste of time, what with the work to be done).
The speaker says, “I’d rather/He said it for himself.” He wants his neighbor to enunciate what it is about the world, about people, that wants to see walls down. Hey, neighbor, speak to me of the anarchic impulse, of the Bakhtinian drive to gay destruction, of American libertarian free-rangeism!
Yes, the speaker would rather his neighbor took up the play, so he wouldn’t have to do it all himself, and also to hear the neighbor playfully, in spring mischief, acknowledge the silliness of the proceedings. And he knows damn well his neighbor won’t.
Alternative title: “The Bait Not Taken.”
We perform rituals to achieve things that transcend the efficacy (if any) of the rituals themselves. Sure, replacing stones in the wall repairs the wall. But meeting a neighbor to mend the wall is also a way to call the spring spring, to reassert demarcations of territory, to remind each other that “you’re here, I’m there, yours stops, mine begins.” Rituals exist, in part, as the speaker well knows, to counter the Elves, to work against the thing in people that would pull all walls down and run amok among the cows, pines, and apple orchards. Ritual is something that loves a wall.
That is one thing, I believe, both men know. They’re here for ritual itself and what ritual means. For signified more than signifier. And if you think the neighbor’s going to stop his work and say so, you’re nuts.
He stops only barely, twice, to say “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The second time, the speaker has his least attractive moment, literally throwing his neighbor into the shade. Yes, he’s punishing him for not playing.
Yet I’m not all against this terrible, Inquisitor-like torture, this figurative waterboarding of the poor, defenseless neighbor. (OK, I’ll stop now. I’m just tired of tropistic posing.) I like the notions in the speaker’s head. These are big questions, aren’t they? How citizens of the United States, guaranteed unprecedented liberties as of the world of 1914, seek, within their domestic economies, to carve land and space, to stipulate where one another may and may not go? And do we not justly feel, as of 2012, that tension? The thing in U.S. folks that loves walls versus the thing that doesn’t? And don’t these questions arise naturally from the situation? If the speaker had not raised them, would we not be pretty disappointed? And have had one lousy, uneventful poem? A “Mending Wall” in which two guys wordlessly put stones in holes?
And if the speaker had not raised these issues, wouldn’t he be a lot less of a speaker? A speaker not only crusty, not only slightly unattractive in his (earned) assumption of imaginative superiority, but also . . . dumb? A mule at the harp? Uninteresting?
If any of these questions dispose, even generally, to an affirmative, then we may well share the speaker’s disappointment in the neighbor. He won’t play. He doesn’t care or won’t share. As a conversational wall, to shut up further talk, he repeats a proverb that may well (whatever it means, and I don’t pretend to understand it fully) exemplify these very tensions in U.S. life. Not to blame him – just to note, as the poem notes, a missed chance.
An important objection to the speaker is that he controls the tale-telling. He’s the traditional narrator, origin and fount of authority, the only place you’ll get the goods. He tells the story. He tells things to his neighbor. He manipulates and arranges and has it all his way.
But is there really any reason to doubt the speaker’s report? Yes, he’s selective, but there isn’t a lot to select from. Yes, he reports his own inner state more fully than that of his neighbor. How could it be otherwise? The speaker does give us a late glimpse of what he thinks the neighbor is probably thinking. And there’s an element, vague, but an element, of unfairness there. But what degree of awfulness should we rightly assign to these mad-eyed depredations?
If the work of this poem is to be done, somebody’s got to do it, and the neighbor won’t. The speaker knows what he wants the poem to do, and to that extent “Mending Wall” may strike readers of a certain mind as – horrible word – overdetermined. (Pause for a sip of wine to clear the palate.) Not quite; it leads us up to the to-be-determined and leaves us short. We can drink if we can find the stream, but nothing’s going to stick our snout in it.
What I mean is this: Frost is a notoriously elusive philosopher. His poems do indeed take up “topics.” Wallace Stevens, in an act of arrogant hypocrisy, once tweaked Frost about it. Stevens was willfully ignoring just how much alike he and Frost were: Both were fond of the 19th-century pensiero poetico, both drawn to the kind of poem that addresses an issue. And each, in his idiosyncratic, distinctive fashion, worked 20th-century wrinkles on that tradition, thinking aloud, but in elusive and diffuse ways. Exactly what was that idea of order, down there in Key West?
“For Once, Then, Something” – for once, then, what? Think of the early Frost poem “Design.” Consider how that poem, which started its existence as drearily straightforward hand-wringing over evidence in nature of a creator, evolved. Frost’s revisions led “Design” away from too-direct answers.
And what, exactly, is the “all the difference” that not-taken road made? Do I see any hands?
If overdetermined at all, “Mending Wall” is so only in its determination to lead us to play – not to fetch out a definitive answer. We may not be disposed to go where we’re led, and it is fashionable, as of 2012, to make a big deal of our unwillingness. In so doing, we put ourselves in the neighbor’s shoes, though not for the same reasons.
That’s a side of the speaker I like: He’s hellbent on play, dadgum it. He’s a bit of a baby when his opposite number won’t join in. But I’m disposed to credit the aware playful mind over the recalcitrant, inexpressive mind impatient with play. Flense me.
A similar objection is that the poem is somehow too “tidy,” that the situation sits up a little too nicely, ready to be hit out of the park. That, too, tends to render the speaker (to some readers) irritating, as the regularity of his iambic pentameter also does. Acknowledging always that poets streamline, gussy up, and fastidiously vacuum the representations of the actual events that urge forth their poetry, I nevertheless wonder about this objection. Hey, stuff happens, and it tends to shape the things one may write about. I once wrote a poem about the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma forgetting his cello in a taxi in Manhattan. That really happened, and I heard about it. If it hadn’t, and I hadn’t, would I have written the poem? Would we have had the same fun thinking about issues of memory? About cellos? And taxis? And Yo-Yo Ma?
Sometimes events are more or less ideal. They happen, one is happened to, one writes. One will stylize, idealize, and misrepresent; one will. One has no choice. Memory, as Yo-Yo Ma can tell us all, is inexact and untrustworthy. Language, too. So, if this situation didn’t happen exactly as reported, I wouldn’t be surprised, or especially distressed. I’d expect it.
But I can locate no impressive evidence that the speaker is not being at least faithful to what he believes he experienced.
Anyway, how tidy is all this really? Few tasks can be as frustrating or as approximate as mending wall. Think of the round stones that are “nearly balls.” When you’re patching a stone wall, an old one, like the one that used to line my 23 acres up in Keene, New Hampshire, round stones are a nightmare. They don’t stay. Even when you can match a rolled-away stone with its original place in the wall (and much of the time, you can’t), you want a stone with edges, with rough. You don’t have mortar; you’re dry-stoning. Rough, angular stones work better. They can fit even holes they didn’t come from – if they’re about right, you can often jam them in and know they’ll stay all right. Round stones, good luck. They fall out. They offer no purchase. No wonder the speaker imagines the men speaking spells to make the stones stay.
It’s a rough and ready task that wears “our fingers rough.” So, no, the case is the opposite. This is a messy, improvisational task, filling gaps whose origin you can only guess, hoping stones stay, when you know that the world and its hunters and rabbits and winter groundswell will wreak their normal havoc. Nothing stone can stay.
This awareness of the rough-and-readiness of the task makes this poem seem especially truthful to me; it’s an illusion, I grant, but it’s a persuasive one, one that allows me to credit the idea that the speaker is at least trying to be faithful to a memory of a real event. A poorer poet would have the two men pick up ideal stones and set each one securely in its place, remaking the perfect wall between them as they move. Which would be a horrible poem. And the approximateness of the task is what spurs the playful thought that this is not really work meant to last, but “another kind of out-door game.”
All of which reflects well on this speaker, I think. He’s being pretty honest about the limitations of human beings faced with an entropic, unanswerable universe. Our work won’t last; why not approach it, since we’re working, in a playful spirit?
The neighbor won’t play, wants to get on with it, likes his father’s saying and will not “go behind” it. The speaker puts all his play-stuff out there, the “something” that doesn’t “love a wall,” the “spring,” the allusions to ancient sprites and savage rites, way extramural (and he knows it) in a poem about New England wall repair. And it’s the speaker, in the end, who is denied. He punishes the neighbor by casting him as a savage, a man in the dark. That’s about all the satisfaction he gets.
Of the two, the speaker is the better poet. And the inferior farmer! Frost was not a remarkably successful or especially fullhearted farmer. Is it unfair to say this poem shows why? If you can’t take farming totally seriously – with its backbreaking labor; its demand for vigilance, market smarts, and forehandedness; and its solitude – how much of a farmer you? We speak for the neighbor when we say “Mending Wall” shows how, if you think that way, you’ll never make it work as a farmer. Or, maybe, as a neighbor.
Thanks to the work of the PennSound staff, we now add to our collection of text-audio alignments an oft-read and oft-taught poem by Bob Perelman, “Chronic Meanings.” This is a poem he chose for his selected poems, and one he is likely to read at a performance of his work across the decades. It is a pre-elegy for Leland Hickman. Perelman’s PennSound page includes several readings of the poem and also a fairly detailed introduction offered by the poet. Here is a link to the new text-audio alignment page.
[The entire poem appears in The First Flag, forthcoming from Coffee House Press]
◊ I Slid Out of My Mother’s Body
Of being numinous. Of drift and syringe.
Of metal atonement. Of a tube-fed
melancholy. Of post-terror karmic.
Of a certain amount of ear. Of the smog
smear around the blood hollow. Of the
ossified berry like a cave cataract. Of
my mind branched out through the fontanel,
antlering, leaves letting go of me.
I entered air a poisonous object subtracted
from a poisoned mother. Her radiance
scathes me. I'm a pharmaceutical interpolator.
My mother and I have the same (m)Other,
man-made (m)Om. I came astride the butcher's
alchemical homologue. The butcher said,
we'll grow up on this street. We'll wear masks
to conceal our monstrous mutual disease.
He said, look at my throbbing moneybags.
I roam over a burial site, my cosmovisage,
some myness that is not quite dead yet.
A birth plan spilling cosmovergence.
◊ Doll Box
Questioning began to break circuitry into the air
between myself and the listening surround.
At first my mouth formed only a zero
and I was mistaken by some for a doll.
This air shielded the world from my sound,
which was clotted and seizing, a stirring interior.
I only want to feel myself the mother of something.
I want, and want to redeem my fire. But a menacing
voice perseveres, blacks out my no more logos!
◊ Brain Letter
One day I woke up rearranged like a sleepwalker
misplaced upon a terrain of erotic grenades.
Am I a manifesto? Am I cloudless, now?
Little fuses sizzled and unfurled smoke signals
targeting thoughtpods in outerspace.
Each grenade was a tiny twin of my own brain,
a memory vessel: my buried fetal cunt, its plastic crust.
I began to notice the quality of song glass
makes metabolizing. I began to fuse what was left
of my body to this noise whose shape resembled what I knew
of jaguars. My jaguar was a hypnotist who insinuated a paradise
where the scalpel king remained tied-down in the wellhole.
My jaguar opened his mouth and produced a horse for my climb.
He pointed one way, then another. He said, Do not try
to force your horse up slopes like this one.
It is bad for you and For your horse.
My jaguar, my sound, my saddle, my trance, my transgressive ascent.
◊ Born in Prison
While everyone else goes off to war, I am confined
to a ward. Ursula — repulsive nurse — locks me in.
I'm a comma on the cot. Some soul scraps
catch air from the vent and abandon me
like strands of hair. It's January and there's snow.
The lounge TV features our Patriarch lauding
noble attacks on small, foreign targets.
He places his hand on his heart as instructed
by God. On the ward below, my daughters
in nightgowns circle the citadel, they swallow
their meds. Outside the E.R. a school bus catches
ice, then plows through the hospital windows.
Nurses toss fire back and forth. I pretend to regurgitate
their pills, but I like drugs. If only I had a fever.
My daughters engrave the names of future
children on their inner arms with slivers
of bulletproof glass; they drizzle their red
syrup, circling circling, burning foxholes
into the floor with their footpads.
Those dear girls source their own arteries
for jumping rope, and chant: “Say say oh enemy,
come disappear with me, and bring
your pharmacy, climb up my torture tree,
slide down my cutter blade, into my Seroquel,
and fade away we will, forevermore — shut the door."
"Your father runs this hospital,” said the chaplain, disrobing.
◊ I Don't Want
what I haven't got. I don't want leprosy or seasickness
or a parasitic twin. No less flesh, no fetish, no ghostdad.
I never wanted a penis. No subzero minddrift.
Not a pyrrhic foot. No harness. “No more babies."
No sandman or awful apple, no blue stirring
in the dosage. I don't want a horse. “I don't want
your despicable money.” I do not want aural cathexis.
No dragon, no morphine drip, “No more love, okay?”
I do not want: feminine rhyme. The moths. Monastic
silence. Nurses' corners. No more masks! Or nouns.
◊ Side Effects
We can invent language every time, one syllable after another. “Reports of pain will be believed. Controlling your pain may
speed your recovery.” Patient K shrieks in his pen. “Not everyone's a good candidate for treatment.” He screams
himself a new body, rough flesh disgorging from its animal stone.
My dreams are white and in lockdown, the medicine’s lumbering
upset. I now recall the last time I felt lithium tour my brain —
at the speed of trees. “The only way to get an accurate
diagnosis is to have a complete mental breakdown.”
The brain’s metallic synaesthesia whips my eyeballs.
Patient K, verb-headed, pursues new horizons of noise.
Consciousness is nothing special it just happens to be.
I wake up talking in my sleep: Tears are liquefied brain.
◊ Poetry as Magic
Offspring of my absolute desires shrivel on the lake’s
hide while the Great Blue Heron orates windily
from a moss cove. The cold is not absolute or abetting.
The scarlet branchtrap's latch is merely aesthetic.
At Flame School, they taught me how to reach into the mercury
for more death. Or else to wade through want waves pretending
the blades on my thighs are grass and won’t scorch me.
Raccoon midwifes the baby from the eye of the firepit,
headfirst blooming through white ash into flame.
Raccoon reaches in with trowel-handed forceps.
This baby is an ambassador for all the dead babies.
He’s char-dusted, the birth muck melded to him. Surgically,
raccoon sets the baby to cool on a pit
rock, steals off to pick and teethe the placenta.
I look at my baby boy on the rock.
He had been immaterial to me,
like a god, like a disease.
◊ Little Boy Lost
St. Blake baby projects a dream onto the atmosphere
as evidence that life once flickered within him.
The dream is a film I enter as a second mother
through forest to clearing where I find a boy
pulling an object from a lake. The boy uses our secret
language to communicate that object is a postcard
on which a morphing mouth screams. I believe the boy
is frightened, as I am frightened of the boy
and his prophetic debris. But I am his mother.
Let us peer into the mouth together, but the mouth
is now a vase — vaguely a human face — and we understand
that in it lingers the essence of a child. The vase
keeps changing and makes the boy laugh, now.
I’m walking under some noisy trees.
The trees have panther breath and teeth
at my back. My hair seems to be on fire.
The trees hunger. They are flame-eating
panthers. I’m walking under a green cloud
shaped like the mother of all insects.
The cloud bulges with the sentient residue
of history. She refuses any longer to contain it.
The mother of all insects will soon release
newly gestated monsters into the atmosphere.
The panthers hiss. I’m nervous. I wonder
what the trees will do, if it will hurt.
◊ Poison Path
I conjure sulfur and snakespit for sacred somatic
circumnavigation: pores & orifices & dream lymph.
My inner chambers convert poison to tonic.
Like an egg, when pierced with milk. Or a womb —
its crimson coastline, its lunar fuss. “The earth's condition
is receptive devotion.” I grew tired of being an ode.
The path of medicine is a poison path. Your bitters
are my nectar, I've grown tired of being a bruise.
All the smitten birds call me out of my body, I'm so tired
of being observed. “Poison” is a lie, from sea to shining sea.
“Dominion over all things.” Censored psalters, even.
Woman and Poison share an ancient alliance.
◊ Skull Collector
I deliver the egg to the top of the tower.
I had disguised the egg as a skull
thrown in like all other skulls
in my cart. I'd been a skull collector;
my cart rattled with skull requiem.
The stars and the snow contrive a rhyme,
it sparkles my hair. I toss the skulls and coil
up the stairs to the top of my tower, cradling
the egg in my blouse. I reel the pain in
and the pail. I reel in a blazing fire.
My egg, its incandescence!
A deer awakens within the blue eye of the blessing.
She awakens on the pretty hills, amid flowers.
We are together and refrain from weeping.
“There is no one who regrets what we are.”
The deer presents herself to the flaming
wreck of our worst-remembered days.
She is the daughter of our transformation,
and fire releases her from the seal
of ordinary matter. Her wounds boil into eyes
watching us witness her vanishing: her meat
and movement shaved off the face of the earth.
Elsewhere her life reassembles, while we are full of her.
◊ Inside the Deer
Inside the deer our wish for sanctification gestates.
She sleeps on the scrap side of the desert,
and her dreams fly from her mind
as seeds that supplant and swell
into ancestral faces peering up through the dirt.
These ancient ones multiply and flower.
We eat them.
[NOTE & COMMENTARY. The foregoing poem marks the arrival of a strong new voice for our continuing poetry project, concerning which Clayton Eshleman has written: “The masterpiece of this extraordinary collection (The First Flag) is a hexagonal 36 poem cycle, Comma. Sarah Fox envisions herself as a separation daemon in a birth theater. By exorcising the hordes and weevil casts of her uteral spectres and conceiving of the ‘family romance’ as mantic veins to be pumped, she achieves the denouement of becoming fully (not just physically) born. Birth as apocalyptic breakdown; the work? Imaginal punctuality.” Or Sarah Fox selbst in clarification of the vision here & in her earlier work Because Why: “The poems in the book do side with a more elliptical expression of time, in opposition to Western instincts. I think of this nonlinear approach as an organic articulation that poetry, in particular, is able to facilitate. Paul Celan: ‘I try to reproduce cuttings from the spectral analysis of things, to show them in several aspects and permeations at once.’ As I was putting the manuscript together, I wanted to focus, however ambiguously, on this idea of a journey — a subtle narrative arc — launching from the imperative form in the first poem (‘Guidebook For a Pleasant Stay’) into a territory of questioning. Questions are infinite. Edmond Jabés, in his poem The Book of Questions, writes ‘knowledge means questioning,’ and further, ‘God is a question.’ Questioning allows for negative capability. The Field Notes poems hope to ground the journey through the gestures of awak- ening they transcribe. They are sequential, but that’s mostly by coincidence. The first poem finds the speaker in a state of bewilderment, on a kind of threshold, as in a Grimm character who says 'I would like to learn shuddering. That is something I do not comprehend at all.' From there, the poems follow a course devoted to disempowering certainty and temporal concerns, permitting the 'spectral analysis' as memory, image, idea, and utterance cross-pollinate. I obviously pay homage to María Sabina (and others such as Anne Waldman), out of a sense of apprenticeship to a poetic lineage, which for me finds its roots in a words-as-medicine approach to poetry. María Sabina chanted 'I am a woman who looks into the insides of things and investigates.' The 'advance scout' could be seen as one investigating the rim of consciousness. Celan again: 'Instrange yourself, / deeper.'” The complete interview from which this is taken can be found at http://coffeehousepress.org/authors/sarah-fox/#author-books. (J.R.)]
Chris Alexander talks to J. Gordon Faylor
I was planning to ask J. Gordon Faylor why he recently expanded Gauss PDF, historically an online-only press, to also making works avalable in print on demand (POD). When someone asked me at a poetry event (who was it?) what else I had on the docket for this column, and I listed Gauss, Chris Alexander informed me he was in the midst of an email exchange with Faylor about the very same question I had. Who knew?!? So I asked them if I could reproduce their conversation as an interview and, of course, they said yes. So here it is. If you’ve ever wondered what the enigmatic writer/producer/editor J. Gordon Faylor is up to (haven't we all?) here's a nice start at finding out.
CA: Poking around the web, I see Gauss PDF described as “a website which publishes ‘digitally based works’ in pdf format (2010),” “an experiment in multimedia publication, having hosted everything from digital video and zip files to YouTube playlists and image collections” (2011), and a “poetry/non-poetry resource” (2012). When I look at the catalog, I see that your first two publications are PDFs, but already the third publication is an MP3 — followed by a ZIP file, and then a flurry of different formats: M4V, MOV, JPG, embeds from your Vimeo channel, and so forth. What was your vision for Gauss PDF when you started out in 2010? Did you see yourself as a PDF publisher primarily, or did you aim from the beginning to explode poetry's print/ebook orthodoxy?
JGF: Strangely, I originally envisioned GPDF as a publisher of audiobooks. Influenced by PennSound, I thought I might go about recording and publishing long-form ‘studio’ readings by friends who weren't receiving much attention at the time. Shortly thereafter, while researching dither, I came across Gaussian PDFs, a type of density function in which randomized measurements are arranged in a bell curve. It amused me to think of a site bearing what is better known as an Adobe brand name while constantly evading that particular extension; it would be like calling a label “Gussy CDs” and only issuing pamphlets. At some point, I removed the “ian” suffix and abandoned the idea in lieu of a more open and inviting project (as well as something I hadn’t seen elsewhere): a publication suited to any type of media file. This decision was inspired by others who were increasingly interested in the digital casings that encompassed, flattened, or enhanced various art forms. This is not a site for ‘poetry’ alone, and I don’t feel as though I’m threatening an orthodoxy. It is crudely analogous to François Laruelle’s concept of non-philosophy: not to oppose poetry, but to use its materials and models toward broader purposes. Of course, because I come from a poetry background, most of GPDF’s publications come from poets and writers.
Since its first release, GPDF has maintained only two parameters for publication: that a work be complete (i.e. not a fragment of a larger work) and that it not be published elsewhere. In this way, I aim to avoid the trappings of the literary journal, allowing the work to exist in its entirety. This is the form of publication I'm most drawn to, as it can be frustrating to enjoy a work in a journal/e-zine knowing that it has been stripped of its other components, consequently giving no sense of breadth, concision, etc.
CA: It’s interesting that you attribute the shift in GPDF's format to an exchange of ideas with your early contributors, making this something of a collaborative platform — though it seems like there's an obvious relationship to your own work too. I'm thinking of recent pieces like Privation F Dec Release and Marginal Contribution Twin, but also the look and feel of your Lulu books going back to 2010. How has GPDF intersected with and transformed your work?
JGF: That's a curious question because — aside from a collection of bass duets made in collaboration with Eddie Hopely last year — none of my own work has appeared on GPDF (yet). However, I think you’re apt in noting a certain collaborative spirit, though that may have emerged more as a result of deference than discourse. As ‘editor,’ I try not to insert myself too much, opting instead to let the contributors have their way. Occasionally I'll suggest an approach, but I'd like to think my purpose is more about ushering in the work. As such, I’m open to someone like Tonya St. Clair subverting and obfuscating the GPDF catalog sequence. I'm no purist, and this sort of technology allows for emendation, subversion, reification, and decay in ways others can't or don't.
My own projects and performances similarly operate on something of a site-specific/site-critical basis. When I read at a poetry event, I'll typically deliver a piece I've written specifically for that event (as opposed something from a book or collection). When I submit a work — like Privation, for instance — to an editor, I'll first attempt to locate the template/media utilized by that publication. In this case, I knew Eric Laska would be hosting the audio files on SoundCloud, so I started with the idea of somehow rendering audio that preempted and reciprocally acknowledged the comments any SC user can post along a waveform.
Same goes for my Lulu and TROLL THREAD publications. TT has, of course, exploited Lulu's bookmaking technology in more diversely insidious ways, but I think we're both drawn in some way to its excrescent potential, not to mention its utter convenience. More recently I've published some books under a pseudonym, Carton Trebe, who serves as a sort of authorial container for spam texts.
Perhaps this could all be traced to an ongoing engagement with various media and art theories.
CA: “Emendation, subversion, reification, and decay” — that's an interesting list. It occurs to me that these are operations rather than aesthetic values, not unlike Richard Serra’s famous verb lists of the late 60s and early 70s. Your description of your own work as “template/media”-specific suggests a similar emphasis on action in a material context. Does aesthetics play a role at GPDF, however non-traditional?
JGF: “Aesthetics” is a problematic word, and lately one that evokes in me a good deal of skepticism. Like “style,” it can become an excuse for suspending criticality with respect to a certain work, or for masking self-reflexive tendencies. I want to avoid this trap. I have my tastes — so does everyone — but part of what makes GPDF an unusual platform for publication is the way in which it both fosters and flattens resistance. For instance, how does one reconcile John Paetsch’s Crista's Severance Package xxx and Kyle Page’s 10.10.5, with James Whitehead's Manifesto of Haecceitics and Christine Jones’s The Vision of Love. These are not complementary, and in some cases may be diametrically or confusedly at odds. That resistance generates a friction between "my tastes" and GPDF as a publication, ideally making individual aesthetic sensibilities more palpable and amenable to analysis.
However, like I said, there is also a leveling process happening here. Archives are a subject of great fascination to me, and GPDF fortuitously gives me the opportunity to explore the contrast between label and repository. If anything can feasibly be a GPDF publication, why am I only hosting works by artists/writers and not, say, dozens of anonymous zip files containing hundreds of images or videos downloaded from YouTube?
I will say that of enormous importance to me are the transitions between catalog entries. These are the points at which my own subjectivity is most apparent, where something like "style" might take place. The projects should be bracketed quietly; to post two projects completely different in spirit side by side would seem to distract/detract from their individual forms/contents, and more readily enforce a certain reading of them. Conflict is crucial, but it shouldn't suffocate.
CA: With the recent publication of Andy Sterling’s Supergroup, you've launched Gauss PDF Editions — a Lulu-based book press, I take it. How much does the press overlap with GPDF as a digital platform? How do you see the relationship between books, or on-demand printing, and the other formats you distribute? Why books?
JGF: Well, GPDF Editions is not specifically a Lulu press. In the interest of openness, I've described it elsewhere as a means of releasing 'materials'. So if someone would want to release some sort of non-book object, I could feasibly accommodate that. However, the next several Editions will indeed be Lulu books.
The overlap is more or less tangential — the only indicators of its relation to GPDF are a ‘logo’ contained within/on each release, and a catalog number (GPDF###) along the spine or wherever. It's curious how POD services like Lulu can read as somehow a priori digitized; the books all have that same look and feel. It's as though the publishing wizard is somehow inscribed behind the text, like a watermark. Another similarity between the sort of digital publications you’d find on GPDF and Lulu books are their fragility. Certainly, I want to in some way ‘secure’ GPDF entries by hosting them, publicizing them, backing them up, etc. But I'm wary of the Internet, the cloud. These are mediums that are not infallible, and can be censored or taken down. On Lulu, the only thing standing between a book’s existence and inexistence is its author. I want to get a copy of this Michael Taylor book, but who knows how long it will be available? Once it's gone, it's gone. Perhaps by materializing certain things, I can go a bit further in ensuring or contesting their preservation. Not that preservation is my foremost goal or obsession (see earlier re: possible processes of decay). I also like what Tan Lin has to say about the technology of books in his interview with Angela Genusa, and I mostly concur with him. I like that one has to trash or burn a book in order to destroy it.
CA: Any last thoughts?
JGF: Works by Alejandro Crawford, Astrid Lorange, Tim Leonido, Anna Vitale, Mark Johnson, Andy Martrich and others are forthcoming. Yes. It would be good to see challenges to the GPDF model emerge, but I would hope they not become too immured by the vagaries of the art or poetry worlds. We shouldn't neglect the fact that these works may be larger or more subtly critical than they seem. Obviously, technology has the capacity for subversion; it can inform, create, disable. Shout outs to Jargon, Leaving Records, Non-Musicology, bas-books, Lateral Addition, Lil’ Norton, Truck Books, Something Else Press, other labels and publications, and Patrick Lovelace.