Commentaries - June 2013
[In advance of a projected publication of Jackson Mac Low’s The Light Poems (complete) by Chax Press with an introduction by Michael O’Driscoll, the following is an excerpt from O’Driscoll’s “By the Numbers: Jackson Mac Low's Light Poems and Algorithmic Digraphism” in Time in Time: Short Poems, Long Poems, and the Rhetoric of North American Avant-Gardism, 1963-2008. ed. J. Mark Smith (McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, 2013).]
The End(s) of Chance
There’s a certain irony that emerges when the author of what are often understood to be the greatest examples of twentieth-century aleatoric poetry is himself the victim of the cruel indifferences of chance. In June 1968, while at work on the final stages of his latest volume, 22 Light Poems, forthcoming from Black Sparrow Press, Jackson Mac Low wrote of delays to publisher John Martin, explaining that he’d been unable to complete his afterward to the volume because the ceiling of his study had fallen in, covering his materials and workspace in plaster, and forcing him to relocate to the adjacent bedroom.
Mac Low, it seems, had in the process misplaced the famous light chart that governed the production of those poems and the whole process ground, temporarily, to a halt. Two months later, after some meticulous haggling between poet and publisher over typographic placement and diacritical marks, a clutch of galley proofs went astray in the postal system, forcing further delays, which were then compounded by the following event in September of that year, as Mac Low writes to Martin:
Then Sunday morning – I know you won’t believe it but the
painting rack over the bed fell on us at 7 AM & we both
nearly got killed. I got a terrible hitna head from the heavy
shelf that had overhung the bed or from one of the stretchers
– dunno which – & several bad bruises & cuts on my arms
and legs. Iris got away with a cut elbow. So I wasn’t in any
shape to do proofreading until about the middle of the week.
These highly random, certainly painful, and all too quotidian occurrences conspired to delay the project, but 22 Light Poems did, eventually, go to print in October of 1968, resulting in a visually stunning and formally innovative collection of the light poems that Mac Low had begun writing some six years earlier.
It might be no more than idle speculation, but one could presume that Mac Low had had, for the time being at least, enough of chance. Aside from the relatively minor PFR-3 computer poems written the following summer in California, his next major project, the Odes for Iris, saw Mac Low producing a body of much more conventional verse – strict syllabic quatrains of unrequited love – that, as Jerome Rothenberg has noted, “out-confesses the ‘confessionals.’” Of course, what is much more likely here is that Mac Low’s failing marriage – the central subject of the Odes – forced him to turn to an expressivist representation of his own emotional turmoil. In the 64th Ode he writes:
I’m not much surprised to find
the only kind I seem to
want to write.
chance operations gave me
many poems & pieces
in the past
fifteen years or so, but now
I only feel like writing
is all I write, despite years
of so-called “egoless art”
chimera! noble daydream
of the proud
who disdain to dump soul-shit
on unwary customers
& think they’re Boddhisattvas
Mac Low’s being unjustifiably critical of himself and his fellow experimental artists here – the paradox of self-aggrandizing practitioners of egoless art really overstates the case – and the fact is that Mac Low did not ultimately abandon “objective” operations in the composition of his poetry and, what’s more, he had long before this moment, and even more regularly after, made use of much more conventional verse forms as well.
Nonetheless, one can trace throughout Mac Low’s career an increasing restlessness about the precise definition of “chance,” and a growing skepticism about the role the aleatoric might actually play in the composition of his works. While Mac Low speaks unselfconsciously about his use of the “objective chance operational method” in his 1961 publication “Poetry, Chance, Silence, Etc.,” in the 1980 note added to the text, he offers the following corrective to his earlier statements: “I think I used to believe more strongly in the nonegoic nature and origin of aleatoric art than I do now ... the artist’s motivation is inevitably mixed, at best – and the ego’s not really evadable. Besides, nothing would get done – the work would never get written or performed – if the artist’s ego – including, of course, the body – didn’t get it done.” Similarly, in a 1993 interview with Kevin Bezner, Mac Low notes that the “ego is inevitable. It’s always there, in one way or another. The more I’ve worked with nonintentional methods, the more I’ve seen that the ego is manifested and effectual in anything you do.” Mac Low’s sense that the artist’s ego is always at work to some degree, and that chance is inevitably, in one fashion or another, tempered by choice, leads him ultimately to distance himself from John Cage’s famously aleatoric compositional practices and to repeatedly point out that his “algorithmic work is often mistakenly thought to be chance-generated”. By 2001, in a response to Kristin Prevallet titled “The Terminology” and published in Open Letter, Mac Low declares that “the terminology has not always seemed adequate” and makes a further and more particular effort to distinguish “systematic chance operations” and “deterministic methods” from each other and those from the liminal writing process (i.e. intuitive and only partially conscious) he calls “gathering.” While Mac Low, in such later statements, limits his use of chance, for the most part, to works composed in the mid and late 1950s, he’s also careful to insist that he never rejects any of his former methods; indeed, it is the case that chance still plays a subordinate role in his later compositions, albeit always in relation to other practices. He also notes, even more importantly, that it “has been borne in on me that the last half-century of my artmaking has been the ‘site’ of a dialectic between making and letting be.” In view of such very clear statements, one might contend that what most generally characterizes Mac Low’s writing career is explicitly not the use of chance in the composition of his poetry, but rather the persistent questioning of the limits or purity of the twin poles of subjective, intentional writing (or “making”) and objective, aleatoric/deterministic methods (or “letting be”) through the deployment of a wide range of competing and interdependent authorial practices in which each challenges and gives shape to the other.
Indeed, and this is part of my point in citing the above highly confessional passage from the Odes, Mac Low’s poetic corpus is best described as “numerous,” in the sense of “multitudinous” or, as Charles Bernstein has called it, “pluriform.” While aleatoric/deterministic operations do account for an important dimension of Mac Low’s poetic output, overtly intentional and what Mac Low calls “quasi-intentional” methods – such as the above-noted practice of “gathering” – also prevail, and enjoy an equivalent status across the breadth of his career. As Bernstein suggests in a commemorative note published in a 2005 issue of Bookforum: “The multiplicity of Mac Low’s forms and his rejection of any hierarchy among the forms of poetry – objective or subjective, expository or nonrepresentational, lyric or epic – as well as his refusal to identify poetic composition with a characteristic poet’s ‘voice,’ are among the most radical aspects of his poetic practice.
Larry Eigner: Sacred Materials
A few days ago, the Poetry Magazine Twitter (@poetrymagazine) tweeted a rather simple link to an excerpt from their February 1964 issue, featuring six poems by Larry Eigner. Tweeting links to poems in old issues is fairly standard practice for @poetrymagazine, but the Eigner feature made me think back to some of the truly great video features on PennSound: The Larry Eigner “Sacred Materials” recordings, and The Cloud House Poetry Archives, which was generous enough to make these recordings of Eigner available.
The “Sacred Materials” consist of three videos: the last public reading given by Eigner on November 17, 1995 (he would pass away a little over two months later on February 3, 1996); the Jewish Ground Ceremony for Eigner on February 6, 1996; and a tour later that day of Eigner's Writing Environs, which shows the mountains of manuscripts surrounding Eigner's typewriter where he painstakingly composed his poems. The latter two videos are fascinating insights into Eigner's life and social circle, while the final reading is an historically significant clip of one of the giants of Twentieth Century American Poetry.
Eigner's final reading was given at the 1995 Gertrude Stein Marathon in Berkeley, California, and consists of a reading of an excerpt from Stein's Three Lives. The text of the reading, while initially unknown, was eventually discovered by Kush, the man who recorded these events, and founder of the Cloud House Poetry Archives. He details the discovery and gives the text in an account posted on PennSound. The excerpt of Stein's text which Eigner reads (and which I reproduce from Kush’s account), is:
I see—I see—don't crowd so on me,—I see—I see—too many forms—don't crowd so on me—I see—I see—you are thinking of something—you don't know whether you want to do it now. I see—I see—don't crowd so on me—I see—I see—you are not sure,—I see—I see—a house with trees around it,—it is dark—it is evening—I see—I see—you go in the house—I see—I see you come out—it will be all right—you go and do it—do what you are not certain about—it will come out all right—it is best and you should do it now.
As mesmerizing as Eigner’s reading is, however, Kush is fascinating in his own right. I first came across Kush's name when digitizing a number of cassette tapes owned by Bill Berkson. I'll never forget which tape either—it was a recording of Frank O'Hara reading in 1964. In the middle of the reading, O'Hara says that he is about to read from a forthcoming book which will be published later that year, entitled, Lunch Poems. The tape was labeled “Kush Dub,” and, being a little star-struck by the O’Hara Reading, I asked about the “Kush” labeling.“Kush is the name of a person who went to every poetry reading in the Bay Area for decades, obsessively recording each and every one of them,” was the gist of the answer. And while this seems to be an obvious exaggeration, the more I learn about Kush from various Bay Area poets, the more it seems like he may actually have attended every single reading.
This kind of prescience is truly astounding. With these recordings, Kush has gone on to start The Cloud House Poetry Archives, an active project seeking to establish a home for the wealth of unique recordings that Kush has made over the years. We are incredibly fortunate to host a small selection of these recordings, currently ranging in dates from 1990 to 2011, on PennSound. I would like to think that the expanding archive of recordings on PennSound and Ubuweb over the years, combined with the development of YouTube, and the proliferation of recording devices has made the “poetry reading” an internationally actively-archived event that deserves its own field of study outside of performance theory, where the poet's performance in a reading has more traditionally been housed. How do we think of the space of the poetry reading, in the context of dedicated and non-dedicated poetry spaces, material composition of the physical space, audience composition, and public visibility? Can we develop a framework for both the act of recording events as well as “reading” readings? How has the reading developed over time, and what does the future hold for the poetry reading? I believe that the work that Kush has done will always be at the forefront of these discussions, and his manifesto, “Camera Poetics: Fielding Projective Verse/Olsonian Gesamtkunstwerk,” will certainly become a necessary work.
Amanda Earl & the synaesthesia of reading
Much of Ottawa poet Amanda Earl’s work is grounded in the sensory. The transensory. Color. Shape. Body. Touch. Looking. An A is a blue. Monday is cerise.
She writes: “I have grapheme synaesthesia, which in my case means that the alphabet, numbers, months, days & some names evoke colour for me.”
C-Horse: the rich modulation of colour. From sunflower yellow to saffron and amber.
The luminous obliquely observed Cs within a rich field of blackness, what might be called an inky black. The C-creature(s) suspended in dark water. The fin-thin edges of the serifs reaching into the darkness. We respond to the blackness tactilely. Our reading reaches in and feels it. We could swim into this dark page.
Amanda calls the work ‘C-horse’. But this delicate creature could be a bioluminescent deep-sea frond or tentacle. A fragile balancing of Cs. The image captured as it pulsed with inner radiance.
We read the negative space, also. The dark sea enclosed in the curves of the creature, gathering in the Cs. There seems a current moving through the blackness, a rippling.
And the C-horse itself seems full of delicate movement. Tilting its body. Curling. The Cs carefully balancing on each other, not quite sustaining their aquabatics. Their alphabatics.
I wonder what Gutenberg or the Rosetta Stone scribe would think of the vivid 3-dimensionality of these golden Cs with their rounded backs turned toward the 4th wall of the reader?
Johannes: There’s a source of light. Is it our reading?
Unless we are reading braille, we read with our eyes.
And sometimes, as Dylan Thomas writes, “with [our] eyes hanging out.”
Is reading different than listening?
But even ocular reading speaks to senses beyond the visual. And by this I don’t mean how our eyes transform written language into verbal sound (viz. bpNichol’s “Speech: each to eech.”)
I’m referring to the synaesthetic. How we read taste, movement, weight, and rhythm.
Perhaps it’s a kind of echolocution. What kind of [sic] sense is that?
We send out our eyes and they send back this C. We see C; we hear sea. From see to shining sea. We're seized by the particular heft of these Cs, a sweet sensation, a tingling in the fingers, the tongue-tip. Maybe, a kind of movement. A C-thing. A see-thing. A seething in our aqueous humor.
The C to see what we can C. This particular C. It’s not a shadow on Plato’s C, it is its own C, enclosing, grasping around, defining C space. We C and we here. Not cant or Kant’s c-thing per se (das Cing an sich) but the phenomenal. The noun-menon. Perceptual writing.
Amanda Earl: "C-Horse" is part of " the alphaquatic series" I did for Jenny Sampirisi's Other Cl/utter blog in 2007, fairly early on in my explorations of visual poetry. I was responding to the work on the blog & also to the aesthetic of the blog which was to examine text as visual space & to view language & its component parts as visual art. I have grapheme synaesthesia, which in my case means that the alphabet, numbers, months, days & some names evoke colour for me.
One of the aspects of visual poetry, I enjoy is its capacity for whimsy & play. Here I guess I'm playing around with puns (C/sea horse) & shapes & colours.
When I'm working on a visual piece…I pay no attention to any kind of rule or perceived rule. I go my own way. There's something satisfying about playing in the margins. Since this was 6 years ago, I'm not even sure what I was influenced by back then as far as other visual & concrete poetry. I was starting to explore derek beaulieu's work, had seen some bpNichol & also the amazing stuff that Dan Waber was doing, including a site he set up for other visual poets to upload our work to. I can't remember when I started to check out your visual poetry, but I've always appreciated what seems to me [your interest in] imagination & play.
GB: In the untitled piece (pictured above), I love the palpable tactility of the paper. The terrain of the page, its bumpiness and irregularity. The torn edge and the little shadows cast on the white surface below. I particularly like how one can see the impressions made on the page through the physical process of transferring the Letraset – the rubbing causes depressions in the soft surface of the page. A mark left by marking. A paean to the page and the (invisible) pen.
The sensory, tactile, synaesthetic aspect of your work intrigues me, but I'm also interested in your 'subject position' particularly with regards to the many things you've written about about erotica, and, more generally, about your keen relation with the sensory and the body.
AE: Thanks kindly. I like the idea of an erotics of vispo, but I do a lot of different things. I hadn't really seen the visual poetry connected with my erotica in any way other than I guess I do experience everything very physically, very sensually, including text & art & colour & sound & all the other senses. Since my health crisis in 2009, I've become obsessed with the body. As part of the health crisis, I had my colon removed. I now have an eight-inch long scar along my stomach & an oval scar from the small bowel reattachment surgery in 2011. I had a long recuperation period in which to heal. To experience my body as it changed from something that was fairly pristine to something damaged & resilient, to a kind of miracle thing that can exist without a colon. That obsession for the body worked its way into my Puddles of Sky Press chapbook, "Of the Body" published by Michael Casteels last year.
GB: The images in that book evoke the body in an abstract way. In "five - of the body," the looping thick-thin stacks of letterforms seem organic. Perhaps spinal, perhaps some kind of organ. Or maybe, one could imagine the image to be a microorganism, or several: the curving letter-parts flagella or cilia.
In "four - of the body," the calligraphic d’s, p’s, b’s, or g’s also seem organic. Perhaps this is a cross section of a spine. Perhaps we are formed by letters. Certainly we have veins, and nerves, bronchi and neurons that write on the body—that are the body—that loop and branch, a writing of letterforms on the text of ourselves.) Surprisingly little visual poetry uses 'cursive' fonts. In this context, these fonts seem particularly 'of the body', visual records of the motions of the writing hand.
I wonder how you might conceive of how one reads with not just the eyes, but with all of the other senses? And how writing for one sense may be read by another?
AE: This is something that always frustrates me with the way some people read poetry looking for surface meaning. I've never given a rat's ass about that. I'm always looking for a combination of senses & emotions to be evoked by whatever I'm creating or absorbing as a reader, viewer, listener, etc. When I work on visual poems, I'll often play music & let the various combinations of notes, instruments, melodies, etc. help me to create the piece. To me the beauty & excitement of visual poetry is that it isn't hemmed in by expectations of a specific form in the way that other linear forms of poetry are.
How viewers choose to interpret or read the visual poem is really up to them rather than prescribed by some external authority. I always hope that whatever I do will inspire someone else to create something in that form or another form. I believe in sharing what one produces in order that others can derive inspiration from it.
Amanda Earl's visual poetry chapbooks are "Montparnasse (Dan Waber's "This is Visual Poetry" series); "a field guide to fanciful bugs" (avantacular press); "Of the Body" (Puddle of Sky Press). Amanda's visual poetry also appears in the Last Vispo Anthology (Fantagraphics) & online in the DrunkenBoat.com Visual Poetry issue, UnlikelyStories.org, bill dimichele's Tip of the Knife blog & in other places. Amanda is the fallen angel of AngelHousePress which publishes visual poetry via NationalPoetryMonth.ca and Experiment-O.com.
reading and conversation
Tonya Foster's new book, Swarms of Bees in High Court is forthcoming from Belladonna. Foster lives in New York, where she is a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. On the first program, Foster reads from the book. In the second show Foster speaks of poetry as a "performance of freedom," discusses her odyssey from church choir in New Orleans to New York's innovative poetry communities. Along the way, Foster address the central role of sound and performance in her work, her multiple sense of identity, conflicting strains of work in current African-American poetry, the tensions between the articulation of lyric individuality and collective engagements, and the role of place in transnational or nonnational blackness.
January 8, 2008
Tonya grew up in New Orleans and was heading down for the Spring. Now she was graduate student at CUNY, about to write a dissertation of poetry and place. We has just eaten in the new sushi joint across the street.