Commentaries - August 2013
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In 1960 Donald Allen published his ground-breaking anthology, The New American Poetry, which gathered some of the most important innovative poets writing since World War II, and helped Americans perceive a tradition that was different from the poetry of the 1940s and 1950s put forth by the American Academy in general, and by the New Critics in particular. The effect of this anthology has been staggering, and has helped to shape poetry since its publication. And since 1970 many readers have waited for another such anthology for the poets writing after Allen's contribution. Many anthologies have appeared, but either they have focused on particular groups of writers or have been too unfocused aesthetically to have the impact of The New American Poetry.
Working over the past ten years, Douglas Messerli has attempted to bring together some of these same issues and concerns, reiterating them into the context of United States and Canadian poetry since Donald Allen's collection. Like Allen, Messerli has organized his selection into somewhat arbitrary and non-rigid categories; but unlike Allen he has refused to "name" these in the concern (in the context of today's more eclectic and socially-based gatherings) that they will be misunderstood as actual "groups" or poets driven only by particular ideas or theories.
Messerli is the editor of "Language" Poetries, published by New Directions; and Contemporary American Fiction, published by his own Sun & Moon Press. He is also the author of four books of poetry, a film for fiction in poetry, and a play.
[24 November 1947 – 13 August 1948]
Translation from French by Jerome Rothenberg
The scene – a vegetable garden almost smack in its center a well.
four little girls singing – we’re not gonna go to the woods no more the laurel trees are down on the floor hey the beautiful babe will go pick them up then we’ll come out to dance hey just like they dance oh you sing dance & hug anybody you want
LITTLE GIRL I – we’ll open the roses with our sharp little nails & we’ll make their smells bleed on the crinkled up flames & the crinkled up games of our crinkled up songs & our pinafores colored in yellow blue & purple & crinkled up too. And we play that we’re bad & we’re hugging each other it’s mad & we’re letting out horrible cries.
LITTLE GIRL II – mama mama come out & see Yvette wreck the garden Yvette burn the butterflies up mama mama
LITTLE GIRL III – go take your places wherever you want & burn the cock’s feathers & light all the candles the baby clothes hung on the old cherry tree – & wake up & I’ll tell you & untie the wings of the little dead birds in their cages their scatterbrained singing
the paisley prints on the sleeves of the dress on the pleats of the sky oh so high all fall down from the sky.
LITTLE GIRL I – singing – we’re not gonna go to the woods no more the laurel trees are down on the floor & the beautiful babe hey (she shouts) hey hey hey cause the cat has taken a bird from the nest in his mouth & he’s choking it now with his claws & dragging it back of the lemony cloud dipped in butter that melts on the edge of a wall that’s all bunged up with earth & a sun that’s covered with ash.
LITTLE GIRL III – oh that’s just too dumb
LITTLE GIRL IV – go take your places down by the flowers the knitting yarn trailing all over the garden & hanging its rosary beads up like eyes & the full cups of wine in fine crystal the organs we listen to short little arms pitterpatting the cotton wool sky from somewhere in back of the big rhubarb leaves.
LITTLE GIRL I – go take your places your places life’s wrapping me up my passion’s like chalk on my coat it’s in tatters & full of black ink stains that flow down my throat from the blind hands that seek out the mouth of the wound.
LITTLE GIRL III (hidden in back of the well) that’s it yes that’s it yes that’s it.
LITTLE GIRL I - II - IV – dumb dumb – you’re so dumb – you’re two times as visible there – yeah yeah everyone sees you – you’re totally naked & covered with rainbows. Go fix up your hair it’s on fire it’s starting to burn up the string of bows scraped on the tangled-up hairdo of bells licked clean by the mistral.
LITTLE GIRL III – that’s it – yes that’s it – that’s just it you can’t catch me alive & can’t see me – I’m dead.
LITTLE GIRL IV – don’t be such a jerk
LITTLE GIRL I – if you don’t come back we’ll climb up the lemon tree into its branches
we’ll live out our dramas in flowers & our dances in tears on a razor.
LITTLE GIRL II – we’re going to get you a ladder (they look for a long ladder & carry one in but have trouble standing it up)
LITTLE GIRL I – no she’s in back of the well – no she’s on the roof of the house.
LITTLE GIRL IV – she’s on the flowery branch upper left of the pear tree.
LITTLE GIRL II – I see her hand slice the little leaf’s wing tip making it bleed.
LITTLE GIRL IV – no it isn’t her there in front of the bronze stain the blast of the bugle onto the pane of the room upstairs boiling hot from their punches the blinded sun’s broken-up corners & feeling her way in the darkness.
LITTLE GIRL I – she’s crawling she looks like she’s searching between the wet leaves & the grasses a quick bite to eat then unwinding her arabesques colors & curves tiny gossamer threads.
LITTLE GIRL IV – do you want to come out here Paulette yes or no cause you bug us I ’ll go & tell mama you don’t want to play any more that you’re looking to make yourself special by changing yourself in a thousand weird ways into baskets of Japanese flowers.
LITTLE GIRL II – let them do what they like I’ll go & pick grapefruits I’ll eat them I’ll spit out the seeds I’ll wipe off my lips with the back of my hand & I’ll light the festoons of the lamps with my laughs with incomparable cheeses I beg you to take them I throw myself down at your feet & I sign myself very sincerely
LITTLE GIRL I – it’s so hard to be with you here on a nice summer’s day & it’s more & it’s more & more clear that you won’t let me play with what chronologically touches the lessons they shoved in our ears all winter in class
LITTLE GIRL II – we’ve got to leave her & not worry about her no more & she’ll …
[TRANSLATOR'S NOTE. While Pierre Joris & I were translating & putting together Picasso’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Poems (2004), I began a translation of Les Quatre Petites Filles, the second of the two full-length plays Picasso wrote in the 1940s. While there may be less razzle-dazzle here than in the better known Desire Trapped by the Tail, there was a pop, almost juvenile quality in the language, or in how I perceived the language, that I wanted to emulate in the version I was starting to transcreate. My sense of Picasso poète then & now was, contrary to Gertrude Stein’s dismissal of him, that what he offered was the real goods which his awesome reputation as an artist only tended to obscure. My own efforts only went this far until other projects of that time intervened and I lost track of what I had earlier begun. Some ten years later I came across the first several pages of the translation and with the ease of publication that the internet allows, I’m posting it here, both for the record & for whatever pleasure it still may bring. (J.R.)]
Writing through, erasure, appropriation, mimicry
So what might a conceptual, print-on-demand artist's book look like?
Several contemporary writers are using the form of pre-existing books as a container for innovative publishing experiments that they can make available at a reasonable price thanks to POD and affordable printing options. Like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, these new books resemble their sources externally, but diverge dramatically in content, which involves erasure and writing-through. They are also facilitated by the availability of digital editions of these books which provide a searchable, scrapable, alterable source.
The following are not all print-on-demand publications, but they take on trade paperback form in ways that intrigue me:
American Psycho by Mimi Cabell and Jason Huff (Vienna: Traumawien, 2012)
Cabell and Huff emailed Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho back and forth one page at a time through Gmail, collecting the relational advertisements Google displayed for them. They then published their own American Psycho with these advertisements inserted as footnotes and the text itself (save chapter titles) erased. The fascinating result of their experiment nods to Ellis's book in its design, mimicking the typography and layout of the 1991 Vintage Contemporaries First Edition. Their cover replicates that paperback's, but sets the book's title against a funereal black background instead of the tan skin and blond coiffed gentleman on the original's cover, a choice that reflects the obliteration of protagonist Patrick Bateman's narrative within, as he is subsumed by the products and advertisements that consume him. The project also, they note, "reveals GMail’s unpredictable insensitivity to violence, racism, and sex."
In Cabell's words:
We were most curious how Google would handle the violence, racism and graphic language in American Psycho. In some instances the ads related to the content of the email, in others they were completely irrelevant, either out of time or out of place. In one scene, where first a dog and then a man are brutally murdered with a knife, Google supplied ample ads regarding knives and knife sharpeners. In another scene the ads disappeared altogether when the narrator makes a racial slur. Google's choice and use of standard ads unrelated to the content next to which they appeared offered an alternate window into how Google ads function.
My copy, purchased from the authors this summer, has a slightly different cover from that depicted at both Cabell's and Traumawien's site, substituting a footnote that leads to Cabell and Huff's names writ small at the bottom the cover for Ellis's name. This is in part due to the restrictions of the bookseller whose Espresso Book Machine they used to print several copies before traveling abroad.
The book's contents are available as a PDF at Traumawien's site. The publisher's mission directly addresses the role of books in the digital age:
TRAUMAWIEN considers the paradox of transferring late-breaking digital aesthetics into book form, as new media narrative snapshots of literary genres otherwise quickly lost in the immense output produced by web every second.
Huff has done other work in book form, producing a limited-edition project that runs Robert Frost's "Road Not Taken" through Google's auto-complete, and a collection of Microsoft Word auto-summarizations of Project Gutenberg's 100 most-downloaded e-books that can be printed on demand on McNally Jackson Bookstore's Espresso Book Machine.
See more of their work at both artists' sites.
Pigeon Reader by Simon Morris (Information As Material, 2012)
Information As Material (also known by its witty acronym, iam), a publishing project of Simon Morris and Nick Thurston, has put out a number of books that draw on the reader's familiarity with paperback editions of specific books, including Thurston's Historia Abscondida, which mimics Nietzche's Gay Scienceand processes the text through its index, and Morris's Getting Inside Jack Kerouac's Head, a reverse-order retyping of Kerouac's On the Road that originated in blog form (hence the need to publish back to front, since the most recent content of a blog always appears at the top), which takes its design cues from the 2007 Penguin edition (which I learned from this handy archive of Kerouac covers) and substitutes Thurston and Morris for Neal Cassady and Kerouac.
Morris has said he intends readers of this book to have the kind of reaction Ed Ruscha hoped for with his bookworks, "a kind of huh" moment, which an unsuspecting shopper might indeed experience faced with what appears to be a reprint of Perec's collection. The reader discovers half-way through, however, that the work has been doctored. Inspired by the claim in Perec's central piece, "Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline," that the act of reading is like "a pigeon pecking at the ground in search of breadcrumbs," Morris gave the story to 12 pigeons (1 per page), and had them "read" this work, photographing their peckings and inserting the images into the center of the book in its place. At the close of 12 pages, the book continues as usual. The reproduced book thus serves as a container for this animating project.
Subtle clues throughout indicate the way Morris is playing with the conventions of paperback publishing, from replacing the penguin with a pigeon, to the advertisements for other iam titles at the back of the book. Craig Dworkin and Christian Bök's anagrammatic blurbs on the back cover nod subtly to Oulipo, and perhaps reflect another act of pecking, with Bök sorting through letters to re-assemble Dworkin's text.
Darkness, by Yedda Morrison (Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2012)
Morrison has erased much of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, leaving behind, as she claims, "only references to the natural world." Her selections raise questions about colonial occupation, exoticism and othering, and the very definition of what is and isn't "natural." On many pages, the language shimmers. The book operates a bit like an elliptical landscape, while also suggesting the limits of linguistic representation, the places where language itself goes dark. A posthuman project, the book's design directly references its source, asking to be read with Conrad's novella, and self-consciously blacking-out The Secret Sharer, with which it is paired in the Signet Edition on which it is modeled.
Conrad's work has proven interesting to other writers who have chosen not to emulate specific editions.
Book artist Sarah Jacobs has been erasing her way through Conrad's work for some time, publishing fascinating interventions into his texts through her Colebrooke Editions. These perfect-bound artist's books are sold reasonably through her own website and select vendors in the UK, including London's bookart bookshop, where I picked up Luxuriant Beauty Bears Witness: We Are Not Barbarians, an erasure from Nostromo that in its insistence leaves behind negations (hence "we are not"). The constellated pages contain surprising affirmations and moments of discovery, where "luminous" words are allowed in because of their spelling—they contain "no." The first two pages:
"never / no / not visible / not soil enough / no / nothing / enough / no other sign / never seen / cannot tear / now / renounced / never / known"
"another / no / snow / snows / now now / not find / not defeated / no / no"
The Sun Also Also Rises, by Rob Fitterman (Calgary: No Press, 2008)
I was first introduced to Fitterman's writing-through of Hemingway through Genevieve Kaplan's wonderful blog The Forest and the Trees, which tracks erasure works and altered books. An erasure that leaves behind only phrases beginning with "I" in Hemingway's text, The Sun Also Rises was published by Derek Beaulieu's No Press alongside two other interventions into Hemingway, Fitterman's My Sun Also Rises, which he describes as "a parallel companion to the The Sun Also Also Rises which translates my erased version of the Hemingway original into my own experience of moving to downtown Manhattan in 1981," and Nayland Blake's Also Also Also Rises the Sun, his own erasure of Hemingway. Currently sold out, the set was sold for $25. The text of Fitterman's two Hemingway works is available at his website as A Hemingway Reader.
Selected Further Reading:
Most readers will be familiar with artist Richard Prince's appropriation of The Catcher In the Rye, which he published in 2011, substituting his own name for J.D. Salinger's and raising the book's price tag. Kenneth Goldsmith has written on it for Harriet (the source of the image below), and Prince discussed it in an interview with Kim Gordon last year.
Simon Morris gave a thoughtful exegesis of his publishing practice at UPenn earlier this year titled "Eating The Book," which you can stream online.
Sina Queyras interviews Derek Beaulieu about No Press on Lemonhound.
Also see the following commentaries at this site:
kevin mcpherson eckhoff's "Jumble" from his Their Biography
A conversation with kevin mcpherson eckhoff where I speak in italics and he speaks in normal.
You didn’t even write this! You solicited participants to contribute to “their biography” of you. Or as you term it in the subtitle, “an organism of relationships amassed by and about the object often identified as kevin mcpherson eckhoff.” Maybe that’s a definition that works for literature or a poem: “an organism of relationships amassed by & about the object often identified as [literature or poem]. Except there’d have to be something about end rhymes and the soul.
The end of the soul is synonymous with exceptions. Synonyms are a kind of rhyme. Relationships dynamic create errors of within, and this betweenness of everything is a reality field of meaningful electrons. As a human invention, poetry mitigates such betweens. I suspect bpNichol may have seen poems as such halfway points. The not-quite-you plus not-quite-me is what breathes within the enclosures of words. Words are actions. Actions alone won’t save us. Redemption isn’t a hidden MEaning or a hidden YOUaning, but an ever-apparent WEaning. Spoiler alert: I cheated & read ahead!
The crossword form is a striking visual-verbal icon. A very particular image which invites the participation of the reader. Or perhaps, the imagined participation of the reader (who thus becomes a kind of directed writer.) And it challenges readers to search their own knowledge (collection) of words and their meanings by being prompted with the definitions or synonyms of these words. The ‘jumble’ aspect to this is that all these words elicited through their synonyms or meanings, yield the hidden word, the word to be filled in in the circles at the top of the page. In this case—spoiler alert—your name. Which, I note is also a construction. It was made by your family. And then, I believe, modified/added to by you. This kind of jumble-crossword is often associated with school and childhood, especially when all of the clues point to aspects of a person. This makes it a particularly apt choice for ‘biography.’ And: I think of how people are sometimes taught to ‘read’ a poem: at the end of the process, they are expected be able to find the correct and hidden ‘meaning’ if they’ve decoded the poem properly. They could write this hidden meaning at the top of the text. Another poem ‘solved’!
My name is barely mine. And it’s rarely a solution for anything. Are poems solutions or dissolutions? The empty crossword is already a suspension, itself. Are poems puzzles? Depends on your GPA. As a writer, I don’t wanna know any of the answers before my readers. And I never want to write the same book thrice. I want to write books as a stranger to them.
How does this appropriated verbo-visual form (the jumble-crossword) engage with the tradition of visual poetry? Respond with a dance.
Tkelkaknaosfdnlasikaliasdkvoawlknloiansd! Asivnowaid! Aks mdvaw pnrevlknhdf! Ksaoifdngoa! Asfdghaowriuo powpeojp aroiwrjsaindfv wrfawf! Keyboard dancefloor fingertip nutbush cha-cha-cha! Gary, thank you for all these generous + attentive added-up word-quest ions! Here are some direct sentencings: Jackson Mac Low’s gatha aren’t exactly crosswords, but their graph paper visual-sounds echo the consciousness of word games. In Bloody Jack, an outlawish verse-biography of the notorious Krafchenko, Dennis Cooley includes “cross words”—the first crossword-poem I ever saw. And would it be too nobvious to suggest sinews pulling from Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann’s newspaper collages? Maybe nostalgia is appropriate(d)?
Visual poetry is the most invisible poetry, which may be a bit like saying russets make the starchiest mashed potatoes. ‘Jumble’ actually likely perhaps bespeaks my own vispoeming history and frustrations therewith. Real confessional biography: My first book of visual poetry was originally written for graduate school. Trying to convince 94% of the humans in my life that rhapsodomancy (Coach House, 2010) equals poetry is stupid. I’ve since challenged myself to manufacture radical forms & themes that could entertain certain family members. Hence the mad-libs of easy peasy (Snare, 2011). My ideal book of poetry would contain only blank pages... although many publishers haven’t shared this idealism. I know all writing is pactsive (part active, part passive), but I want to facilitate poems that are incomplete/interactive, that include search bars and disappearing ink. Most concrete poems are chances for glances. I want to bake slow-cooked pages.
And clearly this work engages within a ‘tradition’ of biography by other means. This autobiography of kevin mcpherson eckhoff wasn’t written by Gertrude Stein. You yourself outsourced it. How did the commissioning of the biography affect its outcome? And no cheating. Answer the question yourself.
Here’s a guess: self-fulfilling prophecies. Also, here are some ACROSS clues: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography, D.A. Powell and David Trinidad’s By Myself: An Autobiography, Dana Teen Lomax’s Disclosure.
Outsourced. Cooperative. Gangbuster. Dance party. Shareholding. Language is so poly-tickle! Which is the passe-partout? What a fucky pretentious term. Either a master key or master lock. In my life, best friend is synonymous with Jake Kennedy, and for six years we’ve been harvesting words from folks face-to-farce throughout the Okanagan Valley to stew a novel. He characterizes these contributions as “donations,” which I suppose implies charity. For their biography, ‘I’ have sent around general Facebook invitations, as well as handed out submission request slips to (and greymailed) specific strangers, family, colleagues, enemies, etc. Each time I invite someone, it feels like a slightly different me asking, strategizing, sizing up the potential writer. Should I ask famouser poets who could add to the manuscript’s street cred? Or how should I pitch it, say, to my dad? I’ve tried to be boldly indiscriminate. And only my brother-in-law responded to my request for villainous words.
While the final outcome is still out combing, working with bf on our community novel showed me how one of my privileges as a poet means having access to the experience of being published, and I realized I could share this honour through authorship as solicitation. It’s been inspiring to see how previously unpublished contributors demonstrate mad awe-respect for the process. They’ve been beautifully genuine and ingenious.
How do you conceive of the element of appropriation working specifically in “Jumble” with the notion of ‘biography’? It’s not only that the form is appropriated, but that it was, though solicited by you, appropriated by someone else for this ‘their biography’ project? Is the self always a network of relationships? One’s identity reflected by others? The self created by echolocution and appropriated words? I’m talking to you, kevin mcpherson eckhoff…
“What’s wrong with that guy?” Aunty Julie, author of ‘Jumble’ in reference to your questions.
I’ve tried found poetry, now I want lost poetry. Lost as in defeated. This singular piece was designed by my aunt-in-law Julie. When she’s not running a tree planting crew, about a month every summer and winter, she lives with us. Her and I compete in weekly crossword-offs. Our word-agility is fairly evenly matched. Art appropriates life. This visual-poem-puzzle is a clue to our relationship.
I’m actually aiming to relational aesthetics. It infects my lonely numbskull: How might Marina Abramović and Allan Kaprow’s performances sublimate into poetry? Perhaps Rachel Zolf’s ‘Tolerance Project’ and ‘Three Words Per Poem’ by Gregory Betts are two examples. I suppose the act of solicitation could be considered a kind of performance art, too. Huh. Maybe that’s the truth of this poetry, and the words are mere evidence of this conceptual interaction… conception in a more biological sense. It’s been a startling gift to read people’s interpretations of ‘kevin mcpherson eckhoff’. And maybe there’s another sleight of hand: just because ‘relationship’ is synonymous with ‘perception' doesn’t mean these truths are tenuous.
Most of the descriptors are very positive. The grammatical connections in “Jumble” are implied: the form presupposes an understanding of how these elements connect. All of these words and meanings form a cluster (an organism of relationships) of words which are description of a supposedly singular subject: the object often identified as kevin mcpherson eckhoff.
There is something of an ancient charm or Kabbalistic formula to this. Your name is actually formed of individual letters which are drawn from attributes which pertain to you. At the same time, it’s childish and simple. Charming. And probably was made by one of those online word puzzle generators. Is this what passes for biography now? Is this how we mediate self? What’s your average score in mini-putt?
I hope so much of yes! Summation and exponential. Windmill. Par three. At some point in my childhood I began dressing myself, but I don’t remember exactly when. I’ve never been really singular. The connection of letters into sentences echoes the collection of people into communities. Biography never was passes. The archeologist constructs the spirits of extinction and its victims. My organism is haply finite. Ubiquitous possibilities of error inject hope into my object. And that is the coveted state of visual poetry! In the 21st century, we’ve all become online puzzle generators. Like Kenny G, I’m all puttputt green about soliciting readership, yet instead of single-stroking a whole of a thinkership, I’m five-ironing for a feelership. Fore!
How does using a jumble crossword engage with notions of outsider art, popular culture, and the conceptual? I’m thinking it asks: Is this kind of form ‘poetry’? Is any form ipso facto poetry or does it depend on being artfully placed within a ‘poetic’ context by a ‘Professional and Fully Licensed Poet’ (perhaps we should image the license more like a dog license rather than a medical one)?
Lye sense. Lies hence. So much poetry passes as inside joke, or rather, inside solemnity. Julie hasn’t read Bloody Jack or Barthes or Bern Porter, but she knows what can and how be poetry! That’s poetic justice, Ecclesiastes-style: All is vanity. My creative writing students have schooled me this way: considering the anything as “poetry” asks us to reconsider intensely the valence of the language of the anything. Whatever gives the reader a high brow or a low brow is my kind of poemexperience.
As an academic non-contact sport, poetry can become highly competitive among teams. Outsider artists are rogue players who sometimes invent rules for the love of the game, not the trophies. I’m happy with dishonourable mentions or discharges. For sinstance, BJ Snowden convinces me that both sides of average are extraordinary. Impressive art is not necessarily interesting art. And i want interesting art in my face and from my face.
And then I filled in the crossword with a bunch of wrong answers. I got the biography of someone else entirely. Someone I chose to read as me. And then that person wrote a few entries for this project by and about the object often identified as kevin mcpherson eckhoff and then asked him about the very same project. Once I tied my shoelaces into a Mobius strip and I was able to do pratfalls in more than the usual four dimensions.
Clever or resourceful!
You are the right answer! Mob = i + us! This open source personuscript will be born of BookThug in the next eventualness, but its nightmare will go on and dawn an awed and addend a nod goon. Just like the epidermal vanity of this exquisite Frankenstein corpse is breathed with lyric lightning bolt traditions, its lifespan aims for modernist desires of supreme eternal glories. See C-Bök’s Xenotextmessage experiment. See Andrei Gheorghe's The Longest Poem in the World. See Gerty Stein’s The Marking of Americans. The infinity of the partiality of the biographical of the indefinitely of the infidelity of the visual of the humility of the mortality of the ephemeral extorts a hearty romanticization that means forever. Which chances to say, this book is a wound that’ll never heal... so please help it scab over by sending contributions to kevinmcphersoneckhoff.wordpress.com/their-biography/. Or read sum of its parts of it from above/ground press.
kevin mcpherson eckhoff as visual poetry equals rhapsodomancy (Coach House, 2010) and plus the easy peasy (Snare, 2011). Most book recent today is a Forge (Snare/Invisible, 2013). Check out some please with journals why not, like West Wind Review, Fact*Simile, Rampike and Open Letter. Because beside his best friend, Jake Kennedy, and making years go by for a one-day Death Valley: A Community Novel. Heckles learning writers at Okanagan College. He family beauty and joy planted—heliotrope—in Armstrong, BC. At this chance, currently, summer, to judging the 2013 bpNichol chapbook award, smiling.
[The news has just reached me of the sudden death of Kevin Power, a friend of mine for over forty years & an independent writer & chronicler of contemporary poetry (particularly postwar/postmodern North American) & art (particularly Latin American & Spanish). British when we first met, he was for many years the distinguished chair of American Literature at the University of Alicante in Spain & a deputy director of the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. On September 15, 2011 I posted the following introduction to Where You’re At: Poetics & Visual Art (for Alastair Johnston’s Poltroon Press, 2011), his collection of eight interviews with American poets conducted in the mid-1970s as a mapping of American poetry during the second great awakening of twentieth-century poetry & art. The force of Kevin’s interaction with & meticulous understanding of American poetry & poets is clear from this introduction & even more so from his role as interlocutor in the interviews themselves. Since Poems and Poetics wasn’t then co-posted with Jacket2, I’m reposting this now as the most immediate homage I can offer to Kevin for the years of dedication & energy that he privileged me to share. (J.R.)]
I recall Robert Creeley writing somewhere that ‘truth is what happens,’ a kind of sediment that accumulates from the ﬂow and the consequences of experience: the natural outpouring. Well, I guess it is and here are eight occasions!
These conversations took place in the early 1970s – even if some of them were not published until the ’80s – when I was studying in Buffalo and Berkeley on a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, an impressively obscure entity that gave very generous allowances. I was working on a thesis for the Sorbonne concerning the relationship between poetry and painting in postmodern American poetry and I hoped to be able to talk to some of the poets directly involved with painters or with what was going on in American art.
The bulk of the conversations deal with that aspect (Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Bill Berkson, David Meltzer) and the other three are concerned with aspects of American poetry that particularly appealed to me, Jerry Rothenberg’s ‘deep image’ and his concerns with the primitive and ethnopoetry, Robert Bly’s subjective verse and the myth-related ideas that abound in his poetry, and George Oppen’s lyrical philosophy and his Objectivist poetics.
They were all part of a proliﬁc range of American writing that was opening up new possibilities for poetry and poetics: literally exciting times. It provided me with what proved to be the major stepping stone in my education, in terms of ideas and of deﬁning what Olson termed a ‘stance towards reality’: a way of feeling and being in the world. I can still recall Duncan’s torrential brilliance and Creeley’s careful precision (care, that he saw as the essential deﬁnition of love). We can all recall these things. They were immense and generous and their energies spilt over.
I can also recall the warm domesticity of these occasions, the Oppens’ kitchen where I talked to George and Mary as if one voice, a shared life, a tide that had turned but stayed young, a life full of Sartrian engagement but softened and brought to focus through what he called a consuming clarity, through his attention to discrete particulars and at this stage of his life to the oncoming ‘brilliance of shipwreck.’ His work provides sightings that have helped to mark my own way of crossing a life.
These were easy relaxed encounters and particularly meaningful to someone who was still trying to ﬁnd his way through much of this material. I am thinking, for example, of Bill Berkson, sitting at what I recall as a wooden table in Bolinas and generously willing to talk about others, especially about his associations with a whole range of painters, such as Philip Guston, Joe Brainard, and Larry Rivers, and especially about his collaborations and friendship with Frank O’Hara (one of the anchor stones of my projected thesis); and David Meltzer similarly taking me through a series of reﬂections and reminiscences of Wallace Berman and George Herms, of Semina and the Assemblage Movement, in the sitting room of his home in the suburbs.
I met Bob Creeley at SUNY Buffalo in 1970 and sat in on some of his classes. He invariably had his office door open in the narrow corridor of the mizzen hut that housed the English Department; walking down this short passageway was an educational experience in itself: Charles Altieri, Leslie Fiedler, Dwight MacDonald, Hollis Frampton, Eric Bentley, Albert Cook, Martin Pops, and Jerome Mazzaro before he moved over to Romance Studies. It was a good place to be. I remember Creeley coming over with Ruthven Todd and Bill Merwin, linked by their stays in Mallorca and their friendship with Carl Gay, the librarian of the Special Poetry Collection. The times were easy and the relationships ﬂuid. We did the interview at his home in, if I recall correctly, a couple of sessions. He talked of Black Mountain College, of Olson, of Pollock, of the way he used bebop as a structuring form for his poetry. Years later, Penelope, Bob, and myself would go to Mallorca together. For Bob it was an intimate occasion, full of meaningful memories, since it was in Mallorca that he had written The Island, published the The Black Mt. Review, and founded the Divers Press that published texts by Duncan, Zukofsky, Douglas Woolf, &c.
We went back and found the press. It was closed but I went back later on another visit and they still had a few copies of the Review and Woolf’s Hypocritic Days. During Creeley’s stay we went out to the village, Bañalbufar, where he had lived. A ﬂamboyant English investor and magnate, whose name I can’t recall, had bought a whole chunk of coast that stretched eastwards from the village, but otherwise much was unchanged except there was now an asphalt road that plunged down from the main highway. Almost immediately after Creeley’s departure I was invited back to the village to talk about him and his life in Mallorca. There were only six or eight of us present: a typically modest Creeley occasion. I read some of his poems, talked about the man and his contribution to American literature. Most of the people in the audience had known him, they had come for that simple reason, and they were surprised that the young coñac drinker had left such a mark on his culture. The Mayor had been engaged in a town-hall meeting during my chat but he invited us to take wine and tapas later in the evening in his bar that served as the social hub of the village and he wanted to name a street after Mr Creeley. I recall one question from this small audience from his taxi driver who frequently drove him back from Palma after lengthy sessions in the bars and whose daughter had been a frequent playmate of Bob’s children. He simply wanted to know if he really was that important!
Duncan had gone there to see him. René Laubiès and Martin Seymour Smith were also on the island. Creeley had gone there from France because it was cheap. Kitaj had a house on the Costa Brava on the mainland opposite.
As a small homage, kindly supported by Sa Nostra, we were able to publish in Catalan not only the poems that he had written whilst living on the island but also the novel The Island that traced the break-up of his ﬁrst marriage, and a series of lectures by Charles Bernstein, Anselm Hollo, and Creeley himself. Spain, it hardly needs saying, remains blissfully ignorant as to the massive contribution American poetry has made to the last century: wretchedly enclosed in what is frequently a terrifying lost rhetoric of prepotency.
Bob became a friend, as did Jerry Rothenberg, across the same span of years. I met Jerry whilst he was living on an Indian reservation in upstate New York, not too far from Buffalo, passionately engaged in the publication of Alcheringa along with his wife Diane and Dennis Tedlock. He is one of the warmest men I know and his contribution across these years has been immense. Unfortunately, we don’t see each other that much but when we do they are invariably moments of real affection. Jerry introduced me to Ian Tyson with whom he has collaborated on many occasions. I don’t have to say that Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin have been revolutionary and fundamental anthologies of the last part of the 20th century – the extensive footnotes that lead us towards comparisons that most of us have not thought about; his oral readings that once again take up the tradition of a musical beat as an accompaniment to the measures and rhythms of his reading; his endless fascination with the Modernist masters from Gertrude Stein (an interest that links him to Duncan) to a whole list of forgotten names that have allowed him to revive, critically challenge, and reread the American tradition: an effective rephrasing of a continent; Poland/1931, a wondrous saga full of humor built on the lintel stones that lead us into his domestic memories of a Jewish childhood in America and a history of the Diaspora. Autobiography, says Creeley, is life tracing itself, and Jerry’s work has done just that, following the meanders of his life and the pattern of interests that have moved his writing!
My conversation with Michael McClure took place in his ﬂat — his previous one having been in the same building where Jay de Feo lived. Wesley Tanner and Alastair Johnston had printed some of his small books and Wolf Eyes of his then-wife Joanna at the Arif Press in Berkeley. He had abandoned the Beat scene, the Abstract Expressionist outpourings of The New Book/A Book of Torture, the wild energies of Freewheelin’ Frank, and was deeply engaged with the work of Francis Crick, Stirling Bunnell, Gary Odum, and Ramon Margalef or, to put it another way, in the life of the organism that produced an equally explosive poetry centred on what he called mammal man that would pour out in Hail Thee Who Play and Man of Moderation, or in the Wolf Net essay in the Biopoesis issue of Io.
I had read Robert Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields along with James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break at the end of the ’60s in London and was interested in the relationship between Bly’s subjective image and Rothenberg’s deep image and I was able to talk to him after a reading in Buffalo where he had ﬂoated across the stage in a white woven cloak. Bly carries us over into Jacob Boehme’s writings and also, of course, into the protest movement against the American presence in the Vietnam War, particularly through The Teeth Mother Naked at Last that was published by City Lights Books a few months before we talked.
Alastair Johnston has been a friend since these years and I can only thank him for giving me the opportunity to bring these conversations together in a single volume and I thank once again the poets for their words and for the corrections made wherever necessary in the transcriptions.