Most of the readings here are connected to two series: "Walking the Dog" programs coordinated and recorded by Robert Creeley until 1990; "Wednesdays@4 Plus" programs (1990-2003) coordinated and recorded by Charles Bernstein (working with Susan Howe, Raymond Federman, Dennis Tedlock, Robert Bertholf, and Creeley). While the Poetics Program as such didn't begin unitl Fall 1991, we include on this page readings beginning 50 years ago in Buffalo, associated with the State University of New York's English Department.
[Originally published in Current Musicology's recent issue on “experimental writing about music.”]
This set of poems grew out of my experiences of listening and finding myself inside nigunim(pl; singular nigun or nign), Chassidic chants — mystical, usually wordless songs used as accompaniment for rituals — weddings, prayers, candle-lightings — collective beckoning of transcendence. The nigun experience is fraught with what Amiri Baraka called, referring to blues, the “re/feeling” — proximity and shape of personal history of encounters with unfathomable.
Because most of the nigunim did not have lyrics they were comprised of scat — but a somber sort of a scat: “oi-oi”, “di-dai”, “bah-bom,” etc. Musical instruments were not used to accompany them either, since most of the singing happened on the Sabbath when instruments were put away.
Rid of accompaniment, rid of lyrics, these stripped down chants were visceral and prayer-like but washed out of content and filled, instead, with implication — with attempts. At the climax of one of his talks, balancing at the edge of the cognitive void, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov reportedly said: “And even to this, too, there’s an answer. But that answer is necessarily a song.”
These poems attempt to reimagine the sensation of locating oneself inside a nigun.
INTRODUCTION TO NIGUN
people turn into rocks
song like water
beats between them
what this blanket weighs
for days, yr muscles will remember
feet land on the floor
so cold you begin to feel
a tonic sled, under another
you, under another
blanket, heavier, bigger, what
it weighs you may never
the cold —
is inside the vision
as blankness, your voice
nesting, missing feathers
On hearing Frank London’s H.W.N.
this is a song of people painting walls
walls of a shul that doesn’t exist
paint rolls upwards
pulled by other gravities
you could celebrate a bris a yontef
air thickening with paint —
as it is said:
painting walls on the scaffolding of a drum solo
of fists banging a table which is a real table it’s really here
but the scaffolding is full of paint the scaffolding is a face
of the shul that doesn’t exist
the sound rises like an animal and walks
moving its burden
to the pit
in the shul a pit built for the chazzan
as it is said “from the depth . . . ”
this yontef commemorates what
has never happened
but the paint the paint
rolls like walls stands like sea
NIGUN AU REBOURS
this song is not an act but erasure
the way other songs reach into you
this one retreats,
taking with it stuff that seemed nailed to the floor
this song is cinematic in its reel
you may find yourself humming its residue
you may wonder who you’re
through the song’s straw that ascends
to the pouting mouth
of the vanishing point
this nigun is about a stick figure
and the wind over canvas
that bared it —
it’s about a two–bone
abstraction, a solitary root
note, resounding its stripped chorus
no aesthetics beyond instinct —
this nigun is about a scratch,
a typo, doodle of person — dropped
into an impressionist painting
amidst the ball of flesh and color
and it knows there must be a mistake
and mumbles all it ever knows to mumble
— “I exist” — “I exist” — “I exist” —
a note bent in and out of the question
this nigun is about a stick figure
imagining it could change its fate
by lifting its stick–figure hands
CECIL'S SCARECROW NIGUN
for Anthony Coleman
this nigun is a scarecrow
in your old clothes
it looks a little bit like you —
a no–thanks–prophecy —
the fence: scarecrow’s
stage and metalepsis
limp sleeves and run–on paint
everybody here forgets
what they came for —
dissipating in their coats
the nigun shuckles, rocks
in the field of pure color
needle threads nothingness
hunks of it
transparent slices of ice
good for running up and down
of the ancestral dream
ice quickly goes
ice always does
melting ripples around your face
it’s the puddle — waltz —
for a minute you remember
there’s a world at the bottom
of your stomach
peopled with memories
sad eyes, winking —
and when you raise your head and ask for a drink
someone shows you to the ocean
and says welcome to your new life
under the water
What gets in, what gets out
The alternative space Ballroom Projects is located in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, near where I live. Once a third floor ballroom that would have hosted family banquets in this working class area, it was later colonized by punks who put on hardcore shows. You have to walk up three flights of steep steps to reach its tall, cavernous space, which is surrounded on three sides by a mezzanine built out with bedrooms. Lovely banks of tall windows face south. It’s on Archer Street, backed up against Interstate 55, which one never ceases to hear through the cold, brown brick walls. It’s now informally linked to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; students and graduates of SAIC, where I teach, run it as a live-in project space. Robert Fitterman read there this spring, with Josef Kaplan, Holly Melgard, and Joey Yearous-Algozin. I read there one night in 2012. But it wasn’t a poetry reading. I was at one of many fascinating exhibits the space has hosted over recent years. And I was reading silently to myself, page by page from a stack of 8 ½ x 11 sheets set on the floor, one stack among several, something about or repeatedly extolling “true exposure.” The piece is by Julietta Cheung. A few of us entered a central space strewn with these stacks and some custom built cushions, sat down and read, left to the periphery to mingle, and returned. Everything and everyone must have felt under surveillance. Well, I did. To get to the heart of the piece, I had to get over my own preoccupation with reading as a private, silent, and portable activity. Or so I thought, perhaps wrongly. I was still reading in isolation, and projecting that by isolating the phrase “true exposure” as not only the title but the key to the piece.
Cheung’s website introduces the piece this way:
True Exposure invites viewers to question the collective shaping of culture defining terms. In this case, the term is "innovation." First, the search term "innovation" was applied across a variety of on-line news media outlets, blogs and social networking sites. Then the search results were copied. In each set of results, "innovation" was replaced by the equally ambiguous term "true exposure." A possible lexicography around "true exposure" was further applied to replace recurring associations.
By “recurring associations,” I read both clichés and the compiled synonymies of online tractability, i.e. the way terminology is delivered unto itself via “relevance.” Sentimental deliverance, too, à la “Flarf” circa 1998-2004. Because cognates, including the verb “innovate” and the substantive “innovator,” are also substituted by the phrase “true exposure,” her texts share the occasional trait of syntactic disjunction found in a Flarfist poem. The repetition of the phrase and its indeterminate semantic value conspire to solicit reverence. What is this heavenly object, thing, reason, concept, act, or character beaming through all manner of discourse, “true exposure”?
Cheung’s statement continues, forcing an equivocation between the practices of “recent corporate brainstorming sessions and '90s Relational Art.” I love a good dialectic like this. Usually enjoy it more than I trust it. In a talk Cheung delivered at the College Art Association, the artist explains,
Few singular words reflect so well the underlying drive of modernity and modernization as "innovation": and because contemporary uses of the term have collapsed participation as an inherent practice within industry, I decided to use exhibition venues as the key space of participation in art—to contrast our value assumptions about participation in art and everyday consumption. After contemporary art’s social turn, there is the implicit assumption that works involving collaborators or facilitating viewer participation are the antidote to the commercialism of the art world and to hegemony in general. But if we have sought to blur art and the everyday in the past to challenge the status quo, it is also time we reflect on participation as it has become entrenched in both contexts.
I also love being engulfed by a semantic puzzle, especially when the dispassionate spectators surrounding me amplify its exposition. One/it is exposed to view. The closed environment of Ed Ruscha’s Chocolate Room and the infinitely relaxed ambiance of Tan Lin’s reading environment, which I discuss in a previous commentary, are replaced with a theater in the round. Reversal is the implied zenith of “innovation”; a modern Copernican revolution of convenience, now that market research, R&D, and publicity are fully integrated into our leisure routines. The semi-private exhibition space, a party, really, was the ideal setting for my initiation into this odd sort of kiosk. (Even the furniture, so to speak, makes the most of modernist design tropes.)
The phrase “true exposure” is about what gets in and what gets out, influence and emission. Though I would not want to reduce the phrase to a pun, this does have some semantic resonance with the feeling of being on view that I had at the Ballroom, being watched or looked at as I read. Think of how attention is partitioned around reading. In an environment like a library there are commons but also cubbies, claustrophobia is the obverse of faux rapport. Laptop and data phone screens are just between you and it, especially on mass transit or in a public forum, like a cafe or checkout lane. An installation is never something you can stand before, like a painting. It is never entirely visible. Even in a sculpture garden, everything crawling over, landing upon, or blocking view of a piece diverts attention. Sight lines are inherently subjective in an environment like Cheung’s. And another is embedded, the space between reader and sheet of paper, itself designed as data output. The era of the database and the index also inaugurates a certain spectatorial etiquette.
Boundless polysemy rather than ambiguity becomes the norm. The series of glossaries embedded in her texts is a catalyst for it. In photography, what gets through the lens to make “contact” and then “develops” in strict accordance, “true exposure” is exactly ambiguous, a duality, the ambidexterity of the process behind a final product. The center and periphery of the environment suggests another two-part trope. These two denotations can be paired. But others rush into view. Cheung describes its definition in banking as
a method of forecasting debt and calculating insurance and financial risks…it is [also] used to characterize the views of the landscape along hiking trails; and it also describes how real estate properties fair against climate change. The common denominator across all of these contexts is change and visibility—making "true exposure" the perception of change or the ability to see clearly in times of change.
Just as with “innovation,” a circulatory system of semio-capital, quasi-anthropological, and reappropriated counter-cultural relations works like what translators and educators call a “target language.” Cheung again: “the consultant packages the participants’ content, their labor and their production as the billable outcome,” after observing consumers in the wild, i.e. the shopping mall. The proliferation of dualities makes the dueling viewpoints illegible as such: indeterminate rather than paradoxical. Hermeneutic freedom (the right to my opinion) is resold.
I wanted to describe to you the environment in which I first encountered True Exposure. My aim was to evoke the recreational palace of the shopping mall without speaking of anything but an “alternative space.” I wanted the outcome along with its culpability: ambiguity. What Cheung calls the difference between “participation as an activity and participation as a product” could be made to rehearse the debates surrounding “participatory reading” that peaked in the twilight hours of Language Writing, those which, for instance, palpably haunt each and every contribution to The Politics of Poetic Form. But for now, I am interested in having been lured into the focus group, only to find that I was not meant to read a thoroughly aestheticized text, visually composed and even decorated (on high-output colored paper).
A stack is usually uniformly yellow, green, very Kinkos. No clip-art that I recall, but “style sheets” are in play by the compositor, who seems not to have mastered—or maybe wants to foreground—the copy machine, by letting the registration miss. The text will run off the margins, continue onto another sheet, a paragraph split between two. Maybe a page will be mostly an exaggerated space between paragraphs or other sub-sections. There are headings, footers, stripes, and other diacritical or columnar flourishes. There is a nearly caricatured self-consciousness of what Derrida, in The Truth in Painting, called the parergon—the frame between the inside and the outside of a “piece.” The rhetorical value of these cues is clear, and I have been modifying my description of them accordingly. The text is a kind of signage, and is designed as such. But as a reading experience, in the proper, feigned solitude of my predicament, I find myself enlisted to hold forth. I shudder as I realize the theatricality of being so emplaced. Everything I could pronounce would be vapid. So I mutely meander instead.
I do like to read over shoulders. I don’t read phones, don’t own one. On the train, I read books. I rest easy I’m the only one paying attention to the page, hearing that silent voice internally. The density of the prose and esotericism of the verse in my books will repulse the casual voyeur, I guess. It could intrigue them, instead. But when I’m made to stand, I watch a seated passenger play a game or scroll through status updates. I don’t want to care. It is enormously relaxing and intimate.
Artist Placement Group's "The Sculpture," installation view of Inno70 (1971), Hayward Gallery, London
This form of voyeurism is really classical irony metastasized to the theater of reading spaces that have been such a telling feature of “social practice” exhibits. I think of Claire Bishop’s discussion, in Artificial Hells, of Artist Placement Group’s actually innovative “Inno70” show. A piece entitled “The Sculpture” was in fact a working boardroom where curator, artists, and corporate representatives met to arrange collaborative “placements” of artists within their organizations. These were contractual negotiations, replete with verbal documentation in various states of revision, reference materials including civil codebooks, etc. But for the fact that “the public…were separated from the boardroom by a clear plastic curtain.” At the ballroom, it was more a matter of lighting (and in the gallery setting documented on Cheung’s website, there is not even that difference). Classical irony builds a community of knowledge by coding out the central character. Indeed I felt like everyone there knew something I couldn’t, because my exclusion was scripted. So I left the center to find that out. Every time I rose, I rose to speak with someone and not to everyone. But within the piece, I felt I’d only interrupt the others. The partition was now better than clear; it was imagined.
Postmodern and now post-Fordist theory has had a difficult time avoiding a backhanded Romanticism when it comes to poetry. Art history could be said to suffer the same fate, really. I am taken with how well Cheung’s piece anticipates the discrepancies in something like Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. On one hand, he follows an unacknowledged line extending from Julia Kristeva’s The Revolution in Poetic Language; the strangeness and palpability of language wrought by poets is less a rendering than a discovery of an essential, maternal empathy between form and content in a nonsense that might be in fact a politically viable, though for now insurrectionary, egalitarian logic. Long on Autonomist doxa, Barardi’s book is short on how semiocapitalism’s disentangling of things from statements in the age of finance entails, beside “infospheric pollution of the psychosphere,” a “poetical procedure” or “ironic act of exceeding the established meaning of words” in an “infinite game.” What I finally gathered from my interaction with True Exposure is that this is a false infinity, an unobservable plenitude but still an appreciably shaped one. Cheung’s deft and sparing design sense leaves enough of a trace to imagine a whole that is the truth of exposition. And that can’t be itself exposed to view.
This is what prosody is; it wants to live through the tautological demands it makes on sound and sense, to survive as a feature of the poem, a shape drawn on a page. The poet dreams of exposing to posterity their virtuosity, and the reader dreams of embodying it through the erotic intercession of their breath. But who is exposed, and as what? In fiscal parlance, true exposure refers to the investor’s risk, not the culpability or character of the entity in which one invests. I think of Romanticism as something of a semiotic retreat from the material brunt of industrial capitalism, and True Exposure as an advance into, even where it seems like a send up of, neoliberal finance. Lest we forget the denotation of that phrase in the world of hiking, an advance posed luxuriously alongside hilltop views, on the North Face™ of things.
i say what
can be said
in a line
g i v e n
short black hair
flick in frames
[NOTE. Ed Baker’s Stone Girl E-Pic, a massive gathering of drawings & writings, was published by Leafe Press (Nottingham, England, and Claremont, California) in 2011. It is as such the celebration of a poet/artist/calligrapher whose work attests to its almost outsider status, in the quasi-rawness of the print & pages in the paper version, not visible as posted here, & in the play between visual images & minimal, often scroll-like versings. The opening citation in Conrad DiDiodato’s foreword has something to say of this: “It is important to collect these writers because, as has been the case over and over in the history of literature, the best and most innovative writing, the writing that advances the art and that in the future becomes the classic and defining work of a period, is almost always the work of outsiders.” (John M. Bennett, Curator of the Avant Writing Collection at Ohio State University). Or Baker himself: “... the facts that provoke (or precipitate) a poem or a piece of art that is inside or outside or simultaneously inside/outside ... the poem/piece.” The line between inside & outside is accordingly called into question, even into doubt. (J.R.)]
Scappettone's view of the rooms
Jennifer Scappettone, from Dame Quickly (Litmus Press, 2009), 101 pp., 15.00 —Superficially, Scappettone’s first book of poetry and art resembles Stephanie Young’s Picture Palace enough—texts abutted by images near the end of each book—that I once had them paired for a course that, unfortunately, never materialized. I wanted to explore and exploit the formal, and thus significant, differences between them. Whereas Young’s book has a self-consciously “Valley girl”-speak feel to it, its references largely, though not exclusively, pop culture (including film stills of indie-queen actress Parker Posey), Scappettone’s book, starting from the (Karl) Marx reference in its title to the Acker-esque flourish of its last line (“Idunno ma but every port I open (50693) stinks like the oikosed, costly.”), is inundated with the history of Western philosophy (Aristotle to Deleuze, and beyond), political economy and canonical literature. Scappetone’s attitude toward, and strategic reworking of, this monolithic hegemony resembles Judith Goldman’s in her recent, and underappreciated deconstruction of Western history, l.b.; or the catenaries. The repetition of key terms—king, cataract, implicit, beauty, etc.—gives these sprawling, seemingly unrelated texts formal and thematic coherence. Divided into four major sections—In Acres, Publicities2, Illocatable Hours and Abluvion—this book deploys grammatical and agrammatical sentences and phrases to carve out a non-site from which a “dame” may speak, may write, may be. But, as Shakespeare and Marx make clear in their respective texts, Falstaff and Das Kapital, however unwittingly (and thus wit, for Scappettone, is another device for excavating subconscious assumptions), a “dame” is a pre-Mrs, and the resistance to this logic of the oikos (also explored in Picture Palace) is interminable. Every woman, domesticated or not, is a “dame” everywhere. This engendering of biological differences crosses cultural, political and economic lines (as the recent call for sobriety at poetry reading sand political events demonstrates). For Scappettone, every turn in history, whether progressive (the political revolutions of the early 20th century) or reactionary (the rise of the fasces against the “king”), is another layer of sediment over the “problem” of women. Every consolidation under any “Consensus Series” (“of unison how rank ever/over apparently—girl/accompli—widow of the/shadow of the next was/in a minimalist present…” is perforce another mode of “The Carapace.” Filtering up from under “there,” language is “heard” only in bits and pieces, in shreds of phrases or single words: “Past she has Attempted To answer Fails light as Toward.” Because each turn of history is a deepening of the sediment, each “New War” renders Dame Quickly (and rapidity is a necessary feature of wit, as though one has to speak quickly before one is, again, muffled) literally implicit, folded into, under: “Epithets—given down? I am a most implicit maze.” The word “maze” is another residue of, and echolocation for, what Scappettone calls “The Antigonal Complex.” Inflected with citations from Hegel and Sophocles, this particular poem is written in a deceptively straightforward narrative in which the question of gender is buried beneath the first person plural that, by the end, echoes the Talking Heads: “”When we reached the EU the first person plural was different as ever is.” The burial of differences is refracted through the promissory note (a kind of violation of an idealized future) of the opening sentences: “Freshly gashed with the suppleness of persons we left Buda and Pest for Gorj; I entered Romania with a European passport in the surname of my father’s father and exited American under the standard mistranscribed moniker…” In this context, from the Romanian point of view, the First World War was “the War of Reunification,” signaled thirteen pages later in the poem “Beauty.” Here Buda and Pest are now Budapest and we have returned to our origins: ”Noah’s window in the sponsored portico a many-quartered relief,/striation reproducing rain’s medieval having/couples parallel as/plans (fields empty) (for supper) of loving correspondence—as silver dove//is—exotic—an excuse—or just our being//now yet/as/after/again.” I could go on to discuss the many other affiliations Scappettone draws between modernity, progress and the unaffected status of women (sops—like the vote—notwithstanding) but these too few examples will have to do. from Dame Quickly is remarkable in its breadth and striking in its intensely felt intelligence.