Pierre Joris: From “Double-Gazing Semes after Babel Sequestering” (Some Notes on Collaboration)

Pierre Joris, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, circa 1990s, a collaborative port
Pierre Joris, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, circa 1990s, a collaborative portrait

[What follows is the opening of Pierre Joris’s introduction to Synopticon: A Collaborative Poetics by Louis Armand & John Kinsella (Litteraria Pragensia, 2012). That my own interplay with Joris has been essential to my life as a poet goes almost without saying. Along with him & others I have come to see collaboration, not as a threat to identity, but as part of the arsenal of poetic means that has long been at our disposal. There is more to be said about this and the collective enterprise that it implies, but I‘m willing to take his testimony here as truly more than a beginning. (J.R.)]

 How to talk alone about collaboration? When Louis Armand suggested I write an introduction on collaboration for his & John Kinsella’s Synopticon, I had misgivings, yet accepted gingerly. Bear with me. These misgivings were based on the fact that I have never collaborated in the writing of poetry or prose, that I have never had any desire to do so, despite the examples of a number of friends & despite years of theorizing about the death of the author & ensuing claims concerning the autonomy of the text. Well, I have collaborated — in the making of anthologies & the composition of commentaries & introductions, & in one of the latter, Jerome Rothenberg & I suggested that the fabled death of the author may in fact be “much exaggerated,” probably a further reason for my uneasiness.

But then I accepted, perhaps gingerly, but I did accept because the idea of collaboration not only fascinates me, but seems to gain an evermore central place in the practice of writing & in the thinking & theorizing about writing — with Synopticon, the book at hand, a superb example of a quasi-alchemical fusion of the practical & theoretical sides of the question. I also accepted because despite all my above denials there is no way around it: some would claim — & I have no way of disagreeing — that as a life-long translator, I have collaborated, am a collaborator. Only with friends, not with enemies, I want to shout, hearing the word collaborator in its French meaning of a treasonable “collaborateur” or in the Italianate pun “traduttore, traditore,” if we want to stay in the fields of literature. Furthermore, have I not argued in essay after essay that all writing has its origin in translation, that language itself is always already a translation, & therefore, as translation is de natura a collaboration, one could also argue that all writing however single-handed or -minded is de facto a collaboration. QED. Whom am I trying to convince?

Alone here — “all-one?” — I am staring at the word “convince” trying to move on from there. Convincing can’t be done alone, it takes at least two, “con-vaincre” to vanquish or win together is what right now I hear in the word, more than the sense of imposing an idea on someone else (where “con” doesn’t point to the “with” of shared communality, but to the “con-fidence” of men known to abuse exactly that communal trust as con-men.) How could you convince yourself if you are alone & not always already several? Which immediately brings to mind what for many years has been my favorite quote on collaboration, namely what Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari say in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus: “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.” Which saves the day & may set me on my way as I remember how I altered Rimbaud’s Je est un autre to make it read a century later I is many others. And so we have to learn how to be many selves, how to assume (in the French sense of “assumer” = “take upon your self”) our many selves, rather than to irritably reach for the certainty of some imaginary singular, coherent self.

Two modes for the single author to work through this & toward a sort of collaboration have stuck in mind. Many years ago Allen Ginsberg instructed me on the need to “write through” others, loved ones, admired ones, departed ones — as he had done writing through Kerouac & Burroughs, & others. Collaboration in absentia, you could say, though Ginsberg had called it “writing through someone’s mind.” Closer to my own sense of poetry, I have been intrigued & awed by the writing through of texts (rather than minds, though who is to say they are different?), with Robert Kelly’s (writing through Shelley's) Mont Blanc my favorite achievement in this practice. And yet, in our context, is this true collaboration? Such practice does propose a “co,” is clearly “labor” intensive, & constitutes an “oration” of sorts, a discourse, certainly, & one that often plays the voice of the text against/with the voice of the one who intervenes.

And yet, & yet — all this doesn’t exactly speak to the act of collaboration under hand, Armand & Kinsella’s Synopticon. Could I make this introduction a collaboration via quotation, insertion, transcription? Loan words? What fascinated me in Synopticon right away were the techniques used to cut through matters of space & time. As the authors’ note tells us, it took ten years to create this sequence of texts via email. This time-frame alone makes one aware that collaboration — at least in this case — can also involve slow processes of empty time (rhyming with John Cage’s “empty words?”), spaces of forgetfulness, willful or otherwise, calls & recalls, sudden moments of intense exchanges, or, to use the authors’ words “numerous promptings & erasures, sorties, advances, feints.” Note a strangely military or at least sporting terminology, two gentlemen by a river in early morning light, fencing, dueling? Ah! Could this be where some of my misgivings came from? Some fear that collaboration could at moments become or at least feel like an act of violence? But then, doesn’t all writing that takes itself & its relation to language seriously imply such an act of violence, of wrestling with some angel or other, if it wants to “make it new?” Or am I just indulging in some old-fashioned musings, some romanticisms of egoic/heroic compositional prejudices?

Yes, indeed. For as soon as one begins to read the texts/poems that make up the sequence, one’s thinking is changed by the process of immersion, as one witnesses variations of speed, arrays of lines of intensity, planes of consistency & inconsistency, the capture & redirection of language matter, scalpel incisions at molecular seme-level (artificial in-seme-inations?), & more. The authors are not trying to pull some theoretical punches behind the scenes, out of sight of the reader. What I’ve called elsewhere “process-showing,” i.e. the propositions inside the text that speak of & to the text, giving the reader a handle on the text’s formal moves & methods of composition, these are a user’s manual that is not added to the package as some external supplement, but incorporated into, part of the text itself. Take these lines from “Zoning Discourse: Synoptical Echo Pangenesis,” the opening poem:

             … double-gazing of cathected
             sea-like creatures “depositing
             about a place they might term
             landscape” … qua
                                                    meta-physical & (self-)
             erasure in counterfeit anatomies—
             elevating myth to gestalt therapy
             or lyrical solipsism (rodin-achilles?)
             or engenderment
                                       or simulacra
                                                    simulating pre-socratic
             denunciation of origins—

 These lines seem as good a description of the processes at work in Synopticon as any a critic may propose. They also show the ambition of the poets, imagining the poet as “the last scientist of the whole” (Robert Kelly), i.e. as a last generalist (we shall go in fear of specialists) for whom all knowledge whatsoever is of use; a definition that also proposes an ambitious dimension for the work: how to bring the vast range of contemporary knowledges — be they facts, perceptions, realizations, readings, dreams, speculations, criticisms, variations, whatever — into an open field that is not pre-striated (in Deleuze/Guattari’s sense of overdetermined). Obviously depositing such fragments in the smooth space on the open field/white page will immediately create striations, organization, thus limitations — & this is exactly where the importance of collaboration becomes visible, as it provides the ability of double interference that again & again is able to re-smooth or, better, re-open, redirect, re-cathect the field by re-inscribing new fragments that disrupt any possibility for established striations to congeal into formal fixities.