Brian Teare in conversation with Jaime Shearn Coan
Note: What follows is an edited transcript of PennSound Podcast #53, an October 30, 2015, conversation between Brian Teare and Jaime Shearn Coan. Teare and Shearn Coan discuss Teare’s book The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, described by Shearn Coan as a collection that imagines “how to language what is un-languageable.”
Teare, an assistant professor of English at Temple University, is the author of five books of poetry, most recently The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven and Companion Grasses, as well as a number of chapbooks. He also makes books by hand in Philadelphia for his micropress, Albion Books. Jaime Shearn Coan lives in Brooklyn, New York. His writings on dance and performance can be found regularly in The Brooklyn Rail. A PhD student in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY, Jaime teaches at Hunter College; his poetry chapbook, Turn It Over, was published by Argos Books in 2015.
This interview was recorded in the Wexler Studio at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia on October 30, 2015, and was transcribed by Mariah Macias. You can hear the audio of this conversation here; click here to read Shearn Coan’s review of The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven in Jacket2. — Julia Bloch
Jaime Shearn Coan: So we’re discussing Brian’s new book, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, and the subtitle of the book is Reading Agnes Martin. I was wondering if we could just start by you telling us a little story about how you came to Agnes Martin.
Brian Teare: For a long time I owned the book — I see you have a copy of Agnes Martin’s Writings. I hadn’t really read it, you know — people had told me, or I had heard through the grapevine, that it was pretty great. And I hadn’t really made time for it, you know, the way you do, and so it was on my shelf for years. And then in 2009 I got really, really ill, and in that sort of chance kind of conjunction of things, like I was looking for something to read, you know, while I was in bed, slightly incapacitated, and I came across her essay in another book, actually, a book of artists’ writings. I came across “The Untroubled Mind,” and I immediately fell in love with it. In comparison to the rest of her essays, it’s, as you know, lineated and much looser in terms of its associative movement; it’s more like a poem. And I could not get enough of it. And it’s also pretty wacky. I mean, in terms of how it’s put together, and how it moves between image and then, you know, a really broad sort of argumentative discursive statement that posits a kind of truth. I was continuously startled by this kind of mix of imagery and argument and also the kind of looseness with which the text was constructed. And I was charmed, really charmed by it, and also quite comforted by it. I think because it was a time of my life in which I lacked a lot of certainty — I didn’t know what was wrong with me physically, I had very little access to healthcare, I think at that time my then-partner and I were kind of struggling with how I might get healthcare, you know, get access to it — it was nice to have this bossy, though slightly wacky, voice telling me shit. I found it comforting. Over time, once I read “The Untroubled Mind,” I took the Writings off the shelf, like the whole book of essays, and discovered that she had, you know, this kind of strange style that was this mix of advice to artists but then also like a kind of spiritual or wisdom literature. It was this odd mix, but definitely about a voice of authority telling you how to make art or how to live life or how to go about your business. And since I felt pretty clueless about all of that at the time, again I found [it] very comforting — I didn’t really know anything about her yet. I knew, obviously, from the context of the Writings and also the artists’ writings anthology that I had, I knew she was a visual artist. I saw her paintings in the Writings book. But I had never seen any of them in person. I didn’t really know anything about her. I didn’t certainly know anything about her mythos — like, desert-recluse person. I got really attracted to her certainty during a time for me of deep uncertainty, even if a lot of what she suggested I may do to, you know, make art or make life different than my life was, seemed impossible to me or slightly ridiculous, even. I was nonetheless really engaged with her as a wisdom figure. And the book, I think, kind of charts both my deepening understanding of her work as I come to engage with it, come to see it in museums, come to actually see the physical objects and experience them — which, again, I think everyone will say there’s nothing like seeing them in person; a reproduction just doesn’t do anything to convey what they’re actually like. And in her case, that’s really profoundly true. This book charts this deeper engagement with her as an actual artist and her practice and this hugely dedicated practice of a lifetime, essentially, and really, the second half of her life, dedicated, as she said, to making horizontal lines.
I also did research in the UPenn archives and read letters around the ICA exhibition, like her first major exhibition, and so [I] got to know her a little bit through that. And there were a lot of drafts. […] That was also the exhibit that sort of started the habit of always exhibiting her work in the context of her words — and that was very deliberate on her part, that was something she really wanted. So my relationship to her deepened and got more complex and also, therefore, more ambivalent over time. Especially because my illness deepened, my engagement with trying to heal myself deepened, and a lot of tensions emerged from my own attempts to heal myself and my own path toward that. [I began to feel that] her ideas about what might work best for a life and art may be super great for an Agnes but weren’t particularly super great for a Brian. That was hard, actually. I think the book sort of records the difficulty of eventually parting ways with my attachment to her as a kind of teacher figure. A lot of it had to do with a different view on suffering, and what suffering is for or how to experience it. I thought she could really help me figure it out. I think my concern was trying to, as I say in various ways through the book, suffer less or suffer better — you know, or suffer in a way that isn’t quite suffering. I think part of the journey of the book is no one can help me do that, because, you know, that’s only something I can figure out.
Shearn Coan: You refer to Agnes as a teacher in the book. In some ways, [as] you mentioned, her teachings are about art, how to make art, but they’re also about how to live life, right? And those things are very tied for her, of course. I think, especially as you’re talking about writing about suffering, writing through suffering, it’s almost as if initially you turned towards Agnes as a teacher to learn how to get through the suffering, but the suffering ends up being a teacher at the same time, almost. I mean, there’s so much of this pushing and pulling against Agnes throughout the book that I think does shift in the three parts in a somewhat linear way, as moving away or pushing away stronger. But I think there are these cycles, too, throughout, some aspects of what she’s talking about continuing to resonate, perhaps more as a maker or an artist yourself.
Teare: Yeah, I like that. I think that’s true. Agnes the maker I have no arguments with, ever. I think she was an exquisite artist, and I love her paintings and drawings. Like, I love them. And even the ones I thought I didn’t love, I realized I just didn’t like them because I hadn’t seen them in person. Some of the things I treasured about the earlier work, like a more visible presence of her body and her hand in the making of them — I realized I just couldn’t see that evidence in later work because I didn’t see them in person, where there is more evidence of brushwork and her engagement with the canvas. So that aspect of her I never really doubted in the least. But I also think all of us kind of learn what we need as artists to do what we do, and because I was in so much crisis, I kind of thought I might be able to learn from her how to proceed forward. I think in engaging with her I did learn how to go forward, but it wasn’t because she had the solution; “oh, just move to New Mexico and live on a mesa and, like, build your own house, and you’ll be cool” wasn’t, obviously, in the realm of what I could do. But I also did try to track [her influence] over the book. In the first section, she’s called Agnes Martin. You know, very formal. And in the second section, she’s called Agnes. And then in the third section, she’s called the Teacher Agnes, which is also the moment when I begin to try to say goodbye to her, that moment when she most coalesces. Or when I recognize that she’s most coalesced into a teacher figure [and] also begin to realize I’m going to let her go, or need to let her go in some way. So I did try to narrativize it that way, but I think it was also the process of writing the book and putting it together that helped me articulate what had changed over time. […] My relationship to her work, my respect for it, my delight in it, my sort of absorption in it — that really, even now, hasn’t changed.
Shearn Coan: I think also, you’re reading her work in a particular moment in your life that is marked by illness, which is a very different context than, perhaps, other parts of your life. I wonder, actually, could we turn to a particular poem of yours that might ground us a little bit?
Teare: Yeah, this is in the second section. Part of the narrative of the book is encountering Western allopathic medicine, and having a real difficulty getting any kind of diagnosis from Western doctors about what’s going on. This is one moment in that narrative. And then, I should say, one of the ways that I engaged with her in the poems themselves is that they’re all titled by a phrase of hers from an essay or catalogue. So this is her title, or her sentence as my title.
[Teare reads “We are not the instruments of fate nor are we the pawns of fate we are the material of fate.”]
Shearn Coan: I love that last line [“I mean I’ve had to fashion a form that pains”]. I’m thinking about the fashioning of form in terms of the poems in this book and the way they map the pages. Could you maybe talk about how you’re thinking of them, or how you thought of them in composing them, in terms of how they are on the page?
Teare: You know, I think about them as really highlighting the gridded nature of the digitally typeset page. I was very deliberately trying to draw out of the page space a sense of griddedness that is actually always there in digital typesetting — which digital typesetting both relies on and covers over. Rather than in the kind of ways I’ve worked before, which you could say were derived from Charles Olson’s projective verse and thinking of the line as a measure of breath, and the syllable as like, a unit of the ear, and this sort of organic, body-based writing — interestingly for a book sort of obsessed with embodiment, this one actually doesn’t do that, to me, as a writer. I was way more interested in the I, and how taking advantage of the grid inside of the page could bring [forward] the griddedness of poems. In traditional prosody — not that these poems have super traditional prosody, but lineation, you know, stanzas, and the ways in which poems are little grids — especially more traditional lyric poems are little grids. You know, the sonnet is a grid. Period. Fourteen lines, ten syllables each line, five stresses — they line up, mostly. There’s a kind of warp and weft to how the vertical and horizontal axes of the poem line up. And so I was thinking, what if I start taking the grid inside of the unitary lyric and start pulling it apart and making sort of, like, quatrains and stanzas that touch on each other but don’t have to have a kind of syntactical, hypotactical relationship with each other? And yet are clearly related? That was my idea of, like, what might pain a reader or pain me. You know, stanzas don’t line up perfectly. The syntax doesn’t always match. I really thought […] the body of the poem doesn’t have to coincide with the meaning of the poem, and it’s actually the lack of coincidence between them that sort of creates that sense of pain or disequilibrium. And not every poem is like that, obviously. Some of them […] totally fit together. And when I read them aloud, it tends to smooth over the edges, obviously.
Shearn Coan: The compositional field is a preoccupation in the book, I mean in terms of thinking about Agnes’s work, and then your own struggle both of how to be in the page formally and then also just how to language what is un-languageable in terms of illness. I feel like you also pull out or create these compositional fields in your images, often — I’m thinking of the “white hospital bed / before I get into it.” The play between the figure and the fields appears as a preoccupation, or comes back in the book. And then also, another element of pain that is addressed formally, I think, is in the repetition, right?
Shearn Coan: Something that was very much part of my reading experience is the moving through poem after poem that’s in a very kind of agitated, frustrated state of how do I do this? Right? You shared with me a while ago a quote about seriality. Do you mind if I read that?
Teare: Oh no, it’s great.
Shearn Coan: It’s from Zoe Leonard writing about Agnes Martin’s work, and she’s distinguishing seriality from repetition. She writes, “I think of seriality as making or doing something from the same starting point but each time allowing for a different result. The starting impulse or the genesis of the gesture is the same, but as it travels through the material world, it is altered, rendered specific and particular.” I’m wondering about how you’re thinking about seriality in this book. We should start there.
Teare: I’m glad you brought that quote up. It occurs to me now, with you reading that, that what’s important to me is that I think what I desired was for pain to be serial. And it’s not. Pain is repetitive. That I think I claim many times throughout the book in various ways. And it would have been nice for pain to have gone somewhere else, you know, to have started from there and then — I’m talking, in particular, about physical pain. For me to be able to travel somewhere besides pain, more pain. And I think I even have that poem with that sort of thinking-back on my — “my sense of self returns // without illness / a casual traveler / book in hand.” And I feel like even that is that desire to be released from repetition and to be back in a place where movement is possible. I think you’re also right in bringing up that quote, and I think the poems were what enabled me to have some sense of seriality. I was always starting from this pretty similar physical or cognitive place — most of these were sort of written in the brief times when I had kind of enough of my wits about me that I could get something down.
Shearn Coan: Right. So, going back to that line about fashioning both the line, the form —
Teare: Fashioning a form that pains.
Shearn Coan: There’s a bit of a paradox that also emerges in these poems that I think is parallel to the push and pull with Agnes, around, on one hand, a rejection of Agnes’s idealism, pure abstraction, which kind of puts the body aside, and then allegiance to the body that includes pain. I actually want to turn to a poem.
Teare: Sure. Well, I think you’re right that [for] the Agnes I encountered through research and through the work through other people, in particular — you know, there is a great amount of denial of the body. Even in “The Untroubled Mind” there’s that whole discourse about hunger, about art is better hungry, you know, and she’s sort of — not that I’m anti-eating, but — then when you read some of the interviews with her gallerist, like, she did only eat, one winter, cheese and bananas for six months or something. She would go on these incredibly controlled, kind of ascetic diets, etc. So you know there does feel like on the one hand, there’s an incredible sort of presence; presence of the hand and of the body in her work is so there. But it’s given such a small space. And I think it was more the small space I was kind of objecting to in my own practice, that I couldn’t mimic. Even if I was creating these linguistic textures that can be abstracted in and of themselves, it’s not as though I wasn’t deriving them from embodied experience. Which includes pain. And that could be a generational thing. I think Zoe Leonard herself talks about [that] generation of women writers [and how] she is super invested — how Agnes doesn’t necessarily on the surface seem to fit in a kind of feminist discourse, because she never really talks about gender ever. And then even Jill Johnston has an essay about going to go visit her in the desert and there’s all sorts of knowing winks about lesbianism and past relationships, but also a lot of recognition that Agnes wasn’t a feminist, wasn’t, you know, part of that body-valorization kind of generation. So, you know, I feel like that’s my own sense of tension with her, too. It’s a generational one. I don’t feel it personally toward her as an antagonism, but I do sometimes, like if I’m trying to mimic her example or, like, take her advice, I’m a little bit like, hey, but you forgot this whole other thing not everyone can avoid.
Shearn Coan: Right, right.
Teare: Like the body.
Shearn Coan: Yeah.
Teare: Kinda huge.
Shearn Coan: Another of Agnes’s preoccupations […] is the importance of being alone. She certainly lived in that way. I went to a talk recently by Jennie C. Jones at Dia:Chelsea, and she brought up this article by Fenton Johnson, who invented this term “solitariness.” Or, no, it’s “solitaries,” it’s a genre of people who chose to live by themselves. There’s certainly a long tradition of this among artists and writers, but I think there’s something very attractive about turning to a text or a kind of life teacher or guru that’s really teaching about how to be with the self. That seems particularly important when dealing with illness. In this book, the speaker really feels, especially because of the lack of certainty and the inability to be diagnosed, an exaggerated solitariness that seems to be keeping him apart or separate in a way that does not feel chosen. Thinking about other works of yours that seem to be very much focused on the interrelationship both among the self and others and self and place, I was so struck in this book by this kind of vacuum feeling that also seems to be this blank page or blank canvas that’s very bare.
Teare: I’m glad that that came across. I mean, for me, illness was, especially when it was the worst and sort of the most chronic and the most undiagnosed, hugely isolating. I couldn’t always walk, I couldn’t always leave the house, I couldn’t — it was just on a practical, everyday level, difficult. And to encounter others. It was also really difficult to maintain friendships. One of the hardest things about having an undiagnosed illness is you can’t “prove it” to anybody. You don’t have a name for it. So there’s this weird way in which I got a little paranoid, and then I just thought, well, everybody thinks I’m faking or whining or, you know: why can’t anyone find out what’s wrong with me? I think I also did some level of self-isolation, but a lot of it, you know, was just the practicality of having to work and because I lived in the Bay Area for most of that time, having to work many jobs and also be incredibly ill. There just wasn’t a lot of time left over for much. I also think there is a lover figure in the book who just appears very briefly. And that was also a very deliberate choice in that my now ex-partner didn’t want to be written about, and so I definitely obeyed that desire because it felt — actually, it felt like the Agnes thing to do, which is to be like okay, guy, I will follow your rule. It also felt like the right thing to do for me. But I think also that, you know, in those poems where this person does show up, I have even those lines that are even now really hard for me: “What good will it do” — “what good / will it do to desire / what will do no good.” Even romantic love or sexual love or erotic experience seemed to not be able to really do anything or to help me in any way. You’re right that it’s something that my writing has historically been hugely invested in, and that it wasn’t a resource I could draw on for a lot of reasons. It’s true. It was one of the most isolating times of my life. […] After my first partner, Jared, died, because he died of AIDS, there was a cultural narrative. There were other people who had experienced it. There was a whole network, at that point, of literature, as well as people I knew who I could turn to who either knew what I was going through or were able to hold my experience in some way. Whereas having an undiagnosed, general systemic problem, I didn’t actually know anybody who was going through anything similar, so there wasn’t even a narrative. When you don’t have a narrative except “I’m fucking suffering,” there’s nothing. It’s hard to share. Because it would be what Elaine Scarry would tell us in The Body in Pain: other people’s pain is just so abstract that it cannot be shared, really. Nobody really can feel or have a true sense of what you’re going through. I definitely felt that way throughout this time […] a sense of isolation.
Shearn Coan: Because the illness is not named, so to speak, in the book, I wonder if you have any thoughts about it taking on a kind of allegorical nature, in terms of just — I mean, it does feel very of the air in terms of this general kind of not knowing what’s wrong paranoia — you know, not to abstract it necessarily, but I do actually feel like that the fact that there is no resolve at the end of the book, necessarily, does give the book this other layer in terms of [how] it can operate on these different levels. I think there is one poem that does use the phrase “late capitalism” —
Teare: Right, right, yeah.
Shearn Coan: — it does seem to be some acknowledgement of where we are. […] We are in a post-diagnostic moment in some ways. I mean, even if we can get back to the AIDS crisis, the different engagement with illness here is really interesting to me in terms of the kind of void. Although I do recognize the dangers in, you know, abstracting illness and metaphorizing illness.
Teare: I think your question points to lots and lots. I mean, first of all, I wrote almost all this book before I ever got a diagnosis, and then I did have to face the question of whether I would write that into the book or not. And it very quickly became clear to me that that would be a dumb idea […]. Just because you get a diagnosis doesn’t mean the suffering stops, and [it] doesn’t mean that I don’t actually have a chronic illness that I have to deal with every day, because that’s true, and that’s a different story, actually, than the one this book is interested in. So I didn’t want any sense of false resolution. People think once you can name it, oh it’s all fine, right, and I really wanted to avoid any sort of false sense of security, which is again what I think a diagnosis in the end can result in, especially for a chronic illness. Because I think the thrust of the book in the end is about coming to understand — I mean, it’s a very basic Buddhist truth, coming to understand suffering as our shared condition — the whole book is about trying to avoid suffering in the way that I was suffering. I feel the book comes to a place of, actually, what made me suffer more was trying not to suffer, you know, and struggling against the fact that this is just, whatever you want to call it, fate or my given lot or what have you, this is just where I am. Coming to accept where I was seemed harder, in the end. More of an achievement than getting a name for it and riding off into the sunset, which is more what our Western American sort of capitalist, end-driven society wants. You know, well, you’ve got the diagnosis now, you have a game plan, now you can do duh-duh-duh-duh, and it’s like, sort of but not really. So in that sense, yes, it is allegorized only in the broadest sense as a form of suffering. And the process of getting care is also allegorized in that political sense of understanding this is pre-Obamacare, though I would also point out that Obamacare wouldn’t necessarily obviate some of the struggles that I went through.
But, you know, it was a particular time economically and politically in our country when if you were uninsured and you had previous conditions, you literally just couldn’t get any health insurance. Period. At all. There was no healthcare available. I just happened to live in a city that had a public health assistance program that again was bare bones and super minimal and was not helpful, but it was something more than I could’ve had if I lived in Texas or wherever. So there is something about the politics of the era, about healthcare, in the book as well — but I don’t think I allegorized that part of it. I think that part of it is really particular. I would say it just couldn’t be more different than thinking about writing about AIDS or the AIDS crisis, though one of the poets who’s super important to me, Tory Dent, wrote really beautifully and sort of terrifyingly about being medicalized. And, you know, because of her gender, and because of the gendered nature of the antiretrovirals and the protease inhibitors, she suffered in a way that a lot of gay men didn’t. The ways she wrote about that experience, of the medicalization and all the illness that attended her time living with AIDS in particular, is really terrifying. I gained a lot of courage from that, but I didn’t feel they were in any way [similar] — other than in her final book, Black Milk, she does write from a sort of metaphysical, atheist point of view, and I really admired the way she did that, and sort of brought metaphysics into her picture in a way that was complicated and moving. But to me they seem so worlds apart, really, in terms of the politics and sort of shared communal narratives that are possible.
Shearn Coan: Towards the end [of The Empty Form], there’s more of an emphasis on healing, using or returning to Eastern medicine. And there’s a character archetype, the Healer. Could you speak about that movement either structurally or thematically?
Teare: At a certain point a friend of mine said, very helpfully, “You’re in a healing crisis, and you need help, and you’re not getting help, so you need to go see this person that I know.” And I will say that even though I’d done yoga and had been exposed to Eastern methods of healing and thinking about the body, I was pretty apprehensive, and I think it just was residual, being brought up Southern and Christian, and I just was, you know, what is this thing I know nothing about? What am I about to do? I was genuinely in a healing crisis, so I did go do it. It was because the Western medicine just hadn’t worked, and no one was helping me. Marintha Tewksbury, this acupuncturist and herbalist and body worker in San Francisco, was really willing to work with me super sliding scale, like super-duper sliding scale, and really saved my life in terms of the worst part of being ill, when I was really desperate. She was just really kind, and she’s an amazing body worker and an incredibly healing presence. She also gave me references of books to read [that addressed] my ultimately sort of racist misapprehensions of what I was doing — I couldn’t understand what Chinese medicine was, just my pure ignorance of what it actually, what the principles were — and the more I got to know Chinese medicine in particular, the more I was kind of, wow, this is everything that I agree with but didn’t know that I wanted in medicine. They treat you right away, you don’t wait for the test results. You know, like, your doctor talks to you, they listen to what you say, a lot of the treatment is based on what you say versus what your body is saying. And then also the ways in which Chinese medicine conceives of the body as part woven into the open system of the world, and that it’s incredibly porous and sort of open to the elements and sort of really responsive, rather than these little closed set of systems [where] you go to see this one person about your sinuses and you go see this other person about your elbow. In the context of Western medicine, [that approach] makes perfect sense, but in the context of Chinese medicine, it makes no sense whatsoever. I really appreciated suddenly someone kind of weaving my body back together and treating it like a system and, you know, advising me on food, like what to eat and any number of things. It gave me a different conception of what embodiment actually looks like, and one that seemed more congruent with my own sense of body. [It] gave me a really different way of thinking about healing and a healer’s relationship — you know, that a healer would touch you for so long, and that a laying on of hands or touch is like incredibly crucial to a lot of body work. And again they would not “wait” to treat you, but that it would be weird to go to a session with a Chinese medical doctor and you didn’t get treated that day. And granted, the treatments take longer, usually, than allopathic treatments to take effect, but you still get a sense of being engaged as a body and getting your healing systems working or at least jumpstarted right away. I was just incredibly moved by all of it, that it engaged so much of the healer in terms of listening and responding to your very particular body in a very particular moment. That seemed to me pretty miraculous when I felt like nobody could do that, like nobody could see my body, nobody could respond to it except with, like, sort of confusion. It just was such a kindness, it was such a compassion to me and just so different than anything I’d experienced. [The healer in the book is] mostly Marintha, but there are a couple of moments with the healer that is somebody else I saw when I got here [to Philadelphia], but it’s mostly her as a figure, because she was really powerful and just kind of shifted the dynamic with my own sense of suffering. It also gave me a sense of agency, that my body was active, and it wasn’t only actively working against me, whereas with Western medicine it felt like, we don’t get it, it’s not working […]. I was just sitting there, I was getting blood tests, no one was trying to wake my body up or sort of rebalance it in any way. So, yeah. It was powerful.
Shearn Coan: What you’re saying about being listened to, I mean, that’s certainly the opposite of, you know, the Western medical model. But also it just makes me think about when we come to teachers, which is often via reading, they can’t talk back to us. [Laughing.] And, I was actually just at a talk where this writer was talking about reading Eve Sedgwick as a young, blossoming, intellectual queer person, and the experience of just like being in your bed at night and reading and feeling so connected in this intense way, but that is a very listening, a very receptive way. And I’m so fascinated by how Agnes Martin, I mean, it’s still reading Agnes Martin all the way through, the subtitle of the book is Reading Agnes Martin — that doesn’t go away, even as there is this rejection. And I’m just thinking about the role of teachers and mentors in your life, and I noticed that the book as a whole is dedicated to Jean [Valentine], which I’d love to hear a little bit about. And then also each poem is dedicated.
Teare: Oh, not each every poem. But there’s maybe like fifteen or so. […]
Shearn Coan: And that’s at the back of the book that’s listed, along with many citations for lines that have been culled and woven into the poems. I wonder if you could talk about your relationship to mentors and also how that comes into the book.
Teare: That’s a great question. I mean, I’ll talk first about wanting to dedicate this book to Jean, because she’s someone whose work I think I’ve been reading for, I don’t know, most of my adult life, definitely most of my life as a poet. And I feel I’ve learned an immense amount from that work about writing a kind of metaphysical poem. Definitely about writing short lyrics. And this is one of my only books with poems this short — or it is the only book with poems this short. And so I felt like I really took up her challenge, or what I think of as her[s] — the challenge of her work to me, which is how does she make something so small so rich and so sort of deeply suggestive. And also how do you write so many of these poems and not just repeat yourself, which I thought — I think — is generally the challenge of the lyric. I think of Dickinson, I think of Keats, I think of Herbert. I think of these classic lyric poets, particularly in Herbert and Dickinson’s case, I think of, you know, sort of return to the theme again and again and again or form again and again and again. And a lot of the poets I love are these people who return to gestures again and again. So I wanted to kind of give myself permission to enter that terrain of repetition or seriality, depending — at that point, I don’t think I knew which it was. So is Dickinson a serial poet or a repetitive poet? These are good questions. I wasn’t thinking about that then. I think I was just more thinking about risking being repetitive. […] It actually hooks up really nice to the Zoe Leonard quote in that, you know, I began to realize that a metaphysical poetics does sort of always [repeat itself] the way that ritual sort of repeats itself, but may, à la Leonard, go somewhere different each time inwardly, even if outwardly the form is similar. I was interested in taking up that challenge of, like, what if I only have this one page? What if I only have a whole lot of borrowed language? And me trying to cobble it together with my own language. What if I keep doing this again and again; what will that do? Jean’s work was just a real goad in terms of its clarity, its brevity, its ability to be complex like in a really tiny space, and its ability, at least for me over however many years of reading it, to constantly be surprising, even though I might recognize certain of her signature moves. I still am, like, there’s always poems in every book where I’m just like, where did that come from? How did you get that? So there’s that.
And then I think the dedications are largely about friendships. That it’s the one way in which the book isn’t lonely. I actually asked a friend whether I should keep those dedications on the pages themselves or whether I should put them in the back. And my friend did say it made the book too cluttered and too confusing, like, what are all these names? Who are all these people? Some of them, or a lot of them, are poets, trying to connect their work to the poem, and like, what is that? I agreed with her, I felt like that seemed too much and I wanted the book to be cleaner than that. There was already enough going on. So for me it’s maybe more for my friendships with those people, but that those poems took place because of something in the friendships, you know, it wouldn’t have, either because of their work, the poems themselves, or because of their actual friendships in time and space — all of them kind of evoked something. And so it’s a way of honoring those connections. Some of them are like, one of them is to the healer, Marintha, and my therapist, you know. There are healers in there as well. I mean I love, I do feel Eve Sedgwick actually does have that amazing capacity to speak to one very directly even though, you know, allegedly she is like an academic critic, and how can her work do that because academic criticism doesn’t speak to one’s soul? But I think she’s one of those people who absolutely does, partially because it’s so beautifully written.
Shearn Coan: And I think also because she’s writing about being affected herself as a reader.
Teare: Yeah, yeah, totally. She is one of the people on the list of stolen lines — but a lot of those, again, are definitely a record of my engagement with various thinkers and various texts and definitely mentored by a lot of them, either because of them being about Eastern or Chinese medicine and my not knowing anything about it, and so getting a real sense of that from them, or Buddhist texts that, again, I didn’t have a lot of sense of before I started going into Chinese medicine. There are engagements with actual bodies of literature, bodies of thought, that I wouldn’t have come to any other way, and that I do think of as mentoring my thought, mentoring my way into the poems. Mostly I honored them by stealing from them.
Shearn Coan: Well, I find it very pleasurable as a reader to encounter these lists — and you generally include them in your books in this way — because I get to see you as a thinker and a reader and a researcher, and it adds this other layer for me that’s actually really enlivening.
Teare: Once my therapist actually got sort of, I don’t know, jealous? Mad? That I read this [Donald] Winnicott essay and had this huge kind of, what seemed to me at the time, though of course I can’t remember it now, epiphany about something in my life. And it was like she finally understood what role reading had for me, and it was hard for her, I think, to see that it was so — I go because I need help, and then I go because I’m hungry for connection. […] Maybe it’s a little bit like therapy, in that when you read you both listen and feel listened to, though it’s sort of mysterious how you feel listened to by a book. But one does, if it’s the right book. And so I do deeply crave that kind of intimacy that’s really interior and very quiet. I think that’s also there, that sense of engagement and kind of both honoring those kinds of engagements and connections but also recording them, you know, trying to get them into the poems, because they’re a crucial matrix, often, for the poems themselves.
Shearn Coan: In terms of the titles for the poems, you said earlier that most of them are taken from Agnes’s writings or titles of paintings. In trying to think about the relationship between the title and the poem, sometimes it seems almost like they’re just kind of talismanic objects or chance operation type of things. I’m wondering, how did they work together for you?
Teare: There’s always some connection for me, although I agree with you that sometimes it’s pretty slant, or like, if you ask me, how about that one? I would be like, I don’t really know why. Maybe there was a stanza I cut out or something that was a more direct response to it. But no, they all began as fairly direct lines between the body and the text, and a lot of them I collected because they began as talismanic objects, like they had some kind of energy for me, and I liked them. Or I found them really funny or I found them really absurd or something. Or just like, oh Agnes, God, are you kidding me? Or others of them I found really moving and totally deeply true. But I was totally fine letting it be slant or not quite obvious or letting there be a lot of play between title and poem in some instances. And then others of being really tight. I don’t mind that so much. But you’re right, they’re not all — some of them seem pretty wack at this point. [Laughing.] I think they’re funny. I think often when that disconnect is there, I think that’s often more for me about somehow the poem’s a punchline on the title, you know, because some of them are so outrageous.
Shearn Coan: And that’s why we love Agnes.
Teare: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s totally true.
Shearn Coan: I wonder, would it spoil everything to read the last poem?
Teare: No, I think that’s really great — to talk about that is a great place to end. I love this poem. It’s still one of my favorite poems, I almost feel, that I’ve ever written. It just makes me so happy.
[Teare reads “When you come to the end of all ideas you will still have no definitive knowledge on the subject.”]
Shearn Coan: It’s beautiful.
Teare: Thank you.
Shearn Coan: It reminds me, too, that this book is also engaging with ekphrasis, right?
Teare: Oh, yeah.
Shearn Coan: With a very light touch, I’d say. But it feels like a beautiful welcoming in of Agnes and a kind of acceptance of the same moment of just kind of letting her go.
Teare: Yeah. And I think for me it was really crucial — because I thought the book was done. I thought I had finished with the poem before that ends [with the line] “form empties itself / on its way to heaven.” And I was like, oh, the title, it all clicks, that’s nice. And maybe it was a little too tidy, but it’s Agnes, so tidy’s not that bad. But then I really just had this moment of what I would call genuine epiphany, where — and again, I think engaging with the lyric, you know, I’m of the generation where we were taught that the dumbest thing you could ever want for a poem is an epiphany, right, especially at the end. Very, very bad. Don’t do it. You’ll be cast out. I think this was me sort of taking that moment back, or trying to have one that works, in that I had this moment of realizing — I was thinking actually about Rilke and I was thinking about the end of one of his Duino Elegies, where “[a] happy thing falls.” He talks about the sort of surprising feeling of [how] we think of falling as a sad thing, and happy things are supposed to rise. So there’s this kind of paradox: what is a happy thing that falls? For me it was kind of the same, in that I was like, what would illness without falling ill be? You know, like, is there an illness that rises or that isn’t conceived of as a fall? And I realized all along I’d been kind of in this Christian mindset, you know, in terms of illness as a fall from grace, blah blah blah. And that is one of the things that Buddhism gave me, as like, hmm, no, actually you’re in a condition of total contingency all the time, and illness is just one of those manifestations of that contingency and ephemerality. Attaching to this idea of ability or illness or health — any of these could vanish at any moment. I had just realized: what if I don’t fall ill? What if I’m just ill? And that tiny shift changes the theology of the experience. It changes everything. And it literally enabled me to be blissfully happy. And that I just was so — I cannot be saved. That is so great, you know, because if you think you can be, but you just haven’t been doing it right, it’s very frustrating. But if you’re like, actually, no, this is just what it is, and it may or may not change, and to really know that, for some reason it was a sad thing that rises — I was not just fine with it, I was blissed out by it. If I achieved anything allegorically in the book, which I didn’t set out to do at all, that was really huge. It meant a lot to me. And it was real, you know. It was very real.
Shearn Coan: It definitely radiates out, I think, into the poem.
Teare: Good, I’m glad.
Shearn Coan: So I want to thank you for this beautiful conversation.
Teare: Thank you for engaging with it so deeply.
Laura Mullen on 'Complicated Grief'
Note: Laura Mullen’s Complicated Grief was published by Solid Objects in November 2015. Composed of eight sections, these lyrically unsettled and unsettling prose poems take the reader across multiple modalities of romantic/sexual love (or what passes in that guise), prying open the silence and shame of love’s aftermath, or its “complicated grief.” After a preface, “Demonst(e)ration,” Mullen begins in the immediate collapse of a relationship (or several), lovers coming apart, then moves to fairy tale as cultural premise and on to Jane Eyre, archetypal Little Red and Grandma, a harrowing memoir of molestation, the toxic revenge of Ms. Havisham the jilt, and, finally, the virulent grief of another jilt, Terry Barton, who set the Colorado Hayman Fire of 2002 that killed six people and burned 138,000 acres. Mullen bends an unflinching attention toward the brutal and remorseless power of illusion and to the injuries it inflicts upon the fabric of attachment, compassion, and desire. Laura Mullen agreed to chat with me about Complicated Grief and the contexts that animate this book. — Marthe Reed
Marthe Reed: Laura, I would like to start with the form of the collection, both the prose form and the sections. These sections, in order, appear to me as thematic pairs: (1) romantic, sexual love and betrayal, and (2) the fairy-tale mode as a fundamental betrayal in its promises of “happily ever after”; (3) familial betrayal (parents incapable of love), and (4) the loveless family of Jane Eyre as a child; (5) Red Riding Hood and Grandma (and drunk mother as procuress for the wolf) and (6) teacher as betrayer, the wolf/predator; and finally, (7) “the Miss Havisham Effect,” in which the jilted woman’s betrayal becomes internalized, inciting the caustic betrayal of others, a woman “eating” other women’s hopes, a woman become the wolf/betrayer herself, and (8) the violent grief of the jilted woman, in this case a woman who intentionally set a forest fire, this act a “wolfish” betrayal of what she was employed to protect. What were the seeds of these choices and of the collection itself (the thematic pairs as well as the eight distinct narratives) and their relation to the diagnostic terminology from which the book takes its title?
Laura Mullen: Hi Marthe — I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the book with such a good reader (and wonderful friend) … and these questions are so multilayered, I’ll take the answers slow, teasing apart the threads where I can. So … those “pairs” you are seeing, for instance: that’s an interesting vision, but it isn’t mine. Though I do “couple” pieces when I look back at the book (“Spectrograms” and “Trust” as responses to heterosexual passion — attempts to clear the decks for love — for instance), the theme of the failure of protection is all through Complicated Grief (running through it like a red or read thread), and the attention to that theme is part of an effort to achieve a more inclusive version of reality. So I wonder whether coupling pieces (in the kind of neat binary evoked but rejected in “Spectrograms”) might mean missing an overall unity, which is as much political as romantic? I hope that the insistence on fragmentation or on gathering information from more than one angle or perspective, point of view, tradition, point in time, for instance, that fragmentation, or — to use Suzan-Lori Parks’s formulation — the “repetition and revision” in the book might be seen as homeopathic. “Complicated grief” is a condition in which you are stuck, looping, mourning a bad outcome, but there’s a way of working on a loop so that it opens to a spiral, allowing/accounting for ongoing transformation, a shape influenced by Parks, Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and Carol Anshaw’s Aquamarine, as well as the work of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Alvin Lucier, Donald Barthleme, and Robert Coover. This kind of looping or repeating, when done deliberately, can open a door, or more than one door: “the emphasis changes,” as Gertrude Stein says of repetition. I find the fragments to be freeing: narrative is something I like to walk in and out of freely, and, as therapists know, the attempt to repeat can actually open a way toward difference, a shift — though sometimes we can’t see that door immediately.
Reed: Your spiral undoes the idea of “spiraling into collapse,” turns despair inside-out and out the “other side”: gorgeous. “Demonst(e)ration” opens the book, a preface in which Mary Shelley’s challenge to herself to “[w]rite [her] story” becomes your own. Deliberately associating Complicated Grief with Frankenstein, you appear to describe your work as a “collective and artificial creature” that, in its “‘crazy’ quilt of mismatched passages” it becomes a “monstrous text” “mak[ing] audible that which agitates within us.” These qualities — the monstrous, the patched/seamed/joined, and the unsaid — lie at the heart of the book. Would you talk a bit about these qualities and their necessity to you in Complicated Grief?
Mullen: The qualities you focus on here form the basis for Sianne Ngai’s crucial text Ugly Feelings — it’s so important to look at what seems ugly or mismatched or agitated in a way (as Ngai does, as Mary Shelley did) that turns the critical gaze on the judgment itself. But (and I know you are aware that “Demonst(e)ration” enacts monster-making: the text is a patchwork of citations) I’m quoting Edgar Allan Poe here in his strong objection to the novel as a form: do you know that essay? It’s his why-I-wrote-“The-Raven”-like-I-did piece: a hilarious mess of justifications (and spooky sexism). I’m also citing Franco Moretti, whose brilliant essay on Frankenstein (and capitalism) is a guiding light for me — for Poe, anything we can’t read at one sitting is “a collective and artificial creature”! But isn’t every act of reading a stitching together of disparate parts? I’d say yes (following Gertrude Stein’s interest in the way words looked when, having her hair cut and moving her glasses over the sentence on the page, she noted that anything was interesting if you read it one letter at a time), because we are constantly attaching letter to letter, phoneme to phonemes — “from syllable to sound” as Emily Dickinson says (actually she’s running our reading process backwards): from sound to syllable to sentence. And memory is actively involved in this work of making the “‘crazy’ quilt of mismatched” or fragmented experiences into a smooth whole, as William James (Stein’s teacher) pointed out. Our awareness of advances in science and more recent traditions in the arts allows us to acknowledge that the smooth whole is an illusion, while increased exposure to those who’ve been interested in collage and montage (artists, filmmakers, and musicians, as well as writers) bring us up to speed with new understandings of the uneven and unstable substance of our reality and our experience.
Reed: “All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling” (!). Having seen the staged reading from the book (Brooklyn, September 2015) in which multiple readers from the audience were assigned parts, including Poet, Ms. Havisham, and Psychologist, among others, I was struck and intrigued by the effect of explicitly identifying these voices active in the book. Could you talk about those voices, the specific choices as well as the decision to efface the shifts between them in the book, and their relation of the figure of the Poet? Their relation to “confessing the self to be a collage repeated interventions momentarily normalize as narrative”?
Mullen: I sort of feel like I answered this above — or the phrase you quote answers the question better than I can here. Narrative doesn’t seem natural to me — it seems to be, rather obviously and often clumsily, a simplifying structure we impose on complex reality. I just saw the movie Hitchcock/Truffaut, where we see Hitchcock worrying about precisely this issue: what have I lost, what has it cost me, to make this shape, this smooth shape (story and genre) I make so very gorgeously? He’s forced to ask that question, in conversation with Truffaut, who says he wants to find out where things can go — that he lets the actors improvise, that he stays up late into the night rewriting the script based on the improvisations … I love Hitchcock, but I can do the math on what our love of genre (and our ongoing worship of the story shape Poe called “the death of a beautiful woman”) costs us. Truffaut’s responsiveness to presence and occasion seems almost holy in contrast (as does the work of Jean Luc Godard, wilder than Truffaut). As I’m a woman, the cost of the narrative intervention, or the fine steel blade of Frege’s triangle, shall we say, is always more apparent as a problem: women, so often, ain’t nuthin but a plot twist in a man’s story. I want to say something like that, here, laughing (but thinking of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work). We can talk about it that way, maybe — or think about how the body shapes experience. I recall a long-ago conversation with my wonderful then-colleague Jenny (then Jim) Boylan when I first had to teach fiction in my year as a visiting assistant professor at Colby College: “Here’s a male orgasm,” Boylan said, drawing the familiar up then down plot graph, and then we, laughing (I had asked what shape I could draw for a Robert Coover or Carole Maso novel) as I drew a scribbly spiral on the board, agreed that that might be the shape of a female orgasm. However you want to put it, it’s crucial to recall that the insistence on what Lyotard called the grand narratives and what others have referred to as the Great Man theory of history (singular event, single point perspective) are imposed shapes rooted in a particular physical experience, informing our sense of not only literature but — for much too long — our ideas about our reality.
Reed: “(Etiology) Dreaming” is the first section of the book after “Demonst(e)ration,” and within it the painful collapse of a love relationship unfolds. Against the emotional weight of the subject matter, you have formally divided this section of the book into paragraphs with headings: “Perspectives,” “Explanation (Easy),” etc. Would you talk about the compositional process for this piece and the origins/occasions for these marked shifts in tone?
Mullen: Here, as with the end piece, “Torch Song,” I was interested in the mad gesture of titles, categories, “Discussion Questions” (!), all the comforting academic gestures, the little handles that make us feel as if something’s under control — you know what I mean? The colon and everything after, as it were. About that piece in particular I can say that I felt so much, in my encounters with men (and seemed always to be learning that it was “too much” — excessive), and I felt very strongly, as well, the way I was regulated to a certain role informed by various images-of-women (“The Lady of Shalott,” for instance). Like everyone I was supposed to be other than I was — and that piece is in part about the way my relation to desire was problematized by context and tradition(s). To speak about it as “a” (singular) relationship (“love”) is to play the innocent, perhaps? I’d say something like: this is a look at the way two normalized genders at a particular time in a particular country came together and apart — as symptoms of a culture. The interactions are informed by the culture. I less and less have the secure sense of private experience that others still seem to, or that I had a lot more of once (when I started out writing). “The painful collapse” is the collapse of some ideas about emotional and physical intimacy post-1981 overlaid on the history of “Romance.” Does that make sense? Here’s a fun prompt: ask students to write into the end of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” (either she isn’t really dead, or she’s a zombie — your choice, but she sits up in the boat and responds to Lancelot’s tepid praise) — what does she say? Also try asking them to rewrite the poem from a contemporary perspective, so the Lady “likes” Sir Lancelot on Tinder, for instance: what happens?
Reed: Laura, Complicated Grief takes up archetypal figures of the girl, the young woman, the mother, the jilt, the older woman/hag against the gauge of marriageable/desirable/hypervisible and unmarriageable/monstrous/invisible in which MOTHER figures as midpoint, simultaneously admirable and monstrous. In “Read,” Grandmother retells the story of Red Riding Hood, unpicking its seams: “Time to find the give in this story and press.” In this version, Red’s mother, among a company of mothers, prepares to send her daughter into the wolf’s jaws, a rite of girlhood to womanhood reenacted generationally, the emblematic coat faded by time, a diseased space of child-sacrifice: “she’s told to don again the frayed and faded cloak, a sort of angry pink by now, much too short, told to stand on the hearthrug, asked to ‘make an exhibition of’ herself, surrounded by her mother’s friends, these more or less polite, and more than slightly plastered adults.” This space of collapse frames not just the female child but the inevitable collapse into “monstrousness” of women “past their prime”:
It’s the story of the woods, in some way: the story of the space between girlhood and old age, the space of a sexuality defined in terms of its social usefulness — fecundity is key, of course (yawn). The tangled edge of the forest she enters defines a space of visibility (and vulnerability) to predatory desires. In this reading, by the time she arrives at grandmother’s house she is her grandmother (loose skin, blasted veins, wrinkles, the whole nine yards, as we say, you know — what’s that flapping, as I move my arm? Oh gawd, it’s my arm itself), horrible (or so the culture is quick to inform her).
As women of a certain age, that is, in our fifties, we have moved across and against these tropes, navigating and circumnavigating them. Your work has vigorously embraced autobiography, mediating its gaps and injuries via satire and irony. This book is perhaps the most ambitious in that regard. Would you speak about the function of the autobiographical in this book, for you as a writer and as a woman compelled to navigate the implicit and explicit violence of these archetypes?
Mullen: I sort of love coming to your “compelled to navigate” here — and I wonder if I could loop back to my prompt above as a partial answer. I’ve been very frank about this elsewhere, but it probably can’t be said too often (as the lives of our young people are rendered more and more difficult and precarious by the choices we have made and are making, and suicide rates climb): I’m a suicide survivor, and writing was what saved and saves me. And an early book (and my blog site/Twitter handle) remarks the site I speak from: After I Was Dead. In that way I suppose I am that zombie Lady of Shalott getting up to spit. But Sylvia Plath did this (“Lady Lazarus” — no doubt alluding to Eliot’s “Prufrock” as well as the Bible), and one can also point to Emily Dickinson (and Alice Notley) — there’s a deep American tradition of someone who survives her own death to speak from the other side of erasure/invisibility. (Poe is part of this, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as well as 2Pac’s “Ghost”: “Even if I die I’m gonna be a motherfuckin’ problem” — and one can’t say enough about our current fascination with zombies). But … as a woman, what the dramatizing of that particular situation makes vivid, perhaps, is the existence of the residual/excessive affect which has been pushed or restricted to and projected onto “the feminine.” What you are no doubt correct in calling “archetypes” I would call patriarchal fantasies. These “figures” are ways of seeing or imagining a body (at various ages) mostly in terms of its usefulness to those who believe it is their right to use it, and to determine how others see (and treat) it. And it’s worth noting that in Paris (where an advertisement in Metro stations was judged as offensively ageist and removed) women are seen as sexy for a much longer time in their lives — not that being seen as sexy is an easy perfect good, obviously! But it is always extremely useful to look at the words and images used by various cultures and to gain perspective on our own. Like James Baldwin (though not half so brilliantly, or painfully) I am “compelled to negotiate” the injustice I experience which is based on a condition (a particular body, a particular culture) I can ameliorate by moving (to France, for instance?) but I cannot change.
Reed: I want to turn to the role of satire and irony in the writing, sources of humor as well as modes of “talking back” to the constraints and functions culture imposes upon girls and women. This back talk, it seems to me, is fundamental to the “monstrousness” of the text, as you describe it in “Demonst(e)ration,” as well as of the female figures in the book: the disobedient daughter a “dearest possession” to be given away; the “overgrown garden” and “rusted gate” of the “spinster”; the “monstrous” desire of Grandma for both huntsman and wolf. The puns and wordplay/word-bending are some of the most delightful manifestations of this edge: (g)host, de-monstrate, rem(a)inder, re(as)semble, “Grave Cites,” re-presented. Would you speak to these elements of the writing and their relationship to monsters and monstrousness at stake in the work, thematically as well as semantically?
Mullen: To find a word within another word or insert (in Derridian play) an extra letter to expose the unstable semantics of reference “gone wild,” as it were, is for me an important mode of resisting from within or making visible the fractures in the wall, the loose bars in the jail window in the prison house of language, as it were. I’m interested in your linkage of this kind of playful exposure of potential to the monstrous, and not sure I can exactly make the same attachment. Is it monstrous to resist? Certainly there is a lot of thinking out there now about the ways in which humor is problematized for women. Does our resistance make monsters of us? Is excess (of meaning) monstrous? Do I look like Frankenstein when I laugh, that is — when I “crack up”? Humor is a key mode of release (laughter is “explosive,” etc.), orgasmic, ecstatic, freeing … and puns and wordplay reveal the rich delight of dwelling in possibility (the “fairer house,” as Dickinson noted). When Harryette Mullen, for instance, turns “status symbol” to “stasis symbol” I roll on the floor chortling with delight at her keen and gorgeous eye for the whole disaster of late twentieth-century American capitalism in action (inaction), and I feel liberated. Does this make me look fat? When I’m asked about my interest in humor at readings (and am I asked because I am a woman? I was asked, last time, by a woman) I go back to a story told to me when I was quite young — a story or anecdote told by my best friend’s mother. She told us that when she was in her early teens, living in the South, she was walking home one day from school and a policeman offered her a ride, and she said yes. He drove her out to a deserted field, she said, and pulled his penis out of his pants … and, she said, “I’d never seen a penis before and I thought it was so ridiculous I just laughed,” and she said he zipped himself up and put her back in the car and drove her home and dropped her off unharmed. That story stays, has stayed, with me as something hopeful — the way a prisoner in a Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka tale might cling to the memory or rumor of a door that once opened in a smooth wall.
Reed: Ha! Though this laugh is at “Does this make me look fat?” The narrative of the girl child is chilling and absurd, absurdly ordinary. And speaking of such, could we talk about shame here? The shame that births or is birthed by these monsters (or perhaps both?), the essential shameful condition of women and love, women and desire, women as embodied vessels of culture’s anxieties and horror? The way women inhabit or wear those anxieties, the self-loathing and shame inflicted upon the burgeoning self as she comes into a sense of her own worth? The way that self-worth is rendered into worthiness or worthlessness, externally conferred, by these means? The ways these dilemmas play out in the book?
Mullen: I’m so glad you brought up the issue of shame. It’s an important aspect of the material, as I think you know (after all, you organized and moderated the panel, at the &Now conference in Boulder, where I began to really talk very directly about how deeply rooted, how formative, that feeling is). I’m lucky to have friends whose work in this area has been very sustaining and encouraging, as well as a sheaf of well-known artists to emulate. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize that the only thing to do with shame is expose it. (Because if you try to hide it you only enable the abusers.) There’s so much pressure to hide what shames, isn’t there? Isn’t that the function of shame: to make us blush and disappear? I’m grateful for the guidance from artists (Sophie Calle, Karen Finlay, Kathy Acker …) and theorists (Julia Kristeva, D. A. Miller, Sianne Ngai …); David Wojnarowicz and Judy Chicago are key figures (I drove down with my mother to Los Angeles to put in a day of volunteer work on The Dinner Party) — and Yoko Ono is also crucial, as you know, as you’ve been so involved in the work I’ve been doing with shame, from the wedding dress project (“White Inc.”) through the Valentine’s Day work (“Him”) and on to the keynote for the Louisville conference. But it’s a long project, discarding the meshes of shame, and acknowledging the precariousness of “self-worth.”
Reed: Fairy tales are, or appear to be, occasions for two sections of Complicated Grief: “The Little Hamster from the Water,” the tale of a princess who cuts off the heads of her suitors unless they are able to hide from her, and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Would you speak to their role in the book? The first tale I mention is a guess on my part: is “The Little Hamster,” in fact, a tale you drew upon for the figures of the brothers and their beheading, and if not, what is their genesis?
Mullen: While fairy tales and dreams haunt the book as a whole (pools of symbol, permission to move associatively), only “Little Red Riding Hood” as a given story is directly cited/addressed. The figures of the brothers in “English / History” are overdetermined but have little to do with fairy tales beyond the basic storyline of princess-rescue (a sort of excuse): it’s just as much about the long history of violence that strikes down one “great man” to put another in his place. (I never forgot my high-school history book with its cover illustration of the disembodied heads of white men, rows of them.) And I think I was reading Mark C. Taylor’s Tears at the time I wrote this piece, but specific references are to the French Revolution (which might be to English literature what the Summer of Love was to American music), and also to King Henry VIII and his wives (so maybe Bluebeard? But reversed …). When, as a child, I found Henry the Eighth in the history books I felt very at home — people in my family married a lot, so there was this “Here’s your new_____, no, s/he’s gone now, now here’s your new________,” thing that went on in my life: people (especially women) were or seemed replaceable. “English / History” opens up this moment of replacement to expose the fact that what seems to be ceaseless change is really stasis. Here the basic narrative structure of the quest (a man sets off to rescue a princess) becomes a kind of “gif” (graphics interchange format): looping endlessly, animated but stuck. The question I hope readers will ask is what does this repeated enactment of replacement have to do with learning to read and speak, with capitalism, with being assimilated, with maybe getting a job in a Franchise … And then, maybe, is the desire to be in the same restaurant and eat the same hamburger no matter where you are in the world a symptom of complicated grief?
Reed: I think you are right about that: a sustained, heightened mourning explains the response to (even the denial of) the weight of the violence (racial, sexual, gender, environmental, sectarian, political) we face wherever we turn. I’d like to continue with fairy tales. You open “Spectrograms / (projected autobiography)” by asserting, “I have no body, the ‘I’ writing this has no body: not in the old way. Zones. Pressures. Here a structural tension there an underlying ache. Vital signs. Phases of disquiet not clearly demarcated from areas of peace … The dream of being perfectly understood coagulating briefly into grainy legibility.” Here, self is configured as digital memory, as data or data set. You write, “In the slippages cited heartaches replace ‘me.’” I am interested in this “two system” model of identity in the face of traumatic memory, the idealized dream and the wound of erasure: “If it went well they were ‘proud’ of me, if it went badly I didn’t exist.” In the Grimms’ treasuries, family and trauma are joined hand and glove, the antithesis of the 1950s television fable of the Cleavers’ happy functionality. Which takes us back the “bad” (disobedient) child, and, with her, the monstrous parents ready to send her into the forest alone to be eaten by wolves or murdered by “witches.” Your writing takes multiple embedded narratives as pretext: can you speak to their potency for you and for the book?
Mullen: The (or “a”) “self” has been a concern in my work for a long time — indeed one way of talking about my project might be to trace the evolution (ongoing) of my understanding of the problematics of that subject. It seems so absolutely crucial to the health of the planet and our human interactions to rethink (and be more honest about) that idea, and how we represent (without simplifying) it. I’m trying to get closer to the real complexity of the experience of being human now, and also to acknowledge how much of the “self” is interactive, emerging and transforming at the borders where representation is shaped by reception. “Spectrograms” embeds its inquiry into the self in a world that is not necessarily binary but is presented as binary in many different ways: one of which would be the use of two scenes as touchstones: the factory/laboratory in which the self is manufactured and or repaired (where we have technicians and workers and a thing that is worked on) and the slide show. Sort of hilariously anachronistic now, but you’ll recall how people used to go on vacation, takes tons of pictures, and then invite friends and family over to see the images projected on the wall? The piece repeatedly glances off that scene: “then a cathedral of light — upside down — and a smiling sunburnt couple apparently falling headfirst into emptiness,” for instance. But “Spectrogram” is an actual term, of course, for the image of a sound — and I’d want to put this section of the book in conversation with science rather than fairy tales, and also with its contemporary influences, chief among them Samuel Beckett’s Not I, Bhanu Kapil’s writing on the Cyborg and the work of Donna Haraway, as well as Deleuze and Guattari … I should probably add superheroes generally and “transformers” (as an image) and then the whole battery of fin-de-siècle American works, especially, in which the body is bionic, mechanized, hard, and our magic powers make us invulnerable (RoboCop, the original, etc). That seductive “fairy tale” (of American invulnerability) informs “Spectrograms,” which I would characterize as at once the starkest confession and also an equally desperate effort to buck myself up. (I’d fallen in love, or so I thought … and my physical reaction to the accompanying fear was so intense I was spending a lot of time having useless tests for an illness whose symptoms were dire and mysterious.)
Tattoo design by Joan Tanner, whose work appears on the cover of Complicated Grief.
Tattoo by Pauly Lingerfelt at Downtown Tattoos Nola.
Reed: Of course — Harraway’s cyborg, “commit[ted] to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity … oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence” and Complicated Grief in its “wholes from parts” “unfaithful to their origins”! Culturally embedded narratives are so much at stake in Complicated Grief, and I took particular pleasure in “Airs,” which chronicles the evolution of the filmic or telegraphic treatment of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre — and not only for the titular pun. The playfulness of this treatment stands in stark contrast to a novel whose feminist protagonist not only falls for, but also eventually marries a guileful and predatory lover. Love heals all wounds, repairs all failings? Culturally, how do we get from “classic period romance” to “dark, scary romance” to “romantic and emotional tearjerker”?
Mullen: I’m glad that you see the trajectory so clearly (what I love about the “uncreative” or “readymade” work is how much it exposes or reveals about our culture) and I think you could draw a good map of the changing vision we have of love and intimacy …
Reed: The shifting descriptions seem profoundly nostalgic, and, frankly, Trumpian. Like fairy tales when “once” everything was different, though unlike fairy tales in that the nostalgic promise idealizes and overwrites the messiness of history, its complicated narratives, and the excisions necessary to get there. The entire collection weaves together its seemingly disparate narrative investigations, drawing the reader into a manifold — many-folded — nexus of longing and betrayal. For me, the most potent experience comes in “Trust / (Corps à corps),” this unflinching, and, significantly, least ironic of the eight pieces that make up Complicated Grief. The nine-year-old child’s attempt to navigate the bargains that poverty, need (inextricable, in this case, from desire for power in the face of powerlessness) thrust upon a self not yet able to parse, let alone make, such bargains. The raw immediacy of this narrative is deeply affecting. Could you speak about the potent contradiction of these lines: “and I wondered if it was something I should tell you … There’s something I want you to know — there’s something I never want you to know”? The impulse you felt to speak the unspoken, the history of so profound a hurt?
Mullen: Ah, yes … “Trust.” But isn’t it worth noting that “the raw immediacy of this narrative” is an illusion? One the text acknowledges, both in its form and the timeframe (which makes it clear that the writing was an extended and self-conscious process)? And aren’t we both aware of how much acceptance there is in place for a) what appears to be straightforward narrative in transparent prose in which b) the speaker mostly appears to be a victim? But surely there’s a reason this text keeps returning to a particular, canonical, text by a famous dead white male writer? (One might want to couple “Trust” and “Read” to talk about relationships — and add “Torch Song”? — to the wilderness?) But “Trust” is the book’s money shot, obviously (though I fear many readers will be less canny than you are about the way it’s so much about money). Still … wouldn’t the best answer to this question come from the medical community, where there is discussion of how the many aspects of representing our experience (finding the words, organizing the material, articulating the experience, and exposing the abuse) can be healing? I highly recommend it! But the “most potent experience” involves, for me, not merely speaking a hurt but shifting my relationship to the event: seeing it again, from another side, breaking it open, repeating and revising, and seeing what happened in the widest possible context. Part of what I’m asking in the book as a whole is, how do the ways we think of and speak about our experience keep us from being able to actually change our condition? And what ways of speaking/thinking obscure the possibility of change? Terry Barton’s imaginary love letter (there’s no evidence it actually existed) reinforces our ideas of how the story (we already understand) goes, as did Bush’s claim that Iraq had “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Stereotype and prejudice lead to our acceptance of those lies that foreclose our ability to think in fresh and productive ways — when we need to mourn and let mourning open, rather than close, us.
Complicated Grief starts in tears (“through borrowed eyes your own tears wept”) and, one might say, ends there — post-disaster, where “What’s left of the mirrors and windows [are] … frozen tears.” But the tears at the end come from house not body, and they are what remains of the “stopped flows” which were the previous means of seeing and reflecting — that’s a shift.
Reed: It is an enormous shift and, for me, the final section, “Torch Song,” is key. Turning shame and guilt inside out, you take apart the language by which perpetrator and witnesses describe the Hayman Fire and all that led up to it. A jilted woman — or was she jilted? you ask — turns pain and shame into fire:
(note the distance of the “I” from that final, failed effort: “I saw the fire and tried to put it out”) alerts us to the speaker’s sense of powerlessness.
Weaving together the language of complicity and excuse with the crafts of writing, literary study, and forestry — complete with “Discussion Topics” and “Questions for Further Study” — the seamed narratives explode like pinecones in fire. Complicated Grief draws us into the illusions of love that, in their ferocity, finally consume their own objects. This is an arresting and deeply satisfying book. Thank you so much for this conversation and for the exquisitely complicated pleasures of Complicated Grief.
On George Quasha's preverbs
Note: After reading several of George Quasha’s collections of “preverb” poems with great interest, I was intrigued by his development of this new poetic mode, the way it shaped the organization of his work over a substantial period of time and the persistent metapoetic (even metalinguistic) thrust of the poetry. George kindly consented to engage in an exchange, and we limited the discussion to four of his preverb books. The interview took place via email from January 8 to February 23, 2016.
George Quasha is a poet, artist, writer, and musician working to explore certain principles active across mediums, including language, sculpture, drawing, video, sound, and performance. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums, including the Baumgartner Gallery (New York), Slought Foundation (Philadelphia), the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art (SUNY New Paltz), and the Snite Museum of Art (Notre Dame). His published work includes twelve books of poems, including the four books of preverbs discussed here, of which three were published this year; six books of writing on art, including Axial Stones: An Art of Precarious Balance (North Atlantic Books, 2006) and An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings, with Charles Stein (Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009), and four anthologies, including America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, with Jerome Rothenberg (Random House, 1973; Station Hill, 2014). He performs axial music solo and in collaboration with Charles Stein, David Arner, John Beaulieu, and Gary Hill. For his video project art is/poetry is/music is (Speaking Portraits) he has recorded over a thousand artists, poets, and musicians in eleven countries (the first book of which is being published by PAJ). Awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship in video art and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry. He lives with artist Susan Quasha in Barrytown, New York, where they publish books at Station Hill of Barrytown. — Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: In the “pre play” to Verbal Paradise, you refer to the preverb as a “kledomantic gathering of stray language according to a singularity-centered principle of organization,” and also say that these enactments of singularity work “for the public good” by promoting “the destabilization of naming,” which is valuable in a culture that names things and concepts too simply and often coercively. I couldn’t find the word “kledomantic” anywhere, but I think that this notion of destabilization is familiar to those who have been involved with the reading and/or writing of innovative poetry; in “pre gnoetic,” which is placed after the preverb poems of The Daimon of the Moment, you write: “The role of poetry is to do what language can’t, or won’t, otherwise do.” You identify the preverb as a “one-line utterance projecting a particular state of language in the act of finding itself here and now.” Like the proverb — we will get to your precursor Blake later — a preverb honors “the impulse to say what’s true” but also evades “the inevitable limitation of thinking one knows the truth.” Let’s take five examples of metacognitive utterances to put flesh on these abstractions:
The truth eats its own.
There’s a meaning between assertions the poem can hardly escape.
Language cannot respond to inquiry into its nature without feedback from you.
This meditation on meditation as reading is not premeditated.
It is not the function of language to say what is true.
In the first and fifth preverbs above, you seem to be positing the truth of limitation itself or limitation of the presumption of truth as (negative?) truth. In the second one, you posit the existence of truth as meaning, but only “between assertions” in a poem, and thus you entertain the speaking/writing subject’s possible inability to put that in-between truth into words. In the third preverb, you suggest that metalinguistic truth cannot exist outside of the limitations of individual subjectivity. And the emphasis on lack of premeditation in your metameditations indicates that contingency structures the possibilities of truth-effects, thus also questioning the accessibility of (universal, atemporal) “Truth.”
I’m aware that my repeated use of the pronoun “you” just now may ascribe a unity of yourself and the implied speaker(s) of the preverbs, and that may not be your intention.
I’d love to learn what “kledomantic” might signify, but more importantly, how do you as author/reader of the preverbs above align the play of truth-seeking/awareness of limitation (articulated in the prose of “pre gnoetic”) with the thematic dynamics of the actual preverbs?
George Quasha: Thank you for inquiring in a way that allows me to focus on the actual way that preverbs work, which you do by interestingly posing in effect a question-complex with many elements. As such it asks for a like response, an equivalent complex — which is, like the poems or poem-complexes that preverbs form in and beyond the books you mention, not so much nonlinear (since we inevitably follow a timeline of some kind in language) as multilinear — many lines doing many things with their own timing. So, at the onset I have to specify two principles: 1) The axiality of linearity, meaning that every line of thought we may follow has its own axis and turns thought in its own way, which may or may not be consistent with other lines of thought running alongside; consequently, at no point are we building a case in the logical sense but only gathering perspectives and exploring together; 2) The presumption of authorship is itself complex and always in some degree unattested or quasi-attested or ambiguously attested. In short, the nature of authorship is always in question, and the self-reflective nature of the poetic process inevitably thematizes this quest — not, that is, x-characters in search of an author as in the theater frame, but n-texts inquiring into authorship in its nature. All the balls are in the air, and if one hits ground it bounces back up.
You acknowledge the second point in mentioning the problematic “you,” and of course I’m doing the answering, me as me. But this discourse is not the poem, and I do not represent the poem nor the poem me, because the poetic domain sensitive to axiality — let’s define the axial for the moment as radical variability, variability to the root of the thought — is linguality, language reality or language as reality-generator. Poetics is the effort we make to track that generative process and apply it to the thinking we do in any other context. This is not an “art for art’s sake” approach since the notion of art or poetry is itself variable, unstable, and in question at every point; and the very notion of “for the sake of” is variable. (Nor is it “language poetry” since I’m not part of that historical event directly, and, although I appreciate that phenomenon and enjoy the work of the poets who identify with it, I have for very fundamental reasons chosen to create my own terminology and poetics with no social agreement or authorization as such. Consistency of thought is not inherently virtuous in this approach.) But, as anything I may say is at best perspectival, I am not the authority on the meaning and import of preverbs. They speak for themselves, and I enjoy the process of engaging in their radial effect. I experience them as instructive of my thinking.
I should also say that the question of authorship is conditioned by the process by which preverbs come to be. And addressing this briefly may help with how we think together about preverbs. I do not construct them, and a constructivist theory is inadequate for their nature. I could say I “receive” them, but that would imply a sender, which I can’t verify or know, even though in certain moments and moods it definitely feels like they’re coming from elsewhere. They weave through the kind of thinking I seem to do in response to other thinking/reading, but a preverb comes to be when I feel it happening of its own accord in the mind and in the body. I think Robert Duncan said something like that — a certain body tone says the poem is happening, and you follow (“a search in obedience”). I consider that I have about thirty seconds to write it down before it evaporates — and I’ve lost many through carelessness, not having my notebook to hand, or thinking that it’s so vivid that I’ll never forget it and of course do; then it haunts me like a dream and I spend hours off and on trying to recall it, and in a sense grieving. They have the strange quality of seeming both mine and wholly other. At times I’ve thought that they must be somewhat related to the Surrealist practice of automatic writing, but the descriptions of that phenomenon are not like my experience with preverbs, and the sort of wild combination of scarcely related objects has a very different feel from what shows up in preverbs. Likewise my old friend Hannah Weiner’s seeing words on your forehead which she’d tell you on the spot! Preverbs seem to want to stay within possible syntactic bounds (inviting thought to try them on), which they violate, perhaps becoming paratactic, through internal multiplicity — more “rule” extension than avoidance.
Let me engage your thinking to guide my own further thought here: The truth eats its own.
You say (I translate your “you” to “it”), it seems “to be positing the truth of limitation itself or limitation of the presumption of truth as (negative?) truth.” Preverbs engage logic(s) but they never actually “posit” anything, since there’s no evident intention to claim truth or untruth or even the limitation of truth. Everything is limited and potentially unlimited, or limited until proving unlimited in one’s own mind as reader. You understand “The truth eats its own” as “positing the truth of limitation itself,” etc., which is how it configures in your reading; that’s neither right nor wrong as such, but it’s interesting to think, and contributes to further positioning of (the notion of) truth in the mind. The preverb, however, is not doing that; you are. In the preverb truth is eating its own, which when read is configurative, however that comes about. I could read it as an “image” of Saturn eating his children (I don’t, but I could). I could think, truth can’t be fixed because whatever seems true is devoured by its own process of furthering or by life taking it into its digestive system. These are configurations inspired by the preverb. And one formulation that often comes up in my thinking is that preverbs are configurative, just as I say axial drawings (on the front covers of all four books of preverbs) are neither figurative nor abstract but configurative. That describes the optional nature of interpretative viewing. Axial poems, like axial drawings, inspire configurative response, which is a singularity in the experience of the reader/viewer. We appreciate abstract “form,” and we tend to see “figures” or something of both — and that’s configuration. Axial language creates the opportunity to engage that freedom of configuration within the terms appropriate to the mind at that time. I tend to think that exercising that kind of “freedom” grows something intrinsic to the mind and allows language reality to be the site of uncorrupted life process, and even makes possible a world very different from the corrupt one we live in. That’s one of my favorite configurations.
George Quasha, Axial Drawing (Dakini Writing Series) 8-23-14 #1, acrylic paint, 18" x 24".
The above discussion could be viewed as a process generated by the preverb: It is not the function of language to say what is true. That of course plays against the Liar’s Paradox (“This is a lie”), and its contrary is equally (un)true. But it’s not any one thing and not a game of logical burlesque. It engages actual thinking processes and allows their formulations to live through the very limitations they discover — to “further process” the thinking in a field of language larger than the limitations. Perhaps I could say, more open to lingual psychonautics.
You ask about kledomantic, which is the adjective of kledomancy, “divination by keys” understood sometimes as “oracular interpretation of stray remarks,” a practice that goes back to ancient times, such as sitting in a room of many people talking and allowing the intersection of phrases to create coherent patterns; it may be viewed as embracing synchronicity. (The ancient Oracle did not make better sense than that; the burden of interpretation is on the listener.) Gertrude Stein is said to have practiced something akin. One could understand this as “chance” in a sense related to the various ways Jackson Mac Low worked — accepting the incursion of language as guided from within. And here I have to note that preverbs do not accept the categories “subjective” and “objective,” which are reductive almost to the point of uselessness. The “limitation” of “truth” is not mainly a problematic of subjectivity or its opposition to objectivity; neither animal roams the preverbial forest for more than a moment. Language is itself an intersection of “interior” and “exterior,” mine and the world’s, personal and impersonal, etc. Its nature is radically open. The discipline of preverbs is to remain true to that actual complexity. I sometimes think of Stevens’s “The accuracy of accurate letters is an accuracy with respect to the structure of reality.”
The above discussion could be a gloss on There’s a meaning between assertions the poem can hardly escape. Assertion is not the only site of meaning; there are other orders of meaning not discovered by language as assertion or any other familiar “mood.” It depends in part on context. And on level, in the sense, say, that Newtonian physics is an adequate tool for a mechanical problem but not for a subatomic one. Preverbs extend the permission of poetry to shift levels at any point, indeed continuously as the actual experience of mind does throughout any given twenty-four-hour period. (In this frame a preverb could contain a twenty-four-hour dynamic condensed to under a quarter minute.)
Language cannot respond to inquiry into its nature without feedback from you. There is no language without person; language uses us to journey through its own nature; beings originate (to invoke Buddha’s idea) interdependently; life itself is sustained by a feedback process which language serves — these are some configurations of the above preverb. You register it in relation to metalinguistics, which is an option that considers the objectification of community in relation to language; at times I follow a related (proto-Bakhtinian) path of thinking. Equally reasonable is a biodynamic dimension: feedback, energy, physical connection between speech act and bodymind, proprioception, and so on. Another perspective is language is alive and self-generative in relation to mind activity. We say that we think in language, but we could just as easily say that language thinks in us or through us. In that view poetry does the “higher” or “evolutionary” work of language. I like that view; it gets preverbs excited; they start talking. I register language getting worked up, a certain intensity gathering in the stomach, a sense of energy rising in the cerebral-spinal column and spreading into the thinking hands/fingers … more favorite configurations. I give myself permission to follow these sudden permissions. I gently restrain my inherited censors. I trust preverbial language to edit itself in process. Trust — an important value within the process — trust of lingual intelligence. The view: I don’t have this intelligence; I’m inside intelligence. And this is a way of elucidating navigation in lingual psychonautics.
There’s a “how to read” (to use Pound’s formulation) implicit in any poetics. Preverbs alert the mind that the will to interpret may easily become a hunt for ideology, or an unacknowledged effort to reify an ontology beyond its occasion. The preverbial poem doesn’t “put things into words” or fail to do that or embody the frustration of the unsayable; it lets word lead mind into “further things.” I sometimes characterize this furthering as the state of poetry; that state has a kind of feeling tone that seems to come of its own accord, but thinking I know what that means does not produce more poetry. A preverb causes the mind to reflect on its own process, but it does not rest in reflection; there are other things for it to (not) do.
Fink: I want to explore the idea that you “do not construct” preverbs. You hesitate to use the verb “receive,” but you do acknowledge that “they weave through” your “thinking … in response to other thinking/reading.” Your receptivity to a host of other conversations and texts is acknowledged as an influence, but this is not the same as a transmission from a single source. You stress the preverb’s emergence as a feeling “in the mind and in the body.” Regarding the latter, you speak of “intensity gathering in the stomach, a sense of energy rising in the cerebral-spinal column and spreading into the thinking hands/fingers,” and regarding the former, I wonder if it’s internal audition or internal envisionment of the words or both. My other question is if all preverbs that manifest this mental and kinesthetic emergence are kept for inclusion in a poem or if you later make an editorial decision that a particular sentence does not pass muster and will not be included in a poem.
Quasha: Speaking generally about agency in poetry — what actually makes the poem — text-generation is probably best viewed as a sort of continuum, one end of which is deliberate construction, by whatever poetic principle, and the other end something like pure and spontaneous inspiration (“received”), whatever that in fact means. Probably most poetry is at best only approximately positioned somewhere along the continuum, even when it makes definite claims. Preverbs actively contemplate this poetic problem of source and agency, and so I can’t take a firm position here without undermining the work’s “uncertainty” principle. Yet there’s always more to say, which is one reason why the agency issue implicitly or explicitly comes up inside the process of the poems.
I’m interested in the discourse of responding to impossible but necessary questions. My video project of the last thirteen years is relevant here — art is/poetry is/music is (Speaking Portraits) — in which I ask artists, poets, and musicians to say what it (art/poetry/music) is: an impossible question to answer definitively, yet it’s one that more or less continuously wants to be answered. We try, we fall short, we try again. The video project, which is very impersonal from my angle, relates to the poetics of preverbs as site of a discourse of indeterminate response. I’ve interviewed over a thousand artists/poets/musicians in eleven countries (amidst many languages), and my “art” there is in drawing people out to say what hasn’t been said. I practice a certain receptiveness and open listening, focusing my mind on enabling them to make their most powerful statements about what “it” is, even as we allow that there isn’t really an it as fixed object. There’s an uncertainty principle at work: Saying what art is changes what art is. You ask me interesting difficult and ultimately impossible questions about the poetic process and that inspires new thoughts, and these in turn are reality-generating in my personal sense of what the poetic process is. You become cocreative with my sense of my “own” work — coconfigurative within an emergent definitional awareness.
The preverbial interaction with this fact of actual interactivity of minds is to reflect further. I often play on Cocteau’s film Orphée where the oracular radio says “The mirror would do well to reflect further.” He draws out the double sense of reflection as both mirroring and self-reflection, as well as reflecting on. The dynamic of a preverb, which is always a line and a syntactic unit, contains a particular volatility in reflection, wherein verbal subject and verbal object are in play and interplay. We see ourselves in a mirror and reflect on what we see and, further, on the very fact that we are in a state of reflection, and so on. The preverb is generated out of this dynamic; it’s an event of awareness inside language as its medium. As the poet I’m participating in a process of language action that is emergent as a happening within a charged inquiry-declaration.
I realize that this is a paradoxical construction (which may ultimately be the only kind of construction in the preverbial world). Inquiry-declaration/asking-saying. Provisional assertion/assertive provisionality. It’s a liminality of distinctions. I experience language asking something of me, an embracing attention, a hands-on response to a demanding condition. Furthermore, I see a connection with the sculpture I’ve made, “axial stones” (documented and discussed in Axial Stones: An Art of Precarious Balance): the stones come into radical precarious balance by my becoming the neutral space of listening to them; in a sense I become the interactive dynamic between the stones — I’m their momentary ligature. For this to happen I have to treat them with affection and let them guide me; we “converse” sometimes for hours on end. It has an eros, a connecting energy through attraction and response. (Eros, according to Plato, is a daimon, a between-entity connecting men and gods.)
I’m saying all this by way of indicating a modality of engaging the art medium, and I discovered it first in language (starting with Blake). The impulse to say something, speak from an emergent thought, starts the sentence, which in some way shows it has a sort of will of its own; one feels the pull and the rhythm, something like its breathing, its pulse. Instead of marshaling it toward a thought conclusion or conceptualized outcome, one listens in on its dynamic and allows minute adjustments to occur — further attractions to meaning. One discovers what is willing to be said. One is reading inside writing and writing the reading. Much like the speaking portraits (art is), the axial stones, and the axial drawing, the discipline of listening in on emergent language has a quite impersonal dimension, while of course it’s intimately woven through one’s personal concerns, experience, reading, thinking, etc. Is this a construction or a reception? Let’s admit that these words are failing to account for the complexity of the event. (Complexity here has resonance with the mathematical sense of “chaos” or tracking dynamical systems, or a recent interest of mine, self-organized criticality as a model for poetics.) The concept terms we use do their work as far as they go, then comes the time to let go into something further. My sense of discipline is to accept the process and not interfere; an energy is moving forward yet in a state of radial release. A flexible copularity.
You ask whether preverb-making involves “internal audition or internal envisionment of the words or both.” Both and more. The whole body is a zone of mind activity. The gut has been called the second brain (see Michael Gershon’s The Second Brain), and some speak of the heart as a brain (resonating with Chinese and Sufi notions, for instance), yet we typically think of poetics in cerebral terms alone. Charles Olson proposed proprioception (own-grasping) as a key to poetic thinking, a notion which he uses both metaphorically and literally. Physiologically, proprioception stands for “unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.” We move oriented by a complex interaction of factors (stimuli) internal (body) and external (physical space). In a line, a preverb, we get oriented, we get situated by engaging a sensory network and range. I hear a line into its action which becomes orientational on its own terms and in the terms themselves, as if walking through words, indeed walking words. They take their (our) steps in their (our) own preverbial space. Reading moves through these peripatetic events in a sort of mirroring action, engaging our mirror neurons (reading is doing) — and I see this too as a kind of proprioception. Language is itself proprioceptive inside us. The literal/metaphorical tangle gets woven in the text. The friction of engagement is also erotic.
You ask if I edit and reject lines once they are there. Of course; it’s a process of constant (self-) refinement. They mostly come whole yet sometimes emerge fragmentarily. For the first few years of preverbs — there were thousands already then — they were constantly coming and going; dropping in, dropping out; and over the years they often changed, but less and less in recent times. I learned how to feel “false flow” — that is, when the excitement of composition would keep on generating more, even when the grounded receptivity had waned. I realized that the preverbial process was teaching me something better than momentum. Momentum is always getting ahead of itself, reaching for what it is not yet; overexcited. Axiality is about staying true to the center. It allows an inner release that clears out debris — a reflective clarity within the swirl of energic invention. There is willing retention, a certain holding back. One hears better. There are many subtle currents of meaning in process which one learns to register. It’s a dynamic flow with discriminating awareness. Preverbial space allows for asking-declaring. I’ve thought of it as a possible mood of grammar — the performative indicative. Zero-point composition: each line gives up the momentum of the previous line and returns to zero.
Fink: In describing how the preverbs are read, you use the term “configuration,” which I, perhaps wrongly, would just call “interpretation.” Does configuration reflect the compounding of the original figuration of the preverb and the mind/body of the reader, the figure together with (“con”) the reader’s processing? Since you speak later in your response about the importance of context and level in reading preverbs, is configuration recontextualization or level-shifting of the figure? Or am I missing other resonances in the term “configuration”?
Quasha: A useful question to make a distinction. There is a big difference between configuration and interpretation, at least in my usage, although I suppose you could say interpretation is a developed or fixed form of configuration. Let’s look at it practically: you pour cream into black coffee and look at it — what do you see? Passively: Enough, not enough, or too much cream. A little more awake to the moment: Wow, what a swirl! Very engaged in seeing: Look, a dragon! That’s a range of intensity and concentration in viewing what’s at hand. A matter of degree that verges on a difference of kind. There are different species of configuration based on modality of engagement. Some might call seeing “the dragon” an interpretation, but it’s quicker than that, very immediate and very brief, changing instantly. Interpretation persists even while seeing the dragon disappear, causing the seeing to stop; alternatively, you could ride the process and see further emergence. The dragon-seeing could map onto certain Taoist practices celebrated in ancient Chinese pottery, for instance. This extension of the seeing into an art- or religion-contextualized apperceptive thinking moves in the direction of interpretation; it takes the mind into a thinking process, but it also stops the immediacy of perception-experiencing and further configuration. There are of course many microstages between these event extremes, and there is a possible oscillatory engagement that is its own kind of contemplation — feeling-thinking, thinking-sensing, etc. In normal consciousness we’re after something and may see something before it’s really there (I pour the cream and want to drink my coffee now; the swirl of black and white is little more than a charming delay).
What if we approach this consciously? For instance, I have learned to work certain minute practices within ordinary experience which create the extraordinary experience of what I call conscious liminality; the latter allows for an oscillatory intensity/release process that furthers configuration. This gazing level of experience can jump from viewing over into drawing or into language, for instance, wherein it finds a “further nature.” If I’m preoccupied, it won’t happen; I drink my coffee and move on. If I “space into” the experience, something very special might arise. In this frame of viewing — cream in coffee configuring — I might see nothing, no figuration, just movement. In bigger frames of experience and depending on my mindset, or more seriously the health state of my organism, there might be a moment of (metaphorically) “apperceptive agnosia” or “failure” of perception; of course if that happens all the time it may be a symptom of cognitive disorder, but I’m focusing on the fine line between expected order and allowable disorder.
The brain seems to be hardwired to recognize and interpret anything experienced (part of our evolutionary survival orientation); this keeps us within the limits of biological normality. Blake protested staying within nature’s “same dull round over again” because he saw the visionary potential of the “Human Imagination Divine” as going beyond — consciously evolving out of — current human limitations, which among other things sustain human violence and sociopolitical “tyranny” (his word, but more and more our reality). Every act of perception is either a repetitive trap or an opportunity for standing outside past/pattern/limitation (a meaning of “ecstasy” is “standing beside”). This is a long way of saying that the configurative, in my usage, is different from the interpretative in allowing a self-generating process of axiality (on-center experiencing) and conscious liminality (the open oscillatory between-experiencing). Together they comprise a single complex principle: Axial-Liminal-Configurative.
You ask if configuration means “the figure together with (‘con’) the reader’s processing,” and the short answer is yes. Preverbial reading foregrounds reader option. Reading enters a path (a line) and a rhythmic event with multiple options. The lines are, relative to perhaps more familiar poetic lines, quite open to variable emphases, leading to different meaning-options within an existing range determined by specific semantics, grammar, and suprasegmental phonemic options in saying the line (e.g., light housekeeping vs. lighthouse keeping). All of these lingual vectors are highly variable for the most part throughout preverbs. The lingual array is not arbitrary or manipulative but arises within an evolved preverbial process which axial poetics has taught me over the years to be responsive to. The poem is in waiting for a reader’s engagement to take it on a meaning-journey through variably significant territory. There is no final or right interpretation for a preverb, but any interpretation is potentially attractive.
Preverbs are disciples of Blake’s phrase: “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of Truth.”
Fink: We have already discussed your questioning of authorial authority, but we have not explicitly foregrounded the representation of the self in your preverbs. Since, for Blake, and for you, perception is most valuable as a way of breaking through limitation rather than reinforcing it, one form of exploration that I configure in your books of preverbs is the configuring of possible multiplication of selves, as opposed to the constitution of a unitary self. I could cite many examples, especially from Things Done for Themselves, but I’ll confine myself to a handful. “Song of itself” (pace Whitman) begins with the contrary motions of the emotional awareness of the displacement of an authoritative self or, in Joseph Lease’s term “representative I,” and a command to a guest to bar access to other guests, other selves: “I showed up feeling I was not the one expected to be seen. / Welcome to my poem. Lock the door.” Later in the poem, there is both expectation of otherness within the self and the paradoxical sense that the comforts of home must somehow stem from this otherness: “I’m expecting. The surface is feeling itself. / You’d have to want to be someone else to feel at home.” Language itself occasions awareness of the split(ting) self, like the splitting of the speaker and the spoken, but instead of mourning the loss of unity, instead of being nostalgic, “speech is only natural in the roots” makes this multiplication an occasion for linguistic play:
Sometimes my language tells me who’s speaking and sometimes not. Like now.
And then. The I I count on asks why so secret.
Grammar is getting from here to there strictly between us.
Identity under open pressure has a mounting weirdness quotient.
Seeing I’m here hears the contrary.
My thought dangling modifies from behind.
The “mounting weirdness quotient” — for example, in the homonymic synesthesia and grammatical doubling or tripling of the penultimate line above — not only puts simple notions of “identity” “under … pressure” but opens identity to betweenness (“between us”). If “my biography invents me in its own image” (“a likely tall tale”), then that “image” is like a dangling modifier of “thought” that does not quite accurately join the representation and its object, especially because its object is a process, and any “biography” is a temporary measure.
As you think about poems in these books of preverbs that manifest a preoccupation with shifting notions of identity, how do you account for the persistence of this dynamic? In your configurations, do you align the thinking/feeling of selfhood with other thematic topoi, such as space/time, body/mind, absence/presence, substantiality/insubstantiality? And are you thinking through and perhaps departing from the findings of poetic, philosophical, or other precursors?
Quasha: I’m enjoying your reading of preverbs, and the strange part of the experience is that it takes me in and out of recognizing “my” text, rather refreshing like seeing someone new in the mirror. There’s a curious sense of alienation — something like a Verfremdungseffekt in the Brechtian sense, a distancing or alienation — “playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play,” he famously wrote about Chinese acting and what he sought in theater. And this shows me that your reading of texts which I present under my name is something like a performance I attend and cannot fully identify with the players (the lines, the readings) — there’s pushback. Your poignant reading is something new for me. I cherish this experience as a kind of demonstration of the principle of the poem: it resists a reader’s (in this case my) effort to identify with what is being read, to use it personally rather than to stand beyond personal confines. If there’s a mimesis in the poetic process it’s of something not on the page (the stage) but of an only-now-occurring activity between performance and reception. And unexpectedly this effect points to the way I can address your question about self.
Self is a word-concept for a fundamental but controversial “reality.” It is of such complexity that a vast array of philosophical, psychological, social, and religious views could be invoked, and if the preverb process continues long enough, many of those views may strut their stuff on this stage. I may well have believed in many of them for some span of time from moments to years, but now I have preverbs to prevent my attachment to any one of them for more than, perhaps, a line. Yet they can still show up as things “possible to be believed.” So a discourse issue here is to what extent I can discuss identity without lapsing into self-generating language which quickly tends toward the preverbial (of course an interview, like anything thought or said in life, will have its naturally axial moments that stay in motion even as we grasp them). Concepts here are placeholders for engaged attention; they’re not restful removals from the field of action. I study self, but more from within the moment of awareness grounded in present experience than theoretically. I could mark this a discourse of self[-]study unfolding in language.
You ask about “the representation of the self,” but of course I should emphasize (what you already know) that it is not quite accurate to say that preverbs represent. Or what seems like representation is at best a phase in emergent linguality (reality-generating language). Self is a word-concept that is doing something for the speaker/thinker. The metaphor of an actor on the stage comes to mind again because I have the sense of watching what is happening from some distance. There is a poetic dimension of self that opens up in the process of self-reflection; the poem gives sign that it knows what it’s doing. At times it seems the poem itself has self. It occupies a range between sentience and sapience. Poetic process, as I know it, is not only self-reflective, it’s reflexive. Song of itself.
To set a sort of metacontext, I point to the sheer complexity of the word self in its play throughout language, the way language plays out the possibilities of identity. The word-self, the self constituted in word use, performs any social interaction with qualities of the moment, both personal and contextual. Think of Charlie Chan’s innovative subject pronoun humble self and its variants — “Humble countenance merely facing facts.” (Taken out of context this one has preverbial potential!) On another level it’s like the problematic of mind seeing itself, or as Alan Watts colorfully observed: “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.” And of course one way or another we the people do this all the time. But we may not be catching our own act. That’s a job for poetry.
Your question above, citing lines from three books, illuminates itself quite successfully, pointing to the nonexpectation of unity of self and instead occasioning multiplicity and the embrace of inevitable otherness in the site of “identity.” Aberrations in grammar (like “dangling modifier”) play out possibilities of object relations, given the confusions of subject and object. I see these irregularities as diversity, including something like the vital importance of biodiversity as against the life-weakening effects of its loss to monoculture. Prescriptive grammar is functionally a force of antidiversity and weakens language in part by destabilizing speakers, who are culturally impeded from discovering self-authorization and self-regulation in language. Poetry in this sense, as intrinsically unauthorized, models open reality possibility. Multiplicity of self gives evidence of multiversality (an often more useful idea than universality). Any kind of pre-established authority in language obscures its ecosensitivity. The destruction of ecosystems begins in flawed and insensitive descriptions of reality, reductive attitudes toward our interactive situatedness on this planet, and indeed in life. We lose our intrinsic ability to engage with diverse living realities, and they in turn lose their voice. We silence “nature” in presuming its silence. We make things dumb dumbing things down (later preverb).
Multiple selves have multiple idioms. Accordingly I declare a mission in poetry, at least implicitly, to explore language in its widest possibility, which might mean interspecifically. Self itself has interspecies connectivity. Anyone who has lived with animals in any degree of intimacy knows they speak; the linguality in common may involve even more communing than communicating. Poetic space gains unnamed sensitivities from this kind of extra-species resonance. From any perspective other than intimate this level of experience has a high WQ (weirdness quotient).
This level of poetic focus once implied a Romantic lineage, although there are plausible roots as well in the Renaissance (Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno); but now of course it’s supported by so-called hard science, in particular ethology with its almost daily revelations of pervasive communication in nature. This is not the place to argue interspecies intelligence, which has interested me since my twenties when I encountered Roger Payne’s work on humpback whale songs and John Lilly’s The Mind of the Dolphin; in my magazine at the time, Stony Brook, which launched ethnopoetics with Jerome Rothenberg, I tried to find someone to explore a comparable poetic discipline with biopoetic force (I imagined an “ecopoetics,” now of course happening, and more), but apparently it was too early or I didn’t have the right connections. It’s worth noting the popular titles that register the recent shift in biological perspective: Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature; Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and “The Intelligent Plant” (New Yorker, December 2013); Daniel Chamovitz’s What a Plant Knows; and the 2013 PBS film What Plants Talk About. Ethnopoetics of course registered preliterate poetries sympathetic to interspecies dynamics, but discovering the implications for a more-than-human or a posthumanist perspective requires a subtler inquiry into how our own language already works. In other words, it’s not the strange and unfamiliar phenomena that I find most compelling here, but what we do and say that manifests a more complex axiality that redefines us. Our syntax springs leaks that open larger cracks, even windows, onto our broad interconnectedness. Preverbial poetics maintains a certain vigilance for these events of showing through. Self is permeable.
The notions of self and identity come into play throughout preverbs, and each shift in perspective resonates across the others. I sometimes theorize a logoic butterfly effect: every word action in preverbs may affect reading actions throughout the poems, in fact between books. Every word event reconditions the field of word events pervasively (perhaps one could think of this as noespheric resonance). It’s like pulling one thread in a fabric — the whole fabric pulls into it. We “think body” this way in (hands-on) bodywork (which I have practiced for a few decades and is a source of “axial thinking”): doing anything to any part of the body impacts the whole. Like the body the poem is organismic on many levels (I mean this quite a bit more radically than older notions like “organic form,” but also not as a limit of formal concepts; it’s difficult to imagine a limit to the ways of conceptualizing form). We impart self to language: whatever is true of ourselves becomes in some way true in our language-making. Whatever self is, it’s part of the field, and it acts by field. In a sense this is fractal-like in that self nature is scale-invariant. It shows up locally and impacts globally.
What I just called axial thinking registers in language for me as preverbs. They happen at times in response to other thinking — you ask if they’re “thinking through and perhaps departing from the findings of poetic, philosophical, or other precursors” — yes but serendipitously, book in hand, overhearing a conversation at a neighboring table (kledomanticly), gathering “from the air a live tradition” (Pound, Canto LXXXI), as opposed to a systematic engagement with someone’s thought or writing. The practice has a contemplative side, a kind of psychonautics, a centripetal quality of going in and out of balance along an edge, and a sort of slack-rope syntactics while crossing a microabyss.
Certain phrases we read stay with us for many years and evolve along a new track, perhaps becoming something that would be unrecognizable to the originator. An example for me would be Stevens’s “The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.” In my case the notion of “suffice” is indeterminate.
Fink: From the tenuousness and provisional aspect of any configuration of the self, let’s move to the topic of love, of communion with another, which is a significant component of all four preverb books, especially, I think, Verbal Paradise and Things Done for Themselves. This time, I’ll confine myself to one brief example. Here is part of the opening section of “Bottling Up”:
She swings in her body tall with these trees.
Almost known is almost to have been …
Is that you calling? I must be overhearing.
Almost knowing, almost being, almost telling.
So she shows.
Once more, I’m gonna configure for a minute. The “flow” of the erotic frisson in the opening line gives way to epistemological uncertainty. If we cannot know ourselves enduringly, if “finding / What will suffice” of self-knowledge is a process that never reaches total fulfillment, the other, at best, is “almost known.” Presumption of total knowledge of the other, total communication with her, and insufficient attention to her and to the relationship as “flow” that “she shows” (as does the lover) are the path to idealization that will breed a deadly, reifying, if tempting immortality, as in a fair amount of love poems and songs in the last few millennia: “Poetry resists immortality with difficulty. Like love” (32). Well, Stevens understood the problem of immortality when he titled a section of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction “It Must Change.” Poetry must change to stay alive; love must change. “Words” always “audition,” because the words can’t be assured of getting the part — that is, the attainment of full communication, whatever that would be. The lover here is not presenting a rhetorical question when he apostrophizes the beloved to ask if she is “calling” or calling him. It’s an actual question. She might be addressing herself or someone else, and he is merely “overhearing” what is not meant for him, even if she seems to be speaking to him. In no way am I saying that this poem is promulgating a pessimistic view of love and communication but that possibilities of success and failure are built into any structure of utterance (“telling”). Indeed, “No line’s too long that lengthens in longing” (33); reaching passionately for the other is “how I know I’m here, and with” (32).
There is no simple answer to Tina Turner’s question, “What’s love got to do with it?” — when “it” is your preverbial poetry, or just about anything else. So I’m eager to hear your answer(s) to this impossible question.
Quasha: I’m going to begin responding to this, as you say, “impossible question” in a kind of basic way, because it takes us to the heart of my poetic orientation — with, however, advance apologies to Tina for inadequately answering her question.
“Epistemological uncertainty” is only one kind of uncertainty, which foregrounds our (in)ability to “justify” belief or other levels of assessment. Of course it’s pervasive throughout preverbs, but there are other kinds of uncertainty as well — psychological, especially emotional; indeed ontological; amongst others. In a general historical perspective Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has destabilizing impact, which may be viewed as inevitable; that’s what uncertainty does at any level and in virtually any context. But it’s not a negative factor, unless we experience it so; intrinsically it’s neither positive nor negative. It’s the condition of what can or cannot be known, which might be circumstantial. What is difficult for the mind is to embrace uncertainty and allow the uncertainty state, as it were, to teach us; to open us to unfamiliar knowing. Uncertainty can be initiatic in that it introduces us to new kinds of awareness which certainty, for all its service to mental stability, occludes. Openness in this sense involves nonresistance, a certain release of grip, and a willingness to at least temporarily not know. And not judge. The attitude here is as relevant to the scientist as the meditator. I wish to track its relevance to poetic process and reading.
There are unspecified kinds of uncertainty, unnamed ones that don’t fit our available categories. One that I work with could be called readerly uncertainty. This shows up simply, for instance, as what is this I’m reading? We take a stand on meaning, or at least the operative question, if we do continue on, or else we might give up prematurely. If we have a lot of experience reading a certain type of text we may assume that the meanings make sense in accordance with precedent. But that might not work out. Preverbs work with not working out. They embody destabilized meanings and narratives that lead to meaning. My preoccupation with uncertainty process is related to what I said earlier: I’m interested in the discourse of responding to impossible but necessary questions. Preverbs declare a certain productive uncertainty in discourse.
This is a warm-up to responding to your highly specified concern that names love, and in a sense I could say again everything I said about self. It’s a word-concept for a fundamental but controversial “reality.” And the two go together. We tend to understand loving as something the self does. And of course historically we discriminate different kinds of love, such as the four-love ancient Greek system: simplistically speaking, agape (“unconditional love”), phileo (“platonic love”), storge (“familial love”), and eros (“romantic/passionate love,” including sexual). And there are other systems, such as the biblical three (minus storge) where agape takes on the divine-love register. And then there are the Eastern refinements and extensions known as Tantric and Taoist love which are meditative and transformational and bear some relation to Western Alchemy, Hermeticism, etc. I mention this complexity to indicate the prima facie difficulty of simply speaking about love. Preverbs are deeply tuned in to this complexity and often work multiple levels as options of reading a given line, not referentially so much as structurally (syntactic, semantic, etc.).
Which brings me to the “how to read” concern in readerly uncertainty. The Poundian how-to-read presumed a high-culture standard based on preferred historical models, an approach that was in different ways challenged by his contemporaries: for instance, Gertrude Stein, who created unprecedented language processes that caused a suspension, willing or not, of belief or disbelief. The initial impact of her work, like that of Finnegans Wake or Dada texts, was particular kinds of readerly disruption. So readerly uncertainty is nothing new. But the function of uncertainty varies significantly with different discourse approaches.
I’m interested in the optionality of meaning, in part as a way beyond our mostly private fundamentalisms. Take the example you chose. Because the poem images a female person at the beginning (“She swings in her body tall with these trees”) you seem to assume her presence throughout; this is one option. But preverbs are line-intensive and do not promise continuity or narrativity, although these also are configurative options. So the line opening the next quoted stanza — “Words audition” — is held within a progression that has “the lover” apostrophizing “the beloved” and asking “if she is ‘calling’ or calling him,” which you take to be “an actual question,” and so on. I can see how a way of reading poetry supports this, and the narrative allows you to consider that the poem is not “promulgating a pessimistic view of love and communication” but allowing “that possibilities of success and failure are built into any structure of utterance (‘telling’).” I do not approach the poem this way, but I do indeed entertain the same conclusion about any structure of utterance. There may be multiple paths to an insight.
It’s hard to explain this precisely, but I want to say that the sequence of lines isn’t constructed so that it “promulgates” something; rather, it allows constructive reading as an option. Words audition is quite interestingly glossed by your “words can’t be assured of getting the part,” which I like a lot (almost a preverb itself). That takes the word “audition,” so to speak, at its word. (I do experience words as auditioning during the composition, because often multiple words try to get in.) But there is another way that words come to mean in preverbs, as I suggested earlier with “logoic butterfly effect,” which is by processual context-pressure. “Audition” appears a number of times throughout preverbs in ways that draw out the etymology as “listening.” This is an example of how multiple readings over time produce different word resonance — (to attract readers willing to read this way could be any poet’s dream). The fact that preverbs have evolved over a seventeen-year period (and inherited many years of axial poems before that, including the long work Somapoetics from the early ’70s), indicates a basis of this kind of reading. Lines signify radially is the principle of meaning-by-field. It points to multiple reading dimensions, not layered as coded or referential meaning or allegory, but an actual text dimensionality, embodied in language structure.
Returning to the passage you cited (the line following “Words audition”): “Is that you calling? I must be overhearing,” which you read as a personal question as to whether the beloved is calling — a reasonable assumption within the dimension of the personal. There are other, nonpersonal dimensions operative here in the “bottling up” of meaning (about love, amongst other things), inquiring as to the status of the text itself, its source, the overlay on or of the personal, the question of (a) “calling” (another strongly field-resonant word), and the implication that poetic reception is a kind of overhearing (kledomanticly again) — whether of the beloved or of something not so easily configured.
Is “calling” the “same” when recurring? Gertrude Stein’s repetitive words, phrases, and syntactic patterns lead to a discovery that there is no actual repetition, but rather a moving through language that is the opportunity for further insight along a language path of emergent awareness. Language is the medium of telling; poetics is the evolving guide to help us allow that to happen, unobstructed. The discipline is a gradual tuning in and discovery of a non-controlling-control or principle of self-regulation wherein we learn to let the saying occur as it will. It’s in part a discipline of getting out of our own way. We follow a feeling tone inside a language tone, which depending on the poetic modality may be an actual word sound toning (like Robert Duncan’s use of Pound’s “tone-leading of vowels”), a semantic toning, and/or something like syntactic toning. How much these ideas communicate depends on the particular experience of the reader.
The goal of the poem is to engage the mind so that the poetic principle takes hold and makes a specific kind of reading possible. Depending on the evolving poetics, one hopes the singularity of reading, once made possible, may in the end be powerful for those who get with it. The uncertainty process is characterized by a logoic jouissance chastened by disrupted certainty in our cherished interpretations. My experience is that it contributes to alteration of readerly consciousness.
Identity/self/love … a later preverb says: I have to learn the faces of face-offs the heart generates. Instead of a problematic Freudian slip, I follow a language self that “aimlessly” utters self-conflicting emergent sayings while courting life complexity. There is a “self” projection the “I” doesn’t recognize, which to “know myself” I have to get to know. Words are masks, ranging between the Greek theater persona to the modern disguise (I grew up on The Lone Ranger; Antigone came later) and on to what in preverbs gets called the impersona.
This is admittedly a somewhat difficult art to get oriented to. My memory is that I first discovered this kind of reading in my mid-twenties in studying Blake (but it may have actually begun with my intense joy in discovering T. S. Eliot, especially Four Quartets, at age fourteen while understanding little and not really caring). Poetics in this sense is a species of mindfulness in poetry, the mind tracking its own surrenders, such that neither meta-awareness nor passionate engagement fully dissolves. In the present stage of poetic history this kind of internal dialogue between a poetry and its poetics is not unusual, and it could be viewed as one outcome of T. S. Eliot’s post-Metaphysical emphasis on overcoming the “dissociation of sensibilities.” One question is how well the mutually corrective balance is kept throughout, and that is difficult to answer, since any new equilibrium of poetic energy and aesthetic judgment is slow in developing in the wake of a truly alive new poetic force. (I hold that it is not the poet’s business to worry one’s place in history or relative “merit” or who’s on first; I agree with Duchamp that judgment belongs to the future.)
I rarely recall what motivated particular preverbs. They are not motivated by my having something to say in the ordinary sense. On a personal level, awareness that includes love is central to my life, but it’s not consistently clear how that relates to preverbs, since they’re not selling attitudes. I dedicate every book to Susan Quasha (I see her as preverbs’ truest reader, along with Charles Stein, from the beginning), but it is not an indication that the she/her of the text either is or is not her person. It could be an aspect of her mind or perhaps someone else or no one; it could be my mind since preverbs sometimes appear to identify poetic process as female — the “poet” — and one series is called Fluctuant Gender. I’m not opposed to seeing the poetic process as in some sense love-sustaining, even eros-centered, and I confess to enjoying, say, Ibn Arabi on “intelligence of the heart.” But knowing any of this should not predispose reading to any particular conclusion. A truth knows its name thanks to its contrary, says a preverb down the road.
Fink: I’d like to conclude my part of this dialogue by soliciting an important aspect of your sense of the book as book (its “bookness”) or perhaps, instead, as “book” under erasure. Although my last two questions were informed by somewhat conventional thematic rubrics, they were merely meant as a point of departure: I did realize (and “certainly” should understand by now!) that multiple contexts engender numerous possibilities of interpretation and defamiliarization for an individual preverb, and the complexity multiplies further when one configures a poem, even more when one configures a book of preverbs. This being said, and acknowledging that you have spoken of an intuitive process of composition, characterized by trial and error, I note that Glossodelia Attract and Things Done for Themselves,which you characterize as two books in one, both appeared in 2015, and The Daimon of the Moment is making its appearance this year (2016), so I can surmise that the chronology of composition does not dictate the architecture of these (separate) books. I wonder whether you as author reached a realization, after the fact or in medias res, that there has been a rationale — whether visual or auditory or kinesthetic or multisensory, and undoubtedly rhizomatic — for your decision to gather particular preverb poems into one of these books and others into a second and still others into the third. And if this is the case, can you give us a sense of the contours of that rationale or cluster of perceived patterns, as it might be useful for readers to include a version of your architectural intentionality in the process of their configuring?
Quasha: Again let’s go from simplest to more complex. I have a quite precise and unmysterious definition of book with respect to preverbs: “A book here is defined as seven ‘preverb-complexes’ or poem-series of varying length.” That structural decision is arbitrary, meaning that it is not symbolic or meaningful but purely practical in that it makes for a convenient and approximate book length overall; and it applies to all ten books to date. A conceptual aspect of preverbs is nonsymbolic form; rather, form as fixed container like a wine glass, and it applies to all levels. The first unit is the line (no runovers) delimited by the word-processing default line (MS Word); the next unit is the page, which in a poem-series is a single poem numbered and titled; then the series, which is the one open distinction — anything from several pages to over thirty, so far. A book is seven poem-series, plus a preface and sometimes a poetics statement at the end (at the beginning uniquely in Verbal Paradise). One rationale for these arbitrary units is that it’s rather like life: we fit into neutral given structures (sixty-minute hour, seven-day week, four-wheel cars, a given body size, a limited lifespan, etc.), and for the most part we make do, since these containers allow for an infinite variety of content and quality of experience. It’s a choice, to see it, say, as an enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) or to bang against the prison bars.
Beyond that I have a rather minimalist sense of overall design, which allows me to concentrate on intensive language events without dressing them up externally. A seeming exception is that the books have strong visual covers, all using my axial drawings/paintings (Dakini Series) and designed by Susan Quasha. So far all of the publishers have allowed us to follow this approach (Zasterle Press, Marsh Hawk Press, Talisman House Press, and our own Station Hill of Barrytown). But the decision to use what at first glance seems like similar cover art has the heuristic value that people having trouble telling one book from another must pay real attention; then they see the real difference. Same with the interior: Lines ask to be known individually, not because they fit a pattern or are part of a development, narrative, or formal symbolism, but according to the intrinsic event of the line, which is highly variable in rhythm, content, syntax, diction, etc. Everything must speak for itself, without supervening justification. Every line, poem, series, and book asks the reader to be willing to return to zero. No predictable momentum. No overall abstraction as regards style or meaning. No cultural validation by precedent. Everything follows a core minimally definable principle. One of several names I use for the principle is zero point poetics, another is axiality.
George Quasha, Axial Drawing (Dakini Series) 12-21-15#1, acrylic paint, 24" x 18".
There is minimal “architectural intentionality,” to use your term. The architecture, like, say, a geodesic dome, is a structural principle that allows for maximum variability of operative intentionality within a simply defined container. In a sense the principle is scale invariant (short series, long series; short book [Verbal Paradise], long book [Glossodelia Attract]). And, contrary to your impression, the books are in fact basically chronological within the book but not necessarily from book to book. That is, the poems/series in each book were created in the same time span (say, six months to a year+), and when there are seven series it’s a book. The numbered poems within each of the seven series in a book are written in order (though the lines within them may or may not be), but in the final order of the book the series may or may not stay in the order of creation — for no good reason beyond liking it that way. On the whole a book contains poems in series from a single sweep of time; it has a sort of overall atmosphere, which, however, does not translate into consistency, stylistic or otherwise. So there’s no decision necessary about what goes in a given book. Choices are not self-consciously aesthetic or significantly conceptual. They do not “labor to be beautiful” (Yeats); they labor, as in birthing, to allow beauty, potentially “terrible,” to be itself without the intervention of taste.
This was not all clear from the beginning seventeen years ago, when preverbs started out as an accumulation of individually generated lines with no concept of discrete parts beyond collected bunches of lines with titles (a “poem” was over a hundred lines single-spaced and no breaks). That was true for about the first 5,000 lines (some of which did get published online in the first couple of years, which I regretted). It evolved, like everything in preverbs, by something like self-organized criticality (SOC). That rather specialized physics term was introduced to me a few years ago by the Scottish nanophysicist James Gimzewski (UCLA), working with the artist Victoria Vesna, and it helped me understand how preverbs had evolved from the level of single line to poem to book. Frankly there were important gaps in my retrospective understanding of the uncertainty process which became somewhat clearer when I thought about it using the concept of SOC. Defined technically as “a property of (classes of) dynamical systems that have a critical point as an attractor,” it describes an approach to complexity in which a system with many units interacting locally has an unpredictable critical threshold for change globally. Studying the part will not predict the behavior of the whole. Examples include the weather, earthquakes, the global economy, and, recently, brain activity — now poetry. The base is the old but continuously refined idea of self-organization, describing overall order emerging out of local interactions, the smaller components of an initially disordered system, or chaos.
I was inspired by Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to trust the space of the line to allow unlimited dynamics, including the transgressive. Persistent progression as accumulation over years began to reveal operative principles which became increasingly self-defining. The important thing was to stay with the process, daily if possible, as a practice, even when it’s mystifying or even perplexing — an attitude rather like Keats’s “negative capability” (or later for me, “positive noncapability”). Quite suddenly a threshold would show up and preverbs crossed over into a new level of organization: instead of three pages of single-spaced lines, groups formed — eventually stanza-like units of two or more lines. Meanwhile lines would fall away and new ones replace them. Then the next level of sudden organization became the contained page, which after a while took on numbers and, later, titles, followed by series, then books. The process became intelligent in its own right, and ordering became articulate in relation to my level of sustained trust in the self-organizing process. It would feel like walking in dense woods and coming to a clearing. Poetic process became a primary teacher, and it interacted with like experience in drawing/painting and music, as well as video. I discovered that art practices based on principle rather than cultural precedent or concept can be intimately coperformative.
From the beginning preverbs have come mostly preformed and performative in the ear-mind. I write them in a notebook I carry with me everywhere, ever ready to write because I have about thirty seconds before they recede into the noesphere, back to the wild (perhaps to be picked up on by some other poet). The principle by which lines were and are selected for inclusion in a given poem underway, or for that matter are edited out or reformed during inclusion, I regard as dowsing — the pen as doodlebug or divining rod, so to speak, an indicative conduit. You could call it syntax witching. I gravitate toward this sort of metaphor of the unexplainable because the process is self-generating, not contrived or rationally focused or adapted for aesthetic effect. It’s a nodal event that comes with a body-sense aura, which over time one gets better at distinguishing from mental babble. A sharp incursion of the unknown attractor.
13. I have theorized “Uncertainty” more extensively in a paper of that name on Robert Kelly’s “poetics of singularity” in Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, no. 44 (2016).
15. The order of the books is mainly circumstantial. In 2010 Manuel Brito of Zasterle Press in the Canary Islands asked for a shorter book which corresponded to the length of the earlier preverb series and books; so the first published book, Verbal Paradise (2011), is also the earliest written. Burt Kimmelman made the next connection, with Marsh Hawk Press, and I decided to combine two early shorter books (the fourth and fifth written), Things Done for Themselves and Witnessing the Place Awake, naming it after the former, and temporarily skipping over the two short intervening books (second and third written), still unpublished (Black Scintillation and Eyes Take Away What They See). Ed Foster then accepted The Daimon of the Moment for Talisman House Press, the seventh written, which is the first of the longer books that are now the norm (the intervening sixth, a shorter book, Listening on a Curve, still unpublished). Glossodelia Attract (the eighth book of preverbs) is the next in line chronologically, which I wanted for Station Hill for personal reasons. There are two subsequent unpublished books, the ninth and tenth (White Holes and Alternate Lingualities). Five longer series from the later books are published as chapbooks in print or online as of February 2016.
Paul Auster in conversation with George and Mary Oppen
Note: When Paul Auster in 1980 asked to interview his friend George Oppen, the poet agreed, but with a warning. “What worries me,” wrote Oppen, “is the question of whether or not I can say anything that I have not already said — And my own condition at this moment which is something alas, very like senility — I am not being very brilliant these days, and I have not written anything since Primitive.” Nevertheless, Auster flew to San Francisco in February 1981 and spent several days at the Oppens’ house on Polk Street recording George and Mary around their kitchen table. “There were times,” writes Auster, “when [George] had to grope for his words, but there were also moments of blazing wit, spontaneous remarks as precise and funny as anything I had ever heard him say.” These moments and many others, as the reader can now see, have indeed been captured in this memorable last interview with George Oppen. — Richard Swigg
Paul Auster: I think the first thing that struck me, reading through the poems, all of them all over again, is the constant appearance of the sea as an image. It’s in nearly every poem, and it seems to me that you use it as untamed nature itself, a fundamental given. It’s also important in the reference to Crusoe in “Of Being Numerous,” the shipwreck, and it’s important in your personal life, too, I know, having being a sailor for so long. I just wonder if you can think about it again — the presence of the sea in the poetry.
George Oppen: It’s also in the poem I wrote for Mary — mother and daughter and the sea. Like you say, I think it is important to me. It’s a symbol of space at least, and our native space. It’s some kind of stoppage, something you can’t go beyond, and it flows in upon you. We talked earlier about Reznikoff in those wonderful lines at the very end of Testimony, which does that. I think it’s marvelous, the way it could be done. It’s just naming the parts of the things, the names of things, in the order of chunks of substance. Just names, as far as one can think, it seems to me — the unlimitedness.
Auster: The unlimitedness. But it’s also a place that has no reference to civilization, really. Man doesn’t do anything there.
George: It is large, and it’s a freedom, and fear.
Mary Oppen: It was a great adventure, too. Then recently you’ve written this about Cortés, which is almost the opposite. Its aim is finding the limit, and finding in some way an exultation.
George: As a symbol of poetry, he’s lost, he’s discovered a continent. He’s absolutely lost and he’s elated. And I use the words as the working of poetry, the experience of poetry, to the nail. And perhaps to the reader, certainly to the writer. He moves beyond himself somehow or other, and he’s lost, and it’s a kind of euphoria for a moment in this state.
Auster: Going through the work, there’s another image that keeps cropping up — and I was dazzled by this. I had no idea — cars. Cars! From the beginning until the end. Cars in every other poem. I assumed you talked about them a lot, and again I was wondering what this meant to you — the image of the car, again and again the car.
George: It’s really there in my life. It’s my childhood. It’s my father who loved cars, and I probably —
Mary: You had a big car when you were eleven.
George: I had a car when I was eleven or twelve. But I’ve never known its meaning to me. I don’t know if I can reproduce it right now.
Mary: And George has been a magnificent driver all his life, and never liked anyone else to drive him. We used to drive just to drive, and George always did all the driving. When we were in Vincennes, down in Texas, they were reminding us that the four of us drove from Mexico into California, something like seventy-two hours straight, and George didn’t want anybody to stop him. He didn’t want anybody else to drive.
Auster: Well, it’s a very American thing. The car is a central part of American life in this century.
Mary: It’s our generation.
Auster: A defining force. But in the poems, what I feel is not so much a love of cars, as the isolating force of technology. A person gets into his car, and it’s as if he’s been given a new body made out of metal, and his body has become his mind. A ship and its captain, a body and its soul. It reduces people to monads. Isolated consciousnesses, walled off from one another.
George: I think I could say it’s not exactly love of the car. It’s love of myself, because there I am, flying down the street. It’s turned up in my life over and over again, including the army where they made me a non-com on the strength of it. It was a motorized unit. I was in charge of some of it.
Auster: In one of the later poems [“Route”] there’s an image of a man turned over in the wreck.
George: Oh, yeah.
Mary: And the wheels —
Auster: The wheels spinning, and “He doesn’t despair ... He sees in the manner of poetry.” Something like that.
George: We’re back again to — what’s his name? I just talked about him.
George: It’s the same thing. Any car is that thing, awfully grounded. Which is a very simple and common thing.
Mary: You have it in that poem “Enclosed in glass,” in the car [Discrete Series].
George: Yeah, that was a protesting against it. That was a recognition, too, about the car — [it] conceals somebody.
Mary: Concealed in glass, you said. “Enclosed in glass,” I mean.
Auster: There’s one poem, however, in which the car is presented differently. The early love poem about sitting in the Model T, and the car’s in the lake, walking home [“The Forms of Love”].
George: Yeah. Walking would have been more important than the car there. The car was just taking us there.
Auster: Again, these are things that startled me all over again, because I know the work pretty well. But the respect of woman, somehow: the nobility, alone in her courage. I was wondering if there was some kind of contract you set up between men and women, technology and consciousness. The women in the poems seem to embody a purer approach — something more akin to the way you feel about things than what you see around you. I was wondering if you had anything to say about that.
George: The women. I don’t know if this is what you’re thinking of. But I do remember I like the line, “And life seeming to depend upon women, and the knowledge of — ” [“Of Being Numerous”]. What did I say?
Mary: Bearing the burden of life.
George: “Life seeming to depend on women, burdened and / desperate” —
Mary: That was the line.
George: — which was before the women’s movement.
Auster: The men who appear here, the ones you respect the most, are craftsmen, people who build things, people doing careful work with their hands, both houses and … But other than that, not much. The other male figures who appear are usually quite alien, I think.
Mary: There’s the old man. “You are the last / Who will see him” [“Of Being Numerous”].
Auster: Yes, yes, yes.
Mary: And of course Pierre Adam in the war. No man had more respect than Pierre.
George: Yes, true.
Mary: The men that George mentioned, or other men that I know of in our lives, have been almost the purest type of craftsmen — Carlos in Mexico, as fine a man as ever was. Yet he isn’t in the poetry.
George: Yes, it’s true. And Mary about men. It’s just the degree to which men love Mary — what Mary can do to men.
Mary: Well, I like men very, very much.
George: It’s what you can do. You just include the men somehow — everything known between you and the people you’re talking to. One can’t say “motherly” because it’s something more than a mother would have. It’s respect in a way. The mother —
Mary: To care for them, to protect them.
George: We’re not as well-implemented as women.
Mary: Their faith.
George: Their faith.
Auster: In going through your work again, I’ve been trying to figure out why it feels different from other poetry. And my conclusion is, well, it’s the poetry of a grown-up. What we’re brought up with, in terms of poetry, is the Romantic tradition, which is a tradition of great egotism, of self-centeredness, and that’s not present in your work. In your poems you come across as a man who has lived life like everybody else, a man who has worked, had children, fought in the war, and whatever else that might have happened to him. Nor is it simply a poetry of witness, of looking at things from the outside. I mean, you’re part of what you see. I wonder if you’ve ever thought about this.
Mary: In the discussion that we were having yesterday, I think you were trying to find out why George gave up poetry, and how it could be that twenty-five years elapsed before he wrote again, and George kept saying to you, I don’t think we had lived enough, that we knew enough. And I think when we were very young, we both stopped writing because we were out there, away from school and away from home. It wasn’t just a flight. It was in the sense Heidegger uses — throwing oneself into what is out there. And I think George did that, and that when he felt he had done that sufficiently, he could then write about that experience — and that is a very mature and complete person who can recognize that he’s lived life, that it has meaning, and that he now knows what it is that he wants to say.
Auster: But at the same time, the poetry is not autobiographical at all. There’s very little of what you might call local color, very little narrative detail.
Mary: Well, the streets of New York, the hills of San Francisco, the sea, are a vast sort of background out of which he wrote.
George: I think I was again saying what is there. The men are there, and perhaps more noticeably there, but certainly there, certainly present. I keep saying this.
Auster: There’s a crucial section in “Of Being Numerous”: “It is difficult now to speak of poetry.” At the end you write, “This is the level of art / There are other levels / But there is no other level of art.” Somehow it seems to convey what we were talking about. Yet there are many other things. And if we’re going to do this, it has to be done in a certain way.
George: Yes, I think of it as a certain tightness. It’s not just going on and on, moving around. And always to remember, that many of the things that any poet is saying [have] the presence of music. And music is also that thing which goes outward and exists. Probably that.
Auster: I suppose, too, that people are taught that it’s good to express yourself, and art comes out of this bubbling up of personal expression. I imagine that’s what encourages people to do it in the first place. But with your work I don’t feel that at all. It seems to have come from another source, another place altogether.
George: Yeah. I’m feeling it as strange as you say it is. It’s always strange. It’s the fact of being there. Yes, I feel it is an opening-up, is what I mean. A consciousness again of the universe. A difficult word to use right here. I try to think now of my feeling and what I’ve written, and what comes to me again is the opening-up of things, the presence of things, and of course the inexplicable. It’s Cortés again.
Auster: So, in other words, the poetry can only be about what you don’t know. That’s what it means to you. To write only about things that are difficult or challenging.
George: Oh, it has to be a great deal smaller than the things that have happened. I can just about say that.
Auster: The poetry has to be a great deal smaller than the things that have happened. Yes.
George: It’s really that “Silent upon a peak” thing. And it is, of course, Reznikoff’s recitation over many different things.
Auster: But there again, talking about a poetry of anecdote — but Reznikoff is pure anecdote.
George: Pure anecdote, yes. But it would be very hard to express what comes of these little anecdotes. It always comes out — talking about spreading out there — and Rezi’s always coming out, small little man that he is.
Mary: One of the greatest of Reznikoff’s poems is that poem that you always remembered so often in the war.
George: Yeah, “the girder — ”
Mary: — “still itself among the rubble.” He is saying it’s a mysterious thing that we are here, but more incredible than this finger.
George: Yes, artistically, that’s what I’ve been saying.
Auster: It’s funny. I mean, I understand these things quite well. But it’s hard to try to get myself outside of it.
Geroge: I understand, it’s difficult.
Auster: I know, I know.
Mary: But if we knew perfectly what it is that you’re asking George to explain in his poetry, there wouldn’t be any need for the poetry.
Auster: Of course not.
Mary: Because different poetry is effective when you start it. If you haven’t, well then, you haven’t understood the poetry.
George: And if I could say it without poetry —
Mary: You’ve said it so much in life.
Auster: And in the poems, surely it’s the same thing, again and again and again. That’s what it’s all about. I suppose from book to book it opens up. I mean, more is included in some way. And yet you can see it right from the beginning, I think.
George: There’s a story I read long, long ago about a young man, certainly not a boy, who was a painter, and didn’t feel his art had been good enough. He became very depressed, and locked himself into a room, and worked, painted, did nothing but paint for many, many years, with nobody in and nobody out. He spoke to nobody. At the very end of his life he had managed to complete the picture he had wanted to make, and it ended up — oh, he had many, many, many pictures, and he hung them on the wall, and he looked at this wall he was looking at, and he started to reproduce the wallpaper [laughter from the others] very, very well reproduced. We started with cars. That may be a very substantial element — wallpaper.
Mary: We’re trying to define something which is indefinable, trying to grasp something which you can’t hold in your hand. And yet we know quite well what we see.
Auster: I know, I know. Well, let me say something else, then. I don’t really want explanations, just thoughts about this, the poem in “Of Being Numerous”: “And one may honorably / Keep his distance / If he can.” Well, there are little contradictions that are interesting to talk about. One of the movements in the poetry is acceptance, participating in the given, going along with the world, recognizing that you’re just like everyone else, a human being living in a society. And yet there’s also a critical intelligence at work that says, “I have to step back, I have to look at what’s going on. A lot of this is very dangerous and harmful.” What precisely is this distance?
George: It’s the conflict in our lives — a very strong conflict between (we talked of this before) between politics at a time of crisis and poetry. It’s just saying that again, and opting for the moment for divorce, for his escape, or his right to escape, or the need that there should be some escape. But not really quite a version of what we thought at the time. There was a certain period there — we’re talking all the time about the real crisis, the fascists. It isn’t that I was particularly interested in politics.
Auster: Right. But even the act of politics, especially doing what you did, is a way of keeping your distance also. You see what’s happening and you think, “No, I will not accept it. I’m removing myself from this actuality. I’m going to change it somehow, make it better.” And in some curious way it starts from the same point, doesn’t it?
Mary: Well, you live a life and we determined very early that each of us is going to respect herself or himself the most. After that, we can build a life of respect and love with each other, that we could go out into the world, that we could live, that we could find out what the meaning was going to be, because we felt the life we had come from didn’t have meaning. That was decisive. If we had been satisfied with our families, we wouldn’t have done it, but we felt that meaning was lacking. There were wonderful people — my brothers, George’s father, his sister — wasted lives. Well, we wanted meaning. So we lived, and we tried to put as much meaning as we could into, I think, every different aspect of our lives which we now loved, in my category. In order, then, to do something about that and to express that, and to make it into some sort of a record of the meaning that our lives have had, requires art.
George: Again, one’s presence in the world. Which keeps coming back to these few things that depend on everything for us.
Mary: The miracle of being here. And here one wants to understand why. It’s a feeling of what this means, of what it has meant to me.
Auster: Well, here’s a question, then, perhaps the first real question. When you started writing again in ’58 so much had been welling up in you for such a long time. Was your impulse to look back and sum things up? Or was it simply to say, “I’m starting all over again, and here’s the poetry, and it’s looking forward into the future.” Or were you looking back and trying to make sense of what was the past?
George: Not that.
Auster: Not that.
George: The other way round. I think one learns from things. I think I’ve said before, if you write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and it will not sound right, then you have to stop and say there’s something wrong with what I’m trying to say, why I don’t believe it. I can pitch it very close to what you’ve asked.
Auster: I wanted to ask, too, about methods of composition. I mean, how long do you work on a poem usually? How does it grow?
George: In the other room are stacks and stacks of notes. I write it and rewrite it, then get it again, and rewrite it again. I don’t think I have any other guide that I can think of right now.
Auster: You pursued one poem until it was finished, no matter how long it took. I see. Interesting. Clearly it’s a mysterious process. Have you usually had in your mind an idea of what the poem would be, each particular poem, a feeling, so to speak, for the body of it? It would be half a page long? It would have a certain tone, a certain gist?
Mary: What George has always said was, if you knew what the poem is going to be, sometimes you couldn’t get it written.
Mary: And that your great skill as a poet was that you could hang on to this, and keep it clear, and work and work and work and work until you knew that you had it. But it was, I suppose, how you would decide when you knew what this is, if you had. But that is how you decided. It wasn’t something written down, but it was an idea you had, something that you were going to express. But how you do that is a great mystery. But how you know when it’s accomplished is also a great mystery, except that, as George has said many times, the poem finally tells you what you think.
Auster: The theme you want to express is not articulated before you express it.
George: Very simple.
Auster: Has it happened, for example, that you would write a poem that was quite long, three pages or four pages, and then suddenly start striking out lines and sections, and collapse the whole thing into something shorter? Or was there a form in mind as well when you started?
George: I’m sure there was no form in mind. The other I’m not sure of. I don’t think so. I’m not even sure I said, “Now I’m going to write a poem.” [I] just started thinking or feeling, or feeling that I knew something.
Mary: George has a strange way of working which I learned from him, and was very useful, of covering a line that wasn’t right with the correction and of pasting on a different handwritten tape on top of it. And sometimes George’s piece that he was working on would get to be very thick, but underneath he would have all the other versions, or whatever the pages were.
George: I discovered it was absolutely necessary to my writing poetry. If I hadn’t thought of this idea of just pasting on, it would have gone on absolutely forever, the number of corrections I made.
Auster: In other words, you didn’t have to type out the whole poem again, and write it all out again. You just put in —
George: Yes, just pick out the wrong word, and put in a new one. It was absolutely essential. [I’m] a very, very slow writer, slower than anybody I’ve ever heard of. I can’t think of one.
Auster: The books were written fairly quickly, though.
Mary: Two years to each book.
Auster: Two years to each book. Very few people have written collections of poetry in two years.
George: I didn’t do much pasting.
Mary: You did an awful lot in all of those twenty-five years. It was ready, it was there.
Auster: No sooner had you finished one than another one was typed.
Mary: Immediately, yes. On the publishing, it was amazing to look back and see how it had happened.
George: I saved up themes while I was there — coming out of my politics.
Mary: There was everything — our lives, our relationship with each other, with Linda, with politics.
Auster: How were the books constructed? The order of the poems? Are they sequential? Chronological? Or did you rearrange the collections only after?
George: I doubt it. I don’t know.
Mary: You just put the poems together when you had them.
George: Oh, yes, but they were separate. It was already done, and I would think, rather, this would be a better position here.
Auster: Right, right. But I mean, I somehow sense in the book a sensitivity to the organization of the book, separate from the composition.
George: There was. That came later, I think.
Mary: But “Of Being Numerous” is certainly an organized series of — what is it — forty poems or sections?
George: I’m sure I can remember — I’m sure I do — putting the pieces together.
Auster: Speaking of the organization of books, it’s curious that in This in Which the first several sections of “Of Being Numerous” are there in another poem called “A Language of New York.” I guess you felt that the poem wasn’t finished, that there was more to be done.
George: Yeah. I guess I don’t know. Probably I did.
Auster: But then, in the Collected Poems, you have them both. You didn’t suppress the first one because it’s repeated in the second. You have them both.
Mary: And in the last book there are several repetitions. I think it went very well.
George: I think it was quite late when I first began. I think I was writing separate poems when I began, and I think it came to me that they would all go together, and that I could use the title of the poem that I valued very, very much, and which was later the opening of the poem, beginning with the word “The.”
Auster: But then, after you’d written the three books, more poems kept coming. Had you planned on that?
George: Not a plan. What’s that phrase? “Try and —” I forget what it was. I tried this word, I tried that word.
Mary: You wrote these three books, and then you continued to write more poems. I think you looked surprised that you continued to write. But there, there was still more poetry, and you wrote more poetry, until soon you had a collection, and it became a book.
George: I think I’m very interesting. [Laughter from the others.]
Auster: I’m curious to know what your response was to the response of other people when you started up again. It must have been encouraging.
Mary: I think that also is something miraculous. When George returned to writing, the people we met in New York, New Directions, were simply open and generous and ready for George. The most remarkable thing [was] when George’s first book, The Materials, came out, Harvey Shapiro called up and invited us to a party, and Eliot Weinberger invited all young people around who he thought might be interested in meeting him.
Auster: And as far as Reznikoff goes, what happened when you looked him up again? Was he glad to see you?
Mary: I think we told you he was not well. It was a very serious case. He had been desperately ill. I don’t know what was wrong with him. But he was also at the end of a lot of things. The law book company had closed, and he was at the end in some very curious way. And he and George began to see each other quite a lot, because you published books together, you set out on a reading tour together, and it was a very close association. And somehow I don’t seem to remember much about that. I remember meeting him in an automat. We always met him in an automat.
George: He always felt we were children. He would persist. He would have no other version. He thought it was very sweet of us to come.
Mary: And he agreed, he said yes, he was pleased if New Directions would — he was very amenable, and he was very sweet. He certainly looked very happy on the reading tour.
George: Oh, he was delighted.
Mary: You and Charles came out together to the West coast. You went to Oregon. Oh, it was quite an adventure. You went around.
Auster: A question I’ve often wondered about, something that puzzled me, was why [James] Laughlin didn’t publish other books by Reznikoff? What happened after that?
George: He didn’t want to print Reznikoff in the first place. And that book got published at my request. My sister paid half of the cost.
Mary: Yeah, but he wanted to do that, he wanted desperately to get in on that, to be a coeditor. Laughlin wrote to you and said that he would do this to please June [Oppen Degnan], but that he would have been honored to print your poetry.
George: Oh, he said that?
Auster: He’d print George’s poetry, but not Charles’s?
Mary: This was just concerning his relationship with June. He was doing it to please June, and that if June hadn’t wanted to do this in cooperation with the San Francisco Review, he would have —
George: He wrote me a letter, saying if I was embarrassed at being printed by my sister … I forget the words, and naturally I wasn’t embarrassed.
Auster: But I remember when I saw Reznikoff, he was still puzzled about Laughlin. He said, “Well, my books sold out. They did very well.”
Mary: They didn’t. And neither did Bronk’s books, and Laughlin remaindered them. He called up George. Remember?
George: Yeah, he got into a panic about money at that time.
Mary: He wanted to get out of publishing, to wind it up, and he called George and said, “Look, I can’t pay these storage fees any more, Bronk and Reznikoff.” And George said, “How much is it?” “Thirty-six dollars a year.” And George said, “Well, I’ll pay it. Send them here, and I’ll keep them for you.” And he said, “No, no, George, we have to run a business,” and so he remaindered them. He didn’t like Reznikoff, I guess.
George: He said that when he was a young man in college writing poetry he was very excited, but he’d lost his feeling for it. But he felt he had to carry the writers he’d begun with, and therefore he kept them. But he didn’t want any more writers was the point.
Mary: In a way he lost the whole impetus. I don’t think he cares anymore.
George: He did not like my poetry, and I don’t know whether it didn’t chime with him.
Mary: He wanted to place your book.
George: Did he?
Mary: Yes, he said that if June hadn’t wanted to do this, he would have demanded to do it.
Auster: That’s a curious thing. I had no idea that he didn’t like it.
Mary: I don’t know that that’s true. I don’t think it is true, because he was immensely proud of you.
Auster: Well then, Bronk was one of the discoveries you made. Has there been anybody else since then who has impressed you and/or made a difference to you?
George: There certainly have been some things that I rather liked, or [would] recommend. Not very many certainly. I can’t remember intervening very much about anything else.
Auster: Not much in America, then? It’s curious, because you’ve always been so staunchly American, I mean, in your attitudes, early on, and really not, it seems to me, terribly influenced by what was going on in France [in the early 1930s].
Mary: Well, we said we’d look at pictures, and go round and meet Americans.
Mary: But even that wasn’t very important. It was fun going.
George: The first thing — was it? — In the American Grain.
George: Williams, yes. I think probably that had something to do with it. I don’t think we said we weren’t interested in Europe, but we were very interested in Williams.
Auster: But there was no interest in, for example, looking up Joyce? You didn’t do that?
Mary: No. I knew his daughter, but we didn’t know Joyce.
Auster: You never met Beckett when you were in Paris? He’s just about your age. But you never heard of him or met him?
George: No. We didn’t try these things very much. Pound gave us recommendations to all the people he admired, and all of them were very, very nice to us, and all that. But it would be wrong to say we felt we were a different generation, if we felt we were of different age.
Mary: We were.
George: Oh, yeah.
Auster: But you weren’t looking for guidance from them in some way?
George: No, we were not at all. We enjoyed the conversations that Pound had set up for us. That was very interesting, but we went home.
Mary: We didn’t look up the circle of literary people, or names either. We didn’t try to duplicate the experience we had in New York with Zukofsky and his friends. We were not doing that. It didn’t make sense.
Auster: You didn’t go to Paris in the way other young people did — to live the artistic life.
Mary: We lived in the country.
Auster: And later on, when you were working in politics, did you ever think about the French Surrealists, for example? This is an example of a so-called avant-garde literary group with left-wing politics. They were trying to combine the two activities, and I wonder if that had any impact on you.
George: No, we thought it was wrong.
Mary: We pursued our own way, we were having fun, we went skiing, we enjoyed a students’ group, and, well, we just had fun.
George: We thought we were absolutely marvelous. That’s all it was about. [Laughter from the others.] We felt very patronizing. We were happier than anyone else.
Mary: We were having a very good time.
George: Yeah, we had a tremendous amount of fun. And these people held a very, very good picture of us. We would go home and congratulate ourselves on being exiles. We were slightly Objectivist. Yes, horses — we took them as real things. Horses we took as real things, and these other people were talking about publishers and —
Auster: But later on you didn’t think about the Surrealists and all their disputes with the Communists? It never was an issue?
George: No, it was nothing.
Mary: We were looking around to find the best place to do something about the situation. We attended a great many meetings and would come home and simply marvel at what people were doing. At one of the Communist meetings we went to, a woman was speaking about words of Communists in the air. It seemed some sort of a parachute dive. That was pretty serious. We read the literature. We haunted the movies and bookshops in France. Also the Social Democrat offices. We read their papers and magazines.
Auster: What I mean to say is, here was a left-wing group that wasn’t interested in Socialist Realism. And I’m not even saying that it’s particularly good. But [Louis] Aragon, for example — a poet like that. Did you ever read him or think about him?
Mary: We knew about him.
Auster: You knew about him.
Mary: We read about him, and read of his books. We went to Mexico, and Mexico was quite a tremendous experience, because it was a time of — 1934. The president had socialized many things. At any rate, it was quite a tremendous experience, and it certainly was socialism. It was very interesting. Children were the educated generation. Children about the age of ten had been through day school, and they were conducting the business of their nation. It interested us very much, and we felt that we then knew something about socialism on the ground where we had seen it. We made that shift when we went back to New York and joined the Party. I remember coming into Mexico City and looking at the art of the three Socialist artists. What was most convincing to me, I think, was that culture and politics could work together for the goal of socialism. But I certainly don’t remember very much of what we learned about Russia.
George: I feel a little strange about this. I know we were talking about what we did then in this extra light. I don’t know where you are.
Auster: I’m listening right now.
Mary: I’ll take a breather and take the puppy down.
Auster: We’ll begin all over again. It’s been a very serious career, a very serious life, unlike other lives and other careers. You started out very, very young writing poetry. You were involved with some of the most interesting writers and poets of the time, and then, still at a very young age, you abruptly stopped writing. You did other kinds of things — among them political involvement, being a soldier in World War II, and then, rather late in life, at the age of fifty, you returned to poetry. And maybe what we could try to discuss is how, in spite of the evidence, it has actually been a continuous life, how everything is connected to everything else. And I think, perhaps, the important element in this is the attitude you had toward the writing when you were doing it at first — your aims, your motives as a young poet. I should mention the Romantics were the first poets that interested you. Then modern poetry was revealed to you all at once — Eliot and Pound, this was in Oregon, yes? — when you first started reading those people, both of you together for the first time. You went through a rapid early development, and soon you were writing important things and involved in a publishing venture.
Mary: We stopped.
Auster: Yes, you stopped, and yet what I mean to say is: at the moment you were doing it, the writing and the art and everything in the beginning, was it the most important thing in your life at that time? When you were young, becoming a poet — was that your great ambition in life?
George: Yes, definitely.
Auster: And the writing of poetry clearly gave you pleasure. Something you did every day, and it was the way you lived your life.
George: No, I don’t think that’s quite true. Not at all.
Mary: Well, when we were living in Le Beausset, I was painting, George was writing. That wasn’t any more important than the horse and getting to know the villagers and having George’s sister come to visit us. These were all equally important things. I think that any time, if anybody had asked us, George and I would have said, yes, we have a creative urge — something like that, which we’re going to perform in our lifetime. There was no time-schedule on it. I’ve never felt any time pressing on me. I don’t now, even at the age of seventy-two. There may not be many more years, but somehow I keep my mind on it, and I still feel impelled to go there and say, “What about it?” — something like that.
Auster: The writing and the painting were just part of your life. It was like breathing. It was something you did and cared about, but no more or less than anything else.
Mary: I think we would have said that was exactly the same thing — that the life had to be lived, and that out of our experience and the meaning that we found, we would then do something in the art. I think I always felt that.
George: And for me, at least, the sense of the world. That was really the thing. We were bound up in the little mores of the town. It was a sense of the world. We wanted to see it. You know, it keeps coming back to Reznikoff — the sense of the world, that these things are really there, that you have to go and see them more, to live with it, or not to live with it.
Mary: The world was real, and it was there. We wanted to see it and understand it.
George: That was our agreement and our passion.
Auster: But up till then you were dealing with your own experiences, your own background. You were saying, this is not really the real world —
George: Yes, we were.
Auster: — and we have to get outside of ourselves, to encounter what is there.
George: Yes, exactly.
Auster: But a man like Reznikoff, I think, said to himself, “Whatever I do is real. This is the real world because I’m in it. And here I am, and I’m writing about what I see. I’m not seeking it. I’m here, encountering it.” There’s a difference.
George: Yeah, yes.
Mary: I think we’ve always called it our education. We just dropped out of college because it didn’t have anything more to offer us. We’d had enough and we stepped forth. The trip to Europe was very thoroughly planned with Zukofsky. And we went mostly because the money that we had would be enough in France for us to live on and to publish the books. But certainly we intended to learn as much as we possibly could. I took it very seriously, and so did George. We put everything we had into it, to learn whatever we could learn. I think that’s why we sold the horse, because there was plenty of time for talking and for looking and digesting what we were seeing, and talking to people.
Auster: Hence the interest in seeking out other poets when you got to New York.
Mary: Well, the reason we left college, and the reason we had to, was that we recognized this agreement between us. George already considered himself a poet, and he had already been writing since he was a child. I had not been until I went to college. But it certainly was the central goal. Certainly the most important thing was to go and meet the people. We thought of going to Chicago and looking up the Chicago people. We didn’t do that. I guess it was somehow no place to begin, except that we were in Chicago.
Auster: When you went to New York, were you thinking of looking up specific people?
George: No, we weren’t part of the literary crowd, and we didn’t need to be.
Auster: You found these friends, and you shared certain ideas, and took off from there.
Mary: Zukofsky was already in correspondence with Williams. We were in a close association with Zukofsky. This was pretty much carrying out Zukofsky’s plan, and we said we will go and do it. That was the way we went to Europe, because we planned it this way. We were a proactive publishing venture. We read the proofs, found the printer, paid for it, and did all of those things.
George: We budgeted the meals per day.
Mary: But our own experience of it was our education.
Auster: I see. So the publishing venture was really Zukofsky’s idea, and you were the backers and the practical ones who did the work.
Mary: In a way we were the producers, and he was the director.
Mary: So it would never do to argue with him. We argued with him a bit about shipping bundles, and he wouldn’t carry a bundle.
Auster: And he was going to introduce you to Reznikoff?
Mary: Yes, and all his friends. We met all his friends.
Auster: Has there been a change in your thinking about writing since then?
George: No, I don’t think so.
Mary: Looking back after fifty years of activity, you have to just take what one deduces now as our motives then. We are looking back, aged seventy-two, and we can deduce now what motives we were possibly thinking about.
Auster: I suppose, though, when you did start again, there was an urgency about doing it that maybe hadn’t existed in the beginning.
Mary: As George said, no question.
George: Yes, it was very, very strange.
Mary: And that dream [while in Mexico] and going to the psychiatrist and so on, was rather a compelling way of telling yourself to get started.
George: Yeah, yeah.
Auster: But it’s almost as though that was the real beginning, then.
Mary: Yes, and then fortunately there was New Directions. And there was Reznikoff, there was Zukofsky — all of what George had left behind. He stepped back into it. He was well-received.
Auster: I guess what’s confusing about it right now, when I step back and look at it, is that many people write poetry in their youth — it’s a common thing — and then they go off to do other things. It’s very rare for someone to pick it up again later. Your early work was very successful in its way, and you were doing things that were important. And therefore it seems stranger to have stopped.
Mary: What did in fact interfere was Hitler, the Depression, and we can’t just say that we walked away from the poetry. It was a matter of history being more important. I think [Bertolt] Brecht shows that at certain times it’s treason.
Mary: And it certainly is a matter of survival.
Auster: I’ll try again. Did you ever know or hear of Laura Riding?
Mary: Yes, I haven’t read her work. The feminist, yes.
Auster: A little bit, yes. She was actually from that same period, and she was someone who stopped writing altogether, gave up on poetry one hundred percent. Never wrote it again. She published a huge book of collected poems before she was forty, and then she stopped, but for reasons that were totally different, almost the opposite of what yours were. She was right-wing in her politics, but very active in the literary world of the thirties. The question is, in her terms, Objectivist. Therefore the poem is an object. Making something that works. It’s an artifact. It is an object as artifact. You’re creating something, therefore it’s an artifact. Whether an artifact can contain truth is something that she challenged, could no longer believe in. Then one has to say, what is truth anyway? And I think for her it was a kind of vague, Platonic notion of essence. That’s not something you’re talking about, is it? You mean the truth of experience, right?
Auster: What is.
Auster: Well, to continue a little bit. When you got back from Europe, there was the break that you talked about last night. It’s quite fascinating, and what you kept saying was that it had to do with the two of you. I guess the depth of your connection made it possible. I don’t know if a solitary person could make a break of that sort at such an early point in his or her life. Do you know what I mean?
George: Oh definitely. Very definitely.
Mary: The only fear I had about George going to the war was that he might not come home. It was certainly right to participate in the war, and so on, because the war was a pretty dangerous venture. But I don’t think either of us ever doubted that at some time we were going to continue. Here we were with a child, and that was going to take a certain slice out of our life. But it was a compelling need for me.
Auster: You definitely wanted a child.
Mary: Oh, yeah, I did, yeah. That wasn’t to be begrudged. I think what we say now to young people is you have to live now, and you have live each part intensely, live it fully, and try to understand it.
George: You know what we felt, if you call your piece Meaning a Life. Yeah!
Mary: That’s the title of my book.
Auster: I think those things are stated very clearly in your book. A lot of the motivations become clear, especially after a second reading. During my first reading of the book, there were times when I was puzzled by some of the reticences. I was curious about those little gaps we talked about last night. I mean, what happened from ’37 to ’42, because there’s not a word about it in the book — or ’38 — after you got back to the States?
Mary: There were many gaps.
Auster: You remember where you were in ’38, ’39?
Mary: We were upstate.
Auster: You were still up there?
Mary: For two years, from ’38 to ’40. It was the very tail end of Spain and Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain. Those were the big events, we reckoned.
Auster: From ’33 to ’37 you were in New York City.
Mary: And we went upstate for two years, and we came back to Long Island.
Auster: In 1940.
Mary: Then in ’42, the war, the army, etc. Those weren’t very interesting years. The Party work was a disaster, a fiasco. I think I mentioned this yesterday. And George became a machinist.
Auster: You were disenchanted with the Party at that point. You did your jobs up there —
Mary: I don’t really remember very well. Oh, there was a big demonstration. It was very dramatic. A black [person] was accused of a murder of a cop — was that it? — and that was a very dramatic demonstration which George organized. There was a long, deep, furious protest of pharmacists, etc.
Auster: Well, here are some interesting questions, then: why did he become a machinist? Why did he pick that? How did that come about?
George: The proletariat. No question about it.
Auster: It was still part of the education we’ve been talking about? Consciously. You didn’t say, “It is my destiny to become a machinist in a factory.”
Mary: I think again, it was a test of manhood, to see what other men did.
George: Yeah, and to see if we could make a living.
Mary: We didn’t use the money that George had. George worked at times, and we never spent very much. We got on fine.
George: Well, the alternative — we wanted to be able to give ourselves —
Auster: But I mean, you never wanted a white-collar job, for example?
George: Not at all.
Auster: Did you feel at times like an actor — I mean, a pretender?
George: I remember [Joseph] Conrad deceived them. He didn’t tell them anything about poetry. But in the machine shop, no.
Mary: It was a similar group. There were people just like George going into the war effort, really. It was very good at that time. It wasn’t just [a] blue-collar working shift.
Auster: Because there’s a witty, amusing moment in the book when you get back to New York, and the taxi driver says, “It would freeze the balls off a turkey.” And you say, “Yes, it’s extremely cold.” You say that in the past George might have just responded in the same way.
Mary: But that was also, you see, when we got back from Mexico and we talked and talked and talked about what our attitudes were going to be, what the form of life was going to be. Linda was gone, she’d gone to school. We decided we will look up everyone, we will tell everyone anything they want to know. We will no longer be hiding anything about the Communists or the Communist experience.
George: The whole story is just that “we wanted to know — ”
Mary: “ — if we were any good out there.”
Auster: But I mean to say, that passage in the book seems to imply that for years you had made an effort to be someone other than who you were. Not as a poet, but simply as a man who wouldn’t say, “Yeah, it would freeze the balls off a turkey,” but someone who would say, “It’s extremely cold.” Forgetting about poetry for now, did you feel a strain in your personality because of having to deal with people in that way?
Mary: Yes, there was a strain. Of course there was. I used to ride to the relief bureau in the morning from Pineapple Street on the same bus as the woman administrator of the relief jobs, and she would give me this line of talk — trying to persuade me to stop bugging her was her motive, of course. And I never told her I was socially her superior, which I was.
George: Not to mention the same in the army. I was the wrong age, the wrong person. I wished to hell I wasn’t there. No question about it.
Mary: Well, they weren’t utilizing you in any way. You drove.
Auster: But there you weren’t pretending to be someone else. I mean, you were there.
Mary: To them [fellow exiles in Mexico] George was their Jimmy Higginson, Communist, and their handyman, and he would do the work, he and Carlos, whatever the problems were. And then William Carlos Williams had an autobiography published. A woman I liked best of any of the Hollywood people came and knocked at the door, and she said, “This says William Carlos Williams’s Autobiography.” She said: “You never told me!” And those people have never spoken to us again — that whole group. They felt that it was a deception pulled on them, and I don’t care. It was very tiring that their friendship was removed. But we certainly couldn’t do it differently at that time.
Auster: Suddenly it becomes such a very deep, spiritual drama. I had never thought of it in this way, before. I had seen your life as going from one thing to another, and at each moment you were confronted with a choice, and you made it, and then you did what you did. But it’s almost as though you went into the desert for a long time — in order to test yourselves.
Mary: That was true. Not quite as dramatic. Our life was normal.
Auster: All right, but there’s still something to be said about this. I haven’t done what you two have done, but I have spent a lot of time working menial jobs, especially when I was younger, which meant that I was with so-called blue-collar people every day, and it never occurred to me to not to mention who I was. Eleven years ago, for example, I shipped out on an oil tanker and worked as an ordinary seaman for six months. I had just gotten my MA in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. If someone asked me what I had been doing before I joined the ship, I would tell them that I had just gotten my MA, that I was writing, and so on. If that confused him, I figured it was his problem. I didn’t care.
Mary: But the people in the Communist Party, at the time we joined, could see that we were educated people, and they were desperately in need of people who looked and were exactly like us, especially in a marriage. The minute we told them who we were and what we were, we would have been required to work in their cultural area. If there was anything else we could lend ourselves to, they would have had nothing to do with us. So we had to deceive them.
Auster: Was there no way to do political work outside the Communist Party?
Mary: One could have been a Social Democrat, I suppose. One could have been something like ABA, or could have joined the Civil Liberties Union, or the ILB, which is a legal defense outfit. There are many ways for people who couldn’t become Communist. There was no reason, so far as George and I were concerned, why we couldn’t front openly as Communist.
Auster: When I think about the ship now, there was also the fact that I was Jewish, the only Jew on board. People ask questions, they always ask questions and I never hid the fact that I was a Jew.
Mary: You didn’t want to say something that was untrue.
Auster: No, I didn’t want to lie, I couldn’t lie. It caused some difficulties, of course. One fellow started taunting me, and after a while I’d had enough of it, and so I wheeled around — I don’t know where I found the courage to do this, just like a tough guy in a Western — took him by the shoulder, threw him against the wall, and said, “If you ever say that again, I’ll kill you.” And he said, “Oh, oh, OK. I won’t do it again.” And there was never any more trouble after that. But I certainly wouldn’t have killed him. If he had done it again, I don’t know what I would have done.
George: He played it for real. [All laugh.]
Auster: The odd thing about it for me that you two are probably the least duplicitous people I have ever met. You’re utterly straightforward. You say what you think, you do what you do, with no airs, no pretensions, and I can’t imagine that your personalities are any different now than when you were young.
Mary: We were bringing up a child. Linda was nine, and she was eighteen when she left, and the form of our life there was extremely upper-class, extremely bourgeois.
Auster: And then back to San Francisco. After so many years.
George: Yeah, yeah.
Mary: Let’s go for another walk. We’ll take the car down to the pier.
Transcript by Richard Swigg and Paul Auster. Copyright 2016 by Linda Oppen.
An interview with Andrew Maxwell
Note: To celebrate the recent release of Andrew Maxwell’s Candor Is the Brightest Shield, I interviewed Andrew by email at a thoughtful pace that extended from April to August 2015. As a frequenter of the Los Angeles–based Poetic Research Bureau, which he codirects, and as an avid reader of his work, I found the interview to illumine Andrew’s life and work: his philosophic dispositions, his recondite yet populist interests, and his consistent commitment to community through dissensus — a rare tolerance for disagreement. His works include: Candor Is the Brightest Shield (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), Peeping Mot (Apogee Press, 2013), and chapbooks published by PRB including Quotation or Paternity and The Coward Ecumenical. Not only is Andrew a poet, publisher, and convener of poetry readings and multimedia occasions; he is also a baseball sportswriter, musician, DJ, taxonomist, Google product manager, and translator, and has been involved in electoral politics. As for me: I’m Deborah Meadows, a poet and playwright whose latest two books areTranslation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems (Shearman Press, 2013) and Three Plays (BlazeVOX [books], 2015). — Deborah Meadows
Deborah Meadows: The Poetic Research Bureau has a long and beloved standing in the Los Angeles area, and with Joseph Mosconi (and formerly Ara Shirinyan), you have helped form a loosely structured community. Can you make a connection to those activities, or your work in translation, with Candor Is the Brightest Shield? The significance and often puzzling pleasures of human relations seem a significant presence in this work, as is the more recent experience of becoming a father and the embodied experience of growing children.
Andrew Maxwell: It’s a great question, really. I do think there is a continuum, and really no bright lines between the learning, conversation, and research at the PRB and what I might do privately in other settings. While there’s some fatigue lately with the terms ‘forum’ and ‘curation,’ forum-building and curatorial activities have long preceded my publishing activities, even if I’ve written consistently, albeit privately, since I was very young. I also have a bit of an antiauthoritarian and anti-institutional tic that makes me want to keep my fora porous, their boundaries soft and their missions portable. I feel the same about the book, as I try to test its conventions even as I participate in them (with suspicion).
On the topic specifically of the PRB, which has existed in some capacity for two decades now (as long as I have been a public writer in any sense), what I prize in it is its tendency to be slow, to be occasional, to be portable, to accommodate difficulty and disagreement, to be both independent and contingent simultaneously, which is to say, to be fundamentally adjacent. These are all values I cultivate in my writing. Portability and adjacency are two properties I think about a lot.
By adjacency, I mean, can I stand to the side and listen? Can I stand to the side and be productive that way? Even if it means standing to the side of my own voice, on the page, within verse, in the community. In service, sure, but also present, sentineling. (A word with an etymology that includes watching, feeling, protecting.) And can I make poetic statements that are portable, that can be taken into the lives of others, that may be dispossessed, happily?
Dispossession and disownership are abiding concerns for me, in literature and in community. These are of course human relations, and my custodial attentions to the PRB and its improvised community, no less to my family, reflect both my drive to come near and come apart at once. An astrologer would say this is explained by my strongly aspected Aquarian sun in the sixth house (the house of volunteerism, service, and nursing), making me an aloof community-builder with a mischievous fetish for dissensus. You won’t catch me insisting that that is the cause, but the description is apt.
Meadows: Interesting. I have to admit it took me a long time to realize that PRB has a predecessor in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that group also had an art and poetry publication named The Germ. Today’s PRB also has a sisterhood …
Maxwell: Yeah, I think at the time it appeared there was some impatience with the effete decorum of The Germ, which appeared out of touch in a time of great solution-seeking in poetry. But its untimeliness wasn’t accidental. Untimeliness is still something I attempt to elevate in literature. Literature in its most generous sense allows us not to ‘borrow from the past’ but to actively inhabit and live it. The best compliment paid to this recent book was from Aaron Kunin, who, perhaps just being kind, told me it was ‘timeless.’ For some, that could be a pejorative, but for me, who loves the idea of this, and who deeply admires Aaron, I’ll take that word into outer space.
Meadows: I admire Aaron Kunin’s work, too. We’re lucky to have him in the vicinity. Having reread The Germ (2001), I noticed Aaron’s early excerpt from The Sore Throat, and so many other carefully curated pieces: Georges Perec, Philippe Beck, Liliane Giraudon, Remi Giaccomotti’s “Portland” and “Cobain,” Peter Gizzi’s interview with Keith Waldrop, and so on — wonderful! You note that you resist the book form, its enclosure or forced stability in form that you phrase “version control,” yet Candor Is the Brightest Shield brings together work that offers what seems a careful arrangement. How did you arrive at this?
Maxwell: I’m a bit of a book skeptic. If we think of the book as a companionable form, it’s not an especially charitable one. It forcibly extrudes this exotic substance into a limited number of inherited templates — and these templates are rather indifferent to concerns, the shape and color of argument, its seasons, its cohort, its aches, its velocity. It’s easy to distrust the book! This may be why I’ve come to publication pretty late, somewhat reluctantly, and these first two traditional books — if they are indeed books rather than melancholy prototypes toward some intellectual protest — carry keys and directives for self-assembly and reassembly beyond what the shape of the book itself affords. Like whipped terriers, they still come to heel, though, carrying author’s name and copyright page and barcode. Anna [Moschovakis] and Ed [Smallfield] would confirm that I would’ve subtracted these too if permitted.
Each section of Candor roughly maps to a pamphlet or collection I’ve assembled and distributed by hand to friends over the years — in kind of a handicraft practice, as I would never print more than ten copies of a collection, and upon each subsequent reprinting would change the contents, and often the verse or aphorisms within. What survived were the concerns (or “keys”) listed at the footer of each section. The first arrangement collected roughly seven of these pamphlets, but on more consideration, we sampled from three of the oldest of them and placed them at back in the section “The Prior Art,” which might have been an alternative title for the collection as a whole, given how much it is preoccupied with intellectual property in its many senses. That section contains a style of long verse that I rarely pursue any more.
Meadows: Keys unlock, set experience of music, have an indexical relation to elsewhere. But do they also involve a possibility of succession in time? Or unlock an area of your thought? Here, some [keys] from Candor Is the Brightest Shield are:
In the section “Quotation or Paternity”:
KEYS: Version control. Invention. Prior art.
Attribution. Quotation. Pseudo-folk. Inventory.
Vernacular. Direct address.
In the section “Radiant Species”:
KEYS: Taxonomy. The visual intelligence.
‘Human interest.’ Porosity. The bounded society.
Models. Animal grief.
Maxwell: The dominant key conceits for me are from cryptography and music, both of which order the transmission of information, or order an addressed communication. I think of many poems as exemplars of book ciphers, poem codes of greater or lesser complexity, and I think a reader rarely possesses the precise key that the sender (poet) intended to share. Of course, many poets don’t intend to share at all, at least not universally or comprehensively, were it even possible, and it’s the play of disclosure and withholding that gives poetry its dynamic and often frustrating sociality. Some poems aim to confuse, to dazzle or suffuse, and as Caillois insisted some time ago, there’s pleasure in vertigo. And part of the joy of living in the literature is experiencing its occultation.
At risk of talking around the subject, here is a series of ‘suspended judgments’ from the ongoing Peeping Mot:
— That the occupation of literature is encipherment.
— That the poem cannot liberate the plaintext.
— That the poem clarifies and contaminates the plaintext at turns.
— That wonder is the ring of keys.
— That each syllable is a key, and each key a ravager.
— That if literature is encipherment, the dream of literature is agency and its nightmare, revelation.
— That the joy of literature is its occultation.
Though I’m persuaded that it’s a fairly recent development that we’ve attempted to make poetry more universally accessible, I’m sure it’d give any number of sincere poetry educators fits to revert to the old conceit of locked verse, awaiting some liberator or destroyer of sufficient genius to retrieve its urgent and tender messages. It’s not my mission, minor or otherwise, to perpetuate a mere fantasy of safes, spies, and heists. Though I do think, as in engineering, there’s a principle of ‘security by obscurity’ among poets. Each poem has its intimates, even those ostensibly addressed to anyone or everyone, and these intimates are those who will survive it, and the survivors are few.
It’s more crucial to me, as someone who wants to find poetry to be useful and livable, to produce a language of a sufficient difficulty commensurate with the perils of living. The voice is never calibrated. My keys invite transposition, and without doubt, the most interesting available readings will be themselves out-of-key.
Meadows: Here are a few samples from your work entitled Peeping Mot. From “Domains & Intents: 2”:
What publishing and poetry have in common, fundamentally?
It’s like a forced marriage of mathematics and cantaloupe.
And from “Peeping Mot p.5”:
Where is the entire interview? What is a mistaken belief?
Like at mid-evening, when it’s impossible to conceive of a solitary
failure, and unmarketability is an accommodating landlord.
“Chain of title.” “Talent agreements.”
Failure and marketability, interviewed, mistaken for brothers.
key: PEEPING MOT
And there are occasions of prolonged, witty barbs in the poem titled “The Conceptual Poet and the Hiring Committee” and others such as “This Time It’s for Real,” the first line of which is: “Against expression” in reference to a recent anthology by that title. Are these bemused takes on the incommensurable nature of art and the workings of a market economy? How, despite differences in power and sway, each intrudes on the other with errancy all around? Are “commons” creative?
Maxwell: Wry, maybe. The writing stands against literatures that are chiefly in service to movement or program and attempts to imagine a literature outside of academic and para-academic domains, as well as commercial publishing. This is the ‘career’ of the PRB, as well. It’s increasingly difficult to imagine a literature like this, at this peculiar historical time where most potentially interesting poetry is […] produced by those with academic appointments, or by those writing toward a next book. Many of the concerns and agonies of poets are those of academics in a system in crisis where humanities are increasingly devalued, and individuation proceeds via constructed innovations, minor scandals, and necessary professional publication.
If we think of the American moderns, from Whitman and Dickinson through the young poets active around when I was born, it’s easy to find nurse- and doctor-poets, engineer-poets, postman-poets, soldier-poets, linguist-poets, activist-poets, journalist-poets, insurance-agent-poets. Poetry is work done on the person and polycentric bodies of knowledge, to the side of the job. Canons and vanguards were less clear, and assembled less in service of the profession and pedagogy. I want to imagine a practice of writing that is agnostic to or discrete from the taxonomies and canons, especially the professional taxonomies and canons that precede literature or determine the act of writing — apart from those subsumptive movements and authorities that condition what the statement may mean. Instead creating a kind of process where the statement determines the taxonomy. It’s a type of utopian constructivism, I acknowledge — a sort of chasing after horizontalidad in literature. A contingent practice, but opposed to mere submission or attribution. And to evoke that kindred practice of horizontalidad: “Constructing freedom is a learning process that can only happen in practice.”
Can we imagine a writing that is not subsumed? Can we imagine a writing that is not effectively subscription?
Meadows: You reflect on as well as use the proposition as a poetic form, and it extends what might be a logician’s range in various ways. Can you comment?
Maxwell: There’s some adjacency to analytic philosophy and forensics, no question. I approach poetry as a space of value arbitration that is fundamentally undisciplined, but also unlike philosophy, which is a domain almost perfectly contained by the academy at this point. Do we speak of philosophy almost exclusively as a discipline now? I do, however, think writers continue to imagine a ‘total poetry’ quite often, and the total poetry is inevitably disciplinary. I act as an enemy of the total poetry.
A poem, if I am fortunate enough to make one, typically aspires to a free field of argument that tests a proposition that I don’t fully understand the implications of — a proposition that is difficult, but may be useful for living if posed carefully. At this point, I am more caught up in making propositions than verse, but when I do make verse, it’s what I might call ‘forensic verse’ — testing the livability of a given proposition. In many cases these propositions have been temporarily true for me, but poetry permits the possibility of them being very wrong — though perhaps right for a future receiver. They are tools that I hope will help someone down the line, in their own time.
Meadows: The aphorism? The epigram? Brief but resonant, often a form for philosophers (more often experienced outside the academy: barefoot, laconic, ancient), and often deflects the drive toward deductive logic. Here are examples from Candor Is the Brightest Shield, in the section titled “Life X”:
Quotation is the paternity of reclamation.
My generation is shy to talk of our generation, yet we continue to talk about reform.
One doesn’t seek explanation at the teat.
This love is a confirmation hearing, seeking ever clearer statements of intent.
Brainard said that “air is the only hope,” even as foreign matter is the first dilemma of negative philosophy.
Discourse of a breakfast companion: fart, grunt, raspberry, belch. Cartoon or no, Brainard was right when he said air is the only hope.
Maxwell: I admire the tradition of the aphorism as asytematic literature. What seduces me in the aphorism and poetry both is their utter lack of progress. Or at least, perhaps, the promise of that lack. The open laughter of the epigram in the face of a preemptive totality.
The models that tend to endorse my practice — that feel companionable to me — are largely French: Rene Char’s Leaves of Hypnos, both in the original and in Cid Corman’s beautiful translation, and also the notebooks of Joseph Joubert, who, lucky Joe, left no single book, but lived among smart, voluble people who brought him to pitched thought throughout his life. There are others: Lichtenberg, Cioran, Fourier, Pascal, Wittgenstein.
Meadows: Philosophic poetry has a long tradition: to give a rough line, one thinks of John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Jacques Roubaud, Clark Coolidge, among many others, and how philosophers such as Wittgenstein and John L. Austin have select portions of their works read as poetry. Another slanting line might move from a genre of apothegm in Diogenes’s Cynic philosophy to Adorno’s Minima Moralia (side stepping Plutarch’s Moralia) on to Rene Char, or … Where do you place your interests and concerns? Is there a tricky relation to moral philosophy?
Maxwell: Almost every name you mention has meant something to me at some point in my reading life. As a teenager, I also read into Emerson and Nietzsche heavily, the latter probably too much, and without conspicuous understanding. I read Marx early — I recall I took a medal at the state level in an academic decathlon in economics the year Marxism was the annual specialization. (Imagine that happening again in the US!)
My first contacts with poetry as an early teen were probably the metaphysicals, and oddly, Creeley, Dickinson, late Dylan Thomas. I took courses on the pre-Socratics. I came to university certain I wanted to study philosophy of language, and was inevitably redirected to linguistics and natural language study. I became distracted, perhaps unhealthily, by poetry and translation exercises, but the philosophic emphasis no question endured. I found a sweet spot in Lucretius and the Epicurean tradition as he preserved it, and later Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I suspect these are touch points for many who read enthusiastically into poetry and philosophy both.
I’ve been drawn to poets who tend to engage metaphysics and ontology freely: Ponge, Char, Moore. Agonists of the imagination like Williams, Stevens, Guest. At university, when I took literature courses, I studied alternately under Nate Mackey and a Marxist China scholar named Chris Connery who was certain literature was dead. He had me read thousands of pages of classical and medieval Chinese philosophy, along with a lot of materialist history and Frankfurt School writers. Meanwhile, under Nate, it was everyone from Wilson Harris to Susan Howe, Dogon mythology, Caribbean and Latin American literatures. It was a very eclectic literary education, heavy in various philosophical traditions, and I was attempting to pursue it while studying linguistics, Mandarin, French, and other languages for my official major. I became a very bad student, because I tried to read everything and had very little time to write papers. Half my course grades were incompletes, but I was frequently sought out as a teaching assistant, because I was a rare student who, though erratic and a little crazy, actually read the books!
Meadows: In Peeping Mot (and later in Candor Is the Brightest Shield) segments from “Life X” on father-son experience, that often feel startled and delighted, include these:
The father is a holdover. Tall, neutral angel, frequently lapsing into
That the inevitable parental subsidy to the child is chiefly a
To understand Char’s sense of acquiescence, one must understand
what he chose to sentinel: the sovereignty of the child.
The mot, mote, word, pithy aphorism, particle suggest many readings: that from which much (all?) can be made, or what might interrupt total assurance of smooth operation, be without anchor bolts. How might an undeniable creaturely growth shake up the staid social life that, too often, can […] swallow one into its grammatical patterning — yet language initiates each of us into community via deep structure, Chomsky-sort of grammar claimed here as a parental (or species) legacy?
“On the Partisan and Propositionality” relates that stutter itself is suspended with rote material such as a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but then we learn that stutter is exhibited when a stutterer speaks a proposition. To test an observed or unproven thought is a challenge to, or escape from, “unerring” enunciation? Or can be carried away through weeds in wild margins? The Rene Char quotation also opens your earlier chapbook The Coward Ecumenical.
Maxwell: There are a number of ideas to explore here, though I’m at a loss to solve for all these questions. Maybe we can start with language and Char first.
Personally, I’m marked by my own biography. I have an adoptive father, as did my mother, who had me out of high school, and her biological father was an orphan and a twin. Really we’re redneck gypsies — or to import a term from another domain, my ‘authority file’ is weak. (That may be why I took to Robert Duncan when I was eighteen or nineteen, another adopted autodidact from the San Joaquin.) My familial models are themselves weak, as much as my language modeling is frail. I’m testing both simultaneously, as person, as poet, as father. Because there is so much surrogacy and disappearance in my personal history, I’m a gross skeptic, hunting after tools to “speak to,” stumbling over language primitives, but frequently desperate to confide.
Both Peeping Mot and Candor Is the Brightest Shield worry over the inevitable indirection of language — the risk, the usefulness, the agony, the necessity of its concealments. Whether I am speaking to an ally, or speaking to a child, how do I convey my presence, my sincerity of effort, my charge of being? How do I confide without reducing my companions — to mere performers, to surrogates in some script or language game? Or reduce myself to a mere subscriber or underwriter of some preowned language? In this sense, the most critical idea I’m dogging is that of confidence. What is meant by ‘having every confidence’? Or a confidence in the language, a confidence in speaking, a confidence to speak? The plurality of the term is dazzling, and holds an unsteady mirror up to language, and, I think, to authoring or fathering. Its sense of trick or counterfeit, its sense of binding and contract, its urgent sense of passing on, through trust or pledge. The poet must be confident above all, but that’s a rather terrible curse, insisting upon any number of double agencies.
That’s why Char’s Leaves of Hypnos is such a powerful example for me — Char’s resistance war diary. Its war-born language of code-switching and disguises, that is still so needful for candor and transparency, and for a ‘society’ that will not murder itself. How do you recognize another bearing such a curse? How do you recognize a comrade? It cannot be through language expertise alone. You recognize the struggle via the stutter, the blush. We can admire experts, but we do not love them. And expertise and confidence are not the same thing.
Meadows: In Peeping Mot,you write in “Further Theories on the Graph”: “Beauty has too few concerns, whereas sadness is always evidential.” Does this aphoristic approach to aesthetic metatheory pursue a mischievous sense of affect?
Maxwell: You would hope for some mischief, right? That these statements I put there are something more than barefaced and platitudinous — not repetitions of some previous century’s arguments. But I try to purposefully avoid easy irony — which for me is a symptom of mere discomfort with being social in a manufactured present — and also to resist the notion that some statements are of this time, and others inapt, or obsolesced. Though ‘fat art’ is not for me, and I’m not overly preoccupied with escape, I’m sympathetic with Joe Gould when he writes to Pound: “You solve the problem of escape by being an expatriate — I am an extemporate.” I really do disdain the notion of literary progress. We should repeat with conscience and with care, but without fear.
If there’s any mischief involved, it’s often just the transposition of commonplace terms — terms that to me remain very mysterious, like beauty or sadness — into registers or domains where their meanings are more specialized, but where they still belong in an unusual way. In the example you mention, there’s an attempt to bring the affective and scientific senses of beauty into relationship through the field of graph theory. How does my or your notion of beauty evolve if we think about it in terms of the transactional, the relational?
I share the ’pataphysician’s enthusiasm for creating proofs for impossible subjects. But I don’t share the mathematician’s desire to see them to an end. It’s enough for me to start the thinker down the ‘wrong’ path, to make things delightfully difficult, to remind one how big and tough the world is, and how rebelliously structured.
My favorite models for thinking remain the nineteenth-century constructivist schoolbooks, like that of Lilienthal and Allyn, that build knowledge through ‘object lessons,’ and in the process demonstrate how knowledge is itself constructed, individually and collectively. The ‘things’ under my own scrutiny are often values, motives, affective relationships. But hopefully my compass is flexible enough to include discrete things too — like a child’s face, or the measure of a horse or dog. I struggle with the visual imagination, so I need to spend more time with discrete things.
Meadows: Do you refer to Fourier the mathematician or the expansive utopian writer? In your case, might both pertain? Or, with the example of the cover image for Candor Is the Brightest Shield “Zoological Times Table” by David Malki ! (altered detail) wherein hybridized animals — this year’s hippogriffs — are arrayed in a grid permutation that might flirt with Fourier’s series? Or in your “key” of animal grief, radiant species?
Maxwell: More Charles than Joseph Fourier. While there’s a kid math bowl contestant buried in me, and there are various math jokes embedded in many of my ‘published poems,’ Charles Fourier has certainly marked me more over the course of this life. Their concerns are not completely disjoint, however. They were both preoccupied with decomposition and numeracy, but Charles Fourier was obsessed with typologies, and though a fantasist, was also a great taxonomist. His Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy is pure ecstasy — a taxonomist’s Traumwerk. And I shared that vocation for over a decade.
Retrospectively, Fourier is a bit of a font for much of what I am and do. The first biographical essay of any length I can recall writing in late elementary school, perhaps fifth grade, was an extended book report on Horace Greeley, the Whig abolitionist who was also an American Fourierist. I wrote many little books and pamphlets when I was a child, and the first I can remember in detail was a small sketchbook of future discoveries of extinct animals with their descriptions and categorizations. A little revealing, right? It was a naturalist’s collection of animals that were, at [the] time of writing, not known now, but would be learned of at a future date — at which point they would be already gone. Fourier’s imagination is riddled with these paradoxes; this desire to conflate, as Jameson glossed it, ontology and utopia. To build elaborate systems of categorization that, in their scale and lack of mutual exclusivity, defeat themselves in their preposterous organization, let alone their application. For someone who rankles at notions of inheritance, of a lineage of influence, there’s some recapitulation of Fourier’s projects in my own.
The trajectory of Fourier’s social thought through Proudhon finds a sympathetic current in me as well. The paradoxical teloi of socialism and liberty, mutual aid and dissensus, and a conception of anarchy that means not an absence of social organization or structure, but an absence of sovereign or master. Because Proudhon’s solutions were under constant revision, the more dogmatic find him a failed thinker. Because Proudhon worked simultaneously within the government and without — prototyping an existential model of dual power — the less patient find him a failed revolutionary. But that’s good failure — his changeability and openness to revision, contradiction, and personal evolution is what I admire in him. I’m searching after a model of writing and a society of literature that respects the emphases that Fourier and Proudhon brought to political economy (without some of their prejudicial tics, of course). I consider poetry an “attractive work.”
So to loop back to your question, the hybridized creatures on the cover of Candor just provide a visual echo of that position: there are no sovereign or master copies (‘master copies’!), there are no patient zeroes, and version control is weak. All taxonomies are provisional, as is the work. Attribution will come only reluctantly, and does not carry the force of ownership. Again, this personal mania for disownership in literature.
Meadows: Your “daughter” poems in “Ottolineal” include:
Mischievous daughter — like the epigram, a portable form of life that
demands allegiance but not taxonomy.
That gender provisions for its handicaps with conventions.
Perplexity, to be neutral and do no harm, unruled but acknowledging her
The hyphenate power of the daughter.
Daughter and father play the soft sport of availability.
You talk about object lessons; I talk about animal grief.
The heart arrives as a coincidence.
There is much thought and varied feeling here: a deepened empathy, quizzical moments on structures of knowledge and gender dynamics, and what seems a renewed interest in how language (in all its forms) implies an interlocutor especially with a child, perhaps how a father has to be alert to “catch” the near-vocable, the gesture, the impulse for warmth and play from the baby daughter, that monologue is not of this moment.
Maxwell: These come out of a project, or self-study, where I attempted to write one statement or thought per day for each of the early years of my son’s and daughter’s lives, after birth. Both Peeping Mot and Candor Is the Brightest Shield sample from these projects. I had already been writing in a mode that was moving away from verse, or verse-like objects with typical titling conventions, toward frameless statements, or chains of statements, and I wanted to test for myself the idea that these modes of writing were interchangeable, or could be brought into easy relation. That my way of testing propositions about literature, ownership, or society was much the same as how I was testing my own assumptions about paternity or parenting.
I’m returning to these themes a lot, but disownership and adjacency are essential again to these projects. I want to be very near to these children, but I don’t want to call them mine. I am not their owner; I do not subsume them, but we cannot help but change each other. I can say […] the same of the statements that I read, and the statements that I make: I am not their owner; I do not subsume them, but we can’t help but change each other. We are intimate; we are in close relation; and we are not the same day by day.
There are musical precedents. Hoagy Carmichael anticipated this human question from another angle when he wrote: “It isn’t your sweet conversation / That brings this sensation / Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you.” Language offers some proximity, but how much?
Ottolineal specifically explores the relational nature of daughtering, and of the problem of authority in rhetorical conceits of the daughter. Historical literature is full of statements like Bacon’s “truth is the daughter of time.” Daughtering has a syntactical function that is variably troubling and exciting, and it’s also worth troubling or exciting its conventional senses. Some of these senses are awfully old-fashioned. The statements I’m testing reflect this, and also offer alternatives. I insist upon acknowledging the difference, but not on exact solutions.
Meadows: In Candor, the opening photograph with older and younger baseball-shirt-wearing players: A and asterisk, your baseball team the Angels(?), and the book’s author “Andrew” is whittled down to “A” …
Maxwell: It’s sourced from a photo archive of Californian amateur baseball history, roughly a century ago. Those are indeed California Angels, a half-century before the team came into being. I’m a native Californian, a partisan for California, and a baseball enthusiast. The Angels are my team — they are an unlovable team, and I find angels as a conceit tiresome and unlovable. Calling the father a “tall, neutral angel, frequently lapsing into the human” is a tiresome and unlovable statement, but I was reminded of Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire, and the struggle of the proximate to gain in confidence. The struggle to warm the hands, to refuse to be nonchalant, without determining the outcome of the human project. There’s a project of loving in this.
That photo was quite a find, with not a little Bretonian flea market magic to it, since the letter A and the asterisk otherwise appear throughout the work, as refrains, as totems, as passwords, as anonymizing agents. ‘A’ is also a nod in assent to the minor poetries I care to look after — like David Schubert’s Initial A and Wallace Berman’s lifelong project Aleph. These are works that are singular, and magical, but lack legacy. I want to be comfortable with that Epicurean mission to live unknown or to live obscure. If not to leave no trace, then to leave only traces, and to be sated in that. You may see the flashing banner, but a brand you shall not find.
Meadows: As an extension of your response on “adjacency”: in your work, a self is hinted at who is variously self-effacing, encoded, assured, “at argument,” exploratory, bemused, stubbornly “on the fence,” planted on the margin of self-aggrandizing culture projects, alert, observant of how democracy fell short of its ideals — its compromises or holding patterns — between the hero and the “coward ecumenical,” and resistant to fixing the human heart in names or categories. Can you comment?
Additionally, earlier poems hint at relational interests in long poems, such as “Collaborators,” dedicated to Philippe Beck. What do you owe to those literary conversations?
Maxwell: I think you capture that cranky, wobbly, ambivalent speaker better than I could!
I’m not sure I believe in literary debts, such that one might ‘owe’ something to be paid back — I go to the mat to resist the idea that poetry is a kind of money. But I do believe in literary friendships, and find that there is nothing more generative to writing. Friendships help me change my mind, and help me come to consciousness. Brief friendships that I had with Gustaf Sobin and Barbara Guest strongly impacted my notions of literary responsibility and fidelity to the imagination when I began to write in earnest in my twenties. Those friendships occurred at roughly the same time as when I was attempting to translate some of Beck’s early work. It made my mind active and gave me a sense of freedom, movement, and departure — and made me very certain that I wanted to enter into relation with voices outside my place and time. It made me certain that my fidelity is not to my contemporaries, but to my friends, wherever they may be. That Neverland of Whitman’s camerados.
You mention the human heart — that’s a conceit I don’t embrace much, but I know the poem you’re thinking of (“Letter to Peacemakers”), and it’s illustrative. The first real friendship that I had with a serious poet that wasn’t purely a teacher-student relationship — with someone who thought themself a poet, and who worked to be one — was my friendship with Peter Gizzi in my mid-twenties. I’d spend a lot of time in his apartment, and we’d read poems aloud late into the night, including some early versions of poems he was working on. One of those versions would become his poem “Pierced” in the collection Artificial Heart, which begins “The heart of poetry is fatigue …”
That line never sat right with me. I never questioned its sincerity, its coherence in the poem, or the seriousness of its implications — but I disagreed with it. It was not right for me; it might even be dangerous for me. That’s a difficult thing to say to someone a decade older than you, and someone who does this ‘for a living.’ But that was an important moment for me, because I came to consciousness in a number of ways, and it brought me to a [sense of] self-assurance about several things. One — whether it be a poem, a theory, a ‘work of art’ — what matters to me most is its argument, and the test of that argument’s soundness is its livability — its fitness for living. What are the implications for me in this life if I take this as true? Two, one can take the assertions of poetry seriously, and so I will try to wherever I find them. And finally, the strength of a friendship is measurable by how accommodating it is of serious disagreements. I really seek out disagreements in literature and think even provisional disagreement is essential for understanding anything in depth. Disagreement without animus, where possible! Disagreement can change and refine us, and that’s the sort of ‘collaboration’ I seek.
By the way, I think I’ve also come to terms with, now as then, not really having a strong desire to be a poet. “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” I’m not looking for a career or a name in poetry, and I am not eager to place a name on what I am becoming, have become, or will soon experience. I am a friend of the poets and to the poets; I do service in poetry. I hope to be known only enough to increase the number and note of those friendships: an “asterisk in thy region.” I have too many interests to say or be otherwise. I’m just as eager to be an impresario, a DJ, a drummer, an engineer, or a dragon, as Marianne Moore would have it. Faithful to the charged, observant mind — its “conscientious inconsistency.”
Meadows: Indeed, many interests. This has been intriguing, Andrew, and thanks for the sustained interview.
Maxwell: Thank you, Deborah. See you at the Bureau!
1. As in his books, Maxwell asserts the alternative convention of inverted commas over double quotations when speaking to key phrases or terms of art. The conflation of deixis and attribution in rhetorical and literary convention is also a central concern of both books discussed in this interview.