Interviews - July 2011
June 8, 2010, to September 16, 2010
The following is part of a larger conversation examining Ted Pearson’s An Intermittent Music, a serial work begun in 1975 and completed in 2010. The second half of this interview will also appear in Jacket2.
A previous interview, conducted in fall 2008, appears in Hambone 19, available through Small Press Distribution.
Ted Pearson was born in 1948 in Palo Alto, California. He began studying music in 1960 (voice, then woodwinds and composition) and started writing poetry in 1964. He subsequently attended Vandercook College of Music, Foothill College, and San Francisco State University. Since leaving the Bay Area in 1988, he has lived in Ithaca, Buffalo, and Detroit. He now lives in Southern California, where he is adjunct faculty in English at the University of Redlands.
Pearson has published sixteen books and chapbooks of poetry, including Evidence: 1975–1989 (Gaz, 1989), Planetary Gear (Roof Books, 1991), Songs Aside: 1992–2002 (Past Tents Press, 2003), and Encryptions (Singing Horse Press, 2007). He is also a coauthor of The Grand Piano (Mode A, 2006–2010), a ten-volume experiment in collective autobiography by writers associated with the San Francisco Language Poets. He has coedited several books and journals, including markszine.net, and his essays have been widely published, notably in Poetics Journal.
Luke Harley: In “Etude 8” of The Grand Piano, we learn that you were listening to serial music at a very young age. And in “Etude 3” you’re in Geneva, sketching the project that would become An Intermittent Music. At that point, you’d been writing for a decade, but serial composition had been on your radar since the late sixties, when you were barely twenty. How did serial music lead to serial poetry? What was it about serial poetry that captured your attention early on and has remained central to your writing?
Ted Pearson: When I was nine, I came across some early recordings of Cowell, Varèse, and Ives. Not long after, a local record-shop owner introduced me to works by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. The music was technically beyond my grasp, but I found it aesthetically compelling. It gave audible form, austere yet replete, to a soundscape that was strangely familiar, even on first hearing. In time, I came to understand how serial music foregrounds its constructedness as art — and how, by rejecting tonality as an organizing principle, it democratizes its elements, which retain their independence and refer only to each other, yet contribute equally to the composition, for which the tone row or series provides the underlying basis of its coherence.
Serial poetry offers similar possibilities. It accommodates diverse combinatory logics, enables production of extended works that cohere without recourse to a central narrative, accords equal weight to its discrete elements, and allows for the decentering of the writing subject. It also allows for a constructivist approach to writing, distinct from the expressivist mode that is widely considered synonymous with poetry. I knew early on that I wanted to retain the lyric’s technical resources, but not the hierarchy of poetic elements imposed by the “well-made poem” on one hand and by lyric subjectivity on the other. That hierarchy, not unlike the one imposed by functional tonality on music, is based on restrictive if highly centralized notions of coherence.
Harley: Although serial poetry is often considered a postmodern genre, its origins (in practice, if not in name) are clearly modernist. Did its emergence, almost a century ago, mark a rift in modern poetry that corresponds to the rift in modern music resulting from the appearance of serial and post-tonal music?
Pearson: I think modernism itself is rifted by the aesthetic contradiction that defines it. Even as it affirms the singularity of Art, it questions the very distinctions — among the arts and between the practices of art and life — that underwrite its singularity. It is further rifted by its practitioners’ diverse and often contentious aesthetics, Williams’s fierce response to The Waste Land, for example. While I doubt his response directly corresponds to serialism’s break with tonality, I remain intrigued by the historical proximity of Spring and All (1923) and Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano (1924), the first piece to fully employ his method of twelve-tone composition.
By the sixties, the antipodal poetics of Eliot and Williams were manifest in two anthologies: the arrière-garde collection New Poets of England and America (1957) and the avant-garde New American Poets (1960), as well as between the covers of A Controversy of Poets (1965). Abetted by the rise of the small press movement and the waning influence of the New Critics, access to neglected and out-of-print texts — as well as to current experimental writing — began to improve in those years. This has resulted in a less monolithic and more complexly historicized map of modernism and the literary avant-garde. One reading of that map might lead from the innovative texts of Stein and Williams, to those of the Objectivists in their several incarnations, to the radical proceduralism of Cage and Mac Low (among others), to the poetics of the first and second generations of New Americans, to language-centered writing and beyond.
Other readings of that map will feature very different landmarks and destinations. Every poet invents her own antecedents and has her own itinerary of influential texts. The proliferation of alternative canons has enabled the recovery of many “lost” and previously excluded works, but I think the critique of canonicity per se is of even greater significance — it reminds us that “the map is not the territory.” But to return to your example of post-tonal music: even as serialism heralded a break with the Common Era of music, tonality never went away, and it periodically reasserts its dominant position in music. The poetics of presence is similarly resurgent of late, presumably under the banner of accessibility and in reaction to post-avant writing.
Harley: To what extent did your schooling contribute to your interest in experimental writing? What role, if any, did creative writing workshops play in your development?
Pearson: My schooling fostered my love of reading, but modernist (much less experimental) texts were absent from my high-school curriculum. The emphasis there, and to some extent in college, was on canonical literature — chiefly British and American “classics” — and my teachers’ approach to those texts reflected both their humanist values and their training in New Criticism. One did learn close reading, for which I’m grateful, but explorations outside the canon were largely extracurricular. That said, there were courses (in linguistics, Russian formalism, critical theory, and surrealism) that were very helpful — as was the opportunity to share enthusiasms and reading lists with fellow students.
There were no creative writing classes on offer at my high school or at the music school I attended, and in those years my focus was on music. But when I did “convert,” I chose to major in English, not creative writing. In part, that choice reflected my interest in literary theory and my desire for breadth as a reader. It also reflected my knowledge of myself as a student unsuited to workshop culture — a knowledge confirmed by the one poetry workshop I remember taking.
I wanted to develop an approach to serial writing based on lyric technique, not lyric subjectivity, whereas the workshop emphasized an artisanal mastery of craft in the service of self-expression. Exemplary of the latter was its insistence on “finding one’s voice” — a bromide which assumes that poetry must issue, and be read as issuing, from an ostensibly unified subject, one whose words are taken to be those of a more than grammatical person. In that scheme, language is seen as transparent: words are windows on their referents, and writers indissociable from their texts. But, as George Oppen observes, “Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the ‘heartlessness’ of words.”
Harley: In a literary context, if I take your meaning, you see the notion of linguistic transparency as related to the privileged role accorded expressivity and author-centered writing?
Pearson: There’s inevitably tension, sometimes productive, in the relation between pathos and logos — which is at once complementary and contradictory — that leads us to distinguish between works that foreground the emotive function of language (the set toward the speaker) and works that foreground the aesthetic function (the set toward the message). Where the former instantiates and gives primacy to the illusion of authorial presence, the latter focuses on relations between the elements of language as such. What drew me to poetry was not its obvious capacity for self-expression, but rather how it reveals the subject to be constituted in and by language. I would never discount the role of pre-linguistic experience in subject formation — nor that of nonlinguistic experience thereafter — but those experiences, in a literary context, are always mediated by language.
I’m especially drawn to those moments in a text when language seems to “speak” for itself, in effect producing a counter-discourse that exceeds and complicates the writing subject’s relation to what is said. “Theoretical expressivity” is an index of what can be expressed in language; it’s the domain of all possible utterances, not of a single speaker. The gap between enunciation and statement — and the manifest nonidentity of writer and text — have obvious implications for subjectivity. As does the poetic function, which queers any notion of stable meaning and reveals the univocal subject as a fiction that masks its multiplicity.
The othering performed by the poetic function sparked my interest in subjectivation — the process by which language produces subjects that are nonidentical to themselves, to each other, and to itself. I wanted to explore such relations in my work and that work’s relation to the world, but my early efforts (mostly fragments and epigrams) resisted integration into the extended structures I was drawn to. Serial poetry, when I came to it, seemed to model what I was after.
Harley: When and where did you find those models?
Pearson: I chanced upon a copy of Spicer’s Language in 1967. It was the strangest poetry I had ever read, but I kept returning to its difficulties. Then, in A Controversy of Poets I found several more serial poems by Spicer — as well as by Ashbery, Creeley, Mac Low, and Zukofsky. Further examples over the next few years included Spring and All, Weiners’s Hotel Wentley Poems, Eigner’s Another Time in Fragments, Zukofsky’s Anew, Oppen’s Discrete Series and Of Being Numerous, Creeley’s Pieces, and Mac Low’s Pronouns and Stanzas for Iris Lezak. I had much to learn from these disparate modes of serialism, but I was hooked.
Harley: Were there life experiences you can point to — before you started writing poetry, and aside from music (which you discuss at length in Hambone 19 and in The Grand Piano) — that influenced your decision to become a poet?
Pearson: “Experience,” according to Aldous Huxley, “is not what happens to you [but] what you do with what happens to you.” When possible, what I do with what happens is write, but that wasn’t always the case. I was fifteen when I wrote my first poem, and I have no idea why, on that particular day, it occurred to me to write one. For several years prior to writing that poem, I had been subject to a recurring dream in which I appeared to be writing something — but I didn’t associate that fleeting image with a conscious desire to be a writer. For all I knew, I was dreaming of doing homework, or perhaps writing music.
A recurring dream
in which I write, “and one day
failed to awaken.”
My dream accounts for the first part of the poem, and the allusion to Master Chuang for the rest. Chuang dreamt he was a butterfly; woke, or dreamt that he woke, as himself, and then wondered which was dreaming which, the butterfly or the man. The poem’s brevity reflects my early attraction to haiku and epigrams, as does its fragmentary structure. And the quote (imported from a text long-since forgotten) suggests a bent toward the use of citation. In my dream I never saw the words I was writing, so they had to come from elsewhere.
Dreams aside — and excepting my involvement with music — if there were experiences that led me to writing, the first was learning to read. One response to art is the desire to make art. And where writing is the art in question, a passion for reading is essential. At six, I became an insatiable reader of whatever I could get my hands on, but I especially loved reading poetry. Not only did its sounds and rhythms seem integral to its meaning, but it also paradoxically required so few words to provoke almost endless trains of thought.
Also early on, I discovered my love of solitude, perhaps as a consequence of being an only child. Of course, that could have gone the other way. Some only children regret not having siblings, but I never felt the lack. While I often enjoyed the company of others, I preferred to be on my own, whether reading or listening to music at home, or being out in the world, frequently enough doing nothing at all — what Baudelaire calls being “a cloud monger” and Keats calls “creative indolence.”
My cloud mongering was typically accompanied by the sense that there was “something” beyond my purview and a concomitant desire to find it. The former points to a sense of lack — of which Heidegger writes that “beyond what is … there is still something else that happens” — and the latter locates that something else beyond one’s present perception of the sensible. As a child, I couldn’t account for such things. The ability to do so came later, and piecemeal.
I remember being struck by an entry in Kafka’s Diaries that begins: “Hatred of active introspection …” And by Nietzsche saying “we must not study ourselves while having an experience.” Experimental jazz counseled, “when in doubt, go out.” And Spicer’s notion of “the outside” — which I would later associate with “extimacy,” the coinage by which Lacan points to the subject as ex-centric to itself — made immediate intuitive sense. Consciousness, then, was an intending regard for anything, including language, that I saw as external to my labile sense of self.
My experience of words was that they came from without as sound or text and returned as speech or writing. Words existed independently of me, or so it seemed, and their meanings, however clear or obscure, were as much their own as anyone’s. But whatever experiences might appear, in retrospect, to have led me to begin writing poems, it was in fact only after having written that I wanted to write again. It was the iterative desire to work with language — and the pleasure I found in doing such work — that “decided me” to be a poet.
Harley: Could you briefly sketch your early years in poetry [1964–1974], before you started work on An Intermittent Music?
Pearson: I wrote infrequently for the first five years since I was still immersed in music. Gradually, but with growing insistence, what had begun as a private pleasure came to demand ever more attention. By the end of 1968, that fraught year of wonders, I was committed to writing poetry. So I cut back on my involvement in music, changed my college major to literature, and transferred to San Francisco State, arriving in the midst of what was then the longest student strike in US history.
Not for nothing, but the next six years of writing were an extended trial by error, throughout which any potential I might have had far exceeded any actual result. Academic life was agreeable until it wasn’t, but most of what I learned about writing was learned outside the classroom: poring over the little magazines and small-press volumes of poetry, attending readings and salons, and meeting other poets — elders and peers whose conversation and friendship sustained me.
By the fall of 1973, I’d been writing for almost a decade. But I’d become dissatisfied with my poetry and bored with school, so I gladly accepted my father’s offer to accompany him to Europe, a brief and much-needed break during which I decided it was time to start over. Of course, any notion of starting over is an obvious if useful fiction. In fact, one carries on, belated as ever, from wherever one presumes to be — at best with a stronger sense of resolve. When I returned to San Francisco, I took a job driving buses, quit grad school, and spent the next year culling and revising what remained of my early poems — which I then put away and began work on what became An Intermittent Music. Thirty-five years later, here we are.
Harley: Until recently, your manuscript was called The Tune’s Image, which had been its working title for decades. You've now changed it to An Intermittent Music — a significant change because it suggests, quite intriguingly, that music, rather than being a template for your poetry, has been something quite different: something that has intermittently, almost cyclically, engaged your attention and then receded into the background. What were your reasons for changing the title? Why did you choose this word “intermittent”?
Pearson: The working title came from a poem by Zukofsky (#20 in Anew), in which “tune” (music) and “image” (text) appear, as if in counterpoint, to make a “song” of “nothing” but their differences. In my work, such differences tend to arise between assertive and apodictic propositions, and the tag from Zukofsky reminded me to keep those contraries active. Then, last fall, I got a note from Steve Emerson — who is among my oldest friends and most astute readers — in which he expressed reservations about retaining the original title. He argued convincingly that it could be misread as overstating Zukofsky’s influence on the work, and that it also limits the context in which the work, as it stands, might be read. The new title comes from a poem I wrote in 1965:
The skylark hovers
almost out of sight. To sing
a singular song.
Given a world
and these few words. Some
While music is a literary meme in my work, it has never been a template for that work. Having written both music and poetry, I have some sense of their differences. Poems are made of words, as Mallarmé insisted, and a word is a bundle of linguistic features that, unlike instrumental music, includes units of semantic meaning. In this case, “intermittent” points to the relation between the ’nuff-said (the text) and the not-said (the music of silence), as I put it in Hambone. It acknowledges that, however steadfast one’s practice, there are inevitably gaps in the work — on one hand, gaps in production that result from the exigencies of everyday life; on the other, the gaps or negative spaces that structure it, much as music is composed of its silences.
Harley: Speaking of music, among contemporary American writers your engagement with music is more pronounced than most. Certainly you hold court, in my opinion, with poets such as Clark Coolidge and Nathaniel Mackey, who not only write about music — and incorporate some of its elements into their work — but who also think deeply about how music relates to language. When we read your poetry and essays, it appears that you are of a similar philosophical bent: that an overarching preoccupation of your poetry is in fact music, and music-language relations. Has it always been a goal of your poetry — as you potentially imply by quoting Hélène Cixous in the epigraph to your poem “Dark Matter” — to achieve a verse that is “less language than music, less syntax than songs of words”?
Pearson: I’m delighted you would link me to Clark and Nate, whose works I much admire. As well, I think of Bruce Andrews and Kit Robinson, whose works are also deeply informed by their longstanding engagement with music. But I must say that music certainly isn’t my overarching preoccupation. If it were, I’d still be writing music. In my view, what language and music share are syntax, not lexis; rhythm, not cadence; temporality, not telos; structure, not form. And the salient analogies between them are neither mimetic nor expressive, but rather procedural and constructive. “Musicality” may be a feature of my work, but it would be reductive to suggest it as the work’s central theme or raison d'être.
“Dark Matter” is a case in point. Since musical references occur in only two percent of its lines, they can’t account for its totality. In context, the poem’s epigraph should be read in relation to its title. My figural use of dark matter is based on its literal meaning: undetectable matter whose existence is inferred from its effects on visible matter. Its as yet hypothetical existence accounts for quantitative discrepancies between a theoretically calculable totality and the actually calculable fraction of that totality. Cixous’s phrase suggests what I see as an analogous phenomenon in poetry: the elusive poetic function, whose existence we can only infer from its effects on language, syntax, and meaning.
Harley: Speaking of epigraphs, I should note for our readers that An Intermittent Music is rife with them. Its main epigraph is from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23: “O! learn to read what silent love hath writ: / To hear with eyes belong to love’s fine wit.” And then each of its eighteen books is introduced by a further epigraph. What should we make of these citations?
Pearson: Citation plays a central role in literary production. I use citations and allusions to invoke various texts with which the poems are in dialogue. As Kristeva argues, “the notion of intertextuality replaces the notion of intersubjectivity.” Textual meaning is always mediated by codes that we discern in other texts and bring to our work as writers and readers.
The initial epigraph points to a poetics of reading. It directs us to the basic elements of words (phonemes, graphemes, and morphemes) and to the senses they combine to address: sound (“to hear”), sight (“with eyes”), and intellect (“love’s fine wit”). In other words, those literary modes that Pound referred to as melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. The epigraph also emphasizes silence as the unsaid that refuses glibness and paraphrase; as the unsayable that signifies, but not verbally; and as the practice of silent reading that foregrounds the literary character of the work. As well, it puts forward an ethics of reading: that what is written by love be read with love. In textual matters, this implies a disinterested commitment to the workings of language, not least to its poetic and libidinal economies.
Each of the subsequent epigraphs is at once specific to the book it introduces and sequentially linked to the other epigraphs. Together, they comprise the argument of the work — a defeasible argument that, by definition, cannot produce a complete or final demonstration of its claims. The work, being done, is never done. As I noted in “Etude 10” of The Grand Piano: “For the reader, the text delimits a site where the work of making meaning takes place. For the writer, it also reveals a remainder that reminds her of work that is yet to be done.”
Harley: Versions of the books in An Intermittent Music have appeared at intervals, beginning with The Grit in 1976. At a glance, it could be seen as a “collected books,” à la Spicer, but you present it as a single work. Has that always been your intention?
Pearson: Yes. I imagined it from the outset as “a work in four movements.” I didn’t know how many books it would require, or how long it would take to complete, or even if I could complete it. But I knew that, if it were completed, it would have four movements. Along the way, with enduring thanks to my publishers, the books appeared in print. In each instance, my immediate concern was to make the best book possible at the time, even as I knew it would be subject to further revision. My sense of the whole as a single work derives from the levels of integration I sought within and among its parts. It’s a work on analogy with an opus in music, which, as you know, can include subsets of related compositions. Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, for example.
Harley: Why four movements in particular?
Pearson: That’s how the project presented itself, and since I knew it was to be a closed series, it seemed like a viable constraint. But I’ve always been partial to quartet form: string quartets, tetralogies, quatrains. In fact, my initial sketch of the work appeared less as an outline than an “exploded” view, as if each movement comprised one line of a macrocosmic quatrain. Conversely, in a “deploded” view, each movement is a palimpsest of that line. As it turned out, the movements also appear to parallel sonata form: exposition, development, recapitulation, coda.
Harley: The levels of integration you mention reflect the part/whole relations that underlie the work’s coherence. And its scale, beyond the range of references and registers involved, seems linked to the role that duration plays in your work. Can you say more about these elements?
Pearson: The text is built of discrete units—the numbered poems of each book (qua series) — that are integrated into progressively larger, if no less discrete, units: poem < poems < book < books < movement < movements < work. These units index the various scales in which the work may be read. The movements are ordered chronologically, as are the books, but their respective poems are not.
Each book has its own logic, and the challenge in each case was to discover it and construct the series accordingly. With some books, the logic was clear at the outset, so only minor resequencing was needed. With others, it took years and much resequencing before I understood the book at hand. In referring to these serial poems as “books,” I’m echoing Spicer’s sense of the book as a coherent unit of composition. (It was Gerrit Lansing, many years ago now, who generously encouraged me to see the individual poems as poems, and not, as I had previously done, as stanzas.)
Duration indexes temporality — from the variable durations of vowels and caesurae at the level of the line, to the variable intervals within and between the larger units, to the total time of composition. Duration is also spatial, a matter of extension — which in philosophy is the property of taking up space; in mathematics, a structure that contains antecedent structures; and in semantics, a set to which a property is applied. The space-time of the work is mutually determined by the incremental development of discrete poems (at an average rate of one word per day) and their iterative development in serial form over a period of thirty-five years.
Harley: I’d like to look more closely at the four movements, beginning with topologies, which includes books 1 through 6 and was first composed between 1975 and 1980. What was the context from which these books emerged, and what do you see as their major concerns?
Pearson: I began topologies as the Vietnam War was entering its final months, and I completed it on the cusp of Reagan’s presidency. It was a period of prolonged economic stagflation, and neoliberalism was on the rise. From both progressive and classic liberal standpoints, hard-won advances toward social justice were threatened by reactionary forces. However buffered by the city’s reputed tolerance — often more apparent than real in light of its increasing Manhattanization, as it was called, and the resulting displacement of poor and working-class people — everyday life in San Francisco was not immune to the illiberal tenor of the times.
There was a growing political backlash against what were perceived as the “permissiveness” and “radicalism” of the sixties and early seventies, even as large class-fractions of various subcultures were being mainstreamed to exploit their consumerist potential. As well, there was a marshaling of public opinion to support the coming deregulation of capital and re-regulation of society, the latter abetted by conservatism’s call for a return to “family values” and “the American way of life.” While many of us actively continued to pursue economic and social justice, and to articulate new modes of cultural practice, I felt in myself and sensed in others a pervasive undercurrent of anomie.
In topologies, I wanted to explore that social disjunction — those feelings of anomie and alienation and their effects on interpersonal (hence, political) relations — on as intimate a scale as I could manage. In part, that choice of scale reflects concurrence with radical feminism’s claim that “the personal is political,” which, as argued (if often misconstrued) insists that many of our personal problems cannot be disarticulated from the systematically oppressive institutions we inhabit, not least those involved in prescribing gender roles and performances.
The intra-psychic and intersubjective tensions that the poems explore can be read in light of Lacan’s assertion: “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel” — which does not say that sexual intercourse is impossible but that direct, unmediated relations between “masculine” and “feminine” sexual positions are impossible. The Symbolic Order — the Other of language — always already comes between them. As a consequence, heterosexual relations (a recurring topos in these poems) are normative, not “natural.” Anomie (in Weber’s sense) is a reaction against social norms and their enforcement via society’s regulatory controls. And agency is a function of resistant subjectivity, which, in its “extimate” relation to itself, both desires and retreats from change.
Harley: How should we understand your use of “topology”?
Pearson: In topological mapping, only essential information is retained, while unnecessary detail is omitted. Each book in the movement maps a particular mise-en-scène. This bears not only on its structural properties—for example, the constraints on lineation and vocabulary — but also on motival development. In topological maps, renderings of distance (on analogy, between subjects) and of direction (on analogy, as sexual difference) are subject to change, but the relation between their points on the map is maintained. Impossible relations are still relations. As well, topology refers to the study of the properties of objects that do not change, even as the object is deformed. If the sexual drive fixates on part-objects, sexual relations between whole persons are impossible. The whole person is deformed, that is, reduced to the part-object; hence, misrecognized.
Harley: Among the striking aspects of your poetry are its linguistic precision and economy, which are immediately evident in “The Grit,” the first book of topologies. Throughout that book (and much of the movement), you employ extremely short lines, brief if irregular stanza forms, and a very restricted, often monosyllabic vocabulary. From the opening “Somehow / it seems to destroy us” (#1), we encounter images of elemental rupture, elemental fracturing, such as “that rock / which sun splits / and sea turns / to sand” (#3). What was your aim in stripping away your language to its barest essentials? Why this preoccupation with erosion and decay?
Pearson: As I suggested in reference to sonata form, the first movement involves exposition, in structural as well as thematic terms. Its topological mapping of psychosocial terrain required deletion of inessential detail, even as that problematizes the notion of necessity. Interpersonal rupture and relational decay are figuratively analogous with the process of erosion, in which prolonged exposure to elemental forces results in an altered, if not depleted, landscape. The stripping away of language is intended to mirror this process, and to reveal how ideology (most often, in these poems, gender ideology) inflects even the barest essentials of ordinary language. In topologies, I wanted to parse such language, albeit attenuated, in situ. Unplugged, so to speak. As the poet John Thorpe generously remarked of these poems, “Imagine Webern writing for solo lute.”
Harley: In “Etude 4” of The Grand Piano, you say “grit” refers specifically to the grit on the window ledges of your Sunset District apartment, which faced the sea. You also deny that “grit” functions as a metaphor; rather it represented “everyday life.” If “grit” and such words as “rock,” “sun,” “sea,” and “windswept” are not metaphors, what are they? Another type of trope? Or would you deny them that status?
Pearson: Not at all. Far from denying that the grit is a trope, the etude acknowledges the source domain of that trope, which derives — as do most of the tropes I employ — from the particulars of my immediate environment. Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand” embodies the transformative if interdependent relations between the world and the work. Since grit is a product of physical erosion, in its target domain it becomes a trope for the erosion of intersubjective relations — which, again, was a process I saw at work in my own and others’ lives. Metaphor is a species of conceptual substitution, so of course the grit functions metaphorically. More precisely, however, it’s a synecdoche — my preferred subspecies of metaphor — which means “simultaneous understanding.”
Harley: “The Grit” takes its title from Creeley’s Words (“The grit / of things / a measure / resistant”), its epigraph from Oppen’s Of Being Numerous (“The isolated man is dead”), and its opening lines from Williams’s Spring and All (“Somehow / it seems to destroy us”). These sources introduce the first book, but also the entire movement. Where are they leading? What is this “it” that “seems to destroy us”?
Pearson: As I’ve said, “grit” denotes particulate matter, both a product of erosion and an abrasive agent. It also denotes perseverance or strong resolve. Implicit in these meanings, and common to them, is a dialectic of resistance and change, which are also conditions of subjectivity—“no / one ever / quite the same,” as Creeley’s poem ambiguously concludes. In Oppen’s poem, that “one” contrasts with “the many that we are.” The “isolated man” cannot be heard above the “dithyrambic” clamor that surrounds him. In a dithyramb, the choric (hence, collective) “voice” is one of extravagantly emotional speech or writing. Against which, in his espousal of clarity — and search for “that truthfulness / that illumines speech” — the “meditative man” is seen to fail. But his failure is not only personal (isolation as social death); it is also a collective failure. “And indeed they cannot ‘bear’ it.”
In a sense, “it” is a failure of language — a consequence of unreflective usage and of the refusal to acknowledge the social forces and ideological assumptions that mediate such usage, even as language mediates our relation to ourselves and others. This scenario is powerfully rendered in Williams’s poem “To Elsie,” in which — under the sign of modernity — we see power and privilege asymmetrically distributed among marked and unmarked subjects, primarily in terms of their gender and class positions and their ethnic and cultural identities. I wanted to establish the figure of one (and its negation as “no one”) — in league with Creeley’s and Oppen’s texts, and Williams’s “No one / to witness / and adjust” — as the basis for the subsequent pronomial transformations that populate the poems as personae.
Harley: “The Grit” initiates a concern with gender relations — flawed, in flux, or at odds, as may be — that preoccupies the first movement. You write of a couple, “at the edge / of a continent” (#1), who “rise as one / and stand apart / as if a couple / were nothing more / than any two / together” (#8). You describe a moment, “hardly an embrace,” in which the woman “neither yields / nor resists / seeming aware / that his smile / does not include her” (#10). And you conclude by depicting a woman who “turns away / her lithe back / to the sea” (#14) — a sensual but seemingly bittersweet image. Was your personal life intruding on the work?
Pearson: If it were, what difference would that make? In Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, would it matter to the film if he himself had never picked a pocket? (I mention Bresson advisedly because his approach to cinematography significantly influenced topologies.) Events in a poem are language events. Pronouns are words, not people. That words can refer to “real” events and people does not oblige them to do so. The question is not if one writes from experience, but rather what one makes of one’s experience (and what one counts as experience). If my work draws on details from my “personal” life — which of course it does — that life includes observed and imagined details that are no less part of my experience. While writing is a significant part of my life, it is only a part — and a contingent one at that. How, then, could a part be said to intrude on the whole that already includes it?
Apropos the final poem [#14] in “The Grit,” the affective quality of the last image must be understood in context. The poem begins with a man who “stands his ground” and is thereby “grown a part of it.” This alludes to Pound’s definition of “sincerity” as “a man standing by his word” (which he derived, perhaps inaccurately, from a Chinese ideogram). Sincerity, in that sense, is related to integrity as that which is pure, authentic, and self-consistent. And I wanted to suggest that such attributes can lead to stasis, to calcification, to the rigidity that I associate with “masculine” will in its extremity, as if it were a force of nature. It is that figure, of a man turned to stone, from which the woman “turns away.” And (implicit in the local geography) what she then faces is the city, a complex, motile, built environment. So she’s also rejecting, by turning back from the sea, the historical and oppressive association of “woman” with “nature.”
Harley: “Reaped Figures” [book 2] opens with an epigraph from Spicer’s After Lorca: “The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy.” Why does death inhabit most of the epigraphs in topologies? What is the role of “the dead” in book 2? Who are these “reaped figures”? Are they the “speakers” of these poems?
Pearson: The title comes from a line of Bunting’s: “We have planted ink and reaped figures,” which is a telling description of the writer’s lot. It also alludes to the book’s composition, which involved erasure of Bunting’s “sonatas” (exclusive of Briggflats). While rereading his work, certain isolated words and phrases kept appearing as poems within poems, so I started underscoring them to see what might result. In the end, I had reaped a series of fifteen poems, which seemed neither his nor mine. That made me think of After Lorca and Spicer’s notion of dictation (albeit not as he defines it). Death inhabits topologies because forms of relational and social death pervade it, recalling my intention to trace through its books the demise of the “one” — “that meditative man” — I mentioned earlier. In effect, I’m trying to tease out the distinction between a resistant subjectivity (that I would value) and the Romantic figure of the isolato (that I find problematic).
The speaker(s) of these poems include a limited third-person narrator — conceived as a voice-over in the manner of Bresson’s A Man Escaped — and a figure of ambiguous gender who may or may not also be the narrator speaking in the first person. I made an effort to script the latter’s statements in such a way that they might reasonably be attributed to a “person” of either gender — with the figure of Tiresias at the back of my mind. I sought this blending to contrast with the masculine-feminine binary presented in the “The Grit.” As well, there is a temporal contrast between the books: where “The Grit” takes place over one afternoon at the beach, “Reaped Figures” suggests a retrospective look at a long (and increasingly isolated) life.
Harley: “Southern Exposure” [book 3] begins with a rather cryptic epigraph from the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran: “for him everything is possible, except life.” The poems in this book feature significantly longer lines and a more expansive vocabulary than we find in the rest of the movement. How are these features related to the title? To whom does the epigraph refer? Is there an element of self-portraiture involved in these poems?
Pearson: The window above my desk faced south. Abstracted from its literal context, it provided a frame, a lens, an orientation — a site of imagination. The shape of the window frame suggested a page, and its subdivision into panes suggested a series of poems. Where the first two books sift and order “shards” of experience and memory, the larger and more intact “frame” of the window seemed to call for longer lines. As well, since the peninsula, where I grew up, is nominally south of the city where I was living, the window’s orientation took on a retrospective cast. Cioran’s phrase, as I recall, refers to his sense of “the poet” as one whose work derives its power “from everything he has not undertaken” — as one who cannot escape himself and live as others in the “real” world. In effect, he’s describing the poète maudit, a Romantic (not to say anti-modernist) conception of what a poet is and does. When I was young, I found that image both seductive and troubling — and in time came to reject it — but I wanted to recall and explore that ambivalence in the context of “Southern Exposure,” which is a kind of serial portrait (or “Bildungslyrik”) of the poet as isolato. Bresson is once again a tacit influence here — specifically, Four Nights of a Dreamer.
Harley: “The Blue Table” [book 4] returns to a more clipped lineation and a more restrained vocabulary. It also recalls, in contrast with “Southern Exposure,” the gender binary of “The Grit,” opening with an image of containment, both physical and emotional, “of ritual prisons / of provocation / cells from which / the body of / love cries out / for a shape / to contain its dreams” (#1). How do you see the relationship between form and content? And how is that mirrored in book 4?
Pearson: I prefer to think of “form and content” in terms of statement (in linguistics, a meaningful grouping of words) and structure (a systemic pattern of interrelated components). And note that I’m reversing polarity here, such that the “form” of any specific statement is a function (not an extension) of the “content” of its structure. The relatively expansive lineation of “Southern Exposure” (which reflects the “world” outside the “window”) contracts, as you’ve noted, to a more restrictive architecture (a “table” in a “room”) — and its use of free indirect discourse yields to the split subjectivity of an implicitly first-person “speaker,” as keyed by the epigraph from Beckett: “He speaks of himself as of another.”
In the opening poem, words such as country, prisons, cells, and body are structures that define (hence, constrain and condition) their “contents.” The dream of freedom from confinement (be it social, carceral, or biological) derives from the experience of its lack, so it’s a fundamentally utopian postulate and, in a sense, amorphous. It lacks cognizable “shape,” for which it “cries out.”
Harley: In “Ellipsis” [book 5], “what goes / by the name of / love is banishment” (#2). This echoes the later poems in book 4, in which you refer to “love / that terrible word” (#7) and describe “the blue table” in your apartment as “a figure / drawing attention / from the difficult / events in the room / in which it stands” (#9). Why banishment? In what sense is love a terrible word? What made this table an object of significance, something that could draw attention? William Gass has called blue “the color consciousness becomes when caressed.” What importance do you ascribe to blueness?
Pearson: The problem with taking lines or phrases out of context is that they lose the specificity on which their textual significance depends. Of course, they can signify otherwise, but only and dubiously as “universal” statements on topics of putative interest. Apropos #2 of “Ellipsis”: banishment is the act of forcing someone to abandon their dwelling place, which, in the intimate scale of these poems, could be taken to refer to being abandoned (emotionally or physically) by another, which in effect is to be banished from a relationship. In context, this is done in “the name of / love” — a rubric under which many “terrible” things are done, conversely including acts that actually necessitate banishment.
As for the table, I’m not a Symbolist. The table in the room was blue. So is the table in the book, but they’re not the same table. Nor is the room the same room. Once again, the quotidian source domains of specific tropes are being linked to, and distinguished from, their target domains. The significance of the table in the room is not germane, though that of the “table” in the “room” is educible: in context, there’s a table at which two people might have sat together, talked together, broken bread together — a site, if you will, of domestic life, for which, in the poem, it becomes a “figure.” As does the “room” (which in Italian is called a stanza). In a sense, the table is a third party to the “events in the room” — at once a distraction from discord and a reminder that previously, as Wyatt wrote, life “hath been otherwise / Twenty times better.”
In the abstract, “blueness” has no particular significance, except perhaps in reference to a portion of the visible spectrum of light. In context, for me at least, it tacitly invokes “the blues” (a mode of motz al son which I deeply value). With respect to Gass, I rather doubt that Robert Johnson’s consciousness felt “caressed” when he contemplated the hellhound on his trail. “The blue table / is not absolute” because its figurative meaning is context-dependent (as is the figure of the “hellhound”). Art doesn’t imitate or transcend life; it renders life’s contingencies articulate, and its specificity makes different ways of seeing and conceiving of those contingencies available to consciousness.
Harley: “Refractions” [book 6] takes its epigraph from Creeley: “days we die / are particular.” The minimalist aesthetic of the entire movement becomes even more noticeable here: the lines are shorter than ever, the vocabulary even more restricted. But the effect, to me, seems Webernesque in the way that each word chosen acquires the same representational importance as every other. You seem to achieve the “secret stillness” in patterns that Alex Ross attributes to Webern, and to share a similar preoccupation with intricate design. What determined the structure of this book? And how does its structure relate to “love,” a word that recurs, as both noun and verb, insistently throughout the book?
Pearson: “Refractions” begins: “In designs love / dawn the phase / the mind addressed / blossoms.” Because its meaning and usage vary so widely, there is no generally accepted definition of “design” — and I would say the same about “love.” Embedded in my use of “design” is a pun on Dasein, by which Heidegger designates a fundamental ontological problem: “Dasein is that entity which in its Being has this very Being as an issue.” It has been suggested that Heidegger came to this by way of Master Chuang’s philosophy. (Cf. my earlier reference to Master Chuang’s dream.)
The structure of the book derived from contemplating a glass brick, which I kept on my desk. I had recently entered into a new relationship, and my partner gave me the brick as a keepsake before leaving on an extended trip to Mexico. Such bricks are architectural elements (prisms made of compressed glass). They are translucent — they refract light — but are not transparent. The brick’s prismatic “cells” form a grid, which suggested a serial mode. The individual poems in the series are variations on (refractions of) its “theme” — encrypted in the Dasein pun as “Being” in love.
Harley: Before turning to the second movement, I note that topologies doesn’t show much evidence of the techniques I associate with Language writing. Certainly, your language is exacting in its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and the poems often focus on relations between the word and the world, but syntactic logic throughout topologies is much less paratactic than it is in your later work. Instead, you employ a hypotaxis-under-pressure, which is seemingly at odds with, for example, the poetics of the New Sentence. And in “Etude 3” of The Grand Piano, you acknowledge that the poems in topologies ran the risk of being dismissed as neo-Objectivist. As you see it, would such a reception have been warranted? What led you to adopt a more disjunctive syntax after completing the first movement of this work?
Pearson: As Roman Jakobson observed: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” And as Barrett Watten notes in his concluding essay for Grand Piano 10, “the history of [Language writing’s] emergence took place as an unresolved set of motives that made the literary what each of us confidently produced, in differing but related ways, circa 1980: writing, the work itself, language existing materially on the page” [emphasis added]. As well, context and chronology matter. The passage you cite from “Etude 3” specifically refers to my wondering how my work might be received at The Grand Piano when I first read there in June 1977. At that point, I had completed versions of the first five books in topologies and was working on the last. I’d been reading “language-centered writing” with great interest and growing enthusiasm for several years by then — primarily via Big Sky and This, as well as early books from Barrett, Lyn Hejinian, and Kit — and was well aware of the predilection for prose forms, parataxis, and various defamiliarizing strategies, as well as the motivations behind such usages, with which I largely concurred.
Ted Pearson with coauthors of The Grand Piano.
At the same time, however, I felt such techniques were unsuited to the poems in topologies — in part because of its expository role in the larger work-in-progress, and in part because I felt (and continue to feel) that placing “hypotaxis under pressure” is an equally viable, if less overt way of foregrounding language’s material existence on the page. As well, I quite understood my peers’ impatience with the various mystifications that had long since accrued to the notion of “the poetic line” — and their sense of the liberatory potential of the sentence. But as a writer, I wasn’t then drawn to prose (nor, on the evidence, was Rae Armantrout). And a careful reading of my use of lines and stanzas in topologies would reveal that they are not based on standard metrical schema, nor do they simulate colloquial speech, nor are they “measured” by breath. Rather, they reflect attention to phonotactics and grammatical phrasing, and they are based on recurring numerical patterns, such that each poem represents a mathematical set.
Lastly, as John Cage asserted, “One does not make just any experiment, but does what must be done.” Appropriating otherwise motivated writing strategies, without regard for their aptness to the work at hand, can only result in the charade of radicality, not in its actualization. I trusted that my work would make its case and find its readers over time, so I deferred use of the techniques you mention until such use was necessary. That came in 1980, when I began work on the second movement: contingencies.
Editorial note: Bruce Andrews (b. 1948) is the author of more than thirty books of poetry including Edge (1973), I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) (1992), Lip Service (2001), and Swoon Noir (2007). He is also the author of numerous essays on poetry and coeditor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Andrews teaches political science at Fordham University. The following has been adapted from a LINEbreak conversation recorded in Andrews’s New York apartment in 1995 and transcribed by Michael Nardone. LINEbreak is produced and directed by Martin Spinelli for the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo. The program is available at PennSound. — Katie L. Price
Charles Bernstein: This is LINEbreak. I’m Charles Bernstein. On today’s program: poetry as politics with Bruce Andrews. Bruce Andrews’ books of poetry include Give Em Enough Rope, Ex Why Zee, and from Sun and Moon Press, I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism).
Bruce, I know the first couple of times I tried to recite that title of yours I would add “please,” which I think is kind of funny: please shut up. But you don’t put please in your writing a whole lot. In fact, that book is fairly confrontational for many people.
Bruce Andrews: I think the word please is confrontational, and, in fact, I do use that word pretty often. It’s like promises, exhortations, seductions — a kind of omnipresent discourse that we get publicly and privately. If you think of please as a shy, timid, step-and-fetch-it approach to people that avoids confrontation, then I don’t tend to use it in that way.
Bernstein: Right, that’s what I was thinking of it as being, especially with the “please shut up.” But then what interests you in a poetry of confrontation? A poetry that sometimes seems to have anger in it, a poetry that has some of the violence that is often removed from a more genteel practice of poetry which talks about love or quiet, lyric feelings? You don’t seem to have much of that kind of sentiment in your work.
Andrews: When you talk about poetry as politics, as in your introductory remarks, I think about politics as power — as sustaining relations of power, challenging relations of power. Then the genteel practices that you referred to seem more and more evasive, because they’re not really able to confront the way power operates. If power operates on us in insidious ways that we’re not even aware of, or if power operates in blunt, coercive ways that we ought to be more aware of, then how do you get to that? How do you implicate that in writing? Doing things other people are likely to think of because it’s so contrastive with what we normally think of in our suburbanized mode as poetry, when people think of that as confrontational, then maybe that means some teeny jackpot has been hit.
Bernstein: That was, to some degree, a shift in your work. The work that you did in the early seventies, for example, was collected as Love Songs. It has a very different texture and feeling than the work that you are doing now, although it is by no means conventional in the way that some of the work you were talking about just now —
Andrews: Well, Love Songs was one long piece that I did in the second half of 1973 as a Christmas present for my then wife. Actually, the other collection of my work from the seventies with a title that would follow your argument here is called Getting Ready to Have Been Frightened. But, in that period, mostly in the seventies, I was also more interested in isolating syllables, words, individual sounds, in an atomized and discreet way. When I started to move in the late seventies/early eighties to a more phrase-based work, that opened up the possibilities of speech a little differently — longer constructions, other kinds of materials coming in. Then I had a format in which I could think about social issues and the social content of discourse. That coincided with the quite horrific changes in this society and the politics of the Reagan years. So, those two things coming into play at the same time and opening up a different kind of format made this possible. And getting royally pissed off at this right-wing nightmare, which was the last right-wing nightmare that was perpetrated on our body politic, brought things up, ratcheted them up a little bit in terms of social temperature.
Bernstein: One way that your work overall, but especially the work since the Reagan years, defies normal generic categorizations as poetry is the range of kinds of language and sources that you use. Not that no other writing has ever used that, not even that no other poetry has used some of it, but still, the almost encyclopedic scope of the social reference in your work seems to break down conceptions of poems. Not just the lyric poem, but other types of poetry.
Andrews: Think of how poignant that sounds, even as you read back the transcript. Just the idea that somehow having a desire for an encyclopedic range of possibility and reference and content and social bits of matter in your work — it would automatically seem odd that it would be poetry. Somehow, what we think of as poetry or literary writing is supposed to accept the fact that it can operate happily with such a shrunken range of reference. Meanwhile, everybody in the world is confronted with this increasingly exploding range of reference that they embody in their own personal lives. I mean, if you are walking down the street — admittedly, I’ve lived in an urban area for twenty years — mass-culture, television, whatever your range of information is: you’re being bombarded with this stuff all the time. And to somehow think that poetry is a place where you can’t, unlike all these other areas in your personal life, have this come to life, seems so sad.
Bernstein: Can you read a section from Shut Up?
Andrews: Sure. This is a piece from I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up, or Social Romanticism. It’s called “Gestalt Me Out.”
[Andrews reads selection.]
Bernstein: Bruce, can you say something about how you compose? Your method of composing a work like that or that work in particular?
Andrews: Well, my methods have changed over the years, and this work was written in the mid-1980s. By that point I had pretty much adopted the method that I’ve been working with since, which is to generate large amounts of material on very small pieces of paper — one two, three, four, five words at a time in clusters, short fragments of phrases or prephrases — and then compose the work sometimes much later, after I had written the raw material into works based on a whole series of other decisions I’d make later. It’s more like editing film footage; the editing process becomes the composing process. Or that’s what gets focused on, more than some kind of point-of-inspiration moment that I actually wrote the words in.
Bernstein: Do you think poetry is a place that can change political values? A medium that can change political values?
Andrews: There is a lot of posturing that goes on around that issue. People making theoretical claims about writing that nobody reads as having tremendous revolutionary implications, and then other people scoffing at the very possibility or even the desire to have poetry or writing have any kind of social and political implications. I think it works on the writer, and it works on the reader, probably more as a kind of reinforcement of more fragile beliefs or attitudes that were getting formed — that need more support. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of mobilizing large numbers of people. The only easy way you can mobilize large numbers of people is by keeping them just the way they are. But if you are trying to reinforce some attempt at change, then it is going to be modest, and it’s going to take place in the actual experience of the work, and that’s obviously very limited.
Bernstein: Do reading values then become important? The way in which you read your own work? The way in which other people can read your work?
Andrews: I think of my own work as a giant reading project. The writing is a way of recasting and reconsidering what reading could be. And I think that a lot of my feelings about other writing in the past, for instance, comes out of thoughts and reactions to its readability, to its accessibility to a different way of configuring it in my own reading. What I’ve tried to do in my own work, to keep myself happy and geared up about it, has been to try to embody in it as much as I can the kind of reading possibilities that I want when I look at other people’s work. In that sense, reading has always been central.
Bernstein: And what are the kind of reading possibilities that you are interested in, both in your own work and other people’s work, especially as they may be different from the reading of, say, the genteel lyric, the bogie poem that I invoked —
Andrews: Bogie did you say?
Bernstein: Or the dummy poem that I invoked at the beginning of the show?
Andrews: I think a lot of what I experience in this genteel writing that you mentioned earlier is the cage of genre with its own built-in institutional trappings. As somebody that comes to all of this writing possibility not as an eager creative writing workshop graduate, English major, English grad student, or English professor person, those genre constraints and genre mobilizations never really fascinated me all that much. Given the absence of that kind of training, I never was really easily able to understand why other people were so fascinated by it or were so willing to take it as an absolute limit. Things that I read, sometimes maybe more varied, sometimes maybe more distractedly, sometimes as an elaborate interweaving of different things happening at the same time, or happening one after the other, or in layers or extended concentric circles of possibility, all that stuff doesn’t seem to have much to do with what I think of poetry as a genre. One thing I’ve tried to do, and one thing I’m interested in doing, is opening up the possibilities of writing in language that are disrespectful of genre boundaries and constraints.
Bernstein: Do you think of that activity, then, as poetry? Do you think of yourself as writing poems?
Andrews: That’s an interesting question. I do now. I guess when I started, I started writing in the 1969-1970 period, I thought of it as a kind of literary writing or experimental work in writing, more than I thought of it as poetry. Now I think of poetry as an institutional designation, so as soon as I began publishing and getting in touch with other writers, it was clear that any future for anything I did or anything they were doing was going to be under the category of poetry as defined by other people. Over the years, I’ve just accepted that.
I remember, for instance, when the term language poetry started getting thrown around. My original nervousness about the term stemmed mostly from the “p” word rather than the “I” word. You know that I thought of it as language writing, a term that I wasn’t all that displeased with, because it suggested almost a new genre or a new subgenre possibility that hadn’t yet been defined. It would be a type of writing that had a certain way of foregrounding the way meaning was produced and operated on in a social world, rather than language poetry, which then implies that language is the adjective referring to a subcategory of what we already think of as poetry.
Bernstein: So, you think the shift of categorization from something like language-centered or language-oriented writing to capital L, capital P, Language Poetry is a recuperation by literature of something that was questioning the poetic status of the work?
Andrews: Yes, but more pointedly, it was a recuperation or an appropriation by institutions, by an already-existing institutional network out there in the social world that organizes the social world that we all have to deal with. There’s no point in being rabidly sentimental about all that and trying to act as if you could do your own disappearing act, trying to act as though none of that mattered, or that you could avoid it all, triumph over it heroically or whatever. No, it was a revealing change, I would say. Maybe recuperation might be too loaded a word. It was something that alerted me and a lot of other people, I think, to the role of institutions in organizing our future.
Bernstein: A lot of poetry nowadays is looked at both by readers and by poets themselves in terms of group identification, or gender identification. Is that something that is significant for you as a writer?
Andrews: It is, mostly in ways that I am not conscious of since I do fall demographically in all the oppressor groups as a college-educated, middleclass, white, heterosexual male from the USA. So the emphasis of identity politics in empowering pre-existing notions of who a person is or how they are supposed to operate socially have always been troubling to me since my demographic slot, or niche, has never been one that I thought was worth celebrating. It seems largely to be an obstacle to the kinds of social change that I would be happy about. So, I’m not prominent in the men’s movement. I’m not prominent in the straight movement. I’m not prominent in the elite —
Bernstein: The white movement.
Andrews: Right, the white movement: another group I have failed to pay my dues to for a while. It’s more that I now notice with some … sadness is maybe not quite the right word, it’s a little strong … but with some little fret that people are willing to gravitate towards things that give them back what they already are in a compensatory way, and I’ve always been more trying to figure out how I get out of whatever box I’m in rather than to better decorate it.
Bernstein: One thing you’ve certainly been interested in as a writer is thinking about writing, thinking about the relation of writing to ideology, writing to politics, writing to social formation, social structure. And a project that we did together called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in the late seventies consisted of poets, mostly poets, writing essays, but often in a nonconventional form. But you, in particular, in the many essays you’ve written, have resisted writing explanatory, expository prose. Why is that?
Andrews: Partly because I was excited and attracted by something else, another way of trying to figure out how to deal with the essay form or with discursive possibility, and maybe also because I never had the institutional nudge to move me in that direction since I wasn’t operating out of the protocols present in journalism or classroom discourse or in scholarly discourse in English departments.
Bernstein: But certainly the protocols present within the poetry communities of poets writing reviews and so on were equally generic and specific toward narrative and description, and you resisted those as well.
Andrews: Well, remember back then there was also a lot of activity going on, and conversation in a more constructivist vein, to try and come up with new ways of writing about work. And also in correspondence where people would try ideas out or would collage materials in different ways or would try to take different kinds of risks in those forms without even knowing they were doing it — but just because they were working in a realm where those genre-constraints of essay writing weren’t present. I guess there was a certain innocence attached to the project at the beginning where you thought, “Gee, maybe we could come up with a whole range of new ways to think about work or to get it into their awareness.”
Bernstein: I thought we did.
Andrews: Oh, I’m sorry?! …
[Andrews reads “Devo Habit.”]
Bernstein: Bruce Andrews reading “Devo Habit.” A collection of Bruce Andrews’s essays has just been published as Paradise and Method: Poetry and Praxis.
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl dialogues with Cris Costa
Editorial Note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings; entitled “Sound, Poetry,” it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes so much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project:
A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.
The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl (b. 1978) is an Icelandic poet, novelist, and translator. He often works with sound and visual poetry and regularly performs at festivals throughout Europe. Critics have compared his books in Icelandic to such dissimilar poets as Snorri Sturluson and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Norðdahl’s poems have been translated into a dozen languages, and his second novel, Eitur fyrir byrjendur (Poison for beginners), was published in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 2010. In 2008 Norðdahl received the Icelandic Translators Award for his translation of Jonathan Lethem’s tourettic novel, Motherless Brooklyn. In 2010 his poetry-animation Höpöhöpö Böks received an Honorable Mention at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival Berlin. Eiríkur is a founding member of the Nýhil poet cooperative.
Cris Costa lives in Vancouver and is a writer, independent scholar, and arts and cultural worker. Her areas of research include contemporary literature, semiotics, space, and urban social movements. She recently completed a poetry chapbook with Heavy Industries, and writes fiction.
This dialogue took place in 2010.
Cris Costa: Hi Eiríkur. I’d like to begin — and we could start just about anywhere — by diving right into the mechanics of your work. Your critical and creative writing, multimedia work, and performances are rich in what they offer readers and audiences, from form to aesthetics, from content to critique. The critiques that your work offers have dual character. They are often political and comment on the nature of literature itself (what is it, how it functions, who it’s for), and they also provide an implicit analysis of the function of language. What I thoroughly enjoy in your work, however, is its propensity for acknowledging these elements self-reflexively, that is, I see a layer of awareness of the potentials and limits of the exercise — and this comes through in both your creative and critical pieces. To be more specific, in your paper, “Mock Duck Mandarin,” you conclude by identifying a “common insanity” inherent in our collective human psyche, which comes out, which we seek to express (or hear), when we perform and listen to sound poetry. Elsewhere you explore the links between language and insanity, language and politics, language and ideology, or, on the other hand, ideology and insanity. You’ve said that you see sound poetry as an “escape from the cerebral toward the sublimely stupid,” with “a tendency to produce a group of pregnant afterthoughts.” Can you tell me more about how?
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl: I think there’s a case to be made for “insanity” as an interpretative and investigative tool for writing and for reading. Insanity or sublime stupidity are no doubt unpleasant conditions — but they suggest a method for or attainable condition of outsidership, for thinking outside the logical, or more to the point, what is perceived as logical. I feel I’m a very normal person, but I wish to have entryways into the not-so-normal parts of life, the not-so-normal parts of thinking — perhaps to escape my own normal thinking, which like any normal thinking is a mode of being that is simultaneously delusional and dangerous. What interests me about poetry, as a reader and a practitioner, is this possibility of escape — and that is, by rampant generalization, what I believe must interest everybody else about poetry. I feel this escape might be achieved through the insane/inane and juvenile (if not fully childish) manners of poetry — a “cerebral” and “emotional” artform that continually tries to escape the grasp of the cerebral and the emotional, in order to defy its own definitions.
This is in a sense just basic deconstruction, I think, albeit a rather chaotic and haphazard deconstruction. Any action is a creative action of sorts; one is always left with something in particular (or nothing in particular) as the creative outcome or product of any action. Deconstructing a house leaves you with a field or a plot. Burning a book leaves you with ashes, and perhaps, as when German university students of Nazi orientation burned books in the ’30s, decades of counteraction, idioms, legislature and protective measures for the freedom of expression, and against book burnings.
I see poetry as the use of language to create a reaction, to affect people with linguistic tools (semantic, semiotic, epistemological, social and whatnot). I used to do it through transgression — or attempts at transgression — but I’ve moved away from that (anger) and towards joviality, maintaining a transgression that is left becoming a form of gaiety — like friends taking the piss instead of enemies spouting hatred across the great divide.
And so what we are left with when we turn language into a form of sublime stupidity, or what we are left with when we attempt to do so, is very often this kind of attempted reconstruction — which is what I mean by pregnant afterthoughts. For each deconstruction carries a reconstruction — and so each thought taken apart is put back together in a new way, if that makes any sense.
From Homer to the eddas to the koans to Symbolism to Imagism to the beatniks — not to mention Dada or Futurism, Schwitters or Stein — poetry has aimed to jolt by maneuvering outside normal thinking and within the realm of the intuitive while simultaneously formulating what we do in more sensible or cerebral terms. I wish to embrace not only the intuitive but also the downright silly, sublimely stupid — or in(s)ane — to further jolt and rejolt, start and restart, construct, deconstruct and reconstruct, write, unwrite and rewrite.
Costa: How do you see this linked to current sociopolitical and economic systems? And, if this applies, do you see your work as a product of this system, as mimesis or response?
Norðdahl: I’m not sure if I do, at least not at a self-reflective level. To a certain extent, doing business in the poetry world is a negation of economic systems, meaning that poetry mostly functions outside the economic, having no monetary value. But this is only partly true because there are grants to be obtained, positions to be acquired, and even pocket money for producing the actual poetry. But mostly poets fight for cultural capital. I’m no exception and I’m not even sure how I could be. I try to be aware of the fact that I desire other people’s admiration — that this is one of the reasons I do what I do — but I’ve not reached a conclusion as to whether my greed for cultural capital is a dishonest desire or perfectly justifiable.
Many poets could have chosen a more lucrative profession, both in a traditional economic sense and in the cultural capital sense. I’m not sure I could have — I have no Plan B, no education and no training, save for being partly raised in a shrimp factory at the outskirts of the known universe. Outside of literature, that’s the only business I know, and that’s even less lucrative.
As for readers, whether I intend for my poetry to have a sociopolitical or economic effect on my readers, yes, I guess I do. Which effect exactly, or even vaguely, I’m not sure. In writing I try to avoid anything that doesn’t intuitively feel capable of undermining social, political or sociopolitical thought processes, which doesn’t in some way turn it’s own logic on its head — and in writing politically I try to avoid (as far as that is possible) moralism, social realism, confessionalism, sentimentalism, and dogmatism, which are the most common forms of ineffectual political poetry. At the same time, I maintain a kind of socialism and the idea that I want my poetry to have a political efficacy. But then I also try to avoid making too much sense. Maybe I define literature too much from the standpoint of what it shouldn’t be rather than what it should be. I dread maturity, and I get a knee-jerk reaction every time I’m prompted with “maturity” (usually characterized by abundant “modesty” and “humility”) but perhaps that just makes me immature. I think I might have an aversion to people (authors, or characters even) who speak with too much authority (pun!), who believe too strongly that they are right. It’s an air of nobility that irks.
Maybe it’s both mimesis and a response. Like answering someone in a sarcastic imitation — snorting.
Costa: Thanks. This makes me think of your piece “Kreppusonnettan (IMF! IMF! OMG! OMG!),” which is available online, both as a recorded performance and as media art. The media art version of this sonnet offers a quality of sarcasm — in fact, it’s farcical, insofar that it’s presented as a computer animated collage containing the face of Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of Iceland’s nineteenth-century independence movement, superimposed on a voluptuous woman’s body, standing at the front of Iceland’s House of Parliament. But it calls upon our associations with the abbreviations of our computerized and commodified language(s) to produce a thoughtful poetic piece. This piece can, as you mention here and also in “Mock Duck Mandarin,” be read as someone “taking the piss.” On the other hand, it’s not — perhaps not entirely — and this comes out a lot more in the performance version of the sonnet. In the performance more attention is brought to the sounds of the abbreviations as they fall off a carefully intoned tongue. It’s funny, yes. Yet one can’t help but become conscious of the meaning we seek to produce, to project upon the sounds delivered from vocal cavities. Nonsense quickly becomes sense. The critique of the IMF not only becomes about the organization itself, the Icelandic government, or our propensity to watch the world economic crisis ravel and unravel through our abbreviated online existences. It’s also a critique concerning human cognition and our relationship to meaning and language. You discuss this through different angles in your critical work. Can you talk about how you are currently seeking to “destro[y] a language (of one’s own)” in your poetic practice. And, what does this have to do with vernaculars and accents in relation to poetry, but also at large?
Norðdahl: I’d like to start by giving a little context for the Crisis Sonnet. On October 6, 2008, the Icelandic economy collapsed, resulting in massive protesting which lead to the resignation of the right-wing government for elections and a left-wing government (which behaves exactly like a right-wing government, down to cutting childcare and increasing expenditures for NATO). Immediately after the collapse people started making all sorts of demands: one of them being that the IMF should be called in to take care of everything. When the poem was written, this demand was still on the agenda of maybe half of the protesters in Reykjavík — they were asking the government to invite the IMF to come and fix the economy. The other half of the protesters, the more seasoned lefties, were, of course, against it. The IMF eventually came and is currently working with the “left-wing” government.
On Austurvöllur square, where most of the protesting took place, stands a statue of Jón Sigurðsson. This square is also the scene for the media version of the poem. During the protests a group of (older, I think) feminists started dressing him up in a pink dress, symbolizing the desired change in government values (from strong “male” values to soft “female” values).
I didn’t intend for the crisis sonnet to be a sound poem. It’s written as a prologue to a book I’m working on, which is coming out in Icelandic next year, and hopefully English too, if I find a publisher for it. It’s called Fist or Words Bereft of Sense, and it deals with the crisis and collapse mostly through idiotic, playful language. I sent an early draft of the manuscript to a friend for comments and he said he didn’t like the prologue “although it’s probably great when you read it.” Until then I’d not even realized that it could be read, but following this suggestion it immediately took the form of a techno poem. I tend to relate the sounds of it to neon-colored cars that pass slowly with loud music booming from the inside, where all you get is the bass. Which I guess is also a metaphor for the IMF.
I’ve worked with malformed words in Icelandic quite a bit, using foreign accents to remake the sounds of words. The crisis sonnet does have some connection to that insofar as it changes abbreviations into unadulterated words, although that is common for abbreviations (think of acronyms such as NATO, UNESCO, AIDS, etc.). The first part of the sonnet drives on the punched and bowelled nasal “M” sound — the “M” you make with a thrust deep down in your belly. This sound doesn’t exist in normal words in any language I know. The same goes for the spitting in “FIT” in the last part or the singing of “LOL.”
The abbreviations are thus made into words containing malformed (adjusted) sounds that render them closer to music, or, at the very least, move them away from traditional pronunciation. They become words, but not really — they get the nonstop linearity of words, but are stripped of their normal sounds, while still remaining mostly recognizable.
In a way it’s a similar treatment as of the sacred meditative “om” in Hinduism and Buddhism, although without the prolongation. In fact IMF just might be the OM of a modern religion.
Costa: Nice comparison. You often cite the North American Language movement, Dada, and Futurism as points of reference and influence within your work. How do you position your work in the context of these past movements?
Norðdahl: I try to think of myself as pluralist when it comes to “schools” of poetry, which is awfully postmodern of me, I guess, but then that’s probably alright. I dislike some tendencies found in some schools of poetry, like the pornification of sentiment in confessionalism, and I usually find myself picking favorites on the far edges, towards the crazy. I have problems with LangPo — that it’s over intellectualized, for one — and with Futurism (its openly fascist tendencies). Dada was very dogmatic. In the transcontinental I would like to stand between Schwitters — I’m not a great fan of the Ur Sonata, though I find it “okay” — and Gertrude Stein. But I find a strong relation to these movements and an even greater relation to the conceptual movement and the Flarf movement, although I’m probably neither a conceptual poet nor a Flarf poet (while having many friends in both). Shall we say I’m in favor of a universal avant-garde siblingry? Is that too hippie? I like to pick from others what I like, and I would like for others to pick from me what they like — I like to see poetic project(s) as a communal effort, like one would see the history of thought in philosophy, something we are all doing together.
Costa: Do you perceive a difference in the reception of your work between North American and European audiences, and if so, do you think these differences are in anyway dependent on the movements we’ve been discussing?
Norðdahl: Geographically my hometown, Ísafjörður, belongs to the American continent: the continental divide runs right through Iceland. Culturally, of course, the country is some sort of Scandinavian country, although a far cry from lefty Sweden. The reception of my work is divided, but not into America versus Europe, but Iceland versus northern Europe. I have some connections to the U.S. through the Flarf collective, to Canada through derek beaulieu, Christian Bök, a.rawlings and a few other acquaintances, and I’ve visited New York and Toronto on poetry errands, but I saying I had “a reception” there would be stretching it a bit. I’ve had poems in 4–5 magazines and I’ve performed on the American continent a total of five times in three trips.
My work in Iceland and in Europe is different. I perform and preach in Europe, while my books are published in Iceland. I have three novels, six poetry books, two collections of translations and two edited books about poetry, not counting translations of nonfiction, fiction and theatre. All are in Icelandic. I have no book in English or any other language outside of Icelandic, although my second novel is coming in German and I’m hoping to have an essay collection in English and perhaps Finnish next year. So far the largest portion of my work outside of Iceland revolves around sound poetry, whereas the focus in Iceland tends to be on my novels.
Costa: In light of your recent and intriguing article, “Quiet, You Ignorant Booby!,” I think it’s only fitting to thank you for your thorough, thoughtful, and detailed responses thus far, and to conclude with the most important question ever asked to any poet — for posterity of course: What is the future of poetry? (We, on the American side of your continent, have been trying to figure this out for decades.)
Norðdahl: I think, for one, that all the obscure struggling poets are going to become canonized elders who, perhaps, not receiving the Nobel Prize will continually be mentioned in the same breath as the various Nobel Prize winners. Others will have Pulitzers, Griffins, and National Book Awards. Those left without such esteem will either get popular and rich, or else they will get comfortable university positions and relatively more attractive spouses (although, as a general rule, all poets get attractive spouses). Having attractive spouses will do wonders for the poetic libido, which in turn will do wonders for the poetry.
While fiction will still remain popular — despite this imminent and sudden rise in poetic quality, poetic respect and the resulting poetic popularity — it will never really feel the same for novelists. Fiction writers will applaud themselves for being marginalized and thus more important than ever, but even that won’t be true. And even if it were, it still would not provide any comfort. Bad fiction will stop selling completely and bad poetry will cease to exist. Then, through an intricate web of causes, effects, misinterpretations and random coincidences, good poetry will eventually — (spoiler alert!) — eradicate world hunger, war, fascism, and disease. This in turn will make everyone happy. For about fifteen minutes.
Johanna Drucker on Granary Books
On March 16, 2011, artists’ book author, publisher, and critic Johanna Drucker gave a reading/performance entitled “How Some Poems Are Made” as part of the Threads Talk Series put on by Granary Books editor Steve Clay at his apartment/publishing house in SoHo (a complete audio recording of the talk and Q&A session is available on PennSound). In her talk, Drucker examined “the relation between production means and aesthetic expression.” Afterward, poet Leo Genji Amino asked her a few questions about the very means of production that had delivered her talk, and the particular aesthetic encouraged by that delivery.
Leo Genji Amino: Granary editor Steve Clay describes both the more “critical” and “creative” work of yours that he’s published as embodying much of his vision for the artists’ book as a genre that self-consciously interrogates its form. Yet Steve prefers to leave the theorizing of that vision to others, tending to describe his projects as developing by a certain intuition, or spontaneity (Charles Bernstein has described this work as a kind of “conjuring”). In a talk you recently gave for Steve’s Threads Talk Series, you presented a vocabulary that would help us consider the ways that different means of production inform the conceptual production of a given moment. What kind of vocabulary might you lend to a description of the conceptual or aesthetic tenor that has been encouraged by Granary Books, as we might conceive of this publisher as means of production and distribution? To what degree do the Granary’s interests and investigations represent or resonate with your own interests in and for the artists’ book today?
Johanna Drucker: In Granary’s aesthetic, late twentieth-century fine press meets literary experiment and innovative arts. One distinctive feature of Steve’s work is its commitment to interesting literature, a connection that is sorely lacking in the work of many book artists or presses, though of course there are other exceptions. (Charles Alexander’s Chax press comes to mind, for instance.) Steve’s roots in poetry and the literary world stick out everywhere in the Granary list, and that grounds his publishing in an interesting way, especially because the works he produces in more limited editions tend to be rare events for the writers he publishes — many of whom have had their work presented in literary magazines or chapbooks or academic press publications that have more conventional design.
The Granary list also includes offset editions of creative works, scholarly reference texts, alongside the more limited productions in letterpress with their hand-painting, or high-end digital prints, or specialized bindings. But it can’t be described as expressing a single aesthetic. Steve’s commitment to literary experiment and book production has also been complimented by a serious engagement with visual artists, including some with substantial status in the art world. This has certainly raised the profile of the press. Artists’ books are too often created in a vacuum — in studio programs where they are isolated from mainstream currents of literary and visual art activity — and that makes them seem amateurish or hobbyist. No one starting a career as a professional artist would imagine they could begin without paying attention to the scene. So integrating these worlds is a bonus for the field as well as for Steve’s own projects. It raises the bar.
Granary is also distinguished by being a press and publisher, not a platform for an individual artist, and that is another of its characteristic features. In our generation, from the 1960s through now, not many American publishers have had this specific profile. Small press and literary publishing has been consistent and persistent, with dedicated and fine people involved. We’ve also had some very long-lived artists’ books presses, some institutional, others independent. I could rattle off a list of names in both realms, but I’m afraid I would include some folks and forget others unintentionally, and that would only be unkind by oversight. But very few have combined these worlds in a substantial way, particularly in the US.
My current interests in books are split. I have a scholarly/critical engagement with format, structure, and what I am calling “diagrammatic writing” (that which proceeds from format and its spatial relations as the field of semantic values). And I have a creative interest in writing various formats into the same kind of relational space. When I was in my twenties, I wrote works that had branchings, nodes, foldout statements and spatial extensions of the text. These had to be created with scotch tape and snippets of typewritten text on bond paper. I was pursuing what would come to be known as a hypertextual mode in which the points of branching were rhetorically significant. But I was also trying to understand the semantic force of organization and graphical arrangement — in other words, what were the values of the relations themselves (e.g. why juxtaposition is not the same as hierarchy). I’m still trying to do that. I’ve also had fun and made books about women, narrative, news, language, and other matters.
As a critic and historian, I am interested in seeing how the scene changes. Who is doing what and what forms emerge, what ideas persist. I have my own preferences, strong preferences, and always have. But that is the role of the critic. The task of the historian is to describe, of the critic, to call attention to things you know how to value (or devalue) and make interesting to others through your discussion and description. The willingness to make decisions about what you think is important matters more in the realm of collections development where I hate seeing vapid overproduced works collected at a high price while imaginative works at a less impressive production level are overlooked. (This is not a comment aimed at Granary, by the way.) Maybe that will change.
Amino: Steve explains that because he has found your work to represent Granary’s vision so well, much of his involvement in the works you’ve published with him has been at the stage of re-production and distribution, rather than at an earlier conceptual moment. You’ve written much about both the “auratic” quality of certain artists’ books that are one-of-a-kind prints, and about the myth of the artists’ book as a “democratic multiple” that is perpetuated by some widely re-produced works. In the particular mode of re-production that your works have undergone through Granary Books (this means simply a second print run for some), how have they been changed or invested (ideologically, aesthetically) by re-iteration?
Drucker: Every edition of a work is a different thing, and that is just fine. I’ve been very appreciative of Steve’s willingness to make some of my books available in editions that were more numerous than the originals, or to support the reprinting of The Century of Artists’ Books, or to do A Girl’s Life with Susan Bee. I appreciate that he is willing to put a Granary imprint on something as utterly sui generis as Testament of Women, a book that resonates with a certain rarified audience, but not necessarily with others. But I think we are all aware that we are now in a moment when a varied and distributed mode of production makes sense. We make limited edition unique objects, we make digital versions and offset or print on demand output as well as gallery items within a single work because these things do not cancel each other out, but are part of a publication continuum. I think we are all exploring ways in which different versions of what we produce will work for a range of different audiences. Newer production technologies have made this much easier, especially as color printing has become so affordable and flexible.
First and second editions of Johanna Drucker's The Word Made Flesh.
We made various changes in the editions of Word Made Flesh and History of the/my Wor(l)d. WMF was re-photographed by Brad Freeman, using a copy camera. He made the separations and plates for printing using masking sheets — a mechanical, not a digital, technique. The covers were letterpress printed by me, a longish walk as I recall … But History was actually recomposed in its entirety on the computer, not photographed or reproduced. My friend Gino Lee found a Caslon for me that matched the beautiful font we had had at the Bow and Arrow Press at Harvard. I reset the book, scanned the images, and remade the pages. The book needed to be reduced slightly in size, and the combination of some iffy presswork and the size of the original fonts made me think we would lose legibility. So, though at first glance it looks like a facsimile, examination quickly reveals it is not. I’ve never loved the covers on that second edition, the paper wasn’t right and I’m not sure why I went with it. I know we had a reason at the time, but I see now that my judgment was faulty.
First and second editions of Johanna Drucker's History of the/my Wor(l)d.
Amino: Of course, Granary has been much more than a means of production or a publication technology to the artists it has promoted. In fact, Steve describes his work as principally a kind of “midwifery” to the works of these artists. What do you think of this metaphor? You've written much of the way that a material, embodied history (and contemporary practice) of writing is often neglected in favor of a notion of language as a benign canvas for the display of a consumption-ready “content.” Does Steve’s metaphor of publisher as a nurturing, delivering agent point to an alternative history and practice of publishing that is concerned with cultivating relationships between poets and editors, and interrogating the relationship between the conceptual and the material moments of publication? What relevance does an investment in this kind of community and conversation have for your own publication ventures?
Drucker: I think Steve has brought many books into the world, and so the metaphor is apt. In that capacity he continues the tradition of Daniel Kahnweiler, Ambrose Vollard, and Albert Skira, among others. But my sense is that he coordinates production rather than directing it. Ilizad, by contrast, really designed the works he produced, creating elaborately formatted maquettes by which he structured the books as a whole. In designing Maximiliana (1964), for instance, he required Max Ernst to make a certain number of blocks of glyphic writing at a particular size, shape, dimension and so on. Steve works with artists he trusts and lets them do what they want to do. I think he determines the basic production parameters, but lets the intertextual development, techniques, contents, expression, media, and other elements develop as the artists’ vision. Some of the artists are more attentive to features of the codex than others. Some see sequence, juxtaposition, development, openings, and the interplay of elements in a more self-reflexive way. Others use the book as a way to explore an idea or project using the book as a fairly unobtrusive medium. It would be tedious to have every book be self-consciously self-referential.
The book arts community has grown over the last decades, and Codex, the book fairs, and other venues where publishers, printers, and artists gather provide an increasingly vital and generative space of exchange. When I was first making books, in the early 1970s, we hardly knew the term artists’ books, but we were working in print shops where poets and artists were crossing paths. Being around other people working in the same studios, watching their projects develop, seeing how they think something through is exciting. Collaborating does some of that as well. We still need more conversations about books, including more good critical writing — not just about themes or production values, but about ways of thinking. All good art is an expression of thought, but how thought form works — that is what we need to be able to articulate. If I have a disappointment with the people in the book arts world, it is that they have been eager to follow the usual art world self-promotional approach to criticism rather than an interrogative engagement with historically informed understanding. People see what’s around them, look for opportunity. But do they pull back, ask what else they might see and know and bring into the conversation from out of sight? The produce-and-consume cycle has accelerated, which I think makes folks anxious for their own celebrity, rather than their own development. And yet, every time I go to Codex I find something remarkable, engaging, substantial, that feeds my own thought and work. More people are doing more interesting things and we are learning from each other, but at the same time, as in all fields, much is being produced that is not that interesting. Knowing the difference is the challenge.
Amino: You’ve written about the way that the increasing digitization of publishing practices works to erase this material history we’ve just spoken about, and you’ve investigated the different practices of reading and writing that are emerging as the written word approaches “immateriality,” as environments for its display become more dynamic. In this climate, how do we begin to think differently about the way that publication and distribution practices inform an artwork? In a talk that he recently gave at the In(ter)ventions residency at the Banff center in Alberta, Canada, Darren Wershler introduced his concept of the digital literary work as “findable,” as an object that can only be understood in light of its situation at a particular cross section of increasingly complex networks. What ethical and aesthetic concerns must a publisher encounter today as it considers circulation within and across new networks?
Drucker: If I ever suggested we are going in an “immaterial” direction, I’d like to correct that. Two great myths persist about digital media — that they are immaterial and that they are permanent. Neither is true. Digital activity depends on the most elaborate material platform we’ve ever devised for production! Every migration of a file to another changes it, and bit rot sets in almost as soon as a file is made. But I do think a very interesting tension exists between the myth of immateriality and the reinvestigation of material practices in our time. Not by accident has there been a revival of intense interest in materialities of all sorts, though oddly, even these persons are often quasi-amnesiac about the long history of this concept. Aristotle is one important source of theoretical engagement with the notion, which he associated with mater, mother, which comes from the same root. I know this through the writings of medievalists who look at the way materiality was understood within religious practices and icons. They have tracked beliefs about matter — which has a strong place in debates about faith — back to antiquity.
The idea of distributed platforms, works that exist iteratively, have different expressions in different media, is also part of that materiality. Historically, that has also been true for a long time and in many places. Drama and music depend upon performance and they are old forms, always iterative. In the digital environment, the “findable” aspects of new projects extend, rather than invent, their situatedness. We know there are precedents for the use of media to promote projects across placards, advertising hoardings, and other advance notices. We also know that the publication of mainstream works took many forms in earlier eras. Iterativity is not unique to our times, even if some of its details are. In fact, Darren and his wife Sandra Gabriele are both keenly engaged in interesting historical and theoretical research in this area.
Johanna Drucker talk at Steve Clay’s home. Photo by Julie Harrison.
Amino: In The Century of Artists’ Books, you assert that a defining characteristic of the artist’s book is that it “interrogates the conceptual and material form of the book as part of its intentions, thematic interests, [and] production activities.” In Sweet Dreams, you make a distinction between the notion of self-conscious aestheticism that characterized much of postmodern work (one aspiring to what you call an “aloof separation” of the aesthetic from economies of power) and an idea of “self-conscious artifice” that strikes you as ethically appropriate today (one in which the aesthetic recognizes its complicity in the construction of these economies). As an art form that is strongly identified by a self-consciousness about its own material and conceptual form, what is the place of the artists’ book in this engagement with complicity that you believe to be so important today?
Drucker: As I said above, it would be tedious if every artist’s book were a “self-conscious codex.” But any aesthetic work makes an argument about what it believes its own form to be. If you write a novel, you are making assumptions about what you think a novel is — and those assumptions, wittingly or not, are part of the longer, historical and theoretical, arguments about “novel-ness” — to use an ugly term. The production values and the conception values — the made thing and the thought thing — are equal partners in that argument. Any work of contemporary art can be made with some degree of awareness of this fact without having to make its self-consciousness the center of its subject, theme, or production. I wouldn’t want to read an endless number of highly contrived or overworked, graphically complex, spatially intricate, or otherwise excessively “artificed” works unless they were made in that way to demonstrate or embody an idea. But to pretend we don’t know that we are making work on top of a history of other works, or that whatever we make is in dialogue with the current world of entertainment culture and its massive industries, is simply naïve.
Likewise, the continuation of what we might call “the modern ideology” — the ideas that came out of the utopian impulses of nineteenth-century romanticism and then the twentieth-century avant-garde — is also naïve. To imagine that art is outside of or above ideology, that making art allows one to take a morally superior position to the culture, to act as if we are not part of an industry ourselves, that we don’t seek the rewards set by the system whose values we claim to eschew, is also naïve. We are in the world and of it, not outside. What is the role of art in our culture? Again, we inherit the modern ideology in the phrase, “the point is to change it,” which comes from political philosophy. Politics is essential, it is about change — about trying to set the broken world right and align it with whatever values you believe. But didacticism and elitist obscurantism in the arts posing as politics? That’s reprehensible and trivializing. When I say we are complicit, it is a reaction against the hypocrisy rampant in the academy and art world in which the old stamp of the avant-garde validates the “resistant” strain of work as if it were a politics. Expose the world, be in the world, make a space for thought, experience, engagement — produce the work of the immanent sublime. The term artifice merely introduces a sign of such self-consciousness — that the work is made to be made, to show its made-ness as an argument about aesthetic expressions in their distinction from other things.
Amino: In the essay you wrote with Jerome McGann, “Images as the Text,” you sketch out two reciprocal rhetorics of transparency often invoked in readings of both text and image. You explain that in typical textual reading, “[t]he physicality of textual marks and shapes disappear in an act of reading determined to highlight certain kinds of conceptual references (content),” whereas in typical readings of an image, “a powerful figurative gestalt (or figurative reference) stands imperiously before us, hiding the methodical procedures by which the image’s ideas or arguments are being developed — as if the graphic character of the work were completely obvious.” Much of your work plays word and image against one another in configurations that resist these rhetorics of transparency, which would transform the articulations of reading into an enterprise of mere decoding. How must this question of alternative reading practices be approached differently by today’s publishers of both digital and analog media?
Drucker: I pay attention to the word/image tension because I am a graphic artist, and so the visual world is what I know. But temporal and spatial dimensions factor into book space. Now audio and video are ubiquitous in digital artifacts, so we have to process multiple types of signals at the same time — not necessarily in an integrated mode, as in a film or opera, but in a dis-jointed but simultaneously present set of stimuli. That intensifies the tensions at work in a simple word/image juxtaposition and its demands. Modes of reading and processing have exceeded our book space environment, but, at the same time, I think that we have learned an enormous amount about books and their structured features — the configured organization of navigation, presentation, reference, use etc. — as a result. Artists continue to engage in imaginative rethinkings of these spatial sequences and to call our attention to acts of reading as production. The rate at which certain features of the digital environment became standardized into conventions that almost disappear now, so familiar they have become, is astonishing. One experience worth having is to revisit some of the first generation of electronic arts and literary works and to see how their interface structures worked in that incunabula period. Many imaginative works and nonstandard solutions were devised. This used to seem annoying. Now it seems charming, intriguing, like looking at woodcuts of the natural world in a period before realist representations were set strongly in place.
Publishers in any media have the same task — to bring imaginative and aesthetically interesting work into the world. Our human capacity to know, think, understand, process cognitively, depends more than we realize on what I call the hand’s mind, the physicality of being in the world. Alphanumeric inscription may go away in our lifetimes, replaced by immersive media — images, verbal texts, sound, music, movement, form. Ironically, that same notational system is essential to coding, programming, and computational media. But the rhetorical force of materiality will be part of artistic production even when we are stimulating nerve centers with chips and signals to disturb the quiescent force fields of the brain and provide the satisfying drug of aesthetic pleasure to those zones.
Maja Jantar in conversation with Oana Avasilichioaei
Editorial Note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings; entitled “Sound, Poetry,” it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes so much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project:
A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.
The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling
Maja Jantar [left] and Oana Avasilichioaei [right].
Maja Jantar is a multilingual and polysonic voice artist living in Ghent, Belgium, whose work spans the fields of performance, music theatre, poetry and visual arts. A cofounder of the group Krikri, she has been performing individually and collaboratively throughout Europe, and has been experimenting with poetic sound works since 1995. Jantar often collaborates with Crew, a theater company operating on the border between art and science, performance and new technology, as well as with actor and director Ewout d’Hoore. She regularly performs with Belgian poet Vincent Tholomé, with whom she has also given workshops on language and sound. Jantar recently performed with Vincent Tholomé and Sebastien Dicenaire at the Centre Pompidou in Paris for the Bruits de Bouche Festival.
Jantar has directed ten operas, including Monteverdi’s classic Incoronatione di Poppea and Sciarrino’s contemporary Infinito Nero. Her visual poetry has appeared in publications such as Zieteratuur (the Netherlands), and her visual artwork has been shown in several exhibits. An ink-and-paper selection from her “Lilith” series was recently exhibited at Kunsttempel Kassel (Germany). Jantar continues to collaborate with Canadian poet and interdisciplinarian a.rawlings, and the Berlin-based Hybriden Verlag will soon publish a CD and a book of her visual and audio work.
Oana Avasilichioaei’s work forages into geography, public space, textual architecture, multilingualism, translation, and collaborative performance. In 2009, BookThug published her Expeditions of a Chimæra, a collaborative work with Erín Moure that performs the book and translates its authors. Avasilichioaei’s feria: a poempark was the inspiration for and subject of a short film by Montreal artist Thierry Collins (2008). Avasilichioaei’s recent projects include The Islands, a translation of Les Îles by Quebecoise poet Louise Cotnoir (Wolsak & Wynn, forthcoming 2011), as well as transformations of some of her texts into performative aural works. Though she typically lives in Montreal, Avasilichioaei was the Markin-Flanagan Writer in Residence at the University of Calgary for 2010–2011.
This interview was conducted in October 2010 via email and audio — “Interdeff, Interview for Jacket2,” June 1, 2011 (7:51): MP3
Oana Avasilichioaei: You refer to some of the work you do as “polypoetry,” so perhaps you could begin by discussing how you would define this concept vis-à-vis your work. Perhaps you could also discuss how you define “sound poetry” and what evolution or process might exist between “sound poetry” and “polypoetry.”
Maja Jantar: Polypoetry for me, and for how we in the group Krikri are using it, is a way to define many different styles and kinds of poetry — polypoetry — so we intend the word very literally. Whereas sound poetry would be more directed towards the sound element of poetry, polypoetry could also mean visual poetry, electronic poetry, installations, anything poetic.
What I do is poetic; it’s not always poetry in the traditional sense, but I work with the matter of something that is poetic. And I think poetic is something that is in your mind, something that you see, perceive, a way of looking at things. So it’s trying to find that way of looking or listening and trying to bring that out in a work.
Avasilichioaei: I am interested in your relationship to language and translation within your poetic/sonic practice. Many of your performances/songs/videos are polyphonic as well as multilingual. In moving between sounds of various qualities and lexicons of varied languages, what is the function of translation? Are lexicons from different languages used for their sonic or denotative qualities, or both? Is there a translational process at work as sound morphs into language or language morphs into sound? If so, how would you describe this process?
Jantar: I am really interested in language and translation. This is something that comes out in some of the collaborations that I have done. For instance, in working with Vincent Tholomé we made one piece called “Traduc” (“Translation”) where he reads a French text and I improvise on it by translating it simultaneously into English, German, Italian and Polish, which results in a lot of funny twists of meaning. He works with meaning and its different layers, writing mainly in French and using a lot of repetition. In this way, his work evokes an oral tradition, and it’s very easy to simultaneously translate because it repeats.
In my own work, I don’t really work with translation as much. I am more interested in the specific sounds of different languages and their distinctive emotional charges. Of course we all know that certain things can only be said in a certain language in a way. But the sound of your voice also changes from language to language and that is very interesting to me, especially in performance, where the sound of your voice is what actually communicates. It’s not what you say, because you can say the exact same words in many different ways; rather, it is the way you say the words that communicates. So in using a specific language, even if the audience doesn’t understand the words, they do understand a specific meaning — not the sense of the words, but the sense of the voice.
As for language morphing into sound, I like that game. I like the game of breaking language down into something else, making it dissolve or making it go into something more primal.
Avasilichioaei: So what are some of the techniques you use to “dissolve language”? How do you make it more “primal”?
Jantar: One of the things would be to take the material of the words and treat them as sound components, break them up into syllables, work with the syllables, or focus on the consonants or the vowels, stretching, shortening, repeating, depending a bit on what atmosphere or on what meaning they need to have in the performance. For instance, the “KIRKJUBAEJARKLAUSTUR” performance that I did with Vincent Tholomé and Sebastien Dicenaire [see below] starts by breaking up the word kirkjubæjarklaustur, playing with the fact that it’s something not easily pronounced in itself. We chose to mainly work on the consonants, creating an explosive cloud of sounds that actually gives birth to this word. In contrast, later in the performance we use the vowels to create the illusion of flying over a landscape or a city, using the vowels to create this aspect of planer in French, of hovering, using overtones as well to create an atmospheric element.
Another possibility in visual work and electronic compositions would be to layer words on top of each other, use them as building blocks and as matter for their sound, their textures, somewhat for their emotional connotation but mostly as sound material.
Avasilichioaei: Do you think there is a connection between your multilingual approach and the European context in which you live and work, and if so, what is that connection?
Jantar: I have never thought about this before, but I think you have a point. The fact that there are so many different languages in such a small geographic area does make it very easy for me to use different languages. As a child I traveled a lot. I was born in Poland and spent a couple of years in Holland, a couple of years in Austria, some time in England, and ended up in Belgium. My mom worked in the cultural realm and we had friends from everywhere: in America, places in Europe such as Italy and Germany, so all those languages were spoken in my vicinity and I had to switch languages all the time. It became something very natural and logical. And there is an emotional connotation to a language, so when I talk about my family in Poland, like my grandmother, it’s easier to do that in Polish. When I talk about something emotional in my personal life, strangely, it’s easier to say it in English than in Dutch, partly because Dutch has a very matter of fact way of being and sounding.
Avasilichioaei: Do these varying kinds of relationships to the different languages that you speak affect which language you choose to work with in a piece, or which language you choose to break down into something else? And have you ever created a piece using non-denotative sounds as way of creating a new type of language?
Jantar: The emotional resonance definitely impacts my choices in language but it’s not only that. Sometimes, when you work with particular material, the language is already part of it. There is this transcript of an oral judgment that I used in my piece “paralipomena” [see below] — I found the transcript in English, so that determined the language. I would not translate it into another language because of the emotional charge that the other language would give the English transcript.
Using non-denotative sounds to create a new language is definitely something that I have done and love doing in instant improvisations and performances, because it’s something that is very natural. This speaks on a different level than words and meaning, but it definitely conveys something. I have, for instance, a piece that uses only the play between “rz”, “sz” and “cz”, which are Polish sounds, to create a rhythm, playing around with dynamics and speed, in essence, working with them musically.
Avasilichioaei: I am also very interested in your compositional process and in the relationship that you see between composition, improvisation and performance. How do you negotiate these states?
Jantar: It’s an exchange between the three elements. Performance and composition go together because the performance itself is composed, not just the text. Lately, I have begun using the term instant composition for a series of performances that I have been giving, meaning that I use a set structure and improvise within it. For instance, I’ve been working with the concept of “weiß” [white] [MP3], using three different states of whiteness: bone, milk and salt. I then use each of these elements to create an improvisation, and within each element I have texts that I can use if I need or want them. On the other hand, I can let the performance itself decide for me whether or not I use them. I decide beforehand that I will sit on the floor, that I will have some visual aid or score before me that I can use or not use, as well as my book with the texts that I will probably use. The idea of the instant composition rests on the fact that those things are preset. Within that frame I am completely free to improvise, but I don’t feel the panic that I have to improvise for the entire half hour or hour. I have my structure to be free within and I have my visual score, so if I run out of breath or things to express I can go back to the score for inspiration or stimuli. So at this time, that is my relationship with composition, improvisation and performance, but in the past, I have used those three elements in many different ways.
Avasilichioaei: You have worked a great deal in collaboration with other artists/performers. One of the things that collaborative work does so well is it disturbs the idea of intentionality and single-authorship. The work can no longer be located within any one body but instead exists across bodies and localities. Can you discuss some of the significance you see in doing collaborative work and how such work impacts your own practice? And do you think that collaborative work has some necessary relationship to the contemporary moment? Do you think that it has the potential to respond in a crucial way to the contemporary moment?
Jantar: Yes, absolutely, I think that it has. If you look into the past at the romantic idea of an artist creating from himself, from his tortured self, that all inspiration has to come from this one person, this one tortured soul that spills out over the work, then I think we really need to get out of that idea. Other cultures have different perspectives, luckily. So collaborating might definitely be a key to that.
As for my own collaborations, I have always found them extremely inspirational. What I have always liked about them is the fact that it is not me. Together with somebody else, you do something you would not normally do, in the best sense. You get something out of yourself that you would not be able to get if you were alone. You also get to lock onto the energy of somebody else, get into a different stream that can lead you someplace you have never been. As for the authorship element, it’s tricky. It’s not tricky simply because of the ego of artists; actually the people I have worked with have no problem whatsoever with coauthorship, but it is the outside world that does. People somehow always need to have one name behind a project. I worked with theatre actor Ewout d’Hoore on a performance called “Eden,” and because it was in a theatre context and he came from a theatre school, it was very hard to promote the concept that this was a duo performance, that we had thought of it and made it together. And the problem was not between us but coming from the organizers, the newspapers, people around us. The question of collaboration doesn’t even arise; it’s simply assumed that one person should be the author/creator/generator of the concept, which is ludicrous. This is just one example, but I have seen this happen quite a lot and I wonder how it is possible to break that pattern, to make it more acceptable. I guess artists will have to lead the way on that one.
Avasilichioaei: Perhaps the group Krikri might lead part of the way. Can you talk more about your involvement with this group? How did it begin? Who is involved? What are you exploring as a group?
Jantar: Krikri is a group that has a very flexible way of being. The core is formed of three people, Jelle Meander, Helen White, and myself. Then there are a lot of satellites around it, people who perform with us or help out with different aspects when we organize our festival. For instance, we usually work with a visual artist who will create site-specific work to bind all the different locations where the performances are held.
In terms of collaboration, we all have strengths in different fields, which makes it very interesting to work together. All three of us write solo work but we also write work specifically for the group, or to be performed as a duo or trio. So we explore all kinds of possibilities within collaboration, sometimes it’s just somebody imposing something, written out as a score, and sometimes it’s just a thread, a thought, something that develops and takes us to places where both collaborators have never been.
Avasilichioaei: As someone who has worked collaboratively, I am aware of the exquisite risk and productive joy involved in it, though this may not be so obvious to those who have not had the opportunity to work in such a way. So can you also talk more specifically about what is involved when you work collaboratively? How do you take a work from the initial idea to performance? What are some of the allowances that you make? Some of the risks that you take?
Jantar: I think the risk lies at a very human level. You start to work with somebody because there is a personal interest in exploring what that person is doing and a curiosity to see what will happen. It’s a bit like alchemy for me and the risk is that you never know in advance where this will lead you: if you have an explosion, will you end up completely blackened in soot, or will you have created gold? In the process of collaboration you work very closely and this can create tensions and those tensions can be very good to push each other further, to stimulate the relationship, but it can also end up in disaster. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but it is possible.
As for the risk within the work, when you collaborate you create within a bubble of perception and you can live in a kind of illusion. Sometimes it is only when you have a real audience that you realize what you have been making. So it’s very useful to have small viewings and to have other people come in and listen or see the work in progress, because when you work closely together it’s very possible to be misled as well. But I think that’s exciting too; it’s exciting to create this kind of new world even if it only lives for a short while.
Avasilichioaei: What is your take on the sound poetry scene in Europe? What are some of the concerns or stakes for those artists currently working within this area?
Jantar: I find it very difficult to answer this question because I think it is very hard to grasp the sound poetry scene in total. It feels very diverse and while there is an international element, there are also many local colors; for instance, the French scene is very much based on text itself, there is also a Spanish scene that is based more on the performance, and the German scene would be very intellectual. I’m oversimplifying here but it’s interesting how language, once again, does kind of dictate the style of the sound poetry that you are in.
Avasilichioaei: Well then can you talk about the sound poetry scene in Belgium? Or to put it another way, if you were to think of yourself as being a node in a rhizome of polypoetic artists, who or what are some of the other rhyzomatic strands you feel most engaged with at this time and what engages you about them?
Jantar: As far as the sound poetic scene in Belgium, there isn’t really one. Because of the creation of Krikri there are a lot of poets who have started breaking open the text a bit more, but they don’t really go into what could be called sound poetry. However, there is a new generation of poets who try to incorporate the element of sound or the oral tradition in their poetry: Philip Meersman, Xavier Roelens, Olaf Risee.
As for poets with whom I feel connected, I would definitely link to Jaap Blonk, who works extensively with voice and has recorded and performed the Ursonate by Kurt Schwiters. This is a tradition that I feel very connected to because he also goes back to the classics and explores what the voice can do. David Moss would be someone as well who goes into extensive vocal techniques and expressive use of voice, as does Maja Ratkje, whom I respect a lot as a composer and as a performer and who adds electronics to the mix of voice.
Avasilichioaei: What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
Jantar: One is my first CD release, a compilation of pieces I have made over the last few years that will come out in Hybriden Verlag in Berlin. There are two performances that I am trying to create. One is called “weiß” (white), an exploration of white in different forms: a performance element, an installation element, as well as a book publication. The second is a performance with glass domes suspended in space. I want to create an installation that makes the whole space vibrate and be filled with sound. In using all the different pitches of the glass it is possible to create a room of sound, something quite physical. And I would like to make a performance with this installation: one person in a room filled with suspended glass domes, telling a text or story, one person interacting with this space and the audience would be lying on the floor or walking around. I will also continue collaborating intensively with angela rawlings, Ewout d’Hoore, Vincent Tholomé and Sebastien Dicenaire.
1. Kirkjubæjarklaustur is the name of a small town in southern Iceland. This is a compound of three Icelandic words, translated into English as church, town or farm, and monastery. In this form, a rough translation could be the monastery (klaustur) that belongs to the town (bær) that is governed by the church (kirkja). In other words, the church’s (kirkju) town’s (bæjar) monastery (klaustur). Lore has it that the first person to live in this town was a Christian. Wikipedia talks about the town here.