Interviews - April 2013
Editorial note: Heather Fuller is the author of three books of poetry, Startle Response (2005); Dovecote (2002); and perhaps this is a rescue fantasy (1997), and two chapbooks, Eyeshot (1999) and beggar (Situation Magazine, 1998). Melanie Neilson is the author of Natural Facts (1997), Civil Noir (1991), and Tripled Sixes/Prop and Guide (1991), in collaboration with Michael Anderson. Double Indemnity Only Twice is forthcoming in 2013 from theenk Books. The following is a transcript of Episode Nine of PhillyTalks, which took place on February 10, 1999. The complete recording, as well as a PDF of the poems discussed, is available on PennSound. The following was originally transcribed by Michael Nardone and has been edited for readability.—Katie L. Price
Kristen Gallagher: So, welcome back to Melanie and Heather. Please, just start in asking questions, or saying anything. If there is anything you guys want to say to each other to start off—about the pairing, or what your discussion has been like, or each other’s work, or any responses — it’s kind of a free-for-all, so, go!
Speaker 1: I have a question for Heather.
Speaker 1: Two of the poems from PhillyTalks, the first ones, either “Hear Say” or “Her Say” from beggar—
Speaker 1: We were talking in our discussion group yesterday about how you use a lot of found, heard, overheard language. We were noticing the first poem seemed like it contained a lot more overhead stuff, and the second poem grappled with similar issues, but had less found language. You had expressed in your written email to Melanie that you had some anxiety over what you called “faux” appropriation, and I just wondered if overheard stuff is still really formative in your work. And if it isn’t, or is less, can you talk at all about how you feel about that? About how that’s changed or why it’s changed? Where it came from? What’s changed about your surroundings, anything?
Fuller: I think I find overheard language even more important. I was telling Melanie during our email conversations that often language to me seems like this common cistern—you know, where we all sort of gather around this cistern, chewing the tobacco and spitting it out into the cistern, and we’re all grabbing it and putting it back in our mouths.
That’s what we do in North Carolina, anyway. But now that I’m in the civilized world, I have to talk about the common cistern as a literary function.
Where I live is particularly busy. It’s particularly lively and polyglot. I’m always picking up language and chewing it in my mouth and spitting it out. And I think that “h r say” [pronounced “hearsay”] is a lot of, you know, chewing, spitting, right there. But in another sense it’s also something that I’m more and more interested in, and that’s the concept of sampling. I’m sure you all have heard some sampling in clubs or in jazz and such.
Speaker 2: Turntable wannabe, or something?
Fuller: There you go. So, I’m at the turntable as well as at the cistern.
Kristen Gallagher: But you had expressed some anxiety about other things. What is that?
Fuller: I wish I had an implied anxiety. I think it’s more about my feeling of wanting to be responsible. I’m not really anxious, but I am often thinking about an ethical relationship, with what you do with that language you’re chewing up. Especially since so much of that language comes from pockets of my community where people just don’t talk. They don’t talk in public. They talk in their pockets.
Speaker 3: I was curious about this sampling metaphor, because with sampling in rap music, you get historical layers — different eras of music that get sampled, sometimes purposely, as a kind of commentary. So, is there a kind of historical project in your notion of sampling, in terms of sampling as a kind of recovery? Or is that not something you’re thinking about?
Fuller: Well, now I’m thinking about it, for sure.
Neilson: Can I say something? When I think about how that would apply to how I think about it, I think of it as defiance, and power. You know, breaking rules.
Speaker 3: It’s taking things out of context, I gather.
Neilson: It’s just all fair game. It’s all in selection. A poetic documentary tradition.
Gallagher: Does it matter where you’re getting it from, though? You know, because I think Heather is talking about the feeling of responsibility for small, isolated pockets of people, and you might be talking about historical —
Neilson: Yes, I think it’s probably different.
Sky’s the limit is what comes to my mind.
Fuller: Yeah, I mean, they all cross over.
Louis Cabri: I wonder if it ever causes some mania, unexpected or difficult tension. I’m thinking particularly of the moment where Ben Jonson comes up [indiscernible]. It caught my eyes, you know, as a really enigmatic thing. The reason it strikes me is because Jonson, you know, he really built his entire career by posing himself completely against what PhillyTalks, I guess, is a version of. He killed fellow actors, utterly [inaudible] violence, refusal to cooperate. And the poem that comes up here is the one in which he announces that he’s leaving the public stage. He’s no longer going to write for the theater and he is going to write solely for the court. So, I guess why that might be awkward is because he was so incredibly successful at it. He’s someone whose works are utterably invaluable and I can’t really imagine that period without them. And yet they come from this poetic model that is not very easily assimilated.
Bob Perelman: So, does that make T. S. Eliot look like Walt Whitman?
Neilson: That’s fascinating. Fascinating ricochet.
Cabri: Do you have any comment on that?
Neilson: I might. I’m thinking about it. That’s very interesting.
Perelman: Well, what about that sense of the court and the public under them? I’m sort of ruminating — it’s not going to end up being a crisp question. Heather, I was thinking about what you were saying about the pockets of language where you get the words from, and your own feeling that perhaps bringing them into a poem is bringing them into a more public space than that language normally exists in. On the other hand, I kept feeling, this conception that kept half-forming as I was listening to your work: what is the relation of the art world that you are writing in to the life world that you are writing of? The art world just strikes me now as a little analogous to the court — Ben Jonson’s court — that you are writing for. I’m just trying to sketch out some configurations and wondered what you or Melanie would say about it. I mean, it’s the big issue for all of us —
Perelman: Anybody who wants to bring in the world, well does the world want us to use it in that way, or does it care, et cetera et cetera? These questions.
Neilson: When you say “world” though, my question is, okay, we’re talking university, society. And for me, of course, it’s society/university. Who am I writing to and for?
You know, “world” — I’m curious what that means to you.
But I think you were going in an interesting direction with this: the people who are in those pockets speaking. And then Heather does make a lot of really —more than a lot of writers that I know of writing right now —references to, gutsy artists like Claes Oldenberg. You know, a lot of people don’t do that right now, and Heather does that to visual arts. What’s going on there? How do those two worlds connect and collide or overlap? I don’t know if that’s an issue for me. I’m not sure it is.
Fuller: The really intriguing thing to me about Oldenberg is he was such a public figure. Everything for him was so hyperbolic. His sculpture was sort of upon you before you were even close to it. In a sense, he was really holding court in a very public way with whoever was in eyeshot. It’s often funny to me to think of Oldenberg in relation to, say, the person who is going to be uttering the line in “h r say” about the splatter guards from the civil disobedience unit of the police. To what extent is the splatter guard holding court? To what extent is Claes Oldenberg forcing court upon us? These are all very public and visual elements that sort of force themselves into our space. And so often there’s a disconnect between these very forceful and — you used the word “power” — powerful elements and people who will perhaps not be reading this text.
Gallagher: Following up on this idea, I was reading “h r say,” or I wasn’t reading…I was having a lot of trouble reading “h r say,” and so I am wondering what it means to take this spoken language, this overheard language, and then to actually write it down. Because that’s different than the cistern where you pick something up and spit it back out in the same form. In some ways, if you’re taking language you are overhearing — for me at least — in this poem you’re representing it in ways that I couldn’t re-speak. I could read it; I could look at it and make sense of what the words were and sense these absences, but I wasn’t sure how to re-speak it. I don’t know what that is: if it’s trapping it on the page, or if it’s reclaiming in a way that doesn’t put it back in the cistern in the same way. I don’t know.
Fuller: Well, that’s the whole sampling idea I was getting at: spinning it back out in a sample pattern.
Perelman: So, just in a common sense way, that’s the missing vowels.
Fuller: Right, as well as the reconfigurations of the spoken word, when things are repeated throughout in different configurations.
Speaker 4: I’d like to hear you talk some about placards, because to me it seems like those bring up some of these issues. I mean, the whole idea of appropriating something visual, something that does hold court in the sense that you are talking about. Then what does that mean to imagine that visual idea, but then have it not hold court in the same way, have it be in a book.
Fuller: And that’s sort of my plea at the beginning, you know: “Please take one up. Photo enlarge at will.” Yeah, they are just very simple text boxes that have sort of been placed in the context of being something larger than they are.
Speaker 5: Don’t you have that line: “how do we recover from the book”?
Fuller: Yeah, which is an anthology.
Neilson: It’s interesting to me. When I saw, experienced and read those, what I thought was so powerful, beyond just how they were laid out, was your direction — the graphic, the visual, the text in the book. You transformed everything by the direction that goes with them. In the way that, you know, when you’re reading … I was reading The Mother by Brecht a few months ago. It’s like that one line of direction. What you want us to do with them is so powerful. And it’s funny, those words just hang in the air. Then when I see them in the boxes it’s powerful, but my mind really runs with the direction you’ve given: what you want us to do, the agitprop, sort of, adds complex ideas to the dramatic event of reading.
Fuller: The whole idea of imperatives in poetry is increasingly interesting. Being told what to do by poets. The second person. Poems being written just in second person.
Gallagher: Well, back to the art and life idea, I was just thinking of Debord and that “beggar” in the first stanza. You talk about pockets “full of mutter,” and then “the museum is a cadaver of curious facts.” Do you guys have a Mütter Museum in DC?
Fuller: A mutter museum?
Perelman: Mütter. Mütter Museum.
Gallagher: I thought there was one down there. It’s like a museum of medical mishaps.
Perelman: That’s here.
Gallagher: I know. I know.
Fuller: We have one at Walter Reed Naval Hospital. It’s an army hospital.
Gallagher: Was that sort of what you were playing off?
Fuller: I would like to say that, but no. It’s quite literally mutter. But that museum is quite fascinating.
Gallagher: You should say that’s what you meant.
Neilson: She should be your agent!
Gallagher: It works so well with those lines. I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t matter. Just this idea of the way that you might look at something in a museum and the way you would look at someone on the street who is homeless and propped on a crutch. And how it’s okay, in the Mütter Museum, to just look at those things, and be sort of horrified and fascinated. It’s a sort of art because it is in a museum. It’s like a framing. And then things that we are afraid to look at or deal with are standing right outside the museum.
Neilson: I’m still thinking about Ben.
Cabri: Let me throw another one at you.
Neilson: Bring it on, bring it on, baby.
Cabri: This is from the very beginning of “Moxy where its mouth is” and you have this line “any anarchy is surprise and language is a surprising tool,” and then immediately after that, “where readers come into and how is a seesaw or seizure dialectics of self and other.”
I would like to ask you about what I see as a very strong opposition between anarchy and a notion of … and maybe this is implied by the language in a cistern, in which language is this kind of royally infinite, infinitely proliferating —
Cabri: Whereas dialect —
Neilson: Mess. For me, that’s true. Yes, life-affirming language activity.
Cabri: Whereas dialect immediately restricts that, it says there is a certain logical relationship that precedes language, which determines its content, and, in that sense, language has all of these formal restraints on it that you actually can’t mush together easily at all. It really resists being boiled together because of syntax and grammar and things like that. So, how do you traverse that tension, if at all?
Neilson: How do I traverse those wild waves of conflict and contradiction?
Cabri: Yeah, well is it conflict or maybe [inaudible]?
Neilson: I think maybe both. It seems like that yin and yang sort of thing. They can coexist. Maybe there’s a way they don’t really cancel out each other really? Do they?
Cabri: To me they do.
Neilson: I understand. I think it is provocative. You’re talking about, you know … We have over here our graphs, our plaids, the dialectics, our system, and we have over here montage for a working method, whatever.
I don’t know. For me the cistern and the chewing tobacco is not really something … taking it out and putting it back in again, it never occurred to me. And the sampling also is something I have to kind of think about. I’m not really sure how I can say that so neatly for myself. My ways are my ways.
Speaker 6: Maybe one way to think about it is just in your terms of reading Heather’s work, that although the cistern is Heather’s metaphor and we’re talking about it as a kind of chaotic —
Speaker 6: Communal thing.
Neilson: Juicy. Communal as the sound of traffic, as the words drive themselves free to roam. Who owns the words?
Speaker 6: It seems like in a way, I’m just thinking of this line from “Fuller’s Law,” where you say, “skeptical of rejecting sentiment / narrative.”
Speaker 6: That struck me as one of the clearer moments of straight commentary in terms of Heather’s work vis-à-vis the work of her contemporaries, or whatever.
Speaker 6: So, in that sense, I’m wondering whether that can be squared with this metaphor of the cistern, or whether it needs to. So, how are you reading Heather’s work, I guess I’m asking, as sceptical of rejecting narrative in particular?
Neilson: Well, that’s a good question. I think as self-aware and site-specific work and not purist.
Speaker 6: And what are the motives for not rejecting narrative?
Neilson: You’d have to ask someone else. I don’t think I can answer that. But I find it fascinating in Heather’s work that she gets away with some things, or she is pointing to some things that other people that I read with pleasure and excitement don’t do. What I mean is that she is pointing to — when she was talking about the pockets — I thought that was an interesting way to talk about it, lifting or sampling from overheard wordage. I’m struck by the, if it’s only two words, and then I find two more later, and they point back to each other, and I am experiencing a cumulative effect, dramatic or emotional, that’s when I come to sentiment. Something is taking place, and I think we can say the word “content” in this room without people starting to crawl out the windows. It’s tricky because she’s doing a lot of complicated things. I had never really read closely Heather’s work until the past year, ’98.
Speaker 6: So, when you’re reading, those things get narrativized? You can see words that come up or echo each other and all those things —
Neilson: I think narrativized is a bit of a clumsy term, but I appreciate that you’re trying to put some kind of label on it. I love the activity of the sound of her work. I don’t need it to talk narratively to me.
Speaker 6: So, they recall a sense of place or a theme or —
Neilson: I guess what I would say, I really meant it when I said the word rejecting. I think that there is something not pure about what she is doing.
Cabri: That’s evident from the first two poems in the newsletter that are very narrative. [Inaudible] “beggars can’t be choosers.” There’s a circle that closes or draws, goes back to the point where it begins from, once one has come to the end of the poem “beggar.”
But I’m just thinking about this, the idea of a common cistern, and then your worries about in some way stealing from it, I guess.
Melanie Neilson, with Spock, Kirk, and McCoy. Washington, DC, 1999.
Fuller: I’m not worried.
Cabri: But yet, it’s a common cistern.
Fuller: I’m not worried.
Cabri: [Inaudibe] scare quotes around some stuff you’re taking as if it has in some sense a form, it’s formed before you take it.
Cabri: You are in some sense re-forming it, or just forming it, which kind of suggests to me, Melanie, what you have done in some of your work, both in Civil Noir and in your last book, I forget the exact title — Disfigured Texts?
Cabri: If the subject that we are talking about is “where does one’s language come from,” then for you it seems like the idea of language is as a common pool of static voices, et cetera. The metaphor there, for you, seems to be a sense of layerings of text, right? So, in your Disfigured Texts, you have typed texts and then writing scrawled in between the lines of type, and then there’s that sort of visualized — much like a placard or like a scrap of paper — and then that’s put aside, put next to an actual version, in some sense, of that rewriting.
Neilson: A transcription. Mapping word events. Manipulated, misquoted and remixed is the process and a study.
Cabri: A transcription as a poem. But it’s called Disfigured Texts, so that the process is not from preformed to reformed text, but it’s from disfigured text to disfigured text.
Neilson: I’m with you, yeah.
Cabri: I don’t know if I am with myself.
Neilson: You can do whatever you want and say, but can you really?
I’m completely disloyal, and I steal. It is an activity to alter a new work, crossing pieces of text with pieces of text. And often, it’s scrambled signals. It’s actually very mundane.
Speaker 6: The one place where it makes me nervous, and I am talking about my own writing practice here — not nervous upon reading your work — is when that kind of stealing marks itself aggressively as appropriation, or if I feel like it does. So that then you’re not just taking the common language, you’re taking a particular person’s kind of language, and using it. Then the question of motives comes up, and rights, I suppose. Those sorts of questions. That’s the place where I get anxious myself, and I have to start wondering about why I am doing things, and what happens when I do them, and all of that.
Fuller: So, when you say a particular person’s kind of language —
Speaker 6: Well, vernacular, in the vernacular. Taking vernacular speech from working-class Portuguese people in Providence, Rhode Island: that makes me nervous.
Neilson: What about if you wanted to borrow some language from the Disney Company’s service-worker’s manual, that kind of language? How would you feel about that?
Speaker 6: Better.
I don’t know why, I feel like I would be —
Neilson: They’re very different, I think.
Speaker 6: Well, one is institutional.
Neilson: Your feelings are different about it.
Perelman: Yeah, well, it’s critique or it’s empathy, and those are —
Speaker 6: Exploitation.
Perelman: Yeah, exploitative.
Speaker 6: I feel like I have to be very careful about tone and all those sorts of things.
Speaker 7: There’s actually some words here that seem a little nervous, more nervous, Heather, than you’re letting on, and I wonder if I’m misreading them: “I think the specific poet moves beyond your act of witnessing,” [Actual text reads, “I think the civic poet moves beyond the mere act of witnessing.”] begins to ask questions of your responsibility. So, there is here this play, it’s actually a simple tactic: witnessing and interrogating. And testimony is what shows up, you have testimony. There is sort of this language, the law of guilt and responsibility, which at least is latent.
Neilson: Well, I think if I recall, that was from one email that was actually titled Civics 101. Heather actually sent me something called Civics 101.
Speaker 7: It’s about the citizen poet, the comrade poet.
Neilson: And you mentioned you worked for lawyers, so you had a legal orientation.
Speaker 7: I was thinking of it just because of the “Three Urban Legends” poem. It seems to me that you very deftly navigate all of those pitfalls in that poem. So, that’s what interests me just in terms of craft: how do you navigate all of these pitfalls if you decide that you’re going to engage with various kinds of American vernacular?
Fuller: Well, know them well. I guess I’m incredibly fortunate to be pretty immersed. I don’t know how I would do it if I was not.
Speaker 8: Well, we were talking about this yesterday and I was bringing up questions like responsibility, because we were looking at the same passage, and we were looking at juxtaposing “bird man,” which seemed more overheard, with “beggar,” which seemed to have more of the character of the poet in it. But now at this point, I would argue, that the opposite of taking this language is simply not using it, ignoring it. So, then what?
Fuller: Right. Exactly.
Gallagher: Yeah, I think that is what I find fascinating. I mean, what I hear people saying sounds maybe more critical, but I think one of the latent questions is actually: how do you enact responsibility? That’s something that you seem to pull off in a really decent way that’s curious. I don’t know, I think I’ve lost my thread.
Fuller: No, I hear you. I think about that all the time, and I wonder if it’s just my general disdain for stories, you know. For hearing, writing, reading stories and not wanting to write stories. And not wanting to make fairy tales or myths.
Perelman: Do you read Reznikoff?
Fuller: Yes. Yes, indeed.
Perelman: I’ve been thinking about him lately. He tells stories all the time —
Perelman: And it’s really crucial, you know, where the parents came from, where the kids are going, and the world doesn’t make sense and they’re not fully responsible without those stories. They’re not hokily Disneyed into a conclusion, but they’re crucial to making any of that manifest.
I just wonder about your very strong distaste for stories. And Melanie, you were saying oh gosh, can I even say the word in this room. Well, not quite, but to me all of those, it seems to me I’d like to propose a distinction, and I would like it to be, you know, the whole world to take it up —
But I think a lot of writers since Olson and the fifties have been hobbled by a kind of chimera of breakthrough, where story is one of the things we have to shoot down to get in one of the fast jet planes, or whatever. And it seems to me that Reznikoff is useful to think about narrative as a constituent part of the expertise that you have, with hearing language that you sort of know the trajectories of, the references and their sentences. You know where the day starts and where it goes in the middle, et cetera. Without that kind of knowledge, we don’t know much. The sad thing is it becomes incredibly irresponsible without that knowledge.
Fuller: Reznikoff, like Oppen and like Scalapino, have managed to tell stories without mythology. And when I think of story in the sense of what I’m talking about, I’m thinking of the mythologized story, the fairy story —
Perelman: And yet you don’t mean myth as in Aeolian myth?
Perelman: So, ideological masking?
Fuller: Yes, exactly.
Speaker 8: There’s a kind of, I’m thinking about the stuff Carla Harryman does, which is sort of fairy tale-ish, but it’s crazy. She has this thing with these people without mouths who just keep asking — somehow, even though they don’t have mouths — “Is Darth Vader our mom?”
That seems to me very appealing —
Fuller: Yeah. That’s great.
Speaker 8: And it is a kind of storytelling.
Fuller: And she’s able to really slip around with syntax.
Speaker 8: She has this line that always sticks in my head, in this story called “In the Mode Of,” where she says, “this is not logic, but a language of logic used to other ends,” which seems very much wrapped up in her project and maybe a different way to think about mythmaking, storytelling.
Speaker 9: I’m interested in asking Heather about the way in which the scene in the poems we were actually just looking through, the poems you read in this book, how is it that you bring issues of sexuality into this public space that you’ve been talking about? I am interested in how you do that. I’m interested to find out whether you study models for doing that, or whether it’s something that you —
Fuller: Well, sex is public space. “Try sex!,” “Fun!,” you know.
Neilson: Didn’t I read somewhere that you were the post-Language Eileen Myles?
Fuller: Yeah, that’s what Tom Devaney said.
Speaker 9: So, sex is public space, meaning that it’s being excelled?
Fuller: Well, you know, the boys on the street corner yelling “pussy” out of context. The car window issuing “freak” to the fabulous drag queen. It’s less a personal sense of sex than it is a sense of witnessing it. And asking a few questions about it.
Speaker 9: Witnessing the situation of the language?
Fuller: The language around perhaps what’s seen as deviant sex.
But I don’t think of any models really. I don’t know that there is really unified sex in my work. It’s more about what is present in the landscape of the language that is at work in a poem.
Neilson: I perceive that there were some gender identities in the landscape. These things, you know, you mentioned these shards of that spectacle.
Fuller: Right, right.
Then there’s “the American cock and the American hen back together again.”
Perelman: I detect a little mythology there.
Neilson: Grammars, then primers were sources for systems, like homilies, I was looking at those.
Speaker 9: I have a question about the footnotes, which maybe is a restatement of my question about anarchy —
Neilson: That’s fine.
Speaker 9: So we have in one sense a schema going here of a kind of communal, royally cisternal language in some sort of dialectic where the self confronts an other, and their primary relationship is one of negation and antagonism. It interested me that after this kind of collaborative wealth of material, that I got a very careful adumbration of whose was what’s, and how the final bid — “all else, my language” — tipped it more to the sort of dialectic side. So, I wonder if this gives you more of an in than maybe [inaudible].
Neilson: Well, it’s interesting that you bring this up because I added more to the notes. So, I actually have more here than ended up in the piece.
I think the element of fun and play and nonsense too, is important to me. And so, when I say “all else, mine, me, mine, mine mine mine” it’s very single minded.
It’s play. And, you know, if it’s coming across to you as particularly you, reader, then it’s having too much of my cake and eating it too.
I mean, in all seriousness, maybe that’s too easy and not fair for, at least for discussion.
Speaker: Well, it does seem that there are lots of motives, interesting motives for that kind of play in these poems, though, particularly around issues of readerly choice. This line, which —
Neilson: Completely ignore some of it, then add something that wasn’t there, then later on think, “well, you know what, I’m going to revise that,” or maybe you don’t. I don’t think we have too much time for autobiography here tonight, but as an undergraduate I was told about one of the professors, David Antin, who performed “talk poems” and I said, “oh, really?” He was an inspiration to me.
And he did, he just got up there and talked. And it’s always been something that I took with me. I loved that he just could change direction at will, mid-performance. When I don’t read frequently I often do that too. I see something I don’t like or don’t remember and I will change it, or I stumble. And I also stumble when I am actually putting in text, or change when writing. It’s interesting, just the performing of it, the making of it, and then round and round we go.
One thing I did want to mention is that Moxie, the soft drink from the 1930’s, was one of the things I added in my notes. It seemed important.
Perelman: Which came first, the soft drink or the —
Neilson: Some people say the soft drink came first. The effervescence that gives you the courage to be so, I don’t know. Or perhaps it takes moxie to drink Moxie.
Perelman: The new taste of Dr. Pepper.
I just wanted to ask, this might be a [inaudible] question, but about the performance, do you ever, I mean, you must feel a kind of weird, like I feel when I look at the page and you see “O poet of fortune!” And you don’t, one couldn’t — statistically you just couldn’t generate the way you read it. It’s like the monkeys typing King Lear. Well, a million readers reading that line and looking couldn’t create the tone of voice that you use. So, it’s just a big problem —
Neilson: It is.
Perelman: It’s the page versus the CD, or something. I don’t know, do you want to go CD instead of page sometimes?
Neilson: You know, when I was listening to Jack Spicer reading The Imaginary Elegies for the first time, it was so shocking to me. I felt so incredibly sad, because I’ve read him over the years with different ideas about it, but that was not there. I go and look at my Black Sparrow, beat-up collected this and that, there’s a great distance there.
But then, what are we doing, this is poetry? This is not show biz, and the fact is the small room of people so lovingly gathered or maybe some very obligated, I don’t know. And tonight, god forbid, this is going to happen again, but I had a very particular reading tonight, and I guess it’s the nature of what we’re doing, what some of us are doing.
Hey, if anyone wants to record it and put it on a CD, I’d love to be part of it. Like you said, there’s a sadness. How do you deliver?
Speaker: There are poets who completely destroy their work for an audience sometimes. It can go the other way, but there are people I’ve heard once and I can’t read their stuff anymore because there’s this horrible, grating voice reading those lines. So there are some people who really need to stay on the page, I think.
Speaker: Well, isn’t that what you were saying about Spicer, that it was disappointing?
Neilson: No, it was magnificent to hear his voice! I was so sad because I had read and missed his presence, had never heard his voice, and the lightness, it was so lovely.
But then, you know, who am I fooling? It’s mortality. It’s like, come on, oh, he’s gone. So are a lot of people, and they’re gone. You hold on to something and it just brings up something that I think everyone has feelings about.
Speaker 10: But I think you bring out, I mean, reading, it works differently for everybody. You play with tone so much in your work, and as Bob said, it’s hard to read that on a page at first go. But, I would think after you’ve immersed yourself in that, and read enough to get an idea of what it is you’re trying to get at, you would be better capture, not captured, but —
Speaker: Now, you don’t do too much graphically to try to represent your voice. Given all of the different inflections, that’s interesting.
You know, I mean, I think that’s always a problem —
Neilson: I mean, it’s one way. One way to perform it, and someone else could perform the text another way, something of the sort that Charles Bernstein was saying in the introduction to the book, The Performed Word?, that there were different ways, different performance styles —
Perelman: Close Listening.
Neilson: Yeah, right, that there are different ways to read and have things read.
Fuller: And one would hope that a reader would spend time with a text. I mean, “Turntable Wannabe,” it demands that you get into the piece. “Sleeping Bag USA,” “Civil Noir,” you would hope that you can get into the piece and spend time with it, so that when you reach “O poet of fortune!” you will have gotten into the rhythm.
Neilson: Or not.
Speaker: So, in a way Melanie, you’re thinking of yourself, at least when you are performing things, as just another reader of your own work?
Neilson: Not just another.
Speaker: A special one, but nonetheless.
Neilson: It’s okay, it’s a good question to ask. I’m the one who put out the stuff, so to speak.
Perelman: You’ve spent the most time with the writer. You really know her well.
Jena Osman: I have a question about performance for Heather. With you placard poem, the last poem you did with Mike’s voice, it seems that your poems are moving somewhere off the page, and I’m wondering if you’ve done work like that, or if it’s a direction that you see your work going into.
Fuller: Yeah, I’ve done a lot more work like that. The placard form has, sort of, leapt into another form all together that’s sort of linked to the Internet. So, I am always intrigued by how text does leap off. And I do want to get audiences more involved in producing text.
Osman: So, you’re using the Internet for that, or are you using actual performance?
Fuller: I’m using actual performance. I’m actually rigging the audience.
Osman: In the way you did tonight with having voices coming from the audience?
Fuller: Different ways, different ways. You should come to DC on April 22nd, because I’m doing a new piece that is completely audience-driven.
Speaker: Where is that going to be?
Fuller: I’ll give you info.
Gallagher: Well, everybody got their questions asked? Thank you.
Recorded on March 5, 2011. An afternoon at the home of Myung Mi Kim in Buffalo, New York. Transcribed and edited by Divya Victor for Jacket2.
Presented in eight parts:
Beginning with language: Earliest memories of writing.
“Play the Mozart Sonata!”: Musical training and the practice of performance.
Traction and upside-down-ness: The composed and composing body of the writer.
Un-patterning and un-expectation: Affect, sensory experience, and acts of composition.
Intertextual study and co-elaborative composition.
To be “held on either side of this predicament”: Constructing the “poetics” of a poet.
The question of “hybridity”: Positioning critical terms in contemporary discourse.
The question of “experimental”: Positioning critical terms in contemporary discourse.
In what place streets best known, earliest nickname known
Ah, her child face (as she remembers it)
Ah, her child face (as the photograph of it replaces the memory of it)
— Myung Mi Kim, “There Fishing Three,” in Under Flag (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1998), 30.
Divya Victor: I have some classic hits questions for you. What is your first memory of writing?
Myung Mi Kim: Crazily enough, I can tell you. In retrospect it may become more and more important. For me, not for anybody else. It is not a direct memory. It is an artifact that I found — I have a journal that my sister handmade for me — hand sewn. Pale green on the outside with pale pink paper on the inside. My sister is an artist. She is one of those people that can make anything — textile, furniture, journals …
Victor: How old were you?
Kim: When I first got to the US (nine years old). It was like a gift to me when I arrived. Half my family came first — my dad, my sister, and my younger brother — and six months later, it was me, my oldest brother, and my mom. When we all got together there were all kinds of gifts. She gave it to me then. I don’t have a physical memory of writing in it. Although when I saw it many years later I did remember writing in it.
And Divya, this is the fascinating thing, for me, its all written in this third grader’s Korean! Nary an English word! I didn’t know English! It’s all in Korean. All of it. I didn’t get far into the journal — maybe ten pages. It’s all about how lonely I am, how devastatingly lonely, how I’ve left all my friends. That’s a kind of residual space that I don’t actually remember writing. But when I found the journal again, years later, I thought “Oh, absolutely.” I wish I could remember when everything starts to be in English.
The other primary association I have with writing — and I don’t know how this came to me: my father died, as you know, when I was fourteen. And I wrote a poem about his funeral. I don’t know why or how I wrote a poem. I don’t know if I was already writing poems. But this poem was actually published. My teacher sent it to some English teacher’s journal.
Victor: Do you remember where you wrote it, in your home?
Kim: Absolutely. Right after his funeral. Very much a response to the visual images of the funeral. The snow. He died on Valentine’s Day. The ground was so frozen. I remember thinking that they can’t dig into the snow to put the casket in. Much of the poem is about the colors. The red carnations. The white carnations. Something in that strange, violent juxtaposition of these living flowers, red and white, their colors next to the earth that can’t be broken into. And there is my father’s casket. And my mother who is just trying to heave herself into that hole that has been dug for the casket. The poem somehow notices all of that.
Those two are my distinct memories — of the little girl writing in a Korean journal given to her by her sister and then there is a kind of skip and everything is in English. I’m not sure how I got from the space of the journal to the poem. A four-year gap. This is all to say that I didn’t sit around reading poetry — I wrote it. And if that’s what we mean by someone is brought to writing — because you’re not thinking genre or how this poem bears a resemblance to other poems — you’re just brought to poetry.
Who even came this way, bellow or saw
Thirty and five books
Paper script document
Kinglists proverbs praise phrases
They say it is the ocean
Indistinguishable water horizon net of worth
False vocalization of the consonantal text
Rose thorn and reported ocean
The beginnings of things
— Myung Mi Kim, Dura (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Nightboat Books, 2008).
Victor: When did you start your involvement with music? How did that happen? Did everyone in your family practice?
Kim: That was a very important part of my life. I was maybe five. Everyone might have done it, yes — but I took to it. My parents would trot me out at dinner parties, “play the Mozart Sonata!” Being the youngest, maybe I learned how to enjoy being compliant. Sad as that might be.
But I loved doing that for my parents. I started when I was five and left Korea when I was nine. I was playing a pretty serious repertoire by the time I came here [to the US]. That was a big part of my childhood and adolescence. And as you know, when I went to college I was enrolled in the conservatory. All that to say, I would practice maybe two or three hours a day. It taught me a lot about a) concentration and b) just to get a run of passages right, you’d have to figure out the phrasing you were after, the pitches, the combination of rhythm, volume, what actually constituted a phrase. It had a lot to do with (not necessarily directly) how I think about rhythm, musicality, the line — some of that training is definitely imbedded in my idea of prosody, rhythm, and so forth.
It gave me the ability to reformulate things constantly — which is what practice means, when you practice on an instrument — which is not so different from what it means to practice as a writer.
Victor: It seems like you follow these principles in performances as well. Every time I’ve heard your readings, you ask the question of where the accent should be placed, which combination of pages should be read first, and which should be skipped. The logistics of poetry performances seem to have an analogy with musical practice here.
Kim: Yes. I can’t quite imagine a relationship with a poem, the fact of writing or reading a poem that would be permanently inscribed. More and more, even with texts that exist as “published,” every time I read them, the occasional context matters. I am reading the text in that present moment. There are certain things that are literally sayable, pronounceable, that you think you can get into your body and into your throat and through your breath. And some days you take the same text and you say, “You know, I just cannot say that word today.” Why should I pretend that? Why should I will that? Depending on the day, you can wake up and your mouth feels different, or your nose or throat, or you have some sort of congestion, or you feel more exhausted, or you have less lung capacity. Do you heed that? Yes, for me. Rather than reading the text as it is simply because it is. It’s a way of understanding that the text is absolutely in flux even after the fact of having produced it. Because there is an ongoing relationship with the text you produced, in the past tense, but that text is not inconsolably permanent.
Victor: Absolutely. My decision-making process in composing a setlist revolves around how much I’m ready to spit that day. Because I tend to work with longer, exhausting, fast, sequential list pieces, I feel more ready to expel a lot in front of friends. But, perhaps not everyone thinks of the reading scene this way. I think many think of the text as already accomplished: “I have had my say.” But then the poet is carrying around a cardboard cutout of herself, saying the poem.
Kim: Right, then anyone could, therefore, say that text. Rather than the performance also asserting that (during this particular reading) I am the person who has a relationship to the history of making that text, here are the things that are possible, here are the things that refer, here are the things that I rehear, here are the connections between passages and elements that I’ve not heard before. Can we think of this as part of textual practice? Can we think of continually producing a relationship to the process of producing a text? A continual reengagement? That is what I mean as process. To participate in the reading.
Victor: This is bringing together what you’ve been saying about concentration, discipline, and the practice of the musical instrument and what interests you about attention, inattention, and attunement.
Kim: Maybe a useful model here: there is the moment when you show up and do your piano recital — straight through, it is one time, and the decisions you make hold steady. For me, this is accompanied by the ten thousand ways you could play that one passage in that one piece which I can also hear at that particular moment. So that particular, objectively describable moment is never autonomous from all the other attempts, all the other forays, all the other articulations. Actually I hadn’t thought about this before. Maybe that’s true. One “publishes” and that’s the recital. But [that moment of performance] is never cut off from all the other permutations, all the other possibilities, all the other iterations, and all the ways in which I could hear, or could process, or could place this passage next to that passage. It is perpetual, even while there is the thing called the recital or the thing called the book.
Victor: Yes. That “even while” is crucial — not instead of, but even while and in spite of the book existing, or the poem existing as published object.
Kim: To actually be able to think of compositional space is precisely that predicament. There is the thing that might become palpable as the recital or the book. But for me, this is never distinct from all the attempts, all the possibilities, all the desire for differentiation.
— to represent 14 single and 5 double consonants,
Hangul starts with five basic symbols, which are
shaped to suggest the articulators pronouncing them.
For example, a small square depicts a closed mouth
This is the study book.
— Myung Mi Kim, “Primer,” in The Bounty (Tucson: Chax Press, 1996).
Victor: Myung, this morning I went to the neurosurgeon. Have you seen the movie The Savages?
Victor: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character has to do that thing where he hangs from a door — it’s called traction. I have to do that. For three months. Three times a day for twenty minutes.
Kim: Three times a day? Do they give you the whole apparatus?
Victor: You fill a giant bladder of water. Then you swing the bladder over a door. And hang it from a metal frame. You strap your face to it. And sort of … squat. There is a mechanical apparatus that stretches your neck so it can release the pressure that’s built up in it.
Kim: Do you know why this is happening? You didn’t have an injury, per se.
Victor: I didn’t have an injury, but I have multiple torn parts. There is a thing called an “annulus” that covers and cushions each spinal disc. It creates the right space between each disc. And if it’s torn, the disc puts too much pressure on the nerve.
Kim: But is it just from wear and tear? Like everyday life?
Victor: Yeah. The doctor said: “Either you’re eighty years old, or you used to play sports.” And, neither is true. It could have been a childhood injury. I used to throw discus.
Kim: Well there you go.
Victor: I was a very mediocre field athlete.
Kim: No, no, I am just trying to imagine you. And I can!
Victor: No, it’s probably a delayed reaction. Age, bad posture. Reading.
Kim: Well. Now I have a picture of you hanging upside down like a bat.
Victor: Actually that’s how all my dissertation writing is going to happen. With the blood rushing to my head.
Kim: You never know, it could kick something over. Right? Something that wouldn’t happen if you were sitting upright, pretending that you were writing. Now this way you just “write” rather than sitting down to write.
Victor: That’s a great idea. And just dictate as I’m hanging?
Kim: Absolutely. Though I don’t know what will happen to your breathing.
Victor: Well, I hold my breath when I write anyways.
Kim: No, this would be good. I want you to breathe when you’re writing rather than hold your breath when you’re writing. Yes, this could actually be quite useful as a process. Well literally to change your physiology — the breathing, the not breathing — I think it will have the potential to convert what you think of as “writing.”
All joking aside, the complete reorientation and readjustment of everything that you associate with the scene of writing. And to be actually given an opportunity to, in some sense, have no “will.” To be upside down. Your body is actually going to be breathing a different way. Your pulse is going to beat in a different way. The sense that might be produced or evoked might alter or shift what it is possible to think. And one might imagine writing as somehow tracking those cracks — it’s not what you know about writing, it’s what you can’t in fact begin to imagine about writing that somehow presents itself or you’re able to catch it in the moment that its appearance starts disappearing. The image of upside-down-ness — and I know it is a product of physical pain — might actually, if nothing else, give you a kind of reprieve or will alleviate the trends and habits that you might have established in relation to writing.
Victor: Yes. I think we do observe (in the sense of religious practice) a very passive pose of the writer. It’s like we’re in the position of supplicants: you walk to the desk, pull out the chair, and behold the tablet on which you etch — I find it to be a very archaic, passive pose to assume — as a scribe.
When you were speaking of bodily exertion or upside-down-ness, where the body has turned into this precarious object that you have no illusion of controlling, I was reminded of an artist I saw last July in L.A. He was running on a treadmill on a public street, right outside the LACE gallery that was hosting him, and right on Hollywood Blvd., wearing a business suit. He had a canvas and a palette. And, as he ran, he was painting portraits of the people who would stand in front of him. And he did this for hours. All evening. And he didn’t seem to stop. And he would line up the portraits. And each of these portraits seemed to get more desperate. I could sense a breakage of the body in the stroke, in his ability to control his hand.
Kim: Yes, I think the cusp between what holds and what breaks as one is writing or as one is perceiving is important. Because we have the idea that in order to compose or make [poetry] something [must already be] holding steady, i.e. there is a perceiving unit at work which then somehow notates and converts via language, rhythm, prosody, if you are a poet. The idea is that something is going to hold in perpetuity. But I guess, for me, the most sobering and humbling and empowering and humiliating and vulnerable response to that is yes and absolutely not. [The act of writing or perceiving] is what holds but can only hold as it is constantly and necessarily shifting and moving and mobilizing itself, rather than calling more steadiness to itself, or it wills a certain kind of stability. So it’s this kind of completely tenuous, incomprehensible, undecidable space between whatever it might mean to “make something” — which is one ear toward the steady, the “upright” — and absolutely understanding that making can only happen literally because one has to be able to be upside down or attentive in ways that you did not know you knew how to be.
Victor: Conquered by something else.
Victor: By your very “position” —
Kim: Yes. Or if not that, then one understands that to be “taken,” “conquered” is also a certain kind of response. It is the presentation again and again of something you don’t already have an experience of.
Un-patterning and un-expectation: Affect, sensory experience, and acts of composition.
|in measure and in collusion separate and bound
by nine entries in the figure of nine propertied
by nine entries in one acre shallow well and pump
hairy snouts arrows in wealth parade of gifts
rain soaked evergreen
note circles heat swelling
familiar dipthong again siege
wrench its nature alloy encumbering
quality of light mineral
— Myung Mi Kim, “III,” in The Bounty (Tucson: Chax Press, 1996), 91.
Victor: We were talking about Wyndham Lewis today and his position against “cultivated naïveté” in reference to Stein and her idea that one assumes a “childlike relationship” to a present. To recall what you were saying about being taken by surprise, or conquered — these things seem like they don’t quite translate into how we think about “play” or naïveté or childlike approaches to language.
Kim: My first instinct when I hear the phrase “naiveté” or “cultivated naïveté” — the reason I used the word “willed” earlier is because I think that in the space where one is doing whatever we’re calling this mode of attention — this willingness to be shaken — there is no will. So the notion of cultivating something, for me at least, prompts a relation to a certain kind of self-reflexive decision to create that kind of space. And I think I’m talking about something related but dissimilar.
Victor: I think what Lewis is calling “cultivated naïveté” is closer to what you meant with “converting” from a stable, perceiving position. There is a translation or conversion that is always “successful” for him.
Kim: But of course, someone could come along and argue — convincingly — that what I’m talking about is also cultivated. But I think I’m much more curious about cultivation that already congregates to itself or magnetizes to itself a reading that is already ready and in place — something is cuing space. And for me, there is nothing. There is nothing being called forward or there is no aggregate or there is nothing that you’re searching for or hoping happens. That is a very different idea of cultivation. You can stick radish seeds in the ground and you expect radishes. But for me, it’s like I put in a radish seed and I got I don’t know what! Something completely otherwise!
Victor: You know, when you talk about this tension, you often use words like “cue” or “trigger” but not in terms of affect. Of course, I’m reading Charles Reznikoff all the time now and whenever he talks about triggers he uses the verb “move”: “I’m always moved to approach.” Which is interesting because he was a walker — he walked all day, everyday, he walked his way through New York city — but he means “moved” in the affective, rather than physiological sense (of walking) — what chokes me up, sentiment, sorrow, joy — but you are talking about it in a sensory way quite distinct from being moved affectively.
Kim: I think that’s certainly part of it. I think that’s one of the layers or the stratas. There is no way to codify this. Let me put it this way: what you are describing is a certain kind of correspondence or equivalence: “I am moved by these kinds of elements … if I have an encounter that resembles a previous encounter I now see that there is a correspondence, or parallel, or equivalence, or constellation effect.” Of course for me that is true. That’s operative. But what I would imagine slightly differently is that its not about moving on those correspondences and equivalences. It’s a lot more unsteady. The notion of being moved by something, the notion of being brought to this sensation, what you are calling “affect,” is precisely that because you don’t know there is this linkage between this event and that event. There is un-patterning, there is un-expectation, I would say.
Victor: Because to say one “is moved” always suggests a successful navigation of that trigger … of what it has caused, and the direction in which it has moved.
Kim: Or being able to recognize it when it’s happening. Obviously, I think, most of us who are brought to language or brought to making art understand profoundly that sensation of recognizing something that is working on you as much as you are working on it. But for me, there can be no assumption about what that is time and again. Because there is always a presentness of that encounter with that thing moving through you. Rather than one being able to classify or recognizing that movement from one moment to another, from one contact to another.
The kind of things that one might be led to see or experience might have some contact with “I,” “myself,” a “perceiving unit” — but I am not making a point of reference — each time you see yourself or have an experience of “That’s what’s happening,” you are not relating it to some other previous moment in which you also had realized it was happening. It’s a lot more vulnerable than to know and to have a safety that says “I’ve had this experience before.”
Victor: The safety of reference?
Kim: The safety of knowing.
Book of Famine, Book of Attempt, Book of Money
Book of Labor, Book of Scribes
Book of Utterances, Book of Hollow Organs,
Book of Tending, Book of Wars, Book of Household,
Book of Protection, Book of Grief, Book as Inquiry
Swerves, oddities, facts, miscues, remnants — threnody and meditation —
the perpetually incomplete task of tracing what enters into the field of perception
(the writing act) — its variegated and grating musics, cadences, and temporalities.
Book as specimen
Book as instruction
The book emerges through cycles of erosion and accretion
— Myung Mi Kim, “Pollen Fossil Record,” in Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 107.
Victor: When I read your work I register all these references to external texts — “Book of Grief,” “Book of Enquiry,” interests in encyclopedias, archives, and so on. How does all of this relate to your study? There is study on one hand that assumes the supplicant’s position — you say, “I’m here to know, to practice, to study” — that seems quite different from your notion of the vulnerable position that we started off talking about in reference to surprising positions for the body to find itself in. To find itself in, rather than to put itself in …
Kim: You see that as paradoxical?
Victor: Not paradoxical. But in a nice oppositional relationship.
Victor: Oh no. Oh, I’m not going to use that word. You said it, not me!
Kim: Clearly your question is a brilliant one: how can you have the impulse to apply study and in the same moment have no relation to that announcement?
Victor: Yes, right.
Kim: In the tension which is never resolvable. To some degree, it is what is produced in that tension that you become, I hope, inable to further and further fine-tune what you mean by either — “study” or “attention.”
Victor: Myung, that’s a trick answer.
Kim: Was I being evasive?
Victor: No, you were being yourself. It’s this great move that you make — you hear a question and then you ask a question of that question — which is another way of negotiating this “opposition” relationship or question and answer that we’re talking about.
Kim: So, wait, we treated that too quickly. How do we understand the productive or unproductive (either way) relationship between opposition and the “D” word that I said (dialectical)? This has come up because you asked that question. And I don’t know any better way than to say sometimes one of those features is more prominent and sometimes the other is more operative. Which is why I’m saying in the “co-elaboration,” in the unwieldy, uncomfortable, conversation that something happens.
What started then and ate through most of a decade
The affliction is very near — and there is no one to help
The dead dog placed around my shoulders — weeks higher than my head
Standing as standing might
[on verso page]
[on recto page]
“I have dissected more than ten human bodies, destroying all the various members
“and removing all the minutest particles of flesh which surround these veins, without causing
“any effusion of blood … and as one single body did not suffice for so long a time.
“it was necessary to proceed by stages with so many bodies as would render my
The Notebooks, Da Vinci
— Myung Mi Kim, “Lamenta,” in Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 40–41.
Victor: I’m trying to imagine your use of materials from other sources, especially in parts of your books that are explicit appropriations — Da Vinci’s notebooks, sixteenth-century texts and so on. I really like this word “co-elaboration” that you’ve used. This is not a decision just as turning yourself upside down in that bat-like position is not the decision you make.
Kim: Right. I’ll say this: when I tend to include material that is very clearly based on reading or something that can be identified as “another,” I do that not because I’m pulling it in. It has found me! I wasn’t looking for it. There wasn’t that study that we’ve been talking about. Or that quote-unquote “cultivated.” I was not looking for a radish seed to produce a radish.
But somehow, you find this text that suddenly multiplies the terms of something you were thinking about or it makes the conversation in your head become so much louder. For me, it is not a question of assemblage, insertion, citation. There is no decision here to include material or matter. It simply couldn’t be avoided. Once you read a text, in the context of other work you think you’re doing, whatever tracking you’re doing, you think, “My God, this one passage, just by its very presence, opens all these possible portals, opens ways of asking the question.” Its presence is one instantiation that opens up to multiple possibilities.
Like the Da Vinci reference you mentioned: to talk about the language of anatomy is to talk about the language of inquiry — to open up the body whether it is of a human or an animal — a scalpel in hand, a very crude scalpel, mind you — to open up the human body for my “scientific inquiry.” The insatiable, clearly over-the-top project — and yet somehow you notice what’s driving the impulse and you multiply that impulse towards what is oftentimes the female body, especially in the book you are bringing up now. In my mind I didn’t know, or maybe I already knew — see, this is the thing — when one writes anything at what point does one have a preexisting sense of where one is going and why and at what point is one led towards something and at what point do things find one? This is the triangulation that we’re talking about. I listened to the intensity of the language of scientific inquiry or experiment or compulsion, “Let me do this! Let me find out!” as a way to understand expansionist consciousness and imperialist impulses.
Victor: Absolutely. Whenever I read the sections titled “Vocalise” in this book, I feel like someone is responding to a Christmas present they just opened: “It’s just what I wanted! The body is just what I wanted!” That’s why I hover on the word “expansionist” in what you just said. Of course to present the body is to provide an autopsy — “to see with one’s eyes” — the body always reflects the enquirer’s expectations. And this is not what all the other sections do. [The sections that use citation or reference to canonical texts] appear the most stable sections and the most upsetting ones because of that. Because as we said earlier, the will to convert that perception, that seeing, is so successful, so fully executed with the scalpel’s inquiry into the body. What should and ought to “reassure” me in the book — the paragraph structure, the form and syntax of the sixteenth-century scientific treatise — is the most upsetting because I realize that its promise has been fulfilled to create the ideal, to create the rational and stable body.
Kim: There’s this strange phenomena … and you’re going to laugh at me and call me evasive … it’s never that one can ever be firmly and finally released from the predicament that this happens. Simply remarking on this phenomenon does not mean that it is going to change or alter or go away. It is being held on either side of this predicament. This is where I think poetry happens. It’s not unilateral. Just because I’ve been able to comment or notice or observe this does not mean we’ve broken through to the other side.
Do they have trees in Korea? Do the children eat out of garbage cans?
We had a dalmation
We rode the train on weekends from Seoul to So-Sah where we grew grapes
We are on the patio surrounded by dahlias
Over there, ass is cheap — those girls live to make you happy
Over there, we had a slateblue house with a flat red roof where
I made many snowmen, over there
No, “th”, “th”, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth,
lean slightly against the back of the top teeth, then bring your
bottom teeth up to barely touch your tongue and breathe out, and
you should feel the tongue vibrating, “th”, “th”, look in the mirror,
And with the distance traveled, as part of it
How often when it rains here is rain there?
One gives over to a language and then
What was given, given over?
— Myung Mi Kim, from “Into Such Assembly,” in Under Flag (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1998), 30.
Victor: You’ve said that poetry happens when something is being held on either side of the predicament. You’ve also said that you’re skeptical of the perceiving subject that then converts something into “experience.” Let’s talk about this in terms of scholarship. There is definitely a genre of criticism that wants to believe that formal decisions are traceable, that they go back to a certain — we’re too fancy to say “psychology” now — but it essentially goes back to that: psychology. It imagines that formal strategies are analogies for life experience — speculations on strategies of citation, fragmentation, the use of foreign linguistic characters, white page space, move towards a reading of immigration, displacement, traumas of otherness. What is your sense of this type of critical move? This move premised on being able to “trace” from the page to the person?
Kim: But isn’t this just a brilliant extension and working metaphor for the question we were posing earlier! At what point between the cultivated and the vulnerable are we “making”? One way to begin to respond to your question would be to say I think those kinds of forays into mapping what has prompted the formal thinking onto an actual, lived life is to say: I get it. I don’t disavow it. I think it is valid. On the other hand, I also think how it is then possible, having said that and done that, how does [the critic] leave room for what is not equivalent, not correspondent between those two terms?
It is not sufficient to say, “Let’s look at the link between the information about biography, immigration, disjunction, cultural and linguistic rupture, and the poetry.” I think that is absolutely valid. But I wonder where it is too comfortable a position or comfortable line of thinking and comfortable line of critical activity, as opposed to things that are not settled and uncomfortable about that narrative. To make that narrative into a scrutable trajectory between the “givens” and the formal, compositional, and processual work — I’m curious about what this achieves and what this excludes.
Victor: What I’m hearing is a push for a reading of poetics of “Myung Mi Kim” that is more than the poetics of Myung Mi Kim. And one that doesn’t already operate on the premise that you already “have” a poetics.
Kim: Yes, there is a relentless way in which we want to make a composite of the poet at work, or of the poet’s imaginary, or of the poet’s particular historical context. And I think to some degree no one is ever that transparent or scrutable.
Victor: Right. There is something in the very critical vocabulary itself — “oeuvres,” “careers” — that betrays the premise of imagined transparency between the poet and the work. For instance, my father works as a design and consultation engineer for the city of San Francisco, but I don’t ever call a water-treatment plant a “life work.” Even if he “did” spend a “life” working on it. Whereas for the critic the transparency seems so available. It comes from a wish to totalize, I think.
Kim: I think, yes, there is room to leave a trace of that question — or problematic of what it means to totalize any writer, any poet. Because somehow, totalizing has become a way to estimate or enter a critical discourse about their body of work. The question we proposed earlier: “What does this [method] embrace and leave out?” I think that’s a valid question. It helps address what it means, very generally, to read and respond and write about someone’s work.
Victor: There is, isn’t there, a big difference between claiming “I am reading somebody’s work” and “I am reading the work of somebody.” In the latter construction, there is room for the possibility that that somebody’s body might have been upside down.
Kim: Yes, seriously. We started the entire conversation with the idea of what happens when the basic assumptions — of being “upright,” vertical, sitting down with the idea of sitting down to write — if that’s somehow released from the kind of hold that it has; you’re upside down, you’re more porous, you’re without the kind of access of all sorts (linguistic, formal, graphic, acoustic). If you are without a readily available connection or opening, then what do you have? I am curious about that space which, in some sense, there is no access, or not many things are available and therefore something begins to happen.
Victor: Myung, we have talked in the past about the term that has often been used to describe or corral your work, depending on how one sees it: ‘hybridity.’ You are, for instance, in the American Hybrid anthology from Norton. What do you think about the term ‘hybrid’ or the process of ‘hybridization’?
Kim: It is not unlike what we’ve been talking about a minute ago. Of course there is work to be done between, say, the correlation between the givens of a poet and how they might prompt, cue, prepare the way for formal and linguistic practices.
Of course, hybridization is a fact — like the fact of my immigration, like the fact of my cultural displacement. It has a givenness. But I am curious about the degree to which we let it be an easily nameable easily delegated, easily defined, convenient nomination for something that’s much more complex than a single word might imply.
Victor: That’s a really useful distinction between what is given and what refuses to give itself up for explanation, transfer, conversion, interpretation. I’ve certainly been in situations where my formal strategies have been given different names than other Americans who might have been using similar methods — the difference between, for instance, heteroglossic practices and hybridized vocabularies is too easily elided when my face comes into the picture. The latter is a fantasy attributed to an “immigrant impulse.”
Kim: Yes. Hybrid too easily melds difference. Just “stick” these components together and everything becomes scrutable. You take a little bit of cultural displacement, a little bit of immigration and you stick a little bit of first and second language and tah-dah you have a way to approximate those very deeply historical, cultural, economic, and political realities.
I worry about what is eclipsed, denuded at the mention of “hybridity.” It too easily makes seamless those things. One must see the difficulty. There is no way these elements can come together. Yet, they have to be cognizant of each other and be available to each other. Is there a way to keep problematizing these difficulties, rather than saying “See how they coalesce into a single identity!” or saying “Hybridity is now a calculable, experience-able entity.” The impulse to say that “hybridity” is a singular identity is deeply concerning. If “hybridity” is to be of any use, it has to be always reframing, reconfiguring, and jostling any assumption that anyone can make about identity. For this it will have to question the impulse to resolve the undiagnosable.
she, the weeping work
parade of earnings
| | weight of forelegs and hooves under water
a ripple | birched
— Myung Mi Kim, from River Antes (Oakland, CA: Atticus/Finch Press, 2006).
Victor: What you’ve been saying about the usage of the term “hybridity” goes back to what we were saying about totalizing perception, totalizing a poetics. I like linking this up with what you said about process, and the use of source materials: there is no decision to use, it just couldn’t be helped. As I often say to my students: line breaks aren’t heartbreaks. Similarly, when you immigrate, it can’t be helped. That does not translate into a formal strategy. A strategy is something that can be helped. That’s what a strategy is: something deliberate used to create something else. Basically, my question is coming from a concern about a general trend in criticism that makes life experience (if I dare say that) into metaphors for writing.
Kim: I think this is a profound issue for me. This brings up important satellite questions about naming someone an experimental writer, avant-garde poet, and so on. How is it possible to render one’s actual, lived experience, one’s historical condition? Rather than saying “let’s just make it somehow akin to” … it seems to me that any sort of departure from the given is relegated to the “experiment.”
When I went to Korea, for the first time I realized in a resounding way something that I couldn’t sense in a US context — when someone would ask me “What’s happening in your work” — the quote-unquote “inscrutable,” or “experimental” — I could finally say “It’s not about that.” How can I find a way to indicate the actual experience when that experience doesn’t exist? There are no models, no modes, no form, no linguistic registers that are available. In a sense, you have to rework the entire continuum of language, form, prosody, whatever you’re drawn to as a poet. Saying that in a non-US context and having people say “Oh this is not a methodology, not a strategy, but that this comes out of a particular way in which there is no prior shape, no prior moment, no prior poetry or poetics that you can simply draw from.” You have to literally make it. Hand by hand, finger by finger, foot by foot. You have to make something that allows you, however uncomfortably or comfortably, to work that space — mentally, emotionally, historically, and culturally. Because nothing exists for how you are coming to your own condition.
It’s not, for me, a decision to “experiment.” But it is an “experiment” simply because it does not coalesce or does not hearken to what already exists. If that is what one means by “experiment,” OK then that is what I do. However, I am not necessarily working in the experimental tradition, or building on a genealogy of an experimental convention as it exits. One isn’t always taking a departure from something that exists, one is making it for the first time.
Victor: I have an image of a guinea pig showing someone that part of its back with a patch of flesh charred and red with chemicals, saying “I am participating in this experiment. This is experimental.” The guinea pig is not in the position to ask the crafted questions or pose the hypothesis that the experiment then proves or disproves. My concern is that there is a distinct institutional privilege enacted in the ability to raise your hand and ask the right questions, to pose the likeable hypothesis that gets the funding. The access to this “ability” is problematic or compromised for some.
Kim: Which is why, in a non-US context, you can step out some of the very insular ways in which we talk about art. The desire to make a kind of typology or genealogy of all sorts.
Victor: Right, right. Well, this has been intense.
Kim: Want another drink?
Victor: Sure, yes. Thanks, Myung.
1. From LACE’s website: In a brave attempt to multitask outside HollywoodMerchmART! John Kilduff of Letspainttv.com will jog on his treadmill on the Walk of Fame, while performing various mundane and creative activities (from eating chicken and blending drinks to painting portraits) for a modest fee.
Students interview three poets
I am a professor in global liberal studies at New York University, a new four-year BA program that, wanting to be known for its teaching, indulges its faculty in their pedagogical experiments. In spring 2012 I put together a seminar with the loud title Poetry and Globalization. The one thing my seminar was emphatically not about was poems about globalization. Rather, I meant to study the encroachment of modern Western poetics into societies where poetry depends on technologies other than print, and performs other functions than it does in the West. In other words, it was about the relativity of values, about the way values are deformed in translation, about the roles of performance and of social context. The professor — namely me — having grown up between two poetry systems, the Russian and the American ones, has experienced firsthand the localness of poetic forms, observing how poets of one system, no matter their education, could never really leave its values, could never fully alienate themselves into a position that was not, from some other position, blinkered and provincial. Poetic values, I thought, are never universal, even though each bearer of local values will consider all or some of them, unconsciously, to be universal. Hence, values need to be taught with the help of anthropology, or to be more precise, ethnography.
So we studied not only foreign poetic systems, such as Bosnian oral epic as recorded by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, the Chinese transition to vernacular poetry, and Turkish modernism in its political and linguistic context, but also anthropological writings on poetry, like those by Clifford Geertz. We went to readings downtown — events as disparate as the (very raucous) American Sign Language Poetry Slam at the Bowery Poetry Club, the cool sessions of avant-garde writing at the Poetry Project, and even those held by professional creative writing people at NYU itself. Several poets and translators kindly visited us in the classroom; the Spanish-language poet and performance artist Ernesto Estrella Cózar even declaimed with such gusto that the class next door complained. In April we organized a colloquium with six poets and publishers from different countries. Open to all, the event proved not boring, and ended with a huge and edifying argument over translation strategies between Dmitry Kuzmin (Russia) and Murat Nemet-Nejat (USA).
Early in the process of planning for the seminar I gutted the traditional idea of a seminar paper. I wanted a project that would be more versatile, that would prepare students to write for magazines as much as academic institutions, but that would also let them experience poetry in its natural habitat. I put each student in contact with a different New York–based poet of my acquaintance. The choice of poet was dictated by what I knew of the student’s interests. The student was supposed to interview the poet, with the covert aim of figuring out what values inform her poetry, and eventually to learn to read the poet’s work through the lens of the poet’s values. Three out of four assignments that students carried out — and that we workshopped in class — came out of their interviews. Here are several such interviews in their transcribed, excerpted, and edited form. — Eugene Ostashevsky
Students (below, left to right): Francesca Federico, Maria Khimulya, Catalina Cantolla Gallardo.
Francesca Federico interviewed Marcella Durand, an important practitioner of ecopoetics, a type of new “nature” writing that attends to the environment of a subject treated as an observer. Durand’s books of poetry include Area (Belladonna) and Traffic and Weather (Futurepoem). Francesca writes that Durand works “in a deliberately fractured way, creating ‘stanzas’ that build and bend to reveal their own architectural form.Traffic and Weather is one poem in sixty pages, and follows some person — Durand’s narrator — as he or she experiences life in a city from sunrise to dusk. Her narrator loses itself in its environment at several points, both physically and emotionally, for it is the city itself that plays the most active role in the book. The intimacy of the light hitting a building, and the ephemeral wind stirring hanging ropes are just two examples of how Durand creates an otherworldly atmosphere within the city’s concrete boundaries … The intentional shifts between what is experienced and what is emotionally felt, as well as the scientific way of seeing the world results in an extremely multifaceted work … The effect on the reader is profound; Marcella seems to have encapsulated in sixty pages, in one poem, the very essence of what living in a city is, its confusions and its splendor.” Francesca Federico is a junior in global liberal studies at NYU, studying operatic vocal performance. She is spending her junior year in Paris, working for an artistic management agency that represents contemporary classical artists in London and Paris.
Francesca Federico: I’m wondering how you came to be a poet, because what you write about isn’t really typical of other poets. And it seems you have a lot of influences from astronomy, and architecture, and that kind of thing. Have you been involved in those fields?
Marcella Durand: When I went to college I was originally going to be a geologist [laughs], and I was always interested in science but I was terrible at math. And then I got completely seduced into poetry. I had a great professor, who was totally passionate about poetry, and we didn’t work the same aesthetically at all, but his passion for it got me interested in it. And then, when I was living in France, I was living with musicians, and I didn’t have a job. So they would get up at eight in the morning, and start practicing like crazy, and I decided to start trying to write. They were putting being an artist into their schedules, so that’s where I saw how serious people were about being creative. And I wasn’t worried about having a job or anything, I was really just isolated in the suburbs of Paris.
Federico: Would you say that the French language itself influences your English poetry?
Durand: Oh, definitely. It’s a much more lucid language, more precise. It’s really helped me see how French is more, denotative? They have an exact word for everything, and English is much more connotative. So it’s helped me be a little more cognizant of what I’m using in connotation, and when something isn’t precise. And I have this sense of otherness.
Federico: Do you feel that way about any other languages? Or is French the one?
Durand: French is the one. A lot of the French writers are the ones I feel most inspired by, rather than English or American ones for the most part. The person I’ve been chewing on and translating for the longest time is Michèle Métail, who is a contemporary French woman poet. I just love her work, but it’s very difficult to translate. It took me five years to translate one page.
Durand: Yeah, because it’s written according to a constraint. It’s a poetic geological history of Marseille, and it’s written in twenty-four lines per page and it’s forty-eight characters per line. With no punctuation!
Federico: Oh my God!
Durand: It’s so fabulous, but you know, English is much more concise. So I’m writing it twenty lines a page, trying to pump it out.
Federico: Your book Traffic and Weather seems like one big narrative. It doesn’t really have delineations of when each poem ends. How did you decide to do that?
Durand: It is one big narrative. I had a space with a wall (at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) where I could post the poem as I was writing it. So each day I would go back to the beginning of the poem. I tried to have a circular, diurnal structure so that the poem would almost begin in early morning and end at sunset. There is this kind of rough “day” passing, and through the day you’re seeing light move across the skyscrapers.
Federico: When you write your poems about different places, do you have a specific place in mind, or can they be loosely interpreted as being any place?
Durand: I’d rather that they be loosely interpreted. I know it’s a contradiction, being that I write very specifically. I wanted to see how specific I could get with Traffic and Weather, how closely I could get to the physical details of a place. But at the same time I didn’t want it to be “New York City, 123rd and Broadway.” I wanted it to exist universally as well, as though it were any place’s details.
Federico: Traffic and Weather changes so rapidly from one kind of, I don’t know, outline? And you have really big spaces between words sometimes.
Durand: My work is so dense that I did want to give a lot of aired space to the poem, to make it easier for people, not so dense. I just wanted to leave a lot of space and air.
Federico: But you don’t do it by ending a line and just beginning another line. You put it in one big rectangle and then, selectively take out spaces?
Durand: It was just where I felt the line needed a breather. Or if it was shifting geographically.
Federico: So do you ever view the lines as a visual entity? As, perhaps, a piece of architecture? Because I felt like that sometimes, like the foundation of a building that you would see rising up.
Durand: Oh absolutely. I hated having narrative forms, so I did break into the verse as much as I could. But some parts were just so clearly narrative.
Maria Khimulya: You say that that there is poetry that’s interested in knowing, and poetry that’s interested in not knowing, and that right now you are interested in the poetry of not knowing, of the process as opposed to the product. How does this apply to your already published works, like Calendar, for example?
Genya Turovskaya: Calendar was the first longer piece that I had published. I was in my twenties at the time. It was the first time I had set out to write a series of poems as opposed to a poem. I wasn’t sure when I began what I wanted to do, but did know that I wanted to do something broader than a single poem. I wanted to explore my experience of immigration, which happened when I was very young, at a time when I couldn’t mentally process the scope of what was happening to me. Because I was so young, immigration was not a personal choice that I had made, but one that was made for me. It was partially traumatic, and partially world-expanding. As I got older, I started to understand how big of an impact immigration had on me — developmentally, emotionally, and as a writer — and how that always, whether foregrounded or not, is the subject of my work. It was always about dislocation, displacement, being adrift, being at sea. The Tides, which came out in 2007, touches on that too. The subjects that I found myself gravitating towards again and again were outer space, being at sea, being between worlds — emotionally, culturally, and linguistically.
Khimulya: How did Russian influence your poetry? Do you think that translating Russian poets influenced your poetry?
Turovskaya: My English is better than my Russian. English is my primary language now. I didn’t speak Russian very actively — only at home, with my family — until I became an adult. I had to rediscover the Russian language for myself. That said, I think that I — in my body, in my rhythms, in my tones — carry these roots. Russian was my first language; it is the first language that I experienced poetry in. So I think of it as an influence I am not always consciously aware of. I don’t feel like a fully American poet, because I was born elsewhere, started my life in a different language. Also, as a translator, I think that whether you want to or not, you absorb the poets that you translate. You have to allow that poet’s voice to pass through you, your mind, your body. You may not be able to specifically say what the influence is, but you are certainly changed by the experience.
Khimulya: Can we talk a little bit about Dear Jenny? If I understand correctly, the speaker is male?
Turovskaya: I think that we are gender-complex, and that we all have feminine and masculine parts of ourselves. I have always been interested in this aspect of myself, as a woman, my masculinity. I was also trying to imagine what some of the people whom I have encountered in my life would have said if they could speak honestly. That was a starting point. But also, “Jenny” is the name that I was called for a brief period. Well, not so brief: in high school. “Jenny” was an Americanized version of my own name. I think that the Jenny poems were a way for me to reenter my American self and my American life. I was reorienting my location back to the US after having spent quite a few years on and off going to and from Russia. I had spent a month in Montana, and another month in New Mexico, and some time in Colorado and Utah. The poems were a part of the process of my locating myself in that American experience. Much of the landscape in the poems is an American landscape. The first poem starts in the American West, in the mountains, and the last poem ends in Grand Central station, which is one of my favorite places in New York City, a point of arrival, of coming home. Also, I started writing those poems before I went to the NYU School of Social Work and got my training to be a psychotherapist, and they end after I completed the program and started working in the field, so these poems are also concerned with the mind, what the mind is, with empathy, intimacy, waking and dreaming states and the spaces between them, and with thoughts and feelings and emotional states that may be considered unspeakable, unsayable.
Khimulya: Do you think that the letter form helps you in that?
Turovskaya: It is a very immediate, intimate form. It is also, in a way, conversational. That direct address was very important to me. It can be read as one part of the self addressing another part of the self, or as a recognition of an otherness within myself. But I wanted these poems, as personal as they are, to be able to connect to whoever reads them, so it is not so simple as that.
Catalina Cantolla Gallardo: Do you place more value on your original work than on your translations?
Elizabeth Zuba: I don’t. But again, I am working hard not to. There is still the Romantic notion of authenticity — how important authenticity and individualism and authorship are to what we value. I’m actually, I think, more comfortable and confident about my work as a translator than my work as a writer. But I think the public values authenticity, and values my writing more than my translations. It is really entrenched as a fundamental tenet of the US, which was founded on the Enlightenment, on individualism.
Gallardo: And it appears in all of the “intellectual property” issues we’re having.
Zuba: Yeah, it comes from the romantic ideal that started with the Enlightenment, but it’s primary to the way Americans think and understand everything. But I have to say I don’t see it that way. I think my writing and all arts are incredibly valuable in a really big nebulous way, in a long-trajectory way. But I think that translation is immediately valuable to how we understand ourselves and other cultures, other ways of thinking, how we interact.
Gallardo: If you could sum up your writing in a couple of sentences, what would they be?
Zuba: That is a hard question. [Long pause.] I think my writing comes from a place of circumventing, from a place of estranging myself out of socialized or cultured consciousness. I try to be aware of all of the other nodes of thought, or axes of sensibility that I’m experiencing that are not currently defined — given a space, or given a language in our everyday thinking and talking and experience.
Gallardo: Would you say that in writing you put a lot of value into awareness of your thoughts, feelings? You seem to be very aware of the way you write.
Zuba: But I don’t think I’m aware of the way I write or the things I write. What I try to be very aware of is the way I live and the things that I experience.
Gallardo: And that experience translates —
Zuba: Yeah, that translates into how I’m writing. A place from where I’m writing is to try really hard to dwell on whatever my expected processes, or relationships, or experiences, or sensibilities may be, and to be more aware of a direct, more receptive dialogue or communication between them. That acts more in a quantum-like way than it does in a space-and-time way. Does that make sense?
Gallardo: Kind of.
Zuba: I think that what makes it hard is there is no vocabulary for what I’m writing — which is why I’m writing it — so it makes it hard to articulate. But that said, I think that I come from a place where I am very aware of the fact that every word has so much more multiplicity and simultaneity. I also have a physics background, so I come from a place where every particle has multiplicity and simultaneity. So this desk here, while it may look like a desk, is in fact moving all over the place. It’s not only moving all over the place, it’s moving in all these other potential dimensions and that’s all very silly unless you study solid state physics, in which case it makes a lot of sense. So I think that is where I’m coming from when I’m writing, and it’s probably evident in my writing there’s a fundamental rift between the way we see the world and what’s actually happening. So I think that would be my answer. I think there’s lots of stuff going on all at once. And relationships are really important. Because the reason this table looks like a table is because of its relationship with its physical surroundings. So I think what we tend to do in our partisan, typical language and culture is to say, “This is what it is because I can see it and that’s what it is and I’m naming it.” And so I’m definitely not a namer. I think I’m more … I don’t have this Adamic poetry that names things. I think I’m definitely trying to un-name things.