Interviews - February 2014
An interview with Paul Dutton
Editorial note: Fellow Canadians Paul Dutton and W. Mark Sutherland ply the field of unconventional poetic practice in this interview, conducted by Sutherland in December 2009 and January 2010. Sutherland, an intermedia artist perhaps as heavily invested in language as Dutton (with whom he has collaborated artistically in the past), explores his colleague’s vast array of poetic practices, including visual poetry, sound poetry, and improvisational soundsinging. Dutton has released five books and four recordings of his solo work (recent examples include the CDs Mouth Pieces and Oralizations), but is widely recognized for his ensemble work as well, namely his participation in the Four Horsemen with bpNichol, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Steve McCaffery. Below this interview, you will find six poems by Paul Dutton. — Kenna O’Rourke
To me, poetry is a very broad multisensory enterprise that incorporates the purely visual and sonic aspects of language, as well as the conventionally verbal — the intelligible, unintelligible, the intellectual, the emotional, all of these things at play. — Paul Dutton
W. Mark Sutherland: bpNichol once stated, “There are no boundaries in art.” You expressed a similar sensibility in the preface to your poetry book Right Hemisphere, Left Ear (Coach House Press, 1979), and in your lovely little visual poem “Cross-Breeding” in your poetry book Aurealities (Coach House Press, 1991). Primarily, much of your mature creative practice is a form of borderblur that pivots on two modes of perception — the eye (print, literature) and the ear (orality, music). What role did bpNichol play in the development of your creative practice?
Paul Dutton: Most importantly, he led me to see the poem as something beyond myself, something other than a vehicle for my own thoughts and feelings, more a means of exploration and discovery. Also, he introduced me to sound and visual poetry, both of which I was primed for, and — in the case of sound poetry — was tending in the direction of. But I knew nothing of the genres as such: never heard of Dada, nor concrete poetry — none of that. I had a pretty well-developed sonic sense. One of the first poems I ever published, “Jazz Musician,” is sonically based, purposely conceived of as a poem that would not be about jazz (though it was that), but would be jazz, using language in jazz rhythms and to evoke various of the music’s effects. It was a long way off from sound poetry, but there was some exploitation of sound in the sonic dimension of the words. I was primed and ready for something like sound poetry. I’d always had an affinity for the more sonically and more musically inflected kinds of writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and E. E. Cummings. When I heard Barrie [bpNichol, who was Barrie Philip Nichol] doing sound poetry it let me go that further step — no longer worry about sense per se, certainly not worry about syntax. And it meant opening up the voice. One of the appeals of sound poetry that I was conscious of right from the start was that it was a place to bring together my musical and literary talents.
Sutherland: What about visual poetry?
Dutton: I’d been aware of the visual aspects of poetry since high school, but not in the abstract visual way. I’d encountered the shaped poems of the seventeenth century — angels’ wings, altars, and such — but I had no knowledge of what was called “concrete poetry,” nor of the visual poetry of the twentieth century. And that was something that Barrie also introduced me to.
Sutherland: The Four Horsemen (1970–1988) remain a unique aesthetic experiment, encompassing sociopolitical, personal therapeutic, collective, and communal energies. Your thoughts on the Four Horsemen’s legacy?
Dutton: Well, before I get to that “legacy” business, I want to comment on some of the terms you’ve used. I didn’t and don’t consider the Four Horsemen “an experiment”: that term, for me, too much suggests a calculated, systematic, and controlled procedure. We all just thought it would be exciting to have four voices cutting loose on sound poetry, and we soon expanded that to include other types of performed poetic works — narrative, dramatic, comic, and the like.
Now, what I’ve just said there is something that could be called a matter of opinion, and that’s a fair enough observation. But what I’m now going to say is something that’s a matter of fact: the Four Horsemen had nothing to do with personal therapy. Certain of us were acquainted with each other through involvement in a particular therapeutic setting, but that is a fact most explicitly and emphatically independent of the fact that we were four writers with shared interests and enthusiasms. We said, “Let’s get together and do sound poetry.” We did not say, “Let’s get together and ease our psychoneuroses by doing sound poetry.”
Same goes for your term “communal.” We never lived together. Probably would’ve killed each other if we had. All of us, at varying times and in varying degrees, were involved in a community, the short-lived psychotherapeutic community Therafields, in Toronto — now that was an experiment. But again, our involvement in the Four Horsemen was not by any means posited on that involvement, however much it may at times have been facilitated by it.
And so … looks like I’ve halved the opening context of your question, Mark. What’s left are the sociopolitical and collective energies you referred to, and they were sure there. Can’t say what you had in mind about the kind of sociopolitical energy that was afoot (or a-hoof), but the group definitely operated anarchically. And, of course, collectively.
But to get (at last) to your actual question: I don’t think it’s for me to say what the legacy of The Four Horsemen is. That’s for others to say. But I can talk about the Four Horsemen’s impact on me. When people rave to me about the Four Horsemen, or ask me questions about it, I can’t really say very much: I never saw the Four Horsemen. I was inside it, and for me it was a process of opening up horizons, sonic possibilities. The Four Horsemen served all four of us as a kind of perambulatory workshop, because all the time we were touring, and otherwise getting together, woodshedding (Barrie’s term for it), building repertoire and touring with it, we were at the same time reading each other our poetry, discussing poetics and workshopping our poetry among ourselves. So there was that dimension of it in terms of the writerly thing, but we were also learning from each other about different sonic effects, different techniques of nonverbal sound and of sound poetry.
There was also the collaborative way of working together in process that has benefitted me considerably. One of the ways we built repertoire was by improvising: we’d do free-improvisational vocal work, and then structure things from that. A lot of the pieces would begin with vocal improv. And vocal improv is something we got back to in a major way, after years of performing scored, scripted, and staged pieces (though always with improvisatory elements, it should be noted). The last five or six years of the Four Horsemen, we abandoned repertoire entirely. Collectively, we lost interest in doing repertoire work, and certainly in creating repertoire work. I’ve still got the remnants of the last piece of structured repertoire that we had begun working on. We had gone some distance with it, but every time a rehearsal was called to work on it something would happen. I remember one time where we decided to take a break and we never really reassembled after the break. Rafael needed a haircut or something. It turned out he was upstairs (he and I had apartments in the same building; the rehearsal was being held in my place) watching a baseball game. Steve went off to do an errand. We eventually reconvened, but that was it for any work that day. In fact, I think that was the last time we ever bothered to call a rehearsal.
A good example of performance from 1982 to the conclusion of the group can be heard on the cassette that we released called 2 Nights, when we did two nights in a program at a jazz series at the Music Gallery in Toronto. How we functioned that night, and how we were functioning through those years, was basically as a four-voice improvisational group. We would use text, but it would almost always be drawn from our own personal writing practices, and would be introduced spontaneously into the proceedings, used interstitially, or foregrounded in various ways. That period of mainly sound improv is a part of the Four Horsemen’s work that doesn’t get much — or any — attention. I never hear anyone else talking about it. All the attention is focused on the repertoire work.
But I think it’s great that people continue to appreciate what we were doing. Ross Manson, the dramaturge behind The Four Horsemen Project, a cross-arts theatre piece that reinterpreted several of the Horsemen’s collective and individual works, and that won four Doras [Toronto theatre awards], then toured Canada and Europe … when Ross and his arts partner Kate Alton, who was the choreographer of the project, when they first heard the Four Horsemen in the late 1990s on a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] broadcast, they’d missed the intro and they came in in the middle of the piece and they were knocked out. They thought it was a contemporary group. It rocked their socks. They were surprised to learn that it was a recording from the ’70s and that, furthermore, it was a Canadian group. When they raised that production and premiered it in 2006, it was a hit. It was a hit everywhere it played. People were thrilled by it.
Sutherland: You invented the compound word “soundsinging” to describe the hybridization of your oral soundwork. When did you first apply this term to your oral soundwork, and how has your soundsinging evolved over the years from sound poetry to free improvisation?
Dutton: I started using the term sometime in the mid- to late ’90s, after a conversation I had with Mike Hansen, a Toronto visual artist, free improviser, and sometime broadcaster. In the course of the conversation I mentioned something about Lauren Newton, and he said, “Oh yeah. She sings sounds too.” And it was thereafter that I came up with the term “soundsinging” and started using it.
One of the reasons I went with that term was because I had been working for so long in both a musical and literary context, but then became more active in a very specifically musical context. There was a time when I was using the term “free voice singing,” and that was in the early ’90s. In fact I did a whole essay called Beyond Doo Wop, or How I Came to Realize that Hank Williams is Avant-Garde, throughout which I used the term “free voice singing” to refer to the musical, improvisational, nonverbal orality that I practiced. But I stopped using that term when I came up with “soundsinging.” Another term I use is “oral sound art,” which I also apply to similar work by people like Phil Minton, Jaap Blonk, Demetrios Stratos, and a number of others, many of whom have come at it from a musical matrix.
I used “free voice singing” before I really claimed ownership of my own musical-matrix background. It was around the time I came to realize that I’d always been a singer. As a kid, I was at a special school for six years where music was part of the curriculum, singing in public from the age of eight or nine; and during my twenties I worked professionally part-time as a cantor in the Catholic Church for a number of years. I was earning part of my living that way. I was a musician. I was a singer. I’ve always been a singer. All the time I was aspiring to be a writer, I was already a singer and didn’t realize it. I never called myself a musician, never introduced myself as a singer, nor claimed to be a singer. It was wallpaper in my life. I didn’t even realize it was there. Actually, before the Four Horsemen formed I spent a few years, not many, singing traditional British folk music in coffee houses around Toronto. When the Four Horsemen formed, I stopped doing that. All of that energy went into work with the Four Horsemen. I didn’t even think about it. It just happened. But there’s a relationship, at least a tangential one, between the two. There is a nonverbal element in a lot of the traditional British and Scottish folk music, and some had nonsense lyrics or nonverbal lyrics. One piece I used to do was a traditional mouth-music piece — verbal jig music.
So I’d always been a singer, but sound poetry helped me bring that together with my literary aspirations; there was a fusion. A critical step was after a performance of the Horsemen in the ’80s, one of the audience members remarked to me that he could hear two sounds at once coming from me. That was a turning point for me in terms of listening, as well as sounding. I started noticing more of all of that and got fascinated by multiphonics, really focusing on it. I started concentrating consciously on achieving biphonality and mutiphonic effects. So there were steps and stages in the whole thing, a kind of an evolution, and I was using the same techniques both in sound poetry and in free improvisational singing.
The way things developed from the late ’70s on was that I’d become more and more interested in playing with instrumentalists, and also working in an improvisational mode, playing with people like Bill Smith, David Lee, Curtis Driedger, and others. As well, the Horsemen played a few times with CCMC [a Toronto free-improvisation band begun in the mid-’70s, based at the Music Gallery]. Then in the late ’80s, at bp’s instigation, he and I started sitting in regularly with CCMC. The other Horsemen had by then lost any interest in regularly exploring orality or sonic expression. But it continued to be one of my principal focuses, and Barrie was interested in, as he put it, “keeping up his chops.” So he approached CCMC and arranged for the two of us to sit in on their regular sessions at the Music Gallery. As it turned out, he was not available for that many sessions; I was there every second week on a pattern that was established. About a year after that started, Barrie died. I continued on with the group and then became a member. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sutherland: Your creative practice is nonprogrammatic, alternating between the automatic and the structural. Your aesthetic approach involves formal compositions and improvisation as well as all points in between these given polarities. I believe that your CD Mouth Pieces (OHM Éditions, 2000) contains three excellent examples of your compositional methodologies: “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet,” written composition; “Vive le,” a fusion of written composition and improvisation; and “Nod to Bob,” an improvisation. What were your methods in each of those?
Dutton: “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet” follows the form of a sonnet — fourteen lines. It’s a sonnet in iambic tetrameter, instead of iambic pentameter. My method in any mode, whether it’s compositional, semi-improvisatory, or totally improvisatory, is usually intuitive rather than conceptual. But there was a concept here, which was to create a totally sonic, nonverbal sonnet; it was conceptual to that degree. Why I settled on tetrameter rather than pentameter: it just felt right — “b’dya b’dya b’dya b’dya”; there didn’t seem any point in adding more “b’dya’s” there. It’s kind of overdone then. In conversation I tend to run off at the mouth too much (you might notice here), but when I’m composing I got enough time to sit down and limit myself. By the way, it’s called “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet” because I intended to do a sequence of sound sonnets; that’s why the “1” is in there. But after I did one, there didn’t seem to be any reason to keep doing any more. I’ve tried a few times, and there is no point, it’s all there in the first poem. In my creative work I tend not to repeat myself, I don’t repeat forms much. There are a lot of writers that get their formula down and then just pour content through it, but that’s never appealed to me. Essentially, I find it boring. That’s one of the reasons I like Beckett so much: it’s always changing. I should mention that the last couplet of “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet” summarizes all the sounds of the foregoing lines. It adheres very faithfully to the sonnet form, in that.
It’s not the only adventure in sonnet form that I undertook. There is the “so’net” sequence. That title is intended to do two things: first of all, by only once using each of the letters of the word sonnet, to present the five letters that will be used exclusively in the sequence; also, by leaving out one of the n’s and putting in the apostrophe, to seduce the Anglophonic tongue into approximating the French pronunciation of son, French for sound: so, so’net — a net for sound, an intentional cross-lingual pun that’s there in the title. I don’t know how many people get that, and I must admit I’ve considered more than once that I’m too subtle for my own good. I try to avoid literality, but then what I’m doing goes over the average person’s head — or maybe any person’s head. But then, so much poetry is a private joke anyway. I think the Cantos are a long sequence of obscure personal references — not just that, obviously, but definitely that, among other things. In the “so’net” sequence, there are eight poems, each constrained by using only the letters of the word sonnet. The first seven are basically Shakespearean, and pretty much iambic tetrameter. The eighth is an anomaly and not really a sonnet, except for having fourteen lines, arranged on the Petrarchan model; and it’s not metric at all, but lettristic.
I have to correct you about “Vive le.” It is thoroughly composed, not improvised. I might not always repeat the exact number of phonemes as in the text (or score), but that’s the only thing about it that’s in any way improvisational. It is a fusion, all right, but a notated and repeatable one, of verbal and nonverbal material, of linguistic sense and pure phonetic abstraction. A better example of my fusing the written and the improvisational would be “Jazzstory,” which is likewise on Mouth Pieces. But because you’ve asked about “Vive le,” I’ll talk about it more before commenting on “Jazzstory.”
“Vive le,” which is dedicated to Henri Chopin, plays with the phonemes and letters of Henri’s first name and surname, also playing with the concept of nothingness, which is conveniently embedded there in his name: Hen-ri, with its silent h, reversing nicely, with a bit of a shift in pronunciation, into rien, French for nothing. The compositional method is to use the phonemes of Henri’s name, playing with humor. Henri was always known for his puckish sense of humor, and I think that’s reflected in the poem, which has en-ri morphing into on rit, someone’s laughing; and ri-en — again, the syllables of his name reversed — into rions, let’s laugh. It’s very much a linguistic poem, in addition to all the sound elements in it. It’s a hybrid of punning and using the sounds abstractly, a device that suggested itself to me as I moved through the composition of the poem. There is a very subtle thing — again, too subtle for my own good — a private joke in there nobody would ever catch. In the middle section, when I do “o ee o ee,” and then a couple of lines later, I make an “ee o ee o” sound, it’s a very purposeful and representational parody of a donkey’s bray. That is an allusion to Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, where a pretender to nobility, a rich guy, nouveau riche, with his pretensions to cultivated practices, hires a speech therapist to teach him elocution so he can do it right; and the guy is working on his vowels in the play, going around sounding like a donkey. Purposeful ridicule. Not that I’m ridiculing Chopin; just having fun with the vowels in his name. Anyway, I don’t think anybody’d ever catch that Molière allusion in my poem. There should be a superscript and footnote for anyone reading the poem. These vowel sounds logically led to an approximation of the word ennui. “Vive le” just came up intuitively by letting the concepts work. The ending of the poem always amused me. For anyone who knew Henri, and especially him speaking English, “Oh ye-se” — yes, with a little concluding vowel sound — was something that he said frequently. So the poem ends with “oooooooooooohhhh ye-se,” and every audience, without exception, breaks up on that, it always ends with people laughing. I want to say, “Did you know Henri? Why did you find that so funny?” Because the only funny thing about it to me is that it’s so quintessentially Henri-ish.
Okay, so “Jazzstory” [see below for text] — a fusion of composition and improvisation; also, another poem with a dedication, this time to Toronto guitarist Tim Posgate, who commissioned me to write a poem to be linked with his quartet Jazzstory. I accordingly cited the band’s instrumentation in the first line of the poem, along with what I considered appropriate verbs (“bass line drums support trumpet speaks guitar”) creating a kind of verbal “chord,” and then, in a linguistic move analogous to a jazz player’s changing the order of notes in a chord, shuffled the order of the instruments’ names in three succeeding lines, linking those lines with the verb is. That served as a kind of chorus, followed by a number of verses, the entire poem consisting of words spelt exclusively with the letters of the poem’s first line. Then the chorus comes in at the end, but this time in mirror mode, with the words of each line reversed. So, all of that makes up the compositional part, and very compositional it is: the establishment of the first lines’ letters as the only ones used in the poem is the literary equivalent of a musical composer’s selection of a tone row as the series of notes on which to base a composition. The improvisational component occurs only in the performance of the poem, which has two improvisational breaks. The first is at the end of the first chorus, and begins with the final letter of that chorus, s. I then take off on a free improvisation — well, perhaps more accurately, a constrained improvisation, because it’s made up exclusively of the letters and phonemes that constitute the poem (harkening back to that tone-row element of serial composition). That’s the constraint. The free part is the improvised organization of those components within the break, which ends on the first letter of the poem’s first verse — s, as it chances, the letter the break started on. The second improvisational break occurs after the recitation of the verses, and begins with the last letter of those verses, p. This break progresses through a differently developed improvisation on the constituent letters and phonemes of the poem’s first line, ending on the first letter of the “mirror chorus,” which is g in the word guitar.
“Nod to Bob,” dedicated to Bob Cobbing, was a studio improvisation. I was in Quebec to make a record at Avatar Studios. Part of the process of that record was just cutting loose in the studio. I was cutting loose one day, and in the midst of it I found myself doing this soma haoma thing, which was the term in the ancient language Avestan for the magic mushroom. Bob had picked it up from somewhere and he chanted on that phrase as long as I knew him. I heard it on recordings before I met him. I was fascinated with that phrase. He used it a lot in his chants. When it came up in the course of this improvisation, it led to a whole development that just seemed to work. I’ve since done with that improvisation something I’ve done with no other, and that is to try to score it. I’ve made a few stabs at it, but none are really satisfactory. I have attempted to perform it since, with varying degrees of success, but it’s an improvisation, and the thing about improvisation is that it’s a one-time-only thing; you can’t repeat it. I’ve been able to get a bit of the flavor here and there, enough for my own satisfaction somewhat, and enough to impress audiences, but nothing, I think, as effective as the original.
If you’ll indulge me in a bit of a digressional reminiscence that’s associated with that poem … at a performance at Polyphonix in Paris, 2002, I concluded the performance with “Nod to Bob.” When I got to the lobby after the performance I was greeted by Martin Bakero and Andrés Anwandter, two young Chilean poets I knew through Bob’s Writers Forum Workshop in London, and they told me that Bob had just died a few days previously. I’d been on the road and hadn’t heard. I think if I’d known of his death before I performed … well, I think I’d just have to have changed my program, ’cause I don’t think I’d’ve been able to make it through the piece without breaking down. He’d been ailing, and was clearly not long for this world, but still, it came as a real blow, a shock, nonetheless.
Sutherland: What of your personal relationships with Henri and Bob?
Dutton: I met them both for the first time in 1978 when Sean O’Huigin and Steve McCaffery organized the eleventh International Sound Poetry Festival in Toronto. I didn’t have much to do with Bob at that time. One thing I remember about him was that one day when the festival was on there was an election, so of course, as is (or anyway, was then) the law here on election days, the bars were closed until after the polls closed. Can’t have anybody voting when they are drunk; they might do something right. So the liquor stores and the bars were all shut down, and I remember Bob and Bill Griffiths in particular were grossly offended. Bob was an alcoholic all his life, and in those days he was pretty juiced. For both those guys, Bob and Bill, it was almost a source of daily nutrition. They were so pissed off. They were outraged the bars were closed, and it was like they took it personally.
The funding resources for the festival were such that the only other performances that Sean and Steve were able to put together was a program through the League of Canadian Poets called Poets in the Schools (which, incidentally, is still in place today). It provided funds for poets to perform in high schools in the province of Ontario, so tours were set up involving both a Canadian poet and a European visitor. I was paired with Henri for a little tour of southwestern Ontario high schools. I got us lost on our first part of the trip, and Henri took over the navigation after that. For four or five days we traveled around together and we had a great time. We got to know each other, like each other. Henri very much respected what I was doing, though it was different from what he did. I’m very proud to say I still have a score I wrote for us then, and our performance of it was recorded, and I tried to get a copy from the paranoid little high-school kid who recorded it. It was an acoustic duet with Henri, and I did not realize at the time how remarkable this was. Henri, I later came to realize, did not perform with anything but his tapes. He strictly did his poèsie sonore tape-recorded poems, adding to them in performance some vocal effects. He did not perform without a microphone. But I convinced him to do an acoustic duet. He thought it was kind of silly, but he did it. I’d give my eyeteeth — well, my remaining eyetooth — to have that tape. It’s gone. I asked the kid at the time for a copy of it, I got his address and I wrote to him afterwards to send me a dub of it. But …
So that’s where our friendship bonded. Then we encountered each other when I performed in England in 1984. Henri came down from Essex with his wife Jean to hear me when I did a performance at the Canadian embassy. I visited him in Essex, and after Jean died, anytime I was in Europe, and he was in Paris, I would visit him there. The friendship just went on through the years.
I got to know Bob in 1984 at the twelfth International Sound Poetry Festival, to which Barrie had been invited, and when he couldn’t make it because of a scheduling conflict, he suggested to the Department of External Affairs, to which Bob had applied for funding, that they invite me, which they did, and which Bob agreed to. That’s when I really got to know Bob, and he was very impressed with my performance. Subsequently, he published some things of mine, and I returned to England several times for performances and launches that Bob set up.
I was very good friends with both Henri and Bob. And they, as it happened (and I eventually came to learn) famously hated each other. There is a very funny little anecdote I wrote about in a verbal portrait of Bob for an issue of Open Letter shortly after he died. There is this one point when we were sitting in his kitchen, and at that time Bob was into researching his family tree. In the middle of doing all his literary publishing and performing and making visual poetry, he was doing a little family newsletter that was going out to all these Cobbings. In the course of his research he found that the English name Cobbing and the Polish name Chopin were distant branches of the same family. Bob said something along the lines of, “So it seems that Chopin and I are related. Distant brothers or something. Probably why we hate each other so much.” Later, I was surprised to find amongst the shelves and shelves of books with varying accumulations of geological dust at Bob’s place a Chopin book. It had visual poetry and maybe a record in it. I said to Bob, “I found this on the shelf. I’m astounded that you have a Chopin book.” And Bob said, “That’s a good book, quite a decent little book. I told you: when I have money I buy books, and when I don’t have money, I sell them.”
Sutherland: Like your oral soundwork, your visual poetry exhibits both automatic and structuralist tendencies. The Plastic Typewriter (Underwhich Editions/Writers Forum, 1993) is a conceptual and improvisational masterpiece — a winning combination of form and process. On the other hand, “Narcissus A” is a serialized pattern poem based on the graphic power of a single letter, A. Tell me a little more about these two works.
Dutton: The Plastic Typewriter began at a Flamenco evening. Back in the ’70s there was a place in Toronto on Bloor Street between Bathurst and Spadina that had Flamenco floorshows. I’d been to see a couple of them and I was really taken with Flamenco. I wanted to capture Flamenco rhythms in type, and the only type I had at my disposal was on my typewriter, but the rigid constraints of the typewriter were a problem. I’d already done a sequence called “Mondriaan Boogie Woogie 1–6,” where I’d been able to achieve a plasticity with punctuation marks, a free-form kind of impression created by moving a small piece of paper around on the typewriter while the roller and carriage were running free so that I could move the paper around at will. But I wanted to get a kind of free-form freedom with some control, because there was very little control over the parameters with the roller: it was a lot of chance, moving a piece of paper loosely through the roller and whacking the keys to smack the type hammers on the page. I wanted something with which I could get more control. The same freedom but more control, less totally a chance operation. So I conceived of ripping the hammers out of the typewriter and using them freely on a piece of paper.
The opportunity arose in 1977 to go on a therapeutic art retreat at a farm in the countryside in Dufferin County near Orangeville with the organization called Therafields. It was a combination work and therapy retreat for artists. I decided I was going to work on this idea for capturing Flamenco rhythms on paper with typewriter elements and that was the genesis of The Plastic Typewriter. I found a typewriter for five dollars in a Goodwill store. I wanted to find an old typewriter that I wouldn’t feel bad about ripping apart. I didn’t want to damage my little portable Olivetti, which was my principal writing tool. So I found this little typewriter with a plastic body and all kinds of plastic parts, everything except what had to be metal, like the hammers, the roller (well, metal and rubber, that) and various working parts. And, there was the plastic typewriter. It was the perfect double entendre. I was going to create plastic art with a plastic typewriter. It was a gift. So I worked on the pieces up at the farm. There were a few that were duds, but eighteen pages made it and became the publication (finally, fourteen years later). The process, means, and methodology were developed in the course of the week at the farm.
One of the things I was doing to create the poems was hitting a typewriter carbon ribbon with the type hammers I’d ripped out of the machine. This was done on a piece of normal bond paper. Consequently, The Plastic Typewriter originals are all yellowed, and within 100 or more years they’ll disappear entirely, they’ll just be dust. What will last is the carbon — if anything lasts, ever. So it started with the carbon ribbons, which I was hitting with the hammers and creating an impression on the white-bond page. It didn’t occur to me to get acid-free paper.
So, I’m hitting the ribbon with the hammers, and something becomes immediately clear: why am I not seeing the whole letter here? And it took a minute to realize that the hammer that I was hitting had a letter on it, but that letter was normally striking a curved surface, the typewriter roller — and in striking a curved surface it created a letter that looked like it was a flat imprint, so the letter on the hammer was curved. What I was getting was the top and the bottom of it, right? I realized that I needed to get more weight on the hammer to get the type character to make the full impression of an A there. I was using the hammers M, A, L, G, to create the word Malaga, which is the name of the province where Flamenco originated in Spain — or so I had read. I tried hitting with more force, but to no avail. So I thought, How am I going to get enough pressure to get the full letter? And then it occurred to me that I should hit the type hammer with something heavier. And I was on a farm and there were tools around, so I managed to acquire a metal file and I used that to hit the hammers.
On one of the pieces, I was whacking away with the file and it slipped. Now on this piece I was not using the carbon ribbon, I was using carbon paper, since I didn’t want to have a whole bunch of pieces that were just straight lines, which is what I would get with just the carbon ribbon. So I was using carbon paper and striking onto the carbon paper, having a larger field for the image. When the file slipped, I didn’t know what was behind there because I’m looking at the back of the carbon paper which is opaque, with the final image going on to a piece of bond which I can’t see. And after the file slipped I thought, Oh shit! That’s going to show through. Then I thought, Let’s just see what happens if we use that. Then I started just smacking the file directly on the carbon paper, and that turned out very nicely. That image wound up on the cover of my 1991 book Aurealities.
Then various things fell into place as I went along. There are some lines I made by using my fingernail, running my nail along a piece of carbon paper or carbon ribbon. I crinkled up carbon paper, shook the carbon dust over a piece of white bond, then ran the white bond through the roller, typing on it. All kinds of different things.
For “Narcissus A” I had access to a laser printer in the Musicworks office (Musicworks magazine has been a longtime freelance copyediting client of mine), so I ran off a giant A and then ran it off-center to create an overprint jogged over to the side. That pretty much exhausted my limited knowledge of things; I couldn’t think of anything else to do with the laser printer. So I started cutting up the images and waxing and pasting them. Part of my work in the publishing field had been writing and producing catalogues for McClelland and Stewart. I worked in publishing in various capacities for fifteen years or so, mostly during the days when printing plates were made from what were called “mechanicals” — type printed on paper that was then waxed on its back and stuck down on boards, the wax being melted onto the paper, where it cooled into a tacky, impermanent adhesive that allowed easily for any lifting and repositioning that might be desired, and then the whole thing shot on film, from which printing plates were made. So, pre-digital, pre-computer. Now, when I started work on Narcissus A, it chanced that living directly across the street from me was the guy who’d been head of the art department at a publishing company we worked together at twenty years before. We’d bumped into each other around the neighborhood. So one day I went over and said, “Tom, you wouldn’t happen to have a waxer hanging around would you?” There were two kinds of waxers, a tabletop flat-bed waxer and a handheld one, and Tom had this little handheld one, which was ideal for my purposes. So I used that, cut things up, and I waxed and pasted, and that’s “Narcissus A.” Why the title? Because there were mirror images of the letter A used. So it’s A reflecting on itself. It consists of nothing but components of the type-character letter A.
Sutherland: As a novelist and poet, your debt to Gertrude Stein is obvious in your texts “Change: No Change,” “Thinking,” or some of the poems in your work in progress The Book of Uncertain Values. However, I believe that Gerard Manley Hopkins’s concept of “sprung rhythm” (the play of stressed and unstressed syllables resulting in compressed metrics) is another important source for much of your text-based art-making. The musical qualities of written language are always prevalent in your poetry, and I marvel at your ability to integrate the ear and the eye in poems such as “Kit Talk,” “Smile,” and “T’ Her,” the latter two in the “Jazz” section of Aurealities. During the process of writing these verbal texts do you use diacritics as a guide, or do you voice the work out loud and/or simply intuit the rhythm of the words in your head?
Dutton: I intuit. I don’t use diacritics (well, once, and long after the fact, after the intuitive creation; that was “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet,” discussed earlier). I voice the work out loud, and I intuit the rhythm of the words. Certainly I’ve been influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was an early, powerful and continuing influence on my writing, but I never understood the “sprung rhythm” thing. I don’t have an analytical mind for all that metric stuff. I suppose if I really wanted to I could work on it and figure it out, but I find the effort is never rewarded by anything tangible. At the same time, however, I don’t consider myself to be an idiot savant in this matter. When you are working on a poem, you don’t say, “Aha! I’ll produce some metonymy here. I think metonymy would work well at this point. Wait, no — better use some synecdoche, it’s been a while since I’ve used any synecdoche. Oh, hold on a minute. These are trochaic. No, I want some spondees happening here.” Has anybody ever written that way?
In sports, it’s a compliment to tell somebody that they were unconscious. When somebody screws up in a sport and they say, “Well, I was thinking …,” the response is, “Don’t think!” In other words, analysis can be beneficial in some ways, but if you are doing something and analyzing it at the same time … well, my brain — anyone’s brain, I think — can’t work that way! I defy anybody to convince me that athletes, when they are working their magic — whether it’s Pelé, Gretzky, or Bo Jackson — are thinking about what they are doing. Obviously they are aware of a strategy, but the mechanics of things, no. That’s what drilling is about: a thing’s so hard-wired into the person that they don’t have to think about it, and in fact don’t have time to think about it, it has to happen so fast. And the old expression, “He’s forgotten more than you’ll ever know about” such and such, means that it’s so embedded in him that he doesn’t think about it. He doesn’t have to actively remember these things, because they are just burned into the neurological paths.
Sutherland: Visionary Portraits (Mercury Press, 1991) was your last published book of traditional lyric poetry. Recently, however, you’ve been performing at literary readings a new series of improvisational poems entitled Antilyrics. Do you still write what is commonly referred to as lyric poetry, or do Antilyrics embody the more immediate aesthetic interest of Paul Dutton in the early twenty-first century?
Dutton: Visionary Portraits is less traditional lyric poetry than it is serial poetry. It’s a sequence, or related series, of poems. Some of it is lyric, some of it is not. The first two poems are very specific, personal, lyrical, familial kinds of things. But the rest of it takes a very different direction, with some lyric elements in it. One of them is very intentionally impersonal lyric, if it’s lyric at all. So, there is my quibbling over the terminology. In answer to your question, I still write verbal poetry.
Sutherland: Verbal poetry?
Dutton: Yes. Poems consisting of words, as opposed to ones consisting of abstract sounds. But then lots of abstract poems, sound and visual, are also verbal, so in fact, syntactical poetry is probably a better term here, and is my more usual term for what you’re calling traditional lyric poetry, because lyric is a bit of a problematic term for me in this regard. Lyric poetry implies a kind of a personal aspect to it. You wouldn’t call Gertrude Stein’s writing lyrical, for instance. There is a depersonalized aspect to it. Lyric poetry conjures up for me a poetry that has I at the center, has the me of the poet at the center. It’s personal, it deals with personal emotions, personal perceptions — not that anything we do doesn’t. You don’t have to be using the first-person plural for it to deal with your perceptions, obviously. But would you call “Kit Talk” lyric poetry?
Dutton: Would you call “Boots On” lyric poetry? There is a lyric element to it. The “he” that I’m writing about could be, or maybe not be, a specific individual. I could be writing about myself in the third person. You could bring any number of perspectives to it and it could be perceived as a lyric expression. But I don’t think of it as a lyric poem. Anyway, neither lyric poetry nor the Antilyrics determine my aesthetic interests. My aesthetic interests are disparate.
The Antilyrics are total improvisations, and I call them Antilyrics because their basic underpinning is a conscious use of the lyric form, but their content, which is exclusively nonverbal, is completely antithetical to lyric poetry — except possibly insofar as there may be any personal emotional content in them, however much I intend to avoid that. The idea of the Antilyrics is that I’m using the sort of architecture of the typical short lyric poem, but I’m using it without words.
I have another series of soundworks that I call Imp’s Roves. The basis of the Imp’s Roves series is that before I open my mouth to do one, I attempt to empty my mind of all thought. I don’t know if this is mentally, psychologically, or neurologically possible, but to the degree that it’s possible to empty my mind, I try to. They all begin with an extended silence. The extended silence is me attempting to arrive at a point where I make a sound that is completely involuntary, which is perhaps not even literally possible in the circumstance, because how can one make a sound involuntarily, if one is intending to make a sound at all? There is a conundrum here that goes beyond personal aesthetic taste. There is a question here about where volition comes into effect, and at what point, if any, you can be not thinking. Whether I’ve ever achieved the goal of making a sound that I didn’t know I was going to make … well, we’re talking nanoseconds here. Anyway, I reject any idea that occurs to me as to how to begin the piece; I immediately reject it and attempt to surprise myself. At some point, a sound bursts out of me. Once the piece starts, I then give myself over to it. I’ve said this in more than one context, and plenty of times: I’m trying not to think. When I’m improvising I am very specifically trying not to think. To me, thought is the death of improvisation. If I’m performing with someone and I start making lip sounds and I hear them suddenly shift from what they’re doing and come in making lip sounds too, it throws me off completely. To me the kinds of unisons that happen in improvisation, where they occur, they occur because you just happen to be doing something at the same time as I happen to be doing it. The purpose of improvisation is to have something emerge that’s basically coming from the unconscious. What I’m talking about here are overlaps of consciousness, and overlaps of the subconscious and possibly the unconscious. When I’m improvising, generally speaking, in a collective environment or when I’m doing one of the Imp’s Roves, I am attempting to, as it were, be taken over by something. I’m attempting not to give form to a preconceived content, but to let arise an inconceivable, or at least unconceived, content and form. In other words, we’re not going to shape a simulation of motor sounds. No: we’re going to make sounds and see what they shape, see what comes out of it. If they happen to simulate motor sounds, that’s fine, but that’s not the plan. So it’s a matter of following where your psyche is leading you, instead of directing it here, there, everywhere, or anywhere. It’s surrendering to whatever formulation might arise in the course of the improvisation.
The thing about the Antilyrics, and the reason why they are antilyrics is that, just as antiheroes take the position of, but are in contrast to or diametrically opposed to, heroes, so the Antilyrics take the position of, but are diametrically opposed to, the lyric poem, which is essentially an expression of some personal emotion or consideration. The Antilyrics are nonverbal, while the lyric is typically verbal. The difference between the process of creating an Antilyric and creating an Imp’s Rove, or participating in a collective improvisation, is that with the Antilyrics I’m purposely thinking. I permit myself conscious decision-making on how I will begin a particular Antilyric, sometimes even preplanning something before I start the reading.
The Antilyrics arose partly as a means of incorporating nonverbal sound work into shorter literary readings. One of the basic principles of my artistic output, certainly in the literary sphere, is that nonverbal sound poetry, nonverbal expression, is a valid part of poetic practice. To me, poetry is a very broad multisensory enterprise that incorporates the purely visual and sonic aspects of language, as well as the conventionally verbal — the intelligible, unintelligible, the intellectual, the emotional, all of these things at play. Sound as a poetic medium independent of sense or meaning is as valid a part of literary practice as anything else. So I make a point of incorporating into my literary performances, however short they might be, at least some suggestion of the range of types of poetry that I do. I will attempt to present some formal piece, some freeform piece, and some nonverbal work. Now when I’m asked to do five minutes in a program, I have pieces of longer and shorter duration for the verbal material. I have pieces that are three seconds long and others that are a matter of ten or twelve minutes long. But most of my structured nonverbal sound works are from three to five minutes long. The Imp’s Roves are indeterminate, but average seven or eight minutes, though they could be as short as five minutes or as long as ten. So if I’m assigned five minutes at a reading, I don’t want to stand up and do a five-minute sound piece, because that’s how you get to be thought of exclusively as a sound poet. The Antilyrics were devised as a means of permitting myself a representation of the sonic aspect of my poetic output within a time-constraint framework. The Imp’s Roves go where they go and end when they end. With the Antilyrics there is more conscious control being applied. First of all, I’m consciously tailoring them to more or less the form and structure of a lyric poem: it’s not going to be very long; it’s going to have a fairly restricted range of sonic vocabulary (to speak metaphorically); It’s going to conform to the rough guidelines of a lyric poem or the lyric form in terms of brevity, limited content; and it’s going to be more focused on a specific development of a specific idea. There is going to be more conscious application, more ratiocination in the course of improvising the shape of it. It’s still an improvisation, but it’s a more thinking improvisation, there is more of the intellect in it and less of the total giving over that I strive for in a longer improvisation, which, to the degree that it’s possible, I endeavor to let shape itself. Antilyrics contain elements of the lyric composition, but they are completely nonverbal. Basically the Antilyrics are sound without sense, and that is in opposition to the lyric convention, which is committed to verbal sense. Lyrics to a song are, after all, words to a song.
Sutherland: Your impressive career, spanning forty years, includes many personal and collective triumphs: international solo performances, collaborating with R. Murray Schafer and performing in his “Princess of the Stars,” the Four Horsemen (Nichol, McCaffery, Dutton, Barreto-Rivera), CCMC (Snow, Oswald, Dutton, and, since 2012, Kamevaar), Five Men Singing (Blonk, Makigami, Dutton, Minton, Moss), etc. What inspires your intensely passionate commitment to your ongoing creative practice?
Dutton: It’s what I do. Performance is always exhilarating when I find something else that can be done with the human sounding apparatus that I hadn’t heard done before. Yes, you rely on devices that you’ve already found, or effects that you’ve already used, but there are always new ways to apply them. My improvisational work is principally dedicated to discovery. And not just my improvisatory work. What lies behind my verbal writing practice is an exploration of the potentials of language. I’m always looking to surprise myself and to find things that I hadn’t known were there or hadn’t consciously realized were there. Sound work is dedicated to bodying forth, and I choose that word very advisedly, because it’s very much of the body, bodying forth forms and content that were quite literally unthought of, certainly by me. I quite honestly believe that it is a means, very much as the Dadaists intended with their nonverbal expeditions, of dislodging material from the unconscious. So it’s a means of bodying forth forms unthought of and forms I can’t arrive at through any other process. This is an ongoing revelation for me. It’s a spiritual enterprise. It’s spiritually nourishing. It affords me personal growth in subtle ways that I don’t know if I could articulate. And that is very much the point: my creative practice is a process of uncovering unknown things, and because they are unknown they are literally ineffable.
for James Moody
buying me dreams for a thought
selling me (thank you)
my own feelings I couldn’t buy elsewhere
and for payment only honesty that anyway
you opened in me like a bloom
shoving them to me with (thank you)
saying they’re more beautiful than ever
than even I’d thought
and secondhand better
when writhed through a golden torture of —
You’ve taught me them
searched them out from
and punch my brain with them
arpeggio river of saxsmooth velvet
hammering out metal to sumptuous smooth with only breath
rapids now over the drums’ riff stutter
and float like a flower on thrumming bass pond
while (check) a grin (right) Amens your millennium (solid)
with (tell’em, Preacher!) key chord
And I’m hip:
my head can’t divide it
but the rest of me can tell
knows you’ll have nudged when I’m sleeping
from their diamondhard settings
the most shattering dreams I’ve kept hidden:
tell it to me now
tell it to me now
tell it to me now
broken rhythms, cacophonic order
with each building blow
who? me? yes. what? us? yes.
had (why?) thought sure
you balance on the razor-edge
with a horn
time your measure
time your master
knitting you together time
knocking out barnacled emotions
from some ships’ graveyard
for the stifled primal
oh! to set them swaying in an ocean of notes
(I’m carried up leagues of sound
forced to use music for breathing)
they’re body juice now
into it I’ve grooved
what was all unlearned
now know like a river
Oh! didn it rain! (Oh! didn it rain!)
Oh! didn it rain! (Oh! didn it didn it didn it
for Tim Posgate
bass line drums support trumpet speaks guitar
bass drums trumpet line guitar speaks support
line bass guitar speaks support trumpet drums
guitar trumpet line support drums bass speaks
strum peaks pet line
pumps out a gut art
drum sum, traps a part
rump air a sport
bass gets tugged
gets mud dump
drum murders beats
raps a lass as tar leaks
lines outta time
a glass part spits spots sputtered at
rum murmurs names o’ ports a nipper got potted in
bump ’n’ grind lined up ’n’ out
pout past pumped garter
an eager leap
a tumble, a gulp
an ultimate mustard
a lapsed map
guitar speaks trumpet support drums line bass
support speaks guitar line trumpet drums bass
drums trumpet support speaks guitar bass line
speaks bass drums support line trumpet guitar
Performance notes: The words are read throughout with forceful staccato drive, in rhythms as indicated by line lengths and breaks, with micropauses at stanza breaks. The last phoneme, [s], of the first stanza is held for an extended period of time, at the reader’s discretion, and initiates an improvisational break exclusively employing the phonemes of the first line (which are the only phonemes used in the poem), which are spontaneously treated with variations freely applied in rhythm, dynamics, pitch, timbre, duration, and coloration of whatever kind. Because the poem consists only of these phonemes, the text as a whole can be used as a visual field over which the reader’s eye can play for stimulus to improvisational invention. The reader determines the overall duration of the improvisational break, which concludes with the first phoneme, [s], of the second stanza, which stanza is then read, along with the following five, as specified at the start of these notes.
Once the last phoneme, [p], of the seventh stanza is pronounced, it is repeated ad libidum, at the reader’s discretion, and initiates a second improvisational break performed on the same terms as the first one, and concluding with the first phoneme, [g], of the final stanza, which stanza is read in the same manner as at the start of the poem.
mutter to tight head stutter at stick-tip pepper past rim-pulled skin held taut. got a little. got a lot. got a metal-splash sizzle as excess is, as is a zero’s eyes assessing assizes. put. put put. put. pause. put in a pause. put in a pause ’n’ snap. put in a pause ’n’ snap off a sizable bit to tip a put-up past a pot-head patsy whose tight-lipped two-timing’s tapered off. tapered-off top-spin whispers hisses at a brush-back pitch sent to size up what type o’ sissy’s up to bat. tough tit, kid, but suck it, suck it, suck it till it’s tender, ’n’ suck it, suck it, suck it till its tip is stiff as a stick, ’n’ suck it, suck it, suck it, suck it, suck. suck at it. suck at it. suck at it till it tingles. suck at it till it tingles and its spit-wet tip can’t take it. shhh. shhh. she’s sighin’, sure as shootin’ she’s not shy shit no she’s shirtless ’n’ shameless she’s shorts-down dyin’ to do it ’n’ here’s to it. to it ’n’ at it. to it ’n’ at it ’n’ overnight. good night. good good good good good good night. good good good good good good day. good good good good good good time. good. good good. good good good good, good ’n’ gooder. gooder in the gutter. got ’er gooder in the gutter ’n’ took it up top to clatter that tick on a metal bit clatter his stick on a metal bit tip took off on a pulled down pop-pulled pow paid pat paid peter paid paul paid cash-strapped fish-store short shrift for switching from fish-stick sales to hash-stick pushing to doped-up wish-merchants waiting by wash-stands in run-down walkways past push-stick talk, paid pull-down pow-wow walkway west, way hey-down, hoe-down, who got gone gained getalong ghost, gained go round goalie has got that puck, has got that puck and won’t let go, has got that puck and won’t let you, let one, let all, let no one in, let this be it till dream-drip trickle-up pushes past top-down tail tipped sold out sin-fest lips slide slipping off flesh flaps flipped for fuller fooling ’round with chunk of punch-drunk monkey-mind spun down, wrung out, hard-held think unthunk. plunk.
Someday he’s just going to be just someday doing something he’s just someday going to be in the middle of doing just something he’s going to be doing what he does someday just someday going to be doing something he’s in the middle of some day when he’s just going to be doing something he always does he’s just going to someday be in the middle of doing what he does, what he’s always someday doing, when what he’ll be doing is going to do what he’s someday doing, doing what he does when he does what he’s doing, doing some day in the middle of being what he is he’s going to be doing what he’s in the middle of, he’s going to be doing what he’s going to be in the middle of and in the middle of doing it he’s going to stop. He’s someday going to be doing what he does when he’s in the middle of some day when he’s doing what he does to be what he is when he stops. He’s going to stop. And he’s going to stop someday when he’s in the middle of doing what he does or when he’s going to do what he someday does when he’s doing what he does to be what he is and he’s going to stop. In the middle of someday being what he is in the middle of some day, he’s going to be doing what he’s usually someday in the middle of doing and he hopes it’ll be in the middle of some day when he’s doing something he usually does in the middle of the day when he hopes he’s in the middle of doing something he usually hopes he’s doing someday what he does when he hopes he stops. He hopes he someday stops. He hopes he someday stops doing something he always someday does. He hopes someday in the middle of doing something he’s always in the middle of someday doing in the middle of some day he stops. Someday he’s going to stop and hope. Someday he’s going to stop and hope he’s someday in the middle of doing something and stops and hopes and in the middle of hoping stops. Someday he’s going to be in the middle of hoping and he’s going to stop in the middle of doing it and he’s going to stop in the middle of being what he is. Someday he’s going to stop hoping. Someday he’s going to stop doing. Someday he’s going to stop being what he is.
I figure I got to know myself some these last few decades. Figure I figured out more than two or three things. Like, I know I got a basic inability to lie and a general repugnance for violence. Course I know I’m selfish and a bit vengeful, too. And I have my excesses, which I’m not keen to curtail. But as much as I know, it seems I got enough still to learn, given what’s happened this last little while: been being unlike me — or what I thought was me. Oh I don’t mean anything dramatic, like becoming a politician or maiming random victims. No, no. Subtler stuff, hard to say exactly what, but there all the same. All the same and still. All the same and still somewhat different, like a few degrees off what used to be, off me. “A change?” you ask. “Not a misconception, but a new element?” Well, one of the things I know about myself is that I’ll consider any possibility, so I won’t just reject that one. But I won’t pretend to believe (I can’t lie) that it’s always been there. Maybe it has: it’s always been there and I’ve always been here. Both it and I are here and now and now and then are neither here nor there but somewhere all the same. Where is there a here and now that could’ve been the same — was, anyway, I don’t know; as someone said once: “Could’ve been.” Which once I said, or if I didn’t, could’ve. And since I could’ve, will. As you will, and as I was. And am. And could’ve been. Probably am, and for sure will be, as I will will be — as I am. And I am and I was and I will be — as I was. And I was and I am as I am — and I will be. As I am, I can’t really be more than I am. Nor would I want to. Not that I can say for sure that I wouldn’t want to. Not that I would; I just can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t. Which is the kind of thing I would do: not say flat out that I would or I wouldn’t. Because I’m aware of possibilities and I won’t say I always will when I know there might be a time when I know that I always won’t. Not that I’d want there to be a time when I’d want to be anything more than what I am. It wouldn’t be like me to be like that. But it would be like me — and it is like me — to be aware that even though that’s just not like me, that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be me, because it could. Though it’s not like me to not want to be what I could be, which is just like me; it’s just like me to want to be just like what I could want to be just what I want like just what I am. And I am, as I said at the outset, lately being unlike me.
Language shapes thought, not thought language. And language shapes thought not thought to be language-shapes. Thought not thought to be language shapes language, shapes thought, shapes shapes. Thought thought to be shapes not thought to be language shapes thoughts thought not to be shaped by language. Thought language shapes thought-shapes shaped by language thought to be thought. Thought thought not to be language-shapes shapes language, shapes thought, shapes language-thought. Language thinks. Language thinks shapes not shaped by thought, shapes thoughts thought thinks not shaped by language. Language thinks thoughts thought thinks think language. Language thinks language.
Close Listening with Wystan Curnow
Editorial note: Poet, art critic, and curator Wystan Curnow, who was named after W. H. Auden, was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1939. He pursued his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to the southern hemisphere to teach at the University of Auckland, though his creative travels have included visiting professorships in New York and California. Curnow’s multigeneric poetry of spatial, cultural, and historical multiplicity can be found in such collections as Back in the USA (Black Light Press, 1989), Cancer Daybook (Vanguard Xpress, 1989), and Modern Colours (Jack Books, 2005). This April 7, 2009, conversation with Charles Bernstein was the second of two episodes in Bernstein’s renowned radio program, Close Listening. You can listen to both programs here. This conversation was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited by Katie L. Price. — Kenna O’Rourke
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, Art International Radio’s program of readings and conversations with poets, presented in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today for the second of two shows is Wystan Curnow. Wystan Curnow is a poet and critic from New Zealand. While teaching American poetry at the University of New Zealand, where he is a professor, he has curated shows and written about image and text. He is closely associated with such New Zealand artists as Billy Apple, Max Gimblett, and Colin McCahon. My name is Charles Bernstein. Wystan, welcome back to Close Listening.
Wystan Curnow: Here we are again.
Bernstein: One of the subjects that has emerged in thinking about poetry, and often reemerged, often in different guises, is the relation of autobiography to the poet: the poet’s location, identity, ethnicity. To what degree is the region that you are from — New Zealand, Auckland, the north island — an integral part of your work as an artist?
Curnow: New Zealand as a country, and as a culture, is defined as much by its geography as its history. Its smallness, its isolation, the quite recent displacement of European culture there. The distance between Auckland and Sydney, the nearest city more populous than Auckland, is the same as that between London and Moscow, and there is nothing but ocean in between. New Zealand is a settlement society, both for Maori, who got there only a few hundred years before, as well as for Pakeha (Europeans), who only arrived there in numbers in the nineteenth century. We were, after the reading, talking about “The Western” —
Bernstein: The second of the three poems you read on the first show.
Curnow: Yes. I think of “The Western” as a settler genre, an American settler genre. The US West.
Bernstein: But you have also said New Zealand itself is the West, the extreme West.
Bernstein: So West that it’s East.
Curnow: Yes, yes. That’s right. Many years ago, I was interested in gold fields literature, which … you know … there is a nineteenth-century genre that goes from California to Australia through to New Zealand.
Bernstein: The Gold Rush?
Curnow: The Gold Rush. From the 1840s through to the 1860s, there’s a continuous line of immigrant’s stories from gold field to gold field. So there are points of connection that I have, as a New Zealander, with America of that order.
Bernstein: When you talk about “The Western,” that poem, what are you doing with the dialogue there? Where do you get that dialect from? Is that from the movies? Is that from a Zane Grey novel?
Curnow: It’s pretty much a transcription of the text of a comic book I have. And some of the dislocation of the narrative … actually while the narrative bits are pretty familiar and the curve of the narrative is obvious, you can’t follow parts of it, because the pictures aren’t there.
Bernstein: Always kept it with you from a little boy on the sheep farm?
Curnow: Yeah! So the transcription, the sound of it, is not my English. The way I read it is the way I always perform it, and it’s one of the interests it has for me as a piece of writing. So the US/NZ settler genre hybrid is registered only in performance. There’s a swapping of performance for picture there which defamiliarizes an otherwise familiar, although obsolete, popular genre.
Bernstein: But the text is appropriated?
Curnow: The text is appropriated, yes.
Bernstein: And, in fact, a lot of the works that you have done have been appropriated, or they are collages or montages.
Bernstein: What’s your interest in this use of found texts and received materials, rather than composing stuff in the manner of the lyric poet, you know, on her or his own?
Curnow: It’s partly temperamental. It’s partly background. It’s partly a reaction against the Romantic idea of writing in poetry. It’s partly a reaction against the literary as well, and feeling more comfortable with working with what’s given. It’s also partly philosophical.
Bernstein: What’s wrong with the literary?
Curnow: The literary tells me what I already know. It’s too bound, in my sense, by our past reading of things.
Bernstein: So perhaps that’s also part of the New World aspect of your work. You know, we always refer to the Americas as New World literature, and yet New Zealand is kind of the newer New World in a way, isn’t it? And yet New Zealand poetry, in its history, has actually been perhaps more focused on Britain … it’s more Anglocentric than some of the poetries of the Americas — your work being an important and decisive break. But on the other hand, it might have been something else. What was the return to England? Why was that so significant for some earlier New Zealand poets’ sense of place and location? Because that, of course, wasn’t their place and location.
Curnow: No, it wasn’t, but it was the culture that they had, the culture that they took away with them. I mean, my grandparents’ generation still talked of the UK as home.
Bernstein: They were in exile?
Curnow: They were in exile, yes. So they actually held on to it. It wasn’t that they went back to England; it was as if they never left.
Bernstein: So, that’s different from us in the US, where you wouldn’t have found exactly that. People might be in exile to some degree, but they would tend to think of the US or America as their destination, often, as in the case of my parents, wanting to erase where their parents came from, and certainly not mentioning it.
Curnow: Well, I think there are a number of reasons for that. One of the things to say, again, about the literary is that at some levels, the higher up the cultural chain you went, the more colonial the culture was. So those people who were making a place for themselves out there in New Zealand, who were furthest removed from England and the concerns of England, were the people who were making a living on the land, the people who weren’t interested in culture. Those who were still interested in the arts, shall we say, they could not break the link back to England. Those were the lines of communication. That’s where high culture was.
Bernstein: Now, you have been interested in network connections, transnational or global, to some degree, so commonplace as a way of mapping the visual arts. So going back to my original question of location — thinking of New Zealand as one point in this global set of crossing points and so on — where do you locate yourself on the globe in that respect? What are some of the currents, visual and verbal, that go through you, where you are?
Curnow: Well, first of all let’s go back one step, since I think that one reaction to going back to England, or attachment to home, was the idea of establishing something unique and of a particular place. So there was a type of isolationist, or a discovery of a New Zealand identity, a New Zealand literature.
Bernstein: Which would also be marked by features of the place itself —
Curnow: That’s right.
Bernstein: The boundedness by water, the particular fauna and flora —
Curnow: And the way in which, as society developed, it grew out of those things in particular, rather than things that were elsewhere. That’s in some way a resistance to the global, a resistance to networks. Essentially, I’m of a generation that is more impressed with the limitations and the delusions of such a cultural nationalist strategy, and wishes to expand the networks and make more of them. I think, as you yourself indicated, that somewhere in the 1970s, a considerable change occurred in terms of the influence particularly of American culture in New Zealand, not just at the popular culture level, but in the arts and in poetry. But one of the things I wanted to say about the network thing is that whatever other sources you are talking about, one looks at sources in a different way than has occurred in the past. It’s a matter of relationships and the negotiation of spaces between rather than a “here” and a “there.” So networkers, in my view, understood that way.
Bernstein: I’m of course thinking of the particular show that you did of maps and global networking.
Curnow: I mean for me, the broader network began with the States. Then it extended to Europe, I would say, in the 1980s. Europe was a discovery for me. I’d never been there before.
Bernstein: Your orientation was primarily to the United States?
Bernstein: In that you came here to go to graduate school, right here in Philadelphia, and you’re interested in American poetry.
Curnow: That’s right. I went to Penn to study American literature, which I thought of as the leading instance of a post-colonial literature in English. In so far as he was a Far Western author, Herman Melville was, to me, also a New Zealand writer; Moby Dick was work of Pacific literature. I did my thesis at Penn on Melville’s poetry.
Bernstein: Maybe you could weave into this story the fact that, at the same time, you were involved with a group of New Zealand visual artists who were operating to some degree in the United States as well as in New Zealand, but who had a kind of international connection. So to gloss what you are saying in part, your internationalism is in resistance to the rather embedded — digging in to being in New Zealand with a vengeance: if you dig down deep enough you find England. And so this internationalism is a point of difference with a strong literary current in New Zealand but also to the attitudes of some of the American poets that you would have first connected with, who tended to be more US-bound and resistant to Europe.
Curnow: Yes. The [Donald] Allen anthology was a big influence in my undergrad years. Especially Black Mountain and the Beat writers.
Bernstein: And not knowledgeable about New Zealand, or even Canada, or Mexico, etc.
Curnow: When I went back to New Zealand in 1970 [after getting my PhD at Penn], it was like in some ways beginning again. I’d been away for seven years. And I looked around, and I wanted to see where the creative energies were in the culture. They seemed to me to be in the visual arts rather than poetry. So that’s when my real engagement with the visual arts began. While in the States, I was interested … I’ve always been interested in the visual arts. It actually began with that moment of coming back and saying, you know, “What’s going on here? What’s most interesting here?” And it really was what was happening in the visual arts. Basically it was the New Zealand version of conceptual art, that whole change. Or a particular version of post-minimalism, which down here we called post-object. It had its origins partly in the States, and partly in England and Europe. So there was a very broad set of influences, which coalesced in a distinctive way.
Bernstein: So who would have been the key figures in the early ’70s who struck you in New Zealand?
Curnow: In New Zealand?
Bernstein: And also feeding into that, outside it as well.
Curnow: Jim Allen is a key figure. Head of Sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Auckland. Jim had connections with what was going on in South America: South American conceptualist work. Oiticia and Clark. Also, in England, he was in touch with the Kineticists, who were more European and UK-based. So he brought European, South American, UK, and American interests into focus in New Zealand. And then he brought in visiting artists, young artists from Europe, from the US to teach in that program. Kieran Lyons, who’d come through Yale, and Adrian Hall, who was by then teaching at UCLA. There were New Zealanders, like Phil Dadson, who had gone to study with Cornelius Cardew in London, who came back. There was a hotbed of activity that had its own character, its own impetus, and I hooked onto that. That was really the most interesting thing that was going on. But underlying that is that broader recognition that in the arts from the ’60s into the ’70s the States was where the action was. It was later I discovered Europe had been hidden from me — I think hidden from me by Britain. I had a kind of British ignorance of Europe. Also the difficulty of travel. Then in the 1980s I looked to Europe, and I think that’s something also that is partly an outcome of what is happening in New Zealand at this time as well, which is a Maori renaissance at all levels of culture and politics going on. A particular point, at that time, is that if you are interested in your past, and you’re Maori, you must work on Maori culture. If you’re pakeha, you stick to your own history, inheritance. You take responsibility for your own history. This meant that I, among others, began to look to the sources of my colonial culture, not so much Britain, but in Europe generally. I started to go to Europe, particularly through the interest in contemporary art, which is not constrained by language, easier to move around. Also, I had my own connections, my own family genealogy that took me back to France. My mother’s ancestors are French, so some exploration of that occurred as well. And on my father’s side, well the ‘Cur’ or ‘Ker’ in Curnow or Kernow has the same root in the Celtish languages of Cornwall and Brittany as the ‘Ker’ in Kerouac.
Bernstein: So bringing this engagement — and then further on with people like Len Lye, the great expatriate New Zealand filmmaker and writer who lived in New York — coming back into New Zealand poetry, you’re really bringing both this European, conceptual art connection, as well as the New American poetry, the contemporary American poetry, into a literary culture for which none of those things would have been present virtually at all.
Curnow: No, no. That’s right. And so, most recently, the poetry I’ve been writing is very influenced by a fairly systematic reading of the poetry of European avant-garde artists, and discovering how many of them were poets as well as painters and sculptors. So the kinds of appropriation or, shall we say, encounter, with the texts that proceed my own writing in very recent times, in fact, have been the writings of Picabia, of Picasso, of Kandinsky, of Ernst. And the list goes on and on, as we know.
Bernstein: You teach, in New Zealand, US poetry, and really are an enormous promoter and defender of the more innovative aspects of American poetry of the post–World War II period. A lot of that poetry, however, is quite resistant to the very European avant-garde that you are talking about. So do you see a connection, a conflict there?
Curnow: Not really. I mean, among American poets of the —
Bernstein: Now, I’m not talking exactly about my generation obviously. I would ask the same, and often do, of myself, as you know. So I am not setting it up that way. I share that engagement with you.
Curnow: Yeah. And people like Jerry Rothenberg and his anthologies have been so important in opening the doors for many of us. So, that’s not alien. But, as you say, those interests do not meet a common ground in New Zealand poetry, and no more do they in this country with many, many notable exceptions. So I think there is a common interest at that level. But I think the connection in talking about the teaching of poetry … I think that discovery I made going back to New Zealand in 1970, having a real close encounter with the change to conceptual art, made me realize what goes by the name of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry was a version of the same change, the same shift.
Bernstein: I think that is true of my generation, and, actually, you were early to recognize that in my life. My own, perhaps counterintuitive, contextualizing of the US poetry of the generation before me as a kind of conceptual work rather than a kind of, let’s say, projectivist project, or within a Williams context … to think of it also as kind of constraint-based around certain lines, which would put it more in the line with the European innovations, rather than distinct, and also denationalize it from the US social space in which it’s always reimagined. But you’re already there, in a sense, from the distance in which you’re looking. In a way, the parallax view from Auckland to New York, Auckland/San Francisco, Auckland/London, Auckland/Paris, already gives you a different spatial relation. So one of the things I was thinking about in that early show of yours — not that early, I mean it was about ten years ago, the global mapping show — is that space could be understood in that way, in that Duchampian network of stoppages: not just where you are, but your relationship to the places around you.
Curnow: Yes. I mean, if I were to say what is New Zealand about my mind, I would say it is an interest in geography and that interest in the map as a conception of geography. So we can variously bring this conversation back to that mode of thinking.
Bernstein: I’m also interested in the relation of your poetics, and your work as a writer and teacher, to your art writing, because you really bring to the art writing a, kind of, values of writing that are not always the most important thing to art critics, or certainly art scholars or art theorists. So what is the relationship as a writer between your writing, your poetics, and your art criticism?
Curnow: Well, as with many, the kind of binaries we are talking about — “here” and “there” — I’m really interested in the places in the middle and in the stoppages in between, in mapping the space in between. So that applies, I think, to my criticism, my critical writing. There’s a sliding scale; sometimes it’s simply moving; it adjusts to the occasion. Sometimes, if there’s more of an opportunity, I push the writing to the middle place. But crucially, in terms of my own development, I think, and oddly it seems subsequently that my poetry writing, as I see it now, had its important beginnings in writing about performance art, and reading the role of the critic as a transcriber, or a describer, or interpreter — as somehow implicated in the performance itself. So that it was something about the impact of performance art, per se, that cast me into the role of writer as performer, as a critic, that really then fed into my own poetry. Criticism was crucially important in terms of my own development in that sense. I think that performance art changed my notion of writing, critical writing, and writing per se. It was specifically an issue of writing in situ. That was a key part of it.
Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Wystan Curnow in situ on Close Listening. The program was recorded on April 6, 2009 on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania at the Kelly Writers House. Close Listening is a production of PennSound in collaboration with Art International Radio, operating at ArtOnAir.org. Our engineer for today’s show is James La Marre. For more information on this show, go to our website: writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. This is Charles Bernstein, close listening down under, on top, and in between.
This interview took place on November 28, 2010, at Trevor Joyce’s house off Shandon Street, Cork. The weather was bitter, and Joyce was fatigued, having stood outside hours the previous day at an antistate/anti-IMF protest he had organized in the city to coincide with the national protests in Dublin. With thanks to Trevor Joyce, Lee Jenkins, and Justin Katko. — Niamh O’Mahony
Niamh O’Mahony: How do you understand language and what do you think it does?
Trevor Joyce: Well, to start with, I’m not at all rigorously theoretical, so my view of things and the way I approach things changes as I go along. I constantly contradict myself, so take it that this is a sort of an answer as of recently …
I think, when I started out, I had the same general attitude to language as communicative that most people have. Then at sixteen or seventeen I discovered Paul Klee’s paintings, and I read something in a book about him, something that appeared to be a quotation. I just read in the past year it seems as though it’s a misinterpretation. It’s a sort of partial translation or quotation to begin with, so it doesn’t necessarily represent his view; but I think other people have taken it the same way that I have. His method was to start with normal elements that he knew very well — we’re talking about visual study here in the Pedagogical Sketchbook, things like spirals, serrated lines, lines going for a walk — and he would allow these to interact on the surface of the canvas, then maybe add color, add tone, and so on and at some point he would recognize a subject in the painting, which would then become the title of the painting, and then he would stop. So the painting could be titled something like “Christmas Night in Augsburg”; it wouldn’t have started out as a painting of that, but it would end up as a painting of that, achieved unconsciously by a play with objective formal elements.
So, in the same way, I think that there are interesting objective formal elements in language, things that you can pick on, and which you can see other peoples’ minds working on. You can see language constantly forming and destroying itself in various ways in other peoples’ mouths; for me, it’s a question of doing the same thing.
Most thinking, the vast majority of thinking, is done through language — the stuff at least that interests me. So, what’s felt usually finds itself in language. Everything that’s been felt, everything that’s been thought, has been expressed already through language, this objective body of signs that’s out there. What I do then is try to ingest that, play with it in formal ways, let it take shape in the same way that Klee talks about it and put it out there when it seems to me to have a coherent shape. And then I spend a few years in some cases trying to figure out what the hell it means!
O’Mahony: Is language, then, the point at which feeling becomes material?
Joyce: Language is the medium through which it happens and it has a thickness that we don’t control, the stuff below the surface. We control the surfaces in various ways, you know, with formal syntax and grammar and all the rest of it, but there’s an awful lot happening underneath. The nearest I have to any sort of theory would be Russian Formalism. I know it’s very limited; I know there are all sorts of places where it stops short where it could go on, but it serves me very well for working definitions. Past a certain point, I don’t want to know because I want to leave myself open to make mistakes that are interesting. I might have been stuck with rather barren certainties, but I prefer fruitful mistakes.
O’Mahony: So looking at something like music then, where communication is not through the medium of words and phonemes and yet the medium is expressive. Does that occupy a similar position to language do you think?
Joyce: To me, yeah, but, as I was saying to you, because I’m so woefully ignorant in terms of actual skills, either theoretical or practical with music, I’m sort of free to imagine music to be doing whatever I want. I remember a German guy, he once taught maths here in Cork; his English wasn’t perfect but he could be quite inventive. I remember him commenting on one occasion that you had a great freedom in a language that wasn’t your own; you could have all sorts of fun with it.
O’Mahony: Writing, for you, then, is an attention to “processes,” looking back at “The Point of Innovation in Poetry”?
Joyce: It’s both, and as I said at the beginning, I don’t stay consistent. At certain times, I’m actually trying to say something, I’m trying to get communicative, though at this point I’ve got so many weights connected to myself that it’s very difficult to move freely. I do find it difficult to say clearly what I mean so I’ve given up. I used to love arguing, years ago, and now I’ve told people that I won’t argue anymore. I try to stick to that because I just find myself saying all sorts of things that I don’t really mean, though it only occurs to me a week later that I don’t really mean it, that I can’t inhabit it.
With music and the visual arts and mathematics, they serve me well as ways of thinking about possibilities for language, the formal possibilities; and then you’ve got this extra stickiness of the surface of language, of specific meanings, that you don’t have to the same degree in those other fields. It’s that combination: sometimes going with the stickiness, trying to say something, trying actually to express something or put an external objective polemical point, and at other times, just letting something grow out of the material of language and “finding out” equally — “this grew for me, I recognized it, how and in what way is that my feeling?”
O’Mahony: So is language something that is outside, and that you come to, or that is always constructive in your perception?
Joyce: It’s both. If I’m doing a creative writing workshop and I’ve a small enough group (I’m highly dubious about creative writing workshops, by the way, but I do them, partly to sabotage them), one of the things that I do, and I tell them beforehand that it’s a really cheap trick, I say, “OK, look, we’re just going to take three or four minutes and I just want you to think about this, in your own mind, don’t say anything. I want you to think about some experience you’ve had, some idea, some fantasy, some dream that is very particular to you, that is yours uniquely, and that really, really matters to you but that is very private. I want you to express this, to describe this to yourself in your own words. I’m not going to ask anyone to say it here. I just want you to do this.” So, to start with they’re kind of looking at me in alarm, then you get the odd hand going up, and eventually everybody has done it and they’re wondering what’s happening. So I say “OK, so you’ve all managed to describe this experience that’s unique to yourself, that’s very, very private, you expressed it in your own words?” and then I say “No you haven’t. There’s no such thing as your own words. The words that you’ve used, that you’ve thought adequate to this thing which is very private, very personal, are also the same words that are used in advertising, used by corrupt politicians. They’re being used to scam, and so on.” There is no such thing as this intimate, personal field of language. It’s always the same, it’s crossing boundaries constantly.
O’Mahony: What do you think is the responsibility of the poet as someone who is particularly close to language and has a particularly attentive awareness of it?
Joyce: Well, to start with, not to allow meanings loose in the poetry that you can’t in some way … I was going to say in some way inhabit, or live with, but that’s not right … not that you have them under control, but that they’re not in control of you. You can’t at any point step back and say “I didn’t mean that.” Anything you put down, any meanings that are there, they’re your meanings. If you’re not going to bring them down and rephrase, reshape them, and control them in that very authoritarian way which I don’t believe works for poetry, what you’ve got to do is balance them elsewhere. So you’ve got this constant dynamic, a dialectic, going on.
What’s in Store is full of that sort of stuff; that’s why there are so many elements in there. I don’t know to what degree I’m accurate or doing him a disservice, but I think that Yeats did much the same thing in his books. You’ve got expressions of different, polarized angles in different poems within a single book so that they balance one another. He does it, to some degree formally, and textually as well. There’s stuff that’s quite accessible and idiomatic sitting alongside stuff from A Vision, but he also takes up quite different, polarized, subject positions in relation to things.
O’Mahony: So, in terms then of what you said in “The Point of Innovation in Poetry,” and I realize that this was written nearly fifteen years ago in 1996, but there’s a point at which you distinguish between expressive poetry and nonexpressive poetry; you’ve got “expressive” poetry on the one hand “speaking for” people, and on the other …
Joyce: Well, the other thing is more or less what I’m trying to outline; I mean, I was on my high horse, on my pulpit, for that thing. I was all fired up and we were doing this thing, putting on this festival and I thought I knew what I thought. I’m much less sure now, much less programmatic, so that rather than saying that prescriptively [i.e. affirming a non-expressive form of poetry through his own poetry], I’d put it descriptively of the way that I work; but it is a reason why I distrust and dislike a good deal of what other people consider to be good poetry. I think it’s too much the intellect dominating a skill set which I associated with poetry, but what’s being done isn’t poetry. I think poetry has its own specific ethics where you’re responsible for everything but you’ve got to let it go and you’ve got then something further to live up to. All those extra meanings you let loose, you’ve got to deal with them as well; so it’s constantly letting go more meanings, bringing them into the world and letting them exist rather than letting them down.
O’Mahony: So that then is the domain of the poet, that is the locale?
Joyce: Yeah, yeah. The rest, as far as I’m concerned, is not unakin to advertising copy.
O’Mahony: My next question regards your readership. Do you have a specific audience in mind when you’re writing, or who do you write for?
Joyce: I’d have said at various times, “No I don’t,” and I’d have said at other times that I write for myself, and in a way that’s true. I need to have some element of that, but I certainly don’t get as much of a charge from that as I used to. I hadn’t been writing for twenty years or so — I’d been writing in my head but I hadn’t been turning anything out, and I remember people commenting about me, “Trevor Joyce stopped writing,” and it used to really annoy me and get me down because I was constantly trying to work out why it was that I couldn’t write and free myself.
During the time I was doing stone floods Mike Smith was pretty much my only reader; and I’m glad, like, he used to have difficulty with it. He would call me on particular words, phrases, lines, stanzas or whatever, but eventually, when he found that the thing wasn’t purely whimsical and that I was trying to move in more and more directions, he said “OK, don’t give me notes. Just write more and more of these because they’ll illuminate one another and they’ll function as their own notes.” I think that was really good advice.
By the time I went through the other stuff that’s in first dream of fire and got on to What’s in Store, I had probably about six to ten people who would read it as I turned it out. They would respond and it was funny because I got to recognize what some people like and others dislike, and I found that some people were open no matter what I did. There was one reader, Anna Khasin, who’s now around DC in the States; she was extraordinary in that no matter what I sent her she seemed to be able to find resonances in it immediately and feed them back to me, which often meant that when something wasn’t working dead right I could tune it. It was extraordinary, I mean, she wasn’t sending me essays in return, sometimes it would be just a line, but her ear was so acute and that just gave me a greater sense of belief in what I was doing.
O’Mahony: Does it matter to you that the reader will not always grasp it, or is it incumbent upon a good reading to acknowledge what you’ve tried to do?
Joyce: As far as I’m concerned, no. Keith Tuma asked me a question which may be similar back in 2005 the time that SoundEye sent an embassy to the Cork Caucus: cris cheek, Randolph Healy, and myself subjected ourselves to [public]interview by Keith. He asked me, with something like “The Peacock’s Tale” which is done using a spreadsheet, how important it was that the reader should know or get all this, and I said “Well, not really.” The poem should be able to function without it, to some degree, and I think in that case, it would function, to a large degree. It should open it up more, it should mean more if this is known, and for “The Peacock’s Tale,” the more I thought about it the more I think that it [understanding the structure] probably is more desirable than I thought.
There is fundamental rhyming [in “The Peacock’s Tale”] between the prose drawn from the inside of Encyclopaedia Britannica about The Famine, and the native Irish, the “mere Irish,” not being able to put their clothes on if they take them off — clothing oneself as a sort of poor forked animal. The other part of it is about the carving and breaking up of animals in butchery; and the two rhyme — the taking off of the clothes and the taking off of the flesh from the skeleton — but you don’t actually see that the butchery lexicon is there unless you know to some extent how the thing works, how the concept rhymes, and they’re scattered in a particular way across it. You would need to have them pointed out to you, I’d say.
O’Mahony: And that idea of conceptual rather than internal or overt rhyme — that is particularly prevalent in your work?
Joyce: Oh yeah, I think I probably take the idea from Pound initially, though I can’t remember where in Pound. In the last year it’s been occurring to me as a way of explaining. People often raise their eyebrows if they’re not used to the Poundian tradition of poetry, and the idea of concept rhyme. I talk about something like “womb tomb” as being partly there, you know semantic rhyme, but the rhyme in meaning is only part of that, you’ve also got the sonority. I was trying the think of an example of subject rhyme and of course you’ve got it in Heaney where he talks about hope and history rhyming.
He doesn’t actually do it, that’s the thing, he talks about it. Whereas the people that I’m interested in and what I’m interested in doing myself would be a poetry which would enact it rather than talking about it.
O’Mahony: To me, your reading at SoundEye [July 2010] seemed to carry within it a patterning or movement richer than accent and local intonation. What do you think about this construction of language, and what are the possibilities for such interpretation of your work?
Joyce: Yeah, I’d like to think that it’s true and it was very much in my mind at the time because I was just back from this residency in Cill Rialaig (Co. Kerry), and then from nine months in Cambridge. Before I went over there [to Cambridge] I was thinking about these things in relation to Spenser and this alien, English voice and English mentality viewing a very different Ireland. Obviously there’s been a great deal of convergence since, and I wouldn’t want to sentimentalize or to try to throw myself back in a time machine. But, I was thinking about it, doing research on it, to some degree, theoretically in Cambridge. Then I got to Cill Rialaig in the Iveragh Peninsula — a place where folk material was being collected in the thirties. Also, I was amazed to find that it [Cill Rialaig] was beside where, in the Book of Invasions, the Milesians had landed. Near Waterville, where Charlie Chaplin used to go on holidays, that’s where the Milesians landed!
So, I had all that stuff in my mind [the languages of Ireland and the English articulation of Ireland by Spenser etc.] and one of the texts that I used for thinking about it is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. I mentioned it in that thing in For the Birds, and I think I bought it in 1997 in Swarthmore. It’s certainly not perfect and there are parts of it that I doubt, and I think he goes close to being new age-y at times, but I find it a really interesting book. I like that it sets out more to suggest things and to open up possibilities of awareness and sensitivity than to prove things, though I think probably that he thinks he did prove a certain amount in it. But I love it as an exercise in a particular rhetoric and I am very interested in what’s being suggested in it.
O’Mahony: So there is some resonance, something residual about the patterning, the sounds and shape of the language in your poetry that you recognize as distinctly Irish — it is difficult to determine whether this would carry through to the poem on the page, but I’d been reading a lot of English poetry in the months leading up to you reading at SoundEye, and it felt comfortable, then, to listen to Irish poetry.
Joyce: Ah, I’m delighted you say that! Because this was all stuff that I was immersed in but I didn’t deliberately do it around SoundEye; I mean, as usual, I just, sort of, talk in between and I read whatever comes into my mind to read. I wasn’t setting out programmatically to say what I’m at.
O’Mahony: But there is a danger to that kind of reading of language and poetry, of there being national elements or drives within the language which can lend itself towards a problematic nationalism in poetry and criticism?
Joyce: Oh I think so, yeah. I would say that that sense [of something residual to the Irish appropriation of language] isn’t peculiar to me; Catherine Walsh and Billy Mills try to mine that in their distinct ways, and perhaps Maurice Scully does also, and others whose work is in a tradition, a mode of writing that I find interesting.
I think that that may explain part of the reason why particularly the Language poets, but also perhaps, to some degree, the Cambridge poets are, at the same time sympathetic … I’m talking in a global or generic way, that they feel themselves sympathetic to what we’re doing, but at the same time, at the back of it, there’s something that they’re not quite entirely happy with. And I think they’re right not to be entirely happy with it; I think it is a different way of writing, and in fact I think, probably that myself and the Irish poets I’ve mentioned, (though Billy Mills would probably go after me with a crowbar if he heard me say this), that we have a good deal in common with people like Heaney and so on. It’s a sort of stuff that only really becomes visible maybe fifty or a hundred years later. Where people, in general, perceive antipathies and differences, I think actually there’s a great deal held or practiced in common.
O’Mahony: And so to avoid the nationalist rhetoric that has featured so heavily in Irish poetry and criticism of the last century, is it simply a case of addressing it in a different way in criticism, or …
Joyce: Yeah, well, by talking about it, and in criticism; you’ve got to bring an analytic mind to bear on it, testing the stuff. I’m a great believer in good criticism and there’s never been really good criticism in Irish poetry, or very little of it, stuff that’s fundamental, that goes to the roots of it. I think, once again, that a great deal of the material that I don’t like, that goes too far [and] plays nostalgically or sentimentally off this stuff, is material which comes closer to advertising copy than to poetry. It’s people who see, as it were, a niche for a voice or a viewpoint and occupy or trademark it. What I’m interested in, and the people whose work I’m interested in, is a work that is constantly changing and getting away from it; and yet they can’t, because it’s not that they’re choosing to say these things but it’s as if the things are choosing them to say them.
O’Mahony: Do you think that this approach to language and poetry is a distinguishing feature of Irish poets?
Joyce: No, I don’t. That vision is just within poets, certainly within that last two hundred years or so, across all the traditions that I know. There are some people like Lewis Carroll, Kurt Schwitters, Klee’s poetry and so on, whose writing is amenable to me in the way that I like. People like Christopher Middleton, a contemporary English poet — there’s one poem by him that I like very much called “Woden dog” which is written in a kind of hybrid Caribbean pidgin. It’s very hard to figure out what it is, but it’s written in the voice of a toy wooden dog which is at times being driven around in a bus, and is asking, voicing the wish not to be pushed over. Very, very strange, but I just love it. I love nonsense poetry; however intellectual it is, however thoughtful it is, I usually prefer poetry the nearer it goes to nonsense poetry. Lewis Carroll is just marvelous. I always wish that I could read [Christian] Morgenstern; I think he translates very poorly from what I can gather but I’d just love to be able to read his material.
O’Mahony: And is your liking for Carroll and those other poets coming out in this collection [with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold]?
Joyce: Oh yeah, I hope so. I love the neatness of his rhyming. I wish I was as good technically as he is; he’s just superb and, you know, people like Jonathan Swift: such control on one level of the surface of language but letting other ones “run amok,” so to speak!
O’Mahony: My next question regards critical commentaries on recent collections. The first is by Alex Davis from his review of Syzygy, and the second is from Nate Dorward’s essay “On Trevor Joyce”:
Davis: “its [Syzygy’s] close correlation of form to a content preoccupied with the opposition that matter, of various kinds, puts up to structuration.”
Dorward: “the dissolution of boundaries and the permeability of stony barriers” exemplifying “a paradox of static motion.”
Are Davis’s and Dorward’s descriptions of some kind of static flux, is that something you agree with yourself?
Joyce: I thought that what Nate was saying was more general; I didn’t think that he was saying that about Syzygy, the point that he was making [regards] the early stuff that’s in Pentahedron and stone floods, and Nate is bang on. He got immediately what I was on about, and he got most of it by himself.
With Alex, the reference was to material of various sorts, well it depends what he means by “various kinds.” Material can be “thematic material” or whatever, or it can be material as in substance and the world. If you accept that there’s a very wide spectrum of possibilities, then yes.
Somebody, years ago, was trying to get me to read Henry James, and nearly managed to get me to read The Golden Bowl. This was on the strength of the argument, as I understood him and remember my understanding, that you have these long and very complex sentences and periods in James which, in a way, enact the difficulty of negotiating the world and enacting one’s agency within it. Jump sidewise: I’m not sure if I’m still talking to the same point, but David Lloyd said in a review somewhere about me having an odd combination of expressionist and constructivist approaches, and that’s true and as far as I’m concerned. All of that’s derived from my understanding of Klee and how Klee works in his painting.
Some of the stuff of the last fifteen years or so, post stone floods, things like Syzygy, “The Peacock’s Tale” and so on, you might consider them a sort of an OuLiPian thing. “The Peacock’s Tale” and Syzygy got published online with notes and commentary on Drunken Boat, and they were in the para-OuLiPian section. Now there are a couple of ways in which they’re not OuLiPian. One of those ways would be — and I remember Christian Bök going over the OuLiPian stuff with me — that you need a nontrivial constraint; you need this reference between the thematic and the constraint, but the constraint must be carried through rigorously. It must be carried through, and I don’t, I’m quite content to let stuff fall apart. It’s part of the way that I work.
Kit Fryatt, writing the review in the Irish Times, referred to my note which was very carefully worded about the thirty-six worders in What’s in Store. What she said is “basically what he means is that he couldn’t do it.” Leaving aside my careful wording, the fact was that I chose these things in order that they might break down, because what I do, for the purposes of the poem, is reduce the world often into a constraint or a set of formal rules which then represent the world and maybe a specific thing within it. I use spreadsheets a lot with the awareness of their background in financial analysis and in banking and such things. It’s not accidental that I use them. I was working as a financial analyst in Apple when I started doing it, so it’s not whimsical. It’s not attention-seeking, although it appears that the most interesting thing a lot of people can find to say about Syzygy is “Oh, it’s written using an Excel spreadsheet. Oh, how interesting.” But once I’ve done that, once I’ve set up this constraint, then the thing to do is to try to smuggle meaning past or through it, and it has to be disguised in various ways. It will often find itself, if I internalize the thing properly, it will be disguised in ways that even I don’t recognize immediately.
O’Mahony: So does the constraint offer a degree of control through which you can work?
Joyce: It makes the problem smaller. It constrains it so that I’m not worried, you know, about what the IMF is going to do immediately. Instead, I’m worrying about how I’m going to deal with this rhyme or something like that. Also it helps me because I’ve got a very short attention span and I work on too much stuff at once. I’m just too changeable to write large-scale work in the way that … well, I’m no Milton let’s say! What it lets me do is to, sort of, subdelegate to various department heads in my head: you know, “you’ll go off and you’ll work on various constraints, and you’ll work on language, you’ll work on historical analogies and all the rest of it,” and you know, in the meantime, I’ll work on, sort of, getting my voice trained to give a good scream!
O’Mahony: Is there ever a point at which the constraint becomes unbearable? And is that you allow it to loosen?
Joyce: It depends on what you mean by unbearable. There are times where I find myself getting sloppy with it, and I wonder whether it’s just that I’m having a bad day or a bad week, or, is it that in some way the tension that was being generated has dissipated. If it’s the latter then I’ll just jack it in, but in some ways it’s sort of a safe zone. When I’m preparing these things, there’s a lot at stake for me, but when I actually get in to, as it were, close combat with the forms and the language and so on, at that point I’m just thinking about it in formal terms. And that’s the point, you know, that’s my thing about the Klee business, about working with spirals and serrated lines, working with purely formal elements. These are all charged for me with all the work that I’ve already put in, you know, with forty years of writing poetry and translating and reading and so on; so that even if something happens that’s entirely unforeseen by me, I can probably in some way recuperate it into meaning.
I found that fascinating when I did Syzygy; I programmed the spreadsheet with the algorithm, and when I got to doing the middle voice palindromically I found that the constraint was being sloppily managed in OuLiPian terms. The constraint itself was badly defined, but it suited me. It was the level of difficulty that I wanted and it stood for the right thing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the major point.
O’Mahony: So when you reference John Cage talking to Joan Retallack about his formal techniques, that would be important to your own poetry as well?
Joyce: Yeah, what I think he’s saying is that too many artists are occupied with imitating the products of nature, whereas what he wants to do is to work analogously to the processes of nature.
O’Mahony: How do you understand this approach in your own poetry?
Joyce: I don’t know what I'm being analogous to, but I have a sense that it is analogous to something that’s much larger than what I’m doing, that there’s massive backdrop. It’s like watching Ivan the Terrible, or a film noir or something like that where you’ve got this huge figure in shadow on the wall. The camera goes round the corner and you find it’s a small boy — well, I am that small boy!
O’Mahony: What form does this attention to process over product take in the language of poetry?
Joyce: When I started out, there was this notion, we touched on it earlier, of language being private, personal and intimate, and [as a poet] you work at developing “my lyric voice” — I grew eventually to realize that that was codswallop and it is the greatest constraint.
I understand very clearly, Austin Clarke’s thing about “first I rope myself in chains and then I try to get rid of them.” That is very freeing, if you choose the right chains; they’re much better than the ones imposed externally. So yeah, it’s almost like a sympathetic magic, isn’t it … that hadn’t ever occurred to me before. Language, as I understand it now, is a bit like Wordsworth’s “conversation of ordinary men,” rather than being a separated-out, elite field of language-use that is out of ordinary language usages. It is always taking them [constraints] a stage further, a stage further, until they begin to tip over into something which is internally patterned rather than primarily patterned by the world.
O’Mahony: Difficulty and abstraction feature prominently in contemporary criticism of innovative poetry. Are these qualities that you value in poetry, or are they a byproduct of your writing process?
Joyce: The degree to which something is difficult or not doesn’t matter to me. I would be delighted if I could write perfectly accessible poetry that worked for me and that was adequate to what I was thinking and feeling and what was moving me, but I can’t. On the other hand, when I look at some of the generally “accessible” poetry that’s around me, it’s not doing it either.
O’Mahony: So it’s a case of finding the language that best suits?
Joyce: Yeah, not just the language that best suits; I think there’s a suspicion there, and I don’t think it’s what you think at all, but, you know, of le mot juste or something, “finding the language”; for me it’s sort of finding a language use, an approach to language, a way of deploying language …
Anyway, what’s difficult changes, changes very much, and the nature of the difficulty changes as the work goes out in the world and lives, so I think it would be a damn stupid thing to make that primary. I can understand that someone would make it an element of thinking in terms of texture, and taking that in a broad sense, you know, conceptual texture and all that, but to make it in itself a value I think is stupid.
O’Mahony: Well, a final question then: what do you think of the current state of Irish poetry, innovative poetry in particular, and how has it changed since you began writing in the sixties?
Joyce: I don’t know, I mean, this category of innovative poetry; I’ve used it myself, and I used to say “I never use the term ‘experimental,’” and then I go back and find it’s on the blurb to Pentahedron. I didn’t write the blurb but I remember telling Mike Smith, using the phrase to him. In any case, I okayed his use of it in the blurb even if I didn’t write it myself … but yeah, I think that, once again, all of those terms don’t matter to me anymore really. Ha, as though I sat there, stroking my beard! But yeah, I just find them pretty boring.
I don’t like it now. There’s a lot of things to be said for the sixties. There were lots of poets then whose work I didn’t like, probably about the same proportions as now. Even the people that I didn’t like as much, (perhaps a poem here and there) they were much more varied in their approach, and the voices, to use that term, seemed to have more to them that was idiosyncratic. It wasn’t just temperamental idiosyncrasies; they came with different backgrounds and they came with knowledge that they had gathered themselves into language. Now … maybe it’s the result of writing programs and all this sort of stuff. I think it’s very much the fault of editors, the emphasis on publishing, coming down to the fact that if you go to bookshops, you’ve got a very limited range in terms of contemporary poetry, and the fact that so many poets don’t know anything about the history of poetry. So, it’s just very, very generic and very, very barren. Unfortunately a lot of the innovative stuff seems to me to be very generic, and I’m equally bored by both. I’m just not interested in reading that stuff.
2. Trevor Joyce, “The Point of Innovation in Irish Poetry,” in For the Birds: Proceedings of the First Cork Conference on New and Experimental Irish Poetry, ed. Harry Gilonis (Sutton, UK: Mainstream; Dublin: hardPressed, 1998), 18–26; republished in The Gig 2: Six Poets: Views and Interviews, ed. Nate Dorward (Willowdale, Ontario: The Gig Document Series, 2001), 45–50.
3. “My suggestion is that we abandon this archaic cult of beauty which imposes such a barrier between the activity of poetry and what others, with equal exclusivity, refer to as ‘the real world’ … The processes of the world respect no privilege, recognize no distinctions of propriety. In making this our material, we need feel no guilt at separating ourselves from the mess of the world.” Joyce, For the Birds, 24; Six Poets, 49.
9. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 7th ed., s.v. “The Famine.” For extended discussion of this poem, see Joyce, “The Structure of ‘The Peacock’s Tale,’” Drunken Boat 8 (2006).
11. Book of Invasions, Lebor Gabala Erenn, a twelfth-century manuscript on the origins of the Gaelic people.
23. “[T]he language of the earliest Poets was felt to differ materially from ordinary language … In works of imagination and sentiment … in proportion as ideas and feelings are valuable, whether the compositions be in prose or in verse, they require and exact one and the same language.” William Wordsworth, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth (Cirencester, Gloucestershire: Echo Library, 2005), 201–203.