Joyce in 2011: Finding a language use

Trevor Joyce. Photo by Jessica Jones.
Trevor Joyce. Photo by Jessica Jones.

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.[1] 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”?[2]

Joyce: It’s both, and as I said at the beginning, I don’t stay consistent.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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”:[14]

Davis: “its [Syzygy’s] close correlation of form to a content preoccupied with the opposition that matter, of various kinds, puts up to structuration.”[15]
Dorward: “the dissolution of boundaries and the permeability of stony barriers” exemplifying “a paradox of static motion.”[16]

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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] “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.[20] 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?[21]

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.”[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.



1. Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook (New York: F. A. Praeger, 1953).

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.

4. Joyce, What’s in Store: Poems 2000–2007 (Dublin: New Writers’ Press; Toronto: The Gig, 2007).

5. W. B. Yeats, A Vision (New York: Collier Books, 1937).

6. Joyce, stone floods (Dublin: New Writers’ Press, 1995).

7. Joyce, with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold (Exeter: Shearsman Books; Dublin: New Writers’ Press, 2001; 2nd edition, 2003).

8. Joyce, “The Peacock’s Tale,” in What’s in Store, 239.

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). 

10. Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy, After ‘Philoctetes’ by Sophocles (Lawrence Hill, Derry: Field Day, 1990), 77.

11. Book of Invasions, Lebor Gabala Erenn, a twelfth-century manuscript on the origins of the Gaelic people.

12. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1997). 

13. Christopher Middleton, Selected Writings: A Reader (Manchester: Carcanet, 1989; London: Paladin, 1990), 228. 

14. Joyce, Syzygy (Wicklow: Wild Honey Press, 1996).

15. Alex Davis, “Purity and Dirt,” review of Syzygy, by Trevor Joyce, The Irish Review 22 (1998): 114–116.

16. Nate Dorward, “On Trevor Joyce,” Chicago Review 48, no. 4 (Winter 2002–2003): 87–88.

17. Henry James, The Golden Bowl (New York: Penguin, 1985). 

18. David Lloyd, “An Impressive Collection,” The Irish Times, September 18, 2001, 10.

19. Joyce, stone floods.

20. Kit Fryatt, “Process, product and a peacock,” review of What’s in Store, by Trevor Joyce, The Irish Times, April 19, 2008, B10. 

21. Joyce, “The Point of Innovation in Irish Poetry,” For the Birds, 24, and The Gig 2: Six Poets, 45-50. 49.

22. “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free,” Austin Clarke, Collected Poems (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974), 545.

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.

24. Joyce, Pentahedron (Dublin: Zozimus-New Writers’ Press, 1972).

'Writing is a body-intensive activity'

Close Listening with Maggie O’Sullivan

Maggie O'Sullivan at the Writers House; Charles Bernstein.
Maggie O'Sullivan at the Writers House; Charles Bernstein.

Editorial noteMaggie O’Sullivan (b. 1951) is a poet, artist, editor, and publisher. She is the author of over fifteen books, including Concerning Spheres (1982), A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts (1985), States of Emergency (1987), Palace of Reptiles (2003), Body of Work (2006), and most recently ALTO (2009). She also edited the anthology Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK (1996). The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded on October 11, 2007, at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. The conversation was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited by Charles Bernstein. Listen to the audio program here. —Katie L. Price

Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening: WPS1’s program of readings and conversations, presented in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today, for the second of two shows, is Maggie O’Sullivan. Maggie O’Sullivan’s most recent book is Body of Work, which collects a wide range of her poetry from the time she was living in London to after her move to the northwest of England, where she lives now. On today’s show, O’Sullivan will be answering questions from Penn students, and we are recording this on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania at the Kelly Writers House. My name is Charles Bernstein.

Maggie, welcome back to Close Listening.

O’Sullivan: Thank you, Charles. I’m really glad to be here.

Student: Thank you for your reading, Ms. O’Sullivan. I was wondering if you could describe the relationship between performing your work and writing it.

O’Sullivan: Well, it depends on … every situation is different. Performing it is another opportunity to reengage with the text at different levels and another opportunity to negotiate the text on the page. As you’ve probably heard, I often find my work is quite difficult for me to read from the page. Writing it, I hear the sounds often in my ear. But having to perform it, other difficulties emerge. There’s lots of disconnectiveness and disjunctiveness that is working against how sometimes it seems it may be read.

Student: Would you consider performing it to be more body-intensive than writing it?

O’Sullivan: Writing is a body-intensive activity, totally. Absolutely, totally. The whole body is engaged in the act of writing, whether it’s on the computer, or with using a pen in the hands. The breath is involved in all activities. But with the performing, there are others that you have to connect with, and the place of performing also figures on it.

Student: A number of your poems integrate different languages, musical notes, pictures, and streaks, and they push the possibilities of poetic forms on the page. I was wondering whether this is supposed to conflict with the words, complement them, or maybe even both.

O’Sullivan: The words working as part of all this kind of radical shifting —

Student: Right. Other forms on the page that would not be considered part of the traditional poetic form.

O’Sullivan: Well, it’s all material on the page. The page is like a score, like a place for painting, or drawing, or word-making, whatever. And I’m seeking to extend the range of poetic, what is traditionally regarded as poetic material.

Student: How do you determine which poem should be accompanied by which sort of visual form?

O’Sullivan: Well, I don’t, see — in a section of A Natural History — I don’t perceive a division between the words and the visual. The words are the visual form, and the visual form are the words. There isn’t a division for me. I don’t think of them as being separate. They all cohere in the making of the object, this construct, the composition that is, for me, the poetic text, the poetic work.

Student: So they function as one?

O’Sullivan: As one, absolutely. And I often tend to regard my works as compositions, compositions that gather in all possibility, and all possible materials: sonic, oral, textual. It’s all one fabrication.

Student: Each of your poems looks, feels, and sounds different. I was wondering if you would say whether your work resists themes at all?

O’Sullivan: Whether my work resists themes? Mmm … [Laughs.]

Bernstein: What’s it about? It makes no sense to me! There can’t be any themes there, it’s just a lot of words and pictures, eh? Eh?

O’Sullivan: … Well, there are concerns and preoccupations behind each different work. Researches, my readings, all kinds of areas are played with and brought into question for each different work. That kind of area of investigation will often declare its own kind of materials, although I think it’s not really … I don’t know what thematic means. It’s meaningless to me.

Student 2: Kind of along the same lines, as we go through your book Body of Work, we see you become more and more visual and abstract. Could you talk about your evolution and personal development as a poet?

O’Sullivan: That’s a very large question.

Bernstein: Maybe she hasn’t evolved. She’s devolved.

O’Sullivan: Evolution is a very scary word. Perhaps I’m devolving. Or spiralling. 

Bernstein: Spiralling is good.

O’Sullivan: Spiralling is more appropriate, I think, to how I feel, what I’m engaged in.

Student 2: You read an early poem today, “Malevich.” How does it feel to look back on those earlier works?

O’Sullivan: I find them very exciting because, to me, they were written thirty years ago when I started out. Coming back to them, I find that I see them as a basic text. They’re inviting improvisation. Perhaps they’re inviting me to use the experiences and the procedures and processes that I’ve been using for thirty years. When I go back to them now, I approach them with all that, and so I want to read them, I want to sound them out differently than the composition appears on the page. I find there’s a lot of very surprising newness. Those early poems still surprise me, and I find that really exciting. There are things there that I’m still astonished by.

Student 2: So you find new things in the old, kind of like a recycling?

O’Sullivan: Absolutely, yes.

Student 2: And about one of your techniques, I noticed you like to underline. Could you talk about that, because you seem to do it quite a lot, and I was interested?

O’Sullivan: Well, I suppose I like to give some kind of visual notation on the page as to how deep the word might be incised on the page and how loud it might be read in performance. So I use capital letters a lot. I now use italic font as opposed to standard … and bold, using the different appearances of words and letters to give some indication of how they can be taken out and expanded. When I did a lot of this work, I worked at the BBC and I used to type scripts out, and they had certain kinds of format procedures for typing scripts. Say, for lighting, they would use lots of underlining and slashes. I really loved this, and I brought that into the making of my poetry.

Student 3: I wanted to go back to what you were talking about where the visualization of the poem — not just the writing, but how it’s all laid out on the page — all seems to come from one place. So, looking at a piece like “POINT.BLANK.RANGE.” which was comprised of photographs and drawings and graphics, when you put something like that together, does that also come from the same place where you are writing?

O’Sullivan: It comes from where I’m working, I’m not sure writing, but where I’m making and constructing. When I did A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts — well, I did the first section, which is like text, and then I imported a lot of materials that were around me from journals and newspapers. They seemed so necessary to the area that I was working in, and I felt their integration with the text was really vital for the kind of manifestation of the text I was working on.

Student 3: In the reading that you had just done, I loved the rhythms that you put into the readings. Have you done work with musicians?

O’Sullivan: I have, yes. It’s not so integrated. I’ve read pieces and we’ve collaborated in a very loose way: me reading and perhaps a violinist or a saxophonist playing in and out of each other. Not really very long collaborations.

Student 3: In Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts, you devote an entire page to, like, an introduction to three senses: sight, touch, and sound. And when you’re reading this page, as I was reading this page, I felt completely just inundated with all of this language, you know, hitting you all at once. Some of the things that you talk about are primal feelings and very elemental feelings. Words like daddyfireclingingbreath. So how did you decide on the order of all those words and the associations to build this kind of tapestry, and what did you want the reader to walk away with?

O’Sullivan: I can’t say what the reader will walk away with, that’s up to the reader.


Bernstein: But we don’t know either! We want you to tell us! 

O’Sullivan: Well, I can’t tell anything. I’m not into telling.

Bernstein: Oh, all right.

O’Sullivan: I can only say and show. I was using lots of different vocabularies, natural history, for the composition of that piece. And a lot of it was an improvisatory making. I just went, went and typed and typed and typed and typed, and a lot of the words are half-words or one-letters. I typed so fast I made lots of what might be considered mistakes in traditional spelling. But wonderful new words, new sounds formed. 

Student 4: I noticed that the earlier works were done with a typewriter, and the later ones were done with a computer. I was wondering how that affected your writing process, and how you think it might affect the way we look at it.

O’Sullivan: Well, I can’t say how other people look at it. I’ve always loved the physicality of making, working. I loved working on the typewriter. I had an old, “Mal-uh-VICH” as Charles says —

Bernstein: What do I know? By the way — you’re listening to Maggie O’Sullivan on WPS1’s Close Listening, and we’re talking with Penn students here at the Kelly Writers House.

O’Sullivan: Well, that poem —


— that poem, which will be nameless, was done on a portable manual typewriter. It was about the first typewriter that I ever had. It looks quite rigid really. I love the effect that different typefaces can produce. Then I went onto a “golf ball” electric, which I absolutely adored and hated to part with.

Bernstein: The IBM Selectric typewriter.

O’Sullivan: I loved that one.

Bernstein: A milestone for —

O’Sullivan: I love typewriters. I’ve had great relationships with my typewriters as many writers do. You get so attached to them. Even though they’re out of date, you still want to hang on to them.

Bernstein: Often better relationships than with the people that surround us, I find.

O’Sullivan: And you spend more time with them than you do with people. 

Bernstein: And they’re more responsive to our needs as writers.

O’Sullivan: Absolutely. And they often see you … they’re there when you are at your worst, most grumpiest, most horrible to know. They’re faithful. And very, very forgiving. [Laughter.] I’m obviously working on the computer now, but I do a lot of my work by hand, preparatory to working on the computer. I love the physical working and making words on the page. I love writing. I use different colored pens when I compose. And I still do the old basic sort of cut and paste. It’s really hands-on, tactile stuff, but I really like that. And I don’t use the computer until I get to quite an advanced stage in the composition. I’m not sure how people react when they see the differences. I love books and I love the printed page and I love the computer screen, too. But sometimes it’s a little bit distant, the computer screen … the encountering of the text. I like more intimacy.

Student 4: With the computer, you can backspace. I reckon that’s really interesting.

O’Sullivan: You can backspace?

Student 4: As opposed to on a typewriter, where you create something and it’s there, it’s on this sheet. 

O’Sullivan: Yes.

Student 4: Even if you try and wipe it out, it was there. Professor Bernstein, in his forward to your book, wrote about how you like the topic of voicelessness in space, and I was wondering if you would like to talk about that … and silence.

O’Sullivan: And silence, yes. I love muteness. The page is a huge, deep, profound space to engage with, and I am trying to mine this in my workings. Although today, the pieces that I read were very rhythmic, quite full-on sound. There was not so much silence or muteness in them. But muteness, the other side of the vocal, is really important to me. And I think there is a lot of silence. I think my work is profoundly embedded in silence. In not being able to sound, sounds are coming through.

Sarah Dowling: I was wondering if you would mind speaking a little bit about the anthologyOut of Everywhere that you edited. It was very important for me, discovering a lot of innovative women writers. I was wondering, specifically, if you could talk a bit about the editorial process and where the idea for a transnational anthology came from.

O’Sullivan: Yes, well, it was a kind of collaborative suggestion from Ken Edwards, the publisher of Reality Studios, and Wendy Mulford, the co[publisher]. I think it came at a time when, in Britain — well, there are still not so many experimental writers, very, very few — but there were enough doing interesting work to be, kind of, to be displayed. And so many of us, the ones who were there, connected with North American and women experimental writers. We felt it would be really timely and appropriate to celebrate this and to see our connections and to really celebrate the connections, the conversations we were having. So, I had to leave out a lot of writers, unfortunately. There were so many more I could have had. But the point was to at least signpost this, particularly, you know, to the British community, to signpost this amazing work that was happening, and this kind of transnational discourse.

Dowling: If you were to do another anthological project now — ten or eleven years later or whatever it is — what are some of the conversations or axes that you would want to signpost today?

O’Sullivan: I don’t think I would want to do an anthology. [Laughter.] Anthologies can be … well, I think there is so much happening now. The whole terrain has changed since Out of Everywhere really radically. There is much more interdisciplinary work going on, much more activity between different genres of writing. And obviously, well, it’s so whole, where do you start? African writers? I think that I wouldn’t want to do an anthology again. I wouldn’t want to be … there’s so much available now with the Internet, I would find it a little bit restricting for me, because there are so many huge areas.

Bernstein: In the first of the two shows that we did, you read a long section from A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts. Could you say something about the origins of that work and some of the sources of it?

O’Sullivan: The sources? I lived in the city when I composed that: a very urban existence. I felt I wanted to try and find out more about the natural world, and how there could be some conversation between that and the urban life that I was living. I used lots of dictionaries, particularly on insects, and also books on war, on military equipment, because it was a time of huge political crises at that time in England with the government we had, the Thatcher government. So there was a huge discrepancy between my yearnings for some kind of natural world, creature existence, with the kind of Greenham Common protests and the American air bases in England, and I was trying to bring these together somehow.

Bernstein: Following up on Sarah Dowling’s question on your anthology, the collection of women’s poetry, can you talk a little about your relationship to women writers in particular? Why you wanted to do an anthology of women writers, or perhaps your experience of being a woman and a poet, and how that may affect your work or the reception of your work? This is my classic question. I always try and find a different way to ask it. I like to ask that question to men, too.

O’Sullivan: To men?

Bernstein: Yeah. Actually, we had a wonderful Russian poet on the program a while ago, and he was stunned when asked what is it like to write from the point of view of a man, and he was silent for quite some time. He said he had never thought about that.

O’Sullivan: Well, I don’t know what it is, this. I’m trying to get beyond gender.

Bernstein: Are you succeeding? [Laughs.] Can you share with us some of the, kind of, how-to? [Laughter.]

O’Sullivan: I can’t. I can’t. I see myself as a poet. Well, not even as a poet, as working with materials. I really don’t —

Bernstein: Well, are you a northern British poet? Or are you just a regular English poet? Because you live, I understand, what I learned from Steve McCaffrey to call the West Riding of Yorkshire. Northwest England, that’s not quite the same as living in the southeast, right?

O’Sullivan: Well, there are too many labels there, Charles. I think I would like “poet,” if anything. And everything that I do is embraced by “poet.”

Bernstein: And within the field of poetry, there are many different kinds of poetry. Would you think that the differences … from your point of view, how would you talk about the different approaches that people take to poetry? Do you think that quality is a concern, that you can say one poet or one kind of poetry has a higher quality than others? Or even poems of your own? How do you think about the issue of quality?

O’Sullivan: Quality? What do you mean by quality?

Bernstein: Quality as opposed to genre. Do you feel that some poems are better than others? Obviously you like some poems more than others, but is the issue of quality a significant way that you differentiate between poems?

O’Sullivan: Are you talking about my work or —

Bernstein: Well, both, actually. Both in terms of your own work, individual poems of yours, but also in terms of other people’s poetry.

O’Sullivan: Well, I’m not sure what quality means. There are poems that resonate, that pose a lot of questions for me, and difficulties that excite me and can be potentially dangerous and necessary for my practice. I hate to say quality, but it’s that kind of thing. Something that speaks, that is an invitation for me to go further than where I am now, I guess. Is that quality? [Laughter.]

Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Maggie O’Sullivan on Close Listening. The program was recorded on October 10th, 2007. Our engineer is Mike Hennessey. I am Charles Bernstein, close listening for the s-s-s-sounds of s-s-s-soaring sh-sh-sh-shards and the s-s-sattering/sh-shattering/s-s-sattering/sh-shattering s-s-s-sensation/sensations of s-s-s-sense.

Full-body poetics

An interview with Geof Huth by Gary Barwin

Geof Huth and Gary Barwin.

Editorial note: Geof Huth is perhaps best known for his innovations in the field of visual poetry, though he has produced considerable textual and aural work as well as critical and archival endeavours. Recent projects include 365 ltrs, a daily online writing experiment, and his regularly updated blog on visual poetics. Huth’s latest books are Aution Caution (Redfoxpress, 2011), NTST (if p then q, 2010), and Texistence: 300 Pwoermds (with mIEKAL aND, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2008). This interview with Gary Barwin and the poet took place on October 1, 2011, in St. Catharines, Ontario, before Huth’s reading for Grey Borders, and was originally transcribed by Kate Herzlin. — Kenna O’Rourke

Gary Barwin
: So the first thing we should talk about is your interest in — [Barwin laughs.]

Geof Huth: In?

Barwin: In mythic creatures. [Laughs.] In taking language, taking poetry off the page, into many different media, whether it’s vocal performance, whether it’s performing art kinds of performances, and movement. So full-body poetics, perhaps you can call it. So, let’s talk about that. Okay go ahead, talk, talk now! 

Huth: It comes from a strange place, I think, and it comes from a number of places. But one of them is, and the strange one is, that it comes from the fact that I don’t think I’m a good editor. So I make something and there are lots of my poems that are out there that I think are reasonably good, that I wrote, I sat down and I wrote them, they were done in ten minutes, and that’s all the work that went into them, except to make sure they were neatened up, maybe change the punctuation. Sometimes, or frequently, I just can’t imagine how to change anything I make. Not always though — sometimes change is dramatic. So because of that, because I can’t change anything, the extemporaneous process of creation is the act of making poetry. And so the act of making poetry can also be the physical act of speaking it into the world, or creating it as you speak it into the world.

The way I look at it, everything is extemporaneous, all creation is extemporaneous, it’s based on everything that’s come before, and all of a sudden it gets made. Even editing is an extemporaneous act that takes place after a different extemporaneous act. And so I went into performance because that made sense. I went into doing things at one point in time because it made sense.

But the other reason is, that my interest lies in the physicality of language, so when I edit a poem I usually edit it for meter. So it’s not like I’m saying, geez, that’s the wrong word, or I don’t have the line break right, or something like that. I’m editing it for meter because I think that my ear went off a little bit and I’m trying to get it back. It’s not that my poems aren’t naturally rigidly metrical at all, but they are metrical, and so I think about the physicality of language and being able to perform a poem, even to perform it just by making it up when you’re standing in front of somebody, allows you to live within the language as it truly is, which is that it will be a vocal act that takes place inside an entire body. So the act of speaking and communicating is not just the act of using voice but of using your whole body. It has to do with your face, with where you look, with how you move your body, all of that.

Barwin: It’s poetry as practice, or as process, in the way a jazz improviser, or a traditional musician might construe it in terms of the improvisational element of it. The full-body thing I understand. So do you see it as a representative — the improvisational part — of a process of capturing a certain sort of moment in the life of language or the particular moment of language use as it is filtered through a particular individual?

Huth: Right. A lot of people recently have been saying that what I do has to do with jazz improvisation, and I think so. It’s meant to be a special act, and it’s why when I read poems I almost never read. And if I read a poem that’s written on the page, I usually only read that once ever in public. I don’t perform it another time. I could, because every performance could be a different articulation of the poem, a different manifestation of it. But I don’t because it’s going to be a unique act. When I end, as I usually do, a reading by singing something, usually in an invented language, it’s a completely unique act. Usually the tune hasn’t been used before, the words haven’t been used before, and the people who are there experience something that won’t ever be experienced that way ever again.

Barwin: So are you tailoring what you do, or being aware of that particular moment in the audience, that particular space you’re in — emotional, psychological, as well as physical space? So when you perform, it’s for that particular event in time-space?

Huth: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, when I’m waiting to go on, I’m always thinking about the space and I’m evaluating it and I’m figuring out what I’m going to do, or what I think I’m going to do, because those are two different things when I perform, because that space is going to restrict me in some way and is going to allow me some opportunity in some way. And so I’m thinking through it. Even though it ends up being an extemporaneous act, the outlines of it will be defined. I’ll know some physical things that I’m going to do.

Reading in Chicago, August 26, 2011 (watch Huth's performance here).

So for my recent performance in Chicago, I knew I was going to run across the room and jump onto the window ledge. That was something that I decided I knew I could do because I’ve done that lots of times in my life, and that would meet the needs of the audience.

Before that reading, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I gave a reading which entailed my taking off almost all my clothes — I left on my underpants. But by being in that space and seeing where certain people were, I noted that in the front row — which was very tight, there was almost no space to work in — there were two people I knew, so I began the performance by taking two things I had with me, one belt that I gave to my friend Mark Lamoureux, and then I took these leaves and papers that I was going to use and I gave them to somebody else, because I could do it with those people, I knew they would accept these objects. And so the space, the people who were there, everything has to come to my consciousness and be used to make the decisions about the performance. Now some of these are very rough decisions, regardless. But even so, I think I sometimes do things that are maybe a little off-putting to people, so it’s not like it’s only choices.

Barwin: That’s what I was going to ask about. How do you account for the dread your audience feels about your performances? [Laughs.] How do you imagine your audience, because there’s surprise, there’s delight, there’s joy, there’s bewilderment, there’s paradigm changes. I mean, when I’ve seen your audiences, there’s a whole range. How do you conceive of their interpretive frame while they’re watching you perform?

Huth: I expect that most people will be a little surprised or shocked, even though I’m not necessarily doing anything shocking. But I was thinking, as we were driving halfway across North America to get here, and that’s just across New York State, that I gave a reading in Minneapolis once, and I ended with this song. Nobody expected it, and everybody was kind of bewildered, even these very avant-garde people that have been my friends for decades. And my friend Siobhan from graduate school came up and said, “Geoffrey, what was that thing you did at the end there? I couldn’t really understand what was going on!”

Barwin: It is called a song!

Huth: I know!

Barwin: It is a behavior that has been exhibited in humans for many tens of thousands of years!

Huth: But in the context of a poetry reading —

Barwin: Right.

Huth: — it made no sense to her, and since it had no recognizable words it made no sense to her. I expect that to happen.

Barwin: This is kind of a code-switching thing. That performance in Chicago … it’s not so strange to jump onto a window ledge, but it perhaps is in the context of a poetry performance. Likewise, reading text from a kid’s writings or reading text derived from the whole wide world of language, right? You’re reading or performing text, making the notations for, the impetus for, performances.

Huth: What are you talking about are these photopoems that I started a while ago, but now I’m pretty intent on them. Because I have a camera on my phone all the time, I can now take pictures of text as I’m going through the world. Sometimes the text is interesting, or I edit out certain bits of the text to make it more interesting so that I have something that I consider a poem. One of them was a photograph of a little child’s poem by a girl who performed the day after I had performed in Cambridge. She read her poem with a lot of verve. And it was very cute, and it showed some real understanding of language, but very simple. I cut that down, and I performed it as a different thing. Or these photopoems are just signs in urban nature that I record and make them mean something. The whole reason for this is to sort of create in the moment, to live in the moment. I create poetry all the time. For instance, I make poetry at work all the time. I go to the restroom, or I’m in my office early in the morning. And I will sing a song, and I will record it, and I’ll either record it on video or audio, and then I will consider that a poem, and sometimes they have words in English and sometimes they don’t. But the act of poetry is almost a constant act. It’s a part of my everyday and every-minute life.

Reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 31, 2011 (watch Huth’s performance here).

Barwin: It seems subversive to be at work and to be creating poetry, and you’d be okay to go for a smoke break, or to call home or something — but to actually create a moment to create a poem seems subversive from the paradigm of what it means to be working, what daily life means, actually. I think it’s really fascinating. You talk about full-body poetics, but I actually see in some of your work this idea of weaving it into regular life. As you’re walking along, you’re recording, you’re performing, you’re documenting in some cases, [and] some of those things become artwork, some of those things just become documentation, and that’s another interesting blur, I think, in your work — what’s documentation and what’s art.

So a further — and perhaps most graphic — manifestation of this, is the 365-day project where you wrote a poem to somebody every single day. Part of that, to me, was pushing physical limitations, as in a Chris Burden performance artpiece. Where it was exhausting, psychologically maybe, in terms of imagination. Because you’re also posting them live online every day, so there was an audience that was sort of waiting for it, ostensibly.

Huth: Ostensibly?

Barwin: Well, I was waiting for it! But that was the notion, that you were subject to outside scrutiny on some level, because you couldn’t just say, “Well, I’m working on this project and I’m redefining it as I’m going.” You’d say, “Part of what I saw in the piece is the struggle with the premise of its own assumptions as a piece.” You’d say, “Well, I’m set up to do this, let’s see if I can do this.” And then there were some online struggles as to whether you were able … as various things in your life happened, or you were just tired.

As you said yourself, it was a very ambitious project, and some of the poems were very, very long. You could’ve written a haiku and just said, I checked that off, I did what I set out to do. But you were actually pushing the physical limitations. Physical and psychological. So I guess I want to ask more about that, about poetry as being part of a life and as being limited by the physical limitations of life.

Huth: 365 ltrs,” which was the project you’re talking about — it did develop over the year as the year continued. But the idea was every day, for 364 days, I sent a letter to another person, and a letter was always in the form of a poem, and it always went back and forth, male and female, male and female. Until the 365th day, in which I wrote a letter to the first person I wrote a letter to, which was Nancy, my wife. And then, since it was only 365 days, her poem had to be fifty pages long in fifty sections because it was her fiftieth birthday on that day. And I began at the day I turned fifty, which was 364 days before that, so there were all these sort of restrictions and sort of symbolic acts built into it besides everything else. And when I originally began it, I thought they were going to be like real letters. If you read them, they’re just like chatty, maybe New York School, poems where, you know, somebody’s just chatting about things, going on fairly languidly. And then the problem was that I had to do something else. I couldn’t just do the same thing. And so very quickly it became that I pretty much had to think of something different to do every day. So every day it had to be in some way different from every day that preceded it. I had to try to write a poem in a different way. I started creating visual poems. I created sound poems that I transcribed. I created all sorts of things, and I sent these out to people who didn’t necessarily expect them, who didn’t necessarily know what to do with them, and who wouldn’t necessarily be able to interpret them. ’Cause one of my issues is, it doesn’t matter if anybody understands a poem. That’s not the issue. The issue is, does the poem exist, and has somebody experienced it, and does it have any effect on them? And the effect doesn’t necessarily have to be positive — that might be a good thing — but it has to be a real effect. It has to be something to remember.

And so this project was my worst project for myself ever to do! It was by far the hardest. Because during the course of those 365 days, I was probably traveling for a hundred of them, and so I was traveling all the time. I traveled all over the place, and I was writing letters at the same time, so it was very tiring. All the time. And it was intended to be. It was intended to be an act of will and physical endurance as well as an act of art. When I get down to it, and I look at these poems — one of which I’m going to read today — I don’t think that they all work. I think I’ll have to edit them, and I’ll have to make them into something, and it comes from this other crazy idea that I have, which is that no poem can be abandoned. Every poem has to be brought back to life. If it’s a dead poem, you have to figure out a way to make it whole again.

To sort of extend what you’re talking about, the other way poetry comes into my life is that I do these little things I call “fidgetglyphs,” which other people would call “doodles.” But my doodles are focused on the representation and understanding of written language, that physical characteristic of language. It’s examining letterforms and visual puns and asemic writing, where they’re essentially things to look at but supposed to resemble writing in some way. I do these all the time: if somebody’s talking to me on the phone at work, I’m writing some of these, and I might do three or four during a conversation. When I’m in a meeting at work, I create these things as I take part in the conversation. They happen in the act of the rest of everything that I do, so that the poetry is inseparable.

Barwin: Inseparable from?

Huth: From myself and from my life. Just as full-body poetics is, the poem is your body, your body is the poem — it’s the only organism that creates the poem is yourself. That’s what it believes and demonstrates.

Barwin: It’s interesting to me — is there a border between life and poetry? So between a doodle and a fidgetglyph: it becomes a fidgetglyph because you say it’s a fidgetglyph. So, all actions undertaken by you, who if you’re considering yourself as a poet or your life as a poem, or life as a locus of poetic activity, becomes poetry. Or not.

Huth: Right. Theoretically, this is a problematic thing. I don’t really define “poetry” or “poem” very distinctly. What I would call it is serious engagement with language in some form. And language has to do with its physical sound, its visual presence, or its intellectual semantics, semiotic meaning. Anything that does that, in my mind, can be a poem. What makes it a poem is its heightened focus on language as opposed to the mere content of the language. Some putative poems that are just narrative really aren’t [poems] because they aren’t doing anything with language; they’re not engaging with language at a high enough level. I’d say that some novels I’d probably consider poems because of how they engage with the language. I can’t really look at Finnegan’s Wake and call it a work of mere prose. I think it’s a work of poetry, for instance.

So I define poetry broadly, and in some ways it’s what is it that a poet makes; this is really interestingly problematic. I was thinking the other day that I’ve had both visual artists and musicians, composers, question why some of the things I do aren’t visual art or music. Why am I saying they’re poems? Why do I sing a song and then say that the entire experience is a poem? That means that it has a melody of sorts, it has a vocal presentation of sorts. I’m not a great singer! It doesn’t have any words. So how in the world is it anything but music?

And the same thing with visual artists; I know this one, Kate Greenstreet, who was a painter originally, now still a painter but also a well known poet. She says, “Why do you call these things poems? This is just art,” by which she means visual art.  And I say, “Because this is an examination of language. This is an examination of one part of language, of how it appears to us visually. And how it can have beauty through that visual appearance and meaning. And how it can have meaning even beyond the meaning that is supposed to be imbued within it.” You can have the letter “A,” and it’s supposed to have any number of sounds in English, probably about five sounds the letter “A” can have, that’s really what it should represent. But really, you can draw a letter “A” so that it means lots of different things. That’s how it’s engagement with language.

Barwin: And if you represent something that looks A-ish. It’s playing with how close it is to that.

Huth: Right. Which gets into puns and all sorts of other things.

Barwin: One thing this also points to is the social context of your work. [With] “365 ltrs,” you sent physical copies to people. Sometimes to people who were used to reading poetry, who were used to receiving poetry, and sometimes to people who were not. So changing the kind of audience who would expect that kind of engagement. Even writers aren’t used to getting a poem written to them, sent to them — that’s not typical. In terms of social engagement, one of the ways that your work [goes] out in the world is that you use the Internet a lot. I’m thinking about how you use communities and networks and mail art to open up your work to this kind of process, so it’s a daily thing, or very frequently, so it’s a stream of work. Rather than just a book that’s sort of outside time and space, ostensibly. Or from a very specific time. It’s this ongoing flow of work coming from you, and this sort of locus. I think that’s really interesting: there are communities that are built around this, your main blog as one source of work, but also your other various related blogs, and then the network of other bloggers who respond to you. How do you write in a social and community context?

Huth: Yeah, it’s the unedited life, and maybe a little too unedited. But what it is, is that the process of living is social interaction, to some degree. It’s out there as such in an almost constant stream for two reasons. One is that visual poets, of which I am one, tend to be highly productive in almost maniacal ways. But the other reason is that you live in a body, and until the body stops, you are a living being, and so you’re producing something. You’re producing thoughts. You’re producing dreams. You’re producing sounds. And so it’s replicated through all these different media. And people really haven’t ever before now talked to me about this, but what I think about when I’m posting to my blog — my major blog, which focuses on visual poetry usually, or when I’m posting something to Facebook, or to Tumblr, or Twitter, or something like that, any of these different venues — is that each one of these is just an instance of my being alive, evidence of myself in place. That’s where the mania sort of comes from. But the other thing is it’s just the way to bring poetry into everybody’s lives. I’m trying to both expand the definition of poetry and expand the audience for poetry so that people who don’t necessarily expect it or understand it are receiving something that I consider poetry every day.

On Facebook, lots of people I know are poets, but lots of them are archivists, lots of them are members of my family or just friends I’ve had who don’t read poetry and they’re seeing poetic content whether they want to or not. And maybe they engage with it, maybe they don’t, but it’s an opportunity to do so. It’s questionable whether or not this is really a good process. And lots of people argue, and vociferously, that the worst thing you can do is put out lots of stuff instead of put out only the very best stuff. Maybe I could argue that all I’m putting out is the very best stuff, but I probably won’t, given the numbers!

They think the bad will be washed away by the good, and maybe it will. But the problem is that different people engage with poetry or with any artwork in different ways. And some people are going to be taken by something and not taken by something else, so I provide many different formats of poetry, and even within the formats so many different styles. I think it gives people some ability to find something they like or can be maybe be in love with, even briefly.

Reading in St. Catharines, October 1, 2011 (watch Huth's performance here).

Barwin: I think I would also relate this back to what we were talking about, about improvisation and flow. It’s not about arriving at the ideal form of a particular work so much as about ongoing process. Ongoing flow, so that that’s where some of the interest of the work is, rather than just saying, okay, I’m just going to wait ’til he comes up with that one really perfect poem!

Not that you don’t have lovely poems, that can be interpreted that way, but it’s about this other element that is really interesting about how it flows through life, how it is a multivalent output of work, it’s reengaging with distribution, with community, with creativity in a way, too, in terms of notions of inspiration or some sort of Platonic ideal of the poem. Your process argues against that. Is that what you’re saying?

Huth: Sure. For instance, one of my poems today is going to be an essay I wrote on my blog. It’s an essay; it’s in paragraphs. That’s the way I wrote it, but I experience it, I understand it as a poem. It’s actually also a review of a book and an unrelated movie at the same time, which people won’t know from today. And it has a sound poem that goes on during it, which gets to the fact that the body is a multisensory organ and a creator of things that can be perceived in many different ways. So I’m trying to get to some gesamtkunstwerk that brings everything into play, so that poetry is what it used to be, which was the sort of height of art. It was that pinnacle of art, but I’m trying to bring it to that by bringing everything into it that I can. I am always failing at this, but always trying to figure out a way to successfully bring smell into a poetic work. It’s not that I haven’t, it’s just that it’s a hard thing to do. We can’t reproduce it well, et cetera. I’m trying to get a way for people to experience essentially living through the poem because it will be touching you in so many different ways.

Barwin: I think smell is supported in Windows 8. No, sorry, that’s the new iTunes.

Huth: There are actually computer people who are working on how to capture, record, and then reproduce smells.

Barwin: See, I just eat while I type, and then I just never clean my keyboard.

Huth: But then there’s the issue of distinguishing between good smells and bad smells.

Barwin: Yes. So something else that interests me is about your work — and I think this relates to this idea of flow and using different media, and also poetry of a life: your professional work is as an archivist, but I also see that impulse to document not really artwork but just many elements of your life on your blog and in other places online, which has a large overlap with your artwork. Not only is it recording activities that you do, or documenting work, or fidgetglyphs that you maybe created during a meeting, but also you sometimes talk about the fidgetglyphs that you’ve documented, right?

You write things like, “Here’s the week of work that I’ve done.” Which isn’t artwork in itself, but it’s discussing it, it’s documenting what you do, it’s kind of archiving what you do. You’ve had things about your own health or your own operations, various things that are all there publicly. It blurs [the line] between what’s art, what’s personal journaling, scrapbook kind of stuff —

Huth: Yes!

Barwin: — and what is deliberately playing with the intersection between these things.

Huth: Right. I’ve always been a poet. I mean, almost always, for a very, very long time. Certainly since my teens, I’ve always been a poet. But I used to not be an archivist in very serious ways. Which means that I used to move all the time; I have moved almost fifty times over the course of my life. And I’m fifty-one, so I’ve moved a lot! When I moved, I would generally say, “Okay, what can I throw away?” and I would throw away tons of stuff. So for this huge first part of my life, I have destroyed virtually everything I wrote. I wrote stories when I was a teenager that were, I thought, hilarious — they probably are still funny now — but at some point I said, “Well that’s not what I want to do,” so I threw them away. I kept tons of diaries and commonplace books when I was a child. Then I threw them all away as I moved on or felt I had grown away from them, so that I was giving up everything. All the writing I did, I said was not good enough, and I dispensed with it. Which is pretty much the opposite of now.

So when I became an archivist — by which point I was a father, so I was a person who was well aware of the temporal frame, and the fact that life is fleeting — I started saying, “Geez, there’s all this stuff I’ve lost.” I still have some things. I have photographs, I have little bits here and there. For some reason, virtually everything I did in Portugal was saved, I think because my parents saved it, and put it in a hope chest. But, I said, “I’ve got to save things.” And so I started saving things, and collecting them, and keeping track of them, so that really the amount of documentation on me is insanely deep, and insanely rich.

Starting sometime in my twenties, I have almost every letter I wrote, I have tons of email, thousands and thousands of photographs, video, audio, all this stuff. So I’m documenting sometimes as an act of poetry, sometimes as an act of just documentation. And all that stuff about my heart surgery a few years ago was really meant to be poetic in a lot of ways. There were a lot of sort of lyrical moments to these little essays about my experience being cut open, and the whole idea about surviving and carrying on with living. It was incredibly important for me to document my wounds. I have this Jesus-like photograph of myself showing my body so you can see all my wounds like Christ on the cross, in forcing my daughter to take the picture when I’m wearing nothing but a pair of underpants — note that I always have a pair of underpants! Because my body was a piece of art. It had been cut open, and there were marks and writings —

Barwin: — notations —

Huth: — and symbols left upon my body. I had to think of them and present them in that way.

Barwin: You’re saying that life itself is written on by poems, or the body is written on by life, and that whole process is a poetic process, right? I was thinking, you know, you can never — as Heraclitus says — you can never step into the same river twice, but you can document every time you step into the river, right? [Huth laughs.] This is how I think of what you do.

Huth: That’s a good line. And again, it’s possible there is too much documentation. One of my projects for the end of the year is to gather together a lot of my electronic media and make sure that I get it to the archives that holds my papers, many of which aren’t on paper. It’s sort of a massive job, because, for instance, over the past year the number of poetic videos that I did is over two hundred. It’s a huge amount of data to manage, and I manage it reasonably well, which is that I note what it is, I keep track of it fairly systematically, et cetera, but still it’s too much.

Barwin: So how do you imagine this documentation? I mean, it’s of interest to people to document what a life is, what a poetic life is, or what your work has been. But how do you imagine what its function is? Having all this material.

Huth: In effect, to some degree, it should document the networks I live within. I live within networks of poets that tend to be a little bit off-center, poets who are visual poets, or sound poets. It documents mail artists. It documents, to some degree, archives. It documents those parts of the world that I interact with and these networks. And these are networks of real people. There are a lot more people than me inside these networks, and it documents them as well as me.

Some of it, though, is just showing my work, it’s the creation of my work, which can then be put beside other people’s work and compared. It allows people to study my work, if anybody ever will — I don’t know if that will ever happen. It allows them to know a lot about my life, so if somebody needs to know about my life they will be able to know about my life, because I don’t close anything. Everything I give to the archives at Albany is open: all my personal letters, all my writings, good or bad, everything. If there’s anything I don’t want them to make open, I don’t give it to them. That’s just the way I deal with them. That’s what archives should do. They’re there to tell us something about the past, because otherwise the only thing you have is human memory and human memory dies with the body. Archives is the preservation of the body and the preservation of the person after death. It’s the only afterlife.

Barwin: Interesting. As you said, the network, too, is really interesting. Often you find out about somebody else by the material that has been recorded, so [it] actually preserves more than one person alive in many cases, not just the person who’s recording it.

Huth: Right, right. As a matter of fact, the stuff of mine that’s at the University of Albany keeps hundreds and hundreds of people alive in all sorts of different ways. I mean, it’s got a huge amount of poetry that would be impossible to find in any other single place. It’s got lots of letters from people, primarily from when people actually wrote letters on paper. It’s got lots of mail art. It really documents these strange kinds of poetry that were going on at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. We’ll see if it’s interesting sometime in the future — we don’t know now.

Barwin: The last thing I would like to talk about is that you have, more in the past, been involved in theorizing particularly about visual poetry and coming up with terms, trying to develop a vocabulary. Perhaps maybe it’s more theorizing about operational principles, creating a vocabulary so it can be discussed, so that it can be understood better by identifying certain features or taxonomies. So what do you feel that your purpose is, and how do you feel that we can move forward with that?

Huth: Well first I should say I’ve done less of that recently because I’ve spent most of the last year wearing myself out, and I really have not recovered. I used to send mail or postcards out every time I did an overnight. And so far this year I did it once, and it was a few weeks ago, and on almost every card I said something like, life is hard. [Barwin laughs.] And that was about it. That’s taken away from that part of my work a little bit.

But that’s the most important part of my work. That was the important part of the blog. You can’t focus on an individual to get the true value out of anything; you have to focus on something bigger. And so the bigger thing I was focused on was visual poetry. And I think I was successful in trying to bring attention to it, in trying to get people to understand it. Not only in trying to give them a vocabulary, but to give them a way of looking into it.

Barwin: What I didn’t mention is that you often write critical articles or reviews or examinations of other work, right? Using your terms but also giving providing an interpretation, or just a way in for people. Some kind of framework.

Huth: I think it’s important to build an audience for the work, because it is hard for some people to connect with it. But the other thing it’s important for is the artists themselves. Poets go all the time without anybody recognizing that they’ve done anything. They don’t recognize them, they don’t notice that anybody has really understood and really connected with their work. I’m trying to show when I’ve connected with someone’s work. I don’t do it all the time. I forget to do it constantly. I was going to write this great essay, by the way, about this book by this Canadian poet, and I was going to focus on how Gary Barwin is the master of the ending! That the ending of his poems is always a remarkable revelation, and something that I just could never do myself, and that it’s just an incredible skill. I was really going to work at that! But like most of the reviews I was going to do this year, I have yet to do it.

You need to do that, though, because people need to understand that they’re appreciated and that something they do is worthwhile for them to continue. Or at least most people do. Most of the time I say I don’t care, and most of the time I believe I don’t care, because I do things that people don’t like a lot of the time. But even though I’m always worried about the audience, I’m always trying to do something for the audience, like I’m trying not to be boring in the reading. But also, at a reading I do everything I can to essentially — except for to say, “Cut it out” — to keep people from applauding. I leave the room, I sit back down in the audience. I give them no idea whether the performance has ended or not. It’s all to say that I don’t necessarily need that, but I know that certainly most of us really do need that because you need to know that you’ve had some effect. A lot of us will keep going on because we’re crazy, but we’re going to feel a lot better if we know we have some effect.

Barwin: And it’s about interactions. So sending a letter to somebody, sometimes they write back. The fact that it’s an interactional communication in the sense of a message sent and some response coming back. The response doesn’t have to be applause. There’s a connection made, right?

Huth: Right. Absolutely it doesn’t have to be applause.

Barwin: So like a leap between axon and dendrite, if it actually makes that little Evel Knievel leap over that canyon, then the thought has connected, there’s been an effect, a reception. And so feedback is natural. I see that in that sense, it is about audience. You’re trying to give that feedback back to the people who are writing and publishing.

I guess we could end. I am the master of the ending, so I have to end it. We should end the way a criminal prosecution ends. So: Is there anything else you’d like to add to account for yourself? For this despicable act for which you stand accused?

Huth: The thing that I worry about, about all of this, is that the act of creating poetry in the way that I’ve described may be so centered on myself that it may be, in effect, an egomaniacal act in the end. I worry about that. I like to note the things that I worry about because it’s possible to interpret all the time that, Geez, you know, here’s somebody who’s full of himself, blah blah blah blah. Because of the way I’m constantly documenting my entire life, even if it’s only documenting the things around me. It’s not the things around other people, it’s obviously the things around me, because you can’t escape from yourself.

Barwin: I was going to ask: what would be the alternative to documenting?

Huth: You see, that’s the whole thing. You can’t get away from yourself. But there are people who document [who] are really forcibly documenting away from themselves. That means they’re going to places they’re not familiar with, they’re documenting people they don’t really understand. They’re sort of able to strip the self out of there. I really — and this is my only defense — believe that you can’t strip the self away. The self is there.

Barwin: Because all language creation plays through the life. Plays through the body.

Huth: Everybody. Everything does.

Barwin: I think it’s something masterful.

Huth: You’re always trapped in yourself. And then the whole problem, and I said this in some reading I did on a poet’s porch, and it’s the only performance of the reading, that each of us is the center of the world. There are six billion–plus centers of the world on this planet. That’s where everything emanates from, and that’s where everything gets collected into.

Barwin: What I’ve done, masterfully, to decentralize myself, is to run this little blog called dbqp. It’s amazing, because it’s totally not centered on me, and it seems like it does not reflect my concerns or my perspective. Anyway, thanks!

Huth: No problem!

Suspense is not telling

Camille Roy with Michael Cross

Editorial note: Camille Roy writes plays, poetry, and fiction. She is often associated with New Narrative and teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University. She is the author of several books, including Sherwood Forest (2011), The Rosy Medallions (1995), and Cold Heaven (1993). She also edited Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (2004) with Gail Scott, Mary Burger, and Robert Glück. Biting the Error was reissued in 2010. Michael Cross lives in Oakland, California, where he studies contemporary poetry. He is the author of In Felt Treeling (2008) and Haecceities (2010). He edits Compline and On: Contemporary Practice with Thom Donovan. He blogs as the Disinhibitor. This interview was conducted in April and May of 2011. — Katie L. Price

Michael Cross: I thought to start our conversation with a question that could prove arresting in its expansiveness (or, I suppose, deadening in its utter simplicity!): As a writer who moves so deftly between genres, how do you know when you’re writing a poem? I suppose you could take the long view (“what do we mean when we say ‘poetry’”) or the short view (“I use line breaks”), but I’m curious to know when you know that the writing you’re undertaking has become “poetry.” Do you set out to write “a poem” or does something happen along the way that suggests itself to you? I guess the question behind the question is whether these distinctions mean something to you aesthetically? 

Camille Roy: What is a poem? How do I know when I’m writing one? Does it matter? Terrific questions. The word ‘poem’ once felt like a reprimand. I found it easier to write plays or stories — to enter those forms — with abandon and pleasure because they were less fundamentally puzzling. 

What I discovered through playwriting was the creative tension of antagonisms — of provocation and response — that occurs so naturally in dialogue. And I observed how that tension generated performativity, at the level of the line. The friction of conflict can be very small — focused in sound, even in the syllables — and this easily extends into a poetry practice. Also dialogue brings to the fore the physicality of language as utterance and wit.

So poems are tiny performances. But they differ from playwriting in that it isn’t a struggle between characters that generates the language. What is being performed is the poem itself. There’s a quality of a chemistry experiment — one tries adding this or that, looking for what releases energy. Sometimes a poem arises after a moment of forgetfulness. It reminds me of a pan left on the stove. After a while the thin layer of oil is smoking. Heat rises into your eyes. There’s a shimmer. A heat haze. A transformation in the materials has occurred. The oil is watery, it smells of burn. A few more minutes and there could be a fire. A poem can change in subject, tone, stance, ferocity — mysteriously, yet with the authority of an act which we have witnessed.

As a poetic experimenter, I also like to mix in elements of narrative, characters, and history. I find it odd that fiction has a toolbox jammed with devices and interesting sensations (suspense, for example) that are supposed to be off limits to poets. Why do you suppose this is? 

There are layers to what constructs a poem. What I’ve just written peels one back. But there are many more. This brings me to certain pop songs. The beat is a strut even as the song can convey desolate lamentations. Like a poem, such a song can slip through fiercely dark moments of compression and then spread out like breath. “Walking on troubled ground, where I don’t belong …” (“One Way Street”). It’s so hokey to compare poetry to song. “I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong” (“Streets of Laredo”). But it is a fact that certain songs resonated when I wrote this book. They felt old. Even decrepit. They were songs that stagger on through the decades, it’s just what they do. Memorials to people who usually disappear with little trace.

Here are two: “Streets of Laredo,” by Johnny Cash (a young Cash, haggard & skinny), and “One Way Street,” by Ann Peebles (silly pictures — close your eyes).

Cross: I’m interested in the language you use to describe your practice — words like “antagonisms,” “provocation,” “tension,” “friction,” “conflict,” “struggle”— a lexicon that draws to mind your claim in “Experimentalism”[1] that writing ought to “break open (the mainstream) system” that nurtures a “well-modulated distance” between the subject and social conflict, presumably by bridging the gap between social reality (i.e. unrest writ large!) and the so-called “comfort” (however imagined) of the reader’s lived experience. I love your image of a writing “that grinds itself into what’s familiar yet unbearable,” and I wonder if that’s precisely what makes this writing “poetry” rather than “prose?” If both playwriting and prose investigate the “creative tensions of antagonism” between characters, could we say that poetry investigates a similar antagonism in language itself? That is, do you think it’s fair to say that your poetry is a kind of “drama” or “tiny performance” that investigates the fundamental conflict between form and content, a writing that “breaks open” the “well-modulated distance” between language (as a kind of “subject”) and the very real details of one’s lived experience?

Roy: This is a hard question and a provocative one. I’ll start by considering English as a historical artifact. Its huge vocabulary began with invasions. The collisions of languages (French, Norman, Latin, Germanic languages, Greek — not one comes close to dominating) also simplified grammar and eliminated gender. It gave us a ‘borrowing language.’

There is a friction between specific words that derive from these bastard origins. Our tasty swears, for example, are mostly Anglo-Saxon. Different social classes enter English with different positions relative to this past — so words that sound ‘educated’ are often Latinate. This is the stuff of history, delivered into our brains and mouths, without our conscious knowledge or consent. As a poet I feel English has overlapping vocabularies that reflect its multiple origins. (And there is weird social segregation between them.) Within a poem I can swap words in and out from these different ‘registers’ and create an energy which is ordinarily compressed (avoided) by the conventions of (polite or academic or poetic) discourse.

While a product of history, these energies are also pertinent and contemporary. They sink into English — and stay. That is our force field. It’s pleasurable, uncertain, and possesses surprising torque. These processes began centuries ago and continue to buzz. Working with this opens my writing to the currents of the moment and the street.

How does this relate to your question, regarding language as a ‘subject’ which is in conflict with experience? To work with the surprise, the antagonism, the historical depths, the unknown within the familiar which is inherent in English opens up the range of experience I can represent. Language is not without history. It is dynamic, porous, dirty, clear, viscous, and windy.

The buck and bite of a line has an auditory trace, even when read silently on the page. What is curious about English, given its bastard origins, is that the auditory trace has swagger, class, intellectual authority — a complex presence — depending on what conflicts are brought to bear in the composition of the sentence. In other words, these antagonisms are inherent in the words themselves. This is by no means a problem. Our language is giving itself to us even when it is most resistant.

I didn’t tie this specifically to poetry (versus fiction or playwriting). But I think the line-focused construction of a poem really allows these aspects to emerge and be explored.

Cross: I just reread Sherwood Forest’s first epigraph in light of your response, a beautiful stanza from the great poet Will Alexander:

Revolt is its bread, its exclusive respiration, its soil. 

 From this evolves its sinews, its glinting explorational fiber. 

 This being the mode of its disruptive English, 

Its anti-memorials, its slow motion lightning …

Which brought to mind the following stanza from Jack Spicer’s A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud:

After he had been born in the postoffice he began to

 practice his mouth with a new language. He could not imagine

 persons to listen to the new language. He had not invented


These lines perfectly capture (for me, at least!) the work of poetry: how when we use words to make meaning (or resist meaning, for that matter!) we are in some ways reinventing language (and with it, politics). As a result, we also “imagine” persons into existence to read it (that is, we teach our readers how to read — how to approach).

I was thinking the other day about interesting correspondences between your work and Spicer’s: the repurposing of figures from popular culture (in your case, figures like Dorothy and Little Red), the curious use of proper names for affect, something of an “anti-lyrical” tone in the muted, calculated music. Further, I often think of Spicer as something of a reverse-allegorist: rather than represent a “truth” or convention in a symbolic figure, he invents these figures — the mirror, the diamond, the grail — without an easily identifiable corresponding truth, and then lets them loose on the poem. He disconnects these figures from their symbolic grammar so they can teach us what they still can mean (or how they can mean) in the context of the poem and its corresponding politics (but they’re never fully disconnected, right, so they carry along this baggage).

Your writing leaves me with the similar sense that there’s something desperately important just out of reach, that if I could somehow get the pieces in the right order, a figure would emerge (suspense!). Take for instance your poem “Ideology” (which I’d like to quote in full to get some language from Sherwood Forest into the air):


Every virtue has its contemptible literature.

 — Celine

1989. I was looking for an instruction. I walked with silent multitudes towards the sobering event, where I found Amy, at the podium, grasping every straw and shaking her hairy head in terror.

Like pillows in chaos.

Amy’s clever speech inserted itself into the fields of young cervix. As each point arrived, tiny holes among us bridged the gap between futile and fertility.

Humbly I placed my feet a few inches further apart. Although I’m shallow I couldn’t swallow. Yet, at the proper point, as marked by the separated passages of text, I did go inside. The herd was waiting for me there — big girls lathered in their flesh, crushed with insider love. They married me with their lips. I named myself Amy, then made my own series of stirring announcements.

Walking. Walking out. Walking in. The Amy crowd just stood around, waiting for me. But I was waiting too, which is why I couldn’t arrive. I was looking for something pointy yet blank, that wore a pout the way I wore the names of my friends. I needed to get into the interior, so I could look for this thing: call it cervix. It seemed I waited forever. Finally I was told it had popped and disappeared, a sort of dispirited ghost.

That’s when you rolled up, Dick. What a welcome distraction in our dusty rest stop, with ironic scenery, a Plymouth in our Valiant field. But you were so terribly sleepy. In fact, you were dead! Yours was a belief system that attached sweetness to events.

(Which should have meant something to me. Punched, somehow.)

We gathered in the cloakroom, laying you in the center, in piles like rope. It turned out there were many ways to take off the outer coverings, and the kneecaps followed. O Dick, everything liquefied after the first dark and sparkling moments.

Now I want to make a poem of it, this time with caricature. Dick, you be the big jaw, and I’ll be minnows, pushed out between your ivory teeth, while Amy holds us in her thick romantic fur.

Then, getting off, daddy-o, finally getting off. Your spreading butt — why so huge and cracked? It must be the beyond, where you are. (Where I wanted to go.) Infested abstract landscapes have Dick written all over them.

Pure dream of momentum, soaring from the hard kick towards the value of an image, as panorama foams while I’m asleep.


 Dick, wake up please. I’m really ready for you to wake up.


Cross: Do you consider Spicer an influence? Who else lies dormant behind the lines?

Roy: Jack Spicer, of course. There’s something of the wizard in Spicer. The force of his sources, e.g. baseball, are released outside the confinement of anyone’s understanding. They have the autonomy of ghosts, a separate existence, which feels both grounded and uncanny. How accurate this is! After all, words and culture are mostly hand-me-downs. Gifts from the dead.

There are some brass Spicer plaques set into the sidewalk along the Embarcadero:

They dream they dream of dreams about themselves.

The subsequent lines are absent from the sidewalk but have a strong resonance:

Splash them with twilight like a wet bat.

 Unbind the dreamers.


 Be like God.

Whizzing along on my bike I carry this poem along. Close by is a pier we ride out on. We stop at the Ferlinghetti poem that is etched into the pier railings and look back at the city.

The light of San Francisco / is a sea light / an island light

 And then another scrim / when the new night fog / floats in

 And in that vale of light / the city drifts / anchorless upon the ocean.

This brings up the local as the relation of the poem. The resistance of a poem invites close reading, which is a kind of intimacy. A poem is a communal object.

And here’s a great thing about poetry in the city. It haunts the footfalls in the neighborhood. Just after we moved to Potrero Hill an anonymous local printer decided our neighborhood telephone poles needed plain white posters that showcased the poems of Lorine Niedecker. They appeared over a series of weeks or months, I don’t remember. They were dazzling, like finding blue beach glass. Finally I ripped one off for my room (which is still on my wall: In Leonardo’s light / we questioned / the sun does not love / My hat …). This was my son’s first experience of poetry and he puzzled over it for quite a while. What better example! I am drawn to her work by the intensity and precision of its attention, its oblique clarity, and also the way her line breaks fall and float. It’s a visual music, and it parallels the poem generating itself.

Poetry allows the body to ripple in language. As the line tumbles down the page, we enter the poem as a ragged and lyrical street. So of course Frank O’Hara is an influence, and later generations of the New York School. I remember the first time I heard Eileen Myles (probably around’86) and I left the reading elated, feeling that doors had been blasted open. Doors to the outside, to the spoken, to the world as it is lived. I recognized (still do) my outsider lesbian life in her work.

My first years in San Francisco coincided with an interesting period. On the one hand, there was New Narrative. And on the other, the so-called ‘Language Wars.’ There was a ferocity in the discourse which presumed and demanded a clear boundary between narrative (with its supposed ‘linearity’ — more on that later) and poetics.

But boundaries are rules waiting to be broken. And the locations where there is crossover and porousness are the most interesting. One example of that was a poet favored by Bob [Glück] and Bruce [Boone]. At that time Bob and Bruce had such a close intellectual connection that occasionally they seemed to occupy the same moment. So they could separately talk about a writer with the identical tone and even facial expression. I recall the look of sudden, almost secretive, appreciation that would seize them when they discussed the work of Bob Perelman. Which made me curious. What I found: history lives itself through us. We’re carried by time’s monster, culture. In Perelman’s work there is a kind of tenderness for this.

Other influences … there are many. But first I must mention Carla Harryman and Kathy Acker. Their work defamiliarizes my relation to the statement. Sentences with the energy of escapees …

Then again, perhaps ‘influence’ isn’t the right word. Writing that is lively and provokes genuine interest should be noted as such by kindred spirits, and passed along. Here is the beginning of such a list for me:

Gail Scott, Renee Gladman, Bob Perelman, Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Mary Burger, Eileen Myles, Kathy Acker, Lorine Niedecker, Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, Carla Harryman, Fernando Pessoa, Celine, CAConrad, Tisa Bryant, Rachel Levitsky, Jen Hofer, Alice Notley, Ariana Reines, Kathleen Fraser, George Oppen, Violette LeDuc, Leslie Scalapino, Lawrence Braithewaite, Dennis Cooper, Heriberto Yepez, Sam D’Allesandro, Mike Amnasan, Blanchot, Marcel Cohen, Can Xue, John Wieners, Bhanu Kapil, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Pam Lu, K. Silem Mohammad, Stephanie Young, Rob Halpern, Taylor Brady, Laura Moriarty, Selah Saterstrom. More recently: Tim Etchells, Amina Cain, Vanessa Place, Shanxing Wang.

Many if not most of these writers are sloppy at the border of poetry/narrative. I like that sloppiness. But it also moves this overly long answer to my final point. And that concerns narrative — first, what is it? I find that the quickest easiest answer — it is the act of telling, as in a story, characterized by linearity — is a misrepresentation. I find it more satisfying to contemplate narrative as the act of not telling. Suspense (for example) is always based in not telling. It is not telling that creates the background against which the foreground (the telling) is a flourish. Not telling creates a sort of ‘negative space’ which has a tantalizing quality and an inverted radiance which comes from the reader’s imagination. There is a Japanese word that gets to the heart of this: ma (hat tip Nona Caspers.) From Wikipedia:

In Japanese, ma, the word for space, suggests interval. It is best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision.

“Ma” is not something that is created by compositional elements; it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements (italics added).

I like this concept of ‘negative space’ because one can use it freely in a poem and have access to certain qualities of narrative (mystery, fear, fascination, suspense, even the complexities of the historical record, among many others) which are often not associated with poetry. It is suited to the succinct and the difficult in writing. I use this technique a lot in Sherwood Forest. It is the art of the incomplete. You can find another example of this technique in M. NourbeSe Philip’s book Zong!. Robin Tremblay-McGaw has a good discussion of that work here.

Cross: I’m interested in how you frame resistance as a kind of intimacy — that “not telling” builds a suspense that ravenously swallows the overdetermination of the foreground (perhaps through the very invitation to occupy negativity in the first place?). I got to thinking about the relationship between suspense and the utterly alive absence resonating in the reader’s imaginary, so I reread your “crime” poems in Sherwood Forest, especially “Crime Story,” where you write,

feelings have a structure, which is not sentiment. Certain emotions are structurally sadomasochistic — for example, suspense. Even now, writing this, I feel that pained warp, as though someone whipped my brain tissues … Last time we had sex my beloved made me sit still, which got me so hot I could hardly stand it. It was one of those times I felt ravaged by love.

This stanza rhymes with my favorite poem in the book, “My Play,” which also opens the collection:

My Play

You are dead, imagine it.

 So I should speak as one possessed,

 grim & miraculous. Your word startles

 the process: killer.

 … The unborn occupy the dead, like some relationships.

 Still, the appalling, almost feverish discomfort we cause each other —

 this is our science story, which I place

 in the safe deposit box of your butch heart.

 Our audience arrives as voyeurs with a wish, a natural desire

 to be transformed into masochists. Not because they want to be

 overwhelmed by suffering; quite the contrary. They seek an actual

 possibility, not an actualized one.

 Yet they suffer from the fact that the body is effeminate (that the asshole

 Is speaking).

 This isn’t shit, it’s poetry.

 Shit enters into it only as an image.

 … My rather elastic neck droops, hips flatten, skeleton begins to grin.

 But it has a bad smell, this play: the aroma of nothing happens.

 Then I become aware of the theatrical quality of sex shows, porn, politics.

 “The show” is everywhere. Theater is a quality

not a place.

 … I want to write Eileen but I’m feeling guilty, I’m too high.

 I fold my muscles into wads and sleep soundlessly.

 I can’t remember my dreams, they crumble, a soft cake.

 A picnic with Carla. She brings rosemary bread and surprising pistachios.

 She reads to me about utopias.

 So touched and happy I float right up into the sky.


I wonder if suspense is “structurally sadomasochistic” precisely because it opens that window to what you’re calling “actual possibility” — the sometimes-difficult struggle to resist actualization for potentiality — to literally em-body (put into body) uncertainty and doubt and struggle? Which is beautifully consonant with the figure of the lover waiting for permission to climax. Can you connect the dots between the suffering of masochism and the erotics of possibility?

Roy: In relation to time, every person is a masochist. Carried forward, we tumble over the event horizon and out of sight — or we would, but it just so happens (whew!) we have our eyes with us.

Appear or disappear?
I watch as it rounds the corner.
This is the only body I’ll have.

This is where I have some sympathy with the notion that narrative possesses ‘linearity’ and that quality is somehow gruesome. I agree! It is gruesome and that’s why it’s enjoyable. It recapitulates how we are in thrall to time.

Writing, the arduous back and forth of it, the uncertainty and reworking, creates a reader experience which is revealed over time and in sequence. Whether the story ends, or the writing just stops, the writer knows the future of the reader, especially in terms of desire. This is the root of an erotics which is as inherent as the erotics of porn. It’s structural. Writing can bring into being states of yearning, desire, suspense — as the products of a relation between reader and writer. Even focus is the product of this relation. I play with these states (and with my fantasy reader) in a way that has parallels with S&M play — but not in scripted scenes. As anarchic play. I feel the freedom in this is contagious.

It’s also an existence test. A potent source of doubt is whether the other is actually there. What sort of relation is it, that transpires without contact? Since my reader may not exist, my audience may be empty space, lucid and mute. Pure potential. But it doesn’t matter. Writing is acting within that space, testing it in a spirit of doubt.

Bob Glück has described the early (‘heroic’) phase of Language Poetry as “an aesthetics built on an examination (by subtraction: of voice, of continuity) of the ways language generates meaning.” (He notes that “the same could be said of other experimental work, especially the minimalisms.”[2] Examination by subtraction: this has always troubled me. Such deeply engaged dismissals have inadvertent consequences.

Using the terms of Walter Benjamin, I wonder whether such an examination ends up privileging information over experience. From his essay “The Storyteller”: “The art of storytelling is coming to an end … One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value … by now almost nothing happens which benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.”[3] The way Benjamin constructs the dichotomy of information versus storytelling implicates time. “The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself without losing any time.”[4]

A poem as a tiny performance: that means it is in time: held, compressed, wiggly. The relational elements (reader/writer) and the traces of narrative preserve and concentrate its release. This approach is steadfast with the curiosity that acknowledges the gesture may not be recognized, but does it anyway? It reminds me of this opera singer, describing her technique: the actual sound is a little point about eighteen inches in front of your nose, and you sing into the little hole.

Cross: You mentioned earlier that “Poetry allows the body to ripple.” I’ve been thinking about this statement in light of our conversation about embodying the potential of uncertainty, especially as some of the most memorable images in Sherwood Forest are figures of a super tangible and totally mutable body. Take a look at the following lines from across the book:

“My rather elastic neck droops, hips flatten, skeleton begins its grin.”

“big girls lathered in their flesh, crushed with insider love.”

“Your spreading butt — why so huge and cracked?”

“A girl is a small idol nested in the body. Gnarled & coiling her teeth —”

“I feel fleshy & full of intelligence”

“Her thudded leg splits open”

“When your arms crunched my ribs, / holes open up in my psyche / & and I was spongy & clear …”

“Buried muscles in chalk. Big toe in a bottle, buried again.”

“Lungs bleated while the aroma seeped from my nipples”

“My tongue is wagging in my stomach & it wants to be scooped out”

“Grains begin in the dark pads of flesh”

“White teeth rattle in my ironic mouth.”

Etc., etc., etc.

Spinoza’s been in the air again among poets, especially his famous dictum that no-one has yet determined what a body can do.[5] I wonder if you can provisionally address this statement by telling us what a body can do in your writing? Does it play a figurative or allegorical role, or is it all warm and breathing tissue?

Roy: When I first saw those lines from Sherwood I felt abashed. Such a concentrated dose of the unseemly rascal. So much fur, exposed in public. But isn’t that the point! A body: everyone has one. It’s the democracy of existing — a democracy that recalls Spinoza, in his political dimensions.

I write as an occupier of an unknown history which composes me as I write. This seems to me to also be a Spinozist orientation — in that these relations compose me, they are not other than me. To put it another way: writing is evidence that we don’t know what writing can do.

It struck me the other day that the one thing I possess and use frequently that comes from my ancestors is language. It — language — is intimate with my dead in a way that I will never be. And it is displaced with respect to time, grooved with words and usages that are familiar yet antique, while also bearing everywhere ‘stickers’ of the new. This assemblage contains and contextualizes all my writing. The language which I somehow possess reminds me of a 2005 Miyazaki anime, Howl’s Moving Castle, and in particular the castle of the title. This castle ambles through fields and mountains on chicken legs. It’s a handcrafted critter, part animal yet also an artifact. It has an unspecific but vigorous haunted quality and its oddly shaped doors and windows open onto different times and places.

Language as a moving castle — I like that. But the disarming sweetness of the anime castle doesn’t represent the relation language has to death.

There is a little shiver when the body surfaces in writing. This interests me: what is this reaction, what causes it, what use is it, what lies there? There is an instant where body and imagination fuse and a sensation is transmitted from the abstraction of words on the page. Is it recognition? The feeling response can slip from fear to pleasure to horror as if no distance separated those states at all.

Language, received from the dead, has an uncanny aspect. This causes the linguistic body to ripple with horror as well as pleasure. There is a wonderful idea relating to the uncanny that comes from robotics: the hypothesis of the uncanny valley. It states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. The moment of revulsion, where the robot is recognized as nonhuman, is called the uncanny valley.

A word that trespasses on the body leaves a trace of disgust. Words rustle the body. Once they have become intimate, they are recognized as alien: language as robot.

And yet language is the most intimate of our possessions. I remember holding my mother’s head as she became paralyzed. Her left eye filled slowly with a tear. She died over the hours of that day and afterwards her body lay on the bed for the night. A corpse is a monument, shining in negative space. But she was gone: language was gone.

To inquire further into the little shiver: what use is it? There is a politics in patience and pleasure seeking, through the moments of revulsion. Dread liquefies as humor. Juice from the squeezed heart never did anyone any harm. Plus there is the freedom to seek information from the repressed. This disorders the world — in the direction of democracy (here comes Spinoza again!).

Under capitalism we resonate with hysterical throbs of emotion used to ‘personalize’ our relations — to banks, magazines, clothes, movie stars, the commodity world. What is filtered out is dread, revulsion, our abject trajectory towards death. Also what is filtered out is tenderness. In my writing I hope that the complex space that is opened for the reader has a tender aftermath:

I love the cloud around speech / we call the body …
House of sensation.
Built crud wrapper.

Thanks for this opportunity Michael. I’ve enjoyed it.



1. Camille Roy, “Experimentalism,” in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, ed. Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004), 174.

2. Robert Glück, “Long Note on New Narrative,” in Burger et al., Biting the Error, 25.

3. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov,” in Illuminations, Essays, and Reflections (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968).

4. Benjamin, Illuminations.

5. Benedict Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order (1677), Some Texts from Early Modern Philosophy.

The space of the imagination

An interview with Lisa Jarnot

Lisa Jarnot’s magisterial work on the life and times of Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, is an important and much-needed text. Apart from being the only full-length biography of the poet, it is a rich and dense document of literary and cultural criticism, which places Duncan within larger social and historical contexts. As literary biographies go, it merits comparison with some of the best: Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, and Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf come to mind. The Ambassador from Venus will become essential reading for those who want to understand Duncan as both a person and as a poet. I recently met with Lisa to discuss the biography, Duncan’s life, and poetry in general, and what she plans on doing next, now that the fifteen-year odyssey of researching and writing is over. — George Fragopoulos

George Fragopoulos: Long before you started working on the biography, you were interested in Robert Duncan’s work. Can you say something about your early relationship to his poetry and work? 

Lisa Jarnot: I worked at the Poetry Collection — the rare book archive at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, when I was an undergraduate and a work-study student in 1987. That was also the year Duncan’s papers arrived. Duncan had sold his materials to pay for his healthcare costs due to his kidney failure, and his papers arrived in waves. I read all eighty-one notebooks and made an index of what was on the pages. It was unusual work for an undergraduate, but it was due, I think, to the fact that the curator of the archive at the time did not want a graduate student to do it. He didn’t want to have someone working on that material with professional aspirations, so he let me do it.

So I knew Duncan’s work inside out and was totally fascinated with it. As a fledgling poet, I was already interested in Allen Ginsberg’s work, but here was Duncan — a poet who was very different from Ginsberg. I mean, Ginsberg was this crazy, far-out, Beatnik poet, and Duncan was this genteel, domestic, middleclass poet. The contrast was huge, and the poetics held a big contrast as well. Ginsberg had that huge, sloppy Whitmanesque line that was filled with all these pop-culture references and Duncan had all these references to nature. I read Roots and Branches and thought Duncan was a nature poet or something; I couldn’t really make much sense of it. I actually thought at first it was kind of stupid. [Laughs.] It’s not his strongest book. But Robert Creeley was also at Buffalo and was teaching a graduate seminar on Duncan and Olson and Ashbery that he let me sit in on. He was covering most of Duncan and Groundwork. The fact that Creeley was [teaching] Duncan and thought he was great made me want to know why. At first I wasn’t convinced, but everyday I would go to campus and sit and read Duncan’s notebooks. I was saturated in it.

Fragopoulos: Your biography really makes great use of the archival records. For example, you bring to light the fact that Duncan spent a good portion of his early twenties working on a novel, “Toward the Shaman.” What remains of that in the archive? Did he come close to finishing it?

Jarnot: That’s in the archival material out in Berkeley and I would have seen that stuff later, around 1989 or 1990. There are six notebooks, from about 1939 to 1942, that contain all that he worked on for the novel. He sold those early — I’m not sure why — and all the rest of the stuff he held on to until he made the sale to Buffalo.

[The novel] would have read like Anaïs Nin’s diaries [had he finished it]. It was lots of fragmented stuff, really juvenilia. It was self-analysis, more or less, the kind of work he would have done had he been in analysis. It’s not really that interesting.

Fragopoulos: You also quote extensively from his letters, but we really only have his correspondence with Denise Levertov in its entirety in publication. I’ve always wondered what his correspondence with Creeley is like, for example.

Jarnot: The interesting correspondence is the one with Jess. There is a real hashing out of poetics there. The correspondence with Creeley was less interesting to me; there is a lot of business being discussed there, because Creeley had university positions and was able to arrange gigs for Duncan. But with Jess, it’s different. When Duncan is on the road and is about to give a talk or lecture, he’s writing to Jess about what he’s thinking about. Those are pretty intense letters.

Fragopoulos: Speaking of Jess Collins, Duncan’s longtime partner, your biography at times is almost as much about him as it is about Duncan. Jess was an interesting artist and an emotionally complex person in his own way. You didn’t get a chance to meet Duncan, but you did meet Jess. What was he like?

Jarnot: I met Jess in August of ’88 and we had lunch together. I moved out to San Francisco in ’89. I would see Jess every now and then, and we would have lunch or dinner together. He was very shy and didn’t let too many people into the house. I think he let me in for a couple of reasons. One, I was a girl. Two, I was also shy. I was non-threatening in a number of ways. My shyness didn’t make for a deep relationship. We mostly talked about the lemon tree in the back yard, and about cooking. I asked him a ton of questions about Duncan and Duncan’s friends, which in retrospect, probably wasn’t that interesting to him. But I saw what that household was like. On the occasions I was there, Jess let me look around. And when I started the biography, he let me photograph the house and all of the bookshelves. It was a great education. The first time I was there, he cooked me chicken livers, and I was horrified by it, but it was great. We went through their record albums and listened to a Stravinsky recording. And I was so shy and had to pee and I couldn’t even ask to use the bathroom. I had to leave before the recording was over! [Laughs.]

I’m kind of glad I didn’t meet Duncan, because I feel it could have affected the biography. I had a neutrality. I always say that if I ever write another biography, it would be of Stan Brakhage; but I knew Brakhage, and think that would change my writing — I admired Stan so much. But I’m glad I met Jess. He was so emotionally complex. There was a part of him that was like an old Victorian aunt. He was almost prim, and he was very unanalyzed, unlike Duncan. Duncan knew his own psychology inside out. Jess was more shut down. In psychoanalytic terms, he had a huge split. He either loved people or hated them. You could ask him about Jack Spicer and he would say, “I hate Jack Spicer!” and, you know, Spicer had been dead for years. There was something entirely childlike about him.

Fragopoulos: Was he still creating art at that point in his life?

Jarnot: Yes, when I met him he was working on one of the Salvages, the one with the eagle in it, I forget now what it’s called — Torture the Eagle Until She Weeps? He was also working on jigsaw puzzles to add to collages. When I started the biography in 1997, he was doing okay, but it was the beginning of Alzheimer’s. When I saw him in 2000, his immediate functional memory was gone. He knew what happened in the 1950s, but couldn’t remember what he had bought at the grocery store.

Fragopoulos: So what made you want to write the biography?

Jarnot: I knew I wanted to do something with Duncan, and I knew I wanted it to be something substantial. I taught at the Naropa Institute in the summer of ’97 and Ed Sanders had given a lecture on book-length poems. At the time, Sanders was writing his long poem of the life of Allen Ginsberg, and his history of America in verse. He suggested I should write a biography of Duncan. Ed was really essential in helping me in many ways. He had developed research, organizing techniques that went back to the work he did on Charles Manson. My entire organizing system for the book was based on techniques that were drawn from him. For example, Ed had a way to cross reference files in three-ring binders so that nothing could get lost. I had index cards with subjects on them like “Duncan’s Mother,” or “George Herms,” whatever, and then boxes filled with these cards, and those cards were cross-referenced with files in the three-ring binders. It was a wonderful system. And I had about sixty of these binders. Ed’s idea was that you had to be able to find every piece of paper within thirty seconds. He also suggested things I would never have thought of — that I should look up Duncan’s FBI file or that I should write form letters to every university Duncan ever spoke at. I collected tons and tons of stuff. 

Fragopoulos: Was there an FBI file?

Jarnot: If there was one, it was lost. I think there probably was one at some point. He was at the march on the Pentagon with Mitch Goodman and Dr. Spock, and he did speak out at anti-war demonstrations. I sent out a request and the FBI said they didn’t have anything. I wrote back saying, “you probably do,” and they reopened the search but still couldn’t find anything. I’m assuming he is cross-referenced somewhere — the same with his military records. I wrote to the army twice, but they said the records were destroyed in a fire. Duncan said he was dismissed from boot camp as a sexual psychopath, but the official record is gone.

Fragopoulos: For Sanders, the book-length poem form seems to have been influenced, in part, by Charles Olson. Can you say a little more about the Olsonian aspect that influenced Sanders, and whether this was something that you were also conscious of?

Jarnot: Yes, for Sanders the idea [for a book-length project] partly came down through Olson, but not so much for me. But Sanders and I were of like mind and it came down to a question of history. For me, it was about loving the history of the counterculture and being seventeen and learning about Alan Watts, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and the Beats. The ’60s were so formative to me and my life as a poet. So what interested me, in the course of writing the biography, was finding those intersections, finding those moments where Duncan rubbed up against the history, and San Francisco was interesting for those reasons.

That is the greatest thing about writing biography: all those little things that you find, all the discoveries you make. I went out to find the ashes of Duncan’s adoptive mother at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. Then I talked to his cousin Gladys, his biological mother’s niece, and she told me about the plot where his biological mother is buried and it’s within a stone’s throw of where his adoptive mother is interred! It’s in an adjacent cemetery. And Duncan never knew this. Or you go someplace where no one wants to go; it’s a mausoleum, a dusty old place, a very strange pursuit. Or going to Bakersfield, for example, to meet Duncan’s adoptive sister, Barbara, in what seems like the middle of nowhere, to see the movie theatre he went to in 1936 … it’s still there.

Fragopoulos: How difficult was it for you, as someone who primarily writes poetry, to write a biography — something that is totally different in terms of genre and style?

Jarnot: It was really hard. I wrote many drafts. It took fifteen years. The first draft was written as verse, or at least broken up into stanzas. I wanted to be able to have the dramatic entrances into chapters and I had to learn how to do that. My favorite biography is the Richard Ellmann James Joyce, and what I liked about that book were the really short chapters, and I had to convince the publisher [University of California Press] to do that because they were worried about the length of the book. I wanted to have the shorter chapters, like little vignettes, and I wanted to have the quotes before each chapter. I like dramatic intros, like Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, which begins with the story of Lincoln’s grandfather being shot by the “red man” while working in his corn field, an epic movie opening. My original draft had the story of the [San Francisco] earthquake of 1906, but that eventually disappeared. I kept the story of the seemingly magical meeting of the Duncans and the Symmeses in Duncan’s Aunt’s Faye’s pharmacy; that was part of the original scaffolding. The first section was heavily written over and over again, but the section on New College was written early, and the chapter about the Zukofsky event altercation with Barrett Watten was as well, so I tried to keep as much of that as I could.

I wanted it to read like Capote, like In Cold Blood, which is so hard to do. Writing modern biography is so maddening because the record is so dense; there is so much material. You can track what somebody is doing every minute. And today, with emails and the like, I don’t know how people do it. Duncan was an obsessive record keeper. He was always on the road, so there are a lot of records of his actions from the universities he was at, and all the letters he was sending and receiving. And in the ’80s he was keeping a daily calendar of what he and Jess were doing every day. His notebooks are different. There are a lot of reading lists and reading notes; he didn’t have diary entries so much. So there was too much info. I could have easily spent another ten years writing. I have a list of things I never looked at. My copy editor helped trim it down. But trying to combine interesting prose with historical data is really hard. In some ways, University of California Press wanted me to tell the readers why he was an important poet and get it over with, but I was obsessed with the details of what Duncan and Jess were eating for dinner. So I had problems with the readers hired by the press. The manuscript went through a couple committees. One reader on the first committee complained that there wasn’t enough literary criticism in it. But there was a historian in the second committee, and he said it was solid as a book with intersections into history. And I didn’t want it to be a work of literary criticism. I wanted people more to get a feel for the personal context of the poems.

Fragopoulos: What do you make of the current moment in Duncan studies? It seems like there is a renaissance of sorts going on, what with last year’s The H.D. Book finally seeing “official” publication, your biography, and all of these new projects coming out this year as well …

Jarnot: I’ve heard it described as the beginning of a “Duncan industry.” I hope it’s not; I mean, I don’t think of Duncan as a commodity. Duncan’s selected interviews have just come out [edited by Christopher Wagstaff]. The H.D. Book is in print. James Maynard is editing the prose and Peter Quartermain is finishing the early collected works. So a Duncan renaissance? Yes, hopefully. I hear people now saying that Duncan is a great American poet and he’s never been that before. He’s always been a more marginalized figure — a regional poet? a romantic poet? But Ginsberg is a great American poet. And so is Ashbery. So that’s what I would love to see: for people to read Duncan on that scale. And for Duncan to be read by people who are outside of the “avant” world, because he was certainly there in the ’60s and ’70s, in all kinds of unusual places, rubbing shoulders with writers in a more conservative tradition.

Fragopoulos: So what’s next for you?

Jarnot: I’m rereading Duncan and teaching his work, especially Groundwork Two. There is some really beautiful stuff there. And reading-wise it never ends. I mean, you reread someone like O’Hara — and I love O’Hara, he’s one of my favorite poets — but you go back to the poem and you say, “I know that line.” You go back to Duncan and you are like, “Hey, how did that happen?!” You are surprised by what you find there.

Fragopoulos: Can we call it a density or depth to the work …? I find that in much of Duncan’s work there is a kind of spatial poetics at work. The sequence “A Seventeenth Century Suite” in Groundwork: Before the War comes to mind.

Jarnot: Yes, it’s a hermetic architecture; “the work must have recesses.” And there it is. It just shows up. In Ground Work [he] is trying to position himself in that space of watching the war. Last week in class we were reading that poem about Southwell and the burning babe, and there is that scene where Duncan is saying, here is Southwell and he believes so much in his vision of Christ that he is willing to give up his life for it. And there is Duncan, watching the Vietnam War and asking himself, “Where am I and where am I as a poet”? And, at the same time, what is he going to do about his relationship with Denise Levertov? Who, at the time, is moving in a different direction. It’s a real soul-searching poem.

Here is the thing with Duncan: You look on the surface and it’s very iambic, it’s just trotting along, very hyper-romantic, but if you look below, take it line by line, there is this huge attempt to confront just about everything in the universe, really. By the end of the poem he manages to come to some sort of conclusion about the nature of reality. I mean you can see why this would have driven the Language Poets crazy, because he so much believes in the poet with a capital “P.”

Fragopoulos: And this brings us back to the household, to the domestic space he and Jess shared together, because what also comes across in your biography is this incredibly intense dedication that both Duncan and Jess had to their artistic lives and to that space they shared.

Jarnot: Yes, but there are also drawbacks to the world of the imagination. When reality creeps in, you’re kind of screwed. [Duncan and Jess] shored themselves up in a house that was an incredible, imaginative space, but when the roof was leaving there was no recourse; there was no magic spell for that, especially after Jess fell ill. They really lived in the world of the imagination. Like Brakhage said, they were upset about the moon landing, because that was the space of the imagination suddenly being colonized by the real. And in their house you really felt like a participant in the imaginary, in the “made place;” it was an amazing place to be.