Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl dialogues with Cris Costa
Editorial Note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings; entitled “Sound, Poetry,” it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes so much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project:
A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.
The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl (b. 1978) is an Icelandic poet, novelist, and translator. He often works with sound and visual poetry and regularly performs at festivals throughout Europe. Critics have compared his books in Icelandic to such dissimilar poets as Snorri Sturluson and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Norðdahl’s poems have been translated into a dozen languages, and his second novel, Eitur fyrir byrjendur (Poison for beginners), was published in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 2010. In 2008 Norðdahl received the Icelandic Translators Award for his translation of Jonathan Lethem’s tourettic novel, Motherless Brooklyn. In 2010 his poetry-animation Höpöhöpö Böks received an Honorable Mention at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival Berlin. Eiríkur is a founding member of the Nýhil poet cooperative.
Cris Costa lives in Vancouver and is a writer, independent scholar, and arts and cultural worker. Her areas of research include contemporary literature, semiotics, space, and urban social movements. She recently completed a poetry chapbook with Heavy Industries, and writes fiction.
This dialogue took place in 2010.
Cris Costa: Hi Eiríkur. I’d like to begin — and we could start just about anywhere — by diving right into the mechanics of your work. Your critical and creative writing, multimedia work, and performances are rich in what they offer readers and audiences, from form to aesthetics, from content to critique. The critiques that your work offers have dual character. They are often political and comment on the nature of literature itself (what is it, how it functions, who it’s for), and they also provide an implicit analysis of the function of language. What I thoroughly enjoy in your work, however, is its propensity for acknowledging these elements self-reflexively, that is, I see a layer of awareness of the potentials and limits of the exercise — and this comes through in both your creative and critical pieces. To be more specific, in your paper, “Mock Duck Mandarin,” you conclude by identifying a “common insanity” inherent in our collective human psyche, which comes out, which we seek to express (or hear), when we perform and listen to sound poetry. Elsewhere you explore the links between language and insanity, language and politics, language and ideology, or, on the other hand, ideology and insanity. You’ve said that you see sound poetry as an “escape from the cerebral toward the sublimely stupid,” with “a tendency to produce a group of pregnant afterthoughts.” Can you tell me more about how?
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl: I think there’s a case to be made for “insanity” as an interpretative and investigative tool for writing and for reading. Insanity or sublime stupidity are no doubt unpleasant conditions — but they suggest a method for or attainable condition of outsidership, for thinking outside the logical, or more to the point, what is perceived as logical. I feel I’m a very normal person, but I wish to have entryways into the not-so-normal parts of life, the not-so-normal parts of thinking — perhaps to escape my own normal thinking, which like any normal thinking is a mode of being that is simultaneously delusional and dangerous. What interests me about poetry, as a reader and a practitioner, is this possibility of escape — and that is, by rampant generalization, what I believe must interest everybody else about poetry. I feel this escape might be achieved through the insane/inane and juvenile (if not fully childish) manners of poetry — a “cerebral” and “emotional” artform that continually tries to escape the grasp of the cerebral and the emotional, in order to defy its own definitions.
This is in a sense just basic deconstruction, I think, albeit a rather chaotic and haphazard deconstruction. Any action is a creative action of sorts; one is always left with something in particular (or nothing in particular) as the creative outcome or product of any action. Deconstructing a house leaves you with a field or a plot. Burning a book leaves you with ashes, and perhaps, as when German university students of Nazi orientation burned books in the ’30s, decades of counteraction, idioms, legislature and protective measures for the freedom of expression, and against book burnings.
I see poetry as the use of language to create a reaction, to affect people with linguistic tools (semantic, semiotic, epistemological, social and whatnot). I used to do it through transgression — or attempts at transgression — but I’ve moved away from that (anger) and towards joviality, maintaining a transgression that is left becoming a form of gaiety — like friends taking the piss instead of enemies spouting hatred across the great divide.
And so what we are left with when we turn language into a form of sublime stupidity, or what we are left with when we attempt to do so, is very often this kind of attempted reconstruction — which is what I mean by pregnant afterthoughts. For each deconstruction carries a reconstruction — and so each thought taken apart is put back together in a new way, if that makes any sense.
From Homer to the eddas to the koans to Symbolism to Imagism to the beatniks — not to mention Dada or Futurism, Schwitters or Stein — poetry has aimed to jolt by maneuvering outside normal thinking and within the realm of the intuitive while simultaneously formulating what we do in more sensible or cerebral terms. I wish to embrace not only the intuitive but also the downright silly, sublimely stupid — or in(s)ane — to further jolt and rejolt, start and restart, construct, deconstruct and reconstruct, write, unwrite and rewrite.
Costa: How do you see this linked to current sociopolitical and economic systems? And, if this applies, do you see your work as a product of this system, as mimesis or response?
Norðdahl: I’m not sure if I do, at least not at a self-reflective level. To a certain extent, doing business in the poetry world is a negation of economic systems, meaning that poetry mostly functions outside the economic, having no monetary value. But this is only partly true because there are grants to be obtained, positions to be acquired, and even pocket money for producing the actual poetry. But mostly poets fight for cultural capital. I’m no exception and I’m not even sure how I could be. I try to be aware of the fact that I desire other people’s admiration — that this is one of the reasons I do what I do — but I’ve not reached a conclusion as to whether my greed for cultural capital is a dishonest desire or perfectly justifiable.
Many poets could have chosen a more lucrative profession, both in a traditional economic sense and in the cultural capital sense. I’m not sure I could have — I have no Plan B, no education and no training, save for being partly raised in a shrimp factory at the outskirts of the known universe. Outside of literature, that’s the only business I know, and that’s even less lucrative.
As for readers, whether I intend for my poetry to have a sociopolitical or economic effect on my readers, yes, I guess I do. Which effect exactly, or even vaguely, I’m not sure. In writing I try to avoid anything that doesn’t intuitively feel capable of undermining social, political or sociopolitical thought processes, which doesn’t in some way turn it’s own logic on its head — and in writing politically I try to avoid (as far as that is possible) moralism, social realism, confessionalism, sentimentalism, and dogmatism, which are the most common forms of ineffectual political poetry. At the same time, I maintain a kind of socialism and the idea that I want my poetry to have a political efficacy. But then I also try to avoid making too much sense. Maybe I define literature too much from the standpoint of what it shouldn’t be rather than what it should be. I dread maturity, and I get a knee-jerk reaction every time I’m prompted with “maturity” (usually characterized by abundant “modesty” and “humility”) but perhaps that just makes me immature. I think I might have an aversion to people (authors, or characters even) who speak with too much authority (pun!), who believe too strongly that they are right. It’s an air of nobility that irks.
Maybe it’s both mimesis and a response. Like answering someone in a sarcastic imitation — snorting.
Costa: Thanks. This makes me think of your piece “Kreppusonnettan (IMF! IMF! OMG! OMG!),” which is available online, both as a recorded performance and as media art. The media art version of this sonnet offers a quality of sarcasm — in fact, it’s farcical, insofar that it’s presented as a computer animated collage containing the face of Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of Iceland’s nineteenth-century independence movement, superimposed on a voluptuous woman’s body, standing at the front of Iceland’s House of Parliament. But it calls upon our associations with the abbreviations of our computerized and commodified language(s) to produce a thoughtful poetic piece. This piece can, as you mention here and also in “Mock Duck Mandarin,” be read as someone “taking the piss.” On the other hand, it’s not — perhaps not entirely — and this comes out a lot more in the performance version of the sonnet. In the performance more attention is brought to the sounds of the abbreviations as they fall off a carefully intoned tongue. It’s funny, yes. Yet one can’t help but become conscious of the meaning we seek to produce, to project upon the sounds delivered from vocal cavities. Nonsense quickly becomes sense. The critique of the IMF not only becomes about the organization itself, the Icelandic government, or our propensity to watch the world economic crisis ravel and unravel through our abbreviated online existences. It’s also a critique concerning human cognition and our relationship to meaning and language. You discuss this through different angles in your critical work. Can you talk about how you are currently seeking to “destro[y] a language (of one’s own)” in your poetic practice. And, what does this have to do with vernaculars and accents in relation to poetry, but also at large?
Norðdahl: I’d like to start by giving a little context for the Crisis Sonnet. On October 6, 2008, the Icelandic economy collapsed, resulting in massive protesting which lead to the resignation of the right-wing government for elections and a left-wing government (which behaves exactly like a right-wing government, down to cutting childcare and increasing expenditures for NATO). Immediately after the collapse people started making all sorts of demands: one of them being that the IMF should be called in to take care of everything. When the poem was written, this demand was still on the agenda of maybe half of the protesters in Reykjavík — they were asking the government to invite the IMF to come and fix the economy. The other half of the protesters, the more seasoned lefties, were, of course, against it. The IMF eventually came and is currently working with the “left-wing” government.
On Austurvöllur square, where most of the protesting took place, stands a statue of Jón Sigurðsson. This square is also the scene for the media version of the poem. During the protests a group of (older, I think) feminists started dressing him up in a pink dress, symbolizing the desired change in government values (from strong “male” values to soft “female” values).
I didn’t intend for the crisis sonnet to be a sound poem. It’s written as a prologue to a book I’m working on, which is coming out in Icelandic next year, and hopefully English too, if I find a publisher for it. It’s called Fist or Words Bereft of Sense, and it deals with the crisis and collapse mostly through idiotic, playful language. I sent an early draft of the manuscript to a friend for comments and he said he didn’t like the prologue “although it’s probably great when you read it.” Until then I’d not even realized that it could be read, but following this suggestion it immediately took the form of a techno poem. I tend to relate the sounds of it to neon-colored cars that pass slowly with loud music booming from the inside, where all you get is the bass. Which I guess is also a metaphor for the IMF.
I’ve worked with malformed words in Icelandic quite a bit, using foreign accents to remake the sounds of words. The crisis sonnet does have some connection to that insofar as it changes abbreviations into unadulterated words, although that is common for abbreviations (think of acronyms such as NATO, UNESCO, AIDS, etc.). The first part of the sonnet drives on the punched and bowelled nasal “M” sound — the “M” you make with a thrust deep down in your belly. This sound doesn’t exist in normal words in any language I know. The same goes for the spitting in “FIT” in the last part or the singing of “LOL.”
The abbreviations are thus made into words containing malformed (adjusted) sounds that render them closer to music, or, at the very least, move them away from traditional pronunciation. They become words, but not really — they get the nonstop linearity of words, but are stripped of their normal sounds, while still remaining mostly recognizable.
In a way it’s a similar treatment as of the sacred meditative “om” in Hinduism and Buddhism, although without the prolongation. In fact IMF just might be the OM of a modern religion.
Costa: Nice comparison. You often cite the North American Language movement, Dada, and Futurism as points of reference and influence within your work. How do you position your work in the context of these past movements?
Norðdahl: I try to think of myself as pluralist when it comes to “schools” of poetry, which is awfully postmodern of me, I guess, but then that’s probably alright. I dislike some tendencies found in some schools of poetry, like the pornification of sentiment in confessionalism, and I usually find myself picking favorites on the far edges, towards the crazy. I have problems with LangPo — that it’s over intellectualized, for one — and with Futurism (its openly fascist tendencies). Dada was very dogmatic. In the transcontinental I would like to stand between Schwitters — I’m not a great fan of the Ur Sonata, though I find it “okay” — and Gertrude Stein. But I find a strong relation to these movements and an even greater relation to the conceptual movement and the Flarf movement, although I’m probably neither a conceptual poet nor a Flarf poet (while having many friends in both). Shall we say I’m in favor of a universal avant-garde siblingry? Is that too hippie? I like to pick from others what I like, and I would like for others to pick from me what they like — I like to see poetic project(s) as a communal effort, like one would see the history of thought in philosophy, something we are all doing together.
Costa: Do you perceive a difference in the reception of your work between North American and European audiences, and if so, do you think these differences are in anyway dependent on the movements we’ve been discussing?
Norðdahl: Geographically my hometown, Ísafjörður, belongs to the American continent: the continental divide runs right through Iceland. Culturally, of course, the country is some sort of Scandinavian country, although a far cry from lefty Sweden. The reception of my work is divided, but not into America versus Europe, but Iceland versus northern Europe. I have some connections to the U.S. through the Flarf collective, to Canada through derek beaulieu, Christian Bök, a.rawlings and a few other acquaintances, and I’ve visited New York and Toronto on poetry errands, but I saying I had “a reception” there would be stretching it a bit. I’ve had poems in 4–5 magazines and I’ve performed on the American continent a total of five times in three trips.
My work in Iceland and in Europe is different. I perform and preach in Europe, while my books are published in Iceland. I have three novels, six poetry books, two collections of translations and two edited books about poetry, not counting translations of nonfiction, fiction and theatre. All are in Icelandic. I have no book in English or any other language outside of Icelandic, although my second novel is coming in German and I’m hoping to have an essay collection in English and perhaps Finnish next year. So far the largest portion of my work outside of Iceland revolves around sound poetry, whereas the focus in Iceland tends to be on my novels.
Costa: In light of your recent and intriguing article, “Quiet, You Ignorant Booby!,” I think it’s only fitting to thank you for your thorough, thoughtful, and detailed responses thus far, and to conclude with the most important question ever asked to any poet — for posterity of course: What is the future of poetry? (We, on the American side of your continent, have been trying to figure this out for decades.)
Norðdahl: I think, for one, that all the obscure struggling poets are going to become canonized elders who, perhaps, not receiving the Nobel Prize will continually be mentioned in the same breath as the various Nobel Prize winners. Others will have Pulitzers, Griffins, and National Book Awards. Those left without such esteem will either get popular and rich, or else they will get comfortable university positions and relatively more attractive spouses (although, as a general rule, all poets get attractive spouses). Having attractive spouses will do wonders for the poetic libido, which in turn will do wonders for the poetry.
While fiction will still remain popular — despite this imminent and sudden rise in poetic quality, poetic respect and the resulting poetic popularity — it will never really feel the same for novelists. Fiction writers will applaud themselves for being marginalized and thus more important than ever, but even that won’t be true. And even if it were, it still would not provide any comfort. Bad fiction will stop selling completely and bad poetry will cease to exist. Then, through an intricate web of causes, effects, misinterpretations and random coincidences, good poetry will eventually — (spoiler alert!) — eradicate world hunger, war, fascism, and disease. This in turn will make everyone happy. For about fifteen minutes.
Johanna Drucker on Granary Books
On March 16, 2011, artists’ book author, publisher, and critic Johanna Drucker gave a reading/performance entitled “How Some Poems Are Made” as part of the Threads Talk Series put on by Granary Books editor Steve Clay at his apartment/publishing house in SoHo (a complete audio recording of the talk and Q&A session is available on PennSound). In her talk, Drucker examined “the relation between production means and aesthetic expression.” Afterward, poet Leo Genji Amino asked her a few questions about the very means of production that had delivered her talk, and the particular aesthetic encouraged by that delivery.
Leo Genji Amino: Granary editor Steve Clay describes both the more “critical” and “creative” work of yours that he’s published as embodying much of his vision for the artists’ book as a genre that self-consciously interrogates its form. Yet Steve prefers to leave the theorizing of that vision to others, tending to describe his projects as developing by a certain intuition, or spontaneity (Charles Bernstein has described this work as a kind of “conjuring”). In a talk you recently gave for Steve’s Threads Talk Series, you presented a vocabulary that would help us consider the ways that different means of production inform the conceptual production of a given moment. What kind of vocabulary might you lend to a description of the conceptual or aesthetic tenor that has been encouraged by Granary Books, as we might conceive of this publisher as means of production and distribution? To what degree do the Granary’s interests and investigations represent or resonate with your own interests in and for the artists’ book today?
Johanna Drucker: In Granary’s aesthetic, late twentieth-century fine press meets literary experiment and innovative arts. One distinctive feature of Steve’s work is its commitment to interesting literature, a connection that is sorely lacking in the work of many book artists or presses, though of course there are other exceptions. (Charles Alexander’s Chax press comes to mind, for instance.) Steve’s roots in poetry and the literary world stick out everywhere in the Granary list, and that grounds his publishing in an interesting way, especially because the works he produces in more limited editions tend to be rare events for the writers he publishes — many of whom have had their work presented in literary magazines or chapbooks or academic press publications that have more conventional design.
The Granary list also includes offset editions of creative works, scholarly reference texts, alongside the more limited productions in letterpress with their hand-painting, or high-end digital prints, or specialized bindings. But it can’t be described as expressing a single aesthetic. Steve’s commitment to literary experiment and book production has also been complimented by a serious engagement with visual artists, including some with substantial status in the art world. This has certainly raised the profile of the press. Artists’ books are too often created in a vacuum — in studio programs where they are isolated from mainstream currents of literary and visual art activity — and that makes them seem amateurish or hobbyist. No one starting a career as a professional artist would imagine they could begin without paying attention to the scene. So integrating these worlds is a bonus for the field as well as for Steve’s own projects. It raises the bar.
Granary is also distinguished by being a press and publisher, not a platform for an individual artist, and that is another of its characteristic features. In our generation, from the 1960s through now, not many American publishers have had this specific profile. Small press and literary publishing has been consistent and persistent, with dedicated and fine people involved. We’ve also had some very long-lived artists’ books presses, some institutional, others independent. I could rattle off a list of names in both realms, but I’m afraid I would include some folks and forget others unintentionally, and that would only be unkind by oversight. But very few have combined these worlds in a substantial way, particularly in the US.
My current interests in books are split. I have a scholarly/critical engagement with format, structure, and what I am calling “diagrammatic writing” (that which proceeds from format and its spatial relations as the field of semantic values). And I have a creative interest in writing various formats into the same kind of relational space. When I was in my twenties, I wrote works that had branchings, nodes, foldout statements and spatial extensions of the text. These had to be created with scotch tape and snippets of typewritten text on bond paper. I was pursuing what would come to be known as a hypertextual mode in which the points of branching were rhetorically significant. But I was also trying to understand the semantic force of organization and graphical arrangement — in other words, what were the values of the relations themselves (e.g. why juxtaposition is not the same as hierarchy). I’m still trying to do that. I’ve also had fun and made books about women, narrative, news, language, and other matters.
As a critic and historian, I am interested in seeing how the scene changes. Who is doing what and what forms emerge, what ideas persist. I have my own preferences, strong preferences, and always have. But that is the role of the critic. The task of the historian is to describe, of the critic, to call attention to things you know how to value (or devalue) and make interesting to others through your discussion and description. The willingness to make decisions about what you think is important matters more in the realm of collections development where I hate seeing vapid overproduced works collected at a high price while imaginative works at a less impressive production level are overlooked. (This is not a comment aimed at Granary, by the way.) Maybe that will change.
Amino: Steve explains that because he has found your work to represent Granary’s vision so well, much of his involvement in the works you’ve published with him has been at the stage of re-production and distribution, rather than at an earlier conceptual moment. You’ve written much about both the “auratic” quality of certain artists’ books that are one-of-a-kind prints, and about the myth of the artists’ book as a “democratic multiple” that is perpetuated by some widely re-produced works. In the particular mode of re-production that your works have undergone through Granary Books (this means simply a second print run for some), how have they been changed or invested (ideologically, aesthetically) by re-iteration?
Drucker: Every edition of a work is a different thing, and that is just fine. I’ve been very appreciative of Steve’s willingness to make some of my books available in editions that were more numerous than the originals, or to support the reprinting of The Century of Artists’ Books, or to do A Girl’s Life with Susan Bee. I appreciate that he is willing to put a Granary imprint on something as utterly sui generis as Testament of Women, a book that resonates with a certain rarified audience, but not necessarily with others. But I think we are all aware that we are now in a moment when a varied and distributed mode of production makes sense. We make limited edition unique objects, we make digital versions and offset or print on demand output as well as gallery items within a single work because these things do not cancel each other out, but are part of a publication continuum. I think we are all exploring ways in which different versions of what we produce will work for a range of different audiences. Newer production technologies have made this much easier, especially as color printing has become so affordable and flexible.
First and second editions of Johanna Drucker's The Word Made Flesh.
We made various changes in the editions of Word Made Flesh and History of the/my Wor(l)d. WMF was re-photographed by Brad Freeman, using a copy camera. He made the separations and plates for printing using masking sheets — a mechanical, not a digital, technique. The covers were letterpress printed by me, a longish walk as I recall … But History was actually recomposed in its entirety on the computer, not photographed or reproduced. My friend Gino Lee found a Caslon for me that matched the beautiful font we had had at the Bow and Arrow Press at Harvard. I reset the book, scanned the images, and remade the pages. The book needed to be reduced slightly in size, and the combination of some iffy presswork and the size of the original fonts made me think we would lose legibility. So, though at first glance it looks like a facsimile, examination quickly reveals it is not. I’ve never loved the covers on that second edition, the paper wasn’t right and I’m not sure why I went with it. I know we had a reason at the time, but I see now that my judgment was faulty.
First and second editions of Johanna Drucker's History of the/my Wor(l)d.
Amino: Of course, Granary has been much more than a means of production or a publication technology to the artists it has promoted. In fact, Steve describes his work as principally a kind of “midwifery” to the works of these artists. What do you think of this metaphor? You've written much of the way that a material, embodied history (and contemporary practice) of writing is often neglected in favor of a notion of language as a benign canvas for the display of a consumption-ready “content.” Does Steve’s metaphor of publisher as a nurturing, delivering agent point to an alternative history and practice of publishing that is concerned with cultivating relationships between poets and editors, and interrogating the relationship between the conceptual and the material moments of publication? What relevance does an investment in this kind of community and conversation have for your own publication ventures?
Drucker: I think Steve has brought many books into the world, and so the metaphor is apt. In that capacity he continues the tradition of Daniel Kahnweiler, Ambrose Vollard, and Albert Skira, among others. But my sense is that he coordinates production rather than directing it. Ilizad, by contrast, really designed the works he produced, creating elaborately formatted maquettes by which he structured the books as a whole. In designing Maximiliana (1964), for instance, he required Max Ernst to make a certain number of blocks of glyphic writing at a particular size, shape, dimension and so on. Steve works with artists he trusts and lets them do what they want to do. I think he determines the basic production parameters, but lets the intertextual development, techniques, contents, expression, media, and other elements develop as the artists’ vision. Some of the artists are more attentive to features of the codex than others. Some see sequence, juxtaposition, development, openings, and the interplay of elements in a more self-reflexive way. Others use the book as a way to explore an idea or project using the book as a fairly unobtrusive medium. It would be tedious to have every book be self-consciously self-referential.
The book arts community has grown over the last decades, and Codex, the book fairs, and other venues where publishers, printers, and artists gather provide an increasingly vital and generative space of exchange. When I was first making books, in the early 1970s, we hardly knew the term artists’ books, but we were working in print shops where poets and artists were crossing paths. Being around other people working in the same studios, watching their projects develop, seeing how they think something through is exciting. Collaborating does some of that as well. We still need more conversations about books, including more good critical writing — not just about themes or production values, but about ways of thinking. All good art is an expression of thought, but how thought form works — that is what we need to be able to articulate. If I have a disappointment with the people in the book arts world, it is that they have been eager to follow the usual art world self-promotional approach to criticism rather than an interrogative engagement with historically informed understanding. People see what’s around them, look for opportunity. But do they pull back, ask what else they might see and know and bring into the conversation from out of sight? The produce-and-consume cycle has accelerated, which I think makes folks anxious for their own celebrity, rather than their own development. And yet, every time I go to Codex I find something remarkable, engaging, substantial, that feeds my own thought and work. More people are doing more interesting things and we are learning from each other, but at the same time, as in all fields, much is being produced that is not that interesting. Knowing the difference is the challenge.
Amino: You’ve written about the way that the increasing digitization of publishing practices works to erase this material history we’ve just spoken about, and you’ve investigated the different practices of reading and writing that are emerging as the written word approaches “immateriality,” as environments for its display become more dynamic. In this climate, how do we begin to think differently about the way that publication and distribution practices inform an artwork? In a talk that he recently gave at the In(ter)ventions residency at the Banff center in Alberta, Canada, Darren Wershler introduced his concept of the digital literary work as “findable,” as an object that can only be understood in light of its situation at a particular cross section of increasingly complex networks. What ethical and aesthetic concerns must a publisher encounter today as it considers circulation within and across new networks?
Drucker: If I ever suggested we are going in an “immaterial” direction, I’d like to correct that. Two great myths persist about digital media — that they are immaterial and that they are permanent. Neither is true. Digital activity depends on the most elaborate material platform we’ve ever devised for production! Every migration of a file to another changes it, and bit rot sets in almost as soon as a file is made. But I do think a very interesting tension exists between the myth of immateriality and the reinvestigation of material practices in our time. Not by accident has there been a revival of intense interest in materialities of all sorts, though oddly, even these persons are often quasi-amnesiac about the long history of this concept. Aristotle is one important source of theoretical engagement with the notion, which he associated with mater, mother, which comes from the same root. I know this through the writings of medievalists who look at the way materiality was understood within religious practices and icons. They have tracked beliefs about matter — which has a strong place in debates about faith — back to antiquity.
The idea of distributed platforms, works that exist iteratively, have different expressions in different media, is also part of that materiality. Historically, that has also been true for a long time and in many places. Drama and music depend upon performance and they are old forms, always iterative. In the digital environment, the “findable” aspects of new projects extend, rather than invent, their situatedness. We know there are precedents for the use of media to promote projects across placards, advertising hoardings, and other advance notices. We also know that the publication of mainstream works took many forms in earlier eras. Iterativity is not unique to our times, even if some of its details are. In fact, Darren and his wife Sandra Gabriele are both keenly engaged in interesting historical and theoretical research in this area.
Johanna Drucker talk at Steve Clay’s home. Photo by Julie Harrison.
Amino: In The Century of Artists’ Books, you assert that a defining characteristic of the artist’s book is that it “interrogates the conceptual and material form of the book as part of its intentions, thematic interests, [and] production activities.” In Sweet Dreams, you make a distinction between the notion of self-conscious aestheticism that characterized much of postmodern work (one aspiring to what you call an “aloof separation” of the aesthetic from economies of power) and an idea of “self-conscious artifice” that strikes you as ethically appropriate today (one in which the aesthetic recognizes its complicity in the construction of these economies). As an art form that is strongly identified by a self-consciousness about its own material and conceptual form, what is the place of the artists’ book in this engagement with complicity that you believe to be so important today?
Drucker: As I said above, it would be tedious if every artist’s book were a “self-conscious codex.” But any aesthetic work makes an argument about what it believes its own form to be. If you write a novel, you are making assumptions about what you think a novel is — and those assumptions, wittingly or not, are part of the longer, historical and theoretical, arguments about “novel-ness” — to use an ugly term. The production values and the conception values — the made thing and the thought thing — are equal partners in that argument. Any work of contemporary art can be made with some degree of awareness of this fact without having to make its self-consciousness the center of its subject, theme, or production. I wouldn’t want to read an endless number of highly contrived or overworked, graphically complex, spatially intricate, or otherwise excessively “artificed” works unless they were made in that way to demonstrate or embody an idea. But to pretend we don’t know that we are making work on top of a history of other works, or that whatever we make is in dialogue with the current world of entertainment culture and its massive industries, is simply naïve.
Likewise, the continuation of what we might call “the modern ideology” — the ideas that came out of the utopian impulses of nineteenth-century romanticism and then the twentieth-century avant-garde — is also naïve. To imagine that art is outside of or above ideology, that making art allows one to take a morally superior position to the culture, to act as if we are not part of an industry ourselves, that we don’t seek the rewards set by the system whose values we claim to eschew, is also naïve. We are in the world and of it, not outside. What is the role of art in our culture? Again, we inherit the modern ideology in the phrase, “the point is to change it,” which comes from political philosophy. Politics is essential, it is about change — about trying to set the broken world right and align it with whatever values you believe. But didacticism and elitist obscurantism in the arts posing as politics? That’s reprehensible and trivializing. When I say we are complicit, it is a reaction against the hypocrisy rampant in the academy and art world in which the old stamp of the avant-garde validates the “resistant” strain of work as if it were a politics. Expose the world, be in the world, make a space for thought, experience, engagement — produce the work of the immanent sublime. The term artifice merely introduces a sign of such self-consciousness — that the work is made to be made, to show its made-ness as an argument about aesthetic expressions in their distinction from other things.
Amino: In the essay you wrote with Jerome McGann, “Images as the Text,” you sketch out two reciprocal rhetorics of transparency often invoked in readings of both text and image. You explain that in typical textual reading, “[t]he physicality of textual marks and shapes disappear in an act of reading determined to highlight certain kinds of conceptual references (content),” whereas in typical readings of an image, “a powerful figurative gestalt (or figurative reference) stands imperiously before us, hiding the methodical procedures by which the image’s ideas or arguments are being developed — as if the graphic character of the work were completely obvious.” Much of your work plays word and image against one another in configurations that resist these rhetorics of transparency, which would transform the articulations of reading into an enterprise of mere decoding. How must this question of alternative reading practices be approached differently by today’s publishers of both digital and analog media?
Drucker: I pay attention to the word/image tension because I am a graphic artist, and so the visual world is what I know. But temporal and spatial dimensions factor into book space. Now audio and video are ubiquitous in digital artifacts, so we have to process multiple types of signals at the same time — not necessarily in an integrated mode, as in a film or opera, but in a dis-jointed but simultaneously present set of stimuli. That intensifies the tensions at work in a simple word/image juxtaposition and its demands. Modes of reading and processing have exceeded our book space environment, but, at the same time, I think that we have learned an enormous amount about books and their structured features — the configured organization of navigation, presentation, reference, use etc. — as a result. Artists continue to engage in imaginative rethinkings of these spatial sequences and to call our attention to acts of reading as production. The rate at which certain features of the digital environment became standardized into conventions that almost disappear now, so familiar they have become, is astonishing. One experience worth having is to revisit some of the first generation of electronic arts and literary works and to see how their interface structures worked in that incunabula period. Many imaginative works and nonstandard solutions were devised. This used to seem annoying. Now it seems charming, intriguing, like looking at woodcuts of the natural world in a period before realist representations were set strongly in place.
Publishers in any media have the same task — to bring imaginative and aesthetically interesting work into the world. Our human capacity to know, think, understand, process cognitively, depends more than we realize on what I call the hand’s mind, the physicality of being in the world. Alphanumeric inscription may go away in our lifetimes, replaced by immersive media — images, verbal texts, sound, music, movement, form. Ironically, that same notational system is essential to coding, programming, and computational media. But the rhetorical force of materiality will be part of artistic production even when we are stimulating nerve centers with chips and signals to disturb the quiescent force fields of the brain and provide the satisfying drug of aesthetic pleasure to those zones.
Maja Jantar in conversation with Oana Avasilichioaei
Editorial Note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings; entitled “Sound, Poetry,” it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes so much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project:
A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.
The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling
Maja Jantar [left] and Oana Avasilichioaei [right].
Maja Jantar is a multilingual and polysonic voice artist living in Ghent, Belgium, whose work spans the fields of performance, music theatre, poetry and visual arts. A cofounder of the group Krikri, she has been performing individually and collaboratively throughout Europe, and has been experimenting with poetic sound works since 1995. Jantar often collaborates with Crew, a theater company operating on the border between art and science, performance and new technology, as well as with actor and director Ewout d’Hoore. She regularly performs with Belgian poet Vincent Tholomé, with whom she has also given workshops on language and sound. Jantar recently performed with Vincent Tholomé and Sebastien Dicenaire at the Centre Pompidou in Paris for the Bruits de Bouche Festival.
Jantar has directed ten operas, including Monteverdi’s classic Incoronatione di Poppea and Sciarrino’s contemporary Infinito Nero. Her visual poetry has appeared in publications such as Zieteratuur (the Netherlands), and her visual artwork has been shown in several exhibits. An ink-and-paper selection from her “Lilith” series was recently exhibited at Kunsttempel Kassel (Germany). Jantar continues to collaborate with Canadian poet and interdisciplinarian a.rawlings, and the Berlin-based Hybriden Verlag will soon publish a CD and a book of her visual and audio work.
Oana Avasilichioaei’s work forages into geography, public space, textual architecture, multilingualism, translation, and collaborative performance. In 2009, BookThug published her Expeditions of a Chimæra, a collaborative work with Erín Moure that performs the book and translates its authors. Avasilichioaei’s feria: a poempark was the inspiration for and subject of a short film by Montreal artist Thierry Collins (2008). Avasilichioaei’s recent projects include The Islands, a translation of Les Îles by Quebecoise poet Louise Cotnoir (Wolsak & Wynn, forthcoming 2011), as well as transformations of some of her texts into performative aural works. Though she typically lives in Montreal, Avasilichioaei was the Markin-Flanagan Writer in Residence at the University of Calgary for 2010–2011.
This interview was conducted in October 2010 via email and audio — “Interdeff, Interview for Jacket2,” June 1, 2011 (7:51): MP3
Oana Avasilichioaei: You refer to some of the work you do as “polypoetry,” so perhaps you could begin by discussing how you would define this concept vis-à-vis your work. Perhaps you could also discuss how you define “sound poetry” and what evolution or process might exist between “sound poetry” and “polypoetry.”
Maja Jantar: Polypoetry for me, and for how we in the group Krikri are using it, is a way to define many different styles and kinds of poetry — polypoetry — so we intend the word very literally. Whereas sound poetry would be more directed towards the sound element of poetry, polypoetry could also mean visual poetry, electronic poetry, installations, anything poetic.
What I do is poetic; it’s not always poetry in the traditional sense, but I work with the matter of something that is poetic. And I think poetic is something that is in your mind, something that you see, perceive, a way of looking at things. So it’s trying to find that way of looking or listening and trying to bring that out in a work.
Avasilichioaei: I am interested in your relationship to language and translation within your poetic/sonic practice. Many of your performances/songs/videos are polyphonic as well as multilingual. In moving between sounds of various qualities and lexicons of varied languages, what is the function of translation? Are lexicons from different languages used for their sonic or denotative qualities, or both? Is there a translational process at work as sound morphs into language or language morphs into sound? If so, how would you describe this process?
Jantar: I am really interested in language and translation. This is something that comes out in some of the collaborations that I have done. For instance, in working with Vincent Tholomé we made one piece called “Traduc” (“Translation”) where he reads a French text and I improvise on it by translating it simultaneously into English, German, Italian and Polish, which results in a lot of funny twists of meaning. He works with meaning and its different layers, writing mainly in French and using a lot of repetition. In this way, his work evokes an oral tradition, and it’s very easy to simultaneously translate because it repeats.
In my own work, I don’t really work with translation as much. I am more interested in the specific sounds of different languages and their distinctive emotional charges. Of course we all know that certain things can only be said in a certain language in a way. But the sound of your voice also changes from language to language and that is very interesting to me, especially in performance, where the sound of your voice is what actually communicates. It’s not what you say, because you can say the exact same words in many different ways; rather, it is the way you say the words that communicates. So in using a specific language, even if the audience doesn’t understand the words, they do understand a specific meaning — not the sense of the words, but the sense of the voice.
As for language morphing into sound, I like that game. I like the game of breaking language down into something else, making it dissolve or making it go into something more primal.
Avasilichioaei: So what are some of the techniques you use to “dissolve language”? How do you make it more “primal”?
Jantar: One of the things would be to take the material of the words and treat them as sound components, break them up into syllables, work with the syllables, or focus on the consonants or the vowels, stretching, shortening, repeating, depending a bit on what atmosphere or on what meaning they need to have in the performance. For instance, the “KIRKJUBAEJARKLAUSTUR” performance that I did with Vincent Tholomé and Sebastien Dicenaire [see below] starts by breaking up the word kirkjubæjarklaustur, playing with the fact that it’s something not easily pronounced in itself. We chose to mainly work on the consonants, creating an explosive cloud of sounds that actually gives birth to this word. In contrast, later in the performance we use the vowels to create the illusion of flying over a landscape or a city, using the vowels to create this aspect of planer in French, of hovering, using overtones as well to create an atmospheric element.
Another possibility in visual work and electronic compositions would be to layer words on top of each other, use them as building blocks and as matter for their sound, their textures, somewhat for their emotional connotation but mostly as sound material.
Avasilichioaei: Do you think there is a connection between your multilingual approach and the European context in which you live and work, and if so, what is that connection?
Jantar: I have never thought about this before, but I think you have a point. The fact that there are so many different languages in such a small geographic area does make it very easy for me to use different languages. As a child I traveled a lot. I was born in Poland and spent a couple of years in Holland, a couple of years in Austria, some time in England, and ended up in Belgium. My mom worked in the cultural realm and we had friends from everywhere: in America, places in Europe such as Italy and Germany, so all those languages were spoken in my vicinity and I had to switch languages all the time. It became something very natural and logical. And there is an emotional connotation to a language, so when I talk about my family in Poland, like my grandmother, it’s easier to do that in Polish. When I talk about something emotional in my personal life, strangely, it’s easier to say it in English than in Dutch, partly because Dutch has a very matter of fact way of being and sounding.
Avasilichioaei: Do these varying kinds of relationships to the different languages that you speak affect which language you choose to work with in a piece, or which language you choose to break down into something else? And have you ever created a piece using non-denotative sounds as way of creating a new type of language?
Jantar: The emotional resonance definitely impacts my choices in language but it’s not only that. Sometimes, when you work with particular material, the language is already part of it. There is this transcript of an oral judgment that I used in my piece “paralipomena” [see below] — I found the transcript in English, so that determined the language. I would not translate it into another language because of the emotional charge that the other language would give the English transcript.
Using non-denotative sounds to create a new language is definitely something that I have done and love doing in instant improvisations and performances, because it’s something that is very natural. This speaks on a different level than words and meaning, but it definitely conveys something. I have, for instance, a piece that uses only the play between “rz”, “sz” and “cz”, which are Polish sounds, to create a rhythm, playing around with dynamics and speed, in essence, working with them musically.
Avasilichioaei: I am also very interested in your compositional process and in the relationship that you see between composition, improvisation and performance. How do you negotiate these states?
Jantar: It’s an exchange between the three elements. Performance and composition go together because the performance itself is composed, not just the text. Lately, I have begun using the term instant composition for a series of performances that I have been giving, meaning that I use a set structure and improvise within it. For instance, I’ve been working with the concept of “weiß” [white] [MP3], using three different states of whiteness: bone, milk and salt. I then use each of these elements to create an improvisation, and within each element I have texts that I can use if I need or want them. On the other hand, I can let the performance itself decide for me whether or not I use them. I decide beforehand that I will sit on the floor, that I will have some visual aid or score before me that I can use or not use, as well as my book with the texts that I will probably use. The idea of the instant composition rests on the fact that those things are preset. Within that frame I am completely free to improvise, but I don’t feel the panic that I have to improvise for the entire half hour or hour. I have my structure to be free within and I have my visual score, so if I run out of breath or things to express I can go back to the score for inspiration or stimuli. So at this time, that is my relationship with composition, improvisation and performance, but in the past, I have used those three elements in many different ways.
Avasilichioaei: You have worked a great deal in collaboration with other artists/performers. One of the things that collaborative work does so well is it disturbs the idea of intentionality and single-authorship. The work can no longer be located within any one body but instead exists across bodies and localities. Can you discuss some of the significance you see in doing collaborative work and how such work impacts your own practice? And do you think that collaborative work has some necessary relationship to the contemporary moment? Do you think that it has the potential to respond in a crucial way to the contemporary moment?
Jantar: Yes, absolutely, I think that it has. If you look into the past at the romantic idea of an artist creating from himself, from his tortured self, that all inspiration has to come from this one person, this one tortured soul that spills out over the work, then I think we really need to get out of that idea. Other cultures have different perspectives, luckily. So collaborating might definitely be a key to that.
As for my own collaborations, I have always found them extremely inspirational. What I have always liked about them is the fact that it is not me. Together with somebody else, you do something you would not normally do, in the best sense. You get something out of yourself that you would not be able to get if you were alone. You also get to lock onto the energy of somebody else, get into a different stream that can lead you someplace you have never been. As for the authorship element, it’s tricky. It’s not tricky simply because of the ego of artists; actually the people I have worked with have no problem whatsoever with coauthorship, but it is the outside world that does. People somehow always need to have one name behind a project. I worked with theatre actor Ewout d’Hoore on a performance called “Eden,” and because it was in a theatre context and he came from a theatre school, it was very hard to promote the concept that this was a duo performance, that we had thought of it and made it together. And the problem was not between us but coming from the organizers, the newspapers, people around us. The question of collaboration doesn’t even arise; it’s simply assumed that one person should be the author/creator/generator of the concept, which is ludicrous. This is just one example, but I have seen this happen quite a lot and I wonder how it is possible to break that pattern, to make it more acceptable. I guess artists will have to lead the way on that one.
Avasilichioaei: Perhaps the group Krikri might lead part of the way. Can you talk more about your involvement with this group? How did it begin? Who is involved? What are you exploring as a group?
Jantar: Krikri is a group that has a very flexible way of being. The core is formed of three people, Jelle Meander, Helen White, and myself. Then there are a lot of satellites around it, people who perform with us or help out with different aspects when we organize our festival. For instance, we usually work with a visual artist who will create site-specific work to bind all the different locations where the performances are held.
In terms of collaboration, we all have strengths in different fields, which makes it very interesting to work together. All three of us write solo work but we also write work specifically for the group, or to be performed as a duo or trio. So we explore all kinds of possibilities within collaboration, sometimes it’s just somebody imposing something, written out as a score, and sometimes it’s just a thread, a thought, something that develops and takes us to places where both collaborators have never been.
Avasilichioaei: As someone who has worked collaboratively, I am aware of the exquisite risk and productive joy involved in it, though this may not be so obvious to those who have not had the opportunity to work in such a way. So can you also talk more specifically about what is involved when you work collaboratively? How do you take a work from the initial idea to performance? What are some of the allowances that you make? Some of the risks that you take?
Jantar: I think the risk lies at a very human level. You start to work with somebody because there is a personal interest in exploring what that person is doing and a curiosity to see what will happen. It’s a bit like alchemy for me and the risk is that you never know in advance where this will lead you: if you have an explosion, will you end up completely blackened in soot, or will you have created gold? In the process of collaboration you work very closely and this can create tensions and those tensions can be very good to push each other further, to stimulate the relationship, but it can also end up in disaster. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but it is possible.
As for the risk within the work, when you collaborate you create within a bubble of perception and you can live in a kind of illusion. Sometimes it is only when you have a real audience that you realize what you have been making. So it’s very useful to have small viewings and to have other people come in and listen or see the work in progress, because when you work closely together it’s very possible to be misled as well. But I think that’s exciting too; it’s exciting to create this kind of new world even if it only lives for a short while.
Avasilichioaei: What is your take on the sound poetry scene in Europe? What are some of the concerns or stakes for those artists currently working within this area?
Jantar: I find it very difficult to answer this question because I think it is very hard to grasp the sound poetry scene in total. It feels very diverse and while there is an international element, there are also many local colors; for instance, the French scene is very much based on text itself, there is also a Spanish scene that is based more on the performance, and the German scene would be very intellectual. I’m oversimplifying here but it’s interesting how language, once again, does kind of dictate the style of the sound poetry that you are in.
Avasilichioaei: Well then can you talk about the sound poetry scene in Belgium? Or to put it another way, if you were to think of yourself as being a node in a rhizome of polypoetic artists, who or what are some of the other rhyzomatic strands you feel most engaged with at this time and what engages you about them?
Jantar: As far as the sound poetic scene in Belgium, there isn’t really one. Because of the creation of Krikri there are a lot of poets who have started breaking open the text a bit more, but they don’t really go into what could be called sound poetry. However, there is a new generation of poets who try to incorporate the element of sound or the oral tradition in their poetry: Philip Meersman, Xavier Roelens, Olaf Risee.
As for poets with whom I feel connected, I would definitely link to Jaap Blonk, who works extensively with voice and has recorded and performed the Ursonate by Kurt Schwiters. This is a tradition that I feel very connected to because he also goes back to the classics and explores what the voice can do. David Moss would be someone as well who goes into extensive vocal techniques and expressive use of voice, as does Maja Ratkje, whom I respect a lot as a composer and as a performer and who adds electronics to the mix of voice.
Avasilichioaei: What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
Jantar: One is my first CD release, a compilation of pieces I have made over the last few years that will come out in Hybriden Verlag in Berlin. There are two performances that I am trying to create. One is called “weiß” (white), an exploration of white in different forms: a performance element, an installation element, as well as a book publication. The second is a performance with glass domes suspended in space. I want to create an installation that makes the whole space vibrate and be filled with sound. In using all the different pitches of the glass it is possible to create a room of sound, something quite physical. And I would like to make a performance with this installation: one person in a room filled with suspended glass domes, telling a text or story, one person interacting with this space and the audience would be lying on the floor or walking around. I will also continue collaborating intensively with angela rawlings, Ewout d’Hoore, Vincent Tholomé and Sebastien Dicenaire.
1. Kirkjubæjarklaustur is the name of a small town in southern Iceland. This is a compound of three Icelandic words, translated into English as church, town or farm, and monastery. In this form, a rough translation could be the monastery (klaustur) that belongs to the town (bær) that is governed by the church (kirkja). In other words, the church’s (kirkju) town’s (bæjar) monastery (klaustur). Lore has it that the first person to live in this town was a Christian. Wikipedia talks about the town here.
A transcript of the 1995 radio show
Editorial note: Barbara Guest (1920–2006) was the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including Fair Realism (1989), Defensive Rapture (1993), and Quill, Solitary Apparition (1996). In 2008, Wesleyan University Press published her Collected Poems. The following conversation was recorded in 1995 for LINEbreak, produced and directed by Martin Spinelli and hosted by Charles Bernstein for the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo, at the Charles Morrow and Associates Studio in New York. The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited by Katie L. Price and Charles Bernstein. A sound file of the original recording is available at Guest’s PennSound page. You can read Bernstein’s “Composing Herself: Barbara Guest” in Jacket 29. — Katie L. Price
Charles Bernstein: This is LINEbreak. I’m Charles Bernstein. On today’s program: “The Art of Poetry” with Barbara Guest. Barbara, it’s a pleasure to have you here on the program. I wondered if you would read “A Reason” from your new selected poems.
Barbara Guest: I would like to read “A Reason.” The reason I’d like to read it is because it’s from my first book, The Location of Things.
Bernstein: You must have written that poem in the 1950s?
Guest: 1960s. The book was published in 1960.
Bernstein: How has poetry changed for you in the last thirty-five years?
Guest: Well, it has changed because poets have changed. I have changed, but my sensibility is the same. The group that called themselves the New York poets, with whom I was connected, were just starting out. We were trying to experiment and we had certain ideas about the way poetry should be written. We were not going to write about ordinary things unless they were encased in extraordinary thought. We were influenced by European poets. We were not exactly daisy pickers. [Laughs.]
Bernstein: Was there company in the work for you at that time?
Guest: Yes, there was. We arrived, somewhat simultaneously, with the abstract expressionism. Most of us, four or five, were involved in painting. We reflected the ideas of the painters. They, in turn, often reflected our ideas and we collaborated. There was much more emphasis on painting and poetry together.
Bernstein: That has always interested me about your work. There is often a discussion of the relation of the New York school, and other poets in different contexts, to painting or to the visual arts. But your work has a very close formal relationship to aspects of painting. How would you describe that connection?
Guest: It’s a connection that I have somewhat broken, but when it was in full flower, it was very agitated because I did collaborations with painters. A few certain tenets I still remember, such as the nonimportance of the subject: the subject finds itself.
Bernstein: The subject matter in this case. You can also talk about the subject as the person.
Guest: Yes, the subject matter. I was talking to some students in Santa Fe. They were very worried when I asked, “What have you been writing?” They said, “Well, not very much.” I realized they were more disturbed by what they didn’t want to write about, so I told them that the subject matter wasn’t important. And this released them. They were thrilled. They went around for days saying, “She said the subject doesn’t matter!” The idea is that sometimes you find the subject as you proceed with the poem. It’s a good rule. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a good rule.
Bernstein: Can you read “Parachutes”?
Guest: Yes, this subject just found itself. I think it was written in late fall.
Bernstein: Rereading that poem after many years, does it seem different to you?
Guest: It seems like a poem that I might have written. I’m kind of pleased I wrote it, but I’m very far away from it. A way of explaining that might be to read a new poem next to it. This is a recent poem. I have a barometer outdoors that I bought in France. It tells you what the weather is like by saying, in French, different names. This, for instance, is “Neige Fondante,” which means melting snow, so it’s that cold. Sometimes it says hot is wagadou. This is “Neige Fondante.”
Bernstein: Where do you feel the discontinuities and the continuities are between these poems at the two ends of your work chronologically?
Guest: I see that I’m still interested in weather.
Bernstein: Which is what changes.
Bernstein: Always changes.
Guest: In this poem, I’ve gone outside of the idea of love to a broader look at the world in which Keats at Chichester was thinking about the eve of Saint Agnes. I brought a literary allusion into it.
Bernstein: How about imagination, is that something that goes through your work?
Guest: Well, you know that I preach it.
Bernstein: I couldn’t let it go by. This is the time for a poet to preach, on the radio, right? This is our only chance. [Both laugh.]
Guest: I want to get there before somebody else does. I believe in imagination, and I think it’s disappearing. It has become a harder quality. It is not as fluid as it used to be. It’s more something you chip off the old block. It’s not used so much because practicality seems to be a vision of the future. Within imagination, there aren’t too many corridors for the practical.
Bernstein: Practicality is in contrast to imagination for you?
Bernstein: And yet, you’re kind of an old-time pragmatic person, just leading a life.
Guest: Yes, but I don’t believe in pragmatism. I’m not an Emersonian.
Guest: No. [Both laugh.] I don’t believe in it at all.
Bernstein: Because you’re not an Emersonian and you’re not a pragmatist, I won’t ask you what you are, because you don’t have to be anything in that case.
Guest: I’m not John Dewey. [Laughs.] I’m an old-fashioned – I suppose you could say – imagist. How’s that?
Bernstein: What does imagism mean then?
Guest: It used to mean using an image to replace an idea. I think now I would like a few ideas to enter in also — sideways, next to the imagination. But the imagination is being usurped by mundanity. It doesn’t have to be at all. I think it can fit into the new world. It’s just that one must remember that it’s there. And that it’s not funny; it’s not humor. It’s something fluid, which can twist itself into a poem.
Bernstein: One of your books is entitled Fair Realism. Is fair realism kind of like the fair lady? Are you a realist?
Guest: Fair is beauty, but it is also a shining object. I’m trying to remember Goethe’s phrase about the moment: “Stay, thou art … stay, thou art too lovely” [Verweile doch! du bist so schön!]. Since [fair is] an old-fashioned, almost medieval word with an “e” on it, is sometimes the way I spell it to myself, but it’s an aspect of realism that presents a fair countenance if you want to look into it, into its fair aspect.
Bernstein: Fair is lovely. It also has a somewhat pragmatic quality in that it’s decent realism, or well-distributed realism, as opposed to absolute realism. It’s a modifier, which is interesting.
Guest: [Laughs.] It’s a modifier. Exactly.
Bernstein: It modifies in a number of different ways that encourage my intuitive thinking toward meaning or possible meanings. There’s a particular poem in Fair Realism which talks about, or exemplifies this. It’s called “An Emphasis Falls on Reality.”
Guest: Yes this poem actually explains the meaning of fair.
Bernstein: Are the poems in that book, or your books, interconnected for you? Or do you see them as discrete?
Guest: I think the books connect. The technique is different, but one’s preoccupations — surfing for example … a handbook of surfing, which was actually about war — [remains] a part of you as you change. If I can read it, I have a later poem, “The Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights.” That poem happened because of where I lived in New York City. I would look out my window and there were all these white cars parked out there every night. I found the cars extremely humorous; they were all white like milk carts. There was a great deal of wind moving in that space. Now it’s occupied by big buildings, which is what New York does to you. So this is a relic of that time, but within the poem there is also a relic, which I did not anticipate.
Bernstein: In that poem, you talk about the grip of reality. You talk about immobility. I wonder about the grip of identity, the immobility that identity can often impose on a writer, and also on the way in which people read a writer. I’m thinking especially in terms of one aspect of your identity, that of being a woman. Are you a feminist poet? Is your identity as a woman crucial to you in terms of opening up or limiting what you do as a writer? In terms of the way people read your work?
Guest: I think I’m a feminist in the fact that I truly believe that women are writing almost the best poetry today in America today. I believe that that they’re extraordinary, that for some reason this has happened. It has not been true forever.
Bernstein: But as a poet coming of age in the fifties … do you feel a contemporeity with women of your immediate generation?
Guest: That is a problem. I do. There are many women, not many (as there are not many categories of things), whom I respect and like their poetry. But the male poets of my generation were the ones with whom I identified because we were involved in the same attitude toward poetry. That’s what I would say. In that sense, I feel very lonely. It wasn’t until newer generations, younger women came along with whom I could identify, as they could identify with me. Among the New York poets, there were very few women.
Bernstein: You’re looking down at your book as if you were poised to read another poem in this context, please …
Guest: I was thinking I could read a political poem. Before this terrible business in the late Yugoslavia, I was very interested in what was happening to Czechoslovakia. This poem is based on the lands that were incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles in Czechoslovakia — Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia, Ruthenia — and it’s called “Borderlands.” This was written about four years ago.
Bernstein: Can you read one more poem before we say goodbye?
Guest: I can give you a difficult poem.
Bernstein: I love difficult poems. They’re my favorite kind. Except I love easy poems too.
Guest: [Laughs.] I know you do. … I’d like to read a poem that is a followup to “Borderlands.” After we have encountered upheaval and revolution, new states or new governments, what happens is what I’ve called multiplicity. This is what we have today, a multiplicity which covers many objects, many changes. This is what I put into this poem.
[Guest reads “Multiplicity.” While this poem is not included in The Collected Poems, since it never appeared in a book, it was published in The Iowa Review 26, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 76–78. You can read the text of poem here.]
Segmented audio for this interview (source: Barbara Guest’s PennSound page)
- introduction (0:52): MP3
- A Reason (1:09): MP3
- on the New York Poets and their relation to painting (3:31): MP3
- Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher (1:39): MP3
- Niege Fondant (1:51): MP3
- on how her work has changed (0:42): MP3
- on imagination (2:16): MP3
- on realism (1:30): MP3
- An Emphasis Falls on Reality (2:45): MP3
- on how her books connect (0:36): MP3
- Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights (4:08): MP3
- on her identity as a woman (2:00): MP3
- Borderlands (2:04): MP3
- Multiplicity (2:58): MP3
Full program (29:01): MP3
Michael Gottlieb on essaying the memoir
Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay was published in 2010 by Faux/Other press. It includes a memoir, “The Empire City,” which explores the early days of Language poetry, Gottlieb’s development as a writer, and New York City in the 1970s. An accompanying essay, “Jobs of the Poets” (first published in Jacket in 2008) is structured as a series of questions and responses exploring the nature of poets’ day jobs and how these jobs relate to their poetic work. I sat down with Gottlieb in his Chelsea studio apartment in June 2010 to discuss the book. — Drew Gardner
Drew Gardner: You talk about the essay section of Memoir and Essay as though it were a letter to a younger poet, but I sense that it may be addressed to a slightly broader contingent. It’s bringing up uncomfortable questions, questions that poets might have set scripts for, and it seems you want to question how we think about who we are as writers and what our relationship to society is.
Michael Gottlieb: Maybe it’s an oversimplification to try to neatly box it up for a target audience, but why do we keep writing? Are we writing because it makes us feel good or are we writing for some other reason? Does, can, should [this] weigh even heavier on people as they’ve been doing the same thing year after year? Why am I still doing this? When it comes to assumptions, and … stock answers?
Gardner: Let’s say, defensive ways of thinking about your relationship to society?
Gottlieb: Yeah, what kind of job you have. I think that the figure — this stock figure, say the poet — is thinking about issues of roles and responsibilities, this individual in the broader context of the society or the community. The poet is almost a proxy for any citizen, any individual. Why are we doing what we do, no matter what it is that we do; what do I do with my life no matter what I do with it, no matter what it is that —
Gardner: Right, an equally interesting set of questions regarding what you were going to do to become an IT professional for instance, or a plumber, or a middle manager, which is what you do with your time.
Gottlieb: In response to your question, I’m going to go cut some bread.
Gardner: I’ve seen some responses that have suggested that the essay is considered unflinching or — some people have said — depressing? Maybe asking some uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, the memoir is more about the excitement of young writers and about enthusiasm, so is there something I was wondering about in the bifurcation in these two approaches …
Gottlieb [cutting bread]: No one has said that to me. No one has said that to my face. I hope that it’s honest; I think it ends up on a note that is encouraging.
Gardner: I also mean unflinching in a refreshing way. Like, “Oh, people aren’t normally that unflinching, that’s refreshing.”
Gottlieb: Well I hope so and I hope that — and I can’t see — unless someone reads it — and I don’t know if anyone does — and says holy shit that’s me and I’ve been fooling myself or lying to myself for the last thirty years and I didn’t realize it until I read this essay. I don’t know if anyone is going to have that reaction. I don’t see why anyone should be depressed by it.
Gardner: Well, I noticed one poet who did have that reaction, and that was the other side of it. One person feels that it is exciting to hear this unflinching account, and another poet says, why is this guy talking about stuff that makes me depressed?
Gottlieb: Well, why is he depressed? Let’s find that out.
Gardner: Yes. I guess the question is confronting negativity? I noticed that when you read you read with a sad affect, even when it’s funny.
Gottlieb: Well, you should have been around for the first twenty years [laughs]. Before I had a reason, back when I was funny for the first time. When I read at BPC [Bowery Poetry Club], read all those funny poems, that wasn’t sad; that was funny. When I read the memoir.
Gardner: The affect was sad in the reading. But it was also funny.
Gottlieb: I’m sorry — what’s the question here?
Gardner: I’m pointing to the sad performance affect and also to the fact that the memoir is also enthusiastic and excited — I’m interested in the dichotomy.
Gottlieb: My wish/belief is that the essay leaves people — can, should, hopefully does leave people — with the sense that this is an important, this is a useful, this is a vital way to live your life and thing to do with your life. Once you strip away all the illusion and narcissism, if that can happen, and if I’m seeing that right and who knows if I am. And I hope that people are not depressed when they finish reading it. I hope they say, you know, what, this is the way I want to — not, I want to live my life like him or he’s asking the right questions but, this is something that I want to do and now I know — and — anyway … now I’m verging into the prescriptive, which makes me depressed …
Gardner: When did you decide to write a memoir and why?
Gottlieb: It was a good number of years ago. After I wrote New York, 1993? New York, as Douglas [Rothschild] graciously alluded to in his remarkably restrained introduction at the book party at the Zinc bar the other day, has not only pieces of New York City in it, it has in it a wide variety of different kinds of diction and expression.
Gardner: Right, it’s part memoir.
Gottlieb: There are pieces of memoir in it, there are chunks of dialogue, monologue, list, lyric. I was exploring pulling in amalgams of different kinds of expression, including several long sections of conventionally constructed prose memoir, pieces of it. That was a direction I’d been going in, of pulling heterogeneity into the poems, and New York. The River Road comes after it, and is the fullest expression of that approach; New York has two poems, and The River Road has a third, and the three of them also run together, and included in them are pieces and hunks of memoir. After the second of those two books came out, I can look back and see now how my thinking evolved, or what I was interested in doing evolved, and the memoir impulse that was embedded in those two books split out and became an interest unto itself. And in the next poems, where my interest went in terms of poetry, went away from that heterogeneous amalgam, bricolage, compositional approach into something else that we see in the next books which is more — I don’t know what it was — lyric.
Gardner: So you were already doing bricolaged memoir in the previous work. Nonetheless, you still had to make the decision to do a traditional memoir.
Gottlieb: At some point there I decided — was it an efflorescence of narcissism in some other way that incited it? — my life is interesting enough. I could, and I’m going to, write a memoir about it.
Gardner: I would guess there was a stigma against this among some of your peers, especially when you started, that you had to overcome? Seems not to be the case any more, but your book was started well before the publication of The Grand Piano or anything like that, right?
Gottlieb: The first memoir I wrote is not this one, and it’s not about this period or these writers or this writing; it’s about my childhood and adolescence.
Gardner: Why is that not part of this book?
Gottlieb: The publishers didn’t want to include it. It wouldn’t have an appeal to the target audience.
Gardner: I see.
Gottlieb: That’s okay. But let me finish responding to your original question: by the time I wrote the second memoir, I had already had a structure and a format.
Gardner: Had anyone read it?
Gottlieb: Yes, lots of people had read it. And I had an agent and I was trying to sell it to a trade publisher. I was not unused to people not getting or liking what I was doing. Before I wrote the first memoir I had written parts of a couple of novels that people really didn’t like.
Gardner: And how would you characterize that response of really not liking it?
Gottlieb: I read parts of one, I remember, at the Ear Inn. And it was a comic novel and people laughed; a lot of people laughed, I thought, hard. A couple people came up to me and said, that was really funny but what the fuck are you doing?
Gardner: People meaning poets about your age?
Gottlieb: Yeah. But that was then. And fiction is one thing. And now only one person has raised a comment that the relatively conventional structure in this is not in keeping with the nature of our projects as poets.
Gardner: Okay. So, what do you think about that idea?
Gottlieb: I don’t have a lot of sympathy for it. Because I don’t remember and I’d never seen either then, twenty, thirty years ago, or more recently, a distinction being drawn when it comes to critical writing about this work. There is no requirement, no demand, and I don’t think even any gentle impulse to impel people to write critically about this kind of writing, or Flarf or conceptualism necessarily, in a way when it comes to critical writing that is in keeping or constant with the writing itself. And I don’t think there should be or needs to be. Also, there is critical writing that is not standard critical writing that plays an important role in our —
Gardner: — this is more about the way in which the permission comes for the style of writing.
Gottlieb: Right. So I’m not sure that it’s necessary to give memoir — even with critical writing — to give it that permission. However, I would say it’s not poetry. Whatever it is, it’s not poetry. And I’m comfortable saying that when it comes to poetry, to agree to — what, draw certain kinds of distinctions and say this kind of writing I’m not interested in, and this kind I am. I think it was part and parcel of, it was in and among, these poems that had street and advertising names and language that cops would utter on the street, stories about old New York and the buildings, and it fit in and it was just yet another element in something larger.
Gardner: Right. But you’re saying there was not some large psychological barrier that needed to be cut through in the group psychology of your peers in order to start this project. It seemed natural to you.
Gottlieb: Yeah. Yeah, it was very natural [laughs].
Gardner: The wink is telling me that you’re not giving me the whole story.
Gardner: So, one of the things I’m interested in is that writers mostly work in groups, so even if they’re people who are relative hermits they’re still writing letters to each other, writing emails to each other — writers work in groups, it’s a matter of degree. But sometimes you have to push against that. How does one do that, when is it appropriate to do that, how does that process work, since as primates we live in groups, we survive in groups, we’ve evolved in groups. This is why I’m interested in the question of the barrier you may have to push through to get over what is essentially an anthropological taboo against a behavior to do what you want to do. Even though you may have been, you may think of yourself as being, empowered by the rules of that group, in another way you also have to diverge.
Gottlieb: That’s a great question. But I have to say I never thought of it in those contexts, in the context that I was violating the code of behavior. And maybe because getting to it was an organic process that I started to describe, maybe because I felt marginalized already enough that I was unaware of the kind of strictures that otherwise I might.
Gardner: So since you didn’t feel yourself to be at the center of the group, it might be a different process. An advantage to feeling marginalized?
Gottlieb: Well, maybe coming at it from another angle I felt, I feel that it’s appropriate in the same way that as I described in the memoir Alan [Davies] and I were the only people who really used to listen to rock and roll, and go out, and go to clubs. In the same way that I say that’s the case when it comes to music for us back then. I was just using that as a launching pad into another rhetorical figure. I think, I’m not sure, but it very well may be, that I read more fiction than most of my friends, and read lots, and still read lots, and I know certain friends, certain peers, in the same way that they can’t hear or stand the radio playing rock and roll because it hurts their ears, can’t read fiction — they just can’t stand it. I am wondering if my comfort with that, or the fact of how much I read back then and over the years, contributed to my ability to write a prose work. So maybe if — and this is a big if — this turns out to be a narrative about that time and these people that has some value, it’s because I could write it. Am I saying that in a way that makes sense?
Gardner: I think of Ted Greenwald being into crime genre fiction. I know Greenwald reads a lot of crime fiction, and there’s something about the language of his poetry that I think reflects that. He gets pleasure from that work, there’s a certain rhythm to that work, there’s an approach to the types of information in it that you just naturally dig and that’s going be reflected in your own work — you’re not going be able to help it, actually. So this question of permission may be more like something were you can’t get out of it.
Gottlieb: Ted has written a memoir. This beautiful, wonderful, lyric, just stunning, gorgeous recollection, and the part that I’ve read takes place in his childhood in Queens, and it’s just amazing.
Gardner: I assume this is a manuscript that he’s floated among his associates?
Gottlieb: Yeah. It’s written in this amazingly lyrical manner, not like mine, which is pretty standard prose. His is set up like prose, but I’m not going to do it justice. It might be described as living somewhere in between standard prose and a kind of lyric poetry that we would associate with him.
Gardner: Well, prose-poem memoir is certainly something you get in Lyn Hejinian, right? Certainly you could say there’s a precedent in doing memoir in Language poetry in that sense.
Gottlieb: Right. And then there’s The Grand Piano.
Gardner: Right. So I’m curious about the extent of your reading of that, your involvement in it, your take on it. For Language poetry memoir right now, there’s just that and you and Rae Armantrout’s True? The Grand Piano might have an interesting relationship to your work. Yours is a much more straightforward thing, but I’m just wondering how much of that you have in mind when you approach your own work, how they approach it as a group and you’re approaching it as an individual. And also this sort of West Coast/East Coast Biggie Smalls/Tupac thing [laughter] that is implied by the recent New Yorker article on Armantrout, where the journalist says that Language poetry was primarily a West Coast phenomenon. That may just be a slipup on Chiasson’s part?
Gottlieb: Actually, I asked him about that. To paraphrase his response, he said that in his original text there was a much more balanced East Coast/West Coast assessment of the origins, but that the magazine’s fact checkers went to a prominent Language poet who corrected this and insisted on it being changed to its current wording.
Gardner: I see. Clearly it’s not anyone’s general take that it was only a West Coast phenomenon. I’ve never heard that.
Gottlieb: I don’t think so! My sense at the time was that there was a general assessment that there were two simultaneously competing and cooperating nexuses.
Gardner: I want to get back at some point to that idea — “simultaneously competing and cooperating” — because I think it’s important for what you’re doing in the book, in regard to the people you’re talking about there, so don’t let me forget that if too many glasses of wine go by?
Gottlieb: Why don’t we talk about that for a while, because what I think I heard in your “raising your hand”-ness was maybe as a rhetorical figure, applicable not just to New York versus San Francisco, which I’m happy to talk about, but also to the social dimension of our project, period — now, then, and in general. The fact is, when I try to describe what my experience, my take, my knowledge of what the poetry world is like, to someone who’s outside it and who may be a writer but not part of this world, I always lead with the branding message that this is a highly communitarian activity, much more than other kinds of production and other kinds of writing. A novelist can work in isolation and have a relationship in most senses with very few of his peers and directly only interact after a certain point in his career with people in a vertical sense. But having said that, what does “communitarian” mean? People show up for each other, they read each other, they publish each other, they live in a world that has each other as their immediate readers, audience, supporters, publishers, but that doesn’t speak to the competitive dimension.
Gardner: What I see is that you have competition and cooperation simultaneously in some combination and this is important in terms of the kind of art that winds up as a result of these communities.
Gottlieb: I guess I would frame it a little differently. I don’t know whether it is important to have it to generate the results that you describe. The question is, how do you not have it, how can there be …
Gardner: I think it’s not just about art. Competition and cooperation is the way people live in groups, and they would do that even if they weren’t artists, so it’s just a reflection of how human beings live.
Gottlieb: Is it?
Gardner: I think so. One of the things I’m leading to here is that competition may sometimes get a bad rap, especially among one’s peers, where it can manifest in unhealthy, annoying ways.
Gottlieb: Well, first of all competition smacks of the market.
Gardner: Not always. Because I think there are different kinds of competition. There’s an artistic kind of competition where you may be trying to outdo each other in a good way. In other words, you’re pushing each other. That’s something I’ve seen in the Flarfists who are deeply collaborative, but also actually quite competitive, but they’ve accepted that competition is a natural part of it; we’re openly competitive with each other.
Gottlieb: Are you?
Gardner: Yes, but often in a good way. We delight in each other’s outdoings.
Gottlieb: So how come you all aren’t happier with how things are unfolding?
Gardner: Well … you bring up the topic of happiness.
Gardner: Which is an interesting question, and my mind goes back to the William Carlos Williams autobiography, where he’s established himself in his house in Paterson. He’s married, his first kid is on the way, and a young woman he knows from the neighborhood comes by as he’s out front working in the garden, and she just says, “Happy?” as a challenge. What he says is, actually yes I was happy, because I had set up my life according to the demands of my personality. In a way happiness is neither here nor there in terms of artists. No one’s happy with the way they relate to their peers, as far as I can tell. Or to their relation to their society. Or to their level of achievement. Do you know a single writer who’s happy with any of that? If happiness is the topic we’re discussing. This is a broad topic, right?
Gottlieb: Are you seizing on the word “happiness” to deflect our attention to the other part of the question?
Gardner: Competition? Okay, here’s another side of it: the other side of the Williams side of happiness is this thing from John Zorn — he’s your generation. I heard an interview with Zorn at Miller Theater where he was asked about happiness, and he said, “Happiness is for yuppies.” What this is supposed to mean, I think, is that from the point of view of an artist, you don’t take into consideration the question of happiness. That, or he just has the kind of personality where happiness would be the same thing as complacency. It’s not something you have unless you’re not a serious artist — that’s the polar opposite of the Williams take on it.
Then again, there’s a moment when Williams is looking at the bushes in the moonlight outside his front door when he’s returning home and thinks, why does this make me more happy than my family does? So it’s a complicated question.
Gottlieb: I think about [Williams] more and more as the years go by. I have a Collected Poems sitting on a chair in my living room. I just read a biography of his last summer.
Gardner: I notice that this place is very minimal and white and neat. You have the patterned African tapestry over the bed, you have the interior decorating here that might reflect some of your early artistic background in minimalism? I’m seeing a little Agnes Martin here? You were originally an art student painter at Bennington and the staff there was Abstract Expressionist?
Gottlieb [points to drawing on wall]: This is Agnes Martin’s last drawing. The day she died.
Gardner: Okay, so if you want to I’d like to talk about earlier background, where you came from, the biography that’s probably in the first part of the memoir. One of the earliest things in there is discussing yourself as a college student and in your formative days having training basically as an abstract painter.
Gottlieb: That was lyrical … that was, in the mid-1970s — what came to be called Lyrical Abstractionist. The people that were dominant at Bennington were Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski. They weren’t teaching right then but were dominating the thinking.
Gardner: So they might look sideways at you for using patterns.
Gottlieb: Yes, minimalism was not cool, even pattern painting was not.
Gardner: I’m interested in the relationship between Minimalist pattern and your poetry. There’s a moment in the memoir — Elizabeth Fodaski points to this passage in her piece on it — something about deciding to go from abstraction to a grid. The grid shows you that there’s an underlying pattern to the universe, there’s a pattern in nature, reality and life that I see when I look at this thing.
Gottlieb: Maybe I have been looking at all of them — Sol Lewitt, Judd, everybody, Agnes Martin — wrong for forty years, but it seems clear to me from even then when I had to talk about what I was thinking, that that work was [about] more than rejection and process, procedure, and repetition, and creating surface. I think I responded to it from the beginning when I walked down Mercer Street and you could see Donald Judd in his building on the corner of Mercer as he was putting [the works] out through the glass in the first-floor window. They were about something, they had resonance, they were connected to, they were speaking about — and I end up repeating what I said in the memoir about Agnes Martin: fundamental organization principles of the universe, of reality, of the way we looked and saw, they had immediate emotional connections, responses, to them, they were not about negating those responses, for me. I put that Agnes Martin section in. I think it ends up in there because looking at that work and the other work like it was having an impact that I was seeing all the time … getting me to where I ended up when I started writing poetry that Alan Davies got interested in, that got me published.
Gardner: Some Language poetry might be seen by some people as just being surface and negation. Someone else might have a completely other reaction to it, the way you’re having a reaction to this painting.
Gottlieb: Exactly. I try to articulate that in the memoir. Letting go of that attempt to force meaning, narrative, on the poem, originally by means of chance operations, was hugely liberating, didn’t mean giving up on the project that poetry could — that this kind of poetry could have the same kind of impact, do the same kind of thing as any other kind of poetry, it just didn’t need to do it the same way any more.
Gardner: Right. And some people might see it as a moment of irony that this takes place in a memoir where you’re embracing a straightforward narrative, telling the story of letting go of the restrictions of narrative to find liberation.
Gottlieb: I think that’s neither here nor there. It’s like saying, you know what, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, you’re about to turn the world upside down, but you know what? You’re wearing a tie with a starched collar. God, isn’t it ironic that you’re dressed in such a bourgeois manner when you’re about to do XYZ. I don’t think it particularly matters. Now, that’s not to say that, for people in the ’60s and ’70s, for some people, how they dressed was part and parcel and key to how they lived their lives and their politics. But not for Lenin!
Gardner: There’s an interesting detail in the memoir regarding how one dresses, about Picasso dressing in an actual extravagant bullfighter outfit for a costume party, decisions about how you present yourself to the world. This is in a part of the memoir about Charles Bernstein, regarding conflict with contemporaries, since we’re discussing simultaneous competition and cooperation. There’s a vignette about Bernstein, who’s an important figure in your writing world and a close associate of yours and who recently had some success in reaching a broader audience. I took this scene to be a description about two different personalities — conflicting personalities in the same scene. It’s a moment where there’s tension and you’re being rather critical of him. You were uncomfortable with who he was declaring himself to be, that’s this kind of social conflict — two forces who are in a way dependent on each and intertwined creatively but are not going to reconcile their personalities. You didn’t shrink away from dealing with things that might piss off your friends.
Gottlieb: Well, I hope it didn’t, because of how long ago it was, because of how young I was, and because that kind of — and we’ll now come back to the trope we laid out earlier — competition and cooperation can’t be removed from this kind of activity. And I think it’s important to look at what people have done. Let me take one step back. While the machine was off, we talked about what might come next in terms of this project, and it’s my intention, if this sells enough and I can publish the first one, to keep writing more in these lines and also to write more along the lines of the essay that appears in this book as well, and I’m well down the road to publishing the next part of this essay. But I lay out in that section what seemed then to be two ways of thinking about how to move ahead, and how one is to comport oneself. The fact is, that was more than thirty years ago, and look at what Charles has done with his life. The fact is that he’s someone who has helped tons of people and made things happen, and built amazing things, at Buffalo, and helped people have decent lives as poets. I mean we can talk about the academic life and the impact academization has had on poetry, but he has made it possible for lots of people we know, our friends, not to have to have crappy lives. Now, we can talk about the shades, the interstices, the implications of all that, but he’s really done a lot in our world, and there aren’t a lot of people who’ve done more, to build the world that we live in now.
Gardner: I thought it was a very novelistic scene. In that I’m interested in unpacking conflict, and one of the things I think is strong about the memoir is that it doesn’t shy away from the parts where there is psychological friction between compatriots.
Gottlieb: Right. And there are other people where that kind of conflict was what the memoir was all about. Nick Piombino cited a Henry James quotation: how important it is to be kind. Which I don’t disagree with. I don’t think that by citing conflict I’m necessarily being unkind. I think, going back to the conflict versus cooperation theme, that quite possibly it’s a useful subject for all of us to spend some time on, because I don’t see any way for it to go away. It’s a fact. The only alternative is some kind of totalitarian, top-down, writer’s-union kind of regime that we could see in the Soviet Union, which would — what other kind of social/organizational constructs can we conceive of? While the financial dimensions of our world remain constant, as long as they do, I’m not sure what other way we can see poets organizing themselves and consequently this kind of friction being a byproduct. Or a product!
Gardner: I’m not suggesting that the friction is something that one should moralistically object to. The thing I liked about the scene is that you remembered it, you had made a point that yeah this is a memoir, this is the shit that I remember because it has to do with how memory works and how you tell stories to other people about what’s happened to you and what you’ve done and this is why it’s interesting and it’s important. You couldn’t possibly include this type of friction stuff thinking this would be stress-free, but you include it because it’s part of how you actually relate to others.
Gottlieb: I think I imply or suggest that there’s an inflection point in the development of our world. Or it embodied a transition, from a kind of a New York School — the St. Marks School, alternative lifestyle poetry scene — to one that had at its heart an academic opportunity career path. And it wasn’t clear, at least to me, for a long time that that was even a possibility. It never was one that I was interested in even when it did become one.
Gardner: This is a topic you develop at length in the essay.
Gottlieb: Right. And I think the relationship between the essay and the memoir is part of that. Now, was it good for Language poetry that that developed? It was good for people. It was good for people that they could have a dental plan, a retirement plan. Was it good for the poetry? I’m not necessarily the person to ask. I don’t know.
Gardner: I guess the other thing I should ask about is, since we’ve addressed the question of competition a little bit, collaboration is the other side of it. One of the big figures in the book is Alan Davies, and this seems like an important part of how the book is structured. He’s an important figure in the book.
Gottlieb: I have a number of friends and also family who are in the trade press world in one way or another, who whenever the topic of sales or print runs comes up — and this has been going on for decades — express ritual incredulity and utterances of … is “scorn” the right word … ? — at the volumes and dimensions of the world that we live in, the independent small press environment. What I never bothered to say to them but always say to myself or anyone who otherwise asks, is that I consider myself to have had an incredibly lucky life publishing as a poet, even if compared to some peers it’s not as extensive as people of my age might want, because as soon as I started writing, essentially I started getting published. And as soon as I started publishing in magazines, I started getting books. And essentially everything I’ve written ever since has gotten published, and coming back to your question, in a large part that’s because of Alan. And whereas with other friends and peers I’ve felt and not necessarily shrunk from a healthy degree of competition with what they were doing or their kind of writing, I never felt that, nor do, with him.
It’s partly because what we’re interested in has to a certain extent evolved or moved apart over the years, but also because he’s someone I never think of in any way except as someone who gets, supports, and wants to see the best of me.
Gardner: If you stop and look at a writer’s whole life, the power of, early on, having just one person believe in you enough to publish you is considerable. That small-scale gesture turns out to be large in the long run in terms of what people wind up doing in poetry.
Gottlieb: I agree and I’d go further. Circling back to another dimension and my own response to friends and others in the larger publishing world, many people have said that even the most commercially successful writers rarely have an audience that they are interested in, that they have any consciousness of, whose opinion means something to them, who they are writing for in a direct way, that is any larger than fifty or a hundred people. Even someone who sells millions of copies. They are only writing for a hundred people in a direct way. In an indirect way we are all writing for someone we may never see, who may not be alive now, who’s dead or isn’t born yet.
So as I mentioned I wrote fiction for a while and there was another memoir that I wrote before this one, and for those I had ambitions that they could reach large audiences and get published by trade publishers, and they didn’t. I had agents, and the agents couldn’t sell them. I had an agent at William Morris for the whole time, and then another agent after that. By the time I came to write this memoir, all I wanted to do was to get this down, and I didn’t and I don’t have the same kinds of ambitions that I may have had twenty or thirty years ago. I think this is an important story. I think a lot of people in our world, however we define that world, want to know about this time and these people. And it may in fact, now that I’m done with it, be that people are reacting to it — there may be people beyond this world who find it of interest. If that happens, that’s great, but I sat down to do this because it’s part of this project that I’ve been engaged in for a while, which is about me working out things, and the next one and the one after that which are the ones that I’m thinking about now are about me continuing to try to work things out. How many other people are going to want to follow on, we’ll see.
Gardner: What would be next?
Gottlieb: There are two that I’ve carved out mentally that will come next. One is the next chronological chunk of my life, which would start when I leave New York which is more or less when the memoir ends, and will have as its focus being away from New York. I’m not sure how much of it will be about writing, so I’m not sure what it’s going to look like, but it also will focus on these three huge things that when I look back on a twenty-year period my life circled around. One was family and one of my children getting sick, and the second was my business that I had that boomed and then went bust, and the third was getting sick. So that’s the next one to write. The next one to publish would be the first one, but that would be the next one to write and then after that I may or will be hopefully old enough that it would be appropriate to write about the following topic that a couple of people, Barry [Watten], suggested, to focus on a topic that to a large extent is missing from “The Empire City,” which is sex.
Gardner: It seems like an intentional decision to leave out that topic. But obviously it’s an important part of life, it’s certainly a part of the way in which you remember your own history. There’s an adjacent thing, and it’s is something that Liz points out in her review of the book, there’s not a lot about women in this book in general, it is mostly about groups of young men.
Gottlieb: To a certain extent those are allied topics and in some sense they’re separate topics. There is as little focus on relationships and what we’ll call sex, period, consciously, because I wanted to drive attention to what the book has its focus on, poetry and the people and to the extent it’s about me becoming a poet and me and the city or the city and poetry. I had the realization that this whole other topic was such a big dimension that the book would have had to be twice as big and it would have diffused the focus in a way that I didn’t want to diffuse it, or I didn’t have time to bring it all in.
Let me come back to that, but to speak to Liz’s comment which she’s not alone in noting, I hope. I tried, in what I did write, not to in any way diminish the contribution or the presence of the women that were there then. And I think, I hope, I’m right that I can only express it that way. I think that to the extent that it is a boys’ story, it’s because then, there, in New York, that’s what it was in terms of the people there. And that speaks to just the way it was then, right or wrong, or maybe all wrong, but that then changed. Getting ready for the next reading which is going to be in Brooklyn in a couple of weeks, I’m planning on reading the section about Hannah [Weiner] kicking me out of the table at Phoebe’s. But to come back to the first topic, it is such a big topic that it’s my intention and I hope I’m old enough so that I feel more comfortable in writing about it — that’s my own hangup perhaps — that I’ll be able to do that topic justice. I’ve been writing Barry back and forth about this, as late as this afternoon, that the natural end point for that part of the narrative is that cancer, that’s sort of an explanation that draws a line under that part of it. I’m not ready to write about that yet. And I didn’t want to. The things in the memoir now are the things I wanted to get there now, and I didn’t have enough time or energy because I was sick when I was writing it, to bring it in more.
That’s the midterm plan that may take me up for maybe about ten, twelve years. And then I think maybe I’ll have one more about being an old man. In the same way that I’m writing this essay now — and this essay is about two-thirds of the way done, it’s in this notebook — “Letters to a Middle-Aged Poet.” I’m up to section twenty-three, I’ll get to section twenty-four and start editing, and then I’ll be done! And then I figure maybe after that I’ll have one more essay about what it’s like to be a really old fucking poet.
In racing they have this term. They don’t talk about speed; they talk about pace. How much pace does your car have. And in my job all we think about all the time is how we think about things. My job consists of thinking about how we organize people, how we think about what they’re thinking, how we get them to all align.
Gardner: I’m glad you brought up this topic, because the questions of possible similarities and differences in how you approach your work life and how you approach your creative life, poetry life, is something that I’m interested in. Clearly they’re bifurcated in the way your essay and your memoir are bifurcated, in the sense that they put you in different spaces, they put you among people you wouldn’t normally interact with, but they don’t put you outside the realm of the way you solve problems with your personality. So in some ways they may really not be that different.
Gottlieb: Wait — let me go back — do we solve problems with our personality?
Gardner: More like create them and then solve them. I’m pretty sure we do. If you consider your intelligence and your approach to life part of your personality. Your poems are a product of your personality regardless of your procedures and your philosophy about it, as far as I can tell; some people might disagree with me. You solve problems in the creative world, you go to work, you solve problems in the work world, and so this question of bifurcation, kind of returning to it a little bit, focusing a little on what might be similar? If you brought up the question of actual shit that you’re doing at work, I am interested in this and this is not something that you bring up in the “Jobs of the Poets” essay. You do address the question of conflict, problems in self-definition, in being a working person and being a poet, but you don’t necessarily say what actually happens when I’m at work, solving problems and dealing with people, improvising, creating and diverging from structures — all the shit that you do at work, which may actually be in some ways disturbingly close to things that you’re doing with your poetry, just more constrained.
Gottlieb: Well, I don’t know if it’s more constrained, because poets feel terribly constrained about what they can do, what they will do, what they should do, what they’re allowed to do. And the constraints within which one works in work are not necessarily tighter or more binding than those. But I’m very lucky: I have a job where people pay me money to think hard along a lot of the same ways I find myself thinking as a poet, to step back and think about the way big things are organized and look carefully at them. The way systems, processes, parts of organizations do business, and think about them in a holistic way. I’m being asked to look at things from the outside. And interact with other people, to listen to them, listen closely, to communicate, which means listening and talking both, and to be compelling, hopefully, communicate to get groups of people to move in certain directions, and all of those are activities which one could say are similar to or aligned with what a poet does.
Gardner: What else might have happened to you is a question sometimes asked by poets. There’s an interview with Olson where he says, yeah, I could have been one of these business guys, I could have focused my mind around money and put myself in that system. You’re good at certain things, you develop expertise based on your proclivities. Vanessa Place and I were talking recently about the difference between virtuosity and mastery. Mastery is something that’s imposed upon you; virtuosity is something you develop on your own. You can’t even stop yourself from developing it if you have talent. They’re both actually constraining in a way, but occupy different places in how you relate to your society as a writer, and certainly as a worker.
Gottlieb: I would suggest to you that both of them are from another perspective equally delimiting. In the business world, people eventually gain subject matter expertise.
Gardner: Interviewer winces!
Gottlieb: You’re an expert in your subject matter. And then there’s a level beyond that where you’re a thought leader in your subject matter.
Gardner: Defined by the influence you have among your peers.
Gottlieb: Yes. And a thought leader has influence in a global or national way. But subject matter expertise at a certain level in organizations is a given. It’s like a baseline.
Gardner: Is there a baseline for poetry?
Gottlieb: I don’t wanna talk about poetry yet. Let me think about that. And after that then people are expected to be able to perform beyond and outside of their areas of subject matter expertise (SME).
Gardner: How do you make a social definition of when you excel, right?
Gottlieb: No. You can perform, whatever that means, in ways that are independent of the subject matter that you’re an expert in, and deliver.
Gardner: That seems like something that might be desirable in a writer.
Gottlieb: Yeah. So in my business world I left my subject matter two years ago. They hired me to do something that I was a SME in. So I did that for a couple of years and they said you can do that, now do this. And it was sort of related to my SME area but not completely. So I did that, they said okay, that was good, now do this for us. And that had nothing to do with my SME work.
Gardner: Right. So that’s a big system using you for its own purposes, seeing that you can adapt.
Gottlieb: That’s one way of looking at it.
Gardner: Let’s say that’s a personality trait: adaptation. How does that relate to what you do with your writing work?
Gottlieb: Because the skills they are calling on are, I think, exactly the same ones that we were talking about as crossing from poetry into business. Being able to see things, systems, people, organizations as a whole and or in detail, make sense of them, take them apart, and separately, being able to communicate or interact in a compelling and decisive way with others. I’m not saying that I’m that good at that, but that’s what —
Gardner: It certainly relates to how, if you think of yourself as a writer, what is your relationship to your society as a writer, what are your responsibilities, responses? You’re responding to things because they’re based on who thinks you’re supposed to do what, and in terms of what you do as a writer, and what your proclivities and tendencies are.
Gottlieb: Okay. So I talk about that in the essay, right? Why do we do this? Do we do it for ourselves? Do we do it for other people? Do we do it to make ourselves feel better? Even though it makes us feel great to do this, is that reason enough to do this? Even though doing this makes us feel more alive than anything else we ever do, is that reason enough to do this?
Gardner: Embedded in that question is, are some of those emotions and thoughts illusory? Which are illusory and how do you puzzle that out? Those are not normally questions that poets in the world that you and I inhabit ask in public. That’s one of the things I think is unique about the essay.
Gottlieb: I draw a line there, and lots of people don’t like where I drew it, and that’s okay, but I draw it saying that I don’t think there is any value in doing this just because it makes us feel good. It doesn’t matter how it makes us feel, even though it makes us feel better than anything else we do can make us feel. It has value only to the extent that is has impact on others. And that’s why I like the word, and I come back to this word in the rest of my life: I use the word “responsibility” all the time. There’s no reason to do this unless we’re doing it for other people. To have some, I’m not sure which or what kind of impact, but have impact on other people. Otherwise it’s just art therapy.
Gardner: To shift topics a little, the impact of environment on you as a developing poet is a big part of “The Empire City.” New York City of the 1970s is almost like the central character.
Gottlieb: There are really three dimensions to the memoir: there’s how Language poetry came together: people, events, interactions. Second, there’s what it was like to become a poet and the process of interacting and starting to get published. The third part that memoir deals with is New York in the ’70s.
This was this amazing, magnificent wreck that was sinking slowly beneath the waves and we were lucky enough to be able to hop on the deck as the water was getting higher and higher to the portholes, and there was an amazing romance in that. The undeniable sensation that this thing was going. This amazing edifice, this incredible construct was in inevitable decline and there was no doubt that it was going downhill fast. We were on board that and at the same time able to be amazed by how incredibly monumental even in its decrepitude it was, how gorgeous at the same time as how dangerous it was.
It was a different city. It was a foreign country. It was going to hell in front of us, but it was amazingly gorgeous while it was doing that. And we lived in these depopulated precincts that were empty at night, that had once been filled with thousands of people shopping and hotels and going to restaurants and gambling halls. Those kinds of things are there now again, thirty years later.
New York was at the bottom of a 100-year trough whose high point was somewhere around World War I, maybe in the 1920s, and it had been going downhill ever since, from the Depression; maybe a rise around World War II and then an accelerating decline through the ’50s and the rise of the suburbs in the ’60s and the ’70s. By the ’70s it was at the bottom of a trough that it hadn’t been in for at least 100 years. On the one hand it enabled us to live in a way that poets can’t now. On the other hand we were living at the edge of a vast precipice and we saw everything tumbling away beneath us.
Gardner: Did that affect you negatively at all?
Gottlieb: No, it was wonderful.
Gardner: I do think this is an important part of the memoir, the nature of New York City, the character of it, the reality of the way in which artists, not just you but a lot of different artists and poets who were adjacent to you, were feeding off of the same economic and cultural realities.
Gottlieb: I think it’s important too. I think it’s, in terms of going back to another topic, it’s going to be the reason many people want to read this book.