Could you provide a brief statement on why (if you do) you think that science/scientific discourse should be incorporated by poets not simply as a source of metaphor but as an independent discipline or set of disciplines? (If you’ve already addressed this in print in some detail, feel free to indicate where that can be found.)
Rae Armantrout: I wouldn’t say that scientific discourse “should be” incorporated into poetry, but, clearly, I think it can be. I tend to incorporate various discourses into my work — anything from popular song lyrics to descriptions of quantum mechanics. I do this as a way of mulling over and interrogating what I hear/read. We all get our view of the world and the universe partly from what we’re told about science. I tend to bring in various things that contribute to the way we construe reality: creation myths, political “news,” and scientific information. (It’s interesting that, even during my adult life, astrophysics and cosmology, in particular, have told us quite a variety of things about the universe. Sometimes their descriptions remind me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. I don’t mean that disrespectfully at all. They change their story as more information or different information becomes available. It’s the people who stick to their story that you have to watch out for.)
I have two answers to the question about metaphor. First, metaphor is “always already” embedded in the language of science. The language of physics, in particular, is math. When a physicist tries to tell us about quantum mechanics, he/she has to use metaphor. What does it mean, for instance, to say that an electron has “spin?” It doesn’t mean that an electron is very like a top. I think one can question the metaphors used by scientists without necessarily doubting that they are describing something real. I think my poems — and here comes a cheesy metaphor — tend to pick at metaphor as one might pick at a scab. Scientific metaphors are certainly fair game. Second, I tend to use metaphor in an unconventional way. My metaphors are seldom proper metaphors at all. I tend to juxtapose two images or two types of discourse and see what sparks fly (metaphor) or what resonance the two parts have between them (metaphor). In a conventional metaphor, there are the “tenor,” i.e. what you’re really talking about and the “vehicle,” i.e. the image or phrase you use to make the tenor more vivid. For instance, when I said that I picked at metaphor as one might pick at a scab, I was really interested in metaphor. The poor scab was a mere vehicle. I wouldn’t use words that way in a poem — or, if I did, it would be deliberately comic. Generally, when I juxtapose two images (discourses, whatever) in a poem, I’m equally interested in both of them; both sides of the metaphorical equation are real for me.
Joan Retallack: Why would one seek poetries that activate permeable borders across disciplines, genres, concepts, and vocabularies of many kinds, including (and of first consideration for our forum) those from sciences, geometries, and other forms of mathematics? I think of the fact that we increasingly know how limited our sensory and cognitive apparatus is. Our species lives on a planet surrounded by other animals that can sense many things we can’t. To go about in this world partly blind, deaf, insensate in innumerable ways to — in all probability — most of what exists in space-time is part of the condition of being human.
Through ingenious artifice, built into procedural methods and technologies (including inventions of specialized vocabularies), our species has been able to extend awareness in extraordinary and surprising ways. I’ll not broach questions of epistemology, e.g., what exactly do we know when we think we know things via experimental and theoretical sciences or math? Whatever the matches (or lack thereof) among our ontologies and epistemologies, the incorporation of science and mathematics into contemporary poetics results in a kind of pop-up dimensionality that I find both essential and delightful. (The same is true, of course, when one draws from other kinds of disciplines — e.g., spiritual, philosophical, historical, and those connected with the other arts.)
When I try to get some perspective on how I’ve used science and math in my work, there seem, so far, to be three main approaches which I’ll briefly comment on.
1. Ecological. This has to do with the sense of one’s embeddedness (in full cognizance of reciprocal alterity) with all those “others” in conditions — global and eco-niched — subject to the same laws of nature, sharing the same pattern-bounded indeterminacy along with trees, streams, oceans, coral, clouds, dolphins, beetles … This means that we are equally subject to chaotic (in the technical sense developed by the sciences of complexity) dynamic equilibria of order and disorder where human agency is a particularly delicate matter. This has led me to think in terms of “poethical wagers” and also to attempt composing language in such a way that I am literally collaborating with principles of chance/order in various degrees of patterning and local unpredictability. I think of the poetry in which I’ve done this as loosely analogous to models of chaos developed by Edward Lorenz, Benoit Mandelbrot, et al. I’m using “analogy” as it is deployed in biology — where “analogous” structures may manifest out of very different evolutionary processes of natural selection (e.g. wings of insects v. wings of birds). Examples of this “ecological” approach are my poem “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE,” and my “Afterrimages” series in which I used procedural operations to transmute language above a visibility line into chance determined fragments below.
The concept of ecopoetics (as playing out in Jonathan Skinner’s journal of that name and elsewhere) has been enormously important in its implicit invitation to experiment with a poetics that acknowledges and enacts ecological embeddedness and its attendant vulnerabilities.
2. Geometries of attention. Every form of geometry — Euclidean, Archimedean Mechanics, Topological, Fractal, etc. draws attention to spatial relations of figures which may be conceptual idealizations, or configurations that actually occur in nature, e.g., “the fractal geometry of nature,” or that address new possibilities among cosmological realities as in the geometries of string theory. I’ve been interested in all of the above but, for our purposes, submitted my poem “Archimedes’ New Light: Geometries of Excitable Species” because it’s language is working through the intimacy (spatial and emotional relations) of bodies caught in schemata of love and war. I happen to find the language of Archimedes — who designed war machines — quite erotic in its attention to intersections of bodies. The war machines conceived by Archimedes did of course observe all the “abstract” principles articulated in his geometry with of course the real consequences all abstractions (counter to their popular reputation) engender. To me, this language becomes more and more imbued with a very strange (perhaps even perverse) emotionality as it becomes its own QED for the fate of the body, for instance: “the.body.inscribed.in.the.cylinder.”
Because I wanted to bring the eros (music) I experienced in this language (even in translation) into the foreground, I used the medieval practice of separating words with puncta, in order to invoke manuscripts used by choirs singing Gregorian Chants; a form in which terror can turn to ecstasy and vice versa. The language of Archimedes, the geometry of war machines, is very beautiful when sung. The poem could be performed as an oratorio.
3. Numbers: numerical mysticism, numerology, mathematical puzzles, enumeration, etc. Moving outside the scope of words (thinking right now about the question posed by Gilbert: Do you find that words are sufficient for the poetic response/input?) I’ve wanted to explore beyond the vanishing points of language — visual graphics, certainly, but also numbers. The presence of numbers can open up a kind of wormhole to other dimensions. With this in mind, I’ve at times played with words metamorphosing into numbers or algebraic functions. The numbers in “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE,” on the other hand, are there to count and recount the temporal inexorability of unchecked viral infection. Recently numbers come into short poetic proses that are part of a series I’m calling “The Bosch Notebooks.” I’ve included two of these pieces for our collection, “The Magic Rule of Nine” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma.”
The Magic Rule of Nine
Your sonic suit may not be a perfect fit. You’ll learn to
get by. Just don’t assume that all art is all about victory
over death all the time. Not to say one shouldn’t enjoy
not being dead. In the swell of many a meantime,
many have been known to divert themselves with great
success viz. civilizations’ greatest hits. Take the
discovery of “The Magic Rule of Nine.” That the
sums of all the numbers within the sums of all the
multiplicands of 9 up to and including 9 equal 9 is
numerically melodious (bird singing in tree) to the
species that longs for more to it than a first glance
affords. Someone will say if you really think this is
magic you don’t properly understand the decimal
system (bird falls out of tree). Who among us doesn’t
long for magic. Who among us understands the
The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma
Birdsong entered our words and left with migratory
echoes insufficiently dispersed. We weren’t designed
to perceive most of what surrounds us or to fully
understand the rest. Maybe it’s true that differential
equations drove the teenager off the road. The self-
propagating slope remains unhindered in its x-y axis.
It’s really difficult to find the language to say these
things rigorously. Sound waves break on the shore and
make one feel unwelcome. And too, there’s that
conspicuous absence of real metaphors in nature.
Sorry, meant to say, there’s that conspicuous absence
of real nature in metaphors. Someone will always
claim night flew into a tree. The placement of (those)
words in a line.
James Harvey: There’s a poem on the underground in London at the moment “Proud Songsters” by Thomas Hardy, which begins “The thrushes sing as the sun is going / And the finches whistle in ones and pairs …” etc., and ends “Which a year ago, or less than twain, / No finches were, nor nightingales, / Nor thrushes, But only particles of grain, / And earth, and air, and rain.”
This poem for me illustrates the power of science in poetry to dismantle existing structures, and then put them back together again, build them up ‘mechanically’ while at the same time each level of complexity is acted upon equally through ‘the forces of nature,’ questioning the integrity of the structure. At the same time ‘time’ can be played with. In the poem here, the “particles of grain” etc. are what are making the singing birds.
Science offers many opportunities of strangeness in scale and time before resorting to the peculiarities of quantum mechanics. Following on from time, science offers an opportunity of moving the ingredients of a poem around in a space in interesting ways. Eric Mottram in Towards Design in Poetry wrote “Certainly, most concrete poetry abjures the grip of sentence as a main basis of design, and design is a term which art and science have in common.” At first recourse, the two concrete poems that always spring to mind are Christian Morgenstern’s “Fish’s Night Song” and Apollinaire’s “The Little Car.” With freedom of movement, scientific equations when placed inside poems can be a set of instructions and at the same time material that is instructed by that very equation. In the real world this could bring about emergent properties. In a poem, self reference can make a concrete poem, as in the two concrete poems above.
Evelyn Reilly: For me, it’s not so much a matter of “using” or “incorporating” science as having a way of thinking/using language that is formed by science — for example by a sense of perspective that comes from thinking of humans within the context of cosmological space or geological time. I once thought I was going to be a research biologist and in some ways the older I get and the more that planetary disaster parallels my life span, the less distinction I see between biology and poetry, or biology and anything for that matter. I think of the relationship between science and poetry more as a necessary merging of ways of connecting to the world than something so specific (or general) as a source for metaphor. Sometimes I like to merge language drawn from different cultural sources just to see what happens. Lately I’ve been interested in mixing cliches about “identity” with language drawn from genetics and molecular biology in an effort to write a new kind of “personal poetry,” but you could invert this idea and say it’s an effort to find a different kind of “genetic language” as well. Generally I just find it very pleasurable to introduce specialized vocabularies into writing as a means to escape the “poetic,” by which I mean escape my own habits regarding what is means to write “poetry.” Scientific vocabularies, applied science lingos, anything like that helps me get of my rut and makes me more excited about language again. But this applies equally to other vocabularies such as legal vocabularies, architectural and design language, almost anything. For a while I had on my desk an article pointed out to me by Laura Elrick called “The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity.” Just glancing at the first page, not even really reading it, made me overexcited in the same way that a poem by Emily Dickinson can. I keep meaning to read this article, but am almost afraid of its potency.
Amy Catanzano: Hello everyone: I recently read Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy (1958), where he acknowledges that quantum theory doesn’t have an adequate language beyond mathematics to describe it. He then immediately quotes from Goethe’s Faust, where Mephistopheles says that while formal education instructs that logic braces the mind “in Spanish boots so tightly laced,” and that even spontaneous acts require a sequential process (“one, two, three!”), in truth, “the subtle web of thought / Is like the weaver’s fabric wrought, / One treadle moves a thousand lines, / Swift dart the shuttles to and fro, / Unseen the threads unnumber’d flow, / A thousand knots one stroke combines.” Heisenberg is arguing, of course, that science must be as attentive to imagination as to logic, but he also seems to be suggesting something extraordinary: that novel sciences must have novel languages beyond mathematics that can be used to describe them. To my mind, art/poetry have the ability to not only describe novel theories and expressions of physical reality but invent them as well. Since the primary concern in theoretical physics today is reconciling quantum mechanics with relativity through proposals such as string theory, aspects of which are being tested by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, I tend to think of poetry as an experiment in physics (the study of physical reality), and experimental physics as a field test for poetry. But that might be my romanticism coming through. Regarding Rae’s comment that she knows of no one who is both a physicist and a poet: I only know of one person who is concurrently practicing poetry and applied science; it looks like he’s been invited to this discussion, so maybe at some point we’ll hear more about how these disciplines get redefined when simultaneously shot through the high-energy particle accelerator …
Catanzano [in response to Rae] [click images to enlarge]:
Peter Middleton: A belated hello. I’ve found the discussion fascinating and would have joined in sooner if I could. What has made it all the more engrossing is that I’m writing a book on American science and poetry since 1945, and taking a long time over it. My ignorance grows and grows the more I read about it. Although the book is still going slowly, several articles have emerged from my early attempts to summarise things. Here is an extract from an essay called “Strips: Scientific Language in Poetry” that appeared in the December 2009 issue of Textual Practice 23, no. 6 (pages 947–958), an essay which explores some of the issues that have been raised here. This is a collage of passages.
You are reading a poem and there it is, a torn strip of language peeling at one edge stuck on the surface of the poem like imitation wood paper in a Cubist painting. Seen from one inner perspective it merges with the aesthetic medium; from another it breaks out at right angles to the plane of the art. Once you start looking it is not difficult to find these strips of scientific language in the work of a number of poets. They radiate intransigence from many poems that J. H. Prynne published in the middle seventies, such as these four lines from “Pigment Depôt” in Wound Response: “We apply for rebate on the form provided / injected with vanillic acid diethylamide / our displacement is fused / by parody.” And here is a large strip in “Again in the Black Cloud”: “Damage makes perfect: / ‘reduced cerebral blood flow and oxygen utilisation / are manifested by an increase in slow frequency waves, / a decrease in alpha-wave activity, an increase in / beta-waves, the appearance of paroxysmal potentials.’” Mei-mei Berssenbrugge has increasingly written biologicals into her poems as in these three lines from the book Endocrinology: “What is physical light inside the body / A white cloth in a gold and marble tomb, to focus the expression of the tomb. / Shortly after phagocytosing material, leucocytes increase their oxygen consumption and chemically produce light.” Poets flypost the walls of poetry, moving from Cybernetics to particle physics, then recombinant DNA cloning and the autogenetic neologising of molecular biology: the call to the public goes on.
The articles and textbooks from where these strips have been torn are not usually identified, the source is not the point, the reliability is not the point, you either know or you don’t, and the poet isn’t teaching biochemistry for experimental victims. Scientific knowledge is always changing, constantly revised by new research, new experiments and new models of material reality. The plum pudding model of the atom gives way to the planetary model and that eventually disperses into even less easily visualised models of indeterminate energy states, decoherence and quarks for what William Burroughs would probably call the ‘marks.’ Genetic material turns out not to be made of proteins after all. Safe materials, mercury, asbestos, become homicidal.
We might have expected much more reference to science and technology than we actually find in poetry. Our bodies are reshaped by medical and recreational drugs, by innumerable pollutants in the manufactured substances around us and in the air, water and food we eat, food that had already been genetically modified by intensive breeding long before however careful we are as consumers. Our five senses upgrade to new processors and polyamides, boosted by increased electron flow. If we believe that social being precedes individual consciousness, then we must acknowledge that our senses of self are increasingly modified by the communication technologies we use to sustain our relations in work and in our personal lives. Surely this flowering of science and technology ought to be fully acknowledged in poetry. More amino acids, more fundamental particles, more language, alphabets of new objects and processes that continue to appear in our world like litter from an advanced civilization: Abaxial, Beringia, Contig, Deskewed, Epitopes, Ferrodoxin, Glycosylation, Homeotic, Inter-genome, Jejunum, Kinesin, Lensing, Metabolome, Nucleotide, Orthologue, Palaeointensity, Quantumteleportation, Remanence, Subtelomeric, Transposon, Urease, Vanilloid, Wnt, Younger Dryas, Zeolite.
The science strip worn by the poem is more disruptive of its workings than many other types of citation: popular culture, our dear departed literary lions, the landscapes of moor and peak, friends and names that drop with a splash of celebrity. The truth status of these scientific terms, facts, and knowledges is itself a complex production controlled by the institutions of science, and unpredictably changes depending on where (and when) it is situated. Its authoritative presentation requires for its warranted presentation a bona-fide scientist who is recognised by peers to have the understanding to affirm one of these facts. By the time that a poet cites such material it has been largely disconnected from the networks of legitimation on which the distributed production of knowledge in science depends. The strip of science language is inert and its significance attenuated. This attenuation results from the rapid half-life of scientific documents and the knowledge they present, or as scientists say, the citation lifetime of most natural science publication is brief, because scientific fact is always changing, and this means that almost any allusion to scientific knowledge is likely to be out of date within a few years. The strip in the poem may look much more faded than the rest of the language around it, like yellowing newspaper consumed by its acids that has been pasted onto a canvas that continues to be milky with white primer.
Marcella Durand: This discussion of the inarticulation of science, and of poetry, strikes at some certain core of the disjunct between the two fields, with that inarticulation extending beyond language to how exterior world is apprehended or not via all senses (thinking of, again, Mordecai-Mark Mac Low talking about how streams of outer-space mathematical data is best understood visually). So in that inarticulation, how does form begin? For me, the form of a scientifically based poem (and I agree with Peter that all of my poems are based in science, or ARE science, b/c, right, how can you extract yourself from that sea of science/technology/communication?) is a struggle — how do you find the shape about which is the poem within which is the science? I thought of this reading Amy’s poem, because she’s doing some radical reshaping to accommodate the “subject” of her poem (And Amy, could you maybe talk about that a bit more?), for instance, incorporating timelines as a way to convey (as in conveyor belt?) words along in non-linear progression (thus form works reverse to content, reminding me of Francis Ponge’s — hi Tina! — bird flying counter to the direction of the line).
So thinking about form, and speaking of writing upon a subject of which one knows nothing, I was commissioned to write a poem in honor of L. L. Langstroth, “the Father of American Bee-Keeping,” who invented a hive with movable frames and who discovered “bee space.” I’d thus judge this poem have a scientific base, even though nineteenth century so, and maybe more industrial, but have been having trouble with the inarticulation falling between form and intent. So far, I’ve got an acrostic form, following LLLANGSTROTH, which has twelve letters, divided into couplets, to reflect the six-sided cells of bee combs, with a rhyme scheme going ab/cd/dc/ba/ab/cd. (I added the rhyme scheme b/c the poem is going to be read aloud, not by me, to all sorts of agricultural folks, including the Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture, so I wanted some sort of sonic doorway.) So, in a forced, awkward, public way, it’s going to be a confluence between poet/scientist or at least agriculturalist. I began writing directly about bees, but then suspected the bee-savvy audience would immediately find mistakes in my bee-knowledge (which is basically that they sting and make honey), so now I’ve veered off into the more comfortable territory of using language as a sort of investigative tool into this unknown pool of knowledge. Anyway, I’ll post it when it’s done, but here’s another poem about bugs, where I think content affected form (and I also got critiqued by an apparent “expert” for not pronouncing the Latin correctly during a reading):
“on a distant mesa, surrounded by desert”
walking stick and enclosed in amber mecoptera on isolated
mesa surrounded by desert phthiraptera barren what does it
live on small armored dermaptera half one thing and half
another orthoptera external hard encased siphonaptera listening
what distance stripped strepsiptera one wondering what it or
it could be one heteroptera wingless and vicious sweet mantodea
no name for one’s own listening neuroptera if each was
discovered a radio’s long wave lepidoptera the beetles and
the termites biting embioptera such visibility no major sources
of light pollution urban just eroded spire psire eir raphidioptera no
food source and no water ancient pine trees and resin rock slick
psocoptera found within itself others a ravishing trichoptera thrips
and book lice coleoptera small clouds and visible evaporation scent
megaloptera faults folded thrust ersion rosion sliding isoptera
dobsonflies and webspinners phasmatodea not one name and another
ephemeroptera dust devils invasive shrubs miles such armor homoptera
and what is one and another in mesa in mineral odonata silverfish and
jumping bristletails most are plant-eating hymenoptera inside one self
eroding salt intrusions slow flexing blattodea landscape one and visibility
another rock one you and not what one is, armored thysanoptera within
one self another you and rock in mesa surrounded no pollution ution
lusion pol polis plecoptera stoneflies, webspinners and mantids,
earwigs, angel wings, cicadas blattodea when one thinking they were
gone and in amber discovered one zoraptera the gladiator, armored
one who eats others, a carnivore, predator grylloblattodea but without
bt wtht to one without wtht a name no name unnamed diptera only
the name of others inside one armored the predator others zygentoma
archeaognatha on such mesa surrounded by miles long wave radios
listening for pollution, plltn, erosion, rsn, elision, pollus, erode, the
bug listening there on top of the mesa, encased and armored the exo-
skeleton, the fossil, ecout rsion, sliding the name the names
of others inside one and does it live the mantis-walkingstick
grasshopper predator, carnivore, waiting and ravishment such bare
sand, rock, slick, the mantosphasmatodea, gladiator, armored, going in.
Retallack: Dear Q-1ers,
Here is a second post stimulated by just having read all of yours.
Poetries in their many forms and hybridities, sciences in their many forms and hybridities are most importantly for me means of exploring the worlds in which I/we live. I come to an interest in science in two main ways: through being exposed to my electrical engineer father’s experiments and inventions (which I took — and still do — as a form of play) as a young child; and later, through my interest in philosophy of language, ethics, and science — all of which became interrelated in my explorations. Since I’ve been particularly interested in investigating otherness and the possibilities of being human in the state of grace I like to think of as “reciprocal alterity,” I think methods and models of science — along with the kinds of thought experiments beloved by philosophers — have informed a lot of my work as a poet. Maybe they are imaginative prosthetics of some sort (and in that way akin to metaphor) reaching toward alterity. Poetry, more than the sciences, allows for questions involving the positioning of human subjectivities to be an intimate part of all this. And so it all circles round to the primacy of the kinds of things one is trying to explore by means of language, but I don’t think it (the relation of science to poetry) all resolves into questions of vocabularies or discourses alone.
I think a lot has been said already about the way the scientific entries and interventions that are labeled metaphors (and Rae is right: all lang. including scientific is importantly metaphorical, in part) have been part of poetry for millennia. I don’t think it’s a problem at all that scientific findings (and thus the language in which they are framed) are constantly changing. The larger paradigms (conceptual frameworks) within which scientists work actually change relatively infrequently. (a tidily mechanistic world view was only supplanted by the very messy 2nd law of thermodynamics (entropy, etc.) in the nineteenth century; simplicity and elegance, by complexity and chaos in the twentieth century; Newtonian physics by relativity, quantum dynamics, incompleteness and uncertainty principles likewise in the twentieth. And any historian of science will tell you that all those “supplanted” paradigms are still in use in specifically designated ways as is Euclidean geometry. Still, in the purview of what shows up in the New York Times science section, what does or doesn’t count as a legitimate contribution to a given paradigm is subject to rapid changes and reversal. Not, however, the criteria by which the nature of the questions and what counts as evidence is determined.
The real question is — to put it crudely — So what if it turns out in the new cosmological physics that there really aren’t any black holes, leaving all those thousands (millions?) of poems with their black hole metaphors embarrassingly intact. Is this decade’s science true? … false? for a while, for all time? Is that really the key question? Universal and eternal truth value certainly isn’t. But the poethical question of what kinds of knowledge and understanding are necessary for the poet who feels a need to be an inquisitive, responsible part of her/his contemporary moment is key. Gertrude Stein — who was certainly interested in and influenced by the scientific developments of her era (at least as reported in the Herald Tribune) said that it’s the business of artists to be part of their contemporary world. If one agrees with this, as I do, it’s hard to imagine science in some form or another not informing what one is doing as a poet. The big question is of course the one that Rae, James, Evelyn, Peter, and Marcella have been addressing, How?
I’ll sketch some thoughts on that in another post. For now, I just want to say that what interests me in the way of a challenge even more than vocabularies, references, allusions, etc. (all of which can bring fascinating dimensions and perspectives to the poetics of a text) is how texts can literally (lettristically, for instance) enact the dynamic principles that a scientific model has been developed to understand. E.g., enacting rather than referring to our latest (scientific) definition of chaos — modeled as “pattern bounded indeterminacy.” Enactment means that the “dynamic of order and disorder” is actually happening in the language of the poem, is a moving principle. This can be on a lettristic, phonemic, syntactic, grammatical level, not merely a matter of bringing in some technical terms. I think some of Stein’s texts — in their syntactical dynamics — work this way and I’ve written about that, particularly in the essays on Stein in my book, The Poetical Wager. (I can post an excerpt, once I figure out how to do that!)
I think Amy’s “Borealis Time Signatures” may be working with the dynamics of scientific modeling rather than reference alone. I hope she’ll/you’ll say something about how you composed this work. (And, Marcella, I’m curious how you composed your poem as well.) There are many (though not enough perhaps) examples of this dynamical, literal incorporation of scientific understanding into textual composition that — insofar as it is a poetics of exploration — is taking that understanding into the realm of questions of subjectivities. (A few poets who come immediately to mind in relation to this kind of work are Tina, of course, Juliana Spahr, Jena Osman, and John Cayley with his digital poetics. But, this is not about creating word robots. (Though that could be an investigation of the “post human.”) It, again, always has to do with subjectivities gathered and dispersed among the complexities of our contemporary (further complication of history). I will attempt to post my lettristic infection, A I D /I/ S A P P E A R A N C E as an example of something I’ve done that sets viral dynamics in motion in the functioning alphabet of the poem.
Gilbert Adair: Marcella, the reading of this must’ve been a tour de force, the pronunciation carper notwithstanding. (As a final effort to get a mathematician to appreciate literature, a friend once convinced him to read merely the whole of Crime and Punishment. “So, what did you think?” “Well, in one passage Raskolnikov leaves the house at 8 pm and returns at 6 pm the same evening.” “Hmm — but apart from that?” “There was more?”)
Anyway, given that my interest in all this began in the question of whether or not one shld look up the meanings of scientific terms, my initial response to your piece was that here at least that wld be superfluous: it’s already doing a marvelous job of conveying the unimaginable profusion of insect life; we have only to sit back and be stunned — and enjoy, in my opinion, some very nice comedic effects: the siphonaptera are probably squirting soda into whiskies, the neuroptera are obviously highly strung, the homoptera are gay, etc. (Something like Rae’s recent and wonderful remark [in “Zukofsky”] re quantum physics, transferred to mini-life on earth: “We … come prepared for the bizarre. We’re pre-defeated and ready to enjoy our quandary. Maybe we’re too ready to embrace what we don’t get as some version of ‘mystery.’”) But then I thot, well, why not give it a try? And the poem at once became much more participatory.
There follows a version of the definitions, using dictionary.com and other web resources. I should note that the printing of the poem in Area (2008) italicizes the technical terms; the printing here [i.e. on the Google Group website] doesn’t because the site doesn’t allow it; but this I’m inclined to prefer.
||an order of carnivorous insects usually with long membranous wings and long beaklike heads with chewing mouths at the tip.|
||wingless external parasites of birds and mammals, divided by some into biting lice (Mallophaga) and sucking lice (Anoplura).|
|Dermaptera:||earwigs and a few related forms.|
||small insects with rudimentary anterior, and large and membranous posterior wings; parasitic in the larval state on bees, wasps, and the like. Also called Rhipiptera.|
||or mantises (talking of Zukofsky); an order of insects that contains approximately 2,200 species in nine families worldwide in temperate and tropical habitats.|
||an order of insects having two pairs of large, membranous, net-veined wings. They feed upon other insects, and undergo a complete metamorphosis into, e.g., the ant-lion (hellgamite) and lacewing fly (told you: highly strung).|
||“insects with four scaly wings,” the classification that includes butterflies, moths, and skippers, coined 1735 by Linnaeus from Gk. lepis “(fish) scale” (related to lepein “to peel”) + pteron “wing, feather”; in the larval state, caterpillars.|
||lit. “lively wings,” a name that has not been considered particularly descriptive for the group. The common name “webspinner” comes from the insects’ ability to spin silk from structures on their front legs, which they use to make a web-like pouch or gallery in which they live.|
||a.k.a. snakeflies, consisting of about 210 extant species. Together with the Megaloptera they were formerly placed within the Neuroptera. Predatory both as adults and larvae, they can be quite common throughout temperate Europe and Asia, but in North America occur exclusively in the Rocky Mountains and westward, including the southwestern deserts.|
||includes booklice and bark-lice.|
|Trichoptera:||or caddisfly; a variety of small, freshwater insects having two pairs of wings covered with hairs, and often hair on the head and thorax.|
||“sheath-winged”; the term used by Aristotle in describing beetles.|
|Megaloptera:||alderflies; dobsonflies; snake flies. They dream of world domination. Sorry, I’m getting giddy here.|
|Isoptera:||lit. “same-winged”; the group of *eusocial insects commonly known as termites. *used for the highest level of social organization in a hierarchical classification.|
||stick insects; leaf insects (sometimes considered a suborder of Orthoptera).|
||mayflies; see David Ives’s short cutesy play, Time Flies.|
||a large suborder of Hemiptera comprising cicadas, lantern flies, leafhoppers, spittlebugs, treehoppers, aphids, psyllas, whiteflies, and scale insects which have a small prothorax and sucking mouthparts in a jointed beak, and undergo (unlike heteroptera) incomplete metamorphosis.|
||dragonflies and damselflies.|
||the order of insects that includes ants, wasps, bees, ichneumon flies, sawflies, gall wasps, and related forms, that often associate in large colonies with complex social organization, and have usually four membranous (“hymen” as we all know=membrane) wings and the abdomen borne on a slender pedicel (ultimate division of a common peduncle).|
||cockroaches; in some classifications considered an order.|
||the thrips (thysan: tassel or fringe).|
||stoneflies (think helicopters).|
||an order containing a single family, the Zorotypidae, which in turn contains one extant genus (Zorotypus) with 34 species, as well as 9 extinct species.|
||insects combining “gryll” (cricket)- and “blatta” (cockroach)-like traits; with only 25 species described worldwide, the second smallest order of insects.|
||“two-winged”; a large order of insects (housefly, tsetse fly, sandfly, mosquitoes, midges, and gnats) that have the anterior wings usually functional and the posterior wings reduced to small club-shaped structures functioning as sensory flight stabilizers; and a segmented larva often without a head.|
||did not match with any Web results.|
||an order of insect identified in 2002 in a 45-million-year-old piece of amber from the Baltic region.|
Archimedes’ New Light
Geometries of Excitable Species
Mortals are immortals and immortals mortals; the one
living the other’s death and dying the other’s life.
bodies cleave space of all the triangles in the prism :
one glimpse of cornered sky in all the triangles in the sphere :
fleeing over cardboard mountain with all the segments in the parabola :
grey morning blank aluminum all the parabolas in the sphere :
their own cold love song breached all the circles of the sphere :
abrupt start of rain all the vertices of the prism :
Reason is a daemon in its own right.
another song whose bird I do not know
around them in us we were very they
what comes to mind in this five second cove
lacking usage equal to the noun she chose
all different before he heft laughed defiled gravity lost again
interior angles exposed collapsed into each each
the terrible demonstration of fluid dynamics beginning again
areas of distortion the burning vector fields
more mathematics of the unexpected:
the total curvature of all spheres
is exactly the same regardless of radius
Lacking experience equal to the adjective she chose
scratch abstract sky shape
hoping for more
struggle to flee her altered nativity
repeat story of stilt accident
no the drama has not abated
exhausted boy soldier reads book numb
rag head taken by stiff light
fig one triumph of the we’re
empty listen ridge cold whistle
unison whipped wide awake
box of spook salt
not a coast but a horizon not a coast
blank seas soak grain senses demented
sense of thigh once now not yet juked
may deter may bruise
bequeath before death
green countdown bluebook
she said now that she thought about it
she thought it must have had something
to do with that feeling of self possession in
the moment after the apostrophe took hold
a stock image
a rhetorical device
a dubious gesture
an obsolete hope
quadrant spoke motion
a prod to come to life
meddlesome meaning meaning tangent
sordid alignment of slippery parts
please hold that place stretch the we
jelly throat made good hold that note
no such five illusions
no vowel exit mutters fruit
my no flute war
torque valley breath
gun cold air cont’d
night barks windows blank
grey morning’s blank aluminum
its own long cold burst that kills
a look cornered sky
geometry of the tragic spectrum
eye caught in grid
this thought empties itself in false déjà vu
the echo seen but not heard
the absence of x had been distracting all along
Rationalism born of terror turns to ecstasy
Note: This poem includes language from Geometrical Solutions Derived From Mechanics: A Treatise of Archimedes, Recently Discovered And Translated From The Greek By Dr. J. L. Heiberg, Professor of Classical Philology At The University of Copenhagen. La Salle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1942 (Copyright 1909).
Aurora Borealis as seen from the International Space Station, 2005 (image courtesy of NASA).
Catanzano: I began my borealis project by gathering books from my library, focusing exclusively on those that had profound impacts on me and letting go of those I felt I should be including for xyz or which were close but no cigar. That alone was a significant exercise, because it made me examine what I was using for criteria. I was pleased that I had twenty-three books by the time I was done, as that is a useful number for me in my numerology pantheon that sometimes rears its mane in my poetry.
Then I created the cipher for the borealis, the twenty-three writers, by selecting a word that emblematically represented that writer in my imagination. There is also the tesseract, which developed because I felt one writer needed a concept rather than a word. I ordered the borealis in a linear, Newtonian manner, so that the first ciphered writer is the first writer that captured my imagination, and the last ciphered writer is the most recent writer that captured me, though that writer lived in the nineteenth century. But I only recently felt captured by her. In the two relativity time signatures (special and general) that I included in my selection, I placed the ciphered writer after each word that related best to that writer in my imagination.
This was the experiment in those time signatures: how does Alfred Jarry and my cipher of him, “present” (as in his “imaginary present,” which I see as playing on a seesaw with Stein’s “continuous present”), relate to the time signatures, which are exploring special relativity and general relativity? I placed him next to the word, “time,” because his phrase “the imaginary present” comes from his essay “How to Build a Time Machine.” I’ve always thought of poems as time machines and his writing in particular as redefining time. Jarry is also “deciphered” in my sidereal time signature, since he is like a distant star for me, the space in spacetime. That depiction of Jarry becomes the “constant” in which the rest of the borealis — “the observers” in the relativity thought experiments — are either moving from or toward, depending on whether it’s special relativity or general relativity. In my planck time signature, not included in the selection I shared, I decipher Walt Whitman by creating a fractal pattern with his name that I generated by just copying and pasting his name on a page to create an image … a simple process that made an interesting pattern, one that happens to have the words “hi” and “Walt” center stage. I ended up loving that, because it looks like the poem is saying hi to Walt Whitman, so it’s a little funny and slightly sentient. I also made a Newtonian timeline that had phrases from my borealis, but since it is easy to decipher, I decided to scrap it and make the algorithmic and hyperdimensional timelines instead, distilling and then rearranging words from the writers.
On a conceptual level I am interested in what Rae said, how my subjective poetic lineage can interact with theories of time and how poems interact with spacetime, on the page, in physical reality, and in consciousness. The final time signature — also not included in the selection I shared — is my deciphered borealis that takes the visual form of a spine. But I want to complicate its deciphering by writing it in invisible ink. I got that idea from the person I am seeing who wrote a book that has a page written in lemon juice, which is a natural invisible ink. He handmade each book, so maybe I’ll have to do that, too. But this borealis project is just a twenty-page section within a manuscript of other projects, so I don’t know how feasible it would be to make the whole thing myself. I’m trying not to worry about production as I don’t want to self-censor myself just because there might be challenges. I also plan on having a statement about the idea and composition of the project in the book, as I feel the concept, process and procedure are as important and maybe more important than the poems, or at least indistinguishable. I could use this convoluted explanation as a starting point! Anyway, I don’t mean to be so self-centered here. I’m looking forward to responding to the ideas everyone is bringing up. But since Marcella and Joan asked me about my project’s form and composition, I used this response as an opportunity to think through it more. So thanks!
Gilbert [to Joan]:
“Archimedes’ New Light”
He is unworthy of the name of man who is ignorant of the fact that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with its side.
A prism, that in optics means a transparent solid, often with triangular bases, used to disperse light into a spectrum, means in Euclid (midway in time between Plato & Archimedes) “a solid having bases or ends that are parallel, congruent polygons and sides that are parallelograms” (dictionary.com). Parallelograms have 4 sides, polygons indeterminately more than 2; a prism is therefore a mix of the symmetrical & asymmetrical — as are most strikingly both the visual design of your poem’s p 3 and its last line, “green countdown bluebook,” where color calls to color bracketing “countdown” but “countdown” at the same time takes its compound-word place with “bluebook,” & the nicely intricate patterning seems to make meaning imminent —
Which is perhaps where to note that the poem’s p 2, beginning “another song whose bird I do not know / .the.center.of.gravity.of.the.two.circles.combined.,” has caused me an interesting disquiet. All its lines are of normative syntax, but unpunctuated lines pretty much (but not entirely) alternate w/ ones every one of whose words is hedged by periods. This sets up a music so jangled & insistent, with possible irregular variations, as to overwhelm incipient comprehension of what waves to us in passing as being of definite & underwritten meaning, bye! Now that is hardly uncommon in the experience of linguistically innovative poetry. But here the anxiety niggled. How might this relate to what has haunted me since early in this project, John’s proposition (see “Science-Informed Readings”) that the identity scientific discourse is generally assumed to claim to share with objective reality, & the consequent authority of pretended affectlessness, “implies a powerful system of affect.” To say that this affect wld broadly differ depending on whether you are w/in or w/out a scientific discipline is to risk proposing a “2-cultures” scenario. But I want to know where we can here go with it —
In Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, a 1983 translation of writings by Michel Serres, a number of pieces address the origin of geometry, given as the passage “from one language to another, from one type of writing to another, from the language reputed to be natural and its alphabetic notation to the rigorous and systematic language of numbers, measures, axioms, and formal arguments” (125). In fact, philosophy & mathematics share the requirement to exclude noise, which already gives them some common ground. Something else in common: both evoke & perform operations on abstract forms thro’ symbols whose accidental variations of graphology, of expression, etc., can largely be dismissed. The elimination or disregard of noise is thus “the condition of the apprehension of the abstract form” (68). Here then is a 1st accounting for my reaction to p 2: its jangled & insistent music threatens to drown out, makes no more than disquietingly noticeable, multiple verbal signs of abstract mathematical rigor — precisely that which by its very definition shouldn’t admit such distraction.
Equipped with that, I return to your poem. Already it was clear that it sets in interplay the abstract & the sensual, the transient & the eternal. The page design, & not inappropriately, evokes Williams’s Kora, Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley / Explanatory Notes,” & your own Afterrimages: fact & comment, substance & gloss, extension & condensation, syntactic-semantic clashes if not opacities & some promised/teasing illumination — hang on, I’m replacing present instance by past models; the former multi-replicates the dualism it designedly largely models (with variations) page by page, in each page’s dualism’s units. I seem to get as plausible “all the parabolas in the sphere” (from p 1) until I get to “all the circles of the sphere.” Could those even be counted? & hang on again: what is a circle’s “center of gravity” (p 2) anyway? Or: before I can notice these lines in this way, I have to have (re)learned from Serres that the origin of geometry in Greece had much to do with a famous crisis in mathematics caused by the advent of irrational numbers (“relearned”? — I had totally forgotten). An irrational number is one that within the given system, can’t be stabilized, whether because its position in a problem makes possible two incommensurable values for it, or because, like pi, it can’t stop proliferating. But where in arithmetic pi is a conceptual threat, in geometry it is a condition of being. The crisis of Pythagorean arithmetic (the beans having been spilled, according to Euclid, by one Theaetetus) was solved by the geometrical theorem ascribed to Pythagoras, working happily with irrational numbers. The cover-up, the durable triumph of (eventually) Euclidean geometry, requires a sacrifice or assassinations.
Seriously now back to your poem & its interplay of the abstract (rational abstract & irrational abstract) & the sensual, where “bodies cleave space of all the triangles in the prism” & the poem becomes a model of the human located within a field of abstract, regulatory calculations, trapped & shaped by them, yet there’s no point-for-point touching: crossings indeed from one language to another. The poem’s source text seems to be something else I hadn’t been aware of, a thirteenth-century text known as the Archimedes Palimpsest, 1st translated into English in the early twentieth century & now available online in digital form. Here, among other things, Archimedes apparently reveals his method for calculating unknown areas & volumes by reference to corresponding figures. Now the poem’s p 2 indeed ends with a glimpse of the possibility of measurement of certain figures whose symmetry holds across different scales: “more mathematics of the unexpected: / the total curvature of all spheres / is exactly the same regardless of radius.” Before that, however, the apparently largely dispassionate lines (whether the words are between periods or not) seem to me on rereading to afford another glimpse, here of a suicide: “all different before he heft laughed defiled gravity lost again”; at any rate, once this interpretation takes shape, the remaining lines seem to confirm some kind of defensestration or roof-jump, activating a certain logic of geometric relations in the space of gravity (a very Newtonian death) & entry into “areas of [corporeal?] distortion the burning vector fields.” After that, the poem only grows darker. On the right side of p 3, sets gone wild in terms of what contains what; on the left, lines that are increasingly & tantalizingly emotive: most clearly, the boy soldier is presented as a technologically erased casualty of our collective will (“fig one triumph of the we’re”) in, presumably, Afghanistan (“rag head taken by stiff light”) — in, precisely, a war about which very few of ‘us’ give a fig or find even remotely rational. The last line of p 4, given as the 1st epigraph to this response, precedes the drawn horizontal line, there’s no coda, & not least because of that, makes the page abruptly seem remorseless; “the” is power’s endlessly reiterated decree of its own rationality, say what you or anyone else might: indeed many are killed to sustain a claim to systemic logic in public discourse, & indeed, almost everyone knows better. This effect seems confirmed by p 5, which likewise lacks a coda — an x, even a teasing resolution (as in Williams, Spicer, etc.): “this thought empties itself in false déjà vu / the echo seen but not heard / the absence of an x had been distracting all along.”
The last page brings its title, “Rationalism born of terror turns to ecstasy,” together with the coda from p 1, “Reason is a daemon in its own right”; the cold little poem that goes with this, exclusively focused on geometrical terms & relations, seems now to indict the irrationality raging in a techno-war whose perpetrators feel their own lack of convincing motive or shaping scenario. It’s as if, thro’ your patient formal manipulation of materials that initially don’t seem too promising, the “affect” of purportedly affectless discourse to which John pointed — an affect that I suppose often has much to do with the masochistic pleasures of being excluded by the sternly inhuman but ingeniously & importantly effective — dissolves, just melts away, to reveal something not only routinely invisible but also normally inaccessible thro’ such vocabulary, & for which the poem sits somewhere between synecdoche & analogy: the terrifying non-face of technologically rationalized aggressive operations, in conformity with calculable laws of physics which are obviously of much wider (even universal) application.
Mantophasma zephyra, © 2002 P.E. Bragg.
Durand: Gilbert — I’m floored! And feeling that your effort demands a sort of sequel. The term “eusocial” alone … and Siphonaptera for fleas (applies also to mosquitoes and bedbugs I’d say). So would the Mantophasmatodea then be the smallest order of insect? (After the Grylloblattodea, which I’ll reveal here was my favorite moniker out of an obviously competitive field.) I’m happily perplexed by the Sygentoma Archaeognatha imposter, which seems a little too fantastic for me to have made up. Disturbing as well the “complete metamorphosis” of the heteroptera and the “incomplete metamorphosis” of the homoptera (and are the non heteros then “false” bugs?). Once again, can we call objectivity into question, please? The quote from Rae is very appropriate — I did indeed arrive at this poem pre-defeated and very ready to enjoy the quandary of it. I would say that’s generally *my* state in writing poetry from science.
I do have to also apologize for being offline. I was away for two weeks, and by away, I mean I was away from Internet, TV, and cell phone. I will catch up on all the very meaty responses in the next week. However, while being away, I found a book on the Museum of Jurassic Technology and was wondering what other people’s opinions were on it. I visited fully expecting to love it, but instead was left uneasy at what seemed an uncomfortable art-science relationship/creation, perhaps overly contextual or self-commenting or predigested, so much as not to leave room for much more creative generation? Wonder if this is cautionary?
“Metaphor-Mongers and the Nuclear Snowcone”
On October 20, 1999, then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson proclaimed that 1,000 acres within the Los Alamos National Laboratory would be designated a wildlife preserve, “an able bearer of New Mexico’s legacy of enchantment.” As part of a DOE project designed to give the agency an environmentally friendly image, buffer zones around nuclear sites were promoted for their “biodiversity” rather than for their “nuclear toxicity.” Perhaps Richardson was thinking of Emerson’s “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” when he transformed “pollution” to “preservation.”
the great joy
as a stand-alone
layers to another
or minute circumstance
a word from the proper
taken for a hard
Crackerneck Wildlife Management Area and Ecological Reserve: radioactive alligators and bass
Sagebrush Steppe Ecosystem Reserve: big-eared bats carry radionuclides to nearby territories
Hanford Reach National Monument: Russian thistle flowers break off to become radioactive tumbleweed
Mutations are not metaphors, but they’re very good guides.
“Exposure” now a combination of “undefined dose” and “brought to light.”
Green “pass through” shift Deeper thirled.
Whenever it would snow, my mother would make us snowcones with cherry syrup. It made her happy to take something that was natural and turn it into a treat. Then one snowy day Mom was crying instead of laughing. She’d read an article that said there was nuclear fallout in snow, and children shouldn’t play in it let alone EAT it. She was sure that we were all going to die. But we just became mutants, like everyone else.
metaphor: circulation in the production of norms
mutation: an instance of change
mutation metaphor: circulating change is the norm
I’m a nuclear mutant and I’m proud
to core a metaphoric shroud
revealing who profits from the cloud
over history — let’s sing aloud
“we can’t be owned when we’re the crowd”
On October 20, 1999 …
Joseph Masco, “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico,” Cultural Anthropology 19, no. 4 (November 2004): 517–550. A BIG THANKS to Diane Ward for sending me this article.
metaphor: circulation in the production of norms …
Isabelle Stengers, The Invention of Modern Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
Adair [to Amy]:
It is worth noting that the Machine has two Pasts: the past anterior to our own present, what we might call the real past; and the past created by the Machine when it returns to our Present and which is in effect the reversibility of the Future.
Likewise, since the Machine can reach the real Past only after having passed through the Future, it must go through a point symmetrical to our Present, a dead center between future and past, and which can be designated precisely as the Imaginary Present.
… Without the Machine an observer sees less than half of the true extent of Time, much as men used to regard the Earth as flat. — Jarry, “How to Build a Time Machine” (1899)
A premise of Jarry’s essay is that time is already all there, that it simultaneously & forever flows, & that while we are where we momentarily are in it, it can be visited at any point if we are inside a machine that isolates us from, even as it makes us virtually porous to time’s flow, allowing that “to pass through us without modifying or displacing us.” Comparably the poem in “Files” that constitutes the “Working Notes” for your borealis project seems to me a delightful & tough-minded love poem putting the “jewel” of spatial durability (associated by proximity with an increasingly polarized public domain, “its sides evolv[ing] feral”) in interplay with the “rainbow” of temporal passage — a demand we all at some point make for amorous permanence, in interplay with the experience of love changing in time; while the tesseract, the 4D spacetime cube, is the figure charged with uniting these aspects —
In the poems for your project extracted for this forum, that — as we learn from your supplementary comments — are (otherwise relatively covertly) “heartshaped,” pervaded by affections for a range of writers/works, “jarry” is the only name appearing in the text (three times), in a spatial arrangement of letters that may evoke a constellation moving clockwise. In other words, the project presents itself as composed almost purely of ciphers, the personal aspect of the generative of it almost as invisible as any personal in a science project —
In this your work differs, but perhaps only trivially so, from Jarry’s “science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.” It’s worth comparing methods here. Jarry moves with immediate logic from the three physical requirements of a time machine — first among them that it be at once “absolutely rigid” and “absolutely elastic” — to a partial model in the “luminiferous ether,” thence to a meeting of all requirements in an arrangement of three gyroscopes. Yes indeed. Familiar analogies help soften us to outrageous propositions: “the stationary spectator of a panorama,” after all, “has the illusion of a swift voyage through a series of landscapes”; why can’t we, then, be traversed by time “as a projectile passes through an empty window frame without damaging it, or as ice re-forms after being cut by a wire, or as an organism shows no lesion after being punctured by a sterile needle.” The delight is in the thoroughness & panache with which he pulls it off; the element of rule-bound game in trying to spot the cracks in a text that couples an inbuilt tongue in cheek with an invitation to critical thot (the “luminiferous ether” was jettisoned by Einstein in 1905, two years before Jarry’s death, but physicists still have fun speculating on the possibilities of time travel) —
Your poems aren’t traveling in time considered as a linear flow but rather in post-Einsteinian spacetime. The methods, at least in the extract posted, involve geometrical & syntactic/semantic variations on an initial list of words — variations that in page by page including feeds for the page that follows, eventually leave the initial list behind. The poems establish conventions to realize what may be hypothesized but could never be seen; Duncan’s remark in his Preface/Introduction to Bending the Bow (1968) — actually in reference to Olson’s (another poet for whom spatial layout was key) “Letter, May 2, 1959” — that “the boundary lines [paced off] in the poem belong in the poem and not to the town,” could be applied to your texts & Jarry’s essay alike —
The words as arranged in the initial list come across as (often) concrete & visualizable yet vulnerable in the work their arrangement is requiring them to do, even out of their depth: straining to cross the conceptual & dimensional gaps lodged in their single-space separations (“continuous / worlds / present / skin / distantly / mirrored …”); the tesseract figure coming between “eyeholes” & “demur.” On the page meanwhile, the shape indicates a simultaneity, some kind of body (not necessarily human) standing there in defiance of time. Following this, scientific concepts seem to provide the prods for geometrical-syntactic-semantic gambits. In “SPECIAL RELATIVISTIC TIME DILATION: AN EXPERIMENT IN RECIPROCITY,” the list doubles & faces off, with wider spaces between the letters, making the words prominently elements of design; the arrows drawn between & either side of the lists evoke, again but differently, both a 2D surface & two-way coilings in spacetime; in the prose passage below, the list-words are jumbled & variably repeated, the vertical order in which they have thrice appeared now distributed to play sometimes mildly comic, sometimes dimensionally lurching interference thro’ what seems mainly a directly quoted passage from a physics textbook (“In special relativistic time dilation, based on Einstein’s theory of special relativity, each observer moving away from a nearby gravitational mass perceives the other as moving slower; as such, the time dilation effect is reciprocal,” etc.) — until the last sentence. In fact, the last 2 sentences are worth parsing into their components & quoting separately:
calibrated / amplitude / distantly / air / happening / air / skin / urge / exactly
Counterintuitively this [that what is at stake are different relatively velocities] presumes the relative motion of both observers is uniform; the observers do not accelerate with respect to one another during their observations. Click my symbol for your equation.
Huh?! Even as “the heartless voids and immensities” (Melville, “The Whiteness of the Whale”) — & intangibilities — “of the universe” prompt a need for intimate connection, we shift from a textbook not only to internet (granted, the bulk of the para cld have come from some wikipedia article) but to some unexpected salesperson’s oily assurance of instant gratification. & the tesseract becomes established not as what the words are modeling but as the mathematical figure necessarily posited to connect them while they model other things.
Now we can move relatively quickly (“Pun intended,” as President Obama quickly told Jon Stewart following his “heckuva job” Summers/Brown gaffe). Shifting to general relativity, the next page posits intimacy of connection, physical as well as emotional/imaginative, at both human & cosmic levels. After that, the “logarithmic” timeline — logarithms the exponents of powers in tables I cld manipulate at school with invariable success but never understand — disperses the list-words ever more thinly in making it to the “feral” political world glimpsed at the beginning of the “Working Notes” (in the schema below, “—” = “new”):
skin / — / tear
— / words / mirrored
— / — [one-off feed for next page] / — [primary feed for next page]
— / [tesseract figure] / —
— / — / words
— / — / air [2ndary feed for next page]
— / — / —
— / — / —
Common to both cosmic & political dimensions of the poem, on the dubious assumption they can be so cleanly separated, is a familiar avant-garde/linguistically-innovative-poetic tenet memorably articulated by Allen Fisher in “Banda,” the first of the Gravity poems: “The quantum leap / between some lines / so wide / it hurts.” The last borealis page posted initially hints at, then, it seems to me, confirms its geometric model as one of asymptotes, lines which forever converge but never meet, & key destabilizers of Euclidean geometry once they were posited in the Russian/Hungarian 1820s (Jarry mentions one of the mathematicians involved, Nikolai Lobatschewsky, in whipping thro’ various accounts of what space might be). “Imaginary Present,” okay.
Lyn Hejinian at Kelly Writers House, February 22, 2005
Editorial note:Lyn Hejinian (b. 1941) is a poet, editor, and professor in the English department at UC Berkeley. She is the author of Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), My Life (1980, 1987, 2002), Happily (2000), and The Fatalist (2003). Her most recent book, The Book of a Thousand Eyes, is forthcoming in April 2012. She is also the author of a book of essays, The Language of Inquiry (2000). She edited Tuumba Press from 1976 to 1984, coedited Poetics Journal with Barrett Watten from 1981 to 1999, and currently coedits Atelos with Travis Ortiz. In 2005, Lyn Hejinian was a Writers House fellow. An audio recording of Hejinian’s reading and discussion while in residence can be found at PennSound. What follows is a transcription of a discussion held at the Kelly Writers House on February 22, 2005. It was originally transcribed by Michael Nardone and has been edited for readability. — Katie L. Price
Al Filreis: Lyn, the reading last night was terrific. How many of you were at the reading last night?
Am I right that it was terrific?
And the session with the students was fantastic. So let’s see if we can continue where we left off. Thank you for doing this.
Lyn Hejinian: It’s my pleasure. This is the oddest situation I’ve ever been in as a poet.
Filreis: Never done a live webcast?
Hejinian: I’ve never seen a live webcast.
Filreis: We had a strange situation once where we had Carl Rakosi, who was live from his home in San Francisco on an audiocast. So we were hearing him over the telephone and there we fifty of us in the room, and people called in from wherever they were. People called in from everywhere. And people called in from San Francisco who lived down the street from Carl, who hadn’t heard or seen him because he’s an old guy at that point, ninety-nine. They called here so that we could hear them talk to Carl, who lived down the street.
Hejinian: He was old when he died. He had passed his hundredth birthday. I took one of my graduate students to his 100th anniversary poetry reading. She was writing her PhD dissertation on the Objectivist poets, and of course he was one of the five major figures of that movement, such as it was. They all denied it was a movement, but that’s how we think of it now. He had named a number of poets who he wanted to come to the celebration to read their own work. He wanted it to be a celebration of poetry, not of him, which was very typical of Carl Rakosi, a very modest man. But anyway, I brought my student Ruth Jennison to this poetry reading. I introduced her to him, and then he nimbly walked up the flight of stairs to the room where the event was going to take place, and she said, “But he stands up!”
And he did. He went record shopping once a week to a record store in San Francisco, buying classical music mostly, but everything.
Filreis: A wonderful man. He was a joy. He read his poems and they are available: we have a recording of them. And they are really wonderful.
I wanted to ask you about The Fatalist.
Filreis: It’s a double question. One is a general question: I was hoping you would tell us how this thing came about, how it was organized. But a little more specifically: in the first movement of the thing, you say, or the speaker says, this wonderful thing: “People talk about the ineluctable character of the ‘lyric moment’ / but it seems to me that it is an astonishingly sturdy and detailed moment.” And if there were a period or a breath there, it would be a complicated enough statement, but it goes on to say it is in fact not ineluctable, but “astonishingly sturdy and detailed … passing through the world as well as through dreams.”
So my first question is: can you tell us how this thing got written? And second, why is it that — I don’t know if Lyn Hejinian agrees with what the speaker is saying there, but insofar as Lyn Hejinian does — why is the lyric moment in fact sturdy in detail, and how detailed?
Hejinian: Alright, to answer the first part of the question I’ll be as brief as I can. The book is in my voice. Over the course of exactly one year, I saved (in a single computer file) everything that I wrote to anybody: notes to students about their writing, or comments on dissertation chapters, letters to friends, e-messages. No matter how trivial, I saved it. And then about eight months into the saving I went back and, starting at the top of that file with the earliest material, I began sculpting away stuff that just wasn’t going to make anything useful as poetry.
Talking to some of you yesterday, I talked about it like a work of … Imagine a sculpture with a block of marble, and that was my text file. And then the sculptor chips away until the sculptor gets her piece of sculpture, whatever it is that she’s after. So I was sculpting away and the raw material was everything that I had written to people.
It’s called The Fatalist because I wanted to make the case that fate is not something that is going to happen, but is all that already has happened. That whatever has happened will never not have happened. Which is reassuring in some instances; for example, when one is regretting the death of somebody. It can never be said that that person never lived. That person always has lived, and always will have lived. And, of course, it’s terrifying if there are things that you don’t want to have happen; the irrevocable interests me, too.
I worked as an assistant to a private detective for a few years, working on murder cases, and I got really obsessed with the moment in which a murder happened: it could never unhappen and everybody was trapped in it having happened. But I can’t believe it was preordained — fated in that sense. That said, it was our job as private investigators to attempt to persuade the court that it was inevitable, in some sense, by virtue of “mitigating circumstances” (the murderer’s having been abused, or being mentally ill, or brain-damaged, etc.). We were working for the defense attorneys; it was, at base, anti-death penalty work. But I am digressing a bit, although some of that material, because I had written to somebody about a little of it, seeps into the book. So I guess that’s fair to mention.
Anyway, if it’s a record of everything that happened, or at least everything that I spoke of having happened over the course of a year, then it becomes a work of fate, or a record of what occurs to a fatalist, as I am characterizing fate, tautologically and retrospectively, as that which has happened.
As for “the lyric moment.” That comes from a comment, actually an e-message, to a group of grad students who were working on the question of the lyric. I was arguing against the notion of the lyric moment, or of lyric poetry as always having to be transcendental in its trajectory, and arguing in favor of its being possible to imagine a lyric poetry that was local and detailed and not ineluctable, but … what’s the right word?
Filreis: Sturdy and detailed.
Hejinian: Sturdy and detailed, yes —
Filreis: Those were the words.
Hejinian: But I am trying not to repeat myself.
Filreis: How kind of you.
Hejinian: Alright, I’ll leave it at that: sturdy and detailed.
And as detailed as one wants to have it.
Filreis: Who’s taught you that? We were talking about Rakosi before. Is that something the Objectivists taught you: lyric, but detailed?
Filreis: Absolutely. Who else?
Hejinian: Zukofsky. Oppen.
Filreis: More recently, your colleagues? Who reminds you every day when you read him or her?
Hejinian: Ron Silliman, then.
Filreis: Why so?
Hejinian: His work is built entirely out of details, of sturdy details, observed and experienced and contemplated in an active way, not through passive contemplation, but through resolute attention to detail, precisely.
Filreis: And daily.
Hejinian: And daily, yeah.
Filreis: Not quotidian daily. Well, sometimes quotidian daily, but daily. And this has a dailyness to it, too, partly. It has a feel of that because —
Hejinian: You write something every day and it all went into there.
Filreis: And it all went in there. So it’s part of the structure of it.
I want to ask you one more question about The Fatalist and then, earlier than usual, we’ll open it up for questions.
But one more question. I really love this book, Lyn.
Filreis: And one more question is: this beautiful passage in which you get to say something that may or may not have to do with your My Life project — you notice I didn’t say may or may not have to do with “your life” —
Hejinian: That would be confusing for all of us.
Filreis: Your My Life project.
I’m missing the context of the whole when I quote this, but we can go back to it if we need to.
Isn’t every explanation like every autobiography (in which the author shows how everything in life ultimately holds together or how everything in life’s ultimately holding together is the life) sentimental?
So isn’t every explanation like every autobiography — parentheses sentimental? And then: For that I want a large format and I don’t want my face anywhere on it.
Hejinian: You got that right.
Filreis: I don’t want my face anywhere on it. It’s not just a political catastrophe we are living through.
So, I have two questions about that fantastic passage. And we know better than to ask of a Lyn Hejinian piece of writing that uses newish sentences and juxtaposes things — especially given the context, you know, the way you composed this thing — then to jam those two things together, but in a way that is my question.
The last comment is: It’s not just a political catastrophe we are living through, which rhetorically implies it is a political catastrophe, but there are other catastrophes. So my question is: Beyond the political catastrophe we are living through, what other catastrophes are we living through? And what, if anything, does that have to do with this problem of explanation and autobiography in the desire to have your picture on the book My Life?
How’s that for a question?
Hejinian: That’s a very good question, and almost impossible to answer adequately.
I was using the term political in a relatively narrow sense when writing that comment. In some ways, I think, one can use the term political to describe anything that affects humans, anything that affects living creatures. The ecological disaster that is underway now, I think, is a political disaster of a kind.
It certainly is being furthered by politicians. For example, those who won’t sign the Kyoto Accords, which is just the tiny beginning of acknowledging that there is a disaster underway.
But I also think there is a link to the word “sentimental” in that. I was playing on two sides of the term sentimental. One is the pejorative sense of “sentimental,” which I think informs the current climate that is always suggesting that what humans most want when they’re troubled is closure. That closure is going to resolve things. That we get over things once we have closure. And I am resentful of, and deeply troubled by, the impulse or the notion that we should all be getting over everything instead of actually living through it and maintaining ourselves in relationship to it.
So, in that sense it’s merely sentimental to try and get everything to cohere and then “have closure,” whereby everything is neatly fixed and fits together: the jigsaw puzzle is squared up, no pieces are missing, and you can put it back in the box and achieve closure.
But on the other side, I think that the term “sentimental” or “sentimentality,” in the eighteenth-century usage, is extremely interesting and dynamic and actually appears in what ends up as postmodern irony. Think, for example, of the work of Laurence Sterne — that would be maybe the most familiar writer, although if you are crazy about Diderot, you can look at some of Diderot’s writings also. It is very fragmentary and witty at the very point where lots of gaps occur, in, for example, Sterne’s novella or novel, A Sentimental Journey. That title, by the way, has been used repeatedly by modernist and then postmodern writers as an homage to Laurence Sterne, and precisely, I think, because of how sentiment works in it. For example, Victor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist poet, wrote a book called A Sentimental Journey and the Bay-area Language School poet Kit Robinson wrote a long work called A Sentimental Journey, just to name two instances. In A Sentimental Journey, whenever anything occurs in which it is impossible to say anything about it, Sterne breaks off, and he breaks off often for very hilarious reasons: an orgasmic moment, or at the glimpse of an ankle, or the thought of a glass of wine! The ruptures or disjunctions are markers of feelings which are beyond speech, and markers of strong sensibility or sentimentality therefore, but not in a maudlin or easy way.
Another example is Langston Hughes’s two-volume autobiographical work: The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander. As you know if you are familiar with those books, they are written in vignettes, and very short vignettes. And between those vignettes is where the sentiment lies, where the deep emotion lies. He never speaks of homophobia, of racism, or of the difficulties of his life as a left-wing African American gay poet, but you feel it in the book, in those gaps. And they are also very ironic gaps. Irony arises when you say one thing and mean another, which is to say that you don’t say something — and it’s the not saying that is sentimental in the positive sense.
So, I am not sure how I said that in that sentence.
Filreis: No, it’s fantastic. So, the larger catastrophe is our failure to understand the latter sense of sentiment —
Hejinian: And to keep filling in the gaps with blather, drivel that is sentimental in the vulgar sense —
Filreis: So the picture on the faux-autobiography, on the autobiography, is a way of trying to do a “been there, done that, got it” thing.
So, do you remember to whom you were addressing or who is the addressee of that statement?
Hejinian: I don’t remember.
Hejinian: I really don’t. I’m not hedging here.
Filreis: No, no, no. That’s perfectly good.
Okay. So, we want to take some questions from you.
Kerry Sherin Wright: Ms. Hejinian, I just want to thank you for your reading last night, and for the whole experience yesterday. It was great. My question is: During your reading last night of My Life in the Nineties, you mentioned a phrase, I believe it was “where there are words, there is barbarism” or something about that. And that really sort of got me thinking. I went back and read your “Barbarism” essay from The Language of Inquiry to get a better sense of it. You mention in your barbarism essay that the poet is a barbarian, and your view that the poet is a barbarian, is a foreigner in some way. And I was just wondering the extent to which you think that’s necessary or a sort of a requisite for a poet to be in this sort of foreign space? Is that a function of an activist poet, or poetry in general? Is it a requirement of a poet to have this barbaric quality, this foreign quality? Sorry, I don’t have the exact page, but you mention “taking a creative, analytic and often oppositional stance, occupying […] foreignness — by the barbarism of strangeness.” Is that a requisite?
Hejinian: I would hesitate to make a rule that is either definitive of what it would be to be a poet or of the requirements for being a poet. But in my own experience, I advocate to myself, I ask myself to try to … The line that you are asking about is “wherever there are borders, there is barbarism.” It’s actually partly in reference to Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry, and the notion that poets are on the margins of society. I wanted to suggest that instead of calling it a margin, one might call it a border, which sounds like a synonym for margin but isn’t. And then one can move that border to where it really exists, which is between things — like the border between Germany and France, or the border zone between Al Filreis and myself sitting at this table. Then, yet again, one might recast that notion of the border as a zone of encounter. And if it’s a zone of encounter along a border, everybody is a foreigner there.
So there’s all this negotiation to be undertaken, and you have to rethink your currency, either literally or metaphorically, and you’ve got to rethink your relationships. You’ve got to rethink your language because they might speak a different language at the border, or the people you meet might not understand your language, et cetera. And, of course, a kind of anti-nationalist position is implicit in one’s espousal of inhabiting border zones, a form of refusal of global capitalism: border zones instead of something that homogenizes everything. So, “barbarism” is actually a positive, affirmative concept.
I actually found instances … Edith Sitwell wrote a little essay about Gertrude Stein, saying there had never been a finer barbarian. And I can’t remember the other instances, but many appeared around the period of the First World War. There were a lot of Surrealists who spoke favorably about barbarians. I thought maybe we should recover that.
Lyn Hejinian with Al Filreis in 2005. Photo © Blake Martin.
Filreis: And also enable poetry after Auschwitz, rather than no poetry after Auschwitz.
Filreis: Thank you, Kerry. Jennifer has a question right here.
Jennifer Snead: I wanted to get back to what Al had asked about The Fatalist and your reply about the sturdy details as a detailed poetry: local, detailed, sturdy. And you mentioned Ron Silliman’s work, for you, as a place where details are observed, experienced, and contemplated in a non-passive way. I am really curious how that might relate, or maybe not, to what you say in “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem,” where you talk about a “western way of knowing,” and description and the scientific method as being related. You mention Francis Bacon and the Novum Organum and The Advancement of Learning.
I’m interested more generally in description and where you think it does belong in contemporary poetics. And how does this description, as part of the scientific method, have anything to do with this sturdy detail as an answer to the lyric, or as a better way of thinking about lyric? Anyway, description, right? Question.
Hejinian: Yeah, that raises another example of a lyric poet of the sturdy detail, Lorine Niedecker. Many of her poems were intentionally, almost haiku-like descriptions with no commentary. And George Oppen, when writing Discrete Series, had attempted to write a poem without commentary. The only commentary in the poem is in the very first one, which is a prefatory poem, because it’s the second poem that’s numbered “1” of the series.
Okay, now I digress. What was the —
Oh, yes, the scientific —
Snead: About the western scientific method, about western modes of epistemology, and how description … because you seem to be a little less approving of that type of, or maybe more —
Hejinian: I am wary of it because I am so attracted to it.
Hejinian: And the western scientific method has had — as I say in that, I hope, comically titled essay “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem” — rapacious effects, of course: the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, et cetera, ultimately led to imperialism and colonialism, and exploitation of the planet.
So, it’s important to be extremely cautious of one’s enthusiasm for it. But I will say that I have an enormous fascination with the annals of exploration and discovery, and admiration and appreciation for experimental science even today. I think that description, for a good scientist as for a good writer, is as much hermeneutic as narrative. That is, using language as a medium for exploring — you know, The Language of Inquiry is the name of the essay book. You don’t know what’s there until you start trying to describe it.
Another excellent example would be Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons), who is exploring the nature of realityby attempting to find words that speak in and around whatever it is she’s looking at.
Filreis: And the earlier reference was to George Oppen’s first book Discrete Series, which you can get in the collected Oppen.
Hejinian: The new collected, I recommend. The New Directions New Collected Poems.
Filreis: Tom, we have an email question?
Thomas Devaney: This question is from Kenneth Sherwood, assistant professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Devaney [reads]: Lyn, I’m curious about your ongoing My Life project. From the first, it’s been a kind of process work, but its readers received it in book-length instalments. For almost two years we’ve been able to follow the poem emerging on your blog. What is your interest in allowing readers to access it a sentence at a time? And does this also represent a shift in your compositional practice? Or, do you have ten sentences in reserve, which you will be posting over the rest of the week?
Hejinian: This is a splendid question. This is not my blog. Somebody else out there is putting a work of mine on the Internet, one sentence at a time.
It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being stalked.
I find it unnerving, but not reprehensible. It’s a published work, and one sentence at a time … I probably would have legal grounds to sue or something, but I have no intention of doing something so childish as that. But I am happy that this is a webcast because I want to tell everybody who is listening: That is not my blog; Lyn Hejinian does not have a blog.
Filreis: This blog was not approved by Lyn Hejinian.
Hejinian: Well, it’s not approved by me at all.
Filreis: Well, thank you, Ken, for affording Lyn the opportunity to disclaim that blog.
We have a question in the back.
CAConrad: Hello. I saw you a few years ago at Villanova University. You gave a talk and a reading. Afterwards we were standing around this table eating carrots or something, and the discussion turned to politics at one point, and you seemed dismayed about younger poets and where they were politically. I disagreed with a lot of what you were saying back then, but that isn’t what I want to talk about or ask. I want to ask where you’re at in 2005: how do you feel about younger poets with their political center?
Hejinian: Did I? Those must have been poisonous carrots.
Filreis: They were sturdy and detailed carrots.
Hejinian: I don’t remember even feeling dismay over the younger poets.
It’s possible that poetry scenes, in given locales, have slumps and rises and slumps again, and I was witnessing what either was a slump in the poetry scene in the Bay area, or a slump in my interest in it. And in retrospect, probably the latter.
But in any case, maybe you know there was an issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter in which the then editors took a sentence of mine, a published comment, and a published comment of Ron Silliman’s and sent them to a number of poets. They were taken out of context in both cases. The way the editors phrased the question, it appeared that Ron Silliman and I felt that young poets were inadequately addressing the contemporary political climate. In fact, my comment in its original context, had nothing to do with younger poets or the political climate. It was on an entirely different subject. A number of young poets responded to this, and very shortly thereafter the attack on the World Trade Center towers occurred, and those younger poets proved not only that they were highly astute politically, but had already been thinking on a number of issues, which now had to be spoken, and people would listen to them. And I have nothing but respect for, you know, not every younger poet, nor every older poet, but I think something’s really happening. I think it’s hot right now. And really interesting. Lots of energy and courage.
Filreis: Thank you. Thanks for the question, Conrad.
Nick Montfort: I wanted to ask about the relationship between poetry and ordinary language, if that’s a good term for it. If it’s not, you can escort it out and bring in another one.
But one idea about the composition process of The Fatalist is that by this sort of panning for gold — this sifting through language for the particular things that are poetry in it — that therefore what merges from that process may not have a lot to say to the rest of language, to things that aren’t sturdy and detailed, as we like to say. That’s not at all the impression I get from reading your My Life. I think that there’s a rich relationship between other texts that we encounter in the world, other uses of language in poetry. But I wanted to ask you about how you would address their relationship.
Hejinian: That’s a difficult question to answer.
Your sense is — and I think rightly, but let me just make sure I understand the question correctly — that by virtue of the nature of the original, what I call the raw material from which The Fatalist was sculpted, that it was in ordinary language. And what have I done to make it unordinary?
To some degree, that work is built of phrases and composed at the level of phrase. The dynamism and energy comes from the juxtaposition of phrases either in the original, if I was clever that day and wrote a good letter or note or message and there was a long stretch that I kept, or by taking the beginning of something I wrote to one person and finding a phrase somewhere in something I wrote to another person and saw where their conjunction could bring out the texture of whatever was going on at that point.
In The Fatalist I was looking at the language of communication, the materiality of communication. There are other really terrific projects such as Kenny Goldsmith’s Soliloquy or Ed Freedman’s The Telephone Book, in which originally communicative language gets —
Filreis: And Nick Montfort has offered some alternatives himself.
Kathy Lou Schultz: I’m very interested in the terminology that is used and could be used in writing contemporary literary history, and some of the terms would be “Language” and “post-Language” poetry, also “experimental” and “innovative” are often used. And I’m wondering if you feel that those terms are useful and descriptive, and how we can begin to trace some of those lineages with the terminology that we use?
Hejinian: Well, I think that post-Language is particularly problematic because it anchors poets younger than my generation to only one area, when actually they have tendrils and roots in all kinds of other things, and not just poetry. I think that such labels are useful in conversation, or as a literary-critical or literary-historical marker. But I think they should be defined, and all kinds of definitions are out there to be used. In terms of literary history, I think much, much larger histories have to be described and much more complicated lineages have to be drawn.
In teaching, I have, a number of times, taught some version of a course that gets called something like “Recent and Contemporary Innovations in American Poetry.” I start further and further back each time, and not only pull from the Harlem Renaissance, but the experimental African American writers like Melvin Tolson, who I know you are interested in, and Julia Pritchard, another figure who people don’t study — writers who have gotten lost from maps like they are sunk into a reservoir or something.
I think the history of the last thirty years in poetry has not even been touched. It’s really complicated and far richer than the abbreviated, reductive attempts at history have suggested.
The terms “innovative” and “experimental,” and then the third one, “avant-garde” —
Filreis: Which Kathy Lou didn’t mention I don’t think.
Hejinian: Yeah, she didn’t, but that’s also one that gets thrown out.
I do find them useful. They can point to or remind us of the impulse and intention behind the composition, and also something of the character of the communities from which, and to which, the work is written.
Actually I find far more awkward the alternative: if X is innovative or experimental, and Y isn’t, what is Y?
[Disruption in recording.]
Filreis: Can I ask about another divider as a follow-up? You wrote some time ago, or said in an interview, that the Language movement, that Language writing is rigorously social, and in that sense set up against the romance of the solitary individualist poet. And that’s also roughly, sometimes very crudely, but sometimes a useful way of dividing contemporary poets. What is the opposite of rigorously social? I mean, a poetry or a poetics that’s set up against or distinct from that rigorously social way of preceding is very different and stands very differently, and can’t easily be reconciled. How would we describe that latter group: the group, or the poetics that’s against the rigorously social aspect of the Language movement?
Is there a way of characterizing that view — and it’s a strong view — or poets in that group?
Hejinian: I can’t think of any terms that aren’t negative. The self-commodifying poet? The star poet?
Filreis: If I were one of those, what would you say to me about my way of preceding? Because you disagree: you think that poetic communities need to be rigorously social, I think.
Hejinian: I’d tell you to start a magazine.
Filreis: And you mean that, you mean that seriously?
Filreis: You said that of you and your colleagues: so many people edited, and editing is a generous thing to be doing. So that wasn’t a laugh line. She meant it.
Devaney [reads]: From Jeffrey Julich. Miss Hejinian, in Barrett Watten’s recent book The Constructivist Moment, he reviews a 1999 Electronic Poetry Center discussion on your Writing as an Aid to Memory. That discussion centered on the truncated words that appeared throughout the book, and especially the word “deen”. D-E-E-N. Can you please say something about your use of truncated words and especially the significance of the word “deen”?
Hejinian: To those of you who don’t know about this conversation, in an early work of mine called Writing Is an Aid to Memory, it’s complicated, but among the phonemes or word-units that occur in it are a number of units that end up as either prefixes or, much more frequently, suffixes or word endings. As, for example, you would find if your computer hyphenates something, so that you get “tion” at the beginning of the next line. And there was a conversation on the Buffalo poetics list about one such word that appears in the work: D-E-E-N. Nobody could figure out what that was, what word that would be the end of. And I don’t know either.
I don’t remember how I came up with that word. I used these, what Jeffrey Julich is calling truncated words, because I wanted to give — you know, “writing as an aid to memory” — some sense of a level of language in which memory or the meaning is retroactive always. You know, things come along, and then you discover what they mean. So I wanted to show things coming into memory, or coming into meaning. So words not yet formed into their wholes. And that was the reason I used the truncated words.
Filreis: Thank you. Thank you, Jeffrey, for asking the question.
Jim Carpenter: Yeah, this is the left-field question. I have an interest in assessing the quality of computer programs, and am trying to develop a hypothesis that the problem with computer programming arises from the fact that we use engineering practices to construct them. They’re really compositional entities and we ought to be using literary practices. My question actually sprung from Nick’s question here, using poetic practice to engage natural language in ways to extract from that language, if I understand your response correctly, insights that the nature of that language obscures. You alluded to some tactical approaches there: rearranging words, extracting words, and so on. What I’m wondering, and I don’t expect you to be an expert in computer programming —
Hejinian: That’s good.
Carpenter: But it seems to me that there might be a generalization that one could make there, that in approaching different kinds of texts, and trying to make those texts give up their essence that they are trying to obscure, that there might be some general principles in poetic practice that one would use to engage texts that in other senses are unapproachable. So, is there, in your view, a set of resources there, or in poetic practice, that are generally valuable in engaging other kinds of literary practice?
Does my question make any sense from left field?
Lyn Hejinian at Kelly Writers House in 2005. Photo © Blake Martin.
Hejinian: Well, I like the question a lot. I model my compositional methods on what I think of as thought-methods, how thinking occurs.
Poetic language, how thinking in language occurs, in particular, and the logics that are operative in thought-language, whether it’s waking or sleeping thought — if dreams are thoughts of any kind, and I suppose they must be — the logics are numerous and not only linear or cause-and-effect logics, but all kinds of other logics, and all of them available, immanent in language. There are sound logics, montage logics, collage logics, et cetera. Associative logics, metonymic logics, metaphoric logics, and crazy illogics, which is a kind of logic.
I am virtually technophobic, but you know, I think bridges must think in some way, or be thoughtful constructs. Not to anthropomorphize bridges, but when I think of engineering, I think of bridges, probably because there is scandal going on about the San Francisco Bay Bridge, ever since the earthquake. They can’t seem to build a replacement that’s going to be earthquake-proof.
This isn’t helpful, but I’m just thinking. I can’t help you, I guess.
Devaney: Lyn, you’ve talked about encouraging Al and other young poets to start a magazine, and you’ve published people and have been published by your friends. When you edited the Best American Poetry this past year, did you feel that was kind of a gesture in that way?
Filreis: Was it rigorously social?
Hejinian: It was rigorously educational.
And yeah, I agreed to guest-edit that anthology in order to make sure that, you know … Best American Poetry is marketed to the general public, and the general public buys those volumes. I think the principle reason I agreed to edit the Best American Poetry 2004 was because I had a couple of my very best undergraduates say that one of those volumes had been their very first book of poetry. There are problems with any kind of “best” series, and I tried to address some of those problems in the introduction that I wrote for the one that I edited in particular. I wanted to celebrate the writing of poetry in the current political milieu, and I wanted a volume that read as a really terrific book full of challenges and liveliness and risk-taking and daring and vivacity. I thought I could do such a thing, and I think I did it. I really like that book. I thought I would be embarrassed when it was revealed that I was editing such a mainstream publication, but I’m really glad I did it. I’m sure there are many faults with it, and many people can find fault with me for doing it, but I’m glad I did it. And I think there’s a lot of really terrific poetry in there. And it’s not all the “best” poetry that was written in a given year. I didn’t even read all the poetry that was published in a given year. But I read a lot of it. And the works I selected struck me as together making an interesting book. So yeah, I don’t know if it was rigorously social, but it was certainly in line with what I’ve tried to do as an editor of Poetics Journal and Tuumba Press and Atelos, and what I try to do even in a syllabus for a course.
Filreis: How widely distributed has the book been? How many copies were sold?
Hejinian: I don’t know. I think something like 20,000 gets sold in a typical year.
Filreis: And a Tuumba Press book sells how many?
Hejinian: Well, Tuumba Press is just for special projects right now. But Atelos, there are two books that have gone into second printings, so they sold out a thousand copies. One is Pamela Lu’s book called Pamela: A Novel and the other is Barrett Watten’s Bad History. Both have been adopted for courses, which is the secret to selling books in large numbers. Yeah, like My Life, you know, everybody says, “Oh, we got that in freshman year.”
But a typical Atelos book sells around 300 copies.
Filreis: So 20,000 is an awful lot?
Hejinian: It’s a lot. Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems I think sold 10,000.
So, when you think of the per capita percentage of buyers of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, it’s tiny.
Speaker: My question is kind of murky, but hopefully it will muddle around in there.
At the reading last night, you were reading from that piece“Scheherazade,” or the thousand-eyes pieces. I was just noticing — maybe this relates to the other question, too, in terms of the way you were talking about The Fatalist as a phrase-based work very much in the realm of the sentence — how much My Life or even Happily has a lot of, say, aphorism or punning or work in homonyms, different things like that, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of highlight. For example, a lot of it is about how the syntax is juxtaposing the work in there. There was something noticeable about how much rhyme play was happening, how much word play in a lot of those “Scheherazade” pieces that seemed like this really was the highlight: this kind of intense word play that was taking place.
So I was wondering if there is a different work with language that is happening in that one, for you, that moves away from the sentence. I don’t know what the split would be, I just wondered if you could speak to that work particularly and what that has offered, et cetera.
Hejinian: You know that the Arabian Nights stories are all things told at night, and initially I wanted to write a work of a thousand poems, or a work of a thousand pieces (although a poem could be one word long). And I wanted it to be night, somehow related to night by being the kinds of things that want, okay, night language. So it could be insomniac, fretting. Or I talk a lot in my head at night and say things that I have no idea where they came from, just phrases. I am suddenly aware that phrases happen. But also lullabies, nursery rhymes, little fairy tales, et cetera. I had just been inventing all of those.
I read Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, which is a lesser known work, and there are some amazing, intelligent, hilarious poems in that. The structures are really funny. I appropriated quite a lot of the rhythms of it. There’s one: “I thought I saw a da da da,” but it turned out to be something completely different. Once you get going on those, you can hardly stop. I thought I saw a tender child eating a warm waffle. Then I saw it was a rat shitting something awful. You could just go on and on.
The book includes works that are like little essays, as if thinking through something at night. But basically I think that night thoughts occur much more in phrases than in sentences. Or perhaps they are sentences that just run on and on and on and on and keep changing subject manner.
[Short gap in recording.]
Kim Lasky: I was also reading your essay on barbarism this morning —
Filreis: Barbarism first thing in the morning?
Lasky: I know, yeah. Well, I couldn’t sleep, so I was awake early.
One of the things you say in that is that one of the impulses for the so-called Language movement was the idea that poetry and practice aren’t antithetical. Practice and theory, sorry, are not antithetical. I was just wondering if you can say something about what you think poetry has to offer to critical thinking and to critical language, and also vice versa? How the two can kind of work together in shared space maybe?
Hejinian: Good critical or literary theoretical writing, at its very best, works around what I would call synthetic moments, when a connection is made between one thing and another. That moment of connection is a moment of incredibly powerful insight or luminosity, and it casts lights on all kinds of other things.
Barrett Watten’s A Constructivist Moment is a compendium of synthetic moments. I mean he’s just a brilliant thinker, and a brilliant critical writer. He puts together in the essays, or the chapters of that book, the most unlikely things. Zizek is another person who uses the most unlikely examples to elucidate some very difficult, say Lacanian, term. I think that is exemplary of what poetic writing does. Poetry is both resilient and revelatory precisely because of linkages: the way the linkages are made, the kinds of things that are linked together.
At Berkeley, where I teach, there is no MFA program, but there are a number of poets among the students, grad students and undergrads both. We pretty much all feel that it is extremely beneficial that the two activities are interdependent, and that the kinds of originality and inventiveness that are required by poetry are also required by good scholarship. And the kind of rigorousness that’s necessary for good scholarship is absolutely necessary for good poetry.
Poetry, to my mind, is not anti-intellectual sloppiness. It’s really hard thinking. Maybe that’s why it’s sturdy and detailed. I mean, I think of Al, whose work has been an inspiration to me. And he does unbelievably meticulous archival research and comes up with plethoras of detail. When you put them together, you have this enormous cultural map, or a portrait of a cultural moment, and with perspectival lines running through it, and counter-perspectives. It’s really rich.
Filreis: We’re selling copies of my book …
Lyn, this is the perfect set-up for a question that I’ve had. We talked a little about it yesterday. We were imagining an annotated Zukofsky, and, of course, people over the years have done a great job of really figuring out that sturdy, detailed, contextual associativeness with The Cantos of Ezra Pound. And half-jokingly, but maybe not so jokingly, one imagines an annotated My Life. Those of you who have read My Life know that it’s not as densely allusive as The Cantos, but there are quotes that could be found. This is sort of along the lines of the researcher/scholar/sleuth that was your response to Kim’s question. Being the scholar you just described, as I was reading about your babysitting for Susanne Langer’s children, I got my old copy of Philosophy in a New Key out, a 1942 book that Lyn must have. I assume, you must have encountered it, either in that time you were babysitting the kids —
Hejinian: It was actually their grandchildren.
Filreis: The grandchildren. And then you moved to a reference of a book I had never heard of: Charles William Beebe’s book about going down several miles under the ocean in a bathysphere called Half Mile Down. I think we said it was two miles down, but a half mile is still long. And she refers to the book, does anybody remember it in My Life? “As when I read” — I love sentences in My Life that begin with that — “As when I read in Charles William Beebe’s account of his descent a half-mile down deep in a bathysphere the transcribed rapture, the rapture of units — and phrases are units.” So I went and read this book. This is the library’s only copy of it, and, indeed, I found language in it that is so rapturous. Partly because, I guess, when you go far enough down in a bathysphereyou begin writing like a Language poet. This guy was no Language poet, but there’s a picture of, ripped unfortunately, a picture of a bluefish darting around by the bathysphere, and this is a scientific work, a descriptive work, the line is: “The green water rained blue parrotfish.” Very poetic.
So, I felt, maybe stupidly, very gratified. I felt like I was doing a scholar’s work reading this book. So I guess my silly setup question is, assuming that was a good thing to do, because I have now read a book that you read —
Hejinian: And now you’ve spoken about it in a webcast.
Filreis: It’s now part of the record.
Hejinian: I believe there’s just been a revival of interest in the work of Charles William Beebe. And I believe that this book is being reprinted, and I think maybe by the New York Times —
Filreis: That’s hard to believe —
Hejinian: I mean, by the New York Review of Books.
Off-Mic: That series they do on lost classics?
Hejinian: I think that this is an upcoming volume in that series. I could be wrong.
Filreis: But aside from that fact, that now not more than two people have read the book, and maybe others will read it, is this a worthwhile — thinking of Kim’s question — thing for somebody to be doing? A reader, a scholar? Is this at all helpful — I can’t think of a better word than helpful — in understanding My Life? Do I have a little something now I can say about, other than the ridiculous annotation, is this something that the allusiveness suggests? It doesn’t demand it, it doesn’t require it, but is this good, is it okay, is it helpful? Should we all be following the leads of a great book like this? And that was a bad way to end a series of questions.
Hejinian: I don’t think it’s required. I hope it’s not necessary. It had never occurred to me that anyone would undertake it, but why not?
But don’t ask me for help. No, I’m only joking.
Filreis: I know you are.
Hejinian: I think the result of that kind of research is a fascinating document of cultural studies. There’s another essay in The Language of Inquiry called “Reason,” it’s about reasoning the logics of poetic language, but also reason in the sense of why you do something. So, it’s about motivation and strategy, let’s say. But I hope with more resonance than that. That sounded a little bit reductive.
Anyway, it’s very difficult for me to write essays, and I fret a lot in the course, working on them, and the phrase “[a]long comes something — launched in context” came into my weary brain. It set off a long trajectory. I actually am still using that “along comes” phrase in various ways, because it happens all the time. You know, along comes a dog. It came from somewhere. It’s got its doggy business on its mind. It’s got its context. It’s launched out of a context, it’s into yours, it’s going on to another one, and all of that stuff totally interests me. And I feel it really is kind of the rich fabric of experience. It’s all the stuff that is coming along. And it’s happening. And you want to, I’ve said this before, but you don’t want to go through life not being aware that this is happening.
So, in a sense, all the stuff that is happening and that those sentences erupt from, or point to, or instigate … maybe a project would be totally great that would —
Filreis: This is the happiness of Happily in a way.
Dan Blanchard: This is a very pointed question because I’m a —
Filreis: Poignant or pointed?
Towards the end of My Life, there are two lines, the first is: “Many versions of aspiration … like Russia.” And the second is: “I had returned from Russia banal with shock-value. Tak. And borrowed a phrase to say that the mechanics of perception turn psychology into aesthetics.”
First, I just really love how you used “tak” there. I’ve taken Russian, and the “so much” versus “the pause of a thought.” And then second, I was wondering why you chose Russia, and what about your experience there made it important enough to speak to it in this kind of setting? Is it the contrast between the western thought process, like what Jen was talking about earlier, and Russia being a kind of eastern orthodox different way of looking at it, or — ?
Hejinian: All of those things.
It was the political other. It was the enemy. The first time I went there it was a very cold time of the Cold War, 1983. And I went back repeatedly. Also, the absolute randomness of my going there in the first place. There is nothing to suggest any trajectory in my past that would send me to Russia. But my husband, who is a musician, received a fan letter from what claimed to be the Leningrad Contemporary Music Society, and they said they had voted him the number one musician of the twentieth century.
Filreis: No kidding?
Hejinian: Well, there were only three members, as we discovered when we got there. They had gone out and bought a recording of his on the black market, and they had drunk a lot of vodka, and they had a vote and it was unanimous.
And they wrote him a fan letter. He wrote back and said he would try to raise money. They wanted him to come there to give a lecture, and he didn’t want to do that, but said he would bring the quartet that he plays with, Rova Saxophone Quartet. It took two years to raise the money because he thought Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola would give money because, you know, youth culture. Those companies didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So, it took two years to raise the travel money through benefit concerts and borrowing money from family and various ways. And he organized a group to travel with Rova, a few people who would pay their way plus a little bit more. They all knew they were paying a little bit more, but for the benefit of going to Russia in a context in which they would actually meet people and see the underground cultural scene, and so forth. They were happy to do so. Stephen Rodefer was on that trip, as was George and Lucy Mattingly, two video artists, a music critic and composer named Charles Shere, and me. The context had nothing to do with me, but there I was, thrown into the middle of the avant-garde underground, bohemian underground with refusenik mathematicians, and painters, and linguists working on shamanistic practices in Karelia, which is the vast region of marshlands above Leningrad (or, now, St. Petersburg). It was just totally amazing. I fell madly in love with it. And why does anyone fall in love with something, who knows?
Then I learned Russian and did a lot of translations. It was a vibrant part of my intellectual, cultural, and emotional life for a long time, and remains so, although now in a much muted sense. But the poet whose work I translated, Arkady Dragomoshchenko, still lives in Saint Petersburg, and I’m still in touch with him and his wife quite regularly and passionately I guess I would say.
Filreis: Lyn, I wonder if we could conclude by asking you to read a passage from The Fatalist?
Hejinian: Of course.
Filreis: We were all, the students and I, were struck by this. This is the section about a person you name R, and R writes letters, which is interesting because the book is all about you writing. Here’s a person who herself writes and she seems to write to talk to those who survive her. And it’s a section on the bottom of 23, through 24.
So, here’s Lyn Hejinian reading from The Fatalist.
Filreis: Lyn Hejinian, thank you very much.
Aboriginal song poetry and anthropology
A conversation between Robbie Wood and Andrew Dowding about Taruru: Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara, recorded on September 16, 2010.
Robbie Wood: Maybe we could start by talking about your relationship to song poetry and your connection to it, perhaps as a contemporary claimant of it in some way, and also about your relationship to it as an anthropologist and an Aboriginal person.
Andrew Dowding: The poetry that’s in that book [Taruru: Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara], some of it is really quite spiritual and quite ceremonial, but then there’s also another side of it. Some of it I’ve been connected to through a ritual that all young men go through, which is like an initiation into manhood that all young guys have to go through. But there’s a whole other side of the poetry in that book, which is really just a creative kind of passing-the-time form of poetry and song. I guess my connection with this ceremonial and spiritual side has been —
Wood: Has been more personal and embodied?
Wood: But in terms of the sort of aesthetic, time-passing poetry that’s in this book, some of it is by uncles of yours, or great-uncles of yours, or your grandfather. It’s a sort of family poetics, it’s a sort of oral tradition in that sense, of people telling tales, and stories, and songs.
Dowding: Yeah, it’s told through a rich sort of storytelling tradition. When I was born, my granddad was pretty old. I think he was about eighty, in his mid-eighties. Unlike most Aboriginal people, who only live to about mid-sixties, in the hard life that he’d had, the age that he reached was a testament to how strong he actually was. But I never really got to interact with him, although I would have heard these stories, probably, when I was a tiny little kid.
But the people who really would have heard his stories, all these elders I talk to in my work through doing anthropology up in these areas, they all know his storytelling technique. I’ve got these tapes of his, which are basically recordings of those songs, of all those poems. As soon as I put those tapes in the tape deck, people just sit back. It’s like this kind of relaxing pastime. You can see that they remember how he spoke, and then they hear it again on the tape and they’re just back in that time, you know, back in that day, and he’s sitting around the old reserve and telling them some stories.
Wood: These recordings were recordings done by Carl von Brandenstein, who is a German anthropologist. Were they among the first recordings, oral recordings of Aboriginal song in Australia? Or just in the Pilbara? Western academic and intellectual tradition has taken a lot from Australian anthropological studies, for example, Freud’s Totem and Taboo, that’s Aboriginal people from the southern desert, then there was a whole host of other early anthropologists with Pitjanjatjarra peoples, which was then expanded into various anthropological theories. But were these the first actual oral recordings rather than transcribed notes?
Dowding: No, these recordings were done in the early seventies, late sixties, so I think there would have been other people going through the area with similar recording devices. But I think that von Brandenstein was the first to actually concentrate on song poetry and song structures, and songs, basically. And dances as well, he recorded a whole lot of dances moves that go along with some of the songs. So, I think there were earlier ones, I think there were linguists who went through much earlier than these anthropologists went through. But von Brandenstein’s field kit would have been pretty sizeable, it would have been strange recording because he probably would have used reel-to-reel tapes. So he would have had to lug that thing around.
Wood: Not like the digital stuff now.
Dowding: Quite a big physical machine to take around! It would have been so interesting to see the reactions of people on the way, because in some of the tapes it sounds like people are just yelling down microphones. Also, von Brandenstein didn’t just record songs, he recorded messages for people; he recorded messages to take to other groups, or other family over in a different area. He traveled huge distances, covering a huge area from the Kimberleys all the way down through the Gascoigne, recording songs. I remember finding this one little snippet — in the thousands and thousands of hours of tape, I luckily pulled out this one tape and it had a message for my Auntie Jean, a message from my grandfather, because she was living in Perth.
Wood: This is your mom’s sister?
Dowding: Yeah, my mom’s sister, she was living in Perth. von Brandenstein had told my granddad that he would see Jeanie down in Perth. So he sent this song to her, he sent this lullaby song, plus just a “how are you,” and he was describing where he was sitting and you can hear kids in the background, and it’s this intimate little moment. When I played it for my Auntie Jean, she was just in tears because she’d never heard it.
Wood: She’d never heard it?
Dowding: No, she’d never heard it, she never got the message in the end because von Brandenstein would tape thousands of hours.
Wood: So, he’s got these poems, Taruru, about daily life and Western development, and then there’s also a whole archive which is just actual daily life moments which are more historical, rather than put into the aesthetic sphere?
Dowding: Yeah, and then there’s a whole raft of rough cuts, where [my grandfather] Bob Churnside is singing a song, and then all of a sudden stops. He must have been a smoker, because he’s hacking up his lung, he’s spitting up his lung, and he’s like, “Sorry, where was I?” and he gets back into the song. I have edited a lot of these tapes, so I’ve heard all the rough cuts.
Wood: I wanted going to ask you about being Indigenous and being an anthropologist, and that sort of relationship, whether you could give a brief account of Aboriginal people’s relationship to anthropologists initially and how that’s changing now, and the implication of the anthropologist’s role socially.
Dowding: I think there was initially a real interest from Aboriginal people in these men like von Brandenstein, O’Grady and other early European anthropologists who came to Australia, a real interest in these strange European guys who would come and want to know the intimate details of culture. They’d actually want to explore knowledge with these men, because a lot of Aboriginal culture is knowledge-based.
It’s just not that it’s knowledge-based, it’s also that it’s held by a small group of men, and they’re always challenging each other over how much knowledge they have, how many songs they can remember, trying to outdo each other with perfect dance moves. The thing that was interesting for these Aboriginal guys was that the anthropologists would go and try and find the men of the highest degree, and they would always say to their Aboriginal informants, “I’ve talked to such-and-such and he’s been telling me about this,” and then the next Aboriginal informant would say, “Oh, I want to outdo that guy, and I’ll tell you as much as I can. I’ll display my cultural knowledge to you.” That was the initial relationship, this kind of outdoing each other.
A long time passed, probably about thirty or forty years, before anthropologists came back to the region. There was nothing up there, just Aboriginal people and pastoral stations and that’s it. But when anthropologists returned they returned with the mining companies and mining began. The anthropology that’s done within the mining companies is very different — it’s a measuring skulls and trying to save the culture kind of thing. There was never a real interest in the beauty of cultural forms; it was always this late-eighties idea that the Aboriginal race is going to die. I think people were very wary of those kinds of anthropologists coming in because they were always backed by mining money, that’s who they were paid by, whereas the older anthropologists were just guys with really obscure grants from universities.
That was a huge change in the view of anthropology, in how people saw anthropologists. And that type of anthropology is still going; it’s funded by mining companies performing these things called heritage surveys, which are basically just to go across bits of country looking at artifacts and archaeological materials. Very rarely when anthropologists go out under a mining company’s instruction would they ever ask about how a song connected to an area. I think that that’s been a sad thing. Now it’s slowly changing, now that there’s a second mining boom going on, I think that Aboriginal people have realized how dangerous it was to hand over certain information to anthropologists because they ended up in the Native Title process, fighting for Aboriginal lands.
When the Native Title process came through in the early nineties, anthropologists ended up being pitted against each other. Different academic anthropologists were brought in to rip each other apart, basically. They’d go out and do field work with Aboriginal people, find as much information as they could about a certain area, or some group’s connection to country, and then a different anthropologist would be asked to go out and review that work and then pull it to pieces.
Wood: So, within a longer historical view, beginning from when these poems were written, the relationship between anthropologist and informant was initially sort of like a dialogue, there was a bit more mutual respect on a cultural level, and there was a genuine, almost naïve interest on both sides. I mean, von Brandenstein would take his guitar and play folk tunes and things like that. It seems there was a certain naïve sharing, even though the material relationship was uneven. And then with the advent of global capitalism, the change in the last forty years, there was a shift in which the field of anthropology itself in became part of corporations, of corporate mentalities of competitiveness. And that became enshrined in the nineties. In the eighties there was a change in the field of anthropology, and in the nineties it got its legal comeuppance. Do you think that’s a fair way of understanding the relationship over past forty years or so?
Dowding: Yeah, definitely. I know that when von Brandenstein went up and asked people to sing songs and show him dances, he told people when he recorded them that he wanted to co-publish. It was never about an anthropologist coming up and collecting this work for themselves. It was always, “This is your cultural expression, and you should be proud of it.” The big change was these mining companies and anthropologists coming in and saying, “We’re going to pay you $500 to tell us what your heritage is, and that will be the end of the relationship.” That was the introduction of a different kind of personality.
Wood: The struggle to get tenure and all of these things must have gone into it as well.
Dowding: It’s been very slow in Australia, but now I think there is a recognition that the artifacts that people were recording, that these stone artifacts that were being recorded for years and years and years from the late eighties until now, mean nothing to Aboriginal people now, they mean less than nothing. It’s like the rubbish, the stone artifacts which were always held up as being the artifacts of a culture —
Wood: The proof, the material objects —
Dowding: That is being swept away, it hasn’t been swept away just yet, but it’s slowly changing to a realization that it’s the songs that meant the most to people, and we should be asking people if they remember this stuff.
Wood: Is that recognition happening on the side of anthropologists, or on the side of Aboriginal people?
Dowding: I think that’s where my conflict is. I know from an Aboriginal side that people are quite happy with the way their culture is going. They don’t see a huge amount of disturbance, because, I mean, how do you gauge that? There are big communities up there, thousands of people, and they still speak a form of the language, they still practice the kind of ritual that’s been going on for centuries. But my anthropological side thinks, “But it’s not as rich as it was. You don’t practice all the different ceremonies that you used to practice. You don’t speak seven different languages, which is what my grandfather would have spoken.” I don’t see corroborees happen in public places any more, which is what used to happen when they were alive. What about that stuff? Isn’t that important? But I know that people who live in the community think, “Well, we know it’s important, but that’s something for us.”
Wood: The idea of “we don’t necessarily have to practice it” suggests that the religious aspect still maintains itself, but the rites and rituals and cultural aspects have changed. The real influence in the communities, it seems, is pop culture internationally. If you want hip-hop, go to those communities — Akon, Kanye, Ludacris — those guys are big as cultural phenomena, and they sort of take the place of the poems, of Taruru, in these public displays. Yeah?
Dowding: Yeah, it’s like that. And I guess that’s a worry of a lot of people too. It is a worry, I guess, that people underestimate how deeply American commercial hip-hop would penetrate the youth. A lot of middle-aged Aboriginal people, a lot of older Aboriginal people don’t realize how deeply that stuff has gone into kids in the communities.
Wood: Or how, I guess, colonial processes have been successful, in that sense. Even though the development of a racial consciousness is significant, it has its origins elsewhere and not necessarily part of the culture.
Dowding: It’s a really hard thing to try and explain. Because I know that cultural forms like these songs and poetry that were done for pastime and entertainment, those kinds of cultural forms have been replaced. It’s very rare that I ever hear people singing in language while we’re fishing or while we’re hanging out in an area in town or anything. The songs that I do hear them singing like when we’re driving or something are ceremonial war songs. Those are the things that people have held onto, and the youth of the communities, they have exposure to the ceremonial aspect of those kinds of songs. They know those things, and I think that’s the reason why a lot of elders are quite happy with the way the culture is going, with the way that the religion is going, in a sense. Because the younger men and women know the ceremonial songs and they know that they can continue that culture, they feel kind of confident that those young people are getting enough of that exposure.
Wood: So, these aesthetic songs come and go, but the religious aspect, I guess, maintains itself and is necessary; hence religious life becomes a reinforcing aspect of the culture.
Dowding: The other thing is that all of those song men who sang those poems and made those poems, they were all strong lawmen/loremen and religious priests, the high priests of the culture. So I think that the elders would have a feeling that if that religion is still there, there will be men and women of a high degree who would have the ability to recreate these cultural forms if they want to.
Wood: Not the other way around; so the religion gives people strength, and then they might be able to express some cultural form. For example, you could do hip-hop or whatever as opposed to these forms of song-poems.
Dowding: I shouldn’t say that these song forms don’t exist. I’m sure that they do. Probably it would be a middle-aged, kind of early-forties to late-fifties age group of people who were exposed to these song forms a lot when they were younger, and they would carry them. But I don’t know what it is — they’re not as brave, or they have performance anxiety about it, or they think their kids won’t value it?
Wood: Anxiety of influence, or something like that?
Dowding: I’ve never, never heard them, whereas my understanding is that people would ask for these poems, these songs, they would request them all the time.
Wood: Like a jukebox or something like that?
Dowding: Yeah: “Tell us that story about the first plane to Roebourne, tell us that story about this and that.”
First Plane to Roebourne
Tabi in Karierra
by Ngalbijurangu, Tjarnadan’s brother
My people wait for the stranger
to arrive from the west.
All stand and wait. What time would he come?
At last they came, circled high above,
the two pilots.
High up they circled, let the roar fade
and landed in the haze.
These poems were probably not as stable as they are when you see them as text; they probably would have been much more free, and they probably would have been embellished for a long version or a short version, probably a lot of improvisation.
Tabi in Njijapali
There he is, the Giant, shifting back and forth,
The First Truck at Tambrey
Tabi in Jindjiparndi
The strange thing comes closer,
Wood: In that way, I suppose this song poetry is not necessarily the main cultural form of our historical era. The conflict is similar to what you were saying about anthropology romanticizing certain aspects of Aboriginal culture — we miss the era of knowing seven languages, we miss the era visiting places where no one has been, I missed the chance to be von Brandenstein by living in the current historical and financial moment. I guess the main concern now is that with the shift of the anthropological field into studying song rather than spears or artifacts, it could potentially overlook, or give up on being against mining processes. Do you think anthropologists have begun to assume that mining is a fait accompli for a lot of aboriginal communities? Partly because that assumption exists at a kind of structural level — rather than the dying race theory, there’s a dying country theory — do you think because of that assumption people don’t necessarily want to work with anthropologists? Do you think that’s a reasonable question or a reasonable conflict?
Dowding: I definitely think that the role of anthropologists has changed now. It’s become more of a protective field; it’s become like a buffer, a translator of concepts and ideas between mining companies and communities. It’s evolving now and it’s changing a lot. There are a lot of old-guard anthropologists, a generation moving on. And younger guys like me, or like my boss, Nick Green, who’s just turned fifty and he’s kind of retiring, I don’t know how to put it really … we’re just the buffer between the full-on mining company executive board and the Aboriginal community which has different forms of governance, different responsibilities towards land. Our job is just to translate between the different worlds, the two different worlds.
Wood: The change is basically globalization; now anthropologists are buffers between multinational companies and local communities, who in this case are Aboriginal, whereas previously everything was national in scope. National governments made decisions about welfare, about land use, and hadn’t given up mining leases, necessarily.
Dowding: Well, a lot of the anthropologists who went out in the early eighties were actually with institutions, they were with museums and the Department of Indigenous Affairs. Nowadays it doesn’t exist, anthropologists don’t come through those channels at all, they’re all private contractors. And like I was saying there’s a generational change: guys forty and over all came through those institutional structures — they use semi-bureaucratic kinds of processes, lots of forms, lots of boxes to tick, a lot of processes people don’t understand. And I don’t know what the next step is, because I’m being exposed to those kinds of anthropologists, but I don’t know exactly what way we’re going to go in the future. My background would be more toward a Native Title background, which is —
Dowding: No, it’s not so much legal. Native Title is basically a recognized land title, which says that Australia was managed in a certain way by laws and traditions before Europeans came here. So now we are trying to manage our Native Title; we have to manage these lands within our traditions, which obviously have changed from European colonization, you know, different types of living on the land, being sedentary, cattle stations. This is how I’ve always thought the field of anthropology should start helping people manage Native Title. It should be devoted to understanding what our traditions have always said about how we manage resources, and how we manage communities, and how we manage youth.
Tabi in Karierra/Ngarluma
There he sits, bald as an egg
And wants to tell us
That railway tracks will criss-cross the desert,
They’d even cross the Pilbara, near Warden’s Pool.
So he lies, the idiot!
Sand is all he’ll find up here
To wipe his arse with,
the big-shot from Perth.
Wood: So the function of anthropology, not its place, not where it is in an institution or in a mining company, but the role of the anthropologist has changed from one of fascination. Retrospectively, I think people take fascination to be part of colonialism, not giving Aboriginal people enough credit where it was due, and in the oldest and most ignorant sort of understanding of anthropologists as going forth and conquering cultures —
Dowding: And bringing them back to the anthropologists’ club.
Wood: Yeah, exactly, and now perhaps you’re starting to see the possibility of anthropologists having a political connection, the possibility that anthropologists can act in a sustainable manner, or help to translate traditional lores and cultures into something sustainable. That’s not necessarily to reduce Aboriginal culture to some mythical and romantic ideal, but to say that sustainability is an important thing in regard to land management, in regard to song poetry, and in regard to religious rituals.
Dowding: They’re very much tied up, because a lot of the ceremonial songs that we have and hold have encoded information about the management of land, the management of people, and governance. They’re instructional songs, basically, but when you read the song texts, you don’t get that. It’s not like, “you must do this.” It’s kind of an interpretive thing; people would say that these two spirit-figures would fight in a certain way, and there would be a kind of moral of the story, and it’s the interpretation of that moral that would be the instruction.
Wood: Your grandfather has a song, “What Albert Did”:
What a careless way to burn off the spinifex!
The fire crept on, smoked like mad
And came right round in a circle
In the song text he doesn’t mention Albert’s name, and [in the book] the title of the song is given by someone else, so the moral is separate from the person in that sense.
Dowding: It would have to go with the story, you can’t separate that, that poem tells you nothing. It’s so stripped back that you can’t even understand: you understand that there was a fire, and that there was some guy called Albert, but that’s about the extent of the whole text that’s given to you.
Wood: I guess the instruction from it is moral as well as practical — rather often the two go together: if you’re a good person you fish in a certain way, or you take the fish, rather, in a certain way. So in that sense the role of anthropology in general is to help translate that, would you say?
Dowding: A lot of it is just providing the context. That’s almost the same with that song, of that poem about Albert, about spinifex. You read it, and without any kind of knowledge of the context of that situation, it means absolutely nothing to you. An anthropologist almost fills in that story; he colors in those little blanks for people. Why were they burning spinifex? What the hell is spinifex?
Wood: It’s like this poem too:
White Engine Against Black Magic
Tabi in Njamal
You steer the plane with both arms
Sending it straight through the air.
Inside, what a noise!
We are nobody with all our cleverness,
Against the whitefellow.
He can read, and write, and sure enough,
Drive the big things in the sky —
Magic? — He doesn’t need it.
Our medicine-men, the whole lot,
Are utterly useless.
For me that clinches, that establishes the sort of the fight, presumably on the side of the romanticizing anthropologist who misses the halcyon days when the magic men he did know were enough.
Dowding: When the magic men ruled the skies.
Wood: Yeah, that’s right, and it was easier to understand, perhaps, what was happening then. That’s the colonial process, right, how differently Indigenous people view different things, in terms of being in awe of scientific inventions and so on. But your grandfather worked with a number of different anthropologists, had a different view about people who could be seen as handmaidens to colonialism, among them von Brandenstein?
Dowding: I found out that he actually did work with quite a few, and with quite a few linguists as well. I’ve done quite a lot of reading of von Brandenstein’s footnotes, where he talks a lot about Bob Churnside as being one of his best informants because he’s so open to sharing his knowledge, and he’s got such deep cultural knowledge of his own people and the traditions that he’s inspired or inspiring. I’ve heard a lot of recordings of those guys talking together and they just sound like they’re mates, they’re friendly, very friendly.
They just have casual conversations on the side of talking about some pretty intense cultural knowledge. So … what was the question?
Wood: I was thinking about your grandfather’s relationship to anthropology as an entire field and thinking about him as one of the main informants, and trying to re-understand the relationship between, let’s say, “White Engine Against Black Magic,” and how that might come down to just one relationship. Like you’re saying, von Brandenstein’s collaboration, his co-publication was a sharing of cultural knowledge that was accessible to people and allowed them certain latitude: it was not “White Engine Against Black Magic.” So, von Brandenstein was not seen as some interloper, he has a function and a place in Aboriginal society as an Aboriginal person, if you want to put it that way. In a certain way, von Brandenstein’s whiteness is unimportant; what matters is his role in the society, and hence he becomes Aboriginal.
Dowding: I think that’s right. In “White Engine Against Black Magic,” that guy is in total awe of white culture and supremacy, he’s been told over and over, and seen the physical forms of superiority, the planes and cars and stuff. But I think that Bob Churnside always had this confidence in his own culture. I think he almost thought that European culture was kind of shallow and superficial, and that he had some really deep understanding of what it is to be, some really deep understandings that come from being a person and being a human. And I don’t say that lightly, because we’re talking about cultural links that this guy would have had to really old culture, to language and song that go back thousands of years, and unbroken too; culture that would have only changed minimally, I reckon.
I reckon that in himself he was a very confident guy and I can tell from the tapes that he has with von Brandenstein that he’s just totally superior in that relationship, he just feels so confident in displaying how rich the culture is. He’s got days and days of recordings with von Brandenstein — probably more than days, he’s got weeks of recordings, there are thousands of tapes in archives in Canberra — and he just talked the whole time. von Brandenstein prods him every now and then, but he’s just giving this library of information.
Wood: That’s the thing about being from an oral tradition and having that knowledge stored in your mind. There’s a very different and I think perhaps a deepening or enabling of your mind in a structural way, so that your memory is better from an oral tradition. All of this kind of mapping, all of these kinds of aspects of your mind have a very different relationship precisely because you have had to rely on it.
Dowding: As an example, I remember this one section of a tape where Bob Churnside is naming the pools in the river. We’re talking about a really harsh landscape, we’re talking temperatures in the high forties, above a hundred degrees, and we’re talking about a time when there were no motorcars so you were either on horseback or you were walking, and if you didn’t know where the next source of water was, you’d die, basically, of thirst. And his map, this mental map that he has in his head — the tape stops in this recording, but he names over eighty pools, and he sings these little songs in between but he names each of the pools and he describes the area around the pool and he does that for all the different river systems in his country. The amazing mental map that he has is all due to the oral tradition.
I’m not sure about how von Brandenstein would have seen his role in this, and I always think when I listen to these tapes that they both sound kind of naïve in the way that they’ve recorded them.
Wood: Both so excited, perhaps?
Dowding: Yeah, I think that’s probably part of it. Excited and …
Wood: Excited and well-intentioned?
Dowding: Yeah, definitely well-intentioned. Because I know that Bob Churnside took von Brandenstein around to introduce him to all of these different men who wrote these different songs, these poems. So he was the connector, he was main informant who took him all around and explained to all these men of high degree, Bob Churnside would say, “Look, this is what he does.” I would have loved if the tape had on at that point so we could hear how Bob Churnside would have explained what von Brandenstein’s purpose was, how Bob Churnside saw it.
Now, for the relatives of Bob Churnside, there’s a kind of rift through the family as to what should be done with these materials. Bob Churnside’s position in the community was that he named himself as a leader of the community, but in today’s communities, there’s not really one leader, no one proclaims themselves to be a leader any more. There’s anxiety about being the leader; no one’s reached that high degree. So everyone says that these materials are very dangerous — if you don’t know how to control them, if you can’t carry them properly, other people will get them, or you might misuse them, and they could become quite dangerous.
Wood: Is that why you said the tapes between von Brandenstein and Bob Churnside are quite naïve? Because there’s not this sense that it’s stolen knowledge, but it’s shared, it’s communal, people can participate in it, unlike when anthropologists speak with people now. But this goes more for religious artifacts and religious songs than for cultural songs, right? People aren’t as worried about the stealing of those songs?
Dowding: That’s right. There’s a section in one of the tapes that I found: I was sitting with a really old guy, an Aboriginal guy from Roebourne and we were listening to these tapes together. Some parts of them aren’t in English at all, so I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t speak fluent enough Ngarluma to understand what’s being said. I saw the old fella who I was sitting with, I saw his eyes light up and he looked really alarmed. I was like, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” He was like, “You’ve got to stop the tape.” And I thought, “Obviously it’s some really full-on cultural knowledge that’s being told, it’s being sung.” I’ve heard hours of these tapes, and in this one section where it’s almost like information is just being downloaded from my grandfather’s mind, because he doesn’t stop to do any explanation, he sings for about four hours, there’s about three or four tapes where he’s just constantly singing. And the reaction that I saw from this old guy’s face …
I still haven’t found out what’s on those tapes, but I showed it to one of my cousin- brothers, one of the eldest males in our family. By traditional rights, he should have control of those tapes, and he’s taken it from me and he’s never given it back. They’re also down in an archive, but he feels like his control of those tapes is a form of control of that information. I’ve always wondered whether Bob Churnside was naïve to just download whatever he did onto these tapes and give it to a stranger, or if he was putting it there because maybe he thought that it needed to be safe.
Wood: Safeguarded because of the material processes that are happening. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much fighting over the songs, because so much control has been ceded in the process of mining rights? Do you think that the way of reclaiming a form of power, self-confidence, or whatever you want to call it comes through the song tradition because precisely because you’re not on country as much anymore?
Dowding: That’s the crux of Aboriginal culture in this area. The higher you are in your song tradition, the higher you are inside the culture. To become the leader you need to have acquired a huge repertoire of songs not only from your area but from seven different languages. So I think that’s one of the reasons why older people don’t worry so much that this public song form is not being displayed enough. I think people know that there aren’t that many men or women who have reached the level where they can be confident in singing public songs and displaying their prowess in these kinds of forms when they might not have such a prowess in the cultural and the ceremonial form as well.
But the fact is that there’s a possibility that someone can rise up inside the ceremonial form of the song.
I do know examples of younger guys, like mid-forties, who can sing these kinds of songs, these tabi songs. There’s a guy down here at the University of Western Australia in Perth, studying science. He sings tabi whenever they have an Indigenous cultural day at the university. He’s only a very young guy but he has learned these songs, the ceremonial songs, he has learned the texts of them, so I think he feels that he can sing the kind of public songs as well. He always dedicates them, he always says, “These are my grandfather’s songs, or such-and-such’s songs, I’m not composing them, I’m just singing them like they did.” They are public songs, songs for uninitiated people. He’d be the only blackfella in the room when he’s singing those songs. They’re not for communities’ sake, for an Aboriginal community’s sake, they’re for him to feel that he’s confident enough in his own ritual.
Wood: Even within Aboriginal communities, you can’t hear certain songs, but you can always hear these cultural songs. You can hear tabi all the time but you’re not going to hear law/lore songs. In that sense, what can be heard is quite distinct, it’s also quite different from the European tradition, the Euro-canon, especially the secular tradition, where secret, sacred knowledge is quite hard to come by in a legitimate way. You can work for the knowledge, you can have access to it or initiation’s not applicable as a concept.
The other thing in these tabi is just how a lot of it is just working-class, poor reflections on daily life. I think that’s changed a lot now with mining companies as well because it’s just big money flowing in to Indigenous areas. And so, sure there is still gambling, still sex in the bushes, but that’s one aspect of the colonial process that seems to have changed in the last fifteen to twenty years is just the separation of class at the level of monetary economy.
Tabi in Karierra
My name is “feet for money.” Up and up,
Will another risk return it to me?
Another chance tried — nothing yet. No luck, no lucky card for me in
and the sun sinks out of sight in the sea.
Tabi in Karierra
In the scrub he slowly starts riding her crossways
and gets into her,
In the scrub he slowly starts riding her crossways
and does it deep into her.
Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Ned Tjinabii
It’s on my mind, those people talking;
It’s on my mind: someone’ll win the lot!
Dowding: Yeah, the work that people do up there now is so different than what their families did fifteen, twenty years ago. We’re talking young guys entering jobs where they are paid $120,000 to drive a tractor or drive a loader or something, compared to their families fifteen years ago who would probably have jobs through the government or Aboriginal Welfare with highly controlled pay — they wouldn’t even have bank accounts. The pay that they would have received would have been through food vouchers, they’d have a government-controlled savings account that would be accessed through letters. You could access your money by going into the local post office with your checkbook and asking the post office guy, the local pay-master, to write you a check. So, huge changes, huge changes: access to paid work, amazing freedom, the free market and paid work.
There aren’t many young guys who would stick with these jobs for years. They’re just going for six months or even less; they earn $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 and then they leave, because that’s the extent of their experience with that amount of money. They would never have had a family member who earned $100,000 in a year and that amount of money is like six or seven years’ worth of money coming in three months. Those changes are just so dramatic. It’s a very different era from these songs. In the fifties and sixties, the type of work that was available to those guys was hard labor, loading boats, loading trucks, manual labor on mines rather than big machinery.
Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Tommy Tjinakurrudhu
Here they dig away further in the cutting,
Shovels beat like wavelets on the rise,
Ring round the corner of the edge
— edge — edge,
I am tired
— tired — tired.
Wood: Pastoralism too, right?
Dowding: Pastoralism, which is all manual labor: digging wells, riding for days on horseback. Just a whole world away. What’s crazy, what’s really hard for these younger guys is that they’re still in the same location. They’re still surrounded by pastoral stations and mines, but the change in the work has been so dramatic, the change in the pay scales, I think, has been too much for some people. I don’t know how it could have worked out. I think it’s only in the last few years that younger people under twenty-five have understood work in these new, emerging forms of employment —
Wood: Abstract and bureaucratic, right? So many older forms of work were just immediate, face-to-face: a new guy walks up with this type of animal called cattle, and you go and work with him, partly to watch him because he is on your country.
Dowding: All done by watching him, really, all the work would have been done; none of this sitting in a classroom and doing a ticket to drive a truck or anything. But the interesting thing about that face-to-face is that people always ask, “Who’s your boss? Who’s your nyabali?” If you don’t know that person, if it’s some CEO of a company, it’s so abstracted for some people. They really don’t understand where that guy is, where that person actually exists; he could be in London, he could be in Perth, he’s so far away that people really don’t know who they’re working for, therefore you get people working only for a short amount of time. There’s no connection. It’s like, “I don’t want to go in today,” and the boss won’t tell you off because you don’t know your boss, whereas in the old days the boss would be there every morning getting you up out of your swag. I think that’s been a huge change for people.
I’d love to hear some of this kind of poetry come out of Roebourne today. What people would like — the equivalent of Taruru.
Wood: Yeah, “First Internet in Roebourne,” or “Gary Watches Pornography,” that sort of daily life. I guess hip-hop’s replaced that, right?
Dowding: There’s a big country and western song tradition where people will select a country and western song which expresses these modern themes that they’re feeling, these emotions that they’re feeling.
Wood: In this sense this poetry is at a crossroads, at the decline of these traditional languages in daily life, and their movement to religious language. In that sense it’s a real crossroads that’s historically very, very important and stylistically quite important, too.
Dowding: I don’t think you could get people now who could express those kinds of actions or stripped language well enough to express [the equivalent of] what those guys say. I don’t think people know the structures of sentences well enough anymore to construct nice stripped back poetry. It would sound infantile, because people have lost the real, deep sense of the language, completely lost it. There are people who can switch back and forth in English and different languages, who can code switch. There are a few older people who speak really deep Ngarluma, who don’t have to switch back and who don’t feel tired of speaking it at the end of the day.
Wood: Is there a correlation between that daily life language and traditional religious language? If you’re a good linguist in daily language, are you a good song person?
Dowding: Oh yes, definitely. Because the songs are twisty. The language in the songs is twisty, it makes your tongue go all over the place. If you’re reared up in English like I am, the songs are doubly hard. They’re just so hard, and the fact is that those songs are not even everyday language. The way that they’re structured is that a word, a word like “wind” would be “wi-lala-nd,” so it would be punctuated by a whole lot of what they call song-language. There would be reasons for that, but the bits of song-language mask the actual word that you’re trying to say, so it’s harder to understand what is being sung. And you have to be back at those ceremonies every year to kind of break the code, it’s kind of a coded song. You’re just singing what you hear from the guy next to you, but every year you hear more and more of the song.
Wood: So the repetition would be an important way of learning. But also I imagine there’s a possibility that the repetition, those phonetic structures come from everyday knowledge, traditional everyday knowledge. So, you say the word “wind” a certain way because that’s how the wind says itself to you at certain points in the day, so if you’re out on the plain killing a kangaroo or something, the wind is going to make a certain noise. You’ll hear that song and then sing it so you’ll go hunting better and with more luck, and that’s the relationship.
Dowding: I’ve read articles and heard good examples of songs sung about an area of land and then when that area of land changes in topography, the song changes tempo and it changes structures. And so it does mimic the land and the experience of walking across that land. If you’re singing the song about this bit of land, you can tell that it’s sandy or that it’s hard to walk through because the song is slow and it’s intonated. If it’s a rocky sort of area the song’s changed to match the geography. So I think there’s aspects of that stuff probably in some of these public and in the tabi songs as well.
To the Roebourne Races
Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Ned Tjinabii
Under the wheels the road runs away
As we bounce across the country.
Look at the dust, churned up behind us!
It’s like a wall, you can’t look through it.
Hey! What a speed! Such a bouncing!
There goes Mount Targurana on my left.
Ay! We’re winding down round Minjarna Hill already.
One more ridge and we reach my open plain.
Close Listening with Myung Mi Kim
Editorial note: Myung Mi Kim (b. 1957) is the author of Penury (2009), Commons (2002), Dura (1999), The Bounty (1996), and Under Flag (1991). She teaches in the poetics program at SUNY–Buffalo. The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded March 15, 2007, at Studio 111 at the University of Pennsylvania with the engineering assistance of Molly Braverman. Listen to the audio program here. Charles Bernstein hosted and produced the show, which includes questions and comments from Pauline Baniqued, Julie Charbonneir, Nicholas Mayer, Heather Gorn, Sarah Yeung, and Jonathan Liebembuk (as well as Adam Tabor and Damien Bright). The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Katie L. Price
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, WPS1’s program of spontaneous and unedited readings and conversations, presented in collaboration with PennSound. Our guest today for the second of two programs on Close Listening is Myung Mi Kim.
Myung Mi Kim’s books of poetry include Commons, Dura, The Bounty, and Under Flag. She teaches in the Poetics Program at SUNY–Buffalo. On today’s show, which we are recording at Studio 111 on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Myung Mi Kim will be answering questions from Penn students.
Hello, Myung, welcome back. Just moments after we had you, here you are again.
Myung Mi Kim: Happy to be here again.
Pauline Baniqued: Hi. I really enjoyed reading Commons. I started to think about the process involved in writing this, so my questions are mostly related. Maybe I could just put them out there for you?
Your poetry is charged with meaning and double meaning, and open to multiple interpretations. How is this seemingly less smooth-flowing and more intellectual approach received by those in poetry, for example, in academia or by those who actually practice poetry? Do you find yourself having to decide whether certain material qualifies for poetry? Are you self-conscious about it when you write, and if so, do you sift out things to include in your poetry? How do you differentiate or judge?
Kim: What I’m hearing in that question, or at least the direction I want to take that question, is the interrogation of archive. There may be two things to consider here. One: what is material for the poem? This question is immediately conjoined with: what are the possibilities of the poem? The work or thinking through the interrogation of the archive immediately signals both the problem of what belongs in a poem, what is extra to the poem, and therefore, because of that excess, perhaps needs to be considered as belonging to the poem. For me, the question of what belongs and what doesn’t belong in some really foundational sense is a question of what has been excluded in terms of the sociohistorical index, and therefore the question of what belongs or doesn’t is one that needs to keep being opened up. There’s got to be some kind of pressure on the question of what closes down the archive, who has authority to create archive. I’m hoping that I’m at least hearing one aspect of your question. Do you want to keep going?
Baniqued: Yes. You use a lot of primary text, direct images, and lines in the poem as if taking the most objective photograph or stand towards the experience or the thought. Do you think that this is a “better” form of poetry, or a good direction towards the development of poetry? That poets remain more faithful to the experience that’s being documented, and thus write more “effective” poems? What do you say to people who may think this is BS or think of it as stripping the essence of “again” writing poetry?
Kim: Let me make sure I heard the first part of the question. When you are talking about the objective photograph — do you want to say a little more about that?
Baniqued: That was the sense that I got when I was reading these poems, probably because there weren’t as many adjectives as is common in more traditional kinds of poetry. There were just snapshots of what was there. The words were very precise.
Kim: Actually, that is a useful question to follow up the first question about material, because for me it is a question about materiality. And what you’re saying is the lack of modifiers, right? There are no adjectives, very few. That’s fascinating to me because it’s not a description for the thing. It is the thing. What is it to have perception that is unfettered from description?
Bernstein: There’s an aspect to what Pauline is asking though that’s slightly different, which is what do people think when you write stuff that is difficult to understand? People like me with a limited horizon, vocabulary, you know, who say, “What is she talking about? I don’t understand. [Laughter.] I understand the words, but I don’t understand what the words are doing. Do I have to read other poems? I mean, I open this book for the first time and it makes no sense to me.” Are you trying to write for the broad masses of the people?
Kim: I think the question here is: can the masses actually have a lot more to say about what’s scrutable and readable and intelligible than what someone else external to the broad masses has determined. In other words, who has the privilege to say “this is transparent,” “this is being rendered transparently,” “I understand this”? What’s at stake, it seems to me, in poetry or any sort of writing practice, is to keep asking under what terms and conditions do we understand legibility? Who has the authority to invest and divest in formulating what’s scrutable, what’s readable? These are questions about exclusion, inclusion, and social affiliation. What are the orders of exclusion and inclusion that get rehearsed when we consider: do I understand this? what does it mean? Is it possible to keep extending the meaning of meaning, the terms by which we understand anything at all, and especially language, because that’s what we use all the time, every day, every second? How is it possible to keep extending the terms of meaning-making and of sense-making?
Julie Charbonnier: You mentioned yesterday how each reading is different and how you would have other people come up and read your work. If you could just elaborate on that. And how would someone who doesn’t speak another language experience repercussions while reading?
Kim: Let me start with the second part of your question first, because I think it dovetails usefully with what I’ve just been saying about the demands on sense and sense-making that are politically and socially and culturally driven. When you ask about a person who doesn’t speak another language, and what kind of condition would be produced for that reader, my question in return is always whether one can produce an approximation of the condition of language again unhooked from the givens of communication and communicability and transparency. Would it be possible to suggest/evoke/amplify/proliferate different ways of being inside and listening to and activating the space that we call language, which doesn’t belong to any one language group, doesn’t belong to any one particular set of ideas about the benchmarks of language such as rhythm, syntax, intonation, inflection? Even if there were no identifiable second language, an experience of language is produced, and I think everyone has access to that.
Charbonnier: So, you think that when phrases can’t be translated, these other limits of syntax, that there are actually more resources, is what you’re saying?
Kim: I think the whole notion of untranslatability, unsayability, the unsayable remains a profound interest linguistically, culturally, and politically. That kind of immanence and the emergence implied in that state of the unsaid mobilizes a certain social force.
Nicholas Mayer: I was wondering about the influence of Romanticism on your poetry. More specifically, even though your style and your language is quite different from theirs, I was thinking of the English Romantics. I was sort of experiencing the same visual imagery of nature, the relationship of man to nature, and the effects of war on nature. I was wondering how much of Romanticism has influenced your work, and in what ways, and if you could sort of pick out one Romantic that you think has been most influential and why.
Kim: I might need to bring Charles into this a little bit. My intuitive sense of how to answer your question isn’t to talk to the question directly, but I want to mention — I don’t know if you were there last night, some of you were — but do you remember during part of the conversation where people were asking about the figure of these animals, and using animal names, and the specificity of the names of birds especially, or reptiles? There was an interesting question in the room about the animal, as not necessarily not-human, but as if, in fact, they were human. Let me begin there, and I want to bring in others of you. Charles: perhaps you could reframe that question? I can certainly go back and try to answer some particulars.
Bernstein: Well, a more traditional way of asking it would actually not be in the direction of what you’re saying. Although, of course, birds, birdsong, and bird sound is one of the oldest ways of conveying a sense of what poetry is, or the nightingale as the poet. But I think there’s another kind of question that is implicit in what Nick’s saying, which is what is your connection, if any, to the British, not US, but to the British poetry tradition of the nineteenth or eighteenth century? And I don’t know what the answer is. I’ve never asked you that.
Kim: I don’t know that it’s something I think specifically about, although that particular moment and its treatment of the lyric is something that I’m very interested in. This may be an oblique way to answer the question, but I’ve been looking at Shelley’s manuscripts lately, which I find incredibly intriguing both visually and as artifact. The tradition you’re asking about is not something I think about in a formulated way, although I can see why you are drawn to ask that question.
But before we move on, I will say, in terms of birdsong, as I mentioned briefly at the reading last night, that there are some parts of my texts I literally can not read out loud, and here it is: these are marks on a page, these are transcriptions of a birdsong. But it’s not something I can necessarily vocalize.
Bernstein: You should hear the program I did with Bob Grenier. He actually does the birdsongs. I join in for a second.
Kim: There you are. Just an idea of the figure of birdsong transcription, things that can and can not be said.
Bernstein: One way of also extending what Nick is asking has to do with the lyric nature of the poem. It’s almost as if you’re reading, let’s say, British Romantic poetry of the late 1700s. It’s almost as if this work has been, at a very small unit, blown apart and then reconfigured. You can still hear the lyric music filtering through, but more in fractal patterns than in the way they would be read in a poem by Keats or Shelley. But let me turn the mic over to Heather.
Heather Gorn: In listening to you last night and then a reading you did at Buffalo, I guess before Commons was printed officially, I was noticing a lot of differences in what you were reading and what I was reading along with in the text version. I was wondering if you would speak a little about versions of text, and when you do or don’t think something is finished. Also, you mentioned last night about conceiving of your works as one long continuum, and sort of how that might play into how you think about a finished product.
Kim: When I finish the text, in fact, that is the finished text. However, I feel that when I’m giving readings from the finished text, it’s as if the text literally re-presents itself to you. Even if you are the maker of that particular text, there’s a way in which you’re greeting it and reading it. So, the occasion of the reading creates a space in which that re-listening and re-making initiates itself, and sometimes that happens, say, before the event, that I’ll sit down and wonder, in a sense, out loud to myself, what will I be reading. In that process, something gets kicked up, something is re-initiated. Sometimes it happens in the reading itself, at the instance of the performance. I don’t think of them necessarily as revisions. I do think of them as reformulations, re-takes, re-assembling, which is a lot how I work in the first place, a kind of process of accretion and assemblage and reconfiguration. So, in a way, every time you come back to the text, the process can re-kindle itself. That’s been of some interest to me simply because it opens up the question of what is real time, what is compositional time, and what is the time of making a text. I think they are all different filtrations of what it means to produce a written text, which is not to refuse or in any way empty out the meaning of the book or the text that might come to some kind of rest. These elements are being held in a conversation with each other so that no one part, processually speaking, forecloses on any other part.
Gorn: And your reformulations, do they change according to the atmosphere or your state of mind? Because you say sometimes you craft them before, sometimes right then —
Gorn: Given a kind of dynamic in the air, or, I guess, a little bit of both?
Kim: I think a lot of it is like elaboration and re-elaboration, and sometimes it’s quite physical. There are certain things on certain days you can render, there are certain days that certain parts of text seem difficult to produce on a physiological level.
Gorn: I asked just earlier about Latin in general, and was noticing that various titles of your sections or works will be Latin-oriented, and then also in the Buffalo reading, I think you mentioned one of the working titles for Commons was Works and Days, which was obviously a less-than-slight nod to Hesiod. So, I’m just wondering if Latin is anything more than a kind of linguistic ghost, as you said, or a kind of treasure trove? Is it strictly that? Or what is your relationship with it?
Kim: It’s really amazing your timing in asking this question because the other day I thought maybe I should just learn Latin. Latin seems to be a particular kind of magnet for English. I am interested in that phenomenon. It’s the ungraspable in English that sometimes seems to be embodied in Latin. I need to keep thinking about why that is, and why my ear hears that and not, say, French roots, you know? My “listening” for/toward Latin is overlaid with having an acquaintance with something you don’t quite recognize. It’s a strangeness that becomes an acquaintance, which in turn is familiar and unfamiliar.
Gorn: It seemed a little elegiac also in your general use of it. Even with things, or later things, like Vesalius. Anyway, thanks.
Kim: Thank you.
Damien Bright: So we’ve been talking about accretion, assemblage, and reconfiguration, and all of this speaks to a certain -ism: postmodernism, poststructuralism, if you will. I mean you use various sources. We were talking about the archive and these kinds of to-ing and fro-ing between various levels of temporality. And you just said a strangeness that becomes an acquaintance, and so this almost spectral nature of language, and all of this has me thinking in a Derridean fashion, and you quote Helene Cixous’s Stigmata in the postscript, or that’s how I conceive of it, to Commons: poets as “agents for the most arduous, most dangerous cause there is: to love the other, even before being loved.” And so, I guess I was wondering about the purpose behind your writing in terms of this friendship: is it a gesture of friendship? A critical gesture, a historically critical gesture with a view to a friendship that would annul certain ills of the past, I guess? Yes.
Kim: Yes. I’ll see if I can unpack some of that. There’s a lot there, wonderfully a lot there. I think, at least I would like to hope, that writing does not identify its object. In other words, yes, I think there’s an imbrication of historical critique. At least asking how is it possible, especially in formally radical practices, to imagine form already itself as critique. And so, yes, that calls up again by implication and imbrication and complicity, historical radical practices, as a means of addressing … I don’t think you said social ills, but something with the word ill … I mean, what is that circuitry between form as critique as a kind of interrogative space, which is an action, not a decision. I don’t think aesthetics and ethical engagements rise from a decision. One is making an intervention. One is addressing an ill. One is recuperating. These are all possible modes and drives, but the practice is infinitely open. It’s not a determinable space. You don’t arrive at it. It’s the ongoing, unnameable returning to an earlier moment — the unsayable, the unspeakable, the ear turned toward the emergent, which is not about a decision to recuperate the erased, for example, however you might want to formulate that sort of impulse. Alternative ways of knowing might be a useful phrase here. How is it possible to take the resources of poetry, especially a formally radical, unpositioned, and unacculturated mode of inquiry that we attempt to name almost always awkwardly. Whatever identification we come up with — whether it’s assemblage, accretion — my instinct would be to ask: And then what? What else? How else? The work of writing and reading and thinking is the tending of the otherwise, revitalizing the interconnection between form and form-as-critique or potential for critique. Does this help? At least respond to parts of your question?
Bright: Yes, it does. And perhaps then on a more prosaic level this drive that you mentioned to relate, this almost constant conversation between form and form-as-critique, is that, and perhaps I’m being too forward here, a drive specific to you as a poet? Or do you think that is a drive that reaches beyond you as a poet, that is socially engaged, as in, how should I put my question more clearly —
Kim: No, I think you said it.
Bright: Is your vocation mandated by that drive or does it go further?
Kim: Initially, I would want to question a word like mandated, because, yes, there is a mandate. Yes, there absolutely is, I think, something at stake. No question about it. However, I think what I’m trying to perhaps pose here is this: can that space be left undetermined? Would it be possible to disengage the impulse to have art perform an equal translation or transparent rendering into the social?
Sarah Yeung: Earlier, you spoke about how some of your work was technically unreadable, like the birdsong: you can’t read that out loud. What are your thoughts on how your work translates from being read on paper to being read out loud? What do you feel is lost and what do you feel is gained? You use spaces in different ways, the hybrid characters of Korean and Roman characters, and different entities that can be read, but, I suppose, have a very different effect out loud than on paper.
Kim: It’s the question of what can be seen, heard, read, spoken, received, transmitted in relation to (in proximity to) the idea of tracking language in which mutable, roaming, fugitive connections and disconnections and ruptures also generate meaning. Dis-ease is useful to me, or the dis-abling of habituated practices of language. The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproduceable, (re)printable, carries its own charge.
Yeung: My other question is about themes in your work. In Commons, you have a lot of references to specific wartime incidents. There are many different places and times, and I was wondering why different incidents aren’t more clearly demarcated in the work, and also if there are any in particular that are of significance to you.
Kim: I think, especially in the earlier books like Under Flag, there’s very clearly a kind of matrix that holds things together, the Korean War, for example, or the militarism in Korea subsequent to the Korean War. There’s a much more clearly demarcated — and I’m using that word on purpose — clearly demarcated notion of nation: Korea, as a place, as a geographical reality, a material reality. And if you walk through the other books, it’s almost as if that particular condition begins to call forward and speak with all the other conditions of war. It’s a terrific question. I mean, what does it mean to both identify and unidentify or not locate? I’m trying to get at that conjunction between every specificity as its own, inviolable, intractably itself, and also the kind of global social-economic-political forces that produce conditions of war that are huge, not necessarily taggable to an instance. Or convert that or invert that, and say how can you understand that by — it’s not an absence, right, it’s not taking away the location. I’m trying to understand both. When you do the locating one by one, what’s produced? What are the politics of that? What’s the potential work that that can do, differently from understanding the condition of war transhistorically, transculturally?
Myung Mi Kim in New York City in 2006. Photo by Charles Bernstein.
Yeung: All the wartime references did seem to be located in Asia, though, right?
Kim: For the most part, yes. But Commons enfolds the presence of various wars, from many parts of the globe. This might be taking your question in too different of a direction, but the question here may also be: what does it mean to document anything? How does document, to document, take place?
Bernstein: Let me extend the question that Sarah is asking. I’ll ask a question I know the answer to in part because I read other interviews with you, but talk a little about your relationship to Korea in terms of your parents, grandparents, diaspora. Have you gone back to Korea? What’s your own personal history in respect to Korea and to Korean?
Kim: In many ways, I think I’m a fairly typical, if not overtly conventional, immigrant subject.
Bernstein: Funny, you don’t look typical. [Laughter.]
Kim: Yeah, that’s what they all say. [Laughter.] I think maybe one of the things that’s behind Sarah’s question —
Bernstein: I love that I asked you an absolutely factual question and you’re hesitating more than you would with an abstract Derrida question.
Kim [talking at the same time]: The facts are so uninteresting, Charles. Post-immigrant subject. A certain mode of the post-sixties immigration of the professional class from Korea. My father was an MD. What are the facts here? I hardly know. I do know that I have a strange — talking about ghostly and spectral — I mean, that’s mostly what my relationship to Korea looks like. It is, in some sense, the most real and most constructed place I can possibly imagine. So the facts pale in relationship to that dynamic or that phenomenon. The facts are very straightforward: immigration to the US with my nuclear family —
Bernstein: What year was that and how old were you?
Kim: 1967 and I was nine. In terms of certain kinds of language propositions, I was once told by someone who works as a speech therapist that age twelve is apparently the cutoff for whether you have an enduring accent or not. So, if you look at my siblings — I’m the youngest — this bears out. The oldest sibling, maybe, has more trace of an accent. Anyway, why am I telling you this? Because you asked me for a fact. So, these are facts.
Bernstein: That’s very interesting to me. The accent, of course.
Kim: But that sense of proximity and removal … family stories … already a generation or two removed … The [family stories] are particular to me; they are particular to my mother’s experience. Yet, they are already arriving in a condition of history. They are already subjects of a history, of a [new] place and a [new] time. [So the result it that you get] the kind of collision and elision and wonderful richness, and yet absence of [the] real places, real times, which have been, in some sense [for the later generation], made by words. So, it’s both delicious to report the words that one is told, but you also realize it has a real relationship to bear, bearing with what is no longer.
Johnathan Liebembuk: I think a lot of the questions that have been posed deal with binary relationships of different things: translatability, untranslatability, one language versus another, or in relation to another, space and time even. I guess my question — I want to work from the ground up maybe — deals with one language in another, Korean, English, and even further down to the ground, the characters in each of these languages and how you use them in Commons in particular. I wanted to know what you perceive, anticipate, or hope the effect of Korean characters and Roman ones will be on readers with little or no knowledge of the Korean language, specifically the written aspect of Korean for someone not even being exposed to the poem, to the sounds the Korean characters are making. Do you expect the readers to be playful with these characters? Uneasy, and have some aversion to them? Maybe attempt to draw common features between the character and phoneme systems? And overall, what are the effects of these unfamiliar written characters on readers with no exposure to their phonetic mappings?
Kim: I love it when questions answer themselves. Your question, by including this very intriguing trio of words — aversion, play, and commonality — begins to answer the question the way that I would respond to it. In another conversation I was having today someone said, “When I encounter a text I can’t read, I just basically run away.” I believe this sense of the turning away (or aversion) is part of reading. But the turning away signals a sense of convolution or evolution or revolution. Something is happening. Something is taking place. Something is under transformation. This is where the notions of play and potential commonality come in. I can’t think of any other conjunction as generative as aversion and play.
Liebembuk: I think that makes sense and leads into me trying to tie that together. Julie also mentioned the untranslatable, and you mentioned these aversions that people may have to the untranslatable as resources for meaning.
Liebembuk: My question centers around the very last sentence you wrote in your afterword, which I think you mentioned was a pain for you to actually write, but is very useful in a lot of ways to mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space. That alone sums up what I got from Commons very well, but my question is, specifically, do the poetic images found between languages in whatever space, be it sounded or visual, serve as a pilot light for any human prosody to arise? And I emphasize any there. In other words, in reading Commons, studying languages, and hearing stories from varied cultural backgrounds, I personally feel that a prosody emerges in the interplay of two or more languages. Is this what you were dealing with in most of your work? That is, the emergence of poetic forms and praxis from between languages, and, if so, I think this ties in with what a Sioux writer, Vine Deloria, once really hit hard in one of his books, God Is Red. It seems to challenge — and it goes back to the Romanticist question that Nick brought up — it challenges time in poetry as hegemony and brings space, poetic space, language space into focus. A Romanticist lyric-space can’t not be treated in your interplay of Korean and English, where a Myung Mi Kim poem might be set next to a Shelley poem, not because of how they relate in time, but how they relate in poetic space, and how the aversions that maybe a native Korean reader might have to a Shelley poem are different but similar than what I might have to a Myung Mi Kim poem.
Kim: Let me first respond by saying, yes, absolutely, most of my work is devoted to the emergent prosodies, poetic forms, and praxis prompted by the interplay of plural languages. The conversation that we’ve been having today, I hope, is precisely in the service of tracking and rendering the complexities of lived time and historical time, potentializing new modes of relation.
Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Myung Mi Kim. The program was recorded on March 15, 2007, at Studio 111 at the University of Pennsylvania. Close Listening is a production of WPS1.org in collaboration with PennSound. For more information on this show, visit our website. Our engineer today is Molly Braverman. This is Charles Bernstein, who keeps listening as close as he can for the almost unpronounceable sounds between the vowels.
November 25, 2010, to September 6, 2011
Note: The following is the second (and concluding) part of a larger conversation examining Ted Pearson’s An Intermittent Music, a serial work begun in 1975 and completed in 2010. The first half appeared in Jacket2 and can be read here.
Luke Harley: Ron Silliman has resisted attempts to label your work as “minimalist,” instead arguing that it is “all about how much pressure you can exert on a few select words or lines.” Do you agree with Ron?
Ted Pearson: Yes. Resemblance is not identity, though it can lead to mistaken identity. As applied to poetry, a “minimalist” tag refers to texts that are formally spare and verbally concise — but those features are common to such a disparate range of works that to remark them is obvious and does little to account for significant aesthetic differences among those works. Yet those differences determine a work’s relation to the “restricted economy” that the label implies. In my work, that relation is essentially oppositional.
In music, minimalism’s features are historically more determinate; they mark a turn to the use of limited materials, simpler forms, consonant tonality, and repetition — in part as a reaction to the increasing complexity and perceived impenetrability of postwar serial music. That turn and that reaction run counter to my poetics. While there are minimalist composers whose works I much enjoy, especially Riley and Adams, in practice I’m committed to serial approaches to structure and temporality.
It is only with regard to visual art and design that my work shares some historical affinities with minimalism. Both are critical of expressive form, and both have been influenced by Suprematism, Constructivism, the Bauhaus, and de Stijl — but they diverge in what they have taken from and subsequently made of those influences. For but one example, by focusing on the quiddity of its “bare essentials,” minimalist art achieves a state that Zukofsky calls “a rested totality” — a Euclidian objectification of timeless, ostensibly stable forms whose equilibrium, though compelling in its own right, I see in relation to the mobility of concepts as an “arrested totality.”
On the other hand, whatever formal balance my work achieves is both transient and dependent on resisting stasis. Its economy stems from the layering and compression of its diverse materials — which, under pressure, produce an “excess” of meaning — not from their radical reduction to “fundamentals” as the economy of minimalism requires. It isn’t so much the quiddity of a text that interests me, but the flux of contingent relations within and among its constitutive elements. That inherent instability is reflected in the poems’ use of sentential gaps, phonological variations, and shifts in linguistic register, which, taken together, serve to disrupt univocal meaning.
The “select words or lines” Ron points to are members of the sets qua poems to which they belong, even as those sets are members of a finite series. When we isolate elements of a text for analysis, we must do so in light of its total syntax, which warrants but does not foreclose on their interpretability. Such elements contribute to, and — in their part/whole relation to it — can significantly alter in unexpected ways the meaning of a text. But their occurrence, with regard to their frequency and location, and their significance with regard to the text as such, are neither predictable nor predictive. Happily not, I would say.
Harley: The compression you speak of also entails a vast amount of material being left out (what you, in Part I, called the “not-said”). How do you choose what words and phrases to actually put into your poems? Is there something comparable to Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” at work? Do you consciously set about pruning language to reveal that which is implicit, those multiple intensities of meaning beneath the surface of the text?
Pearson: However capacious the content it encodes, every text — by default or by design, and regardless of its scale or mode of production — leaves out far more than it includes. Yet the meaning-potential of its resources is robust and extends beyond its historical moment. This is so because the set of interpretations that it can be shown to support must include those that neither the writer nor her contemporary readers could have anticipated. A text’s singularity (its haeccity or “thisness”) not only derives from what it specifically includes, but also from how what it omits makes its inclusions legible. These are aesthetic determinations that reflect its disposition toward, and contribution to, what Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible.”
My experience of writing is that words “come to mind.” While my sources vary from work to work — some preselected and some serendipitous — they share a common origin in the set of all possible words. That set, the mother of all source domains, is both anterior and exterior to whatever use is made of it. Given a word, others may follow. The work under construction is their immediate context, even as they bear with them traces of contexts previously occupied. If a poem results, it exists as such — a poem and not the idea of one. It doesn’t preexist the actual conditions and labor that produce it, and for which no ontological narrative suffices to account.
I feel accountable to the words I use, but that use is determined by the logic of the poem as I come to understand it. I write to discover what the words have to say for themselves, beyond what I otherwise may have thought to say. If I already “know” what is there to be written, I have scant motivation to write it down. When I was a child, my mother’s father gave me a proverb that I like very much: Pensa molto, parla poco, scrivi meno [Think much, speak little, write less].
A poem’s vocabulary coevolves with the constraints that mediate its composition — an iterative process of selection, combination, substitution, and recombination, which, in my case, involves improvisation on and tinkering with the words that “come to mind,” as well as fostering their eventual coherence in the through-composed text that results. In that scheme, omission and deletion are modes of recombination. The decision to retain or to delete a word is based on my (more or less) informed understanding of its potential contribution to the text. And that contribution isn’t always semantic. A word may have rhythmic, sonic, or eidetic properties that warrant its inclusion.
“The iceberg theory,” as I understand it, presupposes that what Hemingway called the “underlying truth” or “symbolic meaning” of a story must be sought “beneath the surface” of the text. (Here cue the theme from Titanic, if not from Jaws.) In my view, however, what “underlies” a text is the paper on which it’s printed, or these days the virtual “page” on which it appears. To the universal “verities” of deep structure, I prefer the idiosyncratic particularities of inscribed surfaces. To the surface-depth model of textual meaning (or of consciousness, for that matter) I prefer one that posits a highly redundant, multifunctional, non-hierarchical network that continuously processes and interacts with its external environment (i.e., the world). The “multiple intensities of meaning” you invoke are derivatives of that interaction.
I agree with Mondrian, who said that “Everything is constituted by relation and reciprocity … there is only position in opposition to another position. That is why I say that relation is the principal thing.” Relations, of course, are not “things,” but connections among things. In my view, a serial work is a nexus of possible relations among the elements of which it is made — and which constitute it as a structure of consequence, within and beyond the constraints and procedures that condition its existence.
Harley: Would you say that your sparse method of parsing such relations is indicative of a deeply skeptical sensibility towards the capacities of language to articulate the world?
Pearson: I’d say that my method isn’t sparse; neither is my work. Sparseness denotes a thinly scattered array of elements within a medium — an attenuation of material that is the very opposite of the compression my method seeks. I would want to distinguish between the apparent density of a text — the ratio of its verbal mass to its volume — and the actual “weight” of the words themselves, which I attribute to their “content,” here understood as the heterogeneous ideas, perceptions, feelings, and memories that a word or phrase can elicit when placed under pressure. Subsequent attributions of meaning to that content are context-dependent variables of the critical frame within which interpretation is produced.
Certainly, there are limits to what language can say and do. But I have much more reason to be skeptical of my capacity “to articulate the world” — which is not to say I think the world as such requires such articulation. That strikes me as a uniquely human concern, if not a defining feature of “the human.” Given that the systemic limits of language exceed those of any discrete utterance, writing allows me to explore some fraction of the manifold syntax of the world, even as its articulation mediates my relations with the world as the site and destination of writing. The fate of the work in the world is a concern, but its construction (without which, nothing) is another and more immediate concern.
Harley: The first book of contingencies (the second movement of An Intermittent Music) is called “Coulomb’s Law,” a reference to C. A. Coulomb’s 1793 law of physics that describes the interaction between electrically charged particles. The book comprises sixty-four poems, which dart between and intertwine with references to jazz (“arpeggiated wonders / body and soul”), urban decay (“neighborhoods tourists never see”), word-pointedness (“Maladroit reflex stunts grip / in the gap between names and things”), and the relationship between language and desire (“Split shift (sly sex) opens / the lexicon to plea or please”). What informed your choice of title? Why foreground a formula for measuring levels of attraction and repulsion?
Pearson: If the first movement involves exposition (for example, of the “theme” of subjectivation), the second involves development of that theme. And that development came to require more varied and more explicit references to the social contexts and interactions that alter and complicate our relations to ourselves and with others. In effect, the social and political context that had tacitly environed the first movement becomes increasingly available as manifest content in the second — as in fact also happens in the process of subjectivation. On analogy, Coulomb’s Law seemed apt. It states that the force between two charged particles is directly proportional to the product of their charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This focus on the dialectic of attraction and repulsion — and the effects of proximity on those forces — is very much to the point (processually, not formulaically). And I must say that I do experience words as “charged particles,” whose meaning-potential includes and exceeds their lexical definitions, their etymologies, and the social as well as literary history and contexts of their usage.
Harley: One of the first things one notices when reading “Coulomb’s Law” is a significant formal shift that continues throughout the second movement. Rather than the short lines and irregular strophic forms that precede them, these poems are mostly quatrains — with occasional tercets and couplets — and they sometimes use end rhymes as well. What was the thinking behind this use of a more regular pattern? And why the intermittent employment of rhyme?
Pearson: Each of the first three movements has a distinctive formal setting, each of which is then refigured in the final movement or coda. The first movement parses a psychosocial topology, mapping its distinctive features onto strophes that may appear “irregular” but are in fact based on recurring numerical patterns (or rhythmic cells, if you will). The second movement recombines those features, folding them into one another. That required an expanded vocabulary, additional registers, increased verbal density, and more frequent use of parataxis to better articulate, and at greater length, the contingencies shaping the work as it progressed.
I wanted the quatrain as the “default” for this movement because I felt it would foster the infolding I was after, while providing a recursive platform for extended sets of variations. As well, in making a case for lyric techne in the context of Language writing, the counterintuitive use of the quatrain — one of the oldest and most ubiquitous of verse forms — and of various types of rhyme — was as challenging as it was strategic. As Cage once said of Mac Low’s work, it is poetry “even though it looks like poetry.”
Harley: The reference to diabolus in musica in the last line of “Coulomb’s Law” (#64) seems to hint at the social constructedness of sound, the social tendency to invest certain tonal arrangements with semiotic (if not semantic) properties.
Pearson: At the end of a very long series, I wanted to give the devil his due. The devil, in this case, is the tritone, which, as you know, plays a major role in the history of Western music, primarily because of its perceived impropriety in relation to culturally sanctioned notions of harmony and the so-called natural order — and, by implication, of the social order as well. Against these assumptions, I hear dissonance as a furthering of harmonic relations, a sounding of unexpected possibility in search of fresher ears. Dissonance as dissensus.
Sound is sound — a physical phenomenon — which, if it falls within a certain range of frequencies, is available to human perception. Tonal discrimination is based on the perception of relative difference, as are all acts of critical discernment. But the more than aesthetic problem that arises is not the perception of difference per se (the capacity for which is hardwired in us), but rather what we subsequently make of the differences we perceive — often with disastrous consequences. It is the essentially arbitrary, socially constructed, and ideologically inflected meaning we give to difference that conditions our often under examined responses to it. Texts that foreground the poetic function of language can be occasions to reflect on and critique so-called normative usages and values. That, wherever else, is a place where poetics and politics intersect.
Harley: Your lineation throughout encryptions — although far more regular than the stepped movements we associate with later Williams, Eigner, or Mackey — brings into play, as do their works, the semantic importance of space. Can this visual space be read as silence? Or are such spaces meant to suggest an absence, a void, nothingness? When read aloud, they are silences — but on the page?
Pearson: Before we proceed to read space as silence — which already involves an interpretive shift from the visual to the acoustic — we might first see what comes of reading space as space. “Music,” according to Debussy, “is the silence between notes.” This definition — which unwittingly anticipates and warrants Cage’s 4’33” — suggests that silence is the acoustic equivalent of “negative space.” If we then combine Debussy’s definition with Varèse’s — “Music is organized sound” — we might think of silence as the organizing principle by which “what is not” makes “what is” perceptible.
So, too, when we consider the page (to return to the visual realm), the question becomes whether negative space can first be read as constitutive of what appears on the page. Negative space is critical to the material production of a text — from the design and execution of the letter-forms and fonts we use, to the myriad typographical decisions that result in the final text image. At every point on the design spectrum, negative space contributes to the legibility, readability, color, and tone of a text. Thus, it contributes to meaning.
Equally important when we read a poem is that we learn to “hear with eyes.” Whatever else, a public reading is an extension or amplification of the private practice of silent (more precisely, subvocal) reading. Subvocalization importantly reduces the cognitive load imposed on us by written language and enhances our cognitive processing of it. A text’s phonological organization (including its silences) can variously reinforce, augment, and complicate its semantic dimension. Attending to its acoustic properties can only heighten our awareness of poetry as embodied thought.
Harley: I want to discuss, in far more detail, the role of silence in your poetry. John Thorpe compared your poetry to Webern, and certainly in Webern’s music the notes that are not written down — the gaps in the sound, the spaces, the silences — are arguably as important as those that are. John Cage has spoken many times about the impossibility of absolute silence. Do you metaphorize silence in your poetry? Or do you see it in purely acoustic terms, as one end of the spectrum of sound?
Pearson: Cage’s assertion was based on his experience in an anechoic chamber. Even with all external signals canceled, he heard the hum and rumble of his nervous and cardio systems. That’s possible because the chamber has an atmosphere, and sound waves are only perceptible in an atmosphere with a sufficient density of atoms per cubic foot. Silence is relative not only to the conditions under which we experience it, but also in relation to the sounds it shapes within the audible spectrum.
The actual word “silence” appears but rarely in my poems — on average, once every five years — and then it denotes the absence of language or of perceptible sound. In context, that absence lends itself to (and can invite) metaphorical interpretation, but the poems don’t insist on that. I prefer analogies to metaphors because analogy can interrogate logical relations beyond assertions of likeness or identity — given that poetic logic often deviates from the canons of “standard” logic, to good and necessary effect.
Harley: Apart from intralinear gaps between words, which you frequently use in contingencies, what strategies do you use to invoke silence? Does silence only acquire meaning — or at least acquire its richest meanings — when placed in highly formalized contexts?
Pearson: I don’t so much seek to invoke silence as to include it in my work. But I see it (as well as hear it) as a spatiotemporal element — one use of which is to signify duration, which affects the unfolding of the text as read. Within lines, I use two en-spaces to mark caesurae of slightly longer duration than those that a prosodically nuanced reading of a line might call for. In effect, they are gaps on the axis of combination that can increase polysemy, signal sentential shifts, alter syllabic stress, and effect lineal compression — effects produced between lines by line-breaks and by gaps between strophes and poems.
I don’t know that silence (qua space) can “only acquire meaning … in highly formalized contexts,” but it certainly can contribute to making meaning within such contexts — first, by helping to define lines and phrases, and then by creating voids in which emergent meanings can resonate and be tested and contested. The “richness” of those meanings depends as much on what the reader brings to them as on the settings I provide. Though I can neither predict nor control a reader’s response — nor would I want to — my settings do suggest a way of reading. My hope is that the reader-text relation will be in some way mutually informing, and that the reader will seek to steer a course between the Scylla of authorial intention and the Charybdis of an interpretive free-for-all.
Ted Pearson with wife Sheila Lloyd at Zeitgeist, Detroit, 2006.
Harley: “Coulomb’s Law” (1984) was followed one year later by “Mnemonics.” Mnemonic devices are learning techniques (often, but not necessarily verbal) that we use to enhance memory. An obvious example from music is the acronym “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” in which the first letters name, in ascending order, the notes that correspond to the lines of the treble staff. Your title suggests that each of the poems in “Mnemonics” serves a similar function; they encode information that may otherwise be difficult to recall. What prompted your interest in mnemonics at this point? What were you seeking to encode in these poems?
Pearson: For about as long as I’ve been writing poems, I’ve been fascinated by the oblique ways in which writing from experience and writing as experience interact, especially with regard to episodic memories — those encrypted shards of lived experience that can haunt the present of writing even as it looks to its horizon. In such instances, “information that may otherwise be difficult to recall” isn’t necessarily difficult to access — and may indeed be impossible to ignore. Rather, such information may be difficult to endure, particularly when doing so appears essential to understanding the impasse or trauma it represents.
A “mnemonics” is a system of memory devices, and writing can be one such system, albeit one that transforms (and re-forms) experience in the process of encoding it. This transformation results from the over-determined selection and placement of words in a text, especially one that foregrounds its “message,” which always arrives in the present. At any moment, what is present as memory exists in relation to what is not, or is no longer, present. I think here of Barthes’s observation that “to remember is also to acknowledge and to lose again what will not recur.”
Memory proceeds from an initial input to encode, rehearse, and reproduce information. Abetted by our affective enhancement of this input, these processes produce what we experience as memories (what we remember as our experience). “Coulomb’s Law,” for example, encodes what for me were significant (affectively enhanced) experiences that were concurrent with its composition. In the process, however, and as the epigraph from Celan suggests, the code itself becomes the present (evental) memory: “there remains in the midst of the losses, this one thing: language.” Yet I sensed in that “one thing” a splitting — between the language of a remainder (which memorializes that which has been lost), and language as remainder (that is, as the present content of memory, which “writes through” or “overwrites” experience in the process of making it available to thought).
“Mnemonics” continues to explore this splitting by taking as its object “the memory of memory” — a second-order mise-en-abyme that mirrors the reflexivity of a signifying chain. Its poems form a series of calls and responses within that hall of mirrors. Implicit in the minimal use of personal pronouns in the series is my sense that the memory of memory is strangely impersonal — and also temporally extensive, even as temporality in these poems is compressed and sedimented so as to bind the immemorial to the memorable. “From the plunge millennia / from the window miles of beach.”
Harley: “Mnemonics” takes as its epigraph a line by Mallarmé’: “Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore” [“Abolished trinket of sonorous inanity”]. In relation to the poems it introduces, this line seems darkly ironic, if not dismissive. What are you implying about the significance of the “events” you’re seeking to preserve?
Pearson: The epigraph reminds us that the meaning of any sign — even a “semblance of nought in vacuo,” as I later write in “Descant” — is only ever a translation into yet another sign, such that meaning is never “fixed” in time, but ranges over a potentially interminable circuit of transpositions. I took the epigraph from Mallarmé’s formidable “sonnet en -yx.” To abolish is to render something null and void, but the word derives from the Latin abolescere (“to decay little by little”). That — given the gradual effacement of “experience” by its successive reinscriptions in memory — is the sense of nullification I was after.
In Mallarmé’s poem, “bibelot” [trinket] refers to the antecedent phrase “nul ptyx.” But in contrast with translations that render “ptyx” [Greek, for “fold”] as a metonym for “seashell,” I follow the classicist Gretchen Kromer in linking “ptyx” and “bibelot” to Aeschylus’ phrase “en ptychais biblon” [“in the folds of the book”] — and we know the importance that the “fold” [pli] and “the Book” [le Livre] held for Mallarmé. Hence, the noun-phrase “nul ptyx” (which evokes a nullity folded on itself) exemplifies an empty signifier.
I suspect that Mallarmé may initially have been attracted to the phrase’s phonological value. Given the paucity of French words ending in -yx, it satisfies the constraint imposed by his rhyme scheme: solve for -yx. Moreover, “inanité” derives from the Latin inanitas, meaning emptiness, which allows me to trace through the sonnet a series of cancellations, of emptyings-out, gesturing toward the “the void eternally generative” to which Lu Chi refers in his Wen Fu [The Art of Writing] — and which he sees as the medium that warrants all acts of creation. Far from ironizing or dismissing the poems it introduces, the epigraph frames them as signs of past encounters with — and adamantly present instances of — that generative if existential void.
Harley: Mallarmé is renowned for his formal strictness, richly complicated syntax, and multilayered semantic content. He made it a goal of his art, as Malcolm Bowie has observed, to reclaim from music the “structural complexity” and “power of implication” that, in his view, were the birthright of poetry alone. As a poet who has spent much of your career thinking about the relations between language and music, to what extent do you share Mallarmé’s artistic aims in this regard?
Pearson: I value structural complexity because it engages and taxes the limits of thought, inviting “the unthinkable” and the highly improbable to the table (and, I would argue, that non-trivial complexity is built of “simple” if impenetrable elements). As well, I value the “power of implication” for its capacity to conjure what is and what might be otherwise from that which is not and may never have been (by which we learn, if indeed we do, to expect the unexpected). But I certainly don’t see those properties as unique to poetry, much less as a “birthright” to be reclaimed from music. Rather, I see Mallarmé’s “aims” in relation to Wagner, after whom, according to Mallarmé, “Music has met Verse to form Poetry” — and whose “ideal” of the total art work, or Gesamtkunstwerk, perhaps inspired Mallarmé’s final project: the unwriteable “Book” in which he imagined the “essence” of all literature and reality would be distilled.
Physics seems to have taken up the Mallarméan quest for a “theory of everything.” But since every theory, sooner or later, is humbled by its epistemic limits, I think poetry is better suited to the pursuit of “everything else” — as supplement, as excess, as rare event — the equally Mallarméan quest for the flower “l'absente de tous bouquets.” In cultivating that imaginary garden, I don’t see music as a rival to poetry, but as a resource for compositional strategies. For example, as in the case of “nul ptyx,” there are moments when a vocable might insist itself on a text, even if its semantic value is unclear or null. But that is not a matter of wresting anything from music. As Williams professes in Spring and All: “I do not believe writing would gain in quality or force by seeking to aspire to the condition of music.”
Harley: Pierre Boulez described his composition Pli selon pli (1957) — which takes its title from Mallarmé’s sonnet “Remémoration d’amis belges” — as an attempt to “transpose” the formal strictness of Mallarmé’s poetry into music. Boulez claimed, when reflecting on the work in 1999, that what interested him as a musician most about Mallarmé’s writings were “the transitions between complete intelligibility and comprehensibility and ever decreasing intelligibility. The interstices, the varying degrees of the intervals, which so highly charge a sentence or a word with “information” that, for example, at the end of a sentence or word one no longer knows how it began, simply because after a certain length of time continuity turns into discontinuity.” Do you share Boulez’s interest in Mallarmé’s “transitions” and “interstices”?
Pearson: Yes. Those are among the features that I value most in his work, though I’d suggest that rather than “decreasing intelligibility,” they in fact reconfigure the intelligible, which I would argue is the task of art. Mallarmé’s “fold by fold” compression and reworking of textual space-time — his awareness of time’s plasticity and multidirectional flows — are critical in this regard. We can see in his use of “remémoration” that the very act of composition “calls forth” a vision or version of the present that is at once fragile and buttressed between an inaccessible past and an unknowable future.
Also implicit in Boulez’s remarks is the immense difficulty, if not impossibility, of holding in mind the originary “cell” of a tone row as it passes through its myriad transpositions, inversions, and retrogressions in the course of a performance. It is much easier to track these metamorphoses in the back-and-forth process of reading a printed score. Where “live audition” relies on short-term memory, which acoustically encodes a very limited quantity of information, reading allows for long-term memory, which is far more capacious, and is thought to be based on semantic coding.
That may be how “writing is an aid to memory” — as the title of Lyn Hejinian’s marvelous book proposes, and as the text of that book richly complicates. In fact, I would link the challenges posed to thought by discontinuity and “unintelligibility” to Lyn’s insight that “variations on ideas are now full / problems” — a phrase in which we recognize, and are challenged to pursue, an epistemic adventure.
Grand Piano authors at reading in Detroit, 2008.
Harley: Are you ever tempted to return to composing or performing music? Or are you content working in the realm of language?
Pearson: I’ve never been seriously tempted to return to the practice of music — in part, because I’ve never regretted my turn to poetry, and, as a purely practical matter, because I couldn’t hope to regain what’s been lost to decades of musical inactivity. Music at the level that interests me most is not a forgiving art; it requires an order of commitment that I choose to give to poetry. As Chaucer writes: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” In fact, it’s only recently that I’ve picked up an instrument again, and that was prompted by working on The Grand Piano, specifically Etudes 7 and 8 which reflect on my time in music and what I took from it into poetry. I thought to use my alto sax as a kind of mnemonic device, which worked to a certain extent. As it turned out, the experience of playing again was eerily familiar — and not. More than a little unheimlich.
As for the prospect of being “content” with my chosen medium, I defer to Muddy Waters’ classic recording from 1948: “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” While I take great pleasure in working on a text, any satisfaction in the results of that labor is fleeting. Even as writing reliably exposes one’s more than technical limitations, it demands that one push beyond them. In effect, I think each next text “writes through” the texts that have preceded it. The rubric here, as Beckett says, is “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It is the hope sans expectation of failing “better” (whatever that might mean) that keeps me going.
Harley: “Catenary Odes” (1987) is the third book of contingencies. “Catenary” (from the Latin catena: chain) refers to the curved shape assumed by any freely hanging chain (or other string-like structure) suspended between two fixed points and acted upon solely by gravity. Your epigraph, from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale — “By wire, by wing, by wind, by chance” (which translates a line from the eleventh poem of his twenty-part Motetti, 1934–38) — seems to link the mathematical shape of the catenary with the artistic voice; what Montale, in Alan Marshfield’s translation, calls a “soul, diffuse” whose echoes “go, / by favour of the muse or artifice, / joyful or sad.” Are these poems informed by the notion of a curved, naturally (and mathematically) recurring voice? If not, what was the thinking behind the title and epigraph?
Pearson: Montale’s phrase, “La tua voce” [your voice], provokes us to identify its addressee. Inasmuch as the Motetti are love poems, the literal addressee might be Irma Brandeis, the Dante scholar and intimate of Montale. But on a figurative level, I associate that “voice” with poetic discourse as such — in Barthes’s suggestive phrase, “the rustle of language” — and not with “the artistic voice” or the poet’s voice, so called. On that view, the epigraph identifies modes of transmission exterior but also accessible to the writing subject. They are instances of the “outside” I look to for poetry. As well, I read “quest’anima diffusa” not as “that soul, diffuse,” but as “that instrument[al] emanation” — a less obvious but equally attestable rendering — as is my idiomatic reading of “col / favore” as “under the cover” or “in the guise” — “della musa o d’un ordegno” — “of the muse or a machine.”
Formally, my “Odes” are split quatrains. On analogy with the gravitational attraction that produces a catenary’s characteristic shape, I wanted to see how “syntagmatic attraction” would negotiate (arc across) the space between those “couplets.” The properties of a catenary that interested me here are that it is “perfectly flexible, uniformly dense, and inextensible.” I imagined those properties might inform how meaning accrues and changes from line to line.
Harley: The next book of contingencies is “Descant,” which you once described to Charles Bernstein as a work that is concerned with “compression on the one hand and fullness … duration on the other.” In that conversation, you note that it took two years to complete “Descant,” working at least two hours a day. Why so long to compose twenty-four quatrains that can be read, as you told Bernstein, in “about ten minutes”?
Pearson: The context was a taping session for the LINEbreak series, which Charles coproduced with Martin Spinelli in Buffalo. Prior to my reading “Descant,” Charles played straight man and asked, “What’s it about?” So I replied, “It’s about ten minutes.” Aside from sharing a laugh, I wanted to emphasize the relation between compression and duration in my work. Early on, I took to heart Cage’s maxim that “there are no aesthetic emergencies.” It takes as long as it does to discover what a work requires and subsequently offers — and for me a fair amount of that time involves working through and around the limitations of what I otherwise presume to “know” about it. The longue durée of that working through is as central to my practice as are the intermittently occurring intensities (qua poems) that it produces. It’s not a matter “settling” for words I can live with having written, but rather of learning to recognize the words that the poem can’t do without. In the case of “Descant,” my inveterate slowness as a writer was compounded by moving to New York from California in the summer of ’88.
Harley: Your title, as ever, was carefully chosen. As a noun, “descant” has multiple meanings, and as a musical term, it has a range of usages. For example, it can denote a counter-melody, often improvised, frequently ornamental, pitched above the basic melody that it accompanies. But I suspect that as a poet who eschews “self-expression,” you would resist interpretations of the title that imply your song or “voice” functions somehow “above” or apart from others. And as a poet who works slowly, with Webernesque attention to detail, you also would resist any notion that you improvise on words for merely decorative purposes. I wonder, then, whether the title is profoundly ironic — or, since as a verb “descant” means to discourse on a theme, if that was the sense you had in mind?
Pearson: Unintended irony and ornament aside, why might “descant” not function here as both a verb and a noun? As verb, the title signals the imperative mood, a form of exhortation. With my fortieth birthday not far off — “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” — and approaching the midpoint of An Intermittent Music, I challenged myself to compose a text that would reflect contrapuntally, and in a “higher” more improvisatory register, on the work that had preceded it. Hence, as noun, the title refers to a specific mode of discourse.
Descant, as you note, was often improvised — and early descant was actually pitched below the cantus firmus or “fixed song.” It was considered a subordinate, if presumably devotional, embellishment of the canonical text and was therefore “outside the canon.” Idle speculation on my part suggests that over time the presumed gravitas of the canon required it to occupy a more “foundational” (hence, lower) pitch-domain, leaving the upper register to the descant. And in fact the term, in that sense, derives from the phrase discantus supra librum — “a part-song above the book.”
Since I was positioning “Descant” in counterpoint to my previous work, I gave improvisation a freer rein. Against canonicity’s presumed authority to enforce hierarchies of form and practice, I don’t consider improvisation subordinate or inferior to through-composition. Rather, I see them as equally compelling approaches to composition, even as they typically present somewhat different aesthetic risks and rewards. And as a poet, I rely on both to go about my work.
On analogy with musical voicing, the “higher” register I sought refers to extending semantic meanings beyond their “normal range” of usage (in music, tessitura). I was looking for a “new” language, albeit one internally derived from my extant work. One “model” that occurred to me at the time was Charlie Parker’s account of having found a way to play what he’d been hearing in his head by revoicing “Cherokee,” a jam-session staple, using diminished fifths and sevenths — hence improvising “dissonantly” above the original or “canonical” melody. Formally, this recalls discantus supra librum, as well as the harmonic “sacrilege” of diabolus in musica.
Harley: The epigraph to “Descant” is from Arthur Rimbaud’s “Départ”: “Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs” [Departure in new affection and new noise]. How does this celebration of artistic renewal inform your words in “Descant”?
Pearson: “Descant” is literally a book of departures. I was anticipating my departure from the Bay Area and my departure to a “new life” elsewhere. I began it in the fall of ’87, as my then partner was herself preparing to go on the academic market. It was all but given that we’d be leaving California, a prospect I viewed with some ambivalence. To that point, I had lived almost all of my life within an hour’s drive of my birthplace. Most of my friends and many of my closest colleagues in poetry lived in the Bay Area, and my family had been in California for seven generations. Yet despite those roots, and the quality of life I enjoyed there, it was time for a change.
As work on “Descant” proceeded, I came to see it as the text I had been working toward since coming to poetry, so it represented a culmination as well as a new beginning. On the one hand, it was a farewell and an homage to the only “home” I’d ever known and the writing community that had sustained me there. On the other, it was, as you suggest, an assertion of “artistic renewal” — which included my coming to accept the fact that I was, after all, a poet. Strange as that might sound in light of the work I’d already produced, it had remained difficult for me to overcome the diffidence I felt toward “being a poet” — as distinct from my commitment to “writing poetry” (which, mistakenly or not, is what I thought I was doing). That acceptance and my sense of renewal are reflected in the “new noise” of the book’s syntax and diction.
Harley: The final book of contingencies, “Planetary Gear” (1991) comprises sixty-two poems, making it your second-longest book after “Coulomb’s Law,” which has sixty-four poems. It seems even more focused on the “microtonic word,” as you call it, than the books that precede it, and your method becomes even more wide-ranging and semantically restless: neologisms (such as “Xenobodacious”) begin to be play a greater role in your exploration of resonant slippage within language, “microtonic” deviations around socially and culturally delineated meanings.
Pearson: An overview of contingencies would reveal “Coulomb’s Law” and “Planetary Gear” as its antipodes. The decade spanned by those poles ran from the “Reagan Revolution” to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which (with its plot points of crises and proxy wars) had until then been coterminous with the life of my generation. More “locally,” my experience of daily life in the ’80s, in a right-wing state under late capitalism, was the context for the second movement and the source of much of its content. Allowing for my characteristic modes of encryption, that content is perhaps more explicit in “Planetary Gear” than previously — as is the larger work’s turn toward cultural poetics.
I say “turn” advisedly because the title refers to a system of gears that revolve around a central gear — and the midpoint of An Intermittent Music (which has 496 poems) occurs between the last poem in “Descant” and the first poem in “Planetary Gear.” Among the characteristics of this system of gearing are that it produces large reduction in a small volume, increased power density, multiple kinematic combinations, and pure torsional reactions, and it involves high bearing-loads and design complexity — attractive qualities indeed.
The introduction of neologisms and “microtonic deviations” that you remark upon was an extension of the “higher register” I had sought in “Descant.” Thirty of the thirty-five neologisms in An Intermittent Music (.002 percent of its lexicon) appear in or after “Planetary Gear” — and I turned to them only when I couldn’t get the microtones of meaning I needed by other means. Perhaps more revealing of my writing practice than my use of neologism is that one-fourth of all words in An Intermittent Music (.26 percent of its lexicon) are hapax legomena: words used only once in the entire work. And that percentage almost doubles if we exclude “function words.”
Further to your point about my focus on “microtonic variations” is the role of connotation in the production of meaning. Connotation not only supplements the primary meaning of a word, it actually determines its contextual significance. In logic, it refers to the set of attributes that constitute the meaning of a term and so determine the range of objects to which that term may be applied — and I think that holds for poetic logic and for poetry’s “objects” well.
Harley: songs aside, the third movement of An Intermittent Music, comprises four books — “Acoustic Masks,” “The Devil’s Aria,” “Hard Science,” and “Parker’s Mood” — composed between 1992 and 2002. You adopt a new form for these poems, each of which has four short couplets with stepped margins, and you make more expansive use of the page than previously. How does this movement function in relation to the overall structure of the work? Why was a new formal strategy required for enacting this content?
Pearson: Each movement has one fewer book than the one before it, so songs aside is a “quartet.” Its first two books (thirty-six and twenty-four poems, respectively) are nonidentical mirror-images of its last two (twenty-four and thirty-six), an enantiomorphic structure that supports the nonidentical mirroring that plays throughout this movement, which can be read as a masque of subject-effects produced under neoliberalism. The title refers to Mallarmé’s Chansons Bas — poems written as captions for Les Types de Paris, a series of drawings by Jean-François Raffaëlli. As the various shadings of “bas” suggest, the poems are “asides,” which appear “under” the portraits on whose “common” subjects they comment “from below.”
In keeping with the analogy to sonata form, songs aside recapitulates the earlier movements, albeit in a different register. The form its poems take results from combining the spare, often enjambed lineation of the first movement and the denser, more paratactic prosody of the second. I wanted to emphasize scalar relations of its lines, strophes, and poems. Each poem in songs aside can be read as a set of four couplets; as a pair of “split” quatrains, marked by the “back step” at line five, and as single octaves whose eight stepped lines suggest a descending scale. The steps and expanded text-area serve to evoke the masque’s underlying “choreography.”
Harley: Given that framework, could you gloss how your “chronic ideas,” to borrow Lyn Hejinian’s phrase, play out through this “quartet”?
Pearson: In my case, “chronic puzzlements” would be more like it. But I can suggest the settings in which the books address subject formation — from nonidentical mirroring (in which the subject, alienated from itself, enters the Symbolic Order) to interpellation (as the ideological masque of political subjectivation, such that even as the subject is not “one,” neither is it reducible to its so-called “positions”) — and through which libidinal, poetic, and political economies interact with and articulate each other.
“Acoustic Masks” responds to the resurgence of the “culture wars” in the early ’90s. In that milieu, political conflict was widely attributed to conflicting “cultural values,” which, as did others, I read as a rhetorical move to use “culture” as a mask for “ideology.” Not for the last time, public discourse was increasingly shrill — and rife with interpellation. As the neoliberal agenda advanced under Clinton, my political compass showed “unlimited drift / to the right” (as noted in “Parker’s Mood”). Given widespread antipathy to critical thinking, reasoned discussion in the public sphere can be very hard to come by, whence the epigraph from Lacan: “They have ears so as not to hear.”
The book’s title refers to a class of instruments called “singing membranophones,” more specifically, a type of African “tube-mirliton” constructed by placing a spider web over one open end of a bird bone. When a player sings or speaks through the other end, the effect is to alter or mask the player’s voice, so the instrument functions as an acoustic mask — and does so even more when played through the mouth-hole of a ritual mask. In this book (as throughout the movement), the masque is a contiguous series of masks, through which a rather disparate array of subject-effects, qua personae, “speak.”
“The Devil’s Aria” seeks to reaffirm the value of the aesthetic against its detractors, especially those who attack or dismiss avant-garde (or, more broadly, experimental) practices on cultural or political grounds. The poems’ dissensus is directed equally at the aestheticization of the political and the politicization of the aesthetic. In that spirit, the book’s title is intended to establish a “vernacular” tone; it is both a homophonic contraction of Dante’s title, De Vulgari Eloquentia, and a nod to discrepant lyricism — “the Devil in the music” — embodied in the purposive (if occasionally ludic) use of rhyme, cued by the epigraph from Laura Riding Jackson: “And if occasionally a rhyme appeared / This was the illness but not the death.” Extrapolating from her poem — whose “subject” is death, not poetry — I read “rhyme” as both symptomatic of a departure from “normal” usage and as a sign of “the poetic function.” While the invention of new forms can produce new content, I would argue that repurposing “older” forms or technologies, such as rhyme, is by no means “fatal” to the production of new content.
“Hard Science” follows as an outsider’s portrait of Detroit, where I lived and worked for nine years. It seeks to locate the previous aesthetico-political discussion in a specific setting and habitus. Yet even as its references are largely site-specific, the book assumes Detroit’s iconic status as a bellwether for the decline of industrial capitalism, the resultant immiseration of affected communities, and the pervasive effects of racism, including economic and environmental racism, on the everyday lives of many. And, as the poems also suggest, periodic attempts to “save” or to reimagine the city are impeded not only by external forces, but also by the difficulty in overcoming entrenched attitudes and policies — and by a historically explicable if counterproductive siege mentality, wary if not dismissive of “outside” ideas and perspectives.
Harley: That brings us to “Parker’s Mood,” the final book in songs aside. Meta DuEwa Jones calls “jazz” poems — or more precisely, “jazz-inflected” poems — those which reference jazz either thematically (by mentioning specific performers, titles, clubs, styles, and so on) or structurally (by adopting jazz-associated practices, such as improvisation), or both. “Parker’s Mood” refers to Charlie Parker’s themeless blues improvisation, and there are many examples of jazz entering your poetry in quite explicit ways. To cite but a few lines (spanning decades and out of context): “With a hint of a smile / a ghost of a chance” — “Gonadology / jitterbug waltz” — “arpeggiated wonders / body and soul” — “April in Paris / a season in hell” — “memento mori / these foolish things / a tree where late / the Yardbird sings” — and “a cool breeze / don’t explain.” Do you see yourself, in Jones’s terms, as a jazz poet, a composer of “jazz-inflected” poems?
Pearson: I did take the title from Parker’s classic 1948 recording, which, as you note, is a themeless improvisation — or perhaps one whose theme remains unstated but suffuses the entire composition. Parker effectively essays the evolution of the blues — blues culture as well as blues form, filtered through his medium and his lived experience — in three impeccable minutes. In the process, he achieves a remarkable fusion of emotional articulacy and compositional logic. In that spirit, I wanted to attempt a “time-lapse” retrospective of cultural life as I experienced it from the mid-1960s (when I was active in music as well as poetry) to the completion of songs aside in 2002.
By Jones’s definition, I seem to have written any number of “jazz-inflected” lines. But no, I don’t see myself as a jazz poet. I did spend some years playing jazz — and have spent a lifetime listening to it. And it’s true that my writing does make thematic and structural use of it at times. But I’ve made such use of other musics, and various non-musical sources besides, so I wouldn’t privilege one source, however dear to me, over others. As well, “jazz poetry” is closely linked to performance traditions rooted in orature — e.g., dramatic recitation by bards and griots, scat singing, spoken-word poetry, and free-style rap — traditions that don’t significantly inform my practice.
Grand Piano reading in New York City, 2011.
Harley: encryptions, the final movement of An Intermittent Music, includes three books — “Phase Rule,” “Dark Matter,” and “Null Set” — which are laden with “negativity.” In the first book, you allude to Schopenhaurean pessimism: “The world as will a double negative” (#33). In the second, we find “the historical subject / stuck in traffic / on the via negativa” (#12). And in the last, you refer (self-referentially? self-parodically?) to your poems as “psalms of negation” (#4). How has negativity proven generative for you in your writing? And why, as a concept, was it particularly relevant while composing encryptions in the first decade of this century?
Pearson: In my final etude for The Grand Piano, I write: “The motto of my so-called career would be this: possibility inheres in its negation. As a poet, there’s no limit to what I cannot do. Dear Negativity, how many words you’ve spared me. Which is to say I find it impossible to write unless and until I am writing. Then (and only then) is it impossible not to.” Subtended by these twin “impossibilities” is my belief that poetry must be motivated by something more consequential than the desire to engage in what Adorno calls “a mode of conduct adapted to production as an end in itself.” In my view, that something more is a commitment to extending the practice of poetry as art into a critical method of interrogating the culture in which it arises.
In that etude, I also suggest that “the politics of writing begin with the refusal to know one’s place — except as a ground of contestation and critical intervention.” As Barrett notes in The Constructivist Moment, “If there is one criterion of the avant-garde with which its critics all agree, it is of the avant-garde’s historical origins in a negative moment of refusal of the culture from which it emerges.” While such refusal may take many forms, I think its aesthetico-political significance depends on how, and to what extent, it engages in what Dante calls “la battaglia della diversi pensieri” [“the battle of diverse thoughts”]. On analogy with Adorno’s “negative dialectics” — which proposes a mode of critical thinking that resists co-optation by the state’s apparatus of domination — poetry’s modes of critical intervention must resist recuperation by the prevailing cultural regime.
For one example of how my work finds its possibility in negation, we might look at the line you cite from “Phase Rule,” which includes a redaction of Schopenhauer’s title, The World As Will and Representation. My thinking was that whatever follows “as” in such constructions is always already a representation of what Schopenhauer, after Kant, calls “the thing in itself.” Since “will” in Schopenhauer also refers to “striving” and “desire” — and since “desire” (pace Deleuze and Guattari) can be said to signal “lack” — I read “will” qua “desire” as a sign of productive negativity.
“Representation” refers in turn to the mental image or idea one forms in response to an object external to oneself. Implicit here is the relation of nonidentity between the “thing” and the “idea” of the thing. (In passing, I’ll note my dissent from the Platonism of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics.) Also implicit, for me but not for Schopenhauer, is the perceiving subject’s alienation from and nonidentity with the objects of the “world” — a further entailment of desire and lack in which I read “representation” as another sign of negativity. Whence, the line in question became: “The world as will a double negative.”
(For more on the structure of encryptions and the social context of its negativity, see our interview in Hambone 19. For an incisive and multidisciplinary analysis of negativity, see Barrett Watten’s The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics, especially chapters 4, 6, and 8. And for an exemplary instance of the creative, genre-bending uses of negativity, see Carla Harryman’s Adorno’s Noise.)
Harley: In “Phase Rule,” you write: “Impossible music visible scars // in sintered chords from beaten brass / the anarchy of production masks // an infinitely small vocabulary” (#8). What does “impossible” mean in this context? I was thinking about your comments in our interview for Hambone 19 in which you explicitly situated yourself as a formalist, and not an expressivist, in terms of music-language relations. Can you elaborate on this concept of music’s “impossibility”?
Pearson: I think we’ve covered my take on those relations in our interview for Hambone 19 and in the first part of this one. But I will add that I use “music” in my poems as a kind of linguistic marker — an “x-factor” in their composition that I find consistently generative. Here, though, let me recall what I can of the thinking behind my use of “impossible” in “Phase Rule” #8.
I began by reflecting on Spicer’s discussion of dictation in “Vancouver Lecture #3.” There, he acknowledges that even when “the Outside is dictating the thing [qua poem],” the poet can never completely “get [her]self out of it.” He says, “It’s just impossible to make your mind a blank.” And in my experience, he’s right. Try as I might when writing to hear what language has to say “for itself,” there’s always a certain amount of “static,” of psychological noise (and the definition of “psychological noise” bears uncanny resemblance to ideology). For meditators, maybe that static goes away. But that, as they say in zazen, is “just sitting.” Ergo, it’s not “just writing,” the practice that concerns me here. Absent the “ideal” transmisssion that the poetry of dictation proposes, the “music” (a figure of “pure” content) is “impossible” because it can’t come through the static — and, I would argue, is also impossible precisely because it’s an “ideal.”
But, there’s still the poetry that does come through — not as music in its sonic “purity,” but as language in all its semantic “impurity,” which we read as text, as “visible scars,” on the formerly blank (blanc) page. OR, as my second line then suggests, perhaps the real “music” of language does come through; perhaps it just is the “static” — indeterminate in pitch and overdetermined in meaning. Thus, as at the end of “Thing Music,” Spicer echoes 1 Corinthians with “The sounding brass of my heart says / ‘Love’” — my line echoes Spicer’s with “sintered chords from beaten brass.”
My third line “hears” the resulting clamor as “the anarchy of production” — on analogy with “tonal production” — thus recalling the presence of psychological (and ideological) “noise” in the mix, and playing off the Marxist notion that, in the neoliberal reorganization of the economy, unequal development of that economy and the social consequences of that inequality are inevitable. In the poem, (tonal) anarchy is said to “mask / an infinitely small vocabulary.” Readers of Spicer will immediately recognize that the line is taken from After Lorca — the book from which his poetics of dictation takes off, and in which Spicer asserts several times that “The perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary” — another “impossible” figure.
Harley: In “Null Set,” the final book of An Intermittent Music, you assert that it is “Difficult as ever / to speak of paradise.” What does that mean in terms of poetry’s ability to engage with the myriad problems that currently beset the world?
Pearson: I trust that it means what it says: that such engagement is as “difficult” as it is necessary. But I think what’s at stake here is the notion of “paradise” as a figure for the relation between utopian thought and negativity. In that context, a funny thing happened on the way to utopia. Thomas More’s adoption of the New Latin word blends the Greek words “ou-topia” [“no place”] and “eu-topia” [“good place”], which in Greek are phonologically distinct, but in English are homophones. Idiosyncratically, I read that transliteration as installing negativity in paradise — an outcome represented in religious lore as the serpent in the garden (a representation that, in “Catenary Odes,” I dismiss as “mamboid eschatology”).
So to get at the sense of the utopian that I’m after, I look to the pre-religious meanings of “paradise.” Early adaptations of the Avestan word pairi.daêza [“walled around”] can refer to an enclosure, a cultivated garden, an estate, a royal park — even a menagerie, as in the Greek ho parádeisos. From these usages, I take such notions as a built environment; a cultural domain; an intentional, socially constructed space — without recourse to pre- and post-lapsarian narratives and without eschatological baggage. Though the “good place” (eutopia) that ideally obviates the “myriad problems that beset the world” is nowhere (outopia) to be found — and may be no more than a thought experiment — I believe the possibility of “failing better,” in social as well as aesthetic terms, “inheres in its negation.”
What I derive from utopia’s encounter with negativity (and what informs my sense of poetry’s engagement with the world as such) is what Ernst Bloch called “the principle of hope” — which for me is a hope that remains undiminished by the fact of its wild improbability. I think here of Badiou’s rendering of Pauline hope “as a simple imperative of continuation, a principle of tenacity, of obstinacy.” It is that hope which underlies “Null Set” (#11) — the final poem in An Intermittent Music:
The wind in the wires
is also song
of which no words
as what was written
must now be
over (and over)
in the archive
of an image
that is not a song
but a cipher
to the many
that more shall be
Harley: Thanks, Ted. Any final thoughts before we wrap this up?
Pearson: Simply to say that I’ve enjoyed our exchanges, and that I’m deeply grateful for your generosity and devotion to my work. I also want to thank John Tranter for his initial interest in this interview — and Julia Bloch and her colleagues at Jacket2 for following through. I realize that it’s a bit strange to have focused on a work that is not yet available in its final, substantially revised form. For now, while the manuscript seeks a publisher, I’d invite interested readers to check out Songs Aside (Past Tents Press, 2003) and Encryptions (Singing Horse Press, 2007). And with that:
1. From a conversation that took place in May 1999 at IRCAM in Paris, translated by Richard Evidon, available here.