LINEbreak: Barbara Guest in conversation with Charles Bernstein

A transcript of the 1995 radio show

Charles Bernstein and Barbara Guest at the New York Public Library, April 23, 1999. Photo by Star Black.

Editorial note: Barbara Guest (1920–2006) was the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including Fair Realism (1989), Defensive Rapture (1993), and Quill, Solitary Apparition (1996). In 2008, Wesleyan University Press published her Collected Poems. The following conversation was recorded in 1995 for LINEbreak, produced and directed by Martin Spinelli and hosted by Charles Bernstein for the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo, at the Charles Morrow and Associates Studio in New York. The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited by Katie L. Price and Charles Bernstein. A sound file of the original recording is available at Guest’s PennSound page. You can read Bernstein’s “Composing Herself: Barbara Guest” in Jacket 29. — Katie L. Price

Charles Bernstein: This is LINEbreak. I’m Charles Bernstein. On today’s program: “The Art of Poetry” with Barbara Guest. Barbara, it’s a pleasure to have you here on the program. I wondered if you would read “A Reason” from your new selected poems.

Barbara Guest: I would like to read “A Reason.” The reason I’d like to read it is because it’s from my first book, The Location of Things.

[Reads poem.] 

Bernstein: You must have written that poem in the 1950s?

Guest: 1960s. The book was published in 1960.

Bernstein: How has poetry changed for you in the last thirty-five years?

Guest: Well, it has changed because poets have changed. I have changed, but my sensibility is the same. The group that called themselves the New York poets, with whom I was connected, were just starting out. We were trying to experiment and we had certain ideas about the way poetry should be written. We were not going to write about ordinary things unless they were encased in extraordinary thought. We were influenced by European poets. We were not exactly daisy pickers. [Laughs.]

Bernstein: Was there company in the work for you at that time?

Guest: Yes, there was. We arrived, somewhat simultaneously, with the abstract expressionism. Most of us, four or five, were involved in painting. We reflected the ideas of the painters. They, in turn, often reflected our ideas and we collaborated. There was much more emphasis on painting and poetry together.

Bernstein: That has always interested me about your work. There is often a discussion of the relation of the New York school, and other poets in different contexts, to painting or to the visual arts. But your work has a very close formal relationship to aspects of painting. How would you describe that connection?

Guest: It’s a connection that I have somewhat broken, but when it was in full flower, it was very agitated because I did collaborations with painters. A few certain tenets I still remember, such as the nonimportance of the subject: the subject finds itself.

Bernstein: The subject matter in this case. You can also talk about the subject as the person.

Guest: Yes, the subject matter. I was talking to some students in Santa Fe. They were very worried when I asked, “What have you been writing?” They said, “Well, not very much.” I realized they were more disturbed by what they didn’t want to write about, so I told them that the subject matter wasn’t important. And this released them. They were thrilled. They went around for days saying, “She said the subject doesn’t matter!” The idea is that sometimes you find the subject as you proceed with the poem. It’s a good rule. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a good rule.

Bernstein: Can you read “Parachutes”?

Guest: Yes, this subject just found itself. I think it was written in late fall.

[Reads “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher”.]

Bernstein: Rereading that poem after many years, does it seem different to you?

Guest: It seems like a poem that I might have written. I’m kind of pleased I wrote it, but I’m very far away from it. A way of explaining that might be to read a new poem next to it. This is a recent poem. I have a barometer outdoors that I bought in France. It tells you what the weather is like by saying, in French, different names. This, for instance, is “Neige Fondante,” which means melting snow, so it’s that cold. Sometimes it says hot is wagadou. This is “Neige Fondante.”

[Reads poem.]

Bernstein: Where do you feel the discontinuities and the continuities are between these poems at the two ends of your work chronologically?

Guest: I see that I’m still interested in weather.

Bernstein: Which is what changes.

Guest: Yes.

Bernstein: Always changes.

Guest: In this poem, I’ve gone outside of the idea of love to a broader look at the world in which Keats at Chichester was thinking about the eve of Saint Agnes. I brought a literary allusion into it.

Bernstein: How about imagination, is that something that goes through your work?

Guest: Well, you know that I preach it.

Bernstein: I couldn’t let it go by. This is the time for a poet to preach, on the radio, right? This is our only chance. [Both laugh.]

Guest: I want to get there before somebody else does. I believe in imagination, and I think it’s disappearing. It has become a harder quality. It is not as fluid as it used to be. It’s more something you chip off the old block. It’s not used so much because practicality seems to be a vision of the future. Within imagination, there aren’t too many corridors for the practical.

Bernstein: Practicality is in contrast to imagination for you?

Guest: Yes.

Bernstein: And yet, you’re kind of an old-time pragmatic person, just leading a life.

Guest: Yes, but I don’t believe in pragmatism. I’m not an Emersonian.

Bernstein: No? 

Guest: No. [Both laugh.] I don’t believe in it at all.

Bernstein: Because you’re not an Emersonian and you’re not a pragmatist, I won’t ask you what you are, because you don’t have to be anything in that case.

Guest: I’m not John Dewey. [Laughs.] I’m an old-fashioned – I suppose you could say – imagist. How’s that?

Bernstein: What does imagism mean then?

Guest: It used to mean using an image to replace an idea. I think now I would like a few ideas to enter in also — sideways, next to the imagination. But the imagination is being usurped by mundanity. It doesn’t have to be at all. I think it can fit into the new world. It’s just that one must remember that it’s there. And that it’s not funny; it’s not humor. It’s something fluid, which can twist itself into a poem.

Bernstein: One of your books is entitled Fair Realism. Is fair realism kind of like the fair lady? Are you a realist?

Guest: Fair is beauty, but it is also a shining object. I’m trying to remember Goethe’s phrase about the moment: “Stay, thou art … stay, thou art too lovely” [Verweile doch! du bist so schön!]. Since [fair is] an old-fashioned, almost medieval word with an “e” on it, is sometimes the way I spell it to myself, but it’s an aspect of realism that presents a fair countenance if you want to look into it, into its fair aspect.

Bernstein: Fair is lovely. It also has a somewhat pragmatic quality in that it’s decent realism, or well-distributed realism, as opposed to absolute realism. It’s a modifier, which is interesting.

Guest: [Laughs.] It’s a modifier. Exactly.

Bernstein: It modifies in a number of different ways that encourage my intuitive thinking toward meaning or possible meanings. There’s a particular poem in Fair Realism which talks about, or exemplifies this. It’s called “An Emphasis Falls on Reality.”

Guest: Yes this poem actually explains the meaning of fair.

[Reads poem. The text of this poem is here.]

Bernstein: Are the poems in that book, or your books, interconnected for you? Or do you see them as discrete?

Guest: I think the books connect. The technique is different, but one’s preoccupations — surfing for example … a handbook of surfing, which was actually about war — [remains] a part of you as you change. If I can read it, I have a later poem, “The Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights.” That poem happened because of where I lived in New York City. I would look out my window and there were all these white cars parked out there every night. I found the cars extremely humorous; they were all white like milk carts. There was a great deal of wind moving in that space. Now it’s occupied by big buildings, which is what New York does to you. So this is a relic of that time, but within the poem there is also a relic, which I did not anticipate.

[Reads poem. The text of the poem is here.]

Bernstein: In that poem, you talk about the grip of reality. You talk about immobility. I wonder about the grip of identity, the immobility that identity can often impose on a writer, and also on the way in which people read a writer. I’m thinking especially in terms of one aspect of your identity, that of being a woman. Are you a feminist poet? Is your identity as a woman crucial to you in terms of opening up or limiting what you do as a writer? In terms of the way people read your work?

Guest: I think I’m a feminist in the fact that I truly believe that women are writing almost the best poetry today in America today. I believe that that they’re extraordinary, that for some reason this has happened. It has not been true forever.

Bernstein: But as a poet coming of age in the fifties … do you feel a contemporeity with women of your immediate generation?

Guest: That is a problem. I do. There are many women, not many (as there are not many categories of things), whom I respect and like their poetry. But the male poets of my generation were the ones with whom I identified because we were involved in the same attitude toward poetry. That’s what I would say. In that sense, I feel very lonely. It wasn’t until newer generations, younger women came along with whom I could identify, as they could identify with me. Among the New York poets, there were very few women.

Bernstein: You’re looking down at your book as if you were poised to read another poem in this context, please …

Guest: I was thinking I could read a political poem. Before this terrible business in the late Yugoslavia, I was very interested in what was happening to Czechoslovakia. This poem is based on the lands that were incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles in Czechoslovakia — Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia, Ruthenia — and it’s called “Borderlands.” This was written about four years ago.

[Reads poem.]

Bernstein: Can you read one more poem before we say goodbye?

Guest: I can give you a difficult poem.

Bernstein: I love difficult poems. They’re my favorite kind. Except I love easy poems too.

Guest: [Laughs.] I know you do. I’d like to read a poem that is a followup to “Borderlands.” After we have encountered upheaval and revolution, new states or new governments, what happens is what I’ve called multiplicity. This is what we have today, a multiplicity which covers many objects, many changes. This is what I put into this poem.

[Guest reads “Multiplicity.” While this poem is not included in The Collected Poems, since it never appeared in a book, it was published in The Iowa Review 26, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 76–78. You can read the text of poem here.] 

Segmented audio for this interview (source: Barbara Guest’s PennSound page)

  1. introduction (0:52): MP3
  2. A Reason (1:09): MP3
  3. on the New York Poets and their relation to painting (3:31): MP3
  4. Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher (1:39): MP3
  5. Niege Fondant (1:51): MP3
  6. on how her work has changed (0:42): MP3
  7. on imagination (2:16): MP3
  8. on realism (1:30): MP3
  9. An Emphasis Falls on Reality (2:45): MP3
  10. on how her books connect (0:36): MP3
  11. Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights (4:08): MP3
  12. on her identity as a woman (2:00): MP3
  13. Borderlands (2:04): MP3
  14. Multiplicity (2:58): MP3

Full program (29:01): MP3

Three poems by Barbara Guest
Typescript of two early poems by Guest

The split impulse

Michael Gottlieb on essaying the memoir

Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay was published in 2010 by Faux/Other press. It includes a memoir, “The Empire City,” which explores the early days of Language poetry, Gottlieb’s development as a writer, and New York City in the 1970s. An accompanying essay, “Jobs of the Poets” (first published in Jacket in 2008) is structured as a series of questions and responses exploring the nature of poets’ day jobs and how these jobs relate to their poetic work. I sat down with Gottlieb in his Chelsea studio apartment in June 2010 to discuss the book. — Drew Gardner

Drew Gardner: You talk about the essay section of Memoir and Essay as though it were a letter to a younger poet, but I sense that it may be addressed to a slightly broader contingent. It’s bringing up uncomfortable questions, questions that poets might have set scripts for, and it seems you want to question how we think about who we are as writers and what our relationship to society is. 

Michael Gottlieb: Maybe it’s an oversimplification to try to neatly box it up for a target audience, but why do we keep writing? Are we writing because it makes us feel good or are we writing for some other reason? Does, can, should [this] weigh even heavier on people as they’ve been doing the same thing year after year? Why am I still doing this? When it comes to assumptions, and … stock answers? 

Gardner: Let’s say, defensive ways of thinking about your relationship to society?

Gottlieb: Yeah, what kind of job you have. I think that the figure — this stock figure, say the poet — is thinking about issues of roles and responsibilities, this individual in the broader context of the society or the community. The poet is almost a proxy for any citizen, any individual. Why are we doing what we do, no matter what it is that we do; what do I do with my life no matter what I do with it, no matter what it is that —

Gardner: Right, an equally interesting set of questions regarding what you were going to do to become an IT professional for instance, or a plumber, or a middle manager, which is what you do with your time.

Gottlieb: In response to your question, I’m going to go cut some bread.

Gardner: I’ve seen some responses that have suggested that the essay is considered unflinching or — some people have said — depressing? Maybe asking some uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, the memoir is more about the excitement of young writers and about enthusiasm, so is there something I was wondering about in the bifurcation in these two approaches …

Gottlieb [cutting bread]: No one has said that to me. No one has said that to my face. I hope that it’s honest; I think it ends up on a note that is encouraging. 

Gardner: I also mean unflinching in a refreshing way. Like, “Oh, people aren’t normally that unflinching, that’s refreshing.”

Gottlieb: Well I hope so and I hope that — and I can’t see — unless someone reads it — and I don’t know if anyone does — and says holy shit that’s me and I’ve been fooling myself or lying to myself for the last thirty years and I didn’t realize it until I read this essay. I don’t know if anyone is going to have that reaction. I don’t see why anyone should be depressed by it.

Gardner: Well, I noticed one poet who did have that reaction, and that was the other side of it. One person feels that it is exciting to hear this unflinching account, and another poet says, why is this guy talking about stuff that makes me depressed?

Gottlieb: Well, why is he depressed? Let’s find that out.

Gardner: Yes. I guess the question is confronting negativity? I noticed that when you read you read with a sad affect, even when it’s funny. 

Gottlieb: Well, you should have been around for the first twenty years [laughs]. Before I had a reason, back when I was funny for the first time. When I read at BPC [Bowery Poetry Club], read all those funny poems, that wasn’t sad; that was funny. When I read the memoir.

Gardner: The affect was sad in the reading. But it was also funny.

Gottlieb: I’m sorry — what’s the question here?

Gardner: I’m pointing to the sad performance affect and also to the fact that the memoir is also enthusiastic and excited — I’m interested in the dichotomy.

Gottlieb: My wish/belief is that the essay leaves people — can, should, hopefully does leave people — with the sense that this is an important, this is a useful, this is a vital way to live your life and thing to do with your life. Once you strip away all the illusion and narcissism, if that can happen, and if I’m seeing that right and who knows if I am. And I hope that people are not depressed when they finish reading it. I hope they say, you know, what, this is the way I want to — not, I want to live my life like him or he’s asking the right questions but, this is something that I want to do and now I know — and — anyway … now I’m verging into the prescriptive, which makes me depressed …

Gardner: When did you decide to write a memoir and why?

Gottlieb: It was a good number of years ago. After I wrote New York, 1993? New York, as Douglas [Rothschild] graciously alluded to in his remarkably restrained introduction at the book party at the Zinc bar the other day, has not only pieces of New York City in it, it has in it a wide variety of different kinds of diction and expression.

Gardner: Right, it’s part memoir.

Gottlieb: There are pieces of memoir in it, there are chunks of dialogue, monologue, list, lyric. I was exploring pulling in amalgams of different kinds of expression, including several long sections of conventionally constructed prose memoir, pieces of it. That was a direction I’d been going in, of pulling heterogeneity into the poems, and New York. The River Road comes after it, and is the fullest expression of that approach; New York has two poems, and The River Road has a third, and the three of them also run together, and included in them are pieces and hunks of memoir. After the second of those two books came out, I can look back and see now how my thinking evolved, or what I was interested in doing evolved, and the memoir impulse that was embedded in those two books split out and became an interest unto itself. And in the next poems, where my interest went in terms of poetry, went away from that heterogeneous amalgam, bricolage, compositional approach into something else that we see in the next books which is more — I don’t know what it was — lyric. 

Gardner: So you were already doing bricolaged memoir in the previous work. Nonetheless, you still had to make the decision to do a traditional memoir.

Gottlieb: At some point there I decided — was it an efflorescence of narcissism in some other way that incited it? — my life is interesting enough. I could, and I’m going to, write a memoir about it.

Gardner: I would guess there was a stigma against this among some of your peers, especially when you started, that you had to overcome? Seems not to be the case any more, but your book was started well before the publication of The Grand Piano or anything like that, right? 

Gottlieb: The first memoir I wrote is not this one, and it’s not about this period or these writers or this writing; it’s about my childhood and adolescence.

Gardner: Why is that not part of this book?

Gottlieb: The publishers didn’t want to include it. It wouldn’t have an appeal to the target audience.

Gardner: I see.

Gottlieb: That’s okay. But let me finish responding to your original question: by the time I wrote the second memoir, I had already had a structure and a format.

Gardner: Had anyone read it?

Gottlieb: Yes, lots of people had read it. And I had an agent and I was trying to sell it to a trade publisher. I was not unused to people not getting or liking what I was doing. Before I wrote the first memoir I had written parts of a couple of novels that people really didn’t like.

Gardner: And how would you characterize that response of really not liking it?

Gottlieb: I read parts of one, I remember, at the Ear Inn. And it was a comic novel and people laughed; a lot of people laughed, I thought, hard. A couple people came up to me and said, that was really funny but what the fuck are you doing?

Gardner: People meaning poets about your age?

Gottlieb: Yeah. But that was then. And fiction is one thing. And now only one person has raised a comment that the relatively conventional structure in this is not in keeping with the nature of our projects as poets.

Gardner: Okay. So, what do you think about that idea?

Gottlieb: I don’t have a lot of sympathy for it. Because I don’t remember and I’d never seen either then, twenty, thirty years ago, or more recently, a distinction being drawn when it comes to critical writing about this work. There is no requirement, no demand, and I don’t think even any gentle impulse to impel people to write critically about this kind of writing, or Flarf or conceptualism necessarily, in a way when it comes to critical writing that is in keeping or constant with the writing itself. And I don’t think there should be or needs to be. Also, there is critical writing that is not standard critical writing that plays an important role in our —

Gardner: — this is more about the way in which the permission comes for the style of writing.

Gottlieb: Right. So I’m not sure that it’s necessary to give memoir — even with critical writing — to give it that permission. However, I would say it’s not poetry. Whatever it is, it’s not poetry. And I’m comfortable saying that when it comes to poetry, to agree to — what, draw certain kinds of distinctions and say this kind of writing I’m not interested in, and this kind I am. I think it was part and parcel of, it was in and among, these poems that had street and advertising names and language that cops would utter on the street, stories about old New York and the buildings, and it fit in and it was just yet another element in something larger.

Gardner: Right. But you’re saying there was not some large psychological barrier that needed to be cut through in the group psychology of your peers in order to start this project. It seemed natural to you.

Gottlieb: Yeah. Yeah, it was very natural [laughs].

Gardner: The wink is telling me that you’re not giving me the whole story. 

Gardner: So, one of the things I’m interested in is that writers mostly work in groups, so even if they’re people who are relative hermits they’re still writing letters to each other, writing emails to each other — writers work in groups, it’s a matter of degree. But sometimes you have to push against that. How does one do that, when is it appropriate to do that, how does that process work, since as primates we live in groups, we survive in groups, we’ve evolved in groups. This is why I’m interested in the question of the barrier you may have to push through to get over what is essentially an anthropological taboo against a behavior to do what you want to do. Even though you may have been, you may think of yourself as being, empowered by the rules of that group, in another way you also have to diverge.

Gottlieb: That’s a great question. But I have to say I never thought of it in those contexts, in the context that I was violating the code of behavior. And maybe because getting to it was an organic process that I started to describe, maybe because I felt marginalized already enough that I was unaware of the kind of strictures that otherwise I might.

Gardner: So since you didn’t feel yourself to be at the center of the group, it might be a different process. An advantage to feeling marginalized?

Gottlieb: Well, maybe coming at it from another angle I felt, I feel that it’s appropriate in the same way that as I described in the memoir Alan [Davies] and I were the only people who really used to listen to rock and roll, and go out, and go to clubs. In the same way that I say that’s the case when it comes to music for us back then. I was just using that as a launching pad into another rhetorical figure. I think, I’m not sure, but it very well may be, that I read more fiction than most of my friends, and read lots, and still read lots, and I know certain friends, certain peers, in the same way that they can’t hear or stand the radio playing rock and roll because it hurts their ears, can’t read fiction — they just can’t stand it. I am wondering if my comfort with that, or the fact of how much I read back then and over the years, contributed to my ability to write a prose work. So maybe if — and this is a big if — this turns out to be a narrative about that time and these people that has some value, it’s because I could write it. Am I saying that in a way that makes sense?

Gardner: I think of Ted Greenwald being into crime genre fiction. I know Greenwald reads a lot of crime fiction, and there’s something about the language of his poetry that I think reflects that. He gets pleasure from that work, there’s a certain rhythm to that work, there’s an approach to the types of information in it that you just naturally dig and that’s going be reflected in your own work — you’re not going be able to help it, actually. So this question of permission may be more like something were you can’t get out of it.

Gottlieb: Ted has written a memoir. This beautiful, wonderful, lyric, just stunning, gorgeous recollection, and the part that I’ve read takes place in his childhood in Queens, and it’s just amazing. 

Gardner: I assume this is a manuscript that he’s floated among his associates?

Gottlieb: Yeah. It’s written in this amazingly lyrical manner, not like mine, which is pretty standard prose. His is set up like prose, but I’m not going to do it justice. It might be described as living somewhere in between standard prose and a kind of lyric poetry that we would associate with him.

Gardner: Well, prose-poem memoir is certainly something you get in Lyn Hejinian, right? Certainly you could say there’s a precedent in doing memoir in Language poetry in that sense. 

Gottlieb: Right. And then there’s The Grand Piano.

Gardner: Right. So I’m curious about the extent of your reading of that, your involvement in it, your take on it. For Language poetry memoir right now, there’s just that and you and Rae Armantrout’s True? The Grand Piano might have an interesting relationship to your work. Yours is a much more straightforward thing, but I’m just wondering how much of that you have in mind when you approach your own work, how they approach it as a group and you’re approaching it as an individual. And also this sort of West Coast/East Coast Biggie Smalls/Tupac thing [laughter] that is implied by the recent New Yorker article on Armantrout, where the journalist says that Language poetry was primarily a West Coast phenomenon. That may just be a slipup on Chiasson’s part?

Gottlieb: Actually, I asked him about that. To paraphrase his response, he said that in his original text there was a much more balanced East Coast/West Coast assessment of the origins, but that the magazine’s fact checkers went to a prominent Language poet who corrected this and insisted on it being changed to its current wording. 

Gardner: I see. Clearly it’s not anyone’s general take that it was only a West Coast phenomenon. I’ve never heard that. 

Gottlieb: I don’t think so! My sense at the time was that there was a general assessment that there were two simultaneously competing and cooperating nexuses.

Michael Gottlieb.

Gardner: I want to get back at some point to that idea — “simultaneously competing and cooperating” — because I think it’s important for what you’re doing in the book, in regard to the people you’re talking about there, so don’t let me forget that if too many glasses of wine go by?

Gottlieb: Why don’t we talk about that for a while, because what I think I heard in your “raising your hand”-ness was maybe as a rhetorical figure, applicable not just to New York versus San Francisco, which I’m happy to talk about, but also to the social dimension of our project, period — now, then, and in general. The fact is, when I try to describe what my experience, my take, my knowledge of what the poetry world is like, to someone who’s outside it and who may be a writer but not part of this world, I always lead with the branding message that this is a highly communitarian activity, much more than other kinds of production and other kinds of writing. A novelist can work in isolation and have a relationship in most senses with very few of his peers and directly only interact after a certain point in his career with people in a vertical sense. But having said that, what does “communitarian” mean? People show up for each other, they read each other, they publish each other, they live in a world that has each other as their immediate readers, audience, supporters, publishers, but that doesn’t speak to the competitive dimension.

Gardner: What I see is that you have competition and cooperation simultaneously in some combination and this is important in terms of the kind of art that winds up as a result of these communities. 

Gottlieb: I guess I would frame it a little differently. I don’t know whether it is important to have it to generate the results that you describe. The question is, how do you not have it, how can there be …

Gardner: I think it’s not just about art. Competition and cooperation is the way people live in groups, and they would do that even if they weren’t artists, so it’s just a reflection of how human beings live.

Gottlieb: Is it?

Gardner: I think so. One of the things I’m leading to here is that competition may sometimes get a bad rap, especially among one’s peers, where it can manifest in unhealthy, annoying ways.

Gottlieb: Well, first of all competition smacks of the market.

Gardner: Not always. Because I think there are different kinds of competition. There’s an artistic kind of competition where you may be trying to outdo each other in a good way. In other words, you’re pushing each other. That’s something I’ve seen in the Flarfists who are deeply collaborative, but also actually quite competitive, but they’ve accepted that competition is a natural part of it; we’re openly competitive with each other.

Gottlieb: Are you?

Gardner: Yes, but often in a good way. We delight in each other’s outdoings.

Gottlieb: So how come you all aren’t happier with how things are unfolding?

Gardner: Well … you bring up the topic of happiness. 

[Gottlieb laughs.]

Gardner: Which is an interesting question, and my mind goes back to the William Carlos Williams autobiography, where he’s established himself in his house in Paterson. He’s married, his first kid is on the way, and a young woman he knows from the neighborhood comes by as he’s out front working in the garden, and she just says, “Happy?” as a challenge. What he says is, actually yes I was happy, because I had set up my life according to the demands of my personality. In a way happiness is neither here nor there in terms of artists. No one’s happy with the way they relate to their peers, as far as I can tell. Or to their relation to their society. Or to their level of achievement. Do you know a single writer who’s happy with any of that? If happiness is the topic we’re discussing. This is a broad topic, right?

Gottlieb: Are you seizing on the word “happiness” to deflect our attention to the other part of the question?

Gardner: Competition? Okay, here’s another side of it: the other side of the Williams side of happiness is this thing from John Zorn — he’s your generation. I heard an interview with Zorn at Miller Theater where he was asked about happiness, and he said, “Happiness is for yuppies.” What this is supposed to mean, I think, is that from the point of view of an artist, you don’t take into consideration the question of happiness. That, or he just has the kind of personality where happiness would be the same thing as complacency. It’s not something you have unless you’re not a serious artist — that’s the polar opposite of the Williams take on it. 

Then again, there’s a moment when Williams is looking at the bushes in the moonlight outside his front door when he’s returning home and thinks, why does this make me more happy than my family does? So it’s a complicated question.

Gottlieb: I think about [Williams] more and more as the years go by. I have a Collected Poems sitting on a chair in my living room. I just read a biography of his last summer. 

Gardner: I notice that this place is very minimal and white and neat. You have the patterned African tapestry over the bed, you have the interior decorating here that might reflect some of your early artistic background in minimalism? I’m seeing a little Agnes Martin here? You were originally an art student painter at Bennington and the staff there was Abstract Expressionist?

Gottlieb [points to drawing on wall]: This is Agnes Martin’s last drawing. The day she died. 

Gardner: Okay, so if you want to I’d like to talk about earlier background, where you came from, the biography that’s probably in the first part of the memoir. One of the earliest things in there is discussing yourself as a college student and in your formative days having training basically as an abstract painter.

Gottlieb: That was lyrical … that was, in the mid-1970s — what came to be called Lyrical Abstractionist. The people that were dominant at Bennington were Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski. They weren’t teaching right then but were dominating the thinking.

Gardner: So they might look sideways at you for using patterns.

Gottlieb: Yes, minimalism was not cool, even pattern painting was not.

Gardner: I’m interested in the relationship between Minimalist pattern and your poetry. There’s a moment in the memoir — Elizabeth Fodaski points to this passage in her piece on it — something about deciding to go from abstraction to a grid. The grid shows you that there’s an underlying pattern to the universe, there’s a pattern in nature, reality and life that I see when I look at this thing.

Gottlieb: Maybe I have been looking at all of them — Sol Lewitt, Judd, everybody, Agnes Martin — wrong for forty years, but it seems clear to me from even then when I had to talk about what I was thinking, that that work was [about] more than rejection and process, procedure, and repetition, and creating surface. I think I responded to it from the beginning when I walked down Mercer Street and you could see Donald Judd in his building on the corner of Mercer as he was putting [the works] out through the glass in the first-floor window. They were about something, they had resonance, they were connected to, they were speaking about — and I end up repeating what I said in the memoir about Agnes Martin: fundamental organization principles of the universe, of reality, of the way we looked and saw, they had immediate emotional connections, responses, to them, they were not about negating those responses, for me. I put that Agnes Martin section in. I think it ends up in there because looking at that work and the other work like it was having an impact that I was seeing all the time … getting me to where I ended up when I started writing poetry that Alan Davies got interested in, that got me published.

Gardner: Some Language poetry might be seen by some people as just being surface and negation. Someone else might have a completely other reaction to it, the way you’re having a reaction to this painting.

Gottlieb: Exactly. I try to articulate that in the memoir. Letting go of that attempt to force meaning, narrative, on the poem, originally by means of chance operations, was hugely liberating, didn’t mean giving up on the project that poetry could — that this kind of poetry could have the same kind of impact, do the same kind of thing as any other kind of poetry, it just didn’t need to do it the same way any more.

Gardner: Right. And some people might see it as a moment of irony that this takes place in a memoir where you’re embracing a straightforward narrative, telling the story of letting go of the restrictions of narrative to find liberation.

Gottlieb: I think that’s neither here nor there. It’s like saying, you know what, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, you’re about to turn the world upside down, but you know what? You’re wearing a tie with a starched collar. God, isn’t it ironic that you’re dressed in such a bourgeois manner when you’re about to do XYZ. I don’t think it particularly matters. Now, that’s not to say that, for people in the ’60s and ’70s, for some people, how they dressed was part and parcel and key to how they lived their lives and their politics. But not for Lenin!

Gardner: There’s an interesting detail in the memoir regarding how one dresses, about Picasso dressing in an actual extravagant bullfighter outfit for a costume party, decisions about how you present yourself to the world. This is in a part of the memoir about Charles Bernstein, regarding conflict with contemporaries, since we’re discussing simultaneous competition and cooperation. There’s a vignette about Bernstein, who’s an important figure in your writing world and a close associate of yours and who recently had some success in reaching a broader audience. I took this scene to be a description about two different personalities — conflicting personalities in the same scene. It’s a moment where there’s tension and you’re being rather critical of him. You were uncomfortable with who he was declaring himself to be, that’s this kind of social conflict — two forces who are in a way dependent on each and intertwined creatively but are not going to reconcile their personalities. You didn’t shrink away from dealing with things that might piss off your friends.

Gottlieb: Well, I hope it didn’t, because of how long ago it was, because of how young I was, and because that kind of — and we’ll now come back to the trope we laid out earlier — competition and cooperation can’t be removed from this kind of activity. And I think it’s important to look at what people have done. Let me take one step back. While the machine was off, we talked about what might come next in terms of this project, and it’s my intention, if this sells enough and I can publish the first one, to keep writing more in these lines and also to write more along the lines of the essay that appears in this book as well, and I’m well down the road to publishing the next part of this essay. But I lay out in that section what seemed then to be two ways of thinking about how to move ahead, and how one is to comport oneself. The fact is, that was more than thirty years ago, and look at what Charles has done with his life. The fact is that he’s someone who has helped tons of people and made things happen, and built amazing things, at Buffalo, and helped people have decent lives as poets. I mean we can talk about the academic life and the impact academization has had on poetry, but he has made it possible for lots of people we know, our friends, not to have to have crappy lives. Now, we can talk about the shades, the interstices, the implications of all that, but he’s really done a lot in our world, and there aren’t a lot of people who’ve done more, to build the world that we live in now.

Gardner: I thought it was a very novelistic scene. In that I’m interested in unpacking conflict, and one of the things I think is strong about the memoir is that it doesn’t shy away from the parts where there is psychological friction between compatriots.

Gottlieb: Right. And there are other people where that kind of conflict was what the memoir was all about. Nick Piombino cited a Henry James quotation: how important it is to be kind. Which I don’t disagree with. I don’t think that by citing conflict I’m necessarily being unkind. I think, going back to the conflict versus cooperation theme, that quite possibly it’s a useful subject for all of us to spend some time on, because I don’t see any way for it to go away. It’s a fact. The only alternative is some kind of totalitarian, top-down, writer’s-union kind of regime that we could see in the Soviet Union, which would — what other kind of social/organizational constructs can we conceive of? While the financial dimensions of our world remain constant, as long as they do, I’m not sure what other way we can see poets organizing themselves and consequently this kind of friction being a byproduct. Or a product!

Gardner: I’m not suggesting that the friction is something that one should moralistically object to. The thing I liked about the scene is that you remembered it, you had made a point that yeah this is a memoir, this is the shit that I remember because it has to do with how memory works and how you tell stories to other people about what’s happened to you and what you’ve done and this is why it’s interesting and it’s important. You couldn’t possibly include this type of friction stuff thinking this would be stress-free, but you include it because it’s part of how you actually relate to others.

Gottlieb: I think I imply or suggest that there’s an inflection point in the development of our world. Or it embodied a transition, from a kind of a New York School — the St. Marks School, alternative lifestyle poetry scene — to one that had at its heart an academic opportunity career path. And it wasn’t clear, at least to me, for a long time that that was even a possibility. It never was one that I was interested in even when it did become one.

Gardner: This is a topic you develop at length in the essay.

Gottlieb: Right. And I think the relationship between the essay and the memoir is part of that. Now, was it good for Language poetry that that developed? It was good for people. It was good for people that they could have a dental plan, a retirement plan. Was it good for the poetry? I’m not necessarily the person to ask. I don’t know.

Drew Gardner.

Gardner: I guess the other thing I should ask about is, since we’ve addressed the question of competition a little bit, collaboration is the other side of it. One of the big figures in the book is Alan Davies, and this seems like an important part of how the book is structured. He’s an important figure in the book.

Gottlieb: I have a number of friends and also family who are in the trade press world in one way or another, who whenever the topic of sales or print runs comes up — and this has been going on for decades — express ritual incredulity and utterances of … is “scorn” the right word … ? — at the volumes and dimensions of the world that we live in, the independent small press environment. What I never bothered to say to them but always say to myself or anyone who otherwise asks, is that I consider myself to have had an incredibly lucky life publishing as a poet, even if compared to some peers it’s not as extensive as people of my age might want, because as soon as I started writing, essentially I started getting published. And as soon as I started publishing in magazines, I started getting books. And essentially everything I’ve written ever since has gotten published, and coming back to your question, in a large part that’s because of Alan. And whereas with other friends and peers I’ve felt and not necessarily shrunk from a healthy degree of competition with what they were doing or their kind of writing, I never felt that, nor do, with him.

It’s partly because what we’re interested in has to a certain extent evolved or moved apart over the years, but also because he’s someone I never think of in any way except as someone who gets, supports, and wants to see the best of me.

Gardner: If you stop and look at a writer’s whole life, the power of, early on, having just one person believe in you enough to publish you is considerable. That small-scale gesture turns out to be large in the long run in terms of what people wind up doing in poetry. 

Gottlieb: I agree and I’d go further. Circling back to another dimension and my own response to friends and others in the larger publishing world, many people have said that even the most commercially successful writers rarely have an audience that they are interested in, that they have any consciousness of, whose opinion means something to them, who they are writing for in a direct way, that is any larger than fifty or a hundred people. Even someone who sells millions of copies. They are only writing for a hundred people in a direct way. In an indirect way we are all writing for someone we may never see, who may not be alive now, who’s dead or isn’t born yet.

So as I mentioned I wrote fiction for a while and there was another memoir that I wrote before this one, and for those I had ambitions that they could reach large audiences and get published by trade publishers, and they didn’t. I had agents, and the agents couldn’t sell them. I had an agent at William Morris for the whole time, and then another agent after that. By the time I came to write this memoir, all I wanted to do was to get this down, and I didn’t and I don’t have the same kinds of ambitions that I may have had twenty or thirty years ago. I think this is an important story. I think a lot of people in our world, however we define that world, want to know about this time and these people. And it may in fact, now that I’m done with it, be that people are reacting to it — there may be people beyond this world who find it of interest. If that happens, that’s great, but I sat down to do this because it’s part of this project that I’ve been engaged in for a while, which is about me working out things, and the next one and the one after that which are the ones that I’m thinking about now are about me continuing to try to work things out. How many other people are going to want to follow on, we’ll see.

Gardner: What would be next?

Gottlieb: There are two that I’ve carved out mentally that will come next. One is the next chronological chunk of my life, which would start when I leave New York which is more or less when the memoir ends, and will have as its focus being away from New York. I’m not sure how much of it will be about writing, so I’m not sure what it’s going to look like, but it also will focus on these three huge things that when I look back on a twenty-year period my life circled around. One was family and one of my children getting sick, and the second was my business that I had that boomed and then went bust, and the third was getting sick. So that’s the next one to write. The next one to publish would be the first one, but that would be the next one to write and then after that I may or will be hopefully old enough that it would be appropriate to write about the following topic that a couple of people, Barry [Watten], suggested, to focus on a topic that to a large extent is missing from “The Empire City,” which is sex.

Gardner: It seems like an intentional decision to leave out that topic. But obviously it’s an important part of life, it’s certainly a part of the way in which you remember your own history. There’s an adjacent thing, and it’s is something that Liz points out in her review of the book, there’s not a lot about women in this book in general, it is mostly about groups of young men.

Gottlieb: To a certain extent those are allied topics and in some sense they’re separate topics. There is as little focus on relationships and what we’ll call sex, period, consciously, because I wanted to drive attention to what the book has its focus on, poetry and the people and to the extent it’s about me becoming a poet and me and the city or the city and poetry. I had the realization that this whole other topic was such a big dimension that the book would have had to be twice as big and it would have diffused the focus in a way that I didn’t want to diffuse it, or I didn’t have time to bring it all in.

Let me come back to that, but to speak to Liz’s comment which she’s not alone in noting, I hope. I tried, in what I did write, not to in any way diminish the contribution or the presence of the women that were there then. And I think, I hope, I’m right that I can only express it that way. I think that to the extent that it is a boys’ story, it’s because then, there, in New York, that’s what it was in terms of the people there. And that speaks to just the way it was then, right or wrong, or maybe all wrong, but that then changed. Getting ready for the next reading which is going to be in Brooklyn in a couple of weeks, I’m planning on reading the section about Hannah [Weiner] kicking me out of the table at Phoebe’s. But to come back to the first topic, it is such a big topic that it’s my intention and I hope I’m old enough so that I feel more comfortable in writing about it — that’s my own hangup perhaps — that I’ll be able to do that topic justice. I’ve been writing Barry back and forth about this, as late as this afternoon, that the natural end point for that part of the narrative is that cancer, that’s sort of an explanation that draws a line under that part of it. I’m not ready to write about that yet. And I didn’t want to. The things in the memoir now are the things I wanted to get there now, and I didn’t have enough time or energy because I was sick when I was writing it, to bring it in more.

That’s the midterm plan that may take me up for maybe about ten, twelve years. And then I think maybe I’ll have one more about being an old man. In the same way that I’m writing this essay now — and this essay is about two-thirds of the way done, it’s in this notebook — “Letters to a Middle-Aged Poet.” I’m up to section twenty-three, I’ll get to section twenty-four and start editing, and then I’ll be done! And then I figure maybe after that I’ll have one more essay about what it’s like to be a really old fucking poet.

In racing they have this term. They don’t talk about speed; they talk about pace. How much pace does your car have. And in my job all we think about all the time is how we think about things. My job consists of thinking about how we organize people, how we think about what they’re thinking, how we get them to all align.

Gardner: I’m glad you brought up this topic, because the questions of possible similarities and differences in how you approach your work life and how you approach your creative life, poetry life, is something that I’m interested in. Clearly they’re bifurcated in the way your essay and your memoir are bifurcated, in the sense that they put you in different spaces, they put you among people you wouldn’t normally interact with, but they don’t put you outside the realm of the way you solve problems with your personality. So in some ways they may really not be that different.

Gottlieb: Wait — let me go back — do we solve problems with our personality?

Gardner: More like create them and then solve them. I’m pretty sure we do. If you consider your intelligence and your approach to life part of your personality. Your poems are a product of your personality regardless of your procedures and your philosophy about it, as far as I can tell; some people might disagree with me. You solve problems in the creative world, you go to work, you solve problems in the work world, and so this question of bifurcation, kind of returning to it a little bit, focusing a little on what might be similar? If you brought up the question of actual shit that you’re doing at work, I am interested in this and this is not something that you bring up in the “Jobs of the Poets” essay. You do address the question of conflict, problems in self-definition, in being a working person and being a poet, but you don’t necessarily say what actually happens when I’m at work, solving problems and dealing with people, improvising, creating and diverging from structures — all the shit that you do at work, which may actually be in some ways disturbingly close to things that you’re doing with your poetry, just more constrained. 

Gottlieb: Well, I don’t know if it’s more constrained, because poets feel terribly constrained about what they can do, what they will do, what they should do, what they’re allowed to do. And the constraints within which one works in work are not necessarily tighter or more binding than those. But I’m very lucky: I have a job where people pay me money to think hard along a lot of the same ways I find myself thinking as a poet, to step back and think about the way big things are organized and look carefully at them. The way systems, processes, parts of organizations do business, and think about them in a holistic way. I’m being asked to look at things from the outside. And interact with other people, to listen to them, listen closely, to communicate, which means listening and talking both, and to be compelling, hopefully, communicate to get groups of people to move in certain directions, and all of those are activities which one could say are similar to or aligned with what a poet does.

Gardner: What else might have happened to you is a question sometimes asked by poets. There’s an interview with Olson where he says, yeah, I could have been one of these business guys, I could have focused my mind around money and put myself in that system. You’re good at certain things, you develop expertise based on your proclivities. Vanessa Place and I were talking recently about the difference between virtuosity and mastery. Mastery is something that’s imposed upon you; virtuosity is something you develop on your own. You can’t even stop yourself from developing it if you have talent. They’re both actually constraining in a way, but occupy different places in how you relate to your society as a writer, and certainly as a worker.

Gottlieb: I would suggest to you that both of them are from another perspective equally delimiting. In the business world, people eventually gain subject matter expertise.

Gardner: Interviewer winces!

Gottlieb: You’re an expert in your subject matter. And then there’s a level beyond that where you’re a thought leader in your subject matter.

Gardner: Defined by the influence you have among your peers.

Gottlieb: Yes. And a thought leader has influence in a global or national way. But subject matter expertise at a certain level in organizations is a given. It’s like a baseline.

Gardner: Is there a baseline for poetry?

Gottlieb: I don’t wanna talk about poetry yet. Let me think about that. And after that then people are expected to be able to perform beyond and outside of their areas of subject matter expertise (SME). 

Gardner: How do you make a social definition of when you excel, right?

Gottlieb: No. You can perform, whatever that means, in ways that are independent of the subject matter that you’re an expert in, and deliver.

Gardner: That seems like something that might be desirable in a writer.

Gottlieb: Yeah. So in my business world I left my subject matter two years ago. They hired me to do something that I was a SME in. So I did that for a couple of years and they said you can do that, now do this. And it was sort of related to my SME area but not completely. So I did that, they said okay, that was good, now do this for us. And that had nothing to do with my SME work.

Gardner: Right. So that’s a big system using you for its own purposes, seeing that you can adapt.

Gottlieb: That’s one way of looking at it.

Gardner: Let’s say that’s a personality trait: adaptation. How does that relate to what you do with your writing work?

Gottlieb: Because the skills they are calling on are, I think, exactly the same ones that we were talking about as crossing from poetry into business. Being able to see things, systems, people, organizations as a whole and or in detail, make sense of them, take them apart, and separately, being able to communicate or interact in a compelling and decisive way with others. I’m not saying that I’m that good at that, but that’s what — 

Gardner: It certainly relates to how, if you think of yourself as a writer, what is your relationship to your society as a writer, what are your responsibilities, responses? You’re responding to things because they’re based on who thinks you’re supposed to do what, and in terms of what you do as a writer, and what your proclivities and tendencies are.

Gottlieb: Okay. So I talk about that in the essay, right? Why do we do this? Do we do it for ourselves? Do we do it for other people? Do we do it to make ourselves feel better? Even though it makes us feel great to do this, is that reason enough to do this? Even though doing this makes us feel more alive than anything else we ever do, is that reason enough to do this?

Gardner: Embedded in that question is, are some of those emotions and thoughts illusory? Which are illusory and how do you puzzle that out? Those are not normally questions that poets in the world that you and I inhabit ask in public. That’s one of the things I think is unique about the essay.

Gottlieb: I draw a line there, and lots of people don’t like where I drew it, and that’s okay, but I draw it saying that I don’t think there is any value in doing this just because it makes us feel good. It doesn’t matter how it makes us feel, even though it makes us feel better than anything else we do can make us feel. It has value only to the extent that is has impact on others. And that’s why I like the word, and I come back to this word in the rest of my life: I use the word “responsibility” all the time. There’s no reason to do this unless we’re doing it for other people. To have some, I’m not sure which or what kind of impact, but have impact on other people. Otherwise it’s just art therapy.

Gardner: To shift topics a little, the impact of environment on you as a developing poet is a big part of “The Empire City.” New York City of the 1970s is almost like the central character.

Gottlieb: There are really three dimensions to the memoir: there’s how Language poetry came together: people, events, interactions. Second, there’s what it was like to become a poet and the process of interacting and starting to get published. The third part that memoir deals with is New York in the ’70s. 

This was this amazing, magnificent wreck that was sinking slowly beneath the waves and we were lucky enough to be able to hop on the deck as the water was getting higher and higher to the portholes, and there was an amazing romance in that. The undeniable sensation that this thing was going. This amazing edifice, this incredible construct was in inevitable decline and there was no doubt that it was going downhill fast. We were on board that and at the same time able to be amazed by how incredibly monumental even in its decrepitude it was, how gorgeous at the same time as how dangerous it was.

It was a different city. It was a foreign country. It was going to hell in front of us, but it was amazingly gorgeous while it was doing that. And we lived in these depopulated precincts that were empty at night, that had once been filled with thousands of people shopping and hotels and going to restaurants and gambling halls. Those kinds of things are there now again, thirty years later.

New York was at the bottom of a 100-year trough whose high point was somewhere around World War I, maybe in the 1920s, and it had been going downhill ever since, from the Depression; maybe a rise around World War II and then an accelerating decline through the ’50s and the rise of the suburbs in the ’60s and the ’70s. By the ’70s it was at the bottom of a trough that it hadn’t been in for at least 100 years. On the one hand it enabled us to live in a way that poets can’t now. On the other hand we were living at the edge of a vast precipice and we saw everything tumbling away beneath us.

Gardner: Did that affect you negatively at all?

Gottlieb: No, it was wonderful.

Gardner: I do think this is an important part of the memoir, the nature of New York City, the character of it, the reality of the way in which artists, not just you but a lot of different artists and poets who were adjacent to you, were feeding off of the same economic and cultural realities. 

Gottlieb: I think it’s important too. I think it’s, in terms of going back to another topic, it’s going to be the reason many people want to read this book. 

On being stubborn

Close Listening with Christian Bök

Christian Bök at the North of Invention festival at Poets House, New York, January 2011. Photo copyright © Lawrence Schwartzwald.

Editorial note: Christian Bök is the author of ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science, Crystallography, and Eunoia (which won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002). Bök performs his poetry around the world and teaches at the University of Calgary. The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded on April 20, 2005, at Studio 111 at the University of Pennsylvania. The audio program is available on PennSound, along with an associated reading by Bök. Charles Bernstein hosted and produced the show; it includes comments and questions from his undergrduate students as well as from several visitors, including Bob Perelman, Jena Osman, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Katie L. Price

Penn student: Do you think poetry is elitist? Is it accessible? 

Christian Bök: If you’re asking me if poetry is elitist because it’s the expression of our best sentiments, requiring skill and ingenuity to be good at it, then yes, it’s probably an elite activity. It’s only the chosen few who are willing to dedicate their lives to this activity.

Charles Bernstein: If it’s the chosen few, then how did you and I get involved in it?

Bök: Well, that’s what I mean: “I chose you.”

Very few people are actually willing to make the kind of commitment that’s often required to be immersed within this kind of literature, especially since there are very few material rewards for such dedication. In that sense, the kind of work that people practicing poetry might produce is the side effect of a certain elitism.

If you’re asking me if poetry is exclusionary, and therefore it prevents certain kinds of people from participating, then I don’t believe so. It’s an extremely democratized milieu, and anybody can find a way to enter it and enjoy it. I certainly think that poetry functions in such a way.

Student: What method, if any, did you use in writing Eunoia?

Bök: The word eunoia is spelled E-U-N-O-I-A. It’s the shortest word in English to contain all the vowels, and it means quite literally, “beautiful thinking.” It’s probably my favorite word in the language. When I first encountered this word, I thought that it would be a great title for a book.

In order to write Eunoia, I had to write five different stories: five narratives, each of which uses only one vowel. In the first chapter, only the letter A appears; in the second chapter, only the letter E appears, etc.

I did this work by first reading the Third Webster’s New International Dictionary, a three-volume dictionary. I read it five times. It has over one and a half million entries, so I had to look at about seven and a half million words in the course of accumulating the requisite vocabulary. I then sorted all the words into topical categories by hand. I didn’t use a computer to do the searching or the sorting, because I thought that it would take about as long to learn the software necessary to do such a task as it would take to actually do it by hand, and I wanted to get started. So I just simply threw myself into the task. I thought that getting the vocabulary was going to be the most arduous part of the work — sorting it into parts of speech, figuring out what the topical categories might be amongst those words, all in an effort to determine what could be said with them. Then I proceeded to arrange them, like a jigsaw puzzle, into something that would be intelligible and that would have a kind of artful, poetic value.

It turned out that the actual search for the words themselves was the easiest part of the work. The remaining seven years required to produce the book involved a tremendous amount of labor and a kind of stubborn commitment, all under very disappointing and desperate conditions.

If the book reveals anything about me personally, I think that it reveals something about my stubborn mindedness — or my obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Student: I was wondering what you experience when you feel as if you have succeeded in creating a poem like Eunoia. What effect does that have on you, when you feel as if you’ve said exactly what you wanted to say?

Bök: When I was working on the book, I noticed lots of spooky moments in my activity. There’s a great deal of paranoia in Eunoia. I began to think that the vowels were, in some way, conspiring amongst themselves to speak on their own behalf. Whenever there were these kind of synchronistic coincidences, where words would fall into place and suddenly say something that seemed very uncanny, if not sublime, then I knew that the work was going well. 

But such events occurred with sufficient infrequency that, most of the time, I was in a state of really black desperation. Nevertheless, these little moments of euphoria would occur. These little moments of spookiness would occur with just enough regularity that I would actually feel reinspired to continue the labor necessary to complete the work. When I was finished, I felt a kind of breathless elation at having completed such a lengthy project. Suddenly I realized that my faith in the actual language itself, its ability to work under these extremely adverse conditions, was well warranted. Language is extremely flexible and, in a certain sense, it can’t be censored. I felt a great deal of optimism about this fact when I finished the book.

Student: Can we look forward to a consonant sequel to Eunoia?

Bök: A consonant sequel? No, I’ve promised myself that I won’t ever write another constraint-based book again. The blood pact, which I have with my peer group, is that every book we write will be radically different from its predecessor — that the entire oeuvre will be completely heteroclite. The next project requires me learning a whole new skill set, retraining my brain to learn something else. I probably would not have the endurance now, or the perseverance required, to actually finish a constraint-based book.

Student: Clearly, Eunoia is very constraint-based, and from what you’re saying, you’re probably going to set yourself a new set of rules every time you write something new. So, are you arguing for something? For going back to the sort of poetic formality that has existed forever, against the tide of free verse or stream of consciousness?

Bök: I have no problem with such poetic forms. My only complaint about them is that they do not feel much incentive to innovate, to produce something new in order to reinvent themselves in a manner which is exciting and stimulating. To me, it’s not so important that poetic works actually demonstrate some sort of formalistic character, so long as they have some kind of innovative rationale for their practice. I’m not making a case for a return to a rigorous formality. I’m not that fascistic or schoolmarmish in my sensibilities. I did this project, thinking that it was a kind of experimental work. I didn’t know if it could be done, and I merely conducted the experiment to see what would happen. To me, that’s what writing poetry is about. It’s a kind of heuristic activity, where you indulge in a completely exploratory adventure through language itself.

Student: Speaking of innovative rationale, where did your constraints, your content constraints about the nautical voyage and so forth, come from?

Bök: In Eunoia, the five chapters have a thematic thread, which runs throughout the entire book. Every chapter must allude to the art of writing. All the chapters have to describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableaux, and a nautical voyage. These four scenarios are indicative of a vocabulary common to all the five vowels. It’s possible, for example, to say something erotic or culinary in theme throughout all the vowels, because they actually have this vocabulary in common. I wanted there to be a sort of thematic consistency across the entire book. I didn’t want it to be just five separate, individual stories that had no correlations with each other. I wanted there to be some sort of thematic parallelism — and it just so happened that these were the lexicons that were common to the five vowels. So, I included them in the story.

Coincidentally, those four scenarios are also the kinds of scenarios that you typically see in Greek epic poetry. For me, the word eunoia, which is originally from Greek, means quite literally goodwill — it was a term coined by Aristotle to describe the frame of mind that you have to be in, in order to make a friend. It reflects a kind of neoclassical set of values about beautiful thinking. Certainly, there is a kind of classical story in Eunoia. The retelling of the Iliad in chapter E, for example, alludes to these four scenarios, which are common to a classical form of storytelling. You would find these scenes in such an epic.

Student: So, did the classical idea come first? Did the research for what was common come first, or was it sort of an homage to the classical traditions?

Bök: It’s all a side effect of the actual vocabulary itself. I didn’t plan to write about these four scenarios. The vocabulary determined what it was possible for me to say, and I simply said it. It just so happens that they are easily integrated into this rationale, this explanation. It is just a coincidence that it has something to do with a kind of neoclassical, Apollonian rigor in aesthetic value, which I think the Greeks exemplify.

Student: Have you ever thought of joining an a capella group?

Bök: No, I don’t think that I would join an a capella group. I’m too much of an auteur.

I have no vocal training. I’m not a musician.

Bernstein: I always thought Eunoia was what people said about poetry like ours: “You annoy-a me.”

Bök: That was the standard joke that my friends used when the book was outwearing its welcome: people would describe it as “Annoy-you,” or, better yet, “Ennui.”

Student: Considering the notion that imposed constraint thematically describes other inherent constraints: the most foundational and, perhaps, important element that arises out of Eunoia, and the construct of it, seems to be that language, even as it exists within conditions of both internal and external being, still stands as enduring and amazingly resilient. In many ways you have exploited the language’s benefit, the very linguistics or languaged associations and fixings that so many currently decry as problematic, something requiring remedy. Do you find that, having laid forth this enduring quality, both powerfully and convincingly, you have also laid a foundation that acts as a sort of defense of discursiveness? Leaving the aims of, say, Language poetry as more of a linguistic preference than a linguistic necessity? In other words, have words been shown to be so very resilient that they, in fact, do not require any sort of cleansing or reforming? And, in this way, do you defend what is often viewed as conservative or contaminated poetics?

Bök: If you’re suggesting that I’ve demonstrated that it’s possible for a person to be an avant-garde poet and actually mean something, then right, I agree. When indulging in this kind of formalism, I could say yes — what seems true about any combination of words, according to any series of formal rationales, is that what we call meaning is really a side effect of a particular kind of activity. No matter what combination of words that I might use, no matter how they are arranged or disposed, no matter what kind of formalities are brought to bear upon them, you’re going to find some sort of way to make those associations mean something to you. It seems to me that meaning is always the side effect of such an activity.

T. S. Eliot used to say that meaning was the meat that the burglar threw to the dog. You had to put some meaning in the poem so that something else could take place. You had to satisfy those readers who were begging for some sort of rationale, some sort of purpose for this activity, which, in many respects, is done for its own sake — as a kind of hedonistic enjoyment of language, language free from the need to mean. It takes a little holiday. That’s what’s going on in Eunoia: language has taken a little holiday from the dictionary. I’ve merely shown some sort of incipient, possible combinations and permutations of the words, all of which are actually imminent within the dictionary, within the language itself, but which have been somewhat occluded or eclipsed by other activities in language. That’s what many poets are trying to do nowadays. Certainly, the Language poets do that as well. They’re attempting to show various aspects of ideology in meaningful production, aspects occluded by standard, normative uses of the language.

Student: Do you find reinvention to be a means to some end or an end in and of itself?

Bök: That would be like asking a scientist if their practice of science is supposed to be pure or applied. I think that we’ve got lots of applied language: certainly, instruction books and information manuals. Those are kinds of applied modes of linguistic usage. I think that a poet is much like a pure scientist doing a kind of experimental, research activity. It’s all research and development. I would like to be a mad scientist in my basement designing a new brand of nerve gas that I could just spring on the population. And I am doing it through this kind of viral thing called language. That’s how I would respond to the idea about innovation. It’s a kind of research activity that you do in order to produce knowledge, quite literally — something that is a surprise, something that you’ve never knew before seen.

Student: How do you see that playing into the bigger social discourse?

Bök: I hope that it brings readers who might not have otherwise enjoyed poetry, or that it might produce new poets who would be encouraged to conduct, if not extend, these kinds of research activities. I certainly hope that it has an impact upon people’s attitudes towards their own use of language: that it helps them modify their own everyday, quotidian uses of it.

Student: Is novelty worthwhile for its own sake? Do you find you have a relationship with novelty through your own work?

Bök: My joke has always been: “New and improved — twice as many adjectives!”

It’s an attitude towards novelty that’s kind of an upgrade to ideology. You get the old thing, but now it’s 2.0. Or the old thing, but 3.0. These constitute modes of updating your, otherwise outdated, activity.

But in a certain sense, the new is not a fashion. It’s not a fad; it’s actually a value. Barthes would argue that it’s a fundamental value to most artistic practice in the last one hundred years, and that it’s actually impossible to produce knowledge unless you are invested in the new. You have to be able to produce surprises: produce a minimal difference that, in fact, makes a difference. That’s what I mean by the new: it’s a difference that makes a difference.

Bernstein: Better new-oia than old-oia.

Bök: That’s right.

Student: My question is what inherent value, if any, does Eunoia hold for a non-English speaker?

Bök: That’s interesting. I’ve had nonnative speakers of English comment that, when reading this book, they try to imagine what it would be like to conduct the same experiment in their own language. Many of them say that it would be effectively impossible to produce the same kind of work with the same depth, or complexity, across all five vowels. Spanish speakers said that, if they were to write the O section, it would be somewhat boring, because it would be composed of nothing but spondees with a long O sound: “poco, loco,” that kind of word, over and over again.

English has a relatively robust vocabulary and a very large lexicon. As a consequence, it made the act of writing the book in English much easier than doing it in other languages. In Quebec, some French writers have attempted to translate elements from chapter E with the same constraint and the same semantic content, and they’ve successfully managed to translate a few paragraphs after much arduous work. I would be very curious to see if somebody could actually do an analogous version of this book in some other language. It would be interesting to compare the two exercises. Most poets have simply confessed that they think that it would be impossible, but that’s what they said about conducting the experiment in English. Most writers who theorized this kind of practice thought that it couldn’t be done, certainly not at this length, and certainly not across all five vowels. But nobody really ever put it to the test. That’s the important thing for me: that I’ve attempted to put it to the test, despite being told not to.

Student: If you were born in Mexico, do you think you would still pursue a career as a poet?

Bök: If I was born in Mexico? I don’t know. Probably. I imagine.

Bernstein: I’m midway through my translation of the Canadian into the US language. It’s been arduous.

Bök: We speak American up there, you know?

Bernstein: I do ten minutes after I wake up each morning. It’s very similar, almost identical in terms of the letters and the configuration of the letters, to the Canadian.

Bök: We’re missing the letter zee though.

Bernstein: But I keep the letter zee. I try and stay as close to the Canadian as possible.

Bök: We’ve got the zed instead.

Bernstein: Many people would see very little difference, except that I’ve translated it, and I spent all this time.

Student: Do you think technology such as sorting programs or more advanced pattern-based algorithms could assist in the production of constraint-based writing such as Eunoia? And, at the extreme, could that supplant the poet?

Bök: This is a question of concern, and interest, for my peer group. I almost wish that I had access to the technology that would have made it possible to automate most of this process. I think that, if not now, then certainly in the future, poets may be required to learn a catechism outside of their formal, literary training. They may have to learn how to be typographers and typesetters and computer programmers, learning how to program Perl scripts in order to actually mine the vast exobytes of information that are out there on the Web.

In the future we could easily imagine poets being celebrated not so much for the quality of the poems that they write so much as for the quality of the programs that write poems on their behalf. We’ll celebrate poets as writers of code, not just as writers of words.

I haven’t got a problem with that. I actually think that computers are very useful prostheses, and I am very interested in the kinds of literary work produced by machines. I’ve written at length about the only published computer which has produced a book of poetry: Racter, the author of The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed, a very marvellous book of surrealism. What’s interesting about such a poet, for me, is not so much that it might someday supplant me and my job, but that, right now, it might write better than a human being. What’s fascinating about this particular computer program is that it knows nothing about poetry. It has no training in the formal history of such an activity, and yet it writes better than a human being who knows nothing about poetry. You would think that, surely, a computer that is ignorant of this activity wouldn’t be able to do a better job than a human who is ignorant of this same activity. And yet, I would probably prefer to read the doggerel written by this device than doggerel written by a human who has no training in poetry.

Student: Where do you think sound poetry is going now that it’s beginning to seem more like beat-boxing and vocal percussion?

Bök: Sound poetry — at least as it’s practiced by avant-garde poets — seems to be in decline. It’s waning. The greatest practitioners in the world, the people who, I think, are very influential, people like Paul Dutton or Jaap Blonk, are very classically minded in their activity. They use, as a musical metaphor, references to jazz for their practice. That’s the musical metaphor that’s typically evoked when describing what they do, and that seems increasingly antiquated — not illegitimate, but just an older notion of what it means to be a poet. There are no younger practitioners doing the same sort of activity. I’m maybe one of the few people my age who try to learn, to sustain, that older repertoire.

To me, the more virtuoso work is taking place among people who are doing musical mimicry, like the vocal percussionists. Rahzel or Dokaka are quite exceptional performers who make avant-garde practitioners look completely naive by comparison. It’s amazing how such beat-boxers can upstage other performers in athleticism and complexity. They are truly incredible. That’s why I feel obliged to learn that particular skill set: in order to expand my repertoire as a sound poet. I do it as a matter of course. I want to try to sustain this kind of practice; that’s one of the fertile avenues of exploration. It seems to me that those kinds of people in pop music — people whom you might hear on Björk’s most recent album Medulla — might be poets more so than musicians, although they’re functioning in a totally different, artistic universe.

Bob Perelman: I want to try and connect the beginning and the end of the reading. I was struck by … what’s the piece that you said was rough? The aphorisms, the second thing you read.

Bök: Yes, I would like to call that book — if I were to actually write it — Umlaut Machine.

Perelman: Yes, Umlaut Machine. I found your use of boring very interesting. That drilling is thrilling, but boring is boring. This is, in a way, an older discourse. I’m thinking of Bruce Andrews and others who find the extension of narrative, and the opera scenery that you have to drag around in each sentence in order to construct a normative, novelistic sentence, really hard work to just sit through.

But then hearing in Umlaut Machine some of the moments like “after Auschwitz, the barber …”

Bök: After Auschwitz, barbers are poetic.

Perelman: Barbers are poetic. Yes, right. On the one hand, it’s a totally great line. On the other hand, it’s problematic.

Bernstein: Sweeney Todd.

Perelman: But anyway, the boring: the long narratives outside strike me as something that you are going farther and farther away from. The trajectory of your work is more and more compressed so that the puns, the events, the thrills, are happening closer and closer together. So when you get to “Drum Rondo,” which I found exhilarating, there’s, say, ten thrills a second. It’s really much faster than syllables. What is it? Morphemes?

Bök: Yeah.

Perelman: What you said at the beginning of this discussion really resonated with me, that you always want to write a new book. You don’t ever want to repeat yourself. I’m wondering if the boring might be quite fertile territory. Can you speculate about where you might go? It’s almost like going through the looking glass rather than getting faster and faster and more and more dense. What might happen if you use this other scale, the longer scale, which is, I suppose, the novelistic, the boring? Your reading demonstrates that the boring can be really interesting.

Bök: Among my peer group, boredom is a value that’s discussed at length. Kenneth Goldsmith, a good friend of mine, describes himself as the most boring writer on the planet, and he predicates his entire career on retyping other people’s work. That’s his act of writing. He’s hoping that he can write his books while watching television. It would be great if writing were a form of crocheting that just takes place in the background of daily life. That’s really what he’s going for. There’s, of course, tremendous ennui in many of these texts. But under scrutiny, and certainly with effort — if you are actually willing to sit and read these works (and they’re often truly encyclopedic in scale) — they give up tremendous experiences of interest. We learn a great deal from these particular books.

Kenny likes to remark that, if he’s going to be boring, he wants to make sure that he is not “boring boring.” He should make a kind of interesting tedium. I use the IKEA phrase unböring, which is a more appealing word to me because it’s got the umlaut in it. The idea for him, in his work really, is that the tedium is the message. You see his tedium at play in an almost kind of Warholian excess. It’s that eating up of time that’s at play within his books. And it’s a lot of fun to see what the outcome of that process is. He often cites John Cage or Andy Warhol as important influences upon his practice.

If I’m doing something that’s boring, it better be interesting in some other way. I’m always worried that, as a performer, I’m actually having more fun than the audience. A boring person is somebody who’s actually taking interest in themselves when nobody else is. That to me, is what a boring person is. What’s cool about Kenny’s work, for example, is that, despite the fact that he’s taking a kind of total disinterest in himself, a very interesting activity nevertheless ensues.

When I was working on Eunoia, there were some very, very long processes of boredom. Days, if not weeks, would go by, with nothing but ennui and tedium. It was a very desperate kind of activity that required an enormous amount of commitment and perseverance, despite a lack of accomplishment, despite the fact that it was generating boredom. Nevertheless, I think that the outcome of the labor is a little more interesting than tedium. It’s a kind of new ennui that’s innovative, that’s fun to contemplate conceptually.

Jena Osman: Could you describe the way “Drum Rondo” looks on the page?

Bök: People often ask how the sound poetry gets scored. I always say: “Well, you’ll be very disappointed to note that it is written down the way it sounds.” It’s all written without many diacritical markups. I just use regular letters, and there are little “word-corpuscles” placed on the page in a manner designed to provide a mnemonic aid. Some sound poets actually go to great lengths to notate their work very thoroughly so that some other practitioner can come along and reproduce exactly the singular, original performance. I see something slightly fascistic in such an attitude, because it leaves little room for interpretation of, or additions to, the work.

In the case of musical notation, we don’t really know how any of the original composers might have performed their work, say, two or three hundred years ago. All we have is a whole series of interpretations, in which performers themselves have added their own timbre or tenor to each performance. Some of those performances become canonical; some of them are the ones that predominate. With “Drum Rondo,” all that I’ve done is to provide a code, a little bit of cryptography, a series of letters which correspond to the making of a sound. For example, if I want to make the kick-drum noise, that [sound] noise, I just notate it as capital B, little h, little m. [Sound.] And if I want to do a little high hat, a little high hat [sound] sound, right, I put that as a capital T. So, if I wanted to say [sound] [sound], right, it would be B-h-m, dash, capital T. And that’s how I notate the [sound] [sound]. You just string those sequences together, even though it looks completely meaningless. It’s not a semantic word that’s being created; it’s just providing a notation for me to remember so that I know the order in which I’m supposed to make these sound effects. I could, I suppose, substitute almost anything. I could have done little colored blocks, or something, as a sequence. But this is easier for me to do.

Everybody has their own idiosyncratic way of notating sound poetry now. Many avant-garde musicians have very idiosyncratic methods for notating their music, often because the standard, notational systems are now inappropriate for such kinds of composition. Moreover, many people can’t read music now because they’re resorting to computerized technology, like synthesizers, or other forms of digital sampling, which makes standard notation irrelevant as a practice, because you can manipulate already prefabricated noises. In a certain sense, all these sound poems pretty much look the way that they sound on the page. They’re just written down the way that they sound. People are often very disappointed to see that.

Osman: You say that you want each project you do to be completely different from the previous one. So, what’s next?

Bök: Well, I have two creative projects that I would like to do. I’m working on one which is a long sound poem, responding to the history of electronic music. A kind of techno music provides the model for this new, poetic practice. Most poets resort to jazz as their major, musical metaphor. To me, jazz is an increasingly Jurassic technology, and I would like to be able to respond to a much more contemporary model of music.

The other project that I would like to do, one that requires me to raise capital because I have to get scientists to assist me in the production of the book, would be to write a single poem which would be translated into a four-bit alphabet, in which each of the letters corresponds to one of the codons in a genetic sequence. Then I would actually translate the poem into a gene, which could be implanted in a bacterium with a retrovirus. You could actually have a little bacterium that would, in fact, be the living embodiment of the poem. It would be a very cool, conceptual art project. I’m in the midst of trying to raise capital to do this project, with grants.

Bernstein: It’s a good thing you’re doing that in Alberta, because we don’t allow that in the United States.

Bök: Right, we don’t allow that in the United States. I know that. That’s what I hear.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: You talked twice here about stubborn commitment under desperate conditions, and I think that you meant writing conditions, but if you meant anything else I’d be interested.

Bök: Well, while I was working on Eunoia, I was a PhD student at York University. I was working sixty hours a week: forty at a retail book store, a giant monopoly. I spent the other twenty hours tutoring students in chemistry and algebra for fifty dollars an hour to make up for shortfalls in my income. Then I would go home, and I’d work for a few hours on my dissertation. I was trying to complete my graduate work at the time. Once that work had been completed, usually around ten or eleven o’clock at night, I would proceed to work from about eleven o’clock until four or five in the morning on Eunoia — and then I’d probably get up two or three hours later to go to work.

So, for about four or five years at least, I was quite sleepless — a real insomniac, I would crash on the weekends. I was unpleasant. I had a girlfriend at the time who complained about my commitment to this particular project. I couldn’t get money to support the project. It was impossible to get a grant. In the seven years I worked on it, I couldn’t seem to get funding for it. I felt vindicated when it was done — given that it was finally very successful.

DuPlessis: I wonder whether you can at least briefly comment on the material, ideological and the historical conditions of being a Canadian poet.

Bök: Canadian poetry, in effect, defines itself against the kind of colonial experience of being, at first, a political colony of Britain, and now an economic colony of the United States. There is, at least historically, a great deal of xenophobia around poets who are influenced by international practitioners of writing. For the last thirty or forty years, the main concern has been to produce a kind of homegrown, poetic experience that would be a lyric expression of innate “Canadianness.” What does it mean to be a Canadian? What exactly is a Canadian? I find these questions pretty tiresome because they always come up with the same set of clichés and hackneyed sentiments.

As a consequence, literary history in Canada is very conservative and doesn’t have a very rich avant-garde tradition. Despite the fact that the country has been around for as long as the avant-garde itself, it doesn’t have a long, or deep, experimental writing history. It’s very difficult to be a poet under such circumstances, especially if you are doing something unorthodox. At the same time, however, socialist democracy has meant that there is actually money available to support artistic endeavor and creative activity in a way that may not be the case now in the United States. But that’s changing of course. We have an increasingly conservative, political agenda in our country, which is threatening many of these institutions: cultural institutions created, in effect, to protect Canada from the cultural incursions of the United States.

Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Christian Bök on PennSound. I’m Charles Bernstein reminding you that close listening is sooner than you think.

A conversation with Caroline Bergvall

Photo by Jamie Woodley.

Preamble: Caroline Bergvall and Susan Rudy met outside the Royal Festival Hall in London on Tuesday, June 8, 2010. Our conversation began informally, over dim sum at Ping Pong, a twenty-first-century teahouse on the festival terrace of the South Bank Centre, and was followed by a formal, taped interview, which took place in a quiet corner of the Royal Festival Hall. The text below was created between July and December 2010 based on a transcription of our interview and supplemented by email conversation.  

Susan RudySay Parsley [1] is a collaborative sound and language installation that you developed with Irish composer and installation artist Ciarán Maher. How and why did you begin working collaboratively?  

Caroline Bergvall: My first collaboration was with a photographer, Guri Dahl. Her work was very abstract, serial, black and white, and I was performing short prose pieces to go alongside her slide projections. What I really liked was the performance aspect of it, and the fact that as I was reading in the dark, my live voice functioned as a sort of voiceover. I remember that with much, much pleasure. I was also involved in FM radio for a time, and I would be testing some of my textual performances on air. Not always with the same approval rating from the listeners, I might add. So live performance drew out my interest in embodied presentations of text. When my collaborations became about interventions on site, or performances of site, they somehow broadened this focus. 

Rudy: So you were writing your work for performance very early on? 

Bergvall: No. I was writing and then I was also performing. But then Guri and I got funding to do an installation. And that was the first time I was invited to think about space as an issue for me as a writer. That was a weird project. Very abstract and strange and wonderful to do. It started my interest in the whole issue of writing on site, as site. If you are interested in performing spatially, somehow you will change your work; that will change your work. Similarly, if I have to struggle to read certain texts live, then that becomes part of the struggle of the piece itself. That was part of my work on language at that point. That struggle between text and performance was a sort of process of language acquisition. It was the acquisition of a voicing — I had to adapt or stretch or seek out my mouth, my reading, my breath, in relation to the event, to the space, to the acoustics, as much as to the work of my collaborators or my own texts, and not the other way round. I found all this really exciting, how to go about embodying or locating, placing a text in a dynamic relation. Of course, when one is in a site, on site, it changes everything, everything changes, about how I can write, about how far I can go with textual display or audio-placing, how much text the walls will accept, etc.  

 View of “Alpabet” and “For Walls” in Arnolfini Gallery 3, Bristol. Photo by Jamie Woodley. 

Rudy: Even though you started on this path by working with a photographer, your work doesn’t actually engage with images, does it! 

Bergvall: Very interesting point. I suppose I do work with language graphically on the page and across the pages, and also visually and spatially when on a site or on walls. But yes, I haven’t worked much with nonverbal images as such. Although I would argue that the spatial trajectory built to guide the viewer/listener through the Say Parsley show, the twenty-five hanging plumb lines, for instance, do create a mobile image, a sculptural instance that one accesses kinetically and visually. Also the seen/unseen vinyl lettering on the walls creates a perceptual image, one that changes as the reader walks closer to the display. For my upcoming show at the John Hansard Gallery. [2 I am working with the historic broadside ballad, which of course would always have had illustrations alongside the text and so here you see a move towards a more conventional and illustrative use of image alongside text.  

Rudy: I’d love to hear more about that project. 

Bergvall: I’ve been commissioned to do a piece for the John Hansard Gallery at the University of Southampton. The show opened in September [2010]. The John Hansard is a very good, internationalist, regional gallery. It has a solid reputation for being quite intellectual, and they’re very broad when it comes to the media they’re interested in. They haven’t done a writing show in this way before. So they invited me to do a new piece of mine.  

Rudy: And what’s the piece called? 

Bergvall: It’s called “Middling English.” [3]  


First page of Bergvall’s Alyson Singes (2008).  

Rudy: Is it the same “Middling English” referenced in the latest iteration of Say Parsley at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol? 

Bergvall: Yes. That quote is adapted from a piece of the same name. 

Rudy: So tell me about “Middling English,” then. Is it a critical essay? 

Bergvall: It has become a sort of template of thoughts and methods behind the John Hansard project. More largely, it supports my writing as a whole at the moment. I’ve been writing this piece for the past year or so. The final version of it is forthcoming in my collection of selected texts, Meddle English, which has just appeared. It wants to be polemical and starts really by saying, let’s think about the medium of English. It has Middle English as a starting point. 

Rudy: Is it related to your Chaucer work, then? To Alyson Singes, for example?  

Bergvall: Yes, its starting point was the Chaucer work. But it’s also working its way to reflecting on other hybridized language use, and what I consider to be the role of the writer today. It explores the residues from the past contained by language. It then looks at a language in full transformation, Middle English, at the beginning of its own identity as a compound of French, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, etc., and ends up speculating about the Englishes of today, again in full flux, after a long historical period of domination — also linguistic domination, by way of trade notably, and colonial politics of dominance and occupation. So I’m interested in thinking about the various horizons of English, what kind of language is there, what kind of world is it signaling now, what is coming after it. 

Rudy: That’s so interesting. You were talking at lunch about seeing yourself as a writer of the future. Can you speak a bit more about that?  

Bergvall: What I meant was twofold. Mainly that I am not an artist but I am not exclusively a literary writer either, and I work as a writer in spaces usually dedicated to visual or sound artists. I need the spaces these artists occupy for my work with language and writing. It is quite pragmatic. Formally, this combined compositional and presentation focus of textuality and spatiality is in the lineage of [Marcel] Broodthaers, who in turn was working out Mallarmé’s influence on him. The future of the book has in more than one respect become sited writing, networked writing. I also meant that my approach to language as a complex, historically charged, culturally multilingual and politically postnational system is reflexive of a citizenship that does not yet exist or is not allowed to exist within current parameters of identity and belonging. The future here is idealistic, as much as dystopic. 

Rudy: Can you speak a bit more about how you, as an artist, need the spaces that artists occupy? 

Bergvall: As a writer-artist, I need other spaces as well as printed spaces. And I was also signaling the future because we’re still very constrained by ideas about publishing. I love getting published, but I also function in spaces that signal another time of work, another catapult, another way of thinking about commissions, another way of thinking about what it means to be working in language. It’s complicated: poets have a way of commanding language that is very different from artists. Artists often have a reductive or programmatic attitude to using language, and don’t quite relate to the many subtle, semiotic ways in which language operates. But they often show far more acumen about how to let the language be worked by a site. It’s really exciting because for all the precedents in the visual arts and the historic avant-gardes, this extrapolation of more complex forms of verbal work and textuality into spatial audiovisuality is still in germination. People like Arnold Dreyblatt, Christof Migone, Imogen Stidworthy, and other artists who use a combination of language and audiovisual technologies are very inspiring to me. At lunch you were talking about Erín Moure. Like Susan Howe’s work, Erín’s work has a very radical presentation on the page. The page becomes a meeting point of past and present. For instance, her scans of sewn texts in O Cadoiro complicate the textual reading of translation by resorting to both ancient (the sewing, the textile) and digital traces of activity and composition. This is how she chooses to re-present contemporary translational traffic, as the locked hands of different technological physicalities and temporalities. And then there are writers who don’t feel that print is necessarily the focus of their writerly activities anyway and work increasingly outside it.  

Rudy: You also need so many more resources to publish outside of the page or the book. 

Bergvall: Yes, but you’re a very different kind of animal when you compose for a gallery. At the moment, I run a project where I have a project manager and a technical team. When a project really gets going you can spend so much time on these aspects. For example, how the John Hansard project evolves will have a lot to do with the collaborators’ own brief, the ideas they have. Very little at that point has to do with writing. But it is all leading to the inscription of linguistic activities. I love the conversations, the tensions, the pragmatic demands. For the John Hansard, I was initially thinking about sound and architecture. So I invited an architect to work with me. After that it is a question of rethinking what I want to say with language architecturally. I have been finding Gordon Matta-Clark’s photographic work very interesting in this respect, his complex architectural descents, his distortion of perspective, and then also his love of truffles as methodology: treasure is in the muck. I want to use this to stage various depths and surfaces of language use in the new show. 

Rudy: I’m still thinking about what it means that there are no visual representations in your work. At the Say Parsley exhibition in Bristol, for example, going into that space, it felt like walking into the Lacanian “real” with this alphabet on the floor, every letter but ‘h’ appearing in white vinyl lettering under a plumb line weighted down by a shiny red (read?) ball. At first I didn’t see the letters, but once you start pushing the lines and knocking the balls together, the letters are suddenly visible. It felt like this incredibly spare and yet absolutely full space of the continuum of the signified. 


constellation of 25 plumb weights / white vinyl lettering /badge  

The alphabet has 25 letters. We dropped one letter. Take it with you on the way out.

The ‘h’ is a troubled letter in English. Whether it is pronounced or not carries with it strong social markers. The dropping of the (h)aitch has for centuries stigmatized or located the speaker. The varying pronunciation of the letter ‘h’ can still be political. In the Irish language, the ‘h’ is very powerful. Its inclusion or omission along with its effect on pronunciation are often primary indicators of regional dialect The ‘h’ is heard as shibboleth.

Section three of Say Parsley, installed in Arnolfini Gallery 3. Note the missing ‘h’ in the title “Alpabet.”  

Bergvall: Yes, that’s right. And the alphabetic language is experienced as such, letters on the floor, yet also at a remove, through the movements of the hanging plumb lines, in a sense.  

Rudy: So many linkages are opened up, and there is such slippage and play. Do you see Say Parsley as a piece that explores semiotics?  

Bergvall: What interested me with this particular project was ideas of perception. And how language perception and the creation of meaning is indeed activated by various codes. Because I was working with my collaborator, the composer Ciarán Maher, it very much had to do with language as sound heard, as much as language and meaning misheard. But in a sense this accumulation of mishearings both as sound source and verbal sense rest on similar issues of semiotics. This has to do with identifying features of sense and realizing how these verbal permutations also come about as sound formants and as microparticles of language, and this is what creates or enables so much rich confusion in the listening process. And then there was this idea of listening on the move. How the positioning of the listener was crucial to the experience of the piece. That was the starting point of the piece. That and my exploration of the power and violence of the shibboleth. So the whole installation is very grounded in various aspects of semiotics, active, social manifestations of language, of verbal understanding alongside somatic experiences of language, and poetic emphasis, in the Jakobsonian sense. So it starts with language mired in the social world of communication. And it’s coming at language as a physical value inside of you. What was important for me here is the way that language can be so physically imprisoning.  


Stereo speaker pair  

The complex tones of the speaking human voice are transformed into simple waves. At these frequencies, speech can also echo the patterns of birdsong.

Section two of Say Parsley, installed with “Ampers&” in Arnolfini Gallery 2.  

Rudy: The tension between the fact that by its nature language offers the opportunity for so much openness while particular language systems — social systems — shut down the possibilities of meaning rather than opening them up.  

Bergvall: Yes. Say Parsley is really about how speaking and meaning are really a prison, how language is something that inhabits and becomes forbidding. So in that piece it’s not so much about the slide of the signifier in favor of the playfulness. It comes really out of the violence of identification; it’s really didactic. 

Data projection / 2 suspended speakers 

Standing under a speaker, the listener can hear a list of words that runs from “Pig” to “Parsley” through small phonemic shifts and syllabic variants. The list on the wall reproduces visually the words heard as they would look in two of the languages that have influenced the development of English (Dutch and French). 

Section five of Say Parsley, installed in Arnolfini Gallery 4. 

Rudy: It begins with the hideous fact that at a certain moment in history saying, in the sense of pronouncing, the word “parsley” in a particular way could get you killed. The background information about Say Parsleyon the Arnolfini Gallery website tell us that “the most recent example of a large-scale shibboleth was the massacre of tens of thousands of Creole Haitians on the border of the Dominican Republic in 1937, when the criteria for execution was the failure to pronounce “perejil” (parsley) in the accepted Spanish manner, with a rolling r. 

Bergvall: Yes. Say Parsley started with the need for testimony because it was done in the months after 9/11. The first version was produced for a show in Exeter in November 2001. And I was getting really freaked out about the kinds of things that were being said and done, both in Britain and in the United States, what was happening in relation to nationals and residents, and how this witch hunting was building up of those who are not the right kind of residents or even citizens. This was really horrific. And so the piece is very much in response to the realization that at any point your way of speaking or living can come and haunt you and single you out negatively. The piece is very much exploring and reminding of this violence and how it is inhabiting us, and how we could be made victims of that, or become the perpetrators, through intolerance and lack of genuine listening. There’s been a lot of that here recently with Eastern European nationals coming here to work with their very strong accents and their initially imperfect command of English. Quite apart from the obligatory outcries about jobs and social services, this has actually been creating grating at a much deeper level, that of the connection between verbal fluency and social fluency.  

Rudy: There’s no question that the social is foregrounded from the moment you enter the gallery space and see the excerpt from “Middling English” that is inscribed in vinyl on the wall. 

Prose text selected and adapted from Bergvall’s critical piece “Middling English” on a wall in the “Ampers&” section of Say Parsley, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol. Photo by Jamie Woodley. 

Rudy: My experience of the Say Parsley exhibition was completely framed by this reminder that “we each use a voice that speaks for us before we even get to speak.” 

Bergvall: Yes. And then you move into the whole idea of verbal permutations, and you move into slowly building it up, from the alphabet, and then of course you move into the poetic.  

Rudy: But the ability of the spectator to read the textualized space like a poem is crucial. Even the titles of the five sections of Say Parsley [“Ampers&,” “Speakers,” “Alpabet,” “For Walls,” and “Parsely” are so rich with meaning. Section one, “Ampers&,” includes and exemplifies the several uses of the visual/graphic sign it investigates — the & — in the title itself. In the exhibition guide you tell us: “The ampersand is one of the oldest exclusively visual/graphic signs of the western writing system. In its contemporary sense, it binds elements together and words as an additive device. In its medieval sense, it is a shorthand, used by copyists to speed up the endlines of words, such as ‘aspir&,’ ‘differ&.” And the piece “For Walls” consists of vinyl lettering on four walls.  

Text on one of the four walls in the “For Walls” section of Say Parsley, Arnolfini Gallery 3. Photo by Jamie Woodley. 

Rudy: As I was standing in the gallery space, I was in a kind of documenting mode, so I wrote down the letters that I saw on one of the walls. But that didn’t make any sense to me: “lang wedge keels.” And it did feel like I was writing down letters, not words. I didn’t recognize these groupings of letters as words. It wasn’t until I was reading through my notes in preparation to speak with you that I put these letters into my mouth and heard myself saying a word, that is to say, making a meaningful sound. Once I heard sounds that made sense to me, I wrote in my notebook words that make sense: “Say language kills.”   

“For Walls” consists of vinyl lettering on four walls. 

Bergvall: But you didn’t notice the word “over”? Did you see that? 

Rudy: [Looks through her notebook.] I recall writing down some letters that couldn’t be photographed because they were in shadow, letters that were the same color as the walls — yes, I have written in my notebook the letters “ova” which appear under “keels” on the wall. 

Bergvall: But you didn’t see the word “over”?  

Rudy: No! Ah! I “see” now, now that I’ve heard you “say” the word “over” — I “see” “over” in “ova.” But what I saw and heard at the time was only “ova”! Right, language not only kills; it also “keels over”!  

Bergvall: So that’s why you have the poetic coming in more as pronunciation, and it asks for the double take.  

Rudy: Thinking about the double take makes me wonder what the word “middling” might signify. When I first saw that word in the title of the piece cited in the gallery, I thought about your work generally and about how much you like to explore middle spaces. And I know that “hybridity” is not a very useful term. But can you talk a bit more about your invention of that word “middling”? 

Bergvall: Yes, but I’d like to think about it in terms of hyphenation. In my chapbook Cropper, which I gave you last year, for example, there’s that sense of wanting to just skip the hyphenation, remove the doubleness. One notion of the hyphen, of the hybrid too, to some extent, has so much to do with contemporary politics, with ideas of collective or singular migration, or migrancy, willed or unwilled — when you move to another country, the sense that you have to change your language, change your being. It remains a very powerful trope for me, particularly as it relates to my sexuality, since this is what kind of propelled me into English. But I’ve often thought about it as a process of invention. A conscious language acquisition process is obviously very different from the languages learnt as one grows up. I know that as a young gay woman I was being defined, often negatively, by others, and this means that processing language with pleasure for me became very connected to a necessary physical act of verbal distancing from home languages, and eventually physical migration. Responses to my sexuality were the main reasons why I moved both myself and my language’s work into English. 

From Bergvall’s Cropper (2008). 

Rudy: That’s fascinating; tell me more. 

Bergvall: I really have always sort of felt that notions of hybridity have to do with enforced identification, just as much as with pro-active identity claim. In the 1990s, the notion of queer aesthetics as a radicalizing pastiche, a hybrid collage was very strong and I thought very relevant. It presents itself as a warped mirror talking back at identity and the identificatory strategies of power. The solution proposed was a mixture of pop, technology and politics, very much in fact in line with Bakhtinian thought. His ideas around engaged heteroglossia in the face of political stiltedness or monumentalism. Carnival as obstacle and refusal, as a breakdown through material forms. I find it a very convincing way of approaching writing in its relation to cultural politics. And identity becomes then about reading one’s own aesthetic premises in the contexts of social and political stratifications. This lack of ownership, of fixity to one’s process and thought can be very elastic. It gives an overview. It leads to processes of explicit intercoding, and asks what performative interrelations really can be about. Separating the idea of hybridity from the fake liberatory and dangerously homogenizing politics of global multiculturalism has of course been crucial to many artists and scholars.  

There’s a point at which you start to produce your own artistic language in the new cultural context. You start infiltrating it with what else also comes with you, the other worlds or specificities that allow you to inflect your language use. Personally, it gives me a way to rethink myself within and beyond the Anglophonic cultures I’m now in. This whole idea of the middle is always a trajectory, a transit, the possibility of invention that we find ourselves in, conscious and unconscious. 

Rudy: It seems significant that you’ve framed this being in the middle as an active verb. You are doing something; you are “middling” English. 

Bergvall: Yes, to think about “other” as a verb, as Nathaniel Mackey famously does, that is very powerful. But I think also a lot a lot about Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. We were talking about that at lunch. When it comes to gender and sexuality, he is completely silent, but he is fascinating in relation to rethinking geography, historic and utopian space, beyond the middle passage, and slavery, this horrible, traumatic time-place of absolute darkness, of absolute loss, of names, languages being forced out. And you have this culture of the Caribbean that he and other writers have helped to create linguistically, poetically, as well as physically, through survival and invention and the making of the politics of the islands. But it is more than islander autonomy he looks for. As he says, Caribbean creolization becomes an example for the future. What happens in Caribbean creolity is rescuing the present from the horrors of the past and shaping an idea of the future beyond western universalism and internationalism. He also has a beautiful, utopian way of writing. Much like Nicole Brossard. And at the moment, it seems to me that I really just need that kind of imagination, that kind of optimistic belief in language, the engagement with it as a polemic as much as a poetic tool. It provides a way to think beyond the given parameters of the present. It shifts the temporal significance away from the exclusive, and I think, ultimately dangerous supremacy of the now that we have seen so much in art and poetics.  

Rudy: Yes, absolutely. 

Bergvall: So I love his language as much as his politics. He allies history, impossible memory, with the idea of the future, with a language practice very much rooted in the present of political and cultural reality. How can one then create a language practice that can adapt itself to mixed cultures, to mixed geographic fates, and shift the ideological premise of western control. All of that for me is part of the hybrid, the compound, the ampersandic.  

Rudy: Can we talk a bit more about your “Via” piece? 

Bergvall: Yes, of course. The ampersand is part of “Via,” in the sense of the instability of the translation and of the original. But first, Glissant talks about defolklorization, not sentimentalizing a starting point, not sentimentalizing a point of no return to a culture of origin, being critical of one’s own sentimentality and one’s sentimental needs. Really for me this is a very important idea, this concept of resisting identity and yet having somehow to claim it. I don’t want to claim queer identity for my work necessarily. But I do want to be able to examine the terms that I can use in my work and that are specific to myself, and a number of others, so that I can use in language and in culture such points of separation and of community, what constitutes community.  

Rudy: But that’s so tricky. I was reading your notes on your “About Face” piece (“Piece in Progress: About Face”), and you talk there about your own contradictions and tensions, and you ask yourself the question “How deep is the bride?” and I was thinking about that word “bride” obviously as a figure in English but also about how the word “bride” in French means “bridle” and how, since I saw Say Parsley, I’m aware of not being sure of which system of signification we’re operating within (French? English?). I assume you mean both of them.  

Bergvall: That’s right, yes. 

Rudy: And I take it the question you’re asking is about how deeply these ideological patterns are embedded in us, and asking what we can do to get rid of them, or not, or embrace them, or break them? 

Bergvall: Absolutely, yes.  

Rudy: Which makes me think again of Say Parsley. Can we close this conversation by talking a bit more about the history of the construction of that piece? It was created in 2001? 

Bergvall: Yes, the first siting of this collaborative sound-language installation, then called “Say: ‘Parsley,’” was in November 2001 for the Spacex Gallery at the Exeter Maritime Museum.  

Rudy: What kind of space was it created for in Exeter?  

Bergvall: The Maritime Museum was a beautiful space, two floors, and it was abandoned, it was supposed to be demolished; now it has been transformed into apartments. 

Rudy: And you had two floors for the installation? 

Bergvall: Yes, we had the poem chalked on the wall downstairs, interviews, people speaking upstairs, the plumb line grid, a set of pairings that weren’t in Bristol, an audio text in the corner. And you had the lists and the letterings and the plumb lines moving. And the three white r’s in the distance.  

Rudy: Did you include the piece called “Speakers” in that first installation? 

Bergvall: The one that sounds like birds? 

Rudy: Yes. 

Bergvall: That wasn’t in the first installation.

Rudy: Was “Ampersand” in the first version of Say Parsley

Bergvall: “Ampersand” was its own datapiece that I then put in a show I was sharing with Ciarán at the Bury TEXT festival in 2004. But that’s a piece that I’ve carried on my own.  

Rudy: So it looked much different from the one I just saw in Bristol.  

Bergvall: Yes, very, very different. 

One of sixty-four ampersands found in a computer font library and projected onto the wall in Arnolfini Gallery 2. The small text on the right wall is from “Middling English.” Photo by Jamie Woodley. 

Rudy: What struck me was how powerfully the ampersands function as signs when they are so massive. They were projected on a large white wall and took up the entire space. And when you stand there looking up at so many of them that they start to take on shapes, representations, figurations, because they take up so much space on the wall. They started to look like girls to me.  

Another of the sixty-four ampersands found in a computer font library and projected onto the wall in Arnolfini Gallery 2. Photo by Jamie Woodley. 


Bergvall: I’ve never gendered it actually but … it’s really sort of ironic, it’s a very anthropomorphic sign. 

Rudy: And the piece “For Walls” — was that in the 2001 version of Say Parsley?  

Bergvall: No, that’s completely new.  

Rudy: So the Bristol version is really a completely different piece then. 

Bergvall: No, it’s the same.  

Rudy: Tell me about how it’s the same when it’s made up of such different pieces? 

Bergvall: Well it’s about how the piece fits the space, for one thing. And of course the time that elapses between iterations. And the pursuit of the question. 

Rudy: What’s the function of the letter ‘h’ buttons that you can pick up from the box in the gallery and take away with you?  

Bergvall: That’s about dropping the ‘h.’ That’s just a game. And it’s also — it might be ‘h’ in general. You know each letter has a history, in some way. It’s one of those fascinating letters in English because it’s a letter that has a whole set of imported French words attached to it. In the romance period, sort of late medieval period, you have coming into English vocabulary a lot of French words. Where the ‘h’ is not pronounced — “honor,” for example. So there’s a whole sense of a letter being important for the fact that it’s not pronounced. And then of course it’s also about social class and stigmatized speech. So ‘h’ is just one of those fascinating letters. It carried so much charge for English, like what ‘r’ carries for the Creole/French. I put it in because although it may not have led to what was explicitly collective violence it certainly has led to persistent kinds of exclusion. There’s still a real snobbery here about speaking the ‘h’ or not speaking the ‘h,’ so that’s why that’s there — and to have that as a sort of badge. And then you can consider it as this lovely abstract figure too. It makes me think of the I Ching.  

Rudy: And what about the plumb lines? What were you thinking about there? 

White box full of ‘h’ badges, mounted on wall in the “Alpabet” section of Say Parsley in Arnolfini Gallery 3. Photo by Susan Rudy. 

Bergvall: I’m using that again in the John Hansard show but in a very different way. I think about it in relation to pendular movement. But then somebody was telling me that really what one wants with the plumb line is for it to be still, for it to carry its weight. 

Rudy: I wanted to go around the room and put them all in motion so that they were hitting each other. 

Bergvall: Exactly — if you have something you can make with movement, you should. That’s part of what I’m saying with the work, the Freudian fort/da, the always moving, the to and fro, the yes/no, a reminder that everything moves on both sides of the hyphen as well. Spatial work that you have to walk around. And I was interested in the weights themselves, in a logic of weight. And of course we were in the Maritime Museum initially. This is a very strong trait with naval history. Somebody was telling me the other day that for them the plumb lines felt like demolition balls into language.  

Rudy: In speaking with you I realize that when I experienced the Say Parsley show, I couldn’t help but think about the piece as though it were a long poem. Moreover, I imagined that what I was seeing was a particular edition of a long poem that had earlier versions. But I realize now that it’s a very different thing when it moves into a different space. 

Bergvall: It is a different thing. But linguistically it is crucial to me that you remain very close to the material, to the linguistic system, because it started with the rolling r, with the phoneme, so you have to start with pronunciation and then start with the fact that you’re dealing with sounds which are part of a permutational system. Some of the things kinetically are there because they can be — you can move around the room, move the weights, have a look at the transparencies, the lettering on the wall. Which you can do on the page too. But it’s different to be there with your full body. It is in a poetic mode. But if it asks to be taken on as literature, it asks of literature that it move with us. When you said to me that you wanted to talk about the work I was so pleased, because I know that you are a literary scholar and so there really is this pleasure in my wanting to talk with you about the work instead of it always sitting inside a visual arts world. Because this is really where the work needs to take place. So that leads back to what we said about the future, and it’s actually a way of saying that we need other platforms on which to do poetic work. 

Rudy: And that’s what I loved about the piece, because it was like being inside a long poem, and being able to walk around and inhabit it.  

Bergvall: That’s wonderful. Thanks, Susan.  


1. This conversation was initiated by Susan Rudy after she experienced the most recent iteration of Say Parsley at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, UK. The show ran from May 8 to July 2010; the exhibition guide can be downloaded here

2. Entitled “Caroline Bergvall: Middling English,” the show ran September 7–October 23, 2010, at the John Hansard Gallery.

3. From the John Hansard Gallery website: “‘Middling English’ explores some of the pleasures and complexities of language use, in and through writing. The exhibition brings together multi-sensory elements — spoken pieces, audiophonic compositions, printed broadsides and the strange memory world of pop lyrics — all presented through a stunning architectural installation.” 

Works Cited 

    Bergvall, Caroline. Alyson Singes. New York: Belladonna, 2008. 

    ———. Cropper. Southampton: Torque, 2008. 

    ———. Éclat sites 1–10. ububook, 2004.  

    ———. FigGoan Atom 2. Cambridge: Salt, 2005.  

    ———. Goan Atom. 1. Doll. San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2001.  

    ———. Meddle English: New and Selected Texts. New York: Nightboat, 2011.  

    Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.  

    Mackey, Nathaniel. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-culturality and Experimental Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.  

    Moure, Erín. O Cadoiro: Poems. Toronto: Anansi, 2007.


Aaron Kunin and Ben Lerner in conversation

In this long-running exchange, Ben Lerner and Aaron Kunin discuss Kunin’s latest collection, The Sore Throat and Other Poems, and the sources with which it is in dialogue, including Pound’s “Mauberley” as “a repository of lyric gestures.”  Lerner and Kunin have previously published two similar exchanges in Jacket  — one addressing Kunin’s novel The Mandarin, in Jacket 37; another, on Lerner’s Mean Free Path, in Jacket 40.

Ben Lerner: This is your second published book of poems, after Folding Ruler Star, but you wrote it first. So it’s possible to read the Mauberley series, which begins the book, as a kind of inaugural, as announcing your entry into poetry. Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is largely a farewell — a farewell to a poetic style, a farewell to British society after WWI, etc. Why is a poem of farewell the source text for your beginning? Does your poem renounce anything? Does it renounce Pound’s renunciation? 

Aaron Kunin: The January eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender ends with Colin destroying his instrument, the oaten pipe, and vowing to sing no more songs. In the first poem in his first collection, Spenser says farewell to poetry: hello, I must be going. The gesture is conventional — Spenser got the idea from Virgil.

Not that I had any notion of this convention when I wrote my poems. I was a beginner. Fortunately, “Mauberley” is a great introduction to poetry. All the figures in this literary history of “a botched civilization” — all the funny, forgotten, and made-up names — acquire flesh, color, and life through Pound’s effort at renunciation. All the bad habits of “vers libre, Amygism, Lee Masterism, general floppiness” get to enjoy their moment of technical demonstration before they become garbage. In spite of the astringent tone, the poem is as full of “life and contacts” as the alternate title promises.

The life of “Mauberley” is its lovely, off-kilter rhythm. This rhythm is seductive and unique — there’s nothing else like it, at least not in poetry. (The edits in movies like The Conformist and Petulia, with their use of flashforwards, have a similar effect.) The poem stops, it goes back, gets stuck, repeats — then it lunges ahead very fast. It draws together materials from various ancient civilizations, and meanwhile, as early as the second poem, it starts cataloguing its previous moves, treating itself as its own sourcebook. That’s what I was trying to translate from Pound’s poems into mine. Is that the quality of “goodbye-hello” that you mean?

Lerner: Yes, that’s one of the great things about Mauberley — how you can feel it becoming archive as you read. It’s already using itself as a source text; in that sense your series is more of an extension than a displacement. And what you’re saying about the quality of “goodbye-hello” — that it’s largely a function of the poem’s prosody — is something your series proves. You reduce a poem with an almost parodically wide range of vocabulary (I always have to look up “mousseline,” “barbitos,” etc.) to a severely restricted language field, and yet the affects of the original are preserved, which reveals them to be largely formal effects. (Maybe this is a version of the conventional renunciation as foil for virtuoso display: you would think the radical reduction of vocabulary would be an austerity measure — a disavowal of the pleasures of rarefied language — when in fact it intensifies the life of the poem.)

But that’s not to say you ignore the paraphrasable content of the original altogether. 

Kunin: Well, I tried. In some poems, you can see how hard I tried. For instance, “A can of rats” translates Pound’s “Envoi.” I wanted to do something special for this incredibly beautiful poem. The “Envoi” begins with what feels like a dismissive gesture, “Go, dumb-born book,” where the masochism of the speaker has turned the “go, little book” trope into something rather nasty. And somehow the same poem ends with the almost pure lyricism of:

When our two dusts with Waller’s shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save beauty alone.

For me, the challenge was to follow this stumbling path from irony to beauty.

I was helped by the belated recognition that Pound was translating another English-language poem, “Go, lovely rose,” by Edmund Waller. By a lucky coincidence, I happened to be reading Waller just before I started writing. This discovery gave my poem its own path from the prosaic to the lyric. Contrary to my usual procedure, I did not follow Pound’s syntax, lineation, or punctuation, and instead introduced a new, shorter stanza based on the rondeau. I tried to bring the concerns and wording of the “Envoi” closer to its source, to translate Pound back into Waller. I also took from Waller the suggestion of marking a caesural pause with a dash. As a result of this confluence, my poem really is about what Pound’s poem is about: beauty as atomic fact, a kind of transportation without transformation.

Lerner: But Pound’s poem is also about a historical moment — about losses both personal and public.

Kunin: I didn’t have such good luck there. Two poems, “Anyhow, we do not complain” and “We know what choice we have,” translate the poems that Pound wrote for his friend Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. I like to think that my translations successfully communicate some of the charm and energy of Pound’s portrait of his friend, and the anger occasioned by his loss, and the waste and confusion and abstraction of the war.

One theme in those poems was beyond my reach. In a crucial substitution at the end of Pound’s fifth poem, the “broken statues” and “battered books” become roughly equivalent to the “botched civilization” that Gaudier-Brzeska fought and died for. Since he was also a producer of culture, a sculptor, the statues and books may be offered as inadequate compensation for his death. My friend is gone, but at least I have his art to remember him by. In addition, the statues and books represent some of what civilization lost when Gaudier-Brzeska died: if he had lived, think of all the great sculptures and books that he could have made. Finally, the poem suggests something about Gaudier-Brzeska beyond what made him the best at what he did, something beyond his artistry and therefore not replaced by his art (whether he lived long enough to make it or not), and this extra something is represented by his smile and glance. 

None of this shows up in my poem — not the calculations, not the ambivalence, and not the unique expression of Gaudier-Brzeska’s face. The social inventory of “Mauberley” is missing. The base vocabulary was not great for direct verbal portraits — I had “eyes,” and I could make them “wide” or “narrow,” and there were certain feelings and expressions that I could intimate — all mere suggestions and indirections, although I suppose I could have used them more imaginatively. I never even came up with a good equivalent for the idea of “an art in profile.” Instead, for the most part, I substitute my own nervousness for Pound’s portraiture. (For a new version of “Mauberley” focusing on the “art in profile,” I would recommend Brian Kim Stefans’s wonderful “Pasha Noise.”)

Lerner: One significant change between your poem and “Mauberley” that I keep pondering is the shift from the third person to the second. (I don’t know if “he” is in the reduced vocabulary; maybe that’s part of the issue.) In the original, Pound creates a persona, H.S., that he can load with his own characteristic (thereby composing Pound’s Ode Pour L’Election de Son Sepulchre). But in your translation, where we expect the poem to shift the author’s attributes onto a third party, we encounter “you”: not, “He strove to resuscitate the dead art …” but “You wish to begin the dance.” 

Hard not to hear Pound’s definition of logopoeia here — “the dance of the intellect among words.” It’s as if the author sat down to model Pound’s creation of a persona, a “he” he could distance himself from, but he was interrupted, usurped, at the beginning of the poem (dance). It seems to me that your hand is addressing you — showing you who’s in charge.

Kunin: That wasn’t deliberate or necessary. I always had two third person pronouns in the vocabulary, both “he” and “she.” In the first series “he” appears only in one poem, “What’s your pleasure, brother?,” where the figure elsewhere called “the moron” is identified as male. I didn’t even notice that I had used “he” once and “she” not at all until years later, when I was preparing to write the Sore Throat poems. Then I thought, okay, this time gender should be in the foreground; I’m going to use a lot of “he” and “she.”

Keeping in mind that the tendency to substitute “you” for “he” was purely intuitive, let me propose a retroactive justification. I was treating “Mauberley” as a repository of lyric genres. To me it was the Greek Anthology, a collection of every kind of lyric — blessings, curses, romantic complaints, hymns, odes, epitaphs, everything. All of these genres really are in “Mauberley,” but if you want to bring out their lyricism, it might help to emphasize apostrophe, because lyric usually means a poem in which a first person appears and speaks to a second person who does not appear. Maybe if I’d thought more clearly about this problem, I would have chosen a different source text, “Homage to Sextus Propertius” or even Cathay, where the lyric affiliations are more on the surface.

As for “the dance of intellect among words”: I did actually translate this phrase in the second poem as “The dance of the mind about the word.” A close translation, I think. More often, though, “dance” and the imperative to “keep up the dance” refer to the halting rhythm that I love so well in “Mauberley.” The rhythm, not the themes, drew me to the poem in the first place. I mean, does anyone go to Pound for the content? 

Lerner: I agree with you that “Mauberley” can be thought of as a repository of lyric gestures, gestures that could be brought into relief by apostrophe. But I want to press the notion that the author here is as much the object of address as he is it’s subject. We know that “he” (H.S.) really means “I” (E.P.) in the original; this makes “you” mean “me,” at least at the poem’s opening. I think this shift is crucial to what you describe in the note on method as an “inversion” of “Pound’s psychological experiment”; it’s a refusal of the attempt to go outside oneself, the internalization of the split of persona. Maybe your unconscious knew what it was doing: this shift was “intuitive,” the availability of third person pronouns was repressed (“until years later”).

Kunin: I’m open to the idea that my hand could know something that the rest of me did not know. At the same time, I would not want to give up on the idea that my hand is part of me, and if my hand knows something, then that’s my knowledge too (even if I only have access to it through my hand).

It’s true that I did not avail myself of certain third person pronouns in the Mauberley poems. But this does not mean that the poems are written in one voice, or that speaker positions are fixed. There are a number of third person figures, like the moron and the rats, and they sometimes speak in their own voices. The most obvious reading of “A can of rats” is that it’s spoken in unison by the rats; the demand for “change” in “What’s your pleasure, brother?” is also attributed to the rats as a group. Even the first poem includes some narration as well as apostrophe, and I’ve never been able to decide who is speaking in the last quatrain, whether the original speaker just keeps talking, or whether the addressee replies. Maybe the addressee mishears liking (in “I like you as you are”) as likeness: “I do not know what is ‘like me.’” (That line could be a slightly doctored quotation from Henry V, in which case Catherine of France is the speaker.)

Lerner: You mention your desire to inhabit your hand vocabulary as fully as possible in the note on method, “because [you] really believe that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.” What’s so shameful about your hand alphabet or the habit that produced it? What is the relation between this kind of automatic writing and shame (the affect around which Folding Ruler Star is organized)?

Kunin: Shame can attach to any object. (Adam Frank, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Silvan Tomkins have written about the “binding” tendency of shame.) I can feel shame for my voice or for silence, for being stupid or smart, for nervous hand gestures or stillness, for dressing extravagantly or simply. The objects acquire the strength of the feeling that I, by compulsion, put into them. 

Think of a rat encountered on the sidewalk, or a centipede on the wall in the kitchen. The rat and the centipede mirror me, because I am also on the sidewalk or in the kitchen. They are part of me — or we are both parts of the same whole — and they know exactly how I feel about them. The rat knowingly wields the full power of the disgust that it inspires in me. That is why it seems utterly without fear; that is why I move to give it space on the sidewalk. The rat disgusts me, and the disgust shames me, because what is the difference between me and the rat?

David Larsen once asked me what I learned about rats from writing these poems, and I was stumped. I said something like: David, I’m not a zoologist! He asked a good question, though, and I didn’t like my answer. You know, having spent a month of my life writing and thinking about rats, I should have something to show for my studies. Now, years later, it occurs to me that I may have learned something after all; maybe the defiance of the collective voice of the rats reflects this knowledge.

Lerner: You seem OK with transferring human feeling to rats. And yet the rats at one point in these poems demand “the thing in itself.” On the jacket of the book, there is a long (and I think accurate) list of genres and situations your poems explore, including: “riddle, cosmogony, theodicy, vanity, and misplaced concreteness.” I’m interested in that last term, that fallacy.

Kunin: We poets are in the business of misplacing concreteness. Where does concreteness belong? A Platonist would say that a building is less concrete than the number 12, since it would be difficult to destroy the number 12. A Marxist would say that concreteness pertains to social structures rather than individuals.

Whitehead, who names the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, has a peculiar sense of the proper place of concreteness. He derives the technical term concrescence “from the familiar Latin verb meaning ‘growing together.’” According to Whitehead, in order to concretize something, you have to connect it to a lot of other things. You misplace its concreteness when you limit its position to one place or one moment, or if you assign its qualities to your own perceptions. Thus Whitehead says that the poets, not the empiricists, are right to give credit to “the rose for his scent, the nightingale for his song, and the sun for his radiance.”

In poetry, there are no secondary qualities: the song is in the nightingale. For this reason, Whitehead congratulates us, the poets, for keeping concreteness where it should be. But the other side of the picture is that we misplace it. Tropes mix up the abstract and the concrete, the temporal and the eternal. Images dematerialize objects. The line cuts time into space.

Lerner: As a transition to the translations of Pelléas et Melisande, the book’s second source text, it might be worth noting that the boundary between these two parts of your book is fluid, hard to mark. Is this book one series with two sources? Two distinct series?

Kunin: I prefer to think of the book as a collection of poems. In the introductory note, I acknowledge the relationship between the poems and the sources, but I don’t want to make too much of it. The groups of poems are not clearly articulated; they run together, and there are competing versions of The Sore Throat. (To my mind, the title of the collection suggests that there is one genuine poem called “The Sore Throat,” and the rest are “other poems.”) The poems don’t acknowledge their sources either. Each poem can be read on its own, without reference to the source texts, the other poems in the collection, or the hand alphabet.

Lerner: Another way to put the question might be: is the problem of Golaud the same problem as the speaker(s) in “Mauberley”?

Kunin: When I wrote the poems in the first series, the vocabulary felt inadequate to the content. Not many words to begin with, few substantives, almost no particulars. And the particulars tended to be overparticularized. In the first poem, “Jesus” appears in place of Pound’s “Penelope.” In the second poem, I used the compound word “hard-on.” Not one of my happier inspirations: “a prose kinema” becomes “a machine hard-on.” In both cases, I remember thinking, a little goes a long way; I shouldn’t use that word again for a while. I didn’t want the Christian or phallic element to overwhelm the others. The machine and the rats, on the other hand, were richer concepts for channeling universals into particulars.

The problem felt very different in the second series. Suddenly it felt as though I could say anything with these 200 words. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was just more comfortable in the vocabulary. There were more words than before, and I created still more words by systematically reviewing possible compounds, particles, and elisions. I squeezed words out of other words: “mess” and “age” made “message,” “thinking” broke into “thin” and “king,” and so on. Also, the dirty secret of this project is that there may not be more than 200 words in Maeterlinck’s vocabulary!

Anyway, I started working with Pelléas, and discovered that I could translate it kind of faithfully, which hadn’t been the case at all with “Mauberley.” But I didn’t want to do a faithful translation; I wanted to write a new poem. Instead of using Maeterlinck’s decisions to guide mine, I used his text more impressionistically, to suggest themes or occasions.

Lerner: “The poems don’t acknowledge their sources either. Each poem can be read on its own, without reference to the source texts, the other poems in the collection, or the hand alphabet” — why the note on method? Why the “knowledge blobs”? (You seem fond of paratexts — your novel had a summary and an index.)

Kunin: The preface and the postface are supposed to communicate some information about the process of composition. (In the case of the postface, this doesn’t necessarily mean accurate information.) The goal is for the process to live in the object, like in a Marianne Moore poem where you get to see the sources, their provenance, some of her drafts — you’re watching her put the poem together. This is a modernist value that I like. As a reader, I want to see all the decisions that go into making a book. I don’t want to replace the book with a conceptual scheme, but I want to see the method of its composition. To revert to the terms of my limited vocabulary, I affirm “the machine” rather than “system.”

Lerner: You model many of the stanza patterns of “Mauberley in your translation; Pelléas et Melisande, however, is not in strophes. So where does the (often wild) structure of The Sore Throat come from? Does it have any relation, however oblique, to Pelléas?

Kunin: The stanza patterns are not based on Pelléas. I introduced them because I wanted a pattern of shapes, a pulse, on the page, and there wasn’t anything like that in Maeterlinck.

Like lines, the shapes of stanzas have a rhythm. In a sense they do what the line does: they transport material, only they do it vertically. Also, unlike the line but more like an arrangement of city blocks or a seating pattern in a bus, this rhythm doesn’t measure anything; it’s just a pulse. (In Spenser, and I think in Dante, the stanza is actually a metric — this is one of the calendrical pretensions of the Shepheardes Calender — but these poets are unusual in attributing significance to the numbers of their stanzas.)

We were talking earlier about Whitehead. His chapter on “process” derives all of metaphysics from the first two lines of the hymn: “Abide with me; / Fast falls the eventide.” Permanence and change: something abides, and something falls with overwhelming speed. This “complete problem of metaphysics” is a target for art. Coleridge describes an improbable folding of variety into unity in his effusions on the Spenserian stanza: “That wonder-work of metrical Skill and Genius! That nearest possible approach to a perfect Whole, as bringing the greatest possible variety into compleat Unity by never interrupted inter-dependence of the parts!” I don’t think that’s an overstatement. The stanza tracks movement against persistence in time. I sometimes think of it as a hydraulic operation: you’re trying to control a fluid moving through a channel.

Lerner: Speaking of fluid mechanics, the “machine” is everywhere in this book. We’ve largely been discussing the mechanics of your composition, and sometimes the machines you’re describing seem fairly exact figures for the poems’ procedures. The hand alphabet, for example, could be “a machine / for concealing your desire.” And making that machine into art could even be considered “inventing another / machine for concealing the / machine.” But your machines are also technologies of expression, e.g. “machine of weeping,” “a machine hard-on.” I’m interested in the way the machine is alternatingly expressive and repressive, or how repression passes into expression, often against the wishes of the machinist: “Every machine / has more beauty than the last, / for everything whose purpose / is to conceal seems to change, / in the end, into a sign / of what it’s concealing.”

Your poems also address the mixture of metaphysics and mechanics described in your answer above: “Dear machine — // You are not so much a brother / To me, more of a god, I guess.”

Kunin: I’ve written a lot about machines. Why is that? I’m not mechanically minded, and my relationship to the machines that I use is primitive: I depend on them, but I don’t know how they work, and I don’t have any genius for making them work.

I tend to write about machines as machines. Always the general term. Maybe I don’t see a useful distinction between levels of technology. Complexity does not belong only to electronics, and beauty does not belong only to handcraft. Kitchen equipment and software give me the same problems, more or less.

You’re right to say that my machines are expressive. I have a poem in Folding Ruler Star about how mechanical emotion basically is: “it’s precisely in // blushing crying and / loving that they are / most machine-like.” I hope that doesn’t sound like behaviorism. I’m not trying to reduce the mysteries of psychology to a set of predictable responses. I see emotion as mechanical in two ways (and I guess these must be the two senses of “the machine” in my usage). First, emotion repeats. My responses are personal — perhaps no one else has quite the same pattern of responses — but they describe a definite pattern; and each response reflects and magnifies itself. Second, emotion is a force, and it treats you as an object. It’s the experience of being moved, after all. Somewhere in every emotion is a vertiginous pleasure in being an instrument. The Stoic tradition that sees emotion as a kind of bondage may be on to something; for Marcus Aurelius, the only measure of freedom in a deterministic and eternally recurring universe was to behave as though his emotions did not touch him.

Lerner: At certain moments in the book, the machine seems to be breaking down, or maybe you’re attempting to “invent / a machine for disinventing.” I’m thinking of those poems where syntax more or less collapses:

Can see, in my, me a, say that you think
Nothing, head you, gain you, it’s all you see
But you won’t see, must not, right if I won’t
Begin, we can’t, no rats, left
Seeing, begin report, left

I can’t tell if the machine is failing or if it’s receiving or giving instructions — “left” at the right margin starts to seem like a command to return to the left margin, to break a line; “begin report” sounds like an imperative, maybe to reboot. What’s going on here?

Kunin: I see why you describe the syntax as breaking down or broken, but I would take a different perspective. I think of these poems as something like graffiti. Other poems in the book have a chiseled quality, but here I was imitating a different kind of public writing, not just terse but crude, diagrammatic. These are elementary combinations of words, not built up into anything complicated. The phrases are short, sometimes incomplete, and linked by comma splices, and you can also read through the commas and combine phrases across the lines. Part of the point is to expose the machinery, to show the elements of the word list and how they fit together. Here is the skeleton, and here are the joints. The main point is to achieve a tone efficiently, using the simplest means. The operation is similar to the translations of “Mauberley”: drawing a diagram of a poem’s tone.

Lerner: Did you ever watch Star Trek? Data — who was an android — was always baffled, as Spock before him, by human emotions. But this bafflement was of course quite human; really it made Data the most human character on the show. I remember one episode where Data is playing a violin solo and, like everything Data does, it’s technically perfect — he’s incapable of error. But one of his companions tells him that he’s missing something, that, while his performance is flawless, or maybe because it’s flawless, it lacks an emotional charge, and so it isn’t really art. This is a version of a familiar opposition between virtuosity and sincerity, or, in Coleridge’s language, between mechanical and organic form. It sounds like you reject this opposition and the Romantic critique of Data’s performance.

Kunin: The root meanings of mechanical and organic are almost the same. “Machina” means “device,” and “organe” means “tool.” The etymologies are not related, but the concepts they name are quite close. Both mechanical and organic form are formal; that is to say, they organize parts into wholes. As Sol LeWitt clearly states in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” the difference between them is not that the former is totally controlled while the latter is absolutely free. The difference is where the controls appear. Mechanical form makes all the decisions at the start of the process, and organic form makes new decisions at every step.

What has to happen for Data to become “a machine that makes the art” (to borrow LeWitt’s phrase)? Silvan Tomkins, whose writing on shame is important to me, has an intriguing suggestion. He says that machines will never be intelligent until programmers stop behaving like overprotective parents. In order to be intelligent, the machine has to learn, and in order to learn, it has to be able to make mistakes. But the designers and programmers never let them do that. In a sense, Tomkins proposes organic form as a model for artificial intelligence. Not every decision can be made in advance.

On the other hand, you might hear something surprising if you gave a violin to a robot — even a highly disciplined robot such as Data, whose name suggests that he is only information. The robot follows instructions perfectly, but a lot of the sound that you expect to hear coming out of a violin isn’t going to be in the instruction manual. Certainly it isn’t in the sheet music. Even a Norwegian choir (human professional musicians, not Norwegian robots) can make “The Star-Spangled Banner” sound new and surprising. The Norwegians aren’t used to hearing the song in school and at baseball games, so their stylistic decisions will be somewhat unprecedented.

What Data does with the violin should have its own distinctive sound. He might invent a new fingering. Or maybe he doesn’t use his fingers. Maybe he pays attention to bowing but not tone, so his violin has a scratchy, old-timey sound. Or maybe his mimicry of concert styles of play is uncanny in its perfection, but what styles does he know, and how does he choose one style rather than another? Provided that he is sufficiently curious, Data has a freedom that would not be available to most classically trained musicians, and he should be able to satisfy the Romantic criterion of creating a sound that no one has ever heard before. Why wouldn’t he take advantage of that freedom?