Bruce Andrews with Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich
Editorial note: This interview was conducted in New York City on September 27, 2010. Bruce Andrews writes, “Dennis did the painstaking transcription of this interview; I massaged it a teeny bit, mostly deleting a few ‘you know’s and ‘so’s & adding a few commas & dashes to capture something of the rhythm, but keeping it as loose & informal as it was, rather than trying to jazz it up or make it more official or impressive. I’m happy to leave in the more relaxed instances of ‘gonna’ & ‘wanna’ & ‘gotta’ along with my idiosyncratic valorizing of the ‘aerated’ em dashes (with a little space before & after). This was a lovely afternoon for me; many thanks to Dennis for all his enthusiasm during his month in the USA as a self-identified ‘fan boy’ — the breath of fresh air still reverberates!” —Katie L. Price
Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich: Many thanks, Bruce, for inviting me and taking the time to do this interview. So, let’s jump right in. Before going into the more theoretically-inclined questions, would you mind giving us a short rundown of how you got involved with the downtown New York art scene and became a driving force of so-called ‘Language Poetry’ in the 1970s?
Bruce Andrews: That’s a huge autobiographical question. But … a couple of short things. I had some connection with that scene before I moved to New York, when I was in graduate school in the early 70s. Some of that is represented in my editing of the special issue of Toothpick, Lisbon, and the Orcas Islands in 1973 — and that is up on the web now as part of Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse site, so you can take a look at some of what I was interested in, in 1973. I came to New York City in 1975. I started writing in 1969, and began to be in touch with some of the people that, later in the 1970s, came to be called the ‘Language Poets.’ I was in correspondence with them in the early ’70s. So, in the early ’70s I’m going to grad school, I’m fascinated by avant-garde art activities in a variety of fields, and I’m starting to write and publish, and I’m in touch now with people that would form this phenomenon a little bit later. So I come to New York in 1975, partly as a coincidence (that was the only professorial job that I got … at that age I wasn’t just moving to New York in order to be in New York). It was just a stroke of incredible luck for me that I got a teaching job here [Fordham University] in political science. So, I moved to town still with this fascination about what was going on in music in a variety of genres, what’s going on in theatre, what’s going on in dance, what’s going on in the visual arts … and dropped right in a hotbed of incredible activity in all those fields. And that interest in those other fields shaped my conception — as you can see a little bit in the Toothpick issue — of what would be a relevant kind of literary writing.
I’ve said this before in interviews, but when what we were calling, in our correspondence, ‘Language-centered Writing’ started to become known outside of the immediate participants it came to be known as ‘Language Poetry.’ And I have said before that, to me, it was the P-part rather than the L-part that I thought was a problem. I wasn’t really thinking that we were helping to create a new sub-genre of poetry, but that we were creating a new formulation or articulation of a type of arts activity that would have some parallels with what was going on in these other art fields. And for a while in New York, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it seemed possible to sustain a community of people in the literary world that were also in touch — in close, intimate touch — with what was going on with people of the same age in these other art forms and that we could form a kind of multi-arts community. So, you know, a few of us were closer in touch with things going on in the music world, in the dance world, in the theater world, etc., and those people came to our readings and were interested in our texts to some extent. But that was hard to sustain; it didn’t really last, and after a while it became clear that whatever interest some of us had, or that I had, for instance, in these other fields, was not going to result in our work getting any kind of outreach. The outreach was likely to come from the poetry world.
So the literary activity became more ensconced or territorialized as poetry, and then beyond that I got more involved in the downtown art scene, partly through collaborations in the dance world with Sally Silvers, who became my romantic partner in the late 1970s and who I started to compose music for. I became involved in the ‘free improv’ music world and the experimental theatre world to some extent — Sally and I, with Tom Cora, started a performance group called BARKING in the very early 1980s and we did small-scale and a few very large-scale multi-media performance pieces on political topics. So, in a sense, right around the time that ‘Language Writing’ became an item in the literary world, I started to extend my own text-based efforts out into these other fields. So my involvement with the downtown arts scene, in a weird way, occurs right as the Language Writing community solidifies itself and becomes more and more intensively literary. And then I start to move out a little bit and continue my involvement with those communities — excitedly, because I’m in New York City. I mean, this wouldn’t have been possible if I had gotten a job at, say, the University of Oklahoma, or if I had gone out in the Midwest somewhere. There were really only a few places that had lively enough scenes in these other fields that could have sustained that kind of activity, and not just have it be ‘in the mail.’ The thing about the in the mail, correspondence-based quality of the Language Writing in the ’70s was that you could then do it anywhere. You could be involved with these other poets without having to be in a town or a city in which there were lots of other lively things going on. I mean, the two major places where the so-called Language Poets collected were in NYC and the Bay Area in California. I think the thing that was striking about NYC was that it really was the only place that I would venture to say in the US, at the time, where all of the art forms that were operating were at a cutting edge, and had a national scope of interest.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Would you say that your, then, dislike for the P-word as opposed to the L-word stems from your sense of poetry as an institution and the fact that there had been a disconnect from these other fields of art?
Andrews: Well, I don’t know whether it being an institution was as much the problem as the second thing you mention — the disconnection with other fields. It was more that it was isolationist than it was institutionalized. And not only that it was isolated from other art forms, but that it was the most reactionary, perhaps, of them all. Most people wouldn’t even have considered it an art form in the same way they would these others. But it was maybe the only art form where you could continue to be acclaimed for doing work that could easily have been done 50 years before. That would have been unheard of in theatre, in music, in dance, or in the visual arts, for sure. So it was a uniquely conservative or reactionary field, I would say. And that was the problem for some of us.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In 2006, you made an appearance on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, under the rubric “Outrage of the Week,” and Bill O’Reilly basically charged you with indoctrination of undergraduates at Fordham University. Now, was that your first appearance as a “far left guy” in the US corporate media? And, given the fact that you were not invited as a poet, would you say that there is a connection, still, between what you do as a political scientist — teaching “International Politics” at Fordham — and your critical poetics?
Andrews: Okay. In late 2006 when I was asked on this right-wing talk show, The O’Reilly Factor, yes, that was the first time I’ve been on national television, in fact. I was being baited as a critic of American foreign policy, I think, partly because I am teaching at a Jesuit University and the show’s host, Bill O’Reilly, is a right-wing Catholic, so he takes particular responsibility almost for what goes on in the Catholic college system. In other words, if I had been teaching at Columbia, the New School, or NYU, I don’t think … it would have been more predictable for him and he wouldn’t have been surprised that some secular progressive was out there teaching works critical of American imperialism, and it was partly [because] I assigned the book The Five Biggest Lies that George W. Bush Told Us About Iraq in my classes and that it was required reading. And he was also trying to get me to, in a sense, come out on national television as a far-left person, which I declined to do. And his staff hadn’t informed him that I was also much better known as a poet, even though apparently one of my former students was an intern, I think, at Fox News and basically turned me in, hoping to get on the show and attack me for being a horrible, as you say, “indoctrinator” of innocent youth. But the book that I assigned, as I explained on the show – oh, by the way the show, as a video, is up on YouTube, and I transcribed the interview for a transcription journal that a couple of young poet-scholars were putting out, and that transcript is up online also.
Anyway, the book that I was using I used to try to investigate the rhetoric and, as I put it on the show, the justificatory efforts of government at trying to sell its policies and inspire what I’ve later come to call national security judgment on the part of the public. So I wasn’t assigning the book as a way to help the students explain why the policy was the way it was. It wasn’t a normative issue for me. I wasn’t trying to convince people that the war was bad and that therefore they should have a different view about the war. I was trying to get them to understand the way the government explained itself. Now, the connection between that, the specifics of that, and what you’re asking about as my critical poetics, is a little complicated. My efforts in school, and as a scholar, from the early 1970s on, when I started graduate school, were focused on the explanation of aggressive foreign policy by the United States. So I did my doctoral dissertation on alternative explanations of the US escalation of the war in Vietnam and its refusal to withdraw in the 1960s. Most of my scholarly work was on why the government did what it did; it was about the explanation of policy. That later shifted, especially in the classroom, to getting more and more interested in the role of the public and the role of public opinion as an enabling factor. So there was a slight shift from explanation to issues about preconditions, because I’m interested in what would need to be changed before the policy could change. Before, I thought of that mostly in terms of structural change at the level of the political economy. But then, as I got more interested in the facilitating role of both the media and the public, I started to focus on the government’s rhetoric and not so much on what was actually driving it, or motivating it.
So, the parallel with my thinking about poetics, I think, is also oddly apparent, which is a shift from thinking about issues of production, which are closer to questions about explanation, in let’s say so-called Language Writing. So, the texts in my first big collection of essays, Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis, mostly deal with matters of production — to try to differentiate or discuss what’s distinctive about this experimental or radical poetry. But mostly, when I’m saying production, I mean from the point of view of the author in a sense — what is driving and motivating it, and that’s a little bit closer to talking about, with regard to government, what would explain government policy. So when I shift in talking about foreign policy more toward public opinion, I shift also in my thinking about poetics toward thinking more about the reader – and the whole notion of reception. If I have a prescription, then, for the writing, it would be a prescription that points to a different possible role for the reader — and that is what has been occupying my thinking in the last couple of years. So there is this odd parallel, I think, between those two things. It has always been there, but now it’s a little more pointed.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You mentioned your collection of essays, Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis, so … you conceive of your poetry as “praxis,” right? In the particular Marxian sense of practical-critical “human sensuous activity” that is in one way or another directed towards “revolutionary change”? Can you tell us how much your notion of praxis differs from what is frequently called a “vulgar Marxist” position? And how significant is the role played by neo-Marxist theorists like Adorno and Debord, and post/structuralist thinkers such as (the late) Barthes, or Baudrillard, for instance, to the development of your notion of “poetry as praxis”?
Andrews: Well, if I think of the creation of this writing as sensuous, that’s hard to avoid. If you think of it as practical in terms of being based on action, then, that’s hard to avoid. If you think of “critical” as theoretically securely grounded, then, that’s probably going too far. If you think of critical as self-reflective, skeptical, suspicious, operating on some meta-level, then, yeah, I think of it as critical in that sense. But then, most poetry writing might be. So if I’m trying to think of what poetry, or what literature, wouldn’t be a praxis, then: it’s not things that wouldn’t be critical-practical and sensuous, it would be things that wouldn’t be directed toward revolutionary change. I think that, in some people’s eyes, the relationship to theory and the relationship to hopes of revolutionary change would differentiate what some of us were trying to do. But I don’t know if they’re right! Because to say that we are, or that I am, dedicated in my writing to push things toward revolutionary change … it’s pretty difficult in my lifetime to even imagine what revolutionary change would look like in an advanced capitalist society. So if any of us, or me, said that that’s what we are driving toward, I think people would just laugh, you know, they would say: “Who are you kidding? What possible way could your work create revolutionary change?” So that ends up being, I think, complicated.
The other part, the theory part … now maybe this has some interest. One of the ways that the so-called Language Writers were condemned by people who weren’t interested in our work was by them using the claim that our work was simply derived from our theories, that we came into the literary realm with a set of literary, or worse, political theories about how things should be and that we just did the work that followed directly from those theories. I don’t remember anybody who that would be a decent description of. Some of us, especially during the mid-70s onward, were involved in essay writing and giving talks and presentations that involved fairly hifalutin theoretical investments. But the poetry writing came first, and came earlier. In a sense, the theorizing was a way for us to understand what we were doing and what we all were involved with, and how it fit into existing frameworks of thought. But it wasn’t as though the frameworks of thought came first, and then we squeezed the poetry out of that.
Büscher-Ulbrich: You differentiate between the thematic and formal politics of writing, calling for a poetry not about, but as politics. And you have repeatedly described your work, to the surprise of some, as coming out of a Brechtian tradition of “targeting the audience” and adapting Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt to avant-garde writing — which at times you underline by such self-referential comments on method as: “Stake thru heart kills most vampirish tendencies of audience.” Do you still assert that the politics of a poem, or literary text, hinge on how it positions its readers vis-à-vis the writer, the social, and language itself?
Andrews: Yes [laughs], I would assert that. A couple of interesting questions here. When you talk about the difference between thematic and formal politics of writing, “calling for a poetry not about, but as politics” — these days I am rethinking all of that in terms of the relationship of the text to the reader. So, a thematic emphasis in the writing: I’m going to then wonder, “Well, what does that do for the reader?” And the same thing when you are talking about form: the formal aspects of a work — if we think of “formal” in a broader sense to involve process and the operations of it — then I think that’s even easier to immediately see it in relationship to the reader. The reader is, in other words, almost automatically enmeshed in the operations of the writing, whereas the reader’s relationship to the thematics of the writing is not automatic in that sense. It was always possible for writers to claim that their work was political because it touched on political themes. But it was never clear to me that those political themes had any relevant impact on the reader. And, if you think of form, of the formal work of the text, then you have the same problem. I think people will often be inordinately proud of, for instance, the formal innovations of their textual work. It’s not clear to me that … well, what is clear to me is that some formally innovative aspects of the writing would directly implicate the reader, others would not. That is why I think we need to think about not so much an opposition between thematic and formal as an opposition between thematic and almost relational, or operational, application-oriented qualities of the process that goes into the text.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So when you are writing or composing do you use yourself as a “surrogate” for the reader?
Andrews: I have to, in a sense. I mean, as I have said before in interviews, I am the first reader of my texts and I think of writing significantly in terms of editing rather than transcribing my emotional epiphanies of vision, of spirit, or whatever. If I think of them as editing, then I need criteria to decide when something is right or not, when it is working or not, what it needs extra [of] or what it needs less of, when I’m doing that and I’m editing as a reader. It’s not as though I’m saying, “Oh I appreciate this phrase but I am going to imagine myself as someone else and try to decide what that someone else would appreciate.” It’s very tough to do that. And it may be that my unwillingness to do that means that I’m still much more locked into authorial expressivity than I usually think I am. So, yeah, I do start out as the surrogate, or as a version of ‘an’ ideal reader, or the reader that I’m able to imagine.
The other thing in your question — the “Brechtian tradition of targeting the audience” — you know, “targeting” is a troubling word. And I’m wondering if it is a synonym for a broader range of words or in what kind of way you mean targeting […]. Like “targeting” instead of what?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Well, instead of … offering a narrative discourse, a narrative proposition, probably?
Andrews: Right, now, I am agreeing with this general line here. It is just that I was worrying over these terms —
Büscher-Ulbrich: targeting —
Andrews: Yes, targeting. Again, it is a little bit like “avant-garde,” you know, it has this military connotation —
Büscher-Ulbrich: Metaphors of war —
Andrews: Yes. And the same thing with even “how the language positions its reader” … I think we are talking about an invitation here, rather than an assault! I think that is the case. There is a specific invitation to the reader that is wrapped up with more than just the thematics, and more than just the reference system of the poem that is wrapped up with how the work actually functions when it is being read. So that, I would agree, it has this politics embedded in it.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I like the notion of invitation. As a reader, I feel very much “invited,” although sometimes I have to decline the offer, obviously, due to lack of time or capacity … but I am picking the texts up again and again, and return.
Andrews: But I think you’re right, even the notion of invitation would have to be made very much more specific. Because anybody, any writer could say that. But, I think, it’s the specifics of the invitation. What kind of a party are we getting invited to?
Büscher-Ulbrich: In a highly influential essay of yours [“Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis”], you talk about a “V-effect, to combat the obvious” — oh, metaphors of war, again — and how this “points to a look at language as medium.” Can you talk a bit about the process and potential difficulties of adapting Brechtian poetics from theatre to avant-garde writing?
Andrews: Again, a very big set of issues there. The question about language as medium I am curious about. Because I don’t think language is “a medium.” But what better term for it –
Büscher-Ulbrich: Practical consciousness? —
Andrews: — we could come up with, I’m not really sure. In other words, it seems too osmotically infiltrating to have the quality of a medium: something that is separate from us, that operates like some kind of filtering system, some mediating device. We are much more embedded in it, on the one hand. And to me that brings up these issues about the reader. You cannot create some structural wonder, some innovative structure out of language, and then simply expect that to be enough. If you think of it not as a medium but as a landscape or plane on which the reader and the writer are both interacting — more like city planning, or architecture — then you are re-envisioning something that includes both parts of the equation, of reader and writer. So it is the obvious elements of the interaction that would have to be exposed and combated, not so much just having the writer off on her own, tinkering with the language, and then presenting that to a reader as a transformation of the medium that is somehow supposed to … where the text is doing all the work. I think that the work is done in this interrelationship between the reader and the writer. That is where the work is happening. And the text is basically setting the stage for that. The writing is a kind of mise-en-scène for this drama to unfold, when the drama is taking place between the stage and the audience, not just up on stage.
What I think about Brecht? If you go back and look at his essays on the theater from the ’20s and ’30s — and by the way, I use Brecht on Theatre in class, I have used it for decades now in courses on Politics and Communication, the John Willett edition of Brecht’s essays — now, my suspicion is that there is a ton of other essay material by Brecht that’s never been translated and that we do not really have access to here in the US. I think this is a pretty good selection of Brecht’s major works in the essay/talk format, but I’m not even sure of that. So I do not want to make any huge pronouncements about Brecht — plus, for instance, I don’t have any German. Or, as perhaps it should be put: “I don’t have any German so I gotta shut up” and not make any big pronouncements about Brecht beyond what is in that one fairly decent sized collection of essays. When I use that book in class, one thing that I do notice, or my students notice, too, is how much Brecht has bought into this now largely discredited, or considered old-fashioned view about science, and about manipulative control, and about mechanism. And some of that, I think, is closer to a more narrow formalist view of the text. As if the writer is a kind of scientific engineer, able to create these structures, and to control everything that happens as a result — as if in some kind of controlled experiment. That image of science, partly because of what happens in World War II, gets discredited. And then gender politics plays into this, too. So Brecht has this macho, scientific, Leninist view about politics and … some of that bleeds into his theories about the theatre, which, I think — probably before I started to so strenuously, or so ostentatiously, foreground the position of the reader — I probably would have been more accepting of than I am now. The same thing that I mentioned in your notion about “targeting” — there’s an element of that in Brecht.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So, the Lehrstücke, for instance, probably for you would go too far, be too didactic, leave a limited space for the reader?
Andrews: Well, didactics is an interesting issue, I think.
Büscher-Ulbrich: What type of didactics, or didacticism?
Andrews: There is some spectrum between “didactic” and “preaching to the converted,” both of which I find unsatisfying because they are dealing with fairly fixed entities that they somehow think they can control, where the issue then becomes control. When I think about control, in the Brechtian sense, the other theorist that quickly comes to mind would be Foucault in Discipline and Punish, and, I think, the game that we are in now is much closer to the invitation to discipline and self-discipline than it is to the early part of Discipline and Punish, which I just assigned to my classes this week and which starts out with this image of a person being executed and having their limbs torn off them. So, if that’s the issue, if that’s the paradigm for the reader, then I’m really nervous, right?! To me, that’s real “targeting,” you know, where you tear the limbs off and kill them and then burn them up, etc.
Büscher-Ulbrich: That’s targeting?
Andrews: [Laughs.] That would be the bad kind of targeting!
Büscher-Ulbrich: Bruce, you have a reputation for being “difficult” — a writer who produces “difficult” texts. Thinking of your writing from the early ’70s, I see a textual politics at work in the writing that aspires — correct me if I’m wrong — to re-aestheticize the word by suspending or frustrating reference and opening up the text for alternative ways of creating meaning. To me as a reader, those texts are very challenging, but at the same time they offer great pleasure. As a theorist who is sympathetic towards a certain aesthetic-political paradigm from the start, I end up writing things like “Andrews’s is a genuinely materialistic and performative poetics that uses intransitivity as a means to direct our attention to the body as the site of language production, use, and reception. Such awareness might very well be the precondition for any critical re-meaning, i.e. an alternative semanticizing critically aware of and resisting the dominant modes of reality formatting in and through language. Or rather, by means of a specific use of language that, like capital, actively erases all traces of its material production and pretends to exist independently of and unaffected by human bodies.” I know this is a bold claim, of course. What do you think?
Andrews: Having a “reputation for being difficult” … well, one thing I should mention: I have over the years, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, also acquired a reputation for being difficult as a person — pissing people off, generally being intransigent, hard-ass, and troublesome, and, you know, in some way insensitive to various underlying social texts, etc. —
Andrews: — yeah. Maybe I’ve mellowed a little bit over the years. Anyway, what about “producing difficult texts?” That interests me, the notion of difficult, because I think a lot of what seems difficult to people in so-called poetry are texts that divert drastically from the familiar literary traditions. I always notice that if I’m giving readings, let’s say, in a school or college, or high school or graduate school, that the more training people have in the poetry tradition, and the normative mainstream heritage of poetry, the more difficult they find the work that I do. The less so, the less: if there’s an audience of people who haven’t already been trained and socialized to think about poetry in a certain way, who will be able to see that the language I’m using, the vocabulary I’m using, the lexicons I’m working with, and the methods of putting words together, the syntactical relationships, the lack of identifiable narrative, or the lack of identifiable author position that’s stable — all of that they are completely familiar with from the street, from the cultural landscape that they’re all involved in now, in a postmodern world. The difficulty appears differently from different institutional vantage points for people when they’re coming at this as a reader. Again, for me to then make big, universal, sweeping generalizations about the reader is clearly stupid because it ignores the need to do that finely grained contextualizing, which, in some ways, I haven’t gotten around to yet, in my theorizing. And this goes back again to what I was saying about so-called Language Writing, and about genre. Difficulty is often defined in relationship to an existing genre — like that artwork is difficult because it doesn’t fit the traditions of easel painting, let’s say, or some piece of installation art does not fit the traditions of sculpture as we are used to it, etc. So that those things then don’t fit.
When you talk about “re-aestheticizing the word” … again, that’s an interesting phrase, because it really is about, to me, opening up the capacity of the reader. That is one of my pet terms these days — capacitation for the reader. That is something I’m interested in and that often involves re-aesthetizing, so that “re-aestheticizing the word” means taking it out of its familiar institutional contexts, not letting it be sublated in that way — the term you were using before.
Büscher-Ulbrich: So that it becomes more than just a trigger, or signal — like, look at the feel and smell, almost, of it?
Andrews: Yes. It is a way of upholding the particularity, of the word, of language, and that is a kind of aestheticizing in the classical sense. Instead of letting it be imprinted or interpellated by literary institutions. I think of Althusser, who was interesting to me in my political science theorizing, as theorizing about what’s in the way of social change — his whole notion of structural … mobile, flexible structuring of capital. But here, if I’m talking about trying to protect the particularities of language and not let them be simply steamrollered by the institutional framework, that steamrollering is close to what Althusser is talking about as interpellation. The hailing process, you know — the example I always use in class is: you’re walking down the street, you hear from behind you somebody say “Hey, fuckhead! Yo! Fuckhead!” … and you turn around. And it’s the moment of turning around where you are being interpellated. That, I think, is what “re-aestheticizing” works against. And, again, my emphasis on the reader, and on capacitating the reader, is also absolutely related to a notion of pleasure. The capacitation of the reader creates pleasure, pleasure comes through that increasing capacity. That’s one thing Brecht talks about, you know, that what creates pleasure is the experience of the work being made, is the making of the work — it’s the learning that’s pleasurable, not so much the piling up of thematic information. So, all those things you’re saying make sense to me.
When you are talking about a materialistic and performative poetics … well, the performative part would come directly out of this emphasis on the role, or the position, of the reader. The materialistic part would come from my emphasis, in thinking about time and space, on matter, on noise, on what’s in the way of ... for instance, how the atomized, or the atomic level, the micro-scale level of language, is what’s in the way — acting as a kind of material noise or obstruction to normative grammar. I think about, let’s say, the sound and visual appearance of text — the so-called material signifier — as being the matter that is in the way of transparent reference. So if it is materialistic as different from transparently referential, normatively grammatical work, then yeah, I think that’s actually what is going on. Poetry always prides itself in general on its attention to less rigidly normative grammatical phraseology and its attention to the sound and the look of the text. But I think the kind of poetry that I’ve been involved with goes even further in trying to push that pretty far out — but not all the way. And this is another distinction I’ve made before: You could completely ignore any syntax whatsoever, and you could completely ignore any reference at all. But then, I think, you are not really able to engage in a certain kind of negotiating process for the reader. In other words, if the reader doesn’t even have a chance to deal with the semantic level, or doesn’t really have a chance to deal with anything that coordinates and organizes time through connections between words in a temporal horizon, or temporal spectrum, then you’re missing opportunities for re-capacitating the reader. So I am interested in those things. When you’re talking about intransitivity, there I’m not sure what you mean.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Craig Dworkin was using the term in his encyclopedia article. And I think it comes straight from Barthes, who in “To Write: An Intransitive Verb” (1966) conceives of writing as an intransitive act, a condition in which the writing subject disperses into an irretrievable contemporaneity with their practice and the work of signification is refigured as a kind of spasm that convulses the surface of language and affects the reader in turn, rather than asking to be decoded and thus reinstate the “transitive” dimension of the message. In other words: a kind of writing that needs no object and would thus aid this process of re-aestheticizing language.
Andrews: That phrase might be interesting to work on seriously, as a way to think through some of these things, because it might mean … you are creating attention to the text; you talk about creating attention to the body as the site of language production. Do you mean the body of the reader, or the body of the text?
Büscher-Ulbrich: I was thinking of the body of the reader.
Andrews: Well, as long as “intransitivity” doesn’t imply the text closed off on its own. That somehow would not allow for this operation in the reader, then I’m interested in it, then it’s closer to something that creates what Kant talks about as ‘lingering,’ this lingering possibility. But it’s a lingering possibility for the reader. That it’s there to work your way through, which then makes the attention to the body go both ways — it’s the body of the text as well as the body of the reader. And “body” as in the fully flowering capacities of the reader, the possibilities for the reader.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I was also thinking about the simple fact that without human bodies there is no language.
Andrews: Right. On the big scale that would be true. So you were talking about an “alternative semanticizing” … that seems straight ahead, a pretty accurate comment. “Resisting the dominant modes of reality formatting in and through language” … yeah, I can see myself interested in those things in terms of the reader’s capacity. One thing you cut from your earlier question, which I didn’t understand at first, but then I could see a way of … where you said “by means of a specific use of language that, like Capital, actively erases all traces of its material production and pretends to exist independently of and unaffected by human bodies” … it seems to me that that specific use of language is the dominant mode of reality!
Andrews: Yeah, and I think that really captures the precise opposite of what I’m interested in doing. If I’m interested in un-erasing the traces of material production then I’m interested in undercutting any pretension to be able to exist independently of and unaffected by human readers. So I think that part of your question you could have left in. Bring it back in.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I will! I was just afraid of the question getting too long, of me talking too much.
Andrews: Look, I mean, the larger backdrop of some of your questions is what “capital with a capital C” is doing. I mean, I have been, as a scholar, interested in and influenced by the so-called “capital-logic” school coming out of Germany — German scholars that had been interested in trying to trace out the broad reproduction requirements of capital accumulation on a world scale, you know, and trying to figure out “what would the logic of Capital normally point to?” And if I think about it in terms of a kind of allegory of the reader then, yeah, what you’re saying makes perfect sense. Those are quite helpful comments.
Büscher-Ulbrich: It is often said that the central idea of a language-centered poetics has been to foreground the production of meaning by means of experimental writing that stresses the “materiality of the signifier” and explores the “politics of the referent.” Now, to alter consciousness by disrupting language has always been the dream of a politicized avant-garde. So maybe you can go a bit into how your approach differs from avant-garde precursors such as surrealism, or Russian Futurism and Constructivism? I am thinking, in particular, of the “concentric circles” model you put forth in “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis” of confronting language both in terms of a system of signs and as discourse/ideology in your writing.
Andrews: It’s probably unfair to say the phrase “the central idea of a language-centered poetics.” I don’t think you would get an agreement on what the central idea is. But anyway, part of the project was, as we said, to foreground the production of meaning. As I just said before, I’m more thinking of the production of meaning as a team effort that involves the reader, and also involves the unproduction, in a sense, or the challenging of certain types of meanings and then foregrounding other types of meanings which might be left once those other meanings are cancelled, or attacked, or targeted, as you put it before. So that means the production of meaning becomes more complicated. There’s no longer the relay model — author knows what she means and is transmitting that to the reader. It’s clear that the text is actually producing the meaning, the meaning wasn’t there beforehand. But it is also true that it’s not just the text that’s producing it, it’s also the reader’s involvement, too. So, if I always stress the materiality of the signifier, or the politics of the referent, as you’re putting it, then now I would think of that as related to opening up some negotiating possibilities for the reader. That’s what’s interesting about the materiality of the signifier. Not just the fact that you have opaque texts, or beautiful, or fascinating looking texts, or fascinating sounding texts. It’s having some relationship to the experience of the reader. And the same with, if you think about the politics of the referent, if you think about the referent being politicizable, that would suggest, again, showing how it’s constructed, showing what’s missing, showing what’s excluded, showing how the references of language are distributed, you know, in Rancièrean terms, etc. So all that, I think, makes sense.
When you say “to alter consciousness by disrupting language” — yeah! But whose consciousness? For me, it’s the writer/reader combine. You know, it’s not just, “I’m gonna alter my own consciousness” by disrupting language — there are probably easier pharmaceutical methods for that, or, since we were both at the Merzbow concert last night, you know, some kind of sound amplification might be easier than having a language at all! Talking about avant-garde precursors — I think it’s interesting in regard to the so-called Language Writers and not just me. Because one of the things we did take credit for, and got credit for, was introducing various avant-garde traditions of literature into the contemporary poetry scene, where some of those, especially European traditions of the most radical sort, Dada and the Russians in particular, really had been neglected. They were just historical museum pieces, really, that weren’t part of what people thought poetics might do. Same thing with our interest in sound poetry, our interest in visual poetry, concrete poetry, all that was, in a way, part of what was available to us coming of age in the early 1970s. And all that stuff was now much more widely available than it had been even ten years before. There were tremendous advantages that people in my age bracket had when we started writing. So the people that are now, say, ten years older than us, that are now in their early seventies, let’s say, or their mid-seventies, they didn’t have that when they were in their twenties, trying to gather together their possibilities. So, we had that available to us and because most of us weren’t coming out of creative writing programs, or graduate literary programs, we didn’t have any reason to reject those as lively possibilities to put in the mix.
Specifically about the Russian Futurists and Constructivists, I mean, the Russian Futurists — Khlebnikov and a few others who we were able to read in translation at that point — I think had influenced mostly — and I’d say this later about Cage and his circle as well — mostly had an influence on us, I’d say, or maybe just for myself, because of the results. I don’t think many of us, maybe Barry Watten might be an exception, but I don’t think many of us had a full grounding in the theoretical basis for what the early twentieth-century Russian writers were doing, but the concrete results of it were striking and easily attractive to us. The surrealists are a slightly different issue here. I’m very interested and invested in thinking about time and space as spectra — as spectra of openness and closure. So I’m interested in how, for instance, grammatical normative syntax will perform a closure on time, in the same way that narrative does, so that you could even think of a narrative as a giant grammar of temporal closure. Neither of those were things that I wanted to sign on to, sign up with — the commitments to normative grammar, or the commitments to narrative on the time spectrum. On the spatial spectrum, then, we’re talking about referentiality, at the micro-level, and on the expressivity of the author, and the representational pull away from the text, the focus on things that aren’t present — as with the creation of illusion or fiction — as closure on the vertical or spatial spectrum at a macro level. If I look at the surrealists, there is a rejection of spatial closure because of their commitment to drastic juxtapositions of representational materials. But it’s still fairly mechanical, in some respects. And on the time line, the time spectrum, it’s much more conservative. They’re using traditional grammatical structures to give you some disruption of the spatial plane … but even that gets mechanical. So that never really went as far as a number of us wanted it to go. Well, there were a couple of people in the Language group that had some prior background in being influenced by the surrealists, but I wasn’t one of them.
Now, on the concentric circle model you mention … what I just was saying about time and space … my current way of sizing this up is to think about it in micro and macro terms. If I think of, let’s say, grammar being the micro/horizontal part, I think of narrative, maybe, or anything that would create a single point — simultaneity, I think, narrative is a curious approximation of — would be the macro version of temporal closure. On the spatial plane, micro closure would have to do with transparent referentiality. On the larger plane it would have to do with, as I was saying before, the representation pulling the reader out to a clearly deposited representational schema, or to pull it out into the illusionistic space of the author. That’s how I lately have been thinking about this … where the micro dimensions are the raw materials of the text, and the macro dimensions have to do with the product, have to do in particular with the product as it affects the reader, as it affects subjectivity, the creation of a subject position, or the reinforcement of a subject position. So, now when I look back at these concentric circles, the models from that piece, which is from a long time ago — I was thinking of the inner circle as being the sign system, and the outer circle as being discourse and ideology that has some affinity to this micro/macro distinction. So the sign system might be related to the micro dimension, and discourse and ideology, as they affect the reader or the creation of the subject, would have to do with this macro dimension. If I get around to getting these current ideas a little bit more laid out that’ll probably be clearer … then you can see how this micro/macro distinction is what I had previously talked about as a series of concentric circles.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In the 1980s the units of composition in your poems began to include larger, more syntactically coherent phrases as well as the kind of confrontational samples of social discourse that would characterize Give Em Enough Rope and I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up, where the disjunctive and irreconcilable contexts of the phrases — that we are all somehow familiar with — very much “underscore,” as Dworkin writes, “the forms of psychosocial constructions that language enables and enacts.” Would you say that you are working to increase the performativity of the text and to project social antagonisms into the reading experience?
Andrews: Yes. I’d say that. But let me go back to a few things that you’ve said … The units of composition of my poems beginning to get larger, more syntactically coherent, and to incorporate these samplings from social discourse — that begins in the late 1970s. And it’s pretty coincident with me coming to NYC, becoming part of a poetry community, and starting to give readings in public, which I had not done before. And that started to influence what I chose to first select to read at these readings, and then, second, that began to influence what I wrote. So some of that is a situationally based thing, and maybe it also had to do with changes in the culture. Plenty of things were happening in the late ’70s here in NYC that would have pointed me in that direction anyways if I wanted to engage social materials. So it started a little bit earlier than the 1980s even though the work may have been published in the 80s mostly; I mean, Give Em Enough Rope is from ’78 to ’82, I think. I Don’t Have Any Paper was written in ’83 and edited in the beginning of ’84, even though it didn’t come out in book form until many years later. The phrase “more syntactically coherent” … I might say “syntactically imaginable.” Because I think many people would doubt how syntactically coherent these things are. One thing I got interested in was to create a phrase-like or sentence-like linkage of words that wouldn’t have any familiar syntax to it, but partly because of the voice trajectory of it, especially when spoken, it would carry that charge — that would seem as though you could put it into some imaginable grammar or syntax but it wasn’t copying or relying on one that preexisted it. Second, this notion about incorporating confrontational and controversial “samples” of social discourse: the sampling issue is interesting. Sampling, for instance, in the music world, in the hip-hop scene, for instance, was also beginning to be a major issue right around that time. And a lot of my work from that period looks much more, sounds much more, like it is involved with sampling, and appropriation, whereas in fact a lot of it isn’t. There is a quality of appropriated language that I liked and was drawn toward, and I often wanted to replicate it without actually sampling anything. So rather than what, say, the Flarf collective does with doing Google appropriations and samplings from Google searches and things, it was more as if I was seeing things that deserved to have that treatment and then came up with my own slightly different versions most of the time. There’s a few things which clearly are just, you know, beyond the level of vocabulary, to come directly out of something I might have heard and I just wrote down — like the title of my new book You Can’t Have Everything … Where Would You Put It!. That’s a classic bumper sticker/t-shirt phrase; it’s not one that I came up with myself. But a lot of the earlier work had that quality to it. So the impression may be “this is sampling,” “this is transcription,” “this is …” — and it may not be.
Now, this last thing you’re asking about — “disjunctive and irreconcilable contexts” — that interests me as a way of wording it because I feel like when it comes to the context of phrases, or even the contexts of vocabulary choices, that that’s often ignored, or presupposed, or involved with some hegemonic determination, or delimitation, of what the appropriate context is. So, I wanna challenge that ignoring of context, I wanna challenge that presupposing of context, and I wanna challenge that hegemonic control over context. And one way I found that can happen is through challenging those norms. If I’m putting things together that are irreconcilable and disjunctive, it will make it harder to ignore, harder to presuppose, harder just to embrace the hegemonic form of contextualization. So I think that was an interesting way you put that, or Craig put it. And that would then … if you’re making people, writer and reader, more aware of the actual, no longer ignored, no longer presupposed, no longer complicit contexts … you actually get to the real contexts of this language — it is contested, and it does embody social antagonism, so that you would be able to project social antagonisms in the text work precisely by playing with the way that the language is contextualized.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Dworkin also notes that your “turn from the micro-text level of the sign towards the macro-text level of discourse” was accompanied by significant changes in your compositional method as well. Can you give us a broad idea of how you actually compose, or edit, texts today?
Andrews: At some point in the late ’70s — as I’ve said to many people and on interviews before — I bought a paper cutter, which was the major technological shift in my work, much more significant than word processors, for instance. All my work since … yeah, basically in the last 30 years now, has been composed on small pieces of paper — 8.5/11" sheets of paper cut into 6. Everything I write pretty much — essays, shopping lists, phone numbers, things I need to do, as well as poetry that I collect and create — is all done on that size. Which in terms of Craig’s point, I think, has some interest. When he’s talking about the shift from this more atomized, microscopically investigative, small bits of material to working with phrases, working with longer units … it has some resonance with this partly because the thing that I was working with was small pieces of paper, and doing all my composing on this, and then storing them, basically, and then pulling boxes out — these are all stored in wine case boxes here in the house — which I fill up maybe one a year with, you know, thousands of these cards … as I’ve also said in interviews before, this separates the reading and the writing, or the writing and the editing of this work, sometimes by years. I’ll often be editing words that I composed, or a couple of words, on thousands of little pieces of paper — years before. So I don’t have any relationship with my prior state of mind, when I wrote these things, and I don’t remember the epiphany that led to some vision or something, like poets often feel, and I can be much more mobile and flexible in editing.
I’ve talked about all these things before but now what I notice, in relation to the question the way Craig quoted it: there’s something about operating at the micro-text level of the sign that is something you could produce at the moment, there’s something that lends itself to sitting down and generating things at this micro level, and having all the possibilities more readily available to you. And I don’t think that’s true with discourse. I don’t think discursive materials of the variety, of the complexity, of the vividness that you want to end up with, are all generateable in the moment. But, what I discovered was that they’re collectable. So the difference to me … the micro materials, these raw materials, are things that you could produce on the spot without any fear that you’re being way too limited, you know, that you could imagine all the possibilities of the alphabet, and the combinations of the letters and sounds, and things and you could work through those. With discourse you can’t — but it lends itself to a kind of gradual accumulation in the same way that collecting does. And I’m also kind of an obsessive collector of books, of print material, of music records, and things like that, you know, Mexican and Puerto Rican graphs and masks, and a whole bunch of other things that you see around the house here. And that becomes my relationship to discursive materials — not that I’m expected to sit down at the typewriter and come up with my personalized version of discursive materials, which is what then becomes a poem, but that I can work with editing a vast body of material that I accumulate and collect over time that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. Just as a thought, based on that helpful question and based on Craig’s astute observation.
Büscher-Ulbrich: I am fascinated by the fact that your compositional method enables you to improvise texts in real-time. You frequently perform this specific type of editing “live” in the context of collective multi-media performances, working alongside improvising musicians and dancers, highlighting and exploring the interrelationship between the textual and the performative, writing and sound, semiotics and aesthetics. Can you talk a bit about your experience as a performance artist? How that experience impacts your writing and what it feels like to actually share the performance space with an audience — the corporeality of it all?
Andrews: Okay. This relates a little bit to the previous question about methodology because when I started collaborating with people in the free improvisation music community, which is very elaborately developed here in NYC, and also with movement artists and dancers — in particular Sally Silvers, the choreographer, during this period of the early 1980s — I was not only starting to make music but to do collage live-mixing of tape materials that I would come up with to perform with other musicians and with dancers. In other words, I became a musician and a sound designer partly by just transferring the existing aesthetic I had into sound. And so I felt that the way I had already begun to work with text materials in the late ’70s — somewhat inspired by film maker friend Henry Hills, who was working with film stock in that same way, and also with people in the Chadbourne, Zorn, Cora, etc. free improv community who were working with sound in a somewhat similar way. I started wanting to play some role in these now multimedia performance possibilities. I started to make sound and make music, but, after that I realized that what I was doing with sound I could also do back again with text in performance by doing the editing that I normally do at home on stage — live. The way I wrote got translated into the way I could make music, and then the way I made music could translate back into the way I would be able to edit live in performance — just from the experiences I had as a musician then, performing with other musicians and dancers. In other words, I was able to see by noticing what kind of sound materials worked best to allow free improvisation between musicians and dancers, I could then see, “Oh, okay. There’s a possibility for text here which nobody else is doing, or, nobody else is really fully exploring here!” And that’s what I started to do. Since I had already developed this way of editing in a highly modular form — where I’d sit on my sofa, and I’d have piles of cards, and I’d create phrases and little word clusters and then collage those together and make things that had some stability or shape to them, time-wise — then I could do that same thing live and be influenced in my choices not only by what the words were, in a sense, telling me was possible, but by making my editing choices bounce off of what the other musicians and dancers were doing. That’s basically what I started to do. I would sit and perform with dancers and musicians who had to be improvising.
In other words, this wasn’t something that you could do with composed music, and it wasn’t something that you could do with fully choreographed dance, which already had a kind of fixed quality to it. And you couldn’t do it with already fixed texts – you couldn’t just go in and try to read a short story in the midst of a performance — although people do that, and it’s hideous, it’s deadly — or read their poems as accompaniment to a dance. No, all of that seemed disastrous to me. But this seemed possible: that you could weave your way through textual raw materials and make something in direct reverberating relationship to music and dance. All that, again, was made possible by the highly modular quality of the materials I was generating and also by the freely improvised nature of what these musicians and dancers were doing, again, pretty uniquely in New York. There were other places where free improv music and dance were happening but there really were communities of people here that were doing that. And that really lent itself terrifically to me getting a chance to try these things out.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In an essay called “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism” you firmly suggest to synthesize an Adornian “informalism” with a decidedly constructivist, Brechtian or Benjaminian, production aesthetic. Not in order to resolve tensions, but “to make progressively more appropriate the subjectively recharged material: by contextualizing it. To heal this polar opposition of material and subject in apraxis [sic] of sound: by a constructivist resocializing and ‘opening out’ of the material, and a constructivist contextualizing of the subject. Such informalist noise refuses any projective resolution of social contradiction. It performs this failure, eliciting a contrast with social openness. Indexed by internal contradictoriness, it offers a social model of surprise and the unforseen, of unconstrained freedom and self-reflexivity and conceivable coherence. In sound — among other arenas — equipped with an unrepressive intersubjectivity, to bring the tensions to a head.” What kind of artistic practice are you thinking of? Could you give us some examples? I mean, you gave us some already, but …
Andrews: The things that I was interested in, in Adorno, at this point, was not what Adorno’s most known for — it wasn’t his Aesthetic Theory, it wasn’t his Negative Dialectics, it wasn’t his view about art praxis needing to be distanced and Olympian in its positioning — it was his work trying to confront avant-garde classical music in the 1950s and 1960s, which he talks about in his essay “Towards an Informal Music,” and he had in mind people like Stockhausen, or Luigi Nono, in particular. Now, Luigi Nono was somebody that both Sally Silvers and I did a very large project on. We did a new version of Nono’s opera about revolution, and that was one of the things that interested me about Adorno in thinking about/in relationship to a poetic process. So he’s talking about informalism as — there’s also some links to some visual art that was happening at that point that I’m not as familiar with as I should be — so, I was trying to think about this as something that didn’t put forward or project a prior forming, a prior form, so that you wouldn’t, as a listener — or, in my thinking, a reader — you wouldn’t be presented with the finished form. You would be presented with something closer to these raw materials — that you would be presented with a kind of non grid-like landscape of possible links and connections, almost like things that we’re more familiar with now in the digital domain, where you’re online and you could see what, in a cornball kind of way, hypertext was involved with.
So there’s something about that notion of links, of moving outward in a centrifugal direction — forms, or potential forms, or virtual forms would be made possible but wouldn’t be fixed ahead of time. That wouldn’t be the thing you were supposed to be decoding, or getting a grip on, as a reader, but that you would be involved with in a constructivist exercise yourself. So, in this quote, which I haven’t seen for a while, and I’m always curious to figure out what I might have meant … if I use the phrase “to make progressively more appropriate” the material “by contextualizing it” — the word “appropriate” would be a way of talking about what the relationship of an item is to its context. Even in my work as a political scientist, my whole position was always to try to see how, let’s say, a foreign policy seemed to be following the social rules emanating out of a particular context. If it followed those rules, rule-following then would be a way of talking about appropriate action in relationship to a context — so that you’d be trying to see how it got regularized, how it got normalized, how it got to ward off possibilities of dysfunction, how it got to ward off, or eliminate, the inappropriate. By “appropriate” I want to think about the modes of appropriateness of some material in relationship to various contexts. What I’m talking about in this second phrase here, “to heal this […] opposition of material and subject,” this goes back to what I was saying a minute ago about the micro and macro levels. The micro level would be the raw material; the macro level would be the subject that “gets produced.” And I’m interested, in both cases, in recontextualizing the material— what I called “constructivist resocializing of the material” — to see where else it could lead to beyond what it normally does. And the same, then, with the subject, you know, whether you’d see normally where the subject would get policed, and you could then see how a different reading of its context could open up new possibilities for putting the reader in motion, for putting the subject in motion, which is how I tend to think about this now.
Now, the thing I wasn’t sure about even in this phrase of mine when I talk about “perform[ing] this failure, eliciting a contrast with social openness” … if I’m saying that “informalist noise refuses any projective resolution of social contradiction” — that’s the “failure.” You’re showing how this doesn’t “add up” in some finished, formalist, closed-off, or centripetal text. And that will then elicit a contrast with what could otherwise be possible. So, that’s what I’m trying to get at as “social openness,” which does have to do with newer types of coherence that are conceivable that we haven’t gotten to yet.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Which strikes a familiar chord with, or reminds me, at least a little bit, of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and also his Aesthetic Theory in terms of … well, that artworks —
Andrews: — Negative Dialectics, that’s a book of Adorno’s I haven’t even read. I’m not a scholar of any of these people, really, for whatever my enthusiasms might be.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Alright, well, what I was reminded of was the idea that artworks must not resolve tensions but, basically, testify to them … to social antagonisms, bearing witness to suffering, etc. Now, you’re not so interested in, I think, art “testifying” to anything, but rather opting for a constructivist approach. Therefore, I was interested in how much of Adorno would be important for your artistic practice.
Andrews: Well, like I said, Adorno in these late essays on music really does go beyond what he had been saying before about early Schoenberg, or Schoenberg and Berg, who he was a student of. Sally [Silvers] and I also did a giant recasting of Berg’s Lulu, you know, those are the two big opera-type pieces that we did as giant spectacles, with dozens and dozens of performers ... and Adorno talking about pre-twelve-tone, the atonal period of Schoenberg and early Berg —
Büscher-Ulbrich: — before it gets mechanized.
Andrews: Yes, before it gets mechanized — as close to what he later gets interested in, and still skeptical, still a little nervous about, in people like Stockhausen and in Cage, even, and Nono, and Bouleze, and three or four other people, in the ’60s. It’s that late rethinking of Adorno that I saw, when it comes to music, at least, and sound, and the sound dimension of literature, that I was most interested in, rather than the more mandarin moves of his Aesthetic Theory.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Some of your performance texts have been published in a book called Ex Why Zee: Performance Texts, Collaborations, Word Maps, Bricolage and Improvisations (1995). You obviously embrace free ensemble improvisation, real-time editing of raw material, radical parataxis and collage aesthetics, while being critical of artworks solely derived from chance operations — what you have called [in “Praxis, A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism”] “procedural (even aleatory) fetishism”. What makes this distinction an important one?
Andrews: I’ve talked about this in other places and maybe I don’t need to say much more now, but just a couple of little things. One: The notion of “free” improvisation I’d like to stress. The thing that made it different from other activities, for instance, in the music world, where the term gets defined by Derek Bailey in his book on improvisation [Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music], was that by “free” improvisation he means non-idiomatic, or non-genre-based, improvisation. Jazz musicians improvise, for instance, but when jazz musicians improvise it’s still hearable as jazz, it seems to be located within that genre. The free improvisation movement, which pretty much begins in England in the early to mid-60s with people like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, and some others — and also pretty much around the same time in Germany with the people that were doing FMP records, etc. — those people were influenced by free jazz but they were also influenced by contemporary classical music, and to some degree tried to put those two things together, so that you had a level of extremity in the playing, in the organization of the sound, that was maybe reminiscent of either avant-garde classical music or free jazz but didn’t sound recognizable as either one. It then opened up any kind of possibilities for sound making without having it fit into any prior box.
And — going back to what I was saying about “Language Poetry” — that was a huge issue for me, that was what was attractive about free improvisation: the critique of genre. When it came to writing that was involved with ensemble-like playing with others then the question was, “what kind of writing works best in that situation?” Whether it was edited in real-time, or whether it was assembled out of prior editing of very disjunct, modular material. That’s what seemed to work best in that situation. Radical parataxis, or collage-aesthetic-based work seemed to work best in a free improv situation, whereas if I’d been just playing, for instance, with folk musicians, or rock musicians, or classical musicians, or jazz musicians, then something less drastic in its parataxis, something less free from thematic centeredness, would have probably worked better. So that the more extreme versions of collage, and parataxis, and “getting away from genre,” really fit the kind of collaborative context that I was very interested, or invested, in.
Now, the final thing, about the “aleatory thing.” Again, that goes back to my, I think, always present but more recently intensively thought through emphasis on the reader. What I’ve said before was that, for some of us, looking at these chance-generated works in the ’60s — Dick Higgins’s work, or the things that Cage was doing himself, or some other people around the Cage circle in New York, like Jackson Mac Low, in particular, the major poet of that tendency — that we were just fascinated, blown away, by the results of those procedures but didn’t really care that much about the procedure itself. There wasn’t anything specific about that procedure that attracted us. In fact, it seemed to close itself off a little bit from the possibility of exploring the semantic trajectory, or horizon, of the material, which they weren’t as interested in. And I think of procedural fetishism as a sub-category of fetishizing the production, of the writer, rather than doing anything directly relevant to the reader’s experience. So it was always trying to shake things up in light of the reader’s experience that led me onto the path that I’m on, and made me both attracted to the results, and unattracted to the emphasis on the procedure in that work.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Unlike many political artists and writers today, you have a radical aversion to identity politics. And a piece which very much exemplifies this is “Mistaken Identity,” which you edited live in performance with Vernon Reid in the late 1990s. Like many of your texts, that piece is a tour de force through the obscene underside of American consumerism, liberal pluralism, and multinational capitalism and a sarcastic account of how ideology subjects us. What’s the problem with identity in your opinion? And what’s it all got to do with a critical poetics?
Andrews: Okay, another huge question. Identity politics as a political phenomenon I’m not gonna jump right in to. I was just reading [Hans-Georg] Gadamer today. He’s quoting some early hermeneutic philosophers who talked about identifying — “to identify” was defined as “producing sameness,” which, I think, is similar to the way Adorno talks about identification. Well, that’s pretty much the heart of my radical aversion to identity politics as it seems to be about “you’re committed to that, you’re committed to identity, you’re committed to identification, you’re committed to reproduction of some kind of sameness, even if it’s the sameness of a niche, the sameness of a faction, the sameness of an ethnic group, or a racial group, the sameness of a territorial group, etc.” That’s a closure that I am unhappy with. Identity operates as a filter, it operates to make less flexible the experience of some potential reader. So, there I’m more interested in the flexibility, or the hybridity, of a reader — their ability to operate with a broader toolkit, you know, with more irons in the fire, in a sense, their ability to shift around, their ability to be the opposite of the same, their ability to not have all their experience filtered through somebody else’s identity.
Actually I talked about this in my essay on Michael Lally’s work — about some of the dangers of a narcissism in the writing creating this identification structure in the reader, which is very much a Brechtian theme as well. And you mentioned the “sarcastic account of how ideology subjects us” … again, there, ideology subjects us by creating identifiable subjects. And it’s not just ideology that does that, it’s also the whole material shape of everyday life and of the structures of Capital, and other things … patriarchy, etc., etc. So it’s the subjection process that I’m interested in. And I’m interested in it because I think of it as needing an alternative, needing a chance, needing a prescription, and I think some of the sarcasm in that account is sarcasm about the claim that these things — multinational Capital, liberal pluralism, American consumerism — that they are enough! The claim that they are sufficient, that they are all you need. And I am asking: “Enough for who?” They may be enough for a very rigidly delimited type of identity, certain types of identity. They’re not enough for an open-ended notion of what a person or a subject could be. So that’s why I think of identity politics not as a solution but as part of the problem, in a sense. How the things that I’m unhappy with in the world sustain themselves very nicely.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In an essay called “Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust,” Sianne Ngai engages your writing in Shut Up in terms of a poetics of disgust as opposed to a poetics of “desire production.” Theories, poetics, and hermeneutics of “desire” abound, as she notes, while disgust has no well-known paradigms associated with it and has largely remained outside any theoretical zone, even though in the social and material world of global capitalism potential objects of disgust abound. Is disgust the dialectical other of desire — a negativity that is harder to co-opt? What makes disgust an important force in contemporary experimental writing engaged with ideological concerns?
Andrews: Okay, just a couple of little things. If I hear you talk about desire, I feel as if a lot of the theorizing about desire, again, is focused around the author, or focused around something lacking in the reader, that by identifying with the author position they can somehow fill that lack. And, since I’m more trying to think about this in the reader’s terms, that desire seems misplaced. In other words, to the extent that I focus on the reader, I’m often focused on what’s in the way of a more wide-ranging possibility for the reader. And what’s in the way are things that are troubling, and even likely to occasion disgust. In your original formulation of this, that you sent me, you mentioned “corporate ideology, bigotry, geopolitical wars, forms of institutionalized inequality.” Again, those things are objects of disgust, and it’s not just my disgust. I mean, these are things that are generally lacking, or that need to be overcome, in some way. But it is also my disgust, you know: as an author I am entangled in this. For instance, when I’m giving public readings of Shut Up, which I’ve done a bunch of times over the years, parts of that piece, that material, is very difficult for me to handle, even as a reader. So I think it is a way of talking about things that are not lacking but that are too much, in a sense — things that overwhelm you with excess. In a way, highlighting disgust is a way of challenging pluralism, which is usually seen as the answer to what we don’t have enough of. Whereas if the problem is that we have too much of certain things, then pluralism is not gonna be sufficient.
Büscher-Ulbrich: In the 1970s it was probably you, and other Language Poets, and Amiri Baraka, who most harshly criticized the political naïveté of the New American Poetry, though in differing ways, and the relentlessly politicized poetry in the US at a time of conservative backlash that would hibernate during the Carter years, experience its peak in the Reagan-Bush era, and return forcefully with the Bush II Administration. Now, my impression is that while dissecting what both of you considered the political failure of the New Left in the face of multinational capitalism and geopolitical wars, dominant modes of poetics were brought under similar scrutiny. Would you agree?
Andrews: The issue with the New American Poetry that a number of us felt was most pressing was, again, the ego-centered quality of it, from the author’s valorized standpoint. So, the political naïveté as a sub-category of that — emphasis on the writer, on the ego of the writer — would be that the author can’t really just be celebrating her own politics. In some ways, the political naïveté is related to this excessive valorizing of the central position of the writer. If that’s what’s generally been celebrated, then that automatically looks politically naïve because it looks too isolationist. It doesn’t have this centrifugal push outward, toward others. The issue that we’re operating at this time of conservative backlash … I wanted to just caution people when they try to put someone’s work in a time line … is just to realize that, I mean, for a lot of us starting to do this kind of radical work in the 1970s that would come into print in the mid-70s, late 70s, or 80s … that it doesn’t necessarily represent an immediate response to what was going on right then. There’s this backlog that occurs, where you’re being shaped by prior impulses in the art world, in art communities, in art practice, that might have come out in response to an earlier phase. So that we’re being influenced by radical work from the 60s that’s inspiring us, and we’re continuing to push that work forward during a time when the social and political landscape has changed drastically, where we’re in the Nixon years or we’re in the Carter years, and we’re in a time of conservative backlash, or we’re not. So I just wanted to complicate the time line by reminding us that all our work is, and myself included … in some ways, disabled from being directly responsive to what’s going on because we have some back catalogue, in a sense, we have some backlog, we have some baggage that has already shaped us. That we’re not a blank slate, where we can just respond flexibly to whatever is happening.
And the other thing was … what allows these radical heritages from the 60s, for instance, to continue on influencing work in the 70s, or in the 80s, when things shift way to the Right and become much more conservative, is the existence of a community. And that was one of the accomplishments, I think, of the so-called Language Writers. Not just that, in isolation, they produced a bunch of drastic and crazy texts but that they also created a community, a sense of community, institutions coming out of that community and sense of community, that allowed those earlier impulses and the practice based on them to survive in increasingly uncongenial circumstances.
There’s also one thing you’re asking — maybe you’ve asked Baraka this too — about “the political failure of the New Left.” I mean, I just had to laugh. The idea that the New Left somehow had a sizeable enough constituency at any point in my lifetime to even be accused of political failure, I mean, that is like saying “you failed because your group of three people didn’t become a group of three million people.” Well, I agree, that was a failure there. But, I think, from a European context, you have to realize how pathetically dinky the actual Left has always been in the United States — if it’s not a specific opposition to the degradations of racists against the Civil Rights movement, or the degradations created by imperialist war in relation to the anti-war movement. If you get to the number of people that go beyond the civil rights or an anti-war position into a fully ideologized left-wing view of the world, that’s just a virtual handful of folks, in a certain sense, in the U.S., unlike Europe.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Reading your work vis-à-vis Amiri Baraka’s, I was reminded of some of the conflicting ideas within the tradition of critical theory — especially between so-called “Western” and so-call “Third World” Marxism, but also within the former, e.g. between Lukács and Brecht, Brecht and Adorno, maybe Adorno and Baudrillard. I saw some of those conflicting theoretical positions being reflected in your respective aesthetic-political strategies, and I came to think of that as a contemporary recasting of a dialectical tension at the heart of avant-garde aesthetics: a tension between negation and affirmation, Adornian negativity and Brechtian/Benjaminian constructivist impulses. Although the coordinates of this conflict have certainly been altered by several theoretical paradigm shifts since the 1930s, it still hinges on the complex nexus between forms of aesthetic experience and political subjectivity. How do you approach this problem in your writing as well as in a performance context?
Andrews: As somebody that teaches International Political Economy, one thing that I’m struck by in the discussions about Third World Marxism is how significantly they focus on the role of the state as an authority, and as something that needs strengthening by radical forces. And something that then is involved with mobilizing forces. So it’s something that either mobilizes the existing forces through strengthening the state, or that it somehow projects a certain type of citizen that it then wants to create. And there’s something about that emphasis on the “strong state” — which is, of course, valorized in the whole Leninist tradition, Stalinist tradition, and may be something that Baraka talked about since his past theorizing certainly looked like he was much more sympathetic to that than most people are today, for instance, thinking about the “strong state” tradition. Something about the analogy with the author pops into my head. That there’s something about the willingness to have an authoritarian state, and the willingness to have a very controlling, directive author, a little bit like some of those things I said about Brecht and the scientific control tradition, that might be relevant. And, I think, anybody that wants to really valorize the position of the reader would end up taking a somewhat more libertarian, or –
Büscher-Ulbrich: anarchist? —
Andrews: — democratic, anarchist … Situationist position that would go against some of the things that I associate with the Leninist heritage, which, by the way, among the Language Writers (so-called) never had much play. I think Silliman might have been the closest to that, to flirting with that tradition, closer than the rest of us.
When you mention “Adornian negativity” … there I’m wondering whether the negativity is about, or could be interpreted in the same light as, a kind of libertarian impulse: where you’re keeping your distance from established structures — maybe in a protective, defensive crouch, but at least there’s a distance — and that that does then cut against any way of glamorizing authoritarian control — whether it’s coming from the consumer market place, the power of corporations, or whether it’s coming from a post-revolutionary state. In that way the “Brechtian/Benjaminian constructivist impulse” might still [....] and you can see this in Brecht, certainly, and you could see it at certain periods of Benjamin’s writing too, that little flirtation with authoritarian politics. For me it may have to do with: if I wanna have something be recognizable in the work, it may not be the recognition of any kind of pre-set template that could be provided by an authoritative author, “slash,” state, “slash,” revolutionary party, or elite — but the recognition of a possible future. There’s something about this negativity, this opening up of a space outside of the state’s sphere, which you don’t want to just become free market fetishism, but I also don’t want it to become a closed-off or prescribed future that’s given to me by the text, or by the author, or by the government. So somehow I do negotiate the intricacies of what we used to think of as anarcho-communism that become quite interesting here. Like how much emphasis you want on each side of that?
Büscher-Ulbrich: Oh yes.
Andrews: Which, by the way, I remember having debates about with Jackson Mac Low — somebody with a long commitment, and radical commitment, to anarchism. But the problem, and I think at least people that theorize Third World Marxism were very clear that in the context of neoliberal globalization, that the only hope of survival of a different future for a progressive society in the Third World was to develop a fairly powerful state apparatus. That was the only way to negotiate with globalizing forces, and that meant that you couldn’t go all the way with this complete openness of anarchism, or, the complete openness of aleatory technique, but that you wanna have some guides, some reference point, some willingness to engage the semantic dimension, just like you wanna have some willingness to engage with the state, engage with what the state can do.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Post-Marxist political thinker Jacques Rancière contends that the politics of aesthetics operates in the unresolved tension between two opposed forms of politics, or rather, meta-politics: that of transforming art into forms of collective life, and that of preserving from all forms of militant or commercial compromise the autonomy that makes it a promise of emancipation. For Rancière, this tension sheds some light on the paradoxes of critical art and its dialectical transformations. Let’s assume [Peter] Bürger’s famous diagnosis of the neo-avant-garde’s flawed strategy of repeating, under late-capitalist conditions, the meta-political project of the historical avant-garde (“the sublation of art into the praxis of life”) is prompted by ignoring that constitutive tension — these two rather familiar polar opposites in avant-garde aesthetics: the (neo) Dadaist’s and (neo) Constructivists’ “Art into life!’” versus (qua Adorno) “the necessity of art’s relative autonomy to maintain its emancipatory promise.” Moreover, having rendered visible the effects of a false sublation of autonomy, one might say that the avant-garde, in any case, helped redefine the aesthetic-political project of the avant-garde: to make conceivable new forms of subjectivity through art without sublating the institution of art. Now, as a Marxist political scientist and avant-garde experimental poet, do you think that this is possible without “touching” the material basis? Or, if we think about social reality in terms of its “discursive formation,” who has access to what type of discourse in the first place?
Andrews: When you talk about this distinction of transforming art into forms of collective life, on the one hand, and, on the other, that of preserving a kind of autonomy that offers a promise of emancipation … well, transforming art into a form of life to me sounds too reminiscent of creating a closed-off text, so I would have a problem with that part of the binary. And the idea of trying to preserve autonomy from any kind of “militant or commercial compromise” … that, I think, suggests too much emptying out of the literary work of any kind of content. […] To me, it’s not autonomy that needs to be preserved, but it’s the possibility of an expanding capacity. So that you can[’t] have that expanded capacity without confronting the reader or without inviting the reader into some new possibilities — and those new possibilities might involve things that Adorno, or someone else, would sniff or turn up their nose at and find to be all hideous compromise with mass culture, things like that. To me the issue is not whether some part of the mass culture looks disagreeable or not, or doesn’t look like what you wanna be surrounded by — you’d rather sit around listening to Mozart string quartets or something — but no, it’s whether it’s useful and challenging your existing capacity and opening it up. And I always have felt that it does! So, therefore I don’t see any need to be so protectionist. But I also don’t feel the need just to fold everything into the existing everyday life the way Bürger was talking about what the neo-avant-garde’s doing.
Now, the last thing you were saying is about “making conceivable new forms of subjectivity through art,” which I think is one of the projects that I’m fascinated by and interested in, “without sublating the institution of art.” Now, here, one spectrum that I would end up focusing on would be between aesthetic and anti-aesthetic. I don’t care so much about ‘dissolving’ the institution of art, but I do care about sublating, or dissolving, or transcending, or leaving in the dust, aesthetics. Because, I think, even what Kant and classical aestheticians, aesthetic philosophers, talked about as aesthetics does — in a less formalist way of understanding them, which is what I’m interested in — show the positive possibilities of aesthetic experience. That it isn’t just something we need to leave behind. It is something that opens up the possibility of capacitation for the reader, in certain ways.
The other thing you mention, whether this making conceivable of new forms of subjectivity is possible without “touching” the material base … Well, here, if we think of the material base as processes, then I think it does involve touching the material base. If we think of the material base as thematics, or as economic or corporate structures, then you’re not really gonna be touching upon them, or opening them up, or eliminating them. So, that’s a distinction that I make about the material base — a little bit like the base/superstructure distinction I talked about earlier. And the final thing you asked about — “or: if we think about social realities in terms of their ‘discursive formation’ — who has access to what type of discourse in the first place?” Now, here’s something very challenging, very interesting — I don’t have a good response to it — Rancière, who I‘ve been just now reading (I’m behind in my Rancière-ism), does highlight, and so did Bourdieu, in a different way. So, that question of access I haven’t really come to terms with yet. It may be I’m making too many assumptions about what kind of discourse people need to have defamiliarized, you know. If I’m interested in defamiliarizing social discourse and not just defamiliarizing literary tradition, if I’m interested in what has been called a kind of social modernism, where the defamiliarizing effort points toward the social order and not just toward artistic heritages, then I still have to accept that some kinds of discourse about society will not even be accessible to certain people. And so then you might have to say, “Oh, you’re defamiliarizing something that’s over their heads anyway.” That’s a problem I haven’t really come up with anything about yet.
Büscher-Ulbrich: But you’re also a professor, and a teacher. So that, for me, that goes hand in hand in terms of what kind of audience would be willing to deal with that. So, the question of education, obviously, is crucial, always.
Andrews: Right. And there we could, you know, if I knew more about the implications of Schiller, whom I’m also just now reading, we could probably talk about that too … about aesthetic education. Maybe next year … I’ll be right on that one.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Much of your work, I believe, critiques the hegemony of liberal pluralism as a form of repressive tolerance that shuts radical critique down and requires the exclusion of Marxisms from the political arena to maintain its liberal guise. How important do you think a systematic critique of liberal pluralism is today?
Andrews: Okay. A couple of things … It isn’t just Marxisms that are being excluded from the political arena in order for it to maintain its liberal guise; it’s almost any kind of radical thought, whether it’s coming from the Marxist tradition, the feminist tradition, from queer theory, from postcolonial theorizing, etc., etc. So, I think, the hegemony of liberal pluralism in the political realm is a kind of repressive tolerance that does tend to shut radical critique down. And it’s quite parallel to views that I’ve expressed about pluralism in the poetry community, in the poetry tradition, which is this: that a lot of people have come to appreciate various kinds of experimental writing, and so-called language writing, but have not been willing to give up their attachment to everything that preceded it. So it’s as if we get added on to the smorgasbord or to the buffet at the end, as an extra, like “here’s a little desert” or “here’s something to have with your coffee,” at the end, after you had your beefy meal of narrative fiction, author-centered lyric poetry, etc. My feeling — and I’ve been criticized for this before, for the ‘progressivism’ of it, for the ‘Hegelianism’ of it, you know, for the arrogance of it — that I’ve criticized what I consider more conservative kinds of writing because I really think — and this is partly in terms of the canon, the formation of the canon, in terms of what people read or what’s on required reading lists or what people think they need to know — that it’s the appreciation for past monuments and past forms of excellence that are very often in the way of the kind of writing that I’m interested in having its full effect, which is that of shaking things up. And if it’s gonna do that, one of the things that it might hopefully do is just to make people bored with some of the shit that went down in the past.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Re-reading Benjamin’s “The Artist as Producer” the other day, I was struck by the parallels between his explications of Tretiakov and Brecht as well as the notion of a “mediated solidarity” and your writing practice. I also found the following remark, which reminded me of how frequently I burst into a peculiar kind of laughter while reading your work: “We can remark in passing that there is no better starting point for thought than laughter. In particular, thought usually has a better chance when one is shaken by laughter than when one’s mind is shaken and upset. The only extravagance of the epic theatre is its amount of laughter.” Would you like to comment on the significance of humor for your writing as well as your performances?
Andrews: Sure. Let me first ask if you could say anything about this notion of “mediated solidarity” because that’s been ages since I’ve read this essay and I don’t remember what that means.
Büscher-Ulbrich: Benjamin notes that solidarity with the proletariat, in terms of the bourgeois intellectual artist, or writer — who might well be sympathetic towards the proletariat and the idea of a socialist revolution — is still mostly lip service as long as he or she doesn’t come up with new forms of art, or new methodologies of writing that seem capable of enacting that solidarity, in a mediated way. That it might be more appropriate for them to get involved in political rallying than using traditional bourgeois cultural formats to express their solidarity with workers and critique the bourgeoisie. That as bourgeois artists their solidarity can only ever be a mediated one, though very effective in just that sense, like in the work of Tretiakov and, of course, Brecht.
Andrews: This seems to echo the distinction between thematic and formal, right? Where the solidarity that might be expressed by, let’s say, someone like myself — a middle-class person, college teacher, privilegedly white, privilegedly male, privilegedly heterosexual, you know — that I could, through the thematics of my work, gesture toward the ideas that were in solidarity with the working class, or with gays, or with women, or with people from other countries, or with people from other ethnic groups, etc. whereas a mediated solidarity, if that means coming up with a method that would resonate with the task that was in front of these oppressed groups, then, that’s closer to my thinking about methodology as the emphasis. I suggested at one point, in an interview, that the “so-called Language Poets” might have been called the “Methodist poets” — which is not just an artifact of my early going to Sunday school in the Evangelical United Brethren Church in Cheverly, Maryland, which was then taken over by the Methodists, or the fact that my father was an experimental psychology professor and scientist whose field was methodology, so, method is something I’m interested in. And I think it is the thing that can activate and capacitate the reader, more than merely invoking certain themes which are already identificatory, in the sense that I mentioned earlier, of producing sameness. That kind of solidarity I don’t think gets you very far.
Now, the other thing, about laughter … here, I think, laughter and humor involved in the reading of the work is something that I probably didn’t think very much about until I came to New York and started giving public readings. That was a huge influence … caused a big change in my thinking about my writing, and it literally was when I started to go to readings that I started to notice what people laughed at, not just in my own work because I was part of a poetry community and we were all going to each other’s readings, and, you know, you could literally tell what was going to get a rise out of the audience, what would be provocative, what would make them go “Ooh, what was that?!”, or, what would upset them or shock them or make them laugh, in particular. So I did start to think about that more intensively when I got away from silent readings, sitting at home — before I might have noticed that something was funny or not, but it wasn’t quite as vivid, in my mind. Now, since then, one of my models lately for thinking about the effect of something like laughter would be thinking about the Sublime — once we reinterpret Kant’s model.
Büscher-Ulbrich: A materialist or social constructivist turn?
Andrews: Right, and there’s actually a good book I’m just reading that lays this out, by a Dutchwoman, Kiene Wurth, a book called Musically Sublime, and she questions the somewhat mechanical version of the response to the sublime in Kant, which takes on these two stages: one where you’re confronted with something, you’re confronted with a presentation which you can’t get your hands around, in a sense, it’s unrepresentable, it’s too big to be grasped. But then there’s a second stage where that gives you a hint of your actual capacity for dealing with that large-scale size, or large-scale forcefulness of some object in nature, or in an artwork.
So, when I’ve lately been thinking about the Sublime, that’s the effect that I see happening in so-called Language Writing: where what’s unrepresentable is the system of language, the systematic networked formation of language as a structure, and also as a process, and also as something that involves embodiment in texts and in readers or speakers or listeners. That if you produce completely drastic, radical texts that they will be able at first to shake people up, and unsettle them, or, in the extreme, blow their mind … as in “how to operate with a blown mind” — and then that will somehow work not just to immobilize them, not just to stun them, or put them into some kind of unconscious swoon, but it will somehow empower them, it will enable them, it will capacitate them, it would give them the confidence that they can, in fact, see that this initially unsettling and strange phenomenon actually points to a complicated bigger landscape or network than they had originally noticed. That they then realize they have the ability to get some leverage on it, get some grasp of it, and that that will be, in Kant’s term, elevating. That they will get this elevated, “ennobling,” or what I’m calling, capacitating and transformative ability.
This book on the musically sublime was questioning the mechanical quality of the stages and suggesting that somehow the unsettling quality never stops, that you’re basically laminating those two things on top of one another, in the experience of these texts. And that is probably the closest to what’s really going on — that you stay fluid, you stay shaken up, you know, it’s like a martini, “shaken but not stirred”: things are in motion, they never reach a fixed, overly confident conclusion. But they do start to get you past your current fixations, your current fetishisms, your current attachments, your current identifications. So, in this quote, very interesting quote, when he says “thought usually has a better chance when one is shaken by laughter …”, now, there I’m completely in agreement. So the “shaken by laughter” to me would be closer to this first stage where something is shaking you up. But then he says, “… than when one’s mind is shaken and upset.” I would almost flip it around — it’s your mind that’s being shaken and upset, and the laughter is the second stage, when you realize that you have some overview, you know, that actually you are not part of some kind of elite — like you get the joke and others don’t — but that you have some distance, you have some contextualizing capacity that you then become aware of.
And I think that’s what, you know, when I hear people laugh, let’s say, if I’m reading from something like I Don’t Have Any Paper, or more recent works, people laugh and it’s unsettling, but they’re laughing because the unsettling quality of it leads somewhere. It doesn’t just stop there but actually gives people the sense that “Oh, I can see that!” But it isn’t just the laughter without being unsettling. So laughter that comes without being unsettled to me is closer to identity politics, you know, that means you feel superior — “Oh, I can laugh at that. I’m not implicated in that, I’m keeping my distance, I’m adopting a protectionist stance, I’m gonna wall myself off” — which might actually have some relationship to Third World Marxism, and Leninist versions of opposing globalization, instead of being implicated by it. So, to me, it’s implicating them and then giving them some distance, instead of the distance coming without the implicatedness, which then to me is a little bit like arrogance. Your mind is not shaken up, you just laugh because you feel superior or you feel distanced and protectionist enough, like, “oh, this isn’t really about me, this is about those other people that I’m gonna laugh at.” So, no, I think there’s this back and forth, this, shall we say, dialectic that can go on where you are in front of some kind of drastic, radical, shake-up style, you know, mind-shaking text, and then the humor comes from the pleasure, the pleasure of actually … you know, if you can enjoy something that’s unsettling it’s because you can enjoy being reconfigured, and reconfiguring yourself, and that’s the pleasure. Not just the sense of distance and superiority, but the sense that you have a capacity of contextual interpreting and relocating, and reformatting that you were unaware of. And that’s the capacity that’s exhibited by the writing, so that you end up — and this is what people have always said about so-called Language Writing, where the reader’s and the writer’s positions are merged, or intertwined, or flip back and forth in some kind of oscillation, that that’s what’s going on — that the capacity that you achieve is the contextualizing capacity of the writing itself.
New York City, September 27, 2010
1. For more information on Andrews’s collaboration with choreographer and dancer Sally Silvers and their collective multimedia performance practice since the 1980s read Erica Kaufman’s 10 Questions for Bruce Andrews and Sally Silvers.
2. I am referring here to Andrews’s “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis,” Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996), 49-71. The essay is also included in Charles Bernstein’s edition of The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (New York: Roof, 1990), 23–44.
5. Most recently in a 2010 interview with Dan Thomas-Glass, published in The Argotist Online.
6. This is the concluding paragraph from Andrews’s “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism,” published in Charles Bernstein’s collection of essays on sound in poetry, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford UP, 1998) 73-85.
PoemTalk on Lyn Hejinian's "constant change figures"
Editorial note: The following conversation has been adapted and edited from episode 15 of PoemTalk, recorded March 9, 2009, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and transcribed by Michael Nardone. In this episode, PoemTalk host Al Filreis discusses Lyn Hejinian’s “constant change figures” with Thomas Devaney, Tom Mandel, and Bob Perelman. Listen to the show here. — Katie L. Price
Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis, and this is PoemTalk at the Writers House, where I have the pleasure of convening friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close, but not too close, reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities, and, we hope, gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. And I say “listeners” because PoemTalk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive.
Today, I’m joined here in Philadelphia in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House by: Thomas Devaney, poet, critic, teacher, reviewer extraordinaire, whose latest book of poems is A Series of Small Boxes; and by Bob Perelman, long-time Penn colleague from the Bay Area, of course, before that, author most recently of a book of poems Iflife, published by Roof Books, which we celebrated here at the Writers House when it came out, and recorded the reading for Bob’s great PennSound page, to which I happily direct everyone within earshot; and by Tom Mandel, one of the early language poets and the author of fifteen books. Tom studied with Hannah Arendt and Saul Bellow on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and taught at the U of C, the University of Illinois, and San Francisco State, where he was Director of the Poetry Center. How many years, Tom?
Tom Mandel: Oh, just one year.
Filreis: Just one year, that was long enough.
Mandel: It was an action-packed year.
Filreis: Tom’s most recent book To the Cognoscenti was published by Atelos in 2007. He is one of the authors, along with Bob Perelman among others, of The Grand Piano, an experimental autobiography. For the last two decades, Tom has been a technology entrepreneur. Welcome back Bob Perelman and Tom Devaney, and thanks, Tom Mandel, for making your way to Philly from Delaware, via Detroit?
Mandel: And Chicago.
Filreis: And Chicago, and for joining us on PoemTalk for the first time. How was Detroit and Chicago?
Mandel: Well, I went to Detroit for a Grand Piano reading, which was an enormous amount of fun. Seven of us were there and had a fabulous time, gave a really terrific reading, which someday soon, probably within the week, will be available to listen to, and maybe even a video to watch.
Filreis: That’s great, and the subject of our discussion today — Lyn Hejinian — was there?
Mandel: Yes, she was.
Filreis: That’s great. Our poem today is an untitled twenty-seven-line lyric by Lyn Hejinian, the aforementioned, which has been published once in a magazine and, I think, later in an anthology, but has not been collected in a book. That volume, a decade in progress, is to be called The Book of a Thousand Eyes, and will possibly consist of a thousand poems, or maybe three hundred ten, which was how many were complete the last time I checked with Lyn. A handful of pieces from the project appeared in The Little Book of a Thousand Eyes, published by Smokeproof Press, but our poem does not appear there. We’ll call it “constant change figures” from its first line, and our recording comes from a visit Lyn Hejinian made here to the Writers House in February, 2005 when she read this one and twenty others poems in the series. In the first line, the word “figures” is read, by Lyn, as if it’s a noun, but it strikes me as a verb.
Mandel: The first time through I think it’s read as if it is a verb.
Filreis: How does it work, Tom?
Mandel: I think it’s read as if it is a verb the first time through, as if it is a noun the second time, and, in the exact same pronunciation as when it was a noun, as a verb the third time.
Filreis: When it functions as a verb, what does it do, let’s say in the first couple of lines?
Mandel: What does it do semantically?
Mandel: Semantically, it says that change is what decorates, presents, and makes available to us the time we sense.
Filreis: So, it figures time.
Mandel: It figures time.
Filreis: Bob, what do you make of that particular repetition: “constant change figures”?
Bob Perelman: A lot of things. I’m thinking how different it is looking at the poem on the page, hearing the poem, and then remembering the poem. It changes quite dramatically, it seems to me, in those various instantiations. I totally agree with what Tom says about the play between process and product, between fluidity and solidifying into Gestalt, and that’s what she’s doing throughout. I think the poem contains the seeds of its own unfolding, self-undoing and redoing. It is trying to teach us as it goes along how to read, unread, and reread it.
Filreis: Tom Devaney, what is your sense of hearing the poem? Does the sound wash over you? Do you forget the obligation to pull semantic meaning out of it since it’s obviously repeating lines, and one has a feeling that maybe randomly it’s doing so?
Thomas Devaney: No, you feel the repetition — that insistence of new meaning — in each line. Each time she writes “the constant change figures,” she’s enacting that feeling of the Steinian “nothing can be repeated, only said with a different insistence.” So, that’s the feeling I get right away. It gives you that feeling on the page of what the memory process feels like, through word play and repetition.
Filreis: Tom Mandel, you look like you’re about to say something.
Mandel: Just that I see plenty of Gestalt in the poem. The poem is three sets of nine lines. The first set of nine is repeated in the second set and the third set with significant variation. In the second set, the first line appears twice; and the second line, “the time we sense,” does not appear at all. In the third nine-line set — the second repetition in other words — the second line, “the time we sense,” appears twice, whereas the first line, “constant change figures,” doesn’t appear at all.
Filreis: Is there an algorithm?
Mandel: There’s no algorithm. There doesn’t need to be an algorithm, but there is a clear pointing. First of all, if you will, to the leading position of the first two lines — “constant change figures/the time we sense” — as, in a way, the seed out of which the whole poem emerges. And those two lines, “constant change figures” and “the time we sense,” are repeated in a significantly different way from the other lines in the poem.
Perelman: It’s funny, I mean I know Stein is —
Filreis: Back there somewhere.
Perelman: Yes, back there somewhere as crucial to Lyn’s writing. Then there’s Stein’s continuous present, which this poem certainly is an example of, but it’s also, I think, a kind of meta-commentary on the continuous present. There are three different modes of time. There’s sense, there’s experience, and there’s memory. Sense might be the immediate sensory present: hearing each word. The way Lyn reads it at first, she really emphasizes the line breaks.
So, sense would break things down into the present, and would tend to break things into smaller and smaller atoms. Experience is a longer, mid-range present: when you hear the whole sentence, that’s the experience, or the whole poem. Then, there’s the residue. If we all just stop and think “what do we think about this poem, what’s the memory of this poem,” it’s a much different being, certainly, than reading the poem, or rehearing it. I think all of those different instantiations, aspects, states, are what the poem is trying to invoke. And I’m now remembering, actually, one of Lyn’s early talks, “Chronic Ideas.” When I heard her read the first line “constant change figures,” I heard “constant” as echoing “chronic” and “figures” as echoing “ideas”— chronic ideas from thirty years ago.
Perelman: So, on the one hand you have a paean to change and the constant sliding along of the present, but you also have this continuity of the constant change going back thirty years.
Filreis: And I’d also add, thinking back to Language poetry’s manifesto moment, if there was such a thing, where you might say: we call memory nature’s picture, and we’ve got to do something different. Let’s do something different. Memory isn’t so simple. It’s not just Proustian. There’s something else going on.
Tom Devaney, you were going to say something.
Devaney: I was also going to say that it’s not Proustian memory. There’s a distinction being made, and the whole poem is about differences in that sense. I kept thinking about passing on its effect, and Tom’s earlier comment about seeing how the poem was working physically on the page … but the poem, for me, feels like it is passing on its effect. You can feel the effects in the poem enacting, but also literally passing on and over its own sense of enacting as well, and so I really respond to those lines: “passing on its effect,” and “surpassing things we’ve known before.”
Mandel: And yet, that line can also mean passing on its effects.
Perelman: I think I’ll pass on that.
Filreis: That’s fabulous.
Perelman: Many of these lines, words, syntactic recursions are a bit like Freud’s primal words, where they also mean their opposite: passing, surpassing.
Filreis: Experience is constantly qualified in this poem.
Mandel: But it’s the last word in the poem, and the writer knows what she is doing, so that the last question in the last five lines —
Filreis: It is an implied question.
Mandel: “But what of what/in the time we sense/surpassing things we’ve known before/passing on its effect/is experience.” So, you can’t let that go. And I would just say, as far as the Stein goes, as Steve Lacy says, “everything is an influence.” The relationship of a poem to the history of literature is just the price of entrance to thinking about and engaging with the poem. So, even though we are in an academic setting here, I wouldn’t want us to dive too deeply into Lyn and Stein.
Filreis: Okay, so warned. Getting away from Stein, let me try and do something really stupid, except for pedagogical purposes, and try to paraphrase that fabulous question that ends the poem. You tell me if I’ve got it wrong, or if it makes no sense at all: “To what extent is ‘experience,’ what we call ‘experience,’ to what extent is experience the result of our living in time (moment-to-moment duration), which produces senses that are familiar, yet move us forward on to new effects?”
That would be my paraphrase of the question. Or, in other words, to what extent is experience the confluence of the present we know and what of the present is new?
How did I do?
Mandel: You did great, except that the frame of the question is what is experience? “But what, of what dot dot dot is experience?”
Filreis: But see, I think there is a harder critique of experience at the beginning of this poem, and we might agree about this. That is to say, this thing we call experience isn’t much of a guide to what we know of the present, and formulating how we will proceed wholly into the next moment. This thing that we call experience, in the end, I think, is dubbed an ideology. It’s a way of thinking that’s not necessarily what this poem is going to be about. Does that make sense?
Mandel: Sure, yeah.
Filreis: I remember the first sections of My Life, so this is Lyn Hejinian essentially trying to imagine the languaged self as a premature being, I guess you could say. And there, there is all this Freudian identification language: the memory of the pattern of rows on the wall, and all that stuff. There’s something about this that makes me think of it as a kind of mature lyric contemplation version of the kind of gauzy, Proustian baby-language self in those first sections [of My Life]. This makes me think of that. It makes me think of My Life, only it’s a little more theoretical, a little more abstract. The language is less concrete.
Can I throw something out that I think we may want to say for any learners out there — sophomores, as it were symbolically? Something that we may have not stressed enough, which is that this poem is the perfect example of a poem that is semantically about the way it is as a form. Does somebody want to comment on that? It is about how it must change, but it also changes.
Devaney: Well, even the line that Tom and I had two different readings of: that’s an example of the interruption being built within the poem. It still gives me the effect, whether it’s an interruption or not, of how something is feeling. She’s enacting this kind of experience in the language, through the insistence — talking about experience, but creating a new experience in the poem itself, and not going outside of that.
Perelman: It’s funny, though. I’m saying this while I’m looking down at the page, which, again, is cheating from the listener’s point of view, but, nevertheless, here are the first four lines:
constant change figures
the time we sense
passing on its effect
surpassing things we’ve known before.
In the fourth line, that “before” gestures to before the poem started. It actually gestures outside of the poem itself.
Filreis: Speaking now more generally about poetry, what is the virtue of a variations poem like this, a poem that reuses its lines and, I suppose, in an aural sense mesmerizes us?
Mandel: So, probably in some ways in our time, John Coltrane is the great artist of this kind of repetition. One of the things it does is it keeps more of the work in the present. It keeps more of the work in the mind of the listener/reader at any single time.
Filreis: It keeps us going.
Mandel: It definitely keeps us going.
Perelman: It can also, it seems to me, emphasize that edge of novelty: What is just a little bit different about this? You just heard this, but you didn’t hear it just this way.
Filreis: Make it new in a different mode, surpassing the things we knew before. Well, I can’t resist, though Stein has been jokingly banned.
Mandel: No, not banned — banished.
Filreis: Lyn Hejinian, in one of her two talks on Stein, which she has reprinted in her wonderful book of essays The Language of Inquiry: Essays and Poems, quotes Stein in “Composition as Explanation” as follows:
It was all so nearly alike it must be different and it is different, it is natural that if everything is used and there is a continuous present and a beginning again and again if it is all so alike it must be simply different and everything simply different was the natural way of creating it then.
Anybody want to comment on the relevance of that? Or not relevance?
Perelman: Yeah, Stein. It’s funny how the first time you hear that — or when, in my case for instance, you first taught it — you emphasize its break with the long syntactic periods of, say, Henry James or William James. It’s the continuous present —
Filreis: That William James talked about, but didn’t write like.
Perelman: Yes. But, in fact, Stein is not all that un-Jamesian. She puts big demands on medium-term memory and comparison. The continuous present is a little like the rabbit that the greyhounds chase. Meanwhile the bettors are keeping track of the number of laps that the greyhounds are running, to fill out this metaphor. The mid-range attention is very important — let’s go back to Lyn — it’s very important in this poem. Try and read this poem as one complete thought, as one complete sentence, holding the whole thing in that mid-range of your attention. It’s kind of a staggering load, but I think it’s just barely doable. It’s a very different kind of experience than, say, memory or than sense.
Mandel: And one thing I might add is that this work, and much of Lyn’s work, owes William James a great debt, if that’s the right word for it, as it does to Stein.
Filreis: Or through Stein to William James.
Mandel: Well, through Stein to William James, but directly also.
Filreis: And I think it must be said, although this is a little hard bibliographically, that The Book of a Thousand Eyes — which might be three hundred poems or four hundred poems, but will still be probably called The Book of a Thousand Eyes … Well, I’ve read thirty or forty of these things and listened to some of them, and it strikes me that she is trying to do not this precisely, but this kind of thing in a lot of these poems. I can’t help but think, and it’s very impressionistic, that the book is a kind of cubistic gesture at all the ways, the thousand ways, of looking at a blackbird — this mid-range level of attention you’re talking about tried in many different ways. It’s quite an experiment to do this as a series of short poems rather than as a longer one.
Well, before we get to the Gathering Paradise segment of our show, let me ask each of you to offer a brief final word on this poem, something, maybe, more on what you get from it. So, who wants to start?
Mandel: What stands out for me in the poem — and it’s a fabulous poem, no question — is the structure of the three different sections. To account for that takes us away from the history of literature, or the influence of a particular player in that history, to the work. It puts us where we are alone with those two lines, with the difference that their differing positions makes in repetition, and with our own lives.
Filreis: Well-argued and, in a way, slightly askance, if that’s the word, from Bob’s idea that we have everything we need in the poem, but there’s also a gesture to something that happened before it. It works very well. It’s a great argument for an autotelic experience of a poem. Bob, final word?
Perelman: I want to bring, maybe just being a bad boy, Stein back in one last time.
Filreis: Just after Tom made this great speech about how all that we need is in the poem.
Mandel: I love Stein. I’m not being anti-Stein.
Filreis: No, I know you aren’t.
Perelman: But here’s why: again, just looking down the page at the last five lines — “what of what/in the time we sense/surpassing things we’ve known before/passing on its effect/is experience” — and how I’m actually less certain than ever whether that’s an assertion or a question. I’m now thinking of Stein and her “Poetry in Grammar” and doing away with as many punctuation marks as possible, including, as I remember, the question mark, since you should know if it’s a question or not. But, in fact here, you don’t know if it’s a question. You really could construe it as a statement, or as a question: what is this experience? what is this poem? Okay, now we can take Stein back out of it. The poem itself is asking that question, but Stein is a useful heuristic.
Devaney: Following up on Tom and Bob’s points that there are intentions in the poem, and then there’s language: the lines that just kept coming up — “the time we sense/called nature’s picture” — that line, “nature’s picture,” it keeps sticking out to me as something trucked in there. So, there are intentions, and then there’s language. That language is being used to do something.
Filreis: Thank you, Tom.
We like to end PoemTalk with a minute or two of Gathering Paradise, a chance for several of us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather something really poetically good to hail, commend someone or something going on in the poetry world. Who wants to gather a little paradise?
Perelman: I want to shout out to Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. It just came out recently, really a major event in American literary history.
Filreis: Published by Alabama?
Perelman: Yes, published by Alabama. Good for many years of reading. And, can I do two? Just because it’s been out for years and years, and I finally picked it up, Keith Waldrop’s Seriamis If I Remember. I finally read it and it is fantastic, so just to shout out to that, too.
Filreis: Thank you, Bob, for those two gatherings of paradise. Tom Devaney?
Devaney: Bobbie Louise Hawkins is one of my new favorite writers. Her book of prose out by United Artists is so beautiful, so unhampered. She’s eighty-one or eighty-two, and I love her.
Filreis: Well, that’s all the octogenarians we have time for on PoemTalk today. PoemTalk at the Writers House is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and the Poetry Foundation. Thanks to my guests, Bob Perelman, Tom Mandel, Tom Devaney, and to PoemTalk’s director and engineer James La Marre, and our Rotterdam-based editor, the infamous Steve McLaughlin. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us again soon for another PoemTalk.
The Text Festival in Bury, UK, is an internationally recognized event investigating contemporary language art (poetry, text art, sound and media text, live art). Against the background of global stylistic multiplicity, the use of language spans many artforms and may even be a unifying field of enquiry, a new definition and a new field of international linguistic art practice and dialogue. The Bury Festival is the leading focus of language in the twenty-first century, specializing in experiments, in new experiences, in performances and exhibitions that mix artforms in groundbreaking combinations that challenge traditional language art boundaries and offer artists a forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas. The third biannual Text Festival opened April 29, 2011; derek beaulieu — who was a participant in that year’s festival — had an opportunity to discuss the festival’s impetus and future with curator Tony Trehy.
derek beaulieu: What was your impetus for creating the Text Festival?
Tony Trehy: Having curated various artforms (but mainly in galleries and public art) for about fifteen years in parallel with a separate personal output of writing, I had come to a point where I was trying to fit the two creative practices — curating and poetry — into not enough hours in the day. Then sometime in late 2003, I had been talking to Lawrence Weiner about a commission and had reason to communicate with Ron Silliman. There was a sudden moment when I realized that these split conversations mirrored my own psychological segregation of language into art and poet: I realized that my poetry was part of my curatorial persona. And concurrent with the revelation that I could break down the split in my practice, of course, instantaneously, I had to recognize the split also existed in the wider interaction between conceptual art and poetry; subsequently, I have extended this conception to question the location of language across artforms — sound, multimedia, performance, etc. I have got used to quickly adding in relation to ‘poetry’ that I mean the progressive artform little connected to the dead form that mostly passes for ‘poetry’ in the UK. The moribund state of UK poetry in relation to international developments was definitely one of the aspects that the first Text Festival took on. Although, I still find it personally entertaining to have a go at the state of mainstream poetry on my blog, it is more the pleasure of flogging a dead horse rather than being a real issue that concerns the Festival.
“Wonder Room” at Text Festival, 2011. Photo by derek beaulieu.
beaulieu: What has the response been from the UK poetic community?
Trehy: Pretty much none at all. But that’s really to be expected — British mainstream poetry didn’t get to its current comatose state by engaging with new developments; it’s sort of gratifying that it can’t respond to criticism as it verifies its incapability. But in the end, it’s not so important — the Festival isn’t conceived in relation to the UK or to poetry per se.
beaulieu: If the response from the poetic community has been silence what about the visual art community? What do you believe that the two communities have to learn from each other, as epitomized in the Text Festival?
Trehy: I wouldn’t say that the response of the poetic community in the UK has been silent — that is the default position of the Hegemony of the Banal, but it’s poetry is pretty quiet too — (Ron Silliman’s phrase: the School of Quietude). The response of the poetic community has been more complex related to the local (UK) structures of dialogue and status. The visual art community gives a more relaxed impression of critical engagement with the Festival. I am not sure why that is — maybe it is that the venues of the events are more in their comfort zone, a familiar vocabulary of spaces. I am always careful of this juxtaposition of visual to poetic though, because for me (and them) sound artists, performance artists, media artists — any other language forms — are all part of the mix: I find poets are most keen to treat it as a dialogue between the two “communities,” maybe that is part of their isolation from the practice of the other artforms.
Jaap Blonk and Christian Bök perform an extemporaneous sound poem in the Warth Mill in Bury, England, as part of the Text Festival on May 1, 2011.
beaulieu: In terms of that isolation from other artforms — what do you believe that the poetic community has to learn from the art community?
Trehy: I suppose it could do with not being isolated! It’s generally been my position that significant things happen when artforms are in dialogue. This is one of the things the Text Festival assumes.
beaulieu: Has the mandate of the festival changed since its first incarnation? What to you have been some of the highlights of the festival to date?
Trehy: There is something about the word mandate that suggests that its imperatives came from somewhere else, from outside; I think the reason why it has developed a unique status is that it generates its own context. I suppose no one else can see the festival the way I do because I have seen all three of the festivals, but for me, the Text Festivals are in dialogue with each other. I have found it interesting this time round how a number of poets have written about how it has taken a direction or a position in relation to poetry. The Festival isn’t about poetry; it’s not a poetry festival. The festival is always to do with a question. So with the first exhibition of the first festival (also my first highlight), I asked myself: how to curate a show that juxtaposes contemporary poetry with visual (language) art? By its aesthetic location, the festival often operates in fields in which recipients (to use Lawrence Weiner’s term) may not come equipped with the knowledges and histories of particular artforms. As Art Monthly magazine observed, I have an “intrepid resistance to interpretation,” and in exhibitions of text I don’t see how you can use interpretive texts without clunking over the works. So then I have the question of what curatorial strategy can contextualize the question for a gallery visitor? In the first show, I created therefore a large bookcase that blocked views into the gallery — you had to face it and go round it to get in. I called this “The Canon” and featured all the books you would need to get all the messages in the show — ha! Audiences aren’t asked to work hard enough nowadays. And into the show itself: again, is there curatorial conceit that can represent this coming together of forms? Taking a form from Concrete Poetry, I came up with a display constellation. This was working very nicely but there was still something missing. Although the festival has announced submission deadlines, if the curatorial concept demands it, I will keep accepting proposals and looking for works right up to the last minute. In this case, I didn’t know what was missing, just that it needed something. It came in the form of a performance artist, Hester Reeve (HRH.the) who proposed to spend the nine weeks of the first show sitting in the gallery reading and simultaneously writing Heidegger’s “Being and Time.”
Installation by derek beaulieu at Text Festival, 2011. Photo by derek beaulieu.
In the second Festival, although a lot of people rated the Bury Poems readings with Tony Lopez, Carol Watts, and Phil Davenport, my highpoint was the headline gig with Ron Silliman. For this the question was, if you have Ron doing his first ever reading in the UK, who else do you put on the bill? There couldn’t be another poet, so I programmed Scottish student storytelling artist, Catriona Glover, German turntablist Claus van Bebber, and Hester Reeve. I was very pleased with that balance. It was a great night, but this year surpassed curatorially by the juxtaposition of sound art from Sarah Boothroyd and Bruno Bresani with Holly Pester, Eduard Escoffet, Christian Bök plus the surprise interventions of Geof Huth and you.
A couple of guest curators have produces magical moments to note: Phil Davenport’s Bob Cobbing show in 2005 and this year’s readings of Schwitters’s Ursonate at Warth Mill.
This sounds like a lot of highlights but one element of all the festivals that forms an integral part of the dynamic is the festival party where a lot of the artists meet — that is very important.
beaulieu: So — if each festival is in dialogue with the previous, then what — after the third incarnation — would you still like to address?
Trehy: Ah, the trick question — I wondered how you might approach this. As you know, I announced before this Festival that I wouldn’t be doing another. At various points during the 2011 event I did have ideas of what might be interesting next. But I am still resisting the tyranny of having to do what one is able to do. Through my links with Finland — visual art and poetry — we are talking about doing some sort of Text show/event in Tampere (the Manchester of Finland), so my textual inclinations may still be occupied; but either way, if there was another Text Festival, it couldn’t be until 2014 because I am working on another (non-text) international art project which will keep me occupied until then (starting in September, I’ll be setting it up in China).
But thinking about the question, I have been reflecting on the Festival just ending and have an increasing sense of disappointment with the responses of the poetry community — so I’d probably start thinking about how to address the problems I perceive: namely, it struck me that, despite my aspiration to locate poetry in dialogue with other language-using artforms, writings coming out of the festival poets have tended only to engage with poetry. I found it really telling that no one commented on the location of George Widener and Steve Miller in Wonder Rooms, for instance — both visual artists not visual poets, both using language in gripping ways. I’m not saying that there weren’t great visual poems in the show; I’m saying it seems odd to me that the visual artists’ contribution drew so little attention from the poets. Similarly, the poets have tended to focus on Ron Silliman’s neon text and Tony Lopez’s digital text in the Sentences exhibition; but the poets, don’t seem to have anything to say about the Marcel Broodthaers, for instance. I think I would address this. Maybe there would be fewer poets; maybe supporting a notion of “poetry community” itself is counterproductive in shifting poetry into a more critically rigorous relationship with art.
I think that Ron also asked a question that interests me: he observed that a lot of the work on display can’t be “called new in any way that is meaningful within poetry” (note again that this locates the Festival agenda as poetic). He proceeded to raise the question “Is the work any good?” Some of it is more than good. Some of it isn’t. I have a pretty good idea which is which. But again, I am not sure that I comfortable with the claim for the festival that quality of work is its aim. I set out to investigate the implications of certain actions, certain juxtapositions. It’s my hope that testing ideas is what participating artists will use the festival for — the space to fail, and learn things from that. Some of the criticisms of Ron’s neon are legitimate but much of it misses the point of what that work does in the gallery and how it will function as a piece of site-specific public art. Christian Bök’s Protein 13 is still a work in progress; he would acknowledge that he developed his thinking about how the model and text function as objects on display as the installation progressed; and I think that that is an important contribution to the development of the work.
Satu Kaikkonen and Karri Kokko perform a sound poem in the Bury Parish Church, Bury, UK, as part of the Text Festival on April 30, 2011.
beaulieu: How has the festival affected your own poetic practice?
Trehy: I’d have to say it has stoned it dead! After the first festival, I took a year off to recover during which I wrote 50 Heads. And with a gap of four years between the first festival and the second, I was able to write a body of works including Reykjavik and Space The Soldier Who Died For Perspective plus various text art installations. This time the festival was almost too big for me to handle and in the run up and afterwards, the huge creative demand of it has pretty much drained me. I had a handful of very useful conversations during the festival (not least with you and Christian), which suggested to me where my writing should go (an inkling of reinventing a non-poetic form, taking my interest in language and space in a new direction) but there seems little chance that I will have the energy to address it anytime soon.
Jaap Blonk in conversation with Gary Barwin and Gregory Betts
The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling
This interview is transcribed from a video of a discussion which occurred the day after Jaap Blonk performed his adaptation of Antonin Artaud’s seminal 1947 radio artwork “To Have Done with the Judgement of God.” The poster describes the piece: “Banned instantly by French radio this blackened and cathartic masterpiece retains the power to shock and remains an atavistic totem of human barbarity.” Blonk’s adaptation incorporated solo voice and live computer processing. The interview took place amid the visual poetry exhibition Bird Is the Word. Immediately behind Jaap is derek beaulieu’s Prose of the Trans-Canada visual poem.
24 May 2011
Niagara Artists Centre,
St. Catharines, Ontario
Gary Barwin: Jaap, I would say that your work explores on the one hand, the extreme, the grotesque, and a Theatre of Cruelty–influenced performance practice and on the other, an exploration of playfulness and humor, joy, and discovery.
I was thinking about this during Greg’s introduction last night of your Artaud performance when he was recalling when you first met and “jammed” with his one-year-old son Jasper. When Jasper first encountered you, there was a little bit of fear, a hesitation at the unknown, and some discomfort, which soon changed to a pleasure and joy about the exploration, the pure enjoyment of just communicating, of vocality itself. Perhaps this encounter with Jasper is a good way to begin a discussion about the aesthetics behind your work.
Jaap Blonk: Yes.
Barwin: OK, so let’s talk about it! So, it’s two things. One, I think, is that your exploration of language is psychological. And often at the extremes of human experience and energy.
Barwin: … but it’s also an exploration of human vocal behaviors and possibilities. Sometimes it’s about play, exploration, or about more musical concerns.
Blonk: Yeah, yeah, it can go many directions. There’s also the, maybe we’d call it the antithesis between the systematic way of composing, let’s say a Morse code based on a certain pattern of strict numeracy and a more intuitive means of performance. I learned that I can construct a piece with very dry rules and then in the performances it will come alive, and it will become even better as I respond to it.
Artaud has been very important to me at the outset, when I first began performing voice. Actually, this was in the early eighties — at that time I was just starting with the whole performance thing and I had been in a group of people doing poetry presentations with instruments — people reading poetry by (mostly well-known) poets, accompanied by musical instruments and I was the composer for this initiative. I was not allowed to recite poems — they thought I was not doing it well, at least not in a very convincing way. At some point, the group was planning a performance of Surrealist and Dada poems and there were a few leftover texts which nobody knew what to do with, but they wanted to include in the program. And these included some work by Artaud, and I thought, “Let me try it.” And so, that really felt very good for me to do that and especially the Artaud. This was not sound poetry but translations of some poems of his. We found it very interesting, the whole concept of style, and there’s a famous poetry quote: “Whatever I write I’m going to burn it on the next day, because it’s no longer true.” So these texts were building up an intensity, which helped me go, sort of, across the barrier of madness onstage. So I did that. There was an authenticity to it that I heard — it wasn’t embarrassing to me, it was just intense — so it helped me to go further, to not be afraid on stage, to not be anxious the whole time, to not want to keep total conscious control.
Barwin: Absolutely. So, you go to the limit of that, you explore what’s possible as a performance, on stage, what’s possible in terms of playing a performance through your body and through the resources that you can summon. This is the thing that I’m wondering about: Once you get to the point of crossing the line where everything is open — you’ve gone beyond standard language, beyond standard conventions of vocal performance, you have, as Schoenberg’s song says, “the air of another planet” open to you, and so the question is, then what happens, not only in terms of exploring extreme states but also exploring non-extreme states but with the new resources — new musical resources, new vocal and sound resources that you now can use? Because you’ve knocked down the walls. So, now what? What kind of civilization are you now going to build onstage?
Blonk: Yeah, there’s of course several different approaches to that, one of which is improvisation, which I did a lot, mainly with instrumentalists — different types of instruments — these bring different types of challenge: what kinds of sound to come up with to make sensible music with them. So that’s one thing — just intuition, and so I’ve done completely improvised solo performances, also. So sometimes it’s purely intuitive and automatic, but sometimes there’s a specific thing: I take a structure to use which kind of accumulates, something simple like counting syllables in sound — I use an extended notion of a syllable: syllables of the same sound that’s continuous without a specific break in it, so for instance [see video clip below]. So that brings me to a totally different area and I feel that the materials of the work are very restricted and then based on that I make the piece.
Barwin: It’s restricted but also varied, because the syllable, that notion, is so open to so many things. So many different kinds of performative weight, psychological weight, musical weight are possible, so it’s very flexible.
Blonk: And then, of course there’s also prepared pieces, which can be really hard to learn. There’s a piece of mine — the title is “Barred,” which really consists of — I learned all the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet and I used a system that could be written on a typewriter so there were, I think, about seventeen phonetic symbols that could be written using a letter with a bar, or stroke through it, so I used those, for example, in a system of permutations of certain things. So I’d written that, and I’d performed it three days after. It was really trouble — so, terribly hard to do it.
Barwin: A number of your performances of both your own work and other’s work push toward performative extremes so that they become a sort of performative challenge. The audience sees you, the performer, faced with the challenge of trying to realize this extremely difficult piece and so there’s an extra tension that is generated. Not only the excitement and delight of witnessing a virtuoso performer, but watching a virtuoso engage with material that is at the limits of his virtuosity.
Blonk: I’ve never been after virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. The first time I realized it was when I was working learning Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate (“Primordial Sonata”), and I’ve always been recording myself, listening to back it, judging my performance. I’d listen to myself and I found myself boring, there are very repetitive passages that go like [see video clip below] and I couldn’t do that one fast enough and I didn’t want to really do it fast to be a virtuoso but to keep them interesting, not boring. So then I made consonant exercises for myself, all different combinations of particular sounds in different orders and I wrote them down and practiced them with a metronome every day but so that the articulation was better
Barwin: Yeah, I can see children begrudgingly practicing from their book of Jaap Blonk sound poetry études in the conservatory, trying to move up to Grade Six in sound poetry, working on their required sound poetry graduation repertoire …
Blonk: Yeah, one time I was renting space where musicians were practicing — I’d have the space for two hours or so — and I’m sitting there with the metronome going. The next student entered with an instrument and was watching me like, “what’s this crazy guy doing?” [Laughter.] Of course, really, it’s the same as practicing scales and that kind of thing.
Barwin: I remember when I first came home from university, from music school, and I was learning how to circular breathe and I was told to practice with a straw and a glass of water, and so I spent all weekend in my parents’ backyard blowing bubbles in a glass of water and my parents were looking wondering what had happened to their child at university — why was he blowing bubbles all weekend? Of course, I assured them that this was an important part of my musical education …
Blonk: I was in this group in Holland where there was this famous reed player and he used to come early at rehearsals and practice high notes on the clarinet and he’d be sitting there practicing very high tones on the clarinet and I’d sit down in the chair beside him and practice uvular trills. He’d ask me, “What are you doing — are you crazy?”
Whereas we both were just working on those things in our vocabulary that we were focused on at that particular time.
Barwin: You’re crazy, yeah. [Laughter.] But just like the instrumentalist, you’ve got a certain repertoire of techniques that you evolve as a writer, as a speaker, and then you work on that with focused practice, just like any art form, any physical activity. You explore what you can do with it and how you can extend it. But perhaps the voice is more obviously both medium and carrier of content.
Gregory Betts: Absolutely. But I think of that guy who comes after you in the music room and his experience on the other side. It’d be fascinating. It’s hard to imagine him being bored by the kind of vocal exercises that you were doing. But I was thinking about last night too, when people were laughing at strange moments, at interesting moments in your performance, even though there was a darkness there. Does it surprise you when and where people laugh? That they laugh at all at things like this?
Blonk: No … no, it’s predictable for me that people laugh. But I never calculate moments that you should laugh, like a comedian. I don’t try and repeat it. But I’ve learned — especially at points in Artaud where there’s no humor at all — it depends on the performance.
Betts: Where does the humor come from? It’s a fascinating moment in a performance.
Blonk: Yes, that’s pretty mysterious.
Barwin: But in a piece there are some more predictable places that make people laugh. When the performer is in a strange position, when something suddenly changes. And sometimes people laugh when there’s an extreme kind of vocalization or an extreme facial expression. And I think people laugh sometimes because the work is so different in that it’s being played through the instrument of the body.
But there are certain of your works that are deliberately playful, deliberately humorous, not that you’re a stand-up comedian, but I’d say that they show that you’re aware of humor, that humor is one of your aesthetic interests.
Blonk: Uh, yeah, well, I think it helps a lot even to bring across other aspects of the work. If there’s humor in one part of the story, it can make another part more bearable.
Barwin: Last night toward the end of the Artaud piece, there was a part where you play two roles: Artaud and a very serious BBC documentary interviewer. “Are you mad?” the interviewer asks Artaud and Artaud responds by saying all this crazy stuff and then continues with some explanatory material. It’s a funny juxtaposition, a funny little scene between this very serious interviewer and Artaud.
Blonk: Yeah. Also, I think it’s important to be able to have access to all the sounds the whole time. It’s more important to me than being able to do virtuoso imitations or copy specific things. It’s important for me to do extreme sounds and then immediately go into a very calm explanatory action [see video clip below] as a demonstration, a transversal unvoiced frictative.
Barwin: Yeah. There’s is that kind of performative play but there’s also, I think, the possibility of opening up the performance to a whole range of vocal and emotional possibilities by imitating of tones as used in society — a dictator or radio announcer, for example — these are all sounds, codes, or “tones” that are available in the vocal repertoire. So it makes sense that these are part of your tools at least as part of these performances, and then you can use them for whatever aesthetic ends that you want.
Barwin: I’m still really interested how you see the distinction between abstract instrumental sound and vocal sound. For example, there’s musical juxtaposition: you can have a piece that’s, say, a pretty quiet chamber music and then all of a sudden it goes to a death metal, crazy-loud freak out, that’s one kind of thing. But if a performer — a vocalist — goes from a really quiet low-affect expression to a very heightened state, there’s also a psychological aspect, an affective aspect, which adds another level to the performance.
Blonk: Yeah, yeah, I see what you mean … Well, in every performance for me there’s an aspect that’s always there: this joy of making sound. And so, I have this piece, about the Prime Minister where I start to say “the Prime Minister finds such utterances extremely inappropriate” and I start taking out the vowels and it ends up like this [see video clip below] And people always ask me, “How do you manage at every performance to be that angry?” That’s what they think — that I’m angry! But for me, it’s the joy in making the sounds. Of course it’s being conveyed that the Prime Minister is very angry or something like that.
Barwin: I love that piece because it works on all those levels. It works on the political level of the Prime Minister and the use of political language, oppression, and censorship — the removal the letters, so there’s that element. There’s the watching-a-performance element of it where you can see a formal process unfolding. So that’s a completely structural formal interest of watching these dropped vowels and the sounds that result. There’s a level where you end up contorted and spluttering as you attempt to pronounce the results of the process. That’s the level where you see that the body is to sound poetry as the page is to textual poetry. There are all these different levels and elements to that particular piece, which does seem different than some of your pieces which are more abstractly musical. They don’t have the extra-music associations, but are more about delving directly into musical meaning or exploration than the Prime Minister piece where you’re talking about language, involving metalevels and all that.
Blonk: I have a series of phonetic etudes — that’s what I call them — the first explores the r and the different ways of pronouncing it. Of course the r is fascinating — it’s pronounced so differently in different languages [see video clip below] so that was the first. It’s a piece for solo voice.
I think for me it’s useful to think about r. But it’s also so much about poetry so much of our environment has to do with phonetics.
Barwin: Oh absolutely — some of your work explores vocal sounds and some of it explores language. So some words actually mean something, and some don’t mean anything but they’re in the structure of language. For example, much of the CD “Dworr Buun,” recorded by your group Braaxtaal, is in an invented language, so it’s about language, not just sound.
Blonk: I explain in this CD that the texts are written in Onderlands, a parallel language to the Dutch. It sounds like Dutch but even native speakers of that language cannot understand it. People who don’t speak Dutch can enjoy its sounds without worrying about meaning because there is no meaning, so they’re not losing anything. But at the same time, they’re exploring different ways of speech in Dutch. There’s a piece in the speech of very upper-class people at a garden party; the drinking song, which is very much in the dialect of where I was born, and there’s one evoking an experience of a preacher or reverend in a very strict Calvinist church.
I remember one moment where I was a kid sitting in the church and suddenly the power went out and it got dark and the old preacher was, I think, reminding the congregation that the earthly light has gone out but the eternal light keeps shining. He kept speaking for like fifteen minutes after.
Barwin: While you sat in the dark. That’s an amazing image.
Blonk: But of course there’s still a glow of hell. Eternal damnation.
Barwin: As is befitting to remind one such as yourself in need of such helpful moral instruction …
Betts: There’s something interesting, too, in the biographical aspect. It’s not the experience or the actual language itself, it’s not the language or the dialect of the tribe that you’re exploring but the “sounds” of your biographical experience.
Blonk: Some of them are that
Barwin: But in a way it’s the variety of how language is used and people experience of it, whether it’s really militaristic or radio language, pseudo-scientific or childlike or clown-like, or like in the Artaud, sounds of madness or of extreme states. So these seem to be important tools for you, the resources you bring to your work, to examine and explore aspects of knowledge, of experience, and the voice.
Blonk: Yeah, there are those such things which are immediate in existing languages, but for me it was an important step to start using the phonetic alphabet to make sound poems, to be able to mix sounds differently with very much more different colors and different textures.
Barwin: Yes, absolutely, that’s very striking to me as a unilingual person, just to be aware of the richness of possibilities of the r — there are so many r’s you can then bring into pieces and hear the possibilities, and then —
Blonk: — and then go beyond that. Because there are whole categories of sounds that are not represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet — important categories which at least I use to make sound. I think there’s no single language in the whole world where you need to use your hands to speak, because it’s not very practical.
Barwin: I wanted to mention something from your Splinks’s CD Consensus, since we were talking about the r. There is this really great point where you are rolling an r and it’s taken over by a marimba doing a tremolo, and I thought it was a really lovely image of an intersection of musical instruments and voice in a way that I hadn’t thought about: how a rolled r is a tremolo, a vocal tremolo, and its rhythm could be played by a marimba.
Blonk: Yeah and there’s another piece on that CD that’s called “Vowelogy” where I’m using the formants of vowels and they are performed by instruments and so you can really hear different vowels being played by violin and synthesizer and so on.
Barwin: Yeah, the intersection between voice and instrument and how they can inhabit the same soundworld. We talked about your work from the point of view of language art, but I’m interested in how you see yourself as a musician. Where you see the division between poetry, sound poetry, and music — if there’s a boundary? You sometimes perform in a musical context, sometimes in a literary context, and sometimes an entirely different context.
Blonk: Yeah for me it’s really a bit of a useless discussion of whether something is sound poetry or music. I should also say it’s often very complex. I’ve been a member for several years of a symposium that was started in Germany. And actually all of the discussion was about if things were poetry or music.
Barwin: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a large monster coming towards me that’s going to kill me. Let’s discuss how to define what it is rather than just escaping from it.
Blonk: Instead of actually talking about the piece, yeah?
Betts: Sometimes these bureaucratic divisions between the genres are used as a way to exclude. Certainly in terms of funding.
Barwin: So, these divisions are not useful then, except, as you say, to bring a richness to the interpretation of how a work relates to a certain tradition. How a work takes a tradition and explores it, takes it in a different direction. You can appreciate what it is for itself, but also at the same time you can appreciate what it might be in its relationship to literature as a way of deepening the experience.
Blonk: Yeah, for me it’s very much all one thing … for instance, the titles I make up for mainly improvised music. The musicians don’t see that when we’re recording. I make up the titles after the fact … Sometimes they’re anagrams … I hope that listeners they will see something there … but most of the listeners are people who have no connection to sound poetry or the tradition of poetry in general and in school.
Barwin: In some of your work with musicians the nature of your engagement with language varies. At one moment you’re performing things that sound as if you’re interacting with text, then you’re interacting with musicians as if your voice were an abstract instrument, and then you return to something that engages with language — is it speech, or is it song, is it text, is it language? There’s an interesting play back and forth between what appears to relate to language and what is more abstract sound.
Blonk: Sometimes I, as it were, step outside what is happening and comment on what’s happening, or I’ll be trying to be a translator and translate what the musicians are doing into another language. Sometime I take that role and see what happens.
Barwin: You also use technology. In one of the sections of the Artaud piece which you performed last night, you used a PlayStation controller to control the computer sounds. And you also used processed vocal sounds. In other work, you perform what sounds like vocal imitations of machines. I’m interested in your approach to the technology, how you think about technology and how it related to the voice, to the body, and to gesture.
Blonk: I was already composing music before I started vocal performance. The aspect of composing, of making, has always been more important for me than being a vocal performer in the sense of performing pieces by other people. But most important to is to create my own material. At some point, I discovered that the potential of the voice was a great source of material. I had the voice but also the potential of the instruments of the people that I was working, but I also like using well, basically, effects and samples of the voice that can extend it even more in the sense of density, register, and several other aspects. So I started using them from a compositional point of view and also in improvising. I learned many of the possibilities from improvising.
At first it was just hardware — effect boxes and after that, software. At first it was just commercially available hardware and software but then I developed things in Max/MSP and things like that. At some point, in 2006, I took a year off of performing, a sabbatical, and I started learning programming languages and seeing what was possible. Really to learn to start from scratch. Also synthesizing sounds.
Betts: The sounds that we were listening to last night, that you were you were playing with a joystick, were those ones that you had composed?
Blonk: There were some long sounds that I did not control with the controller. But they were the result of the manipulation of voice sounds.
Barwin: So then many of the sounds which sound mechanical or synthesized actually have a basis in vocal sounds. And then using a gestural controller also makes a sound somewhat vocal because you’re not flipping switches you’re actually controlling through physical gesture — the movement of the PlayStation controller. Are there sensors which are tracking the movement in three dimensions?
Blonk: There are only two sensors which basically track only two variables. Forward and back and side to side. Of course, I can connect more than one parameter to each movement.
Barwin: That’s another way these computer sounds can enter the vocal realm: through the physicality of gesture. This is in addition to the fact that original sounds themselves are derived from vocal sounds.
Blonk: Yes, it’s important for spectators to have some link with why the sound changes. It’s not very interesting for the people to do like many laptop performances where there is nothing visible happening in the performance and we have no idea where the sounds come from. I always think about that: why should I listen to this in a concert? I’d rather have it on a CD, except for when they use multichannel systems, then it’s different and it can be interesting to go to the concert.
Barwin: So there should be some connection between the performance or the performer and the sound being produced in some way that’s meaningful to the audience. That makes a lot of sense.
And in the Artaud piece performed last night, there was a lot of talk about the body, about bodily functions — talking about shit, about organs, about the body — so it made sense to have organic sounds from the computer that seem to relate to the body. And it provided some really funny juxtapositions. Also, there were sounds that sounded like body sounds which then changed and sounded like something else. That was a really interesting play with sound and association, or sound and source. That was really great.
A question about tradition. I see quite a few people from the sound poetry and avant vocal tradition who do this experimental work but are also advocates and performers of much older work — by Artaud, Hugo Ball, Schwitters, and so on. You often see this work performed in the repertoire of the vocalists. Do you see this work as meaningful to you? As canonic? Are you arguing for it, trying to keep it alive and in the repertoire?
Blonk: Yeah, I think not so such any more, but when I started performing Ursonate, these pieces were very much neglected. It felt for me when I discovered the piece in 1979, it really felt for me like I’d discovered a masterpiece. I wanted to fight for this piece and perform it a lot. I’d do performances in punk clubs where I was opening for a band. And the audience would just want talk and have a beer or listen to the band and not have to listen to this stuff. So they were throwing beer at me — I had many such unpleasant experiences. But I always finished the piece.
Barwin: You’d notice the people throwing the beer at you, but you wouldn’t notice the people who were interested, though.
Blonk: There were people interested, yes.
Barwin: Less obvious, certainly than people throwing beer.
Blonk: Sure. There were probably people cheering, also.
Barwin: I like the idea of choosing a challenging performance situation. That’d be a challenge to perform there. It’s a very different situation but has a lot of commonality in a certain sense with that audience that might have originally heard it. It’s different that those people who walk into a punk club to play the Bach Solo Cello Suites.
Blonk: I’ve performed the Ursonate at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, at the official series for subscribers. I had to perform in between two traditional sonatas for very middle-aged, typical classical music audience. They were taking out their handkerchiefs so they could laugh into them. [Laughter.]
Barwin: But it’s like I was saying about these performances in relation to traditional music or poetry, recontextualizing something, you learn something about the piece.
You hear a sound piece differently at a punk show than in a traditional concert hall. Each reveals an aspect of the piece in relationship to the tradition that it appears beside. I think it’s a good way to gain another understanding of the piece.
You also work with multimedia. You have videos of performances. Some are recordings of performances which are then modified. Some are abstract videos which are works in themselves.
Blonk: It’s a very recent thing for me. It’s only in the past year that I have been exploring this. I’m still developing them. I have some longer videos that if some opportunity shows up, I would like to show in an installation context. I have had some small exhibitions of my sound poetry scores and visual poetry usually in combination with a performance, so I can imagine at some point, an exhibition with projections of the score and so on.
Barwin: There’s a video posted on your website, Flababble: It’s very simple but really charming and fascinating. It’s a recording in very slow motion of you shaking your head from side to side while making a “cheek squeak” sound. I’m fascinated by how this simple and captivating thing explores what actually happens, a close examination of what happens to the face when you make a sound. And all that is changed is one parameter: time. It’s a really mesmerizing video.
Blonk: I was very surprised myself at seeing what’s really happening when you do that. It only moves this much if you do it really fast. [Shakes head and makes “cheek squeak” sound.] But at normal speed, it’s too fast to see what’s actually happening.
Barwin: It’s like those pictures of the horse by Muybridge, where you see all four feet actually leave the ground. There’s a real poetic beauty about seeing something taken out of its original time context. But going back to what I was saying before, I see a strange beauty in it, but also a playing with the grotesque and the extreme because you can see the face moving so radically, and you think, okay, is this ugly? Is this beautiful? What is this? And you have to consider what you think of what people do, what you think of the body and how we perceive things through the mediation of time.
Blonk: And there’s also, yeah so this is just a video shown in cheap slow motion. [Laughs.]
Barwin: Yeah. But there’s a whole range of Internet work that is deliberately lo-fi. It’s like the aesthetic of badly Xeroxed zines and things that are trying to have that look. There’s a charm to that look. And in a way, this is one idea, one approach. It’d be another kind of piece if it were done with extremely high production values. It’d have a different effect.
Finally, I like to ask you about scores and notation. And also about text-based work with computer generated texts. So I guess: scores and generated text.
Blonk: Yeah, I have several of these generated texts taking very well known poems in Dutch and German and making variations of them with a computer them using Markov chains.
And of course they were transformed into nonsense language, but there were still enough points of reference for people to recognize them. At some point, during a reading, more and more people recognize the source.
Barwin: It’s fascinating, the highly advanced pattern-recognition that we have, especially with regard to language.
Blonk: I’ve also made Markov variations of my own sound poems. I created a series of variations and then I used another series of mathematical procedures to generate more texts.
Barwin: It’s like what you were talking about earlier. How simple mathematical processes result in these rich experiences because they’re using language and using vocality. And a single regular and mechanical procedure becomes variegated and complex when multiple generations of the process are used. And then added to that, when these texts are performed, there’s another whole level of organic, performative richness.
Barwin: Jaap, thanks very much for this discussion. It’s been fantastic.
Blonk: Thank you.
Barwin: Now I’m going into the practice room to practice my voiceless velar fricatives. I’ve an exam at the Royal Blonk Conversatory of Mouth Art, later this month …
Kiki Smith with Leonard Schwartz on Cross Cultural Poetics in 2011
Editorial note: Kiki Smith (b. 1954) is an artist, sculptor, and printmaker. Her work can be seen or has been shown in countless museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. An exhibition of her work Prints, Books and Things, ran at the New York MoMA from December 5, 2003 to March 8, 2004, and was followed by an interactive website. The following conversation focuses on Smith’s collaboration with poet Leslie Scalapino, The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water (2010). A digital facsimile of the book is available from Reed Digital Collections. The show originally aired on KAOS 89.3 FM as part of Cross Cultural Poetics on February 6, 2011. The following was transcribed by Michael Nardone. You can listen to the full recording of the program at PennSound here. We would like to thank Kiki Smith and The Pace Gallery for permission to publish this interview. — Katie L. Price
Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest, on the phone from New York, is Kiki Smith. She is an internationally known artist working in multiple mediums. About her work, it has been written, “Smith represents the female body as one of resistance and transgression. Her women reject the graceful refined poses of Western statuary, and startle by performing extremely private acts in a remarkably public and matter of fact manner.” The work of Kiki Smith’s I’d like to talk about today is a collaboration she’s done with the poet Leslie Scalapino: The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, published by Granary Books in an edition of forty or forty-five copies. We have one copy here at the Evergreen State College in our rare books room. Welcome, Kiki Smith.
Kiki Smith: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Schwartz: Wonderful to have you on the line. I know you’re a busy person and working on many projects all at once. Can you say a little bit about your collaboration with the poet Leslie Scalapino?
Smith: Sure. Leslie had asked me to write her — I don’t know what you call those — a blurb?
Schwartz: A blurb, sure.
Smith: For the back of a book that she made, also with Granary Press, and I did. At that time, I didn’t know she was friends with my friend Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and I didn’t know her work particularly well, although I had heard her read. I’m not somebody who writes blurbs. I don’t know much about things like that, but I did it nonetheless. Then thinking about it, I wrote that I really liked her work. I think she suggested to me then that we could make something together. I didn’t have any idea particularly what to do. I made some very strange drawings, and then I thought she could make something that went with them. We tried to think of who could publish it, and that took a while. We asked Granary, and they weren’t interested in doing it at the time because they had other commitments. So, we didn’t really know where to go with it, but we sort of made it nonetheless. Leslie also rewrote and reworked it, and then eventually Granary Press came back to me, just by chance, and asked if we would like to do it. They were ready, I guess. We said, “Yes, we would love to,” and then we started working on it.
Schwartz: There was a period in the past — I associate it with the heyday of the New York School — in which poets and painters worked together collaboratively in really exciting ways more often. That’s rarer these days, and you are an artist who has worked with poets. You mentioned Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and now Leslie Scalapino. Let me first just say, the book is extraordinary. It includes digital prints of your images, each individually hand-colored by you, Kiki Smith. The book is accordion-bound in Ultrasuede, a pleasure to the touch. There are forty-five copies. Each one of those copies is very expensive. It’s very much an art object or a book art project, as well, to which one makes pilgrimage in order to find a copy and read the book, or to read the book and look at the book. Can you say, though, a little bit about the relationship between word and image for you in this book?
Smith: I periodically like to use words in relationship to my work. Probably because, historically, how language and image go together is very interesting. It has a rich history pre-book: in painting, and then in stone. Like the Sumerians or the Egyptians, where it’s pictorial and language at the same time, or like altar paintings of the saints with words coming out of their mouths, or Nancy Spiro’s work. She’s worked very extensively with text. Before that, when I was younger, I mostly worked with my own text. Since I met Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, we’ve made maybe four projects together. And I’ve worked with Leslie and Anne Waldman a little bit, and different people. Henri Cole and I made a broadside together. For me, it’s just a pleasure. I’ve also made several books with Lynne Tillman, who’s more a fiction writer. But it’s interesting because it can’t be illustration. You can’t make something that is an illustration of something, because then it’s just working for somebody else, which I’m not that into. Each one that I’ve done, for the most part, has really been a collaboration, and sometimes it comes just from talking. Mei-mei and I just talked for a long time, and then we did things simultaneous to one another. With Leslie, I actually made the work first, you know, in a certain way. She wasn’t making an illustration either; she made something that could couple it, that could coincide in the same space. In certain ways they go together, and in other ways they move apart from one another, or are antithetical to one another’s meaning. I like that it’s not a one-to-one correlation. It’s just possibility.
Schwartz: That’s really intriguing. I do understand that the risk or the threat is that something becomes illustrative — that the image becomes illustrative of the poem, or the poem …
Smith: Which also has a great history. You know, it has to work, even if very superficially. Mei-mei will make poems and I just use all the animals she mentions in the poems, or all the different kinds of natural phenomenon. I’ll just make images of those. In that way it’s maybe closer [to illustration], but it’s just whatever is pleasurable, and also — in terms of printmaking or technically working with paper masters or master printmakers — what’s interesting. How to push that: your use of and the form of a book.
Schwartz: You do mention that your sequence of forty-three drawings had been, I think, completed beforehand, and it’s titled Women Being Eaten by Animals. About those drawings, Scalapino writes, “I wrote the poem using the sense of an unalterable past occurrence: One female, apparently the same girl, is repeatedly, in very similar images as variations, bitten and clawed by a leopard-like, lion-like animal. Both person and animal have abstracted features, giving the impression of innocence or opaqueness. As in a dream of similar actions or a dream of a single, timeless action, the girl flecked with blood while being unaltered by the animal’s touch, there is no representation of motion except stillness of the figures floating in space of page. Neither the girl nor the animal articulate expression, as if phenomena of feeling(s) do not exist.” Kiki, we are on radio and we can’t show the images, so I’ve read this text on your images. Is there anything you can say about the extraordinarily sensual and extraordinarily disturbing quality of the woman being eaten by animals?
Smith: I was asked by the Museum of Modern Art, by Wendy Whiteman, if I wanted to make an exhibition of my prints, probably a little less than ten years ago. I wanted a hook for it because it was Queens. She asked me if I wanted to make a billboard, which never happened, but I immediately thought of Rousseau’s — I think it’s a lion or leopard attacking the white antelope [Henri Rousseau’s The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope] — and it has the same trajectory of those animals. There is a central animal and they are in some big jungle, and then the other one comes lunging into it. So, I thought about that: that most animals are actually eaten. They leave the planet being eaten alive. I had to think about that for a while, unpleasantly. But then I also thought that, for me, it was more how you get out of your body. How you get out of your own ego-consciousness. What penetrates and what is penetrant to you, and what gives you freedom at the same time? I think about animals a lot in very convoluted ways, but part of it is this sort of shamanistic space of people either acting as animals, or making associative attributes to animals, or anthropomorphizing animals. It moves around. But it’s just my own convoluted entertainment of how to escape “me,” or something like that. It’s not unpleasant any of it. It’s also [this idea that we are] not to be separate from the rest of the universe, that we have this idea of autonomy, but really we’re a part of a whole.
Schwartz: I certainly was moved by that aspect of the work: the absence of privileging the human over the animal, that there is a kind of offering being made. I also thought of certain images from early Buddhist tradition — I think it may be Indian Buddhism, but it may be elsewhere as well — that illustrate the story of the Buddha offering himself to the starving tiger to be eaten. I know your work tends to get associated with a certain kind of relationship to Catholic spirituality, but I kept thinking of that image of the Buddha’s offering of himself to the tiger.
Smith: That’s interesting. My mother was a Catholic. She converted to Catholicism from some other religion, but then she converted to, or rather, practiced Hinduism and Buddhism. So, I think it’s true to say that I grew up in a mixed household. And anyone, from the sixties anyway, is influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and many other religions just by the nature of growing up in the sixties, which I did. Because, you know, the East … For the last hundred years in art and in philosophy, but very directly in art, Hinduism and different parts of Buddhism, certainly Zen Buddhism, were a very big influence. I’m very interested in the iconography of religions, much more than I’m actually interested in belief systems. I feel like being Catholic was enough for me for one lifetime. But I love the iconographies that are associated with belief systems. I find that one can be playful in those histories also.
Schwartz: Absolutely. I just spoke with Ibrahim Muhawi — who is a translator of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet — about the difference between metaphor and symbol. Symbol has to do with identification, he argued, in locking us into a body, or locking us into a particular tradition; whereas metaphor opens things up, retains a relationship to a thing to be sure, but also opens it up to multiple possibilities. Also, of course, Leslie Scalapino as a poet is very influenced by Zen Buddhism as a practicing Buddhist.
Smith: She was a really fascinating person, someone who was very abstract in her thinking. But I think the thing that I liked about — more when you listen to her, if you let it go inside of you — I always thought it was a little like standing behind thought. Like you’re standing behind thought, just observing it. And it goes into you, in a way that you don’t have to be analytic. You can, but you don’t have to [in order] to get it. The words penetrate you and then make a consciousness inside of you. I mean, she has an enormous breadth of work. She had dynamic energy for her work and for many other artists’ work, and supported other artists: artists and writers both.
Schwartz: Sure, theater as well. I think dance groups have been involved as well.
Smith: Yes, dance. I recently saw her piece with Fiona Templeton.
Schwartz: Kiki, can I read a short passage from the poem?
Schwartz: This is from Kiki Smith and Leslie Scalapino’s The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water.
[Reads from The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water.]
So, that was Leslie Scalapino from her collaboration with Kiki Smith, The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, published by Granary Books. That last line I stopped at, “hierarchy is incomprehensible,” also really speaks, to me, to the relationship between the two forms: your drawing of the female form and the animal form. Kiki, can I ask you, do you have other specifically poetry and art collaborations that you are working on currently?
Smith: Uh … I don’t know. I can’t remember! [Laughter.] I’m trying to make stained glass windows with songs, with words from songs. It’s something I’ve wanted to make for about ten years, so I finally decided to make it now. It’s with a song called “Tramp on the Street,” which was written in the late 1800s. I’m always, in my fantasy life, making chapels, which I make and don’t belong anywhere. No one seems to have the slightest interest in them, but I need to make them. I feel very passionate about making them, so I’m going off to Germany for the next month to paint some more. And besides that, I don’t know. The only thing I did want to say is that “the animal is in the world like water in water” is from George Bataille, and I think it’s from Theory of Religion. I’m trying to plod my way through reading that, which is not easy.
Schwartz: Thank you for mentioning that because I did note that “the animal is in the world like water in water” is a quote from Bataille. And I did think about the collaborations between George Bataille and Hans Bellmer, their edition of The Story of the Eye.
Smith: Yes, yes.
Schwartz: Do you know Bellmer’s poupées, those dolls, those infinitely flexible female forms with a certain kind of violence towards the form built into them? Do you have a view or interest in Bellmer?
Smith: When I was young I hated them. I thought that this was really terrible, and as I got older I loved them. I absolutely love them. I had a short show at the ICP, the International Center of Photography in New York, and one of the big hooks for me was that there was an extensive Bellmer show downstairs in the basement exhibition space, and I had the upstairs. It was just heaven for me to see it. Mine is like a super soft version. But mine is … it’s not transgressive, but a more open possibility of being in a body. Obviously both have their own weird sexual connotations. He was really deep in it. This transgressive aspect of being in a body, maybe there is some relationship to Catholicism in that because it’s caught in the body, the dilemmas of being in a body. I don’t know. But I’m crazy about his work. His etchings, his photographs, his coloring, hand-coloring the photographs, setting up props, making sculpture and then using it as an object for photography, or as an object to be acted on in a theatrical way or something. There are just a million interesting ways to think about it.
Schwartz: It’s really intriguing to hear you talk about Bellmer. It also makes me think of another artist of that period, André Masson, and of a particular story he tells of being left for dead on the battlefield in World War I with his chest blown open, and no longer being able to tell the difference between where his chest leaves off and the sky begins as he looks up. And then wanting to spend the rest of his life trying to paint that powerful color that he saw when he couldn’t tell the difference any longer between his body and the sky.
Smith: Well, I think that’s what George Bataille is talking about too: the pre-ego-conscious space of being not-separate in the world. But also, I studied to be an emergency medical technician, and we had to work in the emergency room and someone had a big knife wound, and I realized that I couldn’t have cared less that my purpose was to stitch him up. All I thought was, “Wow, isn’t that great, the outsides and the insides at the same time!” [Laughter.] So I thought I wasn’t suited for a medical career.
Schwartz: Right, right, you’re no longer in the field. No one can call in and try and sue you for enjoying it aesthetically.
Smith: I guess because it gave me something to think about. Yes, that space between here and there.
Schwartz: That’s really powerful, Kiki. How great to hear your thoughts on Bellmer and Bataille, as well as on Scalapino and the book you’ve just completed. Let me just mention that there are forty-five copies of The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water. One of those copies exists at the Evergreen State College’s rare books room. Please come by the college and the library to look at it on the premises. And Kiki Smith, thank you so much for coming to the phone and talking with me.
Smith: Thank you. Thank you. It’s my pleasure to talk to you. I also want to say that Leslie was an extraordinary person. For me, it was a great honor to work with her.
Schwartz: We all miss her terribly, and it’s great to have this work of hers available to us.
Smith: It is wonderful.
© Kiki Smith, courtesy the Pace Gallery.