An interview with Maxim Amelin
Note: “Poetry has enemies,” Maxim Amelin once told us, “both internal and external.” Among the latter he cited “philologists and historians of literature,” a deliberately provocative stance considering that Amelin, trained as a philologist, mines word roots and literary history for poems. (It is a stance he has since softened.) Among the former we would cite poetic indifference, or the tendency for poets to discount poetry hailing from movements or nations not their own. “Three percent,” we’ve all heard: that’s the share of the US book market devoted to translation. Toward that enemy, no softening is required.
Maxim Amelin suffers from that indifference — only a dozen or so of his poems have appeared in English — though his career in Russia draws both attention and praise. An influential poet, translator, and essayist, he received the Anti-Booker and the Novyi Mir Prize in 1998 for his first book of poems Cold Odes (Холодные оды, 1996) and the Anthologia Poetry Prize and the Moscow Reckoning Prize for his second book, Dubia (1999). More recently, he received the 2013 Solzhenitsyn Prize for his lasting contributions to Russian culture. In honoring Amelin, the prize committee noted both his “innovative experiments, which expand the limits and possibilities of lyric poetry,” and his “development of the various traditions of Russian poetry.”
This is an apt description. As a loving collector of eighteenth-century neologisms (coined by his models, the Russian classicists) and a devoted student of Revolutionary word-smithing (à la Mayakovsky), Amelin keeps his poetry in suspension through the tension of opposites. He is among the last generation of Russian poets to grow up in the Soviet Union and saw his culture and language change rapidly under the influx of Western words and ideas. The poet Alexei Tsvetkov, writing about Amelin’s generation, the so-called tridtsatiletnye (“The Thirty-Year-Olds”), called them “the children of perestroika — or one should say the orphans, since their alleged mother went missing long ago.”
Amelin was born in 1970, grew up in the provincial center of Kursk, then spent ten years in Saint Petersburg leading the publishing house Symposium. He is currently editor-in-chief at the prominent publisher OGI and lives in Moscow. His work has been translated into Hungarian, Vietnamese, Croatian, Chinese, and French (among other languages), and he reads at literary festivals and book fairs across Eurasia. He has also made two recent trips to the United States, joining a 2009 delegation of Russian writers at the University of Iowa International Writing Program and a “Read Russia” delegation at Book Expo America in New York last year. The most complete collection of his poetry and prose, Bent Speech (Гнутая речь), appeared in 2011.
We first met Amelin in the summer of 2009 and have been translating his poems — our project, tentatively titled The Joyous Science: The Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin, received a 2011 NEA grant in translation — ever since. This interview was conducted via email in the fall of 2013. Below it, you will find three poems by Maxim Amelin, with links to other lyrics appearing throughout.
Anne O. Fisher and Derek Mong: Talk to us about translation. You’ve translated from languages both living (Georgian and English) and dead (Greek and Latin). How does the process differ? How does it change when you’re working with the original poet, as you do with Georgian poetry? Is there one translation project that has had a more lasting effect on your own poetry?
Maxim Amelin: Two fundamentally different approaches are required for working with ancient poets versus contemporary ones. In the first case the translator sits one-on-one with the original and whatever’s been written about it. There’s no one to explain things, answer your questions. A text from two thousand years ago usually seems flat, devoid of stylistic features, because in the intervening time all the words and phrases have been worn down and smoothed over. In this situation, the translator must work like an art restorer, reconstructing the work’s original appearance based on his own understanding of it and on his knowledge of its general context. The poetry of ancient authors is marked by a higher semantic saturation than our contemporary poetry, but at the same time, it’s also more open-ended. Every line taken independently carries its own semantic load, but is also meant to be interpreted broadly once the line is removed from the context of the work. As it happens, seventeenth-century English poets and eighteenth-century Russian ones share this quality.
In the second case, when someone translates a contemporary, it’s always absolutely necessary to have direct contact with the author, since many things are hinted at or assumed in a poem, and the text itself is more of a closed, self-contained entity.
Translating the entire corpus of Gaius Valerius Catullus, as well as Pindar’s Victory Odes, has had a pretty strong influence on my own writing, primarily in terms of the composition, of how the poem’s mechanics are constructed, and in the way a line is endowed with meaning (as discussed above).
Fisher and Mong: In 2011, Read Russia and the Institute of Translation were founded. Both are government-sponsored initiatives intended to spread contemporary Russian literature abroad. In this they’ve succeeded, but if you scan the supported titles — we’re looking at the 2012 list from the Institute of Translation — the overwhelming majority is fiction. Are these initiatives doing enough to promote Russian poetry? Is there something about Russian poetry — too esoteric, too culturally specific, too “untranslatable” — that restricts it to Russians?
Amelin: It is true that the Russian government’s translation initiatives are generally concerned with prose. There’s nothing surprising about this, as a greater number of people understand prose, and it’s easier to translate. The government probably wants quick results. However, in my opinion, poetry in contemporary Russia is far more interesting, inventive, and expressive than prose. You can get a clear picture of this from, for example, The Best Poetry of 2010, a yearly anthology compiled from Russian publications in literary journals published in Russia, Israel, the US, and other countries. As the founder and publisher of this series of anthologies, I can vouch for it.
Of course, there’s also something specifically Russian, something untranslatable, just as in any poetry with deep national roots. But lately globalization has made itself felt in poetry too. “Festival vers-libre,” as I call it, has no individuality, no nationality, no notable formal inquiry of any kind, and, consequently, no formal innovation. This, the art of entropy triumphant, is proliferating far and wide, and it’s one of several trends that I personally oppose.
Fisher and Mong: In May you received the Solzhenitsyn Prize, becoming one of the youngest recipients, and one of only a few writers, to be honored for contributions to Russian culture. The prize committee singled out the way your work develops the “traditions of Russian poetry.” You’ve also been to the US twice in the last five years, giving readings and lectures.
Which of these “traditions of Russian poetry” do you see as most potentially relevant to contemporary American and/or international audiences? And given your own interest in periods of linguistic transition and cultural shifts, which American poets, poetic movements, or periods do you find most compelling?
Amelin: In a sense, Russian poetry is currently at a crossroads. On the one hand, world poetry didn’t sit idle during those eighty-odd years following the Stalinist destruction of Russian modernism, while the experiment of Soviet poetry, overly regulated in form and ideologized in content, is, with the rarest exceptions, rejected as untenable by virtually all serious poets. And yet, in the general public’s consciousness, it’s precisely this would-be “poetry about nice little birch trees” that continues to be considered the real thing, and it’s very hard to fight this, like fighting the aftereffects of a bout with cancer. On the other hand, right now there’s an ongoing process of trying to understand and reevaluate the multifaceted experience of Russian poetry, as it has developed from the beginning of the eighteenth century on up to the age of modernism. There is a return to a natural poetic development, an attempt to reconstruct continuity, and the quicker this happens, the better it will be for Russian poetry.
There are things happening in contemporary US poetry that interest me: for example, the syllabicists who’ve sprung up over the past ten years; as far as form goes, they’re looking for new structures in poetry, and as for content, they’re honing a flowering intricacy. My own current inquiries lie somewhere along the same coordinates, and so I feel very sympathetic toward these developments.
Fisher and Mong: That’s interesting. Which American poets do you have in mind? Since the “invention” of English syllabics by Robert Bridges — who misreads Milton’s prosody to create “Neo-Miltonic syllabics” — the meter has remained a very minor one in English.
Amelin: I saw a series of syllabic poems by various contemporary authors in some anthology or other, but I don’t remember which one. Derek himself has poems like that. It goes without saying that neosyllabics isn’t the underlying principle of how poems are put together. Still, it’s a significant limitation or constraint that poets can adhere to in their search for structure. And that’s important.
Fisher and Mong: You’re known for your neologisms, coinages based on Old Church Slavonic or common Slavic roots that are — we must admit — very difficult to translate. The art of minting native-based neologisms goes back to the eighteenth-century neo-Classicists like Trediakovsky, although Soviet Futurists like Mayakovsky also reveled in it. What is it about the twenty-first century that prompts you to return to the eighteenth?
For you, this seems to be more than just a reaction to the post-Soviet proliferation of foreign words (particularly English ones) in everyday Russian language. What’s the state of the native word in twenty-first century Russian poetry, and in your own work?
Amelin: Ideally, a poet has to work on all the levels of the poetic apparatus: on the word level, the phrase level, the sentence level (or colon, κῶλον), and on the level of the text as a whole. It’s like how an architect, developing the general look of a building, has to keep all the details in mind: how will the doorknobs look? The window latches? To me, nothing is less important than anything else. Neologisms created according to models already extant in the language give us the opportunity to express our understanding of a given object or event more precisely. More often than not, ordinary dictionaries don’t give shades of meaning, and if these are what are required, then that’s when the need to create new meanings arises. So it’s not a coincidence that poets tried to create new words and expressions at times when the language was going through periods of rapid development, like it was in the eighteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. Russia’s in a similar situation right now.
At any rate, I personally feel the need for new meanings. The Russian language is very adaptable as far as influences and borrowings go; its ability to accept and assimilate words from other languages is staggering. Many English words enter the language, get Russian endings tacked on to them, and quickly become Russified — although these are primarily technical or financial terms that don’t have any direct connection to poetic language. Poets work with a language that’s more common to humanity as a whole, and they don’t have the time to keep up with the fleeting. And they shouldn’t try to.
Fisher and Mong: What about syntax? “Temple with an Arcade” and “Every Day” are both single-sentence poems, while much of your poetry features the complex, coiled syntax more readily accessible in an inflected language. One thinks of Pindar, whom you’ve translated, and how you’ve both been called “academic” or a “difficult” poet. Are you?
Your poem “Long Now You’ve Lounged in Earth” admonishes poets for using tired old metaphors, such as “words flowing like water”; is there a tired old syntax your syntax rebels against?
Amelin: “Branching” syntax, as I call it, comes to me primarily from reading and translating the ancient poets Pindar, Catullus, and Horace, and also from the Russian poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Vasiliy Petrov, Gavriil Derzhavin, and Nikolay Yazykov. Derzhavin, for example, has one period that goes on for 180 lines. In the twentieth century, no one save Joseph Brodsky worked seriously with poetic syntax. Syntax in poetry is tied directly to stanza formation. Thus my experiments are, in a lot of ways, a kind of reaction to the stanzaic poverty of the poetry of the middle and second half of the twentieth century, when the four-line stanza with alternating rhyme became canonical for Russian verse, and where every line or pair of lines ends in a colon or semi-colon. It’s just this kind of vacuity — and Soviet ideology specifically cultivated naiveté and simplicity in art, including poetry — that I wanted to stand against, by countering simplicity with complexity.
Fisher and Mong: Your poems “Fire-Breathing Beast, Your Heavy Mane” and “Worse Than Bad, Better Than Good” paint harsh pictures of an (unidentified) tyrannical State. Historically, political conditions and censorship in Russia meant that literature and the other arts, not the press, had to serve as the venue for political and social discussion — hence the Russian tradition of exiled and suppressed writers and artists, one that is virtually unknown in America. Given the Pussy Riot trial and its aftermath, one could argue that this tradition seems to be continuing up to the present day. Do you feel pressure to comment on the current political climate in Russia?
Amelin: There are a few poems of mine, such as “Fire-Breathing Beast,” that would’ve seen me shot or sent to the Gulag if they’d been written in Stalinist times, although I don’t write political poems as such. There is political poetry today, and it’s fairly radical, but the government doesn’t even notice it. The current powers don’t read poetry and don’t give a damn what’s in it, and so you can talk about whatever you want in a poetic text. It just so happens that a lot depends on the context of the time. An act of protest that is widely publicized in the mass media is a different thing entirely. On the whole, artists in Russia have always had it pretty hard. In the last twenty years an economic pressure has replaced the ideological one, but the actual level of pressure hasn’t declined in the least.
Fisher and Mong: We noticed that your third book — The Horse of the Gorgon (Конь горгоны), published to wide acclaim in 2003, when you were thirty-three — often makes reference to your thirtieth birthday: “In August the Stars Shoot Through the Night Air,” “I’m Thirty But Feel Three Hundred,” and “Rising At Morning from My Graveside.” The self in these poems is often divided, and it seems you entered your fourth decade on an ambivalent note. In 2000, the world too entered a new and uncertain age, for Russia perhaps more so than other nations. So: what was going on at the turn of the century that had you so ambivalent? What has changed?
Amelin: There’s a kind of number magic at work in the human consciousness that makes us operate in categories of time ending in zero. In actuality, these aren’t that important, of course. The preceding century began not in year one of the century, but around year fourteen or fifteen, when the people of the last century pass on to the next world, taking with them the cultural landscape of the forgone age. In other words, we ourselves are only just now beginning the new century.
Here in Russia, our best philological minds have gone to the great beyond. These are people who determined Russia’s current state, but who did not, alas, leave behind any schools of learning, much less a few scattered pupils. These were first and foremost our titans, our encyclopedic minds who worked in several branches of the humanities at once: the classicist and philologist, also translator and poetry scholar, Mikhail Gasparov; the scholar of Sanskrit language and literature, and of Russian culture, Vladimir Toporov; the medievalist historian and cultural scholar Aron Gurevich; the Byzantine scholar, cultural historian, and philosopher Sergey Averintsev; the linguist, and translator of the Rigveda and Atharvaveda, Tatyana Yelizarenkova; the philosopher, philologist, and translator Vladimir Bibikhin; the philologist, folklorist, and mythopoetic theorist Yeleazar Meletinskiy; and other great scholars known worldwide whose lectures I’ve had the good fortune to hear and whose books I’ve been able to read.
Russia is a land of single, isolated geniuses on whom everyone else always relies, rather than a land of conscientious workers scattered evenly across the university system. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the way it is, and it’s why the sense of the past few years’ irreplaceable losses has been especially sharp. Even as it comes into its own, the new age has shed its old skin for a thinner one. This happens with every new age of humanity, when the acquisitions fail to replace the losses.
Fisher and Mong: You’re originally from Kursk — a provincial capital and former WWII battlefield — but now live in Moscow. How does the relationship between the provinces and the center, between outsider and literati, inform your work? In America, among a certain segment of the population, there’s a line drawn between the “Real America” and the coasts, the cities. Is there a “Real Russia”? How does your work speak to it?
Amelin: There are two kinds of countries in the world: centrifugal, with a highly developed local government, where culture and civilization are more or less evenly distributed throughout the territory, and centripetal, in which all life and any activity are concentrated in and around the main city. Ancient Greece, Germany, Italy, and the United States can all be assigned to the first group. In the second go Ancient Rome, France, China, and Russia. Here, the capital extracts all the most gifted, active, and ambitious people from other cities, and it’s been going on that way for several centuries now. There was an attempt to decentralize in the nineteenth century, resulting in rapid development of provincial cities with their unique culture, but all that ended after the 1917 Revolution, and everything went back to its usual state.
And that’s the way it’s been going ever since. For example, there are practically no serious publishers outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there’s no normal cultural life, and — again, with a few rare exceptions — there’s not even an elementary level of intellectual discourse. The Russian saying “The town of your birth is where you’ll best serve” hasn’t worked for a long time. This is what the real Russia is like.
The city where I was born, Kursk, is a city with a thousand-year history, but in the past twenty years it’s been so disfigured by the destruction of the old city’s remains and the barbaric construction of monstrous shopping centers on the sites of historical buildings that I can’t even look at it without pain — and so I don’t go there very often. My Kursk is in me, and I may be the last witness to her former beauty, the one who must tell the world about it. A city that isn’t described in literature doesn’t exist, so to speak, in people’s consciousness.
Fisher and Mong: We’d like to ask you about your relation to the Classics. You’ve already mentioned your work on Catullus and Pindar, but you’ve translated Horace and the Priapus poems too; imitated Ausonius’s centos; and written many odes on classical and mythological themes, complete with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes. This influence comes early in your career, so we’re curious: how did the Classics prepare you for what followed? And how do you square your interest in ancient languages with your commitment to Russian roots?
Amelin: I wanted to return to the source, to the beginning of poetry, because I was unsatisfied both with the poetry that was allowed in Soviet times, and the poetry never subjected to the censor’s pen. Whether I went there consciously or not isn’t really important anymore. And where could I find these beginnings? In our shared European storeroom of Greek and Roman antiquity, on the one hand, and in Russian folklore, Russian poetry of the eighteenth century, on the other. Later, these two components evidently merged into one, in some fantastic way. Then what became for me the third element of this mix was ancient Indian poetics, its teachings about ornament (alankar), bent speech (vakrotki), and hidden meaning (dhvani). And what came out of this as a result was, well, what came out.
Fisher and Mong: That’s great, particularly considering you titled your new collection Bent Speech. We’re curious, though, about dhvani. In our reading we found the term more commonly used to mean “sound” or “resonance.” Could you clarify your use of dhvani?
Amelin: Dhvani is otzvuk (отзвук, echo, repercussion, reverberation) — that’s the direct and immediate meaning of the word. But in poetics it has precisely the sense of “hidden meaning.” It’s the meaning that remains after the work is read — hence otzvuk. And usually it’s not evident in the words, sometimes even going against the meaning of the poem’s sum total of words. This is exactly where “bent speech” comes from, which I understand in a broad way as all poetry and everything that is related to poetry.
Fisher and Mong: There’s a sense of play in many of your poems, built on an appreciation of juxtapositions. I’m thinking of your evocation of the imposing Mayakovsky statue in downtown Moscow amid the drunks and prostitutes who gathered around it (“Classical Ode to V. V. Mayakovsky”). You move quickly from the sublime to the absurd! But no one ever mentions play, the unexpected juxtaposition, when discussing your poems. What are your own feelings on play?
Amelin: The principle of play is, to my mind, essential for poetry. Play has a refreshing effect, which can sometimes emphasize the seriousness of the conversation. That’s what it does in that ode, for example. Mayakovsky (as monument) enters into the context of his own poems, which are themselves realized once more, not as metaphor but in real life. For example, he has the following lines: “Me alone, through a burning building / the prostitutes will carry in their arms, like a sacred idol, / and display to God, to exonerate themselves.” Or he talks to the Pushkin statue that’s come alive: “We’ll stand almost next to each other after life’s end: / You on ‘P,’ and me on ‘M.’” He also has this couplet: “Eat your pineapples, gobble your grouse, / your last day’s coming, you bourgeois louse.” In addition to this, Mayakovsky was one of the founders of the Soviet advertisement-in-verse.
All this context suddenly rose to the surface in the mid-1990s in Russia. And the return of such a long-vanished context seemed to me to be pure farce, buffoonery. But the poetry of Mayakovsky is essentially odic and was written with regard for the eighteenth century ode. So I tried putting him back into this same ode, and I wrote the poem in a ten-line stanza, in the classical stanza of Lomonosov. Here the play is on the level of form, first of all, and on the level of quotation. Incidentally, the Israeli philologist Mikhail Vayskopf wrote a monograph, At the Top of his Logos: The Religion of Mayakovsky (Во весь Логос: Религия Маяковского), which examines his ties to the odic tradition of the eighteenth century and came out the same year. So evidently my feeling about this wasn’t wrong.
Fisher and Mong: Your apartment in Moscow just might have more books per square inch than any bookstore — let alone residential dwelling — we’ve ever seen. In both your publishing and your poetry, you’re a collector of unusual writers, like the Pushkin-era figure Count Khvostov. Do you think of Bent Speech as a linguistic Kunstkamera, Peter the Great’s trove of curios? What links antiquarian books, collecting, bibliomania and your writing? We’re thinking of your poem “On the Acquisition of a Volume of V.I. Maikov’s Works and Translations,” but also how some critics read Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” — as a masterful (if limited) poem, because it relies on books (and not life) for its art. We imagine you’d disagree?
Amelin: I definitely don’t agree. Because a real story, something that actually happened to me, stands behind every poem. You could say that all my poems, even the ones that at first seem to be the most abstract, are grounded in the most absolutely real facts from my biography. Sometimes this connection is found right on the surface, sometimes it’s buried deep. And anyway, a biography can be internal, too, not just external. And while the external one is pretty much self-explanatory, the internal one should include, for example, old books, which are breakthroughs (or hiatuses) — from the everyday and the contemporary — into another reality. They make up that essential background, and they are that palimpsest everyone living today writes on, whether consciously or not. One of the fundamental components of poetry is genuine feeling, and it’s not really that important which exact person, object, or event was the source of that feeling. The main thing is how it’s expressed in the text.
Fisher and Mong: You are fascinated with the Russian religious philosopher Nikolay Fedorov’s “Philosophy of the Common Task,” which states that the saved will be resurrected back into their actual, physical bodies. Talk to us about this philosophy, and relate it — if you will — to poems where we see it appearing: “Where Burdock and Nettles,” “There’s No Peace on Earth or in Heaven,” and “Rising at Morning from my Graveside.” Why has this idea so captured your imagination?
Amelin: Nikolay Fedorov’s “Philosophy of the Common Task” is probably the only unified philosophical system to have developed on Russian soil. There are philosophical ideas diffused throughout Russian poetry and prose, but apart from Fedorov’s we have no stand-alone philosophy as such. A rough approximation of its essence would go like this: all of contemporary humanity has to stop its wars and factions, and focus instead on a single (and attainable, sooner or later) goal — the resurrection of the fathers, the ancestors. But what’s more interesting are what Fedorov describes as the means of achieving this goal: universal disarmament, influencing the forces of nature, claiming the cosmos, preserving the memory of individuals by creating museums, transmitting information from generation to generation, and so forth. Notwithstanding what we initially see as the utopian nature of Fedorov’s ideas, these ideas ended up being extremely productive, influencing not only writers from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Platonov and Solzhenitsyn, not only the artists of the Russian avant-garde, not only composers — first and foremost Shostakovich — but also scientists such as Tsiolkovsky, Chizhevsky, and Korolev, who developed spacecraft.
In other words, the best of everything that Russia gave the world over the past 150 years traces back somehow or other to these ideas. At the same time, Fedorov’s works were banned during the Soviet period and were first published in 1982, and in a heavily censored version to boot. Still, what was printed made a huge impression on me personally. I wanted to apply his ideas to poetry, about which Fedorov himself had written next to nothing, and this application came out not only in a whole series of poems — “Katabasis for Saint Thomas Week,” “To Count Khvostov,” “Temple with an Arcade,” “Every Day,” and others, including the ones you’ve named — but also in the very idea of returning undeservedly forgotten and misaligned poets back to readers. For historical reasons there have been quite a lot of these poets in Russia.
Fisher and Mong: “Satiety, Not Flavor” and “Just Like a Chance Rhyme in Prose” comment ambivalently (if not sardonically) on Russia and the Russian character. And yet you’re fiercely proud of the Russian language and all its potential. Is there a Platonic divide between the Russian language as it could or should exist, and the language as it’s used daily by Russian-speakers? Is it possible to reconcile the two?
Amelin: An interesting quality of the Russian character is its capacity for humor, irony, and self-irony, despite the very harshest conditions of everyday life, despite an existential (or real) horror at what’s going on all around. The ability to laugh at yourself and at your bungling leaders may just be what helped Russians survive all the horrors that were their lot in the twentieth century. Otherwise there’s no way to explain, for example, the surge of satire and humor in the 1920s and 1930s (Ilf and Petrov, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov), or the fact that Tvardovsky’s ironic, comical poem “Vasiliy Terkin” became the primary text about WWII in Russia, or that [the country’s] utter stagnation was reflected in Prigov’s poetry about the “Policeman,” and in Irtenev’s and Kibirov’s ironic works. These days, actually, that quality has vanished: young people have stopped understanding humor, they don’t joke. For me, this is a bad sign of the times. But it probably won’t last much longer. You can’t live for long in Russia if you’re totally serious — you’ll either go crazy or lay hands on yourself. Only laughter can save you. Incidentally, Russian secular poetry got its beginning with Kantemir’s truly hilarious satires.
Once a Polish intellectual tried to catch me out by asking, “How is it that Russian is so well developed? A lot of great poets worked on Polish for a long time, starting back in the fifteenth century.” I deflected it with a joke — though one that reflects what really happened — by replying, “In Russia it was the people who worked on the language, so it was already done when the great poets arrived.”
Poems by Maxim Amelin (Russian, b. 1970)
Translated by Derek Mong & Anne O. Fisher / Portland, OR
At the Genoese Fortress in Sudak, if you enter
the Main Gate, at the left, and approach the wall’s elbow,
then head up from a post — it doesn’t strike
the random rubbernecker as much — protruding
like a codger’s last tooth, there is a cupola
plopped on a stub-necked octahedron
that glows, a hemisphere’s bowl;
this is the Lord’s house, where a sequence
of people, lips parted in peaceful prayer,
washes like waves through the door:
see the law-abiding Mahommedans,
flooding in from the wild steppe
to sing “La ilaha illa Allah” in a slow monotone;
see the foreigners hauling their alien art
along the rippled path from the Ligurian Gulf —
they chant their gruff
“Pater Noster” in a language now dead;
or see a distant land’s exiles
with their “Sh’ma Israel,” who learn
by heart the scroll’s trusted marks;
see the conquerors of panoramas
and oceans, who proclaim “Otche Nash” all around,
vesting all hope in hammer and banner;
see the direct heirs of dire Martin
spreading his simple writ, “Vater Unser”;
see the fertile vale’s natives embracing
Noah’s ancient haven, Monophysites
honoring the Most High, each one
ardently affirming “Hayr Mer,” each cherishing
a grief sadder than low intellect can know …
all of them once traveled here, but now —
a free museum that’s open eight to eight,
where polyglot inscriptions intermix
with frescoes and the mihrab, where God
hears, with equal heed, entreaties
from all the fractured hosts of Man.
Vindictive Goddess, Statue Now Woken
The son of Providence, trusting his budget,
said unto us: I prophesy the hour of comets.
— Count Khvostov
Vindictive Goddess, statue now woken,
you’re evil’s bright herald!
What more do you foretell, tailed one?
What else has that tail carried?
What is — of famine, misfortune, sorrow —
your most irresistible menace?
Ice floe, frigid in Heraclitan flames:
his irreconcilable struggle!
Go out doubt-free, and feel no shame —
sow coffins into the hibernal
earth, while a weedy sward grows
shoots for mole-crickets and den mice.
Sow what’s useless, maddening, absurdist,
between cornflowers and lily,
upon that clockface, ticking pendulous
over the world. It’s time to mark our jubilee.
And please comb your hair for this event.
You’re obliged to be transformed.
It’s time to put sin aside, for though it
sextuples our vigor,
it should now be cut off — we’ve profit
enough to satisfy creditors.
Recompense gluts the pockets
of the prosperous; war is our gain.
The sun’s sightless, the moon’s couponed;
starlight’s tight lips have crusted shut.
And like an uninvited guest — worse than
a Tatar — you suddenly turn up
at this belly-laughing, black-tie banquet
to unloose a new turn.
How, without breaking into Pindaric odes,
can I stand by on the sidelines?
I’d blow my poetry’s fiery load
on the few years I’m resigned
to. Having removed this pearl — iridescent,
smooth — God gathers it in.
Earthbound from God’s elderhand
and barefooting straight from bed —
with no shawl to veil such lucid
skin — a red-head sails, her girlish braid
trailing from her head —
she’ll answer for everything.
Why Repeat Ourselves?
Why repeat ourselves? More than was called
for has been said, done, or rescued
from breakdown and downfall —
the ripe seed sleeps beneath the earth.
Shoots peep from soil into sunbeams;
neither heat nor hoarfrost crack
them. God guards each one from
the brigands — insect throngs, the wild flock.
Let foe follow foe, for all are earthly
vanity. The foliage that’s fallen
down won’t wither, it will redouble.
The sad vigil ends with morning’s adulation!
A flame forced the water to run,
and moisture fanned the fire’s spark,
but for the grand constellation now spun
there’s no harrier or stumbling block.
On the penny-wise all pound words
are wasted. The buried cities they insist
will be reborn simply confirm
what we already know: Pompeii existed.
«Храм с аркадой»
В Судакской крепости, если от Главных
ворот — налево — до локтя стены —
и вверх, особым на первый праздному
зеваке с виду ничем не приметный,
с торчащего зубом во рту столпа
единственным и с полушарием купола
по-над осьмигранником кратковыйным,
сей дом Господень, куда чередой
в устах отверстых с молитвами мирными
одни за другими, что на берег волны:
из диких нахлынувшие степей
петь “Ля илляха илля-Лла” протяжно;
по зыбкому от Лигурийских пучин
пути пришельцы искусствоносные
свой строгий отчётливо “Патэр ностэр”
на мёртвом наречии повторять;
со “Шма Исраэль” далёкой изгнанники
земли, во всём полагаясь на свиток,
чьи буквы ведомы наперечёт;
пространств на суше завоеватели
и на море, “Отче наш” возглашая,
крюкам доверяться и знаменам;
простых прямые Мартина грозного
писаний наследники с “Фатэр унзэр”;
единоприродным Вышнего чтя,
из злачных вкруг древней Ноевой пристани
юдолищ выходцы, дабы страстно
“Хайр мэр” твердить и лелеять грусть,
рассудку низкому неподвластную, —
все были некогда здесь, а ныне —
в открытый с восьми до восьми музей,
где фрески, михраб и разноязычные
по стенам надписи, вход свободный,
и внемлет мольбам одинаково Бог
всего разобщённого человечества.
Гневной богини ожившая статуя
Сын промысла, поверя сметы,
Речет: пророчу час кометы.
Гневной богини ожившая статуя,
светлая вестница зла!
Что ты еще предвещаешь, хвостатая?
что на хвосте принесла?
Чем ты — невзгодами, скорбями, голодом —
Хладная льдина в огне Гераклитовой
Не сомневайся, стыда не испытывай –
в стылую землю гробы
сей, и дождутся на поле неполотом
всходов медведка да мышь.
Сей бесполезное, бренное, дикое,
меж васильков и лилей
по циферблату надмирному тикая, —
время справлять юбилей:
ты расчесаться по этому случаю,
Время с грехами, какими бы ни были,
разом расстаться, — достаточно прибыли,
чтобы расходы покрыть;
будет возмездие, благополучию
только на пользу война.
Солнце ослепло, луна отоварена,
звездам залеплены рты, —
гостем непрошеным — хуже татарина —
вдруг заявляешься ты
непринужденному званому ужину
новый придать оборот.
Не разражаясь торжественной одою,
как устоять в стороне? —
Весь поэтический жар израсходую,
на год отмеренный мне:
вынув, Господь уберет.
Послана миру десницею Божьего,
прямо с постели, босой,
без покрывала, с прозрачною кожею,
с длинной-предлинной косой,
большеголовая рыжая девочка,
чтобы ответить за все.
Что повторяться? — Больше, чем надо,
сказано — сделано — спасено
от сокрушения и распада, —
спелое в землю легло зерно.
Всходы проклюнулись из-под спуда, —
их не сломили ни жар, ни хлад,
Бог сохранил от лихого люда,
толп насекомых и диких стад.
Враг за врагом — суета пустая,
ибо, со древа упав, листва
не истощается, нарастая, —
нет нощеденства без ликовства!
Пламя заставило литься воду,
влага сподвигнула жечь огонь,
а величавых созвездий ходу —
ни преткновения, ни погонь.
Мудрому сумерки по колено, —
им утверждаются без труда,
вновь из-под пепла восстав и брена,
все погребенные города.
An interview with angela rawlings and Joshua Liebowitz
Note: My inspiration for this interview emerged from a sense that something is missing from conversations about sound and poetry. Sound is not necessarily music. Joshua Liebowitz and angela rawlings (a.rawlings) are two artists I see as deeply engaged with the materiality of sound, and yet their work is extremely different. Joshua’s work uses technology to build and alter sound-structures, while, in angela’s performance-based work, I hear voice and breath sounding the limits of the body. In bringing angela and Josh together, my hope is that the conversation surrounding sound and poetry will continue its development beyond the scope of music. It’s also my hope that by engaging questions of collaboration, polyvocality, language/meaning, and space through an interdisciplinary lens of sound, poetry, and performance, new possibilities will emerge. In the spirit of our subject, the following interview was conducted over the phone and later transcribed. — Afton Wilky
Afton Wilky: Thank you both for your time and willingness to talk about your work. At first your projects seem quite different, but aspects of them are very much in conversation with one another. I hope that in coming together in this way that we can discuss sound and some of the ways that, as a medium, sound plays a role in your work and practices.
a.rawlings: First of all, I just wanted to thank you, Afton, for suggesting we do this in a spoken format rather than a written one. I will say, I am from Canada, and while I don’t have to speak the way I usually do, I have been living in Iceland for a couple of years and I have a tendency to lose words a bit. I’ll be thinking in another language — but mostly you’ll notice that I will say yes as já and I won’t even think about it (já is Icelandic for yes) or I will say it on an inhale, which is an Icelandic affectation that can be unsettling to a foreign ear since it sounds a bit like an asthma attack — já on the in-breath. So if you hear me say já or já [inhaling] then you know I’m in agreement with something. I’m not just having an anxiety attack.
Joshua Liebowitz: Absolutely, we just got started didn’t we? We’re right there [laughing].
Wilky: My idiosyncrasy would be that I say um way too often. I’m self-conscious about it and try not to … that was where I would have said um. Did you hear it [laughing]?
rawlings: You both might enjoy knowing — maybe, Afton, you can pick up this habit — in Icelandic, there are two interjections that people use in lieu of um. The first one is bara, which means just — like, I just went to the store. You would say: I bara went to the store/I um went to the store. And the other one is hérna, hér, which means here, and then na is related to núna, which means now. So it’s like you’re saying all the time, I am here now going to the here now store. It’s like you’re always situating yourself with total mindfulness practice with this Icelandic um.
Wilky: That makes me think of how I’ve been working very hard to learn Farsi (it’s my husband’s first language). In order to speak it, you have to use different muscles — ones that are far back, like your soft palate, and others that are right at the top of your throat. The way that speaking a different language makes you reconsider your relation to things — like you were saying, angela, about the positioning yourself with here now — but then also the way it can shape your body by making use of sounds which occupy different spaces in your mouth …
rawlings: I love that this is a way of traveling. It’s like you’re traveling by just placing a language within your body and getting used to the pronunciation differences. You get to know your body in a different way.
Wilky: This seems like a good moment to segue into some of the questions I was hoping we could address: angela, I’m thinking of your performance of a book project called Eh film nors tu vwy (a title comprised of the letters which spell the pronouns in English) with vocal and performance artist Maja Jantar, at the Kelly Writers House for North of Invention (available on PennSound). And I just have to say how beautiful it was in the video when you listed the letters of the title — you said them so fast, it was clear that you know by heart all the letters in the English pronouns. The experience of trying to catch them all and realizing that, while I speak English every day and while pronouns are some of the most complex and fascinating spaces in language, I couldn’t actually list them myself … it was eye-opening. Introducing the project, you describe the book as a closed linguistic ecosystem, and in the performance repetition seems to be one of the many means by which transformation occurs. In particular, I’m thinking of the “I will not ruin the environment” thread. When it is first performed, repetition allows tonal and harmonic variation to be heard. When it returns, later on in the performance, there are more intense moments of dissonance which resolve momentarily in unison before they creep again towards a new dissonance, occupying an interval between a seventh and tonic not really accounted for by the music theory I was taught growing up (though I’m sure that there must be places where this is addressed).
The experience of hearing this is amazing. But what also begins to happen is that the words themselves start to become similar sounding words. For example, “ruin” becomes “run” and the phrase is then “I will not run the environment.” For me, one of the really compelling transformations is when the “ment” in “environment” be comes “me.” The way that the “environment” in the book is a linguistic one, the way that the author may both “ruin” and “run” that environment, and the way that running and ruin in the performance happen through a sort of slippage and echo is really exciting. By the end of the piece, saying the word “I” becomes impossible — both you and Maja begin to choke on the word. That pronouns themselves are both environments and make up environments becomes evident.
So this is a long preface to my question about how you would describe the roles of meaning, language, and sound in your work.
rawlings: It’s really nice to receive your experience of Eh film nors tu vwy, Afton. You have such a keen ear and way of existing with the performance recording at Kelly Writers House. I think it’s just such a gift to hear your experience of it and feedback in the way that you do … I’m just so thrilled with that. The answer to your question [laughing] is, yes.
I know it’s a really jerky thing to answer a how question with a yes or no. There’s something in the way that you, with such detail and eloquence, capture what’s going on with what you saw in the performance and within the work. In some ways you’ve already demonstrated my relationship to sense-making and to sound within text. But to come back to your question, I’d say … interdependence. … They’re all kind of existing within the same imaginative ecosystem. Eco isn’t exactly right, but it’s definitely a system. They all kind of hang out in the same space and they’re all dependent upon each other, but I think that there’s some way to see their independence at times as well. Or to pull the focus onto one with the other still orbiting around or in support in some way.
At times, with the work that I produce, I will be more focused on one area than another. Like, I may be very focused on something that’s pre-semantic and very sonically driven. At other times, I may be focused on the language or linguistic aspect of the work that may be, in a way, drawing a focus to the materiality of what language is, but which may not be sonically driven or semantically driven. And then at other times I’ll be quite focused on the meaning itself. This “I will not ruin the environment” and the kind of deconstruction/transformation of that line — the kind of transformations that it goes through where there’s a sort of re-jigging of the syntax and an exposing of the alternative semantics that exist, lurking within the depths of this line. But then also the sonic play that comes up and how that can trigger a different … emotional connection. All of this I find quite compelling and, again, to be interrelated spheres, though sometimes I only want my focus to hang out with where the emotion is somehow, or the meaning-making process somehow.
Wilky: I love the way you distinguish between the material qualities of language and meaning, especially the way focus on one over another is temporary rather than permanent. When there’s so much at work, it would be next to impossible to pay attention to all aspects at once. In fact, it seems like any use of language must choose a focus in order to manage all its possibilities. The difference would be in whether or not someone allows that focus to become fixed or ingrained — assumed. And particularly, in your work, where language, as both meaning-making and sound-making, is so shaped by the body …
One of my intentions in this interview is to be able to position your work, angela and Josh, side by side. I see both driven by attention to materiality and sound. I hope that your responses will start to sketch out a space.
My next question is for you, Josh. In your essay “Musical Drift: Toward a Method of Sonopoetics,” published recently in Evening Will Come, you draw a distinction between sound and music. In it, musical traditions have their own sort of “grammar” which excludes some of the sonic material you’re interested in working on:
There is no shortage of chatter on how much Music and Poetry have in common. We hear there is as much a syntax to music as there is to poetry; that poetry and music share rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tempo — timbre, even. What we don’t hear enough about though are the physical properties that give form to both in the first place. This is because the classical characteristics by which we understand poetics and so categorize Music and Poetry just don’t work when we start talking about durations, positions, and tensions of speech units and space, which are the elements of poetics itself.
I’m hoping you could describe the roles of melody, harmony, and sound in your work.
Liebowitz: First of all, thank you Afton for putting this together and angela for being a part of this. Responding to your answer from before, I love this idea of areas hanging out with one another. I think we work similarly in that regard.
I try my best to stay away from melody and harmony. In my mind, that’s the realm of music. To me, music wants metaphor and representation and it produces them through melodic lines and chords, with harmony becoming a sort of sense-pleaser in the end. Whereas I’m interested in how and what we sense and in sound as a material for investigating this question. Essentially what I’m after are sonic structures that offer more than just “hashtag emotion” and allow instead for a direct physiological experience with sound as a phenomenon, so that you become aware of your listening, while you’re listening. This is why I use spectral software: it can split a sound into its most basic components. When the sonic data is broken down there’s less timbral weight and signage to hold on to, but you realize that these quantum bits of loudness and duration, space and time, really, can be bundled together and shaped, bent, curved, or smoothed out … they’re pliable. And so they’re organized differently from a musical composition. I’m layering basic phenomena, rather than notes and instruments. This is also why I’m shamelessly happy to be unfettered by real-time instrument performance, and tied instead to a performance of listening and concentration.
Wilky: Framing seems particularly relevant to the way we distinguish between sounds in the environment and sounds that are “music.” I realize I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but to point out sound’s role in orienting the body, I’ll share this experience. The other day, I was listening to a 3D audio track I had recorded at a coffee shop the year before. On the recording was the sound of a fountain, traffic, and two guys talking about football at a table behind me. While I was listening to this recording, I suddenly heard my husband’s voice. He had been with me when I’d recorded the track, but I couldn’t remember him speaking to me. I was trying desperately to remember when I realized my husband was standing right next to me, trying to get my attention. It was a moment of total fall-out. Having been so absorbed by the place I was hearing, I instinctively positioned the sound of his voice in that place.
It seems to me that an important distinction between sound and music is that sound is a primary means of orienting the body. … Three-dimensional sound is captured by positioning one microphone near each ear and allowing your head to deflect sound waves. This ties back to what you’ve said, Josh, about wanting to produce a physiological experience of sound. Considering what you say, Josh, about bending space and time through sound and, angela, the way that you work so often in collaboration, I was hoping we could talk about the multiple voices and audible threads in your work.
angela, you have an ongoing and extensive collaboration history which has resulted in numerous performances and audio pieces. In your text-based work Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, I also find a number of “voices,” namely a speaker, an italicized voice which responds to the speaker in the poems and perhaps articulates some of what the speaker would not say, and threads of sound caused by movement. I’m hoping you can talk a bit about the role of multiple voices and levels of sound in your work.
rawlings: Seguing from your conversation with Josh, and space, and sound — maybe I’ll just rearrange the letters in space as scape. … I’ve been super fascinated by acoustic ecology and soundscape studies and, in particular, a devotée to a Canadian composer named R. Murray Schafer who did this kind of revolutionary work both by helping to found acoustic ecology as a realm of study but also in his sound education and music education exercises — one of which is, and the one I probably care about the most, called “Ear Cleaning.” It sounds maybe a little bit like the experience you were having the other day, Afton, when you were listening to your omnidirectional audio recorder. So with “Ear Cleaning,” the idea is that you’re listening with attention and awareness to the space around you. For example, listening to sounds which may be perceived as coming from inside your body or from around your body, but then also extending your hearing out as far as you can in every direction — around, above, and below — just to see how far you can hear in all directions and what it is you’re hearing. This isn’t necessarily done to produce a catalog of sounds — like car, child, mouse, pencil — but just to have an awareness that there are things to hear and maybe to start to see how we respond to these sounds (do we label them, how do we label them and relate to them). This “Ear Cleaning” exercise is something that has been close with me for many, many years now and usually done in a stationary way, but then this has been extended into doing sound walks. I, with some frequency, lead sound walks when I get the opportunity to — like whenever I lead sound poetry workshops, or creative writing workshops — if it seems right I will incorporate in an ear-cleaning exercise.
This is a lateral way of moving into your question. I’m in, as much as I can be, a practice of listening, or especially a poetics of listening. To me that means being within a tension and an awareness of the many possibilities that start to come up. Like when I’m starting to script work or if I am sounding/producing sound-oriented work. For example, if you want to talk semantics, what are the different ways in which we can interpret this … but then we could also talk about non-semantic interpretation if we want to, finding out where does this and how does this work carry us. We could consider those kinds of different interpretations to be different kinds of voices in some ways.
But now, to move and step again laterally from that, any time we are writing a text that has any kind of narration to it, like an I as an example, the I is always multiple. There is the I who is writing down the work, but then there’s also the I that is the character of being the I. There are at least two Is present, even in that single I as a pronoun. Then the question becomes, so what if we’re using a we. As an example, in Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, that book was written entirely using we as the pronoun. We descend on a field by a lake. It’s always a multiple and a collective, but it’s never enumerated how many. The we also implicates the reader as being culpable or part of it. And I think I and you do as well. Maybe he, she, and they are the only places where we start to get off the hook a little bit with how we’re being manipulated as readers. Or even how we’re being implicated or coopted into the linguistic experience.
I’ll just step once more, laterally … I’ve been really fascinated by penning multivoiced works. I think this started when I ran a reading series with an awesome, awesome human named Bill Kennedy in Toronto for about five years. The reading series was called the Lexiconjury Reading Series. It was monthly and we had the real benefit of having people come from across Canada and a little bit from the United States to perform for us. I got a chance to see a lot of different poetry performance styles and through this I got particularly enthusiastic about scripting work for multiple voices. The first text that I picked up to do this with was “Identity a Poem” by Gertrude Stein. I wrote the piece for two female voices and my friend Katherine Parrish, and I would perform this poem — it’s about a four-page poem. This poem is arranged like a play and it talks about itself being a play at times. … There was a kind of exercise for me to explore when I was writing what are the ways we can do things simultaneously, or one person speaking and the other person speaking, we can do something in a round or repeat each other, we can play Beastie Boys with it, like I say a line and then she’ll jump in with the last word, we can start to play with gesture, or speaking and pointing to different parts of our bodies …
After I worked with this text, Katherine recommended Juliana Spahr’s poem “Switching,” and I turned it into a multivocal work. I’ve done this with a couple of other pieces by poets whose works I admire. This gave me a bit of an exercise in exploring the different ways to work collaboratively. With Wide Slumber I didn’t consider performance until after I had finished that book. I’d spent about five years writing it and then once it was published, I realized that I wasn’t done existing within the world of the work; anytime I would sit down to write, it would come out sounding like Wide Slumber. But I knew that I wanted to continue to be in it, so performance was the way. I had the chance to work with two theater/dance/music performers and we did vocal work for three bodies. Since then Wide Slumber has gone through many, many voices — just two people working together, or I do it by myself … and then of course that has extended into working with people who might be identified with other disciplines more often in order to work cross-disciplinarily or interdisciplinarily, working either with many bodies or voices or instruments or different ways of approaching the body and the voice and language.
The last thing I’ll say is that I’ve been very interested in the spectrum that exists with rehearsed work and improvised work, and in how structure plays a role in the rehearsed and in the improvised. I’ve been very much with a practice of working with structured improvisation — both vocal and contact for many, many years now — as a way to supplement the more obviously scripted work that comes out of the page-based stuff I’ve produced.
Wilky: I love what you say about improvisation and structuring performance and also that the I is multiple. The idea that “collaboration” might happen both inside and outside the work, as in the way your experience running Lexiconjury developed into collaborative performances and became a way of coming back to page-based work and revisioning it after that space had closed, is really exciting. Reiterations and reworking of the text through performance seems like another means by which the I multiplies.
In your work, Josh, I find sound creating an extraordinary space out of the layering and recurrence of sonic threads. We’ve touched on this a little bit already, but I hear this as a highly constructed space, in a music-like register but without the types of harmonic and melodic structures one would expect. It’s made up of a series of hums, vibrations, and tensions; it is molded, bent, and manipulated out of other sounds. It is shaped by sound deflected off itself.
Speaking specifically about “Spine,” your collaboration with Rodrigo Toscano based on what he calls a “body movement poem,” even when there are words, the voices which speak have been multiplied and refract themselves. For me, the recurrent sounds serve as an agrammatical sort of punctuation of this space and time. In light of what we’ve been discussing so far, I’m hoping that you can discuss the role of multiple sonic threads and perhaps specifically the role of deflection in the soundscapes you create.
Liebowitz: I’m glad you’ve brought up this issue of framing, because it’s something I struggle with constantly. For me it’s a question of how and where a sound work is listened to, and how the sounds frame one another, in the work. This issue of framing was absolutely central to “Spine.” We knew we didn’t want the performers speaking the text, so the question became about environment, about how to sonify the space encompassing the performers and about their body movements within, and in response to the sound space. This is how the deflections came in. We realized that by letting the sounds interact with the text and interrupt it at a grammatical level, the margins or the space surrounding the text could then be sounded and it could do its own thing. So deflection was a discovery that was harnessed and put to work.
What I’ll also say is that these sound spaces are highly constructed. I tend to think of them more as sound structures than as soundscapes. Soundscape reminds me of landscape and the pastoral. I aim for structures that are highly volatile. I’m not trying to represent an environment; I’m trying to create one that directly interacts with a listener.
For me, it’s really a property-driven thing with the sounds themselves: how the physical and psychoacoustic properties of sound shape a space. Like we were speaking about earlier with the 3D audio: how you can get disoriented in it. Properties like deflection and diffraction accomplish this nicely, and if a listener gets lost, I think they are indeed having a direct experience with the space and the sounds within the structure. There have been many times, when I’m listening and putting pieces together, that I’ve felt sick, like I’ve hallucinated. These sensations are the result of working with the physical properties of sounds in relation to one another. To me these structures create a space of pure abstraction that isn’t necessarily expressive, because it’s lacking melody, and which isn’t trying to convey anything to you. Instead it allows you to have your own, individual experience, which hasn’t been scripted beforehand. The abstract quality of that space, its possibilities: this is my main interest.
Wilky: I definitely feel surrounded by those shapes and structures you mention while I’m listening. I think it’s the deflection you talk about that makes me feel as if I’m in that space. Speaking of it as a volatile space seems really apt. I feel as if I’m in complete darkness with arcs and other nameless armatures surrounding me and emerging from the dark. And, in a way, that it feels like a space comes back to the way that sound causes a bodily reaction. I think we could segue from this role of the body to the role of the body in my next question, which is for angela.
In stark contrast to Josh’s work, in which sounds are often manipulated and warped to the point where their source can’t be identified, in your performance-based work, angela, I hear a sounding out of the limits of the body in terms of its capacity for breath, elasticity, and sound-making. Could you talk a little bit about your use of the body, and perhaps about your body in particular, as a sonic instrument?
rawlings: When I was first getting into sound-oriented work, I think my first exposure was when I saw Steve McCaffery perform work by Claude Gauvreau at a small festival for Automatistes writing and happenings. The sound poetry he was performing just blew my mind — I had never seen anything like that. After that I sought out studies with him in order to learn more about what this crazy thing was. The further I researched sound poetry, certainly sound poetry performance within Canada, the more I was struck by how few female practitioners or examples of female voices there were. It was something I was really craving.
I’ve always been someone who likes to sing along loudly to whatever is on the radio or to whatever I’m listening to in my bedroom. When I was a teenager, Tori Amos and Björk were the favorites. So I got really excited about hearing the limits of what can happen with female voice, but really disappointed that I didn’t find access to this when I was starting to look into these things around 1999 or 2000. This eventually led me to get very curious: what can I be producing sonically and very much from a replication place at first; what sounds do I hear that other people are producing that I can attempt to embody and use to discover new ways of working with my body. It’s like what you were saying, Afton, about your experience with Farsi and sound placement within our vocal folds or the mouth. I was mostly wanting the experience of, first and foremost, a replication of what I’m hearing that’s really exciting. This could be like hearing throat singing, maybe. For example, I’m getting really curious about how far down within the throat these hugh sounds are coming from. And then, can I learn how to do this as well just to feel how this is within the body. To experience ways of sounding with my body that I haven’t had access to. Or maybe haven’t been considered the polite or socially acceptable kinds of sounds to make, or for a female body to make. But then also, maybe, like Diamanda Galás — she’s been very opening for me as a listener. How can I also play with some of the more screechy or extreme sounds; how can I do these things in a way that is not vocally damaging or shredding, that is safe for my vocal folds but that also starts to explore the limits of what I’m capable of producing; how can I really start to learn my own body and push my limits of permissible sounds-making, not only in private, but also in semipublic environments, so that I start to identify or call attention to my embarrassments or discomforts with the kinds of social constructs that exist around the sounds that bodies make, or maybe bodies identifying as female make. This has been maybe a bit of a constant itch within my practice that I’ve been with the last few years particularly getting into with the improvised work.
Wilky: I’m so glad you’ve brought up the role of female bodies in sound poetry. The female body is so often the subject of art, and yet there’s discomfort when she starts making abnormal sounds. To wrap things up, I’d like to get back to the idea of collaboration, which is one of many ways in which writing, music, and performance practices differ. Often, writing for the page is considered a solitary activity or an activity done by one person. In music there may be several stages which include writing, rehearsing, and performing of a score. Similarly, as in the case of jazz, there may be study of music theory and rehearsal prior to an improvisational performance. In addition, musical performances are rarely solos; they often involve multiple instruments (groups, bands, quartets, orchestras, choirs, etc.) and sometimes are conducted. Performance art and theater art also span the range between solo and group endeavors.
This question is open to both of you. Do you see performance and music traditions, which more often involve dialogue, collaboration, and groups of performers, affecting your praxis? Do they offer modes and practices that you see as being useful to writing? Are there overlooked practices outside of these traditions?
Liebowitz: It seems like there’s still this cultural suspicion that collaboration somehow results in a less dignified project. As if even in the twenty-first century, we prefer to close our eyes and think works are made, and have always been made, by the lone artist standing on some cliff somewhere and waving up pieces together from out of the ocean. In my experience, involving people from other disciplines and with a different set of expertise not only fires me up and leads to more ideas, but because everyone involved is then accountable, there’s a sense of trust and intimacy that develops, which makes you feel more comfortable experimenting, and also pushes you to make the best work you can. Some projects for me are solitary for sure, but when I start a work, it’s more often than not because I’m curious about something. So finding out is going to involve dialogue with someone else, planning, going to the studio, more dialogue, then going back to the studio. It’s a process, a laboratory approach.
rawlings: I really think that there’s a big overlap within many of these kinds of practices. It’s called one thing in one medium and another name in another medium, but they’re still similar somehow. For example, we have editors and dramaturges and they’re playing the same type of role, just in a different way in a different medium. I sense that there’s quite a bit of crossover, but then also borrowing, and maybe this is why I’ve had a tendency at times to consider my own practice interdisciplinary or drawn in this way. Even when I was working on Wide Slumber and I worked for a publishing house for five years, I really sensed — and maybe it was using, erroneously, this word collaborative — but I really sensed that there was a serious, collaborative gesture at play within the publishing industry or the ways in which we’re treating works. Yes, I or the author may be sitting and writing something, but that author is showing the work to somebody else who is giving feedback. There are substantive edits that come in, there’s a proofreader involved … there are all these people who are shaping how the work is coming along. There’s the design of the book, the people who are doing the physical print; everybody is having their hands on this somehow. The onus tends to fall on the author, who has to carry this thing around like a tattoo for the rest of her life, but there have been so many eyes and hands and minds in the process that this notion that it’s just this solo slog doesn’t hold great water. Maybe it’s, and I’m back again with this word, interdependence, or I’m just wanting to liken what is happening within literary publishing to what I sense is happening within music production or theater production as places where people are working together to make a thing or to share a thing, rather than it being this activity produced in a tall, lonely tower.
Wilky: What you say about the collaborative gestures happening within the publishing industry makes me think of the way that individual books will respond to one another whether it’s direct, noticeable, or not. This too is a sort of dialogue or conversation. I would just like to say again how fantastic this has been and ask if there’s anything either of you would like to add before we close out this interview.
rawlings: I feel like I really just want to sit in a dark room with Josh’s swooping sound space zooming at me from different directions. I’m really excited about the architecture of this image that’s in my head from the two of you discussing it. And the movement as well. It’s the way you’re designing and responding somehow to the physicality and the movement of that physicality of the sounds. I can feel it and I want to be in it and listen.
Liebowitz: Thank you so much, angela. It’s funny, in the same way I was thinking earlier today about the body and how you were mentioning, what are the limits of your body and the sound inside your body. The body is such a natural resonator that I really think that some of that bending of sounds can come from inside the body. But then I wonder if it would only be perceptible if you made the sounds. Or would someone else be able to hear it?
rawlings: Interesting. And could you just slip a contact mic into your colon and then …
Wilky: I feel like someone has done this.
rawlings: What about a vaginal contact mic? I wonder if anyone’s done that.
Liebowitz: Marina Abramović? But then she hasn’t done as much sound work.
Wilky: Not necessarily recorded sound work, but there is that performance “Ahh” where she and Ulay scream into each other’s mouths until they run of breath or until their vocal cords collapse. Talk about stretching the body to its limits …
This has been incredible, angela and Josh. Thank you both so much.
An interview with Tony Trigilio
Note: I first met Tony Trigilio when we read together at the Sunday Salon, at Black Rock Pub in Chicago. The reading was held on a November evening after tornados had swept through the state. I bring this up because Trigilio’s White Noise, a pseudo-Flarf response to DeLillo’s White Noise, transforms the language of search engines — like the kinds we were obsessively checking that afternoon for information about storm systems and tornados — into the language of poetry. Trigilio’s White Noise is a multilayered project that renders loss, paranoia, and confusion with humor and grace. Our correspondence occurred over email in January 2014. — Tyler Mills
Tyler Mills: After you read from this collection, I remember I asked you about the process of creating White Noise. What you described to me seemed reminiscent of a kind of meditation. This interested me because at a glance, one could assume that the way you produced White Noise was automatic, even mechanical: it might seem as though once you chose which search phrases from DeLillo’s White Noise to plug into the Usenet search engine, the poems would create themselves. (As Goldsmith writes in his “Paragraphs of Conceptual Writing,” an appropriation of Sol LeWitt’s 1967 Artforum manifesto, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” “In conceptual writing the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an author uses a conceptual form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”) However, as you mentioned to me at the Sunday Salon, your White Noise project doesn’t exactly engage with conceptualism in this way. Could you say more about the idea behind your project, as well as your process?
Tony Trigilio: Meditation has been an important part of my daily life for twenty years, and I can understand how the book’s method can evoke something like a meditative practice. I came up with the idea for the book when my cousin Michael Trigilio and I began collaborating on The Starve Site back in 2000. Michael is a multimedia artist who works primarily in film, sound, performance, and tactical media. He’s a dear family member. We both share a desire to make art from what might look like the mundane and mechanical-seeming aspects of everyday life, and we both are hugely drawn to the generative potential of chance operations. As we were planning The Starve Site, I talked to him about how I wanted to make some kind of new text — in a form I couldn’t imagine yet — from the relentless wash of Internet discourse. It’s hard to imagine in 2014 that I could have felt saturated with online language back in 2000 — I want to say instead that we’re actually saturated now. Anyway, back in the early days of The Starve Site, I was planning an online project that would push Internet language further than I imagined it could go, and this is where White Noise came from. I made a few experiments with the method in 2003, and actually started the appropriation process from DeLillo’s White Noise in 2004.
One of the most important influences on the book was Bernadette Mayer’s procedural poem, “X on page 50 at half-inch intervals.” Bernadette drew an “X” on page 50 of a book and copied the words that intersected the lines of the “X.” Her poem is just this: words that randomly intersect the “X.” At one level, this could seem to be nothing but arbitrary transcription — something that just defies meaning-making. But the seemingly arbitrary words open up new pathways for meaning, and, in doing so, they elevate chance operations to the level of craft. Inspired by this, I created my procedure for generating my White Noise collection, drawing an “X” in the middle of a page of Don DeLillo’s White Noise every Monday, and then feeding the first three to four words that intersected the “X” at its cross into the Usenet bulletin board search engine (originally, this search engine was Deja News; a year or two into my project, Google bought Deja News). DeLillo’s White Noise was my choice for a source text for a couple reasons. I wanted a writer whose engagement with surveillance is sophisticated — I couldn’t possibly work with online language and ignore that it’s under surveillance all the time, especially as our daily lives became conditioned by post-9/11 paranoia, which is so important to my White Noise. I wanted a writer who is deeply invested in popular culture, especially pop consumerism. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a DeLillo fanatic, too. I experience him as a poet as much as I experience him as a novelist (especially his more recent, non-narrative work, which reads for me more like prose poetry than prose fiction).
Mills: I’m especially struck by the way that your collection appears to filter a mind through the information culled from Usenet. The mind that moves the material through the poems of your collection is the result of a strange conglomeration of intimate, but public, selves — always open to surveillance (especially post-9/11). Anyone can pull up these quotations, questions, illusions, and disillusions. In your collection, the mind becomes this information. I’m struck by the parallel in DeLillo’s White Noise: I keep thinking about what happens when one continually takes the pill Dylar — how it supposedly protects you from a fear of death. And what replaces one’s sense of mortality is a kind a psyche that becomes unified with the medium of TV. What happens in DeLillo’s White Noise is that the mind loses its sense of personal history. It’s a mind that functions like a search engine that cannot organize or control its own information. It’s horrifying, especially the way that these glimmers of information pervade, perhaps infect, DeLillo’s text. It’s an incredible critique of the barrage of information produced by the TV culture that pervaded the ’80s psyche. Such a barrage of information has been magnified exponentially, as you’ve said, between the early 2000s and today. I think that is especially why your use of DeLillo’s White Noise to guide your own post-9/11 Usenet collage is ingenious.
What would you say your goal is for the speaker of these newly made poems that have been adapted from the language of Google discussion boards? (I think it’s interesting that you’ve adapted both the newest and the oldest archived discussions into the new “utterance” context of these poems.) Are you in part striving to mark out the kind of obsessive discourse that occurs in these public online spaces? Or do you think that the poems in White Noise are instead activating a new kind of lyric speaker, one whose consciousness is pervaded — even (in)formed — by Google?
Trigilio: Your questions are right on the mark. I was excited when the Usenet discussion voices started to sound instead like the voices of the book’s quasi-narrative. That is, I was excited when the Usenet voices really started to sound like they belonged in this new utterance context. (By the way, this has a fascinating effect on the sense I have of my own writing voice. I realized I had an intellectual and emotional connection to the voices in the book, but it was a kind of ghostly connection because I didn’t actually generate the words. The reshaping and collaging I did for the book definitely produced the intellectual/emotional connection, but it’s not the same connection I’ve felt in any other book I’ve written. I’m fascinated by how the voices in the book are simultaneously distant and intimate for me when I read from it.)
I think I was trying to both replicate the obsessive context of the original postings and suggest a new kind of speaker. For me, both efforts happened simultaneously, though I realize this might not be the same for the reader. Actually, let me correct myself a little bit. When I say “both efforts happened simultaneously,” I’m referring only to the period after 2009, when I started collaging and shaping the appropriations. Prior to 2009, when I was still marking an “X” on DeLillo’s book every Monday and working the Usenet postings into my website, I was only marking out the obsessiveness of public online discourse. (Looking back on my original notes for the book and seeing the kinds of bulletin boards I pulled material from, I remember even more clearly how I obsessed on the obsessiveness of public online discourse. The range of Usenet bulletin boards that I drew from still kind of makes my head spin. Just a few examples: rec.pets.cats.health+behav; alt.religion.scientology; sci.med.diseases.lyme; rec. sport.pro-wrestling.fantasy; rec.games.chess.politics; alt.christnet; alt.support.anxiety-panic.moderated; alt.philosophy; alt.sailing.asa; rec.equestrian; rec.arts.tv.soaps.cbs; rec.gambling.misc; and so on.)
But as I was collaging/shaping the material, I did find that a new kind of lyric speaker was emerging — one that was pervaded not so much by Google but by the wild zone of public online discourse (and the obsessiveness that’s almost inevitable with such discourse). This new kind of lyric speaker felt very much to me like (for lack of a better word) a cyborg voice: a hybrid of the biological organism and the electronically generated space that gave the organism room to speak (and room to speak obsessively). I want to emphasize, though, that this hybrid/cyborg voice was not something I intended consciously. I noticed it in the back of my mind as I was collaging/shaping the book.
Mills: What you call the “cyborg voice: a hybrid of the biological organism and the electronically generated space that gave the organism room to speak” makes me think immediately of Flarf poetics (such as Sullivan’s “WC+WCW”), where language is culled from Google searches. I’m fascinated by your White Noise collection because in one sense, it very much falls under the definition of Flarf poetics, but in another sense, the language itself actually behaves very differently from Flarf. The speaker of your project, created from the obsessive online public discourse, breaks through what I often find in Flarf to be a stiff emotional plane (the flat, newly stitched text functioning as a site where prior texts have been joined). Your interaction with search engines seems very different from this — as do the poems that result from these searches. I keep wondering if somehow your project is mimicking the way we turn to Google for answers at crisis points in our lives. Flarf can evoke the absurdity of this kind of search — which I think your poems do wonderfully. But your project pushes past this absurdity and actually transforms the culled language into meditations of a single mind, a represented consciousness that is perhaps even lyric, as in the following passage:
And as I stood there staring at the sky, the clouds merged together, forming a huge face. I ran all the way home in a panic.
Maybe he can walk through solids, but not see through them. This would limit his movement without interfering with his insubstantiality (13).
Yet moments of the project remind us of the function of the text as a text, and of language’s propensity to cite itself. Footnotes interrupt the text — breaking the spell that makes us believe in the unified voice in the first place. For instance, the footnote for the line, “I’ve come to question just about everything” is “It seems from now on I’ll be baking my own cookies. I’ve used it to induce more vivid dreaming for years and have seen strong effects in many people” (7). How did you envision the role of footnotes in your collection? Are they, in effect, meant to be a way for the text to reflect its own citational process? Are they a way of providing contrapuntal movement, almost as a kind of harmonizing thread to the main voice?
Trigilio: I like to think that, yes, the book’s procedural constraint enacts the absurdity of our constant need to go to Google for answers. I also hope the book honors our desire to go online and find community. This is why the book is, for me, as ironic as it is earnest. I was drawn to Usenet bulletin board material because Usenet was an electronic gathering place for the mundane and the arcane. You could have the most arcane, specialized interests — in a particular religious sect, TV star, artist, hobby, and so on — and instead of feeling isolated, you could commune with others who share these interests. There’s nothing radical about this today, I know — it’s pretty much the essence of social media. But back when the Internet was a nascent medium, these possibilities for community felt almost utopian to me. When I first started going online, in 1994, these bulletin boards were more important to me than anything else that the new digital medium offered. I take this for granted now, but when the Internet was still new, I was stunned by the potential beauty of online discourse as a communal enterprise. (Of course, in 2014, one glance at the troll-filled comment fields of most websites is enough to remind me how incredibly ugly online discourse often is.)
Flarf is one of the closest conceptual aesthetic contexts for the book, and I totally understand that readers come to this as a Flarf-like book. I learned about Flarf during the early stages of this project, in 2004, and I immediately felt a sense of kindred spirit between this project and what the Flarf writers were doing.
But White Noise, I think, is guided by an aesthetic that’s different from Flarf. In White Noise, I’m trying to do more than ironically replicate the condition of language-saturation created by Internet discourse. In an essay introducing the special Flarf and conceptual poetics section of the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry, Ken Goldsmith writes of Flarf and conceptualism: “This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve … yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it.” I had just begun collaging White Noise when I read this — I spent 2004–2009 gathering appropriated material for the book, and I began the actual collaging process in 2009. It was clear that I truly wasn’t writing a word of White Noise. I always describe the writing process of the book as I did earlier in our interview — as “collaging.” And I often begin readings from the book by saying to audiences, “I didn’t write a word of this book.” (I think I said this when we read at Sunday Salon.) I wholeheartedly share with Goldsmith the desire to take the archetypal heroic author out of the equation, and, in doing this, to disrupt the traditional relationship between subjectivity and authorship. But I get stuck on the part where Goldsmith says “no one means a word of it.” This is where White Noise significantly diverges from Flarf, I think. Most of the folks who wrote the original Usenet postings I used for White Noise seemed to mean what they were saying — and I like to think that their voices remain as important traces in the book. Like with any book, I wasn’t really sure what vectors of “meaning(s)” were developing as I wrote it. But I did operate from a sense of sincerity: 1) a sincere effort to explore our relationship to Internet discourse by actively immersing myself in the discourse — not just appropriating the language, but sculpting it and paying very close attention to the new ways of thinking about language and community that emerged from the sculpting; and 2) a sincerity in the sense that Objectivist poets like Zukofsky, Oppen, and Niedecker, among others mean the word — as a sincerity to my materials, to my methodology, to the clarity of what I’m seeing, and to the clarity of the language for what I’m seeing.
That’s great what you’re saying about the footnotes. In one respect, I thought of them as mocking our desire for explanatory footnotes and endnotes in research prose. I love to include footnotes/endnotes in my prose — sometimes I think I love using them too much (I saturate myself with language, I guess), and I think the footnotes in White Noise were partially an effort to mock my own obsession with explanatory footnotes. Stylistically, I heard the footnotes as contrapuntal, definitely, and I’m glad you mentioned this. I was guided by a call-and-response feel when I crafted the footnotes. At times, too, I wanted the footnotes to mock the desire for hyper-rational mastery and control of language and thought that helps make the national security state possible. In this way, the footnotes heighten, I think, the post-9/11 paranoia that permeates the book.
Mills: As a reader of your project, I can certainly say that for me, the footnotes do “mock the desire for hyper-rational mastery and control of language” (especially in our era of NSA surveillance). Infecting the post-9/11 paranoia in your collection is also this incredibly obsessive illogic that masks as a scholarly means of controlling meaning. As I was reading your collection, I was struck by this question: where do clarifications and explanations end, in our Internet-driven textual landscape? When entering language into a search engine, one can fall down the “Google” rabbit hole, where you keep searching for one thing to explain another thing, until you wake up and realize you’re reading about rockhopper penguins.
I think that the anxiety that drives the footnotes in your collection is an anxiety that comes from relationality: how a Google search can bring such disparate things together into a strange kind of logic. It’s an odd, impossible promise. I think that Flarf mimics this, at its most cold level of appropriation — where the artist has a minimal hand in guiding the juxtapositions the search engine creates. But I agree with you that while your collection might look like Flarf poetics, it is departing greatly from it in terms of the “sincerity” you mention — which has a large part to do with the artist’s relationship to the materials of language, as you said. You’ve chosen to “sculpt” the language a certain way, to guide the mind that is simulated by these poems. There’s also an effect of sincerity in the collaged language that looks a lot like the believable emotions we turn to in traditional lyric poems: there’s a sincerity to the paranoia, and in the necessity of explaining one’s sense of self in relation to (or even as being part of) the textual landscape which is now part of our twenty-first century human experience:
To say that someone who died last week might get out of purgatory next week, while someone really bad who died a month ago still has another year left, is to be too simplistic.
It confuses a bad person with a saved person who still needs a longer spiritual journey than some other saved people.xxiv
xxiv The balloon is the narrator’s soul going up into heaven then vanishing (38).
We’ve been talking about the mind that appears through the collaged, appropriated language as a kind of speaker. But I would also like to ask you about the moments in your collection where three distinct characters break through this utterance: a “He,” a “She,” and a “Grandmother.” It’s like you’ve interspersed dramatic scenes, each with their own name, into the larger meditation. I would like to reproduce “We’re Still in the Office, I Bet. Also in Somebody’s Mind” below, in full:
There is absolutely nothing you can do to launch me in a state of depression. Absolutely nothing.
Explicitly he rustled across no argument. We slung neither popped seeing you were roughly ransacked, and every raving including us braced unqualifiedly simpler.
I was a gangster for Wall Street. I made Mexico, and especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. Made Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in.
It then becomes like driving back and forth between two gas stations.
I purified Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909–12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I made Honduras “right” for the American fruit companies in 1903 (22–23).
Could you talk about what motivates scenes like this one? How do you see these mini-plays working with the appropriated material differently from the otherwise driving mind of the collection? How did these three characters in particular become apparent to you as you were working with their voices?
Trigilio: The mini-plays were an effort to heighten the polyvocal feel of the book. I wanted something in the book that would work against the human tendency to consolidate multiple voices into one voice. I hope the mini-plays heighten the conflicts and tensions of dialogic speech in White Noise.
My idea for the mini-plays came from reading Lorine Niedecker’s surrealist poem-plays, “President of the Holding Company” and “Fancy Another Day Gone.” I don’t appropriate any language from Niedecker, but the “He,” “She,” and “Grandmother” characters in White Noise are inspired by characters of the same name in “Fancy Another Day Gone.” Niedecker’s poem-plays work against linear, rational thought, while at the same time they maintain the illusion of linear discourse — with characters who speak to each other in a back-and-forth dialogue that, at least in form (but not in content), appears to move the so-called narrative forward. But the actual speech of Niedecker’s characters is anything but linear, which makes traditional narrative momentum impossible — and, for me, hilarious. My hope is that readers feel the same disjunction, and humor, in the mini-plays of White Noise.
I took only the names, not the characters themselves, from “Fancy Another Day Gone.” That is, the personalities of the “He,” “She,” and “Grandmother” characters were really just blank ciphers when I started putting together the mini-plays. As I assembled the mini-plays, my characters immediately started taking on their own personalities. And as their voices became more distinct, this began to affect the Usenet material I gave them to say. This is going to sound really strange, but as I was collaging the book, the “Grandmother” began to sound to me like the late actress Irene Ryan; the “He” character sounded more and more like the actor Kyle McLaughlin; and the “She” character began to sound like the actress Chloë Sevigny. From the time I composed the first mini-play, these were the performers I envisioned playing these three characters, and this guided the language I appropriated for them. It would’ve been a dream for me to watch the three of them act out each mini-play.
I was glad you mentioned relationality earlier as an important effect of the footnotes, and I also hope that relationality is significant to the experience of reading the mini-plays. The mini-plays are part of the book’s larger strategy to explore, as you put it so well, “how a Google search can bring such disparate things together into a strange kind of logic.” I feel a mixture of awe and anxiety from this kind of logic. I’m thinking of your earlier example in which a person rides an associative train of Google searches and eventually lands on “rockhopper penguins.” At this point in a Google search, you often can’t even remember where you started: all you know is that you’re now looking at a list of rockhopper penguin sites (and maybe you’re saying “rockhopper penguin” in your head over and over because the phrase sounds so crisp and musical and quirky). I did a Google search for rockhopper penguins as I was responding to this interview question, and I fell straight into a Google rabbit hole that enacted your earlier remarks on the strange logic of Google searches. As I fell into the rabbit hole, I read about how rockhopper penguins are indigenous to the Falkland Islands, which then led me to memories of the 1982 Falklands war between Argentina and England (the first time I’d ever heard of the Falkland Islands) — and I remembered how the Falklands war solidified Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity and power base. I always associate Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 with Thatcher’s Falklands War, because Grenada was for Reagan a war like the Falklands — a political conflict that deployed chest-thumping patriotism and jingoism to elevate Reagan’s popularity during a terrible recession. How did I get from rockhopper penguins to Ronald Reagan? I’m awestruck by how this kind of Google searching leads to canyon leaps from one subject to another. At the same time, it can provoke anxiety, I agree, because of the way you can simply lose yourself in this kind of Google treadmill, and eventually it can create bizarre equivalences that actually seem perfectly normal, as in: rockhopper penguins = Falkland Islands = Margaret Thatcher = the invasion of Grenada = Ronald Reagan.
But if we have no stable “self” that can be “lost,” then these equivalencies are not really bizarre. They actually might be perfectly “normal” functionings of the mind (specifically, of the unconscious). As I was collaging White Noise, I was struck by how many times seemingly accidental collisions of Usenet excerpts made their own “sense.” This is no major revelation, I know: collaging always produces “sense” from random collisions, and the more you trust your unconscious, I think, the more you realize these collisions often aren’t even random. But I did feel a fresh kind of “collage joy,” for lack of a better phrase, when I saw that the machine-language situation of Internet discourse-appropriation — especially a machine-language situation governed by such a complex chance-operations procedure as I was using in White Noise— could produce what is, for me, such warm, human (and often loopy) kinds of sense.
To say a little more about loopy kinds of sense, I’d like to linger for a second on the example you quoted earlier, from page 38. The material on purgatory came from an entirely different Usenet posting than the footnote about “the narrator’s soul going up into heaven and vanishing.” The purgatory discussion was from the “alt.religion.christian.methodist” newsgroup (a discussion titled, “Is Gandhi in Heaven?”). The remark about the narrator’s soul ascending into heaven was from “alt.music.dave-matthews” (a discussion titled, “My interpretation of ‘Spoon’”). Gandhi and the Dave Matthews Band; rockhopper penguins and Ronald Reagan! I was so thrilled when this cacophony of Gandhi, Methodism, and Dave Matthews occurred that I can still remember the moment it came together. I was sitting in a café in San Diego, during a visit with Michael Trigilio and his partner Trish Stone. This trip to San Diego helped me assemble the first rough working draft of White Noise. A woman was ordering a breakfast sandwich at the counter. A man was trying to get the attention of the barista so that she could buzz him into the bathroom. I was drinking an espresso, and, eureka, “the balloon was the narrator’s soul going up into heaven then vanishing!”
Mills: Fabulous. It’s this single voice, in your project, that is able to speak simultaneously through all of these contexts: Methodism, Dave Matthews, purgatory … and in the context of creation, for you, as the artist in the café, the “cyborg voice” ends up becoming a kind of epiphanic “collage joy.” It’s bizarrely wonderful. It would be amazing if someone could sample the voice of Kyle McLaughlin in Twin Peaks, Chloë Sevigny in American Psycho (and/or Big Love, and Portlandia) and Irene Ryan from the Beverly Hillbillies and collage them into the “He,” “She,” and “Grandmother” of White Noise. (I wish I knew someone who could do that.) I have one final question: who do you envision speaking the “cyborg voice” of your collection, that meditative, existentially befuddled, graceful speaker that surrounds these Niedicker-esque stagings? Is there a particular poet whose voice you would resurrect from the archives of the Smithsonian, or Jacket2, or UbuWeb?
Trigilio: I feel like so many voices are speaking that I don’t know if I could isolate one particular person speaking the “cyborg voice” in between the mini-plays. But if I had to pick one, it might be David Lynch, who has a remarkable ability to be, as you wonderfully put it, “existentially befuddled” while also voicing his befuddlement with grace and equanimity — as if he can really appreciate his own bewilderment at the same time that it makes him anxious. To think about this voice some more, it actually feels like a fragmented consciousness. The consciousness comes to me as a cacophony, though. It’s a layering of multiple voices, like I’m eavesdropping on everyone who is, say, riding the subway with me on a particular day, while I’m also having my own conversation with the person sitting next to me.
1. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Kenneth Goldsmith, 1994–2014, Electronic Poetry Center, University at Buffalo.
2. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Flarf Is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing Is Apollo. An Introduction to the Twenty-First Century’s Most Controversial Poetry Movements,” Poetry (July/August 2009).
Editorial note: This interview took place on the second of two days of visits by the late Robert Creeley to the Kelly Writers House in 2000 as part of the Writers House Fellows program, which brings three writers to the University of Pennsylvania’s campus each spring for close interaction with students, faculty, and other literary aficionados. Creeley’s prolific poetic work has garnered praise from the likes of William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Edward Dorn, while his editorial expertise has graced such publications as The Black Mountain Review and Origin. His countries of residence (Spain, France, Guatemala, Finland, and others) were nearly as diverse as the array of fellowships and awards that he received in his lifetime. Video and audio recordings of Creeley’s visit can be found here. — Kenna O’Rourke
Al Filreis: Before Bob Creeley enters the room, I’m going to talk to those fifty or so friends, poets, teachers, students, neighbors, colleagues, friends from over the ocean who are tuning in over the web this morning. Let me give you preliminary information: it’s 10:30 eastern time, so good morning. Bob Creeley is here as a Writers House fellow, and in a moment we’ll start a discussion with Bob and the engaging people here at the Kelly Writers House on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Everyone out there is distinguished and individuated in our minds — but hello particularly to friends Jackson Mac Low in New York and Marjorie Perloff in Los Angeles. For Marjorie, it is early. Get your coffee, Marjorie. And to those forty or so who have come to be part of a live, face-to-face session: welcome. We really enjoyed Bob Creeley’s visit yesterday at the Writers House as part of the Writers House Fellows program, and we’re looking forward to this session this morning. No introduction is needed. Well, an introduction is required, but we did it last night, and if you want it, you can do what Bob did from his hotel, which is simply click on the webcast recording of it and listen to my introduction.
I have two questions to start. But before that, as a kind of preamble, Bob wants to show us some cool tech that he is into. Bob is clicking and pointing. You want to describe what you’re doing?
Creeley: Well, it always was a question, with respect to the ways I wrote, or the mode, not the mode, the so-called structure of the prosody. I used Williams’s proposal: “break into the middle of some trenchant phrase,” et cetera. I had really misread his format. I thought, for example, that he paused distinctly at the end of each line. He got, therefore, a syncopated rhythm from doing that, and then when I heard him read actually, on early records at least, he did not do that. He read through the line ending without pause. So, one of the consistent questions about the way I wrote was: you would make those pauses at the end of lines, but are you reading into the poem those intervals? And I insisted that I wasn’t. It’s simply a personal insistence. Then, with an early speech-synthesizing program called Monologue, which did happily stop at the ends of lines, I was able to demonstrate without any, you know, no hands. This cranky, crunky voice would read very well, would read my poems excellently. So, I could make clear it wasn’t me doing it, the machine was doing it, which was a curiously very useful cause. It ended that argument, frankly, once and for all. It’s a wonderful voice.
Filreis: Where’s the speaker?
Creeley: It will come. I still have to get the appropriate file. It doesn’t use the syncopation quite at all very much, but I am also interested in pacing, what the intervals apparent are. Again, as I say, this voice is in no way expressive or interpretive. I was visiting in a pleasant school in Dobb’s Ferry in New York and one pleasant teacher there, a Chinese-American, said, “Sounds just like my uncle.” So here we go. Speak.
[Computer monologue reads inaudibly.]
Creeley: Wait a minute, I’m sorry. Let’s start again.… Come on, speak. Why do you never speak? … I don’t know. Maybe it’s tired.
Filreis: That ended that argument once and for all.
Creeley: Wait a minute, we’ll try again. Come on, I want to get it louder.… Louder, louder.… As loud as it can go.… Patience. Resume.… Speak.
[Computer monologue reads poem.]
Filreis: That was monotonous Robert Creeley.
Creeley: This program also allows you to slow down the tape and shift the pitch. It’s rudimentary. This is noted as a US English male, H.L.
Filreis: H. L.?
Creeley: H. L. Mencken or something.… Okay, that’s enough.
Filreis: All those lines are end-stops?
[Triumphant computer sound.]
Filreis: Whenever you don’t want Bill Gates, he appears. So your sense of the line, your sense of rhythm at the level of the line: I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about William Carlos Williams. Was that in the American grain, that voice?
Creeley: Yeah, I wanted something that would not express or read into the language overtly. I didn’t want it to be necessarily a drab voice, but I wanted it to be a saying of the words that would be dependent upon their pattern rather than my interpretation of it. To me, one of the problems in poetry — at least one that my particular company spent a great deal of time on — was the question of the register of the text and how that might be used as an information for the person reading it, presuming he or she would be hearing it in his or her head or reading it aloud. Olson, for example, spends a lot of time on this problem. Duncan, literally, toward the end of his life, acquires what’s then a state-of-the-art word processor so he can actually set his text and have it actually reproduced as the text of the published book, Groundwork. It was not In the Dark, but Before the War is thus composed. Denise Levertov has the same concerns. Paul Blackburn, et cetera. I don’t know why it became such a remarkable question for us. But it really is a difference between our company and that just previous. The Objectivists, for example, seem to have these concerns but do not particularly involve them in their own recital or their own reading of their own work.
Filreis: Yesterday, you said that for a long while, at the beginning, you were using a typewriter, and a particular typewriter that you needed. And then you mentioned that Allen Ginsberg had genially advised you to get rid of the typewriter so you’d be more mobile. Did, at first, the acquisition of the typewriter as the means of writing have anything to do with Williams, for instance, who was addicted to his typewriter? I guess the second question is: what was it like when you got rid of the typewriter?
Creeley: Well, the typewriter, initially, was a great way of freeing oneself from the personalism of one’s own handwriting. I was distracted by the way I wrote. Not that I wrote incompetently, but I began to be obsessed with the nature of my handwriting, which was certainly not the point of what I was doing. I wanted something that would instantly, so to speak, objectify these words I was putting in strings. I wanted to have something, again, that would not be informed by my personal disposition in handwriting. I wanted the words to be objectified, to be actualized by being generally characterized as typewriter fonts permit, and be there on the paper as something apart from my head or my personal, physical touch. I wanted them to exist in that sense by themselves. It’s nothing particularly vatic or mystic. I wanted to be able to look at them the way I would look at them on a page of print.
Filreis: So what happened when you got rid of the typewriter?
Creeley: I think by that time, that was ’63 or so, by that time I had been writing more or less — I began writing in the late ’40s — so it had certainly been fifteen years of habit. At that point, what was far more useful to me was a means of collecting and/or composing in any kind of physical circumstance. If you have suddenly an impulse or some inquiry of some way of wanting to get something done, and you have to go look for the typewriter, it’s awkward. So, this ability to use quick handwriting, that was very, very useful.
Filreis: And now the Libretto allows you to do something like that?
Creeley: With Libretto this morning, for instance, I could check mail, get a pleasant set of letters from friends in various parts of the world, I could read a newspaper — there’s a great attack on Bush’s provisions for public health in Texas and all the statistics pertaining — I could download the program that we were just listening to, I could play games.
Filreis: Or you could write?
Creeley: No, I didn’t write this morning. I wrote last night a quick letter home. Phones I love, too, the intimacy of a physical, real voice is obviously wonderful. But there are times, again, in a rush, when one wants — what was the flight number, what is the cell phone’s number, things of that sort which are far more simply located in an email than they are, let’s say, by voice or where did I put the paper.
Filreis: Speaking of the phone, I’ll invite the fifty or so out there listening and viewing us, to call if you have a question and want to talk analog to Bob Creeley. Let me ask you another Williams question, and then I want to turn to Bob Perelman, who has a question, and then open it up even further.
Creeley: Get a shot at Bob. Phones are lighting up.
Filreis: Yes, send fifty dollars to the SUNY-Buffalo poetics program. It needs your support. Make the checks out to Bob Creeley.
Creeley: I’ll take care of it.
Filreis: I can reserve my Williams questions. Who is it on the phone? Dave? Well, let’s pipe him in.
Creeley: Oh, Dave.
Filreis: Dave, can you hear us? Good morning.
David Gitin: Good morning.
Filreis: Where are you?
David: Monterey, California.
Filreis: Monterey, California.
Creeley: You lucky dog.
David: Great. I haven’t seen Bob in years. … Okay. I was listening last night, and in the poem “En Famille” there was a line “Has anything happened you will not forget” and I was curious — this line is a little bit circular and at the same time very opening, I think, for writing students, and I wanted to have you comment on that.
Creeley: You know, David, I guess that was some echo of not so much being didactic teacher but in some ways as much a question to myself as to whomever is reading or hearing it.
David: Of course that has opened up quite a lot.
Creeley: Well, what do you remember? What does one remember? What, my mother might say, what does one take away from this as information? What sticks? What stays in mind?
David: Yeah, the way you’ve worded it, it’s impossible to think of what you haven’t, what you’ve forgotten, right?
Creeley: Yeah. Dig it.
Filreis: There’s a recent poem of memory called “Given.” I don’t know if you are aware of it, it’s in Life and Death.
David: Yeah, I’ve got it.
Filreis: I wanted to ask Bob Creeley about it. The title “Given” strikes me as, among other things, referring to what is given, what is assumed, what is a priori, what is simply there. And in a way what happens in that poem is that Robert Creeley’s memories are so far ago — “who can throw a ball, who draw a face, who knows how” — that in a way, at a certain point in age, the memory of an experience becomes almost a priori, becomes a given since its so far ago.
Can you recall
how far from the one
to the other, stalls
for the cows,
the hummocks one jumped to,
the lawn’s webs,
touch, taste of specific
what a pimple was
and all such way
one’s skin was a place —
Touch, term, turn of curious fate.
Who can throw a ball,
who draw a face,
who knows how.
These were locating measures almost, not rules of thumb, but these were locating circumstances I recall from being a kid. This was the information. Has something happened you will not forget? What, thus, stays in mind in that relation would be those factors, those things. Not only those first time circumstances but these ways of measuring one’s apparent reality.
David: Well, that was a fascinating response, Bob.
Creeley: Well, take care, David. One day I’ll get there.
David: Well, that turn of curious fate is certainly interesting, of the measure, as you say, of those last three lines.
Creeley: The wheel.
David: Well, thanks.
Creeley: David is a solid poet in his own right incidentally.
Filreis: How long has it been?
Creeley: We used to know each other, it seems to me, particularly in New Mexico. And then we saw each other occasionally on the west coast. He was living down the coast. I was living in Bolinas. He’s a very particular writer, poet.
Filreis: Why don’t we go to Bob Perelman in the room for a question.
Bob Perelman: I was just reading some of Pound and Eliot this morning —
Creeley: That for breakfast?
Perelman: Because I’m teaching that stuff. Yes, first I do the crossword puzzle, and then I read The Waste Land.
Filreis: Sort of the same thing?
Perelman: Usually there’s a few clues in each one that are the same. But I was struck again, and it’s been, for me, thirty years with those types of people. Thinking about make it new, innovation, and the insistence that the past, that literature forms an ideal order that is simultaneous and does away with time, but at the same time there is this passion for innovation and a kind of very competitive insistence on who is making it and who is not, who is making it new and who is pretending to make it new, and it really strikes me, having the last four or five times hearing you read, how your whole career starts out, I think, with Olson, that you two were as passionate about making it new as anybody on the planet in the late ’40s and early ’50s, which was completely crucial, and lately there are so many gestures in your work that —
Creeley: Make it old —
Perelman: Make it old, that really want to kind of modify that, not disavow it, but certainly let in what that excludes. It seems like a very interesting tension if you could talk about that.
Creeley: I think it’s this sense that now is time to put all the toys away and get ready for bed. It’s a sense of putting things back where you found them. Actually, it’s a curious wish not to become common. That’s very hard to do. The point is it’s too late. To become as transparent as possible, which would mean simply to really move into whatever argues the most familiar and the most common kinds of habit in the organization of the composition. That’s why I think I am attracted to hip-hop actually. It has a very particularizing personal situation of expression. I keep thinking of Paul Barman, and I was looking him [up] again on the web this morning: the nerdy from New Jersey, who has this light, classic white voice. So, that aspect of him is very much Paul Varman, but the incredible punning languages and reach to all this diverse information, some of it extraordinarily common, square, and others — Polish film directors, et cetera — being quite specialized. So, what I’m trying to do is find a voice, really, that has no rough edges. In that poem “En Famille,” for example, I’m using loop forms where I’m repeating rhymes at the end sometimes four or more times. Everything, as David pointed out, is returning, keeps coming back to itself. So, it isn’t that I’m hoping to delay the final moment or something, but kinds of edge, kinds of tension, kinds of pressure to singularize myself are literally fading out. I have no will for that character of resistance any longer.
I can get certainly as angered by Governor Bush’s disposition towards public health and taxes as I ever did, and outraged that 25 percent of his state has no health insurance, or that Medicaid is exceptionally difficult to apply for in Texas. That kind of information can still provoke real anger and certainly singular behavior, and collective, one hopes as well. For the poetry, at least, that I am composing, I want it to be — I’d love to have it melt into some general state of things. I think I begin to want more and more echoes like, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” It’s not parody. When I was young, [my line] “she walks in beauty like a lake” [was] parody, you know, [of] Byron. “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is not parody. Ideally, Wordsworth could continue the poem as well as I could, so to speak. Maybe he will, who knows?
Filreis: Now back to Williams. Your initial response to Williams — according to something you said at Camden in December — was that what mattered to you in reading Williams, particularly The Wedge, was that the work was driven by anger. This is what, at least, Ron Silliman posted to the Buffalo poetics listserv afterwards. And then he went on to comment at how Williams had a huge impact on him as well, but it was a very different Williams. So, if anger is not quite operating as much, what’s your Williams now? How does Williams animate you now?
Creeley: Back to Ron’s point, that that wasn’t the Williams he read; he reads the later Williams.
Filreis: The Desert Music.
Creeley: Yeah. Which is not an unangry poem, so to speak. But it certainly isn’t nearly as angry as the poems he was writing in the ’30s or ’20s. Spring and All, for example. Or the “Descent of Winter,” or “March First.” Many of the early poems are really angry, and their emotional base is their revulsion and anger at the world he finds around him.
Filreis: So, now when you look back at Williams, how does it feel?
Creeley: Well, it feels very much like my own life. I, when young, felt a dismay, let’s put it, that such things as the Holocaust or the Second World War or the depression or many other factors in one’s real life — that these could be so unremarkable to the body politic, that it seemed not to matter. Through the agency of my terrific wife, I sent an article — I think it was called “Bush Goes Green” from The New York Times to this listserv that a friend of ours sends us, you know, Barbie dolls and things women have to do to protect themselves in parking lots, lots of actually useful information, but the list has had a certain smugness. So, I zapped out this Bush article — Texas is fiftieth in education, and so on — and instantly comes back a letter: “Don’t send any more of this to me. I’ll vote for Bush no matter what.” So, I was disappointed that one would vote for someone who commits to have his state have 25% of its population with no insurance, who would willfully do so, and fight to preserve that situation. I still feel anger in that way.
But again, back to the verse, think of the classic phrases humans make: X wants to make his peace with the world. The resistances of Lawrence’s, “the day of my interference is done,” the recoil outstrips the advance, et cetera. I remember one time, terrifically, I had the chance to ask Kenneth Burke at a communal meal we were all at up in Orono — there was a moment when I had him to myself, so to speak, and I asked him quickly: what advice would you have for someone as myself who is getting old? And he looked at me and said: Don’t boast. You won’t be able to back it up. Therefore, it isn’t “don’t get angry, don’t use anger as a primary emotion.” It’s extraordinarily hard to sustain. It always was incidentally.
Filreis: Heather [Starr] has some questions, Bob, from people out there who have been emailing.
Starr: We have a couple of different questions. Here’s one from Joe Massey. He says there seems to be a cuteness to the poetry being written today. Do you think young poets today lack a certain intensity, and, if so, why?
Creeley: Joe, that’s too loaded a question. Let’s keep peace and quiet. The last thing in the world I would presume to do is pass judgment on such a wide spectrum of poetry, e.g. poetry written by the young. Some young persons write a poetry that’s quite decorous and pleasant in that sense. Others write a more invigorated and more argumentative charactered verse. The point is there are many, many ranges of poetry at the moment. I think again, Paul Barman’s one aspect. There’s an anthology momently to be published by St. Martin’s press called Heights of the Marvellous, edited by Todd Colby, which has a fascinating range and impact of characteristic present poets in New York, and I think that’s not pretty at all. I mean, some of it is terrifying.
Again, I don’t think you can generalize to that extent and say it’s all this way or that. I think poets, if anything, are concerned with career more than my generation was. Not long before his death, Bill Bronkin called for a conversation vis-a-vis a festival in England that he hadn’t been able to be at, and I was there. He had sent a tape that was played there, and he was asking how did it work out. So, I was able to tell him it was very dear and pleasant. Then he was talking about poetry more generally, and what he said was, “I don’t have a sense of having had a career in poetry. Not that I felt frustrated, but I never thought of having a career.” And I never thought of having a career either. I mean, no one of my generation set out to have a career in poetry. No one. I don’t know what we thought we were doing, but it wasn’t that. Career was just not what seemed to be the appropriate circumstance for that activity. What would the career apply to? You could have a career in street cleaning or something, but a career in poetry would have no pertinence.
Filreis: Bob, we have a question from Stuart Curran.
Stuart Curran: Speaking of the dangers of generalization, what was the occasion of which you first said, or did say, that form is simply an expression of content? Did you expect it to become a mantra for a generation? And do you still believe it given how conspicuous rhymes are in your late poetry?
Creeley: I remember feeling form is never more than an expression of content. That is, whatever form is the case is effectually accomplished or proposed or shaped by the content. In other words, you have some circumstance like dropping water on the floor: it takes the shape according to the character of the water on the floor, the water being the content. Apparently, in the I-Ching, there’s an instance of the beard on the face being shaped by the contours of the chin. It’s a very familiar proposal, but again like any didacticism, it can be converted to the absolute opposite of that. You can say content is never more than an expression of form. That would make equal sense, that the form it has provides, defines the content.
Perelman: I’m thinking when you wrote that, you and Olson jointly wrote that, there was the hegemony of people like Wilbur and what was celebrated, sonnets and rhyming stuff. You wanted to say no, it doesn’t have to rhyme, you write what you write.
Creeley: Exactly. Bob makes a very useful point that in the context in which that statement was made, and it was made as part of a letter. It wasn’t made as a great didactic premise. We were faced with such an habituation of authorities of form, that is, the whole imagination of the poem bien faites. A poem had to have these formal circumstances or else it was not a poem. I am trying to remember the very pleasant man who first told me the story of a friend of his reading at some midwestern college, and after he’s given a reading he invites questions, and the first question is that next to the last poem you read, was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself? That was a statement from about 1950. So, in other words, there were real poems that conformed and were defined by the formal agencies that poems were supposed to have, and there were other poems that “one just made up one’s self.” That was our frustration. That poets of our absolute respects — such as Williams and to some extent Pound also, and certainly Zukofsky — were determined they were not poets because they didn’t show mastery of this or that form. When Hugh Kenner, for example, in an article remarkably in The National Review, qualifies Zukofsky as the superior prosodist in relation to W. H. Auden, that’s one of the great heroic moments of our time.
Filreis: In The National Review, too?
Ron Silliman: One of the questions that occurs to me is that among your peers, your immediate generation, you seem to have been willing to have gone in new directions more self-evidently than others. When I think of a book such as Words, or of Pieces, or even of Mabel, those are all works that largely have very few precedents formally. You might be able to find some for Mabel in Stein, you might be able to find some for Words in some of Zukofsky, but, by and large, you’ve been willing to write poems that didn’t look like poems that existed previously, more so than others. I am curious about how you gave yourself permission for that.
Creeley: Well, Ron, in some ways it was a curious desperation. Remember, as you would well know, my terrific peers were all engaged variously with long poems. And they had visions. They had dreams; they could remember their dreams. And I felt like the tag-along kid or the person who was certainly well-treated by these dear friends, but who couldn’t himself or herself manage to get that diversity, that variety or that periodicity into his or her poetry. So, in that sense that’s really what the provocation was. I was moving with, say, words to try to break habits of completion, habits of imagined perfectness, of perfection performed, thoroughly realized. I was trying to let my self be not casual necessarily, but far more inconclusive. I remember one of the dear phrases of my youth would be [in] works such as Joyce’s, that always ended with “to be continued.” So, one was always reading tacitly a piece of, rather than an all of. And Pieces was, in one sense, a very didactic and, hence, simple frame, you know, one thing after another. I love that. One day after another, perfect. They all fit. I’ve always felt myself in the company of, gosh, not Little John, but Will Scarlet, thinking of Robin Hood. I was not Tom Sawyer, not Huckleberry Finn, God bless him, but the person who is there not simply to augment, to hold the armor or something, who is not along for the ride, but who has a partial, less-heroic fun.
Thinking of Allen [Ginsberg], for example, who had this immense ability to engage a public fact and condition a response; and Charles [Olson] had this incredible ability to cause a mythology, mythologize; Duncan was one of the great sort of storytellers and also, again, mythicizers. I remember his qualification of Language poetry way back then — “I must say,” he said, “you were an exception because you had a sense of humor” — was what he thought was the lack of story, the lack of narrative, not so much the lack of narrative in the formal sense of an agency of story-telling, the story inherent in the facts of a life; in relation to them, I was always doing what I thought I could do. So, the permission was really in the act, rather than in the disposition.
Filreis: Ron, do you want to follow up?
Silliman: No. I mean, I had thoughts of envisioning Olson as Friar Tuck in there, but I don’t think that’s a question.
Filreis: Thanks, Ron. We have a question from J.C. back here.
J. C. Todd: To follow up from what you’ve been talking about, I have a curiosity about where Denise Levertov fits in all this. I know that her first poems published in the States were almost solely published in Origin, and that there was a way in which that freshness you speak about is apparent in her early voice. So, I wondered if you would comment a little bit how Denise, early Denise, fits into all this.
Creeley: I first knew Denise when she and Mitch Goodman had married. Mitch had been a classmate of mine at Harvard. He was in Adams House, and he was a year ahead of me, but we were friends, we knew each other. We worked for The Crimson, et cetera. He was to come back to New York, and the various gang realized that he was coming back with this extraordinary English person, a person whom Rexroth referred to as Dante’s Beatrice reincarnate, which was a pretty heavy label.
So we scurried about — I was living up in New Hampshire — and went down with our truck to visit, and thus met Denise. Now, I was fascinated. She was intense, handsome, an extraordinary person. And so, they came up to visit us in New Hampshire. We talked a good deal. She had her first book, The Double Image, and it had been in some ways written in the style of that period in England: heartfelt and compassionate, but, nonetheless, in prosody, quite drab and generalizing. The classic pronoun is “we.” The shirts on the line are pretty much anybody’s, however moving. Workmen’s shirts. The particularizing isn’t there yet. She’s using a kind of blank verse line which is very steady on. Her company, then, as a peer, is a poet Dannie Abse, who becomes a doctor and who I believe is still alive. But if you look at the parallel — not careers, but the parallel circumstances of these poets, the responses at that point are variously Alex Comfort and Charles Ray Gardner who published in the Poetry Quarterly.
So, it’s a classic tacitly drab poetry that she’s engaged with. She comes to live in New York. This is West 15th Street, just off 7th Avenue. She’s caught in that extraordinary vigor, and that shifted her life very immediately. I don’t introduce her personally to Williams, but I think I certainly remember intensely talking with her about him. We had become neighbors and friends. They go over to live in Prix Ricard, just north of Aix, and we lose our house in New Hampshire and trail after them to France, and live in a house that they obtain for us in a little town called Font Rouge. So, we can walk from one town to the other very comfortably, and I used to go and sit and talk with her in the mornings about prosody and all that. We spent a lot of time on what we thought about Williams’s line, how he managed it, what it actually accomplished. This was a crucial and real time for both of us. I remember giving her Williams’s address. And he wrote: there’s a poet who writes me swearing devotion, et cetera, et cetera. This was Denise, and they had become crucial and defining friends, both of them, one for the other.
Filreis: We have a question right here.
Speaker: Robert Bly, in his introductory essay to The Best American Poetry of 1999, talked about heat in poetry and heat in words, and suggests that technology and the Internet is taking the heat away from words that we get in these chat rooms, that they are losing heat that way. I wanted to see how you felt about that: do you agree with him somewhat, or disagree with him completely?
Creeley: It’s true that saying things can have enhanced or intensified occasion by being restricted. Bleakly, but interestingly, I remember watching a television documentary on Russian writers who had come to the United States in exile. One of them was being questioned and asked the obvious question: How is it now to live in the country where what you have to write or say is not facing the censorship you had in Russia? And he’s saying: Well, it’s curious, in this country one can publish everything, but no one particularly reads it. In Russia, he at least knew that one person was reading every word he wrote. The point being that poetry in Russia had immense social power. It was really incredible. I remember reading in what’s now Saint Petersburg, or what had been Saint Petersburg, Leningrad now, Saint Petersburg again. I read there, and it was on a Saturday afternoon off the Nesky Prospekt in this old government building, and there was an incredible audience. Notes began to be handed forward before I had even read two or three poems. There was a immense interest in both me as an American and as a poet. But the point is, the Internet, in so far that it makes distribution of poetry so extraordinarily simple — I mean, eight million hits on a poetry site such as the one at Buffalo almost can’t be imagined. Ginsberg at the height of his circumstances sold around two million copies, which is a lot. But eight million, from ninety countries — that’s pretty impressive.
So the point is: is that bad? That’s the question. Of course, it changes, redetermines the situation of poetry, but having grown up with the disposition of Dylan Thomas’s “In my craft or sullen art” practiced in the moon’s rage, the lovers having a great old time, and here I sit in this little dingy attic, the imagination that poetry is somehow enhanced by isolation and meagerness of prospect, I really don’t agree with that. And I think that the Internet is really one of the absolute opportunities of poetry.
Filreis: And the Internet also makes it possible for us to host here conversation between Robert Creeley and Marjorie Perloff who is on the phone. Marjorie?
Marjorie Perloff: Al?
Filreis: Good morning. How are you?
Perloff: I’m fine. Hi Bob.
Perloff: I have a question for you that I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time, and that’s in regards to love poetry. You’re obviously one of the great love poets of the time. Why do you think there is so little love — what one can even call love poetry — being written now or for the last few decades actually?
Creeley: The anthology I mentioned, The Heights of the Marvellous — what’s fascinating in that collection of poets [is] the ways in which they qualify or address other human beings as being there. They are not prurient or attacking, but they really register the other person in every conceivable scale. It’s extraordinary how reifying that poetry is of the other person. I remember a piece that Octavio Paz did in which he expresses his dismay that love has become only singularly a sexual identification. He feels that love in the more extensive manner is pretty much disregarded.
Creeley: My son Will was home on the weekend, and he’s now in his first year at NYU. And Will was saying he feels that we as a family are all a piece, as though we were all various parts of a body. I was very moved by that. And felt perhaps it’s the way love, not so much has been bowdlerized, but needs to be —
Creeley: Exactly. I think of John Wieners [?], whom I considered truly a great love poet.
Creeley: And Denise. Back to things like losing track, or of the ache of marriage, wherein love not only got a definition, but got a substance that was absolutely remarkable. Ginsberg was a great love poet.
Perloff: Well, it seems there are more gay poets probably writing love poetry, because I remember Allen Ginsberg once said to me that, well, there’s a lot of sublimation involved, and that’s why we write love poetry.
Creeley: One thing, Marjorie, one can’t get away with “My love is like a red, red rose” anymore.
Perloff: And Gertrude Stein is a really great love poet, now, that we can turn to.
Filreis: What do you think of Bob’s referring to Will’s weekend conversation about the family, for Bob, enlarging love beyond what we normally think of love poetry or what one would think of the love poetry from the early work of Robert Creeley —
Filreis: This is an enlargement beyond Eros.
Perloff: I think Bob is unique in that he has always dealt with this, without ever being soupy about it at all, which is the great thing in his poetry. That it really isn’t sentimental, but dealing with human relationships and dealing with the importance of that, which is something that in most people’s poetry has really been cut out in curious ways, and is a lack in some ways, that people are terribly reticent about putting themselves on the line.
Filreis: Why are they reticent?
Perloff: Why? Well I think it is, I think Jed Rasula describes it well in Poetry’s Voice-Over, in his book, which is that the media supplies us with so many fake emotional things and the language of it, that it’s almost impossible to talk about it without dealing with it in that way. I mean, look at the whole Elian Gonzalez thing. What I’ve noticed that I think is very interesting [is] how awful the vocabulary is with everybody … saying quote unquote, well, he has a loving father. How do we know if his father is loving? We don’t really know anything. I mean, maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. What is a loving father? But when the vocabulary gets that debased, which it has, it’s very hard to do certain things. And now I think Bob has always managed to do it — like this one, like that one, like this one, like that one — by doing it so indirectly and delicately that one can catch an emotion that is a real emotion instead of these clichés. But I think the whole vocabulary of love today, or of any kind of relationship, is so clichéd, and they say you can see it right this week in this whole ridiculous television soap opera.
Filreis: Bob, do you want to comment on this?
Creeley: Well, I was thinking I was just in Buffalo on business this last weekend. Someone turned to me and brought up again my deathless poem “For love I would split open.” I remember with what confidence I wrote that as a young man, this sort of deathless pledge to love. It took a woman, like they say, to say you know that awful violent poem you wrote about splitting someone’s head open. I guess, again, I didn’t depend upon naïveté or stupidity, but it certainly helped me a great deal.
Filreis: As Bob prepared to read the poem in the family book collaboration with Elsa Dorfman last night — he did it boldly — he said it sort of takes guts to write a poem like this, with the risks of sentimentality and so forth. And by introducing it in that way, the hundred people in the Writers House all took a gasp. You know, how dare he let loose and hard. And as the rhymes started to pour on us like rain at the end, and you gave up reading it, saying, I can’t go on, maybe out of tiredness, maybe worrying you were risking sentimentality, I don’t know.
Creeley: I don’t worry about it.
Filreis: Good for you. Well, we have a question from David Skeel, who’s on the law faculty. I don’t know if it’s a legal question, but here we go.
David Skeel: You mentioned back at the beginning of the conversation that your early work focused a lot on the register of the text and that others were focusing on that. I wonder if you can elaborate on that.
Creeley: Well, we were thinking how can the text be as particular as, say, a score in music. The score in music, incidentally, was undergoing very extraordinary modifications and changes as well, thinking of Cage and other composers of that moment. As poets, I think we felt one of our responsibilities, and equally one of our possibilities, was being able to make a text that would provide a means for reading with the least distortion of our own purposes or intents. Anyone who thinks he or she can control the effects of what they are doing in that particular circumstance — it’s a distraction, it’s foolish. There’s no way I could ever fathom or surmise that which would give any artist an ability to understand or to forecast or even to anticipate in any real way what the effects of his or her acts would really be. Lorca being the primary instance. So, that isn’t really the question, it’s wanting what one has as [an] initiating condition of saying something to be somehow possible. I was listening to Jerome McGann, for example, at a Duncan Conference at Buffalo a couple of years ago, making the equally apt point that no text is ever resolved. It’s not possible. Its variants are insistently and forever the condition. But nonetheless, we wanted to cut through what we thought was this aestheticizing blur of habit. I remember Zukofsky telling me how long and what terrific, almost heroic, enterprise it proves, and his respect for Cummings was thus very large, to get rid of the capitals at the beginnings of lines. Now it’s kind of jazzy to bring them back. It gives a curious effect to return them.
Those shifts, which seem so modest in typographical condition, had really substantial circumstances. Again, thinking of Olson very particularly, to center or off-center three or four words themselves in relation to one another in a very particularized way is to really change entirely the imagination of a page. Or Kerouac’s writing on newspaper roll, newsprint. All of those things were very real changes in the imagination of what one was doing, what were his interests in doing it in the sense, what was one trying to do with a text. There were so many factors that entered the imagination that this was something sound. Duncan, for example, felt that no text or poem was thus complete until someone read it.
Filreis: Bob, we have a question from Andrew Zitcer here.
Andrew Zitcer: Just to switch gears a little bit, in your poem “In London,” and I think about three times in last night’s presentation, you referred to Bob Dylan, who was certainly active during the time when a lot of this was written in the anthologies, and I wonder if you can speak a little bit about his role.
Creeley: I thought he was a master of rhythmic patterns. I thought, too, that he was able to use not simply idiomatic, or a loose sense of common words, but I was fascinated by his clarity of language. I loved it in a person like Hank Williams. I am trying to remember the name of the writer, Francis somebody-or-other, who had an article in The Atlantic Monthly in the last year or so, in which he’s talking about Dylan, a recording from the early ’60s that was released, a concert, and he quotes from this poem of mine. Then he says something that really pleased me: he said that I used backbeat, as he calls it, which I certainly do. As does Dylan. It means coming in on the unemphasized stress, beat, coming in, variously, with Charlie Parker, coming in late, as they say. You get a very curious syncopation from doing that. I thought that Dylan was a master in terms of his ear and his ability with the rhythmic patterns. You remember, perhaps, there was an article in Rolling Stone in the early ’60s called “The Poet’s Poet” by Mike McClure, which gave Dylan an absolute respect, and was an instance of the way we all variously felt about him. Because, again, we were trying to break down clichés of enclosure, just that Dylan wasn’t a poet, in the sense of the pop music. I felt that among other reasons why in this last day I put such emphasis on a poet — or what I would call a poet — as Paul Barman. I get so bored by discretions that want to put that character of writing apart from the “real poetry,” which, to begin again, to define poetry as an activity dominated by subject, by discretions of rhetoric, so on and so forth — which to me are really, if not malevolent overtly, certainly of no use to anyone.
Filreis: A question here from Carolyn Jacobson, and then we’re going to take a question that’s been emailed to Heather. Then we’re going to wrap up.
Carolyn Jacobson: I’m going back to the idea of register, and the importance of place and rhythm of voice. I was interested to hear you talk about paying attention and being interested in whether Williams stopped at the end of lines or not, and that made me wonder if you ever hear other people read your poetry? And it must be an interesting thing to feel like you can create your rhythms in your voice, and then have other people recreate that in their reading of your work. So, I’m also wondering what it’s like to hear people get your work wrong, if you’ve had instances of that, and what the effect of that is?
Creeley: Larry Bronfman was a friend of Paul Blackburn’s, and Larry’s uncle, I guess it was, had a substantial print shop that Paul worked at for a while. But in any case, Larry Bronfman was very interested by my poetry. This was back in the early ’50s, and I remember he drove down to Black Mountain with me, and I had a modest reading there, and I remember he was aghast at the way I read my poems. He said, you know, it frankly destroyed his interest in my poetry. He said he would never read my poems like that. Another dear friend, a much dearer friend actually, was Bill Bronk, who said “why do you read your poems in that manner?” Well, that’s the way I wrote them. He said, God, you sound like you’re dying up there. The strangling and all this stuff.
Filreis: He should hear the Libretto do it.
Creeley: Then I remember, once, so terrific, one time, I was reading at MIT, and I remember then came the end of the reading, and I had invited questions, and someone says I don’t know anything about you, and I don’t know anything about poetry either, but I was just walking by the back of the room, and I heard you reading, and I said it’s a very odd way of reading, so I decided just to stop and listen a bit. And so he did, and he said, I’m just curious: is that on the page? How do you get that kind of weird reading out of it? So, I invited him to come forward and simply read the poems as they were printed, and the only advice I would give him, the only thing I would ask of him was that he stop briefly at the end of each line. And so he did. He read it beautifully. I mean, it sounded precisely the way I wanted it to be. So, I guess that was my reassurance that what I was writing was translatable. And the people I had most difficulty with were those who both expectably and legitimately were overreading or overwriting with interests of their own. It wasn’t that they were good guys or bad guys. But again, if, and as, the prosody holds, it will take care of that. It will play it still, so to speak, through the override of an impulse.
Filreis: We have a last question from Kerry Sherin who is the director of the Writers House and who is writing a book about Eliot. Kerry.
Kerry Sherin: I love the way that dissertation becomes a book.
Filreis: Is it book-length? Then it’s a book. Just make a .pdf file of it, and it’s a book.
Sherin: Bob, I have a quick question for you about love poetry. I love Marjorie Perloff’s question about love poetry, and it made me think about who you might count as influences in the poetic tradition, or even in other traditions, in other media that you think of as influences. And I am especially interested, I guess, [in] prosodic influences, especially since that’s been something that you’ve been talking about — but I’m wondering, usually you talk about Williams.
Creeley: Back to my generation, talking about my generation, we, all of us, read the metaphysicals. I don’t think there was any one of us that didn’t read the metaphysicals. It ranged from respects there were immediately sort of located Donne, but then went variously to Herbert or Crashaw or to other qualifications of Vaughan, for example. I remember Duncan, we were talking once about poets who we would love to do a selected edition of, and Robert’s real pleasure would be to do an edition of Vaughan, Henry Vaughan. But when I think of the core poets to love, in particular, I loved Herrick, as Zukofsky did. I find Herrick is a great poet, and of this peculiarly small, domestic, extraordinary reality.
Then, too, there were prose writers, D. H. Lawrence, but also Stendahl, Dostoevsky, et cetera. At that point, love becomes comingled, as they say, with emotions, with passions and relationships of people. Whitman I came to late, but him certainly. And Emily Dickinson endlessly. Coleridge, I loved Coleridge. He stayed most faithful, to my mind, of the poets that I think of who locate human feelings in ways that I certainly know. I mean “The Paint of Sleep,” I think, is to be beloved. I remember one time Ed Dorn said of Allen Ginsberg: all he wants to do is be loved. And I thought of great old S. T.: to be beloved is all I need, and whom I love, I love indeed.
Filreis: Bob, I was hoping we could conclude by having you read any poem at all and just making a brief comment on it.
He reaches for Life and Death of 1998. Anything at all, and comment by way of conclusion. That would be great.
Creeley: That’s not so easy. I’ll try and find something that’s quick and particular.
“A Valentine for Pen,” speaking of love.
[Reads “A Valentine for Pen.”]
You know it was a valentine. It wanted to say, simply, I love, I love being here, I love you.
I remember one time when Will was very young, we’d gone up, myself and Hannah and Will, and a pleasant younger woman who was a kind of classic nanny when my wife was studying at Cornell — and in any case we got to Maine early, and I remember Will’s a bit disgruntled, and I ask him what’s wrong, and he said without mom, there’s no love in the house. And that was a yes, my boy. And that’s it, what’s more to say?
Filreis: It’s the same word home at the end of the poem “Goodbye.”
Creeley: It will break your heart.
An interview with Paul Dutton
Editorial note: Fellow Canadians Paul Dutton and W. Mark Sutherland ply the field of unconventional poetic practice in this interview, conducted by Sutherland in December 2009 and January 2010. Sutherland, an intermedia artist perhaps as heavily invested in language as Dutton (with whom he has collaborated artistically in the past), explores his colleague’s vast array of poetic practices, including visual poetry, sound poetry, and improvisational soundsinging. Dutton has released five books and four recordings of his solo work (recent examples include the CDs Mouth Pieces and Oralizations), but is widely recognized for his ensemble work as well, namely his participation in the Four Horsemen with bpNichol, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Steve McCaffery. Below this interview, you will find six poems by Paul Dutton. — Kenna O’Rourke
To me, poetry is a very broad multisensory enterprise that incorporates the purely visual and sonic aspects of language, as well as the conventionally verbal — the intelligible, unintelligible, the intellectual, the emotional, all of these things at play. — Paul Dutton
W. Mark Sutherland: bpNichol once stated, “There are no boundaries in art.” You expressed a similar sensibility in the preface to your poetry book Right Hemisphere, Left Ear (Coach House Press, 1979), and in your lovely little visual poem “Cross-Breeding” in your poetry book Aurealities (Coach House Press, 1991). Primarily, much of your mature creative practice is a form of borderblur that pivots on two modes of perception — the eye (print, literature) and the ear (orality, music). What role did bpNichol play in the development of your creative practice?
Paul Dutton: Most importantly, he led me to see the poem as something beyond myself, something other than a vehicle for my own thoughts and feelings, more a means of exploration and discovery. Also, he introduced me to sound and visual poetry, both of which I was primed for, and — in the case of sound poetry — was tending in the direction of. But I knew nothing of the genres as such: never heard of Dada, nor concrete poetry — none of that. I had a pretty well-developed sonic sense. One of the first poems I ever published, “Jazz Musician,” is sonically based, purposely conceived of as a poem that would not be about jazz (though it was that), but would be jazz, using language in jazz rhythms and to evoke various of the music’s effects. It was a long way off from sound poetry, but there was some exploitation of sound in the sonic dimension of the words. I was primed and ready for something like sound poetry. I’d always had an affinity for the more sonically and more musically inflected kinds of writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and E. E. Cummings. When I heard Barrie [bpNichol, who was Barrie Philip Nichol] doing sound poetry it let me go that further step — no longer worry about sense per se, certainly not worry about syntax. And it meant opening up the voice. One of the appeals of sound poetry that I was conscious of right from the start was that it was a place to bring together my musical and literary talents.
Sutherland: What about visual poetry?
Dutton: I’d been aware of the visual aspects of poetry since high school, but not in the abstract visual way. I’d encountered the shaped poems of the seventeenth century — angels’ wings, altars, and such — but I had no knowledge of what was called “concrete poetry,” nor of the visual poetry of the twentieth century. And that was something that Barrie also introduced me to.
Sutherland: The Four Horsemen (1970–1988) remain a unique aesthetic experiment, encompassing sociopolitical, personal therapeutic, collective, and communal energies. Your thoughts on the Four Horsemen’s legacy?
Dutton: Well, before I get to that “legacy” business, I want to comment on some of the terms you’ve used. I didn’t and don’t consider the Four Horsemen “an experiment”: that term, for me, too much suggests a calculated, systematic, and controlled procedure. We all just thought it would be exciting to have four voices cutting loose on sound poetry, and we soon expanded that to include other types of performed poetic works — narrative, dramatic, comic, and the like.
Now, what I’ve just said there is something that could be called a matter of opinion, and that’s a fair enough observation. But what I’m now going to say is something that’s a matter of fact: the Four Horsemen had nothing to do with personal therapy. Certain of us were acquainted with each other through involvement in a particular therapeutic setting, but that is a fact most explicitly and emphatically independent of the fact that we were four writers with shared interests and enthusiasms. We said, “Let’s get together and do sound poetry.” We did not say, “Let’s get together and ease our psychoneuroses by doing sound poetry.”
Same goes for your term “communal.” We never lived together. Probably would’ve killed each other if we had. All of us, at varying times and in varying degrees, were involved in a community, the short-lived psychotherapeutic community Therafields, in Toronto — now that was an experiment. But again, our involvement in the Four Horsemen was not by any means posited on that involvement, however much it may at times have been facilitated by it.
And so … looks like I’ve halved the opening context of your question, Mark. What’s left are the sociopolitical and collective energies you referred to, and they were sure there. Can’t say what you had in mind about the kind of sociopolitical energy that was afoot (or a-hoof), but the group definitely operated anarchically. And, of course, collectively.
But to get (at last) to your actual question: I don’t think it’s for me to say what the legacy of The Four Horsemen is. That’s for others to say. But I can talk about the Four Horsemen’s impact on me. When people rave to me about the Four Horsemen, or ask me questions about it, I can’t really say very much: I never saw the Four Horsemen. I was inside it, and for me it was a process of opening up horizons, sonic possibilities. The Four Horsemen served all four of us as a kind of perambulatory workshop, because all the time we were touring, and otherwise getting together, woodshedding (Barrie’s term for it), building repertoire and touring with it, we were at the same time reading each other our poetry, discussing poetics and workshopping our poetry among ourselves. So there was that dimension of it in terms of the writerly thing, but we were also learning from each other about different sonic effects, different techniques of nonverbal sound and of sound poetry.
There was also the collaborative way of working together in process that has benefitted me considerably. One of the ways we built repertoire was by improvising: we’d do free-improvisational vocal work, and then structure things from that. A lot of the pieces would begin with vocal improv. And vocal improv is something we got back to in a major way, after years of performing scored, scripted, and staged pieces (though always with improvisatory elements, it should be noted). The last five or six years of the Four Horsemen, we abandoned repertoire entirely. Collectively, we lost interest in doing repertoire work, and certainly in creating repertoire work. I’ve still got the remnants of the last piece of structured repertoire that we had begun working on. We had gone some distance with it, but every time a rehearsal was called to work on it something would happen. I remember one time where we decided to take a break and we never really reassembled after the break. Rafael needed a haircut or something. It turned out he was upstairs (he and I had apartments in the same building; the rehearsal was being held in my place) watching a baseball game. Steve went off to do an errand. We eventually reconvened, but that was it for any work that day. In fact, I think that was the last time we ever bothered to call a rehearsal.
A good example of performance from 1982 to the conclusion of the group can be heard on the cassette that we released called 2 Nights, when we did two nights in a program at a jazz series at the Music Gallery in Toronto. How we functioned that night, and how we were functioning through those years, was basically as a four-voice improvisational group. We would use text, but it would almost always be drawn from our own personal writing practices, and would be introduced spontaneously into the proceedings, used interstitially, or foregrounded in various ways. That period of mainly sound improv is a part of the Four Horsemen’s work that doesn’t get much — or any — attention. I never hear anyone else talking about it. All the attention is focused on the repertoire work.
But I think it’s great that people continue to appreciate what we were doing. Ross Manson, the dramaturge behind The Four Horsemen Project, a cross-arts theatre piece that reinterpreted several of the Horsemen’s collective and individual works, and that won four Doras [Toronto theatre awards], then toured Canada and Europe … when Ross and his arts partner Kate Alton, who was the choreographer of the project, when they first heard the Four Horsemen in the late 1990s on a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] broadcast, they’d missed the intro and they came in in the middle of the piece and they were knocked out. They thought it was a contemporary group. It rocked their socks. They were surprised to learn that it was a recording from the ’70s and that, furthermore, it was a Canadian group. When they raised that production and premiered it in 2006, it was a hit. It was a hit everywhere it played. People were thrilled by it.
Sutherland: You invented the compound word “soundsinging” to describe the hybridization of your oral soundwork. When did you first apply this term to your oral soundwork, and how has your soundsinging evolved over the years from sound poetry to free improvisation?
Dutton: I started using the term sometime in the mid- to late ’90s, after a conversation I had with Mike Hansen, a Toronto visual artist, free improviser, and sometime broadcaster. In the course of the conversation I mentioned something about Lauren Newton, and he said, “Oh yeah. She sings sounds too.” And it was thereafter that I came up with the term “soundsinging” and started using it.
One of the reasons I went with that term was because I had been working for so long in both a musical and literary context, but then became more active in a very specifically musical context. There was a time when I was using the term “free voice singing,” and that was in the early ’90s. In fact I did a whole essay called Beyond Doo Wop, or How I Came to Realize that Hank Williams is Avant-Garde, throughout which I used the term “free voice singing” to refer to the musical, improvisational, nonverbal orality that I practiced. But I stopped using that term when I came up with “soundsinging.” Another term I use is “oral sound art,” which I also apply to similar work by people like Phil Minton, Jaap Blonk, Demetrios Stratos, and a number of others, many of whom have come at it from a musical matrix.
I used “free voice singing” before I really claimed ownership of my own musical-matrix background. It was around the time I came to realize that I’d always been a singer. As a kid, I was at a special school for six years where music was part of the curriculum, singing in public from the age of eight or nine; and during my twenties I worked professionally part-time as a cantor in the Catholic Church for a number of years. I was earning part of my living that way. I was a musician. I was a singer. I’ve always been a singer. All the time I was aspiring to be a writer, I was already a singer and didn’t realize it. I never called myself a musician, never introduced myself as a singer, nor claimed to be a singer. It was wallpaper in my life. I didn’t even realize it was there. Actually, before the Four Horsemen formed I spent a few years, not many, singing traditional British folk music in coffee houses around Toronto. When the Four Horsemen formed, I stopped doing that. All of that energy went into work with the Four Horsemen. I didn’t even think about it. It just happened. But there’s a relationship, at least a tangential one, between the two. There is a nonverbal element in a lot of the traditional British and Scottish folk music, and some had nonsense lyrics or nonverbal lyrics. One piece I used to do was a traditional mouth-music piece — verbal jig music.
So I’d always been a singer, but sound poetry helped me bring that together with my literary aspirations; there was a fusion. A critical step was after a performance of the Horsemen in the ’80s, one of the audience members remarked to me that he could hear two sounds at once coming from me. That was a turning point for me in terms of listening, as well as sounding. I started noticing more of all of that and got fascinated by multiphonics, really focusing on it. I started concentrating consciously on achieving biphonality and mutiphonic effects. So there were steps and stages in the whole thing, a kind of an evolution, and I was using the same techniques both in sound poetry and in free improvisational singing.
The way things developed from the late ’70s on was that I’d become more and more interested in playing with instrumentalists, and also working in an improvisational mode, playing with people like Bill Smith, David Lee, Curtis Driedger, and others. As well, the Horsemen played a few times with CCMC [a Toronto free-improvisation band begun in the mid-’70s, based at the Music Gallery]. Then in the late ’80s, at bp’s instigation, he and I started sitting in regularly with CCMC. The other Horsemen had by then lost any interest in regularly exploring orality or sonic expression. But it continued to be one of my principal focuses, and Barrie was interested in, as he put it, “keeping up his chops.” So he approached CCMC and arranged for the two of us to sit in on their regular sessions at the Music Gallery. As it turned out, he was not available for that many sessions; I was there every second week on a pattern that was established. About a year after that started, Barrie died. I continued on with the group and then became a member. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sutherland: Your creative practice is nonprogrammatic, alternating between the automatic and the structural. Your aesthetic approach involves formal compositions and improvisation as well as all points in between these given polarities. I believe that your CD Mouth Pieces (OHM Éditions, 2000) contains three excellent examples of your compositional methodologies: “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet,” written composition; “Vive le,” a fusion of written composition and improvisation; and “Nod to Bob,” an improvisation. What were your methods in each of those?
Dutton: “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet” follows the form of a sonnet — fourteen lines. It’s a sonnet in iambic tetrameter, instead of iambic pentameter. My method in any mode, whether it’s compositional, semi-improvisatory, or totally improvisatory, is usually intuitive rather than conceptual. But there was a concept here, which was to create a totally sonic, nonverbal sonnet; it was conceptual to that degree. Why I settled on tetrameter rather than pentameter: it just felt right — “b’dya b’dya b’dya b’dya”; there didn’t seem any point in adding more “b’dya’s” there. It’s kind of overdone then. In conversation I tend to run off at the mouth too much (you might notice here), but when I’m composing I got enough time to sit down and limit myself. By the way, it’s called “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet” because I intended to do a sequence of sound sonnets; that’s why the “1” is in there. But after I did one, there didn’t seem to be any reason to keep doing any more. I’ve tried a few times, and there is no point, it’s all there in the first poem. In my creative work I tend not to repeat myself, I don’t repeat forms much. There are a lot of writers that get their formula down and then just pour content through it, but that’s never appealed to me. Essentially, I find it boring. That’s one of the reasons I like Beckett so much: it’s always changing. I should mention that the last couplet of “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet” summarizes all the sounds of the foregoing lines. It adheres very faithfully to the sonnet form, in that.
It’s not the only adventure in sonnet form that I undertook. There is the “so’net” sequence. That title is intended to do two things: first of all, by only once using each of the letters of the word sonnet, to present the five letters that will be used exclusively in the sequence; also, by leaving out one of the n’s and putting in the apostrophe, to seduce the Anglophonic tongue into approximating the French pronunciation of son, French for sound: so, so’net — a net for sound, an intentional cross-lingual pun that’s there in the title. I don’t know how many people get that, and I must admit I’ve considered more than once that I’m too subtle for my own good. I try to avoid literality, but then what I’m doing goes over the average person’s head — or maybe any person’s head. But then, so much poetry is a private joke anyway. I think the Cantos are a long sequence of obscure personal references — not just that, obviously, but definitely that, among other things. In the “so’net” sequence, there are eight poems, each constrained by using only the letters of the word sonnet. The first seven are basically Shakespearean, and pretty much iambic tetrameter. The eighth is an anomaly and not really a sonnet, except for having fourteen lines, arranged on the Petrarchan model; and it’s not metric at all, but lettristic.
I have to correct you about “Vive le.” It is thoroughly composed, not improvised. I might not always repeat the exact number of phonemes as in the text (or score), but that’s the only thing about it that’s in any way improvisational. It is a fusion, all right, but a notated and repeatable one, of verbal and nonverbal material, of linguistic sense and pure phonetic abstraction. A better example of my fusing the written and the improvisational would be “Jazzstory,” which is likewise on Mouth Pieces. But because you’ve asked about “Vive le,” I’ll talk about it more before commenting on “Jazzstory.”
“Vive le,” which is dedicated to Henri Chopin, plays with the phonemes and letters of Henri’s first name and surname, also playing with the concept of nothingness, which is conveniently embedded there in his name: Hen-ri, with its silent h, reversing nicely, with a bit of a shift in pronunciation, into rien, French for nothing. The compositional method is to use the phonemes of Henri’s name, playing with humor. Henri was always known for his puckish sense of humor, and I think that’s reflected in the poem, which has en-ri morphing into on rit, someone’s laughing; and ri-en — again, the syllables of his name reversed — into rions, let’s laugh. It’s very much a linguistic poem, in addition to all the sound elements in it. It’s a hybrid of punning and using the sounds abstractly, a device that suggested itself to me as I moved through the composition of the poem. There is a very subtle thing — again, too subtle for my own good — a private joke in there nobody would ever catch. In the middle section, when I do “o ee o ee,” and then a couple of lines later, I make an “ee o ee o” sound, it’s a very purposeful and representational parody of a donkey’s bray. That is an allusion to Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, where a pretender to nobility, a rich guy, nouveau riche, with his pretensions to cultivated practices, hires a speech therapist to teach him elocution so he can do it right; and the guy is working on his vowels in the play, going around sounding like a donkey. Purposeful ridicule. Not that I’m ridiculing Chopin; just having fun with the vowels in his name. Anyway, I don’t think anybody’d ever catch that Molière allusion in my poem. There should be a superscript and footnote for anyone reading the poem. These vowel sounds logically led to an approximation of the word ennui. “Vive le” just came up intuitively by letting the concepts work. The ending of the poem always amused me. For anyone who knew Henri, and especially him speaking English, “Oh ye-se” — yes, with a little concluding vowel sound — was something that he said frequently. So the poem ends with “oooooooooooohhhh ye-se,” and every audience, without exception, breaks up on that, it always ends with people laughing. I want to say, “Did you know Henri? Why did you find that so funny?” Because the only funny thing about it to me is that it’s so quintessentially Henri-ish.
Okay, so “Jazzstory” [see below for text] — a fusion of composition and improvisation; also, another poem with a dedication, this time to Toronto guitarist Tim Posgate, who commissioned me to write a poem to be linked with his quartet Jazzstory. I accordingly cited the band’s instrumentation in the first line of the poem, along with what I considered appropriate verbs (“bass line drums support trumpet speaks guitar”) creating a kind of verbal “chord,” and then, in a linguistic move analogous to a jazz player’s changing the order of notes in a chord, shuffled the order of the instruments’ names in three succeeding lines, linking those lines with the verb is. That served as a kind of chorus, followed by a number of verses, the entire poem consisting of words spelt exclusively with the letters of the poem’s first line. Then the chorus comes in at the end, but this time in mirror mode, with the words of each line reversed. So, all of that makes up the compositional part, and very compositional it is: the establishment of the first lines’ letters as the only ones used in the poem is the literary equivalent of a musical composer’s selection of a tone row as the series of notes on which to base a composition. The improvisational component occurs only in the performance of the poem, which has two improvisational breaks. The first is at the end of the first chorus, and begins with the final letter of that chorus, s. I then take off on a free improvisation — well, perhaps more accurately, a constrained improvisation, because it’s made up exclusively of the letters and phonemes that constitute the poem (harkening back to that tone-row element of serial composition). That’s the constraint. The free part is the improvised organization of those components within the break, which ends on the first letter of the poem’s first verse — s, as it chances, the letter the break started on. The second improvisational break occurs after the recitation of the verses, and begins with the last letter of those verses, p. This break progresses through a differently developed improvisation on the constituent letters and phonemes of the poem’s first line, ending on the first letter of the “mirror chorus,” which is g in the word guitar.
“Nod to Bob,” dedicated to Bob Cobbing, was a studio improvisation. I was in Quebec to make a record at Avatar Studios. Part of the process of that record was just cutting loose in the studio. I was cutting loose one day, and in the midst of it I found myself doing this soma haoma thing, which was the term in the ancient language Avestan for the magic mushroom. Bob had picked it up from somewhere and he chanted on that phrase as long as I knew him. I heard it on recordings before I met him. I was fascinated with that phrase. He used it a lot in his chants. When it came up in the course of this improvisation, it led to a whole development that just seemed to work. I’ve since done with that improvisation something I’ve done with no other, and that is to try to score it. I’ve made a few stabs at it, but none are really satisfactory. I have attempted to perform it since, with varying degrees of success, but it’s an improvisation, and the thing about improvisation is that it’s a one-time-only thing; you can’t repeat it. I’ve been able to get a bit of the flavor here and there, enough for my own satisfaction somewhat, and enough to impress audiences, but nothing, I think, as effective as the original.
If you’ll indulge me in a bit of a digressional reminiscence that’s associated with that poem … at a performance at Polyphonix in Paris, 2002, I concluded the performance with “Nod to Bob.” When I got to the lobby after the performance I was greeted by Martin Bakero and Andrés Anwandter, two young Chilean poets I knew through Bob’s Writers Forum Workshop in London, and they told me that Bob had just died a few days previously. I’d been on the road and hadn’t heard. I think if I’d known of his death before I performed … well, I think I’d just have to have changed my program, ’cause I don’t think I’d’ve been able to make it through the piece without breaking down. He’d been ailing, and was clearly not long for this world, but still, it came as a real blow, a shock, nonetheless.
Sutherland: What of your personal relationships with Henri and Bob?
Dutton: I met them both for the first time in 1978 when Sean O’Huigin and Steve McCaffery organized the eleventh International Sound Poetry Festival in Toronto. I didn’t have much to do with Bob at that time. One thing I remember about him was that one day when the festival was on there was an election, so of course, as is (or anyway, was then) the law here on election days, the bars were closed until after the polls closed. Can’t have anybody voting when they are drunk; they might do something right. So the liquor stores and the bars were all shut down, and I remember Bob and Bill Griffiths in particular were grossly offended. Bob was an alcoholic all his life, and in those days he was pretty juiced. For both those guys, Bob and Bill, it was almost a source of daily nutrition. They were so pissed off. They were outraged the bars were closed, and it was like they took it personally.
The funding resources for the festival were such that the only other performances that Sean and Steve were able to put together was a program through the League of Canadian Poets called Poets in the Schools (which, incidentally, is still in place today). It provided funds for poets to perform in high schools in the province of Ontario, so tours were set up involving both a Canadian poet and a European visitor. I was paired with Henri for a little tour of southwestern Ontario high schools. I got us lost on our first part of the trip, and Henri took over the navigation after that. For four or five days we traveled around together and we had a great time. We got to know each other, like each other. Henri very much respected what I was doing, though it was different from what he did. I’m very proud to say I still have a score I wrote for us then, and our performance of it was recorded, and I tried to get a copy from the paranoid little high-school kid who recorded it. It was an acoustic duet with Henri, and I did not realize at the time how remarkable this was. Henri, I later came to realize, did not perform with anything but his tapes. He strictly did his poèsie sonore tape-recorded poems, adding to them in performance some vocal effects. He did not perform without a microphone. But I convinced him to do an acoustic duet. He thought it was kind of silly, but he did it. I’d give my eyeteeth — well, my remaining eyetooth — to have that tape. It’s gone. I asked the kid at the time for a copy of it, I got his address and I wrote to him afterwards to send me a dub of it. But …
So that’s where our friendship bonded. Then we encountered each other when I performed in England in 1984. Henri came down from Essex with his wife Jean to hear me when I did a performance at the Canadian embassy. I visited him in Essex, and after Jean died, anytime I was in Europe, and he was in Paris, I would visit him there. The friendship just went on through the years.
I got to know Bob in 1984 at the twelfth International Sound Poetry Festival, to which Barrie had been invited, and when he couldn’t make it because of a scheduling conflict, he suggested to the Department of External Affairs, to which Bob had applied for funding, that they invite me, which they did, and which Bob agreed to. That’s when I really got to know Bob, and he was very impressed with my performance. Subsequently, he published some things of mine, and I returned to England several times for performances and launches that Bob set up.
I was very good friends with both Henri and Bob. And they, as it happened (and I eventually came to learn) famously hated each other. There is a very funny little anecdote I wrote about in a verbal portrait of Bob for an issue of Open Letter shortly after he died. There is this one point when we were sitting in his kitchen, and at that time Bob was into researching his family tree. In the middle of doing all his literary publishing and performing and making visual poetry, he was doing a little family newsletter that was going out to all these Cobbings. In the course of his research he found that the English name Cobbing and the Polish name Chopin were distant branches of the same family. Bob said something along the lines of, “So it seems that Chopin and I are related. Distant brothers or something. Probably why we hate each other so much.” Later, I was surprised to find amongst the shelves and shelves of books with varying accumulations of geological dust at Bob’s place a Chopin book. It had visual poetry and maybe a record in it. I said to Bob, “I found this on the shelf. I’m astounded that you have a Chopin book.” And Bob said, “That’s a good book, quite a decent little book. I told you: when I have money I buy books, and when I don’t have money, I sell them.”
Sutherland: Like your oral soundwork, your visual poetry exhibits both automatic and structuralist tendencies. The Plastic Typewriter (Underwhich Editions/Writers Forum, 1993) is a conceptual and improvisational masterpiece — a winning combination of form and process. On the other hand, “Narcissus A” is a serialized pattern poem based on the graphic power of a single letter, A. Tell me a little more about these two works.
Dutton: The Plastic Typewriter began at a Flamenco evening. Back in the ’70s there was a place in Toronto on Bloor Street between Bathurst and Spadina that had Flamenco floorshows. I’d been to see a couple of them and I was really taken with Flamenco. I wanted to capture Flamenco rhythms in type, and the only type I had at my disposal was on my typewriter, but the rigid constraints of the typewriter were a problem. I’d already done a sequence called “Mondriaan Boogie Woogie 1–6,” where I’d been able to achieve a plasticity with punctuation marks, a free-form kind of impression created by moving a small piece of paper around on the typewriter while the roller and carriage were running free so that I could move the paper around at will. But I wanted to get a kind of free-form freedom with some control, because there was very little control over the parameters with the roller: it was a lot of chance, moving a piece of paper loosely through the roller and whacking the keys to smack the type hammers on the page. I wanted something with which I could get more control. The same freedom but more control, less totally a chance operation. So I conceived of ripping the hammers out of the typewriter and using them freely on a piece of paper.
The opportunity arose in 1977 to go on a therapeutic art retreat at a farm in the countryside in Dufferin County near Orangeville with the organization called Therafields. It was a combination work and therapy retreat for artists. I decided I was going to work on this idea for capturing Flamenco rhythms on paper with typewriter elements and that was the genesis of The Plastic Typewriter. I found a typewriter for five dollars in a Goodwill store. I wanted to find an old typewriter that I wouldn’t feel bad about ripping apart. I didn’t want to damage my little portable Olivetti, which was my principal writing tool. So I found this little typewriter with a plastic body and all kinds of plastic parts, everything except what had to be metal, like the hammers, the roller (well, metal and rubber, that) and various working parts. And, there was the plastic typewriter. It was the perfect double entendre. I was going to create plastic art with a plastic typewriter. It was a gift. So I worked on the pieces up at the farm. There were a few that were duds, but eighteen pages made it and became the publication (finally, fourteen years later). The process, means, and methodology were developed in the course of the week at the farm.
One of the things I was doing to create the poems was hitting a typewriter carbon ribbon with the type hammers I’d ripped out of the machine. This was done on a piece of normal bond paper. Consequently, The Plastic Typewriter originals are all yellowed, and within 100 or more years they’ll disappear entirely, they’ll just be dust. What will last is the carbon — if anything lasts, ever. So it started with the carbon ribbons, which I was hitting with the hammers and creating an impression on the white-bond page. It didn’t occur to me to get acid-free paper.
So, I’m hitting the ribbon with the hammers, and something becomes immediately clear: why am I not seeing the whole letter here? And it took a minute to realize that the hammer that I was hitting had a letter on it, but that letter was normally striking a curved surface, the typewriter roller — and in striking a curved surface it created a letter that looked like it was a flat imprint, so the letter on the hammer was curved. What I was getting was the top and the bottom of it, right? I realized that I needed to get more weight on the hammer to get the type character to make the full impression of an A there. I was using the hammers M, A, L, G, to create the word Malaga, which is the name of the province where Flamenco originated in Spain — or so I had read. I tried hitting with more force, but to no avail. So I thought, How am I going to get enough pressure to get the full letter? And then it occurred to me that I should hit the type hammer with something heavier. And I was on a farm and there were tools around, so I managed to acquire a metal file and I used that to hit the hammers.
On one of the pieces, I was whacking away with the file and it slipped. Now on this piece I was not using the carbon ribbon, I was using carbon paper, since I didn’t want to have a whole bunch of pieces that were just straight lines, which is what I would get with just the carbon ribbon. So I was using carbon paper and striking onto the carbon paper, having a larger field for the image. When the file slipped, I didn’t know what was behind there because I’m looking at the back of the carbon paper which is opaque, with the final image going on to a piece of bond which I can’t see. And after the file slipped I thought, Oh shit! That’s going to show through. Then I thought, Let’s just see what happens if we use that. Then I started just smacking the file directly on the carbon paper, and that turned out very nicely. That image wound up on the cover of my 1991 book Aurealities.
Then various things fell into place as I went along. There are some lines I made by using my fingernail, running my nail along a piece of carbon paper or carbon ribbon. I crinkled up carbon paper, shook the carbon dust over a piece of white bond, then ran the white bond through the roller, typing on it. All kinds of different things.
For “Narcissus A” I had access to a laser printer in the Musicworks office (Musicworks magazine has been a longtime freelance copyediting client of mine), so I ran off a giant A and then ran it off-center to create an overprint jogged over to the side. That pretty much exhausted my limited knowledge of things; I couldn’t think of anything else to do with the laser printer. So I started cutting up the images and waxing and pasting them. Part of my work in the publishing field had been writing and producing catalogues for McClelland and Stewart. I worked in publishing in various capacities for fifteen years or so, mostly during the days when printing plates were made from what were called “mechanicals” — type printed on paper that was then waxed on its back and stuck down on boards, the wax being melted onto the paper, where it cooled into a tacky, impermanent adhesive that allowed easily for any lifting and repositioning that might be desired, and then the whole thing shot on film, from which printing plates were made. So, pre-digital, pre-computer. Now, when I started work on Narcissus A, it chanced that living directly across the street from me was the guy who’d been head of the art department at a publishing company we worked together at twenty years before. We’d bumped into each other around the neighborhood. So one day I went over and said, “Tom, you wouldn’t happen to have a waxer hanging around would you?” There were two kinds of waxers, a tabletop flat-bed waxer and a handheld one, and Tom had this little handheld one, which was ideal for my purposes. So I used that, cut things up, and I waxed and pasted, and that’s “Narcissus A.” Why the title? Because there were mirror images of the letter A used. So it’s A reflecting on itself. It consists of nothing but components of the type-character letter A.
Sutherland: As a novelist and poet, your debt to Gertrude Stein is obvious in your texts “Change: No Change,” “Thinking,” or some of the poems in your work in progress The Book of Uncertain Values. However, I believe that Gerard Manley Hopkins’s concept of “sprung rhythm” (the play of stressed and unstressed syllables resulting in compressed metrics) is another important source for much of your text-based art-making. The musical qualities of written language are always prevalent in your poetry, and I marvel at your ability to integrate the ear and the eye in poems such as “Kit Talk,” “Smile,” and “T’ Her,” the latter two in the “Jazz” section of Aurealities. During the process of writing these verbal texts do you use diacritics as a guide, or do you voice the work out loud and/or simply intuit the rhythm of the words in your head?
Dutton: I intuit. I don’t use diacritics (well, once, and long after the fact, after the intuitive creation; that was “Little Sound 1: A Sonnet,” discussed earlier). I voice the work out loud, and I intuit the rhythm of the words. Certainly I’ve been influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was an early, powerful and continuing influence on my writing, but I never understood the “sprung rhythm” thing. I don’t have an analytical mind for all that metric stuff. I suppose if I really wanted to I could work on it and figure it out, but I find the effort is never rewarded by anything tangible. At the same time, however, I don’t consider myself to be an idiot savant in this matter. When you are working on a poem, you don’t say, “Aha! I’ll produce some metonymy here. I think metonymy would work well at this point. Wait, no — better use some synecdoche, it’s been a while since I’ve used any synecdoche. Oh, hold on a minute. These are trochaic. No, I want some spondees happening here.” Has anybody ever written that way?
In sports, it’s a compliment to tell somebody that they were unconscious. When somebody screws up in a sport and they say, “Well, I was thinking …,” the response is, “Don’t think!” In other words, analysis can be beneficial in some ways, but if you are doing something and analyzing it at the same time … well, my brain — anyone’s brain, I think — can’t work that way! I defy anybody to convince me that athletes, when they are working their magic — whether it’s Pelé, Gretzky, or Bo Jackson — are thinking about what they are doing. Obviously they are aware of a strategy, but the mechanics of things, no. That’s what drilling is about: a thing’s so hard-wired into the person that they don’t have to think about it, and in fact don’t have time to think about it, it has to happen so fast. And the old expression, “He’s forgotten more than you’ll ever know about” such and such, means that it’s so embedded in him that he doesn’t think about it. He doesn’t have to actively remember these things, because they are just burned into the neurological paths.
Sutherland: Visionary Portraits (Mercury Press, 1991) was your last published book of traditional lyric poetry. Recently, however, you’ve been performing at literary readings a new series of improvisational poems entitled Antilyrics. Do you still write what is commonly referred to as lyric poetry, or do Antilyrics embody the more immediate aesthetic interest of Paul Dutton in the early twenty-first century?
Dutton: Visionary Portraits is less traditional lyric poetry than it is serial poetry. It’s a sequence, or related series, of poems. Some of it is lyric, some of it is not. The first two poems are very specific, personal, lyrical, familial kinds of things. But the rest of it takes a very different direction, with some lyric elements in it. One of them is very intentionally impersonal lyric, if it’s lyric at all. So, there is my quibbling over the terminology. In answer to your question, I still write verbal poetry.
Sutherland: Verbal poetry?
Dutton: Yes. Poems consisting of words, as opposed to ones consisting of abstract sounds. But then lots of abstract poems, sound and visual, are also verbal, so in fact, syntactical poetry is probably a better term here, and is my more usual term for what you’re calling traditional lyric poetry, because lyric is a bit of a problematic term for me in this regard. Lyric poetry implies a kind of a personal aspect to it. You wouldn’t call Gertrude Stein’s writing lyrical, for instance. There is a depersonalized aspect to it. Lyric poetry conjures up for me a poetry that has I at the center, has the me of the poet at the center. It’s personal, it deals with personal emotions, personal perceptions — not that anything we do doesn’t. You don’t have to be using the first-person plural for it to deal with your perceptions, obviously. But would you call “Kit Talk” lyric poetry?
Dutton: Would you call “Boots On” lyric poetry? There is a lyric element to it. The “he” that I’m writing about could be, or maybe not be, a specific individual. I could be writing about myself in the third person. You could bring any number of perspectives to it and it could be perceived as a lyric expression. But I don’t think of it as a lyric poem. Anyway, neither lyric poetry nor the Antilyrics determine my aesthetic interests. My aesthetic interests are disparate.
The Antilyrics are total improvisations, and I call them Antilyrics because their basic underpinning is a conscious use of the lyric form, but their content, which is exclusively nonverbal, is completely antithetical to lyric poetry — except possibly insofar as there may be any personal emotional content in them, however much I intend to avoid that. The idea of the Antilyrics is that I’m using the sort of architecture of the typical short lyric poem, but I’m using it without words.
I have another series of soundworks that I call Imp’s Roves. The basis of the Imp’s Roves series is that before I open my mouth to do one, I attempt to empty my mind of all thought. I don’t know if this is mentally, psychologically, or neurologically possible, but to the degree that it’s possible to empty my mind, I try to. They all begin with an extended silence. The extended silence is me attempting to arrive at a point where I make a sound that is completely involuntary, which is perhaps not even literally possible in the circumstance, because how can one make a sound involuntarily, if one is intending to make a sound at all? There is a conundrum here that goes beyond personal aesthetic taste. There is a question here about where volition comes into effect, and at what point, if any, you can be not thinking. Whether I’ve ever achieved the goal of making a sound that I didn’t know I was going to make … well, we’re talking nanoseconds here. Anyway, I reject any idea that occurs to me as to how to begin the piece; I immediately reject it and attempt to surprise myself. At some point, a sound bursts out of me. Once the piece starts, I then give myself over to it. I’ve said this in more than one context, and plenty of times: I’m trying not to think. When I’m improvising I am very specifically trying not to think. To me, thought is the death of improvisation. If I’m performing with someone and I start making lip sounds and I hear them suddenly shift from what they’re doing and come in making lip sounds too, it throws me off completely. To me the kinds of unisons that happen in improvisation, where they occur, they occur because you just happen to be doing something at the same time as I happen to be doing it. The purpose of improvisation is to have something emerge that’s basically coming from the unconscious. What I’m talking about here are overlaps of consciousness, and overlaps of the subconscious and possibly the unconscious. When I’m improvising, generally speaking, in a collective environment or when I’m doing one of the Imp’s Roves, I am attempting to, as it were, be taken over by something. I’m attempting not to give form to a preconceived content, but to let arise an inconceivable, or at least unconceived, content and form. In other words, we’re not going to shape a simulation of motor sounds. No: we’re going to make sounds and see what they shape, see what comes out of it. If they happen to simulate motor sounds, that’s fine, but that’s not the plan. So it’s a matter of following where your psyche is leading you, instead of directing it here, there, everywhere, or anywhere. It’s surrendering to whatever formulation might arise in the course of the improvisation.
The thing about the Antilyrics, and the reason why they are antilyrics is that, just as antiheroes take the position of, but are in contrast to or diametrically opposed to, heroes, so the Antilyrics take the position of, but are diametrically opposed to, the lyric poem, which is essentially an expression of some personal emotion or consideration. The Antilyrics are nonverbal, while the lyric is typically verbal. The difference between the process of creating an Antilyric and creating an Imp’s Rove, or participating in a collective improvisation, is that with the Antilyrics I’m purposely thinking. I permit myself conscious decision-making on how I will begin a particular Antilyric, sometimes even preplanning something before I start the reading.
The Antilyrics arose partly as a means of incorporating nonverbal sound work into shorter literary readings. One of the basic principles of my artistic output, certainly in the literary sphere, is that nonverbal sound poetry, nonverbal expression, is a valid part of poetic practice. To me, poetry is a very broad multisensory enterprise that incorporates the purely visual and sonic aspects of language, as well as the conventionally verbal — the intelligible, unintelligible, the intellectual, the emotional, all of these things at play. Sound as a poetic medium independent of sense or meaning is as valid a part of literary practice as anything else. So I make a point of incorporating into my literary performances, however short they might be, at least some suggestion of the range of types of poetry that I do. I will attempt to present some formal piece, some freeform piece, and some nonverbal work. Now when I’m asked to do five minutes in a program, I have pieces of longer and shorter duration for the verbal material. I have pieces that are three seconds long and others that are a matter of ten or twelve minutes long. But most of my structured nonverbal sound works are from three to five minutes long. The Imp’s Roves are indeterminate, but average seven or eight minutes, though they could be as short as five minutes or as long as ten. So if I’m assigned five minutes at a reading, I don’t want to stand up and do a five-minute sound piece, because that’s how you get to be thought of exclusively as a sound poet. The Antilyrics were devised as a means of permitting myself a representation of the sonic aspect of my poetic output within a time-constraint framework. The Imp’s Roves go where they go and end when they end. With the Antilyrics there is more conscious control being applied. First of all, I’m consciously tailoring them to more or less the form and structure of a lyric poem: it’s not going to be very long; it’s going to have a fairly restricted range of sonic vocabulary (to speak metaphorically); It’s going to conform to the rough guidelines of a lyric poem or the lyric form in terms of brevity, limited content; and it’s going to be more focused on a specific development of a specific idea. There is going to be more conscious application, more ratiocination in the course of improvising the shape of it. It’s still an improvisation, but it’s a more thinking improvisation, there is more of the intellect in it and less of the total giving over that I strive for in a longer improvisation, which, to the degree that it’s possible, I endeavor to let shape itself. Antilyrics contain elements of the lyric composition, but they are completely nonverbal. Basically the Antilyrics are sound without sense, and that is in opposition to the lyric convention, which is committed to verbal sense. Lyrics to a song are, after all, words to a song.
Sutherland: Your impressive career, spanning forty years, includes many personal and collective triumphs: international solo performances, collaborating with R. Murray Schafer and performing in his “Princess of the Stars,” the Four Horsemen (Nichol, McCaffery, Dutton, Barreto-Rivera), CCMC (Snow, Oswald, Dutton, and, since 2012, Kamevaar), Five Men Singing (Blonk, Makigami, Dutton, Minton, Moss), etc. What inspires your intensely passionate commitment to your ongoing creative practice?
Dutton: It’s what I do. Performance is always exhilarating when I find something else that can be done with the human sounding apparatus that I hadn’t heard done before. Yes, you rely on devices that you’ve already found, or effects that you’ve already used, but there are always new ways to apply them. My improvisational work is principally dedicated to discovery. And not just my improvisatory work. What lies behind my verbal writing practice is an exploration of the potentials of language. I’m always looking to surprise myself and to find things that I hadn’t known were there or hadn’t consciously realized were there. Sound work is dedicated to bodying forth, and I choose that word very advisedly, because it’s very much of the body, bodying forth forms and content that were quite literally unthought of, certainly by me. I quite honestly believe that it is a means, very much as the Dadaists intended with their nonverbal expeditions, of dislodging material from the unconscious. So it’s a means of bodying forth forms unthought of and forms I can’t arrive at through any other process. This is an ongoing revelation for me. It’s a spiritual enterprise. It’s spiritually nourishing. It affords me personal growth in subtle ways that I don’t know if I could articulate. And that is very much the point: my creative practice is a process of uncovering unknown things, and because they are unknown they are literally ineffable.
for James Moody
buying me dreams for a thought
selling me (thank you)
my own feelings I couldn’t buy elsewhere
and for payment only honesty that anyway
you opened in me like a bloom
shoving them to me with (thank you)
saying they’re more beautiful than ever
than even I’d thought
and secondhand better
when writhed through a golden torture of —
You’ve taught me them
searched them out from
and punch my brain with them
arpeggio river of saxsmooth velvet
hammering out metal to sumptuous smooth with only breath
rapids now over the drums’ riff stutter
and float like a flower on thrumming bass pond
while (check) a grin (right) Amens your millennium (solid)
with (tell’em, Preacher!) key chord
And I’m hip:
my head can’t divide it
but the rest of me can tell
knows you’ll have nudged when I’m sleeping
from their diamondhard settings
the most shattering dreams I’ve kept hidden:
tell it to me now
tell it to me now
tell it to me now
broken rhythms, cacophonic order
with each building blow
who? me? yes. what? us? yes.
had (why?) thought sure
you balance on the razor-edge
with a horn
time your measure
time your master
knitting you together time
knocking out barnacled emotions
from some ships’ graveyard
for the stifled primal
oh! to set them swaying in an ocean of notes
(I’m carried up leagues of sound
forced to use music for breathing)
they’re body juice now
into it I’ve grooved
what was all unlearned
now know like a river
Oh! didn it rain! (Oh! didn it rain!)
Oh! didn it rain! (Oh! didn it didn it didn it
for Tim Posgate
bass line drums support trumpet speaks guitar
bass drums trumpet line guitar speaks support
line bass guitar speaks support trumpet drums
guitar trumpet line support drums bass speaks
strum peaks pet line
pumps out a gut art
drum sum, traps a part
rump air a sport
bass gets tugged
gets mud dump
drum murders beats
raps a lass as tar leaks
lines outta time
a glass part spits spots sputtered at
rum murmurs names o’ ports a nipper got potted in
bump ’n’ grind lined up ’n’ out
pout past pumped garter
an eager leap
a tumble, a gulp
an ultimate mustard
a lapsed map
guitar speaks trumpet support drums line bass
support speaks guitar line trumpet drums bass
drums trumpet support speaks guitar bass line
speaks bass drums support line trumpet guitar
Performance notes: The words are read throughout with forceful staccato drive, in rhythms as indicated by line lengths and breaks, with micropauses at stanza breaks. The last phoneme, [s], of the first stanza is held for an extended period of time, at the reader’s discretion, and initiates an improvisational break exclusively employing the phonemes of the first line (which are the only phonemes used in the poem), which are spontaneously treated with variations freely applied in rhythm, dynamics, pitch, timbre, duration, and coloration of whatever kind. Because the poem consists only of these phonemes, the text as a whole can be used as a visual field over which the reader’s eye can play for stimulus to improvisational invention. The reader determines the overall duration of the improvisational break, which concludes with the first phoneme, [s], of the second stanza, which stanza is then read, along with the following five, as specified at the start of these notes.
Once the last phoneme, [p], of the seventh stanza is pronounced, it is repeated ad libidum, at the reader’s discretion, and initiates a second improvisational break performed on the same terms as the first one, and concluding with the first phoneme, [g], of the final stanza, which stanza is read in the same manner as at the start of the poem.
mutter to tight head stutter at stick-tip pepper past rim-pulled skin held taut. got a little. got a lot. got a metal-splash sizzle as excess is, as is a zero’s eyes assessing assizes. put. put put. put. pause. put in a pause. put in a pause ’n’ snap. put in a pause ’n’ snap off a sizable bit to tip a put-up past a pot-head patsy whose tight-lipped two-timing’s tapered off. tapered-off top-spin whispers hisses at a brush-back pitch sent to size up what type o’ sissy’s up to bat. tough tit, kid, but suck it, suck it, suck it till it’s tender, ’n’ suck it, suck it, suck it till its tip is stiff as a stick, ’n’ suck it, suck it, suck it, suck it, suck. suck at it. suck at it. suck at it till it tingles. suck at it till it tingles and its spit-wet tip can’t take it. shhh. shhh. she’s sighin’, sure as shootin’ she’s not shy shit no she’s shirtless ’n’ shameless she’s shorts-down dyin’ to do it ’n’ here’s to it. to it ’n’ at it. to it ’n’ at it ’n’ overnight. good night. good good good good good good night. good good good good good good day. good good good good good good time. good. good good. good good good good, good ’n’ gooder. gooder in the gutter. got ’er gooder in the gutter ’n’ took it up top to clatter that tick on a metal bit clatter his stick on a metal bit tip took off on a pulled down pop-pulled pow paid pat paid peter paid paul paid cash-strapped fish-store short shrift for switching from fish-stick sales to hash-stick pushing to doped-up wish-merchants waiting by wash-stands in run-down walkways past push-stick talk, paid pull-down pow-wow walkway west, way hey-down, hoe-down, who got gone gained getalong ghost, gained go round goalie has got that puck, has got that puck and won’t let go, has got that puck and won’t let you, let one, let all, let no one in, let this be it till dream-drip trickle-up pushes past top-down tail tipped sold out sin-fest lips slide slipping off flesh flaps flipped for fuller fooling ’round with chunk of punch-drunk monkey-mind spun down, wrung out, hard-held think unthunk. plunk.
Someday he’s just going to be just someday doing something he’s just someday going to be in the middle of doing just something he’s going to be doing what he does someday just someday going to be doing something he’s in the middle of some day when he’s just going to be doing something he always does he’s just going to someday be in the middle of doing what he does, what he’s always someday doing, when what he’ll be doing is going to do what he’s someday doing, doing what he does when he does what he’s doing, doing some day in the middle of being what he is he’s going to be doing what he’s in the middle of, he’s going to be doing what he’s going to be in the middle of and in the middle of doing it he’s going to stop. He’s someday going to be doing what he does when he’s in the middle of some day when he’s doing what he does to be what he is when he stops. He’s going to stop. And he’s going to stop someday when he’s in the middle of doing what he does or when he’s going to do what he someday does when he’s doing what he does to be what he is and he’s going to stop. In the middle of someday being what he is in the middle of some day, he’s going to be doing what he’s usually someday in the middle of doing and he hopes it’ll be in the middle of some day when he’s doing something he usually does in the middle of the day when he hopes he’s in the middle of doing something he usually hopes he’s doing someday what he does when he hopes he stops. He hopes he someday stops. He hopes he someday stops doing something he always someday does. He hopes someday in the middle of doing something he’s always in the middle of someday doing in the middle of some day he stops. Someday he’s going to stop and hope. Someday he’s going to stop and hope he’s someday in the middle of doing something and stops and hopes and in the middle of hoping stops. Someday he’s going to be in the middle of hoping and he’s going to stop in the middle of doing it and he’s going to stop in the middle of being what he is. Someday he’s going to stop hoping. Someday he’s going to stop doing. Someday he’s going to stop being what he is.
I figure I got to know myself some these last few decades. Figure I figured out more than two or three things. Like, I know I got a basic inability to lie and a general repugnance for violence. Course I know I’m selfish and a bit vengeful, too. And I have my excesses, which I’m not keen to curtail. But as much as I know, it seems I got enough still to learn, given what’s happened this last little while: been being unlike me — or what I thought was me. Oh I don’t mean anything dramatic, like becoming a politician or maiming random victims. No, no. Subtler stuff, hard to say exactly what, but there all the same. All the same and still. All the same and still somewhat different, like a few degrees off what used to be, off me. “A change?” you ask. “Not a misconception, but a new element?” Well, one of the things I know about myself is that I’ll consider any possibility, so I won’t just reject that one. But I won’t pretend to believe (I can’t lie) that it’s always been there. Maybe it has: it’s always been there and I’ve always been here. Both it and I are here and now and now and then are neither here nor there but somewhere all the same. Where is there a here and now that could’ve been the same — was, anyway, I don’t know; as someone said once: “Could’ve been.” Which once I said, or if I didn’t, could’ve. And since I could’ve, will. As you will, and as I was. And am. And could’ve been. Probably am, and for sure will be, as I will will be — as I am. And I am and I was and I will be — as I was. And I was and I am as I am — and I will be. As I am, I can’t really be more than I am. Nor would I want to. Not that I can say for sure that I wouldn’t want to. Not that I would; I just can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t. Which is the kind of thing I would do: not say flat out that I would or I wouldn’t. Because I’m aware of possibilities and I won’t say I always will when I know there might be a time when I know that I always won’t. Not that I’d want there to be a time when I’d want to be anything more than what I am. It wouldn’t be like me to be like that. But it would be like me — and it is like me — to be aware that even though that’s just not like me, that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be me, because it could. Though it’s not like me to not want to be what I could be, which is just like me; it’s just like me to want to be just like what I could want to be just what I want like just what I am. And I am, as I said at the outset, lately being unlike me.
Language shapes thought, not thought language. And language shapes thought not thought to be language-shapes. Thought not thought to be language shapes language, shapes thought, shapes shapes. Thought thought to be shapes not thought to be language shapes thoughts thought not to be shaped by language. Thought language shapes thought-shapes shaped by language thought to be thought. Thought thought not to be language-shapes shapes language, shapes thought, shapes language-thought. Language thinks. Language thinks shapes not shaped by thought, shapes thoughts thought thinks not shaped by language. Language thinks thoughts thought thinks think language. Language thinks language.