Editorial note: On April 23, 2007, Steve Evans visited the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia and spoke with Al Filreis about the ways in which digital audio recordings of poetry were changing and would change the way poetry is taught and studied. The audio recording of that discussion, aptly, was made available almost immediately — the full discussion and also an edited version as an episode in the PennSound podcast series. As of the publication of this transcript, the discussion is nearly five years old. How many of the questions raised in this conversation have been answered through recent experience? Few, somewhat surprisingly. The transcript has been prepared by Michael Nardone. — AF
Filreis: What is the category here if we’re talking about the pedagogical implications for the availability of heard poetry, recorded poetry?
Evans: It’s hard. What you know most is what isn’t true. I mean, most of what we’ve done so far because the recording technology has been around in some available form forever, and it might have meant lugging heavier equipment —
Filreis: Right —
Evans: But mainly what I would fault my pedagogy for in the past has been that the sound file is illustrative. It’s not a primary text. It’s treated as a kind of peripheral text that perhaps frequently causes great dejection in the students because they had liked a poem until they heard it read, or, on the other hand, euphoria and that sense of this horrible thing that I sometimes hear students say which is that until they hear the voice, they say, “Oh, well hearing it really humanized the poet for me.” Which worries you because they don’t grant the category of human just out of the gate to the text.
Filreis: So, granted, in this model —
Evans: But you know what I mean …
Filreis: The printed text is a neutral, more grounded, closer to actuality thing that the recording can add to or detract from. There’s a plus and minus effect.
Evans: Right, but always relative to —
Filreis: And isn’t that simply a function of the — technology is too fancy a word, so is commerce — economy of the use of the poem on a single page in an anthology, or which is then mimeographed or photocopied. The single poem that the students have, hold, and mark up.
Evans: How are we going to separate the question of a pedagogy that makes full use of audio from the question of pedagogy more generally? There are terrible ways to isolate a poem and to make it teachable but to sort of drain it of various things. What happens then, you get the poem by itself, and then the sound file as illustrative of that. And that’s kind of a baseline pedagogy that most of us could get by on, I guess. But you couldn’t claim it as an intellectually, very vibrant project. Hit play and hear George Oppen’s inimitable, gorgeous, authoritative, feeble voice.
Evans: It does do something, but are we teaching in to what it does, or it is just okay, now that’s over and we’ll move on to Louis Zukofsky.
Filreis: Okay, that’s a skeptical view. If you could just put on the hat of the optimist-revolutionist, using Oppen as your example, what’s the change in scenario in 2015 or 2020 when, presumably, we’ve gotten past the fetish of “you gotta have Oppen in print first”? Let’s say we don’t have Oppen in print at all. I’m teaching just George reading. What’s the optimist’s view of this?
Evans: I’m just trying to plan a class, the first one in which I don’t treat audio as peripheral. So really going in. Part of what I’m doing right now, and it’s groping — as I imagine what Charles would say, “We’re just groping a little bit along right now” — but one of the interesting things is to work without the printed text, either voluntarily or because you literally just don’t have one. When I was doing a Lipstick of Noise thing on Lin Dinh’s work, I didn’t have the text. There are different hermeneutic questions that arise, but are they significant. I’ll keep being the skeptic even while being the optimist, which is: I am really excited about this. I think that what’s happened is a technology that was mostly creating inert media. That is, the tape recording technology was hard enough to use, hard enough to get at, and more or less archive-bound, that it was inert. So, who really has heard the Blackburn recordings from one end to the other? No one. Who has really thought about what that might be, what that might be as an object of inquiry? No one. People go in, they hear this and that, but is somebody really treating it — from the standpoint of what is poetics — well, what are the possible objects of a poetics? Is the sound file, is the recorded text something all of its own?
What’s now happened is that — largely through Pennsound and other sites like it — this material is no longer inert. So, we can start trying it out, see if there are nontrivial hermeneutic results from working from sound, or from sound with text but not secondary to text. Do we ask any questions differently? Do we make good strides towards literalizing some metaphors, that whipping horse of ours for so long, the workshop poem in which you found your voice? We all thought that that was not such a credible metaphor. But when you’re looking at a wave form of somebody’s voice, you can see some things that are distinct. Then you can see a lot of things are phonemic, in general. But you are seeing something that a printed text will never give you. You’re hearing accents that the printed text can imitate, awkwardly, through dialect, through those kinds of funny approximations. Working on contemporary poetry, there are so many ways to voice English that a text is going to be a poorer medium for then.
I’ll give you an example. Working on a Sawako Nakayasu poem for Lipstick of Noise, not having a text in front of me, noticing that this person with an impeccable English accent, because she grew up in America, was putting on the accent in Japanese that her parents have. She voiced the poem in the accentual patterns of her parents as a kind of put-on. If somebody just hits that file cold, they have no way to get through the layers. Now is this interesting? It’s interesting to me.
Filreis: No more interesting, perhaps, than the one poem, some dramatic monologue or some voice put-on, that you find if you know the collected poems, you have the one dramatic monologue that is really the voice of the poet. So, no more or less than that if you simply happen upon that?
Let me ask, the last thing that you said created six or seven questions in my mind.
Evans: Go ahead.
Filreis: Here’s one. If we were to map the way to the classroom, there are at least two routes there. One is the direct route, which is that these materials that I bring into class, that I make available to the class change, and so, delta, effect. We now work with sound files. We didn’t before, and we’re going right into the classroom with the material. When someone asks me to speak about or write about this, that’s what I think of. But what about the indirect route, which is something that a number of people have been talking about, you among them: this is going to change the way we, the people who set up the pedagogical, canonical must-do, must-read, must-hear list, it’s going to change, or, to be slightly more precise about the way choosing poems and poets we teach in anthology or survey courses: you only have so many weeks in a semester, Oppen was never really on my syllabus for English 88 except incidentally because I could never figure out in a day how to do Oppen. So, Oppen never appeared. Now that the students have available to them Oppen, it’s pretty clear to me I’m going to start teaching Oppen in a way that I hadn’t. I love Oppen. So, what’s changing is the path to the classroom starts with the change in the way we as teachers and critics think about the work. There’s no way to predict that, but insofar as you can predict that path, what are some — and I don’t mean to ask canonical changes, although I am interested in that, not just canonical changes — what are some of the things that are going to happen to us that will change what we bring into the classroom?
Evans: That question is going to get more and more interesting to answer because there’s a way in which the canon is inscribed in who is viewed as worth recording when recording was a scarce resource. And so there is a way in which it wasn’t until you were somewhat reknowned that someone would bother to put the mic in front of you and let you go off. I’m thinking of the troves of Pound we have. There is a way in which canon formation dictated who got recorded, but that bet is off now.
I think that we are, and hope we stay, in this interesting phase for a long time, which is I think the analogy might be to field recordings of folk music. Right now [there is] ubiquitous documentation of poetry and not that much self-consciousness about it. People aren’t necessarily playing only into the knowledge that they’re going to be engineered, that the sound file is their looked-for result. There are some things that are bad about that. The unselfconsciousness of it is something I really value right now. Everything is recorded and nobody’s caring that much about it. We haven’t had the Brian Eno moment where everything is going to go in the studio and become hyper-[engineered?]. That will be great too, but I like this moment right now where everyone’s getting recorded. The value judgments are not prematurely coming in. I’d imagine you guys are ubiquitous in your documentation here. We try to be at Maine. More and more, people do that and as the technology becomes easier to just stick a digital recorder there, it’s going to be everywhere. So then the canon won’t have determined our audio archive. Now we’re going to be able to say what’s interesting as audio? What questions does that raise independent of what is text-based. So, the print will cease to be prior, at least some of the time. As much as we want to, as much as we can squeeze it into syllabi.
Filreis: Is it possible that if those of us who are teaching the moment after ubiquity, so if someone teaches a course in contemporary American poetry and poetics, and they are essentially doing a literary history of a period for which we have everything, let’s just say.
Evans: You still have the filter problem.
Filreis: I’m assuming that you agree with me that theoretically that’s a terrific situation.
Filreis: Practically speaking, until we truly explode or shuck off the semester fetish or the hour-and-twenty-minute class fetish, whatever it is that constrains us — which I do think is a fetish — once we get rid of that we have this ubiquity and virtually unlimited storage. If you count anyone. Maine will run out of storage but there are other boxes you can put into elsewhere.
Filreis: Assuming unlimited storage, unlimited material, you’ve got this hole that you have to jam into a structure that hasn’t changed historically, of course in the semester. The institutions are not going to change that, because we all need our summers off and we all need a certain break from the students who will suck the life out of us because they want just to be with us all the time. Okay. So, you still have this selection thing. Would it be okay with you personally if we didn’t select, if we took random pieces of the ubiquity, like almost random comets shooting in from the cloud that we can then see, how does what the students get of contemporary poetics change?
Evans: I’d love to teach a course like you’re describing. I really would.
Filreis: What would be good about it?
Evans: Right now those boxes are the thing that’s holding us back. I noticed that somebody was teaching some Lipstick of Noise files in a class, and one can look at one’s statistics page. Everybody, all the students checked the night before the class met or that day. They didn’t give it a lot of their consciousness. This is what happens usually. They’re sort of directing their energy toward that hour and twenty minutes, and somewhere about twenty-four hours before that happens, it interests them enough, it falls right with their schedule to get their work done. What you would hope was that if you set your students an archive like Ubu or Pennsound — it’s hard to recommend some of the others because they set up fee obstacles and things like that — but give them one of these great archives and enticed them to take on an exploratory role, which would mean checking in with that archive frequently enough that you started to know how to navigate it, you started to be able to describe that process to fellow students so that maybe group time is maybe more coming back and comparing field notes from this kind exploratory work you’ve done with audio.
Now, what are you listening for there? I don’t know. Are you listening to, oh, this person has a voice I could listen to for hours, some of our more melifluous poets? They win just on voice points at a certain point. But is that interesting?
Filreis: Is it?
Evans: Well, yeah, because you can get into what’s being communicated. I do think there is more semiotic information in the voice that the mind processes very well, but that we don’t have a great interpretive vocabulary for. I think the jury is out on cognitive poetics, whether that’s going to give us something like that vocabulary. I’m thinking of Reuven Stur’s work. It’s promising. It’s clear that just as the eye is an immediate semiotic conduit, the ear has this really rich discernment to it. You’re getting class information, you’re situation people’s social [___], you’re hearing globality in an immediate way.
Filreis: What about tone?
Evans: And what do we mean by tone?
Filreis: When I asked about that it was because you were on a roll and I thought let’s add tone. I mean tone as defined as the irony meter, running from totally unironic to completely unmeant with all the ranges. So, I meant tone in the traditional prose-poetry sense. It’s the hardest thing to teach, I think.
Evans: And print is so tone neutral.
Filreis: It is mostly tone neutral.
Filreis: If I had to do blunt metaphors, I’d say print is feeling cool and gray, and audio is feeling sort of bright and with a wide spectrum of stuff.
Filreis: Does poetry inherently side with one of those two extremes?
Evans: People say that but I think we’re in a good position to argue against it, because some people say orally delivered, aurally received poetry tends to be simpler than printed poetry. There are all these distinctions made, but that just drives me crazy. A complicated poetry can be gotten by ear. I guess what we say is that it’s not gotten once and for all by the ear. So, what would withstand hitting repeat on your iPod might be a new test for hermeneutics.
Filreis: It’s interesting. This is very interesting. You have referred to hits the night before and day of, which what was behind your comment is that it’s interesting to see what the students go for. We could — because we have sophisticated ways of measuring downloads and hits on webpages even when they don’t download the thing you can see that they’ve visited — we can look at numbers, quantities. So, it’s possible that, and I’m going to mix the metaphor, it’s possible that students and other listeners, new listeners of poetry, will vote with their feet.
Evans: And that will be real information. It will be helpful.
Filreis: That will be real information except that it might be information about melifluousness. It might be information about the ease of tone. We don’t know what it’s information about.
Evans: My students are drawn to incantatory repetition. You could put almost any content in that and there’s a certain way in which that delivers something sonically that is so moving.
Filreis: So, incantation. What else are they attracted to? Easy, easy to hear, easy on the ears?
Evans: Yeah, although you usually have the contrarian who says that’s too pretty. That’s why I’m saying that I like this unselfconsciousness thing. Some poets have spent a lot of time thinking about the performed event and they have come up with a voice, and anybody who does it regularly has got to, just as survival. But that voice is always a compromise between the voice they would use with a beloved and whatever they expect their public to be. So, that’s another hermeneutic object.
Evans: This issue of tone that you mention I want to come back to because one thing that I am fascinated by is room tone. So, you have tone of voice of the poet. But you can hear irony at the Bowery Poetry Club. You can hear when somebody’s laying down some irony, and the highly sophisticated, overly hip crowd at the BPC is getting it and they are audibly responding. They’re purring, through laughter, giving it back. It’s almost obscene to me. It’s too much consensus sometimes. You can hear it. You can hear here is the person sending out this signal, the flat denotative message is saying one thing. The irony is being tonally inflected by the speaker. The room is going: We get it, we get it.
Filreis: It can deepen the tone because the reader will realize however unintended that is I’m going to go with it because this is the audience that’s in front of me.
Evans: You can then sit back so far. I think of a really good poet like Rod Smith, he can be so understated because his audience is going to supply so much frame for him. I say this in admiration. It could sound like he’s not doing his work on the poem. That’s not what I mean. It’s that the poem is so familiar with one instance of its reception, that he can just really draw back and say that one thing and everybody dies laughing.
Filreis: He’s hilarious. Rod Smith, he’s like Andy Kaufmann in a certain persona. Is it possible if Rod Smith goes to some out of the way place where they don’t know the Rod Smith room, that he will have to work a little bit harder to come warmer toward us?
Evans: I’ve seen it.
Filreis: You’ve seen it happen, okay.
Evans: Well, I’ve seen people whose set and whose poetics is fabricated in one circumstance. Say, it’s the Bay Area. It’s a wonderful, vibrant poetry scene at any given time. And you work up your poetics in company with those people with a certain set of expectations and you come east with it, and the room is unimpressed. [Laughs.] I could have said the example in the other way. I’m a Californian at heart. But sometimes the poetics can get complacent because they know the context of the reception so well. That’s why we’ve got these well-moneyed people telling all the poets to be accessible. Well, a lot of poets are accessible to at least one audience. But then how well does it travel?
That’s another good thing about this ubiquity. If somebody is coming to read at the Kelly Writers House, at this point you’re probably going to be able to hear a reading they gave somewhere else. So that in terms of getting a good pedagogical effect from live events, which is hard to do, so much goes wrong there, I think that the audiofile stuff really helps. I mean if Jackson Mac Low was coming up to Maine, because he had read at a couple different places, I could give my students a background for that. Now, how much are they going to take advantage of it, it depends. There are some variables there.
Filreis: So, we’ve been talking about the room for Rod Smith, if the room is the classroom, the class, the audience is not the San Francisco audience as opposed to the Orono audience, but it’s a room full of students and we don’t have the poets with us. We have the recording of the poet and us. Is there an analogy? Can we get back to our topic having gone there and said smart things about poetry audiences, now we have our students who are not really a poetry audience?
Evans: They are. They’re one of them. I’ve noticed that sometimes we can devote a whole class to our writing series and that becomes a syllabus and I can really teach into that environment. And that’s where I got so interested in using video clips and sound clips. The crucial thing there was you can do a little groundwork in advance of a visit, but the most important thing is to play back that live reading. You’re getting subjective reports from your students of just how different that temporal and meaning event is. There is so much about the live event that is existential. You are concerned about the other people in the room, your own comfort. You’re in a body. You’re in the condition to listen exactly at the time the event is set up for or you’re not. But you were there. Your consciousness took in some part of it. And then to go back after a few days or a week and hear that same reading or some parts of it, and constitute that as an object of inquiry. What did you think when you heard it? What do you think now? What happens when we can graphically reproduce that experience? Because it does gives us some distance. I’m not trained enough to really be able to read spectrographs like a linguist could or know exactly what I’m seeing with waveforms but it does objectify the voice for you in a way that you say, “what am I hearing here?” What am I looking for? That’s one thing that I think is unequivocal, that ability to take a real-time event that your student has been at, maybe suffered through or maybe really enjoyed and then compare that experience to the mediated one that we have a lot more control over and that we can get some distance on. Then the classroom time is over and you post it to the class website. If they are interested, they can stay with it and I guess as we build our archives better and better, it will be easy to say, you liked that? It’s how the music industry is: if you like this, you’re going to like these nine other things. At some level I hope it’s not a crass implementation of a commercial strategy. But, if you like Anne Waldman, then here are these four other poets that maybe do something similar, but that might also point you into a different direction.
Filreis: What about the narrative of the live event? If we use recordings of Ginsberg’s “America” — there are several good ones; I can think of two that are perfect. One is a studio recording which is very somber and beautiful and haunting, and I always thought that was the one. And then, I’m not sure where we got it and I’m not sure it’s even legal to be using, but I’ve heard it. I guess Factory School had it. It’s live. If he’s not drunk, well, everybody in the room is.
Evans: I’ve actually heard one and there was so much back and forth between people.
Filreis: You can hear Kerouac in the first row. (Now how do I know that Kerouac is in the front row? Somebody told me.)
Filreis: But I believe it because I’m hearing his voice, and I know Jack’s voice well enough. There’s a lot of back and forth, and so Ginsberg went with an antic, drunken — he may not have been drunk — hilarious, pathetic “America.” I, I am, I am America. Play that for the students, you need the narrative of the event. That may simply be metadata. It may simply be information. This was a studio recording made for this or that. You know, and he was much more famous at this point, and they went back and they asked him to be original and sincere. This was a more or less contemporaneous event near the advent of the poem. He’s clearly interacting.
Now, forget about Ginsberg. The reading that occurs on your campus which you can record, if the students were all there you don’t need a narrative of the event. But a year after or every year you’re still using it, you do need the narrative of the event, that is to say: He was feeling very ill that day. Or, we had just had an argument in the car ride from the airport. These are important things, which will change the tone of a reading, which will then get hardened into interpretive fact. If the answer to my question is yes, then how the heck are we going to provide that information, and how important is it for us to create a narrative, a recorded or documented context for these events, because they are events?
Evans: Yeah. The desire for a thick historical count of poetry is going to be our threshold really, because —
Filreis: Desire on the part of who?
Evans: We as teachers and then our students, because really so much of what you’ve just described is real information and again, one could get it from a description in a biography of the event, maybe we’ll go back and forth, a parallax from a sound recording to this. I think of all the voices — I’ve written about this anecdote — but I know that once someone was using Duncan in a class, illustratively but effectively, and Bob Creeley was in the room and he could hear right away that the tape had not been trued. It was a reel to reel tape, an original, and the technology was basically raising Robert Duncan’s voice a noticeable amount for a person who knew his voice as a baseline, who had a feeling for it, and not noticeable to the rest of us. With a person in the room to true it, you had a historical dimension that you didn’t have. Now, again, is it nontrivial? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting, and I wish that all of these sound files could be annotated like crazy by those of us who know. I could recongnize Bill Luoma’s laugh at 3000 miles. I know if he’s the one getting a joke by Jackson Mac Low in 1987, but I don’t how many other people will know that. And does it matter? With our desire for a thick historical account, if we extend it to the sound file, then there’s going to be this huge text apparatus around it. It’s not either-or any way that I can think about it.
Filreis: I’m really interested in this. Let’s use the language of UNIX as a metaphor. For the humanists, especially, we saw UNIX not simply as a programming tool, but as a way of setting permission so that people on the same server could literally share documents. I mean truly share. So we used UNIX for that. Imagine that the community of people who would know Bill’s voice from 3000 miles away were the UNIX users. Essentially, using metadata, it is always changeable. It is changeable at the local instance of the file. It is not changeable at the root, back on the server. That’s a technologically not impossible scenario to imagine my info, metadata, changing in a kind of wikipedia version of the metadata of our recordings so that collectively it’s not much different from the group photo of the sailors on a particular ship in 1944 in the Pacific and I only remember two of those guys, but if I can get this photo around, eventually I’m going to get everybody’s name. That’s not art, or maybe it is art for some military historian, but for us the best critical work done to the art would be to fill in the audience which of course is shaping the reading and shaping the meaning. So I simply want to ratify that. Now, is it important enough to implement if — strictly speaking from the point of view of teaching well opposed to teaching inaccurately or sloppily or illustratively — is it important enough to add that material —
Evans: At the cost of things that are going to fall out because you’re doing them?
Filreis: Sure. I mean, that’s almost a rhetorical question because I know that you would agree that we should put as much as we can into it.
Evans: I agree enough in that I will put my money where my mouth is: I’ll put in for courses like this for a while to see what can be done, and maybe even block out some things I would prefer or that are in my repetoire now. But I don’t know what we’re going to do with this. I’m skeptical. The null hypothesis is that this is not meaningful. It’s just a sound file. Who cares? It’s not relative to everything we need to do in the brief period of time we have to help these students cultivate their consciousness. I got to say that maybe none of this is going to work, but I’m willing to put some other courses on hold and just say what we’re going to do is the sonic life of poetry, the sonic archive, and the technological environment that is making it available to us. There have been previous states. We should inform ourselves about that. But what you’re describing in terms of creating a thick, socially generated account of the act of listening to a poem or the act of documenting the event that this poem was committed to in some form of media. Maybe our students are going to be the people who actually lead us on this. My colleagues in new media always have such a rosier life than we in English do that I sometimes have a hard time learning all I should from them. But one thing I’ve learned from them is that their students teach them as much. They just give up pedagogical authority and the Lacanian subject presumed to know. They just set it aside. Their students know the software better than they do often. They spend many more hours doing just the one thing. So their job is to just get something out of the pool of knowledge that was worth doing. It’s not their job to be expert in everything.
Filreis: Would it be good for us if that begins happening to us?
Evans: I would love it if a student came in and knew more about Robert Duncan than me! But yes, partly we are piggy-backing on the ubiquity of —
Filreis: Sorry, sorry. You just cheated there. [Laughs.]
Evans: I did.
Filreis: You said a student who knew more about Robert Duncan. I’m never going to assume that one of the students knew more, but the decentering of authority in a classroom devoted to poetry and poetics can’t limit itself to knowledge — you know, give me a Duncan poem, I can tell you what book it’s from, biographical information and so forth. It can be a veracious and reliable ability to hear or read a poem and be able to go on in a sophisticated way that adds to the discourse about Duncan. Really reliably. If we get to that point then we can stop lecturing.
Filreis: Let’s face it: we’re blathering, because we’re talking about this beloved community —
Evans: But now they can record it on their MP3 player and listen to you at home blathering away.
Filreis: Okay, that’s good and that’s cool. We can take the lecture and get it out of the classroom, and so can they. But the effect is, I think we’re fooling ourselves. I think that if we do take this conversation we are having and make it into a podcast and anyone listens to it, I hope people will strike back at us. Or at least me. You haven’t affirmed this yet. But most people, 80 to 85 percent of the people who are teaching this contemporary material, even with the sound stuff, are still lecturing. They’re still talking eighty percent of the time. So everything we’re talking about, the revolution we’re talking about is useless if we’re still delivering [lectures]. It’s still 1952 and I’m teaching a Brooks-Penn-Warren anthology. It’s just an anthology of audio stuff with slightly more groovy technology. Those two things are going to prevent us from stepping forward. There’s a third one that I do want to talk about. One is the fetish of the classroom, of the course over the semester which puts limits on it and allows us to crave December 11th when we can get the heck out of there, or May 15th, whatever it is. And second, the ease of the lecture, which prevents any of this thing that’s happening in media studies to happen. It would be crazy for a media studies professor to walk in the room to talk about the latest innovations in video editing to a room full of kids who live and breath video editing and not stop talking. It would be crazy. I want us to stop talking when we enter the room where the students have not the base knowledge or objective grounded knowledge of Duncan, but something to say back to us about what they’ve heard.
Evans: I don’t want to cut off your third point, but I want to say —
Filreis: Well, the third point is tenure. So, we’ll get to it.
Evans: Listen, again, practical: how are we actually going to do it? I’ll need a different room and the first time I’m teaching this course, it’s going to be on a very intensive three-week schedule where we are five hours a day together, listening to stuff and trying to come up with a working vocabulary that I hope I’ve been at it for longer, that’s the only claim to authority I have. I’m hoping that some people will have competencies that they will bring in. And I’m utopian as a teacher inasmuch I always presume — I’ve often had evidence to the contrary — but I always presume that what the student knows in this instance, what someone knows about listening, they know already. They are so sophisticated. They can hear a tonal shift in their lover’s voice that means it’s going to be a long night. They are Prousts. They are the most sophisticated semioticians in the world, but we have a hard time enlisting their competence into the objects we value. And so then it really does become: how do we enlist? [Line of conversation abandoned.] To a person who is used to hearing, who has been brought up in any imaginable culture, they are going to hear something in a poetry sound file that most of that content is nonspecific. It’s a human voice that they are expert at reading. Then there is this added dimension that this voice is in this historical frame, in this performative context, and then things get going like that. I’ve never worked with anyone who didn’t know the moment I walked in how to read exactly the kind of clothes I was wearing, assign me to a certain kind of person, you know, semiotically get rid of me. [Laughs.] Master me, or whatever.
Filreis: Your two examples were hearing the sound of a lover’s voice and reading your clothing. What about reading the text on the page?
Evans: I have found that that is still a foreign environment for our students and I feel that as someone who does think that modernist complexity was a life-transforming event for me and I think somebody should undergo the pleasures and alienations of reading Ulysses or Remembrances of Things Past, and be transformed by that use of the technology, the print technology.
Filreis: How do they get there?
Evans: I can’t imagine any other way to get there than their own desire, which is primary. We can’t make that up. We can’t always change it. So, I think pedagogy is a lot about desire, and I think that’s complicated. If you don’t have a desire to know, if you can’t cultivate that desire, then much of what we do is for naught. With a little bit of desire and with some guidance — I feel like I just become a sentimental humanist or something — but you need guidance.
Filreis: You think we should hold hands and sing Kumbaya?
Evans: It’s never happened, but in the summer. … Well, it is Maine.
Filreis: Our detractors will accuse of, may accuse us of running, temporarily at least, away from the literary text to the sound file, to the recording because that’s where our students are, that’s where their — you didn’t say innate — but almost innate —
Evans: Deeply encultured —
Filreis: Where their ready-to-go skills are. So, we’re working in an area that we just know from reading the contemporary culture. They’re there. I can imagine a rejoinder to that detractor, but that still makes, what I’m about to say will still make the printed text primary and the recording ancillary, which is to say I can respond to that detractor by bespeaking the virtues of teaching the students that they really do have it with the ability to understand the recorded voice with the same nuance that they understand when they hear a tone from their lover, they’re going to be in for a long night. They can translate that to working with this recording of a poem, then gain confidence that with a little more help from us who are from another epoch where we learned the pleasures and displeasures of Ulysses back to the thing that they want.
Evans: That’s where I’m going. I say what teacher can afford to give up the competence that’s in the room? I’ve never understood that colleague. How are you going to get where you want to go?
Filreis: This is liberal left.
Evans: My position?
Filreis: Yes. What you’re saying is —
Evans: Well, I grew up with that pedagogy. My generation was subjected to a lot of liberal left pedagogy, and there I saw sometimes a default of the bit of authority that previous knowledge grants you, and a certain turning things over to a low denominator in the class, which is if you’re trying to teach — I’m not even saying that it’s a difficult thing, just say it’s an unfamiliar thing — then students need to move from the competence you spot them at at the outset. They need to move towards something. Otherwise, how do you take the money from the credit hours? I don’t understand that. If you just leave a vacuum in the space where the teacher used to be, but don’t fundamentally transform the other things that you are talking about, then really what you’ve got is no knowledge being transferred at all. So I saw a lot of lazy teaching in the left liberal pedagogy. And god bless them. That was the dominant way to do things then. It was the smart way to do it. It was the way that looked like it would lead [to somewhere]. It transmitted a number of values like fundamental respect for your students, which hadn’t always been taken for granted. So, I value that. But I still think that to the sense that we’re an active center in that room, maybe I’m too hung up on Cunningham’s move into choreography where the idea was it’s not that there was no center, but everywhere is center. You’ve got a lot of centers and you’re trying to just get some energetic transfer of knowledge going through this.
Filreis: So, there’s a possible contradiction in the two vocabularies.
Evans: Yeah, there is.
Filreis: This transfer of knowledge —
Evans: Is a container method.
Filreis: Yeah, it’s anathema to the liberal-left pedagogy. It’s perfectly fine for you to mix and match. I mean anybody can do that, and we all do. There are two things we don’t have at the moment. We don’t have the critical vocabulary. We don’t know what to say about these beyond the most basic things, like “He sounds elated.”
Evans: And this is where the people who are against the sound file warranting attention, I think, have a little bit of ground, which is you find yourself reverting to a kind of belle-lettristic —
Filreis: Or impressionistic —
Evans: Very impressionistic. And I do that all the time on Lipstick of Noise. I don’t know how else to communicate what I’m hearing.
Filreis: But it is beautifully written. Maybe for the moment — we’ll get a critical vocabulary and all use it and know what we are talking about, there will become a standard — but for the moment, Lipstick of Noise becomes ones of those places where for me it’s like reading a New York Times film review. If you read a certain reviewer, you know that he or she has got a certain mode and certain figurations used to describe certain kinds of films, and we go on and on. I get a feel. I think Lipstick of Noise is like a really well written New York Times review of a film, that is to say that you’re trying to figure out what to say that will convey what you want to say.
Evans: I try to stay there in that kind of critical journalism.
Filreis: It is belle-lettristic. Belle is good.
Evans: I like it, but I do think there is this pull. I really feel like that’s writing a kind of cultural journalism, and I feel that when I go into some of the stuff that interests me more, I start to bore the audience that Lipstick of Noise might have built up over a time. Whereas, I’m not necessarily privileging what we’ll know when I put on a more, you know, scientist’s cap in homage to Jakobson and really sit down and do that work, which is going to not be as appealing to read.
Filreis: But you said “science.” So, I think there are two things we don’t know and it incapicitates us. One is we don’t have the critical vocabulary yet. The second is we don’t have a pedagogy. We don’t even know what our current pedagogy is, let alone the one we’re going to. We devote so little time to talking about it. We say the word “pedagogy” all the time, but we actually don’t have any way of talking about pedagogy.
Evans: You have convinced me in this conversation that the institutional framework. … I mean that helps me think about what I’m trying to do. I need a new room for this class. I can’t do it in the room I’m used to doing it in.
Filreis: You mean physically?
Evans: Yeah, it’s just a totally practical problem for me. If I want to have a reading series, I have to scour my entire campus for one good room to listen in. I got to find that. Now to teach this class, I’ve got to find a room where upwards of ten people can comfortably and intensely listen and record their impressions while listening and communicate them to other people. If there is not going to be a guy at the podium, I’m not sure what it’s going to look like yet. And I usually, when I get a course assignment, okay, here I am doing my course on Hegel and I’m going to be the guy sort of at the front, the less ignorant of the twelve. This is not going to be the case. We’re going to be —
Filreis: What are some words to describe the role that you will play?
Evans: In this new context?
Filreis: Yes. Imagine, in the best case scenario, what’s the word?
Evans: I think translator.
Evans: Convenor. Provoker. So, I don’t want people to settle —
Evans: Always, host. Always host. I mean, with your students what else can you be? And that’s what I love when you have a class devoted to a reading series, because then they can host the poets, and that teaches them something very profound, I think.
Filreis: It is important.
Evans: Yeah, it allows them to practice generosity, even when they are not feeling comfortable with whatever eminence or whatever junior person — how could that person possibly be a poet? — they get to practice this very basic human trait. But to be a good host, to be a provocateur when needed, to know some more about technology than I have to for my other classes or to say that the technology I need for this class hasn’t all become transparent for me. I still have to work at it. There is some linguistic software, PRAT it’s called, that really helps you annotate a sound file better than Audacity, fine-grained. Our linguistic colleagues know how to do it and they put it to some extremely boring uses I can say, but we can use this in this class in a way that might be really interesting. It might be generative of the kind of essayistic explorations that I like to encourage in a humanities classroom.
Filreis: Well, I wanted to get to the third pathway to the classroom, and that is the pathway that can be blocked by the denial of tenure. So, higher education institutions have all kinds of ways of answering the ultimate question that we keep asking: does this have value? Will it be seen as having value? Does this count as the real work we’re supposed to be doing?
Evans: Boy, and it gets settled in a very brutal way!
Filreis: The binarism is very interesting because nowhere else can you write a book and get one good review in the right place by the right person of fifteen bad reviews, and reasonable people can argue that you’re the best thing that’s come along in this new generation of critics. But, at tenure time, you either stay or you don’t stay. Someone has to make a decision as to whether this new stuff counts. And I’m really curious to know. I’m not saying that you can answer the question —
Evans: I have some thoughts on it.
Filreis: I want to hear your thoughts on it.
Evans: This is something I do, again to envy those mystical colleagues over in new media programs or departments any university might be thinking to have right now, because there are no tenure criteria written yet. And yet, deans and provosts seem to be willing to extend to them the most fundamental things: lines, positions, buildings, and very large budgets. So their productive mode of not knowing what they’re up to is being very well rewarded. And the institution is working hard to find a way to keep these people, some of whom could make better money outside of academia. Now, you take that same scenario and put it in an English department where everybody thinks they know what’s what, and the same work, the same degree of inventiveness, innovative pedagogy, putting one’s own mind on the line to get some new knowledge, and get totally punished because everything has been settled. So just as the technology that I need to teach this course in the summer, it’s not transparent to me, so over in new media, the institutional criteria for what counts as valued is not settled yet. It’s not transparent. Everybody has to have the argument. Unfortunately, at some point, we lost the ability not to win the argument, but to even have the argument about what innovative work in English would be. I could easily imagine, thank goodness, on the other side of that question of getting tenure or not, supporting a junior colleague who did this kind of work. But I have faces in my mind of the people who will not listen to me when that comes up. So, I think that is a choke point. Happily, not all the work we’re talking about, though the pedagogical frame you’re interested in right now hones us back into institutional space, the other thing these online archives do is just really broaden the intellectual input so that it’s not just institutional intellectuals who have access to this material, who can say smart things about it, who can build up a kind of baseline knowledge in it that then maybe someone will be able to get tenurable knowledge out of.
Editorial note: Heather Fuller is the author of three books of poetry, Startle Response (2005); Dovecote (2002); and perhaps this is a rescue fantasy (1997), and two chapbooks, Eyeshot (1999) and beggar (Situation Magazine, 1998). Melanie Neilson is the author of Natural Facts (1997), Civil Noir (1991), and Tripled Sixes/Prop and Guide (1991), in collaboration with Michael Anderson. Double Indemnity Only Twice is forthcoming in 2013 from theenk Books. The following is a transcript of Episode Nine of PhillyTalks, which took place on February 10, 1999. The complete recording, as well as a PDF of the poems discussed, is available on PennSound. The following was originally transcribed by Michael Nardone and has been edited for readability.—Katie L. Price
Kristen Gallagher: So, welcome back to Melanie and Heather. Please, just start in asking questions, or saying anything. If there is anything you guys want to say to each other to start off—about the pairing, or what your discussion has been like, or each other’s work, or any responses — it’s kind of a free-for-all, so, go!
Speaker 1: I have a question for Heather.
Speaker 1: Two of the poems from PhillyTalks, the first ones, either “Hear Say” or “Her Say” from beggar—
Speaker 1: We were talking in our discussion group yesterday about how you use a lot of found, heard, overheard language. We were noticing the first poem seemed like it contained a lot more overhead stuff, and the second poem grappled with similar issues, but had less found language. You had expressed in your written email to Melanie that you had some anxiety over what you called “faux” appropriation, and I just wondered if overheard stuff is still really formative in your work. And if it isn’t, or is less, can you talk at all about how you feel about that? About how that’s changed or why it’s changed? Where it came from? What’s changed about your surroundings, anything?
Fuller: I think I find overheard language even more important. I was telling Melanie during our email conversations that often language to me seems like this common cistern—you know, where we all sort of gather around this cistern, chewing the tobacco and spitting it out into the cistern, and we’re all grabbing it and putting it back in our mouths.
That’s what we do in North Carolina, anyway. But now that I’m in the civilized world, I have to talk about the common cistern as a literary function.
Where I live is particularly busy. It’s particularly lively and polyglot. I’m always picking up language and chewing it in my mouth and spitting it out. And I think that “h r say” [pronounced “hearsay”] is a lot of, you know, chewing, spitting, right there. But in another sense it’s also something that I’m more and more interested in, and that’s the concept of sampling. I’m sure you all have heard some sampling in clubs or in jazz and such.
Speaker 2: Turntable wannabe, or something?
Fuller: There you go. So, I’m at the turntable as well as at the cistern.
Kristen Gallagher: But you had expressed some anxiety about other things. What is that?
Fuller: I wish I had an implied anxiety. I think it’s more about my feeling of wanting to be responsible. I’m not really anxious, but I am often thinking about an ethical relationship, with what you do with that language you’re chewing up. Especially since so much of that language comes from pockets of my community where people just don’t talk. They don’t talk in public. They talk in their pockets.
Speaker 3: I was curious about this sampling metaphor, because with sampling in rap music, you get historical layers — different eras of music that get sampled, sometimes purposely, as a kind of commentary. So, is there a kind of historical project in your notion of sampling, in terms of sampling as a kind of recovery? Or is that not something you’re thinking about?
Fuller: Well, now I’m thinking about it, for sure.
Neilson: Can I say something? When I think about how that would apply to how I think about it, I think of it as defiance, and power. You know, breaking rules.
Speaker 3: It’s taking things out of context, I gather.
Neilson: It’s just all fair game. It’s all in selection. A poetic documentary tradition.
Gallagher: Does it matter where you’re getting it from, though? You know, because I think Heather is talking about the feeling of responsibility for small, isolated pockets of people, and you might be talking about historical —
Neilson: Yes, I think it’s probably different.
Sky’s the limit is what comes to my mind.
Fuller: Yeah, I mean, they all cross over.
Louis Cabri: I wonder if it ever causes some mania, unexpected or difficult tension. I’m thinking particularly of the moment where Ben Jonson comes up [indiscernible]. It caught my eyes, you know, as a really enigmatic thing. The reason it strikes me is because Jonson, you know, he really built his entire career by posing himself completely against what PhillyTalks, I guess, is a version of. He killed fellow actors, utterly [inaudible] violence, refusal to cooperate. And the poem that comes up here is the one in which he announces that he’s leaving the public stage. He’s no longer going to write for the theater and he is going to write solely for the court. So, I guess why that might be awkward is because he was so incredibly successful at it. He’s someone whose works are utterably invaluable and I can’t really imagine that period without them. And yet they come from this poetic model that is not very easily assimilated.
Bob Perelman: So, does that make T. S. Eliot look like Walt Whitman?
Neilson: That’s fascinating. Fascinating ricochet.
Cabri: Do you have any comment on that?
Neilson: I might. I’m thinking about it. That’s very interesting.
Perelman: Well, what about that sense of the court and the public under them? I’m sort of ruminating — it’s not going to end up being a crisp question. Heather, I was thinking about what you were saying about the pockets of language where you get the words from, and your own feeling that perhaps bringing them into a poem is bringing them into a more public space than that language normally exists in. On the other hand, I kept feeling, this conception that kept half-forming as I was listening to your work: what is the relation of the art world that you are writing in to the life world that you are writing of? The art world just strikes me now as a little analogous to the court — Ben Jonson’s court — that you are writing for. I’m just trying to sketch out some configurations and wondered what you or Melanie would say about it. I mean, it’s the big issue for all of us —
Perelman: Anybody who wants to bring in the world, well does the world want us to use it in that way, or does it care, et cetera et cetera? These questions.
Neilson: When you say “world” though, my question is, okay, we’re talking university, society. And for me, of course, it’s society/university. Who am I writing to and for?
You know, “world” — I’m curious what that means to you.
But I think you were going in an interesting direction with this: the people who are in those pockets speaking. And then Heather does make a lot of really —more than a lot of writers that I know of writing right now —references to, gutsy artists like Claes Oldenberg. You know, a lot of people don’t do that right now, and Heather does that to visual arts. What’s going on there? How do those two worlds connect and collide or overlap? I don’t know if that’s an issue for me. I’m not sure it is.
Fuller: The really intriguing thing to me about Oldenberg is he was such a public figure. Everything for him was so hyperbolic. His sculpture was sort of upon you before you were even close to it. In a sense, he was really holding court in a very public way with whoever was in eyeshot. It’s often funny to me to think of Oldenberg in relation to, say, the person who is going to be uttering the line in “h r say” about the splatter guards from the civil disobedience unit of the police. To what extent is the splatter guard holding court? To what extent is Claes Oldenberg forcing court upon us? These are all very public and visual elements that sort of force themselves into our space. And so often there’s a disconnect between these very forceful and — you used the word “power” — powerful elements and people who will perhaps not be reading this text.
Gallagher: Following up on this idea, I was reading “h r say,” or I wasn’t reading…I was having a lot of trouble reading “h r say,” and so I am wondering what it means to take this spoken language, this overheard language, and then to actually write it down. Because that’s different than the cistern where you pick something up and spit it back out in the same form. In some ways, if you’re taking language you are overhearing — for me at least — in this poem you’re representing it in ways that I couldn’t re-speak. I could read it; I could look at it and make sense of what the words were and sense these absences, but I wasn’t sure how to re-speak it. I don’t know what that is: if it’s trapping it on the page, or if it’s reclaiming in a way that doesn’t put it back in the cistern in the same way. I don’t know.
Fuller: Well, that’s the whole sampling idea I was getting at: spinning it back out in a sample pattern.
Perelman: So, just in a common sense way, that’s the missing vowels.
Fuller: Right, as well as the reconfigurations of the spoken word, when things are repeated throughout in different configurations.
Speaker 4: I’d like to hear you talk some about placards, because to me it seems like those bring up some of these issues. I mean, the whole idea of appropriating something visual, something that does hold court in the sense that you are talking about. Then what does that mean to imagine that visual idea, but then have it not hold court in the same way, have it be in a book.
Fuller: And that’s sort of my plea at the beginning, you know: “Please take one up. Photo enlarge at will.” Yeah, they are just very simple text boxes that have sort of been placed in the context of being something larger than they are.
Speaker 5: Don’t you have that line: “how do we recover from the book”?
Fuller: Yeah, which is an anthology.
Neilson: It’s interesting to me. When I saw, experienced and read those, what I thought was so powerful, beyond just how they were laid out, was your direction — the graphic, the visual, the text in the book. You transformed everything by the direction that goes with them. In the way that, you know, when you’re reading … I was reading The Mother by Brecht a few months ago. It’s like that one line of direction. What you want us to do with them is so powerful. And it’s funny, those words just hang in the air. Then when I see them in the boxes it’s powerful, but my mind really runs with the direction you’ve given: what you want us to do, the agitprop, sort of, adds complex ideas to the dramatic event of reading.
Fuller: The whole idea of imperatives in poetry is increasingly interesting. Being told what to do by poets. The second person. Poems being written just in second person.
Gallagher: Well, back to the art and life idea, I was just thinking of Debord and that “beggar” in the first stanza. You talk about pockets “full of mutter,” and then “the museum is a cadaver of curious facts.” Do you guys have a Mütter Museum in DC?
Fuller: A mutter museum?
Perelman: Mütter. Mütter Museum.
Gallagher: I thought there was one down there. It’s like a museum of medical mishaps.
Perelman: That’s here.
Gallagher: I know. I know.
Fuller: We have one at Walter Reed Naval Hospital. It’s an army hospital.
Gallagher: Was that sort of what you were playing off?
Fuller: I would like to say that, but no. It’s quite literally mutter. But that museum is quite fascinating.
Gallagher: You should say that’s what you meant.
Neilson: She should be your agent!
Gallagher: It works so well with those lines. I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t matter. Just this idea of the way that you might look at something in a museum and the way you would look at someone on the street who is homeless and propped on a crutch. And how it’s okay, in the Mütter Museum, to just look at those things, and be sort of horrified and fascinated. It’s a sort of art because it is in a museum. It’s like a framing. And then things that we are afraid to look at or deal with are standing right outside the museum.
Neilson: I’m still thinking about Ben.
Cabri: Let me throw another one at you.
Neilson: Bring it on, bring it on, baby.
Cabri: This is from the very beginning of “Moxy where its mouth is” and you have this line “any anarchy is surprise and language is a surprising tool,” and then immediately after that, “where readers come into and how is a seesaw or seizure dialectics of self and other.”
I would like to ask you about what I see as a very strong opposition between anarchy and a notion of … and maybe this is implied by the language in a cistern, in which language is this kind of royally infinite, infinitely proliferating —
Cabri: Whereas dialect —
Neilson: Mess. For me, that’s true. Yes, life-affirming language activity.
Cabri: Whereas dialect immediately restricts that, it says there is a certain logical relationship that precedes language, which determines its content, and, in that sense, language has all of these formal restraints on it that you actually can’t mush together easily at all. It really resists being boiled together because of syntax and grammar and things like that. So, how do you traverse that tension, if at all?
Neilson: How do I traverse those wild waves of conflict and contradiction?
Cabri: Yeah, well is it conflict or maybe [inaudible]?
Neilson: I think maybe both. It seems like that yin and yang sort of thing. They can coexist. Maybe there’s a way they don’t really cancel out each other really? Do they?
Cabri: To me they do.
Neilson: I understand. I think it is provocative. You’re talking about, you know … We have over here our graphs, our plaids, the dialectics, our system, and we have over here montage for a working method, whatever.
I don’t know. For me the cistern and the chewing tobacco is not really something … taking it out and putting it back in again, it never occurred to me. And the sampling also is something I have to kind of think about. I’m not really sure how I can say that so neatly for myself. My ways are my ways.
Speaker 6: Maybe one way to think about it is just in your terms of reading Heather’s work, that although the cistern is Heather’s metaphor and we’re talking about it as a kind of chaotic —
Speaker 6: Communal thing.
Neilson: Juicy. Communal as the sound of traffic, as the words drive themselves free to roam. Who owns the words?
Speaker 6: It seems like in a way, I’m just thinking of this line from “Fuller’s Law,” where you say, “skeptical of rejecting sentiment / narrative.”
Speaker 6: That struck me as one of the clearer moments of straight commentary in terms of Heather’s work vis-à-vis the work of her contemporaries, or whatever.
Speaker 6: So, in that sense, I’m wondering whether that can be squared with this metaphor of the cistern, or whether it needs to. So, how are you reading Heather’s work, I guess I’m asking, as sceptical of rejecting narrative in particular?
Neilson: Well, that’s a good question. I think as self-aware and site-specific work and not purist.
Speaker 6: And what are the motives for not rejecting narrative?
Neilson: You’d have to ask someone else. I don’t think I can answer that. But I find it fascinating in Heather’s work that she gets away with some things, or she is pointing to some things that other people that I read with pleasure and excitement don’t do. What I mean is that she is pointing to — when she was talking about the pockets — I thought that was an interesting way to talk about it, lifting or sampling from overheard wordage. I’m struck by the, if it’s only two words, and then I find two more later, and they point back to each other, and I am experiencing a cumulative effect, dramatic or emotional, that’s when I come to sentiment. Something is taking place, and I think we can say the word “content” in this room without people starting to crawl out the windows. It’s tricky because she’s doing a lot of complicated things. I had never really read closely Heather’s work until the past year, ’98.
Speaker 6: So, when you’re reading, those things get narrativized? You can see words that come up or echo each other and all those things —
Neilson: I think narrativized is a bit of a clumsy term, but I appreciate that you’re trying to put some kind of label on it. I love the activity of the sound of her work. I don’t need it to talk narratively to me.
Speaker 6: So, they recall a sense of place or a theme or —
Neilson: I guess what I would say, I really meant it when I said the word rejecting. I think that there is something not pure about what she is doing.
Cabri: That’s evident from the first two poems in the newsletter that are very narrative. [Inaudible] “beggars can’t be choosers.” There’s a circle that closes or draws, goes back to the point where it begins from, once one has come to the end of the poem “beggar.”
But I’m just thinking about this, the idea of a common cistern, and then your worries about in some way stealing from it, I guess.
Melanie Neilson, with Spock, Kirk, and McCoy. Washington, DC, 1999.
Fuller: I’m not worried.
Cabri: But yet, it’s a common cistern.
Fuller: I’m not worried.
Cabri: [Inaudibe] scare quotes around some stuff you’re taking as if it has in some sense a form, it’s formed before you take it.
Cabri: You are in some sense re-forming it, or just forming it, which kind of suggests to me, Melanie, what you have done in some of your work, both in Civil Noir and in your last book, I forget the exact title — Disfigured Texts?
Cabri: If the subject that we are talking about is “where does one’s language come from,” then for you it seems like the idea of language is as a common pool of static voices, et cetera. The metaphor there, for you, seems to be a sense of layerings of text, right? So, in your Disfigured Texts, you have typed texts and then writing scrawled in between the lines of type, and then there’s that sort of visualized — much like a placard or like a scrap of paper — and then that’s put aside, put next to an actual version, in some sense, of that rewriting.
Neilson: A transcription. Mapping word events. Manipulated, misquoted and remixed is the process and a study.
Cabri: A transcription as a poem. But it’s called Disfigured Texts, so that the process is not from preformed to reformed text, but it’s from disfigured text to disfigured text.
Neilson: I’m with you, yeah.
Cabri: I don’t know if I am with myself.
Neilson: You can do whatever you want and say, but can you really?
I’m completely disloyal, and I steal. It is an activity to alter a new work, crossing pieces of text with pieces of text. And often, it’s scrambled signals. It’s actually very mundane.
Speaker 6: The one place where it makes me nervous, and I am talking about my own writing practice here — not nervous upon reading your work — is when that kind of stealing marks itself aggressively as appropriation, or if I feel like it does. So that then you’re not just taking the common language, you’re taking a particular person’s kind of language, and using it. Then the question of motives comes up, and rights, I suppose. Those sorts of questions. That’s the place where I get anxious myself, and I have to start wondering about why I am doing things, and what happens when I do them, and all of that.
Fuller: So, when you say a particular person’s kind of language —
Speaker 6: Well, vernacular, in the vernacular. Taking vernacular speech from working-class Portuguese people in Providence, Rhode Island: that makes me nervous.
Neilson: What about if you wanted to borrow some language from the Disney Company’s service-worker’s manual, that kind of language? How would you feel about that?
Speaker 6: Better.
I don’t know why, I feel like I would be —
Neilson: They’re very different, I think.
Speaker 6: Well, one is institutional.
Neilson: Your feelings are different about it.
Perelman: Yeah, well, it’s critique or it’s empathy, and those are —
Speaker 6: Exploitation.
Perelman: Yeah, exploitative.
Speaker 6: I feel like I have to be very careful about tone and all those sorts of things.
Speaker 7: There’s actually some words here that seem a little nervous, more nervous, Heather, than you’re letting on, and I wonder if I’m misreading them: “I think the specific poet moves beyond your act of witnessing,” [Actual text reads, “I think the civic poet moves beyond the mere act of witnessing.”] begins to ask questions of your responsibility. So, there is here this play, it’s actually a simple tactic: witnessing and interrogating. And testimony is what shows up, you have testimony. There is sort of this language, the law of guilt and responsibility, which at least is latent.
Neilson: Well, I think if I recall, that was from one email that was actually titled Civics 101. Heather actually sent me something called Civics 101.
Speaker 7: It’s about the citizen poet, the comrade poet.
Neilson: And you mentioned you worked for lawyers, so you had a legal orientation.
Speaker 7: I was thinking of it just because of the “Three Urban Legends” poem. It seems to me that you very deftly navigate all of those pitfalls in that poem. So, that’s what interests me just in terms of craft: how do you navigate all of these pitfalls if you decide that you’re going to engage with various kinds of American vernacular?
Fuller: Well, know them well. I guess I’m incredibly fortunate to be pretty immersed. I don’t know how I would do it if I was not.
Speaker 8: Well, we were talking about this yesterday and I was bringing up questions like responsibility, because we were looking at the same passage, and we were looking at juxtaposing “bird man,” which seemed more overheard, with “beggar,” which seemed to have more of the character of the poet in it. But now at this point, I would argue, that the opposite of taking this language is simply not using it, ignoring it. So, then what?
Fuller: Right. Exactly.
Gallagher: Yeah, I think that is what I find fascinating. I mean, what I hear people saying sounds maybe more critical, but I think one of the latent questions is actually: how do you enact responsibility? That’s something that you seem to pull off in a really decent way that’s curious. I don’t know, I think I’ve lost my thread.
Fuller: No, I hear you. I think about that all the time, and I wonder if it’s just my general disdain for stories, you know. For hearing, writing, reading stories and not wanting to write stories. And not wanting to make fairy tales or myths.
Perelman: Do you read Reznikoff?
Fuller: Yes. Yes, indeed.
Perelman: I’ve been thinking about him lately. He tells stories all the time —
Perelman: And it’s really crucial, you know, where the parents came from, where the kids are going, and the world doesn’t make sense and they’re not fully responsible without those stories. They’re not hokily Disneyed into a conclusion, but they’re crucial to making any of that manifest.
I just wonder about your very strong distaste for stories. And Melanie, you were saying oh gosh, can I even say the word in this room. Well, not quite, but to me all of those, it seems to me I’d like to propose a distinction, and I would like it to be, you know, the whole world to take it up —
But I think a lot of writers since Olson and the fifties have been hobbled by a kind of chimera of breakthrough, where story is one of the things we have to shoot down to get in one of the fast jet planes, or whatever. And it seems to me that Reznikoff is useful to think about narrative as a constituent part of the expertise that you have, with hearing language that you sort of know the trajectories of, the references and their sentences. You know where the day starts and where it goes in the middle, et cetera. Without that kind of knowledge, we don’t know much. The sad thing is it becomes incredibly irresponsible without that knowledge.
Fuller: Reznikoff, like Oppen and like Scalapino, have managed to tell stories without mythology. And when I think of story in the sense of what I’m talking about, I’m thinking of the mythologized story, the fairy story —
Perelman: And yet you don’t mean myth as in Aeolian myth?
Perelman: So, ideological masking?
Fuller: Yes, exactly.
Speaker 8: There’s a kind of, I’m thinking about the stuff Carla Harryman does, which is sort of fairy tale-ish, but it’s crazy. She has this thing with these people without mouths who just keep asking — somehow, even though they don’t have mouths — “Is Darth Vader our mom?”
That seems to me very appealing —
Fuller: Yeah. That’s great.
Speaker 8: And it is a kind of storytelling.
Fuller: And she’s able to really slip around with syntax.
Speaker 8: She has this line that always sticks in my head, in this story called “In the Mode Of,” where she says, “this is not logic, but a language of logic used to other ends,” which seems very much wrapped up in her project and maybe a different way to think about mythmaking, storytelling.
Speaker 9: I’m interested in asking Heather about the way in which the scene in the poems we were actually just looking through, the poems you read in this book, how is it that you bring issues of sexuality into this public space that you’ve been talking about? I am interested in how you do that. I’m interested to find out whether you study models for doing that, or whether it’s something that you —
Fuller: Well, sex is public space. “Try sex!,” “Fun!,” you know.
Neilson: Didn’t I read somewhere that you were the post-Language Eileen Myles?
Fuller: Yeah, that’s what Tom Devaney said.
Speaker 9: So, sex is public space, meaning that it’s being excelled?
Fuller: Well, you know, the boys on the street corner yelling “pussy” out of context. The car window issuing “freak” to the fabulous drag queen. It’s less a personal sense of sex than it is a sense of witnessing it. And asking a few questions about it.
Speaker 9: Witnessing the situation of the language?
Fuller: The language around perhaps what’s seen as deviant sex.
But I don’t think of any models really. I don’t know that there is really unified sex in my work. It’s more about what is present in the landscape of the language that is at work in a poem.
Neilson: I perceive that there were some gender identities in the landscape. These things, you know, you mentioned these shards of that spectacle.
Fuller: Right, right.
Then there’s “the American cock and the American hen back together again.”
Perelman: I detect a little mythology there.
Neilson: Grammars, then primers were sources for systems, like homilies, I was looking at those.
Speaker 9: I have a question about the footnotes, which maybe is a restatement of my question about anarchy —
Neilson: That’s fine.
Speaker 9: So we have in one sense a schema going here of a kind of communal, royally cisternal language in some sort of dialectic where the self confronts an other, and their primary relationship is one of negation and antagonism. It interested me that after this kind of collaborative wealth of material, that I got a very careful adumbration of whose was what’s, and how the final bid — “all else, my language” — tipped it more to the sort of dialectic side. So, I wonder if this gives you more of an in than maybe [inaudible].
Neilson: Well, it’s interesting that you bring this up because I added more to the notes. So, I actually have more here than ended up in the piece.
I think the element of fun and play and nonsense too, is important to me. And so, when I say “all else, mine, me, mine, mine mine mine” it’s very single minded.
It’s play. And, you know, if it’s coming across to you as particularly you, reader, then it’s having too much of my cake and eating it too.
I mean, in all seriousness, maybe that’s too easy and not fair for, at least for discussion.
Speaker: Well, it does seem that there are lots of motives, interesting motives for that kind of play in these poems, though, particularly around issues of readerly choice. This line, which —
Neilson: Completely ignore some of it, then add something that wasn’t there, then later on think, “well, you know what, I’m going to revise that,” or maybe you don’t. I don’t think we have too much time for autobiography here tonight, but as an undergraduate I was told about one of the professors, David Antin, who performed “talk poems” and I said, “oh, really?” He was an inspiration to me.
And he did, he just got up there and talked. And it’s always been something that I took with me. I loved that he just could change direction at will, mid-performance. When I don’t read frequently I often do that too. I see something I don’t like or don’t remember and I will change it, or I stumble. And I also stumble when I am actually putting in text, or change when writing. It’s interesting, just the performing of it, the making of it, and then round and round we go.
One thing I did want to mention is that Moxie, the soft drink from the 1930’s, was one of the things I added in my notes. It seemed important.
Perelman: Which came first, the soft drink or the —
Neilson: Some people say the soft drink came first. The effervescence that gives you the courage to be so, I don’t know. Or perhaps it takes moxie to drink Moxie.
Perelman: The new taste of Dr. Pepper.
I just wanted to ask, this might be a [inaudible] question, but about the performance, do you ever, I mean, you must feel a kind of weird, like I feel when I look at the page and you see “O poet of fortune!” And you don’t, one couldn’t — statistically you just couldn’t generate the way you read it. It’s like the monkeys typing King Lear. Well, a million readers reading that line and looking couldn’t create the tone of voice that you use. So, it’s just a big problem —
Neilson: It is.
Perelman: It’s the page versus the CD, or something. I don’t know, do you want to go CD instead of page sometimes?
Neilson: You know, when I was listening to Jack Spicer reading The Imaginary Elegies for the first time, it was so shocking to me. I felt so incredibly sad, because I’ve read him over the years with different ideas about it, but that was not there. I go and look at my Black Sparrow, beat-up collected this and that, there’s a great distance there.
But then, what are we doing, this is poetry? This is not show biz, and the fact is the small room of people so lovingly gathered or maybe some very obligated, I don’t know. And tonight, god forbid, this is going to happen again, but I had a very particular reading tonight, and I guess it’s the nature of what we’re doing, what some of us are doing.
Hey, if anyone wants to record it and put it on a CD, I’d love to be part of it. Like you said, there’s a sadness. How do you deliver?
Speaker: There are poets who completely destroy their work for an audience sometimes. It can go the other way, but there are people I’ve heard once and I can’t read their stuff anymore because there’s this horrible, grating voice reading those lines. So there are some people who really need to stay on the page, I think.
Speaker: Well, isn’t that what you were saying about Spicer, that it was disappointing?
Neilson: No, it was magnificent to hear his voice! I was so sad because I had read and missed his presence, had never heard his voice, and the lightness, it was so lovely.
But then, you know, who am I fooling? It’s mortality. It’s like, come on, oh, he’s gone. So are a lot of people, and they’re gone. You hold on to something and it just brings up something that I think everyone has feelings about.
Speaker 10: But I think you bring out, I mean, reading, it works differently for everybody. You play with tone so much in your work, and as Bob said, it’s hard to read that on a page at first go. But, I would think after you’ve immersed yourself in that, and read enough to get an idea of what it is you’re trying to get at, you would be better capture, not captured, but —
Speaker: Now, you don’t do too much graphically to try to represent your voice. Given all of the different inflections, that’s interesting.
You know, I mean, I think that’s always a problem —
Neilson: I mean, it’s one way. One way to perform it, and someone else could perform the text another way, something of the sort that Charles Bernstein was saying in the introduction to the book, The Performed Word?, that there were different ways, different performance styles —
Perelman: Close Listening.
Neilson: Yeah, right, that there are different ways to read and have things read.
Fuller: And one would hope that a reader would spend time with a text. I mean, “Turntable Wannabe,” it demands that you get into the piece. “Sleeping Bag USA,” “Civil Noir,” you would hope that you can get into the piece and spend time with it, so that when you reach “O poet of fortune!” you will have gotten into the rhythm.
Neilson: Or not.
Speaker: So, in a way Melanie, you’re thinking of yourself, at least when you are performing things, as just another reader of your own work?
Neilson: Not just another.
Speaker: A special one, but nonetheless.
Neilson: It’s okay, it’s a good question to ask. I’m the one who put out the stuff, so to speak.
Perelman: You’ve spent the most time with the writer. You really know her well.
Jena Osman: I have a question about performance for Heather. With you placard poem, the last poem you did with Mike’s voice, it seems that your poems are moving somewhere off the page, and I’m wondering if you’ve done work like that, or if it’s a direction that you see your work going into.
Fuller: Yeah, I’ve done a lot more work like that. The placard form has, sort of, leapt into another form all together that’s sort of linked to the Internet. So, I am always intrigued by how text does leap off. And I do want to get audiences more involved in producing text.
Osman: So, you’re using the Internet for that, or are you using actual performance?
Fuller: I’m using actual performance. I’m actually rigging the audience.
Osman: In the way you did tonight with having voices coming from the audience?
Fuller: Different ways, different ways. You should come to DC on April 22nd, because I’m doing a new piece that is completely audience-driven.
Speaker: Where is that going to be?
Fuller: I’ll give you info.
Gallagher: Well, everybody got their questions asked? Thank you.
Recorded on March 5, 2011. An afternoon at the home of Myung Mi Kim in Buffalo, New York. Transcribed and edited by Divya Victor for Jacket2.
Presented in eight parts:
Beginning with language: Earliest memories of writing.
“Play the Mozart Sonata!”: Musical training and the practice of performance.
Traction and upside-down-ness: The composed and composing body of the writer.
Un-patterning and un-expectation: Affect, sensory experience, and acts of composition.
Intertextual study and co-elaborative composition.
To be “held on either side of this predicament”: Constructing the “poetics” of a poet.
The question of “hybridity”: Positioning critical terms in contemporary discourse.
The question of “experimental”: Positioning critical terms in contemporary discourse.
In what place streets best known, earliest nickname known
Ah, her child face (as she remembers it)
Ah, her child face (as the photograph of it replaces the memory of it)
— Myung Mi Kim, “There Fishing Three,” in Under Flag (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1998), 30.
Divya Victor: I have some classic hits questions for you. What is your first memory of writing?
Myung Mi Kim: Crazily enough, I can tell you. In retrospect it may become more and more important. For me, not for anybody else. It is not a direct memory. It is an artifact that I found — I have a journal that my sister handmade for me — hand sewn. Pale green on the outside with pale pink paper on the inside. My sister is an artist. She is one of those people that can make anything — textile, furniture, journals …
Victor: How old were you?
Kim: When I first got to the US (nine years old). It was like a gift to me when I arrived. Half my family came first — my dad, my sister, and my younger brother — and six months later, it was me, my oldest brother, and my mom. When we all got together there were all kinds of gifts. She gave it to me then. I don’t have a physical memory of writing in it. Although when I saw it many years later I did remember writing in it.
And Divya, this is the fascinating thing, for me, its all written in this third grader’s Korean! Nary an English word! I didn’t know English! It’s all in Korean. All of it. I didn’t get far into the journal — maybe ten pages. It’s all about how lonely I am, how devastatingly lonely, how I’ve left all my friends. That’s a kind of residual space that I don’t actually remember writing. But when I found the journal again, years later, I thought “Oh, absolutely.” I wish I could remember when everything starts to be in English.
The other primary association I have with writing — and I don’t know how this came to me: my father died, as you know, when I was fourteen. And I wrote a poem about his funeral. I don’t know why or how I wrote a poem. I don’t know if I was already writing poems. But this poem was actually published. My teacher sent it to some English teacher’s journal.
Victor: Do you remember where you wrote it, in your home?
Kim: Absolutely. Right after his funeral. Very much a response to the visual images of the funeral. The snow. He died on Valentine’s Day. The ground was so frozen. I remember thinking that they can’t dig into the snow to put the casket in. Much of the poem is about the colors. The red carnations. The white carnations. Something in that strange, violent juxtaposition of these living flowers, red and white, their colors next to the earth that can’t be broken into. And there is my father’s casket. And my mother who is just trying to heave herself into that hole that has been dug for the casket. The poem somehow notices all of that.
Those two are my distinct memories — of the little girl writing in a Korean journal given to her by her sister and then there is a kind of skip and everything is in English. I’m not sure how I got from the space of the journal to the poem. A four-year gap. This is all to say that I didn’t sit around reading poetry — I wrote it. And if that’s what we mean by someone is brought to writing — because you’re not thinking genre or how this poem bears a resemblance to other poems — you’re just brought to poetry.
Who even came this way, bellow or saw
Thirty and five books
Paper script document
Kinglists proverbs praise phrases
They say it is the ocean
Indistinguishable water horizon net of worth
False vocalization of the consonantal text
Rose thorn and reported ocean
The beginnings of things
— Myung Mi Kim, Dura (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Nightboat Books, 2008).
Victor: When did you start your involvement with music? How did that happen? Did everyone in your family practice?
Kim: That was a very important part of my life. I was maybe five. Everyone might have done it, yes — but I took to it. My parents would trot me out at dinner parties, “play the Mozart Sonata!” Being the youngest, maybe I learned how to enjoy being compliant. Sad as that might be.
But I loved doing that for my parents. I started when I was five and left Korea when I was nine. I was playing a pretty serious repertoire by the time I came here [to the US]. That was a big part of my childhood and adolescence. And as you know, when I went to college I was enrolled in the conservatory. All that to say, I would practice maybe two or three hours a day. It taught me a lot about a) concentration and b) just to get a run of passages right, you’d have to figure out the phrasing you were after, the pitches, the combination of rhythm, volume, what actually constituted a phrase. It had a lot to do with (not necessarily directly) how I think about rhythm, musicality, the line — some of that training is definitely imbedded in my idea of prosody, rhythm, and so forth.
It gave me the ability to reformulate things constantly — which is what practice means, when you practice on an instrument — which is not so different from what it means to practice as a writer.
Victor: It seems like you follow these principles in performances as well. Every time I’ve heard your readings, you ask the question of where the accent should be placed, which combination of pages should be read first, and which should be skipped. The logistics of poetry performances seem to have an analogy with musical practice here.
Kim: Yes. I can’t quite imagine a relationship with a poem, the fact of writing or reading a poem that would be permanently inscribed. More and more, even with texts that exist as “published,” every time I read them, the occasional context matters. I am reading the text in that present moment. There are certain things that are literally sayable, pronounceable, that you think you can get into your body and into your throat and through your breath. And some days you take the same text and you say, “You know, I just cannot say that word today.” Why should I pretend that? Why should I will that? Depending on the day, you can wake up and your mouth feels different, or your nose or throat, or you have some sort of congestion, or you feel more exhausted, or you have less lung capacity. Do you heed that? Yes, for me. Rather than reading the text as it is simply because it is. It’s a way of understanding that the text is absolutely in flux even after the fact of having produced it. Because there is an ongoing relationship with the text you produced, in the past tense, but that text is not inconsolably permanent.
Victor: Absolutely. My decision-making process in composing a setlist revolves around how much I’m ready to spit that day. Because I tend to work with longer, exhausting, fast, sequential list pieces, I feel more ready to expel a lot in front of friends. But, perhaps not everyone thinks of the reading scene this way. I think many think of the text as already accomplished: “I have had my say.” But then the poet is carrying around a cardboard cutout of herself, saying the poem.
Kim: Right, then anyone could, therefore, say that text. Rather than the performance also asserting that (during this particular reading) I am the person who has a relationship to the history of making that text, here are the things that are possible, here are the things that refer, here are the things that I rehear, here are the connections between passages and elements that I’ve not heard before. Can we think of this as part of textual practice? Can we think of continually producing a relationship to the process of producing a text? A continual reengagement? That is what I mean as process. To participate in the reading.
Victor: This is bringing together what you’ve been saying about concentration, discipline, and the practice of the musical instrument and what interests you about attention, inattention, and attunement.
Kim: Maybe a useful model here: there is the moment when you show up and do your piano recital — straight through, it is one time, and the decisions you make hold steady. For me, this is accompanied by the ten thousand ways you could play that one passage in that one piece which I can also hear at that particular moment. So that particular, objectively describable moment is never autonomous from all the other attempts, all the other forays, all the other articulations. Actually I hadn’t thought about this before. Maybe that’s true. One “publishes” and that’s the recital. But [that moment of performance] is never cut off from all the other permutations, all the other possibilities, all the other iterations, and all the ways in which I could hear, or could process, or could place this passage next to that passage. It is perpetual, even while there is the thing called the recital or the thing called the book.
Victor: Yes. That “even while” is crucial — not instead of, but even while and in spite of the book existing, or the poem existing as published object.
Kim: To actually be able to think of compositional space is precisely that predicament. There is the thing that might become palpable as the recital or the book. But for me, this is never distinct from all the attempts, all the possibilities, all the desire for differentiation.
— to represent 14 single and 5 double consonants,
Hangul starts with five basic symbols, which are
shaped to suggest the articulators pronouncing them.
For example, a small square depicts a closed mouth
This is the study book.
— Myung Mi Kim, “Primer,” in The Bounty (Tucson: Chax Press, 1996).
Victor: Myung, this morning I went to the neurosurgeon. Have you seen the movie The Savages?
Victor: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character has to do that thing where he hangs from a door — it’s called traction. I have to do that. For three months. Three times a day for twenty minutes.
Kim: Three times a day? Do they give you the whole apparatus?
Victor: You fill a giant bladder of water. Then you swing the bladder over a door. And hang it from a metal frame. You strap your face to it. And sort of … squat. There is a mechanical apparatus that stretches your neck so it can release the pressure that’s built up in it.
Kim: Do you know why this is happening? You didn’t have an injury, per se.
Victor: I didn’t have an injury, but I have multiple torn parts. There is a thing called an “annulus” that covers and cushions each spinal disc. It creates the right space between each disc. And if it’s torn, the disc puts too much pressure on the nerve.
Kim: But is it just from wear and tear? Like everyday life?
Victor: Yeah. The doctor said: “Either you’re eighty years old, or you used to play sports.” And, neither is true. It could have been a childhood injury. I used to throw discus.
Kim: Well there you go.
Victor: I was a very mediocre field athlete.
Kim: No, no, I am just trying to imagine you. And I can!
Victor: No, it’s probably a delayed reaction. Age, bad posture. Reading.
Kim: Well. Now I have a picture of you hanging upside down like a bat.
Victor: Actually that’s how all my dissertation writing is going to happen. With the blood rushing to my head.
Kim: You never know, it could kick something over. Right? Something that wouldn’t happen if you were sitting upright, pretending that you were writing. Now this way you just “write” rather than sitting down to write.
Victor: That’s a great idea. And just dictate as I’m hanging?
Kim: Absolutely. Though I don’t know what will happen to your breathing.
Victor: Well, I hold my breath when I write anyways.
Kim: No, this would be good. I want you to breathe when you’re writing rather than hold your breath when you’re writing. Yes, this could actually be quite useful as a process. Well literally to change your physiology — the breathing, the not breathing — I think it will have the potential to convert what you think of as “writing.”
All joking aside, the complete reorientation and readjustment of everything that you associate with the scene of writing. And to be actually given an opportunity to, in some sense, have no “will.” To be upside down. Your body is actually going to be breathing a different way. Your pulse is going to beat in a different way. The sense that might be produced or evoked might alter or shift what it is possible to think. And one might imagine writing as somehow tracking those cracks — it’s not what you know about writing, it’s what you can’t in fact begin to imagine about writing that somehow presents itself or you’re able to catch it in the moment that its appearance starts disappearing. The image of upside-down-ness — and I know it is a product of physical pain — might actually, if nothing else, give you a kind of reprieve or will alleviate the trends and habits that you might have established in relation to writing.
Victor: Yes. I think we do observe (in the sense of religious practice) a very passive pose of the writer. It’s like we’re in the position of supplicants: you walk to the desk, pull out the chair, and behold the tablet on which you etch — I find it to be a very archaic, passive pose to assume — as a scribe.
When you were speaking of bodily exertion or upside-down-ness, where the body has turned into this precarious object that you have no illusion of controlling, I was reminded of an artist I saw last July in L.A. He was running on a treadmill on a public street, right outside the LACE gallery that was hosting him, and right on Hollywood Blvd., wearing a business suit. He had a canvas and a palette. And, as he ran, he was painting portraits of the people who would stand in front of him. And he did this for hours. All evening. And he didn’t seem to stop. And he would line up the portraits. And each of these portraits seemed to get more desperate. I could sense a breakage of the body in the stroke, in his ability to control his hand.
Kim: Yes, I think the cusp between what holds and what breaks as one is writing or as one is perceiving is important. Because we have the idea that in order to compose or make [poetry] something [must already be] holding steady, i.e. there is a perceiving unit at work which then somehow notates and converts via language, rhythm, prosody, if you are a poet. The idea is that something is going to hold in perpetuity. But I guess, for me, the most sobering and humbling and empowering and humiliating and vulnerable response to that is yes and absolutely not. [The act of writing or perceiving] is what holds but can only hold as it is constantly and necessarily shifting and moving and mobilizing itself, rather than calling more steadiness to itself, or it wills a certain kind of stability. So it’s this kind of completely tenuous, incomprehensible, undecidable space between whatever it might mean to “make something” — which is one ear toward the steady, the “upright” — and absolutely understanding that making can only happen literally because one has to be able to be upside down or attentive in ways that you did not know you knew how to be.
Victor: Conquered by something else.
Victor: By your very “position” —
Kim: Yes. Or if not that, then one understands that to be “taken,” “conquered” is also a certain kind of response. It is the presentation again and again of something you don’t already have an experience of.
Un-patterning and un-expectation: Affect, sensory experience, and acts of composition.
|in measure and in collusion separate and bound
by nine entries in the figure of nine propertied
by nine entries in one acre shallow well and pump
hairy snouts arrows in wealth parade of gifts
rain soaked evergreen
note circles heat swelling
familiar dipthong again siege
wrench its nature alloy encumbering
quality of light mineral
— Myung Mi Kim, “III,” in The Bounty (Tucson: Chax Press, 1996), 91.
Victor: We were talking about Wyndham Lewis today and his position against “cultivated naïveté” in reference to Stein and her idea that one assumes a “childlike relationship” to a present. To recall what you were saying about being taken by surprise, or conquered — these things seem like they don’t quite translate into how we think about “play” or naïveté or childlike approaches to language.
Kim: My first instinct when I hear the phrase “naiveté” or “cultivated naïveté” — the reason I used the word “willed” earlier is because I think that in the space where one is doing whatever we’re calling this mode of attention — this willingness to be shaken — there is no will. So the notion of cultivating something, for me at least, prompts a relation to a certain kind of self-reflexive decision to create that kind of space. And I think I’m talking about something related but dissimilar.
Victor: I think what Lewis is calling “cultivated naïveté” is closer to what you meant with “converting” from a stable, perceiving position. There is a translation or conversion that is always “successful” for him.
Kim: But of course, someone could come along and argue — convincingly — that what I’m talking about is also cultivated. But I think I’m much more curious about cultivation that already congregates to itself or magnetizes to itself a reading that is already ready and in place — something is cuing space. And for me, there is nothing. There is nothing being called forward or there is no aggregate or there is nothing that you’re searching for or hoping happens. That is a very different idea of cultivation. You can stick radish seeds in the ground and you expect radishes. But for me, it’s like I put in a radish seed and I got I don’t know what! Something completely otherwise!
Victor: You know, when you talk about this tension, you often use words like “cue” or “trigger” but not in terms of affect. Of course, I’m reading Charles Reznikoff all the time now and whenever he talks about triggers he uses the verb “move”: “I’m always moved to approach.” Which is interesting because he was a walker — he walked all day, everyday, he walked his way through New York city — but he means “moved” in the affective, rather than physiological sense (of walking) — what chokes me up, sentiment, sorrow, joy — but you are talking about it in a sensory way quite distinct from being moved affectively.
Kim: I think that’s certainly part of it. I think that’s one of the layers or the stratas. There is no way to codify this. Let me put it this way: what you are describing is a certain kind of correspondence or equivalence: “I am moved by these kinds of elements … if I have an encounter that resembles a previous encounter I now see that there is a correspondence, or parallel, or equivalence, or constellation effect.” Of course for me that is true. That’s operative. But what I would imagine slightly differently is that its not about moving on those correspondences and equivalences. It’s a lot more unsteady. The notion of being moved by something, the notion of being brought to this sensation, what you are calling “affect,” is precisely that because you don’t know there is this linkage between this event and that event. There is un-patterning, there is un-expectation, I would say.
Victor: Because to say one “is moved” always suggests a successful navigation of that trigger … of what it has caused, and the direction in which it has moved.
Kim: Or being able to recognize it when it’s happening. Obviously, I think, most of us who are brought to language or brought to making art understand profoundly that sensation of recognizing something that is working on you as much as you are working on it. But for me, there can be no assumption about what that is time and again. Because there is always a presentness of that encounter with that thing moving through you. Rather than one being able to classify or recognizing that movement from one moment to another, from one contact to another.
The kind of things that one might be led to see or experience might have some contact with “I,” “myself,” a “perceiving unit” — but I am not making a point of reference — each time you see yourself or have an experience of “That’s what’s happening,” you are not relating it to some other previous moment in which you also had realized it was happening. It’s a lot more vulnerable than to know and to have a safety that says “I’ve had this experience before.”
Victor: The safety of reference?
Kim: The safety of knowing.
Book of Famine, Book of Attempt, Book of Money
Book of Labor, Book of Scribes
Book of Utterances, Book of Hollow Organs,
Book of Tending, Book of Wars, Book of Household,
Book of Protection, Book of Grief, Book as Inquiry
Swerves, oddities, facts, miscues, remnants — threnody and meditation —
the perpetually incomplete task of tracing what enters into the field of perception
(the writing act) — its variegated and grating musics, cadences, and temporalities.
Book as specimen
Book as instruction
The book emerges through cycles of erosion and accretion
— Myung Mi Kim, “Pollen Fossil Record,” in Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 107.
Victor: When I read your work I register all these references to external texts — “Book of Grief,” “Book of Enquiry,” interests in encyclopedias, archives, and so on. How does all of this relate to your study? There is study on one hand that assumes the supplicant’s position — you say, “I’m here to know, to practice, to study” — that seems quite different from your notion of the vulnerable position that we started off talking about in reference to surprising positions for the body to find itself in. To find itself in, rather than to put itself in …
Kim: You see that as paradoxical?
Victor: Not paradoxical. But in a nice oppositional relationship.
Victor: Oh no. Oh, I’m not going to use that word. You said it, not me!
Kim: Clearly your question is a brilliant one: how can you have the impulse to apply study and in the same moment have no relation to that announcement?
Victor: Yes, right.
Kim: In the tension which is never resolvable. To some degree, it is what is produced in that tension that you become, I hope, inable to further and further fine-tune what you mean by either — “study” or “attention.”
Victor: Myung, that’s a trick answer.
Kim: Was I being evasive?
Victor: No, you were being yourself. It’s this great move that you make — you hear a question and then you ask a question of that question — which is another way of negotiating this “opposition” relationship or question and answer that we’re talking about.
Kim: So, wait, we treated that too quickly. How do we understand the productive or unproductive (either way) relationship between opposition and the “D” word that I said (dialectical)? This has come up because you asked that question. And I don’t know any better way than to say sometimes one of those features is more prominent and sometimes the other is more operative. Which is why I’m saying in the “co-elaboration,” in the unwieldy, uncomfortable, conversation that something happens.
What started then and ate through most of a decade
The affliction is very near — and there is no one to help
The dead dog placed around my shoulders — weeks higher than my head
Standing as standing might
[on verso page]
[on recto page]
“I have dissected more than ten human bodies, destroying all the various members
“and removing all the minutest particles of flesh which surround these veins, without causing
“any effusion of blood … and as one single body did not suffice for so long a time.
“it was necessary to proceed by stages with so many bodies as would render my
The Notebooks, Da Vinci
— Myung Mi Kim, “Lamenta,” in Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 40–41.
Victor: I’m trying to imagine your use of materials from other sources, especially in parts of your books that are explicit appropriations — Da Vinci’s notebooks, sixteenth-century texts and so on. I really like this word “co-elaboration” that you’ve used. This is not a decision just as turning yourself upside down in that bat-like position is not the decision you make.
Kim: Right. I’ll say this: when I tend to include material that is very clearly based on reading or something that can be identified as “another,” I do that not because I’m pulling it in. It has found me! I wasn’t looking for it. There wasn’t that study that we’ve been talking about. Or that quote-unquote “cultivated.” I was not looking for a radish seed to produce a radish.
But somehow, you find this text that suddenly multiplies the terms of something you were thinking about or it makes the conversation in your head become so much louder. For me, it is not a question of assemblage, insertion, citation. There is no decision here to include material or matter. It simply couldn’t be avoided. Once you read a text, in the context of other work you think you’re doing, whatever tracking you’re doing, you think, “My God, this one passage, just by its very presence, opens all these possible portals, opens ways of asking the question.” Its presence is one instantiation that opens up to multiple possibilities.
Like the Da Vinci reference you mentioned: to talk about the language of anatomy is to talk about the language of inquiry — to open up the body whether it is of a human or an animal — a scalpel in hand, a very crude scalpel, mind you — to open up the human body for my “scientific inquiry.” The insatiable, clearly over-the-top project — and yet somehow you notice what’s driving the impulse and you multiply that impulse towards what is oftentimes the female body, especially in the book you are bringing up now. In my mind I didn’t know, or maybe I already knew — see, this is the thing — when one writes anything at what point does one have a preexisting sense of where one is going and why and at what point is one led towards something and at what point do things find one? This is the triangulation that we’re talking about. I listened to the intensity of the language of scientific inquiry or experiment or compulsion, “Let me do this! Let me find out!” as a way to understand expansionist consciousness and imperialist impulses.
Victor: Absolutely. Whenever I read the sections titled “Vocalise” in this book, I feel like someone is responding to a Christmas present they just opened: “It’s just what I wanted! The body is just what I wanted!” That’s why I hover on the word “expansionist” in what you just said. Of course to present the body is to provide an autopsy — “to see with one’s eyes” — the body always reflects the enquirer’s expectations. And this is not what all the other sections do. [The sections that use citation or reference to canonical texts] appear the most stable sections and the most upsetting ones because of that. Because as we said earlier, the will to convert that perception, that seeing, is so successful, so fully executed with the scalpel’s inquiry into the body. What should and ought to “reassure” me in the book — the paragraph structure, the form and syntax of the sixteenth-century scientific treatise — is the most upsetting because I realize that its promise has been fulfilled to create the ideal, to create the rational and stable body.
Kim: There’s this strange phenomena … and you’re going to laugh at me and call me evasive … it’s never that one can ever be firmly and finally released from the predicament that this happens. Simply remarking on this phenomenon does not mean that it is going to change or alter or go away. It is being held on either side of this predicament. This is where I think poetry happens. It’s not unilateral. Just because I’ve been able to comment or notice or observe this does not mean we’ve broken through to the other side.
Do they have trees in Korea? Do the children eat out of garbage cans?
We had a dalmation
We rode the train on weekends from Seoul to So-Sah where we grew grapes
We are on the patio surrounded by dahlias
Over there, ass is cheap — those girls live to make you happy
Over there, we had a slateblue house with a flat red roof where
I made many snowmen, over there
No, “th”, “th”, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth,
lean slightly against the back of the top teeth, then bring your
bottom teeth up to barely touch your tongue and breathe out, and
you should feel the tongue vibrating, “th”, “th”, look in the mirror,
And with the distance traveled, as part of it
How often when it rains here is rain there?
One gives over to a language and then
What was given, given over?
— Myung Mi Kim, from “Into Such Assembly,” in Under Flag (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1998), 30.
Victor: You’ve said that poetry happens when something is being held on either side of the predicament. You’ve also said that you’re skeptical of the perceiving subject that then converts something into “experience.” Let’s talk about this in terms of scholarship. There is definitely a genre of criticism that wants to believe that formal decisions are traceable, that they go back to a certain — we’re too fancy to say “psychology” now — but it essentially goes back to that: psychology. It imagines that formal strategies are analogies for life experience — speculations on strategies of citation, fragmentation, the use of foreign linguistic characters, white page space, move towards a reading of immigration, displacement, traumas of otherness. What is your sense of this type of critical move? This move premised on being able to “trace” from the page to the person?
Kim: But isn’t this just a brilliant extension and working metaphor for the question we were posing earlier! At what point between the cultivated and the vulnerable are we “making”? One way to begin to respond to your question would be to say I think those kinds of forays into mapping what has prompted the formal thinking onto an actual, lived life is to say: I get it. I don’t disavow it. I think it is valid. On the other hand, I also think how it is then possible, having said that and done that, how does [the critic] leave room for what is not equivalent, not correspondent between those two terms?
It is not sufficient to say, “Let’s look at the link between the information about biography, immigration, disjunction, cultural and linguistic rupture, and the poetry.” I think that is absolutely valid. But I wonder where it is too comfortable a position or comfortable line of thinking and comfortable line of critical activity, as opposed to things that are not settled and uncomfortable about that narrative. To make that narrative into a scrutable trajectory between the “givens” and the formal, compositional, and processual work — I’m curious about what this achieves and what this excludes.
Victor: What I’m hearing is a push for a reading of poetics of “Myung Mi Kim” that is more than the poetics of Myung Mi Kim. And one that doesn’t already operate on the premise that you already “have” a poetics.
Kim: Yes, there is a relentless way in which we want to make a composite of the poet at work, or of the poet’s imaginary, or of the poet’s particular historical context. And I think to some degree no one is ever that transparent or scrutable.
Victor: Right. There is something in the very critical vocabulary itself — “oeuvres,” “careers” — that betrays the premise of imagined transparency between the poet and the work. For instance, my father works as a design and consultation engineer for the city of San Francisco, but I don’t ever call a water-treatment plant a “life work.” Even if he “did” spend a “life” working on it. Whereas for the critic the transparency seems so available. It comes from a wish to totalize, I think.
Kim: I think, yes, there is room to leave a trace of that question — or problematic of what it means to totalize any writer, any poet. Because somehow, totalizing has become a way to estimate or enter a critical discourse about their body of work. The question we proposed earlier: “What does this [method] embrace and leave out?” I think that’s a valid question. It helps address what it means, very generally, to read and respond and write about someone’s work.
Victor: There is, isn’t there, a big difference between claiming “I am reading somebody’s work” and “I am reading the work of somebody.” In the latter construction, there is room for the possibility that that somebody’s body might have been upside down.
Kim: Yes, seriously. We started the entire conversation with the idea of what happens when the basic assumptions — of being “upright,” vertical, sitting down with the idea of sitting down to write — if that’s somehow released from the kind of hold that it has; you’re upside down, you’re more porous, you’re without the kind of access of all sorts (linguistic, formal, graphic, acoustic). If you are without a readily available connection or opening, then what do you have? I am curious about that space which, in some sense, there is no access, or not many things are available and therefore something begins to happen.
Victor: Myung, we have talked in the past about the term that has often been used to describe or corral your work, depending on how one sees it: ‘hybridity.’ You are, for instance, in the American Hybrid anthology from Norton. What do you think about the term ‘hybrid’ or the process of ‘hybridization’?
Kim: It is not unlike what we’ve been talking about a minute ago. Of course there is work to be done between, say, the correlation between the givens of a poet and how they might prompt, cue, prepare the way for formal and linguistic practices.
Of course, hybridization is a fact — like the fact of my immigration, like the fact of my cultural displacement. It has a givenness. But I am curious about the degree to which we let it be an easily nameable easily delegated, easily defined, convenient nomination for something that’s much more complex than a single word might imply.
Victor: That’s a really useful distinction between what is given and what refuses to give itself up for explanation, transfer, conversion, interpretation. I’ve certainly been in situations where my formal strategies have been given different names than other Americans who might have been using similar methods — the difference between, for instance, heteroglossic practices and hybridized vocabularies is too easily elided when my face comes into the picture. The latter is a fantasy attributed to an “immigrant impulse.”
Kim: Yes. Hybrid too easily melds difference. Just “stick” these components together and everything becomes scrutable. You take a little bit of cultural displacement, a little bit of immigration and you stick a little bit of first and second language and tah-dah you have a way to approximate those very deeply historical, cultural, economic, and political realities.
I worry about what is eclipsed, denuded at the mention of “hybridity.” It too easily makes seamless those things. One must see the difficulty. There is no way these elements can come together. Yet, they have to be cognizant of each other and be available to each other. Is there a way to keep problematizing these difficulties, rather than saying “See how they coalesce into a single identity!” or saying “Hybridity is now a calculable, experience-able entity.” The impulse to say that “hybridity” is a singular identity is deeply concerning. If “hybridity” is to be of any use, it has to be always reframing, reconfiguring, and jostling any assumption that anyone can make about identity. For this it will have to question the impulse to resolve the undiagnosable.
she, the weeping work
parade of earnings
| | weight of forelegs and hooves under water
a ripple | birched
— Myung Mi Kim, from River Antes (Oakland, CA: Atticus/Finch Press, 2006).
Victor: What you’ve been saying about the usage of the term “hybridity” goes back to what we were saying about totalizing perception, totalizing a poetics. I like linking this up with what you said about process, and the use of source materials: there is no decision to use, it just couldn’t be helped. As I often say to my students: line breaks aren’t heartbreaks. Similarly, when you immigrate, it can’t be helped. That does not translate into a formal strategy. A strategy is something that can be helped. That’s what a strategy is: something deliberate used to create something else. Basically, my question is coming from a concern about a general trend in criticism that makes life experience (if I dare say that) into metaphors for writing.
Kim: I think this is a profound issue for me. This brings up important satellite questions about naming someone an experimental writer, avant-garde poet, and so on. How is it possible to render one’s actual, lived experience, one’s historical condition? Rather than saying “let’s just make it somehow akin to” … it seems to me that any sort of departure from the given is relegated to the “experiment.”
When I went to Korea, for the first time I realized in a resounding way something that I couldn’t sense in a US context — when someone would ask me “What’s happening in your work” — the quote-unquote “inscrutable,” or “experimental” — I could finally say “It’s not about that.” How can I find a way to indicate the actual experience when that experience doesn’t exist? There are no models, no modes, no form, no linguistic registers that are available. In a sense, you have to rework the entire continuum of language, form, prosody, whatever you’re drawn to as a poet. Saying that in a non-US context and having people say “Oh this is not a methodology, not a strategy, but that this comes out of a particular way in which there is no prior shape, no prior moment, no prior poetry or poetics that you can simply draw from.” You have to literally make it. Hand by hand, finger by finger, foot by foot. You have to make something that allows you, however uncomfortably or comfortably, to work that space — mentally, emotionally, historically, and culturally. Because nothing exists for how you are coming to your own condition.
It’s not, for me, a decision to “experiment.” But it is an “experiment” simply because it does not coalesce or does not hearken to what already exists. If that is what one means by “experiment,” OK then that is what I do. However, I am not necessarily working in the experimental tradition, or building on a genealogy of an experimental convention as it exits. One isn’t always taking a departure from something that exists, one is making it for the first time.
Victor: I have an image of a guinea pig showing someone that part of its back with a patch of flesh charred and red with chemicals, saying “I am participating in this experiment. This is experimental.” The guinea pig is not in the position to ask the crafted questions or pose the hypothesis that the experiment then proves or disproves. My concern is that there is a distinct institutional privilege enacted in the ability to raise your hand and ask the right questions, to pose the likeable hypothesis that gets the funding. The access to this “ability” is problematic or compromised for some.
Kim: Which is why, in a non-US context, you can step out some of the very insular ways in which we talk about art. The desire to make a kind of typology or genealogy of all sorts.
Victor: Right, right. Well, this has been intense.
Kim: Want another drink?
Victor: Sure, yes. Thanks, Myung.
1. From LACE’s website: In a brave attempt to multitask outside HollywoodMerchmART! John Kilduff of Letspainttv.com will jog on his treadmill on the Walk of Fame, while performing various mundane and creative activities (from eating chicken and blending drinks to painting portraits) for a modest fee.
Students interview three poets
I am a professor in global liberal studies at New York University, a new four-year BA program that, wanting to be known for its teaching, indulges its faculty in their pedagogical experiments. In spring 2012 I put together a seminar with the loud title Poetry and Globalization. The one thing my seminar was emphatically not about was poems about globalization. Rather, I meant to study the encroachment of modern Western poetics into societies where poetry depends on technologies other than print, and performs other functions than it does in the West. In other words, it was about the relativity of values, about the way values are deformed in translation, about the roles of performance and of social context. The professor — namely me — having grown up between two poetry systems, the Russian and the American ones, has experienced firsthand the localness of poetic forms, observing how poets of one system, no matter their education, could never really leave its values, could never fully alienate themselves into a position that was not, from some other position, blinkered and provincial. Poetic values, I thought, are never universal, even though each bearer of local values will consider all or some of them, unconsciously, to be universal. Hence, values need to be taught with the help of anthropology, or to be more precise, ethnography.
So we studied not only foreign poetic systems, such as Bosnian oral epic as recorded by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, the Chinese transition to vernacular poetry, and Turkish modernism in its political and linguistic context, but also anthropological writings on poetry, like those by Clifford Geertz. We went to readings downtown — events as disparate as the (very raucous) American Sign Language Poetry Slam at the Bowery Poetry Club, the cool sessions of avant-garde writing at the Poetry Project, and even those held by professional creative writing people at NYU itself. Several poets and translators kindly visited us in the classroom; the Spanish-language poet and performance artist Ernesto Estrella Cózar even declaimed with such gusto that the class next door complained. In April we organized a colloquium with six poets and publishers from different countries. Open to all, the event proved not boring, and ended with a huge and edifying argument over translation strategies between Dmitry Kuzmin (Russia) and Murat Nemet-Nejat (USA).
Early in the process of planning for the seminar I gutted the traditional idea of a seminar paper. I wanted a project that would be more versatile, that would prepare students to write for magazines as much as academic institutions, but that would also let them experience poetry in its natural habitat. I put each student in contact with a different New York–based poet of my acquaintance. The choice of poet was dictated by what I knew of the student’s interests. The student was supposed to interview the poet, with the covert aim of figuring out what values inform her poetry, and eventually to learn to read the poet’s work through the lens of the poet’s values. Three out of four assignments that students carried out — and that we workshopped in class — came out of their interviews. Here are several such interviews in their transcribed, excerpted, and edited form. — Eugene Ostashevsky
Students (below, left to right): Francesca Federico, Maria Khimulya, Catalina Cantolla Gallardo.
Francesca Federico interviewed Marcella Durand, an important practitioner of ecopoetics, a type of new “nature” writing that attends to the environment of a subject treated as an observer. Durand’s books of poetry include Area (Belladonna) and Traffic and Weather (Futurepoem). Francesca writes that Durand works “in a deliberately fractured way, creating ‘stanzas’ that build and bend to reveal their own architectural form.Traffic and Weather is one poem in sixty pages, and follows some person — Durand’s narrator — as he or she experiences life in a city from sunrise to dusk. Her narrator loses itself in its environment at several points, both physically and emotionally, for it is the city itself that plays the most active role in the book. The intimacy of the light hitting a building, and the ephemeral wind stirring hanging ropes are just two examples of how Durand creates an otherworldly atmosphere within the city’s concrete boundaries … The intentional shifts between what is experienced and what is emotionally felt, as well as the scientific way of seeing the world results in an extremely multifaceted work … The effect on the reader is profound; Marcella seems to have encapsulated in sixty pages, in one poem, the very essence of what living in a city is, its confusions and its splendor.” Francesca Federico is a junior in global liberal studies at NYU, studying operatic vocal performance. She is spending her junior year in Paris, working for an artistic management agency that represents contemporary classical artists in London and Paris.
Francesca Federico: I’m wondering how you came to be a poet, because what you write about isn’t really typical of other poets. And it seems you have a lot of influences from astronomy, and architecture, and that kind of thing. Have you been involved in those fields?
Marcella Durand: When I went to college I was originally going to be a geologist [laughs], and I was always interested in science but I was terrible at math. And then I got completely seduced into poetry. I had a great professor, who was totally passionate about poetry, and we didn’t work the same aesthetically at all, but his passion for it got me interested in it. And then, when I was living in France, I was living with musicians, and I didn’t have a job. So they would get up at eight in the morning, and start practicing like crazy, and I decided to start trying to write. They were putting being an artist into their schedules, so that’s where I saw how serious people were about being creative. And I wasn’t worried about having a job or anything, I was really just isolated in the suburbs of Paris.
Federico: Would you say that the French language itself influences your English poetry?
Durand: Oh, definitely. It’s a much more lucid language, more precise. It’s really helped me see how French is more, denotative? They have an exact word for everything, and English is much more connotative. So it’s helped me be a little more cognizant of what I’m using in connotation, and when something isn’t precise. And I have this sense of otherness.
Federico: Do you feel that way about any other languages? Or is French the one?
Durand: French is the one. A lot of the French writers are the ones I feel most inspired by, rather than English or American ones for the most part. The person I’ve been chewing on and translating for the longest time is Michèle Métail, who is a contemporary French woman poet. I just love her work, but it’s very difficult to translate. It took me five years to translate one page.
Durand: Yeah, because it’s written according to a constraint. It’s a poetic geological history of Marseille, and it’s written in twenty-four lines per page and it’s forty-eight characters per line. With no punctuation!
Federico: Oh my God!
Durand: It’s so fabulous, but you know, English is much more concise. So I’m writing it twenty lines a page, trying to pump it out.
Federico: Your book Traffic and Weather seems like one big narrative. It doesn’t really have delineations of when each poem ends. How did you decide to do that?
Durand: It is one big narrative. I had a space with a wall (at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) where I could post the poem as I was writing it. So each day I would go back to the beginning of the poem. I tried to have a circular, diurnal structure so that the poem would almost begin in early morning and end at sunset. There is this kind of rough “day” passing, and through the day you’re seeing light move across the skyscrapers.
Federico: When you write your poems about different places, do you have a specific place in mind, or can they be loosely interpreted as being any place?
Durand: I’d rather that they be loosely interpreted. I know it’s a contradiction, being that I write very specifically. I wanted to see how specific I could get with Traffic and Weather, how closely I could get to the physical details of a place. But at the same time I didn’t want it to be “New York City, 123rd and Broadway.” I wanted it to exist universally as well, as though it were any place’s details.
Federico: Traffic and Weather changes so rapidly from one kind of, I don’t know, outline? And you have really big spaces between words sometimes.
Durand: My work is so dense that I did want to give a lot of aired space to the poem, to make it easier for people, not so dense. I just wanted to leave a lot of space and air.
Federico: But you don’t do it by ending a line and just beginning another line. You put it in one big rectangle and then, selectively take out spaces?
Durand: It was just where I felt the line needed a breather. Or if it was shifting geographically.
Federico: So do you ever view the lines as a visual entity? As, perhaps, a piece of architecture? Because I felt like that sometimes, like the foundation of a building that you would see rising up.
Durand: Oh absolutely. I hated having narrative forms, so I did break into the verse as much as I could. But some parts were just so clearly narrative.
Maria Khimulya: You say that that there is poetry that’s interested in knowing, and poetry that’s interested in not knowing, and that right now you are interested in the poetry of not knowing, of the process as opposed to the product. How does this apply to your already published works, like Calendar, for example?
Genya Turovskaya: Calendar was the first longer piece that I had published. I was in my twenties at the time. It was the first time I had set out to write a series of poems as opposed to a poem. I wasn’t sure when I began what I wanted to do, but did know that I wanted to do something broader than a single poem. I wanted to explore my experience of immigration, which happened when I was very young, at a time when I couldn’t mentally process the scope of what was happening to me. Because I was so young, immigration was not a personal choice that I had made, but one that was made for me. It was partially traumatic, and partially world-expanding. As I got older, I started to understand how big of an impact immigration had on me — developmentally, emotionally, and as a writer — and how that always, whether foregrounded or not, is the subject of my work. It was always about dislocation, displacement, being adrift, being at sea. The Tides, which came out in 2007, touches on that too. The subjects that I found myself gravitating towards again and again were outer space, being at sea, being between worlds — emotionally, culturally, and linguistically.
Khimulya: How did Russian influence your poetry? Do you think that translating Russian poets influenced your poetry?
Turovskaya: My English is better than my Russian. English is my primary language now. I didn’t speak Russian very actively — only at home, with my family — until I became an adult. I had to rediscover the Russian language for myself. That said, I think that I — in my body, in my rhythms, in my tones — carry these roots. Russian was my first language; it is the first language that I experienced poetry in. So I think of it as an influence I am not always consciously aware of. I don’t feel like a fully American poet, because I was born elsewhere, started my life in a different language. Also, as a translator, I think that whether you want to or not, you absorb the poets that you translate. You have to allow that poet’s voice to pass through you, your mind, your body. You may not be able to specifically say what the influence is, but you are certainly changed by the experience.
Khimulya: Can we talk a little bit about Dear Jenny? If I understand correctly, the speaker is male?
Turovskaya: I think that we are gender-complex, and that we all have feminine and masculine parts of ourselves. I have always been interested in this aspect of myself, as a woman, my masculinity. I was also trying to imagine what some of the people whom I have encountered in my life would have said if they could speak honestly. That was a starting point. But also, “Jenny” is the name that I was called for a brief period. Well, not so brief: in high school. “Jenny” was an Americanized version of my own name. I think that the Jenny poems were a way for me to reenter my American self and my American life. I was reorienting my location back to the US after having spent quite a few years on and off going to and from Russia. I had spent a month in Montana, and another month in New Mexico, and some time in Colorado and Utah. The poems were a part of the process of my locating myself in that American experience. Much of the landscape in the poems is an American landscape. The first poem starts in the American West, in the mountains, and the last poem ends in Grand Central station, which is one of my favorite places in New York City, a point of arrival, of coming home. Also, I started writing those poems before I went to the NYU School of Social Work and got my training to be a psychotherapist, and they end after I completed the program and started working in the field, so these poems are also concerned with the mind, what the mind is, with empathy, intimacy, waking and dreaming states and the spaces between them, and with thoughts and feelings and emotional states that may be considered unspeakable, unsayable.
Khimulya: Do you think that the letter form helps you in that?
Turovskaya: It is a very immediate, intimate form. It is also, in a way, conversational. That direct address was very important to me. It can be read as one part of the self addressing another part of the self, or as a recognition of an otherness within myself. But I wanted these poems, as personal as they are, to be able to connect to whoever reads them, so it is not so simple as that.
Catalina Cantolla Gallardo: Do you place more value on your original work than on your translations?
Elizabeth Zuba: I don’t. But again, I am working hard not to. There is still the Romantic notion of authenticity — how important authenticity and individualism and authorship are to what we value. I’m actually, I think, more comfortable and confident about my work as a translator than my work as a writer. But I think the public values authenticity, and values my writing more than my translations. It is really entrenched as a fundamental tenet of the US, which was founded on the Enlightenment, on individualism.
Gallardo: And it appears in all of the “intellectual property” issues we’re having.
Zuba: Yeah, it comes from the romantic ideal that started with the Enlightenment, but it’s primary to the way Americans think and understand everything. But I have to say I don’t see it that way. I think my writing and all arts are incredibly valuable in a really big nebulous way, in a long-trajectory way. But I think that translation is immediately valuable to how we understand ourselves and other cultures, other ways of thinking, how we interact.
Gallardo: If you could sum up your writing in a couple of sentences, what would they be?
Zuba: That is a hard question. [Long pause.] I think my writing comes from a place of circumventing, from a place of estranging myself out of socialized or cultured consciousness. I try to be aware of all of the other nodes of thought, or axes of sensibility that I’m experiencing that are not currently defined — given a space, or given a language in our everyday thinking and talking and experience.
Gallardo: Would you say that in writing you put a lot of value into awareness of your thoughts, feelings? You seem to be very aware of the way you write.
Zuba: But I don’t think I’m aware of the way I write or the things I write. What I try to be very aware of is the way I live and the things that I experience.
Gallardo: And that experience translates —
Zuba: Yeah, that translates into how I’m writing. A place from where I’m writing is to try really hard to dwell on whatever my expected processes, or relationships, or experiences, or sensibilities may be, and to be more aware of a direct, more receptive dialogue or communication between them. That acts more in a quantum-like way than it does in a space-and-time way. Does that make sense?
Gallardo: Kind of.
Zuba: I think that what makes it hard is there is no vocabulary for what I’m writing — which is why I’m writing it — so it makes it hard to articulate. But that said, I think that I come from a place where I am very aware of the fact that every word has so much more multiplicity and simultaneity. I also have a physics background, so I come from a place where every particle has multiplicity and simultaneity. So this desk here, while it may look like a desk, is in fact moving all over the place. It’s not only moving all over the place, it’s moving in all these other potential dimensions and that’s all very silly unless you study solid state physics, in which case it makes a lot of sense. So I think that is where I’m coming from when I’m writing, and it’s probably evident in my writing there’s a fundamental rift between the way we see the world and what’s actually happening. So I think that would be my answer. I think there’s lots of stuff going on all at once. And relationships are really important. Because the reason this table looks like a table is because of its relationship with its physical surroundings. So I think what we tend to do in our partisan, typical language and culture is to say, “This is what it is because I can see it and that’s what it is and I’m naming it.” And so I’m definitely not a namer. I think I’m more … I don’t have this Adamic poetry that names things. I think I’m definitely trying to un-name things.
An interview with Ron Padgett
Editorial note: Ron Padgett is an American poet, editor, translator, and educator. He edited The White Dove Review with Dick Gallup and Joe Brainard from 1958 to 1960, directed the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from 1978 to 1980, and then took a position as publications director at Teachers and Writers Collaborative, where he edited and wrote books about teaching imaginative writing to children. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Great Balls of Fire (1969), The Big Something (1990), and How Long (2011). He has also translated Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, The Poet Assassinated and Other Stories by Guillaume Apollinaire, and Flash Cards by Yu Jian. His Collected Poems is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in the fall of 2013. Yasmine Shamma is currently a lecturer in English at Oxford University, where she teaches courses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. Her work has appeared in PN Review, Essays in Criticism, and Jacket. She is currently writing a book on second-generation New York School poetry. This interview was conducted and recorded on April 11, 2011, in Di Robertis pastry shop in New York City. Yasmine Shamma subsequently transcribed the interview. — Katie L. Price
Yasmine Shamma: Diving into An Anthology of New York Poets, I was rereading the introduction, and noting that it was written in 1970 —
Ron Padgett: I was a child when I wrote that with David Shapiro, who was even more of a child.
Shamma: But you did say something that people have been saying ever since then: that the term “The New York School” isn’t helpful, and that it doesn’t do as a generalization or an abstraction. I was wondering if you still feel that way.
Padgett: Yes, but I’m tired of telling people that. They keep using the term, and by now there have been a lot of disclaimers. When John Ashbery gets asked, he says pretty much the same thing. Other people do too. I don’t have much use for the term. I’m not a critic or an essayist, so I don’t need to use it.
Shamma: Do you think that there are definitive characteristics of the people who wrote in New York in the 1970s and ’80s?
Padgett: You’ll have to tell me which poets. Otherwise I won’t know what I’m generalizing about.
Shamma: Ted Berrigan, Edwin Denby —
Padgett: You couldn’t find two people more …
Shamma: I know! Okay, James Schuyler, etc. Basically I’m thinking of the post-Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch wave.
Padgett: Except Edwin [Denby] was a pre-O’Hara wave, really. Are you trying to point to people who came after Frank?
Shamma: I guess I’m trying to point to the group of people published in C, the magazine edited by Berrigan.
Padgett: Even there you’ll find quite a variety of people, from F. T. Prince to Harry Fainlight. Ted’s editorial policy was stated on the copyright page, something like: “C will print anything the editor likes,” which is a pretty good editorial statement. And Ted liked a lot of different things.
Shamma: I guess I’m talking about people who were illustrated by Joe Brainard?
Padgett: When you look at this anthology, you find people as diverse as Clark Coolidge and Edwin Denby, Tom Veitch, Ed Sanders. That’s why we didn’t call it a school — just An Anthology of New York Poets. It included people whose work we liked, sort of like Ted’s policy. We knew or had met everyone in the book, except Clark Coolidge. Most of the poets in that book … well, let’s just talk about John, Jimmy, Frank, and Kenneth. All four of them were (and John is still alive, of course) very smart people, very well read, sophisticated in their thinking, witty, and they had pretty high standards. They were interested in different kinds of art — dance, visual art, music — and three of the four were gay. They were all white males, and three of those four were Harvard graduates.
Shamma: Very different, I guess, from the subsequent sort of group — I mean, I know you went to Columbia.
Padgett: Yes, how awful!
Shamma: Well, in the introduction to Kenneth Koch’s Selected, you mention being taught by Kenneth, and that he taught you how to be witty?
Padgett: He didn’t teach me how to be witty; he gave me permission to be witty.
Shamma: I guess that feeling of permission gets passed on through the generations as a marker?
Padgett: As many things do.
Shamma: It seems that most of the subsequent poets were somewhat more self-taught —
Padgett: I don’t know about that. Ted Berrigan had a Masters degree in English; Tom Veitch did a year or so at Columbia; Tom Clark had an MA in Poetry from Michigan, won the Hopwood award, and also did graduate work at Cambridge and the University of Essex in England; David Shapiro got a PhD … I could go on and on. There aren’t many self-educated people in the anthology. Whether you’re educated by yourself or by somebody else, or a combination — I don’t really make a distinction. But going to Harvard confers a kind of distinction on you. It was the first and is the oldest university in the United States; it has a great reputation, the largest endowment. So being a “Harvard man” has a kind of ring to it, like being a “Princeton man.” Whereas if you graduated from Podunk University, you go out into professional life with one strike against you. Of course, all the people in the anthology were in poetry, so higher education credentials didn’t make all that much difference. To me, none.
Shamma: Right. Well, I guess the reason that I’m trying to make a distinction about education is because immediately, it’s clear — in your case, reading this kind of poetry — how everyday, or conversational the poetry is.
Padgett: The so-called second-generation New York School had more of the conversational element in it. Back in those days, John’s poetry didn’t have a lot of it. Frank’s did though, and there was a kind of conversational poetry that came from Williams through Frank, and people like Ted and me and others picked up on that. Another distinction between the earlier guys and us was that they were of a generation that liked alcohol. My generation wasn’t that much into drinking. We were more into smoking pot or whatever else people did.
Shamma: Why do you think that was?
Padgett: For me, smoking pot was a lot more fun than drinking. Heavy drinking made me feel awful. I’ve been drunk twice in my life, and I hated it both times.
Shamma: That might be a record for poets!
Padgett: I had a lot of fun smoking pot. Pot had become much more available. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, it was virtually impossible to find.
Shamma: And then you come to New York City in the sixties —
Padgett: It was easier in New York. Especially after I came back from living in France, after 1966. Everybody was smoking dope like crazy.
Shamma: So was Great Balls of Fire written in France?
Padgett: The earliest poem in that book was written in 1963 in New York, when I was a junior at Columbia. The book came out in 1969. I guess the latest poem in the book was written around 1967. So some of them were written in France, yes.
Shamma: And did you see a change in your work after going to Paris?
Padgett: I guess it did change, but I’ve never thought about it much. In Paris I was reading a lot of poetry in French, and I was speaking French, and immersed in French, so I had the resonance of that language in my head. It kind of got confused with English. In fact, by the end of my stay in France I was so used to speaking French that sometimes I would try to say something in English and all of a sudden I couldn’t quite remember how to do it. It was a strange experience.
Shamma: Yes, I can imagine how that happens.
Padgett: Anyway, I’m not good at analyzing my own work.
Shamma: Have you read any analyses of your work?
Shamma: Have you found them to be true?
Padgett: Every once in awhile somebody writes something that strikes me as smart and true and perceptive.
Shamma: Are there any critics of the New York School that you think are particularly on to it?
Padgett: There are a number of people who have written things about the so-called New York School that have been intelligent and apt, but I don’t think anyone’s ever told me anything that I didn’t already know.
Shamma: It’s all been pretty obvious?
Padgett: To me, yes. But some poets are much harder to write about than others. Some are elusive. It’s hard to get in prose descriptions exactly of what’s going on. Others are easy. My work is hard to write about.
Shamma: Yes, it is.
Padgett: And that’s neither here nor there. But a couple of people have, in recent years, written some things that have struck me as pretty sharp. For a long time, all anybody could say about my work was, “Oh, he writes a lot of different kinds of poems, and he’s funny.” The first thing is true, and the second is only occasionally true.
Shamma: Yes, I was actually going to say that I don’t think that second thing is true.
Padgett: I remember some critic taking me to task by saying, “Padgett’s very funny and jokey, but why doesn’t he write about something serious, like death?” It was such a wrong-headed way of seeing things, and also inaccurate. So I sent the guy a list of the poems I had written about death and published in my books, but I never heard from him.
Shamma: I can’t believe you didn’t hear from him!
Padgett: Well, anybody who’s stupid enough to say the first thing is stupid enough not to answer. I wasn’t arguing with him; I was giving him empirical evidence: here are the books you claim I’m being funny in, look at all the poems that are about death.
Shamma: This is me going out on a limb, but I find that you and some of your peers write with such — maybe this is me being naive — but you write with such honesty that it becomes really difficult to talk about anything, because it’s just there. It’s this sort of half-showing that you don’t expect. I mean, I don’t see how you could come to this kind of page and be closed as a reader. And so, turning to criticism and academic stuff, it becomes really difficult to say anything seemingly worth saying.
Padgett: I see what you’re saying, I think. Two things come to mind. One is that, in the work of a number of poets of my age and before, openness was a characteristic that I admired, and I still do. It doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good poem just because you’re open. You could be spilling your guts or confessing to something horrible that I might rather not know about. But on the other hand, without openness toward oneself, I think it can be difficult for poets to figure out what to do next in a poem, and to figure out who they are even. The other thing I wanted to say was that, in fact, I have a poem called “The Coat Hanger,” in which I talk about this very subject. It’s in a new book of mine.
Shamma: Is that the one that’s being published right now, in April?
Padgett: Yes, and I think I might read that poem tomorrow night at The Poetry Project. Anyway, if you check the poem you’ll see some of the things I say there, and the people I quote. What’s the other thing I wanted to say?
Shamma: About openness?
Padgett: Oh dear, at a certain age, the brain cells crust over. The other thing I was going to say was more interesting than that, to me anyway. What did you say before that?
Shamma: Well, I was going to say, in terms of Frank O’Hara mainly, as a poet who says he wants his poems to be “open” and his face to be “shaven” —
Padgett: Yes, “You can’t plan on the heart, but the better part of it, my poetry, is open,” that’s what I quote in “The Coat Hanger.” And you said something about the difficulty of writing about that kind of poetry.
Shamma: Yes, the incredible difficulty.
Padgett: It’s particularly difficult to write about the obvious. Let’s just say somebody writes a poem that says, “I’m in love!” What are you going to say, as a critic?
Shamma: You say, “look at how you spread those words out in one of your poems and talk about” —
Padgett: I do?
Shamma: Yes, I have [it] here with me, actually …
Padgett: Oh, you’re talking about the poem in Crazy Compositions.
Shamma: Yes: “I Love // each word increases squared”
Padgett: Isn’t there a “you” anywhere in there? I think there’s supposed to be a “you,” unless your edition has a misprint. In poems that have that kind of directness, a critic can talk about or write about them not from a thematic point of view, but from a stylistic or structural or kinetic point of view: How does a poem work? And why does it work, if it does? What’s the machinery involved here? (I use the word “machinery” metaphorically). To me, that’s the nuts and bolts point of view. There are two kinds of criticism I like: one is nuts and bolts, the other is gossip. I think they’re both illuminating: one from an empirical, workmanlike view, and the other one from a superficial point of view, which can be illuminating — like Joe LeSueuer’s book on O’Hara. Do you know it?
Shamma: Yes, it’s beautiful.
Padget: There’s a lot of gossip in there, and it’s actually quite illuminating.
Shamma: Well, even your book on Ted Berrigan is just so fun and beautiful to read, especially sitting in the middle of an academic library. You get to that kind of book and think, “This is wonderful, this is exactly what I want to read.”
Padgett: It’s like looking at a family snapshot album.
Shamma: Right. I saw some actual albums in Emory’s collection of Berrigan and Brainard’s correspondence, which make you feel like you’re learning more from touching artifacts than from reading criticism.
Padgett: To me those are wonderful. There’s a terrific archive of Joe Brainard’s in San Diego. And my archive is up at the Beinecke at Yale — fifty years of papers.
Shamma: Well, in all of the so-called archives, there are a lot of papers. It’s overwhelming. On top of the sort of honesty and “my heart your heart” [a line from Berrigan] mode of the poetry is the sheer number of pages of poetry written. Koch’s collected is what, 754 pages?
Padgett: That’s his collected shorter poems. There are the longer ones as well. Kenneth was prolific. He loved to write and he liked to write long works and he worked almost every day. He loved the act of writing. And then there were all his plays and his fiction. He didn’t publish everything, either. If you look at his archive in the Berg collection in the New York Public Library, you’ll see some of the material he never published.
Ron Padgett reading in Paris, 2003.
Shamma: Looking through Berrigan’s collection, you can see this deliberation over form and the nuts and bolts of it all that isn’t immediately present on the printed page, which to me seems to validate a study of form.
Padgett: Yes. Kenneth himself wrote some formal poems. In his poem called “The Railway Stationery,” each stanza is actually a sonnet. But you don’t notice it at first. Kenneth also wrote sestinas and catalogue poems, and experimented with some other forms. Frank did a lot of that too. Ashbery too. Jimmy less, I think. But what’s really interesting is finding the form that’s particular to each free verse work. When I say “nuts and bolts” I don’t mean ABABCC, I’m talking about how a really shapely, well-made poem in free verse works. That’s truly interesting. The strict forms, the fixed forms, are interesting for a different reason, to me. How do you put yourself in a straitjacket and still dance as gracefully as if you’re not in a straitjacket? That’s a tough challenge, and it’s fun.
Shamma: I don’t know if he’s in a straitjacket, but it kind of happens in O’Hara’s “Aus einem April,” with how that first stanza begins.
Padgett: Yes, it’s the one that begins “We dust the walls.”
Shamma: Yes, and then you end up in what looks like a quatrain, but when you get close to that second formal-looking stanza it’s talking about moving outside and being “turbulent and green.”
Padgett: In that poem, he wasn’t exactly using a form, though in some sense he was, insofar as it’s actually based on a poem by Rilke. The first line of Rilke’s poem is, “Wieder duftet der Wald,” which literally translates to “Again the forest is fragrant,” or something like that. Frank just did a homophonic translation: “We dust the walls.” I haven’t studied it in years, but as I recall, he sort of followed Rilke’s arrangement. It’s something like following a sonnet or a villanelle arrangement.
Shamma: Are you also familiar with “Nocturne”?
Padgett: Frank’s? Yes.
Shamma: Well, I love how he constructs this really narrow poem, and talks about how the buildings are too narrow: in the summer “too hot,” and “at night I freeze.” These are the sorts of poems that I’m interested in — the kind that recreate buildings. The poem complains, “[i]t’s the architect’s fault” while architecting, in turn, an exact replica. And it’s in all of Berrigan’s references to rooms in his The Sonnets.
Padgett: “Is there room in the room that you room in?”
Shamma: Yes, and “Bring me red demented rooms.”
Padgett: That’s a line of mine that he stole.
Shamma: Was it? No! I love that line. I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while.
Padgett: Well, then I have just given you a little secret.
Shamma: Where did it come from?
Padgett: A poem I wrote in 1961. I never published it.
Shamma: Why not?
Padgett: It wasn’t good.
Shamma: So can I ask what the “dementedness” of the room was?
Padgett: I have no idea.
Shamma: Well, I love how the line sounds like what it’s asking for.
Padgett: I’m trying to remember the rest of that poem. I wrote it in the fall of 1961. I was here in New York. I was a student either finishing my first year at Columbia or starting my second. Starting my second year, Ted and I shared an apartment. Maybe it was then that I wrote that. It was right around then. Ted, as you know, appropriated a lot of lines, from Dick Gallup and others.
Shamma: Did you?
Padgett: Less than Ted, but I did some collaged poems and centos.
Shamma: Did you see yourself or your poems registering the city?
Padgett: Yes, the poems did, because I was here and aware of the fact that I was here, but with some exceptions. I didn’t set out to write poems about New York, or poems that reflected New York. I wasn’t Walt Whitman writing “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or Vladimir Mayakovsky writing “Brooklyn Bridge” or Hart Crane writing “The Bridge” or Edwin Denby writing poems about the streets of New York — alas. But the fact that I was here had a big influence, of course. It was more of a general, osmotic seeping of New York into my work — things just got in there because I was here, things such as actual places and people, but also energy. The energy of New York was huge. I had come from Tulsa, which actually wasn’t as bad as I say it was, but the energy level was lower there. Of course it was calmer, too, and slower, and in some ways quite pleasant. But it didn’t have the street energy of New York. It had car energy. You could go out and drive a car around fast, you could get in a car and drive straight to Texas, and then turn right around and come back.
Shamma: And enjoy the mobility of being American?
Padgett: You could drive around the whole night — drive around and stop in diners with your friends, have coffee, and talk like crazy. Sort of On the Road behavior.
Shamma: Do you think that when you’re in a place that has an explicit energy, like New York, that you don’t have to create as much energy from yourself? That you can just kind of bounce off of it? Like being in Tulsa, perhaps, might force someone with the propensity to be energized —
Padgett: There was a certain amount of general inertia in Tulsa — artistic too. And one had to sort of push against the inertia. Fortunately, I was young there. I left when I had just turned eighteen. So I was a young, testosterone-driven male, bursting with energy. And then when I came to New York, it was like jumping into a swiftly flowing river. You have to generate more energy just to stay afloat, and if you do, you’re really zooming along. Does that make sense to you?
Shamma: Yes, it makes complete sense to me. I lived here in New York before I moved to Oxford, which has a completely opposite energy level.
Padgett: Yes, I once visited Oxford. It was quiet. But as you know, it’s not just the place you’re living in — it’s the place that’s living in you. If you’re involved in studies, or any type of pursuit that’s intellectual or interior, you can be anywhere, because a lot of your life goes on inside your head, or your spirit. So I wouldn’t knock it so much.
Shamma: Yes, it makes you calm down.
Padgett: It’s great to be calm. Especially here in New York, where everything’s telling you not to be calm. But to get back to your comment about rooms: Jimmy Schuyler is wonderful for the purposes of your work. His poetry’s very sedentary. He’s almost always sitting in a room — giving you the impression he’s sitting in a room, if not giving you the actual information — often looking out a window. He spatially locates himself. Sometimes he’s outdoors, like in Maine, but a lot of his great work takes place with him sitting in a room and looking around. Of course Frank’s work is also quite good that way, although Frank often doesn’t give the impression of being in a room. His conversational poetry happens more on the street. But poems like “Radio” tell you that he’s in a room, listening to the radio.
Shamma: And there does seem to be a frustration whenever he mentions being inside, like in the lines, “Am I a door,” and “The crack in the ceiling spreads” in “Anxiety.” You get the sense that he never wants to be pin-down-able within domestic spaces.
Padgett: Well, he lived in New York in some really dumpy apartments, until his last place.
Shamma: And when he lived in that last apartment, he didn’t write much poetry, did he?
Padgett: No, he didn’t.
Shamma: Why do you think that is?
Padgett: That’s a question that a lot of people have asked.
Shamma: It’s interesting that the crummier apartments gave space for creating poetry.
Padgett: I’m not sure he wanted to spend a lot of time in those places. He liked being out. He liked going to artist’s studios and to bars and to parties, and to openings and art galleries, and friend’s places, and the Hamptons.
Shamma: He seemed to enjoy the mobility that the city offers.
Padgett: He didn’t want to be cooped up. But his last place, a loft, was nice. It wasn’t fancy, but it was very spacious, and I thought it was a terrific place. There was a big view out the window of Grace Church across the street, which he never wrote about. His building’s been torn down, by the way. It’s been replaced by some modern thing. His apartment on Forty-Ninth Street was also replaced. Apparently that was a really awful place, though you could look out the side of the back and see the UN Headquarters.
Shamma: Yes, I read about that one. It was the one with the cockroaches and the beer bottles everywhere.
Padgett: Frank was not a great housekeeper. Jimmy was even worse. But you know, in John Ashbery’s poetry, you’re never really sure where you are, except in the poem “The Instruction Manual.” It’s the only one I can think of where you know where you are.
Shamma: I’m actually not writing about him for that very reason. Even though I know that he is of the same generation, I feel like his poetry is inherently very different.
Padgett: It is. And Kenneth’s too. It’s largely free of specific occasions. Much of it is very artful, often located in the imagination. Frank wrote some very occasional poetry, and by “occasional” I mean not just about birthdays and funerals.
Padgett: Yes, time-based, with specific people and specific places. Now, whether or not it’s an accurate reflection of those occasions — in terms of details — that’s neither here nor there really. But it has that feeling — Jimmy’s too — of sitting in a room. You feel he really did that. But with Kenneth’s poems, you have no idea where he wrote them.
Shamma: Except for maybe “One Train.”
Padgett: Yes, and that’s an account of a real trip. But even there, it’s written in reflection, later, not on the spot.
Shamma: Right, like “The Art of Love” would be a complete trip. You have no idea where that was written.
Padgett: Right, that’s like when Ovid wrote his: where was he?
Shamma: But Kenneth did move a lot, right?
Padgett: He got around. He spent a lot of time in France and Italy, and he travelled to China twice, and to Africa, and Greece, and all over Western Europe especially. Mexico, and Guatamala, Antarctica — he got around. He lived in New York City, but also had a house in the Hamptons. He liked the excitement of travel; fresh, beautiful vistas; interesting cuisines; art and opera; and exotic beautiful girls. He was an appreciator of life. He didn’t like the idea of sitting in the same room all of the time. Edwin, though, really can give you a sense of being in a room, especially in his poem “Elegy: The Streets” — you can see him in that room, hearing the sounds of Twenty-First Street outside.
Shamma: And a few of your poems mention street intersections and rooms.
Padgett: There’s a poem of mine called “Poema del City” — there’s actually two of them: “Poema Del City I” and “Poema Del City II.” Two is a very straightforward account of being in my apartment, in the front room, at night, with a bathrobe or housecoat on. I’ve written a number like that.
Shamma: I was thinking of “Poem for Joan Inglis.”
Padgett: That one is a complete fantasy.
Shamma: Is it?
Padgett: A total fantasy. Totally fabricated.
Shamma: I don’t know what to do when I hear things like that. So it’s a fabricated landscape of a room — it’s a fabricated space?
Padgett: Yes. My prose poem called “My Room” — do you know that one?
Shamma: Yes I do.
Padgett: That one’s very much about being in a real room. Actually, the new book that I just put out has a poem that talks about sitting in a room in the house that my wife and I have in Vermont. And my grandson, who was just a very little baby at the time, is asleep in the next room. The poem is about the experience of sitting in the room and thinking of my grandson on the other side of the wall.
Shamma: I have to ask the really simple question about the word “stanza” meaning room, and the material metaphors you all use — like your sense of “the machine,” and Ted Berrigan’s sense of words being “bricks.” He even says at one point that he thought of his stanzas “being rooms.” You get the sense of a construction being built.
Padgett: Right, building a house.
Shamma: Yes. Does the shape of a room come into play in shaping the actual stanzas written out of rooms?
Padgett: Not consciously, no. I mean, it’s okay to work that way, but I don’t seem to be interested in doing that. I’m sure I’m influenced by the room I’m in, just like you’re influenced by what you had for breakfast. Like in Vermont, the room that I’ve written a lot of poems in is what I call my study. It’s a fairly small room with a pitched roof, and it’s kind of cozy. It’s just my room — the only one I’ve ever had like that, in my adult life. That cozy space is conducive to a certain kind of privacy that fosters rumination, or a kind of dreamy poetic state. You’re safe, it’s quiet, you’re alone, and it’s very pleasant to be in that room. So it helps me.
Kenneth wrote in his living room. As a professor at Columbia, he had a very nice large apartment, with a big open area with French doors. He had a table there, facing a wall, but not facing a window. That’s another thing you might want to think about: Jimmy looks out the window when he writes, and he’s able to do it. But a lot of other writers, I’ve heard, think it’s murder to have a window right in front of you.
Shamma: I’ve seen pictures of Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan’s desks, and Berrigan’s was sideways against a wall.
Padgett: The brick wall?
Shamma: Yes, and O’Hara’s was facing a wall.
Padgett: Ted, just after he wrote The Sonnets and had just started C magazine, had a desk that faced a wall, and on his right was an exposed brick wall. I’ve often set up my desk so I don’t look out the window. But in Vermont, I can look to my left and out a window. Otherwise, straight ahead of me is just wooden pine boards. But I still spend a lot of time looking out that window.
Shamma: I wonder if your poems are accordingly different — your Vermont poems.
Padgett: I don’t know. But here in New York I’ve had my desk facing a wall since I moved into the apartment, in 1967. Apollinaire, too — his study was cramped. He was a bulky guy, cramped into his garret’s narrow space, with his writing table facing a wall. The window was to his left, high above eye level.
Shamma: It’s interesting, formally, to consider how the wall informs poems. Looking at, or being aware of the dimensions of the room can inform the dimensions of a poem. But also the turning away from the other space in the room, and writing a very personal poem, talking to a “you” but looking at a wall — it’s a strange kind of energy. I’m not really sure what to do with it.
Padgett: An interesting question is: What happens to the eyes of the writer as he or she is writing? Do they look at the wall? In Hollywood movies they do. I’m not sure I do. Usually I’m looking down at the page, and there’s a “room” there on that page, or at least a floorplan. Or if it’s a computer screen, it’s a window. And I’m looking through that window. That’d be another interesting approach: to see the computer screen as a window.
Shamma: Yes, I was looking at your essay on computer writing and what kind of art it might produce.
Padgett: That’s a really old piece.
Shamma: Yes, and it has a footnote about how funny it is that this innovative computer-based writing didn’t actually end up happening.
Padgett: That was a concept that my son and I came up with when he was a kid. I thought there was going to be a brand new kind of writing. It never happened. It’s interesting though that it didn’t happen.
Shamma: I was thinking about it in terms of graphic design, and wondering if that has become a new kind of writing — less manipulation of words, and more with what the screen in general allows.
Padgett: I predicted a writing that would be a synthesis of visual art and music and everything. That’s an avant-garde idea from way back, and its realization was deemed imminent. Then it just didn’t happen, because computer companies made it impossible for the average person to program. The Mac and the PC were the death of that possibility. If you go back to earlier programs, written in BASIC — even the Atari 800, built mainly for games — you could actually program an Atari, and it was fun.
Shamma: Yes, it’s all become very consumer, end-product based.
Padgett: The technocrats took it over and did some sexy, attractive things, but made it so that nobody could program the more advanced computers except advanced programmers.
Shamma: I saw an interesting advertisement for the iPad, pitching that it was smaller, thinner and lighter to get out of the way, so that you can have more life.
Padgett: It’s to get you further hooked on it. Try to withdraw from it and see what happens to your life. My hard drive crashed a couple of weeks ago. I was without a computer for a few days, and I found myself yearning for it. Like drug withdrawal. And I realized: Ah! They have you hooked. You have to upgrade all the time, and if you don’t, you suffer. It’s like taking more and more heroin. They have you psychologically addicted.
But to get back to the room idea: Take the physical structure and components of the room and see what poems, or parts of the poem, relate to parts of the room. Like the poem as “window” — Apollinaire has a poem called “The Windows.” The ceiling — what does the ceiling, the feeling of the ceiling, and the presence of a ceiling do to someone writing in a room? If you’re writing in a room with a high ceiling or a low one, or a tin ceiling — like this one here at Di Robertis — what does that do to you? And also the dimensions and proportions of the room — what do they do to one’s feelings and thinking? Also the walls — what are they made of? What do they look like? And the floors! Floors are more important than ceilings. Why is that? Why do I think that?
Shamma: Well, because of stability.
Padgett: Yes, but also I look at floors. I don’t look at ceilings. And I don’t walk on them, not very much!
Shamma: You don’t need a ceiling as much as you need a floor?
Padgett: No, you don’t. If you don’t have a floor, you’re in trouble. But then there are certain kinds of floors, and the way you feel walking across them. Walking across the beautiful marble inlaid floors in the Siena Duomo is different from walking across the spruce-board floors of my house in Vermont. What does that do to the feeling about being where you are? Our responses can be somewhat subtle and even subliminal, but they’re interesting to think about. Then there are the shutters and blinds and curtains —
Shamma: See, these are domestic details. I’ve been looking at layouts and floor plans: like railway apartments and the lack of space they present, and how that lack of space comes into a poem. Or like your “Crazy Compositions,” or [Berrigan’s] “Tambourine Life” that are super spread out. Or even Berrigan’s “Train Ride” — these are long poems that came to be written out of smaller spaces. I’m not sure about where your spread-out poems were written.
Padgett: The three poems you mentioned — in Crazy Compositions — were written in Vermont after spending nine months in New York City. I wrote them in a couple of days. I put them together — I constructed them, I actually hand-wrote part of them — a few days after getting to Vermont, where the space felt incredibly open. I put them together up there, but it wasn’t only because I was in Vermont and could be in the great outdoors. It was because I felt an urge to write that kind of poem. Maybe it was just coincidental that I did it right after getting to Vermont. I could’ve done it here in New York. Ted wrote those kinds of poems here: “February Air,” and a poem called “Bean Spasms,” and “Tambourine Life.”
Shamma: Of his longer, strangely laid out poems, the one that I’ve considered is “Train Ride.” I like how, in that poem, the compartments of the train feel mapped onto the page.
Padgett: “Train Ride” is episodic. If you walk through the compartments of a train as it’s moving along, there are different stories going on in each car. For some reason, I think of a line from The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s play: “infinite riches in a little room.” The idea that you can have so much in a little space —
Shamma: Yes, it sounds much like John Donne’s line: “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.”
Padgett: But Train Ride was written in response to a prose work by Joe Brainard.
Shamma: Wasn’t it written in response to a porn magazine?
Padgett: No. Joe wrote a work also called “Train Ride,” an account of taking the train from New York City to the Hamptons. He gave it to Ted, and Ted wrote a response — a sort of conversation with Joe. So in a sense, there were two people in that compartment while Ted was writing.
Shamma: Yes, the “you” of that poem is very specific.
Padgett: It’s dedicated to Joe.
Shamma: Yes, and the poem ends with lines that say “Thank you for being with me on this train.”
Padgett: A very nice work of Ted’s, and a nice edition. Ted got Joe to do the cover image, and it worked out well.
Shamma: Do you miss those kinds of productions? Those kinds of tactile publications?
Padgett: Actually, there weren’t that many. Most of the underground book productions in the early sixties were rather rough and ready, mimeograph editions, like The Sonnets in 1964 and my first book, In Advance of the Broken Arm.
Shamma: Great Balls of Fire wasn’t your first book?
Padgett: No, it was my first book book (1969), that is, with a big publisher. In Advance of the Broken Arm was published in 1965. We didn’t get into better production values until later. Come to think of it, the 1967 Grove Press edition of The Sonnets was not a great production: saddle-stapled, with minimal attention to design. Train Ride was published eleven years later, and it was a nicely designed and printed book. I like good production values, but I don’t like fussy ones, where the book exists just to give a book designer a chance to show off.
Shamma: Well something I liked about looking at the original publication of The Sonnets (rather than looking at them in the recently published Collected Poems), was that there is one sonnet per page, smack in the middle of each page. So you really get the sense of these block compositions, shaped by the page. When you see them trailing one after another, they don’t come at you the same way.
Padgett: No, they don’t. Ted liked the space around them. He was extremely conscious of the way poems look on the page.
Shamma: Are you?
Padgett: Yes, I think it’s important, but you can’t always control it. For instance, when you compose something and go to print it out, it’s coming out on what is usually a letter-sized piece of paper. And if it’s published by a print magazine, they have different fonts and different trim sizes. You can’t control it much. And it’s just as bad online.
Shamma: What about collaborations?
Padgett: What about them?
Shamma: How does the composition play out there? Like your collaborations with George Schneeman?
Padgett: There it’s super-important.
Shamma: How are those created? I’m thinking about the poem with the block illustrations and then the narrative commentary/poetry underneath the blocks and cartoons.
Padgett: George and I worked in a lot of different ways. In terms of the materials, we had collaborative drawings and collages, canvases, mixed media pieces, silkscreens, ceramics, etc.
Shamma: Where did you get the feeling that that was possible?
Padgett: I think I was inspired by the working relationships of the Dada and Surrealist painters and poets, and the fact that Francis Picabia was both a poet and a painter. But the first collaboration I ever saw in person was Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers’s series of lithographs, called Stones. I’d already seen some poem-paintings by Kenneth Patchen in his books. Also, Joe Brainard and I had done a collaboration in high school, before I knew about the history of collaboration.
Shamma: He was with you in kindergarten, right?
Padgett: Maybe kindergarten, but I don’t remember. I have a picture of him and me in first grade together.
Anyway, George and I used not only different media, but also different working methods. Sometimes when we were working we were living hundreds or even thousands of miles away from each other, so we’d mail things back and forth. He was in Italy once and I was in Vermont and we collaborated on a series of colored pencil drawings. It’s called “The Story of Ezra Pound,” and it’s a wonderful piece, but it’s never been published. So don’t go looking for it.
Shamma: Why hasn’t it been published?
Padgett: I don’t know. It would take a fine production, because it’s in colored pencil — very subtle, and only seven pages long. But it’s really terrific. Both George and I were surprised by how it came out. Often, we worked directly in the same room, on the same surface at the same time. In fact, in later years, that’s how we did most of our work together.
Shamma: Together in a room?
Padgett: Yes. For example, at one point we were doing charcoal and egg tempera works on large pieces of paper, five or six works at the same time, moving around the room, back and forth.
Shamma: Which works are those? Are they published?
Padgett: They’ve been exhibited. In fact, one just came back from a museum. But they’re large — they’re hard to publish.
Shamma: So they are spatial pieces?
Padgett: One is almost as wide and tall as that wall over there: a pretty good size. The Center for Book Arts did a show last spring of poets and painters. The show then traveled down to the Museum of Printing History in Houston. Anyway, George and I worked directly, simultaneously, sometimes at the same time on the same piece of paper. There was a lot of variety in our work overall.
Shamma: There’s no poetic persona there, though, right? It’s not an “I” to a “you.” I was thinking about this because a lot of collaboration throughout all of this “New York School” poetry challenges the energy of individual encounters. When it’s two artists to one audience, I don’t know if it’s a fractured voice that emerges, or a less understandable one, but I find that the collaborative poems are a lot more difficult to read.
Padgett: They can be more fractured, but they also tend to be more light-hearted, more “fun,” because we had a good time writing them.
Shamma: Do you think that there is an absence of persona in a lot of the poetry that was written around St. Mark’s Church?
Padgett: You mean in collaborative poems?
Shamma: In even the single-authored poems, is the “I” the poet?
Padgett: I think it’s dubious to assume the “I” in a poem is the poet. Most poets know that they’re performing. Johnny Carson doing The Tonight Show is not exactly Johnny Carson. You see what I’m saying? And certainly the collaborative pieces are showing the persona of each poet, or artist — but then in the process, a third persona gets treated, their shared persona.
Shamma: So it’s a dangerous trap to fall into — thinking anything more of the “I.”
Padgett: Yes. But of course there are a lot of people who, when they write poetry, think that when they say “I” they mean themselves exclusively.
Shamma: Ted Berrigan says that.
Padgett: He says what?
Shamma: He says that the “‘I’ is not ‘Prufrock’ in my poems, it’s Ted Berrigan” (Talking in Tranquility).
Padgett: Obviously Prufrock is not Eliot. I would bet that there’s always some percentage of the “I” that is not the poet, but is the “I” of the poem. Making art is not the same as talking to your psychoanalyst.
Shamma: Like your poem “Little Dutch Diary.”
Padgett: That’s not a poem; it’s a diary.
Shamma: So that “I” is you.
Padgett: Pretty much.
Shamma: And that can happen because of the title?
Padgett: Yes, it’s a diary of a real trip. And I was trying to just write down what happened. But even there, I’m aware that I’m writing. I’m not writing a diary just to keep a diary. I’m a writer. Did I know that I was going to publish it? No. Was I aware to some degree that it might turn out to be a work that I would publish? Yes. When you’re a writer and you’ve published a lot, you are always aware of the possibility of publication. But I try my best to forget that.
Shamma: Were you teaching alongside all this writing?
Padgett: Some of it.
Shamma: So after you left Columbia University, you taught?
Padgett: As soon as I graduated Columbia with a BA, I swore I would never set foot in a classroom again as long as I lived. Kenneth Koch wanted me to go to graduate school and get a degree so I could teach at Columbia. And I told him I appreciated it, but I just didn’t want to do that. He was nice about it. He even helped me get a Fulbright a year later. But on the Fulbright, I didn’t even go to classes.
So I got out of college in 1964, and in ’64–’65 I was around New York. My wife was working in an office, and I had gotten a grant of $1,500, which was enough to live on for a year. We were living in an apartment on West Eighty-Eighth Street, and the rent was ninety dollars a month. Then my wife and I went to Paris for 1965–66, and when we came back to America she was pregnant, so we went to Tulsa to have the baby. We had no money, no apartment, no jobs.
Shamma: So that’s why you went to Tulsa?
Padgett: Yes. Kenneth got me an emergency grant of $500 to have the baby. We got the poverty rate at the hospital clinic. Having the baby cost one hundred dollars.
Shamma: What do you mean, “the baby cost one hundred dollars?”
Padgett: I had to pay the hospital one hundred dollars. They wouldn’t let us leave with the baby if I didn’t pay. Then we moved back here to New York with what was left of that grant. I got a number of freelance jobs: proofreading, writing jacket copy, and doing some readings. Our apartment was only fifty-three dollars a month, and generally it was very cheap to live in those days, if you didn’t mind scrimping a bit. Then I started teaching poetry writing to children because Kenneth Koch tricked me into doing it. I did that on and off for about nine years — a lot of it here in New York, but also around the country. So yes, I found myself back in the classroom, especially the elementary school classroom.
Shamma: I read Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children, and you get the sense of joy in teaching kids that age.
Padgett: He and I were doing it simultaneously at certain points at the same school, and he was really a great mentor. After nine years, I did begin to burn out. I also taught a writing workshop at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.
Shamma: And you ran it?
Padgett: Later, I was the director of the Poetry Project for two and a half years. I also did some teacher training workshops all over the country. And then the next teaching was at Columbia — the undergraduate level. I taught a course called “Imaginative Writing,” subbing for Kenneth. He was going on sabbatical and he wanted the course to continue, so Columbia hired me to teach that course for a number of years. Then Brooklyn College invited me to teach for a year — actually two semesters spread over two years — in their MFA poetry program. But that’s been about it.
Shamma: Has teaching influenced your writing?
Padgett: I think that teaching little kids probably did. I don’t think teaching at the university level influenced my writing at all, but I enjoyed it.
Shamma: Do you think the poverty of those earlier years influenced your writing? I was thinking about Ron Silliman’s blog posts, where he talks about third- and fourth-generation New York Schools. I look at the schools he outlines and think that they can’t be the same schools, because the economics of the scene changed so much.
Padgett: It’s not economically feasible to be a poet in New York these days, unless you have a trust fund or you’re willing to share a place in Bushwick with three other people. When I was the director of the Poetry Project, in 1979 and ’80, I wrote a letter to one of our city officials to complain about the fact that this neighborhood that we’re in now, where the Poetry Project started — a lot of poets lived here — was getting gentrified. It was starting to be called “The East Village.”
Shamma: What was it called before?
Padgett: The Lower East Side.
Shamma: So adding the “village” to it was a way of gentrifying it?
Padgett: Yes. The “village” was really the West Village (Greenwich Village), a neighborhood that formally had been full of artists and writers. But the Lower East Side had old-world ghetto associations. The real estate agents cleverly changed the name, and suddenly the rents went up.
Shamma: Like Häagan-Daaz?
Padgett: Exactly. I’d like to find out who their consultant was on that, because it was a smart person. But it ruined the neighborhood for people looking for cheap rent. So I wrote a letter to the city officials, saying that a lot of the young poets who want to come to New York are now not able to, or they’re forced to live in Brooklyn, which at the time was considered like living on Mars.
Shamma: I’m reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids right now, and she mentions that sense of it being far away.
Padgett: Almost no one wanted to live in Brooklyn. It seemed so distant, and so dead.
Shamma: So it was forcing this kind of exodus?
Padgett: Yes, it was a kind of forced exodus. I got a response from the city official saying that this kind of exodus was going to be wonderful because it was going to revive and energize the outer boroughs. I thought, “That’s an interesting idea, let’s just send everybody to Siberia.” The outer boroughs were not Siberia of course; I exaggerated. But it turns out that Williamsburg has been energized, and Greenpoint and some other places. But it took thirty-five years. Hello!
Shamma: It has happened quite slowly.
Padgett: It was no fun for people who were forced to leave Manhattan, or who just gave up and went back to Wichita, or who never came at all. I feel sorry for them, because when I came here it was so much cheaper to live. Of course, you had to put up with a lot. This neighborhood was occasionally not that pleasant to be in: muggings, burglaries, drug addiction, shootings, and just general ratty-ness. That part was not so much fun.
Shamma: But you wonder how that seeps into the poetry, or how it colors it. How does that kind of disconnect between your generation and later generations emerge? When I read what they are calling fourth-generation New York School poetry against second-generation New York School poetry, there’s a real difference. The newer poetry seems a lot more formed.
Padgett: It seems to me that a lot of younger poets are more overtly intellectual. They’re coming from university situations, and they’re smart. But sometimes it’s not working in their favor.
Shamma: What kind of poetry are you reading now?
Padgett: I’m not on any jag right now, but I am going to take part in a group reading for Tim Dlugos, which is happening next month, so I had to decide which poem I was supposed to read. He was a very interesting poet who died some years ago. He was part of this community. So I was reading his work this morning. Every once in awhile I’ll go on a reading jag — in summer especially. A couple of summers ago — four or five ago — I reread all of Andrew Marvell, the English poems, that is.
Shamma: Is that while you were writing “How to Be Perfect”?
Padgett: No. I wrote “How to Be Perfect” in 1988.
Shamma: Oh really?
Padgett: The title poem, yes. The book with that title came out much later. But the poem was written in ’88.
Shamma: I love that poem. It’s a lot like O’Hara’s “Lines from a Fortune Cookie.”
Padgett: It was fun to write. So I’ll go on reading jags like that, picking some poet and reading him or her intensely over a period of months. One summer it was George Herbert. I also get books in the mail, especially from younger poets, so I try to at least glance at them to see what’s up. There are friends of mine who won’t stop writing, so I have to read all of their new books, which fortunately are usually pretty good.
Shamma: Do you see your poetry changing?
Padgett: I hope so. My publisher, Coffee House Press, said they wanted to publish my collected poems. So I went back over all my work and thought: What would this book really look like? Yes, the work certainly changes, but I was taken aback by how similar some of the pieces are. I rediscovered a poem that I wrote many years ago that’s amazingly like a poem I wrote two years ago.
Shamma: Consistency of character maybe?
Padgett: Well, I don’t know. I can’t claim to have any character at all. I was really surprised that this poem existed. It was almost like I had predicted what I was going to be writing later.
Shamma: It sounds like something that needed to come out.
Padgett: It wasn’t so much what I was saying — it was the mode. It was a poem in which I was having a conversation with something very big and diffuse. The first one was about having a conversation with the city of Tulsa. The second one was about having a conversation with a cloud. So it was like Frank O’Hara’s poem, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” which may have been the unconscious connection behind my two poems.
Shamma: Yes, and the sun says, “always embrace things, people earth / sky stars, as I do, freely and with / the appropriate sense of space.”
Padgett: Isn’t it beautiful?
Shamma: Yes, that line to me is the connection between all of this kind of poetry.
Padgett: “Guarding it from mess and message” [Berrigan]. I may have misquoted that, but there’s a similarity there — a fine line between being too open and too closed.
Shamma: He really seems to straddle that line. On that line, can I ask you how you thought beatnik poetry might have gotten interwoven into your work?
Padgett: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the first book I ever read that really excited me about poetry. I was about fifteen, and I was astounded by it. For me, it came at the right time.
Shamma: I have to ask you if you’ve seen the recent movie.
Padgett: I have not seen the movie. I would hope to some day. I heard that the actor is a very nice guy.
Shamma: Well, the reason I ask is that they animated the poem.
Padgett: Usually movies about writers don’t work very well. Some of them really stink. But there have been a couple of okay ones. Certainly movies about the Beat Generation have tended to be awful. But Ginsberg was the big inspiration for me. I had just discovered Whitman, but he of course was dead. I couldn’t believe that this guy Ginsberg was alive and writing like that. And then, of course, there was Gregory Corso. That all led quickly to discovering LeRoi Jones, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Frank O’Hara, and others. Early on, in high school, I wrote blatant imitations of free-wheeling beatnik poems; jazz poems too. I’d listen to Miles Davis and write poems inspired by his music. Anyway, the Beats were a big turn-on for me. They opened a door.
Shamma: They may have made it possible to think that just being exciting was enough.
Padgett: They were filled with excitement about the universe, like a mystic or an adolescent. And I thought Corso’s poems were quite funny — witty in a strange way.
Padgett: “Marriage” came a little later. I was thinking about Gasoline, his first book. But yes, I loved “Marriage.” I thought it was terrific and very funny.
Shamma: And simultaneously tender.
Padgett: Yes, in an odd way. Allen’s diction opened me enough to be receptive to Frank O’Hara, and even to Kenneth Koch a little bit — although that came slightly later — because I had a sense of humor, but I didn’t know that I could use it in poetry. When I was in high school, most of my poems were very serious, Black Mountainesque. I got opened up further, though, when I came to New York and started studying with Kenneth, and reading the great books of the Western world in his class. Seeing him talk about them made me realize that wit was something that was quite wonderful to have in your writing. Not the only thing to have, of course, and I don’t mean jokes or humor. I owed a great debt to Allen, and to Ferlinghetti. In high school I read Pictures of the Gone World and A Coney Island of the Mind, and I was quite inspired by them. I’ve never given Ferlinghetti enough credit, but I’ve always known I owed Allen a lot, not only for his poetry.
Shamma: From what I’ve read, he was a very motivating spirit.
Padgett: I wrote him a letter when I was in high school and said, “I’m starting a little magazine, would you send me some poems?” And he sent me his poem “My Sad Self,” dedicated to Frank O’Hara. He was so nice. I told him I was going to go to Mexico, and he said, “Yes, go to Mexico! Dig the streets! Dig the whores!”
Shamma: Did you dig it?
Padgett: Well, no, I did not dig the whores of Mexico City. I was sixteen, terrified of even the idea of talking to a prostitute! But the general “dig the streets” idea, yes.
Shamma: But you did go to Mexico then.
Padgett: Yes, several times. And he was wonderful when I told him I was coming to New York to go to Columbia. He said, “Call me when you get here.” Virtually the only people I knew in New York were Allen Ginsberg, Joel Oppenheimer, LeRoi Jones, Fielding Dawson, and Paul Blackburn.
Shamma: Not a bad crowd you had!
Padgett: All these people — I was pen pals with them. So I called Allen when I got here. I was up at Columbia and he said, “Come down and visit!” So I got on the subway and came down. I went to East Second Street and knocked on his door, and he was very kind to me. He lent me some books; he gave me advice. He was very nice to me my entire life. His singing was a little bit hard to take, but I never stopped admiring him. I was very aware of what a generous spirit he was, both with his time and with helping people. He lived around the corner from my apartment, so I used to see him at the fruit stand at night. We worked on different things together here and there. We weren’t close and continuous friends, but I knew I could always call on him. We even wrote two poems together, one of which wasn’t too bad. But I really admired him. Do I like all his poems? No. I don’t like all of anybody’s anything, but the good ones are really good. The people who characterize him as more of a media figure — I don’t know about that.
Shamma: They’re just jealous.
Padgett: Absolutely. Anyway, I owe him a lot. Kerouac’s On the Road, too, was a huge turn-on for me, and not just because of the lifestyle it describes. His writing has tremendous energy, and at his best he was a very good stylist — Dr. Sax, “Old Angel Midnight,” and “October in the Railroad Earth” are all wonderful. The poems in his Mexico City Blues: I could “dig” them but I never quite got into them the way other people did. The Dharma Bums: I loved that book. But Kerouac got mad at me because after I printed a poem of his in my little magazine, he sent me more poems. I printed some but rejected others, so he got mad at me, after which I was afraid to meet him.
Shamma: How did you start that magazine?
Padgett: I’d seen LeRoi Jones’s magazine Yugen and thought, “This is not that complicated.” So I went to a printer in Tulsa and found out it wasn’t that expensive, either. Then I and my buddy Dick Gallup (who lived across the street and was one year older than me) along with Joe Brainard (who was our art editor), we just wrote to writers we liked, asking them for work — to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and even e. e. cummings. It was amazing how many replied. We were only sixteen or seventeen years old.
Shamma: Did they know that?
Padgett: Yes, we told them up front — I think it was our only selling point. It hooked them into reading our letters. The other day I was in the library at Harvard, where I saw two of the correspondences I had with cummings. God was I arrogant! I was shocked by my teenage arrogance. Boy oh boy.
Shamma: And you spent the rest of your life being “never so arrogant again.”
Padgett: You could call it chutzpah if you wanted, but I’m not Jewish, so it doesn’t work very well. Let’s say I was bold.
Shamma: Are you working on anything right now, is that why you were looking at the e. e. cummings papers?
Padgett: Ashbery and I were doing an evening on Frank O’Hara at Harvard, so I thought I might as well go see these documents. It was shocking, but it was fun.
Shamma: Well, this has been fun. Thank you.