An interview with Geof Huth by Gary Barwin
Editorial note: Geof Huth is perhaps best known for his innovations in the field of visual poetry, though he has produced considerable textual and aural work as well as critical and archival endeavours. Recent projects include 365 ltrs, a daily online writing experiment, and his regularly updated blog on visual poetics. Huth’s latest books are Aution Caution (Redfoxpress, 2011), NTST (if p then q, 2010), and Texistence: 300 Pwoermds (with mIEKAL aND, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2008). This interview with Gary Barwin and the poet took place on October 1, 2011, in St. Catharines, Ontario, before Huth’s reading for Grey Borders, and was originally transcribed by Kate Herzlin. — Kenna O’Rourke
Gary Barwin: So the first thing we should talk about is your interest in — [Barwin laughs.]
Geof Huth: In?
Barwin: In mythic creatures. [Laughs.] In taking language, taking poetry off the page, into many different media, whether it’s vocal performance, whether it’s performing art kinds of performances, and movement. So full-body poetics, perhaps you can call it. So, let’s talk about that. Okay go ahead, talk, talk now!
Huth: It comes from a strange place, I think, and it comes from a number of places. But one of them is, and the strange one is, that it comes from the fact that I don’t think I’m a good editor. So I make something and there are lots of my poems that are out there that I think are reasonably good, that I wrote, I sat down and I wrote them, they were done in ten minutes, and that’s all the work that went into them, except to make sure they were neatened up, maybe change the punctuation. Sometimes, or frequently, I just can’t imagine how to change anything I make. Not always though — sometimes change is dramatic. So because of that, because I can’t change anything, the extemporaneous process of creation is the act of making poetry. And so the act of making poetry can also be the physical act of speaking it into the world, or creating it as you speak it into the world.
The way I look at it, everything is extemporaneous, all creation is extemporaneous, it’s based on everything that’s come before, and all of a sudden it gets made. Even editing is an extemporaneous act that takes place after a different extemporaneous act. And so I went into performance because that made sense. I went into doing things at one point in time because it made sense.
But the other reason is, that my interest lies in the physicality of language, so when I edit a poem I usually edit it for meter. So it’s not like I’m saying, geez, that’s the wrong word, or I don’t have the line break right, or something like that. I’m editing it for meter because I think that my ear went off a little bit and I’m trying to get it back. It’s not that my poems aren’t naturally rigidly metrical at all, but they are metrical, and so I think about the physicality of language and being able to perform a poem, even to perform it just by making it up when you’re standing in front of somebody, allows you to live within the language as it truly is, which is that it will be a vocal act that takes place inside an entire body. So the act of speaking and communicating is not just the act of using voice but of using your whole body. It has to do with your face, with where you look, with how you move your body, all of that.
Barwin: It’s poetry as practice, or as process, in the way a jazz improviser, or a traditional musician might construe it in terms of the improvisational element of it. The full-body thing I understand. So do you see it as a representative — the improvisational part — of a process of capturing a certain sort of moment in the life of language or the particular moment of language use as it is filtered through a particular individual?
Huth: Right. A lot of people recently have been saying that what I do has to do with jazz improvisation, and I think so. It’s meant to be a special act, and it’s why when I read poems I almost never read. And if I read a poem that’s written on the page, I usually only read that once ever in public. I don’t perform it another time. I could, because every performance could be a different articulation of the poem, a different manifestation of it. But I don’t because it’s going to be a unique act. When I end, as I usually do, a reading by singing something, usually in an invented language, it’s a completely unique act. Usually the tune hasn’t been used before, the words haven’t been used before, and the people who are there experience something that won’t ever be experienced that way ever again.
Barwin: So are you tailoring what you do, or being aware of that particular moment in the audience, that particular space you’re in — emotional, psychological, as well as physical space? So when you perform, it’s for that particular event in time-space?
Huth: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, when I’m waiting to go on, I’m always thinking about the space and I’m evaluating it and I’m figuring out what I’m going to do, or what I think I’m going to do, because those are two different things when I perform, because that space is going to restrict me in some way and is going to allow me some opportunity in some way. And so I’m thinking through it. Even though it ends up being an extemporaneous act, the outlines of it will be defined. I’ll know some physical things that I’m going to do.
Reading in Chicago, August 26, 2011 (watch Huth's performance here).
So for my recent performance in Chicago, I knew I was going to run across the room and jump onto the window ledge. That was something that I decided I knew I could do because I’ve done that lots of times in my life, and that would meet the needs of the audience.
Before that reading, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I gave a reading which entailed my taking off almost all my clothes — I left on my underpants. But by being in that space and seeing where certain people were, I noted that in the front row — which was very tight, there was almost no space to work in — there were two people I knew, so I began the performance by taking two things I had with me, one belt that I gave to my friend Mark Lamoureux, and then I took these leaves and papers that I was going to use and I gave them to somebody else, because I could do it with those people, I knew they would accept these objects. And so the space, the people who were there, everything has to come to my consciousness and be used to make the decisions about the performance. Now some of these are very rough decisions, regardless. But even so, I think I sometimes do things that are maybe a little off-putting to people, so it’s not like it’s only choices.
Barwin: That’s what I was going to ask about. How do you account for the dread your audience feels about your performances? [Laughs.] How do you imagine your audience, because there’s surprise, there’s delight, there’s joy, there’s bewilderment, there’s paradigm changes. I mean, when I’ve seen your audiences, there’s a whole range. How do you conceive of their interpretive frame while they’re watching you perform?
Huth: I expect that most people will be a little surprised or shocked, even though I’m not necessarily doing anything shocking. But I was thinking, as we were driving halfway across North America to get here, and that’s just across New York State, that I gave a reading in Minneapolis once, and I ended with this song. Nobody expected it, and everybody was kind of bewildered, even these very avant-garde people that have been my friends for decades. And my friend Siobhan from graduate school came up and said, “Geoffrey, what was that thing you did at the end there? I couldn’t really understand what was going on!”
Barwin: It is called a song!
Huth: I know!
Barwin: It is a behavior that has been exhibited in humans for many tens of thousands of years!
Huth: But in the context of a poetry reading —
Huth: — it made no sense to her, and since it had no recognizable words it made no sense to her. I expect that to happen.
Barwin: This is kind of a code-switching thing. That performance in Chicago … it’s not so strange to jump onto a window ledge, but it perhaps is in the context of a poetry performance. Likewise, reading text from a kid’s writings or reading text derived from the whole wide world of language, right? You’re reading or performing text, making the notations for, the impetus for, performances.
Huth: What are you talking about are these photopoems that I started a while ago, but now I’m pretty intent on them. Because I have a camera on my phone all the time, I can now take pictures of text as I’m going through the world. Sometimes the text is interesting, or I edit out certain bits of the text to make it more interesting so that I have something that I consider a poem. One of them was a photograph of a little child’s poem by a girl who performed the day after I had performed in Cambridge. She read her poem with a lot of verve. And it was very cute, and it showed some real understanding of language, but very simple. I cut that down, and I performed it as a different thing. Or these photopoems are just signs in urban nature that I record and make them mean something. The whole reason for this is to sort of create in the moment, to live in the moment. I create poetry all the time. For instance, I make poetry at work all the time. I go to the restroom, or I’m in my office early in the morning. And I will sing a song, and I will record it, and I’ll either record it on video or audio, and then I will consider that a poem, and sometimes they have words in English and sometimes they don’t. But the act of poetry is almost a constant act. It’s a part of my everyday and every-minute life.
Reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 31, 2011 (watch Huth’s performance here).
Barwin: It seems subversive to be at work and to be creating poetry, and you’d be okay to go for a smoke break, or to call home or something — but to actually create a moment to create a poem seems subversive from the paradigm of what it means to be working, what daily life means, actually. I think it’s really fascinating. You talk about full-body poetics, but I actually see in some of your work this idea of weaving it into regular life. As you’re walking along, you’re recording, you’re performing, you’re documenting in some cases, [and] some of those things become artwork, some of those things just become documentation, and that’s another interesting blur, I think, in your work — what’s documentation and what’s art.
So a further — and perhaps most graphic — manifestation of this, is the 365-day project where you wrote a poem to somebody every single day. Part of that, to me, was pushing physical limitations, as in a Chris Burden performance artpiece. Where it was exhausting, psychologically maybe, in terms of imagination. Because you’re also posting them live online every day, so there was an audience that was sort of waiting for it, ostensibly.
Barwin: Well, I was waiting for it! But that was the notion, that you were subject to outside scrutiny on some level, because you couldn’t just say, “Well, I’m working on this project and I’m redefining it as I’m going.” You’d say, “Part of what I saw in the piece is the struggle with the premise of its own assumptions as a piece.” You’d say, “Well, I’m set up to do this, let’s see if I can do this.” And then there were some online struggles as to whether you were able … as various things in your life happened, or you were just tired.
As you said yourself, it was a very ambitious project, and some of the poems were very, very long. You could’ve written a haiku and just said, I checked that off, I did what I set out to do. But you were actually pushing the physical limitations. Physical and psychological. So I guess I want to ask more about that, about poetry as being part of a life and as being limited by the physical limitations of life.
Huth: “365 ltrs,” which was the project you’re talking about — it did develop over the year as the year continued. But the idea was every day, for 364 days, I sent a letter to another person, and a letter was always in the form of a poem, and it always went back and forth, male and female, male and female. Until the 365th day, in which I wrote a letter to the first person I wrote a letter to, which was Nancy, my wife. And then, since it was only 365 days, her poem had to be fifty pages long in fifty sections because it was her fiftieth birthday on that day. And I began at the day I turned fifty, which was 364 days before that, so there were all these sort of restrictions and sort of symbolic acts built into it besides everything else. And when I originally began it, I thought they were going to be like real letters. If you read them, they’re just like chatty, maybe New York School, poems where, you know, somebody’s just chatting about things, going on fairly languidly. And then the problem was that I had to do something else. I couldn’t just do the same thing. And so very quickly it became that I pretty much had to think of something different to do every day. So every day it had to be in some way different from every day that preceded it. I had to try to write a poem in a different way. I started creating visual poems. I created sound poems that I transcribed. I created all sorts of things, and I sent these out to people who didn’t necessarily expect them, who didn’t necessarily know what to do with them, and who wouldn’t necessarily be able to interpret them. ’Cause one of my issues is, it doesn’t matter if anybody understands a poem. That’s not the issue. The issue is, does the poem exist, and has somebody experienced it, and does it have any effect on them? And the effect doesn’t necessarily have to be positive — that might be a good thing — but it has to be a real effect. It has to be something to remember.
And so this project was my worst project for myself ever to do! It was by far the hardest. Because during the course of those 365 days, I was probably traveling for a hundred of them, and so I was traveling all the time. I traveled all over the place, and I was writing letters at the same time, so it was very tiring. All the time. And it was intended to be. It was intended to be an act of will and physical endurance as well as an act of art. When I get down to it, and I look at these poems — one of which I’m going to read today — I don’t think that they all work. I think I’ll have to edit them, and I’ll have to make them into something, and it comes from this other crazy idea that I have, which is that no poem can be abandoned. Every poem has to be brought back to life. If it’s a dead poem, you have to figure out a way to make it whole again.
To sort of extend what you’re talking about, the other way poetry comes into my life is that I do these little things I call “fidgetglyphs,” which other people would call “doodles.” But my doodles are focused on the representation and understanding of written language, that physical characteristic of language. It’s examining letterforms and visual puns and asemic writing, where they’re essentially things to look at but supposed to resemble writing in some way. I do these all the time: if somebody’s talking to me on the phone at work, I’m writing some of these, and I might do three or four during a conversation. When I’m in a meeting at work, I create these things as I take part in the conversation. They happen in the act of the rest of everything that I do, so that the poetry is inseparable.
Barwin: Inseparable from?
Huth: From myself and from my life. Just as full-body poetics is, the poem is your body, your body is the poem — it’s the only organism that creates the poem is yourself. That’s what it believes and demonstrates.
Barwin: It’s interesting to me — is there a border between life and poetry? So between a doodle and a fidgetglyph: it becomes a fidgetglyph because you say it’s a fidgetglyph. So, all actions undertaken by you, who if you’re considering yourself as a poet or your life as a poem, or life as a locus of poetic activity, becomes poetry. Or not.
Huth: Right. Theoretically, this is a problematic thing. I don’t really define “poetry” or “poem” very distinctly. What I would call it is serious engagement with language in some form. And language has to do with its physical sound, its visual presence, or its intellectual semantics, semiotic meaning. Anything that does that, in my mind, can be a poem. What makes it a poem is its heightened focus on language as opposed to the mere content of the language. Some putative poems that are just narrative really aren’t [poems] because they aren’t doing anything with language; they’re not engaging with language at a high enough level. I’d say that some novels I’d probably consider poems because of how they engage with the language. I can’t really look at Finnegan’s Wake and call it a work of mere prose. I think it’s a work of poetry, for instance.
So I define poetry broadly, and in some ways it’s what is it that a poet makes; this is really interestingly problematic. I was thinking the other day that I’ve had both visual artists and musicians, composers, question why some of the things I do aren’t visual art or music. Why am I saying they’re poems? Why do I sing a song and then say that the entire experience is a poem? That means that it has a melody of sorts, it has a vocal presentation of sorts. I’m not a great singer! It doesn’t have any words. So how in the world is it anything but music?
And the same thing with visual artists; I know this one, Kate Greenstreet, who was a painter originally, now still a painter but also a well known poet. She says, “Why do you call these things poems? This is just art,” by which she means visual art. And I say, “Because this is an examination of language. This is an examination of one part of language, of how it appears to us visually. And how it can have beauty through that visual appearance and meaning. And how it can have meaning even beyond the meaning that is supposed to be imbued within it.” You can have the letter “A,” and it’s supposed to have any number of sounds in English, probably about five sounds the letter “A” can have, that’s really what it should represent. But really, you can draw a letter “A” so that it means lots of different things. That’s how it’s engagement with language.
Barwin: And if you represent something that looks A-ish. It’s playing with how close it is to that.
Huth: Right. Which gets into puns and all sorts of other things.
Barwin: One thing this also points to is the social context of your work. [With] “365 ltrs,” you sent physical copies to people. Sometimes to people who were used to reading poetry, who were used to receiving poetry, and sometimes to people who were not. So changing the kind of audience who would expect that kind of engagement. Even writers aren’t used to getting a poem written to them, sent to them — that’s not typical. In terms of social engagement, one of the ways that your work [goes] out in the world is that you use the Internet a lot. I’m thinking about how you use communities and networks and mail art to open up your work to this kind of process, so it’s a daily thing, or very frequently, so it’s a stream of work. Rather than just a book that’s sort of outside time and space, ostensibly. Or from a very specific time. It’s this ongoing flow of work coming from you, and this sort of locus. I think that’s really interesting: there are communities that are built around this, your main blog as one source of work, but also your other various related blogs, and then the network of other bloggers who respond to you. How do you write in a social and community context?
Huth: Yeah, it’s the unedited life, and maybe a little too unedited. But what it is, is that the process of living is social interaction, to some degree. It’s out there as such in an almost constant stream for two reasons. One is that visual poets, of which I am one, tend to be highly productive in almost maniacal ways. But the other reason is that you live in a body, and until the body stops, you are a living being, and so you’re producing something. You’re producing thoughts. You’re producing dreams. You’re producing sounds. And so it’s replicated through all these different media. And people really haven’t ever before now talked to me about this, but what I think about when I’m posting to my blog — my major blog, which focuses on visual poetry usually, or when I’m posting something to Facebook, or to Tumblr, or Twitter, or something like that, any of these different venues — is that each one of these is just an instance of my being alive, evidence of myself in place. That’s where the mania sort of comes from. But the other thing is it’s just the way to bring poetry into everybody’s lives. I’m trying to both expand the definition of poetry and expand the audience for poetry so that people who don’t necessarily expect it or understand it are receiving something that I consider poetry every day.
On Facebook, lots of people I know are poets, but lots of them are archivists, lots of them are members of my family or just friends I’ve had who don’t read poetry and they’re seeing poetic content whether they want to or not. And maybe they engage with it, maybe they don’t, but it’s an opportunity to do so. It’s questionable whether or not this is really a good process. And lots of people argue, and vociferously, that the worst thing you can do is put out lots of stuff instead of put out only the very best stuff. Maybe I could argue that all I’m putting out is the very best stuff, but I probably won’t, given the numbers!
They think the bad will be washed away by the good, and maybe it will. But the problem is that different people engage with poetry or with any artwork in different ways. And some people are going to be taken by something and not taken by something else, so I provide many different formats of poetry, and even within the formats so many different styles. I think it gives people some ability to find something they like or can be maybe be in love with, even briefly.
Reading in St. Catharines, October 1, 2011 (watch Huth's performance here).
Barwin: I think I would also relate this back to what we were talking about, about improvisation and flow. It’s not about arriving at the ideal form of a particular work so much as about ongoing process. Ongoing flow, so that that’s where some of the interest of the work is, rather than just saying, okay, I’m just going to wait ’til he comes up with that one really perfect poem!
Not that you don’t have lovely poems, that can be interpreted that way, but it’s about this other element that is really interesting about how it flows through life, how it is a multivalent output of work, it’s reengaging with distribution, with community, with creativity in a way, too, in terms of notions of inspiration or some sort of Platonic ideal of the poem. Your process argues against that. Is that what you’re saying?
Huth: Sure. For instance, one of my poems today is going to be an essay I wrote on my blog. It’s an essay; it’s in paragraphs. That’s the way I wrote it, but I experience it, I understand it as a poem. It’s actually also a review of a book and an unrelated movie at the same time, which people won’t know from today. And it has a sound poem that goes on during it, which gets to the fact that the body is a multisensory organ and a creator of things that can be perceived in many different ways. So I’m trying to get to some gesamtkunstwerk that brings everything into play, so that poetry is what it used to be, which was the sort of height of art. It was that pinnacle of art, but I’m trying to bring it to that by bringing everything into it that I can. I am always failing at this, but always trying to figure out a way to successfully bring smell into a poetic work. It’s not that I haven’t, it’s just that it’s a hard thing to do. We can’t reproduce it well, et cetera. I’m trying to get a way for people to experience essentially living through the poem because it will be touching you in so many different ways.
Barwin: I think smell is supported in Windows 8. No, sorry, that’s the new iTunes.
Huth: There are actually computer people who are working on how to capture, record, and then reproduce smells.
Barwin: See, I just eat while I type, and then I just never clean my keyboard.
Huth: But then there’s the issue of distinguishing between good smells and bad smells.
Barwin: Yes. So something else that interests me is about your work — and I think this relates to this idea of flow and using different media, and also poetry of a life: your professional work is as an archivist, but I also see that impulse to document not really artwork but just many elements of your life on your blog and in other places online, which has a large overlap with your artwork. Not only is it recording activities that you do, or documenting work, or fidgetglyphs that you maybe created during a meeting, but also you sometimes talk about the fidgetglyphs that you’ve documented, right?
You write things like, “Here’s the week of work that I’ve done.” Which isn’t artwork in itself, but it’s discussing it, it’s documenting what you do, it’s kind of archiving what you do. You’ve had things about your own health or your own operations, various things that are all there publicly. It blurs [the line] between what’s art, what’s personal journaling, scrapbook kind of stuff —
Barwin: — and what is deliberately playing with the intersection between these things.
Huth: Right. I’ve always been a poet. I mean, almost always, for a very, very long time. Certainly since my teens, I’ve always been a poet. But I used to not be an archivist in very serious ways. Which means that I used to move all the time; I have moved almost fifty times over the course of my life. And I’m fifty-one, so I’ve moved a lot! When I moved, I would generally say, “Okay, what can I throw away?” and I would throw away tons of stuff. So for this huge first part of my life, I have destroyed virtually everything I wrote. I wrote stories when I was a teenager that were, I thought, hilarious — they probably are still funny now — but at some point I said, “Well that’s not what I want to do,” so I threw them away. I kept tons of diaries and commonplace books when I was a child. Then I threw them all away as I moved on or felt I had grown away from them, so that I was giving up everything. All the writing I did, I said was not good enough, and I dispensed with it. Which is pretty much the opposite of now.
So when I became an archivist — by which point I was a father, so I was a person who was well aware of the temporal frame, and the fact that life is fleeting — I started saying, “Geez, there’s all this stuff I’ve lost.” I still have some things. I have photographs, I have little bits here and there. For some reason, virtually everything I did in Portugal was saved, I think because my parents saved it, and put it in a hope chest. But, I said, “I’ve got to save things.” And so I started saving things, and collecting them, and keeping track of them, so that really the amount of documentation on me is insanely deep, and insanely rich.
Starting sometime in my twenties, I have almost every letter I wrote, I have tons of email, thousands and thousands of photographs, video, audio, all this stuff. So I’m documenting sometimes as an act of poetry, sometimes as an act of just documentation. And all that stuff about my heart surgery a few years ago was really meant to be poetic in a lot of ways. There were a lot of sort of lyrical moments to these little essays about my experience being cut open, and the whole idea about surviving and carrying on with living. It was incredibly important for me to document my wounds. I have this Jesus-like photograph of myself showing my body so you can see all my wounds like Christ on the cross, in forcing my daughter to take the picture when I’m wearing nothing but a pair of underpants — note that I always have a pair of underpants! Because my body was a piece of art. It had been cut open, and there were marks and writings —
Barwin: — notations —
Huth: — and symbols left upon my body. I had to think of them and present them in that way.
Barwin: You’re saying that life itself is written on by poems, or the body is written on by life, and that whole process is a poetic process, right? I was thinking, you know, you can never — as Heraclitus says — you can never step into the same river twice, but you can document every time you step into the river, right? [Huth laughs.] This is how I think of what you do.
Huth: That’s a good line. And again, it’s possible there is too much documentation. One of my projects for the end of the year is to gather together a lot of my electronic media and make sure that I get it to the archives that holds my papers, many of which aren’t on paper. It’s sort of a massive job, because, for instance, over the past year the number of poetic videos that I did is over two hundred. It’s a huge amount of data to manage, and I manage it reasonably well, which is that I note what it is, I keep track of it fairly systematically, et cetera, but still it’s too much.
Barwin: So how do you imagine this documentation? I mean, it’s of interest to people to document what a life is, what a poetic life is, or what your work has been. But how do you imagine what its function is? Having all this material.
Huth: In effect, to some degree, it should document the networks I live within. I live within networks of poets that tend to be a little bit off-center, poets who are visual poets, or sound poets. It documents mail artists. It documents, to some degree, archives. It documents those parts of the world that I interact with and these networks. And these are networks of real people. There are a lot more people than me inside these networks, and it documents them as well as me.
Some of it, though, is just showing my work, it’s the creation of my work, which can then be put beside other people’s work and compared. It allows people to study my work, if anybody ever will — I don’t know if that will ever happen. It allows them to know a lot about my life, so if somebody needs to know about my life they will be able to know about my life, because I don’t close anything. Everything I give to the archives at Albany is open: all my personal letters, all my writings, good or bad, everything. If there’s anything I don’t want them to make open, I don’t give it to them. That’s just the way I deal with them. That’s what archives should do. They’re there to tell us something about the past, because otherwise the only thing you have is human memory and human memory dies with the body. Archives is the preservation of the body and the preservation of the person after death. It’s the only afterlife.
Barwin: Interesting. As you said, the network, too, is really interesting. Often you find out about somebody else by the material that has been recorded, so [it] actually preserves more than one person alive in many cases, not just the person who’s recording it.
Huth: Right, right. As a matter of fact, the stuff of mine that’s at the University of Albany keeps hundreds and hundreds of people alive in all sorts of different ways. I mean, it’s got a huge amount of poetry that would be impossible to find in any other single place. It’s got lots of letters from people, primarily from when people actually wrote letters on paper. It’s got lots of mail art. It really documents these strange kinds of poetry that were going on at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. We’ll see if it’s interesting sometime in the future — we don’t know now.
Barwin: The last thing I would like to talk about is that you have, more in the past, been involved in theorizing particularly about visual poetry and coming up with terms, trying to develop a vocabulary. Perhaps maybe it’s more theorizing about operational principles, creating a vocabulary so it can be discussed, so that it can be understood better by identifying certain features or taxonomies. So what do you feel that your purpose is, and how do you feel that we can move forward with that?
Huth: Well first I should say I’ve done less of that recently because I’ve spent most of the last year wearing myself out, and I really have not recovered. I used to send mail or postcards out every time I did an overnight. And so far this year I did it once, and it was a few weeks ago, and on almost every card I said something like, life is hard. [Barwin laughs.] And that was about it. That’s taken away from that part of my work a little bit.
But that’s the most important part of my work. That was the important part of the blog. You can’t focus on an individual to get the true value out of anything; you have to focus on something bigger. And so the bigger thing I was focused on was visual poetry. And I think I was successful in trying to bring attention to it, in trying to get people to understand it. Not only in trying to give them a vocabulary, but to give them a way of looking into it.
Barwin: What I didn’t mention is that you often write critical articles or reviews or examinations of other work, right? Using your terms but also giving providing an interpretation, or just a way in for people. Some kind of framework.
Huth: I think it’s important to build an audience for the work, because it is hard for some people to connect with it. But the other thing it’s important for is the artists themselves. Poets go all the time without anybody recognizing that they’ve done anything. They don’t recognize them, they don’t notice that anybody has really understood and really connected with their work. I’m trying to show when I’ve connected with someone’s work. I don’t do it all the time. I forget to do it constantly. I was going to write this great essay, by the way, about this book by this Canadian poet, and I was going to focus on how Gary Barwin is the master of the ending! That the ending of his poems is always a remarkable revelation, and something that I just could never do myself, and that it’s just an incredible skill. I was really going to work at that! But like most of the reviews I was going to do this year, I have yet to do it.
You need to do that, though, because people need to understand that they’re appreciated and that something they do is worthwhile for them to continue. Or at least most people do. Most of the time I say I don’t care, and most of the time I believe I don’t care, because I do things that people don’t like a lot of the time. But even though I’m always worried about the audience, I’m always trying to do something for the audience, like I’m trying not to be boring in the reading. But also, at a reading I do everything I can to essentially — except for to say, “Cut it out” — to keep people from applauding. I leave the room, I sit back down in the audience. I give them no idea whether the performance has ended or not. It’s all to say that I don’t necessarily need that, but I know that certainly most of us really do need that because you need to know that you’ve had some effect. A lot of us will keep going on because we’re crazy, but we’re going to feel a lot better if we know we have some effect.
Barwin: And it’s about interactions. So sending a letter to somebody, sometimes they write back. The fact that it’s an interactional communication in the sense of a message sent and some response coming back. The response doesn’t have to be applause. There’s a connection made, right?
Huth: Right. Absolutely it doesn’t have to be applause.
Barwin: So like a leap between axon and dendrite, if it actually makes that little Evel Knievel leap over that canyon, then the thought has connected, there’s been an effect, a reception. And so feedback is natural. I see that in that sense, it is about audience. You’re trying to give that feedback back to the people who are writing and publishing.
I guess we could end. I am the master of the ending, so I have to end it. We should end the way a criminal prosecution ends. So: Is there anything else you’d like to add to account for yourself? For this despicable act for which you stand accused?
Huth: The thing that I worry about, about all of this, is that the act of creating poetry in the way that I’ve described may be so centered on myself that it may be, in effect, an egomaniacal act in the end. I worry about that. I like to note the things that I worry about because it’s possible to interpret all the time that, Geez, you know, here’s somebody who’s full of himself, blah blah blah blah. Because of the way I’m constantly documenting my entire life, even if it’s only documenting the things around me. It’s not the things around other people, it’s obviously the things around me, because you can’t escape from yourself.
Barwin: I was going to ask: what would be the alternative to documenting?
Huth: You see, that’s the whole thing. You can’t get away from yourself. But there are people who document [who] are really forcibly documenting away from themselves. That means they’re going to places they’re not familiar with, they’re documenting people they don’t really understand. They’re sort of able to strip the self out of there. I really — and this is my only defense — believe that you can’t strip the self away. The self is there.
Barwin: Because all language creation plays through the life. Plays through the body.
Huth: Everybody. Everything does.
Barwin: I think it’s something masterful.
Huth: You’re always trapped in yourself. And then the whole problem, and I said this in some reading I did on a poet’s porch, and it’s the only performance of the reading, that each of us is the center of the world. There are six billion–plus centers of the world on this planet. That’s where everything emanates from, and that’s where everything gets collected into.
Barwin: What I’ve done, masterfully, to decentralize myself, is to run this little blog called dbqp. It’s amazing, because it’s totally not centered on me, and it seems like it does not reflect my concerns or my perspective. Anyway, thanks!
Huth: No problem!
Camille Roy with Michael Cross
Editorial note: Camille Roy writes plays, poetry, and fiction. She is often associated with New Narrative and teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University. She is the author of several books, including Sherwood Forest (2011), The Rosy Medallions (1995), and Cold Heaven (1993). She also edited Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (2004) with Gail Scott, Mary Burger, and Robert Glück. Biting the Error was reissued in 2010. Michael Cross lives in Oakland, California, where he studies contemporary poetry. He is the author of In Felt Treeling (2008) and Haecceities (2010). He edits Compline and On: Contemporary Practice with Thom Donovan. He blogs as the Disinhibitor. This interview was conducted in April and May of 2011. — Katie L. Price
Michael Cross: I thought to start our conversation with a question that could prove arresting in its expansiveness (or, I suppose, deadening in its utter simplicity!): As a writer who moves so deftly between genres, how do you know when you’re writing a poem? I suppose you could take the long view (“what do we mean when we say ‘poetry’”) or the short view (“I use line breaks”), but I’m curious to know when you know that the writing you’re undertaking has become “poetry.” Do you set out to write “a poem” or does something happen along the way that suggests itself to you? I guess the question behind the question is whether these distinctions mean something to you aesthetically?
Camille Roy: What is a poem? How do I know when I’m writing one? Does it matter? Terrific questions. The word ‘poem’ once felt like a reprimand. I found it easier to write plays or stories — to enter those forms — with abandon and pleasure because they were less fundamentally puzzling.
What I discovered through playwriting was the creative tension of antagonisms — of provocation and response — that occurs so naturally in dialogue. And I observed how that tension generated performativity, at the level of the line. The friction of conflict can be very small — focused in sound, even in the syllables — and this easily extends into a poetry practice. Also dialogue brings to the fore the physicality of language as utterance and wit.
So poems are tiny performances. But they differ from playwriting in that it isn’t a struggle between characters that generates the language. What is being performed is the poem itself. There’s a quality of a chemistry experiment — one tries adding this or that, looking for what releases energy. Sometimes a poem arises after a moment of forgetfulness. It reminds me of a pan left on the stove. After a while the thin layer of oil is smoking. Heat rises into your eyes. There’s a shimmer. A heat haze. A transformation in the materials has occurred. The oil is watery, it smells of burn. A few more minutes and there could be a fire. A poem can change in subject, tone, stance, ferocity — mysteriously, yet with the authority of an act which we have witnessed.
As a poetic experimenter, I also like to mix in elements of narrative, characters, and history. I find it odd that fiction has a toolbox jammed with devices and interesting sensations (suspense, for example) that are supposed to be off limits to poets. Why do you suppose this is?
There are layers to what constructs a poem. What I’ve just written peels one back. But there are many more. This brings me to certain pop songs. The beat is a strut even as the song can convey desolate lamentations. Like a poem, such a song can slip through fiercely dark moments of compression and then spread out like breath. “Walking on troubled ground, where I don’t belong …” (“One Way Street”). It’s so hokey to compare poetry to song. “I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong” (“Streets of Laredo”). But it is a fact that certain songs resonated when I wrote this book. They felt old. Even decrepit. They were songs that stagger on through the decades, it’s just what they do. Memorials to people who usually disappear with little trace.
Here are two: “Streets of Laredo,” by Johnny Cash (a young Cash, haggard & skinny), and “One Way Street,” by Ann Peebles (silly pictures — close your eyes).
Cross: I’m interested in the language you use to describe your practice — words like “antagonisms,” “provocation,” “tension,” “friction,” “conflict,” “struggle”— a lexicon that draws to mind your claim in “Experimentalism” that writing ought to “break open (the mainstream) system” that nurtures a “well-modulated distance” between the subject and social conflict, presumably by bridging the gap between social reality (i.e. unrest writ large!) and the so-called “comfort” (however imagined) of the reader’s lived experience. I love your image of a writing “that grinds itself into what’s familiar yet unbearable,” and I wonder if that’s precisely what makes this writing “poetry” rather than “prose?” If both playwriting and prose investigate the “creative tensions of antagonism” between characters, could we say that poetry investigates a similar antagonism in language itself? That is, do you think it’s fair to say that your poetry is a kind of “drama” or “tiny performance” that investigates the fundamental conflict between form and content, a writing that “breaks open” the “well-modulated distance” between language (as a kind of “subject”) and the very real details of one’s lived experience?
Roy: This is a hard question and a provocative one. I’ll start by considering English as a historical artifact. Its huge vocabulary began with invasions. The collisions of languages (French, Norman, Latin, Germanic languages, Greek — not one comes close to dominating) also simplified grammar and eliminated gender. It gave us a ‘borrowing language.’
There is a friction between specific words that derive from these bastard origins. Our tasty swears, for example, are mostly Anglo-Saxon. Different social classes enter English with different positions relative to this past — so words that sound ‘educated’ are often Latinate. This is the stuff of history, delivered into our brains and mouths, without our conscious knowledge or consent. As a poet I feel English has overlapping vocabularies that reflect its multiple origins. (And there is weird social segregation between them.) Within a poem I can swap words in and out from these different ‘registers’ and create an energy which is ordinarily compressed (avoided) by the conventions of (polite or academic or poetic) discourse.
While a product of history, these energies are also pertinent and contemporary. They sink into English — and stay. That is our force field. It’s pleasurable, uncertain, and possesses surprising torque. These processes began centuries ago and continue to buzz. Working with this opens my writing to the currents of the moment and the street.
How does this relate to your question, regarding language as a ‘subject’ which is in conflict with experience? To work with the surprise, the antagonism, the historical depths, the unknown within the familiar which is inherent in English opens up the range of experience I can represent. Language is not without history. It is dynamic, porous, dirty, clear, viscous, and windy.
The buck and bite of a line has an auditory trace, even when read silently on the page. What is curious about English, given its bastard origins, is that the auditory trace has swagger, class, intellectual authority — a complex presence — depending on what conflicts are brought to bear in the composition of the sentence. In other words, these antagonisms are inherent in the words themselves. This is by no means a problem. Our language is giving itself to us even when it is most resistant.
I didn’t tie this specifically to poetry (versus fiction or playwriting). But I think the line-focused construction of a poem really allows these aspects to emerge and be explored.
Cross: I just reread Sherwood Forest’s first epigraph in light of your response, a beautiful stanza from the great poet Will Alexander:
Revolt is its bread, its exclusive respiration, its soil.
From this evolves its sinews, its glinting explorational fiber.
This being the mode of its disruptive English,
Its anti-memorials, its slow motion lightning …
Which brought to mind the following stanza from Jack Spicer’s A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud:
After he had been born in the postoffice he began to
practice his mouth with a new language. He could not imagine
persons to listen to the new language. He had not invented
These lines perfectly capture (for me, at least!) the work of poetry: how when we use words to make meaning (or resist meaning, for that matter!) we are in some ways reinventing language (and with it, politics). As a result, we also “imagine” persons into existence to read it (that is, we teach our readers how to read — how to approach).
I was thinking the other day about interesting correspondences between your work and Spicer’s: the repurposing of figures from popular culture (in your case, figures like Dorothy and Little Red), the curious use of proper names for affect, something of an “anti-lyrical” tone in the muted, calculated music. Further, I often think of Spicer as something of a reverse-allegorist: rather than represent a “truth” or convention in a symbolic figure, he invents these figures — the mirror, the diamond, the grail — without an easily identifiable corresponding truth, and then lets them loose on the poem. He disconnects these figures from their symbolic grammar so they can teach us what they still can mean (or how they can mean) in the context of the poem and its corresponding politics (but they’re never fully disconnected, right, so they carry along this baggage).
Your writing leaves me with the similar sense that there’s something desperately important just out of reach, that if I could somehow get the pieces in the right order, a figure would emerge (suspense!). Take for instance your poem “Ideology” (which I’d like to quote in full to get some language from Sherwood Forest into the air):
Every virtue has its contemptible literature.
1989. I was looking for an instruction. I walked with silent multitudes towards the sobering event, where I found Amy, at the podium, grasping every straw and shaking her hairy head in terror.
Like pillows in chaos.
Amy’s clever speech inserted itself into the fields of young cervix. As each point arrived, tiny holes among us bridged the gap between futile and fertility.
Humbly I placed my feet a few inches further apart. Although I’m shallow I couldn’t swallow. Yet, at the proper point, as marked by the separated passages of text, I did go inside. The herd was waiting for me there — big girls lathered in their flesh, crushed with insider love. They married me with their lips. I named myself Amy, then made my own series of stirring announcements.
Walking. Walking out. Walking in. The Amy crowd just stood around, waiting for me. But I was waiting too, which is why I couldn’t arrive. I was looking for something pointy yet blank, that wore a pout the way I wore the names of my friends. I needed to get into the interior, so I could look for this thing: call it cervix. It seemed I waited forever. Finally I was told it had popped and disappeared, a sort of dispirited ghost.
That’s when you rolled up, Dick. What a welcome distraction in our dusty rest stop, with ironic scenery, a Plymouth in our Valiant field. But you were so terribly sleepy. In fact, you were dead! Yours was a belief system that attached sweetness to events.
(Which should have meant something to me. Punched, somehow.)
We gathered in the cloakroom, laying you in the center, in piles like rope. It turned out there were many ways to take off the outer coverings, and the kneecaps followed. O Dick, everything liquefied after the first dark and sparkling moments.
Now I want to make a poem of it, this time with caricature. Dick, you be the big jaw, and I’ll be minnows, pushed out between your ivory teeth, while Amy holds us in her thick romantic fur.
Then, getting off, daddy-o, finally getting off. Your spreading butt — why so huge and cracked? It must be the beyond, where you are. (Where I wanted to go.) Infested abstract landscapes have Dick written all over them.
Pure dream of momentum, soaring from the hard kick towards the value of an image, as panorama foams while I’m asleep.
Dick, wake up please. I’m really ready for you to wake up.
Cross: Do you consider Spicer an influence? Who else lies dormant behind the lines?
Roy: Jack Spicer, of course. There’s something of the wizard in Spicer. The force of his sources, e.g. baseball, are released outside the confinement of anyone’s understanding. They have the autonomy of ghosts, a separate existence, which feels both grounded and uncanny. How accurate this is! After all, words and culture are mostly hand-me-downs. Gifts from the dead.
There are some brass Spicer plaques set into the sidewalk along the Embarcadero:
They dream they dream of dreams about themselves.
The subsequent lines are absent from the sidewalk but have a strong resonance:
Splash them with twilight like a wet bat.
Unbind the dreamers.
Be like God.
Whizzing along on my bike I carry this poem along. Close by is a pier we ride out on. We stop at the Ferlinghetti poem that is etched into the pier railings and look back at the city.
The light of San Francisco / is a sea light / an island light
And then another scrim / when the new night fog / floats in
And in that vale of light / the city drifts / anchorless upon the ocean.
This brings up the local as the relation of the poem. The resistance of a poem invites close reading, which is a kind of intimacy. A poem is a communal object.
And here’s a great thing about poetry in the city. It haunts the footfalls in the neighborhood. Just after we moved to Potrero Hill an anonymous local printer decided our neighborhood telephone poles needed plain white posters that showcased the poems of Lorine Niedecker. They appeared over a series of weeks or months, I don’t remember. They were dazzling, like finding blue beach glass. Finally I ripped one off for my room (which is still on my wall: “In Leonardo’s light / we questioned / the sun does not love / My hat …”). This was my son’s first experience of poetry and he puzzled over it for quite a while. What better example! I am drawn to her work by the intensity and precision of its attention, its oblique clarity, and also the way her line breaks fall and float. It’s a visual music, and it parallels the poem generating itself.
Poetry allows the body to ripple in language. As the line tumbles down the page, we enter the poem as a ragged and lyrical street. So of course Frank O’Hara is an influence, and later generations of the New York School. I remember the first time I heard Eileen Myles (probably around’86) and I left the reading elated, feeling that doors had been blasted open. Doors to the outside, to the spoken, to the world as it is lived. I recognized (still do) my outsider lesbian life in her work.
My first years in San Francisco coincided with an interesting period. On the one hand, there was New Narrative. And on the other, the so-called ‘Language Wars.’ There was a ferocity in the discourse which presumed and demanded a clear boundary between narrative (with its supposed ‘linearity’ — more on that later) and poetics.
But boundaries are rules waiting to be broken. And the locations where there is crossover and porousness are the most interesting. One example of that was a poet favored by Bob [Glück] and Bruce [Boone]. At that time Bob and Bruce had such a close intellectual connection that occasionally they seemed to occupy the same moment. So they could separately talk about a writer with the identical tone and even facial expression. I recall the look of sudden, almost secretive, appreciation that would seize them when they discussed the work of Bob Perelman. Which made me curious. What I found: history lives itself through us. We’re carried by time’s monster, culture. In Perelman’s work there is a kind of tenderness for this.
Other influences … there are many. But first I must mention Carla Harryman and Kathy Acker. Their work defamiliarizes my relation to the statement. Sentences with the energy of escapees …
Then again, perhaps ‘influence’ isn’t the right word. Writing that is lively and provokes genuine interest should be noted as such by kindred spirits, and passed along. Here is the beginning of such a list for me:
Gail Scott, Renee Gladman, Bob Perelman, Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Mary Burger, Eileen Myles, Kathy Acker, Lorine Niedecker, Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, Carla Harryman, Fernando Pessoa, Celine, CAConrad, Tisa Bryant, Rachel Levitsky, Jen Hofer, Alice Notley, Ariana Reines, Kathleen Fraser, George Oppen, Violette LeDuc, Leslie Scalapino, Lawrence Braithewaite, Dennis Cooper, Heriberto Yepez, Sam D’Allesandro, Mike Amnasan, Blanchot, Marcel Cohen, Can Xue, John Wieners, Bhanu Kapil, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Pam Lu, K. Silem Mohammad, Stephanie Young, Rob Halpern, Taylor Brady, Laura Moriarty, Selah Saterstrom. More recently: Tim Etchells, Amina Cain, Vanessa Place, Shanxing Wang.
Many if not most of these writers are sloppy at the border of poetry/narrative. I like that sloppiness. But it also moves this overly long answer to my final point. And that concerns narrative — first, what is it? I find that the quickest easiest answer — it is the act of telling, as in a story, characterized by linearity — is a misrepresentation. I find it more satisfying to contemplate narrative as the act of not telling. Suspense (for example) is always based in not telling. It is not telling that creates the background against which the foreground (the telling) is a flourish. Not telling creates a sort of ‘negative space’ which has a tantalizing quality and an inverted radiance which comes from the reader’s imagination. There is a Japanese word that gets to the heart of this: ma (hat tip Nona Caspers.) From Wikipedia:
In Japanese, ma, the word for space, suggests interval. It is best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision.
“Ma” is not something that is created by compositional elements; it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements (italics added).
I like this concept of ‘negative space’ because one can use it freely in a poem and have access to certain qualities of narrative (mystery, fear, fascination, suspense, even the complexities of the historical record, among many others) which are often not associated with poetry. It is suited to the succinct and the difficult in writing. I use this technique a lot in Sherwood Forest. It is the art of the incomplete. You can find another example of this technique in M. NourbeSe Philip’s book Zong!. Robin Tremblay-McGaw has a good discussion of that work here.
Cross: I’m interested in how you frame resistance as a kind of intimacy — that “not telling” builds a suspense that ravenously swallows the overdetermination of the foreground (perhaps through the very invitation to occupy negativity in the first place?). I got to thinking about the relationship between suspense and the utterly alive absence resonating in the reader’s imaginary, so I reread your “crime” poems in Sherwood Forest, especially “Crime Story,” where you write,
feelings have a structure, which is not sentiment. Certain emotions are structurally sadomasochistic — for example, suspense. Even now, writing this, I feel that pained warp, as though someone whipped my brain tissues … Last time we had sex my beloved made me sit still, which got me so hot I could hardly stand it. It was one of those times I felt ravaged by love.
This stanza rhymes with my favorite poem in the book, “My Play,” which also opens the collection:
You are dead, imagine it.
So I should speak as one possessed,
grim & miraculous. Your word startles
the process: killer.
… The unborn occupy the dead, like some relationships.
Still, the appalling, almost feverish discomfort we cause each other —
this is our science story, which I place
in the safe deposit box of your butch heart.
Our audience arrives as voyeurs with a wish, a natural desire
to be transformed into masochists. Not because they want to be
overwhelmed by suffering; quite the contrary. They seek an actual
possibility, not an actualized one.
Yet they suffer from the fact that the body is effeminate (that the asshole
This isn’t shit, it’s poetry.
Shit enters into it only as an image.
… My rather elastic neck droops, hips flatten, skeleton begins to grin.
But it has a bad smell, this play: the aroma of nothing happens.
Then I become aware of the theatrical quality of sex shows, porn, politics.
“The show” is everywhere. Theater is a quality
not a place.
… I want to write Eileen but I’m feeling guilty, I’m too high.
I fold my muscles into wads and sleep soundlessly.
I can’t remember my dreams, they crumble, a soft cake.
A picnic with Carla. She brings rosemary bread and surprising pistachios.
She reads to me about utopias.
So touched and happy I float right up into the sky.
I wonder if suspense is “structurally sadomasochistic” precisely because it opens that window to what you’re calling “actual possibility” — the sometimes-difficult struggle to resist actualization for potentiality — to literally em-body (put into body) uncertainty and doubt and struggle? Which is beautifully consonant with the figure of the lover waiting for permission to climax. Can you connect the dots between the suffering of masochism and the erotics of possibility?
Roy: In relation to time, every person is a masochist. Carried forward, we tumble over the event horizon and out of sight — or we would, but it just so happens (whew!) we have our eyes with us.
Appear or disappear?
I watch as it rounds the corner.
This is the only body I’ll have.
This is where I have some sympathy with the notion that narrative possesses ‘linearity’ and that quality is somehow gruesome. I agree! It is gruesome and that’s why it’s enjoyable. It recapitulates how we are in thrall to time.
Writing, the arduous back and forth of it, the uncertainty and reworking, creates a reader experience which is revealed over time and in sequence. Whether the story ends, or the writing just stops, the writer knows the future of the reader, especially in terms of desire. This is the root of an erotics which is as inherent as the erotics of porn. It’s structural. Writing can bring into being states of yearning, desire, suspense — as the products of a relation between reader and writer. Even focus is the product of this relation. I play with these states (and with my fantasy reader) in a way that has parallels with S&M play — but not in scripted scenes. As anarchic play. I feel the freedom in this is contagious.
It’s also an existence test. A potent source of doubt is whether the other is actually there. What sort of relation is it, that transpires without contact? Since my reader may not exist, my audience may be empty space, lucid and mute. Pure potential. But it doesn’t matter. Writing is acting within that space, testing it in a spirit of doubt.
Bob Glück has described the early (‘heroic’) phase of Language Poetry as “an aesthetics built on an examination (by subtraction: of voice, of continuity) of the ways language generates meaning.” (He notes that “the same could be said of other experimental work, especially the minimalisms.” Examination by subtraction: this has always troubled me. Such deeply engaged dismissals have inadvertent consequences.
Using the terms of Walter Benjamin, I wonder whether such an examination ends up privileging information over experience. From his essay “The Storyteller”: “The art of storytelling is coming to an end … One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value … by now almost nothing happens which benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.” The way Benjamin constructs the dichotomy of information versus storytelling implicates time. “The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself without losing any time.”
A poem as a tiny performance: that means it is in time: held, compressed, wiggly. The relational elements (reader/writer) and the traces of narrative preserve and concentrate its release. This approach is steadfast with the curiosity that acknowledges the gesture may not be recognized, but does it anyway? It reminds me of this opera singer, describing her technique: the actual sound is a little point about eighteen inches in front of your nose, and you sing into the little hole.
Cross: You mentioned earlier that “Poetry allows the body to ripple.” I’ve been thinking about this statement in light of our conversation about embodying the potential of uncertainty, especially as some of the most memorable images in Sherwood Forest are figures of a super tangible and totally mutable body. Take a look at the following lines from across the book:
“My rather elastic neck droops, hips flatten, skeleton begins its grin.”
“big girls lathered in their flesh, crushed with insider love.”
“Your spreading butt — why so huge and cracked?”
“A girl is a small idol nested in the body. Gnarled & coiling her teeth —”
“I feel fleshy & full of intelligence”
“Her thudded leg splits open”
“When your arms crunched my ribs, / holes open up in my psyche / & and I was spongy & clear …”
“Buried muscles in chalk. Big toe in a bottle, buried again.”
“Lungs bleated while the aroma seeped from my nipples”
“My tongue is wagging in my stomach & it wants to be scooped out”
“Grains begin in the dark pads of flesh”
“White teeth rattle in my ironic mouth.”
Etc., etc., etc.
Spinoza’s been in the air again among poets, especially his famous dictum that no-one has yet determined what a body can do. I wonder if you can provisionally address this statement by telling us what a body can do in your writing? Does it play a figurative or allegorical role, or is it all warm and breathing tissue?
Roy: When I first saw those lines from Sherwood I felt abashed. Such a concentrated dose of the unseemly rascal. So much fur, exposed in public. But isn’t that the point! A body: everyone has one. It’s the democracy of existing — a democracy that recalls Spinoza, in his political dimensions.
I write as an occupier of an unknown history which composes me as I write. This seems to me to also be a Spinozist orientation — in that these relations compose me, they are not other than me. To put it another way: writing is evidence that we don’t know what writing can do.
It struck me the other day that the one thing I possess and use frequently that comes from my ancestors is language. It — language — is intimate with my dead in a way that I will never be. And it is displaced with respect to time, grooved with words and usages that are familiar yet antique, while also bearing everywhere ‘stickers’ of the new. This assemblage contains and contextualizes all my writing. The language which I somehow possess reminds me of a 2005 Miyazaki anime, Howl’s Moving Castle, and in particular the castle of the title. This castle ambles through fields and mountains on chicken legs. It’s a handcrafted critter, part animal yet also an artifact. It has an unspecific but vigorous haunted quality and its oddly shaped doors and windows open onto different times and places.
Language as a moving castle — I like that. But the disarming sweetness of the anime castle doesn’t represent the relation language has to death.
There is a little shiver when the body surfaces in writing. This interests me: what is this reaction, what causes it, what use is it, what lies there? There is an instant where body and imagination fuse and a sensation is transmitted from the abstraction of words on the page. Is it recognition? The feeling response can slip from fear to pleasure to horror as if no distance separated those states at all.
Language, received from the dead, has an uncanny aspect. This causes the linguistic body to ripple with horror as well as pleasure. There is a wonderful idea relating to the uncanny that comes from robotics: the hypothesis of the uncanny valley. It states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. The moment of revulsion, where the robot is recognized as nonhuman, is called the uncanny valley.
A word that trespasses on the body leaves a trace of disgust. Words rustle the body. Once they have become intimate, they are recognized as alien: language as robot.
And yet language is the most intimate of our possessions. I remember holding my mother’s head as she became paralyzed. Her left eye filled slowly with a tear. She died over the hours of that day and afterwards her body lay on the bed for the night. A corpse is a monument, shining in negative space. But she was gone: language was gone.
To inquire further into the little shiver: what use is it? There is a politics in patience and pleasure seeking, through the moments of revulsion. Dread liquefies as humor. Juice from the squeezed heart never did anyone any harm. Plus there is the freedom to seek information from the repressed. This disorders the world — in the direction of democracy (here comes Spinoza again!).
Under capitalism we resonate with hysterical throbs of emotion used to ‘personalize’ our relations — to banks, magazines, clothes, movie stars, the commodity world. What is filtered out is dread, revulsion, our abject trajectory towards death. Also what is filtered out is tenderness. In my writing I hope that the complex space that is opened for the reader has a tender aftermath:
I love the cloud around speech / we call the body …
House of sensation.
Built crud wrapper.
Thanks for this opportunity Michael. I’ve enjoyed it.
5. Benedict Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order (1677), Some Texts from Early Modern Philosophy.
An interview with Lisa Jarnot
Note: Lisa Jarnot’s magisterial work on the life and times of Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, is an important and much-needed text. Apart from being the only full-length biography of the poet, it is a rich and dense document of literary and cultural criticism, which places Duncan within larger social and historical contexts. As literary biographies go, it merits comparison with some of the best: Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, and Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf come to mind. The Ambassador from Venus will become essential reading for those who want to understand Duncan as both a person and as a poet. I recently met with Lisa to discuss the biography, Duncan’s life, and poetry in general, and what she plans on doing next, now that the fifteen-year odyssey of researching and writing is over. — George Fragopoulos
George Fragopoulos: Long before you started working on the biography, you were interested in Robert Duncan’s work. Can you say something about your early relationship to his poetry and work?
Lisa Jarnot: I worked at the Poetry Collection — the rare book archive at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, when I was an undergraduate and a work-study student in 1987. That was also the year Duncan’s papers arrived. Duncan had sold his materials to pay for his healthcare costs due to his kidney failure, and his papers arrived in waves. I read all eighty-one notebooks and made an index of what was on the pages. It was unusual work for an undergraduate, but it was due, I think, to the fact that the curator of the archive at the time did not want a graduate student to do it. He didn’t want to have someone working on that material with professional aspirations, so he let me do it.
So I knew Duncan’s work inside out and was totally fascinated with it. As a fledgling poet, I was already interested in Allen Ginsberg’s work, but here was Duncan — a poet who was very different from Ginsberg. I mean, Ginsberg was this crazy, far-out, Beatnik poet, and Duncan was this genteel, domestic, middleclass poet. The contrast was huge, and the poetics held a big contrast as well. Ginsberg had that huge, sloppy Whitmanesque line that was filled with all these pop-culture references and Duncan had all these references to nature. I read Roots and Branches and thought Duncan was a nature poet or something; I couldn’t really make much sense of it. I actually thought at first it was kind of stupid. [Laughs.] It’s not his strongest book. But Robert Creeley was also at Buffalo and was teaching a graduate seminar on Duncan and Olson and Ashbery that he let me sit in on. He was covering most of Duncan and Groundwork. The fact that Creeley was [teaching] Duncan and thought he was great made me want to know why. At first I wasn’t convinced, but everyday I would go to campus and sit and read Duncan’s notebooks. I was saturated in it.
Fragopoulos: Your biography really makes great use of the archival records. For example, you bring to light the fact that Duncan spent a good portion of his early twenties working on a novel, “Toward the Shaman.” What remains of that in the archive? Did he come close to finishing it?
Jarnot: That’s in the archival material out in Berkeley and I would have seen that stuff later, around 1989 or 1990. There are six notebooks, from about 1939 to 1942, that contain all that he worked on for the novel. He sold those early — I’m not sure why — and all the rest of the stuff he held on to until he made the sale to Buffalo.
[The novel] would have read like Anaïs Nin’s diaries [had he finished it]. It was lots of fragmented stuff, really juvenilia. It was self-analysis, more or less, the kind of work he would have done had he been in analysis. It’s not really that interesting.
Fragopoulos: You also quote extensively from his letters, but we really only have his correspondence with Denise Levertov in its entirety in publication. I’ve always wondered what his correspondence with Creeley is like, for example.
Jarnot: The interesting correspondence is the one with Jess. There is a real hashing out of poetics there. The correspondence with Creeley was less interesting to me; there is a lot of business being discussed there, because Creeley had university positions and was able to arrange gigs for Duncan. But with Jess, it’s different. When Duncan is on the road and is about to give a talk or lecture, he’s writing to Jess about what he’s thinking about. Those are pretty intense letters.
Fragopoulos: Speaking of Jess Collins, Duncan’s longtime partner, your biography at times is almost as much about him as it is about Duncan. Jess was an interesting artist and an emotionally complex person in his own way. You didn’t get a chance to meet Duncan, but you did meet Jess. What was he like?
Jarnot: I met Jess in August of ’88 and we had lunch together. I moved out to San Francisco in ’89. I would see Jess every now and then, and we would have lunch or dinner together. He was very shy and didn’t let too many people into the house. I think he let me in for a couple of reasons. One, I was a girl. Two, I was also shy. I was non-threatening in a number of ways. My shyness didn’t make for a deep relationship. We mostly talked about the lemon tree in the back yard, and about cooking. I asked him a ton of questions about Duncan and Duncan’s friends, which in retrospect, probably wasn’t that interesting to him. But I saw what that household was like. On the occasions I was there, Jess let me look around. And when I started the biography, he let me photograph the house and all of the bookshelves. It was a great education. The first time I was there, he cooked me chicken livers, and I was horrified by it, but it was great. We went through their record albums and listened to a Stravinsky recording. And I was so shy and had to pee and I couldn’t even ask to use the bathroom. I had to leave before the recording was over! [Laughs.]
I’m kind of glad I didn’t meet Duncan, because I feel it could have affected the biography. I had a neutrality. I always say that if I ever write another biography, it would be of Stan Brakhage; but I knew Brakhage, and think that would change my writing — I admired Stan so much. But I’m glad I met Jess. He was so emotionally complex. There was a part of him that was like an old Victorian aunt. He was almost prim, and he was very unanalyzed, unlike Duncan. Duncan knew his own psychology inside out. Jess was more shut down. In psychoanalytic terms, he had a huge split. He either loved people or hated them. You could ask him about Jack Spicer and he would say, “I hate Jack Spicer!” and, you know, Spicer had been dead for years. There was something entirely childlike about him.
Fragopoulos: Was he still creating art at that point in his life?
Jarnot: Yes, when I met him he was working on one of the Salvages, the one with the eagle in it, I forget now what it’s called — Torture the Eagle Until She Weeps? He was also working on jigsaw puzzles to add to collages. When I started the biography in 1997, he was doing okay, but it was the beginning of Alzheimer’s. When I saw him in 2000, his immediate functional memory was gone. He knew what happened in the 1950s, but couldn’t remember what he had bought at the grocery store.
Fragopoulos: So what made you want to write the biography?
Jarnot: I knew I wanted to do something with Duncan, and I knew I wanted it to be something substantial. I taught at the Naropa Institute in the summer of ’97 and Ed Sanders had given a lecture on book-length poems. At the time, Sanders was writing his long poem of the life of Allen Ginsberg, and his history of America in verse. He suggested I should write a biography of Duncan. Ed was really essential in helping me in many ways. He had developed research, organizing techniques that went back to the work he did on Charles Manson. My entire organizing system for the book was based on techniques that were drawn from him. For example, Ed had a way to cross reference files in three-ring binders so that nothing could get lost. I had index cards with subjects on them like “Duncan’s Mother,” or “George Herms,” whatever, and then boxes filled with these cards, and those cards were cross-referenced with files in the three-ring binders. It was a wonderful system. And I had about sixty of these binders. Ed’s idea was that you had to be able to find every piece of paper within thirty seconds. He also suggested things I would never have thought of — that I should look up Duncan’s FBI file or that I should write form letters to every university Duncan ever spoke at. I collected tons and tons of stuff.
Fragopoulos: Was there an FBI file?
Jarnot: If there was one, it was lost. I think there probably was one at some point. He was at the march on the Pentagon with Mitch Goodman and Dr. Spock, and he did speak out at anti-war demonstrations. I sent out a request and the FBI said they didn’t have anything. I wrote back saying, “you probably do,” and they reopened the search but still couldn’t find anything. I’m assuming he is cross-referenced somewhere — the same with his military records. I wrote to the army twice, but they said the records were destroyed in a fire. Duncan said he was dismissed from boot camp as a sexual psychopath, but the official record is gone.
Fragopoulos: For Sanders, the book-length poem form seems to have been influenced, in part, by Charles Olson. Can you say a little more about the Olsonian aspect that influenced Sanders, and whether this was something that you were also conscious of?
Jarnot: Yes, for Sanders the idea [for a book-length project] partly came down through Olson, but not so much for me. But Sanders and I were of like mind and it came down to a question of history. For me, it was about loving the history of the counterculture and being seventeen and learning about Alan Watts, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and the Beats. The ’60s were so formative to me and my life as a poet. So what interested me, in the course of writing the biography, was finding those intersections, finding those moments where Duncan rubbed up against the history, and San Francisco was interesting for those reasons.
That is the greatest thing about writing biography: all those little things that you find, all the discoveries you make. I went out to find the ashes of Duncan’s adoptive mother at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. Then I talked to his cousin Gladys, his biological mother’s niece, and she told me about the plot where his biological mother is buried and it’s within a stone’s throw of where his adoptive mother is interred! It’s in an adjacent cemetery. And Duncan never knew this. Or you go someplace where no one wants to go; it’s a mausoleum, a dusty old place, a very strange pursuit. Or going to Bakersfield, for example, to meet Duncan’s adoptive sister, Barbara, in what seems like the middle of nowhere, to see the movie theatre he went to in 1936 … it’s still there.
Fragopoulos: How difficult was it for you, as someone who primarily writes poetry, to write a biography — something that is totally different in terms of genre and style?
Jarnot: It was really hard. I wrote many drafts. It took fifteen years. The first draft was written as verse, or at least broken up into stanzas. I wanted to be able to have the dramatic entrances into chapters and I had to learn how to do that. My favorite biography is the Richard Ellmann James Joyce, and what I liked about that book were the really short chapters, and I had to convince the publisher [University of California Press] to do that because they were worried about the length of the book. I wanted to have the shorter chapters, like little vignettes, and I wanted to have the quotes before each chapter. I like dramatic intros, like Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, which begins with the story of Lincoln’s grandfather being shot by the “red man” while working in his corn field, an epic movie opening. My original draft had the story of the [San Francisco] earthquake of 1906, but that eventually disappeared. I kept the story of the seemingly magical meeting of the Duncans and the Symmeses in Duncan’s Aunt’s Faye’s pharmacy; that was part of the original scaffolding. The first section was heavily written over and over again, but the section on New College was written early, and the chapter about the Zukofsky event altercation with Barrett Watten was as well, so I tried to keep as much of that as I could.
I wanted it to read like Capote, like In Cold Blood, which is so hard to do. Writing modern biography is so maddening because the record is so dense; there is so much material. You can track what somebody is doing every minute. And today, with emails and the like, I don’t know how people do it. Duncan was an obsessive record keeper. He was always on the road, so there are a lot of records of his actions from the universities he was at, and all the letters he was sending and receiving. And in the ’80s he was keeping a daily calendar of what he and Jess were doing every day. His notebooks are different. There are a lot of reading lists and reading notes; he didn’t have diary entries so much. So there was too much info. I could have easily spent another ten years writing. I have a list of things I never looked at. My copy editor helped trim it down. But trying to combine interesting prose with historical data is really hard. In some ways, University of California Press wanted me to tell the readers why he was an important poet and get it over with, but I was obsessed with the details of what Duncan and Jess were eating for dinner. So I had problems with the readers hired by the press. The manuscript went through a couple committees. One reader on the first committee complained that there wasn’t enough literary criticism in it. But there was a historian in the second committee, and he said it was solid as a book with intersections into history. And I didn’t want it to be a work of literary criticism. I wanted people more to get a feel for the personal context of the poems.
Fragopoulos: What do you make of the current moment in Duncan studies? It seems like there is a renaissance of sorts going on, what with last year’s The H.D. Book finally seeing “official” publication, your biography, and all of these new projects coming out this year as well …
Jarnot: I’ve heard it described as the beginning of a “Duncan industry.” I hope it’s not; I mean, I don’t think of Duncan as a commodity. Duncan’s selected interviews have just come out [edited by Christopher Wagstaff]. The H.D. Book is in print. James Maynard is editing the prose and Peter Quartermain is finishing the early collected works. So a Duncan renaissance? Yes, hopefully. I hear people now saying that Duncan is a great American poet and he’s never been that before. He’s always been a more marginalized figure — a regional poet? a romantic poet? But Ginsberg is a great American poet. And so is Ashbery. So that’s what I would love to see: for people to read Duncan on that scale. And for Duncan to be read by people who are outside of the “avant” world, because he was certainly there in the ’60s and ’70s, in all kinds of unusual places, rubbing shoulders with writers in a more conservative tradition.
Fragopoulos: So what’s next for you?
Jarnot: I’m rereading Duncan and teaching his work, especially Groundwork Two. There is some really beautiful stuff there. And reading-wise it never ends. I mean, you reread someone like O’Hara — and I love O’Hara, he’s one of my favorite poets — but you go back to the poem and you say, “I know that line.” You go back to Duncan and you are like, “Hey, how did that happen?!” You are surprised by what you find there.
Fragopoulos: Can we call it a density or depth to the work …? I find that in much of Duncan’s work there is a kind of spatial poetics at work. The sequence “A Seventeenth Century Suite” in Groundwork: Before the War comes to mind.
Jarnot: Yes, it’s a hermetic architecture; “the work must have recesses.” And there it is. It just shows up. In Ground Work [he] is trying to position himself in that space of watching the war. Last week in class we were reading that poem about Southwell and the burning babe, and there is that scene where Duncan is saying, here is Southwell and he believes so much in his vision of Christ that he is willing to give up his life for it. And there is Duncan, watching the Vietnam War and asking himself, “Where am I and where am I as a poet”? And, at the same time, what is he going to do about his relationship with Denise Levertov? Who, at the time, is moving in a different direction. It’s a real soul-searching poem.
Here is the thing with Duncan: You look on the surface and it’s very iambic, it’s just trotting along, very hyper-romantic, but if you look below, take it line by line, there is this huge attempt to confront just about everything in the universe, really. By the end of the poem he manages to come to some sort of conclusion about the nature of reality. I mean you can see why this would have driven the Language Poets crazy, because he so much believes in the poet with a capital “P.”
Fragopoulos: And this brings us back to the household, to the domestic space he and Jess shared together, because what also comes across in your biography is this incredibly intense dedication that both Duncan and Jess had to their artistic lives and to that space they shared.
Jarnot: Yes, but there are also drawbacks to the world of the imagination. When reality creeps in, you’re kind of screwed. [Duncan and Jess] shored themselves up in a house that was an incredible, imaginative space, but when the roof was leaving there was no recourse; there was no magic spell for that, especially after Jess fell ill. They really lived in the world of the imagination. Like Brakhage said, they were upset about the moon landing, because that was the space of the imagination suddenly being colonized by the real. And in their house you really felt like a participant in the imaginary, in the “made place;” it was an amazing place to be.
An interview with M. NourbeSe Philip
Editorial note: A live version of this interview took place at the 2012 Congress of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Waterloo, Ontario. At a Congress event cosponsored by the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (CACLALS) and the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures (ACQL), M. NourbeSe Philip read her poetry and was interviewed by Phanuel Antwi and Veronica Austen. The theme of Congress 2012 was Crossroads: Scholarship for an Uncertain World.
In this interview, Philip historicizes uncertainty in the Americas and its relationship to her poetic practice. After the live event, Philip offered to continue her conversation with Antwi and Austen in writing. A transcript of that exchange appears here. — Janet Neigh
Phanuel Antwi and Veronica Austen: Could you speak to the theme of the 2012 conference Crossroads: Scholarship and Teaching for an Uncertain World? In particular, one of the statements from the CACLALS’s call for papers is a great starting point. The CFP stated: “[The conference theme] invites us to consider how our scholarship and teaching are connected to the uncertain world in which we live, but we might begin by asking if a ‘presentist’ bias shadows the theme; is our world any more uncertain now than it has ever been, and if so, for whom and why?”
M. NourbeSe Philip: I have, for quite some time, been thinking about this issue and as the new year began and there was increasing talk of 2012 and the Mayan calendar that seemed to suggest that the world was coming to an end, I recall thinking that for some people their 2012 has already happened. By that I mean that when we consider the First Nations of the Americas or African peoples who had their worlds turned upside down and inside out by first, the Arab slave trade, then the European, transatlantic slave trade, we surely must conclude that those events were cataclysmic and fatal in so many many ways. Consider, for example, that Africa could not support a slave trade today. What do I mean by that problematic statement? The transatlantic trade in humans continued for some five hundred years leading to the forcible removal of millions of healthy Africans from the continent. This means that there had to have been a healthy enough population in Africa to be able to support this shockingly brutal trade over such a long period of time. There are certain things that must be in place in order to nurture a healthy population: a good source of potable water; a steady supply of food that sustains populations; health practices that ensure the mortality rate of infants is low enough to guarantee at least a replacement of your populations and ensures that your adult population is healthy enough to provide sustenance for the weaker; a cultural and societal matrix that meets the universally human needs of reproduction, social interactions, spirituality, disposition of the deceased, and a societal understanding of one’s place in the world. Contrast that with the media images of Africa today — and I use the word Africa deliberately, rather than African nations, which is more accurate, because the media insistently present a monolithic image of the continent. These images are of profound deficit at best and of pathology at worst, which is not to say that there isn’t a need, but there is never any discussion of the process by which Africa and its populations have been impoverished or underdeveloped to quote Walter Rodney. This is important because if we don’t understand what has happened, then the language remains one of aid when it should be one of restitution and reparations. What I am also saying here is that the various populations of Africa, both within and without the continent, have had to live with and within the shadow of uncertainty, impoverishment and neglect for at least half a millennium.
Antwi and Austen: Your body of work makes it abundantly clear to us that time does not pass; in fact, your work teaches us that the experience of relocation of people of African descent into the supposed New World is an event that haunts everything. A different way of phrasing this fact is to state that the events we call history are an accumulation of experiences and times we only think have passed. In your “Interview with an Empire,” you write that “there are certain experiences that defy the passage of time” (197), experiences so vexed they remain unresolved. In a historical moment where many of us are turning to the evidence of historical archives to animate other versions of given truths, your writing instructs that these historical archives have not passed, insists they remain of the now. How do we grapple with the archives of the past that defy the passage of time? (How do we grapple with it socially? How do you grapple with it as a writer? And how do we grapple it with institutionally in the academy?)
Philip: There is a powerful sense in which an event like the Zong incident — the deliberate drowning of African slaves by a ship’s captain in 1781 to collect insurance monies — becomes a repeating incident. The same impulse to greed and exploitation is at work today as we witness the meltdown of financial systems as was at work in the Arab and transatlantic trades in African bodies. The irony is that we live in more democratic times where at least lip service is paid to human rights, yet this was no protection against a plutocracy intent on looting their own populations in more recent times.
I think the challenge for those of us who are a part of the Afrospora is to find ways through the master narratives to truths that can serve us. The archive — the written archive, the historical archive has, more often than not, been scripted by those who were integrally connected to the European project of terror and dehumanization of the Other. We call it colonialism, the direct descendant of imperialism.
The archive that I confronted in Zong! was the master narrative of the legal report, Gregson v. Gilbert. Without going into too much detail, I had to devise ways of fracturing that text to allow what I knew was locked in there to emerge; it led me to another archive — the liquid archive of water. The scholar has a certain kind of work to do with the archive and there is value in bringing to light material that has remained hidden. But I believe there is room to do another kind of scholarship — a scholarship that embodies the knowledge that is being recovered. I am thinking of a work like Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman that works that liminal space between history and historical research and an embodied search for the markings and tracings of a lost ancestor. I think that the African, or African descended, writer has many more tools in her arsenal, not being hamstrung by the academy, which was never intended for us in the first place. You will recall Audre Lorde’s statement that we couldn’t use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house, and Ishmael Reed talks about the hoodoo tradition that was important in his writing. Kamau Brathwaite demonstrates what I’m talking about vividly in his incantatory poetry (perhaps poetry lends itself most naturally to this — I am not sure), but we need to become more like obeah men and women — conjure or spirit writers, so to speak, using the word in ways that we were once familiar with to “imagine the past,” as Octavio Paz says, the better to “remember the future.” It is he who also reminds us that we — the so-called new world, the Americas — began as a European idea, which in turn links with these master narratives that we need to transform.
Emancipation celebrations illustrate this issue: what do we actually celebrate when we celebrate emancipation? That the European granted us freedom? How could he grant us something that he had illegally and immorally removed in the first place? European law in all its manifestations established that the African was a thing. Africans knew this to be not the case and all the instances of resistance and refusal of this such as slave revolts, maronnage, suicide, murder expressed this fundamental truth — that you cannot make of a human a thing. So, surely, it can be argued that with the granting of freedom, it was the European that was catching up with a truth that Africans already understood. What we should be celebrating is not their decision to free us, but our astonishing survival in the face of an unrelieved push to extermination, that is still with us today. We were never intended to survive.
Antwi and Austen: What is the role of spirits/haunting in your work?
Philip: I believe, whether we acknowledge or not, that we are all haunted by the past. That haunting, if we become aware of it, can be channeled into more positive activities, but it is also susceptible to a lot of negativity, if it isn’t dealt with.
When I left law for poetry and writing, I felt very strongly that it was our griots — our poets, writers, musicians, dancers, and storytellers who would help us to heal. I still believe that, perhaps more strongly now. What I hope I have been able to do, especially in Zong! is to create or open a space for those spirits who died unmourned, bereft of name, and home and family to come forward. There is a sense in which you can say that I continue to be an advocate on behalf of — in this case, in the case of my writing, on behalf of the disappeared.
Antwi and Austen: There has been a recent focus in Canadian literature on representations of the Atlantic slave trade. We’re thinking of a number of books that have received a fair bit of public attention, like Clarke’s The Polished Hoe, Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon. What do you see as the relationship of your book Zong!, which also deals with the historical trauma of slavery, with this body of work coming out of Canada?
Philip: I think that the answer to that question will have to come from the critics, but I would say that my previous answer about all of us being haunted by the past applies to this question. It’s the griot who is able to tell the story for the People.
Antwi and Austen: Your work seems to be searching for new forms and structures, a new architecture to house words. Whether it be in your essays which have poetry in them, or, for example, in Genealogy of Resistance, where poetry plays with texts. What do you see as the relationship of form and content in your work? And maybe a trickier question: What is the relationship of form and the construction of community in and/or through your work?
Philip: I return to Lorde’s aphorism — you cannot use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house. I know that when I was working on the last section of Zong!, “Ferrum,” I felt I understood what she meant. In that section I saw english degrade and begin to reshape itself, through fragmentation, into another language. It was the language of stutter and stammer and grunt and at times searing lucidity. I felt for the first time that this was my language and I have said this many times, it felt as if I was having my revenge on the english that had been for so long a foreign anguish, but I had to drop below the english text to find that other language.
Regarding community — I find that difficult to answer. I wish there were more Caribbean people who read my work. The community of readers here in Canada seems to be that of people who understand the hegemonic influences of english and structure their work around challenging that. I welcome that and am grateful for whatever readership I have. I feel that in the Caribbean, the page-bound text is still viewed with some degree of latent suspicion, and for good reason. People only come upon writing in the imaginative, literary sense in school, and I fear with the advent of the new technologies, there is even less accessibility to work like my own. Music remains the vehicle for carrying what needs to be heard, but some of what is being carried I have concerns about. I think the performative is an aspect of the Caribbean aesthetic and I am finding that Zong! lends itself very much to performance, so that might be a way that I can meet another audience.
Antwi and Austen: In “‘Difficult Forms of Knowing’: Enquiry, Injury, and Translocated Relations of Postcolonial Responsibility,” Diana Brydon suggests that difficult subjects require difficult forms of knowing. As she acknowledges, this idea is built upon a statement from Gail Jones’s novel Sorry: “[t]here is a hush to difficult forms of knowing” (3). What role do you see “difficulty” playing in your writing?
Philip: I have never set out to be difficult in my work. I think that one of the pernicious aspects of Western culture is this tendency to condition people to predigested information, which is ably assisted by a television culture and even more recently by an Internet culture. I understand that when someone looks at a page of Zong!, they may wonder what to do with it. I recall that when She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks was first published, the signature poem, “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” was selected for an anthology. The section of the poem that ran down the side of the center discourse was tampered with and “turned” the right way around. I was told by the editor, who was male, that they couldn’t print it the way I had arranged it! I sensed there was a resistance to it, and oddly enough, I only had difficulty with male editors. I think the resistance had to do with a reluctance to move to a new way of thinking about what poetry could and couldn’t do. In that case I was trying to say that you have to make an effort — a physical effort to read the woman’s story, in other words, you have to physically turn the book. I received some thirty rejections for that work, one of which was a long letter lecturing me on what poetry was all about. The book has remained in print for more than two decades and has been seminal for a generation of younger poets.
We also can’t avoid the whole idea of difficulty as it applies to African people producing art. Difficulty is supposed to be the preserve of the white, European male. Not the Black female.
Perhaps, I should end by saying that difficulty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder/reader.
Antwi and Austen: One of the joys of your work for many of your readers is your playful commitment to language, your refusal to take language for granted. Commenting on She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Brenda Carr notes “many of the sequence titles [in this work] signal linguistic intervention as the dominant gesture of her text” (“To ‘Heal the Word Wounded,’” 78). This intervention may very well describe all of your work. You yourself have written that “I begin from a position of extreme distrust of language and do not believe that english — or any European language for that matter — can truly speak our truths without the language in question being put through some sort of transformative processes” (“Interview with an Empire,” 196). How do you handle your distrust of language? What are the challenges of harnessing this relationship to language in productive ways?
Philip: I think that these issues have been covered above, but I would like to add a couple of thoughts. It was She Tries … that taught me the value of play in working with language. I really came to understand the seriousness of play, which may sound quite contradictory. I believe play is integral to how we function as humans within a universe that is constantly in play and it was in the “experimentation” I was doing in language with She Tries … that I came to understand that.
That work also showed me how deep the contamination by the father tongue goes. I became very aware during the time I spent developing the work of a sense of another language and the loss of it, although I grew up with english, or the Caribbean version of it, as a mother tongue. But I felt that it — english, that is — had sunk to the level of the cell but that within the cell there was a cellular memory of another tongue, so there is the poem “Universal Grammar” that questions whether we can ever forget when a single cell remembers — “Leg/ba, O/shun.” I also felt that english occupied, and still does, the conceptual part of my brain. I was, therefore, not at all surprised to read that, depending on what language you speak, a different part of the brain that governs language is developed. Of course, the study was done on European languages, but I would assume it applies to all languages. And then there is also the fact that the different parts of the brain that control speech are actually named after two men who were racist, classist, and sexist: the Drs. Wernicke and Broca. So, my relationship with language is a major challenge, because I don’t have another language I can retreat to, except perhaps the language of the soul.
Antwi and Austen: Given this ambivalent relationship with language: what are you envisioning your work as the writer to be? Are you in charge? Are you a guide? Or are you challenging the very idea of author having any control of text? Is there a balancing act that you’re performing between being in charge and surrendering?
We’re thinking, for instance, of your allowing for the difficulty of your poetic expression, but also tending to frame your poetry with essays. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks includes “The Absence of Writing”; Zong! includes a “Notanda” section.
Philip: I began questioning the “authority” of the poet while writing She Tries …, wondering where I derived my authority from as a Black and female writer. It seemed to me that the way poetry and literature came to us in the Caribbean was as part of a package that established the poet and writer as the great man who carried the soul, or an aspect of the soul, of the nation. It was a revelation to me when I understood that these men — they were mostly men — came from a particular class and race, and we were supposed to emulate them. They had the authority of the state — indeed, the empire — behind them. Where would my authority come from? Where does my authority come from? Perhaps, it was not authority but community and polyvocality that were more relevant. I think that was what I learnt from She Tries …. Zong! brought me to another place where I felt that I had entirely absolved myself of authorial intent. I had to follow where the method I had chosen led me. So, the surfacing of a European character initially bothered me, but I had to allow that voice to be in the text, which turned out to be the right strategy.
I always work out my ideas in essays and journals as I engage on a project and the framing of She Tries … and Zong! with essays was not deliberate. “The Absence of Writing” that accompanies She Tries … was not written with that work in question. I was actually trying to work out how I positioned myself as a writer of Caribbean background working with a language — my mother tongue — that is laden with the historical baggage of empire. I thought that the essay elaborated some of the issues the poetry was dealing with. So, too, with Zong!: “Notanda” began as the essay that accompanied my submission to the publishers and, over time, I used the essay to work through my ideas.
I suppose I should think about the “difficulty” of the work — if I were thinking more about market rather than audience because the two aren’t necessarily the same — but, as mentioned above, I have allowed the work to determine what should be said. I have always felt that at any point in time during the process of creation, there are at least two poems — the one that you want to write and the one that has to write itself through you, and if there is a balancing act, it is the balancing between those two states, if you will.
Antwi and Austen: A related question would be, what do you envision the job of the reader/audience to be, given your oral and visual poetics? Do you have an “ideal reader”/audience in mind?
Philip: I don’t so much have an ideal reader or audience in mind, but I do feel, especially with respect to Zong!, that the poem works in such a way that the reader becomes a cocreator with me. The form accomplishes that by allowing the reader certain options on how to read, and it is in the process of making choices to read that the reader becomes a cocreator. Further, I have begun to structure collective readings of Zong!, and this process extends the idea of cocreation. As I and the audience read together out loud, the work becomes a collective, communal work created by all of us.
Antwi and Austen: In The Genealogy of Resistance, in the essay “Ignoring Poetry,” you ask the following: “How does one write poetry from the twin realities of being Black and female in the last quarter of the twentieth century? How does one write poetry from a place such as Canada whose reality for poets such as myself is, more often that not, structured by its absence?” (120) You asked these questions in 1987, almost a quarter of a century ago. What is the place of these questions today? How do you feel the spaces between “Dis place” of silence and absence have shifted?
Philip: It seems to me that spoken word has become the poetry of choice for young poets. I am happy about this, but I am concerned, and I may be quite mistaken about this, that there don’t appear to be many young, Black, female writers, including poets. I would have hoped that writers like myself, Claire Harris, and Dionne Brand were the beginning of a wave of younger Black Canadian writers. I do hope I am mistaken, because more than ever we need the tradition that we were seminal in developing to be continued. All the writers I have mentioned, including those who articulated a more oral tradition like Lillian Allen, were immigrants to Canada and began writing here in Canada, as opposed to writers like Olive Senior, Pam Mordecai, and Lorna Goodison who came here after they had begun writing and had established careers elsewhere. Perhaps, it was that we — Claire, Dionne, and myself — needed to work out our relationship to this land that appeared so bleak and bereft of a consciously articulated tradition of writing by African Canadians. Austin Clarke and Sonny Ladoo were the only two writers from the Caribbean who were working in Canada when we began writing. Ladoo died shortly after his brilliant work, No Pain Like This Body. Perhaps the younger generation, being born here, have fewer questions of this “multicultural paradise,” but I think not. Perhaps, coming as we all did from a country barely out of colonialism, and immigrating to another that also had colonial ties, there was a pressing need to work out our relationship to these shifting realities. Whatever the reason, it is clear that there has been a shift and one that I am not quite sure of. There also appears to be an absence of continuity, but I hope I am mistaken about that.
Antwi and Austen: In Frontiers, you’ve written that “[m]any of us [in Canada], no matter how old our citizenship, remain immigrants in a profoundly psychic sense. Some of us, recognizing this, choose to emphasize that alienation — it appearing a more positive position” (“Who’s Listening?,” 29). We quote this passage as a way to mark your multiple locations as a writer in the Americas. So, if you had to classify yourself by nationality how would you situate yourself? How, if at all, does the local influence of Tobago carry on your work? And what about the “multicultural” relations of Trinidad?
Philip: I begin — it all begins — in Moriah, Tobago, where I was born. That’s how I locate myself — as Tobagonian. I feel a very strong attachment to that island vis-à-vis Trinidad. Regarding Canada — there are many aspects of the country that I love — the landscape, the winter, and a socially responsible, universal health care program that is always under attack. This becomes even more relevant as I grow older. But I am very concerned about the position of Africans in this country — for instance, we no longer have any national organizations that address or speak to issues relevant to African Canadians. There aren’t any provincial ones either and maybe a couple at the municipal level. Our young people are not doing as well as they should — far too many of them are engaged in delinquent activities — but I don’t need to go on.
I would like to consider myself as coming first from the Caribbean — from an island nation, and then from the Americas. I think that our education system in the Caribbean failed us in not educating us in the three primary European languages — English, French, and Spanish, as well as at least one African and one Asian language. It is crucial that we speak to our brothers and sisters in former Spanish and French and Dutch colonies. There are many issues that cross linguistic boundaries but we are balkanized by language in the Caribbean with attenuated attachments to Africa. I claim the heritage of the Haitian revolution, as well as the Cuban revolution. Both those revolutions resonate throughout the Caribbean — whatever the language — and have impacted my life and thinking as a Caribbean person. I claim Fanon and Césaire as fellow Caribbean intellectuals.
Trinidad’s multicultural relations are fascinating. It is something to be proud of that the inherent racial tensions between African and Asian populations haven’t degenerated into violence. There is a sense in which the country gets on with it without a lot of talk about multiculturalism, albeit sometimes with some politically incorrect comments. But they do get on with it. I went to school, for instance, with Chinese, Indian (Muslim and Hindu), African, Jewish, and European students. I always felt that it gave me a certain comfort in interacting with others. I don’t mean to suggest that it was or is a racial paradise — quite the contrary — but given the apparently inherent abilities of humans to make each other’s lives miserable, particularly over an issue such as race, Trinidad has managed the issue fairly well to date.
Antwi and Austen: Thank you to CACLALS and ACQL (and Special Events funding from Congress’s 2012 hosts Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo) and to M. NourbeSe Philip for giving us the opportunity to conduct this interview.
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. — Al Filreis
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.