'Dancing in a straitjacket'

An interview with Ron Padgett

Ron Padgett. Photo by Jemimah Kuhfeld.
Ron Padgett. Photo by Jemimah Kuhfeld.

Editorial note: Ron Padgett is an American poet, editor, translator, and educator. He edited The White Dove Review with Dick Gallup and Joe Brainard from 1958 to 1960, directed the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from 1978 to 1980, and then took a position as publications director at Teachers and Writers Collaborative, where he edited and wrote books about teaching imaginative writing to children. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Great Balls of Fire (1969), The Big Something (1990), and How Long (2011). He has also translated Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, The Poet Assassinated and Other Stories by Guillaume Apollinaire, and Flash Cards by Yu Jian. His Collected Poems is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in the fall of 2013. Yasmine Shamma is currently a lecturer in English at Oxford University, where she teaches courses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. Her work has appeared in PN Review, Essays in Criticism, and Jacket. She is currently writing a book on second-generation New York School poetry. This interview was conducted and recorded on April 11, 2011, in Di Robertis pastry shop in New York City. Yasmine Shamma subsequently transcribed the interview. — Katie L. Price

Yasmine Shamma: Diving into An Anthology of New York Poets, I was rereading the introduction, and noting that it was written in 1970 —

Ron Padgett: I was a child when I wrote that with David Shapiro, who was even more of a child.

Shamma: But you did say something that people have been saying ever since then: that the term “The New York School” isn’t helpful, and that it doesn’t do as a generalization or an abstraction. I was wondering if you still feel that way.

Padgett: Yes, but I’m tired of telling people that. They keep using the term, and by now there have been a lot of disclaimers. When John Ashbery gets asked, he says pretty much the same thing. Other people do too. I don’t have much use for the term. I’m not a critic or an essayist, so I don’t need to use it.

Shamma: Do you think that there are definitive characteristics of the people who wrote in New York in the 1970s and ’80s?

Padgett: You’ll have to tell me which poets. Otherwise I won’t know what I’m generalizing about.

Shamma: Ted Berrigan, Edwin Denby —

Padgett: You couldn’t find two people more …

Shamma: I know! Okay, James Schuyler, etc. Basically I’m thinking of the post-Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch wave.

Padgett: Except Edwin [Denby] was a pre-O’Hara wave, really. Are you trying to point to people who came after Frank?

Shamma: I guess I’m trying to point to the group of people published in C, the magazine edited by Berrigan.

Padgett: Even there you’ll find quite a variety of people, from F. T. Prince to Harry Fainlight. Ted’s editorial policy was stated on the copyright page, something like: “C will print anything the editor likes,” which is a pretty good editorial statement. And Ted liked a lot of different things.

Shamma: I guess I’m talking about people who were illustrated by Joe Brainard?

Padgett: When you look at this anthology, you find people as diverse as Clark Coolidge and Edwin Denby, Tom Veitch, Ed Sanders. That’s why we didn’t call it a school — just An Anthology of New York Poets. It included people whose work we liked, sort of like Ted’s policy. We knew or had met everyone in the book, except Clark Coolidge. Most of the poets in that book … well, let’s just talk about John, Jimmy, Frank, and Kenneth. All four of them were (and John is still alive, of course) very smart people, very well read, sophisticated in their thinking, witty, and they had pretty high standards. They were interested in different kinds of art — dance, visual art, music — and three of the four were gay. They were all white males, and three of those four were Harvard graduates.

Shamma: Very different, I guess, from the subsequent sort of group — I mean, I know you went to Columbia.

Padgett: Yes, how awful!

Shamma: Well, in the introduction to Kenneth Koch’s Selected, you mention being taught by Kenneth, and that he taught you how to be witty?

Padgett: He didn’t teach me how to be witty; he gave me permission to be witty.

Shamma: I guess that feeling of permission gets passed on through the generations as a marker?

Padgett: As many things do.

Shamma: It seems that most of the subsequent poets were somewhat more self-taught —

Padgett: I don’t know about that. Ted Berrigan had a Masters degree in English; Tom Veitch did a year or so at Columbia; Tom Clark had an MA in Poetry from Michigan, won the Hopwood award, and also did graduate work at Cambridge and the University of Essex in England; David Shapiro got a PhD … I could go on and on. There aren’t many self-educated people in the anthology. Whether you’re educated by yourself or by somebody else, or a combination — I don’t really make a distinction. But going to Harvard confers a kind of distinction on you. It was the first and is the oldest university in the United States; it has a great reputation, the largest endowment. So being a “Harvard man” has a kind of ring to it, like being a “Princeton man.” Whereas if you graduated from Podunk University, you go out into professional life with one strike against you. Of course, all the people in the anthology were in poetry, so higher education credentials didn’t make all that much difference. To me, none.

Shamma: Right. Well, I guess the reason that I’m trying to make a distinction about education is because immediately, it’s clear — in your case, reading this kind of poetry — how everyday, or conversational the poetry is.

Padgett: The so-called second-generation New York School had more of the conversational element in it. Back in those days, John’s poetry didn’t have a lot of it. Frank’s did though, and there was a kind of conversational poetry that came from Williams through Frank, and people like Ted and me and others picked up on that. Another distinction between the earlier guys and us was that they were of a generation that liked alcohol. My generation wasn’t that much into drinking. We were more into smoking pot or whatever else people did.

Shamma: Why do you think that was?

Padgett: For me, smoking pot was a lot more fun than drinking. Heavy drinking made me feel awful. I’ve been drunk twice in my life, and I hated it both times.

Shamma: That might be a record for poets!

Padgett: I had a lot of fun smoking pot. Pot had become much more available. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, it was virtually impossible to find.

Shamma: And then you come to New York City in the sixties —

Padgett: It was easier in New York. Especially after I came back from living in France, after 1966. Everybody was smoking dope like crazy.

Shamma: So was Great Balls of Fire written in France?

Padgett: The earliest poem in that book was written in 1963 in New York, when I was a junior at Columbia. The book came out in 1969. I guess the latest poem in the book was written around 1967. So some of them were written in France, yes.

Shamma: And did you see a change in your work after going to Paris?

Padgett: I guess it did change, but I’ve never thought about it much. In Paris I was reading a lot of poetry in French, and I was speaking French, and immersed in French, so I had the resonance of that language in my head. It kind of got confused with English. In fact, by the end of my stay in France I was so used to speaking French that sometimes I would try to say something in English and all of a sudden I couldn’t quite remember how to do it. It was a strange experience.

Shamma: Yes, I can imagine how that happens.

Padgett: Anyway, I’m not good at analyzing my own work.

Shamma: Have you read any analyses of your work?

Padgett: Yes.

Shamma: Have you found them to be true?

Padgett: Every once in awhile somebody writes something that strikes me as smart and true and perceptive.

Shamma: Are there any critics of the New York School that you think are particularly on to it?

Padgett: There are a number of people who have written things about the so-called New York School that have been intelligent and apt, but I don’t think anyone’s ever told me anything that I didn’t already know.

Shamma: It’s all been pretty obvious?

Padgett: To me, yes. But some poets are much harder to write about than others. Some are elusive. It’s hard to get in prose descriptions exactly of what’s going on. Others are easy. My work is hard to write about.

Shamma: Yes, it is.

Padgett: And that’s neither here nor there. But a couple of people have, in recent years, written some things that have struck me as pretty sharp. For a long time, all anybody could say about my work was, “Oh, he writes a lot of different kinds of poems, and he’s funny.” The first thing is true, and the second is only occasionally true.

Shamma: Yes, I was actually going to say that I don’t think that second thing is true.

Padgett: I remember some critic taking me to task by saying, “Padgett’s very funny and jokey, but why doesn’t he write about something serious, like death?” It was such a wrong-headed way of seeing things, and also inaccurate. So I sent the guy a list of the poems I had written about death and published in my books, but I never heard from him.

Shamma: I can’t believe you didn’t hear from him!

Padgett: Well, anybody who’s stupid enough to say the first thing is stupid enough not to answer. I wasn’t arguing with him; I was giving him empirical evidence: here are the books you claim I’m being funny in, look at all the poems that are about death.

Shamma: This is me going out on a limb, but I find that you and some of your peers write with such — maybe this is me being naive — but you write with such honesty that it becomes really difficult to talk about anything, because it’s just there. It’s this sort of half-showing that you don’t expect. I mean, I don’t see how you could come to this kind of page and be closed as a reader. And so, turning to criticism and academic stuff, it becomes really difficult to say anything seemingly worth saying.

Padgett: I see what you’re saying, I think. Two things come to mind. One is that, in the work of a number of poets of my age and before, openness was a characteristic that I admired, and I still do. It doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good poem just because you’re open. You could be spilling your guts or confessing to something horrible that I might rather not know about. But on the other hand, without openness toward oneself, I think it can be difficult for poets to figure out what to do next in a poem, and to figure out who they are even. The other thing I wanted to say was that, in fact, I have a poem called “The Coat Hanger,” in which I talk about this very subject. It’s in a new book of mine.

Shamma: Is that the one that’s being published right now, in April?

Padgett: Yes, and I think I might read that poem tomorrow night at The Poetry Project. Anyway, if you check the poem you’ll see some of the things I say there, and the people I quote. What’s the other thing I wanted to say?

Shamma: About openness?

Padgett: Oh dear, at a certain age, the brain cells crust over. The other thing I was going to say was more interesting than that, to me anyway. What did you say before that?

Shamma: Well, I was going to say, in terms of Frank O’Hara mainly, as a poet who says he wants his poems to be “open” and his face to be “shaven” —

Padgett: Yes, “You can’t plan on the heart, but the better part of it, my poetry, is open,” that’s what I quote in “The Coat Hanger.” And you said something about the difficulty of writing about that kind of poetry.

Shamma: Yes, the incredible difficulty.

Padgett: It’s particularly difficult to write about the obvious. Let’s just say somebody writes a poem that says, “I’m in love!” What are you going to say, as a critic?

Shamma: You say, “look at how you spread those words out in one of your poems and talk about” —

Padgett: I do?

Shamma: Yes, I have [it] here with me, actually …

Padgett: Oh, you’re talking about the poem in Crazy Compositions.

Shamma: Yes:  “I              Love    // each word increases squared”

Padgett: Isn’t there a “you” anywhere in there? I think there’s supposed to be a “you,” unless your edition has a misprint. In poems that have that kind of directness, a critic can talk about or write about them not from a thematic point of view, but from a stylistic or structural or kinetic point of view: How does a poem work? And why does it work, if it does? What’s the machinery involved here? (I use the word “machinery” metaphorically). To me, that’s the nuts and bolts point of view. There are two kinds of criticism I like: one is nuts and bolts, the other is gossip. I think they’re both illuminating: one from an empirical, workmanlike view, and the other one from a superficial point of view, which can be illuminating — like Joe LeSueuer’s book on O’Hara. Do you know it?

Shamma: Yes, it’s beautiful.

Padget: There’s a lot of gossip in there, and it’s actually quite illuminating.

Shamma: Well, even your book on Ted Berrigan is just so fun and beautiful to read, especially sitting in the middle of an academic library. You get to that kind of book and think, “This is wonderful, this is exactly what I want to read.”

Padgett: It’s like looking at a family snapshot album.

Shamma: Right. I saw some actual albums in Emory’s collection of Berrigan and Brainard’s correspondence, which make you feel like you’re learning more from touching artifacts than from reading criticism.

Padgett: To me those are wonderful. There’s a terrific archive of Joe Brainard’s in San Diego. And my archive is up at the Beinecke at Yale — fifty years of papers.

Shamma: Well, in all of the so-called archives, there are a lot of papers. It’s overwhelming. On top of the sort of honesty and “my heart your heart” [a line from Berrigan] mode of the poetry is the sheer number of pages of poetry written. Koch’s collected is what, 754 pages?           

Padgett: That’s his collected shorter poems. There are the longer ones as well. Kenneth was prolific. He loved to write and he liked to write long works and he worked almost every day. He loved the act of writing. And then there were all his plays and his fiction. He didn’t publish everything, either. If you look at his archive in the Berg collection in the New York Public Library, you’ll see some of the material he never published.

Ron Padgett reading in Paris, 2003.

Shamma: Looking through Berrigan’s collection, you can see this deliberation over form and the nuts and bolts of it all that isn’t immediately present on the printed page, which to me seems to validate a study of form.

Padgett: Yes. Kenneth himself wrote some formal poems. In his poem called “The Railway Stationery,” each stanza is actually a sonnet. But you don’t notice it at first. Kenneth also wrote sestinas and catalogue poems, and experimented with some other forms. Frank did a lot of that too. Ashbery too. Jimmy less, I think. But what’s really interesting is finding the form that’s particular to each free verse work. When I say “nuts and bolts” I don’t mean ABABCC, I’m talking about how a really shapely, well-made poem in free verse works. That’s truly interesting. The strict forms, the fixed forms, are interesting for a different reason, to me. How do you put yourself in a straitjacket and still dance as gracefully as if you’re not in a straitjacket? That’s a tough challenge, and it’s fun.

Shamma: I don’t know if he’s in a straitjacket, but it kind of happens in O’Hara’s “Aus einem April,” with how that first stanza begins.

Padgett: Yes, it’s the one that begins “We dust the walls.”

Shamma: Yes, and then you end up in what looks like a quatrain, but when you get close to that second formal-looking stanza it’s talking about moving outside and being “turbulent and green.”

Padgett: In that poem, he wasn’t exactly using a form, though in some sense he was, insofar as it’s actually based on a poem by Rilke. The first line of Rilke’s poem is, “Wieder duftet der Wald,” which literally translates to “Again the forest is fragrant,” or something like that. Frank just did a homophonic translation: “We dust the walls.” I haven’t studied it in years, but as I recall, he sort of followed Rilke’s arrangement. It’s something like following a sonnet or a villanelle arrangement.

Shamma: Are you also familiar with “Nocturne”?

Padgett: Frank’s? Yes.

Shamma: Well, I love how he constructs this really narrow poem, and talks about how the buildings are too narrow: in the summer “too hot,” and “at night I freeze.” These are the sorts of poems that I’m interested in — the kind that recreate buildings. The poem complains, “[i]t’s the architect’s fault” while architecting, in turn, an exact replica. And it’s in all of Berrigan’s references to rooms in his The Sonnets.

Padgett: “Is there room in the room that you room in?”

Shamma: Yes, and “Bring me red demented rooms.”

Padgett: That’s a line of mine that he stole.

Shamma: Was it? No! I love that line. I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while.

Padgett: Well, then I have just given you a little secret.

Shamma: Where did it come from?

Padgett: A poem I wrote in 1961. I never published it.

Shamma: Why not?

Padgett: It wasn’t good.

Shamma: So can I ask what the “dementedness” of the room was?

Padgett: I have no idea.

Shamma: Well, I love how the line sounds like what it’s asking for.

Padgett: I’m trying to remember the rest of that poem. I wrote it in the fall of 1961. I was here in New York. I was a student either finishing my first year at Columbia or starting my second. Starting my second year, Ted and I shared an apartment. Maybe it was then that I wrote that. It was right around then. Ted, as you know, appropriated a lot of lines, from Dick Gallup and others.

Shamma: Did you?

Padgett: Less than Ted, but I did some collaged poems and centos.

Shamma: Did you see yourself or your poems registering the city?

Padgett: Yes, the poems did, because I was here and aware of the fact that I was here, but with some exceptions. I didn’t set out to write poems about New York, or poems that reflected New York. I wasn’t Walt Whitman writing “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or Vladimir Mayakovsky writing “Brooklyn Bridge” or Hart Crane writing “The Bridge” or Edwin Denby writing poems about the streets of New York — alas. But the fact that I was here had a big influence, of course. It was more of a general, osmotic seeping of New York into my work — things just got in there because I was here, things such as actual places and people, but also energy. The energy of New York was huge. I had come from Tulsa, which actually wasn’t as bad as I say it was, but the energy level was lower there. Of course it was calmer, too, and slower, and in some ways quite pleasant. But it didn’t have the street energy of New York. It had car energy. You could go out and drive a car around fast, you could get in a car and drive straight to Texas, and then turn right around and come back.

Shamma: And enjoy the mobility of being American?

Padgett: You could drive around the whole night — drive around and stop in diners with your friends, have coffee, and talk like crazy. Sort of On the Road behavior.

Shamma: Do you think that when you’re in a place that has an explicit energy, like New York, that you don’t have to create as much energy from yourself? That you can just kind of bounce off of it? Like being in Tulsa, perhaps, might force someone with the propensity to be energized —

Padgett: There was a certain amount of general inertia in Tulsa — artistic too. And one had to sort of push against the inertia. Fortunately, I was young there. I left when I had just turned eighteen. So I was a young, testosterone-driven male, bursting with energy. And then when I came to New York, it was like jumping into a swiftly flowing river. You have to generate more energy just to stay afloat, and if you do, you’re really zooming along. Does that make sense to you?

Shamma: Yes, it makes complete sense to me. I lived here in New York before I moved to Oxford, which has a completely opposite energy level.

Padgett: Yes, I once visited Oxford. It was quiet. But as you know, it’s not just the place you’re living in — it’s the place that’s living in you. If you’re involved in studies, or any type of pursuit that’s intellectual or interior, you can be anywhere, because a lot of your life goes on inside your head, or your spirit. So I wouldn’t knock it so much.

Shamma: Yes, it makes you calm down.

Padgett: It’s great to be calm. Especially here in New York, where everything’s telling you not to be calm. But to get back to your comment about rooms: Jimmy Schuyler is wonderful for the purposes of your work. His poetry’s very sedentary. He’s almost always sitting in a room — giving you the impression he’s sitting in a room, if not giving you the actual information — often looking out a window. He spatially locates himself. Sometimes he’s outdoors, like in Maine, but a lot of his great work takes place with him sitting in a room and looking around. Of course Frank’s work is also quite good that way, although Frank often doesn’t give the impression of being in a room. His conversational poetry happens more on the street. But poems like “Radio” tell you that he’s in a room, listening to the radio.

Shamma: And there does seem to be a frustration whenever he mentions being inside, like in the lines, “Am I a door,” and “The crack in the ceiling spreads” in “Anxiety.” You get the sense that he never wants to be pin-down-able within domestic spaces.

Padgett: Well, he lived in New York in some really dumpy apartments, until his last place.

Shamma: And when he lived in that last apartment, he didn’t write much poetry, did he?

Padgett: No, he didn’t.

Shamma: Why do you think that is?

Padgett: That’s a question that a lot of people have asked.

Shamma: It’s interesting that the crummier apartments gave space for creating poetry.

Padgett: I’m not sure he wanted to spend a lot of time in those places. He liked being out. He liked going to artist’s studios and to bars and to parties, and to openings and art galleries, and friend’s places, and the Hamptons.

Shamma: He seemed to enjoy the mobility that the city offers.

Padgett: He didn’t want to be cooped up. But his last place, a loft, was nice. It wasn’t fancy, but it was very spacious, and I thought it was a terrific place. There was a big view out the window of Grace Church across the street, which he never wrote about. His building’s been torn down, by the way. It’s been replaced by some modern thing. His apartment on Forty-Ninth Street was also replaced. Apparently that was a really awful place, though you could look out the side of the back and see the UN Headquarters.

Shamma: Yes, I read about that one. It was the one with the cockroaches and the beer bottles everywhere.

Padgett: Frank was not a great housekeeper. Jimmy was even worse. But you know, in John Ashbery’s poetry, you’re never really sure where you are, except in the poem “The Instruction Manual.” It’s the only one I can think of where you know where you are.

Shamma: I’m actually not writing about him for that very reason. Even though I know that he is of the same generation, I feel like his poetry is inherently very different.

Padgett: It is. And Kenneth’s too. It’s largely free of specific occasions. Much of it is very artful, often located in the imagination. Frank wrote some very occasional poetry, and by “occasional” I mean not just about birthdays and funerals.

Shamma: Time-based?

Padgett: Yes, time-based, with specific people and specific places. Now, whether or not it’s an accurate reflection of those occasions — in terms of details — that’s neither here nor there really. But it has that feeling — Jimmy’s too — of sitting in a room. You feel he really did that. But with Kenneth’s poems, you have no idea where he wrote them.

Shamma: Except for maybe “One Train.”

Padgett: Yes, and that’s an account of a real trip. But even there, it’s written in reflection, later, not on the spot.

Shamma: Right, like “The Art of Love” would be a complete trip. You have no idea where that was written.

Padgett: Right, that’s like when Ovid wrote his: where was he?

Shamma: But Kenneth did move a lot, right?

Padgett: He got around. He spent a lot of time in France and Italy, and he travelled to China twice, and to Africa, and Greece, and all over Western Europe especially. Mexico, and Guatamala, Antarctica — he got around. He lived in New York City, but also had a house in the Hamptons. He liked the excitement of travel; fresh, beautiful vistas; interesting cuisines; art and opera; and exotic beautiful girls. He was an appreciator of life. He didn’t like the idea of sitting in the same room all of the time. Edwin, though, really can give you a sense of being in a room, especially in his poem “Elegy: The Streets” — you can see him in that room, hearing the sounds of Twenty-First Street outside.

Shamma: And a few of your poems mention street intersections and rooms.

Padgett: There’s a poem of mine called “Poema del City” — there’s actually two of them: “Poema Del City I” and “Poema Del City II.” Two is a very straightforward account of being in my apartment, in the front room, at night, with a bathrobe or housecoat on. I’ve written a number like that.

Shamma: I was thinking of “Poem for Joan Inglis.”

Padgett: That one is a complete fantasy.

Shamma: Is it?

Padgett: A total fantasy. Totally fabricated.

Shamma: I don’t know what to do when I hear things like that. So it’s a fabricated landscape of a room — it’s a fabricated space?

Padgett: Yes. My prose poem called “My Room” — do you know that one?

Shamma: Yes I do.

Padgett: That one’s very much about being in a real room. Actually, the new book that I just put out has a poem that talks about sitting in a room in the house that my wife and I have in Vermont. And my grandson, who was just a very little baby at the time, is asleep in the next room. The poem is about the experience of sitting in the room and thinking of my grandson on the other side of the wall.

Shamma: I have to ask the really simple question about the word “stanza” meaning room, and the material metaphors you all use — like your sense of “the machine,” and Ted Berrigan’s sense of words being “bricks.” He even says at one point that he thought of his stanzas “being rooms.” You get the sense of a construction being built.

Padgett: Right, building a house.

Shamma: Yes. Does the shape of a room come into play in shaping the actual stanzas written out of rooms?

Padgett: Not consciously, no. I mean, it’s okay to work that way, but I don’t seem to be interested in doing that. I’m sure I’m influenced by the room I’m in, just like you’re influenced by what you had for breakfast. Like in Vermont, the room that I’ve written a lot of poems in is what I call my study. It’s a fairly small room with a pitched roof, and it’s kind of cozy. It’s just my room — the only one I’ve ever had like that, in my adult life. That cozy space is conducive to a certain kind of privacy that fosters rumination, or a kind of dreamy poetic state. You’re safe, it’s quiet, you’re alone, and it’s very pleasant to be in that room. So it helps me.

Kenneth wrote in his living room. As a professor at Columbia, he had a very nice large apartment, with a big open area with French doors. He had a table there, facing a wall, but not facing a window. That’s another thing you might want to think about: Jimmy looks out the window when he writes, and he’s able to do it. But a lot of other writers, I’ve heard, think it’s murder to have a window right in front of you.

Shamma: I’ve seen pictures of Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan’s desks, and Berrigan’s was sideways against a wall.

Padgett: The brick wall?

Shamma: Yes, and O’Hara’s was facing a wall.

Padgett: Ted, just after he wrote The Sonnets and had just started C magazine, had a desk that faced a wall, and on his right was an exposed brick wall. I’ve often set up my desk so I don’t look out the window. But in Vermont, I can look to my left and out a window. Otherwise, straight ahead of me is just wooden pine boards. But I still spend a lot of time looking out that window.

Shamma: I wonder if your poems are accordingly different — your Vermont poems.

Padgett: I don’t know. But here in New York I’ve had my desk facing a wall since I moved into the apartment, in 1967. Apollinaire, too — his study was cramped. He was a bulky guy, cramped into his garret’s narrow space, with his writing table facing a wall. The window was to his left, high above eye level.

Shamma: It’s interesting, formally, to consider how the wall informs poems. Looking at, or being aware of the dimensions of the room can inform the dimensions of a poem. But also the turning away from the other space in the room, and writing a very personal poem, talking to a “you” but looking at a wall — it’s a strange kind of energy. I’m not really sure what to do with it.

Padgett: An interesting question is: What happens to the eyes of the writer as he or she is writing? Do they look at the wall? In Hollywood movies they do. I’m not sure I do. Usually I’m looking down at the page, and there’s a “room” there on that page, or at least a floorplan. Or if it’s a computer screen, it’s a window. And I’m looking through that window. That’d be another interesting approach: to see the computer screen as a window.

Shamma: Yes, I was looking at your essay on computer writing and what kind of art it might produce.

Padgett: That’s a really old piece.

Shamma: Yes, and it has a footnote about how funny it is that this innovative computer-based writing didn’t actually end up happening.

Padgett: That was a concept that my son and I came up with when he was a kid. I thought there was going to be a brand new kind of writing. It never happened. It’s interesting though that it didn’t happen.

Shamma: I was thinking about it in terms of graphic design, and wondering if that has become a new kind of writing — less manipulation of words, and more with what the screen in general allows.

Padgett: I predicted a writing that would be a synthesis of visual art and music and everything. That’s an avant-garde idea from way back, and its realization was deemed imminent. Then it just didn’t happen, because computer companies made it impossible for the average person to program. The Mac and the PC were the death of that possibility. If you go back to earlier programs, written in BASIC — even the Atari 800, built mainly for games — you could actually program an Atari, and it was fun.

Shamma: Yes, it’s all become very consumer, end-product based.

Padgett: The technocrats took it over and did some sexy, attractive things, but made it so that nobody could program the more advanced computers except advanced programmers.

Shamma: I saw an interesting advertisement for the iPad, pitching that it was smaller, thinner and lighter to get out of the way, so that you can have more life.

Padgett: It’s to get you further hooked on it. Try to withdraw from it and see what happens to your life. My hard drive crashed a couple of weeks ago. I was without a computer for a few days, and I found myself yearning for it. Like drug withdrawal. And I realized: Ah! They have you hooked. You have to upgrade all the time, and if you don’t, you suffer. It’s like taking more and more heroin. They have you psychologically addicted.

But to get back to the room idea: Take the physical structure and components of the room and see what poems, or parts of the poem, relate to parts of the room. Like the poem as “window” — Apollinaire has a poem called “The Windows.” The ceiling — what does the ceiling, the feeling of the ceiling, and the presence of a ceiling do to someone writing in a room? If you’re writing in a room with a high ceiling or a low one, or a tin ceiling — like this one here at Di Robertis — what does that do to you? And also the dimensions and proportions of the room — what do they do to one’s feelings and thinking? Also the walls — what are they made of? What do they look like? And the floors! Floors are more important than ceilings. Why is that? Why do I think that?

Shamma: Well, because of stability.

Padgett: Yes, but also I look at floors. I don’t look at ceilings. And I don’t walk on them, not very much!

Shamma: You don’t need a ceiling as much as you need a floor?

Padgett: No, you don’t. If you don’t have a floor, you’re in trouble. But then there are certain kinds of floors, and the way you feel walking across them. Walking across the beautiful marble inlaid floors in the Siena Duomo is different from walking across the spruce-board floors of my house in Vermont. What does that do to the feeling about being where you are? Our responses can be somewhat subtle and even subliminal, but they’re interesting to think about. Then there are the shutters and blinds and curtains —

Shamma: See, these are domestic details. I’ve been looking at layouts and floor plans: like railway apartments and the lack of space they present, and how that lack of space comes into a poem. Or like your “Crazy Compositions,” or [Berrigan’s] “Tambourine Life” that are super spread out. Or even Berrigan’s “Train Ride” — these are long poems that came to be written out of smaller spaces. I’m not sure about where your spread-out poems were written.

Padgett: The three poems you mentioned — in Crazy Compositions — were written in Vermont after spending nine months in New York City. I wrote them in a couple of days. I put them together — I constructed them, I actually hand-wrote part of them — a few days after getting to Vermont, where the space felt incredibly open. I put them together up there, but it wasn’t only because I was in Vermont and could be in the great outdoors. It was because I felt an urge to write that kind of poem. Maybe it was just coincidental that I did it right after getting to Vermont. I could’ve done it here in New York. Ted wrote those kinds of poems here: “February Air,” and a poem called “Bean Spasms,” and “Tambourine Life.”

Shamma: Of his longer, strangely laid out poems, the one that I’ve considered is “Train Ride.” I like how, in that poem, the compartments of the train feel mapped onto the page.

Padgett: “Train Ride” is episodic. If you walk through the compartments of a train as it’s moving along, there are different stories going on in each car. For some reason, I think of a line from The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s play: “infinite riches in a little room.” The idea that you can have so much in a little space —

Shamma: Yes, it sounds much like John Donne’s line: “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.”

Padgett: But Train Ride was written in response to a prose work by Joe Brainard.

Shamma: Wasn’t it written in response to a porn magazine?

Padgett: No. Joe wrote a work also called “Train Ride,” an account of taking the train from New York City to the Hamptons. He gave it to Ted, and Ted wrote a response — a sort of conversation with Joe. So in a sense, there were two people in that compartment while Ted was writing.

Shamma: Yes, the “you” of that poem is very specific.

Padgett: It’s dedicated to Joe.

Shamma: Yes, and the poem ends with lines that say “Thank you for being with me on this train.”

Padgett: A very nice work of Ted’s, and a nice edition. Ted got Joe to do the cover image, and it worked out well.

Shamma: Do you miss those kinds of productions? Those kinds of tactile publications?

Padgett: Actually, there weren’t that many. Most of the underground book productions in the early sixties were rather rough and ready, mimeograph editions, like The Sonnets in 1964 and my first book, In Advance of the Broken Arm.

Shamma: Great Balls of Fire wasn’t your first book?

Padgett: No, it was my first book book (1969), that is, with a big publisher. In Advance of the Broken Arm was published in 1965. We didn’t get into better production values until later. Come to think of it, the 1967 Grove Press edition of The Sonnets was not a great production: saddle-stapled, with minimal attention to design. Train Ride was published eleven years later, and it was a nicely designed and printed book. I like good production values, but I don’t like fussy ones, where the book exists just to give a book designer a chance to show off.

Shamma: Well something I liked about looking at the original publication of The Sonnets (rather than looking at them in the recently published Collected Poems), was that there is one sonnet per page, smack in the middle of each page. So you really get the sense of these block compositions, shaped by the page. When you see them trailing one after another, they don’t come at you the same way.

Padgett: No, they don’t. Ted liked the space around them. He was extremely conscious of the way poems look on the page.

Shamma: Are you?

Padgett: Yes, I think it’s important, but you can’t always control it. For instance, when you compose something and go to print it out, it’s coming out on what is usually a letter-sized piece of paper. And if it’s published by a print magazine, they have different fonts and different trim sizes. You can’t control it much. And it’s just as bad online.

Shamma: What about collaborations?

Padgett: What about them?

Shamma: How does the composition play out there? Like your collaborations with George Schneeman?

Padgett: There it’s super-important.

Shamma: How are those created? I’m thinking about the poem with the block illustrations and then the narrative commentary/poetry underneath the blocks and cartoons.

Padgett: George and I worked in a lot of different ways. In terms of the materials, we had collaborative drawings and collages, canvases, mixed media pieces, silkscreens, ceramics, etc.

Shamma: Where did you get the feeling that that was possible?

Padgett: I think I was inspired by the working relationships of the Dada and Surrealist painters and poets, and the fact that Francis Picabia was both a poet and a painter. But the first collaboration I ever saw in person was Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers’s series of lithographs, called Stones. I’d already seen some poem-paintings by Kenneth Patchen in his books. Also, Joe Brainard and I had done a collaboration in high school, before I knew about the history of collaboration.

Shamma: He was with you in kindergarten, right?

Padgett: Maybe kindergarten, but I don’t remember. I have a picture of him and me in first grade together.

Anyway, George and I used not only different media, but also different working methods. Sometimes when we were working we were living hundreds or even thousands of miles away from each other, so we’d mail things back and forth. He was in Italy once and I was in Vermont and we collaborated on a series of colored pencil drawings. It’s called “The Story of Ezra Pound,” and it’s a wonderful piece, but it’s never been published. So don’t go looking for it.

Shamma: Why hasn’t it been published?

Padgett: I don’t know. It would take a fine production, because it’s in colored pencil — very subtle, and only seven pages long. But it’s really terrific. Both George and I were surprised by how it came out. Often, we worked directly in the same room, on the same surface at the same time. In fact, in later years, that’s how we did most of our work together.

Shamma: Together in a room?

Padgett: Yes. For example, at one point we were doing charcoal and egg tempera works on large pieces of paper, five or six works at the same time, moving around the room, back and forth.

Shamma: Which works are those? Are they published?

Padgett: They’ve been exhibited. In fact, one just came back from a museum. But they’re large — they’re hard to publish.

Shamma: So they are spatial pieces?

Padgett: One is almost as wide and tall as that wall over there: a pretty good size. The Center for Book Arts did a show last spring of poets and painters. The show then traveled down to the Museum of Printing History in Houston. Anyway, George and I worked directly, simultaneously, sometimes at the same time on the same piece of paper. There was a lot of variety in our work overall.

Shamma: There’s no poetic persona there, though, right? It’s not an “I” to a “you.” I was thinking about this because a lot of collaboration throughout all of this “New York School” poetry challenges the energy of individual encounters. When it’s two artists to one audience, I don’t know if it’s a fractured voice that emerges, or a less understandable one, but I find that the collaborative poems are a lot more difficult to read.

Padgett: They can be more fractured, but they also tend to be more light-hearted, more “fun,” because we had a good time writing them.

Shamma: Do you think that there is an absence of persona in a lot of the poetry that was written around St. Mark’s Church?

Padgett: You mean in collaborative poems?

Shamma: In even the single-authored poems, is the “I” the poet?

Padgett: I think it’s dubious to assume the “I” in a poem is the poet. Most poets know that they’re performing. Johnny Carson doing The Tonight Show is not exactly Johnny Carson. You see what I’m saying? And certainly the collaborative pieces are showing the persona of each poet, or artist — but then in the process, a third persona gets treated, their shared persona.

Shamma: So it’s a dangerous trap to fall into — thinking anything more of the “I.”

Padgett: Yes. But of course there are a lot of people who, when they write poetry, think that when they say “I” they mean themselves exclusively.

Shamma: Ted Berrigan says that.

Padgett: He says what?

Shamma: He says that the “‘I’ is not ‘Prufrock’ in my poems, it’s Ted Berrigan” (Talking in Tranquility).

Padgett: Obviously Prufrock is not Eliot. I would bet that there’s always some percentage of the “I” that is not the poet, but is the “I” of the poem. Making art is not the same as talking to your psychoanalyst.

Shamma: Like your poem “Little Dutch Diary.”

Padgett: That’s not a poem; it’s a diary.

Shamma: So that “I” is you.

Padgett: Pretty much.

Shamma: And that can happen because of the title?

Padgett: Yes, it’s a diary of a real trip. And I was trying to just write down what happened. But even there, I’m aware that I’m writing. I’m not writing a diary just to keep a diary. I’m a writer. Did I know that I was going to publish it? No. Was I aware to some degree that it might turn out to be a work that I would publish? Yes. When you’re a writer and you’ve published a lot, you are always aware of the possibility of publication. But I try my best to forget that.

Shamma: Were you teaching alongside all this writing?

Padgett: Some of it.

Shamma: So after you left Columbia University, you taught?

Padgett: As soon as I graduated Columbia with a BA, I swore I would never set foot in a classroom again as long as I lived. Kenneth Koch wanted me to go to graduate school and get a degree so I could teach at Columbia. And I told him I appreciated it, but I just didn’t want to do that. He was nice about it. He even helped me get a Fulbright a year later. But on the Fulbright, I didn’t even go to classes.

So I got out of college in 1964, and in ’64–’65 I was around New York. My wife was working in an office, and I had gotten a grant of $1,500, which was enough to live on for a year. We were living in an apartment on West Eighty-Eighth Street, and the rent was ninety dollars a month. Then my wife and I went to Paris for 1965–66, and when we came back to America she was pregnant, so we went to Tulsa to have the baby. We had no money, no apartment, no jobs.

Shamma: So that’s why you went to Tulsa?

Padgett: Yes. Kenneth got me an emergency grant of $500 to have the baby. We got the poverty rate at the hospital clinic. Having the baby cost one hundred dollars.

Shamma: What do you mean, “the baby cost one hundred dollars?”

Padgett: I had to pay the hospital one hundred dollars. They wouldn’t let us leave with the baby if I didn’t pay. Then we moved back here to New York with what was left of that grant. I got a number of freelance jobs: proofreading, writing jacket copy, and doing some readings. Our apartment was only fifty-three dollars a month, and generally it was very cheap to live in those days, if you didn’t mind scrimping a bit. Then I started teaching poetry writing to children because Kenneth Koch tricked me into doing it. I did that on and off for about nine years — a lot of it here in New York, but also around the country. So yes, I found myself back in the classroom, especially the elementary school classroom.

Shamma: I read Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children, and you get the sense of joy in teaching kids that age.

Padgett: He and I were doing it simultaneously at certain points at the same school, and he was really a great mentor. After nine years, I did begin to burn out. I also taught a writing workshop at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.

Shamma: And you ran it?

Padgett: Later, I was the director of the Poetry Project for two and a half years. I also did some teacher training workshops all over the country. And then the next teaching was at Columbia — the undergraduate level. I taught a course called “Imaginative Writing,” subbing for Kenneth. He was going on sabbatical and he wanted the course to continue, so Columbia hired me to teach that course for a number of years. Then Brooklyn College invited me to teach for a year — actually two semesters spread over two years — in their MFA poetry program. But that’s been about it.

Shamma: Has teaching influenced your writing?

Padgett: I think that teaching little kids probably did. I don’t think teaching at the university level influenced my writing at all, but I enjoyed it.

Shamma: Do you think the poverty of those earlier years influenced your writing? I was thinking about Ron Silliman’s blog posts, where he talks about third- and fourth-generation New York Schools. I look at the schools he outlines and think that they can’t be the same schools, because the economics of the scene changed so much.

Padgett: It’s not economically feasible to be a poet in New York these days, unless you have a trust fund or you’re willing to share a place in Bushwick with three other people. When I was the director of the Poetry Project, in 1979 and ’80, I wrote a letter to one of our city officials to complain about the fact that this neighborhood that we’re in now, where the Poetry Project started — a lot of poets lived here — was getting gentrified. It was starting to be called “The East Village.”

Shamma: What was it called before?

Padgett: The Lower East Side.

Shamma: So adding the “village” to it was a way of gentrifying it?

Padgett: Yes. The “village” was really the West Village (Greenwich Village), a neighborhood that formally had been full of artists and writers. But the Lower East Side had old-world ghetto associations. The real estate agents cleverly changed the name, and suddenly the rents went up.

Shamma: Like Häagan-Daaz?

Padgett: Exactly. I’d like to find out who their consultant was on that, because it was a smart person. But it ruined the neighborhood for people looking for cheap rent. So I wrote a letter to the city officials, saying that a lot of the young poets who want to come to New York are now not able to, or they’re forced to live in Brooklyn, which at the time was considered like living on Mars.

Shamma: I’m reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids right now, and she mentions that sense of it being far away.

Padgett: Almost no one wanted to live in Brooklyn. It seemed so distant, and so dead.

Shamma: So it was forcing this kind of exodus?

Padgett: Yes, it was a kind of forced exodus. I got a response from the city official saying that this kind of exodus was going to be wonderful because it was going to revive and energize the outer boroughs. I thought, “That’s an interesting idea, let’s just send everybody to Siberia.” The outer boroughs were not Siberia of course; I exaggerated. But it turns out that Williamsburg has been energized, and Greenpoint and some other places. But it took thirty-five years. Hello!

Shamma: It has happened quite slowly.

Padgett: It was no fun for people who were forced to leave Manhattan, or who just gave up and went back to Wichita, or who never came at all. I feel sorry for them, because when I came here it was so much cheaper to live. Of course, you had to put up with a lot. This neighborhood was occasionally not that pleasant to be in: muggings, burglaries, drug addiction, shootings, and just general ratty-ness. That part was not so much fun.

Shamma: But you wonder how that seeps into the poetry, or how it colors it. How does that kind of disconnect between your generation and later generations emerge? When I read what they are calling fourth-generation New York School poetry against second-generation New York School poetry, there’s a real difference. The newer poetry seems a lot more formed.

Padgett: It seems to me that a lot of younger poets are more overtly intellectual. They’re coming from university situations, and they’re smart. But sometimes it’s not working in their favor.

Shamma: What kind of poetry are you reading now?

Padgett: I’m not on any jag right now, but I am going to take part in a group reading for Tim Dlugos, which is happening next month, so I had to decide which poem I was supposed to read. He was a very interesting poet who died some years ago. He was part of this community. So I was reading his work this morning. Every once in awhile I’ll go on a reading jag — in summer especially. A couple of summers ago — four or five ago — I reread all of Andrew Marvell, the English poems, that is.

Shamma: Is that while you were writing How to Be Perfect”?

Padgett: No. I wrote “How to Be Perfect” in 1988.

Shamma: Oh really?

Padgett: The title poem, yes. The book with that title came out much later. But the poem was written in ’88.

Shamma: I love that poem. It’s a lot like O’Hara’s “Lines from a Fortune Cookie.”

Padgett: It was fun to write. So I’ll go on reading jags like that, picking some poet and reading him or her intensely over a period of months. One summer it was George Herbert. I also get books in the mail, especially from younger poets, so I try to at least glance at them to see what’s up. There are friends of mine who won’t stop writing, so I have to read all of their new books, which fortunately are usually pretty good.

Shamma: Do you see your poetry changing?

Padgett: I hope so. My publisher, Coffee House Press, said they wanted to publish my collected poems. So I went back over all my work and thought: What would this book really look like? Yes, the work certainly changes, but I was taken aback by how similar some of the pieces are. I rediscovered a poem that I wrote many years ago that’s amazingly like a poem I wrote two years ago.

Shamma: Consistency of character maybe?

Padgett: Well, I don’t know. I can’t claim to have any character at all. I was really surprised that this poem existed. It was almost like I had predicted what I was going to be writing later.

Shamma: It sounds like something that needed to come out.

Padgett: It wasn’t so much what I was saying — it was the mode. It was a poem in which I was having a conversation with something very big and diffuse. The first one was about having a conversation with the city of Tulsa. The second one was about having a conversation with a cloud. So it was like Frank O’Hara’s poem, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” which may have been the unconscious connection behind my two poems.

Shamma: Yes, and the sun says, “always embrace things, people earth / sky stars, as I do, freely and with / the appropriate sense of space.”

Padgett: Isn’t it beautiful?

Shamma: Yes, that line to me is the connection between all of this kind of poetry.

Padgett: “Guarding it from mess and message” [Berrigan]. I may have misquoted that, but there’s a similarity there — a fine line between being too open and too closed.

Shamma: He really seems to straddle that line. On that line, can I ask you how you thought beatnik poetry might have gotten interwoven into your work?

Padgett: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the first book I ever read that really excited me about poetry. I was about fifteen, and I was astounded by it. For me, it came at the right time.

Shamma: I have to ask you if you’ve seen the recent movie.

Padgett: I have not seen the movie. I would hope to some day. I heard that the actor is a very nice guy.

Shamma: Well, the reason I ask is that they animated the poem.

Padgett: Usually movies about writers don’t work very well. Some of them really stink. But there have been a couple of okay ones. Certainly movies about the Beat Generation have tended to be awful. But Ginsberg was the big inspiration for me. I had just discovered Whitman, but he of course was dead. I couldn’t believe that this guy Ginsberg was alive and writing like that. And then, of course, there was Gregory Corso. That all led quickly to discovering LeRoi Jones, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Frank O’Hara, and others. Early on, in high school, I wrote blatant imitations of free-wheeling beatnik poems; jazz poems too. I’d listen to Miles Davis and write poems inspired by his music. Anyway, the Beats were a big turn-on for me. They opened a door.

Shamma: They may have made it possible to think that just being exciting was enough.

Padgett: They were filled with excitement about the universe, like a mystic or an adolescent. And I thought Corso’s poems were quite funny — witty in a strange way.

Shamma: “Marriage”?

Padgett: “Marriage” came a little later. I was thinking about Gasoline, his first book. But yes, I loved “Marriage.” I thought it was terrific and very funny.

Shamma: And simultaneously tender.

Padgett: Yes, in an odd way. Allen’s diction opened me enough to be receptive to Frank O’Hara, and even to Kenneth Koch a little bit — although that came slightly later — because I had a sense of humor, but I didn’t know that I could use it in poetry. When I was in high school, most of my poems were very serious, Black Mountainesque. I got opened up further, though, when I came to New York and started studying with Kenneth, and reading the great books of the Western world in his class. Seeing him talk about them made me realize that wit was something that was quite wonderful to have in your writing. Not the only thing to have, of course, and I don’t mean jokes or humor. I owed a great debt to Allen, and to Ferlinghetti. In high school I read Pictures of the Gone World and A Coney Island of the Mind, and I was quite inspired by them. I’ve never given Ferlinghetti enough credit, but I’ve always known I owed Allen a lot, not only for his poetry.

Shamma: From what I’ve read, he was a very motivating spirit.

Padgett: I wrote him a letter when I was in high school and said, “I’m starting a little magazine, would you send me some poems?” And he sent me his poem “My Sad Self,” dedicated to Frank O’Hara. He was so nice. I told him I was going to go to Mexico, and he said, “Yes, go to Mexico! Dig the streets! Dig the whores!”

Shamma: Did you dig it?

Padgett: Well, no, I did not dig the whores of Mexico City. I was sixteen, terrified of even the idea of talking to a prostitute! But the general “dig the streets” idea, yes.

Shamma: But you did go to Mexico then.

Padgett: Yes, several times. And he was wonderful when I told him I was coming to New York to go to Columbia. He said, “Call me when you get here.” Virtually the only people I knew in New York were Allen Ginsberg, Joel Oppenheimer, LeRoi Jones, Fielding Dawson, and Paul Blackburn.

Shamma: Not a bad crowd you had!

Padgett: All these people — I was pen pals with them. So I called Allen when I got here. I was up at Columbia and he said, “Come down and visit!” So I got on the subway and came down. I went to East Second Street and knocked on his door, and he was very kind to me. He lent me some books; he gave me advice. He was very nice to me my entire life. His singing was a little bit hard to take, but I never stopped admiring him. I was very aware of what a generous spirit he was, both with his time and with helping people. He lived around the corner from my apartment, so I used to see him at the fruit stand at night. We worked on different things together here and there. We weren’t close and continuous friends, but I knew I could always call on him. We even wrote two poems together, one of which wasn’t too bad. But I really admired him. Do I like all his poems? No. I don’t like all of anybody’s anything, but the good ones are really good. The people who characterize him as more of a media figure — I don’t know about that.

Shamma: They’re just jealous.

Padgett: Absolutely. Anyway, I owe him a lot. Kerouac’s On the Road, too, was a huge turn-on for me, and not just because of the lifestyle it describes. His writing has tremendous energy, and at his best he was a very good stylist — Dr. Sax, “Old Angel Midnight,” and “October in the Railroad Earth” are all wonderful. The poems in his Mexico City Blues: I could “dig” them but I never quite got into them the way other people did. The Dharma Bums: I loved that book. But Kerouac got mad at me because after I printed a poem of his in my little magazine, he sent me more poems. I printed some but rejected others, so he got mad at me, after which I was afraid to meet him.

Shamma: How did you start that magazine?

Padgett: I’d seen LeRoi Jones’s magazine Yugen and thought, “This is not that complicated.” So I went to a printer in Tulsa and found out it wasn’t that expensive, either. Then I and my buddy Dick Gallup (who lived across the street and was one year older than me) along with Joe Brainard (who was our art editor), we just wrote to writers we liked, asking them for work — to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and even e. e. cummings. It was amazing how many replied. We were only sixteen or seventeen years old.

Shamma: Did they know that?

Padgett: Yes, we told them up front — I think it was our only selling point. It hooked them into reading our letters. The other day I was in the library at Harvard, where I saw two of the correspondences I had with cummings. God was I arrogant! I was shocked by my teenage arrogance. Boy oh boy.

Shamma: And you spent the rest of your life being “never so arrogant again.”

Padgett: You could call it chutzpah if you wanted, but I’m not Jewish, so it doesn’t work very well. Let’s say I was bold.

Shamma: Are you working on anything right now, is that why you were looking at the e. e. cummings papers?

Padgett: Ashbery and I were doing an evening on Frank O’Hara at Harvard, so I thought I might as well go see these documents. It was shocking, but it was fun.

Shamma: Well, this has been fun. Thank you.

PhillyTalks #7: Brian Kim Stefans and Fred Wah

Editorial note: Brian Kim Stefans is and the author of seven books of poetry and criticism, including Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (2003), What Is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (2008), and Before Starting Over: Selected Writing and Interviews, 1994–2005. Fred Wah is a poet and critic. In 2011 he was appointed the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada. His books include Faking It: Poets and Hybridity, Critical Writing, 1984–1999 (2000), Pictograms from the Interior of B.C. (1975), Music at the Heart of Thinking, and The False Laws of Narrative: The Poetry of Fred Wah (2009). What follows is a transcript of the discussion portion of Philly Talks 7, which originally took place on November 2, 1998. As with all Philly Talks, a PDF was circulated before the discussion. You can find the PDF here. The program was curated by Louis Cabri, and Aaron Levy acted as recording engineer and producer. Michael Nardone transcribed the program and the original recording is available at PennSound. — Katie L. Price

Fred Wah: Something we mentioned in the talks that came up: Brian said he felt being — at least I keep using the term — “racialized,” and that’s kind of a leveling, [but he mentioned] when he felt, as a young writer, that writing was going to give him that freedom. There was a freedom, a freedom from what? That was, for me, from a much older generation. I felt that same sense of looking for a freedom from the imposition of the major, the dominant, the hegemonist language around me. So, in my poetry, in my writing, I’ve always enjoyed the freedom in poetry to do anything you want, to go into the language and do that. But then, it’s led to an awareness, linguistically, of a kind of minute — almost, as Louis [Cabri] calls it, sublinguistic, in the Peter Inman sense of let’s get under the language — thingness of language. So, there’s a connection, I think, between “sloup” and “William Carlo” theater [the name Stefans’s mother used to refer to the William Carlos Center for the Performing Arts in Rutherford, NJ.] and the oompf and the syllabylization. The particles of language start to break down because we want to be free to do that.

Brian Kim Stefans: One thing that comes to mind the way you’re talking about it … in Roy Miki’s afterword to the collected poems of Roy Kiyooka — well, Roy Kiyooka is a tremendous poet and I think Americans should probably read him — but he talks about Kiyooka not writing in English, but inglish, which obviously is a double for the lower case first-person pronoun. Also inglish not so much being a subset of the larger English, but that language, that terrain that’s obviously more fluid. One thing that Kiyooka talks about is when Miki was young he was put into a concentration camp in Canada, and he talks about (for Kiyooka) the opaque reality of the state, the state moving in on your family and shuffling you off. I think English with a capital E becomes not the tool of the state, but an extension of that state. So, the use of inglish is a way of finding those fusions. This feeds right into another thing, which is Jeff Derksen and the fissures. Obviously it ties right in to this whole idea of totalities. I brought it up only because of the very concrete example of someone like Kiyooka at the age of six being thrown into these camps.

Bob Perelman: There’s a huge difference, though, in what you’ve both just said about language. Fred, your sense of the wholeness of language, the freedom it allows you, and thinking of Olson and breath and the sense of being released into the field of projective verse, and also that piece at the end of your reading, “Music at the Heart of Thinking …” — the last one you read, one to seven — where any little bit, the particles that are in the culture, allows us to intervene and domesticate the homogeneous aggregates and institutions around us. The thing that’s left out of the big imperial grid of this State is not salvation, that’s too strong, but freedom where you can critique it —

Stefans: Dialogic, in direction you mean?

Perelman: Well, what isn’t in the big culture is there, in part, as a recognition and desire of what we use as intervention. But there’s another side of it where … this is I guess the sloup-loose thing I keep coming up with, where in both your writings there’s a place where language and form aren’t just automatically recuperable into a kind of plenitude of fullness, but it’s just the site of real struggle. You know, Sloup probably makes a joke out of it, but it’s also like a wound.

Wah: Yes, that’s what I try to get at: the embarrassment. To immediately band-aid that wound, to immediately put something over that wound, is learning how to fake it — turning it into a self putdown, turning it into something that’s negotiable in a social context. But you’re right, the wound is there. It keeps getting addressed, but not in that sense of, as Brian says in our talk, whining, like “I’ve got a wound,” but also, there’s an agency in that act. That sense of … once again coming back to the notion of freedom, there’s a certain freedom, if you like, for me to come back to Sloup and narrate that story, and resituate it in my own biotext, if you like, and try to unpack it, work through that, which he didn’t have, which is okay historically. That’s how we operate historically. But it’s still freedom. There’s still a sense, at least for myself … and I was interested to hear Brian say this in our talk: that we both, despite our obvious generational difference, felt this immense freedom, or look for this freedom in poetry to move into language. It’s the only place in our, perhaps, not necessarily problematic or troubled linguistic history, but it’s the only place that we can move into and feel that freedom.

Stefans: I wanted to comment on just one thing that he said about the Sloup. Was it your grandfather’s story?

Wah: No, my father’s. 

Stefans: Your father’s story. I thought it was interesting how it opened the fourth wall into some kind of image of Chinese guerrilla warfare. This is the swamp water with which we make soup —

Speaker: Yes, the passive aggressive way of making them drink that stuff.

Stefans: Yeah, I remember when I worked with my mother, or even when she worked in the restaurant, it was a clear divide: we had to create Korean dishes for the non-Koreans. There was this whole thing, and we weren’t disparaging them or anything, but there were all these manipulations we had to do back there. You couldn’t even call it cultural negotiation because the other side didn’t know it was happening. So they obviously weren’t negotiating. I wouldn’t necessarily call it warfare, but I think the way your father saved face was interesting. And I think that can happen on a literary level in a weird way. To go back to John Yau, I think he’s kind of an interesting character in the sense of the way he uses language. You know, Marjorie Perloff considers him a bitter man.

Wah: Really? 

Stefans: Yeah, she reads the “Ghengis Khan” poems as being alienated, although I think there is a lot of negotiation there that relies on the one hand [on] the pleasure of the text, this whole writing, this surrealist writing or language writing, whatever, that relies on a certain kind of concrete synesthetic appreciation of a word, but on the other hand, there’s that element of the word the way John uses it that retracts as well. It says: I don’t want to have this word entirely. It’s not going to be your word. Do you know what I mean? 

Perelman: No, say it again. Say it in a different way.

Stefans: Well, it will be hard because there are lots of different types of writing. I’m probably thinking of something very specific, like the Genghis Khan sequence or something like that, where he is using particular puns —

Perelman: Do you think of this as revealing for that restaurant scene? I’m going to use your terminology: here’s a Korean dish that I’m preparing, so to speak, and I’m showing it to you. But, in fact, I’m not going to give it to you. You can’t have it because you’re not Korean. Is that what you are saying? That you can’t have this word?

Stefans: No, because I don’t think John Yau is necessarily saying “I’m Chinese and you’re not.”

Perelman: That’s what I thought I heard you saying.

Stefans: No, it’s more like if you could imagine John preparing some Chinese dish, but not using the ingredients that a real Chinese person would use to make that dish, and then serving it to someone who wouldn’t know the difference. No, no, no, maybe that’s not it. It has something to do with artifice or a feigned —


Speaker: Faking it!

Stefans: It has something to do with giving someone certain kinds of sensations, but not letting them in on the context that maybe he himself has devolved.

Speaker: Brian, I wanted to ask you something. What you do with your poems? Thinking of the Genghis Khan poems, I think there’s a strategy that’s become more common among racial, fringe writers, in that we have a stigma with our usage of the language. No matter what kind of English we use, you can expect us to use broken English. It’s used as a kind of weapon now. Myung Mi Kim is an example. Since people expect us to use broken English, we’re going to use it very skillfully. 

Stefans: I think you’re absolutely right.

Speaker: Not as an ignorant. It’s not a new strategy. It’s been around a while, with black writers, et cetera.

Stefans: Absolutely.

Wah: I agree. It’s there. It happens and goes on and on in a variety of ways.

Speaker: There’s a tremendous freedom in that.

Wah: Yes, there is. Actually, Mary Ellen Pratt talks about that very intelligently in … oh, I forget the essay, but it’s been looked at and brought up.

Speaker: It’s not a [indecipherable] game playing. There are all kinds of undertones and undercurrents.

Wah: And I also think that what’s interesting then is to start looking at the writing of writers who consider it a freedom to then read closely how they’re negotiating that freedom. It ends up being a very ambivalent position for a lot of writers, because that freedom can be the freedom to move into, if you like, mainstream, dominant, conventional structures because, to say, I can do that, or freedom to be in opposition and say, no, I don’t want to do that, I want to be against the dominant.

Stefans: Is that a freedom? A freedom to move into the mainstream? That’s a complex thing, because certainly when I first started writing poetry, my idea was that I’m just going to be the fucking best poet in the world, you know. I was reading my Pound, I was going to study my French, whatever, thinking that there was some central tradition, and I felt my goal was to be there in the central tradition. But at the same time rejecting the idea of writing for, well, I could name a handful of magazines, but do you see that as a freedom? I mean it is a freedom, from a different perspective, from further, distant perspective, do you see that as a freedom? Like the way you commented on Evelyn Lau, for instance.

Wah: Well, I think that, for example, just recently in English language writing, at least that I’m aware of, that the whole notion of choice, which is having the freedom to choose, is really very recent. It has a lot to do with choosing where you want to go within, perhaps, what’s given as literary convention, inherited literary structures, or social structures. For you to say in our talks here, “When I was starting as a young poet, I really enjoyed the freedom to be able to move,” I thought, that notion of freedom, that wasn’t even a word in my sense of growing up, or in my sense of starting to write. It started as an afterthought. I think for a lot of writers in “your generation” – I don’t want to make this a Ron Silliman/Jeff Derksen generational thing – but I did talk about Evelyn Lau and younger writers as yourself that I think choice is fairly central to how these writers act as writers, what they choose, how they choose to move as poets. What’s totally fascinating, I’m sure to Brian as well, in Asian American, and I’ll say “Asian American” to exclude the Canadian for the moment, but in Asian American writing, if you look at Walter Lew’s Premonitions, the range of writing in such an anthology is, I think, pretty stunning, structurally, stylistically, content-wise. The various attentions that are coming up [are] just astounding. That could not have happened thirty years ago. That would not have been possible thirty years ago, that range of attention.

Stefans: One thing that I would add to this idea of choice, I do think there is this particular quality to the Asian American circuit, or just being Asian American and perhaps hearing of the circuit, or just being an isolated Asian American poet, is that when you look in an anthology like Premonitions, you do see a wide range of writers. Some of them strike you as being terribly conventional, and some of them strike you as totally outlandish, but this issue of choice, I tend to read more of it into an anthology like Premonitions, even in mainstream poets who I might not be particularly interested in, I do read choice there. Whereas if I were to look at one of these mainstream magazines that I’m not going to name, I tend not to read choice or I tend to read less choice. In coming to New York from Bard College, where I wasn’t really dealing with issues of race or anything, and getting involved with Walter and reading all these poets, all of whom are reading each other, carefully actually — like Myung Mi Kim is reading Cathy Song, but in a similar instance I wouldn’t say that Susan Howe is reading Sharon Olds — but in a way there’s a kind of fluidity in the Asian American, and I don’t want to say Canadian because I can’t comment that much on Canadian poetry, but I think it points to a kind of way to remap or un-map the literary landscape that we kind of understand. And, of course, Asian American literature being traditionally a marginalized literature is going to be in that kind of camp where experimental literatures will reside, but, interestingly enough, you have this fluidity, you have an apparatus to read choice in Asian American, even mainstream, writing. And African American writing …

Wah: But we no longer have to talk about this, do we? Isn’t this over?

Stefans: Well, I do, and there are many reasons I bring this up. Do you mean the divide between so-called experimental writing? Or to go to the guy that sat in this chair, when you read Ron Silliman on MFA-workshop poetry, he calls it the McPoem. He’s basically precluding the idea that these poets actually have souls. I know you’re going to raise objections. My tendency is to think that you can’t really do that in Asian American literature. I do want to hear what you have to say, but does this make any sense? 

Perelman: I don’t want to perpetuate Ron’s remarks about nothing new from the younger generation. 

Stefans: No, no, I’m talking about the McPoem thing, which is different.

Perelman: Well, it just strikes me that maybe I’m wrong, sociologically or factually, but it seems that the Asian American writing or poetry community would still be small enough, and feel the need to emerge and be emergent, that you sort of can’t afford to completely separate from camps, and so you do read each other. Whereas it makes perfect sense when you say Sharon Olds — I don’t know this, but can certainly imagine it — not reading Carla Harryman or Susan Howe. It’s a much bigger scene, and that’s when there’s a sense of psychic triage or something, like, we can’t be those mainstream poets over there or else the poets over here —

Stefans: I think you’re absolutely right, I mean the vestiges of community poetry interests, you get more of that even in Asian American poets who do not feel invested in the community.

In coming to New York, I don’t particularly care for the APA writer’s workshop, but I am reading poetry from a total peripheral or outer orbit. But those are both recent phenomenon, the idea of an avant-garde that’s not being read by the mainstream at all or completely ignored, or mainstream as not being upset by the avant-garde. That’s a recent phenomenon, as is what I’m suggesting with Premonitions. It’s also a recent phenomenon, because earlier in Asian American literature, figures like John Yau or Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, not Bersenbrugge, but John Yau and Theresa Chow were very much excluded from dominant social-realist paradigms. But they weren’t artistic paradigms that were the problem. They were like scientific readings of literature. They weren’t the actual artists engaging in this kind of thing. So, I think it’s actually quite a recent phenomenon in Asian American literature.

Wah: But maybe, as you’re talking, if I could come in as a distant observer of Asian American writing, because Brian mentioned the Asian American writer’s workshop in New York, which we’re probably both on their list — I don’t know how many people are on their list, almost daily you get four or five events happening — you start to realize all of a sudden, and I think it’s quite astounding, although I don’t follow, because I’m not in New York and it’s mostly centered in New York, that as you say this is a large place you live in and there are a number of constituencies doing their thing. My sense right now is that the Asian American writer’s workshop is proceeding on its own, exclusive of any, if you like, whiteness or any other thing. It’s proceeding — on some proposition usually informed, unfortunately, by previous propositions of community — on its own. And I’m sure the Mestiza in south California is doing the same thing, the Cuban thing in Florida must be doing the same thing. There are all these different constituencies going off on their own, and this notion — that bothers you, you said — of this larger thing is, I think, a kind of questionable largeness. It’s so large that it’s dispersed.

Perelman: It’s not a thing anymore.

Wah: Yeah, it’s not. In fact, it’s very dispersed, and as a Canadian I’m starting to feel this too, that it’s hard to relate, in a sense, across aesthetic or poetic lines exclusively. I don’t know, it’s hard to determine where you are. There’s so much crossing and mixing, and one can move in and out of and not feel guilty about trespassing across certain borders.

Stefans: Fred, let me just mention this, there’s quite an interesting essay by Jeff Derksen, the poet who has been mentioned quite often tonight. And Fred, you were involved with the TISH school or group of poets in Vancouver, which would have been in the seventies?

Wah: No, 1959 to 1963.

Stefans: Yeah, that’s what I said. [Laughter.] And you weren’t read as a racialized writer —

Wah: I didn’t know I was a racialized writer.

Stefans: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Can you talk about that? Because I’m very interested in fluidity, social fluidity, not with the total annihilation of subjectivities, individual subjectivities, and that’s why I’m always looking at Canada and England and Brazil to find ways read American poetry without creating these narrow lines. And Asian American literature as well. In terms of Canadian literature, we never had a Fred Wah in American literature.

Wah: Oh, yes you did.

Stefans: Who was that?

Wah: It was Fred Wah.


Stefans: I mean in the United States. 

Wah: I know, literally. Fred Wah was in the United States. Fred Wah was in the United States from 1963 to 1967, and participated in a poetry community in Buffalo, a precursor to the present poetics program. And Paul Carroll seriously considered Fred Wah as a contributor to the American poetry anthology that he was editing out of the University of Chicago, but couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the citizenship, or I didn’t have the papers, et cetera. There were no Chinese, there were no Asian, and there were hardly any black poets present in 1964 in the so-called avant-garde of American poetry. It just wasn’t possible. Amiri Baraka was unusual. Who was there? There were no Asians. Asianicity wasn’t even a part of it. There were no Asians. There was nothing from Asia.

Stefans: Are you talking about in the States? 

Wah: I’m talking about in the world.

Stefans: What about Kiyooka? Where was Roy Kiyooka then? 

Wah: He was living in Canada, but he wasn’t considered a serious poet. He was a painter.

Perelman: So, it’s there, but that’s not in the States.

Wah: I mean, that ground wasn’t there. All I’m trying to say is that the ground, the ground has shifted totally into something else. I don’t know what interests we have historically —

Perelman: Somebody like Melvin Tolson, who was a fantastic poet, but completely marginalized. At least after he got very experimental, like in Harlem Gallery. It came out sort of right at the same time as Black Arts. It’s still not in print.

Stefans: He was writing in Texas. He moved to Texas for a good while. That’s where he did his weirder stuff. He did the whole Harlem Gallery, which was more or less narrative.

Perelman: He did Harlem Gallery, or the Gallery of Harlem Portraits, which is a little more Spoon River-y but Harlem, but then there’s something called Harlem Gallery, which is this modernist masterpiece that out-Eliots Eliot without all the problems of Eliot. It’s a very specific, isolated thing. 

Wah: My view from the distance is, to go back to that, right now in 1998, being Canadian, being up in Canada now after thirty years being away from the States …

Stefans: Welcome back. 

Wah: … and looking at what’s there, looking at what I’m interested in, in terms of poetics, I still find it interesting that there’s an absence of Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt, Nate Mackey, from certain configurations of, let’s say, formerly innovative American poetry.


Perelman: You mean, they don’t exist in Canada? They’re not read?

Wah: No, I’m saying they’re not represented in the United States. In publications in the United States, they’re not that represented in the collective of anthologies, magazines, and so forth. There seems to be, to me, from a distance, there still seems to be a fairly, if you like, segregated culture. This is from a distance. Of course, I still experience that in Canada, the sense of segregation culturally. See, I wasn’t always an Asian writer, to go back to Brian’s point. In 1960, there wasn’t the possibility of being an Asian writer. There was no such thing as an Asian Canadian poet. All I could be was a Canadian poet. And to be a Canadian poet you had to do certain things, and you had to go through certain hoops. There was no address to race, at least in Canada. So, it didn’t even come up. And I don’t think it came up even in the States until the seventies. It would be interesting to track that, but I don’t think it’s been that available to us. And now, I’m saying, in 1998, when I say “Haven’t we all been through this?” it’s in the sense that we do have other things to talk about. It’s an unsettled, and perhaps unsettling — but not that unsettling because we’re both very privileged people, culturally and socially. We’re not just racialized people, we’re writers. We do write poetry.

Stefans: It’s interesting where all of that stops and starts. It’s good to go through a certain quick, thumbnail sketch of this. Actually, when I mentioned freedom in writing, if we could go back to this, this whole idea of freedom, I was reading Pound in high school. I wasn’t necessarily implying that with Pound made me feel that I could just type one hundred pages of poetry. It’s quite the opposite. Pound made you feel like you could write three words of poetry without having to hear the Greek, or everything. And then I go through college without necessarily thinking of myself as a racialized writer, although I’m sure it’s all there underneath. But, I don’t know, would you like to move this to, to what?

Wah: To totally change it. Why don’t we talk about a word that comes up in our discussion that I’m interested in, and that’s process procedure. Brian says in his discussion at a certain point, to remind you or if you haven’t read it, Brian is responding to a note of mine, and my sense of the musical body and Olson’s propioception, which I came out of and is in my roots in poetry, and “the ‘musical body’ finds, through language, a whole series of platforms or levels to work on that are way beyond New American poetics, but also liberated” — there’s that freedom again — “in a sense, from the procedural underlining of much language-centered poetries.” I was really curious of that, that “procedural underlining of much language-centered poetries,” because I haven’t called myself this, but certain critics have labelled, if you like, the kind of poetics, the kind of talk-based poetics that I was brought up on, was this notion of process. They call that Black Mountain stuff that I was doing in the sixties process poetics. Now I’m not quite sure I understand what they mean, or what you mean by procedural. So, I thought that might be kind of useful to get into: process procedural.

Stefans: A lot of the work I’m doing work that involves computer programs, systems, and elegant solutions to textual problems, that are what I consider processes: editing processes, compositional processes that are not bodily. And actually, you didn’t quote that quick definition of process, I tend to divorce it from the caprices of the bodily organism in the process of writing. Whereas your idea of process, and what people say about you and process, is centered exactly around that, which is like the pro ...  

Wah: Propioceptive?

Stefans: Proprioceptive creature composing a poem. I’m like the cyborgian creature, maybe attached to the computer through the wrist, but I’m not necessarily composing a poem. That’s what I meant, and when I link it to Language poets, I’m thinking of the Fibonacci sequence, Andrew’s hundred poems of three hundred words each, four words in a line. And also certain philosophical underlinings and social critical underlinings for a certain poetic production that I wouldn’t say predetermines a poem, but provides maps towards a poem’s creation that certainly I think one of the whole ideas of projective verse was that the poem was a field that you walk out into. The whole Creeley, as I said to my friend John, you’re kind of creating the poem as you navigate the language and the moment. And then, what I was saying about your poem was that your poetry seemed to be informed by the possibility of my idea of process. You know, I just realize[d] that poem, “Nose Hill 1,” is three words per line. That was obviously something you sat down to do?

Wah: Intentionally, you mean?

Stefans: Yeah.

Wah: I better look and see and make sure. I think so.

Stefans: The only swerve is this “w/ as ex hill” —

Perelman: Very crudely, the sort of binary is like between procedural stuff prior to Cage versus process a la Pollock, where the line opened-up self generates the intelligence and that not foreseen artistic decision making, as opposed to a Cagean, let’s not have an ego inform this, or body inform the poem, and let the world speak through whatever system you’ve fallen through to have a kind of more pure information of the world speaking, rather than the heroic self speaking. 

Stefans: Now that we’ve brought up, well, I don’t know if we want to go back to this, but the whole idea of a racialized language, but this Cagean poetics actually I think is quite interesting in terms of our sense of a racialized language because this idea that you can use these different kinds of language, this interstitial language. I think J. Ismail is a key player in this. She’s a wonderful Canadian poet I don’t anything about, but she’s kind of Joycean in a way. I mean, I’ve read bits and pieces of her, but she’s quite elusive. A Cagean poetics gives you a way to recuperate forms of language. I go back to that “mixie-grill” and it’s kind of like a slur. If I was walking down the street and somebody said “mixie-grill” to me, it’s a slur, right? But I have to find a way to use that language. It’s a quite rich language anyway. Oddly enough, a Cagean poetics gives you a way to at least take the language back and shape it the way you want.

Perelman: You know, mixie-grill, this is a terrible, terrible [indecipherable] but it never occurs in Cage.

Stefans: What do you mean?

Perelman: Mixie-grill, something like that, that comes out of a specific scene of social conflict.

Stefans: Well, why is it social conflict? He’s taking the language of his life, the poetry of his life or whatever, his trip to the park with Merce Cunningham, whatever happens to come up in life, and what I’m saying is that by denying his self, or denying the context of the self, I’m able to use the language that before, because of its context and because of its pointedness, I’d have to deny. I could actually take it back. I’m not saying that I just let it spill out in the same way that Cage might, but at least I have it there. You know, you spend most of your life as an Asian American hoping that nobody says anything to you. At least, for me. I’m not going to speak for everybody, but I was raised in an Irish, Polish, Italian, Roman Catholic suburb. I was the only Korean kid, and everybody used to shout all kinds of shit at me. You know, I got a lot of language. What am I going to do with that language? What am I going to do with those moments? I block them out or I pretend I’m not there. The interesting thing, like I said, with a Cagean poetics is that it allows you to, I don’t want to get psychological, but to use those moments in a more distanced way, I guess. And then to put your own spin on them. Does that make any sense?

Perelman: It make sense. It’s just that Cage himself doesn’t do that.

Stefans: Well, Cage himself, yeah.

Perelman: But yeah, okay, but also a Cagean —

Wah: He puts it in his recipe. He put that language in his recipe, right? In his recipes for food.

Perelman: They’re pretty elegant those recipes.

Wah: I know, but the language that gets used in them is at least particular to this food that he’s trying to serve. That kind of particularity, is that what you’re talking of?

Perelman: It’s the tone of threat in what you’re saying, mixie-grill, you know, that language can come at you.

Wah: Oh, I see. It’s that Cage wouldn’t have anything to do with threats.

Perelman: Right.

Wah: There wouldn’t be any threat. That’s what I’m saying.

Perelman: I think that’s what I’m saying. It’s more like plenitude: writing through, I guess I’m mixing Cage and Mac Low, but writing through Joyce, writing through, taking this thing, seeing what the computer does. You know, your computer program can spit out all kinds of stuff, but what if in a computer vocabulary, it was all like “nigger,” “bitch,” “I’ll kill you,” et cetera. Then, that’s a whole different thing.

Stefans: Absolutely. I’m not saying it’s pure Cage, and I think one of the main figures here is Bruce Andrews. Bruce Andrews uses a Cagean technique on the language of his life, whether it’s the social essays that he’s reading, or the stuff he sees on the streets. And in many ways, he runs it through a Cagean mill. He’s a rapid editor. He obviously puts an edge on it, but Bruce — Bruce Andrews, I call him Bruce because I know him — obviously benefited from Cage, and Mac Low too, but this way of taking language, the material of language, and of using it, as I say, process-urally to kind of, to first of all, deny the self. Clearly there is a self in Bruce Andrews, but at least the project is to create an image of the self as body, which he is trying to distort. I’m getting lost, but you see the leap from Cage to Andrews, right? Andrews has a very different psychology from Cage, obviously, but I think the basic fundamental procedure is still there. And that’s what I’m saying: I could recuperate language through that, the slur.

Speaker: Or examining your own race without it being necessarily your own, or something that you can see, that’s out there, the language of it.

Stefans: Absolutely.

Speaker: It’s a new view to look at it from outside.

Stefans: Yes, the idea of a social discourse, not so much a discourse on race that’s carried out in school, but a racialized or racially informed language, or a racist language I guess is what it comes down to. To actually look at the racist language and say “Look, what wonderful words.” It’s like a Cagean thing. I couldn’t do that if I were ten years old, I couldn’t say look at this racist language, which I can make poetry out of.

Speaker: Or you could talk about your suffering, or the pain. This makes you want to get away from that. It might trouble your ability to look at it somewhat objectively.

Perelman: Do you really say “this is a wonderful word” though?

Stefans: No, I don’t say that. I’m joking. 

Perelman: But it’s a really far-reaching political vista about that joke. It’s a really complicated joke, and, I think, kind of an impossible joke. 

Stefans: Well, to put it this way, when I was a kid, when I was in high school, I could say I was raised in a white suburb, and I go to Jersey City and all of a sudden I’m in school with students who are Chinese, Koreans, Philipinos, blacks. It’s very mixed. And I had this one Philipino friend of mine, and he had a little notebook, and it had the word “bastard” here [pointing]. He was Philipino and a good friend of mine, and he had the words “chinky bastard,” and then he would flip it up, and it would say “flip bastard.” And then he would flip it up again, and it would have all of these various things. Actually, it was never black, because Asian kids don’t joke about black culture.

Perelman: That’s the same thing I’m saying about the joke. 

Stefans: Yeah, when I say look at this wonderful language, I’m saying, I mean, obviously the language I heard, well, actually I can’t say this because interestingly enough I feel like black slurs are worse than Asian slurs because I found a way to kind of, I don’t want to say internalize racism, but I found a way to stomach it.

Perelman: Deflect it?

Stefans: Or laugh it off. Like I’m saying with the flip book, flip bastard, Chinese bastard. But I can’t do that with black slurs. There is a way that that hits me in a weird way. Not that it’s ever directed at me, but for some reason it strikes something that is just much more horrendous for some reason. Not for some reason, but for many reasons. Anyway, when I say look at that racist language, I was basically talking about the range of languages that were directed at me, not the entire vocabulary of racist slurs. I’m just talking about the stuff I used to hear that would freak me out in a bowling alley, and now I’m twenty-nine and I can use it for poetry. And if I could find it funny, then I think it’s possible at least that someone else can. It’s not a great or a grand humor.

Speaker: But is that humor that depends on your subject position?

Stefans: To find that humor? 

Speaker: To hear it, and to find the humor in it. 

Stefans: I would have to guess that it would be a particular social type that would find that humorous, and most likely that social would probably be a racialized minority. I’m sure that there are still non-racialized people, or white people, that could find it funny, but it would be quite hard, you know.

Speaker: Or it would mean something really different.

Stefans: Yes, it would mean something very different. I’d say you’re a weird fucking person if you think that’s funny.

Speaker: I want to ask a question to Fred Wah, and it’s about narrative. I’m interested in that we started to talk about life narratives, and you used the word “biotext.” And you wrote a novel, and it sounds like it is based on your life, the life of your father, and I’m curious if you could talk at all about freedom in relation to writing that narrative, your freedom, the freedom you had to look back on your story. I don’t know how that relates to language, and I’m not sure how to put all of this together.

Wah: No, I hear you. It’s very relative. It’s not a novel because the novel represents to me a tyranny of form that I’ve never been able to move through, not that I want to move through it, but it’s a tyranny I want to avoid. It’s prose, however. I was encouraged by a very good friend of mine to get into the prose as a poet — as a writer, to explore prose, and I appreciated that. I enjoyed writing it for that reason, but it strikes me more as prose, the sentence. Certain aspects of narrative that require character, that require voice, that require linking and a kind of resolution. So, I chose the anecdote as a form that I wanted to recuperate in a prose poem way. That’s why it’s not a novel. It always uses cadence. I mean, I didn’t read much of it, but mixie-grill, that’s not narrative. That’s a strategy in poetry, to land somewhere and I do that in most of the text. So, narrative is interrupted by a kind of reminder of other things. In this particular book, it’s a reminder of certain kinds of racialized reminders of language, as well as poetic, or generally poetic reminders. But narrative has been a problem. It’s a problem.

Stefans: Talking with Fred earlier about this book, which I was reading on the bus ride from New York, I find it a very beautiful book. Fred had sent me a group of his books, and it’s the one I didn’t want to read because it was narrative. I mean, I just didn’t want to read stories. It turned out to be quite Joycean. It doesn’t sound like Joyce, but, like you say, it hangs around the anecdote, and there are certain moments when the language becomes quite, not fluid, but it opens up, but you’re still in this narrative context. Then the carryover from each additional piece is quite comforting in the way that narrative is comforting, but it never becomes closed. It never becomes, “I’m stuck in this story.”

Do you have a question, Jena? 

Jena Osman: I have a comment more about what you were saying about Cagean poetics. I understand what you are saying with that, but I think that what you are talking about is more a Mac Lowian poetics. You can say that Mac Low is in the tradition of Cage, but what Mac Low is using as a material is very different than what Cage was using. He would use culturally-loaded material, like newspaper articles about the Vietnam War.

Stefans: Well, that’s interesting, because Bob was saying the exact opposite, that he wasn’t using stuff that was so much culturally-loaded. He was saying mixie-grill would never be in Cage.

Osman: That’s why I’m saying it’s Mac Low who’s using the culturally-loaded material.

Stefans: Oh, okay, Mac Low.

Osman: Yes, Mac Low does, and Cage really seemed to avoid that. I think his Writing through the Cantos was really an example of that. That was the one mesostic piece of his that he actually printed in two different ways. In the second way, he really condensed it the second time that it was printed, and he had said that felt very uncomfortable about that piece. And my theory is that it’s because he couldn’t get away from the alogically-charged language, and that cultural signification is inherent in that piece. Whereas, with Mac Low, you really have a place where identity can manifest itself.

Louis Cabri: But you could also tie back Cage to a liberal platform, his version of anarchism, you can argue, and I guess I would, that it’s a kind of liberalism. Whereas with Mac Low, it’s a different brand of politics.

Stefans: Did I get to your question that you had asked? Was that addressed adequately? Or too offhandedly?

Speaker: No, it’s fine.

Stefans: I’m sorry. I’ve had like eighteen glasses of wine, so.

Cabri: Anyway, thanks very much.

The surprise of love and writing

An interview with Caroline Bergvall by Rozalie Hirs

Caroline Bergvall and Rozalie Hirs.

This interview with Caroline Bergvall took place at our first meeting on 2 December 2010, Birkbeck College, Gordon Square, London. We low-fi recorded the interview in Audacity through the inbuilt microphones on a Mac. I edited the sound files in Protools (Amsterdam, March and November 2011).

1 [MP3]

The surprise of love is its most rigorous demand. Love as practice, writing, reading as practice, and the demands of that. To accept love, reading, writing, and what it demands of you. Transformative areas as practice. Changing the way you think about yourself, your body, language, culture. Where the work or a question raised by the work or maker has taken the work and the maker. Daring and courage. An existential dimension of the work.

2 [MP3], 3 [MP3], 4

Solid rock of text. Mass. Excepting the failure of habits, familiarities. Memory failures. Coming to recognize acquired values. In situ. First: erotic escalation at the center, telephone numbers at the side. Then: sexual experience as mass, dark matter. Unreadable signs. Graphic language. Graphic signs, rhythm, becoming visual structuring. Purely visual, an unreadable mass in itself. How sounds of the typewriter/computer keyboard turn into accidental sign structures, paragraphs. Visual stuttering, hesitations.


The way female sexuality is viewed in our culture. Cindy Sherman. Louise Bourgeois. Disintegration. The way women have handled violent sexuality. Survival modes, modes of resistance, copying strategies, tactics. Games. Surrealism. “Dolly” as participant, commentator. A crude character. Rawness. Throwaway, angry, disrespectful. No attempt at reflection. Hybrid beings, contemporary sexual hybrid identities. Imposed identities. Compounding. Misogyny. Disgust. Morbidity, dwelling in morbid bodily behaviors.

6 [MP3]

Examining the map. Connections between internal and external transport. Internal and external realities. Setting up a process with a strict set of rules, an experience. Shaping experience. How is experience formed? Performative premise of nonverbal actions. Creating a separate preparation of writing through sound, physical movement, structures. The inside and outside of experience. Spaces that are different from literary spaces. Experiences that cannot be expressed verbally.

7 [MP3]

Failure. Collapsing of a performance or a collaboration. Figures, figures of speech, reflecting on itself. Interest in the notion of failure. Collaborations failing on a human level, on an artistic level. Feedback loops, reflection, fractal structure. After failure, you find yourself somewhere else, unexpected.

8 [MP3]

Good and bad collaborations. Chance elements running through a collaboration. Cage and Cunningham as an example. (Not) knowing your collaborative partner.

9 [MP3]

Found objects. On the street, the bus. Take a book with you, take a line. Quoting as a practice. Intentionality. Displacement. Performative aspect of reading, finding.

10 [MP3]

Starting points: the comparative, the plus or the minus, simplistic identifiers, bestiary. Comparative ways of behaving, of judging, defining. Handling boundaries. The girl, not yet assimilated into the gendering of a woman. Chart of comparisons, setting up repetitions. Removing the human from the bestiary, removing the girl.

11 [MP3]

(Varied) repetition. The same and not the same. Metonymic processes. Translation — its cultural demands. The ideological aspects of a translation. What is the transposition of a text into another language? Methods for examining cultural traffic, cultural exchange. Set of variations. What happens if one changes a node? Questioning the ideology of translation. Being inside the respective epoque of a translation. Connection with ideology or cultural practice. Variation.

Amsterdam, 30 January 2012

'Tenzone' interviews John Wieners

John Wieners at the Odessa Restaurant, New York City, November 1993 (photo by Allen Ginsberg).

I first discovered the poetry of John Wieners, seminal Boston poet and peripheral member of the Beat generation, during my undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts. As I continued my relationship with his poetry, the idea further cemented in my mind of the solitary voice, becoming clear to me that the work Wieners has amounted through associations, with Charles Olson and the Black Mountain school, with Ezra Pound in Spoleto, Ginsberg in New York and among friends in Beacon Hill, is of significant and lasting artistic achievement. Throughout his career, Wieners’s writings have been overshadowed by the more mainstream success of his old friends, creating for us, the students of the Beats, a kind of “diamond in the rough” presence on the fringe of contemporary American Literature.

We met on Joy Street on Beacon Hill, January 1993, at the apartment of Jack Powers, a mutual friend and organizer of the Boston Stone Soup Poets Group, and took our places in the front reading room with a surplus of cigarettes, wine, notepads, and questions. We found Mr. Wieners to be comfortable, unrestrained, dressed simply in a sweatshirt, casual slacks, worn-down shoes, steadfast in mind and manner.

Steve Prygoda:
Did you grow up in Boston?

John Wieners: I went to school in the South End, Boston College High, right off of the City Hospital.

Prygoda: Is it still in the same place?

Wieners: Well, no. It has moved to Dorchester. I went to Boston College in the fifties before I moved into the city as a grown-up. I was worked over a couple of times while I was still at school, coming down Commonwealth Avenue, so I’m not crazy about the place (BC).

Prygoda: What made you want to become a writer?

Wieners: Immortality, in the sense of living after one’s own time has run out. The paintings will endure; they’ve lasted for, oh, ten centuries. They bring the artist back to life; they hold the proper names of Asian into appearance.

Prygoda: It was at Black Mountain where you first began to develop your own voice and place within American poetry. Who was with you there?

Wieners: The most friendly sort that came out of that experience was Jerry Vanderwile. Do you know the name? He has since slipped from the world’s esteem. He was my sort of person.

Prygoda: How long were you associated with Charles Olson?

Wieners: For about fifteen years?

Prygoda: Did you stay with him while he lived in Gloucester?

Wieners: For suppers, breakfasts, overnight.

Prygoda: Was he doing his Maximus series then?

Wieners: Yes, he had many disciples.

Prygoda: Do you think that is harmful, the “cult of personality”?

Wieners: It is if the person has died, and become ill … that they have been hypnotized through a Danish theologian, that he wasn’t … whose work I am not too keen upon, I don’t know that he is actually aware that he wrote that book, that one anyways.

Prygoda: Do you think Olson was an important presence on the US poetry scene?

Wieners: Yes, I think he swayed thousands, the masses, to become attuned to themselves — sight, hearing, sound, lips, tongues, sort of thing. It comes down to the child, or elementary lessons.

John Wieners’s career as a poet began on the West Coast; a little-known 1957 publishing credit finds two of his early poems in the Chicago Review, an issue focused on the eclectic and vital “San Francisco Scene” including work by Kerouac, Ginsberg, McClure, and Ferlinghetti. A year later Wieners’s first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems was published — lean, personal modern verse bristling with nervous spontaneous energy and Keatsian eloquence. The young poet’s life was off and running.

Do you think the Beats, as they are called, were that big an influence on American writing?

Wieners: Not as big as ten centuries of classical painting. (Anyways) It was just a phrase, a title. I think we got it from the Russians … when they launched the satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s. I think that’s what really popularized the name Beatnik and then shortened by the press and others to just Beat.

Prygoda: When did you first meet Allen Ginsberg?

Wieners: Was it Finnegan’s Wake? A play very well done at the YMHA Auditorium. It was that evening, after the performance, we shared a taxicab over to one of the bars. I got to know him for a nightcap, to a hotel. I can’t remember where we stayed; the director had a car waiting, and he (Allen) made his leave.

Prygoda: If you were to contrast the differences in style between Ginsberg an Olson, in weaknesses and strengths …

Wieners: They were innovators, with style, with character. And Allen, his work will have relevance today and tomorrow.

Prygoda: And Ezra Pound …

Wieners: Ezra Pound was quite a foreboding figure. I met him during the same week we went to a play by Pinter, in Italy. He was in town for the action, to see the Swedish Ambassador, the Czechoslovak, the Russian. These were the men who intrigued him, as melodramatic figures. His world needs melodrama.

Prygoda: Why did you say he was foreboding?

Wieners: He was so small, I think, in his attitude toward reality, as if he had been blanched to an exceeded condition of intelligence. As I have thought of him frequently afterwards, shown in his makeup, do you believe poets should wear makeup? Well, I do worship him.

Wieners found little to do with the mighty forces of literary academia, and chose a life away from the scholarly advancement of his peers. Black Sparrow salvaged over thirty years of John Wieners’s poetry from the jaws of obscurity and published Selected Poems 1958–1984 in 1986. The poet settled into the cobblestones of Beacon Hill, content to live out the remaining years as a Boston poet, contributing sparingly to local literary causes while writing occasional verse, contemporania, thumbnail sketches of the oddities of life set to words, and a play is also currently in the works.

Last year you had a piece published in The Paris Review; am I correct? I’ve had a bit of trouble finding it …

Wieners: A few squibs about … I’m glad they take my stuff out of circulation. They realize that it is not to be discerned. You can’t look in on one’s neighbors.

Prygoda: Were you aware that The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958) would create the amount of impact they did?

Wieners: [Long pause.] I don’t think they have. I certainly don’t want them to.

Prygoda: Why?

Wieners: Well, I used to take the trolley into Boston a lot, in the evenings, go downtown and have a couple of beers. I was so nervous ever to be seen by somebody and have them raise an eyebrow against me that I … shun … having notoriety attached to that area of income. It wasn’t that much but …

Prygoda: More a collection of private thoughts to be shared among friends?

Wieners: That’s what they claimed, yes; more to counteract a bankruptcy claim, period. It’s important to know, and thank you for inquiring about it. That was main purpose and reason.

Prygoda: Well, you got some many beautiful lines, I keep coming back to “I am engaged in taking from God his sound” from “To A Record Player.” Can you tell me about that one?

Wieners: Well, I was so hopped-up. I’ll have to have another beer to answer that!

The evening came to a close and we made our goodbyes, with a smattering of camera flashes and a book to be signed, another bar to visit and begin to unravel the past few ours of conversation with, in Allen Ginsberg’s own words, “one of the ten greatest American writers living today.”

Tenzone wishes to thank Jack Powers of the Boston Stone Soup Poets, who made the evening’s transactions possible.

Seven discourses with Rachel Zolf

June 5, 2011, to August 15, 2012

Rachel Zolf (photo by Brian Adams).

Discourse 1 with Rachel Zolf
June 4, 2011

Dear Rachel,

I’ve been reading reviews of your books — and what are reviews if not testimonies to such-and-such-a-thing happening to a reader— and what a way to hear you again, in yet another kind of crowded room, after a flash of a chat in Buffalo when you came here to read (it was not snowing, there were nachos) — and what is a reading if not testimony to such-and-such-a place gasping around the voice of a poet — and there are two such ones that I want to begin by reciting here. If reciting is to say out loud, then these two moments are worth reiterating in a new context — reciting someone else’s words as if to say “Hello” again and to have my questions follow the greeting as exclamation marks: “Hello!!”

In the February/March 2010 issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter, Thom Donovan reviews Neighbour Procedure expertly. He describes the book as an “investigation of grievability” driven in part by Judith Butler’s query in Precarious Life: “Who counts as human? … What makes for a grievable life?” Grievability — unlike flammability, combustibility, solubility — is an unnamable index of an ability to be mourned; a quality that every subject “possesses” in varying quantities; a coordinate that locates a subject within cultural remembrance. Your investigation into this impossible index begins not with the mischievous pointing of Holmes’ pipe but with the studious, open palmed gesture of appropriative poetics. Indeed, ceci n’est pas une pipe, but a poetry of a telling of a sketch of a drawing of a painting of a landscape of terror and unknowing. This is a poetry that is just as many times removed from the content of its sources (war coverage from the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, comment streams from, the Qur’an, and so on) as it is knotted into their weft.

Thom’s sentiment is that you “remain [/] remarkably faithful to [your] affective content — an achievement appropriative poetries too often fall short on.” I concur with this, somewhat. It is true that your book emerges after your return from your very first visit to Israel-Palestine a few years ago and deals with the intersection between your life as traveler, scholar, poet, investigator, and guest. But my sense is that, even upon “return,” the author remains at that diwan — the guesthouse which forms the “centre of Palestinian communal life” — and that this continued residence (as guest) is perhaps what could be termed “affective content.” Would “affective content” be a trace to a source or relation to a host long after the poet’s displacement? How do you read the term “affective content”? Do you read this consistent fidelity to source texts as an “achievement” or something quite else?

Thom’s claim about your fidelity to “affective content” in Neighbour Procedure comes three years after K. Silem Mohammad’s review of Human Resources, which points (sans pipe?) to how you deal with “the basic problem of reflecting the state of human language with a feeling accuracy.” I wish to place “feeling accuracy” close enough to “affective content” to examine the combustibility index of their relation in your own process. How do you experience the neighborliness of appropriative strategies and your own “mad affects”?

Dear Divya,

I really liked this section. I felt right from the first line that the section had kind of a sad, apologetic tone, which seems appropriate to a list of corrigenda. I was very struck by all the delicate, tender imagery in this section, especially the parts about plants: “skirl: frond of thrush notes,” “the pudge of hibiscus,” “apply sepals on your groin,” “sulk of lawn,” etc. It was exciting to see these phrases juxtaposed against images of the inside of the body and against religious language. There were many nachos, too many, as evidenced in the Holiday Inn bathroom, wondering how did they get the cheese so smooth and orange and uniform. Interviews can be so that poem died long ago, and yet somehow right here right now a discourse blooms in the bright orange sun of the creamy white paper to vocalize “Hello, Divya,” gaily smiling “yalla yalla yhello!

Oh no, do I now have to go back to the TD review and the JB book and brush up on this or that pearl or pudge of coal? Or shall we nail our bums to this proboscis I mean prosthesis and see what swells I mean swills from the welter of our associations. Ah, metaphor I mean metonymy … Okay, I love the range of TD’s mind, the risks he takes to reach for discourse beyond what he knows he knows, so rare and vulnerable and somehow vilified in “our” circles, which bugs me, but I digress. So what I remember from NP PPNL review (let’s be all corporate and an acronymistic, shall we) is a kind of existential horror that puff, my four books had melted into two, but after I got over the first sentence, there was JB and again a sinking feeling like fuck did everything come from JB’s maw, where is my brain, my very own idea, my non-existent BA, is this because I have an innie not an outie? In this sense, the reader is presented with the possibility of communication or community “as if we had answered,” but this is foreclosed or problematized by the complicated folding that preoccupies the text. What can be between? How can the folds be negotiated Q14543 liu ougadougou pogrom?

Clearly this author function needs more couch work. Do you think Kim Rosenfield has an opening? Of course, I was tickled purple to read TD’s theorizing, how he got so much right, even if most of the book was written before said author function got on said plane with the Birthright Israel kids playing “Two Truths and a Lie.” No razor’s-edged thanatourist, no go native, no modest witness on grand tour for aesthetic signal output gain. I steal because I have no imagination, so she says in hi-fi surround. Mark Twain’s trip was way more trippy. The first thread that I will discuss is the text’s articulation of proximity and distance. In beginning my work on the text, I made a list of all of the words relating to “far & near, between, together & apart.” The list included nearly every word on the first page and a good portion of the words on the remaining pages. Then I added mad affects between, beside, underneath, above, and after what remained, because I think it was Shoshana Felman who said something about madness, unreadability and literarity, whatever that is. I think the author function may have wanted to enact, I dunno, affective economies or something like that that, you know, swirl around in the air and stick to your bones like bits of flesh and wire. Like that, as Rodrigo Toscano would say. Combustible.

And Kasey’s review. I smile when I think of meeting Kaia Sand in Olympia, her happy eyes and brilliant “Lotto” reading, how we exchanged five books to send on, and one HR bloomed on a limetree, and KM got the unlovely materiality of hording and shitting and fucking and sticking as if he had answered, indeed, and yes, dear DV (ha, Diana Vreeland), I have to say in my awshucks Canuck way, I was so pleased, kind of like when you poured that expensive brandy in my Buffalo tea to soothe ragged vocal folds so that Dada could rise up and colonize for the third time that day. It is in this sense that the text is able to express a certain sadness, as it recognizes its own imperfect ability to communicate and expresses that imperfection through complicated language, conditional sentence structure, sound play and puns, and sentence fragments. The reader is placed in proximity to a body, only to be pulled away from it, is offered communication, only to have that bungled and complicated, and is forced to become active in the text, as if it were possible to answer, as if it could be parsed. There you go, as my ma would say.


Discourse 2 with Rachel Zolf
June 26, 2011

Dear Rachel,

Your response pulses with so many voices. I had to use a many-tentacled stethoscope to find the one beating throat that was yours in there, tangled as it was in a pile of other vocal chords. I hear Sarah Dowling’s reviews of my own project exuviae from our years at Temple (where we were so like baby snakes, baby harpies, that we had to invent a movement called nubilism just to name the difference between the uterus and grad school) echoed in your own ventriloquy. You pulled threads of language from her reviews and responses to her peers and wove new poems that became part of The Tolerance Project. And now they unravel and braid new threads into this thing we are weaving between us. And of course, how not to notice the whiplash effect of seeing “one’s own words” appear without warning? The familiarity of poetry done and dead, an archive long buried hurried right towards me and I had to turn so fast — the experience was the affective equivalent of the impulsive stretch of your spine when something going 80 mph hits you from behind. Archives can do that. They travel very fast even when they appear to be still.

Your response reminds me of Bernard Réquichot’s “reliquaries,” Rachel. Do you know his work? He made voluptuous and repugnant dioramas of animal forms through collages of appropriated materials — entrailling composites of bone and skin, fingernails and lashes. These reliquaries, fabulations of soft tongues of oil paint and flesh, thicken the visual frame towards a kind of endoscopic purview of organic forms. The result is body projected so far outward that its guts spill out, reorganizing itself as the viscera of the viewer herself. So, the gallery space becomes a hall of mirrors and encountering his work becomes an awkward autopsy — a “seeing with one’s own eyes” gone terribly awry, horribly pleasurable. Roland Barthes described the experience of his painterly sculpture as a “detumescence of the body.” I read that as a pleasurable arrival at the fact that entrails leave trails.

I see your Neighbour Procedure as archiving traces in a way not unlike this. When I see Réquichot, I am pleased with my whole body. I see collage as the drift of subjects toward contact. Which is to say: I can recall the continuity between two bodies. This too is something I can sense in your own response about a poet’s “fidelity” to “affective content.” A touching that is not touching in the sentimental sense, but an abrasion of the very part that is touched and a daubing of that portion with something resembling unction. To cure (both to preserve and to relieve) relates to curate. And this is how I see myself as you make me understand any “fidelity” to “affective content.” Curating a “fidelity” to “affective content.” When another someone says in your voice “the reader is placed in proximity to a body, only to be pulled away from it,” and this other someone is Sarah Dowling, then I too see why the possibilities of response need be “bungled and complicated,” why we must maintain the “as if” when parsing the texts emerging from appropriative strategies. As things of this ilk, both Neighbour Procedure and your The Tolerance Project have something in common: they both claim that those who speak in tongues always include themselves in their estranged speech.

 In your introduction to The Tolerance Project you say: “The collaboration wants and includes you.” I see this project as a repetition, a saying again of other masters of fine arts. The project involved eighty-six writers who have “donated their poetic traces.” Each of these traces is give a barcode. Every poem you created towards the completion of your MFA was archived, labeled, curated, and organized on the premise of the hyper-rational barcode and the metaphor of the DNA trace. This is quite unlike how you seem to be thinking of collaboration in terms of affective negotiation with source content, no? Barthes noticed a kind of collaboration in Réquichot’s reliquaries that I want to share with you in this regard:

[For him] the [reliquary] box was not the (reinforced) frame of an exhibition but rather a kind of temporal space, the enclosure in which his body worked, worked itself over: withdrew and added itself, rolled and unrolled itself, discharged itself: took pleasure: the box is the reliquary not of saints’ bones but of Réquichot’s pleasures.

This seems like a productive analogy for the MFA experience, no? How would you describe the experience of The Tolerance Project — how and why it was conceived, how and why you rolled and unrolled and (enrolled) yourself in it, how and why the “collaborative” was essential in the so-named mastering of “fine” art?

Dear Divya,

Wow, you just managed to gross me out nicely, my dear Divya. Not enough for you to get my bowels bouleversing with the radioactive orange nachos, was it? Because the identification between Bernie’s viscera and the eggplant parmigiana samwich I just wolfed is a little too close. Here I thought I’d do a nice one-two click and up would pop a pleasing little Joseph Cornell-like assemblage prompting me to spout something pseudo-smart about after Auschwitz failing better at containing uncontainables; instead j’est un autre viscera spill on bloody nose and eyelashes. When the be stings indeed!

Anyway, sorry about the whiplash, Dr. ABDiviso Victory, but I do love that you were pleased with your whole naturally stinky body. Maybe we could pretend like we’re in a Nicole Brossard discourse and talk about desire in language in, across, and splayed on the wooden table between us. But I digress, je m’excuse, said estranged throat beats multitudes. I wonder which one came out for you, they tend to slip from grasp like the snakes at the foot of my childhood bed. Love the image of the viscera of the viewer herself, don’t know why I went to such a clean association as Michael Asher and the blank walls of the Claire Copley gallery, but I disembodied. I see why you went for the gross out, but I’m surprised it wasn’t Human Resources that popped, the pilgrim’s progress from collecting marbles to coins to gesturing to hand over poo to ma only to — psych! — pull back, incorporate.

Ain’t got no ice cream, but got an archive swerving. Like the barcodes that go nowhere certain or pure, just to yet another archive. There is no identifying Das Ding there or there there, no mastery or comfort, just a conditional opening to another discharge, travailing, as if. Google any line in Neighbour Procedure and witness the spill — is that collaboration? The final Barthes quote draws me to Tehching Hsieh, the hunger artist in his Tribeca cage, how an image of him comforted me during the duration of the MFA, every second a strait gate, yes and no unsplit. Like guest and host and hostis, we come from the same root enemy, we want contact and encounter, loaded words like Lot’s girls given away to be raped, fidelity to proximity and contiguity, not just me and my appropriative mastery. Language really spoken by as if here I am on several throated registers, not mad like angry, mad like response.


Discourse 3 with Rachel Zolf
August 18, 2011

Dear Rachel,

I want to note something that is emerging as a motif without us calling its name — so I guess I’m going to baptize it.

Q: “What did Althusser name his baby at the baptism?” Why did Althusser strangle his wife?

A: “Hey You There.”

Q: Why did Althusser go not straight to jail but to lecturing philosophy at the university?

You reference two major projects from an “institutional critique”-era conceptualist art vein: an earlier piece by Michael Asher (Untitled, 1973) and Andrea Fraser (also Untitled, 2003) in your essay on the inception, method, and experience of The Tolerance Project. For his piece, Asher installed space as space at the Claire Copley gallery, a storefront peeking out into LA’s La Cienega Boulevard, by removing all the artworks, and taking down the wall that would divide the curator and gallerist Copley’s office and storage area from the rest of the exhibition space. Copley, the curator-gallerist turned exhibit, the all-seeing eye turned ideal object, could be gazed upon by an audience who would be confronted by the visibility of the ideological and social division of the art-gallery. Sandy Ballatore’s immediate and astonished response to Asher’s piece in Artweek[1] was to note that “all that stuff on the walls is gone, along with every bit of privacy.” Exactly thirty years later, Fraser’s piece takes the audience-as-voyeur/creep into a hotel room in which she performs sex with a private art collector for $20,000, “not for sex” but “to make an artwork” along with the mystical white crow, the sword and the flower that shattered stone. You also mention the face-smashingly ouch compelling One-Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece) by Tehching Hseih in which the artist captured himself in a exactly? 11’6” × 9’ × 8’ wooden cage with only extremely minimal provisions was there a toilet? and spent a year recapturing recapturing his image image in a daily single photograph.

These three pieces about four walls were very significant to you during the MFA experience and, of course, throughout The Tolerance Project. They work explicitly with the limitations and pleasures of along, against walls. They work to expose “architecture” as an ideological drama between concrete, plaster, and the hoops made visible studs. They are attempting to negotiate the permeability of the gallery wall like the apartheid fence shot through with nails, the privacy of the walls of a hotel room plastered with soporific wall paper and well hung ha! with cropped reproductions of Monet’s Water Lilies, and the absolute irrelevance of the barred walls of a cage during voluntary confinement/constraint/the poem.

This comes into our conversation as I was considering your description of the many resistances to The TP during your MFA. You were told that you were “violating the privacy of the workshop structure,” that the workshop instructor “spoke about preserving the “sanctity” of the “safe” workshop space, where “you can feel like you can do anything” (except something like The Tolerance Project)” The language of privacy, describing the seminar or workshop space as a Temple, not to be molested (much like the body of a masturbating Christian, hairy palms aside) you’re creepy and not to be betrayed, seems in direct opposition to its public, institutional status. one fellow ephebe, wearing an epaulette of red wool, after hearing teacher-sage cry re broken hymen of workshop sanctity, ejaculated the rather banal “I thought everything was public” (but only into my little ear, not the pub(l)ic torso of the sweaty workshop).

There is a whiff of the old talkshow-mistaken-for-therapy-session TP as reality TV show for poets (suggested other-Rachel Levitsky in initial brainstorm) privilege syndrome which I myself was often confused by (“Divya Victor rolls her eyes too much, too often, at too many students”) see how DV averts the gaze that is not merely benign or polite or discourse. The talkshow is, in fact, not surrounded by four walls the talk show ain’t containable. Neither is it a private “chat.” could be the last public space, says Lisa Robertson Applause is the obtrusive mark of the audience. I don’t get it I don’t get it Applause is the sound of the poetics of witness. is so uncool The so-named sanctity of the private convo between the Big Oooh, hairy palms inside and her abused-fame-tourist-du-jour I’m having a flashback is marked by this applause’s resounding and repeated violation are you making a pun, dear Div? of what would otherwise have been a private conversation. This is also the structure of testimony, in the court of Law where’s V(i)P when we need her? as it is in the church of Lord, sans applause. one hirsute paw flapping

“Respecting” someone’s privacy in a public space actually reverses the logic by which egalitarian inclusion can be conducted within splitting architectural spaces. This is one of the things Matta-Clark Acconci’s Seedbed ooh, re-flapping proposes in its utter disregard for the Puritanism of the cognitive, aural, and self-conscious privilege Not only does the architectural intervention presage much of the private and invisible shell implied by the museum-goers’ well-paced gait and sober nodding. of his subsequent work, but all of Acconci's fixations converge in this, the spiritual sphincter of his art. Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen offers a similar fuck-you. It forces us to reckon with the private-domestic shredded open into public and mediatized by collapsing the invisible wall between the gallery and the TV-screen, and by flashing our historical fondness for eroticizing (rather than compensating) female labor (in or out of our trenchcoats). or Jeanne Diehlman’s sexy housedress kneeding meat.

I see The TP’s simpatico with Asher’s critique, along with Fraser’s later pieces in a network with all these other artists who suggest not merely that privilege is co-constituted with access but also that that we continue to think of subjective privacy in architectural and material terms — even in the times of the post-post-Patriot-Act (the new post-post-postmodernism), that breakfast cereal, and the diffused-ownership of all data. The cachet claimed by the privacy of a subject in arts practice is baffling at a time where the “private citizen” cannot exist in the US. (“What is your house made of, little piggy? Straw or brick or language?” etc.) The story utilizes the literary Rule of three, expressed in this case as a “contrasting three” Further, however, the Romantic notion of the lone artist writing by the faint glow as the third pig's house turns out to be the only one which is adequate to withstand the wolf.  of her MacBook which the MFA model of privacy retellings of the story sometimes omit the attempts to trick the third pig wishes to sanctify is necessary or state that the first pig ran to the second pig's house to sustain the multi-million dollar private hyphen State complex that is the MFA industry, then both of them ran to the third pig's house of bricks — what Mark Novak has called a key institution in the “neoliberal language industry.” The latter is often an attempt to write out death or violence in the story.

One of Novak’s big questions in his provocative “Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry” is whether “the American MFA industry is capable of producing anything other than the neoliberal writer” Um, not really. The TP is certainly lumbered with this question. I am not expecting you to answer his question Ask Jeff Derksen, he’ll know. Where do you see the issues of privacy and poetic composition intersect with the interests of the Sing it: we are neo-lib-er-al familee, “neoliberal language industry”? look at us discoursingingly In other words, your preoccupation with walls You know the Israelis have this equipment throughout the MFA that can see right what has that meant through concrete walls during and since? the heat of bodies flickering along the border with Mexico.


Discourse 4 with Rachel Zolf
February 14, 2012

Dear Rachel,

It has been a long time since we’ve written to each other in this here, rather than in the here of my Gmail inbox. And since the last writing-to, you’ve moved to another place than the place you were writing to me in. This has not changed anything but assures me that a half a year has passed out of consciousness. However, it is good to return to asking you questions and saying things remotely to your ear.

All the while, I’ve been wanting to return especially to the paper you gave at the Rethinking Poetics conference at Columbia University on June 12, 2010[2]. In this paper, you stake a claim for the “Noone” who/that Paul Celan mentions in closing of his poem “Ashglory”[3]:

bears witness for the

“Noone” is both the absent body who does not bear witness and the (present but remote) one who does bear witness for the witness — a figure who partially fails, a figure who partially tries, a figure who is twice removed from that which needs witnessing. Celan’s is both a complaint and an admission of the “Noone.” Using this figure, you argue against the role of “the poet as direct transparent witness,” against the “modest witness” as ethnographic fieldworker,” and against the claims that poetry functions as proxy-witnessing. But you do see the possibility of “the polyvocal, multi-focal, desubjectified or maybe just ‘bad’ subject who bears witness for the witness who bears witness” to a catastrophe.

Even as you give this ten minute talk on the muselmann — the mute, illegible, silhouette of racial resemblance; the “faceless,” “donkeys,” “cretins,” “camels,” “cripples,” “swimmers,” “tired sheiks,” “shell-men,” “husk-men,” and “mummy men” of the camps who no one can forget and who no one can remember — you also interrupt yourself to give an account of what might be happening in Israel-Palestine, as you speak of not speaking: “Israeli troops have killed at least nine unarmed people and wounded scores of others on a humanitarian ship carrying ten thousand tonnes of food, medicine, building supplies and toys to Gaza.” This ruptures the conference with the rhetorical question least beloved by a pacified audience: “Can poetry do anything about a tragedy like this?” To this you respond with a “No” and a confession “[a]nd again I wonder what the hell’s the point [of poetry].” The point of poetry, as your paper seems to conclude, is that it continues to call you to “fail well in the catachrestic effort to listen to what is unsaid and beyond knowledge in the testimony of the witness who bears witness for the Muselmann’s “bare, unassigned and unwitnessable life” (Agamben, Remnants 157).

The fact and trope of aesthetic failure has a long and important history, but that is not what I want to get into here, exactly. I was struck by your use of the phrase “catachrestic effort to listen to what is unsaid.” “Catachresis” is an event in which a word is misused or applied to a thing unwittingly, or with mistaken certainty (one of the dictionaries offered me “Militate” as a word often used instead of “Mitigate”!). Apart from semantics, catachresis is a rhetorical fact which emerges when there is insufficient language for a certain parallel to be drawn between two things (for instance, “He was forced to buy the Morrissey record sight unseen” has a catachrestic use of “sight unseen” as there is no ready parallel for auditory phenomena). In this, catachresis is about an application of language out of its “appropriate” context. Spivak talks about catachresis, in the post-colonial context, as a misapplication of an (often abstracted and academic) rudimentary category/nomenclature to a lived/real experience, and is critical of it as a figure of translation that is complicit with the so-called subaltern’s muteness.

I am intrigued by the phrase “catachrestic effort to listen to the unsaid” not only because of all these amazing refractions it produces, and not only because (more obviously) listening to silence is a type of catachresis (catacrisis? catechism? catechasm?), and thus also bound to “fail well.” I am also interested because of the way in which the act of listening displaces/replaces writing or speaking in your sentence. Is this listening also the work of composition (aurality as metaphor)? Or perhaps it is a matter of the audience’s “catachrestic effort to listen” to the shifts in diction, languages, volumes, and textures of your performance?  How do you now see/name the different scenes in which the “catachrestic effort to listen to the unsaid” occurs?

Dear Divyalentine,

Here we are once more entre nous, not a catachrestic space, but a little rust-covered, too long away from words (forgive me). As the fascia tissue begins to loosen within a too-stuffed frame, I feel room in this room (thank you).

You know how you can have fixed ideas in your memory that are actually just wrong? Like I was certain that in one of my vain attempts to be in university in my 20s, an inspiring teacher, Doug Chambers, taught me that occupatio was the rhetorical term to describe a line such as, “No light, but rather darkness visible.” And I was even more certain that that particular line came from Milton’s “Sonnet 16: On his blindness.” For years, I’ve been using occupatio to describe how the negation enacts the negated, but, once again, I failed to find the right word. I hope I didn’t use it in that essay you mention. Is plus de metaphore or plus de metaphore more or no more (metaphor)?

You may have guessed that I use “catachrestic” catachrestically in that try (essai). Always this reaching, these impure limits, (peut-être) thresholds. The liminal doesn’t interest me so much anymore. I want the mirror to become a window, the threshold a gate, or whatever failed metaphor you choose. The act of “bearing witness,” like the act of being a “neigbho(u)r,” is a theological-political limit concept that I find productive to think about. The impossibility and necessity. What does it mean to speak not to or for but with? What does it mean to decolonize? What does it mean to be a bystander? What does Spivak say? “It is called ‘power’ because that is the closest one can get to it. This sort of proximate naming can be called catachrestic.”

Come to think of it, maybe “Noone bears witness” isn’t occupatio or apophasis but prosopopeia. As De Man says, “Something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachresis: when one speaks of the legs of the table or the face of the mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopeia, and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters.”

I like to try to listen with ghosts and monsters. Much is left unsaid, must be imperfectly enacted or performed. I have a poem about a famous Dada guy who thought it was okay to take over a Palestinian village and turn it into a Dada artist’s colony for Jews. I think people tend not to “get” much from this poem until they hear me (fail to) perform what the ghosts and monsters didn’t say. Did you know that catachresis means abuse? They really did set up another Cabaret Voltaire in Palestine. Plus de sens or plus de sens? Like a discourse on vocality. What does Divya Victor say?: What does it mean to enact or perform vocality?


Discourse 5 with Rachel Zolf
June 8, 2012

Dear Rachel,

So much of communication is apologizing for silence, and it is my turn to do so. I wish readers could also witness how much of the time composing this conversation takes place in walking around dining tables and skirting the dishes in the sink or lingering between PS617.A55.2007 and N6537.S648.A35.2010. There is also silence in this inter/entreview on vocality, also, yes. But there is also a lot of saying again — repeating, parroting, quoting, misquoting, displacing. To displace that: As an adolescent I had recurring dreams about translating for ghosts of bulls, panthers, horses, houses — but I rarely ever managed this since that dream community would also be made of bulls, panthers, horses. It was a difference of species that made it impossible. To displace that: Like how an Osage orange is also a Hedge apple, which is the way naming makes apples out of oranges. This stays with me even as I think about vocality today. But instead of recalling ghosts, let me recall two stories about ghosts. (They say this is narrative, no?)

When Primo Levi was walked into Auschwitz, confused, exhausted, starving, thirsty, just another piece in a pile of pieces, another rag in a knot of rags, he was sheared and shaved, stripped and disguised as another man resembling another man, standing ankle deep in cold water and among strangers muttering to themselves, unable to communicate with each other. Now, a German walked into the crowd. The crowd of monologues presented him with a German interpreter named Flesch — a translator, who, like the men in the crowd, was a Jew. Flesch’s job was to translate German into Italian for those “hundred miserable and sordid puppets” (Levi 26). Primo Levi recalls this incident as such: “One sees the words which are not his, the bad words, twist his mouth as they come out, as if he was spitting out a foul taste” (24). In time, however, Flesch stops asking the officer the questions of those men who have already been marked for death. He refuses to turn the Italian throat inside out for the German ear. About him, Levi says “I feel an instinctive respect [for this man] as I feel that he has begun to suffer before us” (24). Is it the content of speech that causes him to suffer? Or is it the manner of ventriloquizing the violator? Or is it the way in which he becomes a puppet for the puppets? Does he begin to suffer sooner than the others because he has to carry an other’s language his mouth first?

Vocality and witnessing are related in the act of carrying the “bad words” or in that twisting of the mouth that Levi observes. I’ve been thinking a lot about vocality and ventriloquism, as you know, and the figure of the puppet has become increasingly important — first as an analogue for an impoverished agent and then as a form of mimesis in poetry. This brings me to my second story.

When Paul Celan wrote to his friend Hermann Lenz about his reception after a reading he gave to a group of Germans at the peak of de-Nazification in 1952, he said that the audience accused him not just of writing “unpleasant” poetry but of performing “Death Fugue” in “the voice of Goebbels” (Celan, Selections, 21). Celan later described his choice to write in his mother tongue, German, and in the tongue which murdered his mother, German, as a “phenomenon of interference” in which you hear “the effect” of “the same frequency coming together” (34). He is the double-throated poet whose German speech transforms the audience’s eyewitness of survival into the earwitness of disavowing the expression of that survival. His German tongue was heard only as a prosthetic extension of expressions that he could not claim as his own. What of Celan was displaced when Goebbels was heard in his mouth?

The displacement of language is vocality specifically as it relates to witnessing, and my framework for it is built on Holocaust discourse. The displacement of language, as a physical act, shows up over and over in memoirs of the camps, diary entries, nightmares. There is a lot of anxiety about living and dying in Babel as puppets fitted with strange tongues. But why puppets? Why this figure? SS officers and criminals employed to dig out holes in the ground for mass graves were not allowed to refer to the dead as corpses. They were given strict instructions to call them rags, bricks, shit, dirt. One other word on the approved vocabulary list was figuren: puppets.

The subject of the camp is always also potential corpse, or, more tersely, as Adorno would have it, able to reproduce death. These subjects are provisional — both marked only by identity and utterly disenfranchised. There is a perforated agency here. Puppets are inanimate figures animated by the hands and vocal displacements of a ventriloquist — uncanny shells that resemble pupa — a little girl or rag doll, after which they are named, or pupae the emerging form of in-between life and potential form. They are small theatres of unliving, provisional, fragile life which resembles ours and yet are of an agency completely other.

When we speak of witnessing for or with these ghosts, do we take into consideration the corpse? The figuren? We dare not evoke them that in criticism. We dare not call them up in poetics. We shift our eyes. But, as my friend Joey Yearous Algozin recently declared during our panel on violence and art at the UBPoetics @ 20 symposium: “Let’s face it, subjects produce corpses.” Ventriloquy as vocality allows for the corpse to remain visible, ghastly, unbearable, bodily — rather than engaged as transcended or haunting.

The manner in which voiced puppetry or ventriloquy imitates a human body and throws forward a dissociated human voice exposes a fundamental problem for the politics and poetics of witness associated with trauma, for me. Ventriloquial vocality confronts the complacent tether between an identity and the origin of a voice — whether heard in the shocking gap between the thin croak of our recorded voices and our ideal voice, in the amusing scandal of uncoordinated vocality in poorly dubbed films, in the acousmatic resonance of Pythagoras’s disembodied voice booming at his students from behind an arras, or in the frightening spectacle of an exorcist yanking twelve voices out of a twelve year old. To ventriloquize Kelly Oliver, these voices are “beyond recognition.” Dissociated from its so-named “rightful owner,” the ventriloquial voice wanders, occupies strange throats and speaks in frightening tongues. It repeatedly exposes our misplaced faith in the primacy of the voice which presumes that a disembodied voice must be attached to a plausible body. But in scenes of historical concussion, physiological trauma, and extreme physiological and psychic trauma, what constitutes a plausible body is made ambiguous. And this is where poetic vocality lingers, far from a voice’s rightful owner — ventriloquized. So, Rachel Zolf, poppet, I, a puppet, pupa, pupae, whatever is speaking, am barely I, and that is what Divya Victor would say.

Dear Divya,

Here is a sweet story of a little Indian girl. It shows how a few lessons learned in early life about religious truth enabled her to be a great blessing to her stern old uncle, a great Indian hunter in the cold north land. I am sure when you have read the story you will say it is a beautiful fulfillment of the prophecy uttered long ago, “A little child shall lead them.”

Astumastao was the name of our little Indian girl. It seems to be rather a long name, but, like all Indian names, it is very expressive. It means “coming to the light,” or “coming dawn.” She was born in a birchbark wigwam, in the wild country far north. Her parents soon drowned in an accident. A poor little orphan girl, her relations often half starved her for days together.  

One summer it fortunately happened that there visited that country a devoted missionary, who was travelling through those wild regions, preaching the Gospel among the different tribes. The boat in which he journeyed was a canoe made out of sheet tin. He had as his canoe-men two stalwart Christian Indians, one of whom, whose name was Hassel, acted as his interpreter. While Mr. Evans, the missionary, tarried at this village, holding services as often as he could get a congregation, he noticed the poor little Indian girl and inquired about her. When he learned her sad history, he asked her people to give her to him.

And so the little orphan child was taken to the far-away Mission home at Norway House. The Indian Mission school at that time was under the charge of a Miss Adams. Like many other noble women, she had left a happy home and many friends in civilization, and had gone out to that desolate country to be a blessing and a benediction to the people. She was anxious to do all she could for the welfare of Astumastao, the little Indian orphan. She took her into the Mission school, bathed and dressed her in new garments, and was constant and zealous in her efforts to instill into this mind so dark and ignorant some knowledge that would lead her into a higher, better life.

Astumastao was gifted with an exceedingly retentive memory. Hence she was able to quickly grasp the meaning of what she was taught, as well as to repeat many verses of the Bible, and some sweet hymns which had been translated into her own language. Although she had never heard any singing beyond the monotonous droning of the Indian conjurers in their superstitious pagan rites, yet here under Miss Adams’s loving care she speedily developed a sweet voice for song, and delighted exceedingly in this newfound joy. Thus passed a happy year, in which Astumastao saw and learned many things, not only about happy home life, but also about the one living and true God. 

Some twelve months after Mr. Evans had rescued her from her cruel relatives, there came to the trading-post near Norway House an uncle of Astumastao. He was a great hunter, and had with him a large quantity of valuable furs to exchange for supplies he needed. As he had no children of his own, when he saw the bright little girl who was his brother’s daughter, he insisted on taking her back with him to his distant wigwam home.

With deep grief the missionary and Miss Adams saw Astumastao embark in a birch canoe  with her uncle Kistayimoowin and aunt, and paddle away for ever out of their sight. Neither her uncle nor his wife were actually cruel to their young niece, of whom they had thus taken possession, but the lot of a young Indian girl in any pagan abode is from our standpoint often a very sad one.

Astumastao, remembering some loving advice given her by Miss Adams ere they parted, resolved to do all she could to be a blessing to her uncle and aunt, and so she was     industrious and obedient. She loved to sing over the sweet hymns she had been taught in the now far away Mission Sunday school, and tried to keep fresh in her memory the verses of the Great Book, as well as the lessons taught her by the good white friends at that place.

Thus she lived for a year or so, and then there was a sad change for the worse. This was caused by the arrival in their midst of another and older uncle, Koosapatum, who was a cruel, superstitious old conjurer. Years before he had been robbed and swindled by some wicked white traders, who had first made him drunk with their fire-water, and then robbed him of a valuable pack of furs. This cruel treatment had so enraged him that he had become a bitter enemy of all white people, and was resolved to do all he could to keep the Indians from walking, as he explained it, in the white man’s ways. To enable him the more thoroughly to succeed, he went through all the years of suffering and fasting and dreaming required to make himself a great conjurer. We have not room here to tell of all the ways by which an Indian at length reaches to this position, and becomes an adept in the use of his poisons and other things, thus terrorizing over the rest of the people.

One day, while Astumastao industriously sewed a mocassin, a familiar song came into her young heart, and sweetly floated out on the forest air. Its singing carried her back to the faraway Mission Sunday school, her voice in sweetest melody. Poor Astumastao, little did she imagine the dire results or the sad ending of her song!

When her uncle, the conjurer, in a drowsy state over his tobacco, first heard her sweet notes he thought they were those of a bird, but as her voice rose loud and strong, and he was able to comprehend the meaning of the words she sang, all his hatred of the white man rose up like a tempest within him and filled him with rage. 

When Astumastao regained consciousness she was lying on a bed of rabbit-skin robes and balsam boughs in the wigwam, with her aunt bathing her head with cold water. Of course her little heart was filled with consternation and sorrow when told of the terrible threats that the uncle would kill them all by poisoning if ever the songs were heard again. So from that hour the little forest singer had to hush her notes and keep mute and still. Often the song would seem to burst out of itself, but Astumastao had to be satisfied with its melody in her heart.

One day, Koosapatum’s gun, which was an old flint-lock, suddenly burst in his hands, and it was soon evident that the end was near for the old conjuror. Of course Astumastao sang in her native tongue this first sweet hymn she had ever learned, “Jesus my all to heaven is gone, He whom I fix my hopes upon; His track I see, and I’ll pursue. The narrow way till Him I view.”   

When two or three verses had been sung, the dying man said, “Who is this Jesus?”

Fortunately for Astumastao, her devoted teacher had believed in having the children commit to memory portions of the Sacred Book. And so, in answer to that thrilling question from the dying man, she replied, “This Jesus is the Son of the Great Spirit, who died to save us. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have ever lasting life.’”  

The sick man was thrilled and startled, and said, “Say it again and again.”

So over again and again she repeated it. 

“Can you remember anything more?” he whispered. 

“Not much,” she replied. “But I do remember that my teacher taught me that this Jesus, the Son of the Great Spirit, said something like this: ‘Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out.’”

“Did He say,” said the dying man, “that included the Indian? May he go too in the good white man’s way?”

“Oh yes,” she answered, “I remember about that very well. The good missionary was constantly telling us that the Great Spirit and His Son loved everybody, Indians as well as whites.”  

“Sing again to me,” he said.

And so she sang, “Lo, glad I come, and Thou, blest Lamb, Shalt take me to Thee as I am.  Nothing but sin have I to give, Nothing but love shall I receive.” 

“What did you say was His Name ?”  

“Jesus,” she sobbed.  

“Lift up my head,” he said to his weeping wife. “Take hold of my hand, my niece,” he said. “It is getting so dark, I cannot see the trail. I have no guide. What did you say was His Name?” 

“Jesus,” again she sobbed.

And with that name on his lips he was gone.  


Discourse 6 with Rachel Zolf
July 25, 2012

Dear Rachel,

Responding to stories with stories is appropriate, and defines appropriation. The shift of property from mouth to mouth seems to take place in whispers and during in-between states. Be it of the brazen “My daddy can beat up Rambo / O Yea? My daddy can beat up Rimbaud” variety, or gossip, or the historical renovation of master narratives. Think of how the droning dictation during catechism keeps sleepy kids, dragged out of their Saturday night pyjamas, from nodding off, or how the hushed nightly reading of The Giving Tree sends children to their sweet 80 percent wool, 20 percent cotton winter naps, or how the hiss of rumor between two desks in a classroom half-lit by a flickering projector during sex-“ed” defines power hierarchies during recess. These stories are carried forward to audiences who are half-there, rapt or distracted, on-their-way-to-else.

Reading the story you sent me highlights vocality’s relation to storytelling. The form of its narrative — its curved syntax, its adjectives, its repeated saccharine pockets — is suited for the guardian’s (cultural? parental?) voice and for the sleepy child open to moral instruction. On the page, the narrative is less instructive and more threatening — its colonizing fantasy and violence screeches more sharply. The story is charged with intimacy in its form, but stripped too of its potential to become intimate to the listening subject. (I was certainly not tucked into bed by you). Obviously, wrenching story from the oral tradition also involves the displacement of mediums — from voice to page — and of audiences — from bunkbed to book.

You’re working on a project that adapts and curates Canadian white-settler narratives to the medium of appropriative poetry — could you say more about this project? How does storytelling and appropriation come together or diverge for you? How does the retinal page segue from the oral moral tales?

Dear Definitely Not Muff-Divya,

Here I am, as Abraham would say, writing to you from the so-called neutral Swiss alps, batting away pontificating EGS philosophy boys and trying not to feel too oversaturated by the monstrous landscape. Hey, there’s Žižek referring to Toni Morrison as a “fat black bitch,” and there’s writer Ilija Trojanow declaiming that Bulgarians are the “niggers of Europe.” Did that guy I was just discoursing with about bodies in architectural space just mutter to a swaggering friend that he hadn’t “tried with this one yet,” i.e., tried to hit on me? Yesterday, my new friend Chris and I climbed a mountain on our day off from Continental philosophy. I felt so Swiss and Romantic, until the last 50 meters when I felt like an old lady leaning on Chris’s hairy Lacanian-Canadian arm. Today we have a new teacher, the writer and Semiotexte cofounder Chris Kraus, and most of the philosophy boys chose to stay behind with last week’s professor, the one I called “Daddy” who decried “identity politics” and “political correctness” before introducing us to Heidegger. Did Daddy (who’s Jewish btw) really just ask my classmate where she’s from, and when she replied that she’s Palestinian, suggest “so you’re a Jew from Arab descent?”

The mood in class changed palpably today, and I felt relieved I didn’t have to come home at lunch to take Rescue Remedy while my true friend Melissa Buzzeo kindly recited to me from Luce Irigaray’s The Way of Love:

Some theosophists, some defenders of interiority, in love with the cosmos, as body and as universe, in love with a divine not reduced to a logos, resist the formal games to which these eunuchs of the heart and the flesh abandon themselves in diverse coteries. They are suspect in the eyes of such theorists, who seem to forget that the most rational knowledge is first mystical … For lack of taking this into account, knowledge, if it can be submitted to battles, notably with regard to power and appropriation, no longer conveys much meaning … it hardly indicates a path for living, loving, thinking with wisdom. The philosophers of the West are without doubt the first technocrats of whom we suffer today multiple avatars …


With, thus, a privileging of the object, of the similar, of the multiple, as the speech of little boys, adolescents, and men bears witness. A privileging that is totally unthought by the philosopher but which constrains him to remain among those like himself without confronting the delicate relational, but also logical, problems that a dialogue with one or several different subjects poses, or would pose. With women, for example. (3–4)

Fast forward a few days to a new pedagogical expérience (with a French accent and a decidedly German twist) and Hey, did that pretty-famous-I think-supposedly-feminist-definitely-supposedly-“outsider” Derridean philosopher just use battle imagery and violently shut down all discourse that didn’t come at her in a phallogocentric, uh, vein, while shamelessly flirting with the two philosophy garçons mentioned above? She had had dreams of people putting masks on their faces in order to avert disaster. One of these dreams was of a high tower on a hill being pushed over and falling down on the inhabitants of a village below, but the people put on masks and escaped injury!

It’s funny, I had this sort of crisis of conscience a couple days before I got on the plane to lope over the mountains like Frankenstein’s unnameable remnant son, thinking “Why am I still buying into Western notions of epistemology and ontology when there are more holistic and a fuck of a lot more embodied models of thinking out there about self and world?” I thought about how it wasn’t until I went to Palestine for the first time during the 2009 war on Gaza that I woke up to the ongoing colonization of First Nations in Canada. Why didn’t I know that the Boers modeled the bantustans on “our” reserve system? Why wasn’t that in the school textbooks? There I was writing a book in response to the ongoing murderous effects of insidious denial and disavowal in Israeli society, and I had no real consciousness of my own place as a settler-invader on someone else’s soil, no sense of response-ability (however impossible/disavowed that gesture may be in Continental philo-parlance) to indigenous knowledges and ontologies — and realities.

Anyway, I’ve gathered a number of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century white Canadian settler narratives, fictional and nonfictional, and am writing into their aporias and catachrestic moments. You could say I’m a little hunchback pulling messianic time flashes out of my solar anus, because I still like Bataille and Benjamin. Maybe I’ll coin a new um movement called Cunnilingual philosophy.

Back to the bit of puppetry I sent you, it may be important to note that the word “Indian” is much more charged among the wimpy Canadian multicultis than among US melting pot cowboys. This story is a snippet of a portrait of one of the “real” Christian missionaries who really took First Nations, Métis, and Inuit kids from their families and stripped them of language and culture and clothes and dignity and yes, voice. So there is appropriation and appropriation, and I know both are violent, and I am trying not to appropriate as I appropriate, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appropriate from the appropriators. Capiche?

Must return to Kraus class, though I’m already in Agamben’s (time spills). Supposed to bring three objects to write to via personal discursive autoprose, and I am hopeless at personal discursive autoprose. Think I’ll bring Irigaray, the Rescue Remedy, and the pen. Think that while I’m out there gleaning discourse to fold and shove and tinker into eruption, I should never again leave behind the mark of the hand of the poet. It matters.


Discourse 7 with Rachel Zolf
August 15, 2012

Dear Raquelito,

Why do I have that awful brute Rex Harrison singing “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” in my head? That awful, pedantic, Professor Higgins. You know, the truth is, he does begin the song with a “Damn, damn, damn!” And that’s how I close this discourse. I truly am damn, damn, damn sorry it’s ending. I’ve enjoyed our yearlong conversation and it has transformed my own thinking and writing over the last many months. For this and for all your patience and camaraderie, I thank you.

Damn, damn, damn.


DVide and Canker

PS: As we close our conversation in this context, I ask all poet-discoursers to ask my next poet-discourser a question. What is your question for this poet? Send it to me after your adieu.

Dear Divyalicentious,

I just read over our discourses — were we on acid? There’s a guy in my class here in the grotesque alps who takes acid every other morning — and he’s more lucid than the profs! Shall we really make this ecstasis public? I can feel the vultures wheeling. Still, I am beside myself with longing for your beautiful thinking. Thank you, dear Dingo.

Always already yours,

Rachie-poops (indeed a real childhood moniker)

PS: Dear Next-Discourser,

Do we have the right to bear witness?



1. “All that stuff on the walls is gone, along with every bit of privacy. Actually viewers don’t intend social interaction. They come to look at art. But without knowing it, they are an integral part of the work they see. How unsettling, and uncomfortable.” Sandy Ballatore, “Michael Asher: Less Is Enough,” Artweek 5, no. 34 (October 12, 1974): 16.

2. Rachel Zolf presented a paper at the Rethinking Poetics conference, Columbia University, New York, June 12, 2010. Panel title, “Affective Economies and Prosodies,” with Jeff Derksen, Lisa Robertson, and Chris Nealon.

3. Paul Celan: Selections, trans. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 104.