Jaap Blonk in conversation with Gary Barwin and Gregory Betts
The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling
This interview is transcribed from a video of a discussion which occurred the day after Jaap Blonk performed his adaptation of Antonin Artaud’s seminal 1947 radio artwork “To Have Done with the Judgement of God.” The poster describes the piece: “Banned instantly by French radio this blackened and cathartic masterpiece retains the power to shock and remains an atavistic totem of human barbarity.” Blonk’s adaptation incorporated solo voice and live computer processing. The interview took place amid the visual poetry exhibition Bird Is the Word. Immediately behind Jaap is derek beaulieu’s Prose of the Trans-Canada visual poem.
24 May 2011
Niagara Artists Centre,
St. Catharines, Ontario
Gary Barwin: Jaap, I would say that your work explores on the one hand, the extreme, the grotesque, and a Theatre of Cruelty–influenced performance practice and on the other, an exploration of playfulness and humor, joy, and discovery.
I was thinking about this during Greg’s introduction last night of your Artaud performance when he was recalling when you first met and “jammed” with his one-year-old son Jasper. When Jasper first encountered you, there was a little bit of fear, a hesitation at the unknown, and some discomfort, which soon changed to a pleasure and joy about the exploration, the pure enjoyment of just communicating, of vocality itself. Perhaps this encounter with Jasper is a good way to begin a discussion about the aesthetics behind your work.
Jaap Blonk: Yes.
Barwin: OK, so let’s talk about it! So, it’s two things. One, I think, is that your exploration of language is psychological. And often at the extremes of human experience and energy.
Barwin: … but it’s also an exploration of human vocal behaviors and possibilities. Sometimes it’s about play, exploration, or about more musical concerns.
Blonk: Yeah, yeah, it can go many directions. There’s also the, maybe we’d call it the antithesis between the systematic way of composing, let’s say a Morse code based on a certain pattern of strict numeracy and a more intuitive means of performance. I learned that I can construct a piece with very dry rules and then in the performances it will come alive, and it will become even better as I respond to it.
Artaud has been very important to me at the outset, when I first began performing voice. Actually, this was in the early eighties — at that time I was just starting with the whole performance thing and I had been in a group of people doing poetry presentations with instruments — people reading poetry by (mostly well-known) poets, accompanied by musical instruments and I was the composer for this initiative. I was not allowed to recite poems — they thought I was not doing it well, at least not in a very convincing way. At some point, the group was planning a performance of Surrealist and Dada poems and there were a few leftover texts which nobody knew what to do with, but they wanted to include in the program. And these included some work by Artaud, and I thought, “Let me try it.” And so, that really felt very good for me to do that and especially the Artaud. This was not sound poetry but translations of some poems of his. We found it very interesting, the whole concept of style, and there’s a famous poetry quote: “Whatever I write I’m going to burn it on the next day, because it’s no longer true.” So these texts were building up an intensity, which helped me go, sort of, across the barrier of madness onstage. So I did that. There was an authenticity to it that I heard — it wasn’t embarrassing to me, it was just intense — so it helped me to go further, to not be afraid on stage, to not be anxious the whole time, to not want to keep total conscious control.
Barwin: Absolutely. So, you go to the limit of that, you explore what’s possible as a performance, on stage, what’s possible in terms of playing a performance through your body and through the resources that you can summon. This is the thing that I’m wondering about: Once you get to the point of crossing the line where everything is open — you’ve gone beyond standard language, beyond standard conventions of vocal performance, you have, as Schoenberg’s song says, “the air of another planet” open to you, and so the question is, then what happens, not only in terms of exploring extreme states but also exploring non-extreme states but with the new resources — new musical resources, new vocal and sound resources that you now can use? Because you’ve knocked down the walls. So, now what? What kind of civilization are you now going to build onstage?
Blonk: Yeah, there’s of course several different approaches to that, one of which is improvisation, which I did a lot, mainly with instrumentalists — different types of instruments — these bring different types of challenge: what kinds of sound to come up with to make sensible music with them. So that’s one thing — just intuition, and so I’ve done completely improvised solo performances, also. So sometimes it’s purely intuitive and automatic, but sometimes there’s a specific thing: I take a structure to use which kind of accumulates, something simple like counting syllables in sound — I use an extended notion of a syllable: syllables of the same sound that’s continuous without a specific break in it, so for instance [see video clip below]. So that brings me to a totally different area and I feel that the materials of the work are very restricted and then based on that I make the piece.
Barwin: It’s restricted but also varied, because the syllable, that notion, is so open to so many things. So many different kinds of performative weight, psychological weight, musical weight are possible, so it’s very flexible.
Blonk: And then, of course there’s also prepared pieces, which can be really hard to learn. There’s a piece of mine — the title is “Barred,” which really consists of — I learned all the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet and I used a system that could be written on a typewriter so there were, I think, about seventeen phonetic symbols that could be written using a letter with a bar, or stroke through it, so I used those, for example, in a system of permutations of certain things. So I’d written that, and I’d performed it three days after. It was really trouble — so, terribly hard to do it.
Barwin: A number of your performances of both your own work and other’s work push toward performative extremes so that they become a sort of performative challenge. The audience sees you, the performer, faced with the challenge of trying to realize this extremely difficult piece and so there’s an extra tension that is generated. Not only the excitement and delight of witnessing a virtuoso performer, but watching a virtuoso engage with material that is at the limits of his virtuosity.
Blonk: I’ve never been after virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. The first time I realized it was when I was working learning Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate (“Primordial Sonata”), and I’ve always been recording myself, listening to back it, judging my performance. I’d listen to myself and I found myself boring, there are very repetitive passages that go like [see video clip below] and I couldn’t do that one fast enough and I didn’t want to really do it fast to be a virtuoso but to keep them interesting, not boring. So then I made consonant exercises for myself, all different combinations of particular sounds in different orders and I wrote them down and practiced them with a metronome every day but so that the articulation was better
Barwin: Yeah, I can see children begrudgingly practicing from their book of Jaap Blonk sound poetry études in the conservatory, trying to move up to Grade Six in sound poetry, working on their required sound poetry graduation repertoire …
Blonk: Yeah, one time I was renting space where musicians were practicing — I’d have the space for two hours or so — and I’m sitting there with the metronome going. The next student entered with an instrument and was watching me like, “what’s this crazy guy doing?” [Laughter.] Of course, really, it’s the same as practicing scales and that kind of thing.
Barwin: I remember when I first came home from university, from music school, and I was learning how to circular breathe and I was told to practice with a straw and a glass of water, and so I spent all weekend in my parents’ backyard blowing bubbles in a glass of water and my parents were looking wondering what had happened to their child at university — why was he blowing bubbles all weekend? Of course, I assured them that this was an important part of my musical education …
Blonk: I was in this group in Holland where there was this famous reed player and he used to come early at rehearsals and practice high notes on the clarinet and he’d be sitting there practicing very high tones on the clarinet and I’d sit down in the chair beside him and practice uvular trills. He’d ask me, “What are you doing — are you crazy?”
Whereas we both were just working on those things in our vocabulary that we were focused on at that particular time.
Barwin: You’re crazy, yeah. [Laughter.] But just like the instrumentalist, you’ve got a certain repertoire of techniques that you evolve as a writer, as a speaker, and then you work on that with focused practice, just like any art form, any physical activity. You explore what you can do with it and how you can extend it. But perhaps the voice is more obviously both medium and carrier of content.
Gregory Betts: Absolutely. But I think of that guy who comes after you in the music room and his experience on the other side. It’d be fascinating. It’s hard to imagine him being bored by the kind of vocal exercises that you were doing. But I was thinking about last night too, when people were laughing at strange moments, at interesting moments in your performance, even though there was a darkness there. Does it surprise you when and where people laugh? That they laugh at all at things like this?
Blonk: No … no, it’s predictable for me that people laugh. But I never calculate moments that you should laugh, like a comedian. I don’t try and repeat it. But I’ve learned — especially at points in Artaud where there’s no humor at all — it depends on the performance.
Betts: Where does the humor come from? It’s a fascinating moment in a performance.
Blonk: Yes, that’s pretty mysterious.
Barwin: But in a piece there are some more predictable places that make people laugh. When the performer is in a strange position, when something suddenly changes. And sometimes people laugh when there’s an extreme kind of vocalization or an extreme facial expression. And I think people laugh sometimes because the work is so different in that it’s being played through the instrument of the body.
But there are certain of your works that are deliberately playful, deliberately humorous, not that you’re a stand-up comedian, but I’d say that they show that you’re aware of humor, that humor is one of your aesthetic interests.
Blonk: Uh, yeah, well, I think it helps a lot even to bring across other aspects of the work. If there’s humor in one part of the story, it can make another part more bearable.
Barwin: Last night toward the end of the Artaud piece, there was a part where you play two roles: Artaud and a very serious BBC documentary interviewer. “Are you mad?” the interviewer asks Artaud and Artaud responds by saying all this crazy stuff and then continues with some explanatory material. It’s a funny juxtaposition, a funny little scene between this very serious interviewer and Artaud.
Blonk: Yeah. Also, I think it’s important to be able to have access to all the sounds the whole time. It’s more important to me than being able to do virtuoso imitations or copy specific things. It’s important for me to do extreme sounds and then immediately go into a very calm explanatory action [see video clip below] as a demonstration, a transversal unvoiced frictative.
Barwin: Yeah. There’s is that kind of performative play but there’s also, I think, the possibility of opening up the performance to a whole range of vocal and emotional possibilities by imitating of tones as used in society — a dictator or radio announcer, for example — these are all sounds, codes, or “tones” that are available in the vocal repertoire. So it makes sense that these are part of your tools at least as part of these performances, and then you can use them for whatever aesthetic ends that you want.
Barwin: I’m still really interested how you see the distinction between abstract instrumental sound and vocal sound. For example, there’s musical juxtaposition: you can have a piece that’s, say, a pretty quiet chamber music and then all of a sudden it goes to a death metal, crazy-loud freak out, that’s one kind of thing. But if a performer — a vocalist — goes from a really quiet low-affect expression to a very heightened state, there’s also a psychological aspect, an affective aspect, which adds another level to the performance.
Blonk: Yeah, yeah, I see what you mean … Well, in every performance for me there’s an aspect that’s always there: this joy of making sound. And so, I have this piece, about the Prime Minister where I start to say “the Prime Minister finds such utterances extremely inappropriate” and I start taking out the vowels and it ends up like this [see video clip below] And people always ask me, “How do you manage at every performance to be that angry?” That’s what they think — that I’m angry! But for me, it’s the joy in making the sounds. Of course it’s being conveyed that the Prime Minister is very angry or something like that.
Barwin: I love that piece because it works on all those levels. It works on the political level of the Prime Minister and the use of political language, oppression, and censorship — the removal the letters, so there’s that element. There’s the watching-a-performance element of it where you can see a formal process unfolding. So that’s a completely structural formal interest of watching these dropped vowels and the sounds that result. There’s a level where you end up contorted and spluttering as you attempt to pronounce the results of the process. That’s the level where you see that the body is to sound poetry as the page is to textual poetry. There are all these different levels and elements to that particular piece, which does seem different than some of your pieces which are more abstractly musical. They don’t have the extra-music associations, but are more about delving directly into musical meaning or exploration than the Prime Minister piece where you’re talking about language, involving metalevels and all that.
Blonk: I have a series of phonetic etudes — that’s what I call them — the first explores the r and the different ways of pronouncing it. Of course the r is fascinating — it’s pronounced so differently in different languages [see video clip below] so that was the first. It’s a piece for solo voice.
I think for me it’s useful to think about r. But it’s also so much about poetry so much of our environment has to do with phonetics.
Barwin: Oh absolutely — some of your work explores vocal sounds and some of it explores language. So some words actually mean something, and some don’t mean anything but they’re in the structure of language. For example, much of the CD “Dworr Buun,” recorded by your group Braaxtaal, is in an invented language, so it’s about language, not just sound.
Blonk: I explain in this CD that the texts are written in Onderlands, a parallel language to the Dutch. It sounds like Dutch but even native speakers of that language cannot understand it. People who don’t speak Dutch can enjoy its sounds without worrying about meaning because there is no meaning, so they’re not losing anything. But at the same time, they’re exploring different ways of speech in Dutch. There’s a piece in the speech of very upper-class people at a garden party; the drinking song, which is very much in the dialect of where I was born, and there’s one evoking an experience of a preacher or reverend in a very strict Calvinist church.
I remember one moment where I was a kid sitting in the church and suddenly the power went out and it got dark and the old preacher was, I think, reminding the congregation that the earthly light has gone out but the eternal light keeps shining. He kept speaking for like fifteen minutes after.
Barwin: While you sat in the dark. That’s an amazing image.
Blonk: But of course there’s still a glow of hell. Eternal damnation.
Barwin: As is befitting to remind one such as yourself in need of such helpful moral instruction …
Betts: There’s something interesting, too, in the biographical aspect. It’s not the experience or the actual language itself, it’s not the language or the dialect of the tribe that you’re exploring but the “sounds” of your biographical experience.
Blonk: Some of them are that
Barwin: But in a way it’s the variety of how language is used and people experience of it, whether it’s really militaristic or radio language, pseudo-scientific or childlike or clown-like, or like in the Artaud, sounds of madness or of extreme states. So these seem to be important tools for you, the resources you bring to your work, to examine and explore aspects of knowledge, of experience, and the voice.
Blonk: Yeah, there are those such things which are immediate in existing languages, but for me it was an important step to start using the phonetic alphabet to make sound poems, to be able to mix sounds differently with very much more different colors and different textures.
Barwin: Yes, absolutely, that’s very striking to me as a unilingual person, just to be aware of the richness of possibilities of the r — there are so many r’s you can then bring into pieces and hear the possibilities, and then —
Blonk: — and then go beyond that. Because there are whole categories of sounds that are not represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet — important categories which at least I use to make sound. I think there’s no single language in the whole world where you need to use your hands to speak, because it’s not very practical.
Barwin: I wanted to mention something from your Splinks’s CD Consensus, since we were talking about the r. There is this really great point where you are rolling an r and it’s taken over by a marimba doing a tremolo, and I thought it was a really lovely image of an intersection of musical instruments and voice in a way that I hadn’t thought about: how a rolled r is a tremolo, a vocal tremolo, and its rhythm could be played by a marimba.
Blonk: Yeah and there’s another piece on that CD that’s called “Vowelogy” where I’m using the formants of vowels and they are performed by instruments and so you can really hear different vowels being played by violin and synthesizer and so on.
Barwin: Yeah, the intersection between voice and instrument and how they can inhabit the same soundworld. We talked about your work from the point of view of language art, but I’m interested in how you see yourself as a musician. Where you see the division between poetry, sound poetry, and music — if there’s a boundary? You sometimes perform in a musical context, sometimes in a literary context, and sometimes an entirely different context.
Blonk: Yeah for me it’s really a bit of a useless discussion of whether something is sound poetry or music. I should also say it’s often very complex. I’ve been a member for several years of a symposium that was started in Germany. And actually all of the discussion was about if things were poetry or music.
Barwin: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a large monster coming towards me that’s going to kill me. Let’s discuss how to define what it is rather than just escaping from it.
Blonk: Instead of actually talking about the piece, yeah?
Betts: Sometimes these bureaucratic divisions between the genres are used as a way to exclude. Certainly in terms of funding.
Barwin: So, these divisions are not useful then, except, as you say, to bring a richness to the interpretation of how a work relates to a certain tradition. How a work takes a tradition and explores it, takes it in a different direction. You can appreciate what it is for itself, but also at the same time you can appreciate what it might be in its relationship to literature as a way of deepening the experience.
Blonk: Yeah, for me it’s very much all one thing … for instance, the titles I make up for mainly improvised music. The musicians don’t see that when we’re recording. I make up the titles after the fact … Sometimes they’re anagrams … I hope that listeners they will see something there … but most of the listeners are people who have no connection to sound poetry or the tradition of poetry in general and in school.
Barwin: In some of your work with musicians the nature of your engagement with language varies. At one moment you’re performing things that sound as if you’re interacting with text, then you’re interacting with musicians as if your voice were an abstract instrument, and then you return to something that engages with language — is it speech, or is it song, is it text, is it language? There’s an interesting play back and forth between what appears to relate to language and what is more abstract sound.
Blonk: Sometimes I, as it were, step outside what is happening and comment on what’s happening, or I’ll be trying to be a translator and translate what the musicians are doing into another language. Sometime I take that role and see what happens.
Barwin: You also use technology. In one of the sections of the Artaud piece which you performed last night, you used a PlayStation controller to control the computer sounds. And you also used processed vocal sounds. In other work, you perform what sounds like vocal imitations of machines. I’m interested in your approach to the technology, how you think about technology and how it related to the voice, to the body, and to gesture.
Blonk: I was already composing music before I started vocal performance. The aspect of composing, of making, has always been more important for me than being a vocal performer in the sense of performing pieces by other people. But most important to is to create my own material. At some point, I discovered that the potential of the voice was a great source of material. I had the voice but also the potential of the instruments of the people that I was working, but I also like using well, basically, effects and samples of the voice that can extend it even more in the sense of density, register, and several other aspects. So I started using them from a compositional point of view and also in improvising. I learned many of the possibilities from improvising.
At first it was just hardware — effect boxes and after that, software. At first it was just commercially available hardware and software but then I developed things in Max/MSP and things like that. At some point, in 2006, I took a year off of performing, a sabbatical, and I started learning programming languages and seeing what was possible. Really to learn to start from scratch. Also synthesizing sounds.
Betts: The sounds that we were listening to last night, that you were you were playing with a joystick, were those ones that you had composed?
Blonk: There were some long sounds that I did not control with the controller. But they were the result of the manipulation of voice sounds.
Barwin: So then many of the sounds which sound mechanical or synthesized actually have a basis in vocal sounds. And then using a gestural controller also makes a sound somewhat vocal because you’re not flipping switches you’re actually controlling through physical gesture — the movement of the PlayStation controller. Are there sensors which are tracking the movement in three dimensions?
Blonk: There are only two sensors which basically track only two variables. Forward and back and side to side. Of course, I can connect more than one parameter to each movement.
Barwin: That’s another way these computer sounds can enter the vocal realm: through the physicality of gesture. This is in addition to the fact that original sounds themselves are derived from vocal sounds.
Blonk: Yes, it’s important for spectators to have some link with why the sound changes. It’s not very interesting for the people to do like many laptop performances where there is nothing visible happening in the performance and we have no idea where the sounds come from. I always think about that: why should I listen to this in a concert? I’d rather have it on a CD, except for when they use multichannel systems, then it’s different and it can be interesting to go to the concert.
Barwin: So there should be some connection between the performance or the performer and the sound being produced in some way that’s meaningful to the audience. That makes a lot of sense.
And in the Artaud piece performed last night, there was a lot of talk about the body, about bodily functions — talking about shit, about organs, about the body — so it made sense to have organic sounds from the computer that seem to relate to the body. And it provided some really funny juxtapositions. Also, there were sounds that sounded like body sounds which then changed and sounded like something else. That was a really interesting play with sound and association, or sound and source. That was really great.
A question about tradition. I see quite a few people from the sound poetry and avant vocal tradition who do this experimental work but are also advocates and performers of much older work — by Artaud, Hugo Ball, Schwitters, and so on. You often see this work performed in the repertoire of the vocalists. Do you see this work as meaningful to you? As canonic? Are you arguing for it, trying to keep it alive and in the repertoire?
Blonk: Yeah, I think not so such any more, but when I started performing Ursonate, these pieces were very much neglected. It felt for me when I discovered the piece in 1979, it really felt for me like I’d discovered a masterpiece. I wanted to fight for this piece and perform it a lot. I’d do performances in punk clubs where I was opening for a band. And the audience would just want talk and have a beer or listen to the band and not have to listen to this stuff. So they were throwing beer at me — I had many such unpleasant experiences. But I always finished the piece.
Barwin: You’d notice the people throwing the beer at you, but you wouldn’t notice the people who were interested, though.
Blonk: There were people interested, yes.
Barwin: Less obvious, certainly than people throwing beer.
Blonk: Sure. There were probably people cheering, also.
Barwin: I like the idea of choosing a challenging performance situation. That’d be a challenge to perform there. It’s a very different situation but has a lot of commonality in a certain sense with that audience that might have originally heard it. It’s different that those people who walk into a punk club to play the Bach Solo Cello Suites.
Blonk: I’ve performed the Ursonate at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, at the official series for subscribers. I had to perform in between two traditional sonatas for very middle-aged, typical classical music audience. They were taking out their handkerchiefs so they could laugh into them. [Laughter.]
Barwin: But it’s like I was saying about these performances in relation to traditional music or poetry, recontextualizing something, you learn something about the piece.
You hear a sound piece differently at a punk show than in a traditional concert hall. Each reveals an aspect of the piece in relationship to the tradition that it appears beside. I think it’s a good way to gain another understanding of the piece.
You also work with multimedia. You have videos of performances. Some are recordings of performances which are then modified. Some are abstract videos which are works in themselves.
Blonk: It’s a very recent thing for me. It’s only in the past year that I have been exploring this. I’m still developing them. I have some longer videos that if some opportunity shows up, I would like to show in an installation context. I have had some small exhibitions of my sound poetry scores and visual poetry usually in combination with a performance, so I can imagine at some point, an exhibition with projections of the score and so on.
Barwin: There’s a video posted on your website, Flababble: It’s very simple but really charming and fascinating. It’s a recording in very slow motion of you shaking your head from side to side while making a “cheek squeak” sound. I’m fascinated by how this simple and captivating thing explores what actually happens, a close examination of what happens to the face when you make a sound. And all that is changed is one parameter: time. It’s a really mesmerizing video.
Blonk: I was very surprised myself at seeing what’s really happening when you do that. It only moves this much if you do it really fast. [Shakes head and makes “cheek squeak” sound.] But at normal speed, it’s too fast to see what’s actually happening.
Barwin: It’s like those pictures of the horse by Muybridge, where you see all four feet actually leave the ground. There’s a real poetic beauty about seeing something taken out of its original time context. But going back to what I was saying before, I see a strange beauty in it, but also a playing with the grotesque and the extreme because you can see the face moving so radically, and you think, okay, is this ugly? Is this beautiful? What is this? And you have to consider what you think of what people do, what you think of the body and how we perceive things through the mediation of time.
Blonk: And there’s also, yeah so this is just a video shown in cheap slow motion. [Laughs.]
Barwin: Yeah. But there’s a whole range of Internet work that is deliberately lo-fi. It’s like the aesthetic of badly Xeroxed zines and things that are trying to have that look. There’s a charm to that look. And in a way, this is one idea, one approach. It’d be another kind of piece if it were done with extremely high production values. It’d have a different effect.
Finally, I like to ask you about scores and notation. And also about text-based work with computer generated texts. So I guess: scores and generated text.
Blonk: Yeah, I have several of these generated texts taking very well known poems in Dutch and German and making variations of them with a computer them using Markov chains.
And of course they were transformed into nonsense language, but there were still enough points of reference for people to recognize them. At some point, during a reading, more and more people recognize the source.
Barwin: It’s fascinating, the highly advanced pattern-recognition that we have, especially with regard to language.
Blonk: I’ve also made Markov variations of my own sound poems. I created a series of variations and then I used another series of mathematical procedures to generate more texts.
Barwin: It’s like what you were talking about earlier. How simple mathematical processes result in these rich experiences because they’re using language and using vocality. And a single regular and mechanical procedure becomes variegated and complex when multiple generations of the process are used. And then added to that, when these texts are performed, there’s another whole level of organic, performative richness.
Barwin: Jaap, thanks very much for this discussion. It’s been fantastic.
Blonk: Thank you.
Barwin: Now I’m going into the practice room to practice my voiceless velar fricatives. I’ve an exam at the Royal Blonk Conversatory of Mouth Art, later this month …
Kiki Smith with Leonard Schwartz on Cross Cultural Poetics in 2011
Editorial note: Kiki Smith (b. 1954) is an artist, sculptor, and printmaker. Her work can be seen or has been shown in countless museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. An exhibition of her work Prints, Books and Things, ran at the New York MoMA from December 5, 2003 to March 8, 2004, and was followed by an interactive website. The following conversation focuses on Smith’s collaboration with poet Leslie Scalapino, The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water (2010). A digital facsimile of the book is available from Reed Digital Collections. The show originally aired on KAOS 89.3 FM as part of Cross Cultural Poetics on February 6, 2011. The following was transcribed by Michael Nardone. You can listen to the full recording of the program at PennSound here. We would like to thank Kiki Smith and The Pace Gallery for permission to publish this interview. — Katie L. Price
Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest, on the phone from New York, is Kiki Smith. She is an internationally known artist working in multiple mediums. About her work, it has been written, “Smith represents the female body as one of resistance and transgression. Her women reject the graceful refined poses of Western statuary, and startle by performing extremely private acts in a remarkably public and matter of fact manner.” The work of Kiki Smith’s I’d like to talk about today is a collaboration she’s done with the poet Leslie Scalapino: The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, published by Granary Books in an edition of forty or forty-five copies. We have one copy here at the Evergreen State College in our rare books room. Welcome, Kiki Smith.
Kiki Smith: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Schwartz: Wonderful to have you on the line. I know you’re a busy person and working on many projects all at once. Can you say a little bit about your collaboration with the poet Leslie Scalapino?
Smith: Sure. Leslie had asked me to write her — I don’t know what you call those — a blurb?
Schwartz: A blurb, sure.
Smith: For the back of a book that she made, also with Granary Press, and I did. At that time, I didn’t know she was friends with my friend Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and I didn’t know her work particularly well, although I had heard her read. I’m not somebody who writes blurbs. I don’t know much about things like that, but I did it nonetheless. Then thinking about it, I wrote that I really liked her work. I think she suggested to me then that we could make something together. I didn’t have any idea particularly what to do. I made some very strange drawings, and then I thought she could make something that went with them. We tried to think of who could publish it, and that took a while. We asked Granary, and they weren’t interested in doing it at the time because they had other commitments. So, we didn’t really know where to go with it, but we sort of made it nonetheless. Leslie also rewrote and reworked it, and then eventually Granary Press came back to me, just by chance, and asked if we would like to do it. They were ready, I guess. We said, “Yes, we would love to,” and then we started working on it.
Schwartz: There was a period in the past — I associate it with the heyday of the New York School — in which poets and painters worked together collaboratively in really exciting ways more often. That’s rarer these days, and you are an artist who has worked with poets. You mentioned Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and now Leslie Scalapino. Let me first just say, the book is extraordinary. It includes digital prints of your images, each individually hand-colored by you, Kiki Smith. The book is accordion-bound in Ultrasuede, a pleasure to the touch. There are forty-five copies. Each one of those copies is very expensive. It’s very much an art object or a book art project, as well, to which one makes pilgrimage in order to find a copy and read the book, or to read the book and look at the book. Can you say, though, a little bit about the relationship between word and image for you in this book?
Smith: I periodically like to use words in relationship to my work. Probably because, historically, how language and image go together is very interesting. It has a rich history pre-book: in painting, and then in stone. Like the Sumerians or the Egyptians, where it’s pictorial and language at the same time, or like altar paintings of the saints with words coming out of their mouths, or Nancy Spiro’s work. She’s worked very extensively with text. Before that, when I was younger, I mostly worked with my own text. Since I met Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, we’ve made maybe four projects together. And I’ve worked with Leslie and Anne Waldman a little bit, and different people. Henri Cole and I made a broadside together. For me, it’s just a pleasure. I’ve also made several books with Lynne Tillman, who’s more a fiction writer. But it’s interesting because it can’t be illustration. You can’t make something that is an illustration of something, because then it’s just working for somebody else, which I’m not that into. Each one that I’ve done, for the most part, has really been a collaboration, and sometimes it comes just from talking. Mei-mei and I just talked for a long time, and then we did things simultaneous to one another. With Leslie, I actually made the work first, you know, in a certain way. She wasn’t making an illustration either; she made something that could couple it, that could coincide in the same space. In certain ways they go together, and in other ways they move apart from one another, or are antithetical to one another’s meaning. I like that it’s not a one-to-one correlation. It’s just possibility.
Schwartz: That’s really intriguing. I do understand that the risk or the threat is that something becomes illustrative — that the image becomes illustrative of the poem, or the poem …
Smith: Which also has a great history. You know, it has to work, even if very superficially. Mei-mei will make poems and I just use all the animals she mentions in the poems, or all the different kinds of natural phenomenon. I’ll just make images of those. In that way it’s maybe closer [to illustration], but it’s just whatever is pleasurable, and also — in terms of printmaking or technically working with paper masters or master printmakers — what’s interesting. How to push that: your use of and the form of a book.
Schwartz: You do mention that your sequence of forty-three drawings had been, I think, completed beforehand, and it’s titled Women Being Eaten by Animals. About those drawings, Scalapino writes, “I wrote the poem using the sense of an unalterable past occurrence: One female, apparently the same girl, is repeatedly, in very similar images as variations, bitten and clawed by a leopard-like, lion-like animal. Both person and animal have abstracted features, giving the impression of innocence or opaqueness. As in a dream of similar actions or a dream of a single, timeless action, the girl flecked with blood while being unaltered by the animal’s touch, there is no representation of motion except stillness of the figures floating in space of page. Neither the girl nor the animal articulate expression, as if phenomena of feeling(s) do not exist.” Kiki, we are on radio and we can’t show the images, so I’ve read this text on your images. Is there anything you can say about the extraordinarily sensual and extraordinarily disturbing quality of the woman being eaten by animals?
Smith: I was asked by the Museum of Modern Art, by Wendy Whiteman, if I wanted to make an exhibition of my prints, probably a little less than ten years ago. I wanted a hook for it because it was Queens. She asked me if I wanted to make a billboard, which never happened, but I immediately thought of Rousseau’s — I think it’s a lion or leopard attacking the white antelope [Henri Rousseau’s The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope] — and it has the same trajectory of those animals. There is a central animal and they are in some big jungle, and then the other one comes lunging into it. So, I thought about that: that most animals are actually eaten. They leave the planet being eaten alive. I had to think about that for a while, unpleasantly. But then I also thought that, for me, it was more how you get out of your body. How you get out of your own ego-consciousness. What penetrates and what is penetrant to you, and what gives you freedom at the same time? I think about animals a lot in very convoluted ways, but part of it is this sort of shamanistic space of people either acting as animals, or making associative attributes to animals, or anthropomorphizing animals. It moves around. But it’s just my own convoluted entertainment of how to escape “me,” or something like that. It’s not unpleasant any of it. It’s also [this idea that we are] not to be separate from the rest of the universe, that we have this idea of autonomy, but really we’re a part of a whole.
Schwartz: I certainly was moved by that aspect of the work: the absence of privileging the human over the animal, that there is a kind of offering being made. I also thought of certain images from early Buddhist tradition — I think it may be Indian Buddhism, but it may be elsewhere as well — that illustrate the story of the Buddha offering himself to the starving tiger to be eaten. I know your work tends to get associated with a certain kind of relationship to Catholic spirituality, but I kept thinking of that image of the Buddha’s offering of himself to the tiger.
Smith: That’s interesting. My mother was a Catholic. She converted to Catholicism from some other religion, but then she converted to, or rather, practiced Hinduism and Buddhism. So, I think it’s true to say that I grew up in a mixed household. And anyone, from the sixties anyway, is influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and many other religions just by the nature of growing up in the sixties, which I did. Because, you know, the East … For the last hundred years in art and in philosophy, but very directly in art, Hinduism and different parts of Buddhism, certainly Zen Buddhism, were a very big influence. I’m very interested in the iconography of religions, much more than I’m actually interested in belief systems. I feel like being Catholic was enough for me for one lifetime. But I love the iconographies that are associated with belief systems. I find that one can be playful in those histories also.
Schwartz: Absolutely. I just spoke with Ibrahim Muhawi — who is a translator of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet — about the difference between metaphor and symbol. Symbol has to do with identification, he argued, in locking us into a body, or locking us into a particular tradition; whereas metaphor opens things up, retains a relationship to a thing to be sure, but also opens it up to multiple possibilities. Also, of course, Leslie Scalapino as a poet is very influenced by Zen Buddhism as a practicing Buddhist.
Smith: She was a really fascinating person, someone who was very abstract in her thinking. But I think the thing that I liked about — more when you listen to her, if you let it go inside of you — I always thought it was a little like standing behind thought. Like you’re standing behind thought, just observing it. And it goes into you, in a way that you don’t have to be analytic. You can, but you don’t have to [in order] to get it. The words penetrate you and then make a consciousness inside of you. I mean, she has an enormous breadth of work. She had dynamic energy for her work and for many other artists’ work, and supported other artists: artists and writers both.
Schwartz: Sure, theater as well. I think dance groups have been involved as well.
Smith: Yes, dance. I recently saw her piece with Fiona Templeton.
Schwartz: Kiki, can I read a short passage from the poem?
Schwartz: This is from Kiki Smith and Leslie Scalapino’s The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water.
[Reads from The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water.]
So, that was Leslie Scalapino from her collaboration with Kiki Smith, The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, published by Granary Books. That last line I stopped at, “hierarchy is incomprehensible,” also really speaks, to me, to the relationship between the two forms: your drawing of the female form and the animal form. Kiki, can I ask you, do you have other specifically poetry and art collaborations that you are working on currently?
Smith: Uh … I don’t know. I can’t remember! [Laughter.] I’m trying to make stained glass windows with songs, with words from songs. It’s something I’ve wanted to make for about ten years, so I finally decided to make it now. It’s with a song called “Tramp on the Street,” which was written in the late 1800s. I’m always, in my fantasy life, making chapels, which I make and don’t belong anywhere. No one seems to have the slightest interest in them, but I need to make them. I feel very passionate about making them, so I’m going off to Germany for the next month to paint some more. And besides that, I don’t know. The only thing I did want to say is that “the animal is in the world like water in water” is from George Bataille, and I think it’s from Theory of Religion. I’m trying to plod my way through reading that, which is not easy.
Schwartz: Thank you for mentioning that because I did note that “the animal is in the world like water in water” is a quote from Bataille. And I did think about the collaborations between George Bataille and Hans Bellmer, their edition of The Story of the Eye.
Smith: Yes, yes.
Schwartz: Do you know Bellmer’s poupées, those dolls, those infinitely flexible female forms with a certain kind of violence towards the form built into them? Do you have a view or interest in Bellmer?
Smith: When I was young I hated them. I thought that this was really terrible, and as I got older I loved them. I absolutely love them. I had a short show at the ICP, the International Center of Photography in New York, and one of the big hooks for me was that there was an extensive Bellmer show downstairs in the basement exhibition space, and I had the upstairs. It was just heaven for me to see it. Mine is like a super soft version. But mine is … it’s not transgressive, but a more open possibility of being in a body. Obviously both have their own weird sexual connotations. He was really deep in it. This transgressive aspect of being in a body, maybe there is some relationship to Catholicism in that because it’s caught in the body, the dilemmas of being in a body. I don’t know. But I’m crazy about his work. His etchings, his photographs, his coloring, hand-coloring the photographs, setting up props, making sculpture and then using it as an object for photography, or as an object to be acted on in a theatrical way or something. There are just a million interesting ways to think about it.
Schwartz: It’s really intriguing to hear you talk about Bellmer. It also makes me think of another artist of that period, André Masson, and of a particular story he tells of being left for dead on the battlefield in World War I with his chest blown open, and no longer being able to tell the difference between where his chest leaves off and the sky begins as he looks up. And then wanting to spend the rest of his life trying to paint that powerful color that he saw when he couldn’t tell the difference any longer between his body and the sky.
Smith: Well, I think that’s what George Bataille is talking about too: the pre-ego-conscious space of being not-separate in the world. But also, I studied to be an emergency medical technician, and we had to work in the emergency room and someone had a big knife wound, and I realized that I couldn’t have cared less that my purpose was to stitch him up. All I thought was, “Wow, isn’t that great, the outsides and the insides at the same time!” [Laughter.] So I thought I wasn’t suited for a medical career.
Schwartz: Right, right, you’re no longer in the field. No one can call in and try and sue you for enjoying it aesthetically.
Smith: I guess because it gave me something to think about. Yes, that space between here and there.
Schwartz: That’s really powerful, Kiki. How great to hear your thoughts on Bellmer and Bataille, as well as on Scalapino and the book you’ve just completed. Let me just mention that there are forty-five copies of The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water. One of those copies exists at the Evergreen State College’s rare books room. Please come by the college and the library to look at it on the premises. And Kiki Smith, thank you so much for coming to the phone and talking with me.
Smith: Thank you. Thank you. It’s my pleasure to talk to you. I also want to say that Leslie was an extraordinary person. For me, it was a great honor to work with her.
Schwartz: We all miss her terribly, and it’s great to have this work of hers available to us.
Smith: It is wonderful.
© Kiki Smith, courtesy the Pace Gallery.
Ted Berrigan with Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson on 'In the American Tree,' 1978
Editorial note: Ted Berrigan (1934–1983) was the author of several books of poetry, including The Sonnets (1964), Nothing for You (1978), Easter Monday (1978), and A Certain Slant of Sunlight (1988). He also wrote a novel, Clear the Range (1977). His poems were collected in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan by University of California Press in 2005. This interview was originally broadcast on Berkeley’s KPFA-FM on August 11, 1978, as part of In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets, hosted by Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson. Listen to the program at PennSound here. The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Katie L. Price
Lyn Hejinian: This is In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets. I’m Lyn Hejinian and with me tonight is my cohost Kit Robinson, and a very special guest. Kit, why don’t you introduce.
Kit Robinson: It’s my extreme pleasure to introduce tonight, which is actually this morning, Ted Berrigan, who has arrived from New York, and is going to read for us.
Ted Berrigan: I’ll read some recent poems to start the show off. This is a poem called “Whitman in Black” and it’s from a new book, which I just finished, of fifty poems. It’s called Easter Monday.
[Reads “Whitman in Black.” MP3]
And now I’ll read one that’s maybe a couple of years older, but not so dissimilar from that. This poem, in its title … well, the title contains my entire sense of what it’s like to live now: in this century, in this time, in the United States of America. Or maybe anywhere else for that matter. It’s called “Buddha on the Bounty.” The Bounty being the ship, His Majesty’s ship, the Bounty from “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
[Reads “Buddha on the Bounty.” MP3]
And I’ll read this poem, which actually you requested me to read, Kit, called “Here I Live.” It’s from my book Nothing for You, which was published earlier this year by Angel Hair Books in Lenox, Massachusetts. I wrote this poem, I think I wrote it in maybe 1969. I wrote it by a method. In fact, I write everything by a method, but I wrote this by a method in quotes. It’s called “Here I Live.”
[Reads “Here I Live.” MP3]
Robinson: The counting thing is like, I mean, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do in a poem, except that you’re actually counting. When you say “one,” “two” and “three,” you know, the syllables have a certain duration and a certain rhythm. You’ve done that in other work too, right? You’ve got that thing when you count, right, with the numbers?
Berrigan: What other work?
Robinson: Actually, in The Sonnets, there’s a point when you say “one, two, three, four,” right?
Berrigan: I don’t remember. But I’m sure I have done that before because it’s something I do, in fact.
Well, in this poem, the person talking is named “I,” and that’s really all the name you are given for the person talking. There was a need to give some definition to that character. The clearest definition I could think to give in the state — the psychophysiological state that that person was in when saying these things — was to show that that person was made up of, constituted, a nexus of parts named one, two, three, and four. I mean it could have been named I, you, he, and it. It’s pronouns broken down to a more —
Robinson: So there are planes, so that it’s like an x-axis, a y-axis —
Berrigan: There are planes, yeah.
Robinson: And then there’s a time axis —
Berrigan: You just mentioned the secret actually of my entire poetry, which is that it has to do with planes: of reality, of perception … Not of reality, because that sounds theoretical, but with planes of being, not in a theoretical sense but in a sense of trying to get accurate. I am talking to you, but he is thinking about it while I am talking. You know?
Robinson: And “they”: they said something about this, too. And other peoples’ voices come into your work.
Berrigan: “They” are over there, though, and “I” is here. And “he” is a little bit over there but is near.
Robinson: So there’s an incredible sense of location. Like when you say three hundred and sixty degrees, you get a center.
Robinson: And you get a circumference, and a point at the center.
Berrigan: There’s something feminine if you can actually get three hundred and sixty degrees. I didn’t realize, I suppose, until a few months ago that you could have planes and still have a circle, which is a really nice idea.
Berrigan: All that sounds so abstract, but it’s not abstract when I’m doing it. It’s simply trying to have something exist without describing it: to name its parts rather than describe it. Description is slow. I can’t keep up to the pace of my metabolism when I am using description usually, but I can do it while simply naming things. You know I don’t use images much but I will name an image. I mean, I will say “a tree.” I don’t try to make a picture of a tree for you. I assume —
Hejinian: What about in your novel, in Clear the Range?
Berrigan: What about it? I mean, that’s another story entirely. I mean, that’s a poet’s novel. I wrote it as this poem, was writing it … It’s a genre work, a genre which I was thoroughly familiar with: the Western novel. And I used the genre then to make everything be very slow and to make this setting in which there was a hero and a villain — almost like Commedia dell’arte. Then there was a girl. And then there were various other characters, including a horse and a mule. But, I mean, the main thing that was going on was that the villain and the hero were constantly having these Western confrontations, in which they didn’t finally pull out their guns and shoot each other. And they were very similar sort of, except that the villain was obviously villainous, and the hero was obviously the hero. Anytime one of them did anything like go into a restaurant or a bar, then the other one was a waiter or the bartender, and they had these confrontations every minute. I think I thought I was making something similar to Camus’s book The Stranger, in which the guy, Meursault, the hero, walks around and becomes totally bemused by the sun smashing on his brain every minute and in the end, it seems, he killed somebody. He doesn’t quite remember, or he does remember but he doesn’t know why he did it or any thing in particular, but he did it for a very good reason: it’s too hot.
Robinson: So how does logic or narrative get you to that? Like “too hot” you know? Like you got to move, right? In this poem —
Berrigan: Wait a minute. You’ll have to explain this question. What is that?
Robinson: Well, like, okay, so you’ve got a narrative in Clear the Range.
Berrigan: Yeah, but it’s a given. The narrative path is given by a genre, whereas in poems it’s not. Or maybe it is, but in a different way.
Robinson: Right. But it seems like in this poem, “Here I Live,” what does that is not narrative but it is some kind of sense of logic, you know. In the end you say, “And so. One. Two. Three,” like that follows.
Berrigan: What does it say? It says —
Robinson: Does it?
Berrigan: No, it doesn’t. But it practically does.
Robinson: Well, okay —
Berrigan: My sense, I suppose, quite often when I am writing poems, is that I’m going to tell a story. So, in that sense, it is kind of narrative. It is narrative in the kind of sense that it’s telling, but I don’t really want to tell. I don’t want to be this teller. I don’t mind being a teller of tales in which you make a story. I’m making something, but I’m also telling. So, I start out to tell a story, and I have this structure of the story, but I’m not very interested in the story, but rather in the feelings involved. And so I take out as much of the plot as possible. I mean I just leave out as much of the plot as possible. I don’t even consider most of the plot. I simply put in the complete structure —
Robinson: You’ve got scaffolding —
Berrigan: Yeah, scaffolding, sure, the architecture of the story. And then I leave out, and put in the things that are necessary. In that sense it’s a kind of impressionism, but it’s not an impressionism of making pictures of impressions, but of using words to get details, because I’m mostly involved with rhythm, tempo, pace, color, and so on in order to get the feeling that’s being involved. And yet, pure feeling is not enough. You need to have some sense of what kind of person is talking in this poem. And I do try and give you that. Not the person that I think I might be all the time, but the person that is talking in that poem. And there you have it. I mean, I give you a story, but I don’t want —
Robinson: But the poem is there —
Berrigan: I’m not interested in telling you —
The poem needs to exist very much like a tree.
Hejinian: We’re going to continue on now with our guest Ted Berrigan. This is In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets. Ted, you have a sequence of things?
Berrigan: Yeah, I’ll read three poems from a book, which I just completed three or four months ago. It’s called Easter Monday, and it’s fifty poems. Most of them are close to the same size, my favorite size, which is about fourteen lines. Well, they are sonnets, in fact, but they don’t really work at that too much. Not all of them are. Some are longer and none are shorter. But some are quite long, quite a bit longer, because they just got longer sometimes, and when they did I just let them be longer. Fifty was an arbitrary number I decided upon ahead of time based on a theory that if you do two or three works that are fairly similar, and you liked them — even if you just do one, you do one work and you like it and can do another one that’s similar to it — there’s no particular reason to do the next one, a second one, and there’s no particular reason not to do it. But if you feel you have a number of them there, you can set yourself this arbitrary number and just decide, well, I’ll do fifty of these. Then you’re sort of clear as to what you’ll be doing for a while. I got that idea from a painter friend of mine. So, I did fifty of these, and it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I said that I would do fifty. It’s called Easter Monday because it’s really about a second life: life beginning about the age of forty. And since it is personal … I mean it is the second half of one’s life. It’s about being young, a young older person. I was involved in a second marriage, second family, but even if I hadn’t been, it still could have been the same thing. Consequently, it is like Easter Monday. Easter Friday you die and Easter Sunday you rise again from the dead, and that’s really glorious and wonderful, but then Easter Monday you have to get this job and support yourself for the rest of your life. [Laughter.] The poems were all written two or three or four years from the time I was thirty-eight until last year when I was forty-two. So they are not all about one’s whole second life, but rather about being aware of coming into that. When I say they are about something, I strictly mean “about.” I don’t know what each poem is about particularly. I could study them and tell you what each one is about, but that’s not what I’m willing to do. Each poem is a very separate poem. They are not like my work, The Sonnets, where, although every poem can stand on its own, they were sequential and serial in a certain way. There is some repetition of things, but it’s really like fifty separate works which were done knowing I was going to do fifty, and therefore they relate that way. I knew what the themes were, though I didn’t work at them too hard. I just knew what they were. I’ll read the first three. The first one is called “Chicago Morning.” It’s dedicated to the painter Phil Guston simply because I was looking at a painting of his while I was writing. It was hanging on the wall over the typewriter, and so I actually used some things in his painting to refer to when I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
[Reads “Chicago Morning.” MP3]
The second one is called “New Town.” New Town is a section of Chicago.
[Reads “New Town.” MP3 ]
“The End,” this is the third one. And these are the first three, actually, that were written. And it was after writing these three that I then decided I would go on and write forty-seven more. Which is why I call this “The End” because I, you know, I wanted to get the end out of the way right away.
[Reads “The End.” MP3]
I’m going to read one more of those since my voice started to click in about the middle of the third one. This is one that came later, maybe about the thirtieth one. This is a made work, and it was made from a master list in a psychology textbook. The title of it is “From a List of Delusions of the Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” And this is a fairly classical sonnet of fourteen lines, which works, in fact, in three fours and a two.
[Reads “From a List of Delusions of the Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” MP3]
Hejinian: What a list!
Berrigan: Yeah, well, the children are burning. And we are those children. And they are those children too. And they are not insane. All those things are very true. I mean, evil chemicals are in the air.
Hejinian: And they are poor.
Berrigan: And we are in the control of another power. We have stolen something, namely those lines. [Laughter.] I mean, one has to be as witty as one can in the face of the Holocaust.
Hejinian: You mentioned earlier on one of the earlier poems in the first part of this show about montage.
Berrigan: No, Kit mentioned it. I don’t use such highfalutin words.
Hejinian: Does collage or montage technique come into your work at all, consciously? I mean, is that one of the methods that you use?
Berrigan: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, I use any possible way of making words. And I don’t remember it too much now. I mean, I just do what it is I do. When I was doing things early on and learning how to make poems my way, I was very heavily influenced by paintings, and by music as well, but to talk just about one thing … On one level, I was tremendously influenced by Cubism, basically because I see flat anyway, and I am interested in planes. When I first saw Cubist paintings, it seemed to me they made great sense. I’m sure that was a misunderstanding in many ways, but they made great sense to me. And then I followed that immediately into the use of collage, and the idea of making assemblages, all sorts of things like that. Sure, I’ll use any material from anywhere, and I like to do it. And I will; I’ll make works like that one that I just read which is made entirely of material, selected material, from one particular source. Sometimes I collect material. I write it down in notebooks when I’m reading. I like to read. I read all the time, all sorts of things. If something strikes me by how it sounds, if it sounds like something that I actually might have thought if I were thinking that way in those very words, I might copy it in a notebook. Then I’ll use it later in some poem because sometimes when I’m making poems, I just thumb through my notebooks and put in anything that seems appropriate to what I’ve already put in. Of course, I don’t credit the sources. Why should I? Those that recognize them will see where it comes from, and get some added sensual brain cell pleasure from noticing it, and those that don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway. I mean, I don’t mind if I don’t make up all my own words. Yeah, I use all sorts of techniques like that. I read in a book once that someone said — it would be nice if it were Whitehead that said it — but it was someone like that who said, “No great art without great theories.” And I believed it. So I have great theories, and I can’t entirely remember what they are. But I remember when I conceived them initially, and I still go by them, even if I don’t remember the theories too well. I have millions of theories that have to do with rules for writing, ways to write and ways to make things. For example, that poem that I read called “Cranston, Near the City Line,” part of the method that I used, the rules I used governing it when I wrote it, had to do with some of the ideas that Kenneth Koch used teaching poetry writing to old people in nursing homes.
Hejinian: Oh, that wonderful book that he has.
Berrigan: It was something like six ideas that he used, and I tried to see somehow if I could use all six in one poem without having it be a poem by an old person. I didn’t want to go to a nursing home and do it.
Hejinian: Or by Kenneth Koch.
Berrigan: Yeah, well, I don’t have to worry about writing poems by Kenneth Koch, because he’s a Harvard educated guy. Kenneth is a wonderful poet, but, as Ron Padgett said, poets like Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, they’re too clean actually. Those guys are very clean. I mean, that’s not a criticism, it’s just a joke.
Robinson: I wanted to ask you about rhyme. I noticed a few rhymes in your poems, but I sort of have a sense that there were even rhymes there that I didn’t hear because —
Berrigan: I’m sure there were —
Robinson: Because there were delayed rhymes. Like in the first one that you read, you’re talking about hearing other peoples’ voices, then you say “the soup.” And my take on that was that the soup was like alphabet soup or something.
Berrigan: That take is included in the word.
Berrigan: I mean, I’m not as imaginative as that, but once I will think of a word. Then I can see how that can work. That’s actually the way everything looked out the window in Chicago in the morning.
Robinson: The soup, right. The air … And then you get to the Loop, like it was a really long-delayed rhyme, like four lines later —
Berrigan: I’m glad you pointed that out.
Robinson: But it was a stretch. And the same thing happened from the title to the last line, because the title is “Chicago” and the last line is “Europe at night,” which is almost like a negative or something, you know. So, when you’re writing, do you have a sense that you’re holding something in your short-term memory that you’re going to turn around, but you don’t want to do it yet?
Berrigan: Yeah, that’s a really accurate way of putting it, I think. I love rhyme and I love even just mental rhyme. Every kind of rhyme, I love it. One of my most favorite poems is “Annabel Lee.” I also like Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper.” I like rhyme a lot and I feel that, in the way that one actually says one’s words now, that there is room everywhere for rhyme. That is, when you think of a poem like “Annabel Lee,” written in measure, I mean, written in a really strict measure, and you think of it as how your learned it in school in the sixth grade, seventh grade, whatever, and there are lines that say: “I was a child and she was a child, / in our kingdom by the sea: / but we loved with a love that was more than love — / me and my Annabel Lee.” That sounds. That’s music. But, in fact, if you think of how you would say it if you were saying that, you know, if you were telling somebody that, and it was this quite significant story, and you would say actually: “I was a child and she was a child in our kingdom by the sea, but we loved with a love that was more than love, me and my Annabel Lee.”
Robinson: It’s like the difficulty of actually saying that —
Berrigan: It’s the movement of stress, right. When you put the stress of the emotion on it, rather than the stress of the measure, then you have two beats, two measures going at once, two kinds of melody. That’s actually what I do. That’s where I’m avant-garde. I believe that you can have two melodies simultaneously. I don’t measure. I don’t use —
Robinson: But you get a modulation that you can feel.
Berrigan: Yeah. Clark Coolidge said to me once that I loved old-fashioned music, and you can see it in my works. And he meant it as a compliment, because what I do is take it out of the heart of the matter, and put it all on the surface. It’s kind of like putting the skeleton on the outside in some ways.
Robinson: That’s a very strict formalism in a way.
Berrigan: Yeah, it’s like if you could consider that de Kooning and Vermeer are doing the same thing, then you have a sense of what it is I would like to do.
Robinson: Right, landscape and the body.
Berrigan: It’s just that formalism, that kind of formalism. I’m strictly a formalist. I mean, if I think of a phrase and I have a feeling to write, and then if I don’t have a formal idea, I couldn’t even write. I couldn’t go on. As soon as I have a feeling, and perhaps a sense of the melody, a phrase in the melody, and a few words, then I’m reaching for some kind of formal idea. Then I work with that and against it.
Berrigan: I’ll go directly with the formal idea, or I’ll start to go with it and then try to introduce counter-measures to keep myself from achieving it until such time as I can achieve it. Can I read something else? This is a poem from quite early, and then I’ll read a fairly recent one. We’ll see if they are similar, because I think they are totally similar. Here’s a poem I wrote in 1962, and it’s called “Personal Poem #9.”
[Reads “Personal Poem #9.” MP3]
That was written in 1962. Here’s something I wrote maybe about five years ago, 1973. This is perhaps a little more wordy, but maybe there’s some similarity. This is called “Crystal.”
[Reads “Crystal.” MP3]
Hejinian: I hear that one as more feminine and more tough.
Berrigan: Yeah, it is more feminine. I was really, in 1962, when I was in this certain state, I was twenty-eight and I was butch, actually. I was quite aggressive about everything. Now I’m more campy, but I’ve got to erase that part of the tape — [Laughter.] But by ten years later, I was more able to be. I was able to be mellower about my furies, and more expressive perhaps of my loves, kind of. I wasn’t really having to hack my way through the undergrowth of daily reality so much. I realized that nobody really cared about what I did. So, it was all right to do it well.
Hejinian: That’s part of the liberation of the second half of the life.
Berrigan: Right. I had my … I had been liberated as a woman, right.
Berrigan: I had suffered the pleasures of woman’s liberation for myself. Now I have to suffer the pleasures of women.
Berrigan: I should read a work that will be the summation of my entire life and career, right? Do I have any works like that? Yeah, maybe I do.
Hejinian: The once and future poem.
Berrigan: This is a regression to an earlier kind of thing. It’s called “Three Pages.” It’s for Jack Collom.
[Reads “Three Pages.” MP3]
Robinson: And on that note —
Berrigan: I’ll close with a very short poem actually. It’s called “Remembered Poem.”
[Reads “Remembered Poem.” MP3]
Hejinian: Thanks, Ted, very much for coming in. It’s been a treat having you here.
Berrigan: Thank you.
Robinson: Tune in next week at the same time.
Aaron Shurin’s correspondences
The first time I read an Aaron Shurin poem, I entered another poetic country where the sound of language, its gorgeous rhythms and contours, coalesced with image. I didn’t fully understand intellectually what the poem was “about,” but I did get the feeling it gave off. I interviewed Shurin recently, hoping to answer some of my questions about his writing process. On the surface, Shurin’s verse can appear confessional since many of his poems look autobiographical. In “The Wheel” from Into Distances, the speaker says, “I’m sitting here — the failure of things — as one is — all this complicated material must be beautiful. To speak about the white heat of iron — it seems cold — wrapped in a firm hand of nature — words are also white-hot. I was finding more that isn’t perfect, and feel older in order to ripen.” Much of his language and imagery emerges from associative thought, a skillful rendering of self as processed through language. In his prose poems in particular, Shurin borrows words and phrases from others, making them his own lens on the inner and outer worlds, allowing him to manifest many selves; they are all both him and not him. Though some words don’t necessarily originate with Shurin, they sound as if they do.
In describing how he appropriates the language he finds in his sources, Shurin says, “I re-route my compositional habits and my predictive combinations … Even predictive lexicon. So I had to be careful not to let myself look for what I wanted [in the borrowed texts] and rather let the poem find what it needed.” As Shurin points out here, while he collages the language from other writers, he tries to undermine his own expected impulses so he can inhabit an unfamiliar landscape limned by his own articulations and those of the writers whose discourse he shares.
Shurin’s use of the prose poem, which has a significant presence in his collections, originated from his fascination with the line. Initially, Whitman’s long lines inspired him. Shurin says, “I started writing long lines, and the lines just got longer and longer until they started wrapping. In a way, once they started wrapping across the right margin say two times, they were hard to distinguish from prose.” Since then, he has moved between the lyric and the prose poem until the boundaries between these modes tend to dissolve. His collection A Paradise of Forms follows this evolution from Giving Up the Ghost through Involuntary Lyrics, both of which rely more on the traditional line. They frame excerpts from works that mainly contain prose poems, A’s Dream, Into Distances, and A Door being just three examples. These final lines from “Envoy” illustrate the music Shurin strives for in his work: “Syncopation, / spoor, holy war // or syntax. The shadow / letters appear.”
In the following interview, Shurin discusses his narrative practices, taking us inside the various processes he has followed over the years.
Lily Iona MacKenzie: I want to start with the essay “Narrativity” that you published in 1990 and this particular quote:
I'm interested in the utilization of both poetic and narrative tensions: the flagrant surfaces of lyric, the sweet dream of storied events, the terror of ellipsis, the audacity of dislocation, the irreversible solidity of the past tense, the incarnate lure of pronouns, the refractability of pronouns, the simultaneity of times, the weights and balances of sentences. I'm interested in lyric's authenticity of demonstration and narrative's drama of integration; lyric, whose operation is display, and narrative, whose method is seduction. What was the context for this piece on narrativity?
Aaron Shurin: It was first given as a talk at a place called the Painted Bride in Philadelphia. Later, when Doug Messerli from Sun & Moon Press was starting a chapbook series called Twenty Pages, this was one of the first chapbooks he put out. It’s also, now, online and also appeared in Biting the Error, an anthology of new narrative theory.
MacKenzie: What prompted you to talk about this particular subject?
Shurin: I had already started writing prose poems, so the dynamic intersection of prose and poetry that is a prose poem was very much on my mind. Also, what the prose poem gathered from prose, particularly how to use narrative and how to incorporate narrative into a poetic form and structure, interested me. The new narrative writers that I was very close to were simultaneously engaged in articulating a new narrative theory around personal experience.
MacKenzie: Who were some of those poets?
Shurin: They were in general prose writers rather than poets. Bob Glück especially. Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, and others. I’ve been very close to Bob: He and I pretty much began publishing together in the early gay press and have been colleagues and confreres since. I’ve been enormously close to his writing and influenced by it. As I got more housed in the prose poem, I got more interested in narrative per se. Narrativity talks about Kevin and it talks about Bob. It talks about a variety of narrative strategies related to poetry or experimental prose — Bob, Kevin, Dodie, and Bruce Boone were mostly prose writers, but they really “lived” in the poets’ community — and of my interest in conflating narrative and lyric components. A writing invested in subjectivity and person and event, but also in rhetoric and sound and measure and phonemic density and the opacity of language. It seemed to me — in the dialogue that was kicked off by language poetry — one was challenged to be on one side or the other, one side of “representation” or the other. I never wanted to surrender either side, so I tried to articulate what was my organic pursuit anyway — the conflation of two modes: poetic surface, let’s say, and narrative depth. In my own intellectual and creative life, anytime there’s a binary system, I’m drawn to inhabit both sides.
Shurin: That would be true of gender, too, which is part of what I talk about in Narrativity: maneuvering through gender position so that a speaker becomes a kind of malleable or faceted or unlocated subject on the gender spectrum.
MacKenzie: Many of your poems move fluidly among gender. At times you’re clearly inhabiting the female point of view. Other times it sounds like a male perspective.
MacKenzie: But many seem to be persona poems.
Shurin: I’d say they’re just shy of persona. I would say person rather than persona. They’re constructed by the voice or pronoun of the indicated speaker rather than by some mask of a person or identity. They’re less than a persona because they’re only there as far as the speaking subject.
MacKenzie: In that particular poem.
Shurin: In that instance, yes.
MacKenzie: I’m curious about something that’s been said about gay poetry in general, especially for poets who are more innovative in their work. It’s suggested that the layering of texts that partially conceals the writer’s identity parallels the way gay identity often must be concealed and glimpsed through layers. Do you think being gay affects your choice of poetics, and do you think there’s a gay poet’s sensibility that’s different say from a heterosexual poet’s?
Shurin: That’s an ongoing question of shifting relevance, and part of that has to do with the historical development of society and culture. There was definitely a point where one needed to claim it, claim the experience, claim the identity, and even claim the words — flaming faggots and such, or Fag Rag, the radical journal, or later Queer Nation. I think all those things were crucial, and I certainly participated in them. I’ve never masked the sexuality in my poems unless I was interested in creating a specific non-homosexual experience (which I do all the time), but that’s different from masking. Gay material has always been forthright in my poetry. But I think as time goes on, the label “gay poetry” may become less informing rather than more informing. It begins to limit the context in which my work may be read or approached. I’m not sure now it’s a particularly useful way of describing my poetry in any complex way. I think it can be included as part of the picture, and I would never negate its value as part of the picture. But there are so many other poetic and aesthetic components to my writing, as well as socio/cultural/historical valences, that to call it gay poetry doesn’t find its dimension at this point. But it’s not not.
Shurin: It’s also.
MacKenzie: It’s also. I like that.
Shurin: As to gay sensibility: I think it’s a still-open debate. Unquestionably in the community there are traditions, and one learns from them and participates in them, and maybe there are socio/cultural alignments that find literary expression or equivalences, much like gender: expressiveness, flamboyance, sensuality, shamelessness, abjection … but none of these are limited to gay men, and of course not all gay writers are flamboyant or shameless …
MacKenzie: I want to return to your choice of the prose poem and what led you to that form because your earlier work seemed [to be] more traditionally lyric poetry. Why did you make that shift?
Shurin: I had been mesmerized by the line break, which I came to think of as the main focus, if not obsession, of the generation-plus that preceded me, the generation probably starting with Pound and Williams whose duty it was to discover a non-metrical line.
Shurin: So a lot of their thinking about poetry — right up through Creeley and Levertov, Olson and even Duncan — the projective verse poets in particular — was about creating the line, the line as the focus of new a prosodic structure. They were my teachers, and so that was absorbing to me too. But after a while, it came to feel emptied out for me. I thought there are other things to obsess over in the poem, other urgencies and prosodic elements to be attended, and those earlier poets already did that. But more organically, the possibilities of prose poetry were emerging, I think, under the influence of Whitman. I started writing long lines, and the lines just got longer and longer until they started wrapping. In a way, once they started wrapping across the right margin say two times, they were hard to distinguish from prose. There wasn’t any printing circumstance that was going to show a two foot-long line, let’s say.
Shurin: So once they started wrapping, and as they got longer, I became interested in the kind of interior modulations possible within a long line: all the syntactic prose modulations, which include punctuation marks, the proposition of the beginning and end of a sentence, ellipses and interjection, subordinate clauses, etc. All of those possibilities became more various and interesting to me than the simple projective-based line break.
MacKenzie: You use collage in many of your poems. For example, I was looking at Into Distances, and in the second stanza/paragraph of the title poem, it reads, “She labored down the path barefoot.” The poem’s focus seems to be on a female character — the word grandmother comes up and so on — and it goes on for several pages. I’m wondering what moved you to write that particular poem. Where do you start?
Shurin: There are two different ways of looking at it. What moved me to write that poem was all my experience and interest in the world. I don’t think there was any given autobiographical moment or circumstance that one could equate with this pioneer panorama, which is part of the underpinning of that poem. Certainly part of it is the drama of landscape.
Shurin: That was one of the things that interested me in narrative, and prose theory, let’s say: the use of landscape as a dramatic register. I had been reading a lot of H. Rider Haggard, the great, oddball Victorian novelist. Actually I wrote an essay about this for Poetics Journal. I came to see that if you look at modernism, from Joyce to Woolf to whomever, Robbe-Grillet, the impulse had been a withdrawal from descriptive locale, at least in part because the movies took it. If you want that, you go to see a movie in cinemascope, or now 3-D or Imax. That kind of densely articulated landscape and action became the province of the movies. I liked that very much and wanted to incorporate the dramatic elements — panorama, foreground and background — into my poetry. That is one of the underpinnings of a poem like “Into Distances.” Elsewhere I think was collaged from H. Rider Haggard, if I remember correctly. Some of “Into Distances” came from Agnes Smedley. I don’t know if you know her.
MacKenzie: I don’t.
Shurin: She was a kind of post Emma Goldman revolutionary, an American grassroots pioneer woman who also wound up participating in the Chinese revolution. She lived in China and may have marched in the Long March. I don’t remember exactly. I read several books of hers, but this was from Daughter of Earth, her autobiography. But that’s neither here nor there. As in so much of the source material, it was simply what I was reading. Duncan has a beautiful quote where he says books are as real to me as persons or places. In a way, I took that on faith. My experience in books was primary, but it was also primary language experience. It was the site for me to find words to use, and I just found them often in what I was reading at present. But I would also have a disposition, yet I couldn’t be reductive and tell you what the disposition to “Into Distances” was since it’s such a strange and broadly cast poem. For other poems I would have had some disposition which might have just been I want to write something sexy, or I want to write something mysterious, or I want to write something light and lyrical. I would migrate to a Virginia Wolf book or a Colette book or a Raymond Chandler book where I knew an appropriate lexicon might be found. If I had a pastoral impulse, let’s say, I wouldn’t go to Raymond Chandler because I knew I wasn’t going to find that language there. But I would go to Colette because I knew I was going to find trees and flowers and sky. So I found the words to compose as I needed.
MacKenzie: Your poetic dictionary.
Shurin: My poetic dictionary, exactly.
MacKenzie: When you’re reading, then, are you underlining or highlighting things that grab you?
Shurin: No. In the system I used for those books, and that would be starting with the later section of A’s Dream, all of Into Distances, and all of A Door, I established rules for myself. Generally the rule was I could only move forward in the text. I couldn’t go back. The thing I didn’t want to do is search out what I needed because then it’s just like normal composition. I wanted to find what I needed so I could reroute my compositional habits and my predictive combinations, let’s say. Even predictive lexicon. So I had to be careful not to let myself look for what I wanted and rather let the poem find the words it needed. Almost always I would say I can only move forward in the text when choosing words. And there isn’t a single word I can use that I don’t see first. Any single word that appears in any of those poems arrives via the text. Every single word. 100%. Every “the,” every “of,” every “and,” every “I,” every “you.”
MacKenzie: What was the basis for that rule you made?
Shurin: The basis was an extension of my original impulse towards constraint, which was to reroute the kind of suffocating tightness of my hand, which I came to feel was too bound, too controlling. And I wanted to re-route my poor brain so that I wasn’t regurgitating the same kinds of experience habitually. I also didn’t want to be limited by my own experience or my narrow knee-jerk interpretations or recall of my own experience. I was led into other, deeper reservoirs by finding language outside of my ready vocabulary.
MacKenzie: Your collection, The Paradise of Forms, really is a paradise of forms. From what you’ve said, it sounds as if form is an important component of your approach to poetry.
Shurin: The Graces starts investigating prose poems and long lines. By the time of A’s Dream, which was also collaged — even the non-prose poems were collaged, starting with I think “Artery,” the first poem — all those poems use a certain collage methodology. By the end, the long poems that I was writing — not Into Distances but in A Door — some of the longer poems, especially the title poem and there was another one, “Human Immune,” used multiple simultaneous texts. I think the poem “A Door” used seven simultaneous texts. It was the most elaborate process. And then each text fed a stanza, and the stanzas were in rotation, and the stanzas also lengthened.
MacKenzie: When you say in rotation, what do you mean?
Shurin: Each stanza uses words derived from one book. The first seven stanzas are from the first seven books. Then stanzas eight through fourteen recapitulate the sequence. Stanza eight goes back to book one. Stanza nine goes back to book two. At the same time, they’re expanding in length because I was interested in narrative depth and saturation, in exploring how to sustain narrative movement and intensity. So in its very free-form way, there were seven very slightly altered waves that were independent but fed the same poem, and the narrative tensions just got stronger as the stanzas got longer. It was 100% collaged, so at some point I had seven books open on my desk. I had created this kind of fabulous monster for myself. I loved working that way, but I think that was the end. It became a little unwieldy.
MacKenzie: So when you are working in this way and you’re using language that is coming from different sources, do you become conscious at some point of a thread that’s developing?
Shurin: Of course. The language is generative. And then you make or follow a way through. The great mystery of this process is that in the end it sounds like you. These poems sound like my poems. They have my voice in them. The mark of my head and my style and my poetic thought is all through them, which tells us something about language and authorship. And any poem, any language utterance, is about choice, so this is just rerouting the system of choice. But it really isn’t any different. You choose the words (unless you’re using a Cageian or a Maclow-like pure-chance procedure). But this isn’t chance procedure; I’m choosing the words. There may be a lot of resistance put up by the procedure so that I can’t over select them, because one of the rules is you have to move fairly fast. What’s being sought is something other than your usual sense of combination or coherence.
MacKenzie: It’s a little like freewriting, only it’s using other texts.
Shurin: Yeah. And because it’s so complex a process, it’s not exactly free, it’s a form. The intensity of composition is multiplied, I would say. So to go back to that question, sure, I always have a sense of what was informing the poem, though it may be spontaneously developed. I just expanded my sense of what that structure could be, of what meaning could be.
MacKenzie: Did this impulse towards form ever encourage you to try some of the traditional forms other than the sonnet, which you have done in Involuntary Lyrics?
Shurin: I wasn’t so interested in traditional forms. This was my version of a traditional form. I was interested in forms. I’m interested in the pressure of what form provides, but the traditional forms seemed of their period and emptied out. These other constraints were more interesting to me. When Involuntary Lyrics came along, it was, for me, a reduced procedure of using just the end words of Shakespeare’s lines. But still it has the essence of the use of the form as a compositional aid to re-route the brain. In a way, the form helps to enact a combined left-brain and right-brain poetry: one side has to do with vision and what you see, and one side has to do with your language usage. In the case of the collage methodology used in Involuntary Lyrics, what I see or what is there is the end word of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So in combining the right-brain and the left-brain emphases, or we could call it the right hand and the left hand, where one is fixed (the seen word) and the other is mutable (the rest of the line) — let’s say language is a left-brain activity, but visual perception is a right-brain activity. If you’re seeing text, if the language is arriving through visual recognition, you’re re-routing the left-brain activity into the right-brain activity. So I felt this kind of holistic energization that permitted me an entry into another way of seeing. I wrote, in part, with my eye, with my eye in my hand!
MacKenzie: And also you reinvented the sonnet in certain ways.
Shurin: In certain ways, but I tend to say those aren’t sonnets. I’ve had an argument with a poet who has insisted because they are fourteen lines, they are sonnets and that’s the determining nature of the sonnet. I don’t think that. Involuntary Lyrics isn’t written in what I call sonnet mind when I teach the prosody course, which I believe is the defining element of the sonnet. I’d sooner think a poem with eleven lines and sonnet mind could be a sonnet rather than a non-sonnet-minded poem of fourteen lines.
MacKenzie: I get it.
Shurin: So they derived from sonnets, or they were in correspondence with sonnets, but I don’t think of them as sonnets.
MacKenzie: Except I was looking at them as a new form of sonnet.
Shurin: Yes, they could be, though I wasn’t thinking of sonnets. That’s all I’m saying. They don’t have turns. On the other hand I would say at various points — rather more because of Shakespeare than because of sonnet — there is a kind of rhetoric and a syntax that’s sonnet like, at least in terms of being Elizabethan.
MacKenzie: Yes, a voice comes through in some of them that sounds like the Bard speaking.
Shurin: Right. That was because I was using all of the end words. Well the end words are the rhyme words. They are a kind of easy storehouse, and also show what’s acceptable to the Elizabethan ear. Words like love and time come up a lot, which aren’t so easy to use in contemporary circumstance in the same way. So when time comes up and when love comes up, it’s an abstracted lexicon that we might normally shun. I couldn’t because they were there; they were the end rhymes; that was the rule. I think part of that spirit of the historical language, and the rhetoric associated with the language, gives the poems at points an elevated tone, which to our ear is a little reminiscent of sonnets — which I’m delighted with.
MacKenzie: Was there a lot of collage as well in Involuntary Lyrics? It didn’t feel like it.
Shurin: None. Just the end words.
MacKenzie: The poems seem to express more of your own day-to-day concerns or interests.
Shurin: That was part of the project. I wanted the quotidian to be part of the material. I wanted there to be high and low. I wanted to cast a wide net. And I wanted there to be the high-minded sentiment that some of the sonnets express. I also wanted quotidian life to counter the highmindedness. I think Involuntary Lyrics is marked by these wide shifting tonalities of rhetoric and diction.
MacKenzie: Yes, it’s rich in variety and shape. It’s a wonderful text for teaching poetry.
Shurin: Thanks. I’ve always thought it would be. Long lines and short lines …
MacKenzie: Exactly. And some of the single words in columns and how they all hook up in unusual ways. Some poems start as if the reader is walking into the middle of something, and others start more formally. To change direction for a moment, where does King of Shadows fit in to the chronology of books you’ve published?
Shurin: King of Shadows came after Involuntary Lyrics. Then there was a two-year period of relaxation, and mostly that’s because I wrote Involuntary Lyrics’ 154 poems in a year and a half.
Shurin: It was quite a compressed experience. What I kept saying to myself afterwards is I don’t feel depleted, I feel completed.
Shurin: I felt like I had completed the gesture and then completed this kind of return to the line. The book was really a crazed reinvestigation of what that torque of a line break can be. And that line-break torque can just about take your head off in Involuntary Lyrics. I think that was one of the primary investigations I undertook and played with.
MacKenzie: Talk a little more about what you learned about the line and line breaks from doing Involuntary Lyrics.
Shurin: Well, the learning was in the sense of performing rather than something you take away: something you enact (though I did learn to be more fearless.) There were a bunch of things I was interested in prosodically in Involuntary Lyrics. One was what the torque of the line could be and how syntax might be manipulated or creatively employed in the service of that torque, which is engendered by the set word that is ending the line. That word is likely to be enjambed in the middle of a perception; otherwise it would be all end-stops. So how do you go across it; what do you do with this word that’s sitting there in some way at the end but also in the middle? I found that a kind of jumpy syntax could absorb the radical shifts from line to line these set words demanded. So that was one thing. Also, these were all rhyme words, so one of the things I wanted to investigate was how to use the rhymes without them being singsong-y.
Shurin: Then it really would have been just a sonnet, since these were all rhyming words. So I found out how to take them out of order. That was the impulse behind making long lines and short lines in the same poem because I wanted to see how a measure of eight accents versus a measure of two accents, say, with a rhyme at the end of each, would affect the rhyme. How much your ear would hear it or not. In general the idea was to not hear it — to let the rhyme be there but to not hear it. So Involuntary Lyrics, both via kind of very fluid syntax and variation of line length, tries to find a way of permitting but not over inscribing the rhymes that are sent there from the Shakespeare poems.
MacKenzie: Has that experience made you want to do more with the traditional line?
Shurin: Actually, no. I think that experience made me feel completed in relation to the line. Then for five years I wrote pure prose, which was King of Shadows. And now I’ve just completed Citizen, which is a return to prose poems.
MacKenzie: What was the shift like for you from writing “poetry” to writing the King of Shadows, which is mainly “prose.”
Shurin: To me it is definitely prose, and not even prose poems. It’s different than prose poems; it’s much more narrative. It’s also essayistic, discursive, and dramatic: it has scene. As well as complex language and sentence structure …
MacKenzie: And the lyricism …
Shurin: And the lyricism.
MacKenzie: I think the King of Shadows has very lyrical prose.
Shurin: Yeah, that’s always part of my writing and what I’m interested in. I wrote something like this prose in Unbound. I knew King was a more mature circumstance, and it was going to be a larger gesture. It was incredibly difficult. I felt I had to teach myself how to write prose, invent the prose I needed to write.
MacKenzie: What made it so difficult?
Shurin: One, the territory was new. In Involuntary Lyrics, I was in verse, in lines, which I knew so well, and in a kind of poetry which I knew so well. It was a lark. I knew exactly what I wanted to do in Involuntary Lyrics. It was all familiar. It was new in the sense of a new project, but I know how to write poetry. But in King of Shadows, I even have dialogue. The idea of writing dialogue was just appalling to me.
Shurin: Because I don’t know how to do it. I have no experience, and it’s a very different beast. Very different. What’s the negotiation between the formal registers of how you write people’s speech and how they actually talk? How does it serve a narrative structure? Then all the shifts in point of view and description and action. It required all of the complex aspects of my prose poetry that combined lyrical and dramatic texture, but it was also “real,” nonfiction. The one rule that was operative in writing the pieces in King of Shadows was I wanted narrative to carry the day, but I also wanted to be able to write about anything. So what I thought was that not even a thought took place without being located in a body or person in place and time. There would be no thought in this book unless a person in a particular circumstance was thinking it. That became the model for the narrative. Even if I thought, “Oh, I want to write about this garden …” I can’t just write about this garden. I can write about being in the garden in relation to the garden and what I’m thinking about the garden as I’m in the garden. But if I’m home thinking about it, then I have to be in my house, in my home, in a time thinking about the garden. So everything was going to be housed inside of narrative coordinates of time and place and person. That was very different than the kinds of tensions poetry sustains.
MacKenzie: Was it difficult to focus so much on your own personal history?
Shurin: No, that wasn’t difficult at all. In fact it’s a common thing that people have said to me: “Oh, you’re so brave!” Or, “How does it feel revealing all this stuff about yourself?” My answer is it didn’t feel weird at all. What would I want to do? Hide myself? The impulse is towards discovery of meaning, including the discovery of oneself. So there is no act that shame will try to cover — and this is very much under the tutelage of Duncan. There is no shame. There is just experience. And anyway, I don’t presume that I’m the only poor little fool who had these experiences. So I have no shame, no compunction. Nor do I feel that I am revealing myself in any particular way, though other people feel that. I just feel this is experience and I’m interested in it. Let’s find out what it was. I remember feeling such and such and I remember I did this or that. And these experiences all led to making a mature, interested human. I’ve made it to a pretty ripe place, so there’s so reason to feel I need to censor any part. Personal history is just another history.
MacKenzie: That’s great.
Shurin: That part was all quite easy to do. I did it with relish actually. I met myself in new ways. One of the things I did learn as I was writing King of Shadows is that the narrator as fool is a much more approachable figure, a more sympathetic figure, than the narrator as sovereign, let’s say.
Shurin as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
MacKenzie: In a way that goes back to when you played Puck instead of Oberon in a high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From what I understand, your own impulses as a poet also started to stir then.
Shurin: Yeah, I think they did. There are those few lines in King of Shadows where I talk about putting on the mask that would come to be my own true face. Actually, I have a lot of Oberon in me, but if you look at me, it’s Puck who I am really. I don’t know if that still equates to the fool, but in any event …
MacKenzie: But I think the fool and Puck are a wonderful conflation. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive at all.
MacKenzie: I think they’re in harness.
Shurin: Right. There’s a fool in the Commedia dell’arte sense, which is quite different, or the wise fool.
MacKenzie: And the fool in the Tarot that steps off the cliff, but it’s that adventure spirit, that willingness to open oneself up to new experiences and not shut oneself down.
Shurin: Yeah. As I was writing King of Shadows that was one of the main things I learned in constructing the identity of this person who stands for me. After all, it’s not me; it’s writing. But in all these autographical pieces there’s this figure, a first person who is standing for me. I found that I had to place that figure, had to feel what the tenor of his point of view would be. I think I discovered a levity in relation to it, the poor fool in a tender sense, and it helped me distance myself, and find some humility in relation to the density of my experience. It helped me forgive myself, and understand myself better. But that was part of a long process — figuring out all these things that are part of prose that I’m not worried about in poetry where the pronouns are shifting, and the identities are shifting, and it’s me or it’s not me, or there is no “me.”
MacKenzie: What started you off on your most recent collection, Citizen?
Shurin: The poems in Citizen were born in a panel presentation at the SFMOMA on the sculptor Martin Puryear, who was having a show there. We were asked to respond to Puryear’s work. I took the invitation not as a critical occasion but really a moment to enact a work in relation to his sculpture. I felt I was being asked to write poetry. I had no idea what I would do or what mode or anything since I had just come out of King of Shadows and I hadn’t written poetry for five years. So I went to the Puryear show with my little notebook and, spontaneously, as I was looking at the extraordinary and beautiful work, as I read the little museum tags, those descriptive panels, I decided to jot down words that named the materials he used — cedar or wagon or yellow or twine. That was the available lexicon. I went down and grabbed something to eat in the museum café and opened my notebook. Before I could say boo, I had written the words down in a loose grid in my notebook. I started writing, and every so often worked in one of the words from the grid that I had found on the Puryear tags. Soon enough, I had written a poem. I think my feeling was, well, my response to Puryear is to use the same materials but in poetry. But my version of the same materials was the words that were naming his materials. So I could say I did a Puryear sculpture using what he used, cedar and twine and wood and wagon, etc. You’ll see in the first poem of Citizen, “an empty wagon flares on a hillside.” I believe I wrote three poems for that occasion, all using those little grids. I went back and wrote down another set of words, and I thought that’s interesting. It does some of what I’m interested in doing, which is to say it has a structural constraint, so it helps me kick out the tightness but not be so obsessive as in the 100% collages of A Door.
Shurin: And as part of my presentation at the museum, I put together my one and only power point presentation where I took a picture of my notebook, the grid of the words, and I showed people the poem. And then I showed people the poem with the words derived from Puryear in bold face so they could see the structure. That then became the model. The book doesn’t say, these poems were written with a grid. It’s like saying they were written with a ballpoint or a fountain pen. Or they were typed or they were written at home or they were written outside. It’s just a compositional aid of interest to people who are interested in compositional strategies. So all of Citizen was written in that way. They’re all prose poems. But another thing relevant to Citizen is I was traveling a lot. I’m interested in place anyway, and there’s a lot of place, a lot of different places, coming into the poems in Citizen. That’s partly why the title is that. It’s very saturated with the coordinates of the world, even when they are imaginary constructions and not autobiographical constructions. The work has a very permeable relation to the world of time and space.
MacKenzie: And there’s a lot of collage in these poems too?
Shurin: No, only those little grids, which are usually somewhere between fifteen and twenty words. The poem could be a page or it could be half a page. Usually I try to use all the words, but I don’t go crazy over it if they don’t quite fit.
MacKenzie: They’ll go in the next one!
Shurin: Yes, they do. There are a bunch of formal elements in Citizen, and one is that there are motifs that thread the book. There are five or six different repeated and modulated motifs that are like unifying threads that go throughout the poems. Some are repeated phrases. Some are repeated narrative tropes like “Once I was.” Some are rhetorical structures. Repetition. There are about half a dozen different ones that appear any number of times throughout the book that unify it as something other than just a random collection.
MacKenzie: When you’re revising your work, do you have any particular revision process that you go through? Is it different with every poem, with every collection?
Shurin: I don’t have any process. It’s just a matter of getting it right.
MacKenzie: What would “getting it right” mean for you?
Shurin: Getting it right would be the exact shade of any phrase that is both sonically and perceptually coherent on its own and in relation to the other parts of the poem. So something might have an extra beat, or something might have a shade of meaning slightly off than what I want in the set of correspondences that make up the poem. Or it may be too wordy or not wordy enough.
MacKenzie: Do you read the poems aloud?
Shurin: Always. That’s the final register. It’s not a completed poem until it meets the oral and auditory test.
MacKenzie: I hear in your work a lot of music in how you use punctuation. You’re also sensitive to the sounds of words, how they work together. Has music been important to you at all?
Shurin: My poetry seeks to be music, so there’s no kind of referential aspect. Music is as important to me as to most people, but the music of language, absolutely and always. The first poems that really marked my interest in poetry were the kind of rhyming narrative ballads of American poetry: “Casey at the Bat” and “Face upon the Barroom Floor,” which I discovered as an adolescent and instantly memorized for no reason or occasion except I wanted to memorize the poems. If you’re memorizing, especially if it’s a metered rhymed poem, then you’re inhabiting auditory structure. So that was the first thing that really articulated my interest in poetry. Then when I was seventeen and played Shakespeare and came to the great Oberon sequence, “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.” It was an experience of phonemic play that had immense authority for me and posed this kind of unity of semantic and phonemic density together that really would be my model for what poetry could be. For me, a poet’s ear is the defining quality. A poet can be smart, can use kick-ass procedures, but if I don’t sense a poet’s ear, I cannot sustain an interest in the poem.
MacKenzie: Are there contemporary poets you read whose work fits your criteria?
Shurin: Any work that I go to has to have that quality.
MacKenzie: Are there poets writing now that you look to for inspiration?
Shurin: Sure. Michael Palmer is a great instance of a poet who has a lyric ear and a beautifully skeptical mind, which is to say the beauty of his poetry is that it retains lyric integrity while fulfilling a skepticism about lyric possibility. It both gives and takes away. It performs a deep suspicion of language and the whole structure of language meaning while at the same time enacting lyrical meaning in all its glory.
MacKenzie: I understand that you read Proust. Does he inspire you in certain ways when you write?
Shurin: Proust is one of the great lodestars for me, certainly as I began writing more prose, and I think the prose of King of Shadows bled over into prose poems in Citizen. Proust is the great genius of prose as far as I’m concerned. Your sense of literature and the possibilities of literature will be altered if you read Proust carefully, the whole thing.
MacKenzie: Why do you think that is?
Shurin: It’s a monumental reinvention of the capacity of prose, both at a macroscopic level and at a microscopic level: the transcendental almost hallucinogenic vision combined with the scalpel-like Balzacian view of social structure, and the psychological Freudian-like unmasking of personal intention, behavior and gesture. So many through lines of such intensity and integrity and maximalization are coexistent in Proust. To me it’s a feast of full potential and has made me more fearless in pursuit of my own maximalism.
A conversation between Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Rosa Alcalá
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I know that there are a number of manuscripts — half-finished? completed and shelved? — which predate your first book Undocumentaries. What was the evolution of your first book? How many years went into it and how did it develop?
Rosa Alcalá: My first manuscript was my MFA thesis. When I was at Brown, my work started changing, so the thesis poems range from very traditional lyric poems to more experimental ones. Because I learned English shortly after Spanish, and because I’ve always moved between the two, I’ve always been struck by the materiality and aural qualities of language. So, my poems have this thread between them, for me anyway. I’m fond of some of the poems in that thesis (I think it was called In Translation; the title has changed many times since), but I’m just in a different place right now. Still, the concerns of those poems — identity, language, class, etc. — are clearly in Undocumentaries, which I wrote in my first four years teaching at the University of Texas-El Paso. The manuscript that followed the thesis and precedes Undocumentaries, is now titled The Lust of Unsentimental Waters and is forthcoming from Shearsman Books. I wrote it while doing my PhD in English at SUNY–Buffalo, where I was reading lots of translation theory — lots of theory in general — and as a result, the poems, very sparse and economic, are a thinking-through of some of those theories. I started translating in the mid 1990s — after a childhood of interpreting for non-English speaking parents — and as I read Barthes, Glissant, Mignolo, Anzaldúa, Benjamin, Kristeva, others, I felt a real emotional connection to some of those ideas. Sometimes I didn’t understand them very well; I’m sure I misunderstood them or battled with them or couldn’t quite make sense of what they were saying, but I felt like I “got it.” And some of the poems — not all of them — came out of that dialogue with the texts. I was also translating a book of poems (Lourdes Vazquez’s Bestiary) at the same time, so those concerns (anxieties?) are there, too. I think translation is the hardest job in the world. Certainly harder than writing poetry.
Wilkinson: For me, “Undocumentary” resonates somewhere between undocumented laborers and what cannot be documented in a “documentary” — what escapes the document, the record, or even recognition. What is the figure of the “Undocumentary” for you in these poems, and how does this word loom over the book for you?
Alcalá: I like that you use the word “loom,” with its reference to weaving, since this book is full of textile work. All my work is textile work, to some extent.
The book was originally titled Fact & Act, which gets at a similar idea, but Mónica de la Torre suggested Undocumentaries, after the first poem in the book. I love her work, and we translated a book together (Lila Zemborain’s Mauve Sea-Orchids), so I do what she tells me. I think her reasoning was that this title could be understood in many ways, including as a reference to undocumented workers. The term “undocumentary,” however, came about as I began to do research for the book. I knew I wanted to write about work/workers, particularly the type of work/workers that are often invisible, not represented in popular media. Rather than rely on my own experience — both my parents were factory workers, in textile and other industries — I felt compelled (fresh off my dissertation) to do research. I read articles, watched documentaries (like American Dream, about the Hormel Food factory strike in Minnesota, which is mentioned in the book), and took notes. But I felt that this didn’t quite get at “it” (and I didn’t know what the “it” was yet). I started weaving my own unstable file of experiences with what I was reading, and this lead to other research, which was woven in as well. I was rereading Williams’s Paterson at the time, so I took his collage technique as a guide. So, the “undocumentary,” for me, is the lyric’s “unrehearsed chemicals,” which in the archive or document becomes “a brighter or stiller image.” I say “brighter” because I think the archive has the ability to seduce with its certainty, its proof, but it’s “stiller,” less able to communicate the slipperiness of experience. The lyric, on the other hand, can continue to act out “the tensions of progress.” And, ultimately, this book — written in my first years as an assistant Professor — acts out those tensions, which felt so dizzying to me at the time, and still do to some extent.
In the end, however, this book is (in part) about the ways in which the working class — including undocumented workers — are not represented at all or are represented in clichéd or one-dimensional ways. I always felt — in very painful ways — the invisibility of my own parents’ working-class/immigrant lives in the representations of “American” identity. I remember someone asking me at Brown what my father “did.” No one had ever asked me that before. In my neighborhood, it just wasn’t a question. Maybe this book is an answer to what he — all those forgotten workers — did. But I don’t think it’s an easy answer — this question of representation — which is why many of these poems are fragmented or discursive, or in Glissant’s term, “errant,” and why the speaker of the last poem contemplates arson. It’s like Williams burning down the library in Paterson, for the possibility of new forms, new knowledge. Because he knows that presenting the “document” — even if that document is the poem — is a risky endeavor, a danger that can lead to a kind of reification of identity and experience. And also because he wants to move on from the past.
Wilkinson: You mention Williams’s Paterson a couple of times, which is where you’re from right? What are the effects of being from a hallowed American poetry city, where Ginsberg is also from. Does that influence your poetic thinking much? Is that something you try to court or escape? Do you recognize your Paterson in Williams’s work?
Alcalá: As I was reading your question, I had this memory of talking to Allen Ginsberg in his apartment in New York many years ago, and he was asking me if such and such place still existed in Paterson, and it felt so incredible to share this place — and to be able to give the “current” Paterson to Ginsberg, who was so well known for being from there. It felt a bit like that moment in Paterson when Ginsberg writes to Williams because he senses a kinship. Like Ginsberg, I always felt a kinship to Williams (who was actually from Rutherford, NJ), but I think it has more to do with the “Carlos” — you know that otherness book-ended by such Englishness. I mean, no matter how many Williamses you shingle onto it, “Carlos” stands out in Anglo-American modernism. He could have removed it from his name for matters of publication, I suppose, but he really would have had to put something in its place, because the measure of that name would have been fatal: William Williams. And in addition to fatal, if he had proceeded without the Carlos, he wouldn’t have been the poet he is, one who interrogates American identity, one who sees “Carlos” as part of the national fabric. And I think Williams was quite aware that this made him different, which Ezra Pound confirms when he says in a letter to him: “And America. What the hell do you a bloomin foreigner know about the place.” Although Pound acknowledges in the same letter that Williams, born in New Jersey, is an “Amerkun (same as me),” he also adds, “You thank your bloomin gawd you’ve got enough Spanish blood to muddy up your mind.”
I mean, on the one hand Pound seems to admire Williams’s work for its opacity, which he says is “not an American quality.” But there’s no getting away from the fact that he reinforces this native/foreign paradigm (alive today!) in American poetry, and Williams is most certainly, to him, not quite American enough. Pound, on the other hand, is a real American because he has had the “virus … of the land” in his blood for nearly “three bleating centuries.” Another real American, according to Pound? Harriet Monroe, who had “the swirl of the prairie wind in her underwear.” The native, as you see, are also the gatekeepers.
In short, Williams does influence me, but I’m aware that my understanding of identity, as well as Paterson (the city, as well as the book), is also tuned by growing up working class, and by having been a girl and now a woman. In Williams’s book the perspective is decidedly male and is certainly privileged and not from the city proper — someone who could walk freely, look around, accrete, ask questions, reconstruct. This “confession” makes me nervous, but I think it’s appropriate here: I was sexually assaulted near the Paterson Falls when I was in my early twenties; I’m aware of the dangers, like most women, of walking around freely, then and now. Even in my own poems.
Sometimes when I read the Cress (Marcia Nardi) letters, I think, oh, that could have been me (“I know myself to be more the woman than the poet,” or “But it’s never so simple as that to get on one’s feet even in the most ordinary practical ways for anyone on my side of the railway tracks — which isn’t your side.”) You know, I always want to identify with the authority of the book’s speaker, with Dr. Williams, but the truth is that perhaps I feel closer to the characters/people Williams puts to use, especially the female ones, even Madame Curie.
This comes up for me often in other ways. For example, the role of the bohemian woman artist in Mad Men (season 1) appeals to me, I want to be her, but I know that I would have more likely been in the secretarial pool. So, in some ways, my book gives voice to the secretarial pool, while the woman constructing the book is the artist; she really runs the show. Therein lies one of the book’s tensions: who can assemble and who is assembled — the gap and similarities between them. That is why so much of the book is informed by avant-garde art practices (land art, performance art, aleatoric practices, etc.): the speakers or characters referenced are imagined as works of art or as works in progress, as artists who work outside of the institutions of art. (As a side note, I recently learned that Williams, who as you know was a doctor, delivered Robert Smithson, the artist famously associated with land art! Which just feels perfect to me.)
Wilkinson: And speaking of place, having met you in El Paso where you now live, what’s changed in your work since moving to the border of Texas and Mexico?
Alcalá: El Paso made the book possible for it created distance in some ways from my own perceived working class identity and from my place of origin.
I envision El Paso coming in more concretely, too in a future project, particularly its textile history. It was one of the primary finishers of jeans in the US prior to NAFTA. So, many of those stonewashed jeans you wore (yes, you) came from here. I just want to find a way to situate myself more fully in the place where I live and I seem to always do it through textile, which, as one person told me recently, is in my blood.
In the last few years here, the level of violence in Juárez, a city in Mexico that can be seen from El Paso, has risen to staggering heights. When I arrived here, there were women, many of them maquiladora workers, being raped and killed, and now the violence has spread throughout the city’s population, mostly related to drug wars. And I’m trying to get my mind around that and what my relationship to it is, how to talk about it in a way that’s meaningful and not exploitative or reductive. Meanwhile, I teach Benjamin Saenz’s The Book of What Remains, which I think takes on this issue, among others, in a complex, yet direct way.
Wilkinson: Obviously, violence and sexual violence must permeate your work — and life — in direct and indirect ways. What are your strategies? What have you learned about how you process violence? How does it shape your work?
Alcalá: That’s a good question. I know that others have detected anger in my work, but violence? I don’t know. Do you see violence in Undocumentaries? I am writing some things now that look at how we are connected to violence that doesn’t affect us directly. I think that violence (in all its forms — towards others in other countries, towards the oceans, etc.), our complicity in it, is very difficult to write about when it hasn’t happened to us, partly because the lyric is often seen (and taught) as a vehicle for first-hand experience. Extending (or reimagining) the “I,” without seeming predatory, romantic, or exploitative is hard (but necessary).
Wilkinson: I think many of the poems in Undocumentaries have a way of articulating a self (or selves) through a violence implicit in other matter of fact activities. As in the lines “Remembering is a trucking / yourself in” or “A dirty song, an ethnic dance. / A disappearance.” It’s not always violence as such, but an implication of it throughout, or a sort of permeation of it through the fabric of the book’s terrain. It doesn’t take long for a poem beginning with a description of John Cage “playing a chance operation” to leap to “My mother, the girl, is bleeding from the procedure.” I think that’s what I mean. A kind of subflooring of violence permeating the poem’s shifts and turns. Does this make sense or resonate for you? Is this conscious in your writing?
Alcalá: A “subflooring of violence”! Yes, that makes perfect sense to me. A subflooring so buried beneath layers of linoleum and tile (writing) that I was hardly aware of it. That isn’t quite true; I’m aware of the violence that is part of the fabric of these lives I’ve represented in the book. After all, the book begins with the bodies of workers scattered beneath lawns. But in my own thinking, when you asked me the question, this violence had become so part of the landscape, this rumbling beneath our feet, that it seemed separate from other acts of violence we were referring to. And, yet, it isn’t.
Wilkinson: I want to ask about the officiality of many of the poem’s titles versus the intimate landscape the poems actually draw from. Titles like “Party Line,” “Economic Crisis,” “National Affair,” “What It Means to Be Civilized,” and “Governance” all hearken to a kind of whitewashed, official idiom. And this seems to allow you a lot of contextual material to pivot from — since these are often very personal, introspective poems artfully belying their very titles. What draws you to titles like these? Do they come before or after you’ve written the poems? How do they work for you?
Alcalá: The titles come mostly after I’ve written the poems. I’ve been reading Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation,” and thinking of her clever — and complex — assertion that “Language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries.” For me — and for others, of course — the self is defined by boundaries; we are labeled in terms of nationality, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc. But those boundaries are “frayed,” to use Spivak’s term, in our rhetorical use of the language. For me, poetry is meant to show the fray between the self and larger structures that aim to contain or name or stabilize the self. But also I’m not necessarily interested in telling my “story” but in using the autobiographical as a way to explore these boundaries. That moving out — and that fraying between the language of the “true events” and the rhetorical moves of the poem — disrupt any inherent veracity, but the act of translation that I see as the poem respects that original “story” in a way that mere retelling could not. Spivak urges “intimacy” with the original, a surrender to it, and I think trying to understand what these experiences or lives connected to my own are saying — and not saying — and how they have been shaped by certain things (including my own maneuvers) — is more important than literality.
Wilkinson: I’d love to hear more about the avant-garde practices that most inform the work as well. You mention land and performance art, aleatoric practices — are these approaches in line with the kinds of artistic and working class tensions you cite?
Alcalá: I think that the poems map a kind of ambivalence regarding avant-garde art — any art perhaps, even poetry. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that art and poetry allow us to understand our world and to be in it more fully. That the poems I write are necessary as part of a larger ethical engagement with the world. There’s also a bit of this feeling that maybe poetry and art are inconsequential, especially when they don’t relate to “real lives” — that it’s all about being clever, ironic, “making it new” or “experimental,” writing for each other. My work struggles with these two polarities, and you can see that in the poems. I try not to shy away from it. I vacillate between glib and downright sincere. I want to just say “it” — whatever “it” is — and then I realize I don’t, because that feels false, too.
The other way I think of the book is as a kind of land art or assemblage/performance/installation of memory, which attempts to map out and draw attention to experience or a place in a way that acknowledges my own intervention. The book isn’t about something that “happened” but something that is constructed out of things that are remembered, imagined, invented, found, present. So the artistic or literary references are partially how I make this construction apparent. I am saying, there is a hand at work here. In “Land Art in the Silk City,” there’s a boy who keeps looking for a way to draw attention to both himself, as well as the place in which he lives — he wants to restore it to its original stature, to expose its beauty. He keeps sending away for guides that will allow him to develop special powers, to bring himself and the place that defines him into evidence. I feel the work of this book as connected to that boy’s desires. For me, those special powers can be found in language and art.