Editorial note: Jerome Rothenberg (b. 1931) is the author of more than seventy books of poetry, including Poland/1931 (1974), A Seneca JournalKhurbn and Other Poems (1978), (1989), and most recently Concealments and Caprichos and Retrievals: Uncollected and New Poems, 1955–2010 (2011). Rothenberg is also known for championing “ethnopoetics” and curates an ethnopoetics section at UbuWeb and his own blog/magazine, Poems and Poetics. He has translated works by Paul Celan, Garcia Lorca, Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, and others and has edited several important anthologies, including Technicians of the Sacred (1968), A Big Jewish Book (1977, 1989), and Poems for the Millennium (1995, 1998, 2009). The following transcript has been adapted and edited for readability from a conversation that took place at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia on April 29, 2008, among Rothenberg, Al Filreis, Bob Perelman, Steve Fredman, CAConrad, Thomas Devaney, Murat Nemet-Nejat, and others. Rothenberg was brought to Philadelphia as part of the Kelly Writers House Fellows program, directed and hosted by Al Filreis. This program and surrounding events are available at PennSound. — Katie L. Price
Al Filreis: Good morning. The first thing we need to do is once again thank Jerry and Diane Rothenberg for coming a long way to the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you. We had a fantastic day yesterday. It was a long day, and we had a lot of different conversations about Jerry’s work. For those of us who were involved … I’m sure I’m speaking for others, I know I am because I spoke with a lot a people. When I say that it was an enormous pleasure, I mean in the Rothenbergian sense of pleasure: the receptive, creative pleasure of art.
It was fun. We had a good time.
The format this morning is quite simple. It’s an interview/conversation. Jerry and I will talk for about half the time about all kinds of things informally, and at a certain point, I will turn it to you, the audience here in the room, but also to those viewing us by webcast.
So, thanks again, Jerry. I guess the first question I have is about your uncle. You’ve said in a poem and in a preface, and also in conversation that the only story that has come directly to you, or indirectly maybe, about the Holocaust and your family is the uncle who was hidden by partisans and who found out about his family killed, I think at Treblinka, and drank a bunch of vodka and blew his brains out. There were obviously others who were lost. When you got back, when you got to Treblinka, it wasn’t a roots visit, it was something that happened along the way because you were already in Germany. You decided to make the trip and you went to Treblinka but there you said that the poems you heard at Treblinka were the clearest messages you’ve ever gotten about why you write poetry. Can you explain that a little more? And specifically, what do you mean “you heard the poems at Treblinka”?
Jerome Rothenberg: It wasn’t as if a voice was speaking to me.
Filreis: Glad we cleared that up. [Imitating] Jerry —
Rothenberg: But it was as if that was the experience plus more. I don’t know that I began to write those poems following the Treblinka visit, which was early in the trip or later — having passed some time in Krakow, in Silesia, we then travelled to Auschwitz. But the whole thing, from the moment that I set foot into Poland, I had a great sense of upset. You know, it triggered something. I think quite understandably.
Filreis: Right. But the clearest message you’ve ever gotten about why you write poetry?
Rothenberg: The clearest message, yeah, in the sense that I think for many of us, maybe most of us, who became poets and who had lived either directly or vicariously through the experience of the Second World War and the Holocaust, that great, very intense and very brief period of destruction, only a few years, you know. I’ve always tried to get an accurate account of how many people were killed during that time from 1939 to 1945 — an extraordinary number of deaths, of burnings, of maimings.
I think I began to write poetry under the impact of that, as did others of my generation. I don’t think I can define very clearly what I mean. I understood then, for the first time, and was willing later to say that something of what had happened there was what brought me into poetry in the first place.
I had been meditating on or thinking about the statement, attributed and sometimes mistranslated from Adorno, about not writing poetry after Auschwitz. But that was wrong, because really what drove me into poetry, or what I feel retrospectively drove me into poetry, was precisely the consciousness of Holocaust. And not just what happened in the death camps, although that was an extremity, but you know, the other things, the further one got away from the war itself. And what happened at Hiroshima began to sink in first. I was a kid when we got news about that. I don’t think there was for me, at the age of fourteen, a real sense of the horror of Hiroshima, but it didn’t take long before I realized what we had done there. And then, of course, things like Dresden only came to light for us much later.
Filreis: And you don’t really disagree with what we imagine to be the impetus behind Adorno’s statement, which is that poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric?
Rothenberg: Oh no, though he was limiting himself pretty much to lyric, lyric poetry, and would refine his statement later. And I also came to see that lyric could itself be a form of resistance.
Filreis: That is to say, you believe that the enormity of that situation robbed language of its capacity to express appropriately what had happened. The disagreement is what happens afterwards, because you believe strongly — and you’ve said this in Khurbn, you’ve said it at the end of The Burning Babe, I believe, and you’ve certainly said it in various statements — that poetry is all we have left. [“After Auschwitz, there is only poetry.”]
Rothenberg: Well, I think that the transformations that poetry makes possible were to me a more meaningful response than silence. Although silence can be very powerful, but who will know about it?
Filreis: Well, there are some artists who would argue differently about silence.
Rothenberg: Yes, but somebody has to get the word out.
Anyway, silence was not an option.
Filreis: Silence was not an option for you.
Rothenberg: Silence means withdrawing from the world.
Filreis: In the Elie Wiesel sense, that if you’re silent you’re helping the bad guys. Don’t be silent in that sense.
Rothenberg: Yes, but it’s not just the Elie Wiesel sense.
Filreis: I know that, I threw that in to get a rise out of you.
Rothenberg: You generally assume that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. This is stated in many different ways. As a poet, I began more and more to talk about the response to that midcentury Holocaust, holocausts, and to so much that followed, the response being through the transformed language of poetry, and of course other responses also.
Filreis: What’s so great about Triptych, to me, one of the things that’s great about it is it brings three books together: Poland/1931, Khurbn, which is the book we’re talking about now that is a more or less direct response to the Holocaust, somewhat belatedly, and The Burning Babe, which is — I don’t want to say the word “about” since we’re talking about Stein later, aboutness is not appropriate — but if it’s about anything, it’s about a millennialist. It’s millennialism, there’s 9/11 in it, there’s the bringing together of Dresden and Auschwitz and New York and all kinds of things. And one of the things that’s so remarkable about Triptych is what it allows you to say about this whole portion of your career, your writing, that you started to use archaic and primitive materials, living with the Seneca and so forth. And somewhere along the line you realized, well, you know, the Jewish stuff is cognate to that, those are some of my archaic materials. I think I want to do some of that. And the first instance of that here is Poland/1931, which you’ve said in a number of ways is not about the Holocaust. You didn’t say it is an avoidance of the Holocaust, but I read it as a kind of swerve around the Holocaust to do other things. Then Khurbn, which partly results from your visit to Poland and to the camps.
I tried to ask you this yesterday and I didn’t do so well, or you just evaded it somehow —
Rothenberg: Very likely.
Filreis: I guess I want to ask — since I brought up Wiesel — a kind of Jewish identity question. That is to say, I think it’s possible to read Poland/1931 as avoiding the Holocaust in a way that Khurbn definitely does not. You kind of got to this belatedly —
Rothenberg: It may avoid the Holocaust, but it certainly doesn’t evade the Jewish identity matter.
Filreis: You’re absolutely right, but you seem to be in Khurbn, you seem to be ready to fully embrace the connection between your interests and exploration of the archaic materials, your status as a poet, the Poland/1931 material without the Holocaust, and then the Holocaust added to it because it makes all those connections for you. And I still didn’t ask the question well
Are you avoiding your Jewish identity?
Rothenberg: No, no. I mean, the one thing I do try to avoid is —
Filreis: To be pinned down?
Rothenberg: To be pinned down.
Filreis: I can tell that.
Rothenberg: I mean the career is … the writing is much more extensive than the Jewish identity matter.
Filreis: Absolutely, of course.
Rothenberg: At a certain point, I come to write Poland/1931, you know, but I’ve been writing twenty, twenty-five years before that. It’s not my subject from the very beginning. Although I’m willing to accept that the Jewish is in me, with me, you know. I’m not in a state of denial about that, though sometimes it can be a difficult thing to carry along with you.
Filreis: Sure, sure.
Rothenberg: Part of the identity question is a sense of being under the gun. Even vicariously experiencing the Holocaust as a kid in the Bronx, one knew that here we were, potential victims. There were photographs. I didn’t know any of the people who remained in Poland, but there were photographs of children my age who disappeared, who were killed, who were murdered.
Filreis: Just to take this, I’m imagining — forgive me all sophomores out there — I’m imagining the sophomoric question: looking at the whole arc of the career — again, forgive me — and that person says, you know, this is really cool, this Seneca material, this is really great, and he writes — meaning you — in the preface to Shaking the Pumpkin or something, you know, very boldly, we must cross over into different ethnicities, different ethnopoetries. So it’s okay for me, in America, a white Jewish American poet, to cross over into the Seneca. I’m going to do that. I know there’s some risks involved, but I’m going to do that and we really need to do that. And you said it at a time when there was a lot of separatism going on, and some people might say, you know, Jerry, you have no business going there, but you did that.
And again, back to this sophomore who might say he made that bold crossing, but he had the Jewish materials right there, and he didn’t do that until Poland/1931, how come?
Rothenberg: Because I can make the bold crossing precisely because I did have the Jewish materials. And there was a kind of recognition between me and various American Indian and African American poets: that it was easier to make the crossover with an assertion of an identity that I would also —
Filreis: Interesting, interesting. More Jewish questions, sorry.
Rothenberg: No, go ahead.
Filreis: I’ve been haunted by your Jewish dream. This is a dream, it’s the beginning of the prose that opens A Big Jewish Book. And I wondered if you would be so kind as to read the opening passage, which would be in here. I’ll give you the page number.
Rothenberg: If you give me the page number I will do that.
Filreis: One eighteen. I wondered if you would read that, and maybe I’ll ask a question. I am haunted by this dream.
Rothenberg: I was too. Sometimes I make up dreams, but this was a real dream. A classy dream.
Filreis: Maybe read up to there.
Rothenberg: Okay. As far as that? Sure.
Filreis: Do you mind?
Rothenberg: Yeah. Though it’s really at the beginning, the dream.
Filreis: The beginning is the good stuff.
Rothenberg: Freud and the Interpretation of Dreams as a series of little prose poems.
Filreis: Yeah, he does. I was thinking of that.
Rothenberg: Dream descriptions. And one of them he labels a beautiful dream.
Filreis: We’re going to do a little psychoanalysis after you read this.
Rothenberg [reads]: There was a dream that came before the book, and I might as well tell it. I was in a house identified by someone as the House of Jews, where there were many friends gathered, maybe everyone I knew. Whether they were Jews or not was unimportant: I was, and because I was, I had to lead them through it. But we were halted at the entrance to a room, not a room really, more like a great black hole in space. I was frightened and exhilarated, both at once, but like the others I held back before that darkness. The question came to be the room’s name, as if to give the room a name would open it. I knew that, and I strained my eyes and body to get near the room, where I could feel, as though a voice was whispering to me, creation going on inside it. And I said that it was called Creation.
I now recognize that dream as central to my life, an event and mystery that has dogged me from the start. I know that there are other mysteries — for others, or for myself at other times, more central — and that they may or may not be the same. But Creation — poesis writ large — appeared to me first in that house, for I was aware then, and even more so now, that there are Jewish mysteries that one confronts in a place no less dangerous or real than that abyss of the Aztecs:
… a difficult, a dangerous place, a deathly place: it is dark, it is light …
and with a sense, too, that this space must be bridged, this door opened as well — the door made just for you, says the guardian in Kafka’s story. Yet Kafka, like so many of us, poses the other question also: “What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself …”
I think that’s probably the best place to end.
Filreis: That’s where you want to stop? Alright, so can I do the interpretation?
Rothenberg: Sure. Sure, doctor.
Filreis: How long have you been feeling this way, Jerry?
This, to me, is the creation moment. This is where your Jewish self as a poet is created, here. The dream is the dream of the darkness that gives way to the Jewish poet. And in the paragraph you didn’t read, that comes afterwards, you talk about Poland/1931, which is the book where you basically declare this is of interest to you and you treat those materials as you’ve been treating all the other archaic, primitive materials.
Rothenberg: Should I read that other paragraph?
Filreis: Yeah, I’d love it.
Filreis: I always get my way here.
Rothenberg: It was just so nice to end on Kafka.
Filreis: That Kafka stuff is great. And you dragged Kafka into this too.
Rothenberg [reads]: For myself it had suddenly seemed possible — this was in 1966 or ’67 and I was finishing Technicians of the Sacred — to break into that other place, “my own … a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen.” From that point on, it opened up in stages. Images, once general and without particular names, now had identified themselves. I let my mind — and the words of others, for I had learned as well to collage and assemble — work out its vision of “fantastic life,” as Robert Duncan had called it for all poetry: an image in this instance of some supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville I could set in motion. With those poems (Poland/1931) I made a small entry, American and eastern European; yet something had dropped away, so that it was now possible to “be in common with myself,” to experience the mystery of naming, like the thrill and terror of my Jewish dream.
Filreis: So to continue the interpretation: there you have the names that are inchoate, you couldn’t name them, but now the naming — you do the Genesis thing. So now you are doing the godly thing of naming. This is the beginning. Fair enough?
Rothenberg: That’s fair enough, though Adam not God is the real namer. A little —
Filreis: A little what? A little reductive?
Rothenberg: A little overblown. This is all overblown.
Filreis: Diane, does this resonate with you?
I’ll send you the bill later.
Look, I have a million other questions, but this is probably a good time —
Rothenberg: You know, but it was suddenly possible, and partly I’m responding to so much that’s going on, to the time of Black being beautiful and the American Indian movements, but more than that. I mean, in the ethnopoetics, I’m finding sources of poetry, not as a question there of any kind of identity —
Filreis: Yes, sorry about that.
Rothenberg: Sources of poetry. But beginning to think that there are the Jewish sources. And what if I begin to work from within that? The one thing is that I can work from within that in the way I would never, say, in writing Seneca Journal, you know, pose as an Indian. I would never in Technicians of the Sacred do that kind of costuming, play acting. You know, except, I could do it as a joke, but not in any serious way.
Filreis: So the surrealist vaudeville was made possible by this move?
Rothenberg: The Yiddish surrealist vaudeville, by the way, is a designation David Meltzer gave me.
Filreis: It’s an apt name for that book.
Rothenberg: I really should have credited him. I’m not clever enough to come up with that —
Filreis: So Triptych was made possible by this particular move?
Rothenberg: Yeah, but Triptych happened in stages.
Filreis: Yes, of course.
Rothenberg: The notion of bringing that together. You know, of course, a bigger book was possible. The writing around the Jewish dream, writing the Jewish poem, extends, you know. A Big Jewish Book is 650–700 pages of working through this in the manner of Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin. So that’s part of it. A smaller series of poems called Fourteen Stations, which works off traditional Jewish numerology to —
Filreis: And Gematria, maybe even out of that?
Rothenberg: Gematria is something like a 250 page book of short poems constructed in the manner of traditional Jewish numerology. You know, this is sort of my Jewish Oulipo.
Filreis: There is a Jewish Oulipo.
So look, I want to open this up to the floor. And I open it up to the floor.
Rothenberg: And feel free to ask about Dada —
Filreis: Yeah, feel free to get away from the Jewish question.
Rothenberg: But you don’t have to.
Filreis: CAConrad is right here. In orange. Good morning.
Conrad: Okay. I know you’ve covered this a little bit already, and you covered it last night a little bit too, but on the back of your spell book, Gris-Gris, you mention that you began writing Poland/1931 when you were taking on the assembling of Technicians of the Sacred. And was there something specific about that anthology that led you … that opened the door to Poland/1931?
Rothenberg: Well, in the sense that Technicians of the Sacred is my discovery of the power of traditional sources. And I go ranging through that particularly into those areas which had been misnamed primitive, because they are truly areas of tremendous development of poetry and vision and so on. Once I was into the sources, not as a roots question, except that, you know, if you want human roots, right? That is also the search for human origins. Where does this practice — that some of us think is so important and others think is absolutely besides the point — where does it come from? So it’s a search for origins of speech, of language, of poetry, of art, by seeing the vast array of forms they’ve taken.
I remember at that point that some of us were trying to push this back into, you know, other animal presences. Is there an art practiced by primates? Can you teach apes to speak? What’s the extent of language? When does language begin? Is the creation of language a basic poetic act? At some point there must have been geniuses among the non-languaged primates who created language —
Filreis: And as you said, there is no such thing as a primitive language in your opinion.
Filreis: Or any time.
Rothenberg: No no no. At some point very far back it had to have started.
Filreis: I’m sorry, there’s no such thing as an unformed or unfinished language, you’ve said.
Rothenberg: In a certain sense all languages are unfinished. It was too easy to categorize certain cultures as being primitive when, in fact, in various areas there was a deep development over centuries and millennia. Languages everywhere are complex and can be fitted to almost any task. Certain languages do basic mental operations better than our language. So we have to monkey around with our language to get it to do things that, say, a language like Hopi is able to do [snaps] like that. But there are things that we do, you know, that … we would probably have to manipulate Hopi in various ways.
Filreis: You once said that primitive means complex.
Rothenberg: Well, most of those languages that have been tracked and have been labeled as primitive were not primitive at all, but very complex languages. The ceremonial poetry, the ritual poetry, the shamanistic poetry that was a part of those cultures was, if you looked at it in the right way, complex: often very complex in meaning, certainly complex in performance, corresponding to our own search for a total work of art. The good ol’ German gesamtkunstwerk. That existed there. We were not dealing with some kind of primitive blah blah blah, you know, unformed words. Languages keep forming in the world through pidgins and creoles, then becoming separate languages. But even there, that’s often a complicated linguistic base to start with.
Filreis: Thank you for the question, CA I believe we have a call coming in on the phone.
Filreis: Who is it?
Caller: Steve Fredman.
Rothenberg: Hello Steve!
Steve Fredman: Hi guys.
Filreis: We can hear you quite well. You want to ask your question?
Fredman: Sure. When you mentioned “fantastic life” from Robert Duncan in the preface to A Big Jewish Book, I was thinking about the fact that Duncan’s fantastic life is soon to be before us in print. And I was thinking about, Jerry, how much over the years I’ve heard you mention in different ways your fondness for Robert Duncan and indebtedness to him in different ways. I wondered if you could just talk about that a little bit. This will take us off in some ways the Jewish subject, and maybe even off the primitive subject to some extent. I was thinking about the ways in which Duncan seemed to open up different possibilities of writing and poetics for you over the years, and I wondered if you could maybe sketch out a trajectory of your relations to him as a writer yourself over a period of time.
Rothenberg: I could write a book to talk about Duncan. There was, to begin with, a very friendly response at a point when I still thought of myself as being isolated from other poets, or working within a small group of poets in New York. Duncan responded very quickly to what I was doing with that eagerness to enter into communication. There was never a big correspondence between us, that is, letter writing. I mean he was a maniacal letter writer, and I was, at least before the Internet and email, a very sparse letter writer.
At the time when City Lights was publishing my first book, and actually my first anthology, called New Young German Poets, Diane and I went out to San Francisco and at the City Lights bookstore, during a photo op, met Robert and spent time with him and Jess. Immediately, because so immersed in poetry and ideas as he was, immediately he began to lead me towards certain things. Let me point out, I think it was from him that I first got the recently published Gershom Scholem book on major trends in Jewish mysticism, but in exchange I gave him Paul Celan.
Duncan was a little suspicious of Paul Celan —
Rothenberg: Yeah, because he had picked up, he thought, a certain — you know, this is kind of internal in lefty movements of that period — but he picked up maybe something a little commie about Paul Celan.
Filreis: A little what?
Rothenberg: A little commie.
Filreis: A little commie, and Robert Duncan didn’t want that.
Rothenberg: You know, Robert was having problems with the Stalinist part of the left. It was sort of a silly reading of the phrase from the Spanish Civil War, No pasaran!, going into a Celan poem.
Shortly after, Robert came to visit us in New York. So most of the contact was really direct rather than letter writing.
He was, for me, one of those with whom every conversation could be valuable, and maybe because we didn’t see each other that often. There are others with whom I’ve worked and shared ideas over the course of time like David Antin who goes back with me and with Diane for over fifty years. And David is also a great producer of ideas and insights. David and I have known each other over that whole time, sometimes almost on a day to day basis, so there’s a lot of small talk between me and David. But with Robert, it was invariably more than that.
Filreis: Steve, are you still there?
Filreis: Can you say briefly what you think the Rothenberg-Duncan connection is?
Fredman: Well, I’ve always been struck by your invocation of the phrase “symposium of the whole” that is almost a talismanic phrase in your work it seems.
Rothenberg: It’s a title of a book. And, of course, it comes from Robert.
Fredman: And that’s certainly one of the things I was thinking about: the whole notion of culture as assemblage, and of the grand collage, the poetry of all poetries, that seems to be something that’s very much central to your work as well.
Rothenberg: Well, that was part of what was, well … in Duncan I found a poet — what was he, ten or twelve years older than me? — who was writing a certain kind of poetry that was attractive, but also opening up a world that integrated contemporary twentieth-century poetry from other places. In a way, Olson never meant that much to me in terms of the mixing of old and new. Olson was, let me say, too much of an Americanist. Gary Snyder was also too much of an Americanist, although I valued them both. Gary turned toward the East, toward Asia, you know, but I had one foot still in Europe. If there was a conflict with Europe, it was a conflict with England, and that stranglehold that British poetry had on our own poetry. But we were drawing so much from France, from the European continent. I saw what we were doing as a continuation both of certain streams in American poetry, but also that we had taken over something from France, or brought it over here. We hadn’t taken it away from them, although I think to some degree they had given up on it. But it was passed along, you know, as Kennedy said, “through this generation of Americans, a torch has been passed” —
Filreis: Passing the torch. That’s a good imitation.
Rothenberg: And Robert intensified that sense for me.
Filreis: Well thank you, Steve, for the question. Take care.
Fredman: Thanks for the answer.
Filreis: Bob Perelman has a question.
Bob Perelman: This is just a footnote actually to the Duncan question. I was thinking last night when you were reading The Burning Babe, there’s the Duncan suite, the Southwell suite about the Burning Babe. Which is the chicken, which is the egg? I think they’re contemporaneous, right?
Rothenberg: No, no. Duncan certainly came before. The Southwell suite was before my version. Not necessarily before Poland/1931.
Filreis: The Burning Babe is recent.
Perelman: I see.
Filreis: Thank you, Bob.
Tom Devaney has a question. Good morning, Tom.
Thomas Devaney: Good morning, Al and Jerry.
Filreis: Tom, you said that the poems last night washed over you. You were very moved.
Devaney: That’s true.
Filreis: Can you say more about that?
Devaney: That’s true. Well, about that, I guess a comment: Philip Whalen has a poem where he quotes Allen Ginsberg saying something about Thelonius Monk, and he says, “O yeah, he has the music going on all of the time. You can see it when he is walking around.” And I think that about your poetry. And that’s one of the things that’s just so pleasurable about it whatever the content: that music.
So, the question I have, which is unrelated to that comment —
Just whenever I am listening to you talk about poetry, you keep talking about your travels and the places you’ve been. But then, in your poems, they seem to be just populated with people more than places. So, it’s both. But when I hear you talk, you’re always travelling, and then in the poems there’s so many people. I don’t know if there’s something there. That’s a comment-observation-question.
Rothenberg: I can often misinterpret myself when I talk about myself, but it seems to me I came to writing out of travel fairly late along. In the same way that I came to, very deliberately, write the Jewish poem. Poland/1931 is about place. I don’t think it’s just about people. I think place comes into it. The Bialo forest, the names of towns. I think the town names come in much more in the second part of Triptych, in Khurbn.
I thought for a long time that I really couldn’t write out of travels. I enjoyed travelling. I enjoyed meeting people on the travels. All of that was fine.
Filreis: So doesn’t the Tsukiji fish market poem count as —
Rothenberg: No, no. That comes later.
I think — although talking on the spot I might be forgetting something — I think, for me, in 1997, we spent four months in Paris, and I was translating Picasso poems and there’s a whole series of poems that came out of being there. You know, a few years earlier, that Tsukiji market poem in Japan, and the poems coming out of other Japanese visits. Early, maybe even earlier, a visit to Greece touched off a series of poems called “An Oracle for Delphi” and the Khurbn poems were also out of travel. But it’s from the 90s on that travel, the places I’ve been, begin to come into the poetry.
Filreis: Several reviewers of your book A Paradise of Poets said — and they were positive reviews, generally — that there was something about the poems, many written in Paris or about Paris, and Japan, there was something about voluntary, temporary exile that created in you, seemed to create in you, a sense of elegy: a sense of being displaced, or lost. Certainly “Paris,” in the three Paris elegies, is a poem about all the gone people, all the ghosts, and the cemeteries. Even the Tsukiji market poem, which is about all the dead bodies of the fish and the earthquakes … is there a connection between travelling and being away from home, and that feeling that’s happened to you recently, that elegiac feeling?
Rothenberg: Only that, as I’ve said, the elegiac feeling probably goes back to —
Rothenberg: Yeah, probably goes back to birth, Al.
Filreis: I’m right about something.
Rothenberg: The first glimmerings of death.
Rothenberg: And it kicks in.
Filreis: Why not?
Rothenberg: Let’s say at the time, writing the Paris elegies … of course I’ve reached a certain age and friends have reached a certain age, and the dying begins to accelerate. So that’s coincident with our ability to travel more and more and more.
I don’t think that it’s the travelling that kicks that off.
Although I believe that younger people probably, if they are writing about things, bring a lot of death into their poetry.
Filreis: And you don’t have to be old to go to Paris if you’re in the modernist tradition and see that Apollinaire is memorialized there. In other words, it’s a series of markings of gone modernism. And of course Vienna Blood, which is a wonderful book, I take it to be partly about the way in which World War II, Nazism, didn’t just get rid of the Jews. It was anti-modernism, it sort of cleared the field of a certain modernist intellectual, and Vienna Blood misses that. You know, you’re really missing that there.
We have a question from someone by email. Erin?
Erin Gautsche: This is a question from Robert Sward.
Filreis: Robert Sward, the poet. Hello Robert.
Gautsche [reads]: Paul Blackburn was a dear and valued friend. I knew him in New York in the 1960s, and it was Paul who introduced me and other writers to Julio Cortazar, Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz, and Provencal poetry. He was passionate about their work. To what extent did Paul Blackburn influence you and your work with ethnopoetics?
Rothenberg: It’s a good question. Paul certainly influenced me as a presence and a very close friend. Again, he was very encouraging, responsive to the ethnopoetics work. I don’t think that he influenced me in getting into the ethnopoetics, but there was a lot that we shared. He taught me a lot about the sound of my own voice listening to him. He was an extraordinary interpreter in readings of his own poetry. Again, he was writing very much in the American grain, probably more than me. But at the same time, Europe was part of his consciousness, particularly France, Spain, Toulouse. He was a translator. We’ve hardly spoken about translation, but we had a bond as translators. Along the same lines, he did the greatest translations of Troubadour poetry, far surpassing Pound as a translator from the Provencal.
So a magnificent poet. Really somewhat, because he died young, in danger of becoming a lost poet.
Filreis: Why do you think that is?
Rothenberg: Well, because Paul shied away from speaking much about the nature of the work that he and others were doing. He was not a commentator in the way that, say, Creeley, was. Creeley could talk a mean streak about poetry. Paul didn’t. That was not his style.
In my mind, Paul is very much the equal of Creeley as a poet. But Creeley lived on until eighty, or almost eighty.
Filreis: And he really was capable of being programmatic.
Rothenberg: They were born the same year. Paul, were he alive, would be eighty-two years old now. Diane shakes her head — a little hard, a little hard to believe. So in my memory, he’s a young man; he dies in his forties.
Filreis: Well, that’s another reason why we’re not reading him.
Rothenberg: He died, and the death of a poet can have effects. Paul was a presence because he was a presence. He was there. He brought his poetry from place to place. So, there is the possibility that in the series that we are doing, Pierre Joris and I, are doing for the University of California Press, Poets for the Millennium, that one of the next volumes that we’ll bring out in that — it’s little books of individual poets — will be a Paul Blackburn volume.
Filreis: Oh, really?
Rothenberg: Yeah. That’s in the works. We’re negotiating towards that.
Filreis: Thank you for the question, Robert. Lee Ann Brown has a question? You look like you have a question.
Lee Ann Brown: I just basically wanted to hear more about the confluence of the surrealist and the dada with the more ethnomusicological poetry you brought to the forefront, because to me that is one of the best things —
Filreis: You mean the convergence of those two modes?
Brown: Saying how avant-garde that is, you said looking at it in the right way, that ethnomusicological work … and what is that right way to look at it? And just talk more about those radicalities of those two different kinds of strands.
Rothenberg: Well, the dadas and surrealists, like other poets and artists early in the twentieth century, were very much in the process of discovering the human roots of poetry and art. So the first considerations of so-called primitive art as something more than primitive come from those early modernist movements.
Filreis: Certainly on the painting side, but not quite as much on the poetry side?
Rothenberg: On the painting side, or on the sculptural side, because Picasso could lift up the small statue or the mask or whatever it was when he makes the statement about this being as beautiful as, or more beautiful than, the Venus de Milo. The poetry presented the usual language barrier. But that was coming out also: among others Tristan Tzara compiled an anthology — I think never published it in his lifetime, now it’s ready for publication [translated by Pierre Joris] — around 1920 —
Rothenberg: Of poems from Africa and Oceania. Blaise Cendrars did an African anthology. Benjamin Peret, a surrealist poet, a pre-Columbian one. Michel Leiris was both a poet-writer and an anthropologist. So there are a lot of predecessors there. It’s part of what I was saying about — which I became very aware of travelling just now in France with the French translation of Technicians of the Sacred — how much of the impetus for that kind of thing comes, in fact, from France, with the work carrying on, if you want to talk in those terms, in a French tradition.
Somebody, I think it was Donald Allen, very early in my time as a poet — you know, I had not appeared in the first edition of New American Poetry — but I met Donald Allen around that time, and of course he was pushing an American agenda with the New American poetry, and he said, “You, of course, are an international poet.”
Rothenberg: So I said, of course: What the —? An international poet? What does he mean by that?
But over the years, I’ve thought that’s very insightful. Yes, I am an international poet. And proud of it.
Filreis: For those who have not explored the connection that Lee Ann’s question asks about, between the primitive poetics and archaic materials, and dada, for instance, this book, Prefaces, which collects many of Jerry’s prefaces and other critical pieces, prose pieces, hits this point five or six times brilliantly. And so, if you want to explore that point, this is the book to use.
Filreis: Do we have another question? I know that we have one coming from email.
Gautsche: This is from Doctor Gorsky [reads]. What is the current nature of American avant poetics? Can you suggest some poets and/or mediums that represent significant newness?
Filreis: That’s a big question.
Rothenberg: That is a big question.
Filreis: Do you want to take a small slice at it? And don’t mention any poets in the room.
Filreis: Sorry, Bob.
Rothenberg: Sorry, Bob.
Filreis: You can mention any poet you want.
Rothenberg: Let me say I want to avoid specifics on this caught on the spot. But let me make a comment about my relationship to such a question. One of the factors of having too many years in the world of poetry is that you begin to lose track. I find that after your generation, Bob, which is not that much different from mine, but different enough —
Filreis: There you go, Bob.
Rothenberg: It becomes more and more difficult for me to —
Perelman: They all write alike.
Rothenberg: They all write alike because they all don’t write alike. It becomes difficult, particularly when a question is asked to single out a few people. If you single out a few people, that becomes a difficult thing.
Filreis: Bob wants to say something.
Perelman: At first, I should say for the record that that was a joke, what I said before.
Filreis: Which one, that they are all writing alike? P E R E L M A N. He said it here: you guys all write alike.
Perelman: No, but a serious question, and this maybe goes back to the Jewish stuff: a polemical moment in your career that really stands out is your essay against Bloom, where you pull no punches. The question there is his absolutist sense of poetic hierarchy: that there are good poets, and then there’s the rest, and we can discard them.
Filreis: And also the agonistic relationship among poets.
Perelman: Right, right.
So, in some sense, I can imagine that the avant-garde, for you — with your sense of international poetry, world poetry, tribal poetry — that poetry is a universal human attribute that is useful at all points and all times. That in a way, the whole notion of the avant-garde, of the chosen ones who are ahead of all the benighted —
Perelman: Lessers who are stuck in the old ways — that would be actually a rather antithetical concept to your larger poetic project. But on the other hand, of course, I think both of our poetic upbringings are through, loosely termed, an avant-garde scene. So, it’s a funny kind of tension, is it not?
Rothenberg: No, it is. It is a funny kind of tension because part of the avant-garde project, as I understand it, was the democratization of art. But there’s a tension because you’re setting yourself apart as the chosen, visionary company. Avant-gardes are always self-proclaimed. You have to proclaim yourself an avant-garde. And yet, on the masthead of The Surrealist Revolution, the surrealist magazine, there’s a quote from Lautréamont: “Poetry is made by all, not by one.” Poetry is made by all, not by one.
You know, usually one doesn’t think of an avant-garde of one. Avant-garde seems to presuppose a collective enterprise.
Filreis: Stein. He’s holding up Stein’s book there.
More on that later.
Rothenberg: He’s holding up Gertrude Stein’s book Portraits and Prayers. But even Stein is working with Picasso and others. Holding up the book Portraits and Prayers, most of them are portraits of other poets and artists: Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne. She’s obviously seeing herself as part of that company. But there is a possible conflict between the self-proclaimed group of avant-gardists and the desire towards the democratization.
Filreis: We have to start to close. Thanks, thanks for the question by email, and also Bob for really interestingly refining the question.
Alright, let’s go ahead and take that question.
I have two more questions, but we’ll take this if it’s someone in the visionary company, and if not, we won’t.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
Yes, go ahead and bring it on.
Filreis: Hi. Who are you?
Murat Nemat-Nejat: I am Murat Nemet-Nejat.
Filreis: Ah, Murat!
Rothenberg: Oh, hi Murat.
Filreis: Are you in New York?
Nemet-Nejat: I am in New York.
Filreis: You should be in Philly.
Rothenberg: That sounds like W. C. Fields.
Filreis: Anyway, welcome. Do you have a question for Jerry?
Filreis: Great. Go ahead.
Nemet-Nejat: Hello, Jerry. This is Murat Nemet-Nejat. I have a question related to what Lee Ann was asking really. I wanted to ask, in your view, is there a tension between the religious spirit and the secular spirit in this whole poetic experiment, both in the avant-garde and the ethnopoetics? For example, you know, the religious, the traditional poetry has a very strong oracular element. And also, when you talk about your own experiences at Treblinka, you talk about the word “hearing” — hearing a poem, hearing the poems. But in your reaction to the first question, you said it wasn’t really hearing; it was not something like this.
And my question is, is it possible really to have, to write this kind of poetry that you are interested in from a purely nonreligious —
Nemet-Nejat: Secular voice?
Filreis: Thank you, it’s a great question. I’ve been wanting to ask that.
Rothenberg: I think it’s a great question because, for me, it’s the central question of much of what I’ve done. That is, how can one keep a poetic tradition alive in a secular world? And I certainly don’t want to go into a religious world. I’m a secularist. I want to have nothing in a personal way to do with establishments of religion, but I recognize the sources of poetry resting on a religious basis. That’s where they come from. That’s the varieties of religious experience so closely connected even with forms of poetry that don’t have visionary things coming into your head but writing processes. So, I have no answer to that. I’m saying: that’s the question. For me, that’s a very, very central question. And I think books like Technicians of the Sacred and much of what we do are really playing with that question.
Filreis: But because you raise the question, you often will say in an introduction or even in a preface to a poem you are about to read — for instance, “A Paradise of Poets,” the poem — you say I am not thinking of this in any religious sense at all. You have to keep saying that for us to understand what you mean because your work does lead us to a consideration of the sacred in a religious sense.
Rothenberg: Yeah, I think all I was saying, by the way, in response to that question about the poems I first began to hear —
Filreis: At Treblinka.
Rothenberg: At Treblinka. That I don’t want to suggest that I’ve gone into a trance at Treblinka and poems are being dictated to me as perhaps to —
Filreis: Jack Spicer.
Rothenberg: Jack Spicer or to Maria Tsvetaeva. That’s not it, but that puts me into a certain condition of poetry different from other more programmatic ways of writing poetry: a little bit of that Jewish Oulipo.
Filreis: Murat, thank you for asking the question. Thank you for calling.
The sun, just this moment, came out here in Philly, so I hope it does the same in New York. Thank you.
Nemet-Nejat: Thank you very much.
I have two more questions, Jerry. My favorite piece of prose — just a hilarious thing you said that the students and I talked to you about yesterday — you were asked by someone, well, how do we do poetry in the classroom, and you said it’s like the way they taught us sex in the old hygiene classes: not performance but semiotics. If I had taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would have become a monk. And if I had taken college English seriously, I would have become an accountant.
Now that’s an extreme statement and we are at a university, and the university is paying my salary and your honorarium. But other than that —
Rothenberg: Yeah, that’s my David Antin phase.
Filreis: So you’ve pulled a little away from that.
Rothenberg: I usually hold back from that.
Filreis: But to the extent that it’s true: so the English major in an English class, instead of moving towards poetry, is more likely to become an accountant. If that’s true, why is that?
Rothenberg: Well, I would have become an accountant.
Filreis: That’s what you’re saying. Oh, you really are good. You are so good.
And what about sex?
Rothenberg: What about sex?
Filreis: You would have become a monk. I mean the analogy is quite daring.
The way they teach sex makes you not want to do sex. The way they teach poetry makes you not want to do poetry.
Rothenberg: Well, it strips the passion. That’s a Paul Blackburn expression, by the way. If Robert Sward is still listening, that’s a —
Filreis: Thank you, Robert.
Rothenberg: “Stripped all passion from the sound of speech.”
Filreis: So, let’s not let the university strip passion from the sound of speech.
Rothenberg: That poetry is a passionate undertaking. It inevitably gets taught in classrooms, and there are ways to ameliorate that. I’m sure you’ve experimented —
Filreis: We’re trying. Having you helps.
Rothenberg: With classroom situations.
Filreis: Which brings me to my last question. You went to Celanversity. You visited Paul Celan in 1967. That was your first meeting with him. And in some ways, since the poem about Celan appears in a series called “The Notebooks,” in some ways it was … the poem is a kind of recording of that first encounter with him. I was very moved by the poem. I adore Celan’s, admire Celan’s poetry very, very much. And the poem records a kind of mistranslation. You are not speaking a common language, literally. You are having some trouble communicating.
Rothenberg: I can give a prose explanation.
Filreis: Would you? And would you also then read the poem?
Filreis: Thank you, as a way of concluding.
Rothenberg: I was put in the, I think, fortunate position of being perhaps the first person to translate, and publish in a book, translations of Paul Celan. And that was in that first book for City Lights: New Young German Poets. And an invitation that came to me from Ferlinghetti: did I know something — I didn’t — about new, young German poetry? And I didn’t.
Filreis: And you didn’t?
Rothenberg: But would I be interested in assembling a City Lights Pocket Poets Series version, and I was interested. Celan was one of the poets that I came to. So it was early translation of, maybe first translations of Celan, of Günter Grass, Enzesberger, of Helmut Heissenbüttel, of Ingeborg Bachmann, and so forth. It was a good, good thing to happen. And there was a little bit of correspondence with Celan in the process.
And then in 1967, we were travelling to England, to London and to Paris. Celan, of course, was living in Paris and teaching at the Ecole Normale. I guess I dropped him a note. There was some possibility, what was it, Unicorn Books here in the States had approached me about doing more translations from Celan, although I was a little frightened off at that point because his poetry was getting so difficult, so really Celan-ish. But I wanted to meet him.
He did not have the great reputation that he has now, so I didn’t have the sense that I was meeting an icon, that kind of figure. But he said sure, come over to the Ecole Normale. I did. We met in his office. Then we went around the corner to a cafe and spent maybe three hours together talking. What came out of the conversation was a little awkward because my spoken German is not so good, and his spoken English is not so good.
Filreis: And did you have Yiddish in common?
Rothenberg: Ah, but that was the question. Yeah, you know, we had this conversation and among other things, Jewishness came through.
Filreis: Full circle conversation we’re having.
Rothenberg: There were various people who had become interested in translating him. Were they Jewish enough? Or did they know enough Jewish things? A lot of suspicion of other German poets over the Jewish question. So that kept coming into it.
But it was a nice conversation. And at the end of it, as we were leaving the cafe, I asked him if he spoke Yiddish. And he said yes. Although, I’m sure he said it was not really a language he had until sometime during the war and the camps. So I said I thought it was rather curious that he had Yiddish, and I had Yiddish, but we were stumbling around in German and English.
Filreis: And then you had Yiddish. This is what moves me about the poem so much because mama loshen [mother tongue] is the thing that’s left. Both of you were sort of grappling with what’s left. It’s the Adorno question again. And both of you, in my opinion, the best of all, the two of you, you through Khurbn in particular, had been dealing straight on with this question of what is left in language after such disasters. That’s why I chose the poem to end with, and I hope you will read it.
Filreis: And this is an elegy. This is in his memory. Correct?
Rothenberg: Yes, this is.
Filreis: This is from The Notebooks.
Rothenberg: This is a letter to Paul Celan, in memory. Does the term mama loshen —
Filreis: Yes, mama loshen is in there.
Rothenberg: Yes, loshen is the Hebrew and Yiddish word for language. Mama loshen is the mother tongue.
Filreis: And mother is a big deal for Celan because he lost his mother.
Rothenberg: Hebrew, in that tradition, would be … they don’t call it the father language. They call it the holy language. Loshen Kadush: holy language.
A letter to Paul Celan, in memory, December ’75.
So after he is dead.
[Reads “A Letter to Paul Celan, in Memory, December 1975.”]
Filreis: Jerome Rothenberg.
Thank you, Jerome Rothenberg.
Thank you Jerry and Diane. Thank you Mark Lindsay, Jamie Lee Josselyn, and Ellie Kane. Thank you all for coming. Thank you for coming very, very much.
Explain thro’ a brief analysis why the reading of any poem of your choice, by yourself or someone else, is enriched by bringing a science-informed interpretive strategy to bear. The poem may or may not be working consciously with scientific allusions; if you think it will help, refer to one poem that is and one that isn’t.
To be “dressed”
is to emit
The spirit of “renormalization” is that
all by itself
can have infinite
mass and charge,
but, when it’s “dressed” …
A toddler stares at us
till we look up.
“Flirtatious,” we call it.
until we get the joke
about being here,
I want to use my poem “Dress Up” to illustrate some issues I raised in my answers to questions 1 and 2. The first two stanzas of this poem are paraphrases (condensed and rearranged) of Steven Gubser’s The Little Book of String Theory. Gubser’s writing interests me both because of the peculiarity of the metaphors embedded in it and because of the deep strangeness of the phenomenon it describes. A “dressed” electron is one that has emitted “virtual” particles. As most of us know by now, virtual particles spring into and out of existence spontaneously (and in pairs no less). This has always made me wonder what “existence” means. Anyway, virtual particles are — in some sense — not fully real and yet it is only when an electron emits such particles that it has a realistic (as opposed to impossibly infinite) charge and mass. “Renormalization” — a fecund word in itself — is the mathematical process of canceling out infinities by putting in the values for the virtual particles. The word “renormalization” suggests suspect tinkering. But it’s the word “dressed” that’s really interesting. One could say that the electron can’t “realize” itself until it has clothed itself in some fantasy get-up. Note that I don’t say that — but one could.
The third section, obviously, comes from another place entirely. It depicts a toddler I saw in a bank lobby. She was playing a kind of peek-a-boo with me, staring at me until I looked up then giggling and looking away. I had the sense that she found the whole presence/absence, self/other dynamic essentially comical. Now I’m not saying that the girl is an electron or that the electron is a girl. That’s a standard rhetorical move I refuse. It would be silly. I am equally interested in the real child and in Gubser’s book. I want to link them in tandem, to “entangle” them, as it were, to see what sort of resonance they might establish. There’s a parallel of some kind here, I feel, but not an equation. At least that’s how I experience it. I hope others will too. [for more poems by Armantrout, see the “Poetry Supplement”]
Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711):
True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc’d at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind …
And Williams, Spring and All (1923):
I find that there is work to be done in the creation of new forms,
new names for experience
and that “beauty” is related not to “loveliness” but to a state in which
reality plays a part
I used to think these were opposite credos: Pope saying that there are no new ideas (tho’ the lines get trickier the closer one scrutinizes them, as many have said: is nature dressed to advantage still nature? etc; and he was writing in the relatively new form of heroic couplets), WCW saying the times demand new ideas — as would Stein three years later in “Composition as Explanation”: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” But more and more I came to experience recognition as a key aspect of reading poetry, and it tended to be recognition of things I hadn’t realized needed recognizing. So Pope’s line shifted toward something like: “What you didn’t even realize you’d tried and failed to put into words, or what you’d never thought was even up for that, and are glad now to see expressed — and in some way, however briefly, empowered by that; the world becomes a little less opaque.” (Still a way to go with the elegance here) —
I think that’s precisely what I felt with Rae’s poem “Dress Up.” When I first read it, I was reminded of something the science fiction writer (among many other things) Samuel R. Delany said back in the 60s: that one of the things SF can do is literalize metaphor. Now it never occurred to me that the poem is saying “the girl is an electron or that the electron is a girl.” But there seems to be indeed “a parallel of some sort there, but not an equation.” It brings an everyday experience into fresh focus to place it in the vicinity of something we know or believe is literally true and strange. I’ve never so sharply understood the fascination of Freud and his followers with the fort-da game before. In a comparable way, I’ve never so vividly imagined population increase as when I read the obituary section in Kenny Goldsmith’s Day: person after person “survived by” four or five children, multiple grandchildren … from just one day in just one city —
One of the preoccupations I acquired on first moving to London in the late 70s was with vast, unthinkable numbers of things — and of people. This would relate to science in a very broad sense, bringing in technology, architecture, medicine, sanitation measures, bureaucratic organization, mass food production, etc. Population and factory farming are now, arguably, symbiotically linked. What does that do to our sense of morality, of the value of a single life, of, indeed, the politics of Food Inc?
Adair: I’m wondering if it might be useful to take a poem whose scientific sources we feel we more or less know & look for some aesthetic dimension of it we haven’t hitherto queried & that might help shed light on its knitting-into / challenging of the presently complex cultural field. For instance: The following poem, from a forthcoming collection sable smoke, took off from something I learned (but had no way based in my own areas of expertise of confirming) from Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004): that while pretty much everything we know, including the destiny of our own deaths, confirms an irreversibly forward arrow of time, no one has so far devised a mathematics that would demonstrate some physical cosmic necessity for this; weirdly, all time-related equations, from Newton thro’ Einstein & beyond, work equally well if time is going forward or back. The poem’s governing conceit is that in that case, we can go back in time; of course, we’d experience it as going forward, but instead of learning things day by day we’d be forgetting them … we’d be growing younger rather than older, & moving beyond birth to disappearance.
as if there were
a last glance wipes
hairs & umbrellas streets
scrubbed of bustlers
in daguerre exposures
why we cannot
travel back (in
way a wedge
up over the top or
back down the
slope to an equivocal
“blast of silence”
components hold beyond
otherwise most troublesome
jitters of matter
moment to moment
remanifesting rather than
wavely persisting if tick
failed to physically
tock it back whosever the
math (even boltzmann’s)
as persuasive heading back
in time as forward 9
— five — four —
one — 0 — beyond
in terms of a
syllabary’s virtual bounds
* * *
sir arthur eddy
also thrown to
oceans en route
tea taken from
from one to t’
either side of
atlantic unable to
1,000 bi-colored penguins
a) blue-green b) grey-blue
c) grey-grey crowding
again & their
red-blue nail name
cliff tags against their
* * * *
from early (to return)
exposures of needed
develop erasing mobilities
assimilated to the
plate relay planck
of integrality by
interference to safety
glass made of in
the shatter event
present if “time” isn’t
outside of inorganics’ &
trails tall as they
“see the ground wave-heaves”
“smoke without fire”
durations of bastings dug
* * * * *
round’d scuffed suitcases
pegs smudging memories
of antecedents frog
turning into a quail
evidently a wildly held
general belief shit
fan charts poundage
loss it’ll feel
like we’re going
back to chicago
but as beasts
w/ two backs go
tying a diesel
back of the train
aways & then
we’ll reverse into
to be seen
while we’re still
treading temporal water
* * * * * *
space a flat unrippling
the most probable
if apparently otherwise
a metronome virtue
of pan vocabulary
hogwash! sez cecilia payne-
gaposchkin 1919 glory
years behind her in
front the team studies in
high luminosity star-
clouds in a manor manor
to skalding the harvard
hydrogen hydra constituent
“in the reversing layers of stars”
evolution keyed alarm
to small-group reach
having in a return
to be unduly
unglued as a result
of a plank as projected
moor of cow cord lane
distemper mat w/drawings
from acidic smokescarps
of the still
still but less long dead
reverse echoings of
spaded lid-thunks heavy
still to happen has but
perhaps not or
won’t have quite
the posited return
if soil clatter
* * * * * * *
she’s found un-
sleepless no sleepless
for 3 nights the
test of proof
of “a result of one
of the highest
human thought” not
on past that which
nothing that hasn’t
will happen but
she won’t sleep
* * * * * * * * *
from both directions’d
short out (liveforever)
more likely adjacent not
sharing a track a braid
perhaps of broken fronts
the “fearsum symmetree”
o’ rabbie burns compounding
reappearances’ claim on
more numerous erasures
see going back many fewer
hot shots a’ready
other easier to learn
essay as a verb preceding
sounding in retrospect
of the deaths of others
passed under an
growing younger on these
same streets memories
Obviously I was fascinated by the physics concepts involved here, & desirous of acknowledging the intellectual tours de force they represented & the excitement they generate(d); equally obviously, I bent this toward imaginative registering of certain political realities: the active persistence of debts apparently owed to the dead (if time is going backwards, the dead will be up & about again in no time, & anxious to collect) & the apparent reversal of progress in multiple sites in the global prospect. In each case, I think that what I wrote in response to Rae’s poem is pertinent: that there’s not so much a metaphorical crossover going on as the bringing of a familiar “experience into fresh focus [by placing] it in the vicinity of something we know or believe is literally true and strange.” It’s entirely possible that this is missing the whole point of taking on recent physics as proposed by Amy (in “Disciplinary Pertinence”): “that novel sciences must have novel languages beyond mathematics that can be used to describe them.” I’d be interested to know what anyone else thinks of this.
Looking again at the poem, however, I get curious about the form. The prospective shape of a poem on the page is one of the first things to clarify in my mind, & I tend to trust it & run with it. Here what’s apparent is the short-lined tercets, the 1.5 spacing, & the division by asterisks into sections. I wonder why that seemed (& still does) the way to go. I associate the form with Williams, but not quite the way it’s used here, where the compression seems wanted to focus (to hold?) startling transformations & also ruminative stretches: “The Desert Music” in the lineation of “This is just to say”? Something or my sense of something in the contemporary [technosphere] presumably demands this here. It may or may not be compelling to others.
John Cayley: Thanks to all for the contributions so far. I’ve been thinking and writing slowly. I’m afraid that what I’m sending now is yet more in terms of ‘general remarks’ and is only about half of the prose I’d like to contribute. After this, I’d like to go back and read or reread the other contributions so far, but then go on to give some indication of the actual procedures that I’m beginning to use to make work these days, in the belief that this does bear on the questions we are addressing. I’m also planning to contribute a few actual pieces made according to the procedures I will introduce.
(I’m a little bit worried that the formatting of the paragraphs that I’m pasting in now will not survive the googlegroups cloudform. Ah well. Here goes.)
Given that the impetus and tenor of poetry is aesthetic, it is difficult to imagine that its incorporating linguistic material of any variety in any manner could be deemed to be inappropriate. Science isn’t just around us in the form of science-made-technology, it is in us and in our language. If poetry partakes of science-as-language (only) in some ‘metaphoric’ sense, well then, science-as-technology is (only) in the world in an equally ‘metaphoric’ sense. An effective or, for that matter, an ineffective, malformed machine or process both is and is not whatever its ‘science’ may be. There is no question but that science — as content or as anything — may partake of technology or poetry however we please.
Perhaps some consideration of science and poetry as cultural practices will allow greater articulation of whatever, despite my opening remarks, remains problematic for makers and readers in both communities. For the scientific community, language is a medium, one of many. Pure science is, perhaps, the symbolic formulation of what can be known about the world. As such, it is language; it is poetry. However, in practice, this formulation is only ever made in constant, reiterative experiential dialogue with all the other media which are present to us as the material world. The language of science is constantly tested against materialities that we tend to agree are external and beyond us: given.
Both communities are in the same world and relate to it as such. On this basis, Walter Benjamin might have said that the language of science — as a whole — is, necessarily, a translation of the language of poetry and vice versa. Poets, equally, attempt a symbolic formulation of what can be known about the world and, especially whenever they are ‘experimental,’ they test and retest their formulations. But language is the medium of poetry. The poet must engage, specifically, with the ‘singular (im)materiality’ of language. In so far as language is supported by media which are present to us as the material world, any relationship between language and media is arbitrary. Any media will serve, and any signifying relations will do, so long as they are some part of shared symbolic cultural practice. Crucially, the media capable of supporting language include those we associate with the mind, with operations of our subjectivities that are, typically, deemed to be private or internal. It seems to me that this is the point at which the communities of practice might diverge. I can continue to write on the basis that my practice is supported by ‘thoughts’ ‘within me.’ These ‘thoughts’ support my writing, materially, despite any lack of substantive relation with other ‘external’ media, at least until they are written down or spoken out. And even once written or spoken, any relationship between my subjective practice and the material form of its inscription (as writing or utterance) remains arbitrary. By contrast, the scientific practitioner is required to treat any unsubstantiated thought as, at best, ‘mere’ hypothesis.
Thus there is a vast subset of aesthetic linguistic practice that is unlikely ever to be accepted as scientific while, on the contrary, all of scientific linguistic practice can be encompassed by the poetic, and deturned for aesthetic effect, without implying any incoherence of poetic practice.
Scientific writing is procedural and constrained in terms of its relation to media, as indicated above. It focuses on its constrained practice of signification at the expense of the other primary dimension of the aesthetic: affect. Scientific discourse pretends both a necessary significant relationship with the world and also that this relationship is neutral, non-affective. Clearly, beyond the sensitivities that are typical of most scientific discourses, this pretended relationship implies a powerful system of affect — both in itself and as it functions as cultural and social practice. The anxiety that provoked the present discussion is, I would argue, a product of the affect generated by the discourses of science, rather than any anxiety over scientific or poetic practices of signification.
It happens that I am reading Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual while being asked to think and write about poetry and science. Massumi’s introduction concludes with three good pages advocating the use of scientific and mathematical models in cultural critical philosophy. He first provides a more subtly argued, generative version of my own argument thus far — while the studiously ‘poached’ scientific model or concept “suffers an exemplary kind of creative violence” — and then, as a fine analyst of affect, he locates the more powerfully generative effect of taking science to the humanities in a productive displacement of affect, precisely — as I would say, although Massumi doesn’t give his own characterization — the authority of pretended affectlessness in scientific practice. “When you poach a scientific concept, it carries with it scientific affects …. This is the kind of shameless poaching from science that I advocate and endeavor to practice: one that betrays the system of science while respecting its affects, in a way designed to force a change in the humanities.”
For Massumi, as for many poetic practitioners, the point has been ‘to force a change’ in their own and their colleagues’ practices. For poetry and poetics, the Objectivists were exemplary in this. No surprise that we have been asked to be provoked by some discussion of Zukofsky. I agree that we must further discuss and defend our right as poetic practitioners to generate change in this manner — by bringing scientific models and concepts into poems — but in further remarks that I still want to go on to make I would rather turn to the adoption of procedures — actual practices of writing — which may appear to model scientific procedures and so represent another variety of scientific transgression into poetry and vice versa.
Durand: Gilbert, the excerpt of “sable smoke” and your discussion reminded me of recent reading of Call Me Ishmael, where Olson posits that Melville’s turn toward a preoccupation with time (via Christianity) as opposed to space (via, um, exploration, exploitation, manifest destiny?) led to a disjunct between his being and writing at the end of his life. Olson doesn’t discuss Melville’s language so much within this turn, but I was interested by the idea of how language would accommodate what Olson evidently sees as a rift between time and space as preoccupations/driving forces. I also thought about some longer epic poems, like Notley’s Descent of Alette or Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, where “action” occurs again and again, a kind of temporal loop, with little or no spatial movement. Instead, the poem is placed within a constrained space (in form as well), to me correspondent with the growing (or so I hope) perception of resources/space/land/earth as limited, obligatorily recyclable. Infinity does not seem such a timely concept “at the moment,” so to speak.
I was also interested in your second section, in which you link extinction to this sort of backward movement of time — “memory” of penguin species being lost. For me, much of my interest in science is via ecology, and perhaps one way of explaining that is ecology’s friendliness to investigating connections and systems in a tactile realm (paved to by empirical naturalists). Perhaps I’m interested in the correspondence of the naturalist to the poet, as a precursor to scientist, (although LOTS of problems, maybe insurmountable ones, with naturalist exploitative, kill-what-you-observe, processes).
Adair: Hi Marcella —
Many thanks for your thotful response to the poem — it hadn’t actually occurred to me that the various constraints in it cld be taken more positively as a strategic ecological refusal of “infinity” (altho’ you’re right about the penguins) —
About Olson: I just reread the “Christ” chapter in his book, & my first response, as it had been the first time, was to just how enthralling the writing is. The stern exactness of critical insight, the human sympathy in an inexorably lawful universe. So endless thanks for sending me back to that. It strikes me that he is proposing the simpler, future-directed time of the post-1855 Melville as operating a kind of decoherence of the space-related time he defines as follows: “Time was not a line drawn straight ahead toward future, a logic of good and evil. Time returned on itself. It had density, as space had, and events were objects accumulated within it, around which men [sic] could move as they moved in space.”
This may link up with your pointing, in Notley & Rich, to time as events-loop “with little or no spatial movement.” This can be found in multiple writers & musicians (to name only those) since, say, Stein; to stave off death is one obvious motive, or to enjoy a timeless (non-reminding) paradise before the end of one’s own time (in xian composers such as Messiaen); but it may also relate to what you indicate, an unease with the imperialisms underlying movement in space — “The sense of life and death that Melville forfeited is one the experience of space gives. The vision of it is Moby-Dick, and its savage myth.” If he’s right that time has to have “density,” then durable problems lurk here — projected into cyberspace by conceptual & flarf writers —
Armantrout: This is just a general comment. I’m starting to wish more people would post poems here. What are you waiting for? If it’s for fools to rush in, a couple already have. (I can say that since I went first.)
Adair: OK, as fool number two, I second that (remember it doesn’t have to be a new poem) —
Quantum dot wave function (image courtesy of the NSF).
Catanzano: Most of my poems that are relevant to this discussion require a PDF format, and it seems Google groups doesn’t support this — am I wrong? I guess I could send something to you, Gilbert? The poems I would share are from a project, “Borealis: Time Signatures,” an electron of “Quantum Poetics: The Word and Its Earthwork,” which attempts a conversation between poetic logic, scientific inquiry, and self gravity to examine poetry and theoretical physics. The project explores the influences on my poetry in relation to distinct versions of spacetime proposed by string theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity. The borealis — a legend of twenty-three writers who extend my imagination, ciphered with words and the image of a tesseract, a fourth-dimensional analogue of a cube — is worked through a series of “time signatures” that respond to the theories of time posited, including Newtonian time (linearity), Planck time (quantum mechanics), sidereal time (time measured by a distant star), time dilation (relativity), timelines (algorithmic, hyperdimensional), and morphogenetic time. The project culminates in a deciphered borealis spine [for the poem, see “Metaphor or More?”].
Adair: Here’s what to do: on the homepage, go to “Files” in the right-hand menu. Click “+ Upload File,” then “Browse.” Select the name of the file you want and click “Open.” It’ll then start to upload. When it finishes, you can add another or click “done uploading files,” at which point it’s there. As with any pdf attachment, the recipient then has to download it. I’m sure we can find a way to make it properly public to the Jacket2 readership when the time comes.
Catanzano: Hi Gilbert and all,
In response to Rae asking us to post poems, I’m sending a few from my borealis project. As I mentioned, my borealis — a legend of twenty-three writers who extend my imagination, ciphered with words and the image of a tesseract — is worked through a series of “time signatures” that respond to the theories of time posited.
Reading Rae’s and Gilbert’s poems in the context of discussing poetry and science prompted me to rethink the relationship between poetry and poetics. I recently created a fake book on GoodReads about flarf & conceptual poetics in the spirit of Alfred Jarry. One idea is that as people write reviews they will create the book and therefore become a part of the Nowhere Cooperative, the group of “authors” responsible for the book, inspired by Jarry’s Pa Ubu, King of Poland, which is said to be “Nowhere.” A few days ago Eddie Watkins wrote a “review” of the fake book and talked about being a penguin poet: “I do not have anything to say about Flarf and Conceptual Poetics because I am a penguin poet …. But what am I now but a cool penguin poet in a box with the appearance of meaning? And why am I at the equator? So away I fly on the plain-spoken wings of penguin poesy to Antarctica. Upon arrival I am informed that while I have wings I can not fly with them, however plain-spoken. Nevertheless, I am here in Antarctica where life has no meaning and I am freezing in this plain-spoken meaninglessness, and neither Flarf nor Conceptualism can do anything for me now. It is very plain here and I no longer feel like speaking. Poetry is elsewhere; only penguins remain.”
The next morning after reading this penguin commentary on how “poetry is elsewhere,” I read Gilbert’s response to Marcella about his poem’s penguin time-memory. The coincidence got me thinking: some assumptions in our conversation might be that poetry illustrates its poetics or that the poem can say that which can’t be articulated by poetics. This might be why I am also wishing we were posting poems: we know they can drive the discussion to its subspace. However: in Gilbert’s poem it seems the Newtonian linearity of time is expressed, sometimes ecologically though causation — the penguins face extinction even if time moves forward or backward. In the review of my fake book, the penguin poet is also part of an ecology, albeit one detached from Newtonian physics by existing in the Nowhere environment of the imagination, and by nowhere I also mean elsewhere or everywhere, just not somewhere, maybe like quanta. In Rae’s poem being here and being there is similar to being elsewhere and everywhere but not somewhere; one must dress up, make the costume, play like the toddler using the imagination to pretend to be something, somewhere else. The poem dresses us up. I wonder: what happens when we undress? Is this the poetics? Penguins, of course, are simultaneously “dressed up” in their tuxedo-like skins and naked all at once! In this sense I too want to be a penguin poet.
Reilly: Just thought I’d throw out these lines from part two of “Hearing” by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge as an example of qualities that can arise from introducing a scientific mental landscape into a poem apparently about other things. I also think it has some interesting parallels with both Rae’s and Gilbert’s poems.
A bird falls out of the air, through the anti-weave, into the anti-net, delineating anti-immanence.
Twenty-four crows upstate, each fall is a gestural syllable.
Cover them with a blue cloth of creatures ready to be born, contact like starlight that will arrive, for sure.
Let mothers catch them, raccoon, Labrador bitch, girl, interspecies conservative mothers, arms out like foliage, no locomotion of their own.
Her matter is pacing in the present, as I come along or go away.
It’s experienced as vague, general understanding, but not accessible.
That’s how a girl away is undivided, like virtuous deeds accomplished quietly.
She is the other of myself hearing, simultaneous.
A flashing sequin in the unapplied form of universal, co-presence before space, internal line of time into hearing not arriving from meanings of words, like starlight.
She spans real time over this sense of being touched, like a beautiful dress.
I see the movement here as from what could be construed as the antiscientific (line 1: “delineating anti-immanence”) to the purely linguistic (line 2: crows fall out of animal-hood to become figures of visualized language) to the scientific (line 3: creatures ready to be born are like the light of stars that will arrive eventually through the continuum of space/time). So far, pretty familiar stuff, including the use of science to construct a slightly unusual simile. Much more interesting to me is that after these (perhaps false?) starts, the poem becomes a meditation on the nature of human “co-presence,” in which the struggles of communication are presented within the language of physics, specifically as an intersection of energy (light and sound) with matter (we humans). On one hand this is a sophisticated exploration of concepts of “self” and “other.” On the other it’s a hilarious riff on parent/child hearing and not-hearing. That it works on both levels is what is so pleasurable. Another thing I like is the way humans are presented in this poem as just one among other species. Human mothers in fact are even conflated with plants (the part of the living world without “locomotion”)! Other works by Berssenbrugge such as “Endocrinology” and “Pollen” are equally interesting in this regard, but are infiltrated primarily by medical science and terminology. In fact, one route into the scientific for writers seems to be the experience of serious illness. You see this in Will Alexander’s work as well.
Armantrout (to Amy): One thing I like about your poem is that it brings back and lets us see/feel the strangeness and displacement inherent in the scientific language and concepts you’re using. Scientific writing itself, by convention, represses personal experience. One use of poetry is to bring the “objective” and the “subjective” back together until they’re indistinguishable.
Harvey: The idea of ‘emergence’ has been kept in mind but not specifically stated in the following piece. Hopefully, some aspects of ‘emergence’ will be noticed in the form as well as the subject matter of the poem.
Here is E. O. Wilson: “To add one last concept from computer science, social insect workers are cellular automata, defined as agents programmed to function interactively as a higher level system.” From “The Superorganism.”
Elaine Scarry has written in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World: “To have a material form is to have a self-substantiating form; to lack a material form is to lack the autonomous power of self-substantiation.”
The ‘actual’ car in Apollinaire’s “The Little Car” poem, or that part of the text, is material enough in its shape that it can ‘vocalize’ other material, and not merely advertise itself, to the outside of itself. In the poem, the three people inside the car say what’s on their minds, although they are said to be silent, through the very structure of the car and themselves, which are one. It is difficult to differentiate the car from those inside it.
Going back a bit: with the adding of the vertical dimension to the already horizontal (preceding) text it becomes possible to make an image by moving the letters around on the flat surface of the paper: here, a two dimensional image representing a three dimensional object — the car. The car’s image design, however, is abstract in form.
Herbert Read in “Form in Modern Poetry” gives the following two definitions:
“Organic form”: When a work of art has its own inherent laws, originating with its very invention and fusing in one vital unity both structure and content, then the resulting form may be described as “organic.”
“Abstract form”: When an organic form is stabilised and repeated as a pattern, and the intention of the artist is no longer related to inherent dynamism of an inventive act, but seeks to adapt content to predetermined structure then the resulting form may be described as “abstract.”
When the car part in the poem is read keeping an eye on both the shape of the car and what the words that make up the car are saying, which are different to just saying that it is a car, the form appears to become more ‘organic.’ It seems that an extra dimension has been added. Here John Cayley’s point on bringing in the dimension of time is important. The enacting of this part of the poem provides another dimension, not as clear cut as time, that brings the car momentarily to the reader, while reading it, out of the ‘abstract’ and into the ‘organic.’ (This of course might be true of all reading but something else is going on here as well.) The moment in time brings both the car and what it is saying together. Or both those in the car and what they are thinking.
The car seems to hover between ‘abstract’ and ‘organic’ form, and this indeterminacy and potentiality seems to imply greater self-regulation to the matter of this part of the text. Also, as will hopefully become clear, it does the same for the rest of the text, as well.
Guillaume Apollinaire, “The Little Car” in the original French and English translation.
The car is laid against the background of what has preceded it in the poem. Here, the language of war has tied everything to fluctuating metaphors of unstoppable momentum and potential, nothing is stable. The material described does not own its own time and space in which to act, everything comes together and moves forward. While in the car there are three separate people, you can see them sitting there, even though they merge with the car itself, the car is a single entity, or so it seems.
Scarry again: “Each of the two armies periodically becomes a single embodied combatant, with the real human body’s elemental duality of inflicting injury and of receiving it. The ordinary five- to six-foot vertical expanse of the adult person now becomes a colossus with, for example, one foot in Italy, another in northern Africa.”
And, Apollinaire, from near the beginning of the poem: “We said goodbye to a whole epoch / Furious giants were looming over Europe / Eagles were leaving their eyries expecting the sun …” and a little later, “As I went I carried within me all the armies that were fighting.”
The metaphors of war reflect on those inside the car heightened senses but also a greater fragility because temporarily separated from the whole, which is accentuated by the text’s greater materiality or ‘organic’ form in this section. And also, as said all along, it is difficult to differentiate the car from those inside it: at the same time as the car is a part of the mechanization of the culture that is going to war, and transports them to the war, the changing of the car’s tires and the bringing in the idea of blacksmiths make it more of a personal extension of the human — the acts would be performed using hand tools.
There is this doubleness to the poem: the car reflects back onto the rest of the text the actual fact of being human in these circumstances. And the transition from the straight text to the car starts with a curved line, not yet fully part of the car and no longer fully part of the preceding text, and the same happens in reverse after the car. The car momentarily comes out of and then goes back into the militancy of the rest of the text: “We understood my comrade and I / That the little car had brought us into a new / Era,” from near the end of the poem.
Turning the page around 90 degrees and the car looks like the torso of a pregnant woman.
PS I can send in a photocopy of the full poem.
The attractor was stable, low-dimensional, and nonperiodic. It could never intersect itself, because if it did, returning to a point already visited, from then on the motion would repeat itself in a periodic loop. That never happened — that was the beauty of the attractor. Those loops and spirals were infinitely deep, never quite joining, never intersecting. Yet they stayed inside a finite space, confined by a box. How could that be? How could infinitely many paths lie in a finite space?
— James Gleick, Chaos (1987)
For a while I had on my desk an article pointed out to me by Laura Elrick called “The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity.” Just glancing at the first page, not even really reading it, made me overexcited in the same way that a poem by Emily Dickinson can. I keep meaning to read this article, but am almost afraid of its potency.
— Evelyn Reilly, 1st posting here [see “Metaphor or More?”]
The text to which James called attention in his own 1st posting here, Eric Mottram’s investigation of concrete poetry in Towards Design in Poetry (1977; recently reprinted by Veer, operating out of Birkbeck College, University of London), has among its thematics “a simultaneity of elements — visually inclined, produced in sound or some other behaviour — which are usually taken separately in poetry, or at least with a single emphasis in exegesis.” & it’s surely correct that simultaneity of apprehension has been a widespread aim in concrete poetry, & that this has often taken the form of fusing signifier & signified, often by expelling elements of linguistic reference, to produce, in Paula Claire’s words from her (still-punning) 1975 title Codesigns cited by Eric, “response to marks as sign-sounds” as a means to intimate an intimate connectivity of humans & universe (Paula would perform, e.g., the veins in leaves); the result being that concrete poetry becomes “an extra-linear writing ‘between poetry and painting.’” Nonetheless the simultaneity proposition is interesting not least because one of the big influences on modernist aesthetics given in Mottram’s text, general relativity, with its hypothesis of objects moving at different velocities in a spacetime fabric which variously adjusts these objects in conformity with the limit-speed of light, absolutely rules out absolute simultaneity. Of course, this only becomes meaningful at unimaginable velocities. Also bear in mind that this is almost all I can say about general relativity, within the confines of a highly restricted coherence (ha!) of vocabulary, derived from various pitiably beloved popularizers of science; that already when I venture into Scientific American or New Scientist, which in fact I often do, I’m operating at the limits of stretched imagination; & that I was fascinated to learn, from Allen’s “friendly polemic” [see “Basics of Defenition”] that “Nature, the ‘International Weekly Journal of Science,’ as they subtitle it in the UK, was printed on Bible paper when [he] first started reading it, it was that authoritative.” From the Nature of the 80s I remember relentlessly white-&-black matte-pulp pages of near-uniform type, tiny articles each written by many people whose 1st names were identified simply by initials, & association with the predominant greys & whites of early-60s BBC science fiction on a Cromwellian box —
Asserting the freedom of letters/words to move out of linearity renders the reference complexly 3-D. The concrete or abstract/organic image in Apollinaire’s “The Little Car,” so thoroughly discussed by James above, hovers fractally between 2- & 3-D; other of the calligrams, such as the still-life parody “Heart Crown and Mirror” or the wonderful “It’s Raining,” where words are typographically bent into clearly cartoonish images of what is being said, seem rather to collapse the 3- into the 2-D, effecting a weird redundancy. But as S. I. Lockerbie (gendered by initials) sez in his intro to Anne Hyde Greet’s 1980 translation of Calligrammes, “Tautology is impossible between a linguistic statement and the instant impression conveyed by a shape,” because a temporal slice for interpretation is inserted within the surface of the page that may further return to complicate (delay) the shape’s “instant impression” —
At this point I’m tempted to turn to Peter’s remark in his discussion of Zukofsky’s poem 12 [see “Zukofsky”], that “the crisis of the equation of materialism and realism” was made acute by the new physics, for “as long as quantum mechanics failed to provide pictures of an invisible material world, it failed to constitute a new reality.” A prefiguring & corrective of that in typography? some kind of epistemic set of transferences? Probably not, or nothing so easy —
All by way of offering a reading of James’s “Strange Attractor.” The figure is perhaps strikingly anthropomorphic, a faintly wincing native (Inuit?) holding his or her belly; on her or his left (our right) cheek, what looks like a scar; ditto, mutatis mutandis, if you turn it upside down. These visual “scars” in fact prevent any reading of the words as a continuous tracing of what, among the array of gorgeously colored figures that would briefly enthrall so many of us during the chaos theory heyday, would be called a Lorenz Attractor, initially developed to model heat convection. Nor however do they allow a pair of intertwined but self-contained spirals, disappearing each into its vortex’s vanishing point, no, there are two breaks, two barriers to resumptions that relaunch over troubles. Starting, necessarily arbitrarily, from one of these, manually revolving book or sheet, one verbal string might read:
leaving a double spiral never reaching its end three non-linear equations constructing maze the walls rearrange every time they change the three coordinates three dimensions a continuous path never overlapping falling through and rising up they move never taking/again/same path again leaving a double spiral never reaching its end three non-linear equations constructing maze the walls rearrange every time they change the three coordinates three dimensions a continuous path never overlapping
never taking same path because of the physical complications of the task of continuously focusing
Indeed, the heady citation might be taken from some edited text on chaos theory, tho’ a rather cursory google search didn’t turn it up. The idea of the infinitely bursting nut no longer does it for me, but what else might? “Where the spirals appear to join, the surfaces must divide, [Edward Lorenz] realized.” Gleick offers the following as a relatable-to model of the fractal: “Without friction a simple linear equation expresses the amount of energy you need to accelerate a hockey puck. With friction the relationship gets complicated, because the amount of energy changes depending on how fast the puck is already moving. Nonlinearity means that the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules”; there results a “twisted changeability.” So we might think of the poem’s actual words as operating a kind of coiling friction in our apprehending the apparent simple duplication/spectacle of a Lorenz figure. Or to put it another way, an intuitively dubious Nietzscheanism, the ability of willing negation to turn negation to affirmation — here we get a look at it in those scars or slivers that repeatedly interrupt continuity as they do disappearance, crafting infinity on a 2-D surface even as they detach the poem from purely visual spectacle.
Darragh: Hi, all —
On a day off, jumping in here.
The “don’t write of what you don’t know” critique works to reinforce the worst aspects of C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures commentary. This discussion prompted me to reread it today, and I’d forgotten that Snow paints the scientific community as a culture where differences in class have been erased by education, producing a productive, future-oriented moral enterprise concerned with global poverty. Literary types, on the other hand, are amoral, self-absorbed whiners who helped pave the way for the Holocaust. When we literary types take on science, we help break open that dualism so that the capitalism in scientific endeavors can hang out in all its “we-don’t-need-regulation-’cause-we-have-your-best-interests-at-heart — love-those-boundless-profits” glory. Do you think BP will change its name to CP?!! We are citizen poets when we refuse to be in awe of/challenge the idea of a “pure science” providing the authority for what is good.
Adair: Hi Tina —
Intriguingly, this is the first time that someone has so overtly brot up the science/capitalism connections — certain positions or attitudes are beginning to take shape: the informed putting of science to metaphorical use for the exploration of everyday life (Rae); an excitement with the vocab (Evelyn), the sense of an “aesthetic effect” distinct to science which scientists are in various ways constrained to disavow (John Cayley, and related, Marcella) — certainly science popularizers are allowed to show enthusiasm, & major scientists are generally supposed to be passionate … the placing of poetry at the service of the exploration of scientific developments (Amy) … now critical (yourself) —
The one witty thing I’m aware of Henry Kissinger ever having said is that “No one will ever win the battle of the sexes — there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy.” It’s not directly analogous, but there are many fascinating, beautiful, precisioned, & cool things about science, even when it’s in the service of the enemy — perhaps more urgently, much we believe accurate that we know about the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe comes from people with scientific training — ditto for large-scale climate change, the circulation of the blood, & so on — those who deny climate change we tend to regard as either scientific illiterates or paid scoundrels; they in their turn have no problem rejecting an overwhelming weight of scientific authority, any more than do creationists —
The various prestiges of various authorities are a key thematic here —
Reilly: Hello all,
One of the interesting results of following this online dialog for me has been the realization that I bring science into my poetry less directly, or maybe it’s just less “head-on,” than others. I’m not so concerned with accuracy or even with addressing, or enacting, or referring to scientific ideas per se, but am very interested in constructing a language environment that blends the “presence” of science with the ethical and emotional implications of living among its “findings” and “impacts.” While I admire poetry that aims to achieve what Joan calls the enactment of “the dynamic principles that a scientific model has been developed to understand,” I’m more engaged, at least at the moment, in exploring the poethics of a world that, as technological animals, we both create and inhabit (and one of our chief technologies being language).
Recently I’ve been working on a long poem called “The Dreamlife of Materials” and I’ve posted a few sections to the site. This work integrates a faux architectural language I found in a book called Siteless: 1001 Building Forms, by the French architect François Blanciak, into a series of imaginary reports and letters written by an engineer who’s been assigned to a jobsite in some kind of futuristic dystopian landscape. As I worked on this I was surprised to find that the creation of a pseudotechnical poetic language opened a space for a tone of “contained hysteria” which I probably couldn’t have managed otherwise. It was this mixture of the technical with the hyperemotional that interested me, because I think the contemporary moment is marked by a very shaky faith in our ability to solve problems through technological prowess and enormous, almost inexpressible, grief over our environmental circumstances.
from The Dreamlife of Materials
Time stamp: 029 ZMT 77104
Report from build site: 423
It is windy terrible and the time frame comfort slot
so doted over
today: 12 chapped columns, 3 quartered globes, 244 knuckled sheets
and the scalped dome project “lays wavers”
Astonishingly, the corner tear is back-lit in dream light
and this night after night
Still we keep pouring digital spit into this blog storage device
having unboxed the urbox permanently
Time stamp: 029 ZMT 7710118
Report from build site: 37B
It was a shock that you would send
this ignition system
instead of the slogan-infestation compress
we had so explicitly requested
What exactly was your intent?
Nonetheless we animated the chamber
and discovered the delicate filigree
of the disaster end
— a very affordable solution!
Now we can display the entire series:
barbarism star, barbarism square, barbarism float debris
Time stamp: 0526 ZMT 770807
Report from build site: 93 (also known as Glove Stab)
The signal is so sticky with procedure drek
we grow desperate
for dislocation lubricant
Yet today we completed
2 maelstrom corners
and 6 perfusion upsinks
after which it took hours to adjust
the nose cone of rampant grief
We have now pried countless tender chordate features
from the slab encasement
105 translation blockages
79 embedded snares
I am so lonely I have been talking to my software
for nearly three years
Time stamp: 011 ZMT 947334
Report from build site: 10449
More ugly workdays marked
by ceaseless moral deficiency showers
of which however
our terror has lessened
Many just let the face fall
into the skinflap of personal life
This is when I decided to erect the pity stations
so that each could enact their sorrow intact
44 liquid squares
3000 circumvention rods
2 mush buildings
Time stamp: 9112 ZMT 870428
Report from build site: 3 (one of the originals)
The address tower finally overlooks
the management stations
and a panel laid against the openings
of the edge condition
marks the site for touristic pilgrimage
So many kinds of pulverized material:
I fill the vials out of some sense
of future retrieval
Just don’t breath and the dust
won’t get over you
Time stamp: 967 ZMT 79109
Report from build site: Bicephalous Cantilever
Brighter dimmers have replaced the blighted meters
and our blinded windows are backed by decorative grills
Even the situation drive restarted
which had been exhausting us for weeks
Today the sun is ambulatory! the planet ambulatory!
The surplus bark in spite of snow
peels in permeable tentacles of façade plu!
Excuse my effervescence!
Time stamp: 07 ZMT 996026
Report from build site: 39TXX
Why now happiness its radial features
hand in hand with total inversion splash ruin?
(why what repeats itself repeats
(why what repeats repeats the self-replicatory system
plus random mutation messaging:
ATT ATC GTA CTT
TAA TAG CAT GAA
and the oracle says “offending command: syntax error”
So we went ahead and inserted the sequence
being in dire need of bugs and fleurs
Time stamp: 066 ZMT 0006 (a moment of celestial concurrence)
Report from build site: 893
It is undeniable that our little mitosis act
on this lattice
but we keep erecting frames no matter how
the times expose our litter failings
No scale, order or end to this series
which I’ve come to think of as just so much panel gush
held in place by the flimsiest identity replacement gear
— one in a heap of trembling outcomes
filed under say “universal envelop mistake blanket”
Adair: Hi Evelyn —
This seems to me tone-perfect satire of a multifaceted colonizing effort: its internal paranoias (“What exactly was your intent?”), its ominous preparations for “slogan infestation,” among them the rush of exclamation marks leading to the plea “Excuse my effervescence!” (reminiscent of the advertising strategy in which actors mime in overabundance the enthusiasm we are required/permitted to express for the commodity being pushed), the hint of institutionalizing machines for environmental harm (“barbarism star,” etc) —
I wonder how you wld see these pieces as relating (or not) to stances on science fiction staked out by Joanna Russ in her 1973 essay “Toward an Aesthetics of Science Fiction,” where she insists that barring one or two necessarily acceptable violations such as faster-than-light space travel, the premises of an SF text shld not contravene “what is known to be [scientifically] known”; and the greater latitude extended by her colleague Samuel R. Delany shortly after, when he proposed that SF cld find its launching-pad in “real, speculative, or pseudo-science” — the last of these not, of course, any more than in Russ, ruling out an intersecting basis in a take on social shiftings —
We seem to know pretty much what the “hurtling” of “the time frame comfort slot” must imply — we may not be able to guess what “knuckled sheets” are but defer to the routine assuredness of the reference — “What exactly was your intent?” is LOL-funny because the ramifications of the preceding choice are so absolutely opaque —
I think in the first Die Hard movie (1988) I began to see technical operations (usually in heist contexts) conducted in a paratactic blur of fast-forwards, as poets had launched into long before, making contact with a larger world of processes/machinic intimacies which we cld rarely explain ourselves but knew/assumed had an explanation — & if an explanation, perhaps a purpose — the issue of trust resumed its career as narrative & readerly thematics [“NO TRUST” sez Melville 1857, & the Tea Party echoes today, except that Melville meant it] — the issue of trust engages the issue of discipline, but at the same time an issue of somehow-slanted landscape —
Allen Fisher: Dear all,
I was looking at Thomas Pynchon’s article “Is It OK to Be a Luddite?” which appeared in the New York Times October 28, 1984.
I think it could be of interest to the discussion. He begins with C. P. Snow’s 2 cultures and goes on to give a history of the Luddites. But he also notes the inseparable praxis of literature and technology (and thus science and poetry).
Reilly: Allen, Gilbert et al.,
I got great pleasure out of the Pynchon essay and it gave me some ideas as well as to how to respond to Gilbert’s questions about “The Dreamlife of Materials” and the whole issue of “sci-fi.” (And I’d also like to take the occasion to thank Gilbert for being the maestro of this e-dialog.) As for Pynchon’s identification of science fiction as a site for a contemporary Luddite sensibility (or at least, contemporary as he saw it in 1984), I agree that the genre often serves as an outlet for paranoia and fear of the next chapter of our technologically-driven future. Of course all human history has been “technologically-driven,” but the rate of change does keep accelerating. I’m not in any way against such change, but certainly think we live equally among the results of technology as destroyer (weapons technology, environmental degradation) as those of technology as emancipator (public health, digital communications). I’ve never been a reader of science fiction, so can’t really comment on the state of the art, but do find it very satisfying as a TV genre. In fact, I gave a talk at the CUNY/Belladonna conference last fall called “Vulcan Feminist Poetics: Scientific Appropriation and the Mask of Spock” that posed questions about poets, including myself, who don “the mask of Spock” (or, alternatively, the “drag of lab”) in its various guises as both aesthetic and social strategy. This talk focused on questions such as: In what ways is such a strategy an embrace of the world, a tool of investigation, even an exploration of gendered life? In what ways is it a flight or reprieve from gender, a way of masking out issues of class, race, sexual orientation? But one of the other questions I put forth, and perhaps this is what accounts for the nature of the poetic landscape of “Dreamlife of Materials,” was: Is the Vulcanist’s quest to go where no one has gone before (the goal of the masters of the universe and the premise of Star Trek)? Or is it a search for home (the goal of exiles and the premise of Battlestar Galactica, in which a small group of survivors of nuclear holocaust are just trying to make it from one devastated home to the next)? In a sidebar email to James Harvey, I mentioned that it may be my years spent in research labs — I was a technician in the lab of Martin Chalfie at Columbia, who eventually went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2008 — that has moved my interest from the strictly scientific to what Gilbert called, regarding Delany’s fiction, “the social shiftings.” Not because of any disillusionment with the scientific, which I got to experience at its best and most idealistic, but maybe “having done that,” I felt liberated, when it came to poetry, from issues of accuracy etc., and was looking for very different things, like the ability to be playful and extreme and let language take the lead. But that’s not the whole of it. I think that the freedom of poetry (which I don’t want to overstate, we are of course all inhabiting the same only semi-autonomous zone of language) does provide an arena (as does the pseudoscience of sci fi) to explore, with no (or fewer) holds barred, many aspects of our current situation. And maybe that’s been part of the two streams of this online dialog: those whose work embodies the exuberance of recent scientific thinking and those whose work is colored by the social shiftings of a world marked by apparent impending catastrophe. Two aspects of the same thing?
Adair: Evelyn —
This is very interesting, that an inside experience of a top-flight research lab liberates you from the complex anxieties re the scientifically accurate that may haunt those of us without that experience — can anyone else speak to this?
I’m also very glad that Pynchon has been brot into this forum, & his article from a key date, I think, 1984. When in the late 70s I first became aware of Allen’s work & its ability to present the complexities & thicknesses of what was becoming apparent as an increasingly technologized culture, I was working on what became a PhD dissertation on post-1945 American epic fiction, featuring Pynchon & Delany among others. In Gravity’s Rainbow, his most recent novel then published, Pynchon was working with an internalization of Henry Adams’s hailing of entropy as perhaps “the great generalization that would bring all history under a law” (GR enacts this down to the level of the sentence) & also the ideas of radical neo-Freudians Norman O. Brown & Wilhelm Reich; thus he has one of his spokesmen in the novel refer to the worldwide “persistence … of structures favoring death. Death converted into more death …. This is the sign of Death the impersonator.” It extends into a reading of science/technology so “Luddite” that it includes a tirade on refrigerators for arresting the organic process of decay. I take it we all know that a McDonalds hamburger, left on a kitchen table for 2 weeks, will suffer no such organic process …. But I remember also the disquiet many of us felt with Ginsberg’s “Plutonian Ode” (1980) & its major vexation that before us was a “new element … unborn in nature … named for Death’s planet through the sea beyond Uranus” —
OK, this is coming out of a familiar tradition in American lit. By 1984, Pynchon had been for some time at work on his next biggie, Mason & Dixon, eventually published in 1997, where he’s trying to get away from the paranoid obsession with thanatological closed systems via, as Joe Tabbi argues in Cognitive Fictions (2002), the notion of autopoesis, “an explosive transformation ‘across some Threshold of self-Intricacy’ unpredictable from the mechanical principles of the … original assembly.” ‘Self-organization’ — ‘order out of chaos’ — buzz-terms in the National University of Singapore, where I spent much of the 90s, & where Ilya Prigogine was a welcome invited lecturer. ‘Emergence,’ one of the terms that James has valuably raised — something that may cut across the organic, the technological, & the poetic — any more on that? (Tabbi: “the self-creating process out of unknown cognitive elements” — including those of the mind itself) —
Back to 1984, around the incipience of the hot new SF genre of cyberpunk — so hot that Fredric Jameson intemperately thot it might be the literary genre of the postmodern era. 1986 saw the Mirrorshades anthology where editor Bruce Sterling drew attention to a new kind of technology — electronic, often miniaturized — where “on” buttons didn’t metallically snap on but crept into light with soft whispers, that were stroked rather than stabbed, that dwelt in an ambience of early-morning bluegreys. I’m suggesting that that was around the point when it became hard to be alienated from science & technology in the way that the Ginsberg of “Plutonian Ode” & the Pynchon of GR had been; tho’ we could contrast Ginsberg’s deadly seriousness here with what makes the writing of “Is It OK to Be a Luddite” characteristically delightful: the relaying of esoteric (here mostly historical) learning thro’ a battery of pop-culture filters (“Sorry, Rev, got some knitting.” “What, again?”). Was it also about then that the word “cool” was reincarnated from its 50s jazz ambience & 60s cultural savviness to imply something to do with smart & elegant technology? — tho’ its applications radiated after that (applications rather than meaning) —
Speaking for myself, without a scientific education beyond the age of 14, I found the Pynchon of GR to go in very deep, to be operating still as an unconscious tug. Useful to me then is Allen’s urging [in “Basics of Definition”] to pluralize & differentially frame the sciences (as well, obviously, as to integrate them in other kinds of temporary syntheses, which I suppose is one name for poems). Physics is very cool not least, perhaps, for poets, because whether at macro- or micro-levels it abounds with creative intellects & giant ideas we can admire, which ideas can provide wonderfully subtle metaphors without themselves being enmired. The dirt on Schrödinger, please —
Adair: PS I just read “The Trade in Bathos,” an article by Keston Sutherland in Jacket 15, December 2001, but written when the 2000 US presidential election was still undecided, which includes the following:
The position from which we can observe, describe, criticize, hate, ignore, or admire globalization is a position of literal ecstatic compromise. We stand outside of what we see; we are excluded fundamentally from the knowledge which, however, we are free to believe that we possess; we are totally compromised in that exclusion, not only by our literal inability to influence or properly to comprehend the sovereignty of liberal economics, but for a more profound reason. This reason is to do with what we mean by (and what we can do with) the word “ideas.”
The argument is complex, taking off from the disquiet felt by Pope and Locke at the freedom (license?) people had come to feel in choosing to believe wrong or fanciful things, in the context of the “first great wave of financial speculation following the establishment of the Bank of England, the National Debt and the introduction of paper currency in the 1690s”; Keston now sees variants on bathos as near-universal among practitioners of innovative poetry, himself included; not long after that he began to promote & practice what he called “vague” poetry, an interesting idea to me at least. But. Almost from the moment I moved to NYC in 1999, it was apparent to me that the 60s maxim “If it feels good, do it” had been widely replaced by “If it feels good, think it — & by all means proclaim it.” This seems different from the deliberate playing with wrong or fanciful ideas by poets, not least because so many people so passionately reject views that among relevant scientists are all but the consensus (notably re climate change and neo-Darwinian evolution). A mass bid — Luddite in the worst sense — to withdraw from the contemporary world is uncomfortable to see up close; the political, environmental, & educational effects are direct; the kooky pronouncements from many Tea Party candidates for the midterm elections are perhaps symptomatic of something hard even to begin to analyze.
In the meantime, this is Tabbi’s comment in Cognitive Fictions with respect to truth-value in Mason & Dixon:
That Dixon recognizes his map as “an overhead view of a World that never was” does not, in itself, contradict its truth value or scientific integrity. His map is true in the way that a circle, line, or triangle is “true,” even though none of these actually exists in the world: what Dixon has encountered … is the efficacy of approaching the empirical world of “truth-like detail” with the aid of a cognitive theory. Above all, the integrity of the composition, its self-consistency rather than consistency with the outside world, makes the map truth-like.
Hmm. Gotta brood on this one, as on the whole idea of “models.”
An interview with Craig Dworkin
Craig Dworkin is a poet, critic, editor, and professor at the University of Utah. He is the author of five books of poetry, including Motes (2011), The Perverse Library (2010), Parse (2008), Strand (2004), and Dure (2004). He has edited five volumes, including Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011) with Kenneth Goldsmith, The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound (2009) with Marjorie Perloff, and The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics (2008); he is also the author of a critical study, Reading the Illegible (2003), and has published articles in such diverse journals as October, Grey Room, Contemporary Literature, and College English. He runs Eclipse, an online archive of radical small-press writing from the last quarter century. This interview was conducted over email throughout the summer and fall of 2011.
Katie L. Price: The recently published anthology that you edited with Kenneth Goldsmith, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, was a sort of expansion of the UbuWeb “Anthology of Conceptual Writing” correct? What prompted the original online anthology and when and why did you decide to expand the project into a book?
Craig Dworkin: The online anthology (which — let’s be honest — is really more like an illustrated essay than a true anthology, despite the grandiose title) came from working in different disciplines. I was teaching in an English department, DJ-ing an avant-garde music show on the radio, and writing art history articles …. and I realized that these subcultures didn’t speak much to one another. So someone interested in a particular musical composition, say, had probably never heard of the literary work that was fundamentally — conceptually — very much like it. Indeed, I came to realize that a poem might well have more in common with a piece of music than with any other poem. So in part I wanted the UbuWeb site to make a case for reading across disciplines.
At the same time, through my research I was discovering lots of interesting text-works from the ’60s, the moment of Conceptual Art (this was before the several, big, really useful anthologies and studies of the topic had come out), and I felt like there was a particular case to be made for a practice that was undeniably “writing,” but without the communicative, exophoric, expressive goals generally associated with writing.
Now the print anthology, Against Expression, picks up on the idea of writing that is not expressive in the conventional sense; it collects texts that are not the result of unique, coherent, expressive subjects putting things “in their own words.” But it’s actually making a case that is exactly the opposite of the online anthology. Instead of being interdisciplinary, it argues for the importance of local social contexts, and it focuses on works that were published as literature. So it doesn’t include “outsider” writing, for instance (the symptomatic writing of the mentally ill); nor obsessive vernacular practices; or texts that were produced for a gallery audience rather than a book-reading audience, and so forth. Even when those texts look indistinguishable from the work that is included.
Price: You’ve said that the arguments behind the illustrated essay, to use your term, and the print anthology are opposite. I’m wondering if this decision reflects not only your evolving research interests, but also a change in fields. For example, would you say that more scholars, writers and artists are reading across disciplines now and this makes the argument of the illustrated essay less immediately pertinent? Or that the anthology is partially a response to how conceptual writing has been recently received? In other words, how might you situate the two projects themselves historically and socially, especially when, as you say, the texts in them might appear indistinguishable?
Dworkin: I don’t think there’s been any sudden sea-change. Disciplines have a strong gravitational pull. Though at a very small scale — on the level of specific individuals — I can certainly think of people in the art world who are now looking more to literature, and vice versa. Michalis Pichler, in Germany, for instance, or the Information As Material collective in England, or the kind of scene that has been developing in Los Angeles, say. Andrea Andersson is curating a museum show of conceptual texts at the intersection of the gallery and the page. And it’s not coincidental that the US launch of the anthology was at MoMA, and the UK launch will be at the Whitechapel Gallery.
However, a couple of longer-term historical shifts are legible in the discourse around poetics. The first has to do with appropriation. In the 1970s, poets were constructing poems from entirely appropriated material: Charles Bernstein’s “Asylum”; Lyn Hejinian’s Gesualdo and Writing Is an Aid to Memory; most of Clark Coolidge’s Ing, and so on. But appropriation and procedure are rarely mentioned back then. The poets themselves either don’t say anything at all, or they don’t make a big deal about it if asked. Reviews and critical articles might say that a work “sounds like” it is citational, or that it’s “tempting to speculate” on their sources, but that’s it. Whereas today, the fact of appropriating a source is the first thing a poet will say about their work; it’s how poems are introduced at readings and how books are advertised. Back in the 1990s, Lyn Hejinian was reluctant to admit that were any sources at all in Writing Is an Aid to Memory, but she now recounts the procedure as a matter-of-course.  So something fundamental has shifted over that last decade or so.
The other big change has to do with the rhetoric around readability. “Opacity” and “illegibility” were key terms in the language of value for avant-garde poetry in the ’70s and ’80s, when the recalcitrance of a text was aligned with other forms of political resistance. The most exciting poetry was often agrammatical or asemantic, and appropriated fragments were collaged in ways that heightened disjunction. Today, that’s no longer the case. It’s not that the poetry today is any easier, or more complacent or complicit, but the areas of interest and attention have shifted. And this is always one of the difficulties for readers when poetics shift: we too often expect the work that follows an earlier avant-garde to continue to look like that older mode, when in fact influence and imitation are very different things.
Price: I had never really thought about poetry introductions being such vital pieces of the puzzle of literary history, but it makes perfect sense, so thank you for that. But I’d like to ask you two questions.
You characterize avant-garde poetry of the ’70s and ’80s as agrammatical, asemantic, and disjunctive. This seems to be the standard and accepted reading of the avant-garde of that time. For example, I’m reminded of Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, in which she repeats the phrase “fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax and so on” almost to the point of absurdity. I wonder if you had to characterize the values or characteristics of the 1990s and 2000s what you might say? In your mind, are the key terms mostly the same but just used or understood differently? Or are the characteristics of more contemporary poetry different entirely?
Which leads to my second question: How do you see your own work, both with the anthology and works such as The Perverse Library or Parse, addressing these questions?
Dworkin: Well, this is all from a very distant, generalizing perspective; I should be quick to note that there is certainly astonishingly good work being published today that doesn't fit either description (Joseph Massey, for just one example, is one of my favorite poets). And Peter Inman, for a very different example, is publishing exciting, masterful new books that make good on the rhetoric of the ’70s avant-garde in ways that the actual poems from the period seldom did: “agrammatical, asemantic, and disjointed” in the extreme. But in general, from a certain remove, I do think we’ve seen the basic characteristics change.
Which is precisely why I wanted to publish the anthology. The number of texts manifesting those new characteristics had reached a critical mass. When Kenny and I first started talking about the anthology, we had a handful of examples in mind and figured we’d find a few more; by the time it was in production at Northwestern, new books of what we would consider “conceptual” writing were being published weekly, any of which could have been centerpieces in the anthology.
As a scholar, I’m interested in moments like that, when the literary landscape changes dramatically, and I wanted to document that moment in the first years of the twenty-first century when modes of “conceptual writing” were newly relevant to such a rapidly growing number of writers. As the anthology is at pains to demonstrate, these modes were not unprecedented, but they were operating with a newly visible significance for many writers. None of which, I should add, makes Conceptual writing somehow “better” than what came before — I don’t subscribe to a progress model of literary history — and none of which suggests that people ought to write in this way (I’m always surprised by the panicked fear Conceptual writing can elicit from other poets, as if they’re going to have to abandon their writing and be forced to transcribe newspapers for the rest of their careers …).
As to my own poetry, Parse is actually a good example of how the coalescing of similar writing in the 2000s changes the light in which we see such works. At the time I started the book, in the mid-1990s, there was no such thing as “conceptual writing.” I was primarily interested in postwar art (something like Mel Ramsden’s series of “100% Abstract” paintings were a direct inspiration, but also Robert Smithson, John Cage, minimalism, et cetera), renegade surrealism (Bataille and the Documents group; René Daumal and Le Grand Jeu group; late Dada works; et cetera), and a scattershot of other modernisms: OuLiPo; Russian Futurism; Gertrude Stein; Mina Loy … And although I was reading a lot of poetry in the Language tradition, the relation of that poetry to Parse was indirect; it granted the necessary permission to write abstract, non-communicative works, but nothing they were doing looked anything like a parsed grammar book. Similarly, I was profoundly inspired by Darren Wershler and Christian Bök, who were important friends and role models for me, but works like The Tapeworm Foundry and Eunoia were still years off. I knew about No. 111 from teaching art history, but I wouldn’t meet Kenny and find out about Soliloquy and his new writing projects until 1998. A dozen years later, against the background of the anthology and all those other books, Parse suddenly makes much more sense, and it seems to take part in a conversation that it wasn’t really able to have back in the ’90s.
Price: As you say, the conversation has changed surrounding books that use what we might call “conceptual practices,” although exactly what that means, I think, is still up for debate. I’ve noticed this change even in just the last four years — four years ago I often found myself having to justify my interest in “conceptual writing,” and even, at times, its precedents. Now it seems, even if “conceptual writing” still elicits anxiety, tension, or downright anger from both poets and critics, the mere proliferation of these techniques has rendered a conversation about these texts, and conceptual practices or techniques, necessary.
Would you mind talking a bit more about how the writing of your colleagues influences the projects you undertake and how you understand your own work? You mentioned that Kenneth Goldsmith and Darren Wershler were particularly influential. What types of conversations do you have with each other? And do these directly influence the projects you undertake and the way in which you undertake them?
Dworkin: I can certainly name a few of the ways that conversations with Christian Bök and Darren Wershler initially — and then for many years with Kenny Goldsmith — and then more recently with Brian Kim Stefans and Rob Fitterman as well, have had a direct influence on my writing projects. Most importantly, they’ve always provided the right combination of permission and provocation: contemporary models of going all the way (I always think of Blaise Cendrars’s line from La Prose du Transsibérien: “j’étais fort mauvais poète. Je ne savais pas aller jusqu’au bout”) and then the challenge to go even farther. Plus, we’re good enough friends to give bluntly honest assessments, and to trust each other’s judgments in turn: we’ve all had books we thought were completed and polished and ready for press …. until one of the others challenged us to push the project to another level. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say, for instance, that Christian completely reconceived and rewrote Eunoia, ratcheting up the content to match the formal bravura of a first version, after sharing it with a few of us. In the end, these are the readers I’m writing for. And because the projects are in dialogue with one another, those projects in many ways are the conversation.
Now, I’m not sure any of that is any different from what all writers experience; but as you might expect, the nature of those conversations is not at the level of local craft concerns — tweaking particular lines of discrete poems, say — but rather at the broad level of testing and proving the conceptual parameters. The most practical questions tend to be about paratexts (how much explanatory apparatus should accompany a work?), or the fit of form to content — but mainly it is a conversation, at all levels, about how to realize the full force and rigor and elegance an unexpected intellectual investigation might achieve.
Price: The last thing you said reminds me of a line from your introductory essay to the UbuWeb “Anthology of Conceptual Writing,” that the test of this poetry is “no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” I’m interested in this notion that if a work is “done otherwise,” it is actually a completely different work and how this relates to the scientific vocabulary you used in describing your interactions with certain colleagues: “testing and proving,” “explanatory apparatus,” “intellectual investigation.” The model here seems to be that of a laboratory of literature: writers and thinkers working side by side to discover the unexpected. At least that’s one of the things I find most interesting about conceptual literature, and particularly your work.
Would you mind talking a bit about how you and your colleague’s work relates to science — and perhaps even if this characteristic of “intellectual investigation” at all influenced the decisions to include or exclude certain works in Against Expression?
Dworkin: Marjorie Perloff has said “I don’t especially care for the word ‘experimental,’ which implies that the poetry in question is just an experiment, that it may well fail,”  but I like the word for precisely that reason: the suggestion that poetry can tell us something we didn’t know before — not because it communicates some wisdom or knowledge or insight from the author, but because its structures — the process of its composition and the specifics of its final form — reveal something in and of themselves. This is also where the idea of the experimental links up to the conceptual: neither is primarily about expressing or communicating. Rather, they are primarily about framing and asking and recording.
There is also a sense in which the experimental frees the audience as well, since the poem, in some sense, is written not so that it caters to the reader, but so that it serves Poetry — an experimental poem is written for language. What happens if you alphabetize five-syllable phrases ending in an “r”sound? What happens if you restrict yourself to only one vowel? What patterns emerge from a parsed text? How many chemicals make up a printed page? We learn more, with such works, about language itself than we do about their authors.
But to answer your question more directly: the closest relation to science would surely be found in Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment. There, Christian has taught himself an extraordinary amount of genetics and biochemistry, is working directly in the lab with credentialed scientists, and has published the work in science journals more than in poetry journals. And in that work you can catch a glimpse of the crossroads Conceptual Writing is going to come to: whether to turn its back on conventional poetry (Christian is speaking more to non-poets with that project than to other writers) or to challenge the comfortable status quo directly (as Vanessa Place is doing).
Susan Schultz with Leonard Schwartz, 2008
Editorial note: Susan M. Schultz (b. 1958) is a poet, author, English professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and founder of Tinfish Press. Her books of poetry include And then something happened (Salt Publishing, 2004) and Aleatory Allegories (Salt Publishing, 2000). The University of Alabama Press published her critical work A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry in 2005. What follows is a transcript of a December 22, 2008, phone conversation between Leonard Schwartz and Susan Schultz about her 2008 book Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press). The conversation aired as a part of Cross Cultural Poetics, episode 180, and was produced at KAOS-FM 89.3 in Olympia, Washington, at Evergreen State College. Ben Hargett oversaw production with Claire Sammons acting as communications coordinator. The conversation was transcribed by Michael Nardone and has been edited for readability. You can listen to audio of the conversation here. — Katie L. Price
Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest, on the phone from Hawaii, I’m very happy to say, is Susan Schultz. She’s a frequent guest on Cross Cultural Poetics. Poet, critic, professor at the University of Hawaii and author, most recently of Dementia Blog, a book published by Singing Horse Press, and there’s a chapbook with that same title published by Singing Buddha Press.
Susan Schultz: No, Slack Buddha.
Schwartz: Oh, thank you, Slack Buddha. I put Singing Horse and ended up with Singing Buddha. A slack horse. Slack Horse Press and Singing Buddha Press, is that what you’re saying?
Schultz: No, it’s Singing Horse, and then there’s also Slack Buddha Press.
It could be Fat Horse, like Fat Buddha.
Schwartz: Fat, slack, singing Buddha horse.
So, welcome Susan Schultz. Welcome back. Can you further help unentangle me from the relationship between the full-length book Dementia Blog published by Singing Horse and the chapbook of the same title, Dementia Blog, published by that Buddha press?
Schultz: Slack Buddha.
Schwartz: That Buddha press. That’s in Budapest. In Hungary. You have good Hungarian publishing connections; that’s fantastic.
Schultz: Well, the Slack Buddha chapbook is just one month out of the blog, which ran for six months on the Internet, although it wasn’t necessarily public knowledge that it was out there. And then the full-length book is the full blog that runs from January 2007 to August 2006 because, like any blog, it goes backwards.
Schwartz: Yeah, the backwards aspect of it really threw me off at first — that we were going backwards in time. It also does things with the experience of time, to be going backwards from the beginning. In the chapbook, I have beginning September 3, 2006, and working back to the beginning of September. Can you say a little about the experience of time and the experience of dementia? Because the book very directly at times deals with the question of your mother’s dementia and, I think, the relationship between those two questions: the relationship between the experience of time and what happens in dementia.
Schultz: Certainly. The blog was a record of six months in the course of my mother’s falling into dementia and I had been keeping a blog at the time, which was sort of a travel blog for family and friends because we were travelling and I was working in Europe that summer. But when we arrived at my mother’s house and saw that things had fallen into chaos, I kept the blog going and fairly quickly realized that this was work that I wanted to pursue more seriously.
So, I was only writing the blog, but as I started thinking about what was going on in dealing with someone with dementia — for whom there wasn’t any longer a sense of linear time — instead there was a sense that the course of my life and the course of my mother’s life were actually the same, that she had forgotten how to distinguish between my life and hers, and she had forgotten how to distinguish the past from the present from the future. She was looking for her own mother who had died forty years ago. So, there was no sense that the cause then led to an effect. More often you would feel like you perhaps got the effect and had to go hunting around for the cause. So, as I was writing the blog I realized that when you read the blog as it was published, you were going from the present back into the past. I realized that you would encounter the effect before the cause just because of the structure of the blog itself, and that became something that I actually wanted because I wanted people reading about this experience to have some of the same confusions that I had in dealing with it and to experience some of that temporal derangement that goes on in dementia. So, when I took the blog down off of the Internet and made it into a book, I preserved that form of moving from the present into the past.
Schwartz: It really is very effective, Susan, very disturbing. I found it unnerving in the way that strong art is disturbing and unnerving — that sense of the effect without cause, the effect for which, as you put it, you have to go out hunting for the cause. The book, I have to say, touched a kind of raw nerve in me that I can’t completely explain. I was eyeing it peripherally on my table for quite a while actually, thinking I know I need to read more of this, but I realize I have a weak point here. You know, I spend a lot of time railing against, cajoling students to not do anything to possibly damage their long-term or short-term memory — because a lot of them use too many drugs — and talking about Mnemosyne or Memory, who is the mother of all of the muses, of all of the arts, poetry, history, theatre, et cetera: that as artists, as writers, one wants to maintain and maximize and sharpen one’s capacity to remember. Then when I was confronted by the possibility of dementia, someone else’s or one’s own — as one sees the possibility of this happening to anyone — one spends all this time developing one’s mind — and then it can unravel. It is a very frightening encounter that I had with your mother through your book. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing.
I wondered if you could read to us a little bit, Susan, from Dementia Blog.
Schultz: Certainly. You said you’d like me to read the section from September?
Schwartz: Yeah, September 15, 2006. Take us from there to September 8, 2006, to give us some sense of how the book unravels backwards in time.
Schultz: I should start by saying that another layer in the work is political, that as I was dealing with my mother’s dementia, I think we were all dealing with the dementia of the Bush administration, which was hardly an organic failing on their part, it was much more self-conscious. And yet, some of the effects, I think, were similar. One of the effects being that when someone with dementia tells you a story and is absolutely certain that it is true, it causes you to doubt your own belief in your own reality. I think that’s one of the tricks that the Bush administration played on us all.
Schultz: There is a political content to it.
[Schultz reads from Dementia Blog.]
Leonard Schwartz and Susan Schultz at Kelly Writers House, September 15, 2011. Photo by Arielle Brousse.
Schwartz: Thank you so much, Susan, for that reading. It’s really quite extraordinary, an extraordinary text in terms of the weave of the political and the personal.
Schultz: I should say, Leonard, that that section was actually more about a former student who was calling me and threatening to kill herself than it was about my mother, and yet it all fits. It wove together in terms of problems with thinking and time and family and so on.
Schwartz: Yeah, it’s clear in the writing that there’s a person who is calling in, who is threatening suicide — that it’s different from the emotional disorder with dementia and the reflection on your mother. In the writing, there’s a kind of complicated weave of that with the political circumstance of the dementia imposed upon us by the Bush administration in September of 2006.
I thought I noted a line from one of my own poems in there about how nonviolent people become violent, but maybe that came from a different source, I don’t know.
Schultz: I know I used your Ear and Ethos somewhere in my book, but I don’t remember where I got that particular line from.
Schwartz: It’s a really rich and complicated weave of things, and so beautifully juxtaposed. You have that section: "My empathy is memory, is a container into which her experience sometime fits, shallow grave or swimming pool (death by water), though mine is a memory of overpasses. Not to pass over, but under by way of air. The air is human. I am the limbless woman."
I know this is a vast and grave question, but could you say a little bit about your take on memory, having moved through this experience with dementia? And on the personal level, your mother’s dementia? And on the political level, with the Bush administration now reaching its end?
Schultz: Could you ask me a bigger question, Leonard?
Schwartz: Were one to ask Proust the question about memory, I know what we would get. It would take several volumes. It’s a big question. He’s got quite a few books that are devoted to that, but what would be the thumbnail sketch of Susan Schultz’s vision of memory?
Schultz: I’ve always been quite obsessed with memory, and I think most of my work comes out of the way in which my memory — which in many ways is simply an echo chamber of the larger cultural and social memory — works, if that’s the right word. I think memory is not just a solitary activity. It’s very much a communal activity. It’s what joins us to other people once we take our memories and offer them to others. Perhaps one of the most striking effects of memory loss is that return to a kind of profound solitude that I certainly saw in my mother for a long time. Now that she’s in a better place — she’s in an Alzheimer’s home and very well taken care of — there is a sense that she’s back in community. But she doesn’t speak of her memories. I’m not sure she has them anymore, and so, in that sense, I think there’s a kind of profound solitude that has to do with living exclusively in the present.
There’s also a strong ethical sense to memory. There’s a wonderful book about the ethics of memory by an Israeli philosopher whose name I can’t call to mind at the moment — but the sense in which if you have a memory and you use it correctly, it’s an ethical act. If you fail to remember certain important things, that’s an unethical act. And yet, if you lose your memory to illness, it’s something else again. So the difference between that loss of memory to illness and the loss of memory that the Bush administration tried to create for all of us is very telling that there are different uses of the erasure of memory, and in my book I was trying to negotiate a place from which I was encountering both at the same time. I don’t know if that answers your question —
Schwartz: It’s a wonderful response to the question. I’m so glad I insisted even though you tried to laugh the question off at first. There’s so much to think about in what you just said: the way in which, in fact, memory is communal. We think of memory at some level as a deep form of introspection, and it is, but at the same time certain kinds of memory, certain forms of memory, would not be possible without a conversation, or without the wider conversation that is sometimes called community. You speak so tellingly in what you just said and Dementia Blog itself to that complexity, that complicated tissue of discourse and language that makes memory possible, which is really quite extraordinary.
An interview with Leevi Lehto
Editorial note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings, “Sound, Poetry”; it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project:
A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.
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
Leevi Lehto is a Finnish poet, translator, publisher, programmer, performer, and self-taught composer. Since 1967, he has published six volumes of poetry, a novel, an experimental prose work, and a collection of essays. Active in left politics during the seventies, he worked as a corporate communications executive during the nineties. He is known for his experiments in digital writing, such as the Google Poem Generator. Marjorie Perloff describes his volume of poetry in English, Lake Onega and Other Poems, as “consistently amazing, brilliant — and funny.”
Lehto’s translations, some forty books in all, range from mysteries to philosophy, sociology, and poetry, and include works by Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Joseph Svorecky, Walter Benjamin, John Keats, Omar Khayyam, John Ashbery, Mickey Spillane, and Charles Bernstein. His new Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses will be published by the Helsinki University Press in 2012. Since 2007, Lehto has run a press of his own, ntamo, through which he has published well over 100 books, most of them critically acclaimed experimental poetry.
Lehto also performs his own poetry and others’ internationally. Notably, he has versioned the works of Finnish writers from the so-called “traditional” period. The Finnish critic Aleksis Salusjärvi describes Lehto’s performances as “foregrounding an atavistic, affective voice roaring almost deafeningly … as if performance and voice themselves were the subject matter.” Recently, Lehto has begun performing with drummer Tero Valkonen, bringing his sound deeper into the borderland between speech and music.
Carmel Purkis is a writer, editor, and book lover who has lived in many communities across Canada, and currently makes her home in Ottawa. She has been involved in several sound poetry projects, most recently collaborating with a group of poets on a series of multi-voiced texts called <playback>, a text- and performance-based response to visual artwork, and performed at the National Art Centre’s Fourth Stage.
This interview was conducted in November and December 2010.
Carmel Purkis: You’ve written extensively about the borrowing that happens between languages. Do you think of creating sound poetry out of a certain language, borrowing the sounds of Finnish or English, or do you think of creating sounds towards a new language?
Leevi Lehto: Well I guess my work is still mostly created from Finnish sounds. This actually may be one of the aspects behind my interests in themes of “Barbaric” English: the awareness of how Finnish my own English still is.
Take “Sanasade” (“Word Rain”), my longish procedural sound poem that I’ve performed during the few last years practically all over the world. It is based on an earlier, meditative prose poem of mine, and what I did was take all the words of that poem, sort them alphabetically, and then cut out everything in the beginning of the words that didn’t affect their exact placement in the sequence: “Capricorn,” “Carmel” and “Catalogue” next to each other would yield “pricorn,” “rmel” and “talogue.” The resulting stumped “words” were then again sorted alphabetically, this time based on endings: “talogue,” “rmel” and “pricorn.”
In Finnish, many words end in vowels, so this leads to a kind of Rimbaudian-Bökian display of vowels, a laboratory of their characters and temperaments. In performance I’ve come increasingly to play with the narrative possibilities this offers. Initially, this was more or less limited to the very end of the piece where the Finnish ä sound almost inevitably seduced me to mimic the sounds of an intense family row in its hysterical stages, creating an effect which is both tragic and funny — and paving the way for the first ö sound to trigger an equally hysteric laughter that, in different modalities, would dominate the rest of the performance, up to the final (for the Finns, at least) irresistibly funny äilöö (which most Finnish speakers would hear as derived from säilöö, or “preserves”). I’m currently working on similar transpositions all along the piece, and in my future performances, you will hopefully hear a more elaborate pattern of mental states, attitudes, modes, reactions, and so on.
In my performances so far, the vowels (and consonants too) have been predominantly Finnish. I think this is part of what makes the piece exotically appealing to foreign audiences — I like to joke that the further I go from Finland, the better the poem is understood, even if the many (unintended) subtleties of overlaid meanings associated with the “words” are lost to those not fluent in Finnish. Anyway, there is no such thing as pure sound, or pure letter for that matter. Already to form words — or, as in “Sanasade,” word-like compounds — letters and sounds need to be interwoven into what is usually referred to as rhythm (to me, language is sound + rhythm + pitch). In “Sanasade,” mainly because words are often cut mid-syllable, the rhythm is not Finnish. For instance, the rule of the stress always falling on the first syllable cannot apply. Yet there is a (complicated) metrical pattern, despite the fact that it goes against the “natural” flow of the Finnish language. So I think (or hope) the rhythm pattern in my performances of “Sanasade” is non-Finnish. To me, this pattern is created or dominated mainly by consonants, which are often oddly placed for the Finnish ear. I like to think of them as forming a kind of bass track, and I am now working to accentuate them as much as possible. In some of my earlier performances this led to a kind of overall bossa nova pattern; now I’m working for a more variegated, jazz-like progression.
I could say something similar of another stock part of my current repertoire, my renderings of some works of so-called traditional Finnish poetry by Eino Leino and Otto Manninen [see this 2009 video of me reading a ghazal that Manninen wrote in 1925] and other masters of the National Romantic period, roughly a hundred years ago. I’ve written about the intricate interplay of foreign influences and local identities in that poetry, my basic, pet claim being that their forms were mostly imported ones, working against Finnish language. These guys were radical translinguists and cross-pollinators a hundred years before me! Take “Tuulikannel” by Eino Leino, a fascinating Keatsian meditation on the chameleon poet (“Others got heart, I got the harp”), where the “harp” element is mimicked and strengthened by a heavy iambic-anapestic beat in a “naturally” trochaic language. My generation was always taught to read this and other similar poems by hiding the rhythm, attempting to reduce them to natural speech. I have attempted a metrical translation of this poem into English. My reading of the poem begins from a simple denial of this rule: I just try to make the stress pattern as clearly audible as possible — something which easily leads to an effect that has been described as “rock,” “rap,” or “singing.” This is interesting to me since I always thought of myself as tone deaf and unable to sing: more on this later!
Lately, I’ve increasingly come to play with the stress pattern by adding minor modifications. In the first line, “muut SY-dä-men SAI-vat mä KAN-te-LEN,” I add a very short extra beat: “muut SY-dä-men SAI-vat mä KA-a-N-te-LEN,” something which almost automatically brings me to repeat and modify that new pattern all along the piece, paradoxically making the resulting sound even more like a song, even if there still is no recognizable melody. My formula for what goes on here is “putting music to language,” instead of the idiomatic “putting words to music.” I think this theme has been with me at least since Ääninen (Lake Onega) my 1997 collection of Dantean-Dadaic sonnets. At that time, I read a lot about the genesis of the sonnet and was intrigued by the idea of it being the first Western poetical form where the musical element was inherent in the poem, not added to it through the accompanying instruments and external melody.
Another case of the mixture of languages in my sound work would be my “English” translation of “Pajkerno” by the Swedish poet Lars Mikael Raattamaa. In “Pajkerno,” Lars Mikael took a classic Swedish poem by Anna Maria Lenngren (1754–1817) called “Pojkarna” (“Boys”) and simply replaced the vowels in each stanza by one single vowel at a time: “Jag mans dan ljafva tadan, / Jag mans dan sam a gar, […] Eppe men men ver lejet, / Ech helsen e men bled,” etc. My English version, “Byos,” was done first by producing a conventional, metrical English translation of the original Lenngren poem, then repeating Lars Mikael’s vowel trick. I made sure to destroy the first translation, so it is hard even for me to now know what was there in the conventional translation phase. “Byos” is a translation without an original, perhaps in a double sense. When reading “Byos,” I usually don’t even try to pronounce it the way a native English speaker would (that’s beyond my abilities); yet my vowels are not Swedish either (also beyond my abilities). Instead, they are straightforwardly Finnish. Since it may be that Lenngren’s Swedish syntactically affected my first English translation, my reading of the poem is perhaps a mixture of three languages.
Finally, there is a different kind of mixture or interplay of languages in my Keats piece, “Negatiivinen kyky,” the concluding poem of Ääninen, which is a half-homophonic translation of Keats’s famous “Bright Star” sonnet. The poem “Negative Capability” in Lake Onega and Other Poems is also half-homophonic of the Ääninen sonnet. I’m tempted to make an extreme claim: the process ends up bringing the original English sounds back to an English-like language, yet they’ve been subtly modified in their sense and references, as Michael Peverett suggests in the only Western review of the book so far:
It’s surprising what survives this double mash-up through the sieves of language — the play of double-L sounds, the resumption of the repeated absolute “ever” in the repeated absolute “all,” and the near-rehabilitation of “ever — or” in the last line. But Keats’s vision of swooning inactivity is thoroughly translated away from its tender context of a loved one’s embrace; socialized, it turns into reeling drunkards in a mall and also into human technological progress, e.g. traveling to the moon. Both “stedfast” and both mindless, exactly as per Keats’s recipe, and sarcastically offering a new interpretation to the phrase “negative capability.”
I invite readers to test these claims based on this compiled reading of the three versions I made for Finnish radio in 2008.
Purkis: Several people, notably the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, have described Finland as a "silent" country. Does sound poetry bring voice, and if so, what is the role of that voice?
Lehto: Yes, Bertolt Brecht, who was exiled to Finland during WWII, described Finland as “a nation which keeps silent in two languages [Finnish and Swedish] at the same time.” But allow me to shift the focus a bit here: I’d rather talk about the alleged flatness of the Finnish language in general, and mine in particular. I grew up in a rural environment deep in the province (Häme or Tavastia Land) renowned for the slow speech of its people; I then left that milieu at the age of sixteen (as a high school dropout and a poet who had already published his first book), to live in the capital, Helsinki. I soon forgot the dialect of my childhood, but what I adopted was not the Helsinki slang, nor even the youth speech of the time, but a sort of artificial language more or less based on written Finnish (Finnish differing from most other languages in having this thing called the “literary language,” something residing above most people’s actual speech: my friends sometimes tell me I’m the only person they know to actually speak the literary Finnish). So I still tend to speak slowly, and in a level voice with quite little intonation. Another way to put it — and I realize this is an odd thing for a sound poet to say — I’m an extremely literal and textual person.
In many ways this has affected my learning of other languages. My favorite story here concerns my experiences with French. I never had French in school (nor English, by the way); what I know of it, I learned by translating theoretical-philosophical works. Somewhere in the mid-eighties, having already published translations of the work of Althusser, Lyotard, and Barthes, I decided it was time to acquire the speaking skills as well. I traveled to France and spent six week in the South, trying to learn to speak the language, and even hiring a private language teacher. It turned out to be one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. All the “wrong” patterns of pronunciation learned by silently reading literary texts were rooted so deep that they felt impossible to get rid of. And there was the factor of speed: at one frustrated moment, my teacher retorted in quite an angry fashion: “French just cannot be spoken that slowly!”
This may seem to lead astray from your question, but let me put it that way: yes, sound poetry does bring voice and variety, at least to me personally. More than that, it seems to bring about a change in personality. This is sometimes reflected in the reactions of my listeners. For instance, if I come to give a dry lecture on some more or less theoretical topic, I like to end with a short sample of my sound poetry (like the ending of “Sanasade”). This tends to take the audiences by surprise; they will come to me later, asking, “Where did that Shaman jump up from?” Yes, the sound poet in me is a different personality, and I am more and more allowing him to take over: the somewhat official looking, aging professorial gentleman has been replaced by the image of a (well, aging) rockstar. And I’ve been loosing a lot of weight too … I’m letting my hair grow longer, to quote “Prufrock.” I’ve attended formal cocktail parties in full makeup and I will soon start painting the thumbnail of my left hand red like Tom Waits. And I’m quite enjoying it all!
So, to repeat, sound poetry brings voice, and the voice brings a difference!
Purkis: Is the reaction of your listeners in Finland any different than in other countries? Do you think they hear differently?
Lehto: Yes, I think people in other countries hear differently, both when I use Finnish or Finnish-like language, and when I use English or other languages. For the first case, suffice it to refer to what I said above about the reception of “Sanasade”: here my most gratifying experience was in China, where the audience was adamantly resistant to all the ironic elements of the whole (despite my efforts to explain them in my intro) and simply wanted to hear it as a spontaneous overflow of feelings — of passion, as they described it.
As to using languages other than Finnish: the case in point might be my longish “Norwegian” poem, “Norwegian Ords,” which I wrote with a little help from Google and some dictionaries and performed at the Audiatur poetry festival in Bergen, Norway, in 2007. There are two humorous aspects in this. The day before I left for Bergen, I was talking with my stepdaughter Miina, then in her twenties. She told me that there was a new expression in the Helsinki teenage slang: “to speak Norwegian” was to throw up, to vomit, as when having drunk too much. I evidently couldn’t resist including that in my introduction for the poem in Bergen, and integrating the voices and gestures of vomiting in my performance, starting from the dedication “for Paal B-b-b-b-j-j-j-j-j-ELK-e Andersen.” Afterwards, more than one listener came to tell me they could never speak their own language again without having their vomiting reflexes activated. Others wondered at how I had managed to reproduce the patterns of certain actual local dialects, of which I had no knowledge or experience whatsoever. To this day, I cannot say whether this was caused by my Finnish or by the non-Finnish non-original Shaman in me paying a visit during the show. (I hope the latter: as a prodigal son of a deeply Pentecostal family, I retain a strong belief in being blessed with a gift of speaking in tongues, along with another gift of ventriloquism, or “speaking from the stomach” in Finnish idiom.)
Purkis: When watching your performances, it is clear that there is music in your motives, not just because of the sound, but also because you are always moving, and often almost dancing. This lends a superb theatricality to the performance. Do you think that this theatricality of sound poetry is a necessary part of the performance or simply a pleasurable by-product?
Lehto: Well, to me at least it is a side effect in the sense that I don’t plan it ahead of time. It is the most spontaneous part of the performance, something that I am almost not even conscious of doing. On the other hand, it is also necessary since there’s nothing I can do to drop it. I simply have to move along with the intensity of the rhythm that I manage to produce.
Actually, I should perhaps add body movement to my list of elements of language — and I am not only thinking of performances, but everyday usage as well. Perhaps there is no language without body language.
Purkis: You’ve done some spectacular mash-ups of voice and music, such as your Rolling Stones piece. Do you differentiate music and song from a sounding voice?
Lehto: A nice way to put it! You realize I’ve been edging into the theme of music all along. It is my primary concern nowadays — well, not music as such, but music related to poetry, and the other way round. I always was the non-singer: my early teachers and my family told me so. On the other hand, I’ve always joked about how I might have become a composer if only I wasn’t tone deaf. And, on a third note (pun intended!), my poetry — especially the earlier and somewhat more conventional stuff — has often been described by critics and others as “linguistically musical,” something which I’ve been tempted to see (if there’s any truth in those claims) as a symptom of transference, or skill compensation, as in blind people developing an acute ear. I’ve been increasingly obsessed with the questions around this, and have given in to the temptation to explore the musical component of my newfound sound poet personality. Also, as I like to joke, at this age, I have come to lose interest in the things I can master, to the point of only being motivated by those things I cannot do. After all, they are the only ones where you can learn something.
That is why I wanted to do a couple of pieces where I had no alternative but to at least try to sing. Over the past year, I started with a couple of attempts at fusion between Finnish poetry classics and standard rock ’n’ roll. In the Rolling Stones piece, I use words from a poem by the Finnish Modernist master, the late Paavo Haavikko (adequately beginning: “No one understands me. No one understands me in this restaurant …”); in my hearing, they quite nicely fill in the melodic pattern of “Paint It Black,” although I’m not sure if anyone would recognize the tune in my performance were it not for Keith Richards’s opening riff. Another case is “Lapin kesä” (“The Summer of Lapland”), where I fuse four stanzas from one of Eino Leino’s most beloved poems with “Rock And Roll Music” by Chuck Berry. I’m very much aware that these initiatives are not much more than practical jokes or (not even very bright) novelties, but in a way my point is just that: the challenge is to develop the jokes into artistically convincing and compelling renderings — and to learn about my eventual singing skills in the process. I deliberately put those very early recordings (linked above) online as unquestionable evidence of the absolute (s)crap I started from.
I’ve since worked a lot on these and other projects with a definite musical/melodic component — as part of which (to let you into a secret now) I have even started taking singing lessons. On many levels, this has been extremely instructive, to say the least. My teacher has a certificate in Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) developed by the Danish music educator and human voice theorist Cathrine Sadolin. Her system is an attempt to describe and master “all the sounds human voice is capable of producing” (in this system, the sounds are classified into modes according to their metallic quality, ranging from neutral to curbing, overdrive, and edging, all of which again may be modified by color, effects, etc.). It was nice to realize, and to have a professional teacher testify that even without an ability to sing the most simple melodies “correctly,” in my sound poetry performances I already made use of all those modes and variations, and easily so, without many of the problems with breathing and so on that so haunt many professional singers (and me, in my attempts at actual singing).
This of course introduces the question, “What is music?” Sure, the existence of a recognizable, harmonic melody cannot be the only requisite for music at our point in time. But more than that, my teacher soon made me realize some things that led me to modify what I said above about the “flatness” of Finnish, my own and others’. In short, as there is color and rhythm, there is also intonation in every language and in every speech act. (In fact, while my own speech may be characterized as extremely flat, I’ve always been aware of my sensitivity to intonation in the speech of others — for instance, I’m almost invariably the first person in a group to recognize a nameless voice of an actor or other celebrity in, say, a TV or radio commercial, and I’m still tempted to judge the present political stances of my seventies hardliner Communist adversaries by how well they have been able to drop the scansion so crucial to their previous group identities.) To put it another way, all language speakers are able to control their pitch, so everybody can sing. Or at least the question of musicality has very little to do with singing skills as such. This realization has made me name my sixtieth birthday party a “concert”: “Leevi Lehto at 60 & in Concert With Himself.”
It may be that I’ve already reaped the most important fruits of my work with pitch and melody — I am thinking of some insights into the constituents of hearing and voicing. The main thing about pitch control, it seems to me (and I realize this may be elementary to many, but to me it is not) is what is known as “muscle memory.” The (almost innate) ability to control the pitch of speech implies a capacity to hear it, and consequently to change it, to hear that change, and ultimately recognize the pitch of an isolated note. In principle, this means that not only can everybody sing, but also that we all have potentially absolute ears. Yet this recognition does not happen in the ear only, it is always mediated by the muscle memory of speech or singing. To exaggerate a bit: we listen with our throats, and we speak with our ears.
Purkis: The majority of your pieces available on the Internet are solo performances, with the exception of a few duets (notably, one with Charles Bernstein). Does this work with musicians mean that you will be doing more ensemble work and sound collaborations? Do you view collaborations with other voices differently than collaborations with other instruments?
Lehto: Yes, I think I will be more interested in various kinds of collaborations in the future. So far, I have actually only done one performance with live instruments, with the Russian electronic band Ugol Ratmanova in Moscow, in November 2008. This was an improvised reading on fifteen minutes’ notice, of one of my stock pieces, “Besotted Desquamation,” my Finnish translation of a poem by Charles Bernstein.
For the “Leevi Lehto at 60 & in Concert With Himself” birthday celebration I also plan to do some collaborative work. I’m going to perform with drummer Tero Valkonen, who will play a floor tom, something that will undoubtedly push me both to intensify the rhythmical dimension of my performance and also to pay more attention to the pitch. There is also a plan for an improvised duo performance with the Japanese sound artist Adachi Tomomi, over Skype. And yes, I may venture some actual singing, and the concert will feature my first-ever musical composition, Don’t Be Afraid of Being Afraid, with my daughter Saara, a professional dancer, performing her own choreography.
And, talking of composition, I’ve also experimented with producing my own “melodic backdrops” using digital audio workstations such as FL Studio: you may evaluate the impact of that in this rendering of “Tuulikannel” from last spring.
One more point about collaborations: I’m currently working with a young Finnish composer and folk-harpist, Salla Hakkola, on a project where we will use excerpts from my Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly the musically-motivated “Sirens” chapter. This will be premiered at the time of the publication of the translation [editor’s note: this performance took place in August 2011]. I’m rather intrigued by this, not least because the project has made me realize the general impact of Ulysses to my sound work. After all, “Sirens” is all about putting music into language, and Joyce was reportedly unable to listen to music for a time after having finished it. Working with the overall musicality of Ulysses has, I think, sort of reversed Joyce’s reaction: it has made me somewhat impatient before most other texts I come to work with. If I cannot find music in them, I get the urge to add it …
From my present perspective, I wouldn’t see any fundamental difference between collaborations with other voices and those with instruments. Allowing for instruments means admitting that the voice is one too, or the other way around: it means the materiality of language must encompass and accommodate instrumental sounds. I think I used to be a purist here, somehow privileging voice and only voice, but I’ve changed my mind.
Purkis: Do you have any predictions for where sound poetry might veer, as muscle memory increases and as the capacity for listening and voicing grows stronger? What sort of projects do these muscles want to lift?
Lehto: Well, I think with my take on learning, Groucho Marx’s well known slogan sort of ceases to be joke, and becomes a maxim: only join clubs that wouldn’t approve you as a member. So I am a little hesitant to speak about the future of sound poetry, if by that we understand a specific subcategory of the larger whole of poetry or literature. There is such a category or field all right, and there is such a community of people with shared interests. Yet I don’t think of my sound work as dedicated to cultivation of that special field but rather as interventions in two larger areas: poetry in general (or text-based poetry if you will), and, yes, music. I’m always interested in cross-pollinations and my ambition is to create works that are difficult to situate in one single frame.
One aspect of this is that I don’t seem to produce new textual material for my performances but rather use existing work, by myself or by others, found poetry in a way. My renderings of traditional Finnish poetry are perhaps a case in point.
1. Michael Peverett, “Leevi Lehto, Lake Onega and Other Poems,” Intercapillary Space, September 2009.