White engine against black magic

Aboriginal song poetry and anthropology

Iconic flag showing the many hundreds of tribes in Australia prior to British settlement. The flag was flown at Camp Sovereignty in Melbourne, March 2006, where an indigenous Australian protest movement organized against the Commonwealth Games.

A conversation between Robbie Wood and Andrew Dowding about Taruru: Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara, recorded on September 16, 2010. 

Robbie Wood: Maybe we could start by talking about your relationship to song poetry and your connection to it, perhaps as a contemporary claimant of it in some way, and also about your relationship to it as an anthropologist and an Aboriginal person.

Andrew Dowding: The poetry that’s in that book [Taruru: Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara], some of it is really quite spiritual and quite ceremonial, but then there’s also another side of it. Some of it I’ve been connected to through a ritual that all young men go through, which is like an initiation into manhood that all young guys have to go through. But there’s a whole other side of the poetry in that book, which is really just a creative kind of passing-the-time form of poetry and song. I guess my connection with this ceremonial and spiritual side has been —

Wood: Has been more personal and embodied?

Dowding: Yeah.

Wood: But in terms of the sort of aesthetic, time-passing poetry that’s in this book, some of it is by uncles of yours, or great-uncles of yours, or your grandfather. It’s a sort of family poetics, it’s a sort of oral tradition in that sense, of people telling tales, and stories, and songs.

Dowding: Yeah, it’s told through a rich sort of storytelling tradition. When I was born, my granddad was pretty old. I think he was about eighty, in his mid-eighties. Unlike most Aboriginal people, who only live to about mid-sixties, in the hard life that he’d had, the age that he reached was a testament to how strong he actually was. But I never really got to interact with him, although I would have heard these stories, probably, when I was a tiny little kid.

But the people who really would have heard his stories, all these elders I talk to in my work through doing anthropology up in these areas, they all know his storytelling technique. I’ve got these tapes of his, which are basically recordings of those songs, of all those poems. As soon as I put those tapes in the tape deck, people just sit back. It’s like this kind of relaxing pastime. You can see that they remember how he spoke, and then they hear it again on the tape and they’re just back in that time, you know, back in that day, and he’s sitting around the old reserve and telling them some stories.

Wood: These recordings were recordings done by Carl von Brandenstein, who is a German anthropologist. Were they among the first recordings, oral recordings of Aboriginal song in Australia? Or just in the Pilbara? Western academic and intellectual tradition has taken a lot from Australian anthropological studies, for example, Freud’s Totem and Taboo, that’s Aboriginal people from the southern desert, then there was a whole host of other early anthropologists with Pitjanjatjarra peoples, which was then expanded into various anthropological theories. But were these the first actual oral recordings rather than transcribed notes?

Dowding: No, these recordings were done in the early seventies, late sixties, so I think there would have been other people going through the area with similar recording devices. But I think that von Brandenstein was the first to actually concentrate on song poetry and song structures, and songs, basically. And dances as well, he recorded a whole lot of dances moves that go along with some of the songs. So, I think there were earlier ones, I think there were linguists who went through much earlier than these anthropologists went through. But von Brandenstein’s field kit would have been pretty sizeable, it would have been strange recording because he probably would have used reel-to-reel tapes. So he would have had to lug that thing around.

Wood: Not like the digital stuff now.

Dowding: Quite a big physical machine to take around! It would have been so interesting to see the reactions of people on the way, because in some of the tapes it sounds like people are just yelling down microphones. Also, von Brandenstein didn’t just record songs, he recorded messages for people; he recorded messages to take to other groups, or other family over in a different area. He traveled huge distances, covering a huge area from the Kimberleys all the way down through the Gascoigne, recording songs. I remember finding this one little snippet — in the thousands and thousands of hours of tape, I luckily pulled out this one tape and it had a message for my Auntie Jean, a message from my grandfather, because she was living in Perth.

Wood: This is your mom’s sister?

Dowding: Yeah, my mom’s sister, she was living in Perth. von Brandenstein had told my granddad that he would see Jeanie down in Perth. So he sent this song to her, he sent this lullaby song, plus just a “how are you,” and he was describing where he was sitting and you can hear kids in the background, and it’s this intimate little moment. When I played it for my Auntie Jean, she was just in tears because she’d never heard it.

Wood: She’d never heard it?

Dowding: No, she’d never heard it, she never got the message in the end because von Brandenstein would tape thousands of hours.

Wood: So, he’s got these poems, Taruru, about daily life and Western development, and then there’s also a whole archive which is just actual daily life moments which are more historical, rather than put into the aesthetic sphere?

Dowding: Yeah, and then there’s a whole raft of rough cuts, where [my grandfather] Bob Churnside is singing a song, and then all of a sudden stops. He must have been a smoker, because he’s hacking up his lung, he’s spitting up his lung, and he’s like, “Sorry, where was I?” and he gets back into the song. I have edited a lot of these tapes, so I’ve heard all the rough cuts.

Wood: I wanted going to ask you about being Indigenous and being an anthropologist, and that sort of relationship, whether you could give a brief account of Aboriginal people’s relationship to anthropologists initially and how that’s changing now, and the implication of the anthropologist’s role socially.

Dowding: I think there was initially a real interest from Aboriginal people in these men like von Brandenstein, O’Grady and other early European anthropologists who came to Australia, a real interest in these strange European guys who would come and want to know the intimate details of culture. They’d actually want to explore knowledge with these men, because a lot of Aboriginal culture is knowledge-based.

It’s just not that it’s knowledge-based, it’s also that it’s held by a small group of men, and they’re always challenging each other over how much knowledge they have, how many songs they can remember, trying to outdo each other with perfect dance moves. The thing that was interesting for these Aboriginal guys was that the anthropologists would go and try and find the men of the highest degree, and they would always say to their Aboriginal informants, “I’ve talked to such-and-such and he’s been telling me about this,” and then the next Aboriginal informant would say, “Oh, I want to outdo that guy, and I’ll tell you as much as I can. I’ll display my cultural knowledge to you.” That was the initial relationship, this kind of outdoing each other.

A long time passed, probably about thirty or forty years, before anthropologists came back to the region. There was nothing up there, just Aboriginal people and pastoral stations and that’s it. But when anthropologists returned they returned with the mining companies and mining began. The anthropology that’s done within the mining companies is very different — it’s a measuring skulls and trying to save the culture kind of thing. There was never a real interest in the beauty of cultural forms; it was always this late-eighties idea that the Aboriginal race is going to die. I think people were very wary of those kinds of anthropologists coming in because they were always backed by mining money, that’s who they were paid by, whereas the older anthropologists were just guys with really obscure grants from universities.

That was a huge change in the view of anthropology, in how people saw anthropologists. And that type of anthropology is still going; it’s funded by mining companies performing these things called heritage surveys, which are basically just to go across bits of country looking at artifacts and archaeological materials. Very rarely when anthropologists go out under a mining company’s instruction would they ever ask about how a song connected to an area. I think that that’s been a sad thing. Now it’s slowly changing, now that there’s a second mining boom going on, I think that Aboriginal people have realized how dangerous it was to hand over certain information to anthropologists because they ended up in the Native Title process, fighting for Aboriginal lands.

When the Native Title process came through in the early nineties, anthropologists ended up being pitted against each other. Different academic anthropologists were brought in to rip each other apart, basically. They’d go out and do field work with Aboriginal people, find as much information as they could about a certain area, or some group’s connection to country, and then a different anthropologist would be asked to go out and review that work and then pull it to pieces.

Wood: So, within a longer historical view, beginning from when these poems were written, the relationship between anthropologist and informant was initially sort of like a dialogue, there was a bit more mutual respect on a cultural level, and there was a genuine, almost naïve interest on both sides. I mean, von Brandenstein would take his guitar and play folk tunes and things like that. It seems there was a certain naïve sharing, even though the material relationship was uneven. And then with the advent of global capitalism, the change in the last forty years, there was a shift in which the field of anthropology itself in became part of corporations, of corporate mentalities of competitiveness. And that became enshrined in the nineties. In the eighties there was a change in the field of anthropology, and in the nineties it got its legal comeuppance. Do you think that’s a fair way of understanding the relationship over past forty years or so?

Dowding: Yeah, definitely. I know that when von Brandenstein went up and asked people to sing songs and show him dances, he told people when he recorded them that he wanted to co-publish. It was never about an anthropologist coming up and collecting this work for themselves. It was always, “This is your cultural expression, and you should be proud of it.” The big change was these mining companies and anthropologists coming in and saying, “We’re going to pay you $500 to tell us what your heritage is, and that will be the end of the relationship.” That was the introduction of a different kind of personality.

Wood: The struggle to get tenure and all of these things must have gone into it as well.

Dowding: It’s been very slow in Australia, but now I think there is a recognition that the artifacts that people were recording, that these stone artifacts that were being recorded for years and years and years from the late eighties until now, mean nothing to Aboriginal people now, they mean less than nothing. It’s like the rubbish, the stone artifacts which were always held up as being the artifacts of a culture —

Wood: The proof, the material objects —

Dowding: That is being swept away, it hasn’t been swept away just yet, but it’s slowly changing to a realization that it’s the songs that meant the most to people, and we should be asking people if they remember this stuff.

Wood: Is that recognition happening on the side of anthropologists, or on the side of Aboriginal people?

Dowding: I think that’s where my conflict is. I know from an Aboriginal side that people are quite happy with the way their culture is going. They don’t see a huge amount of disturbance, because, I mean, how do you gauge that? There are big communities up there, thousands of people, and they still speak a form of the language, they still practice the kind of ritual that’s been going on for centuries. But my anthropological side thinks, “But it’s not as rich as it was. You don’t practice all the different ceremonies that you used to practice. You don’t speak seven different languages, which is what my grandfather would have spoken.” I don’t see corroborees happen in public places any more, which is what used to happen when they were alive. What about that stuff? Isn’t that important? But I know that people who live in the community think, “Well, we know it’s important, but that’s something for us.”

Wood: The idea of “we don’t necessarily have to practice it” suggests that the religious aspect still maintains itself, but the rites and rituals and cultural aspects have changed. The real influence in the communities, it seems, is pop culture internationally. If you want hip-hop, go to those communities — Akon, Kanye, Ludacris — those guys are big as cultural phenomena, and they sort of take the place of the poems, of Taruru, in these public displays. Yeah?

Dowding: Yeah, it’s like that. And I guess that’s a worry of a lot of people too. It is a worry, I guess, that people underestimate how deeply American commercial hip-hop would penetrate the youth. A lot of middle-aged Aboriginal people, a lot of older Aboriginal people don’t realize how deeply that stuff has gone into kids in the communities.

Wood: Or how, I guess, colonial processes have been successful, in that sense. Even though the development of a racial consciousness is significant, it has its origins elsewhere and not necessarily part of the culture.

Dowding: It’s a really hard thing to try and explain. Because I know that cultural forms like these songs and poetry that were done for pastime and entertainment, those kinds of cultural forms have been replaced. It’s very rare that I ever hear people singing in language while we’re fishing or while we’re hanging out in an area in town or anything. The songs that I do hear them singing like when we’re driving or something are ceremonial war songs. Those are the things that people have held onto, and the youth of the communities, they have exposure to the ceremonial aspect of those kinds of songs. They know those things, and I think that’s the reason why a lot of elders are quite happy with the way the culture is going, with the way that the religion is going, in a sense. Because the younger men and women know the ceremonial songs and they know that they can continue that culture, they feel kind of confident that those young people are getting enough of that exposure.

Wood: So, these aesthetic songs come and go, but the religious aspect, I guess, maintains itself and is necessary; hence religious life becomes a reinforcing aspect of the culture.

Dowding: The other thing is that all of those song men who sang those poems and made those poems, they were all strong lawmen/loremen and religious priests, the high priests of the culture. So I think that the elders would have a feeling that if that religion is still there, there will be men and women of a high degree who would have the ability to recreate these cultural forms if they want to.

Wood: Not the other way around; so the religion gives people strength, and then they might be able to express some cultural form. For example, you could do hip-hop or whatever as opposed to these forms of song-poems.

Dowding: I shouldn’t say that these song forms don’t exist. I’m sure that they do. Probably it would be a middle-aged, kind of early-forties to late-fifties age group of people who were exposed to these song forms a lot when they were younger, and they would carry them. But I don’t know what it is — they’re not as brave, or they have performance anxiety about it, or they think their kids won’t value it?

Wood: Anxiety of influence, or something like that?

Dowding: I’ve never, never heard them, whereas my understanding is that people would ask for these poems, these songs, they would request them all the time.

Wood: Like a jukebox or something like that?

Dowding: Yeah: “Tell us that story about the first plane to Roebourne, tell us that story about this and that.”

First Plane to Roebourne

Tabi in Karierra
by Ngalbijurangu, Tjarnadan’s brother

My people wait for the stranger
            to arrive from the west.
All stand and wait. What time would he come?
At last they came, circled high above,
            the two pilots.
High up they circled, let the roar fade
            and landed in the haze.

These poems were probably not as stable as they are when you see them as text; they probably would have been much more free, and they probably would have been embellished for a long version or a short version, probably a lot of improvisation.

The Truck

Tabi in Njijapali
by Dingo George 

There he is, the Giant, shifting back and forth,
The brand new engine, shrinking the country
Along the gravel roads.
Now the engine hums
In the great thing!

The First Truck at Tambrey

Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Wiliguru Pambardu

The strange thing comes closer,
            coming into view for inspection.
The strange thing comes closer,
            coming into view for inspection.
The strange thing comes closer,
            coming — view for inspection.
The strange thing comes closer,
            coming — full length into view.
Now we have seen you, stranger,
            coming — full length into view.
Now we have seen you, stranger,
            coming — full length into view.
Poor fellow you, stranger,
            — your transparent eyes reaching everywhere,
You stand there, fire spitting: eedj!
            — your transparent eyes reaching everywhere.
You stand there, fire spitting: eedj!
            — your transparent eyes reaching everywhere.
You stand there, fire spitting: eedj!
            transparent. — With its splutter
Inside below the engine
            is built — with its splutter.
Inside below the engine
            is built — with its splutter,
Inside below the engine
            is built — the starter,
Chirping “njeen njeen” in the front
            like crickets — the starter.
Chirping “njeen njeen” in the front
            like crickets — the starter,
Chirping “njeen njeen” in the front
            like crickets. — Up and down
Smell the petrol going through
            by the big end! — up and down.
Smell the petrol going through
            by the big end — up and down!
Smell the petrol going through
            by the big end! — Bubbles,
See them suddenly blown high,
            boiling — bubbles!
See them suddenly blown high
            boiling — bubbles!
See them suddenly blown high
            boiling. — Both shaking
.  .  .  .  .  .  you two,
            clever men, — both shaking.
.  .  .  .  .  .  you two,
            clever men, — both shaking
.  .  .  .  .  .  you two,
            clever men, — in the sleek cabin
Sitting on a seat to drive,
            all gadgets! — in the sleek cabin.
Sitting on a seat to drive,
            all gadgets! — in the sleek cabin
Sitting on a seat to drive,
            all gadgets! — The noise swells,
When they accelerate along the road
            to a rumble — the noise swells.
When they accelerate along the road
            to a rumble — the noise swells
When they accelerate along the road
            to a rumble — a buzz sets in.
The wheels make miles,
            at a proper speed — a buzz sets in.
The wheels make miles
            at a proper speed — a buzz sets in.
The wheels make miles,
            at a proper speed — the tyre marks spin
Around in the dust like mad,
            like firesticks — the tyre marks spin.
Around in the dust like mad,
            like firesticks — the tyre marks spin
Around in the dust like mad,
            like firesticks — its sides rattle,
  Jerking when a load is pulled
            by the truck — its sides rattle,
Jerking when a load is pulled
            by the truck — its sides rattle,
Jerking when a load is pulled
            by the truck. — The ground whirls past,
When you look out front it is swaying,
            running straight — the ground whirls past.
When you look out front it is swaying,
            running straight — the ground whirls past.
When you look out front it is swaying,
            running straight — the roar’s like a meteor
Blundering from star to star,
            running through the bend — the roar’s like a meteor.
Blundering from star to star,
            running through the bend — the roar’s like a meteor
Blundering from star to star,
            running through the bend — fading far away
The noise making miles
            like a firestick — fading far away.

Wood: In that way, I suppose this song poetry is not necessarily the main cultural form of our historical era. The conflict is similar to what you were saying about anthropology romanticizing certain aspects of Aboriginal culture — we miss the era of knowing seven languages, we miss the era visiting places where no one has been, I missed the chance to be von Brandenstein by living in the current historical and financial moment. I guess the main concern now is that with the shift of the anthropological field into studying song rather than spears or artifacts, it could potentially overlook, or give up on being against mining processes. Do you think anthropologists have begun to assume that mining is a fait accompli for a lot of aboriginal communities? Partly because that assumption exists at a kind of structural level — rather than the dying race theory, there’s a dying country theory — do you think because of that assumption people don’t necessarily want to work with anthropologists? Do you think that’s a reasonable question or a reasonable conflict?

Dowding: I definitely think that the role of anthropologists has changed now. It’s become more of a protective field; it’s become like a buffer, a translator of concepts and ideas between mining companies and communities. It’s evolving now and it’s changing a lot. There are a lot of old-guard anthropologists, a generation moving on. And younger guys like me, or like my boss, Nick Green, who’s just turned fifty and he’s kind of retiring, I don’t know how to put it really … we’re just the buffer between the full-on mining company executive board and the Aboriginal community which has different forms of governance, different responsibilities towards land. Our job is just to translate between the different worlds, the two different worlds.

Wood: The change is basically globalization; now anthropologists are buffers between multinational companies and local communities, who in this case are Aboriginal, whereas previously everything was national in scope. National governments made decisions about welfare, about land use, and hadn’t given up mining leases, necessarily.

Dowding: Well, a lot of the anthropologists who went out in the early eighties were actually with institutions, they were with museums and the Department of Indigenous Affairs. Nowadays it doesn’t exist, anthropologists don’t come through those channels at all, they’re all private contractors. And like I was saying there’s a generational change: guys forty and over all came through those institutional structures — they use semi-bureaucratic kinds of processes, lots of forms, lots of boxes to tick, a lot of processes people don’t understand. And I don’t know what the next step is, because I’m being exposed to those kinds of anthropologists, but I don’t know exactly what way we’re going to go in the future. My background would be more toward a Native Title background, which is —

Wood: Legal?

Dowding: No, it’s not so much legal. Native Title is basically a recognized land title, which says that Australia was managed in a certain way by laws and traditions before Europeans came here. So now we are trying to manage our Native Title; we have to manage these lands within our traditions, which obviously have changed from European colonization, you know, different types of living on the land, being sedentary, cattle stations. This is how I’ve always thought the field of anthropology should start helping people manage Native Title. It should be devoted to understanding what our traditions have always said about how we manage resources, and how we manage communities, and how we manage youth.


Tabi in Karierra/Ngarluma
by Tjabi

There he sits, bald as an egg
And wants to tell us
That railway tracks will criss-cross the desert,
                                    the liar!
They’d even cross the Pilbara, near Warden’s Pool.
So he lies, the idiot!
Sand is all he’ll find up here
To wipe his arse with,
                                    the big-shot from Perth.

Wood: So the function of anthropology, not its place, not where it is in an institution or in a mining company, but the role of the anthropologist has changed from one of fascination. Retrospectively, I think people take fascination to be part of colonialism, not giving Aboriginal people enough credit where it was due, and in the oldest and most ignorant sort of understanding of anthropologists as going forth and conquering cultures —

Dowding: And bringing them back to the anthropologists’ club.

Wood: Yeah, exactly, and now perhaps you’re starting to see the possibility of anthropologists having a political connection, the possibility that anthropologists can act in a sustainable manner, or help to translate traditional lores and cultures into something sustainable. That’s not necessarily to reduce Aboriginal culture to some mythical and romantic ideal, but to say that sustainability is an important thing in regard to land management, in regard to song poetry, and in regard to religious rituals.

Dowding: They’re very much tied up, because a lot of the ceremonial songs that we have and hold have encoded information about the management of land, the management of people, and governance. They’re instructional songs, basically, but when you read the song texts, you don’t get that. It’s not like, “you must do this.” It’s kind of an interpretive thing; people would say that these two spirit-figures would fight in a certain way, and there would be a kind of moral of the story, and it’s the interpretation of that moral that would be the instruction.

Wood: Your grandfather has a song, “What Albert Did”:

What a careless way to burn off the spinifex!
The fire crept on, smoked like mad
And came right round in a circle

In the song text he doesn’t mention Albert’s name, and [in the book] the title of the song is given by someone else, so the moral is separate from the person in that sense.

Dowding: It would have to go with the story, you can’t separate that, that poem tells you nothing. It’s so stripped back that you can’t even understand: you understand that there was a fire, and that there was some guy called Albert, but that’s about the extent of the whole text that’s given to you.

Wood: I guess the instruction from it is moral as well as practical — rather often the two go together: if you’re a good person you fish in a certain way, or you take the fish, rather, in a certain way. So in that sense the role of anthropology in general is to help translate that, would you say?

Dowding: A lot of it is just providing the context. That’s almost the same with that song, of that poem about Albert, about spinifex. You read it, and without any kind of knowledge of the context of that situation, it means absolutely nothing to you. An anthropologist almost fills in that story; he colors in those little blanks for people. Why were they burning spinifex? What the hell is spinifex?

Wood: It’s like this poem too:

White Engine Against Black Magic

Tabi in Njamal
by Lando

You steer the plane with both arms
Sending it straight through the air.
Inside, what a noise!
We are nobody with all our cleverness,
Against the whitefellow.
He can read, and write, and sure enough,
Drive the big things in the sky —
Magic? — He doesn’t need it.
Our medicine-men, the whole lot,
Are utterly useless.

For me that clinches, that establishes the sort of the fight, presumably on the side of the romanticizing anthropologist who misses the halcyon days when the magic men he did know were enough.

Dowding: When the magic men ruled the skies.

Wood: Yeah, that’s right, and it was easier to understand, perhaps, what was happening then. That’s the colonial process, right, how differently Indigenous people view different things, in terms of being in awe of scientific inventions and so on. But your grandfather worked with a number of different anthropologists, had a different view about people who could be seen as handmaidens to colonialism, among them von Brandenstein?

Dowding: I found out that he actually did work with quite a few, and with quite a few linguists as well. I’ve done quite a lot of reading of von Brandenstein’s footnotes, where he talks a lot about Bob Churnside as being one of his best informants because he’s so open to sharing his knowledge, and he’s got such deep cultural knowledge of his own people and the traditions that he’s inspired or inspiring. I’ve heard a lot of recordings of those guys talking together and they just sound like they’re mates, they’re friendly, very friendly.

They just have casual conversations on the side of talking about some pretty intense cultural knowledge. So … what was the question?

Wood: I was thinking about your grandfather’s relationship to anthropology as an entire field and thinking about him as one of the main informants, and trying to re-understand the relationship between, let’s say, “White Engine Against Black Magic,” and how that might come down to just one relationship. Like you’re saying, von Brandenstein’s collaboration, his co-publication was a sharing of cultural knowledge that was accessible to people and allowed them certain latitude: it was not “White Engine Against Black Magic.” So, von Brandenstein was not seen as some interloper, he has a function and a place in Aboriginal society as an Aboriginal person, if you want to put it that way. In a certain way, von Brandenstein’s whiteness is unimportant; what matters is his role in the society, and hence he becomes Aboriginal.

Dowding: I think that’s right. In “White Engine Against Black Magic,” that guy is in total awe of white culture and supremacy, he’s been told over and over, and seen the physical forms of superiority, the planes and cars and stuff. But I think that Bob Churnside always had this confidence in his own culture. I think he almost thought that European culture was kind of shallow and superficial, and that he had some really deep understanding of what it is to be, some really deep understandings that come from being a person and being a human. And I don’t say that lightly, because we’re talking about cultural links that this guy would have had to really old culture, to language and song that go back thousands of years, and unbroken too; culture that would have only changed minimally, I reckon.

I reckon that in himself he was a very confident guy and I can tell from the tapes that he has with von Brandenstein that he’s just totally superior in that relationship, he just feels so confident in displaying how rich the culture is. He’s got days and days of recordings with von Brandenstein — probably more than days, he’s got weeks of recordings, there are thousands of tapes in archives in Canberra — and he just talked the whole time. von Brandenstein prods him every now and then, but he’s just giving this library of information.

Wood: That’s the thing about being from an oral tradition and having that knowledge stored in your mind. There’s a very different and I think perhaps a deepening or enabling of your mind in a structural way, so that your memory is better from an oral tradition. All of this kind of mapping, all of these kinds of aspects of your mind have a very different relationship precisely because you have had to rely on it.

Dowding: As an example, I remember this one section of a tape where Bob Churnside is naming the pools in the river. We’re talking about a really harsh landscape, we’re talking temperatures in the high forties, above a hundred degrees, and we’re talking about a time when there were no motorcars so you were either on horseback or you were walking, and if you didn’t know where the next source of water was, you’d die, basically, of thirst. And his map, this mental map that he has in his head — the tape stops in this recording, but he names over eighty pools, and he sings these little songs in between but he names each of the pools and he describes the area around the pool and he does that for all the different river systems in his country. The amazing mental map that he has is all due to the oral tradition.

I’m not sure about how von Brandenstein would have seen his role in this, and I always think when I listen to these tapes that they both sound kind of naïve in the way that they’ve recorded them.

Wood: Both so excited, perhaps?

Dowding: Yeah, I think that’s probably part of it. Excited and …

Wood: Excited and well-intentioned?

Dowding: Yeah, definitely well-intentioned. Because I know that Bob Churnside took von Brandenstein around to introduce him to all of these different men who wrote these different songs, these poems. So he was the connector, he was main informant who took him all around and explained to all these men of high degree, Bob Churnside would say, “Look, this is what he does.” I would have loved if the tape had on at that point so we could hear how Bob Churnside would have explained what von Brandenstein’s purpose was, how Bob Churnside saw it.

Now, for the relatives of Bob Churnside, there’s a kind of rift through the family as to what should be done with these materials. Bob Churnside’s position in the community was that he named himself as a leader of the community, but in today’s communities, there’s not really one leader, no one proclaims themselves to be a leader any more. There’s anxiety about being the leader; no one’s reached that high degree. So everyone says that these materials are very dangerous — if you don’t know how to control them, if you can’t carry them properly, other people will get them, or you might misuse them, and they could become quite dangerous.

Wood: Is that why you said the tapes between von Brandenstein and Bob Churnside are quite naïve? Because there’s not this sense that it’s stolen knowledge, but it’s shared, it’s communal, people can participate in it, unlike when anthropologists speak with people now. But this goes more for religious artifacts and religious songs than for cultural songs, right? People aren’t as worried about the stealing of those songs?

Dowding: That’s right. There’s a section in one of the tapes that I found: I was sitting with a really old guy, an Aboriginal guy from Roebourne and we were listening to these tapes together. Some parts of them aren’t in English at all, so I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t speak fluent enough Ngarluma to understand what’s being said. I saw the old fella who I was sitting with, I saw his eyes light up and he looked really alarmed. I was like, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” He was like, “You’ve got to stop the tape.” And I thought, “Obviously it’s some really full-on cultural knowledge that’s being told, it’s being sung.” I’ve heard hours of these tapes, and in this one section where it’s almost like information is just being downloaded from my grandfather’s mind, because he doesn’t stop to do any explanation, he sings for about four hours, there’s about three or four tapes where he’s just constantly singing. And the reaction that I saw from this old guy’s face …

I still haven’t found out what’s on those tapes, but I showed it to one of my cousin- brothers, one of the eldest males in our family. By traditional rights, he should have control of those tapes, and he’s taken it from me and he’s never given it back. They’re also down in an archive, but he feels like his control of those tapes is a form of control of that information. I’ve always wondered whether Bob Churnside was naïve to just download whatever he did onto these tapes and give it to a stranger, or if he was putting it there because maybe he thought that it needed to be safe.

Wood: Safeguarded because of the material processes that are happening. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much fighting over the songs, because so much control has been ceded in the process of mining rights? Do you think that the way of reclaiming a form of power, self-confidence, or whatever you want to call it comes through the song tradition because precisely because you’re not on country as much anymore?

Dowding: That’s the crux of Aboriginal culture in this area. The higher you are in your song tradition, the higher you are inside the culture. To become the leader you need to have acquired a huge repertoire of songs not only from your area but from seven different languages. So I think that’s one of the reasons why older people don’t worry so much that this public song form is not being displayed enough. I think people know that there aren’t that many men or women who have reached the level where they can be confident in singing public songs and displaying their prowess in these kinds of forms when they might not have such a prowess in the cultural and the ceremonial form as well.

But the fact is that there’s a possibility that someone can rise up inside the ceremonial form of the song.

I do know examples of younger guys, like mid-forties, who can sing these kinds of songs, these tabi songs. There’s a guy down here at the University of Western Australia in Perth, studying science. He sings tabi whenever they have an Indigenous cultural day at the university. He’s only a very young guy but he has learned these songs, the ceremonial songs, he has learned the texts of them, so I think he feels that he can sing the kind of public songs as well. He always dedicates them, he always says, “These are my grandfather’s songs, or such-and-such’s songs, I’m not composing them, I’m just singing them like they did.” They are public songs, songs for uninitiated people. He’d be the only blackfella in the room when he’s singing those songs. They’re not for communities’ sake, for an Aboriginal community’s sake, they’re for him to feel that he’s confident enough in his own ritual.

Wood: Even within Aboriginal communities, you can’t hear certain songs, but you can always hear these cultural songs. You can hear tabi all the time but you’re not going to hear law/lore songs. In that sense, what can be heard is quite distinct, it’s also quite different from the European tradition, the Euro-canon, especially the secular tradition, where secret, sacred knowledge is quite hard to come by in a legitimate way. You can work for the knowledge, you can have access to it or initiation’s not applicable as a concept.

The other thing in these tabi is just how a lot of it is just working-class, poor reflections on daily life. I think that’s changed a lot now with mining companies as well because it’s just big money flowing in to Indigenous areas. And so, sure there is still gambling, still sex in the bushes, but that’s one aspect of the colonial process that seems to have changed in the last fifteen to twenty years is just the separation of class at the level of monetary economy.

Gambler's Lament

Tabi in Karierra
by Maabin

My name is “feet for money.” Up and up,
Will another risk return it to me?
Another chance tried — nothing yet. No luck, no lucky card for me in
                                                                                                  hand —
            and the sun sinks out of sight in the sea.



Tabi in Karierra
by Tjarndai

In the scrub he slowly starts riding her crossways
                                                and gets into her,
In the scrub he slowly starts riding her crossways
                                                and does it deep into her.


Gambler's Worry

Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Ned Tjinabii

It’s on my mind, those people talking;
It’s on my mind: someone’ll win the lot!

Dowding: Yeah, the work that people do up there now is so different than what their families did fifteen, twenty years ago. We’re talking young guys entering jobs where they are paid $120,000 to drive a tractor or drive a loader or something, compared to their families fifteen years ago who would probably have jobs through the government or Aboriginal Welfare with highly controlled pay — they wouldn’t even have bank accounts. The pay that they would have received would have been through food vouchers, they’d have a government-controlled savings account that would be accessed through letters. You could access your money by going into the local post office with your checkbook and asking the post office guy, the local pay-master, to write you a check. So, huge changes, huge changes: access to paid work, amazing freedom, the free market and paid work.

There aren’t many young guys who would stick with these jobs for years. They’re just going for six months or even less; they earn $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 and then they leave, because that’s the extent of their experience with that amount of money. They would never have had a family member who earned $100,000 in a year and that amount of money is like six or seven years’ worth of money coming in three months. Those changes are just so dramatic. It’s a very different era from these songs. In the fifties and sixties, the type of work that was available to those guys was hard labor, loading boats, loading trucks, manual labor on mines rather than big machinery.

Road Work

Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Tommy Tjinakurrudhu

Here they dig away further in the cutting,
Shovels beat like wavelets on the rise,
Ring round the corner of the edge
                                                     — edge — edge,
I am tired
                — tired — tired.

Wood: Pastoralism too, right?

Dowding: Pastoralism, which is all manual labor: digging wells, riding for days on horseback. Just a whole world away. What’s crazy, what’s really hard for these younger guys is that they’re still in the same location. They’re still surrounded by pastoral stations and mines, but the change in the work has been so dramatic, the change in the pay scales, I think, has been too much for some people. I don’t know how it could have worked out. I think it’s only in the last few years that younger people under twenty-five have understood work in these new, emerging forms of employment —

Wood: Abstract and bureaucratic, right? So many older forms of work were just immediate, face-to-face: a new guy walks up with this type of animal called cattle, and you go and work with him, partly to watch him because he is on your country.

Dowding: All done by watching him, really, all the work would have been done; none of this sitting in a classroom and doing a ticket to drive a truck or anything. But the interesting thing about that face-to-face is that people always ask, “Who’s your boss? Who’s your nyabali?” If you don’t know that person, if it’s some CEO of a company, it’s so abstracted for some people. They really don’t understand where that guy is, where that person actually exists; he could be in London, he could be in Perth, he’s so far away that people really don’t know who they’re working for, therefore you get people working only for a short amount of time. There’s no connection. It’s like, “I don’t want to go in today,” and the boss won’t tell you off because you don’t know your boss, whereas in the old days the boss would be there every morning getting you up out of your swag. I think that’s been a huge change for people.

I’d love to hear some of this kind of poetry come out of Roebourne today. What people would like — the equivalent of Taruru.

Wood: Yeah, “First Internet in Roebourne,” or “Gary Watches Pornography,” that sort of daily life. I guess hip-hop’s replaced that, right?

Dowding: There’s a big country and western song tradition where people will select a country and western song which expresses these modern themes that they’re feeling, these emotions that they’re feeling.

Wood: In this sense this poetry is at a crossroads, at the decline of these traditional languages in daily life, and their movement to religious language. In that sense it’s a real crossroads that’s historically very, very important and stylistically quite important, too.

Dowding: I don’t think you could get people now who could express those kinds of actions or stripped language well enough to express [the equivalent of] what those guys say. I don’t think people know the structures of sentences well enough anymore to construct nice stripped back poetry. It would sound infantile, because people have lost the real, deep sense of the language, completely lost it. There are people who can switch back and forth in English and different languages, who can code switch. There are a few older people who speak really deep Ngarluma, who don’t have to switch back and who don’t feel tired of speaking it at the end of the day.

Wood: Is there a correlation between that daily life language and traditional religious language? If you’re a good linguist in daily language, are you a good song person?

Dowding: Oh yes, definitely. Because the songs are twisty. The language in the songs is twisty, it makes your tongue go all over the place. If you’re reared up in English like I am, the songs are doubly hard. They’re just so hard, and the fact is that those songs are not even everyday language. The way that they’re structured is that a word, a word like “wind” would be “wi-lala-nd,” so it would be punctuated by a whole lot of what they call song-language. There would be reasons for that, but the bits of song-language mask the actual word that you’re trying to say, so it’s harder to understand what is being sung. And you have to be back at those ceremonies every year to kind of break the code, it’s kind of a coded song. You’re just singing what you hear from the guy next to you, but every year you hear more and more of the song.

Wood: So the repetition would be an important way of learning. But also I imagine there’s a possibility that the repetition, those phonetic structures come from everyday knowledge, traditional everyday knowledge. So, you say the word “wind” a certain way because that’s how the wind says itself to you at certain points in the day, so if you’re out on the plain killing a kangaroo or something, the wind is going to make a certain noise. You’ll hear that song and then sing it so you’ll go hunting better and with more luck, and that’s the relationship.

Dowding: I’ve read articles and heard good examples of songs sung about an area of land and then when that area of land changes in topography, the song changes tempo and it changes structures. And so it does mimic the land and the experience of walking across that land. If you’re singing the song about this bit of land, you can tell that it’s sandy or that it’s hard to walk through because the song is slow and it’s intonated. If it’s a rocky sort of area the song’s changed to match the geography. So I think there’s aspects of that stuff probably in some of these public and in the tabi songs as well.

To the Roebourne Races

Tabi in Jindjiparndi
by Ned Tjinabii

Under the wheels the road runs away
As we bounce across the country.
Look at the dust, churned up behind us!
It’s like a wall, you can’t look through it.
Hey! What a speed! Such a bouncing!
There goes Mount Targurana on my left.
Ay! We’re winding down round Minjarna Hill already.
One more ridge and we reach my open plain.

Ear turned toward the emergent

Close Listening with Myung Mi Kim

Myung Mi Kim at the Kelly Writers House. Photo by Arielle Brousse.

Editorial note: Myung Mi Kim (b. 1957) is the author of Penury (2009), Commons (2002), Dura (1999), The Bounty (1996), and Under Flag (1991). She teaches in the poetics program at SUNY–Buffalo. The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded March 15, 2007, at Studio 111 at the University of Pennsylvania with the engineering assistance of Molly Braverman. Listen to the audio program here. Charles Bernstein hosted and produced the show, which includes questions and comments from Pauline Baniqued, Julie Charbonneir, Nicholas Mayer, Heather Gorn, Sarah Yeung, and Jonathan Liebembuk (as well as Adam Tabor and Damien Bright). The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Katie L. Price

Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, WPS1’s program of spontaneous and unedited readings and conversations, presented in collaboration with PennSound. Our guest today for the second of two programs on Close Listening is Myung Mi Kim.

Myung Mi Kim’s books of poetry include Commons, Dura, The Bounty, and Under Flag. She teaches in the Poetics Program at SUNY–Buffalo. On today’s show, which we are recording at Studio 111 on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Myung Mi Kim will be answering questions from Penn students.

Hello, Myung, welcome back. Just moments after we had you, here you are again.

Myung Mi Kim: Happy to be here again.

Bernstein: Pauline?

Pauline Baniqued: Hi. I really enjoyed reading Commons. I started to think about the process involved in writing this, so my questions are mostly related. Maybe I could just put them out there for you?

Your poetry is charged with meaning and double meaning, and open to multiple interpretations. How is this seemingly less smooth-flowing and more intellectual approach received by those in poetry, for example, in academia or by those who actually practice poetry? Do you find yourself having to decide whether certain material qualifies for poetry? Are you self-conscious about it when you write, and if so, do you sift out things to include in your poetry? How do you differentiate or judge?

Kim: What I’m hearing in that question, or at least the direction I want to take that question, is the interrogation of archive. There may be two things to consider here. One: what is material for the poem? This question is immediately conjoined with: what are the possibilities of the poem? The work or thinking through the interrogation of the archive immediately signals both the problem of what belongs in a poem, what is extra to the poem, and therefore, because of that excess, perhaps needs to be considered as belonging to the poem. For me, the question of what belongs and what doesn’t belong in some really foundational sense is a question of what has been excluded in terms of the sociohistorical index, and therefore the question of what belongs or doesn’t is one that needs to keep being opened up. There’s got to be some kind of pressure on the question of what closes down the archive, who has authority to create archive. I’m hoping that I’m at least hearing one aspect of your question. Do you want to keep going?

Baniqued: Yes. You use a lot of primary text, direct images, and lines in the poem as if taking the most objective photograph or stand towards the experience or the thought. Do you think that this is a “better” form of poetry, or a good direction towards the development of poetry? That poets remain more faithful to the experience that’s being documented, and thus write more “effective” poems? What do you say to people who may think this is BS or think of it as stripping the essence of “again” writing poetry?

Kim: Let me make sure I heard the first part of the question. When you are talking about the objective photograph — do you want to say a little more about that?

Baniqued: That was the sense that I got when I was reading these poems, probably because there weren’t as many adjectives as is common in more traditional kinds of poetry. There were just snapshots of what was there. The words were very precise.

Kim: Actually, that is a useful question to follow up the first question about material, because for me it is a question about materiality. And what you’re saying is the lack of modifiers, right? There are no adjectives, very few. That’s fascinating to me because it’s not a description for the thing. It is the thing. What is it to have perception that is unfettered from description?

Bernstein: There’s an aspect to what Pauline is asking though that’s slightly different, which is what do people think when you write stuff that is difficult to understand? People like me with a limited horizon, vocabulary, you know, who say, “What is she talking about? I don’t understand. [Laughter.] I understand the words, but I don’t understand what the words are doing. Do I have to read other poems? I mean, I open this book for the first time and it makes no sense to me.” Are you trying to write for the broad masses of the people?

Kim: I think the question here is: can the masses actually have a lot more to say about what’s scrutable and readable and intelligible than what someone else external to the broad masses has determined. In other words, who has the privilege to say “this is transparent,” “this is being rendered transparently,” “I understand this”? What’s at stake, it seems to me, in poetry or any sort of writing practice, is to keep asking under what terms and conditions do we understand legibility? Who has the authority to invest and divest in formulating what’s scrutable, what’s readable? These are questions about exclusion, inclusion, and social affiliation. What are the orders of exclusion and inclusion that get rehearsed when we consider: do I understand this? what does it mean? Is it possible to keep extending the meaning of meaning, the terms by which we understand anything at all, and especially language, because that’s what we use all the time, every day, every second? How is it possible to keep extending the terms of meaning-making and of sense-making?

Julie Charbonnier: You mentioned yesterday how each reading is different and how you would have other people come up and read your work. If you could just elaborate on that. And how would someone who doesn’t speak another language experience repercussions while reading?

Kim: Let me start with the second part of your question first, because I think it dovetails usefully with what I’ve just been saying about the demands on sense and sense-making that are politically and socially and culturally driven. When you ask about a person who doesn’t speak another language, and what kind of condition would be produced for that reader, my question in return is always whether one can produce an approximation of the condition of language again unhooked from the givens of communication and communicability and transparency. Would it be possible to suggest/evoke/amplify/proliferate different ways of being inside and listening to and activating the space that we call language, which doesn’t belong to any one language group, doesn’t belong to any one particular set of ideas about the benchmarks of language such as rhythm, syntax, intonation, inflection? Even if there were no identifiable second language, an experience of language is produced, and I think everyone has access to that.

Charbonnier: So, you think that when phrases can’t be translated, these other limits of syntax, that there are actually more resources, is what you’re saying?

Kim: I think the whole notion of untranslatability, unsayability, the unsayable remains a profound interest linguistically, culturally, and politically. That kind of immanence and the emergence implied in that state of the unsaid mobilizes a certain social force.

Nicholas Mayer: I was wondering about the influence of Romanticism on your poetry. More specifically, even though your style and your language is quite different from theirs, I was thinking of the English Romantics. I was sort of experiencing the same visual imagery of nature, the relationship of man to nature, and the effects of war on nature. I was wondering how much of Romanticism has influenced your work, and in what ways, and if you could sort of pick out one Romantic that you think has been most influential and why.

Kim: I might need to bring Charles into this a little bit. My intuitive sense of how to answer your question isn’t to talk to the question directly, but I want to mention — I don’t know if you were there last night, some of you were — but do you remember during part of the conversation where people were asking about the figure of these animals, and using animal names, and the specificity of the names of birds especially, or reptiles? There was an interesting question in the room about the animal, as not necessarily not-human, but as if, in fact, they were human. Let me begin there, and I want to bring in others of you. Charles: perhaps you could reframe that question? I can certainly go back and try to answer some particulars.

Bernstein: Well, a more traditional way of asking it would actually not be in the direction of what you’re saying. Although, of course, birds, birdsong, and bird sound is one of the oldest ways of conveying a sense of what poetry is, or the nightingale as the poet. But I think there’s another kind of question that is implicit in what Nick’s saying, which is what is your connection, if any, to the British, not US, but to the British poetry tradition of the nineteenth or eighteenth century? And I don’t know what the answer is. I’ve never asked you that.

Kim: I don’t know that it’s something I think specifically about, although that particular moment and its treatment of the lyric is something that I’m very interested in. This may be an oblique way to answer the question, but I’ve been looking at Shelley’s manuscripts lately, which I find incredibly intriguing both visually and as artifact. The tradition you’re asking about is not something I think about in a formulated way, although I can see why you are drawn to ask that question.

But before we move on, I will say, in terms of birdsong, as I mentioned briefly at the reading last night, that there are some parts of my texts I literally can not read out loud, and here it is: these are marks on a page, these are transcriptions of a birdsong. But it’s not something I can necessarily vocalize.

Bernstein: You should hear the program I did with Bob Grenier. He actually does the birdsongs. I join in for a second.

Kim: There you are. Just an idea of the figure of birdsong transcription, things that can and can not be said.

Bernstein: One way of also extending what Nick is asking has to do with the lyric nature of the poem. It’s almost as if you’re reading, let’s say, British Romantic poetry of the late 1700s. It’s almost as if this work has been, at a very small unit, blown apart and then reconfigured. You can still hear the lyric music filtering through, but more in fractal patterns than in the way they would be read in a poem by Keats or Shelley. But let me turn the mic over to Heather.

Heather Gorn: In listening to you last night and then a reading you did at Buffalo, I guess before Commons was printed officially, I was noticing a lot of differences in what you were reading and what I was reading along with in the text version. I was wondering if you would speak a little about versions of text, and when you do or don’t think something is finished. Also, you mentioned last night about conceiving of your works as one long continuum, and sort of how that might play into how you think about a finished product.

Kim: When I finish the text, in fact, that is the finished text. However, I feel that when I’m giving readings from the finished text, it’s as if the text literally re-presents itself to you. Even if you are the maker of that particular text, there’s a way in which you’re greeting it and reading it. So, the occasion of the reading creates a space in which that re-listening and re-making initiates itself, and sometimes that happens, say, before the event, that I’ll sit down and wonder, in a sense, out loud to myself, what will I be reading. In that process, something gets kicked up, something is re-initiated. Sometimes it happens in the reading itself, at the instance of the performance. I don’t think of them necessarily as revisions. I do think of them as reformulations, re-takes, re-assembling, which is a lot how I work in the first place, a kind of process of accretion and assemblage and reconfiguration. So, in a way, every time you come back to the text, the process can re-kindle itself. That’s been of some interest to me simply because it opens up the question of what is real time, what is compositional time, and what is the time of making a text. I think they are all different filtrations of what it means to produce a written text, which is not to refuse or in any way empty out the meaning of the book or the text that might come to some kind of rest. These elements are being held in a conversation with each other so that no one part, processually speaking, forecloses on any other part.

Gorn: And your reformulations, do they change according to the atmosphere or your state of mind? Because you say sometimes you craft them before, sometimes right then —

Kim: Right.

Gorn: Given a kind of dynamic in the air, or, I guess, a little bit of both?

Kim: I think a lot of it is like elaboration and re-elaboration, and sometimes it’s quite physical. There are certain things on certain days you can render, there are certain days that certain parts of text seem difficult to produce on a physiological level.

Gorn: I asked just earlier about Latin in general, and was noticing that various titles of your sections or works will be Latin-oriented, and then also in the Buffalo reading, I think you mentioned one of the working titles for Commons was Works and Days, which was obviously a less-than-slight nod to Hesiod. So, I’m just wondering if Latin is anything more than a kind of linguistic ghost, as you said, or a kind of treasure trove? Is it strictly that? Or what is your relationship with it?

Kim: It’s really amazing your timing in asking this question because the other day I thought maybe I should just learn Latin. Latin seems to be a particular kind of magnet for English. I am interested in that phenomenon. It’s the ungraspable in English that sometimes seems to be embodied in Latin. I need to keep thinking about why that is, and why my ear hears that and not, say, French roots, you know? My “listening” for/toward Latin is overlaid with having an acquaintance with something you don’t quite recognize. It’s a strangeness that becomes an acquaintance, which in turn is familiar and unfamiliar.

Gorn: It seemed a little elegiac also in your general use of it. Even with things, or later things, like Vesalius. Anyway, thanks.

Kim: Thank you.

Damien Bright: So we’ve been talking about accretion, assemblage, and reconfiguration, and all of this speaks to a certain -ism: postmodernism, poststructuralism, if you will. I mean you use various sources. We were talking about the archive and these kinds of to-ing and fro-ing between various levels of temporality. And you just said a strangeness that becomes an acquaintance, and so this almost spectral nature of language, and all of this has me thinking in a Derridean fashion, and you quote Helene Cixous’s Stigmata in the postscript, or that’s how I conceive of it, to Commons: poets as “agents for the most arduous, most dangerous cause there is: to love the other, even before being loved.” And so, I guess I was wondering about the purpose behind your writing in terms of this friendship: is it a gesture of friendship? A critical gesture, a historically critical gesture with a view to a friendship that would annul certain ills of the past, I guess? Yes.

Kim: Yes. I’ll see if I can unpack some of that. There’s a lot there, wonderfully a lot there. I think, at least I would like to hope, that writing does not identify its object. In other words, yes, I think there’s an imbrication of historical critique. At least asking how is it possible, especially in formally radical practices, to imagine form already itself as critique. And so, yes, that calls up again by implication and imbrication and complicity, historical radical practices, as a means of addressing … I don’t think you said social ills, but something with the word ill … I mean, what is that circuitry between form as critique as a kind of interrogative space, which is an action, not a decision. I don’t think aesthetics and ethical engagements rise from a decision. One is making an intervention. One is addressing an ill. One is recuperating. These are all possible modes and drives, but the practice is infinitely open. It’s not a determinable space. You don’t arrive at it. It’s the ongoing, unnameable returning to an earlier moment — the unsayable, the unspeakable, the ear turned toward the emergent, which is not about a decision to recuperate the erased, for example, however you might want to formulate that sort of impulse. Alternative ways of knowing might be a useful phrase here. How is it possible to take the resources of poetry, especially a formally radical, unpositioned, and unacculturated mode of inquiry that we attempt to name almost always awkwardly. Whatever identification we come up with — whether it’s assemblage, accretion — my instinct would be to ask: And then what? What else? How else? The work of writing and reading and thinking is the tending of the otherwise, revitalizing the interconnection between form and form-as-critique or potential for critique. Does this help? At least respond to parts of your question?

Bright: Yes, it does. And perhaps then on a more prosaic level this drive that you mentioned to relate, this almost constant conversation between form and form-as-critique, is that, and perhaps I’m being too forward here, a drive specific to you as a poet? Or do you think that is a drive that reaches beyond you as a poet, that is socially engaged, as in, how should I put my question more clearly —

Kim: No, I think you said it.

Bright: Is your vocation mandated by that drive or does it go further?

Kim: Initially, I would want to question a word like mandated, because, yes, there is a mandate. Yes, there absolutely is, I think, something at stake. No question about it. However, I think what I’m trying to perhaps pose here is this: can that space be left undetermined? Would it be possible to disengage the impulse to have art perform an equal translation or transparent rendering into the social?

Sarah Yeung: Earlier, you spoke about how some of your work was technically unreadable, like the birdsong: you can’t read that out loud. What are your thoughts on how your work translates from being read on paper to being read out loud? What do you feel is lost and what do you feel is gained? You use spaces in different ways, the hybrid characters of Korean and Roman characters, and different entities that can be read, but, I suppose, have a very different effect out loud than on paper.

Kim: It’s the question of what can be seen, heard, read, spoken, received, transmitted in relation to (in proximity to) the idea of tracking language in which mutable, roaming, fugitive connections and disconnections and ruptures also generate meaning. Dis-ease is useful to me, or the dis-abling of habituated practices of language. The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproduceable, (re)printable, carries its own charge.

Yeung: My other question is about themes in your work. In Commons, you have a lot of references to specific wartime incidents. There are many different places and times, and I was wondering why different incidents aren’t more clearly demarcated in the work, and also if there are any in particular that are of significance to you.

Kim: I think, especially in the earlier books like Under Flag, there’s very clearly a kind of matrix that holds things together, the Korean War, for example, or the militarism in Korea subsequent to the Korean War. There’s a much more clearly demarcated — and I’m using that word on purpose — clearly demarcated notion of nation: Korea, as a place, as a geographical reality, a material reality. And if you walk through the other books, it’s almost as if that particular condition begins to call forward and speak with all the other conditions of war. It’s a terrific question. I mean, what does it mean to both identify and unidentify or not locate? I’m trying to get at that conjunction between every specificity as its own, inviolable, intractably itself, and also the kind of global social-economic-political forces that produce conditions of war that are huge, not necessarily taggable to an instance. Or convert that or invert that, and say how can you understand that by — it’s not an absence, right, it’s not taking away the location. I’m trying to understand both. When you do the locating one by one, what’s produced? What are the politics of that? What’s the potential work that that can do, differently from understanding the condition of war transhistorically, transculturally?

Myung Mi Kim in New York City in 2006. Photo by Charles Bernstein.

Yeung: All the wartime references did seem to be located in Asia, though, right?

Kim: For the most part, yes. But Commons enfolds the presence of various wars, from many parts of the globe. This might be taking your question in too different of a direction, but the question here may also be: what does it mean to document anything? How does document, to document, take place?

Bernstein: Let me extend the question that Sarah is asking. I’ll ask a question I know the answer to in part because I read other interviews with you, but talk a little about your relationship to Korea in terms of your parents, grandparents, diaspora. Have you gone back to Korea? What’s your own personal history in respect to Korea and to Korean?

Kim: In many ways, I think I’m a fairly typical, if not overtly conventional, immigrant subject.

Bernstein: Funny, you don’t look typical. [Laughter.]

Kim: Yeah, that’s what they all say. [Laughter.] I think maybe one of the things that’s behind Sarah’s question —

Bernstein: I love that I asked you an absolutely factual question and you’re hesitating more than you would with an abstract Derrida question.

Kim [talking at the same time]: The facts are so uninteresting, Charles. Post-immigrant subject. A certain mode of the post-sixties immigration of the professional class from Korea. My father was an MD. What are the facts here? I hardly know. I do know that I have a strange — talking about ghostly and spectral — I mean, that’s mostly what my relationship to Korea looks like. It is, in some sense, the most real and most constructed place I can possibly imagine. So the facts pale in relationship to that dynamic or that phenomenon. The facts are very straightforward: immigration to the US with my nuclear family —

Bernstein: What year was that and how old were you?

Kim: 1967 and I was nine. In terms of certain kinds of language propositions, I was once told by someone who works as a speech therapist that age twelve is apparently the cutoff for whether you have an enduring accent or not. So, if you look at my siblings — I’m the youngest — this bears out. The oldest sibling, maybe, has more trace of an accent. Anyway, why am I telling you this? Because you asked me for a fact. So, these are facts.

Bernstein: That’s very interesting to me. The accent, of course.

Kim: But that sense of proximity and removal … family stories … already a generation or two removed … The [family stories] are particular to me; they are particular to my mother’s experience. Yet, they are already arriving in a condition of history. They are already subjects of a history, of a [new] place and a [new] time. [So the result it that you get] the kind of collision and elision and wonderful richness, and yet absence of [the] real places, real times, which have been, in some sense [for the later generation], made by words. So, it’s both delicious to report the words that one is told, but you also realize it has a real relationship to bear, bearing with what is no longer.

Johnathan Liebembuk: I think a lot of the questions that have been posed deal with binary relationships of different things: translatability, untranslatability, one language versus another, or in relation to another, space and time even. I guess my question — I want to work from the ground up maybe — deals with one language in another, Korean, English, and even further down to the ground, the characters in each of these languages and how you use them in Commons in particular. I wanted to know what you perceive, anticipate, or hope the effect of Korean characters and Roman ones will be on readers with little or no knowledge of the Korean language, specifically the written aspect of Korean for someone not even being exposed to the poem, to the sounds the Korean characters are making. Do you expect the readers to be playful with these characters? Uneasy, and have some aversion to them? Maybe attempt to draw common features between the character and phoneme systems? And overall, what are the effects of these unfamiliar written characters on readers with no exposure to their phonetic mappings?

Kim: I love it when questions answer themselves. Your question, by including this very intriguing trio of words — aversion, play, and commonality — begins to answer the question the way that I would respond to it. In another conversation I was having today someone said, “When I encounter a text I can’t read, I just basically run away.” I believe this sense of the turning away (or aversion) is part of reading. But the turning away signals a sense of convolution or evolution or revolution. Something is happening. Something is taking place. Something is under transformation. This is where the notions of play and potential commonality come in. I can’t think of any other conjunction as generative as aversion and play.

Liebembuk: I think that makes sense and leads into me trying to tie that together. Julie also mentioned the untranslatable, and you mentioned these aversions that people may have to the untranslatable as resources for meaning.

Kim: Yes.

Liebembuk: My question centers around the very last sentence you wrote in your afterword, which I think you mentioned was a pain for you to actually write, but is very useful in a lot of ways to mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space. That alone sums up what I got from Commons very well, but my question is, specifically, do the poetic images found between languages in whatever space, be it sounded or visual, serve as a pilot light for any human prosody to arise? And I emphasize any there. In other words, in reading Commons, studying languages, and hearing stories from varied cultural backgrounds, I personally feel that a prosody emerges in the interplay of two or more languages. Is this what you were dealing with in most of your work? That is, the emergence of poetic forms and praxis from between languages, and, if so, I think this ties in with what a Sioux writer, Vine Deloria, once really hit hard in one of his books, God Is Red. It seems to challenge — and it goes back to the Romanticist question that Nick brought up — it challenges time in poetry as hegemony and brings space, poetic space, language space into focus. A Romanticist lyric-space can’t not be treated in your interplay of Korean and English, where a Myung Mi Kim poem might be set next to a Shelley poem, not because of how they relate in time, but how they relate in poetic space, and how the aversions that maybe a native Korean reader might have to a Shelley poem are different but similar than what I might have to a Myung Mi Kim poem.

Kim: Let me first respond by saying, yes, absolutely, most of my work is devoted to the emergent prosodies, poetic forms, and praxis prompted by the interplay of plural languages. The conversation that we’ve been having today, I hope, is precisely in the service of tracking and rendering the complexities of lived time and historical time, potentializing new modes of relation.

Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Myung Mi Kim. The program was recorded on March 15, 2007, at Studio 111 at the University of Pennsylvania. Close Listening is a production of in collaboration with PennSound. For more information on this show, visit our website. Our engineer today is Molly Braverman. This is Charles Bernstein, who keeps listening as close as he can for the almost unpronounceable sounds between the vowels.

Ted Pearson in conversation with Luke Harley

November 25, 2010, to September 6, 2011

Ted Pearson with Larry Price at Poet's House, New York City, 2011

The following is the second (and concluding) part of a larger conversation examining Ted Pearson’s An Intermittent Music, a serial work begun in 1975 and completed in 2010. The first half appeared in Jacket2 and can be read here.

Luke Harley: Ron Silliman has resisted attempts to label your work as “minimalist,” instead arguing that it is “all about how much pressure you can exert on a few select words or lines.” Do you agree with Ron?

Ted Pearson: Yes. Resemblance is not identity, though it can lead to mistaken identity. As applied to poetry, a “minimalist” tag refers to texts that are formally spare and verbally concise — but those features are common to such a disparate range of works that to remark them is obvious and does little to account for significant aesthetic differences among those works. Yet those differences determine a work’s relation to the “restricted economy” that the label implies. In my work, that relation is essentially oppositional.

In music, minimalism’s features are historically more determinate; they mark a turn to the use of limited materials, simpler forms, consonant tonality, and repetition — in part as a reaction to the increasing complexity and perceived impenetrability of postwar serial music. That turn and that reaction run counter to my poetics. While there are minimalist composers whose works I much enjoy, especially Riley and Adams, in practice I’m committed to serial approaches to structure and temporality.

It is only with regard to visual art and design that my work shares some historical affinities with minimalism. Both are critical of expressive form, and both have been influenced by Suprematism, Constructivism, the Bauhaus, and de Stijl — but they diverge in what they have taken from and subsequently made of those influences. For but one example, by focusing on the quiddity of its “bare essentials,” minimalist art achieves a state that Zukofsky calls “a rested totality” — a Euclidian objectification of timeless, ostensibly stable forms whose equilibrium, though compelling in its own right, I see in relation to the mobility of concepts as an “arrested totality.”

On the other hand, whatever formal balance my work achieves is both transient and dependent on resisting stasis. Its economy stems from the layering and compression of its diverse materials — which, under pressure, produce an “excess” of meaning — not from their radical reduction to “fundamentals” as the economy of minimalism requires. It isn’t so much the quiddity of a text that interests me, but the flux of contingent relations within and among its constitutive elements. That inherent instability is reflected in the poems’ use of sentential gaps, phonological variations, and shifts in linguistic register, which, taken together, serve to disrupt univocal meaning.

The “select words or lines” Ron points to are members of the sets qua poems to which they belong, even as those sets are members of a finite series. When we isolate elements of a text for analysis, we must do so in light of its total syntax, which warrants but does not foreclose on their interpretability. Such elements contribute to, and — in their part/whole relation to it — can significantly alter in unexpected ways the meaning of a text. But their occurrence, with regard to their frequency and location, and their significance with regard to the text as such, are neither predictable nor predictive. Happily not, I would say. 

Harley: The compression you speak of also entails a vast amount of material being left out (what you, in Part I, called the “not-said”). How do you choose what words and phrases to actually put into your poems? Is there something comparable to Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” at work? Do you consciously set about pruning language to reveal that which is implicit, those multiple intensities of meaning beneath the surface of the text?

Pearson: However capacious the content it encodes, every text — by default or by design, and regardless of its scale or mode of production — leaves out far more than it includes. Yet the meaning-potential of its resources is robust and extends beyond its historical moment. This is so because the set of interpretations that it can be shown to support must include those that neither the writer nor her contemporary readers could have anticipated. A text’s singularity (its haeccity or “thisness”) not only derives from what it specifically includes, but also from how what it omits makes its inclusions legible. These are aesthetic determinations that reflect its disposition toward, and contribution to, what Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible.”

My experience of writing is that words “come to mind.” While my sources vary from work to work — some preselected and some serendipitous — they share a common origin in the set of all possible words. That set, the mother of all source domains, is both anterior and exterior to whatever use is made of it. Given a word, others may follow. The work under construction is their immediate context, even as they bear with them traces of contexts previously occupied. If a poem results, it exists as such — a poem and not the idea of one. It doesn’t preexist the actual conditions and labor that produce it, and for which no ontological narrative suffices to account. 

I feel accountable to the words I use, but that use is determined by the logic of the poem as I come to understand it. I write to discover what the words have to say for themselves, beyond what I otherwise may have thought to say. If I already “know” what is there to be written, I have scant motivation to write it down. When I was a child, my mother’s father gave me a proverb that I like very much: Pensa molto, parla poco, scrivi meno [Think much, speak little, write less]. 

A poem’s vocabulary coevolves with the constraints that mediate its composition — an iterative process of selection, combination, substitution, and recombination, which, in my case, involves improvisation on and tinkering with the words that “come to mind,” as well as fostering their eventual coherence in the through-composed text that results. In that scheme, omission and deletion are modes of recombination. The decision to retain or to delete a word is based on my (more or less) informed understanding of its potential contribution to the text. And that contribution isn’t always semantic. A word may have rhythmic, sonic, or eidetic properties that warrant its inclusion.

“The iceberg theory,” as I understand it, presupposes that what Hemingway called the “underlying truth” or “symbolic meaning” of a story must be sought “beneath the surface” of the text. (Here cue the theme from Titanic, if not from Jaws.) In my view, however, what “underlies” a text is the paper on which it’s printed, or these days the virtual “page” on which it appears. To the universal “verities” of deep structure, I prefer the idiosyncratic particularities of inscribed surfaces. To the surface-depth model of textual meaning (or of consciousness, for that matter) I prefer one that posits a highly redundant, multifunctional, non-hierarchical network that continuously processes and interacts with its external environment (i.e., the world). The “multiple intensities of meaning” you invoke are derivatives of that interaction.

I agree with Mondrian, who said that “Everything is constituted by relation and reciprocity … there is only position in opposition to another position. That is why I say that relation is the principal thing.” Relations, of course, are not “things,” but connections among things. In my view, a serial work is a nexus of possible relations among the elements of which it is made — and which constitute it as a structure of consequence, within and beyond the constraints and procedures that condition its existence.

Harley: Would you say that your sparse method of parsing such relations is indicative of a deeply skeptical sensibility towards the capacities of language to articulate the world? 

Pearson: I’d say that my method isn’t sparse; neither is my work. Sparseness denotes a thinly scattered array of elements within a medium — an attenuation of material that is the very opposite of the compression my method seeks. I would want to distinguish between the apparent density of a text — the ratio of its verbal mass to its volume — and the actual “weight” of the words themselves, which I attribute to their “content,” here understood as the heterogeneous ideas, perceptions, feelings, and memories that a word or phrase can elicit when placed under pressure. Subsequent attributions of meaning to that content are context-dependent variables of the critical frame within which interpretation is produced.

Certainly, there are limits to what language can say and do. But I have much more reason to be skeptical of my capacity “to articulate the world” — which is not to say I think the world as such requires such articulation. That strikes me as a uniquely human concern, if not a defining feature of “the human.” Given that the systemic limits of language exceed those of any discrete utterance, writing allows me to explore some fraction of the manifold syntax of the world, even as its articulation mediates my relations with the world as the site and destination of writing. The fate of the work in the world is a concern, but its construction (without which, nothing) is another and more immediate concern. 

Harley: The first book of contingencies (the second movement of An Intermittent Music) is called “Coulomb’s Law,” a reference to C. A. Coulomb’s 1793 law of physics that describes the interaction between electrically charged particles. The book comprises sixty-four poems, which dart between and intertwine with references to jazz (“arpeggiated wonders / body and soul”), urban decay (“neighborhoods tourists never see”), word-pointedness (“Maladroit reflex stunts grip / in the gap between names and things”), and the relationship between language and desire (“Split shift (sly sex) opens / the lexicon to plea or please”). What informed your choice of title? Why foreground a formula for measuring levels of attraction and repulsion?

Pearson: If the first movement involves exposition (for example, of the “theme” of subjectivation), the second involves development of that theme. And that development came to require more varied and more explicit references to the social contexts and interactions that alter and complicate our relations to ourselves and with others. In effect, the social and political context that had tacitly environed the first movement becomes increasingly available as manifest content in the second — as in fact also happens in the process of subjectivation. On analogy, Coulomb’s Law seemed apt. It states that the force between two charged particles is directly proportional to the product of their charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This focus on the dialectic of attraction and repulsion — and the effects of proximity on those forces — is very much to the point (processually, not formulaically). And I must say that I do experience words as “charged particles,” whose meaning-potential includes and exceeds their lexical definitions, their etymologies, and the social as well as literary history and contexts of their usage.

Harley: One of the first things one notices when reading “Coulomb’s Law” is a significant formal shift that continues throughout the second movement. Rather than the short lines and irregular strophic forms that precede them, these poems are mostly quatrains — with occasional tercets and couplets — and they sometimes use end rhymes as well. What was the thinking behind this use of a more regular pattern? And why the intermittent employment of rhyme?

Pearson: Each of the first three movements has a distinctive formal setting, each of which is then refigured in the final movement or coda. The first movement parses a psychosocial topology, mapping its distinctive features onto strophes that may appear “irregular” but are in fact based on recurring numerical patterns (or rhythmic cells, if you will). The second movement recombines those features, folding them into one another. That required an expanded vocabulary, additional registers, increased verbal density, and more frequent use of parataxis to better articulate, and at greater length, the contingencies shaping the work as it progressed.

I wanted the quatrain as the “default” for this movement because I felt it would foster the infolding I was after, while providing a recursive platform for extended sets of variations. As well, in making a case for lyric techne in the context of Language writing, the counterintuitive use of the quatrain — one of the oldest and most ubiquitous of verse forms — and of various types of rhyme — was as challenging as it was strategic. As Cage once said of Mac Low’s work, it is poetry “even though it looks like poetry.”

Harley: The reference to diabolus in musica in the last line of “Coulomb’s Law” (#64) seems to hint at the social constructedness of sound, the social tendency to invest certain tonal arrangements with semiotic (if not semantic) properties.

Pearson: At the end of a very long series, I wanted to give the devil his due. The devil, in this case, is the tritone, which, as you know, plays a major role in the history of Western music, primarily because of its perceived impropriety in relation to culturally sanctioned notions of harmony and the so-called natural order — and, by implication, of the social order as well. Against these assumptions, I hear dissonance as a furthering of harmonic relations, a sounding of unexpected possibility in search of fresher ears. Dissonance as dissensus.

Sound is sound — a physical phenomenon — which, if it falls within a certain range of frequencies, is available to human perception. Tonal discrimination is based on the perception of relative difference, as are all acts of critical discernment. But the more than aesthetic problem that arises is not the perception of difference per se (the capacity for which is hardwired in us), but rather what we subsequently make of the differences we perceive — often with disastrous consequences. It is the essentially arbitrary, socially constructed, and ideologically inflected meaning we give to difference that conditions our often under examined responses to it. Texts that foreground the poetic function of language can be occasions to reflect on and critique so-called normative usages and values. That, wherever else, is a place where poetics and politics intersect.

Harley: Your lineation throughout encryptions — although far more regular than the stepped movements we associate with later Williams, Eigner, or Mackey — brings into play, as do their works, the semantic importance of space. Can this visual space be read as silence? Or are such spaces meant to suggest an absence, a void, nothingness? When read aloud, they are silences — but on the page? 

Pearson: Before we proceed to read space as silence — which already involves an interpretive shift from the visual to the acoustic — we might first see what comes of reading space as space. “Music,” according to Debussy, “is the silence between notes.” This definition — which unwittingly anticipates and warrants Cage’s 4’33” — suggests that silence is the acoustic equivalent of “negative space.” If we then combine Debussy’s definition with Varèse’s — “Music is organized sound” — we might think of silence as the organizing principle by which “what is not” makes “what is” perceptible.

So, too, when we consider the page (to return to the visual realm), the question becomes whether negative space can first be read as constitutive of what appears on the page. Negative space is critical to the material production of a text — from the design and execution of the letter-forms and fonts we use, to the myriad typographical decisions that result in the final text image. At every point on the design spectrum, negative space contributes to the legibility, readability, color, and tone of a text. Thus, it contributes to meaning.

Equally important when we read a poem is that we learn to “hear with eyes.” Whatever else, a public reading is an extension or amplification of the private practice of silent (more precisely, subvocal) reading. Subvocalization importantly reduces the cognitive load imposed on us by written language and enhances our cognitive processing of it. A text’s phonological organization (including its silences) can variously reinforce, augment, and complicate its semantic dimension. Attending to its acoustic properties can only heighten our awareness of poetry as embodied thought. 

Harley: I want to discuss, in far more detail, the role of silence in your poetry. John Thorpe compared your poetry to Webern, and certainly in Webern’s music the notes that are not written down — the gaps in the sound, the spaces, the silences — are arguably as important as those that are. John Cage has spoken many times about the impossibility of absolute silence. Do you metaphorize silence in your poetry? Or do you see it in purely acoustic terms, as one end of the spectrum of sound?

Pearson: Cage’s assertion was based on his experience in an anechoic chamber. Even with all external signals canceled, he heard the hum and rumble of his nervous and cardio systems. That’s possible because the chamber has an atmosphere, and sound waves are only perceptible in an atmosphere with a sufficient density of atoms per cubic foot. Silence is relative not only to the conditions under which we experience it, but also in relation to the sounds it shapes within the audible spectrum.

The actual word “silence” appears but rarely in my poems — on average, once every five years — and then it denotes the absence of language or of perceptible sound. In context, that absence lends itself to (and can invite) metaphorical interpretation, but the poems don’t insist on that. I prefer analogies to metaphors because analogy can interrogate logical relations beyond assertions of likeness or identity — given that poetic logic often deviates from the canons of “standard” logic, to good and necessary effect.

Harley: Apart from intralinear gaps between words, which you frequently use in contingencies, what strategies do you use to invoke silence? Does silence only acquire meaning — or at least acquire its richest meanings — when placed in highly formalized contexts?

Pearson: I don’t so much seek to invoke silence as to include it in my work. But I see it (as well as hear it) as a spatiotemporal element — one use of which is to signify duration, which affects the unfolding of the text as read. Within lines, I use two en-spaces to mark caesurae of slightly longer duration than those that a prosodically nuanced reading of a line might call for. In effect, they are gaps on the axis of combination that can increase polysemy, signal sentential shifts, alter syllabic stress, and effect lineal compression — effects produced between lines by line-breaks and by gaps between strophes and poems.

I don’t know that silence (qua space) can “only acquire meaning … in highly formalized contexts,” but it certainly can contribute to making meaning within such contexts — first, by helping to define lines and phrases, and then by creating voids in which emergent meanings can resonate and be tested and contested. The “richness” of those meanings depends as much on what the reader brings to them as on the settings I provide. Though I can neither predict nor control a reader’s response — nor would I want to — my settings do suggest a way of reading. My hope is that the reader-text relation will be in some way mutually informing, and that the reader will seek to steer a course between the Scylla of authorial intention and the Charybdis of an interpretive free-for-all.

Ted Pearson with wife Sheila Lloyd at Zeitgeist, Detroit, 2006.

Harley: “Coulomb’s Law” (1984) was followed one year later by “Mnemonics.” Mnemonic devices are learning techniques (often, but not necessarily verbal) that we use to enhance memory. An obvious example from music is the acronym “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” in which the first letters name, in ascending order, the notes that correspond to the lines of the treble staff. Your title suggests that each of the poems in “Mnemonics” serves a similar function; they encode information that may otherwise be difficult to recall. What prompted your interest in mnemonics at this point? What were you seeking to encode in these poems?

Pearson: For about as long as I’ve been writing poems, I’ve been fascinated by the oblique ways in which writing from experience and writing as experience interact, especially with regard to episodic memories — those encrypted shards of lived experience that can haunt the present of writing even as it looks to its horizon. In such instances, “information that may otherwise be difficult to recall” isn’t necessarily difficult to access — and may indeed be impossible to ignore. Rather, such information may be difficult to endure, particularly when doing so appears essential to understanding the impasse or trauma it represents. 

A “mnemonics” is a system of memory devices, and writing can be one such system, albeit one that transforms (and re-forms) experience in the process of encoding it. This transformation results from the over-determined selection and placement of words in a text, especially one that foregrounds its “message,” which always arrives in the present. At any moment, what is present as memory exists in relation to what is not, or is no longer, present. I think here of Barthes’s observation that “to remember is also to acknowledge and to lose again what will not recur.”

Memory proceeds from an initial input to encode, rehearse, and reproduce information. Abetted by our affective enhancement of this input, these processes produce what we experience as memories (what we remember as our experience). “Coulomb’s Law,” for example, encodes what for me were significant (affectively enhanced) experiences that were concurrent with its composition. In the process, however, and as the epigraph from Celan suggests, the code itself becomes the present (evental) memory: “there remains in the midst of the losses, this one thing: language.” Yet I sensed in that “one thing” a splitting — between the language of a remainder (which memorializes that which has been lost), and language as remainder (that is, as the present content of memory, which “writes through” or “overwrites” experience in the process of making it available to thought).

“Mnemonics” continues to explore this splitting by taking as its object “the memory of memory” — a second-order mise-en-abyme that mirrors the reflexivity of a signifying chain. Its poems form a series of calls and responses within that hall of mirrors. Implicit in the minimal use of personal pronouns in the series is my sense that the memory of memory is strangely impersonal — and also temporally extensive, even as temporality in these poems is compressed and sedimented so as to bind the immemorial to the memorable. “From the plunge millennia / from the window miles of beach.”

Harley: “Mnemonics” takes as its epigraph a line by Mallarmé’: “Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore” [“Abolished trinket of sonorous inanity”]. In relation to the poems it introduces, this line seems darkly ironic, if not dismissive. What are you implying about the significance of the “events” you’re seeking to preserve? 

Pearson: The epigraph reminds us that the meaning of any sign — even a “semblance of nought in vacuo,” as I later write in “Descant” — is only ever a translation into yet another sign, such that meaning is never “fixed” in time, but ranges over a potentially interminable circuit of transpositions. I took the epigraph from Mallarmé’s formidable “sonnet en -yx.” To abolish is to render something null and void, but the word derives from the Latin abolescere (“to decay little by little”). That — given the gradual effacement of “experience” by its successive reinscriptions in memory — is the sense of nullification I was after. 

In Mallarmé’s poem, “bibelot” [trinket] refers to the antecedent phrase “nul ptyx.” But in contrast with translations that render “ptyx” [Greek, for “fold”] as a metonym for “seashell,” I follow the classicist Gretchen Kromer in linking “ptyx” and “bibelot” to Aeschylus’ phrase “en ptychais biblon” [“in the folds of the book”] — and we know the importance that the “fold” [pli] and “the Book” [le Livre] held for Mallarmé. Hence, the noun-phrase “nul ptyx” (which evokes a nullity folded on itself) exemplifies an empty signifier.

I suspect that Mallarmé may initially have been attracted to the phrase’s phonological value. Given the paucity of French words ending in -yx, it satisfies the constraint imposed by his rhyme scheme: solve for -yx. Moreover, “inanité” derives from the Latin inanitas, meaning emptiness, which allows me to trace through the sonnet a series of cancellations, of emptyings-out, gesturing toward the “the void eternally generative” to which Lu Chi refers in his Wen Fu [The Art of Writing] — and which he sees as the medium that warrants all acts of creation. Far from ironizing or dismissing the poems it introduces, the epigraph frames them as signs of past encounters with — and adamantly present instances of — that generative if existential void.

Harley: Mallarmé is renowned for his formal strictness, richly complicated syntax, and multilayered semantic content. He made it a goal of his art, as Malcolm Bowie has observed, to reclaim from music the “structural complexity” and “power of implication” that, in his view, were the birthright of poetry alone. As a poet who has spent much of your career thinking about the relations between language and music, to what extent do you share Mallarmé’s artistic aims in this regard?

Pearson: I value structural complexity because it engages and taxes the limits of thought, inviting “the unthinkable” and the highly improbable to the table (and, I would argue, that non-trivial complexity is built of “simple” if impenetrable elements). As well, I value the “power of implication” for its capacity to conjure what is and what might be otherwise from that which is not and may never have been (by which we learn, if indeed we do, to expect the unexpected). But I certainly don’t see those properties as unique to poetry, much less as a “birthright” to be reclaimed from music. Rather, I see Mallarmé’s “aims” in relation to Wagner, after whom, according to Mallarmé, “Music has met Verse to form Poetry” — and whose “ideal” of the total art work, or Gesamtkunstwerk, perhaps inspired Mallarmé’s final project: the unwriteable “Book” in which he imagined the “essence” of all literature and reality would be distilled.

Physics seems to have taken up the Mallarméan quest for a “theory of everything.” But since every theory, sooner or later, is humbled by its epistemic limits, I think poetry is better suited to the pursuit of “everything else” — as supplement, as excess, as rare event — the equally Mallarméan quest for the flower “l'absente de tous bouquets.” In cultivating that imaginary garden, I don’t see music as a rival to poetry, but as a resource for compositional strategies. For example, as in the case of “nul ptyx,” there are moments when a vocable might insist itself on a text, even if its semantic value is unclear or null. But that is not a matter of wresting anything from music. As Williams professes in Spring and All: “I do not believe writing would gain in quality or force by seeking to aspire to the condition of music.”

Harley: Pierre Boulez described his composition Pli selon pli (1957) — which takes its title from Mallarmé’s sonnet “Remémoration d’amis belges” — as an attempt to “transpose” the formal strictness of Mallarmé’s poetry into music. Boulez claimed, when reflecting on the work in 1999, that what interested him as a musician most about Mallarmé’s writings were “the transitions between complete intelligibility and comprehensibility and ever decreasing intelligibility. The interstices, the varying degrees of the intervals, which so highly charge a sentence or a word with “information” that, for example, at the end of a sentence or word one no longer knows how it began, simply because after a certain length of time continuity turns into discontinuity.”[1] Do you share Boulez’s interest in Mallarmé’s “transitions” and “interstices”?

Pearson: Yes. Those are among the features that I value most in his work, though I’d suggest that rather than “decreasing intelligibility,” they in fact reconfigure the intelligible, which I would argue is the task of art. Mallarmé’s “fold by fold” compression and reworking of textual space-time — his awareness of time’s plasticity and multidirectional flows — are critical in this regard. We can see in his use of “remémoration” that the very act of composition “calls forth” a vision or version of the present that is at once fragile and buttressed between an inaccessible past and an unknowable future.

Also implicit in Boulez’s remarks is the immense difficulty, if not impossibility, of holding in mind the originary “cell” of a tone row as it passes through its myriad transpositions, inversions, and retrogressions in the course of a performance. It is much easier to track these metamorphoses in the back-and-forth process of reading a printed score. Where “live audition” relies on short-term memory, which acoustically encodes a very limited quantity of information, reading allows for long-term memory, which is far more capacious, and is thought to be based on semantic coding.

That may be how “writing is an aid to memory” — as the title of Lyn Hejinian’s marvelous book proposes, and as the text of that book richly complicates. In fact, I would link the challenges posed to thought by discontinuity and “unintelligibility” to Lyn’s insight that “variations on ideas are now full / problems” — a phrase in which we recognize, and are challenged to pursue, an epistemic adventure.

 Grand Piano authors at reading in Detroit, 2008.

Harley: Are you ever tempted to return to composing or performing music? Or are you content working in the realm of language?

Pearson: I’ve never been seriously tempted to return to the practice of music — in part, because I’ve never regretted my turn to poetry, and, as a purely practical matter, because I couldn’t hope to regain what’s been lost to decades of musical inactivity. Music at the level that interests me most is not a forgiving art; it requires an order of commitment that I choose to give to poetry. As Chaucer writes: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” In fact, it’s only recently that I’ve picked up an instrument again, and that was prompted by working on The Grand Piano, specifically Etudes 7 and 8 which reflect on my time in music and what I took from it into poetry. I thought to use my alto sax as a kind of mnemonic device, which worked to a certain extent. As it turned out, the experience of playing again was eerily familiar — and not. More than a little unheimlich.

As for the prospect of being “content” with my chosen medium, I defer to Muddy Waters’ classic recording from 1948: “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” While I take great pleasure in working on a text, any satisfaction in the results of that labor is fleeting. Even as writing reliably exposes one’s more than technical limitations, it demands that one push beyond them. In effect, I think each next text “writes through” the texts that have preceded it. The rubric here, as Beckett says, is “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It is the hope sans expectation of failing “better” (whatever that might mean) that keeps me going.

Harley: “Catenary Odes” (1987) is the third book of contingencies. “Catenary” (from the Latin catena: chain) refers to the curved shape assumed by any freely hanging chain (or other string-like structure) suspended between two fixed points and acted upon solely by gravity. Your epigraph, from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale — “By wire, by wing, by wind, by chance” (which translates a line from the eleventh poem of his twenty-part Motetti, 1934–38) — seems to link the mathematical shape of the catenary with the artistic voice; what Montale, in Alan Marshfield’s translation, calls a “soul, diffuse” whose echoes “go, / by favour of the muse or artifice, / joyful or sad.” Are these poems informed by the notion of a curved, naturally (and mathematically) recurring voice? If not, what was the thinking behind the title and epigraph?

Pearson: Montale’s phrase, “La tua voce” [your voice], provokes us to identify its addressee. Inasmuch as the Motetti are love poems, the literal addressee might be Irma Brandeis, the Dante scholar and intimate of Montale. But on a figurative level, I associate that “voice” with poetic discourse as such — in Barthes’s suggestive phrase, “the rustle of language” — and not with “the artistic voice” or the poet’s voice, so called. On that view, the epigraph identifies modes of transmission exterior but also accessible to the writing subject. They are instances of the “outside” I look to for poetry. As well, I read “quest’anima diffusa” not as “that soul, diffuse,” but as “that instrument[al] emanation” — a less obvious but equally attestable rendering — as is my idiomatic reading of “col / favore” as “under the cover” or “in the guise” — “della musa o d’un ordegno” — “of the muse or a machine.”

Formally, my “Odes” are split quatrains. On analogy with the gravitational attraction that produces a catenary’s characteristic shape, I wanted to see how “syntagmatic attraction” would negotiate (arc across) the space between those “couplets.” The properties of a catenary that interested me here are that it is “perfectly flexible, uniformly dense, and inextensible.” I imagined those properties might inform how meaning accrues and changes from line to line.

Harley: The next book of contingencies is “Descant,” which you once described to Charles Bernstein as a work that is concerned with “compression on the one hand and fullness … duration on the other.” In that conversation, you note that it took two years to complete “Descant,” working at least two hours a day. Why so long to compose twenty-four quatrains that can be read, as you told Bernstein, in “about ten minutes”?

Pearson: The context was a taping session for the LINEbreak series, which Charles coproduced with Martin Spinelli in Buffalo. Prior to my reading “Descant,” Charles played straight man and asked, “What’s it about?” So I replied, “It’s about ten minutes.” Aside from sharing a laugh, I wanted to emphasize the relation between compression and duration in my work. Early on, I took to heart Cage’s maxim that “there are no aesthetic emergencies.” It takes as long as it does to discover what a work requires and subsequently offers — and for me a fair amount of that time involves working through and around the limitations of what I otherwise presume to “know” about it. The longue durée of that working through is as central to my practice as are the intermittently occurring intensities (qua poems) that it produces. It’s not a matter “settling” for words I can live with having written, but rather of learning to recognize the words that the poem can’t do without. In the case of “Descant,” my inveterate slowness as a writer was compounded by moving to New York from California in the summer of ’88.

Harley: Your title, as ever, was carefully chosen. As a noun, “descant” has multiple meanings, and as a musical term, it has a range of usages. For example, it can denote a counter-melody, often improvised, frequently ornamental, pitched above the basic melody that it accompanies. But I suspect that as a poet who eschews “self-expression,” you would resist interpretations of the title that imply your song or “voice” functions somehow “above” or apart from others. And as a poet who works slowly, with Webernesque attention to detail, you also would resist any notion that you improvise on words for merely decorative purposes. I wonder, then, whether the title is profoundly ironic — or, since as a verb “descant” means to discourse on a theme, if that was the sense you had in mind?

Pearson: Unintended irony and ornament aside, why might “descant” not function here as both a verb and a noun? As verb, the title signals the imperative mood, a form of exhortation. With my fortieth birthday not far off — “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” — and approaching the midpoint of An Intermittent Music, I challenged myself to compose a text that would reflect contrapuntally, and in a “higher” more improvisatory register, on the work that had preceded it. Hence, as noun, the title refers to a specific mode of discourse.

Descant, as you note, was often improvised — and early descant was actually pitched below the cantus firmus or “fixed song.” It was considered a subordinate, if presumably devotional, embellishment of the canonical text and was therefore “outside the canon.” Idle speculation on my part suggests that over time the presumed gravitas of the canon required it to occupy a more “foundational” (hence, lower) pitch-domain, leaving the upper register to the descant. And in fact the term, in that sense, derives from the phrase discantus supra librum — “a part-song above the book.”

Since I was positioning “Descant” in counterpoint to my previous work, I gave improvisation a freer rein. Against canonicity’s presumed authority to enforce hierarchies of form and practice, I don’t consider improvisation subordinate or inferior to through-composition. Rather, I see them as equally compelling approaches to composition, even as they typically present somewhat different aesthetic risks and rewards. And as a poet, I rely on both to go about my work.

On analogy with musical voicing, the “higher” register I sought refers to extending semantic meanings beyond their “normal range” of usage (in music, tessitura). I was looking for a “new” language, albeit one internally derived from my extant work. One “model” that occurred to me at the time was Charlie Parker’s account of having found a way to play what he’d been hearing in his head by revoicing “Cherokee,” a jam-session staple, using diminished fifths and sevenths — hence improvising “dissonantly” above the original or “canonical” melody. Formally, this recalls discantus supra librum, as well as the harmonic “sacrilege” of diabolus in musica.

Harley: The epigraph to “Descant” is from Arthur Rimbaud’s “Départ”: “Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs” [Departure in new affection and new noise]. How does this celebration of artistic renewal inform your words in “Descant”?

Pearson: “Descant” is literally a book of departures. I was anticipating my departure from the Bay Area and my departure to a “new life” elsewhere. I began it in the fall of ’87, as my then partner was herself preparing to go on the academic market. It was all but given that we’d be leaving California, a prospect I viewed with some ambivalence. To that point, I had lived almost all of my life within an hour’s drive of my birthplace. Most of my friends and many of my closest colleagues in poetry lived in the Bay Area, and my family had been in California for seven generations. Yet despite those roots, and the quality of life I enjoyed there, it was time for a change.

As work on “Descant” proceeded, I came to see it as the text I had been working toward since coming to poetry, so it represented a culmination as well as a new beginning. On the one hand, it was a farewell and an homage to the only “home” I’d ever known and the writing community that had sustained me there. On the other, it was, as you suggest, an assertion of “artistic renewal” — which included my coming to accept the fact that I was, after all, a poet. Strange as that might sound in light of the work I’d already produced, it had remained difficult for me to overcome the diffidence I felt toward “being a poet” — as distinct from my commitment to “writing poetry” (which, mistakenly or not, is what I thought I was doing). That acceptance and my sense of renewal are reflected in the “new noise” of the book’s syntax and diction.

Harley: The final book of contingencies, “Planetary Gear” (1991) comprises sixty-two poems, making it your second-longest book after “Coulomb’s Law,” which has sixty-four poems. It seems even more focused on the “microtonic word,” as you call it, than the books that precede it, and your method becomes even more wide-ranging and semantically restless: neologisms (such as “Xenobodacious”) begin to be play a greater role in your exploration of resonant slippage within language, “microtonic” deviations around socially and culturally delineated meanings.

Pearson: An overview of contingencies would reveal “Coulomb’s Law” and “Planetary Gear” as its antipodes. The decade spanned by those poles ran from the “Reagan Revolution” to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which (with its plot points of crises and proxy wars) had until then been coterminous with the life of my generation. More “locally,” my experience of daily life in the ’80s, in a right-wing state under late capitalism, was the context for the second movement and the source of much of its content. Allowing for my characteristic modes of encryption, that content is perhaps more explicit in “Planetary Gear” than previously — as is the larger work’s turn toward cultural poetics.

I say “turn” advisedly because the title refers to a system of gears that revolve around a central gear — and the midpoint of An Intermittent Music (which has 496 poems) occurs between the last poem in “Descant” and the first poem in “Planetary Gear.” Among the characteristics of this system of gearing are that it produces large reduction in a small volume, increased power density, multiple kinematic combinations, and pure torsional reactions, and it involves high bearing-loads and design complexity — attractive qualities indeed.

The introduction of neologisms and “microtonic deviations” that you remark upon was an extension of the “higher register” I had sought in “Descant.” Thirty of the thirty-five neologisms in An Intermittent Music (.002 percent of its lexicon) appear in or after “Planetary Gear” — and I turned to them only when I couldn’t get the microtones of meaning I needed by other means. Perhaps more revealing of my writing practice than my use of neologism is that one-fourth of all words in An Intermittent Music (.26 percent of its lexicon) are hapax legomena: words used only once in the entire work. And that percentage almost doubles if we exclude “function words.”

Further to your point about my focus on “microtonic variations” is the role of connotation in the production of meaning. Connotation not only supplements the primary meaning of a word, it actually determines its contextual significance. In logic, it refers to the set of attributes that constitute the meaning of a term and so determine the range of objects to which that term may be applied — and I think that holds for poetic logic and for poetry’s “objects” well.

Harley: songs aside, the third movement of An Intermittent Music, comprises four books — “Acoustic Masks,” “The Devil’s Aria,” “Hard Science,” and “Parker’s Mood” — composed between 1992 and 2002. You adopt a new form for these poems, each of which has four short couplets with stepped margins, and you make more expansive use of the page than previously. How does this movement function in relation to the overall structure of the work? Why was a new formal strategy required for enacting this content?

Pearson: Each movement has one fewer book than the one before it, so songs aside is a “quartet.” Its first two books (thirty-six and twenty-four poems, respectively) are nonidentical mirror-images of its last two (twenty-four and thirty-six), an enantiomorphic structure that supports the nonidentical mirroring that plays throughout this movement, which can be read as a masque of subject-effects produced under neoliberalism. The title refers to Mallarmé’s Chansons Bas — poems written as captions for Les Types de Paris, a series of drawings by Jean-François Raffaëlli. As the various shadings of “bas” suggest, the poems are “asides,” which appear “under” the portraits on whose “common” subjects they comment “from below.”

In keeping with the analogy to sonata form, songs aside recapitulates the earlier movements, albeit in a different register. The form its poems take results from combining the spare, often enjambed lineation of the first movement and the denser, more paratactic prosody of the second. I wanted to emphasize scalar relations of its lines, strophes, and poems. Each poem in songs aside can be read as a set of four couplets; as a pair of “split” quatrains, marked by the “back step” at line five, and as single octaves whose eight stepped lines suggest a descending scale. The steps and expanded text-area serve to evoke the masque’s underlying “choreography.”

Harley: Given that framework, could you gloss how your “chronic ideas,” to borrow Lyn Hejinian’s phrase, play out through this “quartet”?

Pearson: In my case, “chronic puzzlements” would be more like it. But I can suggest the settings in which the books address subject formation — from nonidentical mirroring (in which the subject, alienated from itself, enters the Symbolic Order) to interpellation (as the ideological masque of political subjectivation, such that even as the subject is not “one,” neither is it reducible to its so-called “positions”) — and through which libidinal, poetic, and political economies interact with and articulate each other.

“Acoustic Masks” responds to the resurgence of the “culture wars” in the early ’90s. In that milieu, political conflict was widely attributed to conflicting “cultural values,” which, as did others, I read as a rhetorical move to use “culture” as a mask for “ideology.” Not for the last time, public discourse was increasingly shrill — and rife with interpellation. As the neoliberal agenda advanced under Clinton, my political compass showed “unlimited drift / to the right” (as noted in “Parker’s Mood”). Given widespread antipathy to critical thinking, reasoned discussion in the public sphere can be very hard to come by, whence the epigraph from Lacan: “They have ears so as not to hear.”

The book’s title refers to a class of instruments called “singing membranophones,” more specifically, a type of African “tube-mirliton” constructed by placing a spider web over one open end of a bird bone. When a player sings or speaks through the other end, the effect is to alter or mask the player’s voice, so the instrument functions as an acoustic mask — and does so even more when played through the mouth-hole of a ritual mask. In this book (as throughout the movement), the masque is a contiguous series of masks, through which a rather disparate array of subject-effects, qua personae, “speak.”

“The Devil’s Aria” seeks to reaffirm the value of the aesthetic against its detractors, especially those who attack or dismiss avant-garde (or, more broadly, experimental) practices on cultural or political grounds. The poems’ dissensus is directed equally at the aestheticization of the political and the politicization of the aesthetic. In that spirit, the book’s title is intended to establish a “vernacular” tone; it is both a homophonic contraction of Dante’s title, De Vulgari Eloquentia, and a nod to discrepant lyricism — “the Devil in the music” — embodied in the purposive (if occasionally ludic) use of rhyme, cued by the epigraph from Laura Riding Jackson: “And if occasionally a rhyme appeared / This was the illness but not the death.” Extrapolating from her poem — whose “subject” is death, not poetry — I read “rhyme” as both symptomatic of a departure from “normal” usage and as a sign of “the poetic function.” While the invention of new forms can produce new content, I would argue that repurposing “older” forms or technologies, such as rhyme, is by no means “fatal” to the production of new content.

“Hard Science” follows as an outsider’s portrait of Detroit, where I lived and worked for nine years. It seeks to locate the previous aesthetico-political discussion in a specific setting and habitus. Yet even as its references are largely site-specific, the book assumes Detroit’s iconic status as a bellwether for the decline of industrial capitalism, the resultant immiseration of affected communities, and the pervasive effects of racism, including economic and environmental racism, on the everyday lives of many. And, as the poems also suggest, periodic attempts to “save” or to reimagine the city are impeded not only by external forces, but also by the difficulty in overcoming entrenched attitudes and policies — and by a historically explicable if counterproductive siege mentality, wary if not dismissive of “outside” ideas and perspectives.

Harley: That brings us to “Parker’s Mood,” the final book in songs aside. Meta DuEwa Jones calls “jazz” poems — or more precisely, “jazz-inflected” poems — those which reference jazz either thematically (by mentioning specific performers, titles, clubs, styles, and so on) or structurally (by adopting jazz-associated practices, such as improvisation), or both. “Parker’s Mood” refers to Charlie Parker’s themeless blues improvisation, and there are many examples of jazz entering your poetry in quite explicit ways. To cite but a few lines (spanning decades and out of context): “With a hint of a smile / a ghost of a chance” — “Gonadology / jitterbug waltz” — “arpeggiated wonders / body and soul” — “April in Paris / a season in hell” — “memento mori / these foolish things / a tree where late / the Yardbird sings” — and “a cool breeze / don’t explain.” Do you see yourself, in Jones’s terms, as a jazz poet, a composer of “jazz-inflected” poems?

Pearson: I did take the title from Parker’s classic 1948 recording, which, as you note, is a themeless improvisation — or perhaps one whose theme remains unstated but suffuses the entire composition. Parker effectively essays the evolution of the blues — blues culture as well as blues form, filtered through his medium and his lived experience — in three impeccable minutes. In the process, he achieves a remarkable fusion of emotional articulacy and compositional logic. In that spirit, I wanted to attempt a “time-lapse” retrospective of cultural life as I experienced it from the mid-1960s (when I was active in music as well as poetry) to the completion of songs aside in 2002.

By Jones’s definition, I seem to have written any number of “jazz-inflected” lines. But no, I don’t see myself as a jazz poet. I did spend some years playing jazz — and have spent a lifetime listening to it. And it’s true that my writing does make thematic and structural use of it at times. But I’ve made such use of other musics, and various non-musical sources besides, so I wouldn’t privilege one source, however dear to me, over others. As well, “jazz poetry” is closely linked to performance traditions rooted in orature — e.g., dramatic recitation by bards and griots, scat singing, spoken-word poetry, and free-style rap — traditions that don’t significantly inform my practice.

Grand Piano reading in New York City, 2011.

Harley: encryptions, the final movement of An Intermittent Music, includes three books — “Phase Rule,” “Dark Matter,” and “Null Set” — which are laden with “negativity.” In the first book, you allude to Schopenhaurean pessimism: “The world as will    a double negative” (#33). In the second, we find “the historical subject / stuck in traffic / on the via negativa” (#12). And in the last, you refer (self-referentially? self-parodically?) to your poems as “psalms of negation” (#4). How has negativity proven generative for you in your writing? And why, as a concept, was it particularly relevant while composing encryptions in the first decade of this century?

Pearson: In my final etude for The Grand Piano, I write: “The motto of my so-called career would be this: possibility inheres in its negation. As a poet, there’s no limit to what I cannot do. Dear Negativity, how many words you’ve spared me. Which is to say I find it impossible to write unless and until I am writing. Then (and only then) is it impossible not to.” Subtended by these twin “impossibilities” is my belief that poetry must be motivated by something more consequential than the desire to engage in what Adorno calls “a mode of conduct adapted to production as an end in itself.” In my view, that something more is a commitment to extending the practice of poetry as art into a critical method of interrogating the culture in which it arises.

In that etude, I also suggest that “the politics of writing begin with the refusal to know one’s place — except as a ground of contestation and critical intervention.” As Barrett notes in The Constructivist Moment, “If there is one criterion of the avant-garde with which its critics all agree, it is of the avant-garde’s historical origins in a negative moment of refusal of the culture from which it emerges.” While such refusal may take many forms, I think its aesthetico-political significance depends on how, and to what extent, it engages in what Dante calls “la battaglia della diversi pensieri” [“the battle of diverse thoughts”]. On analogy with Adorno’s “negative dialectics” — which proposes a mode of critical thinking that resists co-optation by the state’s apparatus of domination — poetry’s modes of critical intervention must resist recuperation by the prevailing cultural regime.

For one example of how my work finds its possibility in negation, we might look at the line you cite from “Phase Rule,” which includes a redaction of Schopenhauer’s title, The World As Will and Representation. My thinking was that whatever follows “as” in such constructions is always already a representation of what Schopenhauer, after Kant, calls “the thing in itself.” Since “will” in Schopenhauer also refers to “striving” and “desire” — and since “desire” (pace Deleuze and Guattari) can be said to signal “lack” — I read “will” qua “desire” as a sign of productive negativity.

“Representation” refers in turn to the mental image or idea one forms in response to an object external to oneself. Implicit here is the relation of nonidentity between the “thing” and the “idea” of the thing. (In passing, I’ll note my dissent from the Platonism of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics.) Also implicit, for me but not for Schopenhauer, is the perceiving subject’s alienation from and nonidentity with the objects of the “world” — a further entailment of desire and lack in which I read “representation” as another sign of negativity. Whence, the line in question became: “The world as will a double negative.”

(For more on the structure of encryptions and the social context of its negativity, see our interview in Hambone 19. For an incisive and multidisciplinary analysis of negativity, see Barrett Watten’s The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics, especially chapters 4, 6, and 8. And for an exemplary instance of the creative, genre-bending uses of negativity, see Carla Harryman’s Adorno’s Noise.)

Harley: In “Phase Rule,” you write: “Impossible music visible scars // in sintered chords from beaten brass / the anarchy of production masks // an infinitely small vocabulary” (#8). What does “impossible” mean in this context? I was thinking about your comments in our interview for Hambone 19 in which you explicitly situated yourself as a formalist, and not an expressivist, in terms of music-language relations. Can you elaborate on this concept of music’s “impossibility”?

Pearson: I think we’ve covered my take on those relations in our interview for Hambone 19 and in the first part of this one. But I will add that I use “music” in my poems as a kind of linguistic marker — an “x-factor” in their composition that I find consistently generative. Here, though, let me recall what I can of the thinking behind my use of “impossible” in “Phase Rule” #8.

I began by reflecting on Spicer’s discussion of dictation in “Vancouver Lecture #3.” There, he acknowledges that even when “the Outside is dictating the thing [qua poem],” the poet can never completely “get [her]self out of it.” He says, “It’s just impossible to make your mind a blank.” And in my experience, he’s right. Try as I might when writing to hear what language has to say “for itself,” there’s always a certain amount of “static,” of psychological noise (and the definition of “psychological noise” bears uncanny resemblance to ideology). For meditators, maybe that static goes away. But that, as they say in zazen, is “just sitting.” Ergo, it’s not “just writing,” the practice that concerns me here. Absent the “ideal” transmisssion that the poetry of dictation proposes, the “music” (a figure of “pure” content) is “impossible” because it can’t come through the static — and, I would argue, is also impossible precisely because it’s an “ideal.”

But, there’s still the poetry that does come through — not as music in its sonic “purity,” but as language in all its semantic “impurity,” which we read as text, as “visible scars,” on the formerly blank (blanc) page. OR, as my second line then suggests, perhaps the real “music” of language does come through; perhaps it just is the “static” — indeterminate in pitch and overdetermined in meaning. Thus, as at the end of “Thing Music,” Spicer echoes 1 Corinthians with “The sounding brass of my heart says / ‘Love’” — my line echoes Spicer’s with “sintered chords from beaten brass.”

My third line “hears” the resulting clamor as “the anarchy of production” — on analogy with “tonal production” — thus recalling the presence of psychological (and ideological) “noise” in the mix, and playing off the Marxist notion that, in the neoliberal reorganization of the economy, unequal development of that economy and the social consequences of that inequality are inevitable. In the poem, (tonal) anarchy is said to “mask / an infinitely small vocabulary.” Readers of Spicer will immediately recognize that the line is taken from After Lorca — the book from which his poetics of dictation takes off, and in which Spicer asserts several times that “The perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary” — another “impossible” figure.

Harley: In “Null Set,” the final book of An Intermittent Music, you assert that it is “Difficult as ever / to speak of paradise.” What does that mean in terms of poetry’s ability to engage with the myriad problems that currently beset the world?

Pearson: I trust that it means what it says: that such engagement is as “difficult” as it is necessary. But I think what’s at stake here is the notion of “paradise” as a figure for the relation between utopian thought and negativity. In that context, a funny thing happened on the way to utopia. Thomas More’s adoption of the New Latin word blends the Greek words “ou-topia” [“no place”] and “eu-topia” [“good place”], which in Greek are phonologically distinct, but in English are homophones. Idiosyncratically, I read that transliteration as installing negativity in paradise — an outcome represented in religious lore as the serpent in the garden (a representation that, in “Catenary Odes,” I dismiss as “mamboid eschatology”).

So to get at the sense of the utopian that I’m after, I look to the pre-religious meanings of “paradise.” Early adaptations of the Avestan word pairi.daêza [“walled around”] can refer to an enclosure, a cultivated garden, an estate, a royal park — even a menagerie, as in the Greek ho parádeisos. From these usages, I take such notions as a built environment; a cultural domain; an intentional, socially constructed space — without recourse to pre- and post-lapsarian narratives and without eschatological baggage. Though the “good place” (eutopia) that ideally obviates the “myriad problems that beset the world” is nowhere (outopia) to be found — and may be no more than a thought experiment — I believe the possibility of “failing better,” in social as well as aesthetic terms, “inheres in its negation.”

What I derive from utopia’s encounter with negativity (and what informs my sense of poetry’s engagement with the world as such) is what Ernst Bloch called “the principle of hope” — which for me is a hope that remains undiminished by the fact of its wild improbability. I think here of Badiou’s rendering of Pauline hope “as a simple imperative of continuation, a principle of tenacity, of obstinacy.” It is that hope which underlies “Null Set” (#11) — the final poem in An Intermittent Music:

The wind in the wires 

is also song
of which no words


as what was written
must now be


over (and over)
in the archive

of an image

that is not a song
but a cipher


to the many
we are

that more shall be

Harley: Thanks, Ted. Any final thoughts before we wrap this up?

Pearson: Simply to say that I’ve enjoyed our exchanges, and that I’m deeply grateful for your generosity and devotion to my work. I also want to thank John Tranter for his initial interest in this interview — and Julia Bloch and her colleagues at Jacket2 for following through. I realize that it’s a bit strange to have focused on a work that is not yet available in its final, substantially revised form. For now, while the manuscript seeks a publisher, I’d invite interested readers to check out Songs Aside (Past Tents Press, 2003) and Encryptions (Singing Horse Press, 2007). And with that:

Cheers, mate!



1. From a conversation that took place in May 1999 at IRCAM in Paris, translated by Richard Evidon, available here.

Writing as metadata container

An interview with Tan Lin

Tan Lin (center) and others at Edit: Performing Networked Publishing, April 21, 2010, Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia.

Published in 2010 in the Wesleyan University Press poetry series, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies defies generic categorization. Lin redefines “the book” for our cultural moment of networked communications, new technologies that threaten — or promise, depending on one’s point of view — to render obsolete many longstanding assumptions about our reading practices. In the following interview, Lin provides extensive commentary that becomes a textual extension of Seven Controlled Vocabularies. Generating multiple categorizations of this particular work, he simultaneously sets forth a series of provocative assertions that tend to dissolve “the book” into “reading and its objects”; “information linked to other information”; “a massive act of self-plagiarization”; “writing as metadata container”; “a geography of a publishing landscape”; “a timed function of simultaneous and delayed reading events in your life”; “the environment of the reading system”; “data to be edited, organized, tagged, reformulated, republished, blurbed, annotated, indexed, resold.” Filling in some of the background to his interest in controlled vocabularies and metadata, Lin reviews the composition and publishing history of Seven Controlled Vocabularies. Among other topics, he also discusses the book’s design elements, including the relationship between text and image; how his work differs from surrealism; the role of affect; and what he calls “the ambience of reading.”

The interview was conducted via email over several weeks during March and April 2010 by Chris Alexander, Kristen Gallagher, Danny Snelson, and Gordon Tapper. A final question by Asher Penn, appended to the end of the interview, addresses the Edit: Processing Writing Technologies event organized by Danny Snelson, which was held at University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House on April 21, 2010. — Gordon Tapper

Chris Alexander
: I want to pose a genealogical question of sorts. From the early nineties to the present, we’ve seen vast changes in global “conditions of production” and communication. Although the American conversation tends to separate these spheres, it’s true that in both labor and social practice (whatever that is) networked communications technologies stand out as the signal difference. So in the industrial sector, we have Toyotization and the rise of “productive communication” models that institute continuous interaction between production and consumption (cf. Coriot, Hardt and Negri) with similar models taking hold in the service sector (point-of-service software, rfid, fleet management services or, for the professoriate, the rise of the assessment regime with its emphasis on “outcomes” assessment and student consumer feedback). In terms of social practice, we have an intensification of contact through networked technologies leading to faster and more mobile feedback loops — email to text messaging etc. — which, as Kittler would say, is not a matter of more and faster communication between persons but a proliferation of global links between computers, “necessarily leading to masses of words.” Here’s my question: What constitutes “the literary work” under these conditions? I’m thinking particularly here of your presence on Blogspot (and Tumblr), where, if I’m not mistaken, material from both Heath/Plagiarism and Seven Controlled Vocabularies (7CV) exists in an alternate state, and also your use of publish-on-demand services like, thru which you generated an early edition (variant? pre-release? working copy?) of 7CV. And more recently, thru the agency of Wesleyan University Press, this:

Received using:
Message Status: Opened
To: Me!
New RSS pages from Tan Lin’s new book
Mar 1, 2010 10:56 AM 

Starting TODAY —
Daily RSS feeds of pages from Tan Lin’s new poetry book, “Seven
Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking:
[AIRPORT NOVEL MUSICAL POEM PAINTING THEORY FILM PHOTO HALLUCINATION LANDSCAPE].” New pages will be posted daily thru April 19th, and may be viewed or downloaded.

Since the overall paradigm suggests a bi- or multidirectional flow of information and materials, I could ask the question the other way, noting the inclusion of “plagiarized,” “disposable,” or “ambient” materials in 7CV. Is the concept of a “book” or a “work” still operant in 7CV? If so, how does that concept differ from the book as it would have existed circa 1989?

Tan Lin: As a general examination of different reading practices, 7CV is book as controlled vocabulary system, mathematical structure, engineering project, and bibliographic “collection” whose general subject is reading and its objects, where an “object” may denote a book, a table, a recipe, a teapot, Jacques Tati, CD, map, index, etc. It’s relaxed reading in that sense. Likewise, we read a title or caption or front cover differently than we read the “interior” of a book. We “read” a novel differently than we read a cookbook, and more specifically, a recipe in a cookbook, and I wanted to suggest that maybe we could read a novel like recipes in a cookbook or an episode of a reality TV series, or a controlled vocabulary system, or a restaurant review on Yelp. I mean cookbooks almost always have pictures of food in them, so why shouldn’t a poetry book, which traffics in imagery, have photos of books in it, like a kind of self-reproducing floralegia or plant? There are a lot of vestigial organicist metaphors in the book! In 7CV printed matter (both text and image) has been captured/reproduced in numerous ways, with CCD (flatbed) scanning, digital photography of printed book pages, retyping of printed matter, reading and re-reading, bibliographic citation, footnoting, indexing, and self-plagiarism of earlier sources. Machine reading involves parsing alpha numeric systems and metadata layers, OCR technology, word processing, data tagging, etc. 7CV is a massive act of self plagiarism of the Lulu edition. Images have been enhanced and edited in Photoshop. Some material in 7CV is blogged or user-generated content. This material needs to be organized, which explains the controlled vocabulary system, which I suppose is the book itself as a generalized function of its own organizational, i.e. data structures. Google Books resituates a system of reading. It is not optimized for lengthy reading, scanning or copying. It is anti-novelistic in that sense, and favors short-form reading. It’s a reading system that makes owning the book irrelevant. Once a book is scanned into a database and cross-referenced with other titles, what does one have? Is it even a book? Or is it just information linked to other information? Reading a book today feels a lot like the latter to me, and 7CV reflects that migration.

Thus in 7CV, the concept of the book is mildly operant, but generally and among other functionally differentiated reading platforms, so the book is an image created by a controlled vocabulary system. What is a book? Something that categorizes and controls data and organizes specific reading formats i.e. the book is a generalized reading environment, what Luhmann terms a “loosely coupled medium,” coupled to various publishing mechanisms, printed and non-printed formats, people, metadata tags, wives, genres, TV, the “spectral” cinema, scanners, Chinese people, etc. One might call this “poetry,” but one could just as easily call it “literary studies,” “fiction,” “obit,” or “family.” So in 7CV you have various and conflictual reading practices across genres, regarded as social agreements, and hardware/software platforms, and a lot of this is not reading in the sense of what most people think about as “reading a book of literature by a poet in a book published by a university press.” There are visual images, metadata tags, bits of programming languages, bar codes, poems, subtitles, editorial notes, found photographs, postcards (from the Swiss Institute), advertisements, scanned images and printed book pages, annotations, typos, computer generated handwriting, text translations by Google Translate, and indexes, acknowledgments and forewords by other writers. Given this, what is peripheral in or to reading? A bar code? Chinese characters? The Wesleyan Poetry series? 7CV focuses on elements that codify reading in specific, rigid, and/or standardized ways. These processes are tied as much to publishing, marketing, distribution, layout, inclusion on syllabi, etc. as they are to writing or composing, which I think are relatively weak forms of “authorship” or text production. Hence my fondness for anecdotes, weak narratives, Library of Congress Classification (LCC), coursepacks, MS Word, and other digital media as they impact the book’s operations (versions, editions, RSS serialization, etc.) in a communication field.

7CV is a printed book, but it was/is also a pre- and post-publication RSS feed, PDF downloads of the first, unrevised edition on the Lulu site (now “direct access”), an animated version (executed in Director and streamed from the Penn site as a Flash video) of the first chapter available on the PennSound site (Eleven Minute Painting) and as a stand-alone video. There will, I hope, be a series of revisions to the text as post-publication RSS feeds, correcting and altering what will officially appear, on April 1, 2010. So the book, like all books really, exists in multiple states of revision/publication; this interview is inseparable from its overall publication history: reception within an academic setting and within a number of online poetry publications/forums. I am planning a dual-language edition of the book, in English and Chinese, and this in turn will be translated back into English. A new cover has been designed. A book of blurbs about the book will appear as a separate publication, which is really an extension of the present publication. Some unattributed blurbs are on the Amazon web site. The book will be reeditioned at Edit, an event curated by Danny Snelson. Finally, I am assembling an online appendix that will include such things as high school yearbook items, dental X-rays, drug prescriptions, and other fleeting encounters with the book’s publishing history and the autobiographical. At any rate, the book as storage/distribution/composition/publication medium is a little hard to pin down; this is not surprising: people generally store things in a host of different places/sites, and this applies to the digital world — so why not with reading/composing/publishing, which is highly ephemeral as a practice, and where boundaries between the three are considerably blurred in a digital environment. It used to be that publishing was seen to stabilize what de Certeau notes as the highly ephemeral practices of reading, which I think of as a form of forgetting, but publishing is now, in some ways, just as transitory as the act of composition or reading, where reading is a leftover procedure.

Of course printed photos and hard copy books are defined by contexts and notes on those contexts: handwritten annotations in book pages or backs of photos, appended dates, highlighting or penciling, post-its, etc. These occur in a digital environment. The “2004” in the title is a “handwritten” notation inserted into a title, and the book’s use of photographs is consonant with changes in photo sharing sites etc., and thus the contours of memory. Some of the photos look accidental, dated, possibly corrupted. There are tons of nearly identical or generic digital photos on Flickr, a site whose photo archives are marked by nominal editing or pruning of large photo collections, minimal metadata, reduced resolution, and, in general, personal text/image archives that are not looked at very often or are not perceived to have life expectancies greater than the person who generated them. This is also true of people’s photo albums, but now access to other peoples’ albums has increased exponentially. We inhabit the era of the short archive, and this suits me as a specific kind of reader: a reader with a bad memory. 7CV is no less autobiographical in a generic, unedited, ephemeral way, where the “identity” of a person or file sharing system is not fixed but context sensitive e.g. multiple identifiers or tags exist for a “singular” object. This mirrors the increasing segmentation and interactivity within a socially networked environment, i.e. multiple email addresses, social network profiles, versions or copy states of document changes, status updates, etc. Finally, 7CV raises issues common to personal archives and libraries trying to organize, store and access large amounts of mixed material. How are photos searched, indexed, or identified in 7CV? How are specific photos brought into relation to specific text elements? Typically texts and images are parsed differently, using either text or image attributes. There seems to be very shallow parsing taking place. How are things, like memories or images of loved ones, saved and in how many formats? How are changes in copies and lineage noted in metadata layers? A number of the book’s prefaces recycle content from earlier prefaces, and the book as a whole makes use of appropriated materials, much as a human life does. Is 7CV edited? If so, by whom? Is it a scrapbook? Does it have a narrative or history or dissemination logic? Does it embody what libraries term LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe)? Of course, 7CV is notable for absences, typos, memory lapses, errors, TV formats. There are clearly voice and data holes: most notably, where is the “China — Poetry” of the first LC subject heading? To get some of this book you have to go outside it, to other web sites, films, etc. How can these things, not unlike memories, be located again?

Metadata tags can be embedded in more than one way (e.g. in web pages, within files), or externalized (card catalogs, databases, online table of contents, concordances, etc.). This raises issues about the relation between so-called content and its “essence,” or content and various descriptive systems, all of which involve reading of one sort or another, or as you say the displacement of a book beyond its physical location, but of course a metadata tag has a particular site of inscription, and I was interested in the materialities of various reading formats where the distinction between formal and forensic materiality, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has pointed out, is operant. Or to put it otherwise, metadata is always incomplete i.e. context sensitive. Which of the two or multiple locations — content versus essence — is the more “permanent,” or “unchanging/eternal,” and how are errors detected in metadata systems more generally as they reflect or reference “objects?” There are a lot of typos in 7CV! Are these missing objects or subjects? And what is the status of captions in the book, in relation to text blocks, images, and metadata tags? Is the book self-describing and how does it reference its migration across platforms? A web copy of an “object” might look the same as the object but it usually has different resolutions, is augmented with additional information etc. One might say the same of 7CV.

For no real or pre-mediated reason, the book had various “published,” self-published and distributed states/files. It was written in MSWord in 2003, accepted for publication (2004) with a small press but did not appear until 12/2005 as a Lulu self-published paperback ($12.95) and PDF download. It was revised 2008–2009 for Wesleyan University Press, with new cover, publishing data, and addition/excision of numerous photos, tags, and captions, and revisions to Systems Theory. Much of the Lulu data is unchanged and many self-publishing (author-as-seller) elements surface in the Wesleyan University Press editions/RSS feeds. The physical front and back covers were altered — i.e. it has become a legal format, which includes a machine-readable bar code, Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), ISBN, dated (archived) Wesleyan University Press logo, Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), “handwritten” (using MS Word’s drawing function) title that differs from the “title” of the Lulu edition (which strictly speaking didn’t have a front cover title), subtitles that are a meta tag of the book’s contents (in lieu of a table of contents), and a record of licensing/copyright arrangements. So the framing of the book is very different. Mainly, it has metadata layers for bibliographic control. The LCSH is an old-fashioned thesaurus, and 7CV references dictionaries and other classification/reading systems. Subject headings are conflict-prone near ethnicity/identity issues, and I tried to highlight that with “China-Poetry” as a disappearing first term. The cinema section was revised with Portable Network Graphics instructions. PNG is a format for bitmapped images. Like a GIF, it utilizes lossless data compression but is license free (Unisys). But the main change involves the title. The Lulu book didn’t have a functioning title and functioning bar code, only a symbolic one. It floated into a reading space more readily. But what would it mean, really, for a book to have a non-functioning bar code in a self-published book? The entire Wesleyan University Press front cover (physical back cover) and back cover area is a controlled vocabulary system; it alludes to a host of other title/author systems, including Laura Riding Jackson’s Rational Meaning, and Irma S. Rombauer, et al. i.e. The Joy of Cooking. Authors are joined to printed matter by publishing. Why give it three titles or the semblance of three titles? Perhaps to maximize hits and links on Google. The book is a geography of a publishing landscape: what is that landscape? Something like the statistical vocabulary field that Claude Shannon called Printed English.

Kristen Gallagher: I know from hearing you talk, and also from your last few books, that you’re interested in ephemeral language and use it to generate writing. For example, more recently we’ve had the experience (which is a clear concern of yours in Heath) of all the kinds of writing happening on the web, which I suspect many people don’t yet think of as writing, like product reviews or little spur of the moment notes to friends that then some other person copies onto their blog or cuts and pastes into a poetry project, bits of text that are probably the most common form of writing happening now. 7CV seems to be constructed entirely out of that, though I think a good bit of it is not from the web, but instead I imagine it being from brochures, reviews, little product labels and tags. I sense that some of the images in the book are among your sources, whether a painting you’ve used for description, a used postcard, or a little slip of paper like a receipt that is mostly flooded with product codes one wouldn’t even know how to decipher. I especially like how the numbers from these kinds of codes seem to get recycled into your text. There’s something pleasurable about knowing that these things I’m reading might be from this kind of ephemera. A poorly paid cashier mechanically hands over this odd slip of paper full of numbers and says “have a nice day.” You’ve put it in the book and in reading it my brain is having a response like “things as they are are really part of the world and I forgot.” How nice to just feel them roll over the brain! It’s like a brain massage!

As I read 7CV I keep thinking, in terms of your writing process, of that old surrealist strategy/game “Directions for Use” where a source text — the directions for anything from how to open champagne, to how to take your Prozac, to how to put out a fire with baking soda — gets remixed with words and phrases from whatever big metaphysical concept the writer chooses — like death, the universe, love, whatever. The results can be both/either nonsensical and revelatory. Your process seems similar in 7CV, though your process and source texts yield greater complexity than the results typically found in “directions for use” because, first of all, you’re mixing more types of source text — lots of ephemeral language and coding get mixed with discussions of painting, writing, architecture, falling in love, memory (which are all also codes and this book consistently makes that a pleasurable revelation) — and second of all, because those kinds of source texts when mixed as you mix them begin to suggest theories of art, writing, and space emerging through a consideration of ephemera. I know from the title that you are thinking through “controlled vocabularies” — the language of indexing and categorizing in the first place. Readers know you’re thinking through these categories of writing, painting, architecture, etc., yet as in surrealist texts, I suspect that we should not read too closely, too intensely. It’s not Adorno! You could just as well ignore what it “means.” It is both serious and light, not only sensitive, beautiful, but nonsensical at the same time. I’d like you to talk about this effect but I’d also like to hear about the process of your writing 7CV. For example, did you plan this project or did it emerge out of play? Were the poems written over a long period as you found good ephemera, or were they written after a period of purposeful collecting? Were there specific source texts that appealed to you in terms of conceiving the project as a relaxed theorizing of aesthetic categories and everyday life/objects/writing? Did you think of surrealist writing strategy as you were writing this book? I feel like I’m seeing little signs of surrealism everywhere here. 

Lin: Breton’s Nadja has been hugely important for 7CV and even more so for the novel I’ve recently finished, Our Feelings Were Made by Hand. 7CV was written in 2002, rather quickly, like almost all of my books, and I had been reading and teaching Breton and Ernst’s overpaintings and frottages. Generally, and I don’t know why this is so, I write books in a three- or four-month period, then spend years “repairing” them. I think this perhaps has to do with a certain impatience followed by obsessiveness with one form, but it is also directly related to publication history. This was true of Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe and BlipSoak01, and Heath, and now 7CV, which is earlier than Heath, as it was written in 2002–03. Like all those books, 7CV is written under a formal system, in which I make certain personal and mostly informal notations or emendations. Here I think the work diverges from the avant-garde or neo-avant-garde in that it dispenses with more strict notions of aesthetic autonomy; I think that it is simply not reflective of the alterations that individuals make over time, here the time of revision, to the structures of everyday life. But unlike de Certeau, I do not think this originates in the unconscious as something distinct from the conscious. 

For me, Breton’s Nadja is a theory about, to rephrase T. S. Eliot, the use and generation of poetic materials. In it, Nadja the character, whatever in the end she may be, floats through the structure or apparatus of a novel as if she doesn’t really belong there, i.e. she is something of a cinematic image superimposed upon a novel or text. Breton makes the repeated point that he meets her unexpectedly and randomly in the course of his wanderings/writings. Who is Nadja? She may have been a real-life prostitute that Breton befriended. Or not. She is a visual effect in a novel, an objet trouvé, an analogue for objective chance, a staged function of the novel’s ability to punctuate certain “realist” landscapes — Parisian cafés, streets and storefronts — with something ineffable. Like an image in a mirror — and more importantly for Breton and Dali — in celluloid, she is real and unreal. In such a world it is hard tell which is more real, the mundane settings or the magical (cinematic) appearance/apparatus of Nadja. The reader has trouble differentiating between descriptions of Nadja and what was only her effect. In the end Nadja is the apparatus of the novel and of its writing, a novel or a character that one can no longer term a narrative, at least in the conventional novelistic sense. She evinces what Werner Spies terms “new modalities of narration” but it might be simpler to say that she is not really in herself visible except as the means by which the text is held together — men with beards, clumsy waiters, cafés, signs, illuminated windows, etc. Amidst urban emptiness and a host of aura-less items, Nadja endows the scene with the marvelous. She makes the random disjecta membra of contemporary life — evinced most clearly in the desultory photos that populate the work — seem connected and meaningful. The mundane photographs of Paris are not mere photochemical traces (lost love) of the real world but sites through which something marvelous had once passed. Nadja is thus a haunting of the “real” or objective and ordinary world by unpredictable and unconscious desires, an example of convulsive beauty. One could say that the idea or system of poetry functions like Nadja in 7CV, its own blind spot, nowhere to be found, hallucinated everywhere, and linked to haptic writing procedures! Breton poses the question: could chance be said to humanize the individual and make her life distinctly her own, as textual production? For Breton the answer I think would be yes. But I’d probably say no. And the poetry, if it is visible, is not convulsive.

Thus the emphasis on a psychic system linked to the ineffable or the unconscious is something I tried to avoid. 7CV is writing as metadata container. I was not interested in chance encounters, and anyway I read Breton’s encounters with Nadja as anything but random; they are dictated by the psychic apparatuses (Freud’s omnipotence of thought) responsible for the work itself, and also, by extension, the narrator’s bivalent identity (lover/father/friend). With regards Breton, the novel plays the analogous fiction/nonfiction line. So, I do not pretend there is a difference between poetry and everything else, or that a metadata tag/caption or eruption of an anecdote is prompted by unconscious desire — it is already written into the literary system! It is the opposite of surprising. I mean it is a dead space in the text, something that will not be processed as part of a conscious reading process or related consciously to the narrative content of the section at hand. One skips over it. The stories that I tell are a bit inert, inconsequential, minor, absorbed more or less by the everyday structures of reading and generic spaces of the city. It doesn’t really matter if they happen to me or to you, the reader — these are the same functions of text. I am no more individual or responsible or emotionally captivating than you, the reader, are. In most blog writing “you” = “me.” Most of our reading spaces today are dead or interchangeable, what Koolhaas terms junk spaces, generic spaces, what I call controlled vocabulary systems etc., linked in a larger system of meaning production. The book reflects this communication: modular, schematic and blandly visual in its presentation of textual and visual matter as a single operation, and its layout encourages scanning rather than continuous reading for plot. In other words, reading is a coherent, self-contained, mechanical process, a conceptual armature, and all visualizations of identity produced within it are illusions of identity. How does a “narrator” appear in 7CV? There are no photos of me in 7CV. There are quite a few “other” authors. Different reading systems within the book produce different authors/individuals. Who am I? A shadow of an apparatus, a necessary illusion inserted after the mechanics of reading. Why does one or a few subjects appear? In order to assure the system that something registers in the meaning that has already transpired. I think it is also important to keep in mind that issues of identity are being linked to online reading practices, where there is a notable drop off in retention and comprehension, mainly because the movement of material into working memory and then into long term memory is harder to facilitate with rapid skimming of material. And yet this is the way we read.

Thus scenes and photos (they are the same) in 7CV are from other sources, but the narrator has tried to inhabit, weakly, these scenarios, genres of writing and formats of reading: how would one go about living in or imagining oneself in an article about smart mobs from Salon, or a restaurant review of WD50 on Yelp, or an academic book on the economic implications of WalMart? I get involved in these kinds of reading materials all the time. I mean I read a huge amount of minor, anecdotal, and fluff journalism ALL the time. I love reading the Post and the Daily News. Are they lousy papers? Well, maybe, but I certainly enjoy reading them. I could spend the day reading the wedding pages, restaurant reviews and obits. The above genres can be lived in, not only as a writer but also a reader, and this is suggestive of and ushers from the vast amounts of user-generated content and the blurring of the writing/reading boundary in web-based and social networking sites. Is one writing or reading? It’s kind of hard to tell. So 7CV reflects this prevailing read/write mode in our contemporary moment. Is this surreal? Is it surreal how we read newspapers today on the web? I don’t think so. I think it is just the way most people read online, by half participating in our own vaguely spectatorial reading practices. There is no need to convert my psyche into Nadja or something that it is not. Most of our reading spaces like our lives are shallow and I see no reason to create a deep space known as the novel. I mean the minute I read a story or start a novel if it smells like fiction I immediately put it down. I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager so you can imagine how many books I’ve done this to. Most people on the planet do not write lengthy novels. They are more likely to write themselves in a restaurant review or note to a loved on, or some other short form mode of writing like a text message. These formats for writing constitute a way of living inside one’s own life, they are the reading formats we actually live our lives in. So 7CV is really about not some magical moment of textual crystallization or surrealist frisson; it is about the banality and ordinariness that inheres in our read/write lives. I wrote most of the book in that manner. I tried to entertain myself. I lied. I told the truth a little. I chose things from the newspaper that pleased me and inserted myself into my reading of them. Isn’t this really what most of us do when reading or participating in reading? It’s a low-grade pleasure. It’s easy. I tell my students this all the time, reading is easy, just like watching TV. So is writing. And now, thanks to the Internet, so is publishing.

Gallagher: I’m curious if you could more directly address some of the recognizable numeric codes in the book. There are a lot of numbers in 7CV. And heck, at your instigation, Tan, we keep referring to it as 7CV, a kind of conversion of title into a numeric code. There are also a lot of barcodes from the back of objects scanned into in 7CV as images. You’re talking about genre as code, about affects as results of engaging particular codes, but when I see barcodes I also think of tracking. Many people have a Foucauldian reading of the barcode as the ultimate surveillance technique. How do you feel about that? And in terms of your interest in kinds of reading — relaxed, half-attentive, scanning — I am also compelled to note that barcodes are “read” and “scanned” though in a much more purely machinic sense. Are you trying to get at something about machinic reading/writing?

Lin: I was interested in reading as a function of various and measured efficiencies. We think of reading in terms of what it gives us, i.e. content, but I was interested in speeds of reading regarded as information delivery. The title of the book is unwieldy and so an abbreviation, as you’ve noted, is necessary to reference the book. The bar code is one way to process, i.e. read, data efficiently, but so is a LC subject heading, or the ISBN number, which is, in turn, converted into two barcodes on the book’s back cover, one indicating book/publisher information and the second five-digit code indicating currency and pricing data. The UPC code, used for groceries, was first used at Kroger in Cincinnati, Ohio. Kroger was where our family did most of our grocery shopping when I was growing up, so I have a fondness for barcode history, southeastern Ohio, and buying charcoal briquettes and city chicken at Kroger! Buying groceries felt very American when my family came to the US from China in the late 1950s. I don’t think my parents went to huge grocery stores until they moved to Athens, Ohio in 1959, where my father was offered a job teaching ceramics. At any rate, barcode symbols probably outnumber all other symbols in the book, and they have a weak autobiographical function with the book’s historical time frame. Barcodes are standardized. Wesleyan University Press, for example, gives up a dollar for each book sold, if the bar code in question is improperly placed or sized, and thereby creates an error reading at the cash register. So barcodes are a fitting symbol for 7CV; I like it when reading has a definite structure or time frame to it. They decorate the reading and they are the reading.

Barcodes are data instantiated as image, one that can be read quickly, efficiently, with little chance of error by any number of optical scanners or readers. 7CV reflects reading in the sense of highly efficient, fast, universal, and, well, superficial readings. Thus the references to times of reading and George Muller’s theories in the painting section, a section which is filled with seasonal and temporal references and rondelays, along with a missing series of paintings. The paintings have been erased because the mass-produced book, historically, is not very good at reproducing images, and is incapable of producing moving images. When I want to see images, I go to a website. Books have been supplanted, recently, by cinema and television and the Internet, and the painting section makes a vague historical reference to something executed in Director: a multimedia authoring platform “built on a movie metaphor.” So what is presented is not a film but an animation in language, which is what all text becomes when you read it. Macromedia was acquired by Adobe in 2005, and Director is now, like painting, an anachronism, having been eclipsed by After Effects. So there are different kinds of images and image production. The last section of American Painting is about different kinds of images in a homogeneous space, and this brings us to poetry, which is a medium traditionally used for the production and reproduction of images. Poetry is intertwined with other arts, including drama and prose poetry, theories of poetry (poesis) and now digital poetry. 7CV was born digital: written in MS Word, laid out in Quark and InDesign, retouched in Photoshop, photographed with a Nikon digital and a flatbed scanner. These strands constitute a complex composite image, but it might be called an alphanumeric text, or digital object with a license. 

In plate 12, historical/temporal sequences are off amidst multiple media references: it is summer but it’s snowing; I am making a TV set (or myself into a TV set) while waiting for dinner guests. There is much inexactitude when making dinner for guests and wondering when they are going to walk through a door! Making oneself into a medium like television, well, that’s also unpredictable. In the end, it’s hard to tell when this is taking place but none of this matters in the frame or sequencing of the book, which sends out data regularly and in a relaxed and modular fashion. This is post-broadcast era, maybe it’s narrowcasting or a TIVO distribution model. What does one do with information that is just information? One takes it in. Ditto with reading. I don’t have to understand to be able to read the things I am reading. In fact, I like to read fast and make lots of mistakes while scanning material. One can do anything once one gets into or inside a book; in this sense it’s like watching television. One makes up most of what one sees. Part of the reason for photographing the backs of books is that that is where most barcodes are found, and back covers are more likely to be ignored, though Wesleyan University Press and Amazon reproduced the back cover even though text on both front and back covers is too small to be read in most online images.

Gordon Tapper: Following up on what you said about the front and back covers, I’d like you to talk more about the book design of 7CV and its connection to the multitude of framing devices that suffuse the book from start to finish. In the fourth section of the book, “2 Identical Novels,” we find one of many prescriptive declarations that function simultaneously as descriptions of the book: “literature like everything else should just be a form of packaging” (102). Of course, two of the most noticeable instances of this packaging are the very playful front and back covers. The title and author are, as usual, printed on the front cover, but the typeface is so small that most readers will have to squint, and the first thing most readers will notice is what appears to be the cataloguing information that customarily appears on the copyright page, complete with ISBN numbers, Library of Congress subject headings, and the library call number. We have in a sense been programmed to recognize the visual format of this cataloguing information, but if we take the time to actually read the subject headings, we will realize that these categories have not been generated by the Library of Congress, but have been invented by the author. Yet it would be wrong to call these categories imaginary or completely ironic, since they in fact amount to a more or less accurate summation of 7CV. We will encounter discourse on “mass media and language,” anecdotes about “wives — familial relationships,” and references to the ethnic content implied by the first subject heading, “China — poetry.” Why did you appropriate and distort this utilitarian form, drawn from the realm of what was once quaintly known as “library science,” to frame our reading of the book? How does this opening gesture live up to the idea that literature is “just” a form of packaging?

Lin: The cover was designed to be read. Paradoxically, most book covers are graphic, i.e. have visual oomph because they are the front door announcing content “inside.” But I didn’t want the title to be graphic, a sign outside the book. I wanted the sign to be inside the book pointing out to things that are not in the book, so the inside is more graphic than the physical back cover, which is the book’s conceptual front cover. The book interior points lackadaisically to itself, like the grid of Manhattan. We tried to make the covers not pretty or graphic, and inefficient at rapidly communicating the book’s idea. It is a poor cover. It is in my good friend Charles’s words, “non-absorptive.” By making the print, in Scala Sans, tiny, you force people (people are designed by reading practices) to turn the cover into something that isn’t looked at — if you want to make sense of it you have to get out a magnifying glass and read it! And ditto with the hand-drawn title in on the physical back. The LC info is not something most readers read, but here it tells you, as you note, a lot. It functions in lieu of a table of contents, or it shades into that functionality. Needless to say the front cover is important to reading the particulars of this book. The LC matter may be more expressive, compositionally speaking, or just as expressive, bibliographically speaking, as anything else. Certainly it’s meant to be amusing and anecdotal, but that goes with the territory of subject headers, as any librarian can tell you. Subject headers are very biased! I wanted to address controversy as it relates to poetry and cooking. These do not seem separate categories. The cover is robin’s egg blue, which is spring like. It reminds me of Easter egg shells. I am not a practicing Christian but Easter is the most pleasing of religious holidays. It has not been utterly commodified except perhaps by the color of plastic eggs and the foils wrapped around chocolates. Easter eggs and Chinese fortune cookies go together in the book. Blue is a decorative fondant or confection! The cover is almost lickable.

The physical front matter contains the legal, registered title, whereas the physical back has the title in a hand drawn version done without the hand. It was done in MS Word, using a line draw software function and a mouse. Everything about a book is about its mediation. There is no packaging “for” a book. The book is its packaging, its system of reproduction, visualization, dissemination, etc. There is no inside/outside, paratext/text distinction. They are all integrated, like software, or micro-ideologies, in the book “proper.” The book is co-extensive with layout, editing, bibliography, and distribution. The book is a timed function of simultaneous and delayed reading events in your life. There are only two options: it can be read or it can be unread. You read and don’t read a book over generations or years and I wanted to position reading in this extended time frame by making it a fast read, almost non-reading. A controlled vocabulary system lets you in and out quickly. What is the difference between a reader and a design element? No difference. The book is (printed) in Scala Sans. The book was written on a PC but transferred to and laid out on a Mac. Scala Sans was one of the first fonts for the Mac. It was developed in 1988 in Holland, and released in the FontFont Library in 1993 in a sans serif version, one that included elements like small caps and ligatures, which were missing from the early Mac fonts. Scala Sans is used in the Chicago Manual of Style, so it seemed appropriate that it be used in 7CV, regarded as a field guide of reading as a series of highly punctuated/differentiated but regulated practices. These practices are all “codified” as the reading of a book. What is a book “title”? A title appears on the physical front and back covers of the book, on the half title and full title page. So you have four divergent titles, i.e. they serve different purposes in or on or around the book. A title can stop you from reading a book.

Tapper: Let’s zero in on how you incorporate visual images into 7CV. In almost every section, you conjoin image and text according to what starts out as a fairly consistent recto-verso scheme, with text on left, image on right, though in some sections the visual space of the page is organized into quadrants, with the text and image floating in and out of these four regions. Beyond this element of graphic design, however, I detect an engagement with some of the most ancient debates in poetics about the relationship between text and image, about how to define “the image,” and about whether painting or poetry possesses superior mimetic capacities, a theoretical question that has grown vastly more complex since the advent of photography, cinema, and digitized information. You play with the image-text relationship on a dizzying number of levels. For instance, in the first section of the book, you signal that images will be linked to the textual markers “Plate 1,” “Plate 2,” etc., only to leave blank the page where we expect to see an image. Then in the second section, our expectations for images are satisfied, but now the Plate number markers appear on the verso page, above not an image, but a module of text that sometimes appears to refer obliquely to the image on the recto. In other cases, though, one can find hardly any reference at all to the images, which are hard to identify, though readers will probably infer a relationship because the structure of the book seems to demand it. In “A Field Guide to the American Landscape,” we encounter a rather lyrical statement that seems to guide us, as any good field guide should, as to how we should approach these enigmatic, always quirky, sometimes quite amusing images of things like the back of a package of moist towelettes: “If my eyes were like a newspaper, the photographs appear to revolve around the words like a series of imaginary facts” (48). In what sense can we conceive of the photos in 7CV as “imaginary facts,” whatever that oxymoron might mean? How does 7CV ask us to think about the relationship between image and text?

Tan Lin in 2010; left: Tan Lin sketched by Mimi Gross as part of Poetry Plastique, 2001.

Lin: Well a number of things are at work. The most basic is that inserting photos in 7CV changes how it’s read. Eliminating images (or their mildly correspondent blank spaces with a text) would make reading more straightforward and linear, and for me, unrelenting. But it would have its payoff in increased retention. It is hard for me to read a book straight through, which is probably why I like Musil, Brautigan, Acker, Barthelme, or Alexander Kluge. These books kind of do my reading for me, and I feel no desire to finish them. The photos in 7CV are an aid to a reading of a more general kind, one grounded in skimming, skipping, leafing through, muteness, overlooking, thinking back about books one has read but doesn’t have anymore. Books seem to propagate themselves. Thus, the book has certain self-replicating structures within it. Like a scrapbook, it is comprised of almost personal photos and mildly irrelevant texts, reading headers, software, and places/blanks where images are statistically indicated by textual pointers or captions. This is not meant to be difficult or evasive. When one reads, one connects with the things one reads in a personal way. Otherwise, one would stop reading. And I stop reading a lot when I read. There is a lot of muteness and blindness in the text or reading system, the generic and in the controlled vocabulary system. So in contrast to this notion that in today’s environment nearly everything has an image or text posted to it, there is quite a bit of blank or mute space in 7CV, and so the interior of the book, fully administered and commodified by various systems of reading and textual production, has blanks, hypnagogic lulls, and spa-like areas where eyeballs might rest. I wanted the text to be relaxed, yogic, anecdotal, easily consumed. The self-reflexive images — mostly from the flea market — are vaguely generic and generically comforting! They don’t corroborate the text clearly; they remain loosely or generically relevant, like scaffolding to the reading processes and feelings that underlie or circulate in and through the reading system regarded in the most general of terms, as a medium that generates meanings of the most diffuse and pleasurable sorts and makes the reader possible. So the photos are the mood or environment for reading text, but the text is mood-based as well, and it’s hard to separate (reading) a book (or architecture or other non-printed forms of reading matter) from the ambience of reading. The book is just the environment of the reading system. There is really no such thing as a book from the perspective of a reading system, and 7CV is about this ambience or mood of reading, regarded as system. And it is mostly silent i.e. it is not a phonemic system (no slips of the tongue) but a statistical one marked by typos, stray punctuation, irregular type/fonts, graphic redundancies, etc. The first section exists as voice only to the extent that it is a computer-generated voice program named Dorothy. [Editor’s note: See Lin’s “Eleven Minute Painting” video, available at PennSound.]

Within this system, I relate to most of the photos in a distracted, personal way. I didn’t take most of them. This defines what Goffman calls rules of irrelevance. The photographs are almost textual in this reading space, and vice versa. There is no sequestration. In this sense, the book is a statistical landscape or minor encounter with text in general, what linguists terms “word shapes” as a medium for meaning, a quasi-architectural space, a generic feeling, an inner blank spot in a system of affects and photographs that might be affects. The landscape images, which mirror something once called subjectivity, are found photographs bought at the flea market, which I then either re-photographed digitally or scanned in to something that might once have been referred to as consciousness. And it’s strange about that consciousness but I think of those photos as mine. I remember them. I even remember having them, which happened when I re-photographed or scanned them. So the book is about reuse, remembering and re-remembering of imagery from other sources and people. Many stories are sampled with the narrator’s subjectivity interjected i.e. I like to read stories from the newspaper and then re-narrate them as if they had happened to me. This is self-reflexive, artificial and book like. The book is a strange interface between analog and digital, from painting and cinema and photography and architecture (and their notions of authorship) to new digital mediums associated with metadata containers, information architecture, and tags, which function as non-readable captions to text and images. The title’s “handwriting” is digital. A mode of remembering/reading/organizing/cataloging material is replaced by another. The reader is an internal self-condition of a reading system where it’s hard to distinguish between an image as a sign (to textual matter), a text that functions graphically as reading module, and a metadata tag that functions as a textual title, photographic caption. Like an embedded metadata tag, which are relevant less to content than its processing, the book is about things not seen, patterns of non-reading and non-retention, statistical systems of reading and memory rather than reading and memory “itself.” Guess work prevails, but 7CV is not a zero-order approximation. I cannot remember what the captions or some content signifies. Much has passed through me. Some of this lies in the historical field: the field guide concept has dates attached. The first Baedeker guides appear in 1839 and document visitations to the Rhine. There may be pictures of the Rhine in the book. Photographs were added to guidebooks at the same time, evinced in Daguerre and Fox Talbott’s production, in France and England, respectively, regarded as photographic countries. The anecdotal evidence collected in the Identical Novel section is textual and graphic in orientation, in its textual and extra-textual locations or shapes.

Because of its high redundancy and low poetry, 7CV may not be poetry at all. There is, however, parsing of things that might be poetic, like empty spaces in the cinema section. But these spaces are just typographic, the product of tab stops! This is a double-entry system of accounting. Information is getting lost. Accidents and typos are admitted from the get go. And the system can be seen “in” chapter divisions and paratextual divisions “in” the text, regarded as a sophisticated, self-organizing system. Where are these stories found? In what local structures (photographic close up) or patterns (macro view) are they momentarily glimpsed? This might have been contained in an (identical) novel once, but now it’s a database. The (identical) novel cannot imagine itself! This can only be done from the system of poetry! All we have are a bunch of pedagogical scenes: street scenes, classrooms, professors in classrooms, landscapes, photographs, textual matter — regarded as a bildungsroman. At some points one thinks one can “see” a story, a recognition scene that Aristotle termed anagnorisis, but which is a highly temporalized phenomenon and mostly just an anonymous murmur: it is a function of a self-organizing system and not any individual consciousness or transaction, which becomes marked by signs and especially numbers, plate numbers, cross references, software codes, tags, indexes, footnotes, appendixes, etc. The space of secrecy or interiority has been externalized. What do those “interior” structures (of reading/seeing/feeling) look like from the perspective of a book, which is always the starting point of a book that is constantly defining its boundaries? Something is turned inside out. It is highly probable in this system, like the microfilm system during the Cold War, that someone will emerge as a reader. Is the reader a narrative that describes a temporal process (event) that ebbs away after “seeing” something? That’s the bet!

Tapper: Well, let’s say we take your bet, become one of those reader-narratives who rarely finish a book, and examine what happens to affect in 7CV. As we loll about in the ambient environment, wondering whether we’re reading Seven Controlled Vocabularies, Obituary 2004, or The Joy of Cooking, remaining untroubled by the distinctions, we come to rest in one of those spa-like mute spaces, but it isn’t long before our eyes stray toward text, which you say are just as mood-based as the photos. So let’s say, for instance, that we’ve read the short text about logos on page seventy, received a mild kick of pleasure from glancing downward and recognizing the back of a MetroCard, then sat becalmed for a few moments as our eyes shift right to one of those nearly mute spaces, here defined by an almost but not quite recognizable surface bearing date stamps and some kind of code. And if we turn the page, we find the story about how you met your wife Clare at Macy’s (or was it the Bulgarian Bar?), and so receive another pleasant dose of emotion. But mood, or affect, surfaces and disappears in very contradictory ways in different sections of 7CV. In the apparently “personal” anecdotes from “Two Identical Novels,” like the ones about driving your father’s old Mercedes, or the reading habits of Tom Newlin, the Russian literature professor at Oberlin, the lazy reader-narrative takes pleasure in the pathos and humor of these stories. And yet, in the academic-sounding texts in “A Dictionary of Systems of Theory,” affect seems to play no role at all, and if our reader-narrative meanders through the ambience to the fourth preface (which may very well have been the first thing we read in the book, or the fifth, or the twenty-seventh) we encounter an assertion that frames human emotion, in the context of its representation in cinema, as something deeply mechanical: “It is hard to experience an emotion that is a diagram but of course all emotions are diagrams. Lars von Trier said that” (144). The notion of ambience and yogic relaxation that you’ve invoked seems far from the kind of emotional discomfort that we are typically subjected to in a von Trier film. I’d like you to talk about whether, like von Trier, 7CV is also engaged in a kind of diagramming that treats emotion as a mechanical outcome of the reading process.

Danny Snelson: You write: “7CV may not be poetry at all” and “This can only be done from the system of poetry!” I’m curious about the location of 7CV among the arts referenced by metadata on the cover, literary and non-literary — architecture, photography, cinema, music, painting, fiction — all of which come packed with historical contexts and user expectations. You note that “the novel cannot imagine itself” as a way to locate the heterogeneous writing styles comprising 7CV within a necessarily poetic system. However, Ron Silliman, on receiving the book, places it firmly in the “Books (Other)” category. I’m not sure I agree and hope you can tell us a bit about why and how (if?) 7CV is poetry. Aside from its material location in the Wesleyan Poetry series, and the wonderful self-cataloging identifications on the cover (“China — poetry,” “Poetry — therapeutic use,” “Poetry — social aspects”), the book can surely be read within other systems. We’ve recently discussed, for example, how the book need be different from the art-design publication studies of Dexter Sinister or Dispatch Bureau and similar art-world conceptual activity (where a startling number of artists are now creating “poems”). Similarly, while we’ve discussed Koolhaas’s essay “Junkspace” in relation to ambient stylistics, the more experimental OMA book projects raise a number of questions related to the work in 7CV. Is it, following Luhmann, a systemic process of “irritation” that you are initiating with poetry cataloging (the contextual strategies Goldsmith, among others, are engaged in)? Or, as I’ve a hunch, something closer to your conception of “poetry” proper? Anyhow, I’m interested in how “Tan Lin” is plugged into various sites in art, architecture, the academy and poetry. I’m interested in how you navigate these fields. Do you imagine the disciplines listed in your tags reading the book?

Lin: Hmm, as I’m thinking of one question I’m being distracted by another, so I think this will answer both Danny’s and Gordon’s questions!

I was trying to think of what happens when I read. What are feelings in the moments before they become feelings? I would say that the whole book is an affective and highly generalized/generic reading environment i.e. the system is mildly affective (as it is being read) but it also images or represents reading as a process or system that is affective in its couplings (irritations or attunements) with consciousness. Affective logic is a logic of putting things next to each other, pictures and texts, newspapers and novels, Taco Bell and Macy’s. When we read anything — menus, literature, shop signs, architecture, airport monitors — we are in a state of waiting as it were, to form some emotional connection, or feeling, in relation to something, and that something, that structure of feeling is ourself in relation to the environment. So in this sense, the affects in 7CV are oblique, passive, influenced by things like Chinese cookbooks, childhood (memories), the foods I eat at WD 50, and, since I am a professor, things I read. In other words, they are almost always not there or they seem to belong to other people in a room. They don’t have a pronounced developmental arc (narrative) or a recognizable shape like “anger” or “love.” They are not very Freudian and have not been much cognitivized. But this is the nature of the affects, as opposed to the “drives.” There is a Luhmannesque system of feelings here, linked to Daniel N. Stern’s affective attunement. I was trying to align the reading practice with questions like why and how we read, and it made sense to link reading to what Antonio Damasio calls “background feelings” or what Heidegger terms Stimmung or mood, that prior, often pre-cognitive and even pre-perceptual “atmosphere in which intentions are formed, projects pursued, and particular affects can be attached to specific objects” (Jonathan Flatley). Reading is an ambient or quasi-architectural awareness of (our own and other people’s) feelings before they become feelings. It is loosely coupled to textual and non-textual, visual and tactile, printed and non-printed matter. It creates things (like books) to read (inside our heads) within a general environment or medium of perceptions and affects. Reading as system images or mirrors a range of emotions (dramatic, cathartic, academic, mild, drugstore-like, cinematic) that are ostensibly “outside of itself”; a few of these are gut wrenching, most are fleeting and minor, and they emerge from a mood or atmosphere I associate with poetry. Maybe we read to self-reflexively create a system for what babies, children and adults do twenty-four hours a day.

Lars von Trier uses specific genres, specifically melodrama, represented by the flowchart/storyboard diagrams in Dogville, to produce, directly and bluntly, emotions of extra-ordinary phenomenological intensity. The beauty of his work is that such emotions are made to feel so intensely real and cinematic. Affects are generated “artificially” via “low” genres like melodrama and musical and then paired with a medium (“high” cinema) that is perceived to distort them, i.e. render them larger than life. The emotions of melodrama are customarily overscaled. In 7CV, I approached the problem from the other side: highlight not the artificiality/conventions and thus the specific forms/genres (art) used to produce affects, but the standard, non-descript, generic everydayness of the production of the most minor, amodal, and least intense of our passing moods. The idea was to create a book of theory/novel/artists book somehow contained in a poetry series, in a poetry medium about everyday (prose) reading practices. Or to be more blunt, I wanted the poetry system to effectively neutralize the artist book, just as it would neutralize the overly emotive, ineffable “poetic” elements. Poetry, like the affective system, is a medium punctuated by couplings and a few metadata tags. I wanted something that would, unlike many artists books, actually be read and subject the reader to everyday, durational, absorptive reading, and that would, unlike a novel, be read in a discursive, factual, standardized way. Or to put it more simply, poetry that would read like nonfiction. The reading environment constitutes a system of perceptions wherein the feelings inside of us come to be reflected back to us.

Asher Penn: The title of the event held at Penn on the twenty-first of April was: “Handmade book, PDF, Appendix, PowerPoint, Kanban Board/Post-Its, Blurbs, Dual Language (Chinese/English) Edition, micro lecture, Selectric II interview, wine/cheese reception, Q&A (xerox) and a film. I have the feeling that this title arrived at the last minute. How did the project start? How did it change up until the date of the event?


Lin: Yes, and I’m not even sure the titling has arrived yet. What you have in the list is a flexible pre- or post-titling apparatus that never quite caught up with the event itself, or a set of bibliographic controls for books that do not exist (yet). As of this interview, nearly a month out, everything is still in social process (I like to think of it as a kind of bibliographic picnic!) on wikis, in unedited PDF formats, etc. Maybe it’s useful to think of that social process as a medium. At any rate, medium (say language) and channel (say computer) are mixed together. By June 24th [2010], at the Printed Matter launch, we’ll have quasi-finished PDF downloads, PowerPoint pieces, films, a few POD books entitled “Selected Essays” and “Blerb,” Object Inventories, Chinese language editions, Critical Readers, Indexes, Bibliographies, etc. Rachel Malik’s notion of a publishing horizon (see her essay in Selected Essays) as opposed to a book is a useful construct and here that concept is rendered as a social gathering replete with emotions (more later!). So, I was not interested in a publication that crowns or documents the event but in Braudel’s longue duree, a horizontal frame in which publishing continually takes place and which slowly and dully sanctions publication and editorial events along the way. Writing, particularly literary writing, generates interest over time. I was interested in generating less interest or nominal data over time. Writing is subsumed by editing, which is subsumed by publishing practices, and the latter is a subset of computer-mediated communications (CMC). CMC are not homogeneous but platform-specific, although they are marked in general by frequent modification of short form entries in reverse chronological order, as in a blog, SMS, or discussion thread. Given this, the above titles list is a kind of inventory in reverse chronological order, or publishing as a titling or bibliographic or marketing (i.e. text and image) event prior to the event — much like a PR agency. At any rate, distinctions between pre and post-reading, writing and editing, and text and paratext are rather fluid. Reading and publishing are processed by CMC today, and this is heightened by “value-added” e-book platforms, where visual components of textual processing are packaged with a “book.” The Penn event explores that mode of book processing (reading/writing/editing/disseminating) from a systems (publishing/social network) perspective. Another way to think of this mode of editorial control is via Foucault’s genealogy, which “maintains passing events in their proper dispersion.” What was dispersed, like a retweet, at UPenn was wine and cheese, seminars, blurbs, scholarly editing and bibliography, minor canonization, accrual of cultural capital, and PowerPoint — as well as a host of software applications and technological apparati. So here the two principal actors that work to author material are the social context and computer-based media — both of these facilitate the transfer of data. So yes, information is a little like wine and cheese!

Despite the haphazard appearance of the titling, the project was neatly circumscribed by the nomenclature of Edit: Processing Writing Technologies. Within this conceptual apparatus, there were things I couldn’t in good conscience want: people writing novels or poems or doing “performance editing” in the buff. Mild editing is good enough. Writing is too much. The practices that day were not meant to be aesthetic, by which I mean they were intended to mirror rather than diverge from content production today. For example, most user-posted videos comprise an archive not designed for revisiting or reminiscing in, and it’s hard to imagine rereading Facebook status updates! Within a web-based reading environment, a lot of material is written (once), reviewed later that day with a cup of tea, and then forgotten. It doesn’t need to be edited because it was already written in edit mode or in a wiki modifications mode. I would say Facebook as a genre is still, thank goodness, only mildly aestheticized i.e. edited. We don’t write so much anymore as manipulate existing content. Editing, as discourse, applies not just to texts but to menus, my internet dating trajectory, posting details on Facebook’s news feed, tweets, Obama’s highly mediated presidential campaign, Flickr group albums, interactive news, reality TV, other people’s playlists, Goodreads reviews, and “personal” or attribute-keyed music recommendations on Pandora Radio. We live in an era of endless and communal cross- and self-editing, like retweeting (RT) at Twitter! Likewise, instead of filtering and preservation, the chief aim in much blog writing (and the Penn event) is not (bibliographic/editorial) control of content for future access (i.e. a library’s use of controlled vocabularies) but instantaneous personal expression around ephemeral content creation and informal classification structures (folksonomies) and uncontrolled vocabulary systems. This is especially true of things like LiveJournal but it’s also true of filter blogs and knowledge or k-blogs, which are “authoritatively” marked by outbound links. Self-publishing in particular has gravitated towards less authoritative and more ephemeral, event-, self-, or platform-based forms where the line between “primary” i.e. authorial content and “secondary” i.e. user-generated content (forums, comments, and internal blogs) is eroded, and where multiple authors contribute posts and links in both synchronous and asynchronous formats and with increasing anonymity. As of this interview little of the Penn event is finished except the Chinese-English language version, which lacks photos. You can get that book here: It’s unclear if these books will ever be “finished” — the editors can emend, revise, and republish the “titles” on their respective wikis.

So to return to your questions, the titles are flat containers, what information specialists might call namespaces, metadata fields or vocabulary systems, used to catalog an event that has yet to transpire. What does the word “publish” mean today? Danny is managing “content” and assigning editors. Editors are designing covers. In this context 7CV is less an object with an author than data to be edited, organized, tagged, reformulated, republished, blurbed, annotated, indexed, resold — by others. And that is what I think reading should be — taking hold of another text, customizing it, disposing of it. Benjamin Disraeli said when he wanted to read a good book, he wrote one. But today, why read or write a book when you can edit it? Editing is the new writing. The Penn Event aligns itself with such discursive practices — nominally self expressive writing and/or knowledge sorting within self-publishing. Editing and self-publishing are weak genres, or social agreements. 

For this reason, I see a direct correlation between self-publishing books and Facebook, Twitter, Lulu or Flickr. Facebook and Twitter are theatrical spaces for self-publishing and editing one’s evolving social coordinates. We are so immersed in ostensibly free form and unrehearsed sites that it is hard to see them as highly scripted social spaces or theatres. Of course most people don’t think of editing/publishing as theatre but as something boring or parasitical (vis-à-vis a “source” text), a textual backwater populated by people with glasses. But I think publishing a book today is theatre, socially networked theatre, and the Edit event exemplifies publishing as everyday performance. Facebook and Flickr are our era’s administered and generic version of sixties happenings! Flickr albums mostly look all the same, and this is true of most of the images in 7CV — they could belong to anybody, and many of the images were taken from discarded photo albums or are the backs of books, I suppose a marketing director’s nightmare. So in that sense, the event at Penn that day translated the reeditioning of 7CV into a bibliographic happening, underwritten by affective modes of reuse, editing, archiving, MP3 background music, and library science. We had pizza! We drank wine and chatted! I wanted people to have a good time.

Status updates on Facebook constitute a continuous and communal editing (and conversational diffusion) of a life’s impersonal events rather than a diaristic recording or writing of the feelings as a “published author.” Ditto with 7CV and its extensions. What search engine developers term filtering (i.e. self-reflexiveness about the medium itself, as manifested in meta data containers) is more granular in a conventionally published memoir or poem than in a blog or its hard-copy cousin: a self-published Lulu edition, but I think this is changing.

Another way of saying this is that the titles of the event are pragmatic and context sensitive i.e. they are a fantasia of classification. The (editing) vocabulary system is a generalized medium or generic (table of) contents. Like a rudimentary tablature for string music or a playbill for a play, they guide, like a kanban board, the general flow of production but don’t proscribe it. We live in an age of weak authors and strong communications networks and high sensitivity to labels, and I do not think this is a bad thing! After all, if networks and captions are strong, authors do not have to be. Authors can disappear into a search engine, reading/reviewing network like Goodreads, blurb, or Google Books, where a book evolves from a stand-alone object into an information entity classed with other entities. Editing makes authors disappear rather than show up as guests on Oprah! Books without authors are more pleasing (and easily digested) than books with authors. 7CV is about fast reading and ease of ingestion of written and reprocessed material. We live in a text-based rather than image-based moment, which is one reason I find the most interesting cultural activity in textual rather than visual arts, and why if I had a choice I’d probably get a degree in information science rather than English or in painting!

Just begun to learn: PoemTalk on Louis Zukofsky's 'Anew'

Louis Zukofsky, photo © 1997 Elsa Dorfman at the Electronic Poetry Center.

Editorial note: The following conversation has been adapted and edited from episode 22 of PoemTalk, recorded September 14, 2009, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and transcribed by Michael Nardone. The episode discusses the twelfth poem in Louis Zukofsky’s series Anew, a poem which begins “It’s hard to see but think of a sea.” The Anew poems were written between 1935 and 1944 and published in March 1946 by James Decker’s press in the small-format pocket-poetry series. Marcello Booth has dated the writing of the poem precisely January 16–17, 1944, a week before the poet’s fortieth birthday. PennSound’s recording of Zukofsky reading the poem comes from a homemade reel-to-reel tape Zukofsky prepared for the Library of Congress in November 1960. PoemTalk is sponsored by PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, Jacket2 and the Poetry Foundation. Al Filreis led the conversation with Charles Bernstein, Wystan Curnow, and Bob Perelman. Listen to this PoemTalk podcast as an MP3; this  program was discussed on PennSound Daily on  September 18, 2009. “Poetic Electricity,” a followup post with commentary on this episode, by poet and engineer Aryanil Mukherjee, can be found here. — Lily Applebaum

Al Filreis: Peter Quartermain, who has written a close reading of this poem, says about the beginning that it sounds almost like doggerel. And he was on his way to praise its very striking rhythms. Anybody want to say something about how the poem sounds, of course, now that we’ve heard Zukofsky reading it? What does it sound like at the beginning?

Bob Perelman: Well, I remember the first time I read this poem and being delightfully bollixed by the first line, thinking, now, wait a minute, what did I just read? It was because of the punning. It’s about seeing and thinking, but clearly sound is in play as well. And the interplay between all the senses and the trans-sensual waves that he is talking about are all there in a nutshell in that opening line.

Filreis: The homonym comes metrically halfway, so see-sea divides a mostly metrically regular line into two bits. It gives way to longer lines, but at the beginning it is almost like doggerel.

Charles Bernstein: People who don’t have the text of the poem can’t tell that the first sea is S-E-E, and the second is S-E-A.

Filreis: You can’t tell from context?

Bernstein: You can’t be sure. There’s a split always in this poem because of its reference to the quantum physics that underlies some of the subject matter — between doubleness of different things, so that light can be a particle and can also be a wave. See can be S-E-E; it can be S-E-A. So the interesting thing, in respect to the sound recording, is that what you hear with your ear is not the same as what you see with your eye: the hearing of the poem switches, and what happens over the poem is that many of the words switch in their value from one thing to another —

Filreis: Like an electric current, almost.

Bernstein: Like a sea. Right.

Wystan Curnow: It’s less doggerel a line when you hear him read it.

Filreis: Less doggerel hearing it than seeing it on the page?

Curnow: Than seeing it on the page.

Filreis: Does anybody think Zukofsky is speaking knowledgeably about the world of electromagnetic science and radio?

Perelman: Well, I connect this poem with the first half of A-9, which he had finished just a little while before. As he says, he spent two years on it, where, among other things, besides using the Marx — Capital —for the vocabulary, he uses —

Filreis: Karl Marx.

Perelman: Yeah, a physics textbook on light that talks about exactly the same thing: matter and energy transforming back and forth. So, it’s a sort of mini-version of A-9, and a more discursive, relaxed version.

Filreis: Wystan, to what extent does, as Bob was suggesting, the actual thinking about electromagnetic science, radio wave, and so forth, serve his purpose as a poet, aesthetically? How does it work? It’s not an end in and of itself, is it?

Curnow: I don’t understand the physics — I don’t know what a condenser is.

Filreis: I imagine that most readers of this poem go into it not knowing about that.

Curnow: So, then I want to look it up. Then I wonder about looking it up.

Filreis: You mean, whether that would be productive? 

Bob Perelman and Wystan Curnow at the Kelly Writers House.

Curnow: Whether it would be productive, because I also thought there’s an attempt here to look at some kind of physics, but the intention actually is to propose something to do with meaning. That is very implicated in polysemy and metaphorical applications. The way those terms actually get localized to their very specific uses and then become unrecognizable as ordinary words, or as words that operate in other forms in other parts of the language. My sense is that’s happening here just with condenser and condensed, as an ordinary word: it’s that round and round and round that I got to.

Filreis: But is there a relation between condenser, in a physics sense, and the poet’s act, especially in the opening lines of condensing large material into short lyric lines?

Perelman: Well, there’s Pound: dichten = condensare. This poem is pretty contemporaneous, I think, with Niedecker’s “Poet’s Work” —

Filreis and Perelman: “No layoff / from this / condensery.”

Filreis: This being the poem itself, or the workbench of the poet.

Bernstein: And also stress, the double sense of stresses: electric stresses across condensers, then there’s another stresses later.

Curnow: That’s right.

Bernstein: Both of those suggest sound stresses, as in metrical poetry, but, at the same time, electrical impulses, to which there could be a connection.

Filreis: What is the connection between this vocabulary of physics and the wonderful stuff at the end about seeing many things at once, the harder the concepts get?

Bernstein: The material at the end is a very beautiful and touching poetics when Zukofsky turns forty: “Which is a forever become me over forty years.” I think the poetics, in respect to quantum, goes back to Einstein’s theory of relativity: relativity and meaning are context-dependent.

Perelman: I actually want to say that by the end of the poem, I’m reminded more and more of the Romantics and Wordsworth, Wordsworth saying in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads one of his hopeful pronouncements, that wherever science goes, the poet will go, and the poet will animate the, sort of, lifeless —

Filreis: And you of course have the child inside the poem.

Perelman: And you have the child, you’ve got the flowers, you’ve got the retina turned, made human by light. I mean, that’s pretty Wordsworthian, with more succinct vocabulary. And the identification with the seeds, “the weed / One who works with me calls birdseed.” This is, after all, the poet who writes A and I think very much identifies with any one of those little seeds. You know, the little word a, the little anything, the little mote, is also the infinity that is his human life. The big flower will find a vase, the little flower is just as valuable and as potent and as enlargeable, or it contains the world just as much.

Filreis: So, it’s the romanticism of the child put into the context of twentieth-century science, of Einsteinian and quantum science. Because this isn’t “I go back to child,” this is “I am simultaneously child and me.” That produces multiple subjectivities and multiple attentions.

Bernstein: The “poetics” from this would be: I see many things at one time —

Filreis: That’s right —

Bernstein: — the harder the concepts get, or nothing. But the or nothing is crucial.

Filreis: So let’s go large, then. Anew is said by many people, and maybe it’s simply a facile conclusion, to be a way of starting afresh. Zukofsky’s biographer Mark Scroggins referred to this as part of a move away from the political toward the personal — I probably would quibble with that. Williams, who loved this book and reviewed it in 1946, said this is a new line in a new measure, this is adult verse. And another critic said that this is a fresh beginning. Partly, I think, they were relieved by the fact that “Poem beginning ‘The’” had this sort of vortexical, Poundian documentary collage style, which drove them all crazy. Anew you can probably read without that. So maybe they were cheating and being easy, but to what extent is this different from the earlier Zukofsky? To what extent is it continuous? And Anew means a fresh start: I mean, somebody said this is his La Vita Nuova. Would one go that far?

Bernstein: I think, following up on what Wystan said earlier — if he would look something up, would it tell him something — I’d say no. The poem is not comprehensible in the sense that it will restore you to the knowledge you already had of what those words were. The words in the science itself are metaphorical: particle, ray, light.

Filreis: “This science is then like gathering.”

Bernstein: I think this poem is as complex and difficult as Zukofsky ever is, and as absolutely what it is, as an object or another thing in the world, which is refracted like light through a prism.

Charles Bernstein at the Kelly Writers House.

Filreis: So, Bob, what’s your take on this idea that Anew is a fresh start for Zukofsky in terms of his poetics?

Perelman: Well, the one thing that is different about it is its discursiveness. I mean, certainly what Charles just said about its thorough complexity is absolutely the case, and nevertheless, it is also a bit conversational, almost anecdotal. It is not the eight-voiced fugue of A-8 —

Filreis: No, by no means.

Perelman: — or the obsessive-compulsive patterning in A-9, to use a clinical term I am only using metaphorically, but, in fact, it is: “Gee, I’m forty, I’m thinking about my entire life, I’m thinking about my childhood, I identify with this little bit of pollen on the flower,” et cetera.

Bernstein: The child could also be Paul, who was just born at that time.

Filreis: He would be two at the time, right?

Perelman: That’s very true.

Curnow: The poem breaks in two, to an extent. I mean, partly, the printout is in two pages. And it changes remarkably. And the Romantic side of it is very much in the second part. I mean, is the first part separable as a poem in and of itself? My page ends on: “And tho infinitely a mote to be uncontained for ever.’

Filreis: Full stop, new sentence.

Curnow: Yes. I mean, it’s almost as if the second part is an add-on or another poem.

Perelman: The first part is really all about the speck, the sea, the mote, the physics, the tiny becoming infinite, and then this science is almost a criticism or a, let’s think about it, reflect on this.

Curnow: Yes.

Filreis: I would ask any of you, or maybe all of you: why is Zukofsky not better known among the modernists of his generation and the one just before? There are probably complicated reasons for that. I mean, for one thing, isn’t it the case that only one or a couple of books are in print?

Bernstein: The only book of his poetry that’s now in print is the Selected Poems from the Library of America that I edited.

Filreis: It’s a beautiful book.

Bernstein: And it’s highly condensed, Zukofsky in only 150 pages.

Perelman: Condensed into a speck.

Filreis: And you included this poem. Why?

Bernstein: I felt it was a key poem within this sequence, and I wanted to edit the whole volume along Zukofskian principles of condensation and specks, metonymy, the parts standing for the whole, so that it would be a good introduction for somebody who has never read Zukofsky. The scale is greatly diminished in terms of size, but all the different aspects, or most of the different aspects, the crystalline aspects of his work are present. Another question could be: why isn’t poetry better known? Why isn’t American poetry better known?

Filreis: So, you feel it’s an analogous question, because some of the poets we admire are better known than Zukofsky. Bob, any sense? You love Zukofsky.

Perelman: You know, to be kind of dully sociological, the poetry is very difficult. To quote one of these lines here, I’m trying to find it here — “Or a graph the curve of a wave beyond all sound,” and “Than having taken a desired path a little way / And tho infinitely a mote to be uncontained for ever.” There is something very uncontainable about Zukofsky, and I think ultimately you have to identify with the power of poetry to say: that’s what we like. As opposed to feeling “this is beyond me.” I think it’s very easy for a non-reader of Zukofsky to look at this —

Filreis: And give up —

Perelman: — for thirty seconds and say, “this is beyond me.”

Filreis: Any thoughts on that, Wystan?

Curnow: Well, I don’t think, at that level, it’s that distinct from a lot of work of his contemporaries, that level of difficulty. So, I don’t think that gets in the way. I think that among the reasons, I mean, we’ve got here a standard poem, you know, a short one-, two-page poem —

Filreis: It doesn’t require too much external work.

Curnow: It’s the package that people expect poetry to occupy. Anything larger than that is regarded as a challenge by publishers, by readers, and so on.

Perelman: Syllabus makers.

Curnow: Yeah.

Bernstein: But there’s another side to it, which I think goes back to perhaps my generalization that you questioned. To use a scientific term, Zukofsky has an incredible half-life. Many of the poems that were published in 1944 have no bearing on us right now in 2009. This poem still has a life and it becomes more and more intense. And for the people interested in second-wave modernism, or modernist American poetry, Zukofsky becomes more and more significant each year. So, perhaps, that’s the trajectory that goes against the idea of popularity.

Filreis: Let me ask each of you to offer a brief final word on this poem, or maybe something more on what you get from it.

Curnow: Well, I’ll start because I’m the least expert in Zukofsky. I’ll just say that what we’re talking about, you know, what puts people off poetry, the kind of syntax, the kind of difficulty, the sense that the meaning is spreading that occurs line by line, phrase by phrase, is something that I enjoy per se, right, and think that if I spend more time and effort, I’ll get more from it. What puts some readers off is precisely what attracts this reader — and I’m not alone — to this poem.

Filreis: Well said. Thank you.

Perelman: I’ll just say it’s really a great poem, one of, I would say, Zukofsky’s greatest hits. There are many. This is certainly one of them.

Filreis: Thank you. I agree.

Bernstein: There’s a way that we’re reading it, which I want to emphasize is the way to read, which is to sample, to move up and down, not to try to make linear sense, because the poem is not linear. That’s one of the senses of quantum theory and the theory of relativity, which goes against the traditional, linear, rational idea of what meaning is. Williams says, famously, “A poem is a small or large machine made of words.” And Zukofsky says here “Large and small condensers,” and then toward the end, “I am like another, and another, who has finished learning / And has just begun to learn.”

Filreis: That’s terrific. I’ll throw in a final word very briefly. The ending is just so wide open. This semantic, grammatical sense is wide open — “A child may as well be staring with me” — not at me, but with me. So, they together — the adult, who is forty, and the child, staring at what, we don’t know, although the word at is going to come up: “Wondering at the meaning / I turn to.” The meaning could be the thing he turns to, but wondering at the meaning could have an implicit comma at the end: “I turn to last / Perhaps.”

It is absolutely stunning, absolutely open, and there’s about three or four things you can do with it, including the Romantic trope that we were talking about.

Curnow: I agree.