Stephen Ratcliffe with Jonathan Skinner
This lengthy conversation between Jonathan Skinner and Stephen Ratcliffe took place in Bolinas, California, on March 22, 2011. Photographs throughout are by Jonathan Skinner.
Jonathan Skinner: Given that you’ve just finished these two trilogies, do you see a progression through the series?
Stephen Ratcliffe: Oh, yeah. Yeah there is.
Skinner: Was there an intentional progression and is there eventual progression?
Ratcliffe: No. It’s more of a happenstance. An evolution of things. I see in some way what I’m doing now. I began, you know, making incursions toward doing that years ago, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Things I’m doing now are more consciously set, but they actually started a long time ago.
Skinner: What’s the biggest thing you’ve noticed, looking back over it, that’s changed or progressed or happened?
Ratcliffe: Well, you know, there are a lot of changes, really, a lot. For one thing, CLOUD / RIDGE is full of people saying and doing things. But not in these, not in Temporality, nor in this one that’s going on now, it’s up to about seventy-five pages. It started I think January 5th. Although in the first few pages, Johnny [Ratcliffe’s six-year old son] began to appear in there sometime, in early January. Which seemed like, oh, this is really nice … But now he’s not appearing anymore.
I’m still making use of these readings that I do with quotation. You know, finding language in the middle two pairs of lines. It just seems to be getting more honed, and it’s very interesting to do it. I’m pleased with it. I really like these latest ones. But the reference to person A or B … in CLOUD / RIDGE the people are often identified, as “man in black sweatshirt,” “silver haired man,” “man in red truck,” “blond haired woman.” You know. There are these people sort of with epithets. Bob [Grenier] one time commented, years ago, he said, it’s kind of like in Homer: “grey-eyed Athena …”
Skinner: Are these literal people?
Ratcliffe: Oh yeah.
Skinner: So they’re people that are around you. And that’s overheard dialogue?
Ratcliffe: I used to carry these little notebooks around. If something happened, I wrote these things down. And then I would go back and find them and make use of them, but now …
Skinner: Now you’re writing down things that you read.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, at night. Like tonight or tomorrow night, I have to go sit down again. And there are maybe seven or eight books. I go through one at a time.
Skinner: Each night you go through each book.
Ratcliffe: No, not every night. But about every five nights, I have to get back to the stuff … I use up all the material.
Skinner: You have to go through all seven of them.
Skinner: Pull something from each one.
Ratcliffe: I find a passage somewhere. I go to where I left off and I start reading. I find some words, and I construct them into two lines and I type them on the computer. I put them on the screen so I get the length of the line to be set. And then, when it’s set, then I write it down into the notebook. So, the next day, when I go to compose, to write the poem …
Skinner: Oh, so these are pre-measured units.
Ratcliffe: They’re pre-measured. It used to be that I would just write them down and then I would have to do them on the screen, and it was very hard. CLOUD / RIDGE was very hard to do, because those lines are always shifting.
Skinner: What’s the measure? What determines the measure? Is it a visual …
Ratcliffe: It’s visual, yeah. In CLOUD / RIDGE each poem looks different on the page. It has probably the same number of lines, but arranged in different stanza units. And it’s measured here on the screen but not in the book, so … it was very hard to do, actually. It’s time consuming.
Skinner: You’ve moved from overhearings to a series of readings. But it seems like the practice of observing meteorological phenomena, events in the environment has continued.
Ratcliffe: Weather, ah … yeah.
Skinner: So the surfing is still a part of the constraint, the daily surfing.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, the last lines on the poems now are things written down or seen when I go out in the water.
Skinner: So what are the constraints for Temporality?
Ratcliffe: OK, so I wake up, then I open my eyes, and then I write the poems down in my bedroom. I don’t even get out of bed anymore.
Skinner: Oh you just write them in bed.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, so it’s like what I see out that window. You know, I used to write the poems down here in the kitchen, and there was a lot more stuff to see. But from upstairs, from that higher vantage point, it’s funny, it’s more sky, and less other things going on. So there’s something that’s kind of interesting to me about, ah, moving toward less and less detail.
Ratcliffe: I don’t know.
Skinner: So you open your eyes, and then you look out the window.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, and, ah … here was “The whiteness of moon next to branch,” so that was over, up … [pointing to bedroom window]: “light coming into the sky above still black/ ridge, whiteness of moon next to branch/ in foreground.” That was out there …
it wasn’t exactly at the same time, but it was, basically. And, another curious thing is that there’s this really insistent repeating of the “wave sounding in the channel” …
Skinner: This is what I was going to ask you about!
Ratcliffe: Man! How can that go on …
Skinner: “Insistent” isn’t the right word for it. It’s just … affixed. “Wave sounds in channel!” [Laughs.] I was at the channel today with Donald [Guravich] and I was like, “well, there is the channel in which Stephen Ratcliffe’s wave sounds.” [Laughs.] What’s up with that?
Ratcliffe: I don’t know. I don’t know what it is …
Skinner: I mean I thought that you maybe just decided very consciously that you were going to have one element that would just stay put, like the nail through the note to the wall.
Ratcliffe: No, it’s kind of evolved. You know, years ago there was this “sound of jet passing overhead” that appeared in one of the works, and it appeared a lot. And I remember reading it once in the city. We were doing a reading somewhere … it was actually with some musicians. And one of the guys was a singer: he had a falsetto voice. He was from the music department at Mills, I think. He had an amazing voice, and he kept singing this, in a very high falsetto, or countertenor voice or something: “sound of jet passing over.” It was really striking. And he commented about it.
Skinner: You did a performance, you did like a fourteen-hour, or somebody did a fourteen-hour performance, of Temporality.
Ratcliffe: Oh, I did. No, Remarks on Color. At Marin Headlands, last May. With some of these same musicians. Not that guy.
Skinner: It lasted fourteen hours?
Ratcliffe: Yes. From sunrise to sunset, on May 16th. Close to the Solstice. It’s about a fourteen-hour day. And there was no sun ever visible. It went from 6 a.m. to after 8 p.m. And we never saw the sun come in. It was totally foggy, and it was freezing in this big gymnasium with the windows open. And most of the time no people there except us doing it.
Skinner: Did people wander in and out?
Ratcliffe: People wandered in.
Skinner: How long did people stay on average?
Ratcliffe: Some might have stayed an hour. Some stayed a little longer. And we did another one, at UC Davis, of HUMAN / NATURE, that was also fourteen hours. It went from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. Johnny was there, sitting on my lap. In the middle of the night, I was the only person awake, in the whole place. The musicians had stopped playing and they were snoring.
Skinner: And you were just reading.
Ratcliffe: I was reading with one spotlight coming down from the ceiling onto my table.
Skinner: But continuing with the constraints. I’m just curious to get those down. So, you wake up, you look out the window …
Ratcliffe: Yeah, so, the first three lines are written “on location,” in the present.
Skinner: In bed.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, I have this little book, and I write it down. And then I have this other book and I write it down there and then I open up the screen …
Skinner: Oh, wait, so you have two. The first book is just the lines and the second book is the poems?
Ratcliffe: I just started this new notebook. This is what I write the notes in, everything. And then, here’s the whole poem. And these lines have been premeasured, as you say.
Skinner: So the first three lines in the morning. And then the middle part comes from the reading?
Ratcliffe: Comes out of previous readings which have been transcribed into my notebook.
Skinner: Do you do that in a particular time of the day … when you do the middle lines? I mean as far as putting them into the poem.
Ratcliffe: The last time I went into the readings was on the sixteenth. And this morning I did these two sets so I would cross these out tomorrow morning.
Skinner: Ok, so you put those in in the morning.
Ratcliffe: I put ’em in in the morning. And they’re in here. So I just open this book and I transcribe.
Skinner: So what are the last two lines? What’s the constraint for the last two lines?
Ratcliffe: This is what I saw when I was out in the water: “grey-white of fog against invisible ridge, / circular green pine on tip of sandspit”
Skinner: I see. Do you write that in the car immediately after surfing or when you come back?
Ratcliffe: No, when I come back here I remember. Years ago I started doing this when I’d go out maybe at RCA surfing, and sometimes I’d take my little notebook, and as soon as I got up [the cliff] I’d have to write it down. And now I realize, oh, I can remember what it was! So now I don’t actually even compose it. I just sort of see it, I know what it’s going to be and then when I get back I write it down. It sort of has become like second nature.
Skinner: Did you surf the tsunami?
Ratcliffe: I did!
Skinner: You did, yeah?
Ratcliffe: Yeah! It was odd. I had to go over the hill for an appointment. So I couldn’t go down there normally in the morning. And I had to take Johnny to school. And it turned out school [which is right on Bolinas Lagoon] was canceled. And I didn’t know it. ’Cause I hadn’t gotten the word.
Skinner: It was canceled because of the tsunami, right?
Ratcliffe: Yes it was. So we came back and about five o’clock we finally went down to the channel. I just wanted to see what it was doing. Actually, I said, we’ll go down and jump in the water. But, the surge … you know, it looked like the tide was going out a little bit, even though it was at just before high tide. And all of a sudden it started to come in, right before our eyes it was going out, and then it started coming in slowly, and then pretty soon it was like a river, racing in. It seemed like it was going twenty knots. But maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know.
Skinner: It was fast, though. It was a lot of volume.
Ratcliffe: Huge, yeah. Anyway, I just ran down the beach and jumped in the water and paddled in.
Skinner: Oh, so you had your board with you?
Ratcliffe: Yeah, yeah, I, ha ha! Some of my friends were out surfing that day and they say it was pretty wild, just the surge going back and forth.
Skinner: A surfer spoke at the symposium on water I just attended in Point Reyes [Geography of Hope: Reflections on Water] about his daily practice of surfing. In the context of the conference, and threats to the world’s water supply, he noted that he wasn’t really doing anything out there and that he sometimes wondered, well, what good is this doing? My immediate thought was: doing nothing might be the best thing to “do,” right now.
Ratcliffe: Ah, that’s interesting.
Skinner: But I was wondering if for you there is a poetics of the practice of time, if surfing is a certain sort of practice of temporality on the board?
Ratcliffe: Yeah. It’s probably hard to put your finger on it, but there is something about … I actually can’t quite explain it, because my desire in writing these lines … you know, if I’m not near the water, if I’m walking around in the city, I can still see clouds, and ridges. I can still sort of find these elements. But there’s something about going out in the water and getting onto the board where your eye is at water level, not walking on your feet, that really shifts …
Skinner: Oh, you mean, when you’re on your belly on the board.
Ratcliffe: Yeah. When I suddenly get onto the board, and I paddle out and I’m just here. It really changes your view of things … there’s something that, ah, shifts. For me now, it’s, you know, no doubt a bit obsessive. [Laughs.]
Last year I got into the water three hundred and fifty-five days. Now this year maybe won’t be as much, because I think I’m going to travel. But here I am on a sabbatical, and I’m hardly traveling. So, I don’t know. But that was my new personal best. Another record set. Most of the time I go out there now, I just paddle. ’Cause I have a bad shoulder.
Skinner: You don’t stand up and surf the waves?
Ratcliffe: No … often I’m just down in the channel. If the waves are good, I’ll go out and try to find them if I have time. Sometimes I don’t have time. But there’s something about getting down at water level, where you’re in the element. And, you know, the board’s going up and down. You get close to these things going on.
Skinner: Well that’s what this Point Reyes surfer talked about, being close to very large animals in the water. Do you become aware of the movement of animals up and down the coast? I mean, do you see animals in the water?
Ratcliffe: Yeah, I saw a seal out there today, you know. Of course you see animals. Birds. Mostly birds.
On the discrete
Skinner: Some readers seeing your poems and not knowing your constraint or location might see “wave sounds in channel,” and they might think it’s like Channel 7. Or, you know, the channel of the brain, like some sort of Jamesian nervous channel.
Ratcliffe: Oh, left channel, right channel. You think? They might just think it’s boring.
Skinner: No, “wave sounds in channel.” It’s fine. It’s definitive. It’s clipped. There’s something about discreteness there. You switch from one channel to the next.
Ratcliffe: I hadn’t thought about that, but, why not, yeah. “Sound of waves in channel.”
Skinner: I was wondering about scenery. I was thinking of what you’ve written about Shakespeare, sound and the stage [in Reading the Unseen, Ratcliffe’s book “about offstage action in Hamlet, about words that describe action that isn't performed physically in the play, things we don't actually see”]. And then of SOUND / (system): James’s letters, as the scene of something. And of you on your board, and how what you see stages or frames the poem. What do you see in scenery?
Ratcliffe: Before we discuss Temporality, in this regard, let me say that CLOUD / RIDGE is more chaotic in some sense, although it still …
Skinner: CLOUD / RIDGE has a lot of interiors.
Ratcliffe: … has a lot of interiors and bounces around. In CLOUD / RIDGE there’s also Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse that begins to come in early.
Skinner: Does it take over for the rest of the manuscript?
Ratcliffe: It does. As I’m going through the manuscript now, as much as time permits, adjusting it, it’s quite moving to me. I never had read that book before. In some way I didn’t really read it; I just kept reading bit by bit, and going through it. And I think then I went back when I got to the end and kept going, but, you know, there’s some beautiful passages in there, that somehow connect. They try to connect. In any case, there’s this framing of the beginning and the end with the other things taking place in there. It is a kind of … it’s the scene seen, the seen and heard scene. And the interior lines, the inner lines, are thinking about that, or considering the scene more in language.
Skinner: I was thinking that those insistent, fixed things in Temporality, the “waves sounding in channel,” happen in the frame. So that becomes very static, and then it’s almost like you could read through that series just reading the interior lines. Like, some readers might be tempted to skip through the outer lines the way you flip through a calendar. As though the action is happening in the interior.
Ratcliffe: In the middle … yeah. I find that too, myself.
Skinner: So is there a theatricality to it? The scene …
Ratcliffe: That’s a nice thought. The scene is like a static — the scene is this ongoing, recurrent, apparently repeating … but it’s not really. For several reasons. One, every day is a new day. Every time the sound of the wave is heard, the next day it’s not the same thing. It’s this ongoing investigation of space and time, of course. Of place, space/place. But over a period of ongoing time, one day after another after another. So it’s never the same sound, although the words are the same. There’s this kind of failure of language to enact those things. The words point to things that are occurring, which the words have in some way to do with, but those things have nothing to do with the words. And the words don’t discriminate between this sound and that, or between this color green and that color green. It’s using the same words over and over again, to point toward things that are constantly shifting and are not really being grasped by that language.
On the event
Skinner: In terms of events, or things shifting … in the days following March 11th, I knew I was coming to talk to you, so of course I looked for the tsunami in the poems on your blog. And I couldn’t find it. What’s the scope of event? How does event function in your work?
Ratcliffe: Well that’s curious. That’s a good question. You know, earlier on, in CLOUD / RIDGE, it would have been in there, the tsunami, because there was a greater attempt at, or a closer sense of actual events being transferred, with more particularity. The particular was registered in the poem more closely.
Skinner: And then the nuclear catastrophe …
Ratcliffe: Yes, CLOUD / RIDGE begins on July 2nd, so when you get to September 11th, and then September 12th: “blond woman calling on phone to ask man to give / short-haired girl her cell phone number, plane / exploding into World Trade Center in New York.” So this then takes over. Oona’s in New York, my daughter, giving me these eyewitness accounts. The events come in, really in a big way. So … the question is why aren’t they there now?
Skinner: Well, I did find the line, in the poem for this March 11th …
Ratcliffe: Was that the date of the tsunami?
Skinner: … that was the date of the tsunami, and you had this line, “method that remains the same.” I think it was either 3.11 or 3.12.
Ratcliffe: Of course, that line was probably transcribed, you know, “found,” and written in this notebook, before 3.11. I pay a lot of attention to these events (Japan, tsunami, Libya, too). But they’re not getting in, you know, as concrete references. In the interior lines I’m pleased if I find something that to me resonates with events.
Skinner: I was almost thinking: “ok, the method remains, the song remains the same.”
Ratcliffe: Well, you know, it’s curious. I post them on the blog. And this poet who’s done a lot of translation from the Japanese, Eric Selland, wrote the other day, with a comment about one of the poems, saying, “it’s really nice to find this ongoing continuity of things here in the face of these human and natural disasters that we are facing.” I also post my poems on Tom Clark’s blog, and sometimes Tom or his readers find something in my interior lines that resonates … you know. Tom’s pieces are so full of current events, I mean they’re really striking. He’s got all these images that he pulls — he really follows things closely. But they find things in my poems that resonate with current events.
Skinner: Now are they catching allusion, are they catching some source, or are they scrying or divining — trying to interpret some sign in the frame?
Ratcliffe: I’m not sure. It’s some particular detail of the lines that resonates with what the topic, what the concern is in that thing.
Skinner: I did want to ask you about Campion, about beginning with Campion, and what that means to you now …
Ratcliffe: I remember Auden. Auden had a beautiful — he edited a Selected Songs of Thomas Campion, published by David Godine. Back in the early 1970s I found that book.
Skinner: Beautiful publisher — still going.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, he does beautiful work. Bill Berkson did a night last spring at Books and Bookshelves, you know: what about Auden, does Auden matter anymore? A lot of poets came. About maybe a dozen people came to read selections or talk a little bit on Auden, so I thought, well, I’d like to read something from that Auden selection of Campion which was really formative to me when I found it. It’s a beautiful book, and his essay was great, his little preface about Campion. He talked about Campion as a minor poet. You know, I think C.S. Lewis might have put that term “major and minor poet” in his book, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. A “major” poet is Milton, or, of course, Shakespeare. A “minor” poet is Herrick, or Campion. Campion is praised as the greatest of the minor poets. It’s a matter of not taking on an epic subject — if you’re writing poems about love, or court ladies … Not so much CLOUD / RIDGE, because it’s full of political stuff and, you know, Picasso and François Gilot, Morton Feldman … But in this book the references are not identified, and they’re stripped from any sort of biographical loading.
Skinner: So what is it in Campion that you retain, at this point?
Ratcliffe: The way the language works.
Skinner: The measure? The number? Sound?
Ratcliffe: The measure … Yeah, all of that.
Skinner: There are two other questions that come out of Campion. One has to do with number, and one has to do with invisibility in the work.
Ratcliffe: Ah, that’s really important, actually. That could be a longer topic. Michael Cross articulated this a bit in a conversation we had. It was sort of in the back of my mind but he pounced on it. He wrote something about the Shakespeare, the offstage action, Reading the Unseen book — un-visibility, unseen, invisibility. I think that sometimes the ridge is invisible, if it’s covered with fog. I mean that word “invisible” shows up …
Skinner: That’s happened a lot this month.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, it happens a lot! So that’s one thing, but you know, in the notion of offstage action that’s talked about in words, it’s not seen. It’s invisible.
Skinner: Sound is not seen. Ronald Johnson calls sound the “invisible spire.”
Ratcliffe: Sound is not seen either. And the things that I see that I write down into the poems are not seen by the reader. They have to be imagined, if the reader can or wants to. Because the language in some way may appear to be generic: it just says “green,” you know. What kind of green? Oh, sunlit green. Well … there are all those different greens out there. It doesn’t discriminate. But there’s something about language making reference to or pointing toward or trying to bring to the page these things that don’t ever appear there except in the words. There’s this gap between the words and the thing.
Skinner: In the notion of listening to reading, I wonder if that includes Eigner’s sense — and this may be my idiosyncratic reading of Eigner — that there’s a way in which you can hear the world going on, as you read his poems. The poem itself as a frame for ambient attention. Listening to reading, in a dumbly literal sense, is like listening while reading, or listening to the experience of reading. And the poem is “ambient” in that it doesn’t capture your complete attention, it sort of allows you to listen while you’re reading.
Ratcliffe: I like that idea.
Skinner: Claude Royet-Journoud talked about this. You know his books with a couple of lines at the top of each page. He talked about enjoying the sounds that were happening while he writes and reads. It’s that blank page as the space where all the things can go on while the reader is thinking about those lines.
Ratcliffe: Absolutely. I find that when I get a chance to read pages at a time, ten pages, or twenty. That’s usually as long as you get to read. I think you hear some things, you follow, you drift off into your own thoughts, you pick it up again. It is like ambient noise. And there are these other noises going on.
Skinner: I know you use the phrase “listening to reading” in a somewhat different sense.
Ratcliffe: I have a class at Mills that I call Listening to Reading — and we spend a lot of time talking about the relations and differences between the poem on the page, as words, that you see with your eye, and the poem in the air, which is sounded when it’s read aloud, that you hear with your ear. Those are two vastly different experiences, but subtly different, and we don’t usually make a distinction between them.
Skinner: What about being … the other question coming out of Campion was number, being and number. I’d like to ask this rudimentary question: why for the first trilogy 474 pages, and why 1,000 for the second?
Ratcliffe: Oh that’s simple, really. When I was writing Portraits & Repetition, it was getting quite long. [Laughs.] I’d written 100 page books before, works, projects. And then this was getting, oh this was really getting long, and what was going to happen? It really should stop. And then I went on a trip, I think I went to San Diego. And I thought, this would be a good time to stop. I like that number, 474, it has this sort of … it’s like 747, you know, the airplane.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, it has a certain numerological resonance.
Skinner: 4s and 7s.
Ratcliffe: So I stopped. And I actually didn’t start into doing REAL right away. About nine months went by, I think. And then I thought, gee, you know, I’d like to do another piece. Maybe I could do a trilogy of works that long. I’ll see if I can. So I started on REAL, and I aimed to get to 474. And then, you know, I was really into it. So I shifted and I did this one.
Skinner: CLOUD / RIDGE.
Ratcliffe: Yeah. And then I thought, ok, that’s the trilogy. But I don’t want to stop writing. I don’t know how to stop now.
Skinner: So you stopped and started again.
Ratcliffe: The next day.
Skinner: The next day!
Ratcliffe: Yes. As I say, after Portraits & Repetition, I stopped and I did other things. And then I started in again on these long things. So it’s been consecutive days ever since …
Skinner: It sounds like 474 in REAL is a “track mark,” basically, that you put in. As if you’re making a recording and you put in a track mark.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, except the form shifted from REAL to CLOUD / RIDGE.
Skinner: From one day to the next? You made a decision to shift the form?
Ratcliffe: Yeah. I invented a new form on the very next day.
Skinner: Had you been thinking about that before, or did you invent it on the spot?
Ratcliffe: I can’t remember. I’m not sure. You know, REAL is seventeen lines, five units. Portraits & Repetition also has five units, you know, five couplets. And it had five sentence structures. I think that this might also … [counting] 1, 2, 3, 4 … 5, 6, 7, 8 … 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. No, it’s different. I don’t know. I invented this one. And likewise, when I went into Portraits & Repetition, I invented a new form. And in Remarks on Color. But at the end of Remarks on Color, I was in Paris. I didn’t have the wherewithal to invent a new form. And so I thought, well, I don’t need to invent a new form, I’ll just keep going. So Temporality continues with the same number of lines. It shrinks in length, it gets more compressed. And that was another thousand pages. Now it’s still the same number of lines, but I don’t have a new title for this work.
Skinner: So what about number? Is there buried numerology in your work, numeric pattern? Is there a counting meter?
Ratcliffe: You know, for years I wrote fourteen line poems, in various ways, sonnets. That’s another thing coming out of Renaissance studies. Campion didn’t write sonnets, but Shakespeare did, and so on. And they’re various … I mean even these poems in CLOUD / RIDGE are fourteen line poems, if you count the indented, you know, broken line as a single line, which I do. I think they’re fourteen line poems. But, no, it’s just habit. There’s not a numerological significance that I know of.
Skinner: Is there a documentary impulse in your work?
Ratcliffe: I was going to say, thinking back to your question about the scene and the numbers, that there’s something about this work that wants to just mark the passage of time. Because I’m here, and I’m writing these poems from a very fixed … it’s kind of like Proust in his bedroom, you know; he goes inside, inside his mind. From what I understand about Proust.
Skinner: Marking the passage of what kind of time?
Ratcliffe: From one day to the next!
Skinner: I mean, are we talking absolute time, experienced time, durée, biological time?
Ratcliffe: Well, the ticking of the clock. You know, all of the above, because the poems are written at the same time, at daybreak. Bob was talking about these being like a prayer to the new day.
Skinner: To the dawn, yeah … saluting the sun.
Ratcliffe: I don’t think of it that way. But it’s a nice notion.
Stephen Ratcliffe in conversation with Jeffrey Schrader
This email ‘interview’ took place between July 14, 2008 and October 25,
2009. Jeffrey Schrader would send me a couple of ‘questions’ and, when
I had time, I’d write a ‘reply’ – not exactly a ‘conversation’ (as he’d
first proposed), because neither of us had time for something like that
it seemed (he was over there in Oakland, I was here in Bolinas, no real
way to sit down and simply talk), and so my thoughts (replies to Jeff’s
questions) are ‘composed’, written down in the time it took me to write
them -- which is also to say ‘shape’ them (on the page), my words (made
of letters set in equivalently-spaced Courier) taking on the ‘shape’ of
my thinking, which ‘appears’ visually in the shape of the right margin.
The dates of each of my written ‘installments’ are embedded in the poem
from Temporality which I include with it – 7.19, 9.27, 10.10, and so on
. . . .
September 13, 2010
JS [July 14, 2008]
I personally feel as though the more of your work a reader has, the
better he or she can fully understand the range of your work as a
whole. I suppose that could be said about every writer, but I guess my
point is that I feel as though you’ve mastered the form of production,
and I’m curious as to how you envision your entire body of work.
SR [July 14, 2008]
Good question! How even to begin? There seems to be so much of it at
this point that I can't keep it in mind. What I can say is that I pay
attention to what's just been done, today's poem I mean, that is 7.19,
already finished early this morning since I got up early and got to it
early. Here, I’ll ‘read’ you the ten most recent poems to give you an
idea of what I’m doing these days --
grey light coming into fog in front of invisible
ridge, song sparrow calling from branch in left
foreground, sound of waves breaking in channel
there at the core of time a gaze,
someone through whom
viewer at a distance, outside it,
sense of whole scene
grey white fog in front of invisible ridge,
pelicans flapping across channel toward it
grey whiteness of fog in front of invisible
ridge, red finch perched on feeder in lower
right foreground, sound of waves in channel
the word as can have a meaning,
that time is for some
picture as physical, not small,
a few inches in front
pale blue sky reflected in plane of channel,
sunlit green canyon of ridge across from it
shadowed blue railing below blue gate at top
of stairs, crow calling from branch in right
foreground, sound of waves breaking on rocks
matter measurable in quantity,
through its dissolution
colors circumscribed by lines,
limited to green, blue
grey white sky on horizon to the left of point
green slope of tree-lined ridge across from it
shadowed blue railing slanting toward blue gate
at top of stairs, hummingbird perched on branch
in foreground, sound of waves breaking on rocks
occasional overlap at edge, based
on visual properties
from within that atmosphere, some,
in front of picture
grey white sky reflected in grey green channel,
slope of tree-lined green ridge across from it
blue railing below blue gate at top of stairs,
crow landing on cypress branch in upper left
foreground, sound of wave breaking on rocks
vertical “pivoted” for subject,
is not what happened
sound of displacement, central,
carries within which
grey white sky reflected in grey green channel,
shadowed green point on horizon across from it
grey white fog against top of shadowed green
ridge, song sparrow landing on redwood fence
in left foreground, sound of wave in channel
between length of sections,
modify sound of forms
where the implied “we” are,
grey whiteness of cloud to the left of point,
shadowed green slope of ridge across from it
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge,
red-tailed hawk screeching from branch in right
foreground, sound of waves breaking in channel
resolution of color placement,
relationship to space
if illuminated, within reason,
somewhere in picture
flat grey fog across top of shadowed green ridge,
line of pelicans flapping from horizon toward it
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge,
blue jay screeching from cypress branch in left
foreground, sound of waves breaking in channel
temporal dimensions, in so far as
reticulations of the paint, upper
right, the pigments
grey white fog against shadowed green ridge,
pelican gliding toward point across from it
sunlit line of white fog against shadowed green
slope of ridge, blue jay perched on blackberry
branch in foreground, sound of cars in street
brightness, background enhanced
subtle green wash
lit space, the picture in front,
part and not part
silver sunlight reflected in windblown channel,
grey white fog on horizon to the left of point
grey whiteness of clouds in front of invisible
ridge, quail landing on redwood fence in right
foreground, sound of waves breaking in channel
temporal in the empirical sense,
consciousness of time
red right angle, more and more,
gives the curved line
grey white sky reflected in plane of channel,
shadowed slope of sandstone point on horizon
Here’s all the ‘stuff’ I’m doing these days -- ‘observation’ of ‘real’
things out there (fog, ridge not visible yet, birds, sound of waves in
channel, which seem to be coming into every poem now, each day, what’s
THAT mean?) -- and the ‘readings’ of the two middle stanzas, the first
above is from Merleau-Ponty’s essay “Temporality” (in Phenomenology of
Perception) -- a book I’ve been making use of for a long time now, the
second one from Kandinsky’s Complete Writings on Art, yet another book
I’ve been reading and using for a long time. This last poem is number
1,101 -- i.e., PAGE 1,101 -- written in 1,101 consecutive days, when I
began it I don’t exactly know but could ‘look it up’ of course! It is
still going on because when I got to p. 1,000, back in early April (in
Paris where I went to read and teach some classes at the International
School), which is where I had THOUGHT it would stop, I couldn’t figure
out how to stop or what to do next and so I just kept going, why stop?
That (or this?) work is called Remarks on Color, and it takes up where
the previous work, HUMAN / NATURE, (also 1,000 pages) left off. HUMAN
/ NATURE was written between 10.19.02 - 7.14.05 -- a thousand pages in
a thousand consecutive days; that means that Remarks on Color began on
7.15.05 and has continued up to today -- unless that is I decide later
that it WILL/DID stop in Paris on 4.9.08 (these 2 long manuscripts are
sitting on the table in the living room, each one almost 5 inches tall
and the current one still ‘growing’ -- all this is something about the
‘scope’ of the project, its duration, which is partly what it’s about.
That’s one of the things I’ve begun to realize, that whereas I thought
the work in HUMAN / NATURE and Remarks on Color was about the physical
(‘real’) world in relation to what we ‘make of it’ in our perception &
thinking/feeling, I see now that it’s also ABOUT time, time passing in
fact -- one moment at a time, one day at a time, throughout a lifetime
in fact, while we’re ‘here’ as such. So the physical takes place in &
by means of the temporal -- hence ‘temporality’ (maybe I will call the
work I’m doing now Temporality, which can begin after Remarks on Color
stopped back in April, which is about when I started to read the essay
called “Temporality” in the first place -- who knows?).
But back to duration -- last month I went to UC Davis to read HUMAN /
NATURE (all 1,000 pages of it, TRY to read it that is, since I didn’t
know if I could do it, get through it, have any voice left, could one
even do it? How long would it take? Who would listen? Dylan Bolles
who’d been an MFA student in music at Mills a few years ago and is at
Davis now in the PhD program in ‘performance studies’ I think is what
it’s called, something like that -- it’s not ‘music’ I know because I
heard him say the music department there is pretty ‘stuffy,’ not like
Mills College’s music department, which has been on the knife-cutting
edge of things for a long time now. Anyway, Dylan set it up and he’d
rounded up other musicians to be part of the event -- Edward Schocker
and Zachary Watkins and Michael Meyers and Keith Evans -- all of whom
were also doing things in music at Mills, so there was all of this up
at Davis -- drums, flutes, electronic stuff going through computers &
Dylan blowing air through holes in rocks into water, typing on an old
manual typewriter (typing out the rhythms of my words, then having it
played back through some computer feedback), singing out like a Terry
Riley / Prandi Pran Nath soundalike -- and lights and video, a moving
sculpture on wheels, all of it going on and on and on as I read HUMAN
/ NATURE from start to finish. It started just after 4 pm and didn’t
finish until just before 6 in the morning -- almost 14 hours with one
short break about 11 pm, then back to it. At one point in the middle
of the night I realized that I was probably the only person now awake
in the room -- the musicians had stopped playing, the film and lights
had stopped, someone was snoring over there on a mat on the floor and
there I was it my little table, one bright light next to the text and
the whole room completely dark, just a voice reading the words on the
page, no one but me hearing it -- it was weird! Kind of a metaphor I
guess for what I’m doing, just doing it and who’s listening, how does
it get OUT there? Who will read it? Who ‘publish’ it? Who cares in
So that’s a bit about what I’m doing though I haven’t yet begun to be
specific about what’s ‘going on’ in the work, what’s ON THE PAGE, and
IN THE AIR (i.e., ‘shape’ and ‘sound’) in this work. Which I will do
now. (And I also haven’t yet talked about what you asked about! The
“entire body of your work”! Which I’d like to get to too. But first
it’s time for a surf.)
(Back from an hour of surfing) Well that was nice. Some good waves in
the channel, the best part was on the inside, kind of like life (if you
stay in it -- in the wave -- long enough you come to a good part again,
and so you keep going; I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, on
my own again, but I have Johnny, my beautiful 3 year old boy, so that’s
the good part, at least half the time -- otherwise more time to work so
that’s good too).
I write down ‘what happens’ out there each morning -- ‘matters of fact’
as such, things I see and hear when I look and listen, ‘onstage action’
as I call it in the Hamlet book, what’s being ‘performed’ in the world
as such -- things I see and hear when I look and listen. I do it again
and again and again, and then again and again and again again. And you
get what it is that’s going on ‘out there,’ watching it happen, being a
part of it, making it real in words, translating it from ‘out there’ to
here, from that physical world to right here on the 2-dimensional page.
And the shape of the poem on the page is part of what ‘makes’ the poem,
makes it work, makes it be what it is, at least so I think. That’s why
I pay so much attention to the physical shape of lines on the page, the
length of each line in relation to the lines around it, above and below
it. How the whole thing looks physically on the page, that ‘structure’
somehow -- somehow! -- analogous to the physical structure of things in
the 3-dimensional world, the world ‘out there’ so to speak. Here is an
example, this one from yesterday’s poem --
sunlit line of white fog against shadowed green
slope of ridge, blue jay perched on blackberry
branch in foreground, sound of cars in street
brightness, background enhanced
subtle green wash
lit space, the picture in front,
part and not part
silver sunlight reflected in windblown channel,
grey white fog on horizon to the left of point
As you can see, the poem is set is Courier -- a non-proportional font,
each letter or character having the same width (so an ‘i’ as wide as a
‘w’) -- as is all of my work, this ‘interview’ included, whose margins
aren’t justified by the machine but by my making sure that each line’s
exactly as long as each other line in the paragraph. So I’m making it
come out that way, making ‘adjustments’ along the way to make sure the
line will ‘fit’ whatever the ‘pattern’ at hand seems to be. What does
it matter? Who knows? It’s a way of composing in real time, the time
in the composition and time of the composition as Stein puts it, space
in and of the composition in this case being part of what is going on,
taking place, as such. As you can see, in the first three lines, line
2 is one space shorter than line 1, line 3 one space shorter than line
2 -- that’s one of my ‘rules’ (the first stanza is always three lines,
those lines either all the same length, or each line one or two spaces
shorter than the line above it. (There’s no ‘significance’ to this of
course, just an abstract ‘shape’ to things on the page.) Then you can
see that the two middle pairs of lines (always two lines here & always
indented 5 spaces, as here) are each the same length -- the first line
of each stanza as long as the first line of the second stanza, and the
second line is as long as the second line below it (something that has
only recently been happening, the shape of the poem seems to be moving
more into a ‘set place’ at this point, more of a Mondrian-like grid, I
might like to say. . . .). And finally then you can also see that the
last two lines are the same length exactly (another ‘rule’ that’s part
of the ‘picture’ so to speak, making the poem a ‘picture’ on the page,
I mean. (One other thing you see, and also can hear, going on here, I
should add -- there’s two commas in the first stanza, one in the next,
two in the next, one on the last one, all of which are always the case
in/on every poem/page, all of which contribute to the ‘rhythm’ of what
one hears when one reads it, or hears it read -- units of syntax going
by faster or slower, being shorter or longer, building a momentum that
goes from one page to the next, something you can’t ‘get,’ if you hear
just one page by itself at least, something that can only take place I
mean over longer period of time, reading/hearing pages of the work, as
time passes so to speak.
Here’s another thing I’d like to note: I write what might appear to
be the same thing down over and over again (in the first three lines
and last two lines I mean -- the lines of ‘observation’/’perception’
of things ‘out there’ in the world. For example, here again are the
first lines or rather syntactic units on each page from the last ten
grey light coming into fog in front of invisible/ ridge (7.10)
grey whiteness of fog in front of invisible/ ridge, (7.11)
shadowed blue railing below blue gate at top/ of stairs, (7.12)
shadowed blue railing slanting toward blue gate/ at top
of stairs, (7.13)
blue railing below blue gate at top of stairs, (7.14)
grey white fog against top of shadowed green/ ridge, (7.15)
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge, (7.16)
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge, (7.17
sunlit line of white fog against shadowed green/
slope of ridge, (7.18)
grey whiteness of clouds in front of invisible/ ridge, (7.19)
As you can see the lines are ALMOST the same but not quite, there is
some ‘shift’ from one page to the next, something that’s ‘different’
even though the line seems to be ‘saying’ the same thing. (The poem
from 7.12 and the one from 7.13 are different from the rest, because
I wrote them at my father’s house, on the coast south of Carmel, not
here in Bolinas where the others -- and most everything else -- were
written, no “blue railing” here and no “blue gate.”) So there is no
such thing as ‘repetition’ as Stein said, no moment exactly the same
as the one before it, no event or action quite like any other event,
action, or perception too of course, since everything takes place in
its own moment of time, and so is somehow always different from each
other thing/event. Which seems pretty obvious just to ‘say’ it here
now, but I find it somehow worth saying (‘important’!) nevertheless.
Why? (Which is to say, why bother to ‘keep track’ of such momentary
‘things’?) Well, why not for one thing. But more than that, it’s a
way of being in the moment, making writing part of that moment, word
and event becoming synchronous, writing as ‘contemplative practice,’
as Norman Fischer has put it, which I like and like to think of as a
way that might describe what I’m doing in my work. . . .
Well, so much for the “body” of this piece of my work, at least for
now. As for the “entire body” of my work, I’d say that it’s really
part of a single ‘long poem,’ made up of discrete/separate ‘parts,’
each of which has its own shapes and concerns. And so before HUMAN
/ NATURE came two 474-page books, REAL and CLOUD / RIDGE, the first
written between 3.17.00 - 7.1.01 and the second between 7.2.01 - 10
.18.02. And made up a ‘tryptich’/’trilogy’ that began with another
474-page book, Portraits & Repetition (2.9.98 - 5.28.99). And also
before them Painting (2.4.97 - 4.21.97) and then Conversation (9.17
.94 - 2.4.95) -- both of these still unpublished. And before those
came Idea’s Mirror (1.25.96 - 6.1.96) and Sound/(system) (6.1.91 -
2.1.92) and Mallarmé: poem in prose (8.6.88 - 4.23.89) and Present
Tense (3.19.83 - 3.10.84) and Distance (7.20.82 - 10.6.82). Anyway
that’s all just for the record, the point is that I’ve been working
‘serially’ for a long time now, even I realize in my earliest work,
published as Rustic Diversions in 1982 but written in 1970-71, that
book made up of two ‘series’ -- “Readings from John Muir’s Journal”
and “Rustic Diversions,” the first of which is purely ‘observation’
/‘perception’ and the second a translation (‘transliteration’) from
the French of Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560). And I realize my work
there is more or less what I’m still doing -- i.e., putting ‘words’
and ‘seen things’ together into the same work. So here’s a sample
(from “Rustic Diversions”) to show you what I mean --
With eyes of the owl
& the jay’s cry
I wake to the open air
to the slow of new day
light in the oak & yellow pine
the stream running into my ears
It’s got all the same ‘stuff’ going on -- morning, light, birds and
trees and sound, and also a ‘shape’ on the page, even though it was
typeset in Times rather than Courier (typed in Courier of course so
that also gave it a shape on the page). And here’s something else,
the first page in the “Rustic Diversions” sequence, which is ‘text-
based’ so to speak, these ‘found’ words made into this poem --
1. From a winnower of corn to the winds
angels on wing
flowers in fanned
So even in this early work (there are earlier, uncollected poems of
course, some of which were published in magazines, but nothing in a
book before these), I was putting together things I see & hear with
things I read. And the various books follow that out too (Distance
was originally called Random House, all its words coming out of the
Random House Dictionary; Mallarmé came from Mallarmé’s prose poems;
where late the sweet [BIRDS SANG] from Shakespeare’s sonnets, etc.;
likewise, Present Tense is all ‘stuff’ that really went on, so also
Portraits & Repetition and REAL and CLOUD / RIDGE (though it begins
mixing together found word/overheard material -- words from Woolf’s
To the Lighthouse, for example, which show up on every page, almost
from the start -- as does HUMAN / NATURE and Remarks on Color.) So
again, I realize that what I’m doing these days isn’t unlike things
I’ve been doing more or less from the beginning . . . .
JS [July 14, 2008]
With many contemporary poets it sometimes feels as though there’s an
ongoing effort to find where one sits within a web of lineages; you
seem to have found your lineages and your traditions, and I wonder if
you might talk a bit about where you see yourself, and why you see
yourself where you do.
SR [July 27, 2008]
Start w/ Campion and Shakespeare -- a whole book on Campion’s song “Now
winter nights enlarge” -- how much did I learn about poetry (sound and
shape, the line, syntax) by doing THAT work! But before that Pound &
Eliot, whom I started to read in high school, followed shortly by WCW
and Stevens and Yeats. Later on came Creeley and Olson and the whole
New American Poetry. I didn’t get to Stein until I taught a class at
Mills called Paris in the Twenties. And then all the writers I wrote
about in Listening to Reading, my ‘contemporaries’ as it were: Leslie
and Lyn and Bob Grenier (preceded by Eigner, one of his mentors, others
being Creeley and Olson, Williams and Pound), and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
and Susan Howe, whose My Emily Dickinson along with Charles Bernstein’s
Content’s Dream gave me the sense that alternative ‘literary criticism’
is possible -- also Ron Silliman (who was at Berkeley when I was there)
whose work I didn’t write about in that book but whose Tjanting gave me
a sense of what the ‘long poem’ is or might be. All these writers have
been important to me, in one way or another.
JS [July 23, 2008]
grey light coming into fog in front of invisible/ ridge (7.10)
grey whiteness of fog in front of invisible/ ridge, (7.11)
shadowed blue railing below blue gate at top/ of stairs, (7.12)
shadowed blue railing slanting toward blue gate/ at top
of stairs, (7.13)
blue railing below blue gate at top of stairs, (7.14)
grey white fog against top of shadowed green/ ridge, (7.15)
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge, (7.16)
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge, (7.17
sunlit line of white fog against shadowed green/
slope of ridge, (7.18)
This repetition-yet-non-repetition is where I find some incredibly
interesting developments in your work (as I wrote about for an essay
awhile ago, and for when I introduced you at Artifact … when was that?
must’ve been about a year & a half ago or so). I find it not only
poetically interesting, but also ecologically significant, in that it
drives forward with the same muted persistence & the same reliance on &
beauty in subtle variation. There’s an actual continuance &
sustainability to your work, which isn’t an easy feat to achieve, and
so I wonder how your regular interaction with the natural world, and
with different ecological systems, with surfing the lagoon & with
hiking Mt. Tam & etc. has influenced the systemic elements of your
SR [July 27, 2008]
Wow, yeah, great selection of opening lines from those days, it’s kind
of weird/strange to see them isolated like that, separate from what’s
to come next in that day’s page/poem/’event’ I mean. (Are you sure
that “7.16” and “7.17” — these are from Remarks on Color, by the way —
have the exact same opening lines? Well yes, they do, I’ve just looked
them up; but look at what follows in each case — something that’s quite
different but also quite the same:
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge,
red-tailed hawk screeching from branch in right
foreground, sound of waves breaking in channel
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge,
blue jay screeching from cypress branch in left
foreground, sound of waves breaking in channel
– so you can see it’s something like boxes within boxes, or better,
microtonal changes in music, each change shifting the direction and/
or resonance of the piece, something going on that picks up what has
already ‘happened’ but also changes it, starts over again, where it
left off by going on, “beginning again and again” as Stein wrote.)
Anyway, the lines you point to here do sound alike, one to the next,
seem to be almost the same but, as you say, aren’t the same, seem to
be “repetition-yet-not-repetition” at the same time. Which invites
the question Why do this? What’s the ‘about’? What’s the effect for
reader (writer too, for that matter)? What’s going on here? And I
must say that I don’t have an answer to such questions, haven’t quite
figured it out myself, but keep doing these kinds of things, going
forward by going back, shifting things but just a little, so that it
seems things are being the same yet they’re not, this word isn’t the
same as that one in the same place in the same line on the next page
(or previous page). Stein’s idea of “insistence” makes sense to me,
of course, but what exactly is one insisting on, anyway? To which I
would say, in answer to that question (that is the question), that it
has something to do with the ongoingness of things, being present here
in the present moment not(ic)ing things, what’s going on here and there
(in mind/feeling and ‘out there’ in the world in which I exist and find
myself so to speak, moving around in from moment to moment, day to day,
etc. That’s because what I’m doing in my work these days is ‘rooted’/
‘grounded’ in this place where I live and do my work (Bolinas, but it
seems to be the same everywhere, or so I find when I’m elsewhere — up
in the mountains two weekends ago, Paris in April, writing those days
not[ic]ing the same kinds of things: clouds, birds, sky, buildings/
peaks/ridge, etc.). And so I think my work does mean to ‘insist’ on
what’s ‘there,’ its presence and presentness — and also ‘importance’!
‘vitality’! ‘value’ in the great scheme of things! And also by
‘naming’ it to (somehow) bring it into being in the poem itself,
keeping it distant but also making it present, as Heidegger said in
some passages we were reading last week:
The name, in which this naming speaks, must be dark and
The place from which the poet is to name the gods must be
such that in the presence of their coming, those who are to be
named remain distant from him, and thus remain precisely those
who are coming. So that this distance may open itself up as
distance, the poet must withdraw from the oppressing nearness
of the gods, and “only quietly name” them.
(That’s from an essay called “The Poem,” in Elucidations of Hölderlin’s
Poetry, which we’ve been reading every Thursday night for years now, it
seems.) So the poem tries to become the thing it’s ‘talking about,’ so
to speak, and the poet, in ‘naming’ such things (“quietly” naming them,
as Heidegger, quoting Hölderlin’s poem “At the Source of the Danube,”
puts it), tries to bring them into being, make them literally present,
in the poem. Something like Stein (again) saying that the words that
made something “look like itself,” or even “be itself,” were not words
that had anything to do with description. But for me, in what I do now
in my work, the words do seem to have something to do with description,
seem to ‘point to’ what it is I’m looking at or hearing, i.e., ‘naming’
in lines like the ones you’ve noted here. ‘Naming,’ as if that could
bring the thing about — “The name makes known” as Heidegger says. As
if it could make that thing “look like” and/or indeed “be itself”; as
if it could catch hold of it, keep it from disappearing into what is
already gone — “Naming is a saying, that is a showing that discloses
what and how something is to be experienced and preserved in its
presence,” as Heidegger again says.
These last few sentences written just after coming back from a hike up
the ridge, where I was thinking about what I’d written before going up
there — about the relation between my daily ‘physical activity’ and my
daily writing. Because there does seem to be a close relation between
these two things, the writing and ‘physical activity,’ specifically my
getting into the water every day (surfing, paddling, whatever it turns
out to be, depending on the conditions, etc.) — because I do write and
I do go surfing every day (and part of what I put into the poem is what
I see out there in the water), despite a sinus ‘condition’ I’ve had now
for longer than I can remember. (Nonstop since last fall, when my wife
‘left me’ and I couldn’t sleep, lost weight, got sick, etc. — ‘left me’
a single-parent-half-time of a beautiful, now three year old child but
I’m back on my feet now, except for a sinus condition that Kaiser says
says needs surgery, and for which, since I don’t want to do that, I’m
taking allergy shots for what Kaiser says I’m allergic to — cypress,
grasses and mold, and since there are two large cypress trees in my
yard and a fifty acre ‘open space’ field out the back door and mold
endemic here in the ocean world of Bolinas, who knows if that’ll do
Anyway, having put all that out on the table, I want to get back to how
the words of the poem have ‘something to do’ with the world ‘out there’
— the world they’re written ‘in’ and ‘about,’ a bit like Stein’s sense
of time in the composition and of the composition perhaps; and to give
you a sense of what I’m thinking about here, here’s today’s poem, whose
‘title’ (9.27) will serve to date these remarks:
silver circle of sun rising in fog above top
of ridge, blue jay standing on redwood fence
in left foreground, sound of wave in channel
darkness mixed with the blue,
between optical sense
zinc white, ultramarine blue,
extreme natural color
first silver edge of sun rising over ridge,
white moon in pale blue sky across from it
As I said earlier, the visual ‘shape’ of words on the page is something
I pay a lot of attention to when I type the poem on the computer (first
having written it by hand in an 8” by 6” notebook, where length of line
isn’t a factor). You can see it here — the first three lines exactly
the same length; each of the next two lines exactly the same length
(Courier makes this all quite ‘apparent’) as each of the next two
following those; and the last two lines exactly the same length,
visually speaking of course, since if you heard the poem read
(‘performed’) aloud, you wouldn’t hear anything of this, just words
following one after another as ‘statement’ of ‘perception’: “first
silver edge of sun rising over ridge,/ white moon in pale blue sky
across from it.” (I do think that a listener hearing these lines
‘performed’ — i.e., read aloud — might possibly notice, at least
subliminally, that both lines in the couplet take the same time,
speaking of ‘duration’ now, the time it takes to read the line
necessarily always related to its physical length on the two-
dimensional page.) So I’m thinking about the length of the
‘continuously present’ line, both on a two-dimensional page,
represented there by whatever letters or spaces or marks of
punctuation, placed in whatever spatial order they happened,
originally, and maybe even accidentally, to occur; and also
‘continuously present’ (but in a different way) when I read them aloud,
my voice activating the potential of sound ‘locked away’ in words on a
page, releasing that sound into the three-dimensional space of a world
(air) in the series of present moments in which I read them. And also
how the length of the line, and series of lines, somehow ‘corresponds’
to the world those words come out of, and also point toward; shows us
a ‘visual picture’ (abstract of course, as words too are abstractions
of the things and actions/events and mental/emotional states they are
meant to represent) of our experience in, and of, the world, whatever
that variously may be. (Maybe one thing finally to say about this is
that the horizontal and vertical, two-dimensional ‘grid’ of words and
lines in my poems is something like the ‘grid’ in Mondrian’s painting,
which both reduces the vast complexity of the world to a recognizable,
comprehensible ‘pattern’ and also, in showing us that ‘shape,’ admits
both its boundlessness and our inability ever completely to fathom it.)
P.S. If you can print this in Courier with the line breaks as I have
made them here (made them by making the words come out this way), not
by hitting the space bar but because the next word doesn’t physically
‘fit’ on the line above, therefore must begin the following line, you
will see that ‘prose’ too can be written in and as lines. But that’s
JS [July 23, 2008]
For a number of years now you’ve done an annual reading tour & some
workshops in Paris. Any idea what’s going on in the Parisian scene
and/or academy right now that’s drawing so much interest in your work?
SR [July 27, 2008]
Ah, what a question! Well, I know how it came about, through a series
of ‘coincidences’ it seems. A trip to Paris in January 2004 with Oona,
my daughter who lives in New York and is a painter, during which I did
an impromptu reading in Cole Swensen’s apartment where we were staying.
And there’s an email list that the French and American poets living in
Paris keep up with, and someone (I think it was Simone Fattal, who was
also there at that time) put out, and so a number of French poets came
to the reading, Vincent Broqua and Martin Richet among others, who are
working on the Double Change reading/writing series. And, to make the
long story short, Vincent invited me back to do some readings and come
to his classes at Université Paris XII in the spring of 2006, and also
to teach a class and read at the École Polytechnique Lyon; and to come
back the following year for readings and more classes. And again this
year I went back, this time to teach some classes at the International
School of Paris and to read again at Le Point Éphémère (invited now by
Molly Lou Freeman, an American poet and translator living in Paris who
teaches at the International School and edits a magazine called Carnet
de Route). So anyway, as you can see, one such thing leads to another,
and there is such a lively poetry ‘scene’ going on there, and interest
also in the ongoing tradition of ‘experimental’ American poetry, which
French poets have been paying attention to for a long time, as we know.
JS [October 7, 2008]
Carnet de Route is an extremely beautiful journal, the type of journal
– from what I’ve seen – that nobody here in the US would fund (I’d
imagine that each issue they release costs the same as it would cost to
release a full-length book). Which walks us right into the economics
of poetry . . . I seem to remember you had a bit of difficulty finding
a publisher for REAL, eventually putting it out on Avenue B (your press
– do I need to mention that, I suppose someone not familiar with Avenue
B might stumble across this so I’ll leave it in). You’ve also released
the two subsequent works (CLOUD / RIDGE and HUMAN / NATURE) on Ubuweb’s
‘Publishing the Unpublishable’ series. With every word I type here the
Dow drops another point and with every word I type here there’s another
small-print-run independently published book of poems shipped to the
shelves of SPD and whatever indie bookstores have survived the past few
months. With sales continuously dropping off while returns
continuously increase, and within the current economic context, in what
role do you see independently published poetry? I suppose I’m
interested to see if you have a view from the perspective of publisher
of Avenue B, as well as a view from the perspective of a poet whose
work is voluminous in nature.
SR [October 10-12, 2008]
Well, here it is Wednesday the 10th of October, clear and windy, warm
in the sun but getting colder at night now, snow forecast in mountains
tonight/tomorrow (I was hoping to go up to climb Cathedral Peak again
this weekend but it doesn’t sound like the best time for that! (would
be an ‘epic’). And here, just for the record, is today’s poem —
first grey light in sky above still black ridge,
bright silver of planet above branches in upper
left foreground, sound of wind passing overhead
as can be seen, served simply
as a counterpoint to
variations, for the most part,
by way of an “it is”
silver sunlight reflected in windblown channel,
white curve of spray above wave across from it
A way of keeping track of things, which does in fact lead back to your
question here. That is, what to do about publishing ‘work’ that keeps
going on and on, piling up on the table in my living room (1,000 pages
of HUMAN / NATURE is about 4 3/4” high, and next to it the 1,184 pages
of Remarks on Color-plus-Temporality is 5”). What to DO with the work
once it’s written? Not only who’s going to publish it (your question)
but who’ll read it? Because it’s one thing to pick up a 48 or 60 page
book of poems, or even a 100 page book of poems — readable in an hour,
more or less, if one wants to do that; and that’s certainly what we’ve
come to expect poetry books to look like, size-wise. And it’s another
to pick up a book that’s 474 pages (in my case, with REAL or Portraits
& Repetition, and also CLOUD / RIDGE, which was finished in October of
20002 and is still waiting to be published). What to do with books of
THAT length — not non-fiction or novels but poetry books! — or HUMAN /
NATURE or Remarks on Color or Temporality (which I hope will also keep
going and going) even moreso? Not a very bright picture it seems, not
with the market falling hundreds of points yesterday, more again today
they say, not that one thinks about ‘the market’ when one sits down to
write a poem! Or does, if that’s what the poem’s ‘about’ so to speak!
Anyway, not only my own work as writer but, in my own small way too as
publisher of Avenue B, whose bank account got more or less depleted by
putting out REAL in 2007, no way to publish another book, not at least
until it builds back up again — through sales I mean, which in my case
have always come in slowly, in minute bits and pieces that don’t begin
to offset the costs of producing the books, especially these days. It
wasn’t like that when I first started Avenue B, in 1986 (it cost $1.85
/ copy to put out each if the first two books — my Distance and Maxine
Chernoff’s Japan — and it cost $12.27 / copy to put out REAL). So you
can see something about the economics of publishing books just in that
I guess — kind of a grim picture! But it still goes on, as you say in
your question, new presses keep appearing and putting out new books of
poems by new (and not so new!) writers. Somehow, small presses find a
way to make it work, though in ‘these times’ it’s probably going to be
harder and harder to do so — but still, people will continue to do it,
because it matters (the work, I mean) small presses having always been
the life blood of American poetry, as we know.
Meanwhile you’re right, Carnet de Route is a beautiful magazine, a lot
of color and graphic pyrotechniques which must cost a small fortune to
produce (it’s funded by the International School of Paris, I believe).
And I also did have “a bit of difficulty finding a publisher for REAL”
(Simone Fattal, whose wonderful Post-Apollo Press had done Portraits &
Repetition, was going to do it but after a year she said she couldn’t,
because Portraits hadn’t sold enough copies to justify another book of
such length/cost, which was disappointing of course but then I decided
to do it myself, which turned out to be great — taking matters back in
my own hands, not only the writing but the making of the book, as well
as the distribution and selling of it, such as it is — something about
the ‘commitment’ that I like, that seems to matter). And those books,
CLOUD / RIDGE and HUMAN / NATURE, are both up on ubu’s “Publishing the
Unpublishable” website — such a great title! — where, as far as I know
at least, they haven’t been noticed by anyone! Maybe that’s not true,
maybe I just haven’t heard anything yet. And after all, you just said
something about them, so THAT’S something!
Now it’s ‘the next day’ (10.12), another clear, windy blue sky morning
with the moon moving through the sky all night, very bright and colder
than it’s been, fall definitely in the air. That’s the weather report
and here’s this morning’s poem, ‘for the record’—
pink orange sky above shadowed green trees,
golden-crowned sparrow calling oh dear me
in foreground, sound of waves in channel
the line a figure of painting,
what green figures as
thing, a picture for example,
of all possible being
silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
blue whiteness of sky across from point
The golden crowned sparrows have come back these last few days and I’m
glad to them back in the poem — the song I mean, three note descending
‘oh dear me’ (as Peterson’s bird book says — how strange! as if sounds
‘in nature’ COULD be transcribed in words!). Anyway, I was talking to
a friend yesterday about your question here and small press publishing
etc., and ran across a line in first book of poems I published back in
1983, called New York Notes (written on short trip to NYC the previous
winter), the poem called “Lunch with ‘X’” (“X” was Ron Padgett), which
reads (by which I also mean, who said):
small press publishing scene isn’t too
good now only those with corragio will
Anyway, it seems to connect directly to what we were saying yesterday
about “the economics of poetry” as you put it, and Ron said it twenty-
five years ago more or less, so maybe it’s always been the case, even
if now it seems to be much worse, higher cost of producing books, etc.
But still, people are finding ways of putting out small editions of a
lot of new work/writing in magazines and books too — things like WORK
(published by David Horton) and TRY (David Brazil & Sara Larsen) both
coming out these days, “published EVERY 2 weeks” says Try here in the
Bay Area, so that’s exciting.
JS [October 7, 2008]
Another two-parter / along the same lines. Not too long ago I
envisioned a volume set of your complete works, including a volume of
all your unpublished work. Do you think it would be feasible someday,
or have you written more than any encyclopedic set could accommodate?
I personally feel that a ‘selected works’ would be a tremendous
disservice to everything you’ve done. Maybe it would be more
interesting to know if a complete works is something you’d even be
interested in, if there’s something to your form and content that
consciously denies comprehensive anthologization. Although you’ve
written (‘written’ as in written & had published) 19 books of poetry
(21 including the e-editions on Ubu), 2 books of criticism and theory,
published 14 books as the editor/publisher of Avenue B press, (feel
free to correct those numbers if I got them wrong) and have countless
publications in journals, magazines, and online databases, you seem to
still fly a bit below the radar. You’ve already contributed more to the
world of poetry than most of us could ever imagine, and in all
likelihood more than any of us ever will, yet you keep on moving
forward. There’s no question mark in there, just interested in how you
view your numerous contributions to numerous poetry communities.
SR [October 12, 2008]
Sure, I’d be interested in a “complete works” — or maybe not so much
that as the things that I’m writing now, which are waiting to find a
home somewhere ‘out there’ in the world. I mean, there some earlier
book manuscripts that never got published that are sitting here, and
I’m not really thinking about them any more, they’re just here. And
then there are books written since the 90’s which I’d still like and
hope to see ‘in print’ — books like PAINTING (1997), which twice was
“finalist” in National Poetry Series but never published) and before
that Conversation (‘94-’95), also a National Poetry Series “finalist”
and also never published though it was scheduled to be for two years
before the press decided they weren’t going to do it (no names here).
Both of those still mean something to me, were somehow ‘formative’ I
guess, especially PAINTING, whose title points to what has become an
abiding ‘concern’ — how experience in the three-dimensional world is,
i.e., can be, ‘translated’/’transcribed’ to the two-dimensional page,
whether in painting or writing. (I kept seeing that word when I was
writing the poems in that series – 81 pages of poems with long lines
running clear across the horizontal page, three stanzas on each page,
each with three lines, so nine lines on a page, 9 x 9 = 81, so there
was a numbers thing going on too, it seems — anyway my daughter Oona
had written a note that read simply “painting,” to remind me to pick
up a painting of hers from the house, and it sat on my dashboard for
weeks and weeks and I finally realized that that was going to be the
title for the book.) And I’ve thought about the possibility of some
‘selection’ from those two books, plus from other later things, like
CLOUD /RIDGE and HUMAN / NATURE, which could then make up a selected
‘unpublished books’ book. Someone, whose name I won’t mention here,
who’s published a lot of great books and whose work as a publisher I
certainly have great respect for, has proposed doing just this and I,
at that time, didn’t think it was the right way to go — I wrote back
and forth a lot with him about all this! me wanting each one to be a
complete book, as ‘record’ or ‘document’ or simply ‘fact’ of what it
is, yes, that I’ve been doing, have been about; his sense that these
books all fit together, are each of them a part of THE BOOK that I’m
writing, and that it doesn’t matter what ‘form’ a particular work is
taking on the page (long lines, shape of stanzas on the page, simply
doesn’t matter). Well, anyway, I decided I wouldn’t go with what he
proposed we could do at that time, would keep looking for someone to
publish each book separately, perhaps a ‘selection’ of such books at
some point. But time keeps going on and I realize that PAINTING and
CONVERSATION are still there (as is CLOUD / RIDGE and HUMAN / NATURE
and Remarks on Color / Sound (as I may call it) and Temporality, and
so, I realize, I’m still thinking about what ‘excerpts’ from my work
would look like, or be. Which also raises the question of what then
would be lost . . . .
JS [October 7, 2008]
(I should mention that I’d like to keep your earlier P.S. included with
the text to draw attention to your form, perhaps so some might scroll
back up and reread with the form in mind.) And I should mention that
I’ll use that comment on text to lead us away from text on the page,
and to quote your earlier statements on reading:
since if you heard the poem read (‘performed’) aloud, you
wouldn’t hear anything of this, just words following one after
another as ‘statement’ of ‘perception’
You’ll be reading at the Canessa Gallery Series in the very near
future, and I think it would be interesting to learn a bit about how
you go about planning a performance of your work; do you have any notes
or approaches specific to this upcoming reading, or do you have a form
for performances in general?
SR [October 12, 2008]
Yes, the Canessa reading coming up next Saturday, good! I’m trying now
to figure out if I’ll bring Johnny or not (my 3 year old, did I mention
him?), since it’s one of ‘my nights’ that week and I don’t want to give
him back to his mom that night or leave him somewhere, and don’t have a
‘babysitter’ in my life, etc. and since I did bring him to that reading
back in June at UC Davis, the complete reading of HUMAN / NATURE that I
spoke about earlier — anyway I brought him up to that and he was great,
it somehow worked, and since that was 14 hours and Canessa will only be
twenty minutes or so (though I’ve heard that people are going on for an
hour or more in that series!), it seems at least possible. Anyway, you
ask whether I have an approach, how I go about ‘planning a performance’
etc. And the answer is ‘no,’ not really. I like to read what I’m just
now doing, like to hear what it sounds like (since I don’t reread it in
the day-to-day writing of it, or at least not usually), and find that I
am usually, most always, pleased by what I hear, LIKE hearing it and so
I guess LIKE ‘it’ in some way. So the readings I do end up giving me a
sense that what I’m doing is making sense (at least to me, also I think
to some of the people there who hear it, though one really hardly knows
what it’s like for someone else, what ‘really happens’ in the reading I
mean — I think further about questions like these in parts of Listening
to Reading). Anyway I’ll do for that reading what I always, or usually
do, i.e., figure out about how long I’ll read for, how many pages might
take that amount of time, leading up to the most recent page (something
from that same day, often enough), and make that a plan for the reading
— so it’s really about the TIME of the reading, and the time in it too,
— perhaps again like Stein’s time of and in the composition.
(As a sidebar note, when I was doing readings after REAL came out, I at
first would read from a number of consecutive pages (10 or 15 pages say
before I moved on to more recent writing), and then one time at a house
reading in San Francisco (the Artifact Series) I decided I’d go through
the whole book and choose one poem from each of the months represented,
so there were about 15 of those pages, and the reading was a glimpse or
snapshot of that amount of time passing — I liked doing that, it seemed
to work. I think that was the reading that you wrote that introduction
for, wasn’t it? — so with that I’ll turn it back to you, Jeff!)
PS. One other thought about all this (thought of during hike on Willow
Camp Trail above Stinson, up to the ridge, across on Coastal Trail then
down the Matt Davis Trail back to Stinson, seeing sun set, a red-orange
horizon, maybe a green flash (almost!) — yesterday the same hike almost
and there was one, I think, 7 miles or so. . . . Anyway, something I’m
thinking about now that takes place in a reading is that I get to hear,
when I’m reading a series of consecutive pages, something I don’t quite
otherwise hear, or experience, and that’s the accumulation of pages one
after another, how the poems begin to take on a rhythm (in time) that’s
only possible when one reads/experiences them TOGETHER — in the company
of others, rather than as ‘separate’ pieces, discrete and isolated from
each other, etc. When I’m writing them they are single pieces, one and
one and one and one, but when I read them (at a reading I mean, because
I don’t ever really just ‘sit down and read them’ by myself, at home or
somewhere, I simply write the one for that day and then go on to things
that have to be done, or ‘want’ to be done, etc. So I get to hear what
happens between pages/poems, from one to the next to the next, not that
I can actually ‘keep track of’ any of that but I hear it, and maybe get
also to NOTICE it, in passing at least, which is really interesting, or
MIGHT be something to notice, about how words or phrases (or even whole
lines) keep coming up, ‘repeating’ but not ever EXACTLY repeating since
as we’ve said they’re always in a new context, new ‘surroundings,’ etc.
And that lets me hear, and thus ‘experience’ acoustically, something of
the physics of the work, how it ‘works’ in that larger ‘shape’ of poems
going on and on, one after another. . . .
JS [October 21, 2008]
Very nice work at Canessa. As always, I thoroughly enjoyed your time at
the microphone. I think that the last few readings I’ve seen you
perform you used the ‘form’ mentioned in earlier questions/answers, 1
poem from each month for about a year and a half; the Canessa reading
was a ‘form’ I hadn’t heard (was this the first time you took this
approach?): began with a poem from REAL from the date of the reading 8
years ago (10/18/2000), followed by the most recent pieces from Remarks
on Color / Temporality . . . or the month of poems leading up to and
including the day of the reading. I don’t know that I have a preference
between the two, as each demonstrates a different facet of your work
(the first perhaps a larger ‘macro’ view of what your poetry is doing
with time itself, and the larger ongoing processes of variation,
evolution, etc., while the ‘Canessa form’ enacted a more specific look
at how you simultaneously position your readers’ gaze incrementally as
well as incrementally position what it is within that gaze . . .
alternating between the ‘types of gazes’ and presenting – as you’ve
mentioned - a dual philosophy of ‘this is / what this means’). Is
there an answer to the ‘what this means’ portion? Perhaps that
subjectivity is what draws me to your work:
‘blue whiteness of sky’
‘red whiteness of sky’
‘pale orange of sky’
‘pale blue of sky’
‘cloudless blue of sky’
This is. I know that much, and the language perfectly emphasizes
enacts that ‘truth’. In addition to whatever I’m trying to ask in this
overgrown question, I wonder if you might include some thoughts on the
topic of ‘this is / what this means’, as well as another phrase you
used: ‘the subject understood as act’.
SR [October 26, 2008]
Well, here it is a week later already (!) and I’m getting a chance to
sit down with your questions which arrived on the screen (email) last
week, no time until now even to look at them alas. But Johnny’s gone
(again) and it’s foggy out there (can’t see the ridge), I’ve been out
in the water (big swell yesterday, way to many people, it always hits
on the weekends now, it seems, and with the internet everyone knows
what’s going on even if they can’t see/hear it), and so there’s a
window of time to think about something. Here’s this morning’s
installment, just for the record:
first light in fog against invisible ridge,
golden-crowned sparrow calling oh dear me
in foreground, sound of waves in channel
“flat as map,” space reduced
to this distant echo
red, which most always meant,
reflections in water
sunlight reflected in blue green channel,
tree-lined green slope of ridge above it
Anyway, the ‘Canessa form’ as you call it (reading the most recent
pages of a given work, “leading up to and including the day of the
reading) isn’t new, in fact it’s what I most often like to do in a
reading, since it gives me a chance to hear how the most recent work is
working, the poems ‘together’ rather than one at a time. (A reading of
one poem from each month of REAL which you heard at the Artifact series
was, for me, ‘unusual’ — the first time I’d done that, and it does give
a listener a different view I think — “larger ‘macro’ view” as you say,
more time passing, not maybe that anyone would hear or know that unless
they picked up on the numbers/’dates’ of each poem, and realized a
month had passed, more or less, from one to the next.) But when I
don’t read the numbers/’dates’ in front of the poems, would anyone
notice from the details/’materials’ in the poem that time had gone
forward??? So there’s the question of reading the numbers/’dates’
along with a question of reading poems written on consecutive days —
with or without the numbers/’dates’, which is something I got to do
last Tuesday over at Mills, where I read one month’s worth of the poems
leading up to that day (9.22 - 10.21), without any numbers/’dates’, and
that made them go faster, to my ear at least, made them more ‘connected
to one another’ as part of ONE CONTINUOUS THING/WORD/WORK, without some
kind of numerical ‘abstraction’ interrupting some ongoing movement from
one to the next — no ‘title’ of a discrete/separate poem, just what
happens from one page to the next as if time is simply passing now,
here, even as we’re speaking. Anyway, I like your sense here of a
simultaneous positioning of the “reader’s gaze” both as a listener
hearing what’s being read and as a viewer seeing what’s happening,
“what it is within that gaze.” So that what one hears and “sees,”
listening to the poems being read aloud, is somehow an enactment I
think of the simultaneity of time/space in the composition (what’s
going on in the poem) and the time/space of the composition (as it
‘happens’ in the listener’s perception of it, being read aloud, my
reading making such a perception somehow, and variously, possible). To
put it differently, what someone hears as the words are being read will
be words (the words of the poem, the material ‘objects’/’things’ I lift
into the air when I read them) that are also ‘word enactments’ of those
things/events they are ‘about’. Which might get me to what you seem to
be thinking about when you write “’this is / what this means’,” or so I
would like to think. . . .
Anyway, what interests me in this little bit you write here is the
“this is” part, which to me sounds like the ‘thisness,’ quidity in
Latin, of the thing itself, in itself. So that in the lines above —
“blue whiteness of sky,” “red whiteness of sky” (did I say that? I
doubt it!), “pale orange of sky,” etc. it’s those ‘matters of fact’
that are simply there (as in “this is”), as facts, that I’m trying
somehow to call attention to — not only call attention to but make
‘happen’ in the words of the poem, those words letting the ‘things’
named by them lie before us, as Heidegger said, the arrangement of
verbal materials on the two-dimensional page making what happens in the
three-dimensional world actually ‘take place’ here on the page, if that
were possible. And somehow I think it is — “this is” as you say, words
can enact “that ‘truth’” as you say. And so then the next question, as
you put it, is “the ‘what this means’ portion” — is there an answer? I
don’t know, but there is something about the putting down of the things
that are taking place ‘out there’ right now —
first light in fog against invisible ridge,
golden-crowned sparrow calling oh dear me
in foreground, sound of waves in channel
in today’s poem — which in ‘naming’ (that is, arranging in words) those
‘things’ in the world do, or at least try to, bring them into the world
of the poem. Where they ‘operate’ on their own, or come into some kind
of further ‘existence’ whenever someone reads the poem or hears it read
aloud. Not that “this means” anything in particular, no ‘significance’
other than the fact of itself, being here. Which might be something of
what you’re getting at in the line ”the subject understood as act”
(which is from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception), i.e.,
words themselves being ‘subject’-of-poem, and thus being an act of
perception — “subject . . . as [the/an] act” of writing itself, at
least of this writing I’m trying here to speak of – as if you were
present here in this room! (The line in Merleau-Ponty is actually
quite different [“. . . the subject was no longer to be understood as a
synthetic activity . . .”], so you can see in how it changed what I was
thinking about, or trying to get at, maybe. And the line that follows,
“active signification,” in the poem I mean, might be taken to ‘suggest’
that the poem itself does ‘signify’ — point to its ‘referent’, poem-as-
signifier in the sense that what its words are ‘saying’ are themselves,
miraculously, there in the poem.)
JS [October 21, 2008]
Another idea you presented: ‘color as the form of thought’ . . . could
you expand on that, offer some details to a very interesting position?
SR [October 26, 2008]
Yes, that line — I like it too! It’s an adaptation from T. J. Clark’s
The Sight of Death (from a sentence that actually reads, “Color as the
form of a thought or the consistency of an argument in which laws,
moods, and commitments were suspended like specimen ghosts.”) and
echoes, at least to me, Clark Coolidge’s phrase “sound as thought”
(which is the title of one of his books) and also a title of a chapter
in Listening to Reading (“Sound [Shape] as Thought”) so it’s something
that has multiple resonances for me. Anyway, what to be said about it
I wonder. . . . For one thing, the colors that appear in my poems are
not simply colors per se — the “green” on the page pointing to the one
‘out there’ on the ridge; the “pale blue” on the page pointing to that
one ‘out there’ in the actual sky — but also (maybe moreso?) concepts,
the concept of that “green” and that “pale blue,” the color as thought
of it. So there’s something about the intersection of words-as-things
and the things themselves going on here, being suggested, in a perhaps
momentary way that carries forward through the poem and also backward,
at least as far back as the three lines of ‘observation’ preceding it:
grey white fog in front of invisible ridge,
oval whiteness of moon above tree in lower
left foreground, sound of waves in channel
— color here being (meaning to be) “the form of thought,” form of
things being what they are, in and by (without any help from me!)
themselves. (As for the second part of my line’s adaptation from
Clark, “commitments suspended,” I won’t bother to talk about that here
except to say that it’s got some kind of ‘private meaning’ for me that
made it seem like what the line ‘should be’ in the moment of composing
JS [October 21, 2008]
You also mention (baseball) pitchers in a number of individual pieces.
I know you’re a Giants fan, but not much of an A’s fan. Any particular
reason? (I probably wouldn’t have brought it up, but with the
references to pitchers, you’ve got the A’s who have a great record of
developing young pitchers, and the Giants with a track record of
derailing whatever promise their pitchers initially had.) Anyway . . .
who’s got your vote in this year’s series? (Phillies get mine . . . I
never root for teams from Florida or Texas).
SR [October 27, 2008]
Yep, not much to say about this at this point either — ‘lifelong Giants
fan’ (I remember being on the playground in second grade [was it 1958?]
when they first moved to San Francisco, have been following ever since,
with time off in the seventies I guess [for other things going on], but
following pretty closely since then, from afar, mostly on the radio and
in print rather than ‘in person’ at the games — a way of making/marking
the day and also the season). My dad was a fan (his brother was
drafted by the Reds), and he took me to games that year at Seals
Stadium (he doesn’t follow them much anymore, but now I’ve taken
Johnny, my kid, named after my father, to a few games (one each year so
far), so I guess it’s also a way of making/marking a whole life as well
as the day/season. . . . And as for your last question, I’m old school
so it’s the Phillies (in seven, more games that way) — Joe Blanton (the
pitcher!) just hit his first-ever home run to put them ahead 6-2 in the
6th, game 4 (Tampa better get their act together or we won’t get to see
seven games). . . .
JS [October 12, 2008]
Back to poetry (for now . . . I’m sure we’ll take a few more scenic
diversions as are necessary). And actually, since some earlier
questions focused on more detailed views of ‘what’s happening’ I’ll
zoom out for a second, and ask about what is accomplished by writing in
a comprehensively serial manner? Is there anything you’d like to get
across to your readers upon entering into the entirety of one
collection as opposed to a handful of a collection’s pieces within a
journal or magazine? Is an individual piece in a journal the same as
when it’s in the final collection, or what role does context play in
the work of a ‘serial poet’?
SR [October 27, 2008]
Pretty interesting question(s)! Actually, we’ve been talking about the
sense of what you’re asking here all along, haven’t we? I mean, a poem
by itself in a magazine doesn’t have any ‘company’ around it, no before
and after, nothing that ‘reappears’ (or almost ‘reappears’) exactly, or
almost exactly, somewhere earlier or else further on. So the reader of
that poem misses something that’s important (I think) to the whole work
itself, which is as you say the “context” — the whole ‘series’ of poems
taken, that is to say ‘experienced’ by the reader/listener together. I
realize that such an experience (of a poem in its full context) assumes
the presence of such a reader/listener — one who would read/listen to a
WHOLE BUNCH OF POEMS IN ONE SITTING. Not likely I think! Not possible
in fact! — as proof, I would point to the fact that during that 14-hour
reading of the complete, 1,000 pages of HUMAN / NATURE at UC Davis last
June, no one heard the whole thing except me: people who were there in
the room were snoring in the middle of the night (I heard them!) nor do
I blame them (who could keep going for that long without falling asleep
anyway, even the musicians went to sleep. . .). Seriously though, it’s
a matter of degree, isn’t it? One poem by itself, two or three or four
poems by themselves, can’t suggest the wider/larger ‘scale’ (or ’scope’
or ‘landscape’) I’m working in here. And is it too much to assume that
someone might care about that? I’m not sure, really. Sometimes it’s a
blank out there — who’s reading, who cares anyway? So you just go
forward from one day to the next, like waking up and getting going,
this foot down and then that one (not to sound too bleak here, but
sometimes that’s the way it feels — not really in fact, because in
every new writing of the poem there is that excitement, that sense
really of pleasure and the newness of writing something that’s new,
true, completely ‘real’ so to speak, which makes it worth while in some
real sense, or so it seems. Or so I’d like to think! Meanwhile, there
is the problem of how to get the work ‘out there’ into print, into some
reader’s eye (or listener’s ear, as in the reading at Canessa last week
for instance, which was a pleasure for me and also I think for those in
the ‘audience’ who heard it, at least I gathered that from those people
who said/wrote something about their experience of it afterwards. . . .
JS [November 6, 2008]
Maybe I got the ‘red-whiteness’ wrong. As you know, I’m a bit of a
heavy drinker . . . especially at late-night poetry get-togethers . . .
anyway, audio archives of the Canessa series have finally found an
(and of course I provide the URL with a bit of self-promotion
SR [November 8, 2008]
Well, a new day, almost two weeks since sitting down with your last
installment of questions, nice to see/hear THIS is now up on the web
(it’s also now at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.html,
with other reading ‘events’). And so I’ve just listened to the first
few pages of my reading from that night — a poem from REAL written on
the same day of the reading (10.18.2008) seven years ago (i.e., 10.18
.2000), followed by the most recent (at that point) twenty pages from
the current work-in-progress, which I seem to be calling Temporality,
after Merleau-Ponty’s essay of that title, which does fit the ‘topic’
(‘time’) that Erica Lewis proposed for the reading that night (‘time’
of the reading coincident with ‘time’ in reading, perhaps). But that
was already three weeks ago. And so time keeps moving on, as today’s
poem (which I include here as another ‘mark’ of what’s going on in my
current ‘work-in-progress’ — called, as I say, Temporality) suggests:
grey whiteness of sky above shadowed green
ridge, streaked sparrow on feeder in right
foreground, sound of car passing in street
against cloud to the right,
picture’s whole color
by means of lines, graphic,
rhythmic extension of
grey cloud on horizon to the left of point,
sunlit green slope of ridge across from it
But does it ‘suggest’ anything of the kind? And if so, how? And what
exactly? Maybe that things ‘move’ through the ‘continuous present’ of
space/time that I find myself (also) located in; that color of the sky
above the ridge at that moment; that sparrow on the feeder just before
it disappears; that “sound of car passing in street”; all of it moving
on (and also moving!). Anyway, perhaps I can get back to something of
this. . . .
One more thing: I was just listening to the first half or so of this
Canessa reading (it’s just 14 minutes 34 seconds, according to what’s
listed on the website) and that reminds me that last night I listened
to a couple of hours of the MP3 from the complete reading of HUMAN /
NATURE, which Zachary Watkins recorded and just finished mixing. It
will be up on PennSound if you want to take a ‘look’
JS [November 6, 2008]
To take a quick step back to your first books of poetry. I think if
I try to force too many observations into questions they’ll come out
all mangled, so I’ll just go from my notes and hopefully they’ll provide
something worth asking: New York Notes: 1983 Tombouctou Books . . .
that’s Michael Wolfe, right? The press that later published The
Basketball Diaries. And Michael’s a leading scholar, teacher, and
speaker on Islam. That’s kind of an odd company to begin with, so
I’m curious about what Tombouctou was all about in ‘83. Though this
work is clearly very different from your current work (to begin with,
it’s only 12 pages long) there are individual lines and phrases
throughout that perhaps gave an early shape to your current voice:
‘Clear after storm’
‘Grey clouds down there / getting darker’
‘a matter of fields, hills and mountains’
‘fallen litter of fall’s leaves’
I suppose the question is of when you began to develop your process(es)
of ‘poetic observation’ . . . these lines share a poetic resonance with
many of your current lines. Did you know with this work that you had
found a certain poetics to build on and refine, or was this work more
like a first work for many young poets – the overwhelming desire to
just get that first book ‘out there’ somewhere, and see what happens
SR [November 8, 2008]
Yes, Michael Wolfe was a friend (and neighbor — he actually lived just
a few houses down the street from where we lived, on Brighton Avenue,
when we first moved to Bolinas in ’73) and he was publishing books,
among them this little series of “Desert Island Chapbooks” one of
which, New York Notes, was my first book of poems. (He also did
Triggers, by Donald Guravich — short, racy, one-page stories —
something else too, a third book, what was it? That was all, in that
series at least, but there were a lot of other titles – including The
Basketball Diaries, which I’ve still got an original copy of [someone
told me it was worth a lot of money now], which was later republished
by Penguin to great acclaim, put Jim Carroll [even more!] on the map.
And now, after hiking up the Stinson ridge [in a cloud/rain] I think
that third Desert Island Chapbook was something by Bill Berkson, blue
cover — I can see it now, in my ‘mind’s eye’ at least. . . .)
Anyway, I didn’t really know what I was doing in New York Notes, went
on a trip to New York (an interview at the MLA for job at Fordham, of
all places, my first time there as an ‘adult’), and kept these ‘notes’
during my trip which, when I got back, I typed up and made into poems.
And I showed them to Michael and he liked them and wanted to start up
his Desert Island Chapbook series and so he took it, made it into the
book. And I got to do the cover, design it I mean, literally make it,
which was very cool to me — I made a Xerox copy of an envelop with US
Post Office cancellation stamp, it was supposed to look like a letter,
was ‘inspired’ by the work of the collage, mail art artist John Evans
who I stayed with on that trip (he was and still is married to friend
of my then-wife Ashley, who both grew up in Mobile, Alabama, Mobile /
Mobile being the name of a book that came along a few years later and,
like New York Notes, also being a kind of ‘travelogue’ of going there,
to that particular place). John and Margaret (his wife) lived on 3rd
and B (a small, second floor apartment with their two twin baby girls,
Honor and India, and a black and white cat — what was HER name? — and
the drug dealing scene was going on 23 hours a day then, right on the
corner below their kitchen window, it was pretty amazing! So I had a
lot of exciting things to see and hear and take ‘notes’ on! I didn’t
really think I was writing a book, but there it is, and that’s how it
came about. And there ARE some things in it that I can see from this
vantage point, not only lines like the ones you quote here but things
that resonate with things I’m still doing — like the piece on Morandi,
which I see that you bring up later on, and so I’ll save any thoughts
about that one until then. . . .
JS [November 6, 2008]
”I’ve been working ‘serially’ for a long time now, even I realize
in my earliest work, published as Rustic Diversions in 1988 but
written in 1970-71, that book made up of two ‘series’ –
“Readings from John Muir’s Journal” and “Rustic Diversions,” the
first of which is purely ‘observation’/‘perception’ and the
second a translation (‘transliteration’) from the French of
Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560).”
I got the John Muir portion, and saw what you were doing, but I never
knew the Joachim du Bellay section. In my penciled, margin notes I had
written several times that many of the final lines on each page seem
to me to have an almost Blake-like quality:
“flesh to enclose”
“swinging your blade”
“prow to engulf”
“stilled for changing”
“the sounding done”
“count sweetly ruin”
“hence can / come never undone”
“enlaced with delight”
When you and I first met we spent a good deal of time chatting about
the Romantics, and so that probably influenced my reading. At the same
time, I sometimes forget that one focus of your early academic career
was on Renaissance poetry, that you’re a scholar of the classics and
the canon, and you continue to remain active with associated academic
conferences and whatnot. How does this work with the “classics”
coincide with your writing, which is decidedly non-mainstream and
somewhat separate from the “canon”?
SR [November 9, 2008]
Well, I see that time is passing — it’s now ‘the next day’ and so
here’s this morning’s poem, just ‘for the record’ as they say —
silver circle of sun behind shadowed branches
of trees, golden-crowned sparrow calling dear
in foreground, sound of car passing in street
take trees, not only spatial
but as opposing forces
point, space of the clearing,
withdrawing to absence
grey white cloud in front of invisible point,
line of 3 pelicans flapping across toward it
More trees and birds and sounds (plus thinking about such things),
followed by your question! Yes, there is work ‘behind’ the poems,
starting with Campion: On Song (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), my
first published book (it was my dissertation at Berkeley). I chose
Campion to write about because virtually nothing had been written on
him, and because my ‘heroes’ in poetry, starting with Pound, all said
that Campion was one of the masters of the English lyric poem (Creeley
too of course, kept talking about how important Campion was, as a poet
whose sense of sound and the line and structure is as good as it gets).
And so I decided to read Campion, see what was going on there, why all
the ‘praise’ for this poet, the only poet-composer of his time, who had
written not only the words of his songs but also the music — that fact
always pointed to as the reason for why he was so good. Look at Auden
in his “Preface” to The Selected songs of Thomas Campion (published in
1973 in a handsome, oversized paperback by David R. Godine, words plus
some modernized transcriptions of some of the songs — other modernized
versions of all of the songs hidden away in the Berkeley Music Library,
where I could look at them and make copies): “Campion’s songs can, of
course, be enjoyed as spoken verse without their music, but they would
not be what they are or sound as they do if he had not, when we wrote
them, been thinking in musical terms.” Anyway I ended up writing on
just one song by Campion, “Now winter nights enlarge,” taking it up
from various points of view (one chapter on its syntax & substance,
another on the sound of its words, another on its music by itself,
another on prosody). There was also an Appendix that pointed to
Campion’s other songs — all of the things I talked about in one
particular song also taking place elsewhere, of course. I got
‘permission’ to take so narrow a focus for the work (just one twenty-
four line song) from Stephen Booth, whom I’d never taken a class with
but who agreed to direct the dissertation and, in doing so, became my
great ‘mentor’ at Berkeley — the person who showed me, by his example,
what ‘close reading’ was and might be. And in doing all that work on
Campion, I think I learned most everything I know about poetry itself —
an exaggeration of course, because there’s a lot of other ‘stuff’ out
there too, but working on Campion ‘trained’ my ear, somehow sharpened
my sense of sound and the line and structure, all of those things now
‘intuitive’ it seems.
So it’s not so much that my “writing . . . is decidedly non-mainstream
and somewhat separate from the ‘canon’” as you say, as that I’ve taken
things that I’ve found along the way, picked up so to speak, and tried
to make use of them. And so, back to the du Bellay, what I hear there
isn’t so much Blake, whom I’d read but wasn’t then reading, as Campion
and Shakespeare (whose “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds
sang” must be behind one of the du Bellay lines that you quote, “count
sweetly ruin” — that poem has been in my head for a long time now, and
became the title of my book of Shakespeare sonnet ‘erasures’ or should
I say ’erosions’ of his ‘originals’ after such a passage of time, ‘my’
words being all that’s left of ‘his’, etc.). Yes, Shakespeare’s songs
from the plays are embedded in those lines, at least to my ear and eye
now, and that’s certainly what I was reading, and thinking about, back
then. . . .
(I’m reading other things now, and still making use of them in my work
— Merleau-Ponty, Kandinsky, Lyotard, T. J. Clark, a Morandi ‘catalogue’
from the Guggenheim show in New York in 1981, which I’ll talk about in
a moment, and also one on Van Gogh from his drawing show at the Met in
2005, these days I mean. And, in fact, I’ve thought of myself as some
kind of ‘scholar’/poet for a long time now — someone who reads and who
makes use of that reading in his work. And so it would be interesting
to me to talk further about that with you, and about my other critical
books too — Listening to Reading, and also the book on offstage action
in Hamlet — I mean, if you want to get back to me on that. . . .)
JS [November 6, 2008]
Back to New York Notes. Toward the end of the chapbook, the poem
titled “After Morandi”:
He paints the same things over and
over and by the time the time came
late in his work his work which he
called Landscape and Landscape and
Still Life and Still Life had been
reduced to an essence of landscape
or still life as form and/or light
she said as we walked out to Fifth
Avenue to have a smoke
First of all let me quickly note that until retyping that I just
assumed that the typesetting was justified, but now see that you’re
working with a total of 34 ‘units’ (combination of characters and
spaces) so that the text itself is ‘naturally’ justified. As far as
the final two lines, you have since developed some very different ways
of channeling and presenting both yourself and others within the body
of your text, and so I’m interested in your thoughts on that
development. But as far as the entirety of the text up until that
point, it’s almost a foreshadowing of how your work has since evolved.
Your landscapes and landscapes and still lifes and still lifes can be
read as an essence of landscape or still life as form and/or light.
Once again, no question mark . . . I suppose I’m just curious if you
ever looked back at this piece and saw an evolution of your own work
that mirrors the evolution of Morandi’s.
SR [November 9, 2008]
Yes, you’re right, the poems in that book are ‘right justified’ so I
guess I started doing it then (on the typewriter I mean, so it isn’t
just a matter of pushing a button, you have to ‘make’ the lines come
out that way — not that I was counting ‘units’ as you call them here
but rather, that I was ‘adjusting’ words/letters to get the lines to
look a certain way — little boxes/rectangles so to speak, why I must
say I don’t know, something about the ‘tightening’ of the string, or
form, or shape on the page, whatever it is that one does in making a
poem (i.e., ‘shape’-in-letters/words) on a two-dimensional page, how
that physical ‘shape’ is somehow — mysteriously! — crucial to what’s
going on in the poem, which is after all an ‘object’ or, as Williams
said, “a small or large machine made out of words.” But it was also
going on in the poems in Rustic Diversions, in the early 70’s I mean,
so it’s something I’ve always been doing. And sometimes, I must say
that it seemed to be a kind of ‘oppression’ — like, why even do this,
pay attention to such things? But I couldn’t it seems help it, so I
simply gave into it, accepted it I guess as part of what I do when I
write anything — and I mean “anything” here, since now I find that I
can’t even write ‘prose’ without paying attention to the look/’shape’
of the lines on the page, and so the whole book on Hamlet is ‘shaped’
now too, the lines on every page having a certain ‘look’ I worked to
get (as if it too were a ‘poem’, which I believe it is), even though
its ‘shape’ will disappear if it’s published in some font other than
Courier. . . .
As for those last two lines, they’re pure “New York School,” I think,
don’t you? How exciting to go there that first time — as an adult I
mean! All the New York School poets, especially Frank O’Hara, in my
mind! So “walking out to Fifth Avenue to have a smoke” sounds to me
even now I confess (and certainly also did then) so jaunty, cavalier,
hip, cool. (I should also add that it was true, ‘real’ in the sense
that it really happened — we really did “walk out to Fifth Avenue to
have a smoke.”) There were other books that took on the ‘issues’ of
relations between people so to speak, Mobile/Mobile for one, Present
Tense and Idea’s Mirror and Conversation and PAINTING (both of these
not yet published) and REAL and CLOUD / RIDGE and HUMAN / NATURE too,
all of these in various ways, as you say, “channeling and presenting
both [my]self and others.” All of which we could talk about further,
if you want — as indeed I hope you will want! But meanwhile, as one
simple ‘answer’ to your last question here, “yes” — I have thought a
lot (especially again recently) about the seemingly prophetic nature,
suggested in that poem: i.e., Morandi painting “the same thing over
and over . . . Landscape and Landscape and Still Life and Still Life
. . . reduced to an essence of landscape or still life as form . . .
light.” That’s pretty moving to me, this probably also a good place
(at least for now) to stop. . . .
JS [November 12, 2008]
It’s totally New York School, which is interesting to see anywhere in
your work, but I suppose that might just be due to me . . . as I’m much
more familiar with your work from around 1990 through the present.
Perhaps what’s more interesting is that you’ve never signed your name
up under a “movement,” but rather that you’ve collected influences from
all (or many) different poetries and, even when using a stalwart like
Shakespeare, make a source text/influence your own. (I think Bloom
called this the clinamen, as I’ve now found myself making some Anxiety
of Influence style remarks. . . .) I enjoy the ‘sonnet erasures’ that
create where late the sweet [BIRDS SANG] because I enjoy contemporary
adaptations of the sonnet form. Specifically, I look at Shakespeare
and see that the first thing he did was redefine the form of the sonnet
to fit his time and his needs, but for some reason some stalwarts
within much of academia have a difficult time accepting any further
adaptation or variation of the form. I suppose I’m driving at two
different ideas here, so I’ll start with the larger and then go into
the smaller: 1) I think many have most closely identified you with so-
called Language Poetry (I can no longer bear to write that out with the
+ signs between characters . . . just irks me), and I’m interested in
your take on “movements” and “schools” within poetry in relation to
your own poetry. And 2) within the ‘sonnet erasures’ was there a
procedural approach to what was ‘left behind,’ or what craft/form did
you use to turn these sonnets into your own?
SR [November 15-16, 2008]
Ah, Jeff, more questions — good ones! And now it’s a week since I’ve
picked up any or all of this, sat down to think about it, looked (now)
at what you’ve sent me, which shows up here (now) on the screen. And
before I try to get to it, in some form of ‘response’ to what you are
thinking about here, let me once again include this morning’s poem-as-
pale orange of sky above blackness of trees,
white circle of moon behind branch in upper
right foreground, sound of waves in channel
parallelism and contrast, same
combinations of lines
not simple, what is in picture,
moves on from “light”
silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
shadowed green canyon of ridge above it
And wouldn’t you know it, when I went to look at the page in the pile
of pages in the living room, there was a ‘typo’ — the first line read
“first pale orange of sky blackness of trees” (no “above” present, as
was meant to be, and had been, but somehow ‘missing’ in the action of
the line — and easily enough ‘fixed’ by substituting “above” in place
of “first”. . .). Anyway, I realize in looking at this one that it’s
the two middle pairs of lines that act as a kind of thinking/thought/
reflection on the two outer, framing sets of lines, which are what is
‘going on’ out there in the observed/perceived world; the two ‘middle
lines’ being the mental afterimage, which takes place offstage, so to
speak, elsewhere and otherwise, in the language that thinks what goes
on out there, brings it into its own existence by means of just these
words. . . .
As for your “two different ideas here” — or questions, if that’s what
they are? — the one about “so-called Language Poetry” (without the “+
signs,” by which you mean “= signs” I think) and the other about what
“procedural approach” I may have used in doing the Shakespeare sonnet
“erasures” (a word I never actually thought of myself as doing when I
wrote that book, and still don’t like to use in relation to that work
though I realize that people do use it in reference to work like this
work, for whatever that’s worth). I’m sure I’ve said to you, or hope
that I have, that I don’t see any value in using terms like “Language
Poetry” in reference to work that falls outside the historical moment
in which such work was originally made, by those writers who made it.
I said something about this at the beginning of Listening to Reading,
noting that the “experimental” writing that I take up in that book (I
could have said “’avant-garde,’ ‘postmodern,’ ‘innovative,’ ‘language
writing’” and in fact did use those ‘labels’ to point toward the work
that I take up in that book, whose primary concern isn’t to name that
work but to ask how it works, how this writing invites us to read. I
wouldn’t call myself a Language Poet because, though I was in a class
with Ron when we were both at Berkeley, I wasn’t part of the group of
writers who were becoming active in the Bay Area just at that time —
i.e., the mid 1970’s, when the reading series at the Grand Piano that
is now lending its name to a series of books called The Grand Piano /
An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975-1980 —
Silliman, Armantrout, Hejinian, Perelman, Watten et. al. (all of them
as ‘different’ from one another as they could possibly be). I’d come
to Bolinas by 1973, was moving on in the graduate program at Berkeley,
commuting down to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow in ‘74-’75, becoming a
father, working on the Campion project (finished after nine months of
writing at the end of 1978) — and only after that did I really ‘learn’
about the so-called Language Poets, when Bill Berkson (about the only
poet I even knew in Bolinas at that time) gave me his set of original
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazines, published by Charles and Bruce Andrews, in
New York, and what a mind-opening experience that was for me. What a
welcome change, I mean, not just from the world of Renaissance poetry
(which I still teach a class in and still love, some poems from which
— by Wyatt, Raleigh, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, and Herrick,
not to mention Campion — are of still great and lasting VALUE to me!)
but from the dry world of academe that I’d been more or less part of,
but also rather completely on the fringe of for the last six or seven
years, at least since moving to Bolinas. And all of a sudden I found
myself finished with Berkeley and looking at whole new possibilities,
in poetry I mean — a happy coincidence for me as it turned out since,
at that point, I was completely ready to take up my own writing again
in light of what I saw these ‘contemporaries’ doing in their new work —
all of it very exciting to me, all of it undertaken while standing on
the ground of all I had learned about poetry from working on Campion.
But wait a minute, look! — it’s already the next day, and so it’s now
time again to ‘read’ this morning’s poem, if only ‘for the record’ so
to speak, so you’ll get a sense of what I’ve been seeing and thinking
about, even as we speak:
red orange of sun rising above still dark
trees, whiteness of moon in pale blue sky
across from it, sound of waves in channel
that is time-subject and time
to which color was added, red,
executed in charcoal
whiteness of waning moon in pale blue sky,
tree-lined green canyon of ridge below it
And so you too can see the sun coming up “red orange . . . above still
dark trees,” the now waning “whiteness of moon in pale blue sky across
from it,” just as you too can hear the “sound of waves in channel.” I
hope so at least! Also that “whiteness of waning moon” and that “tree-
lined green canyon of ridge” (two things noted the day before, while I
was out in the water). And between these two ‘sets’ of perceptions of
‘real’ things in the world, two found ‘adaptations’ of thoughts, taken
from two things that I happened to read yesterday (Merleau-Ponty first,
Kandinsky second) which seem to have various things to do with what is
(or should I say now was) noted in the opening and closing lines whose
perception of those ‘real’ (actual) ‘onstage actions’ may make what is
‘said’/thought in relation to them somehow, if not more present, maybe
at least more shown, in that saying, bring them as Heidegger might say
from “concealment” into “unconcealment.”
In any case, going back for a moment to Bill Berkson’s copies of those
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazines, really almost the first thing that happened
(after New York Notes I mean, which also had a certain indebtedness to
Bill, who’d grown up in New York, including of course the world of New
York School poetry, and who’d also helped ‘orient’ me to what I’d find
in Manhattan on my first visit there — how to take the Lexington train
up to the Met, MOMA, Whitney, and Guggenheim, for instance) was what I
did in the book now called Distance. I say “now called” because I had
originally, as I was writing it, called it Random House, because every
word in it came out of the Random House dictionary, an idea I got from
Bill Berkson (again!), who suggested to me, following Bernadette Mayer
no doubt (though I didn’t know that at the time and only now think it)
in her list of ‘writing experiments,’ “why not write something using a
‘fixed vocabulary’?” What a great idea! — why not the vocabulary in a
dictionary! So I started turning pages in my (red) copy of the Random
House Collegiate Dictionary, ‘finding’ a word or words on one page and
then another and then another that somehow ‘went together’ or could be
made (as poein comes from the Greek meaning “to make”) to go together.
That was certainly something ‘different’ from what I had been doing on
my own before then, and when I started to send it out to publishers, I
found that people were interested, seemed to like it, but kept sending
me ‘rejection’ notes saying things like “we really like this but we’re
going out of business,” or “we like this but we can’t possibly take on
any new work at this point.” And I thought to myself, this is strange
indeed — maybe I should publish it myself. After all, look at Whitman
and Leaves of Grass, and Dickinson and the fascicles in her desk after
she died, and Williams and Pound and Creeley and every other poet most
admired, who’d all more or less taken a hand in putting out their work
to a public who otherwise might never had known about it. Including I
would say here also Lyn Hejinian, whom I’d written to ask what she, as
a poet I now also most admired, would say about starting up a press to
publish (first) my own book and then books by other writers whose work
I liked, and wanted to ‘support’ — and this is the story behind Avenue
JS [November 12, 2008]
Yes, we can certainly talk further about how you “present and channel
yourself and others.” My take, and of course let me know if I’m way
off course, is along the same lines as the evolution of Morandi’s work,
and the evolution of your own. The people in your text were once real
people, but over time have become essences of people or the forms of
people . . . some might call them characters . . . but nonetheless have
become people as “form and/or light.” I suppose we could zoom out
again and look at a title REAL, and take a look at a regular practice
of documentation, observation, recording, and routine, and look at the
differences between what is ‘real’ and what something/someone is within
a collection of poems.
SR [November 16, 2008]
Hmmmmmm. What do you ‘mean’ by this! Pretty interesting notion, that
something/someone is both ‘real’ and exists in a “series of poems.” I
think it’s true of course, things and people do exist ‘out there’, and
also in writing, in poems. And poems, at least the ones I am thinking
about here, have the capacity to ‘enact’ or otherwise bring into being
those things and people that they are looking at, or coming out of, or
being ‘inspired’ by or ‘based’ upon. This is not simply about “moving
information from one place to another,” as Kenny Goldsmith has put it,
“information” being in that case “words,” but more a case of how words
are things, can be made to be the things they point to, talk about, or
otherwise make mention of. . . . What’s in the poem isn’t, of course,
exactly what’s ‘out there’ in the world – two different ‘animals’ that
are related but decidedly not identical — one physical and one made of
words (which are themselves also indeed ‘physical’). But words have a
life of their own too, made up or and in their own history of being in
the world, being used to ‘say’ things in speech and in writing, and as
such their presence ‘at hand’ is particularly moving to me, as well as
‘interesting’ to contemplate and make use of, to say the least.
JS [November 12, 2008]
We’ve been chatting here via Microsoft Word attachment since mid-July,
and maybe it would be beneficial to talk a bit about the form of the
interview in general. The purpose of an exchange such as this one,
what you as a poet would like to accomplish within these pages, and
perhaps the larger context of an interview within a poet’s body of
poetic work. A way to hash out poetics separate from an essay form? A
conversation adapted for public viewing? A means for a non-
confessional poet to speak personally? Since we’re around 60 pages
deep, we might as well figure out what we want to do with these pages.
SR [November 16, 2008]
Well, what to say about this? The interview is a great form for one
thing, I think. (I published a book of interviews with Ted Berrigan –
co-published I should say, by Avenue B and Leslie’s O Books – called
Talking in Tranquility, and it was really interesting to edit it, to
see in the original typescripts of those interviews how different it
can be from one ‘conversation’ to the next, some of them written and
some spoken, all of them at different times in Berrigan’s life, that
making such a difference (in what he was thinking and talking about),
not to mention the different ‘perspectives’ of those people who were
doing those interviews.) And here, I realize, it gives me some real
occasion to think and talk about things I otherwise don’t quite ever
do, it seems – my work, what I’m doing now, what I’ve been doing all
these years, and so on. And it’s been a great pleasure to me to get
a chance to ‘speak’ (I mean of course ‘write’ – this writing part of
what’s going on here, my shaping of these words on these pages) with
you (in what’s becoming a kind of ‘profile,’ or ‘mini-autobiography’
even). And as for what “to do with these pages” as you say, I’d say
let’s just keep on going, see what comes up, where we get. . . .
JS [November 12, 2008]
Every time I’ve made the mountainous drive from Oakland to Bolinas and
back, which has only ever been to visit you, I’ve thought ‘what a
perfect motorcycle commute.’ As you have to make that drive 3 days a
week or so for work, I ask with all seriousness if you’ve ever
considered buying a motorcycle. . . . Route 1 just seems wholly
designed for a beautiful motorcycle ride.
SR [November 16, 2008]
Nope, never, can’t say I have. Once drove a some kind of small scooter
or motorcycle from San Anselmo out to the Sonoma Coast, planning to get
away for a few days of camping. I went down to one of the beaches, and
when I got back up to the road all my stuff was gone! — my bags I mean,
just that scooter/motorcycle standing there, and so I made my way back
to civilization. When I first starting driving over to Mills, I had a
1968 Volkswagon bus, and after a year of that I realized it was just a
matter of time before I’d get smacked on the freeway, nothing but that
thin piece of metal between my body and the oncoming car. And so that
next year I found an old BMW 2002, for sale across the road from Mills
in fact, and that became my commute car for eight or nine years, until
my daughter drove it off the road above Stinson one foggy morning (she
was driving it to the city on her first day of her senior year in high
school, the road was wet, the tires might have been low, she went into
a skid and ended up ten feet below the road on a flat piece of ground,
car turned around and roof smashed in — so it had rolled — one scratch
on her finger (a lucky girl!). In any case, we need our cars out here
in Bolinas, it’s being so ‘far away’ being both a curse and a blessing
— mostly of course a blessing.
JS [November 12, 2008]
I wonder if you might talk a bit about your relationship with Bob
(Robert Grenier) and the influence each of you has had on one
SR [November 22-23, 2008]
Oh, what a question. Bob’s been a great presence in my life, that’s
for sure! I can’t quite remember when we first ‘officially’ met, it
was sometime in the mid eighties, maybe when he came over with David
Bromige for a visit (I’d met David in 1984 when I was teaching up at
Sonoma State that spring) and again when he moved to Bolinas in 1989
(but I may well have met him back in Berkeley in 1970 or 71, because
I’d gone to Richard Tillinghast’s house on Arch Street, for a class,
and Bob was living in that house at that time, so we might have seen
each other at that time). But in any case we somehow started to get
together more or less once a week to read things — Olson, Pound, and
Whitman were the first things, and it’s moved on since then, and now
has been ‘stuck’ (happily for me) on Heidegger for a number of years
now. The people involved have changed over time — the core group is
now Sean Thackrey (my next door neighbor/famous wine maker/collector
of rare books on winemaking/fluent in German), his ex-wife Susan (Dr.
Thackrey he calls her, who also reads the German and drives out from
the city each week), Etel Adnan and Simone Fattal (when they’re here,
in the Bay Area, rather than in Paris) and Tinker Greene, who drives
out from the city as well. And last Thursday night, Johanna Drucker
also showed up, and an especially lively night it was, I have to say.
Really, there is so MUCH MORE to say about Bob and our relation, and
what he means and has meant to me — but it’s getting late now, and I
have to get up in the morning (poem and surf before Oakland), and so
I’ll have to leave it for another session, which I hope will be soon!
And now it’s the ‘next day’ or, I should say, several days later, and
so before starting in on Bob again I’ll give you this morning’s poem,
which I hope also might provide some sort of segue back to what I can
say here, short of writing a book I mean —
red orange of sky above blackness of trees,
curve of waning white moon above branches
in foreground, sound of waves in channel
diagram of positions, point
of successive leaves
its reflection, conspicuous,
did not matter if it
silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
shadowed green slope of ridge across it
One thing that occurs to me vis-à-vis this one in relation to Bob is
that they’re ALWAYS written in the morning, first thing, the opening
three lines always have to do with what’s going on ‘out there’, when
eyes/ears first open, as nearly as possible at least to that time of
day. That’s something that Bob has noted, probably in ‘contrast’ to
his own habit of working/living — when I called him this morning, at
just before 9 (I’d been awake since first light, had already written
this, had seen that light coming into the south eastern sky where it
begins to get first get light now that the sun has traveled south so
far, almost to its farthest point south, almost the shortest day and
longest night of the year), thinking he’d be awake, he WAS awake and
said he was about to go back to sleep, since he’d been awake since 4
(he often wakes up then, and gets up and reads or goes outside for a
look at things, and then goes back to sleep. But last night he stays
awake it seems, and so he was going to sleep a bit more if he could.
I thought for a moment about the schedule he used to keep, working
nights as a proofreader at the law firm in the city, getting home
afterwards, going to bed, getting up later on. That was what he
happened to do on the work days/nights when I first met him and
somehow, I don’t know quite how he did it, he’d shift into the
opposite, day schedule on the weekends. And he still ‘works’ —
writing, I mean — mostly at night, and so the signs of such
‘signatures’ in his work — moons, owls, dark, — along with
‘AFTER’/’NOON’/’SUN’/SHINE’ and ‘REDW’/’OODD’/’RED’/’WOODS’ —
transcriptions of two of his most recent prints on my wall.
Well, you know, Bob is such a figure in my life, my ‘best friend’ in
Bolinas (along with Michael Gregory, who is a great painter & surfer
too, whom I’ve known for a long time and who I talk to most everyday.
Every time he has a new show of paintings in New York, San Francisco,
Ketcham, ID, I go over to his house to help him figure out names for
the paintings — words/lines/phrases from poems, sometimes mine; it’s
a pleasure for me since I am always stunned by his work, as ‘realism’
that verges on complete ‘abstraction’ — not as Morandi would do it I
mean but there’s something about the way the paint ‘happens’ against
the canvas that’s moving, beautiful to see, especially to me because
sometimes he finds a title for something he’s done that comes out of
something I’ve written, which seems to ‘fit’ it after all, after the
fact.) But anyway, back to Bob. . . .
And now it’s ‘the next day’ again! So it’s time to turn back to this
morning’s poem, and maybe I can find a way to connect it back to what
you asked about my relationship to Bob, our ‘influence’ on each other,
bright orange circle of sun above branches
of trees, white curve of moon in pale blue
sky across from it, sound of wind overhead
linear development of branch,
‘in itself’ is horizon, form,
that a being which is
white cloud in pale blue sky on horizon,
silver of sunlight reflected in channel
And what comes to mind here is that the naming of real things here —
“bright orange circle of sun above branches/ of trees,” and “white
curve of moon in pale blue/ sky across from it” and “sound of wind
overhead” — ‘actions’ really happening this morning, perceived and
‘noted’ in words that attempt to write them down, ‘transcribe’ and
thereby also ‘translate’ them into words that can (somehow) become
them, this naming of things in words that make them “be themselves,”
“look like themselves,” is something of what, to put it too simply,
‘happens’ in one of Bob’s drawing poems, his “AFTER NOON SUN SHINE”
that’s up there on the wall beside the front door, afternoon sun’s
light no longer shining on it though it was a while ago, its red &
black & green & blue inks shadowed, the blue ‘circle’ above “i” in
“shine” being written almost to the top of the page, ‘overlapping’
“AFTER” and “NOON” and being, as Bob says, the sun itself. That’s
really something I think, how can that be? What Bob does here and
elsewhere (indeed, everywhere!), does, again to put it too simply,
As for my ‘influence’ on him I have no idea — something to ask him.
JS [January 5, 2009]
My apologies for the delay (the mildly interesting part is that anyone
who reads this will just go from the previous q & a to this one without
any idea that a month has lapsed since we last added an exchange to
this document). I lost my focus on just about everything creative I’d
been working on; I don’t really know why . . . maybe just a necessary
period of avoiding my stubborn persistence with the same projects. In
any case, thinking of that has got me curious about how you might deal
with similar situations with your own work. For example, if I read
Portraits & Repetition and then read REAL the similarities and the
differences of form are evident. Two questions, I suppose: do you
finish with one text and move to another as the form evolves from one
to the other, or do you decide to finish a text & consciously change a
form after deciding to move on? That is, do you decide when the text
ends, or does the form decide for you when you’ve exhausted what you’d
like to achieve with it? And two, is there transitional material that
you write between texts, work that we never see, or does one text lead
directly into the next? This is all essentially concerned with a very
small element of process and craft; as I said, my focus has wavered a
bit, and I’m curious as to how you maintain, sustain, and grow your
focus as it relates to each text (especially your larger works) and how
you know when to consider one “finished.”
SR [January 13-15, 2009]
Well, thanks for this! And yes, it’s been a while now, the last I sent
you something was 11.23, and it’s now 1.13.09 (already), time’s passing
even as we speak. I got a real sense of it today/night, looking at sun
setting into a completely calm/’pacific’ ocean, disappearing below that
line of horizon, bright (blinding) orange circle becoming flattened out
as it began to slip away, thinner and thinner until it was just a line,
out there on the horizon, line getting shorter and shorter until it was
just a point, and then gone — just colors. No green flash, which I was
looking to see but can’t say that I did — though I thought I would, and
hoped at least that I might, the conditions looking good tonight. . . .
Anyway, it’s a really good question, one I’m thinking about a lot these
last days myself in fact, since the question (for me) of when a work is
done or ‘finished’ is something I’m trying to figure out now, since the
work I’m doing now seems to be somewhere between a continuation of what
I’ve been working on for a long time now (1,279 consecutive days, to be
exact) and a new poem/work, that began just 279 days ago (on April 10th
in Paris, in fact) and has been going on since then. I realize I don’t
REALLY have to ‘figure this out’ — answer this question, I mean — right
now, all I really have to do is keep writing the poem, day by day, that
will be enough. But nonetheless the issue of when the work is finished
came up for me at that point, since the work I’d been writing, which is
(or was) called Remarks on Color, had reached its predetermined ‘end’ I
thought, at page 1,000, and so should have come to an end, except there
I was in the Hotel Suede in Paris, staying in the room with my daughter
Oona and getting up early to go teach some classes at the International
School of Paris, no time to THINK about what would come next (as a work
I mean) and not wanting simply to STOP — not having a sense of presence
about me, in which to ‘figure out’ the next step so to speak, and so it
seemed the only thing to do was to KEEP GOING, write the poem for April
10, which continued more or less where the one from April 9 had stopped
(as you would see if I quoted them here, which maybe I SHOULD do!), and
Oona asking too “why do you have to stop? why can’t you just continue?”
And of course she was right (as usual!) and so I did just that, kept on
with it and here we are today at page 1,279, and the pages piling up on
the table in the living room, and by now I realize how easily I can let
that happen, and either let Remarks on Color ‘stop’ at p. 1,000 and the
new (current) work begin at that point, or let it keep going, it really
doesn’t matter much to me at this point — the point is just to keep the
work going, try to make it ‘happen’ from one day to the next, every day
a new piece of the whole, larger ‘thing’ (whatever it is!). Anyway, it
might be interesting to look at that those two poems, April 9 and April
10, just to see how ‘connected’ they are (or are not), at least in time
and place, and how the question you ask about how I “decide to finish a
text” is really a question about what the work is, its epistemology you
might say, which is something I’m thinking about a lot these days since
the stack of pages in the next room keeps getting taller, and I keep on
wondering what to ‘do’ with it, what ‘good’ is it, etc. . . .
silver circle of sunlight in grey whiteness of sky,
shadowed plane of sandstone-colored wall in lower
left foreground, sound of cars passing in street
when eye wanders away from the edge,
white crops the image
in this way, horizon of possible,
though each appearance
edge of sandstone wall against grey white sky,
shadowed green leaves of trees across from it
first grey light coming into sky above shadowed
wall, bird calling on branch in left foreground
across from it, sound of cars passing in street
seeing a shadow, am conscious
of having seen nothing
lines sometimes broken, drawn,
more or less pressure
whiteness of sky reflected in green glass wall,
shadowed sandstone-colored wall across from it
I can’t say much about these at this point — the buildings of Paris
are there, sound of bird on branch, cars on street — I can see/hear
it all (in my mind’s eye/ear) but that’s not really the point, it’s
more that these things ‘happened’ — onstage action so to speak — in
that real time and place, and were ‘transcribed’ just as they ‘show
themselves’ here (I’m anticipating the question you’ve asked below,
about Heidegger, here), along with ‘adaptations’ of statements from
Sol LeWitt and Merleau-Ponty in “4.9,” and an essay called “Poussin
and Nature: Arcadian Vision” by Pierre Rosenberg (in the NYRB) and
something from an essay by Briony Fer (in a book called Abstraction:
New Methods of Drawing which Oona had) in “4.10.” Anyway the place
and time connected to ‘readings’ / text material, going on in these
two poems, one MAYBE the last of one work and the next the FIRST of
the next work. . . the most recent installment of which is this one
from today —
orange of sun rising behind shadowed green
trees, white circle of moon above branches
in left foreground, sound of wind overhead
sun behind trees, same view
of field behind trees
to begin the following line,
blue whiteness of sky to the left of point,
sunlit green slope of ridge across from it
— same stuff going on, more or less — things ‘happening’/perceived in
the landscape, coupled with (placed beside) things I’ve run across in
my recent reading, in this case a book on Van Gogh’s drawings next to
something from T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, a fascinating ‘close
reading’ of two paintings by Poussin. Which might raise the question
Why put these things together? What’s going on here?
But back to your question (and now it’s two days later, so we see how
time keeps going on, how the ‘continuity’ of the (writing) work seems
to get interrupted by daily ‘things — this morning, my friend Michael
Gregory called me up and said, “we really have to go” [to the city to
surf] and since the conditions looked good and we both ‘had the time’
we did. And it was good, beautiful really even though the waves were
small, perfect conditions for Ocean Beach, and by the time I got back
it was almost time to pick up Johnny from the preschool, and now it’s
tonight, too late really to get back into THIS but I wanted to make a
mark at least, not let too much time go by before getting back to you
again! And this is really, for me, part of what’s at issue in what’s
behind your ‘question’ — how to decide when a text ends and what will
happen next, in the writing. It’s the ‘what’s next?’ part that’s the
hardest — once you stop, what do you do? Will you be able to start a
new ‘project’? Do anything else? And that’s sort of (in part) why I
am still putting the pages I’m writing now on top of the pages in the
Remarks on Color pile, that work having arrived at page 1,000 back in
April and this new work (if it IS a new work) having started up then,
the next day (“one text lead[ing] directly into the next,” as you say
here, and as it has been from REAL to CLOUD / RIDGE to HUMAN / NATURE
to Remarks on Color to (now) Temporality, i.e, 3,229 consecutive days
(and the 474 pages/days of Portraits & Repetition before that, except
that there WAS a break from P&R to REAL — a break from 5.28.99, which
is when P&R stopped, until 3.15.00, which is when REAL started, so it
was an ‘hiatus’ in the writing of these long works of some nine and a
half months — how many days exactly, I wonder? Was 2000 a leap year?
I really MUST figure it out, right now! -- 2000 WAS a leap year, so I
must have taken a break of exactly 291 days between P&R and REAL, and
otherwise they’ve just kept going from one to the next, no ‘stopping’
at all, each one being a different work, written in a different form,
but also part of the larger whole continuous ‘work’ that’s now become
what I’m doing these days, it seems. Anyway as you can see, it’s all
about numbers — P&R and REAL and CLOUD / RIDGE are all 474 pages/days
(an arbitrary number, something that came about in the writing of P&R
and I thought, when I started up again after that break of nine and a
half months, “maybe I can do a set of THREE such books, a ‘tryptich’”
— and so that became a possibility, something to aim for. And then I
did that and thought “What next?” And started in, with a new ‘form’/
‘shape’ on the page, to the work that became HUMAN / NATURE, which as
I approached page/day 474 didn’t want to stop, and so I continued it,
thinking at some point that maybe it could go on to page/day 1,000, a
work perhaps comparable to Stein’s The Making of Americans, her 1,000
page novel (though in the Something Else Press edition that I have it
is something like 928 pages, I forget exactly what — so maybe she was
rounding it up? Anyway, maybe that brings me up to today’s poem, the
one I wrote in the notebook before driving Johnny to school, and then
driving on into the city with Michael to surf; the one I typed when I
got back home, before driving back to Stinson to pick up Johnny —
orange circle of sun rising behind shadowed
green branches, half moon in pale blue sky
across from it, sound of waves in channel
angles formed “left,” “above”
and “below” the other
trees in landscape, principle
subject, living being
silver line of sun reflected in channel,
waning white moon in cloudless blue sky
— more of sun rising through trees, a waning moon setting across from
it (nothing but clear blue skies these days, no rain in sight), which
‘frame’ things ‘found’ in Kandinsky and the Van Gogh book of drawings
(both of which have been ‘adjusted’ to fit the ‘requirements’ of line
length, shape-on-the-page, etc., both of which also have something to
do with those things perceived, or so I think).
JS [January 5, 2009]
Earlier we chatted a bit about Molly Lou Freeman and Carnet de Route;
Molly reviewed REAL for the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter (#215
April/June 08). One point she brings up:
REAL proposes a masterful correlative to da Vinci’s notions of
the visual—in the now. Ratcliffe explores the figure, the
landscape, the composition of perspective in the service of the
poem and as the action of pictorial composition—with exquisite
rigor of syntactical form—to mimetically and philosophically
examine the sentence and poetic line—a system of notation of the
reality—like a painter’s.
Formally, there exists an internal musicality to all your work, as well
as something that could be compared to Mondrian’s paintings and “grids”
. . . not to mention something of sculpture in the clear abundance of
text you create before chiseling down the page count for each title.
There’s also something reminiscent of photography or of filmmaking.
Ultimately, and this is something Molly covers in wonderful detail, is
that perhaps the “realness” of your work lies somewhere in this
confluence of forms and art-forms, and then in how this is all observed
and objectively presented. And what of this confluence? Is it
intentional, or a byproduct of a life spent open to influence from all
SR [January 18, 2009]
Well, yes, I like what you say here about Mondrian’s paintings (which I
am looking at a lot these days, and ‘reading’ in catalogues of the show
I first saw at the Whitney in 1983 I think (the poem we talked about in
New York Notes came out of that, with the line about Morandi’s painting
the same thing over and over again – “Landscape and Landscape and Still
Life and Still Life”) and the recent show at the Met – and also “grids”
(as in Mondrian, say, whose name I recently realized is almost, but not
quite, an anagram of “Morandi”), the horizontal/vertical shape of lines
on my pages being somehow analogous to the grid in those paintings. In
today’s poem, coincidentally, the words in the first two indented lines
come from that first Morandi book —
red orange of sun rising through dark green
of trees, white half moon in pale blue sky
across from it, sound of wind in branches
in three-dimensional pattern,
from lower left corner
of the frame, see foreground,
arrived at point where
blue white horizon to the left of point,
slope of sandstone cliff across from it
So there’s something about the exact same length of the lines in these
two middle stanzas that’s like the shaping of two-dimensional space in
Mondrian’s painting, by means of his use of horizontal/vertical lines,
as well as primary colors (red, yellow, blue, in variously repetitive-
seeming patterns that really aren’t quite ever exactly the same), plus
the relation between patterns in the three-dimensional, physical world
‘out there’ and the two-dimensional, physical world of the poem on the
page, that’s going on here. And that’s part of what I’m trying to get
at here, figure out here: what is that relation between what’s ‘going
on’ in the world (‘there’) and on the page (‘here’)? What is language
doing in ‘writing down’ (“showing,” as Heidegger would say) such ‘real
things’ as “sun rising through dark green/ of trees”? And I also like
what you say here about “sculpture,” especially now in relation to the
two piles of pages on the table in the next room (1,000 pages of HUMAN
/ NATURE on the right, 1,284 pages of Remarks on Color and Temporality
on the left), the ‘materiality’ of words becoming part of the physical
JS [January 5, 2009]
For some time now you’ve participated in a (weekly?) Heidegger reading
group. Admittedly, my reading of Heidegger is not remotely
comprehensive, and so to make it as basic as possible, there appears to
be a clear focus of the differences between “being” and the “nature of
being” . . . that is, Heidegger seems to dislike philosophy’s attention
on “being” itself, and the construction of reality outward from that
definition, and focuses his work instead on questions of what “being”
itself is. Working backwards, apparently, to assuage a permanence of
being and posit instead a history of being. I’m curious about the
relationship of your own work to this type of idea. With a title such
as REAL, the reader might expect clear, straightforward “reality”; what
we confront instead is an enormous collection of reality and realities
as they interweave to build a palimpsest and grid of realities that are
“real” only in a dichotomy of singularity and permanence and repetition
and impermanence . . . objective poetic presentations of real
observations as they happen and within their contexts, and (perhaps
most importantly) in their entirety . . . maybe the story,
documentation, and history of what is real (or it becomes the history
by the time the text reaches the reader), rather than simply what is
real. Is that a fair correlation at all? Are there other specific
elements from Heidegger that have shaped your work as a whole?
SR [January 18, 2009]
Oh, what a question! You know, I really can’t comment on what you say
here (about what Heidegger is doing/saying/thinking I mean). But what
I CAN say is that we (Bob, Etel Adnan, Simone Fattal and I) started to
read the essays in Heidegger’s Early Greek Thinking, it must have been
in the spring of 2000, because that’s when references begin to show up
in REAL, which means (to me) that that’s when I began to read and also
think about Heidegger. Those essays (“The Anaximander Fragment,” then
“Logos [Heraclitus, Fragment B 50],”, then “Moira [Parmenides VIII, 31-
1943-1954, according to the “Translators’ Preface” (twenty years after
Being and Time), were a revelation to me, in that they seem ‘connected’
to my own work. To give you some idea of what I’m thinking about here,
here are the references to Heidegger that come up in REAL:
Short grey-haired man reading Heidegger's Being and Time almost
40 years ago, human defined as being-toward-death. (12.24)
Man in blue shirt thinking of Robinson Crusoe's "shipwrecked
English sailor who lived for years on a small tropical island,"
Heidegger's notion of those who persist in hanging on. (2.20)
Heidegger explaining that saying is "letting-lie-together-
before," which is "the very presencing of what is present."
Man on the phone thinking Heidegger relates to what man in blue
shirt is doing, moving what may be "concealed" into
Heidegger thinking we have ears because we need to hear "the
ringing of plucked strings," which they hear because they "always
already in some way belong to them." (3.29)
Man in black tee-shirt noting that the cucumber lies on the
ground, woman recalling Heidegger's proposition that "in
representational thinking everything comes to be a being." (4.22)
Woman in the green chair seeing that for Heidegger being and
becoming are the same, "bestowing on every presencing a light in
which something present can appear." (4.30)
Heidegger speaking of Greek phrase for sink into the clouds, man
in black sweatshirt drawing a box around "entire calm grey sky."
Heidegger thinking Heraclitus is lucid rather than obscure, who
writes of a "lighting whose shining he attempts to call forth
into language of thinking." (5.8)
Heidegger suddenly translating Homer's Greek for "to live, and
this means to see the light of the sun." (5.13)
Man in the blue shirt who walks up having parked the black car in
the driveway, wondering whether a woman reading Heidegger will be
able to translate a 12th century Arab manuscript on making wine.
Heidegger's penultimate paragraph beginning "the golden gleam of
lighting's invisible shining," man in black tee-shirt noting that
everyday you wake up you aren't dead. (5.20)
Woman on phone thinking that hearing mother's heartbeat in womb
made us want to beat on drum, Heidegger's sense that "the
gatherers assemble to coordinate the work to sheltering." (5.26)
And so you can see in some of these passages things that are obviously
of interest: the notion that writing is "letting-lie-together-before,"
which is "the very presencing of what is present"; "bestowing on every
presencing a light in which something present can appear," a "lighting
whose shining he attempts to call forth into language of thinking." I
am struck by Heidegger’s sense of how language makes the ‘real’ things
of the world present, brings them into existence, in a word ‘realizes’
them, in writing. We have just now finished reading the last essay in
Basic Writings, called “The Way to Language,” which seems particularly
resonant with things I’m thinking about in my present work — relations
between “saying” and showing” (Sagen and Zeigen in Heidegger’s German,
which is constantly playing on the sounds/senses of words, which isn’t
something you get out of the English translation we’re using but which
we CAN get a sense of because we’re also looking at the German, thanks
to Sean Thackrey, the famous winemaker (and my next door neighbor) who
has been following the German with us since we started Elucidations of
Holderlin’s Poetry, and so we’re able to get a sense of what is taking
place in German that’s distorted/lost (in Keith Hoeller’s translation,
at least). Anyway here we are, still reading Heidegger, a few pages a
week, reading and talking and talking and reading, with Susan Thackrey
and Tinker Greene also ‘in the mix’ — so it’s a ‘social event’ for all
of us as well as, of course, the reading.
JS [January 5, 2009]
We’ve already mentioned a musicality in your work, as well as certain
influences from musicians (Campion, Cage, et al). How else has music
influenced your poetry? Are there specific artists you listen to when
writing? I know you’ve done some very interesting cross-genre readings
(opening up for a noise band at The Smell in LA, the aforementioned 14-
hour reading at UC Davis with musical accompaniment, etc.). I suppose
I’m just trying to get you to chat a bit about where music lies in your
overall realm of influence and how it influences your work.
SR [February 1, 2009]
Well, yes, all these days since I last sat down to this, and here again
another ‘question’ I could go on (and on) about. It would be too much,
possibly, to say that “music is everything” (and probably not accurate,
for that matter, since the visual shape of words on the page is crucial
to my work — as is also what the words are ‘saying’ I hope!), but it is
central. When I was young, I used to think that all I could do was put
syllables/words together by sound. I took it as a kind of ‘lack’ on my
part — I couldn’t articulate ‘ideas’ or tell a ‘story’ or whatever, all
I seemed to be able to do was put ‘things’ (i.e., letters and syllables
and words and lines) together ‘by sound.’ Now I see it as something of
great ‘value’ in fact, something poets in one way or another inevitably
do. Poems take place in time (at least when they are read) and letters
and syllables and words make sound (again, at least when they are read)
and what the ear hears when one writes is crucial to what gets written.
What was for me at first completely ‘intuitive’ (how things sounded, in
relation to other things I mean) became, because of my work on Campion,
more conscious, something I realized was taking place even as I did it.
And it’s continued that way ever since — I know a line is ‘set’ when it
sounds right — at least that’s part of the way I know, the other part’s
how it looks on the page (what the eye sees as well as ear hears). And
so my sense of sound taking place in the poem goes on constantly, which
isn’t exactly the ‘music’ of the poem as much as it is attention to the
sound of the materials themselves. It doesn’t have anything to do with
any actual music ‘out there’ (I don’t listen to music when I’m writing,
only to the sounds of birds and waves in the channel, it seems). Here,
for example, is today’s poem, with something of the sounds I sensed are
taking place in these lines —
orange edge of sun rising behind shadowed
green branches, sparrow landing on table
in foreground, sound of wave in channel
varying degree of resistance,
the beginning of this
attention, sphere that rises,
its equivocal meaning
silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
shadowed canyon of ridge across from it
And what I could now point to (as things I was more or less consciously
aware of when I wrote this this morning) are: the or sound in “orange”
and “foreground” in the first three lines, along with short a sounds in
“shadowed,” “branches,” “landing” and “channel”; a long a sound in both
“table” and “wave”; an ou sound in “foreground” and “sound.” Relations
like these (which take place with these and other sounds in other lines
that follow — the long e of “green” reappears in “meaning,” the short a
of “channel” and “shadowed” is heard in “resistance,” “that,” “channel”
and “shadowed,” etc. But enough of all this! You see (or hear) what I
mean, I think! And besides, the Super Bowl is over, your team won, you
must be happy! (I confess, as the game went on, I found myself pulling
for the Cardinals, wanting them to make that miraculous final touchdown
BE the final touchdown, and then your team marched down the field as if
they were truly unstoppable, and they were, and then that last pass and
Holmes caught it and got both feet down in the end zone and that was it
. . . .)
JS [February 11, 2009]
Yeah, that Super Bowl was fantastic. David Horton swung by as he was
one of the few locals (though has since relocated to China) who was
rooting for Pittsburgh. . . . So I had all these drought-related
questions lined up – heard ya’ll got put on a 150-gallon-per-day ration
up there by the lagoon - and then the rain came back to town. I track
water levels by the Codornices Creek, which flows from the Berkeley
Hills, forms the Albany/Berkeley border, and then hits the Albany Flats
as it mingles with bay tidewaters and returns to the ocean. A half-
block north of Harrison Street there’s a little waterfall and a couple
piles of rocks that form some calm little eddies and some interesting
patterns before it all hits a culvert and gets directed below those
all-important streets and freeways. Anyway, it’s not the best creek
around, but it’s the nearest to where I work and I take my lunch on
various rock islands, depending on the water level. My favorite little
island is a bit boring when the water’s too low, and submerged when
it’s too high; this winter marks the first that I’ve seen where this
particular island has yet to be submerged. I’ve never once taken the
time to look at the creek’s data for seasonal average CFS levels; I
just go by my little rock island. I have no clue where this is going.
I know you start every day with a trip into the water, but I also don’t
know very much about lagoons in general, and I guess I’m just trying to
get you talking about the drought and its impact on Bolinas, as you
seemed to be the hardest hit Bay Area community. You know me; I’ve
always been a bit more interested in water levels than in poetry. . . .
SR [February 15, 2009]
Well now that you mention it. . . . Yesterday the wind started to blow
again, out of the southwest, off the ocean, which means storm of course
— low pressure system moving in, winds going counter-clockwise, kicking
things up, the whole of Bolinas Bay beginning to turn white with waves,
breaking everywhere by the time I went out at 12 noon (late for me, yes
but I wanted to hang out with Johnny as long as I could before I had to
give him back to his mom, Valentine’s Day, the day before his birthday,
and now he’s gone again, alas). . . . Anyway, I went out just to get a
bit wet, because I had some kind of ‘something’ that I must have picked
up from him — he threw up at the Heidegger reading Thursday night, over
at Etel and Simone’s house in Sausalito, right there in the living room
on the red Persian carpet! — and by yesterday I was feeling it too (and
he was fine again of course) but wanted to get in the water at least to
keep THAT going, and to see if I could do it in my ‘weakened condition’
too — but mostly just to go out there and SEE what was going on for the
record so to speak, for the poem I would write the next day, i.e., this
morning’s poem, which includes some ‘note’ of what was happening out in
all that weather —
grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed
green ridge, red finch perched on feeder
in foreground, sound of wind in branches
plane, the way formal elements
extend picture forward
apparent size of object, color,
‘immune to influences’
grey rain cloud on horizon next to point,
gull standing on triangular orange GROIN
— e.g., rain clouds moving across the horizon, the gull standing there.
It’s hardly the whole picture (indeed, hardly any of it!) but something
at least, this activity of getting into the water part of my ‘research’
(as I now think of it) for the poem, along with various bits of reading
that also go into it — in the two middle stanzas I mean, the first here
from Kandinsky, the second from Merleau-Ponty, both of which I found in
looking through those books last night before I went up to bed at 7 pm,
the wind really blowing by then (but no real rain yet, that came later)
and it blowing all night, blew my rain gauge off the outside table so I
don’t how much rain fell. . . . And so yes, the rains have come, maybe
there won’t be a drought this year after all? — but I doubt it, January
was completely dry (clear blue days, cold starry nights, excellent surf
conditions too, but where was the rain? — well it’s here now, so that’s
good, even your creek must be flowing. . . .). And yes, Bolinas is now
dealing with a “MANDATORY WATER CONSERVATION MEASURES IN EFFECT/ PLEASE
REDUCE YOUR WATER CONSUMPTION/ IMMEDIATELY!!” notice that’s gone out to
all Postal Patrons (and was pinned to the front gate too — 150 gallons/
day/per household, and it seems to me that unless it rains non-stop for
the next two months we’ll have some serious water shortages this summer
— all our water comes from a small creek in the hills above Palo Marin,
after all (and if that goes dry, then what?).
JS [February 11, 2009]
Speaking of basic cut & dry impacts, I’m curious about what your
process and practice of writing has most clearly established. As I
look at your work, what seems evident to me is that the form and
approach you’ve built for yourself minimizes, if not gets rid of
altogether, the process of editing. That is, if you’ve got something
that doesn’t sound ‘quite right’ you just get to move on from it the
next day. It’s so clearly set in the now, that there’s no need to try
and fix up the yesterday stuff. Just moving on seems to be the most
natural way to edit, but I think a lot of folks (myself included) spend
a ton of time going back to try and improve what we were trying to say
. . . maybe this is the evolutionary poetics I always bring up . . .
the strongest survive, while the anomalies are quietly reserved for
your unpublished folders and files. Or do you spend time editing and
reworking pieces before compiling a final manuscript?
SR [February 15, 2009]
A good segue (“cut and dry”). . . . But I don’t quite get what you are
thinking here – at least hope I’m not “one of the anomalies” whose work
ends up in “unpublished folders and files.” (Meanwhile those stacks of
pages on the table keep getting taller, one page at a time, and what to
do about that?) But seriously, I DO “edit” each poem each day, just as
I do it (I mean as I TYPE it — the handwritten poem in the notebook no,
it’s just written out ‘as words,’ but when I type I go to the computer,
that same morning, that’s when everything gets ‘adjusted’ to fit what’s
going on visually, shape-wise, on the two-dimensional page). And then,
I hope, it DOES “sound ‘quite right’” so I do “just get to move on from
it the next day . . . no need to try and fix up the yesterday stuff” as
you say – though when it comes time to publish the whole manuscript I’m
always faced with the problem of how (or even whether?) to bring things
that were written early in the project, when I didn’t quite know what I
was doing (in REAL for example, 5 sentences on each page, each sentence
with a comma, a certain visual ‘shape’ to the right margin, things like
that), how or whether to ‘adjust’ the earlier things to bring them into
‘line’ with what eventually came to be the shape of things in the book.
(The alternative, of course, is to leave everything as it stands in the
first, ‘original’ writing, so that the evolution of the work can become
apparent to someone who might be reading it — supposing there is such a
person, reading pages sequentially through the book.) So yes of course
I go over all of it, VERY CLOSELY! when it comes time to put together a
“final manuscript” as you say (and also for poems going into magazines,
if I get to see proofs at least — and with things online there is often
something that gets ‘off’ with the indented lines, I’m not sure why but
it happens, something about sending it electronically it seems, e.g., a
line that is meant to begin three spaces to the right of the end of the
previous line, in a work like CLOUD / RIDGE or HUMAN / NATURE at least,
ends up beginning too far to the left, which messes up the shape of the
right margin, etc.). But you’re right, writing a poem a day means that
you don’t really have time to ‘revise’ what you wrote yesterday, or the
day before that — a great ‘cure’ for someone who takes years to write a
‘perfect’ poem! (Nor is it really “first thought best thought,” for me
at least, because I really AM working on those first thoughts even as I
am writing — or at least typing — them.)
JS [February 11, 2009]
Since we’ve mentioned your process and practice of writing numerous
times, I was wondering if you might walk us through or map out your
daily routine . . . what are the constants and what varies from day to
SR [February 15, 2009]
Well, it’s not much to speak about — I wake up and look out the window,
(I hear things before I open my eyes — “sound of wind in branches,” all
night long last night! “sound of waves in channel” every morning, birds
beginning to announce their presence), and go downstairs, make some tea
and toast, write down what I’ve seen and heard in the ‘little’ notebook
(which then become the first three lines of the poem I write in a ‘big’
notebook, whose middle two sections come from the notes in the ‘little’
notebook, from things I’ve been reading, and whose final two lines also
come out of that ‘little’ notebook, a ‘transcription’ of what I saw out
in the water yesterday). Then, usually, I go out in the water (time to
do more ‘research’!), then come back and type up what I’ve written, and
then move on to everything else that’s going on that day. So that's it
more or less, with all the little adjustments one makes in a given day.
But for me, doing the poem first is crucial, getting it written (before
everything else takes over!), because until that’s done something isn’t
quite right, and after I’ve written it, well, everything is good again.
. . .
JS [March 24, 2009]
I wonder how your work as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford influenced your
work, or the role it filled among your various studies and scholarship.
You were already in Bolinas when you began the fellowship, right?
That’s quite a commute from the lagoon down to Palo Alto. I know
you’re primarily a Cal guy, but I wonder what your work as a Stegner
Fellow did both for your work and for you.
SR [March 24-29, 2009]
Ah, what a ‘question’. . . ! I could go on and on, and have in fact
been thinking about all of that because a woman in Italy wrote to me
(email, ‘out of the blue’) wanting me to send whatever thought I had
about my experience down there, for a book project she’s doing about
what she called the “key places of the american literary culture” –
this being the first book in the project she says (her name is Nicola
Manuppelli by the way, and I have no idea what’s going to come of all
this but I DID write something for her, getting me to think of things
that led up to it, and a bit of what it was to me, something of which
I’d like to think about here. But first, because we haven’t ‘spoken’
in more than a month now, here’s today’s poem, just to catch
you up with things now that it’s spring (!) –
first silver edge of sun rising over black
ridge, birds calling from branches in left
foreground, sound of wind passing overhead
independent visual events,
linear formations, second,
also without changing
silver line of sun reflected in channel,
bright blue sky on horizon beside point
(As you can see, the sun is moving north again, coming up over
the ridge again rather than behind the trees which are further
south from my vantage point here; and the birds are everywhere
first thing; and it’s getting windy; and we are now officially
in the third year of less than normal rainfall, cloudless blue
sky on the horizon. These things being among the “independent
visual events” that keep occurring here, in “linear formations
. . . without changing” -- these adapted passages from Wai-Lim
Yip’s “Introduction to Chinese Poetry which we’ve been reading
between Heidegger books the last few weeks, and H. Minkowski’s
essay “Space and Time” from a book I picked up the last time I
read at Moe’s, I realize, called The Principles of Relativity,
with other pieces “By A. Einstein, H. A. Lorentz, and H. Weyl”
— so much for ‘sources’.)
Anyway, another day — cloudless blue sky, tree-lined green ridge,
wind blowing sunlit green grass in the field in the foreground —
back to the Stanford thing, but first today’s poem, just typed —
grey light coming into sky above still black
ridge, birds calling from branches in lower
left foreground, sound of waves in channel
land of blue tones and color,
see a different light
two surfaces, four variables,
that the rotations of
green of ridge below cloudless blue sky,
silver of sunlight reflected in channel
— really into spring weather now, big wind last night, black sky filled
with stars, first light coming into the sky above black plane of ridge,
which is now sunlit dark or lighter green (where the trees are aren’t).
Anyway, I thought maybe I could talk about the Stanford experience by
including here what I sent to Nicola Manuppelli in Italy, which might
never get seen here in English (I have no idea what she’s going to do
with this project, or if anything will happen at all for that matter).
So this is what I wrote, beginning with a little ‘history’:
I first heard about Yvor Winters and the legacy he’d created at
Stanford in 1968, as an undergraduate English major at Berkeley.
At the prompting of two older high school friends who were also
at Berkeley, I took at class in Comp Lit from Elroy (or Roy, as
we all called him) Bundy, a professor at Classics and Comp Lit
who met with us once a week at his house on Milvia Street. We
would sit around for 2-3 hours talk with him — mostly listening
to HIM talk, it now seems to me — about a few lines from a poem,
sometimes one of his poems, once a poem by Richard Wilbur, once
“The Astromers of Mont Blanc” by Edgar Bowers, sometimes a poem
by Winters himself (not the early ones, but ones like “The Slow
Pacific Swell,” one of Roy’s all-time favorites), and sometimes
even something by J.V. Cunningham — the epigrams from Dr. Drink
were something we talked about I think, Roy being now a reformed
alcoholic, who gave the credit for his turnaround not to AA but
to Yvor Winters, why I wasn’t quite sure, but it had to do with
Winters’ strength of moral conviction, his backbone, his “I can
do anything I set my mind to” attitude. The most amazing thing
that came out of those late nights sitting around at Roy’s house
was the sense that words have meanings — multiple meanings, ones
that go way back in time, interlaced with one another, acting in
relation to one another across time and space. Roy would sit in
a large chair in the living room surrounded by piles of books on
the floor — the OED (all 26 volumes were all there in the house),
Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Word Origins, various poetry books
by Winters and his descendents (Bower’s The Astronomers plus The
Form of Loss, Cunningham’s Collected Poems and his book of essays,
Tradition and Poetic Structure, which was especially prized). I’m
remembering all this from nearly forty years ago now, and it seems
almost as clear and fresh and exciting as it did then. I learned
more about poetry in those few classes (we all enrolled each term —
whatever the ‘subject’/’topic’ might be, it was always how to read
poetry, poetry Roy wanted to read, which seemed fine to me at that
time) than I’d ever imagined before — about the ‘close reading’ of
poems, reading the words, thinking about them in relation to other
words, taking whatever time it took to read and think about just a
few lines (it would sometimes — often — take us weeks to read just
those few lines). Anyway, there was Winters (or at least had been)
down at Stanford, teaching and writing his books, and I started to
read everything he had written, made him my “helmsman,” put myself
under his star.
So there were the Collected Poems, The Early Poems of Yvor Winters,
and the books of critical writings — In Defense of Reason, The Form
of Loss, and its companion anthology Quest for Reality (all of them
published by Swallow, who had also published Cunningham and Bowers,
of course). And then there was everything that Winters pointed to,
especially in The Form of Loss, all the poets and books one needed
to read in order to know what had been done up to this point, what
was important. Winters and Pound were, in this regard, like twins
— one read them to find out not only what they thought but what one
needed to read, in order to know what to think at all, in the first
place. (And so, for me, reading first Pound and then Winters, led
eventually to Campion, about whose song “Now Winter Nights Enlarge,”
which Winters praised in The Form of Loss and Quest for Reality, I
ended up writing my dissertation on — soon thereafter published as
Campion: On Song, an entire book on one 24-line song, something I
owe in part to those classes at Roy Bundy’s house, as well as to a
fortunate meeting later in my time at Berkeley with Stephen Booth,
with whom I never had a class but who became my other great mentor,
showing — by his own brilliant example — how one really could read
a poem ‘closely.’) But that came later, after my time at Stanford
(and also after meeting three other people at Berkeley all of whom
had been at Stanford and had known Winters. One, N. Scott Momaday,
taught a Comp Lit “Studies in the Novel” class (we read Pan by Knut
Hamsen and Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina among other things)
and never really talked about Winters, though I knew of course that
Winters thought the world of his writing and had prompted the work
that led to his edition of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s Collected
Poems. Another, Raymond (or Ray as I came to know him; both of us
were married to wives who had grown up on the same small street in
Mobile, Alabama and so we ended up spending a lot of time together)
Oliver, had studied poetry with Winters and continued to write his
own poems (he’d also written a wonderful book called Poems Without
Names, on the Medieval English short poem) celebrating an Horatian
‘good life’ centered around domestic happiness. Ray introduced me
to one of his colleagues from Stanford, Thom Gunn, who was then in
San Francisco of course (he was later to teach at Berkeley himself,
and years later, when I taught there in several of Summer Sessions,
I had his office on the fourth floor of Wheeler Hall). I remember
driving him home after dinner at Ray’s house that night, long hair
and blue jeans, the black leather jacket — as completely different
from Ray as one could imagine and yet there they were, both lovely
men who had encountered Winters at Stanford, learned from him, and
continued to forge ahead in their own very different writing. And
so, as time went on and I heard about the possibility of getting a
Stegner Poetry Fellowship at Stanford, I made great sense to me to
try and get one.
My first application went nowhere, but I reapplied the next year —
it must have been in late 1973 or early 1974 (we were living here,
in Bolinas, by then, I was working as a Teaching Assistant, making
that commute two days a week and trying to figure out how to write
a dissertation on Campion — I’d met Booth by then, didn’t know how
to proceed with things). Anyway, the second application worked, I
had sent them poems that impressed them enough I guess — one might
have been the one I called “On the Yacht Valkyrie II,” based on my
experience of sailing to Hawaii in the Transpac in 1969 (and also,
I now realize, and must have realized then, also, on Winters’ poem
“The Slow Pacific Swell,” which goes (I will quote the whole thing,
because it’s a great poem and ought to be included in The Stanford
Far out of sight forever stands the sea,
Bounding the land with pale tranquillity.
When a small child, I watched it from a hill
At thirty miles or more. The vision still
Lies in the eye, soft blue and far away:
The rain has washed the dust from April day;
Paint-brush and lupine lie against the ground;
The wind above the hill-top has the sound
Of distant water in unbroken sky;
Dark and precise the little steamers ply-
Firm in direction they seem not to stir.
That is illusion. The artificer
Of quiet, distance holds me in a vise
And holds the ocean steady to my eyes.
Once when I rounded Flattery, the sea
Hove its loose weight like sand to tangle me
Upon the washing deck, to crush the hull;
Subsiding, dragged flesh at the bone. The skull
Felt the retreating wash of dreaming hair.
Half drenched in dissolution, I lay bare.
I scarcely pulled myself erect; I came
Back slowly, slowly knew myself the same.
That was the ocean. From the ship we saw
Gray whales for miles: the long sweep of the jaw,
The blunt head plunging clean above the wave.
And one rose in a tent of sea and gave
A darkening shudder; water fell away;
The whale stood shining, and then sank in spray.
A landsman, I. The sea is but a sound.
I would be near it on a sandy mound,
And hear the steady rushing of the deep
While I lay stinging in the sand with sleep.
I have lived inland long. The land is numb.
It stands beneath the feet, and one may come
Walking securely, till the sea extends
Its limber margin, and precision ends.
By night a chaos of commingling power,
The whole Pacific hovers hour by hour.
The slow Pacific swell stirs on the sand,
Sleeping to sink away, withdrawing land,
Heaving and wrinkled in the moon, and blind;
Or gathers seaward, ebbing out of mind.
— lines that still move me, I see, lines that resonate with what I
am still doing, in a vastly different way it seems, in my own work
today. (Lines that also echo, unabashedly it would seem, although
Winters would not like to hear it, Keats’s “On the Sea” as well as
“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.”) Anyway as I as saying I
got the Stegner (the letter arrived on June 4th, we celebrated the
good news with champagne, conceived our daughter Oona that night).
So it was a happy time, a good time to take a year-long break from
the world of the Berkeley graduate program. And so, when the fall
arrived, I started my commuting down to Stanford — two days a week
(they really didn’t want me to live in Bolinas, but that’s the way
it had to be and so they accepted it) writing poems in my head, or
on scraps of paper, on the long drive down and back up 280. I did
it for a year, three quarters, taking just a writing workshop each
time, with three different people — Helen Trimpi, Donald Davie and
Ken Fields — plus sitting in on a class in Renaissance poetry with
Helen’s husband Wesley Trimpi, whose book Ben Jonson’s Poems (also
published by Stanford) had been an important part of ‘my’ graduate
reading list. (Roy Bundy and his wife Barbara, who used to appear
in the background of his house before they were married, and later
a real and wonderful person in her own right — our child and their
child were born within months of each other, and they all came out
to Bolinas once for lunch, after which we walked around the Little
Mesa together, and a few months later Roy was dead.)
As for Stanford itself, there was that ‘cocktail party,’ up at the
Trimpis in the Palo Alto hills above Stanford (what a house it was,
a deck overlooking the whole Bay Area, Wesley’s ‘library’ with its
stacks of books in rows just like a ‘real library’!) before things
really got started. There was Helen’s class — us sitting around a
table (or was it just in a circle in chairs in the room?), I don’t
remember anything really (maybe she didn’t have anything to say?).
Then, in the winter, there was Donald Davie’s class, his ‘English’
way of talking, thinking about things, the smell of his pipe in an
office I often enough went to speak to him in, that stuttering and/
or thinking on his feet that was completely new to me, something I
didn’t understand but wanted to, and so I read his books of poems,
tried to ‘get’ (i.e., understand) them but couldn’t, really, since
he was coming from such a completely different place or experience
or generation in fact (as Helen Trimpi was too, of course), that I,
barely in my twenty-sixth year, hardly knew what to make of it even
though I realized there was indeed something worth knowing going on
in it. And then, in the spring, Ken Field’s class, certainly to me
the most ‘familiar’ or amenable of the three, since Ken was someone
that I, having grown up in the Bay Area, come of age here, could so
to speak ‘relate to’ — he was a regular sort of guy, knew the stuff
(of everyday life I mean) that I knew also something about. He too
had a wife — or had had one, I never could quite figure it out. He
too seemed to living under the shadow of Winters, trying to ‘escape’
from it but also, necessarily it seemed, completely dependent on it.
He presented a curious vision to me, one that I certainly didn’t, at
that time or later, ever understand. I ran into him later on, once,
maybe twice, I don’t remember where, and it seemed to me that he was
still living in that shadow — I’m probably wrong here, I liked him a
lot, thought of him as someone a bit like myself I guess, although I
really have nothing to base that presumption on.
In any case, I’d like to finish this up with a poem that came out of
Ken’s workshop, an assignment that he gave one afternoon that seemed
to make sense to me (even though I turned it to my own devices I see.
He asked us to make a “list poem,” something Bernadette Mayer was at
this time (it was the spring of 1975) asking her class at the Poetry
Project in New York to do — make a poem that was a list. And when I
drove home that night I started to write down a list of the things I
was thinking about — my wife, my new baby, what I was hearing on the
radio, and so on. Only I turned my list into a French poem of sorts,
a rondeau by du Bellay or villanelle in the manner of Stephen Dedalus
maybe, and thinking too of Winters’ poem that begins “Evening traffic
homeward burns/ Swift and even on the turns” (since I’d been reading
such things back in Berkeley of course, and being somehow compelled,
it seems, to give the things some kind of formal ‘form’). And this,
then, is the way some of it went, as best I can remember — you see I
still can remember it, at least some of it:
Thinking about my wife and baby
amuses me while I drive home
tonight on Interstate 280.
a sea of fog cascading from
green hills, lupine late in April
amuses me while I drive home;
listening to Mozart and Vivaldi
instead of news, drinking a cold
imported beer, eating some raisins,
thinking about my wife and baby
amuses me while I drive home
tonight on Interstate 280.
So that’s it, a long time ago it now seems — I remembered the opening
lines plus the “listening to Mozart and Vivaldi/ instead of news” and
the “eating some raisins,” but not the fog and green hills and lupine —
the first two of which still appear in my work — nor “drinking a cold/
imported beer” — I wouldn’t do that now while driving! — so I’ve just
now found the whole thing, in an early manuscript called Silent Music,
from a line in Campion’s poem which begins “Rose-cheekt Lawra, come,/
Sing thou smoothly with the beawties/ Silent music”. . . .
JS [March 24, 2009]
So the rains have come back into town . . . it seems as though the news
coverage is intent on fabricating drama. The majority of water-level
reporting focused on how rainfall and accrual was/is below average. It
just grinds on me . . . an average is not a minimum! This is basic
math and these folks just ignore the obvious . . . in order to have an
average, we have to regularly have levels below average, just as two or
three years ago we were well above average. Basic indeterminacy within
a larger ordered system. Again, I don’t know if this gives you any
starting off point that leads to poetry in one way or another; I just
know that most of the poetry folks around here talk a good game about
the environment, but never get out into it and enjoy it. I’m more
outdoorsy than many, and you’re more outdoorsy than most . . . ack,
again, I don’t know where I’m going.
SR [March 29, 2009]
Thanks Jeff for this thought, “outdoorsy”! It’s true, I’m an outdoors
kind of guy, live in a place where I can BE that, or DO that, whatever
it is. A few years ago I went on a backpacking trip in the mountains,
a week or so over three 12,000 foot passes on the eastern slope of the
Sierra above Bishop. It was a great trip, living outside and climbing
up over those passes (two of them off the beaten path/trail), climbing
Mt. Sill too (14,162) from Lake 11,675, where we camped for three days
in one of most beautiful and remote places I’ve ever been. And on the
way back I started to pick up rocks, one of them a triangle of granite
on the edge of a large boulder, which it had at some point been linked
to but was now just sitting there, in its place but not still attached
to the boulder — time and the weather having done their work. Anyway,
I decided I would try to take that granite triangle of rock home, so I
shifted things in my pack and put it in, all 37 pounds of it I learned
when I finally got home and weighed it. And along the way I came upon
other rocks, nothing that big but rocks that ‘shone forth’ (it seemed)
so I picked them up as I always do when I go to the mountains (my pack
always getting heavier as the trip goes on, rather than lighter, as it
should, when the food supply goes down). And when I got back home (my
pack with that rock and the others weighed in at 87 pounds) I realized
that I had to keep on living part of my daily life ‘outdoors’, writing
things down that I see/hear out there and so it continues to this day.
That was in August of 2001, just at the beginning of the CLOUD / RIDGE
poem, when certain parts of each page are always ‘about’ what is going
on ‘out there’. . . . And that’s a part of the writing and the living
that’s kept going on for all of these days since then (and it was also
going on before then but not, in the writing at least, in such ‘fixed’
or ‘determined’ a way), through the 474 pages of CLOUD / RIDGE and the
1,000 pages of HUMAN / NATURE and the 1,000 pages of Remarks on Color /
Sound and the 354 pages (today’s poem) of Temporality — or is it 1,354
pages of Remarks on Color / Sound, if what I’m doing now is continuing
on in that work (I’m really not sure yet. . .). . . . But to get back
to the question at hand — yes, my life and work are rather ‘outdoorsy’
as you put it, more than most I guess — it’s part of what I do and who
I am, it seems. . . .
JS [March 24, 2009]
What do you think about this season of 24? It seems a little bit forced
to me . . . too much soap opera & peripheral storylines; I’ve had more
trouble with suspending my disbelief this time around than any previous
season. The series always included a dichotomy of political agendas,
but so much focus on convincing us that torture’s okay? Oh well. I
started watching the very first season, and so I’ll stubbornly ride out
the series until the bitter, bitter end. That Jack, though . . . that
guy’ll get the job done.
SR [March 29, 2009]
Copy that! So you’re a fan? This week was the first Monday I’ve
been able to watch it ‘live’ so to speak, since I’m usually just
getting to the end of the grad poetry workshop when it comes on,
so I’ve been watching it on computer on Wednesday nights, which
is actually pretty good — full screen right in front of you on
the table, no ads, just 40 minutes or so of high-action nail-
biting Jack . . . so where’s backup when he needs it, NEVER
there! Anyway, I’ll look forward to tomorrow night’s fix,
Wednesday night for me. . . .
JS [May 1, 2009]
Wow, yeah those Stegner-era poems of yours are nothing like your
current work . . . or even like any of your work over the past 3
decades. There were two things that kind of made me sit back and
take note . . . first was N. Scott Momaday, whom I kinda consider
the Uncle Tom of Native Americans . . . second was thinking of
you pounding beers while driving up the coast. Not too big a
deal; didn’t Hunter Thompson drive along Route 1 on a shit-ton of
acid?, so you made a responsible decision, comparatively. Anyway
. . . I like this current Temporality vs. Remarks on Color /
Sound decision you’re wrestling with. Where does one work end
and the next begin . . . does it have something to do with
content, with form, with page count, with ability to publish,
with your own attention span, with a personal decision, or with
some other reason or reasons altogether? How do you know when
you’ve reached the end of an individual work? How do you know
when you’ve reached the end of a series of works?
SR [June 22, 2009]
It’s been a ‘long time’ (seemingly) since last we ‘talked’ (here,
though we talked in person last night at “The New Reading Series”
reading in Oakland, Judith Goldman and Charles Bernstein, what a
pleasure that was for me). So now it’s summer, the sun comes up
over the ridge at its farthest northern point of the year, it’ll
be heading back south, turning that corner, can’t see it yet but
pretty soon. . . . I’m looking across now to the point where it
first appeared this morning (and yesterday morning, and also the
morning before that, and the one before that, and before that it
was foggy for days so you couldn’t even see the ridge), a dip in
the now brown ridge top, just to the right (south) of some trees,
that’s as far north as it will get, the days will be starting to
get shorter soon enough. But it’s summer now (!) and feels like
it, ‘happily’. . . . I’ve been waking up at first light, seeing
the end of the waning moon close to a big bright planet (Venus?),
which has been coming into the poems, as here --
first light coming into sky above ridge,
silver of planet above branch in right
foreground, sound of waves in channel
forms a picture, nothing but
sum of limited views
hypothesis, what else is new,
on the viewer’s part
cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
shadowed green slope of ridge across it
A ‘glimpse’ of things, I think. The first 3 lines of these last
few poems being just a bit different, as the ‘scene’ seen is, as
you can see —
first grey light in sky above black plane
of ridge, silver of planet beside branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel
first grey light above blackness of ridge,
curve of waning white moon next to planet
across from it, sound of waves in channel
first grey light in sky above blackness
of ridge, silver of planet above branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel
— trying to see how minute shifts in the language might be made
to ‘register’ (‘enact’ / ‘perform’) apparently minute shifts in
the ‘landscape’ (what’s ‘out there’). For what that’s worth (I
have to wonder, especially after hearing the reading last night).
Anyway, almost three months since last I wrote you, so much has
‘happened’ . . . (!) More than I can ‘say’ here of course, and
so I won’t begin to try. . . . But here’s one thing, regarding
“this current Temporality vs. Remarks on Color / Sound decision”
as you call it. When I was editing the Hamlet book, which I’ve
now finished and sent back to the press for typesetting I think,
the text suddenly began to freeze up on the computer — spinning
color wheel, have you seen it? I ended up one Sunday afternoon
spending two hours on the phone with Apple support, and finally
had to do a ‘recover file’ move to get it to work, changed some
formatting stuff (underlined words no longer underlined) but at
least it all came back, didn’t lose all the work I’d been doing
on it. And that made me think about losing all the pages going
on in Remarks on Color / Sound (1,439 as of today) so I decided
to make a separate document called Temporality, and put all the
poems in both places, just in case (!). (Everything I had done
in the Hamlet was backed up of course, on the flash drive, also
on the Mills server, but everything was frozen — I think I know
why but don’t need to say here.) Anyway, THAT experience, plus
talking to Ron Silliman on email about the poems that I started
putting up on a blog (http://stephenratcliffe.blogspot.com), as
of May 1, as you know — “Temporality is a really good title” he
said at one point, when I’d written to him to see if he’d put a
note on his postings about the poems going up on a new blog (!)
noting that they were either part of Remarks on Color /Sound or
Temporality), so that helped me to think about it from a bit of
distance. . . . And so that’s what’s going on now — I’m up to
page 439 of this “new work,” aiming for 1,000 (again) if I can
get there, or keep it going — looking beyond the present I can
hardly imagine it, but then the next morning something happens
again, and I like it, and so it seems to be possible, just one
day at a time. . . .
All of which is to say that YES, it has to do with page count,
which is part of the ‘form’ (and also the ‘content’), not with
“ability to publish” (since it seems to be getting more & more
unpublishable as time goes by, I don’t know what to ‘do’ about
that!), nor with “attention span” (there seems to be something
more to ‘see’ / ‘say’ every day), nor with “personal decision”
(since I can’t seem to stop, and don’t want to). And so, yes,
it’s really about the numbers (letters per line, and lines per
page, and page per day) and the shapes those numbers make on a
two-dimensional page and on the three-dimensional table that I
put them on, there to be ‘seen’ by whomever happens to read or
otherwise encounter them. . . .
JS [May 1, 2009]
I think some readers confront your work with a similar confusion
as when approaching work like Kenny Goldsmith’s . . . are we to
read everything straight through, to flip around randomly picking
& choosing ala carte style, or to just place the big tome on the
bookshelf and deem it a piece of conceptual art. Would you have
us read these works in any particular way, or does it take all
different kinds of readings and discussions before the real
nature of these lengthy works is defined (if it ever truly is . . .)?
SR [June 22, 2009]
Ah, good question (!) — all of the above I think. You can read
one page at a time (ONE A DAY, AS THEY WERE WRITTEN), or read a
few at a time (which will give you a sense of going from one to
another, and be an entirely ‘different experience’ from reading
one page at a time), or read a hundred pages at once if you had
such stamina. Each different kind of reading will obviously be
different in many different ways and for many different reasons.
(One’s reading of 9 lines vs. one’s reading of 18, or 27, or 36,
or 45 lines, not to mention 900 or 1,800 lines — how you notice
more things ‘going on’ in the work the more you look, or closer
you read.) And what I’ve noticed in reading the work aloud, in
an ‘extended’ time of doing that (as the reading up at UC Davis,
when I read all 1,000 pages of HUMAN / NATURE in 14 hours, from
4pm to 6am, no one but me being ‘witness’ to the whole thing, I
should add!), is that one begins to hear one page slipping into
the next, words shifting into other words, words coming back to
previous words, lines seeming to repeat but never quite exactly
(or maybe sometimes exactly but one is never quite sure of that),
these ‘recurrences’ (‘repetitions’) being something like what’s
‘going on’ from one moment to the next in ‘real life’ — what we
actually experience as time passes; always present, the present
always slipping into the past even as the future slides into it,
becomes ‘it’ (the present). And so I’m happy to call this work
that I’m now doing, this series of poems/pages, Temporality, as
now I see more clearly than I have before that this work really
IS (most of all?) about time. I think I’ve known if for a long
time but I’m more ‘conscious’ of it now — maybe because time is
moving faster now (somehow), gets more ‘precious’ the older you
get. . . .
And then of course, the pages could just sit there on the table,
or bookshelf as you say, deemed “a piece of conceptual art” (so
no need actually to read it, just know that it’s there, look at
it when you walk by in passing, coming into the room or leaving
it — there it is (!) — as physical ‘object’ in space, sculpture
perhaps (it’s not just words on a two-dimensional page but many
pages piling up, one at a time, over an extended period of time)?
Not unlike the pile of matches on my stove, one more match each
time I light the stove (see photo) —
A pile of matches on a stove, a pile of pages of words on a table
(see photo) —
(That’s the 1,439 pages of Remarks on Color / Sound + Temporality
on the left, and the 1,000 pages of HUMAN / NATURE beside it, and
the books I’m reading these days for the new poems (Heidegger and
Merleau-Ponty and Kandinsky on the left, T. J. Clark and Einstein
and Minkowski and Morandi and Leo Steinberg and Van Gogh drawings
on the right. A rock on top of each ‘book’ of pages, to keep the
cover in place; glass vase filled with rocks between them; Oona’s
painting behind them, the bottom of another painting on the wall,
that’s all. . . . Something to look at when one walks by, a kind
of “tome” as you say — or is that “tomb”? — or, as I would say, a
‘shrine’. . . .)
JS [May 1, 2009]
You’ve been working at Mills College for some time now, and I’m
curious if or how some of your coworkers over the years have
influenced your poetry or poetics. Curious about some of the
good and some of the bad that runs the world of academia . . . .
SR [June 22, 2009]
Ah, I was thinking about this one on my hike up the ridge (just
now back, it’s 8pm, last light of the sun about to disappear up
there). It could be a long story (if I allowed myself to think
about everything that’s happened there since 1984, when I first
arrived), or a very short one (“all in all, a great place to be
as it turns out”). But here’s something that comes to mind, at
this moment at least. . . . Like, I was hired there to replace
Chana Bloch, who had taught poetry (writing and literature) and
Shakespeare for years and who was going to Israel for two years
(her husband Ariel, who taught at Berkeley, was going to be the
head of the UC study abroad program there). So by all rights I
was supposed to be gone when she got back. (In fact I was told
by the then Provost in our introductory ‘conversation’ that I’d
never be able to stay there, so I shouldn’t even think about it
as a possibility.) Anyway, when she returned they still needed
me so I continued as a ‘visiting person’ teaching Shakespeare &
poetry (writing & literature) & composition courses as I’d been
doing from the start. And it was like being in a foreign place
as far as a sense of connection in poetry with my colleagues in
the English department (Chana a really accomplished poet in the
“confessional tradition” one could say; Diana O’Hehir, novelist
and sometimes poet who, as the Chair, told me when I first went
in to talk to her, after having been hired for the tenure track
position they had created for me, that the department was split
about hiring me, some of them had wanted someone else, as if to
say “you’d better watch out”?). So after six years there I was
on my way — had published six books of poems, the Campion book,
started Avenue B. But still was an outsider in the department,
driving over from Bolinas for my classes and driving back, more
or less invisible to the powers that were, it seemed. Not much
sense of how to ‘market’ myself (at least there), and that came
back to bite me soon enough. Tenure decision three years later,
department divided about me (I was told later, no sense of that
at the time), the APT committee approving me but their decision
overturned by the Provost (it was her first year on the job, no
real sense of who I was or what I did; she’d been brought there
by the President, who was in her second year on the job and had
brought the Provost from Princeton, where both of them had been
before Mills), who explained to me that “you’re just not a good
fit.” (That Provost lasted a few more years before she was let
go, having proved herself unfit to people more powerful than I,
one of nine people in that position at Mills since I got there.)
Anyway, I fought the decision on “procedural grounds,” the only
kind of argument they allowed me to make, and eventually won my
place back — end of story re: “some of the bad that runs in the
world of academia,” as you say. . . .
There were some good things too, in those early years. Anthony
Braxton teaching in the Music department for instance, going to
his house for lunch after his class on Monk, Mingus, & Coltrane —
a REAL class (!). And then there were my own classes, not only
poetry writing but Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry and later
on Modern American Poetry and Listening to Reading and Romantic
Poetry and the New York School — all of them variously pleasure
for me to find myself in, getting to talk to people about ‘such
things’ (!). And then we started to invite visiting writers to
Mills, and the whole place began to change: Liz Willis was the
first, along with Fanny Howe; then Leslie Scalapino (still here,
each year now) and Bob Grenier one year, plus all the poets who
have come to read over the years — Lyn Hejinian, Mei-mei, Susan
Gevirtz, Susan Howe and Myung Mi Kim (together with Lyn) in the
event I called “The Poet and the World of Her Influences” (very
Mills title, it now seems), and more recently Charles Bernstein
and Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman and Kenny Goldsmith too, men
as well as women in the MFA program too, many poets doing great
work, including of course Juliana Spahr, who has helped to make
everything that’s now going on there possible. So yes, there’s
also “some of the good . . . that runs in the world of academia,”
as you say, which continues to make it a pleasure for me to see,
and be part of, what’s happening there. . . .
JS [July 5, 2009]
That’s almost the response I had envisioned re: the Mills
question . . . though I didn’t know all the names. I might find
it difficult to move forward with a new question here, as I’ve
been mostly thinking of yesterday in Bolinas and the absolutely
fantastic time I have every time I decide to actually drive up
over those mountains & down around that ocean. So, you know,
thanks for grilling up all that meat & having us over.
As far as your blog goes, it’s almost as though your work has
spoken of the necessity of blog-based poetry for years now . . .
except for maybe, once again, that question of how a readership
reads with the chronological order of poems: blog = a book read
backwards. It also might offer an opportunity to present
something I think we chatted about months ago – what to do with
what doesn’t make it into a final, printed book. Once again I
got started on a thought here with no real end in sight . . .
let’s just take right now as a jumping off point.
SR [July 27, 2009]
Thanks for this, it’s almost a month since that grilling July 4th
day, I’m sitting here looking out at the ridge, sunlight about to
disappear (it’s 8:11, sunset at 8:23 according to the Tidelog, my
‘Bible’?), just back from a week in the high Sierra -- we climbed
Mount Tyndall (14,018’) and made it clear to Lake Tulainyo (below
sheer granite north face of Mount Russell (14,086’, just north of
Whitney (14,495’) which I first ‘climbed’ (I should say hiked up,
with my father and brother, when I was a lad) where sun reflected
on the still half-iced-over surface of the water looked like this –
(out of focus but appropriate, camera went on the blink somewhere
along the way; you can see ice/snow on far edge of lake). It was
‘inspiring’ to get way up there, very remote, almost no people at
all back there, amazing skies – clouds! Stars (no moon all night
except at dawn, when the last curve of the waning moon would rise
in the east; and in a few days at sunset, when the new moon would
be setting in the west, over the western peaks)! I scribbled the
poems in pencil on paper (on previous trips I’ve taken a computer
along, typed as I went, but wanted to cut down weight on this one
so I didn’t bring it -- a pleasure just to WRITE WORDS ON PAPER!)
and on Sunday (first day back) somehow managed to ‘catch up’ with
everything, typing-wise) – the last time I didn’t take a computer
along on one of these trips it took me over a year to ‘catch up’,
so I’m pleased with that, keeping up with things I mean, by which
I would now include the ‘blog’. . . . Who reads it, I don’t know
(I posted a note the morning I left saying going to mountains, no
new postings for a week, which Steven Fama posted a comment about
I saw yesterday when I posted all the poems I typed yesterday, so
I know he’s following it, as he’s told me. . .). . . . Anyway we
probably walked 50 miles, started in the desert at 6,700 feet and
went up Shepherd Pass to 12,000, then onward – walking that walk,
as I said to you in an email this afternoon, and now it’s back to
Bolinas, the ridge here instead of there, as in today’s poem —
grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, song sparrow calling from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel
something one sees, thing
appears in its color
sensation other than that,
that is, association
silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
shadowed green slope of ridge across it
— fog in front of the ridge this morning, whereas up there it was
always there, dawn light coming into the sky, no moon so millions
of stars to be seen all night long, and two bright silver planets
(Venus and Jupiter?) traveling along the ecliptic. . . .
As for the blog (and reading it ”backwards” — I hadn’t thought of
that!), it does seem to be a way of putting the work out there at
least, who ‘notices’ I don’t know, hardly anyone I suspect, but I
don’t mind that at all, at this point, it’s really a matter to me
of ‘doing the work’ every day, that’s what it’s about, the act of
doing it, keeping track of things, the ‘temporality’ of it all as
time goes by. . . . So each day there’s a new ‘poem’ and each is
part of the larger work, which couldn’t be done any faster than I
am doing it here, nor would I want to (even if I COULD) do it any
differently. And yet the pages do pile up on a table in the room
over there — Bob looked at the two piles yesterday (one HUMAN /
NATURE and one Remarks on Color plus Temporality on top of it) to
see just how big they really were (he had told Carol Watts, who’s
writing something about REAL now, they were 13 inches tall, which
isn’t quite accurate, but the one on the left does keep ‘growing’
— today’s poem is page number 1,474, which I realize would be the
last page of Temporality if I had decided it would ‘end’ as those
previous 474-page books had ended, with 474 pages — but I’m going
‘onward’ with it, aiming again for 1,000 pages (if I live so long
I mean!). What to do with it (beyond posting on a blog), that is
the question. . . .
JS [July 5, 2009]
You recently mentioned that you were pitching in a bit and
lending Bob (Grenier) an extra set of eyes, ears, & hands on his
colossal Eigner collected works . . . any sneak peeks into what’s
SR [August 22, 2009]
Well, it’s been almost three weeks since I last sat down to think
about all this, what happened? (I know what happened, the Hamlet
book has until just a few days ago completely taken over my life,
but more on that when I get to the next question.) But there’s a
connection there to what you’re asking about, since Bob’s work on
the Eigner edition took over his life for a long time (months and
months at the end, long days every day, an amazing ‘labor’ as Bob
might say (pronouncing the second syllable of that word with just
as much emphasis as the first one). What to say about it at this
point? The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner coming out this fall,
Stanford UP, 1,868 pages in 4 volumes, a preface for each section
written by Bob (who showed me a draft of each of them when he was
writing it — so there was lots of conversation going on there and
that was a pleasure here, and there too I think) and a section of
notes that came near the end, and earlier on a great long process
of making the text, locating the poems, putting them in some kind
chronological order, designing the page, positioning the poems on
it as ‘objects in space’ (set in Courier typeface, to approximate
as closely as possible the actual look of Eigner’s original typed
page, right index finger and thumb pressing the keys of the Royal
manual typewriter, approximately 3,070 poems, lines positioned in
relation to each other line on the page, letters also in relation
to other letters and the spaces between them.) Thanks to Bob for
all of this — and to Curtis Faville too, co-editor of what’s sure
to be one of the necessary books of American poetry. At least to
me and my own work, I would say, what Eigner does continues to be
an inspiring presence — the looking, attention to detail in world
and on page, movement between concrete thing and abstract thought
as if seamlessly. Having seen his work helps to make it possible
for me to write something like today’s poem —
first grey light in sky above blackness
of ridge, silver of planet above branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel
line of leaves on the side,
not touching the frame
various passages, graphite
tree on right, visible
blue white sky on horizon next to point,
whiteness of gull perched on GROIN sign
(not meaning to say anything more by this than that the physical
materiality of Eigner’s work ‘matters’).
JS [July 5, 2009]
Speaking of sneak peeks, you’re in the homestretch of publishing
your Hamlet work, and (though you mentioned a bit about it
earlier) I was hoping you might give us some insight into the
form you’ve taken and the process of the work.
SR [August 23, 2009]
Well, since you’ve asked (finally!), do you want the long version
of the story or the short one. The short one is that it’s coming
out from Counterpath in October (you can find it on their website
and I’ve been working hard on it (index just now finished, a work
in itself! — a taxonomy of the book in 13 pages, a poemlike thing
complete with numbers, a map of where I’ve been all this time, it
seems). The longer version is that it’s been in the works for at
least 15 years (I wrote the first essay, on the Queen’s speech on
Ophelia’s death, between August 1993 and January ‘94 according to
the manuscript in the box of manuscripts out in my studio, and it
went on from there -- another on the Ghost’s speech on his murder
in the orchard, then one on the identity of “Shakespeare” himself
(the author, an offstage presence I later realized, and therefore
himself central to the topic of offstage action in Hamlet, or any
of his plays for that matter). The book’s about what an audience
doesn’t see performed on the stage of Hamlet in the theater, what
we ‘see’ in words that ‘talk about’ things that we don’t actually
see except in those words which ‘show’ it — things like Ophelia’s
death in the stream, King Hamlet’s death in the orchard, Hamlet’s
voyage to England, Hamlet’s visit to Ophelia’s “closet,” Gertrude
and Claudius having sex. It’s a book about the words in the play
(those “Words, words, words” Hamlet tells Polonius he is reading)
and how they work to make physically absent things imaginatively
present, how they ‘show’ us what we don’t actually see, how what
is concealed from us (thus unseen, unknown) is essential both to
this play and to our lives in this world. So the idea of what’s
unseen (invisible, concealed) connects, I now see, with what I’m
writing in my poems these days — the ridge keeps being invisible,
covered in fog —
grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, red-tailed hawk calling in left
foreground, sound of waves in channel
adjacent line in foreground,
as it were, “representation”
then, presents itself
grey white fog on horizon next to point,
whiteness of gull perched on GROIN sign
— and reading in Heidegger too, who in the Parmenides is writing
about the “concealing” and “unconcealedness” of things out there.
It’s called Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet, and presents
a series of ‘close readings’ of speeches that talk about actions
that happen offstage (‘elsewhere’), things we don’t actually see
in the theater, as I say, that ‘missing’ or ‘absent’ action like
the things in those speeches (things made of words) that we also
don’t notice — at least notice consciously, even though we might
well hear them — watching and listening to Hamlet in the theater.
As Charles Bernstein says in a blurb for the back cover, “What's
unseen but said's as consequent as what's apparent but unspoken.”
And in this case, too, the things we don’t notice in the theater
(words, I mean) will only be noticeable in a reading of words on
the page, the kind of reading I give them here in a book happily
called, as I say, Reading the Unseen, a book about words and how
they work in relation to (physical) action in a play, whether we
see its action (and hear its words) in the theater or read it on
the page. I could go on and on here but that’s at least a “look”
at a book about things in a play that aren’t seen, a book that’s
not like anything else that’s out there in the Shakespeare world
— a book by a poet looking at the words of a play that everybody
knows, words that haven’t ever been looked at (or thought about)
this way before. . . .
But before I sign off on this one, there’s one more piece of the
story that may be of interest (to someone other than me, I mean)
— the saga of finding a publisher. How many years has it been I
wonder? How many places have I sent it to (not exactly “it” but
earlier versions of it)? Michigan in 2002 (almost a year to get
it back, the reader warning them that “the manuscript might pose
a marketing problem”), Northwestern in 2003 (another year to get
it back, reader noting the book made “it seem as though the last
40 years of [Shakespeare] scholarship did not happen”), one year
later to Fordham (another year to get it back, one reader wanted
them to publish it and one hated it — “Ratcliffe is a man with a
whole hive of bees in his bonnet . . . is writing for himself as
audience . . . do not touch this with the proverbial bargepole”),
then a revised copy back to Fordham (another year to get it back,
one reader liked it, the other noting that “it falls way outside
the mainstream of Shakespeare scholarship . . . . if he had said
once more that there are no cameras in Elsinore to record events
offstage I think I would have hurled the whole typescript across
the room”). Other attempts to get it read at Chicago, Michigan,
Wesleyan, Minnesota, Iowa, and Palgrave, none of whom would even
take a look. And then last summer (2008) Cole Swensen told me I
ought to send it to Counterpath, edited by Tim Roberts and Julie
Carr, and when I wrote to them they said yes, send it along, and
so I did — didn’t hear anything back and then Michael Cross told
me Rachel Blau duPlessis was a new editor at Palgrave-Macmillan,
so I wrote to ask her and she said no, the editor I should write
to was Brigitte Shull, so I did that and she asked me to send it
along, which I did. And not long after that I got an email from
Counterpath saying that they wanted to publish it, and then word
from Palgrave that they too wanted to publish it, and here I was
with this strange embarrassment of riches, two presses wanting a
book that I had begun to think would never get published (no one
wanting a book on a single play by Shakespeare written by a poet
without a name in Shakespeare world). And no one in the poetry/
poetics world wanting a book on Hamlet (yes, I tried Alabama and
California too). And so, after thinking about it for a few days
I decided to go with Counterpath — Palgrave would only do a hard
cover book (priced at $85 and aimed at libraries, and I realized
it wouldn’t ever get seen or read by the readers I wanted to see
and read it) who is doing a paperback, distributed by SPD, aimed
at readers both in the Shakespeare world and world of poetry and
poetics (it will be “our flagship entry into publishing literary
analysis of this kind,” Tim said, which sounds good to me). . . .
JS [July 5, 2009]
Your Giants aren’t doing too bad . . . they’ll never pass the
Dodgers at this point, but second in their division is a lot
closer to the top than they’ve been around this time in years
past. My A’s are a huge disappointment this season . . . I
really thought they bought the necessary players for a postseason
run. But those Giants are finally piecing together a solid
pitching rotation . . . I might start paying more attention to
them if the pitching continues to improve; I’ve always been a bit
of a pitching nerd rather than a big bat kinda guy. But that NL
is tight this year . . . except for here in the West, no real
telling who’s gonna go all the way . . . all we know is that it
ain’t gonna be the Nationals.
SR [August 23, 2009]
Hey there again, just saw you ‘in person’ over at 21 Grand Street
at the Clark Coolidge / Laura Moriarty reading (listed in reverse
order to the order they read in, as you know!), where we talked a
bit about the Giants -- who LOST again today, 4-2 (they’d led 2-0
at one point but couldn’t hold it, Lincecum gave up 5 or 6 walks,
3 hits, plus he hit a batter) – can’t do THAT in Coors field, the
Rockies are ferocious (last night too, when the Giants led 6-1 at
one point and suddenly it was 7-6, then 14-6, the game was out of
reach even though the Giants ended up with 5 more runs, it wasn’t
possible to come back against the Colorado juggernaut, and that’s
the way it is this year with the Giants. No one expected them to
be in the running for the post season and here they are in August
still in the thick of it, one more game in Denver tomorrow, which
will send them home from this 11 game road trip with either a 6-5
or 5-6 record — and if it’s the latter they’ll be 4 games back in
the wild card race, tough to catch the Rockies then, even if they
DO play six more games in San Francisco – in any case, stay tuned
JS [July 5, 2009]
Tour de France time . . . I love the tour. Waiting to see how
team Astana works out . . . I’m betting that soon enough Lance
can’t stand working a support role & lobbies to be the guy
working for the jersey. I probably should’ve asked if you were
interested at all before offering the analysis, but too late now.
SR [August 23, 2009]
Thanks for the “analysis” – I READ a bit about it, always good to
see those maps of France in the papers, too bad that Lance wasn’t
up there on the podium in Paris wearing the yellow jersey, but he
DID make national news when he bought a house in Aspen (or was it
Vail?) and some people there wanted to declare a “Lance Armstrong
Day” (or something like that) and some didn’t – so much for news,
better to get back up on the bike and start riding again, getting
ready for next year’s Tour, yes?
JS [October 20, 2009]
Have you caught any of the ALCS or NLCS so far? Some damn good
games . . . I’m actually at a bit of a loss as far as cheering.
In the NL I’m pulling for Philly, and over at the AL I can’t pull
for Anaheim as they’re the A’s division rivals, but at the same
time I’ve been conditioned for decades now to root against the
Yankees . . . I think I’d like to see Philly vs. NY in the World
Series, with Philly winning, either in 4 or in 7, just for the
SR [October 25, 2009]
Yeah, I’ve been able to see some of it (when it’s on FOX, don’t
have cable — and WHY has FOX only shown one Phillies game, when
they seem to show every Yankees game, I ask you? – and listened
to as much as I can on the radio (KNBR, “THE sports leader,” is
carrying the ESPN broadcast of each game on its ‘sister station’
1050). As a lifelong Giants fan (I remember when they moved to
San Francisco in 1958 – my dad went to the opening day at Seals
Stadium and took me to some of the games there too, so I got to
see Mays and Cepeda in that first year, and McCovey came up the
next year, and Marichal the year after that, when they moved to
Candlestick) I’m glad the Phillies beat LA in five quick games!
And I’d like to see them take on the Yankees in a 7 game series
(or else, as you say, a 4 game series, “just for the drama”) so
let’s see what happens tonight – if the Angels COULD crawl back
into it against the mighty Yankees that would be drama too, and
the more games the better at this point I say, it somehow keeps
the illusion of summer alive (even as we get closer to November
by the minute, not getting light until sometime before 7:00 AM,
which brings me to today’s poem, keeping track of such things –
first grey light in sky above blackness
of ridge, silver of planet above branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel
picture of object was that,
long time in silence
whatever may have remained,
name like name, here
grey white fog against invisible ridge,
whiteness of gull on tip of GROIN sign
– that planet (Venus) has been up there these last few days, as it’s
been getting light (something to pay attention to!). . . .
JS [October 20, 2009]
I haven’t yet picked up Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet.
But it’s on my list for my next round of book purchases. Have
you performed it at all yet? I’m curious to the approach you
might take, as the form of this book is so different from your
other “daily writing” practices.
SR [October 25, 2009]
Hmmmmm. . . . I’ve been reading parts of it (in earlier versions
of course) for years now it seems, at annual meetings of the NCRC
(Northern California Renaissance Conference) and something at one
or two SSA (Shakespeare Association of America) meetings, nothing
in the way of any “performances” or readings lined up, although I
am going to read at AWP this year in Denver, where Counterpath is
located, because they want to do have a reading of their authors,
oh which I will now be one (not reading from the Hamlet book they
said but poetry – maybe I’ll find a way to include something, why
not at least something from the Index? – because as I said to you
the Index is like a poem including numbers, lines, ‘constraints’,
etc.). In any case, now that I haven’t been working on it for as
long (almost) as I can remember – when did I finally send it off?
just over a month ago, and it should be arriving (as a book) this
week? – it’s almost disappeared into a mysterious world of things
forgotten, or as Heidegger would put it “concealed” (which should
change when the book itself arrives – and THEN what?).
JS [October 20, 2009]
The other night I was doing a little EPC & PennSound browsing and
came across the short-lived “Non” (an Online journal edited by
Laura Moriarty c. 97 / 98). There were some pieces of yours from
a work called Calculus, and I’m curious what, if anything, became
of that project. It kind of ties into some stuff we were
chatting about 100 pages ago (i.e., over a year ago), but I’m
also curious as to, if you even know, how many of your projects/
collections never became books. Maybe more specifically, how many
of your projects begin as book-projects, and of those how many
actually become either bound & printed or PDF-databased as quote/
SR [October 25, 2009]
Yes, for a while I was calling the work I was doing “Calculus”
(or “Calculus of Color”) but I think the work you read in non
was part of what ended up as Portraits & Repetition – lots of
possible titles for that work along the way, before I decided
that it had to be P&R. And meanwhile, while that project did
end up as a “book,” there are lots of things still waiting to
find someone to do them. Here’s a partial list (I’m starting
from the present, working backwards): TEMPORALITY (564 pages
and counting), REMARKS ON COLOR / SOUND (1,000 pages), HUMAN /
NATURE (1,000), CLOUD / RIDGE (474 pages) PAINTING (81 pages),
CONVERSATION (98 pages, forthcoming next year I think) and on
back to others I won’t name here – that’s about fifteen years
worth of work, it seems, all of it sitting here on the table –
JS [October 20, 2009]
My apologies for the delay in this latest round of email chitter
chatter. I got a bit swamped in my own proofreading, got a bit
more serious about looking for more gainful employment, fixed up
a bike for Chad Lietz, and then got in a pretty bad bike wreck
myself . . . still have some of the injuries. Jockeying for
position with a bus driver. I won, but also came out losing the
most. Especially if we’re talking about blood loss.
SR [October 25, 2009]
Ouch! Sounds nasty — be careful out there, you’ve got people who
are counting on you to be around for a long time! Meanwhile, I’m
looking forward to seeing Art Fraud soon, a timely work for sure!
And now it’s time to head up the ridge for a late afternoon hike. . . .
It’s been some time since Stephen and I began our email chat/interview thing; actually, it’s been some time since we completed it, or at least since we stopped emailing questions, ideas, and responses. In that time I’ve moved across the country and Stephen has undoubtedly completed hundreds more pages of poetry. And so now this thing is nearing publication, and I think it needs to be framed in some way. This began as another project for Cricket Online Review, a journal I help out with from time to time, but grew beyond our capacity & needs. As well, there is a Jacket2 focus on Stephen’s work, and this type of conversation might just fit right in with that bunch of stuff.
Stephen Ratcliffe’s poetry defies comprehensive explanation, but one element that draws me in as a reader is his ability to use time to his advantage. A book is not just 474 pages — it’s 474 days. We encounter his full form and repetition in a poetry that turns time into space. My intention with this email stuff was to engage Stephen in an ongoing conversation that takes place at a slower pace than the rest of his poetry and covers a more prosaic subject matter. In addition to giving Stephen the time to offer insights into his current projects, his poetics, and whatever else he wanted.
As an interviewer, I failed in many respects. Much of this was completed during my regular office job. Much of it was hastily written. And none of it was proofread. The successes lie in giving Stephen the aforementioned forum for personal explanation: Stephen Ratcliffe is one of the most interesting and important, yet one of the most overlooked, poets this country has seen over the past thirty to forty years. I’m just happy the guy trusts me enough to take on odd online projects together. Much love, Stephen. I hope to see you again soon. — Jeffrey Schrader
Linh Dinh is a Philadelphia-based poet, author, and teacher. He currently runs State of the Union, a photo blog that documents the homeless in the United States and explores the relationship between the economy, advertising, society, and poverty. You can see a gallery of images selected for Jacket2 here.
Andrew Cox: Why did you start State of the Union?
Linh Dinh: In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. State of the Union, then, is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer. Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.
I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case. I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is two-thirds political essay and one-third poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.
Cox: Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?
Dinh: Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible. Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.
Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!
In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like [the US], for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak. Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo, or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.
A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for two and a half years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation, and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lusting after brand names, though few could afford them. None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems. There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise for the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores. Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.
Cox: When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?
Dinh: The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms. In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office. If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah, or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!
By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about. My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially, and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything. You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking, and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.
My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.
Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns, and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had. The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.
The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time. My site, State of the Union gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.
When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored, and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.
New York. Photograph by Linh Dinh.
Cox: What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?
Dinh: I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for two and a half years as an adult. When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 1980s. Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.
“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.
Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily. I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, Montana, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.” My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.
Philadelphia. Photograph by Linh Dinh.
Cox: You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?
Dinh: Tyrone, a forty-five-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking. In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.
If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.
Cox: Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?
Dinh: Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets. The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shoulders and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction. On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!
In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.
Cox: In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?
Dinh: Casinos are perfect emblems of our nonproductive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.
Camden. Photograph by Linh Dinh.
Cox: Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?
Dinh: If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible. From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave ten dollars to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent. In Detroit, I also gave an old man ten bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring twenty-four large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.
When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.
Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cellphone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.
As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.
Cox: You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?
Dinh: Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.
There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.
In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!
Cox: The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in America. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?
Dinh: It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare. In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, seventy-six years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency. One time I went there and it was, like, five degrees out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe twenty-two years old, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.
That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing. The official unemployment rate of Camden is twenty-five percent, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.
American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved! In Hawaii, Santa Cruz, and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.
To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”
Well, that depression is here!
Michael Lally in conversation with Burt Kimmelman
Michael Lally is the author of twenty-seven books, including two collections of poetry and prose from Black Sparrow Press — one an American Book Award winner for 2000, It’s Not Nostalgia — and the long poem March 18, 2001, jointly published by Libellum and Charta, with artwork by Alex Katz. He is also the author of Cant Be Wrong from Coffee House Press, which won the Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Award for “excellence in literature.” He has appeared in many films and TV shows and worked as a scriptwriter, or “doctor,” from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. Recently a CD of him reading poems set to music, Lost Angels, was released by Monomania Records and is available for downloading at iTunes. This interview took place in the first three months of 2011.
Burt Kimmelman: Your life — at least as early as your jazz piano playing and then when still very young the publication of your first book, South Orange Sonnets — has been marked by intense creativity and a lot of artistic achievement: poetry, acting and so on. And your work has been lauded often (including an American Book Award). You haven’t played music professionally in many years, and since your recent brain surgery you have stopped acting professionally, but you continue on as a poet/writer. Do you see your respective careers, particularly poet and actor, as having been discrete, or is this really “all Michael Lally all the time”? I wonder if this question is not germane to any critical approach to your poetic output that is, at least for this reader, voiced and maybe really has to belong to a persona, one Michael Lally.
Of course you’ve written a lot — not just verse — and there is variation in what you’ve published. So maybe you see yourself as having produced a number of poetries or, let’s say, works of writing (there is your printed prose as well, and lately your blogging). This is an interesting notion — since you’ve been involved (centrally, peripherally, or somewhere in between) in a number of poetry scenes in your lifetime. What do you think?
I heard Elinor Nauen give a talk a while ago (at the Telephone Bar in Manhattan, as part of the Pros’ Prose series she and Martha King curate) about the East Village in the sixties, and she mentioned a magazine she coedited back then, a feminist publication whose each monthly issue featured a naked male poet as its centerfold. The monthly issue when you were the feature showed you masturbating. Would you say that this incident is iconic of your literary work overall?
Michael Lally: Complicated question, Burt, and based on some misconceptions I think. My interest and motivation have always been complex, from my perspective. I’ve written fiction (some included in my two Black Sparrow books, It’s Not Nostalgia and It Takes One to Know One, though I declined to distinguish it from other writing in those collections, leaving it up to the reader to discern which was “real” and which “fiction,” since both were based on my experiences and observations); and I’ve written criticism (I was a book reviewer for The Village Voice and The Washington Post back in the 1970s and ’80s for instance) and political journalism (I was a regular columnist for various, mostly alternative, newspapers throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s, and now write some political commentary on my blog, Lally’s Alley) and other kinds of writing that weren’t autobiographical in any obvious way. But I always took the admonishments of my early literary heroes having to do with writing about oneself seriously, as in Beckett’s “What doesn’t come to me from me has come to the wrong address.” And Dostoevsky’s “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure? Of himself.” And Whitman’s “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” etc. Or Thoreau’s “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew so well.”
My original motivation as a kid was to express some realities I didn’t see represented in any of the arts I had any knowledge of (all of which — up until my mid-twenties when I was already married and beginning a family — was based on my own searching and autodidact reading). But in the process, and pretty quickly, I became equally motivated by the idea of “making it new” (as Pound prescribed), at least for me, meaning technically, not just in the subject addressed or delineated, but in the approach, the uses of all the linguistic devices I could discover or invent.
There were periods when others could see that, when critics and fellow creators told me or wrote me or even wrote in reviews about how original my artistry was during whatever period struck them as that, but as often happens when someone makes an abrupt change (a famous and well-worn example is Dylan going electric) they’d feel betrayed or just lose interest when I moved on to new discoveries or experiments, or encounters to retell and reshape etc.
That kind of shape-shifting and heart-following and new-direction exploring I couldn’t survive without doing. (Another favorite quote of mine that’s emblematic of a core drive, and also contributed to it, is a bit of the lyrics Jon Hendricks wrote for a Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version of Charlie Parker’s tune “Now’s The Time” — “If you be still and never move, you’re gonna dig yourself a well-intentioned rut and think you’ve found a groove.”)
I’ve often said “poetry saved my life” and I mean it. I was a driven man for most of my life, and still am to some extent, and part of that compulsiveness has been a kind of graphomania, where if I didn’t write on any particular day I would start to feel like a junkie withdrawing from his drug of choice, really really bad.
As for the photo of me in that Koff calendar, it wasn’t of me masturbating. But it was more posed than the others in it seemed to be. Though obviously everyone in it was posing for the camera, I just did it in a way that made it clear that this is a pose for a camera and I and the viewer are aware of that, rather than I’m pretending to be caught in the nude drinking a beer or whatever, as though I didn’t know the ladies from Koff were coming to photograph me in the nude today. (I asked if my lady of the time could take mine, since she was making her living then as a photographer — though she was actually a composer — but her takes were more like what ended up in that calendar from everyone else, so I had her teach me how to take the photo myself and got what I was looking for — and what Elinor was probably referring to was my telling her how in order to get the photo right I tried many tactics including at one point a little “fluffing” which I ended up accidentally getting on film because the camera went off too soon, though I didn’t use that shot — or the one that I had been doing that to set up — because it didn’t seem “posed” in the way I was going for.)
Part of all that was about “authenticity” — a label easily exploited and often misused I thought. The idea that Charles Bukowski, for instance, who worked for the Post Office, which granted can be, for some, a soul killing job (though I have family and friends who actually dug it back in those days) yet was for me the epitome of what I rejected from my childhood — the kind of safe and secure job my father wanted me to take, like my brother the cop etc. — so that I could pursue the life of an artist and live by my wits, that Bukowski was seen as an authentic artist of the rugged individual literary rebel loner type when he had a steady job and later made six figures a year from his books so he didn’t have to worry about jobs, the fact that he was taken as the gold standard for “authenticity” while the struggles of many others I knew — including mine to survive while raising children (mostly on my own) on my creative chops — could be seen by some as “selling out” (like my going into movies and TV as an actor at forty) originally bugged me and then amused me, the transparency of people’s desire to be conned but not want to have the con revealed.
I was into revealing that, my own, and fighting with every bit of my intellect and artistry to expose it and reveal as much as possible whatever “truths” I could at least approach if never quite reach.
Kimmelman: That’s a really funny story about the photo! Was that East Village scene a part of what you might consider your living authentically? And maybe in connection with how you were living: can you say more about the “realities” you “didn’t see represented,” as you say, when you were young, and how you responded to or with them artistically?
Was there a lack of “authenticity” you were missing, perhaps? I ask this especially given what you’ve said about Bukowski (the Bukowski industry maybe, in both poetry and film — I’m thinking here of the wonderful film Barfly, for example — two worlds you have been deeply involved in). Do you think too much was made of the need for “authenticity” in the sixties, looking back on that period now, one decade and more into the twenty-first century?
And maybe in this regard, looking back on Bukowski’s life, I wonder if one could plausibly argue that he nurtured what I’ll call a lived persona. What’s wrong with the “I” in poetry anyway? I guess actors are supposed to be extraverted and self-centered, while poets are supposed to be (should be?) introverted, and possibly altruistic (yes I know these are gross oversimplifications). If there is in fact a voice in your writing — indeed a consistent voice from one work to the next — particularly in your poems (as compared with, say, the purportedly selfless or subjectless, at times antilyrical, stance of Language writing — a movement you were at least tangentially involved with in its initial period), is that voice in fact a disguise or otherwise a subterfuge to protect the real or, to use your word, the authentic Michael Lally? Or are you disavowing the notion that there is a voice in your writing, authentic or otherwise?
Lally: By “living authentically” I just meant being honest about who and where I was in any given moment, rather than posturing or trying to create an illusion (I know guys who became cops or firemen etc. and still made music or did other more creative work, but they didn’t pretend to be anything other than what they were, that’s what I was after, not pretending I wasn’t ambitious or didn’t want as much respect and admiration for my work and efforts as I did, but also not pretending I was from anything other than I was or that I didn’t find a lot of literary theory and criticism totally boring and irrelevant in terms of how I experience(d) my own creativity and understood others’ (though I loved reading some of it when it stimulated my sense of language possibilities, one of my early favorite books being Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, of all things). My point about the calendar was not to imply that the poets in it, which included Bukowski (why did he become such a major topic of our conversation?!), weren’t aware they were posing, or were pretending they always hung around naked on their roofs or wherever the photos were taken, but that their poses didn’t reflect the kind of consciousness I wanted to convey of “hey, we both know I’m posing for an unnatural photo of me naked so I’m gonna make the ‘posing’ part of this transaction obvious.”
I used to say about my work that I felt it was my job to make the subtle obvious and the obvious subtle.
As for the “realities” I “didn’t see represented” when I was a kid, here are a few examples. My family seemed to represent the stereotypical “Irish” (i.e. Irish-American) family. My father’s Irish immigrant parents lived down the street — she had been a “scullery maid” and he was the first cop in our town. My father was a seventh-grade dropout self-made businessman (home repairs) and part of the Essex County [New Jersey] Democratic political “machine” on our local level. My older brothers were a priest, a teacher (music), and a cop. My two sisters married a cop and a teacher (machine shop). I was the poet/black sheep.
We lived in a very small house not only with my maternal (and “crippled” as they said then) grandmother, but later with a boarder, and Irish extended clan members, either local or from Ireland, needing a temporary haven.
The few movies and books and plays and songs I knew that addressed the world of my family, often used these stereotypes, but they never reflected my experience of who these people really were, how they actually behaved and what their lives were truly like, i.e. unique (as I felt everyone I knew was, despite the surface obviousness).
For instance, my Irish immigrant grandfather — who kept a goat for a while in his backyard and drank too much after he retired as a cop — was totally unlike the stereotypical loquacious Irishman happy drunk. He was more like a Beckett character (which didn’t exist yet, at least not in my life) than something from Going My Way (which nonetheless I loved, as did my family, because Bing Crosby epitomized the easy grace with which we felt our best did their best).
Or my brother the priest, rather than like Bing and his “Father O’Malley” (or Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces), my brother was inspired to become a Franciscan missionary to Japan after a stint in the Army Air Corps at the end of World War Two, feeling the spirits of the Kamikaze pilots had called to him, wanting him to save future generations of Japanese from thinking it was a good idea to kill yourself for an emperor (not seeing the irony of doing that by proselytizing for a religion that elevated martyrs to sainthood, though he quickly learned that few Japanese were interested in his “saving” them and so he settled into just being of service as best he could).
Where was that in any movie or book I knew of about the “Irish” or for that matter World War II?
And I could do that for everyone in my family and neighborhood, which was mostly “Irish” when I was little but by the time I left as a teenager included a wide variety of ethnicities, and always had a small contingent of African-Americans who’d been there long before the Irish came and who also on the surface seemed stereotypical but in reality were uniquely individual and unlike anything in literature or film or music I knew of as a boy and young man.
Michael Lally's South Orange Sonnets, front and back cover.
Initially my response to all that was to write as frankly and clearly as I could about life as I experienced it, the way the people I grew up around really behaved etc. But once I had done that to my satisfaction (of which The South Orange Sonnets was an early example) I then also wanted to convey how writing itself was uniquely gratifying and challenging and how it led me to desire not only to read a wider and wider variety of ways of writing but experience them in my own writing and discover my own new ways (which I thought I did, more than once, including writing that could have been classified as “Language Poetry” before that term and movement came about, and I know I wasn’t alone of course).
And I didn’t mean to use Bukowski as a symbol of the inauthenticity that disturbed me as a kid and later. Bukowski seemed to be true to his art and his intentions and did a pretty great job of it. (I wrote a very positive review of his latest Black Sparrow book for the Village Voice in the early eighties because they wouldn’t accept a review of the latest Larry Eigner Black Sparrow, claiming Eigner was too “obscure” and “unknown” — so they let me write a double review including the Eigner if the other was Bukowski.) But Barfly is a good example of what I meant. Any alcoholic knows that what was missing in that film were the times a drunk would piss or shit his pants or throw up all over himself and often others, and more aberrant behavior that the movie left out or glossed over. It romanticized drinking almost as unrealistically as the legends of other hard-drinking writers have, Fitzgerald et al.
As for too much being made of “authenticity” back in the sixties, I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but if it’s all the identity politics stuff, again it was the stereotypes that bugged me. I pointed out to college students when the Black Panthers, many of whom I knew and worked with, put them down for being in an ivory tower and needing Panther leadership and perspective in their politics, that it was college students for the most part, who were responsible for much of the antiwar activity and education of the general populace as well as for a lot of Civil Rights progress. Something I wouldn’t have known had I not been exposed to it personally.
My experience on the streets and going to college late on the G.I. Bill gave me a perspective that was pretty unusual and helped me see through attempts to pigeonhole and categorize any group or population and also made me want to expose the falseness of any generalities masquerading as analyses of “authenticity” back then, as well as ever since, and to expose my own faults and failings and phoniness when I recognize them.
I think “lived persona” is a pretty good term and that, yes, Bukowski did do that in many ways. As maybe I have too, trying on different identities (as others have pointed out, and me too [see “My Life 2”]) that I always felt, or came to feel, were part of the crowd inside me. As for “voice” (“voice” used to be considered very important when I was coming up in the poetry world) in my own writing, especially my poetry, I would never disavow it. As I said above, I was always, and still am, dedicated to getting as close to the truth in (and at) any given moment as is possible, at least for me. I made a deliberate choice when starting out as a kid to always write in a way that the kid I was and the people I came from could understand (I had the idea as a teenager that I could do for poetry what I thought Hemingway had done for prose, that clear, crisp, hardedged realistic perspective etc., at least the way I saw it then, but in fact if anyone did that it was Bukowski!).
Interestingly, after my brain operation a little over a year ago, I found myself unable at times to use the more simple, direct, conversational vocabulary I usually wrote and almost always spoke with as easily as before. Instead my brain would offer up alternative words when I couldn’t think of the one I would normally use, alternative words from the larger vocabulary in my mind from all my reading, and I’d find myself using terms I would never use and have always thought of as “phony” for me to use, like “pernicious” or “inelegant” or (actually I’m having a difficult time finding the best examples because they don’t come to me naturally, but rather unexpectedly, and often I look them up to make sure I’m using them correctly and I always am, which surprises me).
My point being, I now understand, post–brain op, that much of the way my brain (and I suspect all of ours) works is independent of so much I thought I had control over. Which in a way gets us back to where I started, with the compulsion to express myself through poetry and other creative ways we usually think of as some kind of “art” (which came from somewhere before my own consciousness formed because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have that compulsion) and then through doing that the compulsion to find new ways and avenues and approaches for it, which led to results that gave me new pleasures that in turn generated new compulsions to discover even newer ways (for me) to do that (sometimes serially writing about the same experience but from different approaches and in different forms etc.).
For instance in the late 1970s a selection of a decade’s worth of love poems was published called Just let Me Do It, in which every poem was formally different than every other one, no small feat I thought, and yet when Marjorie Perloff, a literary critic who’d written positively about my poem “My Life” in a review in The Washington Post of an anthology I edited, None of the Above, told me she admired an early book of mine, Rocky Dies Yellow (that also had a wide variety of approaches to writing a poem, including some I thought were uniquely my own), and asked to review the next one, which turned out to be Just Let Me Do It, she then told me she couldn’t write a review because she felt the poems in the collection were too formless, questioning if I made any deliberate formal choices at all (even asking if my line breaks were deliberate?!) I felt, not for the first time, misunderstood, as if because of the ways I chose to live my life and my commitment when writing about it to stick mostly with that simpler vocabulary — and because of my distrust of using a voice I felt would be inauthentic etc. — whatever “technical” skills I had were being overlooked and I was being cast again as the “diamond-in-the-rough” who had a few lucky moves but then reverted to type, rather than the evolving original I saw myself as.
Kimmelman: I’m glad you like the notion of a “lived persona” and I do take cognizance of the fact that we are, arguably, all of us, many selves — a concept possibly more accepted today than in the days when you were first coming into prominence in the world of poetry and when (including identity politics), I dare say, authenticity became more important in people’s minds than it had been previously. Doug Lang has written about your work, associating it with the Beat movement — and wasn’t that movement in part at least a bid for the real, the authentic, in the Eisenhower postwar television-foisted era that sought to define itself in a myth of the perfect society? I don’t want to pursue this notion of the lived persona much further but, since I’m bringing up Lang’s commentary, let me acknowledge in passing that both he and Terrence Winch, who has also written knowingly of your work, have spoken of the “self-mythologizing” in it (of course one of them could have unconsciously absorbed the phrase from the other, but still, Lang also calls you “a performer” and perhaps dangles the possibility out there that yours is a self-performance). Frankly, I like the idea of a “crowd of voices” within you, of points of view or whatever. And I think it might be more useful to pay attention to Lang’s comment that you developed an “anti-literary version of American speech” and that, as you have put it, you “felt it was [your] job to make the subtle obvious and the obvious subtle,” and, too, you had no use for or patience with the academy, the “literary.” To be candid, while I see how you hold forth (on paper and in person when you read your work), how you declaim in a way that might be reminiscent of, say, a Gregory Corso or Allen Ginsberg, I think your poems at times strike me as of a language Williams might have written had he been alive in your adult life, or perhaps a Paul Blackburn (though his work is visually wrought in a way you seem not to be interested in); that is, your work is plain spoken and direct. It is also sincere though it sidesteps sentimentality, I think, for example in a poem like “Forbidden Fruit”:
all the forbidden fruit I ever
dreamt of — or was taught to
resist and fear — ripens and
blossoms under the palms of my
hands as they uncover and explore
you — and in the most secret
corners of my heart as it discovers
and adores you — the forbidden fruit
of forgiveness — the forbidden fruit
of finally feeling the happiness
you were afraid you didn’t deserve —
the forbidden fruit of my life’s labor
— the just payment I have avoided
since my father taught me how —
the forbidden fruit of the secret
language of our survivors’ souls as
they unfold each others secret
ballots — the ones where we voted
for our first secret desires to come
true — there’s so much more
I want to say to you — but for
the first time in my life I’m at
a loss for words — because
(I understand at last)
I don’t need them
to be heard by you.
There’s a tenderness here that one will not find in the Beats or in Williams, Blackburn, the Black Mountain poets (with Creeley or Oppenheimer as possible exceptions — but I don’t think they were so very, let’s say, heartfelt, ever). But what I find also remarkable is how unabashed your world of feeling is. Would it be wrong to think that in the blue-collar life you grew up in such open sentiment was suppressed? I like what Hirsh Sawhney has written about you: “Lally’s poetic vision is […] permeated by a spiritual optimism.” Indeed, you are not a poète maudit. Do you agree?
Anyway, beyond the few you have mentioned already, who are the poets and writers — and, while we’re at it, the actors — you have admired, and how do you see them figuring in your oeuvre?
Left to right: Michael Lally reading at Folio Books in Washington, DC, circa 1977, with Doug Lang and Terence Winch.
Lally: I appreciate both Lang’s and Winch’s takes on my “self-mythologizing” and playing with personas. A more recent and equally original take on that is Jerome Sala’s post on my poetry from his Espresso Bongo blog.
I like your take as well, especially your using the term “heartfelt” instead of “sentimental,” which I’m sometimes accused of being. And you’re correct that the kinds of feelings I write about were mostly suppressed in the clan and neighborhood I grew up in, except at funerals and sometimes when more than “a drop” had been taken.
I wasn’t as expressive of my feelings through most of my boyhood and young adulthood either, though more than those I came from, especially when it came to romance. As my good friend, the late poet Etheridge Knight once said of my work, even my “political poems are love poems.”
But the real breakthrough for me occurred after feminism and the “gay movement” convinced me that, as the feminists said then, “the personal IS political.” I was already partly there but these movements inspired me to go even further. The difference is obvious if you read my South Orange Sonnets — written before that influence — and My Life, written as the influence of those movements on my work was peaking.
And just an aside about your reference to Paul Blackburn and his use of space on the page. I did write more under the influence of “projective verse” or “open field verse” — as it was also known — before the changes that feminism and the so-called “gay revolution” inspired in me and my work, which led in part to my wanting to convey more of a sense of urgency and unrelenting rapid-fire persistence in “getting the truth” (as I saw and experienced it) “out.”
All of which occurred when I was living in DC from late 1969 to early ’75. I’d been writing and rewriting The South Orange Sonnets in different forms since 1960 when I was eighteen (they became sonnets after I read Peter Schjeldahl’s Paris Sonnets and thought, in my typical fashion, because I had never been out of the country at that point, that “Paris” seemed a little elitist so I’d write about the place where I grew up as far from what I thought Paris was at the time as I could get), but they coalesced into their final version shortly after I arrived in DC, with helpful input from fellow Iowa Writers Workshop and Midwest poet Robert Slater.
Mass Transit magazine cover, 1973, with Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Terence Winch, Ed Cox, Ed Zhanizer, Peter Inman, Tim Dlugos, and others.
One of the first things I did in DC was look for poets and readings. But everything I found was either too formal — readings at the Library of Congress where several times I stood up in the audience to raise questions or objections, which made a lot of folks uncomfortable — or salons in professors’ and others’ homes. So I organized some readings for benefits and then started a weekly open reading called Mass Transit — in the Community Bookstore I helped run — that attracted a lot of independent souls and poets just beginning to express themselves, including the not-yet-actress, let alone movie star, Karen Allen, the not yet rock’n’roll musician/singer/songwriter John Doe, who wouldn’t take that name until years later in Los Angeles, who was mainly a friend of Terence Winch’s, the poet and Irish musician/songwriter who became my best friend, and many others, like my wife at that time, Lee Lally, and Ed Cox, Ahmos Zu-Bolton, Tina Darragh, Beth Joselow, Tim Dlugos, Peter Inman, Lynne Dreyer, etc.
Out of those readings, a few of us started a poetry publishing collective, Some Of Us Press, which became known as SOUP, putting out a poetry “chapbook” every month by a local poet, including the first books of several of the poets mentioned above as well as poets tangentially connected to the readings, e.g. Bruce Andrews and Simon Schuchat. Many of the books sold out their small runs, giving us the money to publish the next one. Some were reprinted a few times (like The South Orange Sonnets, the first one we published, which went on to win me a 92nd St. Y “Discovery Award” for 1972, though by the time I did the acceptance reading there my life and poetry had changed directions once again and Harvey Shapiro, the judge who introduced me and picked my S.O. Sonnets to win this honor, seemed almost reluctant and saddened by my new direction).
Washington Post, article 1973 on Some of Us Press.
The best thing about being part of this self-created community that I helped generate, were the friendships and interactions, like Terry Winch not just becoming my best friend but giving me very helpful input after reading a long poem I was working on, saying, “I think the poem begins in the last few lines” which became the beginning of what turned into “My Life” — a poem that marked in some ways the end of my time in DC.
But to answer your main question(s): I already mentioned Bing Crosby, but in my boyhood it was him and (early) Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole (when he still had a trio and played piano as well as sang), who introduced me to great lyric writing through their renditions of what became known as “the American songbook” that we used to just call the standards.
As others have pointed out, Bing was cool and Frank was hot but what they introduced into popular vocalizing in both cases was being conversational. Rather than tone and pitch and elocution as the markers for great vocalizing, a sense of intimacy and truth became equally if not more important. I got that as a boy, and was also moved by the sophisticated use of rhyme and rhythm and vocabulary in the great songwriters they interpreted.
Johnny Mercer was the first lyricist whose use of language I fell in love with as a tiny kid in the song “You Got to Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive” — a philosophy that may have influenced what you quote Hirsh Sawhney calling my “spiritual optimism” (something, by the way, many critics obviously have a difficult time with in general, as shown in their championing of Burroughs over Kerouac, or Eliot over Williams, etc.).
I also may have been influenced by the romanticism in most of those great standards. But it was when I hit puberty, just as rock’n’roll began, that I saw a way for me to use what the great lyricists were teaching me, and that was in Chuck Berry’s closer-to-home lyrics, beginning with “Maybelline” (the title of my MFA thesis, a collection of poetry, at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop was “Sittin’ Down at a Rhythm Review” — a line from Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” I thought described a lot about my time there and a radical gesture in 1969 when the workshop still didn’t teach the New York Poets, let alone the Beats et al., and Chuck Berry and the other rock’n’roll and R&B innovators of the previous decade were mostly, if not entirely, forgotten or ignored). In the first poetry anthology where my work appeared — in 1969, Campfires of the Resistance — I mentioned the influence of Berry in my contributor’s note.
Not long after I first discovered Berry’s lyrics, I got into jazz — playing it and listening to it almost exclusively — and that’s where I encountered Jon Hendricks’s lyrics, taking the rhythmic and melodic inventiveness of jazz improvisation and applying it to my own poetry.
The first poets to influence and inspire me were Saint John of the Cross, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, followed almost immediately by E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, and then Diane di Prima, Ray Bremser and Bob Kaufman.
St. John I discovered in a paperback version of his Dark Night of the Soul I found on a book rack in the vestibule of my family’s parish church. I was a print junkie from the start and in the fifties when paperbacks were everywhere I devoured them until I began to find the writers and poets whose work seemed to speak directly to me and my inner life, St. John being the first.
Dickinson’s use of dashes, ignoring of conventional punctuation in order to get the rhythm of her thoughts down quicker, the way I read it, and the freedom and directness and clarity of her expressing her philosophy impressed me. The first Whitman I read was a paperback version of his prose masterpiece Specimen Days, a book I continue to reread and still find uniquely inspiring in its plainspoken articulation of personal experience (often in the context of historical events). But I quickly discovered Leaves of Grass as well and have been rereading the various editions of that collection continuously ever since.
Cummings mostly liberated me from a sense of shame for my sensuality and desire to express that through writing. I picked up on Eliot’s rhythms, which I found so musically proficient that it overwhelmed my natural chip-on-the-shoulder negative reaction to his otherwise conservative voice and posture. Williams was like my first “home boy” poet, reinforcing my own belief that the local was not just important but imperative in making any literature not only as “true” as possible but as relevant.
Diane di Prima gave me permission to speak from my family and neighborhood background while still being true to who I was becoming in the moment, and not to pull any punches (her Thirteen Nightmares I had almost memorized and used to quote on air at one of my early jobs as a disc jockey when I was still a teenager, and may have been the reason I got fired!). Bremser introduced me to how my naturally speedy nature could translate into poetry and Kaufman confirmed my belief in the power of jazz rhythms to propel my imagination into new forms of expression.
The other great influences were William Saroyan’s fiction; his autobiographical nonfiction when midway through his career replaced the fiction; and his plays. Here was a fellow autodidact (as I saw myself at the time), the relatively poor son of immigrants growing up in that kind of insular immigrant community and mentality, yet rather than being intimidated or critical of those outside that community, instead identifying with every kind of human (and creature), believing he could see himself in it all and having an unshakable faith that what he had to say about that was important and necessary … I could go on, but will just say I felt Saroyan was expressing some of the same feelings and thoughts I was trying to express in my own writing back then.
Kerouac had a similar effect. I identified with his ethnic and cultural minority background, transcended like Saroyan and me by a love of writing and books and a sense that there was a perspective that hadn’t been represented in the world of literature yet that we were born to accomplish (perhaps a little arrogant on all our parts and obviously more so on mine since I didn’t fulfill that anywhere near on the level they did). But I was also drawn to their peculiar mysticism (especially Kerouac’s Catholic influenced version, closer to mine) and their refusal to accept their intellect as in any way less than those who would criticize them for seeming too “raw” or “sentimental” or accuse them of somehow not really knowing or controlling what they were doing, like they were spewing rather than crafting their prose (they also both wrote poetry but Saroyan’s was pretty weak while Kerouac’s was much more unique and ultimately very influential).
As has been proven posthumously for Kerouac, he did indeed craft his prose and make deliberate choices in his attempts to get closer to realizing his personal ideal of what great writing should accomplish in his time, but while he was alive there were few critics or literary figures who took the time to discern this, most of them dismissing his work as too unpolished to be comparable to “great literature” etc. (The famous putdown by Truman Capote is a prime example of that, where he said something about how Kerouac wasn’t a writer, he was a typist — I can’t remember it exactly because I never liked it and because it was wrong.)
There were a few other early influences, like the probably obvious James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, especially the opening pages, had a major impact on my sense of what could be done with language when I read it at eighteen, and that was followed quickly by Samuel Beckett.
Then there were the perhaps more unexpected, Gertrude Stein and Henry James being two examples. I read everything of James’s I could get my hands on in my late teens and early twenties, and read him entirely differently than any scholars I read on him. I found him pretty humorous in many instances and I loved what I saw as the musical (more like Charles Ives than jazz) elements of his prose, the ways he built sentences and paragraphs with extended riffs that forced you to carry several strands of what seemed like contrary ideas until they came back together to reach a temporary conclusion that would then drive on to another accumulation of phrases into complex sentences and what initially seem like run on paragraphs, only to tie that series up pretty neatly once more and so on.
Stein, of course, as she did for many, introduced the idea of intellect being a source of playfulness and of skill being dependent on that rather than the other way around, if that makes sense.
The last big influences on my early development as a writer and poet were Vladimir Mayakovsky and Frank O’Hara. The latter’s conversational use of The Romantics’ hyperbole and his combining of what was then considered “high” and “low” culture and his willingness to write what seemed like personal, almost epistolary, monologue-poems and then switch to pseudosurreal imagistic lyricism gave me permission to allow more of my “experimental” side to flourish. I had already been hit by Mayakovky’s Cloud in Trousers — an epic poem in length and intent written more as a mixture of lyricism and personal conversation (even if at times declamatory). I saw Mayakovsky’s influence on O’Hara immediately, so was not surprised to discover that he was one of O’Hara’s favorites too.
There are lots more, but that’s probably too much already. (And as for actors, the ones that impacted me the most and whose artistry I studied and felt most satisfied by were Bogie and Cagney, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, Simone Signoret and Vanessa Redgrave. There’s plenty more whose work I love and admire — Veronica Lake was another early favorite — but those were the main influences on my idea of what acting could achieve, although, as in my writing, my eventual goal was, and is, to express the self-consciousness and self-questioning as well as the self-aggrandizing and yes self-mythologizing that I believe goes on in most if not all humans as well as the usual realistic aspects of being alive and expressing what that’s like in the moment, even if it’s just the thrill of writing something no one else might ever understand or appreciate or see the uniqueness of.
Kimmelman: Yes, what I particularly like about Jerome Sala’s discussion of you is how nuanced he is — taking us, hopefully, closer to the actual in your work. And his quoting of Bakhtin — “there always arises an unrealized surplus of humanness” — says a lot as it sponsors the commentary’s distinctions (e.g., “the self as discovered and the self as made,” “the ‘self’ isn’t so much a particular identity, as the act of trying them [i.e., multiple possible selves] on,” and “Lally’s acknowledgment of the malleability of the ‘self’ is the source, not only of the wit in his work, but the poignancy as well”). These distinctions lead Sala to calling you “the sophisticated (if at times unacknowledged) literary godfather of all sorts of poets” — which maybe takes us back to Marjorie Perloff’s complaint about your deliberately multiformal book Just Let Me Do It — and, was her distrust of the line breaks in this book provoked at heart by a poetics (which I would want to return to in depth later), or if not a poetics then a stance toward writing we might find illuminated in your remark about Kerouac who you insist “did indeed craft his prose and make deliberate choices,” though too many or most people, in your view, see his work as “too unpolished to be comparable to ‘great literature’”?
But in passing let me quibble with two points made in Sala’s appreciation. One is his accounting for your “humor” (when he discusses your poem “My Life 2,” published in your book It’s Not Nostalgia). He says it “comes from the doubling of self-deflation.” Is this remark meant, in part, as a kind of defense, in your behalf, against a charge of narcissism? If so I think it might be misplaced — insofar as, at least in my reading of your work, one key strength in it is the persona, implied or foregrounded, who seems to exist outside the poem as well as in it; and so, maybe, it would be more accurate to speak of an obsession with selfhood in the Lally poem (but I don’t mean to imply that the work is solipsistic — rather, a persona is in the scene the poem adumbrates but the world is interesting in the scene and the reader sees the persona within this world, the poem’s world). There’s a difference here, surely.
Anyway, my other quibble is more important. I’m coming to feel that the poignancy in your poetry comes not from your “acknowledgement of the malleability of the ‘self’” (as per Sala) so much as from something I think you’ve revealed in what you’ve just said about Saroyan, and it is what I meant to get at, I guess, when I said of the poem of yours I’ve quoted that it was “heartfelt.” You say that Saroyan had “an unshakeable faith.” Maybe it is this that is ultimately compelling in your poem; and maybe this is what I get when I read Williams who, now that I think about it, really did have a faith in the world (a faith that, arguably, was not necessarily shared by his Modernist peers). Does this make sense to you?
There’s another point about self/selves, voice, conversation, etc., which Sala touches upon. And the word conversation is quite germane to it. So, here’s yet another quibble: I think you missed what I actually had in mind when I mentioned Blackburn’s visuality. His poetry reflects the concerns of a speaker who sees the world visually — yes, of course his language was arranged on the page in startling, groundbreaking ways that were decidedly spatial. But what I meant was that Blackburn existed on the visual plane, in a spatial dimension (thus, while his language showed a concern for sound, what he was really interested in was how the world looked and how people’s relationships were, perhaps determined by, but in any case capable of, being understood or savored in visual terms). You, on the other hand, are concerned with matters on the temporal plane. And this leads to a sort of musically contained poem. Of course your music is understated as it fits into your efforts to make your poems look a bit unkempt, à la Kerouac, or otherwise look and sound talky, even when they have been carefully wrought.
Now, is this not emblematic of what good conversation is like, a bit rambling but incisive too?
I think it is no accident that you pay homage to, among your contemporaries or near-contemporaries, di Prima, Bremser and Kauffman. Who can be surprised at this, after what you have said about the musicians who have played an important role in your life, in influencing your writing? Kauffman confirms the truth and beauty of jazz for you, what you came to intuit when still quite young, a kid. As for Bremser, I remember fondly a reading of his many years ago; it was like scat singing except he was speaking, in actual words, but it was pure music, really.
As for di Prima — you mention Thirteen Nightmares; I believe that became part of her volume titled Dinners and Nightmares, and that volume contained what I think was her first chapbook publication, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, an astonishingly fresh and beautiful collection (including the undeniable series of poems she titled “Poems for Brett” and “Songs For Babio”). The economy of language in her work then was amazing, and the poems (songs?) had a supple, sinewy lyricality and syncopation to them. And what was her language like? It was hipster-spoken, jazz-inflected, inner, intimate thoughts, intimate thoughts brought into the social realm. I like what Sala says when he speaks of what is finally to be found in your poems: sheer “attitude.” di Prima had that in those tender and tough, jazzy early poems. I guess that chapbook came out at about the same time that she was editing Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). No I don’t think that she consciously had the music or personality of Charlie “Bird” Parker in mind when she titled that chapbook, but she was on the scene — no?
And like Sala also says about you: your “powerful style, mixing talk, a jazzy rhythm and pre-hip-hop improvisatory rhyme with pure attitude, seemed predictive, in retrospect, of the performance styles to come after [your] own work began.” I’m reminded here of a poem by Michael Stephens (who has a similar background to your own — Irish-American, blue-collar Brooklyn and later Long Island), written at the time he and I went to hear di Prima, young and redolent, read her work at St. Mark’s Church (about 1966). She read beautifully, and then apologized for having to leave abruptly, since she had four unattended kids at home waiting for her. Remembering that evening, I am struck by the parallel — you deciding not to stop being a struggling artist because you were raising two children by yourself. What were those days like for you?
Anyway, Stephens’s piece was called “Tough Kid with a Poem” and it was jazzy in its talk. You may remember that you and he (and I) had breakfast together a few years ago (when he was in the States from London briefly, where he’s been living these days). You two talked about Hubert Selby, Jr., the author of the amazing novel Last Exit to Brooklyn (eventually made into what I think was a fine film), set in what was then a very tough Red Hook, Brooklyn, and I wonder if you would agree that at heart that book is jazzy, not least of all as regards the rhythms of its narration. Of course you and Stephens were both friends with “Cubby” (one of my regrets was that I never met him). And my sense is that he was important for both of you, your respective writing.
Left to right: poet/filmmaker Joel Lipman, actor/poet MIchael Harris, Hubert Selby, Jr., Lally, and Eve Brandstein, circa 1988.
I guess this observation allows me to ask if your musical and poetic forbears inform your prose too, not just the work that may be multi- or cross-generic, but that which one clearly assumes is prose. Is there musical talk in your prose too, in your view, an understatedly musical talk? Or do you perhaps not accept my description of your work as I’ve explained it here? And do you see your music, and for that matter jazz, as inextricably involved in what I’ll call your “tough” upbringing? di Prima too had a Catholic blue collar Brooklyn childhood (if memory serves me right). I won’t comment on Etheridge Knight’s background, or Bremser’s or Kauffman’s, though I think this is relevant to what I’m saying. I don’t know how to describe the politics here (thinking of what the sixties feminists said of how “the personal is political”), but maybe there is a socioeconomic dynamic in play.
One more thing: Is the musical a way to maintain faith in the world?
Lally: It occurs to me when you add at the end your last question — “One more thing: Is the musical a way to maintain faith in the world?” — that my answer is: the musical is a way to maintain faith in the word! (as well as “the world”). My earliest influences were all music or related to music, as I pointed out previously. But while I mostly mentioned lyricists, it was also instrumentalists. I played piano from as early as I can remember (and added other instruments later, trumpet, sax, bass, etc.), starting lessons at four. I quit for a while in my early teens out of rebelliousness, mostly toward the formal lessons kind of learning, but picked piano back up again in my late teens and played a little professionally through my mid-twenties, when I quit again because I felt I needed to focus on my writing, particularly my poetry, and that dealing with other musicians, and club owners and managers, and lining up gigs etc. was all taking away from my already busy life at the time (I was attending the University of Iowa Writers Workshop on the G.I. Bill and working on a BA and MFA at the same time — first time the school let anyone do that, I was told — as well as working a few part-time jobs to supplement the help from the G.I. Bill and support my growing family (we had our first child while there and our second shortly after leaving). So I gave up playing music to concentrate what energy I had left on my writing.
But my writing had always been informed by music, including the verbal kind I found in my neighborhood, which began with the “toasting” I learned from African-American friends, a proto-rap form of boastful rhyming similar to “the dozens” which I also learned from Irish-American friends who had their own versions of rhyming couplet put downs etc. as well as from the story telling and joke telling of my Irish relatives. There was a rhythm and melody to these verbal expressions that delighted me as a kid and that I always wanted to capture for “the record” as I saw part of my goal as an “artist” being right from the beginning.
And that fits into your quibble about Paul Blackburn’s work, which I think you’re right about. His was more a spatial component and mine temporal, as you say, especially in the musical sense, i.e. rhythm. Early on, my work was often taken as having been written by a “black” poet as opposed to a “white” one, and I think that had a lot to do with the rhythm, as well as subject matter. I was even invited to an awards ceremony in DC around 1969 when I moved there from Iowa City with my family to take a teaching gig (the only one I ever had, for four years, matriculating along with the other students as it were). I showed up at a cocktail pre-awards party for the nominees for the prize and startled my hostess and those who were giving the award because they had assumed I was “Negro” as they stutteringly explained that the award was not meant to be given to a “white” poet, so it was given to someone else who fit their category.
Around that time I was affected by an experience teaching Frank O’Hara’s poetry that opened my heart in a way it hadn’t been before to not just the artistry of O’Hara’s work — which I’d always been drawn to but also had a lot of arguments with (mostly because I found his urbane wit and eclectic but often rarified references “elitist” and probably felt threatened in some ways by that) — but also to his humanity. I literally “fell in love” with him through poems I’d been very familiar with but saw in new ways when explaining why they were great to a classroom full of undergraduate women; the poems were “The Day Lady Died,” “A Step Away from Them” and “Steps.”
I had always loved O’Hara’s ability to approach a poem from whatever angel (I meant “angle” but maybe “angel” is truer to reality) aroused his interest and inspired him at the moment, from conversational to formal to “experimental” (so many of his poems predict the whole “Language” movement in my perspective) but I felt almost like the anti-O’Hara up until that moment, arguing from my side that putting French terms and obscure poets’ and artists’ names in poems was somehow condescending to the kid I had been and the people and place I came from and knew. But that day in the classroom, in breaking down the elements in those three poems that made them “work,” I actually teared up, not just from the sentiment (and sentimental) perspective of “love” and “art” (whether or not, in the terms of those days, “high” or “low”), making it possible to transcend “life” (i.e. setbacks, struggles, disappointments, failures and ultimately loss and death), and choked up, surprising my students and myself. I went home that evening and reread all the O’Hara I owned at the time, which was every book of his published up to that point, and had this epiphany realizing, at least for myself, that what I had taken as “elitism” was actually a “modern” extension and reimagined expression of the kind of universal democratic inclusiveness I so admired and identified with in Whitman’s work since I was in my teens.
I later articulated this perception of O’Hara’s work in a long poem called “In The Mood” (a half decade later, 1977) in response to a critic’s misreading of O’Hara’s influence on me (a lot of people saw that influence after that O’Hara epiphany, and at least one interpreted my experimenting with bisexuality in the early seventies as a direct result of it, and there’s a lot to that). It wasn’t long after that O’Hara epiphany that I read in a series at the Smithsonian that included John Ashbery as well, and I had a change of heart about his work too. I had seen his poetry up to that moment as brilliantly original in terms of structure and language juxtapositions (Ted Berrigan had passed on his famous dictum to me only a few years before: “No ideas but in juxtapositions”) but too cold and calculated(!) for my taste. But at the Smithsonian reading, Ashbery read that Popeye sestina “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” and it being the first time I’d heard him read, I suddenly got the rhythmic use of language and the juxtaposition of poetic strategies that allowed him to get away with the line about Popeye scratching his balls, in front of all these well dressed and well behaved Smithsonian/DC matrons and patrons and I cracked up, actually had to keep myself from falling to the floor laughing, which I could see Ashbery appreciate, though his nasal monotone didn’t alter an iota. Later he came up to me to introduce himself, which was pretty gracious of him, and we became friends.
Some in the “Black Arts” movement who had considered me one of them, in whatever ways a “white” poet could be, were disappointed by my new appreciation for “The New York School” poets, or what they saw as their influence on me — even though I’d been reading and digging, on some level, my usual autodidact eclectic mix of poetry since my teens. And when I began writing out of the sexual experimenting that I indulged in during that period (the early seventies) I ended up getting criticized or just dropped. And more of that followed me after I moved to Manhattan at the start of 1975 and it eventually became clear that I was really a pretty “straight” “white” “male” poet, at a time when all three categories were becoming suspect unless coupled with a clearly Marxist and/or “Language” (as it began to develop among many of my fellow poets and friends in the late seventies) and/or “punk” stance (but only according to a certain elitist, as I again saw it, group who seemed to dismiss or else bristle at my self-identifying as a “punk poet” for years before the term even became current — I used it e.g. in that long autobiographical 1974 poem “My Life” that had an impact on some younger poets at the time, some contemporaries too). Having been a political activist for most of my life, not just a theorist, and having used many approaches to “the poem,” including ones that would later be seen as “language-centered” and still carrying with me, in my heart and in my writing, including the prose, those musical influences of my youth (including the rhythms and language of di Prima, Bremser and Kaufman), and now having also incorporated some of the strategies of “The New York School” — I absorbed all that into the same goal of trying to get as close to “the truth” of my reality as I could without over-sentimentalizing it, but also without scrubbing all sentiment from it, if you see what I mean. But I think in many ways it all just became too much of a complicated mix for some who like to be able to categorize and/or identify with a clear and simple message or approach or technique or stance etc. and I was just confusing them too much, or letting their agenda for me down. When that became clear to me, I moved on once more, this time to Hollywood to explore another arena that had influenced me hugely as a kid and that I always wanted to experience from the inside.
I think I got away from your questions, but that’s my response anyway.
Kimmelman: So, showing up in Los Angeles, how did you get comfortable in the poetry world there eventually, a New Jersey/New York transplant who eventually gets published by a press like Black Sparrow? And when you finally returned to the East Coast, did you merge easily into the stream, pick up the heartbeat, of the poetry being written and read there?
“No ideas but in juxtapositions”! I love what I take to be Berrigan’s insouciance and filial irreverence in echoing, of course, Williams’s “no ideas but in things.” Do we see here a link in your mind between O’Hara (and I’ll throw in Berrigan) and the “language-centered” writers who emerged about when you were composing your poem “In the Mood” (I would think this case would be easier to make if you were to cite Ashbery or someone like Clark Coolidge as forerunners of the Language folk, whereas I see Berrigan as finally more in sync with a contemporary like Bernadette Mayer)?
Anyway, let’s talk about “In the Mood.”
I would not be surprised to learn from you that to understand what your return east was like, and to get more insight into your move west, we ought to discuss this informative poem. So allow me to make some observations about it and, what I think is appropriate, some observations about the three poems by O’Hara you’ve mentioned — who figures centrally in your poem — which you cite as being really important to you in your life and I presume to “In the Mood.” Your poem is both an ars poetica and what I’ll call an ars biographia (in my saying this please don’t feel like we have to loop back to what we’ve said about your, let’s call it, poetics of the self — except maybe to touch on it as it connects with O’Hara’s work).
The first similarity that jumps out at me is that both O’Hara’s work and yours are talky. Once again the music of the speaking voice — in conversation, in dramatic monologue, in intimate inner thought, or whatever — is a key to both poetries, it seems to me. And your poem might be written out as prose but your line breaks, once the reader gets past the setup opening line, the enjambments, are striking:
It was in 1964 that I first read Frank O’Hara.
The book was Lunch Poems and it was sitting on
the kitchen table of the first intellectual I
was friends with. He was a graduate student in
a state college in Cheney, Washington, and I
was an Airman Basic (lowest rank due to court
martial) stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base
outside Spokane, Washington. The first poem
I read in the book was “The Day Lady Died” [etc.].
Actually, I hear a bit of the talk-chant of the opening of Howl here, but I guess we could start to find a lot of poems written at the time (maybe by someone like Joel Oppenheimer) that strive for this aesthetic. Still, it’s interesting what you do with the speaking voice here, your own singular creation. The line breaks provide a tautness in your narrative, and then the reader starts to get a rhythm to the story the poem is telling, and yes in a way to the persona, speaking in the first person — and the way your poem begins, the “I” prominent in the way O’Hara’s is, within a dynamic of a larger setting though, so you seem to be wanting to echo or reprise O’Hara’s voice and concerns. Here, for comparison, are some gorgeous lines from O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them” (one of the three poems you said were seminal):
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
The cityscape here, the poet as looker, arguably, are captured in what seems impromptu, casual, unworked, full-of-loose-ends verse (not unlike Kerouac?).
I love the way your poem goes on and on — also, perhaps, O’Haraesque, in that sense. And I love this truly insightful, and pissed-off, passage of yours, your paean to O’Hara (also, I must add in passing, this is a nice example of the importance of the breath, as Olson laid down in his ars poetica “Projective Verse”):
[…] one day I realized how much of what I was
reading and often admiring going on around me
in the poetry world was a kind of picking of
scabs and flashing the open sores and wounds
as badges and credentials and how O’Hara
totally sidestepped that contemporary tendency
by tone and choice of vocabulary that cut
through the hopelessness of so much poetry
and replaced it with the joy of writing the
poem. What a simple but wonderful revelation.
The joy of writing it down — that was
what it suddenly seemed to be about in
a way that made me think of all I had heard
the painters of his time were trying to do,
get across the action of the creating
rather than the product that was so finished
it showed no signs of the activity, the energy
and spirit of the actual work that went into it.
O’Hara’s poems were little excursions into
the act of writing poems with the kind of
mindset that keeps us trying sex with strangers
again and again, the hope that this time
is gonna be great, give us much pleasure
and satisfy a lot of frustration and totally
annul the boring horrible deadening, killing
in fact, effects of living.
Yet, unlike in the typical O’Hara poem, your poem has the sense that the speaker is really heading somewhere with what he’s talking about. Would you agree? But maybe the diatribe is there in his poems, if we look for it?
Also in this passage I love how you get a doubling effect, a kind of poem within a poem. Are we seeing you working here in a cross-generic way, writing both a poem and an essay, and not just biographical but also literary-critical, an essay-poem (was this new in the later seventies, preceding the Language people’s work, for example Charles Bernstein’s Artifice of Absorption? — in any case I can see it leading to the recent genre-transgressing of someone like Eileen Tabios, Stephen Paul Miller, or perhaps Kristin Prevallet).
The sense of talk in O’Hara’s poems — intimate talk, and casual, though a lot is hanging on it, possibly everything — is wonderful, and I often get that in your poems too. Now, there’s something else I find that is curious. Of the three O’Hara poems you have pointed out, two are elegies, and arguably the third, “Steps,” contains certain elements that might allow us to group it with the other two as being elegiac (for instance when the O’Hara persona asks, “where’s Lana Turner / she’s out eating / and Garbo’s backstage at the Met / everyone’s taking their coat off / so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers”). Maybe even when the poem was first written these lines were, if not elegiac then at least nostalgic. Yet is there not an essentially elegiac strain in all of O’Hara’s work, I would say, a memorializing that invites nostalgia though that sidesteps sentimentalism. Do you agree? And would you say the same for some of your work (I recall, fondly, your very moving albeit quiet prose account of visiting your aging brother in Japan, whom you’ve mentioned earlier, a probing tribute), and might you say this is true particularly for “In the Mood”? We are asked to, and we do, live in the moment in an O’Hara poem. And do we not sense the ephemerality of the world and become, thereby, urgent about living in it while we can? Is that also some of what your poem is meant to do?
Are you being elegiacal, deep down (or merely wanting to invoke the idea of the elegiacal), when you write this: “[…] suddenly I caught myself / starting to cry and I never cried back then, / in fact except for a short interlude of about / a year of weepiness I never cry period, except / over old movies and musicals and it was that / heartstring O’Hara had suddenly plucked in me / through his poetry that sang so naturally [etc.].” Or maybe this passage is not really elegiacal but rather is just sincere and direct, and moving for that. But I do sense, in any case, that in this poem, and in other poems of yours, you are interested in being — as happens in an O’Hara poem — very much in the present, the vibrant now.
What I sense you want in your poems is what O’Hara is in fact espousing when his persona in “Steps” opines, having mentioned the Pittsburgh Pirates who had been winning baseball games of late, that “[…] in a sense we’re all winning / we’re alive[.]” O’Hara’s speaker lives in the moment, indeed in the exhilaration of it. Here’s how this poem daringly ends, its final stanza:
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much[.]
The final line is so fleeting. The line is also sincere and heartfelt — getting back to the poem of yours I quoted earlier. And this is true of “In the Mood” where you speak of O’Hara’s “generosity and non-exclusiveness” that you then say “is rare.” You also remark, further on, that “sincerity / is supposed to be too costly,” and you deftly speak of
about the glory of life despite the futility of
Okay, so, can we think of this set of lines as being the hallmark of your work?
Lally: What it was like to move to Los Angeles (with my second wife who I’d just married and my two kids from my first marriage I’d been raising on my own up ’til then in Manhattan) and into an entirely new set of scenes, the local poetry scene(s), the Hollywood scene, the whole West Coast Southern California bunch of scenes (surfing, health food, car culture, etc.). It was difficult.
There were very few readings going on in LA in 1982 when I arrived. I knew something about the Venice Beach Beat scene from the fifties and beyond (and eventually became friends with some of the originals, like Frank T. Rios, a displaced New Yorker since the fifties I think and street poet — and “the man in black” before a lot of others who held that mantle) and Beyond Baroque, where I gave one of my first readings in LA and knew Dennis Cooper (who published the magazine Little Caesar and under that logo a collection of my poetry the year I moved to LA called Hollywood Magic) and Jack Skelley (who published the poetry magazine Barney).
My second wife, Penelope Milford, had some cachet in Hollywood. She’d been nominated for an Oscar a few years before, so we were instantly a part of that scene, and the publication party for Hollywood Magic included a lot of friends and acquaintances who happened to be movie actors, or “stars” in some cases, as well as others in the film and music “biz” (I had starred in a couple of horrible horror movies in New York before moving and got some attention). So there was some sniping and carping about my “going Hollywood” (even some criticism to that effect in some poetry newsletters and rags) even from former fans of my work as I discovered when a new Hollywood friend, a comedian at the time and later a filmmaker, told me about a visit he made to a bookstore in Detroit where they had several of my books, and even a picture of me on the wall, and when he took down one of my books from the shelf a young man asked him if he was a fan of my work and my new friend said he hadn’t read any of my books yet, then asked if the young man was a fan, and he said, “I used to be, before he sold out to Hollywood.”
My actual first poetry reading in LA was in West Hollywood at an independent bookstore called George Sand. A friend of Penny’s was a producer on Entertainment Tonight and a fan of my poetry, so she came with a crew to cover it but ended up being called away for some “breaking show biz news” before the reading happened. Yet just hearing of their presence pissed off some poets and poetry fans who weren’t even there, though the bookstore sold out every copy of the seven titles of mine they had special ordered extra copies of for the readings. (I read with Lewis MacAdams, who I’d first met through Ted Berrigan in the sixties because Ted thought our poetry had some things in common, though Lewis didn’t agree).
After the reading a diminutive Frenchman who owned an outdoor avant-garde theater in Hollywood came up to me with effusive praise and asked if I would create a show for his theater out of the book I’d been reading from, Hollywood Magic. Which I did, using a jazz musician friend, Buddy Arnold, and two thirds of a juggling/magic new wave vaudeville act, The Mums — Albie Selznick and Nathan Stein — and my wife and another actor/writer, Winston Jones.
The words of the show all came from poems from Hollywood Magic, but the scenes came from my movie memories and personal life. There was lots of extreme language and imagery which got the show moved to an indoor theater in Santa Monica after the Frenchman got nervous about his neighbors because my poetry not only used a lot of profanity and got pretty sexually graphic, but also included a lot of street language, like the n-word among other offensive terms, and he began to get threats and since the theater was outdoors wanted me to cut a lot of the offensive language which I wouldn’t do, so we moved to The Odyssey where a Wallace Shawn play was running and were given the time slot after it and I incorporated the stage set from Shawn’s show covered with white tarps into mine, like having magician Albie Selznick cut his way out of one of the tarps each night with a switch blade etc. or my wife appear beneath a tarp I slowly removed revealing her lying on a bed in skimpy lingerie while the two Mums juggled dildos over the bed and my wife, ending with them catching the dildos aiming in the right direction between their thighs.
All this activity led to some local media attention that seemed to draw the ire of some local poets who had been there long before I arrived and maybe hadn’t gotten as much attention. By 1986 my marriage had failed and acting jobs had dwindled in part because of my refusal to be tactful and act in my own best interest, or what I saw as standing up for my rights as a creator and not playing the Hollywood “game” etc. (I had work for a few years as a scriptwriter and “doctor” but also had to take gigs driving a limo and as a night guard in a hospital etc.). But I organized several benefits for various causes at which I had poets as well as movie and music stars read poetry, so was asked to start a weekly poetry reading series in a club in East LA, called Helena’s, by Helena, the part owner, an ex-belly dancer friend of Jack Nicholson’s — she played the angry dyke in the back seat of the car in Five Easy Pieces — who introduced me to another ex-New Yorker, Eve Brandstein, a poet/scriptwriter, who became my partner in the venture we eventually called “Poetry in Motion.”
The format I’d come up with decades before for poetry benefits as well as weekly series I’ve run is to have a lot of poets read briefly, a mix of styles and approaches, giving an audience the chance to find something they dig that hopefully will turn them on to poetry if they weren’t turned on to it before. I wasn’t aiming for poetry fans, but for a more general audience who might not realize how many kinds of poetry there are, including ones that might inspire or at least engage them.
For Helena’s, we let people we knew from the movie and TV and music communities in LA read poetry if they’d written it themselves and it was good enough. Sometimes I’d help some folks edit their work or do some rewriting, something I’d done both for friends and professionally over the years. But because some of these people were well known — even considered “celebrities” — some local poets I’d ask to read in the series turned me down, objecting to the venue (a hangout for the sort of alt-Hollywood crowd, like Nicholson, or later a club called Largo where we moved when Helena’s closed and Largo opened and the owner wanted the crowds and the attention we got), saying it was too upscale or “Hollywood” or not wanting to share the podium with people they considered not “real” poets, which just made me push that aspect even more, seeing another form of prejudice I hadn’t realized existed, against actors in general and “stars” in particular as beneath the cultural credential requirements of the poetry scene (this was before actors like Viggo Mortensen and James Franco et al. became accepted as poets and performance artists as well as movie stars).
But it was still so successful, standing room only crowds lined up at the door to get in and all kinds of local and national and even international media came to cover it. Unfortunately a lot of the coverage was snide, for which the reporters who covered us would apologize, saying they ended up being won over by the poetry, being moved or enlightened or entertained etc. by the work but their editors would insist on the “celebrity” angle and get nasty, as in one article about it in, I think Newsweek, that had the headline “Whitman Wannabes” (highlighting the “brat pack” connection because one of the poets, and a good one, was Ally Sheedy), and a bit in The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section that singled me out as a “Hollywood poet hustler,” as I remember it.
There were no coffee houses in Los Angeles when I arrived that hosted poetry readings. The only venue for alternative poetry that I encountered was Beyond Baroque. There weren’t many anywhere else in the country as far as I know then either (around that time the Los Angeles Times decided they weren’t even going to review poetry books anymore). But after we started “Poetry in Motion” they began popping up everywhere, in LA and across the country (and in movies), and I believe it was due at least in part if not entirely to the publicity we got (and not all snide, the New York Times article was an Arts section front page spread with several photos that continued further back in the section and was very positive and appreciative — though the photo labeled “Michael Lally” was actually of a regular participant, and my closest friend in LA, Hubert Selby Jr.!).
Part of the reason I started doing the poetry benefits and then the weekly series was because I wanted people in the Hollywood community that I was part of to see what I really did because I wasn’t publishing much in those years. But by the time I left LA in 1999 and moved back East to New Jersey, a collection of newer poems had come out, Cant Be Wrong (Coffee House Press) — which won an award — and the first of two extensive collections mixing poetry and prose was published by Black Sparrow Press It’s Not Nostalgia which won another award.
Nonetheless, back East I found that some folks in the poetry scene(s) had either forgotten or dismissed (for the “Hollywood” thing) my work or just didn’t dig it anymore, maybe finding it a bit TOO “talky” as you mention, since I’d written a lot of my newer work during the years of the weekly “Poetry in Motion” readings. I’d write a new poem for every week’s reading, and my partner Eve and I would pick a theme for the evening (which a lot of poets also objected to, though it’s in the tradition of “occasional poems” for which O’Hara was famous and many of his best poems were written, including in its own way “The Day Lady Died”).
One of the best experiences after I moved back East was taking part in a reading on the eve of our invasion of Iraq, March 18, 2003, which became the title of the poem I wrote for that reading and the book that was later made of that poem. It was organized by Vincent Katz at the Paula Cooper gallery in Manhattan and featured Robert Creeley, Anne Waldman, Ann Lauterbach and me.
I wrote March 18, 2003 [at right, cover by Alex Katz] in an old collage cut-up formula I’d been using on occasion since the 1960s. The office I had in the house I was living in at the time with my third wife and our young son was still full of unpacked boxes of unpublished poems, so I would write some lines and when stuck reach into a box and pull out a page and transcribe some lines from that page into the poem, etc.
Most of the historical factual stuff was written from memory, some from previous unpublished poems, and that was juxtaposed with personal and family history and lines containing lyric images, something I have always used sparsely. I was still writing it only hours before the reading and was convinced it came across as too politically strident.
I was talking to my wife about it as she was getting dressed for the reading and in response to her questioning about why I thought it was too strident I said: “I don’t have any answers, just questions,” and instantly saw the solution. I changed every period in the poem to a question mark and went and read the poem with the opening lines: “I don’t have any answers, / just some questions:” and got the best response I’d had to a reading since I read My Life for a Saint Mark’s Poetry Project benefit (post-fire in I think 1978) at CBGB’s and was off the stage and back in my seat before the audience erupted.
Both times I wasn’t sure if people got it, until the applause. I don’t think in either instance, or in any of my readings or writings it’s the “nostalgia” people respond to in my work, because to me it’s not nostalgia, it’s the particular history — personal and familial and cultural and political etc. — that lives in me, and each of us, that if we get accurately and in language that does its job — no matter how familiar or not it might be — with originality, of no matter what degree, people will “get it” and be inspired to go find some more whether in or outside of themselves.
I so appreciate your appreciation of my line breaks because that has always been the most important factor in the rhythms I try to create that either duplicate or originate the musical rhythms of the music I dug and dig and played (and still occasionally do though with a much more limited technique and ability) and wanted to use to express myself but never felt I did as well as I feel I have in my writing, especially the poetry.
Robert Slater and Michael Lally circa 1972.
And I guess to try and answer some of the questions about purpose and seeing more of a point to my poems that I’m driving toward than, say, O’Hara (though I think the lines you quote from him and me display the connection I believe our work has in that spirit of romantic indulgence despite the realities), it would be an attempt to share the exuberance and delight I discovered (and continue to) in writing that makes itself its own unique reward, an affirmation of purpose, of meaning, no matter how momentarily, to the music that fills my heart pretty regularly despite the setbacks and failures and disappointments and decline. I mean for decades now just picking up an O’Hara book and opening it and reading several lines brings a smile to my face, the same thing generally happens with many of my favorite writers, including friends like Terence Winch and Ted Berrigan, or John Ashbery and Ray DiPalma, Geoffrey Young and Joe Brainard, Merrill Gilfillan and Maureen Owen, Robert Slater and Tim Dlugos, Elaine Equi and Simon Pettet, Jerome Sala and David Trinidad, Doug Lang and Dale Herd, James Schuyler and so many more, including you Burt, and thankfully for me, if no one else, lines in my own poems, like those you quote, or these last few of the long poem My Life:
[…] I’ve learned to love
or at least appreciate a lot of things
I used to despise or ignore, I’ve had
trouble getting it up and trouble
keeping it down, I’m tired of a lot
of things but curious about more, I’m
tired of this but that’s history now.
Kimmelman: Well, I’m struck by two things you’ve just said and I wonder how they fit together for you.
First you speak of “the particular history — personal and familial and cultural and political etc. — that lives in me, and each of us,” and so you are honoring the real, history, and saying something, I guess about how and maybe why you write; and I think you are espousing a faith in language and life story both, when you continue by expressing the hope that writers “get [that history] accurately and in language that does its job — no matter how familiar or not it might be — with originality […].”
And then you say this, I think tellingly, declaring to us a lot about who and what Michael Lally has been and is: You express the belief that the respective work of both O’Hara and yourself “has in [it] that spirit of romantic indulgence despite the realities [… an] exuberance and delight I discovered (and continue to) in writing that [has] made it its own unique reward[.]”
Okay, so, let me ask you one final question, considering all the achievements of your life and the variousness of your experiences overall, and, most importantly, it seems to me, the enormous energy and commitment you’ve always devoted to your writing as well as to the people in your life — writers, readers, actors, of course your family, and so on.
Lally (right) with Peter Coyote on Deadwood, his final acting role, 2004.
The question is:
In your mind, is the heart of what it means to be a romantic the paying heed to the facts of a life, facts that, I guess, come to sustain a narrative that makes their meaning come into being; or, is being a romantic going on some quest that need not acknowledge or dwell in history, but is rather simply a project of the imagination (thus I think of, say, O’Hara versus Ashbery)? Of course, I may here be positing a false dichotomy.
Your final thoughts?
Lally: That final question’s a doozy, as they used to say. I think what I was trying to acknowledge is the value, for me, of what I might call “the romance of language” which would therefore posit no dichotomy as you describe it, because it doesn’t for me. At least not in the sense of O’Hara versus Ashbery. I find that sense of the “romantic” in the poetry, and prose for that matter, of both of them.
If I were to pit various writings against each other as examples of what I mean and don’t mean, the obvious ones I’ve already mentioned (I think) would be, say, Kerouac vs. Burroughs. Kerouac’s love of language as a valid (and romantic in the root sense of that word as well as its connotations and denotations) reason for writing, as well as his inherent need to record (and set that record straight) his personal experience of the history he was living through, for me, continues to inspire and delight and engage and even enlighten. Whereas Burroughs’s writing, for the most part, seems to me a more or less cold attempt to use language to further an ideology, no matter how personal, that has as at least one of its tenets an anti-romantic (and I’d say misogynistic) perspective rationalized as more “realistic” (even in the context of the sci-fi elements of Burroughs’s writing) though in reality, as I see it, it’s actually almost pure fantasy (as well as pure paranoia and cynicism, in many instances).
It’s all, in the end, a matter of personal taste and preference, obviously (though not so obvious to those academics and critics whose writing insists their perspective is the valid or correct or even only one). And my use of “romantic” might be seen by others as misuse.
And as for the “personal history” angle used in my writing and in so much that I love (like William Saroyan or Walt Whitman or Jean Rhys or Joanne Kyger, etc.), it doesn’t need to “tell a story” in the traditional sense of an arc with beginning and middle and end, but more in Charles Olson’s sense of dropping the “h” and seeing it as “I”-story, or the story of the “I” that Rimbaud famously said was “other” [“Je est un autre”]. The “romantic” in that kind of writing is in the expressly romantic relationship with language. It’s language after all that the writers I love have fallen for that makes them write. Yes to tell their story in many cases, to set the record straight, to get it down, the history they experience and witness that seems so precious and unrecorded before them or distorted before them (and before me) but also to share through that writing their deep involvement with the pleasures of writing itself, until, in some cases, that relationship becomes primary and the “personal story” part seems not just secondary or even further removed, but sometimes almost nonexistent (à la Ashbery, though for me his poems almost always come across as extremely personal and even narrative despite what he might say).
This is true for some of my writing too (like many poems of mine that were published in early “Language poetry” mags, which I was writing before that category was created, as were many others) as well as for most of those I love, and is what connects what otherwise might seem like two separate kinds of writing (this is most evident in O’Hara’s work, where some pieces are pure personal narrative and others pure language abstraction, or so it would initially seem). The connection being the “I” — no matter how apparent or not — that is making that choice and always for the love of language itself.
Anyway, that’s my thoughts on that, which hopefully make some sense.
Kimmelman: I guess, after all is said and done, Michael, for me you are an incurable romantic. And that’s not a bad thing at all, as is evident in your writing.
It has been an honor and great pleasure to have been able to have this conversation with you. Thank you.
Lally: Ah Burt, my pleasure entirely.
I’m totally grateful for the opportunity and challenge to think about these things and try to articulate my ideas and feelings about them. I would just add that I am indeed a romantic on many levels, but also a true realist, I believe, because I understand and accept that there is so much in life and the world that I cannot control and that has often affected me in ways most people would consider pretty negatively if not tragically. I don’t think I’ve misread or misrepresented the difficulties and disappointments and frustrations and failures of my life and the world and times I’ve lived in and through; I’ve just made a choice (and sometimes not a choice but have been compelled by my nature) to keep my heart open through it all as best I can and to follow where it’s led me, and continues to lead me. (Why do I feel the need to end with: Amen!?)
June 8, 2010, to September 16, 2010
The following is part of a larger conversation examining Ted Pearson’s An Intermittent Music, a serial work begun in 1975 and completed in 2010. The second half of this interview will also appear in Jacket2.
A previous interview, conducted in fall 2008, appears in Hambone 19, available through Small Press Distribution.
Ted Pearson was born in 1948 in Palo Alto, California. He began studying music in 1960 (voice, then woodwinds and composition) and started writing poetry in 1964. He subsequently attended Vandercook College of Music, Foothill College, and San Francisco State University. Since leaving the Bay Area in 1988, he has lived in Ithaca, Buffalo, and Detroit. He now lives in Southern California, where he is adjunct faculty in English at the University of Redlands.
Pearson has published sixteen books and chapbooks of poetry, including Evidence: 1975–1989 (Gaz, 1989), Planetary Gear (Roof Books, 1991), Songs Aside: 1992–2002 (Past Tents Press, 2003), and Encryptions (Singing Horse Press, 2007). He is also a coauthor of The Grand Piano (Mode A, 2006–2010), a ten-volume experiment in collective autobiography by writers associated with the San Francisco Language Poets. He has coedited several books and journals, including markszine.net, and his essays have been widely published, notably in Poetics Journal.
Luke Harley: In “Etude 8” of The Grand Piano, we learn that you were listening to serial music at a very young age. And in “Etude 3” you’re in Geneva, sketching the project that would become An Intermittent Music. At that point, you’d been writing for a decade, but serial composition had been on your radar since the late sixties, when you were barely twenty. How did serial music lead to serial poetry? What was it about serial poetry that captured your attention early on and has remained central to your writing?
Ted Pearson: When I was nine, I came across some early recordings of Cowell, Varèse, and Ives. Not long after, a local record-shop owner introduced me to works by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. The music was technically beyond my grasp, but I found it aesthetically compelling. It gave audible form, austere yet replete, to a soundscape that was strangely familiar, even on first hearing. In time, I came to understand how serial music foregrounds its constructedness as art — and how, by rejecting tonality as an organizing principle, it democratizes its elements, which retain their independence and refer only to each other, yet contribute equally to the composition, for which the tone row or series provides the underlying basis of its coherence.
Serial poetry offers similar possibilities. It accommodates diverse combinatory logics, enables production of extended works that cohere without recourse to a central narrative, accords equal weight to its discrete elements, and allows for the decentering of the writing subject. It also allows for a constructivist approach to writing, distinct from the expressivist mode that is widely considered synonymous with poetry. I knew early on that I wanted to retain the lyric’s technical resources, but not the hierarchy of poetic elements imposed by the “well-made poem” on one hand and by lyric subjectivity on the other. That hierarchy, not unlike the one imposed by functional tonality on music, is based on restrictive if highly centralized notions of coherence.
Harley: Although serial poetry is often considered a postmodern genre, its origins (in practice, if not in name) are clearly modernist. Did its emergence, almost a century ago, mark a rift in modern poetry that corresponds to the rift in modern music resulting from the appearance of serial and post-tonal music?
Pearson: I think modernism itself is rifted by the aesthetic contradiction that defines it. Even as it affirms the singularity of Art, it questions the very distinctions — among the arts and between the practices of art and life — that underwrite its singularity. It is further rifted by its practitioners’ diverse and often contentious aesthetics, Williams’s fierce response to The Waste Land, for example. While I doubt his response directly corresponds to serialism’s break with tonality, I remain intrigued by the historical proximity of Spring and All (1923) and Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano (1924), the first piece to fully employ his method of twelve-tone composition.
By the sixties, the antipodal poetics of Eliot and Williams were manifest in two anthologies: the arrière-garde collection New Poets of England and America (1957) and the avant-garde New American Poets (1960), as well as between the covers of A Controversy of Poets (1965). Abetted by the rise of the small press movement and the waning influence of the New Critics, access to neglected and out-of-print texts — as well as to current experimental writing — began to improve in those years. This has resulted in a less monolithic and more complexly historicized map of modernism and the literary avant-garde. One reading of that map might lead from the innovative texts of Stein and Williams, to those of the Objectivists in their several incarnations, to the radical proceduralism of Cage and Mac Low (among others), to the poetics of the first and second generations of New Americans, to language-centered writing and beyond.
Other readings of that map will feature very different landmarks and destinations. Every poet invents her own antecedents and has her own itinerary of influential texts. The proliferation of alternative canons has enabled the recovery of many “lost” and previously excluded works, but I think the critique of canonicity per se is of even greater significance — it reminds us that “the map is not the territory.” But to return to your example of post-tonal music: even as serialism heralded a break with the Common Era of music, tonality never went away, and it periodically reasserts its dominant position in music. The poetics of presence is similarly resurgent of late, presumably under the banner of accessibility and in reaction to post-avant writing.
Harley: To what extent did your schooling contribute to your interest in experimental writing? What role, if any, did creative writing workshops play in your development?
Pearson: My schooling fostered my love of reading, but modernist (much less experimental) texts were absent from my high-school curriculum. The emphasis there, and to some extent in college, was on canonical literature — chiefly British and American “classics” — and my teachers’ approach to those texts reflected both their humanist values and their training in New Criticism. One did learn close reading, for which I’m grateful, but explorations outside the canon were largely extracurricular. That said, there were courses (in linguistics, Russian formalism, critical theory, and surrealism) that were very helpful — as was the opportunity to share enthusiasms and reading lists with fellow students.
There were no creative writing classes on offer at my high school or at the music school I attended, and in those years my focus was on music. But when I did “convert,” I chose to major in English, not creative writing. In part, that choice reflected my interest in literary theory and my desire for breadth as a reader. It also reflected my knowledge of myself as a student unsuited to workshop culture — a knowledge confirmed by the one poetry workshop I remember taking.
I wanted to develop an approach to serial writing based on lyric technique, not lyric subjectivity, whereas the workshop emphasized an artisanal mastery of craft in the service of self-expression. Exemplary of the latter was its insistence on “finding one’s voice” — a bromide which assumes that poetry must issue, and be read as issuing, from an ostensibly unified subject, one whose words are taken to be those of a more than grammatical person. In that scheme, language is seen as transparent: words are windows on their referents, and writers indissociable from their texts. But, as George Oppen observes, “Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the ‘heartlessness’ of words.”
Harley: In a literary context, if I take your meaning, you see the notion of linguistic transparency as related to the privileged role accorded expressivity and author-centered writing?
Pearson: There’s inevitably tension, sometimes productive, in the relation between pathos and logos — which is at once complementary and contradictory — that leads us to distinguish between works that foreground the emotive function of language (the set toward the speaker) and works that foreground the aesthetic function (the set toward the message). Where the former instantiates and gives primacy to the illusion of authorial presence, the latter focuses on relations between the elements of language as such. What drew me to poetry was not its obvious capacity for self-expression, but rather how it reveals the subject to be constituted in and by language. I would never discount the role of pre-linguistic experience in subject formation — nor that of nonlinguistic experience thereafter — but those experiences, in a literary context, are always mediated by language.
I’m especially drawn to those moments in a text when language seems to “speak” for itself, in effect producing a counter-discourse that exceeds and complicates the writing subject’s relation to what is said. “Theoretical expressivity” is an index of what can be expressed in language; it’s the domain of all possible utterances, not of a single speaker. The gap between enunciation and statement — and the manifest nonidentity of writer and text — have obvious implications for subjectivity. As does the poetic function, which queers any notion of stable meaning and reveals the univocal subject as a fiction that masks its multiplicity.
The othering performed by the poetic function sparked my interest in subjectivation — the process by which language produces subjects that are nonidentical to themselves, to each other, and to itself. I wanted to explore such relations in my work and that work’s relation to the world, but my early efforts (mostly fragments and epigrams) resisted integration into the extended structures I was drawn to. Serial poetry, when I came to it, seemed to model what I was after.
Harley: When and where did you find those models?
Pearson: I chanced upon a copy of Spicer’s Language in 1967. It was the strangest poetry I had ever read, but I kept returning to its difficulties. Then, in A Controversy of Poets I found several more serial poems by Spicer — as well as by Ashbery, Creeley, Mac Low, and Zukofsky. Further examples over the next few years included Spring and All, Weiners’s Hotel Wentley Poems, Eigner’s Another Time in Fragments, Zukofsky’s Anew, Oppen’s Discrete Series and Of Being Numerous, Creeley’s Pieces, and Mac Low’s Pronouns and Stanzas for Iris Lezak. I had much to learn from these disparate modes of serialism, but I was hooked.
Harley: Were there life experiences you can point to — before you started writing poetry, and aside from music (which you discuss at length in Hambone 19 and in The Grand Piano) — that influenced your decision to become a poet?
Pearson: “Experience,” according to Aldous Huxley, “is not what happens to you [but] what you do with what happens to you.” When possible, what I do with what happens is write, but that wasn’t always the case. I was fifteen when I wrote my first poem, and I have no idea why, on that particular day, it occurred to me to write one. For several years prior to writing that poem, I had been subject to a recurring dream in which I appeared to be writing something — but I didn’t associate that fleeting image with a conscious desire to be a writer. For all I knew, I was dreaming of doing homework, or perhaps writing music.
A recurring dream
in which I write, “and one day
failed to awaken.”
My dream accounts for the first part of the poem, and the allusion to Master Chuang for the rest. Chuang dreamt he was a butterfly; woke, or dreamt that he woke, as himself, and then wondered which was dreaming which, the butterfly or the man. The poem’s brevity reflects my early attraction to haiku and epigrams, as does its fragmentary structure. And the quote (imported from a text long-since forgotten) suggests a bent toward the use of citation. In my dream I never saw the words I was writing, so they had to come from elsewhere.
Dreams aside — and excepting my involvement with music — if there were experiences that led me to writing, the first was learning to read. One response to art is the desire to make art. And where writing is the art in question, a passion for reading is essential. At six, I became an insatiable reader of whatever I could get my hands on, but I especially loved reading poetry. Not only did its sounds and rhythms seem integral to its meaning, but it also paradoxically required so few words to provoke almost endless trains of thought.
Also early on, I discovered my love of solitude, perhaps as a consequence of being an only child. Of course, that could have gone the other way. Some only children regret not having siblings, but I never felt the lack. While I often enjoyed the company of others, I preferred to be on my own, whether reading or listening to music at home, or being out in the world, frequently enough doing nothing at all — what Baudelaire calls being “a cloud monger” and Keats calls “creative indolence.”
My cloud mongering was typically accompanied by the sense that there was “something” beyond my purview and a concomitant desire to find it. The former points to a sense of lack — of which Heidegger writes that “beyond what is … there is still something else that happens” — and the latter locates that something else beyond one’s present perception of the sensible. As a child, I couldn’t account for such things. The ability to do so came later, and piecemeal.
I remember being struck by an entry in Kafka’s Diaries that begins: “Hatred of active introspection …” And by Nietzsche saying “we must not study ourselves while having an experience.” Experimental jazz counseled, “when in doubt, go out.” And Spicer’s notion of “the outside” — which I would later associate with “extimacy,” the coinage by which Lacan points to the subject as ex-centric to itself — made immediate intuitive sense. Consciousness, then, was an intending regard for anything, including language, that I saw as external to my labile sense of self.
My experience of words was that they came from without as sound or text and returned as speech or writing. Words existed independently of me, or so it seemed, and their meanings, however clear or obscure, were as much their own as anyone’s. But whatever experiences might appear, in retrospect, to have led me to begin writing poems, it was in fact only after having written that I wanted to write again. It was the iterative desire to work with language — and the pleasure I found in doing such work — that “decided me” to be a poet.
Harley: Could you briefly sketch your early years in poetry [1964–1974], before you started work on An Intermittent Music?
Pearson: I wrote infrequently for the first five years since I was still immersed in music. Gradually, but with growing insistence, what had begun as a private pleasure came to demand ever more attention. By the end of 1968, that fraught year of wonders, I was committed to writing poetry. So I cut back on my involvement in music, changed my college major to literature, and transferred to San Francisco State, arriving in the midst of what was then the longest student strike in US history.
Not for nothing, but the next six years of writing were an extended trial by error, throughout which any potential I might have had far exceeded any actual result. Academic life was agreeable until it wasn’t, but most of what I learned about writing was learned outside the classroom: poring over the little magazines and small-press volumes of poetry, attending readings and salons, and meeting other poets — elders and peers whose conversation and friendship sustained me.
By the fall of 1973, I’d been writing for almost a decade. But I’d become dissatisfied with my poetry and bored with school, so I gladly accepted my father’s offer to accompany him to Europe, a brief and much-needed break during which I decided it was time to start over. Of course, any notion of starting over is an obvious if useful fiction. In fact, one carries on, belated as ever, from wherever one presumes to be — at best with a stronger sense of resolve. When I returned to San Francisco, I took a job driving buses, quit grad school, and spent the next year culling and revising what remained of my early poems — which I then put away and began work on what became An Intermittent Music. Thirty-five years later, here we are.
Harley: Until recently, your manuscript was called The Tune’s Image, which had been its working title for decades. You've now changed it to An Intermittent Music — a significant change because it suggests, quite intriguingly, that music, rather than being a template for your poetry, has been something quite different: something that has intermittently, almost cyclically, engaged your attention and then receded into the background. What were your reasons for changing the title? Why did you choose this word “intermittent”?
Pearson: The working title came from a poem by Zukofsky (#20 in Anew), in which “tune” (music) and “image” (text) appear, as if in counterpoint, to make a “song” of “nothing” but their differences. In my work, such differences tend to arise between assertive and apodictic propositions, and the tag from Zukofsky reminded me to keep those contraries active. Then, last fall, I got a note from Steve Emerson — who is among my oldest friends and most astute readers — in which he expressed reservations about retaining the original title. He argued convincingly that it could be misread as overstating Zukofsky’s influence on the work, and that it also limits the context in which the work, as it stands, might be read. The new title comes from a poem I wrote in 1965:
The skylark hovers
almost out of sight. To sing
a singular song.
Given a world
and these few words. Some
While music is a literary meme in my work, it has never been a template for that work. Having written both music and poetry, I have some sense of their differences. Poems are made of words, as Mallarmé insisted, and a word is a bundle of linguistic features that, unlike instrumental music, includes units of semantic meaning. In this case, “intermittent” points to the relation between the ’nuff-said (the text) and the not-said (the music of silence), as I put it in Hambone. It acknowledges that, however steadfast one’s practice, there are inevitably gaps in the work — on one hand, gaps in production that result from the exigencies of everyday life; on the other, the gaps or negative spaces that structure it, much as music is composed of its silences.
Harley: Speaking of music, among contemporary American writers your engagement with music is more pronounced than most. Certainly you hold court, in my opinion, with poets such as Clark Coolidge and Nathaniel Mackey, who not only write about music — and incorporate some of its elements into their work — but who also think deeply about how music relates to language. When we read your poetry and essays, it appears that you are of a similar philosophical bent: that an overarching preoccupation of your poetry is in fact music, and music-language relations. Has it always been a goal of your poetry — as you potentially imply by quoting Hélène Cixous in the epigraph to your poem “Dark Matter” — to achieve a verse that is “less language than music, less syntax than songs of words”?
Pearson: I’m delighted you would link me to Clark and Nate, whose works I much admire. As well, I think of Bruce Andrews and Kit Robinson, whose works are also deeply informed by their longstanding engagement with music. But I must say that music certainly isn’t my overarching preoccupation. If it were, I’d still be writing music. In my view, what language and music share are syntax, not lexis; rhythm, not cadence; temporality, not telos; structure, not form. And the salient analogies between them are neither mimetic nor expressive, but rather procedural and constructive. “Musicality” may be a feature of my work, but it would be reductive to suggest it as the work’s central theme or raison d'être.
“Dark Matter” is a case in point. Since musical references occur in only two percent of its lines, they can’t account for its totality. In context, the poem’s epigraph should be read in relation to its title. My figural use of dark matter is based on its literal meaning: undetectable matter whose existence is inferred from its effects on visible matter. Its as yet hypothetical existence accounts for quantitative discrepancies between a theoretically calculable totality and the actually calculable fraction of that totality. Cixous’s phrase suggests what I see as an analogous phenomenon in poetry: the elusive poetic function, whose existence we can only infer from its effects on language, syntax, and meaning.
Harley: Speaking of epigraphs, I should note for our readers that An Intermittent Music is rife with them. Its main epigraph is from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23: “O! learn to read what silent love hath writ: / To hear with eyes belong to love’s fine wit.” And then each of its eighteen books is introduced by a further epigraph. What should we make of these citations?
Pearson: Citation plays a central role in literary production. I use citations and allusions to invoke various texts with which the poems are in dialogue. As Kristeva argues, “the notion of intertextuality replaces the notion of intersubjectivity.” Textual meaning is always mediated by codes that we discern in other texts and bring to our work as writers and readers.
The initial epigraph points to a poetics of reading. It directs us to the basic elements of words (phonemes, graphemes, and morphemes) and to the senses they combine to address: sound (“to hear”), sight (“with eyes”), and intellect (“love’s fine wit”). In other words, those literary modes that Pound referred to as melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. The epigraph also emphasizes silence as the unsaid that refuses glibness and paraphrase; as the unsayable that signifies, but not verbally; and as the practice of silent reading that foregrounds the literary character of the work. As well, it puts forward an ethics of reading: that what is written by love be read with love. In textual matters, this implies a disinterested commitment to the workings of language, not least to its poetic and libidinal economies.
Each of the subsequent epigraphs is at once specific to the book it introduces and sequentially linked to the other epigraphs. Together, they comprise the argument of the work — a defeasible argument that, by definition, cannot produce a complete or final demonstration of its claims. The work, being done, is never done. As I noted in “Etude 10” of The Grand Piano: “For the reader, the text delimits a site where the work of making meaning takes place. For the writer, it also reveals a remainder that reminds her of work that is yet to be done.”
Harley: Versions of the books in An Intermittent Music have appeared at intervals, beginning with The Grit in 1976. At a glance, it could be seen as a “collected books,” à la Spicer, but you present it as a single work. Has that always been your intention?
Pearson: Yes. I imagined it from the outset as “a work in four movements.” I didn’t know how many books it would require, or how long it would take to complete, or even if I could complete it. But I knew that, if it were completed, it would have four movements. Along the way, with enduring thanks to my publishers, the books appeared in print. In each instance, my immediate concern was to make the best book possible at the time, even as I knew it would be subject to further revision. My sense of the whole as a single work derives from the levels of integration I sought within and among its parts. It’s a work on analogy with an opus in music, which, as you know, can include subsets of related compositions. Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, for example.
Harley: Why four movements in particular?
Pearson: That’s how the project presented itself, and since I knew it was to be a closed series, it seemed like a viable constraint. But I’ve always been partial to quartet form: string quartets, tetralogies, quatrains. In fact, my initial sketch of the work appeared less as an outline than an “exploded” view, as if each movement comprised one line of a macrocosmic quatrain. Conversely, in a “deploded” view, each movement is a palimpsest of that line. As it turned out, the movements also appear to parallel sonata form: exposition, development, recapitulation, coda.
Harley: The levels of integration you mention reflect the part/whole relations that underlie the work’s coherence. And its scale, beyond the range of references and registers involved, seems linked to the role that duration plays in your work. Can you say more about these elements?
Pearson: The text is built of discrete units—the numbered poems of each book (qua series) — that are integrated into progressively larger, if no less discrete, units: poem < poems < book < books < movement < movements < work. These units index the various scales in which the work may be read. The movements are ordered chronologically, as are the books, but their respective poems are not.
Each book has its own logic, and the challenge in each case was to discover it and construct the series accordingly. With some books, the logic was clear at the outset, so only minor resequencing was needed. With others, it took years and much resequencing before I understood the book at hand. In referring to these serial poems as “books,” I’m echoing Spicer’s sense of the book as a coherent unit of composition. (It was Gerrit Lansing, many years ago now, who generously encouraged me to see the individual poems as poems, and not, as I had previously done, as stanzas.)
Duration indexes temporality — from the variable durations of vowels and caesurae at the level of the line, to the variable intervals within and between the larger units, to the total time of composition. Duration is also spatial, a matter of extension — which in philosophy is the property of taking up space; in mathematics, a structure that contains antecedent structures; and in semantics, a set to which a property is applied. The space-time of the work is mutually determined by the incremental development of discrete poems (at an average rate of one word per day) and their iterative development in serial form over a period of thirty-five years.
Harley: I’d like to look more closely at the four movements, beginning with topologies, which includes books 1 through 6 and was first composed between 1975 and 1980. What was the context from which these books emerged, and what do you see as their major concerns?
Pearson: I began topologies as the Vietnam War was entering its final months, and I completed it on the cusp of Reagan’s presidency. It was a period of prolonged economic stagflation, and neoliberalism was on the rise. From both progressive and classic liberal standpoints, hard-won advances toward social justice were threatened by reactionary forces. However buffered by the city’s reputed tolerance — often more apparent than real in light of its increasing Manhattanization, as it was called, and the resulting displacement of poor and working-class people — everyday life in San Francisco was not immune to the illiberal tenor of the times.
There was a growing political backlash against what were perceived as the “permissiveness” and “radicalism” of the sixties and early seventies, even as large class-fractions of various subcultures were being mainstreamed to exploit their consumerist potential. As well, there was a marshaling of public opinion to support the coming deregulation of capital and re-regulation of society, the latter abetted by conservatism’s call for a return to “family values” and “the American way of life.” While many of us actively continued to pursue economic and social justice, and to articulate new modes of cultural practice, I felt in myself and sensed in others a pervasive undercurrent of anomie.
In topologies, I wanted to explore that social disjunction — those feelings of anomie and alienation and their effects on interpersonal (hence, political) relations — on as intimate a scale as I could manage. In part, that choice of scale reflects concurrence with radical feminism’s claim that “the personal is political,” which, as argued (if often misconstrued) insists that many of our personal problems cannot be disarticulated from the systematically oppressive institutions we inhabit, not least those involved in prescribing gender roles and performances.
The intra-psychic and intersubjective tensions that the poems explore can be read in light of Lacan’s assertion: “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel” — which does not say that sexual intercourse is impossible but that direct, unmediated relations between “masculine” and “feminine” sexual positions are impossible. The Symbolic Order — the Other of language — always already comes between them. As a consequence, heterosexual relations (a recurring topos in these poems) are normative, not “natural.” Anomie (in Weber’s sense) is a reaction against social norms and their enforcement via society’s regulatory controls. And agency is a function of resistant subjectivity, which, in its “extimate” relation to itself, both desires and retreats from change.
Harley: How should we understand your use of “topology”?
Pearson: In topological mapping, only essential information is retained, while unnecessary detail is omitted. Each book in the movement maps a particular mise-en-scène. This bears not only on its structural properties—for example, the constraints on lineation and vocabulary — but also on motival development. In topological maps, renderings of distance (on analogy, between subjects) and of direction (on analogy, as sexual difference) are subject to change, but the relation between their points on the map is maintained. Impossible relations are still relations. As well, topology refers to the study of the properties of objects that do not change, even as the object is deformed. If the sexual drive fixates on part-objects, sexual relations between whole persons are impossible. The whole person is deformed, that is, reduced to the part-object; hence, misrecognized.
Harley: Among the striking aspects of your poetry are its linguistic precision and economy, which are immediately evident in “The Grit,” the first book of topologies. Throughout that book (and much of the movement), you employ extremely short lines, brief if irregular stanza forms, and a very restricted, often monosyllabic vocabulary. From the opening “Somehow / it seems to destroy us” (#1), we encounter images of elemental rupture, elemental fracturing, such as “that rock / which sun splits / and sea turns / to sand” (#3). What was your aim in stripping away your language to its barest essentials? Why this preoccupation with erosion and decay?
Pearson: As I suggested in reference to sonata form, the first movement involves exposition, in structural as well as thematic terms. Its topological mapping of psychosocial terrain required deletion of inessential detail, even as that problematizes the notion of necessity. Interpersonal rupture and relational decay are figuratively analogous with the process of erosion, in which prolonged exposure to elemental forces results in an altered, if not depleted, landscape. The stripping away of language is intended to mirror this process, and to reveal how ideology (most often, in these poems, gender ideology) inflects even the barest essentials of ordinary language. In topologies, I wanted to parse such language, albeit attenuated, in situ. Unplugged, so to speak. As the poet John Thorpe generously remarked of these poems, “Imagine Webern writing for solo lute.”
Harley: In “Etude 4” of The Grand Piano, you say “grit” refers specifically to the grit on the window ledges of your Sunset District apartment, which faced the sea. You also deny that “grit” functions as a metaphor; rather it represented “everyday life.” If “grit” and such words as “rock,” “sun,” “sea,” and “windswept” are not metaphors, what are they? Another type of trope? Or would you deny them that status?
Pearson: Not at all. Far from denying that the grit is a trope, the etude acknowledges the source domain of that trope, which derives — as do most of the tropes I employ — from the particulars of my immediate environment. Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand” embodies the transformative if interdependent relations between the world and the work. Since grit is a product of physical erosion, in its target domain it becomes a trope for the erosion of intersubjective relations — which, again, was a process I saw at work in my own and others’ lives. Metaphor is a species of conceptual substitution, so of course the grit functions metaphorically. More precisely, however, it’s a synecdoche — my preferred subspecies of metaphor — which means “simultaneous understanding.”
Harley: “The Grit” takes its title from Creeley’s Words (“The grit / of things / a measure / resistant”), its epigraph from Oppen’s Of Being Numerous (“The isolated man is dead”), and its opening lines from Williams’s Spring and All (“Somehow / it seems to destroy us”). These sources introduce the first book, but also the entire movement. Where are they leading? What is this “it” that “seems to destroy us”?
Pearson: As I’ve said, “grit” denotes particulate matter, both a product of erosion and an abrasive agent. It also denotes perseverance or strong resolve. Implicit in these meanings, and common to them, is a dialectic of resistance and change, which are also conditions of subjectivity—“no / one ever / quite the same,” as Creeley’s poem ambiguously concludes. In Oppen’s poem, that “one” contrasts with “the many that we are.” The “isolated man” cannot be heard above the “dithyrambic” clamor that surrounds him. In a dithyramb, the choric (hence, collective) “voice” is one of extravagantly emotional speech or writing. Against which, in his espousal of clarity — and search for “that truthfulness / that illumines speech” — the “meditative man” is seen to fail. But his failure is not only personal (isolation as social death); it is also a collective failure. “And indeed they cannot ‘bear’ it.”
In a sense, “it” is a failure of language — a consequence of unreflective usage and of the refusal to acknowledge the social forces and ideological assumptions that mediate such usage, even as language mediates our relation to ourselves and others. This scenario is powerfully rendered in Williams’s poem “To Elsie,” in which — under the sign of modernity — we see power and privilege asymmetrically distributed among marked and unmarked subjects, primarily in terms of their gender and class positions and their ethnic and cultural identities. I wanted to establish the figure of one (and its negation as “no one”) — in league with Creeley’s and Oppen’s texts, and Williams’s “No one / to witness / and adjust” — as the basis for the subsequent pronomial transformations that populate the poems as personae.
Harley: “The Grit” initiates a concern with gender relations — flawed, in flux, or at odds, as may be — that preoccupies the first movement. You write of a couple, “at the edge / of a continent” (#1), who “rise as one / and stand apart / as if a couple / were nothing more / than any two / together” (#8). You describe a moment, “hardly an embrace,” in which the woman “neither yields / nor resists / seeming aware / that his smile / does not include her” (#10). And you conclude by depicting a woman who “turns away / her lithe back / to the sea” (#14) — a sensual but seemingly bittersweet image. Was your personal life intruding on the work?
Pearson: If it were, what difference would that make? In Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, would it matter to the film if he himself had never picked a pocket? (I mention Bresson advisedly because his approach to cinematography significantly influenced topologies.) Events in a poem are language events. Pronouns are words, not people. That words can refer to “real” events and people does not oblige them to do so. The question is not if one writes from experience, but rather what one makes of one’s experience (and what one counts as experience). If my work draws on details from my “personal” life — which of course it does — that life includes observed and imagined details that are no less part of my experience. While writing is a significant part of my life, it is only a part — and a contingent one at that. How, then, could a part be said to intrude on the whole that already includes it?
Apropos the final poem [#14] in “The Grit,” the affective quality of the last image must be understood in context. The poem begins with a man who “stands his ground” and is thereby “grown a part of it.” This alludes to Pound’s definition of “sincerity” as “a man standing by his word” (which he derived, perhaps inaccurately, from a Chinese ideogram). Sincerity, in that sense, is related to integrity as that which is pure, authentic, and self-consistent. And I wanted to suggest that such attributes can lead to stasis, to calcification, to the rigidity that I associate with “masculine” will in its extremity, as if it were a force of nature. It is that figure, of a man turned to stone, from which the woman “turns away.” And (implicit in the local geography) what she then faces is the city, a complex, motile, built environment. So she’s also rejecting, by turning back from the sea, the historical and oppressive association of “woman” with “nature.”
Harley: “Reaped Figures” [book 2] opens with an epigraph from Spicer’s After Lorca: “The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy.” Why does death inhabit most of the epigraphs in topologies? What is the role of “the dead” in book 2? Who are these “reaped figures”? Are they the “speakers” of these poems?
Pearson: The title comes from a line of Bunting’s: “We have planted ink and reaped figures,” which is a telling description of the writer’s lot. It also alludes to the book’s composition, which involved erasure of Bunting’s “sonatas” (exclusive of Briggflats). While rereading his work, certain isolated words and phrases kept appearing as poems within poems, so I started underscoring them to see what might result. In the end, I had reaped a series of fifteen poems, which seemed neither his nor mine. That made me think of After Lorca and Spicer’s notion of dictation (albeit not as he defines it). Death inhabits topologies because forms of relational and social death pervade it, recalling my intention to trace through its books the demise of the “one” — “that meditative man” — I mentioned earlier. In effect, I’m trying to tease out the distinction between a resistant subjectivity (that I would value) and the Romantic figure of the isolato (that I find problematic).
The speaker(s) of these poems include a limited third-person narrator — conceived as a voice-over in the manner of Bresson’s A Man Escaped — and a figure of ambiguous gender who may or may not also be the narrator speaking in the first person. I made an effort to script the latter’s statements in such a way that they might reasonably be attributed to a “person” of either gender — with the figure of Tiresias at the back of my mind. I sought this blending to contrast with the masculine-feminine binary presented in the “The Grit.” As well, there is a temporal contrast between the books: where “The Grit” takes place over one afternoon at the beach, “Reaped Figures” suggests a retrospective look at a long (and increasingly isolated) life.
Harley: “Southern Exposure” [book 3] begins with a rather cryptic epigraph from the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran: “for him everything is possible, except life.” The poems in this book feature significantly longer lines and a more expansive vocabulary than we find in the rest of the movement. How are these features related to the title? To whom does the epigraph refer? Is there an element of self-portraiture involved in these poems?
Pearson: The window above my desk faced south. Abstracted from its literal context, it provided a frame, a lens, an orientation — a site of imagination. The shape of the window frame suggested a page, and its subdivision into panes suggested a series of poems. Where the first two books sift and order “shards” of experience and memory, the larger and more intact “frame” of the window seemed to call for longer lines. As well, since the peninsula, where I grew up, is nominally south of the city where I was living, the window’s orientation took on a retrospective cast. Cioran’s phrase, as I recall, refers to his sense of “the poet” as one whose work derives its power “from everything he has not undertaken” — as one who cannot escape himself and live as others in the “real” world. In effect, he’s describing the poète maudit, a Romantic (not to say anti-modernist) conception of what a poet is and does. When I was young, I found that image both seductive and troubling — and in time came to reject it — but I wanted to recall and explore that ambivalence in the context of “Southern Exposure,” which is a kind of serial portrait (or “Bildungslyrik”) of the poet as isolato. Bresson is once again a tacit influence here — specifically, Four Nights of a Dreamer.
Harley: “The Blue Table” [book 4] returns to a more clipped lineation and a more restrained vocabulary. It also recalls, in contrast with “Southern Exposure,” the gender binary of “The Grit,” opening with an image of containment, both physical and emotional, “of ritual prisons / of provocation / cells from which / the body of / love cries out / for a shape / to contain its dreams” (#1). How do you see the relationship between form and content? And how is that mirrored in book 4?
Pearson: I prefer to think of “form and content” in terms of statement (in linguistics, a meaningful grouping of words) and structure (a systemic pattern of interrelated components). And note that I’m reversing polarity here, such that the “form” of any specific statement is a function (not an extension) of the “content” of its structure. The relatively expansive lineation of “Southern Exposure” (which reflects the “world” outside the “window”) contracts, as you’ve noted, to a more restrictive architecture (a “table” in a “room”) — and its use of free indirect discourse yields to the split subjectivity of an implicitly first-person “speaker,” as keyed by the epigraph from Beckett: “He speaks of himself as of another.”
In the opening poem, words such as country, prisons, cells, and body are structures that define (hence, constrain and condition) their “contents.” The dream of freedom from confinement (be it social, carceral, or biological) derives from the experience of its lack, so it’s a fundamentally utopian postulate and, in a sense, amorphous. It lacks cognizable “shape,” for which it “cries out.”
Harley: In “Ellipsis” [book 5], “what goes / by the name of / love is banishment” (#2). This echoes the later poems in book 4, in which you refer to “love / that terrible word” (#7) and describe “the blue table” in your apartment as “a figure / drawing attention / from the difficult / events in the room / in which it stands” (#9). Why banishment? In what sense is love a terrible word? What made this table an object of significance, something that could draw attention? William Gass has called blue “the color consciousness becomes when caressed.” What importance do you ascribe to blueness?
Pearson: The problem with taking lines or phrases out of context is that they lose the specificity on which their textual significance depends. Of course, they can signify otherwise, but only and dubiously as “universal” statements on topics of putative interest. Apropos #2 of “Ellipsis”: banishment is the act of forcing someone to abandon their dwelling place, which, in the intimate scale of these poems, could be taken to refer to being abandoned (emotionally or physically) by another, which in effect is to be banished from a relationship. In context, this is done in “the name of / love” — a rubric under which many “terrible” things are done, conversely including acts that actually necessitate banishment.
As for the table, I’m not a Symbolist. The table in the room was blue. So is the table in the book, but they’re not the same table. Nor is the room the same room. Once again, the quotidian source domains of specific tropes are being linked to, and distinguished from, their target domains. The significance of the table in the room is not germane, though that of the “table” in the “room” is educible: in context, there’s a table at which two people might have sat together, talked together, broken bread together — a site, if you will, of domestic life, for which, in the poem, it becomes a “figure.” As does the “room” (which in Italian is called a stanza). In a sense, the table is a third party to the “events in the room” — at once a distraction from discord and a reminder that previously, as Wyatt wrote, life “hath been otherwise / Twenty times better.”
In the abstract, “blueness” has no particular significance, except perhaps in reference to a portion of the visible spectrum of light. In context, for me at least, it tacitly invokes “the blues” (a mode of motz al son which I deeply value). With respect to Gass, I rather doubt that Robert Johnson’s consciousness felt “caressed” when he contemplated the hellhound on his trail. “The blue table / is not absolute” because its figurative meaning is context-dependent (as is the figure of the “hellhound”). Art doesn’t imitate or transcend life; it renders life’s contingencies articulate, and its specificity makes different ways of seeing and conceiving of those contingencies available to consciousness.
Harley: “Refractions” [book 6] takes its epigraph from Creeley: “days we die / are particular.” The minimalist aesthetic of the entire movement becomes even more noticeable here: the lines are shorter than ever, the vocabulary even more restricted. But the effect, to me, seems Webernesque in the way that each word chosen acquires the same representational importance as every other. You seem to achieve the “secret stillness” in patterns that Alex Ross attributes to Webern, and to share a similar preoccupation with intricate design. What determined the structure of this book? And how does its structure relate to “love,” a word that recurs, as both noun and verb, insistently throughout the book?
Pearson: “Refractions” begins: “In designs love / dawn the phase / the mind addressed / blossoms.” Because its meaning and usage vary so widely, there is no generally accepted definition of “design” — and I would say the same about “love.” Embedded in my use of “design” is a pun on Dasein, by which Heidegger designates a fundamental ontological problem: “Dasein is that entity which in its Being has this very Being as an issue.” It has been suggested that Heidegger came to this by way of Master Chuang’s philosophy. (Cf. my earlier reference to Master Chuang’s dream.)
The structure of the book derived from contemplating a glass brick, which I kept on my desk. I had recently entered into a new relationship, and my partner gave me the brick as a keepsake before leaving on an extended trip to Mexico. Such bricks are architectural elements (prisms made of compressed glass). They are translucent — they refract light — but are not transparent. The brick’s prismatic “cells” form a grid, which suggested a serial mode. The individual poems in the series are variations on (refractions of) its “theme” — encrypted in the Dasein pun as “Being” in love.
Harley: Before turning to the second movement, I note that topologies doesn’t show much evidence of the techniques I associate with Language writing. Certainly, your language is exacting in its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and the poems often focus on relations between the word and the world, but syntactic logic throughout topologies is much less paratactic than it is in your later work. Instead, you employ a hypotaxis-under-pressure, which is seemingly at odds with, for example, the poetics of the New Sentence. And in “Etude 3” of The Grand Piano, you acknowledge that the poems in topologies ran the risk of being dismissed as neo-Objectivist. As you see it, would such a reception have been warranted? What led you to adopt a more disjunctive syntax after completing the first movement of this work?
Pearson: As Roman Jakobson observed: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” And as Barrett Watten notes in his concluding essay for Grand Piano 10, “the history of [Language writing’s] emergence took place as an unresolved set of motives that made the literary what each of us confidently produced, in differing but related ways, circa 1980: writing, the work itself, language existing materially on the page” [emphasis added]. As well, context and chronology matter. The passage you cite from “Etude 3” specifically refers to my wondering how my work might be received at The Grand Piano when I first read there in June 1977. At that point, I had completed versions of the first five books in topologies and was working on the last. I’d been reading “language-centered writing” with great interest and growing enthusiasm for several years by then — primarily via Big Sky and This, as well as early books from Barrett, Lyn Hejinian, and Kit — and was well aware of the predilection for prose forms, parataxis, and various defamiliarizing strategies, as well as the motivations behind such usages, with which I largely concurred.
Ted Pearson with coauthors of The Grand Piano.
At the same time, however, I felt such techniques were unsuited to the poems in topologies — in part because of its expository role in the larger work-in-progress, and in part because I felt (and continue to feel) that placing “hypotaxis under pressure” is an equally viable, if less overt way of foregrounding language’s material existence on the page. As well, I quite understood my peers’ impatience with the various mystifications that had long since accrued to the notion of “the poetic line” — and their sense of the liberatory potential of the sentence. But as a writer, I wasn’t then drawn to prose (nor, on the evidence, was Rae Armantrout). And a careful reading of my use of lines and stanzas in topologies would reveal that they are not based on standard metrical schema, nor do they simulate colloquial speech, nor are they “measured” by breath. Rather, they reflect attention to phonotactics and grammatical phrasing, and they are based on recurring numerical patterns, such that each poem represents a mathematical set.
Lastly, as John Cage asserted, “One does not make just any experiment, but does what must be done.” Appropriating otherwise motivated writing strategies, without regard for their aptness to the work at hand, can only result in the charade of radicality, not in its actualization. I trusted that my work would make its case and find its readers over time, so I deferred use of the techniques you mention until such use was necessary. That came in 1980, when I began work on the second movement: contingencies.