Interviews

We listen with our throats and we speak with our ears

An interview with Leevi Lehto

Editorial note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings, “Sound, Poetry”; it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project: 

A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.

The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling

 

Leevi Lehto is a Finnish poet, translator, publisher, programmer, performer, and self-taught composer. Since 1967, he has published six volumes of poetry, a novel, an experimental prose work, and a collection of essays. Active in left politics during the seventies, he worked as a corporate communications executive during the nineties. He is known for his experiments in digital writing, such as the Google Poem Generator. Marjorie Perloff describes his volume of poetry in English, Lake Onega and Other Poems, as “consistently amazing, brilliant — and funny.”

Lehto’s translations, some forty books in all, range from mysteries to philosophy, sociology, and poetry, and include works by Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Joseph Svorecky, Walter Benjamin, John Keats, Omar Khayyam, John Ashbery, Mickey Spillane, and Charles Bernstein. His new Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses will be published by the Helsinki University Press in 2012. Since 2007, Lehto has run a press of his own, ntamo, through which he has published well over 100 books, most of them critically acclaimed experimental poetry.

Lehto also performs his own poetry and others’ internationally. Notably, he has versioned the works of Finnish writers from the so-called “traditional” period. The Finnish critic Aleksis Salusjärvi describes Lehto’s performances as “foregrounding an atavistic, affective voice roaring almost deafeningly … as if performance and voice themselves were the subject matter.” Recently, Lehto has begun performing with drummer Tero Valkonen, bringing his sound deeper into the borderland between speech and music.

Carmel Purkis is a writer, editor, and book lover who has lived in many communities across Canada, and currently makes her home in Ottawa. She has been involved in several sound poetry projects, most recently collaborating with a group of poets on a series of multi-voiced texts called <playback>, a text- and performance-based response to visual artwork, and performed at the National Art Centre’s Fourth Stage.

This interview was conducted in November and December 2010.

Carmel Purkis: You’ve written extensively about the borrowing that happens between languages. Do you think of creating sound poetry out of a certain language, borrowing the sounds of Finnish or English, or do you think of creating sounds towards a new language?

Leevi Lehto: Well I guess my work is still mostly created from Finnish sounds. This actually may be one of the aspects behind my interests in themes of “Barbaric” English: the awareness of how Finnish my own English still is.

Take “Sanasade” (“Word Rain”), my longish procedural sound poem that I’ve performed during the few last years practically all over the world. It is based on an earlier, meditative prose poem of mine, and what I did was take all the words of that poem, sort them alphabetically, and then cut out everything in the beginning of the words that didn’t affect their exact placement in the sequence: “Capricorn,” “Carmel” and “Catalogue” next to each other would yield “pricorn,” “rmel” and “talogue.” The resulting stumped “words” were then again sorted alphabetically, this time based on endings: “talogue,” “rmel” and “pricorn.”

In Finnish, many words end in vowels, so this leads to a kind of Rimbaudian-Bökian display of vowels, a laboratory of their characters and temperaments. In performance I’ve come increasingly to play with the narrative possibilities this offers. Initially, this was more or less limited to the very end of the piece where the Finnish ä sound almost inevitably seduced me to mimic the sounds of an intense family row in its hysterical stages, creating an effect which is both tragic and funny — and paving the way for the first ö sound to trigger an equally hysteric laughter that, in different modalities, would dominate the rest of the performance, up to the final (for the Finns, at least) irresistibly funny äilöö (which most Finnish speakers would hear as derived from säilöö, or “preserves”). I’m currently working on similar transpositions all along the piece, and in my future performances, you will hopefully hear a more elaborate pattern of mental states, attitudes, modes, reactions, and so on.

In my performances so far, the vowels (and consonants too) have been predominantly Finnish. I think this is part of what makes the piece exotically appealing to foreign audiences — I like to joke that the further I go from Finland, the better the poem is understood, even if the many (unintended) subtleties of overlaid meanings associated with the “words” are lost to those not fluent in Finnish. Anyway, there is no such thing as pure sound, or pure letter for that matter. Already to form words — or, as in “Sanasade,” word-like compounds — letters and sounds need to be interwoven into what is usually referred to as rhythm (to me, language is sound + rhythm + pitch). In “Sanasade,” mainly because words are often cut mid-syllable, the rhythm is not Finnish. For instance, the rule of the stress always falling on the first syllable cannot apply. Yet there is a (complicated) metrical pattern, despite the fact that it goes against the “natural” flow of the Finnish language. So I think (or hope) the rhythm pattern in my performances of “Sanasade” is non-Finnish. To me, this pattern is created or dominated mainly by consonants, which are often oddly placed for the Finnish ear. I like to think of them as forming a kind of bass track, and I am now working to accentuate them as much as possible. In some of my earlier performances this led to a kind of overall bossa nova pattern; now I’m working for a more variegated, jazz-like progression.

I could say something similar of another stock part of my current repertoire, my renderings of some works of so-called traditional Finnish poetry by Eino Leino and Otto Manninen [see this 2009 video of me reading a ghazal that Manninen wrote in 1925] and other masters of the National Romantic period, roughly a hundred years ago. I’ve written about the intricate interplay of foreign influences and local identities in that poetry, my basic, pet claim being that their forms were mostly imported ones, working against Finnish language. These guys were radical translinguists and cross-pollinators a hundred years before me! Take “Tuulikannel” by Eino Leino, a fascinating Keatsian meditation on the chameleon poet (“Others got heart, I got the harp”), where the “harp” element is mimicked and strengthened by a heavy iambic-anapestic beat in a “naturally” trochaic language. My generation was always taught to read this and other similar poems by hiding the rhythm, attempting to reduce them to natural speech. I have attempted a metrical translation of this poem into English. My reading of the poem begins from a simple denial of this rule: I just try to make the stress pattern as clearly audible as possible — something which easily leads to an effect that has been described as “rock,” “rap,” or “singing.” This is interesting to me since I always thought of myself as tone deaf and unable to sing: more on this later!

Lately, I’ve increasingly come to play with the stress pattern by adding minor modifications. In the first line, “muut SY-dä-men SAI-vat mä KAN-te-LEN,” I add a very short extra beat: “muut SY-dä-men SAI-vat mä KA-a-N-te-LEN,” something which almost automatically brings me to repeat and modify that new pattern all along the piece, paradoxically making the resulting sound even more like a song, even if there still is no recognizable melody. My formula for what goes on here is “putting music to language,” instead of the idiomatic “putting words to music.” I think this theme has been with me at least since Ääninen (Lake Onega) my 1997 collection of Dantean-Dadaic sonnets. At that time, I read a lot about the genesis of the sonnet and was intrigued by the idea of it being the first Western poetical form where the musical element was inherent in the poem, not added to it through the accompanying instruments and external melody.

Another case of the mixture of languages in my sound work would be my “English” translation of “Pajkerno” by the Swedish poet Lars Mikael Raattamaa. In “Pajkerno,” Lars Mikael took a classic Swedish poem by Anna Maria Lenngren (1754–1817) called “Pojkarna” (“Boys”) and simply replaced the vowels in each stanza by one single vowel at a time: “Jag mans dan ljafva tadan, / Jag mans dan sam a gar, […] Eppe men men ver lejet, / Ech helsen e men bled,” etc. My English version, “Byos,” was done first by producing a conventional, metrical English translation of the original Lenngren poem, then repeating Lars Mikael’s vowel trick. I made sure to destroy the first translation, so it is hard even for me to now know what was there in the conventional translation phase. “Byos” is a translation without an original, perhaps in a double sense. When reading “Byos,” I usually don’t even try to pronounce it the way a native English speaker would (that’s beyond my abilities); yet my vowels are not Swedish either (also beyond my abilities). Instead, they are straightforwardly Finnish. Since it may be that Lenngren’s Swedish syntactically affected my first English translation, my reading of the poem is perhaps a mixture of three languages.

Finally, there is a different kind of mixture or interplay of languages in my Keats piece, “Negatiivinen kyky,” the concluding poem of Ääninen, which is a half-homophonic translation of Keats’s famous “Bright Star” sonnet. The poem “Negative Capability” in Lake Onega and Other Poems is also half-homophonic of the Ääninen sonnet. I’m tempted to make an extreme claim: the process ends up bringing the original English sounds back to an English-like language, yet they’ve been subtly modified in their sense and references, as Michael Peverett suggests in the only Western review of the book so far:

It’s surprising what survives this double mash-up through the sieves of language — the play of double-L sounds, the resumption of the repeated absolute “ever” in the repeated absolute “all,” and the near-rehabilitation of “ever — or” in the last line. But Keats’s vision of swooning inactivity is thoroughly translated away from its tender context of a loved one’s embrace; socialized, it turns into reeling drunkards in a mall and also into human technological progress, e.g. traveling to the moon. Both “stedfast” and both mindless, exactly as per Keats’s recipe, and sarcastically offering a new interpretation to the phrase “negative capability.”[1]

I invite readers to test these claims based on this compiled reading of the three versions I made for Finnish radio in 2008.

Purkis: Several people, notably the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, have described Finland as a "silent" country. Does sound poetry bring voice, and if so, what is the role of that voice?

Lehto: Yes, Bertolt Brecht, who was exiled to Finland during WWII, described Finland as “a nation which keeps silent in two languages [Finnish and Swedish] at the same time.” But allow me to shift the focus a bit here: I’d rather talk about the alleged flatness of the Finnish language in general, and mine in particular. I grew up in a rural environment deep in the province (Häme or Tavastia Land) renowned for the slow speech of its people; I then left that milieu at the age of sixteen (as a high school dropout and a poet who had already published his first book), to live in the capital, Helsinki. I soon forgot the dialect of my childhood, but what I adopted was not the Helsinki slang, nor even the youth speech of the time, but a sort of artificial language more or less based on written Finnish (Finnish differing from most other languages in having this thing called the “literary language,” something residing above most people’s actual speech: my friends sometimes tell me I’m the only person they know to actually speak the literary Finnish). So I still tend to speak slowly, and in a level voice with quite little intonation. Another way to put it — and I realize this is an odd thing for a sound poet to say — I’m an extremely literal and textual person.

In many ways this has affected my learning of other languages. My favorite story here concerns my experiences with French. I never had French in school (nor English, by the way); what I know of it, I learned by translating theoretical-philosophical works. Somewhere in the mid-eighties, having already published translations of the work of Althusser, Lyotard, and Barthes, I decided it was time to acquire the speaking skills as well. I traveled to France and spent six week in the South, trying to learn to speak the language, and even hiring a private language teacher. It turned out to be one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. All the “wrong” patterns of pronunciation learned by silently reading literary texts were rooted so deep that they felt impossible to get rid of. And there was the factor of speed: at one frustrated moment, my teacher retorted in quite an angry fashion: “French just cannot be spoken that slowly!”

This may seem to lead astray from your question, but let me put it that way: yes, sound poetry does bring voice and variety, at least to me personally. More than that, it seems to bring about a change in personality. This is sometimes reflected in the reactions of my listeners. For instance, if I come to give a dry lecture on some more or less theoretical topic, I like to end with a short sample of my sound poetry (like the ending of “Sanasade”). This tends to take the audiences by surprise; they will come to me later, asking, “Where did that Shaman jump up from?” Yes, the sound poet in me is a different personality, and I am more and more allowing him to take over: the somewhat official looking, aging professorial gentleman has been replaced by the image of a (well, aging) rockstar. And I’ve been loosing a lot of weight too … I’m letting my hair grow longer, to quote “Prufrock.” I’ve attended formal cocktail parties in full makeup and I will soon start painting the thumbnail of my left hand red like Tom Waits. And I’m quite enjoying it all!

So, to repeat, sound poetry brings voice, and the voice brings a difference!

Purkis: Is the reaction of your listeners in Finland any different than in other countries? Do you think they hear differently?

Lehto: Yes, I think people in other countries hear differently, both when I use Finnish or Finnish-like language, and when I use English or other languages. For the first case, suffice it to refer to what I said above about the reception of “Sanasade”: here my most gratifying experience was in China, where the audience was adamantly resistant to all the ironic elements of the whole (despite my efforts to explain them in my intro) and simply wanted to hear it as a spontaneous overflow of feelings — of passion, as they described it.

As to using languages other than Finnish: the case in point might be my longish “Norwegian” poem, “Norwegian Ords,” which I wrote with a little help from Google and some dictionaries and performed at the Audiatur poetry festival in Bergen, Norway, in 2007. There are two humorous aspects in this. The day before I left for Bergen, I was talking with my stepdaughter Miina, then in her twenties. She told me that there was a new expression in the Helsinki teenage slang: “to speak Norwegian” was to throw up, to vomit, as when having drunk too much. I evidently couldn’t resist including that in my introduction for the poem in Bergen, and integrating the voices and gestures of vomiting in my performance, starting from the dedication “for Paal B-b-b-b-j-j-j-j-j-ELK-e Andersen.” Afterwards, more than one listener came to tell me they could never speak their own language again without having their vomiting reflexes activated. Others wondered at how I had managed to reproduce the patterns of certain actual local dialects, of which I had no knowledge or experience whatsoever. To this day, I cannot say whether this was caused by my Finnish or by the non-Finnish non-original Shaman in me paying a visit during the show. (I hope the latter: as a prodigal son of a deeply Pentecostal family, I retain a strong belief in being blessed with a gift of speaking in tongues, along with another gift of ventriloquism, or “speaking from the stomach” in Finnish idiom.)

Purkis: When watching your performances, it is clear that there is music in your motives, not just because of the sound, but also because you are always moving, and often almost dancing. This lends a superb theatricality to the performance. Do you think that this theatricality of sound poetry is a necessary part of the performance or simply a pleasurable by-product?

Lehto: Well, to me at least it is a side effect in the sense that I don’t plan it ahead of time. It is the most spontaneous part of the performance, something that I am almost not even conscious of doing. On the other hand, it is also necessary since there’s nothing I can do to drop it. I simply have to move along with the intensity of the rhythm that I manage to produce.

Actually, I should perhaps add body movement to my list of elements of language — and I am not only thinking of performances, but everyday usage as well. Perhaps there is no language without body language.

Purkis: You’ve done some spectacular mash-ups of voice and music, such as your Rolling Stones piece. Do you differentiate music and song from a sounding voice?

Lehto: A nice way to put it! You realize I’ve been edging into the theme of music all along. It is my primary concern nowadays — well, not music as such, but music related to poetry, and the other way round. I always was the non-singer: my early teachers and my family told me so. On the other hand, I’ve always joked about how I might have become a composer if only I wasn’t tone deaf. And, on a third note (pun intended!), my poetry — especially the earlier and somewhat more conventional stuff — has often been described by critics and others as “linguistically musical,” something which I’ve been tempted to see (if there’s any truth in those claims) as a symptom of transference, or skill compensation, as in blind people developing an acute ear. I’ve been increasingly obsessed with the questions around this, and have given in to the temptation to explore the musical component of my newfound sound poet personality. Also, as I like to joke, at this age, I have come to lose interest in the things I can master, to the point of only being motivated by those things I cannot do. After all, they are the only ones where you can learn something.

That is why I wanted to do a couple of pieces where I had no alternative but to at least try to sing. Over the past year, I started with a couple of attempts at fusion between Finnish poetry classics and standard rock ’n’ roll. In the Rolling Stones piece, I use words from a poem by the Finnish Modernist master, the late Paavo Haavikko (adequately beginning: “No one understands me. No one understands me in this restaurant …”); in my hearing, they quite nicely fill in the melodic pattern of “Paint It Black,” although I’m not sure if anyone would recognize the tune in my performance were it not for Keith Richards’s opening riff. Another case is “Lapin kesä” (“The Summer of Lapland”), where I fuse four stanzas from one of Eino Leino’s most beloved poems with “Rock And Roll Music” by Chuck Berry. I’m very much aware that these initiatives are not much more than practical jokes or (not even very bright) novelties, but in a way my point is just that: the challenge is to develop the jokes into artistically convincing and compelling renderings — and to learn about my eventual singing skills in the process. I deliberately put those very early recordings (linked above) online as unquestionable evidence of the absolute (s)crap I started from.

I’ve since worked a lot on these and other projects with a definite musical/melodic component — as part of which (to let you into a secret now) I have even started taking singing lessons. On many levels, this has been extremely instructive, to say the least. My teacher has a certificate in Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) developed by the Danish music educator and human voice theorist Cathrine Sadolin. Her system is an attempt to describe and master “all the sounds human voice is capable of producing” (in this system, the sounds are classified into modes according to their metallic quality, ranging from neutral to curbing, overdrive, and edging, all of which again may be modified by color, effects, etc.). It was nice to realize, and to have a professional teacher testify that even without an ability to sing the most simple melodies “correctly,” in my sound poetry performances I already made use of all those modes and variations, and easily so, without many of the problems with breathing and so on that so haunt many professional singers (and me, in my attempts at actual singing).

This of course introduces the question, “What is music?” Sure, the existence of a recognizable, harmonic melody cannot be the only requisite for music at our point in time. But more than that, my teacher soon made me realize some things that led me to modify what I said above about the “flatness” of Finnish, my own and others’. In short, as there is color and rhythm, there is also intonation in every language and in every speech act. (In fact, while my own speech may be characterized as extremely flat, I’ve always been aware of my sensitivity to intonation in the speech of others — for instance, I’m almost invariably the first person in a group to recognize a nameless voice of an actor or other celebrity in, say, a TV or radio commercial, and I’m still tempted to judge the present political stances of my seventies hardliner Communist adversaries by how well they have been able to drop the scansion so crucial to their previous group identities.) To put it another way, all language speakers are able to control their pitch, so everybody can sing. Or at least the question of musicality has very little to do with singing skills as such. This realization has made me name my sixtieth birthday party a “concert”: “Leevi Lehto at 60 & in Concert With Himself.”

It may be that I’ve already reaped the most important fruits of my work with pitch and melody — I am thinking of some insights into the constituents of hearing and voicing. The main thing about pitch control, it seems to me (and I realize this may be elementary to many, but to me it is not) is what is known as “muscle memory.” The (almost innate) ability to control the pitch of speech implies a capacity to hear it, and consequently to change it, to hear that change, and ultimately recognize the pitch of an isolated note. In principle, this means that not only can everybody sing, but also that we all have potentially absolute ears. Yet this recognition does not happen in the ear only, it is always mediated by the muscle memory of speech or singing. To exaggerate a bit: we listen with our throats, and we speak with our ears.

Purkis: The majority of your pieces available on the Internet are solo performances, with the exception of a few duets (notably, one with Charles Bernstein). Does this work with musicians mean that you will be doing more ensemble work and sound collaborations? Do you view collaborations with other voices differently than collaborations with other instruments?

Lehto: Yes, I think I will be more interested in various kinds of collaborations in the future. So far, I have actually only done one performance with live instruments, with the Russian electronic band Ugol Ratmanova in Moscow, in November 2008. This was an improvised reading on fifteen minutes’ notice, of one of my stock pieces, “Besotted Desquamation,” my Finnish translation of a poem by Charles Bernstein.

For the “Leevi Lehto at 60 & in Concert With Himself” birthday celebration I also plan to do some collaborative work. I’m going to perform with drummer Tero Valkonen, who will play a floor tom, something that will undoubtedly push me both to intensify the rhythmical dimension of my performance and also to pay more attention to the pitch. There is also a plan for an improvised duo performance with the Japanese sound artist Adachi Tomomi, over Skype. And yes, I may venture some actual singing, and the concert will feature my first-ever musical composition, Don’t Be Afraid of Being Afraid, with my daughter Saara, a professional dancer, performing her own choreography.

And, talking of composition, I’ve also experimented with producing my own “melodic backdrops” using digital audio workstations such as FL Studio: you may evaluate the impact of that in this rendering of “Tuulikannel” from last spring.

One more point about collaborations: I’m currently working with a young Finnish composer and folk-harpist, Salla Hakkola, on a project where we will use excerpts from my Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly the musically-motivated “Sirens” chapter. This will be premiered at the time of the publication of the translation [editor’s note: this performance took place in August 2011]. I’m rather intrigued by this, not least because the project has made me realize the general impact of Ulysses to my sound work. After all, “Sirens” is all about putting music into language, and Joyce was reportedly unable to listen to music for a time after having finished it. Working with the overall musicality of Ulysses has, I think, sort of reversed Joyce’s reaction: it has made me somewhat impatient before most other texts I come to work with. If I cannot find music in them, I get the urge to add it …

From my present perspective, I wouldn’t see any fundamental difference between collaborations with other voices and those with instruments. Allowing for instruments means admitting that the voice is one too, or the other way around: it means the materiality of language must encompass and accommodate instrumental sounds. I think I used to be a purist here, somehow privileging voice and only voice, but I’ve changed my mind.

Purkis: Do you have any predictions for where sound poetry might veer, as muscle memory increases and as the capacity for listening and voicing grows stronger? What sort of projects do these muscles want to lift?

Lehto: Well, I think with my take on learning, Groucho Marx’s well known slogan sort of ceases to be joke, and becomes a maxim: only join clubs that wouldn’t approve you as a member. So I am a little hesitant to speak about the future of sound poetry, if by that we understand a specific subcategory of the larger whole of poetry or literature. There is such a category or field all right, and there is such a community of people with shared interests. Yet I don’t think of my sound work as dedicated to cultivation of that special field but rather as interventions in two larger areas: poetry in general (or text-based poetry if you will), and, yes, music. I’m always interested in cross-pollinations and my ambition is to create works that are difficult to situate in one single frame.

One aspect of this is that I don’t seem to produce new textual material for my performances but rather use existing work, by myself or by others, found poetry in a way. My renderings of traditional Finnish poetry are perhaps a case in point.

 

 


 

 

1.  Michael Peverett, “Leevi Lehto, Lake Onega and Other Poems,Intercapillary Space, September 2009.

The poem that marks things

Stephen Ratcliffe with Linda Russo

Stephen Ratcliffe in his Bolinas living room, July 28, 2010. Photo by Linda Russo.

Background: on Monday, July 28, 2010, I met up with Stephen Ratcliffe in his home in Bolinas, California, at the suggestion of Joanne Kyger. I’d been in Bolinas for almost two weeks, exploring in my own writing the landscape and the particularities of that place as do both of these poets, who have lived in this coastal community for over forty years. Ocean waves crashing and the ridge beyond, variations of fog — such particles of landscape perception comprise Temporality (Eclipse Editions, 2011), the third installment (of 1,000 pages) in a trilogy (including Portraits & Repetition and Remarks on Color / Sound) that Ratcliffe was then working on, and which he concluded on January 4, 2011. We talked primarily about the daily writing that comprises Temporality and how this project intertwined with his interest in experiencing physical space. I was eager to hear about Ratcliffe’s writing within a landscape that was, to me, new and exciting. And so we talked, recording the interview, and we must have talked for about an hour, when, in my rush to be moving along, I neglected to allow the digital recorder to write the file before unplugging it, a fact I would discover only later. We both remembered the conversation as interesting and decided to try again. A few days later I phoned him from my home in eastern Washington, and we recommenced.

The conversation picks up with Ratcliffe providing some information about the chronology of his back-to-back writing projects and continues with him touching on some topics we had originally discussed. At the time of the first conversation, Ratcliffe had pulled out various books and notebooks as we considered the details of his writing process, and I had documented several of these in photos. Later, conversing over a considerable distance, these images became useful in aligning our discussion; Ratcliffe again pulled a book off the shelf and we could get together “on the same page” as we tried to re-cross some of the ground we’d covered in the first, lost interview. It strikes me now how nicely this process rhymes with — is in a way an extension of — the themes of experiencing and documenting moments of experience that are his central concerns in Temporality.

In our discussion, Ratcliffe details the conditions he sets up to “transcribe” the moment every day (to translate the “ephemeral” into permanent text), and how he pairs that with already-textual language that documents visual experience (in this case, T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death). The whole “day” entry/poem, he later clarified, is assembled in three pieces at different moments/places, as mirrored in the three-part text. This allows for an experience of and a thinking-through the repetition-with-difference that so absorbs him. As I reread the interview today (July 4, 2011), what I find most interesting is the linking of synchronous “moments” and diachronic “materials” that is exact and inexact at the same time; not arbitrary and not truly subjective either, such that “reality” is open to continual exploration. In one sense, how can it not be? In another, how can one accommodate that fact? As Ratcliffe talks about the various aspects of his practice, it becomes clear how this simple act can become an extended engagement (why it must be, as Ratcliffe would point out) because it is given over to “mystery,” an idea he conveys early in the conversation: “But that relation between the world that’s out there and the words that are trying to transcribe it, it’s mysterious.” In this statement, he interestingly defers agency to “the words”; he later asserts: “In some ways I’m a scribe noting real things.” This act of noting is the “creative” act, as he later suggests, proposing art as a means of differentiating the otherwise undifferentiated: “Everything is moving and evolving, and I actually think one of the things that poems and art do is mark things.” And his structured works do heavily bear the marks of the shaping hand of poet as he moves from the handwritten page to the typeset — always in Courier, always left- and mostly right-justified — manuscript. In the end, talking with Ratcliffe gave me a sense of how his writing exists between experience and language: “I find myself over a period of time moving back and forth between writing that comes entirely out of perception of things happening around me, and writing that comes out of language.” And landscape? Is it just a place to be, what presents itself in its own particularity to be perceived? We never did get around to talking about landscape, though we did arrive at the horizon. This makes sense: to wind up at a concept that links perceptual experience and material world even as it holds them at an unbridgeable distance. What follows is a lightly edited version of our second conversation.

Stephen Ratcliffe: So, one thing, we should just say what the date is, it’s July 28th, and it’s 8:08 on the West Coast. I believe we’re both in the same time zone, at least, according to my laptop. And I’m sitting here outside looking at the last light on the ridge, just to enter that into the background of this conversation.

Linda Russo: Alright.

Ratcliffe: I was just thinking about how we were talking on Sunday, and now trying to find a way back into that, but I was thinking of one of the points that we got to late in the conversation about the relationship between the place, or the geography as you might say, and the time of being in this place, and then writing these series of ongoing poems, one poem after another, one and then the next one, then the next one, and not just a few but actually doing this for years now and what that all means. It’s really interesting for me to think about that. To sit here now looking at the light, just at the top of the ridge, the first day that we’ve had clear now — when you were here it was almost always foggy, I think, it wasn’t possible to see the ridge a lot of the time — but it cleared off yesterday afternoon. It’s a cloudless day, and there’s light up there on the ridge, and you can see the whole thing. But that relation between the world that’s out there and the words that are trying to transcribe it, it’s mysterious.

Russo: So, how many years would you say you’ve been doing this kind of noticing or documenting?

Ratcliffe: You know, actually, I did a little homework because when we were talking on Sunday, I didn’t have this at my fingertips, but it made me think about it: what is exactly the chronology of these poems? So, I went back and found it, and I wrote it down here, because I think it is important, to me at least, and it goes toward what we were talking about. I had been doing daily poems for a much longer time. A book like Present Tense, published by the Figures, I forget the date [March 1995], but it actually was one year’s worth of writing that then took many years to evolve and take the form that it has in the book. It was 365 days of writing it as prose, and then I began to work with it after that for a few years.

[Here, Ratcliffe describes a succession of works (and the lapses in between works), emphasizing the immediacy with which a new one began — i.e., the day after the previous one ended — including Portraits & Repetition, written February 9, 1998, to May 28, 1999; REAL, written from March 17, 2000, to July 1, 2001; CLOUD / RIDGE, written from July 2, 2001, to October 18, 2002; and HUMAN / NATURE, started on October 19, 2002.]

[…] Actually, I want to mention this to you for the record, the title CLOUD / RIDGE came to me one day when I was hiking up in the mountains, in the Sierra in the summer, and there were switchbacks for 500 feet on a hot day, at, I don’t know, 10 or 11,000 feet, and there was a ridge that we were approaching where there was a pass, and there was a cloud above it, and I realized that the cloud was above the ridge. I thought of that as a title, and I realized that’s what I see here all of the time. And right now there is actually a clear sky and one little eye of a cloud, which is just above the ridge there. So, when I wrote this title down in my mind, I printed the word “cloud” in all caps, and then I drew a horizontal cloud line, and the word “cloud” has five letters and so does the word “ridge,” and the line between them was also five spaces long. So, the cloud is literally above the ridge in the world, and also is in type, in the print here, in the word, in the letters. And this was for me a kind of insight into what these poems were trying to do, something about trying to transfer or write down in words, in letters, what it is that’s happening “out there in the world” with no embellishment, or no poeticizing of it. Somehow to document it. That’s part of what I’m interested in.

Russo: You could definitely think of the formal aspect as a kind of poeticizing.

Ratcliffe: That’s true. I realized that as soon as I was saying that, that in the poems there is a way of constructing in the medium of words the work or the object of the poem […]. To take the analogy of a painter, the painter is making marks on the two-dimensional canvas or paper, and the poet is also making marks on the two-dimensional page. And the world out there is in three dimensions, and moving through time. So, it’s true, but there’s no metaphor. I sort of assiduously avoid saying that something is like something, or using self-expression. The work, I think, appears to lead us to be unemotional, or maybe not […] I don’t know. That’s a whole different question. But to go back to this chronology, and then I’ll finish with it.

Russo: Sure, sure. I’m making notes for some questions, too.

Ratcliffe: Sure, that’s great. Let me just go back to the chronology, because you raised that and I have it written down. So, CLOUD / RIDGE and then HUMAN / NATURE, which began on October 15, 2002, and went through July 14, 2005. And then, immediately, on July 15, 2005, I began a work that came to be called Remarks on Color, and then I added after a slash mark, Sound. Remarks on Color / Sound, which went from July 15, 2005, to April 9, 2008. And then in that April of 2008, I had gone to Paris and I was there with Oona, my daughter. I went to do some readings, as I had done for two previous summers. I had this streak of going over there, which was pleasing for me, as I hadn’t been for many years before that. So, that was a pleasure. When I was there in Paris, I didn’t have the wherewithal to invent a new form, and I just realized why do you have to invent a new form, just keep going. So, the poems that follow after that first thousand, the Remarks on Color / Sound continued into this breadth of work, which now I have realized I would call Temporality, that is for a long time what I would call it. As it seems to happen in writing these long works, and this is another thing I didn’t quite get to Sunday, but I wanted to tell you that somehow, in the process of writing a very long work, I discover what it is I’m actually doing, and it takes a very long time to hone that down. I think it was Rousseau who said “Cultivate your garden.” If you spend enough time looking at a small plot of land, you actually begin to see what’s there. It’s maybe like Blake finding eternity in a grain of sand. Anyway, these long works that extend over a long time, I finally begin to figure out what one is. Then I think that’s why toward the end of these works, to me, they always seem to get better. They realize toward the end what it really is that they’re doing.

Russo: And yet you still think it’s important to publish the whole work. We talked about that, the integrity of the whole project.

Ratcliffe: Well, that’s another question. I have […] and actually I do think so. I think that concept of having the entire work as being compromised by doing this book of selections, which we also talked about on Sunday, where Tim Roberts at Counterpath declined to publish all of CLOUD / RIDGE at 474 pages because he said it was too long and too big for them, which I can completely understand. He proposed instead to do selections of several manuscripts, and I decided since I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, as I told you before, which we talked about. Would you like me to go into that for a second?

Russo: Yeah, really quick.

Ratcliffe: Well, it’s just that James Sherry had said to me some years ago when I was writing to him about composing a manuscript and he said, no, don’t do a long one. He wanted to do a selection from several manuscripts or books, and I said, well, I wanted to publish these works in their entirety because it seems to me the whole length of the thing is what is important about it and unique about it. So, we went back and forth on emails, and I said I really want to find someone who can do the whole thing. It was CLOUD / RIDGE at that point, or I think it might have been REAL. He said fine, you can arrange that, and if anything changes […] after a couple of years I wrote to him to say maybe it was a good idea to do a selection, and he said, well, I’m no longer interested. So, I thought, with Counterpath, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, and I thought maybe the selections would be a good way of getting work out, and there could be preface to the work that explained to readers that this is the tip of the iceberg.

Russo: Right. Or another metaphor might be a many-paned window onto these different sites.

Ratcliffe: Right, a glimpse of some larger work, or total work, in the background that they won’t know about, but at least this is a branch of it. Yeah, many-paned windows of which the rest of it is missing.

Russo: Yes.

Ratcliffe: I’m actually going to move inside now as it’s getting bit chilly now even though I’m dressed in three layers including my warm fleece. You asked a question about why it was important to do the entire work, and that’s a good question. Maybe for many people it wouldn’t be a question. And it might be a venture of diminishing returns, because who could read it or how can it be read?

Russo: Well, when you say the entire work, I’m interested in your revision process. Do you revise these a lot? Or do you write every day and then move on to the next day? How does revision fit in?

Ratcliffe: When I’m writing, I write them and I make adjustments as I go. From one day to the next, I don’t go back to reinvent the previous day’s work. Sometimes, if I do a reading, I always try to read the most recent work that I’ve been doing. So, when I’m reading I might use twenty minutes’ worth of the most recent work.

Russo: Is that because you think the most recent work is always the best?

Ratcliffe: No, just because I’m interested in hearing it. That’s the main reason. I’m interested in it and I haven’t read back over it, so that’s the main reason. It’s what’s closest. If I did a reading tomorrow, I might end on July 29, and start twenty pages above it.

Russo: How important is vocalizing it to proceeding with it?

Ratcliffe: Well, I don’t have to read every one, but, for me, I actually love to read the work. One of the things I was going to say is that when I read twenty pages or something, although I haven’t revised yet, and I usually don’t read it over before I do a reading, I just read it cold, so it lets me hear how it works and how it sounds. Sometimes I find an actual mistake, like there’s a word missing or there’s something I didn’t see when I was doing it, probably because I was moving quickly or I put an adjustment aside and I didn’t go back to look at it. So, a reading actually gives me the opportunity to find things like that. [Ratcliffe comments on recently making “adjustments” to a 1990s manuscript, Conversation.]

Russo: I’m interested in the seemingly arbitrary nature of the [formal] constraints especially vis-à-vis the fact that you’re dealing with, in terms of phenomena, something organic and changing and ephemeral.

Ratcliffe: You mean the change in the landscape in weather and time?

Russo: These two seem to clash or come together in your work, and the constraints seem very arbitrary.

Ratcliffe: I guess they’re arbitrary in that I make them up myself and then, in a sense, impose them upon the landscape or build the poem around them. In some ways, they are not at all arbitrary because they come out of this long experience writing and thinking about writing. So, it’s quite consciously, in some sense, planned out or determined by choices I’m making. Then, on the other hand, it’s full of accidents. The accidents that come in, and randomness and happenstance things are happening in the world and enter the poem. The one thing I try to be as accurate as possible to the things I am perceiving and writing down in the poem. They are actually happening. I’m not making them up. So, there’s no arbitrariness involved. In some ways I’m a scribe noting real things. Then, there’s also the textual material that’s coming into these poems in Temporality, and its given materials. But, at the same time, selecting what to leave out. The accident of the text that I am drawing the words out of couples with subjective selection of materials. It’s not really like Cage or Mac Low, using the I-Ching or some kind of diastic chance selection that chooses actually what sort of letters to use out of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or something like that. There’s much more subjectivity going on in my own work.

Russo: There also seems to be more of a rhythm. Why is it that when you, in Temporality, when you have the first stanza and there’s usually three things that you notice —

Ratcliffe: It’s always three things. It’s true. It’s not usually, it’s always. There’s always two commas in the first three lines, and that divides into three sections.

Russo: But is that something that’s predetermined or something that you come to find is appropriate to the work?

Ratcliffe: I think I came to find it appropriate, as you say. I came to find it a possibility or a way of scoring what would otherwise be complete flux. Then I liked it, so I repeated it the next day. And now, in these poems, I’ve been using punctuation, punctuation and line breaks as ways of marking or measuring out units of time in the poem and space in the poem on the page in what otherwise in the world is undifferentiated fluxation. The sun rises and sets, and time marches on and we have calendars to mark off days but the world itself is not marking off seasons. Everything is moving and evolving, and I actually think one of the things that poems and art do is mark things. The human intends somehow to process experience, to mark things, somehow, as a way of making sense maybe. I don’t know. It’s pretty profound. The cave paintings in France [at Lascaux], of the deer on the wall, and the deer wasn’t being stopped by the person who saw it. It kept moving. Your question is very interesting. Even in all of these works, there’s been some way in which the ongoingness works. In the 474 pages in Portraits & Repetition, in the first one, on each page there are five couplets, and in each couplet there is one comma and one line break and there’s one word in parenthesis, and all those things are ways of making a rhythmic mark in what otherwise would be an ongoing ongoingness. As Ginsberg says, “mind is shapely.”

Russo: Yeah, Joanne Kyger talks about that, too.

Ratcliffe: There’s something about the human endeavor to shape things that I think is going on in my own sense of what I’m trying to do. It comes in a way of shaping things.

Russo: I think there’s something different between the mind shaping the thoughts on the page as they arise, and this kind of shape that you choose. Well, I think of it in terms of efficiency. When you choose to sit down and write in the morning, you pretty much have this rhythm and you know you’re going to write these three observations and then put the middle section [with source text from books] in. So, there’s actually two questions in there. One is that difference between sort of shaping, and the other is, you should talk a little about your process.

Ratcliffe: Well, I write in the morning. I write one of these poems, and there’s a certain already determined shape that the poem will take on the page, and it appears to be the same when the eye looks at it on the page. From one page to the next, it looks the same. They don’t vary in terms of number of lines or kinds of punctuation.

Russo: Well, the content also shifts (varies) subtly, too.

Ratcliffe: It does. That’s another thing I’m interested in, the way the change of one word in a line from one day to the next seems to be a minute change, but in some way it registers, I think, a big change, a cataclysmic change. Yet, it’s very subtle, from one poem to the next, or the way things shift inside of poems, which, to me, somehow, in my way of thinking about this now, it seems that my experience in the world is sort of like that and, in part, that sensation or that sense of things, that perception of things, might be increased or furthered by living in this situation where there’s not a lot of hustle and bustle in the world. Every day I wake up and when I’m writing the poems I look out at that same ridge and sky. There are clouds. There’s the channel. This work is completely tied up with or involved with the place where it’s being written. When I go to other places like to New York, where I make maybe four trips a year, or if I go to Paris, or if I go to the mountains, some of the details shift, and at first, when I would do that, I’d find that it was a little traumatic for the poem, like what’s going to happen here? Then I realized, no, it can happen. Instead of a ridge over there, there’s a building. There’s a cloud and the sky. I’ve enjoyed finding that there’s a kind of continuity shifting from one location to another, even though some of the details are very different.

Russo: Well, what’s the continuity then? How are they continuous?

Ratcliffe: Well, for one thing, the physical material of the words on the page in these long poems, whether its a kind of determined formal quality to the poem, X number of lines or characters within lines or commas, things like that, the physical earmarks of the poem, words and letters on the page can maintain themselves in the shift, even the drafting shift of the location.

Russo: That also confirms what I’ve been thinking, which is on first glance, thinking about the Temporality series, it seems to be really involved with documenting the phenomenal world, but it’s actually, I think, engaging the language as material with the mind, and working with the material of language. Especially with the middle stanza, which is all about selecting language. Maybe you can talk about how you collect the language in the middle. In this poem, this is the first time you’ve been importing language into the texts?

Ratcliffe: No, actually, it’s not. It’s not at all the first time, but it’s taking a its own shape and material here. Some of the texts that I’m using here I was also using in Remarks on Color. I’ve been importing, well, it’s not really importing —

Russo: We talked [on Sunday] about harvesting.

Ratcliffe: Harvesting, yes, I like that. That’s an agricultural metaphor. I’ve been harvesting texts in numerous previous works, including these long ones. In HUMAN / NATURE, I have a lot of lines in there about a man and woman on the phone. And often, the phone was email. There’s a lot of conversation. And in REAL, there’s a lot of quotation of the things that are being heard, and they come in. […] In other books that I had written earlier, the one book called SOUND / (system) [Green Integer, 2002], all the words came entirely out of one book. I think it was volume three of Henry James’ letters. I never read Henry James before. It was a gap in my education, but I found a very nice book, and I made use of it. All of the language, all the words come out of this other text, and I was finding ways of making, ways of writing about things that were going on in my day-to-day life, but all of the language was basically found language. It was a word here and word there, and I would make punctuation marks and all of that. I find myself over a period of time moving back and forth between writing that comes entirely out of perception of things happening around me, and writing that comes out of language. So, a work like Temporality really splices those two things together. I really agree with you that, despite everything I’ve said about perceptions of things in the world, which, I think, are true for the opening and closing sections of this poem, it goes toward exploring how these words are being put together. And the middle lines in these two little couplets in Temporality are trying, in some way, in mining these words from texts, to comment upon or almost be like essays or critical writing about the poem itself, and about the processes of what I’m trying to do. So, that’s the way I see it. It only happens in a glimpse here and then a breath there. Back to your question about how do I select the material from the readings, I put things together that somehow speak to the question of what this activity is about. We would have to look at a specific instance to detail that.

Russo: Well, we photographed a page from, what book was it? Clark?

Ratcliffe: Clark, oh yeah, T. J. Clark.

Russo: Maybe talk about that book in particular. It will go with this page that I have photographed that has annotations. [At this point, I read text from the photograph I took of the page of a book that he was holding to help him find the page.]


Ratcliffe: Maybe I can find that here. I’m looking at the book now.

Russo: I don’t know what page it’s on, but it’s on a left-hand page and to the right —

Ratcliffe: Can you read in my handwriting what the date is?

Russo: 9-23, and I guess it looks like ’02. Or ’06, I don’t know.

Ratcliffe: Oh, really?

Russo: And on the right hand page, there’s an image, a reproduction of an image.

Ratcliffe: Okay, so what is the handwriting date. Did you say nine?

Russo: 9-23.

Ratcliffe: I see it. And the right hand page it says: “detail of landscape with a Calm”?

Russo: Well, I didn’t take a picture of it, I could just see the edge of it. It’s something about calm and snake.

Ratcliffe: Oh, I see it: 9-21-08.

Russo: Right.

Ratcliffe: I would have to do a bit of hunting to find —

Russo: Well, it’s interesting, as I start to read the text, because it’s about the writer’s process of looking at the painting. Really looking at what it is representing, the water, the birch leaves. Anyway, it’s a writer, you’ll have to say his name, writing about —

Ratcliffe: His name is T. J. Clark. I’ve been using this book since, well, I didn’t make dates early on, but back into ’07, the summer of ’07.

Russo: But he’s basically recording his perception of this landscape painting.

Ratcliffe: That’s true.

Russo: It’s a strange coincidence.

Ratcliffe: He is, and the word that I have bracketed in my entry on 9-21-08, and in the next one, 9-22-08, but the bracketed words are “format combined with the spatiality of the Snake” — and that’s the painting he’s referring to — “the space of its front and middle stage,” and then end bracketed. So, something out of that passage, something in those words were taken up in note. I don’t know if I could find them here. No, I can’t. I’d have to go outside and read this notebook to find that. Anyway, out of those words I used some of them. The words that pop out as being of interest to me are “form,” “format,” “combine,” “spatial,” then “space in its front and middle stage.” I was spending so much time thinking about onstage and offstage action in Hamlet, so the word “stage” was really loaded to me. These books that I’ve been using, all of them have a lot of interesting material in them that somehow has a congeniality to what I’m thinking about myself.

Russo: Is it more, let’s say, the vocabulary that’s being invoked, or the kind of thinking that’s being done, because it’s a strange coincidence that he’s reflecting on a representation of a phenomenal landscape.

Ratcliffe: Well, I did a job of reading a manuscript for the Yale Press, and they gave me as payment either $250 or $400 worth of books. So, I chose the books, and this was one. I mentioned to you that previous book by T. J. Clark called Farewell to an Idea that I had used before this. It’s a big, long book. His work was very interesting because he’s writing about painting, and his prose and vocabulary are interesting. I was reading not so much to understand or get what he was thinking about, but to look at the language there and make use of it.

Russo: And yet there is a strong relationship in your own work to painting and the visual field.

Ratcliffe: It’s true, and for some reason what Clark is doing has been interesting […]. Clark is very descriptive. Now, I’m using some Einstein and some other physicists writings from the ’20s who had a whole different vocabulary. It’s also, to me, very interesting because a lot of it has to do with space and time and objects. Physics. The physics of things happening in the world, which is completely pertinent to what I’m trying to look at out there in the world. There’s also a Van Gogh book of drawings where there’s various art critics or scholars thinking about his work. It’s one of these large books with picture and text, probably put together for a show in New York of Van Gogh’s drawings. Again, it’s people writing about art. So, yeah, it is curious. And Clark, he’s doing something with painting not unlike what I’m trying to write about with landscape. He’s writing about landscape painting.

Russo: So, why do you use Courier font?

Ratcliffe: Oh, Courier. Well, that’s it. Early on I was writing on a typewriter where there was Courier, and some of the earliest writings, there was one early book called Mobile / Mobile. My first wife was from Mobile, Alabama, and we went on a trip there and I wrote in my notebook some poems during the week that we were down there, and I came home and I typed them up and they were all rectangular poems. They all had [different lengths of lines] lines, but all had a right-justified margin that was determined by adjusting the lines to come out that way. When the book was finally published, it was a letterpress book, but Les Ferriss [the publisher/typesetter] didn’t want to use Courier. So, I realized the whole shape of the right margin would be lost. We talked about it for a while, and I thought, well, the constraint of the right margin was instrumental to me in helping me write the poem, but it no longer needs to appear that way in print. It doesn’t. So, now the right margin is ragged. But for me, Courier, each letter, space and punctuation mark occupies the same space. A period is as wide as a W. So, in Courier, it measures out a width of a line. Also, each letter will be directly above or below the mark of a letter or gap in the adjoining or adjacent lines. In Courier, each character has a fixed width.

Russo: You can think of even getting a sort of grid-like effect on the text.

Ratcliffe: It is like a grid. That’s why I’ve been interested in Mondrian as a model, in what he did in those abstract lined paintings. The grid, the idea of the grid seems to me to be something I’m interested in doing in poems, to make a grid-like structure where the line goes across the horizontal two-dimensional page and there’s a kind of verticality that takes place with the shapes of lines from one to the next.

Russo: Well, your daughter’s painting certainly employ lots of planes and not quite squares but a lot of square-like lines and planes.


Ratcliffe: Yes, the ones you saw here, some of them did, for sure. She doesn’t do that now. Responding or being aware of her work, you know, I’m mentioning some of these painters like Mondrian, it’s been interesting to me —

Russo: I’m looking at the photographs of your house now. It’s very symmetrical. Not symmetrical, but there are a lot of right angles.

Ratcliffe: Right.

[What follows is an explanation of where these works fit in Ratcliffe’s daughter Oona’s works.]

Russo: While we’re talking about this, the form and the grid, I’d like to throw in for contrast the kind of organic feel of the line. In the work that we looked at, I think it was REAL. I also took a photograph of that. We were talking about how I was noticing that even though the line breaks were arbitrary, and maybe you could talk a little about the form in that work. The work had a very organic feel. Each page was slightly different.

Ratcliffe: That is absolutely true and real for my Temporality stuff. The poems in REAL, although, there were certain repeating features, like each poem has seventeen lines, it has five sentences, each sentence has a comma. There are things like that that repeat from one page to the next. The shape of the right margin varies from one page to the next. The eye can see that, although the ear, the listener wouldn’t perceive that.

Russo: How did those line break choices come about?

Ratcliffe: They came about because there was a kind of fixed measure or width that I was working in. I don’t know if it’s four inches or four-and-a-half inches. Something like that. On the screen, the line couldn’t be longer than a certain width. There was a right hand margin. It also was not going to be much shorter. It was as if it were prose, and in a typeset piece of prose, you get to the right margin and you click in to the next line. Right?

Russo: Yeah.

Ratcliffe: So here, I was going with the first line until I got to a complete word. I’m looking at number 2.23 on page 346 that reads “spots of sunlight on the otherwise shadowed wall.” And that’s a line break, and the next word in the next line is “to” and it goes on “shadowed wall/ to the left of the yellow and blue bed.” That’s the second line and there’s a comma after “bed.”

Russo: Actually, I have a photograph of page 229.

Ratcliffe: 229?

Russo: Yeah.

Ratcliffe: Okay, let me look at that.

Russo: It’s got “clump,” “from bamboo clump in upper right corner” [reading text from photograph].


Ratcliffe: Did you say 329?

Russo: 229.

Ratcliffe: 229. Date number 2-29?

Russo: No, the page number.

Ratcliffe: Let me just look again, I didn’t see “clump.”

Russo: It starts “Large” —

Ratcliffe: Yeah, “Large dun-colored bird …”

Russo: Right.

Ratcliffe: Oh, “clump,” yes. [Reads from text.] “Large dun-colored bird moving from bamboo clump / in upper right corner to tobacco plant branch in lower / left, the crow flying in from the field below / the small white cloud in otherwise blue sky.” In each case, the line is determined. The word “clump” is close to whatever the measure of these poems came to be. I don’t know how many; on the computer, or on a typewriter, the right margin is set and you can’t go beyond it. And the word “in” couldn’t sit after “clump” on that line because the margin was bumped in there. It would automatically get put on the next line.

Russo: So, why do you have so much space after “table” seven lines down?

Ratcliffe: Because the word “thinking” is next …

Russo: Ah.

Ratcliffe: … and it won’t fit on the line. I’m also adjusting the words in these lines to make this shape that begins to emerge. So, you can see “clump” “lower” “below” “sky” “corner” “thinking,” “table,” “water.” [“period.”] It’s the word that comes after each of those words, if you look at the right margin, excuse me, the left margin, you see “large” “in” “left” “the” “yellow,” “behind,” “symbol,” “thinking” — those words at the beginning of the line on the left would not have fit …

Russo: Right.

Ratcliffe: … into the previous line, so there’s both the necessity of going to the next line, and also the shaping hand of the poet, which has made it work out so that this line continually moved further to the left and created this kind of descending curve that happens. So, there’s both the accident of hitting the right margin, and the subjective selection, the choice-making that makes that shape come out. Those things are both happening when I’m writing.

Russo: I’m not sure how that’s subjective. If the words don’t fit on the line, they don’t fit. So, what’s subjective about that?

Ratcliffe: Maybe, instead of “woman at the table / thinking about taking on persona.” Do you see that section?

Russo: Well, your finger is blocking it, but I see “woman at the table.”

Ratcliffe: Yeah, well, “woman at the table,” maybe when I wrote this in my notebook, I’m not sure, but I might have written “woman at the table who is thinking.” Then, in that case, “who is” might have fit on there, but then it would have wrecked the shape.

Russo: Ah, I see.

Ratcliffe: So, I’m making adjustments in moving from handwriting to type, that make the shape take place, whereas in handwriting it was just prose. There was no shaping. I just went to the end of the margin in the notebook.

Russo: Well, the shape of the margin or the placement of the line on the page can just mean everything at a certain moment, right?

Ratcliffe: Right. When I wrote these poems in the notebook, I didn’t break the lines. I wrote them as prose. Then, in the typing on the same day as the writing by hand, I made all of these minute adjustments to make the picture of the poem on the page. The poem, to me, becomes a visual shape on the page, which happens at the stage when it gets typed. And before that, it’s words on a handwritten page that doesn’t have that shape. It’s the same with all of these works. I mean, for instance, I’ll write a three-line unit, then a two-line unit and a two-line unit, but, in typing them on the page, they take on this preciseness of shape that they wouldn’t have in handwriting.


Russo: Do you think that if you let yourself shape the left-hand margin too, would that just be too many decisions to make?

Ratcliffe: No [laughs]. Joanne always used to say, “you know, you should get off the left margin.”

Russo: Right.

Ratcliffe: She’s so great at that. She’s off the left margin. There were some poems I wrote earlier on where I was off the left margin. I’m happy to be on the left margin in my own work. You know, you hit the return key and go back to the left margin, although I certainly appreciate a work that doesn’t have that fixity, like Larry Eigner. It’s so beautiful the way his poems move off the left margin. It would be nice. Maybe I should do that.

Russo: I think this also speaks to the minimalist aspect of your work, that you do cut down on the number of decisions you have to make. The question I asked the other day was about the senses, that they appear in your work, and I’ve just come to this realization that you really are sort of limiting sensory input, that that’s part of the minimalistic aspect of the work. It only deals with sight and sound, and primarily with sight, whereas other works included more senses.

Ratcliffe: That was very interesting to me on Sunday when you brought that up. I do see that, the sense of restricting the amount of material that is possible to enter, which is somehow, in some literal or factual way, is taking place in Temporality now because the opening lines are written sitting up in bed, looking out a window, seeing what I see out there and hearing the sounds. In some ways, sound in my work has always been really important, like in SOUND / (system) or the writing on Campion [Campion: On Song]. My sense of sound in words and sound in lines, I think I have an ear, which has become highly tuned through my work and my studies of Campion. I talked a lot about and have written about that. In Listening to Reading, there’s an essay called “Notes on Sound.” I pay a lot of attention to sound and it does come into the poems, but it does appear to be mostly sight. I was thinking after we talked on Sunday, I wanted to say this as it popped back into my mind: there’s some almost humorous way in which Proust, whose work, I haven’t read his novel, but I did write a book called Selected Letters, which are based on the letters of Proust. He sat up in bed and he was writing in a soundproof room with cork-lined walls, and he was writing about his imagination, I think, writing about his life experience, sitting up in bed. And thinking “here I am, sitting up in bed and writing these poems just looking out the window.” I’m not in a cork-lined room. There’s a bit of the world coming in, but it’s a small picture. I’m not even going downstairs and going outside to see all the other things. I used to come downstairs and go outside in the morning and there were numerous things that were going on, and I would choose this and that. I used to think years ago you had to keep moving and changing. Now, since the book Portraits & Repetition, and thinking about Stein for years [inaudible], she claims that she never repeats, at least in writing. I read and come to her and say, jeez, it’s so repetitive. It’s very interesting, I’m sort of exploring the possibility of how things keep seeming to repeat, but they’re not really.

Russo: I had this realization while I was in Bolinas about your work, and I shared it with Bob Grenier. I said I think the reason why I think your work is so minimalist is because you’re a surfer, and when you surf, it’s just you and the board and the water. Of course, the water represents or embodies so many atmospheric conditions or realities or facts. Anyway, that was my theory, why I think you write the way you do.

Ratcliffe: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t think that’s the whole reason, but there is some evidence there. You’ve got [a cloud?] and you’re on the same ocean, and yet all the molecules are different, and the weather and the conditions are always different. Yet it seems to be the same.

Russo: There’s a lot of difference, but there’s also a lot of sameness, too. I was struck …

Ratcliffe: The appearance of the world out in the water seems to be very abstract. You have a horizon line. You have a plane that is the water. Then you have this dome over your head, the sky above the horizon. There’s a cloud, so it looks vertical. And for me, here, there’s the ridge, which appears to be a vertical plane, but, in fact, it’s full of contour. Actually, that’s something I’m really conscious of, and have been for a long time, seeing how, if you look at the three-dimensional world, if you look at it, there’s a way it’s totally flattened, and that’s what a landscape painting does, takes the three-dimensional world and puts it on a two-dimensional canvas. And it sits there on a wall and it appears to have depth, but that’s all an illusion. It is true that there’s something really abstract about being on the water. Even when I was a kid, I sailed across the Pacific from LA to Hawaii and back on a sailboat, and before that I had gone across, during one summer that I was in the merchant marine, and I had crossed to Hawaii and then to Asia back and forth four times in a summer. So, there’s this sense of the horizon. The horizon line and the space of the ocean, the flat horizontal plane of the water, and the dome of the sky. It’s kind of imprinted in my consciousness, I think, from early on.

Russo: I think the endlessness of that space and the possibility it represents is reflected in these long serial works.

Ratcliffe: Oh, I love that. That is brilliant. I love that, what you said. I haven’t quite thought of that. I haven’t quite thought of these things we were just saying so consciously before. But that’s beautiful, and that might be a reason why these works, if possible, should be presented as whole things because it’s crucial to the work. And the other thing is, there’s nothing like it. No poet that I know is doing anything like this. I know of some visual artists. There’s this guy On Kawara. His project is to write down the date, to paint the date on a canvas, and he’s been doing this for years. So, it might say “Jan. 7, 1982.” […]. He just goes on. I love that concept. I mean, that work is totally minimal. He paints the date on the same size canvas, which is tiny, probably in the same color paint, and I think it’s just black on white. In the art world, he’s a very well-known, written-about person. To me, that possibility gives me some hope or courage to continue with this. I really like what you said about how this endlessness of the horizon on the planet is something like the endlessness of these poems. That’s really an insight.

Russo: I’m glad.

Ratcliffe: That’s brilliant. That’s great. I’m going to write that down.

Russo: Well, I’m going to transcribe it and send it to you [laughs].

Ratcliffe: Yeah, okay. We should probably wrap this up because my phone is beeping, my voice is … it’s been great. Are you going to transcribe this, is that your plan?

Russo: Yeah.

Ratcliffe: That’s great.

Russo: Yeah, I was thinking of giving it to Julia, for Jacket2.

Ratcliffe: That would be very interesting. I think the interview form is great. One of the things I did with Avenue B, I did it together with Leslie and O Books, we published Ted Berrigan’s interviews. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

Russo: Yeah.

[What follows is a summation of the Berrigan project and mention of about 10 years’ worth of Ratcliffe’s conversations with Bob Grenier, which are archived on PennSound].

Ratcliffe: The interview form is very interesting; it’s free flowing. That’s why I was sorry to hear the tape had been lost, and you thought we could maybe write it down […] talking is great. I appreciate you taking this on, your interest […].

Russo: The audio recording will still be there in some form.

Ratcliffe: Well, that’s great too. If the quality is good, it might be something we could put up on PennSound. They seem to want to do this kind of stuff, which is terrific.

Russo: Oh, yeah.

Ratcliffe: I’m not sure if anyone would want to listen, but it’s there for the record.

Russo: I don’t know if I’d want to listen to myself again.

Ratcliffe: I don’t like to listen to myself either, actually. The voice, well, it’s not quite what you want.

Russo: It’s probably better to be in the moment anyway, just be doing and thinking about that thing anyway.

Ratcliffe: Well, what we were talking about, subject matter, it’s about being in the moment, what you do with it or how you somehow record or acknowledge it. Or notate it. Yeah.

Russo: Alright. Are you still there? Hello? Hello? Well, just for the record, we lost him, we lost the connection. But I’m going to hit the stop button, just for the record, so that we don’t lose this recording.

Sound of waves in channel

Stephen Ratcliffe with Jonathan Skinner

Photo by 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.

 

On progression

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.

Ratcliffe: Yeah.

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.

Skinner: Why?

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.

 

On performance

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.

 

On process

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.

 

On surfing

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.”

 

On scenery

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.

 

On Campion

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.

 

On invisibility

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?

 

On number

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.

Skinner: Symmetry.

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.

 

On document

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.

On duration

Stephen Ratcliffe in conversation with Jeffrey Schrader

Bolinas ridge, clockwise from upper left: April 27, 2011; May 16, 2011; January 2, 2011; June 11, 2011 (view from kitchen door). Photos by Stephen Ratcliffe.

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
. . . .

Stephen Ratcliffe
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 --

7.10
 
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
 
7.11
 
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
 
7.12
 
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
 
7.13
 
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
 
7.14
 
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
 
7.15
 
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,
      provisionally, placed
 
grey whiteness of cloud to the left of point,
shadowed green slope of ridge across from it
 
7.16
 
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
 
7.17
 
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
      perpetually overlap
 
      reticulations of the paint, upper
      right, the pigments
 
grey white fog against shadowed green ridge,
pelican gliding toward point across from it
 
7.18
 
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
 
7.19
 
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
fact?
 
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 --  

7.18
 
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
days:

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
sunlight rising
over earth-spin
 
as meadowland
flowers in fanned
shadows begin

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
work.
 
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: 


7.16
 
grey whiteness of fog against top of green ridge,
red-tailed hawk screeching from branch in right
foreground, sound of waves breaking in channel
 
7.17
 
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
obscure. 
     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
anything?)
 
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:

9.27
 
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
another story.
 
 
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 —

10.10
 
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’—

10.12
 
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):

                                   the
small press publishing scene isn’t too
good now only those with corragio will
go ahead

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:

10.26
 
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
it. 
 
 
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
online home:
http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=canessa%20AND%20mediatype%3Aaudio
(and of course I provide the URL with a bit of self-promotion
involved).
 
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:

11.8
 
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’
(http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.html).
 
 
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
from there?
 
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]
 

Rustic Diversions.
(from earlier)
”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”
      “flowering again”
      “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 —

11.9
 
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-
look-at-what’s-going-on-out-there/in-here:

11.15
 
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:

11.16
 
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
      -object, temporality
 
      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
B.  
 
 
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
another’s work. 
 
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 —

11.22
 
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,
etc. —

11.23
 
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,
      displays combinations
 
      ‘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,
‘inspire’ me. 
 
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. . . .

4.9
 
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
 
 
4.10
 
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 —


1.13
 
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,
      perceptually, forward
 
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 —

1.15
 
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
art-forms?
 
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 —

1.18
 
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
world.
 
 
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."
(3.15)
 
Man on the phone thinking Heidegger relates to what man in blue
shirt is doing, moving what may be "concealed" into
"unconcealment." (3.17)
 
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."
(5.7)
 
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.
(5.19)
 
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 —


2.1
 
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 —

2.15
 
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
day?
 
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 (!) –

3.24
 
first silver edge of sun rising over black
ridge, birds calling from branches in left
foreground, sound of wind passing overhead
 
      independent visual events,
      spatial relationships
 
      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 —

3.29
 
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
Book)


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 --

6.22
 
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
                                       (6.21)
 
first grey light above blackness of ridge,
curve of waning white moon next to planet
across from it, sound of waves in channel
                                       (6.20)
 
first grey light in sky above blackness
of ridge, silver of planet above branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel
                                       (6.19)

— 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 —

7.27
 
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
happening there?
 
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 —

8.22
 
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
[http://www.counterpathpress.org/aupgs/ratcliffe/ratcliffe.html])
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 — 

8.23
 
grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, red-tailed hawk calling in left
foreground, sound of waves in channel
 
      adjacent line in foreground,
      compositional element
 
      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
drama.
 
 
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 –

10.25
 
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/
unquote books?
 
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 –
what do??? 
 
 
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. . . .

 

Afterword

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's state of the union

New Orleans. Photograph by Linh Dinh.

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!