An interview with Craig Dworkin
Craig Dworkin is a poet, critic, editor, and professor at the University of Utah. He is the author of five books of poetry, including Motes (2011), The Perverse Library (2010), Parse (2008), Strand (2004), and Dure (2004). He has edited five volumes, including Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011) with Kenneth Goldsmith, The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound (2009) with Marjorie Perloff, and The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics (2008); he is also the author of a critical study, Reading the Illegible (2003), and has published articles in such diverse journals as October, Grey Room, Contemporary Literature, and College English. He runs Eclipse, an online archive of radical small-press writing from the last quarter century. This interview was conducted over email throughout the summer and fall of 2011.
Katie L. Price: The recently published anthology that you edited with Kenneth Goldsmith, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, was a sort of expansion of the UbuWeb “Anthology of Conceptual Writing” correct? What prompted the original online anthology and when and why did you decide to expand the project into a book?
Craig Dworkin: The online anthology (which — let’s be honest — is really more like an illustrated essay than a true anthology, despite the grandiose title) came from working in different disciplines. I was teaching in an English department, DJ-ing an avant-garde music show on the radio, and writing art history articles …. and I realized that these subcultures didn’t speak much to one another. So someone interested in a particular musical composition, say, had probably never heard of the literary work that was fundamentally — conceptually — very much like it. Indeed, I came to realize that a poem might well have more in common with a piece of music than with any other poem. So in part I wanted the UbuWeb site to make a case for reading across disciplines.
At the same time, through my research I was discovering lots of interesting text-works from the ’60s, the moment of Conceptual Art (this was before the several, big, really useful anthologies and studies of the topic had come out), and I felt like there was a particular case to be made for a practice that was undeniably “writing,” but without the communicative, exophoric, expressive goals generally associated with writing.
Now the print anthology, Against Expression, picks up on the idea of writing that is not expressive in the conventional sense; it collects texts that are not the result of unique, coherent, expressive subjects putting things “in their own words.” But it’s actually making a case that is exactly the opposite of the online anthology. Instead of being interdisciplinary, it argues for the importance of local social contexts, and it focuses on works that were published as literature. So it doesn’t include “outsider” writing, for instance (the symptomatic writing of the mentally ill); nor obsessive vernacular practices; or texts that were produced for a gallery audience rather than a book-reading audience, and so forth. Even when those texts look indistinguishable from the work that is included.
Price: You’ve said that the arguments behind the illustrated essay, to use your term, and the print anthology are opposite. I’m wondering if this decision reflects not only your evolving research interests, but also a change in fields. For example, would you say that more scholars, writers and artists are reading across disciplines now and this makes the argument of the illustrated essay less immediately pertinent? Or that the anthology is partially a response to how conceptual writing has been recently received? In other words, how might you situate the two projects themselves historically and socially, especially when, as you say, the texts in them might appear indistinguishable?
Dworkin: I don’t think there’s been any sudden sea-change. Disciplines have a strong gravitational pull. Though at a very small scale — on the level of specific individuals — I can certainly think of people in the art world who are now looking more to literature, and vice versa. Michalis Pichler, in Germany, for instance, or the Information As Material collective in England, or the kind of scene that has been developing in Los Angeles, say. Andrea Andersson is curating a museum show of conceptual texts at the intersection of the gallery and the page. And it’s not coincidental that the US launch of the anthology was at MoMA, and the UK launch will be at the Whitechapel Gallery.
However, a couple of longer-term historical shifts are legible in the discourse around poetics. The first has to do with appropriation. In the 1970s, poets were constructing poems from entirely appropriated material: Charles Bernstein’s “Asylum”; Lyn Hejinian’s Gesualdo and Writing Is an Aid to Memory; most of Clark Coolidge’s Ing, and so on. But appropriation and procedure are rarely mentioned back then. The poets themselves either don’t say anything at all, or they don’t make a big deal about it if asked. Reviews and critical articles might say that a work “sounds like” it is citational, or that it’s “tempting to speculate” on their sources, but that’s it. Whereas today, the fact of appropriating a source is the first thing a poet will say about their work; it’s how poems are introduced at readings and how books are advertised. Back in the 1990s, Lyn Hejinian was reluctant to admit that were any sources at all in Writing Is an Aid to Memory, but she now recounts the procedure as a matter-of-course.  So something fundamental has shifted over that last decade or so.
The other big change has to do with the rhetoric around readability. “Opacity” and “illegibility” were key terms in the language of value for avant-garde poetry in the ’70s and ’80s, when the recalcitrance of a text was aligned with other forms of political resistance. The most exciting poetry was often agrammatical or asemantic, and appropriated fragments were collaged in ways that heightened disjunction. Today, that’s no longer the case. It’s not that the poetry today is any easier, or more complacent or complicit, but the areas of interest and attention have shifted. And this is always one of the difficulties for readers when poetics shift: we too often expect the work that follows an earlier avant-garde to continue to look like that older mode, when in fact influence and imitation are very different things.
Price: I had never really thought about poetry introductions being such vital pieces of the puzzle of literary history, but it makes perfect sense, so thank you for that. But I’d like to ask you two questions.
You characterize avant-garde poetry of the ’70s and ’80s as agrammatical, asemantic, and disjunctive. This seems to be the standard and accepted reading of the avant-garde of that time. For example, I’m reminded of Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, in which she repeats the phrase “fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax and so on” almost to the point of absurdity. I wonder if you had to characterize the values or characteristics of the 1990s and 2000s what you might say? In your mind, are the key terms mostly the same but just used or understood differently? Or are the characteristics of more contemporary poetry different entirely?
Which leads to my second question: How do you see your own work, both with the anthology and works such as The Perverse Library or Parse, addressing these questions?
Dworkin: Well, this is all from a very distant, generalizing perspective; I should be quick to note that there is certainly astonishingly good work being published today that doesn't fit either description (Joseph Massey, for just one example, is one of my favorite poets). And Peter Inman, for a very different example, is publishing exciting, masterful new books that make good on the rhetoric of the ’70s avant-garde in ways that the actual poems from the period seldom did: “agrammatical, asemantic, and disjointed” in the extreme. But in general, from a certain remove, I do think we’ve seen the basic characteristics change.
Which is precisely why I wanted to publish the anthology. The number of texts manifesting those new characteristics had reached a critical mass. When Kenny and I first started talking about the anthology, we had a handful of examples in mind and figured we’d find a few more; by the time it was in production at Northwestern, new books of what we would consider “conceptual” writing were being published weekly, any of which could have been centerpieces in the anthology.
As a scholar, I’m interested in moments like that, when the literary landscape changes dramatically, and I wanted to document that moment in the first years of the twenty-first century when modes of “conceptual writing” were newly relevant to such a rapidly growing number of writers. As the anthology is at pains to demonstrate, these modes were not unprecedented, but they were operating with a newly visible significance for many writers. None of which, I should add, makes Conceptual writing somehow “better” than what came before — I don’t subscribe to a progress model of literary history — and none of which suggests that people ought to write in this way (I’m always surprised by the panicked fear Conceptual writing can elicit from other poets, as if they’re going to have to abandon their writing and be forced to transcribe newspapers for the rest of their careers …).
As to my own poetry, Parse is actually a good example of how the coalescing of similar writing in the 2000s changes the light in which we see such works. At the time I started the book, in the mid-1990s, there was no such thing as “conceptual writing.” I was primarily interested in postwar art (something like Mel Ramsden’s series of “100% Abstract” paintings were a direct inspiration, but also Robert Smithson, John Cage, minimalism, et cetera), renegade surrealism (Bataille and the Documents group; René Daumal and Le Grand Jeu group; late Dada works; et cetera), and a scattershot of other modernisms: OuLiPo; Russian Futurism; Gertrude Stein; Mina Loy … And although I was reading a lot of poetry in the Language tradition, the relation of that poetry to Parse was indirect; it granted the necessary permission to write abstract, non-communicative works, but nothing they were doing looked anything like a parsed grammar book. Similarly, I was profoundly inspired by Darren Wershler and Christian Bök, who were important friends and role models for me, but works like The Tapeworm Foundry and Eunoia were still years off. I knew about No. 111 from teaching art history, but I wouldn’t meet Kenny and find out about Soliloquy and his new writing projects until 1998. A dozen years later, against the background of the anthology and all those other books, Parse suddenly makes much more sense, and it seems to take part in a conversation that it wasn’t really able to have back in the ’90s.
Price: As you say, the conversation has changed surrounding books that use what we might call “conceptual practices,” although exactly what that means, I think, is still up for debate. I’ve noticed this change even in just the last four years — four years ago I often found myself having to justify my interest in “conceptual writing,” and even, at times, its precedents. Now it seems, even if “conceptual writing” still elicits anxiety, tension, or downright anger from both poets and critics, the mere proliferation of these techniques has rendered a conversation about these texts, and conceptual practices or techniques, necessary.
Would you mind talking a bit more about how the writing of your colleagues influences the projects you undertake and how you understand your own work? You mentioned that Kenneth Goldsmith and Darren Wershler were particularly influential. What types of conversations do you have with each other? And do these directly influence the projects you undertake and the way in which you undertake them?
Dworkin: I can certainly name a few of the ways that conversations with Christian Bök and Darren Wershler initially — and then for many years with Kenny Goldsmith — and then more recently with Brian Kim Stefans and Rob Fitterman as well, have had a direct influence on my writing projects. Most importantly, they’ve always provided the right combination of permission and provocation: contemporary models of going all the way (I always think of Blaise Cendrars’s line from La Prose du Transsibérien: “j’étais fort mauvais poète. Je ne savais pas aller jusqu’au bout”) and then the challenge to go even farther. Plus, we’re good enough friends to give bluntly honest assessments, and to trust each other’s judgments in turn: we’ve all had books we thought were completed and polished and ready for press …. until one of the others challenged us to push the project to another level. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say, for instance, that Christian completely reconceived and rewrote Eunoia, ratcheting up the content to match the formal bravura of a first version, after sharing it with a few of us. In the end, these are the readers I’m writing for. And because the projects are in dialogue with one another, those projects in many ways are the conversation.
Now, I’m not sure any of that is any different from what all writers experience; but as you might expect, the nature of those conversations is not at the level of local craft concerns — tweaking particular lines of discrete poems, say — but rather at the broad level of testing and proving the conceptual parameters. The most practical questions tend to be about paratexts (how much explanatory apparatus should accompany a work?), or the fit of form to content — but mainly it is a conversation, at all levels, about how to realize the full force and rigor and elegance an unexpected intellectual investigation might achieve.
Price: The last thing you said reminds me of a line from your introductory essay to the UbuWeb “Anthology of Conceptual Writing,” that the test of this poetry is “no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” I’m interested in this notion that if a work is “done otherwise,” it is actually a completely different work and how this relates to the scientific vocabulary you used in describing your interactions with certain colleagues: “testing and proving,” “explanatory apparatus,” “intellectual investigation.” The model here seems to be that of a laboratory of literature: writers and thinkers working side by side to discover the unexpected. At least that’s one of the things I find most interesting about conceptual literature, and particularly your work.
Would you mind talking a bit about how you and your colleague’s work relates to science — and perhaps even if this characteristic of “intellectual investigation” at all influenced the decisions to include or exclude certain works in Against Expression?
Dworkin: Marjorie Perloff has said “I don’t especially care for the word ‘experimental,’ which implies that the poetry in question is just an experiment, that it may well fail,”  but I like the word for precisely that reason: the suggestion that poetry can tell us something we didn’t know before — not because it communicates some wisdom or knowledge or insight from the author, but because its structures — the process of its composition and the specifics of its final form — reveal something in and of themselves. This is also where the idea of the experimental links up to the conceptual: neither is primarily about expressing or communicating. Rather, they are primarily about framing and asking and recording.
There is also a sense in which the experimental frees the audience as well, since the poem, in some sense, is written not so that it caters to the reader, but so that it serves Poetry — an experimental poem is written for language. What happens if you alphabetize five-syllable phrases ending in an “r”sound? What happens if you restrict yourself to only one vowel? What patterns emerge from a parsed text? How many chemicals make up a printed page? We learn more, with such works, about language itself than we do about their authors.
But to answer your question more directly: the closest relation to science would surely be found in Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment. There, Christian has taught himself an extraordinary amount of genetics and biochemistry, is working directly in the lab with credentialed scientists, and has published the work in science journals more than in poetry journals. And in that work you can catch a glimpse of the crossroads Conceptual Writing is going to come to: whether to turn its back on conventional poetry (Christian is speaking more to non-poets with that project than to other writers) or to challenge the comfortable status quo directly (as Vanessa Place is doing).
Susan Schultz with Leonard Schwartz, 2008
Editorial note: Susan M. Schultz (b. 1958) is a poet, author, English professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and founder of Tinfish Press. Her books of poetry include And then something happened (Salt Publishing, 2004) and Aleatory Allegories (Salt Publishing, 2000). The University of Alabama Press published her critical work A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry in 2005. What follows is a transcript of a December 22, 2008, phone conversation between Leonard Schwartz and Susan Schultz about her 2008 book Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press). The conversation aired as a part of Cross Cultural Poetics, episode 180, and was produced at KAOS-FM 89.3 in Olympia, Washington, at Evergreen State College. Ben Hargett oversaw production with Claire Sammons acting as communications coordinator. The conversation was transcribed by Michael Nardone and has been edited for readability. You can listen to audio of the conversation here. — Katie L. Price
Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest, on the phone from Hawaii, I’m very happy to say, is Susan Schultz. She’s a frequent guest on Cross Cultural Poetics. Poet, critic, professor at the University of Hawaii and author, most recently of Dementia Blog, a book published by Singing Horse Press, and there’s a chapbook with that same title published by Singing Buddha Press.
Susan Schultz: No, Slack Buddha.
Schwartz: Oh, thank you, Slack Buddha. I put Singing Horse and ended up with Singing Buddha. A slack horse. Slack Horse Press and Singing Buddha Press, is that what you’re saying?
Schultz: No, it’s Singing Horse, and then there’s also Slack Buddha Press.
It could be Fat Horse, like Fat Buddha.
Schwartz: Fat, slack, singing Buddha horse.
So, welcome Susan Schultz. Welcome back. Can you further help unentangle me from the relationship between the full-length book Dementia Blog published by Singing Horse and the chapbook of the same title, Dementia Blog, published by that Buddha press?
Schultz: Slack Buddha.
Schwartz: That Buddha press. That’s in Budapest. In Hungary. You have good Hungarian publishing connections; that’s fantastic.
Schultz: Well, the Slack Buddha chapbook is just one month out of the blog, which ran for six months on the Internet, although it wasn’t necessarily public knowledge that it was out there. And then the full-length book is the full blog that runs from January 2007 to August 2006 because, like any blog, it goes backwards.
Schwartz: Yeah, the backwards aspect of it really threw me off at first — that we were going backwards in time. It also does things with the experience of time, to be going backwards from the beginning. In the chapbook, I have beginning September 3, 2006, and working back to the beginning of September. Can you say a little about the experience of time and the experience of dementia? Because the book very directly at times deals with the question of your mother’s dementia and, I think, the relationship between those two questions: the relationship between the experience of time and what happens in dementia.
Schultz: Certainly. The blog was a record of six months in the course of my mother’s falling into dementia and I had been keeping a blog at the time, which was sort of a travel blog for family and friends because we were travelling and I was working in Europe that summer. But when we arrived at my mother’s house and saw that things had fallen into chaos, I kept the blog going and fairly quickly realized that this was work that I wanted to pursue more seriously.
So, I was only writing the blog, but as I started thinking about what was going on in dealing with someone with dementia — for whom there wasn’t any longer a sense of linear time — instead there was a sense that the course of my life and the course of my mother’s life were actually the same, that she had forgotten how to distinguish between my life and hers, and she had forgotten how to distinguish the past from the present from the future. She was looking for her own mother who had died forty years ago. So, there was no sense that the cause then led to an effect. More often you would feel like you perhaps got the effect and had to go hunting around for the cause. So, as I was writing the blog I realized that when you read the blog as it was published, you were going from the present back into the past. I realized that you would encounter the effect before the cause just because of the structure of the blog itself, and that became something that I actually wanted because I wanted people reading about this experience to have some of the same confusions that I had in dealing with it and to experience some of that temporal derangement that goes on in dementia. So, when I took the blog down off of the Internet and made it into a book, I preserved that form of moving from the present into the past.
Schwartz: It really is very effective, Susan, very disturbing. I found it unnerving in the way that strong art is disturbing and unnerving — that sense of the effect without cause, the effect for which, as you put it, you have to go out hunting for the cause. The book, I have to say, touched a kind of raw nerve in me that I can’t completely explain. I was eyeing it peripherally on my table for quite a while actually, thinking I know I need to read more of this, but I realize I have a weak point here. You know, I spend a lot of time railing against, cajoling students to not do anything to possibly damage their long-term or short-term memory — because a lot of them use too many drugs — and talking about Mnemosyne or Memory, who is the mother of all of the muses, of all of the arts, poetry, history, theatre, et cetera: that as artists, as writers, one wants to maintain and maximize and sharpen one’s capacity to remember. Then when I was confronted by the possibility of dementia, someone else’s or one’s own — as one sees the possibility of this happening to anyone — one spends all this time developing one’s mind — and then it can unravel. It is a very frightening encounter that I had with your mother through your book. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing.
I wondered if you could read to us a little bit, Susan, from Dementia Blog.
Schultz: Certainly. You said you’d like me to read the section from September?
Schwartz: Yeah, September 15, 2006. Take us from there to September 8, 2006, to give us some sense of how the book unravels backwards in time.
Schultz: I should start by saying that another layer in the work is political, that as I was dealing with my mother’s dementia, I think we were all dealing with the dementia of the Bush administration, which was hardly an organic failing on their part, it was much more self-conscious. And yet, some of the effects, I think, were similar. One of the effects being that when someone with dementia tells you a story and is absolutely certain that it is true, it causes you to doubt your own belief in your own reality. I think that’s one of the tricks that the Bush administration played on us all.
Schultz: There is a political content to it.
[Schultz reads from Dementia Blog.]
Leonard Schwartz and Susan Schultz at Kelly Writers House, September 15, 2011. Photo by Arielle Brousse.
Schwartz: Thank you so much, Susan, for that reading. It’s really quite extraordinary, an extraordinary text in terms of the weave of the political and the personal.
Schultz: I should say, Leonard, that that section was actually more about a former student who was calling me and threatening to kill herself than it was about my mother, and yet it all fits. It wove together in terms of problems with thinking and time and family and so on.
Schwartz: Yeah, it’s clear in the writing that there’s a person who is calling in, who is threatening suicide — that it’s different from the emotional disorder with dementia and the reflection on your mother. In the writing, there’s a kind of complicated weave of that with the political circumstance of the dementia imposed upon us by the Bush administration in September of 2006.
I thought I noted a line from one of my own poems in there about how nonviolent people become violent, but maybe that came from a different source, I don’t know.
Schultz: I know I used your Ear and Ethos somewhere in my book, but I don’t remember where I got that particular line from.
Schwartz: It’s a really rich and complicated weave of things, and so beautifully juxtaposed. You have that section: "My empathy is memory, is a container into which her experience sometime fits, shallow grave or swimming pool (death by water), though mine is a memory of overpasses. Not to pass over, but under by way of air. The air is human. I am the limbless woman."
I know this is a vast and grave question, but could you say a little bit about your take on memory, having moved through this experience with dementia? And on the personal level, your mother’s dementia? And on the political level, with the Bush administration now reaching its end?
Schultz: Could you ask me a bigger question, Leonard?
Schwartz: Were one to ask Proust the question about memory, I know what we would get. It would take several volumes. It’s a big question. He’s got quite a few books that are devoted to that, but what would be the thumbnail sketch of Susan Schultz’s vision of memory?
Schultz: I’ve always been quite obsessed with memory, and I think most of my work comes out of the way in which my memory — which in many ways is simply an echo chamber of the larger cultural and social memory — works, if that’s the right word. I think memory is not just a solitary activity. It’s very much a communal activity. It’s what joins us to other people once we take our memories and offer them to others. Perhaps one of the most striking effects of memory loss is that return to a kind of profound solitude that I certainly saw in my mother for a long time. Now that she’s in a better place — she’s in an Alzheimer’s home and very well taken care of — there is a sense that she’s back in community. But she doesn’t speak of her memories. I’m not sure she has them anymore, and so, in that sense, I think there’s a kind of profound solitude that has to do with living exclusively in the present.
There’s also a strong ethical sense to memory. There’s a wonderful book about the ethics of memory by an Israeli philosopher whose name I can’t call to mind at the moment — but the sense in which if you have a memory and you use it correctly, it’s an ethical act. If you fail to remember certain important things, that’s an unethical act. And yet, if you lose your memory to illness, it’s something else again. So the difference between that loss of memory to illness and the loss of memory that the Bush administration tried to create for all of us is very telling that there are different uses of the erasure of memory, and in my book I was trying to negotiate a place from which I was encountering both at the same time. I don’t know if that answers your question —
Schwartz: It’s a wonderful response to the question. I’m so glad I insisted even though you tried to laugh the question off at first. There’s so much to think about in what you just said: the way in which, in fact, memory is communal. We think of memory at some level as a deep form of introspection, and it is, but at the same time certain kinds of memory, certain forms of memory, would not be possible without a conversation, or without the wider conversation that is sometimes called community. You speak so tellingly in what you just said and Dementia Blog itself to that complexity, that complicated tissue of discourse and language that makes memory possible, which is really quite extraordinary.
An interview with Leevi Lehto
Editorial note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings, “Sound, Poetry”; it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project:
A term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.
The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling
Leevi Lehto is a Finnish poet, translator, publisher, programmer, performer, and self-taught composer. Since 1967, he has published six volumes of poetry, a novel, an experimental prose work, and a collection of essays. Active in left politics during the seventies, he worked as a corporate communications executive during the nineties. He is known for his experiments in digital writing, such as the Google Poem Generator. Marjorie Perloff describes his volume of poetry in English, Lake Onega and Other Poems, as “consistently amazing, brilliant — and funny.”
Lehto’s translations, some forty books in all, range from mysteries to philosophy, sociology, and poetry, and include works by Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Joseph Svorecky, Walter Benjamin, John Keats, Omar Khayyam, John Ashbery, Mickey Spillane, and Charles Bernstein. His new Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses will be published by the Helsinki University Press in 2012. Since 2007, Lehto has run a press of his own, ntamo, through which he has published well over 100 books, most of them critically acclaimed experimental poetry.
Lehto also performs his own poetry and others’ internationally. Notably, he has versioned the works of Finnish writers from the so-called “traditional” period. The Finnish critic Aleksis Salusjärvi describes Lehto’s performances as “foregrounding an atavistic, affective voice roaring almost deafeningly … as if performance and voice themselves were the subject matter.” Recently, Lehto has begun performing with drummer Tero Valkonen, bringing his sound deeper into the borderland between speech and music.
Carmel Purkis is a writer, editor, and book lover who has lived in many communities across Canada, and currently makes her home in Ottawa. She has been involved in several sound poetry projects, most recently collaborating with a group of poets on a series of multi-voiced texts called <playback>, a text- and performance-based response to visual artwork, and performed at the National Art Centre’s Fourth Stage.
This interview was conducted in November and December 2010.
Carmel Purkis: You’ve written extensively about the borrowing that happens between languages. Do you think of creating sound poetry out of a certain language, borrowing the sounds of Finnish or English, or do you think of creating sounds towards a new language?
Leevi Lehto: Well I guess my work is still mostly created from Finnish sounds. This actually may be one of the aspects behind my interests in themes of “Barbaric” English: the awareness of how Finnish my own English still is.
Take “Sanasade” (“Word Rain”), my longish procedural sound poem that I’ve performed during the few last years practically all over the world. It is based on an earlier, meditative prose poem of mine, and what I did was take all the words of that poem, sort them alphabetically, and then cut out everything in the beginning of the words that didn’t affect their exact placement in the sequence: “Capricorn,” “Carmel” and “Catalogue” next to each other would yield “pricorn,” “rmel” and “talogue.” The resulting stumped “words” were then again sorted alphabetically, this time based on endings: “talogue,” “rmel” and “pricorn.”
In Finnish, many words end in vowels, so this leads to a kind of Rimbaudian-Bökian display of vowels, a laboratory of their characters and temperaments. In performance I’ve come increasingly to play with the narrative possibilities this offers. Initially, this was more or less limited to the very end of the piece where the Finnish ä sound almost inevitably seduced me to mimic the sounds of an intense family row in its hysterical stages, creating an effect which is both tragic and funny — and paving the way for the first ö sound to trigger an equally hysteric laughter that, in different modalities, would dominate the rest of the performance, up to the final (for the Finns, at least) irresistibly funny äilöö (which most Finnish speakers would hear as derived from säilöö, or “preserves”). I’m currently working on similar transpositions all along the piece, and in my future performances, you will hopefully hear a more elaborate pattern of mental states, attitudes, modes, reactions, and so on.
In my performances so far, the vowels (and consonants too) have been predominantly Finnish. I think this is part of what makes the piece exotically appealing to foreign audiences — I like to joke that the further I go from Finland, the better the poem is understood, even if the many (unintended) subtleties of overlaid meanings associated with the “words” are lost to those not fluent in Finnish. Anyway, there is no such thing as pure sound, or pure letter for that matter. Already to form words — or, as in “Sanasade,” word-like compounds — letters and sounds need to be interwoven into what is usually referred to as rhythm (to me, language is sound + rhythm + pitch). In “Sanasade,” mainly because words are often cut mid-syllable, the rhythm is not Finnish. For instance, the rule of the stress always falling on the first syllable cannot apply. Yet there is a (complicated) metrical pattern, despite the fact that it goes against the “natural” flow of the Finnish language. So I think (or hope) the rhythm pattern in my performances of “Sanasade” is non-Finnish. To me, this pattern is created or dominated mainly by consonants, which are often oddly placed for the Finnish ear. I like to think of them as forming a kind of bass track, and I am now working to accentuate them as much as possible. In some of my earlier performances this led to a kind of overall bossa nova pattern; now I’m working for a more variegated, jazz-like progression.
I could say something similar of another stock part of my current repertoire, my renderings of some works of so-called traditional Finnish poetry by Eino Leino and Otto Manninen [see this 2009 video of me reading a ghazal that Manninen wrote in 1925] and other masters of the National Romantic period, roughly a hundred years ago. I’ve written about the intricate interplay of foreign influences and local identities in that poetry, my basic, pet claim being that their forms were mostly imported ones, working against Finnish language. These guys were radical translinguists and cross-pollinators a hundred years before me! Take “Tuulikannel” by Eino Leino, a fascinating Keatsian meditation on the chameleon poet (“Others got heart, I got the harp”), where the “harp” element is mimicked and strengthened by a heavy iambic-anapestic beat in a “naturally” trochaic language. My generation was always taught to read this and other similar poems by hiding the rhythm, attempting to reduce them to natural speech. I have attempted a metrical translation of this poem into English. My reading of the poem begins from a simple denial of this rule: I just try to make the stress pattern as clearly audible as possible — something which easily leads to an effect that has been described as “rock,” “rap,” or “singing.” This is interesting to me since I always thought of myself as tone deaf and unable to sing: more on this later!
Lately, I’ve increasingly come to play with the stress pattern by adding minor modifications. In the first line, “muut SY-dä-men SAI-vat mä KAN-te-LEN,” I add a very short extra beat: “muut SY-dä-men SAI-vat mä KA-a-N-te-LEN,” something which almost automatically brings me to repeat and modify that new pattern all along the piece, paradoxically making the resulting sound even more like a song, even if there still is no recognizable melody. My formula for what goes on here is “putting music to language,” instead of the idiomatic “putting words to music.” I think this theme has been with me at least since Ääninen (Lake Onega) my 1997 collection of Dantean-Dadaic sonnets. At that time, I read a lot about the genesis of the sonnet and was intrigued by the idea of it being the first Western poetical form where the musical element was inherent in the poem, not added to it through the accompanying instruments and external melody.
Another case of the mixture of languages in my sound work would be my “English” translation of “Pajkerno” by the Swedish poet Lars Mikael Raattamaa. In “Pajkerno,” Lars Mikael took a classic Swedish poem by Anna Maria Lenngren (1754–1817) called “Pojkarna” (“Boys”) and simply replaced the vowels in each stanza by one single vowel at a time: “Jag mans dan ljafva tadan, / Jag mans dan sam a gar, […] Eppe men men ver lejet, / Ech helsen e men bled,” etc. My English version, “Byos,” was done first by producing a conventional, metrical English translation of the original Lenngren poem, then repeating Lars Mikael’s vowel trick. I made sure to destroy the first translation, so it is hard even for me to now know what was there in the conventional translation phase. “Byos” is a translation without an original, perhaps in a double sense. When reading “Byos,” I usually don’t even try to pronounce it the way a native English speaker would (that’s beyond my abilities); yet my vowels are not Swedish either (also beyond my abilities). Instead, they are straightforwardly Finnish. Since it may be that Lenngren’s Swedish syntactically affected my first English translation, my reading of the poem is perhaps a mixture of three languages.
Finally, there is a different kind of mixture or interplay of languages in my Keats piece, “Negatiivinen kyky,” the concluding poem of Ääninen, which is a half-homophonic translation of Keats’s famous “Bright Star” sonnet. The poem “Negative Capability” in Lake Onega and Other Poems is also half-homophonic of the Ääninen sonnet. I’m tempted to make an extreme claim: the process ends up bringing the original English sounds back to an English-like language, yet they’ve been subtly modified in their sense and references, as Michael Peverett suggests in the only Western review of the book so far:
It’s surprising what survives this double mash-up through the sieves of language — the play of double-L sounds, the resumption of the repeated absolute “ever” in the repeated absolute “all,” and the near-rehabilitation of “ever — or” in the last line. But Keats’s vision of swooning inactivity is thoroughly translated away from its tender context of a loved one’s embrace; socialized, it turns into reeling drunkards in a mall and also into human technological progress, e.g. traveling to the moon. Both “stedfast” and both mindless, exactly as per Keats’s recipe, and sarcastically offering a new interpretation to the phrase “negative capability.”
I invite readers to test these claims based on this compiled reading of the three versions I made for Finnish radio in 2008.
Purkis: Several people, notably the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, have described Finland as a "silent" country. Does sound poetry bring voice, and if so, what is the role of that voice?
Lehto: Yes, Bertolt Brecht, who was exiled to Finland during WWII, described Finland as “a nation which keeps silent in two languages [Finnish and Swedish] at the same time.” But allow me to shift the focus a bit here: I’d rather talk about the alleged flatness of the Finnish language in general, and mine in particular. I grew up in a rural environment deep in the province (Häme or Tavastia Land) renowned for the slow speech of its people; I then left that milieu at the age of sixteen (as a high school dropout and a poet who had already published his first book), to live in the capital, Helsinki. I soon forgot the dialect of my childhood, but what I adopted was not the Helsinki slang, nor even the youth speech of the time, but a sort of artificial language more or less based on written Finnish (Finnish differing from most other languages in having this thing called the “literary language,” something residing above most people’s actual speech: my friends sometimes tell me I’m the only person they know to actually speak the literary Finnish). So I still tend to speak slowly, and in a level voice with quite little intonation. Another way to put it — and I realize this is an odd thing for a sound poet to say — I’m an extremely literal and textual person.
In many ways this has affected my learning of other languages. My favorite story here concerns my experiences with French. I never had French in school (nor English, by the way); what I know of it, I learned by translating theoretical-philosophical works. Somewhere in the mid-eighties, having already published translations of the work of Althusser, Lyotard, and Barthes, I decided it was time to acquire the speaking skills as well. I traveled to France and spent six week in the South, trying to learn to speak the language, and even hiring a private language teacher. It turned out to be one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. All the “wrong” patterns of pronunciation learned by silently reading literary texts were rooted so deep that they felt impossible to get rid of. And there was the factor of speed: at one frustrated moment, my teacher retorted in quite an angry fashion: “French just cannot be spoken that slowly!”
This may seem to lead astray from your question, but let me put it that way: yes, sound poetry does bring voice and variety, at least to me personally. More than that, it seems to bring about a change in personality. This is sometimes reflected in the reactions of my listeners. For instance, if I come to give a dry lecture on some more or less theoretical topic, I like to end with a short sample of my sound poetry (like the ending of “Sanasade”). This tends to take the audiences by surprise; they will come to me later, asking, “Where did that Shaman jump up from?” Yes, the sound poet in me is a different personality, and I am more and more allowing him to take over: the somewhat official looking, aging professorial gentleman has been replaced by the image of a (well, aging) rockstar. And I’ve been loosing a lot of weight too … I’m letting my hair grow longer, to quote “Prufrock.” I’ve attended formal cocktail parties in full makeup and I will soon start painting the thumbnail of my left hand red like Tom Waits. And I’m quite enjoying it all!
So, to repeat, sound poetry brings voice, and the voice brings a difference!
Purkis: Is the reaction of your listeners in Finland any different than in other countries? Do you think they hear differently?
Lehto: Yes, I think people in other countries hear differently, both when I use Finnish or Finnish-like language, and when I use English or other languages. For the first case, suffice it to refer to what I said above about the reception of “Sanasade”: here my most gratifying experience was in China, where the audience was adamantly resistant to all the ironic elements of the whole (despite my efforts to explain them in my intro) and simply wanted to hear it as a spontaneous overflow of feelings — of passion, as they described it.
As to using languages other than Finnish: the case in point might be my longish “Norwegian” poem, “Norwegian Ords,” which I wrote with a little help from Google and some dictionaries and performed at the Audiatur poetry festival in Bergen, Norway, in 2007. There are two humorous aspects in this. The day before I left for Bergen, I was talking with my stepdaughter Miina, then in her twenties. She told me that there was a new expression in the Helsinki teenage slang: “to speak Norwegian” was to throw up, to vomit, as when having drunk too much. I evidently couldn’t resist including that in my introduction for the poem in Bergen, and integrating the voices and gestures of vomiting in my performance, starting from the dedication “for Paal B-b-b-b-j-j-j-j-j-ELK-e Andersen.” Afterwards, more than one listener came to tell me they could never speak their own language again without having their vomiting reflexes activated. Others wondered at how I had managed to reproduce the patterns of certain actual local dialects, of which I had no knowledge or experience whatsoever. To this day, I cannot say whether this was caused by my Finnish or by the non-Finnish non-original Shaman in me paying a visit during the show. (I hope the latter: as a prodigal son of a deeply Pentecostal family, I retain a strong belief in being blessed with a gift of speaking in tongues, along with another gift of ventriloquism, or “speaking from the stomach” in Finnish idiom.)
Purkis: When watching your performances, it is clear that there is music in your motives, not just because of the sound, but also because you are always moving, and often almost dancing. This lends a superb theatricality to the performance. Do you think that this theatricality of sound poetry is a necessary part of the performance or simply a pleasurable by-product?
Lehto: Well, to me at least it is a side effect in the sense that I don’t plan it ahead of time. It is the most spontaneous part of the performance, something that I am almost not even conscious of doing. On the other hand, it is also necessary since there’s nothing I can do to drop it. I simply have to move along with the intensity of the rhythm that I manage to produce.
Actually, I should perhaps add body movement to my list of elements of language — and I am not only thinking of performances, but everyday usage as well. Perhaps there is no language without body language.
Purkis: You’ve done some spectacular mash-ups of voice and music, such as your Rolling Stones piece. Do you differentiate music and song from a sounding voice?
Lehto: A nice way to put it! You realize I’ve been edging into the theme of music all along. It is my primary concern nowadays — well, not music as such, but music related to poetry, and the other way round. I always was the non-singer: my early teachers and my family told me so. On the other hand, I’ve always joked about how I might have become a composer if only I wasn’t tone deaf. And, on a third note (pun intended!), my poetry — especially the earlier and somewhat more conventional stuff — has often been described by critics and others as “linguistically musical,” something which I’ve been tempted to see (if there’s any truth in those claims) as a symptom of transference, or skill compensation, as in blind people developing an acute ear. I’ve been increasingly obsessed with the questions around this, and have given in to the temptation to explore the musical component of my newfound sound poet personality. Also, as I like to joke, at this age, I have come to lose interest in the things I can master, to the point of only being motivated by those things I cannot do. After all, they are the only ones where you can learn something.
That is why I wanted to do a couple of pieces where I had no alternative but to at least try to sing. Over the past year, I started with a couple of attempts at fusion between Finnish poetry classics and standard rock ’n’ roll. In the Rolling Stones piece, I use words from a poem by the Finnish Modernist master, the late Paavo Haavikko (adequately beginning: “No one understands me. No one understands me in this restaurant …”); in my hearing, they quite nicely fill in the melodic pattern of “Paint It Black,” although I’m not sure if anyone would recognize the tune in my performance were it not for Keith Richards’s opening riff. Another case is “Lapin kesä” (“The Summer of Lapland”), where I fuse four stanzas from one of Eino Leino’s most beloved poems with “Rock And Roll Music” by Chuck Berry. I’m very much aware that these initiatives are not much more than practical jokes or (not even very bright) novelties, but in a way my point is just that: the challenge is to develop the jokes into artistically convincing and compelling renderings — and to learn about my eventual singing skills in the process. I deliberately put those very early recordings (linked above) online as unquestionable evidence of the absolute (s)crap I started from.
I’ve since worked a lot on these and other projects with a definite musical/melodic component — as part of which (to let you into a secret now) I have even started taking singing lessons. On many levels, this has been extremely instructive, to say the least. My teacher has a certificate in Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) developed by the Danish music educator and human voice theorist Cathrine Sadolin. Her system is an attempt to describe and master “all the sounds human voice is capable of producing” (in this system, the sounds are classified into modes according to their metallic quality, ranging from neutral to curbing, overdrive, and edging, all of which again may be modified by color, effects, etc.). It was nice to realize, and to have a professional teacher testify that even without an ability to sing the most simple melodies “correctly,” in my sound poetry performances I already made use of all those modes and variations, and easily so, without many of the problems with breathing and so on that so haunt many professional singers (and me, in my attempts at actual singing).
This of course introduces the question, “What is music?” Sure, the existence of a recognizable, harmonic melody cannot be the only requisite for music at our point in time. But more than that, my teacher soon made me realize some things that led me to modify what I said above about the “flatness” of Finnish, my own and others’. In short, as there is color and rhythm, there is also intonation in every language and in every speech act. (In fact, while my own speech may be characterized as extremely flat, I’ve always been aware of my sensitivity to intonation in the speech of others — for instance, I’m almost invariably the first person in a group to recognize a nameless voice of an actor or other celebrity in, say, a TV or radio commercial, and I’m still tempted to judge the present political stances of my seventies hardliner Communist adversaries by how well they have been able to drop the scansion so crucial to their previous group identities.) To put it another way, all language speakers are able to control their pitch, so everybody can sing. Or at least the question of musicality has very little to do with singing skills as such. This realization has made me name my sixtieth birthday party a “concert”: “Leevi Lehto at 60 & in Concert With Himself.”
It may be that I’ve already reaped the most important fruits of my work with pitch and melody — I am thinking of some insights into the constituents of hearing and voicing. The main thing about pitch control, it seems to me (and I realize this may be elementary to many, but to me it is not) is what is known as “muscle memory.” The (almost innate) ability to control the pitch of speech implies a capacity to hear it, and consequently to change it, to hear that change, and ultimately recognize the pitch of an isolated note. In principle, this means that not only can everybody sing, but also that we all have potentially absolute ears. Yet this recognition does not happen in the ear only, it is always mediated by the muscle memory of speech or singing. To exaggerate a bit: we listen with our throats, and we speak with our ears.
Purkis: The majority of your pieces available on the Internet are solo performances, with the exception of a few duets (notably, one with Charles Bernstein). Does this work with musicians mean that you will be doing more ensemble work and sound collaborations? Do you view collaborations with other voices differently than collaborations with other instruments?
Lehto: Yes, I think I will be more interested in various kinds of collaborations in the future. So far, I have actually only done one performance with live instruments, with the Russian electronic band Ugol Ratmanova in Moscow, in November 2008. This was an improvised reading on fifteen minutes’ notice, of one of my stock pieces, “Besotted Desquamation,” my Finnish translation of a poem by Charles Bernstein.
For the “Leevi Lehto at 60 & in Concert With Himself” birthday celebration I also plan to do some collaborative work. I’m going to perform with drummer Tero Valkonen, who will play a floor tom, something that will undoubtedly push me both to intensify the rhythmical dimension of my performance and also to pay more attention to the pitch. There is also a plan for an improvised duo performance with the Japanese sound artist Adachi Tomomi, over Skype. And yes, I may venture some actual singing, and the concert will feature my first-ever musical composition, Don’t Be Afraid of Being Afraid, with my daughter Saara, a professional dancer, performing her own choreography.
And, talking of composition, I’ve also experimented with producing my own “melodic backdrops” using digital audio workstations such as FL Studio: you may evaluate the impact of that in this rendering of “Tuulikannel” from last spring.
One more point about collaborations: I’m currently working with a young Finnish composer and folk-harpist, Salla Hakkola, on a project where we will use excerpts from my Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly the musically-motivated “Sirens” chapter. This will be premiered at the time of the publication of the translation [editor’s note: this performance took place in August 2011]. I’m rather intrigued by this, not least because the project has made me realize the general impact of Ulysses to my sound work. After all, “Sirens” is all about putting music into language, and Joyce was reportedly unable to listen to music for a time after having finished it. Working with the overall musicality of Ulysses has, I think, sort of reversed Joyce’s reaction: it has made me somewhat impatient before most other texts I come to work with. If I cannot find music in them, I get the urge to add it …
From my present perspective, I wouldn’t see any fundamental difference between collaborations with other voices and those with instruments. Allowing for instruments means admitting that the voice is one too, or the other way around: it means the materiality of language must encompass and accommodate instrumental sounds. I think I used to be a purist here, somehow privileging voice and only voice, but I’ve changed my mind.
Purkis: Do you have any predictions for where sound poetry might veer, as muscle memory increases and as the capacity for listening and voicing grows stronger? What sort of projects do these muscles want to lift?
Lehto: Well, I think with my take on learning, Groucho Marx’s well known slogan sort of ceases to be joke, and becomes a maxim: only join clubs that wouldn’t approve you as a member. So I am a little hesitant to speak about the future of sound poetry, if by that we understand a specific subcategory of the larger whole of poetry or literature. There is such a category or field all right, and there is such a community of people with shared interests. Yet I don’t think of my sound work as dedicated to cultivation of that special field but rather as interventions in two larger areas: poetry in general (or text-based poetry if you will), and, yes, music. I’m always interested in cross-pollinations and my ambition is to create works that are difficult to situate in one single frame.
One aspect of this is that I don’t seem to produce new textual material for my performances but rather use existing work, by myself or by others, found poetry in a way. My renderings of traditional Finnish poetry are perhaps a case in point.
1. Michael Peverett, “Leevi Lehto, Lake Onega and Other Poems,” Intercapillary Space, September 2009.
Stephen Ratcliffe with 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.
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?
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.
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.
[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?
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: 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?
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 …”
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 …
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 …
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.”
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?
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.
[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.
Stephen Ratcliffe with Jonathan Skinner
This lengthy conversation between Jonathan Skinner and Stephen Ratcliffe took place in Bolinas, California, on March 22, 2011. Photographs throughout are by Jonathan Skinner.
Jonathan Skinner: Given that you’ve just finished these two trilogies, do you see a progression through the series?
Stephen Ratcliffe: Oh, yeah. Yeah there is.
Skinner: Was there an intentional progression and is there eventual progression?
Ratcliffe: No. It’s more of a happenstance. An evolution of things. I see in some way what I’m doing now. I began, you know, making incursions toward doing that years ago, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Things I’m doing now are more consciously set, but they actually started a long time ago.
Skinner: What’s the biggest thing you’ve noticed, looking back over it, that’s changed or progressed or happened?
Ratcliffe: Well, you know, there are a lot of changes, really, a lot. For one thing, CLOUD / RIDGE is full of people saying and doing things. But not in these, not in Temporality, nor in this one that’s going on now, it’s up to about seventy-five pages. It started I think January 5th. Although in the first few pages, Johnny [Ratcliffe’s six-year old son] began to appear in there sometime, in early January. Which seemed like, oh, this is really nice … But now he’s not appearing anymore.
I’m still making use of these readings that I do with quotation. You know, finding language in the middle two pairs of lines. It just seems to be getting more honed, and it’s very interesting to do it. I’m pleased with it. I really like these latest ones. But the reference to person A or B … in CLOUD / RIDGE the people are often identified, as “man in black sweatshirt,” “silver haired man,” “man in red truck,” “blond haired woman.” You know. There are these people sort of with epithets. Bob [Grenier] one time commented, years ago, he said, it’s kind of like in Homer: “grey-eyed Athena …”
Skinner: Are these literal people?
Ratcliffe: Oh yeah.
Skinner: So they’re people that are around you. And that’s overheard dialogue?
Ratcliffe: I used to carry these little notebooks around. If something happened, I wrote these things down. And then I would go back and find them and make use of them, but now …
Skinner: Now you’re writing down things that you read.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, at night. Like tonight or tomorrow night, I have to go sit down again. And there are maybe seven or eight books. I go through one at a time.
Skinner: Each night you go through each book.
Ratcliffe: No, not every night. But about every five nights, I have to get back to the stuff … I use up all the material.
Skinner: You have to go through all seven of them.
Skinner: Pull something from each one.
Ratcliffe: I find a passage somewhere. I go to where I left off and I start reading. I find some words, and I construct them into two lines and I type them on the computer. I put them on the screen so I get the length of the line to be set. And then, when it’s set, then I write it down into the notebook. So, the next day, when I go to compose, to write the poem …
Skinner: Oh, so these are pre-measured units.
Ratcliffe: They’re pre-measured. It used to be that I would just write them down and then I would have to do them on the screen, and it was very hard. CLOUD / RIDGE was very hard to do, because those lines are always shifting.
Skinner: What’s the measure? What determines the measure? Is it a visual …
Ratcliffe: It’s visual, yeah. In CLOUD / RIDGE each poem looks different on the page. It has probably the same number of lines, but arranged in different stanza units. And it’s measured here on the screen but not in the book, so … it was very hard to do, actually. It’s time consuming.
Skinner: You’ve moved from overhearings to a series of readings. But it seems like the practice of observing meteorological phenomena, events in the environment has continued.
Ratcliffe: Weather, ah … yeah.
Skinner: So the surfing is still a part of the constraint, the daily surfing.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, the last lines on the poems now are things written down or seen when I go out in the water.
Skinner: So what are the constraints for Temporality?
Ratcliffe: OK, so I wake up, then I open my eyes, and then I write the poems down in my bedroom. I don’t even get out of bed anymore.
Skinner: Oh you just write them in bed.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, so it’s like what I see out that window. You know, I used to write the poems down here in the kitchen, and there was a lot more stuff to see. But from upstairs, from that higher vantage point, it’s funny, it’s more sky, and less other things going on. So there’s something that’s kind of interesting to me about, ah, moving toward less and less detail.
Ratcliffe: I don’t know.
Skinner: So you open your eyes, and then you look out the window.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, and, ah … here was “The whiteness of moon next to branch,” so that was over, up … [pointing to bedroom window]: “light coming into the sky above still black/ ridge, whiteness of moon next to branch/ in foreground.” That was out there …
it wasn’t exactly at the same time, but it was, basically. And, another curious thing is that there’s this really insistent repeating of the “wave sounding in the channel” …
Skinner: This is what I was going to ask you about!
Ratcliffe: Man! How can that go on …
Skinner: “Insistent” isn’t the right word for it. It’s just … affixed. “Wave sounds in channel!” [Laughs.] I was at the channel today with Donald [Guravich] and I was like, “well, there is the channel in which Stephen Ratcliffe’s wave sounds.” [Laughs.] What’s up with that?
Ratcliffe: I don’t know. I don’t know what it is …
Skinner: I mean I thought that you maybe just decided very consciously that you were going to have one element that would just stay put, like the nail through the note to the wall.
Ratcliffe: No, it’s kind of evolved. You know, years ago there was this “sound of jet passing overhead” that appeared in one of the works, and it appeared a lot. And I remember reading it once in the city. We were doing a reading somewhere … it was actually with some musicians. And one of the guys was a singer: he had a falsetto voice. He was from the music department at Mills, I think. He had an amazing voice, and he kept singing this, in a very high falsetto, or countertenor voice or something: “sound of jet passing over.” It was really striking. And he commented about it.
Skinner: You did a performance, you did like a fourteen-hour, or somebody did a fourteen-hour performance, of Temporality.
Ratcliffe: Oh, I did. No, Remarks on Color. At Marin Headlands, last May. With some of these same musicians. Not that guy.
Skinner: It lasted fourteen hours?
Ratcliffe: Yes. From sunrise to sunset, on May 16th. Close to the Solstice. It’s about a fourteen-hour day. And there was no sun ever visible. It went from 6 a.m. to after 8 p.m. And we never saw the sun come in. It was totally foggy, and it was freezing in this big gymnasium with the windows open. And most of the time no people there except us doing it.
Skinner: Did people wander in and out?
Ratcliffe: People wandered in.
Skinner: How long did people stay on average?
Ratcliffe: Some might have stayed an hour. Some stayed a little longer. And we did another one, at UC Davis, of HUMAN / NATURE, that was also fourteen hours. It went from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. Johnny was there, sitting on my lap. In the middle of the night, I was the only person awake, in the whole place. The musicians had stopped playing and they were snoring.
Skinner: And you were just reading.
Ratcliffe: I was reading with one spotlight coming down from the ceiling onto my table.
Skinner: But continuing with the constraints. I’m just curious to get those down. So, you wake up, you look out the window …
Ratcliffe: Yeah, so, the first three lines are written “on location,” in the present.
Skinner: In bed.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, I have this little book, and I write it down. And then I have this other book and I write it down there and then I open up the screen …
Skinner: Oh, wait, so you have two. The first book is just the lines and the second book is the poems?
Ratcliffe: I just started this new notebook. This is what I write the notes in, everything. And then, here’s the whole poem. And these lines have been premeasured, as you say.
Skinner: So the first three lines in the morning. And then the middle part comes from the reading?
Ratcliffe: Comes out of previous readings which have been transcribed into my notebook.
Skinner: Do you do that in a particular time of the day … when you do the middle lines? I mean as far as putting them into the poem.
Ratcliffe: The last time I went into the readings was on the sixteenth. And this morning I did these two sets so I would cross these out tomorrow morning.
Skinner: Ok, so you put those in in the morning.
Ratcliffe: I put ’em in in the morning. And they’re in here. So I just open this book and I transcribe.
Skinner: So what are the last two lines? What’s the constraint for the last two lines?
Ratcliffe: This is what I saw when I was out in the water: “grey-white of fog against invisible ridge, / circular green pine on tip of sandspit”
Skinner: I see. Do you write that in the car immediately after surfing or when you come back?
Ratcliffe: No, when I come back here I remember. Years ago I started doing this when I’d go out maybe at RCA surfing, and sometimes I’d take my little notebook, and as soon as I got up [the cliff] I’d have to write it down. And now I realize, oh, I can remember what it was! So now I don’t actually even compose it. I just sort of see it, I know what it’s going to be and then when I get back I write it down. It sort of has become like second nature.
Skinner: Did you surf the tsunami?
Ratcliffe: I did!
Skinner: You did, yeah?
Ratcliffe: Yeah! It was odd. I had to go over the hill for an appointment. So I couldn’t go down there normally in the morning. And I had to take Johnny to school. And it turned out school [which is right on Bolinas Lagoon] was canceled. And I didn’t know it. ’Cause I hadn’t gotten the word.
Skinner: It was canceled because of the tsunami, right?
Ratcliffe: Yes it was. So we came back and about five o’clock we finally went down to the channel. I just wanted to see what it was doing. Actually, I said, we’ll go down and jump in the water. But, the surge … you know, it looked like the tide was going out a little bit, even though it was at just before high tide. And all of a sudden it started to come in, right before our eyes it was going out, and then it started coming in slowly, and then pretty soon it was like a river, racing in. It seemed like it was going twenty knots. But maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know.
Skinner: It was fast, though. It was a lot of volume.
Ratcliffe: Huge, yeah. Anyway, I just ran down the beach and jumped in the water and paddled in.
Skinner: Oh, so you had your board with you?
Ratcliffe: Yeah, yeah, I, ha ha! Some of my friends were out surfing that day and they say it was pretty wild, just the surge going back and forth.
Skinner: A surfer spoke at the symposium on water I just attended in Point Reyes [Geography of Hope: Reflections on Water] about his daily practice of surfing. In the context of the conference, and threats to the world’s water supply, he noted that he wasn’t really doing anything out there and that he sometimes wondered, well, what good is this doing? My immediate thought was: doing nothing might be the best thing to “do,” right now.
Ratcliffe: Ah, that’s interesting.
Skinner: But I was wondering if for you there is a poetics of the practice of time, if surfing is a certain sort of practice of temporality on the board?
Ratcliffe: Yeah. It’s probably hard to put your finger on it, but there is something about … I actually can’t quite explain it, because my desire in writing these lines … you know, if I’m not near the water, if I’m walking around in the city, I can still see clouds, and ridges. I can still sort of find these elements. But there’s something about going out in the water and getting onto the board where your eye is at water level, not walking on your feet, that really shifts …
Skinner: Oh, you mean, when you’re on your belly on the board.
Ratcliffe: Yeah. When I suddenly get onto the board, and I paddle out and I’m just here. It really changes your view of things … there’s something that, ah, shifts. For me now, it’s, you know, no doubt a bit obsessive. [Laughs.]
Last year I got into the water three hundred and fifty-five days. Now this year maybe won’t be as much, because I think I’m going to travel. But here I am on a sabbatical, and I’m hardly traveling. So, I don’t know. But that was my new personal best. Another record set. Most of the time I go out there now, I just paddle. ’Cause I have a bad shoulder.
Skinner: You don’t stand up and surf the waves?
Ratcliffe: No … often I’m just down in the channel. If the waves are good, I’ll go out and try to find them if I have time. Sometimes I don’t have time. But there’s something about getting down at water level, where you’re in the element. And, you know, the board’s going up and down. You get close to these things going on.
Skinner: Well that’s what this Point Reyes surfer talked about, being close to very large animals in the water. Do you become aware of the movement of animals up and down the coast? I mean, do you see animals in the water?
Ratcliffe: Yeah, I saw a seal out there today, you know. Of course you see animals. Birds. Mostly birds.
On the discrete
Skinner: Some readers seeing your poems and not knowing your constraint or location might see “wave sounds in channel,” and they might think it’s like Channel 7. Or, you know, the channel of the brain, like some sort of Jamesian nervous channel.
Ratcliffe: Oh, left channel, right channel. You think? They might just think it’s boring.
Skinner: No, “wave sounds in channel.” It’s fine. It’s definitive. It’s clipped. There’s something about discreteness there. You switch from one channel to the next.
Ratcliffe: I hadn’t thought about that, but, why not, yeah. “Sound of waves in channel.”
Skinner: I was wondering about scenery. I was thinking of what you’ve written about Shakespeare, sound and the stage [in Reading the Unseen, Ratcliffe’s book “about offstage action in Hamlet, about words that describe action that isn't performed physically in the play, things we don't actually see”]. And then of SOUND / (system): James’s letters, as the scene of something. And of you on your board, and how what you see stages or frames the poem. What do you see in scenery?
Ratcliffe: Before we discuss Temporality, in this regard, let me say that CLOUD / RIDGE is more chaotic in some sense, although it still …
Skinner: CLOUD / RIDGE has a lot of interiors.
Ratcliffe: … has a lot of interiors and bounces around. In CLOUD / RIDGE there’s also Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse that begins to come in early.
Skinner: Does it take over for the rest of the manuscript?
Ratcliffe: It does. As I’m going through the manuscript now, as much as time permits, adjusting it, it’s quite moving to me. I never had read that book before. In some way I didn’t really read it; I just kept reading bit by bit, and going through it. And I think then I went back when I got to the end and kept going, but, you know, there’s some beautiful passages in there, that somehow connect. They try to connect. In any case, there’s this framing of the beginning and the end with the other things taking place in there. It is a kind of … it’s the scene seen, the seen and heard scene. And the interior lines, the inner lines, are thinking about that, or considering the scene more in language.
Skinner: I was thinking that those insistent, fixed things in Temporality, the “waves sounding in channel,” happen in the frame. So that becomes very static, and then it’s almost like you could read through that series just reading the interior lines. Like, some readers might be tempted to skip through the outer lines the way you flip through a calendar. As though the action is happening in the interior.
Ratcliffe: In the middle … yeah. I find that too, myself.
Skinner: So is there a theatricality to it? The scene …
Ratcliffe: That’s a nice thought. The scene is like a static — the scene is this ongoing, recurrent, apparently repeating … but it’s not really. For several reasons. One, every day is a new day. Every time the sound of the wave is heard, the next day it’s not the same thing. It’s this ongoing investigation of space and time, of course. Of place, space/place. But over a period of ongoing time, one day after another after another. So it’s never the same sound, although the words are the same. There’s this kind of failure of language to enact those things. The words point to things that are occurring, which the words have in some way to do with, but those things have nothing to do with the words. And the words don’t discriminate between this sound and that, or between this color green and that color green. It’s using the same words over and over again, to point toward things that are constantly shifting and are not really being grasped by that language.
On the event
Skinner: In terms of events, or things shifting … in the days following March 11th, I knew I was coming to talk to you, so of course I looked for the tsunami in the poems on your blog. And I couldn’t find it. What’s the scope of event? How does event function in your work?
Ratcliffe: Well that’s curious. That’s a good question. You know, earlier on, in CLOUD / RIDGE, it would have been in there, the tsunami, because there was a greater attempt at, or a closer sense of actual events being transferred, with more particularity. The particular was registered in the poem more closely.
Skinner: And then the nuclear catastrophe …
Ratcliffe: Yes, CLOUD / RIDGE begins on July 2nd, so when you get to September 11th, and then September 12th: “blond woman calling on phone to ask man to give / short-haired girl her cell phone number, plane / exploding into World Trade Center in New York.” So this then takes over. Oona’s in New York, my daughter, giving me these eyewitness accounts. The events come in, really in a big way. So … the question is why aren’t they there now?
Skinner: Well, I did find the line, in the poem for this March 11th …
Ratcliffe: Was that the date of the tsunami?
Skinner: … that was the date of the tsunami, and you had this line, “method that remains the same.” I think it was either 3.11 or 3.12.
Ratcliffe: Of course, that line was probably transcribed, you know, “found,” and written in this notebook, before 3.11. I pay a lot of attention to these events (Japan, tsunami, Libya, too). But they’re not getting in, you know, as concrete references. In the interior lines I’m pleased if I find something that to me resonates with events.
Skinner: I was almost thinking: “ok, the method remains, the song remains the same.”
Ratcliffe: Well, you know, it’s curious. I post them on the blog. And this poet who’s done a lot of translation from the Japanese, Eric Selland, wrote the other day, with a comment about one of the poems, saying, “it’s really nice to find this ongoing continuity of things here in the face of these human and natural disasters that we are facing.” I also post my poems on Tom Clark’s blog, and sometimes Tom or his readers find something in my interior lines that resonates … you know. Tom’s pieces are so full of current events, I mean they’re really striking. He’s got all these images that he pulls — he really follows things closely. But they find things in my poems that resonate with current events.
Skinner: Now are they catching allusion, are they catching some source, or are they scrying or divining — trying to interpret some sign in the frame?
Ratcliffe: I’m not sure. It’s some particular detail of the lines that resonates with what the topic, what the concern is in that thing.
Skinner: I did want to ask you about Campion, about beginning with Campion, and what that means to you now …
Ratcliffe: I remember Auden. Auden had a beautiful — he edited a Selected Songs of Thomas Campion, published by David Godine. Back in the early 1970s I found that book.
Skinner: Beautiful publisher — still going.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, he does beautiful work. Bill Berkson did a night last spring at Books and Bookshelves, you know: what about Auden, does Auden matter anymore? A lot of poets came. About maybe a dozen people came to read selections or talk a little bit on Auden, so I thought, well, I’d like to read something from that Auden selection of Campion which was really formative to me when I found it. It’s a beautiful book, and his essay was great, his little preface about Campion. He talked about Campion as a minor poet. You know, I think C.S. Lewis might have put that term “major and minor poet” in his book, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. A “major” poet is Milton, or, of course, Shakespeare. A “minor” poet is Herrick, or Campion. Campion is praised as the greatest of the minor poets. It’s a matter of not taking on an epic subject — if you’re writing poems about love, or court ladies … Not so much CLOUD / RIDGE, because it’s full of political stuff and, you know, Picasso and François Gilot, Morton Feldman … But in this book the references are not identified, and they’re stripped from any sort of biographical loading.
Skinner: So what is it in Campion that you retain, at this point?
Ratcliffe: The way the language works.
Skinner: The measure? The number? Sound?
Ratcliffe: The measure … Yeah, all of that.
Skinner: There are two other questions that come out of Campion. One has to do with number, and one has to do with invisibility in the work.
Ratcliffe: Ah, that’s really important, actually. That could be a longer topic. Michael Cross articulated this a bit in a conversation we had. It was sort of in the back of my mind but he pounced on it. He wrote something about the Shakespeare, the offstage action, Reading the Unseen book — un-visibility, unseen, invisibility. I think that sometimes the ridge is invisible, if it’s covered with fog. I mean that word “invisible” shows up …
Skinner: That’s happened a lot this month.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, it happens a lot! So that’s one thing, but you know, in the notion of offstage action that’s talked about in words, it’s not seen. It’s invisible.
Skinner: Sound is not seen. Ronald Johnson calls sound the “invisible spire.”
Ratcliffe: Sound is not seen either. And the things that I see that I write down into the poems are not seen by the reader. They have to be imagined, if the reader can or wants to. Because the language in some way may appear to be generic: it just says “green,” you know. What kind of green? Oh, sunlit green. Well … there are all those different greens out there. It doesn’t discriminate. But there’s something about language making reference to or pointing toward or trying to bring to the page these things that don’t ever appear there except in the words. There’s this gap between the words and the thing.
Skinner: In the notion of listening to reading, I wonder if that includes Eigner’s sense — and this may be my idiosyncratic reading of Eigner — that there’s a way in which you can hear the world going on, as you read his poems. The poem itself as a frame for ambient attention. Listening to reading, in a dumbly literal sense, is like listening while reading, or listening to the experience of reading. And the poem is “ambient” in that it doesn’t capture your complete attention, it sort of allows you to listen while you’re reading.
Ratcliffe: I like that idea.
Skinner: Claude Royet-Journoud talked about this. You know his books with a couple of lines at the top of each page. He talked about enjoying the sounds that were happening while he writes and reads. It’s that blank page as the space where all the things can go on while the reader is thinking about those lines.
Ratcliffe: Absolutely. I find that when I get a chance to read pages at a time, ten pages, or twenty. That’s usually as long as you get to read. I think you hear some things, you follow, you drift off into your own thoughts, you pick it up again. It is like ambient noise. And there are these other noises going on.
Skinner: I know you use the phrase “listening to reading” in a somewhat different sense.
Ratcliffe: I have a class at Mills that I call Listening to Reading — and we spend a lot of time talking about the relations and differences between the poem on the page, as words, that you see with your eye, and the poem in the air, which is sounded when it’s read aloud, that you hear with your ear. Those are two vastly different experiences, but subtly different, and we don’t usually make a distinction between them.
Skinner: What about being … the other question coming out of Campion was number, being and number. I’d like to ask this rudimentary question: why for the first trilogy 474 pages, and why 1,000 for the second?
Ratcliffe: Oh that’s simple, really. When I was writing Portraits & Repetition, it was getting quite long. [Laughs.] I’d written 100 page books before, works, projects. And then this was getting, oh this was really getting long, and what was going to happen? It really should stop. And then I went on a trip, I think I went to San Diego. And I thought, this would be a good time to stop. I like that number, 474, it has this sort of … it’s like 747, you know, the airplane.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, it has a certain numerological resonance.
Skinner: 4s and 7s.
Ratcliffe: So I stopped. And I actually didn’t start into doing REAL right away. About nine months went by, I think. And then I thought, gee, you know, I’d like to do another piece. Maybe I could do a trilogy of works that long. I’ll see if I can. So I started on REAL, and I aimed to get to 474. And then, you know, I was really into it. So I shifted and I did this one.
Skinner: CLOUD / RIDGE.
Ratcliffe: Yeah. And then I thought, ok, that’s the trilogy. But I don’t want to stop writing. I don’t know how to stop now.
Skinner: So you stopped and started again.
Ratcliffe: The next day.
Skinner: The next day!
Ratcliffe: Yes. As I say, after Portraits & Repetition, I stopped and I did other things. And then I started in again on these long things. So it’s been consecutive days ever since …
Skinner: It sounds like 474 in REAL is a “track mark,” basically, that you put in. As if you’re making a recording and you put in a track mark.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, except the form shifted from REAL to CLOUD / RIDGE.
Skinner: From one day to the next? You made a decision to shift the form?
Ratcliffe: Yeah. I invented a new form on the very next day.
Skinner: Had you been thinking about that before, or did you invent it on the spot?
Ratcliffe: I can’t remember. I’m not sure. You know, REAL is seventeen lines, five units. Portraits & Repetition also has five units, you know, five couplets. And it had five sentence structures. I think that this might also … [counting] 1, 2, 3, 4 … 5, 6, 7, 8 … 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. No, it’s different. I don’t know. I invented this one. And likewise, when I went into Portraits & Repetition, I invented a new form. And in Remarks on Color. But at the end of Remarks on Color, I was in Paris. I didn’t have the wherewithal to invent a new form. And so I thought, well, I don’t need to invent a new form, I’ll just keep going. So Temporality continues with the same number of lines. It shrinks in length, it gets more compressed. And that was another thousand pages. Now it’s still the same number of lines, but I don’t have a new title for this work.
Skinner: So what about number? Is there buried numerology in your work, numeric pattern? Is there a counting meter?
Ratcliffe: You know, for years I wrote fourteen line poems, in various ways, sonnets. That’s another thing coming out of Renaissance studies. Campion didn’t write sonnets, but Shakespeare did, and so on. And they’re various … I mean even these poems in CLOUD / RIDGE are fourteen line poems, if you count the indented, you know, broken line as a single line, which I do. I think they’re fourteen line poems. But, no, it’s just habit. There’s not a numerological significance that I know of.
Skinner: Is there a documentary impulse in your work?
Ratcliffe: I was going to say, thinking back to your question about the scene and the numbers, that there’s something about this work that wants to just mark the passage of time. Because I’m here, and I’m writing these poems from a very fixed … it’s kind of like Proust in his bedroom, you know; he goes inside, inside his mind. From what I understand about Proust.
Skinner: Marking the passage of what kind of time?
Ratcliffe: From one day to the next!
Skinner: I mean, are we talking absolute time, experienced time, durée, biological time?
Ratcliffe: Well, the ticking of the clock. You know, all of the above, because the poems are written at the same time, at daybreak. Bob was talking about these being like a prayer to the new day.
Skinner: To the dawn, yeah … saluting the sun.
Ratcliffe: I don’t think of it that way. But it’s a nice notion.