The seeds of its own unfolding

PoemTalk on Lyn Hejinian's 'constant change figures'

Lyn Hejinian at the Kelly Writers House in 2005 (photos by Blake Martin).

Editorial note: The following conversation has been adapted and edited from episode 15 of PoemTalk, recorded March 9, 2009, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and transcribed by Michael Nardone. In this episode, PoemTalk host Al Filreis discusses Lyn Hejinian’s “constant change figures” with Thomas Devaney, Tom Mandel, and Bob Perelman. Listen to the show here. — Katie L. Price

Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis, and this is PoemTalk at the Writers House, where I have the pleasure of convening friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close, but not too close, reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities, and, we hope, gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. And I say “listeners” because PoemTalk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive.

Today, I’m joined here in Philadelphia in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House by: Thomas Devaney, poet, critic, teacher, reviewer extraordinaire, whose latest book of poems is A Series of Small Boxes; and by Bob Perelman, long-time Penn colleague from the Bay Area, of course, before that, author most recently of a book of poems Iflife, published by Roof Books, which we celebrated here at the Writers House when it came out, and recorded the reading for Bob’s great PennSound page, to which I happily direct everyone within earshot; and by Tom Mandel, one of the early language poets and the author of fifteen books. Tom studied with Hannah Arendt and Saul Bellow on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and taught at the U of C, the University of Illinois, and San Francisco State, where he was Director of the Poetry Center. How many years, Tom?

Tom Mandel: Oh, just one year.

Filreis: Just one year, that was long enough.

Mandel: It was an action-packed year.

Filreis: Tom’s most recent book To the Cognoscenti was published by Atelos in 2007. He is one of the authors, along with Bob Perelman among others, of The Grand Piano, an experimental autobiography. For the last two decades, Tom has been a technology entrepreneur. Welcome back Bob Perelman and Tom Devaney, and thanks, Tom Mandel, for making your way to Philly from Delaware, via Detroit?

Mandel: And Chicago.

Filreis: And Chicago, and for joining us on PoemTalk for the first time. How was Detroit and Chicago?

Mandel: Well, I went to Detroit for a Grand Piano reading, which was an enormous amount of fun. Seven of us were there and had a fabulous time, gave a really terrific reading, which someday soon, probably within the week, will be available to listen to, and maybe even a video to watch.

Filreis: That’s great, and the subject of our discussion today — Lyn Hejinian — was there?

Mandel: Yes, she was.

Filreis: That’s great. Our poem today is an untitled twenty-seven-line lyric by Lyn Hejinian, the aforementioned, which has been published once in a magazine and, I think, later in an anthology, but has not been collected in a book. That volume, a decade in progress, is to be called The Book of a Thousand Eyes, and will possibly consist of a thousand poems, or maybe three hundred ten, which was how many were complete the last time I checked with Lyn. A handful of pieces from the project appeared in The Little Book of a Thousand Eyes, published by Smokeproof Press, but our poem does not appear there. We’ll call it “constant change figures” from its first line, and our recording comes from a visit Lyn Hejinian made here to the Writers House in February, 2005 when she read this one and twenty others poems in the series. In the first line, the word “figures” is read, by Lyn, as if it’s a noun, but it strikes me as a verb.

Mandel: The first time through I think it’s read as if it is a verb.

Filreis: How does it work, Tom?

Mandel: I think it’s read as if it is a verb the first time through, as if it is a noun the second time, and, in the exact same pronunciation as when it was a noun, as a verb the third time.

Filreis: When it functions as a verb, what does it do, let’s say in the first couple of lines?

Mandel: What does it do semantically?

Filreis: Yes.

Mandel: Semantically, it says that change is what decorates, presents, and makes available to us the time we sense.

Filreis: So, it figures time.

Mandel: It figures time.

Filreis: Bob, what do you make of that particular repetition: “constant change figures”?

Bob Perelman: A lot of things. I’m thinking how different it is looking at the poem on the page, hearing the poem, and then remembering the poem. It changes quite dramatically, it seems to me, in those various instantiations. I totally agree with what Tom says about the play between process and product, between fluidity and solidifying into Gestalt, and that’s what she’s doing throughout. I think the poem contains the seeds of its own unfolding, self-undoing and redoing. It is trying to teach us as it goes along how to read, unread, and reread it.

Filreis: Tom Devaney, what is your sense of hearing the poem? Does the sound wash over you? Do you forget the obligation to pull semantic meaning out of it since it’s obviously repeating lines, and one has a feeling that maybe randomly it’s doing so?

Thomas Devaney: No, you feel the repetition — that insistence of new meaning — in each line. Each time she writes “the constant change figures,” she’s enacting that feeling of the Steinian “nothing can be repeated, only said with a different insistence.” So, that’s the feeling I get right away. It gives you that feeling on the page of what the memory process feels like, through word play and repetition.

Filreis: Tom Mandel, you look like you’re about to say something.

Mandel: Just that I see plenty of Gestalt in the poem. The poem is three sets of nine lines. The first set of nine is repeated in the second set and the third set with significant variation. In the second set, the first line appears twice; and the second line, “the time we sense,” does not appear at all. In the third nine-line set — the second repetition in other words — the second line, “the time we sense,” appears twice, whereas the first line, “constant change figures,” doesn’t appear at all.

Filreis: Is there an algorithm?

Mandel: There’s no algorithm. There doesn’t need to be an algorithm, but there is a clear pointing. First of all, if you will, to the leading position of the first two lines — “constant change figures/the time we sense” — as, in a way, the seed out of which the whole poem emerges. And those two lines, “constant change figures” and “the time we sense,” are repeated in a significantly different way from the other lines in the poem.

Perelman: It’s funny, I mean I know Stein is —

Filreis: Back there somewhere.

Perelman: Yes, back there somewhere as crucial to Lyn’s writing. Then there’s Stein’s continuous present, which this poem certainly is an example of, but it’s also, I think, a kind of meta-commentary on the continuous present. There are three different modes of time. There’s sense, there’s experience, and there’s memory. Sense might be the immediate sensory present: hearing each word. The way Lyn reads it at first, she really emphasizes the line breaks.

So, sense would break things down into the present, and would tend to break things into smaller and smaller atoms. Experience is a longer, mid-range present: when you hear the whole sentence, that’s the experience, or the whole poem. Then, there’s the residue. If we all just stop and think “what do we think about this poem, what’s the memory of this poem,” it’s a much different being, certainly, than reading the poem, or rehearing it. I think all of those different instantiations, aspects, states, are what the poem is trying to invoke. And I’m now remembering, actually, one of Lyn’s early talks, “Chronic Ideas.” When I heard her read the first line “constant change figures,” I heard “constant” as echoing “chronic” and “figures” as echoing “ideas”— chronic ideas from thirty years ago.

Mandel: Great.

Perelman: So, on the one hand you have a paean to change and the constant sliding along of the present, but you also have this continuity of the constant change going back thirty years.

Filreis: And I’d also add, thinking back to Language poetry’s manifesto moment, if there was such a thing, where you might say: we call memory nature’s picture, and we’ve got to do something different. Let’s do something different. Memory isn’t so simple. It’s not just Proustian. There’s something else going on.

Tom Devaney, you were going to say something.

Devaney: I was also going to say that it’s not Proustian memory. There’s a distinction being made, and the whole poem is about differences in that sense. I kept thinking about passing on its effect, and Tom’s earlier comment about seeing how the poem was working physically on the page … but the poem, for me, feels like it is passing on its effect. You can feel the effects in the poem enacting, but also literally passing on and over its own sense of enacting as well, and so I really respond to those lines: “passing on its effect,” and “surpassing things we’ve known before.”

Mandel: And yet, that line can also mean passing on its effects.

Devaney: Right.

Perelman: I think I’ll pass on that.

Devaney: Nice.

Filreis: That’s fabulous.

Perelman: Many of these lines, words, syntactic recursions are a bit like Freud’s primal words, where they also mean their opposite: passing, surpassing.

Filreis: Experience is constantly qualified in this poem.

Mandel: But it’s the last word in the poem, and the writer knows what she is doing, so that the last question in the last five lines —

Filreis: It is an implied question.

Mandel: “But what of what/in the time we sense/surpassing things we’ve known before/passing on its effect/is experience.” So, you can’t let that go. And I would just say, as far as the Stein goes, as Steve Lacy says, “everything is an influence.” The relationship of a poem to the history of literature is just the price of entrance to thinking about and engaging with the poem. So, even though we are in an academic setting here, I wouldn’t want us to dive too deeply into Lyn and Stein.

Filreis: Okay, so warned. Getting away from Stein, let me try and do something really stupid, except for pedagogical purposes, and try to paraphrase that fabulous question that ends the poem. You tell me if I’ve got it wrong, or if it makes no sense at all: “To what extent is ‘experience,’ what we call ‘experience,’ to what extent is experience the result of our living in time (moment-to-moment duration), which produces senses that are familiar, yet move us forward on to new effects?”

That would be my paraphrase of the question. Or, in other words, to what extent is experience the confluence of the present we know and what of the present is new?

How did I do?

Mandel: You did great, except that the frame of the question is what is experience? “But what, of what dot dot dot is experience?”

Filreis: But see, I think there is a harder critique of experience at the beginning of this poem, and we might agree about this. That is to say, this thing we call experience isn’t much of a guide to what we know of the present, and formulating how we will proceed wholly into the next moment. This thing that we call experience, in the end, I think, is dubbed an ideology. It’s a way of thinking that’s not necessarily what this poem is going to be about. Does that make sense?

Mandel: Sure, yeah.

Filreis: I remember the first sections of My Life, so this is Lyn Hejinian essentially trying to imagine the languaged self as a premature being, I guess you could say. And there, there is all this Freudian identification language: the memory of the pattern of rows on the wall, and all that stuff. There’s something about this that makes me think of it as a kind of mature lyric contemplation version of the kind of gauzy, Proustian baby-language self in those first sections [of My Life]. This makes me think of that. It makes me think of My Life, only it’s a little more theoretical, a little more abstract. The language is less concrete.

Can I throw something out that I think we may want to say for any learners out there — sophomores, as it were symbolically? Something that we may have not stressed enough, which is that this poem is the perfect example of a poem that is semantically about the way it is as a form. Does somebody want to comment on that? It is about how it must change, but it also changes.

Devaney: Well, even the line that Tom and I had two different readings of: that’s an example of the interruption being built within the poem. It still gives me the effect, whether it’s an interruption or not, of how something is feeling. She’s enacting this kind of experience in the language, through the insistence — talking about experience, but creating a new experience in the poem itself, and not going outside of that.

Perelman: It’s funny, though. I’m saying this while I’m looking down at the page, which, again, is cheating from the listener’s point of view, but, nevertheless, here are the first four lines:

constant change figures

the time we sense

passing on its effect

surpassing things we’ve known before.

In the fourth line, that “before” gestures to before the poem started. It actually gestures outside of the poem itself.

Filreis: Speaking now more generally about poetry, what is the virtue of a variations poem like this, a poem that reuses its lines and, I suppose, in an aural sense mesmerizes us?

Mandel: So, probably in some ways in our time, John Coltrane is the great artist of this kind of repetition. One of the things it does is it keeps more of the work in the present. It keeps more of the work in the mind of the listener/reader at any single time.

Filreis: It keeps us going.

Mandel: It definitely keeps us going.

Perelman: It can also, it seems to me, emphasize that edge of novelty: What is just a little bit different about this? You just heard this, but you didn’t hear it just this way.

Filreis: Make it new in a different mode, surpassing the things we knew before. Well, I can’t resist, though Stein has been jokingly banned.

Mandel: No, not banned — banished.


Filreis: Lyn Hejinian, in one of her two talks on Stein, which she has reprinted in her wonderful book of essays The Language of Inquiry: Essays and Poems, quotes Stein in “Composition as Explanation” as follows:

It was all so nearly alike it must be different and it is different, it is natural that if everything is used and there is a continuous present and a beginning again and again if it is all so alike it must be simply different and everything simply different was the natural way of creating it then.

Anybody want to comment on the relevance of that? Or not relevance?

Perelman: Yeah, Stein. It’s funny how the first time you hear that — or when, in my case for instance, you first taught it — you emphasize its break with the long syntactic periods of, say, Henry James or William James. It’s the continuous present —

Filreis: That William James talked about, but didn’t write like.

Perelman: Yes. But, in fact, Stein is not all that un-Jamesian. She puts big demands on medium-term memory and comparison. The continuous present is a little like the rabbit that the greyhounds chase. Meanwhile the bettors are keeping track of the number of laps that the greyhounds are running, to fill out this metaphor. The mid-range attention is very important — let’s go back to Lyn — it’s very important in this poem. Try and read this poem as one complete thought, as one complete sentence, holding the whole thing in that mid-range of your attention. It’s kind of a staggering load, but I think it’s just barely doable. It’s a very different kind of experience than, say, memory or than sense.

Filreis: Tom?

Mandel: And one thing I might add is that this work, and much of Lyn’s work, owes William James a great debt, if that’s the right word for it, as it does to Stein.

Filreis: Or through Stein to William James.

Mandel: Well, through Stein to William James, but directly also.

Filreis: And I think it must be said, although this is a little hard bibliographically, that The Book of a Thousand Eyes — which might be three hundred poems or four hundred poems, but will still be probably called The Book of a Thousand Eyes … Well, I’ve read thirty or forty of these things and listened to some of them, and it strikes me that she is trying to do not this precisely, but this kind of thing in a lot of these poems. I can’t help but think, and it’s very impressionistic, that the book is a kind of cubistic gesture at all the ways, the thousand ways, of looking at a blackbird — this mid-range level of attention you’re talking about tried in many different ways. It’s quite an experiment to do this as a series of short poems rather than as a longer one.

Well, before we get to the Gathering Paradise segment of our show, let me ask each of you to offer a brief final word on this poem, something, maybe, more on what you get from it. So, who wants to start?

Mandel: What stands out for me in the poem — and it’s a fabulous poem, no question — is the structure of the three different sections. To account for that takes us away from the history of literature, or the influence of a particular player in that history, to the work. It puts us where we are alone with those two lines, with the difference that their differing positions makes in repetition, and with our own lives.

Filreis: Well-argued and, in a way, slightly askance, if that’s the word, from Bob’s idea that we have everything we need in the poem, but there’s also a gesture to something that happened before it. It works very well. It’s a great argument for an autotelic experience of a poem. Bob, final word?

Perelman: I want to bring, maybe just being a bad boy, Stein back in one last time.

Filreis: Just after Tom made this great speech about how all that we need is in the poem.

Mandel: I love Stein. I’m not being anti-Stein.

Filreis: No, I know you aren’t.

Perelman: But here’s why: again, just looking down the page at the last five lines — “what of what/in the time we sense/surpassing things we’ve known before/passing on its effect/is experience” — and how I’m actually less certain than ever whether that’s an assertion or a question. I’m now thinking of Stein and her “Poetry in Grammar” and doing away with as many punctuation marks as possible, including, as I remember, the question mark, since you should know if it’s a question or not. But, in fact here, you don’t know if it’s a question. You really could construe it as a statement, or as a question: what is this experience? what is this poem? Okay, now we can take Stein back out of it. The poem itself is asking that question, but Stein is a useful heuristic.

Devaney: Following up on Tom and Bob’s points that there are intentions in the poem, and then there’s language: the lines that just kept coming up — “the time we sense/called nature’s picture” — that line, “nature’s picture,” it keeps sticking out to me as something trucked in there. So, there are intentions, and then there’s language. That language is being used to do something.

Filreis: Thank you, Tom.

We like to end PoemTalk with a minute or two of Gathering Paradise, a chance for several of us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather something really poetically good to hail, commend someone or something going on in the poetry world. Who wants to gather a little paradise?

Perelman: I want to shout out to Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. It just came out recently, really a major event in American literary history.

Filreis: Published by Alabama?

Perelman: Yes, published by Alabama. Good for many years of reading. And, can I do two? Just because it’s been out for years and years, and I finally picked it up, Keith Waldrop’s Seriamis If I Remember. I finally read it and it is fantastic, so just to shout out to that, too.

Filreis: Thank you, Bob, for those two gatherings of paradise. Tom Devaney?

Devaney: Bobbie Louise Hawkins is one of my new favorite writers. Her book of prose out by United Artists is so beautiful, so unhampered. She’s eighty-one or eighty-two, and I love her.

Filreis: Well, that’s all the octogenarians we have time for on PoemTalk today. PoemTalk at the Writers House is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and the Poetry Foundation. Thanks to my guests, Bob Perelman, Tom Mandel, Tom Devaney, and to PoemTalk’s director and engineer James La Marre, and our Rotterdam-based editor, the infamous Steve McLaughlin. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us again soon for another PoemTalk.

Tony Trehy on curating Bury's Text Festival

Text Festival curator Tony Trehy with poets Karrri Kokko, Christian Bök, Satu Kaikkonen, and Geof Huth. Photo by derek beaulieu.

Note: The Text Festival in Bury, UK, is an internationally recognized event investigating contemporary language art (poetry, text art, sound and media text, live art). Against the background of global stylistic multiplicity, the use of language spans many artforms and may even be a unifying field of enquiry, a new definition and a new field of international linguistic art practice and dialogue. The Bury Festival is the leading focus of language in the twenty-first century, specializing in experiments, in new experiences, in performances and exhibitions that mix artforms in groundbreaking combinations that challenge traditional language art boundaries and offer artists a forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas. The third biannual Text Festival opened April 29, 2011; derek beaulieu — who was a participant in that year’s festival — had an opportunity to discuss the festival’s impetus and future with curator Tony Trehy.

derek beaulieu:
What was your impetus for creating the Text Festival?

Tony Trehy: Having curated various artforms (but mainly in galleries and public art) for about fifteen years in parallel with a separate personal output of writing, I had come to a point where I was trying to fit the two creative practices — curating and poetry — into not enough hours in the day. Then sometime in late 2003, I had been talking to Lawrence Weiner about a commission and had reason to communicate with Ron Silliman. There was a sudden moment when I realized that these split conversations mirrored my own psychological segregation of language into art and poet: I realized that my poetry was part of my curatorial persona. And concurrent with the revelation that I could break down the split in my practice, of course, instantaneously, I had to recognize the split also existed in the wider interaction between conceptual art and poetry; subsequently, I have extended this conception to question the location of language across artforms — sound, multimedia, performance, etc. I have got used to quickly adding in relation to ‘poetry’ that I mean the progressive artform little connected to the dead form that mostly passes for ‘poetry’ in the UK. The moribund state of UK poetry in relation to international developments was definitely one of the aspects that the first Text Festival took on. Although, I still find it personally entertaining to have a go at the state of mainstream poetry on my blog, it is more the pleasure of flogging a dead horse rather than being a real issue that concerns the Festival.

“Wonder Room” at Text Festival, 2011. Photo by derek beaulieu.

beaulieu: What has the response been from the UK poetic community?

Trehy: Pretty much none at all. But that’s really to be expected — British mainstream poetry didn’t get to its current comatose state by engaging with new developments; it’s sort of gratifying that it can’t respond to criticism as it verifies its incapability. But in the end, it’s not so important — the Festival isn’t conceived in relation to the UK or to poetry per se.

beaulieu: If the response from the poetic community has been silence what about the visual art community? What do you believe that the two communities have to learn from each other, as epitomized in the Text Festival?

Trehy: I wouldn’t say that the response of the poetic community in the UK has been silent — that is the default position of the Hegemony of the Banal, but it’s poetry is pretty quiet too — (Ron Silliman’s phrase: the School of Quietude). The response of the poetic community has been more complex related to the local (UK) structures of dialogue and status. The visual art community gives a more relaxed impression of critical engagement with the Festival. I am not sure why that is — maybe it is that the venues of the events are more in their comfort zone, a familiar vocabulary of spaces. I am always careful of this juxtaposition of visual to poetic though, because for me (and them) sound artists, performance artists, media artists — any other language forms — are all part of the mix: I find poets are most keen to treat it as a dialogue between the two “communities,” maybe that is part of their isolation from the practice of the other artforms.

 Jaap Blonk and Christian Bök perform an extemporaneous sound poem in the Warth Mill in Bury, England, as part of the Text Festival on May 1, 2011.

beaulieu: In terms of that isolation from other artforms — what do you believe that the poetic community has to learn from the art community?

Trehy: I suppose it could do with not being isolated! It’s generally been my position that significant things happen when artforms are in dialogue. This is one of the things the Text Festival assumes.

beaulieu: Has the mandate of the festival changed since its first incarnation? What to you have been some of the highlights of the festival to date?

Trehy: There is something about the word mandate that suggests that its imperatives came from somewhere else, from outside; I think the reason why it has developed a unique status is that it generates its own context. I suppose no one else can see the festival the way I do because I have seen all three of the festivals, but for me, the Text Festivals are in dialogue with each other. I have found it interesting this time round how a number of poets have written about how it has taken a direction or a position in relation to poetry. The Festival isn’t about poetry; it’s not a poetry festival. The festival is always to do with a question. So with the first exhibition of the first festival (also my first highlight), I asked myself: how to curate a show that juxtaposes contemporary poetry with visual (language) art? By its aesthetic location, the festival often operates in fields in which recipients (to use Lawrence Weiner’s term) may not come equipped with the knowledges and histories of particular artforms. As Art Monthly magazine observed, I have an “intrepid resistance to interpretation,” and in exhibitions of text I don’t see how you can use interpretive texts without clunking over the works. So then I have the question of what curatorial strategy can contextualize the question for a gallery visitor? In the first show, I created therefore a large bookcase that blocked views into the gallery — you had to face it and go round it to get in. I called this “The Canon” and featured all the books you would need to get all the messages in the show — ha! Audiences aren’t asked to work hard enough nowadays. And into the show itself: again, is there curatorial conceit that can represent this coming together of forms? Taking a form from Concrete Poetry, I came up with a display constellation. This was working very nicely but there was still something missing. Although the festival has announced submission deadlines, if the curatorial concept demands it, I will keep accepting proposals and looking for works right up to the last minute.  In this case, I didn’t know what was missing, just that it needed something. It came in the form of a performance artist, Hester Reeve (HRH.the) who proposed to spend the nine weeks of the first show sitting in the gallery reading and simultaneously writing Heidegger’s “Being and Time.”

Installation by derek beaulieu at Text Festival, 2011. Photo by derek beaulieu.

In the second Festival, although a lot of people rated the Bury Poems readings with Tony Lopez, Carol Watts, and Phil Davenport, my highpoint was the headline gig with Ron Silliman. For this the question was, if you have Ron doing his first ever reading in the UK, who else do you put on the bill? There couldn’t be another poet, so I programmed Scottish student storytelling artist, Catriona Glover, German turntablist Claus van Bebber, and Hester Reeve. I was very pleased with that balance. It was a great night, but this year surpassed curatorially by the juxtaposition of sound art from Sarah Boothroyd and Bruno Bresani with Holly Pester, Eduard Escoffet, Christian Bök plus the surprise interventions of Geof Huth and you.

A couple of guest curators have produces magical moments to note: Phil Davenport’s Bob Cobbing show in 2005 and this year’s readings of Schwitters’s Ursonate at Warth Mill.

This sounds like a lot of highlights but one element of all the festivals that forms an integral part of the dynamic is the festival party where a lot of the artists meet — that is very important.

beaulieu: So — if each festival is in dialogue with the previous, then what — after the third incarnation — would you still like to address?

Trehy: Ah, the trick question — I wondered how you might approach this. As you know, I announced before this Festival that I wouldn’t be doing another. At various points during the 2011 event I did have ideas of what might be interesting next. But I am still resisting the tyranny of having to do what one is able to do. Through my links with Finland — visual art and poetry — we are talking about doing some sort of Text show/event in Tampere (the Manchester of Finland), so my textual inclinations may still be occupied; but either way, if there was another Text Festival, it couldn’t be until 2014 because I am working on another (non-text) international art project which will keep me occupied until then (starting in September, I’ll be setting it up in China).

But thinking about the question, I have been reflecting on the Festival just ending and have an increasing sense of disappointment with the responses of the poetry community — so I’d probably start thinking about how to address the problems I perceive: namely, it struck me that, despite my aspiration to locate poetry in dialogue with other language-using artforms, writings coming out of the festival poets have tended only to engage with poetry. I found it really telling that no one commented on the location of George Widener and Steve Miller in Wonder Rooms, for instance — both visual artists not visual poets, both using language in gripping ways. I’m not saying that there weren’t great visual poems in the show; I’m saying it seems odd to me that the visual artists’ contribution drew so little attention from the poets. Similarly, the poets have tended to focus on Ron Silliman’s neon text and Tony Lopez’s digital text in the Sentences exhibition; but the poets, don’t seem to have anything to say about the Marcel Broodthaers, for instance. I think I would address this. Maybe there would be fewer poets; maybe supporting a notion of “poetry community” itself is counterproductive in shifting poetry into a more critically rigorous relationship with art.

I think that Ron also asked a question that interests me: he observed that a lot of the work on display can’t be “called new in any way that is meaningful within poetry” (note again that this locates the Festival agenda as poetic). He proceeded to raise the question “Is the work any good?” Some of it is more than good. Some of it isn’t. I have a pretty good idea which is which. But again, I am not sure that I comfortable with the claim for the festival that quality of work is its aim. I set out to investigate the implications of certain actions, certain juxtapositions. It’s my hope that testing ideas is what participating artists will use the festival for — the space to fail, and learn things from that. Some of the criticisms of Ron’s neon are legitimate but much of it misses the point of what that work does in the gallery and how it will function as a piece of site-specific public art. Christian Bök’s Protein 13 is still a work in progress; he would acknowledge that he developed his thinking about how the model and text function as objects on display as the installation progressed; and I think that that is an important contribution to the development of the work.

 Satu Kaikkonen and Karri Kokko perform a sound poem in the Bury Parish Church, Bury, UK, as part of the Text Festival on April 30, 2011.

beaulieu: How has the festival affected your own poetic practice?

Trehy: I’d have to say it has stoned it dead! After the first festival, I took a year off to recover during which I wrote 50 Heads. And with a gap of four years between the first festival and the second, I was able to write a body of works including Reykjavik and Space The Soldier Who Died For Perspective plus various text art installations. This time the festival was almost too big for me to handle and in the run up and afterwards, the huge creative demand of it has pretty much drained me. I had a handful of very useful conversations during the festival (not least with you and Christian), which suggested to me where my writing should go (an inkling of reinventing a non-poetic form, taking my interest in language and space in a new direction) but there seems little chance that I will have the energy to address it anytime soon.

'R's Nova: Where does the [unintelligible] come from?

Jaap Blonk in conversation with Gary Barwin and Gregory Betts

Gary Barwin, Jaap Blonk, and Gregory Betts in Toronto, May 2011. Photo by R. Kol
Gary Barwin, Jaap Blonk, and Gregory Betts in Toronto, May 2011. Photo by R. Kolewe.

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

This interview is transcribed from a video of a discussion which occurred the day after Jaap Blonk performed his adaptation of Antonin Artaud’s seminal 1947 radio artwork “To Have Done with the Judgement of God.” The poster describes the piece: “Banned instantly by French radio this blackened and cathartic masterpiece retains the power to shock and remains an atavistic totem of human barbarity.” Blonk’s adaptation incorporated solo voice and live computer processing. The interview took place amid the visual poetry exhibition Bird Is the Word. Immediately behind Jaap is derek beaulieu’s Prose of the Trans-Canada visual poem.

24 May 2011
Niagara Artists Centre,
St. Catharines, Ontario

Gary Barwin: Jaap, I would say that your work explores on the one hand, the extreme, the grotesque, and a Theatre of Cruelty–influenced performance practice and on the other, an exploration of playfulness and humor, joy, and discovery.

I was thinking about this during Greg’s introduction last night of your Artaud performance when he was recalling when you first met and “jammed” with his one-year-old son Jasper. When Jasper first encountered you, there was a little bit of fear, a hesitation at the unknown, and some discomfort, which soon changed to a pleasure and joy about the exploration, the pure enjoyment of just communicating, of vocality itself. Perhaps this encounter with Jasper is a good way to begin a discussion about the aesthetics behind your work.

Jaap Blonk: Yes.

Barwin: OK, so let’s talk about it! So, it’s two things. One, I think, is that your exploration of language is psychological. And often at the extremes of human experience and energy.

Blonk: Sure.

Barwin: … but it’s also an exploration of human vocal behaviors and possibilities. Sometimes it’s about play, exploration, or about more musical concerns.

Blonk: Yeah, yeah, it can go many directions. There’s also the, maybe we’d call it the antithesis between the systematic way of composing, let’s say a Morse code based on a certain pattern of strict numeracy and a more intuitive means of performance. I learned that I can construct a piece with very dry rules and then in the performances it will come alive, and it will become even better as I respond to it.

Artaud has been very important to me at the outset, when I first began performing voice. Actually, this was in the early eighties — at that time I was just starting with the whole performance thing and I had been in a group of people doing poetry presentations with instruments — people reading poetry by (mostly well-known) poets, accompanied by musical instruments and I was the composer for this initiative. I was not allowed to recite poems — they thought I was not doing it well, at least not in a very convincing way. At some point, the group was planning a performance of Surrealist and Dada poems and there were a few leftover texts which nobody knew what to do with, but they wanted to include in the program. And these included some work by Artaud, and I thought, “Let me try it.” And so, that really felt very good for me to do that and especially the Artaud. This was not sound poetry but translations of some poems of his. We found it very interesting, the whole concept of style, and there’s a famous poetry quote: “Whatever I write I’m going to burn it on the next day, because it’s no longer true.” So these texts were building up an intensity, which helped me go, sort of, across the barrier of madness onstage. So I did that. There was an authenticity to it that I heard — it wasn’t embarrassing to me, it was just intense — so it helped me to go further, to not be afraid on stage, to not be anxious the whole time, to not want to keep total conscious control.

Barwin: Absolutely. So, you go to the limit of that, you explore what’s possible as a performance, on stage, what’s possible in terms of playing a performance through your body and through the resources that you can summon. This is the thing that I’m wondering about: Once you get to the point of crossing the line where everything is open — you’ve gone beyond standard language, beyond standard conventions of vocal performance, you have, as Schoenberg’s song says, “the air of another planet” open to you, and so the question is, then what happens, not only in terms of exploring extreme states but also exploring non-extreme states but with the new resources — new musical resources, new vocal and sound resources that you now can use? Because you’ve knocked down the walls. So, now what? What kind of civilization are you now going to build onstage?

Blonk: Yeah, there’s of course several different approaches to that, one of which is improvisation, which I did a lot, mainly with instrumentalists — different types of instruments — these bring different types of challenge: what kinds of sound to come up with to make sensible music with them. So that’s one thing — just intuition, and so I’ve done completely improvised solo performances, also. So sometimes it’s purely intuitive and automatic, but sometimes there’s a specific thing: I take a structure to use which kind of accumulates, something simple like counting syllables in sound — I use an extended notion of a syllable: syllables of the same sound that’s continuous without a specific break in it, so for instance [see video clip below]. So that brings me to a totally different area and I feel that the materials of the work are very restricted and then based on that I make the piece.

Barwin: It’s restricted but also varied, because the syllable, that notion, is so open to so many things. So many different kinds of performative weight, psychological weight, musical weight are possible, so it’s very flexible.

Blonk: And then, of course there’s also prepared pieces, which can be really hard to learn. There’s a piece of mine — the title is “Barred,” which really consists of — I learned all the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet and I used a system that could be written on a typewriter so there were, I think, about seventeen phonetic symbols that could be written using a letter with a bar, or stroke through it, so I used those, for example, in a system of permutations of certain things. So I’d written that, and I’d performed it three days after. It was really trouble — so, terribly hard to do it.

Barwin: A number of your performances of both your own work and other’s work push toward performative extremes so that they become a sort of performative challenge. The audience sees you, the performer, faced with the challenge of trying to realize this extremely difficult piece and so there’s an extra tension that is generated. Not only the excitement and delight of witnessing a virtuoso performer, but watching a virtuoso engage with material that is at the limits of his virtuosity.

Blonk: I’ve never been after virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. The first time I realized it was when I was working learning Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate (“Primordial Sonata”), and I’ve always been recording myself, listening to back it, judging my performance. I’d listen to myself and I found myself boring, there are very repetitive passages that go like [see video clip below] and I couldn’t do that one fast enough and I didn’t want to really do it fast to be a virtuoso but to keep them interesting, not boring. So then I made consonant exercises for myself, all different combinations of particular sounds in different orders and I wrote them down and practiced them with a metronome every day but so that the articulation was better

Barwin: Yeah, I can see children begrudgingly practicing from their book of Jaap Blonk sound poetry études in the conservatory, trying to move up to Grade Six in sound poetry, working on their required sound poetry graduation repertoire …

Blonk: Yeah, one time I was renting space where musicians were practicing — I’d have the space for two hours or so — and I’m sitting there with the metronome going. The next student entered with an instrument and was watching me like, “what’s this crazy guy doing?” [Laughter.] Of course, really, it’s the same as practicing scales and that kind of thing.

Barwin: I remember when I first came home from university, from music school, and I was learning how to circular breathe and I was told to practice with a straw and a glass of water, and so I spent all weekend in my parents’ backyard blowing bubbles in a glass of water and my parents were looking wondering what had happened to their child at university — why was he blowing bubbles all weekend? Of course, I assured them that this was an important part of my musical education …

Blonk: I was in this group in Holland where there was this famous reed player and he used to come early at rehearsals and practice high notes on the clarinet and he’d be sitting there practicing very high tones on the clarinet and I’d sit down in the chair beside him and practice uvular trills. He’d ask me, “What are you doing — are you crazy?”

Whereas we both were just working on those things in our vocabulary that we were focused on at that particular time.

Barwin: You’re crazy, yeah. [Laughter.] But just like the instrumentalist, you’ve got a certain repertoire of techniques that you evolve as a writer, as a speaker, and then you work on that with focused practice, just like any art form, any physical activity. You explore what you can do with it and how you can extend it. But perhaps the voice is more obviously both medium and carrier of content.

Gregory Betts: Absolutely. But I think of that guy who comes after you in the music room and his experience on the other side. It’d be fascinating. It’s hard to imagine him being bored by the kind of vocal exercises that you were doing. But I was thinking about last night too, when people were laughing at strange moments, at interesting moments in your performance, even though there was a darkness there. Does it surprise you when and where people laugh? That they laugh at all at things like this?

Blonk: No … no, it’s predictable for me that people laugh. But I never calculate moments that you should laugh, like a comedian. I don’t try and repeat it. But I’ve learned — especially at points in Artaud where there’s no humor at all — it depends on the performance.

Betts: Where does the humor come from? It’s a fascinating moment in a performance.

Blonk: Yes, that’s pretty mysterious.

Barwin: But in a piece there are some more predictable places that make people laugh. When the performer is in a strange position, when something suddenly changes. And sometimes people laugh when there’s an extreme kind of vocalization or an extreme facial expression. And I think people laugh sometimes because the work is so different in that it’s being played through the instrument of the body.

But there are certain of your works that are deliberately playful, deliberately humorous, not that you’re a stand-up comedian, but I’d say that they show that you’re aware of humor, that humor is one of your aesthetic interests.

Blonk: Uh, yeah, well, I think it helps a lot even to bring across other aspects of the work. If there’s humor in one part of the story, it can make another part more bearable.

Barwin: Last night toward the end of the Artaud piece, there was a part where you play two roles: Artaud and a very serious BBC documentary interviewer. “Are you mad?” the interviewer asks Artaud and Artaud responds by saying all this crazy stuff and then continues with some explanatory material. It’s a funny juxtaposition, a funny little scene between this very serious interviewer and Artaud.

Blonk: Yeah. Also, I think it’s important to be able to have access to all the sounds the whole time. It’s more important to me than being able to do virtuoso imitations or copy specific things. It’s important for me to do extreme sounds and then immediately go into a very calm explanatory action [see video clip below] as a demonstration, a transversal unvoiced frictative.

Barwin: Yeah. There’s is that kind of performative play but there’s also, I think, the possibility of opening up the performance to a whole range of vocal and emotional possibilities by imitating of tones as used in society — a dictator or radio announcer, for example — these are all sounds, codes, or “tones” that are available in the vocal repertoire. So it makes sense that these are part of your tools at least as part of these performances, and then you can use them for whatever aesthetic ends that you want.

Blonk: Yes.

Barwin: I’m still really interested how you see the distinction between abstract instrumental sound and vocal sound. For example, there’s musical juxtaposition: you can have a piece that’s, say, a pretty quiet chamber music and then all of a sudden it goes to a death metal, crazy-loud freak out, that’s one kind of thing. But if a performer — a vocalist — goes from a really quiet low-affect expression to a very heightened state, there’s also a psychological aspect, an affective aspect, which adds another level to the performance.

Blonk: Yeah, yeah, I see what you mean … Well, in every performance for me there’s an aspect that’s always there: this joy of making sound. And so, I have this piece, about the Prime Minister where I start to say “the Prime Minister finds such utterances extremely inappropriate” and I start taking out the vowels and it ends up like this [see video clip below] And people always ask me, “How do you manage at every performance to be that angry?” That’s what they think — that I’m angry! But for me, it’s the joy in making the sounds. Of course it’s being conveyed that the Prime Minister is very angry or something like that.

Barwin: I love that piece because it works on all those levels. It works on the political level of the Prime Minister and the use of political language, oppression, and censorship — the removal the letters, so there’s that element. There’s the watching-a-performance element of it where you can see a formal process unfolding. So that’s a completely structural formal interest of watching these dropped vowels and the sounds that result. There’s a level where you end up contorted and spluttering as you attempt to pronounce the results of the process. That’s the level where you see that the body is to sound poetry as the page is to textual poetry. There are all these different levels and elements to that particular piece, which does seem different than some of your pieces which are more abstractly musical. They don’t have the extra-music associations, but are more about delving directly into musical meaning or exploration than the Prime Minister piece where you’re talking about language, involving metalevels and all that.

Blonk: I have a series of phonetic etudes — that’s what I call them — the first explores the r and the different ways of pronouncing it. Of course the r is fascinating — it’s pronounced so differently in different languages [see video clip below] so that was the first. It’s a piece for solo voice.

I think for me it’s useful to think about r. But it’s also so much about poetry so much of our environment has to do with phonetics.

Barwin: Oh absolutely — some of your work explores vocal sounds and some of it explores language. So some words actually mean something, and some don’t mean anything but they’re in the structure of language. For example, much of the CD “Dworr Buun,” recorded by your group Braaxtaal, is in an invented language, so it’s about language, not just sound.

Blonk: I explain in this CD that the texts are written in Onderlands, a parallel language to the Dutch. It sounds like Dutch but even native speakers of that language cannot understand it. People who don’t speak Dutch can enjoy its sounds without worrying about meaning because there is no meaning, so they’re not losing anything. But at the same time, they’re exploring different ways of speech in Dutch. There’s a piece in the speech of very upper-class people at a garden party; the drinking song, which is very much in the dialect of where I was born, and there’s one evoking an experience of a preacher or reverend in a very strict Calvinist church.

I remember one moment where I was a kid sitting in the church and suddenly the power went out and it got dark and the old preacher was, I think, reminding the congregation that the earthly light has gone out but the eternal light keeps shining. He kept speaking for like fifteen minutes after.

Barwin: While you sat in the dark. That’s an amazing image.

Blonk: But of course there’s still a glow of hell. Eternal damnation.

Barwin: As is befitting to remind one such as yourself in need of such helpful moral instruction …

Betts: There’s something interesting, too, in the biographical aspect. It’s not the experience or the actual language itself, it’s not the language or the dialect of the tribe that you’re exploring but the “sounds” of your biographical experience.

Blonk: Some of them are that

Barwin: But in a way it’s the variety of how language is used and people experience of it, whether it’s really militaristic or radio language, pseudo-scientific or childlike or clown-like, or like in the Artaud, sounds of madness or of extreme states. So these seem to be important tools for you, the resources you bring to your work, to examine and explore aspects of knowledge, of experience, and the voice.

Blonk: Yeah, there are those such things which are immediate in existing languages, but for me it was an important step to start using the phonetic alphabet to make sound poems, to be able to mix sounds differently with very much more different colors and different textures.

Barwin: Yes, absolutely, that’s very striking to me as a unilingual person, just to be aware of the richness of possibilities of the r — there are so many r’s you can then bring into pieces and hear the possibilities, and then —

Blonk: — and then go beyond that. Because there are whole categories of sounds that are not represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet — important categories which at least I use to make sound. I think there’s no single language in the whole world where you need to use your hands to speak, because it’s not very practical.

Barwin: I wanted to mention something from your Splinks’s CD Consensus, since we were talking about the r. There is this really great point where you are rolling an r and it’s taken over by a marimba doing a tremolo, and I thought it was a really lovely image of an intersection of musical instruments and voice in a way that I hadn’t thought about: how a rolled r is a tremolo, a vocal tremolo, and its rhythm could be played by a marimba.

Blonk: Yeah and there’s another piece on that CD that’s called “Vowelogy” where I’m using the formants of vowels and they are performed by instruments and so you can really hear different vowels being played by violin and synthesizer and so on.

Barwin: Yeah, the intersection between voice and instrument and how they can inhabit the same soundworld. We talked about your work from the point of view of language art, but I’m interested in how you see yourself as a musician. Where you see the division between poetry, sound poetry, and music — if there’s a boundary? You sometimes perform in a musical context, sometimes in a literary context, and sometimes an entirely different context.

Blonk: Yeah for me it’s really a bit of a useless discussion of whether something is sound poetry or music. I should also say it’s often very complex. I’ve been a member for several years of a symposium that was started in Germany. And actually all of the discussion was about if things were poetry or music.

Barwin: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a large monster coming towards me that’s going to kill me. Let’s discuss how to define what it is rather than just escaping from it.

Blonk: Instead of actually talking about the piece, yeah?

Barwin: Exactly.

Betts: Sometimes these bureaucratic divisions between the genres are used as a way to exclude. Certainly in terms of funding.

Barwin: So, these divisions are not useful then, except, as you say, to bring a richness to the interpretation of how a work relates to a certain tradition. How a work takes a tradition and explores it, takes it in a different direction. You can appreciate what it is for itself, but also at the same time you can appreciate what it might be in its relationship to literature as a way of deepening the experience.

Blonk: Yeah, for me it’s very much all one thing … for instance, the titles I make up for mainly improvised music. The musicians don’t see that when we’re recording. I make up the titles after the fact … Sometimes they’re anagrams … I hope that listeners they will see something there … but most of the listeners are people who have no connection to sound poetry or the tradition of poetry in general and in school. 

Barwin: In some of your work with musicians the nature of your engagement with language varies. At one moment you’re performing things that sound as if you’re interacting with text, then you’re interacting with musicians as if your voice were an abstract instrument, and then you return to something that engages with language — is it speech, or is it song, is it text, is it language? There’s an interesting play back and forth between what appears to relate to language and what is more abstract sound.

Blonk: Sometimes I, as it were, step outside what is happening and comment on what’s happening, or I’ll be trying to be a translator and translate what the musicians are doing into another language. Sometime I take that role and see what happens.

Barwin: You also use technology. In one of the sections of the Artaud piece which you performed last night, you used a PlayStation controller to control the computer sounds. And you also used processed vocal sounds. In other work, you perform what sounds like vocal imitations of machines. I’m interested in your approach to the technology, how you think about technology and how it related to the voice, to the body, and to gesture.

Blonk: I was already composing music before I started vocal performance. The aspect of composing, of making, has always been more important for me than being a vocal performer in the sense of performing pieces by other people. But most important to is to create my own material. At some point, I discovered that the potential of the voice was a great source of material. I had the voice but also the potential of the instruments of the people that I was working, but I also like using well, basically, effects and samples of the voice that can extend it even more in the sense of density, register, and several other aspects. So I started using them from a compositional point of view and also in improvising. I learned many of the possibilities from improvising.

At first it was just hardware — effect boxes and after that, software. At first it was just commercially available hardware and software but then I developed things in Max/MSP and things like that. At some point, in 2006, I took a year off of performing, a sabbatical, and I started learning programming languages and seeing what was possible. Really to learn to start from scratch. Also synthesizing sounds.

Betts: The sounds that we were listening to last night, that you were you were playing with a joystick, were those ones that you had composed?

Blonk: There were some long sounds that I did not control with the controller. But they were the result of the manipulation of voice sounds.

Barwin: So then many of the sounds which sound mechanical or synthesized actually have a basis in vocal sounds. And then using a gestural controller also makes a sound somewhat vocal because you’re not flipping switches you’re actually controlling through physical gesture — the movement of the PlayStation controller. Are there sensors which are tracking the movement in three dimensions?

Blonk: There are only two sensors which basically track only two variables. Forward and back and side to side. Of course, I can connect more than one parameter to each movement.

Barwin: That’s another way these computer sounds can enter the vocal realm: through the physicality of gesture. This is in addition to the fact that original sounds themselves are derived from vocal sounds.

Blonk: Yes, it’s important for spectators to have some link with why the sound changes. It’s not very interesting for the people to do like many laptop performances where there is nothing visible happening in the performance and we have no idea where the sounds come from. I always think about that: why should I listen to this in a concert? I’d rather have it on a CD, except for when they use multichannel systems, then it’s different and it can be interesting to go to the concert.

Barwin: So there should be some connection between the performance or the performer and the sound being produced in some way that’s meaningful to the audience. That makes a lot of sense.

And in the Artaud piece performed last night, there was a lot of talk about the body, about bodily functions — talking about shit, about organs, about the body — so it made sense to have organic sounds from the computer that seem to relate to the body. And it provided some really funny juxtapositions. Also, there were sounds that sounded like body sounds which then changed and sounded like something else. That was a really interesting play with sound and association, or sound and source. That was really great.

A question about tradition. I see quite a few people from the sound poetry and avant vocal tradition who do this experimental work but are also advocates and performers of much older work — by Artaud, Hugo Ball, Schwitters, and so on. You often see this work performed in the repertoire of the vocalists. Do you see this work as meaningful to you? As canonic? Are you arguing for it, trying to keep it alive and in the repertoire?

Blonk: Yeah, I think not so such any more, but when I started performing Ursonate, these pieces were very much neglected. It felt for me when I discovered the piece in 1979, it really felt for me like I’d discovered a masterpiece. I wanted to fight for this piece and perform it a lot. I’d do performances in punk clubs where I was opening for a band. And the audience would just want talk and have a beer or listen to the band and not have to listen to this stuff. So they were throwing beer at me — I had many such unpleasant experiences. But I always finished the piece.

Barwin: You’d notice the people throwing the beer at you, but you wouldn’t notice the people who were interested, though.

Blonk: There were people interested, yes.

Barwin: Less obvious, certainly than people throwing beer.

Blonk: Sure. There were probably people cheering, also.

Barwin: I like the idea of choosing a challenging performance situation. That’d be a challenge to perform there. It’s a very different situation but has a lot of commonality in a certain sense with that audience that might have originally heard it. It’s different that those people who walk into a punk club to play the Bach Solo Cello Suites.

Blonk: I’ve performed the Ursonate at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, at the official series for subscribers. I had to perform in between two traditional sonatas for very middle-aged, typical classical music audience. They were taking out their handkerchiefs so they could laugh into them. [Laughter.]

Barwin: But it’s like I was saying about these performances in relation to traditional music or poetry, recontextualizing something, you learn something about the piece.

You hear a sound piece differently at a punk show than in a traditional concert hall. Each reveals an aspect of the piece in relationship to the tradition that it appears beside. I think it’s a good way to gain another understanding of the piece.

You also work with multimedia. You have videos of performances. Some are recordings of performances which are then modified. Some are abstract videos which are works in themselves.

Blonk: It’s a very recent thing for me. It’s only in the past year that I have been exploring this. I’m still developing them. I have some longer videos that if some opportunity shows up, I would like to show in an installation context. I have had some small exhibitions of my sound poetry scores and visual poetry usually in combination with a performance, so I can imagine at some point, an exhibition with projections of the score and so on.

Barwin: There’s a video posted on your website, Flababble: It’s very simple but really charming and fascinating. It’s a recording in very slow motion of you shaking your head from side to side while making a “cheek squeak” sound. I’m fascinated by how this simple and captivating thing explores what actually happens, a close examination of what happens to the face when you make a sound. And all that is changed is one parameter: time. It’s a really mesmerizing video.

Blonk: I was very surprised myself at seeing what’s really happening when you do that. It only moves this much if you do it really fast. [Shakes head and makes “cheek squeak” sound.] But at normal speed, it’s too fast to see what’s actually happening.

Barwin: It’s like those pictures of the horse by Muybridge, where you see all four feet actually leave the ground. There’s a real poetic beauty about seeing something taken out of its original time context. But going back to what I was saying before, I see a strange beauty in it, but also a playing with the grotesque and the extreme because you can see the face moving so radically, and you think, okay, is this ugly? Is this beautiful? What is this? And you have to consider what you think of what people do, what you think of the body and how we perceive things through the mediation of time.

Blonk: And there’s also, yeah so this is just a video shown in cheap slow motion. [Laughs.]

Barwin: Yeah. But there’s a whole range of Internet work that is deliberately lo-fi. It’s like the aesthetic of badly Xeroxed zines and things that are trying to have that look. There’s a charm to that look. And in a way, this is one idea, one approach. It’d be another kind of piece if it were done with extremely high production values. It’d have a different effect.

Finally, I like to ask you about scores and notation. And also about text-based work with computer generated texts. So I guess: scores and generated text.

Blonk: Yeah, I have several of these generated texts taking very well known poems in Dutch and German and making variations of them with a computer them using Markov chains.

And of course they were transformed into nonsense language, but there were still enough points of reference for people to recognize them. At some point, during a reading, more and more people recognize the source.

Barwin: It’s fascinating, the highly advanced pattern-recognition that we have, especially with regard to language.

Blonk: I’ve also made Markov variations of my own sound poems. I created a series of variations and then I used another series of mathematical procedures to generate more texts.

Barwin: It’s like what you were talking about earlier. How simple mathematical processes result in these rich experiences because they’re using language and using vocality. And a single regular and mechanical procedure becomes variegated and complex when multiple generations of the process are used. And then added to that, when these texts are performed, there’s another whole level of organic, performative richness.

Blonk: Yeah.

Barwin: Jaap, thanks very much for this discussion. It’s been fantastic.

Blonk: Thank you.

Barwin: Now I’m going into the practice room to practice my voiceless velar fricatives. I’ve an exam at the Royal Blonk Conversatory of Mouth Art, later this month …

Coinciding in the same space

Kiki Smith with Leonard Schwartz on Cross Cultural Poetics in 2011

Courtesy Kiki Smith Studio, 2011.
Courtesy Kiki Smith Studio, 2011.

Editorial note: Kiki Smith (b. 1954) is an artist, sculptor, and printmaker. Her work can be seen or has been shown in countless museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. An exhibition of her work Prints, Books and Things, ran at the New York MoMA from December 5, 2003 to March 8, 2004, and was followed by an interactive website. The following conversation focuses on Smith’s collaboration with poet Leslie Scalapino, The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water (2010). A digital facsimile of the book is available from Reed Digital Collections. The show originally aired on KAOS 89.3 FM as part of Cross Cultural Poetics on February 6, 2011. The following was transcribed by Michael Nardone. You can listen to the full recording of the program at PennSound here. We would like to thank Kiki Smith and The Pace Gallery for permission to publish this interview. — Katie L. Price

Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest, on the phone from New York, is Kiki Smith. She is an internationally known artist working in multiple mediums. About her work, it has been written, “Smith represents the female body as one of resistance and transgression. Her women reject the graceful refined poses of Western statuary, and startle by performing extremely private acts in a remarkably public and matter of fact manner.” The work of Kiki Smith’s I’d like to talk about today is a collaboration she’s done with the poet Leslie Scalapino: The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, published by Granary Books in an edition of forty or forty-five copies. We have one copy here at the Evergreen State College in our rare books room. Welcome, Kiki Smith.

Kiki Smith: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Schwartz: Wonderful to have you on the line. I know you’re a busy person and working on many projects all at once. Can you say a little bit about your collaboration with the poet Leslie Scalapino?

Smith: Sure. Leslie had asked me to write her — I don’t know what you call those — a blurb?

Schwartz: A blurb, sure.

Smith: For the back of a book that she made, also with Granary Press, and I did. At that time, I didn’t know she was friends with my friend Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and I didn’t know her work particularly well, although I had heard her read. I’m not somebody who writes blurbs. I don’t know much about things like that, but I did it nonetheless. Then thinking about it, I wrote that I really liked her work. I think she suggested to me then that we could make something together. I didn’t have any idea particularly what to do. I made some very strange drawings, and then I thought she could make something that went with them. We tried to think of who could publish it, and that took a while. We asked Granary, and they weren’t interested in doing it at the time because they had other commitments. So, we didn’t really know where to go with it, but we sort of made it nonetheless. Leslie also rewrote and reworked it, and then eventually Granary Press came back to me, just by chance, and asked if we would like to do it. They were ready, I guess. We said, “Yes, we would love to,” and then we started working on it.

Schwartz: There was a period in the past — I associate it with the heyday of the New York School — in which poets and painters worked together collaboratively in really exciting ways more often. That’s rarer these days, and you are an artist who has worked with poets. You mentioned Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and now Leslie Scalapino. Let me first just say, the book is extraordinary. It includes digital prints of your images, each individually hand-colored by you, Kiki Smith. The book is accordion-bound in Ultrasuede, a pleasure to the touch. There are forty-five copies. Each one of those copies is very expensive. It’s very much an art object or a book art project, as well, to which one makes pilgrimage in order to find a copy and read the book, or to read the book and look at the book. Can you say, though, a little bit about the relationship between word and image for you in this book?

Smith: I periodically like to use words in relationship to my work. Probably because, historically, how language and image go together is very interesting. It has a rich history pre-book: in painting, and then in stone. Like the Sumerians or the Egyptians, where it’s pictorial and language at the same time, or like altar paintings of the saints with words coming out of their mouths, or Nancy Spiro’s work. She’s worked very extensively with text. Before that, when I was younger, I mostly worked with my own text. Since I met Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, we’ve made maybe four projects together. And I’ve worked with Leslie and Anne Waldman a little bit, and different people. Henri Cole and I made a broadside together. For me, it’s just a pleasure. I’ve also made several books with Lynne Tillman, who’s more a fiction writer. But it’s interesting because it can’t be illustration. You can’t make something that is an illustration of something, because then it’s just working for somebody else, which I’m not that into. Each one that I’ve done, for the most part, has really been a collaboration, and sometimes it comes just from talking. Mei-mei and I just talked for a long time, and then we did things simultaneous to one another. With Leslie, I actually made the work first, you know, in a certain way. She wasn’t making an illustration either; she made something that could couple it, that could coincide in the same space. In certain ways they go together, and in other ways they move apart from one another, or are antithetical to one another’s meaning. I like that it’s not a one-to-one correlation. It’s just possibility.

Schwartz: That’s really intriguing. I do understand that the risk or the threat is that something becomes illustrative — that the image becomes illustrative of the poem, or the poem …

Smith: Which also has a great history. You know, it has to work, even if very superficially. Mei-mei will make poems and I just use all the animals she mentions in the poems, or all the different kinds of natural phenomenon. I’ll just make images of those. In that way it’s maybe closer [to illustration], but it’s just whatever is pleasurable, and also — in terms of printmaking or technically working with paper masters or master printmakers — what’s interesting. How to push that: your use of and the form of a book.

Schwartz: You do mention that your sequence of forty-three drawings had been, I think, completed beforehand, and it’s titled Women Being Eaten by Animals. About those drawings, Scalapino writes, “I wrote the poem using the sense of an unalterable past occurrence: One female, apparently the same girl, is repeatedly, in very similar images as variations, bitten and clawed by a leopard-like, lion-like animal. Both person and animal have abstracted features, giving the impression of innocence or opaqueness. As in a dream of similar actions or a dream of a single, timeless action, the girl flecked with blood while being unaltered by the animal’s touch, there is no representation of motion except stillness of the figures floating in space of page. Neither the girl nor the animal articulate expression, as if phenomena of feeling(s) do not exist.” Kiki, we are on radio and we can’t show the images, so I’ve read this text on your images. Is there anything you can say about the extraordinarily sensual and extraordinarily disturbing quality of the woman being eaten by animals?

Smith: I was asked by the Museum of Modern Art, by Wendy Whiteman, if I wanted to make an exhibition of my prints, probably a little less than ten years ago. I wanted a hook for it because it was Queens. She asked me if I wanted to make a billboard, which never happened, but I immediately thought of Rousseau’s — I think it’s a lion or leopard attacking the white antelope [Henri Rousseau’s The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope] — and it has the same trajectory of those animals. There is a central animal and they are in some big jungle, and then the other one comes lunging into it. So, I thought about that: that most animals are actually eaten. They leave the planet being eaten alive. I had to think about that for a while, unpleasantly. But then I also thought that, for me, it was more how you get out of your body. How you get out of your own ego-consciousness. What penetrates and what is penetrant to you, and what gives you freedom at the same time? I think about animals a lot in very convoluted ways, but part of it is this sort of shamanistic space of people either acting as animals, or making associative attributes to animals, or anthropomorphizing animals. It moves around. But it’s just my own convoluted entertainment of how to escape “me,” or something like that. It’s not unpleasant any of it. It’s also [this idea that we are] not to be separate from the rest of the universe, that we have this idea of autonomy, but really we’re a part of a whole.

Schwartz: I certainly was moved by that aspect of the work: the absence of privileging the human over the animal, that there is a kind of offering being made. I also thought of certain images from early Buddhist tradition — I think it may be Indian Buddhism, but it may be elsewhere as well — that illustrate the story of the Buddha offering himself to the starving tiger to be eaten. I know your work tends to get associated with a certain kind of relationship to Catholic spirituality, but I kept thinking of that image of the Buddha’s offering of himself to the tiger.

Smith: That’s interesting. My mother was a Catholic. She converted to Catholicism from some other religion, but then she converted to, or rather, practiced Hinduism and Buddhism. So, I think it’s true to say that I grew up in a mixed household. And anyone, from the sixties anyway, is influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and many other religions just by the nature of growing up in the sixties, which I did. Because, you know, the East … For the last hundred years in art and in philosophy, but very directly in art, Hinduism and different parts of Buddhism, certainly Zen Buddhism, were a very big influence. I’m very interested in the iconography of religions, much more than I’m actually interested in belief systems. I feel like being Catholic was enough for me for one lifetime. But I love the iconographies that are associated with belief systems. I find that one can be playful in those histories also.

Schwartz: Absolutely. I just spoke with Ibrahim Muhawi — who is a translator of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet — about the difference between metaphor and symbol. Symbol has to do with identification, he argued, in locking us into a body, or locking us into a particular tradition; whereas metaphor opens things up, retains a relationship to a thing to be sure, but also opens it up to multiple possibilities. Also, of course, Leslie Scalapino as a poet is very influenced by Zen Buddhism as a practicing Buddhist.

Smith: She was a really fascinating person, someone who was very abstract in her thinking. But I think the thing that I liked about — more when you listen to her, if you let it go inside of you — I always thought it was a little like standing behind thought. Like you’re standing behind thought, just observing it. And it goes into you, in a way that you don’t have to be analytic. You can, but you don’t have to [in order] to get it. The words penetrate you and then make a consciousness inside of you. I mean, she has an enormous breadth of work. She had dynamic energy for her work and for many other artists’ work, and supported other artists: artists and writers both.

Schwartz: Sure, theater as well. I think dance groups have been involved as well.

Smith: Yes, dance. I recently saw her piece with Fiona Templeton.

Schwartz: Kiki, can I read a short passage from the poem?

Smith: Sure.

Schwartz: This is from Kiki Smith and Leslie Scalapino’s The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water.

[Reads from The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water.]

So, that was Leslie Scalapino from her collaboration with Kiki Smith, The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, published by Granary Books. That last line I stopped at, “hierarchy is incomprehensible,” also really speaks, to me, to the relationship between the two forms: your drawing of the female form and the animal form. Kiki, can I ask you, do you have other specifically poetry and art collaborations that you are working on currently?

Smith: Uh … I don’t know. I can’t remember! [Laughter.] I’m trying to make stained glass windows with songs, with words from songs. It’s something I’ve wanted to make for about ten years, so I finally decided to make it now. It’s with a song called “Tramp on the Street,” which was written in the late 1800s. I’m always, in my fantasy life, making chapels, which I make and don’t belong anywhere. No one seems to have the slightest interest in them, but I need to make them. I feel very passionate about making them, so I’m going off to Germany for the next month to paint some more. And besides that, I don’t know. The only thing I did want to say is that “the animal is in the world like water in water” is from George Bataille, and I think it’s from Theory of Religion. I’m trying to plod my way through reading that, which is not easy.


Schwartz: Thank you for mentioning that because I did note that “the animal is in the world like water in water” is a quote from Bataille. And I did think about the collaborations between George Bataille and Hans Bellmer, their edition of The Story of the Eye.

Smith: Yes, yes.

Schwartz: Do you know Bellmer’s poupées, those dolls, those infinitely flexible female forms with a certain kind of violence towards the form built into them? Do you have a view or interest in Bellmer?

Smith: When I was young I hated them. I thought that this was really terrible, and as I got older I loved them. I absolutely love them. I had a short show at the ICP, the International Center of Photography in New York, and one of the big hooks for me was that there was an extensive Bellmer show downstairs in the basement exhibition space, and I had the upstairs. It was just heaven for me to see it. Mine is like a super soft version. But mine is … it’s not transgressive, but a more open possibility of being in a body. Obviously both have their own weird sexual connotations. He was really deep in it. This transgressive aspect of being in a body, maybe there is some relationship to Catholicism in that because it’s caught in the body, the dilemmas of being in a body. I don’t know. But I’m crazy about his work. His etchings, his photographs, his coloring, hand-coloring the photographs, setting up props, making sculpture and then using it as an object for photography, or as an object to be acted on in a theatrical way or something. There are just a million interesting ways to think about it.

Schwartz: It’s really intriguing to hear you talk about Bellmer. It also makes me think of another artist of that period, André Masson, and of a particular story he tells of being left for dead on the battlefield in World War I with his chest blown open, and no longer being able to tell the difference between where his chest leaves off and the sky begins as he looks up. And then wanting to spend the rest of his life trying to paint that powerful color that he saw when he couldn’t tell the difference any longer between his body and the sky.

Smith: Well, I think that’s what George Bataille is talking about too: the pre-ego-conscious space of being not-separate in the world. But also, I studied to be an emergency medical technician, and we had to work in the emergency room and someone had a big knife wound, and I realized that I couldn’t have cared less that my purpose was to stitch him up. All I thought was, “Wow, isn’t that great, the outsides and the insides at the same time!” [Laughter.] So I thought I wasn’t suited for a medical career.

Schwartz: Right, right, you’re no longer in the field. No one can call in and try and sue you for enjoying it aesthetically.

Smith: I guess because it gave me something to think about. Yes, that space between here and there.

Schwartz: That’s really powerful, Kiki. How great to hear your thoughts on Bellmer and Bataille, as well as on Scalapino and the book you’ve just completed. Let me just mention that there are forty-five copies of The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water. One of those copies exists at the Evergreen State College’s rare books room. Please come by the college and the library to look at it on the premises. And Kiki Smith, thank you so much for coming to the phone and talking with me.

Smith: Thank you. Thank you. It’s my pleasure to talk to you. I also want to say that Leslie was an extraordinary person. For me, it was a great honor to work with her.

Schwartz: We all miss her terribly, and it’s great to have this work of hers available to us.

Smith: It is wonderful.

© Kiki Smith, courtesy the Pace Gallery.

Any possible way of making words

Ted Berrigan with Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson on 'In the American Tree,' 1978

Editorial note: Ted Berrigan (1934–1983) was the author of several books of poetry, including The Sonnets (1964), Nothing for You (1978), Easter Monday (1978), and A Certain Slant of Sunlight (1988). He also wrote a novel, Clear the Range (1977). His poems were collected in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan by University of California Press in 2005. This interview was originally broadcast on Berkeley’s KPFA-FM on August 11, 1978, as part of In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets, hosted by Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson. Listen to the program at PennSound here. The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Katie L. Price


Lyn Hejinian: This is In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets. I’m Lyn Hejinian and with me tonight is my cohost Kit Robinson, and a very special guest. Kit, why don’t you introduce.

Kit Robinson: It’s my extreme pleasure to introduce tonight, which is actually this morning, Ted Berrigan, who has arrived from New York, and is going to read for us.

Ted Berrigan: I’ll read some recent poems to start the show off. This is a poem called “Whitman in Black” and it’s from a new book, which I just finished, of fifty poems. It’s called Easter Monday.

[Reads “Whitman in Black.” MP3]

And now I’ll read one that’s maybe a couple of years older, but not so dissimilar from that. This poem, in its title … well, the title contains my entire sense of what it’s like to live now: in this century, in this time, in the United States of America. Or maybe anywhere else for that matter. It’s called “Buddha on the Bounty.” The Bounty being the ship, His Majesty’s ship, the Bounty from “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

[Reads “Buddha on the Bounty.” MP3]

And I’ll read this poem, which actually you requested me to read, Kit, called “Here I Live.” It’s from my book Nothing for You, which was published earlier this year by Angel Hair Books in Lenox, Massachusetts. I wrote this poem, I think I wrote it in maybe 1969. I wrote it by a method. In fact, I write everything by a method, but I wrote this by a method in quotes. It’s called “Here I Live.”

[Reads “Here I Live.” MP3]

Robinson: The counting thing is like, I mean, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do in a poem, except that you’re actually counting. When you say “one,” “two” and “three,” you know, the syllables have a certain duration and a certain rhythm. You’ve done that in other work too, right? You’ve got that thing when you count, right, with the numbers?

Berrigan: What other work?

Robinson: Actually, in The Sonnets, there’s a point when you say “one, two, three, four,” right?

Berrigan: I don’t remember. But I’m sure I have done that before because it’s something I do, in fact.

Well, in this poem, the person talking is named “I,” and that’s really all the name you are given for the person talking. There was a need to give some definition to that character. The clearest definition I could think to give in the state — the psychophysiological state that that person was in when saying these things — was to show that that person was made up of, constituted, a nexus of parts named one, two, three, and four. I mean it could have been named I, you, he, and it. It’s pronouns broken down to a more —

Robinson: So there are planes, so that it’s like an x-axis, a y-axis —

Berrigan: There are planes, yeah.

Robinson: And then there’s a time axis —

Berrigan: You just mentioned the secret actually of my entire poetry, which is that it has to do with planes: of reality, of perception … Not of reality, because that sounds theoretical, but with planes of being, not in a theoretical sense but in a sense of trying to get accurate. I am talking to you, but he is thinking about it while I am talking. You know?

Robinson: And “they”: they said something about this, too. And other peoples’ voices come into your work.

Berrigan: “They” are over there, though, and “I” is here. And “he” is a little bit over there but is near.

Robinson: So there’s an incredible sense of location. Like when you say three hundred and sixty degrees, you get a center.

Berrigan: Right.

Robinson: And you get a circumference, and a point at the center.

Berrigan: There’s something feminine if you can actually get three hundred and sixty degrees. I didn’t realize, I suppose, until a few months ago that you could have planes and still have a circle, which is a really nice idea.

Hejinian: Right.

Berrigan: All that sounds so abstract, but it’s not abstract when I’m doing it. It’s simply trying to have something exist without describing it: to name its parts rather than describe it. Description is slow. I can’t keep up to the pace of my metabolism when I am using description usually, but I can do it while simply naming things. You know I don’t use images much but I will name an image. I mean, I will say “a tree.” I don’t try to make a picture of a tree for you. I assume —

Hejinian: What about in your novel, in Clear the Range?

Berrigan: What about it? I mean, that’s another story entirely. I mean, that’s a poet’s novel. I wrote it as this poem, was writing it … It’s a genre work, a genre which I was thoroughly familiar with: the Western novel. And I used the genre then to make everything be very slow and to make this setting in which there was a hero and a villain — almost like Commedia dell’arte. Then there was a girl. And then there were various other characters, including a horse and a mule. But, I mean, the main thing that was going on was that the villain and the hero were constantly having these Western confrontations, in which they didn’t finally pull out their guns and shoot each other. And they were very similar sort of, except that the villain was obviously villainous, and the hero was obviously the hero. Anytime one of them did anything like go into a restaurant or a bar, then the other one was a waiter or the bartender, and they had these confrontations every minute. I think I thought I was making something similar to Camus’s book The Stranger, in which the guy, Meursault, the hero, walks around and becomes totally bemused by the sun smashing on his brain every minute and in the end, it seems, he killed somebody. He doesn’t quite remember, or he does remember but he doesn’t know why he did it or any thing in particular, but he did it for a very good reason: it’s too hot.

Robinson: So how does logic or narrative get you to that? Like “too hot” you know? Like you got to move, right? In this poem —

Berrigan: Wait a minute. You’ll have to explain this question. What is that?

Robinson: Well, like, okay, so you’ve got a narrative in Clear the Range.

Berrigan: Yeah, but it’s a given. The narrative path is given by a genre, whereas in poems it’s not. Or maybe it is, but in a different way.

Robinson: Right. But it seems like in this poem, “Here I Live,” what does that is not narrative but it is some kind of sense of logic, you know. In the end you say, “And so. One. Two. Three,” like that follows.

Berrigan: What does it say? It says —

Robinson: Does it?

Berrigan: No, it doesn’t. But it practically does.

Robinson: Well, okay —

Berrigan: My sense, I suppose, quite often when I am writing poems, is that I’m going to tell a story. So, in that sense, it is kind of narrative. It is narrative in the kind of sense that it’s telling, but I don’t really want to tell. I don’t want to be this teller. I don’t mind being a teller of tales in which you make a story. I’m making something, but I’m also telling. So, I start out to tell a story, and I have this structure of the story, but I’m not very interested in the story, but rather in the feelings involved. And so I take out as much of the plot as possible. I mean I just leave out as much of the plot as possible. I don’t even consider most of the plot. I simply put in the complete structure —

Robinson: You’ve got scaffolding —

Berrigan: Yeah, scaffolding, sure, the architecture of the story. And then I leave out, and put in the things that are necessary. In that sense it’s a kind of impressionism, but it’s not an impressionism of making pictures of impressions, but of using words to get details, because I’m mostly involved with rhythm, tempo, pace, color, and so on in order to get the feeling that’s being involved. And yet, pure feeling is not enough. You need to have some sense of what kind of person is talking in this poem. And I do try and give you that. Not the person that I think I might be all the time, but the person that is talking in that poem. And there you have it. I mean, I give you a story, but I don’t want —

Robinson: But the poem is there —

Berrigan: I’m not interested in telling you —

The poem needs to exist very much like a tree.

Hejinian: We’re going to continue on now with our guest Ted Berrigan. This is In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets. Ted, you have a sequence of things?

Berrigan: Yeah, I’ll read three poems from a book, which I just completed three or four months ago. It’s called Easter Monday, and it’s fifty poems. Most of them are close to the same size, my favorite size, which is about fourteen lines. Well, they are sonnets, in fact, but they don’t really work at that too much. Not all of them are. Some are longer and none are shorter. But some are quite long, quite a bit longer, because they just got longer sometimes, and when they did I just let them be longer. Fifty was an arbitrary number I decided upon ahead of time based on a theory that if you do two or three works that are fairly similar, and you liked them — even if you just do one, you do one work and you like it and can do another one that’s similar to it — there’s no particular reason to do the next one, a second one, and there’s no particular reason not to do it. But if you feel you have a number of them there, you can set yourself this arbitrary number and just decide, well, I’ll do fifty of these. Then you’re sort of clear as to what you’ll be doing for a while. I got that idea from a painter friend of mine. So, I did fifty of these, and it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I said that I would do fifty. It’s called Easter Monday because it’s really about a second life: life beginning about the age of forty. And since it is personal … I mean it is the second half of one’s life. It’s about being young, a young older person. I was involved in a second marriage, second family, but even if I hadn’t been, it still could have been the same thing. Consequently, it is like Easter Monday. Easter Friday you die and Easter Sunday you rise again from the dead, and that’s really glorious and wonderful, but then Easter Monday you have to get this job and support yourself for the rest of your life. [Laughter.] The poems were all written two or three or four years from the time I was thirty-eight until last year when I was forty-two. So they are not all about one’s whole second life, but rather about being aware of coming into that. When I say they are about something, I strictly mean “about.” I don’t know what each poem is about particularly. I could study them and tell you what each one is about, but that’s not what I’m willing to do. Each poem is a very separate poem. They are not like my work, The Sonnets, where, although every poem can stand on its own, they were sequential and serial in a certain way. There is some repetition of things, but it’s really like fifty separate works which were done knowing I was going to do fifty, and therefore they relate that way. I knew what the themes were, though I didn’t work at them too hard. I just knew what they were. I’ll read the first three. The first one is called “Chicago Morning.” It’s dedicated to the painter Phil Guston simply because I was looking at a painting of his while I was writing. It was hanging on the wall over the typewriter, and so I actually used some things in his painting to refer to when I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

[Reads “Chicago Morning.” MP3]

The second one is called “New Town.” New Town is a section of Chicago.

[Reads “New Town.” MP3 ]

“The End,” this is the third one. And these are the first three, actually, that were written. And it was after writing these three that I then decided I would go on and write forty-seven more. Which is why I call this “The End” because I, you know, I wanted to get the end out of the way right away.

[Reads “The End.” MP3]

I’m going to read one more of those since my voice started to click in about the middle of the third one. This is one that came later, maybe about the thirtieth one. This is a made work, and it was made from a master list in a psychology textbook. The title of it is “From a List of Delusions of the Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” And this is a fairly classical sonnet of fourteen lines, which works, in fact, in three fours and a two.

[Reads “From a List of Delusions of the Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” MP3]

Hejinian: What a list!

Berrigan: Yeah, well, the children are burning. And we are those children. And they are those children too. And they are not insane. All those things are very true. I mean, evil chemicals are in the air.

Hejinian: And they are poor.

Berrigan: And we are in the control of another power. We have stolen something, namely those lines. [Laughter.] I mean, one has to be as witty as one can in the face of the Holocaust.

Hejinian: You mentioned earlier on one of the earlier poems in the first part of this show about montage.

Berrigan: No, Kit mentioned it. I don’t use such highfalutin words.


Hejinian: Does collage or montage technique come into your work at all, consciously? I mean, is that one of the methods that you use?

Berrigan: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, I use any possible way of making words. And I don’t remember it too much now. I mean, I just do what it is I do. When I was doing things early on and learning how to make poems my way, I was very heavily influenced by paintings, and by music as well, but to talk just about one thing … On one level, I was tremendously influenced by Cubism, basically because I see flat anyway, and I am interested in planes. When I first saw Cubist paintings, it seemed to me they made great sense. I’m sure that was a misunderstanding in many ways, but they made great sense to me. And then I followed that immediately into the use of collage, and the idea of making assemblages, all sorts of things like that. Sure, I’ll use any material from anywhere, and I like to do it. And I will; I’ll make works like that one that I just read which is made entirely of material, selected material, from one particular source. Sometimes I collect material. I write it down in notebooks when I’m reading. I like to read. I read all the time, all sorts of things. If something strikes me by how it sounds, if it sounds like something that I actually might have thought if I were thinking that way in those very words, I might copy it in a notebook. Then I’ll use it later in some poem because sometimes when I’m making poems, I just thumb through my notebooks and put in anything that seems appropriate to what I’ve already put in. Of course, I don’t credit the sources. Why should I? Those that recognize them will see where it comes from, and get some added sensual brain cell pleasure from noticing it, and those that don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway. I mean, I don’t mind if I don’t make up all my own words. Yeah, I use all sorts of techniques like that. I read in a book once that someone said — it would be nice if it were Whitehead that said it — but it was someone like that who said, “No great art without great theories.” And I believed it. So I have great theories, and I can’t entirely remember what they are. But I remember when I conceived them initially, and I still go by them, even if I don’t remember the theories too well. I have millions of theories that have to do with rules for writing, ways to write and ways to make things. For example, that poem that I read called “Cranston, Near the City Line,” part of the method that I used, the rules I used governing it when I wrote it, had to do with some of the ideas that Kenneth Koch used teaching poetry writing to old people in nursing homes.

Hejinian: Oh, that wonderful book that he has.

Berrigan: It was something like six ideas that he used, and I tried to see somehow if I could use all six in one poem without having it be a poem by an old person. I didn’t want to go to a nursing home and do it.

Hejinian: Or by Kenneth Koch.

Berrigan: Yeah, well, I don’t have to worry about writing poems by Kenneth Koch, because he’s a Harvard educated guy. Kenneth is a wonderful poet, but, as Ron Padgett said, poets like Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, they’re too clean actually. Those guys are very clean. I mean, that’s not a criticism, it’s just a joke.

Robinson: I wanted to ask you about rhyme. I noticed a few rhymes in your poems, but I sort of have a sense that there were even rhymes there that I didn’t hear because —

Berrigan: I’m sure there were —

Robinson: Because there were delayed rhymes. Like in the first one that you read, you’re talking about hearing other peoples’ voices, then you say “the soup.” And my take on that was that the soup was like alphabet soup or something.

Berrigan: That take is included in the word.

Robinson: Right.

Berrigan: I mean, I’m not as imaginative as that, but once I will think of a word. Then I can see how that can work. That’s actually the way everything looked out the window in Chicago in the morning.

Robinson: The soup, right. The air … And then you get to the Loop, like it was a really long-delayed rhyme, like four lines later —

Berrigan: I’m glad you pointed that out.

Robinson: But it was a stretch. And the same thing happened from the title to the last line, because the title is “Chicago” and the last line is “Europe at night,” which is almost like a negative or something, you know. So, when you’re writing, do you have a sense that you’re holding something in your short-term memory that you’re going to turn around, but you don’t want to do it yet?

Berrigan: Yeah, that’s a really accurate way of putting it, I think. I love rhyme and I love even just mental rhyme. Every kind of rhyme, I love it. One of my most favorite poems is “Annabel Lee.” I also like Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper.” I like rhyme a lot and I feel that, in the way that one actually says one’s words now, that there is room everywhere for rhyme. That is, when you think of a poem like “Annabel Lee,” written in measure, I mean, written in a really strict measure, and you think of it as how your learned it in school in the sixth grade, seventh grade, whatever, and there are lines that say: “I was a child and she was a child, / in our kingdom by the sea: / but we loved with a love that was more than love — / me and my Annabel Lee.” That sounds. That’s music. But, in fact, if you think of how you would say it if you were saying that, you know, if you were telling somebody that, and it was this quite significant story, and you would say actually: “I was a child and she was a child in our kingdom by the sea, but we loved with a love that was more than love, me and my Annabel Lee.”

Robinson: It’s like the difficulty of actually saying that —

Berrigan: It’s the movement of stress, right. When you put the stress of the emotion on it, rather than the stress of the measure, then you have two beats, two measures going at once, two kinds of melody. That’s actually what I do. That’s where I’m avant-garde. I believe that you can have two melodies simultaneously. I don’t measure. I don’t use —

Robinson: But you get a modulation that you can feel.

Berrigan: Yeah. Clark Coolidge said to me once that I loved old-fashioned music, and you can see it in my works. And he meant it as a compliment, because what I do is take it out of the heart of the matter, and put it all on the surface. It’s kind of like putting the skeleton on the outside in some ways.

Robinson: That’s a very strict formalism in a way.

Berrigan: Yeah, it’s like if you could consider that de Kooning and Vermeer are doing the same thing, then you have a sense of what it is I would like to do.

Robinson: Right, landscape and the body.

Berrigan: It’s just that formalism, that kind of formalism. I’m strictly a formalist. I mean, if I think of a phrase and I have a feeling to write, and then if I don’t have a formal idea, I couldn’t even write. I couldn’t go on. As soon as I have a feeling, and perhaps a sense of the melody, a phrase in the melody, and a few words, then I’m reaching for some kind of formal idea. Then I work with that and against it.

Robinson: Right.

Berrigan: I’ll go directly with the formal idea, or I’ll start to go with it and then try to introduce counter-measures to keep myself from achieving it until such time as I can achieve it. Can I read something else? This is a poem from quite early, and then I’ll read a fairly recent one. We’ll see if they are similar, because I think they are totally similar. Here’s a poem I wrote in 1962, and it’s called “Personal Poem #9.”

[Reads “Personal Poem #9.” MP3]

That was written in 1962. Here’s something I wrote maybe about five years ago, 1973. This is perhaps a little more wordy, but maybe there’s some similarity. This is called “Crystal.”

[Reads “Crystal.” MP3]

Hejinian: I hear that one as more feminine and more tough.

Berrigan: Yeah, it is more feminine. I was really, in 1962, when I was in this certain state, I was twenty-eight and I was butch, actually. I was quite aggressive about everything. Now I’m more campy, but I’ve got to erase that part of the tape — [Laughter.] But by ten years later, I was more able to be. I was able to be mellower about my furies, and more expressive perhaps of my loves, kind of. I wasn’t really having to hack my way through the undergrowth of daily reality so much. I realized that nobody really cared about what I did. So, it was all right to do it well.

Hejinian: That’s part of the liberation of the second half of the life.

Berrigan: Right. I had my … I had been liberated as a woman, right.

Hejinian: Right.


Berrigan: I had suffered the pleasures of woman’s liberation for myself. Now I have to suffer the pleasures of women.


Berrigan: I should read a work that will be the summation of my entire life and career, right? Do I have any works like that? Yeah, maybe I do.

Hejinian: The once and future poem.

Berrigan: This is a regression to an earlier kind of thing. It’s called “Three Pages.” It’s for Jack Collom.

[Reads “Three Pages.” MP3]

Robinson: And on that note —

Berrigan: I’ll close with a very short poem actually. It’s called “Remembered Poem.”

[Reads “Remembered Poem.” MP3]

Hejinian: Thanks, Ted, very much for coming in. It’s been a treat having you here.

Berrigan: Thank you.

Robinson: Tune in next week at the same time.