Ted Pearson in conversation with Luke Harley
June 8, 2010, to September 16, 2010
Note: The following is part of a larger conversation examining Ted Pearson’s An Intermittent Music, a serial work begun in 1975 and completed in 2010. The second half of this interview will also appear in Jacket2.
A previous interview, conducted in fall 2008, appears in Hambone 19, available through Small Press Distribution.
Ted Pearson was born in 1948 in Palo Alto, California. He began studying music in 1960 (voice, then woodwinds and composition) and started writing poetry in 1964. He subsequently attended Vandercook College of Music, Foothill College, and San Francisco State University. Since leaving the Bay Area in 1988, he has lived in Ithaca, Buffalo, and Detroit. He now lives in Southern California, where he is adjunct faculty in English at the University of Redlands.
Pearson has published sixteen books and chapbooks of poetry, including Evidence: 1975–1989 (Gaz, 1989), Planetary Gear (Roof Books, 1991), Songs Aside: 1992–2002 (Past Tents Press, 2003), and Encryptions (Singing Horse Press, 2007). He is also a coauthor of The Grand Piano (Mode A, 2006–2010), a ten-volume experiment in collective autobiography by writers associated with the San Francisco Language Poets. He has coedited several books and journals, including markszine.net, and his essays have been widely published, notably in Poetics Journal.
Luke Harley: In “Etude 8” of The Grand Piano, we learn that you were listening to serial music at a very young age. And in “Etude 3” you’re in Geneva, sketching the project that would become An Intermittent Music. At that point, you’d been writing for a decade, but serial composition had been on your radar since the late sixties, when you were barely twenty. How did serial music lead to serial poetry? What was it about serial poetry that captured your attention early on and has remained central to your writing?
Ted Pearson: When I was nine, I came across some early recordings of Cowell, Varèse, and Ives. Not long after, a local record-shop owner introduced me to works by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. The music was technically beyond my grasp, but I found it aesthetically compelling. It gave audible form, austere yet replete, to a soundscape that was strangely familiar, even on first hearing. In time, I came to understand how serial music foregrounds its constructedness as art — and how, by rejecting tonality as an organizing principle, it democratizes its elements, which retain their independence and refer only to each other, yet contribute equally to the composition, for which the tone row or series provides the underlying basis of its coherence.
Serial poetry offers similar possibilities. It accommodates diverse combinatory logics, enables production of extended works that cohere without recourse to a central narrative, accords equal weight to its discrete elements, and allows for the decentering of the writing subject. It also allows for a constructivist approach to writing, distinct from the expressivist mode that is widely considered synonymous with poetry. I knew early on that I wanted to retain the lyric’s technical resources, but not the hierarchy of poetic elements imposed by the “well-made poem” on one hand and by lyric subjectivity on the other. That hierarchy, not unlike the one imposed by functional tonality on music, is based on restrictive if highly centralized notions of coherence.
Harley: Although serial poetry is often considered a postmodern genre, its origins (in practice, if not in name) are clearly modernist. Did its emergence, almost a century ago, mark a rift in modern poetry that corresponds to the rift in modern music resulting from the appearance of serial and post-tonal music?
Pearson: I think modernism itself is rifted by the aesthetic contradiction that defines it. Even as it affirms the singularity of Art, it questions the very distinctions — among the arts and between the practices of art and life — that underwrite its singularity. It is further rifted by its practitioners’ diverse and often contentious aesthetics, Williams’s fierce response to The Waste Land, for example. While I doubt his response directly corresponds to serialism’s break with tonality, I remain intrigued by the historical proximity of Spring and All (1923) and Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano (1924), the first piece to fully employ his method of twelve-tone composition.
By the sixties, the antipodal poetics of Eliot and Williams were manifest in two anthologies: the arrière-garde collection New Poets of England and America (1957) and the avant-garde New American Poets (1960), as well as between the covers of A Controversy of Poets (1965). Abetted by the rise of the small press movement and the waning influence of the New Critics, access to neglected and out-of-print texts — as well as to current experimental writing — began to improve in those years. This has resulted in a less monolithic and more complexly historicized map of modernism and the literary avant-garde. One reading of that map might lead from the innovative texts of Stein and Williams, to those of the Objectivists in their several incarnations, to the radical proceduralism of Cage and Mac Low (among others), to the poetics of the first and second generations of New Americans, to language-centered writing and beyond.
Other readings of that map will feature very different landmarks and destinations. Every poet invents her own antecedents and has her own itinerary of influential texts. The proliferation of alternative canons has enabled the recovery of many “lost” and previously excluded works, but I think the critique of canonicity per se is of even greater significance — it reminds us that “the map is not the territory.” But to return to your example of post-tonal music: even as serialism heralded a break with the Common Era of music, tonality never went away, and it periodically reasserts its dominant position in music. The poetics of presence is similarly resurgent of late, presumably under the banner of accessibility and in reaction to post-avant writing.
Harley: To what extent did your schooling contribute to your interest in experimental writing? What role, if any, did creative writing workshops play in your development?
Pearson: My schooling fostered my love of reading, but modernist (much less experimental) texts were absent from my high-school curriculum. The emphasis there, and to some extent in college, was on canonical literature — chiefly British and American “classics” — and my teachers’ approach to those texts reflected both their humanist values and their training in New Criticism. One did learn close reading, for which I’m grateful, but explorations outside the canon were largely extracurricular. That said, there were courses (in linguistics, Russian formalism, critical theory, and surrealism) that were very helpful — as was the opportunity to share enthusiasms and reading lists with fellow students.
There were no creative writing classes on offer at my high school or at the music school I attended, and in those years my focus was on music. But when I did “convert,” I chose to major in English, not creative writing. In part, that choice reflected my interest in literary theory and my desire for breadth as a reader. It also reflected my knowledge of myself as a student unsuited to workshop culture — a knowledge confirmed by the one poetry workshop I remember taking.
I wanted to develop an approach to serial writing based on lyric technique, not lyric subjectivity, whereas the workshop emphasized an artisanal mastery of craft in the service of self-expression. Exemplary of the latter was its insistence on “finding one’s voice” — a bromide which assumes that poetry must issue, and be read as issuing, from an ostensibly unified subject, one whose words are taken to be those of a more than grammatical person. In that scheme, language is seen as transparent: words are windows on their referents, and writers indissociable from their texts. But, as George Oppen observes, “Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the ‘heartlessness’ of words.”
Harley: In a literary context, if I take your meaning, you see the notion of linguistic transparency as related to the privileged role accorded expressivity and author-centered writing?
Pearson: There’s inevitably tension, sometimes productive, in the relation between pathos and logos — which is at once complementary and contradictory — that leads us to distinguish between works that foreground the emotive function of language (the set toward the speaker) and works that foreground the aesthetic function (the set toward the message). Where the former instantiates and gives primacy to the illusion of authorial presence, the latter focuses on relations between the elements of language as such. What drew me to poetry was not its obvious capacity for self-expression, but rather how it reveals the subject to be constituted in and by language. I would never discount the role of pre-linguistic experience in subject formation — nor that of nonlinguistic experience thereafter — but those experiences, in a literary context, are always mediated by language.
I’m especially drawn to those moments in a text when language seems to “speak” for itself, in effect producing a counter-discourse that exceeds and complicates the writing subject’s relation to what is said. “Theoretical expressivity” is an index of what can be expressed in language; it’s the domain of all possible utterances, not of a single speaker. The gap between enunciation and statement — and the manifest nonidentity of writer and text — have obvious implications for subjectivity. As does the poetic function, which queers any notion of stable meaning and reveals the univocal subject as a fiction that masks its multiplicity.
The othering performed by the poetic function sparked my interest in subjectivation — the process by which language produces subjects that are nonidentical to themselves, to each other, and to itself. I wanted to explore such relations in my work and that work’s relation to the world, but my early efforts (mostly fragments and epigrams) resisted integration into the extended structures I was drawn to. Serial poetry, when I came to it, seemed to model what I was after.
Harley: When and where did you find those models?
Pearson: I chanced upon a copy of Spicer’s Language in 1967. It was the strangest poetry I had ever read, but I kept returning to its difficulties. Then, in A Controversy of Poets I found several more serial poems by Spicer — as well as by Ashbery, Creeley, Mac Low, and Zukofsky. Further examples over the next few years included Spring and All, Weiners’s Hotel Wentley Poems, Eigner’s Another Time in Fragments, Zukofsky’s Anew, Oppen’s Discrete Series and Of Being Numerous, Creeley’s Pieces, and Mac Low’s Pronouns and Stanzas for Iris Lezak. I had much to learn from these disparate modes of serialism, but I was hooked.
Harley: Were there life experiences you can point to — before you started writing poetry, and aside from music (which you discuss at length in Hambone 19 and in The Grand Piano) — that influenced your decision to become a poet?
Pearson: “Experience,” according to Aldous Huxley, “is not what happens to you [but] what you do with what happens to you.” When possible, what I do with what happens is write, but that wasn’t always the case. I was fifteen when I wrote my first poem, and I have no idea why, on that particular day, it occurred to me to write one. For several years prior to writing that poem, I had been subject to a recurring dream in which I appeared to be writing something — but I didn’t associate that fleeting image with a conscious desire to be a writer. For all I knew, I was dreaming of doing homework, or perhaps writing music.
A recurring dream
in which I write, “and one day
failed to awaken.”
My dream accounts for the first part of the poem, and the allusion to Master Chuang for the rest. Chuang dreamt he was a butterfly; woke, or dreamt that he woke, as himself, and then wondered which was dreaming which, the butterfly or the man. The poem’s brevity reflects my early attraction to haiku and epigrams, as does its fragmentary structure. And the quote (imported from a text long-since forgotten) suggests a bent toward the use of citation. In my dream I never saw the words I was writing, so they had to come from elsewhere.
Dreams aside — and excepting my involvement with music — if there were experiences that led me to writing, the first was learning to read. One response to art is the desire to make art. And where writing is the art in question, a passion for reading is essential. At six, I became an insatiable reader of whatever I could get my hands on, but I especially loved reading poetry. Not only did its sounds and rhythms seem integral to its meaning, but it also paradoxically required so few words to provoke almost endless trains of thought.
Also early on, I discovered my love of solitude, perhaps as a consequence of being an only child. Of course, that could have gone the other way. Some only children regret not having siblings, but I never felt the lack. While I often enjoyed the company of others, I preferred to be on my own, whether reading or listening to music at home, or being out in the world, frequently enough doing nothing at all — what Baudelaire calls being “a cloud monger” and Keats calls “creative indolence.”
My cloud mongering was typically accompanied by the sense that there was “something” beyond my purview and a concomitant desire to find it. The former points to a sense of lack — of which Heidegger writes that “beyond what is … there is still something else that happens” — and the latter locates that something else beyond one’s present perception of the sensible. As a child, I couldn’t account for such things. The ability to do so came later, and piecemeal.
I remember being struck by an entry in Kafka’s Diaries that begins: “Hatred of active introspection …” And by Nietzsche saying “we must not study ourselves while having an experience.” Experimental jazz counseled, “when in doubt, go out.” And Spicer’s notion of “the outside” — which I would later associate with “extimacy,” the coinage by which Lacan points to the subject as ex-centric to itself — made immediate intuitive sense. Consciousness, then, was an intending regard for anything, including language, that I saw as external to my labile sense of self.
My experience of words was that they came from without as sound or text and returned as speech or writing. Words existed independently of me, or so it seemed, and their meanings, however clear or obscure, were as much their own as anyone’s. But whatever experiences might appear, in retrospect, to have led me to begin writing poems, it was in fact only after having written that I wanted to write again. It was the iterative desire to work with language — and the pleasure I found in doing such work — that “decided me” to be a poet.
Harley: Could you briefly sketch your early years in poetry [1964–1974], before you started work on An Intermittent Music?
Pearson: I wrote infrequently for the first five years since I was still immersed in music. Gradually, but with growing insistence, what had begun as a private pleasure came to demand ever more attention. By the end of 1968, that fraught year of wonders, I was committed to writing poetry. So I cut back on my involvement in music, changed my college major to literature, and transferred to San Francisco State, arriving in the midst of what was then the longest student strike in US history.
Not for nothing, but the next six years of writing were an extended trial by error, throughout which any potential I might have had far exceeded any actual result. Academic life was agreeable until it wasn’t, but most of what I learned about writing was learned outside the classroom: poring over the little magazines and small-press volumes of poetry, attending readings and salons, and meeting other poets — elders and peers whose conversation and friendship sustained me.
By the fall of 1973, I’d been writing for almost a decade. But I’d become dissatisfied with my poetry and bored with school, so I gladly accepted my father’s offer to accompany him to Europe, a brief and much-needed break during which I decided it was time to start over. Of course, any notion of starting over is an obvious if useful fiction. In fact, one carries on, belated as ever, from wherever one presumes to be — at best with a stronger sense of resolve. When I returned to San Francisco, I took a job driving buses, quit grad school, and spent the next year culling and revising what remained of my early poems — which I then put away and began work on what became An Intermittent Music. Thirty-five years later, here we are.
Harley: Until recently, your manuscript was called The Tune’s Image, which had been its working title for decades. You've now changed it to An Intermittent Music — a significant change because it suggests, quite intriguingly, that music, rather than being a template for your poetry, has been something quite different: something that has intermittently, almost cyclically, engaged your attention and then receded into the background. What were your reasons for changing the title? Why did you choose this word “intermittent”?
Pearson: The working title came from a poem by Zukofsky (#20 in Anew), in which “tune” (music) and “image” (text) appear, as if in counterpoint, to make a “song” of “nothing” but their differences. In my work, such differences tend to arise between assertive and apodictic propositions, and the tag from Zukofsky reminded me to keep those contraries active. Then, last fall, I got a note from Steve Emerson — who is among my oldest friends and most astute readers — in which he expressed reservations about retaining the original title. He argued convincingly that it could be misread as overstating Zukofsky’s influence on the work, and that it also limits the context in which the work, as it stands, might be read. The new title comes from a poem I wrote in 1965:
The skylark hovers
almost out of sight. To sing
a singular song.
Given a world
and these few words. Some
While music is a literary meme in my work, it has never been a template for that work. Having written both music and poetry, I have some sense of their differences. Poems are made of words, as Mallarmé insisted, and a word is a bundle of linguistic features that, unlike instrumental music, includes units of semantic meaning. In this case, “intermittent” points to the relation between the ’nuff-said (the text) and the not-said (the music of silence), as I put it in Hambone. It acknowledges that, however steadfast one’s practice, there are inevitably gaps in the work — on one hand, gaps in production that result from the exigencies of everyday life; on the other, the gaps or negative spaces that structure it, much as music is composed of its silences.
Harley: Speaking of music, among contemporary American writers your engagement with music is more pronounced than most. Certainly you hold court, in my opinion, with poets such as Clark Coolidge and Nathaniel Mackey, who not only write about music — and incorporate some of its elements into their work — but who also think deeply about how music relates to language. When we read your poetry and essays, it appears that you are of a similar philosophical bent: that an overarching preoccupation of your poetry is in fact music, and music-language relations. Has it always been a goal of your poetry — as you potentially imply by quoting Hélène Cixous in the epigraph to your poem “Dark Matter” — to achieve a verse that is “less language than music, less syntax than songs of words”?
Pearson: I’m delighted you would link me to Clark and Nate, whose works I much admire. As well, I think of Bruce Andrews and Kit Robinson, whose works are also deeply informed by their longstanding engagement with music. But I must say that music certainly isn’t my overarching preoccupation. If it were, I’d still be writing music. In my view, what language and music share are syntax, not lexis; rhythm, not cadence; temporality, not telos; structure, not form. And the salient analogies between them are neither mimetic nor expressive, but rather procedural and constructive. “Musicality” may be a feature of my work, but it would be reductive to suggest it as the work’s central theme or raison d'être.
“Dark Matter” is a case in point. Since musical references occur in only two percent of its lines, they can’t account for its totality. In context, the poem’s epigraph should be read in relation to its title. My figural use of dark matter is based on its literal meaning: undetectable matter whose existence is inferred from its effects on visible matter. Its as yet hypothetical existence accounts for quantitative discrepancies between a theoretically calculable totality and the actually calculable fraction of that totality. Cixous’s phrase suggests what I see as an analogous phenomenon in poetry: the elusive poetic function, whose existence we can only infer from its effects on language, syntax, and meaning.
Harley: Speaking of epigraphs, I should note for our readers that An Intermittent Music is rife with them. Its main epigraph is from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23: “O! learn to read what silent love hath writ: / To hear with eyes belong to love’s fine wit.” And then each of its eighteen books is introduced by a further epigraph. What should we make of these citations?
Pearson: Citation plays a central role in literary production. I use citations and allusions to invoke various texts with which the poems are in dialogue. As Kristeva argues, “the notion of intertextuality replaces the notion of intersubjectivity.” Textual meaning is always mediated by codes that we discern in other texts and bring to our work as writers and readers.
The initial epigraph points to a poetics of reading. It directs us to the basic elements of words (phonemes, graphemes, and morphemes) and to the senses they combine to address: sound (“to hear”), sight (“with eyes”), and intellect (“love’s fine wit”). In other words, those literary modes that Pound referred to as melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. The epigraph also emphasizes silence as the unsaid that refuses glibness and paraphrase; as the unsayable that signifies, but not verbally; and as the practice of silent reading that foregrounds the literary character of the work. As well, it puts forward an ethics of reading: that what is written by love be read with love. In textual matters, this implies a disinterested commitment to the workings of language, not least to its poetic and libidinal economies.
Each of the subsequent epigraphs is at once specific to the book it introduces and sequentially linked to the other epigraphs. Together, they comprise the argument of the work — a defeasible argument that, by definition, cannot produce a complete or final demonstration of its claims. The work, being done, is never done. As I noted in “Etude 10” of The Grand Piano: “For the reader, the text delimits a site where the work of making meaning takes place. For the writer, it also reveals a remainder that reminds her of work that is yet to be done.”
Harley: Versions of the books in An Intermittent Music have appeared at intervals, beginning with The Grit in 1976. At a glance, it could be seen as a “collected books,” à la Spicer, but you present it as a single work. Has that always been your intention?
Pearson: Yes. I imagined it from the outset as “a work in four movements.” I didn’t know how many books it would require, or how long it would take to complete, or even if I could complete it. But I knew that, if it were completed, it would have four movements. Along the way, with enduring thanks to my publishers, the books appeared in print. In each instance, my immediate concern was to make the best book possible at the time, even as I knew it would be subject to further revision. My sense of the whole as a single work derives from the levels of integration I sought within and among its parts. It’s a work on analogy with an opus in music, which, as you know, can include subsets of related compositions. Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, for example.
Harley: Why four movements in particular?
Pearson: That’s how the project presented itself, and since I knew it was to be a closed series, it seemed like a viable constraint. But I’ve always been partial to quartet form: string quartets, tetralogies, quatrains. In fact, my initial sketch of the work appeared less as an outline than an “exploded” view, as if each movement comprised one line of a macrocosmic quatrain. Conversely, in a “deploded” view, each movement is a palimpsest of that line. As it turned out, the movements also appear to parallel sonata form: exposition, development, recapitulation, coda.
Harley: The levels of integration you mention reflect the part/whole relations that underlie the work’s coherence. And its scale, beyond the range of references and registers involved, seems linked to the role that duration plays in your work. Can you say more about these elements?
Pearson: The text is built of discrete units—the numbered poems of each book (qua series) — that are integrated into progressively larger, if no less discrete, units: poem < poems < book < books < movement < movements < work. These units index the various scales in which the work may be read. The movements are ordered chronologically, as are the books, but their respective poems are not.
Each book has its own logic, and the challenge in each case was to discover it and construct the series accordingly. With some books, the logic was clear at the outset, so only minor resequencing was needed. With others, it took years and much resequencing before I understood the book at hand. In referring to these serial poems as “books,” I’m echoing Spicer’s sense of the book as a coherent unit of composition. (It was Gerrit Lansing, many years ago now, who generously encouraged me to see the individual poems as poems, and not, as I had previously done, as stanzas.)
Duration indexes temporality — from the variable durations of vowels and caesurae at the level of the line, to the variable intervals within and between the larger units, to the total time of composition. Duration is also spatial, a matter of extension — which in philosophy is the property of taking up space; in mathematics, a structure that contains antecedent structures; and in semantics, a set to which a property is applied. The space-time of the work is mutually determined by the incremental development of discrete poems (at an average rate of one word per day) and their iterative development in serial form over a period of thirty-five years.
Harley: I’d like to look more closely at the four movements, beginning with topologies, which includes books 1 through 6 and was first composed between 1975 and 1980. What was the context from which these books emerged, and what do you see as their major concerns?
Pearson: I began topologies as the Vietnam War was entering its final months, and I completed it on the cusp of Reagan’s presidency. It was a period of prolonged economic stagflation, and neoliberalism was on the rise. From both progressive and classic liberal standpoints, hard-won advances toward social justice were threatened by reactionary forces. However buffered by the city’s reputed tolerance — often more apparent than real in light of its increasing Manhattanization, as it was called, and the resulting displacement of poor and working-class people — everyday life in San Francisco was not immune to the illiberal tenor of the times.
There was a growing political backlash against what were perceived as the “permissiveness” and “radicalism” of the sixties and early seventies, even as large class-fractions of various subcultures were being mainstreamed to exploit their consumerist potential. As well, there was a marshaling of public opinion to support the coming deregulation of capital and re-regulation of society, the latter abetted by conservatism’s call for a return to “family values” and “the American way of life.” While many of us actively continued to pursue economic and social justice, and to articulate new modes of cultural practice, I felt in myself and sensed in others a pervasive undercurrent of anomie.
In topologies, I wanted to explore that social disjunction — those feelings of anomie and alienation and their effects on interpersonal (hence, political) relations — on as intimate a scale as I could manage. In part, that choice of scale reflects concurrence with radical feminism’s claim that “the personal is political,” which, as argued (if often misconstrued) insists that many of our personal problems cannot be disarticulated from the systematically oppressive institutions we inhabit, not least those involved in prescribing gender roles and performances.
The intra-psychic and intersubjective tensions that the poems explore can be read in light of Lacan’s assertion: “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel” — which does not say that sexual intercourse is impossible but that direct, unmediated relations between “masculine” and “feminine” sexual positions are impossible. The Symbolic Order — the Other of language — always already comes between them. As a consequence, heterosexual relations (a recurring topos in these poems) are normative, not “natural.” Anomie (in Weber’s sense) is a reaction against social norms and their enforcement via society’s regulatory controls. And agency is a function of resistant subjectivity, which, in its “extimate” relation to itself, both desires and retreats from change.
Harley: How should we understand your use of “topology”?
Pearson: In topological mapping, only essential information is retained, while unnecessary detail is omitted. Each book in the movement maps a particular mise-en-scène. This bears not only on its structural properties—for example, the constraints on lineation and vocabulary — but also on motival development. In topological maps, renderings of distance (on analogy, between subjects) and of direction (on analogy, as sexual difference) are subject to change, but the relation between their points on the map is maintained. Impossible relations are still relations. As well, topology refers to the study of the properties of objects that do not change, even as the object is deformed. If the sexual drive fixates on part-objects, sexual relations between whole persons are impossible. The whole person is deformed, that is, reduced to the part-object; hence, misrecognized.
Harley: Among the striking aspects of your poetry are its linguistic precision and economy, which are immediately evident in “The Grit,” the first book of topologies. Throughout that book (and much of the movement), you employ extremely short lines, brief if irregular stanza forms, and a very restricted, often monosyllabic vocabulary. From the opening “Somehow / it seems to destroy us” (#1), we encounter images of elemental rupture, elemental fracturing, such as “that rock / which sun splits / and sea turns / to sand” (#3). What was your aim in stripping away your language to its barest essentials? Why this preoccupation with erosion and decay?
Pearson: As I suggested in reference to sonata form, the first movement involves exposition, in structural as well as thematic terms. Its topological mapping of psychosocial terrain required deletion of inessential detail, even as that problematizes the notion of necessity. Interpersonal rupture and relational decay are figuratively analogous with the process of erosion, in which prolonged exposure to elemental forces results in an altered, if not depleted, landscape. The stripping away of language is intended to mirror this process, and to reveal how ideology (most often, in these poems, gender ideology) inflects even the barest essentials of ordinary language. In topologies, I wanted to parse such language, albeit attenuated, in situ. Unplugged, so to speak. As the poet John Thorpe generously remarked of these poems, “Imagine Webern writing for solo lute.”
Harley: In “Etude 4” of The Grand Piano, you say “grit” refers specifically to the grit on the window ledges of your Sunset District apartment, which faced the sea. You also deny that “grit” functions as a metaphor; rather it represented “everyday life.” If “grit” and such words as “rock,” “sun,” “sea,” and “windswept” are not metaphors, what are they? Another type of trope? Or would you deny them that status?
Pearson: Not at all. Far from denying that the grit is a trope, the etude acknowledges the source domain of that trope, which derives — as do most of the tropes I employ — from the particulars of my immediate environment. Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand” embodies the transformative if interdependent relations between the world and the work. Since grit is a product of physical erosion, in its target domain it becomes a trope for the erosion of intersubjective relations — which, again, was a process I saw at work in my own and others’ lives. Metaphor is a species of conceptual substitution, so of course the grit functions metaphorically. More precisely, however, it’s a synecdoche — my preferred subspecies of metaphor — which means “simultaneous understanding.”
Harley: “The Grit” takes its title from Creeley’s Words (“The grit / of things / a measure / resistant”), its epigraph from Oppen’s Of Being Numerous (“The isolated man is dead”), and its opening lines from Williams’s Spring and All (“Somehow / it seems to destroy us”). These sources introduce the first book, but also the entire movement. Where are they leading? What is this “it” that “seems to destroy us”?
Pearson: As I’ve said, “grit” denotes particulate matter, both a product of erosion and an abrasive agent. It also denotes perseverance or strong resolve. Implicit in these meanings, and common to them, is a dialectic of resistance and change, which are also conditions of subjectivity—“no / one ever / quite the same,” as Creeley’s poem ambiguously concludes. In Oppen’s poem, that “one” contrasts with “the many that we are.” The “isolated man” cannot be heard above the “dithyrambic” clamor that surrounds him. In a dithyramb, the choric (hence, collective) “voice” is one of extravagantly emotional speech or writing. Against which, in his espousal of clarity — and search for “that truthfulness / that illumines speech” — the “meditative man” is seen to fail. But his failure is not only personal (isolation as social death); it is also a collective failure. “And indeed they cannot ‘bear’ it.”
In a sense, “it” is a failure of language — a consequence of unreflective usage and of the refusal to acknowledge the social forces and ideological assumptions that mediate such usage, even as language mediates our relation to ourselves and others. This scenario is powerfully rendered in Williams’s poem “To Elsie,” in which — under the sign of modernity — we see power and privilege asymmetrically distributed among marked and unmarked subjects, primarily in terms of their gender and class positions and their ethnic and cultural identities. I wanted to establish the figure of one (and its negation as “no one”) — in league with Creeley’s and Oppen’s texts, and Williams’s “No one / to witness / and adjust” — as the basis for the subsequent pronomial transformations that populate the poems as personae.
Harley: “The Grit” initiates a concern with gender relations — flawed, in flux, or at odds, as may be — that preoccupies the first movement. You write of a couple, “at the edge / of a continent” (#1), who “rise as one / and stand apart / as if a couple / were nothing more / than any two / together” (#8). You describe a moment, “hardly an embrace,” in which the woman “neither yields / nor resists / seeming aware / that his smile / does not include her” (#10). And you conclude by depicting a woman who “turns away / her lithe back / to the sea” (#14) — a sensual but seemingly bittersweet image. Was your personal life intruding on the work?
Pearson: If it were, what difference would that make? In Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, would it matter to the film if he himself had never picked a pocket? (I mention Bresson advisedly because his approach to cinematography significantly influenced topologies.) Events in a poem are language events. Pronouns are words, not people. That words can refer to “real” events and people does not oblige them to do so. The question is not if one writes from experience, but rather what one makes of one’s experience (and what one counts as experience). If my work draws on details from my “personal” life — which of course it does — that life includes observed and imagined details that are no less part of my experience. While writing is a significant part of my life, it is only a part — and a contingent one at that. How, then, could a part be said to intrude on the whole that already includes it?
Apropos the final poem [#14] in “The Grit,” the affective quality of the last image must be understood in context. The poem begins with a man who “stands his ground” and is thereby “grown a part of it.” This alludes to Pound’s definition of “sincerity” as “a man standing by his word” (which he derived, perhaps inaccurately, from a Chinese ideogram). Sincerity, in that sense, is related to integrity as that which is pure, authentic, and self-consistent. And I wanted to suggest that such attributes can lead to stasis, to calcification, to the rigidity that I associate with “masculine” will in its extremity, as if it were a force of nature. It is that figure, of a man turned to stone, from which the woman “turns away.” And (implicit in the local geography) what she then faces is the city, a complex, motile, built environment. So she’s also rejecting, by turning back from the sea, the historical and oppressive association of “woman” with “nature.”
Harley: “Reaped Figures” [book 2] opens with an epigraph from Spicer’s After Lorca: “The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy.” Why does death inhabit most of the epigraphs in topologies? What is the role of “the dead” in book 2? Who are these “reaped figures”? Are they the “speakers” of these poems?
Pearson: The title comes from a line of Bunting’s: “We have planted ink and reaped figures,” which is a telling description of the writer’s lot. It also alludes to the book’s composition, which involved erasure of Bunting’s “sonatas” (exclusive of Briggflats). While rereading his work, certain isolated words and phrases kept appearing as poems within poems, so I started underscoring them to see what might result. In the end, I had reaped a series of fifteen poems, which seemed neither his nor mine. That made me think of After Lorca and Spicer’s notion of dictation (albeit not as he defines it). Death inhabits topologies because forms of relational and social death pervade it, recalling my intention to trace through its books the demise of the “one” — “that meditative man” — I mentioned earlier. In effect, I’m trying to tease out the distinction between a resistant subjectivity (that I would value) and the Romantic figure of the isolato (that I find problematic).
The speaker(s) of these poems include a limited third-person narrator — conceived as a voice-over in the manner of Bresson’s A Man Escaped — and a figure of ambiguous gender who may or may not also be the narrator speaking in the first person. I made an effort to script the latter’s statements in such a way that they might reasonably be attributed to a “person” of either gender — with the figure of Tiresias at the back of my mind. I sought this blending to contrast with the masculine-feminine binary presented in the “The Grit.” As well, there is a temporal contrast between the books: where “The Grit” takes place over one afternoon at the beach, “Reaped Figures” suggests a retrospective look at a long (and increasingly isolated) life.
Harley: “Southern Exposure” [book 3] begins with a rather cryptic epigraph from the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran: “for him everything is possible, except life.” The poems in this book feature significantly longer lines and a more expansive vocabulary than we find in the rest of the movement. How are these features related to the title? To whom does the epigraph refer? Is there an element of self-portraiture involved in these poems?
Pearson: The window above my desk faced south. Abstracted from its literal context, it provided a frame, a lens, an orientation — a site of imagination. The shape of the window frame suggested a page, and its subdivision into panes suggested a series of poems. Where the first two books sift and order “shards” of experience and memory, the larger and more intact “frame” of the window seemed to call for longer lines. As well, since the peninsula, where I grew up, is nominally south of the city where I was living, the window’s orientation took on a retrospective cast. Cioran’s phrase, as I recall, refers to his sense of “the poet” as one whose work derives its power “from everything he has not undertaken” — as one who cannot escape himself and live as others in the “real” world. In effect, he’s describing the poète maudit, a Romantic (not to say anti-modernist) conception of what a poet is and does. When I was young, I found that image both seductive and troubling — and in time came to reject it — but I wanted to recall and explore that ambivalence in the context of “Southern Exposure,” which is a kind of serial portrait (or “Bildungslyrik”) of the poet as isolato. Bresson is once again a tacit influence here — specifically, Four Nights of a Dreamer.
Harley: “The Blue Table” [book 4] returns to a more clipped lineation and a more restrained vocabulary. It also recalls, in contrast with “Southern Exposure,” the gender binary of “The Grit,” opening with an image of containment, both physical and emotional, “of ritual prisons / of provocation / cells from which / the body of / love cries out / for a shape / to contain its dreams” (#1). How do you see the relationship between form and content? And how is that mirrored in book 4?
Pearson: I prefer to think of “form and content” in terms of statement (in linguistics, a meaningful grouping of words) and structure (a systemic pattern of interrelated components). And note that I’m reversing polarity here, such that the “form” of any specific statement is a function (not an extension) of the “content” of its structure. The relatively expansive lineation of “Southern Exposure” (which reflects the “world” outside the “window”) contracts, as you’ve noted, to a more restrictive architecture (a “table” in a “room”) — and its use of free indirect discourse yields to the split subjectivity of an implicitly first-person “speaker,” as keyed by the epigraph from Beckett: “He speaks of himself as of another.”
In the opening poem, words such as country, prisons, cells, and body are structures that define (hence, constrain and condition) their “contents.” The dream of freedom from confinement (be it social, carceral, or biological) derives from the experience of its lack, so it’s a fundamentally utopian postulate and, in a sense, amorphous. It lacks cognizable “shape,” for which it “cries out.”
Harley: In “Ellipsis” [book 5], “what goes / by the name of / love is banishment” (#2). This echoes the later poems in book 4, in which you refer to “love / that terrible word” (#7) and describe “the blue table” in your apartment as “a figure / drawing attention / from the difficult / events in the room / in which it stands” (#9). Why banishment? In what sense is love a terrible word? What made this table an object of significance, something that could draw attention? William Gass has called blue “the color consciousness becomes when caressed.” What importance do you ascribe to blueness?
Pearson: The problem with taking lines or phrases out of context is that they lose the specificity on which their textual significance depends. Of course, they can signify otherwise, but only and dubiously as “universal” statements on topics of putative interest. Apropos #2 of “Ellipsis”: banishment is the act of forcing someone to abandon their dwelling place, which, in the intimate scale of these poems, could be taken to refer to being abandoned (emotionally or physically) by another, which in effect is to be banished from a relationship. In context, this is done in “the name of / love” — a rubric under which many “terrible” things are done, conversely including acts that actually necessitate banishment.
As for the table, I’m not a Symbolist. The table in the room was blue. So is the table in the book, but they’re not the same table. Nor is the room the same room. Once again, the quotidian source domains of specific tropes are being linked to, and distinguished from, their target domains. The significance of the table in the room is not germane, though that of the “table” in the “room” is educible: in context, there’s a table at which two people might have sat together, talked together, broken bread together — a site, if you will, of domestic life, for which, in the poem, it becomes a “figure.” As does the “room” (which in Italian is called a stanza). In a sense, the table is a third party to the “events in the room” — at once a distraction from discord and a reminder that previously, as Wyatt wrote, life “hath been otherwise / Twenty times better.”
In the abstract, “blueness” has no particular significance, except perhaps in reference to a portion of the visible spectrum of light. In context, for me at least, it tacitly invokes “the blues” (a mode of motz al son which I deeply value). With respect to Gass, I rather doubt that Robert Johnson’s consciousness felt “caressed” when he contemplated the hellhound on his trail. “The blue table / is not absolute” because its figurative meaning is context-dependent (as is the figure of the “hellhound”). Art doesn’t imitate or transcend life; it renders life’s contingencies articulate, and its specificity makes different ways of seeing and conceiving of those contingencies available to consciousness.
Harley: “Refractions” [book 6] takes its epigraph from Creeley: “days we die / are particular.” The minimalist aesthetic of the entire movement becomes even more noticeable here: the lines are shorter than ever, the vocabulary even more restricted. But the effect, to me, seems Webernesque in the way that each word chosen acquires the same representational importance as every other. You seem to achieve the “secret stillness” in patterns that Alex Ross attributes to Webern, and to share a similar preoccupation with intricate design. What determined the structure of this book? And how does its structure relate to “love,” a word that recurs, as both noun and verb, insistently throughout the book?
Pearson: “Refractions” begins: “In designs love / dawn the phase / the mind addressed / blossoms.” Because its meaning and usage vary so widely, there is no generally accepted definition of “design” — and I would say the same about “love.” Embedded in my use of “design” is a pun on Dasein, by which Heidegger designates a fundamental ontological problem: “Dasein is that entity which in its Being has this very Being as an issue.” It has been suggested that Heidegger came to this by way of Master Chuang’s philosophy. (Cf. my earlier reference to Master Chuang’s dream.)
The structure of the book derived from contemplating a glass brick, which I kept on my desk. I had recently entered into a new relationship, and my partner gave me the brick as a keepsake before leaving on an extended trip to Mexico. Such bricks are architectural elements (prisms made of compressed glass). They are translucent — they refract light — but are not transparent. The brick’s prismatic “cells” form a grid, which suggested a serial mode. The individual poems in the series are variations on (refractions of) its “theme” — encrypted in the Dasein pun as “Being” in love.
Harley: Before turning to the second movement, I note that topologies doesn’t show much evidence of the techniques I associate with Language writing. Certainly, your language is exacting in its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and the poems often focus on relations between the word and the world, but syntactic logic throughout topologies is much less paratactic than it is in your later work. Instead, you employ a hypotaxis-under-pressure, which is seemingly at odds with, for example, the poetics of the New Sentence. And in “Etude 3” of The Grand Piano, you acknowledge that the poems in topologies ran the risk of being dismissed as neo-Objectivist. As you see it, would such a reception have been warranted? What led you to adopt a more disjunctive syntax after completing the first movement of this work?
Pearson: As Roman Jakobson observed: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” And as Barrett Watten notes in his concluding essay for Grand Piano 10, “the history of [Language writing’s] emergence took place as an unresolved set of motives that made the literary what each of us confidently produced, in differing but related ways, circa 1980: writing, the work itself, language existing materially on the page” [emphasis added]. As well, context and chronology matter. The passage you cite from “Etude 3” specifically refers to my wondering how my work might be received at The Grand Piano when I first read there in June 1977. At that point, I had completed versions of the first five books in topologies and was working on the last. I’d been reading “language-centered writing” with great interest and growing enthusiasm for several years by then — primarily via Big Sky and This, as well as early books from Barrett, Lyn Hejinian, and Kit — and was well aware of the predilection for prose forms, parataxis, and various defamiliarizing strategies, as well as the motivations behind such usages, with which I largely concurred.
Ted Pearson with coauthors of The Grand Piano.
At the same time, however, I felt such techniques were unsuited to the poems in topologies — in part because of its expository role in the larger work-in-progress, and in part because I felt (and continue to feel) that placing “hypotaxis under pressure” is an equally viable, if less overt way of foregrounding language’s material existence on the page. As well, I quite understood my peers’ impatience with the various mystifications that had long since accrued to the notion of “the poetic line” — and their sense of the liberatory potential of the sentence. But as a writer, I wasn’t then drawn to prose (nor, on the evidence, was Rae Armantrout). And a careful reading of my use of lines and stanzas in topologies would reveal that they are not based on standard metrical schema, nor do they simulate colloquial speech, nor are they “measured” by breath. Rather, they reflect attention to phonotactics and grammatical phrasing, and they are based on recurring numerical patterns, such that each poem represents a mathematical set.
Lastly, as John Cage asserted, “One does not make just any experiment, but does what must be done.” Appropriating otherwise motivated writing strategies, without regard for their aptness to the work at hand, can only result in the charade of radicality, not in its actualization. I trusted that my work would make its case and find its readers over time, so I deferred use of the techniques you mention until such use was necessary. That came in 1980, when I began work on the second movement: contingencies.