Writing in situ

Close Listening with Wystan Curnow

Editorial note: Poet, art critic, and curator Wystan Curnow, who was named after W. H. Auden, was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1939. He pursued his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to the southern hemisphere to teach at the University of Auckland, though his creative travels have included visiting professorships in New York and California. Curnow’s multigeneric poetry of spatial, cultural, and historical multiplicity can be found in such collections as Back in the USA (Black Light Press, 1989), Cancer Daybook (Vanguard Xpress, 1989), and Modern Colours (Jack Books, 2005). This April 7, 2009, conversation with Charles Bernstein was the second of two episodes in Bernstein’s renowned radio program, Close Listening. You can listen to both programs here. This conversation was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited by Katie L. Price. — Kenna O’Rourke 

Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, Art International Radio’s program of readings and conversations with poets, presented in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today for the second of two shows is Wystan Curnow. Wystan Curnow is a poet and critic from New Zealand. While teaching American poetry at the University of New Zealand, where he is a professor, he has curated shows and written about image and text. He is closely associated with such New Zealand artists as Billy Apple, Max Gimblett, and Colin McCahon. My name is Charles Bernstein. Wystan, welcome back to Close Listening. 

Wystan Curnow: Here we are again.

Bernstein: One of the subjects that has emerged in thinking about poetry, and often reemerged, often in different guises, is the relation of autobiography to the poet: the poet’s location, identity, ethnicity. To what degree is the region that you are from — New Zealand, Auckland, the north island — an integral part of your work as an artist?

Curnow: New Zealand as a country, and as a culture, is defined as much by its geography as its history. Its smallness, its isolation, the quite recent displacement of European culture there. The distance between Auckland and Sydney, the nearest city more populous than Auckland, is the same as that between London and Moscow, and there is nothing but ocean in between. New Zealand is a settlement society, both for Maori, who got there only a few hundred years before, as well as for Pakeha (Europeans), who only arrived there in numbers in the nineteenth century. We were, after the reading, talking about “The Western” —

Bernstein: The second of the three poems you read on the first show.

Curnow: Yes. I think of “The Western” as a settler genre, an American settler genre. The US West.

Bernstein: But you have also said New Zealand itself is the West, the extreme West.

Curnow: Yes.

Bernstein: So West that it’s East.

Curnow: Yes, yes. That’s right. Many years ago, I was interested in gold fields literature, which … you know … there is a nineteenth-century genre that goes from California to Australia through to New Zealand. 

Bernstein: The Gold Rush?

Curnow: The Gold Rush. From the 1840s through to the 1860s, there’s a continuous line of immigrant’s stories from gold field to gold field. So there are points of connection that I have, as a New Zealander, with America of that order.

Bernstein: When you talk about “The Western,” that poem, what are you doing with the dialogue there? Where do you get that dialect from? Is that from the movies? Is that from a Zane Grey novel?

Curnow: It’s pretty much a transcription of the text of a comic book I have. And some of the dislocation of the narrative … actually while the narrative bits are pretty familiar and the curve of the narrative is obvious, you can’t follow parts of it, because the pictures aren’t there.

Bernstein: Always kept it with you from a little boy on the sheep farm?

[Laughter.]

Curnow: Yeah! So the transcription, the sound of it, is not my English. The way I read it is the way I always perform it, and it’s one of the interests it has for me as a piece of writing. So the US/NZ settler genre hybrid is registered only in performance. There’s a swapping of performance for picture there which defamiliarizes an otherwise familiar, although obsolete, popular genre.

Bernstein: But the text is appropriated?

Curnow: The text is appropriated, yes.

Bernstein: And, in fact, a lot of the works that you have done have been appropriated, or they are collages or montages.

Curnow: Yes.

Bernstein: What’s your interest in this use of found texts and received materials, rather than composing stuff in the manner of the lyric poet, you know, on her or his own?

Curnow: It’s partly temperamental. It’s partly background. It’s partly a reaction against the Romantic idea of writing in poetry. It’s partly a reaction against the literary as well, and feeling more comfortable with working with what’s given. It’s also partly philosophical. 

Bernstein: What’s wrong with the literary?

Curnow: The literary tells me what I already know. It’s too bound, in my sense, by our past reading of things. 

Bernstein: So perhaps that’s also part of the New World aspect of your work. You know, we always refer to the Americas as New World literature, and yet New Zealand is kind of the newer New World in a way, isn’t it? And yet New Zealand poetry, in its history, has actually been perhaps more focused on Britain … it’s more Anglocentric than some of the poetries of the Americas — your work being an important and decisive break. But on the other hand, it might have been something else. What was the return to England? Why was that so significant for some earlier New Zealand poets’ sense of place and location? Because that, of course, wasn’t their place and location.

Curnow: No, it wasn’t, but it was the culture that they had, the culture that they took away with them. I mean, my grandparents’ generation still talked of the UK as home.

Bernstein: They were in exile?

Curnow: They were in exile, yes. So they actually held on to it. It wasn’t that they went back to England; it was as if they never left. 

Bernstein: So, that’s different from us in the US, where you wouldn’t have found exactly that. People might be in exile to some degree, but they would tend to think of the US or America as their destination, often, as in the case of my parents, wanting to erase where their parents came from, and certainly not mentioning it.

Curnow: Well, I think there are a number of reasons for that. One of the things to say, again, about the literary is that at some levels, the higher up the cultural chain you went, the more colonial the culture was. So those people who were making a place for themselves out there in New Zealand, who were furthest removed from England and the concerns of England, were the people who were making a living on the land, the people who weren’t interested in culture. Those who were still interested in the arts, shall we say, they could not break the link back to England. Those were the lines of communication. That’s where high culture was.

Bernstein: Now, you have been interested in network connections, transnational or global, to some degree, so commonplace as a way of mapping the visual arts. So going back to my original question of location — thinking of New Zealand as one point in this global set of crossing points and so on — where do you locate yourself on the globe in that respect? What are some of the currents, visual and verbal, that go through you, where you are?

Curnow: Well, first of all let’s go back one step, since I think that one reaction to going back to England, or attachment to home, was the idea of establishing something unique and of a particular place. So there was a type of isolationist, or a discovery of a New Zealand identity, a New Zealand literature.

Bernstein: Which would also be marked by features of the place itself —

Curnow: That’s right.

Bernstein: The boundedness by water, the particular fauna and flora —

Curnow: And the way in which, as society developed, it grew out of those things in particular, rather than things that were elsewhere. That’s in some way a resistance to the global, a resistance to networks. Essentially, I’m of a generation that is more impressed with the limitations and the delusions of such a cultural nationalist strategy, and wishes to expand the networks and make more of them. I think, as you yourself indicated, that somewhere in the 1970s, a considerable change occurred in terms of the influence particularly of American culture in New Zealand, not just at the popular culture level, but in the arts and in poetry. But one of the things I wanted to say about the network thing is that whatever other sources you are talking about, one looks at sources in a different way than has occurred in the past. It’s a matter of relationships and the negotiation of spaces between rather than a “here” and a “there.” So networkers, in my view, understood that way.

Bernstein: I’m of course thinking of the particular show that you did of maps and global networking. 

Curnow: I mean for me, the broader network began with the States. Then it extended to Europe, I would say, in the 1980s. Europe was a discovery for me. I’d never been there before.

Bernstein: Your orientation was primarily to the United States?

Curnow: Yeah. 

Bernstein: In that you came here to go to graduate school, right here in Philadelphia, and you’re interested in American poetry.

Curnow: That’s right. I went to Penn to study American literature, which I thought of as the leading instance of a post-colonial literature in English. In so far as he was a Far Western author, Herman Melville was, to me, also a New Zealand writer; Moby Dick was work of Pacific literature. I did my thesis at Penn on Melville’s poetry.

Bernstein: Maybe you could weave into this story the fact that, at the same time, you were involved with a group of New Zealand visual artists who were operating to some degree in the United States as well as in New Zealand, but who had a kind of international connection. So to gloss what you are saying in part, your internationalism is in resistance to the rather embedded — digging in to being in New Zealand with a vengeance: if you dig down deep enough you find England. And so this internationalism is a point of difference with a strong literary current in New Zealand but also to the attitudes of some of the American poets that you would have first connected with, who tended to be more US-bound and resistant to Europe. 

Curnow: Yes. The [Donald] Allen anthology was a big influence in my undergrad years. Especially Black Mountain and the Beat writers.

Bernstein: And not knowledgeable about New Zealand, or even Canada, or Mexico, etc. 

Curnow: When I went back to New Zealand in 1970 [after getting my PhD at Penn], it was like in some ways beginning again. I’d been away for seven years. And I looked around, and I wanted to see where the creative energies were in the culture. They seemed to me to be in the visual arts rather than poetry. So that’s when my real engagement with the visual arts began. While in the States, I was interested … I’ve always been interested in the visual arts. It actually began with that moment of coming back and saying, you know, “What’s going on here? What’s most interesting here?” And it really was what was happening in the visual arts. Basically it was the New Zealand version of conceptual art, that whole change. Or a particular version of post-minimalism, which down here we called post-object. It had its origins partly in the States, and partly in England and Europe. So there was a very broad set of influences, which coalesced in a distinctive way. 

Bernstein: So who would have been the key figures in the early ’70s who struck you in New Zealand?

Curnow: In New Zealand?

Bernstein: And also feeding into that, outside it as well. 

Curnow: Jim Allen is a key figure. Head of Sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Auckland. Jim had connections with what was going on in South America: South American conceptualist work. Oiticia and Clark. Also, in England, he was in touch with the Kineticists, who were more European and UK-based. So he brought European, South American, UK, and American interests into focus in New Zealand. And then he brought in visiting artists, young artists from Europe, from the US to teach in that program. Kieran Lyons, who’d come through Yale, and Adrian Hall, who was by then teaching at UCLA. There were New Zealanders, like Phil Dadson, who had gone to study with Cornelius Cardew in London, who came back. There was a hotbed of activity that had its own character, its own impetus, and I hooked onto that. That was really the most interesting thing that was going on. But underlying that is that broader recognition that in the arts from the ’60s into the ’70s the States was where the action was. It was later I discovered Europe had been hidden from me — I think hidden from me by Britain. I had a kind of British ignorance of Europe. Also the difficulty of travel. Then in the 1980s I looked to Europe, and I think that’s something also that is partly an outcome of what is happening in New Zealand at this time as well, which is a Maori renaissance at all levels of culture and politics going on. A particular point, at that time, is that if you are interested in your past, and you’re Maori, you must work on Maori culture. If you’re pakeha, you stick to your own history, inheritance. You take responsibility for your own history. This meant that I, among others, began to look to the sources of my colonial culture, not so much Britain, but in Europe generally. I started to go to Europe, particularly through the interest in contemporary art, which is not constrained by language, easier to move around. Also, I had my own connections, my own family genealogy that took me back to France. My mother’s ancestors are French, so some exploration of that occurred as well. And on my father’s side, well the ‘Cur’ or ‘Ker’ in Curnow or Kernow has the same root in the Celtish languages of Cornwall and Brittany as the ‘Ker’ in Kerouac.

Bernstein: So bringing this engagement — and then further on with people like Len Lye, the great expatriate New Zealand filmmaker and writer who lived in New York — coming back into New Zealand poetry, you’re really bringing both this European, conceptual art connection, as well as the New American poetry, the contemporary American poetry, into a literary culture for which none of those things would have been present virtually at all.

Curnow: No, no. That’s right. And so, most recently, the poetry I’ve been writing is very influenced by a fairly systematic reading of the poetry of European avant-garde artists, and discovering how many of them were poets as well as painters and sculptors. So the kinds of appropriation or, shall we say, encounter, with the texts that proceed my own writing in very recent times, in fact, have been the writings of Picabia, of Picasso, of Kandinsky, of Ernst. And the list goes on and on, as we know.

Bernstein: You teach, in New Zealand, US poetry, and really are an enormous promoter and defender of the more innovative aspects of American poetry of the post–World War II period. A lot of that poetry, however, is quite resistant to the very European avant-garde that you are talking about. So do you see a connection, a conflict there? 

Curnow: Not really. I mean, among American poets of the —

Bernstein: Now, I’m not talking exactly about my generation obviously. I would ask the same, and often do, of myself, as you know. So I am not setting it up that way. I share that engagement with you.

Curnow: Yeah. And people like Jerry Rothenberg and his anthologies have been so important in opening the doors for many of us. So, that’s not alien. But, as you say, those interests do not meet a common ground in New Zealand poetry, and no more do they in this country with many, many notable exceptions. So I think there is a common interest at that level. But I think the connection in talking about the teaching of poetry … I think that discovery I made going back to New Zealand in 1970, having a real close encounter with the change to conceptual art, made me realize what goes by the name of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry was a version of the same change, the same shift.

Bernstein: I think that is true of my generation, and, actually, you were early to recognize that in my life. My own, perhaps counterintuitive, contextualizing of the US poetry of the generation before me as a kind of conceptual work rather than a kind of, let’s say, projectivist project, or within a Williams context … to think of it also as kind of constraint-based around certain lines, which would put it more in the line with the European innovations, rather than distinct, and also denationalize it from the US social space in which it’s always reimagined. But you’re already there, in a sense, from the distance in which you’re looking. In a way, the parallax view from Auckland to New York, Auckland/San Francisco, Auckland/London, Auckland/Paris, already gives you a different spatial relation. So one of the things I was thinking about in that early show of yours — not that early, I mean it was about ten years ago, the global mapping show — is that space could be understood in that way, in that Duchampian network of stoppages: not just where you are, but your relationship to the places around you.

Curnow: Yes. I mean, if I were to say what is New Zealand about my mind, I would say it is an interest in geography and that interest in the map as a conception of geography. So we can variously bring this conversation back to that mode of thinking.

Bernstein: I’m also interested in the relation of your poetics, and your work as a writer and teacher, to your art writing, because you really bring to the art writing a, kind of, values of writing that are not always the most important thing to art critics, or certainly art scholars or art theorists. So what is the relationship as a writer between your writing, your poetics, and your art criticism? 

Curnow: Well, as with many, the kind of binaries we are talking about — “here” and “there” — I’m really interested in the places in the middle and in the stoppages in between, in mapping the space in between. So that applies, I think, to my criticism, my critical writing. There’s a sliding scale; sometimes it’s simply moving; it adjusts to the occasion. Sometimes, if there’s more of an opportunity, I push the writing to the middle place. But crucially, in terms of my own development, I think, and oddly it seems subsequently that my poetry writing, as I see it now, had its important beginnings in writing about performance art, and reading the role of the critic as a transcriber, or a describer, or interpreter — as somehow implicated in the performance itself. So that it was something about the impact of performance art, per se, that cast me into the role of writer as performer, as a critic, that really then fed into my own poetry. Criticism was crucially important in terms of my own development in that sense. I think that performance art changed my notion of writing, critical writing, and writing per se. It was specifically an issue of writing in situ. That was a key part of it.

Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Wystan Curnow in situ on Close Listening. The program was recorded on April 6, 2009 on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania at the Kelly Writers House. Close Listening is a production of PennSound in collaboration with Art International Radio, operating at ArtOnAir.org. Our engineer for today’s show is James La Marre. For more information on this show, go to our website: writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. This is Charles Bernstein, close listening down under, on top, and in between.