The ordinary is always elusive—"near is / and difficult to grasp"—even as it is the most present actuality. And my sense, when talking about the ordinary, is always how extraordinary it is. Paradoxically, any attempt to fix the ordinary pulls it out of the everydayness in which it is situated, from which it seems to derive its power. . . .
Charles Bernstein commissioned me to write a piece that would bring Wallace Stevens' reputation among contemporary poets up to date - from 1975 to the present. The essay I wrote, as has been noted here before, was published in the fall 2009 issue of Boundary 2. Here is a PDF version of the entire article, called "The Stevens Wars."
In it I discuss the varying responsiveness to Stevens in the writings of (in order of appearance) Susan Howe, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, Charles Bernstein ("Loneliness in Linden" is a rejoinder to "Loneliness in Jersey City"), Lytle Shaw, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi, John Ashbery, John Hollander, and again Susan Howe as a very different sort of response than that of Hollander.
PennSound's Maggie O'Sullivan page includes a recording of a discussion with Penn students in Charles Bernstein's "studio 111" seminar. Michael Nardone has transcribed the session now and here is a portion:
PENN STUDENT: Thank you for your close reading, Ms. O’Sullivan. I was wondering if you could describe the relationship between performing your work and writing it.
O’SULLIVAN: Well, it depends on, every situation is different. Performing it is another opportunity to re-engage with the text at different levels, and another opportunity to negotiate the text on the page.
As you’ve probably heard, I often find my work is quite difficult for me to read from the page. Writing it, I hear the sounds often in my ear. But having to perform it, all the difficulties emerge. There’s lots of disconnectiveness and disjunctiveness that is kind of working against how I sort of, how sometimes it seems it may be read.
PENN STUDENT: Would you consider, sort of, maybe, performing it to be more body intensive than, I guess, writing it.
O’SULLIVAN: Well, writing is a body-intensive activity, totally. Absolutely, totally. The whole body is engaged in the act of writing. Whether it’s on the computer, with using a pen in the hands. The breath is involved in all activities. But with the performing, there are others that you have to connect with, and the place of performing also figures on it.
PENN STUDENT: A number of your poems integrate different languages, musical notes, pictures, and streaks, and they push the possibilities of poetic forms on the page. I was wondering whether this is supposed to conflict with the words, compliment them, or maybe even both.
O’SULLIVAN: The words working as part of all this kind of radical shifting—
In 2005, a seminar of Penn students and Charles Bernstein spoke with Christian Bok, making a recording that is now part of the "Close Listening" series hosted by Bernstein. Here is the recording and here is more information about the session. Now Michael Nardone has transcribed the interview for later publication in Jacket2 but we cannot resist offering a brief excerpt here:
PENN STUDENT: So, while we are talking about Eunoia, can we look forward to a consonant sequel?
BÖK: A consonant sequel? No, I’ve promised myself that I won’t ever write another constraint-based book again. The blood-pact I have with my peer group is that every book we write will be radically different from its predecessor, that the entire oeuvre should be completely heteroclite. So, the next project requires learning a whole new skill-set and re-training my brain, in effect, to learn something else. I probably would not have the endurance now or perseverance required to actually finish a constraint-based book.
PENN STUDENT: So, clearly, this is very constraint-based, and from what you’re saying, you’re probably going to set yourself a new set of rules every time you write something new. So, are you arguing for something, for going back to sort of the poetic formality that has existed forever, against the tide of free verse, or stream-of-consciousness?
BÖK: Well, actually, I have no problem with those poetic forms. I think my only complaint about those poetic forms you’ve cited is that they are not feeling much incentive to innovate and produce something new and reinvent themselves in a manner which is exciting and stimulating. And to me, it’s not so important that the work actually demonstrate some sort of formalistic character, so long as it has some kind of innovative rationale for its practice. So, I’m not making a case, I think, for a return to rigorous and strict formality. You know, I’m not that fascistic or school-marmish, I think, in my sensibilities. But I did this project thinking that it was a kind of experimental work. I didn’t know if it could be done, and I merely conducted the experiment to see what would happen. And to me, that’s really what writing poetry is about, it’s a kind of heuristic activity where you indulge in a completely exploratory adventure through language itself.
In the preface to Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (1998), Charles Bernstein describes the book – a collection of essays on the poetics of sound and performed poetry, the audiotext (including digital forms) in general – as “a call for a non-Euclidean…prosody for the many poems for which traditional prosody does not apply.” What I want to say here simply in this context: where is the non-Euclidean pedagogy to go along with this new aural consciousness?
For surely, if it is true, as Bob Cobbing put it in 1969, that "[s]ound poetry dances, tastes, has shape," then those of us who have been teaching poetry-as-printed (poetry on the page, unsounded poetry) would presumably have to add at least these dimensions to the realms of approach in the classroom. This is perhaps too elaborate a way of saying that to have been prepared to teach words on a page, no matter how complex, is not necessarily to be prepared to help present a language as a kind of dance or as something that has a physical shape. “When the audiotape archive of a poet’s performance is acknowledged as a significant, rather than incidental, part of her or his work,” Charles writes in the same preface, “a number of important textual and critical issue emerge,” and he goes on to name these. Here I add another issue to his list. The technology that enables this – our ability to acknowledge such material as significant rather than of additive or illustrative quality – must itself become a part of the story of the poetic art taught to students of that art.
"Leonardo da Vinci,” Cobbing liked to say, “asked the poet to give him something he might see and touch and not just something he could hear. Sound poetry seems to me to be achieving this aim." Same problem here, I'd suggest. Seeing and even hearing we can manage, albeit the latter with special effort. But touch? That's difficult in the traditional poetry classroom. (And although seeing a printed poem - really seeing it as a thing, in William Carlos Williams's sense - poems aren't beautiful statements; they're things - is something we think we do in a close reading when often it is not what we're really doing.) All this strikes me as relatively easy to discuss in theory, but actually doing it, creating a consistent practice, seems daunting.
We can enlarge from sound poetry to poetry in general that is aided by – though in the case of sound poetry was never dependent on – new computing media. The contributors to New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories (2006) make precious little mention of the impact on pedagogy made by poetic technotexts, yet at nearly every point in this collection an altered practice is at least implicit, even in the section titled “Technotexts”-—meant to show examples of computer-generated or –enabled poetry. An essay on Cynthia Lawson and Stephanie Strickland’s Vniverse, for instance, describes the “social reading space” required by this work in a way that suggests rather specifically what a teacher would need to do in the classroom in order to “teach” such art: while the text is performed through the artist’s viritual interaction with the site—which can of course be apprehended without its creators present—“the audience is also reading while being in a social space.” However, the artists add, “we do not read it as they do.” Thus their “performing new media poetry” is a kind of teaching, assuming teaching to be a dynamic three-way interaction: (1) technotext, (2) performer/instigator of the site, (3) audience that reads/interprets in a social space.
One of the several innovations inherent in such poetics is that the artists’ “creative process is [itself] an initial model for th[e] interaction” of the sort that can take place in the classroom, so that students can glimpse the creative process and, if the technotext succeeds, can experience it.
UCLA reading May 16 at 4pm
poster by Brian Kim Stefans