Commentaries - February 2013
When Dmitri Prigov explores the relationship between the book as material object and endlessly repeating copy, he anticipates a similar interest in the relationship between copy and singular material instantiation in Anglophone conceptual writing. One of the leading figures in conceptual writing, Kenneth Goldsmith, began his artistic career, like Prigov, as a sculptor. Among his early work, Goldsmith’s iterations of Steal This Book illustrate his interest in the book as both copy and unique material object. His two versions or copies of the book are both monumental copies of Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 counter-culture classic. One was made of lead and weighed 150 kg, the other was seven feet tall — both were too big to be stolen.
Goldsmith has since then produced a number of works that explore the iterations of the book through conceptual writing. For example, in retyping the New York Times and publishing the result in book form, Goldsmith transforms the disposable newspaper into a monumental brick-sized book on a par with the largest of the modernist long-poem masterworks, such as Pound’s Cantos or Olson’s Maximus Poems. Just as Prigov stresses the monastic act of copying and retyping in his work, so an important part of Goldsmith’s presentation of Day is his stress on the laborious task of retyping and OCR-scanning the New York Times. In both cases, the task of retyping stands in absurd contrast to the ease of copying in the digital age — the act of copying and the book as a copy thus mark the book’s reiterated presence in the age of digital reproduction.
Goldsmith also engages with the book as copy and particular embodied instantiation in a work that is purely digital: his “Kenneth Goldsmith Sings Walter Benjamin,” the first in his serial audio work Kenneth Goldsmith Sings Theory, which comprises interpretations for music and voice of texts from such well known theorists as Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, and Harry Potter. For his Benjamin text, Goldsmith chooses to sing almost the entirety of “Unpacking My Library,” a text that, as I’ve noted in a previous post, evinces both an interest in the singular quality of the individual copy and a focus on the book as a product of mechanical reproduction. Just as Benjamin lists copies of other books and the associations they bring, so Goldsmith copies Benjamin, creating an idiosyncratic audio book version. In his performance of the text, Goldsmith fuses precisely delineated musical sections, or movements, with the chaotic, shifting pitch and tone of his voice, paralleling Benjamin’s observation in the essay that “if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.” Recalling Benjamin’s vision of the collector’s magic and tactile relation to his or her objects, Goldsmith’s performance embodies the mark that the reader or collector leaves on a text through his idiosyncratic (to say the least) vocal rendition. The extreme idiosyncrasy of Goldsmith’s version matches the idiosyncratic and, in Benjamin’s words, “whimsical” account given in “Unpacking My Library.” In both cases, the individual copy is marked by its collector, in Benjamin’s case by each book’s relation to his personal history, in Goldsmith’s by his voice and intonation.
Charles Bernstein, New Langton Arts residency
San Francisco, January 1983
Single from reading Jan. 28:
"Entitlement" with Lyn Hejinian as Liubov Popova, Jean Day as Jenny Lind and Bernstein as John Milton: (11:51): MP3
"Characterization" (text subsequently published in Content's Dream (1:33): MP3
reading tape one (42:11): MP3
2:57 But Boxes Both Boats
4:40 Playing with a Full Deck
6:50 The Sheds of our Webs
7:39 If There Were a God
11:00 The Land and Its People
14:10 Forensic Gastronomy
15:23 Ideopathic Pathenogenesis
from The Sophist
16:42 The Years as Swatches
23:28 Foreign Body Sensation
33:49 Brain Side View
40:27 introduction to Entitlement (cut off)
tape two (50:09): MP3
introduction to Entitlement (continued)
2:00 Entitlement: with Lyn Hejinian as Liubov Popova, Jean Day as Jenny Lind and Bernstein as John Milton
34:02 to 50:09
It's a love poem but perhaps, ultimately, it's directed at someone in particular.
Perhaps John Ashbery’s “Some Trees” is a love poem for Frank O’Hara. They met at the time the poem was written, and they shared a twangy, bumpkin, non-Harvard accent. “These accents seem their own defense.” See, above, two pages from Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies. You might have to enlarge the image to read it easily. See the marked block quote in the middle of p. 236. (Thanks to Jason Zuzga for directing me to this passage.)
This is the 23rd episode of the Kelly Writers House podcast series, produced by me, hosted and introduced by Amaris Cuchanski, edited down to 23 minutes from the original hour-plus-long recording by Nick DeFina. The podcast features excerpts from a discussion with the writer of experimental metafiction, Robert Coover. I moderated the interview/discussion at the Writers House on February 24, 2009. Coover was visiting as part of a three-day stint sponsored by Kelly Writers House Fellows. He had given a reading the night before.
A question for Diana Hamilton
I had been hesitating to ask Diana Hamilton to talk about emotion / feelings / affect in her work, in part, because I was beginning to feel concerned that a tendency might be emerging in this column: a) that I’d somehow been asking more of my “female” correspondents to write on content questions, and b) that some of those content questions could look "soft" even though the answers I’ve been getting are quite brilliant and sometimes pretty hard-hitting. I mean, I asked Holly Melgard “Why childbirth” but could have asked her about her brilliant work with and on Troll Thread! But of course the issues raised by her childbirth performance are anything but soft or simple, and Holly’s answer makes that clear enough. Diana Hamilton’s brilliance, humor, and theoretical prowess deeply impress me. For the past few years she's been doing alot of heavy reading and thinking in the Comparative Literature Program at Cornell, where's she's earning her Ph.D. I remember her making some helpful theoretical connections in a Freud-Lacan reading group we both took part in a couple of years ago and was especially grateful for the work she and Kareem Estefan did unpacking Lacan’s diagrams. But my favorite memory of Diana involves her heroically instigating a chant CREEPY! CREEPY! CREEPY! aimed at an older male poet as he, essentially, felt up a younger female poet while she was on stage. Yes, that happened. CREEPY! CREEPY! CREEPY! Good stuff.
Hamilton describes her first book, Okay, Okay as ”a book of poetry that appropriates other people's feelings.” Working with all found language around the management of emotions (mostly how to hide them effectively), and woven together quite beautifully by Hamilton, Okay, Okay is a provocative and emotional read. Full disclosure: I am its co-publisher at Truck Books. So I've been reading through the work in this manuscript all the way through its process of becoming. It has had a powerful effect on me, reading through what amounts, I think, to a well-re-written collection of our culture's seemingly insurmountable pile-up of repressed emotion. Okay, Okay does important work. And, moreover, a question about feelings and repression is not “soft”; it's been made to seem soft in its co-optation by conservative, reactionary poetry discourse. When language poetry began to gain traction they said, “but it has no feelings!” Now people say the same about conceptual writing, often taking the title of the recent anthology Against Expression to mean "against feelings." But these misreadings amount to a refusal to think about what feelings really are and how they work. Intellectually charged writing doesn't avoid feelings, or come at their expense, and no one I know doing it thinks that way. So I decided to just go ahead and ask Diana Hamilton: Why Cry?
Here’s her answer:
Five years ago, I wanted to write a book called Let It Out that was going to be about all of the things that could be released: tears, waistlines, animals, prisoners. There was a terrible “song” about setting turtles free, if I remember. I started this book in part because of my new office job, where I found out quickly how feelings take the shape of the rooms they happen in, and how everything I felt was felt first by the internet.
Of course the eventual book was called something else, and it was about something else, too: instead of a banal celebration of the expression of the otherwise unexpressed, it became a banal repository for some means of repression; it had advice, which I like to give and get; it had floorplans, which felt emotional for me; it turned out, more than anything, to be about women, whom I also like, and who sometimes feel things.
In the end, I wanted to write about emotion in a way that dealt both with the limited forms for its expression — oh, so your boyfriend left you, and you want to die, and you dislike your job, and you cry every time you come—you are a very unsurprising person whose experience needs no innovation for representation — and which treated the feelings seriously anyway—as in old movies that make no pretense to surprise endings or well-rounded characters.
And at the same time, I didn’t plan to “write” it, either because I hadn’t yet learned how to write, or, more precisely, because not-writing it taught me how to write, or because it was clear that it didn’t need writing, or because repetition isn’t only what repression causes; it’s also a means of repression’s interruption. And still, I had a notion of writing something that someone would Read, alone, crying, and the unlikeliness of that goal made it good. By the time I was proofing it for publication, it had become an autobiography; I was sobbing on the ground outside of the building I taught in; I had forgotten I hadn’t written any of the sentences; many people have assumed the woman on the cover is me, etc., &c. If the book’s wholesale appropriation of others’ language started out as an accident of poetry-world context or personal preference, it wound up necessary: the stylistic flattening out of others’ experiences via writing felt to me like a protection from experience’s becoming generic.
And in thinking about how something general about a certain emotional experience could be formally registered in language as poetry, I tried to invent Spiritual Poetry, which I haven’t yet invented — but when I do, it will also probably involve Feelings, because Poetry sometimes does.