PhillyTalks #7: Brian Kim Stefans and Fred Wah
Editorial note: Brian Kim Stefans is arras.net and the author of seven books of poetry and criticism, including Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (2003), What Is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (2008), and Before Starting Over: Selected Writing and Interviews, 1994–2005. Fred Wah is a poet and critic. In 2011 he was appointed the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada. His books include Faking It: Poets and Hybridity, Critical Writing, 1984–1999 (2000), Pictograms from the Interior of B.C. (1975), Music at the Heart of Thinking, and The False Laws of Narrative: The Poetry of Fred Wah (2009). What follows is a transcript of the discussion portion of Philly Talks 7, which originally took place on November 2, 1998. As with all Philly Talks, a PDF was circulated before the discussion. You can find the PDF here. The program was curated by Louis Cabri, and Aaron Levy acted as recording engineer and producer. Michael Nardone transcribed the program and the original recording is available at PennSound. — Katie L. Price
Fred Wah: Something we mentioned in the talks that came up: Brian said he felt being — at least I keep using the term — “racialized,” and that’s kind of a leveling, [but he mentioned] when he felt, as a young writer, that writing was going to give him that freedom. There was a freedom, a freedom from what? That was, for me, from a much older generation. I felt that same sense of looking for a freedom from the imposition of the major, the dominant, the hegemonist language around me. So, in my poetry, in my writing, I’ve always enjoyed the freedom in poetry to do anything you want, to go into the language and do that. But then, it’s led to an awareness, linguistically, of a kind of minute — almost, as Louis [Cabri] calls it, sublinguistic, in the Peter Inman sense of let’s get under the language — thingness of language. So, there’s a connection, I think, between “sloup” and “William Carlo” theater [the name Stefans’s mother used to refer to the William Carlos Center for the Performing Arts in Rutherford, NJ.] and the oompf and the syllabylization. The particles of language start to break down because we want to be free to do that.
Brian Kim Stefans: One thing that comes to mind the way you’re talking about it … in Roy Miki’s afterword to the collected poems of Roy Kiyooka — well, Roy Kiyooka is a tremendous poet and I think Americans should probably read him — but he talks about Kiyooka not writing in English, but inglish, which obviously is a double for the lower case first-person pronoun. Also inglish not so much being a subset of the larger English, but that language, that terrain that’s obviously more fluid. One thing that Kiyooka talks about is when Miki was young he was put into a concentration camp in Canada, and he talks about (for Kiyooka) the opaque reality of the state, the state moving in on your family and shuffling you off. I think English with a capital E becomes not the tool of the state, but an extension of that state. So, the use of inglish is a way of finding those fusions. This feeds right into another thing, which is Jeff Derksen and the fissures. Obviously it ties right in to this whole idea of totalities. I brought it up only because of the very concrete example of someone like Kiyooka at the age of six being thrown into these camps.
Bob Perelman: There’s a huge difference, though, in what you’ve both just said about language. Fred, your sense of the wholeness of language, the freedom it allows you, and thinking of Olson and breath and the sense of being released into the field of projective verse, and also that piece at the end of your reading, “Music at the Heart of Thinking …” — the last one you read, one to seven — where any little bit, the particles that are in the culture, allows us to intervene and domesticate the homogeneous aggregates and institutions around us. The thing that’s left out of the big imperial grid of this State is not salvation, that’s too strong, but freedom where you can critique it —
Stefans: Dialogic, in direction you mean?
Perelman: Well, what isn’t in the big culture is there, in part, as a recognition and desire of what we use as intervention. But there’s another side of it where … this is I guess the sloup-loose thing I keep coming up with, where in both your writings there’s a place where language and form aren’t just automatically recuperable into a kind of plenitude of fullness, but it’s just the site of real struggle. You know, Sloup probably makes a joke out of it, but it’s also like a wound.
Wah: Yes, that’s what I try to get at: the embarrassment. To immediately band-aid that wound, to immediately put something over that wound, is learning how to fake it — turning it into a self putdown, turning it into something that’s negotiable in a social context. But you’re right, the wound is there. It keeps getting addressed, but not in that sense of, as Brian says in our talk, whining, like “I’ve got a wound,” but also, there’s an agency in that act. That sense of … once again coming back to the notion of freedom, there’s a certain freedom, if you like, for me to come back to Sloup and narrate that story, and resituate it in my own biotext, if you like, and try to unpack it, work through that, which he didn’t have, which is okay historically. That’s how we operate historically. But it’s still freedom. There’s still a sense, at least for myself … and I was interested to hear Brian say this in our talk: that we both, despite our obvious generational difference, felt this immense freedom, or look for this freedom in poetry to move into language. It’s the only place in our, perhaps, not necessarily problematic or troubled linguistic history, but it’s the only place that we can move into and feel that freedom.
Stefans: I wanted to comment on just one thing that he said about the Sloup. Was it your grandfather’s story?
Wah: No, my father’s.
Stefans: Your father’s story. I thought it was interesting how it opened the fourth wall into some kind of image of Chinese guerrilla warfare. This is the swamp water with which we make soup —
Speaker: Yes, the passive aggressive way of making them drink that stuff.
Stefans: Yeah, I remember when I worked with my mother, or even when she worked in the restaurant, it was a clear divide: we had to create Korean dishes for the non-Koreans. There was this whole thing, and we weren’t disparaging them or anything, but there were all these manipulations we had to do back there. You couldn’t even call it cultural negotiation because the other side didn’t know it was happening. So they obviously weren’t negotiating. I wouldn’t necessarily call it warfare, but I think the way your father saved face was interesting. And I think that can happen on a literary level in a weird way. To go back to John Yau, I think he’s kind of an interesting character in the sense of the way he uses language. You know, Marjorie Perloff considers him a bitter man.
Stefans: Yeah, she reads the “Ghengis Khan” poems as being alienated, although I think there is a lot of negotiation there that relies on the one hand [on] the pleasure of the text, this whole writing, this surrealist writing or language writing, whatever, that relies on a certain kind of concrete synesthetic appreciation of a word, but on the other hand, there’s that element of the word the way John uses it that retracts as well. It says: I don’t want to have this word entirely. It’s not going to be your word. Do you know what I mean?
Perelman: No, say it again. Say it in a different way.
Stefans: Well, it will be hard because there are lots of different types of writing. I’m probably thinking of something very specific, like the Genghis Khan sequence or something like that, where he is using particular puns —
Perelman: Do you think of this as revealing for that restaurant scene? I’m going to use your terminology: here’s a Korean dish that I’m preparing, so to speak, and I’m showing it to you. But, in fact, I’m not going to give it to you. You can’t have it because you’re not Korean. Is that what you are saying? That you can’t have this word?
Stefans: No, because I don’t think John Yau is necessarily saying “I’m Chinese and you’re not.”
Perelman: That’s what I thought I heard you saying.
Stefans: No, it’s more like if you could imagine John preparing some Chinese dish, but not using the ingredients that a real Chinese person would use to make that dish, and then serving it to someone who wouldn’t know the difference. No, no, no, maybe that’s not it. It has something to do with artifice or a feigned —
Speaker: Faking it!
Stefans: It has something to do with giving someone certain kinds of sensations, but not letting them in on the context that maybe he himself has devolved.
Speaker: Brian, I wanted to ask you something. What you do with your poems? Thinking of the Genghis Khan poems, I think there’s a strategy that’s become more common among racial, fringe writers, in that we have a stigma with our usage of the language. No matter what kind of English we use, you can expect us to use broken English. It’s used as a kind of weapon now. Myung Mi Kim is an example. Since people expect us to use broken English, we’re going to use it very skillfully.
Stefans: I think you’re absolutely right.
Speaker: Not as an ignorant. It’s not a new strategy. It’s been around a while, with black writers, et cetera.
Wah: I agree. It’s there. It happens and goes on and on in a variety of ways.
Speaker: There’s a tremendous freedom in that.
Wah: Yes, there is. Actually, Mary Ellen Pratt talks about that very intelligently in … oh, I forget the essay, but it’s been looked at and brought up.
Speaker: It’s not a [indecipherable] game playing. There are all kinds of undertones and undercurrents.
Wah: And I also think that what’s interesting then is to start looking at the writing of writers who consider it a freedom to then read closely how they’re negotiating that freedom. It ends up being a very ambivalent position for a lot of writers, because that freedom can be the freedom to move into, if you like, mainstream, dominant, conventional structures because, to say, I can do that, or freedom to be in opposition and say, no, I don’t want to do that, I want to be against the dominant.
Stefans: Is that a freedom? A freedom to move into the mainstream? That’s a complex thing, because certainly when I first started writing poetry, my idea was that I’m just going to be the fucking best poet in the world, you know. I was reading my Pound, I was going to study my French, whatever, thinking that there was some central tradition, and I felt my goal was to be there in the central tradition. But at the same time rejecting the idea of writing for, well, I could name a handful of magazines, but do you see that as a freedom? I mean it is a freedom, from a different perspective, from further, distant perspective, do you see that as a freedom? Like the way you commented on Evelyn Lau, for instance.
Wah: Well, I think that, for example, just recently in English language writing, at least that I’m aware of, that the whole notion of choice, which is having the freedom to choose, is really very recent. It has a lot to do with choosing where you want to go within, perhaps, what’s given as literary convention, inherited literary structures, or social structures. For you to say in our talks here, “When I was starting as a young poet, I really enjoyed the freedom to be able to move,” I thought, that notion of freedom, that wasn’t even a word in my sense of growing up, or in my sense of starting to write. It started as an afterthought. I think for a lot of writers in “your generation” – I don’t want to make this a Ron Silliman/Jeff Derksen generational thing – but I did talk about Evelyn Lau and younger writers as yourself that I think choice is fairly central to how these writers act as writers, what they choose, how they choose to move as poets. What’s totally fascinating, I’m sure to Brian as well, in Asian American, and I’ll say “Asian American” to exclude the Canadian for the moment, but in Asian American writing, if you look at Walter Lew’s Premonitions, the range of writing in such an anthology is, I think, pretty stunning, structurally, stylistically, content-wise. The various attentions that are coming up [are] just astounding. That could not have happened thirty years ago. That would not have been possible thirty years ago, that range of attention.
Stefans: One thing that I would add to this idea of choice, I do think there is this particular quality to the Asian American circuit, or just being Asian American and perhaps hearing of the circuit, or just being an isolated Asian American poet, is that when you look in an anthology like Premonitions, you do see a wide range of writers. Some of them strike you as being terribly conventional, and some of them strike you as totally outlandish, but this issue of choice, I tend to read more of it into an anthology like Premonitions, even in mainstream poets who I might not be particularly interested in, I do read choice there. Whereas if I were to look at one of these mainstream magazines that I’m not going to name, I tend not to read choice or I tend to read less choice. In coming to New York from Bard College, where I wasn’t really dealing with issues of race or anything, and getting involved with Walter and reading all these poets, all of whom are reading each other, carefully actually — like Myung Mi Kim is reading Cathy Song, but in a similar instance I wouldn’t say that Susan Howe is reading Sharon Olds — but in a way there’s a kind of fluidity in the Asian American, and I don’t want to say Canadian because I can’t comment that much on Canadian poetry, but I think it points to a kind of way to remap or un-map the literary landscape that we kind of understand. And, of course, Asian American literature being traditionally a marginalized literature is going to be in that kind of camp where experimental literatures will reside, but, interestingly enough, you have this fluidity, you have an apparatus to read choice in Asian American, even mainstream, writing. And African American writing …
Wah: But we no longer have to talk about this, do we? Isn’t this over?
Stefans: Well, I do, and there are many reasons I bring this up. Do you mean the divide between so-called experimental writing? Or to go to the guy that sat in this chair, when you read Ron Silliman on MFA-workshop poetry, he calls it the McPoem. He’s basically precluding the idea that these poets actually have souls. I know you’re going to raise objections. My tendency is to think that you can’t really do that in Asian American literature. I do want to hear what you have to say, but does this make any sense?
Perelman: I don’t want to perpetuate Ron’s remarks about nothing new from the younger generation.
Stefans: No, no, I’m talking about the McPoem thing, which is different.
Perelman: Well, it just strikes me that maybe I’m wrong, sociologically or factually, but it seems that the Asian American writing or poetry community would still be small enough, and feel the need to emerge and be emergent, that you sort of can’t afford to completely separate from camps, and so you do read each other. Whereas it makes perfect sense when you say Sharon Olds — I don’t know this, but can certainly imagine it — not reading Carla Harryman or Susan Howe. It’s a much bigger scene, and that’s when there’s a sense of psychic triage or something, like, we can’t be those mainstream poets over there or else the poets over here —
Stefans: I think you’re absolutely right, I mean the vestiges of community poetry interests, you get more of that even in Asian American poets who do not feel invested in the community.
In coming to New York, I don’t particularly care for the APA writer’s workshop, but I am reading poetry from a total peripheral or outer orbit. But those are both recent phenomenon, the idea of an avant-garde that’s not being read by the mainstream at all or completely ignored, or mainstream as not being upset by the avant-garde. That’s a recent phenomenon, as is what I’m suggesting with Premonitions. It’s also a recent phenomenon, because earlier in Asian American literature, figures like John Yau or Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, not Bersenbrugge, but John Yau and Theresa Chow were very much excluded from dominant social-realist paradigms. But they weren’t artistic paradigms that were the problem. They were like scientific readings of literature. They weren’t the actual artists engaging in this kind of thing. So, I think it’s actually quite a recent phenomenon in Asian American literature.
Wah: But maybe, as you’re talking, if I could come in as a distant observer of Asian American writing, because Brian mentioned the Asian American writer’s workshop in New York, which we’re probably both on their list — I don’t know how many people are on their list, almost daily you get four or five events happening — you start to realize all of a sudden, and I think it’s quite astounding, although I don’t follow, because I’m not in New York and it’s mostly centered in New York, that as you say this is a large place you live in and there are a number of constituencies doing their thing. My sense right now is that the Asian American writer’s workshop is proceeding on its own, exclusive of any, if you like, whiteness or any other thing. It’s proceeding — on some proposition usually informed, unfortunately, by previous propositions of community — on its own. And I’m sure the Mestiza in south California is doing the same thing, the Cuban thing in Florida must be doing the same thing. There are all these different constituencies going off on their own, and this notion — that bothers you, you said — of this larger thing is, I think, a kind of questionable largeness. It’s so large that it’s dispersed.
Perelman: It’s not a thing anymore.
Wah: Yeah, it’s not. In fact, it’s very dispersed, and as a Canadian I’m starting to feel this too, that it’s hard to relate, in a sense, across aesthetic or poetic lines exclusively. I don’t know, it’s hard to determine where you are. There’s so much crossing and mixing, and one can move in and out of and not feel guilty about trespassing across certain borders.
Stefans: Fred, let me just mention this, there’s quite an interesting essay by Jeff Derksen, the poet who has been mentioned quite often tonight. And Fred, you were involved with the TISH school or group of poets in Vancouver, which would have been in the seventies?
Wah: No, 1959 to 1963.
Stefans: Yeah, that’s what I said. [Laughter.] And you weren’t read as a racialized writer —
Wah: I didn’t know I was a racialized writer.
Stefans: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Can you talk about that? Because I’m very interested in fluidity, social fluidity, not with the total annihilation of subjectivities, individual subjectivities, and that’s why I’m always looking at Canada and England and Brazil to find ways read American poetry without creating these narrow lines. And Asian American literature as well. In terms of Canadian literature, we never had a Fred Wah in American literature.
Wah: Oh, yes you did.
Stefans: Who was that?
Wah: It was Fred Wah.
Stefans: I mean in the United States.
Wah: I know, literally. Fred Wah was in the United States. Fred Wah was in the United States from 1963 to 1967, and participated in a poetry community in Buffalo, a precursor to the present poetics program. And Paul Carroll seriously considered Fred Wah as a contributor to the American poetry anthology that he was editing out of the University of Chicago, but couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the citizenship, or I didn’t have the papers, et cetera. There were no Chinese, there were no Asian, and there were hardly any black poets present in 1964 in the so-called avant-garde of American poetry. It just wasn’t possible. Amiri Baraka was unusual. Who was there? There were no Asians. Asianicity wasn’t even a part of it. There were no Asians. There was nothing from Asia.
Stefans: Are you talking about in the States?
Wah: I’m talking about in the world.
Stefans: What about Kiyooka? Where was Roy Kiyooka then?
Wah: He was living in Canada, but he wasn’t considered a serious poet. He was a painter.
Perelman: So, it’s there, but that’s not in the States.
Wah: I mean, that ground wasn’t there. All I’m trying to say is that the ground, the ground has shifted totally into something else. I don’t know what interests we have historically —
Perelman: Somebody like Melvin Tolson, who was a fantastic poet, but completely marginalized. At least after he got very experimental, like in Harlem Gallery. It came out sort of right at the same time as Black Arts. It’s still not in print.
Stefans: He was writing in Texas. He moved to Texas for a good while. That’s where he did his weirder stuff. He did the whole Harlem Gallery, which was more or less narrative.
Perelman: He did Harlem Gallery, or the Gallery of Harlem Portraits, which is a little more Spoon River-y but Harlem, but then there’s something called Harlem Gallery, which is this modernist masterpiece that out-Eliots Eliot without all the problems of Eliot. It’s a very specific, isolated thing.
Wah: My view from the distance is, to go back to that, right now in 1998, being Canadian, being up in Canada now after thirty years being away from the States …
Stefans: Welcome back.
Wah: … and looking at what’s there, looking at what I’m interested in, in terms of poetics, I still find it interesting that there’s an absence of Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt, Nate Mackey, from certain configurations of, let’s say, formerly innovative American poetry.
Perelman: You mean, they don’t exist in Canada? They’re not read?
Wah: No, I’m saying they’re not represented in the United States. In publications in the United States, they’re not that represented in the collective of anthologies, magazines, and so forth. There seems to be, to me, from a distance, there still seems to be a fairly, if you like, segregated culture. This is from a distance. Of course, I still experience that in Canada, the sense of segregation culturally. See, I wasn’t always an Asian writer, to go back to Brian’s point. In 1960, there wasn’t the possibility of being an Asian writer. There was no such thing as an Asian Canadian poet. All I could be was a Canadian poet. And to be a Canadian poet you had to do certain things, and you had to go through certain hoops. There was no address to race, at least in Canada. So, it didn’t even come up. And I don’t think it came up even in the States until the seventies. It would be interesting to track that, but I don’t think it’s been that available to us. And now, I’m saying, in 1998, when I say “Haven’t we all been through this?” it’s in the sense that we do have other things to talk about. It’s an unsettled, and perhaps unsettling — but not that unsettling because we’re both very privileged people, culturally and socially. We’re not just racialized people, we’re writers. We do write poetry.
Stefans: It’s interesting where all of that stops and starts. It’s good to go through a certain quick, thumbnail sketch of this. Actually, when I mentioned freedom in writing, if we could go back to this, this whole idea of freedom, I was reading Pound in high school. I wasn’t necessarily implying that with Pound made me feel that I could just type one hundred pages of poetry. It’s quite the opposite. Pound made you feel like you could write three words of poetry without having to hear the Greek, or everything. And then I go through college without necessarily thinking of myself as a racialized writer, although I’m sure it’s all there underneath. But, I don’t know, would you like to move this to, to what?
Wah: To totally change it. Why don’t we talk about a word that comes up in our discussion that I’m interested in, and that’s process procedure. Brian says in his discussion at a certain point, to remind you or if you haven’t read it, Brian is responding to a note of mine, and my sense of the musical body and Olson’s propioception, which I came out of and is in my roots in poetry, and “the ‘musical body’ finds, through language, a whole series of platforms or levels to work on that are way beyond New American poetics, but also liberated” — there’s that freedom again — “in a sense, from the procedural underlining of much language-centered poetries.” I was really curious of that, that “procedural underlining of much language-centered poetries,” because I haven’t called myself this, but certain critics have labelled, if you like, the kind of poetics, the kind of talk-based poetics that I was brought up on, was this notion of process. They call that Black Mountain stuff that I was doing in the sixties process poetics. Now I’m not quite sure I understand what they mean, or what you mean by procedural. So, I thought that might be kind of useful to get into: process procedural.
Stefans: A lot of the work I’m doing work that involves computer programs, systems, and elegant solutions to textual problems, that are what I consider processes: editing processes, compositional processes that are not bodily. And actually, you didn’t quote that quick definition of process, I tend to divorce it from the caprices of the bodily organism in the process of writing. Whereas your idea of process, and what people say about you and process, is centered exactly around that, which is like the pro ...
Stefans: Proprioceptive creature composing a poem. I’m like the cyborgian creature, maybe attached to the computer through the wrist, but I’m not necessarily composing a poem. That’s what I meant, and when I link it to Language poets, I’m thinking of the Fibonacci sequence, Andrew’s hundred poems of three hundred words each, four words in a line. And also certain philosophical underlinings and social critical underlinings for a certain poetic production that I wouldn’t say predetermines a poem, but provides maps towards a poem’s creation that certainly I think one of the whole ideas of projective verse was that the poem was a field that you walk out into. The whole Creeley, as I said to my friend John, you’re kind of creating the poem as you navigate the language and the moment. And then, what I was saying about your poem was that your poetry seemed to be informed by the possibility of my idea of process. You know, I just realize[d] that poem, “Nose Hill 1,” is three words per line. That was obviously something you sat down to do?
Wah: Intentionally, you mean?
Wah: I better look and see and make sure. I think so.
Stefans: The only swerve is this “w/ as ex hill” —
Perelman: Very crudely, the sort of binary is like between procedural stuff prior to Cage versus process a la Pollock, where the line opened-up self generates the intelligence and that not foreseen artistic decision making, as opposed to a Cagean, let’s not have an ego inform this, or body inform the poem, and let the world speak through whatever system you’ve fallen through to have a kind of more pure information of the world speaking, rather than the heroic self speaking.
Stefans: Now that we’ve brought up, well, I don’t know if we want to go back to this, but the whole idea of a racialized language, but this Cagean poetics actually I think is quite interesting in terms of our sense of a racialized language because this idea that you can use these different kinds of language, this interstitial language. I think J. Ismail is a key player in this. She’s a wonderful Canadian poet I don’t anything about, but she’s kind of Joycean in a way. I mean, I’ve read bits and pieces of her, but she’s quite elusive. A Cagean poetics gives you a way to recuperate forms of language. I go back to that “mixie-grill” and it’s kind of like a slur. If I was walking down the street and somebody said “mixie-grill” to me, it’s a slur, right? But I have to find a way to use that language. It’s a quite rich language anyway. Oddly enough, a Cagean poetics gives you a way to at least take the language back and shape it the way you want.
Perelman: You know, mixie-grill, this is a terrible, terrible [indecipherable] but it never occurs in Cage.
Stefans: What do you mean?
Perelman: Mixie-grill, something like that, that comes out of a specific scene of social conflict.
Stefans: Well, why is it social conflict? He’s taking the language of his life, the poetry of his life or whatever, his trip to the park with Merce Cunningham, whatever happens to come up in life, and what I’m saying is that by denying his self, or denying the context of the self, I’m able to use the language that before, because of its context and because of its pointedness, I’d have to deny. I could actually take it back. I’m not saying that I just let it spill out in the same way that Cage might, but at least I have it there. You know, you spend most of your life as an Asian American hoping that nobody says anything to you. At least, for me. I’m not going to speak for everybody, but I was raised in an Irish, Polish, Italian, Roman Catholic suburb. I was the only Korean kid, and everybody used to shout all kinds of shit at me. You know, I got a lot of language. What am I going to do with that language? What am I going to do with those moments? I block them out or I pretend I’m not there. The interesting thing, like I said, with a Cagean poetics is that it allows you to, I don’t want to get psychological, but to use those moments in a more distanced way, I guess. And then to put your own spin on them. Does that make any sense?
Perelman: It make sense. It’s just that Cage himself doesn’t do that.
Stefans: Well, Cage himself, yeah.
Perelman: But yeah, okay, but also a Cagean —
Wah: He puts it in his recipe. He put that language in his recipe, right? In his recipes for food.
Perelman: They’re pretty elegant those recipes.
Wah: I know, but the language that gets used in them is at least particular to this food that he’s trying to serve. That kind of particularity, is that what you’re talking of?
Perelman: It’s the tone of threat in what you’re saying, mixie-grill, you know, that language can come at you.
Wah: Oh, I see. It’s that Cage wouldn’t have anything to do with threats.
Wah: There wouldn’t be any threat. That’s what I’m saying.
Perelman: I think that’s what I’m saying. It’s more like plenitude: writing through, I guess I’m mixing Cage and Mac Low, but writing through Joyce, writing through, taking this thing, seeing what the computer does. You know, your computer program can spit out all kinds of stuff, but what if in a computer vocabulary, it was all like “nigger,” “bitch,” “I’ll kill you,” et cetera. Then, that’s a whole different thing.
Stefans: Absolutely. I’m not saying it’s pure Cage, and I think one of the main figures here is Bruce Andrews. Bruce Andrews uses a Cagean technique on the language of his life, whether it’s the social essays that he’s reading, or the stuff he sees on the streets. And in many ways, he runs it through a Cagean mill. He’s a rapid editor. He obviously puts an edge on it, but Bruce — Bruce Andrews, I call him Bruce because I know him — obviously benefited from Cage, and Mac Low too, but this way of taking language, the material of language, and of using it, as I say, process-urally to kind of, to first of all, deny the self. Clearly there is a self in Bruce Andrews, but at least the project is to create an image of the self as body, which he is trying to distort. I’m getting lost, but you see the leap from Cage to Andrews, right? Andrews has a very different psychology from Cage, obviously, but I think the basic fundamental procedure is still there. And that’s what I’m saying: I could recuperate language through that, the slur.
Speaker: Or examining your own race without it being necessarily your own, or something that you can see, that’s out there, the language of it.
Speaker: It’s a new view to look at it from outside.
Stefans: Yes, the idea of a social discourse, not so much a discourse on race that’s carried out in school, but a racialized or racially informed language, or a racist language I guess is what it comes down to. To actually look at the racist language and say “Look, what wonderful words.” It’s like a Cagean thing. I couldn’t do that if I were ten years old, I couldn’t say look at this racist language, which I can make poetry out of.
Speaker: Or you could talk about your suffering, or the pain. This makes you want to get away from that. It might trouble your ability to look at it somewhat objectively.
Perelman: Do you really say “this is a wonderful word” though?
Stefans: No, I don’t say that. I’m joking.
Perelman: But it’s a really far-reaching political vista about that joke. It’s a really complicated joke, and, I think, kind of an impossible joke.
Stefans: Well, to put it this way, when I was a kid, when I was in high school, I could say I was raised in a white suburb, and I go to Jersey City and all of a sudden I’m in school with students who are Chinese, Koreans, Philipinos, blacks. It’s very mixed. And I had this one Philipino friend of mine, and he had a little notebook, and it had the word “bastard” here [pointing]. He was Philipino and a good friend of mine, and he had the words “chinky bastard,” and then he would flip it up, and it would say “flip bastard.” And then he would flip it up again, and it would have all of these various things. Actually, it was never black, because Asian kids don’t joke about black culture.
Perelman: That’s the same thing I’m saying about the joke.
Stefans: Yeah, when I say look at this wonderful language, I’m saying, I mean, obviously the language I heard, well, actually I can’t say this because interestingly enough I feel like black slurs are worse than Asian slurs because I found a way to kind of, I don’t want to say internalize racism, but I found a way to stomach it.
Perelman: Deflect it?
Stefans: Or laugh it off. Like I’m saying with the flip book, flip bastard, Chinese bastard. But I can’t do that with black slurs. There is a way that that hits me in a weird way. Not that it’s ever directed at me, but for some reason it strikes something that is just much more horrendous for some reason. Not for some reason, but for many reasons. Anyway, when I say look at that racist language, I was basically talking about the range of languages that were directed at me, not the entire vocabulary of racist slurs. I’m just talking about the stuff I used to hear that would freak me out in a bowling alley, and now I’m twenty-nine and I can use it for poetry. And if I could find it funny, then I think it’s possible at least that someone else can. It’s not a great or a grand humor.
Speaker: But is that humor that depends on your subject position?
Stefans: To find that humor?
Speaker: To hear it, and to find the humor in it.
Stefans: I would have to guess that it would be a particular social type that would find that humorous, and most likely that social would probably be a racialized minority. I’m sure that there are still non-racialized people, or white people, that could find it funny, but it would be quite hard, you know.
Speaker: Or it would mean something really different.
Stefans: Yes, it would mean something very different. I’d say you’re a weird fucking person if you think that’s funny.
Speaker: I want to ask a question to Fred Wah, and it’s about narrative. I’m interested in that we started to talk about life narratives, and you used the word “biotext.” And you wrote a novel, and it sounds like it is based on your life, the life of your father, and I’m curious if you could talk at all about freedom in relation to writing that narrative, your freedom, the freedom you had to look back on your story. I don’t know how that relates to language, and I’m not sure how to put all of this together.
Wah: No, I hear you. It’s very relative. It’s not a novel because the novel represents to me a tyranny of form that I’ve never been able to move through, not that I want to move through it, but it’s a tyranny I want to avoid. It’s prose, however. I was encouraged by a very good friend of mine to get into the prose as a poet — as a writer, to explore prose, and I appreciated that. I enjoyed writing it for that reason, but it strikes me more as prose, the sentence. Certain aspects of narrative that require character, that require voice, that require linking and a kind of resolution. So, I chose the anecdote as a form that I wanted to recuperate in a prose poem way. That’s why it’s not a novel. It always uses cadence. I mean, I didn’t read much of it, but mixie-grill, that’s not narrative. That’s a strategy in poetry, to land somewhere and I do that in most of the text. So, narrative is interrupted by a kind of reminder of other things. In this particular book, it’s a reminder of certain kinds of racialized reminders of language, as well as poetic, or generally poetic reminders. But narrative has been a problem. It’s a problem.
Stefans: Talking with Fred earlier about this book, which I was reading on the bus ride from New York, I find it a very beautiful book. Fred had sent me a group of his books, and it’s the one I didn’t want to read because it was narrative. I mean, I just didn’t want to read stories. It turned out to be quite Joycean. It doesn’t sound like Joyce, but, like you say, it hangs around the anecdote, and there are certain moments when the language becomes quite, not fluid, but it opens up, but you’re still in this narrative context. Then the carryover from each additional piece is quite comforting in the way that narrative is comforting, but it never becomes closed. It never becomes, “I’m stuck in this story.”
Do you have a question, Jena?
Jena Osman: I have a comment more about what you were saying about Cagean poetics. I understand what you are saying with that, but I think that what you are talking about is more a Mac Lowian poetics. You can say that Mac Low is in the tradition of Cage, but what Mac Low is using as a material is very different than what Cage was using. He would use culturally-loaded material, like newspaper articles about the Vietnam War.
Stefans: Well, that’s interesting, because Bob was saying the exact opposite, that he wasn’t using stuff that was so much culturally-loaded. He was saying mixie-grill would never be in Cage.
Osman: That’s why I’m saying it’s Mac Low who’s using the culturally-loaded material.
Stefans: Oh, okay, Mac Low.
Osman: Yes, Mac Low does, and Cage really seemed to avoid that. I think his Writing through the Cantos was really an example of that. That was the one mesostic piece of his that he actually printed in two different ways. In the second way, he really condensed it the second time that it was printed, and he had said that felt very uncomfortable about that piece. And my theory is that it’s because he couldn’t get away from the alogically-charged language, and that cultural signification is inherent in that piece. Whereas, with Mac Low, you really have a place where identity can manifest itself.
Louis Cabri: But you could also tie back Cage to a liberal platform, his version of anarchism, you can argue, and I guess I would, that it’s a kind of liberalism. Whereas with Mac Low, it’s a different brand of politics.
Stefans: Did I get to your question that you had asked? Was that addressed adequately? Or too offhandedly?
Speaker: No, it’s fine.
Stefans: I’m sorry. I’ve had like eighteen glasses of wine, so.
Cabri: Anyway, thanks very much.