Friday, January 28, 2005

Interview with Thomas Fink

Tom Beckett: You are a poet and a painter. Would you speak to what that means in terms of your daily practices? Do the two activities overlap?

Thomas Fink: I started painting in 1983, a good 15 years after I started writing poetry. Until 2001, I kept the verbal and visual spheres separate, at least consciously. But that year, I titled a painting “Gossip” to go on the front cover of Gossip, my second book of poems. I didn’t plan the painting to be seen as a highly abstract version of many folks gossiping, but, in retrospect, that reading might work. In January 2004, after finishing the poems collected and published eleven months later in After Taxes, I somewhat arbitrarily chose another cover painting called, naturally, “After Taxes.” At that point, I wanted to get away from the limited array of stanza patterns I’d used for three or four years. So, to find new stanza patterns, I talked to mathematicians about numerical sequences, but nothing seemed too promising, and I kept writing in my old stanzaic modes. Suddenly, it became clear I could forge a relation between painting and poetry by developing poems in abstract shapes that would then be used as imagery in series of paintings. So I’ve been doing that in both media for the past six months or so.

TB: I've always been fascinated by the fact that the Italian noun "stanza" means room.

Were those earlier stanza patterns, within those earlier poetic structures, to any extent pre-fabricated, pre-determined? Or were they developed through other considerations? And how does using "shaped" stanzas alter your composition process (if it does)?

TF: In Surprise Visit (1993), my first book, and in Gossip, I created strophe-breaks— rarely stanzas, because the patterning wasn’t usually consistent—when a pause seemed warranted or I could make things intriguingly off-balance. By 2000, when I started writing poems that wound up in After Taxes, this intuitive practice was getting dull, so I pre-fabricated a new kind of “room” for my verse: ascending, descending, and ascending/ descending stanzas. Eileen Tabios’s hay(na)ku has one word in a line, then two in the next, then three, etc. but, in mine, let’s say, one line in the first stanza, two lines in the next, three, etc. (When she invented her form in 2002, Eileen hadn’t seen any of those poems, only Gossip. Her sense of ascending came from other sources, as she explains in her new book.) After doing a few ascending and descending stanza poems, I figured this mode could be used exclusively in After Taxes, but there are some slight departures. It was a good experience to force the poems’ flux into rising/increasing and falling/ diminishing structures. At times, a “rising” linguistic coda would interestingly clash with a “falling” stanza pattern, so the structures never got too coercive.

Using abstract shapes in poems instead of stanzas doesn’t alter the beginning of my composition process. The first few drafts might be in prose blocks or lines of free-verse without stanza breaks. But when the language seems to be working, I begin to shape the words on the computer, and the material impact of each word and of line-breaks (occasioned by a prescribed or evolving overall shape) sometimes alerts me to new significations and sound-effects in word-combinations. When this happens, I may change some words or syntactical structures in the poem to jibe with the new awareness.

TB: Could you talk in a broader way about your process of composition? Where does the material for those first few drafts come from? How is it accumulated? Do any procedures come into play?

TF: I begin and develop poems in five or six different ways. I’ll talk about the most frequently used way. First, I accumulate 1 to 5 pages of lines in a notebook (or makeshift stapled “notebook” of used paper with one side blank). Some lines are usually free-writing, others immediate responses to passages from texts I’ve been reading, others interesting fragments or sentences from those texts. But I don’t copy the texts verbatim; I substitute other words for most of the text’s words through procedures like (and often not identical to) those that the Oulipo, Language Poets, New York School, and others have given us. One example of a procedure I don’t exactly use is N + 7; I find more flexible variations. Modifying Louis Zukofsky’s idea of homophonic translation, I write down bits of conversation in foreign languages that I hear on a train or in a restaurant. However, results of such procedures may not stand; they’re frequently transformed.

Once I feel I’ve accumulated enough writing, I first go to work on the least interesting parts that are my own free-writing, and I perform procedures on them to change some word-combinations to more felicitous ones. Then, still not knowing where the poem is heading, I revise the whole 1 to 5 pages in another notebook, getting rid of dead passages and doing whatever I can to make the language and emerging tropes or concepts more interesting. When I’m finally satisfied that all the lines are reasonably strong, the hard part arrives: I see which fragments and sentences connect with or play off of one another. It’s usually well under 50% of the lines/sentences, not surprisingly, and that portion is transferred into a third notebook, where I improve relationships between lines/sentences by adding or subtracting words, altering syntax, and adding further sentences in dialogue with ones already there. Finally, before moving to the “shaping” phase on the computer or, in some cases, creation of stanzas, I re-test the order of sentences/fragments and keep moving them around until I’m happy with the sequence as a poem. So even though constraints and procedures produce effects, those effects may be partially or wholly edited out.

TB: What appeals to me most about your poetry writing is its multiplying musics of slippage. There's a productive lyrical instability operative in your language which is wedded to the logic of collage.

TF: Thank you. I aspire to what you characterize in my work, and collage is central to what I do. In your interview in Jacket 25 conducted by Richard Lopez, several of your remarks about poetry resonate tremendously with my own preoccupations. You talk about how writing poetry for you is an epistemological process, how “part of a poet’s job is to rev-up the language,” and how central humor is to you. Collaging, though not an end in itself, pertains to all of this. Although I began to read Language writing carefully rather late, what you identify as “one of the major threads of Language writing—finding ways to break out of one’s usual habits of thought/ speech through mechanisms of disruption,” has been a primary concern of mine for a long time.
TB: Many of the poems in After Taxes bear a family resemblance to Charles Bernstein's work. Virtually any of the pieces in Section III would serve as examples. Here's the full text of "Dented Reprise II":


She's a

muscular void,
a discrete, intractable ditty.

A tether of drizzled pearls
paste a gel on me
and pee on my pride;

I'd spree on your slide.
This is no season
to subdivide.
We plot to spay the bruise if we

wanna fling taboos.
Angel prose, it don't appease thee.
Clear students,

open up your skies.
You don't have

to scribble highbrow recipes.

This is a poem as soundscape and associational avalanche. It is also a poem, that to my ear, wears its influences out in the open. I don't mean that as a put down. I often had moments in reading After Taxes when I'd say to myself, "That looks like something Charles would write." And that was almost simultaneous with the self-recognition that that same passage was something I wished I had written. I am, for example, deeply jealous of the line beginning "DECONSTRICTED SESTINA II": "Is this a lust-/controlled apartment.?"

What I'm rambling toward here is the question of influence. How does your experience of other writers figure in the creation of your poetry?

TF: In the “Dented Reprise” series, I transformed lines from rock songs into other, often rhyming or slant-rhyming words. For example, the first 3 lines of “Dented Reprise II” riff off Herman’s Hermits’ “She’s a Must to Avoid”; the closing lines echo Tom Petty’s refrain, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” I’ve listened to a lot of sixties and seventies rock for the last 40 years, so, in these poems, “influences” are worn, to change your idea slightly, almost “out in the open.”

I did a doctoral dissertation at Columbia on John Ashbery in 1980, and it took me nearly the entire eighties to work through his overwhelming influence (and, secondarily, that of Wallace Stevens). In Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, Chuck Berry attributes his unique guitar style to the cross-fertilization of 3 influences—including Charlie Christian; the others I forget. Eric Clapton and Keith Richards add Berry’s pianist, Johnny Johnston. There could have been other big influences. The point is that some degree of multiplicity often helps. Since I’ve written reviews or articles on many current poets, more than a few have probably influenced me.

Regarding Charles Bernstein, I only know one poetry collection, With Strings, well, as I reviewed it positively for Verse, but I’ve really poured over the critical prose— especially in My Way. Nourishment for the “soundscape and associational avalanche” that you graciously locate in “Dented Reprise II” may stem from recent John Yau, Clark Coolidge’s On the Nameways books, David Shapiro (subject of my first book of criticism), Ashbery, early Joseph Donahue, the slippery ecriture of Jacques Derrida, Barbara Johnson, and Jacques Lacan, and the Capitol Steps comedian who spews Spoonerisms. Too recently to have influenced After Taxes, I’ve come across the work of Tom Beckett, Harryette Mullen, Sheila E. Murphy, Andrew Joron, and younger poets like Noelle Kocot, Sean Singer, Joanna Fuhrman, and Noah Eli Gordon. Probable influences on collage, abstraction, and representation of the social in my poetry are Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Robert Creeley, Joseph Lease, Denise Duhamel, Emily Dickinson, Timothy Liu, Stephen Paul Miller, Eileen Tabios, Ron Silliman’s Tjanting, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, and Wislawa Szymborska.

But to take your question differently, my source-texts typically include philosophical works, cultural criticism, novels, short stories, or plays I may be teaching in a lit class, political speeches, science texts I often don’t quite follow, biographies/ autobiographies of visual artists, U.S. Presidents, rock ‘n rollers, and the occasional unclassifiable weirdo, self-help books, and popular magazine stories. While writing “Trillion Urges: Manufacturers,” the longish poem that ends After Taxes, I read the bios of folks like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan and economics textbooks; it filled in gaps in my education.

TB: I'm having a difficult time typing now. The egg I wiped from my face is dripping onto the keyboard. What I saw as work influenced by Bernstein was work in which you employed some of the same kinds of techniques Charles has been known to use. Interesting…I didn't make the pop song connection.

Recently, on his blog fait accompli, Nick Piombino posted a piece about the "ownership" of words--"Who Owns Words?" Certainly there are characteristic usages that seem to belong to certain writers. "Insistent", I would argue by way of example, belongs to Creeley in a way that it belongs to no other writer. And it belongs to him through a lifetime of precisely idiosyncratic use.

Here I go, rambling precariously again… Let me ask: what are your thoughts about the ethics of appropriation in writing? And is there a word that you would like to have belong to you--and why?

TF: Now I have to read more of Bernstein’s earlier poetry!

To write anything, one “lifts” previous linguistic/conceptual patterns. Bernstein has made this point nicely in his essays about notions of innovation. When one doesn’t think s/he’s been appropriating, it still often happens. Wholesale appropriation of those who’ve been disenfranchised is terrible, whether or not there are material consequences. But uses of appropriation to engender a dialogue among sources, also including one’s own interpretive gestures, can reflect “openness” to “otherness,” to imagination as plural possibility. (Sorry about the purple rhetoric!)

In various poems, I use utterances of family members, living and dead, who are/ were not poets. Borrowings from any individual are all brief, even if many accumulate, as in “The Ethel Landsman Poems” and “And Called It Milk,” as opposed to “Symposium 1967,” in which close to 10 people interrupt each other. I wouldn’t feel right about taking someone’s extensive narration or philosophical meditation. I feel ok, though, about creating a new order for their fragmentary utterances and letting traces of their way of speaking convey something of their personalities—as homage and, in the cases of the dead, at least mediated preservation of their memory—but without the illusion that “selves” can be re-presented fully and accurately.

What you say about Creeley and “insistent” is so true. I don’t seek ownership of any word. I’m more interested in combinations of words than any single signifier.

TB: What for you constitutes the social space of writing?

TF: My response is informed by poststructuralist theory—the version that grew more overtly political in the eighties and nineties—which indicates that the social provides the diverse, often mutually interactive spaces (frames) through which writers construct at least minimal intelligibilities and, I hope, maximal dialogic energies. It would be good to think “beyond” or “beside” this poststructuralist view. (For example, I’d like to assess how aspects of religious experience are not necessarily constituted by the social.) But I don’t have the words to do that, so I’ll elaborate on what I can think at this point.

As Language Poets like Charles Bernstein have made clear, “liberation of the signifier” isn’t liberation from the social, but from poor, useless conceptions of the social. Barrett Watten and, I think, Nick Piombino have exposed how early surrealist theory trumpets the revelation of true inner selfhood (which indicates the mere instrumentality of words), the mystical spontaneity and freedom of the unconscious, manifested. Rejecting such mystification, I can still affirm surrealist practice as deployment (fully cognizant or not) of available materials within existing (social) discourses in order to shuffle, recombine, stretch, flatten, truncate, or otherwise morph them into pleasurable, edifying imaginative constructs. And surrealist constructs inevitably play off more familiar concepts of the social in the writer and the reader’s interpretive processes.

TB: In the exchange between yourself and Stephen Paul Miller which introduces Gossip, you state: "Some of my poetry attempts to use the play of voices to suggest how power relations in a family reflect larger social structures." Can you expand on that?

TF: Oy. Egg’s hitting whose keyboard now? Why did I bloviate like that? Now I have to issue a recall! Well, lemme salvage matters through editing: “Some of my poetry attempts to use the play of voices to encourage an open-ended dialogue among differing perspectives, including implicit social ideologies.” Many of us do that, right? And it’s worth doing.

In “Symposium, 1967,” the poem I was thinking of when I bloviated, members of a middle class family (mine) cope with health fears, insecurities about “self,” desires for and resistances to intimacy, and other “safety issues” by trying out assertions, posing questions, reacting, and evading answers in different and sometimes similar ways. No visual clues allow a reader to separate the voices, and, in this case, no ideological clashes are there to help. But I suspect that, after a page or so, distinguishing voices from one another isn’t difficult. “Hard Core Realty” is a short poem that uses italics and boldface to differentiate. I mostly allow a real estate agent to gab, but two other voices interject enigmatic utterances to destabilize the sales pitch.

TB: Bloviated?! You're being modest. At any rate, family voices figure prominently and memorably in some of your longest and strongest poetic texts.

I'm thinking, in particular, of "And Called It Milk" where lines often have the impact of aphorisms. For example: "Candy's like a mommy without a brain." It's a sequence that's remarkable for the unforced ways in which it explores the poetic ramifications of childhood speech.

Would you comment on how you came to compose "And Called It Milk" and your thinking about the role of family in your work?

TF: Between 1992, when my older daughter Ariana was 2, and around ’97, I wrote down many things she said—the way other parents take scads of pictures. This was also a means of paying careful attention, one that’s meaningfully different from the basics of physical “child care.” My younger daughter Maya, designer of the Mayan hay(na)ku recently, was born in 1993, and when I started jotting down her speech, I kept it separate from Ariana’s stuff.

In ’94, I asked Vanesa Perez-Alvarez, my student who was collaborating on some poems with me, to engage in poetic dialogue with Ariana’s phrases, as I wasn’t sure how to build a poem out of them myself. Though Vanesa’s a good poet, the experiment bogged down after a while. I had to do it myself; soon it was obvious I was writing a long poem. I kept adding, slightly revising, and subtracting sentences and rearranging sections and the order of sections—also including my own effort to inhabit her discourse—until 1999. Then, I figured I’d gotten “And Called It Milk” right (enough). Spin-off poems with unused sentences and at least one with Maya’s language and another with my mother’s conversation with her were then created and placed after the long poem in Gossip. Section II of After Taxes begins with several short poems that mostly use Maya’s sentences.

I made up the sentence, “Candy’s like a mommy without a brain,” but Ariana did talk a lot about candy. Why wouldn’t she? Exploring “the poetic ramifications of childhood speech”—exactly what you said—was my goal in “And Called It Milk” and the satellite poems. “The poetic” here involves questions children uninhibitedly ask; their wonderfully weird epistemological travels, fantasies involving power relations (and reversals of them); uneven assimilation and parody of adults’ values, positions, postures, and topics; and fascination with the uncanny and the transgressive.

The recent work of yours that I know best uses various kinds of discourse, but as far as I can tell, not children’s. Have you ever found kid-talk generative in your own writing?

TB: I've always been fascinated by children's language but it hasn't been generative in my writing. Humor though is often generative. Puns, creative mishearing, double entendres have recurring roles in my work.

There are frequently seriously funny moments in your poetry. What are your thoughts about humor in the context of innovative writing?

TF: I’m glad you say “seriously funny.” Except when subject matter is incredibly dark (and wit would be cruel), I find relentless gravity oppressive, and humor works well in addressing serious matters flexibly—without too much self-indulgent earnestness and rigidity.

Among other things, innovative writing investigates how language behaves. Far from aberrations, puns and double entendres exemplify a basic instability and plurality of reference; this naturally involves humor. When we change a few letters, words, or word-orders of a “pre-text” or our own “free writing” and foreground what Stevens called the “latent double in the word,” and thus arrive at something delightfully weird or “other,” it relieves the tedium and alienating effects of automatic, unthinking patterns of “communication” (non-communication?) and loathsome ideological gunk. What you aptly term “creative mishearing” can turn the material “conduit” of right-wing propaganda into marvelous stuff that simultaneously reminds us of the ideology’s absurdity, offers playful resistance to coercion, and pleasurable imaginative excess, a good kind of surplus. African-American signifying comes to mind.

But I find that language intelligently conveying admirable ideology or otherwise effective writing/talk—that is, words I don’t necessarily want to parody—can also be material for humorous effects. Is that true for you?

TB: It is. To twist Monsieur Mallarme's famous aphorism, sometimes it seems that all the world exists to end up in a joke. Which is not to say that everything should be made light of. Nonetheless, in many ways, the world is a funny place.

I think poets share a responsibility with philosophers: to test boundaries by asking fundamental questions. For poets, often those questions involve the role of language in the constitution of reality/realities. It is not surprising that "word" is embedded in "wor(l)d". Or that "whirled" is echoed in "world". It is all quite dizzying.

What for you, Thomas, does poetry do?

TF: Your points about articulation of “fundamental questions,” including those about linguistic functioning, are a superb answer to your question. Much of what we’ve said in this interview supports the vitality of these concepts.

Of course, fundamental questioning can emerge from the use of very different poetic modes, not only forms of experimentation we’ve stressed. I’ll mention a few others. Although the examples of William Carlos Williams, H.D., Louis Zukofsky et al. may make it hard for today’s poets to break new ground in placing primary emphasis on intense, concise, specific sensory perception of the physical environment (and human beings, animals, etc. within it), I still find value in updated “Imagism”/“Objectivism” when done freshly and well. Demanding that we pay attention to what’s (t)here, such work poses the question of how dominant forces in visual/ virtual culture, which tend to encourage perceptual atrophy, can be challenged in the name of greater responsiveness.

One example of an interesting but not so formally experimental mode is the use of matter-of-fact, often linear poetic narration with a strange, surreal quality that enables readers to attend to boundaries between truth/mendacity, sanity/ insanity, social accommodation/transgression. In the U.S., the dream-poems of Sandy McIntosh come to mind. Various European and Latin American poets saliently practice this mode.

One last example. Some poets make conventional aesthetic choices but offer powerful representation—unencumbered by an overt, very general political platform and open to proliferation of big questions—of a crucial social or political phenomenon. In his introduction to The Best American Poetry 2003, Yusef Komunyakaa vaguely attacked work that’s “too experimental.” That’s a drag, but he’s written many poems on the Vietnam War, as a direct witness, even participant, that present a trenchant record of a psychopolitical experience with which most of us still can’t come to terms. Since these Vietnam poems allow me not only to feel but to reflect carefully on the war’s contexts, his relative lack of formal innovation is no big deal. In this way, recent feminist experimentalists might value the seventies work of Adrienne Rich.

TB: It all comes down to what one is prepared to see. And what one is prepared to risk, remain vulnerable to.

I think poetry turf wars boil down to where one sees oneself on the risk-taking continuum. A New Formalist may fear incoherence. A Confessionalist may be wary of language sans emotional charge. A political poet may not stray from didacticism for fear of being misunderstood. A Language Poet may concoct elaborate procedures to avoid saying "I". The examples could go on and on.

I'm being absurdly reductive but I'm serious when I insist that how one conceptualizes one's work is dependent on what one is willing or unwilling to risk.
My final question, what for you is at risk in a poem?

: Having embraced the poetic strategies we’ve discussed (to achieve the benefits we’ve mentioned) means that I’m willing to risk some readers’ sense that my work is not only not didactic but insufficiently (i.e. too indirectly) political. Thankfully, if I need to advocate political views more directly, I can employ other writing or speaking formats. And to use humor a great deal is to risk being taken as frivolous, insubstantial. Better to assume that risk than to capitulate to a distortion-crammed sententiousness and feel idiotic about that.

I “fear incoherence”—the possibility that clauses and sentences in one of my poems don’t really talk with one another—but I fear facile coherence more. While my revision process could become a constipating struggle between these fears, I’d reframe this double awareness positively: risking both too much and too little coherence presents the opportunity to find verbally and conceptually enticing, exciting locations in between. And having ended a sentence with a pet preposition, it’s time to say thank you.

TB: Thank you.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Interview with Crag Hill

Tom Beckett: Crag, you recently published the 19th issue of your magazine, SCORE. Plans for number 20 are afoot. How have you managed to sustain that project for so long? And what are your thoughts about where the mag has been and where it is now going?

Crag Hill: I sustain the SCORE project (as you know, now named SPORE) because the project continues to sustain me. Maybe it has always been a selfish project, one that feeds me, that keeps me in contact, keeps me out of isolation, as a reader and writer, but I believe it does so, too, for its readers and for the writers it publishes. I actually took a three-year hiatus from the project, 1992-95. But having moved to the Palouse, five hours from Seattle, the nearest metro area with any kind of literary community I could relate to, and continuing to receive visual poetry in the mail from new poets deserving of an audience, I re-started the magazine with Spencer Selby.

SCORE began in 1983 to bridge a void. No one to our knowledge was printing visual poetry; no one was reading it. Visual poetry was on the margin of the margin that is poetry in American letters. Only one magazine then exclusively published visual poetry, KALDRON. (We actually didn’t know about Karl Kempton’s magazine until after our first issue. Another magazine we “found” after our first issue was MC, edited by David Cole, which among many a mail-art artifact, we found some compelling visual poetry, including our first exposure to Joel Lipman’s work.) Magazines we read and looked up to prior to publishing SCORE such as HILLS, GNOME BAKER, THIS, SOUP and others did not give visual poetry a second look or give their readers a first look of such work. Too simple? Too close to visual art? Though the means were different, the goals of a visual poem seemed similar to the goals of a poem by Barrett Watten or Clark Coolidge or Carla Harryman – focus on the material of langauge, what the poem says fused with how it’s saying it. In any case, it was clear we had to publish this kind of work or it could vanish.

Despite 19 issues of SCORE, despite 12 issues of GENERATOR and the work given life in numerous other publications, that void remains, both for visual poetry and for poets outside established circles. Though there are a lot more bridges one can cross now than in 1983, including in-print journals, webzines, blogs that give space to the visual poem (some bridges perhaps more tenuous than others) much interesting work does not get published or if it does it fails to get distributed, reviewed, given any footing with readers. The raison d’etre for SCORE still exists.

SCORE, as I mentioned above, is becoming SPORE (thanks to Bill DiMichele, co-editor of SCORE through issue 12, for the new name). The main reason: Starting with SCORE 16, an anthology of poems five lines or less, the magazine no longer exclusively printed visual poetry. It didn’t look like SCORE anymore. (I remember the look of bewilderment when I showed SCORE 17 to someone at Seattle’s NW Visual Poetry show a couple years ago; she wondered aloud what all this other stuff was printed around the visual poems.) A secondary reason: We passed up a ton of compelling prose and poetry, work that we knew would stimulate readers. I just couldn’t pass it up anymore.

So SCORE becomes SPORE, a magazine open to as many poetries it can find that meet my two absolutely subjective editorial criteria: does the work ask for and then reward multiple readings? If it gives up all its meaning in one reading, I’m less motivated to publish it. After all, I like to re-read the issues I publish. Privileging the difficult over the immediate accessible? Not necessarily so. The immediately accessible can also be difficult. I just think SPORE’s readers, like me, enjoy the pleasures of slow reading.

TB: Are you creating a lot of visually oriented poetry? Or is your writing now tending to be more lineated?

CH: Since first putting speculative pen to paper as a 17 year old, I’ve written more “lineated” poetry than prose, more prose than visual poetry, more visual poetry than sound poetry. But they’re all part of the same impulse to language the world, to make a world of language. Sometimes that world is linear, sometimes visual (multi/curvi/linear!), sometimes aural. Sometimes blank silence.

I have written fewer visual poems in the last ten years. Why? The process for each mode has always been different. For lineated poetry and prose, I warm up, willing to scribble pages for days to keep but a few words, a couple lines, the writing whelped, less inspiration than perspiration. Many of my visual poems, in contrast, arrive in mind’s eye virtually complete. I do little revision as I commit them to paper. I write them more sporadically yet this writing is more consuming, engaging my intellect and all my senses -- when I’m writing visual poems that’s all I’m writing.

I’m not sure why I’m seeing fewer visual poems. I’m aware of the rich array of electronic media, which one would think would enhance the potential of the visual (the ability to create work and have it reproduced inexpensively in color alone is something visual poets wet-dreamed of twenty years ago – In the 1980s I did an “edition” of ten copies of ten Trans-forms, hand-traced in color on vellum, which took weeks if not months to produce), but I’ve not been able to viscerally connect with that buzz, flash, animation…

TB: My feeling is that we’re being buried alive in images. Voices are what I want to see in poetry. I say see because I believe with Artaud that “…voices are in space, like objects.” I bump my head on them with some frequency. It makes me howl at high frequencies.

I’m wondering if you would speak in a little more depth about some of your feelings about the materiality, the object-ness of poetry in relation to your own practice?

CH: Simply put, word(‘)s matter. Arbitrary signs inadequately signifying, certainly, but they provide a place – physical, spatial in all its four dimensions -- to start to cross the resoundingly mute barriers between you and me. A word is matter that matters, a valued object I can give to you to do what you do with words. Sometimes it is all I have to give.

Perhaps I’ve been more a poet of the body than of the head (though I have also sought out projects, often involving chance-generation of text, to work against that tendency). I can’t wrap my head around my breath but I sure can wrap – and warp -- breath around my head. The logic of the poems I wrote for the most recent Sound Poetry Festival in Portland took a back seat to decisions based on sound, progressions of variations of previous words/phrases (e.g.”wrap” soon followed by “warp” or “word died” sounding out of “worried” in the sound poem “Worried”), aural punnings, swapped vowels, twisted consonants. What I said denotatively or connotatively in these poems was less important than what I was saying through sound, the poem’s effect directed less at the intellect than at the listener’s sense of touch. I wanted the performed poems to agitate the pores of the audience first and then their minds. This acceptance of the public reader as one who conveys a poem rather than the poem carrying itself is one way my work differs from many of the poets of the Language generation, my mentors in so many ways.

As a reader, too, I first attend to sound. If a poem has little resonance, I might not give it a second chance. I seek out poetry that stimulates body -- my increasingly bare scalp down through my belly -- and mind, or body-mind, because you can’t really separate them. A recent read, the poems in Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge were pure physical-mental ecstasy, as were many of Steve Tills’ rants. On the more subtle side, the poems in Fanny Howe’s Gone were as richly textured in sound as in any other aspect. I re-read Clark Coolidge again and again because he can carry a “tune,” he can run and dance with a sonic trope, like few poets I listen to.

This leaning more on one sense than another, however, has its practical drawbacks. Much to my family’s frustration I’m utterly incapable of reading legal documents of any kind. I go numb when I try to read tax forms, insurance benefits, cell phone instructions... I mutter, sputter, pay anyone, anyone, to do that reading for me. The language of those documents has no life, no living, no presence. To prevent miscommunication they are far too stripped down, two dimensional. I prefer texts whose words are multifaceted, cutting, words communicating through denotation and a wide net of connotation, by their shape (think of a word you have always inexplicably loved the look of), and by the shape of their sound.

TB: We share an interest in ekphrasis (art inspired by other forms of art). In fact, you are planning a future issue of your magazine, SPORE, around poems about specific works of art. You’ve also recently published the poetry sequence, “Disappointed with Robert Creeley’s Poems in Response to 54 Drawings by Archie Rand, I Write My Own” . Would you please speak to this interest with specific reference to both of the just mentioned projects?

CH: William Carlos Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems is one of my favorite books of poetry. Williams enlivened a selection of Brueghel paintings, creating poems that are lively themselves. A synergy. He gets inside the poems, describing them from within while stepping outside the picture to comment on it, as in “The Parable of the Blind,” which ends “the faces are raised/as toward the light/there is no detail extraneous//to the composition one/follows the others stick /hand triumphant to disaster.” In the same period I first read Williams’ book, I enjoyed reading Frank O ‘Hara’s poems based on the work by his artist friends, a completely different take on writing in response to visual art. I rolled my eyes as my belly roiled with laughter on finishing “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art: “Don’t shoot until, the white freedom glinting/on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.” I remember spending weeks then writing a poem a day – Ted Berrigan-like sonnets for the most part – in response to a book reproducing Van Gogh paintings.

Ekphrastic writing has been an ongoing interest as reader and writer. I’m always looking out of the corner of my eye for this intersection of art and writing. This summer on a woefully short visit to Moe’s in Berkeley, I panted over the small book of poems by Robert Creeley based on Archie Rand drawings. At first sight I loved the Rand drawings -- curious characters in various mundane pursuits, mythic creatures, surrealist, sketched, streaked, always unfinished but never incomplete. I was disappointed in the Creeley poems, however, slight quatrains neither animating nor illuminating the drawings and not lively in their own way either.

The disappointment aside, the drawings got me writing. While looking closely at the drawings, a phrase, a line would arise. In a rush, quatrains emerged virtually whole – I changed but a word or two. I hope the poems I’ve written match the unfinished yet complete quality of Rand’s drawings

The book also got me looking for more ekphrastic writing. Always on the lookout for a ways center issues of SPORE (formerly SCORE), I seized on the idea of dedicating an issue to ekphrastic writing. To my knowledge, there’s no magazine or anthology devoted to this kind of writing. I quickly realized I could never be comprehensive – there are thousands of pages of such writing (perhaps not as many pages of drawings and paintings illustrating writing, but an immense amount of work nonetheless), but I feel as with much of the work SCORE has done, it’s important to put one’s foot in the door, to start such an immense project if not to complete it.

While including as much recent ekphrastic writing as I can, with the bibliography I’ve been piecing together, started simply as a to-read list, a goal for SPORE 2.1 is to determine whether there are patterns in writing responding to visual art. I’ve noticed these three broad categories so far: writing that describes the painting, selecting details for poetic emphasis, with no outside, authorial intervention; writing that intervenes, gives voice, a monologue, a narrative, to the setting or subjects of the painting; and writing that begins with a visual quote from the painting but then that leaves it behind (as in O’Hara’s poem), the poem taking off from the painting.

TB: Many years ago ( it must have been around 1977) I, a rather brash 24, or so, year old , sent a recently published ekphrastic sequence to Guy Davenport and asked for his comments. Much to my amazement, he wrote back. I no longer have a copy of the poems in question , and I can't locate his response. What I remember him saying is that I'd described the paintings but hadn't inhabited them. That I'd worked from without, not from within. That stuck with me as a singularly useful piece of criticism. Writing should do more than dance upon the surface of things. It should engage the world.

How do you see word and world intersecting in terms of your work? Does a poet have any special social responsibility?

CH: Tom, I love Davenport’s notion of ekphrastic writing inhabiting the paintings it springs from. That’s what I’m looking for in such writing. That’s what I didn’t find in the Creeley sequence. That’s what I burn for for the SPORE project.

Dammit! If writing doesn’t exist to engage the world – if it doesn’t enrage it in some way, even if it’s only the storm of butterfly wings flashing in just one person’s imaginative wilderness – then why the hell does it breathe?

I initially answered your question before 11-2-2004 (a day I will remember alongside 9-11-01, though the degree and kind of pain may differ) with unwavering belief in the social efficacy of language, in the crucial socio-cultural responsibility of writers, especially those alert to the nuances, the in/certainties, of language. “We word therefore we are. Poets are the mind of language,” I wrote, “and it is that mind that gives us life…”

I read my answer late that night as I followed the election returns. I stumbled; I caved in; I flailed; I collapsed; I exploded; I deleted the naive shit (if shit can be accused of idealism, of hope, of intelligence, personal and communal, that can see through language ploy, political hype, diversion). If shit could only vote…

I deleted the words, the lyrics, of my answer, yet the beat survived, intensified, even when I tried to smother it.

The mind of language has to survive. It has to intensify.

The American political system has stolen our language. If at first it appears that the theft was nimble-fingered, injury-free, a quick hand lifting the wallet from our back pocket, then why the hell is my neck rubbed raw, whip-lashed, every joint in my back throbbing? Why are so many others speechless? The recent election “process” has yanked out our tongues or, if there’s any lingual vestige, it has punctured our ear drums, rendering them insensible to the rattle of deceit.

In this country, for writers, there has never been a more urgent time to write than now. (I wonder, what did writers who stayed in Nazi Germany do? Some died, I’d guess, sooner or later, for their resistance to national propaganda. I’d guess, too, that some acquiesced, allowed their own silence to roll over them, snuffing out their spirit.)

How can we avoid this silence, this sibilant kiss of death? I’m not yet sure how, but I’m certain poets need to grow a new tongue. Once grown, they need to put that wet, throbbing, slobbering new-born tongue into the public’s ear. Aroused, only then will we be ready to listen again.

TB: Well, it seems to me that one way in which you are trying to enliven your practice is to think out loud on your blog, Crag Hill's Poetry Scorecard. What are your thoughts about blogging at this point?

CH: Yow, didn’t know the scorecard blogging was so transparent! That thinking out loud usually had a draft or two behind it.

My blogging today mirrors my activity in the 1980s-early 1990s when I’d send out a piece of mail or two every day, literally hundreds per year for about ten years – a contribution to a mailart project (collage, photo, found object, altered object, visual poem, diatribe), copies of magazines and cassettes, a postcard telling a fellow artist of a project in the works, letters filled with drafts of poems, sketches, queries, praises, essays and gossip.

That postal whirlwind brought me correspondents – my audience -- from Florida (Bob Grumman), New York (David Cole, Geof Huth, Richard Kostelanetz, Bruce Andrews), Maine (Bern Porter), Ohio (Luigi-Bob Drake, John Byrum, John M. Bennett), Madison (Miekal And and Liz Was), Washington (Joe Keppler, Nico Vassilakis), Arizona (Mike Miskowski, Sheila Murphy), Canada (J.W. Curry, Greg Evason,), Italy (Vittore Baroni, Ruggero Maggi), Russia (Rea Nikonova, Serge Segay), Germany (Jurgen Olbrich), Yugoslavia (Nenad Bogdanovich) before its disintegration, Japan, Belgium, England (Bob Cobbing), France (Julien Blaine)… and many points and people in-between. Talk about enlivening! These writers and artist were my audience, the ears and eyes and hearts on the other side of the void (such was the life of a visual poet in l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e-dominated Bay Area). Can’t think of much else that energizes one to work like the kind of creative and thoughtful exchange I was a part of.

Blogging, too, has brought me those connections. I’ve connected with you, re-connected with Steve Tills and Jim McCrary, “met” Mark Young, Eileen Tabios, Chris Murray, Andrew Lundwall, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Kari Edwards, and so many others. Again, talk about enlivening, life-giving. Blogging – interaction between artist and audience, even in a form with limitations such as blogging (what form of communication doesn’t have a limitation, even love-making?) – is life-blood. In many ways, blogging has been even more satisfying – responses are almost immediate. Unlike mail and, for that matter, publication in journals and zines, blogging is potentially open to everyone with internet access (there’s an exhibitionist in all of us thinking someone we don’t know might come across an entry, read our thoughts). The audience then is both personal and exponential. That’s pretty enlivening stuff.

TB: I didn't mean to suggest that your blog entries aren't well thought out. But I do think a blog constitutes a funny kind of hybrid social space--straddling the public and private, the formal and informal, high and low, etc. A blog makes possible a kind of intimacy, in the manner of a diary or open notebook. A blog tends to be used as a soapbox, too, in a way that other literary platforms may not be. Political content often creeps in as part of the mix. Rants. It's the immediacy of the medium, I guess, that allows full reign for venting. I, for one, am still scratching my head about how to use blogs to best effect. How do you think blogging inflects your other writing? Is it an aid or a hindrance? Or a bit of both? Is blogging of a piece with that other work? Or does it exist on a different level? Do you see yourself continuing with your Scorecard into the indefinite future?

CH: I’ve always had a political streak in my notebooks. For the most part that’s where those streaks have stayed, locked up in their little cardboard cans, dated, past their prime shelf time. Alas, among other things, I’ve always wanted to be an editorial cartoonist, if I could only draw.

Via the As/Is blog I realized I could be an editorial blogger. Thanks to Eileen Tabios, Mark Young, Rachel Kendrick and others, I got hooked by haynaku. Form and content fused: first line, one word declaration, jab, followed by a two word line, a slash an elaboration, capped off by a three word exclamatory thrust of the body and soul. Haynaku whelped the shapeless rants of my notebooks. The form honed, sharpened, the rage, made my points pointed. Just what I was looking for without ever looking for it. These politically-charged haynaku, posted invariably at the end of our ever-increasingly political days, generated immediate response/s. Blogging, in the last year especially, then, has nudged political writing to the surface.

But has the medium inflected my writing? Has it changed it as other media has? Not yet, but I keep pondering, as you do, too, in your eloquent question, the possibilities of Blog. The program foregrounds the most recent entry, giving it some narrative bending potential – i.e. reading the end of a story, a poem, a rant, first, then scrolling down to the beginning, much like the unrolling of our personal experiences. I’ve been thinking of ways to take advantage of that programming. The main drawback: are there any blog readers who read below the first two-three entries they encounter on a blog? How to entice someone to read deep into the archives….? Other than that I think blogging is an electronic version of media that’s existed for millennia. Bells and whistles...

However, I’ll continue Scorecard for the foreseeable future. I love the writers and readers it’s brought me here, north-central Idaho, five twisting, climbing hours from any literary community I can learn from. Clicking on “Publish Entry” sure beats driving ice-patched roads blowing with snow.

TB: I want to linger for a moment on the subject of the hay(na)ku. Since that stepped-tercet form first burst from Eileen Tabios' forehead its many-hued offspring have proliferated on blogs around the world. It is a seductive form--compressed, notational, notional, sketchy. It is a form, in its immediacy of expression, that seems made for cyberspace. Truthfully, I have a love-hate relationship with hay(na)ku--it is such a seductive template. One can, if one is somewhat compulsive--and what artist isn't somewhat compulsive--walk around counting words in one's head all day. It's fascinating but limiting too. I'm nattering here by way of eliciting whatever else you might feel compelled to say about hay(na)ku, and I'm specifically interested in knowing if the form is only something you do for cyberspace. I'm just very curious about how people are juggling the cyberspace and print media now. Is the distinction even relevant?

CH: I, too, have a love-hate relationship with haynaku. Unlike other poetic forms, e.g. sonnet, haynaku’s more flexible, fluid, structured yet free of predetermined meter, rhyme, or closure. I can’t think of much else more seductive than flexibility and fluidity within a familiar structure.

But I sense the form’s limitations so far manifested: as with haiku, haynaku have a preponderance of immediacy, flash of image, quip, aphorism, over depth, one thought tugged down the stairs.

To date I’ve written haynaku exclusively for cyberspace. Would I include haynaku in a print collection of my poetry? It remains to be seen.

I know I need to see the body of haynaku accumulating, aka the anthology in progress/process by Mark Young and Jean Vengua, before I say much more of the form, yet it has been a pleasure to witness the birth of haynaku (how the heaven did Eileen Tabios push this form into existence), to observe its infancy, its stumbling, skipping toddler, wondering what its adolescence will unfold.

TB: Yeah, I can't wait for the tyke to hit puberty. Personally, I'm looking forward to hay(na)ku with raging hormones.

More broadly, Crag, what senses of form, senses of limit figure for you in your writing--or writing in general?

CH: Form follows content, I’d argue, but doesn’t chase after it. Form nips on content’s heels. Yet as we know through the work of John Cage, Jackson MacLow, Ron Silliman, and other writers who have incorporated pre-determined forms in their writing, content can be challenged – content can be changed -- to follow in form’s footsteps. Whichever comes first, ultimately, they dance the dance together.

As reader and writer, I sprawl and roam. My thoughts race on- and off-road. I need form to give them direction, a place, a room, doors, windows, a floor and ceiling, cracks in the wall, furniture. Yet in the writing process I’m also prone to over-editing in my head, constricting the flow to the order one part of me demands into existence.

Depending on the goal of a project, I enter a poem through a chosen form or I allow the content to spill, with no form in mind (no thought of beginning or end), ready to put it into shape when the rush subsides. One recent project, “7 x 7,” started as we were marching – thumping – toward war in Iraq, began with the idea to write one poem per week for a year, one stanza per day, each poem comprised of seven stanzas written during the span of the week, starting with one line on Sunday and finishing with seven lines the following Saturday. I knew I had to have the form in place to contain the disparate content, writing based on or selected from seven different sources including poetry and prose from my notebook, quotes from my reading, quotes from newspapers, magazines, websites, and transcriptions from television and radio broadcasts. Each day, by the draw of a card, I chose the source of the stanza for that day (Ace = poetry from my notebook; Deuce = prose from my notebook; 3 = quotes from my reading, etc.). I sought a form to channel what the breadth of my experience and emotions during that time.

Looking at recently published work, however, I’ve been leaning heavily toward determining the form before the content. In “Disappointed with Robert Creeley’s Poems in Response to 54 Drawings by Archie Rand, I Write My Own,” I knew every poem would be a quatrain. Haynaku provides a pattern my political barbs have fallen lock-step into. I suspect my need for order pushes its way into my work even when I try to circumvent it.

It’s also a reflection of the time constraints I feel as a father and a teacher during the school year. I can’t predict from one day until the next when I will have time for writing (and for reading, for that matter). It’s difficult to sustain the momentum needed to write a longer prose piece, even a book review. So I develop writing ideas – forms -- through which a work can be built piece by piece by piece over time.

TB: One last, two-part, question-- (a) what worries you most about the current poetry environment, and (b) what do you find to be most encouraging/exciting about the current poetry environment?

CH: Let’s start with the positive. I find the on-line availability of poetry encouraging. Residing five hours from Seattle, the nearest city where I can find someone who reads the poetry I read, I’m starved for poetry. Now, thanks to blogs and listservs and websites, I can get my hands on the poetry that sustains me as a reader and writer. I’m encouraged that poets and editors and publishers have tapped into new media, increasing the venues, the avenues of delivery. When I lived in the Bay Area, I met new poets primarily at poetry readings or print journals; now I meet most of the poets I read via the internet, reading their work on-line or purchasing their books via their or their publisher’s websites (Small Press Distribution, for all the vital work it has done, doesn’t/can’t do it all).

Believe it or not, I know poets and readers of poetry even more isolated than me (after all, I live in a university town, albeit small). I’m encouraged that poets and poetry readers everywhere have an assortment of poetry readily obtainable to choose from. They’ve just got to look.

I worry that there are fewer and fewer readers who want to look, to leaf through bookstores seething with books, to linger in the stacks of libraries, to seek out a way of looking at the world through language that shakes the mental foundations they live upon. I worry about poets and editors who do not read poetry outside their established circles. I worry about poets who do not read. I worry that as poets skirmish among themselves they lose potential readers of poetry. I witnessed some of the poetry wars in the Bay Area – Poetry Flash commentators versus Language poets, in particular – and the continual battles on various listservs over territory that’s about the size of a postage stamp. I worry that these petty battles result in more poets' ostensible deaths as writers than any other cause.

But let’s balance those worries with one last positive: Another encouraging thing about poetry is that the postage stamp territory of poetry still exists, breathes, promises. Poetry may be a wilderness reserve, a place too rocky or snow-bound to use/abuse commercially, but that reserve, that international park, maintains what fresh air our language possesses.