Sunday, January 29, 2006

Interview with Bob Grumman by Geof Huth

GH: Bob, you’ve been a published visual poet for almost four decades now, yet the sources of your inspiration seem remarkably different from those of most visual poets. Can you tell us a little about what and who have influenced your visual poetry over the years?

BG: At first I was surprised by your suggestion that “the sources of [my] inspiration seem remarkably different from those of most visual poets.” From what I’ve read about other visual poets who became known as such to the few interested in visual poetry in the seventies or eighties, in this country and Canada, there’s not much difference in our backgrounds. Most of us were influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by Cummings and then the Williams and Solt anthologies (as well as the little-mentioned Anthology of Concretism that Eugene Wildman edited in the late sixties—and I bought at my college bookstore with prize money I’d won as a solitextual (i.e., solely textual) poet from the college literary magazine). Most of us, too, had a similar background in the traditional poetry of Shakespeare, Pound, Stevens, etc.—although the mix was different for each of us.

I was perhaps slightly different in that I did not break with Keats, Wordsworth, Stevens, Roethke and the many other solitextual poets whose work I admired, but pretty much repeated their kind of poetry, but with visio-poetic devices added (and rhyme and formal meter dropped). The haiku was an important influence on me, as well. My first book, as you know, was a collection of visual haiku. Most of them were close to seventeen syllables, very verbal, but with visio-poetic trickery added. I tend to think that, like many visual poets, I’m at least as much a minimalist poet as I am a visual poet.

While mentioning that first book, poemns, I feel obligated to say that while it was (self-) published almost forty years ago, I’ve only technically been a published visual poet for forty years since no other visual poems of mine were published until the mid-eighties. I feel I’ve been in the field for just twenty years or so.

Once my visual poems started getting semi-regularly published, I started getting periodicals that carried visual poetry such as Score and Kaldron, and stealing ideas from just about everyone making visual poetry at the time, including you. Then, sometime in the early nineties, I got into mathematical poetry, most of it not visual. My first influence was Zukofsky, who used a bit of math in part of A. My most important influence was Scott Helmes. Later, I got ideas from Karl Kempton’s mathematical poems, as well. Gradually, my mathemaku, as I call them, became more and more visual until now, with a computer program helping considerably, they are more illumages (i.e., visual artworks) than poems. Their graphic elements are strongly influenced by the abstract-expressionists—so far.

I should probably add that I’ve been greatly influenced, too, by Pater and Wilde’s art for art’s sake doctrine. Hence, my fairly consistent avoidance of poems that preach or have any “message.” I’m sure I’ve absorbed a lot from comic strips and comic books, the movies, advertising, etc., but little of that seems to me directly connected to anything I’ve composed, with the possible exception of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, whose typography surely influenced me.

The whole subject of aesthetic influence fascinates me. I love wondering who and what have influenced my own work, and suspect my off-the-cuff answer here is pretty superficial. On the other hand, I continue to believe that I would eventually have composed the kinds of things I have regardless of my influences. Our genes compel us to search for our influences; we don't just luck into them.

GH: You’ve written many types of poetry over the years: visual poems, mathematical poems, haiku, even fairly traditional lineated poems. Do you see a connection between the ways you create poems in these various genres? Do you choose to write one kind of poem for any particular reason on any particular day?

BG: At this stage in my career, I seriously compose only two kinds of poems to any extent, Poem poems and mathemaku. My Poem poems are mostly standard Iowa plaintext lyrics (free-verse lyrics about everyday objects and events, with usually some sort of epiphany at the end) except that their main character, modeled mostly after Ted Hughes’s Crow, is a man/literary-text called “Poem.” I’m not sure when I started making them, but I’ve been doing them for well over a decade. I began doing mathemaku some forty years ago, but only made two of them at that time. The rest started coming to me around 1990. It was at that point that I named them “mathemaku” (for “mathematical haiku) because they were originally haiku, in my view. They’ve sprawled much too complex for haiku now, but still adhere to what I believe to be the main impetus behind haiku: two images that together produce some sense of the Sacredness of Existence (in my case definitely not connected to any formal religion, unless science is one).

Bob Grumman, "Mathemaku for Karl Young"

I compose Poem poems when I want to say something; I compose mathemaku when I want to make a work of art. But in the Poem poems I try hard to bring off redeeming imagery—or in some way compensate for whatever self-expression I’m indulging in, my ultimate aim with them also being works of art. Some idea or phrase or infraverbal (smaller than words) technique that suddenly seems exploitable is what generally gets me into a Poem poem. Sometimes such a thing occurs to me while I’m riding my bicycle, or taking a walk, or lying in bed at night, or sometimes when I’m at my desk feeling I really ought to be Creative. Its source, I suspect, is the poetry of others as much as anything else: I like what some part of someone else’s poem does and think I see a different way to use it, or I don’t like some part of another’s poem but recognize the potential of something in it.

As I’ve described at my blog, dabbling in Paint Shop inspires most of my current mathemaku—although the dabbling usually begins with some pictorial idea or a word I think can be given visual resonance. My mathemaku, I should point out, are mostly long divisions, so I have a set template for most of my work in this vein. I’m now much involved in a sequence in which I divide various words or phrases into “poetry,” and many of the poems in the series inspire variations. Playing with words versus playing with colors and shapes is one way of differentiating my two poetries from one another. Though the textual ones are partially personal, the mathemaku almost entirely impersonal. Words are important in them, too.

GH: Here’s one of your Poem poems from your chapbook Of Poem (dbqp: Schenectady, N.Y., 1995). It is the pourquoi tale for your character Poem and a reasonable exemplar of this particular mode of your writing:

His Origin

He was just fragmentary echoings
of Stevens, Roethke, Hughes
some misslept vagrant thought one day set racketing
through Crazy Jane’s untrellised ardors,
shedding feathers and farting
as he faltered into words princed
eventually, with occasional fingers,
genitals, and voice struggling always
to light up
with silence.

I wonder how many people would consider this a “plaintext” poem of any kind? You intentionally twist syntax where it doesn’t want to go, you create neologisms that almost make sense (“misslept” and “princed”), unite words together in unexpected collocations (“untrellised ardors”), and fill the poem with alliteration and consonance (“feathers and farting/as he faltered into” and “genitals, and voice struggling always/to light up/with silence”). The Poem poems seem to me to concern themselves quite a bit about language and its possibilities, and they are surreal in their tendencies. How do you compare these poems to the realm of today’s poetic practice? And why has the poem above failed to enumerate one of the most important influences on the Poem poems, one whom you might be able to thank for many of the mannerisms of these poems?

BG: Well, I did say, “mostly.” I suspect that your inference is right, that they mostly are not “plaintext”—except compared to my other poems. On the other hand, while such things as surrealistic images are in them, many of the standard “best poems of the year” have touches of those things, too. I consider the Poem poems very similar to the conventional poems of the past fifty or so years in that they generally end with an epiphany or some sort of punchline, are usually mildly ironic, deal with the Inner Soul, and use fairly conventional Bly-level surrealisms and Dylan Thomas “misused words” such as noun as verb (e.g., “princed”). As you’ve pointed out, traditional verbal music—alliteration, consonance, euphony, puns (but not often rhyme)—is important to me in them—as it is in all my poems—but that comes from the entire tradition of poetry.

I’m not sure what other poet influenced them as much as the three named. Cummings? I don’t see it. For one thing, my syntax in these poems is almost always straight-forward. I do use Cummingsfications (poetic devices Cummings invented or pioneered the use of), such as words broken between or in the middle of syllables, indentational unconventionality, etc., but they seem to me mostly secondary where I use them. Or do you mean Yeats? But I consider him as good as named in this particular poem. Ah, Emily, right!? But only in the line about farting.

GH: Not, of course, Yeats, who is clearly referred to in the poem. Cummings is the right answer. Some of the effects I described above are used by some of the poets mentioned in your poem, but I think only Cummings (in his lyrics, not his later verbo-visual works) uses all of these techniques consistently.

BG, interrupting: I think my particular way of using words incorrectly for poetic effect in the Poem poems comes much more from Thomas (and, probably, Hopkins) than from Cummings, and my syntax is much different from his (which I’ve never connected to), so I’m convinced I’m not wrong to refer only to the poets I did in the poem.

GH: All of which brings us to your work as an editor. Your interest in the canonical poets of the American tradition is clear, but the work you have published via The Runaway Spoon Press tends to be extremely avant-garde. You publish plenty of visual poetry titles along with textual poetry that pushes the definition of “poetry.” What is your mission with this press?

BG: I’m afraid my mission with my press now is simply to publish my own work and the work of my friends—and to keep the damned thing alive. I founded it in 1987—after an inheritance allowed me to buy a Xerox machine—to publish my children’s book for adults, A StrayngeBook. Encouraged by the relative ease of the Xerox publishing process, I volunteered to publish a book of Karl Kempton’s. Shortly after that, I started fairly regularly publishing others’ work. I intended to limit what I published to infraverbal and visual poetry, and to no more than four small (5.5" by 4.25") books a year, but too much good stuff was sent to me to do that. Until I finally was years behind in my promises and had to cut down. The over-riding mission from the beginning was to publish the work of good poets that might otherwise not be published, or—as I said—infraverbal and visual poetry. I still daydream of someday having enough money to publish a book a month, as I did in the press’s prime—in advertised editions with superior production values. I much want to republish all the books I’ve done in better editions, too. I doubt it’ll ever come to pass.

GH: Runaway Spoon has primarily focused on publishing small booklets, but it has also published a few sizeable and important collections of visual poetry, such as Irving Weiss’ Visual Voices and your own Doing Long Division in Color. Size itself is not a marker of important works, so what do you see as the press’ most important contributions to visual and experimental literature and why? How do you judge the value of what you publish?

BG: I feel a lot of the accomplishments of my press are important. It’d be hard for me to rank them. Among the books I've published that I consider major, besides Irving’s are Stephen-Paul Martin’s ridiculously unnoticed The Flood, for instance. Part of Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi is another. I count your Ghostlight as another, too. As I consider the question more closely, it seems to me that my press, and a handful of others including your dbqp, jwcurry’s curvd h&z, Liz Was and mIEKAL aND’s Xerox Sutra/Xexoxial Editions, Karl Young's Light & Dust (and other presses he's run), and Crag Hill’s Score Publications, have been pretty much equally effective at putting books of superior contemporary North American visual and infraverbal poetry out, which is highly important because the mainstream book publishers pretty much ignore such poetry.

But I’m most proud of my press’s one exclusive major distinction, its championing of mathematical poetry. So far, it’s published my own Doing Long Division in Color, Karl Kempton’s 3 Cubed, and Scott Helmes’s Non-Additive Postulations, the only reasonably large one-poet collections of mathematical poems I know of. The Runaway Spoon Press is also responsible for such collections of poems in which numbers are important as Jake Berry’s Equations, Irving Weiss’s Number Poems and Richard Kostelanetz’s Exhaustive Combinations, II (under the pseudonym he uses for such poems, Jean-Jacques Cory). I’ve been trying for years to get LeRoy Gorman to send me all his mathematical poems, and I hope to do an anthology of mathematical poems.

I’m proud, too, of publishing poets barely otherwise published, who are first-rate but not visual or infraverbal poets such as Arnold Falleder and Harry D. Eshleman. (And your wife Nancy!)

How do I judge the value of what I publish? Well, not to get into an involved and lengthy expedition into Mine Aesthetics, I’ll just say that exploration of the relatively new in poetry is important to me. There are other equal values in poetry, but the mainstreamers take care of them moderately well. But I also tend to prefer (or consider more valuable) poems that are lyrical; that is, the values I respond to in poetry are poetic values, little else. Among the explorative poetries I tend rarely to publish, I should add, is language poetry. That’s mostly accidental—due to my happening to do visual and infraverbal poetry myself, and thus making my best friends in poetry of others doing the same sort of thing. There’s also the problem of the competition between the university-certified language poetry and our still uncertified kind of poetries, and the apparent reluctance of language poets and langpo critics to do anything for us. But I believe language poetry is important, and would not have minded having published more of it if I’d had a chance to.

Bob Grumman, "Mathemaku # 62"

GH: You sometimes refer to this schism between language poets and visual poets, making references to the academic support for language poetry in the course of your comments. But some visual poets are also language poets: Crag Hill and John Byrum come to mind. Do you see any reason why there would naturally have to be a division between these two groups of artists? And if language poetry is more honored by the academy, do you think this is because it is simply better known or because the more purely literary nature of language poetry fits better into the divisions of academia?

BG: It’s difficult for me to discuss “the language poets” because “language poetry” has never, so far as I know, been rigorously defined. I hardly ever use it consistently, myself.

At the moment I’ve commandeered the term for my taxonomy to represent poetry that depends significantly on unconventional language use—mostly “wrong” grammar or spelling. But not the seeming narrative illogic of jump-cut poetry, which is often, but in my view incorrectly, considered a form of language poetry.

Putting aside who the true language poets are, there has long been a more or less official group of language poets consisting of those connected to The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984) edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, and—later—to In the American Tree, Ron Silliman’s breakthrough anthology of the school. Lyn Hejinian, Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Andrews, Susan Howe, Robert Grenier, Bob Perelman are among its chief practitioners. It is these people who are are generally meant by “the language poets” and have been what I call “acadominant” for over a decade now—considered by academics at the more sophisticated colleges, that is, to be the cutting edge in Serious Poetry.

Why has this come about? One important reason, I think, is that the language poets have been severely politically-correct—in both their poetry and criticism—from their inception, certainly a plus for getting ahead in academia, especially in most university English departments. Visual poets, in contrast, seem generally apolitical in their poetry and other writings, though most of them seem to me not much different in their political views from the language poets. Another factor in the language poets’ “rise” is that they were able to latch onto Marjorie Perloff, a critic who teaches at Stanford, and thus influential. They also caught onto Robert Creeley’s coattails early on when he was spoken of by many as America’s leading poet. Creeley was in the process of making SUNY Buffalo’s English department, which he headed, the equal in its field of MIT or Cal Berkeley, in science. Bernstein parlayed his close ties to Creeley into a long-term post as Creeley’s very visible successor at SUNY Buffalo. Bernstein and others in the langpo movement are good at PR, too, (and, I believe) have New York connections. In any case, they now seem to me to have much more clout than any other group of current poets except the finally fading Iowa plaintext lyric poets, their predecessors as the school of poetry most esteemed by academics. They even have a representative in the Academy of American Poets, Hejinian.

A third factor is the one you alluded to, the “purely literary nature of language poetry”—except that I’d substitute “verbal” for “literary” since most of the genuinest official language poets (those associated with The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book) oppose that which is “literary.” Their narrow focus on words has made their output much more easy than visual and other forms of pluraesthetic poetry (poetry employing two or more expressive modalities to aesthetically significant effect) for most English department academics to accept.

The schism you ask about between language poets and visual poets reduces, in my view, to the language poets’ rarely having used their influence as much as I and others would have preferred to help our group of visual poets—the group that grew (informally) out of the contributors to such magazines as Kaldron and Score circa 1980, whose main proponents are Karl Kempton, the editor of Kaldron, and Richard Kostelanetz, whose assemblings and critical writings have done much to promote visual poetry. When Perloff, for instance, belatedly got around to proffing a seminar in visual poetry a few years ago, she invited Bernstein, not some prominent long-term visual poet such as Kempton, who doesn’t live all that far from Stanford, to be its first guest poet. In her prospectus for the seminar she wholly ignored all the main American visual poets—until I and others raised a fuss at the Poetics discussion group on the Internet (founded, ironically, by Bernstein). She finally at least updated her list of secondary books, magazines and websites of value to include Karl Young’s Light & Dust website, an essential source for anyone wanting to know about contemporary visual poetry (and highly valuable in other ways, as well).

I tend to think this schism ultimately goes back to the fact that visual poets have visio-verbal minds, language poets verbaI minds, to be simplistic about it; it’s thus no more unnatural for the two to form separate groups indifferent to each other than it is for mathematicians to form a group separate from chemists. In any case, my own experience has been that for the most part visual poets are too visual for poets working with words only, or primarily, to empathize with, and too verbal for painters. Important, too, is the fact that the visual poets and language poets have been competing for recognition, so there would have to be friction between them.

But things may change, may already be changing. There are certainly language poets who have visual elements in their poems or actually compose full-scale visual poems: Bernstein himself, for example, and his wife, Susan Bee. Likewise, as you mentioned, more than a few visual poets like Crag Hill and John Byrum seem to be composing as much language poetry as visual poetry. And no language poet is more langpoetically wacked-out than John M. Bennett, who is also a leading visual poet. (I asked John once why he wasn’t considered a language poet, by the way; he told me that question had always stumped him, too. I think he just hung out with the wrong people—and is art- rather than politics-centered in his work.) Younger visual and language poets seem to be interacting without noticeable difficulty, too. So I’m optimistic that relations between the two groups will eventually be much friendlier—as they attack the worthlessness of the hypertextual poets or some other up-and-coming group of poets.

GH: Your interest in precise definitions is just one element in your overall critical and theoretical agenda for poetry and visual poetry. What are the main goals of your criticism and theory?

BG: Ah, an easy question! I want to work out a valid definition for the whole of existence. Given time, like ten or twenty thousand years, I really think I could. Since I don’t have anything like enough time, I have to be content to define as well as I can those parts of existence I feel I know the best, poetry being one of them. Hence, my poetics. My literary taxonomy is only one small aspect of that, but unavoidable, since one can’t build a science, which is what I think I’m trying to do, without one. All my coining of terms and redefinition of old terms is the result of my work in taxonomy. Short overall answer as to the purpose to my poetics: to name a full understanding into place. Because there’s no greater pleasure, for me, than understanding what something is and how it works.

I should add that I unhumbly believe my own poetics necessary for an understanding of poetry because of the extreme vagueness, incompleteness and frequent simple-mindedness of all the extant theories of poetics, and aesthetics I’m familiar with. On the other hand, I’m well aware how good a chance there is that some people will have the same low opinion of my poetics. Maybe even properly.

A sort of subgoal of my poetics is to provide others with an understanding of poetry that I hope may help them appreciate poems they might not otherwise appreciate. Similarly, I hope I’m building a cultural artifact that others will enjoy as a smoothly-functioning mechanism—the way one might enjoy a model airplane.

I haven’t mentioned my criticism, which I consider separate, though obviously related to, my poetics. I’m referring, I would guess, to my practical criticism. My main goals with it are many: (1) to have fun (I like writing criticism of others’ poems as much as making my own poems); (2) to boost the poetry I most like; (3) to give readers glimpses of my poetics and its rationale; (4) to get back at the Philistines by denigrating their holy texts and idols; (5) to exemplify what I believe to be Good Criticism (which I would sum up as criticism that does more than paraphrase and/or generalize, and that includes lots of specimens); and, probably most important of all, (6) provide readers with intelligent pluraphrases of poems, by which I mean description of everything that a poem has and does as well as everything the poem is about, and persuasive evaluations of them.

Oh, I have always seen my criticism as a way of advancing my own career, too. I figured it’d be easier to get heard as a poet if I managed to get a reputation as an astute critic. The way Bernard Shaw used reviewing and criticism to help his playwriting career. It never worked out that way for me. Probably at least in part because the other goals are more important to me and tend to clash with what I’d have to write to make it in the BigWorld.

GH: Speaking of careers, how would you describe a successful career for a poet, visual or otherwise? What is the goal, if any, you have for yours?

BG: To start at the largest appropriate generality, I would say that a career as anything is successful in direct proportion to the amount of pleasure it gives one. And, of course, it ought to give one pleasure. What kind of pleasure? Any kind that one wants. But I should think it would be a kind that one wants as much or more than any other kind of pleasure one could reasonably expect to gain out of life. I personally most want four pleasures from my career as a poet: (1) the direct pleasure it gives me to make things that I think . . . well, Good Things; or get a good score in the game I consider making poems to be (even if I’m the only scorekeeper, and therefore suspect); (2) the direct pleasure the poems give me as poems; (3) the perhaps truly bogus pleasure my feeling that others will enjoy them gives me, which is the same as my pleasure in believing they are a contribution of value to the world; (4) money enough from my poetry to allow me to devote as much time as I’d like to it—something, needless to say, I've never gotten. I guess I've now answered both your questions. I would add that a secondary goal of mine is to win praise from others I consider knowledgeable and able to appreciate the kind of poetry I compose. Much less important to me, but still of some importance, is my hope of winning praise from the general public.

I’ve been speaking of personal success. There’s also public success—which I consider very much less important. My view of that is very standard: one is a public success as a poet to the degree that a consensus of poetry-lovers holds you in continuing high regard.

I don’t consider poetry my main career, by the way. In fact, I consider myself to have been a dilettante until I was in my thirties, and even then only as a semi-serious hobbyist. I only pushed my poetry a bit because I (correctly) thought it’d be easier to get my poems published than the plays, which were my main output, performed. At the same time, I had hoped my poems would eventually get me enough of a reputation for someone to put on one of my plays—which hasn’t happened. So I’ve had, and still have, a careerist goal as a poet besides the goals so far mentioned. I wrote criticism for a similar reason—to advance my career as a poet—although, as I’ve said, I enjoy writing it. Then there is my career as a theoretical psychologist. For that, too, I needed a reputation from somewhere to put my theories before any public, since I’m not part of any psychology establishment.

I have other goals as a poet. One is to get ways of doing poetry available to others that I may not have employed as well as they may be able to. This is a larger goal, as you would guess, of my criticism. In both my poetry and criticism, too, I try (when I can) to provide linkages from accepted poetry, like some of Cummings's (which I am currently writing an essay on for the Cummings Society newsletter, Spring), to our not-yet-accepted brands. I think it important to note that I very much think of myself as poet and critic to be enlarging the field, not replacing something outmoded.

GH: Despite your wide interests, visual poetry remains one of your great interests. If you take a look at the world of poetry and visual art today, what do you see as the future of visual poetry?

BG: The computer is the future of visual poetry. Right now animation, holographic imagery, recorded sound effects, and the like are beginning to be properly explored, but I believe it won’t be too long before virtual realities via computers will be taken for granted. Then engagents* of visual poetry will be able to go into worlds in which gorgeous one-of-a-kind-in-the-original books of visual poems can be handled and viewed and read, along with sculptured poems, and animated poems, and all kinds of painted poems. All kinds of appropriate scents could be made available, as well—and sounds, etc. Visual poetry worlds—some, no doubt, like computer games. The huge advantage will be the ability to replicate original one-of-a-kinds. The snobs will shell out millions for original visual poems, but people like me will get sufficient satisfaction from computer-generated visual reality replicas of them—the way, frankly, I feel I get sufficient satisfaction from reproductions of many high-art paintings in books of reproductions. (I once got to see a bunch of Klees in a museum, and didn’t like them as much as I like the same works in books I had of Klee’s paintings—though, yes, I was aware of extra values.) I’m an elitist but extremely believe in equal opportunity, in this case, equal opportunity to enjoy art. So I love the possibility of the mass reproduction of visual poetry.

Two other expectations I have for visual poetry are its full-scale merger with conventional poetry and an increase in its ambitions. Visio-poetic (and mathe-poetic, etc.) devices should be as automatic for all poets as alliteration and such traditional verbal devices are. I can’t see how they won’t be. Visual poetry will also become more ambitious—by including more devices from other poetries, and arts, and even sciences, and by growing in size—on the page, and in number of pages, or the equivalent. My own last big hope as a pluraesthetic poet is to compose a 200-page epic using all I know of visual, mathematical, solitextual and other poetries and of illumagery (my word for visual art, in case I haven’t earlier used it). It will be a treated text, but with a narrative. Four or five main, continuing layers, explicit layers. I’m not sure how I’m going to incorporate solitextual poetry, aside from floating haiku and the like, but will try to. I’ve jotted down a few ideas for this, and a rough master plan, but little else. I don’t expect to have time to do anything significant toward realizing it for a couple of years. Unless I get a patron.

Hmmm, that seems like a good place to end this interview, Geof. So, let me thank you for conducting it, and repeat “Unless I get a patron.”


*People who read, view, hear or otherwise are engaged with a work of art—or science.

ecr. l’inf.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


TF: In Uncertain Poetries: Selected Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Poetics (Salt, 2005), you continue the work that you did in Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985) to deepen and complicate the understanding of the work of various objectivists and post-objectivists while, this time, also treating various other poets—for example, Rilke, Mallarme, and Stevens—whose projects, however different, are engaged with fundamental uncertainties. Objectivism, then, is not the assured description of the world and language’s unproblematic re-presentation of the world, as some naïve readers might believe, but a serious confrontation with uncertainty in the act of striving for truths, if not quite Truth. Before I go on to address some of the points in your readings of Moore, Niedecker, and Ignatow, am I anywhere near the intention that impelled you to collect these essays into a book?

MH: Your summary of the book is right-on, better than I have said it to myself, though I would substitute discovery for your word "intention" above. But let me put in a few minor additions, modifications and corrections. I've tried to understand how the given of uncertainty, the poet's willingness to embrace it, rather than strategize around it, has led, for me, to the power I see in poetry. I'd apply this pretty much across the board to the poets I've discussed in the book, hence the widening of the field I cover to include such foreign poets who might not be in every American poet's canon such as Rilke, Mallarme, Lorca, or even Stevens, that fine French poet writing in English. I also implicitly shy away from the collective word "Objectivism," and here my authority derives from no less than the master coiner himself, Louis Zukofsky who disliked the word. In fact, with the exception of the memoir on Oppen and the two pieces concerning Niedecker, I don't say much in this book even on the "Objectivists," the term I'd prefer to use for poets who fell under the sway of Zukofsky's "An Objective," and felt it in some sense as an honor code by which to write. On the other hand, you are also absolutely correct in seeing that my thirty-some year pondering of the Objectivists, especially Oppen, has deeply influenced my thinking about poetry.

TF: Marianne Moore is one of those poets you treat who was not an Objectivist. You include some extremely useful and interesting remarks about one aspect of “the poetic process in Moore”: “a move toward ‘objectifying’ the psyche, of giving weight and materiality to a mode of relating to the world,” which involves “transposition, the act of recontextualizing or decontextualizing the materials which enter the poem” (89). You link this ‘objectifying’ practice to her desire to arrive at an ethics. How do these factors connect with your overall theme of uncertainty? Also, is there an important relation between Moore’s poetic strategies and her ethical sense and your poetics and, as one contemporary writer puts it, “poethics”?

MH: What drew me to Moore's work was a sense of being in direct touch with her sensibility, almost a feeling of grasping her mind, that physically sensuous or palpable quality of being in immediate contact with something. I linked her with Niedecker, whose work had a similar quality for me. Something beyond the performative gesture of the poem, something unsheltered and exposed, unmediated in the quality of contact. Trying to explain it here, it sounds mystical or off the wall; maybe Pound's word "hardness" would be enough. Just before the passage you cite, I say that for both poets "the poetic act...becomes the working dimension of being, a way not of inventing counter-roles against traditions but of outfoxing the need for either role or counter-role." In both poets, then, there are few instances of being lectured to or orated at but rather sublimely one is given a sense of experiencing something like necessity. The ethics then are of transparency--solidity, not of language, but of the thing we call poetry. In the next essay, devoted to Niedecker's "Wintergreen Ridge," I quote Kenneth Cox's remark that it "is one of the poems that show what poetry might be." You will recall that, as I say, the act of "transposition," or defamiliarization if you wish, is the more common act of most poetry; but I go on to describe how Moore is ever-alert to the male-dominant modalities of that transposing and, in the act of resisting or modulating that tradition, her ambivalence is a felt thing. It's like being in the room with a no-nonsense person, electrifying and, for want of a better word, "real."

TF: Yes, you’ve put what I’ve quoted in an eminently clear context, and I’m assuming that when you speak of ethical “solidity . . . of the thing we call poetry” in Moore, that “thing” you refer to as “poetry” is an attitude toward “being in direct touch with her sensibility” and being interested in her heterogeneous environment. One might call it “sincerity” or even the absence of self-deluding bullshit, of either grandiose posturing or paradoxically grandstanding self-effacement. Moving on to Niedecker, you observe that her concentration on “physical realities” does not “anchor” “life” for her, but tends to “transport her into its uncertainty” (97). But how does this jibe with Niedecker’s notion that “the natural world is a ‘true source,” involving what Baudelaire might call “correspondences” among an infinite number of elements? How does it relate to your sense of the poet’s “metonymic/visionary mode” in which “each noun,” transformed into “a large scale metonymy” allows the noun to stand “for the world as a whole” (in the sense, I think, that synecdoche is said to work as a subset of metonymy)? Does this seeming totality or (in the words of the poststructuralists) totalization undermine the premise of uncertainty, or can the two trends be reconciled satisfactorily?

MH: I'm wary of both "totality" and "totalization"--they seem to describe a theoretical as opposed to a living situation, one in which the individual is inscribed in the prison house of language. I've come at this subject from another way. A reader of my collection in an earlier version suggested that perhaps I should entitle it "Precision and Uncertainty." My experience of poetry is that the more precise it is, the more it limns the outlines of an otherness, the more powerful and unsettling is its effect. So, in "Aspects of Poetics," I speak of an "interrogative, cliche-destroying precision" which maps psychic encounters, which saves us from sentimentality. In this, I follow a line of European thinkers such as Musil (one of his essay collections is entitled "Soul and Precision") and Lukacs who I cited in Conviction's Net of Branches. Lukacs writes that a "composition" is something "you cannot enter into, you cannot come to terms with it in the usual way. Our relationship to a composition--to something that has already taken form--is clear and unambiguous, even if it is enigmatic and difficult to explain: it is the feeling of being both near and far which comes with great understanding, that profound sense of union which is yet eternally a being-separate, a standing outside. It is a state of longing." In my shorthand view, then, otherness always interrupts the dream of totality.

TF: In writing of David Ignatow’s poems as parables and, perhaps more properly, anti-parables or self-critical parables, you identify a precision that exposes “otherness” and thus challenges “totality”: “Instead of wisdom, Ignatow’s poems remind us that our received truths probably won’t work, that whatever our course of action, we are as likely to end up in folly or disaster as to save our skins” (109). Until I read your essay on Ignatow, I didn’t quite know how to deal with his poetry or whether I wanted to think about it at all. When your own poetry is overtly political, it evinces a desire to achieve a more democratic society amid tremendous difficulties, and so I wonder what you think of Ignatow’s apparent pessimism, if I’m right to call it that. Is pessimism a limitation in the work, or is it, at least in part, an implicit critique of the poet’s society, implying that social arrangements could be otherwise?

: This is a question that drives toward the underpinnings of all of Western thought. I won't try to be even minimally comprehensive. So let's say that I would put Ignatow in a group of poets (and thinkers), a group by the way in which you and your work hold no small membership card, whose individuals see and reflect on the absurdities of our rational structures, the vanity of human wishes, however one might typify the activity. Ignatow's parables, the part of his work I like most, his comic routines, are deflationary exercises in human reason, antidotes to the implied utopian dimensions of our would-be systems--political,social, cultural, and, if I may ride my hobbyhorse, poetic. Pessimistic yes, to a degree, and why not in the face of modern history. But I don't think they counsel nihilism, rather suggest we ought to take a lighter touch about the improvability of man. I'd also say that to appreciate Ignatow more fully, one would have to see the artfulness of the forms, the history of the parablistic mode they work against i.e. how at some level below the radar, they play at undermining our expectations, hence the uncertainty I feel they induce. Clearly his roots are in the absurdist tradition, and some poems carry the absurdity beyond the social and into the cosmic, reminding us of the great joke of existence out of which so much poetry arises. Let me add that I haven't ever consciously tried to be 'political' as a poet, but I have tried to see things with all the intensity I can muster--and perhaps that might seem to set up political resonances.

TF: There are modes of “undermining our expectations” in contemporary experimental poetry that you find unsatisfactory. “Avant-Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words,” which appears toward the end of Uncertain Poetries, develops an intricate argument against tendencies in “language-centered poetry.” You cite Bakhtin’s critique of “the formalist theory of defamiliarization,” which has been important to Language writing, as “ideologically empty and meaningless” (212. In commenting on Barrett Watten’s championing of the use of a kind of defamiliarizing “machine” in the poetry of Bruce Andrews, you suggest that both critic and poet fail to get beyond formalist concerns; they lack ideological engagement. Your points are complex; I must quote at some length:

The work is in sync . . . with a whole range of cultural productions, with Ortegean
“dehumanization of the art form, with media generated information. Indeed, . . .
Watten makes constant identification of Andrews’ work with the Zeitgeist : ‘The
structure of the poem is literally that of signs in social space, which is identified
with the formally coded subject” (160), or “What at first seems to be a simple theory of a work of art [machineness] is extended into a fantastic program for mass- psychology. . . the sense that the form of the machine can be extended into cultural space” (162). Here, Watten seems caught in a strange contradiction, valorizing the replication of the given sign system of the culture he is criticizing . . . .

Andrews’ machine begins to look like the very capitalist-bourgeois instrument it was aimed against. It is already part of what Guy Debord calls the “society of spectacle,” fetishizing not reality but language, as though language were now suddenly capable of becoming an object where all else had failed. Machine reads machine as the work becomes a stimulus for purely private and subjective states. . . . For here, a reader’s psyche no longer encounters a meaning to embrace or resist but the sensation of words to indulge or project upon. . . . Gaps and discontinuities are not so much opportunities for creative co-participation as a kind of letting off the hook, equivalent to the processes of manipulative political and cultural media productions, the “feel good” ads, . . . non-sequiturs to thought. (213)

I’m much less conversant with Andrews’ poetry than with that of some other Language poets. Taking Watten’s remarks about Andrews as a synecdoche for Language writing in general is problematic. How can the poem’s “structure . . . literally” be “that of signs in social space”? Mass-advertising’s “form,” with rather predictable juxtapositions designed to kindle consumer desire/anxiety, seems infinitely more mechanistic than, say, Charles Bernstein’s long poem, Artifice of Absorption, in which elements of surprising disjunction and sustained theoretical speculation mingle. In Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, “signs” acting as metonymies for women’s experience in late patriarchy are not “extended into social space” as in “cultural media productions,” but are carefully arranged to question women’s secondary status as much as or more than they serve as “a stimulus for purely private and subjective states.”

Finding so many “gaps and discontinuities” in some Language poetry that I have trouble encountering “a meaning to embrace or resist,” I try—if the text seems intriguing enough to merit the effort—to expand my sense of possible signifying intention and reception of meaning. When I succeed, this can give access, not to the fetishizing of language, but to the dynamic interplay between the will to representation of “reality” and language’s complicated, uncertain, not always precise (enough) workings. In such cases, “creative co-participation” involves persevering until continuities within/beside “non-sequiturs” are as salient as discontinuities. Reading a long poem like Ron Silliman’s Tjanting, I may feel thwarted by the gap between one sentence and the next, only to find, after a while, that an accretion of different motifs and patterns of trope, image, and abstraction allow meaningful overall connections to be made. (Silliman’s autobiographical text Under Albany underscores the usefulness of this kind of reading.)

I’d be very interested in your response to my response to your argument in that passage.

MH: First, let's set some context. "Avant Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words" was my late 1980s polemic quarrelling with a number of polemics at the time, the MFA doctrines as well as those found in the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, many of which were insistent to the point, ad nauseum, that either words were to be used in a simple-minded referential manner (the MFA scenic pastoral as described by Charles Altieri) or were to be used in a variety of malleable ways, as non-referential counters (Silliman, McCaffery, etc.), that the Saussurean bar between signifier and signified was an unbreachable wall. The paper was delivered at the MLA in San Francisco, the epicenter of the "language" wars at that time, with all sorts of very high feelings and some very low actions, with charge and counter charge. My paper was aimed not at any one's poetry particularly (we could probably both agree that there is interesting and very good poetry across the spectrum, including the "language-centered" bandwidth), but at the philosophy, the political claims, the nasty and proto-typical avant-garde and movement maneuvers of proclaiming all poetry to be invalid but that written under a certain set of rules and assumptions concerning the nature of language, how poems are or are not "political," the very nature of poetry and communication. Whether the poetry is good or bad, interesting, boring, whatever, I left to others. Rather, in the examples I cited, I tried to demonstrate a particular point, usually a contradiction or lacunae within the claims made for a poetic practice or between that practice and the actual poetry itself. I did not find language poetry "unsatisfactory" (your word), only its underlying ideas about reader-reception and the political claims, ones that had been heard before in the dada time, in the social-realist 30s, claims that perpetually resurface as salvational and legislative either politically or psycho-socially. I did not feel that aleatory mechanisms, formalist procedures or (in your phrase) reading as "creative co-participation" could have genuine political or conscious-structuring effect. This is the critique Bakhtin, late Altieri, Charles Newman (in The Post-Modern Aura), Jameson and others lay on the formalist agenda. Needless to say, this was a very strong view held by Oppen. My own motto vis-à-vis 'political' poetry has always been that it might work better not to make it new but to make it shame or question. This is the history of 'political' poetry especially in its classical and Romantic phases from Milton through Blake through Shelley and Keats, on and on. In the essay, my own spin-my main point re solutions—if that is the appropriate word—was to suggest that poetry could be engaged in creating "counter-continuities," complexes of thought and intellect and vision that had the capacity to argue with, to nudge or even dislodge the continuities that formed the discourses of culture in which we live. Part of this 'solution' (and here one can applaud and make use of ideas arising out of language poetry) involves the critique of the over-determined belief systems with respect to language, its tendency to reify and rhetorize some thoughts as "Truth." There is a lot more I could say here about the shallow arguments against the "self" and the "personal" which caused me to argue the way I did, but then I'd just be retelling a number of the essays in the book.

TF: I appreciate your historical contextualization of the essay, and I withdraw my provisional thought that it was a critique of all Language poetry—and not what seemed the most dogmatic theorizing and proscriptive sentiments of some practitioners in the seventies and eighties. For me, the notion of “counter-continuities” which includes enactments of discontinuities (as they “necessarily deconstruct the old ‘mind-forged manacles’ of formerly held continuities” (218) on the way to new continuities, is extremely useful. “Dismemberment” of “whole theories and reading strategies” would be followed by picking “up certain parts, building flimsy wattles rather than castles or fortresses.” This is a kind of bricolage. In your own references to deconstruction, for example, you critique the kind of deconstruction popularized in the U.S. in the Nixon-Ford-Carter era while still alluding to less “fundamentalist,” more historically and socially situated paths established by Derrida and followed by some critics later.

In the light of your notion of “counter-continuities,” I’d like to ask about your sense of poets who are not discussed in Uncertain Poetries. The term “New York School” may not be all that helpful, but do you think that, in whatever aspect of a common aesthetic they may have, the major members of the “School” (for example, Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, and Guest) fall into missteps similar to those you’ve identified in some Language theory? Or do they include enough “counter-continuity” (even occasionally) to have given sufficient pleasure and edification?

MH: Well, the question is interesting—though I think it might be a bit tangential to what we have been talking about so far. My sense of the NY School is that there is far less of a common ethos or project, very little by way of manifesto (O'Hara's "personalism," as an example, is marvelously free of all the stridency of the language poets' bullying and writings). The poets tend to make few claims for a socio-political agenda in their work. And I think in its public face, NY School poetry can be characterized by subtexts of, belief really, in friendship, stylistic grace, entertaining intelligence. At least, that is the feeling tone I get from the 'group' qua 'group.' As to individual poets and their works, Ashbery is one of our major poets, especially in works like "Self-Portrait," and Three Poems, and in other works like "The Skaters" and "Litany." Rivers and Mountains is a ravishingly beautiful collection. Naturally, in such a large body of work, there are some lapses, some poetry which strikes as self-parody or even mawkishness. I’d say much the same for Koch or O'Hara. Recently, I heard Ron Padgett--a brilliant poet in his own right--read aloud Koch's late poem, "To My Jewishness," an incredible and moving work. Let's say, if I hadn't been born and cursed with my particular kind of angst, I'd be closer in spirit to their work (after all, Koch was my one and only poetry teacher in that one semester in 1964 that I could claim to have been a creative writing student). It's something to hope for in my next reincarnation.

TF: Regarding your own Jewishness, a few sections of Uncertain Poetries, most notably “Diasporic Poetics,” continue what you did in the memoir, Living Root, in examining how the influences of Jewish culture have affected your work and that of poets, such as Zukofsky and Oppen, who have meant a great deal to you. Included in this analysis is the modern Jewish poets’ capacity for “antinomian” thinking or “commentary” on the “text” of Jewish culture as thorough questioning. It can be argued that modern feminism has produced a similar “antinomianism,” a comparable interrogation of patriarchal culture. Your wife, the poet Jane Augustine, has contributed to the elucidation of H.D.’s feminist re-visions of myth, and you include a consideration of feminist critique in the section on Marianne Moore. How do the “counter-continuities” developed by some feminist poets (writing since you entered the field of poetry in the sixties) relate to and/or depart from your abiding ethical/aesthetic concerns?

MH: Your question concerning feminist poets goes back to some ground we have already covered. The "interrogation of patriarchal culture" has been most powerful, has achieved the most rethinking, to my mind—as has the feminist movement in general—by indicting that culture via the very same counter-continuity modalities that I wanted to suggest: personal testimonies, reversals of rhetorical structures, humor (often scathing i.e. shame) rather than by radical experiments in language. I would add that poets like Susan Howe or Rachel DuPlessis and others who "interrogate" patriarchal language do contribute seriously to a feminist critique in a way that much other experimental work does not, simply because in the feminist oriented critique there is more there there. It strikes me that when being consciously "political" one does best by speaking in the lingua franca of one's political—rather than one's poet—peers, that one engages the opposition on their level of discourse. Hence, for example, Paolo Freire's radicalism is first an educational and linguistic endeavor that recognizes that friend and foe meet across a similar language frontier. Hence Bakhtin's complaints against formalisms, his deep concerns on art and answerability, hence...etc. Behind my focusing on Moore and Niedecker, these ideas above came into play. What deeply excited me about both of these poets was that through intense observation, intense precision of language they could register the cost, so to speak, of cultural barbarism, in particular that directed against women's lives. They formed a baseline of thought, a realm of experiential material that questioned the barbarism, that opened insights into thinking, quite clearly, that the world doesn't have to be this way. If such thinking seems naive, then one is not reading the newspapers these days.

TF: You have explored a great range of material in Uncertain Poetries. Aside from poets we’ve mentioned already, you consider Rilke, Mallarme, Pound, Stevens, Duncan, Bronk, Schwerner, and Holocaust poetry. As a critic, is there any poetic terrain, area of cultural commentary, or thematic magnet that might command your extended attention—either in the near future or years from now? Or do you just want to pursue the exigencies of writing poetry for the foreseeable future?

MH: As the author of Exigent Futures, your last sentence brings a smile. Truth is I'm always--in my slow way--writing poetry while doing the other things I do. So this Fall while completing essays on Jewish-American experimental poetry, Buddhist influenced poetry and on George Oppen, I also finished a new manuscript of poetry. I'm putting together my other essays on Oppen--a book's worth-- and will send them around. I'm deep into some other prose, mostly autobiographical in nature, that goes back to my early days as a writer when I lived for a year in a small village in southern Spain. Whether this will turn out to be an installment of my memoir project, which began with Living Root, remains to be seen. I see that I have at least another book's worth of 'collectible' essays which cover poets and poetry. It looks like a lot of work, but I would say it has less to do with productivity than with the fact that I'm easily bored with my own work and need to shuffle from one project to another to keep my interest up. All the time I watch for what strikes me in poetry, in literature, in ideas. We are witnesses to tremendous ferment; I don't believe anything about our lives or our work is settled.

TF: Thank you, Michael.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Interview with Mark Young

Tom Beckett: I thought I'd begin by asking you the same first question I asked your First Hay(na)ku Anthology co-editor, Jean Vengua…If you were to describe your poetics in terms of an intersection, what would the names of the crossroads be?

Mark Young: I don't think of poetry, of my poetics, in intersectory terms. I've always believed it was the one road. The only intersection, the crossroads, came, shit, nearly fifty years ago, when I decided that I preferred writing poetry to being a jazz musician. The two things overlapped for a few years; the music had the promise of a career but it was the words that won out.

So back to the road. If I hijack your analogy, I see myself driving a car — though it could just as easily be a camel with panier bags — made up of those things that contribute to my way of writing. Humour, a facility with words, a cock-eyed & somewhat cynical view of the world. & as I drive, or pause for a pissbreak or food or sleep, I comment on what goes on around me, what I see, what might be around the next corner, how something I come across relates to something else I've seen before.

Jean used the terms The One, The Other. To me they are one another.

TB: When I think of your poetry I think of different categories of inquiry: ekphrastic poems (your Magritte series, for example); fable-licious riffs (I'm coining a new term to cover your "ficciones," say); poems in which you occupy the persona of, or somehow otherwise deal with, an historical figure; occasional poems in which you skewer or celebrate your contemporaries (me, for example);not to mention collaborative poems, visual poems, marquee poems, etc. You, sir, are an active guy. The catalogue of your efforts could continue, but…

What I want to ask is: don't you ever sleep?

MY: I sleep. Sometimes I even dream. But I don't write as much as I would like to. Or, perhaps more specifically, I don't write consistently at the level I would like to.

When I do, it tends to come in highly productive spurts. & it has to do with excitement, the shock of the new. Most usually external stimulation or a discovery or line of enquiry. & where once there were a few strong well-crafted poems that were the pillars that held up what could loosely be described as a collection, now there are discrete sequences that stand both alone & out, & the collections are mosaics where, hopefully, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.

I would use as examples of the sequences Betabet & the work I did in collaboration with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen — the Oracular Sonnets was 20-something poems in three days (& not much sleep); what became Poles Apart was done over the next few weeks. Betabet was a week's work. Once conceived/delivered they were barely worked on. I think only one poem in Oracular was revised, about four in Betabet. In a sense each was as if I was writing a single poem. They were written at white heat, & I hope this comes through.

What I would call the collections are the work that has gone on around them, the day to day stuff as it were. There are flashes of brilliance, though probably not that many individual poems that will be remembered. But what I hope out of them is that joined together, collected, they produce an entity that is worthwhile, that brings pleasure. Bill Allegrezza made a comment about calligraphies that I think is a perfect summation of what I'm trying to do, something along the lines of "it’s like spending an afternoon in conversation with an old friend".

& though I seem to work in what you describe as different categories, I would suggest that instead there are common threads. Series Magritte, for example, has the common thread that the poems are all about Magritte, but they utilize a number of different forms. I believe that the poem dictates the form, that it shapes itself, & that you follow the poem's own direction in regard to form. I do not consciously think I will use this or that format when I write. So within the Magritte "series" there are pattern poems & hay(na)ku & ficciones & four-word poems & twenty-page poems & probably some that tumble down the slopes & enrol in the school of quietude.

TB: The "school of quietude," I take it, is located in a valley?
At any rate, what I'm hearing you say is that your work is dialogical. Does that sound about right?

MY: Let's call it monologue with audience participation. A stand-up routine. I think it's a stance you & I both share. But I think you take the backchat full-on, & occasionally retire to lick your wounds, whereas I have a tendency to duck & weave & keep on coming. I guess it boils down to the perennial question, who do you write for? I think we all write to & for an audience, even if that audience is just some aspect of our selves. & though we may adapt our vocabulary, vary the syntax of what we say, to achieve maximum rapport with whoever we're talking to, we are always talking to someone when we write, engaging in a dialogue, even when we claim we're not..

(As for the school of quietude, all I know is that it's all downhill. He stands up, & in a perfect Barbra Streisand voice, launches into "On a Clear Day".)

TB: Do you feel that the performative aspect of your work has intensified (or become at all problematic for you) as a consequence of your daily efforts as a blogger? What, I'm trying to ask, does blogging mean to you in terms of your past and present practice as a writer?

MY: I'd give you a different answer every day to that question. Let me put on my dancing pumps, do a sidestep, step back & then step back in again.

Writing, creative writing, is a cottage industry. Blogging, creative blogging, is much more of an assembly line. If you commit — fuckwit that I am — to blogging on a daily basis mainly on the back of your poetry, and you don't have a diverse social network or access to independent films or to live music or to bookshops that stock anything other than self-help, sports & bestsellers to provide some sort of activity-based nexus that you can call upon to help bridge all the dry patches, then you tend to cut back on the quality controls, miss out on that step when you ask yourself should I be putting this out there.

It's a different type of confessional. Where in the past I would expose few pieces of myself but those would be examined in all their subdermal layers, in my blogging I open myself totally, even though I don't open myself up, just show the surface areas. It's a bit like the difference between saying I have cancer, & saying I have (hangnails & corns & some dry skin on my elbows & the odd minor rash &).

It's probably provoked — or at least hastened — a different writing style, something much more terse. It's also broadened my methodology, in that I now include paintings in the middle of poems, or poems that move, or colour; as I become more comfortable with html I can now go back to using physical layouts that I'd abandoned when I started blogging because I didn't know how to do them.

But underneath all this, I really haven't changed my practice all that much, just extended it. There is a separation between what I post & what I post out, kind of like a farmer who keeps some produce — I was going to say best produce, but it's often much more arbitrary than that — for himself, or, in this case, for submission elsewhere. I still maintain the publication rate that I've had for the last few years, averaging roughly 4-5 poems a month, but I send less out.

Leaving aside the driver that the pelican hasn't eaten today, I use the blog as an outlet for three groupings of my poems. There's the blog poetry, poems that are specifically written for the blog, sometimes even directly to it. There are those poems that I would probably have accepted somewhere, but I'd have to try a few places & run them in on the back of something else so why not just post them anyway. & there are those poems that would almost certainly be accepted at first try, but I can't wait that long, I want them out immediately.

TB: If you're a fuckwit, then hurrah for fuckwits! I hereby declare my solidarity and proclaim that I'm a fuckwit too. Or at the very least a fuckwit wannabe.

Part of what I think I hear you saying about how blogging has inflected your work is that it has caused you to become more invested in a kind of public persona. Is this something you think about?

MY: Inflected or infected? I took it as the latter at first & it made sense! & the response would probably be the same with or without the l.

The short answer is yes, but it's an answer in the past tense. It's something I thought about, probably tentatively at the time I started my own blog, deliberately a little way in, but now that the structure's in place, I don't think about it consciously.
(After a cigarette & a bit of navel gazing.) Let's rephrase that. Yes, you create a blog to give yourself a public persona, & the three stages are selfconsciously, subconsciously & unconsciously.

A blog is a both a concrete reference point & a message stick. The first is because it's a place where those who've read your poetry can find out a bit more about you, & where those who come across the blog can be referred to some more of your poetry.

The second. I live in an isolated part of the world, am a shitty letter writer & not much better at emails. So the blog becomes a carrier of missives where I can fulfil my letter-writing obligations to everybody at the same time, & still manage to get across personal messages. It's a physical presence where I can reach out, be reached, interact with other physical presences.

TB: How does a sense of place figure in your writing, figure in your sense of self as a poet writing in the world?

MY: Place has never been important in my writing, but out of place, well that's another story. I'll answer your question with a quote from an essay I wrote recently for the New Zealand print journal brief called "Exile & The Middle Kingdom".

"For others, like myself, it is choice, this putting aside of any feelings of belonging in any one place. Geographical barriers are replaced by place names – coming from Armenia has the same significance as coming from Wellington. There are no language barriers, for English has become the Frankish tongue, the lingua franca.

My publishers are based in Finland & the U.S. My most recent poetry appearances have been in magazines coming out of England, Australia, Finland & the U.S. Today my blog has been visited by people whose i.p. addresses include Norway, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada, France, Finland, Thailand, Brazil, The Philippines, India & twenty-three states of the U.S. Note the notable exception.

Most New Zealand poets I know I have met only once, last year, in Auckland, & only a couple of them do I keep in touch with. I know a handful of Australian poets who I might see once every twelve months, & again there are only a couple of continuous contacts. But I do not lack for company or communication, am, in fact, probably more involved in the writing scene than at any time in my life. Several times each week I send / receive emails to / from friends I have made through the e-zine / blogging network in Portugal or Mexico or Canada or Finland or the U.S. They send me books, print journals. I read their blogs & know more of what is going on in Helsinki than I do Herne Bay.

This is not exile, but a replacement of isolation. It is the ideal domain for someone like myself who has never felt at home in their physical environment, for whom the influences, the artists that one perceived as like-minded, have always been far-distant. Now I can mix with them, be part of the community, feel at home. Be honest."

TB: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

: I've been exploring the historical bit of this of late because it's still something that puzzles me. Pre-suppose some sort of creative drive inside me. Add to it that I grew up in a household where everyone read extensively — my parents would each go through five library books a week, mainly crime but other bits & pieces as well, my brother (twelve years older) was an SF freak so that opened up another avenue. I read all of it. My mother wrote & published light poetry, my father was a Freemason who would regularly be called on to give the lectures that were an integral part of their meetings, so there was always writing going on around me even if the only things I ever wrote were school assignments. Take away the fact that I disliked the poetry I was taught & forced to learn in English at school. Balance that out with my realisation that many of the hymns we sang each morning in school assembly were originally poems, & their majesty, when performed by a chorus of a thousand boys' voices, touched something inside me. & in my last year I did German, a very small informal class, with a teacher who didn't teach but informed me, through this informality, about Rilke & Goethe & Heine.

Jazz was my love. I listened to it, played it, was starting to write music. My first literary writing, at age seventeen, was a words backed by jazz piece called, I think, "The Pied Bopper of Harlem", about a Charlie Parker-like figure who comes along & blows the old-timers away. Then, much later that year, seized by teenaged angst — Rimbaud writes "At seventeen, one isn't serious" but he was fifteen when he wrote that so I'll forgive him — I started thinking about impending death, Death, & decided to write the worries out of me. It turned around inside itself & turned out to be a fairly light-hearted, sly, in the main colloquially- & naturally-phrased, eventually, poem. (& I've never worried about death since.)

Something clicked inside me & I wrote a few more. My mother suggested I send them away to the N.Z. Listener, a weekly publication based on the British journal of a similar name that included, along with news of radio programs, essays, stories, &, one of the few publications in N.Z. that did, poetry. The poems were accepted, appeared over the next couple of months.

We talked about the public persona earlier. When I went back to University after the (southern) Summer break I discovered I was now being treated as a Published Poet. I was asked to be the editor of the annual literary magazine — what a quaint phrase that seems now — was treated (almost) as an equal by the small number of other Published Poets in the place — all academics, none of them in the English Department — was expected to be A Poet, to Write Poetry.

It almost fucking destroyed me. I began writing in a style that was diametrically opposed to those first poems — yes, the soq is in a valley — & wrote shit for the next couple of years, most of it published, now deliberately lost. What saved me was the publication of the Donald M. Allen anthology. It showed me that it was okay to write the way I'd started out writing, to be colloquial, to use lines as short or as long as I wanted them to be, that felt right for the piece. That, as I said earlier, it should be the poem that dictates the form, not the reverse.

As for the second part of your question, where does poetry start for me for now, it doesn't, it just is. Where does breathing start? & anyway, how come you get all the one-liners?

TB: While you have "a certain facility with words" I have an uncertain confidence in my language abilities. One-liners are, however, within the range of my competence. I get the one-liners, you get the monologues. It seems a fair enough division of labor.

It's an interesting paradox that you say "it should be the poem that dictates the form, not the reverse," and yet there's your involvement with hay(na)ku. Speak to me of that, Maestro.


a natural
way of writing.

Building up to
or drilling

I should really be succinct in responding to this, but instead I'm going to be expansive, & tie in two books that have been influential on my thinking.

One of the great bonuses for me from The New American Poetry was that through it I was brought to William Carlos Williams. New Zealand poetry was very Anglophile in tradition & outlook, so that was what one was primarily exposed to. The only US writers that tended to intrude were those that wrote in the same tradition — Lowell, Frost, Wallace Stevens, the transplanted Auden. e.e. cummings was there as well, but mainly for novelty value, & Ezra Pound, also for novelty value, plus a hat-tip to his influence on he whom Paul Blackburn called "the preacher", T.S. Eliot.

Williams I knew of only through three poems, "Tract" & "Young Sycamore" which Hoagy Carmichael read on Jazz Canto, & the poem from Spring and All known as "the red wheel barrow" which tended to crop up as an example of how you should not write poetry. But it became obvious to me that my near contemporaries in the TNAP were building on a tradition, a tradition that I knew nothing about. So I went looking, & discovered this whole new bunch of poets, from Apollinaire through to Zukofsky.

Williams was the stand-out for me, the poet I go back to more than any other, primarily because of the structure of his work, the line & stanza breaks. Look at a poem like this one from his 1928 book The Descent of Winter & wonder no longer why I immediately connected with the tercet that Eileen Tabios formalised & named hay(na)ku 75 years later.
My bed is narrow
in a small room
at sea

The numbers are on
the wall
Arabic 1

Berth No. 2
was empty above me
the steward

took it apart
and removed

only the number
• 2 •

on an oval disc
of celluloid

to the white-enamel

two bright nails
like stars

the moon

The other book I'd like to refer to is Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, Kuhn (re)defines the word "paradigm" as a body of scientific belief that is "sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity…" (&) "simultaneously… enough to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve."

I'm not suggesting that the invention of the hay(na)ku caused a paradigm shift, but I can easily appropriate many of Kuhn's words to explain why I like the form, especially "sufficiently unprecedented" & "open-ended enough…." It is a structure that forms naturally, is an assist rather than an impediment to the writing of poetry. It engenders a flow, is flexible, creates a precision. It is handy for those of us — you & I are both prime examples — who are enamoured of the epigram. It is wonderful for political vitriol — think of Crag Hill's work in this vein. The hay(na)ku can be finite or (almost) infinite in length, is malleable, is able to be personalized.

& it is, in the main, dictated by the poem because for most of the "enduring group of adherents" it is sufficiently akin to their own natural writing style to make transition to or from the hay(na)ku for a particular poem an easy decision.

Forty-plus years ago I wrote:

The beat
of my knight's

the pulse
of my daze.

What a pity Eileen wasn't around..

TB: Let's shift gears a little. For a couple of years now you've been writing poems in response to Magritte's paintings. 119 of those poems, paired with images, are currently available on your Series Magritte blog. What are your thoughts about this project from your current vantage point? What is the itch that that series scratches?

MY: I have always got sparks off painters, off paintings. Sometimes those sparks coalesce, & a poem forms. Right from the early days.

I've said above, or at least intimated, that the N.Z. poetry scene held little interest for me. The art scene was a different thing altogether. I lived with, amongst, painters, interviewed them, reviewed them. Wrote what was probably the first book on modern N.Z. painting.

In those early days, in the wider art world, it was the U.S. painters — Gorky, Kline, de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock from the previous few decades, plus the more contemporary Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana, Larry Rivers et al — who moved me, but it was the earlier European Surrealists, particularly de Chirico & Magritte, who really got to me.

It was their imagery, the way they combined unrelated objects into something that didn't tell a story, per se, but was open to a literary, rather than literal, interpretation. I have a little de Chirico poem from the seventies, & if I'd had a book of his paintings when I got back into writing it quite possibly might have been a Series de Chirico, but it was Magritte who was to hand…..

I don't know if my intention was to write a series, though I called it that from the start. What I wanted to do was write about Magritte-like things — the second poem was a found hay(na)ku that was the titling of a photo of a nuclear explosion — but somehow I got hung up trying to write a poem to do with the opening to The Simpsons & ended up going back to Magritte paintings. Plus it was the heady days of the beginning of the As/Is collaborative blog, & the poems seemed to flow.

The itch was the itch to write, & the paintings were a source of subject matter &/or stimulation. In a sense they were ready mades, or at least ready to be assembled. The best of them are those that can exist without the referenced painting(s). But I'm running out of Magritte paintings to scratch the itch with, & though I still add to the blog, I'm running out of puff. There will come a time when it won't be refreshed.

Will I move on to another painter? I answer that in the next issue of Spore.

TB: What most excites and/or disturbs you about the current poetry scene(s)?

MY: This is a restricted response because my geographical location prohibits me from access to most printed material, but

The number of poets & the amount of poetry out there.
How little of it I like.
How styles haven't changed all that much since I was last around, but there seems to be more access to & evidence of alternative modes of "writing".
Encroaching academia which I see as a threat equivalent to global warming.
The electronic community of poets of which I am part & its diversity in which I delight.
The speed at which things happen.
The number of offers I get to contribute to things.
Accessibility of outlets & email submissions.
The opportunity to read on a regular basis the work of Kirsten Kaschock.
The difficulty of visiting on a regular basis all those blogs belonging to people whose first name begins with a J.

TB: Thanks, Mark. It's been a pleasure.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Interview with Jean Vengua

Tom Beckett: If you were to describe your poetics in terms of an intersection, what would the names of the crossroads be?

Jean Vengua: I don’t have a clear sense of my poetics, other than what I discover from the conversation of poetry that I’m engaged in. I’m constantly escaping my own grasp. Maybe the names of the crossroads are the One and the Other, in the sense that, when I write, I can sometimes thankfully shed my own skin and become other. Who am I today? What road will I take? And whose road is it? Is it a private, or a public road, and do I feel like trespassing today?

I guess I’m an escape artist at heart. I don’t like being pinned down.

On the other hand, I'm always reeling myself in to face the political, the material contexts in which I exist. So maybe you could say that my poetics, as it is, rather than what I want it to be, is sort of impossibly torn, between wanting to cast myself out into the ether as far as possible, yet wanting, needing, to be fully participant in society, making a difference with my language, or hoping, at least, that that is possible.

This idea of the crossroads is so old, too, you know…It’s the fated point at which decisions are made, and bargains sealed. I think you’re very clever to bring this up in your first question. It’s a devilish question to pose to an escape artist.

TB: Funny though how the word 'ether' can so easily become 'tether'. And how in certain frames of mind 'tether' might seem a cousin of "the other." Language is like a set of those progressively littler Russian dolls all telescoping together.

I'm groping clumsily, a little like Ariadne following a thread into amazement. I've no idea where I'm going. So, let me ask: where does poetry begin for you? What sort of things, experiences instigate your poems? Does dreamwork figure in the mix?

JV: Poetry is clumsy, too, and so is poetics. Thank you for being so optimistic. I don’t know what’s at the end of this “road,” but we can go this way: “Ether” isn’t something that can be “tethered,” I think, but people can be tethered, or they can “other” themselves. When I’m inter “viewed” I want to separate from myself and become some other. But, OK, I anchor myself to some rocky shore of language, because the truth is, I don’t really want to float off too far. Besides, being embodied has its perks.

Tension instigates my poems. I don’t mean that in a necessarily negative way. But there’s some discomfort that I want to shed or explore. So let’s say poetry begins in the body for me. It begins in the body and by some magical or mundane process, that tension resolves itself into language.

The impetus is similar to that in painting. The gesture, the stroke, comes from the body, which carries tension in the nerves, the muscles, the fingertips. I’m thinking in the old-fashioned sense of handling a brush as an extension of the body, or of using the fingers as in finger-painting. Writing a poem is like the gesture of applying paint and color. I prefer saturated colors.

But it’s funny that I should think of it in visual terms, because I usually begin writing by listening; I think I’m influenced by my recent experiments in visual art (Mood Ring). My initial impulse is to want to link “poetics” to a physical, rather than an intellectual experience, even though aesthetic, and even political decisions are made in the process. I just used the passive to describe how “tension resolves itself into language,” “othering” myself from the intellectual, philosophical process of poetics. But I’m not anti-intellectual. It’s just that, for many years, my experience of just thinking about poetry has been bound up with self-consciousness and worries about how and what to think. If I don’t project the process outwards from myself to some extent, I tend to burden myself with it. So now I follow Frank O’Hara’s dictum, and try to just “go on my nerve,” at least initially.

I don’t “work” my dreams. Sure, if a dream lingers in my mind, it may emerge in the language of my poem; but not necessarily with any more urgency than the plastic water bottle sitting next to my computer, or the news report that I hear on CNN.

I feel like I’m being very contradictory in my statements. It turns out that in fact I’m very much tethered to the most material determinant of writing, the body (although that’s the road I chose to walk in this particular instance).

TB: I'm picturing you now walking in a field. A couple dozen kites are fluttering high in the sky. Their strings are taped or tied to different parts of your body. Language fragments are emblazoned on the front of each kite. Each bit of language relates in some way to the part of your body to which it is attached. You dance and so do they.

A poem is, in its way, a constellation of concerns, tensions (contradictions), projections and desires.

You've alluded to how your poetry proceeds from the body. How does your body figure in your poetry?

JV: The body, for me, is often the emotional body, or even the thinking body. I don’t make much separation between those states, at least in the process of writing. Some scientists assert that the body remembers in some cellular way, remembers trauma, love, desire, lack, and anger. I’m looking at a poem I wrote in
The Nightjar recently:


In the mean time four chairs
and i occupy a fitf. period

correct the spelling i try to
make. what emerges : shoulder

are the knobs of bones under
flesh. distance from nail to

palm of hand fingers type
along a mind surface. breath

see short intake of curtains
table and shouldering of tens

ion. I try to make. trying
to make. whate watter what

ever i try to hammer takes a
breath. takes ten shoulder

ing the effort to try to
make. this where with all i

try to make. but then the an
arbitrary decisions cuts the

line. many lines bisecting
neck shoulder trying to see

i try to make the weight sett
led on one side skews the

other. warming up shifting
from one side to th other.

In “Mean Time” I wanted to take into account both the body and the language as they emerged, and merged, in process. There were “mistakes” in spelling, and I wanted to incorporate them into a poem, along with awareness of my breath, and the felt tension in my body. I was having a difficult time getting the words out, and there was a sense of my choices being arbitrary, that, initially, I was choosing words for no special reason; they seemed to be emerging from my fingertips, or my hand, my skin. And yet the choices of words and cuts in syllables shaped the line. By the end of the poem, much of the focus seems to be on the shifting weight of the body, as though that’s what I’m left with.

I think the body has simple needs, though. Basically: desire, satiation, lack and pain. But these states can lead to, or be connected to more complex states. I occasionally get migraines. So – why put so much responsibility on the brain?

Sometimes the body figures in my poetry in a more erotic sense, as a container for some memory content, or as a way, again, to connect to the “other” or to connect the experience of the body to various elements of language:

the intermittent rain you see over a series of days drifts
down and i am porous too the signs shelter doves i hear
them under the bridge waiting for the signals to change

often she thinks of sex while riding on the bus the way your
hands your fingers considering gauge viscosity seek pathways
in this is the vowel and in this is the verb to be to press

the case a little lower now higher up where it is permitted
to bite the mouth is an o and all parts together stem the o
there is a line to be traced and saying with impatience how

the hair gathers here darkens in the wet a formal allusion
to nature obscuring the fold which we say with hunger words
we all say in our porosity but for love, hold back a moment

Maybe all this stuff about the body seems sounds solipsistic.

I don’t want any mediation between my direct experience, and the act of writing.

It’s a matter of listening through the skin, and then you make a gesture, a stroke, and it comes out as writing, a constellation of letters and words, voices, fragments, more often than not clustered around some discomfort, pleasure, desire or lack.

But I will say that this constellation of letters and words, etc., tend to cluster around certain problems. That is, the “discomfort” I speak of is not completely of the body, but also of the mind or psyche, and of “knowledge.” And I think that “mediation” is one of those problems; that is, the problem of being mediated, of existing within various frameworks of knowledge, and assumptions that are sort of written on my skin, so to speak (I’m thinking of Kafka). And which I wish to shake off, through direct experience of writing. No -- not just shake off, but to become aware of, to see it for what it is, something separate and historical from direct experience – even though that’s not even possible. But to write it is to hope that one might see it and read it, and record it.

TB: Mediation, meditation: two words differentiated by only the consonant 't' (visual emblem of an intersection or crossroads).

'Media' is mediation's larger part. Or, should I say, "the media" are?

You, I gather from your blogs, have struggled with what medium to best express yourself. You are (have been?) variously, musician, visual artist and poet. I envy the multi-dimensionality of your talents. Could you speak, he asks awkwardly, to how these impulses coexist in you?

JV: I’m still thinking about that crossroads “t.” I guess we’re back at the intersection again. My writing also relates to my interest in Buddhist meditation, in which the body, mind and emotions, everything, can become objects upon which to focus awareness. In any case, I have always worked in a variety of mediums, so this business of crossing boundaries is just what I do. It’s a struggle when I feel constrained to work in a certain way, or stay within a genre or category. My recent work in Mood Ring, for example, is based on paintings I did a long time ago, which were about the act of physical gesture, using the brush like a calligrapher. I think brush work is much more amenable to spontaneity than working with pen and ink, and I need spontaneity to at least get started writing. I can’t sit around and think about poetry, or it never gets out into the world. I have to just do it; then later, I can and do think about it. Ironically, now I am re-framing the physical gesture of that early painting through digital media, as I break down those strokes into segments, tear them apart (literally), re-position the pieces and play with them, via my image program. The pieces on Mood Ring, then, intersect between the world of the body and its physical gestures and materials, and the digital, conceptual world of the computer.

I don’t see myself as a musician, although I played piano and guitar a lot when I was younger, and I was influenced by my father, who was a guitarist. Now I just mostly listen. And music provides conceptual models for me in poetry. Certain types of music and musicians ahve helped me to give myself permission to be dissonant, or disjunctive, or awkward, and Nathaniel Mackey’s book, Discrepant Engagement, helped me to see my own incongruities, and even my tendency to evade categorization, as a form of contestation.

For me, the word, categorization, contains echoes of the American colonization of the Philippines in 1898, its takeover of the communications infrastructure of the Philippines, its invasion by anthropologists and ethnographers, educators and scientists, who then set out to photograph and categorize the people, plants and animals of the Philippines, and publish their findings in journals and books for U.S. and European consumption and “education.” That colonial mediation created a disorienting, violent cultural and social shifts that continue to be felt by a lot of Filipino artists, even several generations later. I think that a lot of Filipino poets are struggling to escape from that gaze, still, trying to keep from being pinned down like a moth to a board.

I suppose my poetics is also a practice of accepting and staying with my own awkwardness, that discomfort I mentioned earlier, of leaning into the dissonance.

TB: What do you worry about?

JV: I worry about simplifying things too much. I worry that my references to “direct experience,” “gesture” and the body may be interpreted as romantic and regressive or nostalgic, although nowadays, I’m less concerned about that. Perhaps more significantly, I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about out how to pay my bills. A lot of my life is taken up by thinking about and strategizing how to keep myself in the black. I worry about getting older and staying creative. My writing and my poetics do not exist in a vacuum, in other words. My everyday worries about physical and creative survival have a great impact on my writing, and I get annoyed by those who write as if their poetics exist in a category separate from family life, or work, or what have you.

TB:What does poetry do?

JV: It records, it makes visible and audible – sensible; it makes the interior apparent to the senses. It’s another way of bringing forth awareness within the matrix of language and living and dying. It begins with a state that for me is childlike and playful, seemingly grounded in the body; and it often branches out into the ludic, the ludicruous – which is delightful when it happens. Poetry reports back to me (I mean that in a broad sense, of course, but in my blog, Diaryo I literally shaped my poems from news reports), it tells me what’s going on, and sometimes what’s going on is funny, lyrical, erotic; sometimes it’s full of despair, and I see the language breaking up inside of me or turning cold, becoming self-centered, cliché, awkward or lonely; disappearing into dead space, self-censorship, silence. When I say that poetry is a practice of staying with the discomfort or dissonance, I include in that also terror.

This reminds me – I had a nightmare recently: I had left a door open, which let a killer into the house, whose large presence blocked a doorway. And the horror was in his implacableness, his utter confidence in the rightness of his role as killer, as if it were a given, pre-ordained— and my helplessness in the face of that. And the only way I could pull myself out of that was through verbalizing, vocalizing or screaming—which was the only way I could create a rift between that illusion and the waking world. It’s as if part of me was lucid, and knew that only some primal utterance would break the continuity of that power. There’s the mediation again, the “as if already a given” aspect of life.

Although I mention the body as having some kind of primacy in the poetic process, in fact, how can I separate that from my mind, or from the possibility of a larger awareness? I can’t. But poetry as practice teases me into shaping it, too—this is the real “eros” of poetry; the part that may occasionally write about eros is bullshit, or secondary anyway—because in making “adjustments,” by playing with and manipulating and loving the various elements of language (as I do with visual art in Mood Ring), something more important emerges, a “poem,” and there’s something so satisfying in that.

TB: Could you speak to your method(s) of composition, perhaps by taking me through a poem you've written ?


Here are a couple:

Monday, November 21st, 2003

Break bread, simple rite; occasional lapse of memory
Allows for a fold in time where in the narrow border

Settings of nourishment create an order between
so many relations linked for good or ill, embarkations

occasions, turning out what was inside, flung open
doors, weather creating a momentum breaks up

ingredients: sugar, eggs, flour, the prayer for wheat

I wrote this on The Nightjar a couple weeks after my mother died in 2003. I often write either in prose poems or in couplets, for some reason. In the prose poem form, there’s a sort of breathless momentum that carries you to the end of a paragraph. Couplets allow for a more formal sense, moving from one set of thoughts or images, to another. My mother baked bread. The priest brought up a passage from the bible about wheat. (That’s ironic, though, because she often used rice flour). I was watching myself, how a lapse of awareness, a little mental leave-taking allowed for rest. Similarly, there are the “rests” between beats in music, and rests between stanzas. I realize now that in a prose poem, I don’t get that pause, that sense of rest. And then the “weather” comes in, breaks things up. You make a brief order, and then all the ingredients disperse, even the prayer.

It was just what was circulating in my life at that time; rituals, anchoring to some material thing seemed necessary. And beginning with the body is not so different from beginning with bread.


so maybe it's not death yet, although we are tired; it's true. empty empty alone with space and the furniture is worn out. she don't feel like cleaning up. there's an alien in the house and it is we. faces devolve one to the other not even goodbyes, and one can barely keep up the pretense. we are psychic phenomena. the paranormal beauty of cyborg flowers breeds intense sadness. creases develop along my lines of unfolding.

I wrote this prose poem recently on The Nightjar, and it’s pretty raw still. Meaning that I haven’t messed with it much, yet. It started out with a feeling of being tired and worn down; that was my impetus, my basic discomfort. I decided to make it a prose poem, because when I’m tired and just running on emotion, the long lines of prose set up a momentum, and that seemed more important to me at that moment, than setting up a form using line breaks.

A father of a friend of mine suffered from bipolar, and sometimes engaged in what is called “pressured speech.” And this is what I feel like sometimes when I write. I let the words run on ahead of me, and I encouraged a disjunction or rift in feeling or meaning, because the shift keeps me from identifying too closely with the words, which would hinder my being able to play with them in ways that are interesting to me.

It’s a kind of automatic writing, except that I don’t surrender to it completely. I may have even introduced the term, “psychic phenomena” to further a disjunction that starts with the change in syntax, "she don't feel like," which is not "me." The "we are psychic phenomena" sounded a little silly, but I wanted that, something off-kilter with the mood, because I was afraid it was becoming maudlin, and I knew I’d have to create a dissonance, or a shift in the language, for it to take me somewhere more interesting.

“Paranormal” follows because I think it is a beautiful word/object. It ripples. And I was thinking of it because of Stephen Vincent’s recent “Ghost” poem/photograph series, which he has been writing on his blog. But that reminded me of the cyborg flower that I saw on the Workshop page of the Tokyo Plastic 2 website a gorgeous white flower presented in Flash, that seemed frighteningly alive, despite its digitally constructed "plastic" parts. So I was allowing both emotion and tiredness to carry me through this, and hoping that I would get somewhere. For some reason, the cyborg flower stimulated “intense sadness.” I wanted to connect the intimacy and interiority of being human with something alien and exterior. That’s why I ended up with “creases” and “my unfolding,” both signs of wear in humans and paper art objects.

So again, it’s simply a matter of “going on my nerve,” but I’m also betting on something; that there is, as Tom Fink and Stephen Paul Miller discuss in Fink’s book, Gossip, something leading or continuous, even under the seeming discontinuity, even if the poem ends up not working for me. I want to believe in the vibrancy of an interior life that can find some bridge to the exterior, to the world of empirical objects and measures.

TB: I love your blogs--and you have several! I can't think of better evidence of someone trying to find a bridge between inner and outer than the truly committed blogger. Could you speak to what blogging means to you in terms of your practice as an artist?

JV: Blogging freed up my writing like nothing else. I started blogging when I was experiencing writer’s block, and feeling very disconnected from my creativity. Maybe blogging tapped into the exhibitionist in me, or something – it’s hard to say exactly. But I began blogging both as a way to break through isolation (I was staying at home taking care of my mother who was ill and dying at the time), and as a challenge to myself to write whatever I wanted to write in a very public way. Blogging kept me from imploding, from breaking down. My first blog was the Nightjar Logbook. The only time I had to myself, really, was after about 11 p.m., so I often wrote late at night, or early in the morning.

Initially, my poems were often hyperlinked, because it was a way to extend the life of the poems outwards in ways that were very open. I’d write something, then pick several words, Google them until I found interesting connections, however bizarre, then link to the sites in the poem (not flarf, by the way). Leny Strobel’s writings on community and loob and Michelle Bautista’s Kali practice got me thinking about the relational values of Filipinos in writing. As I wrote back then:

“Lo-ob. If you say it correctly, separating it into two syllables, with a slight emphasis on the second, you'll feel the word in the center of your diaphragm… Loob is a Filipino term that refers to the center of power within a person. But it's also important to know that this center is intensely relational, and associative.

The website itself is a center, a vortex, a world, which provides links or "doorways" outwards, to other worlds, other centers and vortexes, tributaries of thought or being. As such, it's open to flow…”

With loob, there’s that connection with the body again, or at least the need to figure out where you are positioned in relation to everything else at any one time. I still see the blog— or poetry, for that matter— as a kind of doorway opening in and opening out, like the breath. Oh…I just remembered that nightmare I mentioned earlier, in which I had left a door open, and a killer walked in! Well, it’s not without its risks.

Anyway… I did blog pretty much in isolation for awhile. Then one day, Eileen Tabios linked to that first blog, which gave me a chance to really test the loob of my blog, and my poetry.

TB: What is at risk for you in your work?

JV: One can start with one’s own tender ego—which at my age is perhaps not such a bad thing to put at risk. More risky is when one’s writing begins to be taken seriously by others—then one starts to feel a certain responsibility to write with some sense of “integrity.” By that, I don’t mean that one must take up a certain poetics, and defend it, but…the responsibility and the risk is to the senses, not to cheat them out of awareness, not to escape from this painful and beautiful world entirely—despite my claim of being an escape artist (and not a very good one at that)—not to lapse into polemic, forgetfulness, or habit in one’s writing. As you yourself said recently, it’s important to be present and attentive to even the little things.

TB: And, finally, what is on your proverbial plate now? Are you working on any special projects?

JV:Well, The First Hay(na)ku Anthology, which I edited with Mark Young, just came out. So I’m basking in the glow of that (Mostly it’s the glow of the contributing poets and vispo artists, including Eileen Tabios, who invented the form). I’m trying to find time to do more visual art myself, some of which I’ve put up on Mood Ring. I’m working on expanding a long poem into a book-length manuscript. Also, I’ve got so many poems in my various blogs, that I realize I could put together a book manuscript of shorter poems, or maybe a couple of “chapblogs” so I’m hoping to do that, too. I’m keeping busy.