Monday, May 22, 2006

Interview with Anny Ballardini

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Anny Ballardini: This question has something biblical in it.

At first there were words, lights, colors, music.

An unfolding of worlds, my incapacity of flying, my effort in having to coordinate. There was theory. As Pound says in Mary de Rachewiltz’s Discretions, the passage from the _animal to the human state_ from instinct to the mastering of the tools available to express, elaborate, through memorization. As I said, it was Leopardi from the strict education of my mother, and the Mother Goose Rhymes a good soul gave me with one of those big boxes of 100 Crayola crayons. This and my dreams _inside, and the space outside with the wind and sharp lights, and the people, the shop windows, the hippies, the sea, the people with different languages and voices, this never-ending always different human landscape, my father, my grandmother, that is as far as I can go. The rest is distorted, not because I cannot remember, but because others put their will into it.

At the age of 11 and for three years there was the piano.

Now poetry begins at my table, here where I am now.
When I travel and I have a book on which I can scribble notes, poetry begins in a different way, with all the difficulty it endeavors. It comes, in the slowest motion, one word at the time,
(I can look out of the window, look around)
and each word is right, I just have to wait for them to appear, keep my mind free.

But here, when I come here to write, I am trying to remember that distant poetry, that is why I need to write and rewrite and cancel, because I am projecting a surrogate of what it was, and I am rarely satisfied. Otherwise we talk of exercises of style, not as good as the ones by Queneau.

TB: Where were you born?

AB: I answered your question, saved, and it disappeared. I will rewrite it again…
I was born in the middle of the night with a full round moon (if I am not wrong this is also the opening of a biography on Toulouse Lautrec) in the tiniest village in the world: Cort, a small fraction of Montagne (because it is set in the mountains and Cort, especially my grandmother’s house right on a cliff, overlooks the valley cut by the Sarca river) in the province of Trento in the north of Italy close to Austria. Cort in the local dialect means short, but the troubadours used cort to talk of a court. I discovered that Ballard (Jean-Baptiste Christophe) was the imprimeur de music at the court of Louis XIV, an imposing and respectable figure who decided to publish Luly, born in Florence as Lulli, thus bringing him to the stardom of the period. Cort, these few houses have a little church that hosts maybe eight benches and is dedicated to the Mère de la Salette, you can find the sanctuary close to Grenoble in the South-East of France. Talking of religion I have to mention my mother and her ancestors, i Leonardi, originally from the German Lionhard. I recopied the coat of arms for a relative, I don’t know if you know, but you have to reproduce every single line, it seems in fact that each etched segment has a particular meaning. This all what was left of probably territories and lands. Even the coat of arms went lost _I am sure I gave it back.
And I was born out of and in the blood of my mother, literally. A Caesarian birth through the incompetent hands of a nurse, they were not able to find the doctor.
It was a sabbatical year for my father in which he also got married, 1955/’56. When I was three months old I was already in the Village in New York, where I grew up to the age of ten.

TB: So, Anny, then you went back to Italy?

AB: The beginning of the dark age.
But that is all right, better walk through the Middle Ages at a young age when vigor and natural strength -imbued by ignorance but brightened by intuition- are with you, than reaching them when you are 40. Personal life as an historical corpus. From here obedience, the hiding, shyness, and my interest in books, a metaphysical search, an endless branching into what I did not know. As Vico so brilliantly stated, to the primitive stage follows classicism that deteriorates into decadentism to start again and at a more complex evolutionary level from primitivism. Stroboscopic openings the passages of which have to be visited/lived through. Joy of life will come back with moments of perfection followed by detachment, refusal or a decadent liberal living _to be able to get rid of the snake’s skin; escapes and come backs, perfection and disaster, glory and ignobility, this the going of a man, and I have received much already, now that I am: “Nel bel mezzo del cammin” di mia vita.
Ezra Pound through Terrell: ’e lo soleils plovil’ (thus the light rains, Canto IV, Pound’s rendering of Arnaut Daniel’s on lo soleills plovil), the light-water-stone progression ending in crystal; i.e. the transmutation of fluid transparency of subjective experience into the objective solidity of stone through poetry; the alchemist’s fabrication of the philosopher’s stone by palingenesis”.
No elements are missing: light, in this complete cycle, can be interpreted, and this is probably the original meaning, as the burning of the sun through the air _the fusion of hydrogen into helium. Fire provoking combustion, the energy that moves the spheres. An adept of fire was Rudolf Steiner with his explanation of fires as the points in which people, drawn by at/traction, interest or curiosity, meet.
And through the philosopher’s stone we have redeemed the Middle Ages with their complex and marvelous symbols that defy those who enter the period with a scientific mind.
Going back to the beginning of my answer, the return to Italy brought to surface what was at the very beginning, this time coated with Romanticism since the village when compared with the Village was small but plunged in nature, the happiness of the green house in the green. From the surrounding environment I could breathe how thick centuries of direct papal power weighed on the poor inhabitants of those heavy houses.
Mine were sparks of enlightenment through a direct and spontaneous criticism of a social system that was cracking in the moment in which television was slowly appearing. I was different with my ten years of age, alone because my parents arrived one year later, and this difference forged me into an adult.

TB: I'm guessing that English was your first language and that Italian subsequently became your dominant tongue. Is that about right?

AB: Yes and no. My mother practically couldn’t speak English, while my father spoke in English with me. I faced Italian at school with its complicated grammar. But I was lucky enough to go through the two languages with a certain easiness. At school I added Latin, German, French; during my year in Argentina I got in contact with Spanish, and I fell in love with Brazilian Portuguese thus recording one of my highest conquests when I thought I could understand it /completely forgotten by now.
The problem with languages, as the problem with knowledge is that it does not stick with you, it betrays you if you do not keep it practiced/nourished_alive. I remember in New Orleans a young guy asked me to teach him Italian, and believe it or not, the language seemed to me all so funny, distanced as it was from its original context.
I remember as a teenager how seriously I approached my studies. Through a language I had the access to a civilization – the language seen in its historical and sociolinguistic context. Having attended a lyceum, our studies covered the related literatures that shed an aesthetic value to which I gave great importance. I often compared languages to mathematics because of their syntactical structures, poetry and prose instead were the lymph, their lives.
Lyotard says that the “language is immanent in us”, probably more languages you can master, more immanency you have, or to more immanency you are subdued.

TB: This may strike you as an absurd question, but do you feel yourself to be--in some sense--a different person when you move from using one language to using another?

AB: I even change my voice. I noticed that my English uses or needs a deeper tone of my voice, my Italian, even if quite deep, has a different channel of expression. French, which I almost forgot, was the most difficult to attain because of those particular “r”’s and of the “u” sound, and I thought I could master it when I finally dreamt a good old long dream in French. I would definitely set the learning and the mastering of languages at the level of small inner and gratifying conquests.
Something very similar to some good lines you are finally able to write, a couple of good intuitions in an article or a review, you put on that sort of instinctive unseen smile, just for yourself that lasts the length of a glance, but you are anyhow able to savor it.

TB: I've lost my Italian, but studied it seriously in college because I wanted to take a crack at reading Dante. So, I have a glimmer of an idea of what it is like to begin to think in another language.

Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

AB: As I said before we were studying the different literatures. In French we followed the Lagarde/ Micharde with its four volumes; in English it was the literature of the Britons; some very censured Latin literature (my teacher was a nun whom I thought was over 90), and finally in Italian we started out with The Betrothed by Manzoni to go to the origins with Virgil, a translated version of Homer, Dante _I was able to read his Comedy as I can read now the newspaper; then up to the middle of the XXth century. At the Interpreters school we faced literary and technical translation, two different courses of studies with their related exams. I had a substantial educational background on which to start working, that on the other hand took away from me that blest ignorance needed to start out a new art, and gave me the awareness that I still had so much to read. I noticed that at a certain point I was bolder with my colors and drawings _I never had any specific education in visual art_ than with my writings which I kept on throwing away till about three, four years ago. The same accepted act of creative writing supported and enhanced by my direct confrontation with journalism and the world of the media.
Thus Europe was the cradle that started out my serious education, and the States are my opening to the world. A “new” literature I could approach freely, skipping centuries, the minors, the recognized peaks, the currents, I was finally free to pick up a book I liked and linger on it. A freedom I cherished in getting the Poets’ Corner organized, or in keeping my blog.
Who are my forebears, who knows. It is all so thick with words, ideas, philosophies, interpretations that it is difficult to draw one-way streets.

TB: I've never been interested in one-way streets, conduits or "through-put." Intersections and collisions are entirely other matters. The worldwide web--site of thorough-going intersection-- seems to be where--through your blog and website-- you have established yourself as a writerly presence. What has that online work meant to you?

AB: It’s half past six in the morning and I am looking at the tree that marks the corner of the opposite building, white against white, white the building behind it, the one with red leaves that moves in the wind each branch with the thickness and subtleness of its foliage waving in a different way, the fresh sound of every leaf in its different half-spiraling movement, the greenness of the distinct greens _from silvery -also their sounds- to that compact dark fragmented depth separating infinite volumes and spaces_ of the tree that breathes here in front

I would like to convey this image to you, in its most detailed form for you to perceive how imposing it seems to me. From this need stems my blog and the Corner, the two of them since I find them narrowly bound. And this was my initial idea. Their development brought to an exponential set of reasons by which I should continue. I wouldn’t have met you, for example.

For our readers, a challenge like the Corner has been one of the greatest openings possible in our time, unless you are the owner of a theater like the Metropolitan in New York and can invite whomever suits you. Besides being an excellent school for me in our contemporary poetry. Every author featured on the Corner was invited by me to join, which means that I had to get in contact with her/his poetry, usually by googling the author. There is no way I can praise my work, it would hinder my potential, far from me the thought. I want instead to assess the quality of the writings of those Authors who sent me their work and state again how grateful I am for their contribution. I have felt each acceptance as a personal present, see how spoilt I have been!

Thanks to a collaboration with the national broadcasting radio RAI, and its regional space in the person of Nives Simonetti, collaboration extended to the Alto Adige, the main local newspaper on which the same author is featured on the day of the broadcast, I am introducing a new author every fortnight. This, together with my translating skills, have brought me to extend the Corner with translations into Italian. I also thought that I will soon take your example and start with interviews to the Authors.

Ideas and ideas, time is their enemy, but I might be able to carry things out properly within this stay that at the moment seems eternity.

TB: I like what Alain Badiou wrote about eternity: "Eternity does not consist in 'remaining as one is,' or in duration. Eternity is precisely what watches over disappearance."

Who are the contemporary writers in Europe whom you find to be most engaging?

AB: Thank you for your quotation.
Pierre Lévy, whom I met some years ago, a gentleman with his enthusiasm for the future.
“We appear to have lost the radiant world where one thought cuts through another with clean edge, a world of moving energies” says Pound in the chapter dedicated to Cavalcanti in his Literary Essays.

I avoided doing lists until now, and I said that I prefer American Authors for the brilliancy my America still has. Besides that I do not find it fair towards those I have on the Poets’ Corner to prefer some to others, but let me see who comes out this time. Paolo Ruffilli, Mary de Rachewiltz in poetry, Ugo Carrera in visual poetry, prose and poetry, are my closest references here, su suolo italiano. Digging down a little in time I would like to remember Carlo Emilio Gadda, one of my favorite authors who “sculpted” the Italian language as I used to say while reading him, together with Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese, Carlo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Eugenio Montale, Mario Luzi, Daniele Del Giudice, Sebastiano Vassalli the scholar of Dino Campana, and the great Antonio Tabucchi who has retired and does not wish to have any official contacts, the patient translator of Pessoa’s heteronymous. I feature two collections of poems and several unpublished poems by Dickinson in the Italian translation by Michele Pierri (1899-1988) on the Poets’ Corner thanks to his son Giuseppe Pierri who keeps the memory of his beloved father alive. Giuseppe’s extremely accurate biography of his father can be read in Italian, a life that had to face two world wars in the south of Italy, first as a doctor, then as a poet. Friend of Giuseppe Ungaretti, Giacinto Spagnoletti, Girolamo Comi, Oreste Macrì, Donato Valli, Giorgio Caproni and Luigi Fallacara, his tortured nature looks at poetry as a personal and deep meditation, the light for which he has kept on looking.
I would like to remember Vincenzo Cerami. My interest in films brought me to meet him – if I remember right we were in Rimini, the birth town of Federico Fellini; as I was honored to meet Marco Bellocchio (the director of one of the most stunning movies I have watched: Pugni in tasca, 1965), Giuseppe Bertolucci, Antonio Albanese, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Benigni, for whom Vincenzo Cerami wrote La vita è bella. It was Pasolini, his Italian teacher in his first teens to lead him to literature, teachings that have developed in majestic performances. I remember Cerami as a sweet and understanding man.
Opening up to Europe: Ruth Fainlight, Cees Nooteboom, Kjell Espmark, Nessa O’Mahony, Michael Peverett who translated the beautiful poems of the Swedish poet Karin Boye –later on translated by me into Italian, Douglas Clark, Ian Davidson, Carol Rumens, Peter Philipott, the man behind, Lawrence Upton,
the brilliant Linh Dinh who, if I am not wrong is in England now, we can thus value his presence here; Lidia Vianu and her inestimable work; and…
How many am I forgetting?

TB: It's not that I want you to rate your loves. It's that I hope to learn what constellations of influence you move within.

Backing up to the passage where you're looking at the tree and wrestling with description, I'm wondering…Is poetry for you, in itself, a kind of process of translation?

AB: Of interpretation, discovery, and refinement.
I would like to praise your choice of Constellations, as you know they move.

TB: What moves you? Could you bring forward one of your texts and discuss how it came to be?


Energy_ justice.
Intelligence & work.

The following is a poem that was written the way I think all poems should be written, as I said at the beginning of this very long conversation with you, while I was traveling by train back to Bolzano.


in the land of wolves ice shivers to pieces of moon
a child’s dreamy estate stopped by the crater
detached is the unfastened single blow
like blood, the fierce smell of it
pierces like wind
those heights of the Kings
stepped down for parades
pinnacles unspoken, lances trophies armors
under glass, the room of the couple shut off
by a chain in the right wing, room N°. 7
surrounded by the ruins of the castle

Slovakia, 12.2003

In Slovakia -where I was for a project I have been carrying out for school:, together with the person in charge at the Verbraucherinstitut in Berlin, Elke Salzmann- we were invited everywhere and treated in a superb way. One evening they brought us by bus to a restaurant in the middle of the woods, kilometers and kilometers in the dark cutting through fir trees, the moon bright up there. This long trip was a privilege because I could finally be alone with my thoughts after a couple of uninterrupted days of meetings and people. At the restaurant we met the owner, a very jovial character who had organized the waitresses and three musicians in their traditional costumes. I remember I went outside and there was this piercing smell of blood. Later on I got to know that the owner was a hunter and that in the area there were still wolves. It was very cold and the streets were icy. They also brought us up to the castle, on the turret after endless steps there was a circular room with windows all around, a spectacular view in the freezing wind. And we then finally visited the rooms inside. I am thus merely describing my trip with the remembrance of another trip, the one that took me to Italy.

TB: You make me want to experience those people and places. I get the sense that place is of particular importance to your work. Is that so?

AB: I forgot to say that Slovakia in 2003, and probably still now, seemed to me very poor. It was interesting to cross it by train and reach the border with Austria to compare the two countries. There was something that made me think of Dostoyevsky but I think that to meet him one should go further into the big Russia.
Salvador Dalì, and before him René Thom would support your question with a positive answer. I have become a private person, the opposite of what I was as a child, and on a day like today, Sunday, even if I live in the center of town, I am able to isolate myself from what surrounds me. This should be my place since I was born close to here.
But New York is New York, forgive me the logical association, or New Orleans for a different reason. As I said, two disaster –ed cities, part of my past.
The internet has marked an incredible twist. More than here it seems to me that I am on the net. One of the greatest inventions in the history of man, and I am most grateful for the previously unthinkable possibilities it has given us.
With reference to your comment, and if I remember right, Borges spent several years traveling while working on his poems, from Gasthouse to Bread & Breakfast to Pensione, I would definitively love it!

TB: My wife's of Slovak descent. She grew up hearing that language spoken in her Cleveland, Ohio household. And many of our holiday celebrations have a decidedly Slovak flavor.

What, I want to ask, cara Anny, is what propels you forward, what keeps you interested?

AB: Congratulations for your excellent choice.

I think the Arts in their multiform expressions and vastness are able to keep me here and going, the Arts and their majestic Interpreters.
Thank you Tom for your intelligent interest and care.

TB: Thank you, Anny.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Interview with Aldon Lynn Nielsen

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

Nielsen: Somebody stole the street sign off the corner about twenty years ago and the city council has never approved funds to replace it. The locals refer to it as “the corner where the Holiness church used to be.”

TB: Ahh, you're a wise guy, ehh? Nyuck, nyuck.

But seriously, Aldon, maybe I think of you with reference to streets because you and I both have had the experience of missing an airport exit whilst engrossed in conversation with David Bromige. Though, I'll admit, Robert Johnson was floating around in the back of my mind too.

Nielsen: My punishment for that airport mishap is that I have had to move from being a poet of the streets to being a poet of the terminals. Between the time of your first and second questions, I had to fly from Pennsylvania to California.

For most of my younger years, I walked everywhere. When I was growing up in D.C., the streets were my muse and living room. As a college student, I made the walk every day from above Dupont Circle over to 2nd & E Sts., N.W., altering my route each day to bring new vistas and neighborhoods into view. Just as I was finishing school, the first segment of Washington's Metro system opened, making me mobile in yet another way. I didn't even bother to buy a car till I was thirty, and for a time I used it mostly to go out on dates. (By the time you're thirty, many women take it as a signifier of something if you show up for a date on foot or by bus.) And for quite a while, despite the lack of good retail book stores in those days, D.C. was dotted with an amazing collection of used book stores and remainder shops. So the three legs of my educational tripod were the streets of D.C., the public university I attended, and the college of used and "hurt" books. There was even a store for many years that specialized in remaindered scholarly books. My entire education in structuralism came from great hardbacks that I bought for 99 cents apiece.

But, as a result of my walking ways, I didn't have a lot of experience with driving and talking to poets simultaneously. David Bromige, you remember, was the occasion of the first contact I had with you, when you were preparing a special issue on his work for The Difficulties. I was supposed to be driving him out to Dulles airport after a reading visit he made to D.C. -- At that time, I hadn't been that far out into Virginia in years. So, locked in converse about verse, I drove right past the exit. The funny thing is that this had happened before. Just a few months earlier, I was driving Amiri Baraka in my newly purchased car to National airport after a reading he'd done at George Washington University, where I did my grad work. (Walked there, too.) We were talking about poetry and poets, and drove right past the exit.

Both poets, though, made their flights -- so I haven't done irreparable harm --

In the end, it was the need to get into a tenure track job that drove me into the air, and I've been flying ever since. Always with Robert Johnson in the back of my mind.

I never took my poetics into a crossroads, 'cause that's where poets tend to get run over -- usually a hit and run -- We had a lot of circles in D.C. My poetics were formed somewhere in the streets between Dupont Circle and Far South East; between, say, Discount Books and Frederick Douglass's house.

TB: At what point did you come to know that poetry was going to be integral to what you were going to do in life?

Nielsen: I honestly can't recall a time when poetry wasn't integral to my life. The real problem was finding a way to live that would allow me to continue in that course. I'm not at all sure how this happened. My family did read, but there were few books in the house in my childhood. There wasn't that much music, either, and yet I grew obsessed with music and literature at a truly early age. There was the Bible, and there were nursery rhymes, and I was scribbling rhymes and proto-psalms and posting them on the door when I was a child.

But I do remember one thing in particular. I saw, once we'd gotten a TV set, a showing of TREASURE ISLAND. There was a scene in which a piratical gentleman walked up to another man and handed him a piece of paper. (At least this is how I recall the scene. I've never watched it again.) When the paper was unfolded, it bore just a black spot. Somehow the reaction of the recipient of this ominous message stuck with me, something about the power of the sign. When I learned that there was a book of this thing, I had to have it. I got a copy from the library, but it was a book well beyond my ability to read at that age, and so began the endless process of my running into the next room to my mother, pointing a finger at something on the page, and asking my mother what that word was. I can say that my parents, even though they weren't especially literary people, always encouraged me in this way. Not in the sense that they encouraged me towards a career in literature, not at all, but that they encouraged me in my learning, for which I remain grateful.

At any rate, from at least about age five, reading and writing were at the core of life for me, generally to the accompaniment of music. But I have to admit that I was well into college before it dawned on me that people didn't make a living writing books of poetry. There were books of poetry for sale in stores; I bought some of them. I don't know why it took me so long to realize that there wasn't a living to be made this way.

Then, too, it helped that I came of age in the sixties. In two senses. First, in the wake of the Russian launch of Sputnik, America began a serious investment in public education at a level we have not seen since. I spent my entire pre-college life in the public schools, and I was able to secure a really good education. Sometimes this was in spite of the teachers, but the fact is that the resources were there for someone like me who was determined to take advantage of them. Secondly, I happened to be a teen-ager right when the reawakening of American transcendentalism and bohemianism were reaching their peak. The years when I was in my teens were years when you were SUPPOSED to be a thinker, when people thought it was cool to be seen with all sorts of deep and difficult books sticking out of their jeans pockets, whether they read them or not, and it was a time when thousands of people would show up for a reading by Ginsberg, when poets would be asked to recite at demonstrations. Poetry seemed integral to everybody's life, at least briefly, and people seemed to long for something that was felt to be available in poetry. This was a time when Don L. Lee (before he became Haki Madhabuti) sold something like 50,000 copies of his little book of poems DON'T CRY, SCREAM, something it would be hard to imagine happening today. Maybe you can sell that many copies if you're a dead rapper -- And it was a time when publishers seemed willing to try wildly innovative texts. Grove Press alone, whose books were available even in the most staid Brentanos outlet, made available to me a wide range of innovative literature and remarkable non-fiction works. I didn't even know what a small press was at age sixteen, but I was able to read LeRoi Jones, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara right out of the most mainstream, even suburban stores. The poetry was there for me long before the word "integral" was.

TB: Zukofsky's "integral" became important to you, enough so that it provided the titles for two of your 'zines.

Who do you think of as your most important poetic forebears?

Nielsen: By then I had encountered calculus.

I started out on Homer, but soon hit the harder stuff . . .

Eventually I came to see that the American pathways are mostly laid out in Edward Taylor, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (this explains the kinship you can observe in Stevens and Williams, for example). But that's an understanding you come to only after you've read everything and can look back over the broad expanse.

In Junior High School, I read through whatever was in the school library -- Frost, Sandburg, cummings -- And then I set out on my own -- I believe the first book of poetry I ever purchased with my own money was LeRoi Jones's THE DEAD LECTURER -- So I was starting out right in the middle of the New American Poetry and the emerging Black Arts era. I suspect that for many in the generation just before mine, Jones/Baraka was somebody they discovered by way of his associations with Beats, Black Mountain School and New York School poets. For me, though, he was the route by which I learned of those others. Seeing poems like THE DANCE, noting dedications to Duncan, Olson and others -- I did the same thing I did in music -- When I liked an LP, I'd go looking for recordings by all the people listed on the cover -- In my readings in philosophy, I'd pick up something that looked interesting (this is how I found Derrida when he was first appearing in English translations), then I'd go read all the philosophers that person had addressed. This was extremely unsystematic, or more accurately, followed a branching system of discovery that was less chronologically directed than a college syllabus might have been. (There were no courses JUST in poetry at the schools I attended in those days.) This accounts for the fact that I would come to a Zukofsky, Niedecker and Oppen, who remain central to my understanding of what's valuable in American verse, at the same time that I would find a Tolson or Toomer, who also remain central to my comprehension both of what American poetry is about and what I am trying to do in my own writing.

And, of course, simultaneous with my discovery of Baraka/Jones was the eruption within my consciousness of Bob Dylan -- Sitting in the back of my parents' car at an intersection (to get back to your first question), I heard a rim shot come from the radio that brought my head up and my ears open -- the next thing I knew, actual poetry was coming out of the car radio accompanied by a swirling organ figure and punctuated by harmonica. To a mind already listening intently for the possibilities of language in the world, that song was a call to a calling -- Years later I would understand that not everybody in my generation was thinking about THE DEAD LECTURER and LIKE A ROLLING STONE at the same time -- but the key was, as I mentioned earlier, it was a time when such synchronicities were both possible and encouraged by your peers. Maybe nobody else wanted to do what you were doing, but they thought it cool that you were doing it. If you can imagine breakfast at your neighborhood café with Melvin B. Tolson and Emily Dickinson, you can imagine the poetic family that I live with.

TB: Do you think poets have a special social responsibility?

Nielsen: In my view, the term "social responsibility" indicates a general responsibility that all of us confront, whether we elect to honor that responsibility or to evade it. I don't believe that the poet differs in this respect from anybody else, from plumbers or from computer engineers. The modes of such responsibility may be what differs. In the same way that we would expect a computer engineer to carry out the work in a responsible fashion (remaining prepared for disappointments in that regard), I remain sufficiently naive as to want to expect the poet to honor a certain responsibility to the socius of language. None of us invented the languages that we speak, though we inflect them and shift their course, leave our marks upon them. Even if we do attempt to invent a language, we will invent it in a relationship of difference to the languages that have already been given us. But the languages come to us from others, and become our companions. We owe to them a certain respect, and a part of that respect is shown even in our disruptions of them, which must be meant to, well, mean something new. By virtue of my having been born into a society, I find myself given a responsibility towards others. As a poet, part of my recognition of that responsibility takes the form of a caring for, a looking after the language. This has nothing to do with policing the language, or correcting it in some way, least of all "purifying" any language of any tribe to which we might belong. It has to do with a care for the means that have been given me to exist within the society. Even the ethically challenged Heidegger saw that language is the house of being. It has to do with how we choose to live in language that we share with others.

TB: What are some of the choices about how to "live in language" that you see yourself having made in your work?

Nielsen: Ezra Pound was quite taken by what he thought he understood about a particular Chinese written character, which he read as being composed of the figures of a man standing by his word. He was after something like the Objectivists' take on sincerity and clarity. Whatever Pound's grasp of Chinese may have been, whatever Pound's grasp of himself may have been, the idea of standing by your words is a mode of sincerity I aspire to. It's a serious matter, or, to steal the title from a long-running arts festival, serious fun.

In his battles with Derrida over the corpus of Austin, Searle argued that, if we wish to understand how it is with language, we had better not start with such matters as fictive speech and literary inscription. Derrida argues convincingly that the desire to separate those categories from "natural language" is itself an impossible dream, and that in fact things like jokes and poetry may be regions of our most useful inquiries into our own language.

That's where I have chosen to live.

And much of this may be an outgrowth of my having given myself over to reading. I've always had the feeling that I write the things that I write because I want to read them and they don't exist yet. In some cases, such as my first critical book, READING RACE, this is a fairly clear matter of responding to an obvious lack in the political/critical discourse. As a graduate student, I wanted to see what people had had to say about racism and poetry in the twentieth century. I truly was shocked to find so little in the libraries that addressed the subject. So in that instance, I felt the need to write the discussion I had been looking for. In the case of a poem, such as "THE ASSEMBLY OF GOD AT JASPER," that motivation may seem considerably less direct, especially since many portions of that poem are derived from my reading. But again, I felt the need to read something in the way of lyric that got at race and history in ways that I couldn't find in the books around me. I suppose anybody could say this of their work, but at least it's a potential guard against simply repeating what others have done, or what you have done yourself.

I have taught two graduate seminars in the politics and ethics of reading. At some point in each seminar, the students told me that the course could as easily have been about writing. They were right.

Bottom line comes from Williams -- keep an eraser close at hand --

Of course, since my poetry and my criticism bear different signatures, I suppose you could make the case that there are two men standing by their words. I hope in the end they will approve of one another.

TB: I'd like to get a sense of your process. Could you take me through the creation of one of your poems and talk about how you literally work?

Nielsen: Thanks to my several employments, I've never been one of those writers who can sit at desk for a set period every day. And being who I am, I've never been one of those writers who can get up before dawn each day to spend several hours writing before heading off to the office. So, like Williams, I've become something of an expert in finding ways to be able to write when and where the opportunity permits. The critical work and the poetry tend to follow quite different procedures. The critical writing happens in a more "normal" appearing way -- I research for months, then sit down to work in a fairly straightforward way and keep at it for days till I'm done. The one year that I had a sabbatical (1993-1994), with no classes to teach, I was able to get more done on critical projects than at any other time in my life, because I was able to go to an office just to write every day - something I'd never been able to do before, and haven't been able to do since.

The poetry gets on the page in quite a different manner. Poems have always come to me in one of two ways. Some of them practically unfold themselves in one continuous thinking. A recent lyric that takes off from my having noticed that George Oppen and my father were both wounded in the same battle during World War II came in just that way. Those poems really are unexpected. They just open up in front of me, as it were, and I'm left with the work of editing and forming them. For those, it's primarily a matter of putting myself in the way of the thinking, so that I'll be prepared for it when it appears. But there's another class of poems in my experience that take much longer, sometimes years. A phrase or a situation will start nagging at my mind. I'll walk around toying with it for days, weeks, months. Another phrase will arise from the interstices of the first, and so on. The editing and forming is no longer something that happens near the end of the process, but rather something that is going on all the time. In both instances, I think my work follows very much in the traditions of composition by field, as it was spoken of at mid-twentieth century. I may not accept many of the suppositions about the poet's presence that you find in, say, Olson and Ginsberg, but the actual compositional mode is, I think, similar. Then, too, given the way I live with music, it might be more accurate to describe my compositional mode, at least in poetry, as analogous to the way that a Cecil Taylor creates a solo within a unit structure.

There's also the rare procedural poem. I have pieces that have grown entirely out of my misunderstandings of lyrics I half heard on the radio or in the street.

Like most poets I know, I always carry around a little notebook, now joined by both my PDA and my phone (which has a notepad function on it), so that I can immediately write down something that occurs to me. Many of these notes remain in temporary storage for months or years, till the time comes that I seem to understand what to do with them.

The main thing I've learned over the years is that I should never throw away anything. In the early years, I'd toss anything that didn't seem brilliant to me at the time. Now I know that I should keep the manuscripts of even the failures. One day I may look at the piece again and suddenly see the possibilities suggested by even just a few words.

So . . . nothing out of the ordinary. I've always been impatient with the tendencies of some poets to mystify the process. One of my graduate students recently asked me about methodology. I told her, the method is to read a whole lot and write all the time.

TB: What do you think poetry does? Why does it matter?

Nielsen: [Now in New York] You'll read in one camp that poetry educates while it delights. In another camp you'll read that the aesthetic is marked by its purposive purposelessness. Here's a well-known example of what good poetry does:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Here's what good prose does:

"So much depends upon a red wheel-barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens."

But in some camps (and I should let you know that I never went to camp), good poetry can do this:

"Furious fiddles of post-op Bop. Publishable by law. Nobody is black or white by himself. "

And good prose can do this:

" riverun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and environs."

Now, as to why this matters. The question itself is profoundly odd in a way that poetry can help us to understand. Things, whether poetry or color, do not matter as a matter of course, in themselves, for themselves. They matter to us because in one way or another we choose them, choose to attend to them. Money doesn't matter, unless it does. Which is a trite way of pointing out that value does not inhere in the object itself, but is a property of relations among humans. Money matters because we value it. Poetry doesn't matter to many, yet thousands die miserably every day for want of what can be found in Williams. Poetry can help the matter of mattering to take place. Else all is nattering. When West calls his book Race Matters, his heavy-handed pun is a poetic device, a mode of making the matter of race raise its mattering in the mind of a reader in particular ways. When Dana Gioia titles a book Can Poetry Matter?, the rhetorical work of that question goes a very long way towards taking all the mattering away from poetry and giving it to political prose. Poetry can take it back, can help us to comprehend how mattering happens, how matters matter.

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

Nielsen -- Ah, a trick question, meant to capitalize on my time zone confusions. I'm back in California again. -- earlier you asked who were my most important forebears -- now, like those psychological profiles they use at the FBI, you ask a slight variation on the question to see if my answers will be consistent. --

My poetic forebears (those who have offered me forbearance? those who bore up before?) are Rod Smith, Duriel Harris, Deborah Richards, Mark Wallace, Eileen Tabios, Evie Shockley, Buck Downs, Renee Gladman and Claudia Rakine.

TB: This is what comes of working on multiple projects simultaneously--and being over 50 years old. I literally forgot that I'd asked you about forebears earlier. Sorry about that, but I enjoyed the way you spun my clumsiness. You're very kind.

You're blogging now. Any thoughts about the 'blogoverse' and how it is influencing your own practice and that of the poetry scene in general?

Nielsen -- Why isn't "blogoverse" the name of a verse form? I just started the HeatStrings blog a month ago, so it's far too soon to tell if it will have any discernable effect on my own practice. My hope for blogs generally, and for the web as a whole, is that they will be seen in the end as something like the mimeo revolution of the Post-WWII era, that brought us such publications as FLOATING BEAR. The simple technology of the mimeo made it practical for poets to circulate fairly large numbers of copies rapidly at little cost, and the result was that poets far too interesting to get published in the Atlantic or the New Yorker, or even the somewhat more open POETRY of that time, were able to band together and create wildly innovative mags, what came to be called zines in a later generation, that a lot of people could see quickly. There are a few group blogs, but most blogs to date, including my own, are far more directed to an individual take than were the mimeo mags of the past. It's a great protestant phenomenon, the priesthood of all believers becomes the editorship of all writers -- each can nail 99 theses to the virtual church door.

When I'm not delivering myself of political rants on the HeatStrings blog, I use it to forward the projects in poetry and poetics that interest me. I've been posting photos and poems by writers I'd like to call more attention to, along with some of my own writing, and I've started an occasional "from the archives" segment in which I post interesting documents I come across in the course of my research. I am making plans for a related web site, and I hope to use the web to bring more attention to the life and work of Lorenzo Thomas. It was my sad duty to become Lorenzo's literary executor, working with his brother Cecilio, when Lorenzo died last Summer. The blog and other web sites will be useful in getting word out about future publications of Lorenzo's work. I'll also be posting reports from panels devoted to Lorenzo Thomas's legacy that will happen at next year's meetings of the American Studies Association and the Modern Language Association. Lorenzo and I were on a similar panel looking at the legacy of Sterling Brown a few years ago at the AWP, to date my only venture onto that terrain, and it would be great if that conference could host a discussion of Lorenzo's work as well, given his activities in the world of university creative writing programs.

TB: What is your greatest frustration in terms of the current writing scene(s)? What, as a writer, do you worry most about?

Nielsen: As a writer, the thing I worry most about is always publication! I'll come back to that in a minute.

My greatest frustration with the current constellation of writing scenes remains their near segregation, and this is true in both of the realms in which I do most of my work, criticism and poetry. Even after decades of public commitment to multiculturalism (a commitment that is always under attack from the right), you still find a disturbing settling out around readings and publications. Take the divisions of the Modern Language Association, for one instance. I belong to the Poetry Division and I belong to the Black Literature and Culture Division. Very few members of one attend the sessions of the other. Lorenzo Thomas was one member who was active in both; Meta Jones is a good example of a younger scholar who works in both divisions. But if you go rapidly from one conference to another, say from the last American Poetry Conference at the University of Maine to the Furious Flower conference on African American poetry at Madison U that happened not too long afterwards, you'll only see about three of the same people, Meta Jones and Grant Jenkins blessedly among them. That is truly disheartening to see at this late date.

But as a writer, I always worry most about publication -- I really wish poetry publication, at least in book form, could be a little less tied to personal associations. I always celebrate when I see an editor choose to publish a book by someone fresh with whom they've had no personal associations. But that's a rare event.

TB: I share your concerns about publication. My first full-length book of poetry--Unprotected Texts (a Selected Poems)-- will be published in a few months. It's been a long journey to get to this point. I've been writing for over thirty years! One glimmer of hope is print on demand publishing which seems to be starting to bloom in some interesting ways.

Groups of writers form to fend off their isolation and to support one another. Which is not a bad thing, but the networks need to be continually reinvented as insulation sets in. It can be a difficult situation for a writer who is unaffiliated with academia or living in Ohio, say, while trying to interact with scenes on the East and West coasts and beyond. The internet has been helpful in breaking down some of these barriers, but there are still not enough open-minded publishers of full-length poetry books. Chapbooks are the true currency of poetry writing. And Zasterle Press has recently issued Mixage, a terrific small volume by Aldon Nielsen.

Nielsen: I don't see any question marks there, so I'll just jump in and take up a few points.

First of all, that's great news about your new book. A lot of us have been waiting a long time to see such a collection. And you're right about chapbooks -- what's the old blues song? If it wasn't for chapbooks, I wouldn't have no books at all?

I've somehow always managed to just miss group affiliations. I was out of D.C., for instance, doing the work my draft board assigned me, during the time that a group of great poets was forming up around a book store near Dupont Circle. That group at one time or another included P. Inman, Joan Rettalack, Hugh Walthall, Beth Joselow, Terrence Winch, Lynn Dreyer and Tina Darragh. By the time the draft let me loose and I'd returned to D.C., the groupuscules had all shifted and reformed. I eventually came to know all those people individually, but I was never part of the "group." But it may be just as well. I don't always "play well with others."

I've often told my students that writing is one thing, and publishing another thing all together -- The two don't have all that much to do with one another. In my own case, each of my poetry books, with the exception of Evacuation Routes, could have been subtitled "Selected Poems." I keep writing every year, and then on the rare occasion when somebody appears who is interested in publishing the work, I shape a book out of the material that I think works. This is not to say that I don't have a book in mind as I write. But from early on I learned that the wait might be quite a long one, and a manuscript that had started out as one thing might evolve into something else. Since I don't publish dates of composition, this has lead to some assumptions about the development of my writing on the part of readers. Some years ago, one reviewer was commenting on the progression from a poem in one of my books to a poem in a later volume, not knowing, of course, that the second poem preceded the first in composition by a decade. But that isn't really an important matter, at least not while I'm still alive.

My life in the university has shown me what an odd thing poetry publication has become in America. I've found that it is considerably easier to get innovative scholarship and criticism published by a university press than innovative poetry. On the critical side, the presses are hungry for work that breaks new ground, that is seen as moving the discussion forward and opening up new areas of exploration. Most of the university press series in poetry, including those that work by way of contests, are really subsidiaries of the creative writing programs, and peer reviewing in that context tends to enforce conformity. So it's really a breakthrough when, say, Wesleyan publishes Juliana Spahr, or Iowa publishes Ed Roberson. These events are so extraordinary that they really stick out. I can give you a good illustration of this. With Lauri Ramey, I have just co-edited a volume of avant garde poetry by African American poets that has been published by the University of Alabama Press in their contemporary poetics series. It's sort of a companion volume to the trilogy of critical books on the subject I'm publishing. I can guarantee you that if most of the poets in the book submitted their work to the Alabama poetry series, they would be rejected out of hand. And that would likely be true at any of the university presses. Add to this the fact that commercial presses pretty much stopped doing anything new and interesting in poetry in the 70s, and you see that the small and independent presses are more important than ever. Williams understood that in the first half of the twentieth century. People like Olson and Baraka understood it in their generation. And that's where I look to see the most exciting work today -- the web can only benefit us in this regard -- though the web can also proliferate bad writing just as easily as good -- Even with so many of us doing our own blogs, I think a lot of readers will search out edited sites that bring them the kinds of reading they find most rewarding. All to the good, I think.

AND yes, a word of acknowledgment to Manuel Brito and his Zasterle Editions. Manuel has made a life's work of studying and promoting innovative American writing from his perch in Tenerife. I've only gotten to meet him once, briefly. We found ourselves on a critical panel together at the University of Salamanca, this after years of sending each other the works of other poets we'd each been publishing. Manuel has managed to keep up a wicked pace of work over the years, publishing, editing, writing -- I know I've learned a lot from his work, so I was especially delighted to have this little book appear in his series. When he sent me the cover art, a wild piece of imagination from Juan Tessi, an artist I'd never heard of before, I opened the file and laughed for hours. In a way, it seemed suited to the title of the book, Mixage, a word you'll see in the credits of French films, a word that has cogency in the world of sound editing even in English. "Sound editing," both in the sense of editing sound, and sound editing practices.

TB: Last question…What keeps you going, what keeps you interested?

Nielsen: Airplanes and interest -- poets really can't help themselves. You can spot us in public, suddenly breaking out in laughter in front of a sign that nobody else thinks is funny; listening with an ear cocked to the PA system in the store that is transmitting surreal grammar to us -- We hear the language in a way that most others quickly train themselves to ignore. I think that way of attending is what draws us to poetics in the first place -- and once we're there, there really is no turning back. On those very few occasions when I have taught creative writing classes (haven't done it for a decade now), I've always had students who wanted to know how they could tell if they were really writers. I told them to try to stop writing. If they could stop, they weren't writers. I didn't add that this is no measure of whether or not your writing is worth anybody else's attention, but the point was made. It's not really a question of whether or not you write to or for an audience. Every writer wants a reader, at least one more reader. But if you're really a writer you do it whether or not the audience ever shows up. This is one reason so many people we meet in the world of poetry fall off as they get older. But if you're given to verse because of the art form itself (as opposed to being attracted to it because it permits you to inhabit a certain role that you find attractive), you'll be at it your whole life.
Robert Creeley in the last decades of his life spoke often of the "dear company" in which he found himself as a poet. This is something else that keeps you going, the communion with others who are always presenting you with astonishing art. I had never met David Bromige, for example, until you gave me his address and suggested I might ask him for a copy of the manuscript that was soon to be a book of his. I would never have thought to write to a poet I didn't know and ask such a thing if you hadn't suggested it -- and in return I received one of the kindest and most generous communications I've ever gotten, and a new friend. And as I travel to conferences and campuses, I'm always meeting new people who share that same sensibility. Now, I'm not laboring under any illusion that poets are inherently good people --we all have horrors we could relate. But when I meet a Duriel Harris or a Evie Shockley or a Geoffrey Jacques, I come away with a new friend and a new reading. I would very much like to think that there are some few in the world who will feel the same way after an encounter with my work. Still, it's always the work that keeps me going, not anything the work might conceivably bring in its trail.

The words, to allude again to Creeley . . . one and one, and again one, after another – there’s always another chorus – always another friend pointing at you to tell you it’s your turn to turn in a solo –

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Interview with Gary Sullivan

Tom Beckett
: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Gary Sullivan: I lived with my maternal grandparents, Bernadette and Harold Farley, for a while when I was two or three years old. Harold was a cook in a jail and Bernadette gave piano lessons to local kids. They were both involved in amateur theater, and read lots of poetry, novels, and art history texts. They both painted, as well. I don’t remember if they had a TV. They must have, but it was not on much, if so.

Bernadette had illustrated and hand-colored a version of “Winkin, Blinkin and Nod” that she used to read to me at night. That’s the earliest poem I remember. Harold taught me to memorize and recite “I’m On’y Thist a’ Idiot” by James Whitcomb Riley. He used to read me the longer poems: I still half-remember the one about a boy chased by bears.

I learned, at a very early age, that all art was part of daily life, and that everybody did it, and I could participate, too. Bernadette and Harold used to encourage me to look through the art books, to draw, memorize poems, and on top of that Bernadette gave me a piano lesson every day. I “composed” a song at her encouragement, which I still remember. It was called “Mouse on the Moon,” after the Richard Lester movie, which I obviously didn’t see, but the title of which would have been in the air around that time. The song was simple: C, D, C, D, C, D, C, D, C, D, F-Sharp. And repeat endlessly. The C, D part was the mouse walking along the moon’s surface, and the F-sharp was when the mouse stepped in a crater.

So, poetry began, and begins, for me, as part of a larger immersion in creativity, generally, in seeing or recognizing human endeavor as inescapable from the creative act. Most kids are encouraged to be creative, at least up through a certain age, but I think there was something about the way that Bernadette and Harold lived their life together, and the way they allowed me so easily into that life, that made a deep, early impression on me.

TB: Wow. That sounds wonderful.

GS: It was. But it was only a couple of months of my early life. My real home life was not like that, although my mother was very supportive, generally.

TB: Did your interest in cartooning develop early on too?

GS: That was somewhat later. Someone, maybe Harold and Bernadette, gave me a big book of the history of comic strips. I have no idea what age I was. probably six or seven. The “history” narrative made it all seem very important, and I still vaguely remember the design of the book, which had something severe, like Steve Roper and some other more realistic-looking character on the cover. I remember the cover was hot pink and lime green. Very much influenced I realize in hindsight by 60s visual art, no doubt a sort of Warhol/Lichtenstein combo. I’m guessing that Lichtenstein may even have been indirectly responsible for this sort of book, which in hindsight seemed like an attempt to legitimize “lowbrow” or popular art for high art people. That right there tells me it was most likely Harold and Bernadette who must have given it to me. They would have gone for that sort of thing themselves.

Holy shit! I just had a hunch to do a Google image search on “History of the Comic Strip” and here it is:

Here’s the blurb from the used bookseller about it: “Pierre Couperie, Maurice C. Horn, et al, preface by Milton Caniff, introduction by Burne Hogarth. Crown Publishers, 1968. Out of Print. Fine. Initially prepared in conjunction with an exhibition of Comic strips, held in the Louvre, Paris, this is a scholarly & well-researched history of the Comic strip.”

This book was so fucking compelling to me as a kid I can still feel something of a charge when I look at that cover. Since it was published in 1968, I’m guessing I would have gotten it in 68 or 69, so I was right, I was about six or seven years old. Based on my understanding, having read that book, that comic strips were the most important art form of all time, I started cutting strips out of the newspaper and pasting them into separate notebooks for “archival purposes.”

My favorite strips—and this hasn’t changed at all—were Peanuts and Gordo. Gordo was written and drawn by Gus Arriola, who lived in Carmel or Morro Bay, California, although Gordo took place in Mexico. I was growing up not far away from Carmel, in San Juan Bautista, and Gordo seemed like the most realistic strip, besides maybe Peanuts, which was kid-focused. My friends were all Hispanic, most of the people in town were Hispanic, it was a Mission town, and the home of El Teatro Campesino. University Press of Mississippi published a collection of Gordo strips in 2000, Accidental Ambassador, and I picked up a copy, wondering if my sole identification with it had been that it seemed like it could have taken place in San Juan. (San Juan was a big tourist destination, and Gordo worked as a tour guide.) It did seem like that, but, too, it really was a great strip—very visually and narratively inventive, and really great characters. It’s one of the great comic strips of all time, one of the first mainstream examples of art in the U.S. with both a multiculti and eco consciousness, and I don’t think many people remember it. Arriola, who is still alive, stopped doing the strip in 1985, when he was in his 60s.

I remember when I was in sixth grade, in Mrs. Whitehead’s class—she would die a year or two later of breast cancer—she asked us what we wanted to do when we were old and how we were planning to get there. I confidently said that I was going to be a cartoonist, and that I was archiving all of the comic strips from the paper. That was when I was ten.

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic/artistic forebears?

: I guess the most obvious would be Joe Brainard. “Sufferin Succotash,” the comic he did with Ron Padgett, which was published in Padgett’s book Tulsa Kid, is generally the model for the Elsewhere series, if not the “New Life” series in Rain Taxi. I discovered recently that a younger comics artist I really admire, Richard Hahn, who does Lumakick, was also greatly inspired by that same comic. So Brainard did make some headway into the comics world as well as the visual art and poetry worlds.

More generally, I tend to gravitate toward, become directly inspired by, people who either straddle two or more media or genres, people who synthesize various styles and approaches, and people whose output tends to change radically from instance to instance.

A lot of the plays I’ve written were inspired by the records of the Firesign Theater, the films of the Kuchar brothers and the plays of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and especially Charles Ludlam. I picked up his Complete Plays in 1989 and was forever changed by them, although I’d read one or two here and there before that. George Kuchar, in addition to being a filmmaker, was a cartoonist for a while—I have something of his in an issue of Short Change from the 70s. And of course David Ossman, from the Firesign Theater, was a poet, and used to interview poets for KPFA—Corinth I think published a collection of them.

But, who else? Jack Smith. I was actually asked to do animation for Mary Jordan’s documentary about Smith, which I think premiered this month, but it didn’t work out—I didn’t really have the time, nor the technical facilities to do even a short animation piece, although I gave it a brief shot.

David Bromige. That issue of The Difficulties you did on him was a great eye-opener for me—I first read it at Daniel Davidson’s house in the 80s—and My Poetry is one of my favorite poetry books of all time. I dedicated How to Proceed in the Arts to him because he really did seem like the main influence behind it.

The films of Monmohan Desai, and Indian cinema, generally. The music of Mohammad Abdel Wahab and Ibrahim Tatlises, the singing style of Asmahan. Bernadette Mayer. Mina Loy. Charles Bernstein. Dambudzo Marechera. Bob and Ray. Johanna Drucker. Nick Piombino. Michael Lally. Ted Berrigan.

Nada Gordon had a huge impact on me long before I ever met her: I carried around a copy of her book, rodomontade, which included her comic-y illustrations, for years after picking it up at David Highsmith’s bookstore in San Francisco in the mid-80s. Since we got together in 1999, she’s been a primary influence on my writing.

I couldn’t have imagined publishing a book like Swoon had it not been for having read and loved Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, Marachera’s journal excerpts in Mindblast, Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, and Lewis Warsh’s The Maharajah’s Son, which is a collection of letters he received as a young adult from his friends.

Dead Man, the first book I ever had published, was greatly inspired by Berrigan’s Clear the Range, James Sherry’s In Case, and Gertrude Stein’s Blood on the Dining Room Floor.

The list above doesn’t cover even 1/10th of everything that has inspired or influenced me over the years, but may be the most obvious—at least, the most obvious to me. How many of them would be comfortable or happy about how their example has been warped into my own, I don’t know.

TB: Could you speak to the role of appropriation in your work?

GS: Appropriation is central to my work. To some extent that’s simply because of the time in which I’m creating. But equally it may have to do with my having been a music composition major in college, and how that can warp your understanding of the other arts.

Western music while it does not literally begin with Bach, in some basic sense begins conceptually with him. Bach takes the then-new invention, the keyboard, and maps out the basics that would inform and define Western music for the next several centuries: I-IV-V-I. That’s the basic structure—the syntax, if you will—of most Western music up through most of the 19th century. Most Western music appropriates and grapples with this basic syntax--which is certainly not natural to music--is exploring variations on its basic theme, is exploring the interstices between I-IV-V-I. There are odd blips—Beethoven’s late string quartets, maybe—but it’s mostly pretty much I-IV-V-I. Not much different from the Beginning, Middle, and End you’ll be taught in most creative writing classes in the country.

Add to that the fairly heavy appropriation, in classical music, of national or folk musics, and you have a kind of situation where, if you’re doing a rigorous analysis of this stuff, you can begin to see it all as thriving largely on appropriation at one or on many levels.

I didn’t stick with music because, finally, I grew to hate it. The tyranny of that syntax—I-IV-V-I—was too much for me to bear. And the alternatives, such as I understood them at the time—Cage, free jazz, atonal music—felt reactionary to me. That’s not really fair, of course, but that’s how it felt. More to the point, I hated listening to any of it. My own inability to imagine outside of the I-IV-V-I box, or to see 20th century work as anything other than a reaction, had more to do with my own limitations than any real limitations in Western music.

Unfortunately, middle eastern music, Indian music, Javanese music, Japanese music—musics not having developed out of the Western I-IV-V-I structure—were simply not taught when I was studying in the 80s, and I didn’t discover them until a decade after giving up the discipline. Not that they don’t have their own structures they adhere to. But it would been vastly more interesting and generative to have studied music from around the world, rather than having had this one oppressive syntax drilled into you.

Of course, Debussy, I later discovered, had been profoundly changed by hearing Javanese music—a fact that seems obvious once you’ve read about it. But for whatever reason, that’s not how we were taught Debussy.

So I abandoned music composition and refocused on writing and comics and theater. But I think I took this sensibility, of having studied Western music fairly rigorously, and applied it to my understanding of literature and comics and theater. Language and image, for me, were therefore both expressive and material. I didn’t learn about the materiality of language from the language writers or the philosophers and critics they’d been reading. It’s just that when you study music at that level, and then turn to look at these other media, you might see them that way. Notes or melodies or chord progressions don’t signify in the same way that words or images do, and you get used to not having to even think about meaning—at least any sort of one-to-one or analogous kind of meaning.

So, if you start out from the POV that language is material, that means your approach making art with language is going to be closer to a collagist’s, or someone who understands what they’re doing as a kind of appropriation.

Even my translating project—rendering the German-language poetry of Ernst Herbeck into English—I tend to see as less a translation project than as an act of appropriation. I wouldn’t have undertaken it otherwise, as I don’t know German well enough to do a “proper” translation.

TB: What about Elsewhere?

GS: The images in the first issue are of things I photographed, and then drew from the photos I took. Using one’s own photo reference is not considered appropriation, but what I photographed and then drew were all pre-existing, man-made representations—statuary, masks, packaging, advertising, signage, drawings, other photographs seen in urban Japan. Re-presenting representations is considered appropriation.

Confusing the matter further: The words were all appropriated, as we understand that word, given that I didn’t write them. But they weren’t cribbed from books (or the Internet): they were seen on people’s T-shirts, on signage, on notebook covers, purses, and so on. Is that appropriation, or is it reportage, a kind of documentary? Especially in the context of a book based on a trip to Japan? Or do we maybe not provide a wide enough net for that word “appropriation”? Shouldn’t we talk about Bartok as an appropriator of Hungarian folk music? And of “Microcosmos” as an appropriation of Bach’s early keyboard studies?

I think the finished comic reads two ways: as a sort of “poetry comic” a la Brainard, replete with appropriated imagery and text, and as a travel comic, a la Josh Neufeld.

Hopefully it also serves to get a reader wondering about Otherness: I was consciously aware of the fact the visual representations were the result of me, a white Westerner, picking and choosing images to draw from images on public display by Japanese artists representing Japanese people, non-Japanese people, and fictional and mythological characters.

Simultaneously with that, the language I used was the product of Japanese designers and others taking on the language of Other—in this case, English, a language they did not have a complete grasp of, and so would have felt as unfamiliar with as I felt being in Japan for the first time. The thrill of speaking or writing in a language not your own being similar to the thrill of walking around a city not your own, maybe. So the comic can become a kind of funhouse mirror of who is looking at who looking at who being or thinking about whom?

As well as a sort of meditation on appropriation: Aren’t the Japanese “appropriating” English when they make T-shirts that say things like: “Profounds”?

To put it simply and maybe a bit reductively: Elsewhere is about me appropriating others’ appropriation of others.

So, appropriation, for me, is or can be a part of the process, but is also often the very subject and the meaning of what I’m doing.

TB: Maybe you could extend your consideration of appropriation by talking about your involvement with "flarf."

GS: Sure. Appropriation plays a significant role in two aspects of flarf: in the literal making of the work, and in the sensibility itself. I’ll address the second aspect first.

Everyone on the flarf listserv brings to the list their own prior experience, their own sensibilities, their own ideas. The average age on the list is not young: most are in their thirties or forties. Most of us had been writing poetry for years, even decades prior to the list’s official launch on May 21, 2001.

You can get a sense of some of the participants’ individual poetics looking through some of their pre-flarflist books. Drew Gardner’s Sugar Pill; Nada Gordon’s Foriegnn Bodie, Are Not Our Lowing Heifers Sleeker Than Night-Swollen Mushrooms?, and Swoon; Rodney Koeneke’s Rouge State; Michael Magee’s Morning Constitutional and MS; Sharon Mesmer’s Half Angel, Half Lunch; K. Silem Mohammad’s Hovercraft and A Thousand Devils (published after Deer Head Nation, but comprised of work written prior to the launch of the list); my own How to Proceed in the Arts (although there is one flarf text in that book) and Swoon; and so on.

But the list itself is dedicated to the exploration and articulation, through creative work, of another, particular sensibility: Flarf. Flarf’s closest relation, as a sensibility, is probably Camp.

Flarf is similar to Camp in that it sets aside any pre-existing sense of “good” and “bad” in favor of another value, or set of values. It does not, however, as some believe, favor “bad” over “good.” It simply does not make that distinction.

Like Camp, the Flarf sensibility becomes a lens through which to see the world, including historical and other seemingly non-related works of art. Though we never articulated this on the list, very early on after the list’s launch, we began to look at other things as being “flarfy.” The poetry of Tom Raworth? Not flarfy. bill bissett? Definitely flarfy. The Baroness von Freitag: Totally Flarfy.

This is a kind of appropriation. In the way that the Camp sensibility appropriates earlier works of art or other manifestations of creativity, so does Flarf. It isn’t “fair” to these earlier works, but then sensibility is not about being fair; it’s about looking at the world in a particular way, even rearticulating it.

But Flarf differs from Camp; what’s flarfy is not necessarily campy, and vice versa. A key difference, though hardly the only distinguishing element, lies in what flarf and the flarf sensibility emphasizes: Content.

Whereas Camp—and I’m thinking of Sontag’s famous essay here—emphasizes style or form or decorative elements over content, Flarf emphasizes content over form or style. There is, in much flarf, a superabundance of content. Often to an embarrassing or discomforting degree. In fact, to the extent that flarf can be said to be an exploration of “the inappropriate,” there would seem to already be an emphasis on content—although of course it is true that it is not just content that can be inappropriate, and that we are exploring the inappropriateness of various gestures, styles, and so on, as well. But content does get the bulk of concentration, I think.

That is not to say that the content is always clear in flarf, or that it all “adds up.”

The easiest example for me to point to would be my own plays. “PPL in a Depot” proceeds by accumulation of content matter or subject. The characters talk incessantly, as they do in most of my plays—and, in the plays of Mohammad, Magee, and others. One moment the characters are discussing “stacking,” the next they’re talking about a conspiracy theory involving rye, and finally, they’re discussing poetry.

My approach to these “conversations” is somewhat documentarian. I simply cut and paste from conversations on these and other topics that I’d found on the Web.

That said, the content is not so important, except perhaps to the individual play or poem. What’s important, to Flarf, generally, is that there is a superabundance of it and/or that the content becomes foregrounded. As content.

Many have seen a connection between Flarf and Language Writing. The connection, so far as I can tell—other than many of us having been influenced as much by Language Writing as by anything else—is in the extent to which we seem focused on decentering and exploring subjectivity.

But how we do that, and perhaps why we do it, differs significantly from the Language Writers. With the exception of Charles Bernstein, the Language Writers didn’t consistently explore subjectivity to the degree of, say, Kathy Acker. But there’s a reason for that, I think. Acker wrote fiction.

Fiction has always involved the writer taking on other subjectivities. Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith are not murderers, but they take on these subjectivities, exploit them, for their fiction. What Acker did, in the realm of subjectivity at least, was not terribly radical. What was radical about her work had more to do with the style. It’s not radical to take on another, or multiple, subjectivities in fiction, theater, narrative film, or comics.

But in poetry, it is still somewhat radical. We still seem to hold on to some perhaps Romantic notion of The Poet, and Language Writing, as a general trend, didn’t really go far in questioning this. Certainly, P. Inman, in his writing, may not be recognizable as Peter Inman, the person—but neither is that writing recognizable as anyone else. So it defaults back to being Peter. Ron, except in one poem I can think of wherein every line begins with “I,” is always Ron in his poems. Lyn is Lyn. My Life is not an experiment in radical subjectivity. It’s a memoir. It operates functionally pretty much as Joe Brainard’s I Remember operates.

But look at the poems in Deer Head Nation. Or, for that matter, the poetry of just about everyone on the Flarflist. I’ve noticed that most of the poetry from the Flarflist is first-person. It’s not abstract in the way that, say, Inman, or Coolidge can be abstract. It’s most often made up of first-person statements. Literally, it’s often things that people have written and posted to the Web, in chat rooms, on bulletin boards, on blogs, and so on.

We’re not the only poets now who are focused on combining and juggling multiple subjectivities. Rob Fitterman, for instance, has been doing a lot of this as well.

Rob gave a talk at the Poetry Project a couple of months ago on this very subject. As he likes to say, “I like subjectivity; it just doesn’t have to be my own.” To me, this seems like a perfectly reasonable approach to writing poetry. To, as Rob said, “plunder” from the multitude of subjectivities, of multiple voices out there, freely available on the Web.

But his talk was met with serious resistance. Part of the resistance was only in the words he chose to describe the act: “Plundering,” in particular, which has obviously politically incorrect resonances. Though, I just think he was being honest. It is plundering. No one expected their words to be rerouted, “hijacked” if you will, into someone else’s poetry.

Still, there were some who seemed adamantly opposed to the idea of using other subjectivities at all. There were numerous reasons. One, which came from a somewhat prominent poet associated with Language Writing—a poet whose work, I should say, I absolutely love—was adamant that this was an “easy way out.”

The poet, and perhaps that should be capitalized, The Poet had, he felt, a responsibility to produce the work. While he didn’t state this outright, my sense was that he may have felt threatened. If we value others’ voices rather than the poets’, then what is the poet’s worth or value? Certainly, it is not in the poet’s subjectivity. And this poet is, by and large, one who writes out of a fairly consistent, recognizable subjective space: his own.

So, though I’ve been talking largely about Flarf as a sensibility and how appropriation plays a role in that, there is the other issue, which is very easily summed up: We literally appropriate other text for our work. But not just any other text. A key aspect of most of the text we appropriate is that it is a manifestation of some other person’s subjectivity.

The poet John Thorpe, of course, was exploring multiple subjectivities decades ago in books like Five Aces and Independence, and I would assume as well in his essay “Poetry as Air Traffic Control,” which I haven’t read, but can guess at, having read his four published books of poetry.

But it’s significant, I think, that no one ever talks about Thorpe’s work or his poetics. They’ve been largely forgotten. Up until now, I don’t think poets were really ready to grapple with the radical shift in subjectivity that he seemed to be proposing. We’re ready now. And I hope this may mean that people begin to discover his work and example.

TB: Personally, I've no problem with appropriative strategies. So long as they're employed in imaginative ways. Flarf, when it works well, works as well as any other approach to writing. It's in the grand tradition of collage. As Nada Gordon pointed out in a recent blogpost:

"Maybe it's just a choice between the landfill of collective consciousness and the landfill of the 'individual' psyche?"

What's of particular interest to me is that questions of ownership within the flarf movement, within, I wanna say, the flarfocracy (as far as I know I'm making this word up) focus on who owns its history, on who did what first.

GS: If we’re talking about flarf as a search-engine or Web-based phenomenon, and even if we’re talking about it as an approach to or exploration of subjectivity, ownership certainly belongs elsewhere. Thorpe, Bernstein, DJ-ing, Alan Sondheim, and so on all predate the list’s launch in 2001. The only difference with us is that we’re a group of poets doing it together, feeding off each other’s energies & examples.

But flarf as an articulated sensibility—or I should say semi-articulated, as it’s still in process—I do see one reason for our wanting to own some of our history in that case.

That doesn’t mean that I believe that a cult sensibility—which flarf seems to be poised to become, if it hasn’t yet become one—can be owned by any one person, or even group of people. In fact, a larger, cult sensibility is not possible if only a handful of people own it. Everyone, rightly, has to potentially feel ownership, just as we all may feel like we know Camp when we see it.

I wrote a lot about flarf on my blog several months ago after noticing that the word “flarf” seemed to be getting around. What I noticed was that flarf was being used as shorthand for “Google-sculpting.” I felt that it was important at the time to talk about the word’s origin. Not because ownership was an issue, but because I felt it was important to distinguish flarf from Google-sculpting. Important because Google-sculpting, considering everything available on the Web, could look and sound like anything. Flarf, on the other hand, doesn’t.

Obviously, at least to me, Kasey Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation and Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat--which I’ll use as examples because they are the first full-length books that wholly come out of this sensibility—do not read like other people’s Google-sculpting. I was trying to explain why that was, and why in fact I preferred what they’re doing to what many others have done and are doing now vis a vis search engines, which is because what they do is filtered through this specific sensibility, a sensibility that I obviously share with them. It gives the poems a crispness, a direction, and ultimately I think an energy that makes them exciting in ways that most Google-sculpting isn’t.

In order to do that coherently, I had to backtrack a bit to explain what this sensibility is, and where it came from. It really didn’t come from me, although my own definition of flarf (e.g., “awkward, stumbling, fucked-up, not-okay” or “a poetics of dis-ease,” etc.) is one of two or three most often cited. It’s a shared sensibility, shared and articulated, expanded and limited, by everyone on the list over the last five years.

All of that said, I do think that it can be helpful to articulate one’s poetics, although of course it isn’t necessary. In the case of flarf, where right now I have a sense that most people think it means “spam” poetry (flarf was described as such on, the most popular blog in the world), I think it’s probably not a bad idea to articulate what you value, and why you value it. The thought of hundreds of people thinking I write “spam” poetry is sort of depressing, although I suppose ultimately irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. At the same time, it’s equally depressing to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to “correct” everyone.

Ultimately, I think you may find yourself in the position of having to articulate your poetics at certain times in your life, even if only to say “my ‘I do this I do that’ poems.” But once you’ve done that, it’s really the writing itself that has to somehow get out into the world and make whatever case is to made.

I’m personally in a sort of funny position, in that my reputation, such as it is, precedes me. Things happen very quickly on the Web. My name and the word “flarf” have been ping-ponging together all over the Internet in the last six months or so. But I don’t have a book, besides the comic, that can really be said to have come out of the flarf sensibility. I’m too involved with my comic right now to figure out where to send out much poetry, let alone a whole manuscript, and no one is making it easy for me by asking for something. It’s a funny position to be in, because ultimately I do want my own work to speak to what I’ve been up to for the last five years … but, where is it?

So, in absence of a collection I can conveniently point a reader to, I fall back on the articulation of my own poetics. “This is what I’m doing: blah, blah, blah.” No doubt this begins to feel at a certain point like—as someone recently quipped on a related flarf issue—a “land grab.” Perhaps. But if I had a house I could invite everyone over to, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to be constantly clutching at the earth—if that’s not taking the metaphor too far.

TB: I'm confident that collection will eventually come about.

GS: I am too. But meanwhile I find myself in an odd, frustrating position where it’s easier to tell than to show, to use that old creative writing saw. No matter how articulate you may be about your work—and I’m not that articulate—the work itself is always a vastly different, specific, experience. And that’s what I ultimately want to leave people with.

TB: A final question, what do you consider most encouraging/discouraging about the current poetry scene(s)?

GS: The most encouraging thing to me about the current situation in U.S. poetry is the general lack of a definable center. Geographical or aesthetic. This has something to do with the Internet and how poets are connecting up, with each other and with readers. Certainly, the flarflist would have been impossible without it—not to mention my relationship with Nada, and our book Swoon.

But the Internet doesn’t explain the visibility, over the last 20-odd years or so, of the multiplicity of styles, concerns, approaches out there, or the fact that younger poets, by and large, are comfortable operating within this relative chaos. That has a lot to do with the multicultural movement of the last 30 or so years.

Though occasionally some dismiss the multicultural trend in U.S. poetries as “mere” identity politics, the fact is, the multiculti movement has probably had more to do with a radical shift in how we look at writing, how we approach the reading process, than anything else. For one thing, we’re far more keyed into the context out of which a particular poem or poetics arrives and into which it plays itself out, than we ever were before. And while the New American Poetry and Language Writing both worked against earlier canonical formations, it was too easy for them to simply be subsumed into the existing canon, without radically altering the mindset that values such a thing in the first place.

The multiculti movement was different. I’m not sure that its work is entirely done, but it does make—with poetries and poetics and sensibilities and concerns coming from such a variety of directions, and making themselves and their contexts unavoidable, undismissable—we seem to be at a point now where we’re actually reevaluating the very notion of a canon, the need for a single, or at least more unified notion of the “proper” context for poetry at all. Because it isn’t possible given this level of incoming air traffic, if you will, not if we admit to ourselves that much of this traffic is significant and actually relevant.

So poets and readers today do seem generally more comfortable with the situation as it is: decentered. The people who make a fuss as to what poetry should be doing, these people would have been more successful in convincing anyone of that say 20-30 years ago. Today, you come out saying poetry must do this, that, and the other thing, and it’s usually a recipe for everyone to ignore you as at best, nostalgic, at worst a crank completely oblivious to the actual state of poetry and poetics in the U.S. today.

Which brings me to the most discouraging aspect of the field of poetry: The pressure on all of us, inside the academy, or like myself, working outside of the academy, to answer to what is in the worst sense of the word what I’d call an academic mindset.

To be reductive: The notion that poetry is, or must be, good for you. Even I feel some pressure to answer to this, despite my general sense that it’s ridiculous.

When we write about poetry, and by “we” I’m probably mostly referring to the subset of poets who might self-identify as “avant-garde” or “experimental”—we tend to fall into the trap of trying to explain what we’re doing such that it puts people who are worried or who may feel guilty about participating in the field of poetry, given the state of the world, at ease.

Guilt, if it isn’t shored up by constructive action of some kind, is an utterly wasted emotion. Worse, it can easily lead to depression and paralysis. But it’s an emotion that many people continue to waste on poetry and poets with surprising consistency.

Dan Hoy’s essay on flarf is a great case in point. Without understanding the first thing this collective group is even doing (among the many errors of fact in the essay, he cites a non-Googled poem as the sole example of something he mistakenly imagines as having been Googled), he wants us—and the world—to know we’re guilty. Guilty of conspiracy with corporate algorithms, guilty of not following the lead of Cage and Mac Low, guilty, as the very title of his essay suggests, of “fucking around.” (Presumably, while Rome burns.)

As a poet in the U.S., or really as any kind of artist here not working in a super-popular genre like narrative film or pop music, you’re considered guilty until proven innocent. Pound I think saw that early on, in a statement he made about the importance of defending one’s poetics.

Really, I can’t imagine a more warped position from which to seriously pursue art: Having to answer to the schoolmarms of the world. I could be wrong, but I suspect academia is at the root of this approach to poets and the like. As an academic, your goal is to “teach.” Why teach? For the betterment of the student. Poetry—everything taught, really—must conform to some sense of betterment.

I don’t think there’s any possible way in which you could lower the bar for art any further than by dignifying that goal. Too, it puts artists in the position of being criminals. Ever fill out a grant application? Or write an artistic proposal of any kind? Or sit down to articulate your poetics? I’ve done all three at one time or another, and it always feels like I’m on trial.

If we pursued action against the people who are really destroying this country--not to mention the earth--with the zeal, with the sense of moral righteousness, and with the consistency with which we readily bring to the grilling of our artists, we might actually change something someday.

I was reading the transcript of a panel on poetry and politics recently. Finally, I just couldn’t believe the amount of time that went into thinking about poetry, strategizing poetry, as a way of grappling with Empire. In the middle of this panel, one person explained why things aren’t changing in this country: Because too many people, including those on the panel, feel that they have too much to lose in an all-out resistance to Empire. Okay, I get that. But what happens is that energy that might be used socially and politically gets rerouted, because we’re “not yet ready” to really deal effectively with the forces that be, and gets siphoned off into these ultimately inconsequential mock-trials of poetry.

There has always only been one successful form of social movement: That which is focused on specific objective or objectives, which are clear to everyone. If the goal is clear enough—women’s suffrage, civil rights, AIDS awareness—people can set aside temporary differences and get on board. Look at what’s happening right now with the immigration movement.

That goal can be anything. With respect to Empire, an immediate goal might be in making corporations, including those involved in the defense and oil industries, accountable for their actions. Having a goal like that makes it easier to begin to work through specific actions that must take place in order for the goal to be met. Anything seen as an obstacle to that goal will be set aside or worked through.

Arguing the relative socio-political merits of different kinds of poetry can be interesting and instructive, but has nothing to do with, say, the goal proposed above. Too, again, it runs the danger of criminalizing the wrong people, and ultimately alienating them from the social or political movement.

In order to meet any real-world goal, we have to set aside these differences and work together. A recent example: At one of the Poetry Is News festivals here in NYC, a poet said that the multiculti movement was in great part responsible for dividing poets from each other, from a common vision, and that therefore, we needed to abandon this particular approach to poetry.

I disagree. People can continue to express their differences or situations or whatever in poetry, and there is, simply put, activism, direct action, that everyone can be involved in, if everyone understands the goal and what needs to be done to meet it. Telling a bunch of people they’re wrong to express themselves in poetry is just going to alienate them. Good luck getting them to participate with you on, well, anything. Rather, if you want them on board, appreciate their aesthetics, their differences, for what they are, even if you don’t like the work, and focus on the larger goal.

I think we’re going to hit a point—maybe even soon—where we’re not going to allow ourselves to just watch in horror as the administration or corporations continue to commit one heinous crime after another. And we’re going to refocus all of this energy currently being waged against poetry, against ourselves really, and, crawling out of our current state of social and political paralysis, redirect it where it might—finally—matter.