Sunday, February 25, 2007

Interview with Karri Kokko

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

Karri Kokko: Well, I can give you an exact date, for one. I wrote my first poem December 2, 1962, when I was seven years old. I had started school a few months earlier, but I’d been able to both read and write since I was three. The poem, though, is the first piece of my early scribblings to survive, and certainly the first and only poem. I don’t have a clear memory of how the poem came about, or what ignited the will to write it. There was an urgency to do it, I’m sure. I remember asking my mother for a pen and some paper, with a definite intention to write a poem, only a poem, and nothing but a poem. It wasn’t about expressing myself; it was about performing an act. This is, of course, pure speculation, since neither I, nor my mother, have any recollection of that moment. What we have, is the document, a tiny, yellowed piece of paper that my ma ripped off a notebook or something. When I was done writing, my mother signed it with my first name and added the date. At the end, she also wrote my age, seven and a half.

I can tell you this because I still have it, the manuscript of my first poem. What’s remarkable, is that my mother had the wisdom, or the foresight, to save it. Not my early drawings, but the poem. She kept it through the decades and gave it to me a few years ago. I don’t know why she chose to save it, but somehow she knew it was special. Not the result, but the feat. Not my age, but the determination.

The poem speaks for itself. The title reads “A Child.” After that, twelve words (or possible two hay(na)ku!). Here’s the prose translation: “I am a small, helpless child, but when I pray to the Lord, it helps me.” Not great, but not bad for a seven-year-old, either, huh? A few things of note, though. The poem reads more a statement than an invocation, and it’s not even a prayer as such, but a defense of prayer. I’m sure there is a linage for that, straight from St. Augustine and on, so you might say I hit the hard stuff right off the bat. This is even more significant because, although religion was present in my family, it wasn’t something that governed our daily life. And it certainly didn’t equal art or poetry. It was me who made that connection. It wasn’t about expression; it was about having something to say and the willingness to say it. There’s the telling “it” in the last sentence; although my syntax and grammar might’ve been faltering, the evidence says clearly: It’s the praying, not the Lord that helps. What’s more, I’m using only block letters. My spelling is correct and there seems to be no double takes or revisions. There’s a rhyme of sorts, but there’s only a vague sense of breaking the text into lines. I’m also trying for a meter, which is evident because I’m using both inversion and abbreviation. In short, I’m right away dealing with both form and content.

So, where did my intuitive sense of making poetry come from? Short of listening to nursery rhymes and pop songs, a boy of that age had better things to do, and I certainly had not yet read any poetry. There were few books in our house, and my parents weren’t in any way “bookish” -- far from that. But my mother, who had dropped out of high school, loved poetry. She had the Iliad and the Odyssey, in Finnish translation, and she had read them, too. (The books are in my possession now, and I can tell by the things she has written in their margins.) She had a few other books as well. They were collected works by classics from the first half of the 1900’s, the golden era of Finnish poetry and well before modernism. On occasion, but not often, she used to recite poems from memory. She can still remember a few of them. I’m not saying this was out of the ordinary; this was before television, and people, literary or not, were supposed to know the classics. We used to sing a lot, too, the whole family, especially on car trips. There was song in the house.

I’m not sure if the above has any actuality in it. But I’d like to give credit to my mother. She left school when she was fifteen or sixteen, and never had any formal schooling after that. Yet, now that I think of it, she always talked books. She still does. She loves Nabokov. A few years ago, around the time she turned seventy, she picked up Proust and never looked back. That’s all she reads. The other day, she told me she’d just started her fourth round of Lost Time. Then there are the rumours that she has notebook after notebook after notebook full of her own memoirs hidden away somewhere. My sisters should know more about that. There are also a couple of minor writers and an artist from my mothers side, with a new one coming up: my cousin, Lauri, a twenty-something, just published his first collection of short stories. Then, of course, there’s my sister, Meiju, who’s written a series of childrens’ books… What I’m saying is that although it took almost ten years for me to write my second poem, I always knew I was going to become a poet. My mother, or my father, never pushed, nor pulled, me into it or away from it; it was just there, written in whatever.

I didn’t start writing poetry seriously until my early twenties, but I made a few stabs at it in my teens, of course. My main influences came from your country, namely, the Beats. Reading On the Road at the age of fifteen was a major turn; though it wasn’t until a year later I learned it told about actual, living people. All I wanted was to go to America. My wish materialized in 1972, when I became an exchange student, spending a year in Parsippany, New Jersey, some forty miles west from New York City. I wonder if I wrote any lines during that year; I was too busy shooting beer at the reservoir ;) and going to Grateful Dead concerts ;) Saw Zappa, too, and Captain Beefheart. All of whom I had heard about and listened to before I left home. Not your typical exchange student, I can tell ya. The last episode of this phase was played out in the eighties, when I met both Ginsberg and Burroughs, respectively. Ginsberg was here with Peter Orlovsky, and I got to spend a couple of days with them, acting as their guide. It was January, with minus degrees, and Peter walked around town in just his Bermuda shorts and sandals, virtually barefooted. Nothing to it. We even shared the same stage: Allen wanted me to read the Finnish translation of “America,” line by line, after him. This was in early 1983, and I’d just published my first book of poems. I translated one of them into English, and asked Allen to take a look at it. Sitting at the back seat of our ride, he went through the poem and made a few revisions. “Now, you got it,” he said and handed me the piece of paper. You bet I wish I still had it, but I don’t. I wonder what happened to it. Maybe my mother has it stashed somewhere. Burroughs, then, came over a few years later. He was over seventy already, but brilliant as ever. I remember sitting back stage with him, sipping screw drivers out of plastic cups. Accidentally, I tripped mine on the table. What happens: Burroughs -- Old Bull Lee, for Chrissakes -- gets up, finds a rag somewhere and sweeps the table, taking care of the mess, the mess I had made.

Tom, you want me to go on answering the second part of your question?

TB: Please do.

KK: Okay, I’ll do that in a minute. But there’s a round-about way to it. What I’d like to do is drop a few more names. I mean, although one has the natural gift or inclination to become a poet, one’s not going to do it alone. There are the books, the tradition, and then there are the people that come your way and make a difference.

My first mentor was a Finnish conceptual artist and critic, J. O. Mallander. I met him around 1973, when he ran an art gallery in Helsinki, called Cheap Thrills. I was eighteen at the time and I started going to the shows that exhibited both Finnish and international conceptual and avant-garde artists. I hang around the gallery and we started talking. Mallander was into Fluxus and American Abstract Expressionism, especially Jasper Johns. He introduced me to mail art and the work of Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik. He had close connections to the Swedish art scene of the sixties and seventies, artists like Öyvind Fahlström and Carl-Erik Reuterswärd. The Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, was a haven for all these avant-garde artists and acted as the Internet of the time, so to speak. People all over just gravitated to it, in need of acceptance and influence. I myself got the tail end of it, of course, since I was of a younger generation. But meeting Mallander and reading him and listening to him talk about art was an important part of my early education, none the less.

Fast forward to the early eighties. By that time, I’d finally picked up a pen and started writing poetry. But in spite of my introduction to the avant-gardes of art and poetry, I had little clue as to the means of incorporating the ideas into my own work. At the time, the mainstream of Finnish poetry was concerned with anything but the things I was into. There’d been a time, in the early sixties, when a few people had experimented with concrete poetry and other non-conformist poetries, but by the time I happened on the scene that tradition was all but dead. All Finnish poetry, or at least the poetry that got published, read alike and looked alike. There were a couple of reasons to it. First, at the time, free-verse Finnish modernism was only thirty years old. Second, the only opposition that it got was a leftist, political opposition, not an artistic one. I’m simplifying things here, but what I’m trying to say is that you either complied and fit in or you didn’t exist at all.

As it happens, my first collection of poems, Uno Boy, was published by a major publishing house, in 1982, when I was twenty-seven years old. In hindsight, I wonder why they took it. A lot of the stuff was written the way poetry at the time was supposed to be written. Then again, there were other things: a poem written in the form of a cross-word puzzle, for example, or a verse for verse reversal of the Genesis. The reviews were positive and reassuring, but then, something happened. The custom here is that once you get published you keep sending in manuscripts at a steady clip. To establish yourself as a serious writer you have to publish something at least biannually. My next two or three manuscripts were turned down, however. They didn’t give any specific reasons as to why; they just didn’t buy my stuff. I’m in no position to second guess their judgement, but I take it that our poetics just didn’t meet. A few years passed, and after trying a few other houses, without any avail, I just quit.

Although I never stopped writing completely, I walked away from poetry for almost fifteen years. I wasn’t mad or sore or bitter; I just accepted it. Now that I think of it, I suppose I felt alienated and alone, without any peers and without a supporting network. Then, after a decade of out-of-poetry activities and inspirational connections, Leevi Lehto happened. Leevi, who is four years my senior, published his first work at seventeen and was well off into a career as a poet and translator, when he, too, for various reasons, some other than mine, some exactly the same, left the scene for a long time. His “second coming,” as he calls it, realized in the late nineties, with a collection of “programmed” sonnets, called Lake Onega. I was working as a journalist at the time and just happened to notice a news article of its publication. Something clicked and I called him right away and asked his permission to be interviewed. He complied, and we met. Finally, finally I had somebody with whom I could talk poetry.

After that initial meeting, Leevi and I met and talked occasionally, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I got the notion and courage to write poetry again. In late May 2004, Leevi happened to mention Ron Silliman and his poetry blog. I visited it and within minutes I had started my own first blog, Muistikirja. When starting it, I didn’t have a clear notion as to what to do with it. The name of the blog, “A Notebook,” points to the idea of a poet’s public notebook, though. So, for a few months, my entries were “about” poetry, not poetry as such. I didn’t have the guts to produce my own stuff, yet.

The next few weeks and months proved pivotal. Surfing the sites I found on Silliman’s blog roll, I soon found people and poetries that touched me deeply and whose example, eventually, encouraged me to start writing again. A few of them were from faraway places, people I would never have encountered if not for the Net. People with whom I soon struck a conversation and a friendship: Mark Young, Geof Huth, Anny Ballardini, Eileen Tabios, Jean Vengua, and Tom Beckett, to name a few. Sometime later I was collaborating with harry k stammer! Oh man, I felt lucky and blessed.

One of the household names I soon stumbled into was, of course, the one and only Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, a fellow Finn who everybody was raving about, but of whom nobody knew about in Finland. Turns out, he lived, still does, a few miles down the road from me. Soon enough we met and have been talking ever since. He’s even published my work. Our daughters converse with each other on the Instant Messenger. His genius, and example, proved unmatched. I needed him, I needed somebody to tell me: Just do it!

There would be others. In August that same magical summer, Kenneth Goldsmith was here, invited by Leevi. We met and right away recognized each other as long-estranged brothers, if you may. His Warholian approach to everything affected me like the sweetest of drugs. No rules, no limits. Soon enough, I had three or four blogs going at the same time. I was writing poetry backwards and making text collages. I was making visual stuff, doing things I had dreamt of doing my whole life. A week after Kenny, Charles Bernstein flew over for a few days, again at Leevi’s invitation. We talked poetry and baseball. I was starting to believe in miracles. Miracles as in other people, that is.

This has been a long and winding answer to your question, Tom, but I had to do it. I had to do it, because I think poetry for me starts with two things. There’s the given, and then there’s the thing you do with it. You take heed, and then you do your own thing. You are on your own, but there are also others who are there, if needed, to sweep after you.

TB: You blog, speak, think in Finnish and English. Would you speak to how that affects your practice as a poet?

KK: Again, lots of things there, Tom. First, I’d like to say that, although I write a mean occasional hay(na)ku or pwoermd in English, I don’t think my skills allow me to consider any serious writing in that language. English is a mistress I like to play with, is all. Not that I don’t love her; I really do. But producing a bulk of original work, nah. Anyway, it would require moving over and really committing myself to that, and I’m too old for that now. That said, I will continue being unfaithful to the missus and fool around on the side whenever I feel like it.

Thinking, or working, in two or more languages certainly affects my practice as a poet. We might look at it from an angle. When a poet writes, he’s getting into all kinds of languages, not only the first one he picked up. That’s what poets do; they get into words and try to find out what they mean. Again, poetry is only partly about self-expression; it’s about learning what the words themselves have to say. Every word has a history; in fact, they are laden with baggage.

My English is based on mimicry. I have a good ear for it, and when I think or write in English, I try to imitate the phrases and choices of words I’ve read or heard somewhere. That’s all there is to it, and that is also why I don’t think I’d be able to create anything new with it. From nine to sixteen years of age, I was taught British English. Then I spent a year in the States and switched over to American English. For many years, I listened to Bob Dylan a lot. What I learned from him, really listening to him, was not merely paying attention to the words, imagery or ideas of the songs, but the sound he was putting forth. The meaning or importance of sound. The meaning and importance of expressing something that’s beyond and above the initial surface of language. And not only that. What Dylan taught me is that there are no constants, nothing is fixed. Listening to the endless renditions of his own songs, bending and shaping them time and again into something new, always something new, now that was a revelation. Writing poetry is about something else than what’s right there. It’s about poiesis, making something new. Or like Jasper Johns, the painter, puts it: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.”

Other than Dylan, I’ve read a lot of Elmore Leonard, the true master of the colloquial American English. I’ve read all of his books a half a dozen times, and I still can’t come up with a spoiler for any of them. That’s me, the poet. I look at language from an angle other than the practical or the conventional one. Now, if that’s because I know or use other languages, then so be it. It sure makes working with words all the more interesting. I think an extra language, any language other than your own, is always an advantage. That is why I envy those who know Classic Greek or Latin and maybe few others to go with them. I have to do with English, Swedish and a little French.

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

KK: They are mostly non-writers. Miles Davis, Cy Twombly, Keith Jarrett, Mark Rothko, to name a few. For me, writing poetry is painting with a thin brush, doing water colors, making small print. What I’d love to do, quite literally, is going for the big picture. I know I can’t, but I’d love to. I just love the rich sound of Miles Davis and the endless possibilities that are there in his different combos and stylistic phases. I love his refusal to stay with one thing. I love the absolute beauty of Jarrett’s solo work. Like the Dead, he’s not afraid of letting it all hang out, without a safety net. These guys don’t shy away from the horror and the risks that are there in the business of looking into one’s soul and making something out of it. I love the broad canvas, the big brush. I envy the painter, all painters. They don’t have to stick with the linear, the reason of language. That is also why I love the collage, the mixing of different media, in the works of, say, Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg. I’d love to write poetry that you can just look at, without the need to read it line by line, from left to right, the way you are supposed to read anything that’s written.

Even so, I consider all of them as my poetic forebears, artists that have influenced my aesthetics as a poet. This has much to do with a personal problem. As a writer, I have extremely great difficulties to rid myself of the linearity, the syntax, and the meaning of the written language. Making poetry, that is. My preferences are towards the non-linear, the absolutely free, but it seems it’s very hard for me to shake the authority of the language police deeply imbedded in my system. I guess this is why my work is greatly divided. There’s your traditional short poem, mostly elegiac stuff about love, nature, or the human condition. Then there’s this other stuff. Things produced by shameless appropriation, collages put together from various sources, computer-generated artefacts, and visual poetry where the elements of language are almost completely erased. That’s me, right there. I’d love to be able to compose original, absolutely free poetry straight from within, but I can’t. When I look inside myself, I find either nothing or pathetic conventionalities. At least, that’s how I feel. So, to come up with anything worthy, I have to use all these artificial, or adopted, means of creation.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have any poets that I consider exemplary or meaningful to my development as a poet. Two early reading experiences come to mind, both from the time I was fifteen. The first one was Jarkko Laine, a Finnish poet in the Underground or Beat tradition. I picked up his early work the way I eagerly picked up anything with a Mothers of Invention or a hippie flare to it. With a friend of mine we read his work in front of class and caused a mild sensation. Right away I knew I was onto something serious and fun. The other one was Eliot’s “Waste Land” in Finnish translation, a definitely serious and unfunny work if there ever was one. Now, why Eliot, among all the Fugs and Japhy Ryders? Again, you have to keep in mind the late appearance of our modernist tradition, and bringing the basic modernist work into Finnish had been an essential part of the project. So, “Waste Land” was the thing to read if you wanted to introduce yourself to “new” poetry. Anyway, I was impressed, and in my young heart, I felt I was onto something “great.” There’s the dichotomy again: tradition and the present, convention and non-conformism, square and hip, messing with and shaping my virgin mind.

Later on, others would come by, of course. My Finnish readers know who the Finnish ones are, and I won’t bother you mentioning any of them here. All I will say is that I’m an eclectic: I’ll take anything from any time or any tradition -- as long as it’s both serious and fun.

TB: Do you think that a poet has any unique social responsibilities?

KK: Responsibilities, yes; unique, not so sure. First of all, I don’t think writing political stuff or promoting radical ideas to raise social awareness is an obligation; it’s a matter of personal choice and temperament. We are a heterogeneous bunch, and there are a variety of ways to do it. Think Sheila E. Murphy, Mark Young, or yourself, for example. Intimacy and issues, all rolled into one.

Doing our thing, we are connected in many ways and not only to our readers or the reading public in general. There are all kinds of people we work with: peers, colleagues, editors, publishers, printers, artists, journalists, critics, and what not. Besides writing, many of us teach or work as editors or publishers. That’s a lot of social responsibilities, right there. In fact, it’s hard for us to avoid them. I mean, I think a poet’s responsibilities, if any, are rather towards the people he actually makes contact with, works with, and lives with, not towards an abstract readership. Call me naïve, but I reckon the adage “think globally, act locally” applies to the poet also. (With the advent of the Internet, we have to redefine “local,” of course.) What I’m saying is that a poet’s social responsibilities don’t differ that much from the next guy. Why do people tune up Harleys or make Sushi rolls for a living? Not because they’re supposed to, but because they can and will.

The difference is, of course, that we think poetry is, as writing, “communicative,” and thus “social.” Is what a poet does by default, we say. Well, that’s true, but I can also think of poets and artists whose work is elitist and in no means “communicative,” and yet we deserve them.

For me personally this means two simple things. I take my writing very seriously and I try to do everything in my power to help my peers in every which way I can. The first part covers my responsibilities both as a preservationist of the Finnish language and a tax payer. The other’s the real thing, love in making.

TB: Let me put it a little differently. What, my friend, do you want poetry to do? Why does it matter?

KK: What do I want? You just keep throwing high heat, Tommy dear. To try for an answer, let me recount the story of Giotto, the early Renaissance painter from Florence, of Tuscany. As a young boy Giotto worked as a shepherd, and to pass the long hours out there in the hills he used to spend his time drawing. For lack of proper materials, he drew on rocks or made his pictures right there in the sand with a stick. One day Cimabue, the most famous painter of his time, walks by and sees young Giotto’s drawings. He’s impressed by the boy’s apparent skills and asks him to join him as a student. Giotto accepts (actually his father does) and the rest is history. Even today, seven centuries later, millions of people from all over flock to see the raw beauty of the former shepherd’s images in the cathedrals of Italy.

Now, I think what we have here is analogous to all art, including poetry. We have this talent and the willingness to use it, no matter what happens. We write our poems, no matter if the wind or the rain washes it off before anybody actually sees it. Then one day maybe, just maybe, a Cimabue happens along the way to help us. And if we are talented enough, and persistent enough, maybe we find an audience. And if we’re lucky, really lucky, maybe we get to touch a few people’s hearts.

So, asking what we want poetry to do for us is really asking what we’re willing to do for poetry.

I mean, we do write for a purpose, don’t we? Think of Giotto, here. Very few reach up to his level, of course, but I’m sure we can all share his urgency. His dedication to making art even at a very early age, even before he could have had any ideas about meaning, content, or purpose. That’s how I see it. We really can’t, or shouldn’t, worry too much about the doings of poetry. We just do our bit and keep on doing it.

What happens after that is anybody’s guess. Let’s see. It’s certainly not just one thing. Okay, here goes: If people find it worth their while to learn by heart lines that they don’t quite grip but rather make their heads spin and hearts jump -- do we need any more evidence as to why poetry matters?

TB: What do you find most encouraging/discouraging about the current poetry scene(s)?

KK: I see mostly positives. On a personal level, I have very few complaints, if any. The last few years, the Muses have been good to me, and although I’d love to write poetry full time, at least I get to work, collaborate, and converse with a host of other poets.

In many ways, my position is quite unique. As poetry editor of Parnasso, the leading mainstream literary magazine in Finland, I have access to just about everybody, and what’s even more important, I can help new and up-coming poets have their work published. As a middle-aged poet in his early fifties, I know practically everybody in the Finnish literary scene: poets, writers, editors, publishers, translators, critics -- many of whom I consider personal friends. Some of these wonderful people were born in the 1920’s, some are in their twenties. I feel like a true intermediary, if there ever was one.

As it happens, few of these people live in far-away places like Australia, Italy, New York, Schenectady, Ohio, and California, most of whom I’ve only met through the Internet and none of whom I’d have any connections with if it weren’t for the Internet. For poets of the world, I think, the net is a god-send. I’m not saying everybody should be blogging or having their work published in the net, but after cheap Internet connections became a common-place, you were out of excuses. It didn’t make you write better poetry (or any poetry, for that matter), but you and your work didn’t stand isolated from the rest of the world, either, whether you lived in Akron, Ohio, or in Espoo, Finland. You could read just about everybody; you could find any fact; you could reach any person. Think U. of Buffalo; think Ubu Web. Think Silliman’s Blog, As/Is, Jacket. Think publishers like E. Tabios, J-P Kervinen, or M. Young. Take Poet’s Corner. Take E-Values. Networking hasn’t made any of us rich, but without it we’d certainly feel a lot poorer, a lot less worthy. A lot more lonely.

It’s a new thing and there’s no telling what’s become of it. I’d say there will be a lot of “inter”-everything. I mean, really, what language is poetry? I see a lot of people working in two or more languages. It’s what poets do. I’m not saying we’ll all be writing in this or that language; all I’m saying is that each and every one of us will benefit from this interaction, these multiple possibilities.

That said, I’d like to add a few words about the Finnish poetry scene or Finnish poetry in general. A few facts: I write in a language that is spoken by less than six million. I write in a language that was first written less than five centuries ago. I write in a language that is very different from Indo-European languages, a language that is more suited to describing a seal hunt, or a walk in the woods, than complex ideas or philosophical concepts. The first novel written in Finnish was published in 1870. Finnish as a medium of poetic expression became of age only a hundred years ago. Our modernism is less than sixty years old.

To become a poet and to live as a poet in Finland is a mixed blessing. More often than not poets get their first collections published when still in their twenties. (The idea being, to seed out future novelists; that is, writers who can eventually make a profit for the publishing houses.) After two or three published works (say, in less than five years) you could receive a grant (either by state or privately owned funds) of monthly allowances that lets you concentrate on your writing for a year. Then three years. And, eventually, five years. This is in no means automatic, and only applies to a handful of people, but what I’m saying is that compared to many other countries, writers, poets, and artists are very well taken care of here. As a poet, you won’t be able to buy a house, but most of the problems that we have you would consider a luxury.

Most poetry books will only sell a couple hundred copies, though. That total could rise to a thousand if the majority of our public libraries decide to add it to their collections. A decade or two ago, that was a given, but not anymore since the money allotted to our library system has plummeted these past few years, one of the victims being poetry, of course. Why poetry? I can only cite the obvious. Because the value of poetry cannot really be weighed. Poetry is not collateral.

In other words, I could go on complaining about small sales, uninterested publishers, stupid media, lack of meaningful criticism, closing down of libraries, the struggle to survive of small Finno-Ugric languages, or whatever. But I won’t, because although I think poets work in close connection with all these activities, although poets do have a role in the social fabric that is Finland or anywhere in the world, poetry is still confined to the margin. It is the margin.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Thomas Fink: This interview is intended to focus on one of your various new books, To Delite and Instruct (West Hartford, CT & Espoo, Finland: blue lion books, 2006). Since some of our readers may be unfamiliar with it, I’ll begin by citing the publisher’s ad copy and then, assuming that you’ve approved of this text, I will ask you a few questions about it.

TO DELITE AND INSTRUCT is written toward a post-Zukofskian objectivism. The book is also absolutely perfect for course adoption in graduate programs which focus on creative writing pedagogy as well as creative writing workshops. Daly has led writing workshops for more than a decade, without focusing on exercise “chestnuts” that “yield” a poem. The book includes “the opposite” of Bernadette Mayer’s infamous exercises, as well as mimeo worksheets turned into poetry writing exercises for the reader of 2D&I. The word hoard at the back, all the words again, sorted according to indo-european root, demonstrates that constraint from children’s exercises travels a poetic terrain beyond BASIC. TO DELITE AND INSTRUCT asks the purpose and worth of the poetry exercise or experiment. It investigates pedagogy of reading, speaking, hearing, and writing. Beginning with poems containing definitions, problems, and a word box, that is, beginning with limiting statements, centered on poems relating to mimeo workbooks from the 1960s, ending with a word hoard of the words in the book with indo-european roots sorted according to those roots, TO DELITE AND INSTRUCT is a thoroughgoing poetry exercise with a self-limiting vocabulary, poetry written in answer to peculiar perception problems presented devoid of information and forming an exercise in perception: a book of poems. The book is available through blue lion books at café press.

Catherine, I’m interested in a particular prepositional phrase: the directional pronoun “toward” and its object, “a post-Zukofskian objectivism.” How would you characterize the relationship between Zukofskian objectivism and what might succeed it temporally? In what ways does To Delite and Instruct enact such a movement “toward”? What value do you find in this movement?

Catherine Daly: It is hard to write one's own book descriptions, isn't it? The langpos, and many other adventurous poets of late, have treated the practices and messages of the Objectivist poets in their poetry and in their academic publications, "after" reading carefully and continually these writers. I would call this a post-Zukofskian Objectivism. I think, since the Objectivist poets were somewhat arbitrarily grouped under the label, it is fair to identify a particular poet, Louis Zukofsky, within the grouping for my focus in this book.

There are many ideas, such as treating words, poems, and books as objects, which are commonplace now, but which Zukofsky codified for himself in his essays, and these ways of thinking are now habits of poetics in evidence in 2D&I; I've also displayed my sense of mimeo heritage.

I purchased some of the source materials from a teachers’ supply store we used to leave near. It had a back room stuffed with old mimeo masters and workbooks from the 1950s and 60s. Many served as props for The Wonder Years. Another source is the AWP “pedagogy papers” from the Associated Writing Programs conference in Palm Springs – they aren’t papers at all, though I’m sure they appear that way on many a c.v. – they are writing exercises typed up on university letterhead, xeroxed and comb bound, and sold to conference participants. Another is the garbage from a house on the national register that I had the lock box combo for – the speech therapist who lived there for over fifty years had died and his books were in piles near the trash bins.

Many of the poems in 2D&I are sound poems, though they don't use sound in a particularly Zukofskian manner; some of these use voice recognition software and computer reading voices and tongue twisters. The idea of word hoard / sound-based word root, along with the idea of a word set a la BASIC English (not Gates' programming language, a simplified English), which Zukofsky experimented with, is also strong in the poems. By writing the poems, I had a sense of approaching some of these ideas, learning about them.

When I first wrote some of these poems, I thought they might become part of my big project, CONFITEOR, the second trilogy of which is entitled OOD: Object-Oriented Design. When DaDaDa became my first book in print, I started fitting Da3 into a larger rubric, and for a sequel to move from early modernism to high modernism, in my ideal survey of 20th century poetics. Anyway, To Delite and Instruct spun away from that, along with a set of fairly lengthy distaff projects. Paper Craft is another book that came from working on CONFITEOR poems.

TF: As you suggest, for Zukofsky, “the objectivist” is “a ‘wordsman’” [sic], “a craftsman [sic] who puts words together into an object” (“Sincerity and Objectifications,” Interview with L.S. Dembo, reprinted in Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet, Ed. Carroll F. Terrell [Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1979], 268), and the Langpos as wordspeople have been especially interested in arguing that the palpability and performative aspects of language are more important for him than the representation of objects. Aside from the “word hoard,” in the opening poems of To Delite and Instruct, you as a wordswoman put words in boxes. “Refining,” which is saturated with art history, first features a list akin to set of a dictionary definitions, then a theoretical statement and a sentence involving procedure, then a double-columned list dominated by proper names and complicated by lines that allow for check-marks, multiple-choice linkages, or something else, a list of the names of Baroque painters from different countries, including the major woman artist of the area, and finally, the word box, whose frame I won’t represent (to make formatting easier for our editor):

True, embossed, verax; that is, i.e.; exists, to be, a kin to E.
        aver, avow, profess

Internal reading acts become synonymous with external
discipline; voyeuristic possibilities.
Arrangement in groups denoting numbers having a
significant code.

very St. Jerome          _____very Durer     _____
very Caravaggio           ______very salonniere     _____
very La Tour               ______very Voss       _____
very Candlelight School   ______very Friedlander  _____
very Discourse on Method   ______    very lighght _____

Guido Reni, Saraceni; Gentileschi; Honthorst;
Terbrugghen; Velasquez; Zurbaren

Word Box

impenetrable           Opacity         The Gambler
luminescent             Cartesian         to secret
l’Orangerie               Emboss          intimate
lurious                     Insinuate          scrupulous    (2)

I am fascinated by how the play of allusion functions and/or refuses to function in “Refining,” and I’d like to unpack some of this before getting to my question. One may practice “external discipline” to “refine” an “internal reading act,” but whatever “significant code” might articulate a substantial pattern of relations among items on the list remains “impenetrable.” For example, although “very Caravaggio” and “very La Tour” could join the six other Baroque painters in the two-line strophe, and “very Discourse on Method” goes well with “Cartesian” and some of the abstract language in different strophes, “Voss” might refer to a city in Norway, a World War One German fighting ace, or an engineering company; “very Friedlander” could refer to a noted modernist photographer, a contemporary poet/critic, or a Holocaust scholar. “Very Durer” and “l’Orangerie” lead the reader to very different eras than the Baroque period. “Candlelight School” seems to be a kind of school founded by Catholic organizations, but perhaps it refers to the tenebrous quality of a La Tour painting. As for the ascetic, exegete, translator, and encyclopedist St. Jerome, perhaps his efforts to “avow” and “profess” religious truth are supposed to be juxtaposed with those of Descartes, or else, he appears as a much painted subject. Finally, “very lighght” is an allusion to a one-word (or non-word) poem by Aram Saroyan that caused a furor by getting him an NEA Grant.

I hope you’re sufficiently amused by what I’ve come up with and failed to come up with, and you’re welcome to comment on my misprisions. But more importantly, can you go back to what you were thinking during the process of developing juxtapositions and “refining” this poem? Can you recuperate some aspects of your intentions and, perhaps, ways in which you resisted intention? And can you please talk about the functioning of the word box as a coda to the poem?

CD: The word boxes in these poems are, in a sense, the word hoard at the end of the book. But I don't think of the word hoard or any of the indices as codas. [Although ? a queue, a line.] The boxes prefigure the hoard; the opening games are a microcosm of the book and the word hoard is all the words in a "box." Because I wrote these games, instead of responding or attempting to transform mimeo language games as is my more usual mode in the book, I'm fond of them. They are a different sort of poem. This one, in general, is defining/describing light (a common ars for painting).

"Emboss"—I've got an anecdote about that. At a Black Sparrow reading at the (UCLA) Clark Library (home to the baroque library, fine press editions, among other collections—Bruce Whiteman, a Coach House poet, is Librarian), in my neighborhood, David Bromige put me up to asking Aram Saroyan about "lighght." Saroyan claims the repetition of the "gh" "embosses" the word. I.e., a special edition stamped into paper—totally unnecessary.

TF: OK, I understand that the word boxes generate possibility and should not be regarded as a new form of poetic closure. Great story about word as print-object!

Some readers are too curious for their own good, but could you illuminate the “very Voss” and “very Friedlander” references for me?

CD: Well they ARE closed, they're boxes. The word hoard provides closure, but the boxes (unlike the word hoard) have new words in them -- they are apparently or formally both related and unrelated to the poem (are you getting the knowledge to use the word box -- perhaps with the spaces in the middle section of the poem, to do anything? do you need any information to do anything with the words? are the words a poem or a section in a poem or the end of a poem?) Many of the words in the word boxes don't have Indo-European roots shared with the other words in the poem -- maybe because I got to them a different way, they seem a little different from the rest of the words, which rely more on memory.

I was interested in attributions / authenticity for this poem. "Very" "embosses" the noun following, does truth? etc. Hermann Voss, who worked making de la Tour attributions and also curated one of the few Hitler art collections without plundered art was one Voss I had in mind. de La Tour because of the debate over The Fortune Teller at the Met being a forgery. Baroque -- I was so interested with the Baroque / early modern in DaDaDa, especially with embedded word games and technology as word games. There's a local LA poet / steelworker named Fred Voss.

Friedlander is I think Paul Friedlander the Plato scholar, only a little the "other Paul Friedlander" (light artist), the photographer Lee Friedlander, or Ben Friedlander.

TF: Specifically in “To Put into Play. To Restrain” (80-4) and to some extent in the larger section “Pedagogy” (66-79), you take Bernadette Mayer’s “Experiments” as a source text. The publicity for To Delite and Instruct emphasizes cases in which you write the “opposite” of her directions, but you often parody Mayer’s language in a looser way, and you also seem at times to embrace her exploratory spirit, as do Charles Bernstein and Jonathan Mayhew in their revisions, as develop complex experiment that reflect your own particular interests—and some of the tasks presented are more or less carried out in other parts of this book. Further, you sometimes push the exercise to such an extreme that you appear to want to touch the limits of encouraging a contemporary dulce et utile: “Explore possibilities, where an act isn’t news, isn’t a/ message, isn’t information, isn’t a story, isn’t/ imperative, isn’t a prayer” (82);”Write something that will render yourself helpless as you write” (84). Here are some juxtapositions of your experiments with possible sources from Mayer [Bernadette Mayer & the Members of the St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project Writing Workshop, 1971-5, in In the American Tree, Ed. Ron Silliman (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986): 557-560.]:

Intentionally choose. Research the ideas and practices
        that surround that choice, even more than you did
        before making it. Pursue these. (Daly 80)

“Pick any word at random. . . : let mind play freely around it until a few ideas have passed through. Then seize on them, look at them, & record. . . . (Mayer 557)

Use a special vocabulary within that area the vocabulary
        Is commonly used. For example, while a “safe
        word” is normally a word out of context, use words
        in their original contexts. (Daly 81)

Take an already written work of your own & insert (somewhere at random, or by choice) a paragraph or section from, for example, a book on information theory or a catalogue. . . . Then study the possibilities of rearranging this work. . . . (Mayer 559)

Let animals write. Copy the sounds they make or the
        words they spell out as they move. (Daly 83)

Get a friend or two friends to write for you, pretending they are you. (Mayer 558)

In your teaching of creative writing, have you used Mayer’s experiments? If so, how did that “work” or “fail”—or “work” and “fail”? As you set out to revisit, revamp, revise Mayer in this section, what were some of your goals? Did you learn anything new in the process of composition about your attitudes to these and similar exercises and how they are situated in experimental poetries and their cultural transmission? (For example, since Mayer’s text and her St. Mark’s workshop in the early seventies is a kind of crossroads between the New York School and Language Poetry, did this process have an impact on your poetic/critical investigation of the New York School and LangPo?) After finishing the section, did you notice particular effects of the language “deranging” or “rearranging” the conceptual apparatus?

CD: Horace's "dulce et utile"? how different from sweetness or pleasure is delite (I wanted to use the true spelling, not the one drawing a false parallel to "light", another thing indicated by the first poem, "Refining"), utility from instruction? More to the point of these questions, what do I think, for this book, of the utility of poetry; instruction in, around, about poetry; and instruction as a use or vice versa? What do I think exercises, reading, and writing have to do with ars poetica or retrofitting an author's ars poetica from her poems?

Related to these ideas, sweetness, delite, utility, instruction, ars poetica, are play, engagement, learning, knowledge, writing, reading. These are language games, and the sweetness of a game, delite, is engagement, involvement rather than "fun." But I suppose by instruction I mean something akin to constructing experience and knowledge through "game play" i.e., reading, writing, etc. Conceptual apparatus emerges from poems built from teaching games.

For the book, I used the free version of Mayer's Experiments at the Poetry Project Website. Because I originally read them from a poetry anthology, I have viewed them more as a poem or series than I might have done if I'd first seen them on a website.

In some courses I taught, I began by pelting potential students with a giant quantity of all sorts of writing exercises like Mayer's, and a jillion others online and in "creative writing workshop" books, forms, constraints that first course meeting -- other instructors at that institution gave a writing exercise to use up time during the intro to workshop class meeting, and students expected somebody's "poem ideas" to "give" them poems. I frustrated that expectation. While form, constraint, or exercise can be applied to measure structure against desire, to "derange" habits of working, that hardly ever happens unless assignments come from the writer, or are accepted by the writer in order to pull or push one's practice a certain way. I wanted something to happen when teaching and when writing this book.

I have written this long book of poems which are also exercises and from exercises and turn the poem into an exercise.... While one of my purposes in writing the book was to exhaust the exercise, another was to flag the way readers play the language game when the exercise is an open one rather than one focused on producing a ... product ...

TF: Perhaps you are “flagging the way readers” can fail “to play the language game” in your “Six in the Mix” sections, which feature substantial passages, interspersed with English, in Russian, Greek, Hungarian, Finnish, German, and French, In “Hungry Mix” (102-3) the Hungarian one, it’s easy to guess from the repetition of certain words and the number of words in each sentence that the English is a translation of the Hungarian preceding it, and I confirmed this by looking up words in an online Hungarian-English dictionary; this also seems to be the case with the Finnish section (104-9), but I haven’t done the same test. What expectations do you have of your readers? In other words, do you think that they should find a way to understand the passages in all the languages? Should non-Greek and non-Russian readers simply enjoy the aesthetic beauty of the Greek and Russian characters and/or register the material barrier to their comprehension? Should those who don’t know Finnish or Hungarian just appreciate the mix of sound patterns? Should they try homolinguistic translation? Do you care less about how they approach the section than you do about how they might theorize epistemological and social implications of the polyglot collage that you have provided for their instruction and delite?

CD: The Finnish section and Hungarian sections are machine translations from these languages without Indo-European roots. The Word Hoard is all the (English) words sorted according to Indo-European root. The standard collections of online translation tools don't include languages with different alphabets or roots. [I did a few projects for an internationalization -- or i18n -- firm that translated software into other languages. We used machine translations for estimating line lengths and costs. I still have an incomplete project of translating Locket, a book of love poems, into all of the Romance languages.]

My Uncle, Neal Skowbo, gave me the Language CDs he used to learn a bit of Hungarian before he and his wife Judith went to Hungary, in celebration of the book release.

From "Odds" I filtered only certain numbered passages through the machines, and the sections of tongue twisters I filtered through different machines (voice recognition and reading software) which ship in Microsoft desktop software in French, German, and English.

Part of the blue lion mission is to publish works which are exhaustive, which run with concepts and their ramifications as away as possible. One of my long term ideas is to use the possibilities of desktop software almost everyone works with every day for poetry. Another, for this book, is exploring assumptions about languages and knowledge. For example, advanced knowledge of modern French and German is required of most graduate students in English; this used to be a required knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek across all disciplines. So I am, and many in my audience are, "supposed" to be able to "read" many of the languages in the book.

Why not read the passages with wonder? They are a jumble of suppositions which don't hold, nonsense, and the almost-intelligible. One ars poetica...

TF: Since I have a PhD in English, you’ll note that I didn’t ask you about the French and German. But the farther away most English professors get from their graduate days and the more they have to focus on the contexts of teaching, research, committee service, etc., the less time they often feel able to spend on keeping their knowledge of foreign languages viable.

In various statements on your blog and elsewhere, you have underscored your advocacy for women writers and the centrality of feminism to your work. (Sometimes, you emphasized the word “distaff.”) Here is “Explanation of the Idioms”:

The female poet died down, she rolled off the
        anthologies like a log. The excitement which came
        about as a result of her break down broke down,
        disintegrated. Had she used the words to stand out,
        to get ahead? Was she intransitive? It’s not that
        memory fell through or some other poet got aorund
        the rules. She couldn’t hold on; she showed up, but
        no one caught on or got the gist of it—they just
        looked on. We settled down to wait for someone
        who’d persist. (193)

In the fourth sentence, the substitution of “intransitive” for “intransigent” is especially interesting. This passage seems to be a critique of a patriarchally-inflected complacency and indifference to women’s suffering and to “where the meanings are” for women poets. In what ways is To Delite and Instruct informed by your feminist concerns and aims?

CD: Since I don’t have a PhD in English or in anything else… or a job….

For a female poet, especially a more experimental female poet, questions about women writers and feminism are also questions about identity and more specifically the place of identity in poetry. This book is about knowledge, perception verging into experience and knowledge yielding a certain sort of being alongside- or before-the-poems identity. It isn't a feminist project per se. But, the poems spring from the female-dominated profession of teaching. Authority is most often female in the workbooks. Female educators wrote most of the source materials, which I think is interesting – the authorship of subsidiary materials. I think feminism makes a nice presentation of the mind body problem, too.

TF: I’m interested in your idea that To Delite and Instruct “is about . . . knowledge yielding a certain sort of being alongside- or before-the-poems identity.” Could you unpack that a bit and give an example or two to illustrate it? Finally, as a way of ending this interview with a sense of the larger context, how does this book fit into your big project, CONFITEOR?

CD: Well, I think I remarked elsewhere that one of the surprises in the poems – a prose poem in stanzas written from a page of clip art is the dominant format in the book – is their commercialism, brandedness. One of the reasons for this is that the clip art is line drawings of objects; the perception exercises are based on “reading” these towards reading and hearing language. Another is the brand names in the Microsoft dictionaries – these emerge once one starts using voice recognition software. But also our education – here, learning to speak, read, and write -- trained us as consumers in a specific way. So the junk that emerges when one measures a memory against such an exercise is amazing.

Women are still consumers more than men are; we tend to be in charge of the bulk of household consumption.

I wanted to design a project that would test sound and memory as I was using it; File ‘Em and Phylum were rearrangements of My Life. Sound objects not lyrics. The whole procedure around the sound poems reminded me of taping Jimi Hendrix albums I checked out from the Decatur Public Library from the record player I got from my parents for Christmas for promising I would use it to play French 10 inch language LPs (given to me by the same Uncle, Neal Skowbo) using Dad’s portable cassette player and 25 cent tapes. Our parrot, Po, is invariably in the room when I get a few hours to do something like have a foreign-language avatar read tongue twisters into voice recognition software using the tiny microphone that comes with a desktop computer. Po had no idea what was going on, but wanted to make some noise too. So he is in there as a writer.

While answering these questions, I started working more in earnest to attempt to figure out an identity theft project I’ve had on the back burner since my identity was stolen over Christmas 2003, after Da3 came out and Ron and I were married (odd, just as any American woman is particularly bereft of an independent identity). It seems Cartesian being has mobile or multiple identities based on varying objects of perception, if one views perception of objects to precede abstraction.

I have a collection of catalogs I received from stores where the fake Catherine Daly purchased tens of thousands of dollars of items. She went down Fifth Avenue (I worked on Park Ave. for many years) with my credit card and a fake driver’s license, applying for new store cards and charging the limits. Bendel’s, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman all thought I was a very special customer.

The heart of 2D&I was written around 1999-2001-ish, and then for a while in 2003 it looked like the beginning of OOD: Object-Oriented Design, the sequel to DaDaDa, which is enough unfinished for it not to be painful that it is not moving toward publication.

DaDaDa moves from finding a way inside the canon to finding philosophies and personal stories inside women’s writing, ending in a legendary of women artists. OOD moves from singular stories to abstracting objects out of ideas or reducing them to binaries in a series. Dea has a section tentatively entitled All the Angels and Saints, and it also has a section of Catherines fairly indebted to the martyrology. That and Addendum aren’t even close to being finished.

The reason 2D&I is not in there is that it works oppositely. Paper Craft works oppositely as well. I call them distaff – on the surface they go together, but philosophically, they are mirror images of Confiteor.

The Confiteor is the confessional, mea culpa, or statement of faith:

I confess to Almighty God
And to you my brothers and sisters,
That I have sinned through my own fault,
In my thoughts and in my words,
In what I have done, and what I have failed to do.
I ask Blessed Mary, ever virgin,
And all the angels and saints,
And you, my brothers and sisters,
To pray for me to the Lord our God.

The project is to simultaneously survey 20th Century poetics, women’s writing, the form of the Confiteor and its ideas from confession to prayer, the reformation idea that a confessional is also a statement excluding and including various groups, and to be my poetry.

TF: Thank you, Catherine.