Wednesday, February 07, 2007

INTERVIEW WITH CATHERINE DALY by Thomas Fink

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.

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