Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Interview with Tom Mandel by Sheila Murphy

This interview with poet Tom Mandel was conducted in two phases – Spring 1998 and Winter 2007-8.

The first phase focuses on Absence Sensorium, the book-length poem written collaboratively from 1993-1995 by Tom Mandel and Daniel Davidson, working via email and phone calls. Dan committed suicide in 1997 as the book was going to press.

Absence Sensorium comprises 526 seven-line stanzas; each line is either 7 or 11 syllables. The form is Spanish, called a silva, and was used by Luis Góngora, among others. Published by Potes & Poets, Absence Sensorium is available from Small Press Distribution .

The second phase of the interview began in late 2007 after the publication of Tom’s most recent book To the Cognoscenti.

SM: What aesthetic traditions most directly influenced the making of Absence Sensorium?

TM: I wanted to write a long poem with a peripatetic feel, sort of "let me walk you through my experience," and had been reading Dante and some other long Renaissance poems as a way of thinking about the project. In one of Góngora’s long poems I found a verse form called the silva and suggested it to Dan. We experimented with it and found that it was both extensible, as I'd thought it would be, and also ample enough to contain two minds, as I'd hoped would prove to be the case.

On the other hand, although AS is above all a poem of history, it was not influenced by Pound's idea of a "poem with history." Starting with the old verse form we chose, AS seems to *reach back* to root itself, rather than rooting itself in a method or theoretical position. But in the poem tradition plays a role of innovation; the gestures invoke or employ tradition, but are not traditional.

SM: I'd be interested to learn your perception of AS in relation to other long, meditative or exploratory poems or poem sequences you value. With this in mind, what particular aspects of AS seem to you unique?

TM: AS is at once autobiographical and "investigative," to borrow a word I heard Steve McCaffery use when he was visiting a few weeks ago. I don't think that's unique but it seems somewhat unusual among recent long poems. To the degree that the poem poses questions of poetics they are asked about (and of) the object of the poem rather than its form or structure or its status as discourse. This too seems unusual, maybe it's a matter of degree.

What's unique of course is the collaboration. Reading our work, Dan and I often could not remember which of us had written a particular section. Our contributions fused in the poem's crucible, yet as we wrote it seemed quite dialectical, often it felt as if we were as much contesting as considering. Contesting the object. This led us to treat the present as history -- a traditional and even prophetic stance for the poet? -- to return to your first question.

SM: AS seems very immediate in its engagement with a myriad of details reflecting both your and Dan's read on the present tense. These details spiral into stories, political statements, lamentations, dialogues, chants, foretelling, even prayer. Did the "frame" of the selected form feel large enough or broad enough to include all that your minds sought to bring in to the work?

TM: The form was a stable element in what was an unstable act, as all collaboration is and ought to be unstable. We were able to challenge each other, to encourage, object, cajole, demand. Surprisingly, we kept on responding. The result was - probably inevitably - a poem that in a way is in cantos, though they are not foregrounded. What I mean is that we addressed each other in the writing, drawing a picture or telling a story to convey something one to the other, and these work like cantos, contained episodes along a path of the poem. Obviously, this is not the real meaning of the word, but I'm thinking of the narrative function of a canto in Dante, for example. Given that, the formal frame of stanza and line was a known, even a comfort, setting off into whatever came next.

SM: Where/how does AS factor into your own development as a writer?

TM: That'll become clearer as time passes. I'm just starting another long poem and it most definitely takes off from AS.

SM: How does AS seem to factor into prior or other work by Dan Davidson?

TM: To speak simply and frankly, as I must speak of my lost friend, Dan was immensely proud of AS. To speak of his work, on the other hand, I think that may be beyond me. His death still seems like the present moment, like Dan now, something very hot for which I've found an insulated carrier but cannot put down, hoping for a time to come when I can unwrap it, handle it, feel and think it through.

A few words, all the same. From my first read of Product, Dan's work seemed to me to define and occupy obsessively an analytic solitude, a subject whose sole object was the social. His work had force and scale in its abutment to the social, which it pushed and that way knew. An interest in interacting with the solitude I felt in Dan drew me to our collaboration. AS seemed to recoup other qualities in his person; I found myself thinking for example that he might be ready to play music again - he'd been a musician and song-writer for some years, but not during the time I knew him. I remember once sitting in his room, monastico-leftism-mess, and he picked up an acoustic guitar and began to improvise a fluent beautiful music. I hadn't known even that he played, and it was a shock.

SM: What is most important about AS as to the genre to which the piece belongs, to your and Dan's work, and to you personally?

TM: "To be human is to be a variant" - where did I read that recently? What I like about AS, and want from poetry now, that I read and that I write, is variance and room for variance. AS is a phenotype that holds the genotype in judgment.

SM: Let's talk about the format selected for AS. Is there significance in the length of stanzas and the syllabics of the lines, or were these choices made arbitrarily?

TM: Not arbitrary, although I'd thought of the silva as a seven-line stanza, wrongly as it turns out. The other day I looked it up in the Princeton Encyclopedia for the first time. It's a verse form wherein each line contains either seven or eleven syllables but strophic breaks can occur freely. So I'd misconstrued it. But the number seven is not arbitrary it is immensely significant, even perfect. And eleven is a variant on seven. Yet, when you repeat something you are applying it and you are changing it. That is, a world arises, particular not formal, which also changes the formal device, adaptively one hopes. As the rabbis used to say, "to the wise a hint is sufficient."

SM: Was this poem created with any preconception relative to its length?

TM: Dan and I had written a couple of earlier collaborations, short poems just for fun - to see what would happen, that is. We wrote a sestina and a villanelle. So it seemed natural to stretch out. We quickly found that we had a large project on our hands. But we did not want to establish a set number of stanzas, the regularity of line and stanza length seemed enough. AS ends with the 526th stanza. That is, at a certain point we felt it was time to end it and we did something to bring it to an end.

SM: Were PROSPECT OF RELEASE and AS written concurrently? How would you compare these works in terms of focus, aesthetic contribution, process and direction?

TM: I finished Prospect of Release in 1992, and Dan and I began AS about a year later. They are very difficult works to compare, quite different. In AS the stanza form is used to propel the work. In Release the variant-sonnet is used to contain the individual unit of the work. I use a sonnet form in Release which I've never seen elsewhere, the stanzas are of 4, 3, 3, and 4 lines in that order, a form that reads as balanced and internal - unbreakable even armored. But repeated lines, phrases, words throughout Release propel the thought, the single, variant, broken thought that is thinking into, through and out the work. I could never write another poem like Prospect of Release, because it is as unique as that single thought. But I could write another poem like AS, despite the fact that its conditions were unique and my collaborator dead.

SM: What thematic currents in AS seem most important to you?

TM: I think I want to ask you that question. What themes stand out for you?

SM: I'm very interested in learning your perceptions about collaboration as an aesthetic possibility for writing. There seems to be growing interest in the practice of collaboration. Can you speculate as to what is behind this? Clearly, you and Dan have brought collaboration to new heights with AS.

TM: Collaboration is deep in all human making and doing, of course. It's great for it to become more of a possibility in poetry. My generation of poets is known in part for its effort to de-establish the "I" from its authoritative and even monarchical position in the poem, and of course collaboration does that directly.This revolution against the “I” is repeated, as the coup so often merely remodels the ego's throne room in the name of a revolution that in retrospect seems one of taste rather than poetics (viz. Surrealism).

I find it hard to sustain an interest in the theoretical discourse behind this effort. I was raised on philosophy, and I don’t see critical theory as having much of a grasp on its object, let alone the ability to re-frame it. That sounds sort of arrogant; others may view the matter differently. Perhaps I just don’t find critical theory useful to me as a poet.

In fact, thinking about the "I" in any form - sovereign, exploded, evasive, missing, etc. – strikes me as a boring mystery, somehow a way to imagine that the corner one has written oneself into and must write oneself out of is somehow more interesting than the object itself. Nope.

Perhaps the theoretical work of the last decade on complexity and emergence will open a bigger window on the processes by which poems are written and communicate, than what passes for critical theory, or Theory capitalized, or poetics as we have it, or whatever. But, I should *write about* this rather than make these kinds of pronunciamentos, and I don't have the time to do that writing, so . . .

. . . I'll say some more about collaboration. In the case of AS, collaboration with Dan turned out to be dangerous, as we entered into a deep and entangled dialogue and then my interlocutor killed himself. I have found it difficult to disentangle my spirit from this loss.

SM: A number of the following questions relate to thematic instances, stemming from your asking me about what themes stand out for me.

SM: Throughout AS, there exists the sense that experience consists of a "pileup" of present tenses that eventually comprise a history, fluid in character and laden with differently shaped "rules." At some point, there is a reference made to glass breaking into slivers that soon after do not show. Over time, things change, gestures evolve, and the remainder is transformed, sometimes to the point of imperceptibility. Quoting another passage, "An accurate picture of the inner world/ finely sifted over seven hundred years/ of plasticity, invention and pleasure/ fell to nothing in a day." And from another, "The present is the perfect rebuttal/ and is the easiest to apply. The past/ is completed before the plaster has dried." Would you address the issue of present tense, history, and experience?

TM: The first lines you quote are mine. In the second passage, which was written by Dan, I notice for the first time the play on grammatical tenses: present perfect, past complete (as in compound past tense, or the passé composé tense in French).

The view of history I inherit, and I think it's "our" view of history now, derives from Walter Benjamin's famous image of the angel of history before whose eyes the past piles up as wreckage. This image is an isomorph of Benjamin's statement that "every great act of civilization is also a great act of barbarism," which I know I'm not quoting quite accurately here.

It is important to think radically the meaning of these passages from Benjamin -- to think with them rather than about them.

The antinomian endgame Benjamin's vision implies, thoroughly motivated by the twentieth century he witnessed, must be absorbed well beyond an identification of the evidence for its truth in Benjamin's time and in ours. It is not enough, in other words, to bracket what humans have done in history in an ethical category of revulsion, to make it into the other human 'We,' of which we are only formally a part -- the Nazis, the church, the Chicago police. It has to be faced in the present tense, and the present tense is 'We' in a realer sense. It's Tom Mandel, it's Dan Davidson, it's Sheila Murphy; reader, it's you.

Not enough either to ignore or suppress the experience, the grammar, of intellectual and imaginative transformation which enters our lives from all that's happening with technology in our time. AS couldn't have been written without computers and email. This interview ditto.

In saying this I'm anticipating the end of the poem with its extended meditation on participation and resistance and its focus on what we make now, which though it seem the future is another past. In AS, the question of history immediately poses that of the individual, twinned in this telling but still the individual. How does the teller bear the tale he makes and tells? Experience in AS is a question posed. What I do rises up and asks me what it is I do. I'm not making the future but the past; what do I make?

We don't have available to us a level to which we can rise for resolution, as, at least formally lets say, Dante did. Or, we do, but we are aware of its evasiveness.

I like to think of the phrase "Grant unto Caesar that which is Caesar's," for example, on which so much of Christianity depends, that division of the world. I like to remember how easy especially Roman Christianity found it to cover in the dark the distance created in the daylight of this phrase. And I like to remember that these words are a moment in a centuries-long dialogue among the rabbis of the early centuries about how to view Rome. Without Rome, the rabble would destroy us Jews or the Egyptians would, one of them says. So instead the Romans destroy us? another replies. The issue cannot be resolved, but somewhere in the Talmud a prayer is repeated, somewhat humorously and altogether seriously, "that the eye of the policeman not fall on me." But, it did.

SM: One of the primary issues I derive from this book concerns privacy and communion, which could be turned and seen as privacy IN communion. One line, "Approach is easy, access indecisive" seems at least distantly related to this aspect of AS. When communion is referenced in the book, the sense is of a difficult, demanding one, imbued with a sense of its own unlikelihood. Could you say more about communion as related to AS?

TM: I think it's community or communication but not communion. Whatever else AS is it is a dialogue between two very different individuals and in that dialogue we repeatedly model but also miss the difficult acts of communication and building (or accepting) community which seem so critical in a world where very very little is of that form. The great value of poetry now is in modeling ways in which an individual creating form engages, in however demanding a way, the community we build on communication. What you are seeing as 'unlikelihood' - I think that difficulty is rather how critical such communication is.

The community we need and model in poetry is not like created, objectified culture - e.g. canon, value, meaning. It is like the communication among ants who by that communication span the distance between two branches (or roots) which otherwise would seem to be impossibly apart.

SM: Memory seems to function as a device for survival, a gradually depreciating supply of itself. On one level, memory (an arbitrary construct?) seems self-validating, either artificially or with some value. How do you perceive memory in AS?

TM: The questions you've been asking in this session turn me into a philosopher, and I'm not a philosopher, or rather I'm very given to philosophy but I hope I'm a better poet than a philosopher. Still, they are good questions, but I experience a struggle between answers that have to do with our intention and those in which I'm a reader of the poem. I don't know which are which or which are more useful.

In a notebook last year, I doodled out part of a song that went:

"'I remember, I remember.'
Memory says – the great pretender,

Claims it happened, it really was
One way or the other, and all because

It seems so in my head today
As present (presence) passes my way."

If memory is an artifice or construct - tho I think actually it is a form of adaptation - it is nonetheless of inexhaustible supply and not self-validating but a kind of glue to bind something problematic to something else which is posed as a known. That's the way it works in AS I think - and here I am answering as a reader, not providing insight into an intention - but the collaborative process gave the poets the opportunity each to question what might be a fixed value in another's words, so there is a lot of fluidity in the position memory occupies.

SM: As AS progresses toward the final (approximately) quarter of the book, there seems a buildup of intensity, wherein explorations from earlier in AS concerning present tense, history, communion, and survival confront contemporary life. The imperative of self protection intersects with politics and a larger, perhaps more threatening, picture. A fundamental solitude that permeates AS seems especially true here. Quoting again, "how to guard/our silence from an alien ear" and "No adjustment of your set is possible" seem also apt. I sense that we are looking at politics and life as spun from a great distance. Can you respond?

TM: The buildup of intensity in AS seems to me to be exactly the intensity of the poem experienced at a point where you have already read a lot of the poem, where you have a lot of the poem to bring to the later part you are reading. I'm interested in the phrase you use: "politics and life as spun from a great distance." I think that corresponds to an intention deep in the poem; the object of the poem seems to arrive as if from a great distance and with a lot of torque or spin on it. How to deal with its object, the poem itself what must it say and be? - it was very demanding.

Let me illustrate this point with a story: I had a curious experience once at a concert of the San Francisco symphony with pianist Charles Rosen, who played Schoenberg's piano concerto, an angular, harmonically-demanding work in two movements. Laura Davies Hall, like many modern orchestral halls, features a curving section of seats behind the orchestra. During the concert, a man in one of these seats, no more than a hundred feet from the piano, and seemingly right in Rosen’s view, began to twitch violently. Soon he was flailing his limbs in a mounting frenzy which seemed to be not just attuned to the music but a part of it, a strange dance to Schoenberg's music.

The seats around him were empty; his troubles went on for a long time. But, shortly before the end of the concerto, a couple of men slipped into the section where he was seated and helped him leave. I learned later that the man was an epileptic, and that he had recovered from the fit that had come upon him during the concert.

As it happened, I met Charles Rosen a few years later in Chicago and asked him about this strange event; what had it been like to play Schoenberg as it were accompanied by an epileptic fit?

Rosen recalled the concert, but in his concentration on the music and his musical collaborators, he had noticed nothing of what I described to him. It was news to him, strange and shocking.

SM: The book posits an ongoing tension between "participation and resistance" in human existence. Would you address this?

TM: A tension and an identity, or at least the need and the attempt to keep both active, an attempt that can fail. Yes this theme is at the heart of Absence Sensorium, a theme that can never be resolved.

SM: Your comments about variance and room for variance stimulate another question: Do you judge form in light of its capacity to generate variance?

TM: Yes, exactly. The variance and the variants a form spawns. And at a given time, any form may be productive in that way (e.g. our use of the silva in Absence Sensorium). For this reason the debate about form and formalism – 'experimental' poetry vs. 'conventional' poetry – seems misplaced to me. Experimental poetry can be as minimally variant, as indistinguishable from its sources and its neighbor-poems, as so-called conventional poetry.

Somewhere in A Poetics, for example, Charles Bernstein points out that many personal poems of memory, personal apotheoses, are like each other. I.e. far from being “personal” they reproduce conventional tropes; they’re pretty much all the same despite their stress on the uniqueness of the moment and of personal memory.

He’s right; it’s a valid critique, and I agree with him. Often you can't tell one of these poems from another, and you could interleave lines from one “unique” experience into another and little would change.

But, right or wrong, the critique reproduces exactly the one his opposite number, writing from the traditional camp, usually says about 'experimental' or 'formally-demanding' poetry. "It claims all to be individual but you can't tell one from another!"

The remark is itself a rhetorical trope. You can apply the critique itself invariantly. It says and means nothing.

I stand with what Osip Mandelstam writes: "an artist considers his world-view a tool and an instrument, like a hammer in the hands of a stonemason, and his only reality is the work of art itself." A stonemason doesn't waste time talking about his hammer, all new and different.

SM: The words "Everything survives its end" seem particularly painful, given the circumstances following the completion of the book. Perhaps more hopeful, "What will replace thought" calls into question the centrality and eternal nature of that kernel of existence? Can you comment?

TM: Perhaps instead we should see "Everything survives its end" as hopeful. I don't know. I wish what we wrote had a message. It does. I wish people could get the message. Well they can. I wish poetry could make a difference. It must make a difference, and perhaps it will. Perhaps it has. It does.

SM: I'm very interested in your comments about what I consider a syndrome of disguised mimicry, wherein certain practices are anointed "new," while their predecessors are branded as "old." Students especially may gravitate toward a passkey approach to writing, in an effort to sort "the good" from "the dross." This is probably de facto a process of secretly having a canon. In fact, *competence* (a writer's ability to work effectively in a form) seems a more pertinent issue in this case, certainly moreso than style. You've indicated that some distinctions are at least inappropriate and misfocused. Issues of *making* are more central. Could you talk about what you consider the most important aspects of *making*, as applied to AS?

TM: To orient yourself in any facet of life, you have to read signals in the environment. The most prominent ones are in essence indicators of what we might call "fashion." They tell you something about the subject at hand, but mostly they tell you whether it is in favor and in what ways. Until you are a fair way down the road and have gone through this orientation and reorientation many times, how can you know the significance - even the status - of this set of orientation signals? You can't, that's why you need them in the first place.

So, things may seem new which are not new; things may seem valuable which are maybe less so than you think. Other phenomena, especially those which are not assertively connected to the dialectic of fashion, may escape your notice altogether at first. And the social structure of the intellectual landscape may be invisible.

Maybe the problem is the lack of a canon, rather than that there’s a secret one, if it’s not too strange for an avantardist like me to call for a canon. Something to push against. Canons tell lies of course; they orient you – and they make possible the disorientation in which real ideas begin. So we need those little signals and we need to recognize them and drop them.

In conversation many years ago, Ron Silliman described us all as having constellations of figures (poets) in our minds and we orient ourselves and our work by these constellations. When you are young, the constellations consist of older poets and their work. As time passes, the points on these schemata begin to be occupied by one's own work the work of peers. That’s a really helpful way to look at it.

The past really does seem fixed, like the heavens which we can’t avoid seeing as already made rather than in the making. And, if you can't escape the sense that there is a fixed issue of form in poetry, wherein gradations of value inhere, you are in trouble as a writer. That is why we have nth generation NY or Language poets and even surrealists.

People like their expectations fulfilled. But new poetry should confound readers’ expectations. It should create new expectations. It’s a hard problem. The American “experimental” tradition is, by now, a pretty predictable phenomenon. But, then, poetry is always in a crisis and coming out of it.

SM: The awareness of active readership as a concept seems to be gaining momentum. At this meeting place of the writers, their work, and the reader, what are (at least) *some* of the important aspects that a *reader* must bring to the gathering?

TM: There are many kinds of reading of course. We don't read a new work of writing in the same way we read even a modern literary work with an established place of some kind in our culture. We don't read Tom Raworth the way we read Sam Beckett; nor read Jean Day the way we read Tom Raworth for that matter.

In fact, how useful is the word "read?" really. I read the sports section; I read Thomas Bernhard; I read a review of a new recording of Nielsen's 6th symphony; I read the distance to Lewes DE on a roadsign. Stopping for lunch, I read the name of the restaurant, the menu, then, while waiting for my salad, I read a new poem Doug Lang just gave me.

Active reading refers to what happens after I read, and that makes me re-read perhaps.

When I read Jane Austen, it's like looking at someone across the table from me. All of the work is facing me and I it, and I'm trying to figure it out. But, when I read Jane Austen, it's like being shoulder to shoulder with someone very far away, and we are looking not at each other but at a shared scene, and she is opening shaping defining teasing that scene for me; or we are collaborating to figure that world out we're both facing.

So what you bring to reading is what you bring to finding your way to Lewes DE, picking lunch from a menu, caring a lot what your friend has put on the page, sensing your place in the world from the writing acts in it undertaken by a close contemporary.

SM: Your remark, "A stonemason doesn't waste time talking about his hammer," prompts me to ask what you believe would be a useful exercise for students hoping to write, either alone or collaboratively.

TM: On seeing the work of Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes is said to have remarked: "I durst not speak so freely." I don't know whether my sense of what a starting writer should do is of a kind to be welcomed.

I notice that you frame the question as about "students hoping to write." But, my first advice is to stop being a student. Stay away from schools (especially graduate schools) of creative writing or poetics, above all. Believe that the new is what doesn't yet exist rather than what was just announced.

Move to a large city where you can be anonymous and hang around with the most interesting people you can find. Fill your mind with exceptions. Take seriously what people think is trivial. See if you can reconstruct a baseball game from a box score.

SM: In consideration of the type of experience that AS is, I'm wondering about the way time factored into the making of AS. Was the project "slow and steady" or were there pauses between segments? Were there points at which you needed to halt the work and clear the slate, or did it progress at an intense pace?

TM: There were some slowdowns relating to life issues of availability for the work, and there were other periods of really intense communication. Overall, however, it always had momentum. It was never on the back burner but always the current project for both Dan and me.

SM: (Your story of the Charles Rosen concert is rich and offers infinite possibilities. Sometimes when focusing on a particular historical situation, I find myself awakening to layer upon layer of realization of the significances from multiple viewpoints, in addition to sensing several adjustments resulting from the positioning of these viewpoints in time. There is no complete story.)

TM: Or none that is not complete, or there for us to complete. Situating event in context to purpose about describes every waking moment.

SM: Would you discuss the issue of access as related to AS? It seems that this work would be reachable (at least to some degree—impossible to project another person's ability to grasp) to individuals not already steeped in literary theory and contemporary poetics. Like other work of yours, this book offers the reader a way into the outer reaches, if the reader is willing to go. But there are ways in, in any case. Is this important to you, and is it conscious, or just the way the work evolved?

TM: I deeply hope you don't need to have studied literary theory or poetics to read my work! Poetry determines theory not the opposite. I use my own reading in - penchant for - philosophy (I really don't like the word theory and am glad to see that it is fading from use) and theology in just the way I use my experience of the quotidian world and other more formal interests.

I need to know some math and physics to write, because I need them to understand the world, and I can't write without some understanding of the world. I need to know something of the history of writing to write, because this history is necessary to the development of vision and technique, necessary in other words - like physics and math – in order to have something to say.

All of writing is about having something to say. Otherwise there are more rewarding ways to spend your time than spilling words on a page. Unless by so doing you reach practical goals like being published, winning a grant, getting invited to the conference, or getting tenure. There is nothing whatever wrong with these goals, they're normal issues of professional advancement, the exact equivalents of being promoted at GM or made partner in the law firm. They have of course nothing to do with writing, with poetry.

Somewhere Max Weber refers to two ways to communicate. By explanation and by example. A poet has to do both.

There is an ineluctable value for articulation in writing; however it may be counterbalanced by other needs and interests it never departs wholly and usually leaves a way to get to it (a sign or map of itself) at the heart of a piece of writing, however complex in form, that comes to have value for readers, for people. Perhaps the path in a work that leads to articulation takes the reader to as you call them "the outer reaches." Certainly, I could not know that about my own work or make such a claim for it.

But articulation does lead to the person writing being a whole and offering an example. What we call poetics is a section of a discourse that may lead along this path. Often, the wholeness or articulation or "something to say" is not visible in the piece of discourse we examine as poetics or theory. This does not mean it is absent, though it does mean that we may find ourselves misled by such a piece of thought. We may find ourselves devoted to the facts of truncation rather than those of implication.

People want what concludes a sense of meaning and shores up a sense of self. Just as they want a template for what is "good" writing and "new writing" even though this is by definition unavailable, so they want what I just lumped together in the phrase "some practical goal."

Our natures lead us to frame whatever is before us as the legitimate object of desire. A male pigeon courts a female pigeon, does his display. Absent a female pigeon, he will court another male. Absent these, he will court your shoes or a crack in the sidewalk. People are not significantly different in this regard.

SM: Do you think of a "composite third person" as the author of AS, or would you prefer to think of the situation in a different way? I'm interested in hearing about the development of the writing presence that created AS.

TM: I think of myself as the author of AS, and I think of Dan as the author of AS. I don't have a third thought which seeks to resolve these two. The second of the thoughts I have in an incalculably and irrevocably and annoyingly different way than ever I would have imagined. Think how much fun it would have been if you'd been able to interview Dan and me, and we'd been able to collaborate on being interviewed. Think of what a great human experience that would have been. Dan can't have that experience, and he has denied it to me. Infuriatingly, he denied me the chance even to say, "Dan - wake up! Don't forego the great experience that will come." Hence, I must say it now and here, and it must mean something totally different from what it would have meant to shout it in his living ear.

SM: To what extent were you thinking of a hypothetical reader as you wrote AS? Was the reader for you Dan, or Dan and others? Or no one in particular?

TM: Dan was the first reader for what I wrote - very much in the way one usually occupies the first reader position for oneself. And vice versa of course. His responses - in the form of what he did next on the book - took the place of lets say rewriting of which there is almost none in AS (save corrections). I at least had no hypothetical reader in mind. Dan was "in mind" but not as a reader as the writer, as in other words, another version of myself I guess.

SM: To what extent have you participated as a reader of AS? What are some of the things you've learned from reading it? As you read the work now, (how) has the work changed?

TM: That is a wonderful and difficult question. In a way, it asks "how have you changed?" as much as how has the work changed. I don't think I have a good answer right now. Perhaps I'll find my way back to the question as we go along here.

SM: If you were to project ten years into the future, what difference do believe the Internet will have made in developing communication toward "the community we build on communication"? Would you be willing to share how it feels to you to use the Internet for communication? (How) is it different from other ways?

TM: To project even two years into the future of the current transformation is impossible, let alone a decade! It's obvious what the limitations of the net are as social space, community space. Range of activity and expression are very limited; emotional range is really shallow; spontaneity hardly exists at all. There is no real social development without that people give to it with all their faculties and the net just doesn't have a way to accept most of what people are able to do.

That said, it's pretty extraordinary what happens between and among people even now. With a large number of people around the world my relations have changed immensely, deepened and become more significant, because of e-mail. And the Web offers people a pretty rich context for prepared communication and a context for spontaneous group communication which is...improving - that's the best I can say! As you know, I'm involved in this stuff, specifically in creating tools for open social space online. We have a long way to go.

Some tools and technologies are available; lots more are needed. One certain thing, at the point at which we really can experience social space online, we won't be thinking about the Internet, anymore than you now think about the telephone network when you call a friend. Dial tone, ring, busy signal - we don't experience these as technologies but as facts about the world.

Interviewer’s Note: The following segment of the interview began in the autumn of 2007.

SEM: Tom, your new book, To the Cognoscenti appeared a few months ago. As you reflect upon your own work over the past 30 years, what emphases or changes seem most important to you now?

TM: That period – 30 years ago; the mid-late seventies – is on my mind these days, because of writing The Grand Piano. I suppose I’m quite a different person from the one back then, although others would know better than I.

I imagine I began by thinking about poetry and then about people who wrote poetry; I don’t think about these subjects very much any more. I think about poems, and I think about poets. Seems quite different to me.

A poet is the intention of a poem. Over time, as one becomes one’s own biggest influence – or rather one’s experience does – the work gives up particularity for a greater individuality, becoming more like a body of water, a meadow, a desert of sand than it is like a cityscape or even a dwelling.

In that sense, my work of thirty years ago has changed – perhaps more than I have. Recently, while writing a piece for the GP, I reread a long poem I wrote in 1978 or ‘79 called Some Appearances. It ends

The stairs had been carpeted one by one
We perceive the object riddled with its error
Senseless parallels along which we padded
Now tell me your theory one more time

SEM: I sense from your response a renewed vitality of the empirical, or at least a questioning of an orphaned sense of theory. Would you comment on the place of experience in your recent thinking?

TM: Sometimes I think of myself as the only member of a literary movement to be called "restlessism." Of course, there may be many members of the school who know nothing of one another because that ignorance is part of what defines it. Still, I lay claim to having founded it.

We do tend, as human beings, to value highly whatever we possess in abundance. When I was young, and my thinking was unimpeded by experience while being propelled by the quick, fresh hardware of youth, I valued theory more highly than I do now that I have an abundance of experience. Now I value experience above all else.

This is true despite the irony as to theory in the poem I just quoted – Some Appearances, written in the '70s. Or perhaps the irony conveys my interest in theory back then. After all, the first thing irony does is assert the phenomenon it ironizes. One could say the same thing about the title of my newest book, To the Cognoscenti. Are there any?

I note that your question associates the empirical and experience – and seems to oppose them to theory. I've just been reading a lovely essay by Deleuze with the title "Immanence: A Life." I think it was the last thing he wrote. It argues for a "transcendental empiricism" not of sensation nor of representation. It is "a [1]qualitative duration of consciousness without a self."

Perhaps this conception allows us to recapture theory and experience in a single frame: the frame of poetry – 'frame' he says, and means a rim of flame. [1]

But, don't you want to ask me where I was born and what I learned from my mother?

SEM: What do you see as (some of) the most exciting aspects of current or recent poetry? Oh, and lest we forget your prompt, what role did your early life play in your writing? :)

TM: Uh oh, now I’m in trouble. I get sent a pretty good number of books, and I try to read as many of them as I can. But, that’s not enough for me to make an intelligent comment without leaving out too much by too many.

Mostly, the names on my reading list would sound like the waiting list for the old folks home.

I suppose my biggest interest in new poetry is that there be new ways for it to reach people. My measure in this regard is a 13-year old in Lahore. How does new writing reach her and how does she reach out for it? The advantage of mainstream media is that, for example, she may be found by e.g. Rae Armantrout’s work because the New York Times reviews it. The disadvantage of the burgeoning academic interest in new poetry (and this is not meant as a critique of ‘the academy’: that’s too easy) is that it expresses itself in contexts that won’t find my 13 year old – in hiding places, institutional endpoints, resting places of reputation.

Why is a 13-year old in Lahore my measure? First off because I’ve met her; I know her. And also because my own relation to poetry was changed by what found me at that age: a Time Magazine article about Ginsberg and the Beats. It led me to the San Francisco Renaissance issue of the Evergreen Review, a volume I bought at a literary bookstore in downtown Chicago back then (I might have been 14) and which I still have on a shelf somewhere.

Blogs help new poetry reach new readers. And, I like to see work that actively uses the compositional and presentation possibilities offered by new technologies. Mimeo, and then affordable printing, transformed literary magazines. We need to extend that further online. Magazines and presses that mimic print online can be useful, but obviously much more than that is possible. I do like Jacket, Fascicle and particularly mark(s) which makes effective use of Flash. But so much more is possible – and needed. So I’m waiting for that and, probably, wondering why I don’t make something myself.

As to my early life, my mother, more about that anon.

SEM: Let’s conclude with some of your early influences and experiences, combined with what advice you might offer to new writers and readers of what we may continue to call innovative writing.

TM: Back to my mother? She wanted me to be a Doctor not a poet. She had been kicked out of medical school in Vienna when the Nazis arrived and had in mind that I would make this right. A few months before she died in the mid-nineties, she got to see my daughter get her MD, so all’s well that ends well.

The first poetry I read was Charles Greenleaf Whittier – is that how you spell his name? – in a book printed during the war on paper that had grown brittle and brown. I was a little kid, sitting behind an arm chair in the living room of my family’s small apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. They had arrived in America only a few years ago; how they came by that book I do not know. I liked the way the words were splayed on the pages and that the brittle pages felt so frail.

My first influences were the beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brother Antoninus. Then I read Eliot, of course, everyone did, and Pound. I was absorptive rather than selective since I didn’t know (or care) what was what. I remember with pleasure the Oscar Williams anthologies of modern poets; I loved the work of Gene Derwood, for example, and I still do – does anyone read her any more? Please do; hmmm, maybe I can drop in a link right there. Yes… there’s Gene Derwood

I was lucky enough to go to the famous Big Table Reading in Chicago in 1959 when I was still a teenager and hear Allen Ginsberg read from Kaddish. Gregory Corso read that afternoon as well, but Kerouac wasn’t there (although I saw and heard him read from On the Road on television! on the Steve Allen show), nor was Burroughs. You can’t have everything – still, why not try?

[1] Mandel, T. To the Cognoscenti. Atelos Press. January, 2007. 47.


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