Introduction: Tjanting a New Alphabet
Ron Silliman is one of the most prominent figures in the Language Poetry movement and instrumental in reconfiguring current contemporary poetics. He is influenced by Marxist theory (esp. via Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School), as well as linguistically innovative poetry, such as that explored by Stein and Zukofksy. His poetry emerges out of an attempt to redefine genres that resist and challenge conventional definitions of literature with an interest in resisting the way in which capitalist societies construct texts purely in terms of markets and commodities. Moreover, his technique involves creating a fundamental tension between parataxis and narrative. In terms of parataxis, Silliman is interested in heightening the autonomous nature of individual sentences, rather than subordinating them to a larger narrative.
He edited In the American Tree, which is the most thorough anthology of Language Poets published to date. Silliman remains a controversial figure who is interested in challenging dominant assumptions about poetry and existing paradigms regarding the way in which human experience is represented through language. If the tenuous link between “tradition” and “innovation” grows more tenuous by the day as Jerome McGann seems to suggest,1 then it is Silliman who is at the very center of this conflict. His poetics is consistently oppositional in its attempt to subvert the very medium of poetry itself, i.e. language, but he maintains that his poetry (all poetry) is situated in a very specific historical and cultural situation. Silliman demonstrates the conviction that language structures and constructs everyday experience, and his poetry is an attempt to ‘get at’ that experience, while also dismantling metaphysical assumptions about reality that have characterized much Modern American poetry. Like many of the writers in the Language group, Silliman’s writing “redresses the illusions that words signify separately constituted things and concepts and that grammar discloses relations among them. Instead, language is thought constitutive of that which it signifies and governs, through grammar, the relations which order things” (Biography para 2).
In his most recent work, Under Albany, the poet suggests that he has “spent 17 of the last 24 years actively undercutting expectations within form” (22). This statement seems hardly debatable considering the evolution of his work, especially spanning from Ketjak (1978) to The Age of Huts (1986) to his newly finished 26 books of The Alphabet to the immense output of work produced on his internet Blog (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/).
Mark Tursi: In The Chinese Notebook, which was just recently re-released online by UBU Editions (2004), you suggest, “Perhaps poetry is an activity and not a form at all.” I find this a particularly interesting proposition in lieu of the various forms throughout all of The Age of Huts: Sunset Debris which is all questions; 2197 which is largely verse form with a few sections of prose; and, finally, The Chinese Notebooks which is enumerated prose paragraphs. There has, of course, been a lot of critical writing that argues that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry is largely concerned with process rather than product, and you yourself suggest in the “Afterword” to the 2002 edition of In the American Tree that writing is “a means of thinking, an active process” and “shared thinking.” So, I wonder, to what extent your writing is concerned more with activity rather than process (or form or product), as you seem to suggest? That is, I think there is a slight nuance in meaning here that is rather revealing. On the one hand, your work seems to a reveal an obsession with form (e.g. The Age of Huts and The Alphabet), but on the other, you seem more concerned with writing as an act (activity), first and foremost (esp. your blog and The Alphabet perhaps!?), rather than as a form existing outside of the act itself or even the process (procedure), except how it actual comes to exist as an intentional and self-reflexive act. And, if the ‘intention’ and ‘the poetry’ are identical which you suggest a few lines later in The Chinese Notebook, isn’t the act and the form one in the same? And, back to your suggestion and following question: “Would this definition satisfy Duncan?” I wonder if you could elaborate a bit more on these distinctions (or lack of) between act and process, act and form?
Ron Silliman: I have a couple of different, possibly conflicting reactions as I read this – indeed, that latter sense has delayed me from responding to it for quite some time – but the strongest & most immediate one is a distrust in the way that the term “form” is being applied here, which I read as “exoskeletal pattern.” The description of 2197 is the give-away here, precisely because it is so inexact. The work consists of 13 poems, all constructed from the collision of 169 different sentences with one another – the title refers to the number of sentences in the work as a whole. When sentences “collide,” the grammatical structure of one is used to house the “content” words of the other. 2197 thus comes closest to the conception of form you pose, yet it is the one that is – to my reading of your question – the work in The Age of Huts that is least recognized as such.
Yet how much of that poem is that reiterative structure – which is not without its problems – and how much of the work’s “true” form is my own experience of working on it in notebooks – one of which contained nothing but the numerical plan of which sentence was to serve as the syntactic domain here, which as the source for signifiers? How much is involved in writing it specifically in coffee houses, especially the Meat Market, an establishment that exists (or used to exist) in an old butcher shop on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, where at least 80 percent of the text was crafted? How much of its form, for me, also is involved with living in a collective household on California Street in San Francisco, and with my various roommates there, a particularly intense & close household? I began the poem while working on the other sections of The Age of Huts – the first of which is Ketjak, published separately from the Roof Press edition – but did not complete it until I was well into the writing of Tjanting, another work that required rigorous planning and a careful structure laying out which sentence went where (and which also, taking directly from 2197, almost always involved revision as essential to the reiterative process).
You can get a better sense of how 2197 is put together if you follow a single term throughout the work, for example “lion.” Thus in the first poem, “I am Marion Delgado,” we find two consecutive sentences with it:
Lion I’d bites.
A specific lion, mane, bites for the peach-headed.
In “I Meet Osip Brik,” we find
The lion is full of grapes.
In “Rhizome,” lion & grapes again appear, but a different sequence:
Lion made the grapes
of my peach-headed man.
In “Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap,” we come across the combination again:
Anything lion do is made for many grapes.
And so on. My idea in writing this was that it should work on several levels. Whether or not it does, I guess, will depend both on what different readers experience coming across these individual sentences in very dissimilar (or what I hoped were dissimilar) contexts and on how well I may have executed my initial impulse(s).
My own sense is that form in the poem is all of these things – that one cannot dissociate exoskeletal structure (the “patterns of deployment” in 2197 are an alternating sequence of three different formats – a “one sentence / one line” mode with heavily indented lines that I took directly from work Barrett Watten was doing at the time, a prose poem paragraph, and a “stepped line” derived partly from the late work of William Carlos Williams & partly from Mayakovsky) from the actual processes of writing. Attempts to do so always strike me as artificial distinctions, which can be tactically useful, but quickly become sterile if carried out toward “logical conclusions.”
Another way to examine the same question would be to ask what the formal relationship of my titles to the textual bodies beneath them might be. 2197 is really where I think I worked out my sense of the modularity of that process. Each title in the sequence is exemplary (at least in my imagination) of a certain genre of title. Thus “I am Marion Delgado” is at one level a typical “autobiographical title,” and yet I am obviously not Marion Delgado, nor does the sentence mean precisely what it suggests. It was the “code” phrase used by Mark Rudd as he got up to the podium to speak to signal to the other members of what became the Weather Underground that it was time to bolt the SDS convention in 1969. Marion Delgado was, in 1968, a three-year-old toddler in the Fresno area who inadvertently left a tricycle on some railroad tracks and derailed a shipment of war material bound for Vietnam. Similarly, “I Meet Osip Brik” – a more active variant of the autobiographical title – suggests a history that I do not have (I am not, for example, Mayakovsky & while I have stood outside Brik’s apartment in what was then Leningrad, I never met the man who died some 18 months before I was born). “Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap” is a scenic title derived from the history of painting – I think of it as being particularly Ashbery-esque. Alternately, “Invasion of the Stalinoids” has a sci-fi feel to it, although “Stalinoids” is a term derived very much from the left in-fighting of the far left in the 1970s. “Turk Street News” was the name a porn theater where I once watched Kathy Acker on the big screen having sex with several men, one of whom was flogging her with a head of iceberg lettuce. So there seems always to be two things going on in these titles, for me at least, one of them being a relationship to title-ness, the other something that is far more personal & probably inscrutable to the reader. Neither, it is worth noting, has much to do with the mathematically determined sentences that appear as the “named body” beneath each title. Titles for me are very much about that arbitrary element that occurs in naming – what would become of a child if you named him Orlando or Arkadii instead of Jesse or Colin?
I recently had a fellow overseas who got very angry at me over just such a relationship between the title of one of the sections of VOG in The Alphabet and its textual body. He wanted there to be a clear referential frame between body & title where I want to explore as many angles in & around that relationship as is humanly conceivable. And he’d allowed the parsimony principle to convince himself that the body of the text had a single, nameable content, something that is virtually never the case with my work.
So where does form end & process begin, or form end & either “the world” or “content” begin? I’m not convinced that such boundaries are real, tho we can from time to time foreground elements that seem to suggest otherwise. In ”Revelator,” the first section of Universe – the work that comes after The Alphabet – I’m working with a five-word line as a constant & the physical size of a notebook as boundaries to the text. Yet if you were ask me what the formal engine of the text is, my instinct would be to point to the role of sound, rhythm and the levels of phrasal concentration that a line of that size literally dictates. Bob Perelman prefers a six-word line, and has said that he does so precisely because it doesn’t call for such concentration, which he sees as getting away from the looseness of speech & coming across as excessively literary. I don’t think that either one of us is “right” in which way to proceed, but we do at least understand the implications of making specific formal choices, so that I might do what’s right for me, Bob what is right for him.
Tursi: So, how do you decide what’s right for you? And, I don’t mean to be glib – I’m thinking about what Jack Spicer says about not getting in the way of the poem and the poem as dictation, and how this connects to what you think about the origin of a poem. He says this in a variety of ways:
“That essentially you are something which is being transmitted into, and the more that you clear your mind away from yourself, and the more also that you do some censoring—because there will be all sorts of things coming from your mind, from the depths of your mind, from things that you want, which will foul up the poem” (7).
“I do think that if you keep your ideas closed and your mind open, you have a better chance by and large (i.e. of creating a good poem)” (18).
“The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us – not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is – but not in relation to the single poem. There is really no single poem” (61).2
Basically, it seems to me, Spicer suggests ‘getting out of the way’ of the poem so the ‘Outside’ (whatever that may be) can dictate the poem to you (or through you). And, the last quotation I use here involving Duncan seems particularly close to your work. Does Spicer’s idea (via Duncan) about letting the writing explore its own path conflict with your ideas about the origins and process of a poem, or is it consistent in some ways? And, I’d like to try and connect it to my original question about “what is right for you.” That is, how is “what seems right” as a way of proceeding linked to where the poem comes from?
And, finally, I see a link between these ideas emerging from Spicer and something you said in a previous interview: “I consider what I write to be prose poems but not fiction, partly for formal reasons and partly because I’m not interested in ‘making things up.’”3 That is, if the poem isn’t made up, where is it coming from?
Silliman: At first blush, these strike me as being two separate questions, perhaps more, that swirl like a rather ethereal Venn diagram around a particular territory. The territory includes – but is probably not limited to – the relationship of any given poem to poetry. But if that is the horizontal axis of this question, the vertical is the relationship of the poem (or of poetry) to the person who is the poet. You don’t mention it, but of course there are ancillary issues about these relationships to and among readers, listeners, anyone who has a relationship to the poem but who did not him or herself write the damn thing.
But let’s just stick with what we’ve got in front of us. The word poet comes of course from the Greek word for “to make,” but there is a radical difference between making and “making things up.” What I’m NOT interested in is a fictive realm, one that posits all of the writer’s creativity along some referential dimension & which treats all of the other five functions of language (addressor/addressee, contact/code, signifier) as though they were transparent or unimportant. A literature that does not understand the implications of that kind of anesthesia is of no interest to me.
I would agree with Duncan – I do agree with him – that there is “really no single poem.” I usually state this as “I’m interested in poetry much more than I am in poems.” Now there obviously are great poets, really great poets, who work exclusively (or almost so) in the short poem form, so just as obviously there is something there that is, in their work, what we could call a “poem.” Robert Creeley & Rae Armantrout are the two examples that come most immediately to mind, or maybe Graham Foust. I see that sort of writing as highlighting specific aspects of a much larger process and that light – think of the prison tower’s klieg light as a visual analog – is what I see the individual poem as. This is very different – antithetical – from the sort of writing that just assumes that there are (or might be) boundaries and that one can fill a space with so much language & call it a poem.
My own bias is of course for those writings, from Melville or maybe even The Prelude to the work of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, that take on all six of the functions of language, and which do so on a scale that suggests a major life commitment. Yet I would still list Armantrout, Creeley & Foust among my dozen or so most favorite poets, even as I read them as specific instances in which something like The Cantos or “A” is the norm.
To return for a moment to Spicer’s terminology, which is one way among many to discuss these kinds of issues, the poet is a “counterpunching radio” principally to the degree that he or she is capable of counterpunching. The writer has to be open to anything coming into the poem – which is one reason I suspect that all of my poems, even those with the most predetermined exoskeletal structures, have always surprised me, taken me to places I had not anticipated when I began the writing (why, for example, the first poem in Universe insisted on being called Revelator, rather than Witness as I had planned). Call it negative capability or listening for the Martians, whatever. Nothing will cause the poem to go dead faster than setting out to write “about” X, something that gets proven over & over.
What I look for in the poem, any poem, mine or others, is that engagement with all of what Jakobson calls the six functions of language, not just sound (which lies on the contact/code axis) nor story (the life of the signified). Think of how in his very best work (Language, Book of Magazine Verse) individual lines in the poetry of Jack Spicer function almost as a kind of shrapnel, not as parts of discourse or argument. Thus, for example, “They will never know what hit them,” a sentence that takes up the latter half of the third line of “Smoke signals / Like in the Eskimo Village” in the Thing Language section of Language – which, as we are told point blank is “a poem about the death of John F. Kennedy” – returns at the very end of “Transformations II” in Transformations: “The Trojans / Having no idea of true or false syntax and having no recorded language / Never knew what hit them.” What then is the content, let alone the origin, of such a phrase? The capriciousness of fate? The horror of history? Where is, in such a target rich environment, the Outside?
Tomorrow I’ll address that initial question: how do I decide what’s right for me?
Silliman: How do I decide what’s right for me?
As quickly as possible, with as little thought into the decision as I can humanly muster. It’s better, for me at least, to feel it rather than to think it. One of the major reasons that I work in notebooks the way I do is that the process of using ink & pen in a bound volume minimizes the opportunities to scroll around & contemplate larger structures. From my perspective, the most important moment in a prose poem is that which occurs between the period of one sentence & the capital letter than initiates the next. No two blank spaces are alike & there are moments when I think of the sentences primarily as a way of setting those spaces up & as if it were the spaces that were the true strokes of the painting. I can, when I am really in the zone, when I’m writing & sometimes when I’m in a reading as well, literally hear those spaces just as I do the softer ones between words, let alone the half-hidden ones you can find within words if you just listen closely. Silence is so much a part of noise yet we so seldom give it heed.
I am very much a sound driven writer. Ketjak, my first really serious work, was above all else an argument with Gertrude Stein over the sweetness of her tones. I wanted to pump her texts full of insulin, bring down the ding-dong quality, secularize those consonants, deflate the vowels. And it’s not because I don’t love her writing.
Sound is very much a liquid. We’re immersed in it, bathed in its waves. Even if you’re in an anechoic chamber – and I’ve been in a few of them lately – it’s never silent. One’s body hums right along, synapses chime, the clatter of bloodflow is as loud as the subway. Yet that is the closest I will ever get to “pure” silence. I’ve approached it only once in the real world, so-called, on a cold February morning in 1978 near Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. It’s like trying to see the night sky without the light pollution of cities – you have to go a long way to do it.
So if I say I go with the flow in deciding what’s right for me, I’m not being facetious exactly. Rather the only way to get to those spaces I’m after, literally the blank spaces, is to move very quickly. When I sit down with a notebook if I start to slow down, I know it’s over, the sitting is done. It was Steve Benson who first made me conscious of the sitting as a unit of writing, possibly he got that from Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Articulating that space is really what Paradise is all “about.” One sitting, one paragraph. That’s even the meaning of its title.
When I work with larger structures, what they really are, at least when they work, are territories in which I can get to these spaces, these moments. I bring in larger thematic elements as much because they’re pleasurable & because I’m an obsessive thinker, my wife complains that I’m never “off.” It’s almost as if I build a playground and I can spend an enormous amount of time thinking through possible forms before I begin writing. But I know very quickly whether or not it’s working. And if it’s not, I can discard it. But if one’s life is one’s writing – and I really think it is – then the evolution, articulation of that writing has to be capable of incorporating change, growth, even contradiction. Not every form can do that. Living one’s life by 30-line poems perfectly designed for writing contests isn’t a way of approaching that unless one operates by a very specific discipline.
I’m right now in the earliest stages of Universe. I have a dozen or so pages of Revelator, a hundred or so other sentences on my Palm Pilot that eventually will be deployed in another work, a couple of short pieces that are part of a third one – these latter two have no names as yet, it’s too early, I’m not even sure what the form is for one of them. Originally I’d contemplated Revelator as part of a quartet – one way of approaching Universe might be to think of it as 90 such quartets – and yet I’ve begun to realize that there are other possibilities of relation that might be articulated across a 360-part structure envisioned as a single turn, and I’m beginning to wonder how Revelator might be able to bring those potentialities up to the fore. Yet when I’m writing in my notebook, all I’m ever writing is this word, that word, this.
Tursi: I really like this notion of your ‘larger structures’ as a kind of territory or a way of “getting into” a certain space and a certain moment. It’s very similar, it seems to me, what Deleuze and Guattari explore in A Thousand Plateaus (at least in part); i.e. that certain kinds of language, action, or activity deterritorialize or territorialize space depending on what is crossed or traversed. And I think the playground metaphor is quite apt. It’s as though through the structures of writing, a kind of new plane of immanence is constructed (i.e. a playground), in which one can construct and deconstruct (territorialize or deterritorialize) to their hearts content, and still manage, somehow, the articulation of a life. And, this seems to gel with Charles Bernstein’s assessment of your work in Content’s Dream: “Ron Silliman has consistently written a poetry of visible borders: a poetry of shape. . . (that) may discomfort those who want a poetry primarily of personal communication, flowing freely from the inside with the words of a natural rhythm of life, lived daily.”4 So, to continue this metaphor, I wonder this: where is the ego (the self) situated in this playground? Where does it emerge from and how? And, how does this connect to your idea of identity as always a plural condition, whereby the self is “exploded” and “challenged” that you have suggested elsewhere? Or, does this conflict with your prior ideas about self; i.e. is the subject’s emergence from “one’s life in one’s writing” a kind of reification of identity (i.e. a kind of subjectification)?
Silliman: “Exploded” is a loaded term, so, if I ever said that, I’d try to use a more value-neutral characterization today. The word that comes to my mind is discontinuous – we experience the world not as a stream of consciousness, but rather as a series of far more finite events. Let me give an example that will show what I mean, one that comes from an activity that has been compared with my writing before, riding the bus. There is nothing quite as perceptibly jarring as pulling the cord on a crowded bus – a miniature society that changes at every stop – and then stepping off onto a cold empty street corner. The transition is immediate & the shift – even just from motion to stillness, indoor air to outdoor air – is total. I’m using this example because literally this is where I first noticed and recognized this – if you pay close attention to the phenomenological experience of daily life, it is filled with such junctures & they’re always abrupt. The phone rings and suddenly you’re no longer alone. You step into a public restroom only to discover that it is its own milieu, there are dozens of people there going about their business. In this sense, changing one’s shoes can trigger a radical re/visioning of whatever else is going on.
Nowadays, one need not even resort to such out-of-the-house experiences to see that one’s consciousness is not a unitary continuous experience. Just turn on CNN or MSNBC – there is the talking head, alongside which there are graphics and invariably some key words to “identify” the topic of the story. In one lower corner, you have the logo of the network, often with some promotional language wrapped literally around it. And then alongside that you have a news crawl. You may even have, during the daytime, a second crawl of stock prices. All that simultaneously on one screen – which of those images are you watching? All of them, and discretely – it’s not that hard to do.
In 1973, Frank Morris released a nine-minute animation called Frank Film that I’m sure I first saw as part of one of the Canyon Cinematheque – it was still “Canyon” in those days – shows at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was a rapid romp through all of art history, and you can still find it being taught today in history of animation or history of film courses – I googled two classes online that had paired it with Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, one of which also included DzigaVertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. What I remember 30-plus years later aren’t the visuals – Morris, I believe, went on to become an Oscar-winning editor in Hollywood – but the sound track, which was two or more voices talking simultaneously. It was immediately clear to me, listening to that movie, that I could hear two lines of thought simultaneously with no trouble. I must have seen Frank Film two or three times when it first came out – it had a huge impact on me and is one of the secret sources no doubt for Ketjak. I would still list it as my favorite “poetry film” ever, even tho I don’t think Morris thought it was about poetry at all.
Now I had been reading Joyce & Faulkner a lot in the years immediately preceding the release of Frank Film, and I was slogging my way through Stein’s Making of Americans, and the flaw that I saw in every one of these projects – even Stein’s – was the presumption of a continuous consciousness. From my perspective, it doesn’t stream, rather it pulses or throbs, it’s just like a heartbeat and I’ll wager that’s not accidental. So what I was working on when I began Ketjak was precisely an attempt to identify a form that would enable me to break away from the habits of continuity – which really are the path of least resistance in any work of writing, and always feel like it – and the predetermined (“artificial,” “inorganic,” “non-spontaneous”) location of sentences in that work allowed me to draft my original sentences in a way that then placed them into this wider framework, this mix of multiple lines of ongoing thought, sometimes contradicting, sometimes overlapping.
I have enough friends who are psychologists, psychiatrists & psychoanalysts to know that you “where is the ego” question is something of a bottomless pit. It probably makes more sense for me to say that “the ego” is not something I have a problem with when thinking about my work.5 My sense is that it moves – it is literally what is felt by the reading mind (the writing one too!) as the point of immanence as it passes through the text, through the sentence, as it sweeps left to right across the letters of any word, even within the letter of a word. Right now you can feel it just reading this, precisely because it’s what you bring to the text, that sense of presence (because you are present), that little light of consciousness that is never stable & always moving, point to point.
Tursi: I agree that the word “stream,” even if disjointed and restless hasn’t ever been adequate enough to characterize consciousness. This is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of so-called Postmodernism; i.e. a celebration, or, at least, a manifestation, of this instability. Your characterization of Ketjak (finding a form to break from the habits of continuity) seems a great example of this. But, my question is itself a bit discontinuous. And, that is, your mention of Brakhage, albeit brief, piqued my interest, especially in relation to your own work and these notions of consciousness. As you note about your memory of Morris, my memory of many Brakhage films is often not an image – especially in terms of the hand painted films. In a sense, it is almost impossible to recall one of these Brakhage panels, because they seem hell-bent on resisting just that. So, what we’re left with is a feeling or a disquiet or an unease or even elation at times. I find this similar to reading Ketjak (or Tjanting and much – but not all – of your other work for that matter). That is, I find it hard to remember specific images, passages, or even ‘chunks of language.’ This could be my own memory lapse, but really (and I find this true of Stein’s Tender Buttons and Stanzas in Meditation too), it seems the altercation in consciousness and perception is what sticks most. That is, it’s not the language or the ‘signs’ as it were – it’s the feeling I’ve had after reading the complete text and then days later (sometimes weeks). So the question here is, would you agree with this comparison to Brakhage? That is, is there a similar intention towards a kind of reconfiguration or altercation of consciousness in some of your work that resists, as Derrida might say, leaving ‘traces’? And, question two: Brakhage characterizes his own practice in this way: “I want to leave something like a snail’s trail in the moonlight.”6 How would you characterize yours?
Silliman: I’m duly impressed when a poet – whether it’s Jane Miller or Ivan Zhdanov – can just shut their eyes and recite great quantities of their poetry. I’m lucky to be able to recall a few lines here, a few lines there, mostly the passages at the very beginning of a work or something that foregrounds a sound element, rather than an image or expository track. Still, there are people who come up to me to ask about the “exploding honey” passage of What or the “septic shock” passage of Xing, and I realize that they’ve held onto those moments as if they had been short stories plunked mysteriously into an otherwise poetic text.
That’s a hard comparison for me to make. For one thing, I tend to read my own poems only when I’m writing them, when I’m preparing for a reading, or when I’m in the midst of the painful process of proofing a book. There are readers out there who appear to have spent considerably more time reading my poetry than I have. When I’m in the midst of writing the poem, it proceeds in my head in a process that I can only characterize as extremely sensuous – in a work such as Zyxt, I tend to have at any given moment somewhere between 100 to 150 sentences that I’ve “collected,” whether through crafting them on my own, overhearing (including mishearing) others talking, appropriated language from all sorts of sources. I can, in my own head, hear where the poem is going, it’s almost as though I were listening to music. Not in any traditional instrumentation but through the language itself, as sound & as signification. When I come to the point where I’ve last stopped writing I literally look through my current collection of gathered materials to see if something there is what I hear as next. If it is, I insert it. If not, I’m apt to craft a new sentence that fulfills whatever demand I’m hearing. If I have something that is maybe half-right, I’m apt to rewrite it to “fit.” But I don’t think I could ever tell anyone – even myself – what that intuited, ongoing score might be. It’s clearly there in advance of the words, but not necessarily in a fixed form. Rather, I’m very aware that, of my usual batch of 100-plus sentences to chose from, there might be as many as four or five that might somehow fit, represent a possible next moment, although each would instantly transform into a new stroke or beat that would then set up whatever would then come after that. The experience I expect might not be so very different from what some non-writers get out of surfing or snow-boarding, that constant sense of having to shape motion while in motion.
I always try to practice my readings out before I give them, maybe once to go over whatever selection I’m making, then a second time to get the timing & phrasings down. I almost always have to have the house to myself to do this, far more so than in the writing process itself. I sequester myself in my study, which is an L-shaped finished basement lined with bookcase, my two computer desks (one for the job computer, the second my own system), a large table that is covered with various stacks of paper (as is a couch I have down there). I can be very loud & overly flamboyant when practicing my readings because I’m trying to overstress the phrasing elements I feel I have to get right, so that I’ll remember them later in front of an audience. If I’m making good choices & the practice is going well, it can come very close to my original experience of the music of the poem. And if it’s not, it’s really profoundly horribly not – and then I have to stop and rethink what I’m doing & start again almost from scratch.
I don’t have this experience proofing a book – that process is so full of stops & starts that it’s impossible – and I’ve only occasionally it experienced when actually reading to an audience. The closest I get to it in front of a crowd is in the sense of hyperventilated exhaustion I have at the end of a reading – that’s a familiar, very comfortable feeling. Whenever I’m involved in any of these activities, there must be a lot of endorphins flying, more or less literally.
Is this a “reconfiguration or altercation of consciousness”? I think that it must really depend on the meaning you give to those words. Certainly it’s all about the shape of consciousness at some level, but the level of ongoing motion within the poem, literally its inertia, can be so very powerful that I often feel rather as if I’m holding on for dear life.
Where Brakhage, say, or any of the two or three generations of film-makers who learned from him, from Warren Sonbert to Abigail Child and Henry Hills, comes into this is that Brakhage understood the narrative organization of film better than anyone, as the unfolding of meaning in time. If I make a musical analogy above, it’s because this is how I can best understand the process, but it is every bit the same narrative rush that one gets in film that is constantly reorganizing itself, reinventing itself literally frame by frame. Time is very much at the heart of all these processes. That may be why so many poets responded, say, to the work of Jackson Pollock when it first became widely known in the 1950s – his drip & splash method is so close to that very act of riding time in the painting that you can see it & feel it even in the static residue of a canvas a half century later. There’s that “snail’s trace in the moonlight,” it’s in every stroke.
Tursi: Is the inertia you speak of related in anyway to Olson’s notion of “projective verse”? i.e. one perception leading immediately and directly to a further perception . . . energy transferred from where the poet gets it to the reader. I really like this idea of a poetics of inertia that you seem to suggest. It’s like taking Olson but expanding the “percussive” and the “projectile” aspect and letting the “prospective” just happen. This would seem to gel with your surfing/snowboarding analogy and this idea of shaping motion while in motion. And, hearing the sound and signification in your head first certainly must be a kind of roller coaster of rhythm. And, I’m trying to connect this to something else that has really intrigued me: that is, the way in which you really situate the writing of a poem in a very specific moment in time and place. As in your previous answer, even, and the description of your office – very specific, very detailed. You also do this on your blog quite often; i.e. where you talk about exactly where and when a poem was written, who was there smoking a cigarette or drinking coffee, what the weather was like, what OBJECTS were in your vision. This is really fascinating, I think, when connected to the way a poem happens—musically—in your head. So, I’m wondering about two things: 1) how do you begin a poem? from an image, a sound, the context or the image into sound? or something entirely different? and 2) how does the particular context (place, people, time, objects, etc.) actually become processed into this inertia or motion or “unfolding of meaning in time”? from visual to sound, image to sound, or a different route?
Silliman: Last week I read at Moe’s in Berkeley from the opening of Zyxt, the final section of The Alphabet, which includes, among many other things, the following line:
I step into Pangaea, a dark little Cortland Street club down the block from Have-a-Lick’s, stepping up the small bleacher seating to the upper rear left corner, pulling out a notebook from my black Danish book bag, letting the competing, compelling saxophones (Ochs, Ackley, Gruntfest) lead the rhythm of the writing
In the audience happened to be Larry Ochs, the great saxophone player from the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, so I was pleased indeed that he was here to hear his name (it occurs in one or two other locations within The Alphabet as well) & recall that particular context. What had not occurred to me, however, was that Ralph Gutlohn, the one-time owner of Have-a-Lick’s, a great little ice cream parlor that is (or was) a Bernal Heights institution, would also be there. But he was, so I felt doubly fortunate indeed. After the reading, Larry asked me if I had had that sentence written down somewhere for 30 years (a slight exaggeration on his part, but only by about five years) & I had to tell him, no, only the image/sense impression floating around in the back of my mind all that time, just waiting to get written down.
Part of being a writer, at least for me, is constantly having all this material inside one’s head, so to speak, ready to pop up when the best possible moment arrives. I think that one reason many writers – myself definitely included – tend to be, if not loners exactly, people who appreciate solitude is not only because writing goes better in peace & quiet, but rather because we’re always processing all of this material from our lives – it’s a constant, never-ending churn of data.
When I’m thinking about starting on a new project, whether it’s a new section of The Alphabet or an entire new project to come along after The Alphabet, I tend to proceed in very much the same way I do with a single line or phrase or combination of sounds. I sort of worry it to death, then begin to make notes, write it down. If I’m lucky, or at least if I’ve gone about it the right way, one thing does indeed lead directly to others in something of an Olsonian fashion – I love those early theoretical statements of his not so much for their prescriptive tone (Olson so literally loves to throw his weight around, rhetorically speaking, that one can only imagine what it must have been like to have had him as a teacher, with that 6’9” presence right in front of you – I can imagine being terrified if I had been a teen at Black Mountain circa 1953 or ’54) as for their intuitive grasp of the feel of the writing process.
Zyxt is a case in point. The title is the second person singular indicative of the verb to see in an obsolete Kentish form of English: literally, you see. It is, more importantly, the final word in the OED &, as a conjugation of the verb sight, an important echo with my favorite of all recent literary collaborations, Sight, jointly written by Leslie Scalapino & Lyn Hejinian. Now The Alphabet already has its own collaboration – Engines, which I wrote with Rae Armantrout – but what I was interested in with Lyn & Leslie’s book was its use of what I would call integral elements, or distinct passages. Lyn & Leslie went so far as not only spatially separate out their contributions, but to initial them as well. I was intrigued with the idea of that kind of autonomy of the element & the possibility of establishing something more akin to an internal dialog. The result is that many of the surface elements of Zyxt might look familiar to a fan of Sight. For example, there are not only a fair amount of passages floating in white space, I use a heavily indented line that runs rather as if it were a paragraph instead of the traditional hanging indent of the poetic line – the only place in all of The Alphabet that does this without being, in a strict or usual sense, prose as such.
Now the very opening passages of Zyxt are:
Thus an abrupt
Faces phase into vases, an illusion of space fills in at the
margin, merges an urge to turn (the line loops in on itself
The French aversion
The merchant of images forgets
That first passage – a single phrase truncated so that an adjective carries much of the weight & function of a noun – borrows very directly from a radically different source than, say, Lyn or Leslie. It’s an aspect of what I would characterize as the eruptive writing style I’ve long associated with Faulkner – if there is a secret novelist in my stylistic sauce, it’s almost always him – and this is a phrase that, in various forms, I’ve been thinking about literally since my days in college. There are poems in Crow that are contemporaneous with when I first began contemplating this line. But I never could quite see or hear how to use it, even as it nagged & gnawed at me, until I read several books by one of my other favorite Southern voices, Forrest Gander. Forrest’s use of vocabulary & ability to position individual words is a revelation. He made me realize that I really needed to confront this line in a way that I had never conceived of before.
The second stanza, to my mind – and I’m open to the idea that all this is just my hallucination – takes as its first line a series of moves I’ve made so often before that they’re almost a tone-setting gesture, not unlike the way an orchestra “coughs” its notes warming up just prior to the work getting under way – only here I’ve brought it inside. And already the lines here are beginning to address the formal questions implicit in the poem – it’s going to be over 120 pages long when I finish typing it – and opening up to let in some half-glimpsed referential material.
To all of this, I should add that Zyxt is rare for me in that it has an epigram7—
Fra il dire et fare
che il mezzo delle Mare
— which is something an old friend, Mario Savio, used to say: between speech & action lies half the sea. When I was working in the U.S. Post Office in 1967 & ’68, Mario was laboring as a longshoreman across the street at Pier One (not the retail store, the real thing) along the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Since our wives knew each other, we became friendly & would have a cup of coffee together in the morning before starting our jobs. At the time, Mario struck me as something of a tragic figure. Just two years before, he had become world famous, the personification of student activism in the United States due to his work as the spokesperson for the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. But he had found the glare of celebrity – very much the same thing I discussed a couple of weeks ago with reference to Bob Dylan – to be horrific, the U.S. government was breathing down his neck, he’d already had a baby & had I believe finished his undergraduate degree in philosophy. 1967 was still a time when he would have been arrested if he had even jay-walked, so to say that he felt claustrophobic in those days would be a great understatement. By comparison, I felt quite free even tho I was working in this dank three-storey warehouse8 only because of utter necessity – Shelley had been “in hospital” as the Brits would put it & we needed every cent to get by, so just floating along on student loans wasn’t going to do it. Mario & I were both working alongside the water of the bay, but neither of our jobs promised to a setting out on any great journey, so Mario’s slogan – I guess it’s an old Italian folk-saying – had an especial ironic aspect to it. Now several decades later, as I was beginning to work on this poem, Mario – by now a philosophy professor at Sonoma State – passed away from a heart attack while moving furniture in his house. So that saying just popped back into my head & fit here perfectly. There is a lot of stuff going on during the opening of this poem.
I should note one other thing. I knew I was working on all these things during the weeks & months before I actually started writing Zyxt. At one point, I went out to the King of Prussia mall & purchased a large journal-sized notebook in which to write the poem. It’s still the only time I’ve spent over $100 on a notebook, but since this was the end of The Alphabet, I let myself run a little wild. So that volume, which has a tan leather binding & a gilded trim to the paper, was sitting there, getting larger & emptier up until the time I actually started writing, on December 29, 1998. The notebook has, in fact, a title page in which I’ve written title, dedication & epigram, so they were all finally in place in my head before I started writing.
Now this may all seem to be quite a long walk around the block, but if you ask me what it is I do & think when I start a poem, this is pretty typically the kind of stuff that enters in & how.
(1) In his essay, “Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes,” McGann writes, “Of course, this representation of the conflict between "tradition" and "innovation" obscures nearly as much as it clarifies” (para 3).
(2) All these quotations are taken from The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi. The lectures were presented over several months in 1965.
(3) Sinda Gregory’s 1982 interview with Silliman.” Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/silliman/interview.htm.
(4) Bernstein, Charles. Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1084, p. 408.
(5) Yes, I am sure that there are people who think I have a Big Problem with my ego, but that’s not what you mean by your question.
(6) Brakhage, Stan. Chicago Review. September 2001.
(7) Tho The Alphabet has both an epigram at its beginning & what I think of as an “echo-gram” at its conclusion, about which I shall not say more here
(8) The building has been razed to make way for some tennis courts.