Charles Bernstein: Last year, I had the opportunity to tour Brooklyn Technical High School with my daughter Emma, who was just going into ninth grade. I was enormously impressed with the place: it reminded me of Bronx Science, where I went to high school, but was far more imposing and I would say more severe, or anyway focussed, directed. It seemed a place that would really turn out engineers, technicians, and scientists, more than the lawyers and doctors that Science seemed to produce in my day. Yet Brooklyn Tech graduated two of my favorite wandering poets, you and Nick Piombino. I wonder if you could say how you came to go to Brooklyn Tech?
David Antin: Growing up in Brooklyn in the forties and following the war in the papers and on the radio every day, tracing the paths of my cousins, one a bomber pilot whose military career took him through bases in North Africa and Italy, the other an engineer who wound up at the Remagen Bridge, and my next door neighbor, who survived Okinawa, the world looked very different to us then. Because there was always the war until suddenly it wasn't. And I had to pick a high school. There were only three--Bronx Science--that was too far away--Stuyvesant and Tech. Tech was closer, even though it was a train ride away, and somehow more tangible. I wanted to be an inventor, whatever I thought that meant then. I guess I was thinking of Edison or maybe James Watt. Or maybe even Newton. I had read all about his optical discoveries and I had managed to figure out how the steam engine worked from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I had played around with radios and dynamos and I figured I'd have to study engineering to invent anything electrical or mechanical. The great thing was they had all those shopsa foundry, sheet metal shops, machine shops. I loved making tool bits in the machine shop and working on the bench lathe. They also had a year-long course called Industrial Processes that taught us how everything that was manufactured up to then was made. And we had to make drawings of open-hearth furnaces and Bessemer converters. And everything in the world around me became more tangible and solid. So there I was, taking the F-train every morning, that started underground and came out into the light at 7th Avenue, where it turned into an elevated and stayed above ground till Smith-9th Street, where I always changed for the GG, even in bad weather, although I could have changed at Carroll Street or Bergen, where it was back underground. Because from the Smith-9th station that was poised high over the Gowanus Canal, I could look out to the Statue of Liberty. In spite of everything that's happened in America since the end of that war, I've always had a strong feeling for the Statue of Liberty, because it became the statue of my personal liberty. The great green statue appearing at the center of the train trip out of my childhood neighborhood, that started in the dark and came out into the light, taking me to the first school I had ever chosen, became the mark of my personal liberation--from life with my mother, from the mythology of childhood and family and even the war--liberation from everything but a future I was going to be free to discover or invent.
CB: I want to get back to invention in a minute, but before that I want to know about what you received. What was the family mythology? What were your parents' designs for you? And what were their designs for themselves--their backgrounds and aspirations, their realities and their destinies. In other words: some family history.
DA: Most of that material is scattered throughout my earlier talk pieces. But to simplify--You have to understand, the world I entered into was the 1930s. My family were European émigrés. They came to this country at the beginning of the century and they had just gotten themselves situated, when there was a Great War. Then came a short period of flush times that went bust, and I arrived just at the beginning of the Great Depression. After which there was an even Bigger War. Nobody had any designs or expectations--only hopes for survival.
My father died when I was two. He got a strep throat before there was penicillin or sulfa. That was his second mistake. His first was marrying my mother, who was apparently quite beautiful, but so what. My mother was a social climber heading downward. She started with a high-school education, a high degree of literacy and a Pennsylvania accent acquired by arriving in Scranton at age seven. In those days the family had expectations. In the twenties they were successful business people and figured she would go to college. They figured wrong. She took a job as a bookkeeper in the family business, spent her money on looking pretty and married my father as soon as she could. When he died a couple of years later, she turned into a professional widow. By the forties she was already a marginally competent examiner in the dress business. She couldn't understand why I wanted to be an engineer; she thought I should be a chicken farmer in Lakewood.
None of my other relatives had any expectations--either for me or for themselves. All their expectations seemed to turn out wrong. My mother's older brother Sam was a great chess player. At the age of fourteen he held Lasker to a draw in a game he could have won. Lasker was then the national champion. Sam was fourteen. It was one of those matches where the champion takes on twenty or thirty players at one time, usually finishing off the weaker ones as quickly as possible so he has more time for the tougher ones. My uncle had the advantage, but he was only fourteen. The champion, seeing he might lose, offered him a draw. My uncle thought about it hard but accepted, and I don't think he ever recovered from it.
He was sixteen when the U.S. entered the First World War. He was so big, people thought he was much older. Instead of going to college, he took a job in the coal mines and spent his leisure time beating up miners who called him a slacker. Her younger brother was a charming bohemian drifter--a labor organizer, a steward on cruise ships, a mountain climber. He fell off a cliff in Yosemite. Nobody paid that much attention to the girls. Three of my mother's older sisters married. One of them, my Aunt Sarah, married my father's older half-brother. An interesting man, he'd been a revolutionary in Russia in 1905, but became a successful dress manufacturer in the United States. A man who loved materials, wore dark tweed suits in winter and seersuckers in summer, and always wore hats to work. A judicious and generous man, he was the family arbiter. When my mother left her second husband, she wrote her autobiography and presented it to him for his approval. I got my first job working for him after school, and I used to practice my German with my Aunt Sarah when I lived with them. Nobody noticed when the youngest sister, a gorgeous and independent redhead, without saying a word to anyone, got herself accepted into nursing school and became a registered nurse. Nobody expected that either.
My earliest family memories were living with my grandmother and my aunts--all beautiful women--living in a great old house in Boro Park. It was the depression and everybody was poor but you'd never have known it. People kept coming from all over the world to visit, to play cards or chess and to tell stories and argue in a handful of European languages about people and facts and politics. My Aunt Bessie always took the upside. A noble white-haired widow with two grown daughers she almost never saw, she used to say she was an optimist because something good could always happen, and if it turned out bad, you didn't have to waste your time worrying about it till it did. When her beloved husband suddenly died, she gave up her beautiful brownstone near the Navy Yard and took up a career as a dietitian. When she wasn't working, she'd take the Culver Line down to Coney Island, find a seat on one of the benches on the boardwalk and take pleasure in simply breathing in the clear salty air. My Aunt Bette usually took the dark view and on principle refused to suffer stupidity. Of one comfortable relative she said once as she was leaving, "We have a perfect relationship. She thinks I'm a horse and I think she's a cow." And my grandmother presided over the entire household in a droll, mischievous manner. This is the household I most remember. It was noisy, cheerful, and gay, and a world away from the austere prison of living with my mother, which happened only once in a while. And I was on my own from the age of sixteen anyway.
CB: Of course, I know well that you have told some stories about this before--but a story is always a little bit different every time you tell it, no? Speaking of stories, what was the oral culture--the telling culture--like in your immediate environment when you grew up? You speak of being surrounded by stories at your grandmother's house. Was it books or talk that made the most impact on you? Or the arguing in different languages? I'm interested in the difference among argument and conversation and stories, but also the fact that you were surrounded by languages other than English and how this affected your approaches to English, to "the American," as the French say, in your writing. And indeed how writing, how books, came into play for you.
DA: Yeah, stories are different every time you tell them--because they allow so many possible narratives. For years I've been thinking of stories and narratives as two related but different things--the inside and the outside of the human engagement with transformation. For me, story's the shell, a kind of logical structure, a sequence of events and parts of events that shape a significant transformation, while a narrative is the core, the representation of a desiring subject, somebody's confrontation with a significant transformation that he or she works to bring about or avoid. So any time you tell a story from a different point of view, you get a different narrative. The same events look different because their parts look different and combine differently. So the events are also different, and they become a new story that may have the same beginning and ending or different ones, or no ending and no real beginning. But you want to know about my experience, not my theory.
The people I grew up with told stories almost all the time, and the stories always seemed to go together with arguments, in which they functioned as examples, evidence and counterevidence, testimony, mostly from experience--direct or overheard--though they could have been read about in a newspaper or a book or maybe only imagined, or dreamed--but always internalized in the language and experience of the speaker. They also functioned as models, metaphors, parables, or as paradoxes, as jokes that exploded other arguments--or their own. But they always functioned. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimlet has an essay somewhere on Jewish storytelling, where she talks about the way stories usually seem to be woven into discourse to such an extent that in Yiddish speaking circles, when the story's function becomes unclear, the speaker is usually confronted with the question, "Nu, voss i de sof?" (So, what's the point?) And while the stories I heard were told in lots of other languages and many of them may have been told for the sheer hell of it, the artistry of the telling always left you with a strong sense of their consequentiality and meaning.
Which raises the question of language. When you grow up in a family of languages, you develop a kind of casual fluency, so that languages, though differently colored, all seem transparent to experience. Reading Elias Canetti's "History of a Youth," which I happened to read in French because it was lent to me by my friend, the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, though it was written in German, I remember Canetti wondering over the fact that he remembered every frightening detail of the stories of vampires and werewolves that his little Bulgarian girl playmates terrified themselves with. But he remembered them in German not Bulgarian, which he had forgotten completely. So I hardly ever remember what language I first heard a story in. But I started reading pretty early. And that introduced the kind of opacity of language you experience when you see a word and don't know how to pronounce it or what it means. Looking at newspapers, when I was about four, the Sunday editions were illustrated with brown photographs and I would try to figure out the captions, trying to sound out words like negotiations or typhoon. My mother taught me some spelling. Then she bought a candy store in Astoria with my Uncle Irving, and I really learned to read from comic books. "Ach, you kicked me in the stomach!" When I was seven, I was once again living with my mother--this time in the attic apartment of an old wood-frame house in Kensington on the block where my Uncle Dave and my Aunt Sarah shared a solid, two-family, brick house with his business partner. We rented the attic apartment from two Kentuckians, Jeanie and Lucille, who were married to a pair of truck drivers. When the guys were home and weren't fighting with their wives, they'd be listening to country music. So there was radio again. The guys weren't much for storytelling, but they talked lots of baseball over beer, and sometime I would sit with them and listen to Red Barber broadcast Dodger games. My mother always had a few books around, remnants of some earlier reading. Point Counter Point, The Sound and the Fury, and Immortal Marriage--Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, and Gertrude Atherton. I was seven or eight and I read them all, but the one that got to me was Immortal Marriage. I don't know how I read it, because I never paid any attention to the central romance of Pericles and Aspasia. But the Greeks, the Agora, Pericles' philosophical court, Anaxagoras, Socrates and Alcibiades and the image of the Parthenon and Phidias' gold and ivory statue of Athena, that's what got me. On the strength of the book I snuck into the adult section of the local library to read the poems of Pindar. But they were disappointing.
CB: I often get a sense of poetry being disappointing to you, that the failure of poetry to do something it could be doing or doing better was a kind of inspiration for writing poetry (well you know that's my current theory, speaking of theories, and I do see you as a particularly good model for it). What do you or did you think poetry should be doing? Were you looking to make improvements? Then I also want to ask whether you consider your early work as a kind of invention or innovation (it certainly looks that way to me). But I know you wrote poetry before the work that you collected in definitions in 1967, and I suppose there is a big narrative bridge that you may want to make from Brooklyn Tech in the forties to CCNY in the fifties to the earliest work I know of yours from the late sixties.
DA: I hardly remember how I started to write poetry. It was somewhere in the middle of high school. The English classes we took at Tech were in some ways very good, but the poems they showed us, especially in early high school, were things like Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" with lines like "the road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor" or "the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas." It's the only English poem I know with an Aztec horse. The hooves go "Tlot, Tlot!" There was Kipling's supremely silly "Gunga Din," there were poems by the two Benets, by Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, bowdlerized Emily Dickinson, and Nathalia Crane's "I'm in love with the janitor's boy / and the janitor's boy loves me." Confronted by this trivia, it's hard to imagine what I thought poetry could do.
But I also had a memory of driving one summer day with my Uncle Julius, my father's twin brother, up toward his family's bungalow on Sackett Lake; and as we were cruising through the green summer landscape, he suddenly burst into this poem by Pushkin, producing a cascade of cadenced Russian I barely understood that brought tears to his eyes. For just a moment. Then he corrected himself, laughed and said "What nonsense!" Maybe I remembered this. Maybe I heard of it somewhere else, but I thought somewhere there must be something called modern poetry that meant something to us living now at the end of the Second World War. So I started to look.
I found an anthology by Conrad Aiken. It had a lot of imagist stuff--John Gould Fletcher's "Symphonies," some early Pound. There was one very short poem by Pound with a Greek title--the one that begins with a bleak wind and gray waters. Somehow it got to me--the Greek title, maybe because of Gertrude Atherton, or maybe its severity. It felt like New York in winter. It felt modern. Its cadences were nothing like the tiresome metrics of Noyes or Millay, but it also felt old, and I thought I could try to bring it up to date. So I did. With the confidence of a sixteen-year-old, I composed a "poem in a minor key," an image piece that got in the bleak wind, the gray sky. I replaced Pound's cliffs with a deserted el, left out the gods and the underworld, and I thought it was okay but a little too descriptive for my taste. So thinking of Fletcher, I did some poems that were more abstract or maybe more concrete--verbal toccatas or fantasias without any apparent subject matter. But they didn't seem to go anywhere.
The Tech library was helpful. I discovered Three Lives and was blown away by the flattened blues music of "Melanctha." These were stories, but it never occurred that these were not poetry. So from there on, it got easier. I found the Dubliners in the same library, but I had to buy Ulysses. I found Eliot's Collected Poems 1909-1935 in a used bookstore in Greenwich Village. I had an Irish drinking buddy and we spent late night hours in Fourth Avenue bars fantasizing making a movie out of Finnegans Wake.
By the time I got to City College, I learned that the literary world was in a conservative mode. Poets were supposed to be picking up the meters again. Novelists were writing novels of manners. I wasn't interested. I met Jerry Rothenberg and we were both struggling to find a way out, but it was 1950 or so and it was not a good time as we saw it. We listened to jazz. It was the age of McCarthy. The Korean War was on. Jerry got drafted and went off to Germany to write for Stars and Stripes. I met a kid painter, Gene Kates; he introduced me to Heidegger, to abstract expressionism, took me downtown to people's studios. I was into physiological psychology, reading Norbert Weiner on negative feedback systems, Cannon on the Wisdom of the Body. Hebb on neural functioning. Kurt Goldstein. Heidegger's Sein und Zeit. Wittgenstein's Tractatus and Hölderlin. Anything but Richard Wilbur or Delmore Schwartz. Still, I edited the school's literary magazine and wrote mostly stories, looking back to Stein, and through her, further back--to Flaubert. Hearing the sound of the great French sentences in my head, I started working under the spell of the Trois Contes. Each word worked into place as in a kind of mosaic. It was a disaster. I shifted gears, wrote a faux folktale, drawing on an imagined Yiddish tradition.
Suddenly I was graduated, after over five years and three majors at City College. I got a job with a scientific translation outfit, where I edited the translation of the Soviet Journal of Automation. My faux folktale got published in a Jewish magazine. I wrote a Flaubertian parable set in Brooklyn. I got a rejection slip with an apology from the editor of Esquire, who said the publisher wouldn't let them print it because it was too dark. A couple of years and ten rejections later, it got published by John Crowe Ransom in the Kenyon Review after he cut out the word Sex, describing the behavior of a pair of tropical fish. Jerry had come back from the army and was translating Eric Kaestner. We helped found the Chelsea Review with Ursule Molinaro and Venable Herndon and Robert Kelly, a poet and friend I had known from City College. Jerry started putting out Poems from the Floating World and was translating postwar German poetry and I was looking back at Breton, Apollinaire, and Cendrars. I was also translating books on physics and mathematics for Dover Press. Jerry started Hawk's Well Press and the two of us translated Martin Buber's Tales of Angels Spirits and Demons. We met Paul Blackburn, who dragged us around to every poetry reading in sight. Bob and Joby Kelly started Trobar with the poet and translator George Economou.
It was within this space that Jerry came up with the notion of a "deep image" poetry, out of a certain sense, I think, that an image core had to be at the center of a truly exploratory expressive poetry. About as soon as he came up with the term--around 1960--almost everybody we knew had some disagreement with it, or parts of it. I had a Wittgensteinian distrust of the word deep, though I could imagine a system of communicative or expressive gestures relying on the metonymic function of images to take a poem around the systematized clichés of the language. Bob Kelly, following what seemed a kind of Olson-like argument, thought the emphasis on image understated the issues of musicality and the line. Rochelle Owens hated it. Jackson Mac Low claimed not to understand it. Armand Schwerner had his doubts about it. Only Diane Wakoski seemed more or less content with it. But the one thing that should have told us to kill the term was that Robert Bly was enthused by it. His promotion of it in his magazines, the Sixties and the Seventies, eventually eviscerated any intellectual significance it had. But I didn't pay so much attention to all this, because I was working on a novel. Ever since the Kenyon Review published my much-rejected story, I'd been getting letters from publishers wanting to get a first crack at my novel. What novel? Everybody supposed then that if you wrote a short story, you were working on a novel. Elly and I moved out of the city to North Branch, a small town in the western corner of Sullivan County, so that I could write my novel and she could work at her paintings--she was making paintings then--in quiet. But I was a little too
Steinian--or too Flaubertian--to write a novel, and she didn't need quiet, she needed the art scene.
So back we came to the city. I'd ditched the novel and was writing poems again. With a difference. When we first came back to the city around September of 1963, we were staying in a house in a corner of the Bronx not far from the Whitestone Bridge that we were subletting from a dentist who was traveling in Asia collecting Buddhist art, and the local library was specially rich in philosophical Catholic works and books on business. So in the afternoons, when I wasn't translating, I'd go down to the library past the teenagers who were busy "beatling" every adult who walked by--the Beatles were about to come to America then--to get in several hours of reading before Elly finished painting. Reading through Simone Weil's journals and an insurance manual, there were lots of sentences whose meaning I didn't really understand. They weren't unusually difficult sentences. They often contained words that were cultural commonplaces or clichés, ordinary abstract terms that everybody seems to understand. "Loss." "Value." "Power." But as I looked at them I found out I didn't understand them at all. So I started to write them down, thinking that by writing them down, I could concentrate on them, ask them questions and find out what meanings they might conceal. And I saw that my not-understanding could be a way to go on. And as I went on with this writing down I didn't think about whether I was writing poems. I was thinking. And the more I was thinking, the more there was I didn't understand. The first part of "definitions for mendy" with its questions about "loss" and "value" and "power" and "brightness" were written this way and temporarily stopped on the day Jack Kennedy was killed in the fall of 1963. My two first books--definitions and Code of Flag Behavior--were written this way, bringing not-understanding as a set of questions to puzzling commonplaces and clichés--linguistic and cultural acceptances of every kind. So I was trying to find out what it was that everybody else understood without giving up my stub born and hard-won lack of understanding. Of course my lack of understanding kept expanding. To the image of personal knowledge represented by autobiography, to the nature of the represention of human experiential knowledge in the novels of "novel poem," to the meaning of meditation in an environment of power and violence provided by the war in Vietnam in "the separation meditations." Finally this extended to my attack on the idea of "understanding" altogether in "tuning." Though the "talk pieces" are obviously very different in certain ways from the earlier poems through "The November Exercises."
CB: I read in the paper just a few days ago that Lita Hornick died last weekend. And of course Kulchur published your 1972 book Talking, which marked your second break with previous work. Certainly, the poems from 1963-1973 gave you less opportunity for the kind of discursive and philosophical writing in your essays; the poems and the essays remained quite distinct genres. But with the talks, your poems and essays came into close proximity, if not identity. Talking--the practice and the book--was a more expansive way to work allowing you to go wherever you wanted to go and say whatever you wanted to say, which was perhaps not the case with the earlier poems. But Talking also suggests a more decisive break from most ideas about the form of poetry. Why did you give up the way you had been working around 1971?
DA: There were two reasons that I remember. One was my experience of poetry readings. I remember giving a reading at SUNY-Binghamton around that time, and I was there to read these "process poems." And I was very committed to the process of composing, working at poems, putting things together and taking them apart like some kind of experimental filmmaker. But when I got to the reading all the work was done, and I was reduced to being an actor in an experimental play that I'd already written. And I didn't want to be an actor. I didn't want to illustrate the way I had worked. I wanted to work. At being a poet. In the present. So at this reading I started revising poems while I was reading them. Changing poems that were already written. It was a disaster. I tried to invent a poem, my kind of poem--an interrogation of a sort. I started thinking out loud and that was somewhat better. I was committed to a poetry of thinking--not of thought but of thinking. And now it seemed possible.But my way of thinking is very particular and concrete. It doesn't follow a continuous path. When I come up against an obstacle, some kind of resistance, I often find myself looking for some concrete example--a story that could throw light on it or interfere with it, kick it into a different space. So I found myself telling stories or, to use my term, constructing narratives, as part of my thinking. I had resorted to narrative before, my kind of fragmented narrative--in my comically titled "autobiography" back in 1967, which was probably closer to the "Aztec Definitions" that Jerome and I published in some/thing back in 1965 than to conventional stories. So the two notions--of improvisation, of doing it there, thinking while talking, and thinking by any means I could, which meant thinking by
telling--stories--came to me at pretty much the same time.
CB: You didn't want to be an actor, you wanted to act. And yet in grounding your work in performance you are brought inevitably into some relation to the performing arts, to theater. But I take the essential part of this move is related to the unscripted or improvised nature of the performance. There is certainly some connection here with the happenings and related performance art: art coming off the walls into an unplanned action. And yet saying that, I am struck more by dissimilarities than by the similarities. The apparently chaotic or dadaistic quality to happenings is not reflected in your talks. The visual dimension is kept to a minimum: if you were not an actor you wouldn't wear makeup or costumes or have sets. In some ways the talks most suggest the stand-up comic; Lenny Bruce's late talk pieces (as I've noted elsewhere) in terms of their extended improvisations. In other ways, I think especially of the poet's talk and the interest there in thinking out loud. And in still other ways, I think of the Socratic tradition of philosophy as a form of thinking out loud rather than written compositionand there are still some philosophers who continue to work that way, who don't write essays or articles but who do their philosophy out loud, either in monologue or dialogue (Wittgenstein's Cambridge talks would be a good example but there are many others). Of course, I am not even mentioning in any detail the unscripted "speech"--whether political or--let's say--civic? And finally, there is the sermon, and many kinds of those. How do you see your talks in relation to these related types of performance?
DA: Back around the spring or summer of 1971, I got a call from Dore Ashton inviting me to be part of a series of talks she was organizing for a group of philosophers, historians, and critics at Cooper Union. It sounded interesting so I agreed. "What's the title of your piece?" she asked. Without having a minute to think, I said,"The Metaphysics of Expectation," and hearing the silence on the other end of line, I added, ". . . or the Real Meaning of Genre." "Great," she said and gave me a date in December. I had given myself a title that left me a lot of working space. But how to prepare for this talk. I figured I would prepare a variety of related issues, and I began researching and taking notes . . . on the diagnosis of disease, on the history of molecular theory, on a particular turn in nineteenth-century French painting--from Manet to Monet--on contemporary sculpture in relation to performance. And I took all these notes on little index cards that I planned to bring with me to use for the talk. When December came around and I got to Cooper Union, they put me in one of those theater-like lecture halls in back of a stone-topped table. I felt like I was back at Brooklyn Tech. All I needed was a glass retort and Bunsen burner. I put my tape recorder on the table, I looked up at the audience and started to speak. I forgot about my index cards and talked for about ninety minutes and took questions for about another thirty. The talk seemed to work, but the transcription of the tape took forever, and the whole thing was so long I never sent Dore a text, and she had to publish the volume without me. This piece was a turning point. I wasn't thinking of poetry, I was thinking of giving myself more room, freeing my mind to work in a wider space than the critical essays at whose boundaries I was already pushing. But it took a second piece at Pomona College to let me see what I was doing. Guy Williams had read the rather violent critical essay I had written about the LA County's "Art and Technology" show and invited me to talk at Pomona, where I think he was running the art department. I agreed. But at Cooper Union I knew I'd be talking to the art world and maybe some of the poetry world, and I had no idea where these kids at a small private college in the San Fernando Valley were coming from, why they were coming to hear me, or what they needed to know. So I arranged to go up there early, do some studio visits, and generally hang out with them during the afternoon. That evening I did the talk and the next morning Elly, who had come up with me, suggested I play the tape on the drive home. So on the long drive from Pomona to Solana Beach on old 395 we listened to the tape. "That's a poem," Elly said. And she was right.
I hadn't been consciously aware of it myself, but what I'd apparently been doing was working to bring together my critical thinking and my poetry into a kind of blend that took place on the ground of improvisation. "talking at pomona" got published in 1972 in my Kulchur book Talking, along with the written improvisation "November Exercises," and the two collaborative but controlled and taped improvisations, "three musics for two voices" and "the london march," that I completed in 1968. I played both tape pieces at St. Mark's that year, but I still hadn't put my way of working into action "live" in front of a "poetry" audience. But in the spring of 1973 Kathy Fraser invited me to give a joint poetry reading with Jerome at the San Francisco Poetry Center. This time I told Elly I wasn't going to bring any of my books with me to read from. The place was filled with poets and Jerry led off with a great reading. Then I went up there without any poems to read and asked the question "what am i doing here" and proposed to answer my own question by talking. The talk was successful enough in my terms. But it seemed to make everybody nervous, because parts of the talk engaged directly with George Oppen and Robert Duncan, who were in the audience; and, because there was no telling what I might say, everybody else seemed worried about what I might say about them. It's hard being a hostage in somebody else's mouth--or a character in somebody else's novel.
So this is roughly how the talks started--but it's not the whole story. "The November Exercises" was a kind of improvisatory composition with found material somewhat like "the separation meditations"--but the mode of composition and quickness of the choices of both emphasized improvisation in private for me. "three musics for two voices" started as a commissioned work. I was a curator at the I.C.A. in Boston in 1967, and when I went to California in 1968, Sue Thurman, the director, asked me to do some new kind of recording for gallery visitors to listen to when they came into the exhibition hall. I started working on it, but it very quickly radicalized far away from its original intention. Sue Thurman left the I.C.A. And Dan Graham asked me to do a piece for the "Information Theory" issue of Aspen Magazine he was editing. The piece I finally did was the controlled improvisation with Eleanor as the second actor--"three musics for two voices"--and it was originally published in that issue of Aspen in a little pamphlet designed by George Maciunas to look like a Fluxus score on pages about 1.5 inches high and 6 inches long. "the london march" was a second "theatrical" dialogue between Elly and me that we did in one unedited shot with a news radio background. So those two were audio performances accomplished through improvisation. And these were not my first entries into some form of theater. During the period of antiwar protests in 1967, Bob Nichols organized a long reading in a Methodist church not far from Judson and asked me to read from one of the pieces in definitions. I designed a special performance in which I was to read the "pain" section of "the black plague"--the Wittgenstein section--but in a peculiar setting. I recorded two AM radio collages putting one on each channel of my old reel-to-reel stereo recorder and enlisted Elly to play randomly with the volume controls and the switching while I was reading, alternately overriding my meditation on pain and letting fragments of it through. While I was reading and Elly was cutting into my reading, I had intended to tear apart a wooden chair with my bare hands, breaking it down to the smallest parts. Bob vetoed the chair breaking, but got me to perform the piece twice to punctuate the other readings. Elly did a great job with the tape recorder, and the piece in some way was a performance transformation of some of the issues of my procedural poems, in that my speech--already distanced through the screen of Wittgenstein screened through Anscombe--was situated in rising and falling tides of noise--talk shows, news fragments, d.j. chatter, commercials, Spanish-language baseball broadcasts. That piece should throw some light on my acceptance of agency in the procedural poems of Code, Meditations, and Talking. In a way I suppose I was dramatizing our human situation by situating "myself as poet" in a textual sea filled with the sea wrack of language and the flotsam and jetsam of wrecked human intentions.
But in going this long narrative way around your questions about situating my talk pieces, I think the mix of backgrounds can give you some idea of the variety of impulses leading to the work and the way in which it came about. Still, I would like to add a cautionary note on your comment about the chaos of Happenings. I didn't see Happenings as chaotic. Almost every Happening I saw or took part in was carefully scripted. There is certainly in the sixties work a kind of baroque painterly quality to the surfaces. But Robert Whitman's work, Ken Dewey's, Allan Kaprow's work in particular, were tightly scripted. Allan's performers usually received very precise instructions and had specific jobs to carry out. The chaotic appearance resulted from the collision of many precise tasks. Allan's later work is absolutely pristine. And in the clarity of his work, he's somewhat typical of Fluxus, and has a lot in common, in this sense, with George Brecht. And while I don't script and I don't use other performers, I think my taste for underlying precision--precision of mind--gives me something in common with Allan and George Brecht. And this taste for precision, not of surface, but of underlying procedure, is what brings me closer to the philosophical tradition--from Wittgenstein to Socrates. And in some way to Emerson, who belongs in that tradition as well. My connections to performers like Lenny Bruce are a little more oblique. First I never accepted for myself the genre of "entertainment." And Bruce's beginnings are situated at a particular moment within that arena. He gradually pushes its envelope to the breaking point, but there is always at least the ghost of that genre haunting him in the memory of the audience that came to hear him. I always had the feeling I should put up a sign over the entrance to any of my performances "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" because I don't feel obligated to "entertain"--though I reserve the right to tell shaggy dog stories or even common jokes as part of what I'm doing. But I also don't give a damn if half the audience walks out. This separates me not only from Bruce, but from other entertainers like Spaulding Gray or Garrison Keillor, all of whom I enjoy. I'm standing up on my feet thinking. Anybody who wants to listen is welcome. If not, I'm happy to see them go.
CB: By "chaotic" I really meant busy or multiplicitous, not unstructured: lots of stuff going on, lots of, as you say, scripted action and its attendant distraction, all of which made these events so particular and memorable. In the case of the talk pieces, as they evolved, though, we have a much more minimal direction (to use another loaded term), a person standing up alone in street clothes talking with modulated performance gestures (thinking in terms of vocal dynamics and rhythms and physical movements). Yet the work is hardly minimal in terms of content, quite the opposite. That is, contrasted with muchperformance art of the sixties and early seventies, including the ones of your own that you describe in such a tantalizing way (I am sorry not to have been able to see them), you are foregrounding one thing--the verbal
production--with few distractions or disruptions. In this context, I'd like to pursue your remark about "entertainment"--in an age of cultural studies I think the meaning of the distinction you are making is being eroded, so I'd welcomefurther thoughts on this. But I would also note that, in contrast to some of my favorite poetry of the time, your "talks" might well be experienced as entertaining, and I suspect that your move to storytelling is not completely divorced from the dynamics of sustainingan audience's attention over a period of time, avoiding distraction (I won't mention "absorption"). But it's apparent that you are not working in the same genre as monologists such as Gray and Keillor, which is why I think of your work--but not theirs--as poetry (which is not an evaluative comment but a comment on genre). Yet I don't know the criteria I would use to make the distinction, though I agree that it would have to do with improvisation as a way of "doing" thinking, thinking as act, as activity, in contrast to a more narrative-driven storytelling. But storytelling threads through both. So that brings me round to another comparison (I know: comparisons are the hobgoblin of the ardent conversationalist): the many "telling" traditions in analphabetic cultures. Certainly your close proximity to "ethnopoetics" would suggest that this was another frame of reference for your all-talking poetry performances.
DA: Look, the Sophists' paradoxical talk pieces and their public debates were "entertainment" in fifth-century Greece. And in that world Socrates was an "entertainer." The rhetorical performances, the show speeches of Lysias or Gorgias, were also entertainments. So were the performances of the troubadours and their jongleurs in twelfth-century Europe. And the performances of the Commedia dell Arte, and Shakespeare's plays and Donne's sermons or Emerson's sermons and his lectures; and Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy films are also entertainments I feel close to. Still, something has happened to the idea of entertainment that brings it into the corporate embrace of Disneyland and Time-Warner. From this entertainment industry, may the gods of language protect us. I have nothing against seeing my work having affinities with Lenny Bruce, and Maria Damon wrote a whole essay on our relationship. But the nightclub audiences he started from were expecting diversions from the tedium of their lives as they experienced it. They went to the nightclub to get a little drunk, hear some aggressive dirty talk, have fun, and forget the business of the day. Disney made a fortune out of inventing the businessman's idea of the imaginary as the contradictory of the businessman's idea of the real. So Bruce had to insult and slug his audience back into some connection with the real. The ones who didn't stay insulted, shook off the slugging and enjoyed hearing everybody else get insulted and slugged. In the course of this kind of performance he was able to introduce serious and broad-ranging social criticism that was only incidentally funny. He's a special case because he pushed the aggressive stand-up comic genre beyond its "entertainment" envelope. But all you have to do is go to your local comedy club to see the generic stand-up form in all its numbed emptiness. It's not that these are simply poor or mediocre comics. They may be funnier than Bruce, because they're doing their job, and he wasn't. He was inventing a new job. Now, I don't have his audience and I don't want it. My rejection of the idea of "entertainment" in its current form is essentially based on the audience that comes with it. I don't want Keillor's audience either. And when I say audience, I mean the specific group membership created by the performance form they're involved with. I'm sure there are people who come to hear my talks who've listened with pleasure to Garrison Keillor. So have I. But I have no intention of engaging with the sentimental, mock-nostalgia expectations of that audience, and if they come to hear me they'll have to reorient themselves or let me reorient them. So yes, I'm aware of my audience in a way and I do try to engage with them while I'm trying to go about my business of thinking, and I believe they help me with it by providing a focus and a sense of urgency for a process that could otherwise go on forever. But in its present form, I absolutely reject the idea of entertainment.
As for the "ethnopoetics discourse," I could hardly deny a connection to it. I was a contributing editor to Alcheringa, and I was probably what you might call "a member of the Central Committee" along with Jerome and Diane Rothenberg and Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, since I was there from the beginning. Like my close friends, I was interested in the widest range of poetries in the broadest sense of the term poetry. So I was one of the readers in the reading of "primitive poetries" Jerome organized for Jerry Bloedow's "Hardware Poets Theater" in the early sixties and part of the Folkways recording. When we started some/thing in 1964, Jerome was quick to see affinities between my "definitions for mendy" and the "Aztec Definitions" collected by Sahagun, and we deliberately juxtaposed them alongside Jerry's "Sightings" in the first issue. Alcheringa published a part of "talking at pomona" in 1972, "the sociology of art" in 1976 and "talking to discover" in 1976, and "tuning" in 1977. So we were all involved in the question of the relations between poetry and art of so-called "primitive cultures" or "oral cultures" and the work of contemporary experimental poets and artists in the "technically advanced" cultures. Coming from linguistics, I was probably the one among the group most committed to the secular, the colloquial and the vernacular. I was studying Black Vernacular English and the marginal grammar of Gertrude Stein, so it was only reasonable for me to attack the ancient anthropological idea of primitivity with its cloud of secondary associations of the originary, the natural and the simple, and the romantic emphasis on myth and ritual. "the sociology of art" began as a talk I gave to a seminar in "primitive art," in which I tried to lay out what I thought was a more reasoned and less romanticized idea of the difference between what I preferred to call oral and literal societies. It might have seemed a little shocking for a journal dedicated to ethnopoetics to publish a talk that argued that "a myth is the name of a terrible lie told by a smelly little brown person to a man in a white suit with a pair of binoculars." But once we could get past the noble savage and quasi-religious ideas of surrounding myth, we could get back to the idea of myth as just one kind of storytelling and discuss more concrete issues of how people went about the business of living, making things and using and enjoying and talking about them. In the course of that piece I tried to replace the theory of the primitive by offering a theory of the difference between "oral societies" and "literal societies" based on a more general notion than the simple and obvious question of "writing" versus "no-writing"--a distinction between a society that was committed to processes and a society committed to objects. It went on to make the case that innovation probably proceeded more fluidly, casually and regularly in oral societies, where you learned how to make a pot or a canoe or a spear thrower by learning the right way to make it rather than by copying an idealized standardized object. So in a traditional "oral culture," a pot ter might make several pots that looked to an outsider very different from each other, all of which counted for the potter as the same. While in what I called "literal societies," the artist was always consulting a standard model from which the least deviation looked like a revolution. In the ethnopoetics discourse I tended to emphasize the secular, the casual, the colloquial, the vernacular against the sacred, a view I shared probably mainly with Diane Rothenberg, whose doctoral thesis on the history of Seneca relations with the Quakers I still regard as one of the most important ethnopoetic works because of the way it documented the pragmatic reasonableness of both groups in a history of dreadful misunderstandings. But I was strongly affected by Dennis Tedlock's versions of Zuni storytelling, most particularly by the way his translations placed the tale in the mouth of a speaker and situated the telling in an occasion in a way similar to Labov's transcriptions of the stories told by young black teenagers in the New York ghetto. And by Jerry's translations of the songs of contemporary Seneca songmen. So yes, I also saw my talking within the wider framework that Jerome's great collage anthologies Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin suggest.
CB: Your talk poems raise a number of issues about the relation of orality to textuality and I wanted to get your thoughts on a few of these. For one thing, is the term orality useful for you to describe the compositional practice involved in your talk poems? My own sense would be to call this work postalphabetic just as I think we are now entering an age of postliterary: one that assumes alphabetic literacy but in which that is only one form of textuality. That is, I would take your work as textual practice even though it is composed in improvised speaking, since it exists in the context, and is "read" against, alphabetically composed poetry (your own and others) and relies on a range of writing technologies (if not to say modalities) for its realization. I realize the fundamental ambiguity of all these terms. But there are some significant distinctions here, amid the terminological morass. One stream of thinking from Walter Ong's Presence of the Word to David Abraham's Spell of the Sensuous has suggested that alphabetic literacy, compared to what preceded it, puts its users in a fundamentally more alienated relationship to language and the body. Such thinking suggests the value of a return to "orality," which often strikes me as nostalgic, in the sentimental sense of the word, although I find the idea of "return" (nostos) that allows a reimagining of where we are quite resonant. That may be close to Olson's sense of such things, and again his idea of composition by "breath" in "Projective Verse" is another possible frame for your talk poems. Do you find that terms of "Projective Verse" valorize speech over writing? An alternative is, I think, provided by Olson's articulation of a poetics of embodiment in "Proprioception": a person speaking their mind through their body (can you say "speaking their body"?). OK--then there is the relation between your performances and the writing that comes out of them. These are not, it seems to me, "documentation" in the conceptual art sense of that term, but literary works on their own terms. They are not "transcriptions" in the sense that Dennis Tedlock talks about in The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation. Nor are they, in my interpretation, "secondary" (and I say this as an extension of the argument I make in the introduction of Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word that the performance of a poem at a reading is also not "secondary" but a distinct realization or version of the work--this is where I propose the idea of "anoriginality"). Finally, there is the insistence on the vernacular in your work--vernacular essays, vernacular poems--vernacular thinking, which is not just a matter of vocabulary or syntax but of composition. This insistence on the vernacular is, as you suggest, in Stein, and also Williams, and is, in that sense, fundamental to radical modernist writing. Here again the relation of "speech" to "writing" is complex and productive.
DA: I don't really think the distinction between "alphabetic" and "analphabetic" is a good one. There are many forms of writing down that are not "alphabetic," that are not based on graphemic analyses of phonological distinctions. Chinese writing is only the most obvious example. But my main objection to the term is that the distinction is not fundamental enough. I am also quite unsatisfied by the distinctions between the "oral" and "literate" laid out by Ong and Havelock, brilliant as their pioneering work in this area has been. The two fundamentally different ways of proceeding still seem to me the ones I laid out twenty-five years ago in "the sociology of art": the differences between an "oral" and a "literal" culture--the "oral" conceived as embracing all the ways of organizing behavior relying upon the wide range of mental and physical procedures (including body learning) we can call remembering; and the "literal," which includes the whole range of procedures laying access to some form of "recording" or spatialization of memory, including drawing and mark-making of any sort, and perhaps also nonspatialized but ritualized repetitional, recitational memorizing. You can see the most extreme form of this spatialization in the ancient "art of memory," whose invention is usually attributed to the sixth-century Greek poet Simonides but was apparently handed down in the classic rhetorical tradition to the Greek and Roman rhetoricians and from them to their successors in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. This tradition is described in great detail by Frances Yates in her marvelous book The Art of Memory. The idea was to call to mind a familiar and complicated building and stage a mental walking tour of all of its rooms, imagining precisely and in their places all of its decorative details, and then to place each of the images of a projected speech in a particular detail of the building in the sequential order that it would have to be recalled in the speech. It's a kind of mental road map with illustrated "view points" or "rest areas." This isn't writing, but it is a way of spatializing memory, especially if you bear in mind that the "images" that the rhetoricians intended to place were visual images either of "arguments" or of "words." So what they placed were like emblems or rebuses that could evoke a chain of logical connections or particular phrases that they wanted to make use of. Now the Greeks already had writing in the sixth century. Simonides' lyrics were written down and were memorized. So they could place texts on columns or niches, physically as well as mentally. But memorization of texts, the mode of the rhapsode who recited a poem that had a completely accomplished verbal form, is very different from remembering. Memorizing isn't remembering, and recording isn't remembering. But I don't want to be pious about the oral. The literal recording has distinct advantages. The tape recorder that recovers my talk pieces distinctly belongs to "literal" culture. I couldn't be having this E-mail dialogue with you and I certainly couldn't go back and reread Frances Yates or "the sociology of art" without it. The ancient Greek "oral poets" all had this anxiety about the deficiencies of their memories and always began poems by praying to the Muse to help them remember. The invocation of the Muses may have been a purely formal element by the time we encounter it, but it very likely reflected a real sense of the anxiety that the memory of forgetting could induce in a sensitive artist of an "oral society." But the situation, as I tried to describe it in "the sociology of art," is more complicated. There probably never were any purely "oral" societies, as there are no purely "literal" ones. Because the self is an oral society in which the present is constantly running a dialogue with the past and the future inside of one skin. So we're really dealing with two different cognitive modalities. The oral in my sense is present in the most literal societies, though it may be underground. There is good reason to consider how readers in "literal" societies actually read. Any reader will find that the act of reading evokes uncontrolled and uncontrollable memories, and these haven't been stored in building niches, and they may or may not be similar to the memories out of which the author created the text. On the other hand there is probably no oral society that fails to mark the spatial distinction of left and right, peculiar as this distinction may be for bilaterally symmetrical animals, and all societies I know of make the easier distinction between front and back, that is supported so clearly by the difference between our own front and back. And once they have this settled, they all seem to be able to orient themselves by facing in the fairly constant direction of the rising sun and distinguishing the four directions of frontal east and dorsal west, sinistral north and dextral south in the real world. This is the beginning of a literal mapping strategy. I suppose the whole "sociology of art" piece is an elaborate enactment of this argument, which it makes at great length. But that's not the whole story. The epistemological argument I make against the notion of "understanding" in the twin pieces "tuning" and "gambling" is a direct consequence of my argument about the "oral." Understanding is a literal idea based on a geometrical notion of congruence, and tuning is a notion of a negotiated concord or agreement based on vernacular physical actions with visible outcomes like walking together or making love. So here we are back at the vernacular again. That being said, I am not pious about the idea of the "oral" and my written pieces draw on all the aspects of "literal" culture I find useful for my purposes. In a way, I suppose my works--the "talk performances" and the written "talks"--run a kind of dialogue with each other. I wasn't always aware of this, and it may have been pointed out to me by others--Fred Garber and Henry Sayre. But I've come to believe it's true, because there's no other way I can account for my persistent attachment to both ways of working.
CB: I agree with you that the alphabet is one among a number of modalities or technologies for inscribing, recording, mapping, and remembering and should not be taken to stand for all forms of textuality, as it sometimes does. When we awaken to the specific potentialities of different media, we can use each according to its possibility without feeling that the one obliterates the other, as in some progressivist and binary models. When you refer to The Art of Memory, it sounds as if you are speaking from a practical engagement with the spatialization of memory, but also that you see your talk pieces as "literal" as much as "oral." Can you apply what you have just been saying (I mean writing) to your talk pieces: What forms of memory and what structural principles do you employ and how do these kinds of choices change the results? This also relates to improvisation in your work. Improvisation is never starting from scratch but rather moving around in material brought to an occasion (or at least I recall your saying something like that to me not long ago). The most common model for improvisation is jazz: How does this relate to your own use of improvisation--but also are there other forms of improvisation that seem relevant to you for contextualizing your talks? (You see I can't ask even this question without saying text.) I'm also thinking of improvisation as a writing practice--your own earlier work, for one thing, but also someone like Clark Coolidge, thinking of his frequent invocation of "spontaneous bop prosody" in Jack Kerouac. To what degree are your improvisations spontaneous and, if to some degree (it's a leading question), what is the equivalent of editing? (Isn't repetition with slight variation a form of temporal editing?) It seems to me that one could map out one of your pieces in terms of its structure, perhaps as one might a musical
composition--development, digression, theme, repetition; anecdote, commentary, allusion; variation in length of segments. I'm interested to know about the compositional or architectonic decisions for the piece, what are ground plans, what's made in the process, or is it impossible to say because they are so intertwined? And as you say, here we are, engaged in a conversation by E-mail, that is fundamentally different from taping it (as we had considered). But then, with all your experience (I'm not suggesting it could be done if you didn't have extensive experience doing talks), couldn't you write one of your talks? Who would know the difference besides you? What would be the telltale signs?
DA: Taking your last question first, I used to think it was the speed at which it had to be done. In a talk piece I usually have between half an hour and an hour and a half to do whatever I have to do. I can't walk away to check sources for quotations. If I am trying to analyze something, I have to live with whatever abilities and resources I bring to the occasion. I have to have complete confidence in my abilities for the occasion. If they turn out to be not completely adequate, I have to find a way to turn my momentary inadequacy to dramatic advantage. I once gave a talk that hinged on an elaborate story about the difference in character between two salesmen in my uncle's dress business and while building up the characterization of one of them, I realized I couldn't remember his name. So I turned my inability to name him into the dramatic conclusion of the piece. Readiness is all. If I make a slip of the tongue, I can't erase it, though I can correct it publicly if I catch it. But then the audience may not catch it either. I can also edit it out in the talk by the way I move past it. You're absolutely right that there are editing procedures for talks just as there are editing procedures in jazz improvisation. And you're right about not starting from ground zero. Think of Charlie Parker or Thelonius Monk: you know they didn't walk in without things on their mind, habits in their way of proceeding, musical sounds in their head. Usually somebody gives me a title for a piece or I give them a title that serves as a kind of seed for the talk. I may think about this a lot or a little before I get to the occasion. I often let my mind play loosely over images and ideas evoked by the title. Sometimes something wildly digressive enters my thinking. I try not to lock myself in. But sometimes I haven't been thinking about a talk at all until I'm nearly there. In France last December, at Blerancourt, I thought I was going to readup to the point at which Jacques asked me to do a talk piece. So I had no time to prepare beforehand. Of course I had my nearly thirty years of experience working this way. So the act of going up there to start set me off. We were in a museum, with all those unimpressive paintings by American painters of no great distinction. The cold weather and the topiaried bushes made me think of Last Year at Marienbad. Which reminded me of the photograph of Jack Youngerman and the beautiful star of Marienbad, his wife, sitting on a rooftop in Soho. The photograph was used as the cover for Das Kunstwerk, a German magazine I was the American correspondent for. The raw weather and the photograph and Serge Fauchereau, who was involved with the American art world, brought me to the frozen winter day that was the opening for the Brit sculptor from the American University at Beirut. My image of him at the Fischbach gallery that winter was a little like my image of myself coming out of California to perform a month later at the Beaubourg in what must surely be a bit of a poetic vacuum for a talk piece. So that's how the piece went. The twenty-minute length left the piece less worked out than it might have been. Your insight into that was on the money. I'm not used to working that short. So I had to leave it slightly fragmented and take advantage of the difference of potential among the image fragments, letting the piece take a somewhat more lyrical character I didn't foresee but also didn't mind.
Now is this really different from improvisatory writing--say by Clark Coolidge? Certainly not insofar as the improvisation is concerned. We probably have a great deal in common, though I'm not sure Clark would see it, because we start from different kinds of material. But the main difference for me between "writing" a talk piece and "talking" one by now is the presence or absence of an audience that gives the work its sense of address. Which is why this E-mail dialogue has some of the feel of the talk pieces, because we can address each other directly. More directly than a talk piece, because it's a dialogue between people who know each other and are specifically setting out to engage with each other. This isn't really the case with the talk piece, where the sense of address is inferred and felt, but an explicit address rarely takes place. Still, at Blerancourt I was working in the presence of quite a few people I knew--you and Jerry and Jackson and Diane and Jacques . . . And some I had recently gotten to know. So there were distinct identities in my mind as I spoke. Sure, I could probably write something very much like a talk piece--now that I've been doing them for so long and now that the computer has made it possible for me to write almost as fast as I think. But the focus that an audience provides--would be missing. For me, writing a letter would probably feel closer to my talk pieces. And of course I've always felt that Diderot's great Salons and his Letter on the Deaf and the Mute, his Letter on the Blind, and his whole correspondence with Sophie Volland, were very close to my talk poems. Diderot is probably a prime example of a writer whose writing is very close to "talking." Among contemporaries there is also Kerouac. And Parker and Coltrane and Monk.
As for architectonics, that's harder to talk about. I know that I start from the tension between an engagement with an audience that's in front of me and an engagement with some discourse. The audience is contingent, the discourse is less so. The greater the distance between the two engagements, the greater the tension of working a kind of tuning between the audience and the material and me. Or at least what I imagine is this kind of tuning. That's where the vernacular comes in. It's the language space I'm working in, regardless of how recondite the discourse seems to be. Though it's my idea of the vernacular. I say that I'm thinking out loud, and I am, but I'm testing my thinking against my image of an intelligent and not necessarily expert audience--I have spoken to expert audiences occasionally, but then no audience is expert over the whole range of things I want to explore. And I'm not expert either--not over the the whole range. So my image of audience is that it's a kind of equivalent of me. Equal but different--equally curious, equally intelligent and equally open to the widest range of experience. Which means I can use any method that comes into my head for making my way forward. So the architectonics occur within the image of a trip, of some kind of traversal of a terrain. But I don't know what the terrain will look like till I've traversed it. I know I've traversed it when I've gone as far as I can at that time in that place. So the architectonics are determined by several factorsthe nature of the audience, the nature of the discourse or discourses, the distances between them and me, and my insistence on a kind of tuning over the ground of the vernacular. I don't know if that answers your question.
CB: It does, though perhaps part of what I am asking is something that you are in the wrong position to answer: I think it would be possible to do a structural analysis of some of your talk pieces and come out with some interesting patterns. But to say that doesn't mean you are thinking along those lines. My related question would be to ask if you have any sense of the connection between the talks, the relation of one talk to another? Is there a sense of a series or some way of seeing them as a constellation or constellations?
But let me continue by responding to some of your other comments. The idea that speaking before an audience without a script launches one more directly into vernacular is something well, that works for you, but I suppose someone else could deny that impulse and give a lecture instead of a talk. In your comment on the epistolary nature of the talks, in your insistence on the dialogic space of work that is, after all, monologue, you seem to be intent on address as being the critical element. Do you think modernist and contemporary poetry has lost its sense of address, in the wake of the collapse of the traditional lyric poem, which had a very specific, if not necessarily vernacular, address? Does the vernacular address of the talks create an intimate space? That is, I'm struck by your description of the space of your talk poems as being, fundamentally, an interpersonal space, a space between people. This seems to me a sharp critique of the whole idea of theory as a form of deanimated prose. And yet, aren't you theoretical? Can theory be vernacular? How would the content change? That, in turn, brings up the difference between private reading of a poem (or essay) and public performance. Yet it is crucial to note that the talk poems are not conversations, except in the sense of conversations with yourself. Your work does not draw on the form of the town meeting. They are extended solos. Indeed, your comments on the short talk in France underline your commitment to sustained duration of your pieces. Too many short and discrete segments, as in a discussion format, would elide the shape of the whole. That puts you squarely in the tradition of the long poem, especially in its aversion to the short lyric utterance. But are your talks "long poems"?
I want to follow up on one more thing. You note, quite significantly I think, the difference between memorizing and remembering--and it seems to me that remembering--the act and the theme--riddles these exchanges we are having. The oral poetry of cultures without alphabetic writing systems was necessarily involved with memorization, since this poetry was a technology for the storage and retrieval of cultural memory. It seems to me your talk poems, released from the burden of memorization, are free to explore memory. Maybe this accounts for the autobiographical turn in your work, although again here I would ask you to reflect on the difference between what you do in a talk and the genre of autobiography and memoir that are now so popular. Well, that gives you a baker's half-dozen strands to pick up.
DA: Let me tackle the vernacular first. I never intended to give the impression that simply facing an audience without a paper in my hands would launch me into the vernacular. The vernacular is a social and linguistic space, and the decision to employ it is a social choice. It looks for an engagement with a certain kind of audience. The use of a technical jargon is also a social choice. It looks to engage with a group of experts, who recognize each other's expertise in the facility with which they handle the special language. A few years ago Alan Golding invited me to talk at a conference on postmodernism at the University of Louisville. I was scheduled to speak later in the day, but I wanted to hear some of the other speakers to get a feel for the way they engaged the topic. My plane was delayed in Atlanta because of snow, but I got there in time to hear the first speaker. He had a nice attentive crowd of what I took to be mainly young literature professors, and what he seemed to be doing was comparing Franz Fanon's image of the racial outsider in the white European empire with Homi Bhabha's vision of the racial and cultural migrant in its ruins. But he never bothered to describe or compare anything. Almost all the energy of the talk was spent invoking the spiritual presence of absent but terribly potent critical beings through a gracefully elliptical incantation of their magic words"hegemony," "subaltern," "archive," "panopticon," "rhizome. . . . " Whenever the speaker uttered one of these words, a shiver of pleasure went through the room, and those who shivered knew they were true members of the expert audience to whom this talk was directed. But it seemed that the talk's only purpose was to celebrate the existence of the group it was designed to animate. In the afternoon I gave a talk about the difficulty of buying a mattress.
Over the years I've come to a thorough distrust of the uses of expert language. It's true that you can't discuss competing phonological theories without mentioning distinctive features or allophones or formants, or gene theory without talking about alleles and phenotypes. But the vernacular is pretty permeable and admits new technical vocabulary when you really need it. Chomsky was able to present his linguistic theory to a nonexpert audience in what I would call an educated vernacular. You ask if theory can be vernacular, and whether my works are theoretical. I'm not sure what theory is, unless it's the pursuit of fundamental questions. And I do the best I can at this in the vernacular. But the philosophical tradition I most admire, the one that runs from Socrates through Kierkegaard and Dewey and Wittgenstein, was conducted in the vernacular. With considerable success. In this time of professional specialization, I probably cost myself a certain of amount of attention in professional philosophical circles because of my choice of language register. But you pay your money, you take your choice. I get the audience my language attracts and I lose the ones it repels. Sometimes it seduces members of the other audience into my space.
I suppose my choice of the vernacular for my talks, some of which are in your sense theoretical and in my sense philosophical, makes them an implicit critique of the professional way in theory or philosophy--or poetry. And there is a sense in which I think of them as conversational, not in the literal dialogical sense of actual conversation, but in the kind of space within which conversation exists. I realized how much I felt this at a huge public reading many years ago at the Fillmore East, when I had the opportunity of hearing Voznesensky, who went on before me. To me he sounded like a Russian general addressing his troops in a stadium--when he didn't sound like the general showing his troops how he breathed his words into his girlfriend's ear. For most of my work I'm aiming at a space that's more humanly intimate than a stadium and less cloistered than a bedroom. Of course I might reserve the right to play in either of these two spaces, but at the moment I don't have either of them in mind. And I like the idea of theory poems or philosophy poems. At least for some of my pieces . . . like "the sociology of art" or the twin pieces "tuning" and "gambling" or in a different way "the structuralist." I think the pieces do form constellations, and I try to use placement in my books to suggest ways in which these constellations can be seen--the way "the sociology of art" sits at the center of talking at the boundaries, where I hope it reverberates back through and is energized by the other pieces grouped around it. The way "tuning" and "gambling" sit at the center of tuning, or slightly differently, the way "the structuralist" sits at the end of what it means to be avant-garde. Nobody has paid much attention to the structure of my books as books--at least so far--probably because the individual works all begin in performance. But since I use the book as one of my modes, I pay a great deal of attention to it. The books are pretty certainly not long poems, but they are long and complexly structured single works. And the structuring may start loosely in the sequence of performances, but it really takes shape only when I put the talk pieces together to form a book.
On the question of remembering versus memorizing. I think you may be relying a little too much on the arguments of Eric Havelock and maybe on Hugh Kenner. It seems to me that any society that has a powerful anxiety about the ability to remember may be tempted toward "literal" memorization and recitation the way medieval Scandinavian society felt the need to "memorize" their body of law and recite it ceremonially in public once a year. Though it's not certain that this recitation was as verbally literal as the performance of the Greek rhapsodes. If it was, it was part of a move along the path of "literalization." But there was no evidence of "memorization" by the Balkan improvisers Parry recorded. What he found was that they employed metrical verbal phrase patterns that could be deployed and varied over a wide range of similar but different narrative circumstances. Lord took this further in his examination of the manipulation and redeployment of certain thematic elements in their epic narratives. Still, the Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and Eric Havelock tradition projects a kind of mechanical cobbling together, that Martin Nagler coming later shows is almost certainly not characteristic of the Homeric poems, which exhibit a much more fluid relation to the traditional materials. With the kind of fluid transformations that are more characteristic of remembering than memorization. And much more characteristic of the ordinary operation of mind that the new cognitive science seems to be confirming.
CB: Although, given the nature of your work, even such analysis becomes an extension of the talking more than an explication of it. The elasticity of the work is quite amazing. So that even my prodding of you about the metastructures of the books can be transformed into more "mything" (rimes with riffing) as you say in "sociology of art." Complete with a bit of self-cautioning: not to reify something that is a process (or, in other words, not to become too self-absorbed in the way poets sometimes do).
I think one reason why your comments on the structures of the books is useful is that the visual format of the books may foster a kind of overall or run-on reading. Despite your care in breaking up each piece and giving a short preface about the particular occasion from which each one emerges, there is also a sense in which the one talk flows into the next. It has something to do with the porousness of talk and something to do with the visual format you have created for the talks, with its absence of periods, capitalization, and apostrophes. I was very interested in Marjorie Perloff's talk at Amiens, in which she suggested that concrete poetry brought the visual organization of all poetry into sharper view and that this has had particular importance for prose-format poetry. Which reminds me of your remark that prose is "concrete poetry with justified margins." What I especially appreciated about Marjorie's essay is how she turns that fact around on itself and shows how important is the visual arrangement of proselike works such as Rosmarie Waldrop's and your own. I agree with you when you say, in the note that precedes talking at the boundaries, that your pages are not prose, even if your talks are appropriately considered as part of Stephen Fredman's study of poets' prose. Anyone would know the visual format is not prose if they tried to copy a passage accurately: preserving the spacing between word clusters with different right-margin breaks is not only difficult but suggests that what you have created is actually an internalized form of lineation. The format brings to mind transcription, but there is no necessary way to score transcription, as Dennis Tedlock notes so cogently in The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation. You address this explicitly when you say that the texts of your work are notations or scores of oral poems. But are they?
You have designed a format that has practically become a signature, even though this format could be widely used as an alternative to prose format. (If and as someone else uses this format, the first thing a reader will notice is that it "looks like Antin.") But do you think of the word clusters delineated by white space before and after as something relating to verse lines? I am at some pains here to avoid the word phrases for these clusters, but that's probably what they are. That is--and correct me if I'm wrong--you always break at the syntactic or phrasal end; these units are never broken up or enjambed. There is some connection to the practice of lineation suggested by Olson in "Projective Verse," but I wouldn't think you would conceptualize it along those lines. It is also notable, and audible, that you vary the length of the phrases from a few words to a few lines and that the longer units include phrases that in other parts of the talk would be broken into smaller units. So what, then, is the prosody here? What is "talk" rhythm and how do you create it within this format?
I am asking this partly because your citing of "the sociology of art" reminded me that in my second book, Parsing (soon to reprinted in Republics of Reality: 1975-1995), I end with a poem called "Roseland" (written, I think, in 1975) that incorporates a series of short phrases from that talk (for the most part, shorter than the phrases in the original), scored in "field" style and connected by an associative rather than linear or discursive movement. So this is something I have been thinking about for a while.
What precedents were there for this particular format? Looking back on your "concrete poetry with justification," can you give some account of what the format has allowed and perhaps some notion of the limitations? Can you imagine using a different format in the future?
DA: Back in 1976, in the preface to talking at the boundaries, I explained the texts of my talk poems as "the notations or scores of oral performances" and I thought I drew a clear line in the sand, separating them from prose, which I'd characterized earlier as "concrete poetry with justified margins." That made sense to me then, but while I'll still stand by my characterization of prose, I'm no longer satisfied by the earlier description of my texts. In music a score has two primary purposes--to serve as a kind of transducer, allowing "the music" to be stored, transmitted and distributed by other means than live performance, and to enable reperformance by oneself or by other performers. The talk pieces weren't designed for other performers or for reperformance in general. And while I did read one once at a reading celebrating the publication of Jerry's and Pierre's Poems for the Millennium and it seemed to satisfy the conditions of a poetry reading, to me it felt a bit weird. A little like Homer reading part of the Odyssey. What's more, its sound became different. And I couldn't help it. It became a reading sound instead of a speaking sound--a reading sound that recalled the sound of its speaking but somehow put it in the past tense. It might be interesting to do but it wasn't what I designed my notation for. I didn't start my transcriptions for that purpose, and the transcriptions were made from tape recordings of the performances, which I suppose could have been distributed directly. So the texts weren't strictly necessary for the purposes of recording and distribution, though they may have been a more effective and elegant means of recording and distribution.
When I started doing the performances with the sense that I was doing "talk poems," I had no textification in mind. Contrary to Dennis Tedlock's supposition that they were composed orally with the typewriter in mind, I didn't think at all about textual realizations. Unless what Dennis meant was that as citizens of a textual culture anything we say is conditioned by the instrument used for rendering speech into text--which at that time was the typewriter. That's an Ong-like supposition and has some truth in it--though not as much as one might think. But I did tape-record them--to find out what I'd said. So why did I decide to transcribe and publish them? I think this is where your notion of the surrounding context comes in. I'm sure I believed that the serious discourses of our culture took place in texts. I still believe it. And what I was doing was trying to confront the textual discourses, which were generated at a desk in the language of textification, with a text that was generated by talking, that derived its life and its mode of thinking from talking and carried the traces of its origins into the world of text. How to do it?
Oddly enough I was thinking of Beowulf. When I studied the Klaeber edition of the great Anglo-Saxon poem, I was struck by how bizarre the punctuation seemed. Klaeber had made a mad attempt to fit this essentially oral poem to nineteenth-century punctuation complete with commas and semicolons. These marks felt insane. When I examined a facsimile of the manuscript it bore none of these marks. It didn't even respect what careful reading would show were the lines of the poem. It had scribal marks that had nothing to do with the original poem but probably indicated where a scribe stopped for the moment or the day. But once you got used to it, the poem was easier to read this way than it was in the scholarly edition. So I realized I needed to remove marks--commas and periods. And I also realized that regularized margins on the left and on the right were originally only conveniences for printing. Later they became associated with the idea of "prose," which derives from a Latin phrase meaning "straightforward talk," whatever that might be. Verse was something different. But a poetry that wasn't verse and wasn't prose had to declare itself as different. Word spaces still seemed reasonable, and phrase music was apparent. So I took for granted that I would separate words from each other and represent phrasal groupings. In figuring out what these were I tended to follow the pulse of the talking. Mostly these were units that made a kind of grammatical and semantic sense together but this could change if there were hesitation markers or other junctural markers that seemed meaningful. This allowed occasionally different breaks. Then there was the additional fact that I felt free to add to the original material and expand it--with phrases or whole passages that were not in the original but belonged in the talk. These had to be adapted to the pulse of speech. That wasn't hard for me as long as I was sitting at a typewriter or later a computer, composing the material directly as I am now. The sense of address had already been created. So they were merely freely composed interpolations. But if I had to introduce long passages of previously composed materials--as in "the sociology of art"--I tried to set them off in ways that would indicate their separateness. Your question about the formation of the phrase groupings is interesting. I think I mostly tried to follow the pulse of the speaking, whatever way I seemed to understand that. But I also seemed to react to the way this pulse could be most clearly represented on a page, which is a different thing from literal copying of the breaks of my voice. And you're quite right, I wasn't really thinking of this from a "Projective Verse" point of view. Now in talking about "Roseland" you're not really clear about what the origin of your phrases was. You suggest the text originated in some kind of talk and that the phrases were cut out of this talk. If that was the case you may have been doing something very close to what I was doing in representing the phrasal groups. It's quite a different thing to create word clusters that can be imagined as possibly but not certainly going together in some kind of speech. A reader might try to find a possible speaking pulse for such clusters but would probably remain uncertain about their intonation and pacing. The result would be a tendency for such clusters--if they were identified as that--to acquire conceptually a kind of list structured intonation. I'm really interested, but I don't have a copy of Parsing. I'd like to see it.
CB: One of the things that interests me is how the talking pulse in your poetry is audible even if you rearrange the order of the phrases--that is part of what I was exploring in the pieces of mine I mentioned. So I want to focus more on this talking pulse, because it raises some fundamental issues for poetry, issues that I think are related to, but distinct from, the questions of the vernacular we have been discussing.
Traditional prosody works by differentiating a poem's sound patterns from those of speech, heightening the sound, which means accenting one form of sound patterning over another. This despite the connection between the iambic line to the "natural patterns" of English speech that is often cited by prosodists. Non-naturalistic in the sense that nonspeech-oriented verbal patterning is also present in cultures without writing systems, through devices such as parallel structure and vocables, among others. Thinking again of the Serbian singers discussed by Lord and Parry, and leaving aside the issue of the technical imperatives for the structure of verse they used, there is again a highly marked verbal patterning that is different from speech.
Then again, there's Wordsworth's famous remark in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads that his poems are a "metrical arrangement" of the "language really used by men." His elaboration of this is relevant: "The language, too, of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appears to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions." As with much "real" speech in poetry, Wordsworth is presenting the speech of other people, not himself. In a similar way, speech enters in The Waste Land in the form of the barmaid's monologue in "A Game of Chess" ("When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said / I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself"). I mention these two examples as exemplary moments for romanticism and modernism, respectively.
And then there's Williams, and I think here we are closer to what I want to get at. Williams's practice, misleadingly called "free verse," also claimed authority from the spoken language he heard around him, the American idiom. The structures of his lines and stanzas worked to bring this out, often using very short word clusters and isolating individual words for emphasis but also not sticking with any consistent line length, which I think does convey something of a "speech pulse." The crucial intervention in this history is the tape recorder. Transcribing tape-recorded speech doesn't solve the problem of the representation of speech in writing, but it does change it. Access to this technology in a way that could be used to create poems becomes possible, from a practical point of view, only in the 1950s, and even then it would have been cumbersome. As you may know, the first audio tape recorders were manufactured for retail sale in 1935 (in Germany); cassettes were first made available in the mid-1960s. There is of course a substantial body of transcribed speech (and "oral history"), much of it I think of great importance for poetry. But what I think is less common, and particularly significant in terms of this prosodic history I am tracing, is self-transcription, especially given the freedom, within the space of the poem, to edit and alter: to make speech not just to represent it. And this of course is what you are doing in the texts of your talk poems.
There is a question lurking behind all this. In "the sociology of art" you say that poetry in cultures without writing is "a kind of talking." But what about song? In that piece you mention song in passing, and with typical wit, as a kind of constraint ("a special form of talking . . . like telling a story on a tightrope or while swimming"). What is the difference between talk and song? What is the possibility for song in the poetry of the present moment?
DA: While I've had a great distaste for what's usually called "song" in modern poetry or, for that matter, for what's usually called "music," I really don't think of "speech" as so far from song and I don't think of "talk" as "unmusical." Prose may be most of the time unmusical--because it wants to be. It wants to be responsible. And music is playful and irresponsible. Phonologically overdetermined, as Jakobson might say. Jingling or tuning. Think of the blues refrain in Stein's "Melanctha." It sneaks into the novella right after one of the narrator's stiffest "prose" paragraphs.
Why did the subtle, intelligent, attractive, half white girl Melanctha Herbert love and do for and demean herself in service to this coarse, decent, sullen, ordinary, black childish Rose, and why was this unmoral, promiscuous, shiftless Rose married, and that's not so common either, to a good man of the negroes, while Melanctha with her white blood and attraction and her desire for a right position had not yet been really married.
Stein holds this tone for a sentence and then modulates slowly away.
Sometimes the thought of how all her world was made, filled the complex, desiring Melanctha with despair. She wondered, often, how she could go on living when she was so blue.
Finally she lets in the full refrain, slightly flattened by the prose environment
Melanctha told Rose one day how a woman whom she knew had killed herself because she was so blue. Melanctha said, sometimes, she thought this was the best thing for herself to do.
From there on, the refrain haunts the novella in a great number of variations, and it's possible to argue that the whole of "Melanctha" is a struggle between "poetry" and "prose"--prose represented by the narrator's stiff and "unmusical" literary style and "poetry" by the characters' "musical" black speech. What I learned from Three Lives when I was sixteen or seventeen was that speech was musical and that the line between talking and singing is very hard to draw. But looking back at "Melanctha" now, it seems to me that even the stiffest prose sections threaten to become musical if the notation would only let them be. What if I took the commas away and printed?
We say that infants are learning to speak when they play with the sounds of our language. They are, but they're also singing. When my son Blaise was about nine months old I used to sing to him an otherwise senseless phrase:
lo Chi- go
That is, "Hello, Chicago," to the tune starting from the A above middle C and dropping a minor tenth to F# F# then back to A and ending on F# in an accent pattern ´ ^ ^ ´ `, which he would sing back to me over and over again with great pleasure, with the pitches and accents and vowels perfectly imitated and some approximation of the consonants. Children frequently sing meaningful phrases to themselves over and over again before they learn to make a distinction between singing and saying or between talking and playing. And they play with the whole range of the phonology, especially the intonation patterns.
The notion of song itself is not so simple. For several centuries what has passed for song in literary circles was any text that looked like the lyrics for a commonplace melodic setting. In Code of Flag Behavior, the first two sections of "Novel Poem"--"10 songs" and "7 songs"--began as parody. But it soon became an idea of liberation. I took lines from popular novels and arranged them as songs. Since the source texts were novels, the language was originally notated as prose. The idea was to find some features of song hidden in the prose and release them in a new notation. "Have you got Prince Albert in the can? Let him out, he's a friend of mine." So we're back to notation and the question you asked me earlier about my own notation.
The notation I developed for the "talk poems" works well enough to represent the pulse and logic of thinking while talking. Which is fairly rapid. And it's hard to slow up. If I wanted to give a novella-like character to a narrative developed in one of them, I can only slow up so much. The conventions of prose fiction permit more detail and different types of representation of subjectivities than I can ordinarily make use of. A piece like "the structuralist," which in some ways approaches the genres of the novella, took a lot of maneuvering to maintain its original relation to the improvised talk piece I did in Toronto while I incorporated richer detail on the origins of Volapuek and its place in Paris in 1889 and greater elaboration of the sound poem that concludes the piece. Like any notation, the one I use has its preferences and maybe it precludes certain possibilities, but I'm not really sure of that. Whenever I've tried to adapt the notation to some uncustomary use, I seem to be able to bring it around. I've also found that I had to turn some "talk pieces" into what looked like essays. A piece in Critical Inquiry called "Fine Furs" and another in Representations called "Biography" began as talk pieces, that I found I could adapt to the essay genre without terrible difficulty. And some of my earlier art critical essays could very easily have been presented as "talk pieces." Especially the Art News essay called "Tingueley's New Machine." I suppose I can manage a prose format as long as I keep closer to Laurence Sterne than to Henry James.
Would I employ another kind of notation? I have recently--over the last year or so--been doing a group of what I call "Micro Films," short poems ten to twelve lines long, that I designed to be seen projected as slide sequences, text over image, one line per slide. So far I've completed three of them and they're really designed for projection in a movie theater as "short films" that take advantage of familiarity with popular film genres to relate text and image. The image is not exactly a "background" except in the case of "Film Noir," where there is nothing but white text on a black ground. But the black ground tends to suggest an image of a
nightin which the texts work like radio voices and provide cues to imagined images. "Poincaré's Theorem" is a sci-fi film and has its white texts "embedded" in the image of a starry sky. So the sequence appears like a dialogue in outer space. And "Loose Ends" uses texts set under a number of different landscape images in a way that suggests off-camera dialogue. Clearly I could equip my computer with slide capabilities, but I don't think I'd like my little slide films on a computer screen. I really designed them for movie theaters or film festivals. The idea of a seventy- or eighty-second film in which the black leader is longer than the film appeals to me. So what I have when they're printed is a series of ordinary looking short poems, which I could probably print directly on the picture reproduced from the slides. I guess this would be a new version of an old format in which the notation is simply that of the short poem for lines of dialogue that evoke a popular movie genre. The first two were projected as slide sequences at the Laemmle Figueroa, a downtown Los Angeles movie theater, as part of a series of artists' projections sponsored by Side Street Projects. Billed as "Intermission Images," they ran instead of the usual commercials between films in that theater for something over a month--to the apparent bewilderment of the general audience.
Since none of these "films" uses more than fourteen slides, what I would have if I wanted to publish them in book form would be a series of short poems printed one line to a page over a reproduction of the image taken from the corresponding slide. As I see it, this would seem to borrow a conventional children's book format for the presentation of a series of short poems. I've also been doing a sequence of "short stories" that I began as an installation for MOCA Los Angeles. These are very short stories running from a few lines to nomore than a page, each one built around a single obligatory word drawn from the dictionary. I intend to work my way from A to Z three times. Right now I have forty stories and they're all presented in a "prose" notation.
CB: I look forward to seeing the "Micro Films." That type of format, where you are actively using the "background" as part of the work, in contrast to the old style white page, reminds me of a range of moving text pieces now being created for the web (I guess "programmable media" is the current word for this). Though in the case of the "Micro Film," you are situating the poem as projection in a performance rather than for private viewing on a computer screen. So: back to the another version of the issue of page versus stage.
But let me postpone that discussion for the moment and go back to what you say about song. I wonder if the more important distinction isn't the one between speech and song but is the one between singing and song? Your comments on this seem to me something of an extension of remarks you made on Stein and prose in your Occident essay about the time you were moving into the talk performances--and also talk texts. Stein invents her version of modernist composition, as articulated in the last sections of The Making of Americans and then Tender Buttons, through a close listening to, and notation of, nonstandard American speech. In the terms I used in "Poetics of the Americas," the origins of Stein's ideolectical poetry is in the dialectic passages of Three Lives. Speech "as it is spoken" (WE SPEEK SPEECH HERE) is, for Stein, the source of modernist textuality. This proposes a kind of quantum poetics: the deeper one listens to the spoken the more textual it seems.
It may be a bit of leap to go from Stein to her immediate contemporary, Arnold Schoenberg (both born in 1874 and both living in Vienna when they were the age that Blaise was when he was singing a tune that had not yet become Song), but indulge me with this for just a second. Schoenberg's opera Moses and Aaron, begun in 1930, figures the conflict between speech and song in a way that has some bearing on your comments. Schoenberg's libretto is a revisionist's Exodus. Moses speaks (Sprachstimme), Aaron sings. Aaron's singing enables him to be persuasive but it is also problematic because it involves pandering with images. In other words, for Schoenberg in this work, song is associated with the prohibition against graven images. In contrast, Moses's speaking is associated with thought and ideas. While his speaking lacks the eloquence of Aaron's song, its refusal of image marks its ethical character. The ethical character of speech is that it is dialogic, reciprocal, face to face. Speech refuses spectacle. Song, in contrast, flirts with spectacle ("I worked marvels for eyes and ears to witness" as Aaron says), climaxing in the "operatic" extravaganza of the Golden Calf. At the heart of the agonistic struggle between the two brothers is a conflict between ethical and moral discourse, where moral discourse implies exhortation and ethical discourse implies an encounter, through thought, with the unnamable and unrepresentable. Yet Moses's ethical bearing is also, for Schoenberg, the key to his inaccessibility, his difficulty communicating, and ultimately his isolation from the people. In contrast, Aaron offers something "ordinary, visible, easy to understand, gold forever."
I go on at this length because Moses and Aaron seems to me a paradigmatic modernist allegory, where modernist composition is thematized as the difficult and unrepresentable thought for which Moses speaks. The fact that the music for the opera could not be finished in the wake of an unrepresentable Extermination Process that pushed Schoenberg to LA is even more to the point: the opera is complete only in its "text," which is, in the final act, forever uncoupled with music. As Adorno suggests, the opera provides a full-scale critique of reification as a form of idolatry (or vice versa). Schoenberg's Moses, confronted by the Calf (the ur of reification), makes the point succinctly: you cannot "enclose the boundless in an image."
The problem for modernist composition is that its critique of reification may only displace the problem, leaving the reification intact. In this sense, reification returns in the aesthetic distance created by the objectification of the work of art, so that one reads the work or is bowled over by it, rather than participating in it. Stein's dialogism, including her oscillation between speech, song, and "prose" composition, suggests a viable alternative to this form of modernist objectification. I think also of Wittgenstein's reluctance to write down his talking philosophy, about which you've already spoken in this conversation (thinking also of the connection to a Socratic as opposed to Platonic orientation, if such a distinction can be maintained).
Could your move from an image-based poetry to a poetry that shattered images be seen as necessarily iconoclastic: the breaking up of images, idols? And your subsequent move into talk and direct address, with its emphasis on reciprocal presence of the speaker and the spoken--could that be viewed as an ethical turn? That would suggest an interpretation of your disinclination to perform work you had previously written as a refusal to locate value in the poem understood as a fixed, as icon, but rather . . . in what? The thought process? Isn't there, then, a rethinking of modernism here, as prefigured in your Occident essay?
DA: I agree. Moses and Aaron is the paradigmatic modernist allegory and it's symptomatic of both the virtues and problems of modernism. Specifically in its identification of representation and reification. The weakness of representation is by now pretty clear--whether from Rimbaud's "Je est un autre" or from Wittgenstein's Tractatus. But representation and reification are not the same thing. Aaron represents the power that brought the Israelites out of Egypt as a Golden Calf. As an image it's not even so-so. For gold it's pretty impoverished. The gold stands for value, okay. But a calf? An animal notable for weakness, clumsiness, and immaturity. This for the Power that made the deal with Abraham, drove out Hagar and Ishmael, let ancient Sarah conceive a child, demanded the sacrifice of Isaac, brought the plagues on Egypt, divided the Red Sea--the image is a bit laughable, and we can suppose that the writer of Exodus wanted us to laugh at it. It might not have seemed quite so laughable if he'd said a Golden Bull--an image of value married to an image of male power--or a Golden Cow, an image of expansive fruitfulness. The Power provided manna in the desert. Would a Whirlwind have been better? A Fire? All representations are imperfect and some are more imperfect than others. But once one gets engraved in the culture, that's when it becomes the Golden Calf. Yet the weakness of representation is also its strength. That's what the modernists didn't understand. Jerome Bruner in a review of The Scientist in the Crib, a recent book on childhood learning, points out that children's need "to construct a world of space, time and causality" requires certain "trade-offs in which some things are represented at the expense of others and that there are forms of blindness to the world that are part of the process of learning." But all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality. Which is to say they're context dependent. So a representation may open the door to the most profound chain of insights in a certain situation and then block the way to further insights once the situation has changed. That's what happened to classical modernism. Schoenberg's absolute distinction between Moses's "ethical" speech and Aaron's "moral" singing is a perfect example of the reification of a profound observation. It is quite true that there is no way of imaging the unknowable Force that Moses bears witness to. Because It's unimaginable. But It is also Indescribable--in prose or speech or song. So what good is Moses's "speech." Its entire value gets used up in its powerful ethical rejection of conventional imaging. This is the difficulty with hieratic high modernism, that includes the painting tradition running from Kandinsky and Malevich and Mondrian to the Rothko Chapel--though it doesn't extend to Duchamp or Cendrars or Satie. And as you say, if we get caught up in overvaluing this eloquent Rejection Speech, we're back to reification. So while I share your feeling for the ethical in Schoenberg's Moses, for me Gertrude Stein's code switching in Three Lives from a textified "prose" sound to a "speech" sound that is undifferentiated from singing, to the fully imaged sound of "song," as I was discovering it in my Occident essay, prefigured a possible way out of the high modernist impasse. And while there is a strong component of the ethical in my move to the talk pieces, based on my sense of the human value of direct address, it was also based on the promise of the kind of provisionality offered by jazz. Improvisation is the enemy of reification, if you don't count on it too much. The talk pieces are filled with representationsimages and stories. There are also places that are very close to the symphonic if not to song, but they emerge somewhat impromptu from the talking and disappear back into it. Which is the way I want it. I tend to think that I learned more from Duchamp, Stein, Cage and Cendrars than I did from Schoenberg and Rothko, much as I admire them both.
And this leads to a question I wanted to ask you. What do you mean by text? I'm not sure I really understand it when you say "the deeper we listen to the spoken, the more textual it seems?"
CB:Well, for me, that echoes a quote by Karl Kraus (I seem unable to leave Vienna): "The closer you look at a word, the greater the distance from which it stares back." I am just thinking that as one gets into hyperclose listening to speech, as with detailed tape transcription, all of a sudden the textures and the grains of speech start to loom large: the pauses and interruptions and garbling of words and the rhythms. And it begins to look like something very textual, woven verbal texture. I think Stein, in trying to represent vernacular but also the "broken" English of the second-language speaker (in Three Lives), actually discovered "wordness" in speech. That is, she came up with the particular syntactic density of her radical modernist composition. You see this emerging in the end of Making of Americans and full blown in Tender Buttons. By textual, I mean features especially associated with writing, punctuation for example, or orthography, so it's the transcriptive aspects of speech reproduction that immediately plunge one into the center of the textual imaginary. This is something I was trying to explore, for example, in "A Defense of Poetry" in My Way, which is pervaded by typographical errors. What I am interested in is especially evident when the piece is sounded out in performance. And that poem ends with that quote from Kraus (by the way, also born in 1874).
You know there's that often quoted sentence by Robert Grenier, "I HATE SPEECH," which has this paradox because, as is almost never acknowledged, the remark is a speech act above all else, above its purported content. And Grenier's work of the time is all about speech, about the transcribing or realizing "utterance." So that's the quantum part: it's no shock to find the imagined opposition of writing and speech collapses at stress points. You might say that writing and speech are aspects of verbal language and that textuality is a palimpsest: when you scratch it you find speech underneath, but when you sniff the speech, you find language under that. And of course what I have been suggesting in our discussions is that your "talk" poems are quantum entities in just this way.
Well, as I mention Kraus, it brings up something that is "under" maybe or "around" or "next to" key parts of our conversation. I want to ask you if you see a particular turn in Jewish modernism, if the Jewishness is significant for your reading of modernism? But I also want to ask about the significance of Jewishness for you. And, carrying this to the present, in an age of identity poetics, how do you read Jewishness in terms of your work and your life?
DA: Yesterday I had to call our New York accountant and he greeted me as always with a burst of gleeful Yiddish that made me laugh and answer him as well as I could in his mother tongue. "Oy," he said, "you sound like a German. Your Yiddish is verdeitcht." What can I do, Mel, I learned German first. I suppose that's my typical situation in relation to Jewishness. My family was no longer religious. My grandfather, whom I was named for, had turned from a Talmudic scholar into a Spinozan pantheist. As long as I remember I not only had no personal interest in religion, but growing up during the Nazi takeover of most of Europe, I thought the idea of god was not only obscene but at best totally meaningless. Yet I got bar mitzvahed--because my grandmother wanted me to. On her husband's side of the family we claim descent from one of the great Hasidic masters, Wolf Kitzes, a close associate of the Baal Shem Tov. So I learned enough Hebrew to stagger through a meaningless ceremony that I scarcely remember, except that my cousin Betsy, who was principal of a high school, gave me the collected novels of Victor Hugo, which I dutifully read all the way through in spite of the endless descriptions, the small print, and the thickness of the volume. But I recognized something of my family in what Martin Buber wrote about our somewhat absentminded ancestor. It amused me and made me wonder what made him one of the Hasidic Masters. So when Jerome Rothenberg and I had translated a very early work of Buber's and we had occasion to meet him, I asked him what made Wolf Kitzes a Hasidic master, and Buber simply said "He had fire." Jerry and I were in our twenties then and Buber was about seventy. So I left it at that. But early in 1990 Marjorie Perloff and Jerome and I were asked to talk at a Tikkun conference in Los Angeles about Writing and Jewishness. I took the occasion to do a talk piece called "writing and exile" that got published in Tikkun in September or October. And toward the end of the talk I decided to revisit the Wolf Kitzes story and tell it my way. It goes like this:
The Baal Shem for some reason sent Wolf off on an expedition that required him to travel from Bialostock or wherever they were in Poland or Russia to the shore of some sea across which he had to travel for some time on board a ship that was caught in a storm and wrecked, and clinging to a spar he drifted ashore on what looked like a deserted island. Exhausted and dripping wet, he crawled up the beach, creeping along in his soggy clothing perhaps having lost his stremmel and looking for some sign of human habitation, which appeared on a distant peak or crag to be a lone castle or manor. He made his way painfully up the mountain to the manor and rang at the gate, hoping to be admitted with the servants. But nobody came. The gate simply swung open as did the great door of the principal building, that opened into a grand central hallway where Wolf found himself at the end of a huge table that seemed to stretch an immense distance into the interior of the castle, which appeared so dark and far away that he couldn't make out the head of the table, and this table was set with a heavy tablecloth shot through with gold and silver silken threads on which were set wax candles in golden candlesticks and goblets of Venetian glass among dishes of Chinese porcelain and knives and spoons of beaten gold. And there was food on the table in such measure it seemed as if spilled from some great horn of plenty--nuts and fruits, grapes and peaches and persimmons and melons he had never seen, and great trenchers loaded down with roasted birds and decanters of ruby wine. But there was no one at the table. All the places were empty and he was afraid to begin to eat. So he looked around the room and up toward the other end of the table. But the head of the table that was dark before now seemed to be enveloped in a sort of luminous fog out of which a powerful voice spoke. "Wolf, how is it with my people?" And Wolf, who was at first terrified to hear the voice, reflected and then answered as any true Jew would,"So how should it be?" "So be it," answered the voice and the light dissipated from the end of the table. Wolf lost his fear, took up the decanter of wine nearest him, poured out a goblet full and pronounced the blessing over it and proceeded to eat and drink till he fell asleep at the table. When he woke up he was out at sea again clinging to a spar in the water, from which he was picked up by a fishing boat that carried him to the port from which he eventually made his way back to Bialostock or wherever he had started from on the Polish Lithuanian Russian border, and he went to his beloved master the Baal Shem and reported what had happened. When he got to the part about the voice, the Baal Shem couldn't contain himself and demanded, "So Wolf, what did you say?" And Wolf told him and the Baal Shem got very depressed. "So what should I have said?" my ancestor asked. "If you had told him the truth, he would have made it better."
Thinking about this story and thinking about my ancestor, who might have been distinguished only in being responsible for the troubled fate of the Jews if you took this story straight, I realized this was impossible. What had really happened was this. My ancestor, Wolf, in the spirit I know well from my family, heard a voice coming to him from a distance and asking what he would have had to consider, if he considered it critically, an obscene question--because an omnipotent omniscient boss knows how his people are and it is a stupid offensive question asked by an obscene power--if that's what you think you're confronting. But Wolf knew he was confronting his own delusionary system. His terrible fear and hunger and thirst had got the better of him and produced the delusion that he could ask for his situation to change and that there was some addressable being with the will and the power to change it, who somehow never had the will or the power to change any of all the other terrible situations of the Jews throughout history. So my ancestor realized the ludicrousness of his situation and turned on himself the mockery that's become the true mark of the Jewish tradition by answering in response to the question "How is it with my people?" "So how should it be?" And when he got back home and went to visit his beloved Master of the Holy Name and the Baal Shem Tov asked him "What did you say?," he realized with a feeling of pity as deep as his love that his master had so profound and excessive love of the numinous he could momentarily believe in the absolute status of this event. So taking pity on his great teacher he answered once again in the Jewish tradition, "So what should I have said?" and left it at that. Because there was nothing he should have said. There's nothing an exiled human should say when addressed in this way. You have to refuse this question because it is the imbecilic product of a degrading delusion. That's what I realized at the Tikkun talk. I realized the tale was a devastating example of Jewish black humor that Buber just didn't get, because it leaves you with a choice I understood, between a demonic god and no god at all. And that talk piece taught me that what I got from the Jewish tradition was not Yiddish or the religion, but the sense of exile. Now the sense of exile seems to play a very large role in modernist writing. When you asked me about Jewish modernists, I thought first of Kafka--the middle-class, German-speaking Jew caught between Catholic German nationalists and Hussite, Czech Prague. Or Proust, the gay, rich Jew in Catholic France. But why not go back to Marx and Freud, the one baptized and anti-Semitic and the other a resolutely secular atheist Jew. This was modernist exile, confronting blunt European racism. Kafka worked for an anti-Semitic insurance company and could watch a pogrom unfold outside his office window. But he was also exiled from the various forms of Jewishness as well, from Zionism, from Yiddish folk culture, from the language itself, which he thought of the way all cultivated German speakers did, as a low jargon, in spite of the linguistic fact that Yiddish is an older language than Hochdeutsch. It's essentially a socially distinct version of medieval Rhenish, carrying traces of the Andalusian origins of its first speakers and enriched by an elaborate word hoard from Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian, as its largely literate speakers moved eastward. But the Jewish exilic aspect of modernism goes beyond the Jewish modernists themselves, among whom we would have to include Stein and Wittgenstein as well. It's no accident that Joyce chooses Bloom, the Hungarian Jew to play the Odysseus of his novel to Stephen's Telemachus. Marcel Duchamp, a permanent if cheerful exile wherever he went, remarked in an interview that he'd originally intended to give his female persona a Jewish name. The fact is, he did. Rrose Selavy is easily pronounced as the typically European, Jewish Rosa Levy. Everyone from a Jewish family had an aunt Rose. I not only had an aunt Rose, I had three cousins named Rose, one of whom changed her name to Barbara because she thought Rose sounded too Jewish. But this is now, not then. If I draw on the sense of exile, it's more in the cheerful exilic mode of Marcel Duchamp than in the anguished mode of Kafka. Probably because by now it seems clear nobody has a permanent home on the face of the earth. Though Kafka's narrator in the Gespräch mit dem Beter appears to have foreseen this in his vision of the city square, around which the buildings were collapsing and across which people were used to being lifted and blown by a weirdly gusting wind.