Experimental Writing and Beyond
An interview with Joan Retallack
Jan Baetens : In your 2007 essay, "What is Experimental Poetry & Why Do We Need It?" (http://jacketmagazine.com/32/p-retallack.shtml), you emphasize the notion of “shock of alterity”, whereas readers might have expected something like “shock of novelty” (you mention, but only in a negative manner, “the latest stylistic oddities”, which might be a definition of a kind of “fake” novelty?). How do you see the difference between “alterity” and “novelty”?
Joan Retallack : 1. Your question brings to mind art critic Robert Hughes' 1980s BBC program "The Shock of the New" — his boisterous introduction to 20th century avant-gardes. Many of whose practitioners, particularly in performance arts, clearly enjoyed shocking uninitiated audiences. It turns out that both the shock and the novelty are ephemeral — diminishing steadily as the art becomes curated into museum and market commodity. This is not what I'm after with experimental procedures.
2. "Alterity" (word and phenomenon) has become an increasingly charged focus in my work as source of ecological disaster and cultural turmoil. The darkest side of the Anthropocene. In the 2007 essay you cite, I'm primarily addressing capital n Nature's historically perceived alterity. Nature, from which our species has separated itself, vaulting in our exceptionalism beyond evolutionary kinship, has been of value to human culture primarily as material resource. Hence the devastated landscape we've only begun to notice in the "mirror of nature" reflection of our narcissistic desires. Given the role "nature poetries" have played in our obliviousness, the compound question of my essay title is meant to launch an exploration of the action of poesis as it creates linguistic forms presenting new geometries of attention. Attention, for instance to the fact that what we experience as alterity is a manufactured perspective imposed by the "us" on the "not us." The shock of alterity precipitated by scientific revelations that reveal these perspectives as a product of human short-sightedness is ultimately one of self-recognition in the scene of our Anthropocenities.
3. Can one make a case for experimental procedures that take us beyond self-reflective "mirror of nature" renderings that must always foreground our human subjectivity? One possibility is to create a poetics empathically tutored by what John Cage called nature's own "manner of operation" which, with ever increasing technical and scientific knowledge, equips us "to transform our contemporary awareness of nature's manner of operation into art." (Silence, "Experimental Music," p.9) With such an approach one may release the constructive powers implied in alterity's cognates: alter, alteration, alternative. The 2007 essay discusses Juliana Spahr's Things of Each Possible Relation Hashing Against One Another as a primary Fig.1, in doing with language exactly what she describes in her title. The poem activates a "hashing" of normally distinct vocabularies — nonetheless intimately intertwining with one another.
4. More recently, I've published an essay titled "Alterity, Misogyny & the Agonistic Feminine" (https://jacket2.org/article/alterity-misogyny-and-agonistic-feminine) which explores the ancient feminization of exploitable Nature, and vice versa. It is part of a project to compose essays, poems, and other art forms in which alterity can have the positive valence it deserves, signaling the richness of other possibilities. Possibilities not just latent in the word but also within the very nature of those phenomena and persons pejoratively tagged as intruders; e.g., the entire, expanding LGBTQIA+ spectrum. The historic identification of the feminine as both cause and embodiment of a destructive or otherwise negatively conceived alterity is a major concern, in the way I read the cumulative embodiment of Western Values in the canonical literature and arts, as well as in my own work. Certainly not the beginning, nor the end are enduring myths of consequential feminine alterity. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest (c.1425) usage entry for "alterity” is this: "Sche [sc. woman] made an alterite and an oþerhede in that tyme, that sche made alienacion and partynge bitwene God and man." Fast-forwarding to the 20th century there is Emmanuel Levinas. Having been queried too many times whether his ethics was inspiration for my "poethics", I must once again out his misogyny. (Earlier outings can be credited to Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida.) Why did Levinas so precisely define "the feminine” as “absolute alterity”? Short answer: According to his logic, sche must be available in the otherness that is her reproductive apparatus in order to enable civilization's narrative of masculine agency to continue one generation to the next with the birth of the son. (Levinas's Time and the Other, which might more accurately be titled, Time and Alterity.) The "agonistic feminine"—which can be enacted by any gender has been an uncannily brilliant constructive response. My essay offers copious examples.
5. Alterity is always entangled in a degree of complexity that involves both extreme gravitas and profound humor. The work of Hieronymus Bosch, which I greatly admire, is deeply permeated by that. It is a visual and ethical starting point for my latest volume of poetry titled BOSCH'D. Returning to the rest of your question, it's my opinion that mere stylistic oddities will never be odd enough. Particularly not if one wants to somehow invite an exploration of alterity into the linguistic action of the work, demonstrating how material dynamics: lettristic, linguistic, spatial, temporal may even illuminate the generative alterity of the genre itself.
JB : In the same text, you repeatedly draw attention to a certain analogy between scientific experimentation and poetic writing. The scope of this analogy seems clear, but what are the limits of this analogy, and how do you treat them in your own writing?
JR: 1. Why pay attention, as poets, to science or, one could ask, as scientists to poetry? Interestingly, both science and any instance of poesis (creating forms) may only be as meaningfully reliable as the combined effects of its ethos, logos, pathos. In a contemporary reading of that ancient formula for persuasive writing, ethos and logos appear obvious. But pathos? What does feeling contribute? Might it not just muddle thing? I think of the words pathos has spawned: passion, compassion, empathy — all essential to attentive disciplines of caring. Science or poetry without caring is frightening. Caring is most effective when it brings ethos and logos into practices where our cultures, embedded as they are in our common ecosphere, are recognized as crucial moving parts in the material context on which every creature on earth depends.
2. I consider this true for any kind of constructively meaningful poetics — acts of compositional poesis applied to any material but, for purposes of my projects, language, numerals, symbolic logics, experimental design, visual constructions, performance. There are of course many forms of experimentation in the sciences, even within a given field. Still, one can identify a basic approach that begins with a compelling question, continues with a precisely designed interrogative procedure guided by repeatedly asking, "what happens now if we do this"? The doing of the this is the key. In a literary context, these must be linguistically enacted inquiries. Altogether, a minimal but fair description of what's known as scientific method is just this: a procedural strategy activated by a question. Or, another way to put it, carrying out an "experimental design" from one initiating question to another.
3. In fact, each scientific discipline develops its own poetics if we understand poesis as transforming ideas and materials into forms. If the desired outcome is to share what counts as knowledge, meaning, the kind of searching that fuels curiosity and leads to the pleasures of wonder, then we, like Epicurus and his poetic interpreter Lucretius (On the Nature of Things) must honor science with the astute precisions of poetry, and poetry with those of science. The goal? To inspire and illuminate (human) forms of life among those of others with whom we are evolutionarily, ecologically, intimately related. Because It happens (as evolution has happened) that our human differentia endows us with critical responsibilities for the "fate of the earth," that responsibility extends to the arts and sciences, where the beauty of the gravitas and humor begins in the ethos, logos, pathos of earnestly deployed curiosity: noticing, questioning, experimenting by creating procedures, wagering on what can't be known unless it has been experienced in concert with the entire human sensorium. All that adds up to disciplinary poetics as forms of caring.
4. If this is, in some iterations, a form of analogy, it would be closest to the biological definition of that term: resemblance of function between or among organisms that have different evolutionary origins. A model of greater interest to me is simulation. Specifically, the use of computer simulation in the sciences of complex dynamics (aka Chaos Theory). For the procedural dynamic of a recent piece called transmigration — the moving parts are made of language that is set in motion as enactment of the actual linguistic circumstances under which some of the epic human migrations attempting to reach Europe from the Middle East are taking place. I'm using an extremely simplified version of a computer simulation of the development of active weather systems over time. On the page, letters, words and proportional space become, in effect, notation for a score to be temporally activated by the reader's moving eye in silence or with vocalization. The simplest example of a computer programed weather forcasting model registers three initial conditions, or variables: wind velocity, temperature and barometric pressure. In the A-I-D-S poem you ask about in your forth question, those four letters are the first set of variables, followed by letters in a series of statements that become additional variables. In transmigration the initial conditions are repeatedly complicated by Google Translate, which has been widely used by refugees to negotiate borders in languages they don't understand. In both cases, there is no way to predict what patterns the variables will create, while they observe the coherence of dynamical systems in nature.
5. This is of course consonant with John Cage's interest in literally bringing experiences of nature into the arts, as I mentioned in my answer to your first question, not by description but by employing her "manner of operation." My interest in developing procedures is more generally part of an experimental attitude akin to John Dewey's "art as experience" and what D.W. Winnicott describes in Playing and Reality as the play that is reaching out to touch things beyond our desires for fantasy, or C.S. Peirce's "real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them" while affecting our senses (Values in a Universe of Chance). Like Cage's father, mine was an inventor. His profession was research electrical engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories. As a child, I was in an environment full of diagrams of electrical circuitry, with passionate art and music and nature-loving, bird-watching parents. A father who was always tinkering, making things on the kitchen table or making music with his cello. I started observing and doing and making as my preferred form of play.
6. From another perspective, observing, and participating in "nature's manner of operation," is actually what we're doing all the time whether we know it or not. From today's ecological perspective, the question of what to notice, what to do when everything is dynamically interacting with everything else can be daunting. In The Essence of Chaos, Edward Lorenz who coined the term Butterfly Effect, titles one section, The Five Million-Variable Dynamical System. (Only five million?) That refers to weather but is also true historically, culturally, socio-politically. Anyone who thinks of their art as socio-political intervention is engaging in a very long-shot wager.
7. As someone who has had since childhood a ridiculous number of intense interests, I was excited as undergraduate philosophy student to discover Francis Bacon's early 17th century, empirically simple (literally down to earth) guide to his Novum Organum, or True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature. The problem of the intrusion of one's subjectivity (pathos overcoming ethos and logos) into what should be grasped as much as possible in its own distinctive nature is one of many things treated in his beautiful, cautionary and inspiring aphorisms. (The poetry is already there.) I can't resist these two excerpts:
XLIX. The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which might be called "sciences as one would."
L. All the truer kind of interpretation of nature is effected by instances and experiments fit and apposite; wherein the sense decides touching the experiment only, and the experiment touching the point in nature and the thing itself.*
*(Aphorism L describes precisely what I am after in the lettristic AIDS poem.)
Bacon is advocating a passionate observational rigor that, far from desiccating one's mind, redirects the will and affections with the experimental procedure that can mediate contact with "the thing itself." This is a method as essential for early gravitation and motion studies with objects tossed from tower windows or balls rolled down inclined planes as it is for Quantum Physics double-slit experiments probing particle/wave duality with a beam of light. And, it also pertains to poetry in which the procedure is enacted with and on lettristic/ linguistic material. Language "touching the point in nature and the thing itself" is something I can think about in Wittgenstein's sense of language as a form of life inseparable from how we are doing things with words, which is in turn nseparable from the living we and others are doing and who and what we are. And what everyone is doing is the composition of the time in which we all are living, as Gertrude Stein (herself a product of scientific interest and training) put it in her 1926 essay Composition as Explanation, and many elsewheres.
8. Borrowing from procedural methodologies, devising procedures to be enacted by vocabularies and lettristic logics, begins with questions I want to explore in a poetic context and must admit, on the scale of the poem, some aspect of the complexity and indeterminacy of every phenomenon touching our lives. That means, as John Cage developed it, kinds of precision that admit chance in what chaos theorists have called "pattern bounded indeterminacy." I first encountered this approach to aesthetic composition in Cage's rigorous "chance operations." As for the scope and limits of all this, I feel that's largely determined by my choices, which are themselves determined by the nature of my interests, the nature of the puzzle I'm addressing; often something I'm also thinking through in essay form, or in my visual work/play. In any case, what for me constitutes an experiment of any kind is interrogatively driven from beginning to end — a poethical wager.
JB: Unlike certain forms of European experimental writing (more specifically: the Oulipo tradition of constrained or procedural writing), you insist on the necessity of having a) a socially and politically relevant content, and b) a linguistic tapestry that is open to as many forms of language as possible. How has this dimension of your writing evolved over time, and what do you consider socially and politically relevant today (which does of course not signify that “earlier” issues such as feminism and race are no longer relevant).
JR : 1. I don't remember a time when I wasn't aware that certain people were treated unfairly relative to privileged others. As a child I had the benefit of weekend excursions with a doting aunt who humorously referred to herself as an "intellectual revolutionary" but was entirely serious about inculcating in me a sense of social and racial equality, respect for people of all kinds. One result was my writing a play in the third grade of my racially and ethnically diverse New York City elementary school. It was about the importance of choosing field-trip partners who were different from oneself and was performed (at the principal's insistence) for a very restless plenary assembly. The neighborhood I lived in was populated by many first generation Americans whose parents spoke in native languages or with fascinating accents. I've continued to enjoy what I value as the "ambient polylingualism" of this immigrant enriched country. Not only overheard, but showing up in packaging, "how to assemble" instruction sheets, guides to museums and libraries, pamphlets to inform patients about medical tests or procedures. All government notices now include this reassuring statement, "You have the right to get help and information in your language at no cost" — in over a dozen languages. Responding to an invitation from Gale Nelson to compose a work for publication in a series of three pamphlets with his Paradigm Press, I wrote the first installment of a multilingual prose-poetic piece called MONGRELISME, appropriating linguistic artifacts from those ambient texts and playing with a linguistic mélange that reflects portions of my family's palette of languages. I meant the title as a one-word manifesto for all three parts. Unfortunately Paradigm Press had to discontinue the series for lack of funds. MONGRELISME stands alone.
2. What started as seriously playful, experimental uses of multiple languages has attained a greater sense of purpose without, I hope, affecting the buoyancy. For instance, a collaboration with American poet Forrest Gander stemmed from a weeklong international meeting of poets on the theme of Poetry and Violence at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. We noticed we were both "writing through" the nightly poetry readings that took place almost entirely in languages we couldn't follow adequately, or at all. It turned out we were both acutely attending to, and transcribing unintelligible words on the phonetic level, sometimes triggering associations with vocabulary in other languages. Normally, in our own languages, we tend to miss musical sound patterns as we concentrate on transmission of information. In fully conceded ignorance, the heightened musicality is richly pleasurable. Forrest and I compared our transcriptions out of curiosity and decided to collaborate by putting them into conversation following the sequence of parallel responses. We collaboratively titled the piece Grief's Rubys: Coimbra Poem on Poetry & Violence — published in my Roof Books volume, Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont'd. I relate the quality of attention this procedure required, and replayed with even more pleasure, to John Cage's idea and practice of "anarchic harmony" — the great unexpurgated chords generated by the rich diversity of sound makers on planet earth. This is also an example of the poethical beauty of silence as Cage redefined it: sounds, sights, socio-cultural phenomena to which we've tended to be oblivious. And, I think of Genre Tallique's "Translation is an embrace that goes on too long." (G'L'A'N'C'E'S': An Unwritten Book)
3. Since then, during the dark night of Trump's grotesque shadow, patriotic xenophobes have formed armed civilian militias; people have been physically assaulted, shot, murdered in stores for their audacity to speak Spanish in "America." The defense of monolingualism is directly akin to the defense of racial, ethnic, and gender purity. What is thankfully new is a widespread (and I hope not temporary) realization, on the part of many millions; a realization of the deeply complex embeddedness of Xenophobia in our deranged habitus: Pierre Bourdieu's term in The Logic of Practice for the consciously and unconsciously supported status quo that persists in every society, often against that society’s own best interests. The arts must and do address that.
JB : How do you manage in your writing the perhaps difficult meeting of verbal experimentation and political action. And would it be possible to (briefly) comment upon a short text where you think you have solved this problem in an exemplary way? Would AID/I/SAPPEARANCE (which can be read here: https://jacket2.org/poems/poems-joan-retallack ) be a good example?
JR : 1. I've already said quite a bit that pertains to this question but perhaps I've made things appear too seamless. There was an early period when my aesthetic across media and genres was most engaged with modernist and postmodern work that I considered "apolitical" in marked contrast to what I was experiencing in the sixties activist milieu as insufficiently nuanced political advocacy. In the visual arts, I was excited by both abstract expressionism and minimalism. When I began doing writing experiments (a "concrete novel" and "word plays"— no intentional poetry of my own, some collaborative translations of Sappho and Pindar, attempting genre-free consciousness, just typing to fill multi-colored paper) my literary and philosophical pantheon was a mix: Sappho, the accidental minimalist; Beckett; Joyce; Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés; Eliot's The Waste Land; Pound's Cantos; Woolf's The Waves; all that was obtainable of Gertrude Stein; Spinoza's Ethics; Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus; Cage; Duchamp; Rauschenberg; any extreme visual minimalists I came across.
2. Two major realizations ultimately healed the seeming dichotomy between formal considerations and sociopolitical content. The first was beginning to invent procedures. For many, procedures are a way to avoid emotional or socio-political content. For me they are a way of incorporating it. The other was the realization that everything we create aesthetically — that is, every act of poesis — enacts an ethos. What was my ethos? It had to do with what I consistently, deeply cared about. In a nutshell: social justice. But, I didn't want to give up formalist perspectives that add the important dimension of undecidability, which lets the reader collaborate in making meaning. Procedures make that possible.
3. AID/I/SAPPEARANCE, unlike George Perec's La Disparition — to invoke your earlier contrast with Oulipo — is not a virtuosic feat of carrying out a technically difficult procedure; it's about responding to an invitation from the poet Rob Fitterman in the early 1990's to contribute a poem for an issue of Object, a magazine he was then publishing. The issue was to be entirely dedicated to his brother Stefan, recently lost to AIDS. I didn't know Stefan, but Rob was a good friend and, beyond that, I had a vivid sense of what death by AIDS entailed, having one summer seen the literal disappearance of a close neighbor — daily settled by his partner in a chaise longue on their front porch as he was wasting away until one day he was no longer there. The anguish and brutally diffident public response was something I wanted to respond to in tribute to Rob's brother. But how was I to do that?
4. After a number of false starts, I realized I wanted very much to express the enormity of the tragedy, the depth of my compassion without resorting to descriptions of my feelings. I didn't want to explore my own subjectivity; I wanted to try to make something that touched on Stefan's and Rob's experience. So my question was: How might one draw closer to the experience through poetic enactment? Counter to the distancing strategy of description buffered by like, as if, etc. Meanwhile I had missed the deadline for the issue. Rob was understanding; it could be printed in the next issue. My question had become more specific: can I infect the poem itself with AIDS? And next: How could that be done? The fact that the name of the disease was lettristic and the poem literally made of letters, gave some plausibility to the idea. I next had to develop a rationale for a procedural design and test it. I assumed it would be the first of many experiments.
5. Starting with a series of lines I immensely valued, and the fact that AIDS was transmitted via intimate contact, I began the process of infecting all letters in the text of the poem that immediately adjoin A I D S in the alphabet. Those, now infected, spread the contagion to all letters intimately placed next to them in the alphabet, and so on until all letters were infected and no words remained. The online link to a pdf of the completed procedure is in the text of your question. The disappearance speaks for itself.
JB : As a writer as well as a teacher, you have always tried to combine the study and practice of writing and the study of other disciplines, mainly philosophy. Is that the main difference between your classes and what is generally understood by a creative writing class or workshop? And is this special take on the teaching of writing something that was inspired by the example of John Cage?
JR : 1. John Cage has been a continuous inspiration since the time I met him when I was 24, at a crisis ridden juncture in my life. He surely had something to do with my decision to act on the realization that philosophy would always be part of my intellectual life but not as a professor in such an airtight discipline. After taking great pleasure deploying "invincible" logic in my undergrad papers, I realized I much preferred the Montaigne essai's conversational searching to academic writing. I continue to love reading philosophy; don't want to write like a professional philosopher. Cage's "Lecture on Nothing" (in Silence) is bold and beautiful and uncanny and pertains to everything I value in poetics. The circumstance of his first performing it, the manner in which it is the score for performing it, has been a linguistic marker of what a poethical wager can be. As well as for the importance of performing poetry. "Diary: Emma Lake Music Workshop 1965" (A Year From Monday) is a beautiful essay written/scored to be performed and having to do with conversational pedagogy. When I refer to beauty in this context, it is of a kind Cage taught me to notice in almost any kind of circumstance. That includes the classroom.
2. With the exception of a course I taught as a philosophy graduate student in my early twenties ("Ethics and Value Theory"), all my classes have been interdisciplinary, in both readings and practice. I was not myself a product of MFA creative writing pedagogy and I have never presumed to teach anyone how to write poetry. The standard model of the "poetry workshop" frankly horrifies me: critical vetting of stylistic matters with poet-prof as expert, students voicing free associations to what their peers have written. I have wanted instead to develop procedures that heighten curiosity, intuition, and joy in language. In class, my students have regularly read in-progress work (poetry and essay) aloud, in conversational sequences they determine by volunteering when struck by something that resonates in another student's work. This is the written work speaking for itself without explanations or apologies, while the class develops as a community of mutual respect and interest in one another's work. When everyone has participated, there is reflective writing in silence. Portions of that are read aloud. It is thus a continual process of realization of the work by performative reading, active listening and reflection. All this in the context of assigned, interdisciplinary readings. The seminars are two and a half hours, so there is time for many configurations of presentation, collaboration, discussion.
3. My three decade affiliation with Bard College, participating in and then directing the interdisciplinary Language & Thinking Program generated central models in my pedagogy, along with an Interarts Program I helped design early on. My colleagues in the Languages & Literature Division at Bard were from the outset supportive of what I came to call "practice based seminars." Rather than running a standard "creative writing" class, all seminars have had foci of investigative inquiry and writing experiments conducted conversationally and collaboratively, in response to a variety of texts. In fact, what I have actually been teaching is poetics of and in conversation with philosophy of language, science, and epistemology as well as translation theory, the work of extraordinary poets from Sappho to modernists, postmodernists and other contemporaries. But also the visual history of texts, the art of designing and making a book. A sense of the pedagogy is probably best revealed in the mix of some of my seminar and tutorial titles. Seminars: Investigative Poetics; Poetry & Society; Modernism & Its Discontents; Poetry: Texts, Forms, Experiments; Poetry & the Art of the Book; Silence & Art; Poetics of the Experimental Attitude: Gertrude Stein & John Cage; Poetry & the Visual Presence of Writing; Sappho & Aesthetics of the Fragment; Polylingual Poetics; Poethical Wagers. Tutorials: Opera, Poetics and Composition; D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality; Literature & Philosophy; Wittgenstein, Language, Poetics; Experimental Performance Writing.
JB : Your writing is not only interdisciplinary in the sense that it relies on the dialogue between “art” and “science” (as possible forms of experimentation), but also in the sense that it exceeds the traditional boundaries between media. Could you comment on what you have learnt most from the visual arts, for instance, or does it not make sense to make distinctions between image and sound (here as well, one inevitably thinks of Cage)?
JR : 1. It's probably no surprise, since my interests and practices are fundamentally interdisciplinary, multi-genre, intermedia, I've been working/playing with visual materials and dimensions of those interests all along. When I met John Cage, in fall 1965 at the Harper Theater, where the Cunningham Company was performing just a few blocks from the University of Chicago campus, I was studying for a semester with G.E.M. Anscombe — Wittgenstein's colleague, friend, translator — and spending a lot of time at the Art Institute. I had, since my teens been juggling equally intense interests in philosophy, visual art, and writing. By 1965 I was also a mother. It was clear that I had to at least designate a foreground/background apportionment among intersts I was actively pursuing. Cage's belief, related to the influence of Duchamp, that the usefulness of art is centered in its ability to transform the quality of attention to everyday life, was pivotal for me. I soon put aside intentions to make art for exhibition -- which I had begun doing in D.C. with encouragement (and even material supplies) from the Duchamp associated curator Walter Hopps and others at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
2. My thinking in Cagean terms was that I of course wanted to "improve the world" in some way, at least not "make matters worse" with whatever I was doing. The Duchamp-Cage revelation was that the visual arts can transform habits of attention in such a way that anything one stops to look at on the street with sufficient interest can be as fascinating as officially designated art. In fact is art. The nature and effect of the attention is the crucial element. I had always found great pleasure in observation. So, I would foreground the aesthetics of attention — what I came to think of as "geometries of attention"— without producing objects. Making objects had become a storage and disposal problem. Although some of my "Collage Constructions" were being shown at the Corcoran in its pioneering "Rental Gallery" and, a few black and white films screened at the short-lived DC Museum of Modern Art, my experience with commercial galleries convinced me that I wanted nothing to do with them. Anyway, thought and language were in much worse condition than the visual state of things. Perhaps I could make a more needed contribution through writing.
3. The fact is that playing with diverse materials was too pleasurable to entirely forsake. I have continued to do that, along with the graphic elements of my poetry and design of most of my books. Happily, I've also periodically been invited to make something in a more formal way. In every case I've used the opportunity in close connection with my poetic compositions, as well as philosophical frameworks encompassing poethical dimensions of both visual and conceptual "geometry of attention." For Cage's posthumous "Rolywholyover: A Circus" at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo in 1994 I made a wall installation of "errata slips" defining a performance space for two speakers vocalizing (in multiple languages) sections of Errata 5uite, a composed book, using ghost five-line music staves as structure, and dedicated to Cage not long after his death in 1992.
4. The performance installation was a kind of exploded sound-view of the book which, like others I've designed, is as much a visual as linguistic/lettristic/phonemic experience. Another project, that began with an invitation to compose a long poem for the ABACUS series (Potes & Poets Press) was as much a visual-textual composition as grammatical-semantic. The title is Western Civ Cont'd, the idea being that I would continue it in other genres. When I was offered a residency at a center for paper and printmaking as well as artist books, I made a series of 18 "open books" under a slightly modified title: WESTORN CIV CONT'D, AN OPEN BOOK: cardboard, grommets, movable images from world cultures, handmade paper, collage and text — Pyramid Atlantic, 1995-96. I'm currently continuing another iteration of that "Open Book" series.
JB : In this respect, is the Internet something that has changed your way of writing and thinking? Your work is definitely “collective”, but how do you see the notion of “participative” culture? How would you like to be “appropriated” or “rewritten” by others?
JR : 1. The internet has been a marvelous resource for research, for collaboration, and for the correspondence that keeps otherwise gossamer networks in Venn spheres robust, and subject to delightfully unexpected overlaps. In my essay writing —always a form of research, as is my poetry— the writing/researching has come to be a simultaneous process as I'm able to access and search many of my sources in medias res of composing the piece. Email has of course enabled streamlined pleasures of collaborations like the one I did with Forrest Gander.
2. There is absolutely no commercial value in my work as I choose to make it. In truth, I haven't thought much about appropriation. Only that I want the work to be useful, used. I consider all poetry — and essays as well — in active collaboration with the "reading poesis" of anyone who spends time with it.
3. It thrilled me when some years ago I looked up the word poesis in the OED to find some usages for a class, and the last, which was the most recent, citing Chicago Review 49:1, seemed familiar. It turned out to be a quote from my essay, "Wager as Essay," in that issue. I'm laughing as I write this and it does delight me, but, as the only uncredited author among the usages, I did feel stung. I like to know sources of things. That's why I enjoy notes and bibliographies as well as etymology.
JB : How would you define the fundamental unity of your work? Or is it more the trajectory that matters? And how do you mark or underscore the importance of the historical context in the making of your texts in these texts themselves? Or is this (narrow?) contextualization something that the text as an experiment has to try to overcome?
JR : 1. Can I plausibly claim unity? I've been answering almost all your questions with examples of heterogeneity. Any unity is in the ongoing multi-x conversations that have begun with impossibly large and vague questions. Just as Cage began his radically experimental phase by asking the most fundamental question pertaining to his art, What is music?, I've asked, What is poetry? What is social justice? What conversations are not only worth having, but urgently needed? Why not incorporate the fragmented reality of ambient polylingualism into one's work? All of my early poetic attempts were explorations via compositional experiments of what poetry could be. I still credit Molière with the best answer (if one could just ignore hybrid genres the mutual attraction of poetry and prose have spawned) and am no longer interested in the question. As far as historical context is concerned, it's unavoidably in my work because I'm interested and affected by the historical contemporary as we are all recomposing the residues of the past. I italicize that phrase because it is my working definition of "history."
2. Perhaps unity has become manifest in this interview billed as concerning my writing. The truest thing I can say in summary is that everything I've ever taken an interest in seems to come into it one way or another. That's why I chose to be a poet rather than a professional philosopher.
JB : For the French-reading public, you are the author of Memnoir (éd. cipM coll. Un bureau sur l'Atlantique/cipM, 2004), a book that results from a collective translation by the group “ l'Association Un bureau sur l'Atlantique" (Omar Berrada, Emmanuel Hocquard, Rémy Hourcade, Sarah Kéryna, David Lespiau, Pascal poyet, Juliette Valéry). This is a remarkable and prestigious publication, but which are actually your contacts with the Francophone world? And, more in general, which is the importance of translation in or for your own work?
JR : 1. The collective translation of Memnoir in 2002 at the Centre international de poésie Marseille was one of the great pleasures of my life. I was invited to be in residence for the week of work in Marseille. My only (dubious) contribution at the long translation table was trying to explain odd devices in the English version meant to render past and present tenses as inseparable. To enact the fact that the past can only take place in the present. Memories happen in the present. We don't time travel to the past when we write history. (I happen to love brilliant time travel fictions.) In addition to the poets you mention, others dropped by for some sessions, including Jacques Roubaud who had recently finished his translation of my Steinzas in Meditation (his, en médiation) published in the Format Américain series directed by Juliette Valéry. Roubaud had come from Paris at the end of our work week to join me in a bilingual reading of Steinzas. He participated in the final translation session.* Among the many delights of that experience, was meeting Omar Berrada, traveling with him — as arranged by Juliette Valéry — from Paris to Marseille. Omar started each translation session with his "literal" first shot at words, phrases, passages and then the rest at the table offered their versions. Omar, Juliette and Emmanuel Hocquard completed the translation post-Cipm collective.
*(Some years later Roubaud invited me to join a Bible translation project he was part of. I was appropriately honored, gave it some thought, but had to forego the opportunity. I've since wondered what came of the project. Recently found this online: Translating for Idiots: Sébastien Châteillon and the Bible, Jacques Roubaud. In Recherches de Science Religieuse Volume 89, Issue 3, 2001, pages 353 to 376.)
2. From the early 1990s, into the mid-2010s there was a lot of very enjoyable French-American-Canadian-Francophone traffic: readings, conferences and other events among innovative poets, multi genre writers, and translators — many whose work had been influenced by Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Oulipo. I actually first met Roubaud, Valéry, Hocquard, Hourcade, Poyet and many others at one of the ebullient Fondation Royaumont gatherings. Not long after that (if my temporal recall is correct) I joined Roubaud and Pascale Monnier for a reading at the Swedish Writers Union in Stockholm. Next, Roubaud was a delightful presence at a major Stein conference at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri where I read my newly completed Steinzas. And at another Stein conference at the University of Quebec, Montreal,* where I gave a talk on Stein's Are There Arithmetics, reading that poem as if it really has to do with theory of mathematics — which it does, particularly when read alongside Henri Poincaré's Science and Hypothesis, the section on his disagreement with Leibnitz. The talk was nicely translated into French as Arithmétiques du langage et du plaisir for publication in a collection that may or may not have come out. In either case I like having it in French. (Our mutual colleague Éric Trudel approved it.) Others I know in these interesting ways are Isabelle Alfandary and Vincent Broqua who put together a fascinating three day conference in Paris during the installation of The Steins Collect at the Grand Palais. They published a volume with seven essays from that conference: Gertrude Stein et les arts. My essay/talk, Gertrude Stein et les arts: quelle est la question? is included, translated by Martin Richet.
*(Eric Giraud organized both the Cipm event & the UQAM Stein conference.)
3. I've relished the wit of Roubaud's quasi procedural essay-lectures. Thoroughly enjoyed our interestingly brief conversations. Was delighted to have a brief but to the point conversation with him during a round-table at Bard College in which he argued that the major difference between the procedures of Oulipo and Cage's chance operations was the latter's anything goes lack of rigor. I disagreed, in detail. Roubaud listened and conceded in good humor.
4. When I came to Bard College full time in 2000, Olivier Brossard was at the Cultural division of the French Embassy in DC with a budget to finance poets invited to present their work in the U.S. As a curator of The John Ashbery Poetry Series, I worked with Brossard to invite French poets to Bard. With that conduit and Éric Trudel's programing for the French Program we enjoyed a pretty steady stream of French and Francophone readings and talks. In addition to Roubaud (with Jean-Jacques Poucel moderating that round-table event), there was Emmanuel Hocquard and John Ashbery's friend, Franck André Jamme; Pierre Alferi gave a bilingual reading of oxo, the English version translated by Cole Swenson. Somehow there weren't many women poets. Nicole Brossard, a rare, Francophone exception. Meanwhile, I was invited to give a talk on poetics related to the work of Édouard Glissant during a very interesting four day conference on his work at New York University. And Poucel invited me to give a talk on poetics for an interdisciplinary group he had formed at Yale. All this was great fun. But, too much of it was exclusively in English. I enjoyed the bilingual readings most, for the French.
5. I love the French language. Love having versions of my work animated differently by the French language. I also love bilingual readings and editions, in which a conversation between the languages takes place. Love Emmanuel Hocquard's Orange Export Ltd. 1969-1986, Queneau's Exercises de Style, Roubaud's Dors précédé de Dire la poésie, Perec's W ou le souvenir d'enfance, Racine's Phèdre . . . . . at this point I could go down a rabbit hole filled with titles.
6. My regret with respect to the French language is that I never spent sufficient time in France to become fluent enough for animated conversation. Olivier Brossard invited me to spend a term in Lyon during a time when it was unfortunately impossible to be away that long. My first time in France, in 1968 was eventful in a number of humorous ways. One being protracted philosophical discussions with Sorbonne graduate students. My fluency in that context could be attributed to the relatively limited, Latinate, term-laden vocabularies of the philosophers we were discussing. My other experience of fleeting but joyous fluency that year was in Morocco.