I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Poets Anne Waldman and Frances Richard discuss their careers, new work, and life at the forefront of the poetic avant-garde. Or, as Waldman calls it, “the avant-derriere.”
In 2011, poet, performer, and activist Anne Waldman published her complete feminist epicIovis: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment (Coffee House Press) which began in 1993 with volume I, “All is Full of Jove,” and continued in 1997 with volume II, “Guardian & Scribe.” Waldman’s new book—perhaps her most ambitious, radical work to date—collects these previous volumes and adds a new, third volume, “Eternal War.” With the scope of its subject and the range of the poem’s formal procedures—including polyphony, collage, montage, visual poetry, and performance notation—Iovis constitutes a compendium of experimental writing strategies and, in equal parts, an unofficial history primer, a homage to Waldman’s forebears, a Buddhist sacred text, a score for a shamanic healing ritual, and a rallying cry. In 2009 Penguin Poets published her Manatee/Humanity, an investigative poem with the endangered manatee as a central deity.
Waldman has helped create several seminal communities. She was director of the Poetry Project in its earliest incarnation, where she worked a decade and then co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She has also been collaborating with artists, performers, and dancers for a number of years, most recently with Pat Steir—the Brodsky Center will print an edition of their joint scroll Cry Stall Gaze in 2012.
Like Waldman, poet and art critic Frances Richard has been an integral part of various artists’ communities: she has been a member of the editorial boards of both Fence and Cabinet magazines, and an essential voice in the community around Pierogi gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With a recent grant from the Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital, she has conducted extended research on Gordon Matta-Clark’s use of language and his relationship with downtown Manhattan writers and artists in the 1970s. In January 2012, Les Figues Press celebrated the launch of Richard’s second book of poems, The Phonemes. Her third, Anarch., will be published later this year by Futurepoem. Her poetry—lucid, inquisitive, in dialogue with lyric and avant-garde traditions—is as invested as Waldman’s in opening new paths for the text’s agency, investigating thought’s circuitous patterns, and quickening readers’ senses.
Between the summer of last year and February 2012, the poets exchanged emails about epic, community, forebears, and the attractions of negative capability.
Frances Richard lovis praises the poetic fathers as adventurous, ambitious, visionary; in a word, epic. And in your book Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos (Coffee House Press), you state in a conversation with Randy Roark: “I had a lot of confidence to meet my male muses on the battlefield of Mars, which is the ground of love and war and poetry.” You said this in 1991, while you were already writing Iovis, though the first part had not been published. It still feels true in “Eternal War,” the most recent volume of this 1,000-page, three-part project.
Such a statement seems to assign artistic and sexual engagement to a warrior consciousness, to the metaphor of the battlefield where opponents must be conquered. At the same time,Iovis critiques phallic complacency as warmongering, devastating. This epic posits the feminine as a counter-power operating from an ethic and aesthetic of inclusivity and care. For example, from Book III, pp. 654-5:
Inana, Phyrgian Cybelle, Gaia, Ishtar, early Demeter …
mercy mercy […]
I am no man
I am no business …
Yea I am the blade life
A hotter war a hotter hotter war
[urban density takes out more than a few lives]
Yea I am rice & oil & sugar & guns
Yea I am yr throat & will wean you, poem, from despair
As reader and writer, I desire both these affects—the martial accomplisher and the tender protector—and it’s dangerous to have to choose between them. But I wonder, can we have the cake of aggression and eat peaceful coexistence too? Is it possible to hold this particular negative capability without a relativistic blurring? The epic speaker in Iovis remarks that she is “mixing up civilizations and my place inside them.” How do you move through so many time periods, world regions, creatures, and causes? What, on a practical level, do you do to manage specificity inside this kind of epic sweep, to inhabit so many apparently contradictory positions in the sustained act of writing?
Anne Waldman Yes, “the confidence to meet my male muses.” Though I would consider both of us, you and me, equally adventurous and ambitious and visionary now as I would our many current women of the poetry cloth.
After the classic muses of Dante, Shakespeare, the Greeks, the moderns and so on, the male muses I was probably referring to were the big daddies of avant-garde poetry when I was getting started (in 1965). In 1991, they still held power for younger writers. And in the classical literature I read as a child, I was identifying with male protagonists. I am curious how you would see this yourself, today. Surely there is no longer any “anxiety of influence”? Perhaps a tinge of ironic nostalgia? As Alice Notley puts it in a poem: “I love heroes/ the older artists of the messy lives.”
These often messy lives were visionary, in terms of forging a counter-poetics to attenuated and restrictive doldrums. It’s like Ezra Pound. You can’t get around the Cantos—infuriated as you might feel at times—and why would you want to? You can go beyond him, possibly, or through him. The male muses include Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, William Burroughs, and, to a certain extent, Gary Snyder. Also Frank O’Hara, who had kindly invited me to come and work as an intern at MoMA. Ted Berrigan was a fixture in my life as well, a terrific compadre. Both he and Gregory Corso threw down the gauntlet about “girl” poets. There were allies to be found in the 1910s and ’20s, in the writings of Gertrude Stein and H.D. Later I had friendships with elders such as Joanne Kyger, Barbara Guest, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, but the guys were the initial challenge because they made it harder. They were ignorant in a way, one needed to be skillful in going beyond the gender card and also chip away at their patriarchal mind-set.
You have to imagine what it was like in the ’60s at 20 in a female body, wanting to write memorable poetry. The battlefield of Mars is where the lunatic, the lover, and the poet meet. Maybe that battlefield was Berkeley or New York City, or in the pages of little magazines. If anything, the battle is ultimately with one’s own demons and expectations and desires, of course. So the reference in Vow to Poetry is to an earlier ground where I probably needed to summon courage to be in the same arena with the poets I admired. I was moved by the work primarily, not the posturing. I also fought off male assumptions about sexual availability, straight and otherwise, and the goad of “Am I smart enough to enter the discourse?”
I loved the classical epics as a child, including Gilgamesh, and later had a big dose when working in Indonesia in the 1980s, as the art there—wayang kulit, dance, arja—is in thrall to the atavistic, familial war-frenzy of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. And I have been influenced by the alap form of Indian music. In alap, you state your themes in the prologue and the rest is improvisation upon those themes, with greater and greater reach.
I remember, too, an all-night performance in Bali in the 1980s—it’s ritual psychodrama actually—where I followed the actor unto an actual charnel ground or boneyard. The charnel ground, from the tantric perspective, is the secret battlefield where all the dueling and dualistic composites meet and cancel each other out. It’s the image I have always invoked for Rocky Flats—a site still toxic with plutonium after all these years, although the buildings are gone—that as a specter of death has a walk-on in Iovis. Phantom plutonium? You can never see it anyway, and so it teases our great human unmitigated blindness/ignorance. So that becomes a sustained “specificity” in the poem. It’s the toxins and the telluric energies that are addressed in Iovis as ground perhaps, and we’re doing the survival dancing on top of them. I always experience awareness and recognition as a kind of alchemy, even if you can’t transmute the poisons to gold.
So I chose epic because it seemed the quintessential, ambitious form to “don”—and to subvert—for the scale of what I wanted to propose in 1984 and ’85 when I started the trilogy. I decided to track a 25-year span. It was to be a history lesson for my son, Ambrose. I wanted to invoke the androgyne and the mother as positions of sanity, redemption from the battlefield.
But more to the point of what I’m trying to clarify. I agree with your sense of the perceived choice between masculine and feminine as “dangerous.” Yet I find I can only live inside and investigate the contradictory positions and relativistic blurrings, especially around the War State, and try to mirror them, and untangle the knots if only for a short time, before they tie up again. If faced with a choice, take both: that is the poetic wisdom. I want both affects, as you say. It’s impossible and false to me otherwise. I don’t think I am ever “eating peaceful coexistence” here.
Interesting fact: the line “yea I am the blade life” comes from a visit to a strip club in the red-light Patpong district in Bangkok. A woman pulled razors out of her maw.
FR The question of big daddies is intriguing on a number of levels. I’m thinking about the aesthetics of coterie and the potency of personal—as opposed to historical—contact with self-consciously paradigm-shifting writers. Probably this is not true of most poets in my generation. I know writers who would say something quite different, but, for me, a primary experience as a young poet was actually a lack of community. No kindly Frank O’Hara ushered me in. There was, rather, a sense of distance from the form-givers, and a sense of atomization in my peer-group. Even at the time, in the late ’90s, this felt strange, since my friends and I were haunting the same streets that your generation had staked out, going to events at the Poetry Project and so forth. I went to grad school in a creative writing program, was in a writing group, went to readings all the time. But I was also writing about contemporary art, and the community I felt most part of was not poetry but the visual art community in Williamsburg.
Fence magazine was founded in 1998 and that milieu did provide me with a poetry world, and an intense and invaluable education, procurable in no other way, in the history of experimental poetics since the ’60s. But, as writers, we in the editorial group had wildly disparate interests and aesthetics. This was good for the magazine. It meant, though, that there wasn’t much conversation about our own processes, about actually making writing.
I’ve also been a part of Cabinet magazine, and I’ve spent a lot of time around the hub of Pierogi Gallery in Williamsburg, yet I always felt skeptical about the idea that art arises best from a “heroically messy life.” Maybe this has to do with being raised around artists and activists who do strongly embrace this vision. Certainly, though, I recognize “was I smart enough to enter the discourse” goad. And the imperative to work against the grain of what is complacently or autocratically given and from a center of fierce desire—to refuse false choices.
The great white fathers of the avant-garde have obviously been important to me. O’Hara, Schuyler, Snyder, Olson, Williams—plus the fact that when I was a kid, my father gave me huge doses of Eliot and Yeats. My grandfather used to recite bits of Lear:
Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’dst shun a bear,
But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea,
Thou’dst meet the bear i’ the mouth.
(Just now I looked the quote up. He got it word-perfect except Shakespeare has a “raging,” not a “roaring” sea. My grandfather was right! “Roaring” is nicer, echoing like the sea in the sound of “toward.”) I got to Gerard Manley Hopkins through a college English professor, Pat Day, and his sprung rhythms make another voice or force embedded in my lexicon. I teachParadise Lost, which has lead to something of a Milton obsession. Keats too. Maybe it all started when I was about ten, and my dad offered to pay me ten dollars for every poem I memorized. I started with Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats.” He never paid up! But I still love getting things by heart.
With that said, the writers immediately important to me as I was developing were mostly women, and it is through these mothers that the big daddies’ influence was delivered to me in a form I could use. Brenda Hillman, Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, you. Also the grandmothers: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Lorine Niedecker. And the great-grandmothers, Stein and Dickinson. Feminist theory, feminist art history, and feminist interpretations of semiotics and epistemology were pivotal—I had another brilliant teacher in college, the art historian Patricia Mathews, who gave us Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Laura Mulvey, Carol Gilligan, Kaja Silverman. I could keep adding to this list. Also postcolonial feminist theory: I studied with bell hooks too, and she was a major influence. Trinh T. Min-ha, Gayatri Spivak. Another important teacher in grad school was Michael Harper. He brought me Robert Hayden, Dolores Kendrick, Etheridge Knight.
I find I can only live and act inside and investigate the contradictory positions and relativistic blurrings, especially around the War State, and try to mirror them, and untangle the knots if only for a short time before they tie up again. If faced with a choice, take both: that is the poetic wisdom.
This both-and-yet position, this sympathy of opposites—what Zen describes as the “identity of relative and absolute,” Keatsian negative capability, what Iovis calls “PROBLEM-NOT-SOLVING”—rationalistic tradition has a hard time even naming this balance very well. But this unfixed position is probably the most important psychic, aesthetic, ethical principle I can articulate. I think of the recent offensive and dire posturings around “compromise” in the Congressional debt-wrangle. As if the very sophisticated, deeply natural phenomenon of compromise or multiplicity could be hexed away by autocratic panic …
One more issue I’d like to insert into this already-long note. How do the grand epic traditions we’re discussing fit with Buddhist epistemologies and storytelling? I think the epic hero can be understood as empty, in a way, as the Buddhist self is empty, as Notley’s Alette is empty or the Anne of Iovis—empty, Protean? “She said ‘break apart’.” That is not really the vision I retain of Olson, Pound, Milton, not even Williams. I was just in Philadelphia visiting the wondrous University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. They have exquisite holdings in Buddhist art from Japan, China, and Tibet, and a wall-text remarked that the Tibetan tradition could be considered the “feminine” branch, with emphasis on female deities. This made me think of you.
AW The visual-art community you were involved with was a burgeoning one, starting to define itself, right? Community never feels like something one “joins,” in any case. There’s often more of an organic grace to the experience and a reciprocal give and take of so many years. Given the sociological and political climate, the upheavals of the ’60s, Vietnam, and early experiments with LSD, becoming a member of a Buddhist Sangha in 1970, co-founding projects at St. Mark’s Church and Naropa was helping create an urgent response for artistic community as a force in the culture. We had all seen a lot of burnout, confusion, failed leadership or lack thereof, plus a marginalizing of women in many realms. And suddenly spaces were opening up in my worlds and there were examples of these interconnected threads of dharma, poetry, activism …
“Form-givers” is an interesting way to address hierarchy. But I’d say, in my case, it’s also a sense of permission-givers. I return a lot to the Delphic Circle, a utopian community that existed around the poet Angelos Sikelianos and his wife Eva Palmer. My mother married their son Glaukos in 1929. She met him in Provincetown after dropping out of college and moving to Greece. Angelos and Eva were writers, social activists, dedicated to the cause of universal brotherhood, to a new agrarian utopianism. Eva had a salon in New York: The Ashram. My mother’s years in Greece were a constant reference in my childhood. There was a lot of cross-cultural fertilization. Besides that, I’ve always had a propensity for combining forces, getting everyone together on ambitious projects, which I think has spiritual dimensions. The practice of collaboration in the best sense starts as a “company of friends,” as Robert Creeley would say.
This does not deny, however, the endless question put to women, which you report you have felt too. Are you smart enough to enter the discourse? I remember my first conversation with Burroughs, in the early ’70s. I did pretty well, querying him about his idea of men birthing babies from their own assholes. The indulgent has always seemed primarily a male-ego problem and, in that sense, the “heroically messy life” has gone out of style—the chauvinism, drinking and drug addiction, macho bombast. We are not finding these figures or teaching styles (think of Olson’s classes going late into the night) in creative writing programs.
But I love your Lear story, about your grandfather. Wonderful. I worked backstage during the Morris Carnovsky productions of Lear at Stratford in the 1960s, and the language still permeates the memory tapes. Carnovsky had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities, named by Elia Kazan, and this production was a kind of comeback for him. I interweave/parse lines in Leir, which is the title of this “canto” (#VI) in the first book of Iovis:
And conjured thus a radiant sun
comes not between the dragon & his wrath
or woman ’tween her call & duty
Re: your question about Tibetan Buddhist deities and feminine energy, emptiness. The Tibetan tantric tradition is seething and roiling and advocating for prajna (womb-like wisdom) to permeate the practitioner’s consciousness. Prajna is the feminine principle, engaged with atmosphere, environment, “putting makeup on empty space” as it were. Upaya is the masculine principle, or skillful means. These energies are obviously not bound by the gender of the practitioner. A dakini-trickster consciousness is meant to permeate Iovis on the “secret” level of the triad outer, inner, secret.
So I was drawn in early investigations to wild depictions of female deities, understood as aspects of one’s own mind. When I first visited my teacher Geshe Wangyal in the early ’60s I saw tangkas of red-skinned females with skull cups and necklaces of skulls, stomping on corpses. There was an initial jolt of surprise and appreciation for this radical image. The practice is to identify with such a state of mind—wrathful, protective—to invoke other states of mind meant to cut ego-clinging. “Cut the aortas of the preventers of the teachings” as one chant goes. But oneself could be the problem. When you tie a “protection cord” around your neck, it is to protect you from your own ego.
To turn toward your work, now. I continue to be intrigued by your immensely powerful long poem “Anarch,” the title poem from your forthcoming Futurepoem book. Paradise Lost, indeed. It’s a sustained vision of dystopia, the ominous wreckage of our world. Our visible, palpable scorched earth. Nothing is going to emerge from all the detritus and muck. You hit on all the catastrophes without explicitly naming them: Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the inclement (dangerous) weather. “Anarch. is an acupuncture point,” the poem says, and although this is referenced through a Western lens—the names Amtrak, Hoboken, etc. come up—it is a point on all bodies, anywhere. And, as you write, children aren’t exempt—“children would not like this landscape.” The “terrible axe chopping at the backbone,” “moisture sucked from tissues,” “frayed optic nerve” … it’s visceral. The way the elements play in the language is also immensely provocative. What element, if not the indefinite pre-Socratic substance apeiron that the poem so obsessively considers, will hold our dissolving flesh? I keep thinking of the stuff they are trucking into outer space. Blasted back into the stardust we’re born of? Your closing line about “the tonnage of a storm”—how much more can the mind hold?
At one point, there’s an interesting counterpoint, a reflexive movement:
But the page rose up
As a unity of measure for everywhere use.
Page of the primal
Breast-as-movie-screen. Page of light partitioning
the distance. Bed-sheet page on which the dream
self-writes, and the drop of spermicide.
fascia page, bony prominence page, page of
Math, page bent
into a tube. Page of sliced trees bleached
and boiled down. I was strewn
By this drift/surge—
I like that you deconstruct our palpability as writers. And I’m also interested in your call or command or plea to “rewind the ocean … spool the river backward,” which is, of course, what we may do with words. Its “techne and arche reels.” This has to do with making, craftsmanship, the mechanisms of concealment. (For me the techne monster needs to be revealed, e.g. why are we really sending plutonium to Mars?)
Is the anarch. completely against the grain of the arche? Can we ever return to the body where we were born? Could you talk about this “unity of measure”? How are you as poet “strewn”? Also speak about the time frame for this poem and how you surmised its urgency. Did the vision/dream in part self-write? The strange erotics—how is the “primal Breast” (arche) a “screen”?
FR So many things to respond to here, and a month has gone by. I’ll just plunge in to the muck. You write about Anarch., “Nothing is going to emerge from all the detritus and muck.”
I don’t quite see it that way, though I understand the feeling, and embrace it as a reading of the poem. For me, there’s some dark sparkle, some sequined terror inside the destructive force, that fascinates. Partly this feels dangerous, a spellbinding nausea or queasily obedient/horrified/addictive swaying in the grip of toxic forces that entrance me against my will, as a TV does when it’s on in a bar over the shoulder of someone you really want to talk to … But out of the inability to tear my eye from disaster, or to unfixate my heart on heartbreak, some other thing emerges—a will to happiness despite/inside imperfection.
The poem actually says “unit of measure.” But “unity of measure” gets at what I was trying to say above, about the non-contradiction of opposites. A negative capability that does not file down the edges of either choice. (“If faced with a choice, take both: that is the poetic wisdom.”)
The bodies of words, their palpability, musicality, trickster torsions are so important to me. As if they teach how to be my body. I can hardly understand when someone, often one of my visual-artist students, says, “It’s just words,” as in, it is merely words, and therefore not anything sensual, tangible. But, of course, on the other hand, the whole point of representation, of language, is to be able to talk about what is not physically present. Words ≈ things. The mystery of the wavy line of equivalence … that’s what you mean (I think) when you mention the “call or command or plea to ‘rewind the ocean,’ ‘spool the river backward,’ which is what of course we may do with words.”
It’s a basic conundrum, after all, that a) words are breathing, rot-prone, organic creatures, and, b) are disembodied signs, fungible, impalpable. And thus subject, like organic bodies and fungible monies, to misuse. “Being strewn,” I guess, means tracking this opposition to some arche level where it isn’t oppositional. If I’m made of atoms, or quarks, and so is ink and paper and electricity and pixels and air, and other objects and speakers, including the dead, then so are words? And we’re all strewn around, wafting indiscriminately into each other, which is an image of chaos and also of total integration.
This, perhaps, is why the breast is a movie screen. That image is borrowed from the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, in an essay I can’t find now—she wrote on film quite a lot. The idea that the nursing infant, pressed against the warm, massive wall of the mother, perceives her as a scrim on which to project. This got mixed in my mind with Freudian ideas about screen memories concealing something other, potent, buried (arche)—and the idea of memory as indebted to photography, as a kind of interior movie shaped by whatever snapshots my family happens to have, or the culture repeats. I know this comes from being a child whose mother died—a child who had fantasy and absence as a mother in the 1970s. I was obsessed with photos, letters, traces, the idea of word or image as a-tingle with some particle of having-been-touched. Strange erotics.
The time frame of the poem was basically 9/11 through Katrina, with the war(s) as constant. Hits kept coming: Uprising in Tehran, Deepwater Horizon spill. Firing up the Large Hadron Collider. “How I surmised its urgency”—such a nice phrase. It did self-write, with a fluidity that surprised me. I think of this as confessional poetry, in that I am confessing my fear-grief-confusion-fury-amazement-sneaky hope about all this stuff. Poetry being more helpful to me than any other outlet I could find. This morning I was thinking of Ishmael Reed saying “writin’ is fightin’.” Is it? In commodity culture? The word both is and is not the body. To sit at home and track OWS on Facebook (while grading papers on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter) is not the same as going down to get arrested. Yet I know that, in my own life, I have been more moved, more taught, by writers than by any one else doing anything else.
So I guess that speaks to your last question: “Is the anarch. completely against the grain of thearche? How are ‘we’ species meant to begin? Can we ever return to the body where we were born?” I see anarch. and arche as being twins, puns, foils, the paired marks of the scare-quotes on the left and right sides of “we.” (Or the left and right sides of “return.”) Against each others’ grains, but not opposite. More like a moiré.
This is already so long, but I can’t resist picking up what you say about static versus active community, and how one joins a community via “organic grace.” That’s certainly true of my experience of Williamsburg in the ’90s, and of friends who had powerful experiences of, say, Riot Grrrl in those years too. It’s what we hear in testimony from Tahrir Square, and Occupy. Community is not willed in some executive way, but feeds on group grace.
This fits in my mind with your “memory tapes” about Carnovsky’s production of Lear, and really with all our discussion about forebears and comrades. It’s part of the sense I get so powerfully from Iovis that we are free—required—to chose our own antecedents, map our own genealogies as artists, pick our families and nations and bloodlines. But that somehow this isn’t really an act of will either—that we’re picked, or invited in. Like O’Hara giving you the job at MoMA, or my grandfather giving me Lear’s bear. (If we’re lucky.) “Vow to poetry” seems to me a vow to this community/lineage—a vow of archaic, unironic force.
At the same time, I have to say that “cutting the aortas of the preventers of the teachings” and “meditation on muck” frighten me. The first sounds fundamentalist and the latter sounds depressive. But, too, both aim at the same perspectival shift, neither fundamentalist nor depressive, because trickster. “To identify with a state of mind—wrathful, protective.” And/or to identify with a state of mind?sorrowful, renewing? This is getting at what I meant a few exchanges back about “eating peaceful coexistence.” Not as an easy bonbon, but—how to work this metaphor—as a trace nutrient digested in spite of itself from the GMO-corn-syrup-luridly-colored cake of fake and complacent jingoistic war. Or as a complete protein whose necessary complement is the old scratch cake in the dented pan of wrathful protection.
Here’s one last issue I can’t resist raising. Thinking about the author who is not quite an author—the self who is not quite a self; the perspective that is multiple: this points toward the basic practice of collage. Collage, quotation, borrowed and recontextualized parts structure Iovis. Collage structures “Anarch.” Yet as a compositional and conceptual practice, collage is 100 years old and counting. How do we make sense of this now time-burnished radicality? What does it mean to have a centenarian avant-garde position?
AW I’ve actually been invoking the “avant-derrière” for some time now, which sounds like a joke, but perhaps it’s more challenging to have to look in opposite directions at once—forward and behind. There’s the provocative question Agamben asks in Nudities: How are we contemporary with our time? As he notes, it’s the poet’s job to look into the darkness of his or her own time, and that actually relates to “dark cells” in our retina. It’s an act of seeing, not a privation or absence of light. Light takes such a long time getting here; we are always stuck in a kind of gap or aporia,—neither going forward or back, as we try to meet up with the light years. We’re never in sync; we are always “not yet” or “almost.” Your beautiful phrase “sequined terror inside the destructive force” is powerful, somewhat like looking into the darkness of our own time.
I like the term montage—collage’s sister? which suggests a further dimensionality—the filmic 100-year-plus practice (and also the 30,000-some-year-old cave paintings in Trois Freres and Lascaux, and Chauvet) for this multifaceted nature of Mind’s mechanism or tool for compression and simultaneity and movement. Especially motion. You include this with your Freudian ideas about screen memory, and memory indebted to photography. Layers of light and image.
Your “breast is a screen” and the infant projecting on the scrim which is “the mother’s massive wall” is magical and profoundly moving, given your personal loss. I was reminded of the incentive for my Manatee/Humanity poem, which was an encounter with a wounded female manatee in Florida. The word manatee derives from the Haitian word manati, which means “breast.” The image of the manatee with her one offspring was always in mind. The litany section of that poem evolved into a musical piece with my son singing along with the recording. So our collage work, for me, is also emotional/ liquidly linguistic freighted source and performance. Is this feminine principle? Putting makeup on empty space? You think?
Let’s indeed make sense of our “time-burnished radicality” which naturally redefines, morphs its purpose constantly! What are we now “post” of? I am post-conceptual poetics, post-cyborg, post−big daddies, post-Holocaust, post-Iraq. Post TV, etc. Really? Certainly not post-race, post-gender. Nor post-language. Post-war. Post-terror.
We are also in the very “hands-on” Occupy meme and movement, a wonderful exposure that makes use, as the Arab spring has,—of recent innovative technologies. I recommend a book entitled Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber, which should be the handbook for the Occupy movement. It’s a daunting centuries-analysis of debt and the false histories endemic in rationalizations of gift economy. Debt essentially begins and survives in the enslavement of human bodies. He takes on the notion of the “debt to society” notion and one can’t help but think of the prison industry and the six million people in lockdown in this country. I give account in Iovis of the rickshaw driver who wanted me to buy his infant son and take him home to America. He and his wife were desperate, living in extreme poverty and debt. And one of the mantras of lovis is “who is a man not caged? Who is a woman not whirr?”
The collage/montage abets layering on the stories, histories, and those “trickster torsions.” It is also compatible with our computer technology. I’ve been collaborating on movies and studio recording projects as well. These seem to move beyond the centenarian practice yet grow out of it and are affordable in ways that weren’t possible even a decade ago. I am excited and inspired in these dimensions and the technology makes it possible to have a little studio in one’s home. Next to the quill pen and parchment! And oil lamp … But the plug may be extracted quite easily and we remember that the Internet was invented by the military. I was in China recently, and disturbed but not surprised by how mention of Tibet was expunged from my texts. So back to the typewriter and scribing by hand. It’s like the sousveillence (as distinct from surveillance) activist practice or mic check of Occupy. Don’t count on the technology.
How are events measured and shaped to the work from the mind of the poet? And all the magpie research as well? What drives us? Why am I obsessed with war in the Iovis Trilogyand Latinate names of Roman weaponry? Was it playing with a button on my father’s uniform the first day we met when he was home from World War II? Was this the luminous detail out of which the poem sprang? (This photograph serves as the frontispiece for the book). Iovis is archive as well?a psychic inscription from the mother who spent many years investigating the colors in the mechanisms of concealment, the syndicates of samsara. This project perhaps kept me from cutting the “aortas of the perverters.” I know that sounds grisly, but it’s a metaphor about bringing the dangerous deciders to accountability.
In tantric practice you are instructed to bring along your worst enemy—and “dedicate the merit” of any good that comes out of whatever it is you do, including poetry. But you might need to banish your enemies occasionally.
I’ve been intrigued by the archival scope and investigative nuances and cut-ups, if you describe them as such, in Anarch., and also in your other recent book The Phonemes, especially in the section “Blank Musée.” Can you talk about all the traces in that? And how in the long poem “Shaved Code” the Earth First! activist Judi Bari’s “accident” appears? This is such an important inscription, as it were.
FR “Avant-derrière” is great because it gets at that oscillation we’ve been discussing, the “almost … not yet” function of us perceiving humans lagging behind the light-year, the split-second brain stutter between receipt and processing of stimuli. These are good mantras for “the Occupy meme,” too, right? To occupy aporiae spatially, economically, rhetorically, as a movement without a rigid platform. Even if this aporia lets teargas in.
After all, as you say, in these hundred or so years since Cubist collage and Eisenstein’s montage, technology, medicine, physics, etc. have continued to ratify “reality” as multiple, spooky-active, fragmentary—from dark cells to dark matter. So it makes sense that citation and sampling would remain procedures that feel vital. Language remains language even as the technologies or scientific models that a language-procedure might respond to alter—the digital bit and the Large Hadron Collider are different animals from the analogue photocollage and E = MC2, just as drone-strikes in Baghdad are a far cry from the Somme—and yet verbs, nouns, modifiers, pronouns, silence are still verbs, nouns, modifiers, pronouns, silence, and that’s what poets use.
“So our collage work, for me, is also emotional/liquidly linguistic freighted source and performance. Is this a feminine principle? Putting makeup on empty space? You think?” It might be. Especially given what we’ve said about “feminine” as a stance rather than an essence. “Progress” as “empty space.” “Avant-derrière” is making me think of Duchamp’sL.H.O.O.Q—elle a chaud au cul. Tradition has a hot ass, though we read that erotic truth only in code, and have to understand it as absurd. And invisible. Mona Lisa is smiling at her own ineffable hotness, inside the paint and the lithograph, and time. She becomes a mystery about appearance and versus palpability, the body-in-language—maybe she’s got a hidden razor, like the woman in the strip club in Bangkok.
About the poems. “Blank Musée” is a mash-up of three sources: Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and a short diary entry by my mother about the Vietnam war, in which she addresses a “dear reader.” I guess I think of that reader as me, but at the same time as my readers, whoever they may turn out to be, as though she and I could speak in stereo. With a glitch in between. (The diary entry also appears in another poem in The Phonemes titled “Broken Repetition.”) Her little text and the Shelley and the Auden are strange comrades, which is part of what I liked about their inter-splicing. But, too, they somehow resonate on the same frequency for me—something about a self who wants to speak to urgent, shared experience, but in doing so plunges into unbeing, and how that trajectory or fusion/dissolution is both terrifyingly intense and totally normal. (I also cut-up “Mont Blanc” and “Musée des Beaux Arts” in another poem in the book called “Blank Icarus.”)
In “Anarch.,” the citations suggested themselves fluidly, as you intuited. I’m like the imprintable device, the velcro, and these voices stuck onto or struck or stained me. Which is not to say I don’t have agency in picking this stuff up. In the Judi Bari and Earth First!−related poem in The Phonemes—it’s called “Shaved Code,” which is a phrase borrowed from Kathleen Fraser. I’m trying to work out what I think about this agency, to think about quotation and fragment-accretion as ways to puzzle through this event, in which a remarkably effective activist was violently targeted and framed by the FBI, and then resoundingly vindicated. I wanted to put Judi’s writing and the actual dollar-amounts of the jury award into the poem, these little rocks of fact.
I do sometimes stumble and get confused when the “empty space” we’re talking about encompasses not just ideas of ego, or, say, narratives about art history and poetics, but an individual body that’s been harmed, or an act of intimidation and illegal, government-sponsored aggression—that’s not “empty,” that’s heavy! And I get woozy thinking that the poem, this tissue of allusion and music and blank page-space, enjoyed by such a tiny self-selecting slice of the population, can speak back to or contain such blocky, crushing stuff—can speak adequately to, say, the experience of the loggers who were poisoned, or to the life of someone like Judi who was physically and politically fearless as well as witty and eloquent. (Like, what would the wife of the logger who had a miscarriage say if she read my poem?)
On the other hand, maybe it’s puerile to think that any writing act of mine would be “adequate” in this way. Why insist on that? “Adequacy” is “empty” too? Because I would never want to say that the shaped, montaged, aporetic language of the poem was somehow cordoned off from, unrelated, to “heavy” facts, or that “facts” are not empty in the way we’re talking about. So it’s the same caesura or hiccup of “almost … not yet.” And in that sense, someone like Judi Bari appears to me in the same way the poet-progenitors or you do; ultimately, as exemplars for imaginative work.
AW Woozy, I like that. The heavy facts, indeed and the sense of the progenitors and their traces, the psychic inscriptions they trouble with and heal and transmit to us. I awoke out of a dream this morning that was a thought of an impending civil war on this turf, the dystopic US of A. The violent rip in the fabric of these states is continuously palpable, given the degradation of the discourse, the economic disparity. And I thought it’s time to get back to Whitman’s war journals, learn how to better tend the sick and wounded (how many wrecks returning from war or already “suicided”), but then, no, better get to the study of the Weimar. It’ll be more fascist this time around. We’re resembling bankrupt Germany before Hitler. So back to Adorno, Heidegger, Alban Berg, Bertolt Brecht for the tenor of the time? Marlene Deitrich, Ernst Lubitsch? Clearly it’s the ongoing generative we need to attend to, as you so palpably and intelligently do—with the adequate symbol and the sense of citation, sampling, investigation, the morphing of the phonemes and memes, all poetry’s wisdoms churning in the void: our three-brane universe?
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee