Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
To view CAMBRIDGE M’ASS in high resolution, click here.
I was delighted to hear, from Paul, that you will be able to publish our conversation about CAMBRIDGE M’ASS in its original/actual form ! I was sad to think that the complete piece might well not be able to be included in BOMB because I like it very much/’put my heart into it’, as they say, and think that it ought to be of considerable interest to your readers … be fun to read, & be informative to those who know something of my work & want to learn more about it.
This conversation is part of an ongoing form of ‘literary criticism’ I learned from Robert Creeley, initially (from two collections of his interviews—Contexts of Poetry was one)—Creeley’s demonstration that one didn’t have to think in isolation/spell it all out in essay form (like T. S. Eliot, etc.), but could accomplish very much the same thing with the help of/in the presence of another person in conversation, in the ‘real time’ of a truly social occasion … if one had one’s wits about one, and had trained oneself to ‘operate’ under the constraints of said occasion.
In other words, doing a number of these conversations, I’ve learned to ‘tune myself’ to be ready to speak & think aloud…when the possibility of saying something in such occasion presents itself … This is what (I think) Paul & I managed to accomplish, looking at CAMBRIDGE M’ASS here in our house in Cabot that day.
It’s all ‘about’ the rhythm of the occasion, the pace (& sounded pattern) of what gets said, during the actual/’real time’ course of the exchange—that’s why I felt it was necessary to preserve the transcription of what was said (nearly) verbatim, as such. (It’s absolutely not about ‘gems’—whatever might be supposed by anybody (& this will vary) to be the ‘best parts’—‘profundities’, etc.). It’s a kind of ‘musical score’ (you’ll remember the idea in WCW/Olson/Creeley that the written poem is a score for voice/later voicings) … a ‘score for thinking’ ?
But I don’t have to ‘extol the virtues’ of this form to you, who edit a magazine committed to exactly this kind of conversation !
Anyway (I’ve done my very best to make the piece truly ‘letter-perfect’), given this commitment I have to the form, please don’t try to edit the thing (to remove “redundancies”, etc.—there aren’t any redundancies (!)), at all—there’s no need, in this instance (& in fact to set about to ‘fix it’ is to betray the intent of the occasion, as I know & understand it).
Everything in the transcript (e.g., the British usage re punctuation of question marks, single & double, position of question marks in relation to commas) has been carefully set forth as is—it’s as ‘intentional’ as anything in any poem of mine, and I would ask you to respect the fact of the form it is/it’s in.
Thank you, very much (!), for determining to publish the piece—I’m really looking forward to hearing what anybody may have to say back to us, about it !
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“Is it a long poem if you look at it long enough?” Robert Grenier asked recently in conversation. A unique figure in contemporary American poetry, Grenier has had a profound influence on Language writing and minimalist poetry, as well as conceptual writing—although Grenier would not situate himself within any of these movements. Grenier has not published a poem in typographic form in nearly twenty-five years; rather he creates drawing poems, which explore the limits of linguistic representation on the page. Examples can be seen in BOMB 127.
The following interview was recorded in Cabot, Vermont on October 20, 2014, to celebrate the reissue of CAMBRIDGE M’ASS by Convolution. CAMBRIDGE M’ASS represented a key turn toward the visual in Grenier’s writing. Originally published in 1979 by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, this “poster-poem-map” measures 40 x 49 inches and is composed of approximately 255 poems, some drawn from Grenier’s Sentences (a box of 500 poems published by Whale Cloth Press in 1978). According to Charles Bernstein, “CAMBRIDGE M’ASS should have won the Pulitzer Prize and gotten Grenier a MacArthur too.” Until recently, copies have been almost impossible to obtain; Craig Dworkin has referred to it as “the holy grail” of reissues.
Born in Minneapolis in 1941, a graduate of Harvard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Grenier has taught literature and writing at UC Berkeley, Tufts, Franconia, and New College of California. His published books include Series, Oakland, A Day At The Beach, and Phantom Anthems. Since 1989, he has been at work on the color drawing poem project r h y m m s, which to date has yielded 12 from r h y m m s (Pavement Saw Press, 1996), OWL/ON/BOU/GH(Post-Apollo Press, 1997), and 16 from r h y m m s (Marfa Book Co./Impossible Objects, 2014), as well as a large series of Giclée prints called 64 available from Southfirst Gallery.
— Paul Stephens
Paul Stephens In a 1979 brochure for Tuumba Press, Lyn Hejinian describes CAMBRIDGE M’ASS as a “mind’s eye view of Cambridge, Mass. and environs”. Do you maybe want to tell us about what was going on in your mind and in the…environs out of which this came ?
Robert Grenier Oh, it’s hard to imagine now… Just looking at it on the floor, it looks really black and white. And I remember seeing it, actually, anew at that [retrospective] show at Southfirst Gallery [June 2013], on the wall there. And Maika Pollack, whose gallery that is, really liked it and I thought well, what is this darn thing ? It’s been in my closet or piled up behind this and that for many years…and so I hadn’t had a chance to look at it, but I saw it as this—and I see it now, especially in this new version—as really black and white…and peculiar. It’s like, “what is this Thing ?”—there used to be The Thing, and It Came From the Lagoon, or it came from…Boston Harbor perhaps ?…which, in those days…maybe it’s a little cleaner now, but it was kinda grubby and grungy, and dripping with…stuff. But I really like the way it…appears…out of the blackness of the ‘Great Beyond’, which to me is like ‘Time’, you know ? It’s…way back there, and it kind of…rattles around. I remember at the time thinking that it was sort of like…some kind of Japanese figure, like a creature in a Noh play, that started out…and then BLAGH or WHUH ! So, there it IS. But at the time, yeah, I thought, hmm… Well, after—this was after doing that box of cards Sentences, right ? —after you’ve isolated things down to one, you’re left with the problem of how to present more than one, which would involve either the ampersand, the and, or…the plus sign. So, it was part of an attempt to try to figure out how you could bring words into space…in a way that was an alternative to the speech-based poetry of the time that I was raised in. And I was thinking earlier today, what a sacrifice it really is to abandon the…not simply the voice of the poem, but the whole range of musical articulation, in sound…which had been my whole experience of poetry… Listening, as we were, to Pound’s late reading from The Cantos, it’s such a magnificent articulation of language in sound. And in my immediate experience prior to this—I was raised on the realization of speech in Robert Creeley’s work—I was so impressed by that, that it seemed that there must be something else that could be done, which would not simply repeat the long tradition of the spoken word, and poetry as sound, in that range that Zukofsky specifies, from speech to music. William Carlos Williams to John Dowland, or something like that, where the poem is sounded in so many fascinating ways… And looking back at this, I think, gee wiz, why did I abandon that ? [laughs]
PS So, in Pound’s terms, would CAMBRIDGE M’ASS be pure “phanopoeia” [which Pound defined as “the casting of images upon the visual imagination”] ?
RG Well, there was a ‘key’ there…and it was in the back of my mind, from reading, you know, his edition of Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” that the poem could exist—and then the demonstration of that in Pound’s early literary essays that the word ‘red’ is a composite—I don’t know whether this is the case, one could imagine that it would be a composite of…what was it ? Cherry, flamingo…I don’t remember what the four things that would be built into the ideogram of the Chinese written character… So that the poem… Yeah ! Well, that was…it was a kind of—what would you call that ?—a wonderment of possibility that there could be another way that the poem could exist, beside the wonders of the spoken word. And I must say that all that sounded stuff still registers for me. In more recent work, probably there is more sound. But what if you stopped—this is an idea that I’ve spoken of elsewhere—if you’d stopped time altogether, and just had the word as object in space, what could be made of that ? How could it… And could the word as object in space, by some ‘magic’ of its own, participate in the thing-like nature of the phenomenon of which it spoke, or speaks ? Or—‘cause of course there’s a long…conjectures about where language comes from, whether it was primarily a way of noting down how the sound of speech could be recorded—and there was all that stuff in the poetry in which I was trained, that the poem was a score for the human voice. It was like a musical score, and you could read the score…you could look at the way the line break worked in Williams, for example, and then you could rearticulate something of the sound of the speech of Polish mothers, or whatever Williams says. But could there also be another way in which the words exist, which might be, arguably, even earlier in human use, as not merely a way of keeping track of some kind of economic exchange for the parties to know about—that’s one idea, that language came from a need to record transactions of some kind…and so you would write down, like how many of these were given to X in exchange for whatever quantities of something else. But it could also be part of—as in old caves—it could be a way of conjuring, in space, the condition of creatures that one wished to summon… So the written word might have some kind of magical capacity to gather…not only to testify to what happened, but to gather the spirit and physical existence of something outside itself…if it were set forth in space, the ‘right way’. So this is—in retrospect, given the drawing poem stuff that’s evolved out of this—an early attempt to establish the existence of words in space in such a way that there might be another place for the poem to exist besides the wonderful, predominant and accomplished musicality of the spoken word that I was raised in, on. And that’s a long response to…
PS But in another sense you could also place the poem in a kind of spatial tradition. I mean, it literally is a map. But whether it’s Paterson or Gloucester, if you think of the…poem being spatially rooted in a place, but imaginatively so.
RG Yeah, if you were above it, as we are now, looking down at this CAMBRIDGE M’ASS, the new CAMBRIDGE M’ASS on the floor, you could imagine that you were looking at a map of—and I did think of that—like over here is the Atlantic Ocean [laughs] on the right side. Down here somewhere is New Haven and New York, and over to the left is the wilds of the Far West. And up on top might be Ipswich Bay, and this could be Cape Ann, up here, something like that. It’s all very rough, and it’s an imaginary situation, but—there’s also, in the back of this, that thing in Charles Olson, “I am making a mappemunde. It is to include my being.”
PS It reminds me of some of those geographical/sociological studies where they ask people to draw maps of the city they live in, and they’re very biased toward their own neighborhood or toward their own community.
RG Oh sure, yeah, it’s all out of proportion and so it has no relation to the actual topography of Cambridge, Mass….but it has some sort of rough approximation. Mostly, it was just…let’s see… My partner then, Kathleen Frumkin, was working at a legal press, printers, in San Francisco, and Lyn and I thought, well, we could make a…we could find out how big the bed would be that the printer could actually run through as one sheet. And I was trying to figure out how I could reassemble, or re-gather, the single poems in Sentences on 5 x 8 cards into more than one. And so I thought, well, I’ll just start working with a piece of paper that was the largest piece of paper that would go through the press. So I made a paste-up of these little rectangles that were typed on an IBM Selectric, like Sentences, shortly after the making of Sentences. And I started combining them—like how do you put them together, and in what relation ? So it was just trial and error, to establish the existence of words in space, over against this black ground, which I thought was really interesting. Dark water, or the area beneath the Earth, where…light doesn’t shine. And if you could see it from above, like a bird’s-eye view, in relation to…just looking down at it, what would it look like ? And it makes a kind of chaos of assembled particles, which… I mean it’s obviously a collage, like a standard conventional means of gathering things—Jess Collins, for example. Not that this work was inspired by him, but it’s not…when you move over into the area of the visual arts, it looks very…commonplace [laughs], after all. But in the field of the poem, at that time… Well, there was that other thing, which was a part of the language in Olson and Creeley, that you enter into the ‘field’—Robert Duncan’s book, The Opening of the Field—and if you take that literally, why then you have a kind of organization of words in space, so… It was an ‘experiment’, and—and it certainly looked peculiar at the time, I think, to persons who were…who had, you know, experience in poetry and love for the materials of the poem. And so, even now, it’s [laughs] funny-looking… You can read some of them… They’re also stripped down in that sense, so that they don’t have a lot of emphasis on the I, or the lyric ego, in its articulation/expression of its own condition. They’re pretty straightforward… If I could find my glasses, and we could look at one and see what it says… Some of them are almost without ‘literary value’. Let’s see… One of them says “you haven’t eat” Ett ? “you haven’t eat” ? It must be “you haven’t ett”. And many of them I’ve completely forgotten, like that one. You just kinda bend over…and there’s no information about who “you” is, or the “I” who is speaking, or why that’s important, or… It’s just kind of a… “ett” ? [laughs] Somehow that strikes me as quite funny. If you haven’t “ett”, then maybe you should eat ! It invites, of course, participation on the part of the reader, which is more…tolerable as an expectation nowadays than it used to be. Formerly, you kinda just sat there and were told what’s what. So, if you get down on your hands and your knees, you can see something that says, toward the bottom, “forgets Blanche”. Let’s see, counting that out… “forgets” is seven, and “Blanche” is seven. So I guess I thought that was interesting, gave it some kind of ‘structure’. In Sentences, the counting of the letters is a big deal, in the mind at work in these. “HAZY // choice of life” ? “use relative for bearing”… [laughs] Well, in fact, I’ve just done that. We had a visit from my nephew Eric Grenier, as they say, and his wife Lynne Grenier—together they make les Greniers—and I was delighted to re-associate and make stronger the relation with them, and to understand who I am in relation to their lives. So, I don’t remember that one either… “use relative for bearing” ? Relative, what’s “relative” ? I hope some of them are kind of ‘thoughtful’, I mean they can provoke some consideration of what they might mean, and how one could relate that to one’s present occasion. They’re sort of there for… ‘interpretation’. Not entirely, but… Some of them are just records of the time of life that I…from ’76 to ’78 in Cambridge, when I was working down by Boston Harbor, taking care of this guy Al’s parking lot during the day. He would check all the cars in and take all the money, and then I would go down there and sit there and watch the cars, and I would get twenty bucks for sitting there all day in the trailer watching the cars. It wasn’t such a bad job, I didn’t have a lot to do.
PS Is that what this one refers to ? “A DOLLAR // every / twenty / minutes // the blues” ?
RG Absolutely. Now that I’ve provided that autobiographical account, it’s possible for anyone who reads this to read that poem and say, oh, that’s what it’s ‘about’. Well, people didn’t get paid as much then for these menial jobs, or at least, I didn’t—but I was grateful, twenty bucks was quite a lot of money ! Was it twenty bucks ? No…it would’ve been more like…
PS Three dollars an hour.
RG Yeah, that’s right.
PS And now I understand this one. “AL” That’s a good one. I like the sound of this one, too.
RG Yeah, that’s him, that’s Al. [does dramatic reading] “AL // I’ll get ‘em // they’ll pay all”. I must’ve made that last part up. But he used to chase people who tried to run off, and… Maybe they paid…well, they had to pay at the end of the day, depending on how long they parked there. So I must’ve—I also collected money. I must’ve collected money. Some of the people were all-day parkers, and Al would get their money in the morning, and then I would come on and take the money of the persons who left before the end of the day. Not a bad job—I got free lobsters, too, speaking of lobsters. You were gonna bring lobsters over yesterday from Maine, but I’m not supposed to eat them now… But they… In that day, geez, I wonder what the water was like… They actually had lobsters…in Boston Harbor ? That were… They did, which were… And I must’ve—every once in a while I’d get a free lobster. That must be a pun, or—what do they call that ? “A-L-L” rhymes with “Al”, Al was the guy’s name, and “they’ll pay all”—that’s kind of…seems a bit ‘forced’, to me now. But that’s what I did. But others could read these things for whatever they mean for themselves…
PS I believe it’s in Attention: Seven Narratives that you describe all of your writing as narrative in some sense, even down to the level of the letters…
RG Well, there’s a narrative—I mean, if you want to expand the notion of narrative sufficiently, you could say that if it moves from left to right, there’s a process, well, in time, too…really after all—So these don’t… You can’t avoid time. If you read something like, “you cough like”—some of them are in Sentences, as you noticed, and I don’t know how many, maybe fifteen or eighteen, maybe that many. But “you cough like” is actually an account of someone coughing, a narrative of someone coughing, if you will. And, well, you [makes coughing sound], and so it goes, you [again makes coughing sound]. Well, I coughed twice, so I wrecked it. [One more cough]…that’s better. So it goes through, and records, the coughing, as it exists… But, in retrospect, it’s interesting to me—and it was at the time, too—to note that a lot of this stuff was just put down for its own sake. It didn’t have any ‘meaning’…beyond its occasion, the occasion of its occurrence. And that seemed an interesting…value to use as a basis of writing, over against, for example, telling the truth about one’s family history, or projecting one’s own feelings in an occasion toward strangers…that were happening inside a, you know, domestic situation in a household. I mean, all the stuff that poetry can interestingly do. If you just record the motion of something… I don’t think it’s in here, but in Sentencesthere’s one that goes “a bush is moving and the airplane flying past”…“a bush is moving andthe airplane flying past”…which also opens up this question about what the “and” is doing. I made a little wedding present for—I’m saying this to the…to space—I made a little wedding present for Paul and Forsyth, and it was written on a fungus, some kind of a thing that grows on a tree, and it says “FORSYTH +” [plus with a plus sign] “PAUL.” And…sort of like kids used to write on trees when I was growing up in Minnesota, or…deface birchbark with some such—And the plus sign is interesting, how it both is and isn’t the same as “and” or the ampersand. So, if you join two things together…“a bush is moving and the airplane flying past”…
PS And there’s a kind of remarkable simultaneity here, right ?
RG Well, from the top, just looking at it, it’s all… Yeah. So that’s another thing that I thought was important at the time. And that…does step out of time, you can just see it in a glance, as one thing. Which I guess is characteristic of an ideogram as well. And then you can understand its components, and sequence them. But to see a bunch of letters in space withouthaving to read them, well, as a narrative, or in time…just see it all at once. And at that time, I remember thinking there were some studies about how many… columns in a Greek temple can somebody see at once, without counting…?
PS So speaking of the plus sign, here I think is the only plus sign that I have noticed in—
RG Oh, there’s a plus sign in there ?
PS in the whole poster, although I’m constantly noticing new aspects of it.
PS “POPLARS”…Of course, I think there are two poems titled “POPLARS” in here.
RG Well, that’s a funny poem, you want to try to read that ?
PS [reads “POPLARS”]
saw ‘alternate form’
then 3 poplars brick
wall then ‘7-
poplars brick wall +
RG [laughs] Yeah, I don’t even know if I ever knew what “zygote” is… Do you have any idea what that means ? …A seven-armed something…
PS Is it…an unfertilized embryo ?
RG There was a poplar tree in Cambridge, along the brick wall of an apartment building, right next to where I lived. I liked that tree because it was a tree…like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and all that. I used to look at it, and I guess I could see it in different ways…and sometimes it would appear to be something beyond itself. There’s another—oh, there’s a poem in Sentences that says “POPLARS // facing away”.
PS That’s here, too.
RG Is that here too ?
PS Yep. I just saw it—here.
RG Uh-huh. If you… Poplars, when their leaves flip around in the wind…they seem at times to be turning toward some source that inspires that motion. So… I like it when things can be themselves, and seem to leap out of their form, and gesture toward, or—well, like a sunflower, in that wonderful Blake sunflower poem. It…the sunflower regards something else, and is in…direct communication with something beyond itself. You can see that happening if you…keep your eyes open and look at things, every once in a while they—they, well, step forward and acknowledge something beyond themselves, just as we do when we associate. But I must say, it looks real stripped-down, you know, to me now. And I—I don’t think I was trying to ‘withhold’…emotion or human…
PS Do you recall what the composition process…if you started with poems from Sentences…and then discarded them ?
RG It wasn’t very complex… Oh—no, I don’t actually, really—I wonder…there were certain things that I wanted to include, that seemed ‘of the character of the place’, specifically. Some of the poems in Sentences—well, maybe many of these were written, like the poplars ones, were written in Cambridge. Many of them were written up in New Hampshire, Franconia. But others were done during that time, ’76, ’77, when I was living there, when it was…’78… So, some would be of that…maybe—Was that the only consideration, that they were new and written at that time ? Well…
PS Here’s another “POPLARS”: “facing water // stand as these”…
RG Yeah… Oh! This one is in here! Great. “a bush is moving and the airplane flying past”. So, the question still remains, why is that ‘poetry’ ? Why should someone be interested in that ?
PS Well, it almost sort of undoes that—is it Adorno who claims that, you know, there’s paratactic poetry and syntactic poetry, and that… ‘Cause these two things are going on at once, right ? A bush is moving and the airplane flying past, but the airplane is not making the bush move. They’re both within your field of perception at the same time.
RG Yeah, but through the “and”, it represents a change of focus, or…of attention. And then you group them together simply because they’re both moving [laughs]. Which seems silly, even to note that as being of interest. But…the bush is on the ground, the airplane’s in the sky, so the sky’s related to the ground solely through…some kind of… ‘motion-in-itself’, almost an abstract category of motion. How we perceive things, of course, is part of the interest in these. And what it is that calls something…into our attention, it can be almost anything… And then, the mind relates them, and a word like “and” gathers them together. It’s probably ‘a study of the way the human mind associates things’…through rough categories, like, well, this is moving and that’s moving, too. And so it… A lot of them make fun of their own, sort of, what—‘logistic undertaking’ ? [laughs]
PS Well, you could almost think of the poem as, you know, being a flâneur’s trip through Cambridge on your way to work from Washington Avenue here on the top… And it sort of occurs to me that so many of the great characters of nineteenth and twentieth-century literature are wandering through cities, and they’re distracted and more than one thing is going on at any given time.
RG They’re kinda out of it and skeptical—like Stephen Dedalus—they’re both part of and not part of their circumstance. Well, that place is a trip. You know, I—I was never at home there, I was never able to be at home there, except at certain moments of determined residence, in which I said, “well, I live here, too !” Because I was never a part of the club scene at Harvard, and never really a part of the orientation of the English department. It was… It’s a struggle to get one’s bearing, and I don’t like trying to live in a place where you feel fundamentally…‘excluded’ from the get-go. And I didn’t have any money and so on… But that’s not an uncommon feeling that people have in different places… Umm… It recurs anywhere, depending upon… But I did have some friends there, including John Batki, to whom this thing is dedicated, who was teaching fiction writing at Harvard at that time. And I got to know him through association with Anselm Hollo back in Iowa. John and his wife Trude were really mainstays, and gave me a sense of grounding in the place which was never—and Michael Waltuch, too… It was a…funny place. Huh—what else can we say about it ? A lot of it is about just methodologies of moving and surviving in the place—How was it that one got around ?—“i n t e r o p e r o p t a t a t i v e”…
PS That’s one of my favorites. Also in Sentences.
RG “FEN”—oh yeah. Is that “fen”, like the fens ?
PS Fenway Park…?
RG The fens, off the Charles River, kind of a sodden place which must’ve been a marsh… It was kinda cleaned up, and “ramp” would be an entry to the Charles River Parkway, or something like that. Many of them are pretty creepy, actually. Ah, oh… In retrospect, even though I thought I had, you know…handily eliminated the idea of the poem as a projection of the poet’s feeling, they seem kind of… It was a difficult period for me. I—I didn’t have any immediate relations with… I didn’t have a family, and I didn’t know how to make new relations very well, and so… A number of them have to do with sort of exaggerated statements of the solitary male’s…longings and entrapments, in a place that was…not home… Oh well. So otherwise, later on, in retrospect, it seems kind of ‘colorless’, to me. But that’s from the present perspective. Well, here’s another one about the parking lot—“THEFT OF CARS / stealing” [laughs]. My job was to try to keep the cars from being stolen, so I had to keep looking around, and those are—I guess that’s—“THEFT OF CARS”…is the same as “stealing”, isn’t it ? So, there really isn’t anything to ‘learn’ from that. There’s a substitution of one usage for another. But, it might be a redoubling of…an awareness of that possibility. “letters cross The Hub rapidity” [laughs]. Boston is The Hub—I was thinking about that before. If you look at the map, you can see… Even today, like I-93… I-95 goes to the north, 93 goes northwest, the Mass Pike goes west. Everything goes into and out of Boston, which was the hub of New England, really, the New England states, or so they called it…
* * * * *
PS So you were just describing CAMBRIDGE M’ASS as a kind of maze, but it’s also possible to read it, I suppose you could read it, as a kind of path of your own choosing, or…we were also going to talk maybe about how you perceived other people reading it when they were…
RG Yeah, well that’s the same thing that would happen if one wanted to read it now. It was just a bunch of rectangles stuck on a piece of paper, and then I tried to space it out in a way that it looked like everything wasn’t all jammed together…and each thing had its own space, but then it existed in—Oh, I also remember making correlations with poems around… You’d put something down, then you’d group something else around it that might have some relation to it. But in fact, it…in part, it was designed to defeat…any particular sequence, through it. I mean you can’t ‘solve’ it by reorganizing everything into a…into a conventional narrative. But it allows, as Sentences does, if you pick out separate cards and put them together on a table, you can make correlations of things that begin to…resound off each other. And that was one of the compositional principles of it, but I think it just doesn’t—It’s ‘uninviting’ in a way.
PS “likens everything to each other”
RG It says that?
PS Right here. [laughs]
RG [laughs] Yeah.
PS And “one perception directly & further another perception” is, of course, from “Projective Verse” and it’s got the ampersand here, which…
RG Oh yeah, the ampersand. Well, that’s actually a qualification of one of the dicta in “Projective Verse”: “One perception should immediately lead to another perception” or whatever it says. In fact, in many cases, there isn’t that direct connection. One perception simply occurs, after or before another perception, like “a bush is moving and the airplane flying past.” And to exist in that state, when there is no relation between this and that, at that time was interesting to me, too… There was an incentive to live in the present, you know, which I still feel, and…after a while, as you get older, memory evaporates. If you can still function, you live in this ‘reduced condition’, which is possibly a virtue of a sort, because it allows you to concentrate on each thing for itself. So, instead of asserting that it is useful for persons composing poetry to allow one perception to follow directly after—and, you know, ‘come from’—It’s like causality. If there’s no causality, then you just got stuff [laughs]. And you have… Which is very much the condition of the way I perceive cities. I just see one thing, andthe next thing. I don’t see them in relation, I see them in a…a vast chaos of…‘activity’, in which each one is doing its thing. And it’s a question of how to make it…not only make sense of it, but survive—in that environment, where everything is operative and different. It seemingly… would lead to a state of extreme mental confusion, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to that.
PS Do you know that film, I think it’s by Bruce Conner, which is just signs from cities ? And it’s just one sign after another, and there’s no correlation between signs… And you realize that in any urban landscape, you’re constantly looking at language…
PS And you don’t really have much choice over what language you’re looking at.
RG Yeah, well maybe that’s one way of…
PS But you are selecting, I think quite carefully, from urban language… I mean, “Schaefer // is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one in // Manhattan”, right ? That’s a great ad slogan.
RG Well, possibly it is an ad slogan. Anyway that was something Kit Robinson said, one time on a trip…we were going on a trip into Manhattan. Now that’s down in that part of the ‘map’ of the poem, where the—you’re moving toward New York City, so… But anyway, to be able to tolerate and…register sheer difference…was something that I guess I don’t really want to do all the time. [big laughs] Is there a way of engaging with…an urban space which allows one to survive, or even prosper, in a multiplicity of phenomena, which are all ‘there’…or coming at you as whatever they are, you know, so… I guess you have to have some kind of a ‘ground’, to be able to—like an apartment [laughs]—or some place where you can go to sleep, once in a while.
PS Well, there is a kind of sense of movement, too…or of alienation within the city, right ? Like this one toward the top, “I’M /// transportation”.
RG Yeah. If you think of yourself as merely the motion of a car, you know, or—or I’d get on the MTA to go down to—where was the…there was a place to get off on the other side of Park Street—South Station ?—was that what it was? Well, you could see that as a ‘reduced form of the human condition’, and relate it, if you want, to The Waste Land or something like that in American poetry. Like how, or what, is the present condition, and how does one—what’s it like, you know ? What would The Waste Land be without any sense of psychic deprivation ? [laughs] It would just be some kind of zombie mode, of being ‘on’ to whatever was happening at that time… A lot of this does…I mean, the work from this time does come out of Robert Creeley’s writing. For example, in the sequence “In London”, there’s—I presume it’s about Ted Berrigan—I think…I mean I’m presuming that Ted Berrigan was in London with Creeley at the time that the poem was written…and the poem says “Ted / is ready. / The bell / rings.” And, I’ve always…I mean I thought it was like an homage to somebody who has the wherewithal to be up and running, in what must’ve been a foreign situation, as if they were going into the boxing ring, and they were ready to take on all comers…or just be able to function in an environment in which you just have to keep relating to a number of beings…of punches being thrown at you. And have the acumen and capacity…to handle that. So, I guess, some of that might have been involved in that. I couldn’t survive there now, I…for whatever reasons… It also has to do, I must say autobiographically, with the bleak relation that I have to Harvard College, or Harvard University, where I was always out of it, and so… I felt that I was never ‘properly equipped’ or properly… I mean, I was this kid from Minnesota, and I didn’t have the smarts, or didn’t have the training and experience to feel that I could do… But I remember things like where you could take a piss, like you can’t…there used to be a urinal in Harvard Square—am I imagining that ? I don’t think it’s there anymore—where you could take a piss. There was a place in the German language building, where you used to be able to go…go in and go to the ground floor, and there was a nice place to piss there… But I think, now, you’d probably have to show your registration card or whatever the equivalent is to get into the building, because of security reasons, security…and I, of course, support that. I didn’t ever know where to take a piss in Harvard Square… Which, without which, you know… And so that becomes a problem.
PS I always thought of this one as possibly an allusion to Eliot and “Prufrock”, right ? “who walked home from downtown Boston you and I”.
RG Oh, that was actually…
PS “Let us go then, you and I”…but it’s…I assume, perhaps not.
RG Oh, well I can tell you what that was. It was just…sometimes you would have an outing to Boston, and you would take the MTA somewhere and then you’d be real late… And it used to close down, more or less, perhaps altogether, at midnight or something like that, so there would be no other way to get home. So, that’s kind of a nice… I think that’s kind of a nice ‘romantic poem’. [PS laughs] I could tell you who that person was, but it doesn’t really add to the literal romantic melodrama. Not all that far, you know, once you set out to walk…if it’s not raining, or snowing. So, Paul, I was looking around in this mass of phenomena, from the bird’s-eye view that I now have above it, even if I had my glasses on I can’t read anything… Why do you think people…were interested in it, when they came to the Southfirst show ? The first thing that they saw—it looked kinda funny, in that ‘art context’, on the back wall. And, what do you think people might be able to make of it now ? Why—I mean you could say that it has a…‘historical value’, or something like that…it has historical value ?
PS Well, I’ve known it for a few years, and I’ve always thought of it as an incredibly unique work, where you have poems spatialized in a large format. And in some ways it’s also a very analog work, right ? The cards are a little bit uneven. It’s a little bit like the randomness of a city, and yet it’s not quite reducible to a certain set of inputs or something. It’s not like, you know, you can literally map it. It is, as you’ve been suggesting, a kind of imaginative…recall process with some randomness built into it, not unlike wandering around, or having to commute to work. So it’s got…a kind of also very unassuming, unpretentious…sort of type-written feel. Where even… I think there’s also a kind of resurgence of interest in the monospaced font works.
RG Oh, that awful stuff…the Selectric typewriter, one one one. Look!—this is a skyscraper! See the little skyscraper, it’s not as big as in New York, but it looks like a skyscraper, doesn’t it ? [laughs]
PS There really is nothing like this in American poetry.
RG If you try to look at it, it’s real hard… You can kind of center on some place, and then try to let the peripheral vision go out from there, and try and gather the…elements into the visual field, to be seen together with the point of initial perception…but you can’t actually see it that way. I mean, it sort of vanishes, like—you know, you’re flying into Midway Airport in Chicago, on Southwest Airlines, and you see the houses beneath, and they’re blocks…and they become progressive, become larger as you approach the ground…and then you’re immersed in that grid of structures and, thank god, you land, if you land successfully, in the tiny little field that’s still there… But, it makes for—I dunno, you know…
PS But it is—it—couldn’t you also say that it’s radically paratactic in this visual field, and…
RG Yeah, oh yeah ! [laughs]
PS But, you know, it’s—so, you know, going back in, within your work, from Series—it’s serial but also sort of defeating, I think, a…a grand narrative. And then, Sentences is…in the same way radically paratactic, but this…forces your visual field to take it all in at once, which you can’t do, and then you get up close, and you start to puzzle through the poems… And it’s also not, I think, trying too hard to be an artwork.
RG Well, I just kinda get these pieces of paper on the other piece of paper…one big piece of paper and a bunch of little pieces of paper, and I tried to get the little pieces of paper on the one big…bigger piece of paper. And so to some extent I could’ve put more pieces of paper on it I guess, but I ran out of them, or something like that. I probably did exhaust all the little pieces of paper that I had cut out for the purpose. [laughs] Well, you know, let’s say…say Ron Silliman’s New Sentence, that whole thing, where—in Tjanting or something like that—how do you take a sentence, which is isolated in Sentences, and what…how can you build a larger work out of those isolated pieces ? This is one possible way to do that, and… Tjanting does it by laying out certain sentences and then developing them further—and Lyn Hejinian, in My Life,does that. So, you have sort of ‘kernel sentences’, and then you elaborate on them, in the next version, and you…or you, then, piece other sentences in between the ones that you’ve already set forth… At least it opens up the idea of how, other than in the first-person lyric poem, words can follow one after another, each other…or follow from each other. Later on, I sort of abandoned the idea of a larger form altogether. Except in this more recent drawing poem work, which goes back to the book…it hangs on the structure of the book, there’s facing pages as a way to sequence something…
PS Well, that’s maybe something else that’s quite unique about it. In the digital era, it wouldn’t be that difficult to make this kind of thing or to present it in a way in which you’re confronted by this mass of textuality. When you get up close, it’s actually…it’s not… Each one of the poems is its own microcosmos, and yet the…
RG I hope so, because, after all, finally, if you do approach the poems close up…“venturesomely & adventurousness”—is that “& adventurousness” ?— that might be in Sentences. Ah, ha—“WRINKLED SURFACE PLACE OF / // place it is the hidebound /// joying in the sun & wet”. I completely forgot that one. What—what’s going on there ? It’s like a person having a pretty good time, I guess, down by the water. It’s off, facing out into the ‘Atlantic’…presuming the right side, the black space, is the Atlantic. It’s not too bad there then that day. [laughs] Ah…
PS Here’s one that must be an allusion to Zukofsky, right ? “I’m a rested phenomenon”. [laughs]
RG [laughs] Well, I hadn’t thought of it that way. [laughs] I hope that they invite these connections… One says “if passed by airport limousine”—that must be in Sentences. “if passed by airport limousine”. You’re on the road, and all of the sudden this smooth long car goes by, and…black limousine goes by… “if passed by airport limousine”… You’re sort of suspended in space on the highway with the limousine having gone by…another ‘meaningless moment’. [laughs] And yet anything, if you turn your attention to it, can have the value of its own occasion. It can exist for itself, and you…you’re gathered into the perception and articulation of it. Why would there be such a thing as ‘significant’ events in life ? In this—you know, in the work overall—I think there’s a celebration of the existence of each thing for itself, if it’s perceived…clearly, for what it is. Some of them are more ‘thoughtful’ than others, but just the bare existence of something seemed… Oh, “stand on the floor between computations”—that’s very ‘modern’…that could be somebody in their workspace somewhere, taking a little rest. I guess I might’ve thought at the time, that that was a critique of the modern workplace, and the emptying out of the human condition in some kind of ‘technicological’…and we could read Martin Heidegger on technology and relate it to that… So this is a kind of pitiful portrait of some poor employee who is trying to take a little break, in the midst of following out the machines that are probably doing the computations. But I don’t mean it that way, and I don’t have to perceive it that way. It’s just… It’s a moment in which this condition and realization occurs, you know ? It’s…it’s as ‘good’ as, you know, something that might have some ‘real value’…like in Pound, or something like that.
PS You know, speaking of Pound, I mean, sometimes I’ve thought of this as a kind of imagist epic, right ? Because the problem with imagism was always, how do you create an imagist long poem, but…
RG Well, sure, I mean that actually is the problem that this is…right in the thick of, and who knows whether this is—you know, this is just one attempt at such. Yeah.
PS And then, you know, the quintessential imagist poem, “In A Station of the Metro”—
PS “the apparition of these faces in the crowd”…
RG Well, that’s exactly what that is.
PS “—Petals on a wet, black bough”… I mean it’s got everything, right ? You’re going underground into the subway… Countless writers have described that as like going into hell or something… It’s urban alienation, it’s a…metaphor…
RG I forgot that one completely… That’s alright. I think that one’s alright. [laughs] Maybe because of its ‘contemporaneity’—how do you pronounce that ? Con-temp-o-riya-neeaa-ottee?
PS Its ‘i n t e r o p t a t a t i v i t y’ ?
RG Huh ?
PS ‘i n t e r o p t a t a t i v i t y’ ?
RG Yeah, well, those two go together don’t they.
RG Well, you know, I was quite a perceptive critic of the modern situation in those days. I wouldn’t waste my time trying to do that any more. I want to see how the world comes to exist, in its more…on Earth, in its ‘natural condition’… I could say, too, that, in relation to this, I mean, I… You said you went to the Samuel Palmer show at the MET, in whenever that was, which I hadn’t seen—Charles Bernstein suggested that I might be interested to look at that—and, the whole—like Blake, in the beginning of—that whole business of the machine, and technology, and the coal mines, and the railways, and everything that made England, England…‘great’ in the nineteenth century, and the obliteration—as in Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence as well—of the ‘old way of life’, which in many ways still exists around here [Vermont], in our environment. And so, for myself, in the time remaining, I’d like to see how I could bring the same, you know, presence of mind, if there is such, to an attention to local conditions which are somehow more…congenial to me, and more generative of…something… Recent work is, in some way, all a kind of protest against…like some kind of backward-looking celebration of the ‘good old days on the farm’, when everybody went around and had a nice daydream…and one them was taking a little rest in the field somewhere… That’s something that I’d like to consider on another occasion, or I need to think about, whether the stuff that I’m doing nowadays is, in fact, just—what ?—it’s ‘reactionary’, reactionary. Samuel Palmer wanted to be one of the Ancients…highly educated persons who adopted agrarian modes in reaction to the industrial age. I don’t think that would be of much interest or use to persons who have to survive in the contemporary condition. I see the world as gradually and slowly burning up, burning up through the actions of the humans…depredation of the environment, destruction of species… Finally, there’s only gonna be the humans themselves, left to war with each other, and to gradually or very rapidly destroy each other, and leave just…space… I have kind of a ‘pessimistic outlook’, in the midst of which I try to articulate values, in regard to the existence of certain things that I think are worth noting [laughs], or bringing the mind to attend to. So I wouldn’t want to go to Cambridge and try to document it like this anymore. I mean I was living there, so I had to do it, I guess, if I wanted to keep the aesthetic of attention, paying attention to the momentary existence of something…that’s where I was.
PS Well, so many of your poems are powerfully rooted in landscape.
RG This is a landscape. Yep, uh-huh. You can construct a kind of…an invented imaginary landscape, which this poster is. And people can wander around inside there if they want to. One nice thing about it is you can engage with parts of it and then just step away. Oh—I wanted to say, I hope this has—in the original occasion, of the Tuumba Press poster that Lyn and I made, why, people would just take it and they would put it up on their wall. They would put it up with pushpins, or thumbtacks or something, and it would kind of self-destruct, and then they could engage with parts of it, as part of their ordinary course. Like if they’re standing around before dinner or something like that, they’re talking to somebody, they go over to it and look at it and they find something in it, and then… And it would be part of the social occasion of the daily life of the persons who had it on the wall. And I think that’s good use for it, and they all disappeared because they were just…it was designed to be something that one could relate to, and step out of, and so—in that way, we don’t have to attempt to ‘gain an understanding of the whole’. [laughs]
PS Well, there…there is a kind of beautiful…
RG And it’s just there, you know ?
PS There is a kind of beautiful ephemerality to it, that…
RG Especially in this really bright, clear contrast of the white and black, which—I’m looking at it now in relation to the old one that I have over there, framed. It really stands forth, and you can…you can see it, it has—it’s as if, by mere bringing forth of the black and white phenomenon, it ‘comes to life again’, like a mummy. [laughs] Doesn’t it kind of look like a mummy, with these pieces of—what ? You can imagine these rectangles kind of starting to crimple…crumple up…either that, or—it doesn’t seem too threatening, I hope. [laughs]
PS Well, I haven’t ever seen an original one that isn’t all torn up, and—and I think that’s kind of the charm of the originals, and—I first encountered it through Michael Golston’s copy which has a…a mark of a shoe thrown at the middle of it [RG laughs], and that…that’s a kind of sense of living with it.
RG He told me he that didn’t throw the shoe at the poster as such, but that he threw it as part of some ‘expressive’ act, that hopefully had some other motivation [PS laughs]. But, I could imagine someone just wanting to rid themselves of it, so… It’s certainly going to disappear in the flux of time, that’s fine—you know, there it goes. But it gets another chance—thank you for that !
PS Well, thank you.
RG I think it’s a great idea to bring this thing to the attention of the reading public. [big laughs]
PS Well, thank you, and I thank Lyn for letting us do it. It’s been a lot of fun.
RG There it is anyway, so… That’s about enough about that. I hope somebody finds something of interest in it…and it allows them to rethink the relation of language to landscape, and the relation of individual pieces to others…even if they aren’t parts of the same thing.
PS You want to pick one card out to read as a finale ?
RG No, you pick it.
PS Oh no.
RG Oh, no, the responsibility ! The weight !
PS The weight !
RG For god’s sake, you could start anywhere. My god, what do we have ? Hmm… “very finished set”. Well, that’s not so good… “FIGURES /// in Beverly or Lynn”. Hmmm… Oh, “I’m so happy for my new hat // I’m so happy for my new hat // I’m so happy for my new hat”. “SUNLIGHT /// snow in the air /// dust in the room”. Ahhh… “MIND LIKE THE ALPHABET /// sunlight Egypt take it with you” ! [laughs] That was the idea, that you could take it with you.
PS Natural stopping point ?
Paul Stephens is the author of The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. He edits the journal Convolution and lives in New York.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby