Thursday, November 18, 2010

Variations towards a Theme

The following excerpts are from dialogues with Joan Retallack, Lyn Hejinian, Heather Fuller, Myung Mi Kim, and Marjorie Perloff.

Currently, these complete dialogues are in the initial stages of transcription to be edited for eventual publication in Jacket2. The original audio recordings for each of these conversations can be found by clicking on the poet's name to link to her PennSound page.

Joan Retallack, in a discussion at the Kelly Writers House, February 28, 2001:


I think most important contemporary innovative poetry or experimental poetry is in the way that Gertrude Stein talked about/wrote about composition, an explanation actually composing our contemporariness. It is, in fact, a poetry that is coterminous with its context, and the act of making is a forming of that context.

Now this may seem to beg the question if by the question is meant things like how much should we know about the biography of the author, the location of the author, the connections with prior traditions or contemporary movements, et cetera. But I don’t think it does beg that question, because I just presume that the answer to that question is of course, one should know as much as one can. It’s all of interest. But the context in that sense, the sense of facts that we know about, say, the biography of the writer is never a substitute for an experience of the poem as itself the form of life that we are entering as reader, as contemporaneous ourselves, and are thereby continuing its making of or forming of the contemporary through our engagement with it.

I really feel that every one who loves poetry and writes poetry should know a lot about many things and should be a curious person excited about history, excited about science, excited about theories of mathematics, all of the things that have converged to make our contemporary moment. And where these lines, where the, sort of, Venn diagrams enclose the limits of what needs to be known about a particular poem, I think, vary according to the context in which it is taught, and the purposes for which it’s being taught.

Lyn Hejinian: from a discussion led by Al Filreis at the Kelly Writers House, February 21, 2005:


I was arguing against the notion of the lyric moment, or of lyric poetry as always having to be transcendental in its trajectory, and arguing in favor of its being possible to imagine a lyric poetry that was local and detailed and not ineluctable, but, what’s the right word?


Sturdy and detailed.


Sturdy and detailed, yes—


Those were your words.


But I am trying not to repeat myself.


How kind of you.


Alright, I’ll leave it at that. Sturdy and detailed. And as detailed as one wants to have it.

Heather Fuller, from a discussion during Philly Talks, February 10, 1999


I think I find overheard language more and more important. [...] Often, language, to me, seems this common cistern where we're all gathered around, chewing the tobacco and spitting it out into the cistern, and we're all grabbing it and putting it back in our mouths. That's what we do in North Carolina, anyway. But now that I'm in this world, I have to talk about the common cistern as a literary function.

So, where I live is particularly busy. It's particularly lively, and polyglot. I'm always picking up language and chewing it in my mouth and spitting it out. And I think this hearsay is a lot of chewing, spitting, right there. But in another sense it's also something that I'm more and more interested in, and that's the concept of sampling.

Myung Mi Kim, from a Close Listening discussion, March 15, 2007:


I think the question here is can the masses actually have a lot more to say about what’s scrutable and readable and intelligible than what someone else external to the broad masses has determined. That’s really the question to some degree. So, in other words, who has the privilege to say this is transparent, this is being rendered transparently, I understand this? So, what’s at stake, it seems to me, in poetry or any sort of writing practice, is to keep asking under what terms and conditions do we understand legibility? Who has the authority to invest and divest? What’s scrutable, what’s readable? I recognize this. So, fundamentally, they are questions about, for me, exclusion, inclusion, questions of social affiliation. The order of exclusion and inclusion that get rehearsed when we question things like: Do I understand this? What does it mean? Is it possible to keep extending the meaning of meaning, the terms by which we understand anything at all, and especially language because that’s what we use all the time, every day, every second? How’s it possible to keep extending the terms of meaning-making and of sense-making?

Marjorie Perloff, in conversation with Charles Bernstein, November 11, 2009:


I think Stein is at least as controversial as she was and will become more so. I have to be honest and say there are moods where I don’t feel like reading Gertrude Stein. I mean, she’s great. I love to write about Gertrude Stein. I love to really do these things, but as far as sitting down and reading her, I mean, she is in a way such an extreme, and she always will be a great extreme. […] I love her work, but, as I say, one has certain kinds of moods, and there are moments where I feel no, it’s too rigorous, almost. You don’t feel in a mood for that rigor. And so, I do think that she will always be considered marginal, and she’s never going to become less marginal. […] Elaine Showalter did this new literary history of women—and she covers everybody, every American writer, minor writers, major, I mean, everybody is in there, writers you’ve never heard of—and she was asked what woman writer don’t you like: Gertrude Stein. She’s the most overrated writer there is. She’s no good, she’s boring, et cetera. […] And after all, she was appreciated early on by people like Edmund Wilson. I mean, it isn’t that Stein even in her own time didn’t already have a lot of advocates. So, I think it’s people who want literature to be thematic, obviously, like Elaine Showalter. They are only looking at the subject matter—what’s it about—and therefore Stein is very frustrating, but, of course, there is a way that things like A Long Gay Book, some of the long works, even The Making of Americans, which more people don’t read all of than read all of, are frustrating works as she’s a poet’s poet in many ways, and I think she will remain. That’s just my guess. I wish it weren’t that way, but my guess would be that she will be just as marginalized twenty years from now as she is now, probably, in fact, more so.


So, when you ask that question about, well, what about a person who doesn’t speak another language, and what kind of condition would be produced for that reader, my question always, whether out loud or implicitly, is can you produce an approximation of the condition of language again unhooked from the demands of communication and communicability and transparency, and can you somehow suggest/evoke/amplify/proliferate different ways of being inside and listening to and activating the space that we call language, which doesn’t belong to any one language group, doesn’t belong to any one particular idea of how basic things that benchmarks of language like rhythm, syntax, intonation, inflection, taking all those things as resources for meaning, as resources for experience. So, in other words, even if there were no identifiable thing called the second language, there’s something produced about an experience of language, and I think everyone has access to that.


I think really good critical or theoretical literary writing at its very best works when I guess what I would call synthetic moments are the most brilliant, which is to say when a connection is made between one thing and another thing, and that moment of connection is a moment of incredibly powerful insight or luminosity, and it casts lights on all kinds of other things. […] I think that that is exemplary of what poetic writing does, that poetry is both resilient and revelatory precisely because of the linkages, the way the linkages are made, the kinds of things that are linked together. […] Poetry, to my mind, is not anti-intellectual sloppiness. It’s really hard thinking. Maybe that’s why it’s sturdy and detailed.


I’m very interested in rethinking what we mean by criticism, of course. I think there are multiple models, obviously there are multiple models, one of which is the descriptive contextual analysis that is primarily one of aboutness. And the presumption with that model could be that you’re going to sort of finish off a poem by doing that with it, and that unit by unit. First, I’ll look at this poem, and I will say what I want to say about it, and then the next, then the next. I think there are other forms of discourse that are perhaps healthier, more robust, potentially more generative of subsequent desires to read, that’s kind of work within the form of the essay as an exploratory tool of the humanities. I think of the essay as being the sort of the exploratory tool of the humanities, that is the form in which thought-experiments can take place and radical kinds of conversation with text and context can take place. It would be hard right now to answer and I think it would be too much at length to enter this in detail, but one of the things that I try to do within a semester in the course that I teach is structure it as though the entire course were an essay we were writing together. At each point, I’m asking students in their writing to refer to things that we have been discussing, the things we have been reading, and to make work that has an accompanying ongoing statement that does that kind of textual exploration and conversation. I do that rather than using the more standard model of criticism, which I’m almost sorry to say to have to do with a certain degree of descriptive judgement, a kind of closing down, I think. This, I think, what I’m trying to do is no less analytic in the sense of looking at detail, close readings, and interactions, and juxtaposing things in very complex ways. I think it’s much more lively in keeping the reader in an exploration of the text rather than a closing down of the text.


Michael Nardone will converse at Open Space.

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