Tom Beckett

An Interview with John Bloomberg-Rissman

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

John Bloomberg-Rissman: I’ve been thinking about this a while now. Because of my age? Anyway, lying in bed this morning an hour before the alarm went off I came up with a response. But now I find I’d misremembered the question as “When [not where] did [not did/does] poetry begin for you?” But the more I think about it the more I realize: this misremembering is necessary. For me, at least. To get to the point of being able to hazard a guess. So I’m going to answer two questions, if you don’t mind: When did poetry begin for me? and Where does poetry begin for me? I don’t want to give an answer to the second without an answer to the first. I don’t think it would be intelligible otherwise. So, if you’ll indulge me:

Poetry has begun three times for me.
1)     Scene 1: “When I was 17 / an ancient dharma poet ghost / copped my bones / for his own small clear light melodies.” I’d always written. My first story concerned a vicious pirate whose leitmotif was this phrase concerning his crew: “Hang ‘em from the yardarms!” I didn’t know what a yardarm was (still don’t) but what did it matter? His crew mutinied and buried him to the neck in the sand at low tide … Another story concerned a traveling circus in quest of the “golden fleas.” I knew as much about circuses as pirates, of course. In some ways I was closer to the “secret teaching” (the +, not =, of Dichtung and Warheit) at 13 than I’d be again til I was past 50. Scene 2: I was 17. At my girlfriend’s house. We’d been fighting. She stalked off into her room and slammed the door. After a while I realized she wasn’t coming out anytime soon. So (I had my uni briefcase with me) I pulled out paper and pen and started writing. I’ll never understand why. In any case, by the time an hour had passed, I knew: this wasn’t poetry. And I knew: I had been sent to earth for one thing only (besides getting high, getting laid, saving humanity, etc.): to learn how to write a “real” poem (of course, I didn’t know enough then understand that real would need scare quotes). Scene 3: A year or so later my dad, a book collector, showed my poems to Jack Shoemaker, who worked at Serendipity Books at the time. Jack: “You don’t read much, do you?” Turning to the shelves, “Here’s Pound, here’s Olson …” I heeded Jack’s advice, of course. But I also walked out of the shop with Anselm Hollo’s The Coherences … Thus began my education. I got a dean to let me make up my own major in poetry writing (UCLA had no program in those days). And I got a prof to read The Cantos/Paterson/Gunslinger with me for 4 credits of independent study. That all worked out ok. I even won an Academy of American Poets prize. Scene 4: It took me six years to write the first poem that seemed “mine.” By then I was 23. In those days, everyone I knew was into music and psychedelics, I was the only poet in my tribe, and words were “thick, opaque / not Amida’s sweet clear light.” So it was a struggle. My poems were short, and conformed more or less to a simplistic understanding of a few aspects of some the work in the Don Allen anthology. And to a stupefying sense that that Dichtung literally equaled Warheit, e.g., if the Duchess went out at 7 it was wrong in an ethical sense to write she went out at 5. I met a number of poets when I worked for Black Sparrow (‘74/5) but – and this is very important, as I would learn to my chagrin over the coming decades, thought I didn’t know that this was what I was learning til later – I failed to find or establish or to even know I needed and would continue to need a like-and-sometimes-unlike-minded writing community to kick my ass. I didn’t know about any of the contemporary developments, that, in retrospect, would have helped me … well, the list of what I didn’t know was endless. Scene 5: So as the years went by it was like walking into a stopped-up funnel, the walls were closing in, my poet-options were growing fewer and fewer. Though Black Sparrow had published David Bromige’s Tight Corners and What’s Around Them during my time there, all I could see were the tight corners. After struggling unsatisfactorily through the late 80s, I gave it up. I didn’t even think about poetry, though I did feel the lack. I have about 60 short poems I still like from those decades.
2)     In early June of ‘99 I was walking through the UC Riverside library when I chanced upon a copy of APR. I don’t know why I picked it up and opened it. I read a couple poems by Hayden Carruth. I thought, shit, is that all there is to it? I mean, you just write what you have to write, and that’s it? It was an exciting thought. I went back to my office and wrote a poem I called “A Window at Last”. I’ve written nonstop ever since. But, and here’s where it gets really interesting for me, and allows me to assert that I am answering your question, though for the first year or so I wrote poems similar, in the “Dichtung literally = Warheit” sense, to the ones I’d written in my first incarnation, a series of events irrelevant here led me into correspondence with Alan Baker, poet/publisher of Leafe Press, now very good friend. Alan was a bit more creatively adventurous and certainly more knowledgeable than I was at the time. He opened my eyes to what had happened since the Allen anthology, and that it was a lot. I played catch-up for a while. And this time around I forgot to be shy, I made a lot of poet-friends. One of them, Michael Rothenberg, wrote me, “You know, you can get pretty tired waiting for a bird to fly by.” By that time I was ready for my 3rd incarnation as a poet. There wasn’t a temporal break between 2 and 3, but there was a break, definitely.
3)     I said fuck the birds, and inspired by Jerome Rothenberg’s Lorca Variations, I decided to write something based solely on a constraint. I took the nouns (in order) from each of the poems in the first section of his Poems for the Game of Silence, and constructed new poems from them. The poems weren’t very successful, but the process was a step into the marvelous. I found myself writing beyond myself. That was great. I won’t describe all my constraint-based projects here; I’ll only say that for the last 5 years or so they have always involved appropriating/ sampling/ collaging/ assembling/ mangling other texts. For me, this assemblage-work is the opposite of a tight corner. It ties me to, opens up for me, opens me up to, the human universe.
Here at long last comes my current answer to your “Where did/does poetry begin for you?” It begins for me in a constraint-based making of new texts out of a chorus of other voices/writings, other others, other sames, in a voyage of discovery.

TB: I'm interested in your process, John. Talk about some of the procedures you employ in your constraint-based work. Talk about how you decide to piece this with that.

JB-R: At the macro level I create a “set”. I’m often gifted with one, e.g., I immediately saw the new issue of Galatea Resurrects (no. 11 as I write) as a set. Each review in GR would then equal an element of that set, a subset, since each review is also a set of paragraphs, sentences, words, excerpts, etc., which constitute its elements.

OK. Now I have to determine how to manipulate this set and its subsets. Let’s say I decide to work through GR in order, first review to last. So, now I have a set of texts and the order in which I’m going to sample them.

Sometimes I want additional constraints, an additional axis, if you will. Let me describe the axes of Travels to Capitals (T to C: Sun). Take the sets and the order in which I will manipulate them as one axis. In the case of T to C that meant Michael Palmer’s book Sun. I decided to take each poem as a unit. One unit of Sun would = one unit of T to C. From each Sun-unit I extracted the nouns, out of context and in order (a là the initiatory “Rothenberg project”. This list of nouns would form the skeleton of each T to C-unit. But that wasn’t enough. I found I needed another axis before I could roll. The second axis turned out to be the invented world Donald Evans created via his stamps. Somehow, suddenly, the confluence of these two axes generated a narrator. A man, a translator, traveling through this Evans-world. Since composition began not long after 9/11, and continued into the pre-war furor, Evans’ world came into bloody contact with ours; in fact, contra Evans’ apparent intention, it ceased to be separate. And other characters “appeared”, and … I found myself writing a “verse novel”, of all things.

[Funny story: One of the characters, Grenadine Szorora, caused me a lot of problems with the copyright office. My narrator translated her poems, which are included. When I published a selection, I had a hell of a time convincing LC that GS didn’t actually hold copyright …]

Then there are the sub-routines. Some are Oulipean-esque text-de/re/formations like the venerable n + 7. Some are of my own invention. For example, the wanka was invented for a section of T to C called “From Withered Branch”. From the note I appended to it (I append notes, and always acknowledge my sources):
Withered Branch is Sung-Ting’s classic anthology of wanka. Wanka are brief poems that can touch on anything. Traditionally (and here as well) they are gathered in eights via certain quasi-mystical procedures, to “reverberate” (Note: one of any eight must refer to the more-or-less-mythological “thousand naked people in the town square” [a reference to Spencer Tunick’s ongoing project]). The eights are also gathered in eights. These sixty-four poems, then, are also eight poems, which are also one … My versions are paraphrases, parallels and very loose translations. If you are interested in the formal complexities of real wanka, the many excellent books and articles on this subject are easy to find in any good library.
Sung-Ting is one of Donald Evans’ countries.

Once the sub-routines, if any, are in place, the work (the fun) begins, of piecing “this with that”. Everything changes at this level. Let me quote something Karla Kelsey wrote about me. I think she is dead-on correct. She’s writing about No Sounds Of My Own Making:
This is not a text built on the foundations of either subjectivity OR alterity. This is a text of AND. … Like many texts that hinge on the strength of “and” No Sounds of My Own Making eschews categorization. The work does not belong in a category of “pure” conceptual writing: Bloomberg-Rissman breaks his own rules too often to make a conceptual statement, and the text feels too much to be a member of what Craig Dworkin defines, in his introduction to the ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, as a pursuit of “meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process.” However, given that most of the subjective statements in No Sounds are gleaned from other authors via algorithm, the poem cannot read as a purely subjective baring of the soul in the tradition of Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow’. …
(Karla Kelsey, “An Introduction to ‘No Sounds’”, at RECONFIGURATIONS 2)
As Karla has intuited, my actual piecework is not algorithm- or constraint- or routine- driven, even if the material and the order, etc. in which I sample it is. To put it succinctly, I will quote Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto: “you just go on your nerve.” I decide to put this next to that because it feels right. Truthfully, I usually don’t know where I’m going as I piece things together. Except that at some level I’m also expressionist.

There’s a reason I go with “it feels right” at this level. You see, I don’t believe it’s possible to kill the “I”, just as I don’t believe it’s possible to believe in it. These are the epigraphs to one of my constraint-based projects, Zhili Byli:
Notice to all those poets still talking EITHER about “keeping out the ‘lyric I’” OR “putting the ‘I’ back in”: you are now living in the year 2005. That discussion wore itself out like 25 years ago. Get over it and feel free to live your lives.

-K. Silem Mohammad, {lime tree}, 19 December 2005

Why stop there? Why not feel free to live other people’s lives, too?


… once you’ve occupied the master’s lyric I, what are you going to do next?

-Ron Silliman, Silliman’s Blog, 23 January 2006

This, I guess.

I want to gloss Karla’s “Bloomberg-Rissman breaks his own rules too often to make a conceptual statement”. I’m not conceptually meticulous. I break my own rules when the poem and/or my “own personal psychological disorder(s)” and/or “life itself” demand it.

Sometimes the poem tells me what I’m doing’s not working. So I try something different. For instance, in the GR project I describe above, which is a sub-project of my current umbrella-project, Flux Clot & Froth (FCF), I’m working in “supersonnet” units – I take 15 reviews as my task, then the next 15 as the next session’s task, and so on. Well, when I got to the 4th or 5th supersonnet, I just couldn’t get going. It was all wrong. The “magic” wasn’t happening. However one might put it. So I changed up. I worked “last review to first” rather than “first to last”. Et voilà!

As for my own psychological disorder, I’ve never been good at taking direction. For example, though I dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, the truth is my motivation was only in part the evil nature of US actions. I just couldn’t stand the notion of being in the military, where people could yell at me and make me do stuff. And I finish one book out of a hundred. I don’t mean the ones I write, I mean the ones I read. You can imagine how well I take orders from myself, then. Some days I’m better at it than others. So, on certain projects I allow myself to “interpolate”. The GR project is an interpolation into the larger project of FCF. FCF’s guiding constraint is to work my way through approximately 10 shelves of post-Allen anthology Anglophone poetry (I was gifted with this set when I recently got those shelves into author-alphabetic order). On some projects I’m stricter with myself than on others. But one of my explicit FCF-rules is “interpolate whenever”.

And as for the demands of life itself, well, let’s say I read something on your blog and it hits me: “that would be perfect!” In it goes, interpolated. Let’s say I’m moved by someone’s death. I interpolate something by or about them. Let’s say I have a song I can’t get out of my head …

I have as model James Joyce, who let Beckett’s addition of “Come in!” to Finnegans Wake stand (or so goes the story. But who needs fact?)

One other tool I should mention: text generators and cutup engines. Every so often I’ll take up a bit of text and toss it into Lee Worden’s cutup engine. I like the way it lets me chant. Or I’ll play with a text generator, say the one used to create the infamous Issue 1. Sometimes I like to lose control altogether.

TB: For all your appropriative strategizing, I rarely feel that you approach language only in terms of its materiality. That material concern is always present, but you are clearly thinking about what is being said. Talk a little more explicitly about the relationship between your intentions and what you are attempting to address.

JB-R: I love “intentions” and “attempting” in this question. Not that you said it, but I will: of course I fail. But it’s always “fail better”, isn’t it?

And you’re right; I don’t approach language only in terms of its materiality. I don’t think Wittgensteinian language games are purposeless (after all, the builder wants to be handed that brick, and wants to do something with it), or that Snyder was wrong when he wrote, “The moral imperative this yuga is to communicate.” So, yeah, I am trying to “say” something. What? Aristotle: “being can be said in many different ways.”

What do I mean by “being”? I don't’ mean “being qua being”, ontology. I mean human being. “Life”, as “experienced.” Whether or not it only comes-to-be through language. Though I understand why “humanism” (in the traditional post-renaissance possessive-individualist sense) is not over but should be the truth is I can’t speak for the rocks and the trees and the fish in the sea and the sea itself and the machines. That would be so much more than presumptuous; it would be literally insane. I can’t even speak, really, for a single other human being. And since “I is another”, actually many others, I can’t even speak for my “self” … but I can’t shut up, either.

What I try to get down in pixels or on paper is a version of the tale of the tribe, which = the chatter of a very peculiar bunch of primates, which = a giant wail of suffering, which = a hallelujah chorus. Among other things. 10,000 other things. All remixed as if by a DJ like Spooky or Señor Priego, to keep us all dancing. Because, of course, the dancers inherit the party.

I guess I’m just a fucking cheerleader, when you get down to it, singing Garcia’s “Wheel” on the sidelines while the team gets its head kicked in:
The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go and you can't hold on
You can’t go back and you can't stand still
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will

Won’t you try just a little bit harder
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more
Won’t you try just a little bit harder
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more
etc. etc.

Absurd, of course. But I’m a bit of a sap. And, like everything I say or write, this is only partly true at best. After all, No Sounds does end with the word “confusion”. And that’s not by accident …

Allow me to channel Badiou a minute and quote Mao: Let a thousand flowers bloom. To lift from a convenient source on the web (Phrase Finder)
Let a thousand flowers bloom is a common misquotation of Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Let a hundred flowers blossom”. This slogan was used during the period of approximately six weeks in the summer of 1957 when the Chinese intelligentsia were invited to criticize the political system then obtaining in Communist China.

The full quotation, taken from a speech of Mao's in Peking in February 1957, is:

“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”
Though I don’t put those flowers into contention (I mean, there’s no real power struggle in my poems, all samples are created and remain equal, no matter how much I mess with them), I do believe that making space for a cacophonic chorus that never quite blends into one voice, each voice at equal volume with all others, each endowed with “equal rights”, is indeed a precondition for letting a just culture flourish, though I’d probably opt for some sort of anarcho-socialism rather than a univocal Maoist version.

Of course, I know that what I’m creating is something just slightly more than the illusion of such a chorus. There’s a little man behind the Oz-curtain … But what more can I do? The totally aleatory doesn’t work for me. Not all the time, at least. I almost hate to say it, but some days I love Jackson Mac Low’s procedure notes more than his poems. Besides, 4’33” is always-already on the box, isn’t it?

I haven’t figured out an answer yet, besides actual collaboration, which I engage in as often as I can. For instance, I was really pleased when 1000 Views of ‘Girl Singing’ ceased being my project and became a multimedia anthology with about 30 participants instead.

And I also know that most of my assemblages do tend to blend the voices a bit. This is, I think, because I write “for solo performance”, not that everything in my work can be voiced. But I try not to be seamless. And I often “leave the dirt on the roots”, as Olson suggested.

In T to C I was able to create a number of different “I’s”. At the moment, as I work on FCF, my efforts focus on making a giant shifting “I” that is no one and everyone.

My grammar checker, wiser perhaps than I am, wants to rewrite the above sentence as “At the moment, as everyone and I work on FCF, my efforts focus on making a giant shifting “I” that is no one.” I love that. That allows me to answer to your question at last: I think my appropriative etc. techniques enable something just slightly more than an illusion of a “giant shifting ‘all of us’ that is no one” to come together and sing/chatter/wail/hallelujah all over the dance floor til we can found our lives in love and justice (I don’t worry about what I’ll sing then).

At least, that’s what I hope I’m doing.

Does that answer your question? I’m not sure that I really got to the meat of it.

TB: I thought it was a great response, John. I was particularly interested in your comment about Jackson Mac Low's work. For all his emphasis on the aleatory, I'm not sure he ever totally followed his procedures. He was first and foremost an artist and he made things up when it suited him.

One of the things that I find appealing about your work is the recurring references to philosophy/philosophers. For example, in this last response you mentioned both Wittgenstein and Badiou. Philosophy's important to you, isn't it?

JB-R: Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never been able to figure out whether it’s philosophy or philosophers that I find interesting.

But, yes. Philosophy and poetry, philosophers and poets, have been inextricably linked since the beginning. Obviously, not just my beginning. Limiting myself to philosophy in the “West” for simplicity’s sake, it’s worth noting here that Parmenides and other presocratics were poets; that it wouldn’t be hard to consider Hesiod as a philosopher; that Plato was a poet, and (therefore?) banned them (himself?) from his Republic, because they lie, or, as you note with approval of Mac Low, they “make things up”, and that’s bad for their auditors; he bans them because, in your terms, they are artists; and so on, til we get to Heidegger, for whom poetry is crucial. Unlike Plato, he thought poets’ “lies” “open the realm of truth”. Poetry is crucial for virtually all Heideggerian “continental” philosophers. You notice my mention of Badiou. In certain sense, Badiou’s philosophy of the event can be read as a gloss on Mallarmé’s “Un coup de des …”

One could argue that Kant’s whole philosophy takes place at the point where art intersects ethics … One could take Cixous’ work and argue vice-versa …

The relationship isn’t one way. Think of what Aristotle and Aquinas meant for Dante, or of Shelley, who translated the Symposium, or of Heine’s book on German philosophy, or of Nietzsche, who stands right on the borderline and who crosses at will, of how Stein studied with James, and called Whitehead one of her few geniuses, or of Andrew Joron’s work on Bloch, or … dare I mention one Mr Beckett, who stands convicted in his own words of having a thing for Deleuze and Wittgenstein?

I think there’s a reason for this “intercourse.” Who else, besides poets and philosophers, tries to think everything via language? Who else tries to put words to the eternally wordless?

More personally: philosophers have been important to me since my beginning, too. As an early reader once noted, “John’s interested in one thing: how do we live?” I would have gotten my undergrad degree in philosophy had UCLA not been so analysis-oriented. I couldn’t because I’ve never believed that language could eliminate confusion, even a “purified” symbolic language. I wanted to go to a school where I could read the philosophers as if they were the authors of epics, or tragedies, or lyrics. It’s no coincidence that I ended up reading literature (“real” epics, or tragedies, and lyrics, as well as stories and novels) while taking writing classes.

I mention Badiou so much because over the last month or two I’ve worked my way through half his Being and Event, one of the few books I’ve started in years I know I’ll finish, in anticipation of the English-language release of his Logics of Worlds. I think Badiou is great. It doesn’t matter that I have reservations about the “solidity” of a philosophy founded on axioms it’s forbidden to investigate. I think the philosophers he argues with, Heidegger and Deleuze, are great, too. My reservations about their work are irrelevant to my belief in their greatness. I could list a million philosophers who are great, just as I could list a million poets. Know why I think they’re all so great? Because it’s not a question of right and wrong. Because they’re all so human. I don’t look for “the truth” from philosophers, though sometimes I stumble across what might be temporarily taken for one, just as I do in poems. Here’s what it is: I love the way they “think” so hard. I love the way they work so hard to get “it” down. It’s so poignant.

I really don’t see the difference between philosophers and poets.

The funny thing is, I’m not all that interested in aesthetics. Though it would be interesting to worry a bit your response to my comment on Mac Low. You write, “For all his emphasis on the aleatory, I'm not sure he ever totally followed his procedures. He was first and foremost an artist and he made things up when it suited him.” My questions wouldn’t be Plato’s or Heidegger’s, though they’d relate. I’d start with: Is that what an artist is? Someone who breaks the rules when it suits? What does “suits” mean? When does it suit? Then I might wonder about “making things up” … what it means … in relation to what? Is it possible? …

TB: I believe that an artist is a person who interrupts something—whether it is a process of thought, an institutional context, or some other kind of paradigm. An artist is a stye in the eye of the received.

I really don't perceive a difference between philosophers and poets either. But…

If something occurs to me that I haven't collaged from someone else's work…aren't I making that up?

JB-R: I’m not denying that it’s possible to “make things up.” I’m just wondering what it might mean to “make things up.”

I was reading Henry Corbin’s Alone With the Alone last night, the book that used to be called Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. I’m struck in this context by his discussion of (the) Imagination(s). He begins by stating that “Here we shall not be dealing with imagination in the usual sense of the word: neither with fantasy, profane or otherwise, nor with the organ which produces imaginings identified with the unreal; nor shall we even be dealing with what we look upon as the organ of esthetic creation.” He then goes on to note that phenomenology enables us to “experience our relationship to the world … and to say that the Imagination induces knowledge, and knowledge of an “object” which is proper to it …” In that context, when one says “If something occurs to me that I haven't collaged from someone else's work…aren't I making that up?” making-up might mean something like Platonic anamnesis … which would be different from Whole-Cloth Invention, another possible meaning. For me, at least, it’s not obvious, it’s not automatic, what one might mean by “making something up.”

If a poet “says” (or “collages”) that-which-can’t-yet-must-be-said, did the poet “make it up”?

What this comes down to is I see grounds for philosophizing everywhere. Puzzling it out. Not that puzzling (or philosophy) (or poetry, for that matter) necessarily = thinking, especially if thinking is equated with the so-called “rational”; as Corbin notes, love and other “sentiments” also induce knowledge. It would be interesting at some point to talk about love. Just as we don’t see a difference between artists and philosophers, I don’t see a difference between an artist and a lover …

I have to confess that when I come up with a particularly felicitous phrase I’m always afraid that I’m remembering something someone else has already “made up”, or, at best, misremembering it.

In any case, I like your definition of the artist as a person who interrupts something. And I find it interesting that your notion of the artist as a “stye in the eye of the received” accords nicely with my own hopeless-hopefully utopian intentions. And, of course, this is an ethical-revolutionary, i.e. “philosophical” position. To get back to Badiou, as Michael Kim succinctly puts it in his piece on Being and Event at lacan.com, “what Badiou means when he writes of an “event”: something that disrupts the current situation.” Hmmm. Maybe an artist (or at least an artwork) is an event. But I should note that, as Kim goes on to write, “Badiou is concerned with how it is possible that something new can be seen.” Seen, not “made up.” To repeat myself, hmmm. There I go, puzzling again …

TB: Yes, by all means, let's talk about love. Let's talk about how the artist and lover coincide.

JB-R: Sometimes I wonder what gets into me when I suggest something like “let’s talk about love”! What is love? A question that’s never been answered. But what the hell … when did impossibility ever stop me?

An event is not only “something that disrupts the current situation”, it’s an undecidable something. That means one can’t know whether whatever happened really constituted an event. Take the French Revolution for example. No one argues that a “bunch of stuff” really happened between 1789 and, say, the coronation of Napoleon. But if you remember all the bicentennial publications of a couple decades ago, the question in play was: did all that stuff constitute an event, a disruption? There’s no way to answer definitively.

But. Who feels it knows it, and a lover says yes in order to become a lover, and from then on, to the extent the lover is one, is faithful to the undecidable event. I’m using Badiou’s concepts, of course. His way of putting this in Theory of the Subject (also soon to be published in English), his “ultimate ethical maxim”, is “'decide upon the undecidable.” Commit.

I feel bad about channeling so much Badiou. It’s not like I'm a disciple or anything. But I’m not an appropriation artist for nothing. My mind’s one big assemblage. And these days, given my current immersion in B’s work, guess what floats to the top … a year ago I would have been speaking cognitive science. And before that …

In any case, that’s a way to see love, as fidelity to an undecidable event. I was driving Kathy home from urgent care yesterday (flu moving in the direction of the lungs) when I asked, “Why you? Why me? What happened when we met?” That was so long ago … but we agreed that even then it was impossible to know. But: something: and we both said yes. Of course, one yes won’t do it. It has to be yes yes yes yes yes yes yes … if one is to deserve the mystic appellation (this is Corbin, not Badiou; what a relief!) fidele d’amore.

And that’s also a way to see art. When confronted by art, or when making a bit, something happens. Or does it? Once again, an undecidable. And yet … and yet … in order to be faithful to the first word, or note, or dab of paint, or … one must dare to add a second, and so on, til all the yeses add up to YES. Then it’s time to stop, breathe, fill the tank, and do it all over again. It has to be yes yes yes yes yes yes yes … if one is to deserve the mystic appellation a faithful of art.

You know George Brecht’s scores? Here’s one of them, it’s one word long: Exit. In order to be faithful to that score, one must perform it, one must exit.

Art and love are performative. In order to be an artist one must “art.” In order to be a lover, one must “love.”

Here are a couple other ways of saying the same thing, and maybe to “coincide” love and art a little bit more. One is to loop art and love with eros. You do that. As you say in an interview with Richard Lopez, “Kathy Acker once famously wrote about masturbating while she wrote. I can understand that impulse. Making love, making art, are entwined in my thinking — braided in the most sensuous of knots.”

And since we have more than 5 senses, why not engage all of them? The practice of love and art can be stages on the Spiritual’s way (Spiritual’s another Corbinism!). They are manifestations of the marriage to Christ, to the suffering void, to the bodhisattva vow. How else does one “free all sentient beings”? By giving one’s best everything. I think lovers and artists do that. Of course, I include fleshly love in all this.

Finally, here’s my most selfish personal way to say this. When I love, when I art, when I give my best everything, I’m happy. As I wrote long ago, “when I say happy, I mean so damn glad to be alive.”

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

JB-R: To start, let me quote one of them, Alice Notley. While waiting for the doctor this morning (knee problems), I was reading In the Pines, where I came across this line: “In love there is no because.” Dude. I feel so … confirmed. But of course it’s as she writes a page or two earlier: “everything floats between everyone.”

Back to business. I’m going to stick to Anglophones here, and to poets (per your “poetic forebears”), though the stuff I’m doing these days owes a lot to Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, Cy Twombly, Allen Kaprow, Fluxus … a whole lot of photographers (have I mentioned my son’s a photographer? He’s managed to live off his photographic income for years now: amazing. Anyway, it’s because of him I’ve learned to see photographs) … and too many musicians to list.

I mentioned Anselm Hollo. He was the first poet who made it possible for me to believe that art was something actual people just did. Before him artists were unreal superheroes with superhero powers. Kind of like angels. After Hollo I knew that even the great ones’ shit smelled like shit. I got some courage from him.

After Hollo came the Reed boys. I got from Snyder my first idea of how lines might
break and that a poem might have a shape. Whalen gave me crazy mind, though mine’s never been as crazy as his. And Welch my notion of beauty. Here’s something from his preface to Ring of Bone that shot me in the heart early:
“I once took a guided tour through a California winery and the guide, a young man about 20 years old, droned away with his memorized speech of fact and figures, chanting them perfectly in that guide-chant all of us have heard, and suddenly he stopped and yelled, ‘Whose kid is that!’ A small child was determined to fall into a 500 gallon vat of wine.

The force of real speech slammed right against false speech was startling as a thunderclap, and not because he called out loudly.

I vowed never to release a poem of mine which couldn't at least equal the force of that guide's ‘Whose kid is that!’ Pound says poetry ought to be at least as well written as prose. I say that poetry ought to be at least as vigorous and useful as natural speech.”
In parallel with those guys, the 1st gen New York poets, particularly O’Hara.

Jack Spicer.

Of course, I read a lot more than that. But I was a pretty late-beat psychedelicist back in those days, so saw through an oddly limited-depth-of-field lens. I mean, though I’d read and liked Berrigan’s sonnets, I didn’t really get them.

And it took me a while to learn how to read women.

That got me through my first incarnation. Later, when I came back to writing, and had met Alan Baker, I was all over the place, playing catch-up. I had to. So much that I needed had been going on while I was painting myself into that tight corner, and so much more while I was away learning I was lousy at guitar.

I won’t list everyone I admire, just (some of) those “post-Allen anthology” writers and poets who I am sure have left a mark, visible or invisible, on my work (and remember, this list could be 10x as long): Arakawa + Gins, Rae Armantrout, Alan Baker, Joe Brainard, David Cameron, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Clark Coolidge, Angela Genusa, Kenneth Goldsmith, Giles Goodland, Lee Harwood, Lyn Hejinian, Geof Huth, Tony Lopez, Bernadette Mayer, Helen Mirra, bp Nichol, Alice Notley, Maureen Owen, Shin Yu Pai, Ernesto Priego, Tom Raworth, my brother Omo Bob, Jerome Rothenberg, Jared Schickling, Eileen Tabios, Cecilia Vicuña (who, while not solely Anglophone, just has to make my list), Mark Young. And, of course, the language poets. And, of course, the Flarf collective. And, of course, everyone I’ve ever collaborated with.

It’s ridiculous how many poets I’ve left off the list. And that it’s Anglophone only, and only post-Allen: wrong, so wrong. I really mean it when I say I think I learn something from everyone. Additionally, I should probably mention everyone I’ve ever sampled. But anyone who wants that list will just have to buy my books.

TB: I love Welch's anecdote about the winery guide. I wouldn't describe the guide's speech as natural though so much as interventionist. So, let's return to that idea of the poet as interrupting, intervening somehow. Let's return, perhaps, to a utopian prospect. What for you is the social value of poetry?

JB-R: I think Welch’s point is that the speech patterns of this intervention are pretty much plain speech, and that it’s possible to be powerful without sounding like “a poet”. A long time ago David Antin wrote, “if robert lowell is a poet i don’t want to be a poet if robert frost was a poet i don’t want to be a poet if socrates was a poet ill consider it.” He didn’t want to “sound like a poet”, either. Welch also wrote that a poet’s job was to be accurate, and if accuracy happened, beauty would take care of itself. I don’t think the notions are unrelated.

One of the liberating things about assemblage is “I” gets to “sing” in all registers. I don’t like being limited by Welch, however right he was.

To your question, whose name is Legion: for it is many. I’ll stick to two readings. This is going to take a while. I’ll be as coherent as I can.

There’s indeed a utopian way to read your question: poet or poem as event, intervention, saboteur in the dictionary sense of “any underhand interferer with production, work, etc., in a plant, factory, etc., as by enemy agents during wartime or by employees during a trade dispute.” But there’s also the “what” is instead of the “what should [I’d better say could] be”. I’ll have to pass through the is to get to the could.

I’m going to address them by cutting a few bits out of my Galatea Resurrects 11 review of what I like to call “the infamous Issue 1” and pasting and commenting on them here. I slaved over that piece and, at the moment, can’t explain myself better. Appropriation artist that I am, I might as well appropriate myself. And, to go one better, I got this first bit from Wikipedia:
In “The Forms of Capital” (1986), Bourdieu distinguishes between three types of capital:

Economic capital: command over economic resources (cash, assets).

Social capital: resources based on group membership, relationships, networks of influence and support. Bourdieu defines social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.”

Cultural capital: forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society. Parents provide their children with cultural capital by transmitting the attitudes and knowledge needed to succeed in the current educational system.

Later he adds symbolic capital (resources available to an individual on the basis of honor, prestige or recognition) to this list.

In the is, the social value of poetry (I’m interpreting social here in the widest sense, as the “human natural”) is largely capital accumulation. Admittedly, not much economic capital changes hands, unless we’re talking about salaries connected to university positions. But there’s plenty of social, cultural and symbolic capital in circulation. They get you published. They get you prizes. They get you distributed. They get you collected (in two senses: they get you onto personal and library shelves, and they enable if not insure the eventual publication of big fat books of your stuff). They allow you to establish lineages, however suspect. And so on.

I’m not saying that this is entirely wrong. I’m not saying that some poets aren’t more talented than others. I don’t begrudge anybody anything. The problem is gross inequity.

One of the great things about Issue 1 is that it brought capital accumulation to the fore, and revealed how attached poets can get to their little pot (attachment’s, as the Buddhists say, where inequity, not to mention iniquity, begins). I hope you don’t mind if I quote you again.
Issue 1 puts all four types under temporary erasure. How? In the words of Tom Beckett (personal communication), “all the texts collected in the anthology appear to be the equally bland productions of a poetry-generating software program (the writing equivalent of, was it, Jorn's paintings which were sold by the length) …” The equality of “product” associated with each name has, then, a leveling effect. If the poems are equally whatever (bland, brilliant, it doesn’t matter (though I will add that I tend to admire Erica T Carter [note: the text generator] more than Tom does), then the capital inhering in (adhering to?) each name is also equalized. For a moment, at least, no one has more command over economic resources than anyone else; no one has a better place in the pecking order based on their group membership(s), relationships, networks of influence and support than anyone else; no one demonstrates forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that give them a higher status in society than anyone else; no one has any more honor, prestige or recognition than anyone else.
As my friend Jared Schickling wrote me,

In this light, it’s interesting to examine the anthology’s title. “Issue 1” of course signifies a first issue of some rag, but it also signifies “Issue #1,” the issue of primary interest raised by this anthology, or the beginning, first-order concern the anthology raises …

Let’s forget a moment that I’ve just implied that the poetry world needs to clean its own house, and take that world instead as a model for the world at large. As Jared hints, to bend the is towards a could the real intervention would be to delegitimate inequities in capital distribution. How does poetry do that?

There are as probably as many ways as there are poets.

But, I’ll enumerate a few:

I think of Dale Smith’s Slow Poetry movement here, and its concerns.

I’m also reminded of a review I got, of my little book OTAGES. OTAGES was written in real time as the last Israeli-Hizbollah war unfolded in Lebanon. The book takes its title and much of its imagery from Jean Fautrier’s series of paintings, portraits, so to speak, of civilian victims of the Second World War. This bit of ekphrasis intersects with the words I lifted from the blogs of two Beirutis, Mazen Kerbaj and Laure Ghorayeb, who were reacting to events as they happened: e.g. the bombing of their neighborhoods, friends and family they couldn’t get in touch with, the mounting number of deaths, the waiting between attacks … There’s some other stuff mixed it: quotes from Vallejo, etc. I didn’t have to editorialize. I just collaged.

Anyway, here’s a taste of the review:
Now, I could not find an entry in the OED for “otages”. But after reading John Bloomberg-Rissman’s collection, it will forever remain in my mind as being synonymously linked with discomfort. There is something excruciatingly painful about Otages. The words, their placement on the page, the way these forces combine to make it impossible to read them any way other then haltingly, the relentless preoccupation with death and displacement, with fear…I think you get the idea. It is dark, damn dark, and that darkness wafts off the page and into your aura like Furies. …

I confess to feeling I am being punished. Punished for living in a town where that level of violence cannot even begin to be imagined. Some days I will feel like having my social conscience dragged out of its self-imposed exile, other days I will enjoy living in ignorance. Does this make me a bad person? Maybe, maybe not. I fear Bloomberg-Rissman would say yes. Intentionally or not, this collection comes across as very judgmental, and that helped it be an uncomfortable read.
After reading that, I felt like a fine interventionist!

While thinking about intervention, I think of file sharing, perhaps one of the most revolutionary developments in the arts in a long time. File sharing kills the networks that enable gross inequities in capital accumulation. What’s the worst that happens if file sharing wins, and those gross inequities go the way of other “sort-of-extinct” social formations? It won’t kill music. Nothing will kill music. We all know many musicians who play for nothing, and who won’t stop. The worst that happens is that the Celine Dions and the Metallicas and the Kanye Wests perform before small local audiences. Who among us would bemoan the death of stadium-sized concerts, except the owners of stadiums?

We can’t directly transfer this scenario to poetry, because poetry doesn’t command the same financial resources pop music does, but I somehow suspect that file-sharing does contain hints (remember “property is theft!”??)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about enforcing absolute leveling. Some people/products/services will always be more popular/better than others and therefore more likely to accumulate various forms of capital than others. Audience size will still vary, whether it’s for a car or a meal or a shoe or a poem. But these aren’t inequities. To limit myself to poetry: I’m never going to attract the audiences Homer and/or his rhapsodes did, because I can’t compose an Iliad or Odyssey. I just don’t have the chops. He can have the town square; I’ll take a friend’s kitchen. That’s just the way it is, and that’s fine.

I think the trick’s to get rid of the gross inequities. The unnecessary suffering. We’ll never get rid of all inequity, or all suffering. I’m going to quote my review of Issue 1 again:
In his trilogy The Information Age, Castells has developed three notions of identity (I quote from Felix Stalder’s review at The Information Society: An International Journal):

1. Legitimizing identity: introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination over social actors. Legitimizing identities generate civil societies and their institutions, which reproduce what Max Weber called “rationale Herrschaft” (rational power).

2. Resistance identity: produced by those actors who are in a position/condition of being excluded by the logic of domination. Identity for resistance leads to the formation of communes or communities as a way of coping with otherwise unbearable conditions of oppression.

3. Project identity: proactive movements which aim at transforming society as a whole, rather than merely establishing the conditions for their own survival in opposition to the dominant actors. Feminism and environmentalism fall under this category.

I think today’s dominant institutions are too often perpetrators of what Adi Ophir calls superfluous evils.

[Superfluous evil occurs when anything one does pushes] others into category 2. To quote Ophir’s The Order of Evils: Toward an Ontology of Morals (trs. Rela Mazali, Havi Carel), “What guides moral judgment and the intention of a moral act is the care for those others whom evil befalls.”
I’d never want to limit how poets work, or force them to be saboteurs. But to the degree you and I are talking about poetry as intervention, as care, this legitimizes the following: What poets can do is to work on noting and addressing and struggling against unnecessary evils. Those are anything and everything that push people into category 2’s “position/condition of being excluded by the logic of domination.”


Now I’m going to give a somewhat different answer to your question. Leaving aside utopia since it’s, uh, utopian (i.e. nowheresville), living under the conditions in which we live, and are likely to live, and leaving poets free to do whatever they want: what is the social value/what are the social values of poetry? At least as I see it?

Personal. It gives me something to do, “for love”. To paraphrase Creeley’s famous lines, I would split open my head and put a candle in behind the eyes. How is that social? It makes me more fun to be around, because it makes me happy. Besides, “the way of poetry is eternal.”

Interpersonal. My poems are my gift to you. I have no desire to split open your head, etc. (well, I do have interventionist pretensions … but that just means I want to intervene, not that you have to listen … ). As I wrote a few years ago, “I don’t want to be anybody’s legislator, unacknowledged or otherwise. I just want to look you in the eyes and say, yo.” I might lie a lot in my poems, but only so as to get closer to the inexpressible, yeah, I’ll use the word, truth. So I can share it. I want there to be something between us. Something connecting, not separating.

Group. Poetry creates community. I can’t number the friends I’ve made, the people I love, and the people who love me. I think of a book Kathy got me. It’s called The Oxford Project. It’s about a town in the Midwest. I paraphrase one of the residents, “Yeah, it’s small. Everyone knows who’s sleeping with whom. On the other hand, when someone dies, the family is going to get 28 casseroles.”

I also think of a bit of dialogue from the film Kingdom of Heaven:

Balian: “What is Jerusalem worth?”

Saladin: “Nothing.” Pause. “Everything.”

Insert poetry in place of Jerusalem, and there you have it.

TB: A gorgeous, thought-provoking response, John.

By the way, I thought Issue 1 was a great interventionist gesture; but it's not something I want to read.

What stands out in your response is an ongoing concern for what Joan Retallack has beautifully called "poethics." With that in mind, a final question:

What do you find most discouraging/most encouraging about current poetry "scenes?"

JBR: That there are “scenes” at all is both discouraging/encouraging.

Discouraging in that scenes tend to replicate the struggle for capital, to create a binary of us vs. them. School of Quietude vs. the Post-Avant. Flarf vs. the world. Etc etc. Who needs it? “Poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race.” It’s not really a case of versus.

It’s also encouraging. Given how easy it is to find more-or-less like-minded people via current telecom and web and print technologies, no one has to be lonely any more. Want to be part of a scene? Want to publish a book? Want to be in a zine? No problem.

I’d like to leave scenes aside, subsets, and to talk about the scene as a whole. There is one. Someday, if there is a someday, people will look back and say, “Oh, that poem’s so turn of the 21st Century!” It won’t matter what scene or school it’s from. They’ll recognize a zeitgeist, and all its productions will constitute its spam.

I find today’s scene very encouraging. This is probably the first time in history that poets seem to want to hear everyone. All those poets from Castells’ category 2, “who are in a position/condition of being excluded by the logic of domination.” These days they’re all in the game. Among the most wonderful poets of my time: Kamau Brathwaite, Cecilia Vicuña, Linh Dinh, Hannah Weiner, Larry Eigner, Mahmoud Darwish, etc etc … They’re not seen as freaks, or tokens, just great poets. The doors are wide open.

There is another ways today’s moment is exhilarating. We’ve been “talking utopia” through a lot of this. But let’s not forget Lyotard’s notion that there are no more grand narratives. Since that’s so obviously not the case (big g Globalization, anyone? End of the Oil Economy? Climate Apocalypse?), what I believe he must have meant is there are no more utopian grand narratives. No more God, no more progress. No more proletarian revolution. And so on. This leaves a huge field of questions for us to play in. What could be better than a huge field of unanswerable questions to get the juices flowing? That doesn’t mean there are no poets supporting the old narratives the way those kids propped up the corpse in Weekend at Bernie’s. That’s only to be expected. But for the most part, poets seem to be rising to the challenge of finding ways to thrive in our current crazy environment.

As John Cage put it, in an interview with Ted Berrigan, “I think it’s a wonderful time for poetry and I really feel that something is about to boil.”

As we all know by now, Cage didn’t really say that. But I will, though I’ll leave out the boiling stuff.

Thanks for asking these questions, Tom. They are indeed poethical.

Tom Beckett is the author, most recently, of This Poem/What Speaks?/A Day (Otoliths). He curated the three volumes of E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S interviews (also available from Otoliths). Beckett and Geof Huth are currently over 300 pages into a year-long conversation-in-writing about their work and lives.

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