Ron Silliman is the author of over 30 books of poetry and criticism, and the editor of numerous publications, including the groundbreaking anthology of Language writing, In the American Tree (1986). Over the past decade, his weblog devoted to poetry and poetics has attracted several million hits—and, recently, a bit of controversy. Since 1974, he has been at work on Ketjak, his “poem of a life” in the great modernist tradition. Ketjak is composed of four parts: The Age of Huts (1974-80), Tjanting (1979-81), The Alphabet (1979-2004), and Universe (2005-present).
Silliman’s “longpoem” is a grand study in the aesthetic and political implications of scale and context, thrown into relief by ingenious experiments with part-whole dynamics. It tends to operate on various forms of cyclical and aggregative logic, or what he has called a “sort of Russian-doll structure”— Tjanting, for instance, was composed according to the Fibonacci sequence.
During the course of our conversation in mid-July, it became clear to me just how astonishingly ambitious and original Silliman’s aims are. We began by discussing his current work on Universe, which he envisions as a colossal 360-chapter project along similar lines to The Alphabet, in which each chapter also appears as a separate volume. We also spoke about the challenges of writing a long poem over several decades, the question of “realism,” works in other artistic media that have influenced his art, and the conservatism of poetry, among many other topics.
WC: I was hoping you could say a bit about your current project, Universe, which is the last section of your four-part “poem of a life,” Ketjak.
RS: Universe. Actually I was pulling together a spreadsheet just the other day so I could get all the various projects I’m working on in hand at once, particularly because I’m getting ready to retire from my day job. And one of the things I very quickly noticed is that I’m currently working on 11 different books [laughter]
WC: But eleven’s not even that impressive for the 360 you seem to be projecting for this project…
RS: Well, it’s not eleven in Universe, though it is three or four from that project. Yeah, it’s four, currently in various stages of work—maybe five if we include a chapbook that’s just been published, which is the opening section of “Northern Soul.” The chapbook is called Wharf Hypothesis and is available from Lines Press here.
Anyway, Universe is definitely the next stage of the Ketjak project, and it is in my mind a cycle. The title is as much a verb as a noun. That’s why I stop and correct everyone who says “the universe.” It is going to be essentially sketched out as 360 works—not unlike the way in which The Alphabet was 26 works. Although, I remember when I visited Russia and would try to explain that I was working on a project called The Alphabet and that it had 26 parts, I would run into Russians who wanted to know, “Why 26?”
WC: Because the Russian alphabet has…
RS: 32 letters. And there were a few times when I wished I was working in Hawaiian, which only has thirteen I believe. [laughter]
WC: And most of them vowels.
RS: It would be interesting to try to work in a language like that, though. One could do some amazing things. Take a work like Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and then translate it into Hawaiian.
WC: Constraining a severely constrained text. Well, Bök’s probably the only person on the planet who could do that.
RS: He’s very good at a certain kind of meticulous follow-through in his work and his projects. It’s the conceptual side of those projects that are functionally the most interesting, at least from my perspective.
WC: On this subject: How do you conceive of your projects before you begin them? I take it your works frequently take on a life of their own in a way that Christian Bök’s might not, in the sense that his are so rigidly predetermined. I suppose the bigger question would be how you sustain your efforts on a long-poem for decades, keeping it fresh and without running out of steam.
RS: There are a couple of things that I think I need to be clear about in terms of how I am thinking about this. One is something I learned from Zukofsky—and I really figured this out when I was in college. I was studying his long-poem “A” with Bob Grenier (the only class I ever had with Bob was a special study where we went through “A” 1-12, which was what was in print at the time). One of the things that’s quite clear in Zukofsky’s work is that while it starts out following the Poundian model of having an all-over surface characteristic—not unlike what you find in Duncan’s Passages or Olson’s Maximus Poems—so that if you read the first poem you can intuit what every other poem in the sequence might look like; not necessarily would, but might. The parameters are clear. Zukofsky’s very much the same way through “A” -6, and then from “A” -7 onward there are radically different changes. He really attacks the part-whole relationship of the long-poem in a very different fashion. And that to me has always seemed like the secret, that each work really in some basic way needs to be different from every other. It needs to therefore address the question of that difference in the way it is set up.
So that sort of deals with the question of freshness you were suggesting. The other point is that while one is working on a project for decades, one is really only working on the project right now. To the degree that my writing is an index of so much that is either in front of me or concerning me at any particular moment. Keeping it in front of me, the “right now” aspect, which has probably more to do with, say, the work of Philip Whalen than it does Louis Zukofsky.
WC: This sounds almost like a Zen philosophy.
RS: Yes, I was going to say it’s actually in some sense closer to Zen practice than it is to European analytical philosophy—or continental philosophy, for that matter.
WC: So, how does the question of the part-whole relationship figure in Universe?
RS: One of the things that seems obvious from the process is that I can describe a process but I work at the same scale I’ve always worked at, which is around one section per year, give or take. And I think it’s a little slower at this point in my life. Setting out on a project where there are 360 such sections is a question of opening up a process that one will never complete. So the project becomes to some degree then to describe the project while I’m creating it in such a fashion that anyone reading it—should I live long enough to do enough of this to make sense, and let’s hope I do—that the rest of the project, the 200 sections I might not write, that they will seem at least implicitly clear to the reader in that sense. And my only guide at this point is highly intuitive in terms of thinking of sections in different patterns.
At least two of the sections so far have north in some variation in their titles, and I’m not quite sure what that means.
WC: What are those titles?
RS: One is “Northern Soul,” and that’s a free verse work that I’m in the process of working on. And the other one is called “Caledonia,” which is a series of prose paragraphs. Caledonia being originally the Latin term for north, and later referred to whatever was north of the Roman Empire, and then beyond that became the inherent or default name for that part of Great Britain that was farther north than that empire ever spread, and then as a result of that a term for Scotland. Its original meaning is “north of here.”
WC: I’ve noticed that the sections of “Revelator” that you’ve published recently in Poetry and other venues are composed of five-word lines. And you seem to have changed the unit of measure from the sentence to something more like clauses, broken up by commas and sometimes question marks. I’m wondering if this marks a formal departure or extension of the “new sentence,” or if you’ve thought of it as a completely new formal technique and conceived of it in a specific way?
RS: That’s a really great question. I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms, but it’s something I’m thinking a lot about. Of the sections I’m working on right now of Universe, “Caledonia’s” the one that’s in a prose format, whereas “Northern Soul” is, like “Revelator,” a long, single stanza, as it were. I’m working on another section which is called “Silence & Prose,” which is in unrhymed couplets. But I have been thinking a lot about the relationship of sentences to lines of late. And what occurs in sentences—I hear from people all the time that the “new sentence” isn’t new, what’s new is the way it’s being used and placed, and people always proceed to talk about sentences. And yet one of the things for me that’s most interesting about the “new sentence” is precisely what occurs in that space between sentences. One of my projects for next year, once I retire, is to flesh out, to write a book on, the space between sentences and it’s relationship not only to those sentences, which feels to me always completely sensuous, very distinct in the way a blank space opens is dramatically different from the way it closes. And then to look at its relationship to the line. And not just to the line in terms of the line break, which makes the line visible to the poet’s eye, but the way in which the line is inherent even in the presence of the word. Without the line, we wouldn’t know which way was up in terms of letters. If you go all the way back to the origins of writing, to hieroglyphics, you often find hieroglyphics in forms on tablets with a series of two or three or four of them boxed together, and then another group boxed together, and then another group boxed together. Trying to organize those terms so early on creates interesting questions and problems for the scribes who are quite literally trying to create a language out of the whole cloth. By the time you get to the Rosetta Stone, you’ve got three different scripts and all of them are lineated. At that point, you’ve got words with dots between them, in some of those languages, rather than just all run-on words, which you also have fairly early on. But none of that’s possible without the presence of the line. So I’m sitting around a lot these days thinking what does it mean that we know which end of the “e” is up.
WC: Do the blank spaces have a sound for you, or some kind of physical impact or presence?
RS: They have a physical impact, they have a presence, they’re not passive. Do they have a sound? No, not to my ear. I would say it’s more to one’s gut than to one’s ear. It’s not so much the presence of sound as its absence.
WC: The subtitle of your anthology, In the American Tree, is “Language, Realism, Poetry.” Of those three words, “realism” stands out to me as somewhat incongruous, at first glance. I think I have a sense of what you might mean by “realism”—and you’ve described yourself as a realist, by which of course you don’t mean a realist in the sense of 19th-century fictional realism. I was wondering if you could say a bit about what you mean by realism.
RS: I mean a couple of things. If you go to the Eclipse website you can find a feature that I did for Michael Cuddihy’s magazine Ironwood [Issue 20, 1982] that I was editing at the exact same time I was editing In the American Tree. That particular collection of work is called “Realism” and it’s all people that you will recognize from In the American Tree. I think writers are always realists. I think Joyce in Finnegans Wake is a realist. What is interesting is the question of what’s real. One of the things that you find in the 19th-century novelists into the early-modernists—I’d say you could talk from Balzac to Joyce in these terms—is that the closer and closer the realists get towards capturing something that would be linguistic equivalents of photorealism and painting, the more conscious they become that it is a series of literary effects, and that it is essentially one gimmick after another, created to develop a particular response in the reader. And in fact if you follow Joyce’s work sequentially, and look at the short stories first, where he’s really working from that 19th-century conception of realism to Ulysses, where he’s attempting a different style for each chapter. The style is thematic, and some of the sections are realist in ways that might be recognizable and others that are not. In Finnegans Wake, the conception there doesn’t work—that’s the other thing that’s important to think about with Finnegans Wake. Unlike a lot of other modernist experiments, I think it’s an error to think of Finnegans Wake as a successful project. And what’s wrong with it is that while he goes into language—and what’s real in Finnegans Wake is the language as the dominant element in the work—his conception of language itself is 19th-century philology. The sense that if I know what the roots of this, that or the other word were I understand the word, therefore I understand language, which is a reduction of language to words. Whereas if he had just paid attention to what was already going on in Prague and in Russia around linguistics, he would have come to a very different conception of what language would have been, and would’ve ended up with a very different project overall.
But in each case, I don’t think he was more realist writing “The Dead” than he was in Finnegans Wake. It’s interesting to take a look at the stylistic uses of realism in Ulysses and contrast that with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where each chapter is predicated on a psychological realism of the individual character through whose eyes the chapter’s being seen. Which is, on the one hand, both a more ambitious kind of use of that relationship of style to the real, and, on the other hand, one that very quickly shows the limits of Faulkner’s thinking around what was being done in psychoanalysis at the point that he was writing that work.
WC: I take it then that you’re more sympathetic to Faulkner, or that he’s been more useful to your work than later Joyce?
RS: He probably has been, although I doubt there’s a work of fiction that I’ve read more often than Ulysses.
WC: Reading through various critical works by poets and critics associated with Language or language-oriented writing, I’ve noticed that they seem to return again and again to questions of linguistic and textual transparency. Transparent in this sense connoting instrumentalized or otherwise simplified language, commodified use of language…
RS: The conceptions of the real that one found in the popular novel as expressed consciously by Saul Bellow or less consciously by Philip Roth. Or what I think of as the New Yorker fiction set of the mid-century.
WC: Right. I’ve noted the specific use of the term “transparent” in writings of Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Jerome McGann, Marjorie Perloff, you, among others. In recent years, I’ve noticed Bernstein and Perelman becoming interested in the uses to which “transparent” language might be put. Has your conception of “transparency” changed since the publication of your essay collection, The New Sentence, or since you wrote “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World”?
RS: “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World” was virtually the first critical piece I ever wrote. It has changed—one of the interesting phenomena that has changed a lot is that as film technology has gotten cheaper, it has become possible to go back and correct typos. So you don’t find typos in subtitles of films, which was the very first thing I was noticing in those film descriptions. You really have to go back and find an old print of something like Jonah who will be 25 in the Year 2000. It’s ironic in that it has typos in its original setting because when that script was published in English in book form it had been translated by Michael Palmer, who’s hardly a reductive thinker about the use of language in that sense. My thinking has certainly evolved. I don’t think my position has radically changed. The experience of making language go away while one is experiencing it is the major project of normative fiction. And it is almost always the message in a lot of genre fiction. But at the same time there are numerous examples of writers who don’t do that, or do that in totally different terms, or violate that. The way in which one can say that Charles Bernstein is a poet and the late David Markson is a novelist has more to do with history than it does with individual writing projects as such. Especially when you take Markson’s last books, which were all shuffled 3 x 5 cards with sayings on them, in which you realize that you could build a narrative construction from any particular sequence.
WC: Which is reminiscent of Robert Grenier’s Sentences…
RS: Exactly! Incidentally, they have just found about 26 or so of the original set in an old warehouse, which they are in the process of making available to libraries and collectors, at pricing you would anticipate for libraries and collectors…
WC: Your mention of film reminded me of another question I wanted to ask to do with the place of other artistic media—music and film in particular—in your work. Reading through other interviews you’ve given, certain works crop up again and again: Frank Mouris’s Frank Film, Cage’s Empty Words, Steve Reich’s Come Out.
RS: Right. Also Reich’s Drumming was a particularly important work for the creation of Ketjak in those terms. But it’s true, I was familiar with Steve Reich’s work pretty well when I was a teenager. I actually went to a Reich concert for my 21st birthday, for which, in fact, Paul Zukofsky was the violinist. That was a long time ago. [laughter]
WC: Well, I saw Faust in Edinburgh for my 21st birthday…
But could you name some more recent musical or cinematic works which have been important to you?
RS: As I grow older, and particularly as I have had children, silence has become of much greater value to me than it had been when I was younger. So I can go a long period without listening to a lot of music. Having said that, the music I’ve been listening to lately—let’s say the last six weeks—is a fairly broad cross-section. It would include popular bands like Arcade Fire; it would include the Rova Saxophone Quartet, their most recent CD; a collaboration between the late Steve Lacy and Michael Smith from the 1970s, which is still to my mind the single best jazz CD ever; Seasick Steve, who is an American performer now living in Norway, I think, who’s quite popular in the British marketplace and who does a version of blues that’s really predicated on Southern blues with a slight Texas twist—you can hear ZZ Top in his music. But he grew up in Oakland and his version of blues is extremely close to the version of blues I used to hear growing up in the East Bay of California as well. So I listen to him. In a funny way it’s like listening to my home music in that the clubs that were down on Grove Street, before it became Martin Luther King, are exactly what he sounds like to my ear. And he’s like 65 years old and makes his own guitars, not all of which, in fact not very many of which, seem to have six strings. He does a lot of things with instruments that he borrowed from the acoustic South. Sometimes electrified, sometimes not. The diddley bow…
WC: Haven’t heard of it…
RS: It’s a one-string electric guitar. And he’s got three-string guitars and five-string. Very interesting conception of what the acoustics in acoustic music would be.
WC: Do you find there are artists working in other media who seem to share your aesthetic or your style or interests?
RS: It depends what you mean by other media and by my style. If I were to go and point to a work that I think is the closest visual equivalent to what I’m doing, I would probably point to Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals” at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). For me, it is a completely overwhelming room in that it is abstract and figurative all at once, it is personal and political, it is highly crafted, it is totally conscious of what is going on in many others genres at exactly the same time. And we’re talking about a 60 or 70 year old work, so in that sense it’s not necessarily new. But I think it’s very close to what goes on in a lot of my writing. On the other hand, I was looking at the work of a New Jersey painter and sculptor at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art last weekend by the name of Willie Cole. He uses a lot of African themes in his work, but not African in the sense that Picasso borrowed so heavily from North African masks and sculpture to create his art. Willie Cole uses the ritual sculptural objects of more southern and central Africa and brings them into portraits of New Jersey and things like that. Sculpture made out of bicycle parts, and things like that. And that really resonates in my head in a way that makes me stop and think.
I’ve also been listening to a lot of music from Mali over the past year. Both the music that is traditional Mali music and that which is more electrified. Specific artists would be Ali Farka Touré, Tumani Diabaté, people like that. Their music does a lot for me. And I listen to a lot of music from Mongolia and Tibet in Tuva. I sort of drive my kids crazy. They’re comfortable when I’m listening to Arcade Fire and music from the 60s, they can follow that. But when I suddenly hear the references there back to African music, it seems to lose them.
WC: Are you aware of a book that just came out called The Matter of Capital, by Christopher Nealon?
RS: No, I’m not.
WC: There’s a chapter in the book on “Language in Spicer and After”—in fact, he’s got a few pages about you. Nealon is interested in the impact and presence of capitalist ideology on American poetry over the past 50 years, or from Auden and Pound. There’s a chapter on Ashbery, Spicer, and then on more recent poets. In the introduction, Nealon advocates a move away from reading poems as “form” and “content” and toward reading them as “matter” that can undergo changes and is exchangeable.
RS: It sounds like somebody taking New Historicism and turning it inside-out. Where New Historicism brings the skill sets of the New Criticism to non-traditional literary objects, this seems to be taking the lessons of reading non-traditional literary objects back to literature and reading it from a different perspective. That at least is what I hear you saying.
WC: I think that’s right. And there’s another book I wanted to mention, which came out last year, Michael Clune’s American Literature and the Free Market: 1945-2000. There are chapters on Frank O’Hara, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, and one on rap, among other things. And recently there’s seems to be a broader interest in mapping neo-liberal concepts like marketplace, free choice, et cetera, onto poems, or readings of poems, which strikes me as something that Language poets have been interested in from the beginning, albeit perhaps in a different spirit and with different tactics than those of the recent critical works I’ve mentioned. I wonder how effective you find such readings to be?
RS: One of the problematic aspects of that type of interpretation, particularly with the texts you’re suggesting, is that Kathy and Burroughs—and you can go back to Kerouac—all engage literature as being one with trade publishing. And that trade publishing represents access to a mass audience. Whereas historically the poem—and Pound’s almost the exception here, compared to the people who are not as famous as Pound, starting with William Carlos Williams—operate in very different economies through small presses and self-publishing. It’s not an accident that Whitman was a self-publisher, and Gertrude Stein was a self-publisher, and that George Oppen set up a press, and all of those people were doing those kind of things because they were working on a different kind of scale, getting the work out to the right people. The numbers of the right people being very different in that approach than in the approach of the novel. One of the problems with the novel is that it never was free of publishing as a phenomenon. As a result, always subject to the laws of the marketplace in its worst terms. Kathy was one of the bravest artists imaginable in terms of casting and recasting her work and asking the most basic questions about what is the nature of fiction, what is the fictive, what is its relationship to the body and the person and the self. And yet, at the same time the economy of what she was then doing was using it to reach almost a rock ‘n’ roll audience through large publishers that left her on the one hand able to eke out a living from her writing, and at the same time left her so vulnerable that when she came down with cancer she didn’t have health insurance, which is what killed her, the American medical system.
So you end up with both sides of that equation mixed together and it’s not that poetry is any cleaner in terms of its engagements with institutions and capital, but it isn’t, at least, quite as simply imprisoned by trade publishing in quite the same way that fiction historically has been.
In that sense, if I have to choose between Kathy trying to hook up with Grove Press on the one hand and Jack Spicer getting Jade Press publications done on the mimeograph at the Greyhound depot in San Francisco and refusing to publish anybody who was willing to send a copy east of the Berkeley hills—you know, Spicer’s got the healthier idea.
WC: And Robert Duncan published with Grove too, didn’t he?
RS: Yeah, Duncan’s Opening of the Field was a Grove Press book. Though he was planning originally to release it with Macmillan. But the deal fell through because Duncan was insisting that they use the drawing by Jess as its cover art, and Macmillan took one look at it and thought, Oh that’s too hokey. Whereas Grove Press managed to convince Duncan to use it as the frontispiece to the work and to use a stylized version of it for the cover of the book itself. But in fact if you look at The Opening of the Field, one of the things that jumps out at you, if you knew Robert Duncan, is that the actual title and his name are in his writing, in his hand.
He was very conscious of the orchestration of his publications. Probably the most self-conscious writer that I can think of in those terms. Seeing to it that he published his selected poems before he brought this out, which he did with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s press, then refusing to let Ferlinghetti reprint them. but also in spite of his argument about never revising and doing things in the order that you write them, he changed the order of the poems in The Opening of the Field to get exactly the opening he wanted, he changed the title of the first poem. He knew he was starting at that point his major work, his adult work, and he goes forward in those terms.
One of the things that I take from him and find most interesting in that project, starting with The Opening of the Field and going on to the two volumes of Ground Work is the way in which he has works-within-works. You can read The Opening of the Field, Bending the Bow, and Roots and Branches and the two volumes of Ground Work, and yet within them you will find the works on rhyme, which are prose poems, as well as the sequence of Passages, which is a work that’s very much in the Poundian field poem mode and which he could have easily published as a separate volume.
WC: And have you consciously adopted Duncan’s model in this regard in your own works?
RS: Let’s just say it’s something I think about. It shows me how many different ways there are to put works together. One of the things I’ve never been much interested in is writing poems. I’m interested in writing poetry. That’s been my sensibility since I was a kid. It took me quite a few years to get to a point where I could actually do that.
WC: This reminds me of some of your comments on Spring and All being exemplary in this way, in not inclining definitively toward one genre of poetry but holding together a congeries of styles. I wonder what you think of the recent New Directions reissue? And the New Directions Zukofsky texts, for that matter.
RS: Well, I spin my chair around and I can see all these works sitting over on the shelf across the room. I’ve got the new Spring and All and the old Spring and All side by side, and Zukofsky down on the next shelf. It’s really good that they’re out in print. I’m especially happy with the Zukofsky. I think that doing the facsimile printing of Spring and All is a little too precious. The New Directions book is actually a little larger than the Frontier Press edition that Harvey Brown released in 1970. When the 1970 version came out, it had really not been out in a very long time. I mean, 300 copies in 1923. And by the time Creeley is a teenager in the 1940s, it’s long out of print. Creeley himself had not really read that until he got to the point of studying in libraries and such the works of Williams. When Harvey Brown brings out the pirated edition, it comes as an enormous shock, because it is much more critically adventurous and acute in its individual perceptions than anything that even the most critically minded poets of the 1950s had shown themselves capable of. And I’m thinking of Olson’s Mayan Letters and “Proprioception” and “The Human Universe” and Duncan’s prose works of that period as well, including The HD Book, which was starting to come into print. Suddenly there was this terrific example that turned everything up a very big notch—and oh yes, this was published 48 years ago. So you guys may think you’re doing something brand new here, but here it is. It had a very visible impact on my age cohort. I think that you can tell the difference say between a Marjorie Perloff and myself in our generations—for her Williams is the Williams she knew before Spring and All came out. And while I certainly knew Williams from when I was a teenager—it was Williams who took me to poetry—the Williams I know is fundamentally defined by that book, and everything else before and after needs to be understood in its relation to that book.
WC: How, if at all, do you conceive of your blog’s relation to your poetics? My co-editor has referred to it as a virtual Arcades Project. Do you think of the blogging practice as a form of cultural curating?
RS: When I started the blog nine years ago, I was looking at three specific things that were going on in my life simultaneously. One was a move back to Pennsylvania away from the Bay Area—and I don’t live in Philadelphia, I live a couple of counties out—so I was further removed from interaction with critical thinking about poetry physically than I had been previously. In the Bay Area you walk out of your house and you have a discussion of poetics before you hit the corner. I was feeling the need and desire for that, I was feeling a frustration that the talk series in San Francisco before I’d left had basically run its course, and that critical writing and thinking such as it was appeared only to be occurring through the academic channels for it. Which is a channel predicated on a variety of different uses, but not with the idea—as the talk series was—of being useful to poets first. That’s the real test of critical thinking. One of the reasons why one can simply pass over so much theory is that so much theory is predicated simply on demonstrating a tenurable move. There’s no better way to do that than to take a stable object of discussion, like the 19th-century novel, and do something different with it. To me, that is a completely useless use of literature and theoretical writing and critical thinking. The only real test of critical thinking is what changes it causes to occur in the writing of today and tomorrow.
So, I was frustrated at the channels that existed. I’ve been outside the academy, for all intents and purposes, for forty years—thirty at the point I started the blog—so I was looking for another medium to try thinking out loud and reaching other poets. And I wasn’t sure that was going ot work at blogging. My nephew, who now is getting his doctoral dissertation done at the University of Heidelberg in American Studies, where he’s looking at evangelical fiction as a genre, was at that point an undergraduate at Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is probably the most conservative college in the Midwest. He was putting up his philosophy papers onto his blog and what I had seen of blogging before Daniel was doing this was mostly the social networking that one associates with teenagers and teenage concerns—dating, music, and all of that stuff. None of which particularly interested me. But when I saw Daniel putting up his papers, it occurred to me that he had a mechanism for getting his thinking out directly without going through any other mediums. And he of course was aiming at his friends, who were similarly critically minded and philosophy majors at Hill’s Dale. So that gave me the idea, and I tried playing around with it. I was actually on an island off of Nova Scotia where I had pretty limited Internet access for a few weeks, putting together the initial format of the blog, and literally writing on the computer at the whale-watching station on Brier Island, off Digby Neck.
When I got back to the US and had my regular access to the Net, I simply posted a note to the blog and put up a note to the poetics list at SUNY Buffalo. My initial goal was that if I had thirty readers a day I would be doing what I wanted to do. Since thirty readers or listeners at a reading is a successful reading in any country on this planet. And the very first day I had 140 responses, and that sort of knocked me down, because I couldn’t even imagine that many people showing up. I’d certainly read to full rooms before, but the only time I think I read to an audience of over 250 was once when I did a debate with Baudrillard at the University of Montana. I was probably not the draw in that circumstance; I was there to pester him. This was definitely more than I’d anticipated, and it kept building. It’s interesting: since Twitter and Facebook have really come on and dug in in the past two years, it’s leveled off, and I now find that when I post to my blog I also need to send messages with links to both Twitter and Facebook. I’ve maxed out on the number of Facebook friends I can have, and have just under 2,000 Twitter followers. So I reach people in diverse ways. I haven’t had nearly as much time in the past few years to write as I’d had previously. One of the problems of the workaday world, particularly in recessionary times, is that speed-ups are a constant phenomenon. I was listening to a talk by Lyn Hejinian on Gertrude Stein and time that she gave at the University of Chicago. And in it she tells a story of a nephew of hers who works for what sounds like a leverage buyout firm in Europe. She wanted to know if he found some countries easier or harder to work with. And his response was that certain southern European countries think a 60-hour work week is full-time, which was said with a certain amount of diffidence and disgust. And I understand that completely, because doing what I do in the workaday world a 40-hour work week is considered part-time. That’s been one of the motivations behind my decision to step out of that rat race at the end of this year. It will be an interesting phenomenon in that I haven’t tried living simply as a poet before, and I literally have worked—except for one year which I spent working on In the American Tree when I taught part-time at San Francisco State and then at UC San Diego, 1981-82—except for that time and a period a few years before that around 1977 when I got some time off thanks to unemployment, I’ve been doing full-time work of one kind or another since 1972. So I’m definitely ready to take a step back from that.
WC: With 11 books on the go, it’s probably necessary, to maintain that pace…
RS: Well, it’s not even pace, just a question of having all these balls in the air and I don’t want any of them to bounce on my head. Not all the books are mine. Ben Friedlander, Jeffrey Jullich and I are editing a collected poems of David Melnick. And Bob Perelman, Jack Krick and I are editing the collected poems of David Bromige. So it’s not like there’s no work to do. In fact, in Bromige’s case it’s rather enormous, because he was not a meticulous archivist, didn’t spell out exactly what he wanted, and we’ve had to work hard to find manuscripts that we knew existed yet he never published as books, like American Testament. So we have to pull all of that together and figure out the proper order. Anyway, they’re not all my works.
WC: And what about The Grand Piano?
RS: Well, The Grand Piano is a finished project; though, it’s not like it’s totally done in the sense that we’re negotiating a one-volume edition translated into French. We’re looking at individual sections that might fit together, that might be one from each poet, one from each volume, so that it all adds up and gives a view of what the larger project might look like.
WC: What do you see as the unique opportunities for collaborations now, or interesting collaborations underway?
RS: Well, I just came out of this very long-term process with The Grand Piano—it took us over a decade—and there are other projects like Lyn [Hejinian’s] and Carla [Harryman’s] The Wide Road that I have sitting in the next room waiting for me to start, that I take to be very important and serious projects. From my perspective, what is most interesting about the collaborative process is that it puts the writer out of control, and out of control in a structured way so that if I am collaborating with you I can put demands on you and your responses that you have to deal with. And if I know your work very well it can be an interesting process because I can push it at precisely the spots where I want to see: What will happen if he does this? Likewise, I have to respond in exactly those terms to the other party. So much of writing is about the exercise of control that even if one is very close to automatic writing there’s still an enormous amount of negotiation that goes on back and forth. In The Grand Piano, there is a sequence in there in which Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, and Steven Benson talk about the project in which they wrote a particular phrase: “Instead of ant wort I saw brat guts.” I used that as the epigraph for one of the sections of In the American Tree. And they talk about how they would take turns, one of them sitting at a typewriter and typing while the other two would bombard them with either spontaneous language or materials that were literally taken from whatever books they happened to pick off a table or shelf. Without having a set program in advance. It was one of responsiveness to each other going on. Yet at any given point only one person is transcribing. One of the things that’s interesting about that phrase is that none of the three poets can remember who typed it up.
WC: The same sort of thing John Ashbery said about a play he was collaborating on with Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara shortly before O’Hara’s death. Looking back at the unfinished draft, he can’t remember who wrote which lines.
Which contemporary writing most interests or excites you?
RS: That’s a tough question. You could ask me that in the morning or evening and I’d give you completely different answers. What I have been reading and excited by lately has included an anthology that’s not yet out, from Jennifer Bartlett and some other folks, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, that begins with the work of Larry Eigner and includes a lot of work from the disabilities rights movement and is probably the most intelligent thematic anthology I’ve ever read. That’s coming out from a press down in Texas, Cinco Puntos. Anselm Berrigan’s Notes from Irrelevance is from my perspective a work that takes Anselm’s writing and project and kicks it up a very big notch. It’s clearly a major book. Yet I suspect it is a sign of my being as old as Anselm’s parents—in fact, Alice Notley and I are almost exactly the same age—that I see it in those terms. I think Anselm’s peers have taken him as a major poet maybe for ten years in ways that it’s harder for someone who’s old enough to be his father to do. It’s inescapable reading that book that he has arrived at that level. It’s quite thrilling to see that. And yet it seems completely independent of him having his mother or his father or his stepfather—Douglas Oliver, who’s an influence on his work who I think people don’t recognize enough in this country, maybe they do in the UK. I’ve got Anne Waldman’s The Iovis Trilogy sitting in front of me, all 1,009 pages of it—it’s only about 40 pages shorter than The Alphabet—in a beautiful edition from Coffee House Press. I’m also thinking a lot about Rachel Blau-DuPlessis’s work because I want to write about the uses of history formally and genre and ambition in the collage poems of her long work Drafts for a project that we’re doing in October at Temple University which is devoted to Rachel.
So I’ve got all of those things going on in my head at once. Those are what are important to me at the moment, even as I am also reading a work by Phil Hall from Canada, Giles Goodland’s work on the 20th century that uses found language from each year, as well as a work by Carol Watts, and Tony Lopez’s large new volume, Only More So, that collects his prose poems using almost entirely found language. He does some things there with texture in writing that I’ve never seen anybody accomplish before. I can’t tell you what it is precisely because it seems to me so new and so well done that I feel like I’m going to have to read that book two or three times to fully understand it. But it’s fabulous.
WC: To finish up, was there anything you wanted to talk about that I haven’t asked?
RS: One of the things that strikes me as both interesting and depressing at the moment is the relationship of writing, history, capital, and the polity. It feels to me that we are in a period when there has been a radical compression of interactions from across the entire planet, the globe, partly occasioned by the fact that I come from a country that’s been involved in three wars in ten years. Duncan’s cynicism in writing Before the War, the first volume of Ground Work, turns out to be exactly right in the most depressing possible fashion. And yet as history itself changes with breathtaking speed we still find poetry as one of the most fundamentally conservative art forms that exist on the planet. That’s conservative in both the positive and negative sense. In the positive sense of preservation, of different elements of history and moments of being in ways that it would be very unfortunate for us to lose. Conservative also in the sense that it often responds very, very slowly to the conditions of today. That’s true I think regardless of whether one is an avant-garde poet or the most conservative Quietists. Across the spectrum of writers, I think those are dynamics that go on and off a lot of what passes for the avant-garde today is what I would call nostalgia for Fluxus, or the perpetual reinvention of Dada, which is ultimately no different than the reduction of the universe to a haiku again and again, century after century. Which is both possible and yet it always tells me the same thing, regardless of what’s being discussed. And so in that sense I often feel very frustrated, I don’t think any of my peers—and I’m no better than anybody else in this regard—yet have even the slightest clue where this transformation of language and writing from the book as a form and as the center of the writing process to whatever it turns into fifty years from now. In which the Internet of my generation which was new and exciting and different turns out to be as old hat as the steam engine and where people are at that point thinking in terms of the art of language and what it allows you to think about and see and do in the world. And at this point I think there are so many more open questions than answers that it’s really incumbent on every poet to work as hard as they possibly can.