January 22, 2004

Alan Gilbert and Dale Smith Dialogue Part 2

DS—Has being a father changed your writing in any way?

AG—For the most part, I think it’s probably too early to tell. You’re going into your third year with Keaton; Sophie’s not quite eight months old yet. As I mentioned, she’s certainly changed my approach to time, keeping me focused on the all the demands of the moment, which I never before quite realized had so many demands. Of course I fret about not getting as much work done; but for almost any writer, visual artist, etc., I know—with or without children—that’s always a concern. It seems as if you’ve managed to stay productive with your writing, editing, and publishing. Any tips?

One change I’ve begun to think about concerns the element of surprise and the unexpected in language. I don’t know if this coincides with Sophie’s birth or not; but she quickly taught me that babies can get just as bored as their parents. Children anticipate—and deserve—a more involved level of interaction than we frequently encounter in many other aspects of our social lives. How long will a baby take genuine pleasure in having a small toy or a stuffed animal waved in front of her face? Not particularly long. Children harbor a constant hope for delight, which still exists in some adults—one place you can see it come out is around children (and pets).

From another angle, this interest in the unexpected is also the result of feeling surrounded by so much stale rhetoric and recycled ideas in the cultural and political realms—from the mainstream and the so-called alternatives to it, and from the right as well as the left. As writers, one starting point might be to begin generating a different vocabulary. And as poets, since we have so little to gain these days, maybe we should risk losing ourselves and our presumptions more.

DS—Being a parent has certainly changed my relations to the world, to say the least. As Keaton grows, new sets of problems present themselves. There’s an interesting parenting philosophy called Taking Children Seriously (TCS) that Hoa and I try to follow. Basically, the goal is to let children resolve conflicts themselves rather than always butting in for them. For instance, if we’re at a playground and another kid dumps sand on Keaton’s head and takes his shovel we don’t automatically interfere. Though I’d like to kick the other little shit in the pants, we try to help Keaton find creative solutions to the situation. It’s difficult and time consuming, but I like the way it works so far. How to be actual in the world, with children or adults, is demanding. It’s easy to fall back on habit and internalized forms. It’s necessary to nurture and preserve those autonomous spaces you mention. It’s an almost tribal situation we’re in. Luckily, with communication technologies, a crucial sharing of affinities is not restricted to geographic locations. Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) is I guess what you have in mind?

AG—Sounds as if George and Barbara Bush could have used a dose of TCS when raising lil’ George.

As far as Temporary Autonomous Zones go, I would put the emphasis on "temporary" (a recently published second edition of Bey’s book contains a new introduction by him that complicates his original proposal). We’re all implicated in institutional structures, discourses of power, and hierarchies of oppression that we don’t always want to own up to; and it’s naïve to think we can completely elude these for more than brief spells—if ever. I don’t know if it’s a question of getting older, becoming a parent, having the same job for a few years now; but I’ve begun to think that acknowledging one’s complicities with power can be as "radical" a gesture as proclaiming one’s independence from it. The former perspective enables one to take steps toward better understanding one’s complicities, with the idea of trying to change the conditions that allow for them—and their inevitable ensnarement of others—as much as is possible. I find that the latter attitude of overestimating one’s independence from power relations can sometimes perpetuate an ignorance of one’s own blind spots.

DS—The other day you were talking about writing an article on Charles Olson’s earliest publication. What was that and what are your interests in it?

AG—I had always thought that Olson’s first books of prose and poetry were Call Me Ishmael and Y & X, the latter a small five-poem chapbook Olson published in 1948. In fact, it turns out that in 1944, while working in the Office of War Information (one of the US government’s major propaganda machines for the war effort), he published a poetic pamphlet entitled Spanish Speaking Americans in the War. The Southwest, which included photographs by the WPA / American Communist Party-affiliated / socially progressive artist Ben Shahn (whom Olson later asked to teach at Black Mountain College).

I’m intrigued by the idea that Olson—who’s touted as the inventor of the term "postmodernism" (wrongly, it turns out; Perry Anderson’s book The Origins of Postmodernity describes the invention of the word and concept "postmodernism," and contains an insightful and sensitive reading of Olson’s writing and its crucial role in propagating the notion of "postmodernism"), and whose poem "The Kingfishers" is considered to be perhaps the first significant postmodern poem (another dubious claim)—should at one time have had a direct connection to the proletariat / red / New Deal / politicized aesthetics of the 1930s that 1950s High Modernism combined with cultural and political McCarthyism attempted to eradicate from history. I like the image of Olson tracking the mud of that period into the increasingly pristine formalist spaces of postmodernism, in the same way that I’m fascinated by the soles of old leather shoes that proliferate in Philip Guston’s later work, replacing the daubed abstractions he painted in the ‘50s.

DS—How do you see that "politicized aesthetics" specifically in relation to High Modernism? It makes me think immediately of Oppen too, who instead of writing in a party style to accommodate his idealism quit writing in order to pursue political beliefs, putting thought into action. It seems both Oppen and Olson shared some political affinities but poetry could not accommodate them in that somehow. For Olson, politics gets transformed into Polis through the literary persona of Maximus, while for Oppen political action becomes for him an experience of actual labor and isolation from poetry. I guess I find it striking that for them political activism and poetics are not entirely compatible. Both Oppen and Olson, coincidentally, had Pound as formidable mentor, a man with an opposing political position. It seems relevant in our discussion here of poetry and politics to consider these divers reactions politically. They indicate to me, at least based on the political and social environments of the period, a limitation or boundary poetry enforces. Do you ever think of the poem as its own organism, something indifferent to the poet’s own ideals and beliefs?

AG—The politicized aesthetics of the ‘30s seem to be in opposition to High Modernism. I’m tempted to be more generous about this opposition and describe it as a productive tension had High Modernism—in a broad and discontinuous spectrum stretching from Clement Greenberg to McCarthy(ism) to the CIA—not waged a kind of (cold) war on the writers/artists of the ‘30s and their socially progressive preoccupations. In the realm of aesthetics (which is never inseparable from the realms of politics and culture), High Modernism is an apotheosis of the self-contained literary / visual / cultural object. Not coincidentally, High Modernism was obsessed with recovering a lost object—one perhaps ultimately indefinable by the High Modernists or by us. Because High Modernism demanded that the fundamental properties of an art object be inherent within the work of art itself, the High Modernist art object frequently inscribed its own death as a substitute for this lost object; hence, the sense of mourning that pervades the work of so many High Modernists: the later Eliot and Rothko are obvious examples.

One of the biggest transformations during the past ten or so years in my own approach to poetry and thinking about poetry (and cultural products in general) is a switch from a concern with the lost object and a critical-philosophical engagement with the idea of the negative, to an interest in possibility and unimagined relations. I hope this isn’t the result of false optimism, even if in the current political environment a certain amount of self-induced false optimism may be necessary in order to make it through the day (or the next presidential election). Instead, I’d like to think of it as the product of a contextual, intercultural—and maybe even matrixial—cultural politics. I definitely see your work as a poet, scholar, critic, editor, and publisher being very much engaged with this sense of possibility and relation, as distinct from the self-contained, formalist art/literary object or a tarrying with the negative.

I’m not so sure Oppen abandoned poetry because he didn’t want to write according to an imposed script. This idea of the ‘30s being a particularly doctrinaire time in US arts and letters is a myth mostly perpetuated by the anti-"communist" political climate and Cold War aestheticism of the ‘40s and ‘50s, which isn’t to ignore the alienation writers like Oppen and Richard Wright felt when faced with some of the more stringent dictates issued by aesthetic demagogues affiliated with the US Communist Party. But every period and every community has its implicitly and explicitly requested modes and styles of producing cultural artifacts, usually buttressed by an institutional support network doling out rewards for those who satisfy these criteria (and neglect for those who don’t). That’s as true for the literary avant-garde of the '90s as it was for the literary avant-garde of the '30s.

I tend to think that Oppen stopped writing poetry on the eve of WWII because the primary forms of poetry immediately available to him—whether proletariat / New Deal or Objectivist—weren’t political enough, not potentially too politicized. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they weren’t political in the precise form Oppen’s always evolving sense of politics felt they should take at that particular historical moment (the overall trajectory of Oppen’s politics would appear to be more complex than Olson’s, for instance). I think this is what you’re referring to when you talk about Oppen’s need to put, "thought into action." Poetry itself doesn’t enforce boundaries (poetry by itself doesn’t really do much of anything), history does (or maybe what I really mean to say here is that sociology does[?]). Which is another way of echoing your idea that for Oppen and Olson, "political activism and poetics are not entirely compatible."

DS—I think poetry does a lot, however insignificant it seems. Surely, in my idealism, I give it a higher place perhaps than it deserves. But I believe its relation to the world is essential, that a world can only be as vital as the language that relates it. I like what you say about "unimagined relations." There is a problem when the poem becomes the only focus, as if other divers responses to the world weren’t already going on by other artists and activists. I’ve written extensively on radio and communications, really searching out the local uses of the airwaves. You write about art and music in addition to being an exceptional literary critic and poet. So I like the way the boundaries of writing open up to include a whole range of cultural possibilities, not just for us, but others too. But as poets, our sensitivity to language influences the other writing we do. Coleridge worked in this way too, to back up in time a bit. Maybe poetry’s use isn’t just for writing poems, but for a whole range of living and writing. Edward Dorn once said to me that a lot of people who think they’re poets aren’t, and many who don’t consider themselves poets are. What do you think that’s about? Maybe poetry’s an ability or willingness to perceive actual conditions against the projected apparatus assaulting us from everywhere.

AG—Yes, but the creative critical use of language that poetry at its best enacts doesn’t exist independently of the conditions of both its production and its reception. In other words, there’s no such thing as language itself (the idea of language itself has always struck me as a metaphysics masquerading as a poetics). Perhaps I’m being too literal—or sociological—when I emphasize the material conditions of production and reception; but poetry’s "willingness to perceive actual conditions" needs to include the social, cultural, political, and economic (or to use a different set of theoretical terms, the discursive and institutional) contexts in which poetry is produced, distributed, and received. I see these contexts as inseparable from any poem, which isn’t to reduce the reading of a poem to them, or to say that they wholly determine our understanding of a poem. For this reason, it would be interesting to apply to various modes of contemporary poetry the model—or if not a model per se, then the information—you generated from your studies of local radio.

A contextual approach to thinking about poetry’s interventions in "language" is as necessary as a focus on the array of formal and linguistic techniques a poem utilizes. This might be one way, albeit obliquely, of understanding Dorn’s statement, i.e., that a self-conscious attempt to intervene solely at the level of (poetic) language isn’t really poetry at all, or is an outmoded conception of poetry. It seems as if this is how Dorn read his own lyric poetry from the '60s—it’s a body of work he increasingly distanced himself from.

DS—These "actual conditions" we’re speaking of, to extend the abstraction, have to include the material conditions of production and reception. But I think too there’s a metaphysical process equally important for our conception of language and the world. Walter Benjamin brings ups a distinction between bourgeois linguistic theory and mystical linguistic theory, neither for him measuring up to his own understanding of language as both material and other. That relation between material and other, the known and the unknown, is the place where poetry begins to function. I’ve recently begun to feel that filmmakers are writing much better critical prose on their craft than poets. Nathaniel Dorsky’s Devotional Cinema, recently published by Tuumba Press from a talk he gave at Princeton on religion and cinema, considers the function of the image in art as that hinge between matter and non-material content, the expression of which in film is peculiarly difficult. Let me quote here from Dorsky’s book because it’s such a careful if speculative consideration of the material aspects of his art:

"On close examination, even our vision appears to be intermittent, which explains why, in film, pans often feel artificial or forced. This stems from the fact that one never pans in real life. In truth, when we turn our heads we don’t actually see a graceful continuum but a series of tiny jump-cuts, little stills joined, perhaps, by infinitesimal dissolves. Thus our visual experience in daily life is akin to the intermittence of cinema.

Intermittence penetrates to the very core of our being, and film vibrates in a way that is close to this core. It is as basic as life and death, existence and nonexistence. My own instinct is that the poles of existence and nonexistence alternate at an extremely fast speed, and that we float in that alternation. We don’t experience the nonexistence, the moments between existence; there is no way to perceive these moments as such. But accepting their presence aerates life, and suffuses the ‘solid’ world with luminosity."

What do you make of writers like Benjamin and Dorsky who scrutinize material production and reception, but also tend speculative, if not outright occult, notions of language, image and, well, for lack of a better word, life?

AG—That’s a good description of the conflicting—and almost contradictory—attitudes toward language and toward image that Benjamin and Dorsky, respectively, combine in their work (with Benjamin, moreover, a philosopher of the image, and Dorsky an image-maker with a keen awareness of language). According to Benjamin, human language is fundamentally Adamic: meaning, it names. However, the function of naming isn’t primarily to designate objects; rather (and here I’m skipping along rather quickly through his essay "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man," which I assume you’re referring to), it reveals a tension between the finite and the infinite, the expressible and the inexpressible (substituting "seeing" for "naming" puts us very close to what Dorsky’s saying about "intermittence"). For Benjamin, this tension hinges on a conception of language as translation. But there’s a Platonic/mystical component to his theory that pushes it away from material phenomena and toward a transcendental realm, whether that of mental processes embedded within language or a notion of the divine (more Platonic in the "Epistemo-Critical Prologue" to his Trauerspiel book and more theological in "On Language as Such").

The part of Benjamin’s theory about language not merely being a naming of objects, with its accompanying idea of speaking the unspeakable, was attractive to me ten years ago when I was (co-)editing apex of the M. In fact, it served as an important element in the theory of poetic language we were trying to articulate in our editorials, and which we attempted to signify with the phrase "radical transparency." As we imagined it then, a radically transparent language was one that aimed at legibility and representation (in the face of avant-garde strategies of alienation and willful opacity), but that was ultimately objectless in orientation. Unlike Benjamin, we didn’t anchor it in a sense of the divine, as much as some people misread us as doing. (Though a Derridean would say that all signification is rooted in the transcendental. Do they say that anymore?) However, it’s not a theory of language—Benjamin’s or apex of the M’s—that I feel any real affinity for these days.

My thinking about language, including poetic language, tends more to parallel VN Voloshinov’s/Bakhtin’s notion that language is an arena of social and cultural utterance and struggle. This approach to language absolutely allows for play, indeterminacy, absurdity, heteroglossia. . . . In fact, it calls for them as forms of subversion, as Bakhtin/Voloshinov’s "dialogic" theory of language argues. In contrast with what might at first glance appear to be circumscriptive Marxist theories of language (echoes of Oppen and ‘30s proletariat lit?), I find mystical and quasi-religious theories of language to be the ones that leave so much of life out, particularly in their widespread adoption—mostly unconsciously (i.e., un[self]critically)—within poetry. For instance, I’m very skeptical of poetry that can’t or won’t use the word "McDonald’s" in it, which isn’t, of course, to equate McDonald’s with life. Far from it. In many ways, McDonald’s is a death industry. But so is much of contemporary life.

In retrospect, Benjamin is looking more and more like one of the major critics of the 20th century, but his theory of language probably doesn’t play a big part in this. Rather, as such a scrupulous bourgeois bohemian, Benjamin presciently analyzed so many different aspects of our current bourgeois bohemian culture. For what is the majority of mass media culture these days but a form of bourgeois bohemianism, at least that aspect of it aimed at people from the age of 21 up to aging baby boomers?

DS—No, I agree, if you can’t get McDonald’s or Michael Jackson in a poem, you’re not doing your job. And this is all a tricky business, so to say. Somehow a menage-a-trois twixt Benjamin, Voloshinov and Bakhtin would be a good start. I remember thinking years ago when I started out poetry was supposed to be about important and serious stuff. Then when I met Tom Clark he’d talk seriously about all aspects of popular culture. Other poets I met also had this marvelous range. Ken Irby, who I saw last weekend, remarked how Robert Duncan read everything from the most obtuse metaphysics to the trashiest novels. So it seems a theory of language, which somehow, when you break it down, leaves the self exposed in that process of perception and transmission, runs into problems the social can’t always deal with, nor should it. At the same time, just because you’ve thought about language and realize all this transcendent stuff, it doesn’t give you the right (or ability) to step out of this world of grease and pop stars. The one thing though that never seems to go away, for me, is that thin divide between what we know and don’t.

AG—I, too, once thought poetry should mostly deal with high-minded and/or literary matters. Around the time I began to realize the serious limitations to this point of view, I read separate interviews with bell hooks and Bernadette Mayer in which both of them encouraged writers and critical thinkers to read everything—from Lacan to Car and Driver magazine (still following this advice, I spent three hours late last night reading the November 2003 issue of Vanity Fair).

But I want to return briefly to what I mentioned in my previous response, specifically, that I’ve never found much in a metaphysical theory of language that a more socially-oriented approach can’t also provide: whether it’s the paranormal, gaps within perception ("intermittence"), a flicker at the edge of things, or—especially—"that thin divide between what we know and don’t." Which isn’t to dismiss a metaphysical sensibility, but maybe to fold it into the social, as you suggest. I should also mention, in partial response to a reader who sent to your blog an insightful comment regarding the first section of our conversation posted there, that what I’m describing as a social-material linguistic theory is one at the heart of feminist understandings of language, culture, politics, intersubjectivity, and what the French-Israeli visual artist and psychoanalyst Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger terms the "matrixial," which is a nonhierarchical, feminine/maternal (as opposed to patriarchal/phallic) borderspace of encounter between co-emerging subjects that is hidden within the everyday social world. For Lichtenberg Ettinger, the work of art is a "trans-subjective-object" that exists as a relationship between that to which art gives witness (though she prefers the word "wit[h]ness") and its viewer/reader. As the curator Catherine de Zegher pointed out in a recent issue of Artforum, the relationship between art and audience proposed by Lichtenberg Ettinger and other contemporary "feminist" artists is quite different from the modernist strategy of alienation. Translating this into recent avant-garde poetry, I’d say that the standard method of employing Brechtian-styled "alienation effects" in order to compel interactions between a text and its reader has always made me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, most immediately because this type of writing tends not to be very dialogical at all, but extremely monological, almost autistic—or at least solipsistic—in certain instances.

DS—Here’s the comment that the reader you mention recently posted at my site.

"The success of the feminist revolution never came up. Two men earnestly discussing the implications of parenthood, able to continue thinking abstractly and coherently while caring for toddlers 8+ hours a day. I’m curious about what allowed this to happen. Did the work of feminist artists/poets make a difference in disabling pieces of the patriarchy? Are there lessons here for the current task at hand?"

Certainly, feminism has been essential to the writers and artists I know. It's made men and women more aware of our relations to others. Thankfully, it put to pasture a lot of backwards attitudes and assumptions, while extending our understanding of language in the social composition of ourselves and the world we live in. I'm not as familiar with the work of the feminist theorists you mention. But the poets have been essential. Eileen Myles, Susan Howe…well, I don't want to go into all the names.

Posted by Dale at January 22, 2004 08:30 PM

This covers a lot of bumpy ground comprehensively, with insight and good detail. Once again, thanks for such illuminating work, Dale.


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