Looking Forward — a talk with Michael Gottlieb (part one)

31 Mar

Michael Gottlieb is the author of fifteen books including New York, Gorgeous Plunge, Lost and Found (containing the seminal 9/11 poem “The Dust”), and The Likes of Us.  Of Michael’s most recent book, Memoir and Essay, Elizabeth Fodanski wrote: “What A Moveable Feast did for Paris, Memoir and Essay does for New York City…”  During the ’80’s, Michael helped edit the seminal literary magazine, Roof.  More of Michael’s work can be found at http://michaelgottliebwriting.tumblr.com/

SM:    While reading your MEMOIR & ESSAY, I was really struck by the description of your “shock of the new” reaction (on page 29) upon reading an untitled piece of Clark Coolidge’s in the sixth issue of THIS.  Firstly, it was a great scene: you were in the back room of the legendary and beloved (and now closed, of course) Gotham Book Mart, perusing the magazines, and CC’s piece really grabbed you.  It had no title, but you noticed on the copyright page that This Press had also published his THE MAINTAINS.  You ran to the front room to see if they had that book, and there it was:

might that this which is so mean so to say as even since this’s

though’s so and might such since the more the more

from stop either also done and that even about such

to current plants it might one is yet

very such small

the very so

such a such

lasts even or as means are about the so

said so to say mingles means and maybes

the such’s part close type part the as yet grain one

yet is more close to such’s since a means a like having

a sure so and such an even ever through

a yet even too over part of an even said so through

so’s just about then one more once this

You wrote: “It was clear to me from that moment on: you didn’t need to tell stupid stories any more.  A poem could be about what it was supposed to be about — the  indigestible, irreducible, unredeemable words that flung themselves at us every day, the language that, in its infuriating, inexhaustible, immeasurable confusion, yet limitless precision, lived, teeming, out there, outside our door.  There could be no subject, or at least no subject greater than this.  Let the words be themselves, don’t try and yoke them into some tyranny of argument, they would tell you what they were about.  And they did, they eventually told me that all poems, all art, in our part of the world at least, for the last several hundred years at least, had circled around largely the same set of worries, hopes, fears.  This was the way to follow Williams’ dictum.  To others what we produced seemed — or seems still — to be ugly, meaningless . . . And that’s the way it was, and the way it should be.”

That’s an incredible, wonderful delineation of discovery.  So, let me ask you a couple of questions about it (I said I would ask you two questions, but as I’m writing this I thought of more!) …

You’re talking about the beginnings of what came to be called Language Poetry there, obviously, a mode/model that has held a kind of sway over a section of the poetry populace for about 40 years.  And that’s a long time — possibly the longest for any “movement” or “school.”   So my first question, then, is: why do you think this particular poetry, a poetry about words/language — words/language both immeasurable and precise, and teeming daily in horrible proximity to us — has been such a present and contentious force for so long? Another idea that caroms off that might be: it sounds like you’re saying that this immeasurable yet precise thing known as language has a personal directive to fling itself at us in the hope of somehow being understood on its own terms, if the poet/medium would just desist in trying to connect it to something else (like traditional rhetorical imperatives) …  but that would imply that language itself has a goal — to be understood.   Do you think that might be true?  And if so, why?  Finally, you say that once you allowed words to be “themselves,” they revealed something about all art to you.  This seems to suggest an almost-religious revelation, and a kind of heroism … do you think there was a feeling of heroism in the early days of Language Poetry?

MG: First of all, I need to sound a word of appreciation.  While this book has gotten, I guess, considerably more notice than I’m used to, and its focus on the Gotham Book Mart, and its role in my — as in so many other writers’ lives —  has been pointed out, the actual, pivotal role, life-changing, role of that issue of Barrett Wattens’ magazine, THIS, and Coolidge’s book THE MAINTAINS hasn’t, I guess, been referenced as often. Having said that, though, I don’t think that experience of mine is so unusual.  I tend to think, or  want to believe, that if we poll a random sample of poets, we’d find a significant segment who’ve had just that kind of moment.

But, to your first question… e.g. why has Language poetry held sway for so long (as you put it “…possibly the longest for any “movement” or “school.”   … why do you think this particular poetry… has been such a present and contentious force for so long?)  I have a couple of thoughts, but first a number of caveats.  First caveat:  although some do aver that Language poetry has come to take a central role in English-language poetry, in fact growing, over the last several decades, into the principal kind of avant-garde, experimental, non-traditional (insert progressivist adjective of choice here) poetry, there are many, many poets who reject that description.  And those deniers don’t only include those who have never been able to stomach its basic propositions or approaches; it also includes, I believe, some of its most well-known practitioners, who — I think it is fair to say — believe that it has never in fact received the due that it is truly due.  Second caveat:  I’m not sure that Language poetry has indeed had a longer run than others one might compare it to; e,g, a longer sway than the New School (not that that’s a fair comparison).

But, if it has, if Language poetry has stuck around longer than some disinterested observers might have thought it would have or could have or should have, a number of possible reasons suggest themselves. The one I prefer is this: the argument that Language poetry posed back in the 70s, was in fact so compelling, powerful, revolutionary in fact that, for a long time, for a very long time, there was no getting past it. There, I said it. I said it and I believe it. So shoot me. There are others of course, I’ll just offer one up as a conversation-starter, so to speak… There is the argument that Language poetry has stuck around for so long because it became accepted by the academy so quickly. That is, I think we would all agree, a fairly widely held view. The connections between Language poetry and its early practitioners who embraced a theory and criticism in a way that at the time was certainly deemed worthy of note, on the one hand, and the certainly unfairly-damned- as-merely-fashionable literary theory that was sweeping through academia at time, and the alleged way that the latter leveraged the ‘acceptability’ of the former has also been discussed before.  Then, one might draw inferences as to extent to which the forces, pressures, the grinding of tectonic plates of academia could, possibly, tend to keep a certain kind of writing, which has established itself in English departments and writing programs, from seeming outdated. That is another question others have addressed. For my part, in “Jobs Of The Poets,” (the essay in MEMOIR AND ESSAY), I did try and ask questions that did seem relevant to the life-choices poets make which lead so many to academia, as well as the follow-on questions — regarding what kind of literary choices (if this is about choice) those primary choices could lead people to then make.

I do need to say that although I’ve been engaged now in memoir-work for some time — a multi-part project that seems to have no end-point yet — this kind of backward-looking has less interest for me than looking forward. I’m frankly more interested in what comes next. The folks engaged in Flarf and Conceptualist writing, people like Nada Gordon, Drew Gardner, Rob Fitterman, Gary Sullivan, Katie Degentesh, Kenny Goldsmith, Christian Bok, K. Silem Mohammad, Steve Zultanski and so many others are doing incredibly exciting work. If this is what is next, I say bring it.  I go to these people’s readings, I pick up their books, and I am thrilled, moved, disoriented — in a good way —  in a way I haven’t been for so long. I am loving it. For example: I was at the Bowery Poetry Club yesterday and heard Brandon Brown read. He’s someone whose work I am familiar with but I’d never never seen him read. And he just knocked me out. I can’t remember the last time I sat in a darkened room and heard someone do that, he just turned the world upside down, shook it a few times and handed it back.

And, if Language poetry has had its day, and this is what’s coming next, I’m okay with that. Well, more or less okay. I’m writing an essay right now.  It’s a kind of sequel to “Jobs Of The Poets” — which was really addressed at younger poets.  This one is for poets who are a bit further on.  It’s called “Letters To A Middle-Aged Poet.”  Like the first one, it is organized as a set of questions. Each section starts off with a question, followed by more questions. This one asks question like: ‘what happens when you’re an avant garde poet and you wake up one morning and you’re not in the avant garde anymore?’

Your second question, Sharon, is a terrific one (“…that would imply that language itself has a goal — to be understood.   Do you think that might be true?  And if so, why?”).  I think though, if we start going down it (and I say this because I note now the length of my response to your first question — which I already cut down considerably from its original) we may up having a linguistics conversation, which I’d welcome but this really is a huge topic unto itself and, I’m going to suggest, might best be reserved for later on, or another time.

As for your third question (”do you think there was a feeling of heroism in the early days of Language Poetry?”)… ‘heroism’ is such a freighted term.  Certainly, as a number of people who’ve commented on MEMOIR AND ESSAY have said, the scene as it is depicted in the book comes across to a certain degree as a kind of boys club and that, I suppose, might have fostered such sentiment in the hearts of some… in the way that — if perhaps this is a likely comparison – the first generation Abstract Expressionist painters, certainly a male-dominated group are said to have thought of themselves. But I don’t remember thinking such thoughts. In terms of self-identification, aside from how I thought of myself as a Language writer, a Language poet, I simply thought of myself downtown New York poet.  I  considered myself part of a world that consisted of a few people in New York — whose work I was interested in and who were interested in mine, a few more in the Bay Area and a few others scattered across the map. Getting published back then meant my work would get in the hands of those people, of that number of people, and that seemed pretty great to me.

— to be continued  . . .

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