“I Hope It Astonishes Me” — a conversation with Nada Gordon (part one)

8 Apr

This blog was inspired by a discussion I had with Nada Gordon about a month ago.  Various issues prevented me from starting the blog with our discussion —  Nada went to Paris, I had a nervous breakdown, etc. — but I’m running it, finally, concurrent with my conversation with Michael Gottlieb, as it touches on similar issues.  Nada Gordon is the author of many books (SCENTED RUSHES, her most recent, was published by Roof, as was her previous collection, FOLLY), a proud member of the Flarf Collective, an incipient filmmaker, and she practices poetry as deep entertainment. Her blog is ululate.blogspot.com.

SM:  Nada, last week we were discussing the phenomenal 40-year run of Language Poetry as a prevailing literary mode/model (forty years as of this year, if you date it from the first issue of This).   I don’t know if any “movement” has stuck around for as many years, considering that it so intimately brings with it the influence of what immediately preceded it: if you connect it with FOH’s “Second Avenue,” we’re now talking 51 years.  We were joking about this — Language Poetry: die already!  — but a few days after our conversation I was sort of desultorily looking through Michael Gottlieb’s MEMOIR AND ESSAY, and I found (maybe coincidentally) this (the italics are mine):

“The sixth issue of This was the first I came across . . . (it) had a long, brilliant piece by Clark Coolidge.  There didn’t seem to be a title.  I had no idea who he was, but on the copyright page of the magazine was a little note, ‘This Press has recently published “The Maintains” by Clark Coolidge . . . ‘  I ran up to the front room of the Gotham, and there, in with the other ‘C’ poets was ‘The Maintains.’  And it was beautiful; it was amazing.  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.”

Poets discover poetry in different ways, and each way is a powerful, revelatory moment.  Mark Strand wrote this about Pablo Neruda’s “moment” in the New Yorker in ’03:  http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/09/08/030908crbo_books1

Two different revelatory moments here.  Neruda’s is bound up with human emotion (“I felt an intense emotion and set down a few words, half rhymed but strange to me, different from everyday language . . .  I wrote them neatly on a piece of paper); Gottlieb’s loosed from it (“Let the words be themselves … they would tell you what they were about”).  Yet, both are interpreting **something** — but for all of LangPo’s disavowal of a guiding and hierarchical “I” telling stupid stories, Gottlieb’s knowing “you” (really “me”) seems to be “receiving” words like a privileged stenographer of the indigestible, the irreducible, unredeemable.  It’s like a reverse conversion: “Unredeemable words are flinging themselves at me, and I am just writing them down and letting them be because what they really want is to tell us — those of us with eyes to see/ears to hear —  what they are about.”

For forty years.  I understand the moment of revelation, and I think Gottlieb’s book is fascinating — especially that passage.  But: isn’t it time for a new moment?  And what will that moment look like, do you think?

NG:  OK, well, whoa, whoa, whoa, I think we need to back up a little and think about your hypothesis here, whether it is really true and whether it is really phenomenal, and also to put it in both larger and smaller contexts.  I want to start with the smaller contexts first – that is, you and me as individual poets – and in doing so also respond to what seems to me a mischaracterization of my position in regard to language writing in your first paragraph.  You and I have quite different genealogies as poets.  In your work, the vestiges of Beat and Slam are palpable. You studied with Ginsberg, you were (are) an Unbearable …

SM:  “Were” … definitely.  Definitely “were.”  I sound like “Rain Man” there.

NG: … so already perhaps built into those alliances is a kind of suspicion of or hostility toward language writing.  For me, although I had steeped myself in poetry since my early teens, my first real flowering as a poet in a community of poets happened in the heady air of the Bay Area Language scene in the 80s. So I really was very close to what was happening there, although very young and marginal, and the writing of that group was totally seminal to me.  I don’t think I have ever wished that the influence of their work would “die already”! I’m not saying either that I’m free of suspicions or hostilities to what might be taken as repressive elements of the most simplified (and hence not really accurate) forms of langpo dogma, but that’s another matter, maybe to address later.

SM:  Yes, I think we could talk about that in part two of this.  And I don’t know, honestly, if I harbor suspicion or hostility, per se.  Before I was ever any “kind” of a poet I was a college literature major, studying with Paul Hoover and learning about Language poetry in 1978 and being very much interested in it, especially since the Beat influence had already been kind of digested, and spoken word was just appearing on the horizon — at least in Chicago.  I think I feel more curiosity about its longevity — like with those turtles that live to be three hundred years old — than outright hostility.  But back to you …

NG:  Another question:  Is forty years really a long run for a poetry movement?  Or is that just something we might think now in the 21st century where you blink for a moment and then everything is different?  (I mean, for how long have people been writing sonnets?  not that that was a “movement,” but you know what I mean.) And is your dating really accurate?  Can you really date the beginning of punk as a wider cultural phenomenon from the early Stooges?  or was it more from 1977 or so, when the meme had started seriously spreading through the media?

SM:  Well, you *could* date it back to garage bands, really.  Or back to 1955, with “Louie, Louie.” Or even Eddie Cochran.  “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zep is pretty punk-esque.

NG: It’s interesting that you connect back to Second Avenue as a possible precursor to LP, but couldn’t you, if you are defining Language Writing as a kind of stylistic tendency (which is a problematic definition) go back even further –  to Mallarme? Of course, that’s silly.  No one could call Mallarme a language Writer or O’Hara either… because really the term belongs to a historical affiliation of (stylistically vastly different) writers, not to a particular tendency. I suppose I’m curious to know how you see the legacy of language poetry having prevailed, and in whose works, and why (or if) that troubles you.

SM:  No, it doesn’t trouble me at all, and why not include Mallarme?  I mean, we’re basically talking about a kind of conversation amongst poets that started maybe back around 3,000 BCE, when writing was “invented.”  I mean, people lament how the Internet will change poetry, but I feel like poetry changed when writing was invented — from mnemonic to something observable.  And then, with Mallarme, we’re touching on strategies, and what was poetry-as-mnemonic in the epics, if not a strategy?  Maybe there’s been something endemic all along — something that was once an undercurrent but has now become a prevailing tendency?

NG:  I do know that when I would come back to the US from Japan throughout the 90s, and when I first moved back here in ’99, I would sometimes find myself annoyed by what seemed like a vast number of both language poetry imitators (who often diluted the impact of the earlier work) or anti-language-poetry reactors (who defined their works in opposition).  I would say that then it really was prevailing in a way that it is not so much now, although it’s hard for me to say this with any certainty, since I have always occupied such a tiny niche in poetry that in fact I have no idea what is “prevailing” (i.e. in MFA programs, in classrooms, in little magazines – most of which I don’t read  – in book publications, etc.).  That is, I know what I think about and I have some idea what my friends think about, but I don’t have any sense of a national or global map of poetry sensibilities.  Maybe you can speak to that better than I can.

SM:  I’ll say this: I was at an international literary conference in Romania in 2009, and the things that you and I are discussing now didn’t seem to concern most of the Western and Eastern European writers that I met there.  The “theme” of the conference was censorship … the conference’s title was “Literature and Politics – How Much We Respect, How Much We Criticize.”  Then again, when I was just in Iceland, for Nyhil, these issues did come up.  And in my previous conversation here with Eirikur there was a connection made between collapsing “economies,” which I felt very interesting … and extremely telling.  I think Flarf spoke to an instability.  Kind of a framed instability.

NG:  I DO think that the Flarf & Conceptual movements are a kind of Cain & Abel to Language Poetry’s Adam-Eve.  Both movements still frolic about in some kind of garden (not Eden – definitely postlapsarian)-of-language-as-material, but Flarf works with the repressed lyricism and hot energies that some (that word is important) language poetry disdained, and the Conceptualists take the language poets’ work with framing and art-historical theory to a new extreme.  So in these senses, the language movement survives in these highly mutated forms. Key members of both Flarf and Conceptualism have been closely involved with language writing and writers for decades.  I don’t know, Sharon.  I sort of hate taxonomies of literary influence.  It seems like something that boys do, and it seems that if we were to really parse it, it would be unimaginably complex and tangled.  I mean, what is the influence of LP on, say, most of the writers published by Belladonna?  or  on NY-school-ish lyric poets like Anselm Berrigan and Dana Ward?  How does the LP influence play out differently on the two coasts? or the cities in between? What is the influence of LP on docu-poetry? or eco-poetry? How are the Flarf and Conceptual writers differently influenced, and by what writers in particular?  I could go on posing questions like this, but it might get tiresome.

SM:  Yeah, but see this is exactly what I’m wondering about … then again, I’m tiresome.  I need a nap right now.

NG:  Regarding the two “a-ha” moments you counterpose (Gottlieb’s and Neruda’s), I don’t really see all that big a difference, except that Gottlieb’s actually sounds a lot more effusive and lyrical.

SM:  Oh, I agree!  And that’s what so interesting to me.  Neruda’s seems rooted in dourness (the sour father, the consternation, the “other” mother), while Michael’s seems liberating, or maybe liberated … but from what?  And I found that issue about being a “privileged stenographer” both aggravating and fascinating.  I guess I would like to think that I, as a poet, am that …

NG:  I don’t find Gottlieb’s version any less emotional than Neruda’s; something about Neruda’s neat writing seems a little anal to me, actually.  And to be honest, I really would rather read Gottlieb than Neruda.  I do think that, historically, language desperately craved (if you can groove for a moment on my anthropomorphizing) the liberation that Gottlieb describes there.  I still think it wants it, and I still often find those moments in my reading and writing almost ineffably ecstatic.  Regarding LangPo and “the I”… well, the (arguably, according to some) great collaborative work of the movement in recent years has been The Grand Piano, with lots of Is telling lots of stories, so I don’t think that critique of them really holds water anymore.  It was decades ago that Barrett Watten wrote the line, “Start writing autobiography” (which people then proceeded to do.).

SM:  For better or worse.

NG:  And you know what, I think poets are, really are, “privileged stenographers.”  We didn’t make the language.  It moves (in) (around) (through) us.  Our notion that we are controlling it is only ever a fiction we are telling ourselves.  I think it is always time for a new moment.  I think Flarf was a new moment.  Conceptualism maybe a little less obviously so, since there was so much in the way of historical precedent, including the works of several language writers and NY school writers and artists, too.  I don’t know what the next moment will look like but I hope that it astonishes me.

— to be continued


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