December 23, 2004
To finish the season here, I'd like to talk about the Analogous Series reading with Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein which took place a few weeks ago. It was really a pleasure to have Charles and Susan in town to give a talk about their collaborations with various different people, and I like this notion, similar to what Silliman was talking about this week, of a "poet's talk," which is not necessarily academic but is concerned with practice and process, and done by poets and artists for other working poets and artists.
Susan, who is a painter by profession and who does a lot of collaborative projects, mainly focused on the book arts in her talk, showing slides from books she has done with Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Joanna Drucker. She also brought physical copies of the books along so we could look at them during the break and after the talk. The first piece she showed was Fool's Gold, a fold-out broadside/book arts piece done by Charles Alexander at Chax Press which featured text by Bernstein interspersed with images by Bee -- playfulness was the most striking element here, a willingness to cut loose. Contrast this with the much more graphically and typographically traditional The Nude Formalism -- or is it? The design, though ornamental and neoclassically concerned with framing the poems (strange putti frisk through various borders), is erratic and funny also and changes dramatically from poem to poem. When Bernstein read one of these pieces, a quite hilarious Elizabethan-sounding parody called "Gosh," I was surprised by how slowly and seriously he read it, with a kind of ceremony which deepend the experience, or at last made you think about the poem carefully on a sonic level.
Bee's other collaborations with Susan Howe (Bed Hangings) and with Joanna Drucker (A Girl's Life) were respectively severe and wild, both wonderful. These pieces introduce interesting additional issues that would not be present with poems or images alone: how to put a book together, for example -- how should it be laid out and designed, how should the material be distributed. These books were really made to fit the content. I found my favorite pieces here worked on the model of the Chax piece, freer and more immediate in the exchange of text and image, for example Susan's paintings such as Amor Perdido which took pieces of Bernstein's poems and actually inserted them into the paintings as slips of paper, varnished over. There seems to be a lot that Susan and Charles have in common: playfulness coexisting with a sinister or dark quality, the use of a noir vocabularly, unsympathetic bouts of entertaining rhetorical hysteria, also bits of recognizable scenes chopped up and reassembled.
Some of the most moving and strange pieces here, I thought, were her more recent paintings such as "See No Evil," an almost symbolist-like composition featuring a large, bifurcated tree in a surreal geometric backdrop. The branches of this tree extend to culminate at the ends in objects like a Marilyn Monroe head, which is somehow really horrifying under the circumstances. I asked Susan about this dark quality in a lot of her paintings, because it's obviously not the darkness that we find in the male uncanny of surrealist automatism (her work with the journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G in the late eighties and nineties established among other thing how this category is not really a useful way to look at the work of female artists). Susan agreed that she felt the paintings were dark, but wasn't sure she could or wanted to talk about why, just that she had noticed this and was aware of it.
Charles' talk focused mostly on his collaboration with Richard Tuttle, the conceptual artist. The two of them made a piece together that was based on Charles' poem "With Strings," and employed a procedure/pattern: Tuttle built large styrofoam letters corresponding with the first letter of each line of the poem, and then printed the text of the entire poem on a typed strip of paper running around the edge of each of these letters. The letters in turn were pierced upon and threaded through a large metal coil which sat on the floor of the gallery. Most of the physical construction was done by Tuttle, and Charles made a joke about this at one point by showing a slide with Tuttle and himself "at work" in the studio: Tuttle is hammering away at something while Bernstein stands there intently examing one of the letters, "kibbitzing," as he put it. They are both very absorbed in their tasks.
Charles also read a number of poems, including "Without Strings" itself as well as one short poem from World on Fire, "Didn't We." The best experience of the whole evening, I thought, was the second half of the reading: Charles read two dramatic and very moving long poems, "War Stories" and "Stelae for Failed Time" (a text written in the voice of Benjamin's angel of history, which is currently being made into an opera) while Susan showed some of her aforementioned newer paintings as a backdrop. These beautifully sad, urgent poems, occasionally resetting themselves with their own reproducibility of gesture via refrain ("journeyed back") with estranging forays into the nonsensical and the foreign, were perfectly timed amid the election aftermath and the war, which were on everyone's mind still that night. But there was playfulness and humor in the performance as well -- halfway through the reading Charles made a rather dadaesque gesture and said "I think I'm going to come sit behind you now," and walked out and sat in back among the audience. Some people turned around to look at him, but what most of us saw for the remainder of the reading were these rather purgatory-esque noir landscapes inhabited by the ghostly, floating voice of Charles Bernstein, and that was just fabulous.
After the reading a lot of people looked at the books Susan brought (very good audience for this event -- one of the biggest yet), and a number of us adjourned to Legal Seafood over across the street. I had a long time to talk with the two of them because we spent so long waiting for a table, and one of the things I discovered was that Charles does not come from any kind of academic background -- indeed this seems to evade the kinds of comments by Allen and others that they find his personality to be "professorial." On the contrary, I discovered that his father was a dressmaker. This brought to mind for me these words from his poem "Lines": "my father pushed a line / of ladies dresses, not down the street / in a pushcart, but upstairs in a fact'ry / office. My mother has been more concerned / with her hemlines." How amazing to realize that those lines are actually biographical -- I had thought they were merely rhetoric or surreal props when I first read the poem. It's fascinating to learn that Bernstein's life does actually intersect with his work this way, though at oblique angles and at the edges of the engagement with language.
Another example is the recent poem posted on the Buffalo list which establishes a pattern of complaining and then trying to find an upside to the situation, often to very comic effect. Bernstein said this poem came out of a personal experience of waiting at the restuarant while everyone else had already gotten their food ("Lake Tang Woo Chin Chicken with Lobster and Sweet Clam Sauce still not served and everyone else got their orders twenty minutes back. - Savor the water, feast on the company."). For some reason this poem was one of the few things that could make me laugh following the horrible recent election, I think because it's so exasperated. But even here we can see an aspect of his limits foregrounded too -- the humor is ultimately a blocked or very dark thing, and ultimately recognizes that reality affects language but that it very rarely goes vice-versa. So there's a veering-away at the end, a sadness which dovetails towards resolution for the sake of the poem itself, turning inward: "Self help -- Other drowns." If only we could indeed recover that sense of empathy in public discourse.
It was fun hanging out with Charles and Susan after the reading and discussing everything from digital poetry to kids to early American musicals -- we heard a lot of lines from Charles, who is really quite hilarious in person, from Cole Porter songs, Porgy and Bess, and other classics, looked at with an eye for the pastiche of appreciation in ironic contemplation. This was great for me, because I'm a fan of bad puns. An important element of the New York school which people often denigrate or dismiss as fluff (and which Bernstein gets from Ashbery) is the moment where something very funny suddenly causes the bottom to drop out and opens up into something very serious and dark. Jokes are serious and substantial things, because what makes us laugh is the unconscious frame of reference by which we evaluate experience: this is an important aspect of poetry I learned from my friend Tenney Nathanson, who not coincidentally has done some wonderful writing on Bernstein's work. In any case, an eye for the potentially embarrasing or awkward funny moments can be revealing in this sense, I think. Thanks again to everyone involved who made this series such a success the first season: Kelly Sherman for helping with publicity, Gerrit Lansing, Ruth Lepson, Jack Kimball, Christina Strong, James Amanda and Abi Cook, Sean Cole, Jim Behrle, Mike County, Bill Corbett, Allen Bramhall and Beth Garrison, Joel Sloman, John Mulrooney, Jim Dunn, Dan Bouchard, Tina Celona, Mark Lamoureux and Rachel for varying degrees of devoted attendance and moral support (like carrying the AV equipment), and all the others involved. This has been really fun, and we're about to do it again!
December 23, 2004 | Permalink