Erik Belgum
from Read Me Issue 4

Kenneth Goldsmith

Erik Belgum: Talk a little about your choice of the [r] sound as the phonemic structuring element on "No. 111." A friend of mine recently came back to the midwest after living in South Africa for several years and he said we all sounded like pirates. He was really keying in on our intense midwestern [r] sounds. I've been particularly interested in [r] since reading Gerard Gennette's book Mimologiques which places the [r] sound at a pivotal point between animal communication and human speech. The grrr of a dog, or wrrrr of a monkey for example. So, in No. 111 why [r]?

Kenneth Goldsmith: The sounds related around [r] is known in linguistics as the schwa [ah, ar, etc.]. I was inspired by the explanation given to me regarding the sacred significance of the Sanskrit word aum. It seems that when one speaks this word, all parts of the mouth are engaged: "au" forms on the outer lips; "uh", spoken second, resides in the middle of the mouth and nasal area; and "um" finishes deep in the throat. No. 111 is a book that was written to encompass the whole of speech and aural experience thus mirroring the Sanskrit ideal.

EB: Is there any particularly rich vein in the language arts that you feel has not been explored? For example, in my opinion, the possibilities of simultaneous speech have barely begun to be tapped, as it is too often treated as a kind of "sound effect" and comes off as basically synonymous with the instruction "insert chaotic sound here."

KG: I feel that the abundance of common, everyday speech which surrounds us has not been explored. We are drowning in a sea of language yet we feel we must jump through hoops to make it "poetic" or "meaningful." Even our most advanced poetries still find a need to make language "poetic." I am curious that there was never a literary equivalent to Pop Art (although I am reminded of Tuli Kupferberg's overtly expressive recitations of advertisements from the mid 60s). Andy Warhol's A is very good and I'm shocked that nobody took that direction into a fruitful practice. Along those same lines, the literary world has had few writers whom employ a Jeff Koons vacuum cleaner-like approach to literature or a Sherrie Levine appropriative use of words on a consistent basis.

I've lately been working on a piece which is nothing but media language — the language that flows out of the television — specifically advertising. It's language we tend to dismiss and as such, I've labeled it entartete wörter, that is degenerated words, what we consider to be language completely depleted of value; nutritionless language. Most people don't want to watch ads and there have been studies made that say we have no more than a 15 second recall on what we've just watched on television. I'm curious as to what effect will occur when we gather an abundance of entartete wörter in one place.

Likewise, we are not paying attention to speech, the second most abundant human product after thought. A few years ago, I did a piece called Soliloquy which was a book of every word I spoke from the moment I woke up on a Monday morning until the moment I went to bed the next Sunday night. It was 400 pages long. The moniker for the book was "If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard." I wanted to see how much one week of my speech "weighed." I'm interested in concretizing the ephemeral; and there's nothing both more concrete, yet ephemeral, than language.

EB: That's a beautiful analogy. As a follow up, I've often felt that writers often jump through hoops to make their language or work innovative or experimental when the innovation is all around them. Someone recently asked me what avant-garde meant to me and I said that in one sense it seemed like a kind of political trick that I had gotten caught up in for years. I think this was largely because of the above. In what sense is being new or innovative important to you?

KG: An artist responding to their time cannot help but be new or innovative simply because parameters and paradigms shift constantly. This is especially pressing for artists using language which is radically shifting as of late. Only a few years ago, our culture was said to be moving toward the strictly visual (remember the Whitney's "Image World" show of the late 80s); the rise of the Internet has proved that wrong. In fact, due to the web we're responding to language in ways unimagined just a few years ago. Language is being influenced by the technology; compound word URLs are completely Joycean. Suddenly we can read Finnegans Wake and understand it in a different way. Rap music, which began compounding ordinary words to form mass-culture neologisms, is another example. Joyce certainly knew that one day we'd catch up to him yet he never could have anticipated that it would be the internet or rap music that would be responsible for it. I can imagine future generations understanding the Wake in ways my generation (or his) could never have imagined.

EB: Do you write by hand very often?

KG: No. I never write by hand. As a result, my penmanship has completely become illegible. It's bound to happen when people spend all their time typing. In fact, I think that cursive as we know it will be replaced by the script used on Palm Pilots, a sort of shorthand. Before I became devoted to the computer, I used to make drawings which I now no longer do. In fact, I find the computer to be physically engaging enough. I was trained as a sculptor so I have a need to make language physical, concrete. I find that sculpting language on the computer is satisfying enough.

EB: In your mind, does the method of writing you used in No. 111 and Soliloquy, in the sense that you kind of open up a certain linguistic channel and then proceed to let the writing flow through that channel, place you in any way in the tradition of mystics like John Dee or even something like the Koran or the Book of Mormon? Or possibly even some American Indian traditions of storytelling? Given your method of writing these books, a follow up question then presents itself which is the question of authorship. Personally, I think this is a relatively boring question, i.e. "is it really your work if other people said the words?," but I think some of our readers with inquiring minds might want to know.

KG: Almost a century ago Duchamp settled these questions with his Fountain. After that, authorship simply became a matter of framing. I'm shocked how long it's taken our culture so long to legitimize framing or "brushing" content as a valid artistic practice. In the late 70s and we began to see artists like Sherrie Levine "appropriating" images and now, of course, we have a culture built entirely on sampling and recycled material. What was once branded "plagiarism" has long ceased to be an issue.

I don't feel comfortable with the word "mystical" associated in any way with my work. What I do, anyone can do. For example, anyone could rewrite No. 111 using the rules I set up and it would turn out completely different. Same with Soliloquy: anyone can tape and transcribe every word they said for a week and the book would be entirely different. There's just too much shared common language out in the world to ever assume that we are solely possessive of it. Every thought I've ever had I've probably read or heard elsewhere, while wading through this thick band of language which surrounds us daily.

EB: You mention that you were trained as a sculptor. I'm curious, were there specific artists or, better yet, specific works that either forced, or eased, your transition into the world of sound poetry and concrete poetry from the world of sculpture.

KG: It was a long process moving into poetry from fine art which happened over the course of 15 years. As a sculptor, my first mature body of work was very beautifully crafted plywood books, each with texts carved into them. As time went on, I became much more interested in the texts than in the craft of making the books. By the end, I was so invigorated by writing the texts that I began to feel resentful toward the enormous amount of time needed to craft each object. So I stopped making the books and began to instead focus on writing texts. I've ended up a writer, although I came to it in a most unexpected way.

EB: Did any specific artists or works ease the transition?

KG: Like generations before me, I read John Cage's Silence and found that it granted certain permissions I was seeking in my own practice. That was in the late 1980s and although Silence was published in the early 60s, it's amazing how potent that book still is. Cage's message goes in and out of fashion depending on the cultural climate but it seems that some portion of every generation ends up rediscovering it for themselves as I did. Recently, many of the experimental digital musicians are working out Cagean ideas and we're seeing rock groups like Sonic Youth embrace the same tradition.

EB: I suppose there is an obvious connection between your highly systematized method of writing and the work of the OULIPO group. However, I see a very significant philosophical difference. I think it comes from Cage's influence that you just mentioned and it all centers around the word "Potential." Briefly, it's this. The OULIPIENS, even though they have produced many "finished products" are, at least philosophically, expressly interested in the formula or the system over the finished product. That's why they call it "Potential Literature." Although many people don't see it this way, Cage was the exact opposite. For him, the detailed working out and realization of a system or formula was a critical step and this seems to be a critical step in your work also. For example, instead of actually recording and documenting all your speech for a day, you could have realized Soliloquy as a Dick Higgins' type of instruction that said "Record and transcribe all your speech for 24 hours." To me that would have been a OULIPIEN versus a Cagean approach to the same project. There's a question in here somewhere, but I'll leave it to you to find.

KG: One of the greatest problems I have with OULIPO is the lack of interesting production that resulted from it. While I like the idea of "potential literature," it strikes me that their output should have remained conceptual — a mapping, so to speak; judging by the works that have been realized, they might be better left as ideas. On the whole, they embraced a blandly conservative narrative fiction which seems to bury the very interesting procedures that went into creating the works.

I'm interested in writing that is born of process and where the process is brought to the forefront of the practice. However, what is more interesting than process is the resultant writing. This sort of writing achieves a balance between Cagean chance operative writing and Oulipian ideals. It allows for a certain amount of control and a certain amount of surprise.

There's a type of sports practice that calls itself Extreme: Extreme Skiing, Extreme Skateboarding, things like this. I'm interested in Extreme Writing; and I'm convinced that the procedures that set it up inform the intensity of the writing. Without going through the rigorous exercise of documenting every move my body made over the course of one day, I never would have achieved the quality of writing that made Fidget the book that it is. And of course Soliloquy achieved the same intensity through its very rigorous process of production.

EB: Anyone who has transcribed speech from tape recordings knows that there's a fairly large amorphous area of, let's call it "material," that gets left on the cutting room floor. Stuff that maybe isn't "language," but is certainly part of communication. Certainly things like coughs, throat clearing, hmms, umms, lips sticking together briefly, unusual breathing patterns are left out, but even phonemic stutters or repetitions of whole words often don't make it onto the transcribed page. What's your position on this "material" in relation to your work which sits, as it does, between spoken and written language?

KG: Soliloquy changed my entire relationship to the spoken word. After Soliloquy, I could never hear language the same way I did before. It became completely opaque and concrete, like lead. Sometimes now when someone is talking to me, I don't hear what they say but how they're saying it. The rhythms of speech come to the forefront — the "um" and the "ahs." After Soliloquy, I am never able to watch movies in the same way; after learning the divergent and stumbling nature of speech, I am never able to drop my suspension of disbelief — the actors speak too streamlined and neatly!

When it comes to transcribing the pieces, certain decisions need to be made. In Soliloquy, all the sounds I considered to be language-based went in it (the um's and ah's). The bodily sounds which you mention — coughs, lips sticking together briefly, etc. — all were moved into Fidget.

Next comes the task of writing and the formal decisions based around it. People often wonder why I punctuated, capitalized etc. the Soliloquy transcriptions instead of leaving it a flow of language á la Molly Bloom. I'm interested in the work reading as a written document, not simply as an historical documentation of spoken language during a certain period of time (although that is what created the work in the first place).

My work finds its final form as language although it assumes a variety of forms along the way: clothing, CDs, gallery installations, etc. are just a few of the many manifestations that my words have taken. While the parameters may be slightly shifted to produce an entirely different sort of products / projects, my work ultimately resorts to a writerly manifestation.

EB: I'd like to hear you talk about your show from 1998 which, I believe, was basically a show of concrete poetry stills taken from a web project. I'm particularly curious how collectors, buyers or investors, etc. reacted to purchasing website stills from the show.

KG: The show to which you're referring was a manifestation of the Fidget project which took many forms: a performance, a website, a musical score, a gallery exhibition and a book. For this show I made "drawings" based on an applet. I snapped screen shots of the Fidget Java applet and then entirely reconstructed the screen shots out of monochromatic hand-cut paper. They were very beautiful and very well crafted, yet they still failed to sell. The critical response, however, was different: The New York Times positively reviewed the show without once mentioning the derivation of the images; instead, they focused on the craftsmanship and the content of the work. In the art world, the cult of the artist's hand still reigns supreme. At this late date, artworks of mechanical reproduction still generally fail to sell.

On the other hand, the web has given the hand-crafted arts a new life. Until a computer can reproduce the physically visceral qualities of a painting, painting remains a valid practice. In fact, with everyone creating graphics from the same tools such as PhotoShop and Illustrator, coupled with the limited aesthetic range of a 72 DPI screen, those things made by hand seem more important and valuable than ever.

EB: A similar economic question is this: are you ever approached by business types who maybe wanted to advertise on, or buy, UbuWeb?

KG: Not really. Poetry is such a non-profit economy that it functions outside the general traffic of capital. However, I do have people constantly trying to buy the domain name from me, often offering very high prices for it. Of course, I never sold.

EB: It strikes me as interesting that many of the folks involved in sound poetry as practitioners are also often quite involved in the practical, curatorial, editorial, distribution end of their art form. Your UbuWeb website dedicated to concrete, visual and sound poetry ( is a perfect example. Some other examples just off the top of my head are Gaburo's Lingua Press, my own VOYS CD journal, any of the numerous Kostelanetz anthologies, Larry Wendt's curatorial work. There are lots of others. What do you make of this? Am I imagining that this phenomenon is more prevalent in soundtext work? What drove you to set up the UBU site?

KG: As I said before, poetry generally is so off the beaten track in this culture that if the producers of it don't set up the distribution channels, no one will. And since it lacks the capital and market of painting, it's of no use to museums who might actually be able to fund adventurous poetries which move along similar intellectual tracks as the art they're showing.

I set up UbuWeb in 1996. In the late 80s Ruth and Marvin Sackner purchased some work of mine and flew me down to install their piece and see their collection. I was blown away by their 10,000+ pieces and became very interested in this somewhat obscure art form (unlike Fluxus, concrete poetry has yet to realize any sort of intellectual / economic revival). When I first saw Netscape in January of 1995, I was taken by the way the graphics loaded and were laid out (the interlaced .gifs reminded me of Jean Bory's sequential concrete poems of the 1960s) and it occurred to me then that this was an ideal space to show text and image. I turned out to be correct: the first 5 years of the graphical web's existence has shown to be a perfect melding of text and image and sometimes the entire thing strikes me as one giant work of concrete poetry.

EB: Last fall, my niece, who was in 8th grade at the time, said she was going to do a paper on sound poetry because of what she'd seen there. She found it all on her own, just kind of by browsing around the web. She knew nothing about the subject (nor did her English teacher), but got really caught up in it through your site.

KG: I love stories like that. And they happen all the time. UbuWeb is on countless curriculums all over the world, ranging from grade schools to Ph.D. programs. One of the things that thrills me the most about the web's distributive paradigm is the potential for education and access. Today anyone anywhere can get offbeat and specialized knowledge from their home. Before the web, people were always able to acquire arcane knowledge, but it took a great deal more effort.

EB: Does the creation of sound poetry or concrete poetry, in a way, automatically presume the question of distribution by the very non-book nature of these literary mediums? This goes back to my first question about the tendency of sound poets to get involved in distribution.

KG: I disagree that these literary forms have a non-book nature. Concrete poetry has always been delivered on the page and sound poetry has always been distributed on disc. What I'm saying is that the new methods of distribution are equally suited to unleash these forms from their old methods of distribution, with the result that they are readily available for more people around the world with at a touch of a finger. A book is no longer limited to the 1000 copies that were printed; an obscure sound poetry recording will now never go out of print. The web, at this point, delivers texts, pictures and sound very well, even with slow dial-up connections (it fails with moving images but this will be improving relatively soon). Thus, sound / concrete poetry needn't readjust its historic agenda to become suited for the web. New works will respond to the new medium and the old ones can quite happily live on in their older forms. UbuWeb shows this sort of mix. While our Historical section is comprised of static images that were either scanned or reformatted for the web, our Contemporary section is a mix of static and dynamic web-specific works made of Java, VRML, dHTML, Javascript, RealMedia, Flash, Shockwave, etc. These works are the one that move beyond the book — they cannot be reconstituted for the page without losing some essential quality.

Distribution in the material world is changing too as the 20th century avant-garde is fetishized. One of the unexpected upsides of super capitalism is that there is an abundance of previously unavailable or out of print material from the historical avant garde. For example, an Italian record label, Alga Marghen, has been recently repackaging sound poetry discs gorgeously making them as sexy as any other commercial product. When I took Christian Bök into Other Music in New York City, he bought Alga Marghen's Gil Wolmans LP even though he doesn't own a turntable!

EB: This abundance of material is also leading to what I like best about the whole "electronica" culture. Young kids who've often never heard experimental music listening to LaMonte Young or Stockhausen or Xenakis right alongside of Roni Size or Sonic Youth. I worked with this 17 year old guy and we got talking about music and so we swapped some CD's. The next day he said, "That was great. I love electronic music." The funny thing to me was that I had loaned him "Hymnen," yet he had no problem ingesting it right alongside "Meat Beat Manifesto - Subliminal Sandwich," which he had loaned to me. Now, there's also an incredibly stupid downside to a lot of electronica (although there are incredibly stupid moments in "Hymnen" also). What do you think of the electronica world?

KG: I'm only interested in it in so much as it brings kids into art. Your teenage pal's Stockhausen / electronica connection was probably greased by Thurston Moore's own label, Ecstatic Peace!, releasing a 1971 performance of Stockhausen's Kontakte featuring James Tenney. Any Sonic Youth fan is bound to buy something released by their favorite rock star. It's not a great leap from the noisier bits of SY records to Hymnen. Their ears have been opened by SY. On Sonic Youth's recent CD, the one-time Lollapalooza headliners do respectable versions of John Cage, Christian Wolff, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney, George Maciunas, etc. pieces. Again, the more curious kids buying this stuff will want to seek out more about these composers. I've seen the same thing happen when DJ Spooky plays electronics for Xenakis concerts: the kids come out in droves to see Spooky and I suppose that many become interested in Xenakis this way.

EB: Who are your favorite writers?

KG: I can respond by saying that I was recently asked to participate in an odd show in which artists were asked to give a list of books that have been particularly influential on their work. These books were then displayed at Waterstone's (the British Barnes + Noble). So, in place of my favorite artists are, here is a bibliography of my most important books:


EB: For a closer, how about a similar list of albums/CD's of particular influence on you?

KG: George Antheil BALLET MÉCHANIQUE, Robert Ashley IN SARA MENCKEN CHRIST AND BEETHOVEN THERE WERE MEN AND WOMEN, Béla Bartók THE SIX STRING QUARTETS, The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, The Beatles White Album, Erik Belgum Bad Marriage Mantra, Carla Bley Escalator Over the Hill, Jaap Blonk Flux-de-Bouche, Anton Bruhin In/Out, John Cage Indeterminacy, Cornelius Cardew Piano Music, Ray Charles What'd I Say, John Coltrane A Love Supreme, Noël Coward Classic Recordings 1928-1938, Coyle & Sharpe The Insane (But Hilarious) Minds of Coyle & Sharpe, Miles Davis Pangaea , Claude Debussy Préludes Vol. 1, Donovan A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde, Hanns Eisler + Bertolt Brecht Collaboration, Morton Feldman Three Voices, Beniamino Gigli Historical Recordings 1927-1951, Alois Hába Centenary, Raoul Hausmann Poemes Phonetiques, The Heptones On Top, The Impressions Keep on Pushing, Charles Ives Symphony No. 4, Charles Ives Universe Symphony, Charles Ives Old Songs Deranged, Mauricio Kagel Der Schall, Los Angeles Free Music Society L.A.F.M.S BOX, Frank Loesser Frank Sings Loesser, Giovanni Martinelli Volume 2, Pietro Mascagni Cavalleria Rusitcana (Gigli), Rod McKuen Takes A San Francisco Hippie Trip,Olivier Messiaen Turangalila-Symphonie, Darius Milhaud Composers in Person, Charles Mingus Better Git It In Your Soul, Thelonious Monk Genius of Modern Music Vol. 1, Thelonious Monk Genius of Modern Music Vol. 2, Thelonious Monk Monk's Music, Moondog Elpmas, Ennio Morricone A Fistful of Film Music, Mothers of Invention We're Only In It For the Money, Carl Orff Orff-Schulwerk Complete Edition, Harry Partch Delusion of the Fury, Giacomo Puccini La Bohème (Toscanini), Giacomo Puccini Turnadot (Serafin / Callas), Giacomo Puccini Tosca (Prêtre - Callas), Maurice Ravel Ma mère L'Oye, Steve Reich Drumming, Terry Riley All Night Flight Vol. 1, Arthur Russell Another Thought, Frederic Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (Oppens), Erik Satie Piano Music VolumeS 1-6 (Ciccolini), Sly & The Family Stone Fresh, The Soft Machine Volumes One & Two, Karlheinz Stockhausen Hymnen, Igor Stravinsky Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky: The Mono Years, Sun Ra The Singles , T. Rex The Slider, Various Artists The Conet Project, Sophie Tucker Her Latest and Greatest Spicy Songs, Tyrannosaurus Rex UNICORN, Tyrannosaurus Rex BEARD OF STARS, Galina Ustvolskaya Piano Sonatas No. 1-6, Edgard Varèse The Varèse Album, Various Artists Ethiopiques 3, Giuseppe Verdi Don Carlos (Giulini), Giuseppe Verdi Falstaff (Toscanini), Giuseppe Verdi Otello (Levine), Giuseppe Verdi Rigoletto (Serafin), Richard Wagner Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Solti), Kurt Weill Lady in the Dark, Kurt Weill Die Dreigroschonoper Berlin 1930, Neil Young On the Beach, ZNR Barricades.

EB: I have sense that you responded to the "favorite CD's" question with a little more relish than the "favorite books" question. I heard Eddie Murphy say that he'd give up comedy and acting in a second if he could be Prince. I heard Wanda Coleman opine that Baraka would give up writing in a second if he could be Archie Shepp. Personally, if I could do what Sly Stone did in the 70's, I would drop the small press/experimental literature world like a hot potato. Am I imagining things or is there anything to this sense, as far as your work is concerned?

KG: Yes and no. A recent book of mine, 6799, is simply a list of my enormous LP and CD collection — about 100 pages worth. And it happens to be sitting on my hard drive as I answer these questions. So I just scrolled down the list and grabbed the most essential ones. In the end, there seemed no reason to edit it.

I've been a music fanatic since 1967 when I got my hands on The Monkee's Headquarters. Since then, I've been an unstoppable music junkie and can't live a day without buying a record. I also host a radio show on WFMU that is always hungry for new material. In addition, I write music criticism for New York Press and other publications. In all honesty, the only reason I went into music criticism was so I could get CDs for free. Now I'm hooked.

I have a hunch that we pursue those occupations where we're at a disadvantage rather than at an advantage. I'm a much more of a naturally talented musician than I am either artist or writer. But I love music so much that I never wanted to ruin it by making it my profession. So I turned to occupations that I wasn't as passionate about. As a result, music remains very free to me. I can have massive contradictions in taste and not have to explain myself. I'm simply a fan.

Oh, and in response to your Sly Stone comment, I another life I would be either Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dylan or Allen Ginsberg.

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