Dialogue Between Patrick F. Durgin & Andrew Levy, Summer / Autumn 2001


Patrick F. Durgin:  Since we propose to talk about writing in life or living in writing, I thought I'd ask you how you negotiate the intersection without resorting to testimonials.  Is it even a matter of "how" or is it simply a matter of "negotiate" (as if there were space / time to strategize in all cases)?  Since the logic of intersection is so counter-intuitive anyhow, I thought your immanently counter-intuitive opener from "An Indispensable Coefficient of Esthetic Order" might help frame things here: "Wonder about continuity when it comes to anything."


Andrew Levy:  I think that all of life and writing is living -- I don't know that it's a matter of one or the other, that writing and life necessarily are or need to be thought of as "in" the other. I don't experience writing and reading and living as proposing an intersection so much as a layering. And the layering can contain/obtain testimonials if one would like, as well as questions of "how" or matters of "negotiation". But even if it, i.e., living and writing are experiential objects and subjects to always be negotiated I don't think it's  "simply a matter of" as to negotiate suggests to me an extremely complex set of emotions. There is never time and oftentimes little need to "strategize." Little to be gained. To do so would strike me as counter-intuitive in deed. Within my experience of writing to find out what the writing, what poetry can and might be it has been something, one can call it intuition if one likes, that opens time up so that I can see and make choices as to what has felt in the act of writing to hold the most promise, to be the most fruitful, generative, gifted. I've never felt that I could take credit for the "intuitions" that in reading outside the immediate act of writing (if that sense of time and place ever actually exists for a writer) I've later felt successful. Even if later I've found the results a failure.


If the opener to the essay "An Indispensable Coefficient of Esthetic Order" appears counter-intuitive, I hadn't thought at the time of writing that sentence that it was meant to represent a particular tact, or tendency on my part. The sentence was an opener, to get me thinking about what that same sentence could possibly mean. I don't believe the "logic" to my poetry is one of intersection. A poem may contain moments of thought that are counter-intuitive, analytical, narrative. These things complement the lyric, for example, in a variety of interesting ways. I've wanted to make poetry that changes while one reads it, something that might contain, reflect, let go a multitude of subjectivities, experiences of various kinds (a varietal identity) finding relations between themselves in a constellation or assemblage I'm simply as writer a witness to, a conscience. I think there is great continuity of a new kind in and between the one-liners, as Fanny Howe suggested in her cover blurb, of Paper Head Last Lyrics. It's something I wonder about and wander around with and in. One could answer more theoretically about all this, the grad school shoptalk, but I feel that kind of jargon…  I want poetry free of disciplinary thinking.



PFD:  Doesn’t witnessing, being a conscience, demand a kind of discipline?  An “economy of attention” (as someone once said)?  I think I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on an old bugbear of mine:  when / where do we use reading and when / where writing?  I think of the epigraph from Martin Buber (“All real living is meeting.”) to the “Songs & Improvisations” series in Continuous Discontinuous as another (at least strange, if not “counter”) paradox of – shifting attention between “real” (ideation) and “meeting” (materialization) – as another possibly “new” intuition.


AL: An "economy of attention" reminds me of a few lines from Democracy Assemblages: "wisdom / to measure / in the smallest of / shelters / the familiarity of our attention" I remember many years ago Allen Ginsberg telling me that he liked those lines. At that time in my life I didn't have much discipline when it came to anything. When I think about my own writing and look around at the world outside my desk I wonder exactly what kind of discipline can help me or anyone else to survive. I'd say that witnessing, being a conscience and so being conscious about one's ability to attend, to maintain the endurance of the one who apprehends, is the only discipline worth striving for. What I meant by poetry "free of disciplinary thinking" was not poetry free of discipline per se, but of hierarchical categorization and over-specialization, i.e., the economics and divisions of academic disciplines. I prefer that work and those people who think and work outside traditional disciplinary models. Regarding the bugbear, I'm not sure that I know what you're thinking by the word "use," when do we use reading and when/where writing? And I don't know who "we" is or would include or exclude in this instance either. I 'use' reading for help in creating meaning, and I think I use writing for something similar. A friend, Christine Meilicke wrote me recently following a lunchtime conversation we'd had and sent the following in response to a question I'd raised about what is needed to create meaning. She wrote -- "Creation of meaning: patience / concentration / intensity / belief." I think that through reading and writing one "positions" oneself, even if it is only momentarily. It's an art of listening. Buber's "All real living is meeting" is what reading and writing can be, an intuition / apprehension that brings with it the most joy. I don't know that shifting attention from one thing to another has ever been that enjoyable, at least for me. I feel that ideation and materialization are getting married.


What propels you in your reading and writing?



PFD:  In terms of my reading / writing, nowadays I think I’ve been expelled rather than propelled – or perhaps it’s always been a shuttling between the two.  But I’d also say something like “help in creating meaning.”  & the layering vs. intersecting idea – well, the problem for you and I is finding a vocabulary stable enough to set us going, but just as dynamic as the “negotiations” I think we’re speaking of.  I remember reading in George Oppen’s letters his hope that this or that poem would “serve.”  & there was no great set-up (serve whom?  or what?), no party line or ideology he was set to serve.  Certainly not a serviceable authority one would find in either a mature “craft” or mature “self” / personality.  Though, of course, he as well as Zukofsky had very complex and, for me, important notions of “craft” and spoke of them often.  It simply wasn’t the sort taken up as the crux of MFA writing workshop curriculums, etc., of today.  And, so, since then I’ve wondered what it might mean to serve.  Writing is one way, sure.  & my use of the pronoun “we,” rare as it is, refers to anyone and I who might recognize not only what but also that they are being served.  We who might seek to do so in terms of Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” – the moment, just before you bite, when you see what’s on the end of your fork.  So, recognizing imperatives that are not wholly selfish to do so.  As in public service, sometimes, but sometimes room service, etc.


The operative implication from “use” or “service” is result – not cause & effect without a crisis.  Not first principles.  Crisis propels reading & writing, more often than not for me, of poems.  I’m inhabiting that crisis that way.  Not trying to represent a traumatic inspiration, to witness or testify with respect to it, if by doing so I’d steady or frame something I can’t help but experience as dynamic.  Not this or that dynamic but a melding of whatever becomes of it.  So I’d also say, for me, a poetry that changes as it’s read, but also a poetry that’s written as it’s read.  So that writing isn’t adding another result of my living.  They might actually be analogous in the sense of being a portion of it (“analogy, that is proportion” – Aristotle):  reading, writing, & the rest we also call living.


More & more my writing is apportioned according to what come out to be 20-30 page poems that unravel some thematic strand, typically sputtering out somewhere in the process when the poem’s implications can or will go anyplace.  It’s as though they affirm themselves as imaginable, & then I’m done using the writing.  Like Williams, I suppose I consider the “imagination” as a fundamental component of human epistemology, and not as a recess from reason etc.  You can see this in “Shoenbergese,” which is a bridge from my interest in short lyrics (crafted from / for easy use) & vignettes, making that poem an odd centerpiece to Sorter.  The short pieces following it may seem a bit arbitrarily sawed off from the rest, while “Schoenbergese” has little thematic relation to the others.


I agree with your desire for a poetry beyond the liberal marketplace of ideas.  How about an ideaplace;  I think I may be hardwired in that, whenever my imagination is insulted it reacts / activates.  It’s an impudent thing.  But I don’t see that same vital impudence fostered in the marketplace of ideas:  universities.  I’m the first in my family to take a university degree and the fact that my family’s class-aspirations cannot be projected successfully onto my endeavors insults their imaginations.  Such projections onto markets short-circuit, like “postmodernism” (as if modernity needed someplace to go).  But to project such aspirations onto an ideaplace … well, I believe it exists.  That, by the way, is how I would read Meilicke’s “belief”, whatever she may have had in mind.  So, insults at the level of that belief, handled with rigor, can propel me.  In terms of editing / publishing, I feel propelled by such insults to the possibility of belief.  Or, in other words, I feel compelled to generate public(ation) space.


How would you figure (if at all) your editorial work, both past & present?



AL: I like your thoughts on room service, and the "we" who recognizes what and that one is being served -- an idea extendable to and experienced I hope in almost every part of one's life. Oppen has been a major influence since my first encounter with his poetry. He’s one of the great writers on war. Particularly in the acuteness of observation and analysis one encounters in his letters regarding America's war against the Vietnamese, and in Of Being Numerous. He seems to have been able to present an argument against American imperialism while clarifying a position more complex than that alone, absent a more typical liberal bias and dogmatism one finds in so much politically engaged poetry of his and later generations. His perspective is circular, carries from one hand to the other -- reminding me of Adorno minus the sometimes patronizing judgement ... I'm not sure that I agree with you that the problem we have is "finding a vocabulary stable enough to set us going..." The negotiations we've been speaking of are the language that is to be found in poetry -- the language of our "interview" may be something else. Perhaps it can never be as dynamic. Or, let's just leave it that it's different from what poetry can do--layering and intersecting, keeping the vocabulary unstable enough to keep it alive, difficult to handle, and very interesting. You say a poetry that's written as it's read. That's the dynamic one would wish to experience and affect. At the same time, I would never wish a reader to feel like they were being given a homework assignment, or that the reader had to make the meaning for him/herself. Though I've set out upon a rather "unstable" imaginary quest, I have written the poetry published under my name. As friend Robert Kocik put it some years back: "Participatory reading as writing practice standing in for nonpassive living assumes there are cases wherein readers don't think for themselves, and kids who? ... When people come home from work, they should be invited to complete your work for themselves as well." If I feel that way about a book I put it down. And I agree with you, it's not an additive process.


Coming from similarly modest middle-class / working class families we appear to be similarly attracted to the idea of a poetry beyond the liberal marketplace. We're both the first children in our respective families to make it to and through the university. Make it through to what exactly is the question I've asked myself these last half-dozen years or so. That question has reformulated itself from one that was originally fueled in part by disappointment with what I'd earlier and naively perceived to be a radical place of ideas and performances/actions, to a question about what I truly believe in and the viable alternative spaces in which to create and examine the promise of my beliefs. I don't expect to ever finish making multiple attempts to answer that question. That's what I mean in part by a poetry that changes as one reads it. My editorial work has always been a way to connect and correspond with writers that excite my poetic imagination. To borrow your concept, I'm attracted to those writers who have succeeded in clarifying a particular and personal "ideaplace" in their poetry and prose writing. The way others write effects the way I edit, and I've enjoyed how writer's contributions to an issue--beginning with bloo in Chicago to Crayon in New York City--shapes the editing & thematic development of a particular journal. I don't know if there's something specific you'd like me to comment on regarding my editorial work, so I'll leave this for now.



PFD:  I’d like it if you could talk a little about “from Indiana” (Values Chauffer You).  I thought of it in terms of two things you’ve said – 1)  the thin line between “participatory reading as writing practice” and 2)  home / origins / memory as a “viable alternative space in which to create and examine the promise of my beliefs.”  (And perhaps this will link up with the kind of correspondence editing / publishing fosters) around the time of Values’ publication, some important prose poetry – Silliman, Hejinian – was turning up.  With the latter, I think of something she’s often said about My Life – it’s autobiography with the emphasis on the “graphy” – so, I’m also curious as to what sort of milieu you may have seen the poem coming out of and heading off to at the time.



AL:  I began writing what became "from Indiana" in 1987 -- it was first published in Temblor 8 in 1988. The opening two paragraphs were composed earlier, I'd say about 1985. At the time I didn't know what to do with them. I read these early sections at the Ear Inn in 86 or 87 and remember being asked by William Harris where that prose could possibly go, how could it be extended. Having returned to it I began to see the form as being somehow parallel to remembering and once in the midst of writing, a paragraph at a time, the form began to generate memory's experience, how memory comes into being.


The piece received some nice comment at the time -- Leland Hickman loved it, Charles Bernstein said it put him in mind of Beckett, S. not T. Daniel Davidson wrote that "from Indiana" conjured images and memories of his own childhood better than his own attempts to (the best compliment I received on this poem). Perhaps what Dan experienced in reading "from Indiana" is akin to "participatory reading as writing practice" as a "viable alternative space in which to create and examine the promise of one's beliefs." As far as origins go, I don't think I was interested in representing Indiana (specifically the most southern corner of the state). The origins are those of matter and memory -- the matter is language and something before it, as well as, for example, a singular referent like pumpkin pie, or falling out of a bunk bed through a bedroom window. Around the time I was writing "from Indiana" I was neck deep in Heidegger's Being and Time via a philosophy seminar taught by Professor Ed Casey at SUNY Stony Brook, but countering Martin H. was Walter Benjamin -- in a space of two years I read everything then available in English. I found Benjamin's reflections on memory in the Baudelaire essay very instructive, as well as his idea of constellation as compositional method. I was also reading everything (some of it for a second time) by Gilbert Sorrentino, essays and novels, up through Aberration of Starlight. Sorrentino was incredibly helpful for understanding how to share and shape one's material across more than one writing project. His novels are wonderful lessons on how to write. Origin, again, had to do with how "Indiana" as memory came into being and evolved.


I was also reading and somewhat enamored by Merleau Ponty. For me, "from Indiana" generates an experience of memory unfolding itself. From a more personal or intentional point of view, it was an attempt to examine memory while witnessing it actually occurs in the writing of it. So, writing as a viable alternative space to experiment in the hope of finding something one doesn't a priori possess consciousness of. This links I think to your earlier consideration of an "ideaspace." Given what I've just said, I wouldn't at the same time want to denigrate the importance of the autobiographical material recontextualized, or de-formed. I do feel "from Indiana" succeeds in providing an experience of a particular place and time, its ambient nature. In other words, I wouldn't emphasize the "graphy" to the extent Lyn may have regarding her wonderful My Life. In my memory of My Life (it must be close to 6-7 years since I've read it through), I'm caught up as a reader in the intricate details of things recounted, no matter that Lyn has defamiliarized the form of the typical progressive/linear narrative. It's almost as if her rules for the work are foregrounded to the extent that it prevents something outside the author's intention from surfacing. That said, if I were to read her book tomorrow I might discover something completely different. "from Indiana" falls more in the Jewish tradition of leaving the details of place and time ambiguous, less detailed -- I think of Auerbach's classic essay in Mimesis on the difference between the Jewish old testament and Homer's Odyssey with those damned lists.


Silliman's Ketjak, of books by the language poets was the bigger influence on me at the time. In that Ron got something on paper I thought very few others had understood before, how to shape musical form/thought linguistically. When I first discovered Ketjak, I did experience it as a great discovery, I was just out of undergraduate school and living in Boston. As a musician, a drummer, I instantly got what Silliman had accomplished without having read a word of his critical essays or those of anyone else on his work. It seemed refreshingly transparent -- reminding me of the composer Steve Reich' s early compositions. Ketjak granted a greater permission of what could be included in contemporary poetry than almost anything else I'd read up to that point.


However, by the time I sat down to write "from Indiana," the more immediate influence was Nathalie Sarraute's Childhood. I believe it was first published in the States in 1984 by FSG. It's an incredibly profound and moving book, engaging the mysteries of memory and language. Written when she was in her 80's it recounts her memories of childhood, in discrete sections sometimes only a brief paragraph in length, up to her 13th year. I read quite a number of autobiographies around that time and found Jean Rhy's unfinished one particularly moving. The milieu for my writing has always been a mixing of what is happening in the local NYC writing scene, as well as in the other poetry communities linked to it, and so-called world literature. Kafka was another writer that hovered in my peripheral vision, or closer -- always will. 


From page 35 in Values Chauffeur You: "I didn't want a disengagement to remember a stupid self-denial mixed with the desire to remember." I really did want to tell a story (a "pastoral" Bill Fuller called it) of some pathos and humor.



PFD:  Well, as you might expect, I think you succeeded.  In fact, that particular kind of “transparency” you refer to (Silliman, Reich) is, I think, a hallmark of your work.  I always come away from reading your work rejuvenated, feeling included (viz. reading) and inclusive (viz. writing).  Part of why we’re involved in this very dialogue!


Why don’t we talk about a, to me, very different work of yours, Elephant Surveillance to Thought.  Here, social fictions and memory come into play in a way that, if we were to follow out Benjamin’s thoughts on Baudelaire as an analogue, shake some lyric foundations in seemingly any milieu – “postmodern” or not.  I guess I’m suggesting that your proposal (would you discuss it / its development through the piece?) is that the obliteration of the (false) narrative of commodified desire might extrapolate the process of memory coming into being, instead of the other way around.  One might guess you’d been reading Hegel[?]. 



AL:  I offered some thoughts on Elephant Surveillance To Thought in my dialogue with Jackson Mac Low at the Kelly Writers House a few years back. My idea in writing this sequence of 9 poems was to respond in critical, poetical and humorous fashion to the humorless aesthetic and political debate and discourse I was experiencing for the first time in depth on the www, having gained access via my adjunct teaching position at NYU. About 1994-95, Bob Harrison was sending me hardcopy & email of an amazing array of wild, weird, and ideologically conservative materials he was gleaning while surfing the web. For instance, a document from the RAND Corporation on World War III, referred to again and again in the document as "cyberwar." This document purported to inform the U.S. governmental intelligence community on the dangers lurking just over the horizon due to the increase in public access to Internet technology. I found the logic and argument of this document hilariously paranoid. Dr. Strangelove could have penned it. At the same time I was reading materials from environmental sites, followed poetics list discussions as time allowed, and various other things. I was awestruck at the plethora of materials online and the time that certain individuals invested in their online lives. I also felt some shock at how much of what passed for interested discussion of "serious" topics had become limited and banal. It appeared to be a place with no memory. Ideas and topics within more-or-less defined communities were being regurgitated daily -- in some instances ideas and concerns for which an entire literature of thoughtful analysis had been discussed in pre-email fora. It was strange -- a technological space of memory (the internet) that relied, I thought, on memory apart from a reliance on the "recording" of memory and thought one might associate with the paper world. Yet, the electronic world, with exceptions of course, seemed disinterested in that difference, or perhaps unaware of it. It presented a joyous embrace or excuse for (depending on one's viewpoint) narcissism. So many people "expressing" themselves. 

The excitement fueling the initial momentum of Internet talk was the newness of the medium itself. It may have been that some of the ideas being exchanged were "old news," so to speak, but everything felt different and new. At a quick glance it looked like democracy, but voices from differing perspectives and different groups weren't listening to one another. I think the tendency toward social cliques has been transforming itself on the Internet, but early in the history of listservs one could see the same reestablishment of centric opinions and empowerment of opinion makers. As I write in the title poem, "This is unsuccessful transmission," in which the grammar and literacy of logical and ethical thought and practice are damned. You hit it the nail on the head with the phrase "social fictions."

Something that really irked me were the claims made by first world elites for the democratizing power of this new technology -- the irony being that such arguments were being matched point by point by the militaristic philosophizing of the RAND group, and culturally by such organizations as the Heritage Foundation. So yes, I like your description of my Elephant sequence, "social fictions and memory come into play in a way that shake lyric foundations - postmodern or not." I wanted to criticize neo-liberalism, the momentum toward globalization by the economic and military powers, and the miscomprehensions of postmodernism--sociology run amok. I could do this, I thought, by spinning the RAND syntax on its ear, using burlesque humor to shine a light on the surveillance masquerading as thought.

"obliteration"? I think the Elephant poems implode the reasoning of the RAND author, for example, via a comic exploitation, or subversion of his own logic. Here's the end of "#4 The Organ of the Elephant":


One more traditional conversion in this electronic

fabric and the discussion of their political visions

and ideas into familiar boxes cedes more and

more ground used to consolidate totalitarianism

and abuse the concept of "civil society."


This seems reasonable, and it isn't that funny in itself. But when read in context, following the lines that precede it, it's hilarious & frightening. The poems build off one another--listening back n forth (the art of listening between poems is what might connect the Elephant book to my other published work). The prose appears to put forth a narrative argument, but the argument(s) keep colliding with one another, short-circuiting, doing funny turns -- one moment sarcasm, the next sincere. I also think there is some rather pointed and thoughtful criticism placed in among the ruins. And, dream imagery. For example, the houses built around and sharing the same water that ends the title poem--moments of a more personal form of epiphany. The title, "Elephant Surveillance To Thought," was a dream-line I woke with one morning. I didn't know what it meant. That line got the whole thing started. I think the 9th poem ends the sequence in lament, redeeming lyric as something other than the narrative of commodified desire --


"The words themselves are light. I can't remember when they decay. / Animals melted in their lifestyles."


The practice of surveillance "duplicates no world worth the ambiguity of Being."



PFD:  Several things come to mind here, I’ll just sort of list and partially discuss them, see what turns you on.

In the last third of Pundits Scribes Pupils, a phrase, hit upon by some glad providence, keeps coming up:  “harddrive does not equal compulsive ideation” – I made this set of poems by taking hunks of text, primarily from journals, and sending them through various incompatible operating systems and word-processing programs.  Then, I edited the output, but in most cases minamally, in order to accentuate certain cadences, etc.  In this way, that phrase, which I think speaks to many of the issues raised in Elephant .., came to life.  I also find possible thematic – if not so much processual – links between the notion of “gathering” in time in the poems comprising Sorter and Paper Head Last Lyrics.  That is, the listening between.

Thinking of it as a “listening” one sees the difference Stein marked between repitition (which isolates memory, synchronic) and insistence, time-sense.  Stein’s work is wonderfully situated as among the timed-arts, so-called, while taking the Russian Formalist Yuri Tynianov’s notion of “remote rhyme” (The Problem of Verse Language, have you read this book?) to a dizzying extreme.  (But let’s not begin a dissertation on Stein & Formalism …!) 

Maybe this is the place to mention your series of collaborations with Gerry Hemingway, CURVE – i.e., the timed-arts.  Is time the mediating factor here between composition and improvisation, insofar as memory were the sense of time?

I can’t help but think of Mac Low’s 20’s and Forties – in the sense of “gathering” language from a liminal state, of sorts – and, I hope, without overdoing the mysterious sound of such a process, how has someone like Mac Low, or Stein for that matter, been influential for you?  I guess this is the question about your influences.  Inevitable, perhaps.

Again, I think the imaginary differences between one’s life and one’s writing can largely be answered by guiding process through influence and vice versa, recognizing some common layer.

Lastly, I only know the working title of your forthcoming book:  Beauty.  Judging from that, I might expect an extension of the same concerns, listening between poems / states / States, as those found in Paper Head Last Lyrics?



AL:  I think those things and people I'd count as influences on my writing keep changing. When I was first introduced to poetry, really, that it was an artform of some significance, when I was about twenty, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Stein, and Williams, and soon thereafter Jackson Mac Low, Jack Spicer, Bernadette Mayer and other younger contemporary writers. I've read (and taught) each of these poets many times since, and particularly love Spring and All, and The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. With Paper Head Last Lyrics I was directly influenced by the experimental novelist David Markson, and innumerable other writers and artists. Somewhere three-quarters of the way into the writing of the manuscript I took great enjoyment and inspiration reading William James' lectures at Oxford in 1908 and 1909 republished in 1996 in a collection from University of Nebraska titled A Pluralistic Universe. I'd also count Jalal al-Din Rumi and Rilke as writers that I've held very close, Hannah Weiner, and the others I've mentioned earlier in our conversation. But the artists who I feel have marked and informed my poetry most deeply, especially in regard to the "timed-arts" are Elvin Jones, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Paul Motian, Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul, and my friendship and collaborations with Gerry Hemingway.

The first thing these musicians teach is how to listen to great complexity. If you can hear it then you can begin to participate in it in a way that other players will be able to respond to. Each of the musicians I've mentioned feels time in distinctly different ways. I remember a recording of Paul Bley with Ornette and I think it was Ed Blackwell on drums from the fifties in which Bley, during a solo, abstracted the time signature(s) & melodic structure to such an extent that one of the greatest drummers in the world dropped out until Bley several minutes later reintroduced the melody straight up. That's something rare, something one hears in Sonny Rollins and that Braxton in his solo concerts from the late seventies and in the early eighties -- well, listening to Braxton then was unbelievable. The exactness of his conception and execution was so profound one could visualize the composition's structure in the concert hall as he'd mathematically dissemble it, the architecture of the space included, permutate the various components, reassemble them into new shapes and without once losing his place, as there was no place to lose, reintegrate the new fragments in a return to the original "tune" from a corner of the room one hadn't previously imagined existed all the while having mesmerized a couple hundred people or more.

But under everything is Elvin Jones. I had a poster of Elvin on the wall behind my trapset throughout undergraduate school. When I was about nineteen I was fortunate enough to see him play at the Village Vanguard. I felt that at any minute Coltrane would walk around the corner of the bar and join in. The thing I loved about Elvin's playing, in addition to his sound and strength, was that I couldn't figure it out -- I could chart it intellectually, but I couldn't replicate the virtuosity with which he could play and imply multiple rhythms and meters simultaneously. My hands and feet had not yet evolved to that level of independence. Listen to Elvin's drums on A Love Supreme, or any of the other LPs of Coltrane's great quartet in which he's paired with Jimmy Garrison on bass. I've always wanted to know something about how the human body can do what his does in this music. When I wrote in Curve, "ought to swing my arms / more my whole body," Jones was in my thoughts.

What drummers Jones and Hemingway have taught me as writer, what I've attempted to translate from music to poetry, is how to listen to and balance or imbalance four, five, six or more things in the air at the same time. This know how, for instance, allowed me to weave the several narrative threads, often mere suggestions, various thematic circulation, echoes or memories that hold together a poem the length of "Paper Head Last Lyrics," and that one can see and hear within and between the works collected in Curve and Curve 2. I don't remember reading Yuri Tynianov's book, but the notion of "remote rhyme" sounds very suggestive if it's "rhyme" understood as a structural element that evolves across the length of something perhaps incorporating yet distinct from traditional rhyme schemes; an element that allows that something to extend itself, as in my description of Braxton's solo concerts, in the making of time. Gerhard Richter performs something complementary to that in the plastic arts.

In the recordings of Thelonious Monk you can hear the players listening to one another. Monk and Paul Bley, for example, are exceptionally clear about this in the degree of silence that completes their compositions. There's an active listening, waiting, a gathering in time. There is a whole world yet to be discovered, not of unsolved issues but of relationships among things we know, of ways in which they might fit together. 'Intellectuals’, by contrast, appear to be comfortably intent on a logic that has little interest in diverse logical paths. And this attitude seems to tally with a partial sense of logos understood precisely as a capacity for ordering and explaining, detached from any propensity to receive and listen. The countless voices in our culture always propounding wise and rational arguments, arouse in us a desire to appear equally rational, and therefore to give assent by competing in the same style. 'Rigor' and, conversely, misunderstanding are deeply rooted in the exclusion of listening, in a trend which brooks no argument, where everyone obeys without too much fuss. What the various artists whose work I find influential show is a notion of integration linked to a general idea of coexistence (not fueled by the compulsion to analyze, explore, exhaust, probe) which is more ecological than logical in that it requires 'belonging' to our logos; it is concerned with domestic issues because there are no more foreign affairs. The problem of 'distance' is that it defeats 'togetherness.' Listening aims at a possible conjugation of standpoints, a coexistential language that safeguards both proximity and distance. Perhaps it's the difference between aiming for success and aspiring towards progress.

There's also the 'influence' of the context of that which one listens to -- be it a phrase that catches one's ear on television, to comments passed between elderly women on a stoop in Brooklyn, to one's own dreams and inner voices. The voices of one's parents, the voices of one's children. Of the person you love. It's not necessary to listen to the "stars." Today, there may be some urgency in the value of listening more carefully to "lesser" voices. The mediating factor between composition and improvisation is one's attitude of attending to those who speak. Revelations depend upon the exercise of listening to oneself and to others and imply a basic trust - almost a hope. It's in that hopeful exercise of listening that beauty can be experienced. Beauty is emphatic, is an experience of empathy. That's something I became aware of this last year in working on my forthcoming book: Still Mind is One Pepper. I haven't been sure what the title of the work is, and it might change. However, "Still Mind is One Pepper" is a line that woke me up one morning after I'd completed the first draft of the manuscript and it's pushing aside other ideas. The working title was originally "Triviality of Beauty," but early on I began to doubt the complication it set up. The problem was that I had come to the table with an "idea" in my head about beauty and that prevented things from happening, therefore I wasted a lot of paper. The revelation was that "beauty" in all its potential guises and definitions is the least trivial thing in the world. Everyone wants what's beautiful and that's why--in a narcissistic culture like our own--it's so hard to share. My sense of beauty is the capacity for heeding and corresponding with something - be it a thing, or a person. When one experiences that, the experience is not of one's own making. It takes its time. When one stops listening or discovers that one doesn't know how to listen the experience ceases, it no longer 'exists'. I had that high and low many times in my life as a practicing musician. If you're a "professional" you can fake it, but no one wants to do that for very long.


PFD:  Monk was my great lesson early on - encouraged me never to "fake it."


It seems as though the "ecological," the listening & response-ability you find inherent to beauty resonate with Cage's motivations for "getting out of the way."


Two things I'm consistently grappling with come to mind here, however.  First, another kind of "silence," which is willed, so that no matter one's will to listen there may be only a strategic silence.  For instance, silence as a form of activism.  Whether the "silent victims" of our "narcissistic culture" will their own silence or it is the symptom of an imposed, elite will, or whether we do not hear the significance within / of that "silence" -- This was Cage's revelation:  there is no silence, really.  Secondly, how is such listening cultivated?  It seems to me that many people simply lose their ears & their voices in rumination, believing there's nothing necessarily vital to hear or say.


In her new book, Everybody's Autonomy, Juliana Spahr contests some familiar arguments:  that avant-garde works requiring a participatory readership (could be extended to Braxton etc) are apolitical for their indeterminate rhetorical qualities, & / or they are politically elitist for their presuming equivocal participation.  But it sounds to me as though you're more concerned with textual conditions than the effects following from them.  Or, more accurately perhaps, listening has at least as much to do with composition (for you) as it does for appreciation of the works composed?




AL:  Between the time of your last reply on September 5th and today, October 11th, everything in our lives has changed. We're back in our apartment accompanied by a big HEPA air cleaner. The ruins are still burning and flaring up, and the air is really bad. I've been very concerned about it, especially for Gita. You can see the mound of what was building #7 at the end of our street (Greenwich), and police and National Guard are still in our neighborhood. In fact, there's a police barricade at our corner of North Moore and Greenwich where all vehicles, trucks especially, are checked before being allowed to pass to the west side highway where clean up crews and equipment are stationed. The major barricade is at Chambers Street. Everyone downtown is traumatized--some do a better job of disguising it than others, but one can tell—people are quieter than before. Watching the 2nd tower collapse from our kitchen window and seeing the rolling cloud of dust and debris heading in our direction was frightening, and surreal. Following the attacks on the WTC, when I finally got down in the street later that day, everyone was silent. People had spilled out of their apartments so that the sidewalk was more crowded than it ever is normally, even on a beautiful weekend. The quiet was nearly complete, eerie. Those talking were whispering. My home phone service was just restored this Monday. Sally, due both to her pregnancy and the empathy she’s felt for the victims of the terrorist attacks has suffered extreme anxiety, fright and utter exhaustion. I've cut everything out of my life except work and being home with her and Gita.


It would be comforting to think that nobody would any longer fake anything.


Getting back to your point on the ecological, the listening and response-ability resonating with Cage’s “getting out of the way,” I’d want to practice that and getting in the way when the moment calls for it. I’d like poetry to possess the strength to topple mountains within a world that would never require it. Sometimes it’s good to be quiet, sometimes to speak. Sometimes a pacifist must use his or her fist to survive and to protect those rights and liberties and people one holds dear. I agree that there can be “strategic silence,” sometimes the most scathing form of criticism is delivered in this way. Silence as a tool of dissent and activism is addressed in Agamben’s The Coming Community. In brief, what does power do with a community or group that forgoes or resists giving itself a name, an identifying label, with articulating easily reducible rhetoric that would play into the hands of those who would wish to domesticate and suppress it. That kind of silence, Agamben argues, is more of a threat to power than the throwing of stones. I’d agree with Cage’s perception that there really is no silence (especially true in NYC). Whether one’s silence is self-willed or imposed from without, or whether there’s an available audience to hear it… I would imagine in many instances that it’s all of these conditions operating in concert, so to speak. That’s why the work of listening is not easy. It’s the death of apathy. Even in our dialogue about poetry, my poetry, or your poetry, we skip things; we don’t hear exactly what the other person had in mind. I’ve felt myself reiterating, I hope not too redundantly some of the things you’ve said to better feel what you’re thinking, knowing that I can’t in actuality fathom it in its entirety. And this is what I find so rewarding and creative about the endeavor – the changeability of thought in its translation from one mind to another’s. I think that is the truest diversity one can celebrate.


How one might cultivate such listening? I’d think don’t discriminate in a punitive way against works in different styles than your own. I like living in a noisy and contentious democracy. It’s probably as valuable or even more so to listen carefully to those authors whose work differs stylistically as to that which bears more explicit resemblances to one’s immediate community of peers. To be intolerant and incapable of appreciating ways and means dissimilar to one’s own is a definite limitation. Politicians demonstrate an intellectual and moral hypocrisy again and again in their investments in fixed ideological formula. Remember to reject a formulaic poetics. For myself, listening to my 21 month old daughter speak is an extraordinary experience. Being quiet is an important exercise. Being able to write from the place of not being a writer is vital to my life, and to my growth as an artist.


I haven’t seen Juliana’s book so I can’t make comment on it. I do like its Steinesque title. It sounds from your summarization that she’s covering ground perhaps similar to Barbara Johnson’s defense of Derrida from the late 80’s. Is there any correlation there? I don’t see “conditions” and “effects” as more than categorizations used for purposes of analysis. In one’s experiencing of conditions and the effects that may follow I’ve found there to be an extremely thin and permeable boundary. Which direction does one move in? To make an absolute distinction would be to essentialize time as uni-directional, linear. Progressive. You and I live in a country with a government that can fund its dissenters. From what side of the fence does that kind of self-assurance issue? To your last question, I’ll answer yes. Composition and appreciation of the work hand in hand.


This makes me think of the design of the work in your manuscript, Sorter. In part, it appears to be a set of engagements with other writers, perhaps both their person and their writing. And an argument, or a thinking through of the rubrics of composition and their possible “pathexis,” that interrogation of significance in its interrelatedness with techne. Do I have some part of it right? Do you see any connections between us here?



PFD:  It’s taken me longer than others – even a few Manhattan residents – to negotiate some sort of working routine in terms of my reading, writing, thinking – some I know have experienced little “crisis of faith” as I’ve been characterizing it.  The shifting in the reiterating, relating our dialogue here with the subject of “response-ability” under discussion, also relates to the change since the 11th as I’ve experienced it.  I spent the 11th and 12th, in part, trying to track you down & be sure you and family were safe!  The implication of that diversity in conversation is that reiteration never becomes a proper repetition.  Seeing the second tower fall “live” on television (the analogy, as Barbara Cole and Thom Donavan, two Buffalo poets, suggest is pornography) that day, in part, immobilized me for well over a week.  As I was saying recently to my friend, poet Jen Hofer, it seems “the world” is “the media” that calls it “the world.”  Pete and repeat sitting on a fence.


Thank you for forwarding Todd Gitlin’s article, “The ordinariness of American feelings”, which is very useful for me.  What he calls “whataboutism” is much like the historicism Nietzsche analyzed in his Germany (not a popular or particularly non-rhetorical analogy, I suppose).  And it is so obviously a trap for those even capable of devising, recognizing, and articulating a complex alternative to today’s ugliest realities.  Gitlin articulates well my own conviction that the most obscene indignity of the aftermath (my particular version of “our” aftermath) is the banner notion that “this is an attack on freedom” / or “civilization” & not an attack on policy!  By the same token – human beings are being attacked, the very integrity of their bodies.  Deleuze would call it a “pure event” no doubt, a dynamic that could not be fully “intended” or, more obviously, attended.  Stereotypes foster substitutes for the intention and attention these “events” seem to require.  But, obviously, events do not require us in that way.  Hence, this has been brought upon your life and the life of your family, etc.  Of course, who can fathom it?

Gitlin’s article put me in mind of something from Lyn Hejinian’s new essay “Continuing Against Closure” (Jacket #14) –

Reality precedes us.  It was here before we were and it will be here after we are gone.

Although reality, by and large, doesn’t reciprocate our interest in it, our interest in it is very great – it being, after all, all that we have.

But, like you, I do and don’t want to get out of the way.  I want others and other forces – reality “has” force, I believe – in my way.  As you say, the moment calls for it & so many are asking (too few, perhaps) ‘what is to be done?’  We fisting pacifists share, I think, Cage’s motivations, but that doesn’t mean it should result in a fixed practice as it seems (superficially, of course) to have for Cage or others.  And so, I think you yourself have hit upon a connection between us viz. the Sorter chapbook, for one.  Discussion with others and their works in Sorter is a reliance, as compositional method, on these things being “in my way” – Writing-to is an implicit “writing-through.”  The “lyric passage” of each poem & between poems was a problem posed to the lyric – “recollected” in concert instead of “tranquility” (viz. Wordsworth and the lyric predicament).  The material conditions of its publication, the “free” pdf chapbook format, suggested the already implicit thematic basis of “sorting” and multiple sorters (the things becoming sorted) – and connects to the ways in which so many of us have used the internet to get and keep in touch with the best and worst thinking / living of the aftermath in question.  I’m well aware it’s less a “question” for many than it can be for most, still.  But cyber-space has also long been a locale for conducting “non-symmetrical warfare” as Cheney called it the other night.

It’s funny – I’ve been reading Darwin, caring for a diseased cat, and missing my days as a youth worker (social worker) all month.  But holding out for or seeking symmetry there at the same time.  Also going to concerts with greater enthusiasm, particularly in Toronto, a day trip for me.  Symmetry is not the “same” as repetition – except for the pundits of this “new chapter in history” in which history has disappeared.

Cage recognized a biological role for “noise” which motivated his “silence.”  Part of the terror of biological warfare is not its inhumanizing implications but its dehumanizing implications.  Listening, conversing, techne can all become or are becoming essential (providential?) translations.  Nothing residual is forgotten, except perhaps to “history.”

But I think that time is uni-directional (irreversible) in the sense of its becoming at every turn – the boundaries between cause and effect so permeable, as you point out, as to preclude any stable (unprejudicial) notion of “every turn”.  Something manufactures the turn, and not so as to benefit some articulation of time per se, since the turn’s basis cannot be articulated.  You ask, “You and I live in a country with a government that can fund its dissenters.  From what side of the fence does that kind of self-assurance issue?”  As a federally-funded dissenter, I would offer this provisional answer:  Pete and repeat sitting on a fence.

I must say that I’m not familiar enough with Johnson’s defense of Derrida, and since some “routines” have been jettisoned after 9-11, wouldn’t want to suggest a connection Spahr doesn’t herself make in the book.  I will say, though, that such a connection seems to me likely if the Johnson-Derrida nexus complexifies the idea of agency & authority as writing is, sometimes insufferably (ir-responsibly) recontextualized as “we” read.  But you’ve extracted that already:  composition is a mode of appreciation regardless of generic properties.  The Hejinian quote above touches on this in a fundamental way for me.  Reality proposes difference but is itself quite indifferent.

That said, yes, I do see some connections between you and I – your description of the Sorter work seems apt.  What becomes vast – in its finitude, surely – about “Paper Head Last Lyrics” for me is what became short, sharp (I suppose) shocks (and bad jokes, I love bad jokes) in Sorter.  In exactly that negotiation between pathetic significance and techne.  Although, the provision for things that “Sorting just happens – don’t dignify it” / doesn’t mean that sorting is itself inscrutable.  Hence, each is some sort of sorter.  In the sense of describing (even if sometimes through elision) that in-between / idea-place / negotiating space, “Paper Head..” is somewhat more complete.  That is, as I think of it as an assemblage – which is a more holistic notion linked to function than, as I’ve said elsewhere of the poem, collage would have been.

One area in which we may not connect so much is in your incorporation of dream material.  I want to ask you about that – partly because I have an overly ambivalent relation to my own dream life (and so I’m curious), and partly because it is uncommon.  Uncommon in terms of dream material being less oracular than coincidental (sleep is not a “little death”).  Am I getting warm here?



AL:  I don’t remember saying that I thought time was “reversible,” but that time and one’s experiencing of its becoming may be a turn of such complexity as to be incomprehensible. And the something that manufactures the turn is again, I’d think, a plurality of elements. It may be experienced and understood in “isolate flecks,” to borrow a phrase from WCW, yet the multiplicity of elements may be impossible to ever completely isolate and identify (although certain bio-physicists and other theorists could argue that point). If there is some difference between the incomprehensible and that that “cannot be articulated,” it may be that space wherein one momentarily escapes socialization to discover just how mutable reality and one’s grasp of it is. To ask, what makes us human?


Yes, assemblage as holistic. Assemblage isn’t a collection of fragments – something closer to how I’d understand the function of collage. If one touches one part of an assemblage something else in it is going to vibrate, answer. I don’t know that collage works that way. Collage would seem to place emphasis on the pieces, assemblage on the construction of something incomplete (what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “an inescapable network of mutuality”).


The use of dream material, imagery, language, is something that runs throughout everything I’ve written and published. As I mentioned earlier, the title of the forthcoming book from Zasterle came to me in a dream (although I want to mention that I’ve abandoned it and returned to the title I’d written down some months earlier, Ashoka. In Sanskrit Ashoka means “the active absence of sorrow”).  Thinking of dreams puts me in mind of that part of our conversation regarding participation, that is, writing/reading as a participatory art.  I think I like the idea of reciprocity better. The subject while dreaming is sometimes while in the dream aware of herself in a reciprocal relationship with her waking life, i.e., is both subject and object.  It’s at these moments that I’ve been able to hear and hold on to something, a message that can make the passage back to wakefulness. That transversal or translation isn’t always successfully navigated. The reciprocation that occurs for the subject between the domains of waking and sleeping is sometimes one of separation and division, or doubling, as the subject is “somewhere” within that flux. Or to put it another way, I can’t always hold on to or easily identify my sense of self. To be a participant, on the other hand, would make things somewhat easier. The distinction I want to make is that to participate generally means that one is invited or given permission to participate without being able to assume thereby that one’s contribution is going to be equal to or as welcome as another’s. In most circumstances, one is invited due to the perception by others of a certain position or set of values that one “represents.” Reciprocity, in the sense in which I’m using it here, resonates differently; it’s both a psychological and sociological process.


I think that one of the dominant themes in the poetry I’ve written is the question of identity. What are its constituent parts, how is it assembled into a whole? Having an active dream life I’ve felt to be very useful in both experiencing and analyzing the various affiliations through which a sense of identity is composed.  And I’d like to imagine that whether in my writing or elsewhere I’m invested in the work of enabling all the different affiliations of which my self is made to be in dialogue with one another and on equal footing (most likely not possible at any one time, but that’s the ambition). Or, to give a simpler and more concrete example of how dream language enters the process of writing I’d connect it to our discussion about listening. Sometimes letting oneself go, drifting, listening to the words circulating around your thoughts without being eager to grasp them – that can be similar to entering a dream state. I have a definite memory of working on the sequence “Reading Places, Reading Times,” in Values Chauffeur You, where I was lying alongside a pool attempting to put into words what I saw happening on the water’s surface. I must have written a dozen or more attempts to grasp the way the wind played across the surface of the pool, but none of the lines were palpable enough. A little later that afternoon I lay down on the living room floor of my friend’s house and fell asleep. Perhaps a half an hour later I awoke with a start as the perfect lines had come to me in dreaming. Funny huh? Dreaming as a problem-solving tool.


I disagree with Lyn just a little as I’m beginning to think that reality does reciprocate one’s interest in it.


I don’t want to award dreams a special status when it comes to writing; it’s just that I’ve found that part of life to be informative, pleasurable and useful for me.



PFD:  Because dreamlife is no less than real while no more than real?  Hence a model or even example of reciprocity?



AL:  I wouldn’t think dreamlife to be a model or example. It’s a story in your head while you’re dreaming and your attention to it. Unless, that is, one can live and not experience dreaming. The more diverse the stimuli or affiliations (those constituent parts of one’s identity; ethnicity, religion, nationality, class, language, education, being a parent and many more things) the more complexity I’d think one experiences in one’s life. I don’t want to be misunderstood – an interest in and use of dream is one way I’ve found helpful in being active socially and politically, as in the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of it in his famous “I have a dream” speech. King argues for the freedoms of individuals as against the “tribal” concept of identity; something everyone needs to guard against according to Amin Maalouf in his inspirational book In the Name of Identity—Violence and the Need to Belong. Life is a dream, and I believe that a dream is something a person can shape for good or bad.  Maalouf also reminds us that texts don’t change; “what changes is the way we look at it. But the text affects reality only through the medium of our view of it, and in every era the eye dwells on certain phrases and skims over others without taking them in.” This idea fits with the way I’d think of dreams, the difference being that the dream does change as soon as one awakes and attempts to speak of it.


I like the way the Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievitch writing in Autodafe #2 – Autumn 2001 speaks of reality as “constantly slipping away, and you agonize over how to get closer to it, reach it even.” If one thinks of dreams as being a dimension of recollection one’s building materials, as Alexievitch suggests, “are the details, the implications, the nuances. The small change. The social and existential, side by side. Something big gets constructed out of many small things. Bricks.” Another thing going for dreams is that they are your own text; they are not in someone else’s voice. Alexievitch writes that the tendency to deny one’s own text, to make it less immediate seems more often the not the province of “People of culture, intellectuals… You sit and listen to secondary texts-with their echo of newspapers, contemporary books, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Usually only ordinary people tell their own texts.”