Joan Retallack interviewed by Redell Olsen
Cafe Flo, Islington, London, Sunday May 16, 1999 12pm.


RO: In the introduction to your interviews with John Cage you say that there came a time in your life when you no longer wanted literature to be a fictive time machine that would whisk you away. I wonder if you could say something about that change in your attitude to reading?

JR: That comment actually had a couple of sources, the major one being the use to which I put literature as a child and teenager. I read fiction heavily as escape, to have some rest from the pressures of the world but I also thought I was learning a lot about the world from it. I started in my mid-twenties to discover that I wasn’t learning much at all about how to live from novels, that I was instead learning a lot about characters locked in a very closed system. I realized that what I was experiencing was one person’s mind, the mind of the author. So at some point—I didn’t frame it this way early on—I really began to see that kind of work as having to do with a vanishing point perspective, that everything was moving toward the last punctum where the conflict—the conflict that had been artificially imported in the first place—would be resolved, would disappear. It seemed to me that all this existed outside of real time in some consequential way.

RO: Can you explain a little more what you mean by being outside real time?

JR: I realize the notion of real time can be problematic. Real time as opposed what other sort of time? But actually we do construct very different kinds of experiences of time in literature and one is that alternative time where there can’t be interruptions, there can’t be certain kinds of disjunctions.

RO: So finding Cage’s work offered a way in which you could allow disjunction and at the same time intersect practice with life?

JR: Well really meeting Cage, after having experienced his work with Merce Cunningham as a startling reorientation of the way I was experiencing space-time, quite literally gave me a sense of there not being a need to have certain privileged beginnings leading to a very specific and precious kind of development. Instead, one as a person living one’s life as artist could simply exist at whatever intersection in space-time one found oneself and explore that and bring that into the work. The necessity, the formal necessity, was doing the work in such a way that it was open to the traffic in the intersection, [sound of sirens from outside] that it didn’t close down and section it off: “NO TRAFFIC HERE, PRIVATE PARTY GOING ON” [more sirens outside].

RO: And were you writing your own work at the time you were making these decisions?

JR: I was. I was writing, I was also doing visual art, also studying philosophy, I was doing a number of things, I can’t say simultaneously, but interweaving these things. Actually that’s inaccurate because they weren’t interwoven. That suggests some kind of planned connectedness. There wasn’t at first. I really thought of myself as needing to do visual things—finding time to do that, needing to do philosophical things—finding time to do that, needing to do writing/reading of literature. Eventually, the distinctions between these genres began to collapse. I began to see, read, write in relation to philosophy as literature and text as visual, graphic space.

RO: I noticed that in your conversations with Cage he uses the verb to “make” rather than to “write” and I was wondering how important that distinction is to you?

JR: Well it’s not of such urgency that I’ve cleansed my vocabulary of any other way of talking about it but I think that “to make” is at the heart of it, yes. Poetics is at the heart of the action of writing, thinking, in one way or another. Configuring things in the world as a continual invention of the forms of an ongoing dynamics. One lives this poetics in relation to other things going on in and around one. Nicely, “to make” is the root meaning of poesis, so I do think of myself always as involved with poetics, whatever I’m doing, whether it be visual, sound, or writing because of that meaning of poetics-making.

RO: I was thinking about terminology because I know that when I was speaking to you yesterday you picked up on my repeated use of the word “chance” as problematic. I just wondered if you could say a bit more about how you want to describe the process of making poetry?

JR: Well, to change the terminology, when thinking about procedures, methods, I tend to think first about sources and then about using and composing them with intersecting random elements. Chance is something that is happening all the time. It’s inflecting and perforating everything we do anyway. So I think any valuing of that foregrounds chance, makes it part of the qualitative dimension of one’s work. Now to actually play with chance, to try to make things happen by chance is a very different thing, one of many possibilities in making. I mean I think there are procedures that have more to do with constraint and game playing among limited possibilities—for instance Oulipean kinds of approaches—and there are procedures that are designed to open up the work to things outside its internal logics, to let more in.  I tend to think of those [latter] as having more to do with chance. To say that you are really allowing chance elements in you have to have very rigorous procedures that you follow very faithfully, not cheating. [laughter] Because what chance procedures do, or “chance operations” as Cage called them, more than procedures of constraint, is to move you outside predictable consequences of intentional structures. Procedures of constraint reflect your preferences for a kind of intentionality that knows what’s coming down the road, to a great extent what the logics, if not the specific textual events, will be. Chance operations really should change the logics, there will still be patterns but there should be less of a sense of what is just around the corner.

RO: And does that mean in a sense that its a very, I don’t know if the right word is political, but it’s very much process that is directly linked to the way in which you want to act in terms of the world, to change it?

JR: Yes, to get back to the time machine question I don’t want to seal myself off. I don’t want to get into the time machine and pretend that it’s not 1999 and that we don’t have unintelligibilities all around us that we can’t turn into the known. Whether this is a politics, I don’t know. That might be too grand a construct.

RO: You’ve said that you see the role of the artist as one of optimist in the face of society’s fragmentation and cultural you still think that?

JR: Well the optimism has to do with the ability, the capacity to go on in the face of all that tells you you won’t be able to do anything that helps, you won’t be able to do anything really new. I like the enterprise of optimism, of setting up ways to live so that you might just be pleasantly surprised. What that involves is more than politics, it’s an ethos, a way of living that values the situation we find ourselves in—not trying to transcend or abstract oneself from it, but to use it.

RO: And provide a critique of it?

JR: Well I suppose that is where the politics comes in because there are a series of value judgments involved that have to do with what is hindering or furthering the ability of people to live in vital and satisfying ways. For me that means being in touch with the actual world you’re living in, so that you can notice the really terrible things that are going on and try to do something about them. Noticing—not explaining things away—is itself a political act. One can also notice extraordinary things, delightful things that haven’t been labeled as such yet and are therefore ignored, invisible, silent.

RO: To go back to what we were talking about in the beginning the whole space-time question. I’m interested in it in relation to the white paintings by Mark Tobey and Robert Ryman that I know Cage was also interested in. When you were talking to Cage you talked about how “time can become space on a page” and how “silence is the white space.” And I just wondered if in a sense there are any equivalencies to be made between white paintings and silence and the gaps and the spaces in your work? Or, are these connections more to do with Cage himself?

JR: The white paintings are very important to me as well although I came to them through Cage. I saw Rauschenberg’s white paintings again maybe eight or nine years ago. There was a small show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. and I thought, well I already know this but I’m going to go and see it again anyway, and then I didn’t know them at all, they were completely different from what I had remembered.

RO: I was just wondering about the edges of words as they appear in your work, particularly in Afterrimages or in Errata 5uite. If what’s being drawn attention to is the whiteness behind the fragments of words either as a space of silence or...

JR: I think the silence is in the words as well. You can take Cage’s redefinition of silence to mean that it (silence) is what we’re not noticing at any given moment. So when I use unusual syntax or edges of words I do tend to think about this spatially as a mode of drawing attention to both syntactical and semantic silences. These disruptions foreground connections and associations between parts of words that you don’t normally notice. This kind of language play makes new intersections, new ways of finding meaning. One is turning with interest toward silence—the silence of unintelligibility—and finding surprising things there. That’s much more interesting to me than the analogue, white space equals silence.

RO: I was wondering about this space of “unintelligibility” in relation to Wittgenstein’s idea about poetry not being involved in a language game of “giving information.” Does this take poetry too far away into a separate sphere?

JR: The most recent thing that I’ve published is called Mongrelisme: a difficult manual for desperate times. It’s entirely couched as information. In fact the first and last pages are a wallpaper made of the word INFORMATION INFORMATION INFORMACION INFORMAZIONE. Just that word in multiple languages. So it’s not that information or the use of language to give information are excluded from my poetics, it’s that I feel we have to bring language into the dynamic exchange that is doing things other than giving information, in addition to giving information, in complex multiplication of information. But the whole question about what it means to give information at this point is a fascinating one. That’s a large part of what I’m exploring in that piece and there is a way in which I actually am trying to transmit information.

RO: How do you feel about Wittgenstein’s idea of language as a game?

JR: This is an enormously useful way of thinking about everything from genres to habits of everyday speech. Every language game makes certain things possible, has limits and consequences. We can always ask, what kind of language game is this? Where does the power lie? How does it configure the geometry of one’s attention? Needless to say I like language games whose principles of action open possibilities to both chance and intentionality within trajectories of thinking and questioning that can extend over time into projects. The intentional trajectory can describe the arc of the questioning in a way that creates a limit against which you can notice new results or new possibilities. But another language game may turn that trajectory into a circle that excludes anything surprising from coming in. The best intentions are those of letting chance enter in textually.

RO: And this “letting chance enter textually” might involve a kind of performance on the page? I was thinking about performance work by women artists in the 70s and wondering what your relationship to them was? Was the way in which many of them were exploring notions of process in relation to the body of interest to you?

JR: No. In the 70s I was interested in performance but it had much more to do with the visual presence of words, and voice. In the 60s I wrote a concrete novel that I thought of as performing on the page. In the 70s I wrote a series of what I thought of as utopian radio plays for voices. They were too removed from what was being done on the radio to be broadcast. During the Vietnam War I was part of a guerilla theatre group. I wrote politically satirical plays, but the tactics of guerilla theatre made me very uncomfortable-rather assaultive interventions on the street to make political points. I didn’t want to intrude on people’s physical space in that way and so I didn’t continue with that. The use of the body as blunt instrument has never interested me much.

RO: I see, so...

JR: I think the question you raised earlier, which perhaps you have politely let fade away, is a really important one. I mean if you care about a particular political, social, or ethical dimension then what does it mean to be doing work that exists in rather an exotic form that most people don’t have access to? I tend to think the primary reason they don’t find it accessible is the training they’ve received, the pedagogy, and that training for instance in how to read need not be so restrictive that it makes people fear anything they can’t immediately make sense of. This is how the unintelligible becomes the ground of political bashing—what is not immediately understandable is automatically classified as dangerously alien.

RO: To come back to this space of the “unintelligible” or what I think might be better termed the “illegible” seems to be really important in terms of a space that is opened up by your work but which is traditionally erased from discourse. It’s interesting that the tiny pieces of the words that get left behind after the process, in Afterrrimages for example, that can’t be made sense of, they’re half sounds, or half pieces of sense. These seem to occupy a really important space that is being re-inscribed back into literature or re-inscribed back into language that has usually been conveniently got rid off.

JR: “Conveniently,” I like that. But not what I would have expected, quite. “Conveniently”—what do you mean by that?

RO: That it is easier to have a text where you know what you’re going to get, you’re going to get a story, or a moment of illumination or a moment of epiphany before the end of the poem and you are going to know exactly where you are with it and that doesn’t leave room for a space of not knowing or a space of unintelligibility or illegibility that I think is present in your work.

JR: I’m interested in what you’re calling the space of unintelligibility. Again, because I think we are in contact with that space everyday of our lives. If we’re afraid of that space then we retract, we retreat and we are less able to follow our curiosity, to do the kinds of things that make us happy and spirited and engaged as human beings with one another and with complexity. I’m not pretending that if someone is able to come happily into the unintelligible spaces of my work that they are then going to go happily into the unintelligible spaces of the world. Though I do think that cultural processes and pedagogies that allay the fear of confronting unintelligibility in an aesthetic space can engender greater moral courage in general.

RO: You’ve also cited Helen Frankenthaler as being important to you, because she made you notice the edge of things and I wonder if you could say a little more about how this interest in edges gets translated into language?

JR: Yes, that did come first visually. When we talk about the edge in any way other than visual it’s a kind of metaphor. Edge, though, as a term, as a cultural analytic term, is for me and others becoming very problematic. If you think of yourself as operating at the edge then you’re positing a centre.

RO: It is interesting how these terms are ones which translate very much into a visual discussion of the page and I’m just wondering if you throw out the question of being interested in margins and in edges what that means in terms of the setting out of pages?

JR: Well, pages do have edges, pages do have margins, the world doesn’ working with the space on the page is of primary interest. I would hesitate, no, I actually feel it’s a mistake to think that in arranging things in relation to the transgressing of edges, margins, we do have an analogue to how we operate in the world. I think the interesting way in which you don’t have an analogue is that the surface of the space we’re really operating in is more like neural networks. Things are always coming from all directions. To identify the centre, the margin the edge, is to put on a restrictive overlay that has very specific consequences. But of course the fact is that overlays are put on and we’re told that we should operate within them.

RO: But isn’t there a sense in which these restrictive overlays could almost be a parallel to those constraints of process that you’re already imposing?

JR: Right, yes, well exactly. The question then is what sorts of restrictions, boundaries are productive? Which demonstrate their own incompleteness? Which trap you inside them so that any movement becomes entirely predictable, the rhythm the same at beginning and end.

RO: I’ve just been re-reading Kathleen Fraser’s essay, “Translating the Unspeakable” in which she traces a direct lineage from Olson to contemporary women poets such as Susan Howe, Myung Mi Kim and Hannah Weiner who are experimenting visually with the page. Do you see Olson as a direct influence or legitimating work in this way?

JR: Olson, like Mallarmé and Duncan, choreographed the whole space of the page and that’s interesting. But Olson did it as a projection of how large his identity, his voice, his territory was. His voice carried to the back wall of the auditorium, throughout the universe of Gloucester, all the way to the margins. His voice is always marking its epic territory. Looking through the Maximus poems I always enjoyed them visually but I didn’t enjoy them as much as text. The reasons I might use various parts of the page have nothing to do with “projective” poetics. The fact is that Olson was writing at a time when all sorts of things were breaking out of their old boundaries. This is not to minimize the Maximus [laughter] but I know other women poets were much more influenced by Olson than I was. I was not enthralled by the residue of the heroic genius in his voice. Cage’s poetic work was all over the page too in Silence and that to me was far more of an influence. “Lecture on Nothing” gave me more interesting permission than anything in Olson.

RO: I wonder then if you could outline how you posit yourself in relation to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers?

JR: Well, that’s a sort of tricky question because when I really began my most public practice as a poet I was doing it as part of a group including a number of people whom Silliman included in In The American Tree. Tina Darragh, Peter Inman, Lynne Dreyer, Diane Ward, and even Bruce Andrews—who occasionally came down from NYC to Washington D.C.—we all met regularly to read work in progress. So I was part of this group. There’s a whole genealogy of Language work that took place in the Washington D.C. area that isn’t very much known.

RO: Why do you think that is?

JR: Well, that’s partly because there wasn’t a Language poetry patriarch there. Think of it, the high-profile “language” sites—New York and the Bay area had male impresarios—Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews in NY; Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten in the Bay area. Ann Vickery is addressing the partiality of the history of “language” now and is including for the first time an account of the D.C. scene.  Ron Silliman asked me for work for In The American Tree, then turned it down. He wrote to say he disagreed with the aesthetic. As editor-arbiter he was making choices of the sort that were entirely his right to do. Ultimately, how one’s work is classified is not of one’s own choosing. It has to do with others’ perceptions of it.

RO: I was going to ask more about the essay “Taking Chances” which you preface with a quote from David Ruelle, which highlights chance as an alternative to the tradition of  “idealizing the world around us in physical theories” and I was wondering if you thought of your work as trying to break with this kind of idealization?

JR: We are living in a world in which things are happening all the time by chance. Chance has as much to do with any patterns that emerge as intention, if not more-historically, for instance. I think contemporary scientific models that foreground the dynamic relationship between order and disorder are much more interesting than the old idealizations that left chance entirely out of the mix.  One of the things that Ruelle says is that early on in the history of science if you got complexity in the results of an experiment you would assume you had made a mistake. The results had to be thrown out. You had to reconcile the experimental design so that nothing too unpredictable or complex came up. This meant that the way we experience the world in everyday life—full of turbulent, unpredictable weather and human behavior-was considered too messy to bother with.

RO: I want to go back to the use of the process in relation to the subject in your work. The space of the “I” of subjectivity seems to be a real site of struggle in your work because of this cross over between the more impersonal “procedures” in the poems and the personal intuitive work that is done alongside these processes. I was wondering if the throwing out of terms like “genius,” “inspiration” was important to you as a woman artist or if it just happened to coincide with a parallel but quite different formal agenda?

JR: That’s an astute observation because I think, yes, being a woman it was very hard not to notice that all the geniuses happened to be men, or a few women with a “man’s mind.” The construction of the notion of genius is a masculine construction. It’s one of large-scale power and authority associated with a particular kind of charisma—a visceral connection between you and those smaller-scale beings drawn towards you to find meaning and direction. It’s an eruptive notion as well, dare I say ejaculatory? [laughter] Spillover of the uncontainable from the inside out...

RO: And how does the subject in your work differ?

JR: I don’t experience the “I” in that way. I don’t experience my energy in that way. I experience my energy as exchange, like the exchange we are having right now in conversation. There’s just nothing I imagine I’d gain by focusing on a kind of contained “I”-ness in which I primarily look inward to draw energy. I think the writing process is a process of breathing/reading in the air--the cultural air. It’s not that I consider a lack of “I”-focus impersonal, it’s very personal in the sense of being charged with what one cares about, what’s most vitally at stake. So I think everything I do can be identified with highly charged values of culture and community and conversation which are much more important to me than some other way of outlining an “I”-space, say autobiographically. It’s not that autobiographical things don’t enter, they of course do. But I find that deriving the direction of one’s work from a monological ‘I’ drains energy. Given all the rich alternatives, it seems a truly bizarre—actually self-depriving—choice. I know it’s done all the time. I don’t know how people manage it.

RO: (flicking through book....) And the use in your source bibliography of the enigmatic Genre Tallique would seem to confirm this?!!!

JR: Yes, actually she’s one of my...I really love her work. (laughter) I don’t always agree with it...(laughter).


Works Cited

Cage, John. MUSICAGE. Ed. Joan Retallack.  Hanover and London: UP of New England, 1996.

Fraser, Kathleen. “Translating the Unspeakable: Visual Poetics, as Projected through Olson’s ‘Field’ into Current Female Writing Practice.” Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, Ed. Mary Margaret Sloan. New Jersey: Talisman House, 1998. 642 - 654.

Retallack, Joan. Afterrimages. New England and Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1995.

­­­_____. Errata 5uite. Washington DC: Edge, 1993.

_____. How to Do Things With Words. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Classics, 1998.

_____. Mongrelisme : a difficult manual for desperate times. Providence, R.I.: Paradigm Press, 1999.

_____.“Secnahc Gnikat : Taking Chances,” Moving Borders : Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women. Ed. Mary Margaret Sloan. New Jersey: Talisman House, 1998. 708-714.

Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Poetry. Middletown and London: Wesleyan UP, 2000.


Redell Olsen was born in 1971. She studied English at Cambridge and has since completed an MA in Fine Art. She has worked in video, performance and installation and is currently researching for a Ph.D. at the University of London on crossovers between the visual arts and poetry. She runs the imprint Allsingingalldancing and lives in London. Publications: Book of the Fur (rempress, 2000), Book of the Insect (allsingingalldancing, 1999).

Joan Retallack’s most recent books are MONGRELISME (Paradigm Press, 1999) and How To Do Things With Words (Sun & Moon, 1998). She is also the author of AFTERRIMAGES and Eratta 5uiteMUSICAGE, her book on and with John Cage was recently reissued in paperback by Wesleyan University Press.  Retallack’s book of essays, The Poethical Wager, is forthcoming from the University of California Press. An essay on Gertrude Stein, “Readers & Writers, Partners in Crime,” is featured in the In-Conference section of this issue.  Retallack is John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Humanities at Bard College.

back to readings

go to this issue's table of contents