“We’re always at war”:
In 1997 I visited San Francisco to meet and interview several of the women writers associated with the language writing scene and to work in the Poetry Archives at SFSU. One of the women I talked to in a series of interviews was Leslie Scalapino. We did our first interview in a café in San Francisco but we had inadvertently planned our meeting at the same time as a street parade. As I remember, there was nothing less than a brass band playing. We fled from café to café trying to find a quiet(er) place but the parade seemed to pursue us. We nonetheless persisted, shouting questions and answers to each other, across cups of coffee and a tape recorder.
This interview was not long after the gulf war, and both of us were deeply troubled by these events and concerned about how the privatised enterprise of writing might engage with the very public crisis of new forms of imperialist global warfare and mediatisation, and the reinvigoration of a discourse of military nationalism. It was my first visit to the US and I was spellbound by Americans' conceptualisation of themselves and others. I was fascinated by Leslie's investment in notions of ‘freedom'; to me as an Australian this seemed an impossible and ghostly phantasm. I had a grudging envy that American intellectuals such as herself could reclaim the term.
Since my return to Australia this interview has sat patiently in my electronic files as moving cities/jobs and other commitments claimed my time and attention. I don't know how Leslie would feel about these issues now; but certainly her figuring of a poetics which investigates the relationality of interior and exterior ‘worlds' and theorises the strange mobility of poetry, has resonance 6 years later. I'm fascinated by the melancholy of an experimental poetics wedded to a quasi-heroic intervention into the social, and investigation of ‘action' (in practices of reading and writing) in the face of ‘helplessness'. Leslie's profoundly wise statement that ‘analysis is not enough' reconfigures the parameters both of public political debate and of the ‘individualistic gesture' of the literary enterprise in ways that are strikingly relevant to us today.
I'd like to thank Leslie for her generosity and patience with me that day as the brass band followed us around San Francisco and also in follow up interviews in which she kindly shared her time with me despite her jet lag and a myriad of other commitments.
An Interview with Leslie Scalapino
AB: I'd like to start by asking you a few things about Green and Black . Throughout this book and other essays you talk about surface and interior, interiority and exteriority. Given that poststructuralist thinking suggests that there is no outside, that we make meaning completely on the inside in that interior space, can you clarify that difference?
LS: I wrote the notes on this book at different times. I meant the essays to be the same thing as the work, in other words, that's a different way of saying what you've just said. There is no exterior. But we make that exterior, we make that distinction all the time, so I'm talking about making the distinction in one's perception or one's apprehension. In the writing, I'm making the distinction — actions out there — and the difference between interior perception and those activities of people or oneself in those activities. As if one were separate from the action that one is in, and as if on either side of that equation there was silence. So where is the perceiving being? “Being” in the sense of being there at the instant and also the being person. In the book — The Pearl — I was trying to develop a way of writing that would simply be actions, movements — literally physical movements, to take event to its smallest motion.
For example, The Front Matter, Dead Souls , Defoe and The Return of Painting are prose, New Time , or way are books of poetry — one distinction is that the prose is more extended movements and [provides] a longer time to be able to engage people's behaviour and events. In the prose, condensed motions are in a long time. This is true in my poetry also, but the latter is based in sound; way is sound movements. I write poem series rather than individual poems. Sound movements of poem series (as also the sentences within the paragraphs in prose) are a way of looking at the large and the small, comparing them to each other. What's “private” or “interior” would be what's happening on the minute level, such as running — as opposed to making an analysis of history and one's connection to it. Yet they go together. Written movements are connection between the individual unit and a huge past and huge future. One's trying to find a way to analyze action; that is, what action is.
AB: By action do you mean just physical action?
LS: Physical gesture as writing is a conflict, an impossibility (they are not the same). And, it's as if my writing's not making a distinction between physical/muscular action and mind action or between events of history and minute events between people. The shape or sound of the writing is what the thought is. If you change that configuration of the writing, you've changed the thought as that motion.
AB: Would you say that the way that the writing is imitating action, as you describe it, is mimetic?
LS: I would think not, because it's imitating our imitation of it, our mental shape of something. The mental shape is an illusion or is just a manifestation of a particular thing then. This manifestation does not correspond to this other real thing that you are attempting to get to. It's not that there's a wall between those things, it's that they are different things.
AB: It sounds quite Platonic; that idea that poetry is an imitation of an imitation.
LS: I didn't think of it as being Platonic. I'm writing language, sight, memory (and these being separate from each other) as mind phenomena. One is making motions which are to be a real apprehension of something real, but the writing is only itself and it is separate. It is an action, in that instance, in itself. So it is present time always because it's a process.
AB: Do you have a particular fascination with the past?
LS: I'm trying to find a frame, in terms of the writing, a framework on which one could bring everything together, having it all occurring at the same time, as a way of apprehending what it is.
AB: Is the interior life you talk about, and the way that sense is made in the interior space — is that space always individualistic? Or is it a space in which you can monitor a collective consciousness, a cultural consciousness or a national consciousness?
LS: The opposite: to have the occurrence of reality, rather than overlay. I'm not using voiceover, that is a narrator's voice which transforms all aspects of what's being perceived. I don't believe in a collective consciousness. The writing is as if creating various orifices that are particular and individual and impermanent. All the perspectives are individual, but are “allowed through” as the writing, creating perspectives.
The writing is to be social, cultural manifestation, with violence and the sense of a stream of history. What influenced me most as a kid growing up was reading, history, say of World War II or the history of the Long March in China. My sense was of events as a sweeping panel. I'm also very much attracted to Japanese literature, such as the Tale of Genji; the sense of that work, described visually, comparable to the long, horizontal or vertical scrolls, continuous scenes where episodes are changing by one another. The consciousness that is occurring in my writing is not an overriding consciousness that determines the entire frame, but rather goes throughout and is multiple throughout.
One would be taking in a multitude of things and from many different perspectives. What is private has the sense of being within and going on at the same time as one's sense of multiple things that are not manifestations of oneself, or one's private past. I'm trying to understand what's an event or what's a memory even, to create a structure that would enable all of those things to arise and not to falsify these but actually to use the writing as a discovery of time and event.
AB: So when you talk about your writing as articulating different kinds of consciousnesses, are you talking about a kind of multivocality or polyvocality in the work?
LS: I'm not creating voices. I would relate this to what we touched on earlier about action — things that you're seeing, people in motion — so that readers are enacting this in the process of reading. They're enacting the process of their own contemplation, seeing and thinking and uniting these things as a reading process.
In Defoe I use events as action movies, panels of action that are also like Renaissance ceiling paintings, where people are flying overhead because they've been thrown out on traffic or a motorcyclist flying through the air, etcetera; paragraphs that are literally physical motion but which I intend to be [as] active as the mental apprehension of how we grasp things, both in seeing and thinking.
Action is not separate from apprehension because where is that action coming from? The reader is both a viewer and a participant in terms of the sentence structure and of perceiving themselves in action. One example of this is a poem-play that I wrote called The Weatherman Turns Himself In . I sewed a field of black silk irises to make the set. There were probably 50 of them and they took up the small space in which the audience sat where the play was performed. The audience sat in a darkened field — that was my sense of it — with the iris petals hanging down close enough to their heads so they could see them, be aware that these were hanging around them (from the ceiling).
There, in the darkened space of irises, what's before them is nothing except a white wall, a white backdrop, which is lighted. The actors were engaging in movement as they spoke — and action very much like what could only be done in a film because you can't do this as a play. So it was artificial. They were almost like dance motions. At the same time as the action the actors were saying the things that they were doing, that is, rendering action as writing. It's not dialogue. I don't use dialogue in that sense, I don't have different voices.
It was, in a sense, a violation or transgression of people having voices. They're in a space that is both silent but also articulated by them mentally within. I was attempting to recreate the conversation we carry on within ourselves that apprehends something; an internal language, not what occurs as conventional dialogue or in conversation with each other. The actors were not describing their motions. They were doing their emotions in their speaking, while at the same time doing these motions. The notion of the separation between the audience and the actors (the people who were in motion, in action) was that the audience becomes aware that it is in a still space viewing this, in a silence where they contemplate this motion. Nevertheless, the viewers are duplicating the mental motions they're watching and also the mental motions they go through when they are themselves engaged in action.
That's an example of trying to explore the sense of what we are as a crowd, with the isolated, silent person perceiving in the midst of that crowd. I would say most of my writing has something to do with that sense of being isolated from something, yet one never is; one's in the midst of it. But, precisely because of the form of the human mind, one is withdrawn from it, imitating it while one's doing it. That's why I was disagreeing with the notion of it being Platonic; because it's entirely the present-time action of what one is doing yet one is divided.
Trying to perceive mass action and one's relation to that and also what is the act of seeing or contemplation, these things not being separate from each other. I'm trying to unite them in the writing.
AB: Given your almost exclusive interest in language as a formal procedure, as a gestural procedure, would you say that your writing indicates a certain crisis of confidence in the voice as a political instrument?
LS: What do you mean by voice?
AB: I mean the person who gets up and says “Stop the Gulf War”.
LS: Well, I think that we are in a crisis. I don't know whether it's a worse crisis than we've been in in the past. We need some other way to find the means of change, of affecting change, to stop the war. We're always at war. We constantly have the experience that we are helpless , that we are in an impossible situation. I'm trying to discover in writing some other level of transformation and of change that can be effective.
In a review of The Front Matter, Dead Souls , the reviewer said that I don't make any political analysis, that I use political images of the Gulf War and other political crises, but that I don't subject these to any analysis different from what was in the newspapers.
I like much of what she said, so I'm not criticizing it, but what interested me was that she wasn't understanding why I wasn't engaging in political analysis. I was saying: “We are forbidden, we cannot do that, we're reduced to a supposedly helpless situation.” I'm taking images of public events and trying to render them as being visually distorted or visually extreme, beyond something that we would call a realistic representational description. The distortion is to go past the category of analysis. I was trying to violate genres or violate forms. I wanted to find some way to transform them internally, where you create a different plateau of reality in the reader, so that you'd have some way of approaching the phenomena of what's going on out there that is different from what we've created before. Analysis isn't enough. I was trying to collapse different ways of apprehending what's there onto one writing plane. Not denying what's there.
I approach writing from the standpoint of watching what is happening, reading about it, seeing it; in other words, grappling with the phenomenon of these public events from the perspective of being “helpless” in the huge sweep of it. For example, both Defoe and The Front Matter, Dead Souls arose out of the events in this country during the Gulf War, what our government was doing. I was in several demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands of people were participating, in San Francisco and New York most of the events were not reported by the news media.
AB: I'm interested that you say your writing is prompted by specific political issues. Why is it you don't actually mention the political event by name?
LS: In both Defoe and The Front Matter, Dead Souls I'm very specific about events. There's no way in which they wouldn't be recognized. It's not an avoidance of being specific but, rather, in order to be accurate, one needs to create something that would be past, both before and after those events, to find a way to describe where the event arises — the continuum needs to be included in order to see anything about it . . .
Alighting arbitrarily on a sentence in the text:
I took this wild train ride to Oregon right at the buildup to the Gulf War and we were passing through utterly devastated terrain that used to be incredibly beautiful forests. It had been completely ransacked by lumber companies, left in total ruin; then simultaneously we passed through these little towns that were draped with flags and yellow ribbons indicating grief or respect for our soldiers over there, anticipating this war. The people on the train were affected and showed great tension.
The infants dying are in Iraq. Bechtel is the company (to which President Bush had ties) given the reconstructon contract after the war. Crowds crying here for infants to be born refers to the American anti-abortion movement. As if we do not mind or notice killing their infants.
It's not that I'm eschewing specific events, it's that they are so complex in their horror that I'm trying to unite them — a crowd wearing yellow ribbons and the notion of infants being forced to be born. I was uniting the idea of infants and young children who died in Iraq. We still have an embargo on Iraq which is harming their children, and none of this is or was mentioned in our press.
The writing is a mirror of propaganda as visual. These things have nothing to do with each other, yet the whole thing is entwined. Propaganda is manipulated “analysis”. As if there I write a language image, only “by” language (without pictures), which is pressed (made “extreme” as if through a press or mesh) to be only a condition of eyesight, to be apprehended as itself visual realm, “silent” (though it is text) thus bypassing “analysis” (that is, bypassing itself/language). Let's look at another passage:
In this, I conflate a friend's death from cancer (anger arising in one “from” this death, or from other impulses, but not produced from them), businessmen profiting from the war, anti-abortionists, unrelated actions. Other's actions taken as being oneself (oneself is these others as motions only) — the point where this action occurs (of oneself as something else only) is only the writing. It exists no other place. The ill figure biting in the crowd refers to people suffering from AIDS. The writer, Kevin Killian (who does not have AIDS), wrote a piece speaking of (despair), wanting to bite others who are well to infect them. I do not overtly specify historical events, which would be them isolated in time — so as to have the reader be in that event occurring now. These things have nothing to do with each other, yet the whole thing is entwined.
AB: I am thinking of a passage in they were at the beach (I think Elizabeth Frost asked you a similar question) where there is a juxtaposition of the sexual encounter between a man and a woman with scenes of riot and war. I thought: “What war is this”?
LS: That was in Berkeley during the Vietnam War. In that, I'm talking about memories, from a long time ago, and from a whole range of childhood. We make things into visceral, sensual shapes and impressions that mold together in some way and are conflated with many other scenes as memory itself. It's not that I'm eschewing specificity, it's that there's many specificities combined.
I remember a guy climbing a flagpole and the police were beating him with their clubs and he scurried up this flagpole to get away from them. He was foaming at the mouth. We make things into memory, or we can't hang on to other things. It reminded me of reading about Mao and the various Chinese leaders during the Long March. When people tried to interview them after the Long March one man said they couldn't remember large things. They could remember only minute details of moments that they'd experienced.
They remembered things like coming to a place where the fish jumped out of the river at them. They said the fish had never seen humans before, that they jumped into their hands. But all kinds of “historical import” they could not remember.
AB: Would you see the poet as working in direct opposition to the way that the mass media works, working to carve out an alternative space?
LS: Yes, I would say that you're working in direct opposition, and that you're working with what's there. It's not that it has to be created by you. We're doing it. Everyone's doing it. But we're constantly being interpreted in this supposedly mythic way by the mass media.
AB: Do you see your writing as deconstructing these mythic narratives?
LS: Partly, and also partly acknowledging that the actual individual specific experience is going on; that we are doing it, and therefore creating that in writing.
AB: Where one participates.
LS: Yes, where the reader participates in the actions occurring in the writing and participates with their own action in the process of engaging with that. They're making their own free actions and have an awareness of their own specific and particular motions now in the present time. In the process of reading and engaging specifically with what is there.
AB: So you see reading as a process of resistance?
LS: Well, reading's not necessarily a process of resistance (it can be); it's a process of pleasure and engagement and involvement and the act of doing the present moment. As opposed to some kind of override coming from the mass media that places you in an ever-receiving frame in which you're supposed to be seeing yourself.
AB: Can you talk more about writing as a space of change and transformation?
LS: I'm interested in being in this moment in time and engaging something continually, whether one is reading, thinking, perceiving. You're here in this location, and the specificity of the action in which you were engaged is an act of not having any propaganda that's coming from the outside. And it is also simply the act of enjoyment of being alive in that moment. I want to make a writing in which one, in the reading process, is in a free action, and aware of oneself as being a varied, multiple being.
AB: By free action, you mean free thought.
LS: Yes, but also one's motions and actions and thought are an unknown - are not known by any interpretation that's coming from the outside.
* * *
AB: In the interview you did with Elizabeth Frost you were talking about that they were at the beach and some sections dealing with sexual encounters where the human bodies are described as having leopard parts [ Contemporary Literature , 37 (1) Spring 1996, p. 8]. Frost talks about an absence of strangeness in what's happening. But I thought that you were actually attempting to defamiliarise something in a sexual encounter there.
LS: That particular piece is both “strange” and a convention. The reader is given a reassurance that it's ordinary, but precisely the fact that it is only slightly strange makes it a ground on which distinctions can be more subtle. It's not based on shock, it's based on a more medium range where various subtle responses on the part of the reader can be brought into play. I'm not using extreme surface, but making a flat surface again. It's almost like roll paper in a funny sort of way. That actually can have a big effect — because you have flattened the surface out in terms of what you can do — on the possibilities of changing someone's conception of relations between people.
AB: Do you see your role as a critic of contemporary American culture and America as a nation?
LS: Well, that's a tough one, it's so huge. I do see my writing as a critique, certainly, but also to go back to that point of finding a place and the action of being free in the writing. It is to be removed, from simply being articulated by custom and culture.
AB: Is this interest you have in freedom a contemporary instance of the American fascination with issues of liberty?
LS: We seem to have invented an idea of freedom. I don't know whether my view of that is the same as the particular invention that we have here. I don't mean the patriotic notion or the propaganda notion of freedom. For one thing, I mean a freedom that occurs in reading.
AB: I'm interested that you choose to talk about a concept and a word like “freedom”. It strikes me as an optimistic intervention on your part.
LS: No, I think we're doing it all the time. We do it in different instants of time so I would like to prolong those instants. An example of this notion on page 70 in Green : “To get to this place, pleasure and ‘inner' contemplation (and ‘exterior' events) are the same and the same space”…. So reading, focusing only on itself, can slow to be only apprehension, reading is apprehension per se , so it is slow, has no content but that. Motion is a thing in itself; it is a reality qualitatively different from “what it connects”. We're not just information. We may not even have any information! We aren't just connecting links of somebody else's context or description of ourselves. There is an actual possibility of the apprehension of the reality of the instant which is entirely free space , unrelated to an American notion of freedom, although possibly being that. Having also arisen from many other places — Tibet, Japan, say.
AB: Possibility from an American idealism?
LS: The experience of freedom. Here it's articulated as a material conception, as having wealth. The kind of freedom I'm talking about is more the act of meditation.
AB: And the act of reading?
LS: I'm equating the act of reading as the act of meditation.
AB: Therefore the act of reading is an act of freedom?
LS: It depends of course on what you're reading, but in other words, I'd like to create a place that is a free state as a terrain in the writing. I haven't done it yet so I have to go on finding a way to make that, to get there in the text. It isn't a virtual reality, for example, although some people have described The Front Matter, Dead Souls , as a form of a virtual reality in which you play.
* * *
AB: Earlier I asked you a question about how you figure the difference between the interior and the exterior.
LS: Let's take an example:
In answer to your question, I was trying to articulate a sense of the inner and outer as being something that is a construction of the writing. Each almost foils the other. I'm interested in seeing oneself as a motion, or one's interior ideas, thoughts, almost as small minute movements that are placed against a sense of the socially constructed, to create separation as a transformation of one's own mind.
I reproduce (as writing's conceptual space/motion) a sense of one in relation to something (that which is the outside) in which one isn't articulated in any way. My “method” is to construct as syntax an “inner” as if it is the same as what's occurring outside ( and as if it is simultaneous with it). Thus the juxtaposition is also a separation. Reproducing (as syntax) motion of interior erasure is a flicker of oneself as that which is outside in fact. So the double/writing can scrutinize occurrence. As writing a space occurs which one does not know, the writing becomes a view of something, of perspectives. It's the creation of seeing itself, and the only sense of there being an interior is one making a difference between what's seen and what's seeing. The viewer is erased by the outside and by seeing the outside as one's interior — and they are separate in fact — (“erased” can also be “non-existing” or being freely separate inside). Writing is between thought and physical action — it is neither. It's sort of an intricate osmosis, using the writing to delineate it.
AB: I also asked you whether you saw your writing as opposed to the mass media. I was wondering about what else you saw poetry writing against.
LS: The mass media would be a good example of the erasure of specific articulations. Poetry is a very individualistic gesture, one that is non-normative, per se, by being in the modern period, not being publicly viewed, and therefore a necessarily interiorized space. For me writing is a conversation about that control — propaganda essentially — coming from the outside. It is about finding out what the mind is, that which is not at all controlled. What thought and imagination are. The mind is occurring differently in poetry than what we're given in mass media.
It's a completely fabricated thing. I had this sense, as a kid and as an adult, of a constant definition that's coming to one, overlays of articulating how one is and what one should be seeing. While one's in the process of articulating something, it's being reversed back to one in the conversation and becomes something completely different from what it actually is, so that “inner” is a constant process of trying to turn that around and answer it. You're being given a narrative of connections of a certain kind, and you're having to constantly take that narrative apart, turn it around and present it again. It's Green reinterpreted and given an overriding, overall meaning, gesture, that smoothes out its rough edges and basically erases it. Writing is in constant opposition to this; it's an endless and exhausting task.
AB: Would you agree with what Noam Chomsky said about America being thoroughly saturated with propaganda?
LS: Like every move we make. All the ads become as much the content of what we're seeing as everything else. We're existing in an imperialistic nation that is internally operating on its own people by a constant bombardment. But it's also having a terrific force on the outer world, reducing other people to being servants to this way of life.
AB: How important is the notion of a community is to you as a writer? You were talking about your collaboration with Lyn Hejinian. Can you say something about how this collaboration worked for you?
LS: The collaboration with Lyn Hejinian was a four-year collaboration, a project that we called Sight . The form of it was simply that it would be double, that it could be two paragraphs, two stanzas, two lines, two words, but it was done as a dual form and on the subject of seeing.
What was fascinating about this collaboration was an extended leisurely pace. I frequently write my own work by barreling into it as fast as possible because I feel urgent in the moment. Also I may write as quickly as I can when I have the time to do it, and this would change what it is tonally and emotionally because there'd be necessarily a kind of urgency. I'd be blasting into something before I lost it, before I was swept off into something else that I'd have to do. I would tend to write fast for a period of time, then I would come back to it later. I might take a long time to compose one work.
In our collaboration, one of us would write a response to the latest piece that had been sent by fax so that we weren't even waiting for the mail. We would get something instantaneously. I'd hear the sound of the fax and be able to read it and I had the sense of it being in a very immediate, current time. I also had a great sense of freedom that it was just something we were going to work on for a very long time. I became dependent on it, liking it tremendously, we both did, not wanting it to end, so we then decided that we would do another one on hearing. We've just begun that one.
AB: Did you have an idea that it would be four years? Did you set yourself a time limit?
LS: No. Lyn proposed the idea that we would write until we had a hundred pages, but there was no time limit in terms of how long it would take to do this. We said to each other sometimes: “If your response isn't good but you just feel like jotting off this quick response, that's fine too.” In other words, there was a kind of leisure and you didn't have to be perfect about it. I would take a more perfectionist attitude toward my own writing. When we finally got together and edited it, we made small changes, and took out a section that we thought was very low energy.
One of its qualities was that it seemed very free, that we could be free in the way conversations are sometimes free; you're not being recorded, you don't have to worry about this. That was very interesting.
AB: And did it require heavy editing or do you regard it as a kind of writing that doesn't have to be polished and seamless?
LS: We kept it as a free-flowing exchange that doesn't have conclusions about things. Nevertheless, it has some very definite themes, issues, disagreements, thoughts about aesthetic issues. It talks about writing itself, about the relation between vision and thought and the relation between oneself and society. All of it turned around the theme of sight itself, of seeing something. We made the rule that each particular piece would have to be based on something we'd really seen, examining seeing and ways of seeing things. So that it is unified by these considerations.
We didn't edit it a great deal because the kinds of things we would tend to edit would be when there seemed to be just another little sentence that needed to be added to demonstrate what it was doing; to fill it out a tiny bit, or to edit something out because it was clumsy and unnecessary, or frequently to change the tones but ever so slightly. Both of us noticed that, in trying to pick up on what the other was doing in the last installment, we would tend to take hold of it, repeat it in some way, then make a statement about it that would sometimes sound pretentious, as if we were giving a conclusion or disagreeing with the other person in a dogmatic manner. We found that, independently of each other, when we began to edit our sections, we could remove the “such and such is such and such” — remove the “is” and make a gerund of it. It would therefore simply be a process of acknowledging that we were picking up on the other person's motion, extending it into the thing that we were doing and contemplating it rather than making a statement about it.
AB: It sounds like a conversation, a dialogue.
LS: It was, and it was also like letters. We kept that quality. We would sign our initials to the end of each piece. That was very important rather than trying to blur our identities. Keeping the initials after each segment retained the quality of having a conversation between two live people. Our last changes were that I added just a sentence or two in two or three of my pieces where I noted what was happening at the time, and therefore what we were writing about. We were responding to things that actually took place, both referring to these things without ever saying what they were.
AB: So you put in a bit of referential material?
LS: Yes, we noticed that we had no compunction about referring to books we were reading and discussing, paraphrasing or quoting something we were thinking about. Yet we were much more reticent to talk about something that was happening in life. I put in, for example, that we were talking about Lyn having breast cancer. We had completely omitted the fact that we were bringing this up as an issue in terms of level of attention or how time was being spent, and therefore I added this notation. It was crucial that we were talking about that because it changed the work entirely.
AB: That's very interesting. It harks back to what I was saying about the erasure of referentiality.
LS: In this case, it's kind of embarrassing including yourself and yet you suddenly realise: But what else are we doing?! We realised that we were making particular references to things in the world or things we were reading but not to our personal lives and then the question is: why not? It's perfectly germane.
AB: And what about the fact that you were writing with somebody who had a very different style and very different technique? Was that a problem?
LS: No, we actually found that worked as part of the conversation that the collaboration became. After we finished we agreed that we never gave up ourselves. We would have discussions from a completely different point of view in which sometimes we were opposite to each other. As in any conversation, when you're proposing a way of seeing something and the other person is proposing their way of seeing things, if you don't falsify it by coming over into that other point of view, then, in fact, that division becomes the focus. We would implicitly interview each other as to what was meant by something and indicate “this is past me”, or “I don't get this”, and not by saying it, but by changing it into something else. It's as if you're drawing them over onto your territory, then they try to draw you back onto theirs.
AB: Another thing I wanted to ask you about writing within a community was how you see yourself positioned within the broader arena of language writers.
LS: For one thing, there's the question of the use of the title “language writers”, the distinction between people who were originators given that name — the term “language writers” arising of course from the name of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Magazine — and the younger and large number of writers now called by that name. Though of the same approximate age and knowing them (liking them), I wasn't considered to be in that original group. I thought I was doing work that was germane to theirs and theirs was germane to mine. It was and is important to me. There were other poets who were doing work of an “experimental” nature who weren't in that particular social group. It was a relatively small group of maybe 10 people in the San Francisco area, maybe 15 in the New York area and a few other people scattered here or there in other parts of the country and in Canada.
AB: How meaningful is it as a label?
LS: It was meaningful in a specific way then. It has become meaningful to people, now as a generalisation. People are doing lots of different kinds of things, and the tendency would be to look at people who are regarded as the “leaders” — because people like the idea of there being leaders and there being a movement. The tendency would be to say that these people are the ones we can just use as examples and we won't need to look at anything else. If we're going to look at something else, we can define what that person is doing in terms of what these so-called “leaders” are doing. But individuals are doing things that are different — the distinctions are the accomplishments.
The result of this is that there may be only a few people who are chosen to be examined. Most of those people are men, and there are only one or two women whose work is considered.
In regard to “leaders”, I wouldn't accept whomever that would be (as being my leader) because that's not accurate. This also has its socially hierarchical, very conservative implication in terms of an analysis of one's work via an interpretation. The men are taken as the basis. I object to that of course.
AB: Why do you think it has been so hard for the women to have a space and a voice in this arena?
LS: Because it's always hard. That's the way society always is in any circumstance.
AB: Would you say that your writing addresses issues of gender?
LS: Certainly. In various ways I was trying to explode, and investigate stereotypes, characterizations of men and women and customs of their relations and ways of articulating themselves, and manifestations of sexuality.
I think we're all speaking from a position of erasure as social condition. But as a woman I experience it as being constantly reinterpreted. I'm continually told that what I'm doing is incorrect and should be changed to be similar to what becomes the convention — even if it's in an experimental setting. Everything develops its conventions. And if you are making a radical departure from that, you will inevitably come up against conflict. Then that conflict, in itself, is very interesting because you're investigating the formation of the conversation and why it would take place in that way.
Recently, I was at a Russian poetry festival in Hoboken, New Jersey. Many Russian and American poets were invited. Ron Silliman was there; asked to speak about his anthology In the American Tree (1986), he talked about some of the bases for inclusion and exclusion. There were a number of poets in the SF area whom he did not include — myself, Beverly Dahlen and Ted Pearson, for example. Many times I've heard Ron talk about the anthology and each time he would talk about having left us out. This time he said he left us out because he saw us as adversaries. He saw us in an adversarial role. I thought, “what possible sense would it make to see us as adversaries”? The only answer is that we were not writing the syntax that he was saying people should write.
He was laying out a particular plan, a trajectory and reasons why writing should be that way. That's good, of course. I was doing something that was totally different from him and doing it very deliberately, and for reasons that I felt were crucial. [During the early eighties] I was told continually from many: “this is not the way this should be done.” Whereas the reasons why I was doing it and what I was actually doing were not being examined. Certainly this was because I am a woman. It was interesting that what one says was devalued only from prior definition.
AB: How do you think the field has changed with the entry of a lot of newer writers?
LS: The atmosphere seems quite open. Younger writers are taking off in different directions, building on some of the same vocabulary and some of the same moves as the older New York School and Language School and then changing the conversation with a different perspective.
* * *
AB: I would like to ask you a couple of questions raised by Green and Black . In your comment on page 70, you describe The Pearl as an anti-allegory.
LS: I'll quote from one small paragraph: “‘One's movements' in The Pearl have the effect of being ahead of one or behind in some part of the writing that one has not reached, by its going on at their present.” There is a sense of gesture as thought (conceptual shape), gesture as the shape of a sentence and there being a literal rendition of physical motion, of action, in sentences where the text is neither prose nor poetry. Frequently, the poetic line would be a paragraph, but that paragraph would be only one line.
The conflation of physical action (such as running) being the sane as writing — is impossible — is conceptual (so the actual running has no more existence, isn't more real, that the space that is created as writing).
In the one-line paragraph, “Fictionalizing is the same as living. Both as the same, when being as the same movements, are serene and free”, I'm working with the notion of time frame in the sentence where you are only in present time. But the present time is empty, with a sense of being actually in a future or a past action which isn't present. The perspective of the writing is never in the past. It's always in action with a present time that is empty inside. This is very difficult for me to describe.
The notion of the anti-allegory — in a way I was just making a little joke. It was a quick way saying that these are not references; they are the unfolding of the action itself. For example, from The Front Matter, Dead Souls : “Between them this man's carried sleeping and uncoils in it to slash the other man in a silk suit who flies up to them” [ Green and Black , p. 71]. Looking at that syntactically: “between them” — but between whom? This man is carried by the Sumo, that is, “between” the Sumo and the man, the man is carried, “carried sleeping and uncoils in it”. This raises the question: “What is ‘it'?” Uncoils in what? The context they're in — “to slash the other man in a silk suit who flies up to them”.
Suddenly there's this other man in a silk suit who flies up to them. This occurs only at the end of the sentence, that is, visually you're seeing the man carried by the Sumo and himself uncoiling in the air before you see the man flying up and slashing them. The syntax of any open sentence is an entire series of movements and actions. The only thing that's given to you is actions. You're not given interpretation or philosophy or editorial comments on this. It's not an allegory. It's only those actions. There's a constant displacement of further actions, so that you can only be in actions, although that's relatively impossible.
There are thoughts and observations about what's occurring such as the line at the end of that page: “Nothing occurs when one sleeps so one is curious” [ Green and Black , p. 71]. It's permutations back and forth on actions and what's being inside an action; where the consciousness is within the frame of an action.
AB: You talk about flatness on page 52 [of Green and Black ]. You're interested in flatness rather than depth, where depth is the model for metaphor, for interpreting content or significance.
LS: The way of making something flat, flattening it out, would be to raise it up, literally physically, as if you made everything on the same surface so that action and motion and events in history are as concrete as are intellectualizing about these. Narrowing the distance, I'd say, between observation — fury, if you will, about something — and an actual manifestation of it. It's the nature of the form of the thought that is the expression. The articulation and the thought in the writing are the same thing as an action.
This particular paragraph: “Flattens was construed as (was made to be) a barrier put up against the viewer's normal wish to enter a picture and dream, to have it be a space apart from life in which the mind would be free to make its own connections” [ Green and Black , pp. 52-3]. This is from The Pearl. That's a paraphrase, a reference to a passage from the art historian Tim Clark's analysis of various post-impressionist paintings in which he talks about a change in the way of seeing these paintings. The surface was created as a way of seeing social reality.
I can't remember the exact quote because I transmogrified somewhat, but what he's saying, and what I'm saying as well, is you have to change the surface and to collapse things on top of each other, flatten them out, make them as if they were the equal or the same as each other.
AB: Things that are hierarchical?
LS: They were hierarchical before. You're placing them now on the same plane as a means of changing that hierarchy, of dismantling it as well as being able to see distinctions in it. When things become so common to us we have to actually change the order of our seeing them and the way in which they're integrated (by seeing them separately or seeing them in a different configuration, changing that surface), we create a different perspective. We see them in a different configuration to each other so they take on new properties.
AB: You seem to be very much a cinematic, visual writer.
LS: Partly that's just the way my mind works, and it also is responding to something that you were talking about earlier, which is the sense of being isolated and quieted by external events from which one has the sense of being excluded or powerless. One is often simply seeing things, and part of what I want to do is to change the way of seeing. I want to make it a very active thing where you would cross the barrier that's been set up between the quiescent viewer and this imagined active space where something's happening over which you can have no effect.
AB: You talk on page three about the cartoons and comic books providing an influence on The Pearl . Is this because cartoons and comic books are comedy — they're reducing hierarchies in a carnivalesque way?
LS: Right. But because they are pictures with bubble writing. I was taking the idea of having a work that's low writing — low as opposed to high culture — and comic books, of course, are very popular. They are our illuminated books. Also I was always fascinated by both Persian works where the text is painted into the picture and Japanese paintings that have the text as part of long scroll-like things. The scroll works with the text at the beginning or end of the panels or inside. Therefore the text becomes participatory with what's being seen and not extricated from it, not separated.
I also like the idea of comic books being in squares and panels that aren't hierarchical and aren't strictly linear. They are in a way because they follow one after another, but because there are many squares on a page it is as if you could change the order in which you were reading things and move them around in a different way. So what's taken in by your visual field are things in different spatial relations than they would be if you were simply following the story as it would be read to you.
Another thing that I was playing on in The Return of Painting , The Pearl and Orion (particularly in The Pearl ) is the notion of the comic book. When we were small kids and adults were reading to us, if we were using a picture book we would have to be sitting beside the person and they would point out what was being said in relation to the picture so that we would have an intimate contact.
I've always been intrigued by Walter Benjamin's essay “The Storyteller”, in which he talks about the communal setting of having something spoken as a communal action. During the tale or the epic that's told from memory, people participate by sitting listening to it as a public group, as opposed to the isolation and privacy of reading the novel which developed later. So partly what I wanted to do in The Return of Painting, The Pearl and Orion was to write a takeoff of the novel in which you are keenly aware that the experience of reading is between you and the book, that you are isolated, you're in a private act with only the reader in the room. This is the same kind of thing that Benjamin was describing, but I wanted to mix these kinds of experiences into an active reading which is a social exchange also, something which evokes participation while filtering it through the private action of isolation, so that you're actually contemplating being isolated, and being public at the same time, in the process of reading.
San Francisco 23/2/97