Nada Gordon

Benjamin Friedlander
Interview

Nada Gordon:
Tell me about your genesis and evolution as a poet.

Benjamin Friedlander: I began writing seriously in high school, but there was no single moment of decision, only crystallizations of earlier desires. Hearing Robert Hayden read at the Guggenheim Museum was one such moment; encountering the work of Delmore Schwartz another. "The heavy bear who goes with me" — that line summed up perfectly the way I felt about my own body. Not that I knew so at the time. I accepted the poem as a philosophical truism, which is probably what Schwartz himself intended. Nowadays, I read it as a clownish "Song of Myself": a statement of Jewish-American identity struggling to climb above the bar of its hyphen. No surprise that it struck a chord: I too was a fat boy struggling to do a few chin-ups in gym class.

I grew up in a household where books were especially important — my father's an historian — but there was precious little literature. I remember some old college texts on a shelf near the ceiling; they went with my mother after my parents got divorced. And there was para-lit galore — mostly science fiction. But those books weren't where the power lay. The history books were what held my fascination. Not that I ever absorbed more than a few pages out of ten thousand. But there were times ... for instance, my father owned a set of bound transcripts from the Nuremberg trials — one of the few extant sets in private hands, I suspect — and my brother and I used to pore over the photographs of evidence: soap made from human fat; lampshades made from human skin. The text, of course, was far more forbidding. Not that this kept me from trying. I used to open volumes at random, looking for illustrations or reading a stray line or paragraph. I went through the whole library that way. This, I think, more than anything, made me susceptible to the charms of difficult poetry.

All in all, art was in short supply. My father owned one or two Brecht-Weil operas (he used to sing from Mahogany when happy) and my mother owned Abbey Road, along with several Neil Diamond records. We did somewhat better with visual art. I remember a framed Rembrandt poster of a rabbi, and another framed poster of a Klee. One summer we bought a few pastiches of Picasso's illustrations for Don Quixote. I realize now that my mother had a strong feeling for art, but this was thoroughly repressed all through childhood. My father too; he has such definite tastes now in clothes, in food, in photography, in architecture, but this was completely hidden when I was growing up.

I note all this only to say that my sensibility developed under the peculiar pressures of an intellectual household where aesthetic issues were pushed to the margins. Which no doubt explains why I gravitate toward historicist modes of reading and resist formalism. Or why I'm drawn to poets like Dickinson and Celan, who define craft in existential terms. My appreciation for beauty came shockingly late.

In a strange way, I think of poetry, the poetry I most admire, as occupying a threshold position between art and non-art. That twilight space feels very comfortable to me, for reasons that I don't entirely understand, but which are probably implicated in my autobiography. Poetry appeals to me, first and foremost, because it is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but bears an aberrant relationship to both.

NG: Speaking of "the heavy bear who goes with me," I'd like to address what I see in your work as a kind of detached-but-profound subjectivity. I'm thinking particularly of one of my favorite of your books, A Winter's Notebook, and lines like these:

                Me
misplaced

in a doorway.

* * *

                The clock

divides me into strophes
& I sing.

* * *

I look

& listen to the detached
heat of my looking

eyes.

And the memorable,

Hidden in my pants my penis:

the smudge of flesh
that in an instant

changes pulse. Why
must the body share

its weight with mind?

I remember also your telling me once (and I quoted you in my Mayer thesis) that you write to "leave a trace of your subjectivity." I'm with you on that one, but it's not exactly a fashionable stance these days. Do you still feel this way? In what ways do you apprehend / encounter / delineate (add your favorite verbs here) self in writing?

BF: One downside to leaving "a trace of your subjectivity": some traces are like high-school yearbook pictures. Very embarrassing to look at later.

A Winter's Notebook was written, god, in 1981-82, when I was 21 years old, half my life ago. The poems there are youthful in a way I couldn't possibly recreate today. Written while I was momentarily a dropout from Berkeley, working in a copy shop, reading H.D.'s Trilogy, Robert Kelly's Songs I-XXX, Ronald Johnson's Book of the Green Man, Laura Riding's Selected Poems in Five Sets — a widening circle of readings that originated in Robert Duncan's notebook excerpts in the back of The New American Poetry and that eventually led me to embrace the Language Poets. A classic case of misrecognition: the mentions of Stein, Zukofsky and Riding in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E gave me the false and oh so naive impression that the LPs and I were "on the same page." But I'm rambling.

Yeah, I still believe that writing is the record of particular lives. But I also believe now that the "recording" occurs most uniquely, or most revealingly, in registers of meaning that supercede intention. Though I've experimented with autobiography these last few years, I'm more concerned with a writing "from" than "about" myself. I remember Johanna Drucker once saying that feminism means taking yourself as typical rather than exceptional — an idea that left a lot of echoes in my head. And then, I've always understood the root insight of "Projective Verse" to be that "language as such" is a meaningless abstraction: that any instance of language has an origin (or better, series of origins: physical, experiential, historical) no less important for understanding what the words are saying than the "text itself."

The lines you quote from A Winter's Notebook — they sound so much better in excerpt, so thanks! you make them legible again — do have analogues in my recent writing. For instance, there's a poem in Partial Objects which reads, in its original version:

AFTER SYLVIA PLATH

Peeled to my bra
And panties I
Had a hard-on though
I was scared

To say no
Means no
Matter how
Well dressed you are

Someone will always be
Willing to dress you down —
Playing doctor
To see how your wound has healed.

This isn't literal autobiography (transvestism isn't one of my secret pleasures or fantasies), but it does capture for me an abjection I've felt in sex, at certain moments — an experience that doesn't at all cancel out the possibility of excitement.

Or here's another example, from A Knot Is Not a Tangle:

MOTHER

It hurts
to chew
the nipple of your pain
and feel the milk-
lessness of time
from the wrong end
of a nursing grudge
cowed by a pendulous Why?

This one is more obviously figurative, not to mention more obviously extravagant. My relationship with my mother is far from incestuous; my experience of her pain is, if anything, too distant, not too close. But there's something at once infantilizing and unsatisfying in the way her pain mediates what relationship we do have, so the breast-feeding image works for me.

You say that these preoccupations are "not exactly fashionable." Maybe so, at least in certain circles. I was amused when Poetics Journal led off its Elsewhere issue with a short statement by Felix Guattari that defined the "poetic function" as a "catalyzing" of "existential agencies." Yes, exactly, I thought, but I can't believe that Hejinian and Watten think so too! I suppose we were all hearing what we wanted in that piece.

My acknowledgement of Sylvia Plath was retrospective. It occurred to me that I was taking cues from her long after the poem was actually written. This has something to do with fashion, though I'm not exactly sure how.

Confessional Poetry — by which I mean the work associated with Lowell's Life Studies — has never been very satisfying to me and has not held up very well over time, but I do find confession, as a formal strategy, a useful starting point for interesting work. Freed from the demands of literal autobiography, the combination of shock and self-exposure can ground a writing that might otherwise seem merely frivolous. This is something I learned from reading Carla Harryman, though I see it also in Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, Samuel Delany ... Philip Roth. I'm trying to think of a poet who does the same thing, and can't. Perhaps prose writers are better equipped to absorb confessionalism as a formal principle. In any case, the real taboo in experimental circles isn't subjectivity, but self-expression — a fine line that different writers draw across different thresholds of authenticity.

NG: You've participated in a lot of collaborations — a mode I'm partial to. I recently re-read a postcard exchange you had with Jean Day that was published in ... was it Ottottole? The writing was so vivid. There's Myth, a collaboration with Jeff Gburek. I also have here Oriflamme Day, a collaboration with Stephen Rodefer and comic books, in which you use the typewriter almost like a paintbrush; the lines make spirals and rough curves all over the pages, each of which has a decontextualized DC comic image. Other lines work as captions. How did you assemble this book? And what about Nagrivator, which you wrote with Pat Reed? Delicate poems, domestic references, an elegy to Xena the cat — this book seems to have been born right out of daily life. How was Hui Neng — a collaboration with Pat Reed and Andrew Schelling based on the Diamond Sutra — written? Do you still write collaborations? What are your thoughts on collaborative writing?

BF: I love collaboration and would love to do more. My editing projects have all been shared labors too. For instance, my edition of Larry Eigner's criticism was worked out practically line by line in Larry's living room. And I've edited magazines with Andrew Schelling, Paul Batlan, Bill Howe, Chris Funkhouser, Belle Gironda, Graham Foust ... Steve Evans and I are just now assuming the editorial duties for Sagetrieb, so the trend continues.

Collaboration is the exploration of a friendship, and each one differs wildly from the others. Stephen and I made Oriflamme Day when we first got to know one another. We made the book for a reading. The collages were mine; the torn-up text, Stephen's. We wrote the captions side by side in my kitchen, over a bottle of Stoli. A lot of the language came out of Sexual Heretics, an anthology of gay male writing from nineteenth-century Britain. Come to think of it, we also wrote an homage to you that day, Stephen having taken the line "Go for Gordon's" from a liquor ad.

Hui Neng was also made for a reading. Inspired by Jackson Mac Low, I randomized the Diamond Sutra — which inspired Andrew to write the essay. Pat then added the illustrations.

Nagrivator was mostly composed on vacation. Those are probably the sweetest poems I've ever had a hand in. There was going to be a sequel, Boot-Type Shoe, but Pat and I split up before we could write more than a poem or two.

The postcards with Jean were a long, ongoing project that only ended because our friendship ended. I'm still not sure why that happened. We were practically in love with one another, then, poof! all the sympathy between us bled away. In any case, there are probably a hundred cards all together. Jean's are simply amazing — the best writing she ever did.

Myth and its sequel, Prophecy, were also installments in an ongoing project. We got about halfway through Negative Theology , then Jeff left for Italy and I for Buffalo. I hold out hope that we'll pick up where we left off someday. We also planned volumes called Shit and Lyrical Ballads.

What else? Carla Billitteri and I have translated from Italian together, just a few poems. Nick Lawrence and I wrote a goofy book on Michael Palmer — it isn't quite finished. Rod Smith and I have tried a few things. That's about it in recent years. I guess the circumstances haven't been entirely propitious. But circumstances change, or I hope they do.

NG: Circumstances were certainly propitious for Jimmy & Lucy's House of "K", which was by far the best grassroots poetics forum of its time. The contributors included Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, Robert Grenier, Rachel Blau du Plessis, Larry Price, David Bromige, Larry Eigner, Jed Rasula, Alan Davies, Jean Day, Steve Benson, Stephen Rodefer, Tina Darragh, Bruce Boone ... I could go on — and most of the writing is incisive and inventive. How did you and Andrew Schelling decide to start Jimmy and Lucy's? What was your experience of editing it? Why did you stop putting it out? What are some of the most memorable pieces you published? I heard a rumor (from you?) that the old issues were going to be archived on line — is that true?

BF: No, not true — unless Andrew has been sniffing out that possibility.(*) But I don't see how: the nine issues probably amount to over a thousand pages; getting permission from all the contributors would be an enormous headache. And then there's the scanning and proofreading of text. Jimmy & Lucy's was emphatically precomputer. We typed every issue on an old warhorse IBM that used proportional spacing. The typeface looked great but made for incredible hassles when we had to make corrections — a razor blade and rubber cement affair. Not that I regret the labor. I learned so much from the physicality of that experience: not just about writing and editing, but also about the hidden cost of poorly thought-out writing. I can't tell you how often Andrew and I would shake our heads and say to one another, usually after struggling for an hour over a knot of illogical prose: "We care more about this than the author!" There's a generosity involved in any act of attention; writers who write with care give care as well. This is something I learned pounding typewriter keys after midnight.

You call the magazine "the best grassroots poetics forum of its time." I thank you for the compliment, but the sad fact is there wasn't much competition. We began in 1984, a few years after the demise of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, shortly after Poetics Journal began. Sulfur and Temblor also published criticism, but they served somewhat adjacent communities. There were also occasional forums that came out of New College, but that too was fed by a different community. Later on in the '80s the boundaries blurred considerably, but when we began the authors you mention were by and large without other forum. Except, of course, for PJ — but PJ, unlike Jimmy & Lucy's, had an agenda that made it less immediately responsive to the momentary ripples of interest that can be so definitive of a scene.

PJ, edited by Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten, was a West Coast answer to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, and it had the stated aim of extending L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E's critical discourse beyond short, impressionistic takes into a more rigorous, more academic style of argumentation. I was 25 at the time and had a hard time understanding why L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was impressionistic, but I certainly understood that there was a real difference at issue. As it happens, I liked both magazines, but for just this reason I sensed that there was space for a poetics journal (lower case "p" and "j") that emphasized short pieces and reviews rather than longer essays on general themes; that served a local community of poets and didn't worry about dialogue with academics or even artists working in other genres and media — though this already defined what we were doing as somewhat different from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. And I want to stress that our stance was not anti-academic; we were simply cognizant that our magazine could fill a different need than PJ.

Typing this out, I realize that the entire problem is dated now, or in any case restricted to print culture. Andrew and I xeroxed Jimmy & Lucy's fifty copies at a time. Establishing a readership was a concrete issue (and one we didn't handle very well: we had a horrible habit, for instance, of not cashing checks — to the point where we screwed up Bob Perleman's checkbook just horribly). The internet has changed all that, and not just because limited print runs are no longer an obstacle to distribution. Readership too is no longer an obstacle, or not in the same way. A better way to say this would be: that readerships on the web are not nearly as easily specified (or even understood) as they are with a print journal.

What I liked most about the magazine was soliciting work and seeing it all the way through to print. There's nothing more pleasurable as an editor than being responsible for a fine piece of writing that wouldn't have existed if you hadn't asked for it. To be sure, there were many writers we couldn't get — they didn't write criticism, or were already able to place their work in bigger venues — but I was gratified by the number who were willing to write something specifically for a journal with such tiny distribution. And yes, there is quite a bit of interesting work that first appeared there, some of it never reprinted: Barrett Watten's "XYZ of Reading," the Carla Harryman feature in no. 2 (essays by you, Steve Benson, Tom Mandel, David Sheidlower, Laura Moriarty), Robert Duncan's "The Homosexual in Society" (the original essay with later addenda), Eileen Corder and Nick Robinson's "Skeletons in the Dressing Room: El Teatro Campesino," Andrew Schelling's interview with Lyn Hejinian, Hannah Wiener's "Mostly about the Sentence," a half dozen pieces by Larry Eigner, the transcript of a conference on poetry and meditation held at Green Gulch Zen Center. And that's just a fraction of the whole.

I'm proud of some of the stances we took. Our decision to celebrate Tuumba Press as a whole, rather than an individual author, still seems to me the only attempt to deal with Language Writing as a collective enterprise in detail, by which I mean that it wasn't a series of general statements about "Language Writing" as such, but a series of short essays (and three interviews) on some 37 particular books, not all of them by the so-called "major figures" — and not all of them Language Poets.

Without doubt, the most significant piece we published was an obituary of Foucault written by my friend Phil Horvitz, who had the serendipitous opportunity of a coffee with the philosopher when Foucault was teaching at U.C. Berkeley. The piece was a memoir; we published it alongside a straightforward summation of Foucault's achievements by Johanna Drucker. When the magazine came out, Barry Watten came up to me and profusely praised Johanna's piece, then chided me for including Phil's, which he described as the worst sort of personalizing gossip. I was suitably abashed. Years later, however, it came to light that Phil's memoir preserved Foucault's only recorded comments on AIDS! The piece has since been cited in a number of biographies.

Andrew and I disbanded the magazine for a number of reasons. Partly we stopped because it seemed ridiculous to be publishing book reviews by young writers who had no outlet for their poetry (Pat Reed, Jessica Grim, Steve Farmer, Michael Anderson, Andrea Hollowell, yourself), but we were also growing tired of the Language Poets, whose work we'd been serving more or less diligently for half a decade, and who were starting to treat us with unremitting mistrust. Anyway, it was a good time to stop. Andrew and I learned so much doing Jimmy & Lucy's, and it was time to put what we'd learned to use in another context, to see if our knowledge had any independent validity. We had a false start with Chumolungma Globe (much of the work we'd gathered for our second issue we handed over to Jessica Grim, who used it in Big Alice), and then another good run with Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root. By the time that one came to its natural conclusion, Andrew and I had both split the Bay Area.

(*) Since writing this sentence I've received a letter from Craig Dworkin proposing just what you say: an internet archive. Shows what I know!

NG: Now you edit, with Graham Foust, Lagniappe. Can you describe its editorial philosophy? One thing that surprises me about it is that you sometimes include negative reviews. What's the thinking behind that? In your mind, what are the main differences from Jimmy & Lucy's House of "K"? Are they related to two very different zeitgeists?

BF: Yeah, different eras in the life of the art, but also: different periods in my own life. In the '80s I was an unabashed enthusiast. I was, I then felt, a young poet in an era in which the older poets were doing important work (however unsatisfying at times). And I took strength from the fact — sometimes rather smugly — that my friends and I (Andrew, Pat, David Sheidlower) were practically the only people in the world paying continuous attention. We weren't Language Poets, or students of the Language Poets, or Language bashers, but we hung in there, going to just about every event and buying all the books. And the older poets didn't know what to make of us.

The scene today is much more chaotic — and isn't even "the scene," not in the same sense. There are now many scenes, adjacent and overlapping, all aware of one another, at least to some extent. Of course, this was also true in the Bay Area in the '80s, where the Language Poets, New College poets, "New Narrative" writers, Bolinas and North Beach scenes, etc., were all engaged in making their work known at the same time, in the same space, but each one of those scenes had a certain hermeticism to it. The confluence today is much larger and much less easily defined. And it's much less fixed by geography — not just because of the internet, but because there's so much moving around. An enthusiast today has a much more difficult task than I had back then, especially if the enthusiasm is going to be intelligent, purposeful, differentiating. Readme is delightful proof that an editorial policy founded on enthusiasm is still possible without sacrifice of usefulness.

It's not that I've lost my own enthusiasm, though it's true I feel it less and less in the context of contemporary poetry (this summer I'm immersing myself in the eighteenth century); but I've found that my talents and interests are best served, at present, by reading deeply and critically rather than widely. The enthusiast maps out, as completely as possible, what is possible. Right now, I prefer to figure out what it means to live on one particular piece of that map (as in my work on Olson, Dickinson, O'Hara). In this sense, I now understand, as I didn't then, why Lyn and Barry thought of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as impressionistic. Though I still value that sort of activity, when it's done well.

But that doesn't quite explain Lagniappe, which is not exactly a forum for deep reading — and isn't just a magazine. Lagniappe is also a conceptual art project. Every issue, after the first one anyhow, also includes a review, if not several, by one of Graham's alter egos or my own. (My favorite is Wyman Jennings, who's really Clement Greenberg.) Tomfoolery, I suppose, but it helps to keep us interested and enlivens the writing. And speaks to the fact, I suppose, that we're as interested in exercising our faculties at large as we are in the work under discussion.

Is that really true? It's true of some of the work. I'm really very poor at generalizing. And I wouldn't want to pretend that my intentions — or Graham's — are clearly defined, or without contradictory impulse. Or that we're in agreement with one another.

What we wanted, above all, was a journal that would give space to brief, critical assessments of current writing. When we started, there didn't seemed to be much book reviewing — that has changed quite a bit in the interim — and the little we saw was in effect published press release: effusive, meaningless praise. Our reaction to that tendency is often read as negativity. I think of it instead as creating a context in which praise might again become meaningful. But I know others see it differently. Graham, by the way, does most of the production work, especially now that I've moved to Maine.

NG: You once made the following statement on Jordan Davis's subsubpoetics e-list:

Since my own interests as a reader tend toward struggle (Dickinson, Mandelstam, Moore, Celan; the Olson who wrote at the end of the Maximus Poems, "I've sacrificed everything for an act of attention") I tend myself to be suspicious of play, but this doesn't mean I think John Cage was an idle playboy!

Why do you think you are leery of the ludic? And do you think you are categorically so? Are there any "playful" writers whose work you like and/or respect? Certain of your more recent writings — especially Partial Objects and Period Piece — seem to me to be full of a bitter, not unplayful, humor. I'd say the same of certain satires you are thought to have written pseudonymously. Do you think humor and playfulness are equatable? And can you tell me about the personal, ethical, and aesthetic values that underlie your taste's tendency toward "struggle"?

BF: My aversion to "play" (which evolved slowly and is now starting to wane, actually) derives from two different sources. The more serious is Emmanuel Levinas, who defines ethics and aesthetics as mutually exclusive precisely on account of play's centrality to the latter. He articulates this position most provocatively in an early essay, "Reality and Its Shadow." "Art," he says there, "essentially disengaged, constitutes, in a world of initiative and responsibility, a dimension of evasion." I first read that statement twelve years ago, at a moment of deep dissatisfaction with so-called "experimental" writing, and it left a deep impression.

Readers of Levinas usually take the anti-art argument as a challenge and try to devise an "ethical poetics" rigorous to his standards. I've tried to resist that impulse. Yes, the poem addresses its reader (the "other") and is a mode of "welcome" (a key word for Levinas), but this ethical dimension of poetic language is equally available to other forms of expression. For instance, telemarketing, or heckling a performer. Poetry's particular virtues don't further this aspect of language. And you can see why furthering would be necessary given my examples. That, perhaps, is the source of the bitter humor you note in my later work. I don't celebrate play. Rather, I celebrate the exposure of play as a kind of violence perpetrated against the reader.

But I've also grown averse to "play" for more trivial reasons. Simply put, I've read too much shitty writing that takes "aleatory" or "novelty" or "experiment" as its alibi to have much faith in poems flagrantly averse to close reading. And faith is definitely required. Why else stick with a poem when its value is not so readily apparent? You have to believe that the author had a justifiable reason for requiring so much work (and yes, work is definitely required when it comes to reading playful writing). Then too, I'm leery of the piety with which many of my peers conceive of their play — probably it's the piety that bugs me more than the play.

But let me put this in another, friendlier way: writing that resists reading teaches many things, and I’ve learned those things (or some of them). What I hunger for now, as reader and writer alike, leads me to explore other directions.

NG: I love that you said you're bugged by piety. I couldn't agree with you more. So I hope you'll indulge me while I get contentious for a minute with a couple of your very thought-provoking remarks. I'm afraid I have to disagree with Levinas' claim. He sounds awfully dour — and like a non-artist. I don't think art is "essentially disengaged." First, it's inextricable from the person place and time that exudes it, and second, when the artist is absorbed in her process she is deeply engaged, and exercising volition. The political ramifications? Whether working from a Cagean aesthetic or writing a poem protesting police brutality the art represents an instance of unalienated labor and hence of rebellion. Didn't Adorno (to whom I suspect you're not wildly sympathetic) say much the same thing? It's not the same as joining an NGO to help the minefield victims in Cambodia, but it's not evasion either — rather it is very certainly an act of initiative and will. Please feel free to pop a hole in this argument — it could just be an elaborate (or overly simplistic?) justification for an activity I enjoy. Do you think I'm being pious?

Also, another question ... if play is a kind of violence (violence seeming to mean "that which forces one to work") perpetrated against the reader, then isn't difficulty also violent (and therefore Dickinson, Celan, et al)? And isn't the-value-of-what-one-experiences-or-learns-from-reading-a particular-poem relative? Let me get a little less abstract and bring this around to your own work. I've heard you say you revere Duncan and feel yourself to be poetically akin to him; some of your work seems to use arcana, philosophy, history and myth in a Duncanesque way. The book I have in mind here is Myth, your collaboration with Jeff Gburek. It's fascinating, replete with diagrams, a bibliography, a kind of multi-form essay-poem ... but not, to your average Joe or maybe even your average poet, 100% "reader-friendly." How is this book, in your terms, not violent towards a reader in the way an orgy of signifiers might be?

BF: You raise an important question when you ask if difficulty and play are equally violent — though the opposition is not quite exact since playful writing can be just as difficult as the other kind.

I've been reading American Fictions, a collection of essays by Elizabeth Hardwick, and there's one on Stein that ends by comparing The Making of Americans with Ulysses. Hardwick speaks of both writers as difficult, but to my mind the difference she articulates is in effect the difference between a poetics of play and whatever the other kind might be. Not that Joyce lacks for play, but the end result is certainly unlike anything encountered in Stein.

For Hardwick, the difference turns on each's requirements for an adequate reading. Joyce, she says,

is difficult because he has more knowledge, more language, more rhythmical musicality than the reader can easily summon. With Gertrude Stein we are frequently urged to forgetfulness, to erasure of tonal memory, so that we may hear the hypnotic murmurings of what is a literature in basic English.

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Jena Osman, when Jena was struggling to write a seminar paper on Finnegans Wake. She surprised herself by hating that book; Jena felt that Joyce's relationship to history — more specifically: his requirement that the reader be mindful of history — was totalitarian. She pointed to Stein as the polar opposite, not only in terms of what a reading of Stein requires, but in the political implications of that requirement. She saw Stein's erasure of history as a liberatory gesture, which it certainly is — up to a point.

Sartre says (I think Jena would agree), "Writing is a certain way of wanting freedom; once you have begun, you are committed, willy-nilly." The statement is no less true of Joyce than Stein, but in Stein the desire for freedom has gone a step further, to become, in effect, a form of self-actualization: an unbridled manifestation of aesthetic will. Responsibility for the other? That just isn't part of the equation.

"Reality and Its Shadow" was first published in Les Temps Modernes, the house organ for Sartrean existentialism. When Levinas defined art as "essentially disengaged," he was being deliberately provocative. He was telling Sartre that commitment to freedom is, from the standpoint of ethics, an evasion of commitment, at least insofar as the other falls out of the picture.

No question, Levinas is dour. Jill Robbins, my teacher at Buffalo, used to love saying, "This is NOT a feel-good ethics!" At the same time, his rejection of art is fraught with contradictions. For instance, the first and last lines of Totality and Infinity are silent evocations of Rimbaud and Baudelaire; and Levinas himself was a writer. Then too, over the course of a long career he altered his thoughts on art in a number of small but important ways. "Reality and Its Shadow" is but one of many statements on art, and the earliest to boot.

What is violence for Levinas? Among other things, "reduction of the other to the logic of the same." This means, in ordinary language, treating the individual as an abstraction, as the representation of a category (for instance, as "the reader"). The precision of the analysis is such that even the word "individual" is problematic — the individual being but one in a series. The other qua other is singular, "unique in its genus." Given this sensitivity to the possibilities for violence in language as well as in action, it's no wonder that Levinas took a dim view of art, at least initially.

Is Dickinson violent? Certainly she wrote with a heightened awareness of the stakes of her address. It's noteworthy, for instance, that she withheld the vast majority of her poems from publication — though she gave them freely to her friends. It's also noteworthy that so many of her poems are devoid of content. The giving of the poem is its content:

I've none to tell me to but Thee —
So when Thou failest, nobody —
It was a little tie —
It just held Two, nor those it held
Since Somewhere thy sweet Face has spilled
Beyond my Boundary —

If things were opposite — and Me
And Me it were — that ebbed from Thee
On some unanswering Shore —
Would'st thou seek so — just say
That I the Answer may pursue
Unto the lips it eddied through —
So — overtaking Thee —

She makes an heroic attempt to stay the solidification of a living language into aesthetic object — to be ethical in a sense that Levinas would recognize. If she fails, it's because we arrive on the scene, transforming her work into aesthetic object (or what is worse: "intellectual property").

At the same time, she was no less aware of her posterity than Whitman. Except that Dickinson doesn't pretend to be able to embrace her future. Quite the contrary, she draws our attention to her distance, for instance by making an analogy between book and grave, poem and gravestone. Far from pretending to engage us in an actual relationship, Dickinson makes explicit the nature of the gulf we readers would have to overcome in order to revivify her language and make it again an instrument of ethics:

Herein a Blossom lies —
A Sepulchre, between —
Cross it, and overcome the Bee —
Remain — 'tis but a Rind.

Again and again in Dickinson, the gift of language turns out to be a language for witholding gifts. Yet she enjoins us to read. Is there violence in that request? Oh yeah. And the level of awareness with which the violence is marshaled makes it all the more terrifying.

In my own work I've passed through many phases, including a Duncan phase, a Stein phase. But most recently I've been taking my cues from Dickinson, exploring the structures of address, trying to bring the violence latent in all language to the surface of my attention, making it an issue in the reader's reception a la Bruce Andrews. I wouldn't want to write this way forever, but I've learned a lot in the interim.

NG: At the risk of sounding like a job interviewer, I'd like to ask you about your scholarly pursuits over the years. Here's what I know: you have devoted much attention to Larry Eigner, editing his prose collection, Areas Lights Heights; you have translated Celan; you have taught the Vietnam War. Tell me about these and other areas that have captured your scholarly fascination.

BF: I have to admit I’m uncomfortable calling myself a scholar. Last year I read Gerald Graff’s eye-opening account of how the teaching of literature evolved into its current form as an academic discipline. I hadn’t appreciated until then how sharply divided English departments used to be by the scholarship-criticism distinction. I don’t know why I was surprised. I studied Art History at Berkeley and one of my best teachers was a graduate student later dismissed from the program because she wasn’t considered a serious scholar. Why? Because she wrote art criticism! In this sense, I think of myself as a critic, not a scholar. Scholars do archival research, trace sources, prepare new editions of texts, compose annotations and write biographies or literary histories. Critics speculate, theorize, give their opinion, pass judgment, offer readings — just like poets! Critics, unlike scholars, are willing and active participants in the culture they study. Or so runs the traditional distinction. But putting it baldly like that, I see that the two roles are hopelessly intertwined (or should I say hopefully?), at least for me. My work in the Olson and Dickinson archives only enlarged the scope of my critical readings — and hardly did away with the need for speculation and theory. My new editions of Eigner and Olson were hardly free of judgment and opinion.

But then, this is an era of activist scholarship. I think of Jerome McGann’s work on Byron, which proceeded on two fronts: a distinguished edition of Byron’s Poetical Works and a series of critical interventions. The same goes for Martha Nell Smith, whose eloquent championing of the Emily Dickinson-Susan Gilbert Dickinson relationship now takes the form of literary criticism (Rowing in Eden), now of scholarship (Open Me Carefully, an edition of the correspondence). Nina Baym is an activist-scholar in a more straightforward sense. Her American Women Writers and the Work of History recovers an entire library of writings composed between the Revolution and Civil War. Cultural Studies has had an influence too. In the era of high theory, criticism and scholarship still seemed to follow separate paths. This doesn’t seem true any more. The book I’m reading now, Criminal Conversations: Sentimentality and Nineteenth-Century Legal Stories of Adultery by Laura Hanft Korobkin, is typical of the current blending: theoretically sophisticated readings of extra-literary works collected through historical research. The most enlightening book on American poetry that I read in the last year is another good example: The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck by John W. M. Hallock.

I recognize some semblance of my own intellectual project when I look at the work of these various scholars, but my initial efforts as a scholar were worked out in complete isolation from the university. My edition of Larry Eigner’s critical prose was a late ‘80s adventure, begun after I dropped out of the MA program at Berkeley. It never occurred to me to pursue this work academically — nor did I ever think of getting advice from academics on how to proceed. I used the Berkeley library, of course, and I copied what I could from other scholarly editions, but that was the end of it. Only when I was done did David Lloyd propose that I receive my MA in compensation. Even then the administration balked; I still had to write a thesis. And though the thesis itself was judged, no one showed the slightest interest in judging my work on the manuscripts. Meanwhile: the Mark Twain editing project was continuing apace, substantially supported with university and other funds. I had a work study job at the time in the library, one flight down from the Mark Twain office, so I always knew where I stood — and where Eigner stood — in relation to the so-called "canon."

My discomfort with the label scholar is probably a matter of self-image too. There was a group of kids when I was growing up who used to call me professor, I guess because I wore glasses and liked to read books. It still shocks me that I really am a professor. And then too, when I compare what I do as a literary critic with what my father does as an historian, it doesn’t seem right that both activities should be called by the same name. The Eigner book is a case in point — I pity the future scholar who tries to disentangle what Larry and I concocted there. Don’t get me wrong. I feel very good about the end result. But working with Larry posed problems that often overwhelmed my judgment, and that left their mark on the book in a manner that defies all notions of scholarly objectivity. Larry, as you know, had cerebral palsy. His voice and handwriting were often difficult to understand, and although he typed whenever possible, even his typing required line-by-line interpretation. Complicating matters was the fact that the book was compiled from a disparate array of notes, letters, essays and reviews, some of them 35 years old, and many of them existing in obviously corrupt printed versions only. Larry was bemused by this material, to say the least, and gamely went about the task of preparing a text for publication. Just here, however, where a real scholar would have stepped back, I imposed myself. Of course, I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time. I considered myself a facilitator, and took pleasure in the fact that the book wouldn’t have existed — that much of what the book contained wouldn't have existed had I not intervened in its production. For instance, I placed no limit on Larry’s tinkering with the text. Indeed, I egged him on, inviting additions as well as corrections. (Many of these additions were dictated, which means that they exist in my handwriting only.) Worse still, I allowed my own likes and dislikes to shape the general course of Larry’s approach to the material. This was probably unavoidable. My visits to Larry formed a major part of his social life at the time and he was eager to please. But whatever reticence or objectivity I had at the start of the project quickly disappeared in the chaos of the experience itself. An experience I treasure as one of the most important in my life.

I'm not sure that that answers your question.

NG: Well, believe it or not, you are indeed a professor. Tell me about your pedagogy.

BF: In grad school I used to joke, "When I hear the word pedagogy, I reach for my revolver." A strangely anti-theoretical bias given my other interests. It was sparked, I think, by the smugness of the composition specialists I knew in grad school. Claims that there are right and wrong ways to teach — or learn — just enrage me.

I loved school as a kid — I was a real teacher's pet — but as an adolescent I became intensely anti-authoritarian and turned against school, helped along by the excessively rule-bound education system in New York City, which is where my family moved midway through my sixth-grade year. In high school I read quite a few books of so-called "radical pedagogy," and I suppose that informs my practice in the classroom today. Certainly that reading informs my poetics. In fact, that's how I learned about Jack Spicer: from a book on teaching by James Herndon, one of Spicer's friends. (Shortly after moving to Berkeley I built up the courage to call Herndon to tell him how much I admired his work. He invited me over for a visit sometime. Alas, I was far too shy to take him up on the offer.)

Retrospectively, I can see that Spicer's ideas about "magic," "the outside," "community" and so on manifest themselves in an entirely different form in Herndon's books as a style of teaching, and though my own style of teaching is as different from Herndon's as my style of writing is from Spicer's, I do feel there's a kinship in my attitude about students.

I'm lucky to be teaching at a university that gives credence to curiosity — that allows me to pursue my varied interests. In the year and a half that I've been here, I've taught poetry and poetics, critical theory, American literature from conquest to the present. Last year I taught "Postmodern American Poetry" and an introduction to graduate study loosely organized around the story of Moses (texts by Hurston, Freud, Yerushalmi, Derrida). This past semester I led a seminar on Emily Dickinson; this spring I'll be exploring a psycho-social threshold in the imagination as deployed in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Pierre, in plays like The Gladiator and The Drunkard, in Lydia Maria Child's Letters from New York, in Dickinson and Whitman and their sentimental contemporaries. But what's ultimately at stake in all these classes is a particular practice of reading. I'm as devoted to that practice as any pervert to his or hers.

NG: Could you describe some of your recent perversions in detail? What texts are enthralling you? I've been finding myself gravitating to nature writing — Maeterlink, Whitely, Mary Austin — maybe because I always choose to live in metropolises. Do you ever find you choose reading material to balance out your geographical or intellectual or emotional environment? Or to complement? Are you more random or systematic as a reader?

BF: Funny you should mention nature writing. I've dabbled in that a wee bit myself in recent years, though I'm citified through and through. Pat Reed and I used to go on an annual backpacking trip; I always brought along a walkman. I used to sit at camp with a book or notebook whenever she went tromping through the brush. A real stick in the mud I was.

Those trips supplied some surface detail to my writing, but by and large my imagination is entirely preoccupied with man-made reality (if I can put it that way). In this respect, my work is exactly the opposite of Pat's, which was always suffused with nature, even when her attention was located in the city. I always admired that. My own attention screens out as much as it takes in, but Pat's poetics are founded on openness. She appraises our environment without prejudice, and thus contributes to a more total understanding of our actual situation as "social animals." There are poets who take this mapping on as an intellectual or moral project (Olson, Kyger, Ronald Johnson, Hejinian to some extent, Dan Bouchard), but those like Pat who are modest in their pedagogical aims (Larry Eigner would be the preeminent example) tend to be seen as marginal or even naive figures. There's a tendency in intellectual circles to suppress the question of nature and treat writers who take it up as childish, romantic, unsophisticated. I wrote about this in an unpublished review of Lisa Robertson's XEclogue. The question of language has dominated poetic discourse to such an extent that interest in language begins to seem synonymous with serious intent. A lot of stupid, sloppy writing draws inordinate attention that way, while much that is significant or meticulous goes unremarked.

But that isn't why I began reading nature writing, or isn't the sole reason. I've also been compiling a list of significant works of American literature that fall outside the purview of survey courses. Most of these works are excluded from consideration by reason of genre — the same prejudice that represents James Baldwin on the basis of a weak short story rather than a first-rate essay. Happily, the teaching of early American writing doesn't suffer from the same problem. A paucity of significant fiction and poetry makes for a far more open understanding of what constitutes literature than obtains in later periods. Sermons, journals, letters, slave narratives, political tracts, travel accounts and philosophical essays abound. To judge from our anthologies, you would think that these all disappeared after the Civil War. The disparity between the ante- and post-bellum eras vis-a-vis the kinds of writing one reads is astonishing. I'd like to rectify that in my own teaching. Nature writing is an obvious place to start. You'll find Thoreau in any anthology, but what about Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson, or the wonderful, unread Helen Hoover? A Sand County Almanac is far more significant, to my mind, than Walden, and just as beautifully written; its absence is indefensible.

The discrepancies between the pre- and postwar period are maddening. Why Jonathan Edwards but not William James? Why Thomas Jefferson but not Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Why slave narratives but not protest writing from later eras? Even autobiography — our most enduring genre — slips in and out of focus. And religion disappears altogether, along with politics. Sadly, the problem is only spreading backward. The great twentieth-century war correspondents are missing (Ernie Pyle, Martha Gellhorn, Michael Herr, Gloria Emerson), but so is the Civil War. Amazingly, there's no Martin Luther King, Jr., or F.D.R., but Daniel Webster is also gone.

The biggest scandal of all is the treatment of immigrant writers and writers who work in languages other than English. This too is a problem especially evident in later periods. The Spanish explorers and British-born Puritans pass muster; so too do Crevecoeur and Equiano. Why then exclude Singer, Brodsky, Wiesel, Walcott and Milosz — to stick to our Nobel laureates — or Achebe, Arendt, Auden, Brathwaite, Fuentes and Nabokov? Paul Muldoon is now a US citizen. That makes him, to my mind, as American as Eugene O'Neill, not to mention Henry Adams or Ezra Pound.

This is as much a matter of politics as poetics. Perhaps it's because I'm a refugee's child (and the grandchild of immigrants) — or perhaps because my wife is a resident alien — but I'm sensitive to abuse of the word "American" in defense of a certain notion of culture. You earlier suggested that "subjectivity" is out of fashion these days. So's "pluralism," apparently. Call me a rootless cosmopolitan, but I say to hell with that. I'm a pluralist through and through.

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