Brian Kim Stefans
[This is an unrevised email interview; we considered editing for succinctness and clarity, but decided to present it as originally vollied.]
Gary Sullivan: Both Gulf and Free Space Comix were published in 1997; though, having spent the last month with both of them, they seem to come out of somewhat different spaces. Were they written around the same time? Or are they from different time periods? Can you describe the process of putting these two books together?
Brian Kim Stefans: Both of those books were written at almost the same time, give or take a few poems, and the same place, which is Rutherford, New Jersey, in the house in which I was raised, having moved home to go to graduate school at the CUNY grad center. I think that's about 1995-96. I was a pretty poor student, having fooled myself into thinking that grad school would be an extension of my liberal arts education, hence I could pretty much take classes according to my interests, and the emphasis would be on greater understanding of things and the world, but it proved, to me at least, to be a training ground for academic professionals focussed on digging up Virginia Woolf's torn movie tickets and knowing Henry James's hat size; nonetheless, I spent most of my time reading what I wanted, and took the classes that I wanted, and also writing poems. I was quite nuts in those days; I would read two or three pages of Blake one Saturday morning, for example, and go to the Saturday reading either still at the Ear or maybe at Here and babble about these things until people moved to other tables. I think it was lack of exercise, or too much kielbase. Anyway, it's during this time that I started writing computer programs (deciding that it was time to start thinking of a job, and meeting all of these web people who were millionaires doing HTML), and so taught myself C++; I also started working on a series of graphic poems called "Proffessional Earth" which never materialized; and also, probably due to my reading at school, but also because of the impetus (or challenge, maybe) of books like Jennifer Moxley's Imagination Verses, started to reinvestigate the lyric, which I felt, outside of Jennifer's work, was not being done very well at the time (it's gotten much better, I feel). I had also just met Jeff Derksen, whose writing became very important to me, and talking a lot with Tim Davis, to whom I was connected at the hip (we didn't have cell phones back then). People like Stacy Doris, Rob Fitterman, Kim Rosenfield, Judith Goldman, Sianne Ngai, Dan Farrell, and a slew of others (many of whom aren't around these days) were mostly my "circle" then. Anyway, so it was this time when I was taking in all kinds of things, rather arrogantly feeling I could do everything that I came across, and having lots of time to work on this stuff. Being something of a nutter, I had this weird vision of writing a huge book that I would drop, sheet by sheet, from a high building in Wall Street as a sort of anarchic intervention for some reason I thought Kevin Davies would be the one to help me with this (perhaps because of his book Pause Button, and the idea, of course, was to pause Wall Street for a few moments at least) well, I mention this since it was kind of the guiding vision of both books, which were, I'm getting around to this, one book at the time. These were probably the first poems of mine that got out of the rather standard, romantic mode of experience recollected in private kind of thing; they struck me as poems that had to be in the air to come alive, and not, like most poems (of my own, too) poems that needed to be taken out of public to do their work. So I had this large mass of poems that, to me, were the first "real" things that I could stand behind, and one day I arranged them all, made ten xerox copies, titled it "Gulf," and sent the copies out to friends (none of whom worked on Wall Street). I also sent one to Doug Messerli at Sun & Moon, and to James Sherry at Roof, James having said some nice things to me about some of my work he'd seen in magazines. Messerli sent me a friendly note saying he wasn't looking at new books anymore lucky me, since that ship has sunk. James, the next time I saw him, said we should talk; he thought it too big and sloppy, which is true it was, but after a year or so (I can't remember how long it was) he didn't move on it because he was very busy, and finally asked Bruce Andrews if he would help edit the book. I was a little nervous about this at first, for about five minutes I think, but then said yes. My fear, of course, was that Bruce would only like the poems that followed through on his hard-core constructivist poetics, but when we did have our phone conversation, I found his reading of my forms much more elaborate than that he really read the work closely and quite well, sometimes dismissing poems outright that I liked (which I expected), sometimes liking poems but not a particular word or phrase (which I didn't expect this surprise is what makes me describe his reading as "reading with cross-hairs," since he doesn't let anything go, which is a good thing), and sometimes liking poems which I thought he would dismiss outright. An example of this latter is the ballad in "Codex" (yes, it's really there) which is rhyming quatrains; I thought he would surely dislike this one, and perhaps prefer "Alf's Last Bits," which later appeared in Gulf. If I were to sum up, in a phrase, what in general he preferred, it would be writing that didn't dawdlle with literary affairs, such as a poem like "Alf" (which is a play on Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly"), since they tended to be only of use to a literary, educated class of people (which is true); he preferred, of course, those that were social, or used the language of today in a way that foregrounded their social values, but with, well, zest which is pretty key to his poetry, obviously, though he doesn't write ballads. Well, anyway, we got the manuscript down to 86 pages, which was kind of tough since they were much smaller pages 9 x 6 than the letter-size for which I had composed the poems (that's why some of the graphic works are so tiny). To get to the point here, Free Space Comix was the product of that process; Gulf was made up of what was left over from the original manuscript, along with what I had composed in the time since the first book, and a few things (like "Wild Sublimations") that were actually a bit older, but which I really liked. I would have resubmitted the book to another publisher, but I'm very impatient, and of course just wanted to get on with new work; also, as these poems were written under the idea that they would be little bombs set off on Wall Street, it didn't make much sense that they would sit in my drawer. So Gulf was printed up in an edition of 95 or so, and more or less sold via the mail; Rob was really great about this, and I think everyone that I wanted to have see it at the time got to see it, but I'd like to print up more.
GS: There's quite a bit of reference to early English, and I think Nordic, poetries in Gulf. What's the impulse behind that? I'm especially interested in how you use this material in "Stops and Rebels," which I think is one of the "computer-program assisted" poems. Can you talk about the program itself how you're using it to generate / mix up this material as well?
BKS: Well, this question is sort of answered above. I had started reading Hopkins with great interest at this time, and had actually written a paper for my class on Anglo-Saxon literature on alliterative verse from the good old days, through Hopkins, and ending with Bernstein (in such poems as "Virtual Reality" in his book Dark City). Of course the paper was ridiculous, but I made some nice translations of Old English poetry for the class (very conventional translations, though using a computer to determine some of the line lengths), even a stab at "The Seafarer." When I started making poems that used, as their first drafts, texts that were created by computers programs that, basically, smashed together 3-4 other source texts into some sort of elegant gumbo, but which, since they were mine, I could torque to have it do exactly what I wanted, sometimes running the same program 40 different times to see what they came up with, etc. I realized that alliteration would be an good way to solve the basic problem of form. I wasn't good enough a programmer to have the program create metered lines (which I didn't want anyway), and alliteration, which foregrounds the sounds of words, hence making them more independent on the one hand, but makes their relationship to words immediately around them intense and troubled (unlike in metered verse, where the cadence of the line would be foregrounded, and one's goal is a sort of invisiable suavity to the sounds of the words), was a good solution. So Stops and Rebels used, as its source texts: Tennyson's translation of the Old English poem "The Battle at Brunaburh"; my phonetic (a la Zukofsky's Catullus) translation of the original OE, which followed the original poem in terms of consonants, line-by-line; and three prose paragraphs about literary change, or literary influence, one by Harold Bloom (whose ideas I didn't like at the time and still don't) from The Anxiety of Influence, one paragraph from the introduction to Primary Trouble by Leonard Schwartz, and one paragraph from a book about Zen by Dr. Suzuki (chosen, of course, at random) this last one because my idea, at the time, was that Cage's mesostics and other "read-throughs" troubled any sort of Freudian (and perhaps quasi-Hegelian) notions of literary influence. My hope was that Tennyson's lines, which were alliterative, would play against my lines, creating a "vortex" (ha) of consonents that would be interesting; the problem was that, while "Alf"'s lines were alliterative, they used different consonants, so my line full of, say, the "p" sound did not actually match up with his line, which would use the "g" sound as its base but so what. The way the prose would work here would be like (I just thought of this analogy) how sand works when creating concrete the lime would be the bonding agent, but you use the sand to fill out the spaces, to give it some stability, etc. (the only thing I let myself change, in this poem, was the punctuation, italics, and things like that, and I also added in the little Wiliams parody and the line from Coleridge, otherwise it's the output from the PC); if there were no prose bits, the poem would be psycho-babble, which may have been interesting to some people but not me. I was a programmer long before I was writing poetry, having learned Basic when I was a lad (on the now classic Vic 20, which had a killer total RAM of 2 K which you could expand to 16k, and which saved its programs on tape cassettes excellent), so when (in grad school) I would have to sit there listening to some teacher babble about this mysterious, holy new entity called the Internet, and how it would transform nature and memory and the linearity of thinking, I got a little annoyed but intrigued at the same time; in fact, the internet has crushed that divide between what once a very solitary, not very useful skill of programming (outside of games and scientific work) and the public form of making art this is obvious, but computers and art seemed, for the layman, quite a wide divide back in the early eighties. Anyway, so I felt that I had this insight into the way programs could work that it wasn't just a useful way to illustrate the schizoid aspects of literature a la Jameson and so went out of my way to create computer programs that had bodies lyrical bodies, one might say and had some humor, some elegance, and something mundane and human.
GS: I'm kind of a title freak, and wondering about the titles of your two books, as well as the manuscript you're sending [Angry Penguins, just published by Harry Tankoos]. Gulf makes me consider, begin to consider, the kinds of "gulfs" you're writing over or through or which maybe you're simply acknowledging: Time, being the most obvious one, I guess, at least to me. I couldn't help but begin to look at all of the work through the filter of the title (which may be a bit obsessive), and other possibilities presented themselves, became visible: The gulf of race, I guess, as this work, so much of it, seems to come out of a reading of European & American-with-Euro-roots literature. Also, in looking at the longish title poem, "Gulf," the word again has me looking at specific elements of the poem: In this case, the gulf between each of the sections of the poem, most of which are printed in different typefaces, and are stylistically various (you have in the title poem alone: parodies, lists, shorter lyrical passages, very sonically-driven sections, speech-driven passages, art-criticism, quips, a portion of a resume, etc., etc.). How conscious were you of how the title might be working with the poem(s) on this level?
BKS: I was quite conscious of that, and all your wrote actually; I couldn't have phrased it better myself. Yes, gulfs between all sorts of things. Actually, I got the word from a poem I had translated a while ago, Rimbaud's "Seven Year Old Poets," which are the following:
In the shadows of halls draped with moldy tattered
curtains, he walked with poked tongue, fists
in his groin, and in his closed eyes would see spots.
A door which opened onto evening: by the lamp
one would see him, upstairs, gasping with his cramps
in a gulf of light pouring from the roof. Summers
especially, conquered, stupid, he remained stubborn ...
Etc., etc. Anyway, it's a good poem. So here was "gulf" (which in the French was "golfe" or something, and I may have mistranslated) being a positive force, or something with presence, though it is a "gulf of light," and he's obviously not too happy underneath it the light, then, being darkness. Anyway, so the book, which was "designed" for 8.5 x 11 pages, tries to use all of that extra space, even in the short lyrical poems, to bring to both exaggerate and moderate those differences between the different types of poems. That book, for instance, has at least 3 computer-generated poems, of different types, the Mauberley thing, the over-reading poem of Robert Duncan's, and a lot of stuff. I was much more conscious, at that time, of what Language poetry was or was supposed to be in some system of literary "progress," and probably felt that my little lyrical bits, my more melodic work, or the work that was "ich bezogene" (which is German for I-centered, though I would have to check that), was a stark contrast to the computer-generated stuff, though I know in my heart of hearts it isn't (just haven't found a way to describe why, yet). Gulf, also, means something like the space between NJ and NY, both in terms of class and culture; the book was written in NY, and I was very critical, as all NJers are, of a sort of cultural insularity in NY, and was very aware of what it felt like to be on the margins there (and enjoying it immensely I think much better in NJ). (Williams' last son died, by the way, during my stay in Rutherford; he had been my doctor.) Gulf was also the Persian Gulf, to a degree, in that I think the book is a bit about the failure of information to penetrate a bourgeois, or socialized, space, and I felt that our misunderstanding of things like Islamic culture or Middle Eastern politics as whole contributed greatly to the ease with which America went along with the war. So there is an information "gulf" why the great prophets of the age of information have always sounded so false to me, since the facts can be present, but the imagination, or the paradigm-adjustment, needed to deal with these facts are not there. If I think of any other "Gulfs" I wasn't thinking of the oil company I'll tell you.
GS: What lead you to name the other book Free Space Comix? There's at least an obvious acknowledgment / emphasis there on the poems' graphic quality ... but what else? I remember you once writing on the list about R. Crumb: do you read many comics?
BKS: I don't actually read many comics these days, but when I was a kid I was infatuated with them. I had a good friend named Patrick Moran who's since went on to found his own animation company, etc.; I was never nearly as good as him, but we used to spend a lot of time drawing comics (I had a little Mad-type magazine called Dumb, I forget what his was, but it was probably more obscene than mine). We also used to draw pictures of faces that would look like faces whether viewed from top or bottom; also, some game where one would draw a choatic series of lines and the next person would have to reconcile them into some image, etc., worth mentioning only because I think these kinds of games play into the poetry of that book. I'm also interested in the way the Toronto Research Group, particularly bpNichol, approached comics, though more in the theory of the frame can't say I was thinkng of that stuff when I did the book, however, didn't know who they were back then. The real source, though, for the title beside obvious allusions to web-space (though I hadn't even seen the internet when I put together the book, had just read about it grad-school didn't own my own computer at the time) and more buried thinking about anarchic organcism, different ideas of information possession, borders, knowledge, etc. is an essay by Wyndham Lewis titled "The Best Satire Isn't Moral," or something like that, which seems a fitting title some of the ironized late-constructivist style writing I was aspiring too, though I was always troubled by how this aesthetic style related to its heritage in right-wing literature of the early part of the century. Perhaps this is the reason I made them "comix" and not anything with wider aspirations toward "truth."
GS: Can you talk a little bit about the process of collaborating on Cosmopolitans with Sianne Ngai? Did you guys do it verbally, or was it more of a back & forth writing exchange or maybe a sit-down-together-and-type-up-the-goods thing?
BKS: If I recall, we started with word games of some sort. I think we started by thinking of a series of two-word phrases, say about ten, then went on to think of three-word phrases, and then four-word. Something like that, sitting in front of a computer, probably giggling wildly though it's probably not worth mentioning given that the humor in the piece is kind of low-brow. We then hit upon making it a dialogue, and basically pulled phrases together, rewrote them, etc., to come up with the first section, which had different character names (can't remember what they were, but the original title of the piece was "The Orientalist Question," which was meaningless). For the second section, which we did at my place, we each had source texts Avital Ronell's The Telephone Book was one, I think, and an essay by Jeff Derksen's on The Kootenay School was another -- and slapped together phrases culled from these texts. That was for the paragraph on the left; for that on the right, we used the left paragraph as a source, though I don't remember if there was any method there probably not. For the last section, we used a computer program to collide all of the texts from the first two sections in some way, and break them into verse form, so they were broken into lines. We then took turns and went from line to line, picking which word we liked best. I don't remember how it got broken up into two columns, or how we decided what went where, but somehow we did. Perhaps using the computer for this last section makes it the least interesting in terms of "content," but I don't think we were thinking content that much, obviously, and the last section is the funnest to read. Miles Champion and I test-rode the poem in England a few times, which was interesting because he reads so quickly, so that last section became a mad race to the last word, which is "blippety-blips." Then Sianne and I read it together in New York, and I told her we had to race to the last word in the last section, which we did, and she won (she threw a golden apple in my path, and I stumbled on the word "cartesian"). So through-and-through it was collaborative, we weren't sitting around claiming lines, and though it's a lighter work like many collaborations are, I don't think it fits easily into what each of us are doing; anyway, I don't take it that seriously. I should mention that we did the piece because Summi Kaipa at Interlope, a magazine for experimental Asian American writing, had asked us each to contribute to an issue separately, but neither of us had work so we did something together. Summi hit upon the idea of making it a small book, and designed the cover, which is funny.
GS: I've actually been thinking a lot about this next question since your reading last week [at the Drawing Center, NYC]. You'd mentioned I think something about maybe an "ambient" poetics ... unless I'm just sort of daydreaming about it. I mean, I do remember you saying at one point something about writing both "exciting" and "boring" poems. I doubt you intended to be taken 100% seriously, but this did get me thinking about ambient writing: could such a thing be said to exist? Is there an ambient reading (of anything), considering that "ambient" implies something's being experienced peripherally ? And, assuming we can finally agree, "Okay, yeah, that's ambient writing," what is to be gained from it?
BKS: I certainly don't divide my work that way, between "exciting" and "boring" poems; I'm sure everyone who reads the work will have their own sense of what's boring. But since I've started working with computers and trying to get different feels for work via these processes, I realize one effect I can achieve is a very low-intensity type of writing that is a bit couner-intuitive to the lyric, vortex-oriented, Poundian sense of Dichtung = Condensare, which of course other poets have been way ahead of me in achieving. Actually, I sent the first "edition" of The Poem of Attitudes, the poem I read that night, to Brian Eno, along with Lyn Hejinian's Happily, thinking that it tied into his interests in music and the philosophy of Richard Rorty (it was sent back; I don't have his home address and the record company seemed to not want it). The obvious divide in Eno's music is between the pop-like songs and the "ambient" work, but his terms for the former, or the quality of the former, is music with "idiot energy." I don't know what he means by that exactly, but I take it as a sort of sexual thing, the "idiot energy" being the kind of untamed, never-to-be-fulfilled, perhaps masturbatory, sexual energy or urges that we first feel when we're in adolescence, during which we just walk around with dopey grins on our faces because we've never explored what this sensation means, kind of ogling at everybody we want to touch and make-out with. ("Baby's On Fire" or "Third Uncle" are probably his best in this vein.) So this becomes a kind of explosive energy, totally useless though it probably drives the entire music industry right now (though without the rich ironies). "Ambient" music, or maybe "ambient energy," is a more achieved sort of sensual energy, in that the music, to me, seems to suggest that one could spend long afternoons in a sort of erotic relationship with the word and with others, something that is just tinged with sexual anxiety. This is where Eno and Cage depart, I feel, in that ambient music acknowledges a degree of anxiety and intends somewhat to articulate it, whereas Cage, when he's full-throttle Zen, minimizes this anxiety to such an extent (or banishes it to a negative realm) that the effects of his music have to be reached, rather than coming out to greet you or acknowledge that the kind of distraction he wishes you to achieve is being actively opposed by anxiety, which he doesn't offer much help with. Idiot energy could be that energy that comes from alienation, in which one cannot acknowledge any sort of social contracts with others or with the "system," whereas ambient energy seems to create this contract, even if it's ephemeral, essentially private, soothing, I would also say "pragmatic," in some ways androgynous (it satisfied a feminist poetics in some ways, but doesn't really even bother distinguishing), certainly not idealistic though hopefully not entirely nullifying. Ambient and idiot energies are not mutually exclusive categories, of course; if it wasn't for the "reptilian" intrumental quality of Music for Films, for example, you would just have New Age music, which is what ambient is often confused with. Anyway, I'm no scholar on the subject. Tan Lin is working on a long prose work called Notes for an Ambient Stylistics, or something like that, that will probably more accurately describe the sense of entropy and levelling that we associate with postmodernism; he's read these pieces very effectively in places, though I tend to wonder what the difference is between these pieces and low-intensity prose poetry (of, say, Ashbery's Three Poems); of course, one would ask why The Poem of Attitudes is not simply Language poetry, and to say "it's easier" wouldn't be much of an answer. Part of the reason I call A Poem of Attitudes "ambient," consequently, is because I essentially wrote the thing in an afternoon, having scanned in several months worth of pretty terrible lyric poetry which wasn't worth revising, running several processes on it, and then revised, line-by-line, very quicly, the output. So I thought to title it "Thursday Afternoon," after the 66-minutes (the longest CD-released work of that time) Eno piece of that name which was also constructed via loops and recording processes, probably in an afternoon. Long poems are usually supposed to take a long time to write; the joke here is that it didn't, though it's a low intensity piece. Lastly (sorry this is going on so long), I hoped one day to read the poem entirely through during a "normal" reading, and asking people to simply leave and return when they felt, or leave forever, or whatever; I thought the poem, or me reading it, would sound particularly fabulous as you were leaving, say, the back room of the Zinc bar, saying goodbye to your friends, feeling just a touch of shame leaving me behind but knowing you wouldn't be missing anything, really. Perhaps I'll make a CD of it to play while you wash the dishes and comb your hair.
GS: Going back a bit, I noticed in Gulf that three of the poems, "Alfa Betty's Chronicles," "What I" and "Pax Tropicana," are not included in the book itself, but rather housed at Kenny Goldsmith's ubu web-site. I can see why these poems are best presented online: In the case of both "Alfa Betty's Chronicles" and "Pax Tropicana" you're working with varied font sizes and colors, and "What I," where the stanzas sort of resemble French curves, the effect is quite different scrolling down (where the sweep of motion becomes foregrounded) than it would be on the page. But it also sort of suggests to the reader your own movement, if not entirely away from the page, definitely branching out into the net, where you're allowed a greater, let's call it "agility," something you seem to have most thoroughly exploited in "The Naif and the Bluebells," which involves numerous pop-up windows, fonts in various colors and sizes, animation, pop-up errata notes, visual art, pop-up advertisements, at least one banner ad, and so on. All of this raises numerous questions for me, not all of which I'm going to be able to get to here; but I would like to throw out at least two of them for you:
The first involves a line from that piece I couldn't help but find significant: "When a poet decides to become charismatic, an ideological struggle comes into play." Thinking about that statement with respect to the "charismatic" work like "Naif" you're now doing on the web, can you talk a bit about what that ideological struggle has been, and has meant, for you? (I realize I may not be using "charismatic" as you'd originally meant it, but if we think of the kinds of formatting decisions, strategies of presentation and so forth you're playing with in some of this work online as a kind of charismatic gesture ...)
The second is a question about influences: I'm wondering specifically if you've read much of Johanna Drucker's writings on typography and / or the book arts, or if you've had a chance to see much or any of her creative work in that area although of course there are numerous precursors one could point to, Drucker does seem to be the most visible contemporary operating out of similar impulses, concerns and / or preoccupations. Anyway, beyond Drucker, I'm also curious as to others from whom you might be taking any kind of lead and/or instruction (bad word choice, maybe) with respect to the creative work you're doing on the web?
BKS: The issue of "charisma" is something I've thought about for a while, certainly before I've done any work for the web. But I should first note that many of the lines for that piece were not written specifically for it; in fact, they are taken from the same batch of materials that I use to write my page-based poems. I generally keep a typewriter loaded with paper in my apartment, and write down lines as they come to me; if I feel I can write a whole poem, I try to knock one out. I've never been very good with collecting notes for poems, preparing things in anticipation of a poem, etc., though since I've started doing the computer-generated pieces, I've begun to be more methodical in collecting materials. I just don't have the time to do all of these things; I write when I can. I seems like a pretty honest method, though I often end up with garbage. Anyway, so when doing a piece like "Naif" I am in the position of editing a lot of the material that has built up in the old drafts box; frankly, much of the text I used for "Naif" is stuff that didn't work in regular, page-based poems, but which, with the addition of the various accoutrements you mention above, acquired that certain angle usually a degree of irony that made the text work for me on-line. The good thing about this method is that I don't end up creating idiotic texts for my on-line work that is all about technology here is my body deconstructed into so many bits and neutrons, that sort of thing. The texts, some of which express solitude and "despair" (where is irony when you need it?) more boldly than I do in my page-writing works on the web specifically because I figure that kind of content is very unexpected there, whereas it is often expected in a book. (Having read several books recently in manuscript form and then later having witnessed them as books, I am more aware than ever of how the book creates this aura of solitude, or at least this anticipation of a certain type of experience, though by no means within a very narrow range of expectations.) I can be a little more "confessional" on-line, though never of course in the terrible way that writing linked to that word often is. I write like Philip Larkin on-line. Once I decided that, for "Naif," the background color would always be white, I think the piece became liberated in a way, for me, specifically because of this relationship to the book; the poem is closer, then, to a book in manuscript form than in book form, with a binding, though the little black dot another thing that didn't strike me until I had plowed through several ideas for interfaces provides some sense of this binding. Anyway, charisma ... so that line was not written for the on-line poem and has nothing specifically to do with what happens there. Structurally, it created the top line of the box that the various other phrases in that page create. But when I think of charisma, I think of (to get heady and historical here) how dictators use charisma to bring certain masses to a certain unity of experience and opinion, and how politicians and artists, unfortunately readily access charisma to similar ends. I don't think charisma and my own preferred mode of address, which is more destructive and anarchic, but I hope thought-provoking I'd say "spastic" but that's rather offensive are very compatible, but you can't be entirely of the latter mode without some of the former. I think I've grown somewhat more charismatic lately, especially on the poetics list, which I find somewhat troubling (part of the reason I've stopped writing there). But the sort of bold-faced, full-frontal avant-gardism of some of our writers today, when lacking charisma and a sense of the historical moment they sort of go hand-in-hand, language changing not just in words but in gesture every year can often depreciate into static motion, though I respect the utter lack of charisma in this writing for just that, for showing the plain fact of writing without the sway, the "swoon" (to lift a line from Bernstein) of a respectable personality. I think Bernstein, in fact, with the often ridiculous (I called it "tasteless" in a recent review) mannerisms in some of this writing is specifically addressing the issue of charisma he walks outside of it to show you it is there. Bruce Andrews' writing was also key, for me, in terms of how charisma works in literature, especially at a reading he is very uncharismatic, but I think that's his point, not to be a "teacher" and never to be seen as "wise" or an authority, though this has lead him to a difficult position, in some ways, because few can appreciate how his work relates to this issue (of political "sway"). I think scholars and academics are often asked to be charismatic, at places like conferences and even in print; those that I trust most are not this, but to reach a point in one's style where one is merely following an interesting train of thought to its furthest reaches regardless of "style" itself is a rare thing achieved. I've admired Williams for not being charismatic he often comes off as rather dull and overexcited, like in "Spring And All." I wonder if part of the reason I never got into Stein is because she is terribly charismatic, though her particular charisma serves, of course, purposes which tend to diffuse easy notions of personality and authority. Anyway, so that's probably what I meant by that line, but take it as you will.
As for "Naif" being charismatic, well I guess that's another paragraph. I think those of us that choose to manhandle (pardon the gendered term, but I think it's fitting, or at least funny) or exploit "web art" to its fullest, especially in regards to language, discover that certain degrees of charisma of sway and elegance, or authority, even "maleness" which so many males indulge in without even realizing it (which isn't to discount certain specifically female kinds of charisma, or the charisma of the androgyne, a brand in itself) can be conveyed not only through the text itself but its appearance, since most of us these days are very well-versed in how to interpret linguistic signs based on their physical appearance, though it's not something we think about that often. It's still considered a specialist's kind of interest, and no very charismatic (ha!) thinker has addressed it. I've just read Jan Tschichold's The New Typography, with its lengthy discourses on how to create the modern business cards, stationary, what paper sizes are appropriate for what, things like that, all ideologically tinged, and considering that he eventually designed the Penguin Pocket Books in England fairly "conventional" designs compared to his earlier interests in, say, Futurist typography, and which we've all seen somewhere it's pretty obvious that typography is not something of interest to avant-garde artists. In fact, most of my friends reject it as a rather ridiculous preoccupation (not my Torontonian friends, of course), which is good because then I am in the position of having to justify it through work. Anyway, so typography can achieve a level of charisma, but also express dissatisfaction, opening as it does the prospect of a true serialism in text, a balancing of several keys and registers beyond what the left-justified page can do (hence, the typography of "Alpha Betty's Chronicles," which was all determined by a computer program). Charisma ... charisma ... I feel there's more to be written about it, haven't even gotten to the point of what I meant, which probably has something to do with essentialism and appearances. Can a building have charisma? Should I start designing typefaces?
Oh shite, forgot about the second half of the question. I've never found Drucker's work particularly inspiring, to be honest, though there's one short essay in her collection from Granary about mass-produced art books vs. one-of-a-kinds that was interesting (she sides with the latter), I guess because it was polemical and discounted a whole genre of book art that I thought, myself, was inspiring. I was never terribly interested in the particulars of the history of this sort of work the art book since it's more a burden than a comfort, or perhaps because the comfort attained upon having achieved this level of knowledge is not something I want. To keep describing book art as an interest for specialists seems, to me, to give up the fight before you've even started; I don't think Mayakovsky, for instance, imagined that the designs of his innovatively designed books would be destined for the glass case (quite the opposite, the innovations were to make them more readily accessible for reading, or shouting). I think the work has to have relevance that is more immediate, suggesting an imperative to the viewer / reader that this is something that must be learned more about. What I sense, by keeping this tradition alive through academic essays, is a certain call to become part of this "tradition," and I've always wondered why people who are purportedly "avant-garde" or "radical" this goes for a lot of poets, not just those doing book art would want to align themselves with a tradition at all; why not, then, open up to tradition reaching back to, say, Chaucer or the Anglo-Saxon? It's something I like to do myself; if you choose to get rid of tradition, seems like you should do it across the board (McCaffery and Rasula, in Imagining Language, trouble this whole complex by reaching far back to find precursors to all of this type of work, though often among the politely insane). Anyway, the work that has inspired my own visual art (most web poetry I've seen is not that interesting to me, so far at least) are things like: Marshall MacLuhan's book The Medium is the Massage; Rational Geomancy, by Steven McCaffery and bpNichol; the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, especially Stonypath / Little Sparta itself; Mary Ellen Solt's anthology of concrete poetry (I'm planning a few pieces based on one of her works in there); random books like the Burning Deck edition of Andrews' "Film Noir" and the first poem of Bernstein's Dark City (not to mention Islets / Irritations and other books); Mallarmé ; what Christian Bök and Darren Wershler-Henry are doing in Toronto; etc., etc. My favorite thing, the most inspiring, was Thomas Vinterberg's Dogma 95 film, Celebration (or Festen), which seemed to create a whole new, but also general and accessible, language around a limited technology, a rather tiny Sony video camcorder; as web-art is very limited these days, mostly due to bandwidth, we have to take heart in these achievements. (Most of what we do now will look pretty tedious in a few years; but then again, people still watch the "Ballet Mechanique"). I think Godard's films have a direct relevance to internet poetics of the sort I practice, or want to practice, but that's like saying God inspires the way I lift my spoon. I don't think I'm adding any new names here, but I think I'm quite picky when it comes to what I enjoy in "visual poetics," of which there is so much material, much of which is applauded across the board by its fans rather uncritically at times. But I'm very much a novice in the field.
GS: This next question is related to the above, and specifically about your magazine, Arras Online. Speaking only for myself, I've really found the online version much more engaging than the in-print, and that's not to disparage the three issues you published before moving to the web. It's just that I have more of a sense of context, for one thing: pieces like Steve Evans' "Notes to Poetry," Rebecca Sithiwong's email on "cyberpoetry," the interviews with Derksen and Champion, inclusion of little-known early 20th century poets like Abraham Lincoln Gillespie, and the links to other sites, for instance, all seem to create, here, a fairly broad context social, aesthetic and otherwise ideological for the contemporary "creative" work you publish in the magazine as well. And yet and I have this sense doing my own webzine there's this sense that this is all taking place far, far away, in some "other world," that has a relationship to my every day life, but one that I can't help but often feel is somewhat peripheral. It hadn't really been an issue for me, until the Issue Zero conference, when suddenly I was seeing all of these magazines, this product ... and realizing I had nothing, despite whatever I've put into the online zine, to "offer" in exchange for copies of Chain, Big Allis, 6,500, and so on. I mean, it was like being conscious, suddenly, of a kind of wall between this one kind of production or activity, and what I was doing. And something more complex than simply not having something tangible for trade: I mean, I literally felt like my activity was happening in a whole other cultural sphere.
Despite all of the advantages the web has for making certain kinds of writing and art visible to seemingly a much larger audience than is typical of at least in print poetry magazines, and despite the obvious sense that one has, doing one of these things, that you really can be much more inclusive, establish and / or foreground a greater context for what you're doing ... despite all of this, there's this sense that I have and many people I've talked to seem to have that what happens on the net just isn't real, or isn't happening in the realm of the every day. Which strikes me as ironic, given the extent to which the culture we're doing this in is largely a television culture, where if it doesn't happen on a screen (of some kind), it basically doesn't "exist."
This is all of course a matter of perception. Books are closed 99% of the time, but we don't think of the works in them necessarily as "provisional" or "ephemeral" in the same way we might think of things on the web.
Sorry for the rambling, chaotic nature of the above, but I wonder if you can maybe talk about any of the issues raised above, and / or the issues you've personally dealt with publishing online ... as well as maybe talk about how you have if you have exploited any of these odd perceptions (your own or others') of the web, found ways to work either within them or through them ...?
BKS: I think you're right about what you say above or right in being confused or doubtful about the web I am too, entirely. I think we're lucky, people of our relative age group, in being somewhat more accustomed to the let-downs that technology invariably provides after the hoo-ha usually surrounding the announcements of the next big things. One of my worst (yet best) classes at CUNY as a grad student was on Hypertext, taught by a Victorianist and using George Landow's book as its central text, and it was apparent, I think, to most of us a few decades (let's say 4) younger than our teacher that these great promises would probably lead nowhere (which has, I think, proven true). I had an interesting argument the other day with Bruce Andrews about literary communities in New York, and his point was that email contact with writers around the globe is not going to provide the same sense of community (and by extension mental stimulation) that an active local community can provide; I pretty much agree with him in the argument, of course, I disagreed, but my point was that email and the web can still play a large role in at least off-setting one's own disappointments with the immediate literary environment. They go hand-in-hand; one thing I mentioned was that my longest, most interesting emails to Miles Champion, to whom I would write everyday, took place during a period in my life (oh so long ago ... last year) when I was very much "on the scene" and stimulated, more or less, by what was going on around me (though, in many ways, my emails were complaints and critiques of this very environment). I've retreated much more from the scene these days, and have less, I guess, to write to Miles, or to anyone overseas, unless its about my dietary problems or what movies I haven't yet seen. One thing to remember, when maintaining a web-site, is that the very successful ones I mean commercial ones are those which change every day, and which, like soap operas, fill up the lonely, isolated mind with new spurious data (clothed in the guise of knowledge) to distract one from otherwise "monotonous existence" (how unmonotonous it could be if you turned off the TV), to keep one going and give them a sense of time. Most of us who do literary web-sites will never be able to put new content up every single day, so that Joe Schmoe and Jane Doe, sitting behind a desk at work from 9 to 5, will drop by every day for their latest fix where are we going to get this material, and who will put it there? Do we want to? We put up things that may never get looked at for many weeks or months; it's why the idea of the "archive" for Steve's Notes was so attractive to me, though I feel I have let him down tremendously by changing the URL so often (mostly due to laziness, no real excuse). I had hoped, with the Sithiwong thing, and with a project called "Possible Futures," to have new content up there every week at least, but my time constraints are too great, and frankly I'm much too moody and lose interest in projects too soon. Even modest changes take a fair amount of time, especially regarding design and where to put old material so that it's still accessible. To have a web-site a very successful one would make one more of a public figure than would be bearable for a poet who wants to be liberated of public responsibility periodically, who doesn't want to be visible all the time, or even most of the time like me. I like being with people but more often I'd rather just be alone, or observe in a corner (when I first published Arras, I realized my days of sitting in the back of the room, uttering French oaths to myself with out any repercussions, were soon to be over). A successful literary web-site would have to publish scandalous material periodically, on a regular basis, or at least once every 2-3 months; most of us, including myself, don't do this, which is why we feel the issue so invisible. It's this need for scandal to counter the incompleteness that seems essential to web publishing, not to mention the "unbound" nature that I alluded to above (to create a sense of "binding" is difficult) that, I think, motivates some of the idiotic behavior on the poetics list. It's hard for many people to prime themselves up for decent prose in a medium they don't trust. Perhaps, when a Jan Tschichold gets his / her mitts on the aesthetics of web publishing, people will begin to think of the white of the computer screen as at least as magical as the white of the page, something to hold up against the barrage of idiocy that we meet every day through other forms of media. Maybe we should all agree to publish on white backgrounds, as a start to this regulating process (interesting that, in print, we are all more or less willing to work toward norms, but in the web it's anything goes a good thing, but perhaps a conservative, even aristocratic, streak is in order). I think we need a good internet scandal to get the process rolling, actually, just as a good print scandal a very good, frank essay, well-written and concerned only with the future would help lift our little magazines from the cottage industry they are now. I think the process is in motion; the stage is set, but we need material. Consequently, let me tip my hat to John Tranter for putting together the only really solid model I can see right now for a good literary online zine; even if some of us complain that the poetry errs more on the tepid than the explosive at times, it's the best one can do on the rather undeveloped background of internet literature, which doesn't have a norm against which to play its most radical desires (if a medium can, itself, have a desire). "Explosions" I mean eye-opening, imperative seeming art cannot happen if we think it's going to just disappear down the drain; one needs the sense of danger to really do the right thinking to get that type of work done. Tranters's put more good thought into the online zine than is often recognized, I feel (the lack of pyrotechnics probably keeps him outside the purview of the techno-hero worshippers), and you don't feel, upon publishing there, that you are getting lost the old issues seems as fresh as the new, and the URLs always work. I want a whole set for myself, to show to my kids. In the context of how Australian poetry is perceived as interacting with the American and English poetry we know best, it's really taking advantage of this moment in technological history; there are tons of poets there I've never encountered even in gossip, though I suppose I'm waiting to really make a "discovery." The Coach House Press site is also really great in this way it's full of innovation and the apex of all of the thinking done in Toronto on book art and concrete poetry and I don't think it's surprising that Canada and Australia would be at the forefront, in the English speaking world, of thinking about the web. I wonder, referring back to my discussion with Bruce above, if the Americans especially in New York and San Francisco don't need the web the way the literatures of these countries do (Kenny Goldsmith, who does ubu.com and who started as a visual artist, is a different story), and as a result our thinking about it is more speculative, academic, lacking in inspiration, lacking in urgency. Anyway, these are just thoughts. Arras is a mess; it troubles my sleep, just like the way the print version fucked up my life until it was actually out arras.net is never to be finished, I will sell it to the first bidder.
Brian Kim Stefans Work Online
"The Naif and the Bluebells": http://www.home.earthlink.net/~bstefans/naif/
"Storm Fields" at Cross Connect
"N Epic" at Cross Connect
Two Poems at Deluxe Rubber Chicken
Roger Pellet Poems at Jacket
Several Poems at The East Village
Several Poems at Ubu Web
Poem posted to UB Poetics at Readme
"Paragraphs from an Unwritten Letter to John Tranter on Martin Johnson" at Jacket
About Brian Kim Stefans's Work
Review of Free Space Comix at Lagniappe
[Back to Readme]