Gary Sullivan

Nada Gordon
Interview


Gary Sullivan: You came to poetry relatively early on, taking a class at San Francisco State with Stephen Rodefer when you were still in your teens. That must have been somewhat intimidating ...

Nada Gordon: Well, both of my parents wrote poems. I used to dictate poems to my mom when I was around seven, Cole Swensen was my junior high school poetry teacher, and I taught my first poetry workshop when I was sixteen, at the Berkeley YWCA. But I did come to the poetry scene in my late teens — that is to say, the early 80s. It was more exciting than intimidating. I remember thinking, there in the cyclone, what is this? what have I stumbled on?

My teachers at State were Rodefer, Kathleen Fraser, and Barrett Watten. I also worked at the Poetry Center with Carla Harryman and Larry Price and felt them to be my teachers as well. They were all very distinct in their teaching styles. Rodefer was very subdued, but put a lot of mind food on the table — showed us videos of Stein and O'Hara, gave us interesting assignments (one I remember was, "Make a poem using this page from the dictionary of translations of foreign phrases."). The best class Kathleen taught was called "Writers on Writing." Writers came to give talks. The writers I remember were Sherrill Jaffe, Carla Harryman & Steve Benson, Bruce Boone & Robert Glück, Anne Rice, Lyn Hejinian, and lots of others. Barry taught a fascinating graduate seminar on Russian Formalism. School felt completely connected to the world of readings and talks and performances going on in the city all the time; my classmates were Lori Lubeski and Jessica Grim, who are still active writers. It really was an idyllic period for me.

At the same time, now that I'm "grown up" it's clear to me the extent to which I was indoctrinated by what was going on around me. I still feel a kind of kneejerk loyalty to my teachers, whether I can use their poetics or not. However, I notice that many writers of my generation and younger seem so anxious to identify with specific poetic progenitors. I guess that's important in a world in which lineage and affiliation land you employment and publication, but it can't be anything but destructive of pure creativity.

GS: Yeah … but I do remember you on the Poetics List once describing yourself vis a vis your early involvement in poetry as "a baby language poet-in-training."

NG: That was tongue-in-cheek, but I did sometimes feel that I was being considered as such by those who, naturally, wanted to develop their audience. The language poets were so sociologically savvy; they knew better than anyone that they needed the support of the next generation in order to survive. It is true that I identified more with what they were doing than with say, academic poets or "grassroots" poets or New College poets or whatever. I was attracted by the rigor and what at that time was the freshness of their thinking, and initially felt freed by them to write whatever I wanted, to write in fragments and pastiches, aleatorily and sonically, using language from all kinds of sources — to hell with tidy epiphanies and given forms and prescribed ways of writing. It's also important to say that I came to language poetry straight out of the punk rock scene — talk about radical disjunction! — to write "normally" would have felt aesthetically backwards. It wasn't until later that I realized that what had freed me was really what had freed the language writers, namely the New York School (and Black Mountain and Stein and the surrealists, and, well, any number of precedents); I wrote my M.A. thesis on Bernadette Mayer. The greatest benefit I received from my early exposure to language writing was the opening of non-canonical literary history for me. I think it would have happened anyway. I also noticed that much "language writing" (particularly that done by its imitators, which I guess would have included myself) started looking to me like so much Chomskian transformational grammar. That's maybe a dumb observation because that's what any sentence could be said to be, but what I mean is, it seemed to me to lack evident motivation; "green ideas sleep furiously" — so what? For me, "Why write?" is the question I ask myself every time I begin the "praxis" of writing, and it nearly always (in the words of Barrett Watten writing — disparagingly — on Bernadette Mayer) returns [me] to the self. I have various motivations for writing, but a major one is to confront a kind of discomfort in the self, the body, the world. And a kind of ebullience.

GS: Your work appeared in Jimmy and Lucy's House of K, you frequently read at The Lab, hung out with Barrett Watten and Carla Harryman, and rodomontade was published by David Highsmith's e.g. press — all of this happening in your early twenties. How did all of this activity inform your writing, your aesthetics?

NG: It had the dual function of both opening me up and shutting me down. It opened me up as an avant-gardiste and shut me down as a writer of linear narratives; I had originally enrolled at SF State because I was writing a lot of short stories in my classes at Merritt College. "All of [that] activity" kind of scrambled my brain permanently, set me on "the wrong track" as far as marketable writing goes. Having fetishized fragments and complexity and verbal risk as modus operandi, I got addicted. It's a pity, in a way. Sometimes I have a desire to say things really simply — perhaps an effect of my decade in Japan as an EFL teacher, talking baby English and reading a lot of haiku and tanka — but my thinking is too recondite to let me do that in a pure way. I do think, however, that in a fundamental (and positive) way I'm kind of an idiot (from the Greek "idios," as in idiosyncracy or idiomatic — meaning "one's own; private") If my work is all about "radical subjectivity" that's thanks to my idiocy — no sooner do I say something crystalline than I have an impulse to complicate it or change word order or at least build in something deeply puzzling.

GS: How much of that can you still feel resonating in your work?

NG: Very much, but I think that I was always a lyric poet. The impulse is song, not so much a desire to critique history or defamiliarize language — although these things happen along the way. I used to try to torquedly encode emotion in my writing, but even in my 1988 chapbook, Lip (the main intended meaning of the title being "don't be givin' me none of yo' lip"; the erotic or decorative meaning was secondary in my mind), there's a poem called "jordan iii" (written after a poem of Herbert's) that argues for bucking the encryption. The first lines read: "Who brags that lies only and wigs/ become writing? Is nothing true good-looking?/ Is all form a nude descending? … Do I have to say the lulus of desire/ When I really mean GIMME THAT?" Now I'm happy to try to render a whole menagerie of emotions.

GS: From the beginning, at least going back as far as your first book, More Hungry (1985), there is a preoccupation, maybe even the preoccupation, with the libido. What do you see as the relationship between desire and the making of poetry?

NG: Are you flirting with me, Gary? Something O'Hara said about tight pants is resonating in my brain with this question … in fact, more than once in my life my verses have yielded me connections which have yielded me lovers. However, I don't so much see a relationship between emotional or carnal desire and the making of poetry as view them as effulgences of the same eagerness. The excitement of reading and writing — and conversation — is sexual, with similar dynamics (hardly an original idea), and sexual experience is informed by language, one of whose primary functions is courtship technology. Both sexual activity and writing are potentially transpersonal; both have the tendency to put their practitioners into trance or flow state. Both can bring on an accelerated heart rate, increased concentration, and a feeling of connectedness, even transcendence. What is writing but the forging of relationships between words and phrases in the intimate space of a piece? Olson said as much.

Ben Friedlander once criticized that book, More Hungry, for being a "mere collection of devices." He said the sexuality was too obvious, not subtle enough, in lines like "tracing the branching veins covering the dome," or "dementia praecox." My grandmother, to whom I was silly enough to give a copy, asked me, "Is it about the act?" Not to take umbrage or anything, but I feel their readings were reductive (should I have expected more of my grandma?); there was a lot more, psychologically and linguistically, going on in that poem (a whole existential feminism for example: "the preparation of the social event for the face/ a thin layer of skin covering the brain/ and several other/ important glands" or "no one wants a woman's forehead/ growing into a block") — they just seemed to notice the sex parts. That's what human beings can't help but do. I asked someone (OK, I'm being coy here — I asked you) the other day: "Wouldn't you really rather look at pictures of naked women than anything else?" and he said: "Yes, of course." Me too, I suppose, although I also like to look at pictures of animals and plant life and birds and fish — and naked men … anything living …

I guess when I write I write what I would want to read — the verbal equivalent of pictures of naked women. I want to cut to the chase, access some source of radiance, because I want my writing to glow. I don't know if it does and maybe using sexual content is a cheap trick, but I think that by using the erotic as a focal point I can extend out to other areas: the social, the metaphysical, the humorous, the mundane. I don't think I do this entirely consciously, as a "strategy." It's just that I start in my body. Don't you?

GS: I don't think you can start anywhere else — where's the brain? after all.

Your last book, Lip (1988), seems to me, at least one reading of it, as a testing of various contemporary formal devices … you've got a "received from the radio" poem, N+7-type rewrites, a three-line poem composed entirely of quotes, at least one poem with the words sort of spaced out over the "field" of the page … how did you put this book together? What sort of connections were you seeing or creating from poem to poem? Did you have any sort of over-arching vision of the finished book?

NG: No, I didn't. I just chose the poems of mine I liked best at the time; you're right to see it as a testing of devices or a kind of grab bag. I put it together just a couple of months before I left for Japan; I knew that I was going to leave and I felt like making a mark on San Francisco before I did, a kind of "gordon was here" gesture. I did not at that time have any idea that I would stay in Japan for eleven long years, but I could tell that my trip would be a rite of passage, and that in any case I would return, if I ever returned, to the Bay Area, as a changed person. While it's true that I didn't have any particular vision in terms of the structure of Lip, I did think of it as being framed by the beginning and ending bits. "Gesture" is an apt word because toward the beginning of the book I have a piece that reads as a kind of introduction: "first i had to imagine myself in this context/ a room with white in it and books and close chairs/ then I stood up and proclaimed something/ people laughed, as I'd intended them to do./ I wanted baton. Would hit everybody/ that's very childish" … and it winds up, "listen for a minute, will you"

The context I was imagining was a performance or reading context. I was invoking an audience there. The gestures are: standing up, proclaiming, entertaining, and even violently striking the listeners. I didn't want to be in the post-modern quiet space of dead authors and quirky transformational grammar. The message was, "I have an irrepressible urge to speak and I will use any number of gimmicks to ensure that you listen." This urge was borne out in my readings which grew increasingly performance-oriented, including singing, audience input, and later, in Japan, butoh-inspired movement and even tap-dancing. I suppose I would like to inspire movement in my readers/listeners as well, which is why the very last lines of Lip read: "and torsion/ becomes torso/ and twist." I could almost hear that 60s song start up after that line: "Do you love me? (I can really move)/ Do you love me? (all in the groove)," and imagined everyone getting up and dancing. Maybe a tad ambitious.

The rewrites in the book are not Oulipean. They are either intuitive rewrites or word-for-word rhymes; on some I was exploiting the word processor thesaurus. I tend to use N+7 type stuff more now, but I always always cheat. The three-line poem you mention I found discarded in the copy shop across the street from my old apartment at 24th and Mission. Every poem has a story.

GS: Going backwards several years, what's the story behind rodomontade (1985)? I remember getting a copy of it at David Highsmith's Talking Leaves Bookstore in the Duboce Triangle in San Francisco, maybe 1986 or 1987. I was really into I guess what you'd call "new fiction" (Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme, Robert Glück, Ishmael Reed), and a friend had dragged me to see Dodie Bellamy read at S.F. State the year before. I remember loving this book but being confused: it seems to begin as a narrative, Acker-esque: "I am Henry James. I am larger than anyone else." But, after that, even the pretense of narrative seems to get dropped.

NG: You think? OK, narrative in a "continuous" sense is, not dropped, but is decidedly disjunctive. However, the narrative "mood" goes through the whole piece, except in the interspersed bits of verse, which I see now make rodomontade a kind of haibun. The germ of rodomontade was in a writing exercise that Kathleen Fraser had us (me, Lori Lubeski, and Colette Lafia) do in an independent study workshop we took with her at SF State. She invited us to her house and read some passages of Proust and Murasaki Shikibu aloud and had us write while we listened to her read. I love reading Proust and eventually threw in more Proustian references as I continued the piece on my own. The book is a pastiche of/homage to 19th century novels, the writing of Carla Harryman, and romantic/roccoco sensibility in general, the frivolity of which is hugely appealing to me. I put characters like Franz Liszt and Camille and Shelley in the story. The cover shows an old engraving of a nude woman reclining on her bed being handed novels by a demon. Her body is reflected in a mirror. The book ends with a reference to that wonderful painting by Fragonard of a man looking up the skirt of a woman on a garden swing, her petticoats so voluminous that he couldn't possibly see anything. I think that was my metaphor for "the text." "Rodomontade" means "a boastful bragging speech"; I felt that in it I was trying to forge some giant identity, full of the braggadoccio of "genius" — as a joke, of course, but not without genuine desire for that expansive power state that writing can put you in. The title is also a nod to Rodefer, who was one of the first teachers to acknowledge that I was a poet.

GS: Though you were by no means inactive the eleven years you were in Japan — you mention having done numerous performances, and I remember poems of yours showing up on the Poetics List and in Jack Kimball's The East Village Poetry Web — the environment, I would imagine, must have been very different from the hotbed of the mid- to late-80s Bay Area. Did you feel isolated in Japan? Or a kind of relief? Or both?

NG: I'm going to let you in on a little secret: even the Japanese feel isolated in Japan. That's the nature of the place. That's one reason they import people like me to teach them English, to help them overcome the (mostly self-imposed) isolation of the location, the culture, the language. But I won't lie and say that there's no glamour in isolation, or relief, because there was both, as well as a constant anxious feeling of being unmoored and outside. That feeling of disconnectedness and otherness was not necessarily bad for me as a writer although it was sometimes hard emotionally. I think it was very good for me to approach and apprehend my own language as something even stranger than I already knew it to be. Today, going through some files, I came across some found language, some Japanglish, I'd seen written on shopping bags, t-shirts, baseball jackets — just listen to this stuff: "Feline in happiness/ Metaphysical college since 1968," "Frais Espece/ Formidable the rising Era./ Be indignant./ Perplexity./ Be amazed." "Make a charge against the enemy march of time." "It's our goal to provide nifty fine wears for chasers of pure peace." "We have eyes for the real thing/ fashion eyes/ retro mind." or my favorite: "Sometimes like a silly girl./ Sometimes like a sassy boy/ Princess Panic On Air." There was a lot about Japan that was glorious.

What suffered in Japan was my connections with other writers who were on similar wavelengths. I lived with a haikuist but he didn't seem to want to begin to delve into my writing. I hostessed a women's writing group in my tiny apartment for a while, and got friends to partner-write with me. I do much better with an addressee or audience; otherwise the writing tends to get a little pointless or becomes a receptacle for angst. I put out one issue of a magazine, AYA, with Ewan Colquhoun and Andrea Hollowell, who was in Tokyo for a couple of years. She was a good literary comrade for me. Edgar Henry, who now edits Printed Matter, was good to talk with too, although we had very different literary inclinations. It was not really a community, though, not to mention a "hotbed."

What was I spared, though, in being away? Certainly both the negative and positive aspects of competition with peers; the various pressures of schools of writing; fractious politics — I don't know. But when I went to Naropa in 1995 for a week of workshops on the New York School it made me feel so alert, and filled with longing to be back in that world …

GS: What are some of the first things you noticed about the writing "scene" once you came back? What most excites you about it? What do you find most anguishing or otherwise unfortunate about it?

NG: This is a difficult question for a couple of reasons. First, as a member of the Poetics List I'd been privy to the major debates and events, albeit secondhandedly and electronically, so it's not as if I suddenly woke up from an eleven-year slumber. Secondly, I really don't think I've been here long enough to make any statements about the scene; I've really only been to a handful of readings, and listened to what you and Chris [Stroffolino] and Mitch [Highfill] have to say about it. I can say my first impressions, but I wouldn't want them to be taken as a strict characterization. I think there are several very good young or youngish poets here. They seem to be able to synthesize formal concerns with emotional ones. I think that others are overrated, overly imitative or unwilling to take artistic risks. I don't want to name names. What I don't see is much open-hearted collaboration. That doesn't mean it isn't happening; it probably is, but I just haven't seen it yet. I don't see much spontaneity — or, for that matter, intellectual rigor. I hear that young writers here tend to talk about their "careers" and that seems to be a tragic thing. What excites me about being here is what excites me about being alive: possibility — but what excites me most is, naturally, my ongoing and multi-dimensional collaboration with you.

GS: Meredith Monk said that the young artists she was meeting recently seemed overly concerned with "technique," "quick answers" and "getting jobs." I suppose this is an economic thing — New York of the late 90s isn't the New York of the 60s or 70s — is it fair to say that economics might have something to do with this lack of collaborative energy? And if so, what is an artist, especially a poet (for whom no economic rewards, save teaching gigs, exist), to do?

NG: Yes, of course, economics put a damper on collaboration, mostly because making enough money to survive here eats up time, but I think that's finally a lame excuse. It's an awful lot easier to afford something if everyone pitches in, or what's a cooperative for? It's the extended family spirit that seems to be missing. If there's truly a will to collaborate, then it will happen no matter what the extenuating circumstances are. I think my presence here as a result of our correspondence proves that. And what is a poet to do? I think a poet needs not so much to whine (although I do, ad squealum) as to write in as much time as she can wheedle out of her day - in my case during my commute, in class, or at night time. It's not fair and it's not ideal but the minute the world becomes a rose garden and it's Halloween every day and chameleons can talk would you call me, please? So what else is a poet to do? I think it behooves us to communicate with each other in as much depth as we can — to trust each other enough to do that — to have soirées and do magazines like this one and organize more and more reading series and engage in various sorts of correspondences.

GS: Tell me about your involvement with butoh when you lived in Japan.

NG: The first butoh performance I ever saw opened up my perceptions of the world in ways I had never expected. It was a solo dance by a male dancer, Masaki Iwano. He was beautiful, with a chiseled face and very slight, delicately muscled body, and longish hair. He wore only a loincloth, and strapped to his thigh was a kind of glowing fluorescent tube. During the over-an-hour performance he made no sudden moves. He began reclining and later stood but the sequence of movements altogether was so slow you almost never perceived him as moving at all. Mostly the stage was dark or partially dark but the tube glowed throughout. He seemed like a man alone in his room. The soundtrack was chance radio — I remember it sounded so urban and alienating and lonely, a man listening to the radio in his dark room. By the time he stood up, something remarkable started to happen. He had a cold, but he couldn't make any broad movement like nose-wiping, so snot started to flow out of his nose. But get this — it wasn't disgusting. It got really long, the line of snot, but it looked like a luminescent thread of life glittering in the spotlight. I saw it as a precious bodily fluid and to me it represented perfect aesthetic integrity. I was completely converted to butoh by that performance, and reminded of the bizarreness of embodiment.

I started going to butoh performances as often as I could — some of them in really cramped bohemian spaces. Watching the dancers in their primordial trance states, made me want to feel what they were feeling. Watching them, I felt, as a primarily verbal artist, wimpy and inadequate. They were taking incredible risks in their performances — and I'm not talking about the Sankai juku performance in which a dancer died from a fall — I mean all manner of personal and aesthetic risks, in comparison with which writing seems like a hermetic burrow. My favorite dancers were the young women of the troupe Dairakudakan. They were humorous, innocent, bestial, erotic, and serene by turns. I loved to write as I watched the performances, my eyes on the dancing but my hand moving the pen.

I even studied for a while, but it was a big challenge for me as most of my "physicality" up until that time had been between the ears, or on paper, and besides, I was the only foreigner — that is, non-Japanese person — in the three-month workshop I took. It was an extraordinary experience. All of "Dolor Core Recede Sanpo — the poem I published in my magazine, AYA — is connected to my experience studying it. It namedrops the great dancers. The title is an anagram of a translation of the title of a famous collaboration between the great butoh masters Hijikata Tatsumi, Kazuo Ono and Yoshito Ono called "Rose-Colored Dance." "Sanpo" means a stroll or walk, so the poem is the walk that makes the core of dolor recede.

My teachers were Akiko Motofuji (Hijikata's widow), Akira Kasai, Yoshito Ono, and Kazuo Ono, among others. I felt so sensitized as a result of studying with them that during that time I could sit for hours in busy public places, like Shinjuku on a Saturday night, watching people, just investigating the way that they moved. I noticed how our muscles contain memories and information; I noticed how my will was connected even to my tiniest movements, I noticed repression, I found myself wanting to dance at odd moments and in odd places. In nightclubs I stopped dancing "normally" and found myself using the floor. Later I did this at a reading where I read different stanzas while in different positions around the room, including lying down and bending over. It was a very simple thing to do, but the audience seemed to really like it. Why stand still?

GS: Gender issues come up consistently in your work: I'm thinking of that poem you posted, "My Penis," and others — "The Gender Continuum," for instance. Can you talk about this a bit? What's going on in these poems?

NG: When I refigure myself as a male, or construct my figure to include maleness, I get a rush of a different kind of power. Lots of women writers do this: Woolf, Sand, Eliot, Acker … in writing I move around on the gender continuum pretty variously. That's why in rodomontade I was able to be both Henry James and a mother, Franz Liszt and a "human lyrical expression of desire [that] inspire[s[ men to play the piano" — because really I want both to be a muse and to be bemused. Early reading of Gore Vidal probably implanted the idea of the gender continuum in me; recently I read in the latest Rain Taxi a great quote of his; when asked whether his first sexual experience was with a man or a woman, he replied, "I was much too polite to ask." I don't agree with him that gender doesn't (or isn't) matter, though. If I were a real man everything would be different. Still, the inner man in me is insistently (muscularly?) present. I ask plaintively in one poem, "When will I be the great man I know I am?" That line is stolen from the translation of a poem by Nakahara Chuya (known as the Japanese Rimbaud; he's writing about downtrodden salarymen, but I thought it reverberated poignantly in my female mouth, and it's not without irony, as if my apotheosis were "manhood."

What is going on in "My Penis"? Well, first of all the title is just fun to say, but it's also a kind of grabbing of a locus of intensity — if you will. However, even the sex of the penis — which is among other things moist and triangular — isn't clear in that poem. I used a Blake line — the "lineaments of gratified desire" — to refer to what he said men and women require of each other. The first time I read that Blake poem I didn't know what lineaments were — it turns out it means "lines" as in drawing or figuration — but I thought it meant liniments, as in bandages, and it was interesting to think of gratified desire as a kind of injury. But more than anything that poem is about what it says it's about: "Physical fact and shape/ a persistent drumbeat/ adjectives cling up to" — and this is followed by a line of adjectives. Physical fact and shape is the body I look down on, typing this, with all sorts of adjectives clinging up to it (i.e. "female" "jewish" "clumsy" "charming" — etc.) but beyond that it's the physical fact and shape of the poem, sired by my writing (written) penis.

In "The Gender Continuum" there are the lines "maybe if I don't shave/ I'll become a man." It's a bit confusing, that line, on purpose, but I suppose I could have been talking about my legs. It's a wistful poem. A man I wanted to connect with refused to communicate with me, and that's why "question marks fill the interim" and I say "I want to TALK/ to you." I guess I thought that that if I were a man I wouldn't have such anxieties. I know that's not true, but I was wanting to feel a bit more macho and a bit less Motown girl-group self-pitying — trying again to be "the great man I know I am," I guess.

GS: What writing means the most to you now, and why?

NG: The writing that means the most to me is the writing that's closest to me — namely yours and mine, and the writing of friends. Writers I've revisited this year, whose writing has excited me, include Keats, Barrett-Browning ("Aurora Leigh" — which I'd never read before), Whalen, Kyger, and Notley. I don't have any heroes poetic or otherwise but if I did I guess they would have to be Alan Davies and Creeley (does that make me "male-identified?" Chris Stroffolino says not because I prefer Cixous to de Beauvoir) … also Kafka, Blake, Dickinson, Donne …

GS [after seeing Gail Sher talk at a local bookstore about the daily practice of writing]: You used the words "fascist" and "anal" in referring to a daily writing practice. You actually do seem to write every day, and yet Sher, who you seem to like otherwise, made you a bit contentious. She seemed to be attempting to create a situation in which one's life and writing were intricately interwoven. Knowing, or at least assuming, that you'd respond positively to this, was it simply the insistence on "daily" that upset you?

NG: I have a tendency to overreact a little, and am often guilty of flippancy. You know I wasn't openly contentious at her talk, although I was formulating a response in my head that went something like this: I find the notion of a daily writing practice — something I sometimes organically do anyway, but not as a mandatory "practice" — alluring (because it seems to put the world "in order"), but also repellent. It allures/repels me as does zen, and conjures in me a rebellious imp in the throes of a tantrum: "I only do it because I want to and not because you told me to." The writing comes anyway, maybe not in as focused a way as it "ought" to, but I don't need an inner drill sergeant to make it happen. I write because I want to be free — at least, that's one reason; it's pure, unalienated labor, i.e. love. Do I want to put freedom on a schedule? I also want to have the freedom not to write, in order that the writing be necessary to me and not gratuitous. I liked Gail's book very much and her insistence on the necessity of writing for her survival. "Writing saved my life," she kept saying. It's a melodramatic statement, but it rings true for me, as did her assertion that writing is being present with language. I just felt that the daily writing practice, presented as "the only way," felt dangerously close to proselytizing. Look, my mom's a longtime meditator. I have to rebel.

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