Gary Sullivan

Mitch Highfill
Interview

Gary Sullivan: You came to NYC in the early 80s, maybe even 1980? And were, if I remember correctly, pretty much immediately involved in various poetry scenes here. Can you describe your first couple of years here in New York, the kinds of things you were involved in? Were you spread out between poetry, new music & so forth? Were you curating reading series yet, or was that a bit later? What, at that point had you written?

Mitch Highfill: I moved to NYC in February of 1980. My roommate, David Abel, was very involved in the new music scene, and in my first week, we attended a performance at Phil Niblock’s loft, where I met Charlie Morrow, who hired me to stage manage the Sound Poetry Festival at Washington Square Church. I had never heard of sound poetry, but it was there that I met Jackson Mac Low. My main reasons for coming to New York were to meet Jackson and to attend readings at the Poetry Project. Meeting Jackson was terrific, but at the time, the Poetry Project was somewhat unpleasant for outsiders. So my attentions were drawn to the sound poets and the new music scene downtown. At the same time, I met RIP Hayman, who owned the Ear Inn. So I got a job there, and started a reading series at a loft in Tribeca, 10 Leonard Street. I surmised that the best way to meet other poets was to run a reading series, and I had gotten involved with composer / poet Franz Kamin, who was running a music series with his friend, John Beaulieu, at John’s loft. So Franz said, "why don’t you put together a reading series in the loft?" So I did. My interests at the time were twofold: the constellation around the defunct Caterpillar magazine and Io, and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Since the Ear series was coordinated by the Mag City gang from the Poetry Project, and since there was no other site for readings by the language poets, I managed to hire almost all of them over a two year period. It was a learning experience, and I made some friendships and alliances that hold up twenty years later. I had a sub-series at 22 Wooster Street, as well. I didn’t start coordinating at the Ear until 1983.

As for my own writing, I was immersed in cut-ups and chance operations, and I kept a daily journal. But none of the work preceding my arrival in NYC was published, thank god. There is a small edition of poems called No Precautions, which selects from 1980-1984. There’s a funny poem in there called "The Buzzer Goes Off Upstairs," which was written my first week in New York. Those first two years were spent working out the mechanics, or chops, as some would put it.

GS: When did you begin Red Weather and Prospect Books? Did one come out of the other?

MH: Prospect Books began in 1983 or so, when I inherited the mimeo machine Lewis Warsh used to print United Artists on. We experimented with a new mimeo format, which was labor intensive, but much more attractive than had previously been done in mimeo. These books even had spines. We (Kimberly Lyons and myself) started with a serial poem by Kim, Strategies. We followed that with Lorna Smedman's Dangers of Reading, and Lynn Behrendt's Characters. The last Prospect Book was Franz Kamin's Hotel, and that was offset. Red Weather was a whole different story, and started, I think, several years later. The original editors for Red Weather were myself, David Abel, Kim Lyons and Jim Hydock. What we discovered was how difficult it is to edit anything by committee. We argued endlessly, and it was really hard to get anything done. It was so tiring for me that I pulled out of the second issue, and I edited the third (and last) issue by myself. Publishing got so expensive, that I just decided to stop. On the other hand, I'm proud of what we did publish, great works by Lorna, Lynn, Kim and Franz, and the magazine had a great energy to it, I'm very happy with the last issue, with poems by Laurie Price, Sharon Shively, Wanda Phipps, Tim Rogers, Greg Succop, and others. Very strong work, some of it political (this was during the Tompkins Square police riots and the Gulf War period).

GS: You were living near Tompkins Square Park when the riots began, weren't you?

MH: Yeah, I lived on 11th Street, just a block above the park. I was coming home from a party in Brooklyn, around midnight. I had no idea there was a protest going on. I walked up Avenue A right into it. The police had blocked off all streets above 4th St., east and west, and Avenue A was impassable above 6th St. I asked a photographer what was going on, and he started to tell me, but a swinging nightstick got him, and he went down. I tried to walk west on 5th St., and got about halfway before a dozen cops showed up out of nowhere and chased me back to the Avenue, popping me in the back with their sticks all the way. I saw a couple of mothers with their babies' heads bleeding, and lots of yuppies trying to eat outdoors, getting knocked down and chased around by the increasingly hysterical cops. It looked like there were maybe a dozen self-styled anarchists throwing bottles at the cops, and they were staying way ahead of the fray, while ordinary East Village citizens and neighborhood tourists were getting their asses kicked between the cops and the bottle throwers. It kinda took the fun out of the neighborhood for me. Not long after, local shops and shopkeepers moved out, opening up commercial real estate for outsiders, who have since taken over Avenue A. That summer was martial law on Avenue A; a couple of cops on every corner 24 hours a day, no loitering, lots of hostility. The protesters were an undisciplined bunch of rich kids, or so it seemed. A 25 year-old with purple spiked hair isn't working a day job to pay the outlandish rents over there,so one assumes mommy and daddy are footing the bill, while junior gets his rocks off spitting on cops and throwing things at them. Not much hope of success in that kind of revolution. One quick anecdote: I used to play stickball in a parking lot over there with my friend Michael Benson. One day we were mid-game when 25 or 30 police cars rolled in and took over the lot. We packed up our bats and gloves. Two cops got out of the car nearest us, and one said to the other, "Man I hate this place. It's worse than 'Nam." Amazing.

GS: Wow. You mentioned all of this sort of bleeding into the work you published in Red Weather, and I want to ask you a bit more about how politics informs certain of your own poems, but before I get to that, I'm curious about this first book of yours (which I've never seen), No Precautions. Who published it?

MH: No Precautions was published by Next Century books, by Edmond Chibeau. Edmond has since moved, but he was a ubiquitous presence on the scene in those days, always carrying a flask of Remy in his coat pocket. Edmond had studied with Rexroth in some way, and was very involved with performance poetry. I think the other books he did were by Bob Heman and Brian McInerney. I have been out of touch with him for years, but he is a lovely guy.

GS: Does Liquid Affairs pick up from where No Precautions leaves off?

MH: Liquid Affairs does pick up from No Precautions. They are both heavily selected. It's not like they represent every single poem I wrote in the 80s. But they certainly are the best from the period. In both cases, I asked friends to help me select the works in them, since I knew what I liked, but I wanted to see what my peers thought about these poems. Also, I had not yet really written any extended works of value, and so there was no preset agenda, like in the other two publications. The Blue Dahlia was written in 1984-85, and so that set seperates the two collections, and it informs many of the poems in Liquid Affairs, especially the Charlie Chan poem. I was getting into the declarative statement at that point, and had finally found a way to say things in that way. So in that sense, The Blue Dahlia is a turning point from one kind of writing to another.

GS: I wonder if you could elaborate on that, and talk about the poem itself, which strikes me, on the most basic level, as a kind of mini-primer of various forms ...

MH: The Blue Dahlia began as a love affair with the writings of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. I had been reading their works when I saw that the movie, The Blue Dahlia, was going to be on TV (the late movie, as I remember). I took notes of my favorite lines that night as I watched, and those notes turned into the title poem of the sequence. At the same time, I was thinking about the idea of a longer work. I had a conversation with Franz Kamin one night, mainly about strategies in writing. I toyed with the idea of composing a sestina composed entirely from Chandler. Since the end words are the key to the form, I started re-reading Chandler, with an eye to these end-words. The first stanza was easy, but the rest of the poem took about 9 months to complete. I think I read through four novels to get it, going in chronological order (that is, the publishing chronology). In the meantime, the shorter poems were written, some from Chandler, some off the top of my head. The sestina was so much fun that I decided to do a pantoum, using the screenplay from The Blue Dahlia, and a collection of short stories, Killer in the Rain. It took a total of three years to get that book right. The transitional part of it was that I was working out the declarative statement in my other works, and had almost abandoned chance works by the time I was done with it. Yet the Dahlia uses deliberate systematic methods, while delivering the ultimate declarative statement. Part of that is the source, Chandler. Also, I had finally finished a serial poem, which has since become my favorite structure.

GS: Going back to Liquid Affairs, there's a real sense of political engagement I get in some of that work; I'm thinking specifically of one piece you collaged together from various reports of the Gulf War.

MH: Yeah, that would be "Yellow Ribbon," where I took notes on the media coverage of the Gulf War. Every line in that poem is from TV or radio or the New York Times. I just collaged them together with a staccato effect in mind, and let it rest as is. But I've been writing prose poems with a lot of political import for years. "Sea Fever" is the first one like that; there are others. They are not exclusively political, but the impulse behind them is definitely political. "Herring" is another one of those. Simple declarative statements, often parodying the media or an imaginary John Q Public. These poems get personal and speculative, too. I usually see psychological or even aesthetic parallels with politics, and I tend to weave them all together in those poems, since that's how I think they operate in the "real world." I don't see how poets can avoid politics. Even avoidance is a political stance. That doesn't mean one has to go around preaching to the converted, but the powers that be are using language to cover up what would otherwise be the obvious truth, and as the chief investigators of language, how can poets not expose such insidious abuses of the common tongue. On the other hand, I part company with those who blame the language itself for its abuses. The trench between those two perceptions is what interests me politically. I'm a huge fan of conspiracy theories, and one of the features of the conspiracy theorist's attack is the language of the conspirators. The Hitlerian idea of the big lie being more successful than the half-truth. The "Herring" piece was partly inspired by literature on the JFK assassination. "Sea Fever" has a lot to do with Reagonomics and the Contra war of the 80's. In that regard, Bruce Andrews has focused on the political uses of language, which has been useful as well.

GS: So, tell me about Turn. There seems to be much more emphasis here on the "daily," and the artifice, the workings of the poem aren't as visible as in your earlier work. What's the guiding principle(s) behind the work? How are you putting it together?

MH: Turn came out of a dissatisfaction with what I had been writing up to that point. I had always been very concerned with form and artifice. But I have always loved the works of poets who seemed to be writing direct, with as little artifice as possible. I especially like certain works of Lewis Warsh, like Dreaming As One. After we moved to Brooklyn, I started sitting on the fire escape in the back with my notebook. I would just record what I saw or heard, with as little interference as possible. That grew into Turn. The idea was to attempt a kind of flatness. One friend of mine has denigrated the poem because he thinks it is too flat. Oh well.The larger theme, which is seasonal and alchemical, started to emerge as I went along. The poem is broken into 4 parts, one for each season. 1 is Spring, 2 is Summer, and so on. I started to play with alchemical terminology in the poem, since I was by then already involved in a serial poem called Rebis, which is entirely based on alchemical drawings, mostly from the Hermetic Museum. It seems to me that the most elegant example of transformation in everyday life is the change of seasons. But I wanted to render that change as concrete, not as a metaphor. The difficulty in that proposition became more and more obvious as the last two sections got underway. Maybe that's because I started to direct the traffic of the poem, instead of just letting the thing go off on its own accord. The whole inside / outside problem. Spicer was really onto something there with the outside. It was as if I was trying to rearrange the furniture before the martians came over every time. Eventually, I resolved that problem by inserting a seasonal analysis of the court cards of the tarot in the third section, laying out the basic principal of that turning explicitly, so that the rest of the poem wouldn't have to explain it. The poem ends up with a journal entry describing the birth of my son, Jackson. There's another alchemical motif -- the germination, gestation and birth of a child.

GS: Let's talk more about these ideas of concrete and metaphor in writing. I'm assuming you mean, here, more than just "nouns." Do you feel some language, or language-use, is more concrete than metaphorical? Or is it all, finally metaphorical, given that that's basically what language, at least as it reaches for the concrete, is?

MH: Sure, in a sense, all language is metaphorical. But I'm actually interested in the magical world view. Specifically, Renaissance magic and its collation of neo-platonism and kabbalah, astrology and theurgy, etc. From that point of view, if you know the true name of a spirit or thing, you have power over it. Magically, the name bears more than just a passing resemblance to the thing named. A magical noun, in a very real sense, is the thing named. I know this is terribly un-post-modern, but it is a very interesting way of thinking about language and the world. Most spells involve language. That's because of this mystical connection between the name and the thing named. I like the notion that when you make something, a poem or a painting or what have you, you are creating a world. That world has its own nature, which is taken from you, mostly, and what you put into it. If it's a poem, it is a language world. In that world, words can actually be things, rather than just having to refer to things. So that's a different notion of concrete versus metaphor. Another way of thinking about your question would be to say transparent instead of concrete. Maybe that's what I was after in Turn. Murat Nemet-Nejat gave a talk on transparency a few years back at a symposium at the Poetry Project. I found it very interesting, though it pissed Barrett Watten off, as I remember.

GS: You may have told me about Rebis, but I don't recall ever talking about it before. How are you working with the drawings? I had a conversation once with David Cameron, where he suggested the possibilty of somehow using Sol LeWitt's work to generate poems; the idea being to use some of LeWitt's impulses, but in a fairly loose way. Finding some equivalent, in other words, for "lines not straight not touching," but coming up with a solution more interesting than the obvious (non-sequitors). How are you planning to "re-render" the drawings?

MH: Alchemical drawings and engravings are very evocative to begin with. I just sit in front of one and write whatever comes into my head while I'm looking at it. Sometimes I describe some part of the drawing, other times not. Free association happens, too. But I'm not trying to write poems that are about drawings. Like David, I would like to somehow imitate the visual, not describe it. Hard to say how that works. More like translation than description. Anyway, Rebis is ongoing. Some of the language of alchemical literature is in there, too. Like a house mix.

GS: Sounds a little like maybe Clark Coolidge's Melencholia, his poem on Albrecht Drurer. Do you know that work?

MH: Sure. Great book. I'm not sure how Coolidge did it, though. In the case of Rebis, I am mostly looking at the images themselves. There are images of murder, incest, sex, and mutation alongside images of Greek & Roman deities,various animals (real and imaginary), laboratory processes, etc. One doesn't have to work very hard at getting ideas from these images. Sometimes I try to render the quality of the line in the drawing in language. Often I see an image that makes me remember some other image or event in my experience, or in something I read somewhere.

GS: The sense I got from Melencholia was, at least in part, Coolidge is attempting to get, in language or maybe "mind space," that sense of space and perspective in Drurer, and finding these odd sort of ways of getting at that in language. I mean, for the most part, it's a mystery to me. But it does seem to begin, at least, as semi-descriptive, and then move into what I guess you'd call gestural? And remains predominantly gestural for the duration of the poem. Anyway, you've sent along passages of Rebis that I want to take a look at:

11

Regarding the spiritual water
and the thirsty earth.
Where each turn in the intestine
signifies a planet, exit Saturn.
Harp, triangle,  scripted hands
wheat stomach behind the curtain
shaped the most beautiful labia
all floating in clouds.
Subterranean physics.
The formation of first
bone cells gives way
to reason and experience.

12

Camera Obscura.
Jackson picks up the book
and says " I want to read it."
I want to read it, too.
But all I can do
is look at the pictures.
I want to snap the capsule
out of the foil wrapper.
I want the text inside my mouth.
" Here," says my dentist ...
"Bite."

13

I was asleep in a box.
Crawling sensations of ants
on my skin,  but when I open my eyes
they are gone.  Not exactly gone,
but not visible. The gory nest
of death and rebirth. This birth.
Head first belies the sensation
which is anything but.

14

The big secret is that there are no secrets.
No secret is big enough to be there.
There is that no secrets are big.
Big secrets come in small elephants.
Trumpet blast for effect.
Two philosophers debate
in front of the alchemical temple.
That fucking is still secret.
Fucking trumpets blast big.
Fucking elephants.

15

The white tree surrounded by dew.
The letter Q on the coffin lid.
The blastocyst landing on uterine soil.
The sword splitting the egg.
Endeavor.
My spongy center emptied.
Let it deliquesce, then distill it
and the water you get is angel water.

16

Angel water.
Form is alive.
Form takes the poem
out for a walk.
Out of the foil wrapper.
We used to buy crystal meth
in small triangles of foil.
But when I open my eyes
turns a slightly bitter taste.

GS: So, some of this seems pretty straightforward: "Where each turn in the intestine/ signifies a planet," for instance, must come straight out of a "descriptive" alchemical drawing. What's interesting to me in the passages above are where you seem to depart from the subject at hand: suddenly you're talking about snapping capsules out of foil wrappers, you've got this memory of being at the dentist's, you remember buying crystal meth ... and I can see that, despite what we might call these "interruptions," the text as a whole reads pretty fluidly. Still, I'm curious as to how these specific memories (which are for the most part quite visceral) popped up, if you can maybe remember back to the situation of writing these ... what their relevance to the whole or to the process might be ...

MH: 11 is pretty much straight description of the 2 drawings I'm looking at, with a thought about how calcium aggregates into bone cells, and how similar that process may be to the aggregation of knowledge. The writing of that one is interrupted by Jackson, who picks up the book and says he wants to read it, which I notate, the text included in the drawing is in Latin, and since I can't read it, I imagine the Latin as an envelope around the meaning of the text, thus the foil wrapper and the text in the mouth like a pill. That led immediately to a memory of having a filling polished by my dentist ... who puts a piece of wax paper on the tooth and instructs me to bite. 13 is taken from an image of the King buried alive. 14 gets into a drawing of the philosophers debating in front of a Greek temple ediface. There are elephants carved into the temple face. The whole "fucking" text has to do with sex magic, long metaphorically represented in alchemical texts. I'm not sure why that's there, unless I was thinking of how, in traditional Buddhist scripture, Buddha's mother is impregnated by an elephant's trunk. I don't know if that's what I was referring to, but it may have been. 15 is a straightforward rendering in text of the drawing I was looking at. The angel water quote is from a paper published by a contemporary Parisian alchemical society, the Philosophers of Nature. 16 recycles text from earlier sections of the poem. This device works for me in several ways. In a longer poem, sometimes I use repetition to bring back an earlier statement or image, which I want to look at from a different angle. In this one, the foil wrapper in 12 comes back around as a memory of buying crystal meth. I think most of the other lines in 16 are recycled. The recycled device also reinforces the sound I want to get. I have always cared a great deal about the sound of the poem. Melopoeia, as Pound called it. So that's in there, too. Other than having an image in front of me as I write these, there are no rules to Rebis. We could look at others and find still other approaches. All very improvisational. What starts as erudition becomes speculation and a kind of pseudo-hypnotic regression. For me it is coherent. The poem has its own logic, not mine.

GS: As well as a 20-year history of coordinating various reading series, you're currently acting as the Wednesday night reading series coordinator at the Poetry Project. How does this gig, where you're working in a much more institutionalized setting, differ from the earlier series you were involved in?

MH: The Poetry Project has a certain cachet which I find irresistable. It is an institution, yes, but it is an institution made up of outsiders, in the larger sense of the outside. The history and reputation of the Poetry Project is as various as any institution in the world, but there is a community of poets, both in the Lower East Side and beyond, which I instinctively feel a part of. These people are my community, and the Poetry Project is where some of these people find themselves on Wednesday nights, listening. Unlike a bar series, this one requires a different level of commitment to aesthetics that may vary from one's personal aesthetic. It requires more feedback, and more interaction with the larger poetic scene. The other major difference is that some of the people at a bar might be there to drink and chat with their friends. Those people invariably interfere with the poetry audience. People who come to the Poetry Project come for one thing: to listen to the readings. It has been a pleasure to participate in that scene, with all of its attributes, good and bad. It's a great place to be.

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