Gary Sullivan

Laurie Price
Interview


Gary Sullivan: You were among the first graduating class of Naropa's poetics program. Can you talk a bit about how you discovered the school, and what those early years there were like?

Laurie Price: It just so happens that I was living in Western Colorado when my stepfather died and I had to come back east for the funeral. While I was here I got together with a friend I'd met in college, James Ruggia, who invited me to go to the W.C. Williams Paterson Falls poetry reading with him & his girlfriend where we met Allen Ginsberg. Some hours later we were all hanging out at a diner where Allen was being interviewed by a reporter & in response to some question about what had happened to the Beats Allen replied that they had come back with their vision refined, whereby he began to talk about Naropa Institute & the Jack Kerouac School of Diesembodied Poetics. That was the first I'd heard of Naropa Institute. When I went back to Colorado I wrote to them for information and picked up a second job to pull together the money to go there. A few months later, in the spring of 1979, I arrived in Boulder. Right away I was swept up in the energy of being at ground zero & I wrote to my friend James & invited him to come out, which he did that summer. I got there in the middle of their school year, which in those days ran from January til August. There were about 12 or 13 students, most of whom stayed on for the spring session and for the following year or two. Over the course of that first year I experienced something very special which had to do with the focused and very singular pursuit of poetry while being part of something that had continuity. The word that came up a lot in those days was "lineage" — but what I experienced was something more personal, something more direct than that. It was more about being an individual in a group. The amazing thing for me was being in this vortex of pure energy. I remember that although I didn't really "hang out" with any particular group there I still felt part of something much larger than myself.

In the spring of the following year Ted Berrigan & Alice Notley came to Naropa with Edmund & Anselm, who were then about 4 & 6 years old. Ted's sense of generosity & inclusiveness with each of us individually was something I connected with very personally. Both he and Alice drove something home with me about dailiness & discipline and making poetry part of everything you do. Up to that point I think I had a much more grand and rarified sense, still, of how poetry informed my life and about how I wrote and what I addressed. Even though all of my other teachers there — Dick Gallup, Anne Waldman, Michael Brownstein & Larry Fagin covered so much ground with their work & in their personalities, I think it was Ted & Alice whose influence on me became more about challenging myself.

GS: What period of time does the writing in Except for Memory cover? Does any of it go back as far as your Naropa days? Or is it mostly from San Francisco?

LP: Except for Memory was my first "real" book — & so I wanted to include a selection of work in that ms. which reflected the different zones my writing had entered & stayed around a bit. As we've discussed in the past, I mostly had a pattern of writing sonnet-length poems, which is to say somewhere between 10 & 18 lines — which was where I seemed to feel most comfortable. Though over the years I'd also written other sizes & kinds of work, which fit, in my head, loosely into other categories. As I put the ms. together I remember thinking that I could see five distinct "kinds" of poems — or five distinct zones.

In actuality, about a half dozen of the poems in the book are from my time at Naropa. Four of those are from one period, early Paleolithic, let's say, which is certainly meant to imply something akin to the first stone age — right at the time when the work first seemed to solidify of its own volition, &/or after a period of unconscious osmosis. And the remaining two from other times later, which were more conscious efforts on my part to address something more directly.

GS: How involved were you in the various San Francisco poetry scenes while you were there? Anything you found particularly generative? Corrosive?

LP: As for my dozen years in SF — No, I really didn't have very much of a connection to any of the scenes there. By the time I arrived in SF I had already gotten a sense of my "community" — other poets with whom I co-responded, as well as corresponded, and through some of those poets I came to know other poets. I am still very much in touch with some of those people now. But when I arrived in SF I went to lots of readings, sat in on some classes at New College, bought lots of small press books & magazines & generally tried to find where I fit into what was going on out there. I didn't really connect with any poets there whom I didn't already know for many years. For most of that time I counted mostly visual artists and photographers among my friends & peers. I married a photographer & became quite involved with the people we met together and it satisfied a place in me that was very empty while I was in Boulder. In the late 70s/early 80s there was no discernible visual arts activity going on in Boulder — almost no galleries, and what galleries there were devoted most of their exhibits to crafts. Since I grew up always being around art — my grandfather painted, my cousin next door was an artist and so was one of my sisters, I felt very conscious of that lack in my surroundings.

GS: You've always done visual work — collage, assemblage, etc. — as well as poetry … do these all feel "of a piece," or do you approach each kind of making very discretely?

LP: My visual work goes back as far as my first writing, though I concentrated more consciously on writing, and have always thought of myself as a writer. It's only in the last 10 years that I've conceded space in my apartments for making visual work, and really only since a few years before I went to Mexico that anyone's ever seen any of it. I always felt that the relationship between the two was a fluid one, & I almost always alternated between one table or desk & the other, even when that table was just the kitchen table.

In Mexico I worked on a series of "literary art objects" & installation pieces which used glass, mirror, copper, & found objects with text. The main piece and nearly only surviving piece is a glass book — a poem which deconstructs & transforms as you turn the seven glass "pages" — so you can see that the relationship between my writing & visual work isn't static. These days, confined to an apartment in New York and no useable outdoor space, I mostly make collage. In Mexico, however, I lived with doors & windows open, both in Oaxaca & in Mexico City, and always had outdoor space where I could work with glass & metal without the problems those materials can present (i.e., glass splinters, etc.).

GS: One of the things I've always been intrigued by is your titles ... and I'm wondering if you might talk a little about them, the titles of your books in particular, maybe elaborate as you can or please to ...

Except for Memory ... I mean, there's that qualifier there, and so the immediate question is, "what is memory excepted from?" ... and "what is it about memory that excepts it?" ...

Under the Sign of the House ... this sounds almost zodiacal ... do you have an idea of what "the sign of the house" might be, its and/or the properties of anything/one (born? living? existing?) under it?

LP: It just so happened that when I started putting together the manuscript for Except for Memory I saw that two of the poems I was including contained that same phrase — & they'd been written a few years apart, so something about that phrase pulled me and I felt that those words had sort of elected themselves to title that work. Also, I'd been thinking that what we fill up the object world with is the phenomenal world — which we create from memory, from experience, from specific presences created by a place or a person or an object and how without that our experience of the world is filled with ghosts. I wasn't at all thinking of memory being excepted 'from' anything — it's a bit tricky to talk about, but really what I liked about 'except for memory' was that it felt like an open-ended proposition, almost a question when lifted from its context. The way a blank page is before it's covered with words.

Under the Sign of the House also comes from one of the poems in that collection — "Black Hawthorne" — and since most of the works in that chapbook were written in Mexico I wanted to frame them that way. The phrase could just as easily be translated as 'under the spell of the room' or something. When I left Mexico it was such a distinct experience, & even though I was just crossing a border — not an ocean — the differences between life there & life here resonated with me 24 hours a day for a very long time. I mean here we are in the U.S. — we share a border with Mexico, but in my experience we might just as well be on separate planets, since I think that Mexican culture, socially, economically & politically, has more relationship with life in parts of Europe, Africa or Asia than with life in the U.S. I had a pretty good taste of living in both a provincial city (Oaxaca) and the world's largest city (Mexico City). When I moved to Oaxaca it was still a small city of maybe a half a million people including its outlying areas, & was a 10- or 12-hour car ride from Mexico City & therefore pretty cut off from any kind of urban culture. Two years later I moved to Mexico City, which has a population, more or less, of 25 million people, and needless to say, that was a totally different experience. Add to all of that the fact that I was a foreigner, and female, in a Latin, male-dominated culture. So I could say that those two places were two of the rooms of the 'house' in that title. The thing is that the title was a way of framing that time of making those poems in that place.

GS: Can you do a close reading of something? I'll throw out "In Its Becoming," because I have questions of my own about a couple of the lines, but any other poem you'd like to go back to and sort of describe "the situation of making" would be nice.

IN ITS BECOMING

The room settling into its deepest sense
from the bottom up layered and fading
fast in its becoming
as though its properties were sinking
enough to say its geology being of interest
would hide its absolute thingness of concrete and glass
felt no differently then than window through
and pictured in its frame a tree paralleling
the shape of its becoming

Trees in the shapes of trees
"collecting toward the greenest cone"
waiting to be seen as such
stalling against time and portraiture
split hastily to cradle
how our corner of the world
might come to continue
enchanting

LP: Well the line in quotes comes from a Wallace Stevens poem. I was reading Stevens' work — & I loved the upward motion of that line, ("collecting toward the greenest cone") which I could actually see rising from beneath the ground & up into the sky — and it paralleled some of what I was playing with in that poem, that sort of lifting or sifting up — at the same time that I was describing the gravity & solidity of the physical properties of the room in that poem. The separation of the view experience from the room experience was happening that way too — sort of vertically, slowly. The window in my poem, through which I could see the top of a mountain covered by slightly dwarfed pine trees that formed what Stevens' line described — was what located me — what told me where I was. I was there; I was enchanted every day by that view from my desk out my studio window in Oaxaca, and by that sometimes slow and sometimes sudden sense of observation & mapping & fluidity.

GS: Can you talk a bit about influences?

LP: I connected a lot to Ted Berrigan's way of allowing me to feel more familiar with the work of many different poets. Ted was the first poet I experienced a personal poetic connection with that extended way beyond just words on paper and The Sonnets is still an amazing bunch of work to me. It was one of the few books I took with me when I moved to Mexico. Also Bernadette Mayer's The Golden Book of Words and Midwinter Day, and Alice Notley's work did and still do something that makes my heart beat faster. They both move so fluently back and forth between what's intimate and what's just there. And I was hypnotized by Stein's work, which I still like to read aloud, and which I attempted to translate into Spanish. Laura Riding's work tantalized me — all that gravity and formality and erasure definitely felt very attractive. The list of influences is pretty zigzaggy — Pierre Reverdy, John Ashbery, Clark Coolidge, Kim Lyons, Albert Sgambati, Laura Moriarty, so many others — I have a tendency these days to read around and be surprised and moved to write by reading lots of different people. It's hard to honestly know if any of what I read by my contemporaries has influenced my work, except for those few whose work I've been paying attention to consistently for years. And I also think that learning a second language has been an influence that I can't really explain except to say that learning the formal workings of a second language and holding that as a sort of transparent canopy over my mother tongue has affected the way I see and hear what's being said or written, in English or in Spanish, and how I look at my own writing.

GS: You've told me a couple times — and I sort of know this from being in your apartment — that you'll often have things written everywhere ... on Post-its, notepads, and so on . . . and that part of the process is coming upon these things and beginning to assemble them into a poem (or several poems). What is that like? Do you find that you've maybe got several poems going at once and that they sort of create a kind of vortex into which other words, lines, phrases will begin to spiral ... or is it a slower process of assembling? And, relative to that, what is it that you're looking for when you work on poems? Can you describe what it feels like as you begin to sense the poem taking shape?

LP: Okay, well, in reference to the post-its, scraps of papers, notebooks, etc., you also know that I wrapped one of the rooms in my apt. with a poem, and that the flotsam and jetsam for both poems and collages or assemblages pretty much equally share the apt. with me. I want to talk about both writing and making visual work here. In terms of process, it's all of a piece, which is to say that I understand writing and making art as interactive activities which converse back and forth and which are often driven by similar impulses, and sometimes drive each other. Since both of these activities are moving targets I can allow myself to disengage without disengaging — that is, move from one to the other fairly fluidly, without the sense of losing my connection from the process. And while I do have things written on so many scraps of paper all over the place, the vortex I write from includes other things too — like what's going on, or not, outside the windows, the running commentary in my head, memory, dreams, things I've misheard, etc. Inside all that, and more crucial to the work, is what goes on between the words themselves as they start to assemble. I do work on several things at once, but more often than not, one piece begins to take shape and preference over whatever else is going on. I see this as the real guts of how the poems happen — which is that the experience, once it gathers momentum, is like a prelude to intimacy, with all of those feelings of attraction and connection and animation, and I'm aware of my desire to sustain that feeling or fuel it sufficiently so that it continues on its own in the reader's head. So yeah, there is definitely a vortex in which many things are going on, and where all my senses feel pretty heightened, and where I often receive "dictated" writing (which to describe in this way makes me think of that Cocteau film where the guy is sitting in an old car, furiously writing down what's coming out over the radio), but the process of "getting" the poem "right" is often somewhat slower these days because I'm interrupted by something (time to go to work or to sleep), or the poem needs cajoling and work and editing and such.

The same process occurs with making collage and assemblages — where I have 3 or 4 pieces I'm working on, all in various states of occurrence. I try to make time for both activities — because I know that they both require me to be patient. It's not all automatic writing, or automatic collage-making. A good deal of the work has to do with bending my own resistance, either because I'm reluctant to go in the direction the work is pointing me in, or I'm already in an editing mode and am erasing or crossing out as fast as I'm writing, and have too sharp a sense of a place, or several, that I want to go with the poems (or collages). And even though I'm not very interested in narrative, I sometimes have to argue with myself about the 'sense' that is or isn't happening in the work.

What I'm looking for is a really open-ended question. Sometimes it's not a matter of what I'm looking for but rather where I might be led, since I'm willing to allow for accidents — surprises that occur within the work that lead me and the poem in other directions. A long time ago (as a student) I wrote the following line, "I dream a staircase leading both directions." And that's pretty much what I've seen and felt has happened. I want the work to generate an impetus of its own. I think that trusting that the work will do that is sort of what I've come to after a long time of trying to always take the lead. The thing about arguing with myself over the sense of the work happens a lot less these days, but it's something I do pay attention to, because I want to be able to go back into the poem, upon rereading it, and find the places where I've left open some windows or doors, places where the reader can enter the poem, and also places which are a little bit 'abstract,' (I sort of disdain that word) but where each subsequent reading doesn't duplicate the previous experience.

As for what it feels like when the poem is taking shape — it's a maelstrom of things — which happen concurrently. I have a sense of 'knowing' that is different from my daily approach to almost anything. The language just comes and I dutifully put it down on paper, when that kind of transmission is happening — or I know that a line I just wrote is in the wrong place but have to leave it alone for the moment in order not to miss what's going on in the present. Or I have to reread what I've written so far and find the resonances and echoes of what the words want to do; where they want to go. I do edit my work, and sometimes poems are not finished and have to sit for awhile — days, weeks, months, even years. Sometimes the poem is ready before I'm ready (to 'see' it) — and to me that is very curious, but it's true and it happens.

A lot of the time what I've collected on post its or scraps of paper doesn't go anywhere. Or those fragments hang around and get buried by other things scrawled on post-its, etc. and then suddenly one day I come across the post-it and see that what I wrote there fits into something I'm writing, exactly. There's a little bit of divination going on there —

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