Gary Sullivan

Ron Silliman
Interview

Gary Sullivan:
Re-reading "Wild Form," your piece on form and context (e.g., "audience"), I was brought back to something you had written about the general differences of form and audience between "white male heterosexuals" and those "members of groups that have [not] been the subject of history ..." I'll quote the passage in full, as it appears on the University of Pennsylvania's website:

Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history – many white male heterosexuals, for example – are apt to challenge all that is supposedly "natural" about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of the spectrum are poets who do not identity as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers – women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the "marginal" – have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to who is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.

Reading this passage in tandem with "Wild Form," I'm curious as to how anyone might reconcile the two ends of this spectrum – if that's even a possibility, or desirable. If, as you say, "the situational specificity of form also explains why followers, imitators and epigones can never hope to extend or even replicate the meaning of their heroes" and "the meaning of any second generation is always the reification of the past ..." I wonder how you feel about the "meaning" of certain products of the multiculturalist movement, which I guess is now several generations old, specifically I guess what we might call a very consciously crafted "identity" poetics.

Ron Silliman: I want to make two qualifications up front. First, I don’t think that what we’re talking about is a spectrum, a two-dimensional plane. It’s much more complicated and multidimensional than that. Second, the paragraph on Al Filreis’ website was taken from “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject,” which I wrote in 1987 and published in Socialist Review the following summer. In the past 13 years, the entire field of writing has both broadened and deepened socially, mostly for the better.

Having said that, though, I think that the general dynamics roughed out in that piece still apply. History is not escapable, nor has it come to any sort of conclusion. But it does take steps, however haltingly.

It’s not particularly an accident, for example, that so many formally progressive Asian-American writers have emerged, including Sianne Ngai, Brian Kim Stefans, Linh Dinh, Prageeta Sharma, Tan Lin and Pamela Lu in addition to more established poets like Myung Mi Kim, John Yau, or Mei-Mei Berssennbrugge. The startling thing about Walter Lew’s rich and wonderful anthology, rightly called Premonitions, is not how many fine writers it contains, but rather how many more are out there for whom it could not find room.

My own sense is that younger African-American poets still find it much harder, not only to publish – although that too seems the case – but also to find audiences for a broader ranger of work. That is changing, but not nearly as quickly as one would like to see.

Here’s a crude and relatively simple index from a source that I take to be instinctively disposed to be inclusive and multicultural: the online book catalog of Small Press Distribution. On April 28, 2000, SPD’s catalog contained a total of 8,263 titles. Because SPD actively promotes multicultural works, it also publishes separate lists of African-American, Asian-American, Native American, Latino / Latina and Gay / Lesbian literature, as well as the usual genre distinctions. Of the 8,263 titles, slightly more than one fourth were included in these identarian lists, 2,212, or 26.8 percent. Now the 1990 US census didn’t exactly break out the national population in these categories – as far as it knew everybody was straight – but it did list white, black, American Indian / Eskimo / Aleut, Asian / Pacific Islander and “Hispanic origin.” If we just compare just these categories with their rough SPD equivalents, the results are revealing:

Group                                1990 Census (%)                               SPD (%)

Black                                                    12.7                                       3.5

Asian                                                     3.8                                        4.6

Latino                                                    11.2                                       9.7

Native                                                     0.9                                        2.4

White/Other                                           82.6                                      79.8

One of these groups – and only one – is radically underrepresented. And you can’t blame SPD for this. So even if we recognize that race is a social construction and political/historic condition, the consequences are real enough to have profound implications. If African Americans find it three times harder to get a work of writing to the stage where it shows up cataloged at SPD, the freedom to raise the questions of identity that we find so critical to the work of Nate Mackey or Harryette Mullen comes at a proportionately higher social cost. Look at how much responsibility to a community is manifest in the work of Amiri Baraka in even his earliest books as LeRoi Jones. That isn’t a hallucination on Baraka’s part – the weight of it is heavy and real. As it was also for Baldwin, say, or Langston Hughes. Jean Toomer found it to be utter hell, to the point that later in life he simply denied his blackness.

I take great heart to read the writing of Will Alexander, a poet whose concerns seem almost obsessively personal. I don’t know the man and so have no sense if he is conscious as to what a major political claim he is making in staking out this territory for himself. The fact that he is publishing so widely is hopefully a sign that conditions spelled out by that little table above might be open to change in the future. But the enormous labor put forth thus far by all of these writers, and by the great critical attempts by Mackey and Aldon Nielsen and others to resurrect a progressive black modernist heritage really needs to recognized for the difficult and heroic work that it is.

GS: You mention in "Wild Form" how you're often asked about the structures or form of your work, "as if there were any other answer than that available through the process of reading the text," and admittedly, one of my first questions to you was going to be about the structure, the over-all structure, of "The Alphabet." I suppose it will be self-evident, once the piece is collected as a whole, but considering the fact that this may be several years off, can you talk a little bit about how you've been piecing the whole collection together, what sort of concerns have come up in the process, and how if at all your sense of the larger form has shifted as you've continued to accrue sections?

RS: When I started The Alphabet back in ’79, my only sense was, after the (what at the time seemed like) long projects of Ketjak and Tjanting, that I knew that any larger writing would have to be structured in such a way as to push my work in different directions. Part of this was simply my perception that what made “A” work in sharp contrast to the other long poems of the first two-thirds of the last century was that its individual sections were both self-contained and yet logically related. There is an entropy inherent in Passages, The Maximus Poems and The Cantos that the reader doesn’t find in “A” and it really lies in that part:whole relationship. Oddly, one still does find it in the actual writing of the work itself – Zukofsky appears to have spent more than half of the time he worked on “A” writing very little or nothing.

The other part of this primary decision was that the idea of writing a single poem that was somehow “the same” over such a long period of time seemed intensely problematic to me – the question of boredom’s no abstraction.

Having said that, one section, “Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect,” has taken me years to complete and it’s nowhere near done at the moment. That section in fact has become – I don’t think I intended it as such – the secret spine of The Alphabet as a whole.

But in ’79, long before I’d even conceived of that, when I first began the jottings that would turn into “Force,” then turning to write “Albany,” “Blue,” and “Carbon” pretty much in sequence, what I knew was the sections would have to differ one from the other and fit into a larger intuitive logic. That logic is ultimately intuitive. I seem to know where a given section is going to be headed sometimes years in advance, but very little about what it will look like when it gets there. There have been a few notable false starts on sections, but overall I’ve been thinking about a poem – sometimes this thinking is little more than a sense of shape upon the page or vocabulary or tone, the sort of thing that comes to you when you first wake in the morning even before you remember your name, very amorphous. So there are no great diagrams hidden in the archives anywhere that shows the plot of the poem in the same way, for example, that Zukofsky once sketched out a plan for all of Bottom: On Shakespeare onto a single notebook page, five inches by eight inches. I’m working it out as I go along. And I’m surprised almost every day.

GS: Relative to the above, I've always wondered whether or not you were, in the 70s (or later, I suppose), keyed in to the work of the structuralist filmmakers (e.g., Paul Sharritts and Ken Jacobs)? I don't remember the filmmaker's name, but one of them, I was surprised to see while thumbing through a volume of structuralist film criticism, had structured at least one of his films using the Fibonacci series ...

RS: In San Francisco in the 1970s, one could go inexpensively to the SF Art Institute and see independent film that was, in fact, just that – Bruce Connors, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Michael Snow. Kathy Acker, whom I first met in 1972 or ’73, was a walking encyclopedia of every avant-garde movement possible. Warren Sonbert was a good friend of Alan Bernheimer, Kit Robinson, Tom Mandel and others. Then in 1976 or so one of the folks in the collective household I shared back then tried to fix me up with a friend who had just moved to town, and this turned out to be Abigail Child. So structural cinema was around, as were all of its cognates in the other arts. There was the experimental music scene, both in its classical tendency out of Mills College, which Kathy hung around a lot, and through jazz folks like John Grundfest, Greg Goodman, Henry Kaiser and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. San Francisco also had had a very active conceptual arts scene centered more or less around Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, which was really just his loft space directly above a great bar called Jerry & Johnny’s (both replaced now by the quirky-on-the-outside / soulless-on-the-inside Marriott Jukebox). “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World” was originally written for a magazine that came out of a conceptual art context rather than a literary one. There was lots and lots going on.

But if there were any writers or other artists using the Fibonacci series at the time, I was blithely ignorant of this. The first one I became aware of, while writing Tjanting, was the sculptor Mario Mertz. Then Charles Amirkhanian pointed out the composer William Duckworth to me, who was kind enough to send me his Time Curve Preludes for piano on tape. Now I understand that there is a Danish poet by the name of Inger Christensen who has a book called Alfabet that will be published (or republished) in English translation by Bloodaxe later this Spring and whose work also involves some use of Fibonacci systems.

But I am perpetually amazed at the folks who know that I have used this in a couple of works (of the 24 books I’ve published to date, you can find it in exactly two and one of these only partly) and presume to see this in other works. I have no idea how many times I’ve heard that I wrote Ketjak using Fibonacci when, at the time I began that piece, I had not the foggiest idea what that might be.

I’m not a very mathematical person, or at least I don’t think of myself as one. In my day job, I struggle with some of the basic formulae used to calculate a firm’s net present value, for example, that sort of thing. I barely got through math in high school and took only one course in college (largely just to prove to myself that I could do it).

Still, one of my eight-year-old sons wrote me a note the other day that was simply a schematic of Pascal’s triangle – so that must come from somewhere.

GS: I have this sense of you, and it may be entirely wrong, of having been initially very much invested with especially Black Mountain poets, or what some might call "Black Mountain" (whether or not that term was accurate): Olson, Creeley, Robert Kelly, Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner ... and I can definitely see elements of each of these poets in your work. At what point, assuming this is even an accurate characterization of your earlier interests (& writings) did you begin to break away from that a bit, "standing, taking steps" on your own? (Sorry, that was bad. Probably I'll change it later.) And what, internally or externally, prompted the shift toward the work we'd now recognize as yours?

RS: I was indeed completely under the spell of the Projectivists for several years, roughly 1966 through ’70, and it was an extraordinarily useful apprenticeship in that sense. There is no question in my mind that those poets were the ones asking the most demanding questions of themselves and of poetry in the period when I first really began writing. But of those poets, the only ones that I had any sort of relationship with during the late ‘60s were Robert Duncan, Ken Irby and, via mail, Robert Kelly. I met Bromige in ’68 and it took us awhile to get to really know one another.

Having grown up without a father, I was extraordinarily hesitant about dealing with older male writers, so generally stayed at arm’s length. Creeley, Ashbery, Ginsberg, and Eigner were all born within a year of my parents. Kelly and Irby were younger, only a few years my senior, which sort of made it possible to talk to them. Duncan on the other hand was simply some sort of Other Being altogether, with his purple velvet cape & crosst eyes (he would insist on this spelling) and proved remarkably changeable from one day to the next – you never knew if you were going to be friend or enemy. Although he could be extraordinarily generous with his time and energy when he wanted to – he went to great lengths to persuade Richard Baker-Roshi to let Bob Perelman and I start up a reading series at the Tassajara Bakery in San Francisco – he never would have proposed himself as anyone’s surrogate father. So he was more like Yoda perhaps.

My linguistics professor at SF State was Ed van Aelstyn, who co-founded Coyote’s Journal with Bromige, Ronald Johnson and I think Jim Koller. He talked me into starting what eventually became Tottels, and the process of writing to people whose work I liked – Eshleman, Schwerner, Eigner, Rothenberg – made it possible to meet a lot of people. One of the poets who had attended Indiana University with Clayton was d alexander (no caps and “d” was his full first name), a computer programmer long before working in the information industry became a fashionable day job for poets. d edited Odda Tala and when I asked him for work, he showed up at my door with his address book in hand – it was one of the most instantly kind and practical acts one could imagine. Getting to know people had a very realistic value: they stopped seeming like the Masters of Rime and became just folks. Somewhere in this whole process, I found my thinking shifting from worrying about how to “fit in” to the poetry of the period to a concern for what was missing. There was an enormous grinding noise that was the disconnect between the institutions of daily life – including the poem – and the monstrosity of the war in Indochina. Everybody who was eligible for the draft had some elaborate, paranoid story to tell. People I’d gone to high school with were coming home in body bags. And, really up until there started to be serious anti-war teach-ins on campus – I met my first wife during the planning of the very first one at UC Berkeley in ’65 – the poetry of the period was still very withdrawn from politics.

In part that was a consequence of the McCarthy period of just a few years earlier – it seems incredible now to imagine that people could read the Beats apolitically, but Kerouac was after all a hawk on Vietnam and very much a reactionary. People were still trying to pretend that Pound’s politics didn’t matter. Zukofsky’s only political text of the 1960s is the determinedly liberal elegy for JFK in “A” and I didn’t get to know Oppen really until a few years later – after he was already turning away from the overt politics of Of Being Numerous and withdrawing pretty rapidly into the silence of Alzheimer’s.

I think, also, that I and no doubt others found it claustrophobic as well as – in the same moment – liberating trying to think through the implications of projective verse in terms of my own writing in the late 1960s. Claustrophobic in part because there was such a clear sense of each poet’s signature form representing a certain sense of personal dialect. It was far more powerful than any theory of persona could have been, because you were supposed to sign up for your Self and manifest that constantly in all directions. Olson had made such a fetish of place. The young poets I was hanging out with in those years were very conscious, for example, that the openness of line and stanza and prosody in the work of Whalen could be traced back to a childhood in rural Oregon and that poets out of the Midwest, including both Lew Welch and Paul Carroll, favored a carefully flattened sense of the line. Now how you get the casualness of an O’Hara and the cramped enjambments of early Creeley out of substantially the same area – not to mention the oversized histrionic works of Olson – was the sort of inconsistency that made for interesting conversations if – a big IF actually – anyone ever noticed. People used to talk about how hard it must be for a David Bromige, given that he’d spent what was then more than a third of his life in Britain, an equally large chunk in Canada and was now living in the US of A – how would he ever find his line?

One person who figured importantly into all this was Denise Levertov. She came to teach at Berkeley in 1969 already one of the first poets of her generation to take a serious stand on the war. But she proved a terrible listener and unbelievably rigid in some of her thinking about poetry – she would say that a semicolon had twice the value of a line break, exactly, as though this was written in stone somewhere. Her students came reeling out of her classes and the reaction really raised the ferment around the English Department. I hadn’t taken any of her classes, though my wife did, as did Aaron Shurin, Rae Armantrout and others. The other faculty were pissed at her for what she was doing outside of the classroom – she took part in a teach-in her first week on campus – and her students struggled with what they were getting in the classroom. I was outside the official orbit of her students, although Bromige, Lyn Strongin and I had visited her class as guest lecturers one day – it was my first such invitation – and David and I had immediately quarreled with Levertov. From my own perspective, it was more important that things didn’t add up rather than any particular sum I derived from these events. Here was somebody who’d truly grown up within the Projectivist framework and who took politics seriously, and it had not improved anything – she’d sabotaged her writing and her political credibility simultaneously.

Three other people who are important to mention in this regard are Robert Grenier, Barrett Watten and Kathy Acker. Of all the hundreds of influences that I’d happily acknowledge, these three people had the greatest impact on my poetry during that period.

When I had finished Crow in 1970, I knew that it would be the only book that looked even somewhat like the poetry I’d grown up with during the previous decade. But I struggled with what my work needed to become for years – Mohawk and nox are two of the works that come out of that middle period. It really wasn’t until I started working with sentences, first with the sentence-as-line in “Berkeley,” a poem that can be found in Michael Lally’s None of the Above anthology, and then very quickly thereafter with Ketjak, that I began to discover a form that would enable me to do in writing what I’d striving for all this time. The work of Watten and Grenier, both as poets and in their journal This was instrumental in helping me to make the connections.

I met Acker sometime in 1972 through a reading series at a printshop/bookstore called Empty Elevator Shaft up the hill from Noe Valley. At the time she was publishing monthly installments of I Dreamt I was a Nymphomaniac Imagining and using the pseudonym The Black Tarantula. She was the first woman in San Francisco to regularly wear a  crewcut. Acker at least appeared to be living the ideal of making it new without a net to a degree that otherwise seemed unimaginable. In retrospect, I can see now all the ways in which this was also not the case: she was in fact remarkably well-studied for what she was doing and who she was when at home with her birds and hamsters on “Squalor Street” (I think the birds were named Jackson Mac Low and John Cage, the hamsters Art and Revolution) was radically different from the out-there / over-the-top persona she projected in her writing and performances.

But what Acker really showed me – showed anybody who was willing to look, really – was just how conservative the world of literature was/is. Think of the changes that have gone on in painting or music over the past 50 or 70 years. Think of Bing Crosby as the first singer to understand the dynamics of the microphone, the Jimi Hendrix of that experience, “crooning” where his predecessors had simply blasted out lyrics as if to reach the back row of any auditorium – Crosby is a contemporary with William Carlos Williams, a man whose work still looks unrecognizably avant-garde if we use the kitschmeisters of new formalism as our testing point, and still more than contemporary if we consider the remnants of what used to be the Iowa School of Emoting. In the era of Rova, Counting Crows, and MC Paul Barman, you can still find poets and critics who would object to the equivalent of Bing Crosby. It’s literally nuts.

When I began writing Ketjak there may not have been a lot that looked like that exactly, but in contrast with what I felt Kathy was doing – or Grenier, say, with his box of cards, Sentences – I was hardly attempting anything half as radical.

GS: This next question was prompted in part, actually, by my boss. One afternoon while proctoring language exams (e.g., sitting there, reading in this case a stack of your books while students take German, French, Classical Latin, Urdu, etc. tests), my boss came in to relieve me for a 10 minute break and, when I returned, I saw that she was thumbing through Jones. She looked up at me and said, and this is a quote (albeit, from memory): "This guy is obsessed with garbage!" I was a bit surprised by the remark, but sort of assumed she really meant "minutiae." Well, sure enough, I went back to Jones, and see that, yeah, the poem at least begins with a kind of wash of detritus ... "not only dense with life but debris ..."

I'd never thought of your writing as being in any way really what we might call "theme" related. But, I've since heard the Linebreak interview, where you talk about compiling sentences for "Albany," the first section of The Alphabet, that were either intensely personal or intensely political. And, of course, Albany being where you grew up, it kind of "thematically" serves as the "site of origin," let's say.

Since then, I've gone back to your writing, specifically The Alphabet, wondering how much of it has been written like this. So, for instance, "Skies," which I just read for the first time last week, I see that, yes, there's this use of "the sky"; every sentence in some way references, plays with ideas about, the sky, the air, the horizon: "atmosphere," perhaps. And, it may be reaching, but "Lit" now seems, to me, to be even more filled with what we might call "literary" references of one kind or another than most of your other work (where lit references aren't, I realize, absent, of course).

So all of this has me wondering how much you've been thinking thematically as you've put together the sections of The Alphabet ...

RS: Your boss is a decent reader. Skies, which was written first, is a description of the sky as I found it over the course of one year, one sentence per day. Jones, which takes its name from the most derelict street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, does the same thing for the ground – I suspect there is more gum on sidewalks in that poem than in any other.

Blue, for example, was inspired by a walk that Gil Ott and I took around Manhattan one day, mostly down Orchard and Hester Streets, but the initial sentence of that work, “The marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was Valery’s example of why he could not write fiction. So that work consciously constructs a certain amount of narrative – you can follow the marchioness all the way to the restaurant. In addition to the writing question – the problem of prose – Valery was important because he once started to write a sequence of prose poems to have been called The Alphabet but stopped after composed ABC – not coincidentally the title of the first volume published by Tuumba in ’83.

Themes are always a consideration, though just one of many. You can certainly look at works such as BART, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps, Sunset Debris or The Chinese Notebook as having themes, but in works such as Ketjak and Tjanting these tend to be regionalized more – a careful reader of the former will be able to trace the journey I took in the summer of ’74 to Chicago and Detroit from SF, but it’s just one of many layers. Lit has much to do with the tensions of teaching. Albany is the California town in which I grew up and that work is the closest thing to an autobiographical poem as I’m likely to write. In The Alphabet generally there has been more room to focus individual works around different ideas. Hidden is pretty much about my farther, for instance, Ink focuses a lot on my grandmother.

But a lot of what I’m interested in as thematic others might not recognize as such: Engines, the collaboration with Rae Armantrout, has a lot to do with the give and take involved in the collaborative process, for example, as Force does with the process of revision (the prose and verse sequences in that piece were written separately and brought together) or Quindecagon with rhyme. Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect, a section that has taken over a decade to write, is deeply concerned with the impacts of time. What, in this sense, is a theme?

[Note: This is Part One of an interview-in-progress. Part Two will appear in Readme #4, due out in late summer / early fall of 2000.]


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