Patrick F. Durgin

Rod Smith
Interview
Patrick F. Durgin: Before we plunge into matters of influence, I’d like to know if you would help to contextualize the writing of In Memory of My Theories. What was being brought to the work on a personal level? That is, in conversation, albeit virtual, you mentioned sharing the impulse. Could you isolate the impulse behind the book, away from anything in literature?

Rod Smith: One wants a friend in contingency. A kind of contextual gliding I suppose is what is meant by the title In Memory of My Theories which contains work as much as a decade old at the time of publication. Given that span, in the end what’s "isolated" in the book might be only "the impulse." So the constructing of a book is the compression of a large number of hours of the writer’s (or writers’) experience into a musical event (events) — that would be the impulse that can be shared — not so much an ideological informing as a roving, a perceiving, a "listening in" — which creates an experience rather than reporting it.

PFD: I’m interested in your characterizing the book or a book as a series of events. The cue I’d take from such a term would be along the lines of a "Discrete Series" — as with Oppen, each term is empirically true. Protective Immediacy seems much more of a "collection" instead of a series. The sort of gliding you’re talking about really surpasses the precedents for seriality in poems, doesn’t it?

RS: Hmm. Well, empirically true that each event is an event. What’s true about a work of art is what’s unique about it. I think. But that’s a generality so let’s not trust it, nevertheless a maybe useful approach. It’s one of the defining characteristics of our submodern moment, no?

Protective Immediacy is a collection of series I would say. I would make an analogy to Spicer here, a collection of books which has a progression.The issues of tone & seriality were on my mind I suppose, not in any deeply methodical way, but the first two sections "The Boy Poems" & "The Classics" are perhaps more "traditional" serial works, i.e. a cycle of poems recognizably interrelated, plus which they all have titles. The third section "Write Like Soap" I think of as intentionally fragmentary pieces. What happens when you intend fragmentation, I think, is you end up with a tonal or stylistic coherence rather than thematic. The fourth section, "A Grammar Manikin" is an attempt to write a poem which is neither a serial poem nor continuous. & at a certain level that can’t be done, nevertheless, one does. The poem "Protective immediacy" is also somewhere between seriality & continuous. Sometimes I call them "feeled poems."

PFD: Tell me more about "feeled poems." Are we talking about a sort of synaesthetic blend of seemingly incongruent methods or forms, "to write a poem which is neither a serial poem nor continuous"? At what level can this be done? The level of feeling or sensation? Or is it later, emotional?

RS: Well, a feeled poem is no different from a field poem except in the ways that it’s different.

I’ve not yet written my feeled poem panegyric but it’s one of my favorite submodern genres, & a favored form of the more radically inclined of the new mannerist school. I suppose the feeled poetry I like best has a certain turtlist sensibility, which many think is a joke.

PFD: No, really, there’s a heurmenutic trend implied by such a term, "feeled," which is not necessarily why you’d bring the term into play?

RS: Well yes you’re right, you use the term synaesthetic above I’d rather say syncretic or synergistic. I suppose what these jokey terms I’m bringing up point to is a continued use and valuation of new american terms in a new context. In 2000 a field poem becomes something else. Syncretic in the sense of using various modes of approach w/in any given piece allows for certain tones or territories to be covered which wouldn’t otherwise. That maybe sounds like mumbo jumbo, but that’s only because at certain levels of generality re creative work such characterizations are mumbo jumbo. Nonsense. It’s important.

& yes "feeled poetry" also points to the intuitive/emotional aspect of the work & argues for an inclusion of the thematic as well as the formal in any serious consideration of a work. Writers such as Lee Ann Brown, Kevin Davies, Lisa Jarnot, Heather Fuller, others, might be called "feeled poets" in this sense, though I haven’t checked this with them.

PFD: I know you have a deep interest in Cage’s work. How much did chance operations have to do with the work?

RS: None of these works partook of Cagean influence at the level of method, though a number of performance works I’ve done have used chance operations & other methods Cage used. Certainly he "spirits me," as he used to say of other artists.

PFD: I would like to have a book of Cage’s scores. The "Roaratorio" for instance, in the Mode release, contains the text and score, and I find it fascinating and sometimes tempting that another source text could be brought into conversation with the score, anything really. "The Boy Poems" was and now isn’t scored ... is it possible for what I am reading as the cross-section of masculine droids to be replaced and yet follow the score? I’m interested in the notions of performance taken up with this piece, in the double sense of social performance as masculinity and poetic gesture (score) as social intervention.

RS: I have a piece that uses Cage’s instructions for "Roaratorio" called "See It Go: A Politically Unrealistic Circus on Fun with Dick and Jane." It’s a writing through Fun with Dick and Jane accompanied by a tape I made of a broken toy, sound effects, etc. I also did some visual collaborations with my daughter. It’s been performed in New York & DC.

There were two versions of The Boy Poems as a chapbook. One contained extensive envoi & a rather outrageous, or more accurately, purposefully silly performance score as well as the poems, one contained only the poems. & a few of the poems were different in the two editions, not entirely, but significantly. It was a way of adding another layer of play or problematization, whichever you prefer. Not just at the level of gender but also to point toward the question of contextualization of a book of poems — not to pass judgement on whether one should or shouldn’t do that — but to use it as another aspect of a composition.

PFD: So, the sort of rethinking of what it means for a work to be "a piece" or to be composed, in the received sense of closed and unique, is there, something Cage also challenged or surmounted?

RS: Yes, that sense of adding layers of play. Also Duchamp. or Johns: "Take something, do something to it, do something else to it."

I was playing with the idea of prefacing a piece, whether discursively or through epigraphs, performance notes, etc.—it points up the fact that no context is finite, you could always add more information.

PFD: "Sieff" is a piece I’ve wondered about, particularly with regards to compostition. Again, the roving is there, the glide, but what was the trajectory. Did one strophe follow from the former in some way?

RS: "Sieff" was pretty heavily revised—but originally each paragraph addressed a different photograph, in the order they were found in a book, so there are as many stanzas (paragraphs) as tere are photos in the book. Melanie Neilson has done some pieces in a similar manner. It’s an erotic poem. "Sieff" refers to the photographer Jean-Loup Sieff. Beautiful erotic photographs. Formally, each stanza or paragraph moves away from the preceding. It’s ear-sex. Steinian I suppose. Spinning & being spun.

PFD: Ear-sex ... now with Stein, I tend to think of the gulf between something like "Lifting Belly" and "Tender Buttons" as the gulf (perhaps wrongly imagined) between illustration / performance and the erotics of cogitation. "Tender Buttons" could be seen as dangling concentration along an axis or a moving "away from the preceding."

RS: Well, perhaps "Sieff" is somewhere in between those two. & "Sieff" does "move away from preceding," literally, each stanza is one space further away from the preceding stanza. I don’t know why, but that’s what I did. I decided to keep it because I hadn’t seen it done before.

PFD: What use do you make of political elements in determining certain formal strategies in the writing? I’m thinking here, specifically, of the title poem, "In Memory of My Theories." where a sort of self-evaluation, social / societal speculation, and discursive contour combine, perhaps suggesting a dynamic not unlike that of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E camp.

RS: I’d be interested to hear more of your reading of the poem. Certainly it’s political (though not just) & certainly I "went to school" on them language poets for a good while — Weiner first & then Bernstein & then & then. But I wouldn’t say the political determined the form but rather informed the writing. I came to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E via the New Americans —

O’Hara, Mayer, Olson, Ashbery, & Pound & Stein before. Oppen. So perhaps I bring a bit of that "stance" in. I don’t experience a "split" really between lang/new amer as some seem to. It’s a continuum, a matter of what’s useful, & there’s a lot.

The short long poem, 5-20 pages, was what interested me there, & still does. "In Memory of My Feelings," "Ace," "At Night the States," "Sentences My Father Used," "In Cold Hell, In Thicket," etc. I had the first page & a half for quite a while & at a certain point it declared its intention of continuing & so notebook material combined with new to fill out the form.

The "contextual gliding" I mention above could be described via Deleuzian lines of flight, mapping, desire as becoming, etc. or situationist detournement. I.e. "mostly I drift." & that drifting, it’s there, in the Beats, in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, in the modernists. That’s a way perhaps to talk of "the impulse" as well as "the continuum" mentioned above yes?

PFD: I suppose that my "reading" of "In Memory" is based on a notion that it essentially takes the form of a debate with the past. How far off would this put me?

RS: Pretty far off. No, I’m not sure debate is right. It’s wondering around in what I know, singing about it. Some of it’s past, some of it’s not.

PFD: Well, Situationist thought really stems from a sense that political exigencies must exert some new form, in terms of situations. And Deleuze is really ethics in the end. Would you consider formal decisions on the level of the poem in terms of either? But, yes, I think that in Clark Coolidge, for example, you can see that drift from Proust to Kerouac through his American Ones, and down to something happening today, for today. I guess the assumptions that drifting through carries might oscillate from ethics to politics and onward.

RS: I’ve always liked the Stein point about not having to worry about being new, if you’re concentrated on your work it will be new simply because you’re in a new time, always. Perhaps one operates mainly out of desire for change for the good, or should.

PFD: So, that time is new, unique, and that is the validation of the work. In that submodern sense you mention of what’s true is unique about it. This might be a way to think of my term "debate" in relation to "In Memory of My Theories." That is, with new time and old theories, the discrepancy between the two makes a sound or song, yes? Can’t a memorable thing take on the sense of a universality? "The Classics" series might be another way or a more suitable way to think of such disputations, as I’m reading this series as a song of, though not fascinated with, perceived means.

RS: I agree with what you say in this question, though the term validation throws me a little.

I suppose I’m a little reticent in agreeing to the idea of these poems of mine being a "debate with the past" because that would determine, & from my point of view overdetermine them. But that’s the nature of this sort of discourse, & so, what I would say is that yes, I argue with the past, & my contemporaries. But that’s not as important, I believe, as the resistance to simplistic codifications any worthwhile artwork offers. & that’s not always done via a stance of ‘resistance’ by any means, but however it’s done one can recognize it because it enlivens.

PFD: I'm using "validation" as a synonym of "true" — following your statement that what's true about a work might be what makes it unique. So, something is influential not only because it’s let in and chased out and the furniture winds up rearranged, in Spicerean terms a little?

RS: Maybe I haven’t talked enough of the thematic in this interview. Spicer’s "It’s all content" re the form / content question always struck me as very wise. The drifting talked of above, the Deleuze/Debord stuff, that’s my searching for a usefully analogous framework in the interview format — but the validation & the impulse have actually always come most strongly from other poets. Friends. I mean that’s the most intense influence in a sense, they’re the people I’ve always felt I’m speaking to, working with — that’s why I dedicate poems, most of those that aren’t probably should be.

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