Gary Sullivan

Tod Thilleman

Gary Sullivan:
I've been reading A World of Nothing but Nations on and off for the last month or two; it's the most intriguing thing I've stumbled onto by a living New York poet, in part because it reads like nothing else I've read here. Can you talk a little about the process of writing the book?

Tod Thilleman: The four "Levels" of A World of Nothing but.. are deceptively simple, both in what they present and how it is presented. The process (which is still ongoing) is this: I keep a small notebook handy with me at all times. When moved to do so I write a strophe, or, stanza, on each page. When the tiny notebook's pages are all filled I tear them out and shuffle them, typing them into another "Strophaic." When I have ten Strophaics I cut each strophe out and place them in a shoebox. I then have my wife choose an appropriate number of them at random. Then I type the chosen ones into a "level." The number of levels for the whole writing project will be 30, which number derives from my determination to fill 300 Strophaic notebooks. As of this writing I have about 55 Strophaics, therefore 5 ½ levels.

GS: I have to admit, I have yet to quite grasp the function of the title (which seems like it might be a play on the posthumous Olson volume, A Nation of Nothing but Poetry?) ... can you illuminate this?

TT: Actually, that is exactly where the title for this volume of 4 levels comes from. What strikes a chord, of course, from that posthumous collection of his is the same concern with the rest of his body of writing. As with Melville, Olson set out to write the largesse of meaning, or, a geography of the soul. So, you know, the search for the white whale not only encapsulates the disappearance of the theological from human existence but it does so precisely thru the thoroughness of wave, ship, captain AND crew. Indeed the allegorical dimension does the telling, but not before being completely "exploited." Remember Olson always urged other writers to exploit their "theme." That exploitation, then, rests in the activity of writing — surrounded by the captain and crew — or, A Nation, of nothing but ....writing ... WRITING!

But my echo of that title in my own title is only a ghostly presence and mainly for literary people to get, if there is anything there to "get." What mine brings to the foreground of this writing project is the, of course, existential fact: We indeed live in a world and a time that is "lawless." That is, Human Being is framed by laws that sway according to the seeming whim of large populations, unwieldy institutional apparatchiks, swathes of unbridled monetary possibilities, etc. So, the ferment at bottom for this collection is indeed that that is CONTEMPORARY. Obviously, to construct an edifice for it is troublesome and is why the project ultimately becomes a "projection" of the numerals 10 and 3.

GS: On the subway to work this morning I was reading Heather McHugh's "The Store," in Broken English; in it, she's given a close reading to Robert Capa's photo diptych "Tour de France," which she reads as a kind of exploration of "present"ness ... and of course it immediately brought to mind A World of Nothing But Nations... which I'm reading as another kind of exploration of the present, or "present"ness ... I'm wondering if you could say a little about that, what sort of things you were looking for when writing this, or what maybe you've discovered, as you continue to write.

TT: What I've discovered is that in looking at the present moment there are the possibilities of all other moments. Or, if you will: there is the discovery in a closely observed, written-about- way-of-pulling-up-into-a-moment of hierophantic possibilities. I don't mean to put into the construction of this long poem a sense of how hierarchical definitions continue to invade reality as some kind of pyramid that can be built on only as "pyramid." What I'm discovering is what Shelley surely intimated when he questioned that yes, there are possibilities, but who is it among us will "GUARD the hierophantic epiphanies." Much like tending a garden, the closely watched moment has become a tangent to other moments (they ARE indeed separate). But they also overlap. And not simply in language, that structure. We are constantly finding our selves stripped of meaning and yet in the possession of the discovery of meaning. Or, if you like, on my walk in the park this morning the other fellow there with HIS dog put forth in a lengthy discussion (wherein I knew I was late for a meeting and needed to get away and back to work) the fact that if we were to give to people the ability to CONNECT with themselves outside of religion and politics we'd have given them the best. Instead, we find ourselves "arguing" over place and time where no argument was ever even proposed.

GS: Relative to the above I'm also noticing quite a bit of recurring strophes from one level to the next ... there's talk in the "forward" of "deja vu" ... is this an intended effect of the repetition? What else is behind the impulse to repeat a number of these strophes?

TT: I think the person (Hive Press, Inna Ososkov, a poet) who wrote that introduction was alluding to places in its sense of self that were not overtly repetitive. Déjà vu is internal, somatic, and cannot be but mocked by a literary device. But if those repetitions trigger that then fine the whole work falls into synaptic dream tunnels where we were born, so to speak. Otherwise, of course, the strophes are not so naïve as to suggest that they are harboring any of the other strophes so conscientiously. The writing proceeds on one level and the moment to moment synaptic thing on another. They intersect, surely, because everything does.

The actual impulse to repeat these strophes is born of the responsibility of the project itself, which was instituted as a repetition of random exposures of them as a "level." In other words, each level is indeed that repetitive strophe. So the structure of the work becomes borne by individual strophes in the act of repeating themselves.

I thought that if I were somewhat removed from the process of construction (the random delivery of these strophes into each level) then I might begin to get close upon consciousness. The sub-title for the whole project is "Toward an Ontology." My thinking is that Being, or existence so studied must yield forth an objective subjectivity. Déjà vu all over the place, like they say, brings the ontological impulse of this writing to the fore without burdening the reader with explanation. I am showing forth a discussion of Being instead of merely lecturing on it. Hence the fragmented lushness of the whole project.

Words fail us in that we think to use them. But of course, this is a writing project so I'm using words. The structure, however, is a mosaic of "meaning." It is not a mosaic of literal tiles. If it were, we'd be talking night noon and day about the juxtapositions of these strophes and their recurrences in terms that would not suit their uses in reality. Hence I had to think of it as large, so 300 notebooks seemed to fill that bill. Like an Oulipo experiment of constrictive literary form but not quite so strict.

The effect of the whole thing would tend toward a bowl of sloshing water, really, and little else. But I thought that to do something like that in words (in fact that's precisely what I was after in Wave-Run) it would merely end up being a "story." Which is not what I wanted. I wanted to present the intensity of a raw, naked, stripped down moment. It seems to me it is going to take 300 notebooks with their 30 or so strophes each to achieve that.

I would like to say at this point that I have written another poem which attacks that "story-line" that this Strophaic project dismisses. And, of course, it is a self-wrought myth of creation and destruction, or, death. It has been sub-titled "Toward an Onto-Theology." What is back of both of these writings is an existentiale, or, The Cogito. This will perhaps come up in another answer, but, basically, just to say that all of this was borne out of a reading of Heidegger and Sartre (among others.)

I do know that both of these poems are not strictly literary. Nor are they strictly scientific. Both are products of my own will and imagination and are meant to connect with, really, nothing more than that. The use of repetition in these long poems, I suppose, are really gotten from a hyper-activity within self-knowledge.

GS: I want to throw a couple of the strophes at you and get — if you're willing — a response to them, maybe a fleshing out of an idea that seems to be emerging, or perhaps describing the circumstances occasioning any of these particular instances:

     Why write anything
but the sound
and the air-like sound
and inside it the outside
has a human dimension
we have further to go to leave

TT: Life's complex. What I would like to do as a writer is mirror that complexity, not in my own mind or such-like ego-structure (that alibi, as it were) but in the moment to moment encounter with ideas and moods as they exist in the real. The ideal structure of these Strophaics (as in this first example) plays heartily upon that encounter. We catch the idea or activation of a particular meaning--in this case the locution "sound"-- and attempt to define it as a place in space. Then the intimation (in some romantic sense) that one can, that the soul can inhabit it, be inside space, be, that is, a subjectivity that would cover all of space. A universal intimation. Yet the human world exists outside of that subjective as a possibility inherent within its own. So the intimation then sees itself as leaving the subject for an object-oriented humanity, or, a life to be lived within that outside dimension. Hence the necessity to read the strophe in "concert" with its others. Each attempt to write the complexity of encounter with the ideal and the real runs aground of this interpretation. As a writer I have felt it totally inappropriate to bring in something from outside this project for its final resolution, for its taxonomic slant. That is: ultimately, any close reading of these strophes needs the fact of its own structure to be understood.

     You're never
gonna be able to get
your arms

TT: Building. When we think to say something, when we think to compose something we are brought to a head as it were. The fullness of the interrupted expression here finds itself in the "arms." Its syntagm, its syntax, its start at approximating a diction to be resolved in the mechanics of, say, pure grammar, becomes flushed with the noun. There is also the attitude of such a strophe that seems to come in from outside and to be stopped at the inside of that noun "arms." How do nouns sound out the air of this strophaic project so far? The echo they are given as contextual events.

     Looking back
at previous utterances
the cat's toes clip on wood
the eyes blink
the shadow of my hand
and the ticking clock behind me
is the beginning of this place
or is solely THE place

TT: Becoming. Becoming as opposed to Being. As an essential component to Being. I wanted to write a poem or literary thing that could leave any consideration of "language" behind. I wanted to focus on the act of writing and what that opened up as intimate possibility. Of course everything we do whether literary or no is a part of language. But to concern ourselves with that as the motivating force and tenor of a work of art is essentially neotenic. [Neoteny: (in science) Curiosity can be said to be a neotenic feature of the sciences because it always retains a sense of individuated, methodical immaturity. (in animals) Cats are more neotenic than dogs, for instance, because dogs are pack-oriented creatures and cats are not.] One wants to belong but at what price. The world is essentially divided along laborious lines. There is a sense to the human sciences and those preoccupations that their recursive and discriminating motivations have been usurped by industry and the production of, ultimately, monetary worth. So how belong to the human dimension when it is essentially concerned with infantile notions of truth and its attendant methods. Eventually we have to grow up and see ourselves inside a group. Thus will art begin to take on a wider and more purposeful direction. Any concern with the mechanics of our world in an isolated mode serves only flaccid models of human possibility. In other words: there is no language as a mediating force to the literary. The strophe above concentrates its vision on a place within and also without the human dimension. It's charged language, per se, but without the mediating influence of language. It has only the structure of surrounding strophes with which to be of "use."

     I am the continual birth
of the little boy lost

TT: Here the strophe speaks for itself.

is the music
of the fallen man

TT: Music itself is the sound of mankind having fallen from the foundations of this, or any, world. The strophaics are a music from outside in and from inside moving out. Music is egoless.

     Abstract is not
the one solution
but in a mosaic
all life
has the daemon of life
to lean on

TT: The taxonomy of the Strophaic project. That the specific as well as the general gist of it exists in a mosaic structure and not in some abstract and offhanded gesture to any convenient authority. In other words, interpretation (though it takes an ecstatic inspiration as its center) evolves or devolves around the structure of the writing. There is a relentless focusing at work in the writing of strophes — the very act of formulating the correct word with what lay before the writer's mind at the time of composition, surely — but a focusing that will not be swayed by argument or idea outside the province of the mosaic. That is, solely outside the mosaic. Again, the poem works both from internal as well as external forces. The forces push all the way toward whatever direction they can. What runs through the center of each strophe is a perfect, experiential moment, however.

     "MY calculations are just
as complicated, I'm
the only one who can follow
them and yet I'm
not particularly keen
on passing for a glory
of the nation."

TT: This is a quote from some reading I was engaged with now long forgotten. Something in the person of that quote that found affinity to the one writing these strophaics. But the whole quote comes and goes and doesn't measure along a linear bias — that it might mean what it says is certainly a possibility but it's been divorced from the structural context of the writing itself and so is merely a quote. In other words, the instance of its transmission is neither what it says nor what it pretends to be. It is merely a block of speech that holds a position in the mosaic. It helps define the mosaic; that is its only use here. 

     It is life-thrilling
to not see
thread's way

TT: What is close up to oneself is the living, breathing matter of Being. We do not know that we are involved with a mosaic when writing its continuation. We simply are and it's inspiring to merely Be. This strophe records the core-realization of that fact.

are the rhythm of stars

TT: There is no language that is attached to words, says this strophe, they all breathe or have relevance as one universal body. So much for the meaning of things as gotten through words — they are largely defunct. Literature is something generated from that which is not words, or even THE word. Williams' fillip that would have the poem start at "the burden of words" or whatever is only a starting point. We've gone way beyond that in this country. Our literature is truly first rate, the highest. If only we believed that, we could get somewhere with it, but alas, that neotenic and pusillanimous shadow that is so well prepared in the so-called human sciences rears its ugly head and scares off those who might (in Shelley's words) guard the hierophantic epiphanies. And effect some kind of change, or whatever.

     My method (like all)
poses an 'as if'
quality & quantity
of being that is NOT
being, but then
what is it that is, what
but a mosaic's distances

TT: An approximation of the universal. Certainly the mosaic, this matrix that the strophe contributes to, is none other than the universal "method." That is, we all go about our work, no matter how earth-shattering it might be, with that camouflage of existence perpetually in the way of what is. We proceed, as was said, by discriminations. Once something is known or worked with it is added to the storehouse and ferments and hallucinates the contents as any. This strophe is deep. It reminds us that there is only a perpetual difference, a discriminating difference at work in the world, at work in the real. No matter how close we might come upon any truth we have only the given time and space of mortality to work it with. The mosaic will always be in the moment and its distance and dim intimations now, having traded places with what is most familiar and "known," will only be replaced by another dim and distant visage. This is the human condition is it not? This is Being. And so an ontology of writing would and could only and ever assume this aspect of the universal.

About the Author's Work

Norma Cole on The Corybantes at non
Joe Napora on Wave Run at Bullhead
Henry Gould on A World of Nothing but Nations at Readme
Stephen Ellis on Wave Run at Witz


Wave-Run (Spuyten Duyvil, 1995)
The Corybantes: A Book of Strophaics (Spuyten Duyvil, 1997)
The New Frequency & the Music of Annihilation (Ma'arri, 1998)
Wallpaper & Lightning (Hive, 1998)
A World of Nothing but Nations (Hive Press, 1999)
1988: An Artist's Diary (PNY | MEB, 1999)
Anatomical Sketches / Daemon of the World (800th Trap, 1998)
Blank Verse (PNY | MEB, 2000)
Entelechy (forthcoming Pavement Saw, 2000)
Therseyn in the Book of Ahnahr (forthcoming)



Poetry New York

Spuyten Duyvil
P.O. Box 1852
Cathedral Station, New York / 10025


Poetry Online

"Solitary 1" and "Solitary 2" at Anabasis
from Wave Run at Light & Dust
from A World of Nothing But Nations at Readme

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