photo © Angela Carr
Friday Night: a crowd, including Norma Cole, Bob Glück, Leslie Scalapino, Beverly Dahlen, Erika Staiti, Rob Halpern, Lee Azus, Tonya Hollis, Taylor Brady, Camille Roy, Miranda Mellis, Angie Romagnoli, John Norton, David Buuck, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Alli Warren, Brandon Brown and many others, all presided over by the ebullient Samantha Giles--turned out to hear Bruce Boone and Gail Scott. Bruce read from his 1984 Exempli Gratia Press chapbook, The Truth About Ted. This piece will find its way here on xpoetics sometime in the near future.
Bruce Boone’s published work includes– Karate Flower (1973), My Walk With Bob (1979 & reissued by Ithuriel's Spear in 2006), Century of Clouds (1980 & reissued by Nightboat Books 2009), and with Robert Glück, La Fontaine (1981), The Truth About Ted (1984), and a variety of essays in small press journals. In addition, Boone has translated the work of Georges Bataille, including Guilty (1988) and On Nietzsche (1994), several works by Pascal Quignard, including On Wooden Tablets: Apronenia Avitia (1984) and Albucius (1992) and Jean Francois Lyotard’s Pacific Wall (1989).
The Truth About Ted: An excerpt from Carmen is a story about storytelling, desire, interpretation, reading and misreading. The narrator, “Bruce” tells a retrospective series of stories about a community of gay men who encounter Ted, a young man who is “straight, but [whose] brand of sociability really suggested something more like camp” (1 [unpaginated]). After cataloging a series of readings of Ted’s life–“He hung out with gays almost exclusively. He looked gay and acted gay. He talked gay even” – the narrator asks “So why wasn’t he gay?” (1). Ted becomes an object of gossip for the community as they try to interpret his conflicting messages and their conflicted readings of his sexuality.
The reader is strung along in this text as are the community members. Is Ted gay? Straight? The relationship of epistemophilia to erotics, seduction, reading and interpretation is literalized in the text. The Truth About Ted ends up being about the truth about Bruce, or the truth about stories and their relationship to life, or the truth of the self’s continual misrecognition of its own specular image, or the ways in which the subject is caught up in the cogs of narrative, language and desire. Here, the mirror of the story suddenly turns on its author and readers. It reveals a reflection that isn’t so much Ted’s story, but is the community’s, Bruce’s, and the readers’. If at the close of the story’s first paragraph we read: “It’s his life, after all, not yours” (1), by the end of the piece, we discover that perhaps it is not Ted’s life, but Bruce’s and maybe not Bruce’s but ours.
Gail Scott read next from a new yet-to-be-published-manuscript titled The Obituary. This text traces the repressed native in her family history--something that is intriguing to me as I am working with this repressed and erased (for generations)native history in my own family via a writing-through George Oppen's Of Being Numerous. Gail's piece complexly flays and sutures language as it traverses various characters--an old gendarme in a stairwell and his young apprentice who watch a woman, Rosine. Rosine is mostly a face in a window and sometimes a (male) fly. There are also shale pit workers and a politically correct lesbian historian. French, Cree, English and various discursive registers soar, collide, and re-form. There are the Métis (Fr. "person of mixed ancestry"), footnotes and voyeurism. Stairwells. A linguistic kaleidoscope.
Some lines I jotted down in the half-dark include:
"She's a fly when she's feeling sexy"
"a hybrid rising out of her dichotomies"
"his youth still uncoiffed"
But the pen can't keep up with the ear and the desire to hear the way Scott orchestrates language--both tensile and capable of astonishing and dangerous leaps and turns--led me to abandon myself to the thrill, to the pleasure of it--arabesques, near crashes, tender glissades.
Here's what Kate Eichorn writes about Scott's The Obituary in her preface to Belladonna's Elder Series Number 6 (She also references M. NourbeSe Philip's work here):
Writing from a different geography, but one also profoundly shaped by histories of colonization, Scott’s writing reflects a preoccupation with cusps and peculiar fusions. Her new novel, The Obituary, investigates the necessity and impossibility of dwelling in such sites. Varied and repeated rituals of contact reverberate at the level of the sentence as French expressions seep into English and English dialogue is delivered carrying traces of an Algonquin language. There are many layers and forms of contamination here; Scott has no investment in purities of grammar or genre.
To be clear, neither Philip nor Scott are exclusively interested in recovering histories that have been placed under erasure or crafting narratives that seek to reify fixed identitary positions. Rather, both writers recognize that colonization naturally gives rise to all sorts of fractured subjects, hybrid forms and polyvalent linguistic registers. By coincidence, their contributions to this volume even share some notable similarities. In their new novels, both writers appropriate popular cinematic and literary genres (Philip adopts the mystery novel and Scott uses film noir as a template). These popular genres are brought into contact with linguistic practices and forms filtered through oral traditions and with discourses pilfered from the ubiquitous canon (Philip’s novel is framed by an epigraph from The Tempest; the section of Scott’s novel included in this volume recasts lines from Macbeth). In the way that contact zones often foster narratives marked of interruption, collision and perverse confluences, these texts raise essential considerations about the overlaps between avant-garde writing and some of the other places where fragmentation, parataxis and disjunction are commonplace, and linear narrative and singularity of voice are difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. Perhaps, these surprising parallels reflect the fact that both Philip and Scott write from places where it is more difficult than it is here to ignore the prevalence of such overlaps, reminding us that the centre of Empire has never offered the most critical vantage point. I welcome them to the Elders Series as fellow travellers, and as writers whose work has consistently demonstrated to me the immense possibilities pried open when familiar forms and rehearsed paths through the sentence are ruptured. --Kate Eichhorn March 2009, New York City
All in all, an evening to remember. Two amazing and distinctly different writers.
Gail Scott's bio (from Belladonna):
Gail Scott is the author of 7 books, including an anthology, Biting The Error, co-edited with Bob Gluck et al, My Paris (Dalkey Archive), Spare Parts Plus Two (Coach House), the novels Main Brides and Heroine, and the essay collections Spaces Like Stairs and la théorie, un dimanche (with Nicole Brossard et al). She is co-founder of the critical journal Spirale (Montréal) and Tessera (new writing by women), teaches Creative Writing at Université de Montréal and has recently finished a radio play, “Werther Lives”, and a new novel, The Obituary.
Some photos from the night:
John Norton and Dodie Bellamy
Photo: courtesy of John Norton. Rob Halpern, Bruce Boone, Bob Gluck, Camille Roy, et moi.
Gail Scott, Angie Romagnoli, Asta, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Alli Warren, Brandon Brown, Bruce Boone.
Dahlen reading in New York. Photo by Erica Kaufman.
"Thrilling to Throw One's Voice Out There"
Part Two: An Interview With Beverly Dahlen Conducted in October 2009 via email.
A native of Portland, Oregon, Beverly Dahlen has lived in San Francisco for many years. Her first book, Out of the Third, was published by Momo’s Press in 1974. Two chapbooks, A Letter at Easter (Effie’s Press, 1976) and The Egyptian Poems (Hipparchia Press, 1983) were followed by the publication of the first volume of A Reading in 1985 (A Reading 1—7, Momo’s Press). Since then, three more volumes of A Reading have appeared. Chax Press published A Reading 8—10 (1992); Potes and Poets Press: A Reading 11—17 (1989); Instance Press: A Reading 18—20 (2006). Chax Press also published the chapbook A-reading Spicer & Eighteen Sonnets in 2004. Ms. Dahlen has published work in numerous periodicals and anthologies. Her essay on beauty and her poem called “A Reading…. the Beautiful” were published in Crayon 5.
RTM: What about writing and its address,the address to the other. You write: "the reading of the writing goes on, this is for you because you are not here. you are always not here. you are never here. I make you up, I wonder how you look. and now it is so much easier to write than to speak. an other is so much an hallucination it's scary. I don't know what I speak to." (A Reading 1-7 78) In A Reading 11-17 you write: “ a dead ear, who might be out there listening to this. whoever you are. Foiled” (51). I’m interested in your conception of address in your writing Beverly. What is your work’s relation to its possible or imagined readers?
BD: That first passage is addressed to Rachel Blau duPlessis. We are friends but we rarely see one another. Our friendship is carried on by correspondence and sharing of poetry. It's a kind of lament because the other is absent. And we do invent images of absent others---they become a kind of "hallucination." The other passage is just imagining an audience, or a reader, that unknown other, someone who might be there----or perhaps there is no one listening, nothing, then one is "foiled."
RTM: In 1988 the Socialist Review published Ron Silliman’s “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject.” In it, Silliman introduces a selection of work by various poets. The poets introduced are: Aaron Shurin, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lisa Bernstein, Leslie Scalapino, Bob Perelman, Beverly Dahlen, Nathaniel Mackey, and Carol Dorf. About these eight poets, Silliman wrote: “These poets are different precisely because their audiences are not identical and thus have different needs” (68). Silliman situates these writers as having different audiences and readers while also positing that for some, their relationship to literary experimentation particularly vis-à-vis formal innovations and the construction or deconstruction of the subject is “more conventional.” He does this by setting up a dichotomy between the “subjects of history” who are largely white, heterosexual males and others who have been history’s objects–women, people of color, sexual minorities, etc. You were one of the poets Silliman presented in this selection. What was your response to this presentation of your work at the time and what are your thoughts about this construction of various poetries and modes of investigation now?
BD: I think you've asked me about this before. It's a long time since I've read the article and I can't now find my copy of it. I do think it's one way to proceed with an investigation, surely, though of course there are others. But I can't comment further. Speaking of Silliman, I don't think I've made clear how much I like and admire his work. He did an absolutely heroic reading of Ketjak at the corner of Powell and Market---his throat was bleeding by the end---and Tjanting was read by a group of us standing on a bridge above the trains in the Muni underground at the Church Street station. It was thrilling to throw one's voice out there into that roaring site. The idea of poetry against all that raw noise was somehow exhilarating. It was a wonderful defiant demonstration.
RTM: Beverly---Note: here is your response from an email to me from 5-21-08. I attach it here in case you want to work with this as well.
Note: Beverly agreed to include this May 21, 2008 response here in this interview. It follows.
BD: I suppose I read the Silliman article you quote from, but that was a long time ago and I can't remember much about it now. The particular passage you select for my comment seems familiar, as I re-read it, and problematic because the bias against narrative, lyric, etc. among certain language poets was well-known. I don't mean to generalize here, as I think Ron was doing to an extent that makes the statement inaccurate and misleading. And I frankly don't see that it has much to do with my work, since I have been identified as a woman, as a feminist, but certainly not as a writer of narrative. (I sometimes wish I could write a straight narrative.)
The way the statement is framed clearly privileges some poets as "progressive"--that is, those who explode the literary conventions--and some as those not quite progressive? who are obliged to tell their stories. So story-telling is denigrated as a kind of lower level of development. I thought then (as I do now) that this dismisses the brilliant re-inventions of self in the work of the "new narrative" writers I knew, but beyond the local scene, I felt that we were just beginning to discover the work of writers like HD and Dorothy Richardson, and many others of a previous generation. HD (as novelist) hardly wrote simplistic "stories." Of the novels I remember reading at the time (HD's of course, but also Richardson, Woolf, Mary Butts) "story" seems the least important element.
These works, of course, have been marginalized, and the more relevant question is why?
I note, maybe not so incidentally, that Ron refers to something called "the narrative of history." It's a peculiar choice of metaphor in this context, reifying history (History?) as one long ongoing story. It seems awfully conventional: the sort of thing you saw in old movies where the pages of the book (history?) would appear on screen as the events progressed. And progress. What is that?
This is all I can write today. I'll keep thinking about it.
RTM: I've just been reading a really interesting article by Ben Friedlander on Emily Dickinson called "Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball's Bluff" in the recent issue of PMLA.
Ben explores the complex exploration of war that Dickinson's poetry reveals. He writes,
"Scholars must begin to take account of the fact that Dickinson's wartime writing encompasses multiple, contradictory forms of response, a diversity of representational strategies and of the attitudes expressed that strongly suggests a project of coming to terms with war, a project in which the war provided both a constraining pressure on the imagination and an opportunity for exercising it. This alternative account assumes that Dickinson expressed in her poems what she was willing and able to say about the war but not necessarily what she believed; it assumes that her poems are rhetorical performances in which stances are tried out for reasons that cannot be taken for granted at the outset....Dickinson's war poetry is referentially indeterminate. Its subject matter is rarely set forth in terms that are so explicit, so unmistakable, that an alternative reading is precluded" (1583-1584).
This same referential indeterminacy that Ben locates in Dickinson's work seems active in your own work. Many young writers are still wrestling with the question of how one's writing can engage with the present, with the political. These questions certainly engaged many Bay Area writers in the 70s and 80s and continue to do so. In fact, it seems to me, that there is a kind of implicit demand right now that poetry somehow, in some recognizable way, engage with the political. Sometimes this demand seems to include a clear representational relation--thematically or formally--between poetry and politics.
I'm wondering Beverly what your thoughts are on how poetry engages with the present, with politics and history.
BD: This is a huge question, hugely vexed. There's not much overtly political poetry that's not propagandistic rhetoric. Speaking for myself, I see that these concerns enter A Reading but do so obliquely. And I guess there's a good deal of indeterminacy there. However, in A-reading Spicer & Eighteen Sonnets, particularly in the sonnets, there are political subjects---addressed mostly ironically. Nevertheless, the sonnets are breathless, jagged because they are dealing with catastrophic subjects for the most part. The irony is Beckettian.
RTM: One of the things I'm interested in is your participation or not in the poetry scene here in San Francisco. When and why you were involved and when not and why. Part of this is related to my interest in the reception and life of a person's work and how it relates to their participation in the scene. Kathleen Fraser, as a teacher and Director of the Poetry Center, had a very public role and continues to do so. Many people studied with her and then went on to do critical work on her writing. So, there's an economy there for any writer in such a situation that helps to keep her or his work in the public eye. You've taken up a less public role; your day job was one that didn't necessarily put you always in the poetry world. I'm curious how this impacted you and what you think about this.
BD: My "less public role" is illusory. I've given countless readings and my work has been the subject of many critical articles. Most recently, Paul Jaussen, at the University of Washington, is writing a chapter of his PhD thesis on A Reading. However, I am by temperament reclusive and I do not seek publicity. I have never had any ambition to make "poetry" my "career." For these and other reasons I did not seek work at the college level, and I early on gave up the chance to teach in public schools. (I failed student teaching.) After I left the Poetry Center (I had been Mark's secretary) I supported myself working in programs like Poets in the Schools. I worked with Julia Vose later at Mt. Zion Hospital doing workshops with folks in the Senior Day Center. Later, I worked with young students incarcerated in the Alameda County Juvenile Hall. Our program brought workshops in both writing and photography to them. When Reagan was elected and funding for the arts dried up, I found by chance work with City College's Adult Learning Center. Here were students who, for whatever reasons, had not learned to read. It was and is a literacy program. I think I was always meant to be a poet and a literacy worker. I used to refer to my life then as being divided between "high lit and low lit." And yes, my students fed my writing. There are certainly references to them and even quotations from them in A Reading.
In thinking it over, I realize I should say more about my work at the center. It's probably that I've been drawn to "marginal" populations, and I certainly identify with folks who have trouble reading. I was a slow reader myself, backward. School frightened me and I learned how to be invisible in a classroom. My teachers never noticed that I couldn't read until I was in third grade. (How could this happen? It happens all the time.) My mother, who also thought I was reading at grade level, was informed that I couldn't read at all. Part of the trouble was that I was trying to read backward because no one had bothered to point out that reading goes from left to right. I would never have learned to read in school.
My mother taught me to read. In the safety of my own home, my mother became my tutor. I wanted to read, I was ready to read. But the school, the teachers had all failed me. Thank god for my mom. It seems to me now that after only a little bit of instruction I was actually reading very well, and have always had my nose in a book since then.
RTM: What are you reading these days? What excites you?
BD: I'm just beginning Lewis-Williams' The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Before that I was reading Vitebsky's study of shamanism and his book about the reindeer people of northeastern Siberia, a tribe called the Even or Eveny. Poetry: I love Jeanne Heuving's work, especially her book called Incapacity. I have to credit Jack Spicer, whose work I've returned to over the years, and my friend George Stanley who, in many ways, was my mentor when I was beginning to write poetry. And, like everyone else, I've been reading Roberto Bolano.
Beverly Dahlen, Fall 2009
Candlestick Point State Park
Photo by Jackie Link
This interview with Beverly Dahlen was conducted via email in October 2009. It will appear here in several installments. Enjoy!
Click HERE to read some of Dahlen's poetry and HERE to read tributes to her from various contemporary writers.
RTM: Your A Reading 1-7 begins with a quote from George Steiner that references Wittgenstein and psychoanalysis. Can you talk about how you came to the idea of an “unending reading”? Life and writing as "the interminable reading. the infinite analysis." What got you interested in psychoanalysis? How did you come to be reading Freud and Lacan? And how was your interest in it perceived by others in your immediate community?
BD: It's difficult to untangle all the threads that lead to the source. I think the immediate idea came from Steiner, the book cited in the epigraph, but also from the method proposed in the first creative writing class I ever attended (right out of high school). My teacher suggested writing in a freely associative way, and I found that worked for me. I had been reading Freud already in high school. I was baby-sitting for some people, and one night I searched their bookshelves looking for something to read. They had a copy of that old Modern Library Edition of the works of Freud, and I dipped into it. After I read for a while, I realized it was forbidden knowledge, and so of course I kept reading that book whenever I was there. Later, Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death would be an enormous influence. And I suppose I started reading Lacan when everyone else did sometime in the late 70's. A book I credit highly was Juliet Mitchell's Woman's Estate which was a clear defense of Freud in opposition to the attacks on him from the women's movement at the time. Freud was the enemy. Mitchell's book uses Freudian analysis as well as every sort of other political analysis to illuminate, as she calls it, "woman's estate."
I forgot to mention Freud's essay: Analysis Terminable and Interminable.
RTM: Can you tell me a bit about how you and Kathleen Fraser and Frances Jaffer met and how you came to found the groundbreaking journal, HOW(ever)?
BD: Kathleen and Frances and I had been meeting for some time as a reading group. We exchanged our work with one and another and critiqued it. Kathleen had the idea to begin a small journal, something manageable, that the three of us could do together. We were interested in what other women were writing---women whose work we hadn't seen before. And we did make some wonderful discoveries----Diane Glancy, for example, the native American poet.
RTM: Your books, particularly A Reading 1-7 engage with, among other things, the work of Lyn Hejinian-- "writing is an aid to memory” and "a thought is the bride of what thinking," (75) and Ron Silliman--"Ron says what 'is brilliant but all wrong.' Phallus the first division, woman atomized, what is that to him, to me not that, but that also” (85). What is your relation to Language Poetry? And the New Sentence? Has that relation changed since the writing in A Reading 1-7?
BD: In the late 70's the language poets' star was rising. I was sharing a flat on Connecticut St. with Kathleen Frumkin and Erica Hunt--two persons who were at the time very involved with the LP movement. Barrett Watten lived right across the street. It was a very exciting time. I went to the lectures, to the readings, and sat up many nights talking about "language theory." I subscribed to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and read Saussure. But I was never quite convinced, because my bias ran toward psychology and, on the whole, there wasn't a great deal of interest in that. I don't know if "the unconscious is structured like a language" as Lacan claims. But I was pretty certain that theories of language that left out psychology were too limited for me. But of course I read their work---I liked Lyn's work, and Ron's and I argued with it in my own writing. I liked a number of the poets who had associated themselves with the movement---Kit Robinson and Alan Bernheimer come to mind. They were all very intelligent and witty poets, given to punning and irony and non sequiturs---really amusing stuff, like the 18th century. But I'm not a language poet. In these days I'm reading The Grand Piano, I check Silliman's blog, but I don't read language poetry more than (maybe less than) other kinds of poetry, or other kinds of writing.
I should add that it isn't quite accurate to say no one in the movement was very interested in psychology. Steve Benson has become a therapist and I believe Nick Piombino is either a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst. There may be others I don't know about.
RTM: What if any engagement does your work have with the Beat writers? In A Reading 11-17 you write: “what is it I wanted to tell myself, who is it, another, some, Kerouac, unlike him I use the commas a lot “ (68).
BD: This is just a brief allusion to Kerouac's style. I liked reading that flowing prose, I loved On the Road. In the mid-50's, when I was still living in Arcata, a friend came up and played a tape of a reading that may even have been the first reading of "Howl" at the 6 Gallery. (Oct. 7, 1955). I was stunned by that poem. It seemed to me to have been a testimony, a prophecy, a vision of the horror of life in the US. I was already determined to go to SF, but I was more determined than ever when I heard Ginsberg. I did come to SF the following year, and guess what, the first reading I attended here was Allen Ginsberg's at the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood House. He didn't read "Howl" that night but he read lots of wonderful poems, probably the one about Walt Whitman in the supermarket, among others. I don't know how much my own work is influenced by the Beats---that would be for others to decide. But I am on good terms with the people at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics!
Why don't you come up sometime--Saturday November 7th at 3:15 to be exact--and hear Linda Russo and me at the Poetry Center.
Saturday November 7 PAMLA Conference Reading
Linda Russo and Robin Tremblay-McGaw
3:15 pm @ the Poetry Center, HUM 512, SFSU, free
co-sponsored by Pacific Ancient & Modern Languages Association
Join us for this rare Saturday afternoon reading at the Poetry Center, in conjunction with the annual PAMLA Conference, hosted this Fall, November 6 and 7, by San Francisco State University. Poet-scholars Linda Russo and Robin Tremblay-McGaw, both participants in a panel the previous day (Bay Area Writers: Beyond the "Beat Thing," chaired by Steve Dickison, Poetry Center Director), will be reading their own poems this afternoon.
Linda Russo is the author of Mirth (Chax Press, 2007) and o going out (Potes & Poets, 1999). Her essay “Precious, Rare, and Mundane” serves as preface to Joanne Kyger’s About Now: Collected Poems (National Poetry Foundation, 2007). A graduate of the Poetics Program, at SUNY Buffalo, she lives and teaches in Pullman, Washington.
Robin Tremblay-McGaw’s poetry and other writings have appeared in numerous magazines, and in the anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House Press, 2004). Her chapbooks include: after a grand collage, and making mARKs, and a full-length collection is forthcoming from Ithuriel’s Spear. She edits the poetry blog xpoetics.blogspot.com, and lives in San Francisco.