TOM TIT TOT
October 5–December 1, 2013
In 1961, when Susan Howe graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston with a degree in painting, the big news in art was the imminent death of art, or at least the death of painterly abstraction that had come to preside. Howe had every intention of being an artist. She moved to New York, touched the tarbush of bohemia, read the whole fraternity of artists’ writings—Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, etc.—made books of lists and images, and wall installations with illustrations, photographs, found text, and original verse. By the time her friend, the poet Ted Greenwald visited her studio, she was arranging only words on walls. At his insistence—“You have a book on a wall, why don’t you just put it into a book?”—Howe dismantled and sequenced her pages as Hinge Picture, her first book of poems. Taking title and epigraph from Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box, Howe defined this delay as a form that operates both “in the plane” and “in space.”
This exhibition is no different, really. It is a hesitation toward the imminent fact of publishing. The poem, TTT, was commissioned for our little way station, but with the foregone conclusion that it would later be paginated, printed, and published in quantity. But enough with motives; I don’t favor the full-control formula, and Howe is apprehensive about the particular havoc a space on the game board can cause a work of art. Her poem has to defend its own ambiguity. “Perception of an object,” as she writes, “means loosing and losing it. Quests end in failure, no victory and sham questor. One answer undoes another….” 
This is not a moment for making analogies—Howe’s poems are like drawings are like notations are like collages. No. They are poems. But if you write poems that are structured the way a piece of glass is when dropped from a great height, you probably mean something different by the word “poem” from what most people mean. Whatever poetry may prove to be, Howe’s is a material construction. And whereas most poets deposit words with an eyedropper, Howe cuts them out of other people’s mouths with a pair of scissors. But there is no sin about that. Poetry is innately related to theft. The lyre was invented, the Greeks tell us, by Hermes, who then gave the instrument to Apollo as compensation for stealing cattle.
“Archives, the material—the fragment, the piece of paper—” Howe says, “is all we have to connect with the dead.” Howe, like all library cormorants, carries within herself a world made up of all that she has seen and read, and it is to this world that she returns, incessantly. She haunts archives, marginalia, manuscripts, the paratextual particulars of print, and cuts up her research, far too deliberate a term, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. (Violence underwrites her act.) Coleridge then Browning then Yeats—a succession, orderly enough. Then a slice of Spinoza, a folk tale, some children’s babble, Paul Thek, a definition, a gap, some eccentric punctuation. While writing with other people’s words can be a glib game that preempts feeling, Howe’s references, occluded as they are, do not present themselves simply for intellectual applause. What a low and idle thing citation would be if it were to lead us to negate mystery and art.
Howe’s work cannot be conditioned to act by a cause other than itself. It remains open. And, after all this time, I can still be surprised by something new I find in it, or I can be comforted by a familiar circuit of thought. I am glad for this. But faced with the unenviable task of introducing her to you, I must stay close to Howe’s obsession—erasure, and the way enclosures, be they archives, books, methodologies, or forms of speech—domesticate information and marginalize voices as liminal and wild. It’s an issue that covers a much wider range than gender or medium. And Howe takes it up directly, ignoring the divide between the makers of things, and those who critique and historicize that which is made. Her work does away with the specious worm that criticism is inferior to creation.
I would be very disappointed in a future which is going to tell us which things are worth something and which aren’t, that didn’t treat her considerably. But there isn’t much to worry about, Howe’s work is its own log book. The way we referee the past, the way individuals read books, and events, and people, not in the way they are intended, or in the way of some distantly omniscient observer, but in the idiosyncratic way that we must—this is a basic point to which Howe returns. More simply, historical records do not represent, they arbitrate. “Who polices questions of grammar, parts of speech, connection, and connotation? Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence?”
Susan Howe was born in 1937. This is her first solo exhibition. Apart from her poetry, she is the author of two landmark books of literary criticism, My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, and three records with David Grubbs. Howe received the 2011 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has been a Stanford Institute for Humanities Distinguished Fellow, as well as an Anna-Maria Kellen Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. She taught for many years at the State University of New York-Buffalo. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut.
The exhibition included a talk by Susan Howe at Literary Arts; a new performance by Susan Howe with her semi-regular collaborator DAVID GRUBBS; a talk by LYDIA DAVIS on translation; a talk by MARJORIE PERLOFF on Howe’s correspondent, Ian Hamilton Finlay.
It should also be noted that we will release our first publication, TOM TIT TOT, a chapbook of recent rectilinear poems by Susan Howe. The book will be printed in our printshop by Emily Johnson in an edition of 500 on a Miehle Vertical V-50 press.
TOM TIT TOT is co-curated by Robert Snowden and Andrea Andersson. Andersson has taught at Columbia, Barnard, and New York University. A curator, she writes primarily on 20th and early 21st century experimental writing with a particular focus on the relationship between visual, sound, and language arts. Most recently she arranged a survey exhibition entitled Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art.
The production of Howe’s new work would not have been possible without the support of Leslie Miller of the Grenfell Press. Thanks also to Charles Bernstein, Jen Bervin, John Cable, Susan Denning, David Grubbs, Tim Johnson, Marjorie Perloff, Rebecca Quaytman, and James Welling.
AN INTERVIEW WITH
Conducted by Lynn Keller
Lynn Keller: I’d like to begin by talking about the visual dimensions of your poetry. You were once a painter. Can you tell me about the kind of painting or visual art that you used to do, and the relationship you see between that work and the kind of poetry you write?
Susan Howe: I graduated in 1961 from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, where I majored in painting. I used quotation in my painting in the same way that I use quotation in my writing, in that I always seemed to use collage; sometimes I made a copy in the painting of some part of another painting, another form of quotation. Collage is also a way of mixing disciplines. Those were the early days of pop art, when it was common practice among artists to move around from one medium to another-it was a very exciting time. I moved to New York in 1964. Then I began living with a sculptor, David von Schlegell. He was involved with the group around the Park Place Gallery, which I think Paula Cooper was running at the time. There was lots of really interesting sculpture during those days and lots of interesting writing about the work in Artforum magazine. Barbara Rose had written some really good pieces on Ad Reinhardt, there was Reinhardt’s own writing, Don Judd and Robert Smithson were busily producing manifestos. Richard Serra, Joan Jonas, Don Judd, Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, John Cage, Agnes Martin . . . the work of these artists influenced what I was doing. There was the most extraordinary energy and willingness to experiment during the sixties. Painters, sculptors, dancers, film-makers, musicians, conceptual artists were all working together and crossing genre boundaries, sometimes with appalling results, more often wacky and wonderful events. I remember a show Agnes Martin had at the Greene Gallery—small minimalist paintings, but each one had a title; it fascinated me how the title affected my reading of the lines and colors. I guess to me they were poems even then. Eva Hesse’s show at the Greene was also an inspiration, it was so eccentric. Daring and delicate at once.
David’s work was very important to me as well, though he wasn’t verbal and he didn’t write about what he was doing and he was shy. This put him at a disadvantage in those very wordy times. He was an extraordinary builder. In those days his medium was aluminum and wood. He constructed his own pieces, thus going against the grain of prevailing minimalist dogma, though his sensibility was minimalist. Now I can see minimalist art of the sixties and seventies as an American movement rooted in Puritanism. I was inspired by the craft and the poetry of space in David’s work, by how the two things were inseparable. He was very influenced by boat design—New England has produced some wonderful yacht designers, and David grew up on the Maine coast. He and the sculptor Robert Grosvenor were obsessed by boats; they were always going off to boat shows and discussing which boats they would buy if they could. Bob liked old military engineering manuals, and so did I. David had been a pilot in World War II; shortly before that he worked at Douglas aircraft. All of us would search out books with photographs of Herreshoff boats, or ones with pictures of early submarines. I guess it was about that time I began to connect writing and drawing in my mind. This is important because if a boat sails fast it usually looks beautiful. As if the eye has some perfect knowledge that is feeling. Some enduring value, some purpose is reflected in the material you use. The mysterious link between beauty and utility is, for me, similar to the tie between poetry and historical documents; although it would take me years to explain what the connection actually is, I know it’s there. Or rather than explain it, I show it in my writing. David understood the connection by instinct- you see it in his work, and you saw it when he looked at boats.
Anyway, I began to make books—artists’ books are different from poets’ books. These books I made were not books of poetry or prose; they were objects. I would get a sketchbook and inside I would juxtapose a picture with a list of words under it. The words were usually lists of names. Often names of birds, of flowers, of weather patterns, but I relied on some flash association between the words and the picture or charts I used. Later I did a series of watercolors with penciled lines, watercolor washes, and pictures and words–I always left a lot of white space on the page. Around that time (1968 or ’69), through my sister Fanny, I became acquainted with Charles Olson’s writing. What interested me in both Olson and Robert Smithson was their interest in archaeology and mapping. Space. North American space–how it’s connected to memory, war, and history. I suppose that’s the point at which it began to dawn on me that I needed to do more than just list words. I was scared to begin writing sentences. I’m not sure why. But it just gradually happened that I was more interested in the problems of those words on the page than in the photographs I used or the watercolor washes.
We left New York City and moved to Connecticut in 1972 because David had a teaching job at the Yale School of Art and we had two small children, so to commute seemed impossible at the time. We found this place, Guilford, right on Long Island Sound, that reminded David of Maine. So we settled there. For a couple of years I kept a space in part of Marcia Hafif’s loft on Crosby Street and went down one or two days a week to work there. Before we moved out of New York I had started making environments–rooms that you could walk into and be surrounded by walls, and on those walls would be collage, using found photographs (again a kind of quotation). Then I started using words with that work. I was at the point where I was only putting words on the walls and I had surrounded myself with words that were really composed lines when a friend, the poet Ted Greenwald, came by to look at what I was doing and said to me: “Actually you have a book on the wall. Why don’t you just put it into a book?”
At the time, Marcia, whose work I have always admired, was filling small sketch books with repetitive pencil strokes. She would start one at the top left corner, page 1 and continue until the end, so there were no actual words but the page was filled the way it might be in a printed book. Generally each book was filled with a different kind of stroke or mark. For some reason her books set me off, and I started in a different way with the standard four-by-six-inch (Classic Sketch Book is the brand name). As the pages are blank and the cover blank (black), there is no up or down, backwards or forwards. You impose a direction by beginning. But where Marcia was using gestural marks, I used words. It was another way of making word lists but now in a horizontal rather than vertical direction, so there was a wall of words. In this weird way I moved into writing physically because this was concerned with gesture, the mark of the hand and the pen or pencil, the connection between eye and hand. One reason I like the drawings of Joseph Beuys so much is that it seems to me he is doing both things at once. There is another, more unconscious element here, of course: the mark as an acoustic signal or charge. I think you go one way or another—towards drawing or towards having words sound the meaning. Somehow I went the second way and began writing. Ever since, I have used these little black books as a beginning for any poems I work on. Though my work has changed a lot, those books the poems begin to form in have not. I’ve never really lost the sense that words, even single letters, are images. The look of a word is part of its meaning-the meaning that escapes dictionary definition, or rather doesn’t escape but is bound up with it. Just as a sailboat needs wind and water.
LK: Do you still do painting or other visual art?
SH: No. I can’t believe I stopped, because I really worked very hard at it, and I was all caught up in color. I loved using color. But I just completely stopped.
LK: Your interview in the issue of The Difficulties devoted to your work, conducted by Janet Ruth Falon, ends with your statement that if you had to paint your writing, “It would be blank. It would be a white canvas. White.” I wondered if you could explain what you meant to suggest with that wonderfully evocative remark.
SH: Well, that statement springs from my love for minimalist painting and sculpture. Going all the way back to Malevich writing on suprematism. Then to Ad Reinhardt’s writing about art and to his painting. To the work of Agnes Martin, of Robert Ryman, of Marcia Hafif, and then to a particular group of David’s wooden sculptures and to his late paintings. I can’t express how important Agnes Martin was to me at the point when I was shifting from painting to poetry. The combination in Martin’s work, say, of being spare and infinitely suggestive at the same time characterizes the art I respond to. And in poetry I am concerned with the space of the page apart from the words on it. I would say that the most beautiful thing of all is a page before the word interrupts it. A Robert Ryman white painting is there. Or one of David’s late paintings. It’s like the sky, because—though the sky has color and white isn’t the absence of color, anyway—it’s clear.
LK: Infinitely open.
SH: Infinitely open and anything possible. Malevich writes, “Under suprematism I understood the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art.” These days the word “supreme” is a bad one, but I don’t care—I was born in another time. This pure feeling is connected to silence. Any mark or word would be a corruption of that infinite purpose or purposelessness.
LK: Let’s talk about some of your pages that do have marks on them. In poems where lines appear on angles and sometimes cross over each other, almost obliterating some of the words—for instance in the “Eikon Basilike”—what are you thinking about as you arrange those lines? What determines their position and orientation? Are you thinking about the overall design of the page? Is it the meaning of each line that determines its position? Are you thinking about where words intersect?
SH: In the “Eikon Basilike,” the sections that are all vertically jagged are based around the violence of the execution of Charles I, the violence of history, the violence of that particular event, and also then the stage drama of it. It was a trial, but the scene of his execution was also a performance; he acted his own death. There’s no way to express that in just words in ordinary fashion on the page. So I would try to match that chaos and violence visually with words. But a lot of what determines the arrangement is subconscious, in that I would start with the lines I wanted to use (which might change somewhat) and I would just arrange them on the page until they satisfied me.
LK: How? Would you cut out lines?
SH: First I would type some lines. Then cut them apart. Paste one on top of another, move them around until they looked right. Then I’d xerox that version, getting several copies, and then cut and paste again until I had it right. The getting it right has to do with how it’s structured on the page as well as how it sounds—this is the meaning. I suppose the real answer to your question “Did you stop doing any visual art?” is “No.” I’m still doing it, but I’m doing it on pages with words.
LK: I want to ask you about some specific examples, a couple of pages very near the beginning of “The Nonconformist’s Memorial.” On pages 6 and 7 you have a near mirroring of text. Then on the following pages you move into something much more disruptive. I wonder if you could talk about where the impulse for the mirroring and for this movement came from.
SH: The mirroring impulse in my work goes way back. It’s there in my first book Hinge Picture and in Secret History of the Dividing Line, then in “Thorow,”even in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. I was very interested in Duchamp’s Large Glass and the book that went with it, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Duchamp was an inspiration to me when I was beginning to shift from painting to writing. At first when I used mirroring in my writing I was very sedate about it, and it involved repetition in a more structured way. But with “Thorow” I had done one scattered page and made a xerox copy and suddenly there were two lying on my desk beside each other, and it seemed to me the scattering effect was stronger if I repeated them so the image would travel across facing pages. The facing pages reflected and strengthened each other.
LK: So mirroring reinforces the power of the visual design.
SH: Yes, and those places in “Thorow” were where I first consciously felt this power. As for those pages in “The Nonconformist’s Memorial,” well, this is about Mary in the Gospel of John. On page 6 first comes “In Peter she is nameless,” and then “headstrong anarchy thoughts” [see fig. 1]. The reversed line in between—”Actual world nothing ideal”—would be an interruption to the narrative that you’re trying to start. Then the third line that’s right-side up—”She was coming to anoint him”—that was what was happening, but the reversed text on either side was a kind of break-in, some other thought going in some other direction. It also conveys her erasure. I’m trying to illustrate what I’m saying by putting this part upside down: “Actual world nothing ideal / A single thread of narrative / As if all history were a progress,” though you’d read those three lines in the reverse order. The order I have in mind goes through the three lines that are right-side up and then follows the order of the other three lines if you turn the book upside down: “In Peter she is nameless, / headstrong anarchy thoughts / She was coming to anoint him / As if all history were a progress / A single thread of narrative / Actual world nothing ideal.” But you could read with the reversed lines interpolated between the ones that are right-side up: “In Peter she is nameless / Actual world nothing ideal / head strong anarchy thoughts” et cetera. I was trying to illustrate the process of her interruption and erasure, and that she’s continuing through these narratives. Then page 7 picks up “As if all history were a progress” and the same lines appear, reversed. The added lines, “The nets were not torn // The Gospel did not grasp,” continue with the idea “As if all history were a progress ….” It’s important that these last lines go in the same direction as the lines about history. They are linked in the process of what happens. By “nets” I mean to associate Jesus as fisherman; somehow the net gets torn, the idea gets broken—the Gospel when it becomes gospel, when it is written, grasps (this is all vaguely sexual, but then think about all the meanings of the word “conception”). Mary, the disciple, the first one who witnesses the resurrection, the one whose story we go by, gets dropped away almost at once. If I read the poem aloud I whisper all the upside-down words, and that way they sound like another voice—the hissing return of the repressed.
As for page 8 [see fig. 2]—what I was really interested in here was that word “command” and the repetition of that word: “Whether the words be a command / words be a command issuing from authority or council.” So I particularly wanted to stumble around that issue of commanding. Here the phrase “his hiding is understood” is partially overwritten, almost lost. I was reading the history of the authorship of the Gospel of John, which is absolutely unknown. You can’t find any author; so “his hiding.” Then it’s important that the word “testimony” is in italics and upside down, because it’s a little trace: what we might have would be testimony. Here at the bottom is the attempt to say “What am I?”—but that’s “suddenly unperceivable time from place to place”; the half-hidden phrase “What am I?” represents identity trying to come out of all this violence of knowledge.
LK: Where “am” and “time” overlap, are you thinking about the sound similarity, or is there a meaning connection?
SH: It’s a meaning connection. But then I love that it got so scumbled here that you could hardly read it. Here, on the facing page, “Testimony” is right-side up, and for some reason that worked absolutely perfectly. With that “Testimony” is “The soul’s ascension,” going up. I would read the vertical lines, “Where he says He / Upon the Cherubim / Baffled consuming doggerel,” in that order, but I’d first read the lines that go across the page horizontally. Actually, I’ve never read it aloud, so I haven’t plotted out exactly how I’d read it.
LK: In your composition, then, it didn’t have an order in your head?
SH: Well, the order of most of the poem was extremely important, and I worked and worked and worked on it-the part with the “Gardener.” That’s absolutely fixed. But I would have to determine how I would read the sections I worked on by cutting and pasting. The way they look profoundly affects the reading, for me, anyway. I can’t speak for anyone else.
LK: I noticed that when you read here, you didn’t use the published book. You used your own typescript, which you’ve marked up as a script for reading. It fascinates me that your reading is so dramatic, in that you use many different voices and paces, and that these are not necessarily scripted on the published page. Are those voices in your ear as you’re composing?
SH: Well, in spite of all my talk about the way the page looks, and particularly in regard to these pages constructed as if they were a sort of drawing, strangely the strongest element I feel when I am writing something is acoustic. For example the pages in Eikon and in Nonconformist’s Memorial we have been talking about are in my head as theater. I hear them one particular way. I think that comes from my childhood and very directly from my mother. Even now, when she’s eighty-nine years old, the theater is her greatest passion. She was always fascinated by voice, by accents, and she very early passed on to me that feeling for the beauty of the spoken word. Then, too, of how people moved on the stage, of how you blocked out a scene if you were directing it. Sometimes I think what I’m doing on the page is moving people around on stage.
I’ve been thinking a lot about voice now because of an essay I have been writing on the work of French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker. Marker is so interesting, he leads you into all sorts of places; while I was trying to discuss his use of sound effects I somehow wandered over into Olivier’s movie of Hamlet and theater as opposed to cinema, and I realized that I am a product of radio days. My childhood imagination was shaped by listening to The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Grand Central Station, and then to records of actors like Olivier—not VCRs, not just music as on FM radio now, but drama, news, all popular culture. We talk a lot about the shift from cinema to television and from silent movies to talking pictures but less about the shift from radio to television. In the days of radio you connected people with their voices, not their looks. It didn’t matter what they looked like—you could imagine that by simply listening.
Who knows, maybe that’s why Freud’s patients lay on couches rather than sitting across from him. Because he didn’t have to look at them nor they at him. They followed each other’s voices and silences. And perhaps Lacan’s emphasis on looking is part of his appeal to this younger generation.
LK: So—if I may take you back to the voicing of your poems—with the script that you work from, when you get to these visually complicated pages, you determine a way to read. Tell me about the markings on this page you read from and what they mean to you [see fig. 3].
SH: The circled numbers, 1, 2, 3, indicate the order of reading. Then, sometimes, I have little notes about delivery—how I shout, or … Here by the word “coin” it says “sing-song.” I was scared the first time I read this, but I made this decision that since the line was going up and down, I’d sort of sing it. So I did. And the first few times I did it I was embarrassed, but now I’ve gotten so I couldn’t read it any other way. The number 2 after “garrison” means to count to two in my head before I read the next word because it’s a completely different mood. These blocks between words on the third line tell me it is sharp, rather fast-paced, and to read it as though it’s a collection of separate words. But then “Escalade” is tied to the next line, and “Tranquility of a garrison” I usually shout, because it’s such a weird term. How can a garrison be tranquil?
LK: So when it’s underlined very boldly, that is “shout” for you.
SH: Well, not actually shout but say it loudly. And all these arrows are here above the passage beginning “The Frames” because this central piece of text can get lost. A couple of times I’ve actually missed that, and that’s a very important part. I don’t read the upside-down lines; I read that material on the facing page.
LK: And what is this “front” and “left” business?
SH: I was reading the poem a few years ago at a poetry festival in Tarascon in Southern France. It was the first time David and I had ever even been to France, and so it was a major event for us. This particular reading was out in the country on the steps of an exquisite, tiny, twelfth-century church. It was night and the mistral was blowing. I decided, quite suddenly, while watching John Giorno read—and he really knew how to make use of that particular place, how to carry it into his reading—that I should use the elements. A little stone church that echoed because it was empty, the wind and the night. I thought how Thoreau had never been to Europe and how he might have loved to see France—after all, his ancestors were French—but then he had a hard time ever leaving New England without falling into panic or homesickness even if he constantly wrote about travel. And then he died so young. When I wrote “Thorow” I was staying for several months alone on a lake in the Adirondacks, and I surrounded myself with books by and about him, so I reached some kind of transference: here was my first, maybe last time in France because, like him, I dread traveling, and also we knew David was dying of cancer (he had been given two years at most)—and I felt this urgency that I was bringing Thoreau, a quirky New Englander, to Provence, carrying him in my head to this little cathedral of ghosts. So I scribbled down these directions to tell myself to face to the left et cetera to push the poem to its extreme, to use the echo coming from the inside as if it were another voice. So it was a theatrical thing, I suppose, and about performance, but it was immediate and had to do with that particular spot and that one night.
LK: When you move from publishing fine small-press editions of your poems to more mass-market editions you lose, not this arrangement on the page, but certainly a lot of the space on the page. And more than that: I noticed, for instance, that when The Liberties was transferred from Defenestration of Prague to Europe of Trusts, the page that has “crossing the ninth wave” on it was omitted.
SH: You know why? Because I had to cut. I was allowed fewer pages. That was David’s drawing, too; I loved that. If I could ever get that book done again, I would want it back. I love that drawing. It’s part of the poem.
LK: So when they said to you, “Look, we only have this many pages; you have to cut,” you said, “Well. This doesn’t have words on it, so I guess it’ll go”?
SH: Well, technically that illustration was not part of the writing. We couldn’t find the original and that was a problem too.
When it came to Wesleyan and Singularities, they were adamant about numbers of pages. I had a lot of trouble with spacing, et cetera. They treated me at first as if I came from outer space because I worked in series and didn’t have a title for each poem on a page. For “Thorow” I sacrificed three quotations concerning his name. They were amusing and interesting and helped to explain my title, but technically they weren’t part of the poem, so when I simply had to cut something I cut them, and it was a mistake. Whenever I read the poem I put them back.
LK: Is there a chapbook version that has them?
LK: So someday you would hope to reprint it differently.
SH: Yes. And I wish I could reprint the drawing of the ninth wave. When I first set up The Liberties I was working with Maureen Owen, who edited Telephone Books. Maureen was wonderful to work with because she was open to any adventure. I showed her what I wanted and then we worked it out, though it was a mimeo edition and she had almost no money and naturally ran into trouble getting small-press grants. She has daring and vision, and Telephone Books, the magazine and the press, is where many people got into print for the first time. Of course, it stopped being funded, as is the case with so many interesting small-press magazines. She had to stop, and she was a gifted editor.
LK: Does the Defenestration version of The Liberties really look like you want it to look?
SH: Pretty much so, but the mimeo version I did with Maureen of The Liberties had a cover that for me was definitely part of the poem. I like the later covers, especially the one Sun & Moon has done for The Europe of Trusts, but the earlier one was truly an extension of the poem itself. In those days I was still thinking of the book as an object to a certain degree.
LK: Would you say that the poems in The Nonconformist’s Memorial look as you wanted them to look?
SH: That was the best experience I’ve ever had with a bigger press. Peter Glassgold, my editor at New Directions, was just wonderful. Whereas with Wesleyan I had to fight for every inch of space. (That changed when Terry Cochran became the director. Wesleyan under his directorship was wonderful to work with when I did The Birth-mark. It was completely different.) Peter just asked, “What do you need?” Of course, I couldn’t get quite that. I don’t like having the poems in “Silence Wager Stories” cramped on the page. I had to make some compromises; you’re always allowed a certain number of pages, so you have to make sacrifices somewhere. And in “Silence Wager Stories,” which seemed much more regular, I made the sacrifices. But in “Melville’s Marginalia,” it was desperately important to have the space around individual sections. By and large, if I’d say I had to have something alone on a page, Peter would allow it. Look for instance at this page [p. 21]. I love that page, and they got it right. They went to a place that did one wrong version after another, had a hell of a problem with the typesetter, but they kept at it. Sadly, if that were ever to be anthologized, the space will get lost; space always gets lost.
LK: Perhaps as you get more known, you have more power and can say, “You can reprint this only if you …”
SH: No. As you get more known, you tend to get anthologized, which means your work gets jammed together. Of course, it’s possible that there’s something precious about all that white space around the page, especially now that so many people are doing it—it’s become self-conscious.
LK: But you do care about it.
SH: I do. I started as a visual artist. I can’t erase that.
LK: When you gave your lecture on Dickinson using slides from her fascicles, it struck me how much you respond to her painter-to-painter when you’re discussing her calligraphy and its beauty.
SH: Maybe. I don’t mean to imply Dickinson is a painter! She is a visionary poet. I also have to say again that I think sound is the element in poetry. That’s the strange thing. A boring sounding poem—no matter what it looks like—is a boring poem. Sound is absolutely crucial.
LK: Enough on the visual. I’d like to talk about Language writing and experimental writing. Perhaps partly because of your close association with Charles Bernstein from your teaching at SUNY-Buffalo, you are often identified as a Language poet. But several times, I’ve heard you say you’re not really a Language poet. How is your work different from Language writing? What makes you want to say, “I’m not really a Language poet”?
SH: Well, for one thing I’m older than most of the people I consider to be Language poets. By the way, that is a small group. Most of them are in their mid-to-late forties now. As I have said, I came to poetry through my art work, and my sensibility was very much formed in the sixties. I seem to have been led into writing by accident, the same way my writing then led me into textual scholarship and now I find myself writing something you might call film criticism. I have never followed an agenda or a program. Also, much of my inspiration as a poet comes from modernist writers. At first Charles Olson (a late modernist or first postmodernist) gave me a certain permission. The early edition of the Maximus Poems IV, V, VI published by Cape Goliard was crucial. I would open it up, and what he was doing with the space of a page and with history would set me off. Finnegans Wake is another work that was necessary to me. And then there was John Cage and what he did with Finnegans Wake. For a couple of years I had a correspondence with Ian Hamilton Finlay because I had written an article for the journal Archives of American Art about artists and poets (Ad Reinhardt, Robert Lax, and Ian Hamilton Finlay). Finlay is one of the great letter writers. He had me following all sorts of leads and all of them very much affected what I was doing. These people all influenced me on a formal level. Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson were there as the two completely necessary guides in ways that were immediate—absolutely necessary, not at a remove, but in me.
LK: And this seems to you different from what lies behind most Language poetry.
SH: Absolutely different. I wasn’t reading the Russian formalist critics. I had no Marxist background, having never been to any university. I suppose I got some of these ideas because they were all around, but I got them first through artists’ writings—through people like Reinhardt, Finlay, Judd, Smithson. Of course they were probably reading Jakobson, Adorno, Lukacs—people I’d hardly even heard of at the time. Most of the language poets were in universities during the late sixties, and their work is fueled by the political rage and the courage of that period. I can understand it and identify with it, but at a remove. However, I feel these writers are my peers, and I care what they write and what they think about what I write. So it’s complicated. There isn’t an easy answer.
LK: When I think of the major spokespeople for so-called Language poetry, they are men: Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, et cetera.
LK: If the women who are associated with that movement were the main voices we were hearing as spokespeople, would they be saying something different from what the men are saying? Partly I’m asking how gender seems to affect the production of language-centered writing.
SH: I don’t think it’s fair to say that gender affects the production of language-centered writing in a bad sense. Or rather, I would say that gender affects all writing that attempts also to be theoretical or to state a position. Why accuse Language poets of something that is omnipresent? Lyn Hejinian is a key figure in that group—as editor and publisher of Tuumba Books, as editor (with Barrett Watten) of the journal Poetics, as translator of Russian poetry, above all as a poet—and I think she would tell you that she has received encouragement, intellectual companionship, equality, fraternity, sorority from writers classified as Language poets. She has written essays and taken a critical position.
LK: But they’re not widely distributed, while Bernstein’s and Silliman’s are.
SH: No, they’re not. It’s not necessarily the fault of the men in this group; rather it says things about our culture. I think that women who take a theoretical position are allowed to take a theoretical position only as long as it’s a feminist theoretical position, and to me that’s an isolation. I would be extremely wary of being put in the category of writing about “women’s problems,” because then you get, I think, shifted out…
LK: Into another kind of ghetto.
SH: It’s another ghetto. Right. And I think Lyn and I would both be very opposed to that. A ghetto is troubling; a ghetto is a ghetto. I don’t know whether Lyn is bothered by these things or not; I can’t speak for her. But I’ll say there’s no question in my mind that Lyn Hejinian is an indispensable, essential figure in what is “the main group that was.”
LK: You say “the group that was.” Do you think that things are moving on from Language writing just at the moment when the academy seems ready to say, “Oh, there’s this thing: Language writing”?
SH: That’s the sign it’s over.
LK: Where do you think “experimental writing” is headed? Do you see new directions?
SH: A lot of younger poets are experimenting with the essay form. A couple of years ago now, there was a gathering of younger poets, Poets of the New Coast, I believe it was called. There seemed to be a good deal of excitement among them and less factionalism, less anger, less quarreling. Maybe it’s just that I’m older so I don’t like fighting. But I felt a lot of hope. On the other hand I have some darker thoughts: Why is it that experimental writers rarely get grants? Why is it that their work is almost completely shut out of magazines with larger distribution networks? Why are they shut out of jobs in creative writing programs? Why is it that people who have written their dissertations about the objectivists, or even Gertrude Stein, have so much difficulty finding jobs in the academy?
LK: Let me read you a statement by Marianne DeKoven and get your response, because there could be a connection between this and what you were just talking about. DeKoven identifies “the purpose of experimental style, whether in writing signed by woman or by man” as being “to assist in changing culture by charting alternatives to hegemonic structures of consciousness” ["Male Signature, Female Aesthetic: The Gender Politics of Experimental Writing," in Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction, ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989) 79]. Do you think that all experimental writing does have as its purpose cultural change and “charting alternatives to hegemonic structures of consciousness”?
SH: I think her idea is a good idea, but when you say “all” it bothers me because there is such tremendous variety.
LK: Do you feel that your work is invested in cultural change—or “charting alternatives to hegemonic structures” (leaving aside how grandiose that sounds)?
SH: I always go back to the fact that Wallace Stevens is my favorite poet of the twentieth century—poems like “Auroras of Autumn” or “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” or “Credences of Summer.” I don’t know if that kind of poetry is changing culture or “changing hegemonic consciousness,” but it certainly changes my consciousness, and it’s tremendously beautiful, and moving, and philosophical, and meditative, and all the things that words have the power to be, which is ultimately mysterious. If only I could write a poem like that—that’s what I’m saying! And the same thing goes for Four Quartets or Trilogy. That would be my goal, something perhaps more selfish than changing society—if I could just write something that was of that caliber, that would be enough. Certainly my essays are often angry, and the drive that propels me is some kind of feeling of righting a wrong. But then language has its own message. For individual poets to be able to bring whatever it is that they feel is their deepest necessity to express—I’m thinking of “expression” in broad terms, in terms of space, in terms of sound, in terms of all those things—that’s what we’re here to do. It’s our ethical obligation.
LK: You need to pursue your gift, in a sense.
SH: Yes, and to pursue it to its nth degree, until it’s possible it won’t reach other people—and yet you have to reach a reader. Although I may feel just writing is enough, we do live in a world where it appears we need to communicate.
LK: People objecting to experimental writing sometimes complain that whatever claims are made for its social engagement or Marxist perspective, or its changing hegemonic structures of consciousness, that, in fact, the audience it reaches is a very narrow, highly educated one, that the reader has to have tremendous intellectual confidence even to grapple with these texts. What do you think? Does that concern you?
SH: No. The objection offends me. I think it is part of a really frightening anti-intellectualism in our culture. Why should things please a large audience? And isn’t claiming that the work is too intellectually demanding also saying a majority of people are stupid? Different poets will always have different audiences. Some poets appeal to younger people, some to thousands, one or two to millions, some to older people, et cetera. If you have four readers whom you truly touch and maybe even influence, well then that’s fine. Poetry is a calling. You are called to write and you follow.
LK: Let’s talk about prose and poetry. You publish both, but as I see your writing, they are very closely intermingled forms, and not just in that some of your poems have prose introductions. I think that your historical literary essays and your poems are moving closer to each other.
LK: Perhaps it’s that your interest in textual scholarship comes more and more into your poetry. Can you talk about the relationship between your prose and poetry? Take, for instance, “Melville’s Marginalia.” Why did that take the form ultimately, or predominately, of poetry? It starts out in a way where it almost could have been one of the essays in The Birth-mark. But then it moves into more definitely poetic sections.
SH: It didn’t start with the essay. It started with the poetry. I was in Philadelphia writing an essay called “Incloser,” which is about Thomas Shepherd. I had already written the essay once, and it had been published in a book Charles Bernstein edited, The Politics of Poetic Form. And it wasn’t right; I was still working on it, and I was teaching in Philadelphia, and I had some extra time and all of a sudden—I started writing parts of that essay. They were the parts about women in the early conversion narratives. At the time I was up for a job at Buffalo and initially I didn’t get it, and I thought, “Okay, it’s all up with academia.” I’d been trying to do the right thing, I’d been nervous about my writing of essays because I knew I needed a job. And I felt, “It’s over, forget the job.” Also, I’d just seen these Shepherd manuscripts. I just decided, “To hell with it: I need to speak, I need to write a certain way about Shepherd and about these narratives.” And so I started writing the essay exactly as if I were writing a poem. It shifted to a completely poetic language. It was poetry I was writing. I started rearranging lines, obsessing over lines and words, as opposed to paragraphs or pages. I included a soliloquy that I made up, Anne Hutchinson speaking or thinking. A dramatic soliloquy doesn’t usually occur in an essay, a soliloquy in the form of poetry. It was as big a change for me as when I wrote “Pythagorean Silence.” With “Incloser” I found my own voice as an essayist. Even though I’d already written the Rowlandson essay and the Dickinson book.
So then I came to Melville. I was in Philadelphia for another semester the following year, teaching again at Temple. It’s strange that though I was very lonely there and very worried about David’s illness because I was away from home, each semester I was there I seemed to have extraordinary inspirations for my writing. Something about the place; I don’t know what. Anyway, I chanced on Melville’s Marginalia at the Temple library, two huge volumes collated and edited by Wilson Walker Cowen. I remember dragging them home on the subway—they were huge. What I did was to randomly go through the book and light on something-sort of chance operation without discipline. I would pull a line from one of the portions he had marked and then use it to make a poem. More and more the whole issue of marginalia began to interest me.
LK: This was before you figured out the connection between Clarence Mangan and Bartleby.
SH: Yes. I was struck by the fact that Melville owned a book by Mangan, because Mangan was part of my Irish background and childhood memories from there. What Melville had chosen to mark interested me. So one of the poems in the series had Mangan in it. A year later when I once again went to France as part of some poetry festival, this time in Paris, I was struck by the fact that Dominique Fourcade, the French poet who was translating, didn’t bother to translate the poem with Mangan in it. It’s amusing because Mangan was an insatiable translator. He even made up languages so he could translate them. I was interested that they didn’t notice that one. The following summer I was interested enough in the subject of Melville’s marginal notations to go to the Houghton Library and see his actual books and the marks he really did make in them rather than relying on Cowen’s transcription. There I saw the Mangan edition and how heavily it was marked, and it made me more curious about Mangan, so then I was off on that trail. At this point the poem seemed to turn towards being an essay, and I went with it. I was convinced and still am by the Mangan-Bartleby connection; though no one takes me seriously, I am serious. But Mangan would like that because his whole career is a sort of joke or pun. He is an untranslatable translator. The interesting thing is that now I see how my interest in marks in books goes back to Marcia Hafif’s books and my beginning to write at all. Marginal markings are on the cusp between drawing and writing. You say something with a gesture. But this doesn’t provide the explanation you wanted.
LK: It’s very interesting, though. What about your composition process for poetry and prose? You were saying a minute ago that when you wrote something poem like you started worrying about lines instead of paragraphs; that gives me one sense. But do you write essays and poems in a similar way? Does it feel similar to you?
SH: In some ways similar and in some ways not. Writing poetry, I feel completely free. It’s meditative. I lay out all the pages on the desk and it’s quiet and I have books and I can go where I want, do what I want. I’m just free, at peace. Writing an essay, I want to say something specific. I can’t figure out how to say it. I’m very nervous about my scholarship; I’m very anxious to be scholarly correct. At the same time, my favorite essays are generally essays by writers about writers. Then there is sound. The power of sound never changes between poetry and essays. More and more, as I write essays I seem to be-as in the Marker essay I’m doing now—obsessing that every line is right. I started working that way in the Shepherd essay. I worked line by line, which is a problem for essays; it can make them jerky and fragmented. I would say that, for me, the big similarity is sound. When I revise it’s as if I were taking dictation, but who the dictator is I do not know. I will change something if it doesn’t read right. Most scholars wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t change a fact, of course, but I couldn’t leave a sentence be if the acoustics weren’t right. So the essays are acoustically charged just as poems are, but they originate more from fear, from a feeling of needing to write or say something but having no idea how to say it. They are stutters.
LK: When your father wrote his scholarship, was he confident? Was he fearful?
SH: I don’t know since I never talked to him about it.
LK: Did you have a sense of it?
SH: I think he was very worried about making scholarly mistakes, very worried about being thorough, but he did not have an exciting writing style—my mother had the ear as a writer. The interesting thing about my father was, he was obsessed by footnotes. You could say the marginalia idea is something about letting footnotes take over the text. I grew up with my father’s “So-and-so wrote a very bad footnote,” or “That footnote was wrong,” or “The way the English put footnotes on the page is much better than the Americans’ “—with frantic worry over footnotes and bibliographies. Yet I love the play of footnotes (though I can’t write a correct footnote). That’s one of the things I have such fun with in “Melville’s Marginalia”; in a sense, it’s one huge footnote, and I love that idea, and I think Melville was playing with that idea a lot in Moby-Dick. Certainly Mangan has an uproarious and subversive way with footnotes. This is also one of the things in Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil that most appeals to me. In many ways it’s a film about editing and quotation and footnoting (in film)—and then his name “Marker” is an assumed name, and what is marking if not marginalia?
LK: When you were reading the other night, you suggested there was a close connection between “Submarginalia” and “Melville’s Marginalia,” one of which appears in a book of essays and the other in a book of poetry.
SH: Right. I was writing them both at the same time, and I had an August deadline for both (and if you teach a full schedule as I do, summer is the only chance you have to write at all). Terry Cochran at Wesleyan told me I needed an introduction to the essays in The Birth-mark. I thought the essays were like separate poems and could just be put together and left to connect by chance or proximity. The readers’ reports backed him up; they seemed to assume there was an imminent introduction. I chanced on the Coleridge citation about marginalia in a section of the lengthy and wonderfully informative introduction to the volume of the Princeton edition related to his marginalia. I was using the volume in reference to the poem for the New Directions book. The essays were on one table, the poems on the other, so I was going across the room from each to each, and Coleridge’s paragraph on himself as a library cormorant proved to be what I needed to set me off on the nonexistent introduction—it just took off, and then I had a hard time stopping. Really both the “Submarginalia” section of the introduction and “Melville’s Marginalia” are a play with footnotes. I wish the two were in one book.
LK: Perhaps I already know the answer to this question, because of what you just said about the peace you find in poetry, but I’ll ask anyway: This year, I know you’ve had no time—
SH: No peace.
LK: —to write poetry. Does that drive you wild?
SH: Yes. David died on October 5, 1992. I haven’t been able to write poetry since then.
I have been teaching. And working on the essay. The essay concerns some of Chris Marker’s work and also a Tarkovsky film called Mirror, and two films by Dziga Vertov. I was commissioned to write it for a book of essays on nonfiction film that will probably be called Beyond Documents: The Art of Nonfiction Film. It’s edited by Charles Warren for the Carpenter Center at Harvard and will have an introduction by Stanley Cavell. Wesleyan is publishing it in spring 1995. It has been an enormous challenge because I have never written about film. Of course it is turning out to be eccentric or poetic. I am very worried, though, about whether I will ever have the heart to write another real poem.
LK: I suppose that’s true for anybody who stops writing for a while.
SH: Yes. But this isn’t merely a question of writer’s block. David was like a wall against the world to me. I felt I could do anything as long as the shelter and nurture he provided were there.
LK: So that sense of freedom you described a few minutes ago in writing poetry—you’re afraid that some of that may have been made possible not by writing poetry, but by David.
SH: Absolutely. And it wasn’t only his companionship and love but his work and his nature. He was of the sea. He was a wonderful sailor, and toward the end of his life when he couldn’t sail because of the pain he was in, he could still row. He always had some kind of boat, and they were always beautiful ones. Now I feel that the sea went with him. The sea and poetry—actually for me they are one and the same. My favorite pieces of his resemble boats. After he died I discovered some plans he had been working on for a boat that we could live in. He designed a desk for my computer, a place he would work, and we would just take off in it and escape. But he never showed it to me. There was something utterly unique about David—his students knew it—a way of thinking about the world and about art that was generous and strong. We each worked all day at our art (when we weren’t teaching); we didn’t discuss our work much together, but we were living and thinking together. We agreed without having to explain.
LK: You were very lucky. I’m sorry you lost that.
I gather from some things you’ve said since you’ve been here that sometimes theorists have provided a kind of space for you. I’m thinking of some of your comments about Foucault or Benjamin, that they have provided impetus or reinforcement for your work. Who are you reading now?
SH: Walter Benjamin. I would call some of his essays poems. I love his interest in very short essays, his interest in the fragment, the material object, and the entrance of the messianic into the material object. I find some theorists are helpful in teaching nineteenth-century American literature: Kristeva, Benjamin, Levinas, Blanchot, Derrida, Foucault. I think they’ve enriched all of our thinking.
LK: Do they give you the kind of permission you felt, for instance, when you opened Olson?
SH: It’s different. Foreign, because usually they are French, and they seem to know so much. The thing I like about Olson is what I’ve talked about as the stutter in American literature, the hesitation, and you won’t find any of that there. French theorists do not stutter. They don’t help my poetry, but they help my essays.
LK: And feminist theorists—have they helped your poetry?
SH: Not my poetry, no. But I like to read some Hélène Cixous. And Kristeva, who influenced the way I wrote about Mary Rowlandson. Irigaray sometimes. And there are American women who are scholars who work in the field of Early American studies—Janice Knight and Patricia Caldwell are very important to me.
LK: But that’s not for your poetry. That’s really for your scholarship.
SH: That would be for my scholarship, although these things aren’t that separated always. Of course, there are women writers who have helped my poetry.
LK: H.D., Stein…
SH: Virginia Woolf. Not Stein so much, though I admire her; she’s definitely helped me write essays. She is a great permission giver. Dickinson, obviously. It’s important to me to read Lyn Hejinian’s work and Leslie Scalapino’s, and Anne-Marie Albiach’s poetry.
LK: Where do you see your vision parting from a poststructuralist view? This came up yesterday in the context of whether there was some historical “truth.”
SH: Rather than attempting to talk about poststructuralism, I’ll answer in terms of truth. I think there is a truth, even if it’s not fashionable to say so anymore. I do think it’s urgently necessary to bring Dickinson’s manuscripts to light. I believe there are stories that need to be told again differently. I believe with Walter Benjamin that the story is in danger of being lost the minute someone opens one’s mouth to speak; but you’ve got to open your mouth to speak, and there is a story, and it’s probably going to be lost anyway, but whatever that story is, whether you call it fact or fiction, or an original version, it’s something real.
LK: I’m thinking now about your visits to my class where you’ve been helping my undergraduate students understand “Pythagorean Silence.” I’ve been struck by your openness to various readings and by the ease with which you step back from your own control of the text. You revise endlessly; you work so deliberately and so carefully with very particular things determining your choices of word and image. You revise until you have a sense that it’s exactly right. And yet you seem able to avoid a sense of “right” response on the part of your readers. Is that correct?
SH: I hope so.
LK: What are your expectations of your readers?
SH: Freedom. It goes back to Joyce again, because you know how he was so obsessed with revision; he’d spend a day thinking about whether to put a period in or take it out.
LK: What hell.
SH: Yes. Well, I tend to do that, too. There’s an absolute precision to his writing. At the same time, there’s incredible play and free-dom. I don’t know what his point of view would have been, but I think the writer is commanded and commanding. Poetry has acoustic demands-and yet that’s where the mystery begins. The thing that reminded me about Joyce—or Pound, say—is you pull out a word or a sentence or a fragment and go with it; you let it lead you somewhere. That’s the way I begin to write a poem, anyway. I write the way I read. I wouldn’t want the reader to be just a passive consumer. I would want my readers to play, to enter the mystery of language, and to follow words where they lead, to let language lead them.
LK: Another thing that I found very interesting was that in
discussing “Pythagorean Silence” you admitted that it contained a great deal of personal and autobiographical material—which, of course, my undergraduate students would have loved to hear. But you were quite definite about not wanting to reveal that material in any specific way. I wondered where that comes from.
SH: Are you suggesting …
LK: Well, for instance, one of the things that occurs to me is that there may be a gender issue here. Women poets in particular, I think, are often read in a very reductive way according to biography—or specious biography. Dickinson would be a stunning example of that. And keeping your biography out of view could be one way to avoid that kind of trap. Alternatively, I can see this reticence as having to do with more principled notions about what’s important about poetry, or with ideas about what constitutes the speaking subject on the page. Or it could just come from a sense of privacy. But it does seem to me to raise questions again about what the reader takes away from the poetry, because you might say that the personal material is there so as to suggest patterns that others would be able to recognize or identify with. Or you might be content to have those aspects of the poem remain essentially indecipherable, inaccessible to your reader. Am I making any sense?
SH: Yes. It’s the whole problem of biography, right? There are a lot of people—including professors in the academy—who would say biography is not important. The work is its own thing isolated from history, isolated from biography. But when I’m teaching I like to concentrate on writers rather than movements. Take Language poetry: they’re all individuals. And Romantic poetry: Shelley is not the same person as Wordsworth and is not at all the same person as Byron. They may have been friends, but they’re different. I’m interested in details of difference. I’m always curious about biography. And you can’t say you don’t bring your own story to whatever you write, even in ways you might want not to bring it. Ezra Pound or somebody said a poet has really only about eight things to say, and he or she will say them over and over. This is true I think. It horrifies me sometimes when, knowing my own various hobbyhorses, I see that I am on one again: “Damn it! Here it is again.” But I do not like confessional poetry. These days, in America, confession is on every TV program, let alone in most poems. Just today as I was eating breakfast in your college dining hall, there was a TV suspended from the ceiling blaring out a program called True Confessions–where people come on and say, “My father molested me when I was three,” or “My mother was an alcoholic,” et cetera. By now it’s totally boring, or maybe it’s my Yankee sense of decorum. Yet if a reader really loves a writer—and if he or she doesn’t love a writer, it doesn’t matter—but if he or she does love a writer, that reader will probably do some research. He or she will look for a biography.
And yes, yes, yes, I think it’s a gender issue, because women tend to get lied about, and exaggerated stories are told about them, if they are not obliterated. So I think it’s important to find a story, to save a story, but I don’t think it’s important to bray a story.
LK: Earlier in this interview and several times during your stay here you have said that as a poet you feel you’re taking dictation. This would be at the opposite extreme from the biographical, I think-your sense that as a poet you act as a medium. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? When you talk about dictation, it’s not that there are voices.
SH: No, no. I don’t hear voices (though I’m always scared I might). You don’t hear voices, but yes, you’re hearing something. You’re hearing something you see. And there’s the mystery of the eye-hand connection: when it’s your work, it’s your hand writing. Your hand is receiving orders from somewhere. Yes, it could be your brain, your superego giving orders; on the other hand, they are orders. I guess it must seem strange that I say poetry is free when I also say I’m getting orders. It can become very frightening. That’s what Melville’s so good on in Pierre and Moby Dick and elsewhere, that once you’re driven onto this hunt, you can’t stop until you’re told to stop. It connects to blasphemy and to the sacred for me. It connects to God. That’s why I like George Herbert and Four Quartets and Stevens. Being a poet is a calling. You are called and you must listen. George Herbert says it in the poem he titles “The Agonie”: “But there are two vast, spacious things, / The which to measure it doth more behove: / Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.”
LK: For some reason I find these questions about compositional process and where art comes from particularly mystifying with musical composers: Mozart, for instance, what he could do in his head!
SH: And why is it that a person who’s not Mozart can’t do it? But if you’re Mozart, or even Bobby Fischer playing chess, it’s grace. You’ve been granted some grace.