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“I wasn’t home today”
—(point of departure – 1) When I taught a week-long “writing workshop” at Naropa last summer, after the first of four meetings, I received a note from a student in my mailbox. She said that she found the material I had presented interesting, but felt that she needed to concentrate more on her own writing. What is this elusive “writing”?
I’ve always had trouble “concentrating” on it myself. In fact it’s often seemed to me that I don’t know how to “work” on writing, as the word “workshop” implies. So what can I offer a young writer I just met? All I could really offer was something of what I’ve read and how it pertains to the endeavor (not the “vocation”) of writing.
— (point of departure – 2)
A few weeks ago I read a book, a perfect-bound yellow pamphlet, put out by the magazine n+1 as their inaugural “n+1 research pamphlet” which offered a transcript, kind of like this one, which occurred a year or two ago at PS1 contemporary art museum in queens, which focused on the avant-garde.
I’m in no way proposing that this little yellow book is a must. (I suppose a book you “must” read is more like a little red book, or maybe Mein Kampf, and perhaps every artist should read that mad artist’s work, though i confess i never felt like picking it up myself.) But I found disagreeing with the yellow pamphlet productive: it caused me to think—in connection to thinking as I have been recently about sustainable agriculture and sustainable small presses—about the sustainable, if you will, avant-garde.
I was most irked by two premises that one of the panelists asserted: 1 – that the avant-garde is/was all about form, and could only offer new forms, 2 – and that the avant-garde is/was invested in linear progress (a kind of progress that resembles business models in this country, growth and more growth) and that it (the avant-garde) is/was a kind of breaker that went ahead of the mainstream, and which the mainstream followed, picking and choosing the most successful of its experiments.
Of course, I have an elaborate and longwinded way of approaching to discredit both assertions.
But I can’t go into them here, because this is not a panel on the avant-garde. Yet, some of the books/authors I’m attracted to talking about at this panel effectively do a better job than I could, and perhaps discussing them will suggest to you ways in which that n+1 guy was totally wrong. —(some thoughts with some books i like to read) Laura Riding’s Collected Poems (kept in print by Persea) contains an enigmatic poem called “Poet is a Lying Word” and just reading the title, one gets the shivers. What could she mean?
In her preface to the original 1938 edition, Riding takes responsibility for her poems, and tries to negatively define the “reasons of poetry”. She attacks the idea of the muse, and more widely the “compulsion” to write poems attributed by poets to “forces outside themselves”.
She says that for the reader, “to go to poetry is the most ambitious act of the mind,” and Riding is looking for a way for the poet and the reader to be “equal companions in poetry”.
When Hakim Bey, in Communique #6 from T.A.Z. (Temporary Autonomous Zone, published by Autonomedia), urges artists to enact “Poetic Terrorism”, he speaks of “gratuitous generosity” rather than violence. “Art tells gorgeous lies that come true.”
It’s not precisely the same meaning as Riding’s healthy suspicion of poetic language, but Hakim Bey is also looking for a “secret theater in which both artist & audience have completely disappeared—only to reappear on another plane where life & art have become the same thing, the pure giving of gifts.” In other words—equal companions in poetry.
This idea of the gift has intrigued me, because many of the writers I’ve come to think of as my teachers, have written about the gift, the perfect gift, in relation to creative endeavor.
Daniil Kharms, for instance, in “A Treatise More or Less After Emerson” sees the perfect gift as having a negative use value, something that throws off the chains of worldly interdependence, demanding no other object to give it meaning, (the gift of an ink pot demands a lid for the ink-pot, and also a desk, a desk demands a chair, etc.). The perfect gift also won’t make you cry if it disappears, as it causes no feelings of attachment and therefore it’s own negation would cause no regret.
“…a stick for instance, to the end of which has been attached a wooden sphere and to the other end a wooden cube. Such a stick can be held in the hand, or if one puts it down it doesn’t matter at all where. Such a stick is no use for anything else.”
But this perfect gift isn’t just a bauble. There’s something more mysterious about it. In fact, it is a tool for approaching immortality.
Struck with the conundrums of the perfect gift (its uselessness in the physical world vs. its spiritual implications; the dis-attached way we might dispose of it vs. the importance of giving it, etc. etc.), I find the same conundrums I see in evaluating writing, my own first of all.
Am I being generous when I offer a poem? When I write it? Can I be unattached to it? Am I (selfishly) acquiring by writing?
“Negating correctly the objects around ourselves,” says Kharms, “we lose our taste for acquisition”. Can I negate these objects, the poems, that I’ve placed around me? Back to Riding’s preface: “To live in, by, for the reasons of, poems is to habituate oneself to the good existence. When we are so continuously habituated that there is no temporal interruption between one poetic incident (poem) and another, then we have not merely poems — we have poetry; w have not merely immediacies—we have finality. Literally.”
I love Riding’s chilling and emphatic “Literally”. In her own Poetic Terrorism, Riding—like Hakim Bey—finds a heavenly plain, another existence, (just as Kharms seeks immortality in the exchange of perfect gifts)… where poet and reader are one in poetry… She embarks on the (utopian of course!) project of giving “poems written for all the reasons of poetry—poems which are also a record of how, by gradual integration of the reasons of poetry, existence in poetry becomes more real than existence in time—more real because more good, more good because more true.”
In Henri Michaux’s TENT POSTS (recently made available in English by Green Integer)—a book which is possibly meant to instruct me, the young writer, or himself, the artist starting over again and again?—as in Hakim Bey’s “communiques” we also read about a kind of poetic battle: “You must prepare for bodiless combat, to be able at least to hold your own: abstract combat that contrary to other kinds is learned by daydreaming.”
Of the three works collected in STROKE BY STROKE recently translated by Richard Sieburth & published by Archipelago—one is called “Grasp” (a sketchbook of drawings, a poem, a meditation, an essay with illustrations?) Here, Michaux inveighs punningly against the grasp, against the desire to grasp: his own desire to grasp an animal by drawing it, against the desire of the author to “grab” his reader, to be a “gripping” read, and the desire to understand…
From this juncture, we could go to Robert Walser, we could go to Bruno Schultz, differently but definitely to Maurice Blanchot; we could find this resistance to in all that keeps to the margins, and resists, struggles against progress, against use-value, against a world-order predicated on economic growth, etc. … Walser’s hedgehog that says, in effect, “don’t look at me” and “leave me behind”.
Maurice Blanchot writes in the essay “From Dread to Language”:
If the book is not useful for anything, it appears as a disruptive phenomenon in the totality of human relations, which are based on the equivalence of the currencies exchanged, on the principle that corresponding to every production of energy there should be a potential energy in a produced object, an energy capable of being thrown back again … into the uninterrupted circuit of forces….” Here is the book as interruption, an art that is value-less, a writing that does not “attain something”. Precisely the pursuit or recognition of that “disruptive phenomenon” (as content!) is shared by the writers I admire, though they couldn’t be more different with regard to form.
“Learn cautiously,” Michaux warns me. “A whole life time isn’t enough to unlearn what you allowed, naively and submissively, to be put into your head—simpleton! —without fathoming the consequences.”
(a side note—In a gray notebook found posthumously, the poet Alexander Vvedensky also moves toward a practice of “non-understanding” as Vvedensky attempts un-learn preconceptions about time, and offers poetic proof for the insufficiency of the language we presently use to describe time.
—The avant-garde seems to me always involved in radical reconstructions of time, or attacks against it.) Also in Tent Posts: “If you follow a road, be careful; you’ll have trouble coming back to wide openness.”
Riding shares this anxiety of learning with Michaux, because to read a poem for all the reasons, one must unlearn the reasons that you thought you had for coming to poetry, all those things they taught you. In fact, you kind of have to forget all about poetry (as i understand it) to read it, or to write it.
Rarely are blurbs instructive, but Ashbery says something about the way Michaux is a “conscience” that registers “minute-to-minute living”. Is that like living in poetry every minute? If so, it’s not the most comforting of apartments. And neither is Riding’s “habituation” in poetry.
These writers unsettle the writer-desire and then, somehow, in-spite of everything that writing can’t possibly do, these books intensify that desire. Sounds like a blurb, doesn’t it. Yeah, it’s probably not that simple.
Michaux talks to himself as I eavesdrop: “However weighed down, washed-up, bullied you may be, ask yourself regularly,—and irregularly—’What can I risk today?’”
Matvei Yankelevich is the editor of the Eastern European Poets Series at Ugly Duckling Presse, and co-edits 6×6, a poetry periodical.