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Saying What (It) Is

By George Quasha

About twelve years ago it entered my mind that no matter how much I thought about what I do—poetry, art, music—I had never arrived at a final thought about what poetry or art or music is. The Wittgenstein move to let go of definition and look instead for a usage context only scratched half of the itch, but it did not satisfy the part of me that feels sure I do know what “it” is. So, skip the idea of definition, I thought, and go to the inner horse’s mouth, which, however, turns out to be the inner Proteus, god of elusive sea change. The object is not an object and not a subject, but a zone of activity just this side of the event horizon, edge of the abyss, threshold to nowhere. Clearly I had no real motivation to respond to my own question as if it could be answered. Almost immediately I wondered, rather disingenuously, why it seems no one had recorded poets, artists and musicians responding to the most basic question of what the big It actually is. Obviously they often get asked to talk about their work but not to define the domain itself or the most frequently used word that stands for it. This became a project, I think, because I also make video art and had begun filming what I call speaking portraits, based on the concept that portraiture should include the voice and its effect on the face—that “representing” the person by a face should not be a simple repeatable image/object but a performative engagement. I had begun to discover that what brings out a deeper or more richly layered sense of voice and face was asking a question the person found simultaneously impossible to answer and difficult to avoid! The struggle to negotiate this liminal zone excited the bodymind to unseen wonders. Something woke up.

This is an endless work. Once I began I knew that it probably wouldn’t stop until I stop and Mr. Reaper pulls the plug. I also discovered that I’m most at home in long works that have no concept of termination. The project gained momentum quickly. For the first few years, filming multiple times a week here and abroad, I would say about 70% of my social interaction with people was my sitting a couple of feet away and looking into their eyes while asking an impossible question. A whole new sense of intimacy and intensity took over. My mind learned to surrender to other (often completely unfamiliar) minds with the intention to be neutral about the response and to make the other person feel comfortable being extremely uncomfortable. Well, if not comfortable, at least relatively safe from challenge or misuse of material. Trust was fundamental. An aspect of bringing this about has been my acknowledgment that poetry/art/music in the abstract is impossible to define. So why worry? At the same time, if one is a poet, for instance, at the most important level what poetry is is self-evident: we know it when we do it. It reveals itself in the process. So I’ve learned to say something like: Let’s not ask it as the question “what is poetry?” That question over-excites the cognitive function, the inner critic; I’m addressing the poet. Just continue a sentence starting with “Poetry is….”

One thing has become clear: the trouble begins when we try to say what it is.

Result: after a dozen years I have filmed over 1,000 poets, artists and musicians in eleven countries (working around about twenty-four languages). There are now multiple volumes online: one of poetry is, one of music is, and two of art is.

What does this say about language?

It says to me that we are language. Through and through, entities speaking in anything we do or become, creating a field of shifting boundaries with many levels of me-signals: we language as proprioceptive being. Or at least this view serves me better than the notion that language is a sort of tool box or instrument.

Speaking is something we can’t help doing. This notion touches a number of domains. To give one example on the positivistic side, there’s the controversial area of discrimination called micro expressions: an aspect of body language that focuses on brief facial expressions, usually lasting between 1/15 and 1/25 of a second, occurring when a person unconsciously, or perhaps deliberately, conceals a feeling. The remarkable claim of Paul Ekman is that seven emotions have universal signals: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise, and happiness. (The question of universals is one of the great debates, including the supposed connection in Chomsky’s analysis of language capacity as hardwired in human nature.) People learn to read these expressions, which were once thought to be below the threshold of observation. A very engaging TV series called Lie to Me, on which Ekman was an adviser and starring Tim Roth, dramatized the practice of micro expression detection. Two thumbs up. On the dramatization, that is, but not on the pursuit of universals as such, which may work for cops but not so well for poets.

Looking into the eyes of “makers” (poets, et al.), not through the camera but directly, I suspend analysis and make contact with the possible sayable. In poetry is my work is to be the attractor of a state of saying what is presumed to be unsayable. (A remarkable number of poets and artists start by saying “I don’t know what it is” or “I can’t possibly say it.” Then they end up saying a lot.)

I see myself as performing a poetic function there, which I view as a certain engagement with language that calls the poem into being. That’s a core principle for me of both writing poetry and filming poetry is—it sets up a site and relationship that attract a kind of action not ordinarily possible. And it does so by engaging an intrinsic potential of language. One could look at this as procedural—setting up the camera in a similar way each time with two people on two chairs looking at each other, raising the same basic issues, etc. But actually it’s no more procedural than sitting before a computer. What actually happens is a quite intricate and unpredictable human interaction guided by focused but open intention and listening. Through this work I’ve deepened my sense of what listening is; it includes mind listening to mind before a word is spoken, as well as behind and between the words. I want to say that the field in which the speaking occurs is already linguistically saturated. Focused mind issues a charge—with language force palpably present between people—before speaking.

If we are language, then one aspect of what poetry is could be an evolutionary dimension of us. I find interesting our tendency these days to see poetry as present in a wider and wider range of circumstances, both on the page and quite far from the page—the voice in the air, virtual configurations/digital poetry…. David Antin discovered decades ago that his way of talking, initially giving a developed but freely spoken lecture on a subject, became for him the event of poetry. When in 1971 I heard him give a long talk on Poussin at Cooper Union, it was clear to me even before he called his talking poetry that this was a poetic act. It’s difficult to specify what I heard that made me think the thought “this is poetry,” but it altered my sense of how language-thinking can manifest, and it was exciting. I even said to him directly after the talk, “This is your poetry.” What made such a statement possible? Perhaps it was the precedent of John Cage’s poem-lectures like “Lecture on Nothing” (1959), which in my early 20s I had taught from his book Silence in my experimental poetry class at Stony Brook University. It seems likely that it set the precedent for Antin as well. Cage said that he created this kind of work “out of a need for poetry.”

Perhaps that’s as fundamental a statement as can be made: poetry is what we make out of a need for poetry. Marcel Duchamp said art is what an artist says it is. Listening to poets, artists, and musicians saying what it is for them, I experience their speaking as integral to its nature. I find this far less to be the case with critics, scholars, curators, etc., which is not to diminish their contribution to understanding and history, but maybe to say something about the ontological status of the speaking. If I ask a male doctor about the experience of birth I might get an interesting answer, but it’s not the same as asking a woman who has given birth. My aim in the project was to prioritize direct speaking from a rather unaccountable phenomenon. My hope is that people who sit through the hour and twenty minutes of Vol. I of poetry is will leave feeling they know less about what poetry is, yet are somehow more connected to its reality, its singularity for the poet.

David Antin in poetry is.

David Antin in poetry is.

A Note on the Strangeness of Influence

For the first few years of filming art is/poetry is/music is I tried to stick to the original conception of keeping the face so close to the lens focus that it completely filled the frame—a speaking face beyond context. Several years into the project I met Yoko Ono at a party in her honor at Bard College, and I told her about art is and that it had occurred to me a couple of years after beginning it that, residually, without realizing it, I may well have been influenced by her Film No. 4 (Bottoms). Background: The 1966 black-&-white film comprises 88 minutes of non-stop male and female human buttocks viewed up close in the act of walking on a treadmill—completely filling the screen, staying the same distance from the camera, and continuously, vigorously moving. The crack between the cheeks divides the screen vertically and the creases at the base of the gluteus maximus and the start of the leg divide the screen horizontally, forming a kind of cross in motion. (Alfred Jarry would have loved it!) Every bottom is utterly unique, at times disturbingly, and the distinction male/female is often confused. The people in the film (in London) are mostly famous (but you only see their bottoms), and the sound track is their voices talking about the experience before or after filming. Each bottom is there for about ten to fifteen seconds. I was in my early 20s when I saw it in London, just before it was banned. Back to Yoko Ono in Annandale: I said to her that my work art is was similar in that the face filled the screen and was continuously moving, since the person was always speaking. She thanked me for acknowledging her and said people for some reason were often reluctant to acknowledge her influence. I said that it struck me with some force when I thought about the possible influence, because her film had been a rather startling and important experience for me. I said that in a slightly absurdist moment I had considered calling my film Tops—but that revelation failed to elicit even a miniscule smile.

Note: Additional volumes include, for instance, art is/East Africa, art is/India, myth is, and others, with many more to come. Further volumes of poetry is, music is, and art is are being edited. Slowly. See quasha.com/art-is.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 by George Quasha.