art is (Speaking Portraits), Vol. II

When for art is/poetry is/music is I first began asking poets, artists and musicians to say on camera what it— poetry, et al.—is, some people said, “How boring that will be; they’ll say the same five things in a hundred different ways.” But that’s not how it went, as I was pretty sure it wouldn’t. Virtually no one said the same thing, despite certain recurrent ideas and phrases, although a lot depends on what we mean by “the same.” People often ask me, for instance, what are the (usually specified as five) most common answers people give, and I reply: I don’t know, and I refuse to notice; this is not a work in sociology or some other abstraction-generating discipline, and to even raise that reductive question corrupts the attention. That’s not meant as a facile or dismissive response (well, maybe a little) but a matter of principle. If you’re looking for generalities, you get generalities, because the thing you hear goes into a category before you even fully hear it. The principle has to do with open-focused listening. Not lazy listening.

The closer I listened the more I heard the refreshing range of difference in view and experience. I came to realize that attention, staying with the particularity of expression, helps respondents go beyond “education”: initial kneejerk abstractions when faced with big questions. I could somewhat facilitate their being in touch with unique dimensions of their own work view. It seems to be a principle of dialogue that effective listening (especially non-expectation of the same) initiates further discovery between speakers. (Academic listening, on the contrary, often involves an appearance of listening that in fact is a push for certain responses or acceptable kinds of response. Subtly abusive to singularity of being.)

What does this say about language and poetry?

I’ve realized that this work of over a decade called art is, usually categorized as a work in video and media art, may be more appropriately viewed as a work in language, discourse, dialogue, poetics—telling more, that is, about these zones of attention than about media as such. Language here, as I spoke of it earlier in “Saying What (It) Is,” includes physical voice and facial expression, and suggests to me a whole art that poetics should address. Thinking this has brought me closer to a human mystery that shows up in full force in dialogue with “makers,” especially in their struggling with an impossible but always present question as to what “it” is that mediates/does the making.

That mystery relates to singularity in personal identity, most apparent when identity is awake to itself. The point is that if I expected repetition in those dialogues I’d get it (which makes me wonder about the usefulness of disciplines that hunt down answers to persistent questions—dogged forensics for which not knowing answers is a veritable crime—but let’s not go there). The singularity of fingerprints, DNA, faces, voices is such that we can be disturbed by close resemblance, as when someone looks or sounds too much like another person—cloning is creepy. I was struck by Simone White’s remark in “Sorry I’m Late/Compared to What?”: “How I hate to sound like anyone else.” That openness, and much of her engaging piece, like a lot of her powerfully self-inspecting work, speaks from the center of a key poetic dilemma: the identification with “kind” that enables identity and yet, in excess, threatens to dilute what one values most in identity. Wanting one’s work to be recognized as poetry or a kind of poetry (genre, gender, generation, and other Latin genus concepts) (=acceptance) vs. doing whatever it takes to stand apart and be just what one is (=risk of non-acceptance). Poetry is a zone of troubled, troubling, trouble-making liminality.

Inevitably the forward edge or “avant-garde” has a mission to disrupt whatever the controlling factor—tradition, social pattern, political system, fashion, habit—that confines independent self-determination. The cherished term avant-garde is of course relativized by context, by how one experiences being boxed in (viewed economically, literarily, racially… all of these at once…). Literature academicized, standardized, schematized, categorized, indeed politicized can come to intimidate by shutting down to airless confinement the very space in which the root impulse generates. (The generic, from genus, is polarized from its etymology as “to give birth.”) And this tension shows up at the individual level, as in Simone White’s

I think I am in a fight with poetry all the time, a fight that is motivated by the right of the parts of me that are silent to take place beside the point of literature’s learnèd and horrible watching over me.

Big Brother Lit, outed again.

The art is dialogues work best when people give up any thought of a right answer or of trying to say something original—in short, when they just speak as themselves, in touch with work at the center of their way of life. (Arguably all prophecy, which includes “science,” is self-fulfilling; simple principle: premise shapes outcome.) “Speaking as oneself” needs continuous reframing. It is not necessarily lyrical or even clearly personal, and it need not presume a given concept of identity. The status of the personal pronoun is often indeterminate even in poetry where the poet may—in a very interesting sense—be speaking as her- or himself. Speaking as oneself is not the same thing as displaying personality or presenting a consistent persona or point of view. In dialogue with people while filming, I’ve noticed the voice changing as the person passes subtly through multiple versions/layers/levels of “self.” Being Fernando Pessoa apparently meant cultivating the voice and poetic or prose style of some eighty individuals! Is this psychosis? Not in my world. For some, inhabiting multiplicity is a necessary aspect of a journey to realization or an analysis of the nature of self—or simply giving voice, as Simone White said, to “the parts of me that are silent.” Maybe truly speaking as oneself is the chaos and anarchistics that the inner Control Freak fears most—and yet the basis of the endangered species of singular being on planet Earth.

Of course these are not new questions. Scholars still try to resolve when the intricate play of pronouns, for instance in Blake, speaks for the poet himself. Donald Ault (whom Jerome J. McGann once called “probably the most innovative Blake critic in the country”) opened this question in unparalleled ways in Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning Blake’s The Four Zoas (Station Hill Press, 1987), arguing that the poet’s longest and most complex work “pushes to the foreground the productive labor of writing: it is a text that insists on its own radical heterogeneity, on its own struggle to be different from itself, indeed, ultimately on its process of eradicating a potentially unitary textual ‘self’ from which ‘it’ could ‘differ.’” At any given moment in the text, Ault shows, who’s speaking is a matter of perspective within a constantly self-disruptive narrative, so that “self” like any textual element is subject to “perspective transformation.” Text and reading mind are in such intensity of dialogical oscillation that the outcome can be actual transformation within and of reading space. Poetry proves reading is (re)writing. The text differing from itself is the space in which the reader differs from herself, and the Nobodaddy (or anthropomorphic God) of literary authority is seriously subverted.

How do you express as a matter of poetics that conscious not-knowing is far more difficult than the knowing we’re so often doing, valorizing, imposing? Robert Duncan insisted that everywhere in his work “dissenting, contradictory voices speak up…. I don’t seek a synthesis, but a mêlée…. The problem is that we all dread inconsequential experience; our taboo is at root against unintelligible passions.” (“Pages from a Notebook”)


Peter Lamborn Wilson’s writing—poetry, essays, fiction—has little problem with unintelligible passions or any other form of taboo. He shares with Duncan,  Jackson Mac Low, and John Cage a pervasive view rooted in anarchism, only his focus goes further in the direction of ideas of radical community, particularly those known as T.A.Z: The Temporary Autonomous Zone. This is the title of his highly influential book written under the name Hakim Bey, translated into 14 languages (and now readable online), which includes the highly charged notions ontological anarchism, poetic terrorism, chaos linguistics, and applied hedonics. Anyone who reads this book along with his poetry—such as Black Fez Manifesto, &c. (as Hakim Bey; Autonomedia, 2008), Ec(o)logues (as P.L.W.; Station Hill of Barrytown, 2011) and Riverpeople (as P.L.W.; Autonomedia, 2013)—will find it to be (a) unlike any other poet/thinker, (b) clearly a singular voice (as in knowing a voice on the phone), and (c) poetry, that is, a work with a unique poetics, even when it is at its most theoretical or what he sometimes calls a rant. There is obvious kinship with certain “Beat poets,” such as Allen Ginsberg and Edward Sanders, for what that abstraction is worth; distinctions like “Beat” tend to trivialize the poetics and provide ammo for poetry wars and glib dismissals. What could be like Sanders’s “epic,” inspired while reading Blake’s America a Prophecy, America, A History in Verse in nine volumes, thousands of pages, and fourteen years in the writing? (First five volumes now on one CD, later volumes free online.) All of the above extend the visionary transmission of Blake and also the epic sense defined by Pound as “a poem including history,” and they do it in ways that open new territory in the individuated voice beyond personality as such.

The notion of TAZ extrapolates from what Wilson has called Pirate Utopias, island enclaves where early supposed autonomous proto-anarchist “intentional communities” networked outside governmental reach and temporarily lived free. The TAZ idea is not mainly metaphoric but aims at exploring possibilities—actual strategies—of generating “insurrection blossoming spontaneously into anarchist culture.” Doubting the likelihood of fulfilling the promise of revolution and its dogmatic demand for (often puritanical) self-sacrifice, Wilson focuses on immediate insurrectionary action that enhances the sense of presence now, which is at once a state of mind, language, voice; it also has supplied one of the models for Occupy Wall Street:

The TAZ is an encampment of guerrilla ontologists: strike and run away. Keep moving the entire tribe, even if only data in the Web. The TAZ must be capable of defense; but both the “strike” and the “defense” should, if possible, evade the violence of the State, which is no longer a meaningful violence. The strike is made at structures of control, essentially at ideas; the defense is “invisibility,” a martial art, and “invulnerability”—an “occult” art within the martial arts. The “nomadic war machine” [Deleuze & Guattari] conquers without being noticed and moves on before the map can be adjusted. As to the future—Only the autonomous can plan autonomy, organize for it, create it. It’s a bootstrap operation. The first step is somewhat akin to satori—the realization that the TAZ begins with a simple act of realization… psychic nomadism….


In the foreword to Ec(o)logues, Charles Stein observes that “Wilson weaves a visionary poetics through an explicit politics, an explicit politics through an exuberant sense of imaginative freedom.” And: “The metaphysical posture is pantheism or ‘pagan monotheism,’ aligned with anarchism. The work: to conjure an aggressive pantheism through a veil, haze, or prism of pastoral idealism—the lure of nature realized through the dangerous, bottom-feeding numinosity demonstrably intrinsic to it.”

Contradictions everywhere. Irreconcilable samenesses and convivial incommensurabilities. Any abstraction can have its say the moment before its digestion and further transmutation. But no abstraction or –ism is more than a launch into further chaos, the trial by fiery desire: “the artist possesses the dance of masks, the total radicalization of language, the invention of ‘Poetic Terrorism’ which will strike not at living beings but at malign ideas, dead-weights on the coffin-lid of our desires.” (T.A.Z.) Personal identity is exposed as a play of masks, just as questions of social order come face to face with “Quantum Paradigm Society” and thinking has to find new traction in a field of chaos linguistics. But rarely is this poetics without a sense of humor, a reverence for play (ludus naturae), and a scent of the ‘pataphysical.

Now for a poem:


I is an other says Hermit Crab
& not even my own species, this
squatted character armor nacreous
but excreted by someone else
entirely. No communiqué  claiming
credit for any outrage will ever
emanate from this Captain Nautilus
this two-horsetail Pasha down in
submarine Bosnia. He huffs
his hubblebubble each puff
a speech-balloon with no semantic content
that rises to the surface, pops
& releases a whiff of sobranie
from the Balkans of the deepest trenches.

(Black Fez Manifesto, &c.)

Peter Lamborn Wilson reading in Woodstock, New York, Oct. 18, 2009

Originally Published: April 22nd, 2014

Poet, writer, musician, and artist George Quasha was born in White Plains, New York, and grew up in Florida. His many full collections of poetry include Amanita’s Hymnal (1970), Magic Spell for the Far Journey (1971), Somapoetics (1973), Word-Yum: Somapoetics 64-69 (1974), Giving the Lily Back Her Hands (1979), Ainu Dreams...