March 11, 2013

essay "Between: The Art of Collaboration" by Douglas Messerli


Between: The Art of Collaboration
by Douglas Messerli

In the 2008 volume of my ongoing cultural memoirs, devoted to what I have described as “In the Gap,” I have found myself using time and again in some of the titles of my essays the word “between.” The gap I describe is often a significant spatial manifestation that calls up geographical and geological separations such as canyons, ravines, tunnels, holes, breaks, fissures, and cuts; but just as often I see the “gap” as a space between individuals, between companions, friends, acquaintances and between their values—vast spaces that, in order to move forward in language and action, must be bridged or, at least, traveled through by the individuals on either side of those separations.

Looking back upon my life, I now see that many of my years were consumed in battles with just these “gaps,” with my frustrations for being unable to fully communicate to my peers and family. In fact, for most of those early years, I tended to think of myself as doomed to live a life of “separateness” and lonely isolation; and even in my early adult years I sensed that I worked best as a kind of maverick, as someone working slightly askew with and apart from the other creative figures of my time.

How strange, accordingly, that I would “fall” into the habit of publishing others work, taking on the responsibilities of not only making other people’s writing available, but actively working with them to promote it and gain an audience for that work.

Although I began writing poetry (as well as drama and fiction) in a style that many described as impenetrable and even hermetic, as I developed I began to realize that my work, far from being some isolate experimentation, was very dependent upon other writers, not just those who directly influenced my poetic thinking, but writers from whom I often sought out language itself through various collage techniques. In a sense, I was creating through both the eye and the ear, by seeking out works and short phrases that set my own thoughts afire.

Unlike Gertrude Stein, who insisted in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that her writing was grounded first in the eye, my work has always depended more upon the ear, upon the aurality of the word. The meaning I discovered in these collage-based works was dependent less on the definitions of the phrases and words I used but upon how they sounded, upon what they sounded like they meant. As I have commented elsewhere in these volumes [see My Year 2005], I eventually realized that most of my friends had truly memorable voices, and when I wrote through their poems and other writings, I heard those voices more than the words that visually stood out upon the page beckoning me to embrace them within my own text.

The result was that my writing often sounded, as I mention Bernard Welt once observing, like something coming from another source, something written in another language and brought into English. It is no accident, I now perceive, that I soon began publishing as many books from other languages as in English, or that I had been attracted from childhood to collaborative arts such as theater and performance. My own early books, such as Along Without and The Walls Come True, were self-described as a “film for fiction in poetry” and an “opera for spoken voices,” and at this same period, as yet another aspect of self, Kier Peters, I began to write plays. It is now clear that my several pseudonyms and personas were, in this sense, collaborations with Douglas Messerli. Ultimately, in After, I would take this ideal of collaboration even further in writing “after” writers in both English and in other languages.

When in 2001 I was invited to write a book of poetry to be published in both Italian and English, I chose a kind of double helix of influence, writing “through” the English translations of various Italian poets I had published, along with references to visual images in several collages by Los Angeles artist John Baldessari (himself of Italian ancestry). Several friends, Paul Vangelisti and Marjorie Perloff among them, commented that the work, Bow Down, somehow sounded more influenced by the Italian language and landscape than by the American. Yet I was never been able to visit Italy until 2003, when I used money from a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance to travel to Rome for a week—and where, incidentally, I began this series of cultural memoirs.

In 2000-2001, moreover—the year of that generous grant—I began an even larger work, influenced perhaps by Stein’s several “portraits,” poetic letters intricately related to the particular writing styles and voices of my poet friends. After completing what I felt were “representative” poems, that is poems which, in some small way, captured the concerns and voices of their work, I sent each of the poets a letter explaining:

This is part of an ongoing work, called Between: Letters to Poet
Friends, in which I’ve written through the works of poet friends,
asking them, in turn, to respond to the work I’ve written,
either by writing “through” my poetry as a whole, through a single
poem or the one I’ve just sent them, or by any other method they might
desire to apply.
 
In writing “through,” I have taken small phrases and words from your
poems, combining them with personal associations. I am not responding
directly to the writing, but allowing your words to create possibilities
that move the text forward.

Like the poems I had written, the responses of the 46 poets* who participated were mixed. Some almost slavishly “cut up” my own writing in general or worked directly with the work I had just submitted. Ray DiPalma, for example, blacked out several words and phrases from the poem I had written “through” his own writing, ending his with his apparent response: “resonance does not mind the result.”

Others more clearly responded to the ideas they found in my collaged texts or even in the ramifications of such a linguistic interweaving. In my “The Way to Start a Sentence,” for Charles Bernstein, for example, I had written a paragraph that I felt was quite close to certain of Charles’ poems, attempting to demonstrate his wry sense of humor:

Monotonous agitations fall across the page of definitions and the
meaning of even meaning is confused with the means of that
stupefying occupation of blowing kisses to the balcony. On the way
to L.A. I met a surrogate for you in the bar who said: you’re now free
to stroll into focus if you put your good foot forward and follow
the brick hick up the road. He was kind of chunky but not very “cute.”

In his response, “In Between,” Bernstein answered in seemingly more personal ways, commenting on my regular but short visits to him and his family: “You arrive in discrete packets over years / and the composite is neither immaculate nor contingent.” “Go ahead: live on the tongue just as you clam / up in company. The page splinters even the address.” Later in his poem he wryly noted: “I have stolen the sentence and now can’t find / a word, just when I need it.”
 
French poet Henri Deluy took my very method itself, a cut-up narrative, as his central theme. In my poem, “In Cairo,” the second paragraph read:
 
It was not a lie exactly. It was not a truth. A little knife, with a horn
handle. And blue magpies to break the sequence of what went unsaid,
like writing not to write. You went off for a while to seek an anecdote.
I went over to the tree of knowledge to count its fruit. Each integer
shaped the sequence of the others, so that two for example became a
couple of fours, the fours a square door. I entered the room. There was
nothing else to be said.
 
Deluy’s work, titled “A (Defective) Story” (a kind of “defective-detective story) appeared to appropriate my use of the image of the knife to suggest a “cut into language,” or, in short, a story with numerous missing elements: a road overgrown with grass, soap, fabrics finely woven, dogs, bones that lie, burning trash, etc. “What is lacking. / What is lacking in verbs, / Could be lacking /More broadly / In he who cuts into language.”

If my poem “There,” written through the poetry of Robert Creeley, seemed to be addressing him directly—“Agh, brother spirit: take this physical sentence into consideration when you curse my flying off”—he, accordingly, interpreted my ending despair—“I shouldn’t have gone into being back to what I lacked. But there is where I sit and cry here, come near!”—somewhat literally, if humorously. As Bob wrote me in a letter of March 1, 2000, “Thanks for your intriguing poem! It seemed to crawl under my veritable skin!” Creeley’s response, titled “There”—

Well if ever,
Then when never—
 
House’s round,
Sound’s sound.

Here’s where
Comes there.
 
If you do,
They will too.

—might be seen to epitomize his tautly-written metaphysical works.
 
Nick Piombino appropriately responded to my “Lost Horizons,” in which I spoke of a traveler in search of the very meaning of his voyage—
 
Some say there is a mere implication, but I would argue that to
set out on any voyage is an explanation to the widened yawn. Heed
this, the traveler says, in his split or origins from meaning. The
returnee is simply a disturbed sound at the end of its trail, a hesitation
just before the adjust. Going away is not coming back.

—with a quote from my own The Walls Come True:

"I am interested in the way words begin to get where they are going
not where they have gone.”

Later, he asked:

If your words are only your words, who would they speak to?

Piombino brilliantly concludes:
 
What comes between, is ghostlier still. Only by surrounding it can
it be captured; and it is still not completely here in these virtual
regions.


Until he asked me, I had lost the lostness of “Lost Horizons” but
the horizons were still there. Only the question brought the words
together. A question came between and between is not usually
what comes in the way. A question asked words to present them-
selves. And the lost still warms the horizons in “Lost Horizons.”

If Piombino found resolve in my very attempt to bridge what stood “between,” others, such as Carl Rakosi, in his satiric dismissal of my attempt, seemed to widen the chasm between us: my poem “This Is the Wind,” may have appeared to him to be a statement of a growing distance between us, but, in fact, was related to his many poems involving the sea:
 
This is the wind: without a port, a continuously undefined plane
in the form of a skip…routing the shad and salt deposits into the
open coast.

His answer, as I have noted in my essay on him in My Year 2004, merely reiterated his growing hostility to what he perceived as “clever,” complex, or difficult poetry:

You sit in words
and long to be great.

So play our your
heroics on a trombone.

Bray a few laughs
and be gone.

But even he had to admit that my project was “worth trying.”

How different was the response by Robert Kelly, who wrote: “I was amazed and moved by the “chrestomathy” of my work you’d turned into that beautiful poem of yours. How much we get reading through one another’s work is one of the great learnings of our time. And here (privately, personally) I am touched by how well you understand the doctrina or whatever it is from which my work comes…” His response, “The Agonies of Reasonable Love,” ends with a literal reaching out between the two of us:

 Outside the skin is what is left of hands.

This is the most thing you make me say I said.

How beautiful was Fanny Howe’s patiently considered response to my original poem “Line to Silence Out”:

Past the stone walls of language’s love is the vineyard of my laugh, a way of being bound that rhymes with the limbs mounting the air of a rising raft—or rift where my lover lays. Amour is a loaf of around.

Fanny “hooked up [her] lines / and waited,” she writes.

I hung up my sheets on the line
and waited

 Rain spattered the white linen

At last. Recognition.
I could see the writing
 
Martha Ronk questioned my use of the expression “No mind, no mind!” in “The Film Breaks into Dialogue”:

No mind, no mind! The heart gathers in broken lines to
Take it back to the source of its mistake. Teeth grind.
The world pierces the chatter of the birds—or is it what
a German taxi driver once reported to me was an
Erdbeben. You fly! the cat sits up alert—even when it is
only a window being shut to the morning sky.

“Is it “never mind” or a zen exhortation / smashing the cups of logic?” Ronk asks.

 Each gesture to evidence leaves something out
tea or the cup or the emptiness therein.
The self I was formerly, also a shadow.
 
John Ashbery could not find the time to write a poem in response, but wrote that my poem, “The Decibels,” “seems to me to be a poem that I haven’t written yet and would like to write, rather than a poem in imitation of my style (whatever that is). I still hope to write this poem.”

Bernadette Mayer found that “the whole thing makes me want to laugh—maybe it has to do with hanusse. or haigh. [the reference being to my fiction, Letters from Hanusse, which I wrote under the pseudonym of Joshua Haigh]. The poem I wrote, “The Real,” incorporated several words from her poems in her early collection Poetry, taking the last paragraph of my poem into a Christmas celebration:

 Since there’s no beryl, no myrhh, no wise man from the east,
she put on the red dress of her innocence. She ordered the
angels out to consume the dream. Now she waits in utter faith
for reality.

In Mayer’s response, titled “christmas,” she and her family, fearing the holiday, “threw up on the crèche by the creeks of east nassau / & on the statue of a saint / who will forever remain unnamed.”

since there’s no periwinkles
& certainly no incense
I had a dream instead
that love had one glittering glove
this is subjectivity plus objectivity
in the religion named for a metal
or even a good mean
of red lentil soup with asparagus & celery root
garlic & onion amen

Perhaps Quebecois poet Nicole Brossard, however, summarized my attempts to bring together myself and friends most fully. To my “The Possibility” written through early poems of long career, Brossard responded in her untitled work:

not an answer but a curve in sentences written
some twenty years ago
meaning time is surfacing a second time
alive and spiraling
like an emotion at the heart of language
and geography
of course a possibility remains: to translate
now while in Key West under a palm tree
I can remember sentences en franςais
the smell of fresh coffee
at a time I believe I was about to fall
in love which explains why
my appetite for curves grew wild
while “a word caught at the edge of my mouth”
I would for the first time wonder
about the word cliff
how to include the possibility of its meaning
in one’s life

Until writing this piece today, and rereading that poem in the midst of writing this essay, I had forgotten Brossard’s words.

Accordingly, I now repeat what I wrote earlier:“The gap I describe is often a significant spatial manifestation that calls up geographical and geological separations such as canyons, ravines, tunnels, holes, breaks, fissures, and cuts; but just as often I see the “gap” as a space between individuals, between companions, friends, acquaintances and between their values—vast spaces that, in order to move forward in language and action, must be bridged or, at least, traveled through by the individuals on either side of those separations.” To those metaphoric separations I must now add Brossard’s “cliff” and, of course, the possibility of a past time that comes curving back into the present.

For time—both memory and the present—has now taught me that art—if it is to succeed in its translation of experience and transference of imagination between writer and reader, between any one and another—must always be a collaboration.

Los Angeles, September 4, 2008
____
The poets who responded and were included in Between were Barbara Guest, Clark Coolidge, Diane Ward, Lyn Hejinian, Carl Rakosi, Guy Bennett, John Taggart, Dennis Phillips, Leslie Scalapino, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, Robert Creeley, Nick Piombino, Régis Bonvicino, Ray DiPalma, Norma Cole, Bruce Andrews, Paul Vangelisti, Cole Swensen, Joe Ross, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, John Ashbery, Ed Roberson, Robert Kelly, Martin Nakell, Saúl Yurkevich, Andrée Chedid, Paal-Helge Haugen, Charles North, Rosmarie Waldrop, Miles Champion, Henri Deluy, Marjorie Welish, Fanny Howe, Luigi Ballerini, Martha Ronk, Jerome Rothenberg, Jean Frémon, Will Alexander, Tom Raworth, Bernadette Mayer, Tan Lin, Cees Nooteboom, and Nicole Brossard. I wrote Los Angeles poet Bob Crosson on December 8, 2001, and the next day he was found dead in his small apartment; his response, accordingly, was noted as “Silence. His death.” The last poem in the book was written to my companion, Howard Fox; I wrote his response from a passage in one of his art catalogues.

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