An interview with Craig Dworkin by Andy Fitch (Issue #4: April 2012)
Craig Dworkin’s multifarious creative/critical/curatorial output over the past decade might seem prohibitively imposing were I to list it all here. But Craig himself is one of the sweetest people in poetry. I’m always coming up with new things for us to discuss, just because I love hearing from him. This time around it was easy—the recent publication of Motes (Roof Books) and Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Northwestern University Press), among other projects. Craig and I talked by Skype over summer. —Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: Any procedural stuff to figure out?
Craig Dworkin: No I think we should just talk, then if something’s out of place we can massage it.
AF: Do you want to describe briefly your intellectual and artistic background, in terms of what you did before you founded Eclipse? What your training was like?
CD: I actually started as a physics major in college, and realized late into the game that I couldn’t really hack the math, that I never was going to be a great physicist.
AF: This happened to me in seventh grade.
CD: So I tried to figure out how I still could graduate on time, and it turned out you could get a degree as an English major.
AF: Sure: the easy one.
CD: Certainly easier than trying to negotiate countable and uncountable infinities. I’d been taking English classes anyway, and was interested in works that were somewhere between literature and visual art. I initially was interested in things like (this is going to date exactly when I was there) video poetry, or artists’ books. Then I took some time off, worked on a loading dock in the Bay Area, and tried to figure out how I could stay in the Bay Area and continue to live there, and found, once again, that literature was the easy path. I got a scholarship to Berkeley, so went back into an English department, though most of my coursework was in philosophy (I studied Wittgenstein) or in art history, where I took the requisite proseminars.
AF: Then is there relatively little poetry so far? When you refer to literature, does that include poetry? Is that entirely poetry?
CD: As an undergraduate I was especially interested in medieval literature, in Germanic and Icelandic and Old English literature, but by chance happened to have a TA for a class, a grad student at the time, Tyrus Miller, who turned me on to avant-garde poetry. We’d meet every week and he’d bring a stack of completely decontextualized, impenetrable things I’d never seen before. And this is, you know, pre-internet, so you couldn’t just look them up. There’d be one of Susan Howe’s word grids, maybe, or a strange 5-word Paul Celan poem, and I’d have a week to come up with something to say about them. Ty was one of Marjorie Perloff’s students, and told me I should take a class with Marjorie, so as an undergraduate I was then turned on to an Objectivist tradition, and really very contemporary poetry.
AF: So perhaps this is an early scene of you encountering something like a decontextualized anthology, getting little snippets and assimilating them, creating your own sense of contemporary poetry from them. Is that beginning to shape your interest in anthologies?
CD: Yes though I think even more it was instilling a sense that there’s always more out there than we know about. And more out there that is inassimilable in certain ways, or just much stranger than we ever imagined.
AF: And this inassimilability: that can be an attractive force, drawing you to encounter new texts, rather than something that stifles you, frightens you, makes you feel incompetent in the field or that it’s not worth pursuing?
CD: Absolutely: in two senses. First (and I realize this isn’t always the model in academia, which values mastery), what always excites me, the things I want to teach, the things I want to write about, are always the things that make me feel the opposite of having mastered something. I don’t know what to say about them. That’s always the starting point for a critical project. But also, from the point of an anthology: one thing that interests me about an avant-garde anthology is that it has this paradoxical ability to go back to the past, to things that, almost by definition, are already old hat; they’ve already happened; they’ve already been done. But they still have power to be strange in the present. So they jump forward and backwards at the same time.
AF: And do you consider your role assembling an anthology an important component of this process? You’re given lots of praise for your, what are they called, those brief descriptions before an entry.
CD: The publisher called them headnotes.
AF: Headnotes. You’re known as a wonderful headnotest, and I’m curious if that’s a role you relish, or if that seems like a chore you do to complete the work. You’re great at alluding to a world beyond the sample provided, without making us feel unworthy of further exploration. So is that a role you carefully work through with each anthology?
CD: Well, for Against Expression, that was a role I was reluctant to take on. The headnotes were something I was reluctant to include, because I worried that they too quickly close down or narrow what one might do with the entries themselves.
AF: “One” being the reader.
AF: Then maybe your legitimate uncomfortability with headnotes allows you to do them well?
CD: For the particular anthology Against Expression I was persuaded that the collection was stronger with them, and I don’t have regrets about including them. But that does explain why, on Eclipse for instance, contextualizing notes about the works are kept to an absolute minimum, and as factually descriptive of publication details as possible, without saying anything more. I have lots that I find interesting about these works, which is why they’re there to begin with, but again: there are so many things readers might do with them that I’d never be able to imagine beforehand. I don’t want to put up barriers to that.
AF: Do you want to state what you consider something like the mission of Eclipse, and, if this mission has evolved, that would be great to hear as well.
CD: The primary mission I guess is simply to make work available that’s not readily available, again without trying too quickly to imagine what exactly it’s being made available for. Originally, the raison d’être was to allow people to teach classes that included these out-of-print books, or to do research on work that wasn’t easily at hand.
AF: So a question of accessibility?
CD: Yeah. That’s one point at which the archival impulse of Eclipse is a little different than the anthologizing impulse…
CD: of Against Expression.
AF: Let’s hear it.
CD: There are a lot of works that aesthetically, or as part of their cultural moment, would make good sense on Eclipse, would be part of the canon that Eclipse starts to suggest, but they’re not there because they’re readily available elsewhere. Some of Lyn Hejinian’s work, for instance.
AF: Whereas with anthologies, that’s more of a curatorial role, where you’re making an argument and selecting works accordingly?
AF: Can you place Eclipse in relation to other…there are as you know various terrific poetry databases. There’s PennSound, UbuWeb, Jacket 2. Does Eclipse complement these others? Does it exist independently of them? Do they, as a whole, begin to create a different field of reference for readers and scholars?
CD: That’s interesting, because they certainly overlap, in that one could trace a handful of individual people that connect them all.
AF: A handful of poets, or designers of the sites?
CD: Designers of these sites—Charles Bernstein, Kenneth Goldsmith, people who have just one degree of separation between them. But what I’d have to think more about is that the differences between them, even of content, can probably be traced back to the different moments at which each of them began, and what was available technologically—what the internet looked like.
AF: Are there works that, in your mind, fit on Eclipse or Ubu, but not the other? Or are you saying it’s primarily the lived histories of who designed these sites, and when, that determines what’s available?
CD: You know I think those histories start to determine what makes sense on one site rather than another.
AF: Rather than these individual sites advocating a particular line of innovation, or consolidating any canon?
CD: This would be a good project for someone to work through carefully. And it ranges from the most mundane things, like the fact that PennSound is focused on audio (obviously), which shapes its focus toward poetry as a local, social event, so that the canons it builds, the picture it gives is one that’s probably much more aligned with how a contemporary poet looks at things. It’s much more about community and scene—poetry as something that comes from individual, knowable personae. Whereas UbuWeb suggests a collective of the unknowable. Or to contrast Ubu and Eclipse: Ubu has far greater storage capacity and server space, and I don’t have any technical know-how, which means it’s unlikely that videos ever are going to show up on Eclipse, making Ubu’s argument much more interdisciplinary; it’s much more aligned with a modernist sense of an international avant-garde than Eclipse ever will be able to present.
AF: It allows you’re saying for a more international set of contributors and audience members, because of using media such as video.
AF: And where does Eclipse fit in?
CD: I don’t know.
AF: Perfectly reasonable as an answer.
CD: That would be for its users to answer.
AF: That’s part of what I wanted to get to, was that we’ve talked, preceding this conversation, about if Eclipse tries to consolidate a particular aesthetic line—or, if you’re trying to advocate a type of individual assimilation of material that you yourself have done, and saying not that people should read what’s on Eclipse, but that they should make their own Eclipse. What would be the ideal use of Eclipse, or outcome of someone encountering Eclipse?
CD: That goes back to the premium put on availability. So on the one hand, works on Eclipse are there because they interest me, personally. It’s the material that, if I didn’t have on my shelf, I’d want to have available to me as a reader. But I certainly don’t think everyone ought to be reading the same work, or that Eclipse is out there to change someone’s mind. What I do want it to do, in terms of availability, is be part of people’s horizons as they’re considering and assessing and situating the work they do like, whether that’s just from a reader’s sense of what’s out there, a scholar’s sense, a teacher’s sense of what can be included in a class. So it’s not there to say: You’re course syllabi ought to have the titles from Eclipse. But it is there to say: Even if you’re in an educational situation where you can only assign the Norton Anthology, there’s no excuse for not putting these links on, too, if that’s what you want to do, if you want to have that kind of inclusivity. And originally it was there in part because I felt that people both pro and against Language poetry were talking about the poetry without having read very much of it, and that as an old-fashioned…
AF: Empiricist or something?
CD: As an old-fashioned scholar I thought this wasn’t right, that you’d never imagine people saying either that the Cavalier poets were great or that the Cavalier poets were terrible, when they’d never read the poetry itself. So the point again is availability. And then, if you want to trash it, if you decide there’s a reason why it all went out of print, whatever, at least it’s available for reading.
AF: Now I’m thinking about Walter Benjamin’s idea of productivism, that the most successful writer turns readers into writers. Is there some sense here of you encouraging readers to assemble their own Eclipse-like shadow canon, without you stating any static definition of what’s important from the last fifty years, but just encouraging people to go through this process themselves of excavating work and finding some trajectory that makes sense to them, and sharing it with others?
CD: Exactly, and making it available.
AF: Or Ubu for example has guest curators who perform a reading-through of its inexhaustible contents. Eric Baus now is doing that for Jacket 2, where he’ll create sort of like a DJ’s scripted listening session, guiding readers through an assortment of PennSound performances. But was there a time where your own personal selectivity seemed more important to emphasize, and has that moment passed?
CD: Well I should say first that I think both Ubu and PennSound are far more narrowly curated than they let on. And in the case of PennSound actually, it might make a stronger overall argument if it were more clear upfront about that.
AF: You mean that it’s not comprehensive? That that’s not the point?
CD: Right. For Ubu, I think Ubu now is so large, that even though it’s not truly anything-goes inclusive, it has become greater than the sum of its parts by having achieved a scope that one really can’t take in at a glance, and that it does have an eclecticism if only due to the media it includes. Eclipse, on the other hand, is still very selective, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing, and I don’t know what that does for the overall argument of the site, and may just be a result of me feeling overly cautious because it's so easy to throw things on when there's a lot of available digital storage. But also, I’m already so far behind in things I want to include, I have to find ways of having the project not become simply a backlog, but something going forward.
AF: Should we then move from talking about your role as an archivist with Eclipse to addressing your study of the contemporary? From what I understand you have a class titled “The Very Contemporary,” is that right?
CD: Well, when I’ve taught classes under the institutional rubric “Contemporary Poetry,” I’ve sometimes construed that to mean only books published in that year. Usually, hopefully, with some of them still in manuscript. Or some that are only published in the middle of the semester.
AF: Ok, because I’m interested in an idea you’ve developed several places. There’s your online encyclopedia entry on Language poetry, in which you make the point that we won’t fully grasp what is significant, or perhaps who is significant in Language poetry until the movement has been displaced. And then on Kareem Estefan’s Ceptuetics interview, you make a similar case for conceptual writing: that again we’ll grasp this movement, if it is a movement, afterwards. In your introduction to the Vito Acconci book you use the metaphor of locust logic for avant-garde work—that it becomes contemporary after the fact. So I’m curious about this dual role of cataloging the past, making the past accessible, and encouraging a focus on the contemporary.
CD: Right, one of the things I like pedagogically about a Contemporary Poetry class construed as being very contemporary is that I think it’s good for students to see work before it’s gone through a long process of sifting and selection. It’s pedagogically useful to have students encounter works that don’t have articles about them, that don’t have received interpretations, that don’t even have anything online about them. They can’t look things up, and therefore can recognize to some extent their prejudices, their presuppositions, the kind of procedures they bring to reading a work when other people haven’t read it first. Most of the work that gets published at any given moment isn’t very good. That’s not a bad thing for students to see.
AF: So if that critical apparatus doesn’t exist externally, then it’s something they themselves are encouraged to cultivate?
CD: Yeah and I think that’s something good to take into other classes. You know, to remember and recognize that besides the “great” ten poets they read in their Romanticism class, that there were all the second- and third-rate poets publishing at the same time. This goes back to the point that there’s always more than we remember, or that we see at any given moment, or that we can take in all at once.
AF: I think in The Consequence of Innovation you make this point that one characteristic of our present moment in poetry is the inassimilability of all that is contemporary—that no individual could read it all and speak with authority about “contemporary poetry” or “current trends in poetry.” Is there some way in which that’s unique to our present, though you’re also saying that’s a constant throughout literary history?
CD: I think this feeling, that there’s too much, that we’re overwhelmed with information, that things are moving faster than they ever have before.... this I suspect always has been true, and as soon as someone saw their first cuneiform tablet they thought: Oh no, there’s too much to read. But what’s different now is that we’ve passed a real physical limit of readability, that 300 years ago somebody may have felt the same way, the panicky claustrophobic affect of print may have been the same, but in terms of the sheer number of pages coming off presses, there was a time when one physically could have read everything, and that’s not true today.
AF: Does that change our role as critics, scholars, poets? You, for example, in that same essay emphasize enthusiastic advocacy, the need to make it known that this one particular book is the one worth reading. And you yourself have this complex role as poet, critic, anthologist (something like a curator), archivist and advocate. You write inviting introductions to poets’ books as well. Do those roles seem fused somehow? Is there no reason why all poets shouldn’t be doing all of those things?
CD: Let me go back to the first part of the question.
CD: I think in addition to enthusiasm, this situation puts pressure on a quick, articulate concision.
AF: On the person advocating the work or on the work itself?
CD: On the advocate, not just to champion one work above all the others that won’t be read, but to be able to talk vividly about works that other people will never read. I think the absence of a shared canon is the other really daunting and exciting part of a condition of overwhelming excess.
AF: You call in The Consequence of Innovation for a “local, focused, specialized and ad hoc” criticism for the present. Is that to some extent modeled on contemporary art criticism? Is the field of art one in which…again, you talk about the potential for a Wittgensteinian grammatical error, that two critics could talk about poetry and mean by the term two different things. Do you find this situation one that’s been anticipated, intensified, in the world of visual art? Do you look at art critics for a sense of how criticism could operate in poetry?
CD: You know my model actually is more the discussions that happened among music lovers—the kind of language you used to see on Usenet groups, or that you see today on MP3 blogs, where an enthusiast of some sub- sub- sub-genre of death metal tries to communicate the value and excitement of that particular music to someone who’s not only not listening to a particular composition, but in fact is listening to a completely different genre of music. So how that person talks to the enthusiast of a sub- sub-genre of Western swing is what interests me, as what people might need to do under the sign of poetry.
AF: Do you think that the impromptu music criticism you describe is more specialized than professional poetry criticism?
CD: No, I don’t know if this discourse is any better, or something to model.
CD: But that fact of not having the music right there requires the articulate description of it, simultaneous to the advocacy or argument about it—I think of that part as a model.
AF: Is there less of a struggle (using language) to convey a sense of what a poem does?
CD: Or just the opposite. Just as someone never may have imagined certain sounds constituting “music,” it may be that a certain reader used to one type of poetry never has considered that a radically different kind of text could be considered “poetry.” Those two readers need to be able to, at the same time, discuss the work and also describe the work.
AF: We haven’t discussed conceptual writing much. The easiest segue I can think of would be a subtle difference between what you and Kenneth Goldsmith say in your Against Expression introductions. Just now you brought up the example of someone who speaks of Cavalier poetry without having read Cavalier poetry. And you’ve mentioned your efforts to make work accessible for others, presumably so they can consider that work quite carefully. Yet there is this difference (in tone at least) in how Kenny will present conceptual writing as something almost unbearable at times. He’ll say he can’t read the proofs of his own work without falling asleep, that nobody really has read such books in their entirety. Whereas you, in your introduction, say that “noting a method…is no substitute for carefully reading the textual details.” Is there a distinction there, in terms of how you two, but more generally, how people engaging conceptual writing approach this work?
CD: I think it’s probably a difference more in the rhetoric of how Kenny and I present the material, than a real difference in what we believe. But it does point back to my own formation as an old-fashioned academic literary scholar, where, you know, it’s my job to read things. So I don’t want to give that up. But that’s also part of the evolution of the anthology, from the small online suite on UbuWeb, the “Anthology of Conceptual Poetry” which Kenny made space for me to host, where the argument came from the perspective of a trained reader: that it doesn’t matter where texts come from, the trained reader can bring all of those interpretive skills to bear on texts regardless of their provenance. Whereas the print anthology, Against Expression, says that this provenance is determining and all to the point. Something presented as literature, something published or received as a poem makes a big difference, even if that very same text might also appear elsewhere under very different circumstances. It took me a while to come around and be convinced of that, but Kenny convinced me, which I think goes back to his experience as a practitioner who moved from the New York art world gallery context to the small press poetry world. There, I think is a real difference in our training, that you can see in differences between the online collection I curated and the print collection we co-edited.
AF: On this question of distinctions between an art or literary approach to conceptual aesthetics, I don’t know if this is a hang-up of mine, of thinking about conceptual writing in relation to conceptual art, but for me, if I think of conceptual art, a standard example like a Duchampian readymade, where, as far as I understand, according to contemporary critics: it’s not that Duchamp is making an assertion “This is art because I say it is”; it’s that Duchamp isn’t making any assertion, and yet the institutional context dictates that we apprehend these objects as works of art. So the supposedly neutral delivery system of the gallery space gets taken away, and we understand that there’s some power relation happening here. The object itself isn’t as important as our recognition of this power relation. That’s my understanding of what an institutional critique is. Does that make some sense?
CD: It makes good sense.
AF: And so, thinking about this, I realize I’ve always had a facile understanding of institutional critique, because with visual art we’re talking about institutions like galleries and museums, but I guess that the “institution” of institutional critique is really a metaphor, right? When we say “institutional critique” we don’t mean a critique of buildings. We mean a critique of certain cognitive operations in artistic discourse. So could you talk a bit about if conceptual writing is making some sort of analogous institutional critique, and what that institution is that’s being critiqued. Is the discourse of “the author” the equivalent field of supposedly transparent operations?
AF: And can I ask a parallel question? If the art object to some extent disappears in Duchamp, as the institutional network steps in to provide the meaning of the art, then, for conceptual writing, what is the object being withdrawn, and what is the corresponding institution being questioned?
CD: Ok. Let me flip those first by saying that I do think part of what goes on in Duchamp with the readymade, in addition to that kind of institutional critique, is to show the nominalist power of categorical designation. So I do think part of it also is saying: This is art because I say it’s art.
AF: Nominalist power on the part of the artist, rather than the part of the institution.
CD: Right I don’t think they’re exclusive.
CD: They’re both going on. Which I want to say because I think that’s one of the things that happens with conceptual writing, is the force of something being a poem because someone calls it a poem, even when, from other perspectives, individual texts might seem more aligned with other genres. Kenny Goldsmith’s Sports, for instance, on its own seems much less like a lyric poem than a Greek epic, or tragic drama, or something more narrative. But the force of designating it as poetry is part of what’s interesting when it enters institutions. Here I don’t see critique, so much as an exploration or expansion of those institutions. Something I find very interesting about the category of poetry in the 20th and 21st century is that it’s so generously capacious. It takes things in. And part of what I think conceptual writing shows is how much the category of "poetry" is willing to take in.
AF: There are two topics it would be helpful if we could address. So conceptual writing is not necessarily getting rid of the author then. To some extent it reinforces the role of the author as decision maker, in the nominalist process that you’re describing, is that right? Let’s say Kenny with his book Day, there’s this de-authored production. He simply transcribes what’s there. But then Kenny the author ends up reading at the White House because he becomes well known for it. So that’s one thing. But then the other has to do with what you’re saying about capaciousness—the length, the length of conceptual works. It’s interesting to me that books of conceptual writing often run significantly longer than conventional collections of poetry, and I’m wondering what is going on during that length of time. If there is some sort of challenge to conventional understandings of what authors do in a book, does that happen quickly? And then what happens for the other 400 pages?
CD: Right. So an addendum to what I just said, which picks up on the first part of this: I don’t see very much critique of authorship, or critique of the institutions of poetry in most conceptual writing. You start to see that with something like Issue 1, and I suspect that more incisive and pointed critiques are going to come, and will have been made possible by the work we’ve seen already. But I don’t see it very much at the moment. And I think part of that double play, and part of the difference between the massive textual production of certain works, and the kind of local analyses a reader might perform on parts of those works, goes back to the difference between Duchamp’s nominalism and the institutional critique performed by the nominated object later on. Which is to say that there are at least two perspectives from which one comes at a work. On the one hand, there are the concerns of a writer. And from that position, conceptual strategies allow for the production of texts not based on one’s own words. They allow for a deauthoring to that extent. They open up these massive permutational serial productions. But the question of what one does with those objects, once they've been produced, is something else entirely; I don’t think the concerns of the reader are necessarily congruent with the kinds of concerns that authors have. So that, whatever Duchamp may have been thinking about his removal of personal taste, one might still go in and marvel at the crossed wires of a bicycle wheel, and the complicated shadows that it casts on the floor. Whatever Kenny says about just bluntly recording the traffic, one might go in and do a careful reading of the repetition of "alternate side of the street parking," or some other type of local attention, as opposed to the broader strokes that permitted his text to be produced in the first place.
AF: Then is there some similarity to what a contemporary reader of, you know, a long poem in the lyric tradition of The Prelude does? Is the emphasis upon local detail, which presumably carries us through over time…are the old tricks of keeping a reader attuned still at play here? Things like alliteration, varying the pace and rhythm of the work? Is that still part of what determines if a particular conceptual project will last?
CD: I’m stumped here. Because I don’t want to prescribe things for readers. It seems that readers interested in the most traditional values of poetry, along the lines of measure and meter and rhythm and what Pound would call melopoeia, have plenty to sink their teeth into even in the most deodorized conceptual works. But I hope that there are readers who want to do other things as well. But my point is that that the scale at which the writer is working is different than the scale at which the reader’s permitted to work. So in Claude Closky’s “The First Thousand Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order," say, Closky can’t go in at the level of individual words and tinker around. He can’t say: This would be better if it started with number 97, and make that change. But the reader can still go in and read at that level, even if the writer wasn’t able to. And a reader might go in and find something interesting about individual numbers and their conjunctions in that work, in the way that Rubén Gallo for instance went into Fidget, and didn’t just say: Ah, it’s every move the author’s body made in the course of a day. He went in and discovered that traditional narrative close-reading strategies, combined with theoretical understandings of the sexualized body, permitted very mysterious and rich narrative action to emerge.
AF: Going along with this: much of what you’re describing seems to me to fit within the realm of the 'pataphysical, as in your article “The Imaginary Solution,” in which authors come up with their own eccentric type of experiment and readers can do what they want with it. So are there distinctions to be made among conceptual writing, constraint-based writing and 'pataphysical writing? Those terms often get used interchangeably. Is that problematic? It makes sense to me, for example, why the works in the Ubu Anthology are called conceptual writing, but I don’t know if I’d feel the same about everything in Against Expression.
CD: Interesting. What would be exceptions?
AF: Well, when you were saying there are conceptual works that are not performing institutional critique, are those closer to what we would consider 'pataphysical works? Because there’s not, I don’t know what you’d call it, this pointed subversive intent behind them? Because that’s not the driving force for their type of textual production?
CD: To my mind, the 'pataphysical designates a certain tone with which texts are produced, and is a narrower category than either constraint or conceptual. 'Pataphysical works pursue an absurd logic as if it were scientific and sensical and rational. That might include constraint-based work. I’m trying to think of an example.
AF: Well how about Kenny’s misheard lyrics project Head Citations, versus Day. Head Citations to me seems closer to what you’re calling the 'pataphysical, in that it’s developed with a certain gusto, but that’s the point, the playfulness with which it’s developed. Whereas Day addresses a paper of record, and what gets defined as noteworthy, and how that information—even if it’s presented according to certain conventions that we’re supposed to absorb passively—could be read in a different way. There seems to be more of what I was calling an institutional critique.
CD: I think the difference then between constraint and what, to my mind, is the even larger conception of the conceptual, is that there are constraint-based works still in the service of the kind of personal coherent expression that conceptual writing as we defined it in the anthology is really against. So you certainly could have a conceptual work that is 'pataphysical and constraint-based. And you certainly could have a constraint-based 'pataphysical work that is not conceptual, and a 'pataphysical work that was neither conceptual nor constraint-based.
AF: I think when I write that down that will be good clarification. Could we briefly look at Parse, for an example of how these processes play out in time? Could Parse have been a five-page project if you had chosen some other grammarian’s text to parse? Could what is conceptual about the work have come through clearly enough? Is the 'pataphysical pleasure of seeing these systematic, permutational parsings of sentences found in the length of the overall project? And again, anything you have to say about what makes this pleasure different from the melopoeic pleasures of traditional lyric poetry.
CD: Parse underscores one of the old debates from conceptual art, which was whether proposing an idea was sufficient, or whether one actually had to carry out the proposal. And so this goes back to the distinction between the broad conceptual wrapper that gets put around these works, and the details of their textual specificity and minute particulars and specific facture. So I could simply have said: Take a grammar book and parse it into its own system. But that’s different than actually doing it, and finding hundreds of pages later what a parsed grammar book is itself like. And that result, the singularity of that textual object, is in fact different than the idea that generated it. As it happens, I just read an article where someone says that Parse is the recoding of a "genre novel," missing the whole point of parsing a book about parsing, and showing that they never really read it. As an example of an idea, you don't really need to read the book, as a literary text you really have to.
AF: So that describes your experience of the work, and then the reader is nonetheless free to do whatever he or she chooses?
CD: Sure. So maybe the thing to say would be that, rather than whether these works are intended to be read, that, for some of them, I can say, reading them carefully pays off.
AF: Can we continue with questions about your own writing?
AF: First: with what we’re saying now, this is kind of a dumb point, but you, in readings I’ll hear on PennSound, you tend to read your own work pretty fast, and I’m wondering if that is part of emphasizing the method or mode of display over the local detail. Is that deliberate, and anything particular you’re going for?
CD: That’s probably a combination of trying to bring out details like rhythm or repetition, or percussive consonantal details, and part simply an effect of the fact that I get very nervous when I read.
AF: Do you want to describe your new project Motes—especially, again, because it’s a work that could be taken in at a glance, but then there are these local textual details to each of the short aphoristic passages?
CD: I think I was trying to do two different things in this new work. On the one hand (and this would link these to the conceptual writing in the anthology), the entries are not “expressive” in any way. They’re not texts communicating any sort of "message" I wanted to relay. They’re constructed according to textual logics that the words themselves propose. So all of the words are only allowed to be there if they fit multiply determined rules and constraints, whether that’s based on sounds, or based on alphabetic letters, or connections between other languages. So on the one hand there are all of these logics, but at the same time they’re elided. And the other thing I was trying to do was to see if, starting from these sort of mechanistic rules, the texts either could appear to be perfectly quotidian, could have the unmarked feel of everyday language, so would not betray their compositional origins, or could have the kind of melopoeic lyric effects of language, which we don’t imagine originates in that constructivist mode. They’re not like works in the Against Expression anthology in that the rules aren’t predetermined, with the poems just an extrapolation of a preset procedure. And they’re all “my own” words, whatever that would be, so they’d be far too creative to be included in the anthology.
AF: Do you then consider this current project a break with your past work?
CD: Well you know, the other thing that occurred to me, about the forthcoming book, was that although entries look like tiny epigrammatic poems, that the other connection to the conceptual work one finds in the anthology is that they are personal without being confessional, in the way that in Kenny’s work you might not have any expressive, confessional statements about his interior self, but you do find out exactly what chatrooms he was visiting, or what days he happened to be out of town and couldn’t record the weather, and that though there’s no reference in these new poems to childhood, there’s no thematics of family, that they came about because my son was born—I was taking care of an infant, and they were the length of poems I could work on as I walked with him swaddled on my chest for forty-five minutes while he was napping, so they have, like many works in the anthology, a form that has been evolved from very particular social forces.
AF: The poetics of motherhood have been well-documented over the last five years, maybe always. Do you feel that there is something in parenthood or fatherhood that your book is exploring, and does it relate to books by Cathy Wagner, Danielle Pafunda, Karen Weiser?
CD: This was the argument in the 60s and 70s about what then was called “women’s writing,” forms of writing which came up because of “women’s time,” which is fragmented, interrupted. And so without the essentializing gender part of that, I think this is exactly the same kind of case.
AF: Something like the mother tongue as transcribed by the father.
CD: Right, it’s not the kind of work you’re able to write because you’re able to close yourself off in a study all day and have dinner brought to you. And I should also say I hope these poems play back that time, maybe in reverse, for the reader as well, that the other aspiration I had was that they can be readable in just a moment, and then tossed aside or put down, but that because of the kinds of elided logics that underwrite them, that they also would sustain as much time as you have to spend with any given one of them.
AF: One quick question about Dure: Dure itself seems to embody your emphases upon the curatorial and the archival, and with Dure I think one gets a clear sense of what you were saying earlier: that your archival approach is not meant to be didactic or prescriptive or anything, but that it’s exemplary, that you’re giving us a model of what we ourselves could do as readers and writers. But I’m just wondering if you saw the production of Dure and Eclipse as part of a parallel enterprise.
CD: Hmm. I don’t know. It might be interesting for someone to think through the connection between literary citation and archival procedures. But I haven’t thought it through myself.
AF: And one last question about the contemporary.
AF: With your multifarious role as poet/critic/curator/advocate, were you drawn to the contemporary because it’s the field that’s the least defined, and allows you to pursue all those different interests, or was it your interest in the contemporary that drew you toward all these different fields of inquiry? I’m just curious if one of these, interest in method or interest in content, determined the other.
CD: From my perspective, which probably is not the best perspective on my work, those various activities are pretty unrelated. They must be related at some level, but the work I do when I sit down to write a scholarly article…I don’t think of that as being very connected to the work I do when I sit down to write a poetic project. And I don’t think of either as really connected to the work I do as an anthologist.
AF: Well it’s interesting, because nobody else does all of those things, or few people, so it seems like an integrated enterprise, just because other people aren’t doing that, but you are.
CD: I think that one of the differences—and this would go back to the difference between someone trained in the traditional literary scholarly way, and someone whose perspective is as a poet (so this might go back to the kind of argument that comes out of PennSound, and the kind that comes out of Eclipse)—is that, as a poet, there is a real premium placed on the present, which is everything from who’s reading in this season’s series, what’s the latest book, has it been reviewed right away, did it have a launch.... all of these things which are really about the now, which is very different from the kind of perspective that got cultivated by taking a long look at literary history, the kind of perspective that came from being interested in medieval literature, say, which is that once something’s published, it may be there for the person who’s going to find it in fifty years, on a dusty bottom library shelf, and I think that’s an important distinction. One way to phrase it is that a literary historian looks at the contemporary with the understanding that, before too long, all of those processes that make poems get lost and forgotten are going to take place, while the poet, on the other hand, thinks not so much about the contemporary as about the present. Does that make sense?