Interview: Pierre Joris

Regenerative Diaspora: An Interview with Pierre Joris

Bug: The constant mental flux that seems to comprise your notion of nomadic poetics, is it an attempt to smash through prejudice, a preventative measure against cultural misunderstandings that have brought about things such as war and genocide?

 Pierre: Yes, of course, there is that way in which the poet who takes herself seriously hopes without saying so too loudly that the poetry and the thinking about what that poetry can & should be will have an impact, will help in some small measure to breach prejudice (maybe smashing it is too much to hope for). But it is a difficult notion and we at the end of the 20th century & the beginning of the 21st are the inheritors of two opposed visions: on one hand, that of, say, Shelley and Whitman, Neruda and Ginsberg, for whom poetry was in some, and often in large, measure a means of protesting social injustice, and from whom we have inherited a believe in the possible efficacy of the poem to do just that – the poet as unacknowledged legislator, the poet as guide, as shamanic propagandist for a better world. On the other hand we are also the inheritors of Mallarmé – and his sense that “poetry makes nothing happen” as a sticker I was handed some time back proclaims. As Alain Badiou recently phrased it, Mallarmé gave the 20th century another figure, that of the “poet as secret, active exception, as the custodian of lost thought. The poet is the protector, in language, of a forgotten opening… the poet, ignored, stands guard against perdition.” Which often leads to an ahistorical or nostalgic aestheticism. But of course Mallarmé also gave us huge breakthroughs in poetic form and in that sense renewing and revitalizing poetry for the last century. So what we need for this new century is a poetry that combines the advances of those two figures, the poet as avant-gardista and the poet as custodian. A difficult dance, to be sure. And what you call “the constant mental flux” that you see as underlying my nomadic poetics may be just that – or at least the circulation of those two visions, the movement between them creates a tension that keeps those poetics on the move, i.e. nomadic.

Bug: In version 4.00 of your nomadism manifesto, you interweave your theory with Brian Massumi’s thoughts on the birth of the State. Does this imply that traditional ideas about language, syntax, and poetry have contributed to the formation of the despotic State? Is nomadism a political philosophy as much as a literary one?

 Pierre: Yes it is, or at least it constitutes one of the two poles of poetry I mentioned above. And I think there are times (and this is such a time) when we are not allowed, or at least we shouldn’t allow ourselves  to separate the political from the literary (or from anything else). Everything is political, especially if we remember what that 19th century German thinker showed, namely that economics are inseparable from politics, so, even if it sounds like a sixties mantra: everything is political – from the bedroom or wherever you have sex, to the family and wider human relations, to the kitchen (fruit, vegetables, meat etcetera all come to us through circuitous routes determined as much by politics than by agriculture) to the office, in the house or out in the world, wherever it may happen to be, to the areas of entertainment, be that TV, sports or the opera. Now, this doesn’t mean that every poem has to make openly “political” statements. But it does mean that we damn better be aware of the fact that even the most abstract formal decision – look, for example at the formal procedures used by someone like Jackson Mac low – has a “political”  side. Especially when such is loudly denied. And it is certainly our “custodial” duty as poets to inspect those aspects of language that we see as at least misused by, and maybe even as constitutive of,  the formation of the despotic state. And under “despotic state” I don’t just think of China, old or new, Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany – I also think of what is happening in this country right now.

Bug: At one point in the manifesto, you call for the possible end of the alphabet. A bold declaration, the kind of goat-getting talk missing since the demise of Dada and punk rock. Could you elaborate on this?

 Pierre: I was actually quoting my friend the poet Don Byrd in that instance. I think the point was to suggest that poetry is certainly larger than and independent of the alphabet, no matter how much great poetry the cultures of the book have produced. No human culture has failed to create word-art, poetry, whatever you want to call it. Jerome Rothenberg’s work on ethnopoetics has brought much of that into our contemporaneity from various pasts, and today there are ranges of poetries – concrete, visual, oral that are independent of the alphabet. No doubt the current age and its digital interfaces will create other such poetries. I love the alphabet – all alphabets, and am at present working on a series of poems based on the letters of the Arabic alphabet, but it is worth remembering that alphabets are essentially memnotechnic devices to notate speech that have been around for just a few thousand years among a few specific cultures, while poetry has been around much longer and among all cultures.

By the way, Dada ain’t dead, by a long shot, and Miles, my 15 year old drummer-son will claim that punk rock isn’t either. He just got a double pedal for his bass drum, so watch out.

Bug: You advocate a mishmashing of languages, the creation of new ones, and explore Henri Michaux’s drawing poems. While these techniques are all exciting, do they carry the danger of making poems incomprehensible?

Pierre: Only bad poems are incomprehensible, as in: “I can’t understand why this should even be called a poem.” But let’s not be too flippant. I read and write poems in order to explore the unknown, to discover something I don’t know, and not in order to find what I already, or always, knew. And everything new is in some way incomprehensible — or, maybe better, uncomprehended as yet. And some, if not most, may, nay, will remain so forever. Easily or “totally” comprehensible poems (or anything else, paintings, musical compositions, cities, lovers, deserts, languages) are boring or, more likely, plain alibis for our fear of the unknown, which ultimately is our fear of death. We want to be reassured that we understand what is happening in the world, what our place therein is, that we have, in fact, a place therein that is ours, that we are not just random or chance occurrences, that the universe is indeed a place, i.e. a defined and definable something that has “meaning” and that therefore can be “understood.” That’s why poets and other artists worth their salt have always known that they had to maintain themselves in what Shelley defined nearly 200 years ago as “negative capability.”

A good poem may be hard, difficult, even opaque – but not incomprehensible. Don’t trust a poem that comes to you – as reader or writer – and gives itself  as all there, all available, naked and transparent, perfectly digestible. That’s like fast sex or fast food: a consumer lure that leaves you on your hunger, in fact, leaves you emptier than before except for a dose of clap or cholesterol. The culture around us feeds us (no free lunch: we pay for it twice: before and after) pabulum, baby food, cheap meat and cheap emotions ground into an unrecognizable plastic – in the French sense, malleable – mass of stuff that can then be machine-processed into culturally reassuring, non-conflictual, easily recognizable shapes: hamburger patties, 3 minute pop songs, sonnet-shaped wordage.

Poems are a foreign language, and readers have to learn that language. The first time you hear a composition by Anton Webern, you are clueless; it takes a number of listenings to begin to understand what Webern is doing. The same is true for Archie Shepp or Cecil Taylor or Steve Lacy. The first time you see a Jackson Pollock or a Joseph Beuys piece, the same is true. But we are willing to accept that and try to understand by learning about these works. Why should a language-work be easier in that sense than a musical composition or a work of art? Isn’t that because we take language for granted, as we use it as a basic transparent code all day long, for purposes of basic communication, or for entertainment in novels and movies? And it is exactly because of that that the poet has the duty to make language strange again, to thicken the sauce — which she can do in any number of ways. But a good poet writes works that also have handles, i.e. ways in for those who may not be familiar as yet with such work – the rhythm, the music of a poem can do that, can offer entry, as any number of other aspects do. Obscurity must never be there for the sake of obscurity, but it needs to be there because it is a part of language, or as Paul Celan put it, the poem is ‘dark’ to begin with due to its very existence, dark in fact in the sense of an opacity particular, and thus phenomenal, to any given object, thus to language too. He writes: “Regarding the darkness of the poem today, imagination and experience, experience and imagination let me think of a darkness of the poem qua poem, of a constitutive, even congenital darkness. In other words: the poem is born dark; the result of a radical individuation, it is born as a piece of language, as far as language manages to be world, is loaded with world”.  But, he goes on to say, “The poem speaks of the first and most accidental things as if they were the last ones: The near is at the same time the infinitely distant; if it has the opacity of what stands opposite it, it also has the brightness of the faraway.”

Or you could try to think this with the French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch who, when speaking of difficult music, says “il y a le mystère et le secret,” suggesting that it is a matter of a mystery rather than of a secret.  I read that as pointing to the secret as a willed, imposed, artificial obscurity laid over something in order to gain power of some, of whatever sort.  Mystery, on the other hand, is simply part of the thing, that part that we haven’t been able to understand, to see through, and which will thus remain opaque.  The Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi has interesting things to say about the question of  obscurity, illisibility, incomprensibility, or however you want to term that resistance a poem opposes to the reader. Asked by an interviewer about the perceived obscurity of his work, Khatibi responded: “Barthes who was often reproached for the same thing, once said to me: ‘ When someone tells me ‘be clear’ what he wants to say in fact is ‘be like me.’’ To complain about the difficulty of a text is to confess indirectly that it is the relation between the reader and the text that is difficult. The reader has to put himself into play. If he doesn’t see what it is that is difficult in this relation he will never progress in relation to any of the so-called difficult texts. It is only after having clarified the nature of that difficulty that he will be able to dialogue with the author of the text. The difficulty resides indeed in the relation, not only in the book. My books are totally clear for many readers. On the other hand I am opposed to any literature of reproduction or consumption. Every reading must permit a rereading. I write for true readers, those who love writing as such and keep a very precise and strong place for language in their imaginary.”

We all want “true readers,” of course – but, I would argue that the first job of the poet – and obscurity be damned – is to explore areas of the unknown. As Martin Buber said: “What can be learned does not matter; what matters is the self-abandonment to that which is not known.” And it is our attitude towards that which is not known, that which therefore is (as yet? forever?) unintelligible for us, that is essential, or as David Antin once said: “The one thing I believe a poet ought to do is respect what he doesn’t understand, respect its unintelligibility.”

Bug: In “Winnetou Old” and “The Rothenberg Variations” you seem to adopt something of the collage method, the very method you at times criticize. You are also an excellent translator of the master collagist, Kurt Schwitters. What does collage mean for you? Why do you think it’s flawed? Is your theory of nomadic poetics related to collage at all? Your frequent collaborator, Jerome Rothenberg, has mentioned that for him collage is a way to avoid the tyranny of established modes of thought. Do you agree or disagree?

 Pierre: Hmm. Can’t remember really where I criticized collage. I have often said that collage is the one core technical innovation of twentieth century art, and I still believe that. It is essential, from cinema to art to poetry. And beyond: You could look at Walter Benjamin’s Passagen Werk as one huge collage. Jacques Derrida’s great philosophical work, Glas, is a major verbal collage text in a field where you least expect it. As the philosopher that he is, he doesn’t call what he does in that book (and elsewhere, if less so) “collage,” but rather “citational graft.” And collage is citation of an instance of  a previous text (however you define that word) in a new context. Derrida gives an excellent account of the power and possibilities of this technique when he writes: “Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited,  put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable.”  Of course there are differences in the use of the collage technique between, say philosophers and poets. The philosopher, essayist or commentator cannot do this the same way the poet does: the former borrows and acknowledges a debt (in Glas, for example, although the quotation marks are dropped, the quoted material is identifiable by page-layout and print conventions), the latter — the poet —traditionally “steals,” or at least confuses the origins of the intertextualities at work in her writing, by dropping the citation marks. I composed a collage-poem not so long ago in my “Canto Diurno” series (where the formal limitation is that all that goes into the poem has to be gathered/written in a 24-hour period), called “The Tang extending from the Blade,” where I use 6 or 7 newspaper articles from the same day but from various places & languages, that I collage together into an English text.  (cf. the two poems that accompany this interview).

And I agree with Jerry when he says that collage is a way of avoiding the tyranny of thought. But of course, this is the 21st century and so it is useful to think through what the future of collage will be. I did this in an essay I gave at a conference in Iowa City a few years ago (& that is coming out in Justifying the Margins, my new collection of essays, which SALT is publishing this September). In that essay I propose to think about the future of collage, and propose a concept of seam/seem writing, theorizing this question  via Gilles Deleuze’s concepts of the fold, the rhizome and the line of flight. Too difficult to do or repeat here, so I refer you to that essay called “On the Seamlessly Nomadic Future of Collage.”

Bug: As an great translator of him, do you feel Picasso was a poet who painted or a painter who “poeted”?

 Pierre: Neither. When he paints he is a painter, when he writes he is a poet. So he is both at different times, or maybe both at the same time. The only one who had real trouble with that was Gertrude Stein, who refused to admit that Picasso could also be a poet. Picasso broke off their friendship because of that.

Bug: How has Paul Celan’s late work and your translating it affected your own work?

 Pierre: It is essential, it is Celan who brought me to poetry when I was in high school, and then as an undergraduate at Bard College in the late sixties I translated his just-published volume Breathturn, which was in fact the first volume of what came to be known as his late work. Very difficult work, but to me essential in that it showed new possibilities of language work at a whole range of levels, opening up the need to question one’s language(s), to study them historically and in any other way as deeply as possible, and, maybe most importantly, Celan set an example for a life seriously, totally devoted to poetry. The good thing is that Celan cannot really be imitated, so that’s a trap that is relatively easily avoidable for a young poet. For me this is so because his own pre-occupations are at a great remove from my own life and times. I am born after WW2, I am not Jewish, I do not have to spend my life with as a survivor of the holocaust, I write in what is my fourth language while Celan went on record as saying that one can only be a poet in one’s mother tongue, etcetera. But still, he was my great apprenticeship, his work was for me what Charles Olson called “a saturation job,” , i.e. “to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more about that than is possible to any other man….Exhaust it. Saturate it. … And the U KNOW everything else very fast… and you are in, forever.”

Bug: In your introduction to “Threadsuns,” you mention that Celan was post-aesthetic. What does it mean to be post-aesthetic? Isn’t it an aesthetic within itself?

Pierre: It is related to Adorno’s strictures that after Auschwitz poetry is impossible. And certainly an aesthezising poetry will not do, i.e. pretty – or even beautiful – artifacts do not stack up against the horrors of Khurbn (as Jerry Rothenberg calls the misnamed Holocaust) and, it is important to add, the other horrors of the 20th century, such as the Armenian genocide, the 14-18 war, the Stalin gulags, the Vietnam war, and their continuation in the 21st century, with the Rwanda genocide, the current Iraq war, etcetera. The measuring rod for good art can no longer be aesthetics, and you can see this sea-change in Celan’s own work, for example, and in an exemplary way, in his rewriting of the (very beautiful and aesthetically pleasing) “Death Fugue,” his best known early (forties) poem in the poem “Stretto.” 

Bug: Do you think there are any exciting new developments in contemporary poetry?

 Pierre: I’m sure there are – though they may be difficult to see. I mean, as Ron Silliman has often pointed out, 30 to 40 years ago when we started our work there were a few hundred, at best a thousand, working & publishing poets in the U.S. There are some 10,000 now. It is difficult to evaluate what such an inflation means.  From my vantage point as a reader of poetry and as a teacher, I have a sense that, besides the obvious vast quantity of dull workshop “official verse culture” poetry (as Charles Bernstein calls it) or School of Quietude poetry (as Silliman calls it), there is a lot of good to excellent post-avant poetry around. But there doesn’t seem to be any one poet or group who stand out as doing something completely new and exciting. For me it seems that the most adventurous poets writing right now are women: from the generation of Lynn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer and Leslie Scalapino to the likes of Cole Swenson, Elisabeth Willis, Jennifer Moxley, Kristin Prevallet, Elizabeth Robinson and so on.

Maybe we are in a moment of digestion, where the achievements and advances of the 20th century avant-gardes are still being evaluated, chewed over. I for one find as much, if not more interesting poetry in other parts of the world. Right now, as I am working on an anthology of Maghrebian poetry, there is very good and interesting work coming from North Africa and the Arab world in general. And beyond that from the rest of the world –It is important for young poets in this country to stop contemplating the lint in their own belly buttons and to check out what is happening elsewhere, even as close by as, say the frontera poets in Tijuana.

Bug: Why have so many mid-century American poets been forgotten? Examples: Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner, Charles Olson, Paul Carroll, Jackson MacLow, Armand Schwerner, Aram Saroyan, Robert Grenier, Susan Howe, Helen Adam, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer and the list goes on and on and on. . . .

 Pierre: While not entirely forgotten (most of them have their champions, and posthumous books, complete editions, critical studies on a range of those you mention keep coming out), though a number among them do feel the brunt of serious neglect. One major reason for that is, I believe, the inflation in poets writing an publishing right now, to which I spoke in the previous question. You could also add the fact that poetry as such has lost its glamour and impact in the world, or at least in the American literary world. An example: when did the NYTBR publish a serious review of a major book of poems? We are in a fast-food & fast-everything culture of instant gratification, where anything older than last week is to be discarded as a health risk, a culture that bombards us 24/7 with tons of so-called “cultural” artifacts and makes it nearly impossible for people to spend any serious time with serious, and that most often means difficult (see above) poetry. And the educational system isn’t helping, when the Norton anthology of poetry holds a near-monopoly on how and what poetry is taught. It is a disastrous situation as it makes people disinclined and unfit to read serious work.

Bug: Finally, what’s in store for Pierre Joris?

Pierre: Poetry. Translations. Essays. An anthology or two. Some prose. Lots of travel. More poetry, I hope.