--- R O N A L D P A L M E R
///// I: Hyper-Nascence: Naropa: Inarticulacy: (4 questions):
Ronald Palmer (RP): What are your earliest memories that involve words and/or language and in what way did those experiences figure into who you are now as an adult and as a writer?
K. Silem Mohammad (K.S.M.): I'm not sure how much my personal or writerly identity can be traced back to such things, but I do recall a sudden sense of surprise and bewilderment one day at realizing that I was able to read, as though out of the blue. I was reading a comic book, and found myself pronouncing the words without really thinking about it; in fact, it was my mother who pointed out to me that what I was doing was in fact *reading*. I really have no memory of *practicing*, other than seeing the alphabet a few times, perhaps. The reason this strikes me, maybe, is that it involves the same kind of abrupt, magical transition between non-conscious and conscious activity that I think happens in poetry. I guess this is an infant-development version of Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow" theory: one minute you're just sitting there making sounds that even you don't understand, and the next you're communicating transcendental truths. Or just reading a comic book, I guess, but it's still pretty impressive. I do think words have the power to shape your sense of self, at any rate. Another thing I remember from even earlier childhood is asking my mother when I would be "born." Obviously I wasn't entirely clear on the concept, but when I found out that I was already born, I felt a good deal of disappointment. That was it? The idea of being born as I had previously (mis)understood it held such a sense of mystery and revelation, I felt it had to be something very cosmic. So some of the work of living after that point was aimed at recapturing that feeling of anticipation, that looking toward a formative moment of hyper-nascence. That kind of work, you could say, gets relegated to the field of imaginative writing.
(RP): If you had to narrow down your influences to five major thinkers/writers/icons/artists who would they be and why?
(K.S.M.): Oh good, I love this kind of thing. (If you were stuck on a desert island with only three flavors of ice cream...?) I'd say, limiting it to poets for the sake of focus, in no particular order, (1) Keats, definitely (and all that Elizabethan stuff that he channels, and Hart Crane who does the same after him), because he comes the closest of any writer I know to being able to vibrate the language into a state of radical instability that allows deep subdiscursive transformation to occur. Diane DiPrima has this great essay in the Naropa Talking Poetics collection where she talks about light actually bleeding out between the lines on the page from Keats' poetry. (Thanks to Nada Gordon for turning me on to that piece.) Now maybe you need LSD or something to get to that stage of perception, but it does seem an apt metaphor at least for what he achieves in his verse. I take the whole negative capability thing pretty seriously too. Then there's (2) Williams, who is a great permission-giver for me. Kora in Hell and Spring and All are inextinguishable fonts of agitation and instigation. So is Paterson for that matter. In a little subheading under Williams' influence, the Objectivists are really valuable to me too, especially Rakosi, Niedecker, and Oppen. In another subheading, the Beat / Black Mountain / Williams connection, and later, the way that plays into what Bob Grenier was working through in the This period and with his index cards and so forth: that compression of language into bundles composed as much of inky characters and spaces as of definitions or sounds, but always tethered to an investment in communication and "music," however silent. Coolidge in Space and The Maintains and Polaroid too, all along this trajectory. (3) Frank O'Hara, just because he's so beautiful. It's a complete mystery to me what's going on in his prosody alone; it's something that at this point at least my work isn't even capable of touching or gesturing toward, and it's very tantalizing. Some critics, like Paul Carroll, have said that O'Hara's verse is "ugly" or "clunky" and that the strength of his work depends on a cacophonic effect. This is just wrong. Marjorie Perloff said recently that he's good, but he's no T. S. Eliot. I don't know if I'm missing some irony or something, but that really shocked me. O'Hara is every bit as important as Eliot. (4) Stevens, and after him Ashbery. That's two people, but I think more in terms of mini-traditions than single authors (thus, you could also plug Shelley and Coleridge into the Keats slot, as well as Thomas Lovell Beddoes and A. C. Swinburne). Everyone has written about Ashbery's relation to Stevens, and there's not much I can add, except that what interests me the most in both writers is the slide into inarticulacy: via onomatopoeia and obscure lexical choices in Stevens and via slang and exaggerated casualness in Ashbery. That's a reductive formula that needs tuning, but I also see Charles Bernstein coming at this, from the other direction, as it were. The other thing going on here that interests me is their engagement with "traditional" forms, like pentameter and rhyme and stanzaic regularity and so forth; not in a New Formalist way, but in the sense that those forms are still just bursting with meaning that can be squeezed out in lots of ways. Mike Magee and his brother Mitchell have a very stimulating discussion of just this topic in a little supplement to Combo that just came out: the potential for rhyme, meter, archaic diction to do some kind of poetic work other than ironic parody on the one hand and conservative New Formalist doodling on the other. (5) Ovid, especially as he's channeled in early modern writers (Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser, etc.). Or for that matter, the whole neoclassical, Anacreontic, Senecan, fustian, complex of decorative composition. I don't think this is just fetishization of the ornamental on my part, although that's part of it; it's also that the anachronistic energy of those Renaissance syntheses opens up portals into all kinds of emotional resonances--historical, sexual, political--that aren't available through any other register. So let's see if I can sum all that up: 1) the Romantics and their later 19th-century progeny; 2) Williams and the Objectivists (add Pound and Stein to that cluster, and later Creeley and Grenier and Coolidge); 3) O'Hara (plug in Berrigan, Padgett, Brainard, Mayer); 4) Stevens and Ashbery (go backwards to Wordsworth and Milton); 5) Ovid (and the Elizabethans, who bring the loop back around to the Romantics, and so on. In other words, just about all the major poetic movements of the Classical-British-American tradition. Weird. Conspicuous absences in that list (other than poetry in other languages, which is just because I can't read it) are the 18th century and the Beats, which is weird, because I like both those periods/movements.
(RP): Can you come up with an analogy for the apparent competition between 'language' poetry and 'academic' poetry?
(K.S.M.): Sure. It's like a fish truck and a hearse racing toward the edge of a cliff, and at the bottom of the cliff there's a crowd of neurotics shouting "land on me, land on me." Actually, I've gotten involved in discussions about this on e-mail lists, and always regretted it. But I'm not clear on what these terms mean, really, especially "academic poetry." That makes me think of Richard Wilbur or someone. I don't know that there really *is* such a thing as academic poetry anymore, at least not to the extent that there's any cultural capital associated with it. Unless we're talking about MFA "mainstream workshop" poetry, which may be institutionalized, but has little of the intellectual rigor that, say, Yvor Winters' poetry did or someone like that. If there's a competition going on, I'd think it would be between "language" poetry and "postlanguage" poetry, and the difficulty there is that no one can tell the difference between the two, or whether either one really constitutes a meaningful category.
(RP): Where do you consider your own poetry on this continuum of style (or camp)? Or--perhaps more appropriate--do you agree that your writing in hovercraft fits neatly into or extends naturally from a specific poetic movement?
(K.S.M.): Well, I'm definitely influenced by language poetry, but in a way that's hard for me to separate from how I'm influenced by the New York School, or Spicer, or the Beats, or Stein, or James Tate, or Russell Edson, or Randall Jarrell, and so on. I don't even know if it's possible to talk about movements at this point in the literary-historical merry-go-round. I think of a movement in the usual sense as moving away from or toward something, and in my case (and in my opinion, in the work of a lot of poets in my generation or thereabouts), there's more of a hovering: it's like waiting while you're on hold, or playing 'possum. Hover-craft of this sort (absolutely no allusions should be suspected here) happens above the scene of recent movements, or beneath it or off to the side of it, rather than in a motion away from or to it. Of course, it could always turn out to be a movement in hindsight, if it ends up landing on something important or breakable. I can't see, however, how my own political conflictedness and confusion could be translated into something willfully methodological, and I can't speak for other writers, but I'd be surprised if I were alone in this feeling. Having said that, I want to be careful to clarify that I'm not making a claim to apoliticality or saying that my writing is outside ideology. I'm just saying that I don't think the particular ideologies with which my writing is enmeshed have any necessary relation to each other, or collaborate methodically to produce a programmatic agenda that would be of any use to anyone, myself included. I wouldn't be as influenced as I am by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, for instance, if it weren't an explicit vehicle for leftist politics, which it clearly is; just the same, I wouldn't be as influenced by the so-called "so-called New York School"(s) if it/they weren't so radically deconstructive of political coherence. Maybe another term for "radically deconstructive of political coherence" is "Romantic."
March 29, 2001
///// II: Guillotine: Tourneur: Bollocks: (7 questions):
(RP): Do you have any favorite places to go (restaurant, record shop, bookstore, coffee shop, beach...that sort of thing) in Santa Cruz, California?
(K.S.M.): My office, mainly. There are some nice trees right outside my window. I live two blocks from the beach and hardly ever even have time to go stand and look at the waves. The bookstore situation is spotty, but there's a great little (tiny) store called Literary Guillotine that specializes in criticism, philosophy, etc. and also has a very decent selection of contemporary (and older) poetry. As a town in general, it sometimes makes me feel a little isolated. There are lots of finned cars and herbalists and surfers and hemp tunics.
(RP): Do you watch television and do you have any favorite shows? What about favorite movies, classic or recent past? Any favorite actors, actresses?
(K.S.M.): I can't talk about the TV shows I like; it's too embarrassing. Though as to movies, I am addicted to the Turner movie channels. Coolidge is too, and he gets all that great stuff out of them that shows up in On the Nameways, and I think Liz Willis does the same thing: using little snippets of dialogue and so forth. The idea is really appealing to me, but I have a hard time sticking to any one process. Lines from films do show up in my poems from time to time. I like them all, but I'd say westerns and noirs are my favorite. Also Hitchcock, Cocteau, Hawks, Lubitsch, Lewton/Tourneur, silent comedy, Corman's Poe films, Lynch, Cronenberg, anything with Drew Barrymore or Adam Sandler. Oh yeah, Bergman, esp. Virgin Spring and Wild Strawberries. Romero's Dead films. Anything with Warren Oates. 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. Billy Wilder. Anthony Mann. John Waters. Judy Davis. Joan Cusack.
(RP): I find myself obsessed with the computerized voice on NPR, the one that says "This is NPRrrrr"....I'm sure it must be a computer....do you have any favorite radio personalities or favorite stations?
(K.S.M.): I avoid radio for some reason. I used to listen to NPR. I hate that brassy All Things Considered theme. Sometimes I use that announcer who says "The time is nineteen minutes past the hour" as an example in the classroom of how iambic pentameter happens in nature.
(RP): What are your top three musical choices when writing, and/or relaxing?
(K.S.M.): Writing: Miles Davis (Kind of Blue, Filles de Kilimanjaro, On the Corner), Brian Eno (Another Green World [all of it, but esp. "The Big Ship"!], Music for Films), ragtime piano (Joplin, James Johnson).
Relaxing: Mills Family (anything), Suzanne Vega (Days of Open Hand), Art Garfunkel (Breakaway [esp. "I Believe When I Fall in Love (This Time) It Will Be Forever," "Rag Doll"], Watermark).
Working out: Ramones (first four albums), George Clinton ("Atomic Dog"), Beastie Boys (Ill Communication, The In Sound from Way Out).
Intense listening: John Coltrane (Giant Steps, Dear Old Stockholm), Thelonious Monk (Brilliant Corners, Live at the 5-Spot), Sonic Youth (Washing Machine, Goodbye to the Twentieth Century). Cleaning house: Talking Heads (Fear of Music, Blind), Jelly Roll Morton (Birth of the Hot, the interviews with Lomax), Woody Guthrie ("The Great Historical Bum" and various songs downloaded from Napster). Eating: Rachmaninoff (I dunno, some cheap classical discount CD), Burt Bacharach (the album with Elvis Costello), Edith Piaf (best of).
Seditious activities: Sex Pistols (Never Mind the Bollocks of course), Ornette Coleman (Change of the Century, Tomorrow Is the Question), Nina Hagen (Nunsexmonkrock).
(RP): Do you ride the buses in California or are you a driver?
(K.S.M.): Buses. I don't drive. I did drive on the freeway one time, though I think my terrified instructor was actually having to work most of the controls with his hidden foot panel. Still, the illusion of driving was invigorating--to think, this is the world as most people experience it! Actually propelling oneself along mechanically at high speeds! I don't live in that physical world, but maybe this is an answer to your recurring fantasy question: to drive, swim, dance in a non-humorous fashion, carry a tune, keep rhythm, walk and chew gum at the same time.
(RP): If you ride the bus, where do you usually sit and why? (Not that I want to analyze you or anything, just to see if you are sitting with your note pad in the back seat).
(K.S.M): Middle right. I write more on the train; I get motion sickness when I try to read or write on the bus.
(R.P): and PLEASE:(pretty) mention one t.v. show even if it's embarassing....OK I'll admit I like 'Will and Grace' 'MTV2' and 'Friends,' now how much more embarrassing could your favorites be?
(K.S.M.): All right, I'll try to open up a little. Sundays: Futurama, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, The X-Files. Mondays: Nothing since Freaks and Geeks was canceled, except sometimes they have Malcolm in the Middle on then for some reason. Oh yes, Antiques Roadshow sometimes. Tuesdays: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel. Wednesdays: Ed, Felicity. Thursdays: Friends and sometimes Will and Grace. Fridays: Nothing since Millennium was canceled. Saturdays: Nothing. Latenight on weekdays: Frasier reruns, Blind Date. Disclaimer: Because of my work schedule, in reality I only actually watch about 20% of these shows in any given week.
April 2, 2001
///// III: Gestation: Paranoid: Cataliminal: (3 Questions)
(RP): Do you tend to collect phrases during a week's or a month's time and then work them together into a poem or do you sit down to write and freestyle?
(K.S.M.): I don't usually collect phrases, since they tend to wilt and die in storage. Sometimes a phrase will buzz around in my head and I'll take advantage of it and use that opportunity to sit down and not exactly "freestyle," but try to find the rules of a system it'll suggest, and then follow those rules loosely. Then there's often a period of gestation during which I'll go back to the poem in progress and preen it occasionally. This usually results in some editing-out and obsessive substitution. Sometimes the finished poem will no longer contain any physical traces of the initiating phrase or concept.
(RP): Do you smoke anything before you write? Or when you revise? California seems to be plentiful with all this hub-bub about medical use; is this correct?
(K.S.M.): Santa Cruz is very plentiful, based on my observations of people's behavior on the street. Myself, I can't do that stuff anymore--makes me paranoid. Even when I could, it didn't usually result in good writing.
(RP): I'm tired of the terms: "Innovative" "Academic" "Language" "Experimental" "Confessional" "Narrative" etc. Please offer me a fresh word or phrase that conflates all poetries of the present, offering a brand new aesthetic bar by which all forms and styles can be judged.
April 4, 2001
cata \Cat"a\ [Gr. kata`.] The Latin and English form of a Greek preposition, used as a prefix to signify down, downward, under, against, contrary or opposed to, wholly, completely; as in cataclysm, catarrh. It sometimes drops the final vowel, as in catoptric; and is sometimes changed to cath, as in cathartic, catholic.
The threshold of a physiological or psychological response.
///// IV. Aestheticization: Abraham Lincoln: Programmatic: (6 Questions)
(RP): How do you respond to the question: "Where's The Beauty?" when it is directed toward your own work?
(K.S.M.): If it's directed toward the work, why should I respond? If it were directed at me, I'd suggest the questioner look within. To be less evasive, I'd take a Wordsworthian line and say that it's in the act of composition (and in the corresponding negotiation between experience and mental reconstruction of the experience, which is often mental in its original state as well) that beauty (or pleasure) manifests itself, and that for any reader whose sensibility recognizes and responds sympathetically to the representation of experience, that beauty/pleasure is available. This brings up the larger question, after Adorno, whether such pleasure is necessarily barbaric in a post-Auschwitz world. I don't know the answer to that, but I don't think there's any way of separating poetry from this function of providing pleasure, so that leaves me and anyone else open to the charge of aestheticization.
(RP): Let's play: Fill in the BLANK: (with one or more names) I would be elated to learn that: BLANK: had read my work.
(K.S.M.): My initial response to this game was to combine it with the old free-association one where you respond automatically, without thinking about it. The first three names that came to my mind were Cindy Sherman, Drew Barrymore, and Abraham Lincoln. And then the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man. Oh, I don't know: just about anybody, really. Naming the people you'd like to impress seems like such a fawning gesture.
(RP): Do your comedic juxtapositions (e.g. the first two lines of Lucky Skin?) come naturally and spontaneously or do they happen by accident after several edits?
(K.S.M.): It's hard to remember exactly, but I think those particular lines remained pretty much unchanged from first draft to final version. Generally the process of composition, for me, involves writing down things I "hear," then altering them with--I'd say--principally two objectives: measure and sense. In the case of the former, that usually means getting it to a point where I feel it somewhat mimetically approximates the rhythms of motivated speech (that is, speech that has some pragmatic objective other than sound alone, but that nevertheless relies on smooth rhetorical structure for the sake of persuasiveness, professionalism, etc.). Another way of putting this is that I try to generate the apprehension of a context without making one explicit; it's up to the sound alone, and maybe the connotations of a few keywords, to achieve this effect. In the case of the latter, I approach it as a balancing act that requires me to gauge two factors: a) how much sense is already in the received utterance that initiates the poem, and b) how much sense can I justify "adding," either to complete or to complicate what's there already? In practice, this is nowhere near as programmatic as it sounds; I'm describing something that's more like a natural process, only after the fact, so that it takes on more of the characteristics of a system.
(RP): I love the second stanza of "Chevisaunce" :
(RP): (I must confess that I did not look up the meaning of that title because I assumed it's French and I go blank and dumb when I see a French word.) Could you elucidate the above stanza and hint upon the meaning of your title?
(K.S.M.): All I can really say about it is that for me it's about a fantasy of techno-fascistic adventurism in some respect, and a peculiar variety of melancholy that attends that fantasy. That's not to say it's my fantasy, except in the inevitable sense that all poetry is the poet's fantasy. Rather, it's a sadistic phantasm that I see as one of the liminal mirages around the corona of postfuturism. That's an Aurora Borealis metaphor, I guess. "Chevisaunce" is a Middle-English word, Chaucerian. I seem to remember it means something to the effect of "courtly mojo." I'm using it here partly to mean an amoral but politically motivated investment in the "fanciness" of the last line.
(RP): I think of Freud meets Woody Allen with a dash of Plath.... I think you have such a beautiful music.
(K.S.M.): Thank you!
(RP): I'm not sure other readers think of your work as Lyric, but it certainly has at least one anchor in that tradition. Would you agree?
(K.S.M.): Certainly. Much more than epic, at least, or dramatic--though I'm interested in the old Millsian line on lyric as overheard soliloquy, so the dramatic enters it to that extent. For that matter, those genre distinctions are so shaky in the first place ... I think lyric can definitely be dialogic. One thing I try to do is continually resituate and multiply my interlocutor(s), so that sometimes I do feel that my poems are like little plays. Gertrude Stein is very cool in that way, though I don't know if I was directly influenced by her when I started doing this.
"Lucky Skin" --recently published in COMBO 8 (edited by Michael Magee)-- is quoted in its entirety and discussed below.
Suppose some mausoleum were set to corrode
Number one is the bell volume.
Just below combing a column go the anthill vibrations,
Perhaps a morose joke
than these powerful as offices. Stop
© K. Silem Mohammad April 2001
I'll just say about this poem that it was one of a cluster I wrote in one afternoon after reading Michael Palmer. In some ways (not to get too Bloomian or anything), I think of the poems in that group ("Cheerful Venison" was another) as a creative mis-reading of Palmer. What I tuned into in his work was a particular tone of abstracted metaphysical melancholy, which may be as much an effect of my Romantic distortion of his poetic as anything else. Similarly, I find myself trying to imitate the effect of completely technique-driven stuff like Oulipo experiments and some language writing, without actually doing the process itself. At the same time, I'm very clear about the situation of "Lucky Skin": it has a unified speaker for me, which is not to say that it does, or should, for any other reader. But without at least the nominal fiction of a speaker, or some kind of monologic device that foregrounds voice, however modulated by textual disjunction, I get bored. Just as bored as I get by writing that does nothing but foreground voice. Barrett Watten talks in Total Syntax about the distinction between technique and "subjective aesthetic response" as approaches to literature; while I'm very sympathetic to what I take to be his central premise there--that it's most important to focus on an approach that gets writing done, rather than forming canons and such--for me the element of subjective aesthetic response can be a further step in the getting things done department, when that response is figured as part of the technique itself. For example, the myth of celebrity (Watten talks about Charles Olson being discussed as "a big man" etc.) is as much a part of the poetics of a given period or movement as the specific processes and textual stratagems ... Coleridge's poetry reads differently when you know he was addicted to opium, just as O'Hara's "I do this I do that" poems are particularly effective because we have a clear idea of the I that's doing this and that. And that's just at the level of authorial personality; we could talk about intertextual aesthetics, beauty, philosophical themes, and so forth as well. We could talk, come to think of it, about canon-formation. That's where I might depart from Watten: I think canons have specific, provisional values, and can be a spur to further writing in themselves. The question and the challenge is whether that further writing merely replicates tired gestures, or performs some significant work of transformation. In addition to Palmer, I'm (based on my memory at this point) "writing through" Stevens, Coolidge, and Melanie Neilson in "Lucky Skin," in a way that wouldn't be possible if I weren't drawing on "subjective aesthetic response." Now, someone might say that's the problem, if they don't like what I've done. But that's how it works when I write. From radically innovative models through conflicted bourgeois ego to aggressive canonical display charge.
(RP): Surprisingly for me, since I hadn't read your new poems in COMBO/8 before our discussion about T.V., Lou Costello shows up in "Lucky Skin"....but he shows up after a somewhat sardonic allusion to current TV. "Now you have a whole talk show"...so I'm reading this as a comment on self-exploitation, or "Perhaps a morose joke / is exactly the tone of answer." Will you comment on this stanza and its evolution in terms of the thinking that revolved around it?
(K.S.M.): I think I was thinking about slapstick a lot, and about the corrupt aura of old Hollywood ... the "Hollywood Babylon" malaise of nihilistic despair and depravity. Those old guys like Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy who were so funny but were probably all shooting up or whoring or molesting Shirley Temple or some ugliness. Maybe the connection with the talk show is that I get the same vibe from Jerry Springer and his ilk. Don't quote me on that. Oh wait, this is an interview! I guess quoting me is the point. So go ahead.
May 14, 2001
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