To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, December 27, 2010

Working Together: An Essay on Collaboration & My Times with Pierre Joris

[An excerpt from the forthcoming Cartographies of the In-Between, a festschrift for Pierre Joris, edited by Peter Cockelbergh for Litteraria Pragensia in Prague.]

It is astonishing to me how Pierre Joris, whom I’ve known going back into his jeunesse (& almost into mine) has emerged as an exemplar of a total poetics, at the heart of which is that nomadic poetics which he’s been delivering to us over the last two or three decades with such singular force. During that time it has been my good luck to work with him on a number of collaborative projects: Schwitters’ & Picasso’s collected writings & the two massive volumes of Poems for the Millennium (1995 & 1998), along with poems & poetics happily conceived & shared between us. Several years ago, in an interview on collaborations for Robert Archambeau’s Samizdat magazine, I was asked, particularly with regard to Poems for the Millennium, “to say something about working with Pierre & how that collaboration has lasted so long.” A part of my answer follows, in the form pretty much in which it recently appeared in my Poetics & Polemics 1980-2005, in the University of Alabama’s Modern & Contemporary Poetics series. That book is also – & rightly – dedicated to Joris as “nomad & fellow traveler.”

Collaboration & publication work together in my mind, although I've hardly been as persistent with these things as I had started out to be. The context that I imagined -- that "we" imagined, I would like to say – was one in which poets took over the means of production for their works – a network of books & journals, broadsheets & painted images, set in type or written by hand, then printed & bound by whatever means available. By the late 1950s, when I first got started, some of us had learned the finer arts of book production, while for others like myself the postwar allowed the luxury of printing cheaply overseas, or, absent that, a change in attitude made even the humblest processes – mimeo or ditto, say – adequate for the task of putting work in multiples & ready to be placed in circulation. The actual distribution of course was trickier, but by the time I got to it, there was already a small network in place – bookstores & other outlets dotting the country & with growing connections overseas. And public readings had grown up simultaneously, in places often as casual as the books themselves.

I've written about this elsewhere – most notably in the pre-face to A Secret Location on the Lower East Side (a history of American little presses from the fifties through the seventies) – so I don't think I have to go into it now in any detail. The main thrust here was that from Blake & Whitman on, poets had often been their own best presenters – not only operating from outside the commercial publishing nexus but often placing themselves there deliberately & with good reason. I tried to point out further that this favoring of independent publication – not only in the States but throughout the world – was itself a principal mark of the avant-garde in poetry & art. And to bring it still closer to what I’m talking about here, it should be noted that most of these independent works of editing & publication were characterized by the working together of numerous poets & the formation, while it lasted, of a network of collaboratively generated publications & presses.

The later work with Pierre Joris is, as I see it, a culmination for me of what came before & an indication of how fruitful collaboration can be in the kind of world we share. For all of that I’m a little hard pressed to remember the steps by which we came to work together. I had known Pierre since the late 1960s, when he was a student at Bard College & was living in New York City for a year or two after graduation. After he moved back to Europe we saw each other on & off in London & Paris, & in 1986, when I started a brief tenure at SUNY-Binghamton, we got the bright idea of bringing him over as a graduate student. I had already floated a proposal for a big twentieth-century book but was very uncertain about it as a one-man proposition. Once into conversation with Pierre, however, it became clear that we were both close enough & different enough to consider this as, simultaneously, a singular & dual venture. The key in fact was in the interplay that it allowed us – the possibility, as with other collaborations, of opening it up beyond what either of us was capable of doing on his own. And right from the start – & over the years that followed – the work proceeded, minus all acrimony, as a process that energized us in the work at hand & in our other workings.

Both of us had made anthologies before & both of us were devoted to the idea of the anthology as a kind of manifesto. We were also, both of us, devoted to the idea of poetry – the kind of poetry we needed – as a radical enterprise that cut across nations & cultures, & we both felt the absence of a gathering reflecting the history of modern (& “post”modern) poetry as we knew it. Over the years we had been engaged in acts of translation, & Poems for the Millennium, we knew, would be heavily dependent on translation. And when Larry Venuti, in affiliation with Temple University Press, raised the possibility of commissioning a work of translation in a new series he was starting, we sensed the chance to create a selected writings of the German artist & poet Kurt Schwitters. The Schwitters project – later published as PPPPPP: Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics – became a kind of testing ground for the collaboration, & a work also that we felt long overdue in English. It was to be followed – as a work with a similar range – by another large gathering of Picasso’s assembled writings – The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, & Other Poems – but by then the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium had already been published. And since I’m speaking here of collaboration, it should be noted that in our work as translators of Picasso we were joined by another dozen poets, each of whom contributed a number of translations, to give our reading of Picasso the variety & range we thought it needed.
. . . . . . .

Joris’s background & intentions, then, were in most ways very similar to my own. At the very least we felt a kinship as poets that made the work of collaboration a consistently meaningful process & reinforced a sense that our dual input strengthened our ability to create an image of poetic worlds more diverse (& therefore “truer”) than what either of us might have done in isolation. We could also call on a significant number of others to add to that diversity & to the necessary sense of creating a big work in common. In doing this we were aware that the immediate model for what we were doing was the otherwise debased form of the university anthology. We willingly accepted the subtitle “The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry” as a kind of riposte to Oxford- & Harvard-sponsored compendia (among others) that perpetuated a tediously canonical poetry & poetics of which we (a larger “we” than just the two of us) no longer chose to be a part. We supplied commentaries – sometimes as mini-manifestos – in much the way I had done in the earlier assemblages (themselves a send-up on academic practices), & we enlisted a distinguished board of “advisors”[1] that spoke to our overriding sense of kinships & alliances. We were careful in doing so that such a board would be dominated by poets rather than academics & would be international in scope.

The structure of the book was otherwise of our own devising & different in kind & intention from more conventional assemblages. We chose in the first volume to highlight a number of the movements that characterized the early twentieth-century & had been ignored or diminished in most academic gatherings. Accordingly we gave a separate section of the book to each of six of them – Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Negritude, & the American “Objectivist” poets. The rest of the poets were grouped in three large “galleries” following a rather loose chronological sequence, & we opened the book with a section of nineteenth-century “forerunners” & ended with a section (“A Book of Origins”) that gave a glimpse into historical & ethnopoetic recoveries across the whole preceding century. In the second volume we limited ourselves to two galleries & incorporated a number of movements or quasi-movements as “corridors” or “clusters” within the galleries – many of them still more local or regional than those in the previous volume. And – as a kind of musical or compositional gesture – we began with a section that was pure prelude (“In the Dark”) & closed with a short coda-like section (“At the Turning”) in which we joined two of our own poems with Robert Duncan’s final, altenstil poem, “After a Long Illness.”

In all of this we were trying to present a range of realized possibilities while hoping that the work wouldn’t be read canonically in terms only of its inclusions & exclusions. To avoid that, I suppose, we also put what was probably a greater than needed emphasis on the personal nature of what we were doing – in Olson’s words again, our “special view of history.” Going still further, I would describe the book as a construct or even, if it comes to it, a fiction – but the kind of fiction (“supreme” or otherwise) that all such works must surely be. It was also, inevitably, a work of many different minds & voices, & as such, a work, like much that came before, that put authorship, as we thought we knew it, into question.

With that said, however, Poems for the Millennium remains for me a meaningful if not necessarily “true” accounting of an adventure in poetry in which we ourselves were small but for the moment active players. It is also the vindication of a view long held, that treating authorship as collaboration puts into question that other side of poetry – our separation from each other by the realities, if left unchallenged, of cultural & individual identity. The further step would be to treat all acts of poetry as collaborative at heart, a great collective & collaborative enterprise – like language itself. But that waits for another occasion to spell it out.

Jerome Rothenberg
Encinitas, California
August 2010

[1] Chinua Achebe, Adonis, Nani Ballestrini, Charles Bernstein, Mary Ann Caws, Andrei Codrescu, Michel Deguy, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Allen Ginsberg, Lyn Hejinian, Hiromi Ito, Ernst Jandl, Nathaniel Mackey, Eric Mottram, Marjorie Perloff, Quincy Troupe, Cecilia Vicuña, Anne Waldman, Rosmarie Waldrop, & Eliot Weinberger.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Interesting, but it cannot explain the alchemy.

I of course had to buy the book (Volume Two, in a Barnes & Noble in Stamford CT).

The intro alone wrung out of me this:

The Purple Mourning Dove