Tuesday, February 08, 2005

conversation with Ron Silliman on WOUNDWOOD 

First of all Mr. Silliman, WOUNDWOOD is a handsome book, as everything I've seen from Cuneiform Press tends to be. There's a lot of love and style going on. The publisher Kyle Schlesinger may well be America's Simon Cutts. Cutts's Coracle Press also publishes contemporary experimental writing with the older, hands-on, letterpress. In fact, Cutts is so dedicated to the art of traditional bookmaking that the cover of his own selected poems, The Smell of Printing (Granary), has a vintage photograph of a woman hand-sewing book spines. Mr. Cutts is now based in Ireland, but used to have a marvelous bookshop in London called workfortheeyetodo, where his handmade book creations could be browsed and purchased. Books of poems by Robert Lax, Ian Hamilton Finlay and the like, beautiful books I wish I had had the money to afford on that one very memorable trip I had made.

Besides the appeal of WOUNDWOOD's old-time book making, the poem itself has a bit of the ancient round to it, beginning, ending, and with a bit of refrain in between of reference to your Waterman pen. You've had this pen for how long now? What's the history of this pen been like? It's nice to see the pen, which is clearly significant to you and your writing, becoming part of a poem. Did you write about the pen with the pen?

I bought the pen sometime around 1980 or '81 at a stationery shop down the block from Zabars on Broadway on the Upper West Side. I'd given a talk at St. Marks the night before and had been anxious about it for various reasons (I'd never given a talk in NY before being a primary one, seeing Kathy Acker for the first time in a few years being another). But it had gone really well and so I was in a mood to reward myself & spent a fair amount of money on the pen. I wanted a felt tip and the Waterman wasn't designed to be one, but the woman at the store showed me just which refill to use to fit into the pen, so I bought it and maybe a half dozen refills.

I used it for everything that first year or so -- until a bit of the black paint along the side began to chip away -- and then realized that its most important use to me was in writing my poems in notebooks. So from that point onward, I've restricted it to that. I keep it literally on a window ledge next to the notebook I'm currently working in.

How do you feel about writing poems out with the hand, over keyboarding right away? I'm curious because this makes me think of Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess, where he insists the poet needs to connect with the force of creating the actual letters and words by hand to stay focused with the Muses. In this I hear an echo of Spicer's firm belief in poetry as dictation. I'm not trying to put supernatural words in your mouth, I'm just curious about your relationship to this Waterman pen and your act of creating your poems long hand. I mean, do you do it because it feels right, or because it holds the power steady for you, or both, or what?

I use notebooks for most (not all) of my work, but it's sort of the default position. I often spend a lot of time figuring out which notebook to use before I start a work and if it's one that won't accept the ink of a felt tip (which can bleed a lot on certain grains and finishes), then I have to sort through which pen. But there are some works that were written entirely on a typewriter (Engines in The Alphabet, for example), and others that were partly written on a machine (in Force, for example, the lineated stanzas were composed in a notebook, the prose sections on a typewriter). And I use the notebook in different ways. Often I gather a lot of material into a notebook before I begin -- these days it's into a Palm Pilot, and I used a Sharp organizer with a great little thumb keyboard for several years, but I carry Rhodia Bloc notebooks in my pocket as well. Right now anything that goes into the Palm Pilot is being saved for a work that I haven't started yet (tentatively called Whatness, tho that title is really just a placeholder at the moment). The other poem that I'm really working on at the moment, Revelator, is being done directly into the notebook, and that is its particular requirement. I have a third sequence that I've done a couple things with, entirely on the PC (the poem I read in the Rosenbach Alphabet work last summer is part of this group), but it's still just getting off the ground and I don't know as much about this group as I wish I did.

"The poet as spider, / notebook my web" comes up in reading WOUNDWOOD. When you read at the Philadelphia Free Library you were asked about your process during Q&A. You explained how fragments and moments are written into small, pocket-sized notebooks, which later get channeled into larger notebooks. Buck Downs has a similar process, and he refers to the larger notebook as The Hopper. When and how did this process of writing poems take shape for you?

Ketjak and Tjanting were written directly into notebooks, but while I was working on 2197 (at the same time I was starting Tjanting), back in the late 1970s, I began to keep parallel notebooks, one for the text and the other for my notations on structure. I had to use both to write anything down -- that was a pain. Then when I began to carry electronic organizers and pocket PCs, my use of these as gathering places seemed to skyrocket. Mayakovsky in How are Verses Made says that the 20th century definition of a poem is that it is what gets written in a notebook. That's a bit fanciful, but I've always loved that stance.

Besides making for us a window into your technical process of creating your poems, WONDWOOD also gives a bit of an emotional glimpse as well. At one point you write,

So few of that old gang
left against whom
to rebel, we must cherish them
as there will be no others,
no tiny growling man
staring up from his wheelchair,
no trimmed bard
in his rumpled suit
with his fastidious
hypodermic, tying up
now for his insulin
so famous and lonely
and uncertain.

How significant a role did rebellion play in creating the poet Ron Silliman? After writing this question down, it seems the argument could be made that rebellion is as emotional as it is technical, in how it may help shape process. But what do you think?

I think that growing up without my father around innoculated me in part from getting too close to older male figures -- that's just an accident of my parents' love life. But reading the work of Pound, of Olson, of Williams (especially in Spring & All, still the best single volume of poetics I've ever read), it was quite clear that all understood a major part of their project was to be able to respond to the world of their time directly, which meant without going through the mediation of their elders. So in a sense I've always felt that I was a "more true" Olsonian, or Poundian, by not writing in imitation of their work than I would have been had I gone about it the other way. I remember, back in 1994 or thereabouts, making a comment at Naropa that anyone who wrote "like me" 50 years hence was not doing what I had been doing. The person at the back of the room who applauded that most loudly was Allen Ginsberg.

At one point I'm convinced you are walking us through Delacroix's paintings, in particular "Ovid in Exile," and "Woman Eaten By a Tiger," and it's a crucial place to be in the poem, a test of memory, your "best pen" making another cameo. But what book is it when you write, "Yet I bought this book / that I already own / and no doubt could buy it again."?

When I bought a couple of book cases last year (or, rather, my wife, disgusted with piles of books everywhere, bought them while I was on the road), I got the unread ones into some kind of alphabetical order for the first time in nearly a decade and found over 40 books that fit that definition, even a few books I'd bought 3 times. I gave most of them to Kelly Writers House for its library.

You write, "Each page, once turned, / can't be reversed, / unread again." These lines for me were the most direct entrance into your title WOUNDWOOD. Although wood can heal from trauma, a scar is formed, always now a part of the whole. Like, once read, what's read is burned into memory, and becomes part of who we are, how we see and smell and react as a whole person, ever gathering these experiences of new pages through which to filter the world. Is this how WOUNDWOOD works for you? Or how?

Yes. Language, like fire, is a unidirectional experience. You cannot unhear what you've heard, unread what you've read. That's why we hate spoilers in our novel & movie reviews. I have a wild cherry tree in my back yard that is maybe 80 feet high -- it doesn't produce edible fruit, but is covered with these wild burls all over its trunk. My neighbors who are woodworkers all tell me that if I ever cut it down, they want it to make tables with it, but I love it where it is.

I'm living these days in something of a faux forest, the sort of suburban effect one gets on the Main Line, with roughly 20 oak trees, some poplars, a crab apple, a dogwood and that cherry tree all on our lot. Lots of raking in autumn as you might imagine, but our home and yard are 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding area come summer. So it's an important detail -- and after a few years you become very conscious of all these living beings with their own histories, lives, problems. The dogwood has to fight for sun from its spot at the base of one of oaks -- it's really too close. We put a bird feeder up on the dogwood, because we could do so at a distance where the squirrels could not jump to it -- we kept moving it out further & further (I think the neighbors thought I was training the squirrels to fly) until it got beyond their reach. But now the tree has grown and all these spatial relationships have shifted, the squirrels have won.

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