If the term “stanza” can stand for an apartment in English or for a room in Italian (but derives from something more like “stopping place”), then how might living among the cramped Lower East Side domestic spaces of the 1960s have shaped the stanzas (or lack thereof) within that era’s New York School poetry? How might theories of place and of space developed by Gaston Bachelard, Michel de Certeau, and Henri Lefebvre enhance our appreciation for the distinctive poetic spaces constructed by Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Alice Notley, and Ron Padgett? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Yasmine Shamma. This interview, transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, focuses on Shamma’s book Spatial Poetics: The Second Generation New York School of Poetry, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Shamma is a Junior Research Fellow at Durham University, and the editor of The Aesthetics of Joe Brainard, forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press. Her newest project surveys the construction of homes within tents of Syrian refugees.
ANDY FITCH: To start could we sketch, parse, potentially confound a place/space binary, in whatever ways seem most useful to your study? How do theorists you cite define and deploy these terms? How might individual poets you track refract fixities and plasticities of place/space? How would you position these concepts within a broader theory of second-generation New York School poetics, or of New York School writing as a whole (particularly a Frank O’Hara-esque vein), or of prominent if under-recognized tendencies across a wide range of 20th- and 21st-century poetries?
YASMINE SHAMMA: Henri Lefebvre, Gaston Bachelard, and Michel Certeau describe spaces as practiced places. The broader concept of place often gets privileged (by anthropologists and cultural theorists) over space. But places don’t need people in them whereas, for a space, the integration of a lyric voice might become essential to evoking its parameters.
Up until recently, most of us read Frank O’Hara (thanks in large part to Marjorie Perloff’s persuasive early book) as a city poet. So it isn’t incredibly innovative now to think about subsequent poets as engaged with place. But my reading of this poetry questions any binary of the urban and the domestic. I argue that critical readers have neglected the domestic spheres (and spaces) of these urban poets — as if talking about New York School poets making their bed would take attention away from the more obvious topic of how amazing it feels to be on the corner of 15th and Avenue A (as Ron Padgett describes in “Strawberries in Mexico”). So when Certeau explores “an instantaneous configuration of positions,” that allows us to put the poet, rather than the city, at the center of these poems. Both Ted Berrigan’s “Whitman in Black” and O’Hara’s “Autobiographia Literaria,” for example, present this very personal take on the excitement of standing in the center of everything.
Here could you outline some crucial characteristics of the spaces/places your book considers, perhaps most directly in terms of intimacy, congestion, and/or squalor, but then also in terms of public infrastructure, kinetic flow, economics, sociability, predominant institutions?
They’re all related, with Joe Brainard, for instance, living in a ground-floor storefront. Or we might say “I live in New York City” with pride, when we really live in some super crummy, cockroach-infested, 400-square-foot studio [Laughter] on the Lower East Side, and can’t even afford that. This puts all these socio-economic pressures on a person. Although we inhabit the city, we have little agency over the city. That’s an exhilarating fact about living in a big city. But we do have agency over our rented rooms and what we do within them.
So here I wanted to shift attention to the rooms these poems get written from. Those rooms had to influence the social and textual formations these poets create. Their poems at first might appear aformal or haphazard in form. But I find it unhelpful to look for familiar order and pattern when people deliberately live in disordered, unpatterned ways. So I try to draw this connection between spaces we inhabit and spaces we create on the page, and also just the matryoshka-doll effect of lax urban planning producing congested spaces from which you write seemingly cluttered poems.
Jane Jacobs has this wonderful bit in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she places the onus on urban planners, and describes how when you walk down Fifth Avenue, you get confronted by two sorts of sensations: you can look down this endless avenue for miles and miles and miles (like in the Who song) [Laughter]; and you also can feel overwhelmed by more immediate intensities. You see all these amazing storefronts to your right, and then to your left you smell the garbage, you see people, you brush shoulders. Jacobs argues that you can’t appreciate both intensity and endlessness at the same time, and that urban planners should direct our gaze towards one perspective or the other. So to quote O’Hara, “It’s the architect’s fault” that we often feel overwhelmed in big cities, and in life (and in this line from “Nocturne,” he gestures towards an upper-case “Architect” behind the scenes). Jacobs loves the West Village because its winding, circuitous streets allow you to just enjoy the immediate intensities, rather than to negotiate these alongside some sense of endlessness. But also I sense certain second-generation New York School poets constructively negotiating those somewhat conflicting sensations or perceptions. And when you return to that conception of place as an instantaneous configuration of positions, then the poetic line gets situated as the place in which such configurations take order.
To follow up on such confluences of infinitude and intensity, on questions of form and pattern, could we take one step back and consider, from a broader literary-historical perspective, how Coleridge’s theorizations of the organic come into play here, or perhaps something like Romantic closet dramas? Or alternately, for more of a postwar poetic focus, we could contrast Frank O’Hara’s prominence across these pages to the relative absence of Black Mountain formulations (I could see, for instance, Charles Olson’s call to abandon the metronome of inherited meter for the palpable breath of the living body as one potential precursor to these poets abandoning fixed stanza structures and embracing the rooms in which they find themselves). Or we could look at other 20th-century precedents, from Virginia Woolf’s feminist-inflected domestic spaces to the prioritizations upon cultivating elegant, self-expressive domestic spaces among certain classes of gay men in pre-Stonewall New York. Or we could throw in, for concerns slightly more contemporaneous to second-generation New York School poetics, Minimalist art prodding audiences to reflect on their embodied relations to physical places and also to institutional spaces.
I’ll pick up on the Coleridge arc, but try to get to Black Mountain.
I have this little Post-it above my computer right now about this new book by Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. It’s a really great read, and in the introduction, she writes: “Form, for many literary readers, was precisely that which distinguished art objects from ordinary life. More and more this seemed to me arbitrary and misleading: if we were interested in containers and enclosures, then why not analyze prison cells or national boundaries, and if we wanted to understand patternings of time, then why not focus on factory routines?” Levine’s emphasis on how the crafting and imposition of order manifests as dramatically in everyday life as in art objects is just the thing I wanted to read, or should have read, five or 10 years ago [Laughter]. Instead, five or 10 years ago, I was teaching New Criticism to first-year undergraduates (lovely ones), and this notion from Cleanth Brooks’s Understanding Poetry had me itching for a Brooks/Berrigan boxing match: “If we must compare a poem to the make-up of some physical object it ought not to be to a wall but to something organic like a plant.” Now picture Berrigan, 40 years later, writing, repeatedly: “Is there room in the room that you room in,” or “My words are bricks.” He’s almost wagging his tongue at earlier 20th-century conceptions of organic poetic form. And even today, when we think of the “organics” of form, and of Coleridge and his Romantic friends, we tend to think of pastoral poetry first. But their notion of the organic is a little more complex than just comparing a poem or its inherent idea or its ideal to “something organic like a plant.” The organic can point us towards relationships that encompass both the animate and the inanimate, and towards amorphous spaces within which we construct such relationships.
And then skipping over a good hundred years of poetry, when you mention Black Mountain I first think of a cusp figure, Denise Levertov, and her essay “Some Notes on Organic Form,” in which she explains that the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture — that these are all organic components of poetry, that just because poets don’t live in the forest doesn’t mean that they cannot write an organic form, that organic forms can still emerge amid poets’ intimately experienced everyday lives. Or Berrigan describes his poems as “domestic in a certain way…more involved with household gods than gods of magic or gods of war…. in the more intimate human way they’re involved with love and friendship, the rituals of daily life — the ceremonial occasions of everyday life in an everyday way but you have to live it as a creature twisted and turned and warped and moved by the external events in the world.”
And of course I’d be remiss not to mention Russian Formalism and Viktor Shklovsky. Second-generation New York School poetry invites us to recover the sensation of life, of feeling things, of making stones (or “bricks”) stoney.
Again to offer a quick reductive take on your richer, more elaborately fleshed-out conceptual distinctions, Spatial Poetics differentiates artistic form (presumably some material or quasi-material structure — though with rhetorical, affective, disciplinary connotations attached to it) from artistic shape (which seems more like a particular poet’s enactment of discursive text within broader reading conventions, or pushing against these conventions). Or here I stumble as I try cogently to introduce your form/shape distinction. Could you expand upon Spatial Poetics’ repeated claim that critics have yet to scrutinize these particular poets carefully enough on questions regarding form? Or when you describe these poems’ forms as often “difficult to discern,” what would it mean for readers not to find a poem’s form immediately, experientially present? Or what less palpable phenomena do you wish to track through your discussions of internal poetic form?
We’ve definitely walked into a minefield already. But as a way to distinguish between form and shape, I first think of Berrigan’s Sonnets. Of course even just that title asks you to think about form. And I borrow my form-shape distinction again from Coleridge, who offers “a distinction between form as proceeding, and shape as super-induced.” I share that distinction with my students all the time — because it helps them understand the concept of organic form as coming from within, as coming from that configuration of positionings we discussed earlier.
I hated Berrigan’s sonnets when I first read them. I thought they were exclusionary. I thought they were talking to themselves, and that I was being purposefully left out of the joke (this might say more about me than them!). I didn’t find them musical or lyrical. But now, just saying that, I almost want to give my old self a slap in the face and say: “What do you mean? How is something like ‘belly to hot belly we have laid’ not lyrical?”
Of course when you encounter something calling itself a sonnet, you might look for markers of traditional, inherited verse forms. You might look for 14 lines. You might look for that couplet at the end or not, to let you differentiate an Italian from an English sonnet. You might look for how a sonnet sets up a problem then comes to a resolution (how lyrical!). And when you read an individual Berrigan sonnet, you can feel robbed of all of that. But when you read The Sonnets as a whole, they do, as Libbie Rifkin deftly points out, “reverberate” They have a bigger order to them. To my mind, they take back the sonnet form and say: “I’m not going to think of a sonnet as a shape. I’m going to think of it as a form. I want to see what else can proceed from within this form, without super-induced notions of that neat couplet at the end, or that problem and its handy solution.” New York School poets, specifically from the second generation, often take such questions of form head on. And yet they refuse to talk about it. I experienced this in my nascent attempt at interviews with Alice Notley, and Ron Padgett, and in reading tons of interview material with Berrigan, as best collected in the Talking in Tranquility book. Even Brainard’s I Remember really tackles anaphora as a form. Or Notley, in footnotes to Berrigan’s Collected, explains that Berrigan conceived of the “last poem” as a form, and would often just write “last poem” at the top of the page. I could go on and on about these various invented, organic, exciting verse forms. But these poets resist any such over-intellectualized reflections (which themselves offer a form of shaping, of superimposing some type of thought onto an art object), instead forcing you to experience this sense that their poems proceed from within you as you read them.
That answer also points me to Daniel Kane’s conception of New York School poets as sociable, and to questions of how this social aspect requires comparable readerly engagements in order to enact literary form. We don’t get the well-wrought textual object materially present before us — as some fixed, empirical, indisputable shape of the work. And so for the poets you consider, for their conspicuously irregular forms tracing irregular habitations, does such writing call forth Spatial Poetics’s own critical methodology of intensive close reading? Would you have adopted that almost neo-New Critical mode regardless of topic? Would more theoretically generalizable or historically determined reflections prove wholly insufficient when addressing such idiosyncratic approaches to poetic form?
Well the first line that comes to mind is O’Hara’s “I’m a real poet” [Laughter]. I mean, I find myself nodding to everything you just said, starting with Daniel Kane, who considers second-generation New York School poets on their own ground (with “the Lower East Side,” the actual ground, even appearing in one of his titles). On that ground-level, Kane helps to establish these poets walking the streets, working from their apartments — with their connection to art here stemming from the New York School of painting as this well-recognized, well-understood, canonical efflorescence happening all around them. But Kane of course goes further, by drawing connections also to music as an influential art, and to people like Jim Carroll or Patti Smith. That especially excites me, because you sense all these figures dancing along to that music on the ground. When you read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, it feels like New York School beach reading. You get the backstory. You follow where they were and what they did with each other.
To date, though, I still haven’t seen any sustained study that closely reads this poetry for its forms. Libbie Rifkin’s last chapter in Career Moves does closely read Alice Notley’s “Flowers,” while also saying very valuable things about Berrigan’s work. But other than that, I haven’t yet seen any sustained study that deals with the ramifications of the lines, the ways in which the lines get ordered. So to your question about whether or not I would have done close readings regardless of what I addressed, or whether I do close readings here as an act of rebellion, or as a theorizing of what some greater poetics of space might look like…
Or just whether you have offered an implicit methodological argument, without prioritizing its articulation.
The answer is: yes to everything. I would have done close reading regardless, though here that was especially prompted by so many accounts seeming to exclude attention to ways in which the lines get ordered. Most of these poems do get lineated, after all. As Christopher Ricks says often in his public lectures: when you have to make the distinction between a poem and a piece of prose, you face the fact that a poem has line breaks in it. And I just did not see New York School criticism offering much attention to this really careful way that New York School poems arrange and order themselves to look as disordered as the lives or the rooms from which they were composed.
Of course I should acknowledge that conversation emerges as the favored mode of speech in New York School poetry, and that these poets often would prefer to celebrate having fun, as a subversive act in and of itself (more on this in the upcoming Brainard book!). These poets revel in what you can do with words, the ways in which you can bounce around and not not say, even while saying. This helps for understanding why they haven’t been treated very seriously. But I felt that if their poetry was going to stand the test of the 20th-century poetry wars, and be remembered a hundred years from now, then it would be important to actually read some of these texts as individual poems and not just as parts of an aesthetic movement. And these individual poems do remain in conversation with all the work that preceded them, and all the work that will come after them. That’s where the third and fourth generations start to fall apart.
Well to start moving towards questions about specific authors, since you do structure your book that way, could we consider your readings of Berrigan, who comes up first — specifically your descriptions of how he “centers his poem and speaker within time, place and social circumstances”? You’ll give a very detailed sense of the mechanics of punctuation, linebreaks, syntax — or the types of readings such gestures may call forth and then potentially undermine. Or you’ll write that “Berrigan’s poems fuse physical locators, and so demonstrate an almost simultaneous attention to multiple senses and types of domestic and local space.” And since you just mentioned the model of Abstract Expressionism, the critical valorization it receives first in the art world and then through, say, Marjorie Perloff grafting O’Hara onto related conversations regarding the picture plane as the arena of action, how would you situate (or why would you prefer not to situate) the perhaps outmoded concept of “depth” amid your account of a processual mechanics sculpting (or at least shaping) Berrigan’s simultaneous sense of space and place?
That’s a very good question, because depth depends on the perceiving subject. In a way, my lines you quote are my means of talking about, without saying, “depth.”
I think you do say “depth” by the time Padgett comes around.
That’s true. But with Berrigan, I see him as willfully standing at the center, trying to take O’Hara’s place at the center of a movement — through this idea that all these different arrows come towards him and out of him in his poems. That image presents him in a two-dimensional way, but that’s how I picture Berrigan in my head. It’s not that he’s uninterested in depth, or that his poetry is not deep. But, for example in that passage you quote, with the reference to a fusing of physical locators, “Part of My History” recalls this very intense moment when he finds out his mother has died. And this poem recalls all kinds of spaces. It doesn’t necessarily construct a layered space. It’s a bit more of a pastiche. But he takes a puff of his cigarette, and then walks around the room. We don’t know where he is. The fact that he uses the phrase “ere she walked” lets us know that temporalities of place also are in question. Are we in the 1940s? The 1960s? The 70s? And then which Hoboken? We don’t get one scene following another. We get everything laid beside each other in the same moment and place and space, without layers and without hierarchies. So I see that less as an arrangement of depth then something like a 3D surface.
And maybe we could bring in Brainard here on related questions of texture, depth, contrast, with your book foregrounding conceptual affinities and distinctions between collage (which, in your account, suggests something like a two-dimensional juxtaposition of disparate media and disparate content tonalities) and assemblage (a more three-dimensional, defamiliarizing representation of oft-overlooked everyday materials). Again, we could parse these terms “collage” and “assemblage” however you see fit. But when I think of modernist collage, I actually think of Rosalind Krauss detecting a slight yet significant three dimensionality — pointing back to Beaux-Arts sculpture even as it points forward to the thick textural surfaces of Abstract Expressionist painting. But also, while reading your Brainard chapter, I wondered where you might place installation in relation to collage, to assemblage, to Brainard. You cite people referring to Brainard as nice or modest or emphatically minor, but I especially love your designation of him as “insistent.” Readings of Brainard’s work as diminutive often seem to isolate one single tiny collage, let’s say, as emblematic of Brainard’s artistic production and engagement with his audience. But this obscures the formal/experiential/social fact (not so different from what you said about Berrigan’s Sonnets) that Brainard’s audience might encounter 1500 collages amid some proto-installational eclipse. Here, to me, Brainard’s insistence comes through, even with the camp or “minor” sensibility so pervasive. Or in terms of Brainard’s writing: of course we can extract individual I Remember lines, but that differs from the readerly experience of absorbing bit after bit, entry after entry. So anyway, in terms of a question: what particular aspects of place and space might get called forth amid an audience’s immersion in environmental or installation work? How might a critic most productively tack back and forth between extremities of micro and macro scale within a poetic corpus like Brainard’s? Or what else might contemporary readers gain by theorizing the spatial poetics of Brainard’s collagist, assemblagist, proto-installationist artistic practice?
I almost want to suggest that collage is to assemblage as space is to place, with collage sitting inside assemblage the same way space sits inside place. I want to say this because there’s something collage and space do that depends, again, on arrangement, or configuration, or practice — whereas assemblage feels like unpracticed place. That’s not my demoting assemblage at all, but you have to walk around an assemblage. There’s no instantaneous way in which you see all of an assemblage.
So its sculptural elements come into play.
Absolutely. Stephen Fredman’s book came out after I had written my Brainard chapter. And Fredman’s ways of relating collage and assemblage to a queer aesthetic and to queer erotics excite me. But they don’t really invite us, in the particular case of Brainard, to redirect our gaze from the persona to the formal ramifications of his poetry and art. In terms of those formal ramifications, Brainard might confront you with an object or a line over and over and over again, which can feel beautiful and intoxicating but also overwhelming. Or when you read Brainard’s prose and his notes, you can fall in love with him over and over. He has to be one of the most loveable artists of the 20th century. But there’s also a kind of neurotics involved (in the miniatures series, for example, or the madonnas), which we know is the sign of an artist. Everyone has a friend who harps on the same thing over and over again, and who combines a little bit of genius [Laughter] and a little bit of insanity. And so you might read I Remember as a kind of assemblage, containing a sort of depth or a third dimension, but I see again a kind of imagism at work.
An imagism within entries and then also between entries?
Absolutely. I’m thinking of the “ice cream” line. Brainard mentions remembering how good water tastes after ice cream, then three pages later we get ice cream again (“I remember the sound of the ice cream man coming”). It’s not necessarily that ice cream drops out and then returns to the forefront, but rather that ice cream never goes away. All those things remembered are all there at the same time. There’s a simultaneity again.
I was recently asked by a brilliant graduate student working on second-generation poetry: “Could there have been something else besides spatial poetics for you?” There could have been a temporal poetics, for sure. It’s very hard to keep track of what time it is in Alice Notley poems. You can say the same thing about I Remember in a different way. Also in that Berrigan “Part of My History” poem time gets problematized, because all of these things that belong to different moments get pasted and stuck together, to borrow the etymology of what “collage” actually means. But maybe Brainard’s book provides the most one-dimensional gluing, over and over again. Brainard also gets excited by transforming three-dimensional objects into one-dimensional notations. Think of his matches — how he takes the fire out of them, but still evokes fire (because he could have pasted some matches, yet instead he paints them). Or even Nancy could have been pasted, yet Nancy gets redrawn. So on top of insisting on insistence, Brainard insists on not being three dimensional.
Again in terms of dimensionality, in terms of parsing collage and assemblage, when you refer to Berrigan’s “Train Ride” project (which includes Brainard’s drawings) as presenting an “in-the-moment” mode, I definitely think of indexicality, of spatial tracings here left to enact some sort of temporal structure. And as space and time get further entangled, I’d also love to bring in your broader points about Brainard’s collaborative prowess. You present Brainard’s collagist proclivities as helping to root New York School enterprises in modernist avant-garde praxis, and suggest we should position Brainard not as peripheral to New York School developments, but as galvanizingly central. I found that perspective persuasive and revelatory. Could you here extend the argument to sketch how collaborative aspects in Brainard’s practice relate to questions of juxtaposition, collage, assemblage, found poetics? Or how might dialogical work, conversational work, collaborative work compare to writing about whatever you find sitting before you in your cramped apartment? Or when might a collaborative partner resemble a found object (or “found” subject at least), or transform a place into a space? Or what equivalent function might you attribute to Brainard’s contemporary Andy Warhol collecting and hoarding semiotic signs, and physical objects, but also real-live people in his artworks and his broader artistic engagements?
I first became interested in Brainard when I saw the manuscript and galleys and all of the notes related to the publication of “Train Ride,” at Emory University. Of course I recognized Brainard’s art, because you and any reader of New York School poetry would recognize that art, but I hadn’t until then given much thought to the artist behind this visual presentation of New York School poetry. When I read Brainard’s note attached to the cover drafts for “Train Ride,” in which he tells the publisher “it ought to be a true red, light enough to be bright, dark enough to be brilliant, like this pack of Tareyton cigarettes off to my right,” and then pastes the cigarette pack to his note, that moved me. His definition of “true” red sounded poetic and incredibly aware. But it also seemed to define the New York School more broadly: “light enough to be bright, dark enough to be brilliant.” And then with the pasting of an object onto the instructions page, with the instruction to use this found, everyday, consumable color to color the book, this artist (whom I had considered marginal and on the fringes, literally drawing tacks and cherries on the edges of An Anthology of New York Poets’s pages) seemed to demonstrate that he actually knew best of all what everybody else was aiming for, and could put it so succinctly, so simply, so beautifully. So it felt like Brainard needed to be moved to the center, and that he himself would be the last person to do that.
Berrigan dedicates “Train Ride” to Brainard. We know the story, that Berrigan wrote it on the train back from Brainard’s house, after Brainard gave Berrigan a pornographic novel. So we know Brainard’s background place in “Train Ride.” But Brainard in fact was centrally involved, gathering money, for instance, to support its publication. Brainard emerges as integral not just to this production’s aesthetics, but to this production’s economics. And then, when you start looking at the connections between Brainard and Padgett, Brainard and Berrigan, Brainard and Notley, Brainard and Waldman, you find a friend to all — when all were not always friendly with one another. So Brainard becomes this kind of collage-y glue [Laughter]. And his collaborations don’t become competitions.
With Padgett and Berrigan, or even Waldman and Berrigan, when you read their collaborations you might think: That’s the Berrigan line. That’s the Waldman line. But collaborating with an artist invites you both to engage in something more like an ekphrastic mode. And one stimulating point about the queerness of Brainard’s work is that it is not linear. He seems to invite anyone he collaborates with to engage in that nonlinear mode, which Richard Deming calls the “minor mode.” It’s never about trying to get power. It’s always about trying to sit beside a thing and to just be a friend. This brings us back to collage again — that there’s no hierarchy in Brainard’s work. And Brainard’s visual art, of course, often includes its own verbal art, which again helps to make second-generation modes more aesthetically visible in relation to modernist movements.
Still Brainard collaborated not just with second-generation, but with first-generation poets, and with poets not part of the New York School. As Padgett points out in his memoir, Brainard was terrible with money. He did everything for free. I don’t know if that comes from some sense of debt he feels. The Beinecke Library holdings at Yale contain various production notes and invitations to read. You’ll see Padgett really wheeling and dealing, trying hard to get money and support for his friends. With Berrigan, the invitations just keep pouring in. He’s like royalty. Of course this may just be one moment in time captured by the Beinecke holdings because, as Berrigan’s poems remind us, “We were there / and there was NO MONEY”).
You’ve mentioned nonlinear aspects in Brainard’s output, and we haven’t yet said much about Alice Notley’s work, which seems exemplary for tracing the finitudes of time and place — if only to reach outwards towards infinite and intangible spaces. Could you situate the convoluted temporality in Notley’s poetics alongside what Spatial Poetics describes as her intricate mode of tracing “the boundaries of knowable spaces, including the physical fragility of that house of the body and the soul”? Or how do the sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhetorical shifts within Notley’s poems help to articulate broader elegiac aspects in a wider range of New York School place/space parsings and plasticizing reconfigurations? Or where might you situate Notley’s inward-driving lyricism (which, again, maybe I would associate with depth) alongside the more jokey, surface-tracing poetics of her peers?
Reading time and depth into Notley’s work is especially possible with Mysteries of Small Houses, which, she tells us, recalls places she has lived in (past tense), and through which she tries to engage a more Eastern sense of what a soul is — rejecting this Western valorization of the self playing out in the 90s, particularly in feminist poetry. So thinking about time as a form of space does provide one possible reading for Mysteries of Small Houses. But I was so fixated on space, though whenever I would mention this book’s “101” poem, people would ask: “What about time?” [Laughter] Of course that poem repeats the word “time” (“that time time slowed”), and it tripped me up to start thinking about time. But then I started thinking about time as a way in which places (places, not spaces) could become fixed for a second, with their temporality providing a sense of fixity that space doesn’t have. Space seems kind of inherently timeless, as a complex configuration. Places, however, can be historically located. So you can’t really read Mysteries of Small Houses in the same way you read Berrigan’s Sonnets. Berrigan’s book feels very excited about being in the here-and-now, but Notley’s work really tries to engage this bigger span and sense of time. That “in-the-moment” phrase actually comes from Notley’s notes on Berrigan’s “Train Ride,” in the Selected Poems. But Notley herself explicitly pursues stepping out of the present moment and stretching across time. Her work becomes untimed, or as she says in “101,” un-located. Here I’m thinking not of her latest books so much as Descent of Alette and Alma, Or, The Dead Women (her recent epics), and Culture of One (a novel poem), and In the Pines. To attempt to pin down time within these very difficult works would be futile. Especially through her pursuits of epic as a living form, Notley’s poetic voice refuses to close off any fixed sense of time.
You also pointed to types of subjecthood traced by Notley’s poetics. Notley may resist, emphatically at times, references to “self.” But in terms of the finitudes and infinitudes that her poems offer, I think of Notley as providing, among these second-generation poets, the most self-scrutinizing conception of what an “I” might become. And Spatial Poetics discusses how Notley deliberately distinguishes explorations of an “I” from more playful, cordial, friendly New York School appeals to “you,” or from a more activist-oriented “we” in contemporaneous and avowedly feminist poetics. So could you here describe how Notley’s particular poetic subjecthood does speak to broader literary and lyric traditions? How, for instance, did you arrive at the formulation: “Realizing or concretizing the shape of a single person throughout the shapes of her many poems, Notley’s project is at once modern in Peter Middleton’s sense, Romantic in Coleridge’s sense, personal, public, and spatially formal”?
The lyric is a difficult subject, all puns intended [Laughter]. Especially with so much being written right now about contemporary American lyrics, I had hoped to respectfully dance away from conversations about lyric-humanism, about the post-lyric. And I think Notley invites us to do that — partly because she’s dancing away from related questions in the 90s. Her “I” is not the lyric “I.” Her “I,” she says over and over again, is not engaged in a feminist agenda. In our interview, she did directly say that feminism’s “we” does not interest her. And in Coming After, she insinuates she’s interested in an “I” that incorporates all of her, and that therefore might extend to incorporate others. But her project is not a public project. It’s nobody else’s “I.” She’ll say this over and over, and she’ll demonstrate it as she keeps correcting herself in her poems. Poems will state something like: “This isn’t right. I can’t get there this way. I have to go in there another way.” Or in “101”: “I’m not being clear, we had inappropriate emotions.” Or even when you have followed her to a point, and you’re thinking: OK, I’m there with her. I’m in that “I,” she’ll shake it up and say: “No, no, I’m not doing it right. I’m going to re-do it.” In the process she shakes you out of it, and you’ll realize you were never fully in it to begin with [Laughter]. You’re not quite “you,” either. It’s as if her “I” is talking to itself.
Still Notley’s work does speak to traditional conceptions of the lyric, in that we get the sense of an overheard poetry, to quote John Stuart Mill’s “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.” But when you think about Notley’s work as also resisting that public “I,” that “I” of “man speaking to men” (now citing Wordsworth), then you really start wondering and wandering. Notley’s “I” blurs conceptions of the lyric, while also rejecting traditional understandings of what lyrical poetry responds to — or who it’s responsible for, for that matter.
And then pushing beyond the lyric, but sticking to types of elegy, could we also address distinctive cultivations of place/space aspects in New York School prose? Here Padgett’s well-received books on Berrigan and Brainard (as well as on a broader era of 60s and 70s downtown New York) definitely stand out. Though how might syntax, how might sculptings of sentences or paragraphs, emulate or dissipate the place/space tensions, tracings, implications you find so charged in New York School stanzas?
Well, sticking with the problem of pronouns for a moment, I might start with Padgett’s “you.” We tend to read Padgett as jokey and fun. In many ways his poetry can feel like the meringue on top of the New York School pie. It often feels very effortless, light, and sweet — in a way that Notley’s never does, especially as she draws our attention over and over to the struggle with getting things right. But something really complicated and not light or fluffy happens for sure (sweet perhaps, but not easy) in Padgett’s move from “I” to “you.” I’m thinking for example of “What Are You On?”: “You think I don’t know where [Hidden Valley is // or is that just a ploy to get me to tell you?” Here “I” and “you” are very different, very separate. I am the one asking you things, and you’re playing a game with me, and then: “You are like the guy who looked all over / for his hat and later learned it was on his head // but it didn’t mean anything until he realized he had a head / and that the hat was both on and inside it / …You don’t want to be that guy, do you? / You would rather be the rabbit / when all along you could have been the waterfall.” Within these lines, already, we’ve somehow slipped. Are we “I”? Are we “you”? I don’t even care by this point. I’m imagining the hat on my head. The poem already has transported me. And within this identificatory process, the versification of these lines slips away too. They resist fixity. I think of Eliot’s “when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall.” These lines won’t let us pin them on the wall, as one hat slips to another head.
Padgett’s poetics can seem incredibly conversational and colloquial, yet he holds us to these heavy demands, especially when his syntax implies that we could be that guy — that we were that guy for a minute. It’s a game, this slippery thing he does. It’s what he calls a “mental orgasm” in “First Drift.”
After which he apologizes.
Exactly. And we can talk back to the “I” in Padgett’s work, but then that “I” slips away for the sake of this journey he pursues — exploring who “I” or “you” or “we” could be through a poem.
Here could we briefly return to Marjorie Perloff’s influential appeal to Abstract Expressionism? If Harold Rosenberg’s, Clement Greenberg’s, Hans Hoffmann’s method of tracking two- and three-dimensional tensions within the picture plane ever makes sense for poetry, then your discussion of Padgett’s poetics seems like one good place for it. At one point you say: “The result is not a dispersion or a sense of vacancy, but perhaps an ultimately democratic expansion, in which the space for a replacement structure is left open, and power is unassigned.” Again, this recalls Adorno-esque readings of Abstract Expressionism as a site for critical negativity. So, ultimately, does Abstract Expressionist discourse get recuperated by the end of your book? Spatial Poetics had seemed, early on, to depart from Perloff’s mode of identifying those artists and critics with these poets. Or to pivot elsewhere, we could consider how the refractive continuities/discontinuities you detect in Berrigan’s cut-and-pasting, in Brainard’s collagist/assemblagist approach, in Notley’s polytemporal poetic elegies, in Padgett’s spare logical confoundings, seem increasingly relevant and interesting for critics right now. How might New York School concerns with potentially fractured places and spaces anticipate, for instance, our increasingly digitized modes of contemporary subjecthood?
When you mention Adorno, fragmentary work, the ways in which this is democratic work, I think about Christopher’s Manes’s discussion of postmodern, post-human deep ecology. This has been cut as a footnote from my book, but I thought for a long time about Manes reflecting on a particular idiom, a pastiche of medieval hermeneutics that took place in Renaissance humanism — with its faith in reason, intellect, and progress. Manes says this has created “an immense realm of silences, a world of notsaids called nature, obscured in global claims of eternal truths of human difference, rationality, and transcendence,” and that we now must consider “not only learning a new ethics but a new language, free from the directionalities of humanism — a language that incorporates a decentered, postmodern, post-humanist perspective,” a language of “ecological humility that deep ecology is attempting to express.” Again this thinking brings us back to questions about what “organic form” might mean. And you get that decentering through Notley’s work. You get that freedom from directionalities of humanism in Padgett’s work. You get the decentered through Brainard. You get the postmodern, no doubt, through Berrigan.
Finally, given your smart positioning of second-generation New York School work as shaped less by influence than by confluence (by shared domestic, professional, abstract, aesthetic, textual, rhetorical places and spaces), would you ever write a follow-up study focusing on public, publishing, institutional engagements central to these particular writers? You’ve given informed theoretical reasons for why you don’t track public contexts here, but could you see yourself pushing in that direction at some point? Or what seem like the most relevant ways to move forward?
Well, since completing the manuscript I have moved forward, but perhaps not in the direction you might assume. I’m working on a book that continues this attention to domestic space, but more specifically asks questions about home, and narratives of home, as related to Syrian refugees and the stories they tell (from within the refugee camps) of making new homes. I’m interested in how American literary conceptions of home relate to global ones, in what contemporary displaced subjects can tell us about the limits and purposes of private spaces, and in how these various conversations already overlap more than one might think. The American emphasis on actual, physical places (as in “home sweet home,” or “there’s no place like home”) provides just one particularly Western conception of home. So I got interested in taking all of this theory, and traveling with it to contemporary, real, lived-in situations, and asking what we do with home, or with a conception of home, when there is no actual physical home, when there is no there there.
And then I’m wrapping up an edited collection on Joe Brainard’s texts and images, which functions as a sort of spinoff to Spatial Poetics, again really trying to focus on the poetry instead of the poets. I’d love to see follow-up studies on work by Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Tom Clark — whose poems I wish I’d had more chance to include in my book. And I’d love if someone could read Spatial Poetics and tell me “No, you read this poem wrong,” and then could re-read that poem, closely [Laughter], and could show me, show everybody, how much more sits within the lines these poets have so generously offered us, and could give these poets the critical attention that their messy, marvelous forms merit.