By Andy Fitch
This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Daniel Kane’s Do You Have a Band?”: Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City. More than once, I have picked up a Daniel Kane book and realized he somehow had anticipated just what I (and many poets, scholars, artists I know) would most want to read about. “Do You Have a Band?” certainly falls into that category, as did All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (University of California Press, 2003), and We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2010). Kane is Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Sussex. My admiration for his own interview work made this particular talk a particular pleasure.
ANDY FITCH: First could we not only introduce concerns basic to this book, but maybe catch up readers on your three book-length critical studies — so including All Poets Welcome and We Saw the Light? Could you give something like a working definition/description of how a poetics of sociability plays out across these studies, specifically in second-generation New York School poetics, but also more broadly in literary, cinematic, musical communities operating in postwar New York? Here we could discuss how such sociability pushes against prevailing (at that time) perceptions of poetry providing a solitary, timeless, transcendent enterprise. We could consider how poetic sociability foregrounds larger social groupings, collectively responsible for evaluating and interpreting texts. We could explore how poetic performance plays out amid sociable scenes, or track the archival afterlife of their ephemeral, often collaborative, anonymous, and/or falsely attributed pieces. We could place a poetics of sociability alongside contemporary critical depictions of coteries as dissident microcommunities and/or elitist power grabs. But could you outline whichever related (or still unmentioned) topics have most directly shaped your ongoing emphasis upon a poetics of sociability?
DANIEL KANE: It’s strange Andy, as you were asking that question, one of the first things that started running through my mind was: I like minor art.
I’m not saying expansive, formally ambitious works don’t engage me. As I hope a book like We Saw the Light makes clear, epic works like Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man or Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle (which are clearly invested in a 19th-century visionary Romantic tradition) hold my attention as much as a throw-away poem by Frank O’Hara does. But take something like Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving, a film whose wonder for me is captured by the moment when Brakhage turns the camera away from his beloved Jane giving birth — to focus on his own goofy, ecstatic face. Or consider Anger’s shot of the young dreamer in Fireworks lying in bed, the bed-sheet tenting up suggestively around his groin, only to then have the sheet drawn away to reveal that the dreamer’s enormous hard-on is actually an African statuette. I’ve got to admit that those fleeting, bright moments are what draw me to the films as much as or even more than the complex, mystical quasi-narratives they propose. Those bright moments almost inevitably serve to contest the high seriousness we otherwise ascribe to these visionary works. They draw attention to the films’ made-ness, their improvisatory qualities.
And while these moments are delightful, they’re also political. That African statuette reveals Anger’s very knowing and funny commentary on how white avant-gardes engage with the “African” as hyper-sexualized “other,” “primitive.” And I suppose Brakhage’s revelation of his own awe-struck face emphasizes all the more the “home movie” aesthetic he was so committed to (you know: anyone can do it). I’ve always understood that commitment of Brakhage’s to DIY as a welcome counter-narrative to his oft-repeated insistence that “art is a hard pleasure.” It doesn’t always have to be hard, does it? Can’t it be easy sometimes? Andy, don’t we both love Joe Brainard’s injunction “People of the world: RELAX!”?
I consider this present discussion a form of relaxed criticism.
I’m really drawn to work that many people would understandably dismiss as fairly inconsequential. A text that always comes up for me when thinking about my love for “fun” poetry is a little Ted Berrigan one-liner titled “Kinks.” The entire poem is as follows: “I am kinks.” I also think back to work like Aram Saroyan’s one-word blasts, or even maybe his relatively epic works, such as an untitled poem which reads in its entirety “Ron Padgett / would approve / this idea.” These texts seem to me to represent an attitude towards poetry in which loose conversation or even a simple happy grunt is an idealized primary response. I’m not saying here that reading such works through a rigorous intellectual framework is somehow “bad,” by the way. I’m all for both/and.
So, getting back to this idea of a poetics of sociability: to put it simply, I think such a poetics pushes back gleefully against the idea of a poem as heightened rhetorical activity produced by an individual alone in his or her room, inspired by some great feeling or moment. It’s a cliche now I admit to even reiterate this point, but surely many of us not directly linked to one or another poetry scene (i.e., the vast majority of humans) still get a little antsy when the word “poetry” is uttered, or at least prep ourselves to experience something really significant, serious, and difficult.
What I love in the poetry, and even the film and music that I’ve thought about over the last 15 years or so, is that you’ll often find total junk rubbing up against glorious, gorgeous lyricism. For example, it’s so moving to me that O’Hara’s book Lunch Poems contains both the oft-anthologized “The Day Lady Died” and a phenomenally dumb poem (beginning “Wouldn’t it be funny”) that takes as its premise an enormous shit stewing for a week that is then finally expelled with a “ploop” on a Sunday. That’s a choice O’Hara’s making, to include adolescent nonsense alongside beautifully crafted lyrics. I really appreciate the fact that junk like “Wouldn’t it be funny” isn’t filtered out of Lunch Poems, because (as corny as this might sound) that seems to be more fair and true to what we might call “life.” That’s why I go back to my opening statement that I’ve always been drawn to a minor art, a junky art, because it just seems fair to the way that we walk through our days. I hate to sound like some kind of romantic about it, but I guess I am.
Well in relation perhaps to the minor and to junk, “punk” emerges as a central term in this new book. “Punk” obviously has picked up any number of connotations over the past 40 years. “Do You Have A Band?” probes a particularly generative tension as neo-Romantic, neo-Expressionist, proto-punk performers (Lou Reed, Richard Hell, Patti Smith among them) embrace, confront, challenge in various ways this second-generation New York School poetic sociability.
That was the most surprising thing for me in writing this book — finding out how engaged the musicians were with the New York poets living all around them. I mean, in the late 1960s Patti Smith had friendly arguments with Anne Waldman, and she dissed Larry Fagin! You can find all this juicy gossip squirreled away in various archives, a lot of which hasn’t been aired out fully.
Here maybe we could consider Smith specifically. You just provided an enthusiastic endorsement for a poetics of sociability. Which aspects of this sociability stood out to certain (certainly not all) late-60s and early-70s participants as most constrictive and in need of change? Which proto-punk figures most generously, most presciently, most profoundly, most ruthlessly (perhaps in Patti Smith’s case) negotiated this particular vector of rethinking/redirecting/rejecting the nurturing if ultimately too narrow milieu from which they came?
I think what bothered Patti Smith was the fact that the New York School poets, particularly those hanging around St. Mark’s, at least acted like poetry was not always and forever an angst-ridden, abject, or correspondingly holy ecstatic vocation. Those chatty, collaborative, and in some cases entirely minor poems coming out of St. Mark’s in the late 1960s suggested (if perhaps somewhat disingenuously) a lack of personal ambition and a lack of respect for “Poetry” with a capital “P.” For a young poet like Smith, who came to New York to “be a big star,” as she put it in her song-poem “Piss Factory,” this casual attitude (however studied it was) towards poetry was practically an insult.
There’s also, of course, the question of audience. One can’t really consume, for example, an anonymous issue of a mimeographed magazine in the same way one can consume works beloved by Smith — such as Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl,” which of course is not without its own often-hilarious humor (à la: “holy the vast lamb of the middle-class”), nevertheless illustrates what I mean here. “Everything is holy!” the exultant/exalted Ginsberg writes, “everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity!” Smith to this day intones “Footnote” in performance. Smith’s arguably nostalgic attachment to the poet-singer as shaman was antithetical to that brief moment of New York School writing from about 1966 to 1973 — you know, before Naropa and the gurus and Tibetan gods came in, before so many of the poets scattered from New York to places like Bolinas, or New Orleans, or Iowa.
It seems to me, based on work I’ve done in the archives (I never interviewed Smith, by the way — she perhaps understandably wasn’t interested), that people like Ginsberg and Gregory Corso showed her that the idealized Rimbaudian poète maudit still had a role to play even in the too-cool-for-school New York world. On the one hand, Smith intuited that she had to engage with the Poetry Project on some level. It was one of the hippest places in town, standing alongside Max’s Kansas City and places like that. The poets even looked great. But what to do if, like Smith, one still desired to reach those rhapsodic heights, to become the shaman “outside society,” as Smith put it?
So I also think the question of authenticity is crucial to our conversation here. In a funny sort of way, my book does raise the possibility that Patti Smith was really interested in behaving well according to generic conceptions regarding the role and function of poetry — conceptions that so many of us were brought up with. If you were going to be a poet, you had to be depressed, or living on a mountaintop as a fire-lookout, or hustling your ass on the mean streets, or spraying enormous amounts of spit onto your audience while declaiming passionately.
Andy, was it clear to you that one thing I wanted my book to propose was that second-generation New York School writing was just as or even more “punk” than Patti Smith was (at least if, by “punk,” we attend to some of the tried-and-true formulas — the “no more heroes” poses)?
For now can I answer by asking for a few exemplary instances of poets and punk performers not entertaining audiences, of audiences themselves emerging as active agents, as potential makers?
Sure, you might remember that section in my first book All Poets Welcome describing John Wieners reading at the Poetry Project, and then people from the audience start advising him on the various nuances and textures of a potential line, and it becomes an incredible back-and-forth conversation. Instead of “John Wieners tortured schizophrenic poet bearing his tortured soul for all to see,” it’s more like: “John Wieners is having trouble with a line — can you help him? Can the audience come up with something better?”
So it’s that diminution of the role of the artist, in relation to his or her audience, that I find so interesting about work coming out of magazines like Angel Hair and The World, and being performed on downtown stages. While of course this happened earlier in performance-oriented works (one thinks immediately of Cage, of Kaprow, etcetera ), I do wonder if this ever happened quite so clearly in writing (both on the page and stage) prior to the advent of the Poetry Project and related scenes.
Still on the topics of sociability and scenes, could we pivot back to “Do You Have a Band?” — which in fact gets structured around specific individuals? Chapters often address one primary person. And when I talk to scholars right now, they often tell me that their work has taken a materialist turn, whereas the preceding generation’s took a linguistic turn, or something like that. I don’t hear many people say: “I’ve decided to take a biographical turn, and to structure my work accordingly.” So could we discuss what makes you less afraid of the biographical, or the monographical, than most of your peers? You could have, for instance, organized this book’s chapters around broader concepts, like “punk” itself. So what implicit methodological arguments or points do you see “Do You Have a Band?” making? And/or why did these particular proto-rock stars demand these types of profiles?
My heart is beating a bit faster, because what your question reveals, of course, is that, let’s face it, I kind of don’t do theory.
Though the method itself, the archival practice, seems to embody or enact its own form of theory.
Well again, I’m not hostile to theory; I just don’t have the “head” for it. That said, it might be relatively clear to some sympathetic readers that Bourdieu’s sociological analysis of art (particularly in terms of how that analysis reveals the ways in which value is constructed) informs my approach to criticism. But at the end of the proverbial day, I often find myself rather tremblingly thinking: I’m “just” a literary historian, an archive-hungry gossip-seeking biographer of artistic communities.
But okay, if we can agree that a lot of second-generation New York School writers really took seriously the historical avant-garde’s remit to reduce the distance between “art” and “life,” then what better way to think through the relevant work than to go into the archives? The archives help us historicize, contextualize, and read critically into this work. The archives are where we find remnants of those daily little quotidian moments, those fugitive conversations caught on tape, the logorrheic correspondence that made its way into so much of the work. We see how Richard Hell addressed Patti Smith, how Patti Smith contested Anne Waldman, how Michael Brownstein might have responded to all this activity in a poem.
But occasionally someone will come up to me at a conference or talk, and say something along the lines of “Daniel, your scholarship’s really old fashioned.” What they’re talking about is that, yes, I do this almost prewar thing of talking about a poet’s work and life, and isn’t that antithetical to what you were terming the linguistic turn?
Doesn’t anybody ever say: “Hey, Daniel, I think you’re posing important methodological challenges to us and to our reflexive use of one particular analytic construct regardless of which texts we read?”
Yes, occasionally, and of course those moments are most welcome!
Could you envision a project in which you proactively make the case for this approach? Or do you prefer just to kind of keep at it, and to let self-described theorists respond how they may?
I hope I don’t come off as breezily intuitive, but the approach you very generously identify as methodological is just what I’ve been doing since I started work as an academic (I honestly never thought I’d become a professor, but thanks to a generous and unexpected funding scheme courtesy of NYU, combined with Manhattan rent-control laws, I rather stumblingly entered the world of academia). But this commitment to the archive seems to have worked OK for me so far. I just can’t imagine getting into the work of the poets I love without getting behind the names, and seeing how the names rub up against each other to create these lovely sparks of poetry.
Yeah, and for people who haven’t read your books, I don’t want to give the false impression that you offer some soft, wishy-washy archival collage. You definitely take hard-edged critical stances. You’ll describe Beat poets (and Beat poets are not my favorite poets, so I don’t feel defensive on their behalf) as frequently drifting into the pretentious, corny, or self-monumentalizing when they seek to reach beyond normative experience, or to inspire broader resistance in the face of consensus culture. You’ll offer a more negative assessment than I would have expected at times. More honestly, I guess I just feel the need to give voice to my small, internal protest when “Do You Have a Band?” describes Tom Verlaine (astutely perhaps, but I still like him) as far too earnest and self-important. I don’t at all mean to quibble on these specifics, but simply to ask for your most assertive account of why critics ought to take these types of contestatory, conflictual stances, even as they examine a poetics of sociability.
Well, wait a minute. I didn’t mean to imply that Verlaine was being far too earnest and self-important. I don’t think that personally. I was pointing out that this was Richard Hell’s take on Verlaine following the crisis between the two around the time Television were getting more recognition.
Most likely an emotional register kicked in on my part.
I get that, and I see (given my overall positive take on deflating seriousness) why you might come away from the book thinking I think that about Verlaine. But anyway, I’m totally fascinated by the dynamic between Hell and Verlaine, particularly in terms of what that dynamic tells us about New York poetry in the 1960s and early 70s. Richard Hell writes brilliantly about this in his autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Hell provides readers with a very good analysis and critique of Verlaine’s commitment to the virtuosic.
A big question that I hope is implicit throughout “Do You Have a Band?” is: what happens when someone who could be virtuosic decides not to be, and plays the clown instead? What does that do to our conceptions of what matters, what counts in both poetry and music? That’s why I love the early work of The Fugs, while I’m not so interested in later Fugs albums where Sanders is hiring professional musicians and really wants to align The Fugs with bands like The Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane, whose musicians are…well….good, professional. “Real” bands know what they’re doing. The Fugs when they first started out were hilariously half-assed and experimental. And again, with the risk of sounding simplistic, of reiterating the cliche of the punk DIY spirit, I’m really, really fascinated and moved by the amateurism on display in those early Fugs recordings — as much as I am by the transcendent Verlaine guitar solos on Marquee Moon, but in a different way.
I’m not sure Verlaine would be open to making space for The Fugs’ early music (I could be wrong though). I’ve heard he thought the Ramones were kind of ridiculous. I have a feeling he wouldn’t have any time for O’Hara’s poem beginning “Wouldn’t it be funny?” But I do know Hell loved the Ramones, and a lot of the loose, ridiculous “I do this, I do that” poetry we associate with New York poetry following O’Hara.
Sticking for a second to the (always provisional, never fully systematized) Hell-Verlaine binary, I sense this pairing might help us to clarify how your own sense of punk has evolved throughout the project. Questions of how to parse “proto-punk” from “punk” seem close to impossible. But how might you present these particular terms to audiences inclined to characterize or mischaracterize punk primarily as a mode of masculinist aggressivity? “Do You Have a Band?” certainly does document a cantankerous poetics, yet also foregrounds the comic, the jokey, the playfully self-deprecating. So could we talk more either about The Fugs, and their self-implicating forms of satire, or about what you describe as Richard Hell’s twisted cuddliness? I loved for instance your reading of Hell-inspired punk fashion as manifestations not only of overt aggression, but of demonstrative vulnerability. How else might you help us to conceive of proto-punk and punk engagements as more diversified, more polyvalent, more non-oppositional than they might first seem?
That’s a really good and complex question. The spirit of punk that I’m drawn to definitely includes bands like The Fugs, and The Holy Modal Rounders. It’s a radical questioning of and assault on seriousness, considered broadly. That’s why you see both a loving and not necessarily a loathing, but a sustained questioning of Patti Smith’s work in all this (just for the ways that she insisted on this heightened, oratorical stance throughout her work). So when you say “masculine aggressivity” in terms of punk, I’ve never really thought of it that way.
I mostly mean popular representations of U.K. punk, of John Lydon, or of The Clash as this apparently militant group, rather than this virtuosic band blending multicultural musical genres. I mean what someone who never cares much about punk might think of punk.
I guess even with U.K. punk I don’t see it that way. As an example, one of my favorite English punk bands is X-Ray Spex.
They provide the perfect counterexample.
Think about someone like Poly Styrene opening a song by announcing kittenishly, “My mind is like a plastic bag.” That to me is kiddies at play, right?
Even with the militant macho stuff you identify, there are still bands like Black Flag or the Minutemen, whose sense of play and interest in the wider worlds of poetry, art, and culture underlie so much of this work. Take Henry Rollins of Black Flag’s longstanding commitment to performance poetry, or Mike Watt and D Boon of the Minutemen getting into futurism, surrealism.
Lou Reed came up earlier, and his pledge of indifference always has appealed to me. You never fully can classify this pledge as aggressive, dismissive, humble, enlightened, pathetic. “Men of Good Fortune,” for instance, offers as its repeated chorus or syllogistic conclusion: “Anyway, it makes no difference to me.”
Exactly. Indifference, that’s it.
But “Do You Have a Band?” also does a great job noting insistent aspects amid that professed indifference. And in terms of insistent indifference (as well as of Lou Reed’s personal Factory connection), I couldn’t help, throughout your book, pivoting back to Andy Warhol’s writing, which offers an especially charismatic rhetoric of the indifferent. I couldn’t help wondering where Warhol would fit into your study, particularly with his collaborative, ghost-written, blasé, simultaneously choral and anti-social first-person prose. Or what might you make of Warhol’s contradictory-seeming status as radical instigator (as counter-cultural hero) but also as effete bemused wallflower — always mocking Bob Dylan or what he considers corny California hippiedom? Or what does New York punk make of Warhol’s ability to revert to pure aestheticism whenever he wants, to say “I only take seriously what happens in New York”? How does Warhol or how does Pop more generally set up some of the terms that remain most generative, most irresolvable, perhaps most enervating for punk’s subsequent mode of “insistent negation”?
One example of the way Warhol’s studied indifference cast a spell over punk (or at least punk-inflected) music might be Lou Reed’s song “My House,” included on his 1982 album The Blue Mask. I’ve always thought that the song, ostensibly about Reed’s adoration for Delmore Schwartz, revealed Reed’s simultaneous performance of Warholian indifference and his continuing attachment (à la Patti Smith) to the vision of the poet as tortured soul. The lyrics to “My House,” if read on the page, are entirely obeisant, but to my ears Reed’s campy delivery style makes the words seem, if not insincere, almost impossible to take seriously. For example, Reed sings: “I really got a perfect life / My writing, my motorcycle, and my wife,” continuing “And to top it all off, a spirit of pure poetry / is living in this stone and wood house with me.” But he delivers those last two lines with the bravura and drama of a torch singer (at least he does in the line about “pure poetry”). This makes the apprentice-master dynamic, as evident in the words, seem weirdly unstable. I wonder if Reed is somehow putting us on by delivering a series of platitudes about a genius poet, in a voice that seems to be mocking the very message explicit in the words. This seems to me Warholian. This complicated approach to and simultaneous enactment of sincerity and indifference informs a lot of the work that I refer to in “Do You Have a Band?” — from The Fugs’ takedown of Ginsberg to what I conceive to be Jim Carroll’s radical democratization of Ted Berrigan’s poem “People Who Died.” A lot of this stuff is funny.
Could we also bring in glam? I think you and I have different senses of how punk gets represented in 21st-century America. Maybe I have a too narrow sense. But I think of glam as pretty much a missing and crucial term for how/when/why punk developed. If some people just see punk’s apparently “aggressive” side, I sense they’ve missed glam.
I do too.
Even the New York Dolls, let’s say, seem to make a bigger impact in the U.K. than in the U.S. So does glam help us to differentiate U.S. and U.K. punk? Or does glam seem (I think you say something like this in the book) more subversive and more threatening today — more inclined to promote individual, collective, critical agency than punk does? Or what can glam’s edgy, violent-yet-decorative, decadent forms of transgression teach us about how proto-punk performance develops? What, for instance, does punk do with glam’s return of the repressed androgynous adolescent? And here could we include punk’s oft-elided roots in fashion, its own mode of dandyish opposition, of extravagant self-invention?
Well it seems to me that glam is, in many ways, given its due as hugely significant for the development of both New York and English punk — if we look at key books like Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, which rightly points to British glam-inflected bands like Roxy Music as well as to the New York Dolls, or Greil Marcus’s work, or Simon Frith’s work, or Monika Sklar’s book Punk Style. I think glam does get a lot of attention in the histories of punk. I take your point about punk being tied to male aggression, though. The Sex Pistols’ song “New York” has always been really interesting to me in that sense. It’s a direct putdown of the New York Dolls that’s overtly homophobic, as when Johnny Rotten sneers “You poor little faggot, you’re sealed with a kiss,” which references a New York Dolls’ song (“Looking For A Kiss”). But nevertheless, look at Malcolm McLaren, the pied piper of U.K. punk. He’s working with Richard Hell. He’s serving as the New York Dolls’ manager. He makes a managerial decision to present the Dolls onstage as communist militants with a big hammer-and-sickle flag. It’s totally crazy. As that narrative is told in great books like Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, McLaren exports New York glam and punk to London, where he opens a BDSM-themed clothing store called Sex and ends up managing the Sex Pistols. That’s arguably (and a lot of people do argue with this narrative) evidence of a direct line of transmission from Richard Hell to the Pistols. And, as you say, it does seem that the most important aspect of glam here is that, to make this music, one might consider recreating oneself entirely, and part of that recreation is about transgressing lines of gender.
Perhaps in terms of self-creation, your present life in the U.K. makes me curious about your relation to that country’s own punk legacies, as well as to its less anti-intellectual, less poetry-phobic forms of music criticism. Could you describe your affective relationship to music writing from that time? Would you ever consider developing an equivalent study (or should someone develop an equivalent study) of cross-pollinations between literary and musical communities in the U.K.?
I guess I’d rather not be the one to try. I’d rather focus on the lighthearted and ludic elements of New York punk. I know that sounds like I’m sort of running away from your question.
Actually, you just directed me perhaps to a more pressing question, concerning analogous possibilities for a ludic, playful tone in contemporary American poetry or conversations about poetry. I sense an increasing devaluation of poetry that overtly presents itself as playful, anti-serious, anti-consequential, and of any scholarly mode that ever might traffic in such work, and so I wonder where you see “Do You Have A Band?” fitting.
I hear what you’re saying. I’ve been interested lately in analyzing Frank O’Hara’s legacy, particularly the way his deceptively lighthearted “I do this, I do that” style has been taken up, repudiated, complicated. In Joshua Clover’s recent poem “Fire Sermon,” for example, Clover writes:
if Lunch Poems
were the poetry of the future
it would be all like
I communize this I communize that
Work by Clover, as well as by contemporaries including Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland (who are also invested in O’Hara’s legacy), I suspect rejects O’Hara’s poetry of willful irreverence, his “shit” poems. Maybe that’s because such poems are harder to adapt or align to recognizable revolutionary political ends. Fun is taking a backseat these days I suppose in the various poetry scenes we know. I hope “Do You Have a Band?” at least reminds people of how generative “anti-serious” poetry and music can be, particularly poetry and music that does not stake out an immediately identifiable political position.
Also in terms of generative elasticities or lack thereof, I’d love to hear more about your own motivations for and experiences of moving horizontally across various disciplines — say with your focus on film and music. What does that type of lateral movement allow you as a researcher to try, which you would not attempt otherwise? How does it feel to undergo such a trajectory of thinking? Did it seem bold and scary suddenly to start making claims about music?
It seemed almost terrifying, to tell you the truth. It still does! But as I was suggesting earlier, there’s something inherently intuitive about how I work. For example, take my book We Saw the Light. It’s process-oriented, and that’s generally how I see my scholarship — as a process of discovering (through the act of writing, and particularly through the act of researching in the archives) the fact that a poem doesn’t stand alone, that a poem is in conversation with all sorts of other genres. So to go back to the archives for We Saw the Light, to learn about how crucial experimental cinema was to poets’ thinking, for writers as various as Lisa Jarnot, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, Robert Duncan, etcetera…I felt like I had really discovered something. It’s a pleasure to learn from the archives how film talks to poem talks to song.
You may have found your ideal subject matter with punk amateurism.
Yes, with someone like Stan Brakhage taking “amateur” back to the Latin word for “lover.” Of course there is still, understandably, a belief in the cultural-studies field that if you write about popular music you should be able to read music (which I do, by the way), that you should be saturated in the academic culture of popular-music studies, that you should do your due diligence at the relevant conferences. But what happens if you think through some of these songs from an entirely different, “amateur’s” perspective, that of the poetry scholar with no previous grounding in music criticism? What happens to the music then? Obviously I think that’s a perfectly valid move to make — to acknowledge your amateurism while simultaneously saying: “Hey, I think a lot about poetry, and I’ve been listening to this music for years, and I’m realizing that there’s actually a conversational dynamic between these two genres that has perhaps not been looked into as deeply as it should be, so let’s go into the archives and recreate some of these conversations, and see if one’s understanding of these songs shifts ever so slightly, or perhaps even dramatically, as a result.”
I hope that tentativeness marks this book. I don’t want it to make claims that purport to be eternally true. I’d like to think of “Do You Have A Band?” as being a series of gestures, as in: “Think about this. Is this possible? Have you ever thought about Lou Reed publishing poetry in the Paris Review, and what that means for how we think about and hear the Velvet Underground?”