A 1982 Interview with Ron Silliman
Sinda Gregory: I suspect some readers have a difficult time placing your work within a tradition, fiction or poetry or journalism or prose poetry or whatever. What do you consider your work to be?
Ron Silliman: I consider what I write to be prose poems but not fiction, partly for formal reasons and partly because I'm not interested in "making things up." And although most readers aren't familiar with it, there is a tradition of the prose poem, extending back 160 years to the work of Aloysius Bertrand, which is seldom incorporated into the teaching of creative writing in the academy. Creative prose is subsumed under the term fiction, with the result that works that don't fit the category are ignored. But subsuming prose under the term fiction is like subsuming all of what can occur in a text under the rubric of character, or narrative. For example, the work of Baudelaire in prose is extraordinarily interesting. He was the first person capable of using prose as a closed, stanzaic form. Traditional modes of defining literary categories don't account for the way in which even expository prose is marked by the devices of literature. I often use Theodor Adomo's Minima Moralia to demonstrate how his essays, which may be only six or seven sentences long, use sentence length and prosody as elements clearly integral to his argumentation. Wittgenstein is another writer whose prose can be viewed from the same perspective. It's not an accident that a person who is an interesting stylist, like Derrida, can have a far greater impact than perhaps the weight of his ideas would suggest he should have, while equally useful thinkers who are not such compelling writers may be perceived as less important—Jurgen Habermas would be an example. By organizing our academic institutions around fiction rather than around prose, by subsuming all forms of prose into fiction instead of the other way around, a great deal of confusion has set in. At Berkeley, linguistics and rhetoric are departments apart from literature—compartmental aphasia.
SG: Can prose poems have as much popular appeal as the novel? Or is this a relevant issue for you?
RS: It's definitely a relevant concern, but this question is often posed incorrectly. Literature needs audiences, but not a "public." A homogeneous audience (or mass market) is one that effaces the individual characteristics of the reader, to arrive at a reader-as-cipher, much as television begets its viewer. There are many legitimate audiences, but not a single "super-market" that one should try to occupy This diversity is recent, the result of the expansion both of literacy and of technology. Up until perhaps 1950, the increase in the number of possible readers meant larger audiences only for an essentially centralized small body of white, male, patriarchal writing. Women, people of color, lesbians and gay men were excluded or marginalized. The Jewishness of the Objectivists, for example, kept their work from being recognized as important for thirty years. As the elaboration of offset printing during the '50s gave rise to the small press revolution, poetry in America was cleaved in half by a debate between the so-called academics, writers who valued the preservation of convention, particularly the closed forms that originated in Europe, and the so-called New Americans, who countered with a speech-based poetics and a nationalism of open form. If you read much of the literature of the '50s and '60s you get the feeling that a great contest was being waged, and that one side or another would somehow eventually win. Presumably the losing side was simply going to wither and disappear. Not only has that not happened, but the amoebalike cleaving process has continued, both within this original two-party framework and outside it. Most notably, the rise of feminist culture has meant the rise of a women's literature that does not need to rely on the legitimation of male-dominated institutions for its sense of value.
SG: And each of these subcultures naturally produces a literary audience.
RS: Exactly. Each subgenre of poetry today reflects a different audience, a different community. Disputes as to the "excellence" of one kind of writing or another are in fact sub rosa arguments as to which social group will dominate the other. What we need to understand is how a subgenre of poetry both creates and is created by that social construct we call an audience. A very useful example is the work of Judy Grahn, which has done so much to make possible a kind of literature that was not even conceived of in the academic versus New American poetry debate—that is, lesbian writing. Works such as "The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke" and "A Woman Is Talking to Death" are as complex, subtle, and efficient as any literary productions of the last thirty years. Yet, unlike my audience, the readers she seeks are not going to identify with her texts as readers first, but as women, and often as lesbian women. Such an audience may not have a thorough sense of literary history as an important characteristic; in fact, it may have a sense of literature as exclusive and patriarchal. Thus it's necessary for Grahn's pieces to appear artless, an effect she achieves through such devices as enjambment and variable capitalization. The only formal technique she ever foregrounds is parallel construction, yet the linguistic play in the texts seems limitless. Grahn's poetry is
experiencing some fashion because it's directly related to a conscious social movement, and because many people, men as well as women, are just now coming to terms with what the existence of a lesbian community really means in our lives. But does it make sense to ask if it can have "popular appeal"? The important thing is that it does have value for its community, extraordinary value. The writing that has been associated with such magazines as This, Hills, Roof, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Tottel's Poetics Journal, A Hundred Posters, QU, Tuumba Press, and The Figures Press, much of which has been in prose forms, is no less a community.
Larry McCaffery: How does this writer/audience relationship affect your own situation?
RS: The community that I'm a part of and interested in is an audience with very distinct social characteristics: overeducated, underemployed people in major urban areas. To some degree the New American poetries are the literature of major urban areas, whereas academic poetry is much more the writing of the interior in this country, the college towns, away from the coasts. As political scientists, such as Erik Ohn Wright or Nicos Poulantzas, have noted, a major characteristic of these new classes arising in urban environments has been an inability to acknowledge its own collective existence, to know its own name. Thus even a political movement initiated by this group which has a clear demographic base, such as tenant's rights, tends to be posed in issue-centered terms: rent control. Likewise, many "neo-petit bourgeois" renters will vote against such issues, because they do not identify with this collectivity. So it's not surprising that more than one type of poetry is related to the middle strata, reflecting real differences that exist within it. My own totally partisan sense of this is that just this critique of the Subject—the recognition of the "I" as a discontinuous and overdetermined ideological construct, a social entity, and the investigation of the individual that such a recognition makes necessary—is the most direct path of that "absent name"
SG: Aren't you ever tempted, though, to create the kinds of works that would cut across these audience barriers, allow you to appear on "The Johnny Carson Show" and make a fortune?
RS: If I were interested in writing for the mass audience I would write for television or the cinema. This whole issue is a very tricky area: there is a great desire on the part of many writers to speak plainly to everybody. But "speaking plainly" is just one code of stylistic density among many others. There is no such thing as "natural language"; there are only learned languages. And there is no such thing as naturalism in literature. It, too, is simply an affected style. At the same time, there is no such thing as "simple individuals."
SG: Legend has it that you once stood on a streetcorner in San Francisco reading Ketjak to passersby. But Ketjak is an awfully difficult, complex work, and I suspect that most of your audience must have thought you were as crazy as most of the other street readers I've seen in San Francisco. I also know that you've been very active, both professionally and informally, in Bay Area community action. Don't you see a paradox at work here between your aesthetics—your work as an "experimental" poet—and your political desire to reach out to and communicate with the working class?
RS: My politics and my aesthetics are essentially different faces of the same argument. When I was editing The Tenderloin Times I would not use articles with the same textual characteristics as Ketjak or Tjanting, because they would not reach the audience I was trying to address. My poetic forms are addressed to very specific people who are more easily addressed in those forms. In terms of the situation surrounding that streetcorner reading of Ketjak, the book is so thoroughly involved with street language and found language, and that corner is where all the street preachers come to harangue in San Francisco, that my reading was a way of returning that language to its source. Part of the semiotics of that street corner is the question of the sanity of a given person reading aloud from a book—a question that is ostensibly taken care of by putting that person into a coffee house in a neighborhood near a college. I got some very interesting and positive responses from people passing by who not only don't usually listen to literature but who, listening to me, had no idea they were listening to literature. I'm glad I did it, even though I lost my voice and wound up spitting blood on the last few pages since it took four and a half hours to read the whole thing.
SG: Do you see your work and that of the other new prose poets as being an effort to reinvent the novel, to put it out of its misery after all its death agonies?
RS: The work of Barrett Watten, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perehnan, Carla Harryman, myself and others is not so much reinventing the novel as taking the lessons of literature learned in the realm of poetry and, from these, developing a form that won't so much replace fiction as be capable of occupying the space of the novel, both in terms of size and in the concerns it can approach, explore, and represent. The great advantage of the novel, especially in the nineteenth century and in the first part of the twentieth, was that it was a genre without conventions. This put on the individual all of the responsibility to develop the work in whatever way it was going to be, whether Tristram Shandy or Moby-Dick. Total freedom means total responsibility. But at a certain point—the rise of genre fiction, or gothic fiction, or whatever—the question of convention in the novel became an important consideration. As the novel has become more and more related to the rise of publishing companies within the framework of corporate capital (at least it used to be this way—I think this is breaking down in our time), the conventionality of the novel has made it a restrictive form, limiting in the same way as the sonnet. And that problematizes it as a useful form. Of course, modernist novelists recognized this and have attempted to solve the problem of conventionality and how to represent the real world. But this problem is extraordinarily difficult, as everyone who has tackled it has repeatedly demonstrated.
SG: Doesn't this problem with conventionality arise in poetry as well?
RS: I'd say that what can be done now in terms of poetry is similarly problematic. Donald Wesling likes to argue that, since the rise of modernism, poetry that has undergone this revolution has adopted three forms: the dramatic monologue, the prose poem, and free verse. These are not necessarily three distinct genres, nor are they necessarily experienced in the same order in the same country. In these terms, you can talk about Japanese poetry or American poetry or French poetry. The question is, having done that, what is there left to do? Especially if, for example, it seems as if the whole question of free verse has come to its logical conclusion in the range of work between Olson and Creeley and Ed Dorn, on the one hand, and Ted Berrigan and Frank O'Hara on the other. Personally, I'd also argue that the dramatic monologue reaches its apotheosis with Browning and has not been useful since.
SG: Obviously, that leaves the prose poem as the one vehicle that has not been fully exhausted, especially the long prose poem.
RS: Yes, at least within the framework Wesling proposes, which doesn't seem to account for performance work, collaborations, sound texts, and concrete or visual poetry. Historically, the prose poem, except for Lautreamont and a very few others, has been a short form. But there is no inherent reason for this! The individual sections of Bertrand's Gaspard de la Nuit may be brief, yet the volume as a whole is a single work, almost a novel composed of verbal still lifes. Naming the form, Baudelaire exploited it merely to urbanize the short lyric. The prose poem has not been exhausted by any means—far from it—and has the potential to occupy the territory of the novel without the limitations of the novel: its conventions of character, plot, and dialogue. Virtually any undergraduate literature major in America can churn out passably mediocre fiction because it is so anchored in these conventions. But to attempt a poem is to confront language and reality, and the interventions each makes on the other. Often the prose poem has been misused, not explored in terms of its own possible dynamics but simply appropriated as a means of perpetuating a dying genre. In the hands of Robert Bly, prose poems are dramatic monologues, nothing more.
LM: Length here seems to be an important prerequisite if the prose poets want to be ambitious in the ways that novelists traditionally have been.
RS: Yes, it's almost the relationship of quantity: you can do something in 300 pages that you simply can't do in 30 lines. This question of scale is more than a matter of "bigness"; in terms of what can go on in a work, the number of elements that can be brought into play, the complexity of the relationships between elements, all these things are infinitely more possible in the longer forms.
LM: Do you recall what prompted you to begin Ketjak? Your other early works are clearly poems, even if not traditional in format, but Ketjak . . .
RS: Right, those early texts were pieces that other poets would have no difficulty identifying as poetry. Ketjak and Tjanting have prompted people to come up and say, "Why do you call these things poems?" But for me there was never a sense of breaking away from poetry. Ketjak, which in many respects marks my adulthood as a writer, was the next step in my work as a poet, not a step away The concept for Ketjak had been in my mind for at least a year, but I didn't know how to proceed with it. I was setting down in my notebooks various ideas that might be worked out subsequently. One of these lines of thought was about structure in terms of ways that I had extrapolated from listening to various types of music. "Ketjak" itself is a musical form—it's the Balinese version of the Ramayana myth, with as many as two hundred singers. It's essentially a choral form, and I was interested in the concept of cumulative effort. There was also the music of Steve Reich, who had just performed Drumming in San Francisco at the Asian Art Museum. Reich's work is based on repetition. Drumming utilizes large, austere, repetitious structures—"phase structures," he calls them—that are based on the repetition of simple elements. These structures cause the work to have a mechanism of proceeding, going from beginning to end. If you're not writing narratively or argumentatively, the whole question of beginning and ending and how to proceed in a work are by no means trivial questions. Reich's work was a model that proposed an approach to this issue that was different from any I was familiar with.
LM: Could you explain how the structural basis of Reich's music relate to Ketjak?
RS: Reich separates the interior content of the work from an exterior form. His whole approach is very different from a notion that all romantic poets have tended to possess. From Wordsworth to Olson, they asserted that "form is never more than an extension of content." While this idea liberated the poem from demonstrating a purely convention-seeking and closed conception of structure (the high-bourgeois ideology that Pope satirically exposed and yet remained trapped within) and made possible a speech-based poetics that it has taken a century and a half to exhaust, it nevertheless subsumed one axis of meaning (form) to another (content). This is not an accurate account of the function of language within experience. Language intervenes and edits the real in our daily lives. Reich's work, particularly the early tape pieces of the 1960s, exposes this distortion by artificially (in the best sense of that word) separating the two dimensions. In Come Out, Reich took the tape of a sentence spoken by a nineteen-year-old charged with homicide during the 1964 Harlem riots from a description of this person's beating at the precinct station, focusing on the words "come out to show them." The syntax of the host sentence is quite interesting: "I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruised blood come out to show them." But the procedures to which Reich subjects the phrase have nothing to do with that structure. The phrase is recorded in two channels and then played so that one gradually moves ahead of the other, until eight "voices" are attained. The result has the texture of a million birds beating their wings and, to my ear, is very similar to the effect of the Balinese ketjak. Ketjak is structured so that every paragraph has twice as many sentences as the previous paragraph, with every other sentence being a repetition of the sentences (in exactly the same order) from the previous paragraph. One way to think of Ketjak is to imagine putting one sentence on one square of a checkerboard, two on the next, four on the next, and so forth. The fact that repetitions occur creates a sense of cohesion and continuity—you are continually returned to a specific place, and you begin to expect this. This repetition is generic rhyme, a system for setting up readerly quantifications throughout the text. I also found that I could focus attention on the sentences themselves, rather than only on larger structures. This was something that I did not anticipate; it happened in the process of writing. But I had been looking for something like this as early as 1968—focusing attention on the present, rather than on larger structures.
SG: By "larger structures" I assume you mean things like character and plot in the traditional sense.
RS: Exactly. A work built around those structures ensures that the reader's attention is always going to be defused by having to pay attention to what was going on three pages earlier and having to wonder what will be occurring four pages from now. This tends to decenter the consciousness and focus of the reader so that she is not experiencing the "presentness" in the work. This diffusion violates my experience of the world. Even though I am often thinking about a whole series of things and people, those thoughts occur continuously in the present. There is no such thing as a continuous past, such as the aorist tense of fiction, which is a fiction—that tense is precisely what is fictive about fiction. The repetition factor of Ketjak breaks up the context of those "old" sentences and also puts the new sentences into contexts other than those in which they were originally conceived. I was fairly careful not to have too many sentences that followed from those immediately preceding. This was relatively simple, since very often as I was creating Ketjak—which took five months—there would be a month or two between the writing of one sentence and the next. It is very difficult, though, to write continuously from that perspective, so this whole process forced me to direct my attention inward, to focus on the sentence. And it seemed to work.
LM: We've been discussing Ketjak's form, your attention to the sentences, the attempt to keep the reader focused on the present. What about the so-called content of the book? In some respects Ketjak seems a kind of interiorized novel, presenting a portrait of fife and language in the mid-1970s. What were your intentions in this regard? Or were you not much concerned with content?
RS: Ketjak is very content centered. It has been pointed out to me by various other people that there is a great deal of "dailiness," a real taste for the humble, in Ketjak. That sense was very important to me, and still is; it was something I had not been able to approach using a speech-based metaphor for the text. I was recently reading a Viktor Shklovsky essay on Vasilfi Rozanov called "Plotless Literature" in which he talks about Rozanov's use of "plotlessness" in Russia eighty years ago. Shklovsky says this approach was totally consistent with an interest in what he calls "objects in the kitchen." I, too, have some sense of the importance of objects in the kitchen. I don't want to subscribe to the theory of epiphanies in literature here, but I do feel that what has taken on many of the most important characteristics, emotionally, for people in our time are the objects for which we have no names, or those for which we have no particular symbolic importance. A shoelace would be an example of such an object; so would closets, and certain musical instruments. The dobro was a very consciously chosen figure in Ketjak simply because I know of no other writing that mentions it. The sentence in which the dobro appears has to do with communal living on a houseboat on the bay in Marin County; this is a form of American life not much acknowledged by the language of public institutions, which includes creative writing. Presenting these "ignored" areas of experience was and is of definite concern to me, and, in that sense Ketjak is extremely content oriented.
LM: Why is it that certain "contents" become ignored? Is it mainly a matter of convention, or do certain objects have a reason for being talked about over and over again?
RS: The question of what is appropriate content is mainly conventional. People tend to have things in the world that they are taught to view as meaningful. All the rest, of course, continue to exist in the world; they acquire meanings that often become the repositories of emotional responses, responses that at first glance may seem irrational but that are actually the consequence of societal input. We don't articulate our responses to these objects because we have not been preconditioned to recognize their contents. Exploring that territory seems to me to be far more important than producing another campus novel or a book about another failed love affair.
LM: Do you intend, then, to use these "kitchen objects" as objective correlatives, in Eliot's sense of objectifying inner emotional states?
RS: Not in the sense of objectifying inner emotional states. These items are indexes of contemporary American life in ways that serve as indexes for such responses in other people's lives.
SG: This raises an interesting issue: the nature and function of the articulating voice in your fiction and its relationship to you as Ron Silliman. Would you say that you appear in your works as a kind of character?
RS: No, I'd say that the voice in my works is the product of the language that appears there. The subject in Ketjak and Tjanting and the three poems that will eventually be published in The Age of Huts is a consequence of the types of language that appear in each work. Peter Yates, a composer and music theorist, argues that the "content" in music is actually a function of aesthetic consistency—that in any given work there is a "statistical average" of all the different things that are going on, which in contemporary music can be an awful lot. Even someone as discontinuous as John Cage, for example, nevertheless creates an identifiable tone in his works, a tone that is present even in a piece as decentered as "Empty Words." That sense of consistency, that summing up of all the kinds of layers that appear in each work, definitely has the sort of balance that I don't find far from what I would recognize as my own "voice" But I'm not attempting to give that voice a psychology in any traditional sense, an "address" in the sense of a Zip code. This voice is constituted through a lot of exterior information. One way these voices find their way into my work is through my use of found language. There are, for instance, some significant chunks of Willard Van Orman Quine, a person whom I disagree with almost entirely but whose mind I find fascinating. In Ketjak there's also a lot of advertising and street slang, none of which is exactly "me." As every advertising writer knows, whatever you have read you have thought. In that sense those exterior voices do participate in creating that larger voice. "The words are my life," says Louis Zukofsky, and to that extent my works are indeed autobiographical.
LM: What interests you, from a formal standpoint, in found language? Is this the same impulse that made Braque and Picasso place objects from the world into their collages?
RS: I don't think so. I've heard my work described by David Antin and others as "collage technique," but I've always felt uncomfortable with that designation. In the traditional work of the collage there has never been much interest in examining and then returning the interest in those objects back into the world in which they occur. Usually there's not a political or critical usage of these objects, whereas I am very much concerned to bring out those aspects.
SG: Could you give an example of what you mean by the "political and critical uses" of these found objects—these objects being the words themselves, I assume?
RS: Sure. A good example would be technical jargons. The law is a classical example of a jargon, suggesting that all words can be purged of connotations—and it illustrates the fallacy of this suggestion. The different interpretations of the Supreme Court from one generation to the next, which are significantly based on different political pressures at any given period of time, have a lot to do with the fact that in 1980, say, certain words have very different connotations than they did in 1954 or 1832. The entire history of the so-called immutable laws of our nation is based on precisely that denotative fallacy. Professional jargons are often both euphemistic and open about their authoritarianism when looked at closely for the values in the language. The California Department of Corrections had over 8,000 forms in its bureaucracy in the mid-'70s, only one of which—the San Quentin execution document—actually used the word prisoner. That's one end of the scale. The other might be the subtext of the personnel interviewer's closing line, "We will be happy to keep you in mind." Both usages display one-sided power relationships and the social capacity of the language user to manipulate and encode reality. In my work I try to choose sentences that unveil these values. I'm also very interested in the way street language creates neologisms. Ghetto slang represents a dispute over who gets to create meanings in the society. When the counterculture of the '60s was decisively beaten, its elaborate anti-institutional vocabulary very quickly appeared dated, even quaint. The advantage of the forms I've used is that no types of language are ostensibly prohibited because the constraints of character, plot, and setting do not apply
LM: At what point did the titles "Ketjak" and "Tjanting" suggest themselves?
RS: In the case of Ketjak, I knew the musical form several years before writing that book, and my interest in the form had a great deal of intensity at various points. But the title did not immediately attach itself to the text. With Tjanting I was already working with the text when I came across the instrument tjanting, which is a writing implement in batik, despite what it sounds like aurally. Roughly six weeks into what would be the three years of writing that work, I came across this instrument; the absolute minute I saw it and learned its name, I knew exactly what the title of my work would be and was ecstatic an afternoon. I have problems with my titles, as all authors do, because titles are remarkably ambiguous in terms of their relationships to the text as a whole. I agree with Walter Benjamin's distinction between captions and titles—captions penetrate a text and highlight certain elements, while titles name the whole. But the issue is very ambiguous. Think of the radically different implications of using "He Do the Police in Different Voices" and "The Waste Land" as the title of Eliot's poem.
SG: Could you discuss the minute-by-minute processes that occur when you're creating a highly formalized work like Ketjak or Tjanting?
RS: The specifics differ substantially from piece to piece. At the moment, I'm working on two sections of The Alphabet, for which I'm not only using different procedures and notebooks, but even different pens. In the case of Tjanting, which was not begun until after the conclusion of The Age of Huts, the initial impulse centered on a few very simple ideas. In Ketjak, three years earlier, I had developed a paragraph form that both repeated and expanded, giving me a great deal of freedom and still allowing a strong sense of cohesiveness. I felt sure that the simple doubling of sentences from paragraph to paragraph was not the limit of that idea, since, in the most literary sense, it was nothing less than rhyme. I also had a desire to see if I could come up with bipolar structure, something that would pull the poem back and forth, a formal analogy for both struggle and dialectics. One possibility was to begin with two parallel paragraphs, so that the first paragraph would be repeated and expanded in all ensuing even-numbered ones. I was aware of the Fibonacci series, in which each item in the sequence is the sum of the two previous numbers. I was also quite conscious of, and attracted to, the fact that this system is the numerical pattern most often found in nature. It also has the advantage of having the number one for the first two items in the series: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, etc. Using each figure to determine the number of sentences in a paragraph gave me the beginning parallel structure (1, 1) I was seeking plus a progressional asymmetric form that would nonetheless be sensed as coherent by a reader. Unlike Ketjak, where development from one occurrence of a sentence to the next is minimal, I took a device from "2197," one of the works in The Age of Huts, in which a recurring sentence is radically rewritten so as to appear distorted, broken, artificial. In both works I sought a means of revealing how even the clearest of sentences, the most "inevitable" of logics, was no less a Frankensteinian construction. In "2197" this was accomplished by superimposing the vocabulary of one sentence onto the syntax of another, while in Tjanting the recurrent sentences devour themselves. For Tjanting I had a lined accounting notebook in which I intended to put together the final "correct" copy, but I felt that it was too large to carry around with me and write wherever I went, as has always been my practice. I decided to use a tiny pocket journal that Lyn Hejinian had given me for the initial collection of sentences, which were to be transferred, not in their original order, to the larger book. Once I made these decisions, all of which preceded the writing and which took ten months to figure out, I was able to begin.
SG: Do you find such highly formalized structure inhibiting? Or did it liberate you by opening a predetermined "space" that you are free to fill?
RS: Once I had made those initial decisions, I ceased to be concerned with form except insofar as it might exist at the level of syntax or prosody within the individual sentences, so I hardly felt constricted. I am not a formalist. For twenty-one months, the process of Tjanting consisted of writing individual sentences, as they occurred to me or as I found them, in a series of pocket notebooks, at work, on the bus, before breakfast, at political meetings or readings or concerts, whenever, and once every couple of days or week I would sit down for a more extended period, up to five or six hours, and integrate these sentences into the text, while rewriting or deconstructing the recurrent sentences as they came up. Often when I was working in the larger journal new material would be generated in response to everything I was working with. In fact, one of the advantages of this method is that the writer is dealing with so many things simultaneously that the opportunities to see and exploit possible connections, and to develop the writing in any number of areas, are vast. But at any given moment, the process is one of writing by pen in a notebook, looking very hard at an individual sentence or phrase or word, examining what it might be saying, how it might be saying it, considering its social implications, its place in the text, the prosody, what other sentences and phrases might lead into it, even the physical shape and color of the individual letters, or how the ink dries into the grain of the paper. For me, the pleasure of writing is absolutely fixed within the localness of this context. I want the reader to share that aspect of this experience, which is why the focus is so heavily placed on the individual sentence. If the sentences don't "follow" or build abstractions, such as character or plot, to carry the attention away from what is in front of the reader, there is no place to go but into the present, the real.
SG: Despite the absence of narrative structures, the relationship between one sentence and the next in your text is obviously not accidental. But the importance of this relationship, even the nature of the relationship, seems to vary.
RS: Yes, and that's an important point. In Ketjak I was learning how to separate sentences out for the first time, so there was very little sense of anaphoric referral between one sentence and the next, minimal conscious plays from one to the next. In Tjanting there is an awful lot of that kind of in-structuring going on. For example, I might have one sentence referring to a sexual experience and the next will have to do with turning on a pilot light. In determining what sentence to place where, these sorts of relationships figured heavily. The whole procedure is very multilayered. I've heard my writing described as based on chance techniques, but I don't work that way. It's not that I want to disparage the ability of chance techniques as a method of disrupting the habits of the ego on the text, but on the other hand this approach has a tendency, if used over a long period of time, to lead to works without shape. And I'm extremely interested in developing the sense of shape. It's not an accident that both Tjanting and Ketjak begin with short paragraphs and end with long ones.
LM: Earlier you mentioned your lack of interest in character and plot. Your work seems to question the basic assumptions on which these notions are based, but you seem to be coming at this issue from a different perspective than metafictionists such as Coover, Barth, and Federman.
RS: Yes, we share some assumptions, but I also see metafiction as being ultimately a compromise in this regard. While it tries to solve many of the same problems that today's poets are confronting, it still does so from the perspective of character and narrative. This is why Kathy Acker's works are so radically different from metafiction as such. Metafiction hardly ever addresses the question, "Is the character a construct?" or "To what degree is a character a construct?" Even in fragmenting things, metafictionists still have to rely on that final appeal back to the level that is ultimately a compromise, ignoring, among other things, the fact that people experience their lives discontinuously. This is something that, to my mind, forever compromises the work of Samuel Beckett—his sentences are wonderful, but his works are not. To have a character at all is very seldom to critique the idea of "What is a person?" If the words are my life, and if all of the meanings of the words and the ways I receive them are social and derive from social sources—from family, friends, jobs, education, the welfare office, all those inputs—exactly at what point do I get to be the autonomous, continuous person who can be the guilty and unreliable narrator of most fiction, including metafiction? Such individuals do not exist in life and, accordingly, become a problematic basis for fiction.
SG: You mentioned Reich as proposing a kind of structural model for Ketjak. Are any other artists working in this area?
RS: Several. Beyond the "pattern-music" composers, such as Phil Glass or Terry Riley, is William Duckworth. "The Time Curved Preludes" is totally based on the Fibonacci number series. A sculptor named Mario Merz also does works based on it. There's even a newsletter of artists, mostly painters and musicians, published by the Fibonacci Association of San Jose. Duckworth's use of these ideas, in particular, seems close to what I am doing, in that he often uses the series to signify or generate quantity.
LM: Several writers I know also use various forms of arbitrary structural devices—people like Abish, Federman, Steve Katz, Ron Sukenick. What sorts of things cause you to be attracted to this approach—and why did you choose the specific approaches on which you rely?
RS: I was attracted to the Fibonacci series because it's one that occurs in nature. The relationships within the curve of a mollusk shell and the placement of leaves around a branch are both Fibonacci structures. These are forms that look extremely simple, elegant, and almost accidental in their grace. The Fibonacci series proposes a relationship to mathematics as pure abstraction and to the idea that nature and mathematics are not separate. It also has the ability to generate spatial relationships, quantitative relationships that are shapely and perceptible from one paragraph to the next. I was looking recently at the number of prime numbers under 10,000; there are 1229—itself a prime number, which is not an accident. Yet the relationship between the prime numbers is such that there is very little difference between one prime number and the next, particularly when you get up into the middle thousands. There is no way to develop a good-looking work out of these prime-number relationships, no way I could create a pleasing work out of that arbitrary structure—and neither could Walter Abish or Steve Katz—without submitting it to some other kind of operation that would knock out a lot of the prime numbers so that you could develop some sense of appropriate shape. Without some other operation, a sense of scale is lost. And scale, at least in my work, is essential in creating an impression of progress, movement, development. Scale motivates the reader. A paragraph that has 9907 sentences and another that would have 9923 will not be perceived as being smaller and larger. This is an important consideration, especially when using non-narrative structures. I should admit that I almost flunked math in high school, so I don't propose myself as a mathematician. I tend to appropriate things as I need them.
LM: Obviously, in a fundamental sense, the structural conventions on which you based Ketjak and Tjanting are no more artificial than the conventions of realistic fiction. The shapes that emerge are different, and may serve different functions, but they're all conventional.
RS: Right. In terms of arbitrariness, all works begin, end, and proceed in terms of conventions. Of course, there's nothing wrong with conventions per se, whether or not we're talking about those of the first-person novel, the organic forms of Charles Olson or Wordworth's Prelude, or Whitman's free verse or purely closed forms. The real question is whether the writer is proposing value or simply operating from the thoughtlessness of lazy habit. If there is historical antecedent to the kinds of works that I write, it would have to be something like the sonnet, a closed form on a much smaller scale.
SG: Are there any other contemporary writers you especially admire or feel you have something in common with?
RS: A lot. Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, and Rae Armantrout immediately come to mind as people who for many years have had something important to teach me. Others I might mention in this regard are Robert Grenier, Bruce Andrews, Carla Harryman, Allen Bernheimer, and Kathy Acker. If there is one book that made me feel as I was reading it that all the effort everybody had been exerting for over a decade was totally worth it, Hejinian's My Life is that book. But there are so many others. I've been editing an anthology of "my kind of writing," entitled In the American Tree, for Ross Erikson's New Wilderness Poetics Series. That book will contain prose, poetry, and criticism of thirty-nine writers. It could easily have been twice as many This is a fine time for writing in America. A decentralized literature has a million important tasks. Everyone seems to be hard at work.
Reprinted from Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s. Conducted and Edited by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.