The Argotist OnlineTM
(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)
fascinating essay affirms the utter otherness of the imagination. It affirms
astonishment—boundary-breaking—as an element of good writing. It conceives
of poetry as the experience of something not
ourselves (or if ourselves, so deeply hidden that it might as well be
other). What Berry is asserting is what Robin Blaser called, in reference to
Jack Spicer, “the practice of outside”: “The determined assertion of [Jack
Spicer’s] poetry [is] that it is among the powers, forces, and events of an
outside that we live…Poetry becomes an active record of that outside which
draws into itself the man, the poet, and his landscape…” Spicer’s taking
on the identity of the dead Garcia Lorca in the wonderfully titled book After
Lorca is one instance of a determined movement towards this outside. It is
similar to Gertrude Stein’s attempt to write her own autobiography as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, though Toklas was a living
woman, not—like Spicer’s Lorca—a ghost. (“Low ghosts” are Spicer’s
practice of outside is not a question of “finding your own voice.” The
notion of “finding your own voice” is an assertion having to do with the
individuality and interiority of the writer. This is Diane di Prima, from her
book Recollections of My Life as a Woman,
on that subject:
These new poems of mine, with their longer lines and almost deadly certainty, had already begun before Roi [Amiri Baraka] knocked on my door. They had begun with my first peyote trip, and with the vast permission I had found in Jimmy Waring’s “composition classes.” But now, as my emotional life came to a strong, though temporary, focus—this new work, too, came to a fruition: a powerful voice found its way through me and into the world. The first of many voices that would speak through me, now that I no longer sought to control the poem.
For isn’t it not that we “find our voice” as poetry teachers are so fond of saying, but rather that voices find us, and perhaps we welcome them? Is not poetry a dance from possession to possession—“obsession” in the full sense the word had in nineteenth-century magick? We are “ridden” as by the gods.
Prima’s emphasized “not” is a measure of her own movement away from the
notion of individuality—“now that I no longer sought to control the poem.”
friend of mine recently complained about people in workshops rewriting /
suggesting lines for poems by others. She felt that if you
re-write a person’s poem in a workshop, you might stifle or suggest too
strongly what the person might come up with in any case. She argued that we can
write better poems if we share our work with fellow poets and get feedback but
that re-writing was often inhibiting—especially if you suggest something that
was already on the tip of your poet-friend’s pen.
felt that my friend’s comments were based on the notion of the
“individual” and of the poem as the (sacred) “expression” of the
individual. Personally (individually), I told her, I don't believe in either
suggested that what she was enunciating was what most people believe about
writing and how good writing is produced. Not to “stifle” the—individual.
In this context, the comments of other writers—“sharing poems and receiving
feedback”—becomes the mostly friendly activity of people engaged in the same
task as the writer. They are not so much “others” as versions of
him/herself. There is a deliberate suppression of boundary breaking. But I think
that having someone suggest a line (“rewrite”) or suggest even more than a
line moves a writer out of the I-centered world he/she tends to inhabit and into
a world in which the center is not what the writer individually
“feels”—not the writer’s interiority—but language itself conceived of
as a force to which anyone can tune in. “I can’t make the word ‘moon’ mean more than it means,” remarked Robert
Duncan. There is of course no law that says anyone has to accept anything
suggested—but what happens if something outside your poem begins to
inhabit it, what if your words begin suddenly to mean something different,
something different from what “you” intended?
of the things I have people do in workshops is this: Someone has written a poem.
Fine. Someone else has written a poem. Fine. I then have people read the two
poems against one another—simultaneously. Do the words in the poems change
their meaning as they encounter another poem? Often people find that they do.
beliefs have led me to practices such as the one I call “writing”—as
opposed to “reading”—“between the lines.” Here is an example:
wrote this poem in response to a poem in Charles
Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck. The words in the first, third, fifth, etc. lines
are Bukowski’s poem; the words in italics are by me. I call this way of
responding to a poem “writing between the lines.” When I perform the poem, I
speak the Bukowski portion in my “normal” voice; I speak the words by me in
mockingbird had been following the cat
was this cat
I only saw him
he gave a
cat crawled under rockers on porches
said something angry to the mockingbird
I didn’t understand.
the cat walked calmly up the driveway
he read this poem
the mockingbird alive in its mouth,
fanned, beautiful wings fanned and flopping,
parted like a woman’s legs,
he was both
the bird was no longer mocking,
was asking, it was praying
he was devouring
down through centuries
saw it crawl under a yellow car
bargain it to another place.
resulting poem is neither fully Bukowski’s nor fully mine but a kind of
collision of mutual otherness. I keep interrupting Bukowski; I keep adding my
lines to his. But, equally, his lines keep interrupting mine. (What happens to
the word “cat” between the first and second lines?)
don’t believe that the openness to which Jake Berry’s essay repeatedly
returns can really be taught. But it can be experienced. (Thelonious Monk, “Epistrophy,”
Paris, 1966.) * The first thing that most creative writing courses do is to
close the door to astonishment; to boundary breaking. We don’t need to open a
door. We need to have something that breaks it down.
Ed Michel: “Monk’s chords are mostly perfectly respectable chords. Perfectly
respectable. It’s where he puts them
that makes them seem strange.”
© Jack Foley
his wife, Adelle, Jack Foley frequently performs his work in the San Francisco
Bay Area. He has published eleven books of poetry, seven books of criticism, and
a book of translations of the French singer/songwriter, Georges Brassens. Since
1988, he has hosted a poetry radio show on Berkeley, California station, KPFA.
His column, “Foley’s Books,” appears in the online magazine, The Alsop Review. His recent, monumental Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line 1940-2005 has
received international attention with reviews in both England (TLS,
Beat Scene) and the USA.