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Ron Silliman Interview

Ron Silliman has written and edited 26 books to date, most recently Under Albany. Between 1979 and 2004, he wrote a single poem, entitled The Alphabet. In addition to Woundwood, a part of VOG, volumes published thus far from that project have included ABC, Demo to Ink, Jones, Lit, Manifest, N/O, Paradise, (R), Toner, What and Xing. He has now begun writing a new poem entitled Universe.

In the 1970s, he was associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry group that also included Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perlman and Susan Howe.

He was a 2003 Literary fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2002 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Arts Council as well as a Pew Fellow in the Arts in 1998. He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons, and works as a market analyst in the computer industry. 


Thomas A. Vogler is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published on topics ranging from the eighteenth century to contemporary poetry. His publications include: Preludes to Vision: The Epic Venture in Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, and Hart Crane; Twentieth century interpretations of To the lighthouse: A Collection Of Critical Essays; Twentieth Century Interpretations of Wuthering Heights: A Collection of Critical Essays. He has edited a collection of essays on Ron Silliman, Ron Silliman and the Alphabet, which includes an essay by him entitled ‘Reading Silliman Writing’.  

His latest book is a collection of essays called Witness and Memory: The Discourse of Trauma, which includes a lengthy Introduction and an essay by him entitled: 'Poetic Witness: Writing the Real'.


TAV: How have developments in Internet technology (especially email, blogs, sites like the Electronic Poetry Center, Modern American Poetry) affected your personal sense of a poetic community? Do you have a vision of further developments along these lines?

RS: The Internet is a communications technology, but so is the book. Both enable asynchronous communication – I write this now and you read it at a later date, maybe hours, maybe centuries. But the Internet also can be synchronous – instant messaging, for example. The book as an object is a one-to-one technology in its essence: one reader at a time & most often one author. Yet that can be altered somewhat – an anthology or a magazine, for that manner, is a many to one technology. And printing enables multiples, which can be shipped out to be sold in lots at every Wal-Mart in the world. So for a John Grisham, the idea of the book as a one to many technology may seem “ordinary” .The Internet can do every one of these kinds of combinations. And it’s still a very young technology in historic terms. The gap from the Gutenberg Bible to Tottel’s Miscellaney, the first anthology of poetry in English, was 103 years. Shakespeare’s First Folio came 65 years later. Publishers in English didn’t standardize spelling or capitalization until the 1760s. It would be another 270 or -80 years before authors such as Mark Twain in fiction or Ezra Pound in poetry began to produce manuscripts on typewriters. A century later, the typewriter is a dead technology. CPM, the most common PC technology before DOS, is a relic. So is DOS, tho a lot of small retail point-of-sale systems still run DOS programs. University rare book and manuscript libraries thus far have taken the position that hard copy is truth. They don’t want your collected letters on a platform that won’t exist in twenty years, in spite of the cost of page-by-page physical preservation, which is daunting.

Poetry in the San Francisco Bay Area grew up quite different from that along the East Coast, or even in Chicago, because the region was geographically isolated really up until the end of the Second World War. William Carlos Williams visited just once, in the 1950s, Pound and Eliot not at all, Stein really only because that’s where she and Alice Toklas had both grown up, tho’ it no longer seemed that there was any “there there,” by which Stein meant actually the small but distinct communities that became blurred, overlapping neighborhoods as Oakland evolved in the 20tth century.

The key figure in the evolution of the Bay Area scene proved to be Kenneth Rexroth, in large part because he actively sought out that role. Before he arrived, the Bay Area literary community had consisted of the likes of Ina Coolbrith, George Sterling – who I think passed away the week Rexroth arrived – and Witter Bynner, who had the first creative writing professorship at Berkeley, but had already left for the Southwest. By the time the scene began to expand at the end of the Second World War, it was Rexroth’s venue. Robinson Jeffers may have been a better poet, but Carmel is even now too far removed to have any impact – indeed, Palo Alto is too far removed. Kenneth Patchen was already out of action with his back problems, tho you can detect his influence in the use of drawing in poems by Robert Duncan & especially Phil Whalen. Josephine Miles, who had inherited Bynner’s job, was a supportive and nondirective presence, but she really was a continuation of the pre-Rexroth scene, a poetics that only cautiously stuck one toe in the tsunami of modernism.

By the time the key figures of the Berkeley Renaissance (see the third issue of Fulcrum for a wonderful feature on this scene) moved to San Francisco, you had the makings for a real scene. But the Renaissance boys were all gay & Rexroth was a heterosexist in all matters, so it wasn’t until the Beats arrived that it reached critical mass. Except for Ferlinghetti & McClure, they largely moved on after a year or two – it’s a joke really to have a street named for Kerouac in San Francisco, but none for Duncan or Spicer – but the scene that exists there to this day can be traced directly back now a half century to that one. Tho Rexroth himself has of late become something of a progenitor of one small slice of the School of Quietude – that would have appalled him no end – one can see his attitudes still in the Bay Area scene: a distinct bias toward what is now the post-avant tradition, a sense of literary history that includes as much of Asia as it does of Europe, a preference for avant-garde music, suspicion if not outright hostility toward the School of Q and “official verse culture”, a sense that poetry and progressive politics have much to tell one another.

But the key feature of the Bay Area scene, to this day, is that it’s a face-to-face community, magazines & books are distributed by hand, literally, readings are as apt to be held in people’s apartments – as was Bob Perelman’s now legendary talk series – as they are in coffee houses, art spaces or in the fog at SF State. In Jack Spicer’s day, it was something of a sin to send your book or magazine off to friends in New York. One lingering result is that you’ll find the blogosphere somewhat under-represented in the Bay Area.

At the same time, there has always been this larger, transgeographic literary world, the one in which book distribution plays an institutional role. Rexroth himself was careful never to let that go, nor did any of the major New American poets, really, outside of Spicer. Think of all the torment Duncan put himself through deciding which publisher to use for The Opening of the Field. Should he go with Macmillan, which meant instant national (even international) distribution, but the loss of Jess’ artwork on the cover? Should he publish with a small press, like Graham Macintosh’s White Rabbit, where he could have complete control? In the end, he compromised – Grove Press had elements of both worlds in its soul. Jess’ artwork became the title page, but a modified version was used on the cover. But Duncan suffered later on when New Directions printed Bending the Bow & misprinted some of his Nerval variations.

In the 1970s, when language poetry was rapidly evolving in the Bay Area, I had a sense of a bifurcated, even schizophrenic scene. On the one hand, you had the publications that were distributed more or less literally by hand, including my own Tottel’s, Barrett Watten’s This, Kit Robinson’s Streets and Roads & others. You had Kathy Acker handing out her self-published novels, one chapter per month. On the other hand some poets, like myself, like Watten, were already publishing far more broadly. Indeed, I’d been publishing since I was a teen. But it felt as if there were two distinct realities. If I appeared in Caterpillar or Chicago Review, virtually nobody in the Bay Area would notice. If I appeared in This, it seemed as if nobody outside the Bay Area knew. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not as much of one as you might think.

I think one still gets this division between the world of immanence & the world of dispersed communications, but the web has strengthened the latter in ways that we can as yet barely imagine. Poets in Helsinki & Auckland can chat away. The days in which one was amazed by the strangeness of being published by a press in the Canary Islands have passed. The serious writer in Rock Springs, Wyoming, is no longer relegated to isolation. Yet at the same time, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that face-to-face communications have become more, not less, important as all this takes place. There is always going to be that push-pull.

The web is functionally just eleven years old right now, the Internet a few decades older, tho most of us came to it just as it was starting to accelerate its communicative potential. But try to imagine the role of the telephone eleven years after it rolled out as a public technology. Even in my youth, when the technology was over half a century old, we still lived with party lines and phone numbers only had six digits.

If you look at the 500 practicing poets listed on my blogroll, one of the first things you will notice is that relatively few of them are veterans of publishing. For every Nick Piombino or Steve Vincent or Halvard Johnson, you get several dozen who are still in college, still trying to pull together that first manuscript & imagine what it would take to convince a publisher to invest the time, energy & capital to bring out a book. My own weblog is already one of the venerable ancient ones, yet it’s not even three years old. So the rollout of this technology has been dramatic. My own readership has grown steadily since its beginning. I had fewer than 60,000 visits the first year. Last month, I had 25,000, an increase in readership of over 500 percent in two years. And I find that I too read more blogs now on any given day than I did awhile back. There are more people with interesting, valuable things to say.

But what are the consequences of blogging for poetry? Well, first of all, it’s not the same as poetry, and my impression thus far is that very few of the weblogs that have primarily featured poems, as distinct from poetics, have really paid off the investment in time & energy. The biggest exception to that, I think, would be Mike Magee’s My Angie Dickinson, which ran from June of 2003 through September of last year. But that’s an interesting project regardless of the media platform, which turns out to be an important lesson in the age of new media.

One consequence of blogging is that suddenly 500 mostly younger poets can put themselves out there & in some cases make significant headway in getting their work & views & aesthetic better known, without having to rely on the traditional limitations of the small press print scene. A second is that the rise of blogs appears to have weakened listservs – not fatally, but in part, as vehicles for discussion – and they’ve killed off some older technologies like MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions). One of the first things I did with the University of Pennsylvania when I moved out here ten years ago was to participate in the school’s poetry MUD. It felt very primitive, like the first games that Netware put out to show people how networks could work.

Now listservs have been a function of the poetry scene for eleven years – since the Poetics List began, but as email shifts away from OS-based programs like Outlook over to web-based ones like Gmail & Yahoo, you can see listserv technology caught up in a double bind – do they add graphics capabilities to keep the 80 percent of their users who are steadily following the technology upward, or do they continue to restrict that so that everyone can participate? So far the decisions have always been toward the latter, but the day is coming when that will make the technology seem irrelevant. And then it will be counter productive. Already it’s been reduced to a means of sending out notices – the one thing it’s genuinely good at doing.

Will weblogs as we know them in 2005 still exist in 2015? That’s actually hard to say. There certainly will always be a place for some one-to-many (whether that is three or three million) communications, and it’s hard to imagine a situation that gives author’s more control over their self-representation. We’re still at a point, tho, where bloggers amount to 1/100th of one percent of the world population – there is a very sharp point to this pyramid, and a steep ramp downward along the technology divide. It will be interesting to see how much wider this can spread beyond the eight million bloggers who exist today. I’ve seen some anti-blogging types who characterize this self-authorized expression as a kind of Babylon already. That may be blogging’s ultimate fate, but we’re a long ways from that today.

The print journal, it would seem to me, is pretty much doomed. Online journals are newer than listservs, tho older than blogging. Jacket, the grand-daddy of web zines, dates from 1997. This will be the first year in which the majority of my periodical appearances will be on the web. But why would somebody deal with all the grief of starting up a print publication now unless one had extraordinary resources and was aiming at specific end of the literary marketplace. It would make sense to do a Shiny, Conjunctions or Locus Solus in print. But Tottel’s would certainly be a webzine if it existed today. So would and very possibly even This.

Today, because of my weblog, I get roughly 15-20 books in the mail each week. I get manuscripts via email pretty much daily. I get long, often intensely personal emails & letters from people, more than I could possibly reply to, more sometimes than I can even read closely. I still get more emails related to my day job, but it can be overwhelming. If I set the system down for a few days, the backup is horrific. That side of communication is disturbing, simply because I sense there’s a limit and I’m already over the line in several ways. But if I look, say, at the last two dozen emails I received, exactly two were from people with whom I used to be in touch before the days of the web. My own literary connections now are far more a network – by which I mean transgeographic – than they are elements of a geographic scene. I’m a part of the Philadelphia scene in that I have access to it, and it’s pretty easy for somebody here to get me to do something like a reading or talk. But my own Venn diagram of interests is quite a bit broader.

In Philadelphia, the poets I really relate to are first, people basically of my own generation, like Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Bob Perelman – both of them have enormous things they can teach me, and I read them with care & passion, and have intense conversations (tho too few & too far in between). Then there are younger poets who are doing things that fascinate me. Linh Dinh is at the head of that list along with Jena Osman and then Pattie McCarthy, Jenn & Chris McCreary, Thomas Devaney, CA Conrad, Abdul Hayy, Mytili Jaganathan, Greg Djanikian, Frank Sherlock, Alicia Askenase, Eli Goldblatt, Daisy Fried, some of the students at Penn & Temple, and finally some of the carpetbaggers who teach here like Charles Bernstein & Chip Delany. That’s an awfully good list if you think about it. But there’s not one person on it whom I actually see more than six or eight times in any given year.

TAV:  What are your thoughts about the category of “visual poetry”?

RS: A visual poet I’ve known since my days running the Tenderloin Writers Workshop in the late ‘70s, Crag Hill just collaborated with me on an interview of Geof Huth for Tom Beckett’s weblog. I think of Huth as the consummate theorist of the genre. However, since Huth approaches vispo from within as a practitioner, he isn’t half so concerned with what Foucault called ‘the oldest opposition of our alphabetic civilization: showing and naming; representing and telling; reproducing and articulating; imitating and signifying; looking and reading’ as he is with exploring that – to use his term – the borderland between the two.

I’m not a visual poet – tho I did work with some shaped forms in the very early 1970s, things that predate Ketjak by a couple of years – and my own interests tend to fall on one side of this border, on what vispo can tell us about language, as such. The other side, where vispo tells us more about graphic art, is of less direct interest to me as an artist (tho not necessarily as a fan of the visual arts).

Saussure banishes the graphic from his system of language precisely because it complicates the systematic abstraction of elements beyond belief – the categorizing that is the first step in a scientific inquiry to actually existing phenomena just becomes impossible. Derrida, of course, comes along later to make great mischief out of this expulsion of the graphic.

The problem, as I see it, is that any attempt to systematize anything ends up ineluctably as a series of either/or conditions, but it is becoming increasingly clear that brain activity isn’t neat & tidy like that, that linguistic responses to stimuli occur in multiple locations, in overlapping, asynchronous (as well as simultaneous) activity – this must be one of the reasons free association is possible – and that you can’t reduce language “just” to the phonemic differential, nor to a visual one (“all letters constructed with a vertical”), nor to a referential component – indeed, denotations is almost always the special case, hardly ever the norm. That’s why courts forever have to “interpret” the law – because it’s never ultimately clear.

The reasons for visual poetry are thus many & complex. Partly it’s the recognition of something that has been neglected. Partly it’s the next step in a certain line of avant-garde pursuits, you can trace the current generation back through Concretism, Dada & Futurism, indeed back to the time of illuminated manuscripts & cave paintings. Partly it’s an expression of an internationalism that can be truly stateless – you don’t need to read Spanish or German or whatever to get most, if not all, vispo. Finally, it’s a comment on the exhaustion of other trends in poetry – certainly within the School of Quietude, but also within post-avant traditions as well.

TAV: What part does critical and theoretical writing have in your career as a writer? What do you hope to accomplish through critical writing, in your blog and more formal publications? Do you have an agenda for future publication in this area?

RS: From my perspective, critical & theoretical writing are a part of the larger process, as is correspondence with other poets, attending readings, talks, reading the work of others, reading theory. The poem does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is the most public – or performative – face of this larger process that is the life of the poet. My goal for my critical writing, in whatever form or forum, has always been the same: to clarify my thinking, to push it & see where it leads. Working through a critical text is a mechanism for moving my thinking forward almost by force. When I began ‘The New Sentence,’ for example, I know only that I was seeing a lot of prose being written by many of the poets I was then most concerned with, and I wanted to think through what the implications of that might be. I ended up having to educate myself on the history of the prose poem, to think through a lot of analytical philosophy & look more closely at a lot of writing to come up with ideas like torque, the use of the syllogism, even opacity, that for me are the larger meaning of that essay. Similarly, I never would have come with the idea of the School of Quietude (which I appropriated from Poe) or the concept of the post-avant without the process of my weblog. My weblog has really forced me to come to an understanding of what writing is today, as distinct from what it was in the early 1980s when I edited In the American Tree. All of these are things that inform my reading of the writing of others, mostly, but that in turn impact what I see when I do. Gabe Gudding asked me a while ago if I could see the impact of my weblog on my poetry, post-Alphabet. The honest answer is that in the two pieces of Universe I’m presently working on, Revelator & Feral Machines, I see it principally in the latter, in how the line operates in the latter more than anything else. But that’s only what I’m conscious of. I suspect that there is much more that may seem apparent to me later, but which remains mysterious for now.

I don’t have an agenda, as such, for my weblog, at least in terms of book form down the road, tho’ I do have some notes toward a critical volume that would largely focus on my critical & theoretical pieces before & outside of the blog. To date, I’ve written a little over 850,000 words on the blog, which suggests that there is a terrifying editorial project somewhere in the future.

Yet I’m not even convinced at the moment that this is necessary. The blog, after all, is a publication, as such. As a project, it is the most widely read thing I’ve ever written, getting over 1,000 visits per day. The book form of such a project would really be something else altogether – it would be a claim that X, Y & Z were the important elements of the blog, not A, B & C. So it really would represent something fairly different. Having said all that, my weblog did have a social agenda when I got started. I wanted to create a space for poets – not just my friends, or my “kind” of poets, but all kinds – to discuss writing more seriously between one another & outside of an academic context as such. From my perspective, the best critical discussions in literature are almost always between two or three poets in a non-formal setting, maybe at a bar after a reading, or over Chinese food or burritos. Forcing the print expression of such thinking into academic contexts – books of essays, critical journals – has always struck me as being as much about the control of such thinking as it is about furthering it. I sort of stumbled onto the blog as a model – my nephew Dan has had one for several years and at one point was posting his philosophy papers there & discussing them. It made me recognize that this form was much more than the teen gossip venue it had at first appeared to be. So my initial venture into the form, back in August 2002, was very much modeled after his. I was amazed, when I first sent a note with the URL to the Poetics List, to get 140 responses on the very first day. I could not be happier to see the 600-plus blogs that now exist around poetry in English. That is a means of taking the reins of critical discourse away from the institutional prerogatives of the academy, putting them back in the hands of poets. And that’s a good thing.


TAV: You have commented elsewhere about your personal bias for poetry over poems, and the importance of the narrative unfolding of a poet’s lifework. Where do you see yourself now in the narrative unfolding of your own lifework? Has that narrative taken any surprising or unexpected turns since Ketjak?

RS: Ha! Has there been any element that has not been surprising would be more like it. I have been constructing this rather large object a piece at a time, a sentence at a time, a phrase at a time, with some general sense of direction that seems to me driven as much by desire as by any conscious plan. I’ve never started a project that didn’t in some fashion almost instantly rearrange itself & inform me of where it wanted to go, which was not necessarily at all what I’d previously been thinking. I spent an enormous amount of time planning Tjanting, for example, only to have it show me that what I really needed to be doing was something different – simpler even – as a means for getting to that larger scope & richness I’d first envisioned. In The Alphabet, I at first envisioned Quindecagon as a response to a request by Carla Harryman for her journal Qu, but by the time I was able to really understand how to begin writing, that publication was long gone. And then I wrote much of it over the course of three or four days in a hotel attached to the New Orleans Convention Center. You proved even harder to start; nearly a decade after I’d first envisioned it. In fact, Xing is much closer to what I’d first imagined the other to be. At one moment, Engines – the collaborative section written with Rae Armantrout – was actually called Twizzling Shadows. I live in the community where the helicopter, or at least one version thereof, was first invented (as was the Slinky), but our recognition, Rae’s & mine, of the importance of the helicopters in that poem occurred ten years before I’d ever heard of Chester County.

Going into Universe, I know only that I’m building a large structure – I envision 360 pieces in all – and that I’m not yet fully sure of how they will organize themselves. At first I’d imagined a quartet of orienting pieces that I called in my mind Whatness, Witness, Wetness & Whitness, but already Witness has become Revelator, certainly the most Biblical allusion I’ve ever put into a title, while Whatness has become Feral Machines. I have some notes for what was once (& may yet again be) Whiteness, but that’s all they are at the moment. And I have a sense of the organization that is spatial – I keep thinking of these first four pieces as setting up quadrants, thinking of each poem as one degree of a rotation. But what fascinates me right how isn’t what I might know or envision, but what I don’t, a far larger & more fertile terrain. At the rate that I’m currently proceeding, a couple of years for every poem, this may take awhile.


copyright © Ron Silliman & Thomas A. Vogler