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Language Writing and Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-24 : Three Interviews

Benoît Bondroit, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman et Barrett Watten

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1This series of three interviews with poets Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman and Barrett Watten focuses on the twenty-fourth and final movement of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”. “A”-24 was composed by musician Celia Thaew-Zukofsky and given to her husband on the occasion of his sixty-fourth birthday in January 1968. Therefore, it should be considered as one of those numerous “found objects” which only became part of Zukofsky’s “poem of a life” through a process of quotation. Over two hundred pages or so, the score redistributes quotations taken from Zukofsky’s poetic, critical, and dramatic works and spreads them among four different voices or parts: “Drama,” “Thought,” “Story” and “Poem.” Nine pieces taken from Handel’s Harpsichord Works complete this polyphony and determine the speed at which each section should be read. A powerful synthesis of Zukofsky’s writing career on the page, “A”-24 nonetheless remains an elusive work on stage. The overload effect tends to overwhelm, canceling out any metaphorical reading of “A”-24 as the resolution of a life-work attaining the condition of music. With no real equivalent in the American modernist landscape, “A”-24 relentlessly questions such notions as “voice” or “authorship,” but it also raises issues as to the critical and theoretical implications of a practice of poetry that must now be thought of in its relationship to the stage. A difficult and relatively confidential text, “A”-24 has been performed only five times since it was first published in 1972. Two of these performances were set up in San Francisco in 1978 by poets Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson and Barrett Watten. In the interviews that follow, Watten, Perelman and Harryman explain how the Language Poets then approached the difficulties raised by the staging of a text which is still often considered today as an anomaly within the genre of the American long poem. The discussion then embarks on their reassessment of Zukofsky’s influence on contemporary American poetry and poetics. From there emerges a reflection on the dynamics of deference, preservation, and rejection underlying the conversation that the works of the Language Poets entertain with each other, and with those of their predecessors.

2The first two interviews compile several exchanges that took place between 2013 and 2022, either by email or face to face. Carla Harryman’s interview was conducted in April 2022. It continues a conversation which started in November 2021 on the occasion of the “Correlations and Conversations in Poetics” symposium jointly organized by Nanterre University and the École Normale Supérieure.

3The recordings of the two performances are available on Pennsound:​pennsound/​authors/​Zukofsky/​Zukofsky-Louis_A-24_UC-Davis_11-16-78.mp3​pennsound/​authors/​Zukofsky/​Zukofsky-Louis_A-24_Grand-Piano_SF_6-30-78.mp3

An Interview with Barrett Watten

4Barrett Watten is a language-centered poet and critic, the author of numerous volumes of poetry, including Frame (1971-1990), Bad History, Progress, Under Erasure, and the recently completed Zone (Correlations, 1973–2021). With nine other poets of the “language school,” he collaborated on the ten volumes of The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975–1980. His work in poetics includes three major books: Total Syntax (1985), The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (2003), and Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences (2016). Barrett is a Full Professor of English at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Barrett Watten


Benoît Bondroit: Barrett, thank you so much for making this interview possible and for your interest in this project! You participated in the two performances of “A”-24 which were given by the Language poets in San Francisco in 1978, and you interpreted the “poem” part on those two occasions. My first question focuses on a rather practical aspect of performing the masque. A conductor (in the traditional sense of someone who keeps things together and tells people when to enter, etc.) is certainly the last thing this work needs. Nevertheless, I find it hard to imagine how, in practice, the musician of the group could but be forced to become some kind of a substitute conductor. Would you say that the music played by Bob Perelman was precisely what served as a common ground for the other performers in the group, some kind of breadcrumb trail that you were expected to follow? In which case, how do you understand Zukofsky’s assertion that the Handel’s material featured in “A”-24 is nothing more than yet another “voice” in the masque, one that should neither take precedence over the words nor merely accompany them?

Barrett Watten: Your question points to some interesting aspects of “A”-24 that I had not fully considered: first, what does it mean to perform the text/score and second, to what extent do the difficulties of language translate into difficulties of performance? “A”-24 does have an initial aspect of purely textual fantasy. It was published in book form, with little sense that it was intended to be performed. I don’t believe any performances had been given, in fact, and none are recorded. Hence, we imagined ourselves to be breaking new ground, translating the textual fantasy (of some material/eternal music “elsewhere”) into real time and space. To perform the text meant, first, to coordinate the four vocal parts with each other, and second, to sync them with the music. There are initially two voices in the piece, then: text and music, and they are entirely different in that the time, timbre, pitch, and volume of words is radically unlike those qualities in performed music. The polyphony of voices, too, cannot be built on relations of tonality, though the semantic overtones (or hearing of work “in its recurrences,” as Zukofsky said of Celia’s score) may be likened to them. So, for many of us—and this is developed in the discussion in Grand Piano 7—the analogy between music and poetry came undone through the experience of “A”-24. Then, there is a third element that united the two: the measure. While for music of Handel’s period the measure is organically connected to the sequence of notes, for Celia’s text it is not. Therefore, the strictures of the musical measure must be adapted and applied to the text. Many of us found this to be very challenging and quite difficult. What is the duration of speech when measured against a bar? Here, there is an element of constraint in a very exterior sense—linking Zukofsky to OuLiPo, perhaps—where the material form of music becomes the source of abstract “numbers.” It is Zukofsky’s materialism speaking, no doubt. Therefore, we have the beginning of a fourfold allegory: music, text, measure, and the horizon of performance, interpretation, action. At least that’s how I understood it, as a 70s Marxist who had been in class with Northrop Frye.

BB: In “A”-24, language itself is contrapunted with language. The different voices intermingle and may create new associations of sound and meaning. My own experience of listening to your recorded performances, however, is that the effect of overload can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Some “sparks” of meaning merely seem to happen here and there, as if by accident, through the superposition of those different voices. Some of the vertical conjunctions may very well have been intended by Celia Zukofsky when she put “A”-24 together, but the work being quite long, it seems hardly possible that anyone would ever succeed in following her score perfectly. Don’t you think that, in spite of the obvious horizontal constraint that the music imposes onto the words, and despite what the printed page itself seems to suggest, this vertical “nexus” of meaning is rather aleatory?

BW: The four vocal pieces become one “voice” in their relatedness, and it is really not possible to follow their associations. I don’t know if Celia Zukofsky intended the effect of overload, but it was there. As one friend who heard the piece at the time said, it’s like my Jewish relatives all talking at once at the table. Here, we are talking about cultural interpretations of consonance and dissonance; a wall of sound as a form of short-circuited midrash, against the high humanism of much of the literariness Zukofsky employs. I speak of a kind of cultural perverseness of this work—which we scarcely comprehended at the time—in my section on performing in Grand Piano 1 (12-22). There was, at about the same time in San Francisco, a “competing” interpretation by the Noh Oratorical Society, one much closer to the Robert Duncan/Ronald Johnson circle, which I believe saw the text as more musical and lyrical. In the end, we saw it as a challenge to language, interpretability, and meaning, staged as an overwhelmingly affective event. We sent the tape to Celia and she was quite polite in response, and when she was so very polite, one of us (me I think) wrote her to ask if she thought we had interpreted the text in a way that was different from how she imagined it. She agreed, but thought that it was legitimate. The aspect of the piece that was surprising, finally, was how uninterpretable it was, and how the effect of that uninterpretability created a kind of sublime and crescendoing performance.

BB: So, would you say that “A”-24 is both a drive towards meaning and an exhaustion of meaning, at once an affirmation and a questioning of language as a medium? In which case, would you consider that the notion of entropy applies to “A”-24?

BW: Yes, the stated intent of “A”-24 was “to hear the work in its recurrences”—the patterns and interrelations of the entirety of “A” as “life writing” confirmed in a redemptive form where the listener gets it all at once. But you could easily argue that the opposite was the result—that “A”-24 in some way cancels out the organic coherence of the rest of the poem. I would argue that this possibility was important for the Language school in terms of “de-totalizing” Marxist horizons, toward which Zukofsky led the way. In any case,“A”-24 seems to offer redemption everywhere but defer it always—making a theological corrective to the political project of revolutionary Marxism, in short. We took notes.

BB:A” has often been categorized as a modernist long poem in what Marjorie Perloff calls “the Pound tradition.” Few such long poems came to an end and “A” is often seen as an exception or, perhaps even, an anomaly amongst those. A possible explanation for this would be that those poems were “process-oriented” instead of being teleological. Would you agree with that idea? And, if so, could the same thing be said of the long poems which were subsequently written by the Language poets, such as Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, or you very own Progress?

BW: The genre of the modern epic is an important contribution of American literature—no other literature produced so many. Though the Cantos were an important instance, they do not define the field. Rather, there is a family resemblance between and among a number of instances. Zukofsky, I think, began his poem thinking that it would coincide with the revolution in some way. He took some of Pound’s techniques and redefined them, particularly in “A”-8, from the Cantos, and “A”-7 and “A”-9, from Pound’s translation of Cavalcanti. But his dialectical organization of the poem is quite distinct from Pound’s method of juxtaposition—and it allowed Zukofsky’s poem to avoid the stasis of much of the middle part of the Cantos. I am just writing on Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, which I think goes even further in refusing millennial horizons even as it begins with a confirmation of a textual dialectic inherited from Zukofsky. My own Progress and Lyn Hejinian’s A Border Comedy are other examples of a-teleological long poems.

BB: In this context, do you consider that “A” really comes to an end, even though a part of it, namely “A”-24, still has to be performed time and again?

BW: I do think the end of A” is entropic, along the lines of your suggestion but possibly apart from the Zukofskys’ intentions. The idea of the revolution as something performed, and as a flower that sprouts again and again in May, is in the text, and one of the interesting interpretations A”-24 gives to the whole poem is that it needs to be performed or realized anew in some way. That is one motivation for Zukofsky’s difficulty—you can’t memorize the poem and know it like some literary chestnut (as opposed to the German lyric tradition). It makes completely contrary demands on the reader—hence its cultural politics. And everything depends on how these politics are reinterpreted. That was a major aspect of our own performance—an insistence on the necessity of interpretation at a later moment. At least it was for me—it was my hands-on lesson in Reader Response theory after Jauss and Iser.

BB: “A”-21 [Zukofsky’s translation of Rudens] comes across as an invitation for performance in very much the same way as “A”-24 does. Weren’t you inclined to stage it at some point?

BW: No, that was done in 2004 during the Zukofsky conference, at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of New York. I attended the performance and found it quite irritating, pretentious even. It was like a distillate of all the stale Shakespeareanisms that Zukofsky could come up with. A kind of literary filling in the blanks that would get you into the canon. I think it is as conservative and backward-looking a methodology as some of Zukofsky’s Test of Poetry. The stale assumptions of the New Criticism come through with a vengeance.

BB: To what extent would you consider your performances of “A”-24 as pieces of collective criticism then?

BW: Without question, the “criticality” of our interpretation—and its grounding in the questions of interpretation and performance raised by the work itself—were major aspects and payoffs of what we attempted, and I have continued to think of the relation of poetry and culture/critique along those lines. Important for such a reading would be an account of the Jena Romantics (Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Literary Absolute), the concept of “horizon” after Husserl, Gadamer, and Jauss; and the various approaches to historicism that may be extended from them. Zukofsky’s “historicism” is conflicted—he is arguing out of materialist history and toward something more transcendent (“the authors are in eternity”), but ironically always returns to the material aspects of the text and the act of reading. So, I have argued using Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Zukofsky remains haunted by dialectical materialism.

BB: A performance is, by definition, unique. Even when it is recorded, the record is simply that of a complex linguistic event, one amongst many others that could have taken place in the same circumstances. Now that poetry is seen as yet another commodity, don’t you think that performance poetry stands out as an exception, as both a socially committed and politically engaged response to the commodification of literature? Of course, I think of LZ/CZ here, but Mac Low, the language school, or Bergvall also come to mind.

BW: One of the nightmares of 80s Marxism, and critiques of the postmodern such as Jameson’s (and “the culture industry” thesis of Adorno) is that one cannot escape the commodity form. One needs to remember that Critical Theory is dialectical, and that critique is only possible from within the forms of reification. I would find a “pure” position that tries to stand outside the commodity form to be as one-sided as a postmodernism that can only revel in it. We were probably paying less attention to pop music in the 70s than we should have been, given how culturally productive it was, by focusing on the opacity of an “outside” language. I am interested in performance as a form of restaging and interpretation, which allows one to rethink the original work in the present, and toward the future as imagined. For example, I have been doing a sampling and rewriting of Williams’s Paterson, some of which is up online, and I see that as performative in that sense. On the other hand, I resist the fetishization of sound and performance as another kind of poetic autonomy, and that is the value I see, for instance, in the Dworkin and Perloff anthology on sound poetry, The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound. There is a kind of fetishization of live performance that detracts from criticism and agency and keeps the reception at the level of aesthetic presentation. There is too much up on Pennsound!

BB: You have mentioned elsewhere the idea of an “on-going’” avant-garde. Could you please discuss LZ’s influence and/or counter-influence on language writing and poetics in this context?

BW: The avant-garde continually reinvents itself, and is not the same thing as the historical avant-garde of Dada and surrealism. While Zukofsky’s technique may be termed avant-garde, one needs to look at the “branding” of objectivism—we need a movement, Pound told Zukofsky, much like Perloff beckons to the conceptual writers—as no more than an editorial construction. As a social formation, the Beats count much more as an avant-garde than the objectivists. We of the Language school, I have argued, interpreted Zukofsky in terms of our present task of forming a literary tendency. But the avant-garde also changes its historical task as it develops—it is not a static concept. I find much of the Occupy Movement, for instance, to align with aesthetic avant-gardism. Zukofsky is a modernist.

BB: Would you consider any reinvestment of another poet’s work as a purely emancipatory act then?—I mean, some kind of work in tradition which, through a negative heuristic, may very well, in the end, short-circuit or counteract the authority of tradition (a bit like MacLow’s rewriting of Pound’s Cantos in Words nd Ends for Ez)?

BW: Your mention of Mac Low’s rewriting goes along with much of what I am saying about interpretation and re-staging as an avant-garde strategy. Yet Mac Low could not re-write his predecessors (or peers—he did a wonderful version of my own poem Progress) endlessly; it was historically delimited. Hence, Mac Low was as aware of his historicism as would be earlier modernists. “The difference is spreading” as determined by the work.

BB: Zukofsky’s position in our literary landscape has changed drastically since the late 70s and your two stagings of “A”-24. He is now a major presence on the map and you have addressed elsewhere the role which the Language poets played in bringing him over. If one thinks in terms of influence, one would usually consider that a previous generation of poets participates, whether directly or indirectly, in the making of the subsequent generation. Of course, there can also be an active and dialogical element in the way influence operates. Eliot made it clear very early on, Pound spent most of his writing career actively constructing the canon he would draw from, and Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’,” “A”-7 or “A”-9 are also quite exemplary in that matter. When I consider the connection between the language school and Zukofsky, however, this process seems to have gone even further. In the 70s, Zukofsky’s vast output was just becoming available. In a sense, the “making” of the language school paralleled that of Zukofsky, and in some way, it could even be argued that the Language poets “created” Zukofsky for us. How then should today’s critics approach a poetics that has largely been defined and framed through ideas and concepts which, in some instances, were not native to it? (I find this especially interesting in the definition it purports of poetics as “conversation,” instead of poetics as an established set of fixed principles).

BW: Yes, Language writing enthusiastically reinvented Zukofsky and proposed a newmaterialist and politicalway of reading him. But that reception was vexed even at the time, if you recall the Great Debate between me and Robert Duncan (which has been more than adequately covered). And there were other Zukofskys existing while Language writers were inventing theirsCreeley’s most importantly, who valued Zukofsky for lyric compression, precision, and clarity, but not for politics, method, or particularly cultural politics. Then there was Clark Coolidge, who saw Zukofsky as an endless combinatory of language, much as he wanted to do. Even then the Language reception of Zukofsky is split, from a Marxist/formalist one with me and Silliman to a more gestural/cultural one with Bernstein, and finally to skepticism about his centrality with Harryman and perhaps Perelman. I’ve also strongly argued that influences on Language writing were not simply literary but included conceptual and installation art, performance art, new musics both improvisatory and aleatory, and so on. The one thing I will say is that Language writing is absolutely not Eliotic in its account of “tradition,” even as our modernist and postmodern precursors may have taken a bite of that tree.

BB: As a poet, how do you negotiate Zukofsky’s insistence on the idea that the language of poetry should aspire to the condition of music?

BW: We have written on lot on this in The Grand Piano, particularly part 7. The consensus there is that we, as a group or tendency, largely rejected the musical analogy put forward by Zukofsky. That there is a sliding scale from thought to music—lower limit, upper limit, etc. Rather, language and music are two different cognitive and affective media, and they can never coincide or simply slide into each other. It is important to preserve the distinction, or you continue an illusion of cultural value, as Adorno saw, that cannot stop fascism. I would even say that any “identity” between language and music is fundamentally authoritarian.

BB: Such a connection—or “identity”—between music and language is most certainly suggested in “A”-24. However, given that the masque was originally designed as a birthday present by Celia and Paul, it is also one of those Zukofskian “found objects” that only became part of the poem through a process of quotation. If we think about it along those lines, “A”-24 might even be considered as a rather exemplary moment in A”, that is—perhaps—as its most incongruous quote. Over these 200 pages or so, Zukofsky quotes Celia quoting Zukofsky. But on top of that, the Zukofsky material that is being quoted is also replete with quotations. Browsing the “Poem” or “Thought” voices, for example, we come across a series of earlier quotes from Cummings, Williams, Pound or Shakespeare, among others. Likewise, Zukofsky’s daily life having often been his first and main reservoir of language, ordinary words, whether they are clearly attributed to someone or not, also find their place in the masque. Finally, the score itself is, of course, an invitation for performance. On stage, each voice has to be read by performers, who thus quote Zukofsky, quoting Celia, quoting Zukofsky, quoting others. If one thinks in terms of authority and authorship, it seems to me that through the combined effects of overload and mise en abyme, the words in “A”-24 no longer seem to “belong” to anyone. Poetic language in “A”-24 thus seems to aspire to the condition of language—not music—where language is seen as a medium without any identifiable origin or end, one that is perhaps best described by resorting to the idea of “circulation”. In that sense, it could probably be argued that the “recycled” language of “A”-24 is, strictly speaking, a re-cycled language, and that the masque itself foregrounds the lower limit of the speech-music integral mentioned in “A”-12. How then should we reconcile this idea with the fact that performance itself somehow deprives this very same language of its utilitarian, communicative function? In this context, couldn’t performance be seen as the oxymoronic doing and undoing of the masque’s utopian ideal?

BW: It’s a radical textual strategy, no doubtwhy it was so evocative and productive. I agree entirely that “the condition of music” is overturned by cacophony of the performances, everyone talking at the same time in Jewish family life as I have said. But that is only one reading; there is the substantial ungrounding of language as language is being put forward as ground. Imagine this as the apotheosis of a solution of the problem of language for an assimilated Yiddish speaker, as Zukofsky was. Why not eradicate the opacity of language entirely, by making it entirely opaque? It is a beautiful avant-garde act, but also goes along with all the aspects of conjugal love, everyday life, Paul’s musical career, and so forth. As a redefinition of everything involved in a “poem of a life,” it is entirely compelling, and much would come of iteven and especially in its high artifice. It is interesting, as an aside, that Mark Scroggins, perhaps the best literary historical writer on Zukofsky, now sees himself in terms of Victorian decadenceSwinburne and Wilde. Who would have thought?

BB: Perhaps a final and more personal question if you agree? Would you say that Zukofsky is a “presence” in your own poetry still? How do you—as a poet—negotiate this “presence”?

BW: Yes, certainly. But this brings up a question of the nature of “influence” that I have been thinking about recently. I would say, across the length and breadth of decades, that I have been meaningfully (traceably) influenced by everything I have taken seriously. This would be opposed to the linear, patrilineal notion of the “Pound tradition” or “tradition” per se; I hesitate to call it a “textual” theory of influence because I am interested in experience, culture, information, visual art, music as influences in a way not reducible to “text” or “language.” But imagine saying I am influenced by Ron Silliman’s New Sentence works such as Ketjak or Tjantingwhich of course I am because I took them very seriously. What would that mean? One, a question of poetic form. But more importantly, an attention to particulars, radical or quotidian, as they are organized in time and in poetic form. To be influenced by Silliman would lead to an enduring perception of the nature and value of particulars. Many younger poets were influenced by him in this way; it helped them get over their lyric or confessional training. I am influenced by Zukofsky likewisefor the intensification and extent of his “poem of a life”; by the materiality of his words and politics; by his active intelligence and discrimination, and refusal of predetermined meanings, in his writing. But I interpret each of these things differently, as you can see in the discontinuities of my present manuscript, Zone (Correlations 1973-2021). At one time, Zukofsky was a voice in my head, giving instruction on how to do things, see things, write things. Now he is a sediment of language, culture, politics, a bedrock to stand on for all times.

An Interview with Bob Perelman

5Bob Perelman is a poet, critic and professor emeritus of English at the University of Pennsylvania. His name has long been associated with the “language school.” He has published more than fifteen volumes of poetry, most recently Iflife, The Future of Memory, and Ten to One: Selected Poems. His critical works include The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History, The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky and Modernism the Morning After. An active collaborator, he is one of ten co-authors of The Grand Piano, an Experiment in Collective Autobiography: San Francisco, 1975-1980 (2006-2010).

Francie Shaw


Benoît Bondroit: Dear Bob, first of all, thank you very much for your time and interest in this project! You participated as a pianist in the two performances of “A”-24 which were given by the Language poets in 1978. Let me start with a slightly naive question. I must say that I was quite surprised when I first listened to the recordings that are now on Pennsound: the music accompanying the masque is played on the piano, not the harpsichord! And although I had never thought about it before, this came as a bit of a shock. I was simply not expecting this. I had assumed, not doubt mistakenly, that Handel’s music would be played on the harpsichord, even though it is quite true that Celia’s score remains more than elusive as to what instrument should be used. Was it for practical reasons that you opted for a piano at the time? Or was it an intended echo or signature referring to the Grand Piano (which might in retrospect be seen as your “headquarters” in San Francisco back then)? Looking back at your performance some 40 years later, don’t you think that using a harpsichord would have brought the whole thing a little bit closer to the dynamic understanding of history that some critics have come to identity as central to LZ’s poetics?

Bob Perelman: There was no theoretical finesse involved. No signifying on The Grand Piano—which was nothing like “headquarters,” but was simply one venue among others in those years; the importance your question ascribes to it seems a retrospective effect of The Grand Piano as title. It was simply that there was a piano at the Grand Piano. I don’t believe any of us ever gave a thought to using a harpsichord. And it wouldn’t have been particularly feasible. Such an instrument would have been a recondite fact for me: I had never seen one. I might well have needed expert credentials to gain access to one. I couldn’t play the one keyboard of the piano at anything like an expert level, let alone a harpsichord’s two. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which I’d played things from and which gave me the confidence that I could get through the Handel, seemed, via its polemic title, to authorize a model of generalizable pragmatic performance: Clavier = any keyboard; Well-Tempered = any key.

No, a piano was there and we wanted to know what “A”-24 sounded like. Many poets around were very interested in Zukofsky, whose vast output had rather suddenly come into print, and here was this sui generis thing, the actual conclusion to a long poem. The major epics (much nearer to us then both temporally and psychically) hadn’t ended, they’d just trailed off: Pound’s scattered wee pipings, the order changing with every next edition of The Cantos; “Book 6” (scare quotes) of Paterson; the visionary Post-its on the last pages of Maximus—H.D. would now be on such a list, and precede Zukofsky in having completed a long poem, but back then, for me at least, she wasn’t a major presence on the map. (I’m not boasting about the state of my knowledge.) H.D. aside, unlike the other three alpha-male epics, here with “A”-24 was the demonstration of the actual completion of a modernist long poem. It was a major thing—but then again, what was it? In a perfect display of modernist decorum, it wasn’t open to mere reading. It was a literalization, a bald one, of two main tropes of “A”: the words are the life, and their upper limit is music. One could open “A”-24 and “read” it in terms of such tropes—but what did they mean, in practice, on these particular 200 pages? What did they sound like? Without the detail of actually reading, hearing, receiving, there’s only the sound-bite—that “A” had resolved itself into “music”—which quickly fades into doxological dullness. Rather than such abstraction, the idea was to hear “A”-24 , which meant performing it.

It strikes me now that, besides the obvious musical dimension, we were activating the lower term of LZ’s speech/music integral—what was this weird blue-cloth volume saying? Our performance was less an attempt at a concert than it was a poetry reading, a sounding-out of something that people wanted to hear.

In relation to your asking of LZ’s dynamic understanding of history”—such terms seem distant. The matter of LZ’s understanding,” or of the intention encoded in “A”-24 was never much of a question at the time: the particulars of the performance (all the words and notes) were quickly occupying: it took us months of rehearsal. There was one moment, I think, where Barry and I registered the really odd fact that the music was Handel’s, not Bach’s. But there wasn’t, as I remember, much conversation about it back then. In a short reflection on “A”-24 I wrote in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book shortly after the performances I minimized any significance in choice of composer: “There’s music playing, Handel’s (Bach, Z’s expected choice, wd have been too “good”, too complicated & distracting?)” (292).

My answer now strikes me, nearly four decades later, as a pliant evasion of a troublesome question. As I continue to think about it, it’s really odd that the music is Handel’s. And it’s just “music”—general time-filling competent music. It’s good, as anything of Handel’s would be, but nothing at all great. Handel of course is himself quite great and can be fantastic, but these are just pleasant pieces. And they’re plucked from a few sources. For all of Zukofsky’s insistence on the organic perfection of Bach, there is not a lot that unifies these pieces beyond the fact of each being the right length. Each of the nine had to be long enough to accommodate all the speech, pasted together, of the corresponding character in Arise, Arise. In the first section of “A”-24, the Drama voice consists of all the lines of Cousin in the play; in the next section of “A”-24, Drama voices all Nurse’s lines, etc. In Arise, Cousin hardly speaks, so the first section of “A”-24 is quite short. In each section of “A”-24, Celia fills out the Drama voice with tacit stretches, and thus creates flexibility; nevertheless, the relationship is in general force: the more lines the particular Arise character has, the longer the companion section in “A”-24. Think of making a quilt out of nine different-sized patches: Celia made each patch by matching lengths of four texts and one musical line. (I’m remembering Louis, during his NET movie [1966], comparing his writing to Celia’s quilting.)

That’s my sense of the why of these particular Handel pieces. But why Handel at all? For the entirety of “A,” Bach had been the lodestar, patron saint, exemplar of a perfect art that is both completely communal and thoroughly natural. Zukofsky affirms this repeatedly and in notable structural places (e.g., the beginning of “A”-1, the end of “A”-12). Handel does appear a few times in “A” (the Index—which is quite an ‘unreliable narrator’!—numbers him in five places), but in the first four he is only an example of a musician who achieved worldly success. In “A”-18, in the midst of a page devoted to Bach’s futile negotiations with the public, Handel is mentioned only as not having the time for Bach: “[...] tried to get a word in with Mr. Handel / for your (Bach’s) sake [...] could accomplish nothing” (405). It’s hard to ignore the implied comparison of Bach’s lack of wide recognition (e.g., the Brandenburg concertos never being performed in his lifetime, among many other examples) to Zukofsky’s lack of visibility; and if one follows out the comparison, the famous Handel, too busy to make time for Bach, might suggest Pound, who, increasingly, wouldn’t give Zukofsky’s writing more than the most cursory glance. Pound’s reaction to “A”-9 was that it was “harmless undergrad/ exercise” (Perelman, 1994 179). And while his post-WWII remark from St. Elizabeths—NO longer the trace of linguistic parasitism” (Scroggins 270)—seems, at first, kinder than that, it nevertheless centers on “parasitism,” the anti-Semitic code-word for Jewish inability to be creative.

The last mention of Handel in “A”, near the end of “A”-23, is different and might be argued to put him on an equal footing with Bach: “Bach’s innocence longing Handel’s untouched” (562). Here both Bach and Handel can seem translated into some empyrean of eternal art—but then again, it could be read as the same story of Bach frustrated in his longing to reach the untouchable Handel. The overdetermined syntax of “A”-22/23 keeps all conclusions blurry.

However you hear the line, remember that it hadn’t been written when Celia presented the “L. Z. Masque” to Louis, who at that point recognized what she had given him as “A”-24. This meant that Handel had been installed as summary composer for “A” before “A”-22 and “A”-23 were written. Thus this Bach-and-Handel-as-maybe-equals line can be seen as a back-dated prophecy of the music for “A”-24.

  • 1

You can take Louis’s gesture toward Celia’s gift as a generous widening-out of the fact of authorship. You can take Paul’s choice of Handel variously: as innocuous; as practical (one piece long enough for Cousin, another for Nurse, etc.); as a rescue mission (Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas on Z-site1 mentions Chopin’s e-minor Prelude [No.4] as one of Celia’s initial candidates for inclusion in the suite of musical pieces; that strikes me as a pretty bad idea: too emotionally coercive). But Paul’s choice can also be read (pop-psychologically, to be sure) as oedipal aggression: so much for your beloved Bach, Dad. Typical Zukofskyan polysemy!

And then again, thinking of how these Handel pieces are all pretty unobtrusive, especially when compared to almost all of Bach’s keyboard work, maybe such music is best for not overpowering the words. In other words, maybe I was right the first time and wasn’t skirting the issue at all!

BB: Pound’s analogy between fugue and The Cantos is now relatively well-known and well-documented. That trope, however, is by no means specific to either The Cantos or the critical or theoretical stance developed by their author. It could even be argued that the musical metaphor which Pound animates for heuristic or programmatic purposes stands out as a true modernist topos. It is also to be found, for instance, in the works of the great experimental novelists of the time—such as James Joyce, who described the technique used in “sirens” as “fuga per canonem” (Joyce 129). Closer to home, other American poets with whom Pound had close ties also compared their poems to fugues. Williams’s claim that Paterson follows the pattern of a fugue similar to that which closes Jupiter, for instance—although much less pervasive in his writings than the kindred assertions to be found in Pound’s correspondence—quite exemplifies the necessity felt by other modernist poets to resort to a formal analogy they derived from music in order to account for the elaborate, though fragmented structure of their life-works. Zukofsky himself used this musical analogy repeatedly from the 1930s onwards as a justification for the paratactic and juxtapositional organisation of certain early movements of “A”. Interestingly enough, in a 1935 letter he addressed to John Lackay Brown, Pound even acknowledged the kinship between Zukofsky’s “fugal” experiment in “A”-8 and what he then saw as the underlying musical structure of The Cantos. To some extent, and although this assertion should be qualified straightaway, these works could indeed be considered as “fugal” in nature—introducing, as they do, discrete textual elements which might be kindred to the subjects, counter-subjects, and stretti of a fugue. However, it seems to me that this analogy falls short as soon as you start looking for a simultaneously vertical and horizontal technique of composition in these works. This is not the case with “A”-24 since that movement was designed as a piece of performance poetry and not simply as a poem intended to be read in the comfort of one’s home. Here language itself is contrapunted with language and that’s what I find fascinating: words are as much sounds as they are signifiers. The different voices do not solely exist on the page: they quite literarily intermingle through performance and may even create new associations of sound and meaning. My own experience of your 1978 performances, however—as a non-native speaker, I mean—is that both the continuity of Zukofsky’s syntax and the linearity of his meaning seem to be negated by, subjugated to, and perhaps even re-invented through, the superimposition of those different voices. “Sparks” of meaning merely seem to happen, as if by accident, through the fortunate collision of Zukofsky’s pre-existing works and words resulting from CZ’s arrangement. A part of this may indeed have been intended by CZ herself when she put the work together, but the performance being quite long, it seems very unlikely that performers would ever succeed in following her score perfectly. Don’t you think that, in spite of the obvious horizontal constraint that the tempo imposes onto the words, this vertical dimension and the resulting “sparks” of meaning brought about by the performance are rather aleatory? How, then, should we approach a poetic work whose meaning depends so much on the particulars of its successive renditions in an ever-renewed play of performance? And how does this aspect of performance poetry fit into an otherwise rather consensual modernist discourse on the musical structuring of some literary compositions?

BP: At the incoming note-by-note, syllable level, the temporary conjunctions (vertical slices) are arbitrary. There is one obvious exception: the loved/gloves conjunction at the very end of “A”-24. But I agree, on a second-by-second level things are rather aleatoric. Especially since the pulse of the notes is minute and regular compared to the variably-sized words whose spacing is somewhat kneaded and stretched to keep a generalized printed simulacrum of synchronism with the music. The music is bounded in its bar lines and the print is not. The pulse of speech, its prosody (the gestural, syntactic, social rhythm of its enunciation) is completely different than the temporal pulse of baroque music. If speech were to approach such regularity of pulse it would sound mechanical.

Being fairly well-versed in classical music (to use old-fashioned terminology), I’ve always found the Poundian/Zukofskyan claims for the music of poetry quite flimsy. Take the “music is in the flower” (7) passage in “A”-2, or this from Canto 25: “as the sculptor sees the form in the air […] notes as facets of air, / and the mind there, before them, moving, / so that the notes needed not move” (Cantos 119); to me, such moments are pallid mysticism. In “Zukofsky at 100: Zukofsky as a Body of Work” I argue in detail against Zukofsky’s use of music as a transcendental condition.

Music functioned as a strategic weapon in the Imagist campaign to move beyond the tired decorum of iambic prerequisites for poetry. Pound’s rhetorical attacks urging the poet not “to compose [...] in the sequence of the metronome” were excellent and efficacious; but it’s the subsequent positivist claims for “music” that are annoyingly vague. The seeds of Pound’s absolutism were already there in “A Retrospect,” from which the last quote was taken (Literary Essays of Ezra Pound 3). A few pages later Pound affirms: “I believe in an absolute rhythm” (9)—which is fine when applied to poetry, but it leaks over into music, leading to Pound’s crackpot claims about “The Great Bass” in Guide to Kulchur and elsewhere (briefly, that a piece in A-Major needs to be played in rhythm with the vibrations per second of the note A). I watch myself becoming prosecutorial, saying that, yes, Pound wrote good music criticism, and heard a lot of concerts in London; but he nowhere shows any grasp of what the larger picture of contemporary developments were. He has no curiosity for example and counter-example (in music, that is). He always assumed he was in the center of things—i.e., the concerts in Rapallo that he mentions in ABC of Reading (23-24), where a concert ending with a Debussy piece is followed by one ending with Ravel, which he insists tell the listener everything about the relative value of the two. He presents this as if it’s self-evidently cutting-edge. I find it frustratingly crude, not unlike like a ten-year-old’s insistent question: which would win, a lion or a tiger? Pound had heard Stravinsky; he discusses a book on Stravinsky right after presenting the Ravel/Debussy comparison. Wouldn’t that have alerted him to the possibility of a piece not being in a given key? Then there’s Schoenberg et al., who I think he never mentions, though he was someone interested in the news.

Williams (a great artist) was much more sophisticated about the contemporary arts than Pound, except when it came to music, which Williams had little interest in. Mozart, though he could in fact write fantastic fugues (cf. last movement of Jupiter symphony), was not at all a composer of fugues—he was the major figure along with Haydn who opened the general passage out of the hegemony of fugal and contrapuntal music. For Williams to cite “a Mozart fugue” as a model bespeaks a random reaching for a praise term. It’s like enthusing about “Cezanne’s draftsmanship.”

  • 2 (...)

It’s interesting to hear Zukofsky discussing “A”-24 in a 1972 reading2. What he’s describing there is similarity of ideas and words, thematic conjunctions. But out of the mass of verbal sound he’s noticing a very small segment. It’s literary thematics, not musical construction.

But I need to recognize what a curmudgeon I’m being. Lack of contiguous expertise is not fatal. So what if Pound’s Latin was shaky, it was good enough for him to write “Homage to Sextus Propertius”; so what if the “LZ Masque” is a dogmatic literalization of Louis’s equally dogmatic (but metaphoric) claims on music, nevertheless, there’s nothing like it. It’s hearable, and a real range of Zukofsky’s writing is presented at one time. The ubiquitous quality of word choice in all of Zukofsky’s writing, no matter the genre; the range of concern—“A”-24 makes this hearable.

BB: In your foreword to LZ’s Bottom: On Shakespeare, you identify two currents in the work, one “fueled by [a] desire for the image of perfection […] that could be called ‘reading’,” another “by a sense of lack” [that could be called] ‘writing’” (xi). Wasn’t that, after all, the very predicament imposed on you when performing “A”-24? I mean, part of it was obviously reading, or rather performative reading, but on the other hand, the idea of performance seems to imply some sort of re-interpretation or re-investment of the work that could be kindred, to some extent, to writing it anew.

BP: In the forward to Bottom, I was intending a discussion of the way LZ uses citation so extensively and intensively that it seems to aspire to the condition of original writing. The performance of “A”-24 was something quite different. The real-time element was paramount, for all of us I’d guess, but certainly for myself playing the notes—all of them, no mistakes, at speed. It was all-engrossing; I didn’t want to play a wrong note (although of course I did), which would not have been “writing it anew,” more like “screwing up.”

BB: Early in What is Literature?, Sartre evokes “words as instruments” and states that poets do take away their instrumentality from them and adopt an attitude which considers words as “things” and not as “signs” (29). This is somehow reminiscent of Williams and Zukofsky, of course, but also of contemporary language writing. Later on he adds, “For the poet, language is a structure of the external world. The speaker is in a situation in language; he is invested with words. They are prolongations of his meanings, his pincers, his antennae, his eyeglasses. He maneuvers them from within; he feels them as if they were his body; he is surrounded by a verbal body which he is hardly aware of and which extends his action upon the world. The poet is outside of language. He sees words inside out as if he did not share the human condition, and as if he were first meeting the word as a barrier as he comes toward men” (30). Don’t you think that performance poetry (whether as it was/is envisioned by LZ/CZ or the Language poets) does transcend Sartre’s opposition between “speaker” and “poet”? makes it invalid, at least for the time of the poem?

BP: Sartre’s descriptions don’t comport with what I’ve experienced either in reading or writing, so it’s hard to animate them. Yes, both sides—words as prosthetic; words as exilic objects—are understandable, but the binary opposition seems an abstraction that doesn’t clarify the really imbricated ways language always works, whether poetry, prose, or speech, whether produced or received. Sartre’s idealism reminds me of similar dead spots in Bakhtin and Barthes, who each declare poetry a place of purified language. For both, it’s a straw man, something that is of no interest except as a negative example.

Zukofsky’s poetic pronouncements can be analogously reductive. The poetics—the judgments, the assertions, the assumptions, the range of example and exclusion—that LZ articulates in Prepositions and in A Test of Poetry (and in “A” itself, in places) are quite incapable of doing justice to what he actually writes in “A” and elsewhere (“‘Mantis’: An Interpretation”, for instance, or “Poem beginning ‘The’”). His own work can be so much more extravagant, aggressive and ambitious than his poetics would allow for. Along this line, “A”-24 stands as a useful counterpoetics.

BB: You played the Handel’s part for the two 1978 performances at the Grand Piano, and one at the Poetry Center in San Francisco. How did you prepare for the whole thing? The easiest way that comes to mind would be that the pianist / harpsichordist pick tempi for the different sections and determine a preliminary duration for each so that the speakers/players may adapt their own speech. Is that how you proceeded? Also, a conductor (in the traditional sense, that is someone who keeps things together and tells people when to enter, etc.) is certainly the last thing this work needs. But, didn’t your role as the musician of the group make you some kind of a substitute conductor? I mean, your part of the performance must, of necessity, have served as a common ground for the others, some kind of breadcrumb trail? In which case, can we still consider that the Handel’s part represents no more than yet another “voice” in “A”-24? Does Zukofsky’s assertion that the music should neither take precedence over the words nor simply accompany the voices hold when it comes to giving a real-life performance of “A”-24?

BP: I learned the music, and was mindful of the metronome markings. In the midst of this, I would rehearse people, singly, in groups of two, three, whoever could make it. Some of us could read music, some not so well, and, as I remember, some not at all. But after repeated rehearsals—9 months overall, I think—the general cadence of the music and the pacing of the lines grew quite familiar to all of us. For much of the time, say the first 6 months, it was just getting the notes and words to coincide. After months of brute (rote) rehearsal, we had a pretty good handle (sorry, unconscious pun) on the notes, our cues, the stave-by-stave semi-synchronicity of words/notes.

Toward the end, there was some attention paid to the voices performing; the music was always simply the engine chugging along in the background. (This, I think, is my answer to your prior question re ensemble and Handel’s place in it.) Steve Benson and Carla Harryman, who shared the Drama line, were elsewise quite involved with performance, theater, improvisation of various kinds. Kit Robinson and I wrote plays for Poets Theater, an operation of Kit Robinson’s brother, Nick, and Nick’s then-partner, Eileen Corder. But the emergence of marked, dramatically voiced speech in the performance of “A”-24 was miscellaneous. While the Drama voice obviously called for acting, the Thought and Story voices seemed by their materials to call for a sober clarity in enunciation. Occasionally the Poem voice would be shaped into slow declamation. I can still hear Barry Watten repeating “Voice a voice blown, returning as May” through the Chaconne (Scene 5, Attendants): nothing but that line. We all were poets and gave readings; but the way the typography prompted Barry to pronounce “Voice a voice blown, returning as May” (14 times, as I go back and count) resulted in a sound none of us would have produced at any of our readings: a ritualized lyric intonation.

This is one place where a clear connection can be drawn between the form of the music and the shape of the words. The chaconne announces a phrase (a simple 8-measure harmonic shape) and then repeats it with 62 surface variations (arpeggiated chords, dotted rhythms, runs of various kinds—but no key or tempo change); amid the other three spoken voices, the Poem voice repeats “Voice a voice blown, returning as May” at the bottom of every 3rd page. This could be called a minimalist ostinato; but it’s more a typographic effect than a musical one (something seen, not heard). The bottom of every third page means that the line is pronounced along with the first half of Variation 4, the second half of 8, the first half of 13, the second half of 17, etc. The chaconne phrase goes out from the tonic G major to the dominant D major in the first 4 measures, back from D to G in the second 4. Perhaps I could say that the line’s alternate appearance (during the “out” half of the musical phrase, then during the “back,” then “out,” etc.) suggests the earth revolving, spring (May) returning, though it seems a very abstract assertion. In any case, the 14 repetitions are a plain enough underlining of the sense of “returning.”

The lyric intensity of the line itself is concentrated by Celia’s use. She took it from “A”-8, which at one point Zukofsky called a fugue with 8 themes and which concludes with a ballade [the poetic form; not Chopin’s genre] that is a hymn to labor, nature, revolution. One passage from its first stanza reads, “Voice a voice blown, returning as May, dew / On night grass: and he said I worked hard, hue / Of word on the melody,” etc. (104)—the phrases juxtapose some of the “fugue” themes. Earlier in “A”-8, there’s: “Voice a voice blown: print / Must not overlap, but the notes of the voices would” (53). (That’s something of a prediction of “A”-24, isn’t it?)

Throughout 8, “May” is both nature and history: spring and May Day, the announcement of revolution. It connects labor and art in a cloyingly convenient synthesis: “A pretty May note, / Singing Bach as they dug” (103). This semantic overcoding of simple syllables is one of LZ’s favorite devices: cf. “pit” in “A” -1 (the striking coal miners’ coal pit; Bach’s hell; the place the orchestra sits performing the St. Matthew Passion.)

So “May” here in “A”-24. But the whole line is overcoded. It strikes me that “Voice a voice blown, returning as May” might not be an easy line for a nonnative speaker to hear and parse. For a native speaker, it’s far from automatic: more a moving target. It’s a beautiful line, a “beautiful” line, and, if one’s ear is not in the mood, just plain corny.

To attempt to narrate what I hear. “Voice a voice blown,”: the primary sense of this first phrase (and the comma, among other things, marks it as a phrase) is emphasis, repetition-for-pleasure, as in “Juliet o Juliet.” But the absence of the article the first time and the presence the second time is also different from repetition, it’s a focusing in: “Voice” [undifferentiated voice; the voice of everything] resolving into “a voice” [one particular voice—all the drama that LZ packed into the minority article “a,” for which, check out Trouble with Genius].

But it’s also impeccably syntactic. “Voice a voice” equals, in syntactic x-ray, “Verb a noun”: Voice, verb of command [“voice your opinion”], voice, noun. Voice a voice / Sing a song / Song a song / Voice a voice.

Voice (verb) and voice (noun) are pronounced the same in English, but there’s a syntactic hearing where a sound will be suspended until subsequent sounds resolve its syntactic function. As in: 1) Voice… your opinion; versus 2) Voice… is the basic prerequisite for an actor. It feels like the verb “Voice” would be heard (mentally heard, I suppose—retrospectively heard) as longer than the noun, since in the case of the verb nothing has been concluded (Voice… what? Voice your opinion), whereas the noun “Voice” is a bounded, stopped thing (Voice: a singer either has it or she doesn’t). But with “Voice a voice blown” no such resolution happens. It could be a double noun Voice… your opinion; versus 2) Voice… is the basic prerequisite for an actor. It feels like the verb “Voice” would be heard (mentally heard, I suppose—retrospectively heard) as longer than the noun, since in the case of the verb nothing has been concluded (Voice… what? Voice your opinion), a bit analogous to Lorca’s “verde que te quiero verde”; or it could be, syntactically, a command to give voice to a certain kind of voice: a voice blown.

What is “a voice blown”? Nothing in ordinary English. I imagine that in the late 1930s “blow” had its current slang sense of quick extravagance: you’ve blown it; he blew his paycheck at the races. I doubt it was a sex-term (blowjob) then, but maybe it was (and if so, LZ would have been alert to it: there are lots of penis jokes in his work). The past participle, “blown,” is construable, but barely. “His paycheck was blown at the racetrack” is understandable, but it’s odd, artificial diction. The primary sense that LZ intended, I think, was hardly available in American speech: the Elizabethan sense of flowering. Campion: “There is a garden in her face / Where roses and white lilies blow.”

So is “a voice blown” a voice in full flower? The past participle makes that tenuous. Is a flower that has blown a perfect, full-blown flower—or, having fully flowered, is it finished, and therefore rotten? (In the ideology of those Elizabethan usages, flowers = women, who are either perfect or rotten. Cf. Shakespeare: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”) The past participle of the Elizabethan “blow” circles back to American slang: a blown voice is blown up, gone, kaput.

The senses of death/flowering get picked up in the second phrase of the line: “returning as May” Though there is a comma after “blown,” there’s no period after May, which makes it more ‘natural’ (and sentimental). There’s something of the same verb/noun transmutability here as in the first half. In a somewhat stretched way, “May” can sound like a verb: returning as [it] may = returning however it can. But the capitalized “May,” as the name of the month, is the more salient sense. May is both erotic and, in the original context of “A”-8, political (May Day, as an emblem of successful and ongoing revolution, is emphatically present in “A”-8). But here in “A”-24, “returning as May” brings the innocuous, springtime sense to the fore, capping things off with a transcendent resolution… not unlike cummings, “O sweet spontaneous earth [...] thou answerest them only with spring” (I’m leaving out all the line breaks; the cummings poem is not bad, actually; but cummings’ climaxes are such cliches).

There's another noun/verb conjunction that adds to the possible corniness: “may” = in the UK, “mayflower.” It’s treated as the epitome of chaste jouissance: white flowers, snow-like, evanescent, ejaculatory. Here two very different poets use it:

A.E. Housman, Shropshire Lad XXXIX:

Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.

Spring will not wait the loiterers time
Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
The hedgerows heaped with may. (35)

1896. Half a century later, Basil Bunting, the beginning of “Briggflatts”:

Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawtheys madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells spring.
Dance tiptoe, bull,
black against may.
Ridiculous and lovely
chase hurdling shadows
morning into noon.
May on the bulls hide
and through the dale
furrows fill with may,
paving the slowworms way. (13)

Check out how Basil Bunting doesn’t quite make it clear that “may” is mayflower: first time “spring” has just preceded it; second time it’s capitalized so it could be the month; only the third time does it seem physical, and thus may(flower).

LZ Anew 5:

Ah spring, when with a thaw of blue
Sun in the street will she be as to-day?
Seaplane up to sky over sky
Avenues without empire an earth of May. (79)

BB: Soon after I came across “A”-24, I started to question CZ’s organization of the Handel’s material. Pieces from the third collection come before those taken from the second collection, then pieces from the first collection are introduced, and finally, the fugues come from the fourth collection. This necessarily implies that CZ made a choice here, perhaps based on her own musical taste, perhaps more rational and influenced by some design she had in mind. I thus decided to examine this in more depth and to pay more attention to the score itself. The fact that the masque begins with a simple series of arpeggiated chords and ends with a fugue caught my attention. Its two “extremities” show a real increase in complexity and I tried to follow this lead in order to see whether this would apply to the whole movement. Indeed I think it does, although I might very well be “reading” too much “into it” and thus go against the very piece of advice LZ repeatedly gave to his readers. For instance, “Lesson: Cousin” mostly features arpeggiated chords, no tempo, no time signature, no key signature, nor any complex rhythms although we can agree that it is highly ornate. Then tempo and time signature (a simple C) are introduced but no key signature and the rhythm remains simple: every note in one beat has the same duration (one crotchet, two quavers, fours semiquavers, etc.). The play on dynamics is also quite limited (piano for the arpeggios, mezzo forte for the second part). “Prelude and Allegro: Nurse” features an introduction of tempo, time signature (a simple C then a relatively more complex 3/8), key signature (B-flat major), dotted notes, etc. The notes in one beat no longer have the same duration. Ornaments are introduced (trill, fermata and appoggiatura) and there is more play on dynamics (forte then mezzo forte, then piano.) “Suite: Father” keeps all of the above and introduces a more complex compositional structure (allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue), changes in tempo, time signatures, and an extensive play on dynamics. There is still a dominant theme but this comes along tonal and rhythmic variations. There’s also an increased use of “off-beats” and the introduction of compound meter through the gigue. I think this evolution applies to the whole of “A”-24 and my point is therefore that the complexity of the composition / musical texture increases, but is it something that is “felt” by a performer? I don’t think so. Could please give me your thoughts about it?

BP: You’re right: 1) Handel’s “Lesson” starts with arpeggios and open chords (although in fact there are ornaments on the first page; a few are written out in small notes, but many are implicit: the assumption was that such chords were to be impressively ornamented by the player) and 2) the fugues at the end are more interwoven. But I strongly disagree with finding any consistent formal narrative in the sequence of musical pieces. The effects you note are not salient enough over the whole course of “A”-24; unless you limit the exemplary moments drastically, there is no credible progression from an inchoate, initiative music to a complex, varied, “adult” music. The opening arpeggiated chords on page 566 are run-of-the-mill baroque overture material: they don’t ‘mean’ anything beyond “Ahem, we’re beginning.” In that, they’re appropriate for the beginning of “A”-24, but it’s a small moment; on the next page we have, according to normative baroque decorum, a spritely allegro, which in fact starts in the middle of a phrase being spoken by the Poem voice. This spritely allegro is similar to other spritely allegros in “A”-24: e.g., the allegro that starts at the bottom of page 574 (Nurse); the allegro of the Mother section (682); the second half of Doctor (710). In music, openness (slow rhythms, chords without melody) can be tremendously effective in suggesting extra-musical meaning: the opening of Haydn’s Creation or, ironically but still emotively, the overture to Nixon’s landing in Nixon in China. But here, it’s a very modest effect, lasting only a page, one sixth of the short opening section. (By the way, to hear what I mean by a musical effect ‘meaning’ something, check out Handel’s “Pensieri, Voi Mei Tormentate,” in Agrippina where the rhythms, dynamics, melodic leaps and pauses illustrate Agrippina’s forebodings about the future of her son Nero quite unmistakably.)

The same argument goes for the other complexities you note—the changes in dynamics, the more complex compositional structure of “Suite: Father,” the off-beats & compound meter in the suite’s gigue: these are simply not salient musical effects, they’re normative. More to the point: there are no such sequential effects in the verbal parts of “A”-24. As Celia’s note says: “The Masque is centrally motivated by the drama” (“A” 564). And the Drama voice has been de-narrativized by separating out the characters’ speeches.

“A”-24 is very interesting. But I’m railing against the implied narrative that it represents the sublation of Louis Zukofsky’s writing life into one vast chorale that is simultaneously biographical and transtemporal. “A”-24 is not the signal of Zukofsky’s writing having attained, salvifically, the upper limit of his poetics: “music.”

BB: Perhaps a last (and more personal) question if you agree? In The Marginalization of Poetry, you have most notably defined language writing as “a range of writing that was (sometimes) nonreferential, (occasionally) polysyntactic, (at times) programmatic in construction, (often) politically committed, (in places) theoretically inclined, and that enacted a critique of the literary I (in some cases)” (21). The irony suggested by the parentheses shows that you somehow refused, at the time, to put a definite critical label on what was sometimes considered as a common poetic practice or, in some cases, as the collective attitude of the group towards the compositional process underlying language-writing. Do you still see that as a satisfactory (non-)definition? What strikes me most is that this statement seems to apply to so much of what LZ is remembered for today. To what extent can he be considered as a direct influence on, or a forerunner of, your writing and your poetics, and what importance do you thus assign to the musical metaphor that runs throughout his poetry and critical works?

BP: That comically qualified definition from Marginalization is, besides being accurate, polemic. The slogans that circulated so repeatedly (no self, no syntax, no reference, etc.) made for a reductive din that washed over a lot of the reception of the work. This is not to say that there were no commonalities, there were: for instance, bits of counting were picked up on variously by a number (unconscious pun) of us; as was what Ron Silliman called the new sentence. But there was never anything like a single “research program.” You mention “a common poetic practice” or “compositional process”: as a description that’s just not the case. Early on when many of us were in the same place and closely associated, there was a common field of poetic practices, plural. We read each other’s work very closely, most often to differ from it. There were some instances of collaboration (which didn’t exclude differing, of course—far from it), but inter-reactive experiment was the basic mode. It more often meant antithetical example than imitation. Perhaps it’s just a happy distortion of memory, but I don’t remember any sense of poetic decorum, in the sense of something you couldn’t write, something that was “not part of our program.” There was no program. Boring was bad; interesting was good, which usually meant different.

One salient analog would be the Objectivists—or to use Zukofsky’s ineffective qualification, “Objectivists.” (It suddenly strikes me that the sentence of mine you quoted above, with its parens and display of adverb-switching, is a cousin to Zukofsky’s quotes. Yikes! One big difference, though, is that LZ was compelled to create a name for what he had gathered for the issue of Poetry, whereas “Language” in its various manifestations was never as much a group name as it was an external label, often reductively applied, as in: Language poets are against meaning, against beauty, emotion, etc. Tedious to recall these, but they were very much part of the climate.)

Anyway, the salient analog: in histories of American poetry, the Objectivists have become a fact—i.e., they’re read, thank goodness. But to try to make clear the “common compositional practice” that unites Reznikoff, Niedecker, and Zukofsky—good luck with that.

As for the subsequent parts of your question, Zukofsky has been hugely important to me, and influential on my work and that of many others. A basic index of his importance for me is how I can find him so particularly disappointing and annoying. You saw my obsession with “May,” much of it negative (corny, A. E. Housman) or pitying (alas, to have cathected so permanently on such an antithetical mentor as Pound). For me, Zukofsky was a primary teacher of focus, both minute and multiple; of how many situations can be activated by a word; of how many frames can be active at once. Primary poetic knowledge. But then, one of the first places I use these new-found tools is in critique of Zukofsky’s work. I’m far from a Zukofsky expert at the level of Peter Quartermain, Michelle Legott, Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas and others, but I can read his words and their intended reaches well enough so that, along with the range, the general level of excellence, the felicities, legerdemain, acrobatics, I can’t help reading “the trouble” with his writing—which is what?

Zukofsky is an exemplary poet. The range of forms he used, and of tones and procedures he worked with, his many examples of construction—he’s always of the greatest interest and utility. But the trouble? The thinness of sociality—an opaque phrase. I am not intending “thinness of sociality” to signal “isolation.” For instance, Emily Dickinson was isolated, biographically, sociologically, and the content of many of her poems reflects this. But her language is supremely empathetic, humorous, social; even though it’s full of leaps of the most extreme imagination, it’s social. Both the words and the phrasing manifest a powerful awareness of how they might be taken, or, better, that they will be taken, are tokens, of familiarity and of surprise, that will be received, and received variously. I’m intending here something quite different from polysemy. Both LZ and ED are polysemous; but her words, phrasings, structures are proffered as questions, provocations; his are demonstrations.

It’s the constant assertions of perfection. Not so much the numerical jumping-jacks (e.g., the r’s and n’s in “A”-9 expressing a conic section), but the insistence on a controlled, expressed unity. Hermetically sealed, adolescent narcissism is placed in the museum alongside the Greek vases, the manifestos, the great books (Gilgamesh to Henry Adams). He is both the archaeologist of himself (early poems, scraps of abandoned projects, a deliberately wide range of investigation of materials) and the wounded boundary, the long-suffering epicist, never thrown from his steed.

What I find so amazing about him is his quick acceptance of so much of his present, and his sure quickness in registering it: e.g., the beginning of “The.” But it’s the change from the writer in time to the writer in eternity that saddens (and bores) me. I’ve said it in the intro to Bottom (ix): “Such ironies built from precise social location were basic to early Zukofsky, as was attention to the present moment of historical unfolding, which was where perfection was to be sought. His often-quoted definition of his poetics declares a “desire / for what is objectively perfect / Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars” (“A”-6, 24). If only, I’d now add, we could have done without that “perfection.”

Zukofsky claimed to have solved the problem of epistemology in Bottom; “A”-24, more implicitly to be sure, demonstrates that his writing was music all along. There’s a hermetic piety to such things that seems, to me, tedious. It leads Zukofsky to consistently fetishize units: e.g., the words of Catullus or the notes of Bach, as if all meanings were, digitally as it were, encoded in them so that they became individual manifestations of an aesthetically and naturally redeemed world.

But Zukofsky is much more interesting than that. And for all I know, “A”-24 may well be something far, far better than my ruminations can conceive. I am, it should be said, quite a bad listener in this particular case. Having played “A”-24 over and over, measure by measure, so many times that it’s like I’m suffering from some repetitive syndrome—my senses toward it have been compromised.

It's amazing to end such a 50-year piece (“A” as a whole) by turning it over to his primary reader, Celia. Even if, to my ear, “A”-24 is not as interesting musically as it intends to be, maybe it’s better to listen to it as recitative, or “hear” it as a quilt. In presenting so much of LZ’s work so compactly, maybe it can be thought of as, avant la lettre as we say in English departments, a kind of website for LZ’s writing.

An Interview with Carla Harryman

6An innovator in poetry, prose, and interdisciplinary performance, Carla Harryman is the author of twenty-four books of poetry, prose, plays, and essays. Her books include A Voice to Perform: One Opera / Two Plays (2020), L’Impromptu de Hannah (2018), Sue in Berlin (2017), Adorno’s Noise (2008), Gardener of Stars: A Novel (2001), and two volumes of selected writing: Animal Instincts: Prose, Plays, Essays (1989) and There Never Was a Rose without a Thorn (1995). Open Box, a CD of music and spoken text performance created with composer and musician Jon Raskin was released in 2012. A recording of Occupying Theodor W. Adorno’s “Music and New Music,” is forthcoming as a collaboration between Harryman, Raskin, and percussionist & pianist Gino Robair. An active collaborator, she is one of ten co-authors of The Grand Piano, an Experiment in Collective Autobiography: San Francisco, 1975-1980 (2006-2010). Carla Harryman has received the Foundation for Contemporary Arts award in 2004 and other grants and awards from the Fund for Poetry, but also Opera America Next Stage (with composer Erling Wold) and the Distinguished Faculty in Creative Activity Award from Eastern Michigan University where she teaches Creative Writing.

Carla Harryman

Benoît Bondroit: Dear Carla, first of all, thank you very much for accepting this follow-up interview to our meeting in Paris in November. I would like to start by reading from a quote that you selected for the roundtable we organized at Nanterre University:

ZUKOFSKY. OR Zukofsky and Pound. Or Zukofsky and Pound and Olson. But Zukofsky... Creeley gets stuck in somewhere, then Pound. Williams, back to Zukofsky. I say Balzac! and not just to be a brat. Or even more outrageously, what about George Sand? (not as good) so what? (as Eliot) but... a game I play in my head. Blake, Rabelais, Spicer, and Sappho if you want some poets. (Rabelais?) He-he-he. Gertrude Stein. Frank O’Hara and Anne Waldman wandering in the woods! Turn left to Baraka. And Zukofsky. Okay, but… Williams NOT Pound. No Bollingen Prizehugging for me. Give me a tree not a ship’s hold. Excuse my vanity pulled up but… (Grand Piano 5 120)

I find this excerpt quite intriguing since at least two different voices can be heard here: yours, which is clearly identified as such by the use of the first-person singular pronoun “I”, and another voice, which comes across—perhaps—as the voice of the other poets in the group. Interestingly enough, that “other voice” remains linguistically disembodied in the absence of personal pronouns or verbs that would foreground the connection between “what is being said” by that voice and one or more originating (and possibly gendered) speaking subjects. Although this “disembodied voice” is busy making sense of the literary past in a way that seems quite political, it nonetheless animates a patrilineal model of literary transmission. What we’ve got here is a list of names and a play on the connectors “or,” “and,” “then” and “but” which gradually leads us from “Zukofsky and Pound,” to “Zukofsky […] then Pound,” to your own “Zukofsky Okay... but Williams NOT Pound.” As the text moves forward, that voice seems, among other things, to try and negotiate Pound’s difficult legacy and to define a relative and decentered position for him as one of the forebears of language writing. In spite of its politics, however, what that voice does could easily be interpreted as the unconscious assertion of a male-dominated genealogical discourse on literature and tradition—one that is even reinforced by the voice’s attempts at substituting “value” for “chronology,” thus emphasizing linearity through the difficulties of reconfiguration. Here, while coming together with this disembodied voice yourself, and taking part in the de-centering of Pound through your “Zukofsky Okay... but Williams NOT Pound,” you nonetheless offer some sort of relief to your readers. Indeed, before reaching that conclusion, you start by interrupting the process that is going on in a way that challenges the patrilineal model of literary transmission itself. This is especially visible in the list of names that you put forward since it includes poets and writers who are not necessarily male, not necessarily modernist, and not necessarily American, but who, at the same time, are in no way exclusively defined by their gender, their origin, or their position in literary history. What results is not the articulation of an alternative literary genealogy, but rather the undoing of any such genealogy through your playful disruption and rejection of the linearity which the patrilineal model foregrounds. Would you say that such notions as lineage, genealogy or linearity belong to an oppressive structure which automatically gives rise to male-centered discourses on literature, tradition and influence? In which case, how does your own disruption of linearity, and therefore of the structure itself, compare to the strategy that would consist in putting forward an alternative canon based, for instance, on a matrilineal model of literary transmission? Finally, how do you interpret your own polyphony here since you manage to continue what the “disembodied voice” has started through your “Zukofsky Okay... but Williams NOT Pound” while simultaneously debunking the discursive framework which conditions the interpretation of that sentence?

Carla Harryman: The passage you quote, selected from my Grand Piano 5 essay “Community” is retrospectively addressing a context of the collective autobiography. There is polyvocality, as you note, in which one of the voices comes from “nowhere.” I think of this voice also as a plural voice, as variously ventriloquizing, puncturing, and punctuating. I don’t so much think of it as the voice of the specific group, even as this group is a part of the voice and the interlocutor of the writing. This non-identity is animated through the suspension of narratives related to literary tradition and identification with these. Perhaps this undoing of a narrative of affiliation is not only an activation of feminist critique of the patrilineal tradition, which it is, but also a tribute to the liveness and diversity of poets’ conversation when that conversation is seen from a wider, more open frame.

I’d like to place the polyvocal riff in the context of the entire Grand Piano 5 piece, as the citation is a fractal: the entire piece invokes incommensurate scenes pressured by a simple formal constraint, in which the composition of each part is broken off at the end of a U.S. standard letter-size page. Comprised of micro-essays with varying topic headings related to specific communities or efforts at forming community, “Community” was an account and activation of community-plural or of a “coming upon” contradictory, conflictual, and stirring instances of community: the Arab-American community gathering place in Starbucks at my local shopping mall, the dysphoric and wishful community in my poet’s novel Gardener of Stars, the polyvocal Zukofsky “game,” teatro campesino as cultural expression of striking labor force, gay bar dancing, Gail Scott’s novel Heroine, and a critic’s hijacking of a conference on feminist poetics, which had implications for rethinking community. The interruptive form of the micro-essays was a performative gesture responding to Grand Piano collaborators who were critical of the length of some of the essays, including (or perhaps especially) mine. I was ambivalent about the complaint. And yet I saw responding to it as an opportunity to improvise within a constraint.

I have an essay forthcoming in a volume titled Other Influences. It’s an anthology in which feminist experimental poets discuss influences on their work. My essay focuses on the topics of conversation, interpretation, and collaboration; thus, I do not follow a form through which influence is understood as lineage, passed down from generation to generation or mother to daughter. Instead, I take a (multi) conceptual approach to “other influence,” interpreting influence itself as other to the way that it is normalized as lineage. While I remain critical of conventional narratives of influence, I know very well that these received modes are influencing my own, more and less, antagonistic relation to them. I am currently writing an expanded essay tentatively titled “(my) poetics as conversation,” which effort, still on-going, resulted in our adding “conversation” to the title of the symposium seminar at Nanterre. This essay will focus on a literal conversation which took place in Paris in 2018. This is an example of a given occasion extended into a next iteration in a different form.

Zukofsky was given within the community I came upon before it was the community that would take shape within literary history or before it became a “tendency” in Barrett Watten’s terms. I consider my own contributions to, or voice within, that community formation to be other to a configuration of it within Pound to Zukofsky modernism. Perhaps the interruptive spirit of performance has something to do with this. An interest in genre leads to new form: between poetry and X. With regard to the American canon, Williams’ Kora in Hell was a motivating work as was Creeley’s prose and poetry, and Stein’s. My poetry begins both in a performance-poetics and in a poetry-in-prose that is also not the prose poem in any conventional sense. I read Zukofsky partly because of the astonishing diversity of the works in “A” and partly because a conversation was emerging through Zukofsky, a conversation that also circulated around questions of the politics of language, materiality, and non/narrative.

The disparate references in the passage from “Community” indicate (gulp) a kind of freedom of encounter and movement in, around, and between oeuvres. The polyphony is the poetry of the prose, the condensation that animates this playful pushback. So yes, I do agree that such notions as lineage, genealogy or linearity belong to an oppressive structure which automatically gives rise to male-centered discourses on literature, tradition and influence.

BB: In the paragraph we’ve just discussed, your mention of “a game that I play in my head” is actually quite surprising in the contrast it suggests between a radical assertion of agency, on the one hand, and the silent nature of that assertion, on the other. Would you say that your questioning of the patrilineal model of literary transmission was an essentially personal, introspective, and therefore silent process? Or were you able, at the time, to discuss this issue with other language writers?

CH: As Vygotsky has written, “inner speech is social” (225). As for silence, no, I was not silent, even as there were gender dynamics that needed sorting out and that could be quite irritating. My writing certainly was not silent. I think any of the West Coast Language poets would have understood that Property (1982) is a radical unwriting of patrilineal tradition, where “property” is the propriety of male authorship. My play Third Man (1979-1980) was overtly queer. Third Man is a woman performing “Third Man”: cross-dressing as narrative flicker. Loop, another entity in the play, is a metamorphic figure, who variously obscures performative gendering and performs exaggerated versions of masculinity. “The Middle,” a talk I gave at 80 Langton Street in 1981, was a bricolage of appropriated works, language games and daydreams, that resists linear narratives of affiliation (or should I say filiation) and literary inheritance.

BB: A little bit further, you write “I (more than) like(d) Zukofsky” (120): your typography and use of parentheses suggests at least two different readings here, namely “I more than liked Zukofsky” (in the past) and “I like Zukofsky” (in the present). Paradoxically maybe, “I like Zukofsky” doesn’t necessarily come across as a lesser version of “I more than liked Zukofsky.” It could be read simply as a more distanced, reflexive, or mature approach to his work. Could you please comment on the evolution that is suggested here?

CH: I see that statement not as evolutionary but as accurate across time, in both senses: I did and I do like Zukofsky. I suppose that the intensifier subvocalized and theatricalized by the parentheses in “I (more than) like(d) Zukofsky” could be read as a bit flirty or snarky, a shaded tease performed just as much or more in the present of the writing as in the past. Such gestural language may obscure the past or allude to what remains unstated.

BB: You participated in the two performances of Zukofsky’s “A”-24 which were given at the Grand Piano in 1978 and you interpreted the “Drama” part on both occasions. To be precise, the “Drama” part was split between Steve Benson and yourself. I have always wondered why you decided to do so back then. Did you see that as a way to treat performance poetry primarily as poetry? Or, to put it in a slightly different way, was that a refusal to “create character” precisely where character might have emerged more naturally given the obvious connection between those lines and theatrical performance?

CH: I have been continuously interested in different types of language-centered performance, so I wouldn’t see a contradiction between genres of presentation per se. I did feel some limitations with the Zukofsky performance, but they were consciously understood by everyone in advance. The piece had a conventional and minimal performance set-up, and thus the delivery was everything.

Having the two voices in “Drama” allowed for more collaboration between Steve and me. I was moving around a lot in those days, so my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think I was living with Steve and my brother on Hampshire Street at that time. The performance decisions in this case are based on who is participating in the performance. This is a value I have retained in making performance, and perhaps this early performance experience encouraged my inclination to make works that can expand and contract the numbers of performers, something that influences the form and sonic qualities of the text.

I take your question about splitting up the part as related to but also distinct from the question of character and performing poetry. My work for theater is anti-dramatic, and thus to some extent follows from avant-garde critiques of drama literature. One approach to the “Drama” line would be to play Drama as a metacharacter, one that itself would perform its multiple characters: the laborers, the nurse, the son, etc. This approach would require acting and would absorb the language of the composition into the acting vocabulary. In this case, the part might be performed by a single virtuosic performer. Another way to approach Drama as poetry in “A”-24 would be to voice the language using whatever means of activation one has access to at the moment it is performed, with the experience of rehearsing being a large part of what makes these means available to the performers. I have always swayed toward this latter kind of approach to performance myself: it requires an awareness of listening as much as communicating. In “A”-24 the difficulty of processing both the musical line and the verbal phrasing invites continuous re-responding to the language, especially in the Drama segment, because one is voicing multiple parts. Working closely with someone on the same line of the score enhances and challenges the listening mode. I don’t feel that I got as far as I might have with what was possible in the performing of “A”-24. Back then, Steve Benson was a more sophisticated and confident performer than I. Over time, I have come to understand that I need a lot of time to prepare.

BB: As compared to the other Language writers involved in these two performances of “A”-24, would you say that your academic background in performance studies or your own practice as a performance poet changed the way in which you approached Zukofsky’s work?

CH: No, I was just trying to keep up. Through my studies, I became interested in conceptualism, performance within the visual arts as (unstable) critique of the commodity, and the question of “language” within the context of anti-dramatic theater and physical theater and performance art. The only kind of performance practice I engaged in my studies was movement; and, speaking of influence, movement had a significant influence on my writing, even as my practice-encounter with movement was not sustained beyond some coursework and workshops.

BB: My next question focuses on your two recent performance works, namely Good Morning and Cloud Cantata. Writing performance poems—i.e., works of sociality—during the Covid-19 lockdown certainly was a very powerful gesture. To what extent would you say that “sociality” itself became not only the form but also the subject-matter of these experiments?

CH: Almost all of my performance writing is intended for the page, with the possibility of the page becoming a score for performance. Good Morning is now published in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art and Cloud Cantata is forthcoming from Pamanar, a poetry press. I consider these publication occasions to be felicitous expressions of this double action between poetry and performance. I think this question about sociality is a little tricky, but I like it a lot. I do think that I am often interpreting weird fantasies or dreams into social banter; and also, some of the dialogue is riffing on remarks made in actual conversation. I am also testing how far one can stretch dialogue into language-thought threads and patterns that are not dialogic and still retain the sense of dialogue in the whole. And I am also interested in breaking with the dialogue while recursively reflecting its language, for instance in a couple of sections entitled “fugue” in Cloud Cantata.

I have been exceedingly fortunate to have someone to talk to when “sheltering in place” and the relative degrees of sheltering over the last two plus years. Performance has always been a means of breaking out of a sense of isolation, getting out of my own head, and making something in present time with others. Along with their companionable and playful sociability, these writings are also iterations through and investigations of isolation in a context in which the social, actually, is overbearing: regulatory, unfair, tragic, violent, hypocritical, ignorant, exhausted, and politically chaotic. I think, perhaps, that sociality is drawn into the social, while this negativity of the social is mediated in an improvised, dialogic mode.

BB: In our interview together, Bob Perelman explains that the trouble he finds with Zukofsky is precisely a “thinness of sociality” in his works. Do you agree with that statement? And if so, do you see Celia’s score for performance in “A”-24 as redemptive in any way?

CH: A first response is that I wouldn’t be the one to consider Celia Zukofsky’s composition an act of redemption—politics of gender (here I am being social again!). The composition is an astonishing “take” on the recursive “life-poem” as discussed already.

But I may not be entirely understanding the question. My sense is that you are bringing Bob’s comment on sociality and Barrett’s critique of redemption together. Barrett makes a case for the work as authorless, because of the Zukofskys’ recursive quoting of one another. Is this authorlessness theological or revolutionary? I wonder why the arrangement wouldn’t be also a blending of authorship. A pluralizing, as an event of returning to the scene of the relationship between experience and the poem in a recursive fashion. When Barrett writes, “A”-24 seems to offer redemption everywhere but defers it always—making a theological corrective to the political project of revolutionary Marxism, a gigantic gap opens up between cottage industry and revolutionary Marxism. There is a problem with the imagined scene of the making of the work. I find myself falling between this as a generative and deadening problem, which I suppose has everything to do with the gender politics I mention above. I evade positioning Celia within this narrative to some degree.

I can say this about my own values regarding “redemption.” My performance works are unrecoverable, irredeemable. They work against the logics of repertory theater: one has to remake the work, not reproduce it as if there were an original performance. There is no eternity for the performance. The performance begins with the text and the performers. An audience for Mirror Play would experience it as performance for speaking voice and jaw harps at the Poetry Center in San Francisco, as a multi-media “happening,” with improvised physical performance, image projections and noise and improvised music at a Detroit Metro gallery, and as a bilingual choral performance with four voices at the Hölderlinturm. The language in these performances would have radically different inflections, would be sensible in entirely different ways. This underscores what I love about the poetic: how language can resonate through different bodies, different ears, and how a work changes within temporal and spatial contexts. Even as some of my works are more contained than what I have described of Mirror Play, I am antagonistic to literary values for redemption. Improvisation is often what most interests me, the relationship between structures given or decided in advance and how these can enable what cannot be anticipated in advance.

In any case, I like the idea of “thin sociality” being a negative influence on Bob’s work, which is often quite sociable. And perhaps “A”-24, encouraged me in a negative sense to make work that favors a non-identity between page-based text and intensely collaborative and social performance interpretation of the work that works against expectations of replication. Yet, “A”-24 is also a work that has not been fixed, because it is impossible perhaps; and this too might have informed my thinking.

BB: The note on Good Morning that you provided us with ahead of your reading at the ENS in November is quite surprising. Here, instead of stating what a performance of the work should look like or sound like, you actually insist on the freedom of interpretation which is granted to the performers. You give many different examples of how the work might be read and performed, but you don’t seem to be setting any strict limits. Would you say that, in a sense, your note invites “misreading” as a practice just as much as it cancels out the very possibility of “misreading” as a critical concept?

CH: I realize this is a bit of a twist on the term misreading, but in improvised music a mistake is not a mistake; my writing and the performance of it is variously informed by and/or deploys structured improvisation. The question for me would be how does this open up the possibilities for reading? Toward performance, there are parameters that structure or limit what’s possible yet do not determine the result. One of the “limits” is the text itself, but how the text is taken as limit is also a matter of interpretation within a particular situation. One might begin with the idea that the text is its own instruction, and that some people are going to “hear” the text—experience it sonically—and others are going to find “themes” and stress these as a way of creating continuity for themselves, and others are going to want to play with, mock, or intervene in the “couple dynamic” of the dialogues. Hannah Weiner had an idea about interrupting the sentence on the page, and I think that there is something kindred in the way I imagine performance interrupting a relational dynamic or affect. I am interested in your idea of canceling out misreading as a critical concept. Perhaps performance can “perform” such canceling and therefore defamiliarize the critical concept so that one can question assumptions about the critical term.

BB: Did your own experience of performing “A”-24 comport with Barrett’s remarks on “misreading” in the section he dedicated to your two stagings of the masque in Grand Piano 1? In which case, would you say that your 1978 performances of “A”-24 influenced the way in which you approach performance poetry today?

CH: Let me quote part of the passage from the Grand Piano you refer to: “For all our careful scoring of textual emphasis, were we of the avantgarde the original misreaders? In the event, I had a suspicion that something like that might be the case, that we had in part misrecognized Zukofsky’s endorsement of our own, arguably more radical, project” (14).

Barrett slips from “misreading” to “misrecognition,” thus eliding the distinction between the rehearsals of the composition and Zukofsky. His comment is curiously blurry; and it is also about the desire to be seen or recognized and to “refunction” Zukofsky as precursor to language writing. “At the same time we wanted his endorsement; we wanted to claim him as our own” (14). I use refunction in quotes above, because it has been a term of interest to Barrett, dating back to his early writing on Zukofsky.

While it is entirely possible and even likely that our “reading” would be a misreading given “the obduracy of his writing,” not to mention the demands of the score on the untrained voices of poets, there would have been no way for us to produce the “right” reading. What kind of cultural capital, or financing for that matter, or theory of performance put into rigorous practice, would we need in order to attain such a reading is up for speculation. Still it was a proposition that Zukofsky should be read and recognized: and this was an event, an act of reading, whatever Zukofsky might think of what we did with it. The question of influence goes back to my interest in poetics as conversation; and this was a conversation that had a deadline. I am perhaps inordinately interested in performance time and performance deadlines, to the extent that I have made a number of pieces that are performed over years in entirely different ways, and I think of these all as part of a work-in-progress and, contradictorily, as entirely discrete events or “whole fragments,” to borrow a term from Ann Lauterbach.

I am not sure that performing “A”-24 changed the trajectory I was on even if it did add texture to it. I could also say that any meaningful performance is influential and becomes part of the critical toolkit. In the two years before the performance, I had been involved in performance practices that would include movement and also language-based improvisations with Steve Benson. I was interested in conceptualizing experiments between performance art and poetics; for instance, “Walking Backwards with The Maintains,” a performance in Bob Perelman’s Talk Series, was a messy event that involved using the entire loft, domestic items in the loft, a reconfiguration of audience engagement, and my walking backwards reading Clark Coolidge’s The Maintains. This was an investigation of site specificity and audience (to what extent would the audience accept feminist antagonism and playfulness?) as well as an investigation of time-based performance, distributed authorship, and documentation. Performing “A”-24 was all the more interesting, because it amplified a particular engagement with literature that would be obscure to and intersect with critical conversations in the arts. People in visual and performing arts would complain about poetry readings as lackluster ritual. I was both appreciative and skeptical of these ubiquitous takes on poetry, because they seemed as much about the dread of poetry as about the routinized reading form. At the same time, the Zukofsky piece would not exactly answer this complaint because of the density of the language that made listening challenging; and the attention was still on “reading” as opposed to, for instance, mis en scene or high-quality sound, which we had no control over in any case.

BB: The definition you purport of “poetics as conversation” seems to imply a constant interplay between reading, writing, and performing, but also an ever-renewed dialogue between literary forms and genres which is itself, in a sense, performative. Your own Adorno’s Noise seems quite exemplary in that matter and the work itself resists classification. Would you say that you read Adorno as a poet, or rather as a critic/theoretician?

CH: I would have to say that I was reading Adorno as a poet with a bent toward critique/theory, so this is a simple response; but I would like to complicate it. Reading Adorno, specifically Minima Moralia, in translation, making note of the negativity of his language, while thinking about the objects of his commodity critique in combination with the “subject” and the “damaged life” results in a hybrid response that actually aligns my reading of Adorno with “the essay” as both literary and theoretical. On one reading of his book, I was struck by the different categories of negativity in his language, from grammatical bits like “no,” “not,” “never,” “no one,” (“Let no one represent you”) to metaphors and similes, such as “passions like cheap jewelry” that saturated his work of cultural critique and subjective reflection on “damaged life.” Then there is the essays’ connection to Los Angeles, a part of my cultural background, though “my L.A.” has a different immigration story, which includes a grandfather living in Compton who immigrated from the Dust Bowl and made a living as a janitor, and a grandmother who walked down the street every Sunday to an integrated Methodist Church on the corner; how L.A. sounds to me as it meets Adorno’s American commodity culture is pretty noisy. Minima Moralia is exemplary of the essay as form. What is a poem or an essay if one is a poet but not a lyric poet? Such a question is possibly somewhere lurking in the back of my head quite often.

  • 3 “Negativity is common to a range of concepts that includes: nonidentity, antagonism, nihilism, revo (...)

BB: In this context, would you say that your pun on “Adorno” / “Adore-no” somehow intersects with Barrett’s remarks on negativity in The Constructivist Moment and Questions of Poetics3?

CH: I think my response above is absolutely pertinent to Barrett’s multifarious negativities. In the essay in which the pun appears, I was thinking about the erotic and the political. I was thinking about the young women revolutionaries baring their breasts at Adorno at the moment of their sense of betrayal. I was thinking about how I was writing with and against the author; how mockery can be close to adoration; how a mind can turn one on to “no.” How antagonism can go together with regard.

BB: Barrett made it clear in our interview together that he disregarded the idea that performance could be seen as a means of resisting the commodification of literature. Do you agree with that statement, and if that’s the case, where do you locate the politics of performance poetry?

CH: His statement is perfectly Adornian, an expression of negative dialectics. I would disagree that there is a singular politics of performance poetry. I would like to codify this more explicitly in order to say something more about the diverse politics of performance poetry now, but this will need to wait. As Heidi Bean states in Acts of Poetry: American Poets Theater and the Politics of Performance, “The relationship between performance and poetry changes over time, not wholesale but locally, in relation to specific communities in specific moments, and as part of a network” (25). My own work sustains a conceptualization of performance as a site for rethinking political narratives; but it also, as Heidi Bean has written, involves a conceptualization of the audience as “an interpretive community marked, paradoxically, by discontinuity and dispersion” (27).

My work in the San Francisco Bay Area Poets Theater back in the day, begins with the possibility of the poetic text as writing that can be performed but is not understood to be simply a work for performance; the performance is the transposition of the text into another medium. I began with this question “how can the non/narrative language centered text further polyphonic rather than monovalent interpretation, given the interaction with the reader it invites?” For me this has everything to do with questions of gender, of diversity and difference, of sociality, and of authorship. It also had to do with questions related to improvisation.

I have found your discussion about music and speech in your interview with Barrett interesting, because it has given me a chance to reflect on the importance of music to my work in performance. In the last two decades, text based language frequently becomes a score for music improvisation: the interpretation of the score typically underscores the distinction between language and music as well as opens up the possibility of sonic moments in which one can’t separate the sound from music; because the sound of words, syllables or letters are made in the instrument of the voice, which if the frames “music,” “performance” and “poetry” are left open can bring these together without obliterating the categories: they are in conversation.

BB: Perhaps a final and more personal question if you agree? In spite of your questioning of his “centrality,” would you say that Zukofsky is a “presence” in your own poetry still? How do you—as a poet—negotiate this “presence”?

CH: One carries one’s reading along in time. So yes, Zukofsky is present as ambient ghost-text. The most salient connection to Zukofsky is I believe the radical particularity of the poetry. The “A”-24 performance was something else, a what-if experiment. Poems-in-prose such as “Property,” and “For She,” which Ron Silliman uses as an example of the New Sentence, are not only early examples of a pressure I put on phrases, differentiating one from another, while shifting levels or scales—for instance from sense to non-sense or from sonic abstraction to discourse—within narrative and poetic language. These could be codified differently than the way Silliman discusses the unit of the sentence. I think also of the distinctions of form within “A,” which could perhaps be traced to Adorno’s Noise, although I have never thought about this before now.

The values for the literary are very different. Zukofsky seeks a place in the eternity of authorship through the ages, as defined by modernist literary value. My concerns are with the possibility for literature, for the writing subject, other to a patriarchal eternity. This view of poetry is of emergence; it exists in a mode of becoming and perhaps an investigation of the relationship of “making” to practice. Performance as an aspect of this practice, in act and in conceptualization, is corrosive. It materializes time, and variously weathers, eats, and stills time; it lends time a plasticity that loosens the controls on the consequential future, and does so, to quote a famous dead philosopher, “without metaphysical appeal.”

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3 “Negativity is common to a range of concepts that includes: nonidentity, antagonism, nihilism, revolt, defamiliarization, rupture, opposition, dissociation, conflict, delusion, void, emptiness. Negativity as it occurs “in the field” so to speak, with the radical forms and interventions of the avant-garde, partakes of any or all of these modes—even as its final horizon, a denial of positivity, locates each instance as a potential form of critique” (Watten 2003 240 / 2016 165).

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Benoît Bondroit, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman et Barrett Watten, « Language Writing and Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-24 : Three Interviews »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 10 juillet 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Benoît Bondroit

Université Paris Nanterre

Carla Harryman

Eastern Michigan University

Bob Perelman

University of Pennsylvania

Barrett Watten

Wayne State University

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