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This is Jacket 12, July 2000   |   # 12  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Jack Kimball

Mad in Craft:

Hannah Weiner and Alan Sondheim

This piece is about fourteen printed pages long.


i want to discuss astrals, the visions and i want to begin with paw because he seems to have started his existence three years ago this coming january and still exists

the reason to discuss paw is that he is one of the teachers and gives me instruction continually and in the three years i’ve known him, or that he has appeared, he’s grown in intelligence and acuteness and accuracy and he also happens to be the funniest person that i know he didn’t start out as paw and i will tell you the story (Weiner, ‘astral visions’)

Hannah Weiner by Tom Ahern WHAT SORT OF TUNE ‘discusses’ astrals? As narration, this poem by Hannah Weiner (1928–1997) describes a spiritual condition for her writing, a voice and visions source Weiner calls ‘paw,’ one of her indigenous-to-America hidden teachers who helps in her ‘slightly screwy’ daily journal keeping. Paw, a voice, is if nothing else a compositional device that instructs and helps Weiner keep the screwy ‘under control,’ as she maintains in a radio interview recorded late in her life (Bernstein). From this and other, repeated accounts by Weiner we see there is a lot to manage: multiple word-crazed voices and hidden personages like paw who reside in her cerebrum, seen words pressed against and written on her forehead and pouring out of her fingers and toes, and seen words sometimes as tall as twenty feet splayed like goblins across her apartment walls, too many words, in brief, internal and external, everywhere she is, appendages, enclosures and all. But beyond a narrative overextending into meta-narrative, and with regard to the music and gravitas of Weiner’s poetry — one fabricated of visions given her by voices, many visions, many voices — what beyond the hysterical root constituents of her verse could define its refractory appeal?

hannah weiner was born to it in providence ri in 1928 and   graduated from radcliffe college 1950 magna cum laude she then worked for three publishing houses got fired from all of them once for being too intellectual once for associating with aliens and once for being caught not slapping her bosses face [ . . . ] both writing and designing were childhood ambitions she got a free course at the new school and found she couldnt write new york school poetry [ . . . ] happily she discovered the international code of signals and found she could write about almost anything by using the code books these became rather wild performances followed by other performances like street works 1-7 and the fashion show poetry event she was very well reviewed because the art critic of the village voice was one of her partners she thus met the musicians performers pop artists lesbians and poets of that time

all this glory ended in 1970 when she became extremely psychic and hiding out in a cheap apartment wrote about nothing else in almost 100 notebooks see the fast the words began to appear in 1972 and led to the clairvoyant journal a three voice performance poetry book about learning explaining instructions and the counter voice years passed the language group moved in and so did the indians she still remembers meeting chawho at a party saying youre getting pretty old dont you think you should publish she did sixteen and spoke begin to introduce the teaching now she is reaching her ultimate achievement learned first at her grandmother’s knee TEACHING SILENT she has dragged several poets into this with her gosh ma shes a real female tarpsichordist (silent teachers remembered sequel)

Straight-ahead narration, again, Weiner’s almost conventionally self absorbed autobiography nonetheless displays elements of the subtext that sets her apart from our average, slightly screwy composer of poems. We get swept up in Weiner’s breezy matter-of-factness, that of the Manhattan small-press pro, breezy yet equipped with an ultra-poise emissive of her skill in self positioning (‘a three voice performance poetry book"; ‘reaching her ultimate’). This is the story of the autonomous-seeming, magna-cum-laude designing writer, Weiner’s story of writing and the conditions of writing as a life, her life, ‘nothing else.’ This is drumbeat (‘extremely psychic’) and xylophone (‘all this glory’), the last call of the ‘tarpsichordist,’ autobiographical frenzy blitzed by humor (‘caught not slapping her bosses face"; ‘she was very well reviewed because the art critic of the village voice was one of her partners’) that hums, rhymes and rings with recognizable, lower-case truths.

The greater part of the story is straight-ahead narrative, yet not entirely. In the second paragraph / stanza Weiner discloses her clairvoyance, which, once we pause to grant Weiner this license, must be taken in as a matter of course, especially since she unhesitantly advances the narrative to relate how clairvoyance led to writing a performance poetry book. Then, still unhesitant, ‘years passed the language group moved in and so did the indians . . . ‘ Weiner welds together an insider’s reference to a contemporary school of poets, ‘the language group,’ with an idiolectical reference to invisible teachers, ‘the indians,’ who in this case ‘moved in’ by taking up residence in her brain. Weiner continues, ‘she still remembers meeting chawho at a party saying youre getting pretty old dont you think you should publish . . . ‘ The party chawho, like the astral paw, is one of her envisioned, indigenous shamans qua teachers. What seems noteworthy here is not so much the communion with hidden teachers as the performance assumption that we, Weiner’s audience, get it, we know her teachers, we know who they are, and we know them in some of the same ways Weiner knows them. References to her books (‘sixteen and spoke’), staged events and other proper names drop with the abandon of a drummer’s denotation, as though referential values of terms like ‘radcliffe’ and ‘chawho’ were coequal. More disruptive, these closing words: ‘she has dragged several poets into this with her gosh ma shes a real female tarpsichordist.’ Weiner’s audience, a majority of which can even now be fairly described as ‘several poets,’ is dragged in, but the spun bravado we feel in Weiner’s achievement is hardly a drag, thanks to her ventriloquizing faintly pseudo-delusional tones, ‘gosh ma,’ backed up by the portmanteau ‘tarpsichordist,’ a play on the keyboard with punning reference, as Maria Damon suggests, to the dancing muse Terpsichore.

When Weiner ventriloquizes, a trance logic grabs hold; ‘gosh ma’ cuts into the denouement we had been listening for; it’s another voice, as if from nowhere, high-pitched, hallucinatory. Yet what marks this intrusion as atypical — for Weiner — is that this ‘other’ has waited for nearly 30 lines to show up! In her long poems that ‘introduce the teaching’ multiple others alight the text field, line by line, often word by word. I cite almost at random from Spoke:

in it twice    as only once    Hannah thats a great big MOTHERS

GIRL teacher in the psychic plane on the      role leader
under the line please
           role leader put them put them in the
     I was only leader make joke ABOVE THE LINE
right price

I was interested I was learning with   in   it   to . . . (p. 78)

I am going to try to make sense of this text field, at first, by looking at it unholistically, attending to only a few phrases or word clumps. I’m cautioned, however, by Weiner’s own inconclusive account of an earlier text, her Clairvoyant Journal and its sources: ‘It turned out that the regular upper and lower case words described what I was doing, the CAPITALS gave me orders, and the underlines or italics made comments. This is not 100% true, but mostly so’ (‘Mostly about . . . ‘ p. 60). With respect to our excerpt from Spoke above, ‘ . . . I was learning with in it . . . ‘ is a particularly stable point to start a review of Weiner’s play of voices (V1, V2, etc.). Here we have V1, let’s say, a first-person voice who confesses to learning in, with, within ‘it"; and ‘it’ can be, let’s say, all the writing and conditions of writing the text field under our review. V1 appears at the beginning of our excerpt as well, enumerating what is meant by ‘I was learning’ and, perhaps, presaging ways to read ‘with in it": ‘in it twice as only once.’ That is, the one text results from the I of V1 (a) hearing transmissions from other autonomous voices and (b) writing (‘in it twice’) the text as one (‘as only once’). V2 pops in: ‘Hannah thats a great big MOTHERS GIRL . . . ‘ Let’s assume V2 breaks in and talks down to V1. Who would be V3? Is it the voice who drones ‘teacher in the psychic plane . . . ‘ and / or ‘under the line please"? There is something like a stage-mom’s prescription (‘make joke’) that merges with editorial monitoring of the poem’s lineation variables — lines breaking up and down. Further, the snappish order, ‘under the line please,’ not only instructs the writer / reader to go ‘under the line,’ but also echoes from and refers to earlier underlining (at the top of the same page that includes our excerpt): ‘I was overt / under the line."

In pointing to these few word clumps, I think it is apparent that Weiner’s text resists easy analysis through partitioning. Pages of text must be consumed and reconsumed (‘in it twice as only once"?), first, to perceive the text as a residuum of multiple autonomies, and second, to appreciate the sweep of Weiner’s formal project. In a section of her essay ‘Mostly about the Sentence’ subtitled Destruction of the Sentence, Weiner singles out this passage from her book Spoke:

why did   me destroy the sentence blurp  because
     I the             the

    the mind             thinks quicker THAN WE SPEAK
rhyme     responds
              OR WE SEE IT and answers below the line itself on the page


Later in her essay Weiner reveals her compositional purpose:

The sentence is always interrupted. Mind I that speaks out loud, or writes, is interrupted by mind 2 that is simultaneously preparing the next sentence or answering a question. Therefore the correct form to represent both minds or the complete mind, [sic] is an interrupted form [ . . . ] My writing above and below the line incorporates some of this simultaneity. Linear writing must leave out many simultaneous thoughts and events. I am trying to show the mind (‘Mostly about . . . ‘ 62, 63).

According to this formulation, Weiner’s exhibitably schizophrenic atmospheres operate as a veiling interface between her telepathic reception of opaque input and what she regards as universal properties of human mind (constituted by mind 1, mind 2, etc.). Her texts are transmissions of what ‘I was learning,’ also performances and transformations of what Weiner characterizes as ‘the teaching.’ We readers are ‘dragged in’ for reasons that become more "overt / under the line’ as we pay more attention.


Alan Sondheim (1943–), a singer and instrumentalist, has appeared under numerous musical guises, performed at countless venues, recorded a half dozen albums. He has been active in short films and video for decades, occupied since the late 1980s with over 40 productions screened worldwide at places like Jager und Sammler in Berlin, The Kitchen, the Whitney Museum and MOMA in New York. As a graphics virtuoso, Sondheim has exhibited widely in New York, where he lives, and across North America and in Japan. He is an accomplished theorist and pedagogue on ‘late-capitalist’ aesthetics and ‘transgressive’ epistemologies, as well as a prolific essayist on film, postmodernism and cyberspace (often linking all three in meta-critical pieces). He recently edited a collection of his and others’ papers on computer technology and its symbolic and imaginary influences, Being On Line; and he is now composing a fiction he calls Ma, A Novel. In addition, Sondheim is a poet who writes like a child,

because I need to defend myself, because my thoughts are too simple, because I haven’t read all I should have read, because I’m too neurotic to expose myself directly. I write in constant fear. I write under avatars because I’d rather be a woman, I want to step out step out step out step out step out step out step out of my skin, moving into yours, turn my own inside out, cauterize my organs. I don’t even know what I don’t know any more; that’s why I write through performatives, misshapen characters which may as well be inscribed into my flesh. Because I can write from the position of my flesh. I can take refuge in autobiography — Ah, if you only had the experiences I have had — as if that were some sort of an argument. I know that it’s not . . . (‘Defensive Exhibitionism’)

Sondheim, the poet, also writes in other ways, other moods.

Beneath my deliberately troubled exterior writing is a cold interior working and reworking everything, and beneath that is a troubled interior, but that’s more private hopefully than anything else. And I do work off of/from texts of all sorts including those bordering on psychosis; I’m more content with neurosis, although not of the obsessive-compulsive sort. I know I tend to push myself into states of inordinate discomfort, and allow the texts to do that as well — the better texts for me are those that are the more troubling, discomforting — such states often sexual or body-oriented or death/illness oriented — such states also hallucinatory, emanations — partly as a result, and partly contributing to, my theorizing about avatars, etc. (Personal communication, Dec. 3, 1998)

The first text cited, ‘Defensive Exhibitionism,’ is representative of one brand of poetry from Sondheim, an E-mail for public consumption. Posted to the Fiction of Philosophy (FOP) List which he comoderates, ‘Defensive Exhibitionism’ is a first-person, ‘Alan’ form of poetics statement — this ‘Alan’ being only one in a cast of obsessive personae with which subscribers to FOP become familiar, since each day brings two, three or more such dramatized utterances addressing the consciousness of the writer / personae / text. With regard to personae or avatars, as Sondheim frequently calls them, these are brash, overdetermined and mostly female voices, such as the ‘bratty’ Jennifer, the ‘personal’ Alan, ‘dark and sexual’ Julu and Nikuko who is ‘striding across continents’ (‘Defensive Exhibitionism’). In contrast, in his private E-mail to me, the second text cited above, Sondheim proposes in a soberly self-analytical voice (‘the real Alan"?) that his texts achieve something like the strained equivalence of neurosis, but not ‘the obsessive-compulsive sort.’ This distinction seems clinically astute but too finely so when estimated against a poetry that engages itself as its own topic, consistently disorders its categories of the real and imagined, and submits to a standard of induced, ‘inordinate discomfort.’

I talk about the deliberate doubling of myself in the midst of Jennifer, Julu, Nikuko, and the discomfort this produces — and that I feel more or less successful when the discomfort is such that I’d almost rather not have done such and such a text. I explain about ghosts and hauntings and I don’t explain about the insomnias and depressions, although they’re part of the backdrop . . . I describe potential psychoanalytics of cyberspace, how my programming skills are poor, so I will work, for example, with the emacs doctor program as a bot, instead of writing interactive programs — although I then read texts produced by some of my own programs anyway, showing how they can help shape communication, create new ways of working with myself and the avatars, how all of this is one and the same in a sense, how I become sleepless over these as well, perhaps dreaming Jennifer or scrolling text, or finding myself in love with someone’s works as if they blossomed into the suffusion of virtual presence, as if they inhabited my dreams — just as I inhabit cyberspace, and here Heidegger comes into play . . . (‘Questions at UCSD’)

The Alan persona reports on Sondheim (the real Alan) lecturing at University of California, San Diego. But note this persona fixes on other personae, Jennifer et al., as known quantities, qualities. Sondheim’s ‘in the midst of Jennifer, Julu, Nikuko’ and ‘working with myself and the avatars’ are a documentarian’s shorthand, like Weiner’s ‘the language group moved in and so did the indians.’ Note the Alan persona conflates reference to a realized computer routine (‘I will work . . . with the emacs doctor program as a bot’) with reference to residing in a dreamy place occasioned through computers (‘in love with someone’s works as if they . . . inhabited my dreams — just as I inhabit cyberspace’). On the one hand, Sondheim’s claim that his self-doubling is ‘deliberate’ cagily protects this text from facile typing as only fantasy or grandiose dream, while wary nonsequiturs (‘potential psychoanalytics of cyberspace"; ‘here Heidegger comes into play’) support our receiving the text as learned, intellectually glitzy discourse. The more we parse these lines, on the other hand, Sondheim’s will to ‘push myself into states’ becomes more persuasively integrated within a theory and representation of the inner life hounded by tirelessly unified awareness, an awareness creating ‘new ways of working with myself and the avatars, how all of this is one and the same in a sense, how I become sleepless over these as well, perhaps dreaming Jennifer or scrolling text."

Sondheim’s awareness appears fanatical or, at least, inaccessibly pious in a peculiarly American vein as in, for example, William James’s psychological portraits of those enduring a religious episode who suddenly see the relatedness of events but cannot express it in ordinary language or behavior. Sondheim evidences his awareness of ‘all this is one’ through task mastery, sticking to odd regimens for further discovery: ‘I’ll push myself in the middle of the night to complete one more thing. There’s no foreclosing, no closure, but the heavy pressure to carve a slight newer space added to the already toppling old’ (‘The Candy of the Universe’). Words like ‘push’ and ‘pressure’ capture the increasing, almost thermal, urgency Sondheim generates and feeds from to keep close to the melting point, holed up in his space, communing with his multivocal forms.

We ask, is he communing or assembling his contact with avatars and personae, which he expansively describes as ‘characters,’ ‘system interrupts,’ ‘performatives,’ ‘resonances,’ "effusions"? Sondheim offers an expansive and shifting set of answers. In the poetic text ‘Defensive Exhibitionism’ Sondheim switches from tactical agnosticism (‘I don’t even know what I don’t know anymore; that’s why I write through performatives’) to celebratory defiance (‘I can pretend to have each of these characters write as if she or he weren’t me’). In ‘over / heard,’ however, a nameless narrator, perhaps ‘dark’ Julu, communes with thoughts ‘from somewhere else’ that ‘hurt my head"; this is a disruption of any lyrical equilibrium predicated on sheer pretense or authorial control, as the poem opens with psychotic refrains:

‘my thoughts hurt my head’ then cause my thoughts bang against my skull where there is very much hurt to have and nothing to help protect against these thoughts.

which maybe aren’t my thoughts but maybe come from somewhere else. Which maybe is from someone who doesn’t like me. i  definitely think they’re from something which doesn’t like me.

which maybe are mine and are bad naughty thoughts i shouldn’t have and my head is punishing me. i definitely shouldn’t have these thoughts. i definitely shouldn’t be having these thoughts. my thoughts shouldn’t be having me.

There is a measure of the redemptive in that the force pixilating these disastrous ideas is, after all, external, ‘from somewhere else . . . from someone . . . something which does not like me.’ Information the narrator imparts is sourced outside, not ‘my thoughts,’ ‘my head’ or ‘my skull,’ but some other space, perhaps some ‘newer space,’ some other authority. Again noting the particular salience of the verb ‘push,’ we learn from Sondheim that the sense of the other in a text like ‘over / heard’ results from his disquiet, his

wanting to push the texts into a place where they begin to take over. Here’s something — Jennifer’s panties. Because to be honest I never had a panty fetish, but I ’gave’ one to Jennifer . . . In real life, these things are objects, controllable; in the texts, they break the leashes, so to speak. So with the panties, say, I’d want to push that as far as I can textually (or in cyberspace; I also have a web page using the idea). Until I literally can’t write myself out of fetishism — and that resonates with the difficulty online of — how does fetishism work here? — and that I have received women’s panties in the mail. So it circulates. But in my daily life, I don’t think of these things — only when I’m writing through Jennifer, say. (And then that can be allowed to be arousing, through Jennifer — perhaps that’s where the psychosis comes in, as if she’s bursting out of me, taking over, wounding the body through a faux slit or vagina as she emerges.) (Personal communication, Dec. 5, 1998)

Sondheim’s managing his characters — such as ‘writing through’ avatars, ’giving’ them fetishes — betokens Jennifer, Julu, et al. as constructions. Sondheim’s deliberation, in short, marks a flat-out split between his personae and Weiner’s astrals. Whereas Weiner professes parapsychological intimacy with paw and chawho, Sondheim only allows a conditional possession: it is ‘as if’ Jennifer takes over — though the mannerist pattern of his possession can be visceral, ‘she’s bursting out of me,’ ‘wounding’ and psychotic, ‘my head is punishing me.’ There remains a yet-unsolved calculus between Sondheim’s as-if possession and the otherness of these poems. Technophenomena like automated data scripts that spew text populated by Jennifer or Julu, for instance, evince a persona who can be both a construct, inside the mind, and elsewhere. Sondheim explains, ‘I am thinking of [mind at] the level of symbolic flows, diffusions — things not implemented in either hardware or software, but a result of the dialectic of both’ (Personal communication, Jan. 29, 1999). The mind then is a flux of metaphorical occursion, data swaps and, in Sondheim’s case at least, experimental lunge toward being possessed. Jennifer, let’s say, participates in the flux — the mind — as information yet she is ‘bursting . . . taking over . . . as she emerges.’ In response to my question, how so, Sondheim, ever-shifting, remarks, ‘I just don’t make these distinctions [since there is a] problematic distinction between information and neurophysiology’ (Personal communication, Jan. 30, 1999). The at-once evasive but broad-dimensioned precision of this response (information derives from fired neurons) accents both the epistemic suspense and, by extension, the ecstatic availability of dialectical diffusion which, according to Sondheim, is the mind’s work, and which doubtlessly is the work of Sondheim’s poems.


Why bring Sondheim and Weiner together? They both process thrilling ur-poetry: entangled, limitlessly complicated prose poems and verses. Both give voice to several persons, ambivert, twisted, delirious identities endowed with centripetal, revisionary powers. Also, Sondheim and Weiner manifest and parody shamanic craft, upping value of the heteroglossal fragment beyond poignancy or lyrical glamour.

And more simply, their biodata bring them together. Though a generation older, Weiner covered the same ’art turf’ as Sondheim. They were Ivy League downtown performers when downtown performance art became prime, the 1960s and 1970s. It’s not surprising they had mutual acquaintances and met often, but it is surprising when Sondheim writes about Weiner: ‘the one time I remember talking with her she read the word ’poison’ on my forehead . . . [so] I didn’t have any desire to spend time with her. I was ’with’ Rosemary Mayer at that point, Bernadette’s sister, and she knew her’ (Personal communication, March 8, 1999). (Many of Weiner’s recurrent name drops — Charles, Bernadette / Berna, Douglas, Barrett, Ted, Lewis, Alice, Tina, Rosemary — refer to friends in her poetic circle. Some were her care-givers.) Another biographical point of similarity is that Sondheim and Weiner were born Jewish and regard their religious heritage as pertinent to their art. In her radio interview with Charles Bernstein, Weiner reveals her descendance from the Levis and Cohens — and, more, she unambiguously associates her fate with their biblical legacies; that is, to paraphrase, the Levis are landless, hidden teachers while the Cohens are high priests. Sondheim likewise identifies with his family’s cultural traditions, admitting that ‘alterity and waywardness’ are ‘connected with a marginality of the essence, i.e. being born Jewish isn’t a choice’ (Personal communication, March 8, 1999).

Sondheim’s and Weiner’s heritage is germane, I believe, in how their texts — fashioned of an elevated prose (or fragments thereof in Weiner’s case) — orate received tales of secular import from etheralized voices, parallel in these specifics to Old Testament chapter and verse in English (e.g., the Masoretic and / or King James versions). Sondheim’s and Weiner’s ambitions, accordinlgly, seem Scriptural, as though they were reauthorizing ‘the book’ in a new, colossal oversupply of textual evidence, vivid facsimile, measurement, stats. Here is an opening passage from Sondheim’s ‘Substantiality.’

Secret of Webpages — their substantial appearance, blocked text, walled construction — backgrounds appearing as pure/idealized objects. This is accentuated by form and ruler outlines, scrollbars, etc. — as if one is viewing a laminar architecture. The objects are gemlike, perfectly luminous. Their relative ontological vacuity goes unnoticed in favor of the simulacrum of a maternal matrix, episteme.

The depth appears in general to be around 3-4 mm, between 1/8’ and 1/6’. This gives the apparent thickness of the layers as well; one might guess sheets of tourmaline, opal . . .

Prose fractured into verse format in this sequence from Weiner’s book, The Zero One, feels no less exacting in its insistent, substantial evidence, rewinding and replaying newsy minutiae, numeric code, spliced memory and imagery lifted from mass media.

The0I reser was swarming with Swat teams
Ive0I notic repetition
About 46000 refugees live in UN financed
I0I23 was 0I expected to be there by eight in
My0I2 impri is your imprisonment
When0 I0I23 was fifteen I knew an old
lady0 she 0I was clairvoyant
Here0 lies0 the next to the last sentence
Large refug camps Monday killing six of
It0I2 state that have been released
by0I2 the oI FBI regarding the incident
I0I23 can0I write nice stories about my cat
Youd0 have0 to be a little unstable to give
There is0I2 no Mexican military detachment
We0I2 strug for the freedom of all the
peopl and 0I for our sacred earth

Sondheim rewrites Psalms, perhaps, in another of his treatments on substance, this with cabalistic overtones:

[ . . . ] Lalling-ecstatic, Jennifer-Ululation would trade Her Voice, Her unique Sound, for the smallest Pearl of the Symbolic; lalling ecstatic, Her Eyes back and open-closed looking inward, the Plate of the Aleph: now comes the World.

And now the flush of thresholds, substance given way to things of each and every Sort:

already been dealt with, and the specific feature of lalling is that the speaker has no power over his own speech; it is ’uncontrolled’ and **im**-

00: aim   16: imi   32: mimimim
01: am   17: imp   33: mmmmmmm02: Bim   18: imu   34: nimnimnim
03: cm 19: in 35: nmnmnmnm [ . . . ] (‘Poor Substitutions . . . ‘)

And in a piece from We Speak Silent, a parodic tribute to a Jewish American legend, titled ‘bob dylan,’ Weiner belts out this folksy knock-off of Song of Songs with a distinctly Yiddish and mystic backbeat.

[ . . . ] boobela i sometimes walk around naked without any- thing
on but because i don’t want to be caught in the door jamb

from bobla to boobela love in absentia wife
problem tourist bureau tickets etc see you soon

boobela we love each other and we care and dare  tell
the men to find a good woman and keep her silent til
her children are sixteen

hassid: according to the righteous there is no
wisdom accorded to those who cannot keep their silence (p. 25)

Less a proprietary feature of heritage, per se, but hardly disconnected from hermeneutic practices common to Sondheim’s and Weiner’s religious upbringing, would be how a close reading over time of even a fraction of the many texts by both writers helps one patch together a retroactive cohesiveness from first to most recent encounter. One who approaches Sondheim and Weiner enters into a table of intertextual instrumentation, a fabulous index of indexes, much as one may experience Talmudic verse, rereading through a range of scriptures that talk with one another. As indicated, the grave authority of the vocal schema in Weiner’s text fields is appreciable when we accede to follow her directions and read with, in, between and among the lines. Weiner’s diversity of voices, along with Sondheim’s, becomes more familiar on repeated readings, and intertextually.

Dense multivocality notwithstanding, Sondheim and Weiner are self assertive New York poets through and through. And within the tradition of milieu-aware verse of the New York School, Sondheim’s and Weiner’s texts emit the singelton’s found anxiety vis a vis his or her own intimations toward greatness, rooted, I would suggest, in the often-inflated social expectations of a career in art production (and consumption). If we step back a generation, chronologically, we see Edwin Denby, for one, expresses his and others’ uneasiness within that distinctly New York art-making milieu:

Alex Katz paints his north window
A bed and across the street, glare
City day that I within know
Like wide as high and near as far
New York School friends, you paint glory
Itself crowding closer further
Lose your marbles making it
What’s in a name — it regathers
From within, a painting’s silence
Resplendent, the silent roommate
Watch him, not a pet, long listen
Before glory, the stone heartbeat
When he’s painted himself out of it
De Kooning says his picture’s finished

                      (Denby, p. 136)

To ’lose your marbles’ and to laugh it off with ’what’s in a name’ — this is well-mannered legerdemain that indeed seems out of synch with our own art-era enervatingly drenched as it is in sectarianisms and interminable killings. When we flash forward, again chronologically, to read Weiner’s text, we clock her high jumps as disturbing self promotion, a traumatized palimpsest of Denby’s knowing ‘within’ his ‘high and near as far New York School friends . . . making it’

I was borrowed it name   so nothing and three years

old send them back to New York City   I borrowed

Billie     why we are old grandmother to see visions

in the sky  I play Sundance record   I only poet[ . . . ]

leprosy   CALL THE BEGGARS     a very powerful woman

writer writes it down   FEEL COMFORTABLE     for at

least one week sis its OK you have written it is
      once a week I take myself through
include Berna’s name

a trial course to see if I can jump high enough (Sixteen)

Here erasure of another powerful woman writer / colleague (‘Berna’s name’) enforces the affliction ‘I take myself through.’ Contrast between Denby’s resplendence and Weiner’s trial derives from a familial correspondence — both ‘borrowed’ names and both borrowed from New York — but Weiner cannot paint herself out of the stone heartbeat, as it were, the prosaic beggars, the leprosy, the trial course that weigh her text down with presentiment even as she leaps toward high ground.

In a fully contextualized analysis of Weiner’s work and its genesis in trauma, Maria Damon ascribes to Weiner and other Jewish writers a ‘disorienting but irrefutable and transpersonal compulsion to utterance.’ While Damon’s argument about compulsion pertains specifically to Weiner’s range of texts, from prosaic to ecstatic, its relevance to Sondheim’s life and oeuvre, as well, seems obvious:

For writing and utterance, letter and spirit, reading and speech are not so easily parsed out into a dichotomous arrangement in Jewish cultural traditions: ecstatic or possessed speech cannot be separated from and privileged over writing or interpretation, which in dominant configurations of ecstatic or possessed utterance are relegated to at best supporting roles and at worst detractive, parasitic activities that dilute the unmediated power of raw contact with the Divine — or — the unspeakable. (‘Hannah Weiner Beside Herself’)

This idea of writing and compulsion, letter and spirit achieving an indivisible parity in Jewish traditions is seconded by Michael Berger’s view of authority negotiated across a various community. If we substitute ‘writers’ for ‘sages’ and ‘writerly’ for ‘Rabbinic’ in the following, we start to comprehend the scope of the cross-hatched and, perhaps, cross-epoch ‘interface’ awaiting poets such as Sondheim and Weiner.

Sages, texts, and interpretive communities and forms of life mix inextricably in complex and subtle ways such that the effort to separate them and view an antecedent or primary to the others fails to capture how authority is to be understood in Judaism. Rabbinic authority is necessarily conceived in the intricate interface of community and text, a fitting condition for ‘the people of the book’ (Rabbinic Authority).

There is yet another layer of complexity to such interface, and this complexity is very much an element of shared heritage. Damon reasons Weiner’s sustained interest in indigenous Americans rather than, say, Jews is ‘not an arbitrary displacement,’ but can be traced to trauma to which all American Jews have been exposed, post-holocaust trauma so widely shared and long-lived that it takes on intergenerational dimensions. In this light, topical and voice displacements of the younger Sondheim — his maybe-so, maybe-not desire to be a woman, writing through avatars, etc. — are similarly nonarbitrary. If Sondheim’s induced discomfort propels him to dabble in self-hypnosis ‘dreaming Jennifer, scrolling text,’ this nonetheless resonates with Weiner’s admittedly more pathological hearing and seeing things no one else can perceive in that both forms of behavior are dissassociative mechanisms postulated by any theory of trauma. Composing occulted texts with put-on voices: this is a sure formula for consigning oneself to the periphery of the American imagination. But, as strategists have it, to take out the goblins, the internal and / or external enemy, the periphery is the place to start. The enemy for Sondheim and Weiner may be their own spiritual impulses encumbered by the spiritlessness of the holocaust, serial holocausts, and woes beyond.

I have come a long way to make my point about Sondheim and Weiner, and I have paid more attention to their religious upbringing than I had imagined I would at the outset of examining their meaning to me. I see them as not only remarkable avantists, obviously, but also unparalleled counterauthorities to hegemonic culture, one often euphemistically described as Judeo-Christian. I want to assert in my use of a paradoxical verb that they both possess the sine qua non for first-rank poetry making: abandonment. They have abandoned most everything that could sustain them now in their careers as poets — subject matters that readily parse, apparent logics; and most telling (and through displacement or other means), they have abandoned gentle, sane-seeming engagement in the interface we might otherwise delineate as the academic / literary polis. In an E-mail from Sondheim:

This is a situation in which dreams become real, but a real which is at variance with the practical-inert of everyday life. There is no precedent for this interweaving — at least in a world where shamanisms are suspect, a world inheriting the ontology of the Enlightenment. For what is oddly at stake is the textual or constituted body and its affect — in relation to the living body of lived experience — as if there were a difference — as if language were not only primarily, but totally superstructural — and therefore accountable only within the purely abstract processes of mental life. (‘When Dreams Become Real’)

We can read Sondheim and Weiner with pleasure because of the quality of their ‘constituted’ bodies, their put-on voices and crooning texts that indeed overflow with lived experience, ‘a trial course,’ put down roundly by ’writing it down,’ per Weiner, or dreams made real, ‘at variance’ and ’banged against’ from abandonment, disinherited of the inessential, of ‘the practical-inert,’ as Sondheim says. In formal terms, I see their meaning to me as singers, at last, abandoned. Greil Marcus writes

The singer goes as far as she or he can go; the singer even acknowledges the quandary, gives in to its tension, abandons words and screams. But the singer still comes up short; the performance demands the absolute lucidity it has already promised, a promise from which it is already falling back . . .

A singer’s lot parallels a poet’s. There’s the enticement of clarity, but to hold the luminescence of ‘the complete mind,’ of ‘all this is one’ you have to reach far, and when you grab at the shining sight it passes through your hand. That’s a start.

Jack Kimball

Jack Kimball returns to New England this summer after living in Japan for the last eight years. He’ll continue to curateThe East Village (at and take on the full editorship of Faux Press, a new publishing house based in Cambridge, which plans to release three-to-five books of poetry each year. Jack has taught at two national universities in Japan, as well as at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts and MIT.
     You can read his review of books by poets Katy Lederer, Juliana Spahr, Tina Celona, and Martin Corless-Smith in Jacket # 8.

Photo of Hannah Weiner at the top of this page by Tom Ahern.

Berger, M. Rabbinic Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Bernstein, C. ‘Interview with Hannah Weiner.’ Line/Break Radio Series, 1995. [Access at]
Damon, M.  Personal communication (April 7, 1999).
——— ‘Hannah Weiner Beside Herself: Clairvoyance After Shock or The Nice Jewish Girl Who Knew Too Much.’ The East Village Vol. 8, 1999. [Access at]
Denby. E. The Complete Poems. New York: Full Court Press, 1986.
James, W. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longman, Green, 1902.
Marcus, G. ‘Speaker to Speaker’, Artforum (March 1987). P. 11.
Sondheim, A. Being On Line. New York: Lusitania Press, 1997.
——— ‘Defensive Exhibitionism.’ Posted to FOP. (Oct. 12, 1998).
——— ‘Questions at UCSD.’ Posted to FOP. (Nov. 12, 1998).
——— ‘Candy of the Universe.’ Posted to FOP. (Jan. 30, 1999).
——— ‘Poor Substitutions for the Creations of Worlds.’ Posted to FOP. (April 27, 1999).
——— ‘When Dreams Become Real’ Posted to FOP. (April 29, 1999).
——— ‘Substantiality.’ Self-published. [Access at]
——— Personal communication. (Dec. 3, Dec. 5, 1998; Jan. 29, 30, March 8, 1999).
——— ‘over / heard.’ (Unpublished).
——— Ma, A Novel (In progress). [Access at]
Weiner, H. Clairvoyant Journal. Lenox, MA: Angel Hair Books, 1978.
——— Sixteen. Windsor, VT: Awede, 1983.
——— Spoke. Washington, DC: Sun & Moon Press, 1984.
——— The Zero One. Victoria, Australia: Post New Publications, 1985.
——— ‘Mostly about the Sentence.’ Jimmy & Lucy’s House of ‘K" #7 (Dec. 1986). Pp. 54-70.
——— silent teacher remembered sequel. Providence, RI: Tender Buttons Press, 1994.
——— We Speak Silent. New York: Roof Books, 1996.
——— ‘astral visions.’ Mr. Knife, Miss Fork: Performances. (Forthcoming). [Access at]

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