Tom Beckett: Where, for you, does writing begin?
Nada Gordon: Not sure... but it could be somewhere way back 125 million years ago with the tiny climbing mammal, Eiomaia scansoria, or ‘dawn mother.’ Eiomaia originated in Asia, but according to the latest issue of National Geographic, it ‘may have found an island-hopping shortcut to Australia.’ There are few things I personally would like better to be doing right now than island-hopping through Asia to Australia, but instead I am having to stick it out in New York, ruminating on your question.
Actually it seems a bit chicken-eggy, this search for origin. (You’ll find that the answers to a lot of your questions will be a very elaborate ‘I dunno.’) My impulse is to say that it starts from impulse, from discomfort or disturbance of energy, from a need to manage or expel that energy (the chicken): ‘gotta dance gotta dance, gotta daaaaance’. That is, it’s a kind of a discharge which forms an encrustation. It comes from all sorts of agitation, both negative and positive. Simultaneously, and this is a cliché, I feel like the LANGUAGE (the egg) is writing me. Or making its presence known through me: ‘the girl can’t help it.’ I suppose that’s a kind of agitation too.
I can say with certainty that writing begins with a sense of having to do something. Most humans are driven to make things. I’m not well-trained enough in anything else to do anything else. I’m pretty good at singing (the writing comes out of the noisy inner verbal singing as it combines with the zings, burps, stutters, drones, lies, crashes, slogans and hums of what I hear outside) but never really had the urge to try to be a serious singer. I would have liked to have been a potter but I don’t like the feeling of clay drying under my fingernails — it makes me shiver to think of it. I would love to be a dancer but I’m shocked at my own lack of coordination. Painting takes a lot of space and light and the materials are expensive. Film is so technical. And so on. I fixed on writing partly because the materials are so minimal.
But back to your question. Volcano image comes up — bubbling lava, glowing magma. It’s totally Romantic, right?
Of course writing begins with other texts, too. More than I would like it to, actually, but I can’t get free of them. Maybe writing begins also with a desire to work through, to glorify, to massage all those pre-texts.
Writing begins with the desire to be hypnotized.
And the desire to hypnotize.
Writing begins with nagging refrains.
It doesn’t begin with boredom, exactly.
Writing begins with excitation and banality.
Writing begins with the fury, with kicking.
Writing begins with languor, then with a stretching up in which the heart beats slightly faster.
Writing begins with the lower lip and jaw jutting out.
Writing begins with a need for a fort, hiding place, cave or burrow.
It begins tentatively and finishes as sweeping gesture.
Writing begins with total befuddlement.
Writing begins with terror, and also a struggle against apathy.
Writing begins with mockery.
Writing begins as revelation.
A slightly naughty smile.
Writing begins with a ‘W’ (*no* political entendre).
What, for you, is the social utility of poetry?
I don’t think I can tell you what the social utility of poetry is. ‘Utility’ is a word I try to stay away from; it reminds me of bills.
Seriously, though, to me, it’s simple: language is social. And poetry is glue. Sometimes it’s toxic glue. But like any form of culture, it links people to people, builds little bridges ’tween subjectivities, ritualistically, gesturally.
It’s not that the personal is the political. It’s that the interpersonal is the political. And so is the intrapersonal, insofar as we are dialoguing with our selves all the time. Poems, as beings in language, are both interpersonal and intrapersonal by nature.
In terms of their utility, poems can be didactic; they can even be pleasingly or importantly didactic. I love, for example, poems with lots of information in them, such as the work of Marianne Shaneen. But for me, in order for an overtly didactic poem to be interesting it needs to focus be centered in what Jakobsen called the poetic function of language — that is, language’s awareness of itself. I was recently assailed against for not writing ‘the poetry of witness’ (although, in my mind, I do write the poetry of witness *to the imagination* and *to the endless combinatory qualities of words*). More exactly, the plaintiff alleged that somehow by writing the way I do I was discrediting or disallowing ‘the poetry of witness.’ How silly. I am always urging the ultimate in permissiveness, and I get this kind of criticism. That said, I don’t particularly want to read, say, Carolyn Forché’s poetry, although surely, she is an informed person worthy of respect and her poetry addresses the important issues of our time. It just doesn’t do for my brain what I like for poetry to do. I get informed on the important issues of our time by listening to ‘Democracy Now’ on the radio, reading Harper’s magazine (many of whose shorter pieces seem to be among the best poetry — and I do not mean the poems published therein), and by reading handwritten rants stuck in the faces of newspaper boxes on the street.
The body seems almost always present in your work. How do you think of the body in relation to writing? Is the body often a starting point for you?
I have said in other contexts that the definite article preceding ‘body’ strikes me as quite Cartesianly distancing and non-particularizing. It seems to me more accurate to say ‘your body’ as in my individual Nada-casing, Nada-matter and Nada-sensorium or to simply say ‘body’ as in ‘the feeling of body-ness.’ I’m not sure exactly which one you meant here, but I’ll try to answer as if you meant both. Maybe what you mean is ‘sensation’ or even... ‘sensationalism’? Because that’s what a body is in relation to what is not that body — a means of sensing, a great fleshy antenna, a corporeal mind. In carnation — a big red one, smelling slightly cloyingly of cinnamon. The seas incarnadine — of wasted bodies, punctured by ideology. How could body not be present in anyone’s work? Even an ectomorph has a body — and is defined, in some sense, by his body. There are some writers, it is true, who seem to be cut off at the neck, whose oeuvre hatches mainly from the part of their body that is between the temples — is ‘the’ body a temple? — but that nevertheless is body.
With the primitive state of current technologies, a body is still essential for writing. I read an article in the New Yorker that described a machine that is beginning to be able to read brain waves in people with comas who are completely paralyzed, but it is still in very very new stages and can’t actually transcribe any words. I have ‘Via Voice’ software on my Macintosh but it mishears about sixty per cent of what I say, what with all my wacky neologisms and twisty syntax, and while it’s useful as a tool for further torquing, it hasn’t allowed me to separate my body as much from writing as I would like.
As I type this, a familiar sting and numbness creeps down from my mid-back and scalenes into the little trigger point at the base of my elbows and down through the bottoms of my forearms and into the tops of my hands. I’ve had this pain now for two years. I got it from writing things I didn’t want to write under bad ergonomic and emotional circumstances. I got it from being on a computer seven or more hours a day, as a five-foot tall person at furniture designed for a six-foot tall person. I got it from always going at writing with the image of Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey? Ken Russell remains an important influence, I’m chagrined to admit) sitting at the piano to play, throwing back his coattails and shaking his wild hair back from his face, huge bony hands attacking the keys in a frenzied whirlwind. This was my image of how to create. I like that energy. Even if it’s a ridiculous fiction that has contributed to my hurting I like it, because I write for sensation, and such a style is all about channeling those thundery energies through the power of a body. I should maybe try for, I don’t know, the energy of a very patient scientist, maybe George Washington Carver? (whom I read very perfectly quoted in a poem of Cecilia Vicuña’s today) — but I still need to mellow a lot first.
Body in relation to writing. Writing in relation to body. Not such a huge difference to me — organic metaphors, poems as ‘birth canals, negative vaginal space’ or as what is born, coming out coated with meconium — (can you detect my fondness for a certain brand of highly gynecological ‘chick art’ — still totally necessary to combat the centuries’ vestiges of men’s supercilious suppression, condemnation, and envy of women’s ‘bodiment’?). Bisexual — poem is also phallus springing up out of nowhere very excited, aroused by what’s around. Or let’s get away from the genitals, shall we? Poem is legs, moving around, exploring. Arms & hands, embracing, feeling up, or just working, getting things done. Little navel void hollow, remembrance of connection. That too. Poem is oversensitive nose, limpid eye, tongue for probing and tasting. Poem is labyrinthine ear — duh. Like a body, a body of work — poems — is *in essence* free — of the market system, I mean. Except both of these you have to pay to maintain. Free health care!
The simple fact of matter is that writing turns me (bodymind ‘me’) on. Brian Kim Stefans once asked me if I was ‘horny [O loathsome, vulgar, inadequate colloquialism!] all the time’ — and I replied, ‘no, but my poems are.’ That arousal *transmits*, at least a little, sometimes — once enough to pull me across continents. To me, this is both quite amazing and the most natural thing in the world.
The arousal transmits more than a little. It seems to me to be a defining aspect of your work. And it is partly what motivated me to want to interview you.
I’m specifically interested in your perspective on intimate personal revelations in writing. Swoon is compelling because it reads like a great epistolary novel peopled by wonderful contemporary ‘characters’, but it is not fiction. (Or is it maybe a little?) It is the condensed record of you and Gary Sullivan falling in love. Do you ever have any second thoughts about rolling your private life out for public review? What are your thoughts about the separations or lack thereof between public and private life?
Here I must defer to Edith Piaf: ‘Non... rien de rien/ Non... je ne regrette rien!’ I have *no* second thoughts about having published Swoon or having exposed my most intimate thoughts therein. From a purely literary perspective, and also from a literary-historical perspective, I believe that it is an interesting text worthy of attentiveness, and it *does* read like a novel — even to me. I feel surprisingly objective about it. It stands on its own as a piece in contradiction to current trends in formalism and authorial remove. It is also a model of the positive and tangible possibilities of the absorptive text. Gary and I both craved, well before ever having written each other, a total removal of the cardboard boundary between ‘art’ and ‘life.’ In Swoon we were able to give that to each other. Swoon is absolutely about wishes and, more importantly, wishes coming true. This, not surprisingly, is not a terribly common theme in the jaded contemporary environment. If I do say so myself, it’s a kind of lotus in the marsh.
I call it an e-pistolary non-fiction novel. It certainly is something that was wilfully constructed, as a novel is, though without any blueprint (except for love’s urgency and all its cultural trappings), and of course, it is the product of our dual artificing. ‘Construction of self’ is a pomo cliche, but you really get to see it in action in Swoon as we each build our personality for the other, aiming to charm and fascinate.
Why keep secrets? I’m not entirely clear on the reasons for the taboo against personal revelation, now that we’re over our historical allergic reaction to the confessional poets. It certainly isn’t that other people are not interested in personal revelation. It strikes me that it is simply not in fashion in iNNovAtive writing, although there has been a mini-spate of autobiographies of late. Since personal revelation is something that many people find very difficult, that may be one reason why it is so conveniently ‘unfashionable.’
Swoon’s innovativeness may be arguable — I don’t know. It does tell a very old story — boy meets girl/ loses girl/ gets girl back/ happily ever after??? — but not, I think, in a way it’s been told before, and definitely not via fiber optic cables running across a continent and under one of the major oceans. It seems to me that it is innovative, though — after all, it’s multiform, it’s transgressive (most notably of personal boundaries), and it enacts some of the wilder aspects of textual theory in a rather uncontrived way.
Simply put, I love just telling the truth, or at least my feels-true version of experience, because it is disarming. It disarms the listener/ reader because it disarms me, and according to the laws of engagement you can’t strike at someone who is disarmed. It’s therefore a kind of ethical positioning, non-violent demonstration, an insistence on a kind of authenticity whether it is ‘genuinely’ authentic or not (should we not go there?). It engenders mutual openings. I really do see writing as a bridge between subjectivities. The trick is to make that subjectivity as true to how it feels in myself as possible, to get it out of the mires of hackneyed language and boring psychological clichés. There’s a tremendous amount of clanging around in my sensorium that I just have to do something with, that forces me to write; this brings us back to your first question. I assume that other people might be interested in such truth-telling writing because I am interested in it when other people do it; do I have some kind of retrogressive attachment to a kind of warm human anchor in writing? Possibly.
I’m not at all chagrined to mean ‘me’ at least sometimes when I say ‘I’ or ‘me.’ I’m also not chagrined to encode into unintelligibility or weave multiple personae when I feel it is more artful or when it suits me. That’s poetic license for you! In Swoon, though, I meant *ME* when I said *I* every time, and not only am I pleased with the document, I’m pleased with the surprising changes it brought about in my life.
When you first asked me this question, the image that came to mind was a diorama. Look inside this enclosed thing (a ‘person’), and there’s a fabulous landscape, i.e., you’re outside again. And if there happens to be a tinier diorama inside that landscape... well, there’s no telling how infinitely hugeness could be discovered in those tiny enclosures. That this is all a lousy paraphrase of Blake and Dickinson I’m sure you must recognize. Suffice it to say that I cannot endure the trendy (and possibly deeply sexist) villianization of ‘the interior’ any longer, although I have no objection to it being called into question (which is precisely what, often in a parodic way, I do all the time in writing). When I try, always unsuccessfully, to recognize the distinction between ‘inside’ (private) and ‘outside’ (public), I find myself thinking of POROSITY and PENETRABILITY.
I’m thinking perhaps the subtext of your question is ‘Does the fact of Swoon embarrass you?’ The answer to that is absolutely not — quite the opposite. I do feel embarrassed sometimes (as I long ago, even during the correspondence, suspected I would) that the difficulties of the quotidian and human folly are not obviated by the sweet golden overweening wish and vision that Gary and I created together in writing to each other. But that, I say with stolid realism, is wholly to be expected.
So (hee, hee), really you’re thinking inside the box.
Actually, my conscious subtext wasn’t ‘embarrassment’ — it was risk. I’m wondering, on multiple levels, about what if any senses of ‘limit’ you bring to writing. You’ve mentioned in Swoon, for example, a preference for shorter poems.
That was a temporary preference brought on, I believe, by living in Japan surrounded by the Japanese aesthetic of brevity. I also lived with a haikuist at the time and I’m sure that influenced me. No sooner did I get off the floating world than I started to get interested in longer poems again. I do love long poems: The Faerie Queene, Aurora Leigh, the long poems of Schuyler. Bernadette’s long poems. However, I don’t care much for The Cantos or Paterson or The Maximus Poems although I know they’re important and, uh, seminal and all that.
But what, indeed, are the senses of ‘limit’ I bring to writing? Writing demands limits (do you know who am paraphrasing?) but that doesn’t mean that I don’t always perceive them as something to push against, needle, expand, stand up on (if they are walls), dismantle, prod, kick at, or huddle up against, sobbing inconsolably. What’s interesting to me about poetic language is the way it naturally fights, insofar as it gets irrational, its own limits. I definitely frame the process of writing as a struggle against the limits of form, of convention, of language, and of expectation. AT THE SAME TIME, I expect my poems to have foci, if not exactly centers, and not to be merely irrational, because merely randomly irrational material is not interesting. That’s where the lyric voice and the personality come in as the integrating element. (I recently said to Mitch Highfill and Kim Lyons in conversation that I want poems to be a kind of spike around which meat forms, and they told me I don’t want poems, I want a gyro sandwich!)
Without lyric voicings and personalities, even mutable ones, the risk a writer takes is only formal, is only art-historical. That’s a valid and important kind of risk, but for me, it doesn’t satisfy. Yes, I want a ‘poésie’ that is a ‘le sport de l’extréme ,’ as a spraypainted poster Gary and I recently encountered in Paris proclaimed, a writing that has noticeable concrete effects on the way I am living my life, a writing that stirs things up, makes things happen, even if it is only — only! — making synapses fire in new ways (which could, it occurs to me, have profound cosmic implications in that it changes the electrical composition of our experience, which is of course an integral part of the universe). I came of age as a writer in a time when there was a gorgeous explosion of formal risk-taking that did not necessarily involve a lot of personal risk except insofar as one’s formal choices determined one’s positioning as a writer. I have always been more interested in writing as a kind of miner’s helmet getting me through the otherwise generally un-illuminated labyrinth of daily life than in art-historical position-taking, which leads to a lot of sophistry, which, although I indulge in it rather frequently, is not the most valuable by-product of the writing life.
I have in front of me a yellowed copy of the San Francisco Bay Guardian dated June 18, 1986. I had won second place in a poetry contest that I knew was going to be judged by Dodie Bellamy. I wrote the poem as a total pander, hence its title, ‘Please Give Me Some of That Money’ (and they did!). It’s not a very good poem — hence the second place, but I notice that the statement that follows says, ‘For Gordon, writing each poem differently is “a system of daring”.’ And it’s true, I think that during writing I am constantly asking myself, do I dare to actually say this, can I say this (which, by the way, is a quote from Bernadette Mayer), how about this? and I do, and it gives me a big charge (neurons!). Here’s a little excerpt from ‘Please Give Me Some of That Money’:
‘What kinds of insects do you rejoice in’ How long do you prefer (more philosophy and less polemics) to extend (narra narra narrative) the bent circles? As an x-ray flickers, or a seem ripper. These are fits what occupy my lungs’ forehead, my spirit being as free as anyone else’s.
Maybe too free? I can’t STAND, for example, to start out with a sense of the actual physical shape a poem is going to take. You know, ‘there will be eleven stanzas of eleven lines each.’ That’s for WORKSHOPPERS, for HOBBYISTS, for BOYS, for OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVES, but not for me. I can take material otherwise generated or found and then shape it — I’m a bricoleuse to the max — but I cannot start with an idea for a poem’s architecture and then work from there. To do so seems almost evil to me; this could really point to some deficiency in my brain structure. I have no idea why I feel this way. Sonnets (although not those in V. Imp., which I mostly wrote shaping them from other longer chunks of material) may be an exception. Haiku too, although I have written most of my haiku out of spite, to ridicule the form. One thing I can do, however, is to steal someone else’s poetic architecture and then re-write the content (or the ‘decoration’). I can very easily do this hermit-crab maneuver. Otherwise, I’m like a crazy vegan, the form’s gotta be organic, totally integral:
(from ‘Yang and Yin’ in V. Imp.)
think of content as material --
IN a glass not air or water
but glass itself...
And here’s Krishnamurti making the same point in _Tradition and Revolution_:
I have an image of you, and I look through that image; that is distortion, The image is my conditioning. It is still the same vessel with all the things in it, and it is the same vessel which has nothing in it. The content of the vessel is the vessel. When there is no content, the vessel has no form.
It occurs to me, looking over this Krishnamurti book, is that what may so dismay me about architecture-in-advance of writing is the sense of pre-closure, that is, of limit coming before the enabling freedom of writing. He says:
A process implies a fixed point. Systems, methods, practices all offer a fixed point, and promise man that when he achieves the end all his troubles will be over. Is there something which is really timeless? A fixed point is in time. It is in time because you have postulated it, because it has been though over; and the thinking is time.
Am I making any sense?
Absolutely. Your passions fashion the lesions your lessons bleed through. It’s kind of Whit(wo)manian (touching your poem, one touches you).
Is it really so direct, though? What of all the elaborate artifice and twistiness the poems move through? Passions’ fashion, yes — Whitman, expansive and accessible, no. This may contradict what I said earlier in this interview about bridges ‘tween subjectivities, but I don’t exactly feel like I’m singing the song of myself, although I am singing, and I am one of the characters in the song — the MC, if you will. I realize I’m thinking of Cabaret (and cabaret, too, as a form). Maybe poetry for me is ‘deep entertainment.’ I don’t think there was any irony to Whitman. He meant everything he wrote. I think if I had known him I would have made fun of him for being so full of himself. [sidenote — not too long after answering this question I embarked on a project of rewriting ‘Song of Myself’.] I write largely for the sake of getting as close as I can to a state of hilarity or abandon, and half the time I can’t tell you what I ‘meant’ because I write nonsense as one way of getting to abandon. He wrote from an unmediated compassion and identification with all being. I think it’s all — all! — a bizarre joke that amuses me and makes me (and everyone else) suffer and from which I feel painfully separate. I’m not (sigh) exactly seeing inner light radiating from the surfaces of all objects, or privileged to feel the interconnectedness of everything in the cosmos. I think Whitman was much more spiritually evolved than I will ever be. But I’m funnier.
Of course I use the poems as emotion-processing devices. But anything can do that. Coca-Cola commercials. A spell on the treadmill. A phone call. What interests me right now is how I can take the language from somewhere else (this is procedural, but not architectural) (admittedly in a move to process emotions), and my dear readers, who are so invested in ‘reality,’ might assume that whatever is on the page or screen is literally about me or about my situation. Examples of ‘somewhere else’: blogs of strangers, ask-a-psychologist message boards, student papers, films. I’ve recently been Ackeresquely pirating stuff wholesale and putting it up on the web, such as:
It seems that when I get too close, get too comfortable, or love something, it goes away. I don’t have friends, I just have people I know. If I allow them to be friends then something will happen, they will move, they will go away some how, they will die. It’s that way with every relationship I have, my husband, my children.
The best thing that ever happened to me was when I learned about Duchamp and reframing at fourteen. I love how Duchampian techniques work on material that is mawkish and maudlin because it gives just the tiniest spin of art-distance on experiences and reactions none of us can ever truly dissociate from as empathetic human beings. I’m always looking and listening for emotive content I can appropriate and to which I and maybe others will respond emotionally, but there isn’t necessarily a one-to-one autobiographical correlation. It feels more like theatre; it’s based on the principle of identification, it’s clumsy, it’s endearing, it’s pathetic, and it’s artifice, except maybe for the low hum/howl or over-the-top coloratura that might be animating the writing to begin with. Maybe that’s what you’re ‘touching’?
Can you elaborate a bit on your use of procedures in writing?
One day I was up at Bard visiting Tonya Foster, a friend who teaches in the summer program there, and I was at a party at Joan Retallack’s ranting somewhat mockingly about ‘procedure’ — wondering why writing has to be ‘procedural’ to get its avant-garde credentials. Jena Osman ever-so-gently reminded me, ‘Everything’s procedural,’ and of course, she’s right. Procedural techniques do not, after all, obviate the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,’ but rather they guide it — the ‘overflow’ — into cunning little canals on which glide all sorts of canoes overflowing with orchids and jackfruit. Are you with me? In fact I’m pretty overtly procedural, if I’m no John Cage, and most of my procedures are far from original. They can almost all be traced back to Bernadette’s seminal experiments list. Not even traced back — it’s as if those methods are somehow implanted into my skin like so much Norplant. I don’t think I know how not to be procedural. One of my favorite procedures doesn’t really look like a procedure, though:
It’s a kind of self-hypnosis. And it’s orphic. I can do it anywhere, at any time. I go down into another level of mind. It’s misty. It’s crowded. Words form there out of all the biomorphic squirminess. I have to translate them by bringing them into a more conscious level of perception. Sometimes they change as I bring them up. Mostly the words are not logical, but they have a rhythm I want to keep. There are a lot of dashes and stops and starts there. Sometimes they are affected by something heard or seen, but not necessarily. The level I am talking about is also hypnagogic & hypnopompic, because sleep brings on the same feeling of hypnosis.
Did I mention earlier that I am trained as a hypnotherapist? I don’t practice though. My mother is a professional hypnotherapist who trains other hypnotherapists. Willy-nilly I have been very influenced by her and her strange practices.
Writing in this manner is very satisfying because it feels very pure, and it feels like (even if I am wrong) that I own that language. Much of the time I am appropriating pre-composed sets of words, so this primordial-soup language makes a nice counter-balance.
Appropriation! How delightful it is! When I was fifteen, living in a crummy apartment in a bad section of Oakland with my mom, I vowed that I would grow up to make collages for a living. I would sit for hours in my little room cutting up for collage material old National Geographics that I would buy at the St. Vincent de Paul at 40th and San Pablo, down by where all the hookers, many of them of indeterminate gender, picked up their clients. Well, I haven’t lived up to my vow, but I can’t help rearranging colorful odd kitsch bizarre bits of language that I see and hear. Lately I’ve been writing down lines from movies a lot: The Pirate (with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly), Lawrence of Arabia, and of course lots of Bollywood. With Bollywood I get the extra added bonus of mistranslations and grammar mistakes.
I also very much like to appropriate from the following sources: