SR: You’re imposing U.S. culture on, say, Mongolian culture and you’re seeing both of them, and they’re both interacting with each other.
LS: No. I’d say, you’re aware that you do that imposing, of course, because you’re unavoidably doing that. But it’s as if you are eliminating that factor, supposedly, though you’re aware that you’re not. You eliminate it by trying to look at context simply as space, as if only physical. You make a series of paragraphs that is the space of one place (as if that were possible) and imposes it on the space of the other. You therefore remove the element of interpreting some other culture, though you may render things that happen there, events, and one moving seeing those events. But you’re trying to make a physical seeing be the vehicle by which this happens. Yet it’s only text that is taking place.
SR: I want to talk about dreams and waking in this context. There’s a passage in Defoe where you record a dream and then you say, ‘What this [dream] is in real time doesn’t matter. One has to see it up against any vision that is created in waking life to see that. Either of them without there being anything in between. I will have to remember and match them to waking life.... If they are two empty shining pans of reality which fit on each other in a certain way, one can see oneself before one is oneself.’ (p. 111) This made me think about how, if I’m actually recalling my dream while I’m staring at a bookcase, then the two are conflating. I’m remembering images from my dream but my eyes are open; I’m awake. My dream is now an image that’s being superimposed on waking. Dreaming and waking are facing and talking to each other, via images.
LS: This is something that is very hard to describe. It’s as if the dreams that you have at night are in the day, and there’s no difference between the night and day, because the dreams are projected out in front of you and you can see them going on in the space that is the day. I couldn’t say that in any other way. So you explode the social ordering of time capsules in which you exist and also the way in which you see things. It’s a different way (gentler than war context, and also interior and exterior at once) of working on the problem of not having any barriers or operating rules in which you gauge time or how you operate within that, or what time is, or what you are as a mind. You’re not there, in a way. Also, as you become aware of dreaming and that you’re creating fictions, that begins to change the fiction that you have already created. This is akin to what we were just saying about Bernadette Mayer and Midwinter Day.
SR: Her text works with dreams, and it experiments with the fiction-making that we are all engaged in all of the time anyway. We become aware of fiction-making in a heightened way and see how we can actually have more of an impact on our fictions.
LS: Yes, all of those things. There are a lot of dreams that show up in Defoe; one of the dreams I suddenly remembered as you were speaking was during the Gulf War. At some point I dreamed that someone was pouring gasoline into a puddle to light it. (pp. 155-156) A child is beside the puddle and is going to catch on fire. And I realize in the dream that it is I who have done this, even though I’m watching somebody pour the gasoline. The gasoline is coming from me and toward me, who is viewing the child and the puddle. In other words, a kind of unrest or rage has produced this effect in the outside world. It’s not separate from myself or from text. You’re completely swept up in a change of reality, and it’s causal because of your engagement in it. One’s dreams are this. Noticing this is as much a part of the present-time reality as anything else.
The book that I’m working on now is called Dahlia’s Iris — Secret Autobiography and Fiction. And I got the idea to do this based on a Tibetan written form, the Secret Autobiography, which is not one’s outside chronological events, but has to do with seeing, that is, interior seeing. I traveled in Tibet. I then read a terrific Tibetan Secret Autobiography written in the 18th century, in a book called Apparitions of the Self. I thought that the Tibetan Secret Autobiography was much like some contemporary American poetry. The person who did the translation and wrote about the form of the Tibetan Secret Autobiography said that various Tibetans told her, ‘Don’t choose this to translate because Americans will not understand this.’ I thought, They’re not familiar with contemporary American poetry, which uses similar non-narrative tactics.
SR: By which you mean, writing which operates outside a chronological sense?
LS: And also writing which puts into the text what the mind is envisioning. A highly trained lama sees things that would be accepted as visions and have a certain meaning in Tibetan culture, which they wouldn’t have for Americans who didn’t know about that. But a person considering the process of the mind’s formation in seeing, might recognize that process in a text, unrelated to Tibetan culture or beliefs.
In the course of writing my Secret Autobiography (Dahlia’s Iris — Secret Autobiography and Fiction), it seemed that the Tibetan view of dreams was that they are references to exterior events, so they don’t count as visions, it’s just sleeping dreams. But I also thought it must be that some dreams which get at something that is real would qualify as seeing, as opposed to something that is simply a reference to events that are happening. This messes up linear time. Chronology is a false sense. It’s not accurate to experience. So it’s germane to any notion of how something is going to be narrated.
SR: When you write, do you feel that you’re working against an ingrained sense of a chronological, linear mode?
LS: I don’t have a sense that you’re trying to work against writing in a linear mode or stop yourself from doing that. But rather, one persists in order to see something that has come up in the writing, it seems to be attached to other things, those things may on the surface have nothing to do with each other. That is, an outsider might say, Well, what does that have to do with this? But it’s not that you wish to explain the connections, or to break the connections. It’s that you want to find out what they are. More and more things arise which bear on each other. But you’re discovering something via an apparent union, not trying to escape linear thinking. Nor is the result linear thinking, which is just a convention. Though the result could be: linear thinking as a convention.
SR: How do you know when you’re done with a book?
LS: I go on for a while because I’m really connected to an investigation. There’s some kind of interior unknown space or occurrence that finally materializes via one’s putting things together, and I learn something.
SR: Is ‘putting things together’ a good way to describe it, or could it just as easily be described as paying attention and seeing what arises?
LS: I wrote a poem recently where I was actually thinking about the quality that some people have of deciding to place things together. I was thinking how someone could, with a kind of humane rationalism, simply put one thing next to another thing and let it be there and see something about it. As opposed to my own tendency which is to have things really hit the fan, where you get really messed up by this, or I do as the writer or the person thinking about this, and being embroiled in it emotionally. And I can’t see the forest for the trees. Yet rationalism is a construct which is also illusion.
SR: You mean you let too many things in and you’d like to be a little more deliberate?
LS: No, I mean I’m not distanced from it and it may hurt or be just incredibly confusing and upsetting. So then, when that has become a morass that has a big effect on me, at some point I begin to see what it is. I was commenting humorously in this poem about the fact that some people could just simply place things together and let that be. But in parentheses I said, ‘‘Simply’ only if you can do it.’ So it’s a different method than mine, and probably requires a different personality.
SR: One that can simplify a problem and distance oneself.
LS: Right, though it is that very distancing, I think, that enables you to put frames around events perceived so that you actually change these totally as linear thinking, convention. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, how free fall involves letting go of the frames that one would put around perception which would supply or preserve artificial borders.
SR: So you’re saying you can appreciate that approach and maybe it’s kind and maybe it’s useful but it’s not your way because it’s too simple.
LS: Or it would change reality. But on the other hand, by taking away those conventional frames you’re changing reality also. So you’re between these two views, and you have to see both views and ask if there’s something outside the framing devices. The mind’s framing being the text’s phenomena.
SR: Given that we spend a lot of time framing things and having them framed for us, we’re a little out of balance in that we don’t spend as much time removing all those frames and finding a way to stay in the complexity of experience.
LS: Yes, that’s true.
SR: In Defoe you said, ‘Out of the chrysalis of being children and some people remaining as that, one has the sense of a hardening that occurs in trying to leave that in oneself. There is actually no leaving that.’ (p. 53)
LS: No leaving that: you can’t get out of that. But also no leaving that: not letting that remain in oneself. So it’s actually a contradiction.
SR: There’s a sense in which we stop being children and there’s another sense in which we never stop being children. There’s a sense in which we harden but there’s a sense in which we never do harden.
LS: Well, that’s the fascinating question. It’s the illusion of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold: whether somebody, when you see them later, is the same person that they were when you saw them earlier. And now later, they seem to be different because they’re more clarified one way or another. You can see actions that you didn’t know were in them that now seem significant. And that’s probably true of yourself and you can’t see that. So you don’t want to harden in a way that is exclusive. But also, the childlike sense can be very destructive, something you should leave behind, because if you’re not a child anymore and you’re still doing it, that becomes the hardened thing which is destructive.
SR: I’d like to talk about your notion of the self. In The Front Matter, Dead Souls you say, ‘I’m taking the outer now current culture to be the inner self, drawing it in as one’s core or manifestation, which it isn’t. Then it is externalized as oneself and is projected outward again as one’s sense of the real. That actually is one’s inner self by acting upon its projection.’ (p. 5) I found that sort of tricky, that you can’t really say that current culture is the inner self but that maybe that’s one way of trying to get at what the self is. That we take in current culture and then we project that back out and this process defines what we see. There’s a circular motion. I’m trying to understand what you’re saying the self is.
LS: That was the question. One takes the outside to be the inside; they are the same, opposite, and create each other at once.
SR: In the end of R-hu when you’re writing an essay about Marjorie Perloff and talking about what you see as the limitations of her analysis, you say, ‘I’m looking at the mind and its relation to the real outside. Not that the outside has created the mind ... or that the mind has created the outside. That is, not discriminating as to the cause.’ (p. 81)
LS: In that particular quote, I’m saying I do not start with a conclusion. We don’t know how much the self is formed by the outside and imitating the outside somehow. One could not be formed only by the outside, because then how could the outside exist?
A major part of my Dahlia’s Iris — Secret Autobiography and Fiction project deals exactly with that question: What would be the life seeing outside of constructed frames? Where would you ever make the distinction of what’s an outside event and what is the life seeing? I use a discussion of film, primarily ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ ‘Terminator II,’ ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘The Sixth Sense.’ ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is about the destruction of the self by being completely consumed by an outside invasion, pod flowers, which duplicate people’s appearances, everyone the same within, because they’re all that pod flower. I think of that film, the second version with Donald Sutherland in it, as being an analogy to the notion of American democracy when only propoganda being inherently empty; that it’s not taking place as something that’s real. The interior of people is uniform when taken over by these pods. I see the film as grappling with the issue of whether one is socially formed, and also the need, the obsession with being socially formed — having to be that or one’s an aberration. The film struck me as talking about that obsession in the form of this invasion of being duplicated, so there is no interior being except the people who hold out from that, and who are then finally destroyed.
One of the fascinating aspects of writing — and this goes back to our discussion of dreams as well — is that it can be jumping ahead of oneself and seeing where one is, what is self, and how it’s creating the outside of you by dreaming and making changes in your way of perceiving things outside, so that you are also the outside. And that’s a very intricate and involved consideration: You are the outside of yourself, and you’re also the interior of that outside, and the interior is creating that outside. It’s just something so fundamental to being that I don’t know what the answer is or whether there would be any possibility of finding out the answer to that. But I think that writing, or at least my writing, investigates that. Stein does as well — the inside of the inside, the outside of the outside, the inside of the outside, etc.
Also, related to our discussion of dropping the barriers or the boundaries to the way you would approach events and perception, in the quote that you started out with, from The Front Matter (p. 5), I’m relating that to the point that if you hypothesize that there’s an interior, like a soul or whatever, then that in itself becomes a framework by which everything would be seen. And you would never be able to conjecture what is the self.
SR: Because you’ve already made a decision, in a way.
LS: Yes, you’ve already made a decision. The way I phrased that, in that particular quote, it sounds at first as if I’m already making the decision that there is no self because it’s formed entirely by the outside, yet that cannot possibly be. The consideration calls into question whether there is an outside or whether there is an interior. You can’t decide that either one does not exist.
SR: In The Front Matter you write, ‘‘One’’s only existence is in conflict per se, so that conflict is outside. It’s only there moving. The union is the only ‘self’ when there’s not one. Why is the being of ‘one’ conflict solely? ... If one is without conflict it isn’t the same thing (as one). If it is not oneself’s orb (that which is only conflict) one is continually transgressing it in the conflict. This occurred in the past of my youth.’ (p. 75) In R-hu you write, ‘A writing that is a center targeting one’s mindscape sites and zapping them until fighting with oneself as being one’s scrutiny per se. I’d like to do writing now that is inclusive of sites on the periphery and the spatial center at once. Transmogrification of space. I’ve tried that before but now there’s a sense to work with of attention that’s not a test.’ (p. 94) I’m wondering if these reflections on conflict and test have to do with wanting to leave behind some sense of embattlement as a way of writing and of being in the world.
LS: The conflict had to do with leaping out of being ‘one’ as socially defined entity, because one is not that entity. I referred to that conflict as occurring at an earlier stage than I was at the time of writing that; I was recognizing that I wasn’t doing that so much anymore. I thought, maybe that conflict is a physiological stage of, say, your 20s and 30s, not a stage that persists, let us hope, because there’s something about being in conflict that presumably arises from certain social sources defining what you’re supposed to be, which you later drop, because you can simply understand those sources and interiorly get rid of them.
SR: And you’re also getting closer to death and stripping away external definitions of what you should be doing.
LS: Yes, but you were already stripping away the definitions of what you should be at that earlier stage when you were being very rebellious. You were refusing to do these things that you knew were going to stop you, as conventional modes of how you should be, as a woman for example; this process seemed to require beating oneself up quite a bit. At least I experienced it that way. So then I want to get rid of that because that’s destructive.
SR: Why did it involve beating oneself up?
LS: To leave ‘one.’ To see outside it, break its hold. The social definition of woman, and her in her behavior which is inside and outside of prescription, involves destruction of what she might be, as different from that social prescription.
SR: I think maybe just being in conflict is painful.
LS: Yes, but to increase the conflict was an idea. It was an ideology, which was also an unknown conflict (in the sense that at first one can’t see entirely the ways in which we are prescribed): I felt I had to be in conflict with myself to dismantle myself from even whatever opinion I had of sense of myself at any instant. No gloss or explanation can be given in the text (I was writing), only the action of being inside that combustion, deciphering as the reading of the text.
SR: You had to try to lift out by the roots these things that you felt controlled by, but they were in yourself, so it was almost like you were doing violence to yourself to try to eradicate these things?
LS: Partly, but also, whenever you would hold to something, even if that were ‘good’ in one instant, one could not hold to any instant. Reactivity prolongs that which it opposes. This was a form of anarchism that was a plan. Whereas later on, one has the sense that you don’t have to eradicate, because there’s a peaceful way that is: being in any instant. As we were saying: Even the plan of eradication — in other words rigour — is imposed. It changes what’s happening and in that case begins to change it to be something that is more and more constrained in its own rigidity.
SR: In the eradicating you’re working so hard to not hold onto anything and not be imprisoned by any idea or construct, but actually the hard work that you’re doing is itself perhaps one of those constructs. And to learn to help yourself in a gentler way actually allows you to gain flexibility and freedom, and relaxation.
LS: The vocabulary to render being in a state of freedom is a language without allusion (language itself is allusion); this is the meaning of a passage from Dahlia’s Iris — Secret Autobiography and Fiction:
‘Complete metamorphosis ‘isn’t’ the relation between things.
‘ — one struggles in separation from something (as a butterfly from the chrysalis?)’ The conflict ‘doesn’t make sense,’ and is exactly what is expressed:
Seeking this separation, as the means of not being translated ‘back.’
In one it is not even ‘oppositional.’ It is oppositional politically/socially. One thing is not transformed into another, ever. One is already outside.’
SR: You grew up in the Bay Area, and have spent your adult life here. I am interested in hearing about how your development as a poet intertwined with the Bay Area experimental poetry scene. For example, how did you discover and get involved with the other poets in the Language movement as that community manifested in the Bay Area in the late 70s and early 80s?
LS: I grew up in Berkeley; went to Reed College in Oregon as an undergraduate, and attended two years of graduate study in the UC Berkeley English department. After I left school, I began to write. I gave my first public reading at Intersection in San Francisco in 1974. I was already attending readings, meeting, and sometimes getting to know poets of all kinds. There were different elements occurring at once. There were the Beats — I had the opportunity to know Philip Whalen, then also over time to meet Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure. Also, Robert Duncan whose lectures and readings I always attended. Also, poets in the New York School, whether meeting them in the Bay Area, in New York, or while I was teaching at Naropa in Boulder. In the late 70s someone told me I should check out the talk series going on in San Francisco held by a group called the Language Poets. I went to some of these events, then attended many readings, plays, and talks in Language circles, which was the dominant influence of my particular generation. For a long time, I would drive over from Berkeley or Oakland to San Francisco for readings. For years, I might attend as many as three readings a week.
SR: Are you still involved to the same extent you were then?
LS: No, I sustained two spine injuries which over a period of years involved two spine operations and much recovery time. Sometimes I couldn’t go out; also, I had to learn to conserve my energy and concentrate in order to do my work.
SR: What changes have you observed in the Bay Area writing scene since you first entered it?
LS: The changes are enormous, are generational differences of tone and approach. The current work, of different types, is compatible with what was going on here in the last twenty years but takes it in a different way (or ways), different feel of the language.
SR: Can you expand a bit on this, characterize what you see as preoccupations in Bay Area writing over the last twenty years, and then characterize some of the changes you see? I know this is a huge question, so just whatever comes to mind.
LS: The question of what’s been the changes in poetry syntax/and view (social and as such aesthetic) in poetry: There are shifts that are cumulative that create a range, finally a broad spectrum where current writing contains the past as well as the changes. One of the ideas put forth by many poets in the public talks and readings of the early 80s, for example, was that paratactic sentence structure in paragraphs rather than line breaks should be used by everyone, even uniformly. That is, the word ‘mechanistic’ was used as a favorable designation to mean absence of individual self, a communal, social-political purpose. This is not an approach that is spoken of now. Yet in works like Renee Gladman’s new book, The Activist, there’s a subtle tone of a kind of new, ‘simple’ as if one-dimensional, confessional/autobiographical tone that is used to get at a group sensibility and communal action, undercut in the sense of questioned by a kind of light humor that’s as if all of the characters’ thoughts at once. Judith Goldman’s book Vocoder is very different from Gladman’s writing; many time conversations of many voices at once as both thoughts and speaking, incorporating levels that sound different, are different as a language pattern from past works, though perhaps similar in impulse and intention? The change in different sound-shape of the syntax, a different language pattern in each period is noticeable. For example, the Surrealists used group sessions exploring their unconscious and their dreams, etc. but they expressed this as a communal syntax which they developed together and which was different from what came before or after. So, those changes are indicative of a period and demonstrate the issues and concerns the poets have then.
SR: What are your current wishes, if any, for the Bay Area writing community? What would you like to see more of or less of?
LS: On the evening of the day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I went to a reading hosted by Jen Scappettone where Kevin Davies and Judith Goldman were reading, the audience composed of as many of the (mostly younger) poets as could get there in Berkeley since the bridge was blocked. I was very impressed by the discussion between the readers and audience about their sense of language and the relation of poetry to this time and circumstance, how one is to that as an artist. I’d like to be more in touch with that impulse and intention amongst writers.