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Unprotected Text

Tom Beckett in Conversation with Richard Lopez

This piece is 4,700 words or about ten printed pages long.

Richard Lopez: You have been actively involved as a writer, editor and publisher in the avant-garde for some thirty years outside of academic institutions — a rare feat, it seems, when most forms of writing and publishing are sanctioned and codified by universities. Do you think your situation as a working poet living and writing outside of academe unusual?

Tom Beckett: Unusual? I’m not so sure about that. I think in fact that we are legion and that our unpublished, often unpublishable works overflow attics, file cabinets, trash cans and shredders in dwellings throughout this benighted land — indeed, throughout the world. Of course, some of this material is starting to flutter out into cyberspace...which, still, is not quite the same thing as being published by Wesleyan, Harvard or the U. of Chicago.

An academic has access to networking and publishing possibilities that a lot of us don’t have: professional associations, conferences, a network of collegial support. But, then again, one’s geographical location can be more important than academic affiliation. Living in a poetry hotspot — NYC, the Bay Area, Philadelphia — can easily trump the Iowa Writing Program as a career starter. Many of the hot younger writers achieving significant book publications early on seem to have both of these advantages. And maybe a trust fund on top of it all.

Of course, I’ve got none of those things going for me. Hmm...that could begin to explain a really lousy publishing history and a bad attitude. You sure you want to go through with this, Richard?

Assuming for argument’s sake that you do still want to proceed... I have no brief against academics. Some of my best friends are, etc. There are days when I think that’s the career route I should have taken. My oldest daughter is currently writing a dissertation on political philosophy (which, by the bye, is not a typical area for a woman to be working in) and I’m damn proud of her.

When you write that “most forms of writing and publishing are sanctioned and codified by universities” you’re probably right. However, most innovation in writing and publishing starts outside of university confines. I’m pleased to have played a small part in that story.

RL: I would argue you have played an enormous part in collapsing what Charles Bernstein calls “Official Verse Culture” with your writing and editing. The work of individuals, not institutions, gave us the writings of say WCW and Oppen. I’m thinking specifically of James Laughlin’s New Directions. Of course Laughlin did have a trust fund, but it was the love of reading and writing that kept his press so vibrant. You mentioned cyberspace currently doing part of that collapsing as well, where work that might have languished in a writer’s desk drawer can now be published online. What, in a broad definition, has online journals, weblogs and e-mail done to the contemporary writing scene for readers/ writers? Do you think writers and readers need the University of Chicago Press when they can find good work online?

TB: In his book Music or Honesty (Roof Books, 2003) Rod Smith quotes Michel Foucault: “People know what they do, most people even know why they do what they do, but what they don’t know is what they do does.” What an elegant summation of the limits of human intelligence! I have tended to see my work more in terms of what I have been unable to accomplish than anything I may have been able to do. Not, I know, the healthiest of attitudes. It’s even been a form of paralysis at times. I am very skeptical about any influence my work may be said to have exerted. I think that, in the main, it has been ignored. I have never had the opportunity to publish a full-length collection of my writing. Such a publication is, at this point — I’ll be 51 next month — no longer even a goal.

“Official Verse Culture” has hardly collapsed. Yet alternatives to it are multiplying with dizzying speed and the online world is a big part of that story. Online journals, weblogs and e-mail have created tremendous opportunities for public discourse. I worry though that increased time spent in cyberspace further fragments our collective attention span. Sometimes as a writer it can be more important to pay a lot of attention to a few things rather than a little attention to a lot of things. I worry too about the ways in which the Internet is being employed to take away individual privacy. Increasingly the facts of our lives are being digitized and disseminated electronically. And I worry  about the worldwide web becoming an entirely commercialized space. We live in an era, after all, when patents are being issued for genes.

Putting for a moment some of these worries aside, the online world has certainly enriched my life. E-mail, weblogs, online magazines, listservs are integral threads in the fabric of my daily routine, offering great sources of pleasure, exasperation, inspiration and engagement. I met you, Richard, through my own weblog, Vanishing Points of Resemblance ( Your weblog, Really Bad Movies ( is a daily stop. Where this explosion of online activity is leading, more generally, is beyond my power to guess.

I may be a luddite but I know in my heart that writers and readers need the University of Chicago Press, not to mention New Directions, Sun & Moon, and other great hardcopy publishers, just as much as they need the worldwide web. There will never, to my way of thinking, be a viable substitute for holding a book in one’s hand. I can’t imagine reading a volume of Proust or Joyce or Stein online. Given a choice between browsing the web and browsing a bookstore, I will pick the latter every time.

RL: We don’t have to choose between online publishing and traditional presses I think.  Book distribution has always been a problem for small presses. But a great advantage of the Internet is that micro-presses today can circumvent regular forms of distribution and sell their publications directly from their websites. I too love browsing in a good bookstore such as Moe’s in Berkeley because the Internet cannot replace the rush of holding the physical object of a book in your hands, a book has a weight, a texture, a smell, and the Internet cannot replace the discoveries one can make by picking up a book. Still you have published rather a lot online through journals and your weblog. You have mentioned you do not live in a “poetry hotspot” such as the Bay Area or NYC. I marvel at the fact I can read and communicate with writers who live a world away at an instant. Do you think the Internet is breaking down these barriers between writers living in these major urban areas and poets who do not by being in cyberspace? Who can tell if Jacket edited by Australian poet John Tranter is an Australian publication because it exists in cyberspace and not necessarily in Sydney?

TB: The Internet is breaking down barriers but it is not a substitute for regular personal contact, poetry reading venues, having a beer together, having actual sex, etc. One can e-mail someone across the world, which is great, but does one take the time to talk to one’s neighbor? I see the Internet as a simulacrum of reality. Much easier to get caught up in it than in the real world. Cyberspace is not something that I want to romanticize. I’m not a true believer.

RL: Your poems are often openly erotic. In your latest book Vanishing Points of Resemblance a section begins with the sentence, “Writing and sex are inseparable,” and there are other references to writing and sex, masturbation, etc. in the poem. Would you comment further on what you have called “the textuality of sexuality.”

TB: I believe that the writer/ reader relationship is an erotic one. I’ve written before that the risk of a poem is the same as that of an unsolicited kiss: the object of one’s affection (potential reader/ potential lover) may ignore the advance, respond as if assaulted, or repay one with interest.

My book Vanishing Points of Resemblance (Generator Press, 2004) began as an attempt to write a novel in the form of a journal, a novel about mistaken identity. Because my writing style seems to be subtractive rather than additive (write 3 lines then take away 2 or more), it became apparent that VPoR wasn’t going to be a novel. It’s something else — a hybrid text — combining elements of fiction, autobiography, philosophy, poetry and prose. And it is still “about” mistaken identity. Sexuality figures in this stew as one element among many — one extremely important element.

Sex has often figured in my writing — to the dismay, I think, of some of my contemporaries. I find it interesting that sex very often doesn’t play a part in so-called “avant” writing and that when it does it does what it does at a stylized, sanitized remove. In Vanishing Points of Resemblance I tried to show some genuine nakedness. I tried to take the quotation mark handcuffs off “self”. It’s a small volume but it was a very difficult one to write. Dear Reader, will you embrace it or not?

Kathy Acker once famously wrote about masturbating while she wrote. I can understand that impulse. Making love, making art, are entwined in my thinking — braided in the most sensuous of knots.

RL: Perhaps that is why I find your work so buoyant, it activates the pleasure centers even for such serious topics as the subject of identity, like a good lover. The processes of writing are so much in evidence in your poems that I think, if I’ve read you correctly, writing and living, like sexuality, are so thoroughly braided in your texts. Also the processes of your reading are abundant in your writing. “Making love, making art,” these are parts of the whole of living for you, or do you make separations in your working life, writing life, family life etc.?

TB: There are a multitude of separations in my working life, writing life, family life. In fact, one of my chapbooks is entitled Separations (Generator Press, 1989). I’m as defensive, neurotic, idiosyncratic, riddled with self-doubt, overworked, overwhelmed, alienated — but funny! — as anyone you might want to know.

Most of the people I encounter daily aren’t aware that I write or if they are they don’t know what sort of writing I do. My private life is, basically, private. Everyday life and the writing life are semi-permeable. My blog is one source of porosity and of joy. I like the idea of a space where one can move from silly/ giddy to informational, to inspirational to experimental, to mythologizing/ schtickifying. Do I really sit at my computer wearing a squirrel fur thong, red towel cape and a cowboy hat whilst singing the Bad Hair Day Furry Pimp Hat Blues?

A person is constituted of many realities. I’m serious about writing. Vanishing Points of Resemblance is a serious book. Sometimes my blog, also called Vanishing Points of Resemblance, is a bit over serious about having fun. There’s a separation there. But it is not a contradiction.

Writing, for me, is a kind of epistemological process — a process of discovering what one is about, what one can find out. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. I do know that I’m operating within a territory which is mostly defined by an erotics of language, by what I refer to in VPoR  as “unprotected text.”

RL: Well, I hope you do wear your squirrel fur thong, red towel cape and cowboy hat when writing!  It brings forth bounteous images. Often you iterate words and sounds in your poems, such as the first stanza of a single word section, “But/ but/ / But/ but/ / But/ but,” in the poem How Say (Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, 2002). It seems an example, I think, of “unprotected text” in its application and that the phrase itself contains many meanings and layers. That language itself becomes a fetish, erotic. Does language get in the way of discovery?

TB: Does language get in the way of discovery? It’s more a matter of my limited language skills getting in the way. Clark Coolidge, in an early interview, spoke of adopting chance procedures in order to circumvent characteristic vocabulary choices. That comment, in a nutshell, defines the impetus behind one of the major threads of Language writing — finding ways to break out of one’s usual habits of thought/ speech through mechanisms of disruption. Bruce Andrews is a master of this approach. Even the Table of Contents in one his books will often read like a transgressive poem. (Look for example at the ToC in I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism), Sun & Moon Press, 1992). I, on the other hand, bring considerably less sophistication to the table but no less passion.

RL: Writing, the urge/ need, to write is passionate. So is reading, I suspect. Both go hand in hand, the need to write is very closely related to the urge to read, I would argue. You have written in Vanishing Points of Resemblance that you read, “reams and reams and reams of avant-garde poetry, fiction, art history, philosophy.” From that sentence, I gather, you take your reading seriously. Would you talk a bit about your practices of reading, how your reading influences your writing, your living?

TB: There are three areas of activity within which I have glimpsed the possibility of utopia, the possibility of living an unalienated life. Those areas of activity are: reading, writing, and sex.  Now, I can and do go for long periods of time without sexual activity. I can and do have periods of time within which I don’t write. It is inconceivable to me that I might go even a day without reading.

Our attic is jammed with boxes of small press books. Throughout the house books are stacked on chairs, tables; the shelves are overflowing with books. There are books on the floor. There are books in my car, in the bathroom, and by our beds. I am obsessed with books and reading. I have been so since childhood.

Childhood epilepsy, in conjunction with being extremely tall at an early age, created major coordination problems for me when I was a boy. It also created a kind of psychic disconnect between self and body. I’ve never truly felt at home in my body. I’ve never felt much like I belong on this planet. Reading was and is a means of transport away from these kinds of feelings. I’m much more physically coordinated than I was as a child (I can grab a fly out of the air, for instance, with my cat-like reflexes) but a residue of doubt, a lack of self-confidence remains. Within a book I fall away from myself and am embraced by something other.

Many of my best friends have been book dealers. Visiting their places of business has been, in essence, my social life. When a favored bookstore leaves town, or goes out of business, I mourn.

I am an obsessive reader. My oldest daughter Mischa marvels at the fact that I have over 60 books in my library by and about Gertrude Stein. That’s one measure of the obsession. A friend once asked me what I would rescue from my library if I could only take an armful of books. I replied the 8 volumes of the Yale Gertrude Stein. It is, however, an impossible question.

I tend to read several books at a time. Right now I’m reading these in sips: Some Values of Landscape and Weather  by Peter Gizzi, Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes by Stanley Cavell, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises  by Ulla Dydo, and Imaging Her Erotics  by Carolee Schneemann.  I’m also reading a mystery novel, plus a collection of Ezra and Dorothy Pound’s letters in the aftermath of WWII.

RL: You have mentioned writing/ reading/ sexuality are possibilities of utopia, that writing is a utopian project. Does the poet have a responsibility to society, and if so what are the responsibilities of writing to society as a whole?

TB: The responsibility of a poet to society is to cultivate the ability to respond, to learn to pay and repay attention, to inspire others to do the same.

RL: One of my favorite passages in the collection Economies of Pure Expenditure: a Notebook (Leave Books, 1992) is when the grandmother asks, “if I still wrote ‘Poultry.” And then when she asks if there is any money in it replies, “‘Buck. Buck. Buck, Buck.’” There is much humor in your work. Can you speak a bit about humor in your writing in particular, and the role of humor in general? Though your concerns as a writer have a philosophical cast, you are, I gather, pretty well read in contemporary theory, you are just too funny to be a philosopher.

TB: When I was a boy I wanted to grow up to become either an archaeologist or a comedian. One could argue that in my so-called “career” as a poet/ editor I have become both.

Part of a poet’s job is to rev-up the language. The polysemy that puns introduce is one way to do that. As is humor in general. So much humor depends upon homonyms and creative mishearing. That’s fertile ground for poetry too.

Another, related, part of the job is sifting through language in a manner correlative to that of a dig — looking, say, for snatches of found conversation that provide a window onto something wider. Ideology perhaps. Or maybe just what Charles Bernstein has called “the music of meaning.”

RL: “Ideology” seems to be the fuel of much of your writing. Philosophy appears to be a source of nourishment for you.  What are the consolations of philosophy, in your poetry?

TB: Not sure what you mean when you refer to ideology as a fuel for my writing. Certainly at times I’ve tried in my poems to provide glimpses of the ways in which ideology is embedded in speech/ habits of thought. I have tried also to be clear about where I stand in relation to the “consuming realities” I refuse.

Philosophy and poetry are paired in my mind as similar kinds of adventures/ life journeys. Both bring a certain linguistic rigor/ romanticism to the task. Neither, however, is at the moment providing much consolation in the face of the all-embracing indifference of the global machinery of Capital.

When I write in “The Nude Sentience” that “The purpose of our organization is to expand” I am laying bare the self-evident, core dynamic of a global system of perpetual war: greed. When I write in “Specific Nouns” that

I want you

to include me

in an image

of how I feel

I am speaking to the same exigencies from a different angle.

RL: Your “ideology” I referred to is a committed anti-capitalist, anti-war machine mechanism I find evident in your poems. Does changing poetic language, through shifts in registers, parataxis, varied vocabularies (you use scientific phrases and words like “fuck” in your writing), fractured or aborted syntax, to name a few techniques, change the language change consciousness and thus change lives? In writing, do you hope for a better world?

TB: Refocusing attention can help to lay the groundwork for shifts in perception and perhaps changes in consciousness, changes in lives. Look and then look again, but from another angle. How can I say this — how can I say this better? Technique, in and of itself, is of no particular interest. (Nonetheless, keep a full toolbox!) What is interesting is the disruption of habits of thought — that Brechtian moment of interruption that can enable recognition and discovery.

RL: I think “disruption of habits” is the core of writing, also. I do want to ask about your “toolbox.” You write texts in lines and in prose. What makes poetic language distinct, in verse and prose? Also, what makes poetic language “poetic?” (I suppose this is akin to asking what makes poetry poetry.)

TB: I’m not really very interested in genre distinctions. The French word genre means “gender”, too, and I find that instructive. One wants categories to be clear and distinct, but they aren’t. All experience, all phenomena can be viewed in terms of a continuum. Things elide, bend, slide into one another. That’s good. Erotic, even. And we’ve got to own up to that reality. We are all connected whether we like it or not. The world we inhabit is an organism with infinite orgasmic possibilities.

Whether I write lineated “verse,” or a paragraph style “prose” depends on how I hear/ see what I am writing. It’s about the ear on the one hand, and about what one wants to highlight for the eye. A poem tends, in my experience, to be about units of sense. Prose tends to be about waves of expression.

RL: That is a wonderful way of expressing it. Can you expand on lineated poems being about “units of sense” and prose “waves of expression?” If you don’t find genres distinct how does poetry become poetry? Does poetry encompass all possibilities of the text?

TB: Everything is possible. Everything is permitted. That said...

A poem generally starts along a continuum that proceeds from syllable to word to phrase to line to stanza. One can fixate, of course, at whatever structural level one pleases. Take, for instance, the one-word poems of Aram Saroyan or Geof Huth. My point is that a poem tends, whatever its focus or structural parameters, to be micro-managed. Subject matter, surface manner are intimately aligned in the poem’s verbo-visual field. This makes for a certain intensity of expression that has as much to do with how meaning is displayed in the poem as it does with what is meant.

The prose continuum is sentence to paragraph to page, etc., building to larger and larger blocks of type. Prose is discursive, its energies more diffuse and spread out across space and time.

Poetry and prose discharge energy in different ways. I want to say that poems squirt while prose flows. Of course, sometimes they both just drool and dribble.

RL: You write with an eye on the page, how the lines or paragraphs form patterns? Is visual poetry important to you?

TB: It’s more like writing with an eye to the ear. When I nattered earlier about how a poem displays itself, I was thinking more of linebreaks and stanzaic divisions — more, that is, about the organization of sound/ content.

Visual poetry is an altogether different beast about which I am not particularly knowledgeable. A lot of it leaves me cold. Although I do admire much of John Byrum’s, John Bennett’s, Geof Huth’s and Crag Hill’s work. Not to mention Bob Grenier’s “scrawl poems” and Charles Bernstein’s “Veils.”

RL: Can you talk about your role as publisher and editor? You published your journal The Difficulties in the ‘80s. How did you come to start it? You’ve written on your blog that you encourage young writers to start their own journals. What were the joys and pains in publishing it?

TB: I had about seven years of small press experience prior to starting The Difficulties. Ken Irby, circa 1978 — the year our first child was born — gave me the courage to begin the magazine when he said I should start thinking of myself as something more than a local poet.

Over the course of ten years (1980–1990), six issues of The Difficulties were produced. Earel Neikirk worked on the first issue with me and then drifted away. That first number was comprised of responses to a questionnaire about “language environment.” The second issue was a general issue of poetry. The final four issues were devoted to critical considerations of individual writers. Those writers, in order, were: Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, David Bromige and Susan Howe.

I had hoped to go on to produce at least two more issues. I really wanted to work with Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, or Rachel Blau DuPlessis. The problem was that during the time I was working on the Howe issue I had major back surgery. This created, among other things, major financial problems and a general wilting of the spirit. I had to let the magazine go. I felt like I was chewing off one of my legs.

The magazine was a lifeline. People who would never otherwise talk to me were talking to me. Plus I learned a hell of a lot about writing and literary politics. Reading thousands of pages of manuscripts is an education in itself. As is typing hundreds of pages of innovative poetry and essays. One becomes much more aware of how what one reads is constructed. I felt plugged in to a scene. And useful.

What was always a drag was trying to figure out how to pay for the magazine. Those last three issues cost $3000 each to do. I had to scramble to come up with funds. There were no grants. I would beg, borrow, sell whatever I could — including a life insurance policy. It was hard work, but it taught me a lot.

I encourage young writers to try doing a magazine because I can’t imagine a better way to develop an aesthetic and to test one’s commitment to one’s art.

RL: I am curious to know what you think defines a “local poet,” what is meant by the phrase? What are the differences between “local” and “non-local,” since every writer must live somewhere and that “somewhere” is bound to influence his/ her writing and reading habits. How does “locality” factor in your writing/ reading/ living life?

TB: I have lived in Kent, Ohio since the early 1970s. I entered Kent State University in the Fall of 1971 and graduated with a degree in Political Science in the Winter of 1974.

In the Fall of 1971, the May 4, 1970 shootings were still a recent memory. The war in Vietnam was raging. Nixon was President. And Kent had a vibrant art scene: film, music, poetry, dance, painting. It was a time of excitement and cultural/ political ferment. A hint of revolution was in the air.

A lot of great writers came through Kent in the ‘70s: Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Creeley, Joel Oppenheimer, Michael McClure, Harvey Bialy, Fielding Dawson, Ginsberg, Richard Grossinger, Ken Irby, John Moritz, Jonathan Williams, Tom Meyer are the ones who come to mind immediately.

I was exposed to a variety of remarkable work at the University and my peers were stimulating and talented. Ultimately though, by 1978 I knew I was moving away from the local scene. Most of my friends were talking about Bukowski or the Beats. I was talking about Gertrude Stein, the Surrealists and Ezra Pound, Robert Creeley, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp.

I started The Difficulties hoping to find someone to talk to about the writers, the artists, the ideas that engaged me, hoping to find someone who might care about some of those same things. Dialogue is something I continue to seek and one of the reasons I’m so grateful to you, Richard, for this opportunity to collaborate.

For me: the local is the zone of the habitual. It’s what I know. The “non-local” is that great elsewhere, the zone of discovery. The “creative writing” wags say “Write what you know.” I say, head into the unknown — see what you can find out.

RL: One last question, Tom, how do you manage to maintain your sense of joy and wonder in such arduous times?

TB: I don’t always. It’s not easy, but I have a good family and good friends. There aren’t many of us but we watch out for one another. As I write this, my mother-in-law is dying. And as I watch my wife deal with her grief I am more conscious than ever of the fragility of everyone everywhere.

A sense of humor is essential. If one can’t laugh, in the midst of “everything”... then what’s the point?

A piece of rope walked into a bar...

— Do you know how this is going to turn out?

— A frayed knot.

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