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Letters to Poets: Leslie Scalapino and Judith Goldman

Leslie Scalapino to Judith Goldman

Oakland, California
December 7-December 11, 2004

Dear Judith,

Sensing a difference or a shift (from a range of earlier contemporary and kindred work) occurring in your writing and that of other poets who are your friends and compatriots, I’m curious to ask you, and to consider myself, the subject which for simplicity I would describe as ‘the relation of writing to events.’ That relation may be expressed by poets either as representation or abstraction.

As relation between political-social actions and writing: writing, since it is conceptual, is separate from action but may itself be an action by engaging that gap of separation.

Two negatives, one abstraction and one representation: A doctrinal writing (the impetus of which is to be non-narrative or anti-narrative, non-absorptive) may be itself a form of representation, if while arising relating itself to abstraction, it becomes so stringent as to eliminate the individual’s event and individual or single events (as say for the purpose of eliminating “expressivity”/”self” leaving only the authority of its doctrine), may cross the line to forbid language as its gesture.

The problem of solidity occurs in such a choice based in doctrine if it is entirely authority-based without any means of or any intent to critique or examine that authority.

Or (the second negative example), as in the conventional mode of representation (confessional writing is an example), the single event may be so stripped of its actually infinite context to be isolated and thus without relation, which could only be revealed by distance from the event, abstraction.

The way I would think to consider the contrasts is by giving different examples of choices with their attending advantages and disadvantages.

My poem way (written between 1985 and 1988, published by North Point Press in 1988) is an example in my writing of the syntax (a sound-shape which is by line breaks, by words separated by dashes creating alternate interpretations across the dashes, alternatives even contradictory existing at once) being ‘the same as’ a motion, yet this ‘motion’ not representing referenced events, merely a language motion which is also an event at the same time.

On the weekend (Dec 5) I went to L.A. to see the Robert Smithson show at the MOCA. One of Smithson’s descriptions of his “Non-Sites” struck me as possibly akin to my attempt to describe ‘motion of event’ in language and its relation to ‘actual’ events:

“The Non-Site (an indoor earthwork) is a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site in N.J. (the Pine Barrens Plains). It is by this three dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site which does not resemble it—thus The Non-Site. To understand this language of sites is to appreciate the metaphor between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas, letting the former function as a three-dimensional picture which doesn’t look like a picture. “Expressive art” avoids the problem of logic; therefore it is not truly abstract. A logical intuition can develop in an entirely ‘new sense of metaphor’ free of natural or realistic expressive content. Between the actual site in the Pine Barrens of The Non-Site itself exists a space of metaphoric significance.”

A “logical intuition” articulated “between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas” seems akin to what I’m trying to describe of what I was trying to do in that type or period of writing. Yet I was trying to examine emotion, placing it on the same level, as a logic in the sense that everyone is having emotions at once which are actions in occurrences. I experienced an intense urgency in that period as the sense of ‘falling out of’ the event, not being in it while I am ‘actually’ in an event occurring, the writing having to be the exact same instant and occurrence but this having nothing to do with reproducing the content or views of (or responses to) the event. I tried to express this in my Autobiography, which I wrote on a lark for Gale Research for the $1000 fee, to make a living (though they did not publish it or pay me after accepting it and holding it for six months—later published by Wesleyan University Press):

“‘Life’/as occurrence as silent—or ‘not itself’ per se.
The writing is doing the (exact) same motions ‘conceptually’—
so that one is not in one’s life:
So that one is not in one’s life. So it has an impossible relation to it” (p. 37).

Referring to writing which is ‘only’ historical events, no commentary (which would be as if outside the motion of the events) about these:

“Later—writing that they were at the beach and way I was frantically trying to get the motions (as words separated by dashes and in line breaks) to be minutely the same—which is separate per se” (p. 37).

I struggled to do this and also to describe it, because it was being constantly taken for simply narrative of an event itself:

“Syntax is entirely different from physical motion. Thus (in early works, through the 1980s) I wanted the writing to be that gap: the writing being life, real-time minute motions (physical movements or events) but being or are these (minute motions) as syntax (abstraction, not representation).

Syntax is memory trace or conceptual shape. Yet it was to replace, or to be, the (its) present-time motion only. It can’t be a memory, or a life then” (p. 42).

I always found if difficult to articulate this because although it was akin to the prevailing concerns of the poets near to me (“without content,” “non-narrative,” writing being “only its language” being key phrases), I was doing this somewhat differently to consider relation of ‘being’ to ‘history.’ Maybe Smithson’s language is a useful comparison:

He speaks about structure/surface that “performs no natural function, it simply exists between mind and matter, detached from both, representing neither. It is, in fact, devoid of all classical ideals of space and process. It is brought into focus by a strict condition of perception, rather than by any expressive or emotive means… As action decreases, the clarity of such surface-structures increases. This is evident in art when all representations of action pass into oblivion.” (Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, editor Jack Flam, UC Press, 1996, p. 14).

At the time I was developing I had not been introduced to these concepts so I was making mine up instinctively and ‘in my period’ alongside others. On the one hand, events one does (and events in the world) are not the being (are not one). On the other hand, ‘to fall out’ of these events in the world and events one’s in at their/one’s instant, not ‘to be exactly’ ‘as’ (or in) the motions there (one is being whatever happens to occur in real-time outside?—no—and being is one’s own mind movement as syntax?) is not to be at all, not to have ever been.

Descriptive language is an example of ‘falling out of’ (or never having been in, always separate from) one’s own motions described there. Such as: to describe events or to reference ideas already in place or to discuss other people’s ideas, rather than one’s writing being the act of thinking, an action that would also be an invention occurring there. Sometimes poets (I noticed this in the ‘80s) would reject even writing a thought process (at all), taking this for descriptive rather than the act of thinking.

Different from narrative as such: In way, for example, I’d ‘take’ syntax motions that ‘were’ then physical motions in real-time and space (my seeing a mugger running, my being in the same time beside bums freezing)—later (as in The Tango) I’d ‘take’ a thought (“dawn” or “magnolia”) placing it comparing itself in space, making the thought/the phenomena only words (“dawn” or “magnolia”) to see mind-shape only: at the same time as real-time oppressive, or other, events are being registered in/as the same sound scheme. So, for one thing, the ‘mind’ is seen composing these events that are outside, which also exist (which also have occurred, are occurring).

Minute events are so in time (in memory), such as in way an event of an elderly man wearing a hat in a movie theater and a young woman shouting at him, him rising leaving, the audience chagrined wanting him to stay—many such ‘random’ occurrences (or randomly chosen while writing, registered as syntax as the equivalent of their movement). Time is eliminated (the past and present being even with each other and at once as the experience of reading) and an emotion is as much an event, is as effective or active in its being transient, in this infinity as any other event.

It means that anything occurring impinges on and alters everything else—equally effective in the sense of large and small are part of the context. There’s no hierarchy (in existence), though it occurs socially created and created by animals, authority does not derive from it. The writing enables one to see that and be ‘without’ it. A poem can be a terrain where hierarchy can be undone or not occur (in the writing), but obviously the writing does not make it not occur in the world. So, its subject is also the relation of conceptual to phenomena, conceptual being an action also. Yet even proposing conceptual non-hierarchy frequently meets with great resistance (usually).

Gravitation of one person’s position in time: A critic a couple of years ago castigated way as “reification of self” by first describing it as prose (as if its sound structure and syntax in line breaks as spatial and alternate readings were not relevant, obliterating the language itself), the drift of his essay being to praise another critic for advocating rewriting passages of the poem to fix the meanings of segments as single interpretations for the purpose of giving a gloss to readers. The poem would not be its language (although she said to me the poem would accompany its rewrites, examples of which had been provided in the essay). The import of his essay was that the poem would be taken out of its language, devoid of its occurrence at all, only idea description and doctrinal construct substituted, which (hers) were praised by this second critic as ‘new’ or ‘the new’ by simply being something else than what the poet had written. Maintaining that this poem is “reification of self,” apparently the entire purpose as he sees it of endeavor is to eliminate “self”—from everything?—substituting authority—as such? (his, though his derived presumably from a patchwork of authority sources from theory and criticism, not from the experiment of the individual artist directly, as language as phenomena grappling with perceiving phenomena). In another essay written close in time to this one, this same critic (who’d cited “reification of self”) describes the basis, even sole characteristic and accomplishment, of (his) current period of avant garde, as elimination of “expressivity.” Obviously one would put confessional writing in that category, but he uses as his examples of expressivity feminism and Black arts, both condemned and to be excluded by him. Doctrinal elimination of “expressivity” (which thus includes impetus for social change) is for him (in the guise of substitution of his doctrine) to dictate how and what is to be created. I think this is pushing formalism to the point of a totalitarian construct—as if the self were to be eliminated per se as the only goal. It’s an imbalance as if self of anyone were only ‘bad,’ to be excised. And he would see himself as merely the (curiously, passionate—that is, expressive) vessel (really, driving force) for this?

He says the image is to be eliminated, any writing based on the image to be rejected as obsolete. My sense of this is: No image in that it reflects the seer—while that concept (visibly eliminating the image, and by this: considering/aware of both the image and its elimination at once) is part of my own intention (such as in Defoe, but in every work) this can’t be dictated to others mechanically (for one thing because action is only its instant). Why no “feminism” and no “Black arts”? Because they, as political action, would be outside any given doctrine, not dictated from outside (not from his doctrine certainly) but rather would be people responding to their infinite present and making discoveries arising from it.

I think in his articulation in these two essays his poetic theory has come full circle: from the proposal that writing be only its language to the proposal that the work is to be entirely outside of its language, academic writing.

Interestingly, I think this one individual’s expression (which in the past he related to a left orientation) is much akin to the expression of the current fundamentalism. Now is not the time to belittle women’s rights movements, since this as all human rights now is in grave jeopardy. Regardless of the forms taken of various feminist movements, The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of the word “feminism” is: “A doctrine that advocates or demands for women the same rights granted men, as in political or economic status.” I read recently an article in Le Monde Diplomatique describing the women’s movements in Tunis, Morocco, and Iran. The women who were the leaders of these movements concurred that they must avoid any association with or similarity to the West and they would never use the word “feminist” because it sounds too militant. They agreed they have to always characterize their proposed changes as “good for men” and possibly “good for the family,” never as “good for women” because no such idea would be considered. They must accept the system of polygamy and never challenge it.

One poem I wrote, a section of my book that they were at the beach, titled “A Sequence,” was a series of segments with erotic encounters of a ‘she’ or ‘her’ (either in her thoughts or actions and these at once) with some men with leopard parts and with some men without leopard parts. Or watching groups of couples one or more of whom had leopard parts. The ‘force’/erotic attraction is somehow based on the dissimilarity or on elements of similarity seeing them in their location, never on hierarchy or power between them. No one is perceived by virtue of dominance. Nor are the resulting erotic scenarios cathartic or even fully satisfying (in the sense of either imagination or sexual response), the segments always a flat, one-dimensional space. Yet ‘between’ the spaces, alongside or concurrent with hearing the sound of them, at once or alongside the repetitive space and sound, is a (lower case) daily beauty not ‘on’ or ‘from’ any of the participants or called such. There is no exclusion of pleasure and no power structure or violence that creates the desire there. Although it uses negative space, the intention is not to exclude: So one would be free to have ‘actual’ pleasure and beauty somewhere outside a frame, the frame (as the writing, flat scenarios in which ‘one’ can’t be) has to be proposed and maintained (in order to imply outside).

I reread, written some time ago, my essay that’s in the anthology just published, Biting the Error/Writers Explore Narrative, and found that I’d described my sense of dismantling hierarchy and the relation to the illusion-as-writing one is making to events in the world:

“These are illusions in the practical sense of being ‘only’ writing (writing has no relation to present or historical reality—it has no reality, is it as well, being mind phenomena. So the ‘ordinary’ small action is [to be] as much ‘reality’ as events that are devastating). I am trying to divest hierarchy-of-actions. ‘Hierarchy-of-actions’ voids people’s occurrences (that is, individuals’ actions are relegated to inconsequential or invisible). Such hierarchy substitutes ‘overview’ of ‘history’/ interpretation/doctrine—therefore, to divest ‘hierarchy-of-actions’ is certainly a political act. (In one’s/reader’s/viewer’s conceptualization then—[is the intention]). What I’m referring to as ‘divesting hierarchy-of-actions’ by definition has to be in oneself… Fundamentally anarchism (viewing that as being observation itself) is necessitated” (p. 155).

The point of my focusing on one individual’s argument (the man who would eliminate “reification of self”) is that his argument is an extreme expression of what is part of the literary conversation, of my generation and still a factor, there being similar problems and responses waged regarding choices either of ‘expression and expressivity’ or ‘formalism that changes the approach to and way of perceiving.’

What do you see as the issues or conversation now (in your milieu) and how do you conceive of your writing interacting with or being events? One characteristic I notice about your poetry is a type of direct borrowing from (use of) the exterior language of institutionalized violence, for example, in order to ‘turn’ this or perceive it, sometimes doing so by a direct borrowing of passionate language of soliloquy (such as from Shakespeare) so that the reader is not ‘within’ either language and is at once within both (only ‘as’ both) critically and not absorbed —or absorbed and aware at once? Is part of your subject one being ‘borrowed language’ negotiating being as such?


My Best,
Leslie

Judith Goldman to Leslie Scalapino

Berkeley, California
March 17-22, 2005

Dear Leslie,

The urgent attention you have always drawn to “‘the relation of writing to events’” has meant a great deal to me for a long time now.

Your sense that the relation of writing to events is in flux in current writing by myself and others suggests  (to me, at least) that the present extremity of representational infidelity and illocutionary manhandling and mangling by the powers-that-be (suspiciously vague term, I readily admit) has pushed us to react upon these breaches in ways that will meet, reveal, critique, and counteract them, through befitting strategies.

I suppose that any moment in history has been inhabited, en-dured by people feeling their time to be epochal, or even apocalyptic. I, too, cannot help but exceptionalize this era, my own and exceptional for me (trivially or naively) in that I live through it in the first phases of my intellectual adulthood.

Yet it may be, however compulsively I repeat the motion of clearing space for a state of exception, that this exceptionalizing action does, at this time, have some validity external to itself, that it is, as they say, a repetition-with-a-difference. In this, the first age of instantaneous global exchange, the quality of the authority exercised by the US as unique world superpower has profoundly changed, for all those subject, in various modes of subjection, to that authority, the parameters of possible political action, including and especially the political actions of speech and representation.

For me, right now, to work as a poet in this society is to function as a “participant informant,” a role that must continually be re-thought as we witness and process and redirect—as vehicles of, as well as obstacles to—brutal, frightening, and new manifestations of bad faith, cancellation, deflection, inversion, manipulation, and open, yet still disavowed fictionalization.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean to propose that I think of my work exclusively or primarily as a response (or an attempt to respond adequately or meaningfully) to an epochal change in the structure of political authority as manifest in representation and speech act. I mean, rather, to say that I intuitively agree with your initial observation and that I believe this shift, if we can pinpoint it, in “‘the relation of writing to events’” is both materially and symbolically linked to current abuses of power and manifestations of violence in representation (in its dual sense) that seem not to have existed before. Or that seem to have been altered by the magnitude of their scope, the degree of their intensity, the new media through which they are enacted, the direness of the circumstances in which they both come to be and create.

This is just an initial affirmation. It is not a theory, or explanation, or description—yet.

• • •

One striking element of your work, Leslie, is its commitment to analyzing with great insight and care the very premises of, the most basic relations involved in any interaction of a person in and with the world. “The writing enables one to see that and be ‘without’” “hierarchy… socially created,” as you say in your letter; one way your writing subtly erodes the deep hieratic frames orienting us within the world is through your continual return to the situational and relational grounds to which an event stands as figure. Your work also often takes notice of, places at center but then moves around, phenomena that would seem to be uneventful, or that our society would try to avert attention from, that we generally code as unseen and unseeable non-events.

To return to “‘the relation of writing to events’”:

I’m thinking at the moment of how, even before way, your work was representing the reciprocal pressures that writing, reading, thinking, consciousness, experience, action, appearance for and to others, and social demands exert on one another—in, for instance, the poem “hmmmm” in Considering how exaggerated/music is (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982):


As Rimbaud said, I thought today sitting in the library
absentmindedly leafing through a book on the habits of birds,
isn’t the way we find happiness precisely by losing our senses
(oversimplified, of course. I was being    facetious.) But still
I can see imitating a bird’s call such as that of the fledgling
of a goose or a swan (here I referred to the book) by forcing
myself into a swoon. And, by way of finishing the thought, I,
for the sake of appearances, since there were people sitting
in the chairs around me, merely sagged forward in my seat and
whistled as if I were asleep. Ssss, it came out, sort of a hiss,
like the noise of a goose. So, almost before I knew it,
I followed this by a low and guttural cough
and leaned forward simply to expel some phlegm. Then quickly
I took a glance around before I wiped my mouth. Feeling weary.
[17]

The language here is perhaps more descriptive—less focused on itself as abstractive, syntactical writing-event, performing itself less as such—than that of your later works. Yet it can be said, as you remark in your letter about your later writing, that “its subject is… the relation of the conceptual to phenomena, conceptual being an action also”—to which I would add, action’s being in turn conceptual, harboring and informed by concept, though never exhaustively so.

This (to my mind, truly extraordinary) passage above discusses an experience of reading from outside the experience of reading.  Mediated by external narration that is also temporally distanced from the action as past, this primary experience was already split: first, by reading’s also being a physical act, involving “leafing through” pages in the physical space of a “library,” and second, by your reading’s absentmindedness. Your represented consciousness is not fully absorbed in the act of reading the “book on the habits of birds” because you are simultaneously thinking of, remembering Rimbaud’s aphorism, reflecting critically both on its romanticism and on the problematic but still beckoning tradition (e.g., Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”) of figuring Nature as holding the place of a version of the self we cannot know (as self) yet long to access.

You address this facile resolution of how to trace a (fictional) path to experience outside of consciousness by raising its paradoxes: not only do you receive an image of birdcalls, the medium or device through which you will merge with Nature, by means of a book, but you decide, with self-conscious intention, to “[force yourself] into a swoon,” to exercise mind over matter such that matter or body is evacuated of mind or sense. At the same time, your consciousness of your social being in the library setting makes your volitional evocation in yourself of a nonvolitional act take on a theatrical quality: the swoon of bird-mimicry must be tempered so that it conforms to the physical and mental decorum a library demands, within which reading is a quiescent, interiorized experience, not to be taken too literally, converted into action. However mitigated, your swoon nonetheless does effectively imitate “the noise of a goose”; this reading-induced action you then involuntarily react to with “a low guttural cough,” a cough that you reflect upon in the action of coughing and that is not simply a physical spasm, but rather seems a profoundly social, though almost unconscious, gesture, an automatic covering over of acting out the bird pretense. The cover up needs to be covered up: you have “leaned forward simply to expel some phlegm.” The poem further registers the banal oppressiveness of implicit surveillance to which you have responded semi-unconsciously: “Then quickly I took a glance around before I wiped my mouth. Feeling weary.”

• • •

To turn, for a moment, to what you write about the syntax and the importance of syntactical intervention in your work (which reminds me of the essays “The Radical Nature of Experience” and “The Recovery of the Public World” in your book The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover; London: Wesleyan University Press, 1999):

It is ironic, if irritating and troubling, that the critic you discuss pejoratively misprizes your project in way as a “reification of self,” since the purpose of that work (and others), as you describe, is not to present writing as standing in for consciousness or experience whether in the moment of writing or not, nor to give a “narrative of an event,” but to produce a self-consciously non-literal, stylized syntax abstracted from and metaphorizing (and in this way commenting on, as well as equalizing) internal and external phenomena and their complex interchanges. (Your discussion calls to mind a few lines from Laynie Browne’s recent poem “Anna Povlovna’s Soiree” (forthcoming in War and Peace 2): “A simplicity not at all simple, a smallness not at all bare, though that is how I also wish to live, then must my words arrange themselves in a similar pattern?”) This project has an added dimension of complexity or tension insofar as your writing is also aware of itself as action and as active, as well as distanced and imagistic; it points to how it itself rejoins the relations it frames, as part of “an infinite present” and process of discovery.

I have great regard and respect for your specificity in tracing the lineaments both of the agency of language, language as force or action, and of language (meaning writing here especially) as an essentially abstractive medium. Your depiction of language’s proper efficacies is bracing: on one hand, as you note, “anything occurring impinges on and alters everything else—equally effective in the sense of large and small are part of the context”; on the other, you assert that, “A poem can be a terrain where hierarchy can be undone or not occur (in the writing), but obviously the writing does not make it not occur in the world.” I need to read your essay in Biting the Error/Writers Explore Narrative; the idea you discuss there, as you mention in your letter, of “divesting hierarchy-of-actions” seems really important. (Perhaps we’ll come back to this.)

• • •

I want to take up the question you pose about how my own work addresses “‘the relation of writing to events.’” As you ask: “How do you conceive of your writing interacting with or being events?” I am wary of this question, not at all because I regard it as suspect but because I have a deep and fraught fascination with it. I guess there are various ways I will need to sidestep it as we write to each other before I face it head on, and this is because I take it quite seriously and have thought (probably too) much about it.

Much of my work involves theorizing and demonstrating—thinking through by acting out?—the linguistic event or speech act as the primary or originary model of action in the world and the modality of the force that language exerts. (I am thinking, of course, of J. L. Austin, who argues for this reversal of the priority of the paradigms of physical action and speech act.) When I draw on, as you write, “the exterior language of institutionalized violence” I am trying to foreground and to examine the violence of its authority and its authorization of violence.

This concern is linked for me to questions that came up in the “Is Poetry Enough? Poetry in a Time of Crisis” conference last spring at UC Santa Cruz, regarding (to put it in purposely overly capacious terms) the politics of poetry: What is political poetry? and more pressingly, Does or can poetry have any role in politics or political activism?, etc. (Juliana Spahr’s paper, located at http://people.mills.edu/jspahr/crisis2.htm, takes up these questions especially directly and clearly. As she notes, she draws on conversations with the Subpoetics-1 group.)

A few months ago, I came across the following quote by the (controversial) video and performance Andrea Fraser, which I found productive for my thinking about these questions. Asked by art critic Gregg Bordowitz over email, “What makes a work of art political?,” Fraser responded:


That’s a difficult question. One answer is that all art is political, the problem is that most of it is reactionary, that is, passively affirmative of the relations of power in which it is produced. This includes most symbolically transgressive art, which is perfectly suited to express and legitimize the freedom afforded by social and economic power: freedom from need, constraint, inhibition, rule, even law. But if all art is political, how do we define political art? I would define political art as art that consciously sets out to intervene in (and not just reflect on) relations of power, and this necessarily means on relations of power in which it exists. And there’s one more condition. This intervention must be the organizing principle of the work in all its aspects, not only its “form” and its “content” but also its mode of production and circulation. This kind of intervention can be attempted either self-reflectively, within the field of art, or through an effective insertion into another field. However, I’m rather pessimistic about the latter approach, except in cases of cultural activism based on collective movement. Most other artistic “excursions” into the so-called “real-world” end up reducing that world to signifiers to be appropriated as a form of capital within art discourse. (Gregg Bordowitz, “Tactics inside and out: Gregg Bordowitz on Critical Art Ensemble,” ArtForum, September 2004)

Most of Fraser’s art is hyper-self-reflexive, usually taking as its object the material institutions of art and the relations through which art is commodified. Many of Fraser’s performances or “interventions” take place in the museum or gallery space itself; last year she released a video that featured her having sex with an unidentified collector (I think the video became the piece he bought).

My poems and performance pieces do not usually take up the politics of the institutional domain of poetry, poetry’s (and poets’) material support, though they draw on and interpolate pieces of many different kinds of poems and comment on these works both directly and indirectly. My writing does, however, involve lots of “‘excursions’ into the so-called ‘real-world’”—


[A short outtake here to give an example:

The title of my recent performance piece “FatBoy/Death/Star/Ricochet” is drawn from the names given to trading “games” played by Enron employees in their manipulations of the California energy market. My work (loosely) takes the form of apocryphal leaked internal memos and contains spliced, verbatim citations of transcripts of audio recordings of phone calls made by these traders, in the form of cell phone conversations that repeatedly interrupt the memos. The piece in part explores the conjunctions between the game theoretical aspects of war and of the market, focusing in particular on how torture short-circuits strategy, introducing an alternate logic of pure asymmetry and pained embodiedness. Other materials used in the composition of this work include the UN Convention against Torture and the US revisions of and exceptions to that convention, a dictionary of non-lethal weapons terms and references, the report reviewing Department of Defense detention operations, technical works on game theory and strategy, declassified White House memos, transcripts from animated video games, Emily Dickinson’s poem “Split the lark,” the song “The Big Rock Candy Mountains,” and Louis Zukofsky’s A. The last memo in the piece is a reworking of A-7 (forthcoming in War and Peace 2). My rewriting relies strictly on Zukofsky’s canzone structure, but inverts his promissory tone, as this darkened imitation takes up events at Abu Graib and intramilitary dynamics.]

I need to think more about why I believe my work nonetheless does not, as Fraser observes so often occurs, “[reduce] that world to signifiers to be appropriated as a form of capital within art [in this case, poetry] discourse.” Obviously, I don’t incorporate current political events and documents into my work to garner for it some symbolic caché. Yet regardless of wanting to accomplish other things with my writing, can I claim it is inoculated from enacting such problematic reduction and self-edification? Is asking this already to buy into a cynicism from which there is no exit? Or, if we do not presume the impossibility of “‘excursions’” being productively evocative, revelatory, and analytical, how do we draw the line between work that is exploitative and parasitical, or at least insufficiently critical and self-critical, with regard to its forays into the political domain and work that is adequately responsible and responsive, interventionary?

• • •

I must draw this letter to a close, and thought I would do so by discussing the performance history of my piece “case senSitive”:

“case senSitive” is another highly interpolative work that also tries to invent its own idiom in part through its self-conscious hyper-intertextuality. It presents the meeting of a war council that debates whether a case, in both a forensic and a casuistical sense, has been made to validate the initiation of hostilities with an unnamed enemy. This case contains inside it another case (or is it vice versa?), regarding whether war has already been declared. The two cases demonstrate the manifold interpenetrations of factitious reality and authority-effects. This work draws on, among other sources, the East Indian epic poem the Mahabaratha (which, incidentally, discusses at length mythical weapons of mass destruction), the Western epic The Iliad, and Gerard Manly Hopkins sonnets; it incorporates as well a redacted Google search on the word “combat.”

As you know, since you were there!, I first read “case senSitive” the day the war on Iraq began—March 21, 2003—in Berkeley in the 21CP (21st Century Poetics) Series curated by Jen Scappettone and Julie Carr. I also read it in a compressed form at New College in San Francisco on the day of the “Shock and Awe” military missions (this was a reading I did with you, Leslie). At the latter reading, I first quoted from a New York Times article from that day: “In the case of Iraq, ‘shock and awe’ will reportedly involve launching as many as 800 cruise missiles in as little as two days and the rapid movement of ground troops—to ‘make the situation look virtually hopeless for Saddam Hussein and his leadership… The pressure will continue until we run out of targets.’” (The speech in the article is from a high-up US military official.) Another time I read selections from this piece, I quoted from an article in The San Francisco Chronicle on Arnold Schwarznegger’s victory in the California gubernatorial race:


“Failure is not an option. It just doesn’t exist,” Schwarznegger said in an interview with reporters in his conference room. “I didn’t campaign this way, ‘What if I lose this election?’ I never went into a competition with weightlifting or power lifting or bodybuilding, ‘What if I cannot lift this weight? What if I can’t make it? What if this movie tanks at the box office? What if I hurt myself if I do this stunt?’ If you continue going through life like that, you just can’t make it.”

I want to think some more about why I chose to frame my work in this way, what purpose it served to introduce my work by means of these current speech and physical events, what kind of eventfulness it would produce in concert with my work…

My apologies for a somewhat un-wrapped up sign-off—

I look forward so much to your next letter, Leslie.

Yours,
Judith

 

Judith Goldman is author of Vocoder (Roof, 2001), which was chosen as a “Book of the Year” by Small Press Traffic, and Deathstar/rico-chet (O Books, 2006). Her work has appeared in Aerial, Shiny, How2, P-Queue, fascicle, and Enough, War and Peace, and War and Peace 2. She is currently finishing a dissertation on Adam Smith, early systems theory, and human natural science, through the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Leslie Scalapino is the author of 23 books of poetry, fiction, essays, and plays which have been widely anthologized. Her recent work includes Zither & Autobiography, The Tango (photos and text; collage by Marina Adams), and New Time. Her many awards include: the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, Poetry Center Award from San Francisco State University, and Lawrence Lipton Prize. She has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, Bard College, and elsewhere. The work of Philip Whalen, about which she has written a number of essays, has been central to the development of Scalapino’s voice. She lives in Oakland with her husband, biochemist Tom White.