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Bob Perelman in conversation with Chris Alexander
This interview took place in the New York apartment of Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw in the summer of 2009. Present were Bob, Francie, Kristen Gallagher, and myself. Though the interview was primarily between Bob and myself, Kristen and Francie contributed a few times throughout. — C.A.
Chris Alexander: I was hoping we could use this interview to produce something teachable. So what I’d like to do is talk through one poem in detail, which will give us a foothold in your poetics and also, to a certain extent, model the way that poets think and talk about poems. The poem I’d like to focus on is “Flat Motion” from Face Value, reprinted in Ten to One.
Bob Perelman: OK. That’s the one about those video tapes. I have to say this is a poem I haven’t looked at in 20 years. Although now that I look at it I remember it pretty well. I’ll be surprised to hear myself say those lines. But then reading it and going through it line by line, it’s like monkeys being groomed, I mean there’s something pleasing and a bit crude about it. “I was thinking this; I think I was aiming at that,” i.e., “Scratch here. Now over here.” I remember some kind of push-pull writing this, either trying to get things said accurately, whatever that meant, or else designing some poem-machine that would function best in a changed world — whatever that means.
There is a store, it is an individual,
like you, me, a body, corporate,
you or I might go into this store and see racks
of cardboard boxes covered
with a picture and with words on the back
whose typeface is neutrally available
while the title on the front reaches out
by some marked variation, something to call
my own as the song goes, above the picture
from the movie taped in theory
inside the boxes if they were full but these
are just display copies, before we pay
we can only look at the one picture.
But I’ve forgotten to ask your name.
In the movies there’s usually half a cemetery
under the new houses, or a forceful intervention
down memory lane leads to a dynamic new present
in which there’s sex and money for everybody
except the bully, who has to wax your box until it shines.
But a movie is a graveyard out of which each corporation
has about four months to get his or its money back
before it’s dropped, like last year’s hieroglyph for death,
onto the obscure back pages of the pyramid walls.
We’re mad as hatters — naturally, working with all these chemicals —
and we’re not going to take it anymore! We’re not going to
make them any more! We’re not going to pay for them any more!
Or take them home and polish them, we’re not
going to exaggerate, mask, drive somewhere else
in a crisis-like stupor, where’s the store, why isn’t
one here? We’re dissolving, as they fly above
the hellish stretches of weekly news magazine prose where irony presses us flat.
Hell is not other people, hell is the non-dimensional
back of a balance sheet, the place where other people,
i.e., you, live, put the kids on the bus, and see an occasional flat movie.
We don’t want this, not to mime defeat again and again
in individual phrases, faces, lines that have so much flavor
your memory can be insured for millions,
the person metaphor can be picked up over and over
in a thousand songs, let’s get out of here, they sing,
go for a walk, just you and me and the seven basic plots.
If this were a silent movie, the part where I get to make this speech
would be reduced to the clothes I happened to be wearing,
the background, the look of the room I was in,
and how I operated in the frame. Arms engaged, glance connected, face projecting,
the song stops and says, It’s not the way
you own your hair, or the car you drive in limbo every day,
but the way you can, not quite leap tall buildings, or convert wide factories
with a single word, not that either, not that easy.
BP: So, it seems looking back at this, that I somehow, very improbably, was pulling myself up by my communal boot straps, and communal attention into a present of writing, with the present being the most unexplored territory, something nobody had ever noticed before. Which sounds idiotic, of course. Looking at the dates, it was published in 1988, I was born in 1947, so that makes me 41 when it was published, but I wrote it in my later 30s. I was always excited to feel like I was writing in the present; but as soon as something’s on the page you can already see the past tense in full possession of whatever it is you’re writing. That sense of motion, appetite rushing forward, but also of frustration, of not getting enough, both are throughout this poem. The frustration coalesces into an archival sense of a tomb, a pyramid with its unreadable hieroglyphs. Communication that was once vivid, but also now stands for death and what’s irretrievable.
So let me start at the beginning. And I certainly didn’t think any of this before I wrote it. At best these were sort of instantaneous flashes that went off while I was writing a given phrase. Which I then, as best I could, kept in mind, and they would generate the motion of the poem, and the features of the poem in subsequent stanzas. Or I wouldn’t quite get them all in, and had a sense of carrying an awkward bundle of things and not being able to carry them all. I think that was my state as I was writing this.
CA: Just to draw out this point about your writing process, it seems like you’re saying that you hold certain phrases in mind or keep them ‘in play’ as you write, and the way they repeat or reappear in new forms creates an energy that carries the poem forward. So the language is ‘tipsy,’ it has an off-balance forward movement. For example the second stanza says “there’s sex and money for everybody / except the bully, who has to wax your box until it shines” — referring to the movie Back to the Future. And then the third stanza declares we’re not going to “take them home and polish them” anymore — which refers to rented video tapes, and commodities in general, but recycles the earlier phrase and makes an intuitive connection between these two moments in the poem. The bully, who was your boss in the bad old present, has to wax your box — he’s your servant in this “dynamic new” fantasy present. But later, outside the fantasy, it’s us polishing the commodities we make/buy — in actuality we’re the servants of the commodity system. (Not even just the boss.) This kind of torque seems really fundamental to your work.
By the way, how did you end up writing about Back to the Future? Was this a political decision you made beforehand, you know, to write about ‘popular culture,’ or is it something that just crept up on you?
BP: Back to the Future and such-like came into my writing as a result of having a family. That pushed me into writing things that I wouldn’t have written otherwise. It was the ‘materials’ like those movies, but more the fact of being to some extent responsible as a parent for the initiation of a linguistic universe.
CA: It occurs to me there’s a real instructional quality to this first stanza, like, “I’m going to break it down for you.”
BP: “Here’s what there is.”
CA: Right, “I’m going to explain, step by step. We’re in the video store, and this is what happens in the video store” and so forth. When I bring this kind of text to students, I usually talk about the “Anthropologist from Mars,” which is a phrase I stole from Oliver Sacks. You are travelling hand in hand with the Anthropologist from Mars, and you’re sort of invested in the scene — you live here, after all — but you have to step back and explain the scene to the Anthropologist in a way that that is basic and almost childish, but that’s also sophisticated because it arrives at the interconnections between social systems. This is what a video store is, this is what a movie is, movies are commodities… and then Marx comes strolling through the back door. (Laughs.)
BP: Let’s just say I don’t fully know what position I am taking when I write this stuff. One thing I definitely allowed fully into my writing was the sense of having little kids. It was good to let that in, because I got to tutor myself about the world.
CA: So children became an ‘occasion’ for writing?
BP: At the level of the phrase I was always interested in very simple language in terms of framing and juxtaposition. But it wasn’t that I had to keep things at a level my two-year old would understand.
FS: And too it was a new experience for you, because the video stores were a new thing then. Palmer’s Video Store on University.
BP: That’s right.
FS: We were a little slow as usual at catching on. But I remember thinking, “Oh my god I can’t believe you can do this.” But we would go with the kids, and we got Back to the Future a couple of times.
CA: The book where this poem first appeared, Face Value, is so involved with Back to the Future.
BP: Writing is a kind of back to the future, back to the past.
CA: Back to the present in the poem.
BP: Back to the present, forward to the past, forward to the present again, back to the past, you keep flipping through these various possibilities. So there’s a store, and there’s a kind of chord I hear in that word “store”: a sense of this little kid saying, “Let’s go to the store” and there’s all this stuff, in the present, in the world and its possibilities. There’s stuff you didn’t know about, and there it is, for you to desire. And simultaneously there’s the sense of a storehouse, an inventory, and then again there’s that which is stored away, the always present worst case scenario, a cemetery of what has happened. The poem says it better. Somehow it’s like balancing on that teetering vantage point. So on the one hand it’s the store, Palmer’s, that store, it has a name, like we have names, it’s a corporation, the Palmer incorporated body. I go into quick elaborations that are trying to sum up the individual and big social pictures as they jockey in the same word. But then going back to the same ordinary narrative, you and I might go into this store and see the empty cardboard boxes. And I was struck by the emptiness of those cardboard boxes. You just get to see the cover of the movie, and the title, and the typeface of the title, but until you commit yourself and rent the movie you don’t get the whole picture, you don’t get to see the actual motion, you don’t experience the fullness of its videotaped life, you’re just stuck outside.
FS: You don’t even experience the weight of the video tape.
CA: Because they always had styrofoam in the box with a little piece of tape around the bottom to hold it in, and the real tapes were filed away behind the counter. Or the box was shrink-wrapped with styrofoam inside.
BP: “But I’ve forgotten to ask your name” makes a little punchline there like, “Oh now wait, this poem does have an outward scenario,” almost like Prufrock. “Let us go then you and I into the video store on University Ave.” But wait, who are you anyway, reader, interlocutor? The movies are announcing themselves, but who are you?
CA: On the one hand it feels like an address to the reader, but on the other hand it’s almost dramatic. As I’m reading, suddenly it seems like you’re saying these things out loud in the video store, and you are talking to someone else — a dramatic monologue. And it makes that speaker seem like a very bizarre person.
BP: From Mars, shall we say.
BP: It’s my own personal comic angst I suppose. On the one hand this is a socialized gesture, on the other hand it’s an admission of tremendous social deficit. “Wait, who am I even talking to?”
KG: Like a sales person who launches into their speech then asks, “Who are you anyway?”
BP: Yes, it’s a kind of hopeless gesture of intimacy. So we get to the movies — something with a cemetery?
BP: I don’t think I ever saw Poltergeist, but I think there’s another one with a cemetery. Carrie? God knows, but there’s a cemetery by the house, is it Stephen King? I never saw this stuff —
CA: But you read the back of the box?
BP: I read it on the back of the box. Or I might have seen a trailer. Rae Armantrout said when First World came out, “Gee Bob you watch a lot of TV.” Not that I’m a virtuous hard worker, but I never watched that much TV. I actually have a low literacy level when it comes to TV. I wouldn’t watch very much, but I’d watch a trailer, or see one little bit. And it would be like, “Oh my god, that is so heavy.” You know, how could that be? I think it’s in more than one movie, the graveyard plot. The Indian graves that cause the suburban ghosts. Discovering there is a present is simultaneously discovering that there is a past.
CA: I love these lines, “In the movies there’s usually half a cemetery / under the new houses” — the “usually” in that passage — and I’ve noticed this happens throughout your work — there is this one word inserted into the line that has a kind of understated irony —
BP: And then “a forceful intervention / down memory lane,” is Back to the Future. And that is a movie I did see over and over since the kids loved it. And then you go back to the present, which in the movie means “sex and money for everybody,” the undiluted happy ending, “except for the bully.” And then the simple switch, he “has to wax your box.” I think I was trying to account for the shininess of the boxes in the video store. The shiny commodity making everybody happy. The bully in Back to the Future has to wax the car of the redeemed hero.
BP: The redeemed dad, yeah. In a way this is Poetry 101 from some freshmen year, there’s the box, and the video tape, and it’s the casket, the commodity. Coherence. The well-wrought urn.
CA: The chassis of the car.
BP: The chassis of the car.
CA: So what you’re suggesting is there’s a trope, the empty box, which is at play in the empty boxes in the video store, the empty coffins of the cemetery under the housing development, the hollow body of the car the bully has to wax — the empty sign of the commodity, the “buy me and be happy” — and part of what gives the poem movement and coherence is the repetition of this trope as it gets turned over into different images. Like you said at the beginning, it’s a matter of keeping the phrase, the word itself, ‘in play.’ In some cases, it’s almost a direct substitution in a surrealist vein. As if you’re thinking, “Gee, if I take the word ‘car’ out and I put in the word ‘box,’ I can bring back the video store.”
BP: They were very glossy, those cardboard boxes. And then the movie itself is “a graveyard.” I mean just getting a movie made isn’t the be all and end all, the happy ending. In fact a movie, as soon as it’s made, is already almost dead because if you don’t make your money back in a few months, it’s too late, it’s a dead letter. “It’s dropped, like last year’s hieroglyph for death, / onto the obscure back pages of the pyramid walls.”
I mean there are hot movies and unhot movies, and hot poems and unhot poems. Universal commercialization. I do admit that there’s a difference in scale between Hollywood movies and my poems. Although the poem doesn’t always admit it.
I don’t know where the “pyramid” came from. It’s in a few other poems from that period, “The View From the Dollar Bill.” But the writing is immediate and chatty, as opposed to hieroglyphics, which you can’t even read.
CA: Again, it’s not unlike what you were saying when you first started out — you know, the lines that you’re writing are aging, they’re already entering the past as you type. And next thing you know, here we are in this reading experience, explaining what a video cassette is, right? So there is this sense that the writing already has this hieroglyphic resonance.
BP: But I’m trying to write about the present in as brisk a way as I can.
CA: So on the one hand there’s this sort of O’Hara quality of “I do this, I do that,” this is my day. But it’s sort of like O’Hara racing against death, you know as soon as I do this the pages of the catalog are beginning to yellow.
BP: Recently, after years of teaching O’Hara, of being an enthusiast of O’Hara, I looked at his poems and suddenly realized how consistently elegiac his work is. I’d missed that for decades, mired in my enthusiasm. So many of his wonderful poems have that “seize the day because you’re already dying” quality. He’s always looking back. For instance “Having a Coke with You,” I love that poem. As they say in The Waste Land, it’s so elegant, so intelligent. But also so elegiac. He looks at the great paintings and he pities the artists who didn’t have the right, exciting body as they were painting. Their basic problem was that they turn out to have been painting in the past.
I, on the other hand, (I, Frank O’Hara, that is) am addressing the Beloved in the present, and thus have secured the ontological victory. “It seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it.” In that little loop he himself doesn’t quite have the experience either, but he does have — is having — the experience of not (yet) having been cheated, which he gets to tell about, so he’s already narrating a very recent past experience to the Beloved. But I didn’t quite get that about O’Hara, who was, as Ginsberg would say, a Courage Teacher, that it’s better to admit to the puncture that the present makes.
Back to the next line of this one of mine, where I say “mad as hatters.” Okay, here’s another movie that I haven’t seen, and still haven’t seen it. The Evening News —
BP: Network, which I still haven’t seen. And it doesn’t strike me that I will. But “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” is certainly behind this. On the one hand it spoke the truth, everyone should be mad as hell, but unfortunately, “We’re not going to take it anymore” isn’t the way things work. Anger isn’t a panacea.
It reminds me of something Francie told me a friend of ours told her. In Berkeley some little kid was being pushed by a caretaker on a swing, and the kid was screaming and crying, and the caretaker was saying, “That’s right, let your anger out.” So here, “mad as hell” is the direct statement, which I found impossible to write directly. Instead it turned into we’re all crazy and “mad as hatters” — hatters in the 19th century had to use mercury to get the nice curve in the hats. They breathed the fumes and suffered brain damage. So: “mad as hatters.”
But even though the first part of that third stanza takes a pass on the immediate expression of anger, the rest of it doesn’t, and in fact I do quote this movie I didn’t see, “we’re not going to take it anymore!” we’re not going to make them anymore . . . Make what? Make the commodities we love that oppress us . . . We’re not going to take them home and polish them.
CA: “Polish them” makes me think of silver, or leather upholstery — these things are there for my pleasure, but I spend my life laboring for them and laboring to care for them —
BP: Or I come up with nice little ideas about the movie and a nuanced understanding to make up for the shitty position I’m in. And then once I started delving into that hysteria and terror about the present — we’re not going to “drive somewhere else / in a crisis-like stupor” — I remember, oh yeah, there’s that store. That’s still on the table, isn’t it? “Where is the store, why isn’t / one here?” Which is that hopeless common sense of, right now I’m deprived, why can’t I at least make a secondary attempt to get what I want. Can’t I at least get an ice cream cone?
CA: No utopia, but I can still get an ice cream cone.
BP: But not even that, “Why isn’t there an ice cream store here?” So then “we’re dissolving,” to quote the wicked witch, of the west? of the north? while “they” fly above. This is where the sense of flatness comes in, from various places I suppose — the Talking Heads’ “I wouldn’t live here if you paid me,” Stein’s Geographic History of America, where America is Cubism, which she saw from an airplane flying over Iowa. I guess I have a different take on it. I hadn’t read No Exit, but “Hell is other people” was rattling around in my head. “Hell is the non-dimensional / back of a balance sheet” is even flatter than flat. But that actually is where we live, other people, “i.e., you.” I mean we’re all “other people,” and this is what we do, we put the kids on the bus, go to the movies, which are flat. This is before the resuscitation of 3-D.
CA: So we live on the back of the balance sheet, in other words, under a system in which everything can be reduced to profit and loss. To me, that connects back to the second stanza, which is divided between the world we see depicted in the movies and the world we really live in, which includes the actuality of the movie industry. Baraka has that great line in A New Reality Is Better Than a New Movie! — “They can’t even show you how you look when you / go to work.” When we sit in the theater, if we get engrossed in the movie and allow ourselves to be carried off by it, we enter a world that seems to have depth and flavor, a world in three dimensions. And that’s the world we wish we lived in, but we don’t. We live in a one-dimensional world, where even the movies, rich and sophisticated as they are, are just part of the flow of capital — a movie is a graveyard you have to get your profit out of.
BP: Once you say “flat” — that’s a forbidden word for this visual world we all live in. You know, that virtual reality is flat.
CA: It speaks to the suspension of disbelief, right? I mean you have to enter into the movie theater and accept the three dimensionality of the film.
BP: This is the opposite of the suspension of disbelief, this is the breaking of the suspension bridge. Which makes us hit bottom. So, “we don’t want this.” You can talk about how crappy things are and mime defeat again and again in “individual phrases, faces, lines,” but then what? In a way the last stanza is trying to accept hitting bottom and pick itself back up in an ironically knowing way of like, aren’t there other people, at least there are the person metaphors of songs, in the “you and me” of song.
CA: Can you talk about “the person metaphor”?
KG: I think that’s really important to talk about. The whole book, Face Value, is really full of the trope of “face value” as part of the constructedness of identity. It was important for your generation to talk about that at that point in history, since you were in a milieu dominated by confessional poetry.
BP: The construction of identity is like copping to reality. It’s true that we occur between and amid systems and forces that are primary in our decisions and perceptions and reactions. I mean our perceptions have to be reacted to but then often they’re just reacting something else. But as I remember it Face Value starts with “I am … ”
CA: “An artificial person.”
BP: But given all of this constructedness of the person, nevertheless I always found in other people some sense of agency and panache in speech, communication and humor. All those things are still real even though they’re mediated. I never was interested in purism of interpretation, and Althusserian scientific vantage. I mean the absolute dissolution of personal agency, it just doesn’t seem interesting to make that the be all and end all of writing. So here it’s much more given to all these partially dissolving factors and situations. What to do? And so at the end, in a messy non-denouement is a silent movie of myself, and singing a song, which you could say takes away all agency, but not quite. In fact it’s even a song from that fourth line from the end that is speaking. But there’s this funny kind of love song there. It’s not the way you comb your hair —
CA: What song is that?
BP: I don’t remember. Maybe “Sixteen Reasons”? But I had some sense of ultimate corny recuperation in the midst of all of these reverses. It’s not like you have super powers, you can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. Or you can’t “convert wide factories / with a single word.” It’s not that easy. But I think there is an implication that, okay, it’s really hard, but you, we, I, can do something. It gestures that way, at least I hear it that way. But I wanted to avoid any poetic grandiosity of overdetermination. There’s a William Stafford line that was something of a negative talisman, “I thought hard for us all.” So this poem wants to end without having to think hard for us all. With the implied sense of, well what are we going to say, do, sing, etc.?
CA: See that’s funny because when I read that last sentence and I think about the syntax of that last sentence I almost read that as a trailing off, a progression of nots. It’s not the way you comb your hair or the car you drive —
BP: But the way you can —
CA: But the way you can not quite.
BP: To me it’s a positive statement, “not quite leap tall buildings, not convert wide factories / with a single word,” not that easy, but you can do something. That’s how I take it, as a gesture toward “next, your turn now.”
CA: It’s interesting, for me I guess the agency comes to rest in the “not quite,” prosodically. It’s like, it’s there, it’s there, but it’s a trace of agency for me.
KG: There’s some agency, but it’s not like you see it in the movies. You can’t leap tall buildings — I’m not trying to say you can’t do anything, but it’s not like it is in the movies. And that’s that false sense of reality people get satisfied by. The ice cream cone.
CA: But you have to have the whole phrase, “not quite leap tall buildings,” because then there’s a catch in between those two things. You can hear the trumped-up prosody of the old Superman TV show, “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” and hearing that behind the line creates a break between “not quite” and “leap.” What disappears is “able.”
BP: But better than to leap tall buildings is to convert wide factories.
Transcribed by CA Conrad
Christopher Alexander lives in New York and on the internet. The first release of his work Panda: will appear this spring from Truck Books. You can follow the beta dissemination of Panda: on his tumblr. http://hedorah55.tumblr.com http://twitter.com/hedorah55