Ron Silliman, photo Jeff Hurwitz 1998

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Photo: Ron Silliman, photo Jeff Hurwitz 1998

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Ron Silliman Feature

Andrew Epstein

“Pay More Attention”

Silliman’s «BART» and Contemporary “Everyday Life Projects”


1

On Monday, September 6, 1976, on the Labor Day holiday, Ron Silliman engaged in an unusual experiment. Armed with a pen and a brand-new notebook purchased for the occasion, he spent five and a half hours travelling around San Francisco and its environs on the Bay Area Rapid Transit train system, known as BART. His goal was to record in writing the experience of travelling from one end to the other of the entire subway system, riding on all of its lines and stopping at each of its stations at least once, and in some cases, many more times, as he zigzagged back and forth across the city and the bay.

2

The poem that resulted — and Silliman is quite deliberate about labeling this genre-defying work a poem — is titled BART. It is a ten-page piece of prose, written as a single, run-on sentence, which chronicles everything the poet saw and experienced as it occurred — all in “real time” (Age 300–310). It focuses intensely on observing, documenting, and critiquing urban social space in micro-detail, as Silliman narrates his experiences on the various trains and platforms, records his impressions of people and places, comments on the political, social, and cultural aspects of what he sees, and, as is typical in his poetry, offers self-conscious commentary that reflects on the project itself as it unfolds.

3

In some ways, BART is quite distinct from the majority of Silliman’s work — it is, for example, far less paratactic, more continuous, linear, and grounded in an autobiographical “I,” and therefore decidedly more “accessible” than most of his writing. However, it shares with the rest of his oeuvre a desire to present the experience of contemporary everyday life in formally innovative ways that might resist the tendency to falsify, distort, or aestheticize away the defining features of the everyday itself, including its complexity, variety, and elusiveness.

4

In what follows, I will argue that Silliman’s BART both contributes and offers its own retort to the explosion of projects dedicated to the everyday that erupted from various avant-garde movements of the period, including in the New American poetry, Conceptual art, and Situationism. At the same time, he also lays the foundation for a wide range of radical approaches to the everyday that have recently flowered in contemporary poetry and art, as can be seen especially in the pervasive use of constraints, procedures, and conceptual projects. Indeed, I feel that Silliman’s BART should be seen as a bellwether text, prophetic of the recent surge of what I refer to as “everyday life projects,” as I discuss briefly at the end of this essay.

5

As we will see, BART previews contemporary motifs and obsessions in a number of ways. For example, Silliman uses a predetermined, rule-bound procedure in order to compel a new kind of attentiveness to ordinary experience, and undertakes a conceptual project which posits the poem as a form of documentation, an archive of everyday life, and a record, both of its own process of becoming and of “real time” as it passes. BART also deepens the stakes of the “everyday life project” in two ways that have proven enduring and influential: first, by reflecting in compelling ways on the problem of description itself, and, more specifically, the possibilities and limitations of describing and documenting the everyday in the first place. And second, by refashioning the kind of project initiated by Conceptual art and the New American poetry as a tool of political and social critique. Ultimately, I argue that Silliman’s BART demonstrates how this kind of project of attention can function as an act of critical geography, aimed at exposing the micropolitics and uneven development of everyday urban space in late twentieth-century capitalist culture.

Projects of Attention

6

In the mid-1970s, Silliman found himself growing increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of his early poetry. [1] As he has often explained, a turning point occurred when he turned away from the minimalism and fractured syntax that marks his first three books and began to experiment with various forms of constraint and rule-governed procedures that led him to the writing of prose poems fashioned from juxtaposed, discontinuous units, a form which he came to call “The New Sentence.” [2] At the same time, he turned to a full-blown engagement with the everyday, as his writing began to obsessively document the daily, the ordinary, and the humble. He has frequently noted that the pivotal moment came when he hit upon the procedural method that led to the composition of his long poem Ketjak in 1974; this breakthrough was quickly followed by a set of five other poems (including BART) which, together with Ketjak, make up the cycle entitled The Age of Huts. [3]

7

The Age of Huts can be read as a collection of conceptual experiments which variously address the problem of how poetry might access, represent, and understand everyday life. Each poem features a different experiment with form, and each relies on rules or constraints of some sort. Silliman came to feel that using such devices and procedural mechanisms had the potential to free a writer from habits of perception and thought, and to allow for modes of access to everyday life that more conventional forms did not permit. [4] He found that the works which resulted were much richer and more faithful to the complex and contradictory nature of everyday life in late twentieth-century American culture. [5]

8

Although textual constraints and procedures govern Ketjak (which features ever-expanding paragraphs made from the combination of repeated and new sentences) as well as other works in the Age of Huts cycle, like Sunset Debris (a poem composed solely of questions), 2197 (made up of thirteen poems, created out of the variation and recombination 169 different sentences), and Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps (a text written without a single verb), BART engages in a different kind of constraint-based experiment. It is in this work that Silliman most directly undertakes what Michael Sheringham has recently called a “project of attention” — an artificial, rule-bound, performative situation that the author physically enters into, under conditions which are designed to compel not only our attention to the everyday, but the writer’s as well (386).

9

In his book Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Sheringham argues that constraint-based “projects of attention” have been an extremely important tool in the robust French tradition of probing the quotidian which ranges from the Surrealists, through Henri Lefebvre, the Situationists, Georges Perec and other writers affiliated with the Oulipo, and Michel de Certeau, to the explosion of cultural activity focused on capturing the everyday that characterize the period since the 1980s in France. Among the projects Sheringham discusses are Perec’s “Attempt to Exhaust a Parisian Space,” in which the author spent three successive days in 1974 sitting at three different cafes on different sides of the Place Saint-Sulpice, observing and documenting everything he saw and heard and experienced, and Francois Bon’s Paysages fer (published in 2000), which called for Bon to take the 8:18 a.m. train from Paris to Nancy every Thursday morning for five months in 1998–1999 and document what he witnessed through the train window (261–278; 391–396). [6]

10

The sheer number and variety of such experiments raise the question: why are project-based works so attractive to those interested in achieving a radical attentiveness to the quotidian? In part, it is because the “project” seems to offer possible, partial solutions to the intractable problem of how to investigate and represent a level of human experience that can feel maddeningly elusive and paradoxical. Theorists of everyday life, like Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, tend to view the indeterminacy and ambiguity of the everyday as one of its most salient features — to borrow Maurice Blanchot’s formulation, “the everyday escapes, that is its definition” (15). As Lefebvre observes, the everyday is, paradoxically, “the most obvious and best hidden of concepts” (“The Everyday,” 11).

11

According to this way of thinking, the everyday is, by definition, resistant to objectification, scientific analysis, and aesthetic representation, but Sheringham makes a compelling case for why “projects of attention” can provide a fruitful, oblique avenue of approach to it. Projects, he notes, “generally consist in putting oneself (or someone else) into a particular concrete situation” where one must follow a set of specific procedures (for example, attempting to follow the entire line of the Paris meridian on foot, even where it crosses boulevards and the Seine, and then writing about the experience, as the French writer Jacques Réda does (390; 327–333). By forcing the individual to actively participate in everyday actions and practices without a predetermined goal, rather than observing daily life with the detached, analytical perspective of the social scientist or philosopher, a project has the potential to create “a breathing space, a gap or hiatus that enables the quotidien to be apprehended as a medium in which we are immersed rather than as a category to be analysed” (390).

12

Projects usually feature “an insistence on the hands-on, grass-roots level, on practical steps geared to the accumulation of data” and use repetition to focus “attention on minute variations” (390–391). By using such features to generate “attention to the present, to the unresolved matter of what is still in process,” projects tend to be better than more conventional approaches at “making visible what is already there, not hidden but lying on the surface,” and thus are able to provide “a new mode of attention that is responsive to the uneventful, to what is initially hidden in habit” (391).

13

One reason a project is able to achieve a more effective mode of attention to the everyday is that it is artificial; it creates what the Situationists would call a “constructed situation” (Knabb 51). Because of their deliberateness and artifice, projects are able to make one conscious of what are otherwise unconscious everyday activities, events, and things. By doing so, they force their participants into a new awareness of things they regularly take for granted, things normally consigned to the oblivion of habit, routine, and automatic behavior.

14

The paradox, of course, is that such projects, which are designed to capture the everyday by demanding that artist to do this or that activity, for this length of time, or at this hour every day, are, by nature, the opposite of everyday experience itself. Despite, or even because of, this contradiction, projects of attention do seem to offer more sensitive, nuanced, and sophisticated access to the everydayness of the everyday than other, more conventional approaches and forms of representation.

15

Throughout his career, Silliman has devised projects of attention which function in just this way, not only in BART but in many other, later works, including Jones (“every day for a year I looked at the ground” and wrote one sentence per day), Skies (“every day for one year I looked at the sky & noted what I saw,” again with one sentence per day), Ketjak 2: Caravan of Affect (which includes a section that is a sequel to BART, “written on the MARTA, the Atlanta rapid transit system, echoing BART … this time with a region I profoundly don’t know”) (Alphabet 1058–1060).

16

By putting the poet into an artificial situation, these projects result in a keen attentiveness to the present as it is in process, a responsiveness to the uneventful and to minute variations. They aim to render legible what is already there, the richness of daily experience that is too often occluded by engrained habits of perception and behavior.

Locating BART: The New American Poetry, Conceptual Art, Situationism

17

There is no question that Silliman’s BART is a textbook example of the kind of project of attention to “le quotidien” which Sheringham discusses. However, it also points in a number of different directions which suggest the interesting nexus of influences and commitments from which the poem emerges. I see BART as a work that exemplifies a period of intense fascination with representing the everyday across the arts, a moment when a wide range of writers, artists, photographers, and filmmakers were experimenting with both form and content in pursuit of the elusive quotidian. It is productive, therefore, to read BART in light of several overlapping contexts, although there are certainly other frames within which it could be considered.

18

First, BART can be seen as Silliman’s response to the pervasive interest in dailiness in the work of “New American Poetry” of the postwar period, which served as perhaps the most powerful influence on Silliman’s own development as a poet. With its exhaustive recording of the minutiae of an ordinary day in the city, BART self-consciously builds on — and takes to an extreme point — the poetics of everyday life that was so central to the New American poetics associated with the New York School, the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, and the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance.

19

As a poem dedicated to tracking a speaker’s mundane movements through a city on an ordinary day, and as a work which insists such experiences have meaning and value, BART both echoes and exaggerates the attentiveness to the everyday and to urban daily life that is associated most famously with the poets of the New York School, as in the work of Frank O’Hara (whose “I do this, I do that” poems document the quotidian, urban flux he experienced while walking the streets of Manhattan) and Ted Berrigan, but is also central any number of other avant-garde poets of the 1950s and 1960s, including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Philip Whalen, Larry Eigner, Ginsberg and the Beats, and others.

20

A related context or lineage in which to locate this poem is the tradition of the flâneur, which stretches from Baudelaire through the poetry of Apollinaire to the critical reflections of Walter Benjamin and the postwar perigrinations of O’Hara and other New American poets. The trope of the flâneur, the mobile denizen of the modern, cosmopolitan city who is at once a participant in the crowd and an observer who feels quite separate from it, echoes in Silliman’s poem. At times, he makes it clear that he is both a member of the tribe he observes and simultaneously an onlooker, one clearly marked as an outsider (as when he writes “Ev sez I wear my hair like a wild man, it puts the straights off” or “I’m much more conspicuous now, people are staring”) (301, 310). BART can be read as an updated, perhaps postmodernist version of that figure, especially since the flâneur here is not strolling the streets but rather riding, along with the rest of “the masses,” on a speeding public train.

21

However, the writer from the New American poetry scene with the most direct impact on BART is Jack Kerouac, since Silliman announces that the poem was composed as a conscious tribute to Kerouac himself: at one point he refers to the poem he is writing as an “an act, homage to you Jack, oomaloom, one word after another” (309). [7] One reason why Silliman conceives of this project as an homage to Kerouac may be its conscious adoption of Kerouac’s “sketching” technique — his mode of spontaneous writing in which the writer records impressions and associations at rapid speed without concern for editing or shape. Kerouac’s famous method can be seen as a model for both the headlong, stream of consciousness style of the piece (which appears virtually nowhere else in his work) and its attention to the marginalized, seedier, and overlooked corners of contemporary American culture.

22

A third important frame within which to consider BART is the rise of Conceptual art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although the complex and profound points of contact between Silliman, and Language poetry more broadly, and Conceptual art in the 1970s are too extensive to delve into here, I am particularly interested in Conceptual art’s own radical rethinking of the relationship between art and everyday life. [8] It is no accident that Silliman came up with the idea for BART during a period in which he was deeply immersed in the discourses and practices of Conceptual art, right on the heels of the heady period of Conceptualism’s dominance, which was so richly documented in a book that was important to Silliman at the time, Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972. [9]

23

Indeed, BART shares a number of aesthetic strategies and goals with a range of Conceptual art works from the era. Because it so clearly emerges from a dialogue with 1970s Conceptualism, it is worth noting that BART foretells the contemporary vogue for conceptual writing, which has been associated with the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, and others, and which has recently drawn a good deal of interest among poets and scholars. [10]

24

To put it simply, in the late 1960s and 1970s artists began to use a whole battery of forms and procedures to make aspects of the everyday more visible, both within the context of Conceptual art as well as in related fields like performance art, body art, and endurance art. Douglas Huebler’s 1969 work “Duration Piece #7” is typical of this strain of Conceptualism: it consists of fifteen photographs, taken precisely one minute apart, of a patch of ground near a bench in Central Park where a bunch of geese and a pigeon were moving about, along with a written text explaining the procedure that is part of the artwork itself (Lippard 82).

25

Huebler also devised projects that resemble BART in that they involve maps and the artist’s proscribed movements through space, such as “The Windham Piece,” “a one-day, one-piece show at Windham College, Putney, Vt., October 23, 1968, a ‘site-sculpture project’ in which a hexagon was drawn on a map of the area and the five points where photographed. The ‘exhibition’ at the college consisted of the photographs and samples of the dirt from each of the points” (Lippard 57).

26

Like Huebler, many other Conceptual artists began to create works generated by a preconceived idea, often based on some kind of constraint and focused on everyday practices or events, which is then carried out by the artist and reported back on in the work itself in some form. For example, in the late 1960s, On Kawara, the Japanese Conceptual artist, began making a series of works he called “I Met” and “I Went”; as Lippard notes, these were “typed lists of every person encountered each day and a mapped record of his movements” (49). In 1970, the Dutch Conceptual artist Stanley Brouwn created a work which followed, and featured, these instructions:

27

On the 20th of November 1970 I counted the steps I took all day.
The total number of steps on this day amounted to:11,191.

On a stroll through Amsterdam I took a photograph of the city at seven different points.

Photograph number 2 at the 1,477th step
Photograph number 3 at the 1,829th step
Photograph number 4 at the 3,129th step
Photograph number 5 at the 4,115th step
Photograph number 6 at the 5,840th step
Photograph number 7 at the 6,249th step

28

There is a clear affinity between such works, which are devoted to the accumulation, documentation, and reporting of data about everyday experience, and Silliman’s project of presenting a real-time recording of his trip along the entire length of the BART system.

29

Furthermore, some Conceptual works from the early 1970s combined elements of performance, an emphasis on the artist’s stamina in the face of extreme conditions, and the use of the artist’s body as part of the artwork in ways that echo what Silliman undertakes in BART. For example, Vito Acconci’s Step Piece” was “performed for months-long periods in 1970” and featured the artist “stepping on and off a stool daily at the rate of 30 steps a minute for as long as he could manage. His progress was duly recorded” (Hopkins 191).

30

The artist Chris Burden engaged in a series of outlandish performance pieces of endurance art that involved putting himself, and his body, into a variety of dangerous situations: his works include the notorious “Shoot” (1971) in which he had a friend shoot him in the left arm with a rifle, “Five Day Locker Piece” (1971), in which, as Peter Schjeldahl notes, Burden “spent five days in a small locker, with a bottle of water above and a bottle for urine below,” and a host of other works in which he, for example, “slithered, nearly naked and with his hands held behind him, across fifty feet of broken glass in a parking lot; had his hands nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen; was kicked down a flight of stairs; and, on different occasions, incurred apparent risks of burning, drowning, and electrocution” (Schjeldahl).

31

Although his own project is of course much less extreme than these examples, Silliman does take on a physical task which entails a degree of stamina: writing continuously for nearly six hours while traveling on a series of trains all over the Bay Area. And he makes it clear that part of the point of his piece is to record his body’s ability to withstand the experience: “an act of endurance,” he writes at one point, “hand writing, hours without letting up, to see if one can” (309). Throughout BART, Silliman repeatedly highlights the difficulties of physically accomplishing the mission he assigned himself, as when he writes “my wrist beginning to ache from the controlled act of writing” (304), “an act of writing without let up” (306), “I flex my writing hand to ease the pain, see a young man is watching me intently, trying to figure this out” (308), and “I’m feeling weary now, wish my ears would pop” (310).

32

Clearly such projects were very much in the air in the early 1970s, particularly within the orbit of Language writing. [11] Closer to home, avant-garde poets had also begun to experiment with Conceptual and performative projects, perhaps most importantly in the work of Bernadette Mayer, who was associated with both the second-generation New York School and Language poetry. Mayer had deep ties to the world of Conceptual art, serving as co-editor, with Vito Acconci himself, of 0 to 9, a little magazine that was a central fixture of the Conceptual art scene. She also began to devise her own conceptual projects that blended conceptualism, performance art, photography, and poetry.

33

For example, Mayer’s early, ground-breaking work Memory, a hybrid work which combines performance, photographic documentation, taped narration, and written texts, can be seen as another significant antecedent to the kind of project Silliman takes on in BART. To create Memory, Mayer took one roll of color pictures each day throughout the month of July 1971 and then exhibited the 1200 photographs along with seven hours of taped reflections sparked by the pictures, and later turned the project into a book. [12]

34

If BART feels like a pointed literary response to developments in Conceptual art, it also adds a much sharper, more overt political edge than is typical in the work of many Conceptual artists. As we will see, the poem’s close scrutiny of the quotidian is aimed at providing a critique of everyday life, in Lefebvre’s sense of the phrase: an investigation of how ideological, economic, and social forces undergird and determine the smallest features of daily life, one which aims to provide both analysis and possibilities for resistance.

35

In this sense, Silliman’s poem seems to deliberately bring together Conceptualism with a related yet quite different movement, Situationism (which was, to some extent, influenced by Lefebvre’s ideas about the everyday). [13] It is not hard to see BART as Silliman’s own twist on the tactics and methods that Guy Debord and the Situationist International developed in the 1950s and 1960s, such as the dérive and psychogeography, practices which grew out of flânerie and surrealism’s interest in unconventional investigations of the city.

36

The “dérive,” or drift, was a prime example of what Debord called “concrete techniques for shaking up the ambiences of everyday life”; it was one of the Situationists’ main methods for bringing about the revolution of everyday life they were seeking (qtd Sheringham 163). As Debord explained, “in a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord 62). In Debord’s words, the dérive is “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences” (62), a form of subversive play within and against the urban environment, a “controlled, and in principle, collective movement through several areas of the same city in order to distinguish, as objectively as possible, differences in ambience or atmosphere” (Kaufmann 108).

37

The Situationists insisted that these unpredictable and unconventional movements through urban space could help expose and combat the rigid, oppressive structures which modern city planners foist upon the organic, unruly flux of everyday life. The dérive is also a cornerstone element of “psychogeography,” by which Debord means “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behavior of individuals” (Knabb 52). One of the goals, therefore, of experimental projects based on the dérive is to awaken participants to the reality of how urban spaces are used and how they differ from one another, how they are shaped by ideological forces, and how they influence and even determine the psyches of those who experience them.

38

Rather than resembling the typical experiments of the Surrealists — drifting through the city by chance in search of the marvelous — Silliman’s investigation of the urban is much closer in spirit and technique to the practices and politics of Situationism: like Debord et al, Silliman undertakes a controlled, systematic exploration of urban space which leads to a cultural critique of how that space is administered under capitalism and how it is affected by class, race, and other social forces. [14]

39

The procedure Silliman devises for BART closely resembles the kind of inventive strategies Debord and company developed for exploring the urban landscape. As we will see, the procedural constraint driving the poem forces the participant away from predictable paths through the city, as Silliman himself continually notes throughout the poem. Like the dérive, BART rejects what Vincent Kaufmann calls “the customary reasons for going places” (109). In this sense, Silliman’s methodical criss-crossing of the city according to a self-imposed rule is the opposite of a utilitarian approach to urban space, as he uses the public transportation system not to get to work or to sightsee, but for purposes wholly different from what planners designed it for: as a mode of exploration, critique, and aesthetic creation. To ride the train for the purposes of art and play, rather than as a method of commuting to a job, echoes one of the Situationists’s declarations: “We must replace travel as an adjunct to work with travel as pleasure” (“Situationist Theses on Traffic,” Knabb 69).

40

Thus, the poem — the deliberate act that leads to its creation — is itself a challenge to rational, functionalist urban planning inherent in the BART system itself, an impersonal structure designed to maximize the circulation of atomized bodies and capital through the city and its suburbs, which inculcates citizens into prescribed grooves of action and behavior. [15]

41

As we will see, Silliman also deliberately juxtaposes the constructed city, which tourists traipse through, with the actual city its inhabitants experience. In this way, he intentionally shatters the image of a monolithic, illusory San Francisco residing in the pages of travel brochures and guidebooks, not unlike Thomas Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas, who drifts across the city of San Francisco for an entire night in The Crying of Lot 49, encountering an entirely different, gritty, surreal city lingering just beneath the surface of the city she thought she knew. [16]

42

The alternative version of the city sketched in BART echoes the critique the Situationists envisioned in their plans for a “unitary urbanism.” As Andy Merrifield writes:

43

the dérive paved the way for a more profound urban and spatial impulse: ‘unitary urbanism,’ a central term in the Situationist lexicon and in Debord’s thought. Unitary urbanism was a ‘living critique.’  It would battle against planners, efficiency experts and technocrats, those who sat in fancy offices high above everyone; it would work against market-driven cities, against developers for whom cities are merely merchandise. The unitary city would … emphasize forgotten and beleaguered nooks and crannies, mysterious corners, quiet squares, teeming neighbourhoods, pavements brimming with strollers and old-timers with berets sitting on park benches. (48)

44

With its deliberate effort to compel attention to the forgotten, outer edges of San Francisco and the East Bay, to the urban decay of inner-city Oakland, and to the stressed faces of tired passengers on the train, Silliman’s BART certainly chimes with this description of the Situationist notion of “unitary urbanism,” as well as with its tactics for producing the kind of critique that might make it manifest.

45

An interesting sign of the proximity between Situationism and Silliman’s BART can be seen in the striking similarities between the poem and a current phenomenon called the “BART Psychogeographical Association.” The website for this contemporary Situationist-inspired collective features a quotation from Debord and explains that the organization

46

is concerned with understanding and controlling transportation in SF Bay Area … BART is permeated with the sadness of a thousand commuters who never went to the Pittsburg/Bay Point stop and never will. BART contrasts the joy of being surrounded by other people above the ground with the terror of being surrounded by other people in a dark tunnel underground. We explore the psychogeographical constitution of BART such that someday soon we can use our findings to promote a utopian travel space … . The first step is to remap BART as we know it, with maps that more accurately reflect BART’s layout as experienced by human beings. [17]

47

Although the association’s materials make no reference to Silliman’s work, it is remarkable how closely the concerns and procedures of Silliman’s 1976 poem prefigure this contemporary collective’s goal of exploring “the psychogeographical constitution of BART.”

Riding and Reading BART

48

If, as Sheringham claims, a project of attention “creates conditions that make things visible,” one might consider, what are the most important conditions that Silliman’s project establishes? What kinds of things are made apparent by those conditions? (396). Two major components of Silliman’s conceptual experiment are the itinerary and duration of his project, features which William Watkin glosses over in his recent article on BART. The parameters which lead to the creation of BART do not simply call for the poet to ride public transit around the Bay Area for an entire day and document what he experiences, as Watkin suggests: the experiment is not about random drifting at all. [18] Silliman sets out with a much more specific and directed goal: he must travel the entire length of the metro system, making sure he reaches all four of the system’s end-points and passes through all 71 stops.

49

This rather arbitrary condition is absolutely central to the project and its effects. It creates a framework in which certain key, overlooked aspects of urban daily life and space are brought into the foreground. By fashioning a situation which forces him to ride the train line from end to end, Silliman is yanked out of the well-worn grooves of habitual behavior, ensuring that he will see and experience the city and its people in ways he otherwise never would have.

50

Throughout the text, Silliman repeatedly emphasizes this aspect of his experiment, as when he writes “now farther than I’ve ever gone before,” “never was this far before,” “this world is foreign to me” and so on. Even in the opening lines, Silliman indicates that his poem will take him into another, unfamiliar world: “Begin going down, Embarcadero, into the ground, earth’s surface, escalators down, a world of tile, fluorescent lights” (300). [19]

51

Another condition guiding the project is made clear from the start: Silliman has decided, in advance, to undertake this project on Labor Day, a day on which the city has decided to promote the relatively new BART system by making it cheaper to ride for this one day only (“it’s an event, ride BART for a day for a quarter”) (305) What is the significance of this fact, which reverberates throughout the poem? Given the history of the holiday, its association with the left-wing labor movement, the notion of a vacation day as a break from routine daily life, and this particular holiday as a conscious break from work, it is far from a neutral choice.

52

It immediately sets in motion a set of themes related to the nature of labor and work, as well as to how the dialectical relationship between leisure and labor functions within the context of late twentieth-century capitalism. [20] Silliman lays bare the arbitrary cultural conventions that underlie the idea of something like “Labor Day” as a “day free of labor.” (For example, what would a day free of labor even mean? Whose labor? How do we define work? What would it mean to be free from it?).

53

Furthermore, Silliman’s deliberate decision to engage in such an arduous act of writing on a nominal day of leisure, a day constructed as an institutionalized break from the grinding machinery of capitalist production, also raises questions about different types and modes of work — especially, writing versus other forms of labor. As Rob Wilson observes, “while others play on Labor Day, the writer works his work-as-play, trying to create a discursive zone in which mass alienation has been secretly overcome” (37). Similarly, Watkin argues that the central thematic of BART is “the problem of work. ‘Work’ is to be taken in all its possible meanings in the poem: the world of work, working, labor as commodity, labor as struggle, the work of art, poetry as work/ergon, and the process of working so as to make a poem” (514). [21]

54

So what is the “work” that the poet himself engages in on this Labor Day? The task Silliman sets for himself as his job for this day is pretty clear, even if its goal proves complicated and elusive: “go into the world and describe it” (301). For the poet, this day, set aside for leisure by the powers-that-be, is simultaneously the impetus for a project of intense description of the world around him: “Labor Day is a day of rest, of description, is a relationship of words to place” (305). In BART’s many self-reflexive moments, Silliman repeatedly mentions that what he is doing is both an “act” and that it is “deliberate.”  For example: “this is an act, this is deliberate … go into the world and describe it”; “my writing is a scrawl, an act of description, I’m describing these people who watch me”; “an act, homage to you Jack, oomaloom, one word after another”; “1:59, I’m only half done, is that it, an act, something done deliberately, of description.”

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By emphasizing over and over that what he is doing is an “act,” and a deliberate one at that, Silliman underscores the performative, conceptual, and intentional aspects of his experiment in describing the quotidian. In this way, he also stresses that the poem is not, despite its ambitions and best intentions, a raw unmediated feed of everyday life itself, an issue the poem takes up thematically as well: it is artificial, constructed, and deliberate, and therefore, quite distinct from our normal, largely unconscious experience of dailiness.

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To return to the second question raised above, what kinds of things are made visible by Silliman’s deliberate act? What kind of poem is the result? Above all else, BART is a poem written both on, and about, public transportation, a locus of enduring interest to Silliman. As he explained in a 2002 blog post, “the poem of public transit, as you might imagine, is another genre very close to my heart, having written books both explicitly (BART) and implicitly (Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps or, say, What) entirely while riding around on buses & trains.” [22]

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In an interview, Silliman recalls that when he first began to write seriously on the bus while commuting to and from work, he “was quite conscious of the literature of transport that Duncan, Phil Whalen, Ted Berrigan and Paul Blackburn had written” (Quarry 26). His awareness that BART is a way of inserting himself into this particular lineage or canon can be seen in the poem when he writes “this has a different rhythm than buses, Duncan writes on them, anthology of literature scribed on public transit” (Age 301).

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For Silliman, close attention to the experience of riding buses and trains provides endlessly rewarding information about what daily experience in contemporary culture is actually like. More specifically, travelling on public transit allows one to be highly attuned to class and other social structures and forces, as can be seen in many of Silliman’s poems, from Ketjak and BART to many sections of The Alphabet. In one interview, he discussed this at length:

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Public transportation is, amid all its other functions, a form of tremendous theater in our society. It is one of the few places where different people stand or sit literally touching one another … Riding public transportation was and is also a profoundly classed (and thus for me class conscious) experience. Who sits where, how people interact, who’s missing — all are heavily predetermined by those socioeconomic codes that constrain us all as actors … A lot what of what occurs in my writing on transit is close to pure description, but with the class codes turned up to level of maximum sensitivity (not as in ‘fine tuning’ so much as in ‘raw nerve’). (Quarry 26)

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With class codes turned to full volume and with its sensitive antennae registering social structures and cultural signifiers, BART is a good example of what Hank Lazer calls Silliman’s practice of “indigenous ethnography” (68). It seeks to observe and analyze, as an ethnographer of the local might, the actions, behaviors, and rituals of those he encounters in his own culture.

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BART also strives to record accurately the minute details one individual witnessed of a particular location on a particular day. This lends the work a kind of “time capsule” quality: among other things, it offers a wonderfully “thick description” of what it was like to be alive and alert in a specific time and place, riding on the BART train in northern California on September 6, 1976. One can even follow along as the clock ticks by (11:59, 12:47, and so on), and track on a map with great precision Silliman’s journey as he names station after station, streets, landmarks, stores, and neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and back again.

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With its careful documentation of places and facts and its concern for accuracy, the poem functions as a kind of archive of the everyday, and to be more specific, of one particular day. One amusing example of how this works occurs when Silliman mentions a baseball game he attended the day before: “yesterday at this time I was basking in the centerfield bleachers at Candlestick Park, Montefusco halfway to a four-nothing shutout … that was yesterday, it doesn’t exist anymore” (305).

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Thanks to Google, one can now find and verify the details of the game the San Francisco Giants played on September 5, 1976 with a click of a mouse. However, one may be surprised to learn, given how meticulously factual the poem is, Silliman seems to have made a mistake — the Giants won their game that day by the score of 5–0, not 4–0.

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But we should not be too quick to doubt the poem’s accuracy: on the next page Silliman writes: “realize I was wrong before, it was a five-nothing shutout, I forgot Gary Alexander’s homer, his very first, in the eighth, up into the rightfield bleachers” (306). Silliman is careful to correct the record, since part of the urgency behind the poem’s desire to gather traces of the minutiae of experience stems from the recognition that yesterday “doesn’t exist anymore”: the archive, the poem, are all we have left of that day, and of the daily itself.

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Soon after entering the train, Silliman writes: “a man is asking is there anything to see, Glen Park, Daly City, I’m going south which in my head means down but I’m going forward, she says he should turn around, off at Powell, see Union Square, see Chinatown, last day of the season so they say, visualize tourists, worms in a salad, wife speaks no English, Czech perhaps, Soviet, Polish” (300). The tourist’s question (“is there anything to see”) and the woman’s answer (that “he should turn around,” get off this train, get on another, get off at Powell St. and see Union Square and Chinatown) ironically point to the conventional, expected uses of urban space. It is a comment on how and what we tend to value about a city and our experience of it. Heading on the train away from downtown San Francisco and its “must-see” landmarks, the traveller is told to stop, get off, and head back to where there are things to see.

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The point of Silliman’s project, indeed, of his entire body of work, is to demonstrate why such an outlook is dangerous. He insists on just how much there is to see anywhere — especially if we avoid those sights that are expected, predictable, and institutionalized. Even Silliman himself falls prey to this kind of hierarchizing of perception a few lines later, as he nudges himself to “pay more attention, the vagueness of the landscape here, a large parking lot and beyond it houses, nothing special” (300). However, this passage can also be read as ironic, since the rest of the poem forces us to re-think what we mean when we say that there is “nothing special” about a place or an experience. “Pay more attention,” of course, could stand as a motto for Silliman’s entire body of work.

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Unlike tourists, those “worms in a salad,” Silliman’s job is to “go into the world and describe it” — not to wonder “is there anything to see” but to actually look at what is already there to see right in front of us, to take note of a whole host of everyday sights and sounds that form the background of our lives. This leads him to notice many things one might overlook: “carpet of the car is yellow, orange, green, red, blue woven in also”; “big dumpsters in supermarket parking lot”; “man gets on with a racing form in hand, looks apprehensive;” “voice on the speaker system says don’t ride bike on the platform”; “fat women with two boys, she shouts at them to sit down”; “a small girl is eating a saltine”; “Jimmy Carter for President ’76, blue sign painted (crudely) on side of apartment building,” and so on (300, 301, 303, 306). At times, such acts of attention lead to a sudden transvaluation of values, where the supposedly ugly and banal become imbued with beauty: “a collection of overpasses is often beautiful, curving masses of concrete” (309).

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As the imposed itinerary causes Silliman to head away from San Francisco, he also begins to reflect on his own experience of the psychogeography of the city, including the effect of the city’s spatial geography on his own psyche: “how large is your turf” he wonders, and then adds “my triangle the City, Berkeley, Marin, plus of course parts of Sacramento” (303). In effect, he acknowledges how limited his experience of the Bay Area actually is as a result of his own daily routines, noting the “triangle” that constitutes his world.

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On one level, BART is fueled by the poet’s profound familiarity with the landscape he observes, and the utter saturation of these spaces by personal memory and history: in a post about this poem on his blog, he wrote that “having grown up in the Bay Area, as had my mother & my maternal grandparents, this was to some degree a work about not being to look out a window without seeing through an overlay of personal & oral histories — I can still tell you something about virtually every block in Berkeley west of College, every block in Albany.” [23]

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At the same time, the poem explicitly tracks what it feels like to uncover unfamiliar spaces right under one’s nose, in one’s own hometown. The farther away from this comfortable “triangle” of familiar haunts Silliman moves, the more he conveys the sense that he “never was this far before,” and along with it, an increasing sensitivity to racial difference and his own alterity (307). He begins to contemplate the social and political meanings behind the less-than-familiar sights he sees: “apartments very square here, you don’t think of it as the City but it is” (301). At one point, he writes “This world is foreign to me, an act of description, old railcars, I beams, a school or hospital off in the distance.” At another he notes, “I’m the only white left on this car, tourism is different to different peoples,” and a bit later, observes “nothing but blacks on the streets below, then more plants, one for yeast, billboard in Spanish” (308).

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The project also leads Silliman to be more sharply aware of the variety of spaces in which we live our daily lives. He reflects particularly on how we experience the division between work and the rest of our lives (as well as how the domination of our time by labor is continuously repressed): “Golden Grain Spaghetti plant, more greenhouses, where people work takes up nearly as much space as where they live, but you forget about it, those become empty spaces” (308).

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Throughout his work, Silliman approaches daily experiences and practices as opportunities for a semiotic decoding of the cultural landscape, as when he writes, in his 1988 poem What, “Out of the behavior / of drivers at / an intersection you can read / the state of the nation” (111). In BART, he frequently reads everyday objects and events in just this way, as indexes of political and social realities, as when he writes “you could type towns by the kind of street signs they use, color, how much information they put on them, etc.” (304), notes that “you always see stress in everyone’s face, it’s in their eyes, how they hold their mouth” (301), or notices “crowd is thinning, means either people are tiring or they don’t want to go to Fremont, less wealthy and intriguing than Concord, homes not that poor, tho, small boats in the driveway, Hayward, large blocks of apartments, a school in the blue and green, Grand Auto, apple trees, willows, 2:46, never was this far before, a golf course, dry fields, another BART carbarn” (307)

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At one point, Silliman ponders the city’s psychogeography in terms that are rather overtly Debordian: he questions how an economic system which creates a society filled with exhausted commuters, who spend hours a day travelling between work and home, might affect individual minds: “is housing contingent on transportation or vice versa, only in our time have people begun to live away from their work, what it does to the psyche” (303, italics added).

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Travelling through a more suburban setting, he discerns how class affects and even constructs our experience of daily life: “streets without sidewalks, with trees, affect the rural, swimming pools, … a power mower for every home, tanned fat men in shorts… ” In a more impoverished area, far from the orbit of the city, he notices (and registers the fact that he has at last noticed) the pervasive deprivation and decay: “no lawns, just dirt, these tracks constantly bordered with cyclone fence topped with barbed wire (I just noticed), girl in a pink dress cries, a vacant lot, full of refrigerators and stoves, South Hayward” (308).

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With its acute awareness of how difference and politics shape urban spaces, Silliman’s BART resembles the analysis of the urban in the work of Walter Benjamin, Lefebvre, and the Situationists, who each, as Ben Highmore notes, expose “capitalist ‘progress’ as uneven and radically discontinuous, while at the same time presenting itself as homogeneous” (140–141). Lefebvre and the Situationists, Highmore writes, offer “an analysis of the urban scene, a psychogeography that would reveal the unevenness of capitalist development … such an investigation meant veering off the beaten track, avoiding the official city of the tourist guide” (141). As we have seen, BART enacts precisely this kind of departure from the official, touristic city, as it stages an act that is at once poetic and critical.

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For all his investment in the idea that poetry can register, make sense of, and critique everyday life, Silliman remains deeply skeptical of the ability of poetry, or any other form, to actually represent the everyday in any kind of definitive, objective, exhaustive way. This is why his poetry, for all its richness and specificity, so often questions its own capacity to represent the “real,” showcases its status as text, and acknowledges “art is a mirage” (97, 92).

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Unlike many works of Conceptual art or Situationist projects, BART repeatedly thematizes its own failure and draws attention to the limits of representation. Silliman acknowledges he cannot hope to capture fully the event he sets out to depict, nor can he really know and describe other lives. “How can you describe people when you can only see surface features” he writes at one point, recognizing the limitations of his own ethnographic project; at another, he admits “I can never hope to know all these lives” (309, 308).

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Even in the midst of a project dedicated to achieving a fuller, more inclusive documentation of an everyday experience, Silliman recognizes that any act of attention, any representation, is by definition selective, partial, and mediated by language and consciousness: “What I describe is what comes to me in words as I look out the window, miss all the rest, can’t even write it all” (309, italics added). He cannot possibly “write it all,” if only because, as he wrote in another poem around the same time as BART, “description is an invention” and in a later poem, “all depiction’s false” (298, What 27). Even the title of the piece highlights this tension: BART, the poem, the work of art, Silliman’s invention in words, is not, can not, be the same thing as BART, the system of public transportation. But what interests Silliman is exploring the allure as well as the problems of representation, not simply dismissing it as an outdated illusion.

Echoes of BART: “Everyday Life Projects” and Contemporary Poetics

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As I suggested earlier, Silliman’s 1976 poem BART can be seen as a forerunner, a leading indicator of recent developments in contemporary poetry and poetics. This is particularly the case because the past few years have seen such a surge of similar projects — conceptually based, procedural, performative works whose goal is to render the experience of the everyday more legible and noticeable. Although little has been said about the connection, the recent, much-discussed conceptual writing of the poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith is based on a series of “everyday life projects” which closely follow the precedent established by works like BART: for example, Goldsmith’s Fidget was a project that entailed him spending June 16, 1997 (in homage, of course, to Bloomsday and James Joyce’s monument to everyday life, Ulysses), dictating every movement his body made into a tape recorder, which he then transcribed to form a book. Similarly, Goldsmith’s book Soliloquy was also the result of a rule-governed project, in which he transcribed every word he uttered during the course of an entire week in order to create a 483 page tome. [24]

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Gabriel Gudding also recently composed a quite BART-like work: it featured procedural constraints, acts of endurance and writing while in motion, and an painstaking attentiveness to the daily. Gudding wrote a long poem in a notebook while driving (literally), chronicling in exhaustive detail a series of car trips back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island, the result being the 436 page long poem called Rhode Island Notebook where each trip to and fro constitutes another section of the poem.

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Critical investigations of urban space have become common in recent poetry, as have notions like “documentary poetics,” “investigative poetics,” and poetry as a form of field work and ethnography. These trends have coincided with a related burst of interest among poets in the Situationists and their techniques and goals. For example, Juliana Spahr recently taught a course as a visiting writer at the University of Alabama in which graduate students took part in a collaborative workshop where the goal was to “write something about Tuscaloosa that . . . will get at the ‘psycho’ in ‘psychogeography’”; Spahr’s description of the workshop quotes from Debord’s definition of the dérive, and explains: “We will attempt this: to write something that captures the flow of acts, the gestures, the strolls, the encounters of Tuscaloosa.” [25]

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Another project-based poem, “The Bowery Project” by Brenda Coultas, is a long documentary prose poem that exhaustively lists the detritus found along the Bowery in New York City, including catalogs of pieces of garbage she found in dumpsters and gutters. Coultas’ poem resembles the kind of work published by the journal XCP: Cross Cultural Poetry, which describes itself as “an interdisciplinary journal of poetry, poetics, experimental ethnography and cultural and performance studies.”  XCP also publishes “Streetnotes,” “a biannual electronic exhibition space for socially descriptive art and text” which is devoted to “Ethnography, Poetry, & the Documentary Experience.”

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To take another example, a performance piece entitled The Provenance of Beauty, which was created by the poet Claudia Rankine, opened in New York. A hybrid work, part poem, part guided tour, part theatrical experience, part experiment in psychogeography, The Provenance of Beauty called for viewers to board a bus in Harlem for a 90 minute ride through the South Bronx, during which they listened on headphones to various spoken texts composed by Rankine and looked out the windows at neighborhoods they would presumably otherwise never visit. The creators’ description of the piece echoes BART and the lineage of poetic, project-based explorations of the urban I have been discussing. They refer to it as “an invitation to see a place differently, and to engage the poetics of its shifting definition with new inquiry and reverence” and state:

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The Provenance of Beauty is a poetic travelogue performed on a bus touring the South Bronx. As we travel the streets of the neighborhood, Rankine’s evocative text points out and reflects upon the sites that pass by outside the windows. Views that to an outsider might go by unnoticed — a factory dressed up as townhouses, the theatre where La Lupe held court that is now a church —  complicated places that ask what creates a neighborhood in a city in a country in the world.

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The audience boards the bus in Spanish Harlem, puts on headphones and for 90 minutes eavesdrops on the voice — both live and recorded — of this historic place. Provenance is an experience that both responds to and redoubles the landscape — its sites, history, present and future — mapping out a poetic cartography of a neighborhood — of any neighborhood — in its eternal state of evolution. [26]

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Clearly, the tactics and goals at the heart of Silliman’s BART that I have highlighted anticipate the widespread fascination with project-based and conceptual poetic inquiries into everyday life and the urban landscape. By building on and critiquing the models of everyday inquiry he found in avant-garde movements of the postwar period, Silliman hit upon a formula that continues to reverberate in contemporary poetics and the broader culture.

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For all its enthusiasm about witnessing and describing daily life as it is, BART still maintains that an everyday life project can at best be an approach to the everyday, never an arrival. Although Silliman’s work cultivates new modes of attentiveness that are responsive to the uneventful and overlooked, it also meditates on the limitations and contradictions of any aesthetic of attention. At the core of BART one finds a collision between an enthusiastic desire to “go into the world and describe it” and an awareness that one can never possibly “write it all” — in other words, what the project is “about” is the dilemma of the everyday itself, how to pay attention to, access, record, and represent it. Both the poem’s main message — “pay more attention” — and its discovery of a new mode of doing so through the use of a conceptual, rule-governed project, continue to hover over the pervasive interest in everyday life in the poetry and poetics of our moment.



Works Cited

Benson, Steve. Blue Book. Great Barrington, MA / New York: The Figures/Roof. 1988.

Bernes, Jasper. “Bernadette Mayer and the Capitalization of Everyday Life.”  Paper delivered at National  Poetry Foundation’s conference on “Poetry of the 1970s,” June 2008. http://vectors.usc.edu/thoughtmesh/publish/130.php

Blanchot, Maurice. “Everyday Speech.”  Yale French Studies 73 (1987): 12–20.

Coultas, Brenda. “The Bowery Project.”  In A Handmade Museum. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2003.

Debord, Guy. “Theory of the Dérive.” In Situationist International Anthology. Ed. Ken Knabb. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995, 62–66.

Goldsmith, Kenneth. Fidget. Toronto: Coach House Press, 2001.

———. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001.

Gratton, Johnnie and Michael Sheringham, eds. The Art of the Project: Projects and Experiments in Modern French Culture. New York: Bergahn Books, 2005.

Hartley, George. Textual Politics and Language Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Highmore, Ben. Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.

Hopkins, David. After Modern Art: 1945–2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Kaufman, Vincent. Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Knabb, Ken. Ed. Situationist International Anthology. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995.

Lally, Michael. It’s Not Nostalgia: Poetry and Prose. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1999.

Lazer, Hank. “Education, Equality, and Ethnography in Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet.” Quarry West 34 (1998): 68–97.

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 1. 1958. London: Verso, 2008.

———. “The Everyday and Everydayness.” Yale French Studies 73 (1987): 7–11.

Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972. New York: Praeger, 1973.

Merrifield, Andy. Guy Debord. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.

Newman, Michael and Jon Bird, eds. Re-Writing Conceptual Art. London: Reaktion Books, 1999.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. (1966). New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Russo, Linda. “Poetics of Adjacency: 0–9 and the Conceptual Writing of Bernadette Mayer & Hannah   Weiner.”  In Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing After The New York School. Ed.

Daniel Kane. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006, 122–150.

Schjeldahl, Peter. “Performance: Chris Burden and the limits of art.”  The New Yorker. May 14,    2007. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/artworld/2007/05/14/070514craw_artworld_schjeldahl

Shaw, Lytle. “Faulting Description: Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, and the Site of Scientific   Authority.” In Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing After The New York School. Ed.

   Daniel Kane. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006, 151–172.

Sheringham, Michael. Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2006.

Silliman, Ron. The Age of Huts (Compleat). Berkeley: U of California P, 2007. Print.

———. The Alphabet. Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 2008.

———. “An Email Interview with Ron Silliman.” With Thomas C. Marshall and Thomas Vogler. Quarry   West 34 (1998): 10–44.

———. Interview. With Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987). Modern American Poetry. Web. 6 March  2010.

———. “An Interview with Ron Silliman.”  With Mark Tursi. Double Room: A Journal of Prose Poetry and   Flash Fiction 6 (Fall 2005/Winter 2006). Web. 6 March 2010.

———. Under Albany. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2004.

———. What. Great Barrington, MA: 1988.

Watkin, William. “‘Systematic Rule-Governed Violations of Convention’: The Poetics of Procedural Constraint in Silliman’s BART and The Chinese Notebook.”  Contemporary Literature 48.4 (2007): 499–529.

Watten, Barrett. Total Syntax. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1985.

Wilson, Rob. “Reading Ron Silliman’s Bart: Serial Syntax and Paradise,” American Poetry 5.2 (Winter  1988): 33–41

Wollen, Peter. “Mappings: Situationists and/or Conceptualists.”  In Re-Writing Conceptual Art. Eds.  Michael Newman and Jon Bird. London: Reaktion Books, 1999, 27–46.



Notes

[1] In his interview with Marshall and Vogler, Silliman describes his earliest poems as “publishable but unmemorable neo-workshop lyrics” (Quarry 12), and acknowledges that his first three books were derivative of the New American poetry and Clark Coolidge: “I was writing post-Williams, post-Creeley, post-Olson kinds of lyrics, struggling with the problems implicit in Olson’s equation of the line with breath … Mohawk reads like Coolidgeana to me now” (11–12).

[2] Silliman has frequently discussed this transition, and has cited in particular the writing of Ketjak in 1974 as the watershed moment of his career. He has described it as “my first really serious work,” and has noted that Ketjak “in many respects marks my adulthood as a writer” (Tursi interview; McCaffery and Gregory interview). See also the autobiographical text Under Albany, where he explains: “The reception of my writing can be divided easily into two periods — before the publication of Ketjak in 1978 and after. I’d been toying with the idea of a larger prose poem and the idea of something programmatic … The problem was how to begin” (61).

[3] The publication history of Ketjak and The Age of Huts is rather complicated: Ketjak was written in 1974, but first published as a book by Barrett Watten’s This Press in 1978, an edition which subsequently went out of print. Around the same time, Silliman also wrote a series of other poems in prose, many based on formal constraints. Three of these poems (Sunset Debris, The Chinese Notebook, and 2197) were published under the title The Age of Huts in 1986 by Roof Books, which also has long been out of print. Two other texts written around the same time, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps and BART, were written as “satellite texts,” or adjuncts to The Age of Huts cycle. With the publication of The Age of Huts (Compleat) in 2007, Silliman has at last gathered under one cover the entire cycle, which now consists of Ketjak, Sunset Debris, The Chinese Notebook, and 2197, and the two satellite texts, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps and BART.

[4] Silliman has frequently reflected on his turn to the use of constraints and procedural mechanisms for generating poetry and has discussed what he found liberating about these formal devices. For example, in an interview with Mark Tursi, Silliman explains “Ketjak was precisely an attempt to identify a form that would enable me to break away from habits of continuity.”  In Under Albany, he recalls that in Ketjak and the other procedural texts that followed it, he was experimenting with “structures that carried forward a formal concept as a mechanism for breaking up the habits of perception” (22).

[5] In a 1982 interview, Silliman discusses the preoccupation with “dailiness” in Ketjak, and explains why he felt the formal devices of the poem allowed him a much better purchase on everyday life than earlier models, including the “speech-based” model of the New American poetry: “Ketjak is very content centered. It has been pointed out to me by various other people that there is a great deal of ‘dailiness,’ a real taste for the humble, in Ketjak. That sense was very important to me, and still is; it was something I had not been able to approach using a speech-based metaphor for the text … ”  (McCaffery and Gregory interview).

[6] For more on the variety of project-based art and writing in the French context, see the collection of essays The Art of the Project: Projects and Experiments in Modern French Culture, edited by Johnnie Gratton and Michael Sheringham.

[7] The fact that Silliman is nodding to Jack Kerouac in this passage (as opposed to Jack Spicer or some other person) is signaled by the unusual word “oomaloom,” which is an allusion to Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, a book which Silliman has frequently cited as extremely important to his own writing. Kerouac uses this presumably self-created word in the following passage: “the density of the tragedy of America is confusing and immense in volume, oomaloom along the oil cloth with your little bug” (371). For Silliman, the word also has special meaning because a friend, the poet Michael Lally, whose work Silliman admired, borrowed Kerouac’s word for the title of a piece of his own, which uses the passage from Kerouac as an epigraph (Lally 51). Earlier in BART, Silliman alludes to Lally when he writes “oomaloom, Michael, thinking of you” (307); two pages later he repeats the word and declares this poem to be “an homage to you Jack” (309).

[8] For more on Conceptual art and Language writing, see Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax (especially 200–223) and George Hartley’s Textual Politics and the Language Poets. (Hartley specifically discusses the form and rhetoric of Silliman’s The Chinese Notebook, another text from The Age of Huts, as a response to Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”) (84–93). See also Perloff’s keynote address at the “Conceptual Poetry and Its Others” Symposium at the University of Arizona in 2008, in which she contrasts Language poetry of the 1970s and 1980s with today’s conceptual writing (an audio recording of the address can be downloaded at http://poetrycenter.arizona.edu/Conceptualpoetry/perloff.shtml#audio).

[9] In an interview, Silliman recalls the formative influence of Conceptual art, and the critical work surrounding it, on his milieu and his work in the early 1970s: “Conceptual art drove a lot of critical writing, some of it very rigorous and thoughtful until it was absorbed into the structures of the art schools. Especially valuable was Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object” (Quarry 41). Furthermore, there are tangible signs within The Age of Huts that Silliman was engaged with Conceptual art while he worked on the cycle, including the fact that among the many texts appropriated in Ketjak is a quotation from the artist Victor Burgin’s Situational Aesthetics; there are also references in The Chinese Notebook to Robert Smithson and Terry Fox (167), Joseph Kosuth (168), and a response to a comment by Lippard, one of the most important critical champions of Conceptual art (169). Silliman also directly echoes the famous “dematerialization of the art object” preached by Conceptual artists, when he writes in The Chinese Notebook: “Increasingly I find object art has nothing new to teach me. This is also the case for certain kinds of poetry. My interest in the theory of the line has its limits” (155).

[10] For signs of the increasingly widespread interest in Conceptual writing in poetry circles today, see, for example, the special section on “Flarf and Conceptual Writing” in Poetry (July/August 2009), which featured an introduction by Goldsmith. In 2008, the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona hosted a symposium on “Conceptual Poetry and Its Others,” which featured a keynote address by Marjorie Perloff and panels with Charles Bernstein, Christian Bök, Goldsmith and many others. The symposium generated quite a bit of discussion in poetry circles, including on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, where Goldsmith posted reports from the conference.

[11] Like Silliman, many other Language writers have undertaken conceptual and performance-based projects. For one example among many, see Steve Benson’s Blue Book, a series of performance-driven, conceptual, and improvisatory pieces which date from the late 1970s and 1980s.

[12] For more on Mayer and Conceptual art, see Linda Russo’s “Poetics of Adjacency: 0–9 and the Conceptual Writing of Bernadette Mayer & Hannah Weiner,” Lytle Shaw’s “Faulting Description,” and Jasper Bernes’ “Bernadette Mayer and the Capitalization of Everyday Life.”  Bernes reads Mayer’s Memory in the context of Conceptual art and argues that Memory is not only inspired by developments in Conceptual art but is also a critique of it: he views the final movement of the work as “a reflection on the troubled fortunes of conceptualism in art and writing.”

[13] On the relationship between Conceptual art and Situationism, see the introduction to Re-Writing Conceptual Art, where Michael Newman and Jon Bird note that the Situationist International “haunts Conceptual art’s initial period,” and, especially, the essay in this collection by Peter Wollen. Wollen acknowledges the marked differences between the two movements, but notes the “strange overlap” between the two in “their fascination with maps, not only as a form of documentation but also as a form of design” (29). He goes on to helpfully contrast the Situationist dérive and psychogeography with the use of maps and movement in Conceptual art projects: for example, he argues that Huebler’s works which rely on mapping and documentation come close to the terrain of the Situationist dérive, but “unlike the Situationists, however, Huebler presented his journeys completely dispassionately. Far from having any psycho-geographical content, the journey is seemingly bereft of any emotional content or any interest in the landscape as an aestheticized object of the traveller’s gaze” (39).

[14] Kaufmann compares the Situationists’ approach to the city to that of the Surrealists, and writes that the SI felt that “the surrealist dreamers” were “too passive, too ready to let themselves go, carried away by chance or the unconscious. To avoid this it was necessary to move beyond the past and passivity, drifting had to be more controlled and more systematic… ” (112).

[15] For an extended argument along these lines about BART, see Rob Wilson’s essay, in which he implicitly adopts a Situationist vocabulary and perspective in order to make his case that BART is a radical act, political as well as poetic. He argues that if “the syntax of Capital runs on Automatic Pilot,” then what Silliman attempts to do is jam and impede the flow of that syntax (34). Sounding much like Debord, Wilson argues that BART is “a vast system of urban planning, Bay Area Rapid Transit, from which the human subject has been flawlessly effaced from the start, running on silver buttons and state-of-the-art programs and computerized rails, not even tickets or change to be had from inner city hands” (34). But Silliman’s act is a form of resistance: it is “an intervention which places an active and politically resistant subject, namely Ron Silliman, riding/writing BART on its opening day of September 6, 1976, Labor Day”; in Wilson’s eyes “Silliman repeatedly jams the normative syntax of Capital by overamping it, taking on its immense seriality and its streamlined linguistic-social production of subjects (as ‘voices’) through what I would call mock-seriality, a torqued syntax which neutrally takes in everything outside itself.”  By seriality, Wilson means “the way daily life gets organized and performed under Capital”; for him, BART “effects a dialectical intervention or street-poet performance within the normative realism of the ordinary, the embedded theory of politically laundered languages and way stations of the Real” (37).

[16] I am grateful to Brian McHale for suggesting to me that Silliman’s exploration of an alternative San Francisco might contain an echo of Oedipa Maas’s wandering by foot and by bus in The Crying of Lot 49.

[17] The website for the BART Psychogeographical Association can be found at http://sf0.org/groups/bartpa/.

[18] Here is how Watkin characterizes Silliman’s project: “Taking advantage of a special offer on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, Silliman has decided to ride the commuter trains of the Bay Area while recording his thoughts and impressions there and then, as they happen… . This becomes a simple but remarkably effective procedural constraint: ride the BART for the duration of one day, record in real time only what you see, separated by commas, and if you reflect on what you are doing, use only brief phrases” (513). But Silliman’s project entails a crucial procedural constraint which this description passes over: the poet must travel on every line of the system, from one end to the other, traversing every stop on the map; the duration is not one day, but rather the length of time it takes to cover the entire system, which, as it turns out, is about five and a half hours.

[19] As Watkin notes, the image of this initial descent indicates that Silliman is embarking “on an epic journey into the underworld like so many great poets before him,” but the opening is even more self-conscious and allusive than this suggests: Silliman’s phrasing deliberately evokes a very long lineage of poetic descents into hell, ranging from the Odyssey through Dante’s Inferno to Pound’s Cantos. The opening words closely echo the first words of Pound’s modern epic, taken from Pound’s translation of the voyage to the underworld in the Odyssey: “And then went down to the ships, set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea.”  Silliman’s invokes such models only to put a late twentieth-century twist on them; unlike the mythic quests of his predecessors, this epic journey to hell is a five-and-a-half hour tour of the San Francisco metro system. Surely this is a familiar reversal, one so central to the modernism of Joyce and Pound, where the grand and epic is replaced by the daily, the modern, and the allegedly unbeautiful. But where Pound primarily views the modern city as hell incarnate, Silliman seeks out a much more nuanced picture of its pleasures and mysteries, its plenitude and its privations.

[20] On the contradictory and complex relation between vacation and work, leisure and labor, as a defining feature of modern everyday life, see Lefebvre, “Work and Leisure in Everyday Life” in Critique of Everyday Life.

[21] Hank Lazer usefully pinpoints the same issues in a discussion of Silliman’s The Alphabet: “For Silliman, writing The Alphabet is both the quest and the actualization of the author’s endeavor to engage in unalienated, meaningful labor… It is a mark of our current work-world that the making of poetry would stand out as an unusual form of labor precisely because such work is both playful and pleasurable” (77). In The Age of Huts, Silliman refers to writing as work at numerous points, like when he reflects in Ketjak on intellectual labor as a form of work: “The work in thought, progressive labor” (81).

[22] Silliman’s Blog, December 12, 2002 (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2002/12/turning-to-george-stanleys-vancouver.html).

[23] Silliman’s Blog, October 28, 2007 (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2007/10/true-tales-of-poetry-surveillance.html).

[24] I mentioned some of the signs of scholarly and aesthetic interest in Conceptual writing in note 10 above. For a useful set of critical responses to Goldsmith’s work, see the special issue on “Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics,” Open Letter 7 (2005). There have been extensive recent debates about Goldsmith’s work and about conceptual writing more broadly on various poetry blogs, including the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog (where Goldsmith himself has blogged) and on Silliman’s own blog (see for example, posts on April 14, 2009 (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2009/04/all-conceptual-writing-is-allegorical.html), June 3, 2009 (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2009/06/notes-on-conceptualisms-appears.html), and July 7, 2009 (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2009/07/something-kenny-goldsmith-wrote-in.html)).

[25] Joel Brouwer discussed Spahr’s workshop and quoted from her description of it, in a September 18, 2009 post on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2009/09/being-here/). Other examples of contemporary poets who write poetry in explicit dialogue with Situationism are Joshua Clover, starting with the image of The Naked City by Debord on the cover of his first book, Madonna anno domini, and running throughout his poetry and critical writing, and Lisa Robertson, who cites the Situationists as an influence on her Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture.

[26] For more, see the website for The Provenance of Beauty at http://www.thefoundrytheatre.org/provenance/provenance.html, and a review of the performance in the New York Times, “Have You Ever Visited the Broncks” by Charles Isherwood, September 18, 2009 (http://theater.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/theater/reviews/18provenance.html?em).

Andrew Epstein

Andrew Epstein

Andrew Epstein is the author of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press), and is currently writing a book on the pursuit of everyday life in contemporary poetry and poetics. His essays and reviews have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Jacket, Fulcrum, Raritan, Newsday, Lingua Franca, Boston Review, American Book Review, and the Henry James Review, and his poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Conduit, The Hat, Mississippi Review, Lungfull, Gulf Coast, and other journals. He is currently an Associate Professor of English at Florida State University.

 
 
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