The Argotist Online
Daniel Kane Interview
Daniel Kane is Senior Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Sussex, Brighton, England. His publications include We Saw the Light: Conversations Between The New American Cinema and Poetry (The University of Iowa Press, 2009); Ostentation of Peacocks (Egg Box Press, 2008); Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing after the New York School (Dalkey Archives Scholarly Series, 2007); All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene In the 1960’s (The University of California Press, 2003); and What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde (Teachers & Writers (2003).
had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review,
and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia,
Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart,
Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St.
Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay
has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope
International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was
the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.
His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.
In What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde, the book
of interviews you conducted with various avant-garde poets, a common thread
running through the interviews is the extent to which a poem’s meaning is due
to, as you describe it in your interview with Robert Creeley, ‘the reader’s
participation in the ongoing work of the poem’. This participatory process is
referred to in some of the other interviews in relation to the teaching of
poetry, with the consensus amongst the interviewees that many poetry courses
discourage such a process. Have you any thoughts on why this is the case?
Well, at least in terms of my own and my friends’ experiences, I’ve found a
lot of teachers approach poems in terms of what they are about, what stories
they tell, as opposed to what is happening both to the poem and to the reader as
the poem is being read. The urge on the part of teachers and students to
paraphrase, to get at the proverbial kernel of truth in the poem, often destroys
the potential pleasures that await the reader willing, for the meanwhile at
least, to suspend understanding in favour of losing herself in the ebb and flow
of the poem. For example, I’ve been rereading Kenneth Koch’s wonderful long
poem When The Sun Tries to Go On recently. The poem doesn’t make any
sense, at least if by “sense” we mean some kind of discernible narrative or
meaning that can be readily intuited and explained. It starts off with
with a shout, collecting coat hangers
rebus, conch, hip,
the autumn day, oh how genuine!
frog, catch-all boxer, O
The magistrate, say “group”, bower, undies
poop, Timon of Athens. When
bugle shimmies, how glove towns!
Merrimac, bends, and pure gymnasium
keels! The earth desks, madmen
a shy (oops) broken tube's child—
why are your bandleaders troops
is? Honk, can the mailed rose
Arm the paper arm!
goes on—and on—from there. So, sure, a teacher could point out that this
poem is a long poem (running over 60 pages). The teacher could then say that
long poems are often called epics. Indeed, the poem begins in medias res (in the
middle of the action), just like Homer’s Odyssey or Pound’s Cantos!
(I’m almost positive Koch was playing around with the opening of Pound’s Canto
1, which also begins with an “and”—‘And then went down to the
ship’). But Koch, I think, is interested not so much in participating in and
extending a stable epic tradition as he is in creating a kind of experience
predicated on helping the reader revel in the pleasures and possibilities of a
polyreferential word game. So, a poetics that resists stasis, that resists
paraphrase, that foregrounds the reader’s role in making meaning, are what
connect the otherwise various poets in What is Poetry. Are these
qualities that might turn off some teachers from “teaching” such work to
their students? I suspect so. Teachers are too often trained to, you know,
transmit knowledge when the kinds of poetry we’re talking about here tend to
refuse the authority of knowledge in favour of the pleasures of play, doubt,
wonder, cacophony, clowning around. Indeed, I’m reminded now of one of my
favourite moments in What is Poetry—I asked John Ashbery ‘What do you
think about the creative writing rule “Write what you know”?’ and he
responded, in an almost hilariously apoplectic way, with ‘But one doesn’t
know anything!’ To acknowledge we don’t know what the hell is going on
around us, and to make that part of our poetics is, I think, fantastic. I hate
poems that seem sure of themselves.
In your essay ‘Angel Hair Magazine, the Second-Generation New York
School, and the Poetics of Sociability’ included in your edited collection Don’t
Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing After the “New York School”,
you suggest that the tendency among many second-generation New York poets to
resist ‘classification in part by self-consciously rejecting academic
discourse’ is the reason why ‘much second-generation work continues to exist
within a critically marginal space’, and this has resulted in that work being
denied canonical status and being found unworthy of academic consideration.
Given that this proposition is correct, what do you think it tells us about the
way canonicity functions concerning non-academically tailored poetry?
Well, on reflection, I must admit I now wonder if there is any poetry left that
hasn’t been celebrated, if not feasted on as if it were carrion, by academics
somewhere. Can we even speak of an academically-defined “canon” anymore in
which there are insiders and outsiders? I mean, I for one am a Senior Lecturer
in American Literature who gets paid relatively well to teach poems that include
lines like ‘make pee-pee’! (That’s from Ted Berrigan’s terrific poem
‘Ten Things I do Every Day’, by the way). The University of California Press
published a Collected and Selected Ted Berrigan recently, as well as work
by Ron Silliman, Harryette Mullen, and others; fan-packed seminars on J. H.
Prynne and John Wilkinson take place where I work at the University of Sussex;
Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian are in the Norton Anthology of Poetry; Billy
Collins blurbs Ron Padgett; Rae Armantrout wins a Pulitzer; purportedly
“avant-garde” poets hold teaching positions in Ivy League universities in
the U.S and in Russell Group institutions in the UK (or are trying desperately
to score teaching gigs at said institutions). I could go on and on here,
work by, say, Lewis Warsh, Joe Brainard or Tom Clark have
perhaps—perhaps—yet to make it in any serious or useful way into the
“academy”. What I’m not so sure of is whether their failure to get in to
“the canon” is a bad thing or not! I’m weirdly grateful that Warsh and a
few others haven’t been folded safely into the institutions that serve to
define canonical status.
be honest, I’ve changed my mind a bit since I wrote that particular essay you
refer to. I don’t think I believe anymore in a “canon”, at least when I
consider the way the idea of a “canon” was actually used during the 1950s,
60s, and 70s to freeze out certain writers from getting their work distributed,
from getting published in certain places, from teaching and other work
opportunities. This isn't to say that there isn't “linguistically
innovative” or “avant-garde” or “political” poetry battling it out
with shitty narrative/confessional verse. It's just to say that I don't buy one
mode has institutional dominance over the other at this stage. I mean, can we
really say “official verse culture” (as Charles Bernstein once rightly used
to) with a straight face, given the facts on the ground?
In ‘Angel Hair Magazine, the Second-Generation New York School, and the
Poetics of Sociability’, you say that some language poets ‘tended to
determine reception [of a text] by practically ordering the reader to situate
the text within a clearly defined theoretical space defined by a commitment to
poststructuralism’. You then point out that this is in sharp contrast to those
second-generation New York poets who were published in the magazine Angel
Hair, whose approach to writing you describe as being based on ‘far more
casual effects’, as well as not being ‘predicated on the understanding of a
highly-specialized discourse typical of language writers’. Do you see
poststructuralist influenced writing practices (and other types of procedural
poetic composition practices) as being generally less preferable than approaches
that are more “organic” or spontaneous?
No, I wouldn’t say ‘less preferable’ by any means. I find most of the
poetry I’m drawn to is grounded in a relatively clearly defined
poetics—O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ manifesto is as serious and romantic in
its own light-hearted way as anything Wordsworth or Coleridge came up with.
I’d read Ted Berrigan’s On the Level Everyday: Selected Talks on Poetry
and the Art of Living alongside Ezra Pound’s A Retrospect any day.
I’m not sure I believe in a poetry or poetics that is “organic” or
‘spontaneous’—I find those kinds of words are absolutely bound to theory
as opposed to practice. “Organic” poetry is abstract idealism, a dream, not
writing... I mean, the legends around Kerouac and Ginsberg’s “spontaneous
bob prosody” and “first thought—best thought” slogans are famously
belied by the fact of the many revisions that went into creating On the Road
and Howl. And, at the end of the day, don’t you find Breton’s and
Soupault’s experiments in “automatic writing” boring?
think what I was trying to say in the article you’re referring to—and maybe
I could have been clearer about it then!—is that 2nd Generation work wears its
theory lightly. Yes, that’s it, the light touch… that’s what I as a reader
go for. That’s why I absolutely love, say, Ron Silliman’s books What and
Tjanting whereas works by some other poets affiliated with language writing
strike me as a bit frosty, a bit bossy, even a bit obvious, particularly if
you’ve been a good boy or girl and read your Saussure, your Marx, your
Barthes, your Cixous etc.
I certainly don’t want to come off as if I’m suggesting one shouldn’t read
Marx, for heaven’s sake, or that a poetics informed overtly by political
and/or linguistic theory is somehow automatically bad. I wouldn’t be able to
hold my ground for a second in a conversation about Cixous et al with poets who
have spent decades devoted to thinking critically and brilliantly and at times
beautifully about such writing! And of course Silliman is influenced by Marxism
and poststructuralist theory, and his works are often built quite rigorously
around a predetermined structure (the Fibonnaci sequence, say, that made up Tjanting).
Good good good. It’s just that, to my ears, the books I mentioned by Silliman
are in the first instance intimate, fascinating, sweet, and at times
hilarious—you’ve got all these lovely moments of vulnerability, you’ve got
rump-roasts, salads presented to you as desserts, blustery walks along the
shore. Above all, Silliman in books like these is always wonderfully surprising.
(I’m reminded here of the final stanza in Creeley’s fabulous poem ‘The
Warning’: ‘Love is dead in us / if we forget / the virtues of an amulet /
and quick surprise’). I’m a sucker for surprises, and Silliman to my mind
getting back to your original question, I wouldn’t want to suggest that
Berrigan’s poetics, say, or certainly Bernadette Mayer’s poetics, are not as
“specialized” as Silliman’s or related language-affiliated writers. They
are. There’s just less of it in terms of actual volume, they’re messier, and
they’re not systematic. In terms of second-generation New York School poets’
attitudes about “theory”, well, they just don’t take themselves too
seriously—or at least they pretend not to! I’m totally seduced by that kind
Thanks for being more explicit. I thought you were expressing reservations about
a more theoretically based approach to poetic writing, hence my question. In All
Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene In the 1960’s, you mention
how the New York poets of the 1960s enabled poetry to be seen as a collective
expression rather than, as you say, ‘something created and read by an
individual to a passive audience’. Can you tell us a bit about why this was an
important aspect of that scene?
To me, anyway, those reams of collaborative, anonymous, and pseudonymous
experiments in writing that typified the Lower East Side scene in the 1960s (and
we can refer to those early issues of The World coming out of the Poetry
Project, for example, or Larry Fagin's Adventures in Poetry, or pretty
much everything Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci gathered together in their
magazine 0 to 9) came pretty close to fulfilling the historical avant-garde's
mandate of challenging, if not eliminating, the distinctions between “Art”
and “Life”. It is a poetry that at least tried to make material the social
fact of the individual's relationship to the other by foregrounding how writing,
reading and interpretation are always and forever produced by many, not one.
was talking to David Hull, a brilliant student of mine, the other day. David,
inspired by Judith Butler and Foucault, among others, was discussing how the
very concept of individual sovereignty is essentially a liberal-humanist
conceit. It strikes me that the group work produced by poets including Lewis
Warsh, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin, Bernadette Mayer, Michael Brownstein, and many
others was important precisely because it refused such a conceit. The work posed
a direct challenge (if ultimately a pretty limited one) to that strain of
mainstream American ideology that insists forever and always on the primacy of
the “individual”. Such poetry renovated some of the more charming strains of
Dada and Surrealism (the idea that anyone could be a poet; the possibilities for
chance as a method of composition; and the concomitantly aggressive and funny
assault on artistic and literary “value”) by applying them to a nascent 60s
counterculture. The politics of poetry produced out of a “collective” rhymed
wonderfully and compellingly with a New Left politics that was itself
challenging ideological absolutes vigorously.
In All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960’s,
you mention Bernadette Mayer as having something of an influence in encouraging
a more theoretical approach to poetic writing in her poetry workshops at the
Poetry Project, which made possible the advent of Language Poetry. Who do you
think were other influential figures in the Second-Generation New York School?
Ted Berrigan certainly was read quite avidly by subsequent avant-gardes,
particularly his book The Sonnets. The way that book used the sonnet to
foreground the artificiality of form while making that gesture hilarious and
moving was, I think, really important to a lot of younger writers who had grown
tired of purportedly demotic “free verse” poetry. Anne Waldman I think was
pretty crucial in extending the bardic, ecstatic aspects of the Beats into more
complicated and avowedly feminist directions—see her fantastic poems ‘Makeup
on Empty Space’ and ‘Skin, Meat, Bones’ for example, to get a sense of how
Waldman riffed in part off of Ginsberg’s incantatory style while introducing
the reader to places, tones, affects and situations Ginsberg himself would never
be capable of even imagining. Joe Ceravolo, while not as well known as he should
be, showed in his terrific Fits of Dawn how one could be simultaneously
radically disjunctive and cuddly. Lewis Warsh has quietly and heroically
provided readers with a new way of thinking about the nature and function of
autobiographical literature that I suspect has influenced writers like Lyn
Hejinian. (I sometimes teach Warsh’s Part of My History alongside
Hejinian’s My Life, for example). There are others, of course, but
these are the ones that come immediately to mind alongside Saint Bernadette.
This next question has probably been partially answered in your last answer, but
can you mention any Second-Generation New York School poets who you think have
been underrated, and why this might be so?
Well, I think practically all the poets affiliated with that scene have
been underrated... but we do have to acknowledge how so many talented
writers—Dick Gallup, Larry Fagin, Michael Brownstein come to mind
immediately—stopped publishing poetry for years, in some cases decades. Such
silences don't help literary careers!
question here takes us back to our earlier comments about theory, doesn’t it?
I suspect what also affected many of the 2nd Generation poets' “ratings” was
their tendency for the most part not to articulate a poetics in the manner in
which the avant-gardes have traditionally done so—i.e., through manifestos,
position-papers, conferences, and the like. This casual approach to a literary
career in some ways predetermined the critical silence that was their fate until
relatively recently. What additionally didn't help matters was that so much 2nd
Generation work was devoted to whimsy, humour, the light touch we were talking
about before. Humorous works have almost always had to work harder to get
attention compared to their serious counterparts.
In We Saw the Light: Conversations Between The New American Cinema and Poetry,
you mention a conversation you had with poet Marjorie Welish where you reply to
her question asking why you are interested in the intergenre relationship
between filmmaker Kenneth Anger and poet Robert Duncan, by saying, ‘I’m
interested in stories that aren’t being told anymore. I’m interested in what
we miss out on when we’re constantly looking in our experiences of the
avant-garde to be rewarded by instances of breaks between high and low, evidence
of the decentered sign. What about sincere belief in God? Elves? Magic? Can’t
we appreciate that?’ Can you expand on this a little for those who haven’t
read the book?
Sure. This might make me sound a little naive, but I always wondered why there
was relatively little attention paid to the mystical aspects of the New American
poetry and cinema. With the so-called linguistic turn in the humanities, there
has been little opportunity to take poets’ and filmmakers’ religiosity,
mysticism, even (in the case of Kenneth Anger) Lucifer-worship seriously. Too
often, I’ve found work driven by an epistemological or religious imperative
interpreted through poststructuralist/postmodern optics that essentially
disappear the very material that inspired the work in the first place. That’s
why in We Saw the Light I wanted to at least try and see what would
happen if, say, I read Kenneth Anger’s and Robert Duncan’s film and poetry
in part by taking seriously those artists’ engagement with, respectively,
occultism and the esoteric tradition. Obviously, I’m not the only one to do
this kind of work—I’d point readers to Peter O’Leary’s excellent Robert
Duncan and the Poetry of Illness for an example of what happens when
biography and the subject’s mystical background is used to stunning effect to
reread established poetry in new and exciting ways.
that said, I end up in We Saw the Light by pointing to Allen Ginsberg’s
late-60s, proto-”language” exploitation of the polysemous sensuousness of
language rather than emphasizing his life-long engagement with Buddhism; I
totally ignore John Ashbery’s Episcopalianism, which I now sort of wish I
hadn’t. I kind of moved away from the whole elves and mysticism focus pretty
early on in the book, though I am happy that I reframed the poet Robert Creeley
as at least a touch mystic by reading his work alongside that of his filmmaker
friend and collaborator Stan Brakhage.
What are your guesses as to why so little attention is paid to the mystical
aspects of the poetry you mention? You mentioned the ‘so-called linguistic
turn’ in humanities studies in respect to this; do you think that has
something to do with it?
Yes, I do, but I would argue in perhaps even more grandiose terms that the kinds
of biographical/cultural historical/archival work that I'm committed to—work
that takes seriously something like the author's personal investment in a given
religious tradition—has been held as somewhat suspect since at least the
advent of the New Criticism! There's a funny kind of valence when you think
about it between New Critical prescriptions against intentionality, the
“affective fallacy”, and so forth; and the emphasis on the arbitrariness of
the signifier and resulting critiques of “nature”, “identity” etc. which
interested so many of the theoretically-inclined poets affiliated with the late
1970s/1980s poetic avant-gardes. I had a bit of an argument last year at a
“visual cultures” conference on this score. I was talking about how excited
I was learning that Warhol attended church regularly and how that knowledge
affected my viewing of Warhol's late 'Last Supper' paintings. I discussed how I
now see practically all of Warhol's work in an entirely new light. How, say,
watching Warhol's eight-hour long shot of the Empire State building could now be
understood as deep meditation; how the images that make up Warhol's famous
series (the soup cans, the Marilyns, the Maos) might be reread not as
materializing the erasure between “original” and “reproduction”, but as
individual beads on a Rosary necklace. One guy at the conference seemed kind of
angry! 'Why should I care whether Warhol went to Mass every Sunday' he
harrumphed! 'Well,' I responded, why shouldn't you care?'
© Daniel Kane & Jeffrey Side