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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).

 

 

Jeffrey Side has 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 and Dusie.

 

He 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.

 

 

 

JS: 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?

 

DK: 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

 

And, with a shout, collecting coat hangers

Dour rebus, conch, hip,

Ham, the autumn day, oh how genuine!

Literary frog, catch-all boxer, O

Real! The magistrate, say “group”, bower, undies

Disk, poop, Timon of Athens. When

The bugle shimmies, how glove towns!

It's Merrimac, bends, and pure gymnasium

Impy keels! The earth desks, madmen

Impose a shy (oops) broken tube's child—

Land! why are your bandleaders troops

Of is? Honk, can the mailed rose

Gesticulate? Arm the paper arm!

 

and 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.

 

JS: 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 Schoo”l, 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?

 

DK: 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, obviously.

 

Sure, 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.

 

To 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? 

 

JS: 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?

 

DK: 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?

 

I 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.

 

Now, 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 delivers.

 

So, 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 of stance.

 

JS: 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?

 

DK: 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.

 

I 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.

 

JS: 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?

 

DK: 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.

 

JS: 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?

 

DK: 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!

 

Your 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.

 

JS: 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?

 

DK: 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.

 

All 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.

 

JS: 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?

 

DK: 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?'

 

   

 

 

copyright © Daniel Kane & Jeffrey Side