Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page


In Uncategorized on February 25, 2011 at 10:44 am





[Some Theory behind “Assembling the Morrow”]

poetry has had a difficult relationship with sleep.

since shakespeare and before, poets of the western tradition have likened the behaviour to a kind of death (“for in that sleep of death what dreams may come”), yet with the invention of the EEG it became clear that sleep, in a manner of speaking, is very much awake. hans berger interfaced the electricity of the brain with waves in the early 20th century, and sleep became a legible phenonemon, groups of neurons firing in a visible choir. assumptions about the natures of sleep as restive and waking as active became instantly problematized – sleep can be as active as the spike of a k-complex rising up from a sea of theta; waking, as quiet as a cup of tea perched on a windowsill beside a blowing curtain. lyn hejinian, in her essay “strangeness,” realizes the difficulties of writing sleep when she speaks of dreaming as a problem of description: one’s written accounts of dreams, she posits, are always unsatisfactory. when i embarked

on a 9 month residency to work with scientists of sleep at the centre for integrative genomics in lausanne, switzerland, i started with these two points: that, 1, sleep is closer to waking than to death (much to the consternation of our romantic metaphors) and, 2, sleep is a problem of description. as i quickly came to see at the laboratory, sleep is also, in the most part, a mystery to the lens of science: though we spend a third of our lives doing it, we still don’t exactly know why. mahowald & schenck: “with the discovery of REM sleep in 1953, it became apparent that sleep is not a unitary phenomenon, but rather consists of completely different states, and each state is an active, rather than quiescent, process”. according to the EEG,

the difference between sleep and waking lies in little more than the flex and rhythm of an electric wave. a line that zigs. one of the main questions behind the experiment/long poem entitled assembling the morrow, therefore, is what happens when the line of berger’s wave (in sleep) turns into a line of poetry, an act of focused consciousness? since words are essentially awake, sleep awakens beneath them. at the same time, poetry itself is forced to change, written not by the principles of ink or lead but electroencephalography. about 9 months ago

when i began, i would write at night, as an experiment, until nights tweaked into the shimmer of days, footprints of light trailing tracks of shadow between. night was writing; day, the clichéd beauty of lausanne against the sterility and mystery of a dish of cells. syringes, papers, computers, coffee, volcanic ash. a wire’s line of waves curved into a line’s wrist of sentences (half past four and asking, what is the difference between a sentence and a line?) (between a line and a wave?) (interfaces, all, stretching like gauze over a thing we cannot define or see). one hand over another, an event horizon shows us what cannot be shown, it is a likeable geometry that covers up a mystery stretching infinitely behind it (but science hates a mystery) (but

poetry feeds from it). according to jonathan c.w. edwards: “in 1972, horace barlow made some suggestions about the number of elements of information required in various parts of the brain for a human percept. the suggestion was that an experience would be composed of about a thousand elements of information, which barlow portrayed as, ‘like words, having the special property that they lead to an economical representation’. thus, although ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, a thousand words (~5kbytes) would carry information more economically than the necessary array of pixels (?~1mbyte). in barlow’s concept each element of information was associated with the firing of a cell; ‘an active neuron says something of the order of complexity of a word’.” here,

edwards suggests words as a more viable, more economic way of visualizing biophysical space than pixels or lines or any geometric model. words become a powerful semantic interface over something we cannot (as yet) possibly encounter. as william james put it: “the appearance needs the reality in order to exist, but the reality needs the appearance in order to be known.” so much is guessed at by the quality of its surface. to replace brainwaves with words is to inflict upon that wave all the luggage that a sentence can carry: narrative, bias, artifice,

depth. when i say waves, i mean my own and i mean, of course, in sleep. using the self as subject is generally frowned upon in biology: it is taboo to be both researcher and participant, subject and object, author and character, pathologist and pathologized, to be both sides (at once) of the same coin. when i went to the chuv sleep lab, donned that exoskeleton of electrodes, i  became of myself another. there is nothing simultaneously more intimate and more unfamiliar than looking into the eeg of one’s own brain. there is nothing simultaneously more intimate and unfamiliar than sleeping. the singular ‘i’ of the waking day

self fades into the plural ‘i’ of the night’s sleeping selves. it is a science and an art (two sides perhaps of the same coin) to develop a (visual) (visible) method of writing to reflect the brainwaves of a sleeping subject. each alpha theta delta and sigma must be put into a series of words and these words form a poem. a student of william james, gertrude stein developed a language/poetics of consciousness itself, severing words from their proper definitions: “act so that there is no use in a centre. a wide action is not a width. a preparation is given to the ones preparing.” hers is a potential model by which to form a poetics of a brainwave. the tropes of repetition and parataxis reflect the repeating structure of the eeg, of our bodies, too, stuck within their own circadian and ultradian rhythms, recurring,

replaying. as i stated before, my task at the centre for integrative genomics was to turn sleep into a kind of poetry: setting out to do this required embracing illegiblity, keeping it intact; to describe the poem assembling the morrow should remain a problem of description also to the reader: to emerge from a video screening of a poem where words crest in and out of various degrees of illegibility, one is forced to confront the limits of their own knowledge as reflected in the (un)readability of words sculpted to the brainwaves of a sleeping subject. raoul hausmann: “we call this process photomontage because it embodied our refusal to play the role of artist. we regarded ourselves as engineers, and our work as construction: we assembled [in french monteur] our work, like a fitter.” to assemble a morrow is to put together the next coming day using a diverse montage: history, technology, biology, poetry, to create the new, to hold it in that space, unwaking, even as it longs to stutter towards the old. sleep, like grammar, is essentially mysterious: the process lies in unravelling (where every line must have an electricity) (every) (half-

thought a frequency).


This is the second of three posts that comprise Sandra Huber’s SLEEP/ WRITING/ ROOMS. Part 1 is here.


In Uncategorized on February 24, 2011 at 9:33 am



Arakawa and Gins, Reversible Destiny House


For the latest installment of the DEMOTIC ARCHIVE OF ART WRITING, VerySmallKitchen presents two texts on the relations of visual arts and poetry, by Denise Levertov and Barbara Guest, alongside statements, images and poetics by Jessica Smith, Giorgio Agamben, Arakawa, Norma Cole, and Titian. The archive seems to becoming a group show.

Denise Levertov’s short essay LOOKING AT PHOTOGRAPHS offers a useful perspective on the relations of poets to other art practices. Levertov begins by asserting her connection to painting, but identifying a greater commonality between poetry and photography.

Arakawa, Is As It: Blind Intentions IX


I apply Levertov’s essay to the widespread “poet among painters tradition of, say, O’Hara and Schuyler, seeing such work as articulations of a space of a distance rather than/ out of affinity, what Levertov calls a “compositional gesture sense” rather than a specific engagement with the visual.

Which raises the question of precisely how the visual might be functioning, and also how this relates to the politics-art debate as it figured, for example, in Levertov’s correspondence with Robert Duncan. The second text here, by Barbara Guest, can be seen as offering a reinforcement of Levertov’s view.

In Guest’s “On the value of criticism from painters, rather than writers”, the painters value is connected to  “compositional gesture sense” revealed via the painter’s conversation and small talk. To use the terms of Levertov’s essay, painting approximates the common dailyness of language and photography through its presence in conversation, in friendships and acquaintances through which this talking, convivial knowledge occurs.

In such context, it is useful to recall Giorgio Agamben’s short text on friendship, where he observes:

It is common knowledge that no one has ever been able to satisfactorily define the meaning of the syntagm “I love you”; so much is this the case that one might think that it has a performative character: that its meaning, in other words, coincides with the act of its utterance. Analogous considerations could be made regarding the expression, “I am your friend,” although recourse to the performative category seems impossible here. I maintain, rather, that “friend” belongs to the class of terms that linguists define as nonpredicative; these are terms from which it is not possible to establish a class that includes all the things to which the predicate in question is attributed. (29)

DENISE LEVERTOV, Looking at Photographs

I have always had a strong love for looking at paintings – a love for color, for the thickness or thinness of paint, and for the miraculous coexistence of sensuous surface reality – brush marks and the grain of canvas showing through – with illusion, the depicted world to be entered. And in thinking about the process of writing poetry, I have often drawn analogies with the painting process, feeling a correspondence, for instance, between the intuited need in one poem for a limpid fluidity of diction and rhythm and the intuited need for transparent color and flowing line in a certain painting; or again, between the compositional need for strong and harsh outlines or heavy thick paint in one painting and for halting rhythms and thick heavy words in a certain poem. The standing back to regard the whole canvas from time to time, then returning to the close embrace of details, also has its parallel in the experience of writing a poem. Yet I have come to see that the art of photography shares with poetry a factor more fundamental: it makes its images by means anybody and everybody uses for the most banal purposes, just as poetry makes it structures, its indivisibilities of music and meaning, out of the same language used for utilitarian purposes, for idle chatter, or for uninspired lying.


Because of this resemblance in the conditions of the two arts – because the camera, like language, is put to constant nonartistic use, quotidian use by nonspecialists, as the painter’s materials (though often misused) are not  – a poet finds, I think, a kind of stimulation and confirmation in experiencing the work of photographic artists that is more specific, closer to his poetic activity, than the pleasure and love he feels in looking at paintings. I can often turn to fine photographs to help myself discover next steps in a poem I am writing: almost it’s as if I can respond to such photographs because I’m a working poet, while my response to painting, intense though it is, is in some degree detached from my life as as active artist, is a more passive receptivity.

Even though one may never write a poem directly inspired by a photograph, these images drawn from the same sources the poet’s own eye can see (photography having even at its most individual, subjective, or transformational, a relationship to the optical far more basic than that of painting) and which are transformed into high art through a medium of unexotic availability, connect at a deep level with the poetic activity; and are, in fact, possible sources  – as nature is source – for the poet, to the degree that paintings are not, even to someone who loves them as much as I do. Perhaps another way of saying it would be that photographs – and I don’t mean only documentary photographs – teach the poet to see better, or renew his seeing in ways closer to the kind of seeing he needs to do for his own work, than paintings do; while the stimulus of paintings for the poet as poet. i.e., their specific value for him aside from his general human enjoyment of them, may have more to do with his compositional gesture-sense (as music may) than with the visual.


2.BARBARA GUEST, On the value of criticism from painters, rather than writers

“Even when crippled by arthritis, Titian
kept on painting Virgins in that luminous light,
as if he’d just heard about them.”

“Those old guys had everything in place,
the Virgin and God and technique, but they
kept it up like they were still looking for
something. It’s very mysterious.”

“You have to keep on the edge of something,
all the time, or the picture dies.”

-Willem de Kooning

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin (1518)


In thinking through the relations of art and poetry I’m currently appreciating writings which offer a certain clarity that allows both similarity and difference to emerge.  The Levertov essay possesses this and, for a more contemporary example – specifically in relation to the architectural – I recommend Jessica Smith’s introduction to her book  Organic Furniture Cellar. Smith writes:

Organic Furniture Cellar seeks to develop what I call “plastic poetry.” Like Arakawa’s buildings, these poems respond to a preexistent topographical space as well as to existing syntactical structures in the reader’s mind. Poetry always does this on some level – the blank page does not correspond to a blank page in one’s mind (just as the blank background of a blueprint or musical score does not actually correspond to a blank landscape or silent listening space, as American composer John Cage observed). The positioning of the words on the following pages attempts to acknowledge, represent, and play with these strata.

With plastic poetry, I want to change the reading space in such a way that the one who reads is forced to make amends for new structures in his or her virtual path. The words on a page must be plastic in virtual space as architecture and sculpture are plastic in real space. Thus, while plastic arts disrupt an agent’s space: plastic poetry must disrupt the reader’s space. This rupture does not stem from, as in the ordinary plastic arts, a real physical occupation of space, but rather from the disruption of the virtual space that one moves through when reading a poem. (12)


As I was putting this post together, I read “Yellow and…” an essay by Norma Cole on the work (painting and poetry) of Marjorie Welish (an audio recording is here). Cole writes:

One way to address both the painting impulse and the poetry impulse was to consider how Welish has written about painting and use that writing as the journal work, the commonplace book, as her “other” for poetry. This would be an accommodation to both, as well as a speculation about sets of relationships or possible relationships.




SOURCES: “Looking at Photographs“ appears in Levertov’s The Poet in the World (New Directions, 1973), 87-88. It is appended by the following note: “Written in response to a request from the photographic magazine, Aperture, and published as a kind of advertisement for it in Stony Brook. Barbara Guest “On the value…” appears in Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (Kelsey Street Press, 2003), 44. Giorgia Agamben, “The Friend” in What Is An Apparatus and other essays (Stanford University Press, 2009), 25-37. Jessica Smith, “The Plasticity of Poetry: A Poetics.” Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002-2004 (Outside Voices, 2004), 11-20. Norma Cole, To Be At Music: Essays & Talks (Omnidawn, 2010), 152.




In Uncategorized on February 21, 2011 at 11:50 pm







This is the first of three posts that will comprise Sandra Huber’s SLEEP/ WRITING/ ROOMS. The following notes are edited from emails between Sandra Huber and David Berridge in February 2011, following an invitation from David to make a project for the VerySmallKitchen blog.

SANDRA: The first thing that comes to mind is a project I did, and am still doing, via Artists-in-Labs, where I was a resident poet for 9 months at the Franken / Tafti sleep laboratories of the CIG in Lausanne, Switzerland. Basically, I took the brainwaves of myself in sleep and started turning them into words, creating a long and extremely visual poem from the raw data of the EEG… Eventually, and when all goes well, it’ll go up as an installation at the lab where I was working in Lausanne, but I’m always open to other ways of presenting this work, either internet or physical venues.

… We could of course start with a sort of e-book/blogroll of the conceptual side of the project, since a lot of the actual poetry is in progress (i.e. not finished…) Here’s an idea: during the residency at the sleep lab, I became very interested in the concept of “the room” — for example, the physical room of the sleep laboratory, at once made to look home-like and yet undeniably sterile, that I had to spend a night in to get my data. There are also the different stages of sleep (S1, S2, S3 & REM) that seemed like disparate rooms themselves, signaled by particular waves (sigma, delta, theta, etc).

We could work on something that gives a sense of rooms and in each “room” could be found something different: a line of poetry on a brainwave, the physical bedroom of the sleeper, a fragment of text on the science / philosophy of sleep. This also makes me think of what you wrote about what happens when the words break out of the rigid structure of the brainwaves — this entering and exiting of rooms that could sometimes spill over their boundaries… Thots?

DAVID:  Would the room be a kind of working proposition for us or would it be apparent in all the posts? I guess we could tie each post to the actual lab room, or – as I read your comments – present a series of “rooms” as distinct spatial-conceptual portions/ propositions:  one post the room of the actual room, one of only the text, one of … and so on. Or mixed up…

Have to think how the blog post format would fit this, and also how on the home page it makes columns of the recent posts. I think images and text combinations work well. The format puts quite a bit of clutter around the posts, so have to explore how something using lots of white space and just text would work, for example.

… how to organise it: posts in a series close together or more  spread out. What do you think? Could be a residency for a week….

oh yes and what you say about the connections between rooms, waves breaking out…. I wonder how we could suggest that… how would you like to start?

SANDRA: Where to start? A good question… Always the most difficult thing…

I think, with this idea of “rooms” in mind as a platform, we could literally start with the room itself — the sleep room, a mysterious sort of prelude, and some shots of myself, the sleeper (in a sort of cyborgian costume — I was trying to go for something Ada Lovelace-ish), so at first it’s unclear what exactly is being presented but we do have an idea of an unheimlich sort of space, as well as a character/subject of the writing.

We could then go directly into images of the brainwaves, just the raw waves without writing, and some theory, eventually showing how the brainwaves turn into words, i.e. presenting the poetry, and ending on the sketch of the room of the installation. So in a way, having a movement of the general going to the very specific and zooming back out again (the inside of the sleep room ends in the outside of the installation room: science has completely merged with, or been enveloped by, artifice).

Something like this? As for how it looks on the actual website, or if it’s done in a week’s residency or a more spread out form is entirely up to you..


SOURCES: The above video stills and photos were taken on July 5th, 2010 at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois Lausanne sleep laboratory, Switzerland. Of the room: Sandra Huber; of Sandra: Nicole Ottiger (video). The night nurse pictured in the photos is Nessie Tome. The project “Assembling the Morrow” that these images document was made possible through Artists-in-Labs Switzerland and the Paul Franken / Mehdi Tafti sleep laboratories at the Centre for Integrative Genomics in Lausanne.


In Uncategorized on February 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm

A few phrases from MESOSTICTACTICS, a text I wrote for the recent collage-themed issue of The Incongruous Quarterly, were included by John Bloomberg-Rissman as the 362nd installment of the ongoing IN THE HOUSE OF THE HANGMAN project, which appears on his ZEITGEIST SPAM blog.

I was intrigued by the project, noting how, during recent events in Egypt, its appropriated and sequenced “giant mashup” found a discursive place alongside other posts on politics and current affairs. Below is the original post that included the MESOSTICTACTICS texts, and a short essay from John in response to my invitation to outline some of the reasons/ methods behind the project.

NOTE: The image above evidences another series of collaboration, exchange and appropriation between John, Tom Beckett, and Ernesto Priego. Full details here.


In the House of the Hangman 362

MBUTTHEREIS NLYAIRTHER ETHEREISN stuffed down the side of a cosmic machine machine in heavens kitchen AB VET CLIMBI NT NLYTHEHIGHHIGHH RI Z NTALBUTMAN YBEF an ugly winged insect, normally seen smoking a cigarette or pipe and sporting a clueless expression the Guberif resembles the “trickle down” and “edge blur” techniques proposed by Ron Padgett in Creative Reading I

head” the

know who

in that line (some civil law chauvinists refer to this as “dog’s law” because you punish the dog after it’s done something bad). CREWMAN regales ignorant former body with report of incident: I was small when I first rocketed to war and was told to keep my speech inside your pocket to be free. Do I regret our united youth? Though aren’t we all, at some age, born to harden in a scabbing flask on power’s boiling stove? In space I have only grown smaller, eyes atrophied to arm’s length radar. My dear aging body, you and I settle in this great glass test tube, centrifuged from one another, bisected by a veil of uniform and white glove. You and I, dear empty friend, we may sunder on the asteroidal floor of God’s Cartesian laboratory! Would my radar darken if I spoke one more through you? These hypotheses no longer have me worn! (he wears away at his agglomerations with an industrial sander) ³&RQVLGHU WKH FDSDFLW\ RI WKH KXPDQ ERG\ IRU SOHDVXUH 6RPHWLPHV LW LV SOHDVDQW WR HDW WR GULQN to see, to touch, to smell, to hear, to make love. Our voluptific capacities (if you will forgive me the coinage) are not exclusively concentrated in these places, but it is undeniable that they are concentrated. Only in certain places are there wells from which we may draw up greater feeling. But not inexhaustibly. And how long is it possible to know pleasure? Rich Romans ate to satiety and then purged their overburdened bellies to ate again. They could not eat forever. A rose is sweet, but the nose becomes habituated. And what of the most intense pleasures, the personalityannihilating ecstasies of sex? Even this will turn into disgust if overprolonged. >«@ Yet consider pain. Give me a cubic centimetre of your flesh and I could give you pain that would swallow you as the ocean swallows a grain of salt. And you would always be ripe for it, from before the time of your birth to the moments after your death. We are always in season for the embrace of pain. To experience pain requires no intelligence, no maturity, no wisdom, no slow workings of the hormones in the moist midnight of our innards. We are infinitely ripe for it. All life is ripe for it. $OZD\V >«@ &RQsider the ways in which we may gain pleDVXUH > «@ &RQVLGHU WKH ZD\V LQ ZKLFK ZH PD\ EH JLYHQ SDLQ 7KH RQH LV WR WKH RWKHU DV WKH PRRQ LV WR WKH VXQ´~%DQN RI 0RQWUHDO¶V UHFRPPHQGDWLRQ IRU SRUWIROLR GLYHUVLILFDWLRQ LQ WKH 1HZ (FRQRP\Alright, an egg has a life of its own, and yet is food in the sense that we are all food; as we consume others, various others snack on us, even as we head toward that final place-setting in the soil (pause to flick an invisible creature from my eyelash). Who isn’t “avaricious”? damage: common sense tells us that additional grey matter is lost; damage: with each passing rainstorm speech or movement problems shatter. Infinite mercury paled smarter, all sunday mourning halfheard honey soothed the moon. Limpid page disengage, each hope a light by the lake. Fluids mingling in flowering currants, lilacs, wild smoke. Energy’s beaming thru the apex of the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun, radius 4.5m, frequency 28 kHz. Beam is continuous; its strength grows as it moves up and away, contradicting all known physical laws. There’s an underground labyrinth: three chambers and small blue lake, ionization 43x higher than average. Further detection confirms negative radiation through Hartman, Curry and Schneider grids = 0 in the tunnels. 10-ton ceramic sculptures are positioned over the underground water flows transforming negative energy to positive. Thus the underground labyrinth is one of the most secure underground constructions in the world making it ideally fleshly regenerative.

[Note: Sources: Except as noted, Incongruous Quarterly 2; David Berridge, “MESOSTICTACTICS”; Eben Lehman, “Forgotten Characters from Forest History: “The Guberif””, at Peeling Back the Bark, 6 Jan 011; Adam Parrish, “Q&”; James A Reeves, “My Civil Law Books Are Beautiful”, at Big American Night, 15 Jan 011; Chris Felling, “Profound Scenes from Space Thunder Kids”; MM Jones, “Mark Bradford at the ICA”, at Bauzegeist, 6 Feb 011; Colin Fulton, “The Access” (a code-god translation via the medium of cutnpaste); Jean Vengua, “(silk egg) and i cont’d.”, at Jean Vengua, 6 Feb 011; dRobert Swereda, “brain damage, rain damage”; N. Alexander Armstrong, “from Some Seminal Work”; email from Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation, “Significance of the Bosnian Pyramid Discovery”, rec’d 6 Feb 011, 05:30 AM]


A note for David Berridge, in response to his question, “I wondered if it would be possible to include a note/ short essay by you outlining some of the reasons/ methods behind the project, and how both as a whole and as individual pieces it takes shape?”

Ok. First, the project. I’m currently word-painting an altarpiece (non-religion tbd) called Zeitgeist Spam (ZS). The first panel is called No Sounds of My Own Making, and was published in 2008. The second panel is called Flux, Clot & Froth, and was published (2 vols, one text one notes) in 2010. In the House of the Hangman (ITH) is the panel-in progress. There will be at least one more, then I have to paint the backs … What’s ZS all about? What it’s like to be alive today. It’s a “poem including history”, and therefore in Poundian terms an epic. And as a comtemporary epic, it’s a “poem without a hero” (Akhmatova), or rather, a “poem in which the hero is all-or-none of us.” Therefore it’s written by all of us, in a manner of speaking, and assembled by me. It’s a giant mashup.

ITH is the most overtly “engaged” panel. It’s kinda like that last judgment wall in the Sistine Chapel. The title’s from Theodor Adorno, who wrote, “In the house of the hangman one should not speak of the noose, otherwise one might seem to harbor resentment.” The plan is to compose it in 2012 sections (because 2012’s the pseudo-mayan end of everything…), which when complete will be presented as one giant 500 page-or-so paragraph (Since it’s politically engaged, why not be brutal about it?).

Method: for each section of ITH I create a set, which is determined by RSS feeds which I receive via Google Reader daily. That stuff is augmented by whatever comes my way that same day. ITH is very diary-esque. I pick and choose at will from what appears in that set, and arrange as necessary to get the “feel” I want. So the method is semi-formal and semi-freedom.

[From her on I’m going to quote some bits from an interview Tom Beckett did with me, which was published in Otoliths a few years back]

Let me quote something Karla Kelsey wrote about me. I think she is dead-on correct. She’s writing about No Sounds Of My Own Making:

This is not a text built on the foundations of either subjectivity OR alterity. This is a text of AND. … Like many texts that hinge on the strength of “and” No Sounds of My Own Making eschews categorization. The work does not belong in a category of “pure” conceptual writing: Bloomberg-Rissman breaks his own rules too often to make a conceptual statement, and the text feels too much to be a member of what Craig Dworkin defines, in his introduction to the ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, as a pursuit of “meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process.” However, given that most of the subjective statements in No Sounds are gleaned from other authors via algorithm, the poem cannot read as a purely subjective baring of the soul in the tradition of Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow’. …

As Karla has intuited, my actual piecework is not algorithm- or constraint- or routine- driven, even if the material and the order, etc. in which I sample it is. To put it succinctly, I will quote Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto: “you just go on your nerve.” I decide to put this next to that because it feels right. Truthfully, I usually don’t know where I’m going as I piece things together. Except that at some level I’m also expressionist.


What I try to get down in pixels or on paper is a version of the tale of the tribe, which = the chatter of a very peculiar bunch of primates, which = a giant wail of suffering, which = a hallelujah chorus. Among other things. 10,000 other things. All remixed as if by a DJ like Spooky or Señor Priego, to keep us all dancing. Because, of course, the dancers inherit the party.

… there’s no real power struggle in my poems, all samples are created and remain equal, no matter how much I mess with them), I do believe that making space for a cacophonic chorus that never quite blends into one voice, each voice at equal volume with all others, each endowed with “equal rights”, is indeed a precondition for letting a just culture flourish, though I’d probably opt for some sort of anarcho-socialism rather than a univocal Maoist version. 

Of course, I know that what I’m creating is something just slightly more than the illusion of such a chorus. There’s a little man behind the Oz-curtain … But what more can I do? The totally aleatory doesn’t work for me. Not all the time, at least. I almost hate to say it, but some days I love Jackson Mac Low’s procedure notes more than his poems. Besides, 4’33” is always-already on the box, isn’t it?

John Bloomberg-Rissman
13 Feb 2011


In Uncategorized on January 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm



On January 22nd, at the Galway Arts Centre, my collaboration with Jennie Guy was performed as part of DAS SPLINTER, an evening of art and performance, curated by Economic Thought Projects. Jennie asked me to provide some texts for the performance, which was part of her READING ENSEMBLE project.

When we first discussed the project, Jennie gave me the image of a filing cabinet from which she would remove texts, handing them to the audience at the Galway Arts Centre to read. In response to this image I put together the following script. Jennie then worked on the details of the performance itself, such as what instructions (if any) to give the readers.

More info on the performance will be posted here soon. Below is the email in which I outlined my thoughts about the project, and the script itself.


Hi Jennie,

I decided to make something out of all the things I had been reading over Christmas and the New Year. I was interested in the filing cabinet as some sort of archive of reading, that each drawer contained a different set/ category of texts. I’ve also been thinking of the Reading as Publishing idea: that this is an archive of reading moments, that this performance/ reading will publish. In the filing cabinet they are sort of inbetween, in limbo, awaiting activation, uncertain…

I’ve been thinking about your role as performer/ enacter/ instigator. How do you see this? I’ve been imagining it almost as conductor – giving out texts and taking them away, listening to people, making taking sheets back, tearing off small bits of text and  giving them back to people, collaging texts, highlighting, taking sheets away from one person and giving them to another, either invitingly or tactlessly or or or – I’ve been thinking about what would be a real/ genuine/ active relationship to this filing cabinet and these texts… what you yourself might say/ read as part of the composition…

All of these texts are translations, that will be further translated by the difficulties of reading them aloud. If there are phrases which are stumbled over that, too, could be a source to work from.

At the moment I imagine three sets of texts. Three folders. One in each of the drawers of the filing cabinet. Each section of the texts printed here – separated by * – is on a separate sheet of paper. The texts are distributed to the audience in order to make the composition. Prior to opening each drawer, there is text that you read as a kind of prelude. Perhaps these texts are on a clipboard that you bring with you when you come onto the stage.

I imagine each folder being the basis of a distinct choral/ musical/ vocal composition, before the next drawer/ file is opened and the new composition begin (whether each section ends with sheets gathered back in, or is allowed to continue but hushed or not, I think depends on the moment). In the moment of performance, you might want to hand out just one or two of the quotations, or all of them, or none!

Text sources and notes are listed at the end of the script.

Jennie Guy, Reading Ensemble, Market Studios Dublin, 2010


Before opening the filing cabinets you read the following text aloud.

JENNIE: This afternoon, I heard a lecture on “The Function of Art and the Artist” by Anais Nin: she is very startling – pixie-like, other-wordly – small, finely built, dark hair, and much make-up which made her look very pale – large, questioning eyes – a marked accent which I could not label – her speech is over-precise – she shines and polishes each syllable with the very tip of her tongue and teeth – one feels that if one were to touch her, she would crumble into silver dust.


Will you please read what’s written above the score?” the lady asked.

“Moderato cantabile.” said the child.

The lady punctured his reply by striking the keyboard with a pencil. The child remained motionless, his head turned towards his score.

“And what does moderato cantabile mean?”

“I don’t know.”

A woman, seated ten feet away, gave a sigh.

“Are you quite sure you don’t know what moderato cantabile means?” the lady repeated.


The child did not reply. The lady stifled an exasperated groan, and again struck the keyboard with her pencil. The child remained unblinking. The lady turned.

“Madame Desbaresdes, you have a very stubborn little boy.”

Anne Desbaresdes sighed again.

“You don’t have to tell me,” she said.

The child motionless, his eyes lowered, was the only one to remember that dusk had just broken out. It made him shiver.

“I told you the last time, I told you the time before that, I’ve told you a hundred times. Are you sure you don’t know what it means?”


The child decided not to answer. The lady looked again the object before her, her rage mounting.

“Here we go again,” said Anne Desbaresdes under her breath.

“The touble is,” the lady went on, “the trouble is you don’t want to say it.”

Anne Desbaresdes looked again at this child from head to toe, but in a different way from the lady.


“You’re going to say it this minute,” the lady shouted.

The child showed no surprise. He still didn’t reply. Then the lady struck the keyboard a third time, so hard that the pencil broke right next to the child’s hand. His hands were round and milky, still scarcely formed. They were clenched and unmoving.

“He’s a difficult child,” Anne Desbaresdes offered timidly.

The child turned his head towards the voice, quickly towards his mother, to make sure of her existence, then resumed his pose as an object, facing the score. His hands remained clenched.


Jennie Guy, video still, Livestock Reading, 2010


JENNIE: He chatted with eminent grace between takes, then went over to stretch out again (upon a tarpaulin laid down out of camera range) on the floor of the quarried-out cavern in rock, lit up eerily by the floodlights, to be the transpierced poet—a spear through his breast (actually built around his breast on an iron hoop under his jacket). The hands gripped the spear; the talc-white face from the age of Diderot became anguished. Lunch was preceded by a cocktail, mixed by the famous hands, which he had learned to make from a novel by Peter Cheyney: “white rum, curaçao, and some other things.”


The gaunt, fine hands on the thorax; evacuation of the chest; a great breathing out from himself


two beautiful, thin, coupled wrists


shrugs  a few moments later


He stood—rather tiredly—he was very slight, quite small…

… and he went with slow steps to an end table. And he took up a tube of silver cardboard or foil, which made a cylinder mirror upon its outside. And he placed it down carefully in the exact center of an indecipherable photograph which was spread flat on this table, that I would learn was Rubens’s “Crucifixion” taken with a camera that shot in round. Masses of fog blurred out in the photo; elongations without sense. Upon the tube, which corresponded in some unseen fashion with the camera, the maker, the photograph was restored —swirls became men. Nevertheless, the objective photograph remained insane.


his voice loses its vibrant timbre—it “bleeds out.” His voice was exceptionally young; here it becomes faded.


One feels sure he recognizes the imputations for the art of writing in the decision not to correct;




JENNIE:  These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them. I have already tried to put them into writing many times. If I have written books, it has been in the hope that they would put an end to it all. If I have written novels, they have come into being just as the words began to shrink back from the truth. I am not frightened of the truth. I am not afraid to tell a secret. But until now, words have been frailer and more cunning than I would have liked. I know this guile is a warning: it would be nobler to leave the truth in peace. It would be in the best interests of the truth to keep it hidden. But now I hope to be done with it soon. To be done with it is also noble and important.


the tiny imperceptible interactions between people—the little games of aggression and retreat, the miniscule battles that constitute the present state of the psyche.


the interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.  They happen in an instant, and apprehending them in the rush of human interactions demands painstaking attention.


I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we en- closed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it.


I felt that a path was opening before me, a path that excited me. As if I’d found my own terrain, upon which I could move forward, where no one had gone prior to me. Where I was in charge.


Because it’s difficult. Because I plunge in directly, without giving any reference points. One doesn’t know where one is, or who is who. I speak right away of the essential things, and that’s very difficult. In addition, people have the habit of looking for the framework of the traditional novel—characters, plots—and they don’t find it; they’re lost.


No, what is difficult is being on the surface. One gets bored there. There are a lot of great and admirable models who block your way. And once I rise to the surface, to do something on the surface, it’s easy, but it’s very tedious and disappointing.


There are always instants. It takes place in the present finally. I’m concerned with these interior movements; I’m not concerned with time.


I’m immersed right inside, and I try to execute the interior movements that are produced in that consciousness.


Each time it didn’t interest me to continue doing the same thing. So, I would try to extend my domain to areas that were always at the same level of these interior movements, to go into regions where I hadn’t yet gone.

Jennie Guy, Questions and Answers, 2009



“This afternoon I heard a lecture…”: Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963 (FSG, New York, 2008), 17.

Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile (trs. Richard Seaver, OneWorld Classics, 2008 [1958]), 3-5. The extract here is the opening of the novel.

“He chatted with eminent grace…”: Jean Cocteau: The Art of Fiction No.34. Interviewed by William Fifield. Appeared in Paqris Review Summer-Fall 1964 no.32. Online here. I have extracted interpolations by Fifield, mostly descriptions of Cocteau’s physical deportment.

“These things happened to me…”: Maurice Blanchot., Death Sentance, in  George Quasha ed. The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction & Literary Essays (Station Hill, 1998, trans. Lydia Davis), 131.

Alain Robbe-Grillet The Art of Fiction No.91 interviewed by Shusha Guppy. Spring 1986 No.99. Online here.

Nathalie Sarraute, The Art of Fiction, No.115. interviewed by Shusha Guppy and Jason Weiss. Spring 1990, No. 114. Online here.  I have extracted texts unfolding Sarraute’s notion of “tropisms”, but excluded reference to the word itself.


In Uncategorized on January 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm

VerySmallKitchen announce the publication of BULLETINS by Mary Yacoob. This latest VSK chapbook is now available, for online consumption and PDF download here.

BULLETINS collects 19 individual bulletins that were Mary’s contribution to VerySmallKitchen’s long distance residency at the AC Institute, New York City, in September-October 2010.

Bulletins were sent each week from London to New York, where they were printed out and displayed as part of the DEPARTMENT OF MICRO-POETICS.

The project continued an ongoing strand of Mary’s practice, and several previous collaboration with VerySmallKitchen.  Two other drawings from the project were included as part of The Department of Micro-Poetics exhibition, and a wall drawing was enacted for Writing/ Exhibition/ Publication at The Pigeon Wing.

Mary provided the following statement about this project:

Mary Yacoob’s work centers on drawing and visual languages. Her works are systemic in nature, using rotation, repetition, line and geometry as triggers for ideas. Listening to the radio as she works on her ‘doodle’ drawings, Yacoob draws a letter of the alphabet or number repeatedly until a structure or city emerges. She invents a set of rules to determine the size of the unit drawn and its color (when the verse changes, the size changes, when someone on the radio speaks, the color changes).

These works are related to another project in which she extrapolates a logic from within a photograph of a building and extends it through systemic drawing, creating a proposal for alternative realities. In other works, she appropriates diagrammatic to notate overlooked traces of everyday life, such as bumps in the carpet, or house sounds.

BULLETINS begins with an index, a listing of times and places these drawings took place, a record of trusting the moment, the form, the line, and the emergent structure.

Find out more about Mary’s work here. The template for the bulletins was designed by Marit Muenzberg. For a full list of VerySmallKitchen publications see here.


In Uncategorized on January 10, 2011 at 11:30 am

On Jan 27-29th 2011 I am taking part in Beyond Text: Making and Unmaking Text across performance practices and theories, curated by Becky Cremin and Ryan Ormonde. They describe the event as follows:

Beyond Text: Making and unmaking text across performance practices and theories is a three day participatory event which looks to expand the notion of the academic conference, by asking participants to present and respond. We hope this direct and primary response-led work will open up discussion and offer productive cross-discipline exchange. We will be providing a performative academic forum: to explore the place of text in practice; the making and unmaking of the text; and the questioning of academic protocols by this destabilising of the text. We hope participants will see how text functions in different practice-based disciplines and how to contextualise different notions of textuality.

I am currently working on a presentation entitled THE CHARACTER OF A PROPOSITION. I sent the following description in response to the open call for participants:

My proposal unfolds from the following quotation by Norma Cole:

Characters are propositions of a new knowledge which constructs feelings and imaginings as characters.(Norma Cole, To Be At Music, 144).

I will use this quotation to think through “character” in relation to an ongoing process of making and unmaking text. There are several processes here which interest me:

(1) The development of ideas into a condition we might call a “character” ; (2) The use of a “character” – or “figure” – to research and explore ideas, make and un-make text; (3) The inevitable failure of that “character” and how its partiality, incompleteness and embarrassment figures in its use.

Two personal projects inform this investigation: (1) Dog Man: a character that, throughout 2010, appeared in installation, short fiction talk, poems, and essay; and (2) Writing/ Exhibition/ Publication: an exhibition I curated at The Pigeon Wing in London, exploring how writing moves (or not) between different spaces/ communities/ forms.

Rather than focussing on these projects, I would like to make a 15-20 minute performance lecture exploring character in relation to the themes of the conference.

How does character figure (!) in these translations and negotiations? How can it be a way of negotiating acts of textual making and unmaking? Here my thoughts are informed by Ann Lauterbach’s comments on Joe Brainard’s figure of Nancy, and how it enabled Brainard to negotiate/ perform his presence as an artist in New York:

The sense of crisis was everywhere, and yet Brainard seems to have been almost inured to it, as if for him a world might be made that was free from these currents of political and social unrest. That he might have found a kind of refuge in a fictive character, one who lived in a world of cheerful buoyancy and ingenuity, such as that inhabited by Nancy, seems plausible.

Nancy could travel with Joe from his humble roots in Tulsa to the bright complexity of New York City; she could be his virtual companion and side-kick as he negotiated the sophisticated, charged world of such figures as Warhol and O’Hara. Nancy could be inserted into this world, instantly stripping it of its formidable aura, transforming it into an accessible, intimate realm. Nancy could be the agent of an accommodating, domestic nearness and hereness. Both the troubled, earnest pathos of the times and the overwhelming grandeur of “high art” might be resisted, or converted, by Nancy’s ubiquitous  smile. The monumental scale of events could be kept in check by  a handheld postcard, a line drawn around an image. (Joe Brainard, The Nancy Book, 13)

Joe Brainard, If Nancy Was An Ashtray, mixed media, 1972


I’m currently working on the presentation, thinking also through The Fluxus President, a project first published as part of the publication for Pursuit: Failure symposium in Berlin.

I’ve also been reading Heriberto Yépez’s essay “On Character” in which he writes:

whose character? Always some ❘ body else, character is always ‘us’ – in a way it’s never just us. character can be identified (partially) with the writer, each character has some characteristics (secret or announced) that the writer has – i.e., characteristics s❘he supposes are hers or his. but are not. characters are part of the writer’s life, but are never him or her, nor any person in particular; they cannot be separated, nor are they fantasy. characters are the author’s psychical family, society’s trail of doppelgängers in its course through time. imagination cannot happen. fantasy is impossible. reality pollutes everything. imagination cannot escape completely from the here and now of material/ historical/bodily circumstance. ‘fiction’ wanted to escape from history – the possibility of a realm made exclusively of fantasy – a critical illusion it has always pursued, only to leave evidence of failed fugitives. who’s the character? no one, but many. anyone’s double. including, of course, the other side, the so-called readers, somebody else (too) many. characters operate in the field of indeterminacy, of multiplicity. (i hate names. names are in favour of being-just-one.) writing a character (packages) we do not respond to the question who am i? but to this the interrogation who else am I? a question that cannot be responded to. a character, a failed attempt to know ourselves. (159-60)

SOURCE: Heriberto Yépez “on character” in Mary Burger et al eds. Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House Books, 2004), 158-168. Full text online here.

More to follow.

JUST PUBLISHED: NEW VSK CHAPBOOK lilmp by seekers of lice

In Uncategorized on January 6, 2011 at 11:30 pm

VerySmallKitchen announce the publication of lilmp by seekers of lice. This e-book is available for online consumption and PDF download here.

Some reading notes 06/01/11:

lilmp unfolds a poetics entwined in the materiality and soundscapes of its (own) language.  Try saying the title aloud. Not unpronounceable, but hard for the mouth and tongue to negotiate between that second “l” and “m.” Maybe this is a palindrome, but the way back poses even severer problems!

lilmp is improvisatory, diaristic, re-searching, close to home as it heads out, scouring through windows and along streets and riverbanks, adrift in its vocabularies…

… words break into pieces, warp and move under the pressure and impetus of their own morphemes…

The first word of most pages of lilmp is underlined. It makes a title, but not fully. A kind of emphasis. A line. A place to start, maybe retrospectively.

Lewdness. Vice money. Are the “titles” found texts?  Wormwound. Where would you find that? Found as made. Made as finding.

How do we relate word and image? Boundaries of play and pressure. What exactly is the mood and psychodynamics when language is worked in this granular way, shaped and edited with an awareness of its feel in the mouth, where it might also become stuck feathered flipping polyphemous calm don’t (say the title again).

lilmp language is often addressed to someone, sometimes quite directly, words forming, breaking and shaped by that unseen other:

have I turned you?

a thorn in yr side.
sharpness of the razor blade withering .
stupidity and dejection   .
lowering the bar   .
raised platform balance hake and oak   .

Those extra spaces before full stops (but not before the question mark).  Like words, punctuation, underlinings, scoring an emotion, making sure time is here, making everything sculptural, the other entering, although they only speak here on the texts own terms…

Why do I keep skimming over The Guardian photo of the boxers pinned to the wall, thinking it’s Joseph Beuys? It’s not. It is.

Sometimes – Pulled   out   &    washing    the     weeds –  is a distinct action described, but that is not principally the function of writing. Such acts become absorbed into an act of attentiveness, mattering in language, i-pod and hairy mac

If each page-theatre has its own autonomy it also knows/ senses the book/ poem it becomes part of, as tales, fickle perceived remedies/ puzzled sacrificed anxiety as in

pig’s snout glamour
grunt a
isation      Who’ll call

senses of measuring, pairs, weight, caught out, compound

how things move, oozing, utter, vocabularies. Both paper towel dispenser and telemachus, search engine and sheenlack

Compare lilmp with the recent bookwork/poem notes/ohms.  Most seekers of lice books I’ve seen have several fragments to a page, run across pages, foreground a messy and potentially delirious act of reading over a quiet contemplation of white space and type

The same is true here: words fill the pages, but the format of these pages, like postcards, enables a focusing of attention, an isolation. If there is two words, they are printed large but is still two words proposed for out attention, underlining now close to the fractions dividing line:


lilmp focus on the figure the ground takes care of itself is figure

lilmp isn’t the first seekers of lice work published by others – see The Bride of L’Amor-mor-l’amor in oneedit.  seekers (other) books have a distinct aesthetic of paper (often tracing paper), binding, shape, a degree of standardised format within which each writing/ project  terrapin   . harpoon. can perform…

What’s the e-book equivalent of tracing paper? Of  – as in  notes/ohms – painting over tracing paper, blocking its blurred transparency, and/or letting the layers of text bleed through?  If I think of lilmp as a vertical book-stack, it’s white card, transparency transferred into time, body, memory, heat sun-neck

A line flows on, but by the time you’ve made your way back to the left margin, so much has changed, or maybe not.


lilmp is here. More about seekers of lice here.


In Uncategorized on January 5, 2011 at 11:27 am

In November, walking through Berlin on my first morning in the city, I unexpectedly came across the Berliner Ensemble. I had a strong response to the building, feeling, although I had stumbled across it by accident, that I had made some kind of pilgrimage to the theatre.

I unfolded a bit of this encounter as part of MY READING DID THIS TO ME, my talk at the Flat Time House in December. The building evoked vividly the experience of reading Brecht’s plays and journals, as well as the black and white photographs of Brecht’s rehearsals in the Ensemble – particularly one of Helene Weigel as Mother Courage. Also, the Theatremachine texts of Heiner Mueller, a later inhabitant of the theatre.

The space of those black and white rehearsal photos – not that findable on the internet, but available in the many books edited and translated by John Willett – suggested further spaces of working and possibility.

For a while  I thought my excitement at these images and texts was about the possibility of working in theatre. But, actually, my own response has been about translating that possibility and space into other fields of activity… into writing, reading, teaching, ????. Seeing the Berliner Ensemble building that morning in November made that very clear.

Still thinking through all this, I came across Kenneth Tynan’s description of a similar discovery of the Berliner Ensemble building. The following text is extracted from Tynan’s SUMMING-UP: 1959, which appeared in Kenneth Tynan, Tynan On Theatre (Pelican Books, 1964).

It also appears here as an intervention of this sense of theatre and rehearsal into ideas of art and writing.

KENNETH TYNAN: I have paid many visits to Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in the five years since it took up residence at the Theater am Schiff bauerdamm, but whenever I approach the place, I still feel a frisson of expectation, an anticipatory lift, that no other theater evokes. Western taxis charge double to go East, since they are unlikely to pick up a returning fare, but the trip is worth it: the arrow-straight drive up to the grandiose, bullet-chipped pillars of the Brandenberg Gate; the perfunctory salutes of the guards on both sides of the frontier; the short sally past the skinny trees and bland neo-classical façades of Unter den Linden (surely the emptiest of the world’s great streets), and the left turn that leads you across the meagre, oily stream of the Spree and into the square-cum-parking-lot where the theatre stands, with a circular neon sign – ‘BERLINER ENSEMBLE’ – revolving on its roof like a sluggish weather vane. You enter an unimposing foyer, present your ticket, buy a superbly designed programme, and take your seat in an auditorium that is encrusted with gilt cupids and cushioned in plush. When the curtain, adorned with its Picasso dove, goes up, one is usually shocked, so abrupt is the contrast between the baroque prettiness of the house and the chaste, stripped beauty of what one sees on the expanses, relatively enormous, of the stage. No attempt is made at realistic illusion. Instead of being absorbed by a slice of life, we are sitting in a theatre while a group of actors tell us a story that happened some time ago. By means of songs, and captions projected on to a screen, Brecht explains what conclusions he draws from the tale, but he wants us to quarrel with him – to argue that this scene not have ended as it did, or that this character might have behaved otherwise. He detested the reverence of most theatre audiences, much preferring the detached, critical expertise that he noted in spectators at sporting events. Theatrical trickery, such as lighting and scene changes, should not, he felt, be concealed from the customer. In his own words,

… don’t show him too much
But show something. And let him observe
That this is not magic but
Work, my friends.

Always, as a director, he told his actors that the mere act of passing through a stage door did not make them separate, sanctified creatures cut off from the mass of humanity – hence his practice, which is still followed to som extent by the Ensemble, of allowing outsiders to wander into rehearsals, as long as they keep quiet. He abhorred the idea that the production of plays is a secret, holy business, like the murmur of some rare hothouse plant. If actors can spend their spare time watching ditchdiggers, he said, why shouldn’t ditchdiggers watch actors? Initially, the Ensemble actors were embarrassed by this open-door policy; later, however, they realized how much it had helped them to shed inhibitions. A cast that has rehearsed for weeks before strangers is unlikely to dread an opening night.

I arrived at the theatre this year during a rehearsal, and one that was loaded with nostalgia. The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s first decisive success, was being prepared for revival on the same stage that had seen its première thirty-one years earlier, with the same director in charge – Erich Engel, now looking gaunt  and unwell, despite the jaunty cock-sureness of his beret. As I entered, somebody was singing ‘Mack the Knife’ with the tinny, nasal, vibrato that one remembers from the old Telefunken records. Engel and two young assistants interrupted from time to time, talking with the easy, probing frankness that comes of no haste, no pressure, no need to worry about publicity, deadlines, or out-of-town reviews. I noticed that Mr Peachum, a part usually given to a rubicand butterball, was being played by Norbert Christian, a slim soft-eyed actor in his thirties. Brecht, I reflected, would have liked that; he always detested physical type-casting. In Brecht’s theatre it is what people do, not what they feel or how they look, that counts. Action takes precedence over emotion, fact over fantasy. ‘Die Wahrheit ist Konkret’ (‘Truth is concrete’) was Brecht’s favourite maxim; for him there could be no such thing as abstract truth. Someone once asked him what the purpose of a good play ought to be. He answered by describing a photograph he had seen in a magazine, a double-page spread of Tokyo after the earthquake. Amid the devastation, one building remained upright. The caption consisted of two words: ‘Steel Stood’. That, said Brecht, was the purpose of drama – to teach us how to survive.

The rehearsal continued, the patient denuding process that would ultimately achieve that naked simplicity and directness on which the Ensemble prides itself. To encourage the players to look at themselves objectively, a large mirror had been placed in the footlights, and throughout the session photographs were taking pictures of everything that happened, providing a visual record that would afterwards be used to point out to the actors just where, and how, they had gone wrong. One of the most impressive women alive had meanwhile come to sit beside me – Helene Weigel, Brecht’s widow, who has directed the Ensemble since its inception ten years ago and plays several of the leading roles. At sixty, she has a lean, nut-brown face that suggests, with its high cheekbones, shrewdy hooded eyes, and total absence of make-up, a certain kind of Spanish peasant matriarch; her whole manner implies a long life of commanding and comforting, of which she clearly regrets not an instant. Her warmth is adventurous, her honesty contagious, and her sophistication extreme, and that is the best I can do to sum up a woman who would, I think, be proud to be called worldly, since a scolding, tenacious affection for the world is the main article of her faith. The Weigel – to adopt the German manner of referring to an actress – has no real counterpart in the American theatre; in appearance, and in dedication, she resembles Martha Graham, but a Martha Graham altogether earthier and more mischevious than the one Americans know. At the end of the rehearsal we exchanged gifts and greetings. I got a scarf, designed by Picasso in the company’s honour; a book about the ensembles seminal production, Mother Courage; a photographic dossier comparing the performance of Charles Laughton and Ernst Busch in the title role of Brecht’s The Life of Galileo; and – unexpectedly – a complicated game of the do-it-yourself variety, invented by Mozart to teach children how to compose country dances by throwing dice. The Weigel, alas, got only a cigarette lighter. Talking about the state of the company, she said, ‘When Brecht died, I was afraid this place might become a museum.’ Her fears have turned out to be unjustified. It is true that the Ensemble mostly performs Brecht plays, but the plays are acted and directed by people steeped in the Brecht spirit. Throughout the theatre his ghost is alive and muscular.  (251-2)