Posts Tagged ‘demotic archives of art writing’


In Uncategorized on November 19, 2011 at 11:14 am


VerySmallKitchen writes: This edition of the Demotic Archives focusses on the TROPISMS of Nathalie Sarraute, via (A) a foreword to a joint English language edition of Tropisms (originally published in French 1939) and Sarraute’s essay collection The Age of Suspicion (1956).

Sarraute’s foreword outlines her understanding of the tropism as the “inner ‘movements’… which are hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives”.  It also serves  to correct misunderstandings about  the relation between these fiction writings (Sarraute’s first) and the theoretical ideas that unfolded from them and which were often considered in relation to the nouveau roman of the 1950s.

This foreword is supplemented here by:  (B) two tropisms from her original collection, selected partly for their engagement with relations of culture and sociality and (C) an extract from Age of Suspicion that discusses tropisms through the figure of the Partner. (D) provides an example of how Sarraute’s ideas became part of the fiction and criticism of Christine Brook-Rose.



SOURCE TEXT: Nathalie Sarraute, TROPISMS and The AGE OF SUSPICION (London, John Calder, 1963. Translated by Maria Jolas).





THE PUBLICATION in one volume of a work like Tropisms – which some considered to be a collection of prose poems – with what, quite obviously, is furthest removed from it: a series of essays on the novel, may cause legitimate surprise.

And yet this proximity is justifiable.

The great interest shown today in discussions of the novel, and especially in the theories advanced by the supporters of what, in France at present, is called ‘Nouveau Roman’, has led many to imagine that these theorising novelists are cool calculators who began by constructing their theories, which they then decided to put into practice in their books. This explains the fact that their novels have been referred to as ‘laboratory experiments.’

If this were the case, it might seem plausible that, one fine day, after having formulated certain opinions on the evolution, content and form of the present-day novel, I sat down at my table and undertook to apply them by writing Tropisms, and the books that followed.

Nothing could be more mistaken than this supposition. For no literary work can be a mere illustration of principles, however convincing. And, in fact, these articles, all of which were written in 1947, are far removed from the conception and composition of my first book.

I started to write in 1932, when I composed my first Tropism. At that time, I had no preconceived ideas on the subject of literature and this one, as were those that followed it, was written under the impact of an emotion, of a very vivid impression. What I tried to do was to show certain inner ‘movements’ by which I had long been attracted; in fact, I might even say that, ever since I was a child, these movements, which are hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives, had struck and held my attention. In this domain, my first impressions go  back very far.

These movements, of which we are hardly cognizant, slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak and the feelings we manifest, all of which we are aware of experiencing, and are able to define. They seemed, and still seem to me to constitute the secret source of our existence, in what might be called its nascent state.

And since, while we are performing them, no words express them, not even those of the interior monologue – for they develop and pass through us very rapidly in the form of frequently very sharp, brief sensations, without our perceiving clearly what they are – it was not possible to communicate them to the reader otherwise than by means of equivalent images  that would make him experience analogous sensations. It was also necessary to make them break up and spread out in the consciousness of the reader the way a slow-motion film does. Time was no longer the time of real life, but of a hugely amplified present.

These movements seemed to me to be veritable dramatic actions, hiding beneath the most commonplace conversations, the most everyday gestures, and constantly emerging up on the surface of the appearances that both conceal and reveal them.

The dramatic situations constituted by these invisible actions interested me as such. Nothing could distract my attention from them and nothing should distract that of the reader; neither the personality of the characters, nor the plot, by means of which, ordinarily, the characters evolve. The barely visible, anonymous character was to serve as mere prop for these movements, which are inherent in everybody and can take place in anybody, at any moment.

Thus my first book is made up of a series of moments, in which, like some precise dramatic action shown in slow motion, these movements, which I called Tropisms, come into play. I gave them this name because of their spontaneous, irresistible, instinctive nature, similar to that of the movements made by certain living organisms under the influence of outside stimuli, such as light.

This analogy, however, is limited to the instinctive, irresistible nature of the movements, which are produced in us by the presence of others, or by objects from the outside world. It obviously never occurred to me to compare human beings with insects or plants, as I have sometimes been reproached with doing.

The volume entitled Tropisms appeared in 1939, under the imprimatur of Denoël. The present edition, source of this translation, was published by the Editions de Minuit, in 1957. It is a corrected re-edition of the 1939 volume, to which have been added the six last texts, written between 1939 and 1941.

This first book contains in nuce all the raw material that I have continued to develop in my later works.

Tropisms are still the living substance of all my books, the only difference being that they now play a more important role, the time of the dramatic action they constitute is longer, and there is added complexity in the constant play that takes place between them and the appearances and commonplaces with which they emerge into the open: our conversations, the personality we seem to have, the person we seem to be in one another’s eyes, the stereotyped things we believe we feel, as also those we discover in others, and the superficial dramatic action constituted by plot, which is nothing but a conventional code that we apply to life.

My first books: Tropismes, which appeared in 1939, and Portrait d-un inconnu in 1948, passed practically unnoticed in the post-war literary atmosphere, which was dominated by the Behaviourist tendency and by a metaphysics of the ‘absurd.’

As a result, if for no other reason than to seek justification, reassurance or encouragement for myself, I began to reflect upon the motives that impelled me to reject certain things, to adopt certain techniques, to examine certain works of both past and present, and to anticipate those of the future, in an effort to discover an irreversible direction in literature that would permit me to see if my own quest was in line with this direction.

Thus it was that, in 1947, I was prompted to study the works of Dostoievski and Kafka from a particular angle. In the article entitled L’Ere du soupçon, which appeared in 1950, I tried to show the results of the transformations of characters in fiction since Balzac’s time,as exemplified in the contemporary novel. And in Conversation et sous-conversation,  published in 1955, I called attention to the out-moded nature of dialogue as practised in the traditional novel.

In connection with the latter article, I should like to stress the fact that when I spoke of the old-fashioned nature of the works of Joyce and Proust, or the naïveté of Virginia Woolf’s ideas on the subject of the novel, it was quite obviously to poke fun at those who had expressed themselves in this manner about these writers. Taken as a whole, it seems to me that this article is perfectly clear; I insist on this point, however, because it has been a source of occasional misunderstanding.

Lastly, in the article entitled Ce que voient les oiseaux, which appeared in 1956, I tried to show, among other things, the academic, formalist features of a certain type of ‘realism’.

Some of the ideas expressed in these articles have contributed to the essential bases for what, today, us called the ‘Nouveau Roman.’

And so, it seems to me that the present volume, to which two such dissimilar works as Tropisms and The Age of Suspicion may give an appearance of incongruity, by virtue of this very juxtaposition, gives a fair account of my endeavours, as they progressed from my first Tropisms to the theoretical viewpoints that derived from them.


Paris, 1962. (7-11)








She had understood the secret. She had scented the hiding-place of what should be the real treasure for everybody. She knew the ‘scale of values.’

No conversations about the shape of hats and Rémond fabrics for her.  She had profound contempt for square-toed shoes.

Like a wood-louse she had crawled insidiously towards them and maliciously found out about ‘the real thing’, like a cat that licks its chops and closes its eyes before a jug of cream it has discovered.

Now she knew it. She was going to stay there. They would never dislodge her from there again. She listened, she absorbed, greedy, voluptuous, rapacious. Nothing of what belonged to them was going to escape her: picture galleries, all the new books… She knew all that. She had begun with ‘Les Annales’, now she was veering towards Gide, soon she would be going to take notes, an eager, avid gleam in her eye,  at meetings of the ‘Union for Truth’.

She ranged over all that, sniffed everywhere, picked up everything with her square-nailed fingers; as soon as anyone spoke vaguely of that anywhere, her eyes lighted up, she stretched out her neck, agog.

For them this was unutterably repellent. Hide it from her – quick – before she scents it, carries it away, preserve it from her degrading contact… But she foiled them, because she knew everything. The Chartres Cathedral could not be hidden from her. She knew all about it. She had read what Péguy had thought of it.

In the most secret recesses, among the treasures that were the best hidden, she rummaged about with her avid fingers. Everything ‘intellectual’. She had to have it. For her. For her, because she knew now the real value of things. She had to have what was intellectual.

There were a great many like her, hungry, pitiless parasites, leeches, firmly settled on the articles that appeared, slugs stuck everywhere, spreading their mucus on corners of Rimbaud, sucking on Mallarmé, lending one another Ulysses or the Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, which they slimed with their low understanding.

‘It’s so beautiful,’ she said, opening her eyes in which, with a pure, inspired expression, she kindled a ‘divine spark’. (34-5)






During his very well-attended lectures at the Collège de France, he amused himself with all that.

He enjoyed prying, with the dignity of professional gestures, with relentless, expert hands, into the secret places of Proust or Rimbaud, then, exposing their so-called miracles, their mysteries, to the gaze of his very attentive audience, he would explain their ‘case’.

With his sharp, mischevous little eyes, his ready-tied cravate and his square-trimmed beard, he looked enormously like the gentleman in the advertisements who, with one finger in the air, smiling recommends Saponite, the best of soap-powders, or the model Salamander: economy, security, comfort.

‘There is nothing,’ he said, ‘you see I went to look for myself, because I won’t be bluffed; nothing that I myself have not already studied clinically countless times, that I have not catalogued and explained.

‘They should not upset you. Look, in my hands they are like trembling, nude little children, and I am holding them up to you in the hollow of my hand, as though I were their creator, their father, I have emptied them for you of their power and their mystery. I have tracked down, harried what was miraculous about them.

‘Now they hardly differ from the intelligent, curious and amusing eccentrics who come and tell me their interminable stories, to get me to help them, appreciate them, and reassure them.

‘You can no more be affected than my daughters are when they entertain their girl friends in their mother’s parlour, and chatter and laugh gaily without being concerned with what I am saying to my patients in the next room.’

This was what he taught at the Collège de France. And in the entire neighbourhood, in all the nearby Faculties, in the literature, law, history and philosophy courses, at the Institute and at the Palais de Justice, in the buses, in the métros, in all the government offices, sensible men, normal men, active men, worthy, wholesome, strong men, triumphed.

Avoiding the shops filled with pretty things, the women trotting briskly along, the café waiters, the medical students, the traffic policemen, the clerks from notary offices, Rimbaud or Proust, having been torn from life, cast out from life and deprived of support, were probably wandering aimlessly through the streets, or dozing away, their heads resting on their chests, in some dusty public square. (36-7)






Those who have followed him [Gide] and have wanted to try and make these subterranean actions re-live for the reader as they unfold, have met with certain difficulties. Because these inner dramas composed of attacks, triumphs, recoils, defeats, caresses, bites, rapes, murders, generous abandons or humble submissions, all have one thing in common: they cannot do without a partner.

Often it is an imaginary partner who emerges from our past experiences or from our day-dreams, and the scenes of love or combat between us, by virtue of their wealth of adventure, the freedom with which they unfold and what they reveal concerning our least apparent inner structure, can constitute very valuable fictional material.

It remains nonetheless true that the essential feature of these dramas is constituted by an actual partner.

For this fresh and blood partner is constantly nurturing and renewing our stock of experiences. He is pre-emionently the catalyser, the stimulant, thanks to whom these movements are set in motion, the obstacle that gives them cohesion, that keeps them from growing soft from ease and gratuitousness, or from going round and round in circles in the monotonous indigence of ruminating on one thing. He is the threat, the real danger as well as the prey that brings out their alertness and their suppleness; the mysterious element whose unforeseeable reactions, by making them continually start up again and evolve towards an unknown goal, accentuate their dramatic nature.

But at the same time that, in order to attain to this partner, they rise up from our darkest recesses towards the light of day, a certain fear forces them back towards the shadow. They make us think of the little grey roaches that hide in moist holes. They are ashamed and prudent. The slightest look makes them flee. To blossom out they must have anonymity and impunity.

They consequently hardly show themselves in the form of actions. For actions do indeed develop in the open, in the garish light of day, and the tiniest of them, compared with these delicate, minute inner movements, appear to be gross and violent: they immediately attract attention. All their forms have long since been examined and classified; they are subject to strict rules, to very frequent inspection. Finally, very obvious, well-known, frank motives, thick, perfectly visible wires make all this enormous, heavy machinery work.

But lacking actions, we can use words. And words possess the qualities needed to seize upon, protect and bring out into the open these subterranean movements that are at once impatient and afraid. (106-108)





Interviewed by Lorna Sage, Christine Brooke-Rose notes “I was influenced by her [Sarraute’s] critical ideas in L’Ère  du soupçon, which attacked certain realist conventions, but not by her novels, though I admire them.” (172) Elsewhere she writes specifically of the infliuence of Sarraute’s “the age of suspicion” essay and Sarraute’s emphasis on “suspicion of fiction and the demand for “le petiti fait vrai”” (13)

Brooke-Rose discusses Sarraute as part of her own interest in the precise nature of speech and authorial voice in the novel. Of “tropisms” and “sub-conversation” Brooke-Rose writes:  “Clearly these are not dialogue, yet they are in speech form; as conversation, however “sub,” they do seem to be “inner speech,” and they did lead Sarraute to the theater, and not necessarily inner theater.” (149) Brooke-Rose tells Sage:

She explores what she calls sous-conversations, which grow and shrink like tropisms in biology. So we’re closes to interior monologue, though she would have hated to hear that, and it’s much more finely modulated. (172)

In discussing the essays of L’Ère  du soupçon (1956) Brooke-Rose expresses a frustration that Sarraute’s discussions never focus on the “how” but remain wedded to the same content summary to be found in traditional criticism of the novel:

In practice, despite Sarraute’s claimed interest in technique, which she prefers to call method, and her superb reversal of the Formalist/ Realist opposition, [1] she discusses every problem she mentions, and every author, purely in terms of content. That may result from her curious way of exposing the problems as summary of critical thought, as if she were inside another, more traditional critic’s mind… (11)

But even when this kind of critical summary is disentangled from her own more direct views in the critical present tense Sarraute never seems to pass from abstract feelings to what I call the how… In a later chapter on conversation and subconversation (the technique she made so very much her own), Sarraute can only talk of “subtle, barely perceptible, fleeting, contradictory, evanescent movements… timid appeals,” and so on, without once analyzing how in fact she creates,  or as she would prefer to say, captures these. That was “not done.”  (12)

Brook-Rose focusses on the how of Sarraute by considering usage of the present tense in Le Planétarium (1959) alongside examples by Beckett, Duras and Robbe-Grillet that all contribute to ridding the novel of the dominant past tense “which has always been used as a reassuring guarantor of real events.” (132).  Analysing the opening of Le Planétarium Brooke-Rose observes:

With Sarraute, we are plunged into speech forms (various tenses), but inside the consciousness of someone… As in Robbe-Grillet we do not know whose mind we’re in, there is no “je” (in the opening), but (as in James or Woolf) that mind is represented by the third person… getting more and more excited, gushing internally, but not narrating. (137)



SOURCE TEXT: Christine Brooke-Rose, Invisible Author: Last Essays (Columbus, The Ohio State University Press,  2002).





[1] Brooke-Rose writes: “Sarraute in a way goes back to Hegel, though without the decorative implication, by brilliantly reversing his opposition, insisting that the true realists are those who look so hard at a changing reality that they have to invent new forms to capture it, whereas the formalists are the epigones who come afterwards, taking over these once unfamiliar but now ready-made forms  and pouring them into a perfectly familiar reality anyone can see… When Sarraute said this, she was in a sense still part of an old dispensation that regarded reality as pre-existent and merely to be “captured” by art rather than as a new reality created by the artist (or anyone) through language. (40-41).





An essay on Sarraute’s The Age of Suspicion – that also highlights a disjunction of theory and practice – is Susan Sontag’s “Nathalie Sarraute and the Novel” included in Against Interpretation (1966).  See also an interview in The Paris Review here.

Some aspects and locations of Sarraute’s contemporary influence is suggested by a 2010 reprint of her The Use of Speech by Counterpath Press.





In Uncategorized on September 19, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Dick Higgins: Sparks for Piano (1979) The darker, the louder: the lighter. the softer. Duration up to three minutes



What is a legend?

Dwight D.Eisenhower. Suppose Dwight D.Eisenhower. Impossible. Dwight D.Eisenhower an executive. Dwight D.Eisenhower a general not a general. Grant Grant. Grant Grant was a general and is a general and not a man.

Running against Eisenhower running against Santa Claus.

The depression exciting but not interesting. Not interesting. The depression not a legend.

Grant coming and going. Grant on a horse. Grant chewing cigars. Thank you Grant for everything.

1 2 Grant. 1 2 3 4 5 Grant. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0       1 2 3.

4 Grant I mean. Thank you Grant.

Sitting Bull famous. Sitting Bull very famous. Sitting Bull on tour. Chief Spotted Dear God Keep You. WIAL. Sitting Bull famous. Sitting Bull with his braves.

Sometimes more. Sometimes Sitting Bull climbing on a hill. Sometimes Sitting Bull calling the ghosts of his ancestors. Sitting Bull in action. Sitting Bull loving Mama Bull. Sitting Bull collecting. Was your Grandfather collected?

Sitting Bull if in action rapidly in action, having to be in action a need for being in thought in action happening in action. But not always in action.

Grant walking. Grant modest but chewing and walking and riding slow. Grant being walking and being drunk and just being and being and being and hurrying.

Sitting Bull being and more. Rapidity. City Bull moving. City Bull changing his mind and making war on the palefaces. City Bull and Al saying “Ugh. Mishugennah.” Sitting Bull possibly heroic, and City Bull certainly is heroic. Sitting Bull become heroic. Sitting Bull becoming. Eisenhower not becoming. Eisenhower hiding. Grant unbecoming but coming and going and being and working.

Is it possible when legends. Is it possible when legends being. Is it possible when history and legends being. History is nice. Can legends and spice be. Spicy bee in chocolate. Can you milk a cow. Can you offer. Offering is always legendary.

Legends and legends.

What legends and what horses and what indians and what soldiers. And what sages and what vegetables. And what meals there are and are being and have been.

Legends are grammar. Legends are the grammar of what we might be being. Hickory is not history. Sophistocation is the enemy of history. When there is no wind there is legend. When there is a big blow there is legend. Legend is hello. There are many legends that nobody has made. Sounds and legends growing like mushrooms in the night. Here we are, amazing. Are we amazing.

Can one be interesting. Can one be interested. Can one be history. Can one be legendary. Being is not historical. Being is history. Having been is history. Being having been. Having been being. That is legend. Legend means sometimes that you wear a hat when you go out of doors. Have you been wearing a hat.

Legend is smiling. Legend and seeing can be brothers.

Legend is donating. Legend is donating the present to the past. Legend is donating being to having been. To having been being. To having been present. To having been the present. Legend is grammatical. Legend is a pussycat and a catnip mouse.

One might have lived in a house. One might have been offering asparagus and tobacco and peas and donating is offering and trees and all the birds what what and what is seen.

Legend is without art. Legend is something else. Legend involves having seen. Legend rides to the moon on a hobby horse. Legend and Isaac. Legend the saints. Legend and dirt. Legend and Dr. Johnson. Legend and what painters are. Legend and what do you enjoy. Legend making action. Action making legend. Action is possible from legend.

Legend is what people do when they are almost asleep. Legend is what people do when they have hidden their minds. Legend is a garbage can, a sacred garbage can. Legend must be without art and with speed. Legend is in poor taste. Legend is without wit. Witlessness. Witlessness and form.

Wits make tables into tables. Then tables cease to be really tables. Tables turning into tables are not legendary. Tables and tables are legendary.

Tables and legends.

This is what tables and legends have done for you.

Abraham Lincoln.

This is called tables and legends.

This is what tables and legends have done for you.

Abraham Lincoln.

This is called tables and legends.

Tables and legends.

If an angel. If an angel dancing. If an angel dancing on a table. If an angel on a table dancing on an alter. Is an angel and altar. Is a table an altar. That is wit. This is not wit.

An angel on a table dancing on an altar.

Angels and tables. The life you save may be your own. Life guard.
If a bird. If a bird dies he lies in the bathtub.

Fat men. Fat men are ticklish.

It is bad luck to walk under a ladder.

Tie a knot and kill your enemy. Tie a knot and cure your ill. Abracadabra. Put in a nickle and out comes Butterfingers and Ray.


Sneeze on Monday. Sneeze for danger. Sneeze on Tuesday. Love a stranger. Sneeze on Friday. Sneeze for sorrow. Sneeze on Saturday. See your own true love tomorrow.

What is the use of saving a small fish so that you can eat a large one. What is the use of having been Geographically a child.

These are all familiar having been thoughts. The thoughts of famous people.

But legends must be fast or they are not simple. Simple and true. Legends are wheels spinning and old automobiles coming. Legends are not geographies.

And so having been born was there but is.

I offer you a cigar.

Legend comes from places. Everything comes from the ocean. All the good words begin with C of which there are 7.

Thank you.

May I offer you a cigar.

Drop dead how sad.

What does it mean.

(                                       ) *


Thank you.

Legending is done by ears. These ears are located in the center of the forehead, assuming that the C’s are in line. Lines do not curve. They sometimes swurve but they never curve. To see with your ears, what happens is not a line. Not if a legend. What happens is on the wall.

One might let the happenings happen.

One might not.

One might contribute.

1 and 1, and 1 in a box.

Being better.

1 might offer a fly his freedom. 1 might be clearly red. 1 might reflect the sun. 1 might not have enough air. 1 is many things.

Who are people anyway.

This is the most useless thought ever.

1 in a spaceship. What is 1 I will make 1. A little 1.

Here I am.

Once I climbed a hill, not a legend.

Here is a hill, not a legend.

A hill. Beginning. I climbing. Nous voyons …. no legend.

A hill. Climbing. I, fat, with grease in my hair.

A monkey’s cheek pouch. To damage. Abracadabra. Abstractly accessible. Banausic beans. Chug chug.

To the tune of twinkle twinkle little star.

Thanking and offering makes everything clear.

Somebody has ruined the soup.
The End

Here we come to the end.

Legends comes form the sixth sea, after everybody else has gone away.

Legends do not know.

Legends are what never know anything.

Legends move.

Ivor a legend. Everything is clear.

I thank you.

The End

Still not the end. I cannot call on the end.

Everything is clear.

I thank you.



Autumn, 1959

* Nobody home.



SOURCE: First published in 1960 by Bern Porter as a pamphlet. This text from Dick Higgins, Legends & Fishnets (Barton, Vermont & New York, New York: Unpublished Editions: 1976), 11 -17. For the original formatting see the PDF here. Spelling as in original.




In his essay “The Strategy of Each of My Books,” Higgins writes:


What Are Legends (1960), my first book, is the theoretical text which goes with Legends and Fishnets (1958-60, 1969; published in 1976). It exemplifies my near-obsession with unifying my theory and practice, written as it is in my “legend” style; this style uses few verbs in the indicative mode, substituting participles wherever possible, in order to get a pictorial effect in words. Important conceptual models to me were certain late Latin poems in which strings of participles provide the movement of the poem (e.g., the “Stabat Mater”) and the last part of the De Quincey “English Mail Coach,” as well as the obvious modernist texts by Gertrude Stein and others. I printed it myself when I was at the Manhattan School of Printing, using a handlettered text and found-illustrations by Bern Porter, a highly original graphic artist and writer from Maine whose work I have admired for many years.


SOURCE: Dick Higgins, Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 118.


Dick Higgins, Intermedia Chart (1995)


Higgins was also a publisher of Unpublished Editions, so perhaps the cover blurb for Legends & Fishets can be seen as a further author’s note:



“Must a story consist only of what is told? Or can it also lie in the language? Or in the interplay among the ideas and images embodied in the words?

In Legends & Fishnets Dick Higgins sets out to use a whole bevy of unorthodox means of narrative. The legending idea is simply that the image of a person or thing can be reverberated in the mind to add to its stature – the man or woman may be small, but the shadow can be huge. These stories are told in terms of the shadows and afterimages of the subject. Higgins’s interest in this process is not a recent one – some of the stories were begun as early as 1957, and they were written on and off until 1970. The use of assemblages of participles (and its implicit avoidance of the verb to be) produces a strongly visual effect, heightened by very concrete language. The principle at work is William Carlos Williams’s formula “No ideas but in things!” more than some development out of Gertrude Stein’s concept of the continuous present, which these pieces superficially resemble in some ways, and to which Higgins feels sympathetic but unrelated. This the reader will discover when he comes up against Higgins’s emphasis on moral principle (in the lineage of Emerson) and interest in all stages of the time process, not just the present as with Stein.



These stories cover a full range of expression – from the farcical (“Sandals and Stars”) to the comic (“The Temptation of Saint Anthony”) to the nostalgic (“Ivor a Legend”) to the lyrical (“Women, like horses”) and more. If the expression is heightened by the form, then the form is justified. And it is here, on this assumption, that Higgins has hung his hat.”





Higgins’ work is still principally (un)available as second hand copies of books published through his own Something Else Press, Unpublished Editions, and Printed Editions, although Station Hill Press published a selected poems.

Higgins’ trilogy of critical essays remains a vital sourcebook of an artist thinking critically about practices of work with which they are themselves implicated as a practitioner. Ubu Editions have posted the second volume Horizons: The Poetics & Theory of the Intermedia (1984) online, and the third Modernism Since Postmodernism: Essays on Intermedia is still in print (scroll to bottom of page).

A READER that drew from the entirety of Higgins work would be a wonderful thing. Online sources for Higgins’ work include (at Ubuweb) his 1965 Great Bear Pamphlet A Book About Love, War & Death Canto One. The excellent Light & Dust have a complete collection of Higgins’ metadramas.




Trying to identify points of connection with contemporary practice, I illustrate this edition of the DEMOTIC ARCHIVES with, firstly, Higgins’ Intermedia Chart (1995), interested in how its proposition fits within the contemporary interconnections/ movement of language between formats/ contexts within art writing. It should be viewed within a history of diagrams in his practice, including “Some Poetry Intermedia” and “Five Traditions of Art History” (both 1976).

I also include examples of his musical scores, acknowledging Higgins’ own contention that “composer” remained a key identity for thinking through the entirety of his work across writing, performance, painting, book making and music (criticism?) (amongst others). As he told Nicholas Zurbrugg in an interview in 1993:



“I would say that I am indeed a composer, which is actually where I began, but that I compose with visual and with textual means. That’s a fairly accurate way of describing my approach. A composer is apt to work with more design in his approach than a prose writer, or a poet, or a visual artist, is apt to do. That is, the composer maps out the architectonics of a musical work. And that basic approach is the one I’ve carried on over all the areas that I’ve investigated.

I’m a person who sets out his form, usually in advance, and then follows it. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the spontaneous departure from that. But I’m usually happiest, and keep my best sense of proportion, when I allow the spontaneous to work on the details of things, but where the overall structure is one that has been preconceived and that I continue to use as a matrix. So I would say I was a composer, but not necessarily of music. Something like that is a good way to describe me.  And if people think of me as that, I’ll be quite happy. ” (211)


SOURCE: Nicholas Zurbrugg ed. ART, PERFORMANCE, MEDIA (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).



In Uncategorized on September 9, 2011 at 1:35 pm


This edition of the DEMOTIC ARCHIVES OF ART WRITING points elsewhere, holding itself like one of the studied poses in Guy de Cointet’s theatre pieces. Firstly, to the fantastic archives of Guy de Cointet’s work here. Secondly, to the slim, elegant monograph edited by Marie de Brugerolle.

Considering these resources, I wondered what aspects of de Cointet’s work could be most usefully presented on VerySmallKitchen. Perhaps the stills of performance works such as Tell Me (1979) and A New Life (1981) are most relevant…

In this mute form (only brief vimeo clips exists online), I find de Cointet’s stylised acts of reading and speaking alongside boldly coloured geometric shapes and furniture, articulate a scenography of art writing.

By this I mean a certain staging emergent from the workings of language within art practice, which can be traced from de Cointet’s work through to current lecture performances of, for example, Ruth Beale, Falke Pisano, and Francesco Pedraglio

I was also intrigued by de Cointet’s use of code, particularly TSNX C24VA7ME: A Play by Dr.Hun (1974, but recently published by New York’s 38th Street Publishers). If de Cointet’s theatre pieces suggest a scenography of art writing, then these works suggest writing (as a physical act but also as a form of publication, distribution and community) as code, both with and without key(s) for decoding.

Perhaps, for our purposes here, these come together in ACRCIT (1971), originally published by the artist in an edition of 700 copies. Stills of de Cointet’s Tell Me performance show ACRCIT being read and wielded as text and prop…



In her recent monograph Marie de Brugerolle describes ACRCIT as:



…a newspaper published in Los Angeles in 1971. Seven large pages, folded in two, made a newspaper of 14 recto-verso pages. It was silkscreen printed by Pierre Picot, a French artist who worked at the California Institute of the Arts. The title is printed in bold lettering; the page numbers are coded in letters. The paper includes texts encrypted in various manners: Morse Code, pyramids of figures, magic squares, and Mohammed’s signature of a double crescent (mirror writing mentions that the prophet traced his mark without lifting the point of his sword from the ground) all occupy the space like decorative motif’s, as do small palm trees.

This publication contains the principles at work in de Cointet’s other books and drawings: letters and figures function more as signs than as signifiers. De Cointet explores language by deconstructing it, in order to show that it is a question of systems. Reducing these systems to visual puzzles, he puts the reader in position of beholder, returning to a prelogical state when words were shapes and sounds. His anatomy of language is similar to experimental poetry of the early 20th century, influenced by Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance).

The early 1970s was also the heyday of structuralism and de Cointet was an informed reader of Barthes, whose essays deciphered systems and structures in order to reveal new relationships between form and meaning. With de Cointet the beauty and mathematical harmony of the world is translated into words and figures. This poetic alchemy relies on game-like systems, using chance as a creative principle. Language becomes a simultaneously mental, visual, auditory, and sensual experience.

De Cointet placed ACRCIT in free newspaper distributors on the street in Los Angeles. Passersby could thus procure an original if incomprehensible artwork, few of which were probably preserved. Jeffrey Perkins, the friend who was housing de Cointet at that time, recalls that the artist enjoyed the anonymity and “obvious invisibility” of things, which perhaps explains why the title itself, ACRCIT, remains mysterious. Several interpretations are possible. Homophony suggests the French word écrit (“written” or “writing”), or even ASII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange, one of the computer protocols that converts letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks, and other symbols into numbers).

Indeed, de Cointet used the binary system of 0 and 1 in his newspaper, although to indicate insignificant things.  “Only the small secrets need to be protected,” Marshall McLuhan reportedly said. “The big ones are kept secret by public incredulity.” We know that McLuhan bought one of de Cointet’s books in 1979, though there is no evidence that they ever met. But de Cointet certainly read McLuhan, and in ACRCIT he quoted the last paragraph of McLuhan’s Introduction to Understanding Media:


When radar was new it was found necessary to eliminate the balloon system for city protection that had preceded radar. The balloons got in the way of the electric feedback of the new radar information. Such may well prove to be the case with our existing school curriculum, to say nothing of the generality of the arts. We can afford to use only those portions of them that enhance the perception of our technologies, and their psychic and social consequences. Art as a radar environment takes on the function of indispensable perceptual training rather than the role of a privileged diet for the elite. While the arts as radar feedback provide a dynamic and changing corporate image, their purpose may not be to enable us to change but rather to maintain an even course toward permanent goals, even amidst the most disrupting innovation. We have already discovered the futility of changing our goals as often as we change our technologies.



At the dawn of the launch of the internet as a communications system devised by the US Army, de Cointet used coding methods that, although “low tech,” were equally sophisticated and widespread. What could be quicker and more direct than a free newspaper, openly available on the street, for passing information from hand to hand? Later, ACRCIT would be used in the theater pieces Iglu (1977) and Tell Me (1979).”

SOURCE: Marie de Brugerolle, Guy de Cointet (JRP Ringier, Zurich, 2011), 25-27.






Having copied this out I look back up at ACRCIT, considering again how de Cointet’s work offers sources both for scenographies of art writing, text as prop (held, pointed at, furniture) and codes as models for publication, distribution and practice more broadly.

I wonder how ACRCIT can be read in relation to its concrete poetry contemporary (also formed in relation with systems theory and communications technology), and how that too enters the present… different and combining… As game as enigma I note again Maria Fusco’s conception of art writing as riddle, the art object greeted by the writer as like for like, “essential obscurity with essential obscurity.”

As de Cointet begins and ends his contribution to the 1980 “Foreign Agents” issue of FILE magazine: “I can no longer find my way. / I wander about utterly confused./ Finally I stand still and engage in a short monologue…”



SOURCE: Maria Fusco, “Say Who I Am/ Or a Broad Private Wink,” in Jeff Khonsary and Melanie O’Brien, Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism (Fillip Editions, 2010), pp73-80, p73. Image:  still from Tell Me, Rosamud Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles, 1979.




In Uncategorized on July 24, 2011 at 11:06 pm

VerySmallKitchen writes: Reading the Glenn Ligon texts included in last week’s VSK HANDBOOK OF PERVERTED CIRUCMSTANCES, sent me back, as it should do, to James Baldwin’s “Stranger in The Village” essay, from his 1955 collection Notes of A Native Son. If Ligon’s painting was about both revealing and concealing, faith in and suspicion of the written word, its other gesture was less ambiguous: a prompt to return to Baldwin’s writing itself.

It seemed right, after this, to include Baldwin’s text as the latest installment of the DEMOTIC ARCHIVES OF ART WRITING. I was, however, aware how this text differed from the archives previous gestures of re-publication. Most texts – such as those by Richard Foreman, Thomas A Clark ,and Richard Kostelanetz – have been examples and propositions about certain histories of thought and practice, reclamations of texts and ideas around a broadly considered field of art writing.

Other’s – such as Kenneth Tynan’s notes on the Berliner Ensemble – have fulfilled this role from a more outsider position. And come back to that Richard Kostelanetz post. It was as much about the role of the anthologist as it was about the text that was appended at post’s end, possibilities of the unavailable book. A pedagogy, then, in the manner of the Cid Corman THE WORLD AS UNIVERSITY/ UNIVERSITY AS STUDIO text that formed another installment of art writing archival demotic-ness.

Baldwin’s text functions, it seems, rather differently. I come to it at this moment having been much preoccupied how texts – by themselves and others – are  “recomposed and rechannelled” (20) by Dexter Sinister in, most recently, the pages of  Bulletins of The Serving Library #1. I wondered how the act of re-printing Baldwin relates to how Anthony Elms sums up Sinister’s practice in the Summer 2011 issue of Afterall:

The material of Dexter Sinister – not the format or the design, but the language used in the formats ,and think of the differing formats as one material: communication. Dexter Sinister transform what can be plainly transformed, industrially produced and/or distributed. Whatever offers an opporunity for formalised release, proving that a material in use equals a form in flux. This opportunity is manifested in multiplication: distribution and publishing an economy of making public, making multiple the locations of encounter and interpretation through changes in tone, style, format and context.

SOURCE: Anthony Elms, “A Flibbertigibbet, a Will-o’-the-wisp, a Clown (Or 10 Reasons Why Graphic Design Is Not The Issue), Afterall 27, Summer 2011, 45.

I wonder if the DEMOTIC ARCHIVE might be discovering itself to be the bad tempered version of this, indignant that the specificities of writers and writing, of literary practices and histories, are being negated through a discourse focused on multiplication, form in flux and communication. Re-printing Baldwin feels more about the continued potency of its content, of the particular history and struggle of this writer, than any shift of format.

I think I might be overstating this to try and introduce some new tonalities into the conversation. Literary history as thickening, then, recalling Ligon’s own workings of Baldwin in his coal dust paintings (illustrating the texts below) but also what  Joan Retallack talks about through her adoption of “poethics” rather than “poetics”:

A poetics can only take you so far without an h. If you’re to embrace complex life on earth, if you can no longer pretend that all things are fundamentally simple or elegant, a poetics thickened by an h launches an exploration of art’s significance as, not just about, a form of living in the real world. That as is not a simile; it’s an ethos. Hence the h. What I’m working on is quite explicitly a poethics of a complex realism.

This quote is from an inteview in Retallack’s The Poethical Wager essay collection, although it is copied here from Adam Pendleton’s grey-blue grain, an artist books that appropriates several quotations from the interview as structural foundation for its own page-based gatherings and unfoldings.



From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came. I was told before arriving that I would probably be a “sight” for the village; I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland, and also that city people are always something of a “sight” outside of the city. It did not occur to me-possibly because I am an American-that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro.

It is a fact that cannot be explained on the basis of the inaccessibility of the village. The village is very high, but it is only four hours from Milan and three hours from Lausanne. It is true that it is virtually unknown. Few people making plans for a holiday would elect to come here. On the other hand, the villagers are able, presumably, to come and go as they please – which they do: to another town at the foot of the mountain, with a population of approximately five thousand, the nearest place to see a movie or go to the bank. In the village there is no movie house, no bank, no library, no theater; very few radios, one jeep, one station wagon; and at the moment, one typewriter, mine, an invention which the woman next door to me here had never seen. There are about six hundred people living here, all Catholic- I conclude this from the fact that the Catholic church is open all year round, whereas the Protestant chapel, set off on a hill a little removed from the village, is open only in the summertime when the tourists arrive. There are four or five hotels, all closed now, and four or five bistros, of which, however, only two do any business during the winter. These two do not do a great deal, for life in the village seems to end around nine or ten o’clock. There are a few stores, butcher, baker, epicerie, a hardware store, and a money-changer-who cannot change travelers’ checks, but must send them down to the bank, an operation which takes two or three days. There is something called the Ballet Haus, closed in the winter and used for God knows what, certainly not ballet, during the summer. There seems to be only one schoolhouse in the village, and this for the quite young children; I suppose this to mean that their older brothers and sisters at some point descend from these mountains in order to complete their education-possibly, again, to the town just below. The landscape is absolutely forbidding, mountains towering on all four sides, ice and snow as far as the eye can reach. In this white wilderness, men and women and children move all day, carrying washing, wood, buckets of milk or water, sometimes skiing on Sunday afternoons. All week long boys and young men are to be seen shoveling snow off the rooftops, or dragging wood down from the forest in sleds.

The village’s only real attraction, which explains the tourist season, is the hot spring water. A disquietingly high proportion of these tourists are cripples, or semi- cripples, who come year after year-from other parts of Switzerland, usually-to take the waters. This lends the village, at the height of the season, a rather terrifying air of sanctity, as though it were a lesser Lourdes. There is often something beautiful, there is always something awful, in the spectacle of a person who has lost one of his faculties, a faculty he never questioned until it was gone, and who struggles to recover it. Yet people remain people, on crutches or indeed on deathbeds; and wherever I passed, the first summer I was here, among the native villagers or among the lame, a wind passed with me-of astonishment, curiosity, amusement and outrage. That first summer I stayed two weeks and never intended to return. But I did return in the winter, to work; the village offers, obviously, no distractions whatever and has the further advantage of being extremely cheap. Now it is winter again, a year later, and I am here again. Everyone in the village knows my name, though they scarcely ever use it, knows that I come from America though, this, apparently, they will never really believe: black men come from Africa-and everyone knows that I am the friend of the son of a woman who was born here, and that I am staying in their chalet. But I remain as much a stranger today as I was the first day I arrived, and the children shout Neger! Neger! as I walk along the streets.

It must be admitted that in the beginning I was far too shocked to have any real reaction. In so far as I reacted at all, I reacted by trying to be pleasant-it being a great part of the American Negro’s education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people like him. This smile-and-the world-smiles-with-you routine worked about as well in this situation as it had in the situation for which it was designed, which is to of phenomenon which allowed them to see my teeth-they did not, really, see my smile and I began to think that, should I take to snarling, no one would notice any difference. All of the physical characteristics of the Negro which had caused me, in America, a very different and almost forgotten pain were nothing less than miraculous-or infernal-in the eyes of the village people. Some thought my hair was the color of tar, that it had the texture of wire, or the texture of cotton. It was jocularly suggested that I might let it all grow long and make myself a winter coat. If I sat in the sun for more than five minutes some daring creature was certain to come along and gingerly put his fingers on my hair, as though he were afraid of an electric shock, or put his hand on my hand, astonished that the color did not rub off. In all of this, in which it must be conceded there was the charm of genuine wonder and in which there were certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.

I knew that they did not mean to be unkind, and I know it now; it is necessary, nevertheless, for me to repeat this to myself each time that I walk out of the chalet. The children who shout Neger! have no way of knowing the echoes this sound raises in me. They are brimming with good humor and the more daring swell with pride when I stop to speak with them. Just the same, there are days when I cannot pause and smile, when I have no heart to play with them; when, indeed, I mutter sourly to myself, exactly as I muttered on the streets of a city these children have never seen, when I was no bigger than these children are now: Your mother was a nigger. Joyce is right about history being a nightmare-but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.

There is a custom in the village- I am told it is repeated in many villages- of buying African natives for the purpose of converting them to Christianity. There stands in the church all year round a small box with a slot for money, decorated with a black figurine, and into this box the villagers drop their francs. During the carnival which precedes Lent, two village children have their faces blackened-out of which bloodless darkness their blue eyes shine like ice-and fantastic horsehair wigs are placed on their blond heads; thus disguised, they solicit among the villagers for money for the missionaries in Africa. Between the box in the church and blackened children, the IJ village “bought” last year six or eight African natives. This was reported to me with pride by the wife of one of the bistro owners and I was careful to express astonishment and pleasure at the solicitude shown by the village for the souls of black folks. The bistro owner’s wife beamed with a pleasure far more genuine than my own and seemed to feel that I might now breathe more easily concerning the souls of at least six of my kinsmen.

I tried not to think of these so lately baptized kinsmen, of the price paid for them, or the peculiar price they themselves would pay, and said nothing about my father, who having taken his own conversion too literally never, at bottom, forgave the white world (which he described as heathen) for having saddled him with a Christ in whom, to judge at least from their treatment of him, they themselves no longer believed. I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence. The astonishment, with which I might have greeted them, should they have stumbled into my African village a few hundred years ago, might have rejoiced their hearts. But the astonishment with which they greet me today can only poison mine.

And this is so despite everything I may do to feel differently, despite my friendly conversations with the bistro owner’s wife, despite their three-year-old son who has at last become my friend, despite the saluts and bonsoirs which I exchange with people as I walk, despite the fact that I know that no individual can be taken to task for what history is doing, or has done. I say that the culture of these people controls me-but they can scarcely be held responsible for European culture. America comes out of Europe, but these people have never seen America, nor have most of them seen more of Europe than the hamlet at the foot of their mountain. Yet they move with an authority which I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in the village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have-however unconsciously-inherited.

For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modem world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in away that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory-but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.

The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable: the rage, so generally discounted, so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is, is one of the things that makes history. Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence and is therefore not susceptible to any arguments whatever. This is a fact which ordinary representatives of the Herrenvolk, having never felt this rage and being unable to imagine, quite fail to understand. Also, rage cannot be hidden, it can only be dissembled. This dissembling deludes the thoughtless, and strengthens rage and adds, to rage, contempt. There are, no doubt, as many ways of coping with the resulting complex of tensions as there are black men in the world, but no black man can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare-rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of white men. What is crucial here is that since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naiveté, or else to make it cost him dear.

The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white man cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being. This is a very charged and difficult moment, for there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naiveté. Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors. He is inescapably aware, nevertheless, that he is in a better position in the world than black men are, nor can he quite put to death the suspicion that he is hated by black men therefore. He does not wish to be hated, neither does he wish to change places, and at this point in his uneasiness he can scarcely avoid having recourse to those legends which white men have created about black men, the most usual effect of which is that the white man finds himself enmeshed, so to speak, in his own language which describes hell, as well as the attributes which lead one to hell, as being as black as night.

Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it. It is of quite considerable significance that black men remain, in the imagination, and in overwhelming numbers in fact, beyond the disciplines of salvation; and this despite the fact that the West has been “buying” African natives for centuries. There is, I should hazard, an instantaneous necessity to be divorced from this so visibly unsaved stranger, in whose heart, moreover , one cannot guess what dreams of vengeance are being nourished; and, at the same time, there are few things on earth more attractive than the idea of the unspeakable liberty which is allowed the unredeemed. When, beneath the black mask, a human being begins to make himself felt one cannot escape a certain awful wonder as to what kind of human being it is. What one’s imagination makes of other people is dictated, of course, by the Master race laws of one’s own personality and it’s one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is.

I have said, for example, that I am as much a stranger in this village today as I was the first summer I arrived, but this is not quite true. The villagers wonder less about the texture of my hair than they did then, and wonder rather more about me. And the fact that their wonder now exists on another level is reflected in their attitudes and in their eyes. There are the children who make those delightful, hilarious, sometimes astonishingly grave overtures of friendship in the unpredictable fashion of children; other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach. Some of the older women never pass without a friendly greeting, never pass, indeed, if it seems that they will be able to engage me in conversation; other women look down or look away or rather contemptuously smirk. Some of the men drink with me and suggest that I learn how to ski-partly, I gather, because they cannot imagine what I would look like on skis-and want to know if I am married, and ask questions about my metier. But some of the men have accused le sale negre-behind my back-of stealing wood and there is already in the eyes of some of them that peculiar, intent, paranoiac malevolence which one sometimes surprises in the eyes of American white men when, out walking with their Sunday girl, they see a Negro male approach.

There is a dreadful abyss between the streets of this village and the streets of the city in which I was born, between the children who shout Neger! today and those who shouted Nigger! yesterday-the abyss is experience, the American experience. The syllable hurled behind me today expresses, above all, wonder: I am a stranger here. But, I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.

For this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarcely Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconquered continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time. The shock this spectacle afforded is suggested, surely, by the promptness with which they decided that these black men were not really men but cattle. It is true that the necessity on the part of the settlers of the New World of reconciling their moral assumptions with the fact -and the necessity-of slavery enhanced immensely the charm of this idea, and it is also true that this idea expresses, with a truly American bluntness, the attitude which to varying extents all masters have had toward all slaves.

But between all former slaves and slave-owners and the drama which begins for Americans over three hundred years ago at Jamestown, there are at least two differences to be observed. The American Negro slave could not suppose, for one thing, as slaves in past epochs had supposed and often done, that he would ever be able to wrest the power from his master’s hands. This was a supposition which the modern era, which was to bring about such vast changes in the aims and dimensions of power, put to death; it only begins in unprecedented fashion, and with dreadful implications, to be resurrected, today. But even had this supposition persisted with undiminished force, the American Negro slave could not have used it to lend his condition dignity, for the reason that this J supposition rests on another: that the slave in exile yet remains related to his past, has some means-if only in memory-of revering and sustaining the forms of his former life, is able, in short, to maintain his identity.

This was not the case with the American Negro slave. He is unique among the black men of the world in that his past was taken from him, almost literally, at one blow. One wonders what on earth the first slave found to say to the first dark child he bore. I am told that there are Haitians able to trace their ancestry back to African kings, but any American Negro wishing to go back so far will find his journey through time abruptly arrested by the signature on the bill of sale which served as the entrance paper for his ancestor. At the time-to say nothing of the circumstances-of the enslavement of the captive black man who was to become the American Negro, there was not the remotest possibility that he would ever take power from his master’s hands. There was no reason to suppose that his situation would ever change, nor was there, shortly, anything to indicate that his situation had ever been different. It was his necessity, in the words of E. Franklin Frazier, to find a “motive for living under American culture or die.” The identity of the American Negro comes out of this extreme situation, and the evolution of this identity was a source of the most intolerable anxiety in the minds and the lives of his masters.

For the history of the American Negro is unique also in this: that the question of his humanity, and of his rights therefore as a human being, became a burning one for several generations of Americans, so burning a question that it ultimately became one of those used to divide the nation. It is out of this argument that the venom of the epithet: Nigger! is derived. It is an argument which Europe has never had, and hence Europe: quite sincerely fails to understand how or why the argument arose in the first place, why its effects are frequently disastrous and always so unpredictable, why it refuses until today to be entirely settled. Europe’s black possessions remained-and do remain-in Europe’s colonies, at which remove they represented no threat whatever to European identity. If they posed any problem at all for the European conscience, it was a problem which remained comfortingly abstract: in effect, the black man, as a man, did not exist for Europe. But in America, even as a slave, he was an inescapable part of the general social fabric and no American could escape having an attitude toward him. Americans attempt until today to make an abstraction of the Negro, but the very nature of these abstractions reveals the tremendous effects the presence of the Negro has had on the American character.

When one considers the history of the Negro in America it is of the greatest importance to recognize that the moral beliefs of a person, or a people, are never really as tenuous as life-which is not moral-very often causes them to appear; these create for them a frame of reference and a necessary hope, the hope being that when life has done its worst they will be enabled to rise above themselves and to triumph over life. Life would scarcely be bearable if this hope did not exist. Again, even when the worst has been said, to betray a belief is not by any means to have put oneself beyond its power; the betrayal of a belief is not the same thing as ceasing to believe. If this were not so there would be no moral standards in the world at all. Yet one must also recognize that morality is based on ideas and that all ideas are dangerous-dangerous because ideas can only lead to action and where the action leads no man can say. And dangerous in this respect: that confronted with the impossibility of remaining faithful to one’s beliefs, and the equal impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most inhuman excesses. The ideas on which American beliefs are based are not, though Americans often seem to think so, ideas which originated in America. They came out of Europe. And the establishment of democracy on the American continent was scarcely as radical a break with the past as was the necessity, which Americans faced, of broadening this concept to include black men.

This was, literally, a hard necessity. It was impossible, for one thing, for Americans to abandon their beliefs, not only because these beliefs alone seemed able to justify the sacrifices they had endured and the blood that they had spilled, but also because these beliefs afforded them their only bulwark against a moral chaos as absolute as the physical chaos of the continent it was their destiny to conquer. But in the situation in which Americans found themselves, these beliefs threatened an idea which, whether or not one likes to think so, is the very warp and woof of the heritage of the West, the idea of white supremacy.

Americans have made themselves notorious by the shrillness and the brutality with which they have insisted on this idea, but they did not invent it; and it has escaped the, world’s notice that those very excesses of which Americans have been guilty imply a’ certain, unprecedented uneasiness over the idea’ s life and power, if not, indeed, the idea’ s validity .The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the only one that matters; all previous civilizations are simply contributions” to our own) and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelmingly undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological.

At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.And the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans-lynch law: and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession-either to come; to terms with this necessity , or to find a way around it, or (most usually) to find away of doing both these things at once. The resulting spectacle, at once foolish and dreadful, led someone to make the quite accurate observation that “the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men.”

In this long battle, a battle by no means finished, the unforeseeable effects of which will be felt by many future generations, the white man’s motive was the protection of his identity; the black man was motivated by the need to establish an identity .And despite the terrorization which the Negro in America endured and endures sporadically until today, despite the cruel and totally inescapable ambivalence of his status in his country , the battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him-the Americans who became less than themselves, or rose to be greater than themselves by virtue of the fact that the challenge he represented was inescapable. He is perhaps the only black man in the world whose relationship to white men is more terrible, more subtle, and more meaningful than the relationship of bitter possessed to uncertain possessors. His survival depended, and his development depends, on his ability to turn his peculiar status in the Western world to his own advantage and, it may be, to the very great advantage of that world. It remains for him to fashion out of his experience that which will give him sustenance, and a voice. The cathedral at Chartres, I have said, says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that, this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them. Perhaps they are struck by the power of the spires, the glory of the windows; but they have known God, after all, longer than I have known him, and in a different way, and I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth.

Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world-which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white-owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us-very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will–that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.


The images accompanying Baldwin’s essay are from Glenn Ligon’s OFF BOOK exhibition at Regen Projects II, Los Angeles, Dec 12 2009-  Jan 23 2010. Full images and installation views can be seen here.


In Uncategorized on July 11, 2011 at 11:36 am


This issue of the Demotic Archive of Art Writing is a celebratory act of critical reflection and literary piracy alongside The Richard Kostelanetz Bookshop at the Kunstverein, Amsterdam, which offers both exhibition, bookshop, and retrospective of Kostelanetz work as writer, publisher, and editor/ASSEMBLER.

This multiple format of exhibition and bookshop both positions Kostelanetz within contemporary interests in writing as art practice/ reading room as a gallery format, as well as recognising the uncertain economics and distribution of a practice negotiating between  experimental poetics, fiction, essays, music and performance.

Highlighting some of the tensions and possibilities of this, the Press Release for The Richard Kostelanetz Bookshop (a text by Kostelanetz) features RK’s Encyclopedia Britannica entry along with his own comment upon the entry. See that as a PDF here.



As a response to the RK bookshop, this blog post is  notes thinking through a series of anthologies edited by Kostelanetz between 1973-1980. Thinking about such books not just for the work that they contain, but because they offer new ways of thinking through the limits, forms, and self-definitions of an “experimental” writing practice, and how we might approach the legacy and historical moment of former generations of such work.

The text below is the introduction to Essaying Essays: Alternative Forms Of Exposition (1975), which served as a basis for an online reading group  curated by VerySmallKitchen in 2009. Given the non-availability of the book itself (except as highly price second hand copies),  the introduction functioned to open a space of possibility, a framework for thinking about our own contemporary essaying and editorial practices. Kostelanetz’s ASSEMBLING publication also offered a model for how the results of our discussions might be collated and distributed further.

This space of possibility is confirmed, if you can get hold of a copy, by a look through the anthology, where a range of image text, scores, notations, critical writings and diagrams, are linked through the theme of essaying. Such immediately apparent formal eclecticism was the case of all of the anthologies – including Breakthrough Fictioneers: An Anthology (1973), Scenarios: Scripts to Perform (1980), and Text -Sound Texts (1980).

As with Essaying Essays, the introductions to such texts seek specificity in the diversity. What keeps something as an essay? How does something remain fiction? What are the boundaries of script and non-script? What is Text-Sound as opposed to,say, Sound-Text? When is it useful to contain experiment in such defined containers?


In the introduction to Breakthrough Fictioneers, for example, Kostelanetz puts it as follows:

“As freedoms are asserted, so much restrictions be acknowledged. All of the following selections emulate at least one of the components of classic fiction – expository language, characters (which need not be human), evocative artifice, narrative, etc., as even the totally visual contributions reflect typically fictional concerns; and most of them express significances that would surely be familiar to open-minded connoisseurs of imaginative literature. The most obvious formal limitation stems from the practical publishing convention of printed rectangular pages of uniform size, bound in a fixed sequence and limited in color to blacks, whites and occasional greys – limitations which regrettably forced the exclusion of several “fictions” I should otherwise have wanted to include.” (xix)

Here, then, is a methodology, let us call it EDITORIAL PROCESS AS SITE-SPECIFIC, with “site” a concept functioning across genres and publishing conventions, but also operative in the stuff of the writing itself, BOTH form and content:

“These innovative works suggest that “fiction” can be most generally defined as a frame filled with a circumscribed world of cohesively self-relating activity. This fictional material may be primarily human, naturalistic, or stylistic, which is to say that fiction may predominantly deal with people, or things, or merely a certain linguistic style and/or formal device; but within fictional art is usually some kind of movement from one point to another. In these respects of diversity and change within an acknowledged frame does fiction particularly differ from poetry, which emphasizes concise, static, generally formalized statement. Fictions tends toward fullness, while poetry is spare, fictions encompass, while poetry concentrates: fictions go, while poetry stops.” (xv-xvi)




(a)In 2011 the anthologies are valuable for their mix of texts/ artists which have attained canonical status and those who were part of the small press scene at the time but have now disappeared from our representations of these periods of activity.

I appreciate the anthologies for this expansive notion of a literary/ artistic “scene” at a particular time, constructing histories beyond a set of canonical names or categories – “conceptual” or “Fluxus” – instead bringing the complex abundance of an historical period into the present.

(b)Note the publication history of these texts. The Anthologies offer a useful case study of the (lack of) (abundant) possibilities for distribution that have characterised Kostelanetz career. If Text-Sound Texts attained a major publisher (William Morrow & Company), Scenarios was self-published by K’s own Assembling Press, Breakthrough Fictioneers appeared from Dick Higgins Something Else Press, and Essaying Essays from Out of London Press.

(c)The work explored on VerySmallKitchen often posits and requires a distinct space involving art, fiction, poetry/ poetics and criticism, and a related shifting between authorial positions and functions.

Histories and curatorial/ editorial practices often serve to remove writing from these multiple possibilities, reducing, for example, response to narrow definitions of criticism. K’s anthologies recognise the need for strategic and opportunistic containers, but towards the clarification and operation in that broader field.

László Moholy-Nagy’s visual representation of Finnegan’s Wake, from “Vision in Motion” (1947) (reprinted in Essaying Essays)


(d)I view Kostelanetz’s monikers in a similar way, less as terms fixing work – “ conceptual art” – than as attempts to introduce a lexicon that both gives form to a particular body of practices, convinces publishers to invest in a project, and also (hopefully/ potentially) is a working term/ artists coinage/ critical formulation to be utilized as generative or abandoned. One of the questions in our reading group was how notions of “essaying essays” could be a useful working trope for practices more involved in performance than page or screen based writings…

Take, for example, “Text-Sound Art”: which, in this formulation, works out this similarity and distinctiveness:

“The art is text-sound, as distinct from text-print and text-seen, which is to say that texts must be sounded and thus heard to be “read,” in contrast to those that must be printed and thus be seen. The art is text-sound, rather than sound-text, to acknowledge the initial presence of a text, which is subject to aural enhancements more typical of music. To be precise, it is by non-melodic auditory structures that language or verbal sounds are poetically charged with meanings or resonances they would not otherwise have. The most appropriate generic term for the initial materials would be “vocables,” which my dictionary defines as “a word regarded as a unit of sounds or letters rather than as a unit of meaning.” As text-sound is an intermedium located between language arts and musical arts, its creators include artists who initially established themselves as “writers,” poets,” “composers,” and “painters”; in their text-sound works, they are, of course, functioning as text-sound artists. Many do word-image  art (or “visual poetry”) as well, out of a commitment to exploring possibilities in literary intermedia.

The term “text-sound” characterizes language whose principal means of coherence is sound, rather than syntax  or semantics – where the sounds made by comprehensible words create their own coherence apart from denotative meanings…” (14)


(e)This eclecticism of distribution is a point of connection between RK’s work and contemporary practices. Compare with, say, Dexter Sinister, who, in the recent Bulletins of The Serving Library #1 describe how their A NOTE ON THE TYPE essay/ project/ font has been “recomposed and rechanneled through” various publication and exhibition contexts.

(f)In an essay on Bernadette Corporation, Chris Kraus talks about both their writing of poetry and the “gestural poetry” of BC’s work as a whole. Their recent project The Complete Poem seems to work through acts of dislocation within and between the different communities, many of whom are contained within K’s anthologies.

For example, a text deeply dependent on histories of experimental poetry is exhibited in a gallery context to an audience and in a format that in some way removes it from that history. This suggests a reading of all four Kostelanetz anthologies that considers their considerable accumulated mass as serial acts of undoing…




If K’s anthologies resonate for their multiple locations of practice and distribution, in other ways I wonder if they are somewhat alien to contemporary practice. I wonder, for example, if the expansiveness of its materials would seem a necessity of any anthologist working today, and if artists and poets across different areas of art writing would appreciate and find generative an 800 page anthology cross-cutting between poetry, fiction, essay, and script…

I suspect not. I spent some time on Saturday looking through the material at x marks the bökship in Bethnal Green, and if a model of/ hope for social formation emerges from such work as a whole it is definitely one of small distinct groups and cliques, low scale social formations, often deliberately finding spaces and communities away from the need for overtly relational/ participatory practices. Connections between art/ performance/ poetry seem only to take place in particular, defined situations.  This, too, into the matter of writing, creates a particular form and style of sentence, paragraph, text-space…

.. the text below is reprinted from The Brooklyn Rail for July-August 2009, charting other forms for legacy/ affinity/ difference…



Thinking about how the anthologies read as a mix of survey and manifesto (it’s the later that emerges more clearly the older the anthologies get). Thinking through what contemporary equivalents do exist, I link here to the PDF of the introduction for Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin’s Against Expression anthology (thinking, too, of the Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris Poems for the Millenium anthologies). If differing in focus, these books (all over 500 pages) nonetheless share with Kostelanetz’s anthologies  a commitment to  SERIOUS BOOK MASS AS WRITER TACTIC.




So onto the (essaying) essay itself.  The act of piracy here reflects the presence of Essaying Essays in the VerySmallKitchen (see The Piracy Project of AND Publications for another thinking through of this). I have repeatedly talked about this book, showed it, lent it to be photocopied, worked with it. Its ideas, editorial principles, and contents can be traced quite concretely through projects and collaborations on this site.



The introduction to Essaying Essays is available as a PDF here. If much unfolds from considering these books as gestures, I hope to get to Amsterdam and unfold what follows from the books themselves and the Kunstverein’s act of  putting them back into circulation. The Bookshop is open until 1st October. RK’s own extensive 1999 essay On Anthologies is here.


In Uncategorized on March 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm

A previous Demotic Archive text-gathering- on artists (mis)understandings of Lenin – included material from Robert Motherwell’s 1951 anthology The Dada Painter’s and Poets. I wanted to unfold further the influence of this book, forming a sense of how it was read and utilised by new generations of poets and artists upon publication.

What follows is a gathering of poetic and discursive materials as “a starter” on this topic selected and written by Jerome Rothenberg, who observes in an email 12/03/11:

… yes, there is in fact a great deal that I could say, with Motherwell’s book as a point of departure.  When David Antin and I first sat down with it, shortly after it appeared, what it opened up was both surprising and needed as a way into a kind of poetry and art that we and others were soon exploring or maybe re-exploring.  Before that Dada was something that would turn up in what were already historical accounts of experimental modernism but it was really Dada Painters & Poets that began to flesh it out for us.

The materials below begin with three poems from Rothenberg’s THAT DADA STRAIN collection, with its varying, exploratory proximities  to the ideas, personalities, languages, and histories of Dada. Two discursive pieces then provide (1) a poetic- historical overview and  (2) a trajectory from Dada through Kurt Schwitters, Eugene Gomringer and Seneca singer and ritualist Richard Johnny John…

I also read these materials in relation to two further quotations. The first is Anne Waldman’s comment on the “various trajectories of collaboration” the Motherwell anthology demonstrates.  The other is Brion Gysin’s recollection to Nicholas Zurbrugg:

Everytime we met [in the late 50s in Paris], Tzara would whine, “Would you be kind enough to tell me just why your young friends insist on going back over the ground we covered in 1920?” What could I say, except, “Perhaps they feel you did not cover it thoroughly enough.” Tzara snorted: “We did it all! Nothing has advanced since Dada – how could it!”



the zig zag mothers of the gods
of science       the lunatic fixed stars
& pharmacies
fathers who left the tents of anarchism
the arctic bones
strung out on saint germain
like tom toms
living light bulbs
“art is junk” the urinal
says “dig a hole
“& swim in it”
a message from the grim computer
“ye are hamburgers”




Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, 1916

A glass tube
for my leg    says Hugo Ball
my hat a cylinder
in blue & white
the night    the german ostriches    the sink
he pisses in
all these become his world
his dada song, begun there
holds the image
until it comes at us:
the image from its cross
looks down:
a ribbon
a revolver
these contribute
to his death
also to what his death contributes
later, too hysterical
too sick with god
& time:
a carousel
a roasted poet
the queen says to his mind
& enters
where the street of mirrors starts
she sees his face
in hunger of the world
as pain, the consciousness
of death    not why we die
bit why we dream about it
& why our dreams can’t save
the dying remnant
as I write this poem
the voice cries
from a further room
the dancer / singer calls me
from a further room
I step into an obelisk
below the waist
my mouth opens to sing
but freezes
in grief for you
the collapse of language
tabla tokta tokta takabala
taka tak
a glass tube ecstasy
escapes from time
babula m’balam
the image & the word
over your bed
hang    crucified
again the cabaret explodes
again again
in glass
a glass nerve
a priestly gas pump
her hair out





sad in his world
or in yours
he walks for years beside
the economic lilies
explores the mysteries of bread
a wax archangel
stands on his tongue
his hands     cold     dry
deprived of water
in the room under the room
where Lenin sat
aromas of Bukovina gather
Moinesti with its corn mush
brinza cheese
redheaded Leah
like a hungry wolf
the word he dreams is
dada ice
dada piano
dada flower
dada tears
dada pendulum
dada vanilla
dada don quixote
dada humid
dada archipelago
dada pharmacy
dada sexenial
dada dichotomous
dada dichroic
dada dicrotic
dada didactic
dada didelphian
dada diluvial
dada dingdong
the fur of dada stretched out in the sun
dada on a hill old fox old dada
sammy rosenstock alive old exile
got Zurich on my mind
glass toys betwixt the stars with chains
electric flags & posters
“logic is a complication!
“logic is always wrong!
cries dada
holy cow
o cube
o hobby horse
the freedom first encountered in
first trip to Zurich
ghosts drunk on energy
they pulled the bells of war down
martyred the cabaret
until it exploded
like yiddish dada in the street
the overture to cheese
o Sammy brother
the sad one of your tribe
you said: disgust
you sat next to the photo of
redheaded Leah
under the axe & clock
your monocle hung from your vest
red life grew distant
in the room where Lenin sat
the walls sang politics to us
his nurse’s name was “dada”
so was yours
& sputtered poetry
redbellies laughing thru empty skulls
“my name is Sammy Rosenstock
“is later Tristan Tzara
“I am so sad with life
“I love it
“I am of course Rumanian
“I allow myself to contradict
“I put an owl in a hexagon
“I climb on the stage
“I’m prim
“I’m formal
“I applaud the revolution
“the hands of bandits
“blind worms & dada nightmares
“invade your bowels
” messiahs are passee
“the word we dream is
“dada sweepeth out
“dada teareth linens
“rips clouds & prayers to shreds
“thou rides on hiccups
“dada has a balcony
“we squat there     pregnant birds
“we shit on thine umbrella
“dada is against the future
“dada lives
“in fire          wisdom      fear
“– is fear of dada
“like a star? —
“no           like a fish      a plant      the moon
“a metal word
“distorted      boiling
“illumines the urethra
” sixty fingers on each arm
“I am a monster too
“I play with cushions
like hymns of queens
the eye of Lenin
now so wide
pushes the curtains
the chess game opens like a poem
metaphysics of perdition
rules them
tired of the stars
his horse eats colored snakes
o angel horse
on thee rides Hugo Ball
himself an angel horse
here Huelsenbeck & Jung walk
here Arp
here Janco
here kings of Zanzibar
here april nuns
here Tristan Tzara
ghost of Abulafla no ghost
he makes his buttocks jump
like belly of oriental queen
madonna face of Emmy Hennings
a silent fiddle
cuts the room in two
Hugo like a mannikin
at piano
stammers      yodels      farts in rhyme
in lusts of sabbath
— hiccups —
— bowwows —
dusts off the mask of dada
cardboard horsehair leather wire cloth
wears dada collars      dada boots
cothurnus of a bishop
lesbian sardines
ecstatic mice
vanilla derbies
from comers of Cabaret Voltaire
how many kings crow?
how many krazy kittens
cry for you?
how many centuries between
Zurich & Moinesti?
how many grandfathers?
how many clicks before the poem ends?
how much incesticide?
how many accordions to serenade
redheaded Leah?
Lenin dies
brave gymnasts march again
thru workers’ suburbs
Stalin’s moustache adrift
— o feckless future —
writes Mandelstam:
“huge laughing
“cockroaches on his lip
“the glimmer of his boot-rims
“scum & chicken necks
“half human
“the executions slide across his tongue
“like berries
o revolutions of the fathers
you tease us back to death
pink sands of California
line my coast
saloons & oracles
stemming the tide
can’t end it
you are dead
& dada life is growing
from your monocle
ignored      exalted
you lead me to my future
making poems together
flames & tongues      we write
like idiots
ballets of sperm
a brain song for the new machine
squadrons of princes pissing in the street
— intensity      disgust —
an empty church from which
you drew the drapes back
the face of Jesus on each drape
“on each Jesus was my heart”
you wrote
messiah of stale loaves
of frogs in shoes
god dada
messiahs are passee
there is no greater saviour
than this      no eye
so credible
your fart that night was luminous
it stoked the cannons
thruout Europe
in the bus to Amsterdam
in Missouri in Brazil in the Antilles
in a bathrobe
under your bed the shadows massed
like sleeping robbers
the moon became our moon
again o moon
over Moinesti
o moon of tiny exiles
moustaches of antelopes we eat
& cry out “fire”
a swamp of stars waits
toads squashed flat against
red bellies
at center of a dream
— magnetic eyes —
whose center is a center
& in the center
is another center
& in each center is a center
& a center on each center
composed by centers
like earth
the brain
the passage to other worlds
passage to something sad
lost dada
an old horse rotting in the garden
maneless      waiting
for the full moon
someone leaps into the saddle
rushes after you
exuding light



“You are mistaken if you take Dada for a modern school, or as a reaction against the schools of today. … Dada is not at all modern.  It is more in the nature of an almost Buddhist religion of indifference. … The true Dadas are against Dada.” (Tristan Tzara)

Which was Tzara’s way of proclaiming Dada’s postmodernity — not as chronology but as an irritation (a disgust) with solutions altogether (“no more solutions! no more words!”) & with prescriptions (old or new) for making art.  It is important to remember: that at the heart of Dada was a pullback from the absolute: from closed solutions based on single means: not a question of technique, then, but of a way of being, a state-of-mind (of “spirit”), “a stance” (: Charles Olson, decades later) “toward reality.”  For which the only technique was the suppression of technique, the only sense of form was to deny form as a value.  And for all of that, Dada drew from means that were common to its time & to its predecesors in Futurism & Expressionism: a series of projects it would work on until its own (predicted) self-destruction as a movement.  Collage.  Performance.  New Typographies.  Chance operations.  And a high devouring humor.

At the same time Dada had its myth(s) of origin.  Its time was one of war, its place the neutral heart of Europe.  In Zurich, then, a group of artists/poets, brought together by a flight from war & time, set up a venue of their own (the Cabaret Voltaire) & took a name at total variance with the names that came before (expressionism, futurism, constructivism, orphism, etc.).  Their strategy was what a later poet (E. Sanders) would call “a total assault on the culture” — or in the words of one of their own (R. Huelsenbeck) “the liberation of the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power.”  From Zurich the movement dispersed to Germany & France & elsewhere: a first international & generational outcry, by means of art & at the same time making Art (with capitals) its central target.  The “official” German version lurched toward a leftist politics, while the French, holding the center of European modernism, turned Dada into Surrealism (1924) & brought the movement to an end.  With that turning came a realignment with Art or an attempt to conquer Art’s domain: a sense that Dada-qua-Surrealism — like Dada-qua-Bolshevism in Berlin — was itself a solution rather than a challenge to all possible solutions, Dada included.  But the Surrealist accomodation — if it was that — was mild compared to other attempts to rein in the revolutionary nature of the new poetry & art, in favor of a middle-ground & fashionable modernism.  Through all of which, Dada remained a lurking presence, erupting from then to now in a string of neo-Dadaisms, the careers of which will be charted in the volume still to follow.

As with other “movements” before & after, Dada was largely the work of poets or of those who saw in poetry a liberating gesture setting it apart from that of Art.  Of the poets in the Zurich group, Hugo Ball was the founder of the Cabaret Voltaire & of the first Dada magazine, with which it shared its name; he claimed — in a Dada act that turned into a kind of mystic seizure (see below) — to have invented a new “poetry without words,” but fled Zurich shortly thereafter to live out his life in the Swiss mountains, as a kind of Catholic Dada saint.  Tristan Tzara (b. Sammi Rosenstock in Rumania) was — at nineteen — the movement’s principal publicist & its link to the Dada poets of Paris (Breton, Soupault, Peret, Picabia, et al.), some of whom would be, in turn, the founding fathers of Surrealism.  In a similar vein, Richard Huelsenbeck brought Dada to Berlin & a new life at the edge of postwar German politics.  Less overtly political, the work of a number of other German & Dutch Dadas (Kurt Schwitters, who changed his movement’s name to Merz; Hans Arp; Max Ernst; Theo van Doesburg, working through the Dutch De Stijl) crossed notably into poetry, with Schwitters & Arp approaching major status as new language artists.  Finally, New York Dada (so-called) virtually preceded that of Zurich & focused, oddly, on such European expatriates — circa World War One & early 1920s — as Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Else von Freytag-Loringhoven.  Like Futurism & Surrealism, the movement also had worldwide implications.


(with Charles Bernstein, Regis Bonvicino, Marjorie Perloff, Cecilia Vicuña)

Marjorie Perloff: How has translation of German Dada and Concrete poetry – Schwitters, Ball, Jandl, etc.— influenced your own poetry? Does it seem more congenial to you than French Dada?

Among the Dadas, Schwitters was clearly the one with whom I had the most extended encounter through translation, while the Concrete poet on whom I worked extensively wasn’t Jandl so much as Gomringer.  With Ball the only kind of translation I attempted was a performance of his soundwork, Karawane, which I slipped into my own performance of That Dada Strain.  The translations also included a smaller group from French-language poets such as Tzara and Picabia, but it was That Dada Strain, the whole series of poems, that was as much my response as the translations.

Back in the late 50s or early 60s, when Motherwell’s big Dada book opened me up to Dada, I thought that what was needed was a gathering of actual poems.  Motherwell had presented very few of those, and so I announced that I was preparing an anthology to be called That Dada Strain and to be published by my press, Hawk’s Well.  I translated a handful from Tzara, Arp, Schwitters, Huelsenbeck, and Picabia, but the press didn’t last and I got otherwise diverted.  I didn’t really come back to anything like that until sometime in the 70s, and That Dada Strain, as it emerged then, was a series of poems addressed to the Dada poets – transcreations of a sort, to use Haroldo De Campos’s term.  Translations and appropriations were embedded or collaged in some of the poems, and sound poems and  actual translations were sometimes included in performance versions.

In doing that I don’t think I was so much favoring German Dada as Zürich Dada – not least of all because the antiwar and transnational stance of the Zürich exiles corresponded to my own feelings about Vietnam and the Vietnam aftermath – about the whole twentieth-century experience of war and repression if it came to it.  Even so, Paris is very much there in the two opening poems, as well as Schwitters’ Germany in the poem addressed to him.  It was Schwitters too on whom I focused later – by way of translation – because I saw him as an experimental extremist whose work coincided with much in our own time but had never been translated and carried over into English.  (Except by him, of course, when he was in exile in England.)  That Schwitters was himself a victim of war and fascism also had an appeal to me.

What I did with Schwitters was both to translate him and to follow him into performance.  I also tried to bring him forward as a precursor of concrete poetry, but his concrete poems like his sound poems and his poems in English needed no translation.  Where I got into the translation of concrete poetry was with Gomringer – a whole book of poems translated into English as a kind of primer, I thought, not only of Gomringer’s poetry but of the fundamentals of translation, operating in an area of minimal poetry that seemed to eschew translation.  Even more of a transcreation for me was a series of ritual songs that I translated from the Seneca Indian “society of the mystic animals.”  I had collected these in a collaboration with the Seneca singer and ritualist, Richard Johnny John, and I wanted a way to show the sophistication of the apparently minimal use of words and vocables (“meaningless” sounds) in Seneca chanting.   Instead of setting up a song poem like this




The animals are coming

I set it up like this:




The animals are coming     HEHUHHEH




The results, I thought, followed along the lines of what Ernest Fenollosa, early in the game and speaking of something quite different, had called “a brilliant flash of concrete poetry.”


SOURCES: “THAT DADA STRAIN”, “A GLASS TUBE ECSTASY, FOR HUGO BALL,” and “THE HOLY WORDS OF TRISTAN TZARA”  are from  That Dada  Strain (New Directions, New York,  1983).

PROLOGUE TO DADA appears in  Poems for the Millenium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Press, Vol. 1 (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995), whilst the concluding Excerpt From the Sibila Interview appears in Poetics and Polemics 1980-2005 (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2008).

The quote from Anne Waldman is from her Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews and Manifestos (Coffee House Press, Saint Paul), 2001 319. That by Bryon Gysin is from Nicholas Zurbrugg ed. Art, Performance, Media: 31 Interviews (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis), 190.

See Jerome Rothenbergs POEMS AND POETICS blog archive here and the UBU Web ethnopoetics gallery here.


In Uncategorized on March 10, 2011 at 12:22 am


The latest installment of the Demotic Archives – in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin offers a set of resources for art writing – developed alongside I DID NOT KNOW THAT LENIN WAS LENIN, my current commission for the Merzman festival in Manchester.

As part of this project I began to explore how Lenin was/is figured in numerous texts by artists, writers and philosophers (both his contemporaries and our own). The quotations that follow chart a certain “artists’ Lenin” emergent through the work of Viktor Shklovsky (quoting Maxim Gorky), Sergei Eisenstein, “the young Roumanian Marcu”, and Dziga Vertov.

The Lenin that unfolds from these writings is, of course, highly partial and radically different to the Lenin of Lenin’s own writings, or of most historical account. Read in this way, the quotes propose a  figure of Lenin composed of the radical (or not) nature of art practice, and the artists “eccentric” or otherwise stance-in-relation to reality… The images for this post are stills from Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin (1934).

This gathering also suggests how notions of legacy between artists – and between art, literature and politics – might be operating. The story by Marcu is quoted in and from the introduction to the Robert Motherwell edited The Dada Painters & Poets: An Anthology, a text with a history of influence and appropriation amongst artists and writers in New York and elsewhere, upon its publication in 1951 (a future post of the Demotic Archive will explore this influence further).

This sixth installment of the Demotic Archive concludes with Antonio Negri, whose The Porcelain Workshop: For A New Grammer of Politics, is a key text for the movement of philosophical ideas and methods into writing and art practices. The Negri quote here is from the first chapter of Porcelain. Negri is responding specifically to Lenin, and the “impasse” around conceptions of power in both Lenin, Max Weber and Carl Schmitt…


“It so happened that we had a free evening in London, and a small group of us went to a music hall, a small democratic theater. Vladimir Ilyich laughed easily and infectiously on watching the clowns and vaudeville acts, but he was only mildly interested in the rest. He watched with special interest as workers from British Columbia felled trees. The small stage represented a lumber yard, and in front, two hefty fellows within a minute chopped down a tree of about one meter circumference.

“‘ Well, of course, this is only for the audience. They can’t really work that fast, ‘ said Ilyich. ‘But, it’s obvious that they do work with axes there, too, making worthless chips out of the bulk of the tree. Here you have your cultured English-men!’

“He started talking about the anarchy of production under capitalism and ended by expressing regret that nobody had yet thought of writing a book on the subject. I didn’t quite follow this line of reasoning, but I had no time to question Vladimir Ilyich because he switched to an interesting dicussion on ‘eccentrism’ as a special form of theater art.

“‘ There is a certain satirical and skeptical attitude to the conventional, an urge to turn it inside out, to distort it slightly in order to show the illogic of the usual. Intricate but interesting.’

SOURCE: Viktor Shklovsky, Mayakovsky and his Circle (Pluto Press, London, 1972), 116-17. The story here is Shklovsky’s quotation of a text by Gorky.


“I have seen the Montagues in a tiny theater in Paris, the very same Montagues whom Vladimir Ilyich Lenin crossed the whole city to see…” (78)

“I notice with astonishment that today’s student, freed from the study of religious instruction reveals the same hostility to the study of dialectics. And I believe this is because, in the process of teaching this almighty shining miaculous method of cognition,  the heavy hands of our sophists, catechists, Plisses and Perekhavalskys are too often laid on it.

Instead of an all-penetrating science, as it was understood and presented by Lenin; a science invoking us to study and reveal its nature and essence everywhere, in everything and over everything (“Begin with the most simple, ordinary, mass-evident, etc., from any premises: the leaves of the tree are green; Ivan is a man; Zhuchka is a dog, etc. Already here, as the genius of Hegel noted, is dialectics…”). Instead of this, the boring catechists, pettifogging pedants, and casuists come to the institutes, and in their hands the living spirit of the sorceress Dialectics disappears. All that remains is an indigestible skeleton of paragraphs, abstract propositions, and the perpetual motion of the vicious circle of once-and-for-all chosen quotations. (204)

SOURCE: Sergei Eisenstein, Immoral Memories: An Autobiography (Peter Owen, London, 1985).


When we left the restaurant, it was late in the afternoon. I walked home with Lenin.

“ ‘You see.’ he said, ‘why I take my meals here. You get to know what people are really talking about. Nadezhda Konstantinova is sure that only the Zurich underworld frequents this place, but I think she is mistaken. To be sure, Maria is a prostitute. But she does not like her trade. She has a large family to support – and that is no easy matter. As to Frau Prellog, she is perfectly right. Did you hear what she said! Shoot all the officers!

“ ‘Do you know the real meaning of this war?’

“‘ What is it?’ I asked.

“‘It is obvious,’he replied. ‘One slaveholder, Germany, who owns one hundred slaves, is fighting another slaveholder, England, who owns two hundred slaves, fora fairer distribution of the slaves.’

“‘ How can you expect to foster hatred of this war,’ I asked at this point, ‘ if you are not, in principle, against all wars? I thought that as a Bolshevik you were really a radical thinker and refused to make any compromise with the idea of war. But by recognizing the validity of some wars, you open the doors for every opportunity. Every group can find some justification of the particular war of which it approves. I see that we young people can only count on ourselves…’

“Lenin listened attentively, his head bent toward me. He moved his chair closer to mine… Lenin must have wondered whether he should continue to talk with this boy or not. I, somewhat awkwardly, remained silent.

“‘Your determination to rely upon yourselves,’ Lenin finally replied, ‘is very important. Every man must rely upon himself. Yet he should also listen to what informed people have to say. I don’t know how radical you are or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. Once can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself…’”


I’ve managed to make Three Songs About Lenin (at least to some degree) accessible and comprehensible to millions. But not at the price of cinematographic language, and not by abandoning the principles which had been formulated earlier. No one would demand this of us.

The important thing is not to separate form from content. The secret lies in unity of form and content. In refraining from shocking the spectator by introducing objects or devices that are unnatural or extraneous to the work. In 1933, while thinking about Lenin, I decided to draw from the source of the people’s creative folklore about Lenin. I would like to keep on working in this direction.

If he saw darkness, he created light.
From the desert, he made orchards.
From death – life.


A million sand grains make a dune.
A million peas make a bushel.
A million weak – a great strength.

Are these images and songs of nameless poets of the people any poorer than the images of the most refined formal works?

The subject in which I am working is the least studied, the most highly experimental subject of cinematography.

The road along which I am going, in an organizational, technical, down-to-earth manner, and in all other senses, demands superhuman efforts. It is a thankless and, believe me, a very difficult road.

But I am hopeful that, in my field, I will be able to defeat formalism, to defeat naturalism, to become a poet not for the few but for the ever increasing millions.

It is far from simple to show the truth.
But truth itself is simple.

SOURCE: “The Writings of Dziga Vertov”, in P.Adams Sitney, Film Culture: An Anthology (Secker and Warburg,1971), 364-5.



We are faced with a double impasse that seems to impose a necessary choice between two possibilities. The first consists in taking power and becoming another power, that is to say, inescapably remaining a power. The second attempts to totally deny the power exerted over life, and therefore emerges as a negation of life itself. From this point of view, the concept of proletarian power that we find in Lenin is completely symmetrical to that of bourgeois power. The concept of liberation is caught in the vise of power. Might we not imagine, on the contrary, that freedom, singularity and potency (puissance) come about as radical difference from power? (17-18)

SOURCE: Antonio Negri, The Porcelain Workshop: For A New Grammar of Politics (semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2008).


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 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)


In Uncategorized on June 24, 2010 at 6:41 am

As a contribution to LECTURE HALL.FREE SCHOOL at the Bethnal Green Library, VerySmallKitchen are delighted to make available Cid Corman’s Origin Memo 1 entitled THE WORLD AS UNIVERSITY/ THE UNIVERSITY AS STUDIO, first published in Kyoto, Japan in 1968.

VSK’s motivations are both archival and contemporary. Corman’s memo is usefully viewed alongside the more well known poet-educational models of his contemporaries and correspondents, such as Charles Olson’s  A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn, which, whilst functioning at a different level, asserts a related view of self-directed poet-learning as Corman explores here, and a parallel desire to extrapolate a model of learning from a poet’s own methods of writing and community.

To re-publish this document now – a response to its own concluding invitation that “this article may be reprinted and circulated freely – only, please, indicate source” – is to make a nuanced poet intervention into a plethora of recent pedagogy focussed projects. It’s also to try and learn from both the clarity and the failings and obstinacy of Corman’s approach, tracing into VerySmallKitchen’s own practices the tension between Corman’s macro- ambition and the micro- scale of his own operation and distribution. 

More specifically, THE WORLD AS UNIVERSITY/ THE UNIVERSITY AS STUDIO enters into the sessions of the LECTURE HALL. FREE SCHOOL project, a problematic contribution to its own ambitions of community, exchange, need and hopefulness. 

See a bio of Corman here. Poetry readings by Corman here. An interview with Philip Rowland is here. Read Corman’s THE FAMOUS BLUE AEROGRAMMES here





Recently a teacher-friend from within the complex of schools in Western Massachusetts of which Hampshire College is the latest development sent me their only too elaborate “pitch book”: The Making of a College: Hampshire College, Working Paper Number One. The authors are Franklin Patterson (chiefly) and Charles R.Longsworth, president and vice-president respectively of the school. 

Beyond what they wish for their model undergraduate college – worked out with a great many educational experts as consultants – they seem to think of themselves as exposing (according to the report’s subtitle)” “Plans for a New Departure in Higher Education.” Ironically, at least to me, they have brought home the sense, first, that they are incorrigibly obsolete in their “thinking” about education – despite their expressed concern – with modernity – and second, that their projected college is quite unnecessary; indeed, that ALL colleges are unnecessary. 

Since my sense of this derives immediately from their own presentation, any merit my ideas have must admit a debt. And for whatever stimulus value these ideas may have towards a basic reconsideration of educational possibilities – on a universal scale – let me sketch my reaction to the report out in a little detail.


The obsoleteness of such a report – well over 350pp – is reflected in its hopelessly jargon-ridden language – no matter how “sincere” and “honest” the pitch may be and likely is. (I say “pitch” advisedly. The authors themselves stress “hard facts”, so-called, and speak of inculcating culture as providing “individual freedom and a sense of virtue in order” “ as a central matter of business.” The whole report merited perhaps 50pp: in terms of what is communicated. And Hampshire, it may be noted, is especially proud of its radical sense of how vital “language” – in every sense – is in the modern curriculum.)

One of the report’s major points is to suggest the possible intimate role of the college in the community, but again this role is quickly set into an economic scene. And the point turns out to be no more than the “hard fact” that the college could and should be a “successful business enterprise.” My point is not to debate the economic issue, but to get at education and its procedures. 

They, the authors, never seem to wonder if it might not be better, in every sense, to educate people within their native communities – a need that becomes more obvious if seen in the light (if it is light) of underdeveloped areas of the world – rather than drawing them out (providing scholarships yet at pre-highschool level) into an artificial community. In the same way, they boast of the idea of offering “simulations” of foreign communities in studying foreign languages. It is neither economical nor possible, in “hard fact”, to offer the actual in an admitted substitute of it. And since the actual is available there is no call to resort to subterfuges. 

An extention of this idea – not to be pushed here – is that scientists in their simulating laboratories also tend to lose their powers of total perception, and proportion, by isolating themselves from actual occasion in all its multiplicity. The intensification of this process must and, of course, does narrow human vision.

Any frank reading of this report must, I feel, induce a sense of educational claustrophobia, not perhaps unlike the total-environment company system as it operates here in Japan. Instead of offering and educing a profound and genuine sense of freedom, it offers the simulation of freedom – so that any youngster attending such a school will be beyond knowing what freedom might mean and will be swamped by the contradictions his life after college presents and will either go insane and/or entrench himself in the “set-up”, such as it is.


More immediately cogent, perhaps, is the realization that  dawned on me in reading this report of how effective our rapidly moving technology allows us to be – not only in the field of education, but everywhere.

What is allowed becomes startlingly clear when the  report quotes: “The net message, in reply to queries about what education can expect to have from communications technology in the next decade or so, is: ‘Anything you want.’” It also becomes clear the educators really dont know what they want – for after detailing, interestingly, some of what has already been achieved through technology, the authors timidly let the whole possibility drop – as if it would all just take care of itself. 

The issue is underlined by an instance they provide of a young physicist at M.I.T. who teaches about one and a half hours a week there and with associates helps train a dozen grad students and for his own research project has to “commute frequently” to Stanford to use their unique equipment – and his university covers the costs. They add: “This young man does not see how even a major teaching and research institution can expect to have first-rate scientists without providing for very light teaching loads and time to travel to and use expensive research facilities elsewhere.”

My own suggestions of how this situation could be answered – and it certainly needs answering at every level – will follow in due time. The Hampshire authors admit, simply, that they cannot hope to compete with such schools, but see their answer in a pooling of resources within their own five-school orbit: certainly a feeble answer. 

The answer, of course, must be sooner or later far more revolutionary than anything they will let themselves envisage. To be sure, such a realization jeopardizes their own, no doubt hardwon, positions and that could hardly be attractive to them. (This “drag” and “drain” in human conditions is true everywhere and in all spheres of activity, but in the face of the increasing ponderousness of “things” – which was effectively never as heavy as now – radical changes become extremely difficult to effect on a strictly physical and economic (and thus political) level.)

The answer, it seems to me, to the educational “economy” of the world rests dramatically and decisively with technology and our intelligent use of it.


As a practising fulltime poet, of all things, it might well seem an anomaly for me, of all people, to be advocating a complete technological takeover in the transmission of education, but the point is not to put education in the hands of technology, but to use the technology given us, handsomely, so as to revolutionize and radically improve educational procedures on a universal scale. (I grant, of course, that such a move must proceed on a more modest scale to start with – but that is another matter.)

Let me detail some of the issues. In my own experience, and it has been extensive (on several continents), as both student and teacher, I have found myself bedevilled by pointless lecture systems and seminar programs involving students and teachers who should never have been brought together in the first place. (And this has been characteristic everywhere.) Hampshire mentions several tentative freshman seminars tried out at various schools in America, but doesnt get at the more fundamental issue that in any college rig the likelihood of bringing the “right” students to the “right” teacher is most remote. 

Let me put it another way. As an undergraduate (1941-45) I took many seminar courses in writing poetry (I would have been glad to study day and night and, by myself, effectively did) – more, in fact, than are listed in my college record, for my interest was in the work, not the credit. But in several years of attendance in this course – more selective than most – I was the only serious writer in the groups – not only as it “turned out”, but as was apparent to both the teacher and myself, at least, at the time. And he was “lucky”, if you will, to have had even one (1) such student in a decade. You can say that the others benefitted in marginal ways, but that is beside the point. The point is that every student of his ought to have been and could have been just such a student as myself. But the situation, the set-up, militated against such a possibility. And it still does – everywhere.

The utter waste and futility any genuine teacher must  feel in such situations – beyond rationalizing them out – are overbearing. And the cases where this is not true must be exceedingly rare today. Perhaps less so in the relatively aristocratic (truly élite) and monastic arrangements in many places in the past – or in their counterparts now.

Against this prevailing situation, let me cite – and as above, without any self-adulation at issue – the personal situation I find myself in at the moment (and one that has been rather constant for the past twenty years). Unaffiliated with any school formally or informally, I am corresponding “in depth” with a host of young writers from all parts of the world who write me, whether mistakenly or not, in the hope that they may receive the more personal and detailed help that they cannot get or arent getting elsewhere – or over and above other assistance. And this, in fact, includes some serious writers who are as old as or older than myself; i.e., not so young, let’s say. (Some few have even troubled to come over to Japan to live in the area, for there are some other helping poets here in addition to myself.)

My point, if it isnt already too obvious, is that in this situation ALL the “students” are self-chosen and intensely concerned. And their dedication evokes my own that much more and provides much mutual interplay. It’s true, of course, that I earn no salary for this work – but when one makes love – in any scene – one doesnt expect pay, unless one is a prostitute. And then, just as clearly, it isnt “love”, but business.

All this, however, though useful, is preliminary. Where and how does the technology fit in?


Perhaps it begins to loom out at you without my saying it: that any college today needs be no more than a transmission center: a studio for communications. (Perhaps research centers could be placed together in such locations, but it may not be either practicable nor necessary: their labors can certainly be drawn upon, as warranted.) And a center for communications storage” “education banks.” All that are needed are technicians and coordinators at such “plants”, The physical layouts of colleges, schools, universities, can be and should be drastically reduced. No students need ever “go to school”: the education can be brought to them, either at home – in an “education room or facility” – or in some local “education center” or centers. The hours could be those of a laundromat or a Hayes Bickford cafeteria.

(Think of how much space could revert to needed private housing and green zones. “Green Zones”: that ugly admission of defeat, meaning woodlands and fields, extended gardens, as well as smaller individual home-sites. Think of the reduced traffic. Think of how active education suddenly becomes!)

Here each student (no age limits: each aware and limited by his own capacity) is his own grader. He can choose whatever he wishes to try his hand at, his spirit, his intelligence. Public information centers locally (available by phone) could carry listings of what can be had and specialist consultant-contact could be arranged in those cases where individual “conference” might be wanted. Tests – taken at the students convenience and self-graded largely – could be received either by mail or telecommunication. All lectures would be received by either tape or TV (or whatever other devices may come into use).

The students – note – would be learning whenever they “felt” like it and within their own communities. (Travel would be encouraged and it would not cut off anyone from pursuing studies at the same time, while providing an active supplement.) It would, no doubt, harass commercial TV, etc., for it would compete vigorously, naturally, with it – but no one would honestly regard this as a negative factor.

It would cut down the number of teachers needed drastically and keep only the best teachers (selection would be generous, but mostly “natural”) “in stock”. The teachers would record their lectures at their own convenience and would not have to commute to a school or live in an artificial environment and often far from where they “really” want to be. It would eliminate all the weak souls who retire into teaching and the relative seclusion of a campus. 

It would mean that anyone ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD could tap in on this resource. Wealth would not be required, nor examinations. One would pay for education as one pays for any utility – in terms of actual service and service charges.

It would mean that some lectures would be favorite lectures for generations possibly. It would mean that a specialist in physics could tap in on the key developments almost immediately EVERYWHERE and not be reduced to one, often isolated, point of view. It would mean parent and child could share the same courses: the parent would see and hear what the child is exposed to. It would mean much more time for children to play together outside. (Rainy days, etc., would be ideal study days.) It would enliven intelligence and feeling everywhere.

All the artificial and useless pressures of education would be removed. The government itself, or better – international organization, could provide the necessary facilities out of a common tax or simply out of the savings such a presentation naturally creates. 

It would be a godsend to the poorer nations as well as to downtrodden minorities where schools cannot be afforded and teachers are scarce. It creates a common fund of human excellence. (Even translation machines could come into play.) It would create an incredible amount of stimulation for all human society and increase the desire and chance to share ideas and live together. It would remove the basis of such much human bickering and misery – or at least open them at more profound levels. (The autobiography of MALCOLM X is a moving example of how even a little dedicated self-education, improved by travel, mingling, and experience, deepened a man otherwise deplorably ignorant and malicious – even if his life was lost just when it was worth saving.)

Anyone with questions could contact, directly or indirectly, sources where he could get true response and a variety of response. Discussion would be stimulated and enhanced within communities and groups interested in the same range of ideas. Contact could be effected quickly between people in distant regions concerned with similar problems. How much more educated – drawn forth – liberated – would the entire world society be!


All that I have imaged here very broadly others can and, I trust, will develop according to their better knowledges. This is only the generative idea. 

Countless problems are evoked by this new approach, but none of them seems to me anywhere near as terrifying or insoluble as those we are now forcing upon ourselves at a steadily accelerating pace. What I am suggesting neither can wait, nor should wait, upon more “worse”.

And then the more fundamental issues of education remain. I refer chiefly to that of a guiding vision. And if I am inclined to feel that this vision is, necessarily, that of poetry, please understand that it is not mere bias but out of a sense of poetry’s larger meaning. For I think of poetry as human being par excellence, as the human sense of all that is found in circumstance met generously, fully, and realized out of the deepest awareness that death subsumes us all. Such a vision begins at home; it cannot wait for “higher education”. For me the higher education starts at birth. 

13-14 April 1968


Fukuoji-cho 82

Utano, Ukyo-ku

Kyoto, Japan

(this article may be reprinted and circulated freely – only, please, indicate source)


Other components of VerySmallKitchen’s DEMOTIC ARCHIVES OF ART WRITING are  (1)Thomas A Clark’s THE GALLERY AND THE BOOK which can be seen here, and (2) Richard Foreman’s  ONTOLOGICAL HYSTERIC THEATER: A MANIFESTO which can be seen here.