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Monday, December 31, 2012

Language In Action (a interview with Douglas Messerli)

Recently, going through some of my papers, I uncovered an interview I did with Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody for Gargoyle magazine in 1984. Much of of what is said below has been written elsewhere, but there may be some new angles on my role as a writer and a publisher below.

Language in Action

An Interview with Douglas Messerli
Interviewed by Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody
 
Born in Iowa, Douglas Messerli is currently Assistant Professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia. He has written extensively on modern poetry and fiction, and is the author of Djuna Barnes: A Bibliography and editor of Barnes' Smoke and Other Early Stories. His poetry has been published in many magazines including Doc (k) s, Roof, Shuttle, Washington Review, Interstate, The World, The Difficulties, Credences, The Bad Henry Review, Mississippi Review, Poetry in Motion, Gargoyle, and many others. His poetry has been collected in River to Rivet: A Poetic Trilogy which includes his two earlier volumes Dinner on the Lawn and Some Distance. Douglas lives in College Park, Maryland (he taught for a while at the University of Maryland) and co-publishes Sun & Moon Press books with Howard N. Fox. They ran Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature and Art from 1976 to 1982. Douglas also guided Là-bas through twelve issues between 1976 and 1978. This past summer he edited the special "Manifestos" issue of the Washington Review and Contemporary American Fiction. He is currently completing a novel, Letters from Hanusse, and is working on Several Revolutions, a political opera.

Interviewers: Let's begin with the history of your journal, Sun & Moon. Why did you start a literary magazine? What made you bring it to a close?

Messerli: I began Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art in 1976, although I actually conceived of the magazine on May 30th, 1975 — my 27th birthday. I had planned to publish Sun & Moon as an inexpensive mimeographed journal in the tradition of the little magazines I had been reading: The Floating Bear, The Nice Series, etc. But, as is true of most beginning editors, I didn't really know what I was doing, and I asked for work from an extraordinarily eclectic group of writers and artists (the first issue contains work by people as radically different as Gilbert Sorrentino, Fielding Dawson, Leonard Michaels, Lewis Turco, Marge Piercy, Daphne Athas, and Anne Truitt) which diverted me from following my models. So, even before Howard Fox and I had published the first issue, we decided to change our notions of format and audience, changes that were to affect the magazine for the rest of its issues, and have influenced what I'm currently doing as a publisher of books.  
     Instead of publishing a magazine expressing the ideas and writings of a particular group of poets and artists, we decided to open it up to a somewhat broader base of contributors and readers; rather than publishing only that work to which, as a poet, I was most committed (as, say, James Sherry was doing in Roof), I attempted to create in the magazine a sense of a forum for advanced poetry, fiction, and art. My model shifted, accordingly, from The Floating Bear to John Ashbery's Art and Literature; hence, the subtitle: A journal of Literature & Art.
     That decision certainly has had its advantages. I think over the years we have served as a kind of forum, as a connecting link, of sorts, between younger writers and artists and those who have established careers. And that has meant that even a beginning writer whose work appeared in the pages of Sun & Moon has had a broad base of readers. If individuals and libraries bought the magazine in order to read the works of writers such as Paul Bowles or Walter Abish or a critic such as Charles Altieri, they also had set before them new poems by Charles Bernstein or Bruce Andrews or -- to use examples of poets first published in our pages -- Jim Wine or Rafael Lorenzo. Its handsome, almost "academic" format also meant that Sun & Moon could generally count on NEA and CCLM grants.

Interviewers: How did you come to publish a second magazine, Là-bas, at the same time?

Messerli: Well, those very successes of Sun & Moon presented problems as well. I quickly began to feel a bit impatient with the waits between expensive issues and with the enormous outlay of time and money it took to produce each number of the journal. And for those reasons, I guess, I published 12 issues of Là-bas during 1976 and 1977. Là-bas was almost the polar opposite of Sun & Moon. It was mimeographed, and it took a much more advertly radical stance. But, most importantly, it was mailed out with great regularity (at first monthly and then, bi-monthly) to about 350 poets for free. That meant that almost any "interesting" poet of the period would likely see the work of those in Là-bas' pages. It was a wonderful idea -- and it worked. There's a limit, however, even to my energies; and as I began work on my PhD dissertation, I realized that I would have to give up one of the journals. Là-bas was the obvious choice; for, despite its success, I simply couldn't find in it the kind of balance of audience and contributors in which I was -- and still am -- most interested. I mean, I can never understand why anyone would want to publish poetry or fiction to be read by a few friends or even by poets and fiction writers only. It seems to me it would be easier just to send around the work in manuscript or to read it aloud to friends when they stop by for a drink. An artist wants to affect someone other than his fellow artists, friends, or lover. It is the possibility of emotionally and intellectually moving someone you've never met that seems to be of most importance to me.
     In fact, it was for that reason, in part, that I stopped the publication of Sun & Moon in 1982 (although, I'm publishing a few books as issues of the journal to finish up subscriptions). As important as magazines are to the survival of contemporary writing, it is the book which, in the end, defines or reveals what a particular writer is doing in his or her art. In saying that, I'm not really fetishizing the book as an object; I'm just stating the obvious -- that, until writers are an everyday occurrence on television, telephone, radio, and stages, we must rely on the object to transmit our art.
     It is that understanding of books, along with two other important factors, which has led me to move away from the journal. It was inevitable perhaps that, as I was publishing contemporary authors, the "younger" poets were also amassing enough material for book publication; and I wanted to help make some of those books happen. So, even while I was active with the journal, I published books by Charles Bernstein, Ray DiPalma, Peter Inman, and others. And then, it began to be increasingly apparent that commercial publishing was moving in an entirely different direction from that of contemporary fiction and poetry. There will always be a few exceptions -- like the fact that Walter Abish has been signed by Random House -- but, for the most part, it is clear that as far as advanced literature is concerned, the big publishing houses are deaf. You can't sell books in supermarket quantities without sacrificing something; and the corporation godheads behind the publishing industry have chosen as their lambs poetry and fiction. Combine that with the fact that, by and large, the most adventurously-minded university professors have shifted in their habits from reading contemporary literature to immersing themselves in critical and philosophical theory, and you realize that one or two generations of authors have been ignored into near-extinction.
     Being a missionary at heart, I vowed that I would do everything possible -- puny as my attempts might be -- to keep publishing books during what may someday be seen as the Dark Ages of American Literary History. One keeps hearing from reviewers, critics, and readers that contemporary poetry and fiction are dead; but I think it's the opposite: contemporary poetry and fiction are wonderfully alive, but the reviewers, critics, and readers have died. However, the books that prove this are just not getting out to a wide enough audience for anyone to see the truth. That's where I'm trying to move -- into that ignorant gap.

Interviewers: The success of Sun & Moon Press' publication of the Djuna Barnes collection of stories has been phenomenal. When and how did you first become interested in Djuna Barnes?

Messerli: Djuna Barnes' uncollected short stories seemed a perfect place for the press to begin its serious publishing -- that is, to begin printing books in a recognizably standard format and to publish clothbound editions. I love Barnes' work, and I've taught Nightwood for years in the university. But, it's more than that; almost every experience I have had with Barnes and her work has been serendipitous.
     In graduate school I did a bibliography of Barnes' work (later published by David Lewis in New York) for a bibliography and methods course; and the very day that I was planning to complete my months of research, a librarian at the University of Maryland Library asked me why I was looking at The Little Review. I told her I was working on an obscure writer of the 20s and 30s. "Who?" she demanded. I named Barnes, and she said, "I thought so. You know, the Rare Book Collection upstairs has just purchased all of Miss Barnes' letters, books, and papers." Obviously, I did not know; so I went charging up to the Rare Book Collection, where I came upon Robert Beare, rummaging through chests of Barnes' letters, clippings, books, and memorabilia. It took me four more months of working every day in the Rare Book Room to describe and annotate the· clippings.
     Then, later I actually did get to have an hour's conversation with Djuna Barnes. But I've written about that incredible visit elsewhere (in The New York Native), so I won't repeat it here.
     Anyway, I believe Barnes to be one of the major writers of this century; but like Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, and later, Jane Bowles, she wrote something outside the context Of "high Modernism," something more akin to what contemporary writers are doing -- and that made her a sort of pariah. I'm extremely gratified to have any role in the wider recognition of her work. Of course, Barnes' death has had a great deal to do with the success of Smoke and Other Early Stories. It's unfortunate that the literary establishment seems intent upon recognizing only the dead -- and near dead.

Interviewers: What does Sun & Moon Press plan in the future?

Messerli: Oh, we're doing some great books! Djuna Barnes' Interviews, for one -- incredibly funny and witty interviews she did with celebrities such as Flo Ziegfeld, Mother Jones, Diamond Jim Brady, Alfred Stieglitz, Frank Harris, Coco Channel, and dozens of others; a marvelous book. And then, we're printing new fiction by Russell Banks, The Relation of My Imprisonment; a long, indescribably moody and moral-toned novel by Steve Katz, Weir & Pouce; and a brilliant and stylish book of stories by Tom Ahern, Hecatombs of Lake; Charles Bernstein's collected critical writings, Content's Dream; a beautiful novel about American Indians in the 18th century, by Johnny Stanton, Mangled Hands; and other good books by Hannah Weiner, Fiona Templeton, Gil Ott, Ted Greenwald, Len Jenkin -- oh! and an anthology of new American drama, edited by John Wellman. I'm running out of adjectives; but I get enthusiastic just by remembering my reading of the books in manuscript.
     We're also beginning a new series, The Contemporary Critical Series, devoted to critical books on contemporary authors and a few modern ones (like Djuna Barnes) who have had an impact on today's writing.

Interviewers: To turn to your own criticism, in your essay, "Experiment and Traditional Forms in Contemporary Literature," reprinted in the sixth Pushcart collection, you discuss the influence of Pound on constructionist theories of poetics, the emerging conviction that "poetry should be a thing of linguistic process as opposed to representing a set of preconceived ideas and images bound to convention." What is at the heart of this curiosity about "linguistic process"?

Messerli: That's a near impossible question to answer. I mean, it all depends upon of whose heart you're asking. For Pound, it had, perhaps, something to do with his damnable egotism, which kept him at arm's length from most of the people he encountered, and forced him, early on in life one suspects, to center everything upon that unsuccessful -- and therefore fascinating -- tool of communication, language. But then, of course, he had read most of the world's "great" poets, and he recognized in the best of them that language was what it (poetry) was all about.
     I have the sensation, however, that your question is not about Pound, but about contemporary writing, about the focus of poets such as those connected with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E on "linguistic process." That too has to do, in part, with (as Pound might write it) Edecaysion, with reading poets like Pound, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, the Russian Futurists, Gertrude Stein, and even those against whom the "Language" poets seem most to react, John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. I remember Gilbert Sorrentino saying somewhere, something to the effect that it eventually becomes apparent to any writer worth his salt that language is what it (again, writing) is all about.
     But, obviously, there's more at stake than that. For me -- and from my conversations with poets like Bernstein and Andrews, I surmise they would support some of my sentiments -- language is just everything. It is the way -- the only way -- we have of making reality, the act others describe as "comprehending experience." But for me, it is truly a "making." Every day, every moment we speak and, through language, think the world into existence. Therefore, it's of the utmost importance that a few of us -- even if we're seen as a bunch of myopic babblers -- spend some time contemplating, playing with, challenging, and delighting in the ways in which the society uses it. Hopefully, we can affect a few people, who can -- to use the jargon of an advertisement currently shaping our collective consciousness -- affect two more, who can affect two more and so on ... and so on ... until we have the whole country reevaluating, listening to, and reinventing language -- not as an intellectual exercise, but as a matter of life and death (and I do not speak metaphorically).

Interviewers: In that same essay, you cite Ron Silliman's claims for a new genre of prose poetry in which "actual elements of poetic structures" enter "into the interiors of sentence structure itself." Could this sort of integrated activity represent a possible fusion of non-analytic, co-figurational perceptions/"structures" with more traditional processes of language, the conventional patterns of "making a statement"?

Messerli: Well, I don't know, of course, what you mean by "conventional patterns." If you're talking late Nineteenth century to mid-Twentieth century "conventional patterns," I'd say "no," I don't think that's the direction any really challenging contemporary poet or fiction writer is moving. There's no real fusion possible once you have allowed the Romantic dichotomy between world and self to become your "conventional pattern" of thinking. In fact, I don't believe that any writer in whom I'm most interested is seeking a "fusion," that third element in the Structuralist trinity of the fodder, sun and holly growth. I don't really know if what I'm saying is applicable to Silliman, however, or not. He seems often at odds to what I'm concerned with. I mean, he is a sort of structuralist, and his sentences are composed according to structural principles which appear to be at the opposite end of the tunnel we may (or may not) both have entered. I'm not really interested in overall or "preconceived" structures -- just in discovered or uncovered ones. What delights me is the fact that most of the structures I "uncover" -- no matter how radically I push the language -- already exist. Now, that makes me believe in Northrup Frye, if not in myth. And that's a kind of structuralism. But I'm not at all interested in "applying" structures to poetry, which, it appears, Silliman is.
     If, by the term "making a statement" you mean "having a meaning," I'd say "Yes, I'm interested in that." But the whole Modernist notion of making a statement apart from the experience of encountering the language of the poem or fiction itself is alien to my way of thinking. I have ideas; my language is them.

Interviewers: You also discuss several other examples of this kind of approach -- what might be called a language dialectic in Postmodern writing. There's Eleanor Antin, who talks about the space between herself and her name, a space which "has to be filled with credit"; Norma Jean Deak's two-tiered performance dialogues; various experimental "autobiographers" who seem to pursue some kind of authentic self-in-language. Can we assume that an accommodation can be made between language, its structural conventions, and some more immediate "quality of experience?"

Messerli: Again, you seem to speak of "accommodation" as a kind of mediating device, as something which can bring what you perceive as discordant or contrary concerns into the same arena. But what if I said, "This is a baseball field," when it was set up for football, or "This is a football field," when I had clearly outlined three bases and a homeplate. I suppose you could attempt to resolve my confusion by playing rugby or cricket, but that wouldn't be to deal with the contradictions I've created. For, I didn't ask you to "compromise," but asked you to work in the arena with the contradiction itself. That, it seems to me, is what Eleanor Antin -- and David Antin, in a radically different way -- Norma Jean Deak, and fictional autobiographists such as Walter Abish, Toby Olson, and Raymond Federman ask. They seek not for an "accommodation," but for an "engagement" with both realities simultaneously. Theirs is an art that asks for the "I" of the self and the "eye" of the character to perceive the unequivocal differences of experience occurring at the same time and place.

Interviewers: Do you see any connections between these examples and what is currently being discussed as the contrast between Right- and Left-brain patterns of perception and response?

Messerli: Of course, that is behind the dialectic most authors presume, which results in their desire for accommodation, a synthesis. But, in my own work -- and I think this can be applied to the works of most of the writers I've mentioned -- there is an outright rejection of the dialectical structure. I'm not interested in writing a poetry that employs or activates Right- or Left-brain thinking, or even in creating a work that lies somewhere in the middle. I want to create a literature that is constantly slipping between one and the other -- or that is using them both simultaneously -- that would be best.
     Recent physiological and psychological experiments seem to indicate that each half of the brain can take over the activities of the other half. So, I'd like to move randomly between them, asking the so-called "analytical" faculties to hear music and requiring that "part" of the brain that activates reverie to count pistons. But here, I am speaking metaphorically, because I really don't think you can separate pistons from music. As I keep saying, I'm interested in using all the faculties, at full gear, in the very same instant. Most writers, I'm afraid, have never heard anything but contrapuntal music -- at least, it seems that way if you study the ways in which they use language. I want a symphony in words -- maybe two or three symphonies going at the same time as in some of Charles Ives' compositions.

Interviewers: Can we compare Postmodern poetry with indeterminate music, which, unlike serial music, depends on the process to create meaning, to create a situation in which music and extra-musical activities occur, with no predictable or desired outcome?

Messerli: Sure; why not? Only, I've given up on the word "Postmodern." Everybody means something different by it -- and that's okay, but not when it's the very opposite of what others mean to say. A lot of people have begun to use that word to mean nearly any kind of writing since 1960 or to mean "experimental" writing or to describe something they don't understand. To me, Postmodernism, as applied to literature, has nothing to do with moving forward from Modernism (if you can define Modernism), but has to do with going back and rediscovering and revising traditions the Modernists -- in their damnable search for unity and purity -- rejected or refused to acknowledge.

But yes, I'd agree with your comparison. Only, the goal, in my case, isn't the indeterminacy. It's only because I employ so many levels of language -- the private, the formal, the archaic, jargon, clichés, unfinished phrases -- simultaneously that any particular poem doesn't have closure. To "close" such a poem would mean making a choice, picking the oboe, say, over the bassoon and the tuba, or -- at the very least -- asking everybody to play from the same score in the same room. And then, I'd never find out if can make a whole new language, if I can uncover a whole new way to make meaning. The indeterminacy, in other words, is not a goal but a result.

Interviewers: I was surprised to learn that Dinner on the Lawn and Some Distance, your first two books of poetry, were parts of a larger trilogy. They strike me as different in terms of line length and style. What are you up to in the third section and how does each segment function as part of the whole?

Messerli: If you're speaking in formal terms, the books don't function as a whole. It's just that I write in series -- which (this may surprise some of my readers) are thematically, as opposed to stylistically and linguistically, linked. And suddenly, I had written three such series of almost the same length. The first, Dinner on the Lawn, was a very personal book about language and love; the second, Some Distance, was a book that attempted through language to explore my childhood in the Midwest with my present life; the third, River to Rivet, was a manifesto explaining why I wrote the other two the way I did. So I decided they were all really of one piece, each growing out of the other -- except that I put the manifesto smack in the middle to explain the poetic and thematic principles of those at each end. I suspect, however, that you might see these three volumes as an attempt to say similar things in different voices; perhaps I should have a simultaneous performance of the three volumes -- but then it would be hard to sort out the emotional lyrical intensity of each. I guess it would be better to remember each volume as you go along, letting the words and phrases of the first wash over the second and those of the first two, in turn, over the third. Then there would be formal connections.

Interviewers: What is the importance of chance, or the accidental, in your work?

Messerli: It's quite important in the early stages of writing. I mean, I use everything -- my imaginary dyslexia, misheard phrases of conversation, wild associations, sometimes (but very seldom) even dream-induced connections -- in the early processes of writing. But, I think the fact that I revise each poem about 30 times or more reduces the significance of chance and accident in the final draft. In short, my poetry is always ready to take advantage of accident and chance, but it doesn't treat them as if they were sacrosanct. Sometimes the most incredible leaps of the imagination -- the ones that really create a whole new way of seeing and saying something -- are extraordinarily contrived. Chance most often results in the predictable, in the same old patterns of perceiving.

Interviewers: Have you been influenced by any particular theory of linguistics, any particular line of etymological research? Whorf, Chomsky, "deep structures" vs. models of language as a product of cultural adaptation, etc.?

Messerli: I'd have to say, none of the above. I certainly do appreciate the fact that some semioticians, and linguists, have theories that support the notions I've come to through poetry, but it really hasn't been a source for my work at all. Of course, I've been trained in the university, and I'd have to be a dunce in these days not to know about the Prague school, Saussure, and the Russian Formalists and Futurist poets. But as I've been hinting, I'm incredibly anti-formalist -- for all my interest in genres. I think everyone should read the linguists, semioticians, and deconstructionists. But I don't at all advocate one using them as a basis for poetry or fiction -- or even criticism.

Interviewers: Do you see form, as used in Postmodern writing, as a protection against artistic or psychological "chaos," -- or as a means, an instrument, for investigating that apprehension of potential chaos?

Messerli: Yes, I think for many contemporary writers form is a sort of shield from what they perceive as "chaos." I think you could see a lot of the parodists -- Kenneth Koch, John Barth, sometimes even Sorrentino in that context. Those writers of the front-line of the war against Modernism. Others, perhaps, have used forms more as a way to encounter chaos; they've had more time to psych-out the enemy, so to speak. And I find them to be more interesting. I'd say that's true, in part, of Sorrentino at his best, Walter Abish. Maybe my generation has been at the front for such a long time that we don't even see the same things as "chaos." I mean, I find chaos to be pretty rare in the world; I might even say that it's only in my poetry, in my use of language that I really have encountered it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that things in the world don't create difficulties for me and confuse me. But, I don't understand that as chaos really. I invite chaos -- "Come to me," I call out. But, sure enough, I find another form underneath what I thought might be meaningless. In fact, I find more meaning in it than in what most people point out to me as having meaning. So I don't know if I can even say that I'm using poetry to encounter chaos; it's just a desire to experience it. I should add, that I don't see war as issuing from chaos, but from an insistence upon order -- the preference of one order over another. A nuclear holocaust is not chaos -- it is death. My poetry is centered in life, whether structured or chaotic.

Interviewers: Does contemporary poetry (and prose) participate in a framework which investigates its own origins? Psychological/epistemological as well as technical? Or is this a matter of degree which varies with different practitioners?

Messerli: A great deal of it does. Some writers, quite obviously, are more self-conscious than others. I am very interested in showing what I'm doing while I'm doing it. Of course, someone like Harold Bloom might argue that this is a sort of self-reflexiveness brought about by our hyperconsciousness of the traditions before us, our anxiety of influence. But I don't buy that. I'm not interested in exploring where I'm coming from out of some intellectual desire to purge or revel in my spiritual antecedents, but because I want everybody to join in my performance of the poem, to participate in the process of my writing it. I think, in the end, that lends the poem a kind of honesty. And it's that kind of honesty which allows me to put myself on the line (perhaps I should say in the line), to let my stomach hang out, so to speak. So, when I want to use a corn-porn pun or a ridiculously archaic word or I want to rhyme, I don't have to worry about what the reader might think. I let the reader in on the game at the very beginning: this isn't a poem about me, or let's say, this isn't a poem about me alone, but about you and me working with words. That isn't to say that I don't manipulate the reader or make fun of him or her when they refuse to keep up. But I am fair to them in asking for their participation. I keep them abreast of what I know as we move along together in language.

Interviewers: Can language itself provide a kind of modern "mythology," as an authentic source and context of meaning?

Messerli: Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. Language is truth. Language makes meaning. Language is meaning. And that signifies that to write a poem is to shoulder immense responsibility. As a poet, can one afford to accept the world as it is? Mustn't one work with the reader to try to recomprehend it, to reshape it?

Interviewers: Is there something to which language -- or language artifacts -- should be faithful, responsive? Language itself?

Messerli: To language in action, which is life.
 
Interviewers: Where on earth do you find the time or energy to commute, teach, edit, publish, and write poetry, fiction, and critical essays?

Messerli: From an unearthly source, obviously.

Reprinted from Gargoyle No. 24 (1984)

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