Sunday, July 10, 2022

"Forbidding Paths: Interview with Robert Wood by Douglas Messerli" (on publishing Sun & Moon Press, Green Integer, and my several blogs)

forbidding paths: interview with robert wood by douglas messerli 

You started Sun & Moon Press in 1976 and published a number of poets who have subsequently become important figures from that time including Paul Auster, Charles Bernstein and Djuna Barnes. What led you to poetry and these types of poetry in particular? 

Of course, in the strictest sense, the works we published by Paul Auster and Djuna Barnes were not works of poetry. In the best of all possible worlds such distinctions would become quite meaningless, particularly since writers like Auster and Barnes are such remarkable stylists that their works do indeed often represent works of poetry, an exploration of language. I’d like that kind of break-down of barriers to be applied to the work of many writers, not just Stein, Joyce, and Beckett, for example, but for writers I published such as Wendy Walker, Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Jaimy Gordon, Steve Katz, John Hawkes, Mac Wellman, my own work!

    Yet I also consider myself as a sort of amateur expert on genres, so, it is apparent, I do find genres interesting, and the three writers you chose reflect three very different sources of influence that came to settle upon my Sun & Moon (and latter Green Integer) endeavors. The publication of Barnes, for instance, grew out of an accidental discovery of her previously unknown stories, plays, and journalistic pieces that I had made in the process of writing a bibliography for a graduate course. As I’ve written several times, I met with Barnes (one of the last interviews with her on record) and she—as much as such a purposely difficult contrarian could—blessed my possible publication of her early works. So, the several publications of her writings grew out of my youthful (even childhood) love of theater and short fiction and her own engagement with the theater world (which I had personally engaged, entirely from the long distance of Iowa from New York) which is revealed in her interviews and theatrical writings. So, in a sense, my publication of Barnes drew on the well that I had already been digging from childhood on in my 13 and 14-year-old readings of Ionesco, Pinter, Albee, Genet and others. Although I always claim no real experience of theater before moving to New York in 1969, I had long before (at age 15 or 16) stolen Genet’s The Blacks form a local Iowa City bookstore, had been reading the plays of these figures in Theatre Guild Magazine (who, today remembers that then-essential publication? In those pages I even read, can you imagine, the Australian play, Summer of the 17th Doll, by Ray Lawler from 1955, which survived a grand total of 27 performances in New York—bet even you never heard of that one?) and in books published by Grove Press, and I saw my first Ionesco play already by the age of 17 or 18 (The Killers) at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. So I was not totally an innocent when it came to theater. And Barnes’ writing (even her stories fit into the dramatic traditions of Synge, Wilde, and O’Neill, the latter of whom she worked with) perfectly fit that bill. Theater was my first love and fiction my second. So Barnes came, somehow, out of the past, quite literally! And then, to be able to actually link up with her and talk to her about her meeting the early naturalist American playwright David Belasco and the legendary acting couple Lunt and Fontanne….!” Well it was a magic link with a world I had embraced through the intellect only.

     Paul Auster and Charles Bernstein, on the other hand, were of other universes. First of all they were both my contemporaries. Auster I’d heard of, strangely enough, through the art world, but had never met him before he sent me copies of all three of the New York Trilogy volumes. When I realized that I never would be an actor (and since I’d never written dramas except in my imagination, where I composed not only plays but musical comedies), I had turned to fiction in college, and actually did some writing—enough, at least, to get me into a course of the University of Wisconsin with Isaac B. Singer. And, ultimately, my Ph.D. was in American and world fiction (believe it or not, a strange combination permitted by my very conservative University of Maryland English Department). So when I read Auster’s work, well these fictions were simply so innovative and original, and fit so perfectly with the integration of genres which I so admired, that I just had to publish them—despite the fact (which I did not know at the time) that nearly every major publishing house in New York had disparagingly dismissed them! It wouldn’t have mattered to me, of course, impervious as I was to agents and commercial publishers. For me to publish a book simply depended upon whether or not I loved the writing! It has been my way of publishing always. Folks kept writing, asking or not they might become “readers” for my “company.” I couldn’t even comprehend the question. How was I to make a decision based on the emotional responses of someone else. Similarly, writers kept suggesting that they might send selections from their works. What nonsense, I always wrote back. How could I know whether the work was any good if I hadn’t read the whole thing through? I didn’t know how eccentric I was! 

     And, finally, Charles, well…poetry was my last—or at least, latest—literary love. I hadn’t understood poetry until I became a student with the American scholar and hands-on critic Marjorie Perloff. But once I’d taken a course with her I’d become a convert—almost more religious than those who grow up in the faith. And I began writing poetry soon after. Only I didn’t yet know what it was I wanted to do with language. Everything I had produced seemed so utterly strange to most people; some suggesting that my works sounded as if they’d been translated from another language. That didn’t bother me a fig, of course: Stein wrote in Steinese, Barnes’s language did sound like it had been translated from another century and language; so did Hawkes and everyone else I liked. But, working as I did in collage, I hadn’t yet found my own voice, although William Carlos Williams had certainly given me some clues. Then I heard Charles Bernstein read, very early on, in Washington, D.C. And everything changed. That was a voice that sounded something like the one which I had heard inside myself—very American, highly literary and literate, but just as disjunctively expressed as were my own attempts. I didn’t need collage, I quickly realized, I just needed to think out loud. After a bit of social dancing, Charles and I quickly became fast friends.

     So, yes, in some senses, those three you asked about were all poets. But my recognition of their talents came from very different sources. I was already all over the planet without quite realizing that fact. But, truly, your question has pinpointed three major intersections of my interests, a past embroiled in theater, a later commitment to innovative fiction, and a more recent embracement of a more radical poetics: Barnes, Auster, Bernstein, a would-be early tributary of Sun & Moon Press, or, expressed another way, Stein, Steve Katz, Susan Howe/Carl Van Vechten, Russell Banks, Lyn Hejinian--a pattern repeated again and again. 

In that sense your own early writing, writing from this period, crossed genres successfully and there is a dialogue that takes place between poetry, performance and theatre. Can you discuss your relationship to other cultural expressions and how they worked with poetry? 

Well, my own earliest writing seemed to me to be trying out of my new concepts of poetry in the trilogy of Dinner on the Lawn, Some Distance, and River to Rivet; but what I didn’t know at the time is that I was already wavering widely between genres, Dinner was still devoted to a kind of abstract version of Williams’ ordinary speech, Some Distance represented a far more deeply autobiographical exhumation of my past, and River to Rivet, with its maxim-like introductions, was a kind of critical poetics, a subterranean declaration of poetic intent.

     From there everything only got more complex. As I said above, I love genres, and in works like Maxims from My Mother’s Milk/Hymns to Him I explored new ways to combine maxims with hymns, critical pronouncements with prayers, and a sense of matriarchal surety with patriarchal doubt  while still focusing, from a very strange angle, on a vaguely autobiographical narrative.

     After explored translation along with re-creation, a performance of the “imitation game” (which I now realize was so important for my generation of gay men) with an insistence upon breaking all the rules in order to “break through” in time, space, and, yes, with the body itself.

     Then I went “wild,” so to speak, freely combining fiction with film and poetry in Along Without, and drama, fiction, poetry and, most notably, performance (along with video) in The Walls Come True, etc.

     Ever since, I have realized that my work is so very difficult to assimilate because it never quite behaves. It always is striving to be something else than the reader might suspect. Just when you think you might have it pinned down—off Messerli goes on yet another tangent, throwing in 19th century melodramatic tropes in First Words just when we thought he was so “Language-poetry”-oriented, or, as in Between, asking other poets to play poetic chess with him. After years of being perceived as a kind of poet of wit (as perhaps you might describe another Sun & Moon discovery, Rae Armantrout), I become a moody romanticist in a work like Dark and in the yet-to-be-published volume Stay.

      After years of writing and waiting for my little audiences to follow up on what I’ve been doing, I suddenly realized that my poetry, just like my publishing, just like by fictions, dramas, and memoirs, are always lived in “between,” existing in the interstices of literature and interchanges between my personas as writer, publisher, performer, friend, wit, clown, etc. I might as well be invisible. But I certainly don’t try to be someone who exists between the lines. I just feel that sometimes that is where reality and experience really lies. So many writers I know get very focused early in their lives; they know what they can do best and they continue to do it, year after year after year. Never changing, or, perhaps, changing just enough to make their audiences feel they doing that same thing again but from a slightly new, original angle. Some of us, Charles Bernstein is similar in many ways, just keep popping up as something other than we are supposed to be. It’s worked for Charles; I’m not sure it has for me. To most, I’m still a publisher of the not-so-distant past. But actually I’m writer who does the same activity in publishing, performing, etc. I draw no lines between my amores.

After Sun & Moon folded, you started Green Integer. Green Integer has published some fantastic work in translation (such as Adonis’ If Only the Sea Could Sleep, which was one of my favourite titles) and some lesser known works by eminent authors (Freud, Musil, Joyce). What is the difference between these two presses? And how has publishing changed from when you first started forty years ago?

Actually, I began publishing the earliest of Green Integer titles while I was still publishing Sun & Moon. I had long wanted to try a less complex and more focused manner of publishing. Sun & Moon by that time had over 300 titles, and was a non-profit organization which requires numerous other activities and perspectives. I had a long-running salon series, a bookstore, and traveled to Frankfurt each year. Increasingly, over the past few years, I had begun to focus more and more of my attentions upon translation in Sun & Moon, in relation to Sun & Moon’s Classics series. And financially, it was becoming more and more difficult  to survive through publishing new American poets and fiction writers, particularly given the beautifully four-color-covered books I designed for Sun & Moon.

      Green Integer, it seemed to me, offered several simpler alternatives: each book, published in a small 6 x 4 ½ format, focused on the author alone (in a black-and-white cover photo), and identified itself, even through the Press name (a green integer or number), as being part of a series. The first couple of books I printed (using a few dollars I had put away through my own writing activities, not through Sun & Moon)—a book by Gertrude Stein and Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer—sold out immediately (we ultimately published 6 printings of the latter book). Meanwhile, we were selling fewer and fewer copies of our works of poets and fiction writers. Something had changed from the days of Paul Auster, Russell Banks, Steve Katz, etc. Newspapers such as The New York Times Book Review, who had previously reviewed nearly all of our new fiction titles, were now paying little attention to newer, experimental work. There was a new generation of book editors who professed interest only in the “popular,” and, I feel, also lost the audiences of the book review pages or sections (today there is only one American newspaper, The Times, with a separate book section).

     Moreover, I was tiring of the “nonprofit” world, wherein so much of my time was dedicated to writing grants and justifying what, given our remarkable track record, should have been apparent. Maybe I was just tired, after all those years of publishing. of the way in which I had been working.

     I loved Sun & Moon Press, but Green Integer offered me a new way of thinking and acting, a more immediate way to focus on important writers who would help to educate younger readers through course adoptions (I have always perceived my role as a kind of educator). Did I really need to promote the careers, to reiterate time and again the literary worth—as I had had to do for so many years—of writers like Stein, Oscar Wilde, Henri Michaux, Paul Celan, André Breton, Adonis, Sigmund Freud, César Vallejo, Knut Hamsun, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, etc.? Generally, these books could sell well by virtue of their names alone, and then, I could slip in other, lesser known authors, whose work I felt was equally of value. And for a great many years that worked just fine.

     But then, one day, it appeared that even Céline, Ford Madox Ford, or Thomas Mann were no longer selling. Something quite radical had happened in American reading habits. These days, many of our Green Integer titles find difficulty in the bookstores. Publishing even what might be described as “classics” no longer assures anyone of sufficient sales, alas. The barbarians have long ago crawled over the gates. What sells as literature today is….let us just say it lies outside of my definition of what is interesting. If I sound like an old man, I do apologize. I’m open to all sorts of writing…but am simply disinterested in much work that seems to fascinate today’s audiences—younger and older. And I am afraid that the kind of innovative poetry and fiction Sun & Moon (and, to a lesser degree, Green Integer) published is a thing of the past.  


At various times in your life you have lived in Philadelphia, Washington, Wisconsin, New York and for an extended and ongoing period Los Angeles. How do you think America as an idea, as a frame, as a place has influenced your own writing? And what do you think of as the defining characteristic of the American avant garde?

Oh my, I don’t know how even to begin to cogently answer that question. Yes, I’ve lived in most parts of the USA—except for the South! And even then, since I used to be a literary Southernist in the early days of my teaching career, you might argue that I have imaginatively lived there as well (although I do think imagining it is quite enough!). I love the US, and I cannot imagine writing in any other language than American, so very different from English. And I love my numerous friends who live across many states.

     Yet, I do think that if I were younger and didn’t happen to live with a man (for, now, 45 years), who no longer likes to travel, I would have exiled myself to Paris or Rome (and I can think of many other Italian cities), maybe even Sydney or Melbourne. The US is so wed to violence and political and social discord that, frankly, I can see no way out—at least in my life time. Yes, we all know that violence can occur anywhere, but the difference is that in Paris or Copenhagen it still comes as a shock. Here we’ve so assimilated it that even the deaths of dozens of school children result in little but a societal series of “tskings.” And, yes, literary values are changing throughout the world, but the Europeans (let’s forget the British who never really “cottoned” much to the literary avant-garde) still find a way to embrace and value the experimental.

     On the other hand, I live quite apart from what appears to be the typical American milieus. And I absolutely love my big paradise, Los Angeles. I felt at home here the moment we moved west from Washington, D.C. While East Coast cities may feel themselves to be the center of the universe, Los Angeles allows you to feel the links the US truly has to the rest of the planet, many of whose former citizens have moved here. There’s something liberating about living in a city whose major language is Spanish and where Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Farsi and numerous other languages are commonly spoken. What New Yorkers seldom realize, for example, is that Los Angeles has enormously rich art, theater, and music scenes that are perhaps even more vital that it’s touted cultural contribution, film.

     I’d love to explore your final question about a particular notion of US avant-gardism (I try to avoid the word, American, since that represents several other different countries and cultures), which I do believe once existed, but no longer does; but I don’t dare to embark on such a journey in these brief paragraphs. Maybe someday I’ll attempt to answer your question, a very important one, in an essay or two.

For readers unfamiliar with your work you blog on a regular basis and this covers sociological observations, cultural reviews and a whole host of other experiences. You are also working on some major new projects, including a large stories project. Can you discuss briefly for us some of your current and future directions?

Thank you for asking that question, since it is connected to how I now spend most of my time. I’m not really that interested in “blogs,” but they are useful in introducing very large audiences (my poetry, PIP, blog, for example, has over one half million hits, and my film blog as almost as many) from around the world to my cultural writings.

     Since 2005, rocking backwards and forwards out of the cradle, as I joke, I have written cultural memoirs, writing on new works of theater, dance, art, music, film, TV, fiction, poetry, politics and numerous other topics in single volume publications. It now totals 15 volumes from 2000 to the present, and hopefully will continue until I can no longer write or think.

     It began from the insistence of some of my friends such as Mac Wellman that I needed to write an autobiography, particularly given the fact that I have known so many major world figures in the arts. But I couldn’t imagine focusing all that energy on myself. As I said earlier in this interview, I am naturally drawn to being in “between” things. So I determined each year to write serious “review-like” essays (but much more thoughtful and personal than newspaper or magazine reviews) about the cultural events I experience each year—and in the longer past—and then adding further insights, generally in italicized passages, on the occasions when I personally knew the artists, recalling our meetings and recounting our specific experiences.

     Suddenly in writing these volumes I began attending and commenting on more and more cultural events each year until now it has truly consumed my life, and only a small portion of the many essays I write annually can be assimilated into the MY YEAR volumes. Accordingly, my six blogs (one for general subjects, the Green Integer blog; a second for film, World Cinema Review; another for poetry, The PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) blog; one for fiction, EXPLORINGfictions; another for art, Art Là-bas; one for theater, etc, USTheater, Opera, and Performance; and a final one for a vaguely-conceive US masterworks, which is a kind of commentary on what I think is important in US culture). Since finances determine that I cannot publish all of these quickly (only five have been published as printed books to date, although I plan another two this year), my blogs offer a way to share these numerous writings.

     What I also began to perceive in writing these thousands of essays is that—particularly since, as I argue above, we are losing our cultural heritage—it is crucial that some of us attempt to reclaim or simply document our times, to help to explain to the rest of century what we who were born near mid-century 2000 were thinking and how our generational perspective influenced that thinking. Without a history of letters and journals, it may be possible that history itself, in some respects, is ultimately wiped away. I even save e-mails, but I don’t imagine many people do these days. So how will we tell our stories to future generations? Will we and all our artifacts simply be forgotten as libraries turn more and more to the immediate and popular needs of the culture? Well, these are some of the questions my annual memoirs privately address. And I’ve almost discovered a new life in the process. If I’d had known as much in my first 50 years as I have learned in the past 10, I can only imagine what I might have been able to achieve and communicate. So who knows, what’s ahead? Death, obviously; but every day presents so many possible directions in which life can lead. I’m sure that as long as I can I’ll trot down many winding paths, particularly ones that are overgrown and slightly forbidding.

Los Angeles, February 5-18, 2015

Reprinted, in abridged form, from Work & Tumble [Australia]


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