A N N E X P R E S S 2 0 1 5
STEVE BENSON 0 4 2 6 1 5
Re “CLOSE READING,” an addendum or update,
but it actually doesn’t belong, does it?
Better to call this
“one of any number of possible footnotes to a later edition.”
It is now April 25, 2015, after 3:30 p.m.
It is now April 26, 2015, about 9:06 p.m.
a.k.a. On One Way I Write, One Way I Think about Writing
I once wrote an essay on close reading for Poetics Journal in 1982[i]. It was generated to some degree from having given a talk on close reading at New Langton Arts in 1980. I wasn’t trying to tell anybody about my own work or how to read it so much as to tell anybody how I find myself struggling to account for how I perceive and appreciate, experience and wonder about other people’s things as I read, especially poetry but also The Waves by Virginia Woolf and what else?, but especially when I’m looking at a page in a book of poetry.
Rather than review the essay now (or listen to the sound recording of the talk, which in 1980 I had no idea how to get a decent audiovisual recording of, which would have been optimal because there were enormously projected slides of book spreads that I had photographed for the purpose and that I walked and talked and gesticulated and pointed in front of, throughout the talk I gave), I recall it as talking about the white spaces on the pages, the size of the font relative to the line length, the sensations and affects, the distractions and perplexities, a sense of a text as a cipher or a wad or a splaying or stringing out of ciphers, the corporeality of text and of a mind-body reading – stuff like that. I didn’t cite Bakhtin or Barthes, I just talked about what I myself thought of to say, mostly off the cuff.
In Spring 1987, Zyzzyva, a small press literary journal out of San Francisco, published “On Time in Another Place,” which I had written over a period of about two years. It was what I wrote in those two years. It was a set of paragraphs that I had written, for the most part carefully written and repeatedly revised, each discretely notating a thought, observation, experience, or musing. I had read them aloud at New Langton Arts not long after returning from fifteen months abroad, when they were written, and I was still editing and juxtaposing them and wondering how to work with them. For the reading, I had hundreds of postcards I had purchased abroad projected from an opaque projector on the walls and more than one projector showing slides I had shot. I read the paragraphs one after another. I felt this reading was simply not so good – maybe a failure – not something I was glad about (though I was glad to be allowed to do it).
Somehow I hit on the idea of setting the paragraphs on the page as typed by my electric typewriter (with its one and only font and its variable margin set to what I took for standard prose) double-spaced, overlapping so that one paragraph might begin in the middle of (or toward the end or start of) another, with lines alternating when more than one was in progress, and every other line empty at other times. This I felt was a success. (What is the definition of “success” here? I remained interested. I could see the individual paragraphs, which I was troubled by but which I wanted somehow – they were all caught up with desire, which at times seemed a nostalgia for lost opportunities, perhaps typical enough in one traveling alone abroad in hopes of some realization of authentically opening to experience – and I could see them make something of one another, off and on, through the readings that could result from juxtapositions down the page – readings that had no consistent value or virtue.) I gave one of my two complimentary copies to my psychotherapist, out of respect and affection, devotion, really, and she did her best to read it, found it frustrating, and asked why I had presented the work in that form, so that it interrupted itself constantly, when it obviously didn’t have to. I can’t remember whether I had an answer I could speak just then. I feel it must have been, implicitly, “You didn’t like it?”
Among the back pages of this project, Page One, the page for 3/27/15 is the original manuscript for a poem called (after words in the manuscript at its beginning and at its end) “From the Stars to the Common End.” (That poem was published in raddle moon 19 [undated] and in my book called Open Clothes, published by Atelos in 2005.) But where are these words? I don’t see them. It takes me a while, but then I see that it was hard to notice them because the two photographs of the same manuscript landed on this website page in the opposite order from what would make that clear.
Whatever. It’s fine. It’s more right, really, than if it were the other way. This is consistent with the principle of writing that . . . and of reading, too, that what you get in reading is a version only, of what you (can) see, and a version only, of what might have been made visible. There is an excess (as a theorist might say) that hovers or overwhelms, that you deliberately edit or that you hopscotch through, whereas reading “literally” one word at a time in a predictable and customary manner (left to right and then down to the next line, left to right, pause for gap between lines, voice the language as if you were sort of speaking it but not really, out loud or “in your head,” as though from an internal speaker to an internal listener, whoever they are).
In the making of the poem as a handwritten manuscript, I was above all interested in somehow being able to write something, quietly and occasionally, that might be a poem, without having to decide how valuable it might be to any future end, so I wrote a line or two or three at a time, somehow sort of basing each of them on another in sequences both vertical and horizontal, without really having much idea what might come of it. When I typed it up to consider whether it was “publishable” – by which I mean, capable of going public, in some way – I couldn’t decide between the across and the down versions, and then I found I was most satisfied (by which I mean delighted and fascinated) by utilizing both, juxtaposed on the pages in a sort of alternating rhythm that allowed the entire work, like wallpaper, to repeat the same pattern, in which each line appeared twice, juxtaposed against totally different lines and offering a different syntax and reflective gambit.
4/12 reproduces the second page of two (from a manuscript poem that’s much longer) that are transcribed in the page for 3/23. However, the page is as long as that on 3/23. The lines of the second page of the two typed out for 3/23 is not followed by but instead is interleaved with the lines of the following page of the handwritten manuscript poem. This makes for a kind of splicing such that each line break constitutes a jump cut to the other of the two poems. Back and forth reading feels tiresome and intolerable. Instead, the mind (my mind, which already knows the two pages separately rather well) generates connections, syntactical coordination, semantic relevance and expressiveness, as it works from one line to the next (rather than trying to block out all the lines of one poem to read only the lines of another).
Rather than trying to do something fancy, I was interested in doing something simple, of which I would not know what to expect of the result, even by reading it. I would not really know how others would read it. I would not have any particular idea of how even I “should” read it. Thus the assumption is that any of us improvises as we read, and sometimes more under the author’s guidance and implicit direction/correction than at other times.
4/13 performs the same operation on the later of the two pages typed into 4/12 and the following page of the manuscript. I might do this more, on and on. I might never do it again. But it’s too late to never have done it. Publication is always final. Even though a variant re-publication is always possible – and may be imminent.
But I digress. And I digress, or I digress. I persist. What am I doing here? I am not here at all.
4/25 performs the same ‘Venetian blinds’ operation on two notational fragments from recent posts written on scraps of paper while wandering in Los Angeles (one at LACMA, in the Miracle Mile, and one at Holy Guacamole [before I realized that that was the eatery’s name], the next evening in Ocean Park). It had been several hours and a decent night’s sleep since, a couple days later, I had thought of juxtaposing them (which was well after I’d gotten home to Downeast Maine) that I counted lines of each passage, this morning, and found them more or less the same in number and then typed one into the other, to allow them to stand, or jostle, on equal footing, or mutually enforced imbalance, as the case may be. Does more or less meaning result from their waves of suggested meaning (the flow and froth of contributory signifiers and implicit associations) effected by their collision (and collusion) in interference patterns on the shallow surface of the page (in the deepening basin of mentation)?
I like the way reading it it reminds me of myself in a way I experience myself at my best, I think, a way I wonder whether anyone else ever sees, outside of work that I do that somehow magically clicks for them, which they might read somewhat as I do, though that’s hard to know anything much about.
I know I, the writer, must have something to do with it, the written, clicking for them, the readers, but I don’t quite know what, so I don’t know what to do but focus on my moment-to-moment reckoning with its interest and charge and click for me. I can only attest to how the writing works instantly, in each experience of each juxtaposition of particles and of parts (on any scale I can name).
Ironically, I can almost never any longer seem to justify “editing” to improve or correct parts (other than spelling errors I never would have intended), in poetry writing, or what passes for poetry writing (unlike this set of notes about poetry reading and writing), so it has to work (for me) all the way through – whatever lapses or lags or horrors or embarrassments appear have to find value and justification in relation to the whole and to the other parts they afford any kind of relation to.
This is not a very structured program, but it does seem rather severe in its own way, doesn’t it? I suppose the result is that my own aesthetic or “poetics” becomes as capacious as I might want it (though perhaps no more than that), in order to tolerate, validate, and valorize the variety of functions and manners, customs and intentions, the writing appears to me to embody.
(I make or allow the writing to appear, such that it may embody . . . these functions and so on.) All the functions, manners, customs, and intentions, all the meanings that are accessible to me, as well as the gestures and tones, are my own, in other words. Again, this seems Whitmanesquely capacious in a significant sense. And yet, of what writer is this not also true and characteristic? I make no particular claim for my writing other than that I did write it and that no one else has ever done anything like it before. I mean, all comparisons argued against that statement really are very weak and reductive. And yet, of what writer is this not also true and characteristic?
And very little of this is planned in any way, so far as I can see. Presuming there exists an unconscious, the unconscious has its plans, in its own timespace, in its own language, in its own sense. The only evident plan is not to give up. The plan is to keep on. (Comparison to Samuel Beckett – really?)
The plan is that even when I stop this project, I will continue to project projects, whether they have any coherent or conceivable relation to one another or not. That’s not a problem, because if they are all my writing, they will likely have an excess of relations to one another, at times annoyingly or cloyingly so, and at other times peculiarly or indifferently so. The relations might be a problem, or not.
Essay to come: The relations. a.k.a. The whole. a.k.a. The multi-personal interdependent nature of poetic composition.
[i] Re-published in a guide to Poetics Journal / writing in the expanded field 1982-1998, ed. Hejinian and Watten, 2013, Wesleyan University Press.