In a 2012 interview with Fact Magazine, Konrad Becker says that: “The passive consumer’s musical hell is heaven for the active listener. For me it is more about learning to listen… and for instance to explore the sound of the city… At the same time repetition is the key to an active listener experience. Even if you play the same thing twice, it will never be the same. If you play it a hundred times it will be different a hundred times. Same with repeating a word many times: you start to hear ‘other’ words instead. A verbal transformation related to what is called ‘semantic satiation’. The language code loses its meaning and a new meaning emerges.”
Listening to Becker’s music recorded under the name Monoton, particularly to his 1982 release Monotonprodukt07, it’s easy to understand the importance of active listening.
The music is insistently repetitive, but it’s subtle, the melodies elusive and at times opaque. It’s music whose immediacy disguises an attention to nuance that underlay the songs’ construction. All of which makes for really interesting listening—partially because it’s accessible and likable stuff, partially because it’s smart and expansive. Still, it relies on active listening—listening as a deliberate act, as an embodiment of presence, as an attuned attention to. This attention to is also important because it ties together the experience of listening inwardly to the self and its responses to its environment, and simultaneously listening outwardly to the environment in which the self resides. In this, listening becomes somatic and experiential.
This isn’t too far off from Pauline Oliveros’ notion of ‘Deep Listening,’ which she describes as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing… Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is.” She also writes that “Deep Listening is active.” She writes about this with a lot of depth in her essay “Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (To Practise Practice).”
The idea can probably be most easily (and audibly) understood in her 1988 recording with Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis titled (guess what): Deep Listening. In this recording, each of the musicians traveled to the state of Washington, and climbed 14 feet below the surface of the earth into an old military store hold for millions of gallons of water: the Fort Worden cistern. What’s unique about this space is its super-long reverberation time, which gives each of these musicians a chance to easily compose and improvise via reverberative response and communication, with lots of easily apparent feedback on the notes one plays. It’s not a space where you’d play a ton of super fast notes though—each of the notes by necessity needs to be held, sustained, and drawn out into an expansive drone that’s often as meditative as it is ‘beautiful.’ I’ve been listening to this recording, and sitting with Oliveros’ ideas, for about 15 years now, and it’s seeped so much into my own thinking about poetics and music that it’s become that much harder for me to describe its [personal] importance.
This piece is maybe the most passive, among the others in the recording. I say ‘passive’ because the performance seems subdued, even though it’s still an extended and active improvisation in that space. But it’s the space I notice most in this particular piece. Other pieces on the recording are often dedicated to generating overt, assertive tones in connection with the space, foregrounding drone. Still others make much of tactile ‘non-musical’ noises in the space. The drones in this piece stay subtle, deferent.
Oliveros’ ideas all stem from a moment she first used a tape recorder to record the sounds in her bedroom once when she turned 21. She remembers this moment she listened back to the recording and first heard the environmental sounds she hadn’t noticed before: “I said to myself then and there: ‘Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening.’” This now well-known statement has since been the foundation of her musical practice, and has influenced listening-based practice now for decades.
There’s a strong connection between Oliveros’ ideas and those of the so-called ‘onkyokei’ group of musicians performing in Tokyo around the beginning of the 21st Century. A loosely-gathered bunch who got together at the now-defunct space Off Site, the genre’s improvised performance style relies as much on attention to the environment around them as it does to what’s actively being performed. In her essay “Disciplined Listening,” Lorraine Plourde says that “[onkyokei] has been explained by musicians and music critics in Japan as a style in which the primary emphasis has shifted from producing or performing sound, to that of concentrated and attentive listening (mimi wo sumasu).”
One of the driving forces behind onkyokei at Off Site was Taku Sugimoto, whose own aesthetic within the confines of onkyokei performances might be summed up by his simple question “[d]o you think that the mysterious relationship between sounds and silence could possibly give us a new scope for the imperceptible world?”
By some onkyokei standards, this piece from his Opposite record is downright aggressive, but it’s still subdued to the point of near-silence though—which is of course the point. The simultaneous attention to silence and to the environment in which the piece is being performed makes for a specialized performance of an attention to, with both the performed clusters of sound and the place of performance becoming contiguous, integral parts of the piece, and with each being an extension of the other.
What connects each of the onkyokei musicians to the others I’m writing about here is their definitively minimalist approach and style. For all of the musicians, an attention to is what marks their practice: an explicitly active approach to listening as an active part of composition and performance.
. . .
Here’s where I point to work by a handful of poets whose writing I associate with these musical ideas in some way—either by thinking of their work as sonic clusters of sound (or text), as a connection between self and spatial relationships, as repetitive and meditative gesture, or as a form of somatic, yet minimalist presence.
Isabelle Garron, from Face Before Against (tr. Sarah Riggs) :
at the modal imprecation
came to suspend
. and against which
. bitter night in the black
—reversed or the whiteness
of your oval / sliced
. . .
Myung Mi Kim, from Dura :
Before the Pacific is an ocean placed
Wrought holes at even paces
Call ancestry lost
Collapse and valence
Brevity and gesture
House with rooms cut of various sizes
An America as big as it is
Extract salt from brine
Dig black stone from veins
: Baked clay blocks, water clocks
: A rake for covering seeds
Slope of the street graded to the height of the arch
No fewer than a thousand carriages loaded with silk
. . .
Leslie Scalapino, from New Time :
Their going into houses killing
is the fact—
the fact is delicate—in the existence even
can’t be a form, which would be as: wanting to be liked
there are only people
as: on the brown night
black half circle that isn’t dawn
even, that’s there—only, no night
waking. town-specks in a blackness, that’s barely at the rim as
one is flying of sky (which is above—dawn’s above)
—flying in a base which is none of the black.
. . .
Claude Royet-Journoud, from Four Elemental Bodies (tr. Keith Waldrop) :
the noises are not distributed
thought went through the roles.
the idea of place
well or a look around
. . .
On the eve of this blog post’s publication, a poet friend (thank you Lou!) emailed to let me know about a recording of a piece of music by minimalism’s great unknown composer: Dennis Johnson. I don’t have the space to write about the history of November here, but you can read about it here. And to know that this was the piece that influenced La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, pretty much seals the deal, making it one of minimalism’s most significant works.
Also, the piece a breathtakingly beautiful and essential listening—all 5 hours of it.
- DAVID JAMES MILLER
David James Miller is a poet, musician, and educator. He is the author of the chapbook Facts & Other Objects (JR Vansant), and his writing may also be found in Otoliths, elimae, Diagram, The Cultural Society, and elsewhere. He writes from New Haven, CT, where he lives with his wife and children.
Just finished Peter Sloterdijk’s Nietzsche Apostle (semiotext(e) 2013): some sparkling reflections on fascism qua “event-culture of resentment” perfectly applicable to today’s American right wing. 1/2way through his massive You must change your life (polity press, 2013): head-scratchingly spell-binding. Started Zoë Skoulding’s Contemporary Women’s Poetry and Urban Space (palgrave macmillan 2013) — excellent meditation on polis in Notley, Samuels, Moure, Robertson & the to me unknown Agnès Lehóczky. Poetry Night Table: Pessoa’s The Transformation Book (Contra Mundum Press 2014) a delirious delight, & friend Nico Helminger’s Abrasch (Editions PHI 2014): a superb multi-lingual Luxembourg poet who needs translation into English.
Richard Koenig’s series of photographs entitled “Inserts” are the star of the Vintage Drunken Boat series this week. Originally published in DB 2 Winter/Spring 2001, these photographs all have an intriguing photo-in-photo element in common. Take a moment to give this beautiful, thought-provoking series the second glance it deserves.
Richard Koenig is a professor of art and photography at Kalamazoo College in Michigan since 1998 and has had his photography displayed in numerous galleries and exhibitions. This year his pieces have already appeared in both Lens 2014 in Illinois and Imagined Realities in Vermont. For more information about his work, visit his website.
Last time around I walked you through my revision process for “As I Write This,” before it was published. As you’ll see in this post, I didn’t stop revising the poem once it was published. It’s something I do all the time—a perfectionist tic, I guess—though it’s rarely anything more than a waste of time. Once “As I Write This” entered the world my revision process took a sort of desperate turn, before I decided I didn’t want the poem to exist anymore and I gave up.
I sent my fourth draft of “As I Write This” to Sink Review, who published it in March 2013. At that point I had recently taken up the practice of emailing links to newly published work to people (those I know personally, at least) whose names appear in a piece, along with those who I thought about while writing it. Though I composed an email for “As I Write This,” even after Sink put the piece online I still didn’t send out the link. For months I’d see the subject “As I Write This” in my draft folder and I’d think, “Oh I should send that out,” but I never did. It’s hard now to not see my procrastination as a symptom of my sense of failure—like I already knew the poem failed before its failure was “confirmed” for me socially.
(I put scare quotes around “confirmed” because I’m resistant to the idea that the responses the poem generated determined its failure—even though it was through processing the responses that I came to feel the poem failed.)
It took about five or six months before anyone talked to me about the poem. During those months—last spring—I received a lot of responses, both positive and negative, to “The New York School.” Processing those responses gave me fuel for writing two other prose pieces, “David Wojnarowicz at the Movies” and one called “The Poet” (which is still unfinished). Then sometime last September I got a phone call from my friend Jordan Stempleman.
I can always count on Jordan to be straightforward with me. It’s one of the things that makes him a true prince. Since I started publishing poems with lots of names, Jordan has consistently plied me with questions of the ethical implications of naming, of writing about living people publicly—and of my iffy taste level. He characterized the gossipy aspects of my work as “locker room talk” (which amuses me since I’ve never been anything close to a jock).
With this phone call, Jordan reported that I had hurt someone—a close friend of his, an old acquaintance of mine—with the line “I don’t care about you James Tate.” Jordan, I think, felt torn. One of his friends was hurt by another, and he was left with a feeling of discord. I felt bad. Though I’m not the best at pleasing others with my work, I don’t want to hurt anyone. It’s not my intention. After talking to Jordan my Freshman Composition Teacher Voice kicked in and asked some basic questions: OK Joseph, why don’t you care about James Tate? How does your lack of care manifest itself? Describe it. Be specific.
But it isn’t worth describing because the line doesn’t do much. And it doesn’t do much because it doesn’t go there. As a thought it’s about as fully formed as a gangly teenager’s beard. The part of the poem with the line was this:
when you close your eyes and you fall asleep
I don’t care about you James Tate you’ll be
forgotten, mom and brother
and father, my dead brother and
my brother and my brother and me
This was sloppy—literally careless—as the carelessness seeped past James Tate into all those who follow—my family and myself—and by extension everyone named in the poem. It undermined that sense of our essential loneliness—a loneliness we all have because we know we’ll be forgotten eventually. Which is to say it infused the beautiful silence of forgetting, of nonexistence—something that should be a source of comfort—with a bleak sense of alienation.
As I consider this part of “As I Write This,” I keep thinking about a certain passage from “The New York School.” Judging from the flecks of gossip I heard, from conversations and emails, I’d say the passage seemed to offend just about everyone I know (and others I don’t). But, comparing it to the James Tate line in “As I Write This,” I feel the passage does its job because it does go there—and that was my task in “The New York School.” Here’s the passage:
“I often wonder about the flirtations between Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, when Berrigan was visiting faculty at the Iowa Writers Workshop and Notley was so young and full of admiration for the wily New York poet. She must have wanted so badly to be part of the poetic life of New York City, to be filled with the breath and babies of this poet named Ted, who was 11 years her senior, and Berrigan I’m sure loved fucking Notley (they were both Scorpios) and he loved knowing Notley would probably cook him dinner and she’d listen to all his new poems afterward as if she’s hearing the true secrets of the pope’s depravity. Iowa is directly in the middle of the country, and when I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop—that’s right, I really went there—one day Mark Levine performed a close reading of “The Day Lady Died,” and Mark kept repeating the line “I don’t know the people who will feed me” as if it was the most profound thing O’Hara ever wrote, and I sat there wondering if Mark would be a better poet if instead of fucking Jorie Graham he got fucked by Ted Berrigan and most poets don’t have a vision, but I do, it’s clear and conflicted and it’s radiantly directionless.”
Brett Price, responding in ON, called me out for my poor taste and implied that my writing “The New York School” was motivated by a sense of envy. I do not deny my bad taste—I think it’s getting worse as I age, actually, and this only makes me feel more like myself. It makes me feel good. Like the whole world’s my well-tailored suit (and I’m wearing the same pair of dildo panties beneath it for the fifth day in a row). As to the issue of envy, I think it’s too easy to assume that that’s what motivates one poet’s negative depiction of another. It’s an assumption that lacks imagination—and imagination is what I’m asking of my audience. Isn’t that what any of us are asking for?
I want to say to Brett directly: I was very touched by your piece, by its care, and I think that you deserve more of a response than this. That will come.*
In Anna Vitale’s performance for the Brooklyn Poetry Summit this past weekend, she started off her reading by saying that she thinks more of us should be talking about our shame publicly. I totally agree. If we imagine shame, if we include it in the spectrum of what we imaginatively project—it can only aid our necessary transformations. It’s too common, too safe, and too boring to defer to tastefulness. There are no stakes in tastefulness—unless you’re more interested in generating capital (social, or otherwise) than in activating transformation. And isn’t that what we all set out to do—to transform ourselves? Why else would anyone bother with something as ridiculous as poetry? The longer I do it, the more I feel it’s truly the lowest of all the arts—and there’s nothing romantic in being the lowest. But, for those of us lingering down here, poetry can be a real space for the transformation of our various senses of guilt, fear, hatred, shame, confusion—stuff like that. The shit. The social element to this shit is key, in that we learn how to transform ourselves by reading and talking to our idols and teachers and friends. And that’s what I addressed in “The New York School”—I named idols and teachers and friends. I was the pupil spelling out what I had learned from them.
I wrote “The New York School” about six months after “As I Write This”—though the former was published first. Now it’s clear to me that “As I Write This” was just a warm-up, I was on the way to something else. Which is why, after my conversation with Jordan, when I started revising “As I Write This” again, I was fucking up. I was trying to “fix” something that was gangly, ugly, maybe boring—but it wasn’t broken.
Over the next several months (between September and December) I ground the poem down, in several drafts, to a single squeaky and emaciated page. Whatever thought was embodied from that first moment over a year earlier, sitting on my bed with “For Kate I Wait,” spacing out with my notebook, was gone. Meaning: I lost touch with the original impulse of the poem. What started off as a process of listing names and associations of those names—a pretty simple action, really—became mired in bad feeling. I hated seeing certain names in the poem. It’s a danger of using names, or of writing about people in general: things change, people change, relationships change. I wanted “As I Write This” to change too.
Not long after I talked to Jordan I got a phone call from someone else who didn’t like seeing their name in the poem. So I took it out. Then I started taking out all kinds of things—anything negative, anything associated with the excised names. The poem was shrinking, crippled. It just so happens that the second person who called teaches in the same classroom I do. A couple weeks after our phone conversation, when I got to class I noticed a diagram on the board, leftover from their class. The center of the diagram read NAMES, with arrows pointing outward to various attributes of names and naming. One of the arrows pointed to the phrase: “some people just ruin names.” The diagram stayed on the board for the rest of the semester, as I ripped apart “As I Write This.”
Of course, all of this was happening in private as the poem was up on the internet for anyone to see. I was chopping the poem up, cutting lines, rewriting it by hand. I thought for a while that the real reason it didn’t work was that it was meant to be a handwritten poem, a little piece of wilderness. But after writing it out in my madman scrawl again, it became clear that my scrawling was a method—not a style. Then, just a few days before this past Christmas, I received another phone call about the poem—this one from my ex-landlord, whose full name and address were in the poem.
Unsure at first about why my ex-landlord was calling, he started telling a longwinded story about a relationship of his that just ended. The reason, he said, is that the woman he was seeing was convinced that he was a philanderer, that he was staging orgies in his building—so she dumped him. While he was telling me this, I started to remember the following lines (which I’ve censored here) from “As I Write This”:
and I haven’t heard CA having sex
upstairs in a while, I can hear DB
and Kristen and Isabel and Iris and Jamie
everybody else is having sex at
XXX Irving Ave Brooklyn New York 1123X
Oh. All my neighbors—whose sexy times I had overheard at various points in the three years I lived in that building, with its super thin walls—were actually having an orgy to my ex-landlord’s now ex-girlfriend, and this was evidence. Whoops. That was certainly not an effect I imagined this poem would have. Though I can see how she read it that way—the grammar suggests it.
My ex-landlord asked that I change his name and take out the address. But that was it for me. I was done. That very moment I wrote to Dan and Steve at Sink Review and asked them to take down the poem, which they did the next day.
So, there we have the sad history of “As I Write This.” In my final post I will share the list I promised—all the reasons I’ve thought over the past four months of why the poem failed. Thank you and see you soon!
- JOSEPH BRADSHAW
Joseph Bradshaw is a poet, educator, and archivist. He is the author of several chapbooks, as well as the full-length In the Common Dream of George Oppen (Shearsman Books). He curates a readings series at Berl’s Poetry Shop in Brooklyn called Leslie Flint Presents, and is at work on a book about the afterlife of the New York School.
* I could write something like what I’m doing now with “Total Fail” for “The New York School”—a poem whose process was quite different from “As I Write This.” Maybe I’ll call it “Totally Fucked,” or “The Shittiest and Best Shamefulness of My Still-Learning Heart, by Joseph Bradshaw.”
I’m a very good multi-tasker. At work, I can juggle many different things. At home, I can simultaneously make dinner, talk on the phone, and clean the kitchen, but when it comes to reading, I know my limitations. I can only read one book at a time. Nothing else in my day is allotted so much undisturbed focused time. I read first thing in the morning for one hour. Each day my book awaits me. If I am about to finish one, another is on deck. Usually, the books are chosen because, they relate to something I’m writing and will possibly inspire me to take the next step in my morning routine, that is, to sit at my desk for a brief hour and work on my own fiction.
In the last two months the 5 books I have read or am planning to read are as follows:
The Enormous Room e.e. cummings (on deck)
Abroad: An Expatriate’s Diary by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling. Sometimes I don’t get to read books that my own press publishes. This one made it right passed me, but the subject matter, a young independent woman traveling in bohemian circles in Paris in the 1950’s, is perfect reading material.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I always like to research the number of narrative elements readers will believe and what elements can make a book a bestseller
Let the Dark Flower Blossom by Norah Labiner. I am trying to raise (or lower) the bar when it comes to book reviews, by making reviews less tedious to read, and was asked to write a review of this book for Drunken Boat
The Circle by Dave Eggers. To inspire me to continue writing my own dystopian comedy and ensure that we haven’t written the same book.