Marjorie Perloff: A Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith
Published in Jacket 21 (Feb. 2003), online; also in Portuguese, in Sibila II, 3 (October 2002): 139-58.
This conversation took place by email during the last two weeks of August, 2002. I sent Kenneth some questions, which he attacked in a free- wheeling way, according to his interests. I found the answers even more stimulating than I had expected.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH was born in 1961. He attended the Rhode IslandSchool of Design (BFA Sculpture, 1984). His artworks have been shown in musuems and galleries around the world. His books include 73 Poems (Permanent Press, 1993), No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (The Figures, 1997), 6799 (zingmagazine, 2000), Fidget (Coach House Books, 2000), Soliloquy (Granary Books, 2001), Head Citations (The Figures, 2002) and Day (The Figures, forthcoming 2003). He is the founder and editor of UbuWeb Visual, Concrete and Sound Poetry (ubu.com), a music critic for New York Press, and a DJ on WFMU in New York City (wfmu.org). He lives in New York City with his wife, the artist Cheryl Donegan and their son Finnegan.)
Marjorie Perloff: In your essay, “From (Command) Line to (Iconic) Constellation,” you write very interestingly about your “discovery” of Concrete Poetry, specifically the Noigandres group in Brazil as precursors to internet poetics. Yet pieces like Fidget and Soliloquy have neither the look nor the structural configuration of a Concrete poem: on the contrary, spatiality is replaced by temporal form. Can you try to explain that relationship?
Kenneth Goldsmith: One important aspect of concrete poetry was the reconciliation between the flatness of the page and the implied dynamic (and often sequential) movement of the language used. In this way it ran parallel to the Greenbergian non-illusionistic picture plane, as applied to the flatness of the page. Hence, the internet â€“ a dynamic, almost cinematic frame-based experience that occurs on a flattened stage (the screen) — was the medium concrete poetry was waiting for in order to realize its full potential. It’s no coincidence that so many advertisements â€“ both static and dynamic — seen on the web look so much like concrete poetry.
Fidget and Soliloquy â€“- texts of every move I made for a day and every word I spoke for a week â€“- are, by their nature, temporal pieces. They literally document the linear events over the course of a specified time. As such, the temporality of the web â€“ the movement across time, frame by frame so to speak â€“ perfectly fit the formal constraints of the analogue, word-based actions which necessitated these texts.
MP: You have often talked about the transition from the visual to the verbal arts in your work, specifically from sculpture to writing. At the same time, you often remark that visual art is far ahead of poetry, which has not yet taken advantage of the possibilities of the internet. If the visual (you cite Warhol numerous times) is so far ahead of the verbal, why have you opted for language?
KG: The quote to which you are referring was made by Brion Gysin in 1959 when he said that writing was 50 years behind painting. I still believe that this is true today. If we look at how easily the conventions of the art world are bent and apply those to writing, we will see how limited the world of innovative writing has been.
It’s not really a matter of form, it’s more a matter of permissions granted by any given community. The art world is very liberal in that way; the avant-garde is the mainstream as opposed to the writing world’s more oppositional situation between the mainstream and the avant-garde. In the art world, ideas are readily accepted and the hunger for the new never ends. The downside, of course, is that the voraciousness lends a short shelf life to art works and a seasonal fashion-based mentality sets in; careers often flame out quickly in the art world at a very young age.
My long transition from the visual to the verbal (I’ll go into detail about this later in the interview) has been an incredibly idiosyncratic and personal journey. I never could have anticipated, some 20 years out of art school, that I would think of myself as a writer. Having said that, I’ve grown to enjoy the very drawn out, slow pace of writing and publishing books as compared to the pressure-cooking bi-seasonal one-man shows that are standard fare for the art world. After cramming to finish making your work for a show, the exhibition has exactly one month to impact hard and then the work basically disappears forever â€“ either into private collections or is back into the artist’s studio storage bins.
How different this is from the many years it takes to write a book, followed by the tedious process of getting it published and then waiting up to a year or two for the reviews to dribble in. The upside is that books seem to have an eternal shelf life; it’s hard to get rid of them and they seem to remain in circulation forever, either in new or used condition. It’s a pace I’m more comfortable with; somehow it manages to weave its process more into your day-to-day life as opposed to the special event extra-heightened rush of doing a gallery show.
MP: In your interview with Sergio Bessa (“Introduction” to 6799 ), you say, “all my work has a brainy finish to it, though just below the surface, it’s all intuitive, abstract, and poetic.” What are the “intuitive” and “poetic” aspects of your work? At what point, in other words, are rules broken and method undercut?
KG: In the interview with Sergio, I was specifically referring to my gallery work, in which I was intentionally referencing the surface aesthetics of conceptual art but then undercutting that severity with poetic texts, hence creating a tension in the work.
To answer your question, it depends on the project. Some pieces are strict to the letter and others allow for more leeway. No. 111, for example was very strict until the last two chapters of the book, both of which break every rule set forth up to that point. Fidget, too, broke all its rules, this time not out of formal necessity, but out of a need to escape the physical demands of the task. I needed to get drunk and once I let that in, it completely changed the parameters of the book. Soliloquy, on the other hand, was followed to the letter. There was no veering from the original exercise. The same thing happened with Day, the book based on the New York Times.
MP: A follow-up: When you say, “I am a collector of language,” what does that really mean? Surely not in fact just any language. What makes certain words and phrases “collectible”? Conversely, what makes certain language collections boring and dispensable?
KG: Well, I used to feel that only certain words were collectible, that certain words were “better” than others, but I’ve come to question that as the years have passed. Let me explain. The precursor to No. 111 was a gallery work called No. 109, whereby I used the same method of collecting language as I did for No. 111: any word or phrase ending in the sound of “r” or the “schwa” was permitted. In preparation for the gallery show, I edited the piece down to only contain what I considered the “good” words â€“ the “fun” words, the “entertaining” words, the words that really “zinged.” I thought the piece was really “tight” and presented it in a gallery. Unfortunately, the public didn’t agree with me and the work received a lukewarm reception.
In an introspective moment after the show had ended, I went back and looked at all the words and phrases I had omitted. They seemed to be perfectly good words and leaving them out did not make the piece any more of a popular success. So I incorporated them all into a new work which grew to be No. 111. But even then, many years into the project, I found myself not able to accept just any word or phrase; instead, I took only the phrases that interested me. That’s why No. 111 is such a readable book; it tames the wide world of available language and focuses it through the fine lens of one person’s experience. In that sense, it’s a very organized and sharp collection.
But in the end, I decided that that was only one way to go about a collection and it brings me back to your question about method. Instead of focusing on the text itself, I began to focus on the greater method or the concept instead and let the language fall where it may within that specified context. Hence, no words could be “wrong” or “boring” if I could justify it being there conceptually. Suddenly, more traditional linguistic concerns of readerliness, rhythm, phrasing, song, etc. were no longer of importance to me and I found that incredibly liberating. After years of counting syllables in a work like No. 111, you might see where a different approach â€“ a freer approach â€“ to language became necessary.
MP: “There’s so much great language out there for the taking; if we open our eyes and ears to it, we’ll find it in abundance.” This notion comes, of course, from Cage but we now know that, far from opening his eyes and ears to all those sounds “out there” in nature, Cage took strict control over his forms. What is the process involved in your own work?
KG: It’s one of my peeves with Cage. If Cage truly was to accept all incidental sound as music, then that’s what he should have done. Obviously this was not the case and this is where claims for poethics comes into play. I don’t have a problem with an overriding ethical structure guiding an artist’s work, but in Cage’s case, an ethical agenda is in conflict with his philosophical structure of accepting all sounds equally. There were a lot of sounds that weren’t permitted in the Cagean pantheon and a lot of times when the sounds that were permitted happened at inopportune moments, it could ruin a performance. Likewise, Cage’s feathers were easily ruffled at what he considered to be wrongheaded interpretations of his works by musicians and orchestras.
I find that Warhol took Cage’s ideas much further. And although the results aren’t as pretty (or ethical), I feel that Warhol truly accepts the quotidian world â€“ with all its lumps and bruises (as well as beauty) â€“ into his work. He was completely permeable in ways that Cage could only theorize.
My own work has tended recently to move more toward the Warholian model than to the Cagean.
MP: “If it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.” You say this contra The Book, and your point is well-taken so far as poets who wait years to have their work published and then have no distribution, are concerned. But now that we have a poetry/art glut on the internet, how can Poet X be distinctive? How does one stand out from the crowd or shouldn’t one try?
KG: Well, just because one is published in a book doesn’t make one a good poet; there’s a glut of horrible books out there too. I think that the internet mirrors the “real” world; a good poem is a good poem regardless of the medium itâ€™s published in. A good artist is going to have make his or her mark regardless of the medium. Give, say, Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman the web to play with and they’ll make it their own.
As far as the sorting process goes, I’m still surprised by the amount of credibility that the poetry world gives to a book in print. With the distribution technologies available â€“ and the relatively small profit structure around the economies of poetry â€“ it stuns me that younger poets aren’t starting up sites that publish full-length volumes of poetry by their peers. So, if one is attracted to a certain group of writers, there would be a cooperative site, so to speak, where you could find full-length works of theirs. In this way, community is localized and specific, working on a more horizontal axis rather than the vertical canon-building that we’re used to. It reminds me of what often happens in the art world where a group of peers or like-minded artists descend upon an under-utilized gallery and move their program into it, creating their own scene to which people are ultimately drawn.
MP: When you say, “anyone could write 111 using the rules I set up and it would turn out completely different,” do you mean anyone (say, me) could do it and it would be just as effective or just different? Or that the artist is s/he who makes choices that bring out relationships between words that matter?
KG: It’s Cagean again. Cage said something to the effect that anyone can do his work but the fact is that nobody else has done it. I take this to mean that the artist’s real work is in setting the parameters and executing a given project. It’s about the courage to actualize ideas that transform passing thoughts â€“ often trivial â€“ into art.
MP: Youâ€™re referring to Cageâ€™s famous statement, “Of course they could but they donâ€™t.” Itâ€™s such an important point! And I like the idea of “courage” because thatâ€™s just what it is. And speaking of courage: in Soliloquy, you often flirt dangerously with actual mimesis. Your interlocutors are often identifiable and your assessments of people (myself included) have been held to be cruel, nasty, or just plain embarrassing. How do you answer this charge?
KG: Soliloquy is not actual mimesis because it has been framed and presented as art as opposed to a scientific documentation of language or mere sociological research. In this way, Soliloquy does an incredible job with “real” speech and extends the thrust to incorporate “real” speech into poetry that has run from Whitman to Stein, through Ginsberg and Antin. In comparison to Soliloquy, the speech so often passed off as “real” seems artificial, composed and stilted. As much as I’m a fan of David Antin’s work, we can never believe that his “talk poems” are really his talk. It’s edited, composed on the page, cleaned up and sanitized. Solioquy presents speech at its most raw, its most brutal and in its most gorgeously disjunctive form. When we look at “real” speech in Soliloquy, we find that our normative speech patterns are avant-garde! It strikes me odd that what modernism worked so hard to get at for the past 100 years has always been right under our noses!
In terms of the social aspects of the piece, it’s very complicated. I have lost many friends over this work. I do feel bad that their feelings have been hurt but I still cannot apologize for having done the piece. The parameters of the work set out to record every word I spoke during a random week, from the moment I woke up on a Monday morning until I went to bed the following Sunday night. There was to be no editing. As such, I wasn’t able to clean up the messiness of the speech or to streamline it. It was to be an examination of language as it was spoken, plain and simple. If I had begun to edit, where would I start? And where would it end? If, in fact, I had edited at all, it would have been a completely different piece. So exactly what was said and how it was said was left untouched. And that included a lot of gossip and slander. The entire activity was humiliating and humbling, seeing how little of “value” I actually speak over the course of a typical week. How unprofound my life and my mind is; how petty, greedy and nasty I am in my normal speech. It’s absolutely horrifying. But I dare any reader to try the same exercise and see how much more value they come up with in their life. I fear that they might discover, too, that their lives are filled with trivial linguistic exchanges with waiters and taxi drivers. Even those relationships we feel are so vital to our lives â€“ our family and friends â€“ in linguistic terms, are really up for grabs.
MP: Yes, it seems to me that Soliloquy has not yet gotten the credit it deserves. It is not verbal play as in 111 but utilizes point of view and various narrative techniques to create a very vivid image of life in New York at the Millennium, in all its craziness and value. Because point of view is so rigidly controlled (after all, youâ€™re the one who asks the questions and sets up the conversations), itâ€™s rather like a Henry James novel and you are quite hard on yourself in the process. Do you want to do more in this vein?
KG: I like the James comparison in terms of how complicated and interiorized “externalized” speech can be and what profound impact those trivialities that we unthinkingly launch off our lips every day can have. The moniker for the work was “If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard.” It’s the accumulation of language I’m interested in. How much does an actual week’s worth of language weigh? It’s about concretization of the ephemeral.
It’s been six years since I’ve done the project and it’s remarkable already just how much language has changed. In some ways, the book is prescient. Many readers in 2002 can understand the pages and pages of interminable computer talk in the book. In fact, it’s become common parlance. In other ways, though, so much about the book is completely dated, based on restaurants that are gone, businesses that are defunct, careers, friendships, and lovers that no longer exist. Written in the first blush of the dot-com bubble, it’s incredible to think how the landscape has changed since then.
After Soliloquy, I wanted to see if in fact, I couldn’t get closer to the sort of mimetic work that you were referring to before. Using mimesis as a framing device, could I legitimize an appropriative practice as a writer? If my speech was so valueless, could I somehow push the envelope and find language that had less value than it? And if so, could I theoretically justify the use of such a technique?
The thing that most people don’t realize about No. 111 is that while it’s a gleeful romp through language, to stop there is to miss the point. For me, the crux of the book lies in the inclusion of D.H. Lawrence’s short story “The Rocking Horse Winner.” I only chose that story because the last syllable of the last word in the story, “winner”, ended in an “er.” Because the story had more syllables than any other entry in the book, it was used as the last chapter. So theoretically, I felt that I could have included any short story or even full-length novel into 111 and would have been justified in doing so. It was just a matter of nerve or finding the courage to do so.
MP: Did you ever sit down and actually read â€œThe Rocking Horse Winnerâ€? Itâ€™s such a brilliant story. Or, like Cage vis-Ã -vis Finnegans Wake, did you prefer to leave it as it is?
KG: You know something? To this day I have never “read” that story! I’ve counted the syllables several times but have never paid attention to it in a conventional way. I trust you when you say it’s a great story, but for me to treat it as such would be to undermine the structural and appropriative concept that I was trying to get across. I know it sounds prudish or puritanical, but for me to read “The Rocking Horse Winner” as is — within the context of No. 111 â€“ it would destroy some crucial conceptual part of my book (by the way: I don’t prescribe this for everyone â€“ they can do as they choose. It’s just my own idiosyncratic point of view that necessitates my actionsâ€¦).
But it was important to keep this line of thought intact because it was this inquiry that led me, about five years later, to write the trilogy of Day, Week and Month during 2000-2001. They are all retyping pieces: Day is a retyping of a day’s copy of The New York Times, Week is a retyping of an entire issue of Time, and Month is a retyping of the February 2001 issue of Vogue. As process-based works, they are more punishing by far than Soliloquy and Fidget. The object of the work was to create a valueless practice, which I found to be an impossibility since the act of reproducing the texts in and of itself has some sort of intrinsic value.
MP: Could 111 and Soliloquy have been written without the computer? I would think not since you used the computer to get it all in, although you did hand-count the syllables of 111? If the computer is indispensable, what does that tell us about future poetic and fictional projects?
KG: None of my works after 73 Poems could have been done without the computer. In 1993, 111 started off in analogue space with me collecting information around me with a pad and pencil. I can remember going to see movies and scribbling down words and phrases that ended in “R.” I was no longer reading magazines for the information they contained but rather to simply hunt down phrases for my book. During this period, I never spoke on the phone without a pad close by. When I’d meet a friend for a drink, I’d take my notebook and scribble down bits of our conversation, almost as if I was doing an interview. It was in this way that I discovered the quotidian language around me to be concrete and abstract. If I was hunting only for formal ticks in the language, it didn’t matter at all what it meant, only how it sounded.
My method of language hunting changed in 1994 when I started using the internet. Back then only gopher space or the text-based Lynx browser was available, but suddenly there was reams and reams of raw language available. I didn’t even have to type, I just had to cut-and-paste. From that point on, it literally became the book that wrote itself.
However, you’re right about having to hand-count the syllables in 111. Many people tried to write me programs that would count syllables â€“ mostly based on Microsoft Word’s hyphenation feature â€“ but they all failed. The rules determining syllable counts are extremely idiosyncratic and I ultimately found it quicker and more efficient to do it by hand.
In my recent projects, I’ve tried to have my writing processes imitate the mechanization of the computer. I no longer think of myself as a poet or a writer, but instead as a word-processor, likening my practice to Picabia’s idea of mechanical drawing; suddenly mechanical writing seems interesting.
In my practice, I’ve come to believe that language by its nature is fluid and will assume any form it’s poured into. Hence my production has taken the form of everything from gallery installations to computer programs to couture dresses to CDs and books, all using the same language. Before the computer, language was much less fluid and it was almost impossible to coax it off the page. Reproducing technologies such as xerox just gave you more language glued to the page. Now, once language is digitized, its transportative and morphic tendencies are foregrounded. Great chunks of language have been melted and are free to assume a myriad of forms. In a way, it highlights the formal properties of language more than has ever been realized before.
MP: I know we’ve discussed the problem of work first written in “normal” ways and then merely transferred to the screen without doing anything with the digital possibilities. What can be done to make e-poetry better, less like advertising copy? Or is poetry, in the normal sense, not the best genre for the net?
KG: One of the most unfortunate tendencies in net art is the emphasis on formal possibilities; it so often uses as a criterion of its success questions like “is this making the computer do things that it’s never done before?” or “is this piece technically expanding the possibilities of the field?” While those are valid questions in a scientific sense, I don’t think they have anything to do with art. As witnessed by the last two Whitney Biennials, we see a preoccupation with those questions. It has a strong parallel to the early days of video art where many people were staking out the technical possibilities of video as art. Some 30 years later, those experiments have dropped out of sight. Instead, what’s survived are the more primitive visions of an artist grabbing the camera and doing his or her art with it â€“ Vito Acconci biting his arm or Joan Jonas’ “Vertical Roll.” They are in no way technically ground-breaking but are the works from the period that we most admire today.
We are fortunate to be in a field that is able to adapt itself to technology relatively easily. Poetry naturally takes to the distributive forms of the web (unlike painting which still has to be seen in person to be fully experienced). E-poetry will only be as good as the poets writing the work. Of course, I’m most enthusiastic about the web as a distribution system for poetry. The PDF format can deliver beautifully typeset poems â€“ as gorgeous as anything that’s been done in print â€“ and for a fraction of the cost. I just think about the scarcity of adventurous writing materials when I was first getting interested in this stuff in the late 80s and I compare it to the abundance of them available today on the net. I think that my adaptation and embrace of the field would have been much quicker. I recall that the sorts of materials floating around back then were very dated: yellowing mimeographed sheets and dusty books from the 60s and 70s with black and white covers. There’s something about the medium of the web that makes this material feel new again, more vital, shorn of its original context. We’re left with the work, naked, and the good work retains its power in the new medium.
MP: You have expressed dislike for Oulipo as too often “conventional narrative” that would be better off revealing its codes. Have you read W and Life A User’s Manual by Perec? I would think you’d love those. Also Jacques Roubaud’sQuelque chose noir, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop as Something Black.
KG: Yeah, I have a personal bone to pick with Oulipo. I accept the fact that it is truly “potential literature” but think it’s best left in its conceptual form. I find the ideas to be much more radical and interesting than the relatively few realizations of it. Even with complex systematic structures, for some reason the writers always tend to wrap their systems in conventional narratives. I always wish they’d leave more of the bare bones showing (I feel the same way about the nouveau roman â€“ Robbe-Grillet’s theoretical writing seems so much more radical than the actual books that he produced).
I’m a believer in process and realization. There’s something about going through an intense writing process and following it through to the end that opens up the linguistic possibilities of transcending the original notion. For example, I could have easily kept Fidget as potential literature by issuing the instruction “Record every move your body makes for a day.” But if I hadn’t gone through the rigorous process of actualizing it, the writing would have been very different. I certainly could never have invented feeling so fed up with doing the exercise that I couldn’t help but get drunk!
My peers agree with me in this respect. Christian Bok took seven years to actualize Eunoia, his great book that exhausts the English vocabulary of words only employing specific vowels (he had to read the dictionary several times in order to accomplish this!); Craig Dworkin has been working for several years parsing a grammar book according to its own rules then replacing the parsed text with new verbs, nouns, etc. to create a new narrative based on the structural skeleton of the grammar book; and Darren Wershler-Henry out-potentialized the Oulipo by writing The Tapeworm Foundry , a book that is nothing but hundreds of art and writing ideas. Every time we think we’ve thought up a new process, we discover to our dismay that Darren has already thought it up!
I was trained as a sculptor and years ago I once took a pottery class with a teacher that made us aware that the inside of the pot is just as important as the outside. If, she said, the inside has had as much care taken with it as the outside, the pot will glow an inner radiance that would have otherwise been lacking. I think she was really talking about the attention of structure breeding integrity into works of art.
MP: I agree about process and I donâ€™t care for most Oulipo poems but Perecâ€™s fictions are quite profound on the semantic level as well as the structural one. But letâ€™s shift ground. You have been wonderfully responsive to the memoir I’m writing about my “high culture” Vienna upbringing and the refugee aftermath, to be called The Vienna Paradox. Isn’t this, by your lights, an old-fashioned, somewhat conventional project, and if not, why not?
KG: One of the things I find so intriguing about your book is the idea that we can come from such different places and yet be equally invested in and devoted to the same kind culture and art. When I read about your classical Bildung education, it makes me reflect on how different my own American upbringing was. Like generations before you, you had to struggle with issues such as:
“The discrimination of the aesthetic as opposed to its kitschy simulacrum was the sign of Bildung: those with genuine education and culture, could sniff out the kitsch, could tell that it was not the ‘real’ thing.” (Perloff, The Vienna Paradox)
This line of questioning was never an option for me. I grew up in the 1970s in a tract home on Long Island in a house that was bereft of any “high” culture. We didn’t visit museums, we had very few books. An occasional popular Broadway play (Grease, Hair, The Wiz, etc.) was the extent of my exposure to “art” in my family. Instead, we watched an enormous amount of television.
In hindsight, so much of what 20th century innovative art was trying to do — breaking down the division between high and low, accepting the quotidian as art, demystifying the myth of genius — was part and parcel of my upbringing. I knew what pop was long before I knew what Pop Art was. After I studied Warhol, it was a confirmation of what I already had an intimate and implicit knowledge of. When Ginsberg talks about unhinging poetry from its formalist tenets by bringing common speech to play, it strikes me that all I ever knew was common speech. And when Cage famously talked about the merits of boredom, nothing could be more familiar to me than suburban ennui – of course, that’s what led me to making art in the first place: art was a great way to kill time. Genius or artistic gifts were never something to grapple with where I came from; there was nothing in my background that ever led me to believe that I was in any way heir to the extraordinary. My grandparents were grubby merchants, not rabbinical scholars. How different, then, this is from your background!
MP: This is all very interesting! But it raises many questions. Given our different backgrounds, why do you and I like almost exactly the same artworks, poetry, etc.? We laugh at the same things; we don’t like pretentious pseudo-lyric poetry and straight narrative, and so on. But why? Surely the kids you went to school with on Long Island don’t go to Cage concerts? Do they read Gertrude Stein? And neither do they people I went to Fieldston or Oberlin with. The ones from Fieldston are still going to those same Broadway shows you mention.
As for my family, I recall that when I was writing my book about Frank O’Hara in 1975-76, one day my mother was visiting and happened to look at O’Hara’s Collected Poems. She was shocked and said to me, “Well, now I see how different we are!” She was referring to all the four-letter words, lines like “I think I was made in the image of a sissy truck driver,” and so on. Not her thing at all!
KG: Your O’Hara story reminds me of the time I was reading Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath and my parents — card carrying upper-middle class country clubbers — were astonished to find that the book had nothing to do with tennis, that is, as they knew it! Similarly, just a few weeks ago, my father, who has been having insomnia problems, picked up Bruce Andrews’ Tizzy Boost in the middle of the night and was baffled. The next morning he asked me to explain why this was poetry. I told him the story of how I approached the book when Geoff Young sent me the manuscript to see if I wanted to do the illustrations for it. After trying to understand it in every conventional way, I finally began to ask what it wasn’t. And in that way by creating a negative definition of it I was able to define exactly what it was trying to do. It was a big key into understanding Bruce’s work.
But to answer your question, there’s a part of the story I haven’t told that might make more sense as to how I turned out the way I did. My parents, after having sleep-walked through the 60s, woke up in the early 70s and emerged as proto-New Age seekers. My father, who had ambitions to do social work–prison reform,specifically –was forced by his immigrant parents into the family garment business, hence starting decades of frustration manifesting itself in physical debilitation and deep depression. He and my mother began looking for ways out starting with EST and then moving on over the next two decades into Silva Mind Control, Feldenkreis, Reiki, channeling, Neurolinguistic Programming, primal scream therapy, humiliation therapy, past-life regression, holistic healing, psychotherapy, firewalking, zen retreats, just to name a few. In the 5th grade, my sister and I were taken to a swami and inducted in the ways of transcendental meditation. From then on, our family was required as a group to meditate two times a day, 20 minutes each session. It was really awful making a kid who could barely sit still as it was meditate daily. As soon as I discovered drugs, I quit meditation.
My parents, having rejected conventional Judaism, sent us for a secular Jewish education, called Kinder Shul. Kinder Shul grew out of the Workman’s Circle labor movement and emphasized Jewish culture over religion; hence we learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew. We were taught by old-fashioned Socialists in the basement of a Quaker Meeting House on Long Island. Coupled with this was the fact that we were sent to a Workman’s Circle summer camp, appropriately named Camp Walt Whitman, where we sang folk and labor songs, practiced non-competitive sports, met in town meetings, etc.
The other oddball factor in my upbringing was my maternal grandfather, Philip Field (to whom No. 111 is dedicated). He was an up-and-coming New York lawyer in the 40s and 50s and one of the signs of good breeding, in his day, was the acquisition of a good library which he started building. Sadly, though, he invested all his money in the Cuban sugar fields and lost everything when Castro took over and ended up a ruined man. He began drinking, lost his practice and ended up as a gun-wielding rent-collector in Hell’s Kitchen for the rest of his life. However, as desperate as he was, he never sold his library. As a child, I would spend hours amongst these volumes: Aristophanes illustrated by Picasso, Dante illustrated by George Grosz, and so forth. When he died, I inherited all of these books.
MP: Before I met you, I had read 73 Poems. I pictured you, judging from that lovely book, as a rather austere Cagean type–very quiet, very serious, rather delicate–and certainly not Jewish! Those lovely words against the gray ground and the overprint! The Joan La Barbara vocalization! The question then is, how did you get from A (TV culture in Long Island) to B (Cage and Joan La Barbara) and C (a combination of high/low?).
KG: After attending a year of liberal arts college, I went to art school and studied sculpture. Upon returning to New York, I began making wooden sculptures of books. They were exquisitely carved plywood sculptures with words on them, which I began showing with great success in galleries. However, I was bothered by the fact that the idea of what to put on the books came in a flash, but then the execution could take up to several months of work to realize. In response, I began to question what I was more interested in — the objects themselves or the words on the objects — and chose the latter. I stopped making sculpture and began simply putting words on large pieces of paper.
About this time, Ruth and Marvin Sackner began purchasing pieces from me. They invited me down to install a piece in their collection, an experience which changed the course of my career. Although by this time-1992–I was a player in the New York art world, I’d never heard of Concrete Poetry or Language Poetry and it took a while for me to absorb and integrate this into my art work. The first step was instead of calling my art works “text art” (“text art” in the tradition of Kosuth, Weiner or Holzer), I began referring to them as “poems”, while continuing to show them in the NYC gallery context (which really had little use for “poetry”).
73 Poems grew out of these concerns and marked my transition from strictly a gallery artist into someone who had feet in both the art and the writing world. It was about this time, too, that I met Geoff Young was to publish No. 111 five years later. Geoff introduced me to Language Poetry and was the first person who saw my gallery work as fitting into the tradition of innovative writing and encouraged my work in that direction.
Finally, some time in the early 90s, I came to embrace the works of Cage. I had made a bum real estate investment and had been wiped out financially. Also, I was questioning my role as a successful gallery artist and wondering if indeed I wasn’t really a writer. Everything was up for grabs. I had looked at Cage in college but at the time, I really wasn’t ready to understand it. After life had dealt me some blows, I became devoted to the Cagean idea of giving up control of things in both life and art. His work and philosophy really helped me transition through some hard times, as well as open up vistas unavailable to me in the relatively narrow confines of the New York art world (I recall a dealer telling me how she lost so much money by showing Cage’s visual works in her gallery in New Yorkâ€¦). Much later, I began to see even the limitations in Cage’s work and had a desire to move beyond his ethos.
MP: As you, always at the cutting edge, certainly have!