Friday, June 29, 2012

Through the Wall: Bonus Tracks

John Gallaher, B.J. Love, and Aaron McNally couldn't stop chatting after their last interviews. We felt obliged to share that continued conversation with you.

AM: For some reason, I've always been hesitant to say this out-loud to my "literary" friends, but I've recently cast off my inhibitions and believe that I can say this with clarity. The reason I prefer poetry to other literary arts is because I first loved music, and I believe that poetry is the literary form that still holds music at its heart. John, you record covers and put them on your blog. BJ, you played a Ramones backtrack to one of your poems at our senior poetry "recital." Surely, each of you must have something to say about this topic?!

JG: I believe in art.  I think it’s fundamental to our existence, our continued existence.  And I dislike the divisions people have put up between the arts.  I try, therefore, as much as I can, to chip some little bits off those divisions, which sometimes gets me into trouble (today in fact in a comment stream on facebook).  That said, there are divisions between the arts.  So there goes my grand assertion. 

About music in particular, though, I have this belief, this rather strong belief, that music, the type of music I like the most, which is often termed “indie,” would be greatly enhanced if the people writing the lyrics to the songs read, and knew more about, contemporary poetry.  A lot of what poets do is similar in language to what a lot of indie musicians are doing.  I’ve tried to illustrate what I mean, by turning books of poems into songs and posting them on SoundCloud.  I’ve done six so far, including books by Heather Christle, Rae Armantrout, and Lyn Hejinian.  I feel the more we respect the unity of the artistic endeavor, the more our individual arts will be enhanced.  I also feel this way about science, by the way.  And, I guess, much of the human experience. 

By the way, the first concert I ever went to was The Ramones, in 1979, in a high school gym.  

BJ: I'm first and foremost a failed musician. But isn't that an old cliche? That all poets are failed musicians? 

Listening to music has always been (here comes a bad pun) instrumental to my composition process. For years, I only wrote to one record, Monk Alone. It was never the music necessarily that moved me, but the rhythms, how they altered from one phrase to the next, how they managed to surprise me, which, if you think about it, is a weird thing for a rhythm to do. Lately, though, I've been writing to Lil' Wayne mix tapes. His phrasing has that same effect on me, only, it's language based this time; he squeezes or elongates these utterances in really remarkable ways, and on top of that, what he is saying is usually this (somewhat) intricate pun, or language play, or crazy association that I rewards your attention.

I think I can say, with pride, that my poems have probably been influenced more by Weezy in the last year than any other source. Between his pop culture references, his willingness to revisit lines, images, metaphors he's already used (as though he's continually drafting), and his non-sequitorial prowess, the guy is just a genius.

An example from the Young Money track, "Roger That,"

Its Y.M., and we at ya kneck like a violin
Its our world, We make it spin
N y'all tha prey..AMEN

It manages to conjure so much, that is, if you let it. The violin sets you up for the classic image of Atlas, and then that pun at the end is just fucking rad. Then, he says Amen, and the song ends! So much awareness of structure, expectation, word variants, and he's always walking that line between deft and daft. I love him, I really do.

AM: Both of you guys make some good points about the benefits that literary devices and poetic consciousness can offer the lyricist. How, in turn, though, can musical elements influence and benefit poetry? Obviously rhythm is the major one. That's easy to explain. Rhythm can be used to craft the feel and pace of a line, and has been doing so for millennia, at least. But what about pitch, melody, harmony, timbre, intensity? Sampling? Tone Rows? Loops? Polytonality? Are these techniques available to the poet?

JG: I don’t see across the board, direct correlations between the arts, for the most part.  I can make some of them work (sampling, timbre, etc), but they get pretty fragile and abstract pretty quickly.  You can do the same thing with visual art as well.  For me, though, when I think of music elements influencing and benefitting poetry, I think of it more generally, in a structural or atmospheric way.  What I mean by that is, well, take atmosphere for example.  Instrumental music really doesn’t “mean” anything directly.  It’s not conversation-meaning in the usual sense.  There’s no languageable point to it.  But, of course it does mean a lot.  And what it means isn’t just beautiful music or some such.  People who listen to instrumental jazz, for example, feel like a communicative transaction has occurred.  I certainly feel that way, but I'd he hard-pressed to explain it.

Right now, while writing this, since I was thinking about it yesterday, I’m listening to Monk’s Misterioso.  The track on right now is “Evidence.”  It’s in the final bit after the drum solo, where they go back to the theme, and I swear it sounds like a thesis.  It feels summed up and well argued, but I can’t say in what way (the resolution to the tonic, or something, one might say, but that's too easy).  I think of it as an atmospheric meaning.  It’s not conversation, but it’s conversational.  It’s not an argument, but it feels argued, or perhaps explained, resolved.  There’s a lesson in there, I think, for poets.  It’s a version of the Wallace Stevens directive, that poetry should resist the intelligence almost successfully.  Which is, for me, that it must make meaning in a resonant, atmospheric way, not in a usual language way.  My go-to example for this in poetry is John Ashbery, but there are many others as well. 

Structure, I feel, is pretty transferable from music to poetry.  Right now, “In Walked Bud” is playing (I’m listening to the album on random play).  It starts off with a quick full band statement of the theme, as Monk liked to do, and then they handed it off to the saxophone.  The “theme and variations” structure that is common to bebop, I find to be a fruitful composition technique.  Certainly the poets who write conversationally and who also like to range, from Albert Goldbarth and Dean Young to Rae Armantrout and a whole host of others, participate in this method.  In jazz, though, it’s in a more direct, pure form.  The long sax solo is over, and now Monk is taking his.  He starts by restating the theme, but it’s changed now, as it’s just him, and he then restates it again and again, but he starts to open it up, finding the space in it, until he closes his bit with the end of the theme, stated “correctly” once again, and the band goes quiet, fades out, so the bass can take it, and then the drums.  It became something of a tired journey through overuse, this sax to piano to bass to drums solo hand off, but if you can listen to what’s going on within and around that structure, you can get a lot of insight into the various ways one can both “say something,” as in “state the theme,” and also play with it, add new elements, quote other things, in short, range, and then resolve back to the theme, which changes both the theme and the journey. 

Or something like that.

BJ: John's right on regarding the quick delving into abstraction so many non-literary tools are subject to. Myself, I frequently try to use samples (which should be read more like, "samples"), interpolations, and loops, but my use of these tools has more to do the culture I grew up in; the one that has seemingly abandoned radical leaps from the establishment and finds itself more interested in a continual communicative act with both the past and the future*. That said, I would really be interested to hear more from you, John, on the communicative acts in art. 

Until then, here's my take: Yo-Yo Ma said that as a child prodigy, he was focused on perfection, on playing every note just right. Then, one night when he was 19, I think, he was playing a concert and suddenly realized he was totally bored, and he thought, if I'm bored up here, what must they be thinking out there!?! He realized there as no artistry in what he was doing because, one, he was simply mimicking the composition, and two, because he wasn't communicating anything. Now, every time he sits down with a new piece, he imagines it as a detective novel (which is, really, one of the simplest narrative structures in literature, but also, possibly, it's most effective) and tries to find places to build tension, places to relieve it, and exactly where the climax is. I think, circuitously, that is something I'm always after in my poems, that performative narrative arcing.

On the page, most of the devices Aaron listed are unavailable to poets without seeming really gimmicky. I mean, those things exist in an audible world and are, for the most part, reliant on performance. For instance, you can write, "Oooooh!" but there's no way to replace, or even approach the experience of hearing it. Ultimately, those techniques are lost on the page, which is the landscape we poets have to deal with. Now, where we get lucky, is that we do have the opportunity to perform our works, and if we take the time to consider it, to practice, we can take advantage of those's like we get to cheat. The painter doesn't get to present her work in any other way but the painting. The composer has his charts, but they can never reflect the beauty of the played note. Even the fiction writer is basically stuck to the page, but we get to perform. And that's pretty fucking rad if you ask me. 

We get to be totally sensory as artists. It's an intimidating challenge, and yet, it's one that we approach with excitement. Seriously, just read some of John's and G.C.s poems in "Train of Ghosts," they tickle you everywhere!

For instance, from CEDAR RAPIDS ECLOGUE:

"All the walls inside the detention center
are lined with old pictures of you.
When you peer into the microscope,
you see tiny images of a childhood treefort
undulating slowly beneath the glass."

It's curious, it's constricting, it's further constricting, and then, this fucking breeze blows through and you're opened into the vastness of memory, but then you toss a little frustration in there and we're totally constricted again!

Anyway, I've written too much.

*Quick side note, I'm not naive enough to believe this was an invention of ours, but it does appear as though we, the current 18-50 core demographic, have really, REALLY run with it.

JG: B.J., this more than fascinates me: “I frequently try to use samples (which should be read more like, ‘samples’), interpolations, and loops, but my use of these tools has more to do the culture I grew up in; the one that has seemingly abandoned radical leaps from the establishment and finds itself more interested in a continual communicative act with both the past and the future.” And then its addendum: “I'm not naive enough to believe this was an invention of ours, but it does appear as though we, the current 18-50 core demographic, have really, REALLY run with it.”

Putting “samples,” interpolations, and loops in.  Absolutely.  I think it’s why so many poets in that 18-50 range (with outliers who go a bit older, like Cole Swensen, etc) mostly talk about the Modernists (and then, mostly Stevens, Stein, and Williams) and the more recent poets who have continued in the accumulative vein of the Modernists (Ashbery, Armantrout, etc), when talking about poetry.  That voracious technique is one that feels very natural to us now.  It feels, at least to me, much more like living in reality than some sort of “artistic experiment.” 

Concomitantly, for me at least, is the example of Neil Young to add to your Yo-Yo-Ma example.  Neil Young said once in an interview that, “At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians, hit the wall. They don’t go there very often, they don't have the tools to go through the wall, because it’s the end of notes. It’s the other side, where there’s only tone, sound, ambience, landscape, earthquakes, pictures, fireworks, the sky opening, buildings falling, subways collapsing. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can’t go back. I don’t know too many musicians who try to go through the wall. I love to go through the wall.”

It’s this “going through the wall” that I feel we’re talking about.  That’s a version of our practice of moving from craft to art, or from technical ability to direct emotion, or the way poetry can communicate past the usual ways of language use.  In the case of Neil Young, the “going through the wall” is the point, not really what notes are being played or what the song is about.  The song is the vehicle that one uses to get through the wall.  The arts all have different walls to go through.  The wall that a song goes through is going to be different than the wall visual art or poetry goes through.  And the wall looks different to each artist, as well.

One of those walls is contingency.  The use of “maybe” and “perhaps” and such structures is frowned upon by a lot of poets.  It messes with the unity of the poem.  But that’s only if you’re looking at that kind of unity, that kind of direct message.  But what if the poem is unified by the question rather than the answer?  If it’s, as e.e. cummings says, a project of always finding the more beautiful question, then “maybe” and “perhaps,” etc, are necessary in getting there. 

I’m trying to ask you a question, B.J., in this, but I keep not ending with a question mark.  I was just, before I typed this, reading a poem of yours “OF BIRDS, BINOCULARS & GRADE SCHOOL ANATOMY” from DIAGRAM, in which “maybe” figured prominently, and I felt great sympathy for that.  I could imagine the whole thing as something of a loop, as well, but I wasn’t sure if I was getting it right, as I was thinking about loops in the looped-tape, Robert Fripp way:

Fripp said, “For me art is the capacity to re-experience one’s innocence.  Craft is how you get to that point.  Maturity in a musician would be the point at which one is innocent at will.” 

How might you react to this?

BJ: That poem in DIAGRAM was honestly the first poem I wrote where the "maybe's" and "perhaps's" became the moving factors of the poem. And you're right, lots of people don't like it, and there are times when I don't either. Like, when it becomes a part of an act, or the signature of a "good BJ Love poem." Like Spicer, in his letters when he notes that he threw the poem away because someone called it a good Jack Spicer poem, but didn't tear it up before he did so because it was, after all, a good Jack Spicer poem.

Since that poem, though, I've gone on to use those speech acts (and they really are speech acts, as that level of passivity in prose is the calling card of bad writing) in a good chunk of my poems. I'm interested in for at least 3 reasons: One, I like how punchy and rhythmic those words are, especially when they are used to express an uncertainty in what has been, or what is about to be said. 

Two, I love how they show a mind at work. Our brains are in a constant state of redrafting; we fix memories, ideas, and the process that starts with firing synopses flickering images into our consciousness and then translating that into relatable speech...and that all this happens in milliseconds... In other words, Erika, my girlfriend, my partner, says her favorite architecture is one that is honest with its materials, and I feel like the "maybe" and "perhaps" help to express the material of the poem in that way. That they allow for the construction to be expressed in just as beautiful a manner as the emotion, and that being able to witness that assembly makes the payoff, or the whole poem, for that matter, a bit more sincere/authentic. That in laying out how a thing is put together, you don't get hung up on how well it put together, instead, you jump right to the shapes it making, the way it plays with landscape, etc., and we are moved by it. 

Three, and this is a ridiculous analogy, but it's always worked for me, that the "maybe's" function like a slingshot into a new idea, however far-stretched, or absurd it may be, while still allowing it to stay grounded...okay, it's like the scene in Armageddon, when they get to the moon, and they are all struck by it's realness, that they are actually seeing it, but then they are all slingshotted around the moon, and when they break free of the moon's gravity and everyone sees the meteor... 

What I'm saying is that the maybe's work like that slingshot, that they are the only way I have to get from the moon to the meteor, that they allow me to get through the wall, but at the same time, they allow me to see where I've been, how I got to the moon, so the meteor doesn't become the whole poem, and thus lose it's awesomeness.

What does this have to do with innocence? Everything, I think. This is the way, John, the atmosphere that Neil Young was talking about can be created. We all have our own path to this place, and words, like notes, often limit our abilities to get there. We're always quantifying and qualifying, but we are taught to do this. Do you ever listen to Radiolab? I love that show, and recently they were talking about colors, and how giving things color limit their the sky. A scientist performed an experiment on his own child where he practiced colors with her in the way we all practiced colors with children, only, he never asked her what color the sky was. Now, she knew blue, and after 18 mos. he finally pointed to the sky and asked, "What color is the sky?" and it wasn't that she didn't know the color (he ensured the audience that it was a perfect sky-blue blue), it was that she has never considered the sky in that way, as a thing. Our brains are capable of seeing infinite possibilities, but from day one, we are trained, and then trained to train ourselves, to limit, signify, and place everything around us.

I really feel that's the innocence we should be after, the restoration of infinite possibility, and those maybe's and perhaps's that litter my poems, are my small and insignificant way of at least getting myself there.

Now, that's as close to a definition of innocence as I can muster. John, I'm wondering what yours might be. In other words, how do you know you've broken through the wall, or conversely, that you are still trying to? Is this a recognizable achievement, or simply something we are always striving towards?

And I shit you not, Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" just came on the radio...

JG: For Fripp, it’s the re-experiencing of innocence, through craft.  For Neil Young, it’s breaking through the wall.  For Yo-Yo Ma, it’s the emotion behind, within, the virtuosity of the piece.  These are all metaphors for the moment, the place, that can’t really be described, where the thing suddenly flares up.  I don’t have any better way of describing it than that.  I’ve always loved the title of Lyn Hejinian’s book, “A Thought Is a Bride of What Thinking.”  That’s also a nice way of summing it up.  Or Frank O’Hara’s, “you just go on your nerve.”  I had a teacher, Wayne Dodd, who used to talk a lot about what one listens TO vs what one listens FOR.  I think, as categories go, those are pretty good ones for artists.  One can listen TO the city or whatever, but listen FOR different things there, depending on mood, desire.  One can listen TO different things constantly, the city, a museum, but listen FOR the connections.  I like those metaphors as much as any.  Fripp listens for innocence, Neil Young for “elsewhere,” Yo-Yo Ma for emotion . . . .  And those are internal conversations.  Hejinian’s “bride of what thinking” describes the internal relationship, O’Hara’s “nerve” describes the method of propulsion.  It’s all very abstract and messy.  And constantly shifting.  Changing. 

Or something like that. 

AM: John,

Every time you end an email with that phrase, "Or something like that" I hear it as the end of the verse in the song "Echoes Myron" by Guided by Voices and proceed to sing in my mind
"Man of wisdom
and man of compromise,
Man of weak flesh
in an armored disguise:

All fall down."

Thanks for a great tricourse, you guys. I've enjoyed this rather a lot.

BJ: So really, the effort is shifted from finding the place, to just being ready for it when it happens? There was a line in a letter Dean Young wrote to his know what, I'm just going to find it.

Jack Spicer spoke similarly of being ready for his martian transmissions. So did Michael Jordan of playing in the zone. Lorca whenever he was talking about duende. All these figures, though, seem to go out of there way not to demystify these places. That their effectiveness relies on their magic. And what is magic if not coerced innocence? And it does strike me that the core tension an artist has with her art is that we create with the hope of an essential understanding, and yet, we are always making a concerted effort to keep understanding at arms length.

And maybe that essential understanding is enough. Is all one needs. That our problems as humans come in our continued prodding of the thing we are considering. Perhaps that is also why we experience those duende moments, those instances of breaking through the wall, with such delight, because that in their inexplicability, they still manage to be complete experiences, more complete in fact, than most others because they are so experientially pure.

One thing I've found really beautiful lately: On the atomic level, nothing is as confined into itself as we conceive it being. A few atoms are always breaking free and others are always being pulled in. So, atomically, we literally are one with our surroundings, in the midst of a continuous exchange of matter. But for me, because I'm ridiculous, that concept seems to pop into my head whenever I'm holding  my girlfriend's hand, or we are cuddled up in bed, that there literally is a layer of ourselves overlapping each other.

I don't care if that's true or not. It's my duende, my religious ecstasy, my hole in the wall. It's the thing that helps guide me to that place of innocence.

One thing I didn't address, but I would love to hear more about, is the concept of listening TO vs FOR. David Byrne, in Jonah Lehrer's book, IMAGINE, says he has spend most of his life riding his bike and listening to the city. But my assumption is that he was listening to the city the same way a bloodhound smells the air...attention is ready and waiting. Anyway, if you had to personalize the TO v. FOR argument, what might that look like?

JG: B.J., that the largest continually unanswered question I continue to wander around.  Personally, I listen to language, the exact phrasing of the people around me, spoken or written.  I love reading interviews in magazines, and in other times when people are in broadcast mode, when they're trying to make a case.  And then I write it down.  A lot of the things in my poems are quotes, and then Id work up the rest of the poem around them.  Lately, I’ve started trying to do that same thing, but by placing myself in the role of the one speaking.  I’ll reply to imaginary questions and then work up the rest of the poem around that reply.  The first extended use of that is a long poem in 80 sections, titled “In a Landscape.”

One of my favorite go-to bits linking science and art is very close to your jumping matter example.  In science, it’s long known that everything is mostly empty space, including us.  This is implicated in Lyn Hejinian’s thought transfer, as well, but taking it to its absurd (impossible in reality but perfectly ordinary in art) elemental extreme, “wall” has no defined boundary.  We don’t need to break through the wall, then.  We can simply pass through it.  It’s all us already.

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