MAKING THINGS DIFFICULT

MESSERLI AND BERNSTEIN, 2004
MAKING THINGS DIFFICULT

September 7-12, 2004

 

BERNSTEIN: Many of your poems are written, as you put it, “after” other poems. Can you talk about the ways you approach writing “after” poems both in English and also other languages?

MESSERLI: When I first began speaking about my poems being “after,” I was thinking of the method I use to create many of my poems, namely “collage.” In numerous works, sometimes just to get the poem started, I look at the writing of other poets, and play with their word combinations; the first two words of each line, odd word couplings I find particularly generative. By and large, I never use the work of just one poet, but numerous writers, some whom I’ve actually never read. The eye discovers what it wants to in each poem, and that, in turn, creates a series of associations, leaps, imaginations, narrative interpolations, that allow for the flow of my own poetry. As someone (Jen Hofer, I think) once described me, I’m sort like the “grand recycler” of poets, a kind of repository of bits and pieces of the thousands of poems by Americans that get published each year. I don’t know if I can really claim that role, but I don’t mind its implications—after all, I am one of the major publishers and anthologists of poetry in the US, and I probably read more poetry each year than anyone in this county—particularly given the demands of my grand (ultimately 50 volume) series of PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) anthologies. So, in that sense, I encounter thousands of poems which, given the methods I’ve described, bring bits and pieces of a great many poems into a new kind of existence “after” the works of others.

When I came to write the book of poetry, After, however, the idea of that word had shifted. What I had begun to realize is that in reading so much poetry, and in working through many of those poems to stimulate my own writing, I had indeed been changed somehow by the very process. Particularly in relation to the so-called “translations” I had done, my poetry had been transformed, become richer and denser so I thought. Although I took high school Spanish, college French, and learned boarding-school Norwegian, along with a smattering of German, nonetheless, I don’t really have a command of any language except English. So I didn’t want to claim the role of being a “translator,” a figure I hold in high esteem. I called my “translations,” accordingly, writing after. The word was useful since it suggested both the effects of that poetry I had translated, and some of the methods I had used in bringing my own poetry to life. Accordingly, I alternated poems in that volume that were translated or written “after,” with poems of my own—whatever that might mean—that had been effected, in some respects, by my engagement with the poems in other languages.

[CAUTION: I might conjecture—now that I’ve just recalled a specific incident—that my poetry may have always had a quality about it that linked it to translation. When I first began writing, I joined a group of Washington, D.C. poets (Doug Lang, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Lynne Dreyer, Tina Darragh, Peter Inman, Anselm Hollo [a great translator of the Finnish], Bernard Welt, Diane Ward, and Joan Retallack, among them) for weekly readings of our poetry. One evening, after hearing me read, Welt said of my work: “Your poetry sounds like you’ve written it in another language and then translated it into English.” At the time, I was reading very little poetry in translation.]

These poems, moreover, had also come after a long spell of what I think of as very American poems represented in Dinner on the Lawn, Some Distance, River to Rivet: A Manifesto and Maxims from My Mother’s Milk/Hymns to Him—the last, given its highly imbedded American clichés, slang, puns, and other rhetorical expressions, is about as American as you can get. After was clearly more influenced by international work. So it represented a kind of new turn, “after” the heavy concentrations of wit and punning I had become known for. My next undertaking, Bow Down, went one step further, in that, since I knew I was writing for an Italian audience—the book was published by an Italian publisher and translated into Italian—I wanted to further push the idea of writing after. So this time, I chose the works of Italian poets in translation, and wrote “through” these writers (using many of processes I’ve described above) and, simultaneously, wrote with collages of the Los Angeles, American-Italian artist, John Baldessari in mind. Accordingly, there was a kind of layering in Bow Down, a combination of image and word, that, when put into the context of my own associations, became something very different, but was strongly influenced, nonetheless, by the Italian. It’s strange to think of these works—which had come out of Italian through English—as being translated “back” into Italian. I am sure that, to the Italain, it had very little relationship to the original language. But in English, the Italian came through. I’d again been influenced by another culture, had had the benefit of coming “after.”

More recently, considering all the performative works I’ve written, and the long, yet unpublished manuscript Between—for which I wrote through the works of poet friends and then, sending the pieces to them, asked them, in turn, to write through my work as a whole or back through the poem I’d just written—I began to realize that my writing was not only written “after” other works, but in collaboration with others and their writing, that collaboration had been the direction in which my whole writing activities had been moving. I am perhaps one of the most collaborative of writers in that I not only embrace other writers in my work, but include other genres, willingly mixing all sorts of forms of film, fiction, drama, art, dance, and slapstick with my poetry. And, of course, there is that aspect of collaborating with yet others—other selves. And, I now realize, that this is directly connected to my publishing activities as well—always a collaboration. I guess I now would describe my writing, instead of being something “after,” as being work written “with.”

 

BERNSTEIN: Well, then, perhaps you also collaborate with yourself. Can you explain how these work for you? Are they like the personae of Pessoa? If a different pseudonym was assigned to the “same” text, would it be the same work?

MESSERLI: First of all, I’ve always loved the idea of pseudonyms—even as a child. I still have a book that Isaac Singer signed for me in college, “to Peter Scott”—even though he knew me as his student, Douglas Messerli. He must of thought me a bit crazy! My first “real” pseudonym, however, arose out of a business necessity. Since I couldn’t afford a designer for my Sun & Moon Press books, I had to design the books myself. And yet I didn’t want the whole publishing enterprise to look like a one man show. On one of the earliest books, I collaborated (there’s that word again) with a local designer, Kevin Osborn. So did Katie Messborn (K for Kevin, D for Douglas, Mess for Messerli, born for Osborn) spring to life. She designed hundreds of Sun & Moon books throughout the years, and even became quite famous. I recall writer and radio personality Kenny Goldsmith wondering if he might alter a design of the one of the books for the Sun & Moon website, which I assured him would be no problem. “But I don’t want to offend your wonderful designer, Katie Messborn,” he replied. I assured him she wouldn’t mind.

My second pseudonym arose when I was teaching literature at Temple University in Philadelphia. I was irritated in those days with the near complete abandonment by many of my colleagues of literature and their embracement of theory or what I would like to call “philosophical” approaches to the arts. I didn’t find the theoretical writing itself to be valueless—I’d minored in philosophy and had written my PhD dissertation on narrative theory; but I did feel that using the ideas of writers such as Derrida as pedagogical “tools” in literature was a bit ridiculous. Much of it was so abstract in relation to fiction or poetry as to be nearly meaningless in a literature course. So I began to entertain one of my student-friends, Joe Ross, with the writing and sayings of my own favorite theorist, Claude Ricochet. Of course, with such a ridiculous name, it became immediately clear that Claude himself had adopted a pseudonym—his real name was Daniel Mayenne (can you believe I just had to look this up?). I had already published a manifesto under his name in a special of issue I edited for The Washington Review on manifestos a couple of years earlier. You were in that issue, if you recall?

 

BERNSTEIN: Ah, yes, I remember it well. Claude and I became such close friends!

MESSERLI: And with Joe’s encouragement (we both thought it all quite silly), I began to create more and more of his theory, and, since I was then working on my own theoretical work—an investigation into evil—titled The Structure of Destruction, I began to import some of Ricochet’s statements into the three volumes. Indeed, I eventually claimed that the first two volumes were recreations of lost works (never before translated) by the author, works which I had encountered when young, one a film, the other the “incredible philosophical-historical murder mystery,” The Cross of Madame Robert. These, moreover, were multi-genre works, allowing me to present Ricochet in all sorts of different contexts.

There as something oddly convincing about this figure. I recall when I gave poet Dennis Phillips a copy of the second volume, The Walls Come True, to read—it’s a long performative work made up of prose poetry, drama, film, vaudeville routines, and other forms, ending with a longish Afternote about the “source”—he suggested that there were other ways in which I might handle the information about such material, in a footnote, for example. Of course, the whole Afterword was a creation/recreation of the story I’d just told in disjunctive pieces; like Faulkner’s chronology of characters at the end of The Sound and the Fury, it is an integral part of the work.

When I was about to publish the first volume, Along Without, I asked Marjorie Perloff to write a blurb for the back cover copy. This work, one of the strangest I have even written, is a hybrid of film, fiction and poetry which I described in the Introduction as having been an attempt to recreate a film I saw as a young man in Norway by Claude Ricochet. Marjorie sent me a very nice blurb, supporting the existence of the French theorist and his film. I had to remind her that Ricochet was a pseudonym. Abashed, she quickly rewrote the blurb.

The National Endowment for the Arts took an early selection from the third volume, Letters from Hanusse, out of the fiction category for which I had submitted it, and put it into prose writing—on the basis, I suppose, of my quotes from Ricochet and, one might guess, the epistolary tone of the work as a whole.

These “readings” of the books highly intrigue me. For, despite the fact that I made no attempt to write at all realistically, the fact that I had used certain unexpected genres—an Introduction, an Afterword, a text peppered with seemingly academic quotes—my character had become real. The word had become flesh, so to speak. Perhaps that’s why I killed him off; as the biography reports, born in 1947—the year in which I was born—Ricochet died of AIDS in 1984 (which, had I not met my companion Howard Fox in 1980, might have been my own fate). During his short life, however, Ricochet wrote a great deal, and I have been working, and shall continue to work, to bring those pieces, in one form or another, to life. So in this one instance, my pseudonym is very close to a Pessoa heteronym, a figure locked within the author, but who exists, metaphorically speaking, in his own space. My favorite incident which confirms Ricochet’s existence is the time I was greeted, having flown into the Providence, Rhode Island airport, by poet Forrest Gander (whom I had not previously met) with a large sign reading CLAUDE RICOCHET.

My dramatic pseudonym, Kier Peters, is not at all like Claude. I once wrote on the back cover of one of his books that he was born in Germany, but I now doubt it, and certainly I know nothing else about him—except that “he” is the name I use to write my dramatic works. Peters came into being when I returned to drama (I wrote plays as a child). I didn’t want to have to carry with me the luggage of being a so-called “experimental” poet connected with “Language” writing. I needed to (re)discover the craft and wanted to be able to imitate, in part, the plays of Albee, Pinter, Ionesco and others in order to find what worked best. Douglas Messerli, I was afraid, wouldn’t be able to accomplish that; he’d have to write a much more disjunctive play if I was being true to myself. Today I completely reject that idea—since I write so many different things. But then I needed to work outside, so to speak, of my skin. So Peters freed me to write plays that Messerli might not have wanted to.

That too is how Per Bregne was born, his name being Peter Fern in English. I’ve always loved the name Peter (it turns out it was my great-grandfather’s name; and it’s also the name of one of my nephews). My grandmother’s maiden name (on my mother’s side) was Fahrni (meaning Fern), and her father, back in Switzerland, was a close friend of Peter Messerli. When in a Copenhagen bookstore I decided to create Green Integer books, I thought it best to keep this new publishing activity—particularly given the numerous commitments of Sun & Moon Press—away from Douglas Messerli. Per Bregne was named as editor. And I’ve kept him on since, even though I’ve (Douglas) obviously taken on a more active role in the press.

Joshua Haigh came into being because I wanted to use a sort of 19th century trope of a manuscript delivered to my door, and to distance the difficult subjects of Letters from Hanusse from myself. Joshua and I, moreover, shared one close tie: we were both great admirers of Claude Ricochet. Haigh, incidentally, was my grandmother’s (on my father’s side) maiden name, Joshua the name of a bartender at the Cedar Bar in New York, where I wrote some of the final pages of the book.

There are others. I’ve actually forgotten some of them. But by and large, they’re just stand-ins, beings behind whom I write. In the end, I think pseudonyms are extremely useful, almost necessary. First of all, I believe we are all many people, with many different voices possible—if we are open to them. Instead of a concept of a unified being, I much prefer a kind of Babel of existence, a body made up of all sorts of different folk speaking even sometimes contradictory statements. How much richer is this existence to the one-voice mentality! Writers, confuse yourself!, I want to shout. Make life difficult! I have always had a way of doing that.

 

BERNSTEIN: One way you do this, as you mentioned, is through the use of multiple genres. Indeed, much of your work is written as poetry, but also as scripts (for film, theater, and opera), and also as essays. What are the qualities of each of those genres that are of particular interest to you? How does the work of each of the genres connect?

MESSERLI: I’ll start with the last part of your question: there are no differences in the sense that they constitute one activity—writing or making art. And that is what I do in nearly all my life, including publishing.

I don’t know when my fascination with various genres began; I’m sure it started before reading Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. For I have, as long as I remember, been fascinated with genre, not just the larger genres of fiction, poetry, essay, drama, etc., but with genres within each category; my PhD dissertation focused on genres of fiction, for example, such as the anatomy, the picaresque, encyclopedic fictions, epistolary fictions, fantasy and others—I am least interested in the psychologically-based, character driven genre of the novel or “roman.”

Almost as soon as I started writing poetry, it became apparent that I would have to mix genres, to put narrative together with poetry and poetry with film, to imbed film within a letter. I wrote a book of poetry as a “manifesto,” and in another book alternated “maxims” with “hymns.” It is no accident that I claim Gertrude Stein to be my mentor, for she is a writer who single-handedly attempted nearly every literary genre, from drama, and essay, to the picaresque (The Making of Americans), a pastoral fiction (Lucy Church Amiably), dialogue fiction (Brewsie and Willie), alphabetical fictions (To Do), fictions based on birthdays (Alphabets and Birthdays), autobiography, narrative poetry, metaphysical poetry, and numerous others—as well as psychologically-driven short tales in the Flaubertian manner (Three Lives). She tried everything. If one ever wanted to have a clearer understanding of genre, he should just read the total output of Stein—something very few readers have accomplished. It’s an amazing outpouring of voices. A model for my own work.

In the beginning, however, I didn’t know that. I just did what came naturally. Every time I had tried something and felt I succeeded, I wanted to move away from that and try something else. You know, that makes if very difficult for a writer. Readers tend to concentrate: they read only fiction or only poetry, etc. So one who writes as I do, or as Stein does, is always disappointing or at least confusing a portion of one’s possible audience. Even my dearest friends have said, “Well, I like your poetry, but why do you write fiction?” or “Hey, those are great plays, but I just don’t get poetry.” That’s a problem I’ve never comprehended. I guess I’m just an artistic whore, but I’ve always loved all the arts: visual art, dance, music, drama—all kinds of writing. You know I studied dance for a while at the Joffrey Ballet Company; I was offered a small college scholarship for voice. If I could still dance and sing, I would! In fact, I’ve just written a musical! At least, Kier Peters has.

 

BERNSTEIN: Speaking of the musical, why is sound so important to your poetry (at the risk of asking the most elemental poetry question of all)? Are there musical or metrical or other structures that underlie the sound patterning of your work? I wonder if you can address this, because it is to some degree a subliminal dimension, but are there particular sound patterns that you are especially drawn to, that you keep coming back to?

MESSERLI: Those are very difficult—if important—questions, and I’m not sure that I can completely answer them. You are correct, despite all the issues of genre and form that characterize my writing, it is sound that dominates. I suppose it began, in part, with my early musical training. Although I was not a very outstanding baritone saxophonist nor a great tenor, both activities—singing and playing in the school bands—were extremely important to me. And then, there was my great love of the Broadway musical: I would purchase original Broadway cast recordings, despite the fact that we had no record player at home! I just assimilated the importance of music and rhythm in writing. This may sound very strange to some readers, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a sentence that doesn’t have something to do with sound and rhythm—at least to my ear. Although I am always concerned with meaning, I have to admit I’d give it up in a minute if something sounded right.

It is not, however, just something I do in writing; I try to accomplish that “sounding,” that musicality, in my everyday speech—which is probably why some people find me entertaining and others (most I admit) perceive me as a bit daff. I remember when I was teaching at Temple University, a fellow professor stopping me in the hall to give me a piece of advice: “You know, your essays sound just as if you’re speaking,” he observed. “Yes?” I queried. “Well, essays shouldn’t sound like that. Perhaps you should read The Yale Review, that’s what I do.” I was so stunned that I must have just stammered, but I attempted to say, “Yes, you’ve got it. That is what I try to do in my essays: create a voice.”

You see the problem is that what I hear as music, others don’t. Many people simply can’t or won’t hear the rhythms and music of the voice. I just realized as I was writing this, that my closest friends—you included—all have marvelously original and musical voices. I can hear you speak, even if I haven’t seen you for months!

Of course, one has to be careful in saying this, because (again we have different ears) what most people mean by voice is what they would describe as a sort of “every day, everyman” voice: the rhythms of “ordinary speech”—whatever that might mean. And that concept has allowed the very worst of American poetry to be adulated. No, I’m talking about voices that incorporate all the richness and denseness of language, that create a kind of complex syntax that can be expressed in no other manner. No voices of The Yale Review or even a New England hired hand in my ears! One day, for instance, I just said out loud (to myself) “the thicket’s in the thick of what / the civet cat & krait snake have / in common,” and a whole poem “Scared Cows,” rolled out before me. In many of my poems (those not generated by the words of other poets), I just hear a sentence in my head, a rhythm, a rhyme that I have to resist or to pun against, and that ringing brings yet another thing to mind, and another, and so on.

I’m sure there are particular sound patterns that dominate my work. When composing the opera based on my play, “Past Present Future Tense,” Michael Kowlski charted out three basic syntactical and rhythmic patterns that I had used throughout. One form (again you might describe it as a kind of mini-genre) I’m very attracted to is the sort of solemn, singsong sound of old wives’ tales or maxims—anything that proposes to be filled with wisdom while actually revealing complete nonsense on the part of the speaker: “An apple, a day.” I share that with Stein, whose American English is always on target: “A war is a thing where there is a man and a house and practices and was always on target.” All of those marvelous unconnected conjunctions that, alas, do connect up to become the target of any war in the end. I remember reading of the great soprano Eleanor Steber’s attempt to explain to a German friend the lyrics of Samuel Barber’s “Summer of 1915,” based on the preface to James Agee’s A Death in the Family. “We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there….” Her German friend, understandably, found the English to be absolutely ridiculous—all of those uselessly repeated pronouns. Robert Frost without a net! In English—to my ear at least—it sounds delicious!

 

BERNSTEIN: Do you write poetry with any pre-conceived sense of an audience, an ideal reader, or specific readers in mind?

MESSERLI: Yes, I do—me! Or Per Bregne at least. I personally have to like a poem and come to, at least a temporary understanding of it, or I’ll just throw it away, which I often do. In having myself for an audience, moreover, I have become very interested in the reader, any reader. I often find myself working against the reader, playing with the reader’s expectations, moving the poem in one direction, but allowing it to go in another. I like the surprise of that shift and the complexity it creates—and, of course, I hope my (other) readers enjoy it as well.

More recently, however, I’ve become a bit less conscious of an audience—including me as the audience. The newer work, since it comes from a kind of emotional abstraction, doesn’t really depend as much on the audience or the reader for me. I mean, I want readers. I guess, I’m just less worried about them. Perhaps it’s because one finally recognizes that there are so few! When poets begin to worry about their readers—and it happens every day—I get nervous: either they have nothing else to say or they have been writing poetry for all the wrong reasons. I feel that I have to write. I have no choice in the matter. So, in that sense, well who gives a damn if I have legions of loyal admirers? Or that everyone understands what I have been trying to express? It’s not that I don’t seek out a response, but if that is really what one’s after, one should immediately stop writing and find a easier way of expression.