Year-End Report: 2006
Two years ago I opened this annual missive with â€œeveryone asks about progressâ€ on my new house,â€ and then last year I quoted this question from the year before. Nowadays, people are reluctant to ask about it, because they know the mess had become yet deeper in the nearly six years since I purchased choice Rockaways property and foolishly hired an utterly incompetent and irresponsible â€œarchitectâ€ named Alan Patrick Bruton, who has left behind a mound of problems that may take a few more years to clean up. The killing coup de grace, remember, was the discovery that the building concrete floor with radical heat was several inches too long in the Rockaway flood plane.
First, I hired an attorney to prosecute his default, which is indefensible; but this wonâ€™t come to trial for two years. So meanwhile Iâ€™m talking to other architects to propose rebuilding before then, expecting to get an additional loan that would be paid off when Brutonâ€™s insurance money falls down, as well it should.
Meanwhile a magnificent concrete building sits uninhabitable at 308 Beach 68th Street in the Rockaways, most of my library is packed away in unmarked boxes (that I expected to reopen years ago), my work limited to what can be done in a small space with limited resources. Disadvantaged severely in one way of another for most of my professional life, I now have more obstacles than usual. Iâ€™ve already drafted the beginnings of a memoir titled â€œThere No Such Thing as a â€˜No-Cost Delay.â€™â€
Professionally, my principal achievement this past year has been putting unpublished books, sometimes only in part, on my website (www.RichardKostelanetz.com), among them my unfinished history of post-WWII American thought, Jewish Writings So Far, Home & Away: Travel Essays, The Grants-Fix, A Book of Kostis, and my photograph book on The Great Jewish Cemetery of Berlin. As friends as well as strangers have already acknowledged reading one of another of these books, Iâ€™m glad I made this move into 21 st century self-publishing and recommended it to other writers similarly swiped by a Commercial Publishing Block. Sometime soon I expect to be adding a new collection of literary essays, â€œPerson of Letters in the Contemporary Worldâ€ and The Art of Radio in North America. Realizing that the Internet empowers me to publish books unlikely to see print, Iâ€™ve fulfilled an old ambition to gather my book prefaces, which I something Iâ€™d tried to do more thoughtfully than most. Predisposed to explicit titles, I call this ebook Preambles to the New with the hope that at least they might lead some readers to seek out my books. (It also pleases me to realize that no one before me has written a comparable book and that no one else could make a book wholly of their prefaces so rich.) The sequel should be a book of just my Indicies, which is surely unprecedented and should, like any good work of art, incorporate themes unknown to their author. About the book on my website, know that criticisms and suggestions from friends as well as strangers are always welcome.
When I acknowledged last year my continuing interest in one-word poems, I forget to mention one-letter poems, because I did an alphabet, uniquely enhancing each letter with representations of its sound, that Jennifer Verbit, working as an intern, produced in a magnificent limited edition of twelve copies (of which she took two). Meanwhile Aryeh Cohen-Wade, a former intern, I hired to produce not only the website but two books that had languished with interns unable to finish them, Autobiographies @ 50 and Kaddish and Other Audio Pieces. He also prepared a definitive copy of Fields/Pitches/Turfs/Arenas, the third collection of my geometric poems (with 4, 8, or 16 discrete words to a single page), which I printed in cardstock on my own machine, in an edition of 10, boxed, for a reasonable price. (If interested, please inquire).
Aryeh also prepared definitive pages for Furtherest Fictions, which is surely a monument of radical possibilities for narrative, that will appear in an on-demand edition from Blue Lion, bound back to back with a comparably way-out collection of John M. Bennett, with each of our pages continuously verso (on the right side of every two-page spread) while the otherâ€™s text appears continuously upside down on the recto pages. If this isnâ€™t a classic, nothing ever written by me will be. Iâ€™ve refrained from adding books of fiction to my website because Iâ€™m still trying to publish them in more traditional ways. The manuscript Iâ€™d most like to see become a traditional book is TOWARD SECESSION: MORE POLITICAL ESSAYS.
Over the past few years Iâ€™ve suffered from sore legs, which I attributed to too much exercise. (But how can you advise a guy in his mid-sixties to exercise less?) More recently, Iâ€™ve felt as though I was losing sensitivity in my lower legs, especially when I begin to walkâ€”more particularly around five minutes after I start to walk. So I went to see a neurologist who diagnosed Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, more commonly called CIDP, which is succinctly summarized in a Google search of that acronym, and so underwent the IVIG hemogloublin treatment for ten hours per day, for three successive days, which had no beneficial effect. The joke on me is that I can with more ease swim a mile, even as continuous butterfly, than walk a mile. Meanwhile Iâ€™ve been working on my springboard diving, surely increasing my elevation, and then landing neatly in the water just in front of the board. Thanks to prompting from NYU diving coach Scott Draine, whose course I took this past autumn, Iâ€™ve learned to do a back dive and then a complete back flip for the first time. Itâ€™s a sight, Iâ€™m told.
Otherwise, I continue to take my summer vacation at home, sleeping in my own bed, and to do to Puerto Rico at least twice every winter. This year we tried Belize, where I got a tummy ache, which lacked beaches conducive to swimming, to which I wonâ€™t return.
Noticing last year that I wasnâ€™t a â€œniche writer,â€ I decided to play ironically with the question of categories for me and my work and so produced a autobiographical memoir that turned out to be more prodigious than I expected and perhaps as unique as my best work:
CATEGORIES: A SELF-RETROSPECTIVE ON A DIFFERENT KIND OF LITERARY LIFE
The true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.
â€”Cyril Connolly, â€œThe Unquiet Graveâ€ (1944)
To do what has not been done in several domains and in the course of that adventure to discover new possibilities in art, in writing, and in myself.
â€”RK, in Whoâ€™s Who in America (c.1980)
Thereâ€™s a terrible mean American resentment toward someone who tries to do a lot of things thatâ€™s become more exacerbated if he succeeds at more than a few of them.
â€”Susan Sontag, â€œOn Paul Goodmanâ€ (1972)
After four decades of working in various ways, reflecting a life-long commitment to freedom and exploration in my professional activity, Iâ€™ve realized that my work incidentally falls into numerous categories, most of which Iâ€™ve mined for decades. The anonymous author(s) of the Encyclopedia Britannica have since 2000 described me as an â€œ American writer, artist, critic, and editor of the avant-garde who is productive in many fields,â€ which is true. Regarding none of them as necessarily more important to me than any others, may I wish that the sum of them, as well as this summary, can be regarded as unique and perhaps prophetic for others. One implicit theme holds that someone more fearful of what others think would not have produced so variously or so much.
This Iâ€™ve written all my adult life, ideally with efficiency, clarity, wit, and a respect for verifiable truth, as well as an avoidance of fashionable jargon(s) and an authority that had to be established within the text itself (as I lacked any professional title granting me privileges), usually in extended essays, sometimes in short notes, as here. Particularly in writing sentences I strive for distinction. Of those my own selection in progress appears as â€œA Book of Kostisâ€ on my website, www.richardkostelanetz.com.
Iâ€™ve contributed to a range of periodicals since high school, including dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies, customarily addressing an initially pre-defined circumscribed group of readers, but also aiming to write texts that can survive their initial appearance. As writing only for a certain identifiable â€œaudienceâ€ is a limited activity, may I suggest that reprintâ€”making articles available to another, probably larger audienceâ€”is a useful general measure of more distinguished journalism.
For two reasons I rarely write anything suggested by editors. Iâ€™d rather not produce anything not thought about (or experienced) at length and in depth, and I decline to do anything professionally that anyone else can do better. If I can identify someone else who could better provide the editor (or prospective employer) with what he or she wants, Iâ€™d gladly recommend inviting the colleague instead. Someone good at many things knows in his or her gut those who do them better.
This epithet, perhaps a sub-category of the above, characterizes extended profiles of first-rank intellectuals and artists, among them Marshall McLuhan, Allen Ginsberg, Ralph Ellison, Paul Goodman, Glenn Gould, Kenneth Burke, and Herman Kahn, written mostly for the New York Times Magazine but also for its Book Review and Esquire, were reprinted in my book Master Minds (1969). As I was a graduate student when most of them were written, the process of producing them constituted an extracurricular education and incidentally represent the sort of work that an older person, less adept at learning somethings new, probably could not do so well. ("Literary journalism," an epithet that seems to characterize anything expository published by writers who also do poetry and fiction, I regard as less distinguished.)
From time to time Iâ€™ve considered various kinds of alternative structures for presenting factual material, often autobiographical, expecting that such departures from a linear presentation might generate greater efficiency, truth, and wit, as perhaps in this summary of my activities. My anthology Essaying Essays (1975) explores this theme in work by others.
Since 1975 Iâ€™ve published a series of book-length autobiographies that, much like this essay, present materials from my life in radically unconventional ways. Some of them incorporate the epithet â€œautobiographiesâ€ into their title; others, such as Recyclings (1974, 1982) and Portraits from Memory (1975), have not. Home Movies Reconsidered (still in progress) is a video that includes a contemporary critical narration to a selection from my familyâ€™s 8-mm silent films taken between 1938 and 1966. Some of my visual art is likewise autobiographical. Reflecting my training in intellectual history, as well as a predisposition to alternative forms, Iâ€™ve long been interested in other ways that lives might be represented, meta-autobiography literally, and for convenience often chose my own.
Several experiences in my own life Iâ€™ve treated with more critical courage and incisiveness than are customaryâ€”among them, writing for magazines, the Fulbright program, college and graduate school, publishing, personal relationships, rejection, professional disadvantages, mugging at the National Endowment for the Arts. As a rule, oneself is not worth writing about unless I go beyond the reticence of standard self-narratives and/or his insights are more generally resonant. (Lofty my life wasnâ€™t, though my cultural ambitions have been.) Reticenceâ€™s antipode is audacity, which has been a quality informing my efforts in many of these categories, as well as this text itself.
From the early 1960s Iâ€™ve published critiques that can be consistently characterized as anarchist or libertarian and sometimes both, especially in exposing the stupidities and abuses of powerful people. In general, respecting the examples of H. L. Mencken and Dwight Macdonald, Emma Goldman and Albert Jay Nock, Iâ€™ve tried to avoid repeating obvious sentiments, whether of â€œthe Leftâ€ or â€œthe Right,â€ sometimes writing what no one else would say about subjects generally untouched.
In his book The Last Intellectuals (1987), Russell Jacoby acknowledges me as an aspiring PI only to dismiss me as â€œmy own worst enemy,â€ implicitly acknowledging, can we assume, my predisposition to tell the truth. Though he cites The End of Intelligent Writing (1974), he fails to identify its influence upon policies at that time at the Literature program at the new National Endowment for the Arts which emphasized funding for the smaller magazines and presses that I suggested needed support if literary communication were to survive. (Something else, even subsidizing of commercial publishers, could have been emphasized, donâ€™t forget.) Though public influence is hard to measure, especially upon such smaller communities as the American literary world, nothing else written by me was so clearly useful. On further thought, PI is such a narrow category it does not include anyone who has worked half as variously as myself.
Whenever I hear politicians such as governor Mark Warner advocating a politics centered upon the future reflecting technology, Iâ€™m reminded of my series of anthologies, realizing through others what could not be said wholly on my own: Beyond Left & Right (1968), Social Speculations (1971), Human Alternatives (1971), and The Edge of Adaptation (1973). Though they didnâ€™t have much influence at the time, failing, say, to get me into Jacobyâ€™s pantheon, the principles informing them are still relevant.
Sometimes, Iâ€™m told by people not trying to flatter me, that certain writers fear me as a colleague ready fearlessly to expose, if not arrest, excessive boasting, even if these writers claim not to acknowledge me. How flattering it is to realize, please understand, that I implicitly intimidate those who claim I donâ€™t exist. More than once Iâ€™ve heard of the author of a new book telling his publisher not to send me a review copy, out of fear of what I might say about it.
At this I seem to be a master, at various times deflating balloons named Joseph Brodsky, Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Poetry magazine, et al. Though Iâ€™ve not done many of these, readers remember some of them better than other activities of mine, perhaps because nonpartisan polemics are scarce nowadays or, sadder still, they havenâ€™t read much else by me.
This kind of intellectual history is what I trained myself to do, mostly on my own initiative, as a graduate student in American history in the 1960s, aiming to write about all the arts both independently and in relation to each other. The key text here is my Metamorphosis in the Arts (1980), which dealt with developments in music, dance, and the visual arts, as well as the new intermedia, in the 1960s. Precisely in its breadth across the arts would this be a book that only a trained intellectual historian could write. This training also involved the thick anthology Esthetics Contemporary (1978, 1989) whose second edition was heavily revised. Iâ€™d like sometime to write, nearly entirely on my own, a Dictionary of Artists in America, but no one has yet commissioned.
I did two. As a rich selection of avant-garde literary art, â€œLanguage & Structure in North Americaâ€ (1974) was a messy experience, dropped by the Canadian institution commissioning it, then picked up by another in Toronto that was unreliable (its chiefs inserting and then featuring themselves), before going to a touring agency that didnâ€™t send it far. Organizing such a large show Iâ€™ll never do again. The other, â€œWordsand,â€ of my own work with words, numbers, and lines in several media, selected by myself, fit into a single large box that had a more satisfactory tour through several North American universities before returning home, still in the same box for some two decades now, perhaps to be shipped out again.
The recurring subjects here are the societies of artists and writers in America, most distinctively in The End of Intelligent Writing (1974), which was reprinted under its more appropriate sub-title Literary Politics in America (1977), but also in SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artistsâ€™ Colony (2003), which portrays an esthetic hothouse of a size and perhaps intensity that will never be equaled again.
For this I received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, supporting a history of the most important American thought in the post-WWII decades. Though some of this research informed Master Minds and Metamorphosis in the Arts, among other books of mine, the incomplete Maturity of American Thought didnâ€™t appear until 2006 and then only on my website.
May I claim that my M.A. history thesis on Politics in the African-American Novel portrays a particular line in American intellectual history. A quarter-century after it was written, it appeared as a book (1991), perhaps because no one else identified as definitively the historical evolution of political meanings in the novels of W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. Fifteen years later, this judgment might still be true. To the degree that my mind has a certain cast, it would be a historianâ€™s, rather than, say, a literary scholarâ€™s.
This Iâ€™ve done mostly through comprehensive anthologies of criticism, inviting other people to cover a wealth and breadth of subjects I felt should be included but could not write better on my ownâ€”On Contemporary Literature (1964, 1969) and American Writing Today (1981, 1991), which began as radio broadcasts whose subjects and commentators were selected by me, as well as The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature (1982), all of which can be considered my contributions to issues of â€œcanon-formation.â€ Some think that the opening chapters of The End of Intelligent Writing constitute a critical reinterpretation of American literary history in the 20 th century?
This Iâ€™ve tried to do with some distinction since the early 1960s, covering only books about which I have something important to say and thus rarely reviewing titles that editors have offered to me. Iâ€™ve also tried to identify issues and truths larger than the book itself, using the new book as a platform, so to speak. Early on I feared that trivial book-reviewing can be dispiriting.
All my adult life Iâ€™ve written analytically, both favorably and negatively, about books and writers, often receiving more appreciation for these extended essays than other activities. For this work my name has appeared in histories of American literature since 1970 or so. Until 1990, the best of these essays were reprinted in books of mine. If the manuscript of â€œPerson of Letters in the Contemporary Worldâ€ doesnâ€™t find a publisher soon, these more recent essays will appear on my website as well.
For periodicals Iâ€™ve tried to write only about the very best, initially in extended profiles of composers (Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliot Carter, Arvo PÃ¤rt) and musicians (Glenn Gould, Paul Zukofsky, B. B. King), but also about institutions both educational and human (Juilliard, Nicolas Slonimsky). Contemporareous reportage, published a quarter-century later, defines the content of Fillmore East: Recollections of Rock Theater (1995).
Where else would one classify the anthologies Iâ€™ve edited of American composersâ€™ writings: John Cage, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Nicholas Slonimsky. I once had an informal commitment to edit a series of similar books, but it evaporated along with the publisher with whom I was negotiating. Here too belongs the anthology I co-edited of Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music (1996) and my Portable Bakerâ€™s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1995).
Since I have a rule against doing anything professionally that anyone else can do better, Iâ€™ve done little of this, nearly always positively, mostly about subjects that have concerned me for years, if not decades, mostly collected in On Innovative Music(ian)s (1990), which also contains my short history of modern classical music.
My best work here appeared in The Theatre of Mixed Means (1967), where I used interviews in lieu of my own exposition for collaboration in developing critical language(s) for discussing a new avant-garde art. Because these should be learning opportunities, not only for the reader but for the interviewer, they were best done by young people. The trick for better, more attentive interviewing is always asking the next question suggested by the previous answer.
FILM & VIDEO CRITICISM
Done sporadically over the decades, I hope with integrity and distinction, typically favoring work that is avant-garde and thus exploits distinctively intrinsic properties of each medium, these notices, mostly about unfamiliar examples, appear in my Film & Video: Alternative Views (2005).
VISUAL ARTS CRITICISM
Likewise occasional, the best of these were collected in On Innovative Art(ist)s (1992).
Someone unknown to me once identified me in print as the progenitor of this new academic discipline because my books about the theater, beginning in 1967, have emphasized performance over playwriting. Once approached by a New York weekly to be a regular critic, I chose performance (over theater or music, say) only to quit when my editor insisted that I review new shows of their choice, mostly reflecting not their own experience of performance art but the efforts of publicists, rather than mine.
One constant concern, in a project uniquely mine perhaps, from The New American Arts (1965) to the present, has been identifying what is most avant-garde in all the arts and thus even within an individual artistâ€™s work. This concern particularly informs not only the two editions of my Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1992, 2000) and my two collections of essays on poetry, but my reinterpreting anthologies of E. E. Cummings (1998) and Gertrude Stein (1980, 2002), as well as such selections of criticism as my Gertrude Stein Advanced (1991) and Writings About John Cage (1993).
Having taken one about the avant-gardes through two editions, the second much larger than the first, Iâ€™d like sometime to do two othersâ€”one at some length about arts and/or artists in America, the other probably shorter (because more selective) about American comedians. Here and there have appeared examples from â€œA Personal Dictionary,â€ where I redefine words to agree with my own experience, which will probably always be unfinished. I once suggested, respecting both Samuel Johnson and Nicolas Slonimsky, that every major critic (of anything) writes at least one dictionary.
In the late 1960s I coined the epithet â€œpolyartistâ€ to characterize those who excel at two or more non-related arts (writing and music for John Cage; painting and writing for Wyndham Lewis; painting, photography, and writing for Moholy-Nagy). The aim of polyartist criticism, which Iâ€™ve done sparingly, is identifying the central esthetic principle that informs the artistsâ€™ works in various media.
Iâ€™ve written about unfamiliar subjectsâ€”at length, the NY Jets orthopedist, the first German-born professional basketballerâ€”and shortly on German soccer, Puerto Rican winter league baseball, the annual Millrose Game as a John Cagean spectacle, collecting my texts as â€œOn Sports and Sportsmenâ€ on my website. One piece I wanted to do for the New York Times Magazine, and thought I was doing as Bernie Williams first became a star for the New York Yankees, was an extended profile of him as a classy â€œSenior Yankeeâ€ and thus the Latino successor to Joe Dimaggio. as â€œMr. Yankee.â€ Iâ€™d already admired his playing for Arecibo in the winter leagues and knew of his interest in guitar music. Had it been written and published appropriately, may I suggest, the public life of my favorite Yankee would have been different.
No one else has written as extensively or critically about the processes of awarding grants, not only at the National Endowment for the Arts but other benefactors, typically identifying implicit peculiarities particular to each funder. Typically, I draw often upon my own experience, in this case as the recipient of ten individual grants from the NEA and over two dozen more from other agencies, on the grounds that if I say anything critical that is false for me itâ€™s not likely to be true for anyone else.
I must have done it, usually inadvertently, in the course of writing something else, because I received in 1980 a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, I now recall to book into literary granting, which I did. One reason why I received over two dozen grants from benefactors both private and public was that I fulfilled promises; a second reason was probably that I applied widely.
My initial idea was making a visual art exclusively of numerals interacting in various ways. Some examples appeared as silk-screened prints; others in books both perfect-bound and looseleaf. The late Dick Higgins, among others, frequently thought that I didnâ€™t do enough of this; perhaps heâ€™s posthumously right.
I used this obsolete material to make some of my best visual and numerical poems large enough to resemble paintings done on canvas that could thus be displayed effectively on walls. They were scheduled to be included in a late-1980s Guggenheim Museum (NY) exhibition that never happened.
This is my term for radically alternative bookmaking in which the author oversees the entire production, providing both the content and the design and taking it to the printer. This might be the visual art I do best, it is certainly the visual art of mine most often seen (as larger pieces have been unfortunately buried for years), if only because my book-art is acknowledged in critical histories of the genre. One of them was also included in the annual selective exhibition of the American Institute of Graphic Design.
This would be my coinage for books composed mostly not of my own writings but existing materials, not as anthologies of disparate texts, but woven into an ideally seamless whole. The two editions of Conversing with Cage were composed a few paragraphs at a time from interviews that John Cage gave over his long career. The aim was not to reproduce previous interviews or even selections from them but to create from his own words a book-length ur-interview that he might have given. Most of my audiotapes were likewise composed from pre-existing fragments. Here too belongs Ecce Kosti (1995).
Imagining that my visual art, initially produced for 8 1/2â€ by 11â€ sheets of paper, might have more visual impact, more â€œafter-image,â€ as visual artists aim to do, if seen large, I produced in 1975 one edition of seven words, silk-screened 26â€ x 40â€, and another set of six numbers, 22â€ x 30â€, both of which I have exhibited now and then (though most of them are still owned by me, alas). Three decades later, during a residency at Alfred Universityâ€™s Institute of Electronic Arts, I used the later Iris technology to produce smaller editions on clear acetate, as well as paper, including a novel fifty feet long and a poem 200 feet long.
HÃ–RSPIEL (GERMAN EAR PLAYS)
For German radio stations in the 1980s I composed audiotapes, customarily of and about the sound of something special (the language of prayer, New York City, baseball, Hebrew), that were broadcast by departments traditionally devoted to more conventional radio plays. One of them, Invocations, appeared as a Folkways lp record (in 1983, just as cds were superceding the previous medium).
I wrote â€œMinimal Audio Playsâ€ that were meant to be no more than a single exchange of spoken lines, any group of which could be recorded to any length, ideally to be used in the open spaces at the ends of radio programs, initially in Germany, perhaps in America. Though these texts were published in various places, none were ever realized for broadcast.
These I also produced for German radio, mostly about the very best radio art in North America (radio comedy, Glenn Gould, Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, Tony Schwartz). Some were rebroadcast; one was even translated into Swedish. Though I taped English versions of some of them, they were never broadcast.
Thanks to a pilot grant from American Public Radio, as it was then called, I produced an hour-long montage of authoritative voices talking about the 1960s as â€œA Special Timeâ€ as a pilot toward a thirteen-part series that would likewise be pure montage without extrinsic narration. Unfortunately, no further grants appeared; and while the pilot is charming, it canâ€™t be sold (because of copyrighted background music). A printed transcription with various typefaces representing individual voices appears on my website.
Vocal Shorts (1998) is a self-published collection of texts meant for live performance. â€œEpiphaniesâ€ are single-sentence stories that should be distributed to any number of performers, to be read in any order. For the initial performance at the University of North Dakota in 1981, they were elegantly recited one at a time for roughly forty-five minutes by four readers moving in a circle around an audience seated in the middle. The following year, at Vassar, there were many more performers in a space already housing a retrospective of my visual work, reciting approximately three times as many stories, often simultaneously (and less elegantly), also in forty-five minutes. As â€œSeductionsâ€ has sixteen speakers reciting one sentence at a time sixteen different recollections of sexual joy, the interwoven narratives can be rehearsed in advance. Or marked parts have be distributed among sixteen readers recruited, unrehearsed, from the audience. The â€œMinimal Audio Playsâ€ would best be performed by couples distributed over a space.
Since the 1970s Iâ€™ve exhibited drawings with straight lines and words, predominantly, made by my own hand, initially on paper 8 1/2â€ x 11â€, later on sheets 11â€ x 17â€ and 17â€ x 22â€, on clear plates that can be flipped either vertically or horizontally, more recently using white ink on white surfaces. Sometime soon Iâ€™d like to do more artful writing on larger formats, such as pristine plastic white sheets 2â€™ x 4â€™ that I acquired three decades ago. As this work is rarely seen, I know that exhibiting words is considerably more problematic than publishing them.
This is the conventional musicologistsâ€™ epithet for audiotapes composed from recorded sounds, sometimes also called â€œmusique concrete,â€ as distinct from pure â€œelectronic musicâ€ that is customarily made wholly from sounds electronically generated. Invocations, for one, is acknowledged in critical histories of twentieth-century music. Oddly, if nearly all my video art eschews pre-recording material, my sound compositions depend upon them.
For this Iâ€™m grateful to the late choreographer Manuel Alum, who used the complete Invocations for an hour-long dance he presented in both Puerto Rico and New York. No one else has danced to my music again, but as always I welcome surprise.
TEXTS FOR COMPOSERS
I try to write (of offer) texts that reflect the composersâ€™ particular styles, rather than anything conventionally poetic or lyrical; for few genres strike me as more clumsy for most modern composersâ€™ songs for soloists. Among them to have used them are Charles Dodge, Noah Creshevsky, and Paul Lansky.
This is a new activity, done only once so far, for Reynold Weidenaarâ€™s highly enhanced footage about Jones Street in New Yorkâ€™s Greenwich Village.
This is customarily made by filming a moving object and then anamorphically compressing the shots horizontally so that they become vertical slivers of film that must be illuminated from behind to be fully seen. For my first hologram, I put syntactically circular sentences about holography within a fully enclosed cylinder.
Here my images appeared on a flat plane, sometimes with illusion of depth, but usually exploiting the mediumâ€™s capability to hide background material behind foreground, in my case usually words, so that the viewer must physically move to discover the hidden words.
In this category I have published about only one subject, and that is the great Jewish cemetery of Berlin as a surviving representation of pre-WWII Berlin. I hoped initially to make a book documenting this theme, but instead received from the German sources grants to make a series of short films. Samples of the book, â€œA World Lost in Berlin,â€ appear on my website. Nothing else ever inspired me to take a wealth of photographs. My 35 mm. camera I havenâ€™t used in years; a digital camera Iâ€™ve not yet purchased..
Well before I ever owned a photographic camera, I published, even in photography magazines, pictures composed from cutting apart a photograph of myself and recomposing the 80 parts into a chapbook wittily titled Reincarnations, which has no text beyond its short preface. Another sequence, published only in parts, did likewise with a classic photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge.
These divide into two groupsâ€”those intended to be spoken only and those that can either be recited or played with an instrument. Both, in the John Cagean tradition, trust the performer to realize a presentation beyond my own imagination.
These poems are traditional to the degree that they contain words and only words, albeit in my case inventively arranged and enhanced in ways uniquely mine. One recurring theme has been formal inventions, perhaps more numerous than anyone else has done, that function as constraints. â€œRadical formalismâ€ is an epithet I accept.
This defines poems and stories composed entirely of numerals visually arrayed with a coherent structure, usually with a verbal title, sometimes with a verbal preface. The book-length Exhaustive Parallel Intervals (1979) is the closest semblance of a novel ever published by me.
Visual is my favorite adjective for words visually enhanced, as distinct from â€œconcrete poetry,â€ with which it is often confused. Thus, the letters of â€œDisintegrationâ€ disintegrate down the page. Concrete poetry, which Iâ€™ve also done, correctly identifies language that is handled concretely, as though it were material devoid of syntax or semantics, and is thus an innovative kind of Verbal Poetry to me. One precondition of all my visual poetry is that it cannot be declaimed. Comprehensive histories of American literature have acknowledged this work since the late 1970s.
In stories composed entirely of words Iâ€™ve tended to explore varieties of minimalism, initially with single-sentence Openings & Closings (1975); then with single-sentence Epiphanies, which were meant to be the climaxes of otherwise nonexistent narratives; then with single-sentence Complete Stories; and later with fictions no more than three words long, among other entirely verbal radical departures, such as single-sentence stories over one-hundred words long. My â€œShort Novelsâ€ often include more than one sentence. Furtherest Fictions (2006) is meant to be, as the title says, the most radical collection of mostly verbal alternative fictions ever printed. For this work my name has appeared in histories of American literature since the late 1980s.
This seems the most appropriate term for defining a project that so far includes a book of fictions no more than three words long, a manuscript of over one thousand one-word poems, aphorisms all four words or less, etc., each of them closer to rigorously reductive Minimal Art than to the â€œMinimal Fictionâ€ (epitomized by Raymond Carver) that had a brief vogue during the 1980s.
This is my generic term for ballets, operas, and film scripts written wholly by me, as well as the title of a pioneering 1980 anthology of alternative performance scripts that has never been surpassed.
These are images, usually composed line-drawings preceded by a verbal title, that weave a narrative. One subset I call Constructivist Fictions, acknowledging the great innovation in modern painting, because they are symmetrical abstract drawings that metamorphose in systemic sequences. Some of these Constructivist Fictions are only a few pages long. An unfinished novel, â€œSymmetries,â€ would run over 300 pages.
The epitome of my narratives composed entirely of numerals is Exhaustive Parallel Intervals (1979), which at 160 pages becomes the sole extended fiction, perhaps â€œa novel,â€ ever published by me. A shorter text, â€œSeven Jewish Short Stories,â€ respects the proscription against the representation of graven images with numerical sequences that can, of course, be multiply interpreted.
This describes words enhanced and organized primarily in terms of sound, rather than syntax or semantics (or visual strategies). Iâ€™ve done it not in live performance, which is the medium favored by most sound poets, but on audiotape, as in the various realizations of the phrase â€œthis is my poem.â€ My anthology Text-Sound Texts (1980) is, by common consent, the richest anthology of this genreâ€™s printed forms by North Americans.
Sounds organized on audiotape weave a narrative without any spoken framing. The subject of â€œUlulationâ€ (1992) is female ecstasy.
Visually I realized this principle by having short texts of equal length printed directly under/atop each other and thus in closer visual proximity even than â€œen faceâ€ (with the source language on one page and the translation on the page across from it). Separately, I realized simultaneous translation aurally, by having the French of Arthur Rimbaudâ€™s â€œThe Drunken Boatâ€ heard in one ear while an English translation is heard simultaneously in the other ear, the listener able to adjust the stereo balance to his or her own taste.
For a German translation of my single-sentence Epiphanies, I initiated another experiment in literary translation. Since the stories were meant to be discrete entities with no connection to one another, I thought it appropriate not to have a single translator customarily skilled at making an authorâ€™s style consistent in another language but a large group of translators who were given cards with the individual stories and asked to write the German translation on the other side, in sum (and within a single evening for several hundred Epiphanies) probably creating a greater variety of literary tone and style than was available in the original English. Were that diversity attained, wouldnâ€™t it be appropriate to have another group translate the stories back into English that would ideally realize more variety than the original text?
My very first publication outside a school magazine was a satire. My most recent was â€œAdvice to a Young Poet,â€ which is a compendium of cynical moves that a we-help magazine for writers accepted and even paid me for it, before returning it without confessing that its editors might have missed my joke.
This Iâ€™ve written, I hope with some distinction as Literary Journalism (as it is conventionally understood), not only about places far away but my home town, which accounts for why the (e)book collecting these texts (available on my website) is titled, perhaps uniquely for this genre, â€œHome & Away: Travel Essays.â€
I think this is the current university epithet for the more personal kinds of essays (not just memoirs) that Iâ€™ve been writing for decades. Lacking any institutional position and thus power, Iâ€™ve had to establish my own authority within the text itself. Perhaps these texts, if properly supported, will earn me a â€œwritingâ€ certificate to supplement my graduate history degree.
EDITING OF TASTE-MAKING ANTHOLOGIES
The more distinguished anthologies select what hasnâ€™t been collected before, rather than reproducing a familiar formula, usually at a publisherâ€™s invitation (e.g., â€œGreat English Short Storiesâ€™), or radically reinterpret the work of a familiar writer, as Iâ€™ve done with Gertrude Stein and E. E. Cummings. Most of my anthologies belong in this more ambitious category, though I suspect that a discriminating critic of them might find one or another failing this ideal.
LITERARY JOURNAL EDITING
I co-founded Precisely in the late 1970s to deal critically with avant-garde literature since 1959 and so edited two general numbers and two thematicâ€”one devoted to visual literature that must be seen as well as read, the other to aural literature that must be heard to be experienced. Since Precisely got few subscribers and no grants, it didnâ€™t last long, but nothing done by anyone else filled the void created by its demise.
From silent family 8 mm. home movies I produced a video with a recent narration mostly critical generally of what is revealed in family home movies. As I said, oneself is not worth writing about unless I go beyond the reticence of standard self-narratives and/or my insights are more generally resonant
VIDEO POEMS & STORIES
In both cases, words move across the video screen, customarily devoid of any other images. Poems differ from stories in realizing compression, while the latter incorporate movement from one place to another, which is to say narrative.
RANDOMLY ACCESSED DVDS
At least two DVDs so far of my kinetic video poems and stories, and perhaps more in the future, have parts that appear randomly, exploiting a capability available in that new medium, rather than the customary fixed order typical of film, videotape, or bound books.
Assembling has become the generic name for books that are compiled from the contributorsâ€™ paper, rather than printed from continuous copy. To me these epitomize the radical alternative of â€œanarchist editingâ€.
ALTERNATIVE PUBLISHING IN BOOKS AND NEW MEDIA
This term customarily refers to smaller presses, which have issued my books, as have larger firms. My own imprints that have published me along with others have been Assembling Press and Future Press. In my case the epithet would also characterize my making public my words in other media, among them prints than common book pages, video, audio, holograms, installations, objects, with a scope and to a degree surely unprecedented for anyone ever known as a writer. Sometimes Iâ€™ve put published words in new media rarely used by media artists, such as audio-only VHS tape (with four continuous hours of Epiphanies) or an audio-only DVD with two hours and twenty minutes of my New York City Oratorio, ideally revealing alternative possibilities available to others.
From my very first video compositions in 1975, nearly all my work in this new medium has been produced internally with electronic image-generators and text programs, implicitly distinguishing me from 99% of the videomakers in the world.
This is my coinage for videotapes that are based upon elaborate audio compositions, mostly produced at sophisticated electronic music studios. In order to give people something to see when the tapes are heard publicly, Iâ€™ve added a picture track of continuous kinetic abstractions (produced without any cameras, natch).
PUBLIC ART PROPOSALS
Back in 1979 I received from the National Endowment for the Arts a grant to encourage me to propose public art in competitions. This I did for several years, mostly for extended spacesâ€”such as running a poem of overlapping English words four inches high along a subway platform two hundred feet long, or a constructivist fiction to run on the pavement of a road a mile ; but none were ever commissioned, perhaps to my good fortune, as Iâ€™m told the processes for actually realizing a winning public-art proposal can be killing.
Here too there is only one workâ€”a short film about the Great Jewish Cemetery of Berlin as a representation of pre-WWII Berlin. However, one distinction of this work is having six different soundtracks in six different languages, all of them with authentic Berliners speaking (English, Swedish, French, German, Spanish, Hebrew), none of which represents a translation of any other, all of which should become options available within a single DVD. The only other documentary film I ever wanted to do was a sequel about Berlin in May 1945, using American military footage of the bombed-out city, adding soundtracks from people there at the time (perhaps in several languages again); but it was never funded. Now that most of the possible informants have died, it never will be made.
Iâ€™ve written a narration for â€œMy Life in New York Cityâ€ whose visual track would include current footage of places and buildings known to me along with historic footage and my fatherâ€™s home movies, in sum documenting my life in a different ways; but just as the text has not yet appeared in print, so Iâ€™ve never owned a video camera.
EXHAUSTIVE NARRATIVE FILM
Epiphanies (1981-93) is my four-hour film with hundreds of mini-narratives that make its theme the exhaustive experience of the experience of stories. On the sound track are my single-sentence fictions, perhaps two hundred in number, that are meant to be the epiphanies, or cohering climax moments, in otherwise nonexistent stories, read by dozens of speakers. On the visual track are hundreds of clips, even more decisively epiphanies in texture, compiled from 16 mm. film found in many places before that technology disappeared. In no way should the visual and audio tracks compliment each other.
My very first film used an Oxberry animation stand to shoot a sequence of paper images, mostly Constructivist Fictions, where the most interesting results are the pixilations that arise in the transitions and are incidentally unique to the technology.
This is an encompassing term for alternatives to linear language that are not fictional but expository, such as Minimal Aphorisms, Recyclings (1974), and reworkings of familiar texts, such as the Declaration of Independence.
Words of mine have also been published in slips of paper in clear plastic cases or jars of water, on tiles both three inches and four inches square, on both sides of large clear plastic sheets, a novel fifty feet long, a poem 200 feet long, etc. An object differs from the page is requiring more sophisticated handling than turning pages.
In 2001 the MIT Media Lab commissioned me to collaborate with Hyun-Yeul Lee in producing a multi-projection of texts of mine moving in the back wall of a fireplace, on a house window pane, on the surface of a desk, on a piece of paper emerging from a manual typewriter, even on the pens in an inkwell. Necessarily dismantled after its second stop at the NYC Kitchen, My Life in/or Words is remembered only on a video made by Eric Solstein.
My theme, in a CD-rom collecting my letters to a former teacher who preferred to remain unidentified and unpublished, is that the Internet, as a new medium communications medium, is conducive to radically different epistolary manners and styles. As the first of its kind, An Intellectual Correspondence in the 21 st Century (2004) will no doubt have successors developing this theme.
The only person ever getting enough extended posted letters from me to make a book of correspondence was Dick Higgins, who died before I signed onto the Internet, alas. (Much of this belongs to the Northwestern University library.) Now that heâ€™s gone, no one receives from me correspondence of a quality and quantity worthy of a book.
BUILDING AN ARTFUL WEBSITE
Here I publishâ€”make publicâ€”in one place material unavailable elsewhere, beginning with unpublished books, mostly collecting essays; prefaces to all my books; my bibliography; catalogs of books available from me (if I can find them); addenda to books already in print; proposals for all kinds of projects; inventories; my email address, etc, â€œ the richest internet presentation of its literary/artistic kinds,â€ perhaps establishing a model that might be useful to others.
ALTERNATIVE â€œPOETRY READINGSâ€
From the initial invitation back in the late 1960s Iâ€™ve refused to do stand-up poetry declamations, which remains a theatrical medium I find pathetically limited. Instead I initially showed my visual poems as a slide show, later putting my audiotapes in an amplifier and my videotapes through monitors, all as ways preferable to stand-up for presenting my literary art to audiences. Nowadays, I have an â€œact,â€ so to speak, where I silently drop letters onto a board with a bottom ledge, placed on my lap. Iâ€™ve learned from experience that it can precede others in a â€œgroup reading,â€ even as the audience is settling in, but cannot follow.
Whenever I visited a campus of a certain size, I often introduced the tenured prof of visual art, say, to the tenured prof of poetry. Though they never met before, both came out to see me. Even off campuses Iâ€™ve often made important connections for friends, sometimes when I decided that one of them were better qualified to do something proposed to me. One measure will be how often my name appears in colleaguesâ€™ (auto)biographies.
MIDDLE-DISTANCE COMPETITIVE SWIMMING
In 2002, in my 62 nd year, I won the 400 m. butterfly in an annual New York University pool meet; but since no one else entered, obviously intimidated by my visible physical prowess, that event did not appear on the schedule again, certifying me as â€œundefeated.â€ More recently a member of a very senior springboard diving team, weâ€™ve been looking around for competitors, perhaps affiliated with nursing homes.
I hesitate to claim this, because itâ€™s been my experience that, unless a writer advertises himself or herself as primarily a comedian, some people get my ironies and jokes and others donâ€™t. From my first publications in high school, Iâ€™ve incorporated humor into almost everything I write, even my most serious texts, such as this.
Many of these categories did not exist until works of mine defined them, such as Polyartistic Criticism, Assembling, and Audiovideotapes.
Though Iâ€™ve always owned a lot of books, not until 2000 or so did I realize that many of them comprised a unique collection of cultural magazinesâ€™ self-retrospectives to which I then added volumes for no other reason than enhancing the collection. The other genre I collect consciously is old postcards from the Rockaways, which is the NYC peninsula that runs along the Atlantic Ocean, the sum of them documenting an earlier time much as my photographs of the Berlin Jewish Cemetery did. (To some of the Rockaway photographs, Iâ€™ve also added a handwritten text in a kind of verbal/visual art that has no definite name.) I also inadvertently acquired a wealth of verbal art, mostly in books, mostly from collegial exchanges.
WORKSHOPS IN INNOVATIVE WRITING
Iâ€™ve done this only twiceâ€”once for a whole semester at the University of Texas in 1977, then for a few weeks at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2001. In both cases, I tried to push my students beyond what theyâ€™d done and known before and to exploit qualities unique to themselves. Most of the participants produced work beyond what they imagined before they took my workshop, and some students appreciated the experience long after. One of them founded the principal alternative newspaper in Austin, which certainly went beyond what I imagined for him.
This Iâ€™d like to do, sometime soon I hope, initially as single-line settings to my own single-sentence stories, probably to be published on cards meant to be performed separately or simultaneously, much as my Epiphanies have been theatrically rendered.
Some say that the some important activities of mine cannot be so facilely encapsulated within any of the terms itemized above. In no respect did I become what is commonly called a â€œcategory writerâ€ whose activity could be easily defined with one or another familiar rubric except perhaps â€œmulti-category.â€
Spatially disadvantaged, I find myself mining my past and shall probably be similarly limited until I can get resettled in a larger permanent studio, letâ€™s hope next year.
I shall pre-open the New Yearâ€™s Day poetry marathon at the Bowery Poetry Club around 1:30 pm. with my â€œsilent readingâ€ that some of you might enjoy. See you there, if not perhaps before, or surely afterwards.
May all my friends please accept my best wishes for the coming year.