Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Skip-Reading as a Creative Act

One of my peculiar habits is reading texts out of order. Lots of people who read mysteries will read the last chapter first, to relieve the curiosity and suspense of wondering what the ultimate revelation of the plot is. This is the riddle of detective fiction. The detection genre, which Sherlock Holmes more or less invented. Scientific deduction, etc.  

In high school, in journalism class, we were taught to make each paragraph of an article a sequential, stand-alone unit. That way, if the editor wanted to cut your story, he could simply lop off paragraphs, starting at the end, perhaps keeping the last paragraph or two to save the conclusion. (It also meant writing generally in shorter paragraph lengths.) Amazingly, if written correctly, a news article can actually be cut without the reader really knowing that this has occurred. It's a trick of the news business, not much known by the public.

As a voracious reader of many disciplines, I've had to limit my coverage of most of the work I sample. I rarely read a novel end-to-end, and prefer shorter works--poems, essays, short stories--because I can skip around, sample taste, and derive vivid impressions of style, drift, form, without having to invest hours and hours, or days and weeks, methodically and laboriously devouring long works. Few long books (texts) justify such laborious expenditures of time.

Reading my first experimental fiction and poetry in the late 1960's, I realized that some writers (John Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath comes immediately to mind) were constructing work out of quotation, lifting sentences or paragraphs or phrases directly from source-material and using them as specimens--not as quotations, but as literal parts of the argument or dramatic sequence in a poem or story. This resulted in the poly-contextuality which is such a common device used these days in metafiction or post-Modern poetry. You can quote, silently, or manipulate source material, and call it original, new, integral text. 

I began to meditate about chance methods of composition in the early 1970's. I had read a lot about Duchamp; and the idea of arranging pre-existing textual matter into new form was intriguing to me. I came up with a number of schemes, e.g., taking the last five words of the third line from the top page of each recto of a novel, and stringing them together to create a new sequence. The result would be a tiny sample (or fraction) of the whole work. 

Other people had tried this. Jonathan Williams and Ronald Johnson had tried skip-quotation, or whiting out, Burroughs had cut up text lines and rearranged them in various orders, there were Cage & Rauschenberg, Mac Low, suggesting collaged text. Treating the text as a "thing"--instead of a syntactic sequence of built argument or narrative--was not a new idea. Larry Eigner had been writing poems since the early 1950's made out of the "parts" of perceptual nodes or fragments, presented as organized disjunction. And Clark Coolidge had already explored a synthetic syntax at the level of the word (which he would in due course expand to include the phrase, and the sentence). But the idea of making a sequence of statements, or phrases, derived from disparate sources or "places" in the head, or in the world, was still waiting to be explored. 

I don't remember the exact sequence of events, but Barry Watten had written "Factors Influencing the Weather," Tom Raworth was working on what would become Ace [1977], Bruce Andrews and Ray DiPalma had been playing with non-narrative poetic constructions. 

The idea occurred to me that I might make a poem from the sentence fragments of books I was then reading on architecture, literary criticism, and music. Such a poem, I thought, would have no narrative or argument, but would consist of a sequence of phrases of varying kinds, disparate and discrete, which might express some gratuitous relationship to each other (but only of an accidental kind). I would be free to alter phrases, and to add others which popped into my head or which I thought showed more wit or interest, but there would be sufficient separation between the lines that there would be no confusion about their possible attraction--that was for the reader to deduce (creatively), i.e., there was no "correct" or single "interpretation" to apply to the poem as a whole. The result was "Rotterdam" a poem of 142 lines (which I included in my collected earlier poems Stanzas For an Evening Out [L Publications, 1977]). (I elaborated on this form in three other poems: "Sonar," "Star Root" and "A & S.")  Each of these works bears a fair resemblance to "list"-making as a technique, but what's listed is clearly poly-contextual, with no hidden narrative or rational agenda aside from the form. Here is the poem in full:

happening meant to

incline and reflect

of an interval to oblige

band of gilded without the consolation

in alternate windows

of very great merriment possibly

it can be they're tall

with pleading or cause shed

for the nuisance of polite as shown

in a collision

forbearance with an appeal

towards a suitable exodus

and the neck of land was

plain cut in counting

lames him hot

succor like sugar

chinese junk shake a leg

known akin and bowed to

the dilapidation of utter edge of outer egging

to the curl of their negligence

repressing as open to ironing

folder in resume

the difference between simmering

scare me with a wave

plan of acute bogus

and the moaning of the blocked

really with a definite demand

by implication known as a joint

splice to rest

pushed bother nodding

to sully the movement

why do they spread

and apply forfeit

springing up shut powerfully
in a pillow slip

to be returned to ought

nearly aching in retrenching

elongation to fraternal

cry they must make cake

convinced and joined to the care of

flexibly zeal

when fed through

cracked about the vellum

not a powder of the poker

blight that is perverted

agate inlaid and a double of the endorsement

feasibly upon the prevailing

smoking habit

dumped fresh

mournful as most rain is

brushed with a glance

feet and the tides

with doubt plaited as a cooling

weather loved in truly rusted channel

of their biting it

hurled above without a thought

blooming altitude

is a kind of neatness in the blend nutriment

crease in realignment

the appointing of lots

having fathomed should next be named

whither in bestowed rushed

tethered to the elastic

reliable fast plain

the claim of their reveling

to hover let it down

tamed by the resonance

masses making no preferred

in liking to rely

form in the care weights

reversing the loops

cordial imbibed

the rightly loving angel

restlessly whaling

every once in a while which is mode

to meddle in the advice

from a neglect of chosen

simply to go about

divulging the progression

for the consumption of repercussion

restored to the calendar

soap that she might sing

for the fun of the new color

parallel to the waist

mix of white and egg

soothing of the ushered within

is a mirror and the quinces

outlined a valve

circular pianos

favorite spoon

with dreams that whet

shutters made of wood and lead

just faintly on account of the curfew

hour when the ship was owned

held in rapt jagged

pieces of the establishment

partly divided the reward

raincoat for a cut-out

up the daily bust of bread

emerging as the foundation

clarity of bowsprit

the immense coincidence

with a little dear trust

pedigree from a prefix

to collapse an inhibition

replacing ahead of time

the recklessness of not being mistaken

for the flowers out loud

beneath a row of pails

motion to arrest

so that is why dots

when at her floor a shawl

couple of the age

the habit of calling us here

whelped to pass muster

spanning the Atlantic

stored in airtight

how the pair breathes

in a white ovoid

surface rubbed to pine

relief when the old

patting a beseech bed

exploits to the notion of pondering

whether they can pay

carpeted the adjoining

flimsy annex

context of vacates

mended with jails

rapid widening of the river

in a burst does displace

believed to be calm region

heartily lain they were trimmed

grown with a wish pull

provision for large open

established an early gain

as the forest jumped

to break the glass extinguisher

tug of what for

catapult to the difficulty

with fringes soluble

they may be following

clearing out the clutter


What occurs to me now, reading the poem, is that the statements seem to fall into groups or classes. Some refer to something outside the poem which is not clear/evident, others are self-contained units that can stand alone. But how do these statements cohere into a meaningful whole? In terms of length or duration, none is composed of fewer than two words, nor more than nine--most are four or five words in length. None forms a complete "sentence" requiring punctuation; there are no commas, colons or semi-colons, periods or question marks. Many seem to be bridges or connectives, part of a longer statement of which the specimen phrase is an incomplete part (fragment). They show contrasting levels of interest and specificity: "the recklessness of not being mistaken" is of a different order than "circular pianos." The refreshment of attention occurs at the level of the individual line, hence the line break is a splice of focus, a momentary frame which enables each line to be distinguished from all the others.  

The poem's title didn't really clue the reader into any aspect of the poem's meaning. Rotterdam, the big Dutch seaport city, has literally nothing to do with anything "in" the poem. Its only possible meaning for me would have been that it was a measureless mosaic, something so big and unmanageable that it couldn't possibly be contained.         
I remember Stan Brakhage presenting a series of experimental short films at Pacific Film Archive in the mid-1970's. Two of the films used "flashing" colors or "subliminal images" between partial narrative sequences. This technique struck me as a variation on how poems, only heard orally, were perceived by the listener--a totally different impression than the way poems are experienced (read) on the page (as when a musical piece is played from printed text). Reading a text allowed the mind to dwell, if even for a millisecond, on the discreteness of the specific word, phrase, or line, whereas in listening, the mind was forced to experience the sequence non-stop, irrevocably, like riding fast on a motorcycle, unable to pause long enough on any one feeling or image to "digest" it before being obliged to address the next thing.

I got to thinking again recently how short phrases of varying lengths, experienced as irrevocable, stand-alone units, could function in a poem that did have an underlying subtext to which all the phrases might have a tangential relationship, an unconscious "pull," a poem which still didn't, in the traditional sense, function as a poem "about" something, but was in a very abstract way still referenced by the initial "subject." Virgil Thomson, during the 1920's, inspired by Gertrude Stein's concept of the verbal "portrait, " set about creating a series of short musical portraits, equally abstract and non-referential (as those of Stein). (One imagines going to "sit" for one of Virgil's portraits ! "Please move your head a little bit to the left.  Good.  Now hold that pose!")

So, I thought recently, why not make a long meditation, a la Stein, in which one's "deep image" projector was allowed to run unfettered by concerns about sequence, meaning, or form, but which nevertheless would be "inspired" or "condensed" by a vague notion of a series of impressions about a place. The poem I've been working on, "Africa," is the result. I don't know where it's going, ultimately, or if it works, but I like some of the things it makes me feel when I read it back to myself. A lot of it is about irrationality, crazy, wrong-headed connections. I freely admit that, but I feel bound to explore those areas in my mind.   
You could call this "skip-reading" through the unconscious, riding the image generator vehicle as it careens through dreamland. Except the references and odd hybrid nodes are all in my mind, not in any exterior "reality" or text. Here is the unfinished text of the poem--



                                             After Herb Ritts

Africa is every color, all of them poisonous.

Genes are blind.

Spectral monkies.

Black is blonde.

Zebras run backwards.

Bodies in convulsion.

Milk and blood.

Water comes from animals.

Cut the head off, the body lives on.

Diagonal stripes, horizontal bees.

Ash is shit.

Green dies back.

Water buffalo slobber.

Intuitive and counter-intuitive are one.

Wring it out.

Pain is ecstasy.

The light is swollen.

Ants. Locusts. Mosquitoes.

Flakes of light stick to your arms.

Tan is orange.

Angels have no genitals.

The brain is an implant.

Walking 100 miles.

Snow evaporates from the mountain.

The logic of cannibalism.

Hanging upsidedown.

Darkness drained of fluid.

Spiders are cross-eyed.

Plato in his tree.

Grass is a symphony.

Trajectory of epaulettes.

Naked bone.

Money into sand.

Our shadows evaporate.

Two and a third.

Jumping back and jumping in.

Water is mud made of clay.


Dried blood.

Seed pods.

Living stump.

Unbalanced loads.

Black rain.

Dung beetle.

The aimlessness of jackals.

Glycerin puddles.

Milk and blood.

Flash flood.

Breeding and grinning.


Bats marinated in piss.

Mud is dung and blood mixed with ash.

Death as a shrinking circle.

Cup of hallucinations.



Crinkling lakes.

Red grit.


Flashing grin.

Water is thinned blood. 

Venom is milk.




Eclipse in ellipsis. 


Lips burn white.


Dwarf grass.

Elephant grass.

Flat feet.

Hose attached to wild dog.

Red and green dye.

Red and green ants.

Eye water.

Rubber guts.

Dreams cut off circulation.

Squeak of leather on leather.

Beetle snaps.


Crouching and fleeing.

The futility of lying.

Sunset burns.

A rash and a blight.

Shimmering screens of organ failure.

Cheetah is a thorn song.

Flakes of fool’s gold make your teeth rot.

Hang nails.

Rainbow sarong.

Volcanic glass.

Black ash.

Blue ash.

Brown ash.




Triple dikes.

Leaking fissure.

Scoured hill.

Time lapse.

The mineral fact.

Groping for a nub.

Dried mud and rainy ash.

Black cool-aid.

Acid flowers.

Skin cracks.

Face-mask for a sandstorm.

Orange fever at sunset.

Aimlessly wandering.

Aimlessly killing.

Flat echoes.


Fractal cities.


Doodle bug.

Scrotum wrinkle.


Ankle bell.


Boomerang boomerang.

Fever dream.

Maggot swarm.



Blood thorn.

Semen & glycerin & blood.

Urine & ash.

Yellow clay.

Skin crackles.

Sun virus.

Bleak light.

Buzzing before detonation.

Powder blue.

Powder yellow.


The poem seems to be about disquieting images and irrational deductions from my unconscious. But on the other hand, I feel no requirement or duty to be "accurate" or PC or "smart" about any of it. The poem doesn't need an "excuse" for its irrationality. The unconscious isn't ruled by morality or ethics--that's partly what makes it so interesting, so independent. The moral relativism of free association (of "automatic writing" or "automatic thinking" ?) is one of the real strengths--the salvation, if you will--of a lot of Modern and post-Modern art and literature.          


Ed Baker said...

i thought Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective novel

an Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Homes..

what did Sherlock invent:

The I Ching? an opium pipe?

Conrad DiDiodato said...

I remember somebody asking Derrida, on being shown his rather extensive library, if he'd really read all these books: his reply was that he'd read only a few but very well. Which was his way of blowing off a nosy interviewer and making an important point about the act of reading.

Curtis, I favour the tedious weeks-,months-long approach, preferring depth to shallow "skip-reading". No slick journalese for me!There are a lot of works worth the pains of careful meticulous examination.

Curtis Faville said...


Works conceived "in wholeness" obviously deserve to be appreciated in the manner of their execution.

Post-Modern poetics notwithstanding, I couldn't agree with your position more.

But my life is so short, and I've had to "donate" so much of my life just to earning a living and tying up loose ends, that I fear the "tasting" menu is all that I can afford.

To read 10 books really well--especially if that list includes The Bible, Shakespeare's best 3 plays (take your pick), Bacon, Dante, and a handful of the greatest novels--really means something.

I'm not claiming to have done it right. Just, a way.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

I hear you.

I recall a particularly moving post of yours on the different life-courses you and Silliman have taken, yours more family-and career-oriented, Silliman's always the more glamorous writerly & academic. My sympathies lie entirely with you.

I've given my best energies to my teaching career, squeezing out an hour here or there for daily reading, reflection and writing. But in the limited time I have I will never scrimp on the canonical works, never. Bloom exhorts us not just to read but to reread. Which I do: "Don Quixote" ,"The Magic Mountain", being the most recent.And I try to give the same quality time even to the lesser works (even a book of poetry by Saroyan).

My addiction to reading has saved me from the craziness of the world as I'm sure yours has. And if I've arrived relatively too late on the publishing front, at least I can say I've sampled many of the very best specimens of human imagination and artistry.

J said...

I detest the Brakhage sort of bric a brac nearly as much as I do the Creeley sort.

The pen n ink pic on the cover rox, however--- a skilled draftsman (not necessarily an "ahhtist") usually outdoes the scribe...sort of like Rembrandt, or even RCrumb vs the dozens on ee whoevers rotting on the shelves of some old Sacto tomestore.

Curtis Faville said...


Are you describing a jacket design on a Brakhage book? It isn't clear what you're referring to....

J said...

Scuzi. I'm actually describing the cover to Gitin's text (immediately below), but the point on bric a brac applies to this thread.

(That said, I am not a professional lit. person, and don't claim to know all the mysteries of modernism, though not opposed to some abstraction, jazz, form-shattering--but preferring Bukowski....or Captain Beefheart, or rilly even Bill Evans to ....Black Mtn types, cage, et al.

Or Sherlock Holmes to Burroughs for dat matter

Ed Baker said...

you got
or ever hear
Bill Evans' Conversations With Myself?

his base player Chuck Israels
hit on my girl friend at the Showboat Lounge in 1968
or so...

I was 21 she was 19

J said...

Yes. Aware of Israel's playing (mostly via youtubes), but mo' aware of Kind of Blue, ...Nardis-era, and the band with La Faro .....and the late stuff (including a fairly tasty session with Stan getz).

Chuck's a good player. Evan's heartfelt moody jazz (while a bit zuckery a times) does more for me than Cage's monkey zen doth