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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Wednesday
Jan262011

In Which We Pay Mind To Author Photographs And Facebook

Cowgirl Mouth

by MOLLY LAMBERT

To become an author photograph, you must stop being yourself. You must sit in a chair looking serious, possibly on a deck or otherwise inside a room filled with books. You must stare off as if possessed by thought, and then you must pretend you are thinking about something besides how the picture is going to look. You must not make the face that you actually make while writing, or you will look crazed.

Some people prefer to look crazed, but that's a very specific kind of author photo and those people are usually Hunter S. Thompson impostors lacking in the effortless stylishness and talents of the actual Hunter S. Thompson. William S. Burroughs also preferred to look cool. A crazed photo will not make your writing any more crazed.

A good author photo will last you several books. A truly iconic image can be repeated infinitely. If you are attractive enough, you can put the picture on your book. If you are a talented enough writer, no one will suspect that anyone buys your book because of what you look like. If you are a man, putting a picture of yourself on the cover implies some self-seriousness, especially if you are handsome. If you are a woman, putting a picture of yourself on the cover implies frivolity or that you are a C-List celebrity trying to sell books. Most serious new books do not have author photos on the front.

Unless you are Patti Smith. If you are Patti Smith you can do whatever the fuck you want. Also if you are Susan Sontag or Joan Didion or Hannah Arendt. People take a woman seriously so long as she is not also trying to seem beautiful. If she can fake a lack of vanity, or transform her vanity into an attack on generalized female vanity.

I have looked at Sam Shepard's author photograph countless times. People don't automatically think that Sam Shepard is trying to seem handsome in his author photo because male beauty is assumed as a thing that just is, that naturally exists. In actuality all beauty is somewhat acted, even in the beautiful. A candle must be lit. 

What does Sam Shepard want us to know about himself? That he is married, or at least that he sports a wedding band. He wears a denim work shirt to show his allegiance to the West (although he is from Illinois) and to demonstrate a kind of folksiness, to differentiate himself from all the authors in their starched oxford shirts or sweaters or white suits. To show us that he is a Sam, not a John, and everything that implies.  

How do you decide what face best represents you? How can you possibly pick one image of yourself to represent you at all times? If you pick a serious photograph you are discounting all the times you are not serious. If you pick a smiling photograph, the light-heartedness seems grotesque because it was so obviously faked or staged.  

Hunter S. Thompson holding a stick suggestively as a young man without sunglasses 

But no person is entirely funny or serious, so one photograph seems impossible. Maybe two photographs next to each other, one representing each. Maybe one superimposed on the other. The other solution is to smirk, which implies seriousness and humor at the same time. Some people use candids, but they're still choosing which one. Any face you make in a self-take will seem ridiculous, because it will be. 

Gertrude Stein by Carl Van Vechten

Not too long ago it was taboo to put a picture of yourself up on the internet. It was something reserved for only the truest geeks who it was assumed had nothing to lose in devaluing their privacy, feelings about which are a true generational gap, (although obviously now your grandparents are on Facebook) and dating websites, which were also considered taboo. It implied a kind of sad desperation. It still carries some of those connotations. People feel more ashamed using Photobooth than PornHub, but there's hardly a person alive that you can't find a picture of now on the internet. 

When I get spam friend requests on Facebook I always spend some time looking at the picture and wondering who they are, whether their personality bears any resemblance to the fake facts in their info section, what the actual original context of the picture was and whether they know they are being used to represent an imaginary human being. It's like having a staring contest with a robot. If you win, it explodes.

Rita Hayworth photographed by George Hurrell

The author photo was previously only an issue if you were famous or notable. As a kid I used to pore over a book of George Hurrell photographs that had the unretouched photos on one side and the finished images on the other and wonder why the real pictures of movie stars looked less "real" to me than the retouched ones. How I recognized Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers in the pictures with blown out exposure and dramatized contrast, and who were these strange mundane people right next to them?

You go to bed with Gilda and wake up with Rita Hayworth. You go to bed with Rita Hayworth and wake up with Margarita Carmen Cansino. You cannot wake up with Gilda. How could it be I had never noticed the retouching before then? I had just accepted automatically that the finalized image was truth. Thus is Facebook.  

Hunter S. Thompson, a few cool guy accessories and a plaid flannel later

What's especially amazing is that nobody had to be taught how to do it. Everyone just understood how from viewing and absorbing images, a process jacked to warpspeed by the internet with sites like flickr and tumblr. I used to have boxes full of pictures I cut out from magazines. Everyone has seen enough album covers, enough movie posters, enough author photos, to understand how to present themselves in a picture.

Once you start thinking about this, it is impossible to stop. You can't look at anyone's facebook pictures of themselves without determining how they are trying to portray themselves, how they want to be perceived: cool, pretty, fun, serious, goofy. You are never just being yourself in a photograph. You are being yourself in a photograph.

Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders

What is it that men see in cowboys that they want so much to see in themselves? A natural seeming lack of desire to demonstrate or communicate feeling? A sort of wildness, freedom from constructed identity, even though "cowboy" is one of the most deliberately constructed identities there is? Writers seem particularly drawn to them because they represent pure physicality, a direct line between being and deeds. As if cowboys never stay up at night in cluttered rooms thinking about who affects them.

It's why I fantasize about being a doctor even though it is as ridiculous for me to say I'd like to be a doctor as to say that I would like to be a duck, and yet I still fantasize about both in equal measures for the same basic reason. A purpose of spirit divorced from personal purpose of mind. An objective practice with concrete goals.

The illusion that all that matters is whoever's on the operating table that day, or however many cows need to be roped, and then you're too exhausted from the physical fullness of your work to take it home with you. But of course you do. 

Fact: Ernest Hemingway was forced to wear a pink gingham dress as a child

People romanticize cowboys for the same reason they romanticize gangster rap. It is the idea that there exist somewhere men for whom masculinity is natural, not a performance. The biggest lie of course, in rap and also Westerns, is that anyone exists who can kill people and have no feelings about it. That is how countries get men to join the army and go to war, by glamorizing this idea, and why they then get PTSD (shellshock) and are fucked up about it for the rest of their lives. The Wire is essentially a treatise on the endless fucked up cycle that permits and reinforces this.  

It is a partial lie that distracting the body can distract the mind. When the mind is overly preoccupied there is literally nothing that can distract it from itself. ("There is no geographical solution to an emotional problem.") The illusion I have that doctors live a professional life uncomplicated by personal relationships? I know it is a total lie. The doctors I know have told me that it is a lie. Everyone imagines themselves succeeding in some field that is different from the one they have chosen to pursue. All fields are equally ensemble casts. That is why ensemble casts are so relatable as an idea. 

Cormac McCarthy as a young man, not yet a professional fake cowboy

Cormac McCarthy is from Providence, Rhode Island. He is as much of the West as H.P. Lovecraft is of R'lyeh or Yuggoth. The only citizen of a place that exists entirely in his mind. I often think about Cormac McCarthy being a kid fantasizing about the West, and then I think about my own childhood fantasies of New England.

I like to think about the childhoods of people I can't imagine as children. I just picture them as a tiny version of whatever they look like now. It's especially funny with guys who have facial hair. Rhode Island is the smallest state, California one of the largest, but they are equal sizes in my mind. 

take me seriously because I am so very serious 

In New England during college, I developed my own Western fantasies. Finally delivered to the land of my teenage ideals, of real seasons and people who care about books, I started dreaming about the open plains. I thought about avocados and listened obsessively to Gene Clark and Gram Parsons. I could always locate myself much more easily in lonesome men than in their female counterparts. There was something too affecting to me about female plaintiveness. A part of myself I did not wish to have. But then I listened to Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and found myself in there too. 

Larry McMurtry, champion of the emotional cowboy

We long for companionship, and then we long equally to be alone. That is what Westerns are about: pursuing aloneness together. You love the people who know you best, who know you as much as anyone can. They keep you alive in the wilderness. 

William S. Burroughs all eyez on me

Male loneliness is overly romanticized, female solitude overly demonized. There is occasional pleasure in loneliness because there is pleasure in being alone. The thing people actually like about Jennifer Aniston is that despite coming up in an ensemble cast show about friendship, she comes across as kind of a loner. Not a loser necessarily, although that is also a part of her charm. Mostly a loner (also, a stoner).

Aniston is a female take on 1970s antiheroes like Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye or Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. She just needs to find a way to translate it back into film. Her best roles, in Friends With Money and The Good Girl, capture this about her. That quality of being a loner is also what women like about Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder, and Aniston's closest predecessor Barbra Streisand. Actresses who seem like outsiders are the most beloved because all women feel like outsiders, since they are.

When you think of yourself, you think of yourself as you are with yourself. Not as you are with friends, although that is also how you are. You spend an inordinate amount of time in conversation with yourself every day of your life. That's why you go out in the world and live, to try and lose track of this conversation. Identity is contrast.   

When you long for the West you are longing for space. For room between places and things but also between your thoughts. For a few years I used to say that New York made me feel overly claustrophobic. The buildings are so close together, I would say, they are pushing my thoughts that way too. But they weren't. It was just that I was pushing them that way. At its best New York pushes your thoughts upwards.

Joan Didion neckscarf diva

If you grow up intellectual in Los Angeles, you are constantly told that you do not belong there. People told me this so much growing up that I really believed it. Now I know you can be anything anywhere, an idiot in Paris or a genius in Des Moines (calm down IA intellectuals, I picked Des Moines because it's French and I like the way it sounds. Real G's move in silence like Des Moines.) That the people who think California is full of idiots bought an image they were sold, and they're no more foolish for believing it than I was for believing that New England would not also have idiots. 

Susan Sontag stacking paper

The public narrative about Los Angeles is that its beauty hides a corrosive interior. That you can't have temperate weather and fruit out of season without being punished for it somehow. That the Black Dahlia and the Manson family murders and all the fires and floods and quakes and riots are retribution for something, for original sin, for the buying and selling of false images and idols. That pleasure creates Puritan debt.

Raymond Chandler and friend

That concern with appearances means you care nothing about insides. That if something is beautiful it cannot also be serious. That if something is evil it cannot also be sometimes good. Even that artifice is automatically evil. I have never believed any of it. Los Angeles to me is edenic, even now knowing all its tricks. Los Angeles is corrupt but small towns have just as much sin. Los Angeles is a hooker with a heart of gold. 

The internet is the open country of the mind. The promise of space, no boundaries or bindings, no MLA handbooks or proofreaders. No set ideas about how writing or images "should" be, just how they can be and are.

No prejudice against fragments and run-ons and parentheticals, which I have always felt are truer to the way people actually talk with each other than "real" sentences, which have rules that that can ruin translation of thought. No old gods.  

It is freeing to write a "bad" sentence. It does not destroy the integrity of the "good" ones. If anything it props them up, the way "fucking" can be the best modifier. If you make your point, it does not matter how you make your point. Informality helps.

That is the purpose of blogging, of writing, of poetry. It's why we love Gertrude Stein. She is the founding father of This Recording and Allen Ginsberg is the founding mother. They cared that words could not so they broke it. 

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She also tumblstwitters and runs GIF Party and JPG Club. Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb San Diego. She last wrote in these pages about the internet.

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Friday
Jan212011

In Which The Undoing of Tennessee Williams Is Now Completed

  His Emotional Strain

by KARINA WOLF

“High station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.” Tennessee Williams’ remarks at the death of his sister allude to the difficulty of living with mental illness -- his relationship with his schizophrenic sibling had been fraught.

Rose was a perpetual source of concern, constraint, and provocation for the family, and while the playwright was in rehearsals for The Glass Menagerie, his parents allowed surgeons to lobotomize her. Psychosurgery has often been coercive at best, and the operation is medieval in its imprecision. The doctor severs the brain’s prefrontal lobe by inserting metal spikes through holes in the skull or through the eye sockets. The surgery left Rose permanently compromised and terminated her hopes for recovery.

kirk douglas in 'The Glass Menagerie'

Williams called Menagerie a memory play. Perhaps this designation was meant to excuse its elliptical narrative; certainly it alluded to the story’s biographical conflict, about a mother’s hope for her daughter’s return to normalcy and the sibling who acts as mediator. “It is sad and embarrassing and unattractive,” Williams admitted, “that those emotions that stir...are nearly all rooted...in the particular and sometimes peculiar concerns of the artist himself...a web of monstrous complexity...from the spider mouth of his own singular perceptions.”

For the Williams family, madness was an impenetrable cloister. The diplomacy of insanity demands anticipation, misdirection, suppression. A spouse or visitor can never comprehend the hidden hurts that bind, the minutely calibrated behaviors and the disappointed hopes in the family of the disturbed. Outside the tempest, one bears witness. It’s arguable that most writers create memory plays in one way or another; that Williams would name his form reflects how intimately these conflicts branded him.

*

I came late to Tennessee Williams. Maybe this is a function of the American paradox. To paraphrase a Yankee poet: we Americans contradict ourselves, we are a multitude. I hope the purpose of literature isn’t just to reify the importance of our own concerns, but the gentility of the South, its norms and mores and modes of expression seem utterly alien to this Northerner.

I recognized Williams, at last, in the works of contemporary film-makers: in the febrile moods of Wong Kar-Wai (an entire section of Blueberry Nights is lifted straight from Streetcar), in David Lynch’s pathological normality and expressionist experiments. When discussing All About My Mother, in which a character plays Blanche Dubois onscreen, Pedro Almodovar acknowledges a debt to Williams but insists that his character performs scenes from Streetcar as preparation to negotiate her own conflicts.

We can all learn from his conceit. The Spanish director dedicates his film to “women who act.” The idea, of course, is that "woman" and "performer" are exchangeable terms – and therefore the film is dedicated to more than biologically-mandated actors. Certainly, to be gay when Tennessee Williams was alive was to perform. And to be insane in the South of Tennessee Williams is a highwire act.

Despite the good breeding and the heavy drawl that earned him the handle “Tennessee,” Williams is not the most Southern of writers. He aspired to Southernness, and he came from a family with a society name (Lanier), but he was also gay, which left him at odds with the culture beyond his gothic family. (When queried about the provenance of her son’s toxic female characters, Williams mother regularly issued the disclaimer: “I have no idea where he comes up with them.”)

*

When you think of Tennessee Williams, what do you think of first? Marlon Brando’s tortured screams and the comfort from the woman he loves, when he shoves his brutish head against her belly. It’s hard to imagine a character of more inchoate passion than Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski.

You have to understand Williams' cultural genealogy. He is the descendant of Artaud, Brecht and Cocteau. He was aiming for a theater of gesture; after all, when it works, writing is more of a sculptural than a logical art. “I think of writing as something more organic than words, something closer to being and action,” he wrote. Suddenly, Last Summer has nothing in common with contemporaneous dramas by Miller or Osborne – its roots are in European Expressionism and the Gothic romance of the Brontës. Williams’ emotional landscapes are elemental and volatile and poisonous. The Southern artifice is just a fractal outgrowth of the characters’ pathologies.

Elizabeth Taylor in 'Suddenly Last Summer'

Williams’ success also coincided with the development of method acting, itself an exponent of rawness, not merely of naturalism. I find I can’t really talk about Williams without talking about film because that is how I was introduced to him – through the framings of Elia Kazan and Joseph Mankiewicz – and how I finally understood him – through his filmic imitators.

Even so, it took me a long time to understand the appeal of the plays. At a young age I could discern how Marlon Brando’s performance differed from the mannered banter of other actors. But he was repellent – it’s only later that you can see he’s appealing, how his coarseness is an antidote to the delusions of his wife and her sister.

In Suddenly, Last Summer I found my skeleton key. There are more famous and more revived works, but Suddenly, to me, is the yardstick by which all others can be measured. The play contains Williams’ archetypal characters: the fragile woman-girl “like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf”; the arachnid mother; the depressive young man who must mediate an arena of monsters.

liz

In the drama, brilliant and sensitive Dr. Cukrowicz is charged with eliciting funds from wealthy socialite Mrs. Venable in order to build a new psychosurgical hospital. The price of the new building is clear: Dr. Cukrowicz must perform a lobotomy on Mrs. Venable’s niece, who has been unmanageable since the death of Mrs. Venable’s son. Kathy, the niece, was witness to Sebastian’s violent and mysterious demise while the two were on vacation in Spain.

Before meeting the patient, Dr. Cukrowicz presses Mrs. Venable to specify her niece’s illness. The diagnosis is imprecise, but the affliction is universal: “Memory. She lacerates herself with memory.”

There’s that word again. Caught in memory, the self becomes two mirrors facing one another – an endless feedback loop in which the singular ego, or identity, gets lost. You start searching for yourself. As Kathy does, you start writing your diary in the third person.

A bizarrely un-Southern triad of players enact the filmic version of Suddenly, Last Summer. Katharine Hepburn is the widow Venable, whose name seems to be a conflation of veniality and veneration. Her comportment is loathsome to her niece and subservient to her beloved son. Hepburn struts around in the headgear and outfits of an older version of her screwball character from Bringing Up Baby, but here the gaffes reveal deadly intentions.

Elizabeth Taylor has always been decadent; the instability we associate with her compensates for any thinness in performance. Her beauty is dated but manifest. She was made for perfume commercials or the affectless formalism of Last Year at Marienbad; she's perfect for the film, where the framing creates the drama as much as anything she says. Her power is not only her illness but in her knowledge. There’s something about Sebastian that Mrs. Venable wants to contain.

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Montgomery Clift’s Dr. Cukrowicz has a welcome detachment. In essence, he’s allowed entry to the family secrets as he tries to determine whether to agree to perform the lobotomy. As he defers his decision, the surgeon develops an odd intimacy with his patient. He lights her cigarettes like a lover, allows her to wear high heels and Paris-bought fashions.

Clift, like Brando, was an actor of his moment. He embodied a new technique and carried a vulnerable, pansexual mien – a type of male so repellant to John Wayne that the star refused to socialize with Clift when they shot a film together. Clift was tortured by the sensitivities that can go hand in hand with addiction. He was further handicapped by changes to his appearance after a gruesome car accident. Marilyn Monroe once said of Clift that he was the "only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am.” Because the crew indulged his poor behavior, Hepburn reportedly spat in the face of the director at the end of filming.

It’s spot on casting, though, for a character who must serve as a Williams stand-in. As the ethical surgeon, he dithers, asking Mrs. Venable, "I can't guarantee that a lobotomy would stop her—babbling!!!" To which the aunt responds, "That may be, maybe not, but after the operation who would believe her, Doctor?"

Mental illness, particularly hysteria, has often been the affliction of women. Straight men may offer protection, comfort, diagnosis or salvation; but illness is a feminine domain. The pseudo-diagnosis of hysteria is similar to that vague term with which Kathy is classified, “dementia precox.” Even the doctor knows that this is a blanket categorization, empowering the doctor and belittling the diseased.

with elia kazan

In many of Williams' plays, the arrival of a man offers hope and redemption – all thwarted by the hysterical behavior of the patient. There’s the sense that madness is consequent to a family imbalance that has no outlet. At best, the patient can achieve an awareness of the illness as it damages host and those around her. Think about Britney Spears’ helpless dissociation as she markets her bi-polarity versus the adult recognition of Sinead O’Connor, who talks with self-awareness about her disease, even as she periodically erupts into mad behaviors.

All this is to say: madness is viral. The lives of those surrounding the afflicted are irradiated by pathology. As in Grey Gardens, the illnesses must be symbiotic or the unit fails.

*

Something has failed in Williams’ Gothic spook sonata – a character has died and another must be silenced. So what is the need on the part of Mrs. Venable to hide from the strange facts about Sebastian? She can hardly speak the truth about him: his mother, and then his cousin, act as nurse/muse/procurer for the gay poet. As Kathy rightly says: “Sebastian wasn’t a man, he was a vocation.”

Like a good actor, Williams finds himself in his characters. Tennessee was prone to depression and limited by endless sensitivities. Certainly, his suffering must’ve inspired the troubled Doctor as well as the relationship between Kathy and Sebastian, which trespasses into Wuthering Heights’ incestuous taboos.

suddenly

Williams’ first erotic experiences were closely linked to his sister: his concern for Rose transferred to the student pianist who arrived at the house regularly to practice with his sister. Williams writes: “For the first time, prematurely, I was aware of skin as an attraction. A thing that might be desirable to touch. This awareness entered my mind, my senses, like the sudden streak of flame that follows a comet. And my undoing... was now completed.”

A shocking ambivalence of thought and sensation tortured him, "Yes, Tom, you're a monster!" he told himself. "But that's how it is and there's nothing to be done about it. And so continued to feast my eyes on his beauty."

with eddie fisher and elizabeth taylor at the film's premiere

In Suddenly, Last Summer the self-loathing and the compulsion are both present. As much as Tennessee had to battle with his domineering mother and fragile sister, he himself was also damaged.

Mrs. Venable’s speech about Sebastian suggests something of Tennessee’s delicacy:

A poet’s vocation is something that rests on something as thin and fine as the web of a spider, Doctor. That’s all that holds him over!—out of destruction....Few, very few are able to do it alone! Great help is needed!

And then there are Williams’ letters. When his good friend Carson McCullers considered visiting him in Rome, Tennessee warned her: “You must remember all the bad things about me, my sensuality and license and neurotic moodiness at times – all the irregularities of my life and nature – I cannot put all those things into a letter! – and then ask yourself if you could really endure a close association or would I perhaps add to your worries and your emotional strains.”

Who is the greater monster in Suddenly, Last Summer? Mrs. Venable, who wishes to suppress the truth, or her son, who uses people to perverse ends? Williams imbues a toxicity to all. Kathy is fragile, but the entire family is mad. Ultimately, the doctor elicits the story of Sebastian’s behavior and violent death with a serum – as if the truth will solve the family’s pathology.

Truth, in fact, is Williams' second subject. In Streetcar, Blanche Dubois admits: “I don’t want realism. I want magic. I don’t tell the truth. I tell it as it ought to be....A line can be straight or a road. But the heart of a human being?” And here I find the greatness of Williams: truth and lies coexist – as do love, hatred, and indifference. Sane or mad, the human heart is troubled because it embraces contraries.

Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here.

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"Mother We Just Can't Get Enough" - New Radicals (mp3)

"You Get What You Give" - New Radicals (mp3)

"Someday We'll Know" - New Radicals (mp3)

Thursday
Jan202011

In Which John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch Start Making Sense

A Conversation With Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch met John Ashbery at Harvard, where the two became fast friends. Before his death in 2002, Koch became known for the quality of his teaching and his prolific career as both a poet and a playwright. The rare heterosexual member of the New York School, Koch's 1965 conversation with his friend takes on the staginess of drama while revealing much about how the two viewed each other's artistic work and private life.

koch

KENNETH KOCH: John, do you think we both might be too much concerned with matters of taste? Or don't you think it's possible to be too much concerned with it?

JOHN ASHBERY: What else is there besides matters of taste?

KK: How would you change that statement if you wanted to put it in a poem? I think that statement would seem too pompous to you to put into a poem. Or too obvious.

JA: I would not put a statement in a poem. I feel that poetry must reflect on already existing statements.

KK: Why?

JA: Poetry does not have subject matter, because it is the subject. We are the subject matter of poetry, not vice versa.

KK: Could you distinguish your statement from the ordinary idea, which it resembles in every particular, that poems are about people?

JA: Yes. Poems are about people and things.

KK: Then when you said "we" you were including the other objects in this room.

JA: Of course.

ashbery standing, koch sitting next to o'hara

KK: What has this to do with putting a statement in a poem?

JA: When statements occur in poetry they are merely a part of the combined refractions of everything else.

KK: What I mean is, how is the fact that poetry is about us connected to the use of statements in poetry?

JA: It isn't.

KK: But you said before -

JA: I said nothing of the kind. Now stop asking me all these questions.

KK: I'm sorry.

JA: Now I'll ask you a few questions. Why are you always putting things in Paris in all of your poems? I live there but it seems to me I've never written anything about it.

KK: Isn't "Europe" mainly set there?

JA: No. Reread that poem. It all takes place in England.

KK: What about the gray city and the snow valentines and so on - even though the main part of the narrative obviously takes place on the flying fields of England, the real psychological locale of the poem always seemed to me to be in Paris. No? Where were you when you wrote it?

JA: In Paris. But there is only one reference to Paris in the entire poem.

KK: Well, I wrote Ko in Florence.

JA: I wish you would answer my question and also explain -

KK: And there is only one reference to Florence in it, but the way things come together and take place always seemed to me to be very dependent on the fact that it was written in Florence. What did you want me to answer?

JA: Let's ignore for the moment at least your enigmatic statement that the way things come together reminds you of Florence –

KK: I did not say that.

JA: Anyway I wish you would explain for me and our readers –

KK: Listeners.

JA: – why we seem to omit references to the cities in which we are living, in our work. This is not true of most American poetry. Shudder.

KK: Hmm. I guess we do. I did write one poem about New York while I was in New York, but the rest of the poems about America I wrote in Europe.

JA: I repeat, why we seem to omit ALMOST all references – ?

KK: I find it gets to be too difficult to get through my everyday associations with things familiar to me for me to be able to use them effectively in poetry.

JA: Snore.

KK: I myself am bored by my attempts to make abstract statements and wish I could do it as facilely as you do. I'm going to cut out my previous statement. What made you snore?

JA: Well, if you're cutting out your statement, then my snore naturally goes with it, I suppose.

KK: Maybe I won't cut it out. Or I might just keep the snore.

JA: It sounded too much like the way all artists talk when asked to explain their art.

KK: Yes, I agree. I dislike my statement. Why do you suppose are so bothered by such things?

JA: It's rather hard to be a good artist and also be able to explain intelligently what your art is about. In fact, the worse your art is the easier it is to talk about it. At least, I'd like to think so.

KK: Could you give an example of a very bad artist who explains his work very well?

JA: (Silence)

KK: I guess you don't want to mention any names. Why don't you want to mention any names, by the way? Especially since I once heard you say that names are more expressive words than any others.

JA: Some people might get offended. I don't see the point of that.

KK: Do you mean you're afraid?

JA: No. Just bored in advance by the idea of having to defend myself.

koch and allen ginsberg at st. marks poetry project 1977

KK: Have you ever been physically attacked because of your art criticism?

JA: No, because I always say I like everything.

KK: Would you say that is the main function of criticism?

JA: If it isn't it should be.

KK: How can one talk about what should be the function of something?

JA: Our problem seems to be to avoid it.

KK: To avoid what?

JA: Talking about what you said.

KK: Let me go back a little.

JA: That's always a mistake.

KK: All right, I'll take you at your word. But we were getting on to something interesting – but it went by so quickly.

JA: This is true of much great poetry.

KK: And even truer of the rest of it. I was thinking today as I drove over here what my poetry could possibly do for me or for anyone who reads it. I thought it might make people happy temporarily.

JA: That's a pretty tall order.

KK: I know. I was just going to change the word from happy to something else.

JA: I'd be interested to know what you were going to change it to.

KK: Maybe to pleasantly surprised.

JA: Now you're talking!

KK: I was thinking about that and about what seemed the uselessness of it all. In fact I think about that a lot.

JA: Is Joseph Dah your ideal?

KK: In what phase? As an action poet or as a regular poet, which he becomes after the death of Andrews?

JA: As an action poet.

KK: I was thinking about that in the car today, though I didn't think about Joseph Dah. I was wondering if there was some way to make one's actions as varied and interesting as poetry; I didn't think about whether it was really possible to retain some degree of strength and youth in one's poetry even though one's body were getting weak and old. Then I wondered if there were any point in doing this. I thought that if I was wondering if there was any point in remaining young and strong and in being great and happy then I must be bothered or depressed about something else, since in what I have usually considered my normal states I am very interested in these things. Thinking thus, I drew into the Hazans' driveway and we began this interview.

JA: Do you have any idea about how you could make your actions more varied than they are?

KK: Absolutely none.

JA: Your witness, Mr. Defense Attorney.

KK: You're a wit and I see that you are obviously going to win this interview.

JA: I don't like to think that I might have wit. It's the one chink in my non-existent armor.

KK: Your last remark would indicate you don't have to worry too much about it.

JA: I'll pass over your use of the subjunctive and return to the "problem." What is the nature of our poetry? I mean, first, is it poetry? And second, does it have a nature?

morton feldman, koch, leroi jones

KK: A third question might be whether your poetry or mine are sufficiently similar to be discussable as "our poetry." Let's just say that they are; otherwise we'd have to make too many distinctions as we went along.

JA: Can you think of an example of poetry?

KK: Yes. Though it depends on what you mean by the word. There is, after all, a certain well-deserved opprobrium attached to it.

JA: Mmmm. But just what is this opprobrium and who deserved it? I was reading recently in a book by Jean Paulhan that ever since the nineteenth century poets have been contemptuous of poetry and novelists of novels. In fact somebody - I believe it was Sainte-Beuve - once criticized somebody else – Balzac, I think – by saying, "Ça tombe dans le roman"; and Victor Hugo prided himself on not being "just a poet." On the other hand, you hear a lot of painters these days say that the only thing that interests them is painting. Since I brought up the subject of painters, I would like to mention that the spaces between things seem to be getting bigger and more important.

KK: Do you mean in painting or in life?

JA: We'll work this out later. Meanwhile, I once read that as music becomes less primitive and more advanced the intervals between the notes get bigger. Compare the "Volga Boatmen" with the Love-Death from Tristan and Isolde. A lot of our good painters seem to rub out most of the picture these days. It gets harder to make the connections between things. Now I'd like to quote a line of your poetry in order to prove this. (Long silence.)

KK: Why don't we use some of your lines instead?

JA: Okay. Toss me my book.

KK: Do you mean you couldn't find any examples in my poetry?

JA: Mmmm. You cut out all of your incomprehensible poems.

KK: No, I didn't. What about "January 19th"?

JA: "Lorna Doone fizzled the dazzling icicle pencil by sheer blue shirts."

KK: What are the spaces in it?

JA: The words that would explain the relationships between these various things.

KK: You mean that would explain how one could fizzle a pencil by shirts?

JA: That's right.

KK: Could you please give me an example from your own poetry, to make it clearer?

JA: I think it's already clear enough but I will if you insist.

KK: It is quite brilliant.

JA: Nonsense. "Night hunger / of berry...stick." This isn't such a good example as a matter of fact.

KK: Why?

JA: What with the prevailing climate in poetry, these lines seem perfectly crystalline to me and should to any reader with a normal I.Q.

KK: When you say "crystalline," do you mean that the lines mean only one definite thing?

JA: Well, not more than about four at the most.

KK: It does seem obvious. A man is hungry for berries at night and goes out to get them with a stick. Or else he goes out to get them and he is touched on the face by a stick (part of a branch). Or the berry itself is hungry at night and looks to the stick for refreshment, which it does not get from it. Or the berry is so hungry at night that it dies, its whole branch dies and later becomes a stick. Or a man is hungry for berries at night, goes out to get one and it sticks to him. Or the berry gets so hungry at night that in its hunger it attaches itself to something else and gets stuck to it. These seem to me just a very few of the meanings related to all the possible meanings as our galaxy is to the sum total of all galaxies.

JA: Since none of these meaning is very interesting, what the poet's poet in making it so ambiguous, assuming that this itself was not the point? I mean making it ambiguous so as to conceal the apparent lack of interest in the various ideas expressed.

KK: Well, if you are following the poem and if you come to the place where you don't know if you're a man or a berry and you keep going along anyway, then you're having a mystical experience. Lines like these enable the reader to escape from his ordinary consciousness of himself. Aside from which, it's very enjoyable to feel like a berry or a stick or a person you know nothing about.

JA: I don't know as I'd care to feel like a berry, let alone a stick, and I too often feel like a person I know nothing about.

KK: What's his name?

JA: If I knew his name I'd know something about him.

KK: Go on with what you were saying about your line. What's your answer to the question?

JA: No, I was just wondering if ambiguity is really what everybody is after, but if it is the case, why?

KK: People seem to be after it in different ways. Actually one tries to avoid the Cleanth Brooks kind, no? It seems an essential part of true ambiguity that it not seem ambiguous in any obvious way. Do you agree?

JA: I don't know. I'm wondering why all these people want that ambiguity so much.

KK: Have your speculations about ambiguity produced any results as yet?

JA: Only this: that ambiguity seems to the same thing as happiness - or pleasant surprise, as you put it. (I am assuming that from the moment that life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions.) Everybody wants the biggest possible assortment of all available things. Happy endings are nice and tragedy is good for the soul, etc, etc.

KK: You speak after my own heart but you speak more as an aesthetician than as a man. Perhaps there is really no distinction between the two, but some pleasures do free one from desiring others.

JA: Name one.

KK: The pleasure of relief from pain frees one temporarily from the desire to suffer.

JA: So the desire to suffer is a pleasure?

KK: No desire is a pleasure. But suffering is accounted a pleasure by many. Let me put it another way. Relief from pain frees one momentarily from the desire to take great risks involving pain but which might lead to some small pleasure.

JA: I think that ambiguity includes all these things.

KK: An obviously evasive answer, but I'm afraid we're off the subject anyway. A better example is that if one is passionately in love one does not desire a lot of other people. In fact love sometimes makes people indifferent to pain and even death. I know this is true both from books and from experience.

JA: I won't embarrass you by calling attention to the obvious flaws in your argument. Getting back to my favorite theme, the idea of relief from the pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes an eventual resolution of itself, whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that's why so much "depressing" modern art makes me feel so cheerful.

KK: Could you go back now and explain what you felt when you wrote those lines about the berry?

JA: Afraid not. I had even forgotten the lines, let alone having written them. And this has some bearing on our topic of discussion.

KK: Many poets don't ever forget what they've written. I can see our forgetting our lines either as good or as bad. Do you forget any place in which you've lived or anything you've liked very much? I mean within the last five years.

JA: I don't quite see what the point of that is. I mean writing a line of poetry isn't the same as living someplace.

KK: I was just thinking of how your forgetfulness might be criticized – that is, from the point of view that what you write doesn't mean enough to you for you to remember it. I don't agree with this criticism at all. I just thought my remark might stir you into explaining why you don't necessarily remember your poems.

ashbery and koch in later yearsJA: If you don't agree with this criticism, then perhaps you'd be kind enough to explain why, since I fear it's a very telling one.

KK: I don't believe that you do. If you did you'd memorize your poems.

JA: It seems to me that forgetting plays a bigger role in our poems than either of us is willing to own up to. Not only do we forget the place where we live, as I pointed out earlier –

KK: You did not say that. You said we didn't write about the place in which we live.

JA: Well, we might just as well have forgotten it, for all the difference it makes. Also what about sex, which seems to make no appearance in either of our works - that I can think of at the moment.

KK: Do you mean the details of sexual intercourse? Practically every poem either of us has written seems to me to be about love in some form or another.

JA: Well, so what happened to those details?

KK: I hope they are still there.

JA: Look again.

KK: Yes, I've just gotten word that they are still there. On the other hand, there are a number of things that would not be out there at all if we didn't write about them.

JA: Does this mean that you think these things are important?

KK: What things?

JA: What it is that's there.

in thessaloniki

KK: Do you mean the things we write about or the details of physical love?

JA: The things that wouldn't be there unless we wrote about them, blockhead.

KK: It is you who are the blockhead for not making your questions clearer.

JA: Maybe this has some bearing on the topic of our discussion.

KK: In what way?

JA: I can't remember what it was that we were talking about.

KK: You seemed to be talking about ambiguity; and then you seemed to think that being a blockhead had something to do with it.

JA: I think we should clear up the question as to whether the ambiguity in our work is the result of modern life's having made us so ashamed of our experiences that we cannot write about them in any other way, or whether we feel that if we turn quickly around we'll discover something that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

KK: The first possibility you mention I don't understand – how can "modern life" make us ashamed? – but the second is very appealing. I don't feel, by the way, that what I am after in my work is ambiguity.

JA: What do you feel that you are after?

KK: Guess.

JA: I give up.

at a rehearsal for his play, 1977

KK: Do you mean to say that you have been reading my poems all these years thinking ah there he's succeeded in getting that ambiguity he's after, and oh there he hasn't? I mean you don't really think that a main aim in my poetry is to be ambiguous, do you?

JA: Well, it would help if you would consent to give a straight answer to my last question.

KK: I think the difficulty of my doing so has considerable bearing on the topic under discussion.

JA: Since you refuse to reply unambiguously, I must conclude that ambiguity is the central thing in our work.

KK: I have always liked your poetry, but your command of logic leaves me speechless with admiration.

JA: Perhaps this has some bearing on the topic of our discussion.

KK: I don't see how.

JA: I assume you were being ironic when you said my command of logic left you speechless with admiration. Therefore poetry is not logical or is not necessarily so.

KK: What you say is very unclear, but I suppose you mean that since I find one of your remarks illogical and since I like your poems, that therefore I must like poems which are illogical. But I don't find your poems either logical or illogical. If you want this interview to have the logic of a poem and not ordinary logic we will have to start over again.

JA: If you don't find them logical or illogical, then what do you find them?

KK: Your question doesn't make any sense.

JA: Neither does your poetry.

KK: Do you think there's only one way of making sense? (We seem to be trying to trap each other into making pompous statements.)

schuyler, ashbery, kochJA: Yes, we seem to be determined both to discuss poetry and not to discuss anything at all. This is probably what we do in our poetry. I only wish I knew why we feel it to be necessary.

KK: I should think that if we really wanted to know why we felt it to be necessary that we could probably find out. I don't think we really care.

JA: You're right.

KK: Perhaps there's an element in our poetry of not wanting to be too definite, not wanting to name things too clearly, in order that nobody else can possess any one of them independently of the whole poem. But the statement I have just made, although it seemed rational to me when I made it, now seems to me to make no sense.

JA: Does this ever happen to you when you write poetry?

KK: Constantly. It's very exciting when it does; if one writes fast enough when this is happening one can catch the movement of the mind, which is I think something I care about very much, more than ambiguity for example. Of course it's true that the mind perceives everything ambiguously. I think we may be close now to an answer to our problem.

JA: Why does catching the movement of the mind seem important to you?

KK: I knew you'd pick up on that bit of critical gibberish. But I rather think you know what I mean and that you are stalling for time.

JA: Whenever I read a sentence, including a line of my own poetry, I am beset by the idea that it could have been written any other way. When you are conscious of this while writing, it can often be very exciting. I respond to works of art which express this idea, such as the music of Busoni, the main element of whose style is that it didn’t necessarily have to sound this way.

KK: Do you think the kind of art that you and I like and create might be called "evasive"? Do you think we like the feeling of ambiguity and multiple possibilities partly or wholly because we don't want to be pinned down to anything we've done or are about to do?

JA: Possibly. But I think that if we like things that are evasive it's because there's no point in pursuing something that is standing still. Anything that is standing still might as well be dead.

KK: What about overtaking something that's moving clearly in one direction or meeting something head on? I mean, why this passion for two things at once? Obviously it corresponds to reality. One sleeps and is in bed at the same time. But why is this so important to us and other artists?

JA: I don't understand what you mean about sleeping and being bed at the same time.

KK: Oh. That was just an example of how simultaneous actions or states in reality correspond to those in art. I mean, all aesthetic attitudes or ideas correspond to the real state of things. We could just as easily be so warmly interested in the concreteness of everything, or in its human or divine qualities, as we are in its ambiguity and multiplicity.

JA: But all these things you mention do constitute multiplicity. It seems necessary to illustrate this fact by examples.

KK: Would you say that's why you write poetry?

JA: Yes.

KK: For whom do you do this illustration?

JA: For the average reader.

KK: Do you expect to help him in this way?

JA: No, I expect him to help me.

KK: How?

JA: By drawing attention to the fallacies in my approach.

KK: Has any average reader ever done this for you?

JA: No, but I'm still hoping that he will. That's what keeps me going.

KK: You would say that you write then chiefly in the hope of being corrected?

JA: I think I've made myself sufficiently clear and would welcome a few statements from you. How about criticizing some of my poetry, for instance?

KK: Which one?

JA: Well - "The Suspended Life" for instance. I rather like this poem but I don't like the first part so much; as often happens it was necessary to write it in order to get to the more interesting part, but by that time the uninteresting part had gotten thoroughly enmeshed with the rest and could not be removed without causing its collapse.

KK: What part do you mean by the first part? I think the whole poem is terrific.

JA: The part up to the first space.

KK: Why do you like the first part less?

JA: The lack of connection between the sentences doesn't refresh me. Also there are too many things like your work. Such as the "tooth weather information clinic" and "the buttons' pill." I am more interested in the conversation in the middle and I only really like the landscapes at the end.

KK: I think "And sudden day unbuttoned her blouse" is one of the prettiest lines in the world. I'd like to talk about "Europe" for a moment; it seems to me to present a whole new way of relating words to experiences and to each other. Since many people find it very hard to read, could you give them any suggestions for making it less so?

JA: No.

KK: Were you consciously trying to be ambiguous in "Europe"? Were you conscious of having big spaces between things?

JA: I guess so. I was trying to conceal the plot of a book I picked up on the quais, Beryl of the Biplane. At the same time I heard a piece on the radio by an Italian composer who had taken a recording of a poem by Joyce and transformed the words until they were incomprehensible but still gave an idea of the original. I got the title from the name of a subway station in Paris. It seemed to me that I was at last permitting myself to allude to Europe, which had been my center of activity for several years, but by merely listing a lot of things and situations that could be found in most other places as well and by keeping the ceramic tile of the subway station firmly in mind it seemed to me that I could convey the impression that Europe was just another subject, no more important than a lot of others. I suggest that you not ask me why I was doing these things.

koch, southgate, o'hara

KK: It seems clear enough why. You didn't use any cut-ups in writing "Europe," did you?

JA: Yes. I used some passages from Beryl. I think I might also have put in a few words from an article in Esquire as well as a mistranslation of something I saw written by an automatic toy in the toy museum at Neuchatel (des mecanismes precis nous animent, which I misread as nous aiment).

KK: There's no key to understanding the poem, of course, no hidden meaning?

JA: No, it's just a bunch of impressions.

KK: Why is the idea of keys and hidden meanings not appealing to you?

JA: Because someone might find them out and then the poem would no longer be mysterious.

KK: I feel the same way. Do you use any deliberate methods to make your poems mysterious?

JA: I don't know, but it just occurred to me that detectives and detective work crop up quite often in our poems. As for example, your sheriff searching for a walnut, a poem which I have always found beautiful without knowing why. Perhaps it's because the idea of someone searching scientifically for something is beautiful, even though I have no desire to imitate that poem.

KK: I think what I was feeling when I wrote these lines was that the frenziedness of the search for the walnut was like the emotion I felt for the woman the poem is about. I wasn't thinking of a scientific search, actually. Could you tell me why the figure of the janitor occurs so often in your recent work?

JA: Possibly because of the "The Janitor's Boy" by Nathalia Crane. He's a love-death symbol. On page 93 of Ko is the memorable line, "Some towns of course are famous for two things." This seems to be typical of your habit of making an absurd abstract statement as though there was no point in trying to make any other kind. I find this typical of the defeatist attitude which pervades your work and which I greatly admire.

KK: Such statements seem to me not so much defeatist as affirmative. I feel that we need a lot of new things to think about.

JA: I'll accept that. It seems to me a reasonable place to end this interview.

"A Conversation with Kenneth Koch" was published by Interview Press as a chapbook in 1965.

How to Continue

Oh there once was a woman
and she kept a shop
selling trinkets to tourists
not far from a dock
who came to see what life could be
far back on the island.

And it was always a party there
always different but very nice
New friends to give you advice
or fall in love with you which is nice
and each grew so perfectly from the other
it was a marvel of poetry
and irony

And in this unsafe quarter
much was scary and dirty
but no one seemed to mind
very much
the parties went on from house to house
There were friends and lovers galore
all around the store
There was moonshine in winter
and starshine in summer
and everybody was happy to have discovered
what they discovered

And then one day the ship sailed away
There were no more dreamers just sleepers
in heavy attitudes on the dock
moving as if they knew how
among the trinkets and the souvenirs
the random shops of modern furniture
and a gale came and said
it is time to take all of you away
from the tops of the trees to the little houses
on little paths so startled

And when it became time to go
they none of them would leave without the other
for they said we are all one here
and if one of us goes the other will not go
and the wind whispered it to the stars
the people all got up to go
and looked back on love

John Ashbery