Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?
Anne Gorrick: Poetry began for me at the ocean. The tide coming in and out leaving things at our feet. Picking and choosing which ones we'd keep. Arranging all the shells on a picnic table. Making curatorial choices. Going out with a swimming mask on a hot day when the water was covered in harmless clear jellyfish, diving down to look up and see a cathedral form of sunlight through stained glass. Every summer we'd spend a couple weeks by the shore. My parents didn't have a really good sense about kid's reading vs. adult's reading, so we'd all plow serially through 70s bestsellers in our beach chairs. Oh god, does this mean Peter Benchley informs my work?
I'd been writing since I was six years old, like it was a reflex. Language felt easier, more magical through my hands than through my mouth. My first "novel" was written in child's print on a single piece of college ruled paper. It took forever to write.
My mother is a Scrabble goddess, and my father loves the NY Times crossword puzzles.
I started to play tennis at 11, and lucky for me, our pros were also English majors. "Your backhand would be so much better if you read some Faulkner." The new club owner, and my favorite pro, would send me out to read everything Nabokov ever wrote. The connection between tennis and Nabokov left me with a lifelong association between writing and play. My first poetic boyfriend was Tristan Tzara, who I discovered at 16. I had learned with music that 80s FM radio had much more to offer me at the end of the dial than the classic rock in the middle. So with Tzara, I found a new world. The connection between tennis and Nabokov left me with a lifelong association between writing and play.
In my daily beginnings at poetry now, poetry starts with lots and lots of process. Some of my favorite electronic processes are Babel Fish, anagrams, word lists, Google searches (but I am a newbie with this). Or I might skim randomly down a book and pick out things I like and fill in the rest. My tropism is toward language that's unfamiliar to me, or seems new and sparkly, language that is outside how I speak or what I know well, because what springs out of my head is often boring to me. For example, I'm working on a series of poems based on the paint descriptions for R&F Handmade Paints. Aggregate, glean. Don't stop.
TB: In addition to being a poet, you are also a visual artist. Did your interest in the visual arts begin early on too?
AG: Not so much. Except for the exceptions (art lessons with a terrific Korean artist neighbor, visits to NYC art shows), and I was way more obsessed with language when I was younger. I was definitely drawn toward Dada, and that derived 80s punk black and white collage aethestic. But never to visually mimic. I don’t know why.
In 1996, I hit a brick wall with my writing. I was boring myself, and couldn’t get past it. The limits of my laser printer felt colossal. The constraints of 81/2” x 11” paper was breaking my heart. So I broke up with language like it was a bad boyfriend. I remember having dinner with Robert Kelly and Maryrose Larkin at an Indian restaurant in Rhinebeck, NY, and telling them I was done with poetry. Robert thought I was smoking crack. I had tossed language’s clothes out a high window. I told it to fuck off. But language always comes crawling back up the driveway on its hands and knees, begging for forgiveness, apologizing, wanting to move back in. I’ve always said, “Yes.”
That year, I took my first class at the Women’s Studio Workshop (Rosendale, NY), studying with the Japanese architect and artist Kumi Korf to learn traditional Japanese papermaking (and later architectural bookmaking). I added long pieces of dulse picked off the Grand Manan’s Atlantic rocks to wet kozo sheets, and it began to approximate writing in an interesting way. That year I spent a lot of time hammering kozo and making paper. At the very least, I found a way to move beyond my laser printed page. Later, I studied encaustic painting and printmaking (with Susan Amons, Anne Kresge, Laura Moriarty, Cynthia Winika), and indigo vat dying (with Mary Hark). Printmaking brought me back to text through xerox transfers.
The thing I love about WSW is their attitude that everyone who walks through their doors is a fully formed artist, there to acquire certain skills to extend their work. That one didn’t have formal background in art didn’t matter.
Meeting Cynthia Winika was a revelation. She helped teach a class in encaustic painting I was in, and someone said, “About the only you can’t do in encaustic is make a book.” At which point we turned to each other and said, “Oh yes we can.” We didn’t know each other, but had the same thought. That sent us down the rabbithole of our artists’ book, “Swans, the ice” she said” made with a grant through WSW in 2000. Ilya Bolotowksy was Cynthia’s figure drawing teacher (which is really funny if you know his work), and she attended weekly figure drawing sessions for 40 years. She taught me to allow for the obsessive working over of a line or an idea until it changes into something else.
Printmaking is probably my favorite thing, but I don’t have my own press and it’s cumbersome to work elsewhere, so I don’t get to do that very often. A couple of years ago, my husband Peter Genovese, made a large heated aluminum palate so I can make encaustic monotypes on a single sheet of printmaking paper. Printmaking is one of those launching places where can language take flight. Plus its materiality is so very pleasurable.
TB: “She taught me to allow for the obsessive working over of a line or an idea until it changes into something else.” That’s really well said and certainly true in my experience. Obsessiveness is really the key to souping things up—coming back over and over again to tease out that elusive something one didn’t discover on the previous pass.
What as a poet most obsesses you? What do you hope that your writing will do?
AG: “And he lobs another volley hoping it clears the net,” says the interviewer.
I play a lot of tennis (from when I was 11 years old to 17, and then from 2000 until now). It’s the perfect microcosmic example of obsessively working over an idea until it turns into something else. The better I get at the sport (and bettering is slowing down for me, as I can’t or don’t want to put in the time it requires – I’m a poet, you know), the more time one has to devote to details. Hitting 1,500 forehands in an hour to make sure one’s follow through ends with an elbow pointed perfectly at the sky. Learning how to serve and volley by practicing against a powerful expert, so that when the next match comes along, it seems easier. To somehow imprint knowledge into the body, so one doesn’t have to think about it anymore.
My obsessions are longterm.
It follows me into the garden. Every fall, I plant spring bulbs. We’ve got a little house on two acres of mostly woods near the Hudson River. We’ve been here for 10 years. Each year, I plant between 500-1500 new bulbs. Some get eaten, some rot, some are moved around by animals. But I intend these poetic lines into the ground, and they always turn out differently from what I’d imagined. So every year at this time, I’m digging hundreds of holes, repeating the names of the varieties over and over in my head. This year it’s Fortune, Spellbinder, Jetfire. Which might become a poem later. One project that seems futile is that I’m trying to plant a long, winding river of gold, a sewn gold thread, into our back woods. I’d never do it, if I had to do it all at once. It’s the world’s slowest form of painting. Check back in 10 years and we’ll see how it turns out.
You wrote: “Repetition is a form of zucchini.” Eventually we all get zucchini-ed out, and move onto the next vegetable.
Some of my favorite poetic techniques are like basecamp on Everest. I always try to climb beyond them, but then I return. I got so enamored by the forms (the “scored” nature of the work was hidden from me, until I noticed I could read the poems in multiple voices) I found for my first book Kyotologic, that I kept at it into the first section of I-Formation. Once I’m sick of something, I’ll go off and write something else for a while (lately: anagram poems, all sorts of remixes and rewrites), and then come back to a form I thought was dead to me, newly energized. I usually write to loud music, could be the same piece of music looping endlessly. Almost all of my writing is heavily processual, and requires many repetitive sheets of often nonsensical work to get language to teeter on that frayed edge of sense. I can never tell language what to say. It’s always telling me what it thinks. I never like poetry that tells me what I already know.
Frank Gehry said about art, “If you know where it’s going, why bother?”
Seems like I mostly write in books (rather than in individual poems) because I need a lot of real estate to work out my ideas. I’m always coveting the short poem other people can write.
In my visual work, I’ll focus on a mysterious detail of someone else’ work, and practice it over and over until I get at the mystery. Jasper Johns used a detail from an Edvard Munch painting as the starting point for his “cross-hatch” paintings. I couldn’t figure out the pattern of the cross-hatches, until I drew, painted, printed it hundreds of times. The coverart of I-Formation is a detail from that work.
Cross-hatch, Bach, forehand volleys, christophii allium, Bjork, typing, smoke bombs, Philip Glass, Gang of Four, 100+ peonies, 200 serves, graphite powder, wax, Mozart piano sonatas, Babelfish, sumi ink, hyacinths, dogwood fruit, Brian Jonestown Massacre
TB: I love that constellation of passions you end with. Mmm…but let’s go back to the beginning of your response. Tennis. I was surprised to learn from you in an e-mail that I-Formation, the title of your most recent book, is actually a tennis term. Could you explain that? I never advanced beyond ping-pong.
AG: When I think of ping pong, I think of a teen boy in a band in his basement. But I suspect it’s a deceptively difficult sport.
Tennis is so beautiful, a physical form of chess, a tenuous crossroad where the body meets its own thought, and each is trying to say the other. Not a single part of it feels natural at first, so it’s like training oneself into a bonsai. I love it, I’m a geek for it, and I argue with it all the time. But I’ve been thinking about breaking up with it to either fence or join the roller derby (both a joke and not a joke).
I-Formation is a doubles strategy in tennis where both people on a team form a line perpendicular to the net in the center of the court. The team secretly agrees where to serve and which way to “break” once the point begins. It if works, it can be startling to the other team, wreak some havoc, and set up great poaching opportunities. (Hmm, all my written work seems to be born from a certain amount of randomizing havoc.)
You have to train and learn how to time one’s responses, but I’ve taught newbies how to do it in the middle of matches, which can add a chaotic ‘firedrill” element to play.
In a way, I-Formation can be a magical way of determining the future (determining born out of secrecy). You create the ripe circumstances for the next thing to occur, instead of letting the event occur on its own (but a mixture of both is always good).
When my tennis pro first introduced us to the idea of I-Formation, my poety self was thrilled by its literal meaning, and I knew would use it eventually. My new book(s – to come) is titled after a same-named section that will be in the second part: a series of anagram poems that form a relationship map of my life. Each person’s name is anagrammed to within an inch of its life, and then I make a poem out of the words I find.
Tennis people are not always so verbal, so I drive my eyerolling tennis friends crazy with what they see as “hyperverbal” or “overthinking.” “What was that word you just used?” I get that all the time.
As poets, we’re constantly forming an “I” on the page and in the air, playing fast and loose with “I”ness all the time. That old idea of the poet finding their “voice” would never sustain a life’s worth of interest in poetry for me. The self is a flimsy notion, a dull matrix, to always provide a starting point for my own work.
TB: Again I have to quote you: “Tennis is so beautiful, a physical form of chess, a tenuous crossroad where the body meets its own thought, and each is trying to say the other. Not a single part of it feels natural at first, so it’s like training oneself into a bonsai.” This really goes to one of my fundamental beliefs—that every act of art is, in some sense, a ventriloquism act.
I’m wondering #1 what your roller derby name will be when you get into that, and #2 how you think the discipline of the practice of tennis has affected your practice of poetry.
AG: You probably think that I haven’t given my roller derby name much thought, but I have. Because my email address name has been “bamboogrrrl” forever (since the beginning of time, or the internet), I would, of course, become “The Bamboozler” on roller skates. Roller derby grrrls get to wear the best outfits: gold lame and fishnets these days, much better than we get for tennis. They also get proof of their sport through rink rash. I just get to whine that I’m tired.
I had poetry breakfast today with my friend Elizabeth Bryant, and we talked about how neither one of us can only be poets. We’ve got to do other stuff to energize and extend our poetic work.
Sex, playing tennis, hiking, practicing yoga on and off reminds me that I have a body, which might be forgotten in poetry, except that writing is so viscerally enjoyable for me. When I was a kid, I played piano for nine years. I was my teacher’s worst student. I hated to practice. When I met my husband years ago and we put together our households, I dragged his piano bench to be my desk chair. I wrote for many years, perched on the edge of a piano bench. Typing felt like playing the piano. In fact after all those years of piano practice, when I learn how to play with pennies and pencils on my wrists to keep them still, I still type like that. Sport and music informs the body. Poetry informs the body. They’re all having one long conversation in my cells.
Plus, practically speaking, being physically solid means I can stand to sit at a desk and work for hours at a time. Sport counteracts my motionless non-teaching dayjob at a university. And left to its own devices, my mind constantly churns with text, and sport and music turn that off for a respite.
Once in a while I’ll see some perfect combination of poetry and the body: a performance by Cecilia Vicuña and Anne Waldman at Bard College, Geof Huth’s recent splashing and singing in an underground cave, Cara Benson’s recent wordless work, Michael Peters’ textual intersection with music, Lori Anderson Moseman’s readings that musically expand the suggestion of her written work. I’ve been watching Butoh performances on YouTube that are stunning.
I’m not sure how this comes together (when writing is a form of thinking) but embodied-ness provides a home to begin from. And it’s also where community begins, which in the “gift economy” that is poetry, is so important.
TB: Embodiedness is truly a great starting point. I’ve done some of my best thinking on a stationary bike. Endorphins can at times get all kinds of things going.
I’m wondering though about getting things going in general. You’ve alluded to your regular use of procedures. Could you tell me a bit about how procedures figured in the creation of I-Formation?
AG: Going beyond I-Formation, your question reminds me of something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s the perfect time to do it now. I love Sol Lewitt’s excessively specific explanations to people who recreate his work. I don’t need anyone to exactly recreate my work, but I’ve wanted to do a parallel experiment with text instead of the visual.
Some recent poems have resulted from:
1. Keep a diary for several years, and extract sections around a specific topic.
1A. Take sections of another work that obsesses you, or is inaccessible or strange or beautiful to you in some way.
1B. Write a cento and let the interruptions around you enter the poem.
2. Feed above text into some type of processing device (might have to do with alpha sorting, anagramming, translation, Google searches, etc.). Do this so many times that the work begins to fragment and aggregate in interesting ways, or you break the processing device (always a sign you’re on the right track).
3. Focus on a favorite magical number of times to process the work. You’ll end up with reams of text (I call them “worksheets”) that is often pleasurably incomprehensible.
4. Take these worksheets and start skimming down, pulling out, combining, sorting things that are interesting. I like to watch sense into nonsense into sense.
5. Make a poem. If you can’t figure out what to do next, leave the worksheets lying around where you can see them for days or weeks or years.
Another procedural example:
I made a series of 28 unbound artist’s books last year called FOLIOS. They were made completely in a spontaneous way, typos and all. Often the typos were extremely interesting. A piece of Fabriano printmaking paper was torn into 16 pages. On my 50s typewriter, I’d type a coverpage with title, and proceed to pull random text from some art criticism and rework it into little relational “plays.” Lots of indeterminate hes and shes. I would then draw on the pages, make calligraphic marks with sumi or walnut ink, and then turn each one into a small encaustic/oil monotype. Lots of oil stick smudging, graphite powder, gold powder… By the end, I made 448 monotypes.
Then I took each FOLIO, and transcribed the “book” into a 15 line (from the 15 pages + 1 title page) “poem.” That the same work could exist in two different ways has enchanted me ever since.
TB: Your first poetic boyfriend, you said early on, was Tristan Tzara. You’ve alluded to other influential figures, too, but I’m wondering who you think of as your poetic forebears.
AG: I’m a poet old enough to have written before and after the internet. Adventurous work is quickly findable now in a way that was glacial before. To answer this question I find myself walking around the house, around my books.
I graduated from college (pre-internet) with a very middle-of-the-road degree in literature and writing, and I knew there had to be more out there than what I studied. I took classes that focused on Hemingway and Faulkner, classes that raced past Pound and Stein, which a quick stop for a few “petals on a wet black bough.” Gertrude Stein’s apartment in which she hosted The Great Man, was more important than her writing, which was made fun of in my classes. The problem was that all my professors got their degrees before 1970. So poetry ended for them in 1970. If pre-1970 work was all that I read, I found adventurous anomalies in the Confessional poets (Plath, Sexton), a couple of the Beats (Snyder, Whalen). I stumbled upon the Schlegels and their Fragments – that was a huge hint about where I could go.
I was echolocating, trying to see what else was out there.
So even though I knew about the Dadaists, I connected it to adventurous visual conceptual art (even the writers), and it took me too long to find that equivalent world in text.
The LANGUAGE poets, and Susan Howe in particular, as an example of language as a medium like paint, engaging the historical, the epic was crucial for me to find. Singularities killed me with happiness. I wouldn’t have written Kyotologic without her example.
Leslie Scalapino’s Crowd and not evening or light was profound.
Old copies of Sulfur found in used bookstores scattered clues.
Celan, Tender Buttons, Woolf, Endocrinology, Maso, Nadja, Mishima, From the Country of Eight Islands, Duras, Helen in Egypt, Nabokov, When New Time Folds Up, Acker, Jubilate Agno, Sobin, The Gift, Albiach, Letters to a Stranger, Jarry, Red Azalea, Duncan – so much more to find.
I read a lot of very old Japanese literature in translation. Sei Shonogon is my hero for the last 1,000 years (which I typoed “tears”), even with all her elitest flaws. I read this stuff many nights before I go sleep – the Pillow Book, Basho, Under an Ink Dark Moon.
Every winter, I reread the arctic adventures of Peter Freuchen and Knud Rasmussen. With some Rockwell Kent thrown in.
My dear friend Maryrose Larkin always says, “I’d rather be adventurous than good.” My forebears are the adventurers.
TB: A final question: what are you, as a poet, most preoccupied with right now?
AG: How do we make the community (the beginnings of the world) we want to live in?
The really daily preoccupations? Splitting firewood, putting up the November hard cider, working on a co-lab with Scott Helmes, finishing my I-Formation anagrams (two to go!), worrying about the people around me who need feeding, switching tennis racquets…
And then the bigger ones:
An explosion of MFA programs and the democratizing effects of the internet have created so many new poets. Our poetic world is vibrant, shimmery, new things afoot every day, every minute, as we write our illuminated manuscripts. At the same time, all this newness is flying below the national economic radar, and we have total freedom to make objects outside monetary concern. What does it mean to make things that can’t be cheaply produced and sold at Walmart? To be deadly serious when the larger world could give a fuck. My friend Geof Huth said once that he strives for the “small time” instead of the big time.
And because we work outside of economic concern, how to we do this over the long haul? How so we sustain the slow burn? Finally, it’s only pleasure, even when the rest of the world becomes unsewn.
Tom Beckett is a curious person. Of late, Rebecca Loudon and Crag Hill have been answering all of his questions.
Anne Gorrick is the author of I-Formation (Book One) (Shearman, 2010), the forthcoming I-Formation (Book Two), and Kyotologic (Shearsman, 2008). She also collaborated with artist Cynthia Winika to produce a limited edition artists’ book, “Swans, the ice,” she said, funded with grants from the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She curates the reading series Cadmium Text, featuring innovative writing from in and around New York’s Hudson Valley (www.cadmiumtextseries.blogspot.com). She also co-edits the electronic poetry journal Peep/Show with poet Lynn Behrendt (www.peepshowpoetry.blogspot.com). Anne Gorrick lives in West Park, New York.