Frances Richard with Andy Fitch

Frances Richard

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Richard’s book The Phonemes (Les Figues). Recorded July 8. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: If we could start with the “sounds” that would be great. I read your project in manuscript form, on double-sided paper, so didn’t have before me the legend your printed book provides, with graphic symbols on one side and sound descriptions on the other. So for ^^º ^^º the sound, “Whir; small body in departure” et cetera—I didn’t make that connection. But do you prefer to imagine the text presenting a prescripted experience of these sound units, which you then can sculpt into longer sequences? Or do you like the idea of these sounds retaining a negative capability? Do the synesthsesiac descriptions you provide seek to preserve some of that negative capability anyway?

Frances Richard: Negative capability: perhaps if one becomes a poet that’s already an important concept. But it is a really important concept to me, so I’m happy you would choose those terms.

AF: I guess it’s loaded. We could move away from that particular phrase.

FR: The sounds came from thinking about my experience of listening to the world in general, but also listening to poets read, what the voice and body can do. It’s kind of like what you’d said about Skype. We can hear each other but not see each other. Even if we used the video function, we’d encounter that weird, pixilated delay. The live body delivering sound in real time does all this seamless, paralinguistic work. There must be a much more precise musical terminology, or perhaps a linguistics terminology, for what I want to say, but color and timbre and timing and accent and emotional valence shape what one expresses. Live performance allows for this. At the same time, poetry remains a solitary-feeling endeavor in our culture. It exists on the page largely for the page—or perhaps the screen, but printed. I’d started to imagine almost a sibling rivalry between sound in the air and print on the page. I’ve wondered what each mode does best. Sound in the air carries all this volume and personality. But the printed page can go where the body can’t, and persists where the body won’t. It can speak in your head and your voice instead of from my head and my voice. So The Phonemes’ typography came out of…one thing that happens when you listen to the world: you might be at a poetry reading and a car alarm will start outside. Then the car alarm happens at the same time as the reading. That’s one advantage sound has, this elasticity. I wanted the page to open itself to this intrusion of non-verbal sound, so I made up these sounds and a typography for them, but as we’d said before about the nature of the interview, it’s not definitive. That’s just the nature of language, right? Or the nature of representation. Part of me loves the idea somebody might jump back and forth in my book looking at the legend and thinking, OK, that’s a whir sound. But I equally love that somebody could decide, I don’t care what that sound says; I’m just looking at a visual design. Or could think, I know that’s supposed to mean something but I forget what; I’m going to make up this sound. Or somebody could be like, oh, there’s blank space for live sound—and then fill it with whatever he or she happened to hear at that moment. Each of these addresses the tension about how notation connects to meaning.

AF: You mentioned the car-alarm example. You’ve told me you’re reading much about William Carlos Williams right now. There’s one classic reading with him in a drafty room, where you hear cars pass the whole time. Have you listened to that particular recording?

FR: I’ll try to find it.

AF: I can try too. For now I can’t help imagining your reader internalizing some sort of Futurist sound-and-visual bombardment. But The Phonemes presents a calm, meditative presence perhaps familiar to focused readers. Here the bold move of calling these typographical elements “sounds” impressed me. The one thing that they’re not is a sound. The auditory cues you do provide don’t necessarily help much. I like that too. And of course John Cage on noise comes to mind. Your effort to open up the page as experiential environment echoes Cage’s frequent compositional decision to include the external surrounds within his piece or performance.

FR: I’ve always assumed that Cage moved far beyond what I could hope for in terms of becoming a meditative master, because sound often disturbs me. I’m quite sound- sensitive. I’ve lived in New York for 15 years and never gotten used to the assaultive street noise. I’ll block my ears with my fingers on the subway. Cage’s idea that all sound is music, all noise composition—that could not be farther from my experience. But I admire it. It suggests an equanimity and curiosity I wish I had. One Zen teacher says, “We disturb the sound.” I’m sure my own sound project includes trying to befriend annoying noises. Though natural noises occur here too. Something annoying about annoying noises is that they have this mechanical, relentless, inhuman, juggernaut feel. I’ve tried to go against that, to reposition both sides, so that no difference exists between wind in the grass and a refrigerator’s drone.

AF: Along those lines, as you edited this meticulous text, as you reread the sounds, how did you experience them? Was it auditory? Emotive? What experience do you have, do you imagine your reader having of, let’s say, the parenthesis-covered page?

FR: That’s a whole page of “car alarm.”

AF: Then subsequent pages have parentheses, though not this same imposing phalanx.

FR: My own experience of that parenthesis page resembles a car alarm going off. I actually hear “wahwahwahwah, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, weh-oo weh-oo.” Just going on and on.

AF: Though the page presents a meditative, rhythmic, Agnes Martin-like layout.

FR: Well, if my car alarm can channel Agnes Martin, I’d…no higher aspiration could be fulfilled! But yeah, I experience this book both ways. When I read it, partly because I’ve practiced reading it aloud, and now have read it aloud a lot, even when I just cast my eye silently, I do hear it as such. Although I also see a series of symmetrical marks on the page. I guess, for the reader: if you see parenthesis and remember “car alarm,” yet also picture meditative Agnes Martins, I couldn’t be happier. And if somebody doesn’t remember “car alarm,” I don’t really mind.

AF: So how do you perform it aloud?

FR: I do that noise I just did. I make the sound.

AF: For all these sounds?

FR: Yeah.

AF: Do you appreciate art and texts that train their audience in some way? When you’d mentioned hearing voices in your head, I remembered Bertolt Brecht’s idea of true intellectual work involving thinking in others’ heads, while having other people think in your head. Could you sense something constructive, rather than simply controlling or constrictive, in training the reader or getting trained yourself?

FR: Yes, I like that. This connects again to meditation, which feels wide open but not easy. It takes a lot of training, a lot of discipline, to enter that openness. And poetry’s verbal artifacts demand attention, demand certain kinds of brightness in the reader’s focus. You don’t just loll back. I like this about poetry. I find it’s good for the mind.

AF: It models to us that we are inherently trained beings, by language, already. It gives us a parallel structure to pursue, again with desire, but also a recognition that, yeah, this is what I am and what I do.

FR: Right. To understand, after a while, that a dotted line stands for a refrigerator humming—that’s what all language-learning does. It applies to some symbol a concept and a sound and a feeling, until these conjunctions seem to make sense.

AF: In your notes you cite Anne Carson’s Sappho translation which, from what I remember, foregrounds questions of how we read—by which I mean how we internally score, internally produce, not necessarily how we understand. How we should read a soundless notation signifying absence seems one of the basic problems animating Carson’s book. Though to what extent did that inspire The Phonemes? Here you appear to present, in part, a deliberately different method. Because you do provide more guidance, however dubious or potentially misleading this discourse of guidance may be.

FR: The way Carson uses brackets visually in If Not, Winter¾I don’t think that ever entered my head while developing these sound symbols. Yet I do rely on Carson’s book and always had valued Mary Barnard’s translations, though when I first read Carson’s translations, suddenly Barnard’s fragmentary (but less so) versions…I felt their madeness and claustrophobia, their closed-downness. I really appreciated the wild infusion coming from Carson’s blank spaces. But I hadn’t consciously thought about them as a typographic marking that is not verbal, yet stands for the failure or dissolution of the verbal.

AF: Just while you described the Barnard translations, which I too always admired, I sensed a paratext of Emily Dickinson and the way Dickinson gets normalized—how her dashes and constructions of poetic space and her history haunt my reading of Carson on Sappho.

FR: I recently heard Susan Howe give a brilliant short talk on Dickinson’s manuscript scraps (not clean-copy fascicles), where Howe attended not only to dashes but to all kinds of stray markings on irregular pages. That talk was just heaven. It felt so satisfying, because the ghostliness of language pooled in these spots. They contain a libidinal charge.

AF: This brings up questions of how you designed your own symbols. To me, they seem animated and subtle and playful. They’ll suggest winking eyebrows or puckering lips. They made me think of English, of typeset, as more hieroglyphic, more anthropomorphic than I’d realized. I sensed more body behind both after looking at your sounds.

FR: Isn’t it interesting that these symbols can go from evoking Agnes Martin, who seems so resolutely, sternly anti-figurative, anti-representational, and yet this bodily thing…it’s there for me too. Perhaps not in an iconic way, not a tiny picture of the body, but closer to indexical mark-making, to a body making a mark or pressing a key to make its mark. Then also the whirs and nonverbal phrases push you back into the body.

AF: I always love, let’s say how French people represent grunts, or dog barks. To realize printed characters have the bodily urgency of a grunt, yet even that grunt we hear gets socialized and coded through language.

FR: Even silence does, right? Carson shows this with her brackets. Dickinson does through her dashes. The Sappho/Carson silence that occurs in brackets (and in holes in the papyrus)¾this silence sounds differently than Dickinson’s dash.

AF: We’ve made a few art-world comparisons. But since you write so well about art, I’ll try to formulate a more thorough question. Graphic designs tend to prompt an instantaneous, two-dimensional apprehension. They seem harder to read, if reading describes an activity that takes place in time. But sounds have temporal duration. Sounds, as you’ve said, can become intrusive and hard to avoid. Of course exceptions to this dichotomy exist. Mondrian’s “Plus-Minus” paintings of the sea seem to ask to be read in time. Agnes Martin grids shimmer. You can’t absorb them in an instant. Then, conversely, Ed Ruscha’s word-paintings, or his blacked-out texts, give language an atmospheric hue, though not necessarily a syntactical directive. Does The Phonemes fit within any such constellation of artistic investigations? Or what would be a constellation in which this book fits?

FR: I have no constellations prepared, but it interests me when people propose them. Ronaldo V. Wilson, who wrote the book’s introduction, talks about the car-alarm pages reminding him of William Pope.L’s piece Yard (To Harrow), 2009, which was a re-do of Allan Kaprow’s Yard (1961), a bunch of piled-up tires. Those pages with their black, semi-circular marks—and, I suppose, the car reference too—reminded Ronaldo of the Pope.L piece, and I was thrilled by that comparison, but never would have thought of it. I certainly didn’t write this book thinking, oh, here’s my mental gallery of artists that relate in some way. When you mention Ruscha, you’re quite right that his word-paintings provide a different experiment in terms of probing how language functions as a disembodied sign in visual space. The word-paintings don’t fully relate, but book-projects from the sixties like Twentysix Gasoline Stations, or Every Building on the Sunset Strip, do, because of their sort of syntactical…the way Every Building on the Sunset Strip resembles a sentence.

AF: Given the latter examples, can you contextualize The Phonemes in relation to seriality? I mean in terms of how sounds cycle through your book: how we apprehend them both as localized units, which carry literal correspondence, and as incremental notations of a broader composition?

FR: I see both of those aspects. But it’s almost as though, the moment I formulate either impulse for myself, it breaks down. It breaks down into atomic particles, instantaneously. Conceptualist constraint, composing according to a single or rigorous set of rules attracts me, but I never can stick to it. The libidinal drive we mentioned surges back in and messes things up the very minute I establish the constraint.

AF: I’m curious about your broader relations to conceptual writing. My question about duration came from this. Conceptual writing raises for me these questions of, once we “get” what’s happening in a piece, then which conceptual texts remain readable after that? There are any number of ways that all remain readable. But which continue to prompt a libidinal desire pushing forward in the way we’re perhaps used to with reading? Here again the question arises, what does our body do with text? Especially in that moment after we’ve gotten the concept. Can emotional projection still happen? Can auditory and/or visual hallucination? Can we still pursue information in some utilitarian way? So again I’m wondering, do your own synesthsesiac symbols suggest similar interests in what a body does with text?

FR: An important difference, at least for me, exists between the gratification of desire for narrative submersion (to be sucked into a story and delivered into character and plot as with conventionally pleasurable reading) and the more diffuse, sort of stippled, oscillating, pulsing propulsion that you get when the means of communication or representation are foregrounded. But, that aside, as you asked your question I found myself recalling two performance experiences. One was Kenny Goldsmith several years ago, reading from his New York Times book.

AF: Day?

FR: Yeah. I had looked at the book, looked as opposed to read, but hearing him read from it was riveting. It was just an epic novel. I could have listened a lot longer. That case demonstrated what I’ve said about my listening and reading experiences being rivalrous relations—that they’re obviously joined somewhere but often don’t get along. Then the other example that popped into my head occurred at AWP last spring. I spoke on a panel about Les Figues’ conceptualist anthology. Vanessa Place’s piece provides this very simple conceit, where she substitutes the feminine pronoun for the masculine pronoun. This is with Simone de Beauvoir.

AF: She’s got a book of those called Boycott.

FR: Yes. But for me it was different to hear it aloud. Once you get the joke, you get the joke, except it remains thoroughly pleasurable and exciting to hear, because every time you sense a pronoun coming down the pike you’re like, it’s going to happen again; it shouldn’t happen again; it just happened again. The present female voice revisits the improper masculine pronoun. This little explosion of meaning and transgression and confusion between the written and the bodily present kept happening all over, though through a stupidly simple exchange which you could predict every time. That probably doesn’t answer your question, but those are two examples where the experience of live performance and live listening became very rich, pleasing, yet also disruptive. If I could do that via rigorous constraint, I would enjoy it, but as a writer I’m too restless. If synesthesia includes not only the verbal or sonic or visual, but also the haptic, the sense of touch, then my sense of compositional touch isn’t compulsive enough, or it’s too infantile or something. I change too often.

AF: I think that’s less infantile, if we use a Freudian model.

FR: By “infantile” I mean wanting gratification, wanting pleasure. Being less charmed by a conceptual pleasure. Wanting a milky pleasure.

AF: You describe that well. And here’s what interests me: the discourse that travels most widely about conceptual writing often explicitly states, even brags, that these texts will bore the reader. But as you say, I find both Vanessa’s and Kenny’s pieces totally compelling. So I wish, rather than having to bracket off the erotics of conceptual writing, that we could probe them more for what’s at play. That’s part of what your sounds do. That’s great.

FR: The erotics of conceptual writing are important. The sense that there would be no erotics, that one would only find boredom or frustration—or that eros and frustration could separate¾that reifies a mind/body split. Ultimately that says, this is an intellectual artifact, therefore not a physical artifact, nor a kinetic or energetic artifact. I think that’s way too limiting. It’s just not accurate to the minute-by-minute experience of listening, or reading, or writing. Or thinking.

AF: Well to broaden the scope a bit, could we discuss the thematics of your book? Meteorites appear often. Do meteorites somehow resemble phonemes? Are phonemes atomized units of matter bombarding atmospheric ecosystems?

FR: Yes, in some ways, a phoneme’s a chip off the old block of language. It’s a tiny shard of language. And a meteorite is a small piece of space-matter that runs around the universe by itself.

AF: I appreciated the solid clusters in which you’d often place language, with then this one phoneme breaking off to spark across the universe. But what about “Shaved Code?” “Shaved Code” stands out as quite different from the rest of the manuscript. You don’t deploy the sounds. You focus more directly on ecological concerns. Yet this piece also fits well in the overall book.

FR: I want to ask how you think it fits well.

AF: Me? I sense a parallel between the environmental and the prosodic focus. “Shaved Code” seems to describe a body’s situated place amid an ever-changing ecosystem, in the way that your sounds operate to suggest something similar.

FR: Right. That this book’s in some fundamental way about landscape was not planned. That just emerged. The phonemic sections trace the topography of language. “Shaved Code” addresses an ecosystem, the coastal redwoods’ ecosystem. It also foregrounds political systems in that it’s about Judi Bari and the 1990 bombing of her car, in Oakland. A long string of discursive positions about these landscapes appear, in this poem, at cross-purposes, in conflict. I’d struggled with how to engage the heroic, because I do think she’s heroic. She was taken down and yet survived her injuries; then died (of cancer); then triumphed posthumously. Thinking about heroism made me think in a more general way about assaults that are not definitively crushing, although still painful and disastrous¾events which, because epic but not definitive, allow evolution. In Judi’s case, some further chapters included the successful suit against the FBI and Oakland police, and the survival of her legacy of activism, but also the fact that old-growth logging and other violently invasive, wasteful, short-sighted land-use practices continue (think of fracking). When there’s a disaster, some sequel chapters will be terrible and some will be amazing. That seemed a good ecological story to me—that a natural system’s weave withstands huge destructive forces shot at it. It’s not killed by those shots, but not unharmed or unaltered either. Judi was an activist, an orator, and then this attack happened that generated a lot of news coverage, and a famous trial. She wrote a book. These are multiple kinds of mark-making.  She died, yet remains a powerful figure, speaking on posthumously without her body. Her story now exists in language, and in numbers. Numbers intrude, because the vindication of her case…in our culture, legalistic vindication comes with cash reward, measured by a number. That’s another kind of notation brought in. To bomb a body, or to cut down a tree, is incommensurate with saying a word or counting a number. But you can’t separate such things, either. This prompts further thinking about the difference between what happens when you confront a live body in real time, and what happens when you sit and read.

AF: I wondered about Bari’s iconic place in your overall project. You’d mentioned the pixilated nature of our conversation earlier. There is this ambient, abstracted world in which your poems comfortably can reside, which I admire so much. I think of so-called Elliptical poets, who supposedly use Language elements to highlight lyric ends. But your work moves in the opposite direction, towards greater opacity, really thinking through how linguistic code and bodily operations parallel or diverge from each other. Yet at the same time, there is this sense of the pixilated scene swelling from ambient, localized details of sound and syntactical nuance to dramatized, heroic character represented on an epic scale. Your book picks up a sweeping gravitas.

FR: In an earlier iteration of The Phonemes, this idea about falling¾the heroic act and the epic fall¾played a bigger role. Social or political duty got traced like a meteor. The meteor appears as this dramatic being from another world. It comes from the beyond and enters flaming. For the meteor, to fall is not definitive. But back to Bari’s specific story: I felt puzzled by that divide—which does and doesn’t exist—between the violent touch of harm on the living body, and the power of words to galvanize change and record ideas. I hope I can have it both ways in terms of exploring the nature of representation, the discourse of sound, but still providing direct communication about this activist who did amazing work forging a radical ecological consciousness and analyzing labor practices in the logging industry. Bari got framed by the FBI and the courts vindicated her. That’s enough of a story. Here I want to use language as an instrumental, communicative tool where I say the thing and you get the thing, a piece of information that is not totally pixilated, not falling to shreds.

AF: Again, you raise important questions about the purported purposelessness of some contemporary conceptual writing practices. What could a new mode of representation, one that gets worked through conceptual writing, look like? So finally, as an example of your representational processes, we’ve got “Blank Icarus.” We’ve got “Blank Musée” which obviously calls to mind “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Does the choral, fugue-like, collage-like construction of “Blank Musée” somehow echo the mosaical quality of the phonemes? Does Icarus’ presence hint at some fall toward grounded meaning in your poetics?

FR: I always have kind of shamefacedly loved “Musée des Beaux Arts.” So there’s my really hip art reference, to Breugel. But “Blank Icarus” came about much more simply, through the last line, replacing “masters” with bastards.” It kind of grew backwards from that little sonic accident. Icarus¾of course, as you say, he’s the meteor, the hero. Icarus and Daedalus are avatars, foils, and kind of blank each other out. “Blank Musée” continued to boil out of the coincidence between master and bastard and the idea of suffering, that you can, in this meditative way we’ve discussed, perhaps master suffering. That’s an incredible aim. Or you can cause suffering and know a lot about its technical means, and be a violator. And maybe those positions, though opposite, can’t be perfectly separated. The Auden poem got stuck in my head, and so did Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.” I was teaching it, and thinking about Shelley as one of these problematic visionary heroes who’s not a very nice person, also probably a suicide. My mother is the other character in “Blank Musée.” Part of the intrigue was simply to combine these three unlikely characters, to have Auden and Shelley and my mom work together. In terms of a conceptual proceduralism: the poem provides no words from me; only words from those three; and every word from a little phrase my mother wrote in her diary in the late sixties gets used in each stanza. That’s my constraint. It’s not a very rigorous one, but it was one I could carry through. I guess it represents another aspect of listening and inscription, in that their voices are encoded in my own mind and recycle themselves there.


Frances Richard is the author of Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012) and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003), as well as the chapbooks Shaved Code (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008) and Anarch. (Woodland Editions, 2008). She writes frequently about contemporary art; with Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi she is co-author of Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (Cabinet Books, 2005).


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