The interview with E.J. McAdams took place between January and March of 2013. It focuses on McAdams’ chapbook TRANSECTs.
Philip Metres: E.J., I read your chapbook, TRANSECTs! What I want to propose is a poetry dialogue over them. Are you game? If you are, let me begin with this question:
As an urban environmentalist (someone who lives in the city yet advocates for nature—who sees the permeable connections between what we call the human and the natural, between built space and the organic planet), can you talk about what drew you to the acrostic procedure, and how you went about the composition of these poems? In other words, was your process of selection entirely chance-bound, or were you picking particularly juicy juxtapositions along the way?
E.J. McAdams: Hi Phil,
Here it goes…
About 10 years ago I met a choreographer and dancer named Jennifer Monson, when I was the Executive Director of NYC Audubon. At the time she was creating a series of dances called Bird Brain where she would dance along the route of a certain bird’s migratory route, like an osprey’s migration from Canada to Venezuela. She was doing a class on bird navigation with an elementary school down in Jamaica Bay and had invited me to teach the kids about birding. After the class, we talked about our common interest in the urban environment and how artists (and a couple of birders and rat ecologists too) had been in the vanguard of bringing attention to the nature of the City and its importance. She was starting a new non-profit called the interdisciplinary Laboratory of Art Nature and Dance (iLAND) and invited me to be a founding board member. That in a sense was the beginning of the TRANSECTs. I kept watching Jennifer and these other movement artists engaged with and in the urban environment. I wondered how a poet might start to work with the environment outdoors.
I was also curious how science might influence poetic work, and I remembered my time as a park ranger working with biologists from Fordham University and how they would do bird studies using a pre-set line or transect to measure phenomena, in this case bird song. Writing poetry outside is not really new. Many poets like Wordsworth have composed outside, but I was trying to figure out how “outside” might collaborate on the poem. What I needed was a way to impersonally collect words as data, and that is how I stumbled on the need for a procedure. Jackson Mac Low was a big influence on this work. Reading his Stanzas for Iris Lezak it was clear that his work resembled nature much more than nature poetry, because it was composed out of the same random stuff.
The first procedures (and you can see them in the chapbook) are ones where whatever word I found, I would walk until I found another word that started with the same letter as the last letter in the previous word. I strove to be as impersonal as possible, but it was very difficult. Human perception is limited and the brain filters out a lot of what you actually see. So there may have been a word that could have been the “next” word except it was so small I didn’t see it. It was not like “reading through” a text where you could be unquestionably accurate. Each poetic excursion became a sort of ethical performance walking down the street aiming to have fidelity to the procedure, but I occasionally failed. I never went for the “juicy juxtapositions” but I sometimes wouldn’t look at a “No Parking” sign because I knew if I did I would have to use that word “Parking” again, (if it was “P” word) and I just couldn’t bear it. Then I would feel guilty and encourage myself to stick to the procedure no matter what. It’s funny but to commit to “entirely chance-bound” procedures takes a tremendous amount of faith and poise among uncertainty and probable failure.
Reading Cage and using his mesostics as a procedure honed my attention a bit more, because finding the next letter in the mesostic along the TRANSECT required a bit more “reading” rather than simple “perceiving.” It required scanning more words in their “habitat” at different scales, not simply the first flashy sign that catches your eye with its first letter that you need.
Is this getting at what you are asking about? I find whenever I have to write or talk about how the pieces are written that it becomes much more complicated than it is. Figuring out how to write the notes on the procedures took a long time. It was helped tremendously by having the example of Joan Retallack’s Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Cont’d/ from Roof Books. Her notes are incredibly economical and informative at the same time.
I am not sure how to stop but think this might be a good place.
PM: E.J., I was particularly taken with the “tree” TRANSECTs—they feel almost like elegies to the natural names of things. The spine of the maidenhair tree, for example, is “DO/ENTER /NAME/HOT. . .” The primacy of language, paradoxically, feels as if it’s erasing the world—even though these poems were the process by which you played into the environment. It seems in your poetry the words constantly point to their insufficiency, even though they also are the occasion and the way beyond them.
EM: Hey man, I am sorry to be so lame. I have read this wonderful paragraph and am not sure how to answer yet. But I will hunker down and respond. I got a big grant out today so I am hoping to have a little more space.
PM: E.J., the beautiful thing about this process is that the question always awaits you, and you don’t have to hurry to answer it! If we were neighbors, we could do it in an hour, but that’s okay—this is long distance mindmelding—takes longer—
EM: Dear Phil, Everyone is at church and I have some time to respond finally. Thanks for your patience. I am so grateful that you are reading my work and looking so deeply into it. Your reading is provocative. I don’t know exactly what these poems are doing, and the procedures were a tool to “keep me out of it.” The poems really grew out of this problem of how one might engage the environment as a collaborator. Could the tree collaborate by sharing its name in an acrostic?
As much as I have tried to stay out of explaining the poems, I often find myself reading other people’s ideas and thinking there is a connection to this work, which is probably a kind of arrogance that I am not over yet. As you know I was a philosophy major in college and I still try to read at least one philosophy book each year, and over the course of the last three years I have read four Giorgio Agamben books.
In a section of Infancy and History he talks about the linguist Benveniste, who identified that there are two discrete and contrasting signifying modes within language: the semiotic and semantic. The way we encounter most language is the experience of bringing together these two modes of recognizing the sign and understanding (or not) the semantic discourse. With the TRANSECTs, I can see now that the procedure may be able to give an experience of the language that is almost exclusively semiotic. Benveniste, quoted by Agamben, says: “The only question prompted by a sign is whether it exists, and this can be answered by a yes or no. . .” I think at one level there is nothing to understand in this work, but there is a rhythm to the existence of the signs, which is how the work “feels” when I make it.
Benveniste goes on by saying that semantics can be translated but not semiotics, and I think that the book plays this out to some extent, too. I think the only “real” translation of this book would be to do the procedure in your own language, which is what I tried to do in Bahasa Indonesian, a language I don’t know but whose alphabet I do. I am not against sense (or non-sense), but there is something about the “sign” that was paramount. And clearly I worried about losing all sense as I added a “translation” of the Indonesian poems. So already I am not being very consistent, but there is something a little extra semiotic in the work, maybe, which is why I may have felt the need to take photos of the signs rather than simply transcribe text as the project developed over the years.
In Profanations, Agamben talks about play as a tool for profaning capitalism (in an essay called “In Praise of Profanation”) and once I read that piece I thought there might be something like that in the work. There may be something in the play of the procedure, a procedure instigated by the presence of the tree, that deactivates the commercial and government language that commands the streetscape. It is possible to see the procedure “emptying [the words] of their sense and of any obligatory relationship to an end, it opens them and makes them available for a new use.” That may be the “erasing” experience you are getting at in your comments.
They have just texted me that they are in the car on their way back from church. Time to stop profaning and ease back into family life. Looking forward to continuing this conversation.
PM: E.J., one of my favorite anecdotes about poetry concerns the one you told about your son Joe, when as a young boy he referred to the birding kit which you gave him as his “poetry”—since apparently he associated your two loves (birding/hiking in Central Park, and poetry). Do you see poetry as an extension of your entering into the wild spaces, or entering into the wild spaces as entering into the poetry, or both, as a kind of dialogue? (Note: I’m not happy with the term “wild spaces,” because it creates a dichotomy between the built world and the “natural world,” which your work seems to deconstruct.)
EM: Thanks for reminding me of that. I had forgotten it. If you can believe it, Joe got that kit at his fourth birthday and now he will be 14 in June—almost a decade! I was able to find the essay I wrote where I tell that story (and I just shared it with Joe, who smiled but could not remember it). At his birthday he called the kit “poetry” and I asked him what poetry meant because he was too young to know the meaning. He said, “Looking for things, Dad.” His response seems pretty prescient for this project, and I have often thought of these poems as looking for words in their urban habitat, using a method, the TRANSECT, that you would use for a bird survey.
Your move toward wild spaces seems right. I might go a little further to one of my favorite expressions—wildness—because it is so open and unspecific. I am not sure of the etymology of it, but the way I know it is from Thoreau: “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” To me wildness is not just located in wilderness (a word that is often replaced in the quote, because some people wish it said “wilderness”) but within us, within language, within cities, creatures and so on. At the same time, not everything is wildness. If you look at the quote as a math equation where Wildness = the preservation of the World, it is only the things that preserve the world that are wildness. When people talk about the interconnection of all things—either the ecologists or the spiritual adepts, I think what they are describing is this wildness that is somehow material and (currently at least) unknowable, a “mystery.”
Lately I have been learning about DNA and how the reading and writing—the transcription—between cells happens. This biologist Alberto Piazza proposes, “In the case of DNA, we know the alphabet, and we also know the text (the sequence of the human genome discovered in the last few years), but its meaning remains largely unknown.” As you know I am fond of reading back on what I was doing in TRANSECTs, and it seems like this: Through the procedures I was able to generate a text whose meaning is unknown but somehow generates responses from readers.
You talk about dichotomy and that feels real. I suspect that wildness is probably non-dual, but I experience it as a third “way” “between” inside/outside, body/environment, etc., but those dichotomies are sticky. Perhaps it has the form of a double helix.
PM: E.J., thanks, man. I think we’re almost nearing the end. . .but another question: Could you talk a little bit about poetry and other art-modes that you’ve been engaged and inspired by, particularly those that call us outside of the strictures of the book and into our wildness and otherworlds?
EM: It is funny but I wasn’t totally sure what you asked me about but I am going to answer and if I am way off please re-ask. There is something about the word outside connected to poetry that I want to pursue. Certainly there is a wonderful tradition of nature poetry and an emerging movement in ecopoetics. Many of these eco-poets have inspired me by their attention to the world in all its interrelatedness and creatureliness like Gary Snyder, Jack Collom, Lorine Niedecker, Andrew Schelling, Jonathan Skinner, Marcella Durand, James Sherry and Ed Roberson. They have also informed my world-view beyond poetry in profound ways. In other words, I could not imagine my life being the way it is now without their work. That said, their work is in books and on the page primarily.
There are a couple of poets whose work was “outside” that inspired me. The first poet like that was the concrete poet (which is how I found him) and “avant-gardener” Ian Hamilton Finlay. There is a new selection of his work from the University of California that his son, who also has done poems in outside settings, has edited that is fantastic. Early examples are concrete poems written originally as texts that with a collaborator he realized in another medium like glass or stone at a site in a landscape, but more and more he conceived poems that are more suited for their settings: sundial poems and poems composed in a landscape and placed in a landscape. Finlay’s countryman Thomas Clark also creates poems for architectural and landscape situations.
I looked to the artist Andy Goldsworthy too. The way he could walk through a landscape and intervene ever so slightly and leave an ephemeral artwork blew my mind, and I assumed there must be some way to do that in poetry. Other artists like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton considered themselves walking artists but they often came back from their walks with words. The poet Cecilia Vicuña constructs the “precarious” or “basuritas” (little litters) out of found materials that are ephemeral sculpture, but most would consider that her visual art, rather than her poetry, which may be limiting her full intention.
Again I was very curious what a walking poet could be and was sitting on the edge of my seat to read a book that Ugly Duckling was putting out a book called Ten Walks/Two Talks by Andy Fitch and Jon Cotner. The book is a delight but it is written in and feels like prose, and it wasn’t going to help me on my journey.
The contemporary examples that I keep like an anthology in my head are a mix of social practice, ecological engagement, somatic exploration, and innovative performance. Much of this work is off the page in some way—or somehow brings a bit of “outside” into the documentation of the work. I am very fond of the book Landscapes of Dissent by Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand, and there are many examples in that book of “outside” work. There is often some difficulty in tracking down this kind of work as it can be rather ephemeral, often purposely so. I have never seen Julie Patton’s “Let it bee” gardens in Cleveland but I have heard her talk about them and have even eaten some jam from them. Laura Elrick, Brenda Iijima and Cecilia Vicuña have made poem-films in the last couple of years: Elrick’s Stalk address Guantanamo; Iijima does witch dances in North Adams, Massachusetts, her hometown; and Vicuña’s Kon Kon sings a response to the ecological crisis as it touches down in her own Chile. Online, I read CA Conrad’s somatic exercises, where he often goes outside and has a bodily interaction, ingesting or feeling something from the outside and transforming that into words that almost seem to emanate from his body. What is so appealing about all of these examples is the generosity of the gestures in the work. Conrad seems very willing to share his magic soma so that you too could generate your own. Jill Magi and Amy Carroll are two poets who have an ability to bring the outside into their work often through photo documentation and typography, but also through a kinetic use of language that retains some of the movement that initiated it. There are poets I am forgetting about for sure but these are some that I feel a fellow feeling with. In fact writing all this makes me want to get out on the street and back to work.
One of the pieces I have been working on—it is in a sense the opposite of the TRANSECTs—is the wayfaring poems, of which there is only one so far because it is so fucking hard and quixotic. But for three years I have been looking for all the words in a short Langston Hughes poem called “Island.” Today may be my lucky day to find “sorrow” or “drown” or “somehow” but I am losing hope a little.
PM: One more question—you decide which to answer first—can you tell the story of Pale Male and how poetry came to your aid?
EM: I think you asked me about this when Pale Male happened, and we emailed about it then. It is getting to be a decade since that all went down but it is still rather fresh, as it was by far one of the most lively, traumatic and wonderful experiences I have had in my life.
What happened: The residents of a building on 5th Avenue in Manhattan (the fanciest part of town) dismantled the long-time nest of two red-tailed hawks, Pale Male and Lola, who enjoyed an almost celebrity status in the City because of a documentary shot by Frederic Lillien and a book written by Marie Winn about them. As the Executive Director of NYC Audubon, I worked with the larger birding community, and we responded to this egregious act with a mix of protest and theater. The media jumped on this story and so did the City. One of the slogans of the protestors was “Honk for Hawks” and pretty much every New Yorker who drove by the building did. After 23 days working with the Parks Department, architects, and Mary Tyler Moore, who lived in the building, we were able to get the nest returned.
As I look back on it and think about the role of poetry during that time, I come back to the efficacy of language. Each day I gave a press conference at the corner of 74th Street and 5th Avenue, across from the building on the Central Park side, and each day I needed to come up with the tight little, poem-like sound bite that would focus the narrative on protecting the hawks. I had no illusion that I controlled the narrative. The narrative forces of the world are so strong, and I could really feel them in this situation as the news tried to make the story every day and say who the hawks were, who I was, who the people in the building were, etc. I felt like the poet in me could channel other poets and nudge the narrative of the hawks slightly. It was not magical or naive thinking, but reminded me of the way I experienced practicing Tai Chi, where you could move the force of someone’s energy in a slightly new direction, enough to change the outcome of the encounter.
Poets have had that power in the past, and I think it is a role that poets can play, although the enabling conditions are rarely present. There is a book I read over the last year called Darwin’s Pharmacy by Richard Doyle, whom I had heard speak on a panel that Bruce Andrews had put together at the Rethinking Poetics conference at Columbia a couple of years ago. In his book he talks about how the shaman has a role guiding the patient’s journey on ecodelics (his coinage for what most have called psychodelics, because so many of these substances come from plants and mushrooms in the environment), and how this guiding comes from language and song. Basically, the language creates the context for the experience, the “trip.” I think poets are often creating the context for our experience of reality, although it can be a pretty crowded space and hard to measure scientifically. But poetry does work on the context. Certainly, it is easy to see in the smaller communities where poets work, and possibly in a larger context like the Occupy Movement, or in the samizdat time of Russian poetry in the 80’s/90’s that you introduced me to.
As I write this I see a connection with the previous “outside” discussion, which shares examples of poetry in public or semi-public spaces, creating a context for public life that is not so commercial or prohibitive but more liberating.
E. J. McAdams is the author of two chapbooks, TRANSECTs (Sona Books) & 4×4 (unarmed journal). About Place Journal recently published a photo slideshow of a TRANSECT. He lives in New York City.