Andy Fitch with Lytle Shaw

Lytle Shaw

Last summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Shaw’s book, Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics (University of Alabama Press). Recorded June 11th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts. 

Andy Fitch: Could you give a quick genealogical account of prominent concepts and practices at play in postwar site-specific art—as these relate to the history of late-20th-century poetic experiment? Perhaps we first can consider “field,” for example, as physical terrain, as social space, as point of interdisciplinary contact.

Lytle Shaw: The most obvious terms appear in this book’s title, which foregrounds a poetics of place in certain postwar literary projects and a turn toward site specificity in art. After publishing my 1999 book Cable Factory 20, which emulated site-specific work, I wanted to tell myself a history of site-specific art’s relation to the poetics of place. But most work coming out of a poetics-of-place tradition embarrassed me—whereas Smithson, particularly his version of site specificity, fascinated me. Of course Williams and Olson didn’t embarrass me, so much as how this poetic impulse got domesticated into a workshop mode by the late ’70s. You no longer had to proceed reflexively. You could just represent yet another place through lyric form.

AF: So we’ve arrived at one discourse of poetic space—prioritizing physical location?

LS: Yeah. I don’t attempt to cover every poetics of place. The book presents a diachronic series of case studies, making claims for self-reflexively rich explorations of place and site that occur at different moments. I hadn’t anticipated, for example, such a stark distinction between the Williams/Olson models of place and what followed in the 1960s. Of course Williams and Olson themselves have many differences. Yet each dug into his respective town, Gloucester or Paterson, and dug out these alternate genealogies of American culture, American history. That physical “ground” of poetic place presented raw material for future social formations—formations that didn’t exist yet in those towns. You couldn’t find them in Gloucester or Paterson. Both Williams and Olson remained somewhat hostile to their next-door neighbors, the Marcia Nardis and Vincent Ferrinis hanging out and saying, hey, I do poetics of place—let’s chat. Though then in the ’60s, even as subsequent poets begin an intensive dialogue with Williams and Olson, this all starts to change. Sixties poets prefer to point to actual, existing social formations—either excavated from past cultures or created in the present. The poetics of place has to be embodied or grounded in an actual social formation as the demand for a coincidence of theory and practice increases. Disparate writers conceive of this embodiment in irreconcilably different ways, but they all move toward living out a poetics of place.

AF: For readers less familiar with applying terms such as “site” and “non-site” to poetry, could you distinguish here between place and site? Then as we consider the historical span from Williams and Olson to subsequent ’60s projects, what new relations to language arise, or to the social contexts you’ve begun to outline, or to geographical/ecological space itself?

LS: Place often gets figured as some form of experiential unity, conflating an empirical location and a person’s experience of that location (thereby containing and defining both). Site, by contrast, designates an expanse that hasn’t come into fixed focus as the experiential property of a subject. It can be quite literal geographically, but a “site” also can designate a set of power relations or institutional relations that don’t get contained within one discrete space. And then, just to clarify how I understand the development of these terms during the past decade: We haven’t progressed in smooth linear fashion from prioritizing an experiential connection to place to discovering a demystified relationship to site (an enlightened position from which we can exist as global or digital subjects, disabused of nostalgic connections to particular physical places). Instead, both place and site ultimately remain heuristic categories. I may identify more with a site-specific way of operating, yet I still need some sense of place in order to conceptualize writers’ links to particular locations. So I wanted to put these two discourses into conversation, rather than presenting place as some fantasyland for dupes, and site as our critical, self-reflexive corrective.

AF: Just to return for one second to the more reductive historical model: the demystifying movement toward site in art coincides with a re-mystification of place in poetry. What forces shape these divergent trajectories?

LS: First let me follow through a bit on the historical trajectory of poetic place I began to outline. The familiar, dominant story claims that a series of self-reflexive poetries starting in the late 1960s (coming from the more critically minded wing of New American Poetry and then, of course, from Language writing) begins to position language as a certain kind of site. They begin to critique poetic identity and/or its relation to a particular location. They situate their poetics amid a discursive field of language. Almost all dissertations on Language poetics now start from this basis. But in Fieldworks I want to develop an alternate narrative, one that recognizes this rich and generative moment—yet doesn’t present it as some kind of proscenium toward which all significant poetic trajectories must tend.

AF: And just to extend the parallel/divergent timelines your book posits, the dematerialization of the commodified art object, and the utopian potential people find in this gesture (along with subsequent critiques of that gesture), anticipate, paradoxically, the materialization of language in poetry—so that Fieldworks offers a corresponding critique of this utopian turn toward materiality. But I’m speaking in quite general terms. Could you draw out this specific historical analogy?

LS: Sure. Lucy Lippard documents the dematerialization of the art object in her fantastic book. The desire for this dematerialized object suggests that art has become too sellable. Artists try to escape these conditions of commodity exchange by pursuing purportedly non-aesthetic, “de-materialized” media, such as the photograph—still thought of in the late ’60s and early ’70s as neutral, informational, at least under certain non-art-photography circumstances. Though again, of course, any such gestures quickly can get recuperated by a commercial regime. The supposedly non-aesthetic and dematerialized moment of conceptualism produces its own style, its own preferred fonts even. So within art history, the art object’s material status frequently becomes a charged topic, a domain where one generation or movement intervenes in relation to the recent past. But these interventions don’t always tend toward dematerialization. For instance in the ’30s, under the grip of social realism and related class-based critiques, pictorial art moves from the easel to the mural. The mural seems more materialist—larger, less personal, more public. And it doesn’t present a discrete, sellable commodity. This shift puts new pressure on the easel-based painting as a quaint, exchangeable thing. In this case, “materialization” provides the necessary corrective.

AF: And Abstract-Expressionist painting follows, I assume. But the logic you’ve outlined also reminds me of broader historical phenomena, such as the emergence of seriality—which prompts a change in our perception of art’s material form, yet doesn’t present a systematic dematerializing project. Like in Hal Foster’s account, late-19th-century Monet exhibitions diffuse our focus beyond the individual canvas frame, and set up a perspectival, proto-installation scene, privileging the viewer’s physical relation to the gallery space. Nonetheless, single paintings get bought, sold, dispersed.

LS: I consider that the great generative contradiction for serial work. I don’t know the particular Monet series, but this happens throughout the 20th century in various ways, and then massively in minimalism. Meanwhile, on the writing side, the literary object seemed too easily consumable for opposite reasons—because it wasn’t material enough. Your consumption of it produces no such friction or resistance, no blockage where you become aware of yourself as a meaning-making reader. Instead, narrative allows you to identify with some hypothetical story and project yourself into it and forget your status as a passive consumer. At least that’s how Ron Silliman and other Language theorists frame it.

AF: Or Steve McCaffery claims that a descriptive lyric poetics likewise offers a transparent window onto a scene—one into which we project ourselves as readers.

LS: Description too often gets maligned, but sure. At that late-’60s/early-’70s moment, description faces the same pressure, the same need to roughen and defamiliarize and render something material so as to make it inconsumable. Those opposite trajectories (the dematerialization of art and the materialization of language) shape postwar art and poetry. Yet they come from the same impulses and happen simultaneously.

AF: And then in terms of these ongoing dialectics between the material and the dematerialized, between the parts and the whole, we can update the Monet reference by considering Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can show at the Ferus Gallery. Warhol catalogues all the different types of soup Campbell’s produces. Yet from that comprehensive constellation, the audience gets invited to pick one of these cute, easily identifiable icons—and take it home as a solitary, self-contained product.

LS: Yeah. An increased tension arises between the imaginary unity and the sellable object.

AF: Given Warhol’s mode of displaying that show, which Benjamin Buchloh describes, with each painting perched on a shelf, product-like—can we here begin to pivot toward questions of institutional critique? When I try to understand how small-press poetry has picked up the project of institutional critique, the analogies never line up for me. So first, to what extent does art-world institutional critique pose a specific challenge to the physical space of the supposedly transparent, natural, neutral art gallery? To what extent does institutional critique seek to subvert a more rarefied discourse of the author (or artist), with all of that discourse’s accompanying reinforcements? I know I’m dumb for associating institutional critique with particular buildings. But what does get critiqued by institutional critique? How does “institution” get defined here? How can institutional critique then manifest in poetry? Fieldworks discusses, for instance, the dissolution of the individual poem in book-length conceptual projects by early Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge. How does that particular form of institutional critique (with its sweeping departure from conventional modes of dissemination, of publication, of New Critical dissection) differ from the critique posed by Language’s defamiliarizing syntax?

LS: I think your oscillation between the more concrete concept of the building as site of critique (as a literal “institution”), and the more abstract discourse of the author as site of critique, provides a good way to frame this history. In one narrative of institutional critique, minimalism gave people bodies.

AF: The audience.

LS: Right. No internal complexity exists inside the minimalist art object, no space for you to project yourself and vacate your body. So there you stand, a phenomenological subject in a room, in relation to this thing. Though then subsequent post-minimalist phases said, hmm, maybe this universalized phenomenological subject is an illusion? Maybe our race or gender or class status matters. Maybe we need to register these differences in our analysis of the gallery space and the institutions of art. So we encounter a continual turning of the screw of interpretation—an incremental attempt to foreground ever morespecific sites. The performing body becomes one place where we see this process at work. Mierle Laderman Ukeles, for instance, does the “Hartford Wash” piece, where she washes the Wadsworth Athenaeum’s floor. Not only does her action prompt our awareness of the loathsome toil necessary to maintain this supposedly neutral arena of perception (the museum), but such work now gets assigned to a body with a gender. The problem I find, less with Ukeles’ than with Hans Haacke’s early versions of institutional critique, is that they prioritize sociological analyses of the institution of art, without presenting any thorough analysis of the institution of sociology.

AF: Here the term “institution” gets complicated for me.

LS: Well “sociology,” too, describes a disciplinary site where power struggles happen, where different methodologies come into play—and where all such positions should get critiqued. Sociology doesn’t offer a neutral and magical window that suddenly reveals the politics of otherdisciplines, like art. We’ve inherited this story, for instance, that self-important art objects get replaced by altruistic, dialogic critiques and interviews—presuming that interviews just immediately embody some progressive politics.

AF: I’m guilty.

LS: I want a thorough analysis of the actual functioning of sociology more generally, and of interviews more specifically. The book I’ve just finished, which follows Fieldworks, called Specimen Box, tracks shifts in the discourse of institutional critique over the past several decades. It departs from this process of standing-back and sociologically negating some institution. It privileges practices that deliberately over-identify with institutions—absorbing their idioms of meaning making, forcing these (through imminent transformation) to say something they never could have said before.

AF: Could you contextualize this mode of absorptive intervention amid developments in Language poetry or conceptual poetry or appropriative poetics?

LS: Yes. It took a while to figure out an appropriate frame for Language writing. For me, when I think of the confluence between institutional critique and Language writing, Susan Howe (though not a perfect fit for either field) presents a compelling model, because she consistently engages actual archives. She produces not only a new reading of literary history, but a reading of the power dynamics that shape her access to such manuscripts—that allow her to produce that reading. Then in terms of conceptual poetry: Again,  sometimes poets presume that appropriation by itself embodies a specific politics. I’d prefer to think about post-conceptualism, though that term hasn’t stuck.

AF: From Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman’s book?

LS: I sense conceptual poetry in general hasn’t done the best job theorizing itself, which seems fine. Not all art needs to provide the richest theoretical account of itself. But then I also sense a residual McLuhanism right now. For instance, 10 to 12 years ago, Marjorie Perloff begins to establish a canon of technologically oriented writers, including Darren Wershler-Henry, Christian Bök and Kenny Goldsmith. They become “the new” because they work with the digital, according to this determinist idea of timeliness. Now I happen to like much of this writing. The problem is that the canon and underlying historical narrative of conceptual poetics, in its present iteration, essentially gets overlaid onto this prior “digital” moment, all of which makes it much harder to discuss alternate modes of “conceptualist” politics—like those associated with Kootenay, for instance. I think Lisa Robertson’s work demands much more sophisticated rubrics. Again, its relationship to conceptual art becomes pressing. If we picture conceptualism playing out this late-’60s moment (when it’s unclear whether language will approach the conditions of site-specific and institutionally critical art or whether art will take a linguistic turn), then I want to hold onto these institution-critiquing/site-specific components and not essentialize the mechanism of appropriation. I don’t want to downsize this complex late-’60s legacy in which the disciplines came together. I see Lisa, and others not associated with conceptual poetry in its current figuration, as producing important parts of the actual legacy of conceptualism—which, again, includes site-specificity and institution critique.

AF: Do you feel that the discourse of relational aesthetics, as absorbed by the art world during the past couple decades, has not fully made its way yet to critical reflections on literature? Would that help to contextualize Lisa’s work—her fields of engagement, her types of practice, the blend of institutionally sponsored and maverick projects in which she’ll engage simultaneously?

LS: That’s probably true. Many questions about the reception of minimalism anticipate this later relational conversation. But more generally I would say that poetry criticism desperately needs new perspectives and approaches. Language poets developed incredibly evocative theoretical models. They turn out to have been the best poetry critics across the board for the past 30 years. We still mostly operate under their interpretive paradigms. Yet these have performed the defamiliarizations that they’re going to perform. We now need to shift the discourse. So here I have appealed to terms and concerns from outside, including some from art criticism. Still art is ruthless. . .pardon me, art historians are ruthless when it comes to the maintenance of their field. They often steal from or caricature poetry. They’ll just pluck up practices that happened in poetry—with little concern about poetry having its own history, you know? Carl Andre has a series of historians making sure to document every micro-event in his career, as if he invented concrete poetry. Or I just reviewed a book tracking Marcel Broodthaers’ shift from poetry to art, which presents 1960s poetry as this completely moribund language. But the only poets this book actually mentions are Baudelaire and Mallarmé. The concept of “poetry” itself figures into art-historical discourse as this purportedly timeless, ahistorical, naïve form of personal expression from which art departs in favor of critical rigor. So I feel the need both to call out art historians on their ridiculous fantasy of “poetry,” and to inject some new life into poetics discourse via art history.

AF: Yes it does seem that, amid poetic criticism, points of art-historical reference have remained quite dated for 30 or 40 years, at least since Perloff’s work comparing O’Hara to the Abstract Expressionists became a dominant paradigm—later picked up in accounts of how Language poetics pursue a discourse of surface. But if we could return to the specifics of Fieldworks: You carefully parse disparate conceptions of what a “generative field” might be. You distinguish, for instance, between a poetics of personal cosmology, which we might find in Olson and a poetics that (in Foucault’s formulation) founds a new discourse, such as Jerome Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics or Gary Snyder’s ecopoetics. Perversely perhaps, since it take up so little space in your ambitious book, I’m intrigued when you mention, in a passing aside, that Olson’s seemingly more self-involved personal cosmology, rather than Rothenberg’s or Snyder’s discursive foundings, remains, for you, far more generative. What about Olson’s field makes it so?

LS: Yeah, it’s true. I’ve written this big chapter on Olson, yet still find myself working my way through him. But more generally, we might want to start with the fact that, in the ’60s, the New Left presents this incredibly admirable desire to take massive fields of cultural knowledge and free them from their authorized, official, institutional trappings. Any object or event in an Olson poem consolidates his own position of authority—whereas in a discourse of ethnopoetics, or Amiri Baraka’s early black nationalism, a wide range of references and critiques and idioms gets mobilized without prioritizing any author function. Yet Baraka here differs for me from the case of Rothenberg and Snyder. His actual poems excite and interest me, more than any broader discursive practice of assembling anthologies and delineating disciplines. Likewise, with Olson, I keep returning and trying to figure out what attracts and attaches me.

AF: Again, though it brings up a problematic distinction, something about Olson’s poetry, more than his poetics, most captivates you?

LS: Well that weird component of Olson as a performance artist attracts me just as much. It must have been excruciating but also fascinating to witness that classic scene of Charles Olson in process at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. On the one hand, Olson’s performance foregrounds gestures of connection—with its hey, Ed Sanders; hey, Allen Ginsberg; hey, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. Yet that same exhaustive love-in denies the very possibility of connection as it proceeds. Olson so rigorously, so continuously reaches out and withdraws at the same time. I can only think of something this bizarre in relation to performance art. But to return briefly to your question: I doubt any poetics from the ’60s could have banished, simply and absolutely, all traces of a personal cosmology. I’ve grown up in enough of a Nietzschian environment to recognize how discourses relate to conditions of possibility shaped by particular artists’ and audiences’ needs. I sense an historical horizon, rather than an existential either/or.

AF: Here’s another small, localized follow-up. Chapter 2, I think footnote 17, lists a series of travel journals poets produced during the ’60s and ’70s—including one of my all- time-favorite literary projects, Joe Brainard’s Bolinas Journal. Could you outline the place of a personal/post-personal cosmology within these travelogues? Do all or some of these texts deserve renewed attention?

LS: You picked my favorite, Joe Brainard’s brilliant Bolinas Journal. Joanne Kyger’s Strange Big Moon contains a couple moments I love, such as her meeting the Dalai Lama with Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. But I guess I wanted to argue that, in their historical moment, these projects took on a different cultural function than they might now. They didn’t document personal soul-searching, so much as they engaged this culture-wide search for alternate genealogies and an expanded concept of North American or world literature. People actively pursued this gonzo style of research, which involved putting yourself into contingent situations.

AF: That leads into a broader question. Does it seem fair to say that, in the decades following site-specific art’s emergence, the two most dramatic challenges to any fixed, ahistorical, timeless conception of physical place have been posed by human-made climate change (causing us to rethink any eternalizing, idealizing notion of ecopoetics) and by the internet’s placeless polis (several steps further removed from the dream of an authentic community that you track in Amiri Baraka’s Newark or the collective be-in of ’60s/’70s Bolinas)? From your own experience assembling this book, can you speak to how site-specific art and poetics have proved prophetic, prescient, oblivious and/or ill-equipped to meet the epistemic problems posed by these two new modes of contextualizing space or place?

LS: First in terms of the foundational discourse for ecology, I only realized quite recently how math- and statistics-based its key components were. Early formulations of ecology overlap certain kinds of systems theory—with an a priori emphasis upon an input/output identity, a movement toward stabilization. Only since the late ’70s have theorists argued that natural history does not work this way, but rather embodies the historical, with irrevocable changes all the time, climate change among them (although clearly we’ve made this much worse and need to address it). So here again, if we consider site specificity as dissolving easy distinctions between the local and the global, as prioritizing relationships of scale rather than of identity, then site-specific discourse seems quite useful for tracking those two historical developments you mentioned.

AF: Again, does any such poetics of scale stand out from preceding generations? Does Whitman’s complicated conflation of personal, social and textual bodies present one productive model?

LS: I absolutely adore Whitman but find a somewhat fixed human core in his sense of scale. That scale radiates outward from the human body. That’s fine. Though Robert Smithson, let’s say, presents a series of different scales or frames or registers, only one of which we might identify as human—and not necessarily the central or stabilizing one. A model of scale that can move back and forth between the intergalactic and the subatomic most interests me. I don’t mean to moralize about how humans have been in charge too long, and it’s time to let the microbes have their say. But scale shifts allow us to encounter unsuspected questions. Their degree of abstraction precludes any simple identification of site specificity with rural locations, for instance. They don’t privilege your particular hometown. They put into relation immediate, empirical scenes of encounter and potentially infinite frames of reference. So rather than Whitman, here I’d evoke somebody like Robert Hooke.


Lytle Shaw’s recent books include Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, The Moiré Effect, and Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics. He is a contributing editor to Cabinet magazine and associate professor of English at New York University.

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