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 Motika’s book Western Practice (Alice James Books, 2012) and was recorded on July 2, 2012. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: If we could start just with the title. Can we say your title alludes to the retrospective, regionally-placed subject constructed by this book, to the conspicuous positioning of a self-conscious literary debut, and to the erotic undertones that triangulate the growth of a particular place and particular person or personhood, however loosely you want this “I” attached to you? Does that briefest synopsis work?
Stephen Motika: I think that’s all in play. The title came not from California but actually when I crossed the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. The valley’s bottom runs about 8,000 feet above sea level, along the Sangre de Christos into New Mexico. It abuts Taos, adjacent to the Rio Grande Valley. I was in this region thinking about art-making. D.H. Lawrence came to the mountains above Taos, and I went to visit where he’s buried. Georgia O’Keeffe captured that famous tree against the night sky in her painting “The Lawrence Tree.” I kept thinking about these two complicated figures in modernism. We have D.H. Lawrence who, for me, since I was a teenager, represented the body and sexuality. Women in Love was an important novel for me in high school. And then Georgia O’Keeffe’s career seems more complicated, multitudinous and more interesting the more you learn about and spend time with her. What we’d thought were just flower paintings that refer to the female orgasm become a really complicated story in the history of modernism. And both came to this place. So I was thinking about their Western practice–literally. Lawrence went to New Mexico then on to Mexico and then back to Europe. But he wrote a pretty over-the-top novella called St. Mawr there. Parts of it describe that landscape. My title came from this experience, very rooted in the West, and thinking about artists from elsewhere making art in the West. I wrote some notes while in New Mexico and the phrase “Western practice” was in my notebook. It was part of a poem I never finished, but I imported it when looking for a title. This made sense, given that I come from the West, California, and have thought about many different practices—the practice of life and practice of writing and reading, the practice of thinking about art, and having grown up in a family whom privileged art. That includes all kinds of Southern California artists. We knew about Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings. All those layers of art-making and practice. And other readers of my book have suggested the influence of Zen practice. That title, which originated as I traveled through New Mexico, became about a larger idea of the West. My father’s family is from Colorado. My mother’s came mostly from Utah, with Californians who went back and forth, traversing. So that in itself was a practice, a self-linking experience going from Los Angeles to Denver every year my entire childhood, back and forth.
AF: I like the resonance of “practice” as a rehearsal as well. I was just talking to Cathy Park Hong about her take on the Western idiom, and how our concept of the West always remains mythic and real at the same time. We’re constantly practicing the West even as some of us live there. Then with appropriation and repurposing (like your title just appearing after it had another function), if we could move into that topic. The first poem, “Night, in the Oaks” raises any number of pertinent questions which run throughout the book. First, with its elliptical reference to intimate, decontextualized details, it bears the trappings of autobiographical lyric. Yet a note at your book’s end tells us this poem, in fact, borrows from David Bromige’s My Poetry. Here I’m curious if you could touch on how biography and autobiography, constraint and appropriation, language-based surfaces and New Narrative-esque plot pivots, how these commingle in your work. There are gestures both toward and away from autobiography.
SM: Those four things you just mentioned are at the heart of this book. The tension between life-writing of the self and life-writing of others, between appropriation and generation of material—these I realize are problematic. As for the autobiographical: that’s the great shadow of the project. Originally the manuscript moved from Southern California to Northern California. So Part II came first, then “City Set” and then the opening poem, “Night, in the Oaks,” up through the Harry Partch poem, then it ended with the same poem. So I’ve re-ordered the geography. I say this only because readers responded strongly to the Northern California section, which has the most autobiographical poems. The lyric “I” gets embodied in a response to mid-century poetics. Or late twentieth-century poetry and poetics that come from the Bay Area. David Bromige is important, Lyn Hejinian is important, Leslie Scalapino is important, Philip Whalen is important, Etel Adnan, Kathleen Fraser, among many others. The interesting part for me is that some of my poems fail. They fail as autobiography. They fail as lyric, their narrative “I.” They don’t quite work musically. There’s awkwardness in that section I’ve come to like. This awkwardness of autobiographical writing interests me. Where it’s like you’re reading my life and you feel awkward. There’s a surprise in every line of that work. “The Lakes” is an interesting poem because it has a lot of autobiographical details but, for me, is a poem about AIDS, an elegiac poem. I wanted that space present there. That’s how it gets beyond the trap of the lyric “I.” For me that’s rocky ground. I see the poem as an attempt to produce this lush lyric that then falls apart. It becomes fragmented, or play-spaced, or sounds odd, or stutters. Or the poem leaves out so much it becomes abstracted.
AF: Well that’s why there’s no sense of failure for me. I think of, for an art reference, Thomas Demand. Because it’s all a constructed scene rather than an actual, natural one. I’ll first think I’m looking at a photograph of a forest then only later note it’s all made of paper. I certainly wouldn’t consider that a failure on his part. I don’t with your work either.
SM: I didn’t mean failure as a judgment, but failure as possibility or opportunity. Failure as a way to create and invent in a space that’s fraught, or exhausted. Autobiographical writing is exhausted. And yet there are ways to manipulate, or fail to achieve. I think of these as generative. As complex. But other texts since My Life have played with that. Like Susan Briante’s Utopia Minus: I think that’s an amazing exercise in autobiographical writing, in the sense that it fails to achieve certain expectations, but is not a failure in terms of a work of art. Her work in fact generates all these new spaces. But there’s failure in meaning or a failure in reading or failure in form, too. That’s important. I love poets who have such tight control of their work. Like Julian Brolaski comes to mind, a young poet who’s just, like, whoa. Or even Cedar Sigo for different reasons. I was talking about Cedar’s work with Brian Teare, who was teaching it. Kids in his class were like, these poems are hip and cool—what’s the big deal? Brian put the poem up and scanned it with them. And they couldn’t believe something was there. That its music was so sure; for me, in my own work, the poem’s music never sounds that clean and neat. That’s something I think about a lot right now. Has my resistance to poetry as a form been my resistance to that closure? Or feeling outside it? Or feeling an atonal, trebling note is integral to something I do?
AF: I’ll want to get back to musicality, specifically in relation to biography. But while we’re still on “Night, in the Oaks,” one other question. You’ve mentioned local points of reference, authors whom your work is meant to evoke. I’m also interested in other ways that locality, or space, place, get figured here. Your emphasis on phrasal clusters as basic units. In this poem they’ll be set off by commas. At other points they’ll get framed by white space. I’m interested in how rhythmic properties relate to your representations of space or locality. When I first saw the spacious deployment of these compressed, minimalist verbal clusters, I pictured open California landscapes. I thought, this is like a big state with space. But as I began to read, that vision merged with Larry Eigner’s Swampscott, Massachusetts. Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior. I began to track overlapping depictions of geographical and textual place. I mean in terms of visual, syntactical, rhetorical, thematic space. Can you say a bit about if and how this vaguely Projectivist tradition appeals to you?
SM: Absolutely. Absolutely that space is part of what I was working through and thinking about. Reading the page, reading as visual and musical space. The landscape that they define makes a map. Those various intersections interest me. Of the people you’ve mentioned, Larry Eigner hits closest, because of the constraints he worked with and how much space had to do for him. You’ll feel it in his every word choice. And that goes on, too, with work he made in Northern California, in the East Bay for a decade and a half. I really thought a lot about him, that monumental collection that came out at the time. I’m interested in this second generation falling away from Projectivism. What happens after the people at Black Mountain, literally at Black Mountain, are gone? What happens post-Duncan and post-Olson, and to younger people? I think Susan Gevirtz’s last book, Aerodrome Orion, is amazingly complicated—politicized and historical. I love what she’s doing. And this is something I’m still investigating, to go even further to think through typographical uncertainty and instability. Stuff that Philip Whalen has done. Or projects that appear cyclical or repetitive, like the poems of Leslie Scalapino. This form where things constantly circle about. The way her own muted music and textual notation create a space that’s different yet again. So to hear her and to read her work on the page aren’t two separate experiences. It’s sort of a commingling of those two. Also Duncan ends up doing something with the self that’s really important for me. Then those open-form poems of Groundwork are so, my god, that’s what was happening those 15 years. And how they fall out of “Passages,” and fall out of…I haven’t thought about this and maybe this shouldn’t be quoted, that some sort of pastoral element for him in the end is not possible. It happens to Ronald Johnson, too. He goes from…think of Book of the Green Men then he ends up at ARK. It’s that same transition.
AF: Related question. On the minimalist phrasings that recur. What role did erasure play in your compositional process? What does erasure signify in terms of gaps, residue, amid the book’s personal, cultural, historical retrospection?
SM: In terms of the creation of this work, there was little erasure. A few redactions, in a few places, but there are no erasure texts. I didn’t take a piece and remove parts then put it back.
AF: I couldn’t tell with the David Bromige if that’s happening.
SM: I’d lifted then interspersed lines from his book, My Poetry. I was concerned when my book had been accepted for publication. Did I need to go back and track down all the lines I borrowed? But I’d lost track, Andy. I couldn’t even remember all the places. And someone said, who cares? And this is really true for the Partch piece. What does it matter? That became freeing and wonderful. Everything was appropriated and nothing was appropriated. I wrote a ton. I appropriated a ton. No procedures were sacrosanct, or exact. I didn’t follow the lead of any conceptual writers. There’s a lot of translation. A lot of gesturing, especially in the Partch piece.
AF: Maybe we should move on to the Partch, to your more expansive sequences. Both “Delusion’s Enclosure” and “City Set: Los Angeles Years.” For “Delusion’s Enclosure,” just for context: who is Harry Partch, and how does the concept of the microtonal factor into your own poetics? What’s microtonal about your work? Why that title for this poem? And this other question kept haunting my reading. Does Partch’s trajectory as California-born, itinerant, instrument-inventing, Li Po-quoting, queer countercultural mid-century prototype composer…it seems so strangely to overlap with the myth of John Cage, or who John Cage was. Is that part of what you’ve constructed?
SM: Harry Partch, as you’ve said, was a California composer born in 1901. He died in 1974. He spent much of his life in California. He had two extended stints outside the state. In the second half of his life, he’d built these instruments. He was looking for a place where they could be housed, and where he could take care of them and produce music. Under those auspices he was at the University of Wisconsin for a while. Later the University of Illinois. Then California for the last two decades of his life. I think that’s important. And the connection to John Cage. Cage is like—what do you do with Cage? Cage, who’s centennial arrives in just a few weeks, is this huge figure. I discovered Cage when he died in 1992. I read a lot of the work. I know the music. I know the writing. He’s sort of this impossible behemoth I didn’t know what to do with. Harry Partch, on the other hand, was someone I was intrigued by. He was way quirkier.
AF: He’ll seem, in your account, more Cageian than Cage.
SM: Cage stayed cloaked about who he was. I’m not sure we’ll ever know how he really felt. And a lot of his practice was about non-response. Those famous talks at Harvard where audience questions became emotional and he stayed nonresponsive. What I love about Partch is that he was emotional and a drunk and indignant and restless. He was a visionary and more than a little off the wall. I love that messiness of him. I love that there’s no way to fix him through a series of conversations or major pieces. That he doesn’t have anything iconic. Nothing like 4:33 identifies him. It’s all rough. And it’s a little hard to take. That’s why the narrative becomes compelling. And I loved taking on that narrative and trying to break and play with it. The microtonal’s important to pick up different registers from each part of the life. One could be Oedipal, mythic, or as you said like Li Po, in a sex scene, similar to an institutional meditation, to a coming-of-age narrative, to this traveling salesman. The microtones were about the whole range of his human voice. And Partch’s story shows, in some ways, the whole range of human life. In many ways he did everything. That compelled me. I’d planned to write 43 parts, to match his microtonal system. But insisting on that structure seemed a bit silly because the poem happened organically. That’s in the end what Partch is about. There’s organic insistence. The music’s about creating something ages old. For him this was sacrosanct.
AF: It seems, from your piece, that Partch somehow moves away from a notational system, from an abstract scale of notes as differentiated sounds, to using the human body as the basis of his tonal range. Can you explain a bit about that?
SM: He wrote a 450-page treatise. But part of what I also was doing was not worrying about that. I wasn’t really responding to him altogether. I was listening to the work, and the work was in me. And I felt the instruments. Some of it’s awfully hokey. It’s perversely idealistic. When I saw Delusion of the Fury at the Japan Society in New York five or six years ago, some of that was hard to take. It felt racist. The colonial gaze seemed really at work. My poem’s about his personal life, his thinking. And the thing that really shocked me—and this is true of Cage, of course—his whole queer identity is just buried in the literature.
AF: You’re saying in responses to him, not in his own self-representation?
SM: He was born in 1901, so Stonewall happened when he was 68 and near the end of his life. So he was never in a culture that was terribly out. He wasn’t closeted—he was amazingly open for somebody born in 1901, but didn’t have the language or resources to be what we think of as a gay man. But what was amazing about the books I read, for the most part, was how straight they were and how they minimized that part of his life story. I wanted to reclaim that side of him. People who read the poem and came to me, and knew Partch, were shocked he was gay. They had no idea. This happens, too, with Cage. There’s this cult of avant-garde music that’s incredibly straight-identified. Now there’s a major biography out. There’s more known, and with Merce Cunningham dead, more will appear about Cage’s sexuality. But it stayed buried and obfuscated for a very long time. Even the relationship with Merce is kind of grey in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. I think people were like, they’re partners? Where was the sex? Where was the fucking? Where was the body-to-body contact? Where was the romantic spirit? Where the real engagement with that whole spectrum? It was absent. With Partch’s work, it’s rooted in the body. Yet this whole part of his experience gets elided.
AF: Along those lines, if we could talk about what you see as the potential for a poetics of the biographical. Again, I’m curious about your own microtonal performance here. This goes back to earlier, when you’d mentioned the sonic elements of your poems and talked about failure—how they deliberately fail in some ways. But the sonic thrust of your biography stands out clearly. Maybe it’s related to the erotics of your telling Partch’s story. Maybe the embodiment of the biographer gets denied in those straighter accounts you’ve mentioned. I guess I’m thinking of projects like William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain. For poets, for the historical/archival research poets do, the histories they provide, what roles can sound, can the bodily telling of the narrative play?
SM: I love that articulation. I’m not sure I have an answer. The poetics of biography: I’ve been asked about this. It’s a really big question for me. For this project I felt compelled to engage a life. Then a poem happens, a text emerges. Part of me felt I could do that again. Then I was like, no, that’s not what this is about. I’m not a biographer. But I did have the urge. I was like, oh my god, I could sit down and do this; I could do a whole book. I had a million ideas that just seemed crazy.
AF: I thought of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists which, I think, too, come out of what he heard in bars or whatever, restaurants. Their oral nature.
SM: I’m working on a new project about elegy in a more exact and specific way. I wonder if that’s one possibility for the body of the biographer to be more present, to be inculcated in the experience of telling the life, or grieving, mourning, tracing something that’s passed. I really love the idea of people doing biographical projects that amount to volumes. The life of Johnson. People who are great diarists, etc., and there should be space for that. But I think for me, at this point, that’s not where I wanted to go to next. Although part of my nature is to be obsessed with people’s biography. I read obituaries religiously. I have this desire to know all the weird details: what’s their birthday, what city were they born in, where did they really come from? All those things interest me intellectually and creatively and personally. So, for the microtonal, the very interesting question of the microtonal and how it relates to the telling and inscription of the writer? That’s my sense of it. And maybe getting back to Vasari, it’s questions of what defines a significant experience? How do you engage those things if it’s posthumous and you’re working with archival data? I don’t know.
AF: And how do you represent them for the reader, further removed from the archival moment? How does that libidinal or erotic attachment transfer into poems deriving from archival research?
SM: That’s really present for me. I’ve wondered, too, if being able to work both with music and film…I watched films of Partch and also heard the instruments—so it wasn’t just looking at pieces archived somewhere. It became alive. There are diaries he kept in the ’30s that are incredibly erotic. Those I repurposed. I sussed it out. I looked for it. It wasn’t just lying on the surface. I went in and dug around. A music scholar would have written much more about the technicalities of what he did with instrumentation. In that sense this poem’s very personal, very biographical. The inspiration’s very much based on a living moment. And then there’s Partch’s obsession and complicated feelings about being visible, about fame, about being an inventor, about being original. In his mind he’d changed the course of human history.
AF: On that topic, perhaps we can proceed to “City Set: Los Angeles Years.” Can we consider this timeline-based poem another biography of sorts? That comes up. And I’m curious what shaped decisions you made for how to represent this extremely heterogeneous city amid such tumultuous years. Of course, any reader would have conspicuous gaps for what she thought would be there. Like, for me, Duchamp’s early-’60s presence is there but not Warhol at the Ferus Gallery and Pasadena Art Museum. Or for more conventional L.A. representations: Watts comes up, but Manson does not. So that’s interesting—the personalization of this timeline. I’m also curious if art exhibitions you cite determine the precise span from 1955-77, or of other determining factors at play.
SM: The answer to the first question is that the poem started out longer, more detailed and denser. That was something people reacted strongly to. It was too much for them. Then the poem’s shape suggested edits. Manson was there. Warhol was there. Some of that felt like overkill. I’d been trying to be encyclopedic, rather than registering different moments. It’s also typographical. Chris Schmidt pointed this out, saying that while the Partch piece is notation, “City Set” seems defined by typographical and visual play. I wanted that to be true. I wanted a whole bunch of different registers. And I’d worked with lots of material and ended up with a poem shaped by the music and visual character of the times. That helped me figure out where to go. Some stuff seemed too obscure. There was a whole bunch nobody was going to get. And I’d decided I wasn’t going to write extensive notes. So Warhol in L.A. was too confusing. People would go, Warhol was New York and Pop, what’s it doing here? It was a red herring. Or with Manson I thought that was very sensational and not so interesting in a reflective way, in the way the Watts riots are interesting, especially as a creative space. The art-world’s response is important to the poem, and the story of Noah Purifoy. I went to this Noah Purifoy sculpture set in Joshua Tree, and it was a revelation. I was reading Richard Candida Smith, his book on modernism in the West. Those two things sparked the poem. What happens when we think about West Coast art-making not as a laggard response to the East, or Europe, but as its own original space? And not just in some apologist way, but in a strong and defiant one? This was really important. I’d always believed that, but somehow the Noah Purifoy story and Smith’s account, brought that into focus. The poem’s set from ’55 to the year I was born. There’s a sort of pre-me thing, then I come into it. At the end there is this lyric “I,” and it’s like all of a sudden I show up. That’s part, too. There’s a visual filmic language and some of it I just thought, this is cool, and gave in. Or I liked some typographical modes that look a bit abstract. I like some architectural references. The notional. That was fun to work on.
AF: Brian Kim Stefans is sort of assembling a poetic history of L.A. which seems to have interesting overlap…
SM: We’ve talked about it.
AF: Going along with this “other traditions” principle. That it’s not that L.A. work derives from something else. It just has been overlooked. One small question in terms of the art catalogued: does the use of first names to refer to figures from the L.A. art world, does that suggest the intimacy of this particular community, and of the retrospective scholar reflecting on his or her biographical subjects? It seemed almost to transpose this classic New York School gesture, but as a means of comparing respective cultural histories.
SM: That’s great. I love that you said that. I think that’s totally at play. You know the James Schuyler poem about going out to dinner?
AF: With Doug and Frank?
SM: I love that move and love that intimacy, which seem both exclusive and exposed simultaneously. There’s this experience they had that no one can be a part of, though still the art can touch it in an off-hand way. That was part of what’s going on. Different textures and voices I played with were a response to the poetics of telling, the poetics of experiences I was appropriating. That inspired this whole project. I can become Jimmy Schuyler in the Chelsea Hotel. It’s all OK.
AF: One thing we haven’t fully gotten to. You just mentioned the textures available within the telling of a story. The poetics of the tableau, also foregrounded in this book, seem different. One example would be the last poem, “Near Los Osos.” This seems to fuse the language to the landscape in a more visual/literal way. Another example would be the “Ocean Park” sequence. “Ocean Park” provides a network of details that depict a coherent, if abstracted, landscape not unlike those found in Richard Diebenkorn’s own “Ocean Park” series. It’s got these representational drives. But then opaque pictorial textures at the same time. One poem in “Ocean Park” provides this seamless assimilation of a transparent scene, though then ends with the enigmatic words “must call.” Unlike the palpable presence which precedes it, that “must call” can be assimilated only by a much looser mode of conjecture. So does it deliberately disturb or leave unresolved the preceding sequence of descriptions? Does this apparent disruption of unified time and place, does it somehow break open the tableau you’ve been constructing?
SM: Yes. It’s a breaking point, too, for the longer poem. It marks a shift. The third section’s rooted in experience. It moves from abstracted descriptive language and free association to something very specific grounded in experience.
AF: The tableau gets traced and then we move—we enter the tableau we’ve looked at.
SM: Not that this answers your question, but it was written right after my grandmother died. It marks an important point in my own creative maturity. I felt I had to write to her and in response to her life. And Ocean Park is one of the iconic places in Los Angeles County—like for New Yorkers there’s the Flatiron Building, the Empire State Building, Central Park. It’s iconic in terms of place because of the ocean, but also the art Diebenkorn created. For me, it’s the perfect…you know Oppen’s whole thing about using general language words to make poetry? He said that eloquently, and I didn’t. But Ocean Park to me, it’s like perfection. So the poem’s very quotidian, filled with daily details as it goes from an abstract to a specific location. But it’s decidedly not Rococo or grand or flooded with color. I wanted it to exist the way it existed, though it does have this personal note of responding to someone who’s passed, responding to a very important figure. Which doesn’t answer your question about the tableau, but I wanted to speak about that poem, about why it’s there, why I kept it in, why it’s important. The larger question about tableau, that’s big. I’m not done with that. “Near Los Osos” is a completely different interpretation of place. That poem is very hard to read aloud because of all the commas and stuttering and the vocabulary. There’s a complexity of sounds that makes it difficult to annunciate. That’s partially about having read a lot of, then edited a lot of, the Tiresias poems of Leland Hickman, as I was doing during this project. I don’t know if you’ve worked on something where you’ve had an intellectual idea about it and you grow to feel more and more…in response to it. At the time I was a bit traumatized working on this because Hickman’s poems are—I mean, talk about the full body: long lined, Whitmanesque, difficult, abject, sexual, overly-familial and obsessed by death. All the big things. It’s attempting to be all this stuff. But I do think Hickman haunts my book in an interesting way. I think a part of me is realizing that and part is resisting his poetics. Like most American poets have. His poetics are untenable, really. But also it’s like, ooh, there was this long-lined, messy, impossible, impassioned, brilliant California poet who’s unknown. And his tableaus and landscapes and life lived and poetic spaces and incredible ability to create the six-, the eight-, the ten-page poem with repetition and incredible musicality. Incredible control. And talk about failure in his attempt to create this Olson-esque, Poundian, multi-volume epic. It was unwritable, unfinishable. I just don’t think it was possible. And I love that. I love the whole thing. I love the starting and the failing. I love that it was necessary but proved to be unnecessary. It’s all this one, two, three—it’s like the Cantos; it’s going to roll out. But the last one Hickman wrote in the Tiresias sequence was part “1:9b.” It’s a 70-page poem with 10 parts. That’s where he ends. It spins out of control. I’m really interested in that. And they are tableaus, whatever that is. Whether it’s theatrical or in the sense of visual arts. Or even Partch’s pieces were tableaus, right? There were actors, a set and instruments. That’s something. I’m still in the thick of that.
Stephen Motika was born in Santa Monica, California and is the author of Western Practice, published by Alice James Books. He is also the editor of Tiresias: The Collected Poems of Leland Hickman (2009) and is the author of the poetry chapbooks In the Madrones (2011) and Arrival and at Mono (2007). Motika’s articles and poems have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, BOMB, The Brooklyn Review, Eleven Eleven, The Poetry Project Newsletter, among other publications. His collaboration with artist Dianna Frid, “The Field,” was on view at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in 2003. A 2010-2011 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Resident, he is the program director at Poets House and the publisher of Nightboat Books.
Motika’s conversation with Christopher Schmidt can be heard here.