Robert Grenier lives in a sometimes ecstatic state, but sometimes not, where he extends the tradition of the pastoral poem in ways entirely his own. One of the most influential poets of his generation, Grenier has, over the past forty years, pushed poetry into constantly new frontiers of practice and utterance. Over the past decade, Grenier has created handwritten poems that cross the upper limit of inscription to be both writing and drawing. I sat down to speak with him on the telephone on December 21st, 2012, to discuss his drawing poems.
My first question actually comes out of the statement you gave for the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA). You say that the drawing poems exist in a crack between poetry and the visual arts; they come from trying to envision a true name for things, of which the physical agency of drawing is important. Do you think that the physical act of drawing gives more agency than a speech act?
No. I would never say that. It’s not really a comparative thing. One undertakes it in order to do what the form seems metrically to be capable of doing. And so if I think back, there was never any real choice to abandon speech, which is the thing in This magazine that everybody quotes: “I HATE SPEECH” . . . abandon speech. Nor, later, was there any intent to abandon the typewriter. It’s just that something was around the corner, which was another kind of capacity that one can move to attain. And you will, of course, know that and find out more about it perhaps, as life goes on. There are certain changes that one makes, and for me it was not really planned or intentional. When you look back, in retrospect, one can speak to these and inquire into them. More, the drawing poems themselves, to me, seem physically closer to that of which they speak. They seem to gesture toward it and move to incorporate and acknowledge more of what one is given to see. And it does really all come from, not so much inspiration, but from direct seeing of some funny things that show up in the environment that want to be known.
Is the physicality itself important for this?
Well, it makes it more interesting and fun for me to write. That’s always the question. Artists think that they are writing Something, and later on critics or connoisseurs note that they are making a certain kind of form that is a ‘personal gesture,’ recognizable as such. One can see what a Cézanne looks like from afar. But, I wonder, whether for the artists themselves . . . there are a lot of people, really, trying to move in some way closer to whatever it is that instigates the work and wants to be known. And then, because they’re looking at something or have some direct experience of it, in the writing or working in the medium they’re working in, while they’re looking at it, they, I, associate that work, that gesture, with the thing that they’re looking at. So, I think that these steps are ‘closer to nature’ than certain other forms that I’ve made, but that could just be because I associate the form with the time of the making and the vision that was occurring at that time. I’m not a good ‘reader’ of my work, in that abstract sense of . . . And that’s why I’m interested to hear from anybody just looking at the text. Just the pure, simple, color drawing poem. When you’re looking at that, you can have a new imagined experience of something which is not the same thing as ‘what I was looking at,’ which is equally there in the world in some way. So there can be a loop back to experience . . . through engagement with the structure of the poem, and I don’t know whether that happens for anybody else. And as I say, for me, it could just be association; I remember that I was looking at the dog when I wrote the dumb poem about the dog.
I remember the last time we talked we discussed the jaggedness of each line that forms the letters as a sort of line break, or line breaks in the drawing poems. I was wondering if you have more thoughts on that. The interesting thing to me is that it creates a pause in the formation of the letter itself, so it stops you.
What do you mean?
Usually line breaks are breaking up different units of meaning that are brought together. Because the line breaks are happening within the letters themselves and there is no referential meaning linked to the letter itself, it is almost as if there is a sort of void or emptiness being conjured. But the fact that the letter exists in space, because you are writing it, is noted because of the jaggedness of the lines. It’s like you are conjuring the letter into existence.
Well, there is that being done . . . but in that statement for the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, in the second paragraph, let’s see . . . just reading it aloud, because it is new to me,
“Whatever mark can come into existence here Entirely Depends on the capacity of the drawn shapes to cooperate (with perception of what comes into the field of whatever’s ‘given’ by this ‘organization’/‘life’ of perception/‘thinking’/‘imagining’/‘feeling’), Feel-Like and volunteer their dream-shapes to Try to write-into-existence (by dint of exceptionally ‘athletic’ drawing into the paper, by virtu of the drawn letters) Something that seems to be obviously/radically different from, but absolutely (somehow) also ‘Part’ of whatever it is it’s trying to (salivates) Club only (?).”
So there’s something about the shapes themselves, almost . . . Now that really does seem kooky to me. The shapes of the letters want, ‘themselves’—apart from ‘the author’s intent’—to draw whatever it is into existence. That’s my experience. I follow where they go, wherever they go. I make some sort of determination. It’s as if the shapes themselves were shaping the thing that’s said.
Just to go back to something that came up the last time we talked, is that what you mean by a “positive form in space?”
Well, maybe I misheard, but I thought that was your phrase. Well, when I was growing up, you keep your ears open . . . writers learn from studying and relating to other writers’ works and their statements about their works. There was a thing that was current when I was growing up, that came from Robert Creeley through Charles Olson, and it was: “Form is never more than an extension of content.” Olson quotes Creeley in “Projective Verse” as having said that. I mean, these statements, what use are they? In any case, one can equally reverse that and say that ‘content,’ so called, is never more than what the drawn letters, as ‘forms,’ wish to say. And that’s crazy. These letters are invented by humans, and there are various versions of them, and there is no reason on earth that the human shape should itself wish to create ‘content.’ But it’s interesting to speculate whether something of that actually does go on.
It’s beyond the intent of the writer, you see. I’d like these shapes to shine and have virtuous effect in the real world. [laughs] Everybody who makes art or makes literature, I’m sure, wants the work to go out and have a life of its own somewhere.
Actually, that brings me to my next question that I have in terms of the drawing poems as sculpture. You said something in a conversation with Stephen Ratcliffe on Penn Sound, that visual art objects have a rhythm in space and that rhythm is a form of counting. The way that you write the letters on the page has a kind of jagged rhythm where the letters themselves are interrupted, so on one level you are creating an object that can be thought of in terms of sculpture. I remember that you also mentioned that your dentist had asked you, “Why obfuscate what you are saying?”
Yes! Why not just come out and say it? That’s what we’re doing now. I don’t have to do that in my work, I hope! [laughter] My god, the power may go out, the wind is blowing mightily . . . Oh my, it’s dimmed again.
Oh, wow—It’s the Apocalypse!
The telephone service may be interrupted . . .
What do you think about visual art objects having a rhythm in space? Do you see the line breaks and the colors as creating a similar vibration to what sound would make in a voiced poem?
Oh sure, yeah. People even say Beethoven scores exist as sculptural objects in space, if you want to look at that aspect of them. I think that anything that has ‘agency’ has to have some kind of crucial, integral integration of its own shape as formal possibility. That’s what gets it done. It has to have a concentrated urgency of its own . . . well you could call it ‘sculptural nature,’ formal nature. Everything exists; the chair exists, because it’s been put there in that shape. And if you look at objects . . . Larry Eigner used to say that he had x-ray vision, that was because he wanted to know more than the outside of something. He wanted to look into something and see what defined it as its formal fact of itself. It’s . . . what’s the word for that? It’s . . . uh . . . it’s . . . uh . . . Oh! It’s “form!” [chuckles] It’s hard, the word “form” is so abstract that it has no meaning. What is the better word for what allows something to gather itself together and exist in space, and have mass and weight and color? How does it . . . what is the integrity of the design of the object that allows it to be? Everything has to exist, or it falls over. It vanishes.
So you see the integrity of that sort of object as existing in the word itself?
It exists in the drawn shape, in this work. And formerly, in Sentences and stuff like that, it was in the design of the letters produced by that machine. The machine produced such and such an image, and that image existed in space. It was quite a creature, the IBM Selectric typewriter. It created objects that weren’t there before, in that way, and people could do it at home. It was an elephant of a heavy thing, but it made its own kind of mark, and the mark had this kind of structural integrity that allowed it to exist as an object.
Well, sculpture is the classic way to . . . Sculptures obviously ‘sit there.’ [laughs] Somebody made a mass of something that has . . . what’s the definition of an object that has mass and occupies space? I wonder if anybody uses that definition anymore . . . ? The definition of what, the ‘thing’? That was something I learned in junior high school, perhaps.
I’m struck by the symmetry of colors in the drawing poems. Could you speak a little bit about how you make the decisions of the colors that you use in the drawing poems, or it is just more intuitive?
I don’t like the word “intuitive.” It seems to cover . . . the answer covers over the question with more mystery. The drawn shapes follow a ‘lead’ . . . they’re using their ‘nose,’ and go forward. But they’re not just “intuitive,” whatever that is. It’s not ‘subjective.’ But the colors . . . sometimes it’s just purely by design. You want to vary them, there are four colors . . . A form that I’ve been working in lately, it’s eight lines on two pages, and you just say it’s blue, black, green, and red. The opposite side is red, green, black, blue. And then you invent the next series, so that none of the colors repeat on any of the lines, either vertically or horizontally. That’s a structural decision I make in advance, in part just to make each color equal, so that there can’t be any particular meaning ascribed to any color. And they just light up like a Christmas tree.
Oh, I went out in the woods as I have done many times, and found a tree and brought it home and put it up in the house. On that tree are only red, green, and blue lights with old-fashioned, large bulbs with no ornaments, but they all exist equally on the tree. As a result, the whole tree shines. They make a ‘gathering of the whole,’ which does the ‘work’ of bringing in the New Year.
Oh . . . now I’m talking about the tree! It relates to the drawing poems, too. They try to, in their space and in those books, to make a form, which has some kind of ‘efficacy.’ I’m making a crude connection with the pagan ritual, where instead of burning a newborn baby or something, you bring a green tree in from the woods. This is the winter solstice, and you burn the tree, and burning the tree has some ‘agency.’ It’s supposed to further the possible arrival of spring. That, too, seems kind of wishful. [laughs] Maybe the wish itself . . . Does a wish have ‘agency’? So, if you wish the forms of the drawing poem to bring about what they say, does that wish accomplish one’s purpose? It seems kind of unlikely. And yet people have been bringing trees into their houses for many, many years, far before the Christmas stuff, to try to accomplish something with the doing or bringing in of the shape.
In your statement for the FCA you use the word “magic” to describe what is happening in the drawing poems, which seems like a conjuring of the phenomena in a way that has more efficacy than just typing it out. Can you say more about this “magic?” Do “magic” and the wish go hand in hand? What do you mean by “magic?”
Oh, you have to have experience of it. You can’t just set out to do it. You have to have experience of something or other, glowing with its own ‘agency.’ It’s really something. One sees that in other poets’ works. I saw it in Creeley and Larry Eigner and Charles Olson, and others. Somebody does something, and they assume a ‘stance,’ and that stance is ‘effective’ in some way. You have to try, or have it demonstrated to you in some way—to see somebody do it. Or you can look at something, that lights up for you . . . and has a power beyond itself. It’s not, you know . . . I would hate to be characterized as someone who is farting around with the obscure. This is all the most literal way of knowing. Well, what is a name really? When people make up a word, they want to characterize what had happened in some way that preserves some aspect of it, so that when others hear that word, they know what you’re talking about. I think, for me, writing is essentially the same thing as naming. It’s an investigation of what naming can be, what it has been, and how it can be brought about. Once everybody has the words to use, why, we take them for granted. It’s just our normal manner of speech or writing. At some point somebody invented those. Those words were created. I’m interested in the point at which the word comes into existence. Why is it that word, rather than another? There are various studies of other forms . . . animal sounds in the woods that sound like the thing they’re talking about. Most of our words are invented, and they seem not necessarily to be connected to what they’re talking about. To me . . . if you look at a sculpture, you engage with it, and go around it, and see it and include it in your ordinary experience of life. And so it would be interesting if words could be thought to have these capacities . . . or maybe we just use them to say whatever it is we need to say. To some extent, this is what we are doing now. But sometimes you can really make a thing. I know that from experience. And I wonder if anybody else can perceive that in my work.
I think so, I think so. You seem to be interested in different animal sounds and like to imitate them in your work, like in that coyote poem. “That one coyote, aiee, aieee, weird, eh?”
That’s kind of cheap actually. It’s too easy. And to me, because it’s too easy, it’s funny. Like, there’s the cowboy song that’s supposed to go, “Ay yi yi, Ay yi yi, O” right?
Well, also, in the cicada poem, you are writing the word “cicada” but also it is the sound that the cicada makes, right?
Right, and the different sounds . . . but in that one—actually, Stephen Ratcliffe and I talk about that—it creates a sort of field of these bugs making their sound for each other and in relation to each other. You could criticize this poem as ‘copying’ the four bugs in space. There are four words in space. If you read it across and around, you can hear the sounds of these four bugs in alternating pattern, which a reader could imagine. Which could be “too much like nature.” In William Carlos Williams’ “Spring And All,” there is a caution to the writer not to copy nature, and yet in the same text there is a statement that the imagination can create something, can make something exactly what it was before. So, the difference between imagining something, which is recreated to be exactly what it was, and copying nature is something I have been concerned about for many years. I don’t want this form of the cicadas merely to be a copy. I want it to re-imagine a field in space where the drawn letters interact in some way that is the ‘same’ as the sounds and relative positions of these cicadas in a hot August night in Long Island. All that, too, is partially . . . I like to criticize my own intent, because I’m skeptical of most things I say, and so I think it would be fairly easy to say that these four writings of the word “cicada” are only that.
From what I remember isn’t there also visual symmetry in that poem. What are the colors that you use?
Yeah, well the same colors. Red, green, blue, black. In each one, actually, you ‘write a particular bug.’ [laughs] It’s nuts. On the other hand, Audubon tried to sketch birds. What’s the difference? Maybe the birds that Audubon sketched looked a little bit more like the birds than the cicadas in my drawn shapes, the words that we have to use. But, what if we look at words as being almost literally the site and sound and shape of something? Why not experience words as being at least as ‘good’ as Audubon, as an Audubon drawing of a dead, now-extinct bird? Does anybody look at letters as having that kind of capacity to . . . at least portray what they’re talking about? It would be nice both to be able to portray it, you know, tell the apparent truth about it, and ‘give it life.’ Give the drawing ‘life,’ by making the drawing. That’s a Frankensteinian undertaking. It’s like Frankenstein. You think by drawing the thing ‘the way it is,’ you can bring it to life. That’s kind of creepy, I think.
It’s kind of magical, I guess.
Look what happened to Doctor Frankenstein. It wasn’t a happy experiment.
In your discussions with Stephen Ratcliffe at Penn Sound you imitated owl sounds for us and brought up the fact that animals can count and that there is a time signature in the way that an owl hoots. Can you talk about the connection you see between letters and numbers? Do you think that each letter measures something?
I don’t know that I can speak to that, more than to say that I think letters are the ‘same’ as numbers. There’s one letter, and then there’s the next letter, and if you look at numbers [laughs] they exist like that, too. I mean there’s one, and then there are two. That’s a purposefully foolish response to your question. [laughter] On the other hand, in some sense they are . . . some letters and numbers, like “l” and “1,” are the same in most scripts. What other examples could I provide, maybe that’s the only one? Counting is essential to verse, to meter, to traditional metrical verse. If you look at Emily Dickinson, at her quatrains, you can ‘count them out.’ I used to do it in bed when I was young, I would count syllables and stresses with my fingers or with my tongue . . . making a little snapping sound, not wanting to wake anybody up, trying to figure out and experience how a poem was organized.
Uh, huh. Rhythmically.
Number has a great deal to do with . . . it’s a word that was the same word as “verse” in Elizabethan times. People would say “my numbers,” meaning “my poems.” Until you engage with poetry on that level, you might not make any . . . it might just be a ‘comment,’ I’ve just made a ‘comment.’ But if you’re working with words inside a verse structure, you develop an ‘innate’ recognition of number that guides the progress of the verse.
In your discussion of Plato’s Cratylus with Stephen at Penn Sound, you talk about divine wandering which is said to mimic the divine motion of existence. You talk about this in relation to the process of naming, how the name catches something on the run. In that conversation, you said, “what if you develop a form where the letters in motion are what is happening?” Do you see the drawing poems as catching something on the run like that?
Oh, well, it’s interesting, because letters move in space. When you start something it moves around, moves around . . . so, yeah, there might be a way of . . . that would be nice, instead of having a static portrait of something, like a camera image, an old-time photograph, you could have something that was moving along with the thing being drawn. Is there anything being drawn, or is it just drawing itself? I wonder whether the whole idea of ‘something being drawn’ is just a kind of wish. Even in standard portrait painting, or in still life . . . One remarkable thing about Cézanne is that during the time it takes for him to make a still life, he’s moved, or the object has moved, the perspective changes. You can have a ‘still life’ that is indicative of or evocative of passage through time, which is really great. So it can be a still . . . and still record times of numerous drawing sessions. In literature, in these works, you could say that time passes . . . and that by the time you get to the end, it is something else. I’d like that to be the case. It’s interesting.