Over the past months I’ve been watching, reading and listening to the poet Rick Holland prepare to release his new work: Pattern Man. It’s almost impossible to pick up an individual thread that would mark the beginning. All the nervous pacing back and forth, the throat clearing, the chance meeting, the phrase that leapt from a notebook, entered the eyes, exited the mouth, as the microphone cocked its ear dispassionately.
At some point you look up and realize that even you are in the middle of it. For me, it was listening pre-release versions of the audio tracks on my daily commute to work. On the tenth listen, it was as though I’d always known this music, this voice, these words floating through my consciousness as I sped down the freeway. The physical objects that herald the release of the work are now moving through the global postal system, making their way to an audience.
The Quietus has a nice interview with Rick Holland where he discusses both the poetry and the music in Pattern Man. I particularly like the section where he discusses his collaboration with Chrononautz, the live hardware techno improvisation outfit.
I really like space. Just responding to the sound, there was a groove there – an undeniable groove that I was drawn to – it wasn’t just straight four-to-the-floor.
To the uneducated – and I count myself in that group – looking at the table of gizmos that they’ve got, it’s quite hard to judge who’s doing what and how much control there is over the whole process. The joyful reality of it is: there isn’t that much control over it. It’s very hard to recreate the same conditions more than once and I am strongly interested in that as a way of offering things to the world.
There’s much more to say about Rick Holland and Pattern Man, but reading about this slightly out-of-control process embraced as a strongly interesting and joyful reality, makes me smile. This is strong poetry inscribed on the surface of improvised music. Music, as Yo Yo Ma and others, have said, is the space between the notes.
For some time now, poetry has enjoyed the stable surface of the blank sheet of paper. Rick Holland’s poetry challenges this convention. For Rick, the inscribed surface is always music.
There are a couple of reasons that writing has migrated toward the screen. The biggest reason is that it's cheaper. The production process migrated to the screen, and in the end, it seemed easier to skip the part where you turn digital files into plates, smear ink on them, and print the offset onto paper. Once lots of people had screens that could serve as readers, the economics of it gained traction.
The same thing happened in movies and television, photography, and music. The consumption device is just a simpler version of the machines, or set of machines, used to produce the work.
The flexibility and agility provided by digital production methods hasn't really translated into the artwork. There are a few experimental attempts, but nothing has broken through into the mass market. A few people are working on computational narrative outside of the video game context. Generative music has also been available at your local app store for a while.
These kind of generative and computational works take the form of software applications. Computing power and algorithms are a necessary element of the product. They sit in a kind of no man's land between traditional media and video games. For the most part, the digital publication has simply been a cheaper form of print. As the hypertext medium matures, we'll need to see something more than “cheap.” Eventually, the audience won't be impressed with “free” or “cheap.” Libraries are filled with “free” books, but it's not on that basis that a reader checks out a book.
The poem is called “Mont Blanc” and was written in 1816 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem is available online through a number of sources. I own several volumes of Shelley's work that contain the poem. Whenever I'm in a used book store I look for unfamiliar editions of poetry by William Blake and Percy Shelley. While their poetry is widely available, most of the editions are not very readable–tiny type, horrible layout.
Book publishers still working with ink and paper have also succumbed to the trend of producing the cheapest product possible. And when it comes to so-called classics, the worst tendencies of cheapness converge. It's as though the publisher cynically believes that it's enough to say one owns the complete works of Shakespeare in a single volume. Of course, no one would waste their time actually reading the plays; so why bother making them a pleasure to read?
You've probably seen these kinds of books. Their unapproachability has nothing to do with their status as “high art.” It's just that the type is too small. They're technically readable, in that, all the words have been converted to ink on paper. This is perhaps where the saying “machine readable” comes from.
Back to the poem. I'd been reading Shelley's “Mont Blanc” every evening for several weeks. I find that I need to read a poem a number of times over an extended period before it begins to function as a poem. I'd been switching off between various books that contained the poem. And then recently, I happened to be in the Mechanic's Library looking for something else, and thought I should find out if they had a nice edition of Shelley's poetry.
When I got to the designated shelf, I recognized the dark green seven volume, hard bound set of “The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.” For some reason I'd always resisted it. I think I'd had a previous bad experience with an old edition of Coleridge's poems. Completely unreadable. I pulled down a volume and started paging through it. What a revelation.
This edition was published by Virtue & Company out of Boston in 1909. It's the library edition, and bears the number, 141 out of 1000. It has beautiful illustrations, and was edited by Nathan Haskell Dole. The volumes are simple, durable and luxurious.
Reading “Mont Blanc” in this beautiful edition, with excellent typography and a generous layout, was a qualitatively different experience. The poem has technically been printed in many books. All the words are there, and the lineation is correct, but not every printing of the poem actually does service to both the poem and the reader. The quality of the ink and the paper has something to do with it, but one also has the sense the publishers have a real understanding of what they're committing to paper. It's as though they knew in advance what it would be like to read these poems in this particular configuration.
Due to financial constraints, much of print publishing has lost its sense of usability. There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Web design has gone through the opposite problem. The “usability” profession killed design in the production of web sites. Some good principles were unearthed, but the usability specialists over-played their hand. We're only starting to see web sites (if there still is such a thing as a “web site”) wriggle out from under the boot of usability.
Reading the poem “Mont Blanc” online isn't a particularly pleasurable experience. The screen, and the vast network of interconnected pages behind it, seem to work against the flow of the poem. Rather than open the reader to the experience of the natural world flowing through the senses, as though one were a kind of Aeolian harp; the hypertext screen radiates the opposite polarity, and entices the reader to flow her attention through the connecting paths of the Network.
While it is true that the cost of publishing the written word will always be cheaper in some digital format, the value of the work in many cases is diminished. In the last year, a few online publications have started to break the mold and create more reader-friendly screen publications. Perhaps as we read more and more online, we'll begin to realize the absolute poverty of the reading experience. It's not very good. When the economics of publication, whether for print or screen, tells us that we can't afford to do good work–that's when the whole thing really starts to fall apart. We've been facinated with the idea of commodity prices approaching zero. What we're learning (again) is that value tends to follow price as it moves toward zero.
Where is that revaluation of digital values that we've been waiting for?
It’s a book of poetry, although in it’s most complete form, it’s not exactly a book. It’s more of a CD-ROM, if there were such a thing anymore. You could describe it as a multimedia presentation with words, animated images, music, comic strip panels and recitations. Igor Goldkind’s new publication “Is She Available?“, despite its intentional defiance of category, probably should be called poetry.
Full disclosure: I’ve counted Mr. Goldkind as a friend for almost four decades. This reading is of the text, a little of my friend, and the journey of a poet.
Perhaps the best example of poetry making in this mode would be the work of William Blake — the poet, painter and printmaker. Blake was also a technologist. He invented relief etching to combine words and imagery on to the same printing plate. When we read his poetry today, for the most part, we read it extracted from its original context — simplified as though we were looking at a web page in “reader view.” The poem’s text is transformed into its most legible and conservative form. The images are removed and the typography tamed. Although we find it fascinating, critics have trouble producing a close reading of a work that broadcasts on so many different channels. Film, or video game, criticism may come closest to accounting for all the levels.
This reading will focus on the text of “Is She Available?”, but there’s much more in this work that merits investigation. Return visits to view, and review, the work from different angles will be rewarded.
I put these poems into the larger frame of a poet’s journey. Joseph Campbell called it the Monomyth, or the “Hero’s Journey.” The poet leaves home, wanders and experiences the world, and then returns home, both changed and unchanged. For this poet, home was San Diego, California, when it seemed like the city lacked everything. It was a time before the Internet and corporate franchising made every place much the same. Looking outward, the rest of the world appeared filled to the brim — the location of danger, culture, and life. I’m going to examine four parts of the text that bring this theme into relief.
Whatever the format, the reader will be faced, first of all, with the title. The work is called “Is She Available?” Who is this “she?” Is “she” that obscure object of desire? Is she a lover, a daughter, mother, or perhaps she’s the muse of poetry itself. Whoever she is, she’s absent. There’s a separation, an aesthetic distance from which she’s viewed. The phrase also gives us a sense of her allure, her magnetism. At the outset of the poet’s journey, “she” may well be the call of the road — the as yet unfulfilled promise of the wider world.
In the poem “What Peter Said to Wendy” we see the mechanics of desire, and of the journey. If desire were to be fulfilled, then the journey would be over before it had even begun. For the journey to continue, the object of desire must be desire itself — the desire of desiring. In the story of Peter Pan and Wendy Darling, Peter resides in Never Never Land. It’s a place where time idles in childhood reverie. Wendy knows at some point she must return to the world. Peter knows that he needs to give Wendy something she can take back, even if he can’t follow her there.
From “What Peter Said to Wendy”
Fear not my audacity Wendy.
I do not care for your heart, as you might think, I care for mine
And the reflection of truth’s desire I see hiding
in the forest of your eyes
It’s in the journey that the contours of the poet’s life come in to focus. Each of the poems in the volume encapsulate a moment along the path. Textures that were invisible in the youth of small town Southern California are now clearly visible. Family connections received and created take hold with real and vital force. There are battles with daemons both internal and external, and the poet tries on a series of masks to see how they fit. Think of it like a medicine man tasting all of the plants in the surrounding landscape to get of sense of their effect on the human mind and body. There’s nothing more real than this.
At the far edge of the journey, the poet encounters a mirror image of his starting point. For a long time San Diego felt like a very large village. Perhaps, it’s a city now, but it remained a small town for the longest time despite its ballooning population. At first walls were built to keep the poet in, and he had to escape. Now, in this village out in the world, they’re built to keep him out. In the poem “Dry Stone Walls”, he encounters the narrow attitudes that first inspired his journey into the wider world.
You can’t build a wall round a village
You can try
You can stack honeyed stone upon stone, fashion judgement upon judgement,
into a long pretty barrier of decorative limestone
to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in
But you can’t build a wall round a village
the sun and the wind
will always find their way in
In the prototypical “Hero’s Journey”, the hero engages in a climactic battle and emerges victorious. This moment signals the change that allows him to return home. In this work, it’s the poem “Dry Stone Walls (You Can’t Build a Wall Round a Village)” that serves this purpose. The battle that he didn’t wage at home is fully engaged here. And it’s not that Frankenstein’s Creature somehow turns round and defeats the villagers, with their torches and pitchforks, but rather like “the sun and the wind”, the poet can now come and go as he chooses. The walls don’t and can’t keep the wider world at bay. The narrow attitudes of the village have lost their force, and the atmosphere of the wider world has equalized with his point of origin. San Diego has become a part of the wider world; the spell has been broken.
The poem “San Diego Bay” marks the poet’s return. Filled with the experiences of the world, he is gigantic compared to the young man of so many years ago. San Diego Bay is now the size of a bath tub, and the giant poet washes off the dust of the road in its waters.
San Diego bay… Oh San Diego bay
Your leaden toy war ships cast a heavy grey cloud
on my sunlit-blue sky return.
San Diego bay… San Diego bay
You rounded sheet of crinkled foil at six AM in the morning looking out, looking in, at the sheet of this world, I bathe in you now.
San Diego bay
San Diego bay
You’re my Dirty
Igor Goldkind’s “Is She Available?” is filled to the brim with sparkling and challenging poetic sketches forged during his travels. The e-book is a thrill ride that’s built up layer-upon-layer on a bedrock of poetic text. This collection of poems isn’t the well-behaved straight lines of text you may be used to; they explode into sound, music and image; refusing the standard-issue poetry container.
The form of this “book” is another dimension of the journey these poems take us on. The physical form of the poems, their inscription on a multimedia surface, stops the reader’s internal voice from assuming an open-mic night, timid, confessional, “poetry voice,” and demands something more. It’s a loud book and may not be appropriate for reading in a quiet library. In fact, one of its more challenging technical aspects is figuring out the dynamic range of the poem’s sound. There may be a temptation to let the “book” read itself to you. But to take in its full effect, you’ll need to perform it yourself, at full volume.
Occasionally browser tabs get stuck–they can't be closed. It's not a technical issue with the software; it has to do with the text on the web pages. Sometimes an essay creates resonances and reverberations that unfold over a long time. These ongoing echoes defeat the click that might close the tab. It's as thought the text has too much life to send it back into the darkness of the Network.
Here are a few tabs that seem to have set up permanent residence in my web browser.
“The New Inquiry” Malcolm Harris's essay “Turn Down for What?” is a thoughtful exploration of the strain of Marxist thought called Accelerationism. It's a crucial analysis because it perfectly mirrors the ecological arguments of the techno-optimists. The “Accelerate” crowd believes it's only by inflating the bubble faster that we get to the revolutionary moment when it pops. For the techno-optimists we must double-down on technos to undo the damage we've done to our biosphere. The only solution for too much speed is faster speed.
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The PoemTalk podcast's close reading of Lydia Davis's “A Position at the University” is a reminder of what writing can be and do. We encourage reading as a necessary social skill, but there's reading, and then there's reading.
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“Extinction Events and the Human Sciences” by William E. Connolly and Jairus Victor Grove begins the process of finding a new footing for thought in the age of Hyperobjects. The ecological thought forces itself into discourse across the spectrum and asks us to take another look at where we're standing. Think of this as the beginning of the anti-Cartesian meditations.
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The Verso site gives us Jordan Skinner's interview with Giorgio Agamben. It's called “Thought is the Courage of Hopelessness.” Everyone should spend a few hours looking at the world through Agamben's eyes–he's that important.
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The London Review of Books publishes Judith Butler's thoughts on Jacques Derrida's “On Cruelty”. After reading David Graeber's “Debt,” Derrida's explorations continue opening up the question of the strange equivalences we perform when trying to balance the books. The amount of destruction we've unleashed to arrive at what we perceive as a “fair and balanced” equilibrium is horrifying. Forgiveness emerges out of the discourse as the impossible act that must nonetheless be performed.
‘Whence comes this bizarre, bizarre idea,’ Jacques Derrida asks, reading Nietzsche on debt in On the Genealogy of Morals, ‘this ancient, archaic (uralte) idea, this so very deeply rooted, perhaps indestructible idea, of a possible equivalence between injury and pain (Schaden und Schmerz)? Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?’ By way of an answer, he points out that ‘the origin of the legal subject, and notably of penal law, is commercial law; it is the law of commerce, debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.’
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The idea of entropy suggests that the power in these tabs should eventually dissipate. Typically we lose interest when the signal becomes too weak to attract our attention. The flavor seems to be worn out of a thing and it fades into the background. When the tabs are closed on these essays it will be because their constant blazing energy will be too much to bear as I attempt to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the thoughts.