A Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith
This conversation took place by email during the last two weeks of August, 2002. I sent Kenneth some questions, which he attacked in a free-wheeling way, according to his interests. I found the answers even more stimulating than I had expected.
— Marjorie Perloff
Kenneth Goldsmith was born in 1961. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design (BFA Sculpture, 1984). His artworks have been shown in museums and galleries around the world. His books include 73 Poems (Permanent Press, 1993), No. 111 2.7.93–10.20.96 (The Figures, 1997), 6799 (zingmagazine, 2000), Fidget (Coach House Books, 2000), Soliloquy (Granary Books, 2001), Head Citations (The Figures, 2002) and Day (The Figures, forthcoming 2003). He is the founder and editor of UbuWeb Visual, Concrete and Sound Poetry (ubu.com), a music critic for New York Press, and a DJ on WFMU in New York City (wfmu.org). He lives in New York City with his wife, the artist Cheryl Donegan and their son Finnegan.)
Marjorie Perloff: In your essay, ‘From (Command) Line to (Iconic) Constellation,’ you write very interestingly about your ‘discovery’ of Concrete Poetry, specifically the Noigandres group in Brazil as precursors to internet poetics. Yet pieces like Fidget and Soliloquy have neither the look nor the structural configuration of a Concrete poem: on the contrary, spatiality is replaced by temporal form. Can you try to explain that relationship?
Kenneth Goldsmith: One important aspect of concrete poetry was the reconciliation between the flatness of the page and the implied dynamic (and often sequential) movement of the language used. In this way it ran parallel to the Greenbergian non-illusionistic picture plane, as applied to the flatness of the page. Hence, the internet — a dynamic, almost cinematic frame-based experience that occurs on a flattened stage (the screen) — was the medium concrete poetry was waiting for in order to realize its full potential. It’s no coincidence that so many advertisements — both static and dynamic — seen on the web look so much like concrete poetry.
You have often talked about the transition from the visual to the verbal arts in your work, specifically from sculpture to writing. At the same time, you often remark that visual art is far ahead of poetry, which has not yet taken advantage of the possibilities of the internet. If the visual (you cite Warhol numerous times) is so far ahead of the verbal, why have you opted for language?
The quote to which you are referring was made by Brion Gysin in 1959 when he said that writing was 50 years behind painting. I still believe that this is true today. If we look at how easily the conventions of the art world are bent and apply those to writing, we will see how limited the world of innovative writing has been.
In your interview with Sergio Bessa (‘Introduction’ to 6799), you say, ‘all my work has a brainy finish to it, though just below the surface, it’s all intuitive, abstract, and poetic.’ What are the ‘intuitive’ and ‘poetic’ aspects of your work? At what point, in other words, are rules broken and method undercut?
In the interview with Sergio, I was specifically referring to my gallery work, in which I was intentionally referencing the surface aesthetics of conceptual art but then undercutting that severity with poetic texts, hence creating a tension in the work.
A follow-up: When you say, ‘I am a collector of language,’ what does that really mean? Surely not in fact just any language. What makes certain words and phrases ‘collectible’? Conversely, what makes certain language collections boring and dispensable?
Well, I used to feel that only certain words were collectible, that certain words were ‘better’ than others, but I’ve come to question that as the years have passed. Let me explain. The precursor to No. 111 was a gallery work called No. 109, whereby I used the same method of collecting language as I did for No. 111: any word or phrase ending in the sound of ‘r’ or the ‘schwa’ was permitted. In preparation for the gallery show, I edited the piece down to only contain what I considered the ‘good’ words — the ‘fun’ words, the ‘entertaining’ words, the words that really ‘zinged.’ I thought the piece was really ‘tight’ and presented it in a gallery. Unfortunately, the public didn’t agree with me and the work received a lukewarm reception.
‘There’s so much great language out there for the taking; if we open our eyes and ears to it, we’ll find it in abundance.’ This notion comes, of course, from Cage but we now know that, far from opening his eyes and ears to all those sounds ‘out there’ in nature, Cage took strict control over his forms. What is the process involved in your own work?
It’s one of my peeves with Cage. If Cage truly was to accept all incidental sound as music, then that’s what he should have done. Obviously this was not the case and this is where claims for poethics comes into play. I don’t have a problem with an overriding ethical structure guiding an artist’s work, but in Cage’s case, an ethical agenda is in conflict with his philosophical structure of accepting all sounds equally. There were a lot of sounds that weren’t permitted in the Cagean pantheon and a lot of times when the sounds that were permitted happened at inopportune moments, it could ruin a performance. Likewise, Cage’s feathers were easily ruffled at what he considered to be wrongheaded interpretations of his works by musicians and orchestras.
‘If it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.’ You say this contra The Book, and your point is well-taken so far as poets who wait years to have their work published and then have no distribution, are concerned. But now that we have a poetry/art glut on the internet, how can Poet X be distinctive? How does one stand out from the crowd or shouldn’t one try?
Well, just because one is published in a book doesn’t make one a good poet; there’s a glut of horrible books out there too. I think that the internet mirrors the ‘real’ world; a good poem is a good poem regardless of the medium it’s published in. A good artist is going to have make his or her mark regardless of the medium. Give, say, Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman the web to play with and they’ll make it their own.
When you say, ‘anyone could write 111 using the rules I set up and it would turn out completely different,’ do you mean anyone (say, me) could do it and it would be just as effective or just different? Or that the artist is s/he who makes choices that bring out relationships between words that matter?
It’s Cagean again. Cage said something to the effect that anyone can do his work but the fact is that nobody else has done it. I take this to mean that the artist’s real work is in setting the parameters and executing a given project. It’s about the courage to actualize ideas that transform passing thoughts — often trivial — into art.
You’re referring to Cage’s famous statement, ‘Of course they could but they don’t.’ It’s such an important point! And I like the idea of ‘courage’ because that’s just what it is. And speaking of courage: in Soliloquy, you often flirt dangerously with actual mimesis. Your interlocutors are often identifiable and your assessments of people (myself included) have been held to be cruel, nasty, or just plain embarrassing. How do you answer this charge?
Soliloquy is not actual mimesis because it has been framed and presented as art as opposed to a scientific documentation of language or mere sociological research. In this way, Soliloquy does an incredible job with ‘real’ speech and extends the thrust to incorporate ‘real’ speech into poetry that has run from Whitman to Stein, through Ginsberg and Antin. In comparison to Soliloquy, the speech so often passed off as ‘real’ seems artificial, composed and stilted. As much as I’m a fan of David Antin’s work, we can never believe that his ‘talk poems’ are really his talk. It’s edited, composed on the page, cleaned up and sanitized. Solioquy presents speech at its most raw, its most brutal and in its most gorgeously disjunctive form. When we look at ‘real’ speech in Soliloquy, we find that our normative speech patterns are avant-garde! It strikes me odd that what modernism worked so hard to get at for the past 100 years has always been right under our noses!
Yes, it seems to me that Soliloquy has not yet gotten the credit it deserves. It is not verbal play as in 111 but utilizes point of view and various narrative techniques to create a very vivid image of life in New York at the Millennium, in all its craziness and value. Because point of view is so rigidly controlled (after all, you’re the one who asks the questions and sets up the conversations), it’s rather like a Henry James novel and you are quite hard on yourself in the process. Do you want to do more in this vein?
I like the James comparison in terms of how complicated and interiorized ‘externalized’ speech can be and what profound impact those trivialities that we unthinkingly launch off our lips every day can have. The moniker for the work was ‘If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard.’ It’s the accumulation of language I’m interested in. How much does an actual week’s worth of language weigh? It’s about concretization of the ephemeral.
Did you ever sit down and actually read ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’? It’s such a brilliant story. Or, like Cage vis-à-vis Finnegans Wake, did you prefer to leave it as it is?
You know something? To this day I have never ‘read’ that story! I’ve counted the syllables several times but have never paid attention to it in a conventional way. I trust you when you say it’s a great story, but for me to treat it as such would be to undermine the structural and appropriative concept that I was trying to get across. I know it sounds prudish or puritanical, but for me to read ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ as is — within the context of No. 111 — it would destroy some crucial conceptual part of my book (by the way: I don’t prescribe this for everyone — they can do as they choose. It’s just my own idiosyncratic point of view that necessitates my actions...).
Could 111 and Soliloquy have been written without the computer? I would think not since you used the computer to get it all in, although you did hand-count the syllables of 111 ? If the computer is indispensable, what does that tell us about future poetic and fictional projects?
None of my works after 73 Poems could have been done without the computer. In 1993, 111 started off in analogue space with me collecting information around me with a pad and pencil. I can remember going to see movies and scribbling down words and phrases that ended in ‘R.’ I was no longer reading magazines for the information they contained but rather to simply hunt down phrases for my book. During this period, I never spoke on the phone without a pad close by. When I’d meet a friend for a drink, I’d take my notebook and scribble down bits of our conversation, almost as if I was doing an interview. It was in this way that I discovered the quotidian language around me to be concrete and abstract. If I was hunting only for formal ticks in the language, it didn’t matter at all what it meant, only how it sounded.
I know we’ve discussed the problem of work first written in ‘normal’ ways and then merely transferred to the screen without doing anything with the digital possibilities. What can be done to make e-poetry better, less like advertising copy? Or is poetry, in the normal sense, not the best genre for the net?
One of the most unfortunate tendencies in net art is the emphasis on formal possibilities; it so often uses as a criterion of its success questions like ‘is this making the computer do things that it’s never done before?’ or ‘is this piece technically expanding the possibilities of the field?’ While those are valid questions in a scientific sense, I don’t think they have anything to do with art. As witnessed by the last two Whitney Biennials, we see a preoccupation with those questions. It has a strong parallel to the early days of video art where many people were staking out the technical possibilities of video as art. Some 30 years later, those experiments have dropped out of sight. Instead, what’s survived are the more primitive visions of an artist grabbing the camera and doing his or her art with it — Vito Acconci biting his arm or Joan Jonas’ ‘Vertical Roll.’ They are in no way technically ground-breaking but are the works from the period that we most admire today.
You have expressed dislike for Oulipo as too often ‘conventional narrative’ that would be better off revealing its codes. Have you read W and Life A User’s Manual by Perec? I would think you’d love those. Also Jacques Roubaud’s Quelque chose noir, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop as Something Black.
Yeah, I have a personal bone to pick with Oulipo. I accept the fact that it is truly ‘potential literature’ but think it’s best left in its conceptual form. I find the ideas to be much more radical and interesting than the relatively few realizations of it. Even with complex systematic structures, for some reason the writers always tend to wrap their systems in conventional narratives. I always wish they’d leave more of the bare bones showing (I feel the same way about the nouveau roman — Robbe-Grillet’s theoretical writing seems so much more radical than the actual books that he produced).
I agree about process and I don’t care for most Oulipo poems but Perec’s fictions are quite profound on the semantic level as well as the structural one. But let’s shift ground. You have been wonderfully responsive to the memoir I’m writing about my ‘high culture’ Vienna upbringing and the refugee aftermath, to be called The Vienna Paradox. Isn’t this, by your lights, an old-fashioned, somewhat conventional project, and if not, why not?
One of the things I find so intriguing about your book is the idea that we can come from such different places and yet be equally invested in and devoted to the same kind culture and art. When I read about your classical Bildung education, it makes me reflect on how different my own American upbringing was. Like generations before you, you had to struggle with issues such as:
‘The discrimination of the aesthetic as opposed to its kitschy simulacrum was the sign of Bildung: those with genuine education and culture, could sniff out the kitsch, could tell that it was not the ‘real’ thing.’ (Perloff, The Vienna Paradox)
This line of questioning was never an option for me. I grew up in the 1970s in a tract home on Long Island in a house that was bereft of any ‘high’ culture. We didn’t visit museums, we had very few books. An occasional popular Broadway play (Grease, Hair, The Wiz, etc.) was the extent of my exposure to ‘art’ in my family. Instead, we watched an enormous amount of television.
This is all very interesting! But it raises many questions. Given our different backgrounds, why do you and I like almost exactly the same artworks, poetry, etc.? We laugh at the same things; we don’t like pretentious pseudo-lyric poetry and straight narrative, and so on. But why? Surely the kids you went to school with on Long Island don’t go to Cage concerts? Do they read Gertrude Stein? And neither do they people I went to Fieldston or Oberlin with. The ones from Fieldston are still going to those same Broadway shows you mention.
Your O’Hara story reminds me of the time I was reading Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath and my parents — card carrying upper-middle class country clubbers — were astonished to find that the book had nothing to do with tennis, that is, as they knew it! Similarly, just a few weeks ago, my father, who has been having insomnia problems, picked up Bruce Andrews’ Tizzy Boost in the middle of the night and was baffled. The next morning he asked me to explain why this was poetry. I told him the story of how I approached the book when Geoff Young sent me the manuscript to see if I wanted to do the illustrations for it. After trying to understand it in every conventional way, I finally began to ask what it wasn’t. And in that way by creating a negative definition of it I was able to define exactly what it was trying to do. It was a big key into understanding Bruce’s work.
Before I met you, I had read 73 Poems. I pictured you, judging from that lovely book, as a rather austere Cagean type — very quiet, very serious, rather delicate — and certainly not Jewish! Those lovely words against the gray ground and the overprint! The Joan La Barbara vocalization! The question then is, how did you get from A (TV culture in Long Island) to B (Cage and Joan La Barbara) and C (a combination of high/low?).
After attending a year of liberal arts college, I went to art school and studied sculpture. Upon returning to New York, I began making wooden sculptures of books. They were exquisitely carved plywood sculptures with words on them, which I began showing with great success in galleries. However, I was bothered by the fact that the idea of what to put on the books came in a flash, but then the execution could take up to several months of work to realize. In response, I began to question what I was more interested in — the objects themselves or the words on the objects — and chose the latter. I stopped making sculpture and began simply putting words on large pieces of paper.
As you, always at the cutting edge, certainly have!
Jacket 21 — February 2003
This material is copyright © Marjorie Perloff and Kenneth Goldsmith
and Jacket magazine 2003