It is strange to begin - as indeed we have to begin - in Eric Mottram's absence. For myself this is the first time that I've been in London since his death and the first time that I'll be speaking to his interests & not have him here to listen & respond. Eric was for me one of the great listeners & responders - a quality that entered into his own work as a poet & as a writer on poetry & on the larger world of which poetry is a part - a small part maybe but crucial for those of us for whom it's been an entry to that world at large. With Eric, as with few others, I could speak at length, because he gave the sense that what we said between ourselves could matter and that he was there to hear.


My intention today is to return to an interrupted part of a longer conversation that we had between us back in 1981. I can do that because Gavin Selerie was there with a tape recorder and with the intention, which he soon carried out, of transcribing the talk & publishing it in what was then his series of Riverside Interviews. I had been very much connected until then - through the anthologies & through my own readings &performances - with a re-exploration of the oral bases / the oral sources of our poetry. And what Eric took as an opening for our talk was a statement of mine that I was (or thought I was) "much more honest as a writer than a speaker." The reference was back to an earlier "dialogue" with William Spanos in Boundary 2, which Eric described as having to do "with this whole problem of the relation between oral poetry and the text." Having raised a question about what had been and became even more fertile ground for me - the idea, I mean, of writing and the book, which I had been exploring in some sense since Technicians of the Sacred - both of us passed it by in favor of a discussion of various aspects of oral poetry "past & present [& to come]." And when the conversation got around - as it later did - to matters of ethnopoetics and ethnicities, there was a passing suggestion of the book concern in relation to the Jewish sources I had been exploring in Poland/1931 & elsewhere, but mostly to point out that theJews, while founding much of their mystic tradition in oral law & a poetics of the voice, were preeminently the people-of-the-book. So the book,again, was a point of contrast rather than departure.


Eric, in other words, had given me an opening & I had let it pass without making it clear (as Eric was perhaps pushing me to do at the beginning) that the book and writing had always been part of my poetics & even my ethnopoetics & was at that moment becoming - if anything - still more overt. To begin with, I was at the time of the Riverside interview the author of some 27 books of my own poetry, eight other books of translations, and seven (mostly very large) anthologies and assemblages. And it was alongside these - & not apart from them - that I had, like most of us, been entering deeply (I thought) into performance as a strategy of voice & body. With that came what I described to Eric as an attempt to "desanctify and demistify the written word" - initially by finding ways to present or re-present those vast areas of language art that seemed - everywhere - to precede or (often) supercede the act of writing. At the same time I began - but possibly more slowly - to recognize the similarly diverse origins & possibilities of writing and that a "symposium of the whole" (in Robert Ducan's phrase) would also involve a mix & possibly a clash of writings. It was as if, in place of the Bible, say, as a singularly fixed text, we were to view it now as the multiple books (the biblia, plural) that it actually was. And all this, in the contemporary context, against the resurgence of those (fundamentalists & others) who pretend to a single book, not in Mallarmé's sense but in that of the tyrannies from which they've descended & which they threaten to restore.


Still, for me, the central impulse in Technicians of the Sacred, the first of the big assemblages that I've continued to construct, was to bring together a display of those ("oral") poetries that seemed to exist apart from writing & the book. This was the start of my ethnopoetics as such, but even within that there were spaces, inevitably, in which the source poems were themselves in written form - the Egyptian Book of the Dead, say, or the Chinese Book of Changes, among the works that were the most immediately familiar. And there was also an intuition, a sense that began to play itself out, of writing like speech as some kind of universal (human) constant. So, in Technicians, there was, among other entries, a section early in the book called "The Pictures," with examples of pictographs & glyphs from a number of diverse cultures (largely American Indian and south Pacific), paired in the commentaries with works by visual and concrete poets of our own place & time. And elsewhere in the book I was able to include Mide [healing] songs & picture-songs from the Ojibwa Indians, nsibidi [secret] writings from the Ekoi in Africa, & pictorial songs & narratives from the Na-Khi "tribe" in China. Accompanying commentaries [as later also in Shaking the Pumpkin] called attention to the thin line between "writing" and "drawing" that made it "hard [as I there said] to keep the functions separate or to assert with any confidence that writing is a late developent rather than indigenous, in some form, to the human situation everywhere."


When Dennis Tedlock and I founded Alcheringa in 1971 as "a first magazine of ethnopoetics" [of the world's tribal poetries], the emphasis, again, was on "poetry made in the mouth," but our pages were open as well to a range of traditional & early written art: paleolithic calendar notations, Egyptian & Mayan hieroglyphsm recastings of Bible & other Jewish bookworks, Old Norse runes, & Navajo pictographs (among others). I was also working by the middle 1970s on A Big Jewish Book (later revised as Exiled in the Word), where I could focus on the written alongside - & drawing from - the oral, & with a strong awareness of how central the "book" was in that highly charged, sometimes over-determined context. (Earlier anthologies of the 1970s like America a Prophecy & Revolution of the Word also put a high emphasis on the written, including - most surprisingly I thought - instances of both traditional & modern [experimental] alternatives to our normative ideas of books & writing.) This was still before the 1981 discussions with Eric & with Gavin Selerie, as was the founding, after my separation from Alcheringa, of a successor magazine, New Wilderness Letter, in which I promised as editor ("a poet by inclination & practice") to pursue poesis "in all arts & sciences ... [and] not [to] be specialized & limited by culture or profession" but to enlarge the context of poetry as "a report, largely through the creative work itself, of where that process [of poesis] takes us."


That in brief was the situation in June 1981, a year before the appearance of the book issue of New Wilderness Letter (about which, more later) and during the preparation of Symposium of the Whole as an anthology of writings [by poets, anthropoligsts & others] "toward an ethnopoetics." In the latter work Diane Rothenberg and I were attempting to open from the more specialized emphasis on oral poetry to a still wider view that would encompass writing & the book as well, along with other forms of visual poetry & language (that from the cultures of the deaf a prime example) for which there was as yet no actual poetics. By the time, then, that I returned to London in December 1982 & was interviewed by Gavin Selerie alone, the concern with writing & the book took up (for me) a significant part of the conversation. And since I certainly saw Eric then, I feel quite certain that these concerns were also part of what was further said between us.


Looking back at the conversation with Gavin, I'm aware that the point of departure for me - the emblematic point at least - was in the poetry, the shamanistic veladas of the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina. For her - & this was a matter that had been made clear to us by her American translator Henry Munn - there was no actual practice of writing (or reading) but the words of her extraordinary chants were opened to her in the form of a great Book of Language that was given to her in her first empowering visions & which, although she remained unlettered, she was (in her own mind) fully able to read & to give back as song. In light of this & of my own meeting with her a few years before, I went on to speak of myself as a writer & of writing as a primal human function:

Increasingly [I said to Gavin] I've had to asert that what I'm involved in is not a denial of the powers of a written language, because that - the written lang-uage, writing - would be a part of the exploration also. Over the last couple of years, in fact, I've been trying to explore the uses of writing in cultures that we usually speak of as oral, non-literate, pre-literate, and so on. And the conclusion I'm drawn toward is that writing in some sense is also universal and shared among all peoples. Therefore, when human beings developed as human beings at some point in the far past - at the point where we became human beings we were probably already using some form of speech - and along with that, I would think, some form of writing, art-making, & so on. And I added (by way of conclusion): "It's all very old."

In that sense, as Eric clearly knew, the book (taken as the "scene," the place in which the writing comes together) was the hidden side of my ethnopoetics, as the city was (for me) the scene of the "new wilderness" named as my project of that time. And as the talk with Eric and Gavin and others helped all of that develop, I found a number of ways over the next two or three years to let it come to surface. Symposium of the Whole had appeared by middle 1982, and in the aftermath of that Diane Rothenberg and I were organizing (through the University of Southern California in Los Angeles) a second international symposium on ethnopoetics for the spring of 1983. With that, as with the book from which we took the conference's name, the idea was not simply to recapitulate what had been said before, but to bring the discourse on ethnopoetics into areas from which it seemed to have been set apart. Writing and the book clearly marked off one such territory - aided in this instance by the visit of Edmond Jabès, whom I had brought to San Diego as a visiting Regents scholar. (Others whom I'm recalling without notes in front of me were Robert Duncan, David Antin, Marjorie Perloff, Michael McClure, Roger Abrahams, Wai-lim Yip, Hugh Kenner, Paula Gunn Allen, Nathaniel Mackey, J. Stephen Lansing, Clayton Eshleman, Wendy Rose, David Guss, & Barbara Tedlock.) I had already by this time lifted for my own uses Jabès's aphorism that "the book is as old as fire and water" & had juxtaposed it with Tristan Tzara's contention that "thought is made in the mouth." So those two were now, in my mind at least, the axes for our discussions of an expanded ethnopoetics.


In the year preceding the syposium, then, I had opened the concern with writing & the book in a still more deliberate way - co-editing with David Guss a book issue of our magazine New Wilderess Letter. The work had by then accumulated - including preliminary manuscripts for the international symposium - & had been accelerated by Michael Gibbs's retranslation & visual commentary on Mallarmé's essay, Le livre, instrument spirituel. The push provided by the Mallarmé (as I later wrote) "not only brought us back to the first modernist breakthroughs but also provided a context in which those breakthroughs corresponded to an ancient sense of book as sacred object." All of this - for me - was now no longer hidden but brought to surface - abetted also by the California visit earlier that year of the Peruvian curandero Eduardo Calderón Palomino, whom David Guss had led into a useful discussion of his mesa (his healing altar) as an assemblage of objects that could be read the way one reads a book. The rhyming with Mallarmé was perfect - like that of Mallarmé with María Sabina - & suggested a series of links, a web of ancient & modern possibilities that could be woven into a new display or book. And the gathering itself - a small anthology of works immediately to hand - ranged between new & old (deeply traditional & startlingly avant-garde), in such a way (I thought) that we could "grasp the actual potentialities of writing (as with any other form of language or culture [& by so doing] could extend the meaning of literacy beyond a system of (phonetic) letters to the practice of writing itself." In concluding my "editor's note," I wrote:

It is our growing belief (more apparent now than at the start of the ethnopoetics project) that the cultural dichotomies between writing & speech - the "written" & the "oral" - disappear the closer we get to the source. To say again what seems so hard to get across: there is a primal book as there is a primal voice, & it is the the task of our poetry & art to recover it - in our minds & in the world at large. That recovery, of course, is also a matter of demonstration & of coming to understand the implications of where such a view might lead us. As such it is a process that those like Eric or myself or any of us here might help to start but without the real hope or even the desire to bring it to conclusion.

A decade and a half has pased since then, during which time the books have multiplied for all of us. For myself I have been lucky not only in the normal run of book publication but to have joined with book artists like Ian Tyson (a longtime companion in this work) & Barbara Fahrner, Walter Hamady, Stephen Clay, & others in the making of particular works that correspond to their ideas of where the art of books might take us. I have also been working with Pierre Joris on two volumes of an end-of-century assemblage, Poems for the Millennium, as a work drawing from the poetry of the last 100 years & more - both those poems that work from a demotic spoken base & those that draw on visible language & the written word. (That there is often no clear division between the two - both the works & the makers of the works - is likely an obvious point but still a point worth making.) With regard to the book & writing (at their "limits") the work that opens the century for us is Mallarmé's - both the notes for his (unfinished) Le Livre & his promethean Coup de dès of 1897. (A page from William Blake's Milton: Book the Second is the actual volume opener in a section called "Forerunners.") This focus - most of it book-referential - is followed up in the experiments of Futurists and Dadaists, but also in exemplary works by those like the "outsider" writer/artist Adolf Wolfli & the master of the collage-book Max Ernst, as well as in an ethnopoetic final section that draws from a diverse range of works - both oral & written, ancient & modern.


The second volume is dedicated to Eric Mottram & attempts - with probably unpardonable omissions - to bring the work into the (almost) present. The volume, at over 850 pages, is both long & complex, but one of the dominant thrusts is to deliver the sense - as far as can be done within anthology constraints - that poets will often write not only for the (visible) page but with an idea of the poem as an extended work or book. (Jabès with his lifelong Book of Questions would be a case in point, but only one among many.) On its strongly visual side, however, the Millennium Two book includes works by Michaux, Cage, Mac Low, Cobra artists Christian Dotremont & Asger Jorn (but also other Cobra artist-poets such as Appel, Kouwenaar, & Alechinsky), Robert Filliou, a whole range of concretists (Gomringer, Finlay, Williams, Seiichi Nikuni, Ilse & Pierre Garnier, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, & the aforementioned Karl Young "bookforms"), Hannah Weiner, Kamau Brathwaite, George Maciunas, Bob Cobbing, Steve McCaffery, Carolee Schneemann, Tom Phillips, Clark Coolidge (in collaboration with Philip Guston), Cecilia Vicuña, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Along with these come chapter-length excerpts from text-centered works (those composed as books rather than compendia), not only the likes of Zukofsky's "A" or Olson's Maximus but books by poets such as Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Jacques Roubaud, & Lyn Hejinian, among many others. And there is also a section, "Toward a Cyberpoetics," going back to visual/verbal machine works by Duchamp and Abraham Lincoln Gillespie & up to computer-generated texts by Jim Rosenberg & John Cayley - as a starter.


I have no theory as to where all of this may lead us, though some sense of theory (neither "critical" nor "French" but very much, I hope, my own) must underlie all that I'm saying. Still I feel it's close to whatever basis for a poetics Eric Mottram was pursuing in his art & thought. The work continues of course, as it has to, & over the last year - but no longer able to share with Eric - I've supervised the republication (by Stephen Clay & Granary Books) of the New Wilderness Letter book issue - now an independent volume called The Book, Spiritual Instrument. And looking ahead (and very much at Clay's instigation) I've embarked on another anthology project with his collaboration: a wide-ranging book of writings on "the book," taken in some sense as an extension of what The Book, Spritual Instrument was attempting with those materials that were then immediately to hand. (This is the difference, then, between a magazine and an anthology.) It is in this context that we will be able to explore more fully the points at which a poetics and an ethnopoetics of the book & writing come together or illuminate each other. There will be no limits then to what we can include - of books that have been made & books that have still to be imagined. I believe in this regard that there is also a future of the book - as an extended & self-contained compendium of (visible) language - & that the emergence of new technologies - new cyberworks I meant to say - is not a threat to our identity as poets & people-of-the-book but an aspect of the book & writing that can co-exist with all our other works & that can & will enhance all that poesis is or ever has been.


In making such a book-of-the-book we will be able to draw in the first instance on a range of discursive writings that deal with one or another aspect of the book & writing. Here the many recent books and essays of Johanna Drucker come immediately to mind, along with others in roughly the same (largely contemporary) territory by Michael Davidson, Marjorie Perloff, Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, Betsy Davis & Jim Petrillo, Renée Hubert, and (in their new historical anthology of alternative forms of languaging) Steve McCaffery & Jed Rasula. But the key points of reference will be to specific artists and poets in the aftermath of Blake [our preeminent poet-of-the-book] & Mallarmé: the self-constructed fascicles of Emily Dickinson (in Susan Howe's accounting), the Blaise Cendrars/Sonia Delaunay Prose of the Transsiberian (rising to the height of the Eiffel Tower), the rough-hewn books of the Russian Constructivists and the liberated pages of the Italian Futurists, Marcel Duchamp's boxed notes & drawings, Picasso's densely written & prolific notebooks [carnets], and later works by Bob Cobbing, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tom Phillips {Humument], Emmett Williams [Sweethearts], Armand Schwerner [Tablets], and Xu Bing [A Book from the Sky], to name some of those who are now first & foremost in my thoughts. And turning then to the ethnopoetic & non-literary side of things, I would certainly reinstate Henry Munn's remarkable essay on María Sabina ("Writing in the Imagination of an Oral Poet"), along with some of the amazing word-&-image works of Adolf Wolfli, and examples of traditional (& sometimes experimental) "writing in tongues" (the visual equivalent of glossolalia), the recently deciphered hieroglyphic & painted books of the ancient Mayas, the use (in Africa & South America, say) of weaving as a form of writing and of textiles and baskets as a form of book [all of which might meaningfully be juxtaposed with the poem-dresses of Sonia Delaunay], shamans' notebooks and books of magic from the Cherokee & elsewhere, & writings made on rocks, wood, bamboo, sand & sky & glass & (even) water. (But all of these in their specific forms will have to wait until the book itself emerges.)


To conclude, then, is to say that here as elsewhere there is no conclusion. "Of the making of books there is no end," as the old scriptural verse put it (while reifying a single book as the unalterable word-of-God), and Mallarmé in his modernist détournement: "Everything in the world exists in order to be turned into a book." It is my sense - at least in our common work as poets - that the movement, the dialectic (to use a once fashionable word) is between book & voice, between the poet (present) in his speaking & the poet (absent) in his writing. If poetry is made in the mouth (as it often is), it is also made in the hand & through the eye, and acts of transition & translation are always possible. That is to say, we are (up to and past our limits) full & sentient beings, & free (as Rimbaud once told us) to possess truth in one soul and one body. For myself, as I surely would have said to Eric Mottram (or he to me), the return to the book is the step now needed to make the work complete.


Jerome Rothenberg

Paris, 1997

In much the same way, I no longer believe, if I ever did, that the book or writing had - in some earlier time - destroyed orality or made the human voice obsolete. The book is as old as fire & water, and thought is made in the mouth - as it is also in the hands & lungs & with the inner body. If that was our condition at the beginning, it will be also in the end.

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