Noah Eli Gordon is the author of several books, including Novel Pictorial Noise (Harper Perennial, 2007), which was selected by John Ashbery for the 2006 National Poetry Series Open Competition and chosen for the 2007 San Francisco State University Poetry Center Book Award, A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow (New Issues Press, 2007), and The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta Press, 2004). He’s the co-publisher of Letter Machine Editions and an Assistant Professor in the MFA program in Creative Writing at The University of Colorado–Boulder. He has a new book forthcoming from Futurepoem Books next year. Visit his PennSound page here: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Gordon-Noah-Eli.php
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
I notice a persistent gesture in your work in which poems take on the subject of music (and also emphasize musicality in the line). I believe (and perhaps I’m incorrect) that you worked at a radio station for a time and play music (or did play). What came first for you, in this life, poetry or music?
I think anyone answering this question would have to say poetry, if only in the joy and frustration that comes from hearing the sound of one’s own voice for the first time, and realizing that that sound can just as easily obscure as express whatever one is after; it’s the babble of the newborn: give me food, hold me, etc. It always points toward its intentions with a crooked arrow.
But to fast-forward a bit, the two were inexorably intertwined. Musicality is for me the foundation of the poem. Although I quit playing music in any serious way about a decade ago, I’ve been slowly finding my way back. The problem is I was never any good as a musician. I mostly played in punk and noise bands, so that didn’t seem to matter. Sure, I had heart, not much else. Recently, my wife has been teaching me to sing in key; really, just teaching me how to listen. We actually performed a song together in NYC about a month ago, a cover of Big Star’s Thirteen. I practiced singing it with her dozens of times. At the show, she ended up forgetting the chords and we did a sort of dissonant version of it. I suppose obscurity and expression come full circle.
There is frequently a line of philosophical questioning in your work related to repetition and representation. There is the texture of echo and things ricocheting but beyond that there is also a deliberate, disorienting synaesthesia that makes sound visible within a poem (“miming the music / of one digging a ditch” – from A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow) for example. Is this gesture related to a reworking of Ezra Pound’s idea that a poem is a unit composed of phanopoeia (image) and melopoeia (music)? How does repetition and echo relate to image or music, for you?
What about logopoeia? the dance of the mind around the two? For me, representation is suspect, a construct, a dream, something one can only approach, never attain. It’s like those spots in one’s vision after staring at a bright light; look directly toward them and they veer away. I admire the poem that moves askance around its subject, that circles and stalks. Repetition is one way to do this, although that too is suspect, suspect as a term. Gertrude Stein asked, “Is there repetition or is there insistence. I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition.”
I, too, am inclined to believe this Heraclitian dilemma. The river changes, context changes, even echoes are about change. As Stevens famously argued, “It must change.” And if that change includes a little disorientation, well, that works for me. I’d rather a poem lead me to bewilderment than grip my hand too tightly and tell me exactly where to go and what to do when I get there. Our literature needn’t treat us like automatons.
Music is also about the silences and this is a subject you address throughout your work. A theatre (essentially, an area for the presentation of music) caves in, there are “silent film gestures,” a handful of poems end with a sudden negation. It seems that silence is frequently where meaning erupts in a poem. Is silence something the energy of your work reaches for? Why or why not?
It’s not silence as much as it is moments of shift that I find intriguing, moments when something’s cracked, changing, aware of itself. A skipping CD, a hair in the projector. These relate to silence in the way silence allows one to hear what’s come before more fully, and to harvest attention for what’s about to happen. I’m interested in the outline of things, the wire mesh of the screen door disappearing into the view of whatever’s outside. Writing can do the same thing; it can be wholly absorptive—the words dissolving into the experience of reading—or it can shout about its own materiality. I suppose I work to allow both options simultaneous agency.
What strikes me about your innovative use of metaphorical language is how frequently it starts with the symbolic but reaches outward beyond itself into something else without context, and winds its way into another symbol. For example:
If we could use a radio to wipe out the hum of a tuning fork’s indecision about where music begins & sound just sounds, then even the staggered rhythm might catch on something less solid, closer to the core of consciousness where what’s bound to be symphony in the personal sense is our appreciation in static, laughing at private music, a station like that of the cross.
from 93.7, The Frequencies
This is not typical use of metaphor and simile. We begin with an emotional, anthropomorphized radio, work our way through a strange set of dichotomies about music (comparing the beginning of music to sound that just sounds, and comparing symphonies to personal static), then end up with the religious iconography of stations of the cross (playing on the word “station,” which in this work usually refers to a radio station). Do you have a personal, critical stance on the structure of metaphors (and/or symbols)? What is the purpose, in your view, of symbolic language in poetry?
Well, the things of the world only point to themselves; it’s we who are disposed to making them into something more. This disposition is essentially a product of language, and my only critical stance on the use of language—metaphoric, symbolic, etc.—is one of advocacy for the eradication of received ideas and orthodoxy about what a writer can do with it.
I love stretching rhetorical expectations, mixing metaphors, antiquated syntax, run-on sentences, any place that it seems the structural certainties might break open, bloom into something new and unexpected. I don’t think symbolism in poetry is all that interesting when it functions as a kind of ornate riddle studded with vacuous, filigreed synonyms. Things should correspond in a way that respects a reader’s intelligence, a way that carves out a thinking space but doesn’t demand one to blindly follow.
When I saw you read at the Dikeou Collection in the summer of 2007, you read from A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, and you mentioned that the line, “the window shows it’s time to get up” was found text you overheard from a child. The “reverse memoir,” INBOX, is essentially all found text. Is found text a consistent technique in your work? What qualities does a found piece of text have that you decide to select it for having space in a poem?
Even if I said it, I have a problem with the phrase “found text,” as it implies a kind of haphazard, uninformed yet lucky accident. Sure, sometimes that’s the case; it certainly was with the line you quote here, which came from a six-year-old. It was striking to me in that it encapsulated a moment of language set free from codified usage. To say: “the window shows it’s time to get up” rather than “it’s morning” or “it’s light outside” is not only more raw but also, somehow, more accurate. It’s a shame we’re so quickly indoctrinated. A little continual wonder goes a long way.
That said, I wouldn’t make any distinction between something inherently poetic about sampled, appropriated, quoted, collaged, or otherwise-lifted-from-the-ether language and that which one writes in a more traditional manner. In fact, there was a time when one could make a living by reciting rearranged lines from Homer. Our use of “other” material is as old as our first makings of it. For me, it all depends on context, on the aims of a particular piece of writing. Some of my books were originally written entirely by hand on small notebooks I carry in my pocket, some were built with elaborate structural underpinnings that involved sculpting already extant text. Really, it’s about allowing myself to be forever open to change, to new techniques, to never falling into a rut. I think art is at its core a harnessing of contrasts. I mean this as much in the compositional phase as in whatever end result one is after.
A poem is a meditative thing and requires some focused attention to meaningfully read, to say nothing of the writing of poems. How do you think technology (particularly the web, Google Books, kindle) will effect the publication and dispersal of poetry? Is the book-as-object soon to be vintage? What is the significance of poetry in tangible book form? And in that same vein, how do you think the fast, flashy experience of technology changes how readers read?
I don’t necessarily agree with your initial assertion here. There are many poems interested in other modes of engagement: environmental work like Ashbery’s Three Poems, which calls for a kind of sidewise attention and would frustrate any attempt at, say, logically tracing its pronouns throughout; Tan Lin’s ambient works, which explore states of boredom and relaxation; those grand, sprawling, mid-period books by Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge, with their exhaustive attempt to get everything into the writing. In fact, sometimes I find myself more enthralled by writing that doesn’t want me to pay attention to it.
As for the other questions here, I don’t enjoy reading on the internet. If there’s an article longer than a few paragraphs, I always print it out first. For me, the book is a technological marvel that will remain valid, present, and ubiquitous. Someone gave me a kindle as a present about a year ago. It’s currently gathering dust on a shelf (and that’s only because I couldn’t figure out how to sell it).
INBOX takes on the subject of technology, blending together voices from 200 emails you had in your inbox on 9/11/2004. You essentially took private content off the Internet and recontextualized it in book form. Why did you decide that the ultimate form of the project should be in a bound book? Why not regurgitate it back onto the Internet somewhere?
See my answer above!
You’ve done several collaborations with other poets and a painter. When I saw you read in Denver from Figures for a Darkroom Voice with Joshua Marie Wilkinson, you and Joshua both said that, “Neither of you could remember who wrote what.” What is the process of writing a collaborative work? At what point, in the making of a collaboration, does ownership of a poem, or the elements in a poem, recede in importance?
Doesn’t ownership of a poem always recede? I’d hope so. Our poems leave us the moment they’re read by someone else.
The process for collaboration is always different. If you’re interested in the specifics of the book I’d done with Josh, here’s a little note on that I’d originally written for Lungfull! Magazine:
The near decade I’d spent in Northampton, MA was one rife with collaborative projects, never lacking in fellow conspirators. I think collaboration, in its ability to tout a seemingly lowered sense of individual investment in a particular work, more than anything else, allows one the comfort to take massive risks, turning one’s editing machine to idle, and, implicitly, constructing, along with whatever actual work of art, a widening of allowance as far as how one might proceeded in the future, whether alone or not. Of course, investment is hopefully there in the end, but, if one is true to the collaboration, it sneaks up, leaks in, and lords over with benevolence this beast with two fronts.
Imagine having at 50 mph to continually switch from sidecar to motorcycle during a cross-country trip. Well, it’s an image a bit more exciting than passing back and forth a small notebook while slinging back coffee and trying to ignore horrendous world music filling a café. If the poem requires a bit of pulling away from the world, then isn’t it nice to know one doesn’t have to be so damn self-obsessed to do it? Hey, if I’m going to jump off that bridge I sure hope someone’s willing to walk me through it. Don’t you feel a little awkward going to the movies alone? Anyhow, moving last year to Denver carried along with it the fear of losing simpatico compatriots willing to conquer collaborativille. Then I met Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Over the course of our first few conversations, it was clear that, as far as contemporary poetry goes, we inhabited a very small tuft of common ground. I think our aesthetic disagreements were generative, forcing us as they did to articulate to one another, as much to ourselves, why we where repelled by or responded to different works.
What we did share was the energetic motivation to continually explore poetry on all fronts, that, and a huge respect for Graham Foust’s work. It’s enough to set things in action. Figures for a Darkroom Voice began with us passing the aforementioned notebook back and forth during a plane ride, trading sentences. This was in March of 2006. Josh’s first sentence reads, “Yet, stars pull the sleep out of us.” And mine: “Intrinsically, every moving thing likes a hallway.” As we’re very different writers, it made for an interesting experience. After a few months of meeting every couple of days to pound out three or four pages of full prose, trading off sentences all the while, and accumulating 50 pages of work, we hit on a procedural breakthrough: instead of passing the notebook after writing complete sentences, we let them end mid-point, forcing us to finish, twist, or totally alter each other’s trail of thought. For example, Josh wrote: “Noise keeps coming from the red radio even after—” and I continued: “its dainty refinement orchestrated a disbelief in electricity.” Now, what was beginning to feel after a few months like a chore was again exciting.
It took us almost the entire summer to fill the notebook—100 pages of whacked-out sentences. Although, we were attune to running with each other’s imagery and ideas, often threading back into the project older elements to attempt a ghostlike narrative background. By this point, we’d clocked in hundreds of hours on the project. The looming editing process seemed massive, like a staircase requiring a ladder to ascend each step. Okay, maybe just like a really long staircase and a pair of worn-down sneakers with no traction. Whatever the (stair)case, we did have to reckon with how we were going to type the thing. If you’ve ever received a letter from me, I’m sure it’s clear how clouded my handwriting can be. We had to spend one of Denver’s late summer 100-plus degree heat waves cramped in Josh’s small office while I dictated for hours on end, him diligently typing all the while. Fully digitized, we’d float the document back and forth via email, cutting and pasting, splicing and grafting, lots of it moving toward the garbage bin. At one point we’d collectively created 20 sonnets, 80 prose poems, and about 60 pages of triadic haiku-like fragments. Arbitrarily, the decision to go for 70 pages of working material was made, and somehow it gave to the work a balance between what William James calls the substantive and the transitive; it’s all over the place, but one is able to now and again get some footing.
Tell me a bit about your forthcoming projects we have to look forward to.
I have a book coming out next year with Futurepoem Books. Early versions of some of it can be found here:
Here’s a brief process note about the book:
From January of 2008 to September of 2009, I read only page 26 of nearly ten thousand books at the Denver Public Library, culling from them bits of language, which I then fused together, altering some nouns to read the Source so they become reflective of the parameters of the project. At its core, the book is a prose cento, a continuation of a practice dating from the Homeric song stitchers of antiquity to current trends in hip-hop culture and electronic music; however, it’s also a testament to the interconnectedness and mutability of all writing, as well as an exploration of the notion of origins, both textual and spiritual. The choice of page 26, while obviously corresponding to the amount of letters present in the English alphabet, is also important in Kabbalist terms; it represents the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God. Additionally, according to the Talmud, the Torah would have been revealed during the 26th generation of the history of the world; thus, it is Moses who, 26 generations after Adam, receives the Torah transmitted by God. Interestingly, by using a correspondence table, where each letter is given in ascending order a numerical value (A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.), the name of God in English has a total value (G=7, O=15, D=4) of 26. The problems of numerology aside, I undertook this project in order to investigate whether or not constraint-based, conceptual writing might have a spiritual dimension. It is now my belief that rigid and systemic modes of writing can embody an emotionally charged engagement with the world.
Read a new selection from the Source here: http://www.zingmagazine.com/noaheligordon.pdf