Nov 12, 2013

“A Commitment to the Sentence”

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge 
Reads the Roses at Poet’s House

Commentary on Hello, the Roses (NY: New Directions, 2013).

Hearing Mei-mei Berssenbrugge read a week ago at Poet’s House in New York from her new book, Hello, the Roses,  reminded me of the very first time I “got” what she was doing with poetry and the sentence.  That first time was not the first time I heard her read, I admit -- which was during a crazy book party before 200 people when We Who Loved to Be Astonished came out.  No, that frenzied if fun fete was full of luminaries -- i.e., Bernstein, Silliman, DuPlessis -- the A-list in American poetry eating Fordham University cookies – joined by major poetry critics, like Charles Altieri, who had flown out from Berkeley to introduce Berssenbrugge's reading for that long-ago event.  In the wash of my fatigue and excitement and the luminous bright lights, Bersenbrugge’s words -- so delicately chiseled -- were lost to my ears and poetry brain upon that occasion.

It was a bit later, at the old Dixon Place -- in a darkened quiet theater -- that I first “met” her words and they met me.  Upon that tranquil stage, my ears could now hear Berssenbrugge’s words as parsed into winding gorgeous sentences, whose relationships one to the other cast themselves metonymically forward, like a skein of cashmire yarn entangled and enveloped and also warming me with strong resonance.  Berssenbrugge stood in a single spotlight that Dixon Place evening also long ago. And the sparse but attentive audience was all “hush.” Phrases radiated out from Berssenbrugge’s singular light, toppling over and about themselves, melding into other words …  the yarn spilling colors of a Southwest mesa or a ravine or sunset but arrived at with hands and voice fully guiding them through spools of relations upon / toward relations.

Desires like threads leading like desire -- “to know” an audience, as one’s “selves.”

Quiet-time, like the best dream – this was my initiation.


I was lead by some of the same majestic yarns threading amidst new loops and swings against their relationship with plants, animals, and especially “the roses” during this Poet’s House reading Nov. 5.   The concept of “relation(s)” has grown in Berssenbrugge’s new work.  Hello, the Roses is – as in all Berssenbrugge’s work since Empathy -- a book about the inter-connectivity of human “be-ing” in a subjectivity that refuses to privilege “subject” by creating of “other” any “object.”   In Hello, the Roses human “be-ing” is  clearly being in relation to one’s environment.  What is Berssenbrugge’s special brand of eco-poetics -- or “environmental poetics,” as James Sherry calls it --  addresses and also creates  subjects without objectified objects.  More and more, Berssenbrugge’s poetry seems to be an inquiry into the imagination’s roping of the human be-ing thinking about human experience -- as a byproduct or experience of words-in-sentences themselves.  Both highly constructed but completely plainspoken, colloquial and direct, Hello, the Roses relays potential paradigms of thought, memory and language as they make up their portions of a given reality – a reality in which conceptual hierarchies do not exist, in which time and space do not exist, at least not as linear sequences or erroneous separations.

And yet splicings and divisions – between this and that – DO exist in Berssenbrugge’s poetry in Hello, the Roses:  in and within the boundary of human skin and its aura energetically touching and communicating with/against that of (other) animals, plants, or representations of earth’s formations (volcanic basalt, ridges in the desert floor).  In the spatialized openings up of those boundaries, Berssenbrugge’s sentences thread themselves in order to create “expressions” of connection. Here lies the power of authentic poetic agency and the expressivity of “belonging” – to a poetry built from lines populated by finches, polar bears, flowers, arroyos, or “shade… with no edge between space, grass” (4).

Those splicings and divisions of experience are perhaps best metaphorized by the rationale of “the roses” themselves, whose title phrase engulfs the book’s observing wit:

 “a summer rose, whitish on the outside of each petal and pink inside, expressing its gestalt visuality” … also,  the different logic of “tiny white rosettes… the whole bush… a glory of feathery pink seed heads.”    (51)

What I heard in “the roses” meta-image at last week’s reading were the sentences that behave more like unfolding petals than sequences of syntactic order. “Roses” are  the sentences that pile line upon line, to layer the multiple dimensions whose “realities” do not cancel one another out but, instead, mutate one to the other – and also exist simultaneously -- without calling “the other” the other.


Hello, the Roses (I now have the book in my hands – gorgeous book, with a cover by artist Richard Tuttle) literally and figurally BOTH AT ONCE opens spaces that might exist within words strung together to form lines and yet do not form singular referents as in traditional syntax.  Its sentences forming poetic lines generate their linguistic forms – to put this another way -- without closing up meaning through pre-ordained structures.  They make circuits, instead, out of grammar,  “circuits” that, once again,  re-generate  form. These are very energetic, electric sentences!

In their garden images,  these are not still-life forms.  They are living, breathing, adaptive ones  (not "dead nature," nature mort, the French phrase for still life).

I listen to a book that makes ”room for my experience, as in a clearing filled….” (55).

A book in which “An experience is not one experience” (27) … This phrase comes from the poem “Winter Whites,” in which we are told “memory widens its focus” and that all “experience” (read, “poem”) is tangled or woven together, yet full of nuances that formalize the single fabric that is the structure of the poem itself.  “Repeating becomes more like an associative process,” and “be-ing” now shifts its verbal weave into collapsing moments, recognizing: “I can’t depend on an event so thinking of it…/ And memory doesn’t end where my skin ends, but diffuses into my surroundings….” (27).

The only “time” is in the sentence phrase, the “moment” when those very singularities of “experience” are addressed.


In this book is a planting that makes a “nervous” kind of garden.  It makes open-spaced “room” not for “the roses” per se, or live flora and fauna. It makes room for the letters of their stand-in verbal notations etched firmly on paper, in rows and rows of lines and lines that bud out and aren’t mimicry but are appreciative of  “the sentence” -- firm and foundational.

I hear:

A garden takes the shape of this harmony, fragrance through which my intention
Weaves for flowers to keep their equilibrium of blossoming together last summer,
One extending the other in wavelength as color.         (“Verdant Heart,” 55)

To end on a wavelength as color.   -- Laura Hinton


An Exchange

After Berssenbrugge read from her new book, Professor Altieri of UC Berkeley was on hand to respond to her reading.  He started with a short commentary and then began to ask her questions  Below is part of their exchange:

CA:    I want to characterize your originality as the relation to the field in your work that an object sets up, so that feeling and thinking and being one and being many all move into one another.  Imagine the radicalness of this!  You have no sense of artificial fiction making in your poetry; and this sense is radical, it seems to me, and powerful.

You refuse in your poetry to do well on or in constructed fictive situations.  Instead, everything is in the present tense of actual thinking and inhabiting.

The location of feeling is not in the fictive imagination in your work, but in the continuities of fictiveness, and the situations as they emerge.  Your work is therefore quite revolutionary.  How to you feel about being a revolutionary?  How do you regard your originality as a poet?  How to you relate to other writing, when you’re in such an original space of writing that you yourself are exploring?  Does other writing irritate you?

To put it another way:  How do you inhabit the space of literary conventions, in your refusal of artifice?   The self is neither an empty hole, nor a defensive armor protected by irony – because there is never this situation that the self depends on.  The self is as fluid as the world.

MB:  I think that’s true, that the self is fluid.  The interesting thing about other writing for me is that, in fact, most of my work is appropriated.  So I get to my poems by reading other writing.

CA:  What kind of writing?

MB:  I read philosophy and other books, I make notes.  I copy them and I put them out on a table.  Maybe I read some Lacan, or I read some Buddhist text – your books I read.  I make the notes and when I put them on the table I make a map of the poem.  More and more I change the notes as I put them together.  That assemblage is what the poem becomes.  The voices also influence my notes.

CA:  So the present world expands into the notes themselves?

MB:  Yes, they make an armature for me, so that I don’t have to fall into what you say is “a fiction.”  I don’t have to have a “story,” and I can stay suspended above the notes.

CA:  One of the biographical facts about you as a writer is that you are very much a part of the art world as well as the literary world.  How do you imagine that visual art feeds you work?  Like the concept of armature, does the visual art world provide a certain kind of genesis that the poetry world might not?

MB:  I think that seeing is something very significant.  I depend upon seeing – a landscape, a work of art.  It’s another way of putting things together without the narrative.  Also, perceiving is something we do in our physical life…it’s a way of learning.  But I’m also wondering if seeing is a way of expressing.  That’s what I’m grappling with now – seeing can be a way of expressing.  Yes, visual art is very important to me….

CA:  Can you say more about the visual art?  Does where “you” stand become part of the energy of perception in a poem?  Maybe it’s like wearing clothes?  Let me put it another way: If you can talk to a rose, can you talk to a dress?

MB:  Yes. [Laughter.]

CA:  So the proximity of those things through perception becomes the possibility of a certain kind of conversation.  The other domain I wanted to ask you about concerns form.   Where does formal attention become the focal dimension of your work?  Obviously, from hearing you read, it sounds crucial.  But I don’t see it, for example -- the armature of rhythm.  I don’t hear it, at least.  Instead, I hear the reliance upon sentence, the grouping of lines into sentences, which seems to prevail over the importance of the image, producing balances.  What are the conditions of formal satisfaction for you when you write a certain poem?

MB:  I made a commitment to the sentence when I was very young.  That distinguished me from many people I knew.  But I was also interested in the same qualities of abstraction that other people were interested in around me.   And also, because I’ve listened to so much classical music all my life, I’ve internalized extensions of musical lines.  I use the sentence as a line.  It’s not a piece of prose.  It has a rhythm of the line, the music of the line – it’s just  a line that is more extended.  Part of this quality of the line comes from my natural sense of the physical world.  It is my experience of Western landscape. The sentence is a line, a rhythmic poetic line.  And I hold it together sometimes with internal rhymes.

CA:  One last short question:  How do you imagine the three parts of Hello, the Roses working together?

MB:  The first part of the book is about struggling.  I needed that section to be by itself, because it doesn’t fit well into the last two-thirds of the book.  I decided to put my beloved plants in the middle section.  Then, the last section of the book is trying to move out from the plants into larger consciousness.

PHOTO:  Charles Altieri and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in dialogue at Poet's House (courtesy of Laura Hinton's I-Phone).  Thank you to Poet's House for their support of this post. 

Oct 25, 2013

Multi-Media Art and Feminist Activism: 
 The Brave Heart/HAWT of Linda Stein 

Linda Stein is a New York City-based feminist post-modern sculptor /multi-media artist, who works in every material imaginable -- from paper to metals to cloth to leather to wood to shells.  Her work is extraordinarily imaginative and reflective:  on the body, on gender, on social mythos and the “self” or "selves" we create in society.  This brave and daring work draws threads from many art fields and traditions.   Her work on what Judith Butler popularized as “gender and performance” is profoundly performative and playfully visceral to both eye and touch.  As Christine Filippone in a recent issue of Women’s Art Journal summarizes:

Scholars have appropriately described [Stein’s] works in the context of gender performativity and embodied subjectivity, informed by the sumptuousness of her materials, which invite a haptic or touch centered response. 
(Spring/Summer 2013 issue)

Stein’s recent-past work features the invention of the female body shield and heroic breastplate armor.  In what she calls her Knight Series, she invokes female protection and stalwart heroism through her creative uses of various media that include the cartoon emblem of Wonder Woman and newspaper fragments.  She incorporates even what Filippone calls “urban detritus including metal laundry tickets, spoons, chains” in a simulacrum of both the Greek kouras and reinventions of the classic Wonder Woman costume.   Often imprinted with some “borrowed” and pastiche image of Wonder Woman herself, these “limbless, classicized, thick-waisted female forms” (Filippone again) are adroitly summed up -- for art-identification purposes only -- by the phrase “3-D collage.”   

Front and side views of Heroic Compassion. 2009.  Wood, metal, paper, and mixed media.  65" X 18" x 14".  From "Body-Swapping Armor: New Yorks by Linda Stein."  NY: Flomenhaft Gallery.

Newer works have jettisoned these urban and starkly if comic (literally!) heroic themes in exchange for a subtle use of natural materials, most particularly sea shells that form robust but softer Venusian sensual (female, of course) torsos.  These later works appear to be a by-product of Stein’s ecofeminism, in general defined by scholar Karen Warren as the conceptual and also emotional-spiritual “position that there are important connections between how one treats women, people of color, and the underclass on one hand and how one treats the nonhuman natural environment on the other” (Warren quoted in Filippone’s article).   They also embrace a visceral love for an environment always making our human “selves” an environment, too, ever shifting our own figural embodiment trappings.  Those trappings, our “costumes” of the day, attempt to “capture” a fleeting glimpse of our moving images in the mirror, our gendered and gendering performances in society.

Playing with images of human costuming of the Brave Heart ("Braveheart") era, in the Middle Ages accouterments of weaponry, we might view Stein’s Blades series from the ‘90’s as another statement about gender and violence – for example, in her sculptural replay of metal machetes and rope whips.  Stein’s work transforms the meaning of violence, however, and its assumed association with "Braveheart" legends and the macho bravado in her work.  Stein’s vampy plays on violent “masculine” tools as well as knight-errant chivalry include not only the implicated bodies of women as her reconceived heroine images.  They generate a woman-centered sensibility that bowdlerizes the violence of warfare itself, and transforms the world-of-violence tool palate into conceptual-art “think-pieces.”  

Hence, Stein’s continuous play upon the performativity of identity and violence – which most cultures seem to perpetuate as a mainstay of the human condition -- overrides that very idea that violence is here to stay.  This notion that violence is a social institution that can never be outrun, no matter how many warplanes and warriors dot the skies and fields in theaters of war, is shown through Stein’s postmodern reinvention, suggesting that this mode of thought is outdated in a global (and nuclear) era.  The performance aspect of her work realigns “violence” as a reactive state of unacknowledged and suppressed identity struggles.  Violence as part of the performance cycle can now be shed, like so many used-up ideas of old “selves.” It can be recycled through the literally “recycled” materials of postmodern art in the service of a more peace-loving humanity.  


What is remarkable about Stein’s Brave Heart corpus is that Stein herself has such a brave and magnificent heart.  

Or, as she spells it, HAWT.  

“HAWT” stands for Have Art Will Travel, an organization Stein founded in 1972 to bring her conceptual art and its messages of peace, diversity and self-acceptance to places in the U.S.  that otherwise might not see such art.   HAWT is a 501 non-profit that enables Stein – and all her body-armor works and playful sculptures – to travel to towns, villages, tiny museums and schools across the country.  Last Tuesday night, I was at a fund-raiser for Stein’s innovative program.   There we were shown a presentation by Stein herself, which reminded us that not only can art be beautiful, or rare, or brainy -- yet limited in what audiences it reaches – but that “art opens minds and encourages meaningful exchange,” as stated in her HAWT brochure.  

Currently the HAWT performance- and installation-art program is featuring Stein’s solo exhibition on the theme of gender-bending and identity questing. The name of this series (which has also been displayed in high-brow gallery exhibits) is appropriately called “The Fluidity of Gender. “  The stated mission of this series through HAWT’s travel aspect is “to inspire and empower people to fearlessly live out their genders.”  Art viewers are asked as part of Stein’s installation programs to become participants in staged dialogues wearing Stein’s metal-collage “body armor” sculptures.  Discussions about gender and identity flow into lessons during Stein’s installation performances -- about how to handle bullying, for example, a prevalent issue for young people in the schools. 

HAWT is the apparatus through which Stein can raise resources and funds, so that she can take her program of art performances on the road to the most out of the way venues -- often in very rural American regions that rarely see radical postmodern art.  Through HAWT, she has visited the little art gallery in Upstate New York or an underfunded center for the arts in Joplin, Missouri.  She has also gone to college campuses, offering her gender-bending performances and installation shows at college sites from the major Duke University to that small community college in Ohio or Pennsylvania.  Showcasing her work not for profit but to stimulate discussions on issues of identity related to self-esteem particularly targeting women and minorities, Stein encourages her audiences to consider the multiplicity of how we see ourselves on any given social landscape.  And she playfully asserts before women and other marginalized groups how they might emotionally and intellectually protect and empower themselves against homophobia, racism, sexism, and other forms of social oppression that still heavily lace U.S. communities.  

Since Stein’s most prominent mythic figure in her oeuvre is that of Wonder Woman – the heroine pops up in different version of Stein’s work from the plastered images on the body-armor sculptures to Stein’s gorgeous cloth tapestries -- Stein uses this wonder-full and also non-violent Super-Heroine as a kind of credo.  In her writing, Stein has argued that Wonder Woman is a woman’s emblem of heroic strength, saving the day, so to speak, without resorting to traditions of cultural masculinity that embrace institutionalized violence.  For this reason, Wonder Woman is very different than your run-of-the mill (and male) Superhero figure.  Stein’s programs engage especially younger people on topics such as peer-group bullying as well as the overriding theme of the pitfalls of gender and sexuality stereotyping. Participants of the Tuesday night presentation were allowed – like some of the adults in a film taken at her Tribeca studio and shown also Tuesday – to try on the gender-bending costumes and fabulous body armor.  The guests were allowed to perform their own “gender fluidity” before a funky Polaroid camera -- and to take their photo home.


If Stein’s own “fluid” identity – only partially articulated in her presentation Tuesday night – is currently Female, Jewish, Lesbian, New Yorker, Artist, Activist, I would add to her self-defining categories that of Teacher.  Utilizing conceptual art and the extraordinarily original manipulation of sensory materials into l’object d’art -- one that is not just art for art’s sake, but something far beyond -- Stein has reinvented the art wheel at its intellectual and ethical foundation.  She shares her non-narrative and open vision of a freer society with those who desperately need to find their own inner self-creating Artist.  Stein gives her own Brave Heart/HWAT to others through her work.  Stein inspired me.  In a world that seems increasingly placid to its use of both institutional violence and its violence on the streets, in shopping malls, and schools, Stein’s HAWT heart offers a viable and necessary alternative. --LH


You can see more of Linda Stein’s work by visiting her website at

The HAWT organization, whose mission is to “spread the word” of performance art and tolerance, relies on generous funding from those who find it in their own hearts to support social justice through this creative, non-judgmental, open-ended means. 

If you wish to make a donation to this 501c non-profit, so Stein’s work can reach more U.S. audiences that involve travel, you can do so on the website and click on the donate page:  

Photo above:  Linda Stein with the hostess of the Tuesday night HAWT fundraiser, Loreen Arbus, at the latter’s Central Park West home (Laura Hinton’s Iphone). 

Jun 13, 2013


the Film Text

Q&A with Abigail Child, writer and director 

of Unbound: The Life of Mary Shelley 

Mary Shelley's Dream -- Still from Unbound

The following comments were made by avant-garde film maker and writer Abigail Child, following the New York premiere of her 2013 film, Unbound: The Life of Mary Shelley.  They are based on a recording of the Q&A with audience members that followed the film’s screening at the East Village’s Anthology Film Archives on May 31.  These comments have been amplified, added to and edited by Child, in collaboration with myself, over the last few days following the premiere.

The result are answers to audience questions that reveal the challenges as well as the beauty of filming/designing an experimental feature film abroad with few financial resources, in which the resources become the architectural sites of Rome, the ancient city and the sea, and a supportive local community of the arts.  Child’s answers here also reveal the creative potentiality in an imaginative and experimental use of digital film media and its editing software.  In a supplemental question posed by email, Child also responds by talking more deeply about the use of the “explosion” process in this film – and technological “error” – in which time, history, and story are transformed beyond audience expectations, in which “the machine” makes the human more real. – LH


Q:  How was the script for the film composed?

A:  I’m using Mary Shelley’s diary and [her step-sister] Claire Clairmont’s diary, combining them into one voice. I’m drawing from [Percy B.] Shelley’s poetry as well, which I am “mashing” –in that he wrote long poems from which I have selected lines.  I would love some of his poetry, and then back off the extended rhymed verses. There’s also some parts of the voiceover that I wrote myself.

Claire is more open in her diary than Mary, more free with her feelings for Percy and for Mary. Additionally, I kept some of the pieces of the recording by the actress, when she makes mistakes or errors… it’s part of the way we tell a story, remembering and circling back.

Q:  Where was the film shot, and how was it financed?

P.B. Shelley with racket -- Still from Unbound
A:  It was filmed in Rome -- all in Rome, or just about.  I rented a boat in Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber 20 minutes west of the City for the closure.

I really had no money at all.  I worked with Academic Fellows, who were at the American Academy in Rome as academic scholars where I was a Fellow in the Visual Arts. The scholars would give me only mornings or afternoons. Often we would film in the mornings, and then [the fellows/actors] would go back to their own research and writing in the afternoon. So, when I saw the carousel on the Tiber one evening, I said, “Let’s do it.” We organized the cast and shot during one sunny afternoon that next week.

The Academy was incredibly open with its spaces, allowing me to film in all of them. The villa standing in for Diodati [Byron’s residence in Switzerland] is the Villa Aurelia, one of the Academy’s properties. The gold room on the second floor was the stage for a lot of live classical and operatic music, fantastic in that venue. And famously, or infamously, this is where Tom Cruise had his engagement party.  [Audience laughter.] What was great is they let me have it for the day.  I had looked at Joseph Losey’s film on Mozart, which was photographed in a villa north of Rome, to figure out how you fill up a few thousand square feet of space with five people!  It was challenging. I brought the characters and furnishings up close to the camera. Then, I opened doors throughout the rooms so the vista was long behind them.

The film was shot all over Rome –in the Borghese Park for the boat scene, by the Castillo for the carousel, at the Baths of Caracalla, in the Museo Palacio and at the Academy itself, which had a lot of different available spaces and buildings. For example, the scene of Claire’s nightmare was filmed in a hallway of the main Academy building that was three-feet wide and 100-feet long– the most insane hallway, like something out of Kubrick movie.  I said, “I have to film here.”   So it was that kind of finding, throughout my 11 months in Rome, in which I would see something and think, “This would be great for a set.”  At the Villa Aurelia—another instance— there were these lights on the trees at night that they put on for parties.  I asked Academy staff if they would turn the lights on one evening so I could film my Frankenstein character lurking in the woods, and they did.

It was a fantastically communal and improvisatory way to deal with shooting and locations. I felt this film was the most improvisatory piece I’ve ever done.   I wasn’t at home in Rome—didn’t have film colleagues, equipment, labs, assistants around,  so I had to go with whatever was available.

Q:  Can you talk about the relationship between sound and image?  In your work, I know that musicians have often performed live to the film, but in this one the sound was composed. How are you putting those together?

I shot silent footage with my Beaulieu, a silent l6mm camera. I knew later that there would be voice-over and music, plus sound.   I contacted Zeena Parkins when I returned to New York —with whom I
have worked previously (on Mayhem, 1987, and Surface Noise, 2001) —and she began to give me themes with which we would work.  At one point I would tell her to dirty them up, or give me some synthetic sound to make it more discordant.

Mirrored Lord Byrons -- Still from Unbound

As one person who watched the film said: there’s an anachronism in every shot.   It never stays in one historical time zone, one solo period. So we would play with that in sound, as well….adding the engine of a motorcycle or car, sirens going off -- that kind of anachronistic play to undermine the fictional space of the story.

In terms of the music, I cut up some of Zeena’s themes and layered them. At one point, in Final Cut, because of technical issues, the sound slipped further, something like in Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia  where the voiceover is on the wrong photograph. Here the sound was suddenly stretched and the disjunction began to accelerate.

The way that one thinks about memory and storytelling and truth -- the slippage seemed an authentic part of the process, of going through time, in time.  Somebody said at one point, which I felt was true, that going through the machine made the time more humane.  Suddenly, with slippages, there was repetition and there was re-membering. There were these "mistakes."  You can almost see the film as a series of mistakes, as “off” the synchronous, off the logic of continuity.

What is your concept of "exploding" or an "exploded film"? Can you say more on your use of this term, and the technical as well as conceptual ideas behind it?

This is technically complex. At one point the film was single screen. I was moved to make it double screen —conceptually so the screens read as a book, to mime the Claire/Mary dichotomy/obstruction, and to suggest as well the Mary/Monster split and identification. This doubling is the significant gesture. Suddenly I had l6mm film, dvcam [the small amount of black and white registering mainly the casting of the film], stills, plus "quicktimes" of sections of edited film  -- which I had made in order to go to the double screen in the first place —and these 4 originals each had different originating sizes. This meant that the numbers to fill in were all different when they were set to size in double screens. I believe we had 8 sets of numbers that were carefully recorded to get the two-screen version to work.

Originally, there had been an issue with the Italian transfer. They had made every frame of film into a tiff that was then brought back into a film sequence in Quicktime. I was given wrong information here and brought the film back at 29.97 (frames per second/fps: this is the video format). This meant it was actually going too fast. It should have been 23.97 to keep it compatible with the way it was shot at 24 fps (the film format). I didn’t realize this until I had made the two-screen version which was accepted into the Rotterdam Film Festival for 2012.

I thought I could press a button and get the 23.97 version. I couldn’t. This is when I began to paste the fine cut into different sequences with different time signatures——not sure how else to describe this as it has never been done before. The result was strange, what I am calling exploded: I was watching the computer search among my fim rolls for material that would match numerically but it was impossible…. I was forcing the computer to match up a piece that was suddenly 20% longer (24fps vs 30 fps). There were all kinds of lovely coincidences and excisions and surprises. I knew then that the mismatched result—the exploded film— was a “gate” or opening to edit the film. I didn’t have time to work more fully on this then as the film was due for Rotterdam within a week. Also it was very unstable technically; it would crash the machine or freeze.

Q:  So the sound in this version is “exploded”?

Yes, it’s exploded.  In the sense that the sound was brought onto the editing timeline in new places [as described above], and that I layered the tracks again with anachronistic sound and with additional synthesizer sound. Cage would call it “reading through the text” and here it was reading through the film source materials—both visual and aural. It fragmented this material, cutting it off at unexpected places, re-realizing the film score if you will. Everything was recognizable but not exactly where it had been previously.

At one point more recently I asked Zeena if she could perform the film live. She commented on how hard it would be to recreate this new version. I should add however that the “carousel” sequence and “silent letter in English” sequence were taken from the two-screen version (A Shape of Error ) and inserted into Unbound as is.

Q:  You’re working a lot with a dual image, a mirror screen.  Can you comment on this?

A: At one point, as I said earlier, I felt I needed to move away from one screen:  for visual reasons relating to the “pages of a book,” and conceptually, relating to Mary’s projection onto Claire and onto the Monster, and all the doubling in her Frankenstein.  (The wife of Dr. Frankenstein is Elizabeth which is the name of Shelley’s favorite sister; the child who is killed is called William, which is the name of Mary’s child;  and both Byron and Shelley were writing poems based on the Prometheus myth). It is the very fact that there are two screens that allowed the “explosion” or "derangement" to happen.  As I noted, there are four, five, six sources in the film each with different ratios of sizing. That confused the computer. It was those variables that provoked the machine, you could say. I had always wanted it to have more rhythm and playfulness, so that’s how I arrived at the double screens.

I should add that I was attracted to this story because of the sex and politics. The sadness of the reality—of the Shelleys’ flight and the multiple deaths that surrounded them— was somewhat a surprise. I suspect it is because the film uses the home movie theme that these domestic realities began to surface and surface again. Also, there were many children at the Academy when I was there and this sense that children were in Mary's and Percy’s life constantly was overpowering. It explained a lot, potentially Shelley’s interest in other women for one thing.

Regarding the mirroring effect, I had used this in other films (first in The Future is Beyond You, 2004, and then in Mirror World, 2006). Here it is most often used within the landscape, because the mirroring made the landscape feel grand, wide, large – more the way the landscape actually felt, in "real life," which a single screen couldn’t capture.  And, of course, it also becomes ominous a bit, that ominous suggestive quality.

Q:  Yes, there’s mirroring towards the end when you get to the scene of Shelley’s sailboat out on the sea…

A:  It’s as if there is death at the center, but there’s this breathing movement happening, which I really appreciated: this sense of stillness on the ocean, the water moving the sail only slightly, everything quiet then, breath-taking, propelling us into the final exhalation -- which the sail itself mimes in its subtle movement.

I shot at Cinecitta at one point [the commercial film lot of Rome where Fellini movies were shot, among many other Italian classics]. Somehow they let me film.   There was another group of professionals, maybe 5 people, trying to shoot, and they forbade them. I was with my little Beaulieu camera and I guess it doesn’t look real, so they just let me keep shooting.  The images at the end were sound blankets waving in the wind hiding the rough construction behind. This image of the black “sails” and constructive artifice behind them, this sense of illusion and artifice out of the simplest reality, is what interested me in filming memory and biography, in examining storytelling.

What I aimed for was the Shelley party's idea of hallucination and dream. They were living in that place, exploring their own dreams, their illusions, they were pushing themselves.  They were living with the sense that whatever happened was part of their novelistic fiction.   They were living their lives under that rubric.

Unbound is the first part of my trilogy – on women and failed ideologies.  This film is a meditation on 19th-century Romanticism and Mary Shelley. I’m hoping to do one on Emma Goldman and 20th-century utopianism, and then a 21st-century film on women and science.  The Emma Goldman film will be shot in New York. I want to shoot the 21st-century film in Tokyo.  I don’t have a woman for that third film, but I’m actually thinking "she" should be anime – that "she" should be a virtual heroine.  I’m looking at the Hikikomori, the Japanese kids that stay at home all the time living on their computer. Tokyo would be my Alphaville of the 21st century.   Perhaps I should say Betaville to reference the computer? That’s the dream.

Photo stills courtesy Abigail Child.

Abigail Child is a filmmaker, poet, and writer who has been active in experimental writing and media since the 1970's.  She is the creator of more than 30 film / video works and installations, most recently Unbound (discussed here): A Shape Of Error (2011 – also a feature film on Mary and Percy Shelley); and The Suburban Trilogy (2011).  She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Award in Film, as well as the 2009 Rome Prize.  She is also the author of 6 poetry books. 

Child is the author of a Mermaid Tenement Press chapbook, which can be ordered by clicking this link and scrolling to title CounterClock. 

Laura Hinton is the main writer and editor of this blog.

Jun 7, 2013

Overflowing Theories / 
Poetry’s Possibilities  

A Review of Fortino Samano (The Overflowing of the Poem) 
Virginie Lalucq and Jean Luc Nancy
Translated by Syllvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue

By Belle Gironda with Nicole Peyrafitte
Guest reviewers

For a poet who loves philosophy but who would always rather read poetry, one of the many pleasures of Fortino Samano (The Overflowing of the Poem) is how despite “the overflowing” of the poem — which appears twice in the book, first with the translation on facing pages and once again with “the Overflowing” below it — it is “the poem” that dictates the conversation.

Like Diego Velásquez’s painting, Las Meninas, Fortino Samano is the rare work of art that manages to be both an aesthetic and intellectual object.  It also is a meta-conversation about itself and other objects like it — a theorization of its own conditions of possibility. Thankfully, this theorization is not some external apparatus added by Nancy’s contribution, but rather originates in Lalucq’s poem and spills over into a continuing conversation.  While in sheer number of words, the overflowing exceeds the poem, it cascades only into the spaces the poem allows—and follows its lead in tone and diction and conforms to its preoccupations. As Nancy writes, “I believed that she was asking me about my way of doing things. But she herself answered in my place.”

The speaker in Lalucq’s poem appears sometimes to be Fortino Samano (described in the translator’s forward as “a Zapatista lieutenant and counterfeiter” photographed while smoking the proverbial last cigarette, just before his death by firing squad); sometimes Lalucq, the writer; and perhaps also sometimes the Mexican photographer Augustin Victor Casasola, whose exhibition of photos of the Mexican Revolution inspired Lalucq’s poem. This conflation of authorial point of view also invokes a bit of a Las Meninas convergence and triangulation of image, image-maker and viewer of the image (the poet to be).  Near the beginning of the overflowing, Nancy picks up and extends Lalucq’s play—noting a possible conflation of “charming executioners” (the unseen of the photograph) with “charming readers," the outside of the text.  And further on, meaning executes itself in the action of the poetic line as Nancy informs us, “The poem is always, at each moment, the last word with no conclusion.”

The history of writing’s relation to photography, from the moment of the invention, is fraught with anxiety about the medium’s immediacy and its representational relation to the world. This theme haunts Lalucq’s poem and is perhaps echoed in what also haunts translation and even reading. The work holds itself in abeyance before the moment that remains uncaptured—dwelling in and on a set of questions about what is the relation of medium to moment and of medium to medium, genre to genre, language to language, human to text, human to human.

Lalucq acknowledges her debt to Nancy’s book, Au fond des images, and invites him in for no small cameo. This turns out to be just one of many intertextual tributaries flowing into the poem, starting with the epigraph from Jacques Roubaud’s book, Some Thing Black, that was written after — and in contemplation of — the death of his wife, the photographer Alix Cleo. To add an additional layer, that book takes its title from a portfolio of Cleo’s images that she called, “If something black.” While the edition I have, a translation by Rosemary Waldrop (Dalkey Archive Press), includes Cleo’s photographs, the original, from Éditions Gallimard in 1986, did not.  Some Thing Black is a meditation on absence, fraught also with the author’s frustrations regarding the limitations of language and poetry.  The epigraph Lalucq chose from Roubaud’s poem, “Aphasia,” contains an image of the poets “dismantling their house, floor by floor,” from the top down. Nancy points to the parallel reflexivity of the epigraph, noting that it is “by another poet speaking of verse.”  And he sounds coy (as the author of Au fond des images), when he wonders if “the philosopher” knows about “the ground of anything, about grounds, in general.”

This moment, at the inception of the overflowing, leads to questions about the translation—which is, it should be said — an admirable work that must have entailed a formidable process. While the poem, rather than Nancy’s meta-critical response, gets to dictate the terms of the book's conversation, it appears that the "the overflowing" guides many of the decisions made in the translation. We see this in action sometimes, as when Laluqc’s “du léger liséré de sang” deftly becomes, “a light brim of blood” in order to preserve Nancy’s remarks about the alliteration in the original. The choice is understandable, but loses the recurring “stitching” and “pricking” needlepoint layers embroidered by Lalucq’s punctilious choice of words. The blood-red captions she stitches on the borders of language are sometimes washed away by the translation, and it’s hard not to miss that layer of the text’s fabric.

As Nancy first enters the conversation and responds to Lalucq’s choice of epigraph, he obliquely invokes his own theorization of images in Au fonds des images:  “I think Virginie wants to lead me to the ground of verse.”  Is this why, then, that “fond” will be translated as “the ground” (as it is, in the English translations of Nancy’s work) and not as “the bottom,” which would be the more colloquial and direct translation of the French expression, “le fond des choses”?

What are the implications, then, in going to the ground and not to the bottom? Nancy says that  "‘versification’ remains and with it the oldest rule, the most archaic floor (a basement, a cave, a foundation?).” Just as these three are very different things—so are le fond and les fondements quite different from each other—and, as Nancy notes—the latter is the traditional territory of philosophy—while the former is perhaps not. Throughout the overflowing he guides us along verse’s “most archaic floor,” among les fondements—in the territory of image and sound—where poetry originates. But, in the end, he send us back to poem itself— suggesting it should be spoken aloud, a summoning of the duende, from le fond.


Belle Gironda (PHOTO CENTER BELOW) is a poet, critic and teacher. Her most recent book is Double | Vigil (Stockport Flats Press, 2013), a collaboration with poet Lori Anderson Moseman that uses poetry, photographs, email excerpts, news, reports and Facebook postings to explore the experience of vigil, from inside and outside of the Egyptian popular uprising of 2011.  Gironda taught writing at the American University in Cairo from 2008-2012.  She now lives on a hill outside of Asheville, NC.

Nicole Peyrafitte (PHOTO RIGHT ABOVE) is a French Pyrenean-born poet and performance artist, whose videos, paintings, writings, singing and cooking are often integrated into multi-media stagings.  Her work has been presented and/or performed in such venues as The Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and at The University of Bordeaux in France.  Her latest projects include a documentary film, Basil King: Mirage (producer and co- director, with Miles Joris-Peyrafitte), as well as Bi-Valve, a performance project that includes text, painting, and videos.  She lives in New York City.

Jan 20, 2013

 The Open Conversation 

of the Internet

-- the Tragedy of Aaron Swartz

For days now, I have been haunted by the story behind the suicide of Aaron Swartz, who killed himself a week ago Friday in his Brooklyn apartment, pushed to the wall by a savage attack on his character, not to mention his finances and a possible long-term future in jail, by the U.S. Attorney’s office for downloading documents at MIT’s research library.   I think his life – and tragic young death  – has something to do with innovative thinking in this culture.  And it therefore has something to do with the cutting-edge arts that is a topic of this blog. 

And it has to do with the future of our internet, which should also be a topic of this blog.  

Software innovator, multi-disciplinary genius, maverick thinker and American activist, Aaron Swartz was one of those rare human beings who had a life calling apparently before he was even a man – as a young teen.  I won’t rehearse his technological accomplishments; they are well reviewed and known.  But his principle interest in life – from all I have read and watched on an internet whose freedom he helped to save when our corporation-hugging Congress nearly passed the so-called “anti-piracy” act that would have killed much of our internet freedom – has been, was, to help humanity from its own savage thickets. 

His main focus in life was to keep us talking freely – to keep the sharing of real information and interactive technology alive.  

I have read and listened to the stories and accounts of his deeds and supposed “crimes.”  And it seems this beautiful young man who died at 26 only wanted us all – he was thinking globally -- to read as widely as possible,  to be free to ask questions and to think thoughts as large as Swartz’s own mind.

I write this caged in a French apartment in the beautiful but politically conservative southern region of the Alpes Maritimes, where one would think full or partial nudity on its beaches in the summer time is an indication of a freer version of civil rights.  It is not.  I am “caged,” by choice -- because it is pouring droves of rain from the mountains to the coastlines as far as the Goggle Maps can see.  There is no driving out of this torrent in an ancient Renault car so old it itself leaks inside in the rain.  So we wait indoors for the usual golden-azure suns to come back to this winter Mediterranean climate. 

But I only wish the politics here were as golden as its usual sun.  Petty, corrupt – the politicians are driven by local mafias and the filling of the coffers of local politicians.  But don’t they have newspapers, you might say?  Don’t they report the corruption from time to time?  Frankly, no.  The local papers especially only exist to support the tourist industry, like a squad of money-cheerleaders.  I’ve even seen them change bad weather reports at the height of the beach season.   Don’t they have the internet, you might ask?  Again, if you are lucky enough to get a good signal – the national company France Orange is not noted for its wifi consistency – the French at least in this part of the world are about 10 years behind in the intelligent use of the ULR. 

Is there any relationship between the availability of discussion and information and the elements of political conservatism and the racism I have noted outside my dripping rainy door? 

I think there is.  I think societies with open discussion -- one facilitated by a healthy internet -- have to progress to the next step.  They have to progress to allow “otherness” to wane in favor of an expanded notion of subjectivity in the context of collectivity.   Racism here -- in one major example of an anti-progressive social impetus in this region in and around the city of Nice -- is pretty much the norm among the white French, obviously with many exceptions.  The white French live side by side with more recent Arab and/or African immigrant populations from formerly French colonies.  Yet African-French typically live in their own districts – I’ve even seen them on separatist beaches in the summer time, reminiscent of American’s Jim Crow period.  This separatism is not “legal” or “official” as it once was in the American south but is in fact enforced by social and political ostracism and isolation by the power structure in this region.  The southern white French are actually ridding some of their neighborhoods of the local Arabs through various means, some legal, some not.  (American cities do this through gentrification.)  This racism seems intensified to me in recent years, or at least as I have observed it.

So here among usually ravenously beautiful skies and open seacoasts and villages that go back to Roman and Greek (and Lugurian) cultures, contemporary money and power -- as usual -- writes history.  And "history" as a setting, along with an unusual scenic beauty that is nature's gift to the south of France, is used for the attraction of money, which comes from the more affluent (and usually white) tourists.    No one who profits from this tourist-driven economy here wants to confront ideas.  People might start to think.  

Watching Amy Goodman’s "Democracy Now" on the Aaron Swartz story – a link sent to me by poet James Sherry – and today watching the memorial service for Aaron at historic Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York leaves me wondering at the efficacy of either historical settings or our global privileges.  Even those of us who "get around," and who make contact with multiple and various cultures, find blocks that prevent us from opening ourselves to others.  Aaron seemed at root to be a young man wishing to destroy those blocks.  He seemed to wish that we of the global economy have open conversations.  Did he know how dangerous those open conversations can be, and who gains by keeping the conversations closed?

Did this idealistic person know who and what he was up against?   

Swartz was most concerned about our ability to open ourselves to ourselves -- and saw the internet as a great opportunity for human sharing, of ideas and knowledge.   He was concerned,  as I have heard and read,  for the rural woman in India and her future ability to use new software to grow a small business that will lead her family out of poverty.   Technology in the global world is not a luxury but a necessity.  He recognized that fact.  And he was concerned about the ability of millions around the world who cannot pay Jstor’s hefty “use” fees, who do not have access to academic libraries to read or review articles written by the academic intellectual powerhouses of the now globally connected world.  These are articles today largely written by people like my friends and colleagues – and myself – people who have jobs as university professors at research institutions.  We write and publish, as well as teach.  We publish normally without any kind of authorial payment for these "academic" works.

We write from a love of knowledge and discovery that eventually, over time, produces them.  We write, also, because it is our university job to do so.  It is hard work, I can say from experience, to create even one academically sound article.  It can take years, actually -- and a lot of midnight oil.  Our time for this is partially, sometimes, not always, modestly compensated for by our higher-education institutions that give us salaries in the form of, say, a course release from teaching one semester.  Research funding varies.  Some researchers are not helped or compensated at all.  Research in the Humanities, these days, is considered a privilege to do -- we are rarely if ever adequately compensated for our effort and time. 

The connecting link to my weaving of these issues and stories:  intellectual thought -- and access, access, access.

Openness.  To others.   The sharing of information and ideas in a global community that must do this -- or perish.

I have heard that Jstor, which is the on-line storage for academic articles, is non-profit.  Then – why the usage fees by Jstor to libraries around the world?  These fees are not nothing.  They are not affordable for most regular folks.  And most of us cannot afford to purchase  a single article on line, say,  at $35 a pop.  Why such fees when academic authors never charge for their labor?  How much did it cost the academic journal in the first place to publish the article -- say, if it was originally a paper journal?   Journals, too, are usually funded by academic institutions, many if not most of which are in turn funded by the public.  How can Jstor continue to "pass on" such expense that, in fact, was largely publically funded to begin with?   They are certainly not paying writer costs (or royalties).  These do not exist for academic articles, at least in the Humanities.  As an academic as well as a poet, I do not understand how my intellectual articles can be “locked up” – or “caged” – by corporate profit-making deals when I myself never received an ounce of payment for them.   (Nor did I ask for payment.  That was never the goal or the point.)

What comes from the public should return to the public.  This is how Aaron Swartz viewed this situation.  As he argued in his activist speeches and in writing, research now hidden in academic libraries and unavailable to general readers without academic paid-for privileges inherently belongs to the public -- and the world.  So how in the world – how in our world– did Jstor or any university (like MIT)  “get possession” of our collective work and keep it captive?

Possession is nine-tenths of the law, my husband used to like to say when telling the story of how he acquired the lease on his New York apartment.   That story goes like this:   he was running a restaurant in the 1970’s in our current apartment building, on the ground floor.  A man died upstairs.  He and his partner “broke in” and “took possession.”  Eventually, he got a lease.   

So what does it mean to "take possession" of someone’s intellectual property?  Did someone break in?Or did someone simply steal it?  This hypothetical person was not Aaron Swartz.  This is property that, in fact, was concocted and brewed -- most often at taxpayer’s and an author's own expense so that the public world and culture itself could prosper.  It’s a beautiful thing – that we still have this academic work out there.  Unfortunately it’s being restricted now in a different (but perhaps related) way:  because in a few years -- since so many universities like my own, CUNY,  are scarcely hiring full-time professors -- we probably won’t have very much of this research and writing in scholarly journals any more.  Certainly not in the Humanities, if this trend continues.   Adjuncts teaching most of our university classes as part-time faculty -- who have 4,5,6, 7 classes to teach every week at extremely low wages – do not have the time to write, to think, to publish what might be important cutting-edge and labor-intensive work.  Yes, there is a lot of junk out there spewed by the academic journals and presses.  But if there is one gem in every 10, or even 20 or 30 articles published, that gem is worth it.  That "gem" just might revolutionize our thinking about ourselves, our sciences, our art forms.  Doesn’t that make the entire enterprise of academic publishing and access to such work worth thinking about and protecting? 

Is there any connection to the restriction of intellectual materials through lack of access in the current times and the failure to replenish shrinking university faculties?  I think there is.  (I’ll bet Aaron would have gotten that connection, too.)

Back to the specific tragedy of Aaron's death  – and the tragedy his suicide outlines in horrific relief:  who gets to read what intellectuals and scientists write and research?  Who has the access not only to that “information,” but ideas crucial to our intellectual-cultural survival?  What happened to the idea Ben Franklin posited of “the public library”?  Why are we moving the other way?  And why is it that the corporate structure has taken over yet another arm and leg of our social infrastructure:  our very capacity to read, learn and think -- and exchange ideas?

Swartz was trying to change what has been happening to knowledge and information – and perhaps intellectual life itself -- in the corporate-driven age.  The internet was both his vehicle and metaphor.

His fundamental “crime”,  to rehearse again this part of the tragic story, was to download a huge number of Jstor files at MIT and leave his computer doing this in a utility closet.  From the stories I’ve listened to and read, especially a chief witness who was about to testify at his scheduled April federal criminal trial and featured on "Democracy Now,"  Swartz did nothing wrong.   MIT’s system was so open – a historical policy of access, I’ve heard? –  that Swartz did not have to lie or steal or do any thing actually illegal.  And yet MIT allowed the U.S. Attorney in its Massachusetts district throw the book at Swartz when he downloaded an excessive number of articles (a number that was never restricted officially by MIT to begin with), and try to convict him as an illegal hacker and felon.  Because he would not sign off to 6 months in jail and acknowledge himself for the rest of his still-young life as such a criminal felon – because maybe he actually wasn’t one, he was a young idealist, for heaven's sake -- the U.S. Attorney used all its considerable (tax-payer supported) apparatus to hound this young man – literally to death.

Shouldn’t young Aaron, the activist, have taken his hits and just ridden along with the mud-slinging going on through the trial?  Of course one wishes he had done so.  Yet,  anyone who’s been through even the smallest legal matter – in my case,  a tiny little federal Civil Rights lawsuit for gender discrimination at my publically owned institution, eventually settled in my favor after a lot of melodrama and upset  – can testify what it is like to be the David against the Goliath.  And slingshots don’t work when you’re the little one against, say, an institution that gets free legal services from New York State or any public agency.  Those folks representing state or federal legal offices need have little accountability.  They spend the resources; the tax coffers are forced to refill them.  One has to see these offices in action to believe how this works.  There is no consequence -- like running out of money -- to encourage the dropping of a shaky case.  The system has become counter-intuitive.  

These legal Goliaths become monsters that have no incentive to play the game fairly, to be reasonable, balanced,  humane.   One could only wish -- again -- that Aaron’s case could have gotten much wider publicity before he chose to take his life in desperation and despair.  Perhaps MIT would have requested that the Attorney General drop all charges.

What did provoke the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts to go after Aaron Swartz like the serial felon he was not, or would never be?   And why didn't MIT refuse to press charges when Swartz returned his downloaded documents – gained by seemingly legal means -- at Jstor’s request?  Jstor refused to press charges, to its considerable credit. 

One legal-technology expert likened Swartz’s so-called “crime” to inconsiderately borrowing too many books.  I know that inconsiderate type.  Been one myself.  One simply pays the library fine. 

I think Swartz having his hand slapped would have been “fine” enough.  Not the threat of most of his youth in prison!

I did not know him.  But I wish I had.  I weep for his parents, his siblings, his partner, his incredibly idealistic and brilliant friends who’ve been on and over our internet waves these last several days articulating this story and the serious issues it raises for all of our intellectual lives and the future of culture in the internet age – all the while much of the mainstream media ignores or underplays what is essentially a tale of betrayal and complicity.  How hard must we make it for our young and most brilliant – to me, he was still a boy, younger than my own -- to simply be who they must be:  the best of us  -- as human beings?
-- LH