Online Edition: Winter 2007/2008

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Trans-Avant-Garde

an interview with Steve McCaffery

Though he would be among the first people to point out the inherent problems with the terminology, poet and scholar Steve McCaffery is one of the major architects of postmodern Canadian literature and was a major player in the Canadian avant garde of the 1970s. With fellow poet bp Nichol, he formed the Toronto Research Group in 1973, a group which, in the words of critics Pauline Bunting and Susan Rudy, “critiqued established forms, values, and meanings via exuberant performances of fragmentation and dispersal; and they applied poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theory to poetics to expose underlying socio/cultural assumptions.” With Nichol, Paul Dutton and Rafael Barreto-Rivera, McCaffery also formed the highly influential sound poetry collective, The Four Horsemen.

McCaffery’s writing, both creative and critical, is concerned to some extent with going beyond the sentence and the word, beyond syntax. As Caroline Bayard points out, “for McCaffrey the deconstruction of the sign… implies the deconstruction of the word, of the sentence, of the ‘whole functioning of linearized, serialized, capitalized society.’” Since his work with the TRG and the Four Horsemen, he has published more than 23 books, including the two-volume Seven Pages Missing (Coach House Books) and the recent critical study Prior to Meaning (Northwestern University Press). Born in England, he has been twice nominated for Canada’s Governor General’s Award, and he is currently the David Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters at SUNY Buffalo.

 by Ryan Cox

Ryan Cox: Do you consider yourself to be a postmodern writer?

Steve McCaffery: I dislike periodization because my relationship to both contemporary and past literature hinges on transcursivity and not cultural-chronological compartments. Postmodernism, as I understand the term, indexes a highly complex cultural condition (politico-economic, ideological, state-mechanical, techno-social etc) and does not refer to specific identifiable features of literary style (such as self-reflexivity, privileging of surface, mixed styles and genre, double coding, and narrative subversion). Given that misprision I would admit to certain “pomo” features in some of my work, but I certainly wouldn’t theorize it as “postmodern.”

RC: I was thinking in particular of Lyotard’s idea of the trans-avant garde as kind of a typifying feature of postmodern writing.

SM: It’s an urgent question as to whether there can be an avant garde today—and the debate is well-known. Although, I don’t see that particular interrogation as specific to a postmodern condition. I would trace it back to the 1960s and Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of the infinite capacity of Capitalism (now late or spherical Capitalism) to absorb its own contradictions. That said, I like the notion of a trans-avant garde, as I very much approve of agendas of “crossing.” The numerous classical or historical avant gardes now seem residual resources offering useful technical methods available for variant application. Collage, for instance, is one example that comes readily to mind, and also the Situationist practice of détournement both of which have entered into a general creative currency. It’s important, however, to distinguish between a formal and a critical avant garde, as Peter Bürger does. I can’t at this point answer whether a trans-avant garde practice is capable of supporting effectively a critical avant garde.

RC: Science and the arts, particularly in the academy, are often considered oppositional discourses, but in Prior to Meaning, you seem to be pushing for a more direct relationship between the two. What is the relationship of science to language?

SM: In many ways and in all honesty the question is too big to really answer. So let me try to engage the question with a response rather than an answer. Let’s start with an historical overview. Poetry and science have not always been separate. Lucretius presents his version of particle physics as a poem: De Natura Rerum. Virgil’s Georgics offer a poetic rendition of practical hints on husbandry. Erasmus Darwin’s The Botantical Garden is an amazing attempt to poeticize (with extensive prose footnotes and endnotes) the system of Linnaean classification and the sexual life of plants. I also consider ‘Pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions that Alfred Jarry invented at the turn of the 19th century, an important intermediary between poetic creativity and scientific discourse and practice. Deleuze thinks of it as a minor science in relation to the Royal sciences of chemistry, nuclear physics, etc. There are also several current practitioners who are readily incorporating scientific discourse and thinking into their work. In England, Allan Fisher’s poetry explores quantum communication along with such scientific features as decoherence and crowd-out. Christian Bök’s Crystallography is a masterful hybrid of sci-po, and his current project with the genetic implants of poems into primitive life forms (building on the work of Edwardo Kacks) hints at truly exciting collaborative possibilities between poetics and genetic science. Moreover scientific impact is ineluctable: Copernicus on John Donne, Darwin on a whole-range of Victorian writers, cybernetics on Olson. Science is a vital component, in a different way, offering a readily transportable, or “highjackable” body of concepts that poetry can plunder. In my own poetic thinking, I thought the shift from the notion of poetic form to poetic economy opens up wider possibilities to practice and interpretation. Later in Prior to Meaning I adopt the notion of the dissipative structure to discussions of poetry and philosophy, specifically Georges Bataille’s theory of general economy. The former term comes from non-equilibrium thermodynamics. A dissipative structure is a structure that, as it gains complexity, is defined more by what it expends than what it takes in and is usefully applicable to thinking and describing not only poems and literature as a whole, but also the patterns of cities, hemispherical economies and globalization itself.

RC: It seems that in Prior to Meaning you are developing a poetic quantum mechanics, focused on a kind of indeterminacy—or am I going down the wrong path?

SM: I don’t know. The book itself was in part an attempt to read certain contemporary works as completing Enlightenment agendas. That’s why, for instance, I connect Karen Mac Cormack’s poetic practice of phrase propulsion to a semiology implicit in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. The possible cross-pollenation of a present to a past fascinates me, that both can be chiasmically propensitive with the present able to contemporize the past and the past historicize the present. Thus we find an 18th-century precedent for Gysin and Burroughs’s cut-up method in Caleb Whitforde’s delightful cross-column reading (first published in the memorable Foundling Hospital for Wit). Olson’s exaltations over the mechanical precision of the typewriter (allowing a poem to be as accurately laid out as music notation) has a precedent in Joshua Steele’s rational prosody (circa 1780). It’s that old la plus ça change, no?

RC: The Basho Variations is categorized by the Library of Congress as a work of translation. Do you feel that is an accurate term?

SM: It’s actually the Canadian Cataloguing and Publication data, not the Library of Congress, and it’s an interesting categorization that I’m happy to live with. Certainly, translation and creative translation, maverick translation, has been a long interest of mine, which I developed both with Dick Higgins when we developed the notion of the allusive referential, and with bpNichol in some of the first research reports of the Toronto Research Group. Can you creatively mistranslate? And of course there is the example of Zukofsky’s homophonic translation of Catullus and before that Jonathan Swift’s of Thomas Sheridan’s 18th-century homophonic constructions of Anglo Latin, where an English text yields a Latin meaning and vice versa: “Caesar aderat forte Brutus adsum jam.”

RC: You are originally from Sheffield, England, you spent a good portion of your life in Canada, and now you are in Buffalo. Do you identify your work in any of these national discourses?

SM: I have little interest in nationalist constructions that inhibit formulation of larger cultural-linguistic agglomerates, such as Anglophone, and little interest in such an identification. I have to say, though, that I feel my cultural roots are British and my current context is Anglophone North American. My influences too are not especially nationally contoured: German philosophy, French critical theory, international poetry and I’ve long been committed to multidisciplinary and international constellations. Like Dick Higgins I feel at home in multi-hattedness as well as being involved in several projects simultaneously.

RC: What does it mean to be an expatriate or a trans-national, or I suppose an international, writer?

SM: Those are extrinsic definitions or labels that don’t concern me. But it’s curious, how it holds major importance for some people and initiatives and has led to exclusionary moves. I suppose the most egregious example is my omission from Ron Silliman’s anthology, In The American Tree, on purely national grounds—and I know that it upset a lot of people, more than it upset me. The interstitial subject is the one who tends to fall through cracks and a good example of this is Robin Blaser. A founding member of the San Francisco Renaissance, Blaser moved to Canada as an American in the 1960s and is then largely disregarded in both camps—there’s a paltry seven references to him in Michael Davidson’s definitive book on the San Francisco Renaissance. Recognition of his importance has come—but belatedly.

RC: So the kind of intermediary position is a freeing one?

SM: It’s hard to say. It’s to some extent emancipatory, but as I state above, leads to exclusion when national contours come in to play. To add to the example of Silliman’s book, I was also omitted from Paul Hoover’s Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry when Norton found out I wasn’t an American. Then again, I get published in David Lehman’s Best American Poetry. I’ve long admired magazines such as Clayton Eshelman’s early Caterpillar and later Sulfur as magazines with a broader vista than just “American.” Additionally I admire Dennis Tedlock’s conception of a poetics of the Americas. National constructions are becoming increasingly obsolete today, although we currently live in a great paradox where, on one hand, economic globalization is softening borders and on the other, as a response to “emergencies” and terrorist threats to democracy, a hardening of borders, an increase in surveillance resulting in that strange contradiction of progressively eroding certain human rights and freedoms in the democratic cause of preserving freedom. But that’s more a political than a poetical statement.

RC: How do you feel being so closely identified to this idea of the Canadian avant garde?

SM: I’m cool with that; it’s something somebody else decides not something I declare. I’ve never said, “I’m part of the Canadian avant garde.” If people want to put me in there and it’s valid, that’s fine. If they want to situate me in an Anglophone or Continental avant garde, that’s fine too. I’m in firm agreement with David Antin that labels like “postmodern” and “avant garde” are convenient forms of packaging for ready markets.

RC: I’ve noticed that what happened in Canada seems to be anomalous when compared to what was happening in other Anglophone countries—why did that radical kind of spirit develop in Canada? Whether it was a product of Canadian writers or immigrant writers, what was it about Canada that mattered?

SM: Are we talking about sound poetry at this point?

RC: Sound poetry, concrete poetry...

SM: My only home in Canada was Toronto and when I moved there in 1968 it felt harshly backward and repressive. But that quickly changed. Meeting bp Nichol in 1969 and forming the Four Horsemen in 1970 helped me contextualize my practice and learn about the scene. With the Vietnam War driving loads of American poets to Canada, Toronto felt something like a 1916 Zurich at the time of the birth of the Dada sound poem. Then, of course, there are the Montreal Automatistes in Quebec (banished by Bréton from mainstream Surrealism) who preceded the birth of the Horsemen. Sound poetry arose as collective sound poetry in Toronto. Curiously it never really happened in the States. Charles Amirkhanian was doing a bit of work and Bliem Kern, but nothing that was comparable to the Horsemen. Although in England there was Bob Cobbing’s work and sound poetry collectives in England, such as JgJgJgJ, and in Europe a tremendous amount of sound poetry, but it manifested predominantly as the practice of individual people rather than as collective, group performance. As to why, I can’t answer, maybe something in Toronto in the 1970s, but I can speak to coming from England in 1968 and feeling this terrible pressure as an artist to contribute to the dissemination of national identity. I welcomed bill bissett’s publishing ventures, and bp Nichol’s too, which were (like Eshleman’s) established on a loose editorial policy of national alongside international content. (Czech poets like Jiri Valoch were being published alongside my work and that was personally very liberating.) The enlarged cartography, and the fact that both sound and concrete poetry emerged as international phenomena, was what I found attractive.

RC: So to some degree it might be a product of one small scene that was fixed in Toronto and had kind of international perspective within that scene.

SM: I think so, absolutely. I first met Lyotard in 1974 at a performance by the Horsemen in Milwaukee, and Lyotard commented that everything we were doing was what he was trying to write about in Libidinal Economy. That gave me the impetus to start reading French theory as a possible mirror to Toronto practice.

RC: On the Carnivocal CD you perform part of “Carnival,” a piece that would seem almost strictly textual, almost unvoicable as it appears on the page; why (or how) do you cross that boundary, between the concrete and sound?

SM: It’s comparatively easy. Indeed, I quickly realized that the visual poems I was producing could be sounded as texts. (It’s the law and logic of the phoneme.) But sounding here is not reading out loud; it’s a creative engagement with the sonic potentiality of letter-constellations and even asemic material. Nichol once defined somewhere the word as the complex expression of a single letter (a sentiment echoed in both Derrida and Lacan). Just as paragrammatic reading is a reading along unconventional reading paths, so sounding texts were a sort of acoustic paragramatism. To prove the premise that everything visible is readable, let me give the example of a British practitioner. Paula Claire reads a multiplicity of objects from fossils to discarded microchip circuit boards. The relationship of the “text’ to its sounding is unclear but her performance and method struck me as a resuscitated and expanded version of the Medieval Book of Nature (of sermons in stones). I remember performing a piece in which I read a classroom. I looked up at the ceiling and its styrofoam tiles, fluorescent lights and note a color (say cream). I then translated what I saw into its corresponding noun or nouns thus providing me with numerous letter-clusters that I would permute and recombine. I would then move on to the walls, desks, chairs and apply the same simple transpositional method (from object to noun to permutatable letter-cluster). Carnival offers a different opportunity for sounding. It’s clearly a largely non-linear text with letter shapes bleeding out of the design. There are also asemic sections and there is interplay of different colored inks. Negotiating Carnival requires negotiating a textual cartography, the two panels offer a textual derive, a psychogeographic wandering that’s available to both the performer and the silent reader alike. (In hindsight, I’ve come to think of the second panel of Carnival as my most Deleuzean and Situationist work.)

RC: So to some degree the poem almost invites the reader to engage with it idiosyncratically.

SM: Absolutely, as pedestrian flâneurs wandering through textual boulevards and coming up against inscribed noise to be creatively negotiated. In this specific sense Carnival is a city text and a text of space. I was provoked into creating a type-construction as a multi-page panel the generally accepted page restrictions of a standard size and the length of the typewriter’s carriage (mine accommodating the standard letter size sheet). That standard remained unquestioned by the majority of early concretists (though not all). Carnival was also a response to Olson’s embrace of the typewriter in 1950 as offering notational possibilities of machinic precision that would allow the layout of a poem to serve the identical function as musical notation. I wanted to release the typewriter into possibilities more abstract and expressionist, analogous to such post-bop jazz musicians as Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.

RC: For concrete work like that, has the process of production changed radically in the move from typewriter to word processor?

SM: Computers and typewriters do not produce homologous products. Certain technical misuses of the typewriter are hard to produce on a hyperspatial instrument that maximizes signal to noise and whose instrumental paradigm is purity and transparency. (In this sense it’s the ideal prosthesis for philosophy, not poetry.) There’s an aesthetic dirtiness and a tangible texture and micro three-dimensionality that’s almost impossible to achieve on a computer. Typewriter concrete remains as a technological period genre and what’s emerging is an interest in innovative software and creative manipulations of search engines (as in the Flarf Collective or Wershler-Henry and Kennedy’s book Apostrophe) that seem redolent with a similar mischievously creative misuse of technology. Then too there is a digital visual poetry that exploits dynamic features like Flash and QuickTime. Cinematic effects in typewriter concrete could only be realized in the form of a flip-book that created the illusion of letters in movement.

RC: In some of your poems it seems there is a riddle or a rebus or a game for the reader to solve. What role does the notion of play have in your poetics?

SM: Play is central to my work in a double sense; there’s the ludic, the game element with the attendant virtual pleasure of solving or completing a phrase or passage, and the other sense of play as pliancy that relates to the foundational play within language itself. Derrida speaks about the lability of language, the way a linguistic unit stretches into something else, be it polysemeity or ambiguity. That’s what attracted me to those aspects and forces in language conducive to plurality and proliferation. The decade or so of research into the material that became Imagining Language (MIT Press, 2001) convinced me of one ineluctable linguistic law: language inclines away from parsimony toward excess. It’s this inherent capriciousness or errancy in the linguistic sign that underlies those 17th-century schemes to design a purely philosophical and universal language. This pull to excess and bifurcation I also noted in my readings in the mid ’70s of Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia that inaugurated in my mind the possibility of a schizopoetic, a radical bifurcational creativity, a poetics of cleavage.

RC: As we’ve already discussed, you were involved in the Canadian poetry scene during a period of great change, the late ’60s and the ’70s. How has it changed since then? What is there now that wasn’t there when you entered?

SM: Well, that utopian belief in a language revolution is long gone but at the time it was instrumental; it remarked the telos of poetic experiment. Both bp and me felt that in 1968 we could change language and also that language is not—to put it in Marxist terms—pure superstructure, it’s base and it’s as determinant of cultural change and historical movement as economy and economic relations. That was a theory of the linguist Nicholas Marr, who Stalin attacked in his ghost-written book Marxism and Linguistics. This utopian belief that linguistic change is the necessary prelude to social-political change led me into conceiving my poetics as a critique of language under capitalism. That belief and optimism is now gone (post-colonialism and other factors and now the homogenizing consequences of globalization took it—and are taking it—in another direction) but I believe we left a younger generation of Canadian poets the challenge to conceive a new order, even “species,” of innovation, and to deal with the burden of derivation (which both bp and myself had to deal with too, of course). We embraced sound as essentially bestial; it was feral, visceral and situated in a prelinguistic human-anmal connection—and was profoundly rooted in physiology. A younger sound poet like Christian Bök in his ongoing Cyborg Opera is attempting to divert human vociferation from physiology (conceived of in say Olson’s sense) into reproducing the sounds of machinery and information-technology. Does that indicate a Bloomian anxiety of influence? Perhaps so. But regardless of the answer it situates non-verbal human vocality in a mimetic project that’s utterly absent in the gestural outbursts of much of the Four Horsemen’s work.

RC: There is a trend, particularly in Canada but you can see it all over, towards the academic poet. Why are we so concerned with the theoretical praxis in addition to the practice of writing?

SM: The issue isn’t poetic theory versus praxis (poetics versus poematics) but how do we and how can we engage poetic thinking. There’s also the related question of how thinking can be utilized outside of orthodoxy. Heidegger inaugurates this matter of poetic thinking in his later works, which indicate his shift in interest from ontology to poetry and language. He turns, however, to a rather limited range of Germanic resources: Hölderlin, Trakl, Celan (the latter non-German but writing in German). I believe Heidegger opens up a vast potential terrain of poetic relevance that can be partially flagged by a couple of questions: how does poetry think and what is unique to the kind of thinking?

RC: You say on a number of occasions that theoretical structures should be secondary to producing, to the act of writing, and yet your poetry has a very well developed sense of theory behind it. We may have already answered this question, but how do you reconcile the two?

SM: My creative approach to what we call critical theory has been to find aspects in theory that could be generatively applied in my own primary practice. I’ll give you two examples. I found in Lyotard’s notion of phrase linkage that he discusses in Le Differend the possibility of an alternative to the closural technique of the New Sentence, replacing the non-integrating sentence with the textual phenomenon of disjunctive phrase propulsion. I noticed the latter implicit in the Marquis de Sade’s philosophy of the libertine, a being who lives his or her life based on nature understood as perpetual motion, a literally charged phrasal ontology. I noticed that this also connected with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming. They discussed numerous “becomings” (animal and woman for instance) but had ignored the possibilities for poetry of a becoming-meaning, of putting language through an installed dynamism into a constantly shifting evanescent presence. That regulum of manifestation and disappearance seemed congruent not only with Bataille’s theories of the “accursed share” (a theory, incidentally, that influenced both Lacan and Derrida), but also with Prigogine and Stengers’ notion of dissipative structures and systems within chemical morphology. It also relates to Olson’s kinetic requirement of the poem to be a high energy construct, outlined in “Projective Verse.” So in many ways these ideas and concepts became synthesized in my mind as fecund with poetic application and historical revisionary updatings not surpassings. Derrida’s theories are more difficult; the challenge is to actually inscribe deconstructive moments and features in a poem and the good test of its success is if it then resists deconstructive engagement.

RC: You seem to be driven towards collaboration in your work, in defiance of the romantic myth of the poet as lone genius. Why are you driven towards collaboration?

SM: When I came from England the only poet that I really wanted to meet in Canada was bp Nichol, whose concrete poetry I’d become acquainted with through little magazines. When we first met we realized we had both been working in relative vacuums, and two people interested in the same thing naturally led to collaboration. After the Four Horsemen formed in 1969, bp and I started the Toronto Research Group, dedicated to investigating alternative forms to the standard expository or critical essay. Later came my correspondence with Dick Higgins, which led among other things to Six Fillious—a collaboration with Filliou himself, bp, Dick Higgins, George Brecht and Diter Rot (a predominantly Fluxus gathering of poet-artists). Later followed the collaboration with Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray Di Palma, and Ron Silliman that resulted in Legend. All of these collaborations came out of pure chance (on my coming to Canada, on bp living in Toronto rather than say Vancouver, Dick Higgins contacting me by mail, etc.). Yet they were all informed by the common, fundamental desire to get away from that romantic ideologeme of the lyric self. The sheer energy of collaborative writing exceeds isolated subjectivity, for one is always in collision and in cooperation with another; the creative primal scene here is both community and alterity. It’s interesting that the collaboration with bp Nichol involved integral destructive elements, i.e. we would freely delete each other’s words and phrases substituting are own. (I talk about the dynamics of dictation and transcription that governed so much of the TRG collaboration in the Introduction to Rational Geomancy.) By contrast, the five-way collaboration on Legend was very structured and clean; it was based on discrete accretions with a high integrity placed on distinct contributions. When I started collaborating by deleting other people’s lines and phrases it created a certain amount of opposition.

RC: Do you view translation, as well, as an act of collaboration?

SM: Yes, to the extent that its governing paradigm, its very presupposition, is a source dependency (translation is always transitive, it’s always a translation “of”). But my interest, as you know, has been in creative translation in the spirit of Zukofsky’s Catullus and the different presupposition that there is not only a text to translate, but also a latent text within a text awaiting exhumation. That seems a more rewarding form of collaboration, in which the translator exhumes a latent other text within the source.

RC: Well I have one last question and hopefully you can offer a solution to one of the great literary mysteries. In Rational Geomancy, you state that the first Toronto Research Group manifesto was lost. How was it lost, what happened to the first manifesto?

SM: You know, I really don’t know. We formulated it and wrote it, then it disappeared. I remember bp saying that theory comes after the act, or something like that, and that was one of the premises “remembered” from the original manifesto. But beyond that I really just can’t recall. The first manifesto will have to be one of life’s great unimportant enigmas. And who knows, it may turn up on a piece of paper in a file folder or on the back of a receipt.

RC: That sounds like an archival dig project.

SM: Yes, in the archives of Simon Fraser University no doubt, and by someone other than me.