Architectures of Absence: An Interview with Craig Watson

by Chris McCreary

Craig Watson's "Statement," published in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, addresses how he was initially attracted to Language writing because he felt a "camaraderie of others similarly set adrift" in search of means of writing challenging work, yet soon found himself "processing through an increasingly narrow channel of thought" in "an environment controlled more by theory and imposed regulations than one open to all the motivations of a self-oriented process." He goes on to establish his search for "a poetics that actively conditions my self / environment and serves as a tuning process and a means of mediating personal experience. Obviously, such an internalized approach disavows allegiance to any code of poetic behavior and repudiates any cultural standards."

This lack of affiliation with any poetic school, as well as his absence from poetry scenes such as New York's or the Bay Area's, may help to explain why work of his caliber is not more widely anthologized or written about by critics.

Watson is the author of several books, including Free Will, After Calculus, and Drawing a Blank, which was the first title from Philadelphia's Singing Horse Press. The poems in Watson's latest book, True News, unfold in sequences that explore age-old conflicts—self vs. society, mind vs. body—with a particular emphasis on the cognitive processes that attempt to create meaning from these chaotic struggles. I interviewed Watson about these recurring dynamics over the course of the winter as we both wrangled with our various "real-life" responsibilities.

Chris McCreary: I became aware of your work through books that were published by poet-editors—Gil Ott, Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, Elizabeth Robinson. What sort of poetic community do you inhabit these days? And how does living away from centers of activity such as New York City impact your writing life?

Craig Watson: First, I'm interested that your initial questions revolve around the search for a sense of place, physical and spiritual, in the world, which has always been a complex and perhaps defining issue for me. I left college after two years because it didn't offer experiences and learning opportunities that felt relevant to what I considered the "real" world and the urgencies of that world-in-time (ca. 1970). I've felt my way along since then, in a variety of jobs and social roles ranging from theater technician to corporate executive, though I have yet to identify anything I'd call a "career."

Though poetry has been a constant engagement in my life for nearly 40 years, it's maintained this centrality in part by its ability to sustain a space relatively independent of life-demands and social context. In other words, I've created and inhabited a paradox in which not having to rely on poetry as a principal identity marker has made it possible to keep poetry in a vital, primary personal space.

In terms of immediate community, I certainly participate in and benefit from the wonderful and flexible community of writers and artists in Rhode Island, though many of my long-term associations are more virtual than proximate. Poets with whom I have long relationships, such as Ted Pearson and Michael Gizzi, are physically dispersed but central to my sense of "home" community.

CM: Another way that poets tend to form communities is via academia, but from what I've learned that's not a route of your travels. A couple of your jobs especially interest me. How does your involvement with theater influence your thinking about issues like audience or performance? I know that "grammelot," for instance, directly addresses both of these issues.

CW: Having spent much of my working life in and around the theater, the practices and aesthetics of that institution has naturally affected my writing. Early on, I began to think about the poem as a performance—an act in framed space and dynamic time—and developed a concept of "page as stage" in poems for many years; After Calculus and Picture of the Picture of the Image in the Glass, among other works, explore this metaphor as a formal device, and later, more serial poems take for granted a certain performative context.

"Grammelot" was written when I was working as a literary manager for a regional theater and was thinking a lot about dramatic literary theory and dramaturgy. As much as theater, however, "Grammelot" for me asks questions about the nature of narrative and story, an interrogation which continued in more specific terms in the "Geographies" series in True News.

CM: I'm also interested in your work in a corporate environment and as a strategic consultant. In what ways does that sort of experience overlap with writing poetry? Do you find yourself using those experiences as source material, or is it more compartmentalized from creative life?

CW: I joined a technology corporation in 1985 as a technical writer both to make some money and to find out what it would be like to write full-time for a living. During the next 11 years, I became head of marketing, then public relations and finally strategic and business planning. For several years I was the principal corporate spokesperson and traveled extensively. Like any self-contained environment, corporate life has its own discourse with which it manages, directs and controls behavior through language. The opening poem of Free Will, "Persuasion and Judgment," draws from this discourse, most specifically that of corporate spokesman.

Of course, all poetry originates from and is sited in relation to particular social discourses. I remember always being puzzled as a child when someone told me to "put it in my own words" as if I either owned the language or could make one up. To my mind, the greatest literary revolution in the last century was to free poetry from "the poetic," that is, from a self-defined, tightly bordered, often sentimental discourse to an activity undertaken in and with multiple, even conflicting language contexts. Again, my emphasis is on "activity" rather than "result," another dimension of the performative.

CM: Having read three books of yours now that span almost 15 years, I've noticed how your work has shifted from the relatively spare After Calculus to denser forms of text. Could you talk a bit about the evolution of your work?

CW: The most simple, and by no means glib, answer I can provide is that the work has a "mind" of its own. Or as I once heard Creeley say: "Not what I think to say, but what my thinking says..." In any case, the seeming shift between most of my work in the '80s (and before) and the '90s is less the result of willful, formal alterations than it is of shifting contexts in life and perception and the aperture of possibilities those shifts opened. This shift is not, in my mind, quite as dramatic as it might at first appear; my thoughts about form and presentation have not changed so much as evolved into more complex organisms.

In general, I'm attracted by what I call a synaptic model of cognition in which thinking (as well as perceiving, feeling, choosing, etc.) occurs in "the gaps" between elements; the human nervous system, including the brain, operates through the transfer of chemicals and electrical charges between cells, and it's in this "negative space" that perception and response is enacted. Another way of thinking about these perceptual phenomena is the poem as constellation, first suggested by the Swiss poet Eugen Gomringer. Constellations work by what cognitive scientists called the principal of "subjective contours" which is simply the human tendency to see patterns and shapes in the object of the gaze. We make constellations by filling in the gaps.

Most of my work from 1970 through 1990 explored this cognitive model in fairly explicit terms; I was interested in trying to create a series of synaptic leaps between elements—words and fragments—on the page as a way to open a primary ground of language experience. Simultaneously, I was extremely interested in the architecture of absence; both my long-term appreciation and study of sculpture, and its notion of negative space, as well as my personal circumstances which included an unpleasant divorce and the need to restart large portions of my life, tended to focus my writing on various ideas about loss, emptiness and shape.

In 1990 I began a new work which I intended to be a long poem and which took five years to write. This work, called Reason and published by Zasterle in 1998, marked a shift in my use of space as well as the adoption of a mixed prose and broken-line format. While the book is still serial and constellar in the sense that each page is a separate fragment of the whole, I realized I didn't have to be quite so literal in the management of space. My sense of space become more syntactical, and my means of establishing tension and choreographing movement are more invested in the texts than in the page as a physical field.

The poems in Free Will and True News expand the range of formal possibilities within the paradigms to which I'm attracted. Obviously, I'm still very invested in the use of space on the page; in "Persuasion and Judgment" for instance, the spaces separating the fragments and utterances get progressively shorter, indicating a speeding up of the discourse as the poem goes on. Similarly, "Talk Drum" alternates between extremely long (longer than a breath can endure) lines and short vertical forms. Though it's certainly easier to remove single pages from their sequences, all the works are intended to be serial and contribute to a larger gesture. The primary impulse between the recent poems, and those of 20 years ago, has not really changed, though the way I experience and represent space has been a source of renewable interrogation for me.

CM: While your work addresses the sorts of cognitive processes you've just described, there's also a real awareness of the body's physical presence. Maybe this is the space where the individual consciousness rubs up against its surroundings—where "Identity meets desire," as you write in "grammelot," or "Hunger forms flesh," as you say in "2/15 of a Second." But the imagery of bodies alone or coming together—in "Future Self," for example, where you have lines like "clusters / of mouths on mouths on mouths"—reminds me more of Beckett's sense of the body being somewhat futile, as opposed to Whitman's celebration of the flesh. What's your take on the connection between our mental activities and the bodies that encase our brains and demand our attention and maintenance?

CW: The bifurcation of body and mind is a fundamental pillar of western civilization and sets the stage for all the other modes of duality in which we are conditioned to think and behave. The "problem of the body" is exactly that of mind and world, perception and culture, representation and presence. To date, my poem "Reason" wrestles with this knot most directly, though you're right that the fundamental question remains present throughout all the work and is never "solved," which is a statement in its own right, that is, unsolvable.

It's also interesting that you raise Beckett at this point; he's been an important source and inspiration for me and my views of many things, literary and not, have found or been given dimension in his extraordinary body of work. A sequence that I wrote mostly in the mid-'90s but which hasn't appeared in any book yet is in part a meditation on a life-time of reading and thinking about Beckett and, by extension, this question of mind/body dialectic. The poem is called "First Breath Last" and here's a fragment from it:

Blood cleans the wound
But brain insists that body die.

Involuntary muscle fits own immovable space
Pregnant skeleton in eggshell crypt.

I don't think Beckett represents the body as "futile" so much as paradoxically useless and utterly necessary. Within this dilemma, I think he was also addressing the problem of representation and metaphor as ways of signifying meaning. He was, to my mind, continually immersed in the conflict of address in writing, which is why he gradually erased physical characteristics from his fictions and plays, resulting at times in just a disembodied voice (as in the novel The Unnameable) or even simply a sound representing an action (as in the play Breath). For me, the man's work is inexhaustible (all puns intended, of course).

CM: While the idea of the poet-observer recurs in your work, I don't want to make it sound like the poems are limited in scope to personal, localized experience. There's certainly a focus on societal interactions, too, and these passages often strike me as alternately deadpan in their black humor and mythic in their archetypal struggles. I see this in True News especially, and an obvious example occurs in "Figure J" of "Home Guard": "After the stoning we exhumed the adulterer as wave after wave of charity / wafted over the audience." I'm wondering if you have Bataille in mind at all and his concepts of sacrifice as being essential for sustaining society. Either way, do you see your take on society as cynical or simply realistic?

CW: It's certainly true that I can't disassemble my "self" or, more importantly, the act of writing, into a single, unified idea, whether that idea is participant or observer. This tautology is central to all my work, and my life, and is probably most completely explored in Picture of the Picture of the Image in the Glass which, as the title suggests, goes to some length in its interrogation of the notion of the perceived, the real and the subjective apparatus connecting the two. Most perceptual acts, and therefore responses, are contextual, just as most are schematic or preprogrammed by expectation and conditioning. Though one can unravel these conditions to seeming extremes, I find most value in exploring that contextual resonance which seems to exist a couple of layers under the apparent fact of things. This is both a literary and survival device—the extent to which we swim in a sea of lies (culturally, politically, etc.) and are subject to believe in a unified, singular self means that one's perceptual lens is nearly always clouded by noise from a variety of sources. Writing is a way of sorting out and reframing much of this activity, just as art in general tends to be a means for focusing the various perceptual and cognitive paradigms that define a culture.

While I've read some Bataille, and doubtlessly assumed some of his thinking, he's not been a major influence in the past. The line you quote, for me, has more to do with the hypocrisy of many social acts, including the propensity to forgive ourselves for horrors committed after the fact. While I'm often told that my world view, and particularly my humor, is cynical and sardonic, it's not by choice so much as expressive. For better or worse, that's my experience of the world.

And since I've mentioned "Home Guard," could you talk a bit about its organizing principle? I think it's a great piece—densely philosophical, yet visceral at the same time. Each section is labeled (or, more accurately, assigned a letter) as if they're legends to pictures, or maps, or some other sort of visual. Is there actually a set of images that you have in mind? And why are some lettered sections ("Figure A," "Figure D," etc.) seemingly missing from the sequence?

"Home Guard" was composed in the six months following the events of September 11, 2001, not so much as a response to those events but as a response to what seemed to be the broader cultural response to those events. For example, one wide-spread response to September 11 was to divorce the attacks from any global or historical context, especially the economic practices of American imperialism during the preceding decade. Another consequence of that day was the way it seemed to license and empower the media as a nationalistic and reactionary force; I remember Tom Brokaw exclaiming that this was "an act of war" even before the politicians. Prior to then, I'd been thinking that the last piece in True News would be interrogate themes of home, paradise and utopia as an extension of the geography poems that constitute the center of the book. So much of the groundwork had been laid; it happened that "home" turned out to be the battleground of global conflict and ideologies in a more literal way that I'd imagined. The form evolved as captions to missing or unimaginable pictures, and the missing "figures" might suggest that those entire "records" are lost as well. And it is this process of loss—whether by extermination of diverse species or by subjugation of and hegemony over diverse cultures—that is the true terror of our time.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003