Notes on revision and evasion

These are two excerpts from February 2014 correspondence with Cathy Wagner about how I revise and improvise my writing:

No, usually I do little or no editing, myself. In recent times (books like Open Clothes or Blue Book) I indicate in the authorial notes whether or how I have edited anything based on a transcript or act of writing. E.g., in the newer of those 2 books there has been only very selective cuts, no rewrites, as I recall. This relates to the Ginsberg/Kerouac school of spontaneity and stylistic whatever-I-do-is-writing mode or pose, which I am neither doing nor critiquing, but availing myself of as a premise for doing whatever I am doing. I would not say the poems are a record, but I would say that the transcripts are a poem, and also that the original live oration or sound recording or manuscript or typescript was also a poem. To call the in-print (on the page or on a screen on line) published (which means for others, potentially anyone, to see) version a poem is the hardest of all, rather than saying it reproduces inadequately a poem, no matter how carefully I’ve made choices on typography and layout, perhaps because still it is the furthest removed from my own clumsily intuitively decisive inept hand and mouth. But I will call it one anyway. An embodied simulacrum of my intentions for transposition to the page/screen. To say the poem itself is a transcendent entity that cuts across or encompasses these diverse incarnations feels totally pretentious and false. Not true of Dickinson either. Her embodied hand-written poems include the paper they’re written on, we know now more than ever. The published typeset versions are just accounts of them, documentation approximating their form and the writer’s intentions.

Anyhow, I used to edit some and may again, would like to, but haven’t found the time. If I write an essay, like the 2 reviews published in Jacket2 in the last couple years, I rewrite a good bit, as long as I can stand it, then hope for the best. Two projects in which composition was largely comprised of revision come to mind, namely “Reverse Order”(which appears in a book of the same name) and Briarcombe Paragraphs (in a chapbook of the same name), both of which I feel are major achievements of my frustrating and irreconcilable willfulness. In these each segment (stanza or paragraph) was composed at one extended sitting, using the previous one (itself its own final draft) as basis for revision (in the case of the poem, I also reversed the sequence of lines when I first typed them out before I began to revise it into a new stanza). The piece called “On Time in Another Place” that is also in Reverse Order was extensively revised, as a set of isolated paragraphs, over the long time I was out of the country around 1984-85, then I spliced the paragraphs together, alternating lines between them in a way I made of collaging them, and that required some careful tender revision too, without changing the paragraphs’ composition much.

Meanwhile, anyhow, if and when I am simply improvising, as writing on the page or screen or in the sounding air, I am indeed as you say editing in my head, there are roads not taken. I notice that once I feel like “I know where this is going” I feel obliged to change it. This is a sort of characterological fault or necessity (I don’t want to call it a compulsion, I don’t think that’s fair to it) that has made it impossible, just about, to write narrative, though on the other hand, when I wrote my (heavily edited and rewritten) parts of the Grand Piano books I did not worry about this or feel a pressure to do this. So it has to do with the poetry act of art writing, basically, and it includes my personal history of finding myself sick with shame and disgust when I didn’t follow this willingness to let go and see work slide into a frame or tone, a voice or tense that I hadn’t been anticipating. On the other hand, I have often hoped for a given attitude, manner, or relational quality in an improvised work in public, only to find I couldn’t locate that at all in my actual behavior and production, so that I was already fully thrown back on not-knowing how to do it or what could/should come next and thereby the necessity of actually improvising, rather than simply reproducing something I’d imagined or rehearsed. The chosen constraints or rules I’d committed to in advance would in effect save me by giving me something to hang onto while bouncing off of, so that I could find a weird and basically unpredictable if not uncanny rhythm of seeming contact and suspension to orient to, even as it changed or refused to change as I went along. Hard work, in a way. I don’t know whether ‘the unconscious’ enters into this work, but I have no objection if it manages to; forgetfulness is certainly rampant to a degree I could call amnesiac, as I often can remember very few moments of what I’ve said until I hear it later.

There is a meta-discourse and a discourse and the textual production, particularly when improvising aloud, clearly slips around between these two impersonations that are actually impossible for me to distinguish with any conviction. They reflect each other, reflect on each other, mimic one another, infect one another.

Anyway, clearly your method of writing as you describe it in your fourth paragraph here is very very different and allows for a play of levels and discourses in a different set of ways that is most compellingly pleasing-and-disturbing. I don’t know how many people rewrite their works. Most people you and I like a lot in their writing do I think revise, rejuxtapose, refinish, scratch and contort their work variously between the sketches, notes, and drafts it starts from and a final piece.

. . .

I thought a little more (endlessly) and recently listened also to a ‘reading’ I gave at St Marks on 3 9 2005 in which I first gave a tentative and unresolved short reading (with some improvisation) from the Open Notebooks section of what was then my brand new book and then I did an improvisational piece that lasted about 25 minutes I think. Just standing against the white wall or pacing and gesturing, talking. It was on the same model as the piece I had already done at Discrete Series in Chicago (which Erika Staiti used verbatim for a video — both are linkable to from my website, stevebensonasis) but it comes out very different, less ruminative and airless, more artificial and passionate. I could send it to you via Dropbox if you like. But the point of saying so is that this is another way I have revised work, as if ‘in the camera’ as I’m speaking an improvised work, by ‘repeating’ the same utterance with a discrete or indiscreet alteration on more or less every iteration. (I also did this in a work called “Enter,” during which I was also writing other variations on the same clauses, and it’s not available from me in video but I made a text version of the entire thing and that’s also on line.) For a few years I focused on this approach to improvising/revising works, with mixed satisfaction, in that some episodes were marvelous to me and some highly disappointing as some limitations, in myself or the method, showed in a dull tiresome way. I had felt that way about the St Marks piece until I re-heard it while driving on Friday.

A way I have done work that is in a sense private and not poetry (as your trance vocalizations may be) is the piano improvisations, which my Yamaha can record up to two of at a time, and which I gradually begin to download into my laptop and post occasionally at ReverbNation. I have also made a link from the website to the page there lately. These are not my best — the best have all been played without recording, or the recordings lost. I often have wondered whether and how I could work piano playing into my poetry readings but, aside from the difficulty often of arranging a keyboard at all, I haven’t yet found any way in which the two mix. That may eventually come.

Another thing I thought of about how I edit in situ while improvising work orally or in text is that I think I am gauging whatever I produce relative to the listener/reader’s access to something. I am not maintaining any specific or consistent idea of what I want the reader or listener to be able to grasp, understand, or hang on to, so that the handholds or hooks or openings toward significance or interest are mercurial sometimes and always subject to change. But I am aware that I also can’t really make the work totally oblivious to the other who is attending to it (actually or potentially), and a few attempts at work that are procedurally focused on chance applications of words to page without attempts at linkage or attachment of any kind have never (to my recollection) made it into the presence of any public. Stuttering or shouting m ay be a way of offering such access, as well as grammatical and semantic familiarity or representation (in the sense that “You believe in crouching play antiphonies,” for instance, represents a person having some kind of conviction in entities with specific characteristics, even if it’s hard to tell what this may mean).

Usually, all the same, I do mean things by what I utter in such improvisations; I am usually saying things that I believe are ethically acceptable to utter as assertions, even though they may not be particularly valuable in and of themselves, and even though some things I say are presented merely as gestures for some momentarily palpable reason and I really don’t mean them as assertions in the world of my own understandings, even though I may not indicate any difference between them and gestures I would indeed ‘stand behind.’

Posted in Uncategorized

December film viewing

I borrowed schizopolis and cosmopolis from netflix at the same time to watch them as a double bill, back and forth if necessary, over a week or two’s time. although the latter was more cinematically engaging and personally challenging and disappointingly poignant, the former carried the intimate smell of the real, albeit burning, which has stuck around for weeks. a more catastrophic and inspiring double bill for schizopolis, destructively generative and ultimately fitting would be exit through the gift shop. these two films, particularly framed against one another, raise enough questions to fill anyone’s scrapbook.
“it’s like I’m playing chess—I don’t know how to play chess, but life is a chess game for me.”

I don’t think I’ve seen any other Kiyoshi Kurusawa movies and I can’t tell whether I want to. Tokyo Sonata is disturbing, as it constantly changes key. You can’t tell what kind of movie it is, even when it’s over, though every step of the way you know you’re in a movie and it’s working one way or another. So it seems like realism is punctured or trumped by surrealism that turns out to be an idealization of realism–an extraordinary representation of things as they just are. It seems to me to present the truth about middle class family life. What do they think of it in Japan?

The best rock documentary is all about music in Istanbul?
Crossing the Bridge induces that simultaneous self-consciousness and absorption in the other that one experiences on visiting a strange city, in another country, with a language of its own.

Posted in Uncategorized

the new electric Dylan of 196x

Listening to Joan Baez sing this while I’m washing dishes before washing my face before bed,
I think how Dylan’s Edie Sedgwick romance and Warhol superstar Factory loomed in the film
once Cate Blanchett was transmitted into his body and then the other way around
and wonder how fully Dylan became for a time the folksinger of the Chelsea Hotel
having accepted a differently idealized folk from the movement folkies and soft teen rebels
so as to know how far he could go into the dream of the ideal and its conflicted priorities
I’ve never read an actual biography of Dylan, as I don’t count the Chronicles Volume 1
as in any way an actual account but rather a substitute and simulacrum, like the songs
in Self-Portrait as it has stood its ground from 1970 on into a crumblingly desiccating
future desecrating one earnest stage at a time of self-representation and appeal to the truth

Posted in Uncategorized


“Possessions sat lightly upon her; she once said to me that she was no more concerned with their existence than she was with her own.”

–taken from p.184 of John Bayley’s memoir of his relationship with Iris Murdoch, called Elegy for Iris

Posted in Uncategorized


I commented today in facebook in response to a question about writing and community, Mark Wallace asking “Writing in community. Writing outside of community. Writing inside and outside of community. Writing neither inside nor outside community. And? Or? Plus, the issue of living, which is related to writing though not at all the same thing.”

Community is full of first impressions and saturated in projections that occur before during and after acquaintance with any given community. I feel and it seems to me behave/perform quite differently in different experiential communities. My long-distance community is nurturing in ways my locally lived community is not, and vice versa. My personal community-of-one (resonating and reflecting, surprising and goading myself through my presentations and productions) is for me essential to any creative endeavors, regardless of access to or interactions with any interpersonal community. And despite its ambitions to omnipresence and omniscience, it’s the most mercurial and elusive of them.

Community might be recognized as those who are interested enough to be affected by one another, hopefully to mutual benefit. To write something down presents the inner track of one’s mind to be available to others, whether by accident or intention. I have thought usually of my productions’ introduction into a shared culture as instances within a conversation and/or interventions in a continuing discursive experiment.

Posted in Uncategorized

The return of “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry”

25-year-old essay starts over

With technical help from Tom Mandel, I have restored the text of a 6-person collaborative essay by Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, and myself that appeared in Social Text 19/20 in Fall 1988.  We based this version on a scan that Tom made from the journal’s pages, in a copy on which I had 25 years ago inscribed corrections to alterations the editors had made for reasons opaque to me.  One of those alterations was to add a subtitle to our title, calling our statement “A Manifesto.”  This was not our plan.

In working on this over in March 2013, I have consulted not only the journal’s published version with my notes there but also a final or near-final typescript printed from a personal computer earlier, which I once dated in my own hand as “late Sept 87,” to bring the text into conformity with that typescript except on the rare occasions that I noticed an error in agreement or spelling. A lot of details were changed to make the text look and behave the way we had intended it to. I also consulted Barrett Watten’s unpublished letter dated 10 14 1988 to Andrew Ross at Social Text identifying “typos, changes, and other decisions on ‘handling’” the text in publication and a letter dated 05 25 1988 from Barrett to Louis Amdur listing changes that Andrew, Sohnya Sayres, and he had agreed on making in the text.  The May 1988 letter identifies a major source of error as the somehow “mangled condition” in which Louis had received the disc that Barrett had sent to him.  Just how it manifested as “mangled” is left to our imaginations, as the correspondence doesn’t explain this.

Thus I have tried to prepare the most accurate text. A google search yields a variety of website references to this text, and at least three places where it is warehoused and available for download. It is clearly of continuing interest to various persons, who can now find it published in the textual condition intended by the writers.

Download the essay.

Posted in Uncategorized