Tom Beckett: My experience of your poetry began with Luminous Flux. Where did/does poetry begin for you?
Lynn Behrendt: I don’t remember, precisely, what day or hour it was, but I do remember where I was when I determined that I was a poet. I was 14 years old, living in a small town in southern central Vermont. I was walking east on the sidewalk along the road that runs right through the middle of the village of Chester, Vermont, where the road forks off to the left toward Chester Depot. It was shortly before ninth grade, the very end of the summer, late afternoon. I became aware that I was a poet. I had been writing for some time before that, but poetry, being a poet, began for me that afternoon. So my first interpretation of your question led me to answer by telling you when it was that I committed myself to the practice. But a more practical answer would be: it begins pretty much every time I sit down to write. I am not a poet who works consistently on one project for a long period of time, or at least I don’t think of my writing that way, don’t frame it that way. So when I sit down to write, or am moved to write, I don’t have anything in front of me but a blank page or screen. So I guess it begins with the blank page. That’s where it begins for me. It starts each and every time I sit down to write. I am aware, in answering this question, that I haven’t mentioned reading poetry at all, so I suppose it didn’t, and doesn’t, begin there, for me.
TB: What do you think poetry does? What do you want a poem/your poetry to do?
Lynn Behrendt: I think poetry can do just about anything, really, except maybe destroy matter. It think it's malleable as a force, and that its purpose is constantly morphing according to who is reading it, who is writing it, and when. And of course it can, and does, therefore, do several things at once. I believe that, like any art, it's a tool, and can be used toward good purposes or bad, or neither. I think poetry can transport, teach, open, oppress, condemn, imprison, entertain, remind, record, untether, dampen, promote, quantify calculate or measure, redeem or redress, camouflage, expose and/or bear witness—on and on. I'm sorry for the vagueness of this answer, but I'd rather leave it open-ended than fall into an adorational litany of Poetry.
I want my poetry to outlive me. That's probably very unfashionable and egocentric (not to mention somewhat delusional), but it's how I feel. I would hope, also, that my writing is some kind of record of how things are, here and now, a useful document for people in the future (one document among billions, of course). More than that, though, my deepest belief about poetry is that it is like math, specifically how mathematic formula is used in science, and the way it can let us theorize and function light years beyond what our pipsqueak linear brains are capable of. Poetry offers another means of inquiry and notation, one that I believe has the capacity to provide ongoing, opening, flowering kinds of answers. I want my poetry to wake me up, and wake up those who read it.
I wrote this (below) many years ago, about what I thought "it" "should" do….I think it's what I wanted poetry to do for me at that time….or what I thought others thought poetry should do…..or what I thought others thought that poetry should do for me but what I didn't want it to……or something….
It should whisper everything you need to know right before you need to know it and then enable you to forget. In fact it should in the blink of an eye induce deep and thankful forgetfulness. It should not seize and remind.
It should like water seek its level and simultaneously embalm, dampen, coalesce and recreate a single day in anyone’s childhood anywhere at any time and replace that as many times as it takes. It should get green in the summer and be covered with snow in the winter. Speak when spoken to. Provoke the beloved back from the dead. It should but it doesn’t. It would but it can’t. It isn’t going to. At least I don’t think so.
But it might reverberate if played right. Might entomb my turbulent mind and take recourse in the idea of the sea which should be lightly salted, gently sauteed and given a chance to bloom, to bleed, to do what it needs to do in order to become what it needs to become.
It should be simple, to-the-point and not make the reader feel like running out of the room. It should endure. Writhe. Remind. And of course, whenever necessary, be conducive to uncontrollable bouts of laughter and tears.
TB: What gets you going, makes you want to write?
Lynn Behrendt: Historically and predominantly the things that get me going and make me want to write are a desire to connect (usually to one specific person), and a need to understand, to know, to settle something in me. My process, initially, is a kind of jump in and just swim/maneuver the flow/beat on a drum kind of thing (which most often requires an outside source or text to focus on or use in some way, and which ninety nine percent of the time afterward requires a lot of editing hence one of my biggest challenges has been to know when to stop editing in order to not excise the life right out of a poem).
The kinds of ideas or feelings that I usually have when about to jump in (write) are things like, (again, usually addressed to a specific person): No, no, you've got it all wrong, it's this: or I don't think you understand: blah blah blah blah. So I jump in and begin to write and of course don't come up with any kind of answer, ever, as I'm sure you know--- just endless questions.
One thing I do try to avoid, which is not always easy if you're a jump-in-the-flow-and-swim-like-hell kind of writer, is to want, strive for, or even get addicted to, catharsis. I am not much of a believer in catharsis. I think it's a very easy trap for poets to fall into----that is, the desire to spill, wildly splash globs and splashes of paint onto the canvas with flailing arms in wide arcs, and then expect some kind of resolution, intellectual or emotional, to come from that. It's an addiction to endorphins, really; that's what makes poets want that resolved 'aha' feeling at the end of creating. I don't trust it, don't believe in it, and think it's a pull toward death more than anything else. If you end up with a profound 'aha!' --- then what's left after that? It's not unusual for me to end up with an "aha!….oh, hmmm….yeah, no no no, ok, wait a minute….um…" etc., etc., etc., which is a very different thing. So even though I sit down to write partially with a desire to settle something, nothing is ever settled, if I'm being honest and real with the work. I enjoy the wild flailing and hurling paint at the wall but it's not, at this point in my life, in expectation of some revelatory conclusion. I think of Rachel Blau DuPlessis' Drafts (which I adore), and also of other poets who frame their life's work as essentially one piece, by definition always unfinished, and I think that impulse, the purpose served, is the same thing: the assurance of the unfinished, and avoidance of the ultimately deadening, final 'aha.' Lots of people say, or mouth the words, these days, that "it's about the process" but to actually live that ("drive, he sd"), and continue to create for years and years and years, is the challenge, and where the real work (and fun) resides, as far as I can tell.
A line of Osip Mandelstam's that I read 30 years ago continues to echo in my head all these years later: "I have forgotten the word that I wanted to say." My first chapbook, The Moon As Chance, was a long poem that began with a line in response to Mandelstam: "That's the word that I wanted to say." So a lot of it is precisely that, for me, I think: looking for the word. And hopefully, of course, never quite finding it.
TB: Your response is so rich, offers up so many possible lines of inquiry, that I’m unsure which thread to pick up. I guess where I’d like to start is your practice of using “an outside source or text to focus on or use in some way.” How did that apply in the case of the composition of Luminous Flux?
Lynn Behrendt: I wrote Luminous Flux over the course of a little over a year. As I wrote it I did not conceive of it as a "piece." I was just doing a certain kind of writing for a period of time, and when it was done, I could see it was a thing in itself. I believe I used word lists for most of it.
I started using sources and/or source texts in my early 20's. Since my writing process involves jumping into the blank page/screen and swim-swim-swimming, I found that if I didn't use an outside source, at least most of the time, I would fall into tiny little hellhole whirlpools of useless self reflective torturous doggy paddling that went nowhere painfully slowly. Little useless spiraling hellholes of self reflective torture can be useful for some people but mine weren't and still aren't (my closest friends can attest to this!) I use sources as a way to look away from myself, think about something else, maybe drive my vocabulary into tight spots that I need to then work out of.
A lot of what I've used for word lists the past five years or so have been lists (the longer the better) of words from ancient or foreign languages, with the foreign language on the left and translated word on the right. For example, here's a small piece of an Icelandic word list, a 37 page document that I lifted off the internet:
hagstæður: 1. advantageous
haka: 1. chin
halda: 1. guess, presume, suppose, surmise
halda upp á afmælisdaginn: 1. celebrating one's birthday
hamingja: 1. happiness
hamingjusamur: 1. fortunate, happy
handarkriki: 1. armpit
handleggur: 1. arm
handlæknir: 1. surgeon
hanga: 1. droop, hang
hann: 1. he, him
harður: 1. hard | 2. hard
harmóníka: 1. accordion
hata: 1. hate
hattur: 1. hat
hatur: 1. hate
haukur: 1. hawk
haust: 1. autumn
hefja: 1. lever, lift, raise
hegða sér: 1. behave, conduct oneself
hegðun: 1. behavior, behaviour, conduct, deportment
heiðarlegur: 1. above-board, honest
heilagur: 1. holy, sacred
heilbrigði: 1. health
heili: 1. brain
heill: 1. entire, overall, whole
heilsa: 1. greet, salute
heim: 1. home
heimboð: 1. invitation
heimilisfang: 1. address
heimur: 1. world
heita: 1. be called
heldur: 1. preferably, rather
helgi: 1. week-end
hengja: 1. hang
her: 1. army
herblástur: 1. alarm
herra: 1. gentleman, lord | 2. Mister, Mr., sir
hertogi: 1. duke
hestur: 1. horse
hey: 1. hay
heyra: 1. hear
himinn: 1. heaven, sky
hindber: 1. raspberry
hissa: 1. aback
hitta: 1. come across, encounter, meet, see
hittast: 1. meet each other, meet one another
hjarta: 1. heart
hjartanlegur: 1. cordial, hearty, warm
hjálp: 1. aid, help
hjálpa: 1. accomodate, aid, assist, help
hjól: 1. wheel
hjólnöf: 1. hub, nave
hjón: 1. couple, married people
hjónaband: 1. marriage, matrimony | 2. marriage | 3. marriage
hjúskaparstétt: 1. civil status
hlaðast upp: 1. accumulate, heap, pile up, stack
hljóðeðlisfræði: 1. acoustics
hljóðeðlisfræðlingur: 1. acoustic
hljómplata: 1. album
hlutavelta: 1. lottery, raffle
hlutfall: 1. proportion, rate
hlæja: 1. laugh
hlébarði: 1. panther
hnerra: 1. sneeze
hnöttur: 1. ball
hné: 1. knee
hnífur: 1. knife
hnútur: 1. knot, node
hnta: 1. knot
hollenskur: 1. Dutch
hrafn: 1. raven | 2. crow
hratt: 1. fast, quick, rapid, speedy, swift
hreiður: 1. den, nest
hreinn: 1. pure
hreinsa: 1. clean, cleanse, make clean, purge
hringur: 1. ring
hross: 1. horse
hrylla: 1. abhor, abominate, loathe
hryllilegur: 1. abhorrent, abominable, alien, awful, hideous, horrible, gruesome | 2. alarmed, dismayed, dumbfounded, put out of countenance | 3. abysmal, dreadful, gruesome, horrible, terrible
hrynja: 1. cave in
hræðilegur: 1. abysmal, dreadful, gruesome, horrible, terrible
hræðsla: 1. agony, anguish, fear | 2. fright
hrár: 1. raw, uncooked
hrífa: 1. rake
hrútur: 1. ram, tup
hugga: 1. comfort, console
huggun: 1. consolation
hugsa: 1. think
hugsun: 1. thought
hunang: 1. honey
hundaæði: 1. rabies
hundrað: 1. hundred, one hundred
hundur: 1. dog
hungur: 1. hunger
hurð: 1. door
hvaðan: 1. from where, whence
hvalur: 1. whale
hvar: 1. where
hvassleiki: 1. acerbity, acrimony, acuity, sharpness
hveiti: 1. wheat
hvellur: 1. abrasive, acrid, acrimonious, sharp-toned, shrill, snappy, tard | 2. shrill
hvenær: 1. when
hvergi: 1. nowhere
hvessa: 1. sharpen
hvísla: 1. whisper
hvítingi: 1. albino
What I'll often do is create a blank document to write in, & keep the word list up on the screen at the same time, and start a kind of weaving process. I agree with the idea that the human brain (at least the verbal part of the brain) instinctively tries to create narrative when presented with a disparate bunch of things/images/ideas/doodads/whatevers. Fighting against the beginning-middle-and-end-of-it-all is a way of fighting against both the fact and idea of death, essentially, because it is fighting against the constraints we all have as living creatures: we're born, we live, and we die—the Narrative of everyone. So to me it's the stuff in between the things/images/ideas —the glue or waste in between the static objects/ideas/things that linearly chronologically accumulate into narrative—the syntactical substance that moves, displaces, makes things ping off one another, or decompose—that is what holds my attention best, or at least, for me, holds the most promise.
Outside sources for me, therefore, are mostly not used conceptually, but just as a tool or constraint: nothing very unique, I'm afraid. It's a very simple way of tricking my brain into breaking outside of its usual ruts by means of overload. When I use word lists, I am throwing words in front of my face just a little faster than my brain can register them, while writing at the same time. I type freakishly fast, over 150 wpm, which is handy for this way of working. I'll let my eyes rove over the list, scroll down it, and pull whatever jumps out, not questioning it or, if I do question it, I incorporate the question into the text I am writing. A lot of it is about choice, of course: choosing what material to use or how to piece it together and/or break it down. That's what a lot of art is now, I think; all there is left to do, really. Break it new. I do agree with the now stale but accurate perception that there's basically no point in trying to create anything new—unless you're trying to get pregnant or you're somehow utilizing science. I think Christian Bök might create or has created something new with his bacterial DNA poetry. I think that's a fascinating project and approach, though I am a little leery, to be honest, of such shiny ideas.
You can tell I've not read much literary theory or philosophy by the way I try to feel my way around these topics and come up with clunky metaphor after metaphor that never quite gets at what I'm trying to say, which has already been said by a hundred different people a hundred times better. I am painfully aware of my lack of ability to reference Derrida, Adorno, Lacan, whoever & whatever. It seems like the most personal of things, to me, and makes me very uncomfortable, actually, to talk about my unformed egg-like ideas about this stuff—I usually only talk to my closest friends about poetics. And certainly in the world of online poetics and poets you're more apt to be taken seriously if you have a handle on the major theorists. You're likely to be chopped into tiny pieces and fed to the dog if your ideas are not cast in stone and steel-reinforced with an extensive list of footnotes. I don't have a handle on literary theory or philosophy. I do not feel that it's a bragging point, either, nor am I being coy: it's a deficit, in many ways. But I've always found myself more drawn to primary sources, if that makes any sense, and there's just too much else to read and do. And truth be told, I'm probably a little intellectually undisciplined as well.
Back to source texts. Other sources I've used are numerous. I wrote my little book Characters from the American Heritage Dictionary. A dictionary, especially one with little pictures in the margins, is probably one of the greatest sources around. The files in my "word list" folder on the computer I am writing this on include:
Abecedarian word list
Amharic word list
Ancient Egyptian word list
Ayupathu word list
I've used dozens of other lists but haven't saved them after I'm done with them.
Other sources: I am creating a book of Google sculpted poems that will include poems created by search results such as "If I Had a Penis" and "I want to die because" and "I am very scared because" and a bunch of other psychosocial type searches (most similar to Katie Degentesh's sculpting, probably)—you get the idea. Creating the search parameters that will yield fruitful results is an entire process (and a fun one!) unto itself. Off and on for years I've made collage poems. I've been recording pieces of poems on my Mac Garageband program and chopping them up, reconnecting them, putting them in male/female voices, interspersing them with sounds; so I guess I use my own rough writing pages as sources too. I created a series of visual poems with a computer art program (one of my few attempts at visual poetry) by making pattern poems out of my rough writing. One of my favorite websites that contains a fabulous bunch of word lists is: http://phrontistery.info The glossary on the left spine of that site is an incredibly rich resource. After many years, I still find that creating an erasure poem from someone's poem or essay is one of the best ways for me to respond to his or her work. I've written several series of poems visually homophonically (which I'm sure there is a word for, a word that I cannot retrieve at the moment—have I mentioned my deep fear of Alzheimer's?)—in other words, translating a poem from a language I don't know into English not by the sound of the words but by their appearance. There have been many other sources but, alas, I can't remember them at the moment either.
TB: You have a blog devoted to poets' dreams. Do dreams figure importantly in how you work as a poet?
Lynn Behrendt: No, they really don't. I rarely have dreams interesting enough to record into a poem. I am, of course, very interested in dreaming, disjunctive images/events in language and dream, the brain and body in dream state, and certainly Freud's work with dream symbols.
The Annandale Dream Gazette originally began as a print magazine in Annandale, NY, the home of Bard College, where I got my BA. When I was a student there, Robert Kelly told me that he had always wanted to start a newspaper of dreams, and had a hunch that the dreams of people living in the same area would speak to one another. So I did the legwork, & helped jumpstart and edit the first few issues of the Dream Gazette, which quickly fizzled. I think another subsequent student, many years later, may have resurrected it, but I don't know for sure. A decade or so after that, one of the dreaming contributors of the original Gazette, Bruce McClelland, a poet, translator and vampirologist, wrote a long piece titled "The Annandale Dream Gazette" in which he appropriated several of the dreams that were in the original magazine.
In 2007 Robert and I resurrected the Dream Gazette yet again, but this time online. At this point, it's an ample, slowly growing collection of poets' dreams, but I'm not sure they speak to one another, yet, or if they ever will—I can't really tell. Mikhail Horowitz recently suggested to me that we might consider not sticking to a chronological format, and reorder the dreams so that they might speak to one another in that way. That would be an interesting project, but I don't want to be that heavy-handed with it, and if any kind of conversation between dreamers takes place, I think it needs to occur organically. I haven't mentioned the suggestion of scrapping a chronological format to Robert yet, but my guess is that he would not want to edit the Gazette in that way either. My motivation for resurrecting the Gazette was basically to somehow contribute and take part in the online poetry world, which I very badly wanted to do, since I had been artistically isolated for decades. I think the Gazette might someday provide a nice, albeit offbeat, resource for someone studying poets and poetry. That is my hope, anyway.
TB: Heraclitus noted, Plutarch writes, that when we are awake we share a world in common, but that when we dream we are in a private place. I think that there are some interesting potential analogies with poetry in that notion. I guess what I want to ask about at this point is the relationship of public and private in your work. Do you feel as a poet that you have any particular, any special social responsibilities?
Lynn Behrendt: I've been slow in getting back to you to answer this question, partly because I've had a bad headcold, and partly because every time I open the document to respond, I am at a loss for words, and I've been unable to pinpoint exactly why.
You've asked two questions, really. The first is about the relationship of public vs. private in my work. Our mutual friend, Geof Huth, recently said that he's decided my poetry is Confessional. This characterization could be considered a terrible insult in certain poetic circles though Geof, of course, did not say it with any hint of malice. So I asked him if there could be such a thing as Post-avant Confessional. His response: "Apparently so." I don't think there is such a thing, and I don't believe my work is Confessional, but I can see how it might be read that way. In the past year I've also had my work likened twice to Bernadette Mayer's—another comparison I don't see as accurate at all, but again, an understandable one. Sort of.
I see no reason to avoid using one's emotional life as material in a poem. I also see no need to intentionally layer my writing in fuzzy, puzzle-like code as a means of burying, disguising, or adding a kind of interesting sheen. It seems unnecessary to me. That material—the "private"—is as good as anything else.
The truth is, I can't distinguish public from private. I can't grasp the concept. There's no clear line of separation, and I can't comprehend how there could be for anyone else, either, really, if he or she really thought about it. Where is the exact place that private ends and public begins, for a poet? Those are false distinctions. Nobody is objective. And besides, it's not about content—it's about form. I understand in social life there is such a thing as tact, and I understand that people have secrets, and I understand that certain things are better left unsaid; but if those same social rules apply to poetry, then poetry is merely an act of suppression. In fact, I think this false distinction between public and private has been used to great advantage to oppress poets, particularly American women poets. The Gurlesque poets are dealing with these kinds of issues in an interesting and great way, I think.
Your second question was if I believe that as a poet I have any special social responsibilities. No, I don't, when it comes to my writing. I'm not responsible or obligated to anybody or anything, when I write a poem, except the poem itself in the moment I am writing it. If anything, I have a responsibility to have no responsibilities, a responsibility to break the idea of expectation apart, to always maintain a solid "fuck you" foundation when I think and write. I do believe I have responsibilities as a poet insofar as I am part of a community of poets, of course. Some of these include: try to contribute something to the community; don't be cruel but defend the underdog when necessary; buy small press books. Pretty basic stuff.
I guess your questions were asking about the political, as well. I agree with those who say that every letter, gesture, word, and act is political. This of course includes the act of writing a poem. I haven't really written any kind of poetry of witness, but I admire those that do, when their motives are clear. Juliana Spahr is a great and rare example of this kind of writing. I don't think, however, that her poetry is necessarily more "political" than any given Flarf poem by, for example, Nada Gordon. If anything, I think the opposite is true.
TB: Lynn, who do you think of as your poetic forebears?
Lynn Behrendt: Since Robert Kelly was my mentor, I guess technically the lineage would be Black Mountain/Olson/Kelly. Though Robert has had unquestionably the most profound influence on my poetry, I think of my forebears as being Stéphane Mallarmé (mysteriously), Gertrude Stein (strongly), HD (inescapably), Kathy Acker (hopefully). I'd like to say Emily Dickinson, but it would be a wishful lie.
TB: One final question: What are you most engaged by (right now)?
Lynn Behrendt: Reading: the books nearest to me in my office right now that I am in the process of reading or intend to read include Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé; Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics; NTST by Geof Huth; The Logic of the World, Robert Kelly; Let's Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War by Ed Sanders; Grand Piano 9; TOWN by Kate Schapira.
Writing: I am in a little bit of a holding pattern in my writing, or at least it feels that way, because I am waiting for the proofs of my first full length book, petals, emblems, which Lunar Chandelier Press is publishing sometime this year. The project that am most excited about at the moment and that I work on daily for the past few weeks is my google poem book that I mentioned earlier, which I think I am going to title If I Had a Penis (not to be sung to the tune of "If I Had a Hammer," by the way). The title poem was first published on one of Linh Dinh's blog's: Lower Half.
Other/Ongoing: Projects I'm continually working on include Peep/Show Poetry, an electronic publication that Anne Gorrick and I curate; the maintenance I do for Ron Silliman's blogroll; the occasional Noise gatherings that my poet/artist friends and I have up here in the Hudson Valley.
What I'm Not Engaged in But Wish I Were: I haven't had the time lately to make any song/poems in my garageband program, and I miss that. I also am missing making something with my hands, like metal sculpture, or handmade books.
Lynn Behrendt is the author of 4 chapbooks: The Moon As Chance, Characters, Tinder, and Luminous Flux. A full length collection, petals, emblems is due out 2010 from Lunar Chandelier Press. She co-edits the Annandale Dream Gazette, a chronicle of poets’ dreams, and is co-curator of Peep/Show Poetry, an electronic poetry publication.
Tom Beckett lives and works in Kent, Ohio.