From My Old Blog, December 2006: About “Myrrhman”

Talk Talk is probably best known in the U.S. for their early ’80s hits, ‘Talk Talk,’ and ‘Dum Dum Girl.’ Some remember ‘Life’s What You Make It’ from the transitional The Colour of Spring LP but for the most part that’s the end of it. What goes largely unacknowledged is one of the most intriguing progressions in popular music history: Talk Talk, due to the mutual influence of keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene and singer Mark Hollis, became a band whose aim was, apparently, to not make any sound. The group went to great lengths to accomplish this goal, most notably, effectively, and perhaps paradoxically, by way of improvisation and expanded instrumentation.

[Edit, 2011] The effort towards silence succeeds in large part because of an equally extreme dynamic ceiling; that is, if the group was able to achieve stretches of near-inaudibility, they were also committed to periods of alarming saturation and volume.

Talk Talk, “Myrrhman,” Laughing Stock, 1991.

From My Old Blog, October, 2006: Thoughts on Seismosis

John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse’s *Seismosis* arrived today. It’s a wonderful-looking book with texts by Keene and drawings by Stackhouse. I don’t know the latter’s work but Keene’s *Annotations* has been one my favorites lately.

For what it’s worth, the poems remind me of *Annotations* though Keene’s style has developed remarkably, assured and matured in both subject and delivery. *Seismosis*, is less of a personal history than *Annotations*, though no less thoughtful, reflective or considerate. Keene’s approach is to take his subjects as objects in hand, noting their materials, weights, surfaces, contours, and variations. The drawings pre-register these notations, providing a record and measure as a fortifying context for Keene’s meditations.

Stackhouse’s drawings are scribbles, mostly, likened here to the titular needle-jumps of a seismograph. Taken as the book’s point of entry, they’re a pleasurable, bodily foil to the shape of Keene’s texts (lines, grids, blocks). The opening and closing poems, for example, share the title, ‘Process’; both are printed on recto pages, faced by Stackhouse drawings of dissimilar stroke and light: the first concentrates its vigorous strokes over each other and in the center of the page; the latter keeps its strokes to a relative minimum, creating two forms on the left and right sides of the page.1 Of the poems, the first reads, “In the mark event, you enter your signature.” The final poem, after much speculation on — among other things — spatial relations, human relations, and the relations between the drawings and texts of the book itself, acts as an aphoristic resolution of the first: “In the mark, we choose and lose signature.”

The distiction between the mark itself and the mark’s event is a crucial one for these collaborators, whose marks are contingent on the event of their collaboration; that is, the event (the book) of the marks (poems, drawings) amplifies the effects and meanings of the marks and transforms them into a single event, the way single notes form a chord. The resulting unity is no small feat. Most efforts at such union of illustration and text suffer the egos of their makers, an unwillingness to see their work subsumed into a greater project. For Keene and Stackhouse, on the other hand, it seems that *Seismosis* was occasioned by likemindedness, trust, and an abiding kindred sense between two artists.

  1. The drawings, part of his *Perpendicular Series*, are not entirely scribbles. Stackhouse’s use of straightedge, in particular, generates effective armatures for the works, directing attention from the page margins to the structure of his forms: drawings XII, XXI, XXIX (my personal favorite and the most ‘perpendicular’ work in the book), L, and LI (described above in conjunction with the second ‘Process’), are examples of this practice.

From My Old Blog, September, 2006: Muriel Rukeyser

I’ve been re-reading Muriel Rukeyser’s *The Life of Poetry* the last few nights. It’s not an easy book by any stretch, its density matched only by her elusive biography of *Willard Gibbs*. But there are numerous passages of immediate moral if not linguistic clarity, the following of which struck me last night:

[I]f communication has broken down, then it is time to tap the roots of communication. Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source. And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie. They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.

Later, in a somewhat different context, she writes, “The gestures of the individuals are not history; but they are the images of history.”

Rukeyser’s insistent humanism reminds me of Hayden Carruth’s, but not as individualist as his, and though her prose can, as I said, be cumbersome, her position is clear. Against the dominant strains of violence, imperialism, and inequality, she defines poetry as the center of healing, peace, community, and learning, as a measure of progress. Whether or not she’s right in this assertion might be open to debate (I’m pretty sure she is, for what it’s worth) but she remains, in any case, an active and productive source of inspiration as we approach election-times and face a seemingly neverending war.

From My Old Blog, September, 2006: My Favorite Book and Its Author


On the left is a book called Circles of Confusion: Film · Photography · Video: Texts 1968-1980 that was written by the man on the right who was (in his lifetime, from 1936 until 1984) and is called Hollis Frampton. It is a book of essays, most of which were originally published in Artforum magazine when it was edited by Annette Michelson, a film theorist and critic whose abundant and energetic wing fostered three generations of scholars and filmmakers, including and perhaps especially, Hollis Frampton.

Visual Studies Workshop Press in Rochester, NY, published the collection. The connection between VSW, Rochester, and Frampton is not as obscure as it might seem: Frampton taught at SUNY Buffalo in the 1970s, the campus of which is situated roughly 70 miles west of Rochester, home of Kodak, and therefore a center of film manufacturing.

Such connections are, rudimentarily speaking, the stuff of Frampton’s thought and work. He came to still photography via Ezra Pound and James Joyce; to filmmaking via still photography, painting, and a devotion to mathematics and science; to video and photocopiers via filmmaking and a return to still photography.

His films run the gamut from his earliest efforts whose concern was primarily motion (e.g. Manual of Arms, 1966) to found-footage films (e.g. Maxwell’s Demon, 1968) to so-called structural 1 works (e.g. Lemon, 1969; in this case a full-frame shot of a lemon subjected to a range of light and exposure, about which Frampton said, “As a voluptuous lemon is devoured by the same light that reveals it, its image passes from the spatial rhetoric of illusion into the spatial grammar of the graphic arts.”) to the unfinished Magellan, which was intended to expand to include a film for each day of a 371 day cycle. A spirit of inquiry, a sense of humor, and a feeling for the necessity of art infuse his writing as they do his films. These are curious works, works of a curious mind, works for curious minds.

  1. I’m not sure I agree with the entirety of this page’s explanation but it does serve to provide a definition of this kind of filmmaking. I prefer to view structural film, like film noir, as a style or method as opposed to a genre.

From my old blog, February, 2007: On Selling Out, Sort Of

My experience as an artist is more or less divided into two spheres: on the one hand, I’m a musician, a practice which has always involved public performance and the explicit realization of a community. On the other hand, I’m a poet, a practice which has been, until the last year or so, an almost entirely private practice, one I shared with a handful of people, whose publication was limited to a couple of poems published several years ago (including, as it happens, the same poem twice). By and large, the two spheres remain separate, though, decreasingly so. I have tried to model my life as a poet on what I learned in the Rochester, NY and DC punk scenes from roughly 1989-2000: that artists, regardless of their art, carry with them a responsibility to the world in which they create and exhibit their work (it is, after all, created and exhibited in the same world).

Photo by Jim Saah

The Jim Saah photograph above is from a Jawbox show at the Black Cat in DC; I think the year was 1994 and it might have even been the show advertised in the poster next to it. I have kept a print of the photograph on my refrigerator since that time to remind me of several things, chief among which has become the best-integrated art/politics scene in which I have been an active member. It was the reason I moved back to the area in 1991, and found it to be an invigorating and inspiring time and place to be as both writer and musician (I had, when I left Rochester, decided to give up music entirely, in favor of literature; thankfully my mind was changed nine months later when I joined Jawbox). There was a near-constant air of protest, of seeking out materials and economies that abandoned convention in favor of defiant humanism and concern for essentially leftist values. This took place mostly among bands and show-attendees, who were gathering anyway for music and new ideas. There were frequent benefit shows, protests, and a network of people around the world whose contact with each other depended on touring bands. The link was inherently political: we were doing our thing, not the mainstream thing. It worked, too.

By 1994, several of us (by which I mean bands) had signed to major labels, in hopes, variously, of reaching larger audiences, or at the very least, having more time and money with which to make records. I think Jawbox was more concerned with writing better songs than we were with fame. The jump to the majors allowed us to practice more, tour more, and record under better circumstances.

The ramifications were obvious enough then as now: we were selling out. For my part — I can’t speak for J., Bill, or Kim — I’ve always thought of it as *cashing in*, though there wasn’t really much cash and I’m not certain that the distinction even matters anymore. For what it’s worth, I didn’t feel like we were wrecking anything by signing to Atlantic; that is, the decision was ours, the consequences were ours, and it didn’t reflect on any other bands, labels, or fans. I was wrong.

The scene from which we’d come felt, in some circles, betrayed, and the mainstream rarely has the patience required for unconventional art. We were ignored by our label within nine months of our first release and completely pushed aside within a year. Our story is not at all unusual except perhaps for the degree to which we continued to practice a DIY-based method, regardless of being on a major label. We knew what we were getting ourselves into (most of the time). I don’t know that this recounting requires much elaboration at this late date so I’ll just say that if I was in that situation today, I’d probably handle it differently, though this remark is qualified by knowing that the circumstances that made Jawbox possible at all no longer exist for me.

Jawbox on Atlantic & TAG

In the end, I can’t say I regret our deal with Atlantic. Kim and Bill even bought our tapes back from the label and are planning to re-release both *For Your Own Special Sweetheart* and *Jawbox* online. The fact remains that we made our most challenging music under those conditions, and my experience in that band has positively served my consciousness as much as anything else I’ve done, before or since.