In this guest post Barry explains the origins and intricacies of his heartening project of revision and completion. There follows an example of one the finished poems.
Last year I began sending e-mails something like the following to a number of poets whose work I admire:
I am hoping you will consider contributing to a new project I have in mind. Basically the inspiration for this came when I was at a painter’s studio and he mentioned to me that a particular painting had come about when the artist in the neighboring studio was throwing out a canvas she had given up on. He took her abandoned painting and painted his own painting on top of it, but you can still see her painting coming through at certain points. Well, this gave me the idea to ask a number of poets whose work I like if they have a poem that they’ve abandoned that they would consider giving me to work on—to write on top of it, so to speak, the way that painter painted on top of his friend’s painting. So give it some thought and let me know if this is something you’d be willing to do. If it seems too uncomfortable or whatever, don’t worry about it, I completely understand. It’s such a personal thing. That’s why it interests me of course—an opportunity to delve in a different way into the work of some people I admire in the process of, I hope, coming up with something of my own, or maybe of both of ours, but anyway in part my own. Of course, I may not end up being able to do anything with some (or maybe even any) of the things people send me. But I’m curious to see what happens. Let me know what you think.
The origins of my desire to work with the “failed” or “abandoned” efforts of other poets undoubtedly lie deep within the history of my work. I have always been fascinated by the obviously self-contradictory notion of a text whose final form would nonetheless be predicated on the suggestion that it could easily have been otherwise. My first chapbook, The New Lessons, whose form was much affected (as I seem to recall) by my then-recent discovery of the books of Jack Spicer, was a sequence of poems with, at the foot of each page, some sequences of words that seemed to suggest the reader could substitute any one of them for certain words in the poem above. Two subsequent sequences, Fate/Seen in the Dark and Hidden Figure, with their parallel texts, were undoubtedly influenced by my reading of the alternating voices in John Ashbery’s “Fantasia on ‘The Nut-Brown Maid’” and above all on the “simultaneous but independent monologues” of his great “Litany,” but even more so, I think, by the parallel text editions I had used during my failed years in graduate school, books in which the 1805 and 1850 versions of The Prelude or the A, B, and C-texts of Piers Plowman were juxtaposed—that is, although I hadn’t worked the idea out fully, I was struck by the notion that my parallel texts were somehow versions of the “same” thing, no matter how different they appeared. That only happened later, with my four “Opera” poems, where the second, third, and fourth poems were presented as remixes of the first.
The remix idea could have led to the idea of working with material gathered from other poets, and arguably should have, since it is standard practice to remix the work of another artist, not one’s own. But that didn’t happen right away. The idea made me nervous. Working with someone else’s material evokes considerable ambivalence—is one honoring the other person’s work, vandalizing it, or both at once?—and I wasn’t ready to handle it. I remember not long after the publication of Opera giving a reading with a friend whose poetry I admire greatly—am in awe of, frankly, having always to ask her, “How the fuck do you do that?” She had written a long poem taking off from a line in one of mine and presented it at the reading. I was furious; I couldn’t bear the sense of competition, the feeling that she was outdoing me. Today I would react very differently. It would probably cause an incurable crush or something. That’s how much I’ve become caught up in the pleasure of the text of the other.
There were two things that finally gave the idea to undertake this project. The first was a request from Kasey Mohammad to contribute to a magazine issue he was editing on the theme of “Do Your Worst.” He wrote, “Would you consider sending me the worst poem or poems you can possibly concoct? Or, alternately, an essay on some aspect of poetic worstness? Or a review of what you believe to be a consummately dreadful book of poems, etc.?” The issue never materialized, but I spent a long time thinking about the idea of failure—whether and how it was possible to present it as a positive force. I thought a lot, too, about something the painter Marlene Dumas once said: “A big mistake is better than a small one.” So, a good rule of thumb when revising would be, “Correct the small mistakes and amplify the big ones.” Anyway, sometime later—as alluded to in the e-mail I quoted at the beginning of this text—I found myself in Tel Aviv, visiting the studio of another painter friend, Tsibi Geva. Among the paintings he showed me was one that, he explained, had been painted on a canvas he’d obtained from the painter in the neighboring studio. He saw her throwing out a painting she had given up on as a failure, and he asked her if he could use the canvas. So Tsibi painted his painting on top of hers, but certain traces of her painting still showed through his.
Bingo. I knew I could do this: I would ask my fellow poets do give me their failed or abandoned efforts, the wretched refuse of their teeming shores. I would try my best to make them citizens of my own poetic country. I did this knowing full well that there is something uncomfortable about the whole idea—both of showing someone else the work one has decided isn’t good enough and of letting go of something that really one just might be able to do something with, later. That’s why I am so grateful to the poets who agreed. They’ve done something that can’t have been easy. (And many of those I asked could not do it, which I understand.) I started calling it “the abandoned poems project,” and when I’ve published a few of the results it’s been as “from The Abandoned Poems” but whether that name will stick, I’m still not sure.
Some of the poems I received already seemed almost good; they just need more or less extensive improving. (One poem I had to return to sender, saying that I’d have felt like a thief taking it: It was already perfect as it was—except for that title.) But others hadn’t been finished for good reason. There was something fundamentally wrong, self-defeating, about their underlying impulse, insofar as I could make that out. Without that impulse I could see nothing to work with, but something about it was almost intolerable to me. All the wrong notes are right, as Charles Ives said, but some music is just wrong no matter how many right or wrong notes are in it. To see this project through, I would have to learn to let some of that wrong music into my work and I would have to learn, somehow, to right it. This turned out to be the hardest part of the job I’d set myself. By the way, although I’m sure I won’t be able to use every poem I was sent, the unused poems are not necessarily “worse” or more problematic than the ones I use. It’s just that their problems, sometimes quite superficial, were ones I couldn’t see a way to solve.)
Something else that feeds into this project is my long-standing envy of musicians and the way they get to collaborate with each other, providing mutual inspiration. It always seemed like so much more fun than working away in a room all by yourself as we poets usually do. Until now, I’ve never seen a way to overcome this isolation. Not that I would consider these poems to be collaborations, mind you. However much or little of the original poet’s writing remains in them, I alone am responsible for the final configuration. The poets who contributed to my project had no say in what I would do with their words. I’m still not ready to give up that much control. (As Dumas said about her collaborations with fellow painter Bert Boogaard, “I don’t try to become one with someone else. I wanna be two.” Or as I recently heard Charles Bernstein read from a not-yet-published piece of his, “I want other voices / but I want them always to be / / My own other voice.”) And yet I’ve given myself something of the pleasure I imagine I would get out of a full-scale collaboration—the pleasure of getting closer to another poet’s manner of working, his rhythm, his sensibility for the texture of words. At times I get an almost physical satisfaction out of being able to work with language that seems to bear the traces of having passed through another person’s ears, eyes, hands, nervous system.
There is no special methodology to how I’ve proceeded. Each poem seems a special case, demanding its own improvised response. In one case, where a poem was built around a repeated phrase, I started by substituting a new anaphora for each case—then I started looking for what to do to make them work with what was already there. In one case, I used the original poem whole, in a form only slightly changed from the original, but doubled the length of the poem by inserting a new line after every one that I’d been given. Often enough it’s just a question of working on the poem much in the way I normally would work on one of my own, just worrying at it line by line, trying to hear its inner structure and bring that out. Of course I know that inner structure is one that I’ve imagined, not one that really came from the poet who started the poem—but it’s also one that I’d never have found on my own, which is why I continue to find this process fascinating.
We’re heading in the right direction. We don’t know
what we’re going to know but we’ll open a bottle and taste
agave. Heading in the right direction: my latest
near-death experience, as a stand-alone
or as an add-on. In the right direction, fact fans:
seeing things and then getting wicked ideas. I’ll top
whatever I see. The right direction: to live
to 80. I try and stretch all the time and do some sit-ups and
push-ups. Yeah well, if you’re heading in the right direction:
We have more silence in our ears, a poem
I never knew was mine, loud songs
in memory of a hairline fracture. It better
have some pretty damn amazing gameplay. You’re heading
in the right direction: getting into the meditative state as many
moments in the day as you can. Is this just madness? I don’t know,
man! You’re heading in the right direction so who am I
trying to protect? But don’t forget
last night: I love the drama
of role playing. I’m a drama queen, and that’s what
we do. It’s like bottled liquid sunshine, and heading
in the right direction: my kids. I want the kids
to do what they truly want to do, but heading
in the right direction. We’ll hold hands and never, ever
look back. I always mocked your game
because my whole game is speed, while yours
is obviously jumps and ramps. The right direction: where words
go missing. Sentences between leaves. Made-of things
won’t hurt you. And one more thing, Batman, about what
we are trying to achieve, about us getting better. I’m doing
what I feel the need to do. Slim, lethal, the ghost
of an absence, you’re heading in the right direction:
equality. If we’re going to be equal, then let’s all
be equal. New visitors forever, heading
in the right direction, despite rumors
the place was haunted: parents and animals.
It’s a bit bitter. It was her long hands
I couldn’t stop looking at. This is not about me being unhappy
with what I’m being paid. I signed a contract
and I’m going to live up to it. Everything I see or hear
reminds me of the poem I’m working on, reminds me
you’re heading in the right direction. But I
figured something out for once: that heading
in the right direction, toward an inability
to see the universe, in all its glory, as a total accident
that came from nothingness all by itself: impossible.
I’ve got a pretty good work ethic, I can say. I will be fine
if I get a job but totally not fine if I don’t. That
sucks. I need money, the source of most
of my problems. We lead symmetrical lives, both heading
in the right direction: live performance
as you can probably tell. The right
direction: the music. The live stuff, it sets me free. It’s
that hour. We go up to the door. And in the right
direction: to avoid a violent confrontation. I’d rather
back off. Some guys’ll grab hold of you and bust you up. So
I guess it’s time for me to catch up with myself. Maybe I’m a bit
anxious, and my whole “deal” is paranoia, what’s my bag
you ask? Well, all you cool cats promoting Bigfoot’s existence,
fly away with me in the right direction: fishing slow
and just having confidence in what we’re doing. We’re kind of
the new kids on the block. These words in memory
of Electrelane, the only band we ever heard
in the last world. Goodbye. Okay okay—they’re heading
in the right direction: “Fuck work” is the slogan
that started this company. It may not seem simple,
but practically, it is. I believe you should stick with the religion
you were born with. For me that’s Judaism, and so that
is the only religion I’m against. The others don’t even exist for me.
My photo shoot alter ago, you’re heading in the right direction:
to get these guys paid. Then, I’ll go back to the planet
where I came from. I feel kind of like I just
wasted a lot of time giving someone else pleasure but
we agreed to do this and we’re doing it. With poppy seeds
between my teeth. You watch them slowly
and you’re heading in the right direction: looking
for a good fuck. The next day I couldn’t walk. Pop stars
for breakfast. The kiss that almost killed me. Well, in a way,
but not really, because of heading in the right direction: I never
even buy clothes because I get free clothes from all of my friends
who make clothes anyway. Whatever. Keep heading
in the right direction: promote tools that allow people to organize
and communicate in groups, particularly in local communities
around the world. I have no desire to be a pop
crossover artist. I wear a hat and I’m heading in the right
direction, playing my guitar. But I want to hear more hymns
that were done that way. To have my cadence considered
for centuries. Can anyone point me in the right direction?
After K. Silem Mohammad
(Originally published in With+Stand 2, 2008)
Barry Schwabsky is an American poet living in London. His books are Opera: Poems 1981-2002 (Meritage Press, 2003) and Book Left Open in the Rain (Black Square Editions/The Brooklyn Rail, 2009) and he has also published chapbooks with Burning Deck and Mindmade Books (formerly Seeing Eye Books), among others. He is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. You can read further examples of his abandoned poems here and here.