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Interview: Roger Horrocks and Friends* talk with Wystan Curnow


ROGER HORROCKS   Your writing often takes off from a sense of place. And this seems to link your poems with some of the exhibitions you’ve curated, such as ‘Putting the Land on the Map’.

WYSTAN CURNOW   Place is at work in almost all my writing one way or another. Geography – the psychology, ideology, semiotics of place – is a compelling subject. Not just this place, though the interest in place as such issues I suspect from living here. New York is present, as a kind of place; New Zealand as another. Place isn’t something fixed or singular, to do with identity in that way. Instead it emerges in a context of arrivals and departures, or by way of figures for the margin, like borders, beaches, and so on.

GEORGE LAWSON   When are you next coming to San Francisco?

WC   Soon as I can, George.

RH   Were the earlier pieces involved with the idea of ‘composition by field’?

WC   ‘Composition by place’? Olson was a great geographer, wasn’t he? Yes. Though in part it came about negatively, through a resistance to genre, I was (am) interested in the writing process per se unbound by genre. But I needed to know when to stop a piece, so ‘field’ in this sense was the form which resulted from one answer to that question.

RH   I remember you using patterned material as an analogy – once there’s a clear sense of the pattern you can cut it anywhere. ‘On Volcanoes’, one of the earliest of the 70s pieces, feels closest to Olson’s Maximus.

WC  Yeah, I was aware of it at the time. You can hear the same voice in my essay for McCahon’s ‘Necessary Protection’ exhibition.

RH   ‘On Volcanoes’ covers some of the same ground as Symmes Hole – I wonder if lan Wedde has read it?

WC   I imagine so, although I wouldn’t make anything of it. Still Symmes Hole is a 70s book, the best to be written here.  If you put together the ‘Castor Bay’ pieces I wrote during that decade, they do amount to a kind of non-fiction Auckland version of Wedde’s novel.

RH   Reading your 70s work, I was struck by how language-oriented it was. At first glance some of your pieces seem impressionistic or diary-like, but they work hard to complicate the sense of personal voice, I notice you use a lot of commands – ‘Take place. Leave it be. Make something of it. Come and go as you please.’ And these imperatives seemed aimed at yourself as much as at the reader.

WC    Those instructions are language-in-action, speech which signifies the present context. As for the diaristic mode, I’m interested, like Alan Loney, in the ‘set-up’ – the diary as procedure.

RH   It seems to me that one of the things that makes a lot of New Zealand poetry today predictable is the lack of thought given to the setup. Poetry tends to be limited to one genre, the personal lyric.

WC   Although the voice in my writing has commonly been personal and, as they say, my own, I’ve not been very interested in that genre.

RH    Your writing uses your own thoughts and impressions as found language, just as it treats everything else as found language.

WC   I would hope that was understood. Language is always given, so that writing and speaking is quite simply a business of finding the words.

RH   Pieces like ‘Appropriations’ have some wonderfully weird sentences. Reading your work makes me very aware of the sentence as an organising principle.

WC   In that case, they were picked out from astronaut autobiographies for their weirdness. As to sentences, the question has to do with the formal issues arising from choosing to write outside of the institutions of fiction and poetry. ‘Field’ composition suggested keeping the syntax open, deploying incomplete sentences. Generally speaking, each of the 1970s pieces involved an attitude to the sentence peculiar to it. Subsequently, I’ve been impressed by the ideas and practices of Gertrude Stein and Ron Silliman; for both the sentence is the key to the structuring of a non-generic writing,  Grammar, according to Silliman, has become prosody. He describes a kind of weirdness, or incommensurability, within and between sentences as ‘torquing’. The kinds of disjunction that occur between sentences in ‘Appropriations’, and in ‘GWTW: Selected Stills’, qualify as ‘torque’.

RH   One of the pieces in Cancer Daybook says –’word/for word.’ That’s nicely ambiguous. In one sense it’s simply a word (or thing) referring to a thing (or word). But when I read it again the phrase has a Mona Lisa smile. Another, in Back In the USA, says ‘Look here/New York’. A lot of your writing gives a heightened sense of words pointing or referring but we can never be sure we see anything beyond the words. Is it the city looking back or the words ‘New York’?

WC   ‘word/for word’, consists of a title and dedication. There are several other poems with dedications and the daybook as a whole has one. I like the idea of making an offering. Also, it’s a way of working the frame of the poem or the book. The ambiguity you mention is of the same order as that which you noted with the use of the imperative: it’s the result of conflating grammatical and semantic reference. A kind of punning. We’re talking about an aspect of a mode which privileges what semioticians call the indexical sign. Pointing words like ‘this’, ‘here’. Shifters like ‘I’, ‘you’. Creeley’s book Pieces is a classic work in the indexical mode. Inasmuch as a phrase is isolated from context it becomes indexical, busy with its own pointing.

RH   It seems to me it’s punning in the sense of all-round ambiguity, reading each possibility as literally as we can, not in the sense of twisting a word to produce a secondary meaning. The usual, conventional sort of punning keeps control because there’s still a primary or ‘real’ meaning. Talking about Creeley, yesterday, you used the word ‘presence’ (echoing the title of one of his books). Your own earlier work seems very much concerned with ‘presence’ and among other things that seems to give a special importance to the present tense.

WC   Yes, intersections of place, time, and language. Of thinking and writing/reading. I suppose I have been drawn to the idea of all thought and all objects of thought being present in language at one time and of writing as tapping into that. ‘Was/as is’ and ‘Here we are/ where we had/ thought to be.’ etc. I have recorded and performed some of these using a tape delay set-up. The briefer the poem, the less sense you have of a passage of time. The poem doesn’t begin and end, it happens. Otherwise, I’ve written in situ pieces, in which the occasion and its attendant events are a given which is accepted in writing. But in the Cancer Daybook, many pieces identify the passage of time – one thing after or on top of another – with that of cancer. There the present has become infected.

RH What happens when one thing gets added to another seems a central concern in all your writing.

WC  I use agglomerative forms, lists and the like. Issues of arrangement, and placement interest me. Perhaps it’s relevant to say here that Back in the USA and Cancer Daybook are single works, not collections in the usual sense. Particularly to those, and they are certainly out there, who feel somehow cheated by the brevity of most of the individual pieces of which they are composed. As I said, the ‘Castor Bay’ pieces from the 70s, also make up a single work, and ‘Appropriations’, ‘Progress’, and the ‘GWTW’ pieces are part of a work-in-progress.

RH   You’ve always been a listener to jazz; and we know that poets like Clark Coolidge who is a jazz drummer are obviously working with a musical influence. Has that jazz interest affected your writing?

WC  Well, jazz in large part informed my first ideas of the ‘contemporary’. As a teenager I was already a fan. I listened to Turntable, who asked in his sepulchral voice: ‘Any rags, any jazz, any boppers today?’ Did you know Allen Ginsberg took my father to Birdland? Student friends in Wellington were players, very cool. They had a venue in Manners St.; did Mingus arrangements like ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’. Alan Loney, Bruno Lawrence, Geoff Murphy...they were all jazzmen in those days. The compositional methods of Jack Kerouac, of Jackson Pollock seemed to be based on jazz. Later I learnt that Creeley’s input into Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ essay had a lot to do with his listening to Charlie Parker. When we went to the States in 1963 it was to hear jazz live, and certainly the most intense musical experiences I have ever had were the nights I spent at Pep’s in Philadelphia listening to John Coltrane.

MARY AKASHAH (for Splash, New York) Were you planning to be a writer at that point?

WC  Not really, Mary. Let me say, Roger, that performance, ‘live reading’, matters to me. There’s nothing I’ve written that does not benefit from performance. Even, or particularly, the briefest of pieces – I’m interested in the way they shape the silence which surrounds them. Performance has always been the most exciting form of publication. I can list some of the readings: the Edinburgh Festival in 1984, sharing a platform with the Gaelic poets, Ian Crichton Smith and the great Sorley MacLean. Reading with Rae Armantrout in San Diego last year. The early 80s Auckland University campus readings with Tony Green, and a beautiful set with Alan Loney at F-1 in 1981. There was a solo reading at the Perth Festival in which we did ‘Progress Never Comes Without a Fight’ with electronic delay, and two in New York: at the Franklin Furnace Archive in 1977, and a Poets & Writers reading Charles Bernstein organized and Witi Ihimaera hosted at the New Zealand Consulate in 1988. How I now hear my writing derives from those and other performances. Otherwise, in as much as the activity of writing remains of concern, jazz remains a companionable practice.

RH   For a New Zealander to want to go to the United States for graduate studies – rather than somewhere like Oxford and Cambridge – still seemed strange in 1963.

WC   To my knowledge unprecedented. In English literature that is. We, you and I, went for the culture, right? Oxbridge seemed like finishing school to me. In America it seemed like avant-garde culture and the best of popular culture fed off each other and put the squeeze on the uncivilized middle. We knew nothing about American universities – there was no one here who could tell us anything – but quite a bit about the culture. Through Evergreen Review, Grove Press also published the new wave French novelists and Beckett, as well as the Beats. New Directions and City Lights. All these publishers were stocked by Paul’s Book Arcade in High Street. (High St. / Vulcan Lane was then an axis of record shops, coffee bars, book and fashion stores, as it is today). Oddly enough it’s hard to be as well informed now as we were then: where can you buy Sulfur or Oblek magazine? Who stocks Sun &. Moon’s books? Today you can be in the position of knowing the publishers, the editors and the writers concerned personally,but not be able to find their work in your country.The other reason I had for going to study in the United States was that I thought of American Literature as the first ‘Post-Colonial’ literature in English. I did my thesis on Herman Melville, and concentrated my attention on the 19th century.

JULIAN DASHPER   Who, in your opinion, represents the avant-garde in N«v Zealand today?**

WC   You, of course. And who else? Myself maybe? Certainly most of my writing has taken a long time to get into print and has been published by myself and/or friends because the usual agencies have been unwilling and uninterested. Is that the measure? But maybe the real question concerns the concept itself: hasn’t it grown disreputable? Well, I recall Michael Morrissey reporting how, having pigged out on poetry readings in New York, he asked a local poet what qualified as a good poetry reading as far as he was concerned. He said it was when you didn’t understand what was going on. Late in 1976 I went to a concert at the New York Town Hall in which Richard Landry played a saxophone solo which I thought was insultingly inept. I’d not come across him before or the Phil Glass ensemble of which he was a member.

RH   Today’s listeners may not realise how strong and uncompromising the early work of composers such as Glass, Steve Reich, or Terry Riley was. Now, this type of music has trickled down through the culture, it’s hard to reconstruct the impact of hearing something like ‘Music in C’ for the first time in the 60s or 70s.

WC   It was hard to listen to primarily because you didn’t know what to listen for. My experience with the ‘shock of the new’ is that the meaning seems to have moved house but you’re still looking for it where it used to live. Anyway, it happened again in 1981 when we were living in San Francisco for a while. I went to several readings at a place called Intersection, including one called ‘An Evening with The Figures’. The Figures being, it turned out, a small press – the name’s from the line in Olson’s Maximus, ‘the figures of the present dance’ – which published many of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, it turned out. I remember Silliman reading from ‘Skies’. Most of it was very puzzling to me. Equally so were Barrett Watten’s lectures, also at Intersection, which kept referring, it turned out, to writers who were there in the audience. Meanwhile, across the Bay, at Berkeley, University of California, the English Department there appeared to me out of touch with contemporary American poetry as we taught it at Auckland. But neither of us knew what was going on at Intersection. It took a year or so to figure out. In that time I wrote ‘Post- modernism in Poetry and the Visual Arts’ for Parallax (1982) – a kind of summary, pre-San Francisco – discovered Alan Loney had got to L= poetry in Wellington, that is without having to leave the country, that Tony Green – who told me to read Silliman in relation to my own work – and you were working on it as well. L= poetry and ‘Theory’, the reception/dissemination of which can be identified with the related agendas of Splash and And magazines (1983 – 86) amounted to much the same provocation. What else? Getting to grips with the new sculpture and performance coming out of Elam during the 1970s, should also figure in the reckoning. All of which is to suggest that the avant-garde is in the eye of the beholder.

BRIGID BERLIN   (for Interview) How did you meet Andy?

WC   Late in 1965, at the opening of his ICA show in Philadelphia. It was his first museum show, and a great media event. I myself gave at least three interviews, but so did everyone who wasn’t from the media – I suspect we were in the minority. Andy claims there was such a crush they took all the paintings off the walls, but I’ve no memory of that. Much of the installation I recall quite clearly – the silver and the red & blue Elvises, all the Jackies, the Electric Chairs, the Coke Bottles. I’d never been to an occasion like it. There’s an account in Popism (Andy Warhol with Pat Hackett). I used that book for one of my ‘Lives of the Artists’, combining material from it with Vasari. Warhol renews the avant-garde by appearing to debase it.

RH   ‘Progress Never Came Without a Fight’, and ‘Appropriations’ as the title indicates, are also made of found material. Let’s talk about your association with Billy Apple.

WC   Sure. Billy’s work of the late 70s was about the artist’s relationship to the exhibition space – who does it belong to when an artist shows there? What, in an extended sense, is being shown? There’s an implicit, inescapable struggle for place within the terms of the physical facts of the exhibition and its code which these works articulated, made visible. For a time they carried the general title: ‘The Given as an Art Political Statement’. It’s much the same with his paintings of the last ten years. The series, ‘From the Collection’, asks the question, who does the painting belong to, what is the meaning of its possession?

RH   Sometimes there’s the complication as to whether it’s a Billy Apple work or a Wystan Curnow work.

WC  Yes. Billy and I met back in the 1960s, in New York, at the end of his Pop period. Bryan Dew introduced us. I wrote a long piece on the work he did when he toured here in 1975, and worked on an article for Arts Magazine which for reasons which were never quite explained to me – I was commissioned to write it – never got published, in New York in 1976. It was only in 1979 I became involved in Billy’s ‘creative’ process.

RH   And you’re a ‘found’ critic for him?

WC  Yeah. Since that year, every work he’s made has been thoroughly discussed by us both. Before rather than afterwards. I’m interested in blurring distinctions between artist and critic, and in the various specific ways in which that might be achieved. My writing on the performance work of Peter Roche and Linda Buis (Parallax 2, 1983) arose from the various texts Peter and I exchanged regularly over a period of more than two years which were composed shortly after each of their performances. Out of this de-briefing process came an account, a kind of writing which was at once more and less parasitic upon its occasion than usual and gained its peculiar aptness from that fact. Or so I thought. With Billy, even when I have contributed a title or a text – something as concrete as that – or come up with the solution to a problem with a work – something as decisive as that – I’ve never thought of the work as mine. I’m not Billy Apple. Certainly, his work appeals to a side of me; I’m drawn to the ‘uncreative’ character of the work. The Atalanta text I provided for a recent painting is a re-write, or translation, of Graves’ translation. It’s a companion to the piece in Now See Hear!  The moral impulse in my writing always seems to have something to do with possession, and it seems expressed not only in Billy Apple’s work but in my collaboration in its production. I might also mention here my ‘Exchange of Notes’ with the Australian artist, Imants Tillers. The first of these was published in Antic, a second has taken place and Imants is working on his half of a third. As with Peter, this is a case of the artist joining with me, on my ground, So far I’ve not published any regular criticism of his work. He was thinking of painting all Jasper Johns’ map works for a New York show, and I was going to do an essay for the catalogue, but that project got shelved.

GIANFRANCO MANTEGNA (for Contemporanea)   Do you have plans for exhibitions other than at the Guggenheim?

WC   Where did you get the idea I was doing a show for the Guggenheim? I’m currently working on a survey show of Billy Apple’s paintings from the last decade, for the Wellington City Art Gallery. Further down the track, I hope, is an international version of the Putting the Land on the Map show. That should have a North American venue.

SUSAN BEE (for M/E/A/N/I/N/G)   How do you think your work as a curator and art critic affects your work as a poet and vice versa?

WC   I want to hang onto the notion that really there is no criticism, poetry, fiction – only writing and its scenes. Venues, occasions, protocols and processes. So blurring the distinction has mattered, and continues to. Actually, I don’t do enough of it, I think my better criticism is variously ‘writerly’ and has been of some use to some other art writers precisely because of that. I think, and we’ve looked at this already, my literary writing opens onto prose or is prose. ‘Climbing Rangitoto/Descending the Guggenheim’ was first published in the Bulletin of New Zealand Art History, and subsequently reprinted in Michael Morrissey’s The New Fiction.  The other thing to say is this: it was the problem of how to write about performance art that pushed me into a writing practice which finally clarified for me what I was up to as a writer. It pushed me into a writing which was actively there, at one with its processes and procedures. My understanding of such a writing has changed and expanded a great deal since then, but the commitment remains. Another, very different, thing to say, is that what sometimes feels a disability when I’m outside the country, feels like an advantage, and quite natural, here. Specializing in two art forms compensates for the thinness of the high culture in New Zealand.

MA (for Splash, New York)   Were you planning on being a writer at that point?

WC   At what point do you mean? Haven’t you asked this question before?

MA   Are they reading you in Indianapolis these days?

WC   Who is this person?

TONY GREEN (for Splash, NZ).   Who are you, Mr. Writer, then?

WC   I’m getting a little tired of these questions. I’ll take one more. Charles, you had one, didn’t you?

CHARLES BERNSTEIN   What is your reaction to the rise, over the last twenty-five years, of poetries focused on representing ‘under- represented’ groups – nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, genders; specifically, how do you see this development in the (harsh) light of the ‘literary’ history of New Zealand and/or Aotearoa national identity?

WC   The rise of such poetries, and arts, so focused has been quite dramatic in New Zealand, especially so far as the larger ‘under- represented’ groups – women and Maori – in the society go. It’s clearly been more pronounced than the rise of such groups themselves. I applaud both. They are I believe irrevocable, necessary and for the good. They’ll set the agendas for this small culture for a long time to come.  The rise has been more pronounced in the arts because the power structures have supported, and in good measure sought it. Indeed, I think these groups need to be increasingly suspicious of the kind of abrupt or easy acts of inclusion and affirmative action as found in the recent Penguin anthologies of New Zealand poetry, or the current exhibition at the National Art Gallery, Kohia Ko Taikaka Anake (‘The largest exhibition of contemporary Maori art ever organised’). Suspicious as to what they amount to. Such acts necessarily favour ideologies of transparency and essentialism which deny criticality (by reducing it to ‘content’, and number games), and co-opt it to a resurgent nationalism, which for example and most recently would parade Goldie’s sentimental racism as a icon of bi-culturalism.

GLENN O’BRIEN (for Interview)   OK., what else should we talk about?

WC   Oh, please! You’re the interviewer!

GOB   People always talk about what they want to talk about anyway. Come on, help me out

WC    Help you out! Gimme a break! I’ve been working all day, honey.

GOB   Listen, it’s after midnight New York time.

WC    I’ve been working all day. I’ve been working all week. Some holiday this turned out to be, everyone else’s down at the beach...

GOB   Why don’t you just tell me some good lies that can be picked up by the tabloids. Tell me about your Lesbian affairs.

WC   I think you’ve mistaken me for somebody else.

*In order of appearance: George Lawson, Mary Akashah, Julian Dashper, Brigid Berlin, Gianfranco Mantegna, Susan Bee, Tony Green, Charles Bernstein, and Glenn O’Brien.

**This question was posed in the Steam Room at the Auckland Tepid Baths. 

First published in Landfall, 177, March 1991.