JUBILAT Interview

On April 5, 2001, the University of Pennsylvania hosted an all-day conference on the writing and art of Marjorie Welish, the papers and images for which have just now become a book, Of the Diagram: The work of Marjorie Welish. Prior to Word Group, to be published in the spring of 2004, Welish has published four full collections and several chapbooks of poems, including: The Annotated "Here" and Selected Poems (2000), Casting Sequences (1993), The Windows Flew Open (1991), and Handwritten (1979). Her poems have been anthologized in Best American Poetry 1988, Experimental Poetry in America 1950 to the Present: A Norton Anthology (1994), From the Other Side of the Century: New American Poetry 1960-1990 (1994), and Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (1998). Her writing on art has appeared in such magazines as Art in America, Bomb, Partisan Review, and Salmagundi, and a selection of her art criticism, Signifying Art: Essays on Art after 1960, came out in 1999. Her awards and fellowships have issued from the MacDowell Colony, the Fund for Poetry, Djerassi Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Howard Foundation. The Annotated "Here" and Selected Poems was a finalist for the 2001 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and teaches art and literary criticism and art history at Pratt Institute; she has also frequently taught poetry at Brown University. This interview was conducted by Robert N. Casper, Alexandra Forman, and Christian Hawkey in April, 2003.

You seem to move easily among your various practices—writing poems, writing criticism, making art, teaching, etc. Can you discuss the way those practices relate to or contrast with each other?

The intellectual mobilization necessary to prepare a lecture or to write an essay puts me in a creative state of mind. Often when I am in that state, formal schemes if not actual lines for poems or ideas for conceiving entire poetry or painting series, suggest themselves. Or, ideas concerning entirely different disciplines, say, pedagogy or urban renewal come to mind. Sometimes I jot these down; sometimes I just go around tormenting people with these ideas. When I began teaching at Pratt Institute, the architecture building was the subject of renovation. I turned to a colleague, an architect himself, and I asked why Pratt didn't design a course around renovating this building, Higgins Hall, and enlist an entire class to see the project to completion. His response was, wryly, "That's too logical." Later on I learned that Samuel Mockbee did such a thing in his home state of Alabama, for which he got a MacArthur. But Mockbee went further than I did: he enlisted his architectural classes to help him design houses for poor people, who actually got the houses to live in. But I'm showing you the grain of my mind, what will bubble up won't necessarily be a line of a poem, but it could be—or it could be a form, or a solution to an urban problem. All this shows is that the synergy that informs creative thought will find a language, style, or way of organizing matter into form. It doesn't occur to me to illustrate one with another, or to translate activities literally—although the more I think about it, the more I have in fact done some of that as I play with ideas. My mentality does instead tend toward conceptual fantasy— I fantasize a lot.

At a recent reading you spoke of how that synergy between teaching and writing recharges you rather than drains you.

Yes, although I remember saying, "If and when things are working well." It doesn't happen nearly as often as I think it ought. Also, I am convinced that more people experience this phenomenon than they realize. I believe there are different kinds of mentalities writing and that are creative. I'm very interested in the way people learn: Do they need an anecdote? Do they need an example? Do they need a generalization? Do they need an overview? Through that regard for differing modes of cognition one can begin to understand not only the intellectual but also the creative process: how the mind puts things together, takes things apart, explores its own world, sends out flares to unknown worlds.

You also mentioned the Vico writings that Wallace Stevens was reading—I was wondering what brought you to that work?

When I taught an immersion course on Stevens' poetry and poetics at Brown University—and lashed myself to the mast—I found it very interesting to approach Stevens through the romantic trope of the imagination on which he writes and rewrites. I sought a richer approach, a more complex thought than his stated poetics would suggest. Reading what he himself read was also a fresh way of reading him, and since I tend to have an interest in the critical register of things, it was a positive experience to go after that material, a process in part brought about since I had encountered B.J. Leggett's book Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory.

That material found its way into your poems as well.

Of course. I went happily into overdrive teaching that course. Meanwhile, I was working on a commissioned essay on Roland Barthes' concerns with Cy Twombly—and I probably had two other meanwhiles going on as well. It was the perfect situation for total psychic collapse—or, an opportunity to make the best use of those interference patterns. So I took a post inside my own mentality and wrote "Preparing the Length of an Arc" and "About a Length of an Arc," incorporating some Vico and some Stevens and some Twombly into my own thinking about language. Vico is a very interesting character: at the time he lived (the early 18th century) "thinking" about culture meant to apply rational and conventional categories, but he brought empirical thinking into his studies of the development of language. By observing his children acquiring language—making those early "P" and "B" sounds—he generated a mythology that incorporated a developmental theory of language. That laboratory of linguistic development found its way into my poems. Meanwhile, that the first line of "The Anecdote of the Jar" doesn't find anything but instead places something in nature and so orders a world from experiential untidiness made me an obsessive creature. I thought I found a key to a phenomenological Wallace Stevens—but also, one could say, to a structuralist one. Throughout the semester I wrote notes on this idea, some of which became imported into poems. And even beyond the semester I was writing to that problem. For example, the poem "Thing Receiving Road" proceeds in sections that approach placement by positing different textual strategies for it. And then through these strategies I create my response to Wallace Stevens' own placement. In one section the word becomes a kind of protagonist. Another deals with the word place in a very heterodox manner, as a concern of usage. I incorporate the word in different sentences, inflecting it with slightly different meanings in accordance to use. The last poem in that group proposes a simple sequence: a word, followed by a phrase, followed by a sentence. This procedure generated the poem that I let stand as a made thing that was found.

It's interesting you bring up that poem in the "Translation" section of The Annotated Here. In that section you address two influences—Stevens in "Thing Receiving Road'" as well as Williams in "The Black Poems"—in very different ways.

I was encouraged to juxtapose those and acknowledge my interest in both without compromise. I go about writing poems in different ways, and the approach to Williams was a perversity that I was challenged to do by Harry Mathews: an Oulipian challenge. So I elected to write in opposition to the very words given in the poem, in the source text. I took it on because satisfying that constraint is an impossibility. The poetic struggle was to find something antithetical but not, strictly speaking, oppositional. To put it another way, the nature of the oppositional response must shift from word to word because each word carries with it embedded contexts. What does it mean to say "the opposite of 'red'"? This is non-sense, logically speaking. Cultural assumptions come to shape our answers: black and white may be the pairing that we've been tutored to say, but in another context it could be black and red as antithetical or oppositional. But the chief impetus in choosing the Williams objectivist wheelbarrow was to think about the issue of antithesis or opposition in circumstances that do not yield that. This was that problem that made me happy.

To read the rest of this interview, please click here to purchase JUBILAT 7