edited by Jerome Rothenberg & Steven Clay


by Jerome Rothenberg

[The following was written for the First Annual Conference in Memoriam Eric Mottram, London, September 19, 1997, & has been revised several times since.]

is strange to begin—as indeed we have to begin—in Eric Mottram's absence. For myself this is the Ūrst time that I've been in London since his death & the Ūrst time that I'll be speaking to his interests & not have him here to listen & respond. Eric was for me one of the great listeners & responders—a quality that entered into his own work as a poet & as a writer on poetry & on the larger world of which poetry is a part—a small part maybe but crucial for those of us for whom it's been an entry to that world at large. With Eric, as with few others, I could speak at length, because he gave the sense that what we said between ourselves could matter & that he was there to hear.

My intention today is to return to an interrupted part of a longer conversation that we had back in 1981. I can do that because Gavin Selerie was there with a tape recorder & with the intention, which he soon carried out, of transcribing the talk & publishing it in what was then his series of Riverside Interviews. I had been very much connected until then—through the anthologies & through my own readings & performances—with a re-exploration of the oral bases/the oral sources of our poetry. And what Eric took as an opening for our talk was a statement of mine that I was (or thought I was) "much more honest as a writer than a speaker." The reference was back to an earlier "dialogue" with William Spanos in Boundary 2, which Eric described as having to do "with this whole problem of the relation between oral poetry & the text." Having raised a question about what had been & became even more fertile ground for me—the idea, I mean, of writing & the book, which I had been exploring in some sense since Technicians of the Sacred—both of us passed it by in favor of a discussion of various aspects of oral poetry "past & present [& to come]." And when the conversation got around—as it later did—to matters of ethnopoetics & ethnicities, there was a passing suggestion of the book concern in relation to the Jewish sources I had been exploring in Poland/1931 & elsewhere, but mostly to point out that the Jews, while founding much of their mystic tradition in oral law & a poetics of the voice, were preeminently the people-of-the-book. So the book, again, was a point of contrast rather than departure.

Eric, in other words, had given me an opening & I had let it pass without making it clear (as Eric was perhaps pushing me to do at the beginning) that the book & writing had always been part of my poetics & even my ethnopoetics & was at that moment becoming—if anything—still more overt. To begin with, I was at the time of the Riverside interview the author of some 27 books of my own poetry, eight other books of translations, & seven (mostly very large) anthologies & assemblages. And it was alongside these—& not apart from them—that I had, like most of us, been entering deeply (I thought) into performance as a strategy of voice & body. With that came what I described to Eric as an attempt to "desanctify & demistify the written word"—initially by Ūnding ways to present or represent those vast areas of language art that seemed—everywhere—to precede or (often) supercede the act of writing. At the same time I began—but possibly more slowly—to recognize the similarly diverse origins & possibilities of writing & that a "symposium of the whole" (in Robert Duncan's phrase) would also involve a mix & possibly a clash of writings. It was as if, in place of the Bible, say, as a singularly Ūxed text, we were to view it now as the multiple books (the biblia, plural) that it actually was. And all this, in the contemporary context, against the resurgence of those (fundamentalists & others) who pretend to a single book, not in Mallarmé's sense but in that of the tyrannies from which they've descended & which they threaten to restore.

Still, for me, the central impulse in Technicians of the Sacred, the Ūrst of the big assemblages that I've continued to construct, was to bring together a display of those ("oral") poetries that seemed to exist apart from writing & the book. This was the start of my ethnopoetics as such, but even within that there were spaces, inevitably, in which the source poems were themselves in written form—the Egyptian Book of the Dead, say, or the Chinese Book of Changes, among the works that were the most immediately familiar. And there was also an intuition, a sense that began to play itself out, of writing like speech as some kind of universal (human) constant. So, in Technicians, there was, among other entries, a section early in the book called "The Pictures," with examples of pictographs & glyphs from a number of diverse cultures (largely American Indian & South PaciŪc), paired in the commentaries with works by visual & concrete poets of our own place & time. And elsewhere in the book I was able to include Mid¯e [healing] songs & picture-songs from the Ojibwa Indians, nsibidi [secret] writings from the Ekoi in Africa, & pictorial songs & narratives from the Na-Khi "tribe" in China.1 Accompanying commentaries [as later also in Shaking the Pumpkin] called attention to the thin line between "writing" & "drawing" that made it "hard [as I said there] to keep the functions separate or to assert with any conŪdence that writing is a late development rather than indigenous, in some form, to the human situation everywhere."2

When Dennis Tedlock & I founded Alcheringa in 1971 as "a Ūrst magazine of ethnopoetics" [of the world's tribal poetries], the emphasis, again, was on "poetry made in the mouth," but our pages were open as well to a range of traditional & early written art: paleolithic calendar notations, Egyptian & Mayan hieroglyphs, recastings of Bible & other Jewish bookworks, Old Norse runes, & Navajo pictographs (among others). I was also working by the middle 1970s on A Big Jewish Book (later revised as Exiled in the Word), where I could focus on the written alongside—& drawing from—the oral, & with a strong awareness of how central the "book" was in that highly charged, sometimes over-determined context. (Earlier anthologies of the 1970s like America a Prophecy & Revolution of the Word also put a high emphasis on the written, including—most surprisingly I thought—instances of both traditional & modern [experimental] alternatives to our normative ideas of books & writing.) This was still before the 1981 discussions with Eric & with Gavin Selerie, as was the founding, after my separation from Alcheringa, of a successor magazine, New Wilderness Letter, in which I promised as editor ("a poet by inclination & practice") to pursue poesis "in all arts & sciences...[&] not [to] be specialized & limited by culture or profession" but to enlarge the context of poetry as "a report, largely through the creative work itself, of where that process [of poesis] takes us."

That in brief was the situation in June 1981, a year before the appearance of the book issue of New Wilderness Letter (about which, more later) & during the preparation of Symposium of the Whole as an anthology of writings by poets, anthropologists & others "toward an ethnopoetics." In the latter work Diane Rothenberg & I were attempting as co-editors to open from the more specialized emphasis on oral poetry to a still wider view that would encompass writing & the book as well, along with other forms of visual poetry & language (that from the cultures of the deaf a prime example) for which there was as yet no actual poetics. By the time, then, that I returned to London in December 1982 & was interviewed by Gavin Selerie alone, the concern with writing & the book took up (for me) a signiŪcant part of the conversation. And since I certainly saw Eric then, I feel quite certain that these concerns were also part of what was further said between us.

Looking back at the conversation with Selerie, I'm aware that the point of departure for me—the emblematic point at least—was in the poetry, the shamanistic veladas, of the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina. For her—& this was a matter that had been made clear to us by her American translator Henry Munn—there was no actual practice of writing (or reading) but the words of her extraordinary chants were opened to her in the form of a great Book of Language that was given to her in her Ūrst empowering visions & that, although she remained unlettered, she was (in her own mind) fully able to read & to give back as song. In light of this & of my own meeting with her a few years before, I went on to speak of myself as a writer & of writing as a primal human function:

Increasingly [I said to Gavin] I've had to assert that what I'm involved in is not a denial of the powers of a written language, because that—the written language, writing—would be a part of the exploration also. Over the last couple of years, in fact, I've been trying to explore the uses of writing in cultures that we usually speak of as oral, non-literate, pre-literate, & so on. And the conclusion I'm drawn toward is that writing in some sense is also universal & shared among all peoples. Therefore, when human beings developed as human beings at some point in the far past—at the point where we became human beings we were probably already using some form of speech— & along with that, I would think, some form of writing, art-making, & so on.

And I added (by way of conclusion): "It's all very old."

In that sense, as Eric clearly knew, the book (taken as the "scene," the place in which the writing comes together) was the hidden side of my ethnopoetics, as the city was (for me) the scene of the "new wilderness" named as my project of that time. And as the talk with Eric & Gavin & others helped all of that develop, I found a number of ways over the next two or three years to let it come to surface. Symposium of the Whole had appeared by middle 1982, & in the aftermath of that we were organizing (through the University of Southern California in Los Angeles) a second international symposium on ethnopoetics for the spring of 1983.3 With that, as with the book from which we took the conference's name, the idea was not simply to recapitulate what had been said before, but to bring the discourse on ethnopoetics into areas from which it seemed to have been set apart. Writing & the book clearly marked off one such territory—aided in this instance by the visit of Edmond Jabès, whom I had brought to San Diego as a visiting Regents scholar. (Others who were there were Robert Duncan, David Antin, Marjorie Perloff, Michael McClure, Roger Abrahams, Wai-lim Yip, Hugh Kenner, Paula Gunn Allen, Nathaniel Mackey, J. Stephen Lansing, Clayton Eshleman, Wendy Rose, David Guss, & Barbara Tedlock.) I had already by this time lifted for my own uses Jabès's aphorism that "the book is as old as Ūre & water" & had juxtaposed it with Tristan Tzara's contention that "thought is made in the mouth." So those two were now, in my mind at least, the axes for our discussions of an expanded ethnopoetics.

In the year preceding the symposium, then, I had opened the concern with writing & the book in a still more deliberate way—co-editing with David Guss a book issue of our magazine New Wilderness Letter. The work had by then accumulated—including preliminary work for the international symposium—& had been accelerated by Michael Gibbs's retranslation & visual commentary on Mallarmé's Le livre, instrument spirituel. The push provided by the Mallarmé (as I later wrote) "not only brought us back to the Ūrst modernist breakthroughs but also provided a context in which those breakthroughs corresponded to an ancient sense of book as sacred object." All of this—for me—was now no longer hidden but brought to surface—abetted also by the California visit earlier that year of the Peruvian curandero Eduardo Calderķn Palomino, whom David Guss had led into a useful discussion of his mesa (his healing altar) as an assemblage of objects that could be read the way one reads a book. The rhyming with Mallarmé was perfect—like that of Mallarmé with María Sabina—& suggested a series of links, a web of ancient & modern possibilities that could be woven into a new display or book. And the gathering itself—a small anthology of works immediately to hand—ranged between new & old (deeply traditional & startlingly avant-garde), in such a way (I thought) that we could "grasp the actual potentialities of writing (as with any other form of language or culture [& by so doing] could extend the meaning of literacy beyond a system of (phonetic) letters to the practice of writing itself."4 In concluding my "editor's note," I wrote:

It is our growing belief (more apparent now than at the start of the ethnopoetics project) that the cultural dichotomies between writing & speech—the "written" & the "oral"—disappear the closer we get to the source. To say again what seems so hard to get across: there is a primal book as there is a primal voice, & it is the task of our poetry & art to recover it—in our minds & in the world at large.

That recovery, of course, is also a matter of demonstration & of coming to understand the implications of where such a view might lead us. As such it is a process that those like Eric or myself or any of us here might help to start but without the real hope or even the desire to bring it to conclusion.

A decade & a half has passed since then, during which time the books have multiplied for all of us. For myself I have been lucky not only in the normal run of book publication but to have joined with book artists like Ian Tyson (a longtime companion in this work) & Barbara Fahrner, Walter Hamady, Steven Clay, & others in the making of particular works that correspond to their ideas of where the art of books might take us. I have also worked with Pierre Joris on two volumes of an end-of-century assemblage, Poems for the Millennium, as a work drawing from the writings of the last 100 years & more—both those that work from a demotic spoken base & those that draw on visible language & the written word. (That there is often no clear division between the two—both the works & the makers of the works—is likely an obvious point but still a point worth making.) With regard to the book & writing (at their "limits") the work that opens the century for us is Mallarmé's—both the notes for his Le Livre & his promethean Coup de dès of 1897. (A page from William Blake's Milton: Book the Second is the actual Ūrst volume opener in a section called "Forerunners.") This focus—most of it book-referential—is followed up in the experiments of Futurists & Dadaists, but also in exemplary works by those like the "outsider" writer/artist Adolf Wölūi & the master of the collage-book Max Ernst, as well as in an ethnopoetic Ūnal section that draws from a range of works —both oral & written, ancient & modern.

The second volume is dedicated to Eric Mottram & attempts—with probably "unpardonable" omissions—to bring the work into the (almost) present.5 The volume, at over 850 pages, is both long & complex, but one of the dominant thrusts is to deliver the sense—as far as can be done within anthology constraints—that poets will often write not only for the single (visible) page but with an idea of the poem as an extended work or book. (Jabès with his lifelong Book of Questions would be a case in point, but only one among many.) On its strongly visual side, however, the Millennium Two book includes works by Michaux, Cage, Mac Low, Cobra artists Christian Dotremont & Asger Jorn (but also other Cobra artist-poets such as Karel Appel, Gerrit Kouwenaar, & Pierre Alechinsky), Robert Filliou, a whole range of concretists (Eugen Gomringer, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Emmett Williams, Seiichi Nikuni, Ilse & Pierre Garnier, Haroldo & Augusto de Campos, & Karl Young, whose "bookforms" had earlier appeared in New Wilderness Letter), Hannah Weiner, Kamau Brathwaite, George Maciunas, Bob Cobbing, Steve McCaffery, Carolee Schneemann, Tom Phillips, Clark Coolidge (in collaboration with Philip Guston), Cecilia Vicuņa, & Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Along with these come chapter-length excerpts from text-centered works composed as books & not compendia by poets such as Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Jacques Roubaud, & Lyn Hejinian, among many others. And there is also a section, "Toward a Cyberpoetics," going back to visual/verbal machine works by Marcel Duchamp & Abraham Lincoln Gillespie & up to computer-generated texts by Jim Rosenberg & John Cayley—as a starter.

I have no theory as to where all of this may lead us, though some sense of theory (neither "critical" nor "French" but very much, I hope, my own) must underlie all that I'm saying. Still I feel it's close to whatever basis for a poetics Eric Mottram was pursuing in his art & thought. The work continues of course, as it has to, & over the last year—but no longer able to share with Eric—I've supervised the republication (by Steven Clay & Granary Books) of the New Wilderness Letter book issue—now an independent volume called The Book, Spiritual Instrument. And looking ahead (& very much at Clay's instigation) I've embarked on another anthology project: a wide-ranging book of writings on "the book," taken in some sense as an extension of what The Book, Spiritual Instrument was attempting with those materials that were then immediately to hand. (This is the difference, then, between a magazine & an anthology.) It is in this context that we hope to explore more fully the points at which a poetics & an ethnopoetics of the book & writing come together or illuminate each other. And we want at the same time to expose the material bases (ink & paper, manufacture & dissemination) of those ends to which the work of Mallarmé was leading.

There will be no limits here to what we might include—of books that have been made & books that have still to be imagined. I believe in this regard that there is also a future of the book—as an extended & self-contained compendium of (visible) language—& that the emergence of new technologies—new cyberworks I meant to say—is not a threat to our identity as poets & book people but a new aspect of it that can & will enhance all that poesis is or ever has been. In much the same way, I no longer believe, if I ever did, that the book or writing had—in some earlier time—destroyed orality or made the human voice obsolete. The book is as old as Ūre & water, & thought is made in the mouth—as it is also in the hands & lungs & with the inner body. If that was our condition at the beginning, it will be also in the end.

A FINAL NOTE. In making such a book-of-the-book we have been able to draw in the Ūrst instance on a range of discursive writings that deal with one or another aspect of the book & writing. Here the many recent books, artist's books, & essays of Johanna Drucker need immediate mention, along with others in roughly the same (largely contemporary) territory by Michael Davidson, Marjorie Perloff, Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, Renée & Judd Hubert, Jerome McGann, & (in their new historical anthology of alternative forms of languaging, Imagining Language) Jed Rasula & Steve McCaffery. Some of these we have included in the Ūnished volume, & some not; & we have reinforced the inclusions with critical & philosophical writings by thinkers like Jacques Derrida & Maurice Blanchot, but also by poets & artists like Anne Waldman, Michael Davidson, William Everson, Keith A. Smith, & Karl Young—the last three engaged as well in printing and book production. (Short poems or excerpts from poems by poets like Whitman, Stein, Jabès, & Khlebnikov serve a similar function.) Such works, evoking positions & preferences across what we think of as a wide artistic spectrum, appear within our opening section of pre-faces or at strategic points elsewhere in this volume.

It is our sense—mine certainly—that the practitioners—the writers & the book-makers themselves—are the key to any future poetics of the book. Accordingly we have included two large sections in which the points of reference are to speciŪc artists & poets in the aftermath of Blake (our pre-eminent poet-of-the-book). In the Ūrst of these sections ("The Opening of the Field," with title after Robert Duncan), the inclusions start from Blake & run through the avant-garde movements of the 1920s & 1930s: the self-constructed fascicles of Emily Dickinson (in Susan Howe's accounting); the Mallarmé notebooks & plottings called collectively Le Livre; the Blaise Cendrars/Sonia Delaunay Prose of the Transsiberian (rising to the height of the Eiffel Tower); the rough-hewn books of the Russian Constructivists & the liberated pages of the Italian Futurists; Marcel Duchamp's boxed notes & drawings; André Breton's musings on the germinal collage-books of Max Ernst; & writing as an act of violence & conjuration in Artaud's works on paper—what Agnès de la Beaumelle speaks of, aptly, as his "spells & gris-gris." And in the concluding work in this section, Jerome McGann runs through a range of English-language sources—William Morris, Walter Pater, Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, Bob Brown—as early practitioners of book & page art, & then moves on to Susan Howe as an exemplar of its carry-over in "postmodern" writing.

But before we make our own way to the "postmodern," we insert a central section ("The Book Is As Old As Fire & Water"—from the Jabès line quoted above) in which we offer alternative ways of writing & of making books, not "modern" or "experimental" in conception but drawing from a range of times & places different from our own. These deliberately but not exclusively focus on traditions of the Indian Americas—threatened for centuries but never totally eradicated. As opener we are able to go back to a poem—recovered—from the pre-Conquest Aztec poet Nezahualcoyotl in celebration of those "painted books" that were later destroyed by the conquering missionary zealots. Even more striking at present is the reconstitution of the old Mayan writing systems, on the basis of which Dennis Tedlock offers a Ūrst attempt at a translation that reveals the underlying poetics of the classical inscriptions. In two related works, Walter D. Mignolo probes the range & character of "the book in the new world," & Henry Munn shows how a tradition of the book underlies the oral poetry & visions of the contemporary Mazatec shaman-poet ("woman of words"), María Sabina.

Apart from this Indian-related framework, the range available to us has been enormous & our selections necessarily restricted—from Nancy Munn's description of forms of writings/drawings in sand among the Walbiri people of Australia to Jean Franįois Billeter's account of Chinese writing viewed in its own terms as a unique & particular art; Roland Barthes' approach to "the Japanese theatrical face" as a surface that isn't painted so much as written; Toshi Ishihara and Linda Reinfeld's interpretation of a well-known Japanese "anthology" in the form of a boxed game of poem cards; Martha L. Carothers's bringing together of traditional "novelty books" ("pages or pictures that fold out, revolve, slide, move, slat-dissolve, pop up, or are die-cast in special shapes") with their avant-garde counterparts; a discussion by William J. Samarin of "glossographia" as the written equivalent to the pentacostalists' more familiar "speaking in tongues"; kabbalistic readings of the night sky as a book of shifting letters ("Celestial Alphabet Event") & of the creation of the world as itself an act of writing (Sefer Yetsirah); & a similar account of language & creation from the Dogon thinker Ogotemmęli.

The final section of our gathering is called "The Book To Come" (after Blanchot's essay on Mallarmé, also included) & covers the latter part of the twentieth century—the second great awakening both of experimental writing & of the artist's book as such. (It is with relation to its "postwar" emergence in particular that Johanna Drucker writes: "In many ways it could be argued that the artist's book is the quintessential 20th-century artform.") In approaching this second period, we have decided, very deliberately, to avoid hard & fast categories of books & book-makers—except as they turn up in the writings of the artists we're presenting. We do however see the period as one in which—more than ever—artists & poets took control of their own work apart from the nexus of dealers & markets. Among the earliest of these we foreground Dieter Rot[h], whose self-made books & single sheets of text broke open older conventions of print & book design; Bob Cobbing, a master poet of the "democratic multiple," whose oeuvre, utilizing mimeograph, xerox & offset, inches today toward a thousand books as publisher & author; Ian Tyson, among those independent artists of the book who continue to work with Ūne print & painterly, sometimes sculptural, surfaces, in an ongoing interplay of words & images; and Jess, whose collage-book O!, originally published in a cheaply printed offset edition by my own Hawk's Well Press, we are reproducing in its entirety. As part of a continuity from Max Ernst's bookworks, among others, O! rhymes as well with Tom Phillips's A Humument—the latter a new form of collage (or de/collage) in which old texts are pared away & painted over, to let new texts (& images) emerge.

As Drucker's essay, "The Artist's Book As Idea and Form," presents a linkage between modern & postmodern artist's books, that by Thomas A. Vogler points to numerous examples of new & hybrid forms—"books" that areSemphatically not books, but rather Obook-objects,' physical objects that trope on every conceivable aspect of Othe book,' from the conventional codex format of the mass-produced commodity to its semiotic functions as the instrumental embodiment of cultural authority in the West." Alongside Vogler's numerous examples—works by Kenneth Goldsmith, Greely Myatt, Helen Lessick, Marcel Broodthaers, Buzz Spector, Byron Clercx, & Patrick Luber, among others—we have added several seminal works, some of which emphatically changed the surface of writing from the familiar book-as-codex to other vehicles or conduits for visible language: Alison Knowles's monumental Book of Bean, Allan Kaprow's Words, Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden at Little Sparta, Carolee Schneemann's Up To and Including Her Limits, Barbara Fahrner's encyclopedic Kunstkammer Project, & Faith Ringgold's French Collection narrative quilts. These are capped by Xu Bing's A Book from the Sky, an extraordinary contemporary work of glossographia based on traditional Chinese writing, & by Charles Bernstein's concluding essay, which both traces a history of writing in the west & takes on the major shift into virtual (as contrasted to material) text art in our age of audio/video/ digital reproduction & internet dissemination.

To conclude, then, is to say that here as elsewhere there is no conclusion. "Of the making of books there is no end," as the old scriptural saw once put it (while reifying a single book as the unalterable word-of-god), and Mallarmé in his modernist détournement: "Everything in the world exists in order to be turned into a book." It is my sense—at least in our common work as poets—that the movement, the dialectic (to use a once fashionable word) is between book and voice, between the poets (present) in their speaking & the poets (absent) in their writing. That is to say, we are (up to & past our limits) full & sentient beings, & free, as Rimbaud once told us, to possess truth in one soul & one body. For myself, as I surely would have said to Eric Mottram (or he to me), the return to the book is the step now needed to make the work complete.

—Paris/London 1997
—Encinitas 1999


1. A still larger presentation of such primal writings/drawings appears in the revised edition of Technicians of the Sacred, in which I open the distribution of poetries to include the European.

2. A deeper level of our ethnopoetics was of course its exploration of a poetry imbedded within the life of a people or community &, through its traditional poets as well as its modernist experimenters, a poetry that served as a primary vehicle toward the experiencing of an expanding range of actual & possible realities.

3. The Ūrst symposium on ethnopoetics, possibly more restricted in scope, had taken place eight years before at the Center for Twentieth-Century Studies in Milwaukee.

4. The works in the book issue, broken along the lines of modern & traditional, included on its experimental side, Karl Young's sculptural "bookforms"; Alison Knowles's The Book of Bean, a monumental walk-through work with accompanying remarks & "auto-dialogue" [reūections] by her & by George Quasha; & assorted writings & commentaries by Jabès, Dick Higgins, Jed Rasula, David Meltzer, Gershom Scholem, & Herbert Blau; & on its ethnopoetic side, the Eduardo Calderķn mesa; an essay by J. Stephen Lansing on "the aesthetics of the sounding of the [written] text" in Balinese performance, excerpts from Dennis Tedlock's translation of the Mayan Popol Vuh that spoke speciŪcally of books & writing, Tina Oldknow's offering of a Muslim practice using written (sacred) words removed from their material base & decocted in an herbal mixture ("Muslim Soup"), & Karl Young's speculative analysis of the Mixtec Codex Vienna, one of the surviving illuminated books from ancient Mexico. Along with this, there was a series of striking photo portraits by Becky Cohen, in which a number of American poets were shown in the act of reading, making of the book (as it were) "an instrument of performance."

5. The dedication reads "For Eric Mottram poet, friend, & teacher" & follows with a quote extracted from a poem of his: "that all created life be rescued / from tyranny decay sloughed for a share / in magniŪcence  hoof thunder  silence of / pines & birches across the taiga."

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