As part of a research project on the relationship between innovative poetry and experimental dance practices, Scott Thurston interviewed Sally Silvers and Bruce Andrews about their collaborations with language and movement after seeing Clarinda Mac Low's "40 Dancers do 40 Dances for the Dancers" in September 2012 (read his review for CC here). The conversation covers Silvers’ participation in 40 Dancers, her entangled collaborative practice with Andrews and a potted history of the downtown arts scene in the eighties and beyond.
This interview took place at Sally Silvers’ apartment in the East Village, New York City on 14 September 2012.
Scott Thurston: I was interested to ask you, Sally, about how you experienced preparing and relating to the material for your contribution to 40 Dancers [an evening curated by Clarinda Mac Low] last night and how it relates to your previous work with The Pronouns, if at all?
Sally Silvers: Well, actually I went back to my original notes from 1982 and tried to remember what they had meant. I had two large industrial spools instead of two balloons at that time. I had one strapped around my waist and one that I carried under my arm. I had very minimal instructions for what to do, but I tried to recreate it as best as I could. The first time I did it was also on an altar at Washington Square Church, and that’s why I chose the altar at St Mark’s for this performance. I was trying to follow those notes from ‘82. What I had done was single out what I thought was the main verb in each line. Then I tried to devise a movement sequence based around that word, keeping it within its context. Like ‘boiling delicate things’ — my word would be the ‘boiling’, but then I would try to have something of the aura of ‘delicate things’. I wouldn’t try to do ‘delicate things’ particularly, but use what I could conjure from concentrating on a single word per line, mostly the verbs. I’ll go get my notes...
Bruce Andrews: Recently we did a five-minute collaborative piece to celebrate Jerry Rothenberg’s eightieth birthday. I was going to base my text on Jerry’s work and then we realized there are almost no verbs in his poetry! It’s mostly all noun-based. I ended up having to take almost the entire text from his anthologies, which had always been my entry into Jerry’s world, but Sally was able to find enough verbs in Jackson.
SS: [leafing through file] I have the original program from ’82 and I have the poster. I did two pieces -- I did ‘Disgusting’ as well. So [tracing her notes], I did ‘boil’, then ‘delicate things’ and then I had a whole sequence of what boiling meant. Then, I had ‘being in flight’, ‘coming across art’, ‘competition’, ‘rod under cushion’, and I had one movement for that -- sitting on my hands and trying to walk on the ground. Then I had elastic, trying to emphasize that one of the spools was attached to me with elastic by jumping up and down and then sliding it off. ‘Give an egg’ — I actually forgot this part last night! -- and then I did the house. ‘Eyes and mouth’ was the body builder thing I did with the barbells. Then ‘break something foolish’, so then that was the pop before I tried to stomp on the spools and break them basically. Clarinda gave us each a little thank-you note and she drew the spools on mine. [ST [reading card]: Missing partners!]
BA: It looks like this was the retrospective concert for his sixtieth birthday so it was exactly thirty years ago. The only dancers on here are you, [Steve] Paxton, Simone [Forti] and Kenneth King.
SS: Is Carolee Schneemann there?
BA: Did she dance? Yes, Carolee was on there but I’m not sure what she did.
ST: I was thinking about the relationship between the kind of process that you’ve just demonstrated through your notes, Sally, (taking text that is written for dance, analyzing it, and translating it into a performance) and the kind of work that you’ve done together, where there is something quite different happening. The two might be structurally-related in that there is a movement response to a written text, but there is also a counter-response. When I was writing about ‘Crease’ I was thinking about the ‘live editing’ aspect, which I presume would describe what you were doing during that performance Bruce?
BA: The thing that didn’t fit was this notion of ‘live choreography’.
ST: Yes, I realized that that was wrong.
SS: Some people do refer to improvisation as live choreography, so it’s a little confusing.
BA: They refer to it as live composition, and that comes out of the music world too. But ‘live choreography’ is a thing that Sally developed as a practice for stage performance. I don’t think anybody else had done that before. It’s equivalent to my doing this live editing thing that nobody had exactly done either. Some people will spontaneously make stuff up while they’re at the microphone at a poetry reading, but that’s not live editing; that would be live poetry-making from scratch. Sally did a four-night event with a hundred some people involved at Roulette in Brooklyn last Fall. She put people together in teams with dancers, actors, roller-derby stars, burlesque performers and then gave them a choreographer and a theater director to work with to make something up on the spot. But, they had to discuss it in front of the audience so that the making of it would be the art event.
SS: The discussion includes how you see something, how you communicate to your performers, how your mind thinks about what you want to make, and having to say all that and demonstrate it out loud as if it’s the first rehearsal, not something that’s already been planned and figured out. It’s as if you’re making it right there with the dancers, but it’s supposed to be something that can be repeated. You give out certain kinds of instructions or movements to learn so that the audience sees how something progresses as a piece of composition that can then be performed even if it’s only thirty seconds.
BA: These were also people that Sally hadn’t worked with before. It wasn’t like a choreographer bringing her company in and having a rehearsal live, which some people do; it was all about trying to come up with something completely on the spot with no prior history with those performers.
ST: But there have been times when both of you have worked together where there has been a live choreographing situation and live editing as well?
SS: We do that when we do the Vision Festival.
BA: Usually only when you improvise, but I have done live editing with your live choreography. A few times at Construction Company, Sally would be at the front doing live choreography and talking to the dancers, and I would be in the back working up a text through my usual live editing process, picking up some of the language that Sally was using in the live choreography event and inserting it. Maybe a live choreography would typically be twenty minutes long and Sally would get one minute of material to present at the end. While she presented that, I’d be in the back at the microphone presenting my minute of material simultaneously with the movement, which had some interesting connections. We should do that again sometime! We haven’t done that in a while. (To watch Silvers and Andrews performing Crease together in 1999 click here.)
SS: I know!
ST: There’s an element of improvisation in the example you’ve just given, Bruce, in the sense that you were composing text on the spot as well as using materials that you’d already generated. But then I suppose it’s mediated because it’s written down and then processed.
BA: Right. That’s why I call it live editing. This is a rare situation where I’m actually writing something down. I’m just generating a little raw material to add to the raw material I came in with and then editing it and presenting it. So it’s always mediated some.
ST: Is that quite important for you — that you wouldn’t choose to explore that through improvisation of a text on the spot?
BA: I’ve found it isn’t disruptive enough. I like things to have more collision, more strangeness, more surprise. If I’m just making stuff up on the spot, it’s either too clichéd or it’s a little too continuous. The rapid shifts are not as possible because you get into a kind of flow.
SS: Bruce will generate some of his raw materials when he is watching dance. He’s somehow free-associating what he sees with something that brings words and combinations of words to mind, and then he’ll use those later in some other piece and divide them into different pieces of writing later when he’s more disassociated from the original thing that he was basing it on.
BA: ‘Unit Costs’ was based on that. That was all from material that I wrote at dance concerts. You know my book Give ‘Em Enough Rope? That’s all material generated while sitting through endless dance concerts!
SS: Sometimes I’ve used ‘Unit Costs’ in the studio later — after it was already composed — to structure some of the ideas I’ll have for a rehearsal that day. Like okay let’s work with this line in this place -- sort of like working with The Pronouns, but coming up with things with dancers instead. You know Bruce’s book Ex Why Zee? That has a lot of the different ways that we’ve worked with texts together. And, I’ve generated writing, I’ve generated movement ideas that were in that Aerial special issue on Bruce’s work (Aerial 9: Bruce Andrews 1999). I did a piece of writing which was made by coming up with movement instructions that were poetic -- not really direct instructions -- based on one of Bruce’s poems.
BA: That’s more like what I did with that piece we did for Jerry; trying to come up with lines from Jerry’s anthologies that had some kind of movement possibility connected to them.
SS: And we often trade selecting the text don’t we? I make the first cut of the things that I think I can relate to live, then Bruce will put them in some sort of order and rearrange them.
BA: I haven’t been able to do the reverse. I haven’t been able to edit her choreography!
SS: Oh?! Well, sometimes we sit with it and you’ll tell me, ‘I don’t like that.’
BA: It’s more like we used to sit and watch your tapes of improvising. Sally got a video camera not long after she started choreographing in the early eighties, so when she first started choreographing she would just make movement phrases in the studio and have to write them down to be able to remember them.
SS: I do some writing as well and some of those things got published in different magazines.
BA: I think your first poem was in Jennifer Moxley’s magazine, The Impercipient (The Impercipient 6 1994).
SS: Maybe. I was also in Rob Fitterman’s magazine (Object 1 1993). And Big Allis with some of those beginning instructions, when I used to write movement ideas down instead of videotape them (Big Allis 1 1989).
BA: When Sally got a video-camera she would just record herself in the studio. She would do an hour’s worth of improvising and then look at it later and pick out certain little bits of it that she liked to save. I remember looking at tapes with her and saying, ‘Oh, look at that. That’s cool, that’s worth saving!’ But, I don’t remember ever looking at choreographed material and giving you editorial advice.
SS: Occasionally you would say you didn’t like something. He’s sort of a strict person about being too dancerly.
BA: Don’t point your fucking toes, man!
SS: I guess it’s the avoidance of over-familiar dance moves that seemed to appear and reappear. The point of them seems to be a kind of transparency, instead of something that you can look at fresh. You’re not supposed to look at the movement, but at how well it’s being performed or how virtuosic it is. It’s leading you to some other meaning beyond the movement. This transparency, in other words, these idiomatic movements that are used over and over again from ballet, or modern dance...
BA: That’s transparency?
SS: I think it serves a similar purpose to the kind of writing that you call transparent, where words lead to a meaning that doesn’t focus on the words. You’re supposed to get over those words and just go straight to the meaning. I think using those same kind of moves over and over means that you’re just noticing that they’re composed in a pretty manner, or not, but you’re supposed to be looking at, or through, those movements to get to what the real meaning of that dance is.
BA: It’s the feeling!
SS: The feeling, or the relationship, or the story, or some other kind of narrative that the dance is about. Most people think the only way to get there is through idiomatic movements that everybody’s familiar with. The fact that I try to do something different than that... people think it makes it more abstract, but I feel my movement is more involved with the social condition of the body, the movements that people can make if they have some kind of articulation in their moves. They’re involved in some other level of how you identify the social body.
BA: It’s too clichéd, too familiar. I don’t think it’s just about transparently carrying you off outside of the text or the dance into some other thought world. I think it’s about recruitment.
SS: Recruitment of what?
BA: Recruitment of the person, of the audience member, of the reader into ‘poetry’ as an established field of appreciation.
SS: So it’s propaganda!
BA: Yeah, or like I’m being recruited into ‘daaance’, into the ‘daaance world,’ into appreciation of ‘daaance.’ ‘Oh what a lovely line! Oh, that’s poetry to me!’ The same with dance. So, for both of us that has a high ‘ick’ factor. It’s like recruitment. You’re interpellating people into this conservative followership. I’m sure, just like Robert Sheppard, this is why we have great suspicions about cults, or any kind of fancy recruitment-oriented stuff.
ST: So there’s still an edge there where your practices meet resistance?
SS: I think so, yeah. I’m not purposely challenging other than I think I’m offering something alternative.
BA: Of course you’re purposely challenging, come on... because it’s what keeps you interested. If it’s not challenging to them it’s not going to be challenging to us.
SS: Yes, it keeps me interested. But I can’t say that I want all tradition to die.
BA: No, tradition is raw material. But if it’s packaged in a way that foregrounds its recruitment appeal, then I get bored real quick.
SS: I don’t have any problems with the raw material aspect of practically any material.
BA: Ditto. But it’s tough. I’ve had pieces where I list words that I have never used in a poem, and then I’ll end up, well, now I have! Some of it’s just at the level of vocabulary, not even larger phrases or constructions, just literally certain vocabulary is just so hide-bound and clichéd and associated with old-fashioned poetry lovers. Fuck that!
ST: There’s a risk though isn’t there, potentially at least? It must mean that there’s more to it than that, otherwise if you are just simply resisting the obvious all the time, then wouldn’t that also become a restrictive mode?
BA: If I’m avoiding two per cent of traditional phraseology, nobody’s going to say ‘Man! Bruce, you’re really stuck on that ninety eight percent, aren’t you?!’ There’s a pretty capacious field to operate in. With movement it’s the same way. We got together in ‘78 and Sally did her first concert in 1980. We both saw ourselves through things going on in the music world too. It was Derek Bailey’s notion of non-idiomatic improvisation that fit with Sally’s interest in doing something movement-centered. And that’s what Language writing was all about — to get out of the idiom. Once you do that, you have the whole field of language, the whole field of movement. Sally started out calling herself a movement artist, just like when we started we were calling ourselves Language-centered ‘writers.’ Then you realize that the only people that are going to get interested in your avant-garde movement art or your avant-garde language art are the dance world and the poetry world.
SS: So, you have to adhere to their terminology.
BA: So then you end up being an experimental choreographer or an experimental poet. Instead of coming up with something that doesn’t involve itself with genre or idiom.
ST: I was struck last night by how there was still a resistance among quite a few in the audience to approach the work in the more mobile way that Clarinda wanted. People were determined to sit where they wanted to sit. It surprised me given what I’ve read about the history of this particular context. It made perfect sense to me that there wouldn’t be one way of viewing the piece.
SS: Clarinda was required to have seats for critics. That’s a stipulation that Danspace has.
BA: At very least for them to be able to put their coat and their bag down and not have to lug all their shit around, even if they were moving around.
SS: But I noticed most of them definitely got out of their chairs and were moving around. They weren’t sitting there on their thrones like, ‘it has to come to me.’
BA: I think it would have been a very boring event actually, even in a small venue. It was almost too big to be able to get close enough. Even if it had been in a small space, it wouldn’t have been a successful evening if we had fixed seating. It was just one thing after another, one three-minute piece after another.
SS: If everything was presented as a proscenium idea, I think the work may not have held up in the same way because it was meant to be snippets, [BA: Close.] and small song-length ideas. I think people were more interested in where it was and how people were gathered; that became part of what made it interesting.
BA: If it had been short pieces in a revue-like setting, maybe the ones I liked the best would have held up, but some not. They couldn’t sustain that with you sitting in your seat, looking at it. [SS: You needed to be more involved.] You would have come away thinking there were three or four good pieces, and ten that weren’t...
SS: ...instead of experiencing the whole evening in a way [BA: As a kind of swirl.] that was more about your own participation and your interest, your curiosity.
ST: I realized quite early on that I had anticipated it in a very different way. I had to let go of having my notebook with me because I couldn’t sit and write, but then I realized I actually wouldn’t have a problem remembering it [SS: Because everything happened some place.] because I was experiencing it as an ongoing development rather than as a series of discrete pieces. I was making a mental count to help me to remember what happened when. I didn’t realize the program actually had a list until I looked afterwards, but I could remember pretty much the whole thing without looking at it because the evening had become a series of enquiries all heading in the same direction.
SS: It created a spatial rhythm or flow, a three-dimensional rhythm by virtue of the way it used the space.
ST: Yes, exactly. I could remember it because of how it moved around the room, the sequence.
BA: Also, the audience was part of the architecting. It wasn’t like you were in a fixed position and then you could follow this flow of different spaces being used; you were making choices every time: How close do I want to be? Do I want to sit? Do I want to stand? Do I want to be on the side? Do I want to be right in the middle? And you could change your mind in the middle: No, this is too close, I want to be over here; I want to sit down now; I’m bored, so I’ll go sit down on the side and wait for the next one. You’re really making those choices as an audience, which you almost never get to do. You’re more like the cameraman in a film, deciding what lens to use, how close to get, what angle, what filters.
SS: It was a really great way to recreate that Judson participation that Clarinda’s history comes out of.
BA: You’re recreating the unexpectedness factor, which is hard to do with the movement itself. There’s almost nothing you can do on stage these days that we haven’t already seen. But then when you get to participate in the creation of unexpectedness as an audience member, you get more involved.
ST: Do you know of other people who are working with the kind of approaches to writing and movement that you have?
SS: Do you mean as a collaboration or separately?
ST: Both really.
BA: Not in combination. There’s certainly people doing it individually.
SS: Not that we know in New York.
BA: When we got together, I had a whole community of practitioners doing things that had influenced me who were still functioning, plus my peers and lots of younger people who were influenced by the whole Language poetics thing. But, that wasn’t true for Sally -- she was really just fucking out there. When she started choreographing fifteen years after Judson had ended, the influence of Judson had pretty much just turned into mush.
SS: Except maybe for the people who were the original practitioners and maybe the second generation like Kenneth King and folks. The new people coming up that were my age or younger were not that... interested. Even though there were lots of re-creations around that time, there was just no indication that Judson was still an influence. It was a very conservative time. It was the 1980s and Ronald Reagan had just come into power. AIDS was just coming into the big picture, lots of identity politics that were in resistance to what was going on in the country became very dominant. People became more interested in putting theater back into their work for direct social commentary. Movement took a second place to those things.
BA: Lots of autobiography, lots of narrative, lots of smoothed-out vocabulary, ballet vocabulary started to come back in.
SS: It started to be much more pluralistic and the resistance to that conservatism also created a kind of conservatism.
BA: I meant conservative aesthetically.
SS: Oh, ok. But it was conservative politically and then somehow in resistance to that, political work that’s in direct resistance seems to become... more conservative formally.
BA: People were trying to appeal to the pre-existing communities.
SS: Or help formulate them.
BA: There was a little too much of the pre-existing for our taste back then. Sally was operating much more alone. There was no institutional structure like there ended up being for the Language poets. There was no big rush of people into the academy that could pass on these more radical heritages. You’re in New York and you’re kind of out on a limb, which is probably one reason why we ended up doing more collaborative works. It wasn’t like Sally could just rocket to the top of the dance world given how radical her work was.
SS: Have you seen the films of Henry Hills? He did an experimental film documentation of what we considered to be the aesthetics that we were influenced by. So instead of having just the Judson Dance Theater, we felt like we had bits and pieces of several scenes like the music improvisation scene, the Language poetry scene, the experimental film scene and a little bit in the dance world (with me and Pooh Kaye and Yoshiko Chuma). He made a really compelling film documenting all those influences in his own radical way called Money (1985). He did other films with poets too.
BA: Plagiarism (1981), Money and Radio Adios (1982). He did three that involved poets and free-improvising musicians.
SS: And then he and I made two films together — dance films.
BA: One is called Little Lieutenant (1994), which was based on a John Zorn adaptation of Kurt Weill’s music from the Brecht/Weill play Happy End from 1928.
SS: And another one based on Pavlov’s dogs and science material.
BA: Who’s the Russian filmmaker? Pudovkin?
SS: He documented Pavlov’s experiments.
BA: They did a longer film called Mechanics of the Brain (1997), turning science experiments into dancing. It’s a pretty amazing film. Abigail Child and Henry were a couple. They, along with Sally, were the three people that created this building [The Segue Building]. Abby and Henry both have apartments on the sixth floor. They’ve broken up since then; Abby’s still here, Henry is now living in Prague, teaching experimental film. While he lived in the building, Sally and he did these films together. When did you move into the building?
BA: So they’ve been here almost twenty five years. Abby and Sally did a written collaboration about these issues. It’s in Abby’s book, which the University of Alabama published and I helped edit for them. We all go way back doing these kind of projects. We had a sense in the early eighties that there were some strong elements shared aesthetically between a group of people in the music world, a group of people in the dance world, a group of people in the poetry world, and a group of people in the film world. Maybe some connection to Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group, but we weren’t as close with them. We had this sense that we could operate outside of an established genre and do radical work. It all had this similar drastic juxtaposition, collage, disjunct, quick-cut — Henry and Abby’s films both back then were fast-cut, things changing drastically. Outside of the genre — that was true of the free-improvising music people. Right around the time we got to New York there was John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne and others — including Tom Cora who we started a theatre group with called ‘BARKING’. We were all just eager to work and collaborate with other people in other fields because our own genres were pretty sad at that point.
SS: I’m not sure all the people that we included in this aesthetics felt equally the same about this grouping. I think Henry did and you and I did, but I’m not sure all the people that he filmed were that eager to be in this grouping. I think it was a self-identified grouping for us more than it turned out to have a presence as an aesthetic.
BA: Well, we saw the connections, Zorn was interested, so was Tom. Some of the people in the free improv music scene were... even Donald Miller was just talking about putting us on, back in the eighties. Zorn’s connection with [Richard] Foreman was a classic instance of that. But then basically the problem with New York is that everybody’s operating at the top level of their fields and they tend to become very professionalised and career-oriented, out of a) necessity and b) because they’re that good. You do gravitate toward the institutional setting of your own field more and more as you get into it. So these youthful cross-weavings start to become more sparse.
ST: Do you still think there’s a role for work that resists that kind of professionalization?
BA: Sure, absolutely.
ST: It’s very striking to me because I know there’s quite an established history for the work that you are doing, and yet you’re saying that certain aspects of that have gone on to become more conservative, either formally or in other aspects.
Sally Silvers and Bruce Andrews
BA: I mention this about New York because it’s highly professionalised, but the closest thing you often see to something like this is art school kids. They come on out of art school, like in California somewhere or in the Mid-west and they’re all excited about all kinds of different fields. They don’t know what they want to do. Do I want to be a painter? Do I want to do conceptual art installations? Do I want to make music? Do I want to do performance art? Do I want to do big theatre spectacles? They don’t have to choose. And then if they don’t move to New York, if they don’t move to someplace where the professionalization impact hits them big time, then they can... They stay in a college town maybe somewhere and they can still hang out with people that they went to art school with, and keep doing these projects which are often kind of kooky, have a little theatricality, and they get into costuming and get into doing things that take forty-eight hour long performances. What the hell? They’re not choosing a career, they don’t have to network with the big boys in the music field. They have a band maybe which is more like an art project and they do little installations on the side. When I went out to Portland, Oregon I had the feeling that it was a bit like that. San Francisco was more like that during the so-called Language years...
SS: I guess I’m starting to feel a little more generational than that! At this point, I don’t really know what younger people are doing as much. I don’t really know how technology has changed the way people communicate with each other, with or about their work. I feel that just the sheer speed of social networking has changed people’s interests and things. I don’t really know even about the survival of our forms at this point. I mean, I know there’s tons of young people coming into the city eager to do stuff, coming out of all these colleges around the country, and coming here to find something or to participate in something. But I really don’t know how their heads are put together and what mechanisms they use to think about their work, or whether they’re even interested in history, or whether they just want to do their thing with their group of friends that they’re on Facebook with. That’s the way social interaction of art is happening now. I can’t really tell. I don’t feel plugged in enough.
BA: No, we’re not.
SS: We’ve had thirty years of work and more. And those same linkages or ways to hook in are not as available to us. Institutional structures are changing and multiplying or shrinking and having more problems or dispersing. It used to be all Manhattan-based for New York, now it’s all out in Brooklyn and Queens. Things have diversified so much with the internet, with what’s going on economically, and on all levels. I don’t really feel that I have a handle on it. I see what the institutions select, I can see what they’re selecting, who’s getting places, and I can see their work and try to imagine how’s that fitting into current aesthetics, but I feel like I’m looking at a small part of the elephant.
BA: But you also know what’s coming out of school these days.
SS: A little bit.
BA: That’s why I mention art school, because that’s where you don’t have to think, oh, I’m going to get trained as a dancer. Or I’m going to go take an MFA in writing in a poetry workshop. They’re not quite as specialised and they’re not as technique-oriented in the old way.
SS: I don’t know I could say that about dance.
SS: I feel that actually my generation which comes out of postmodern dance has really flooded into academia around the nation. Most of the people that were my colleagues in New York City have taken jobs elsewhere in academia. That used to be the kiss of death for your career because it took you out of the network. It’s more of an oral art form so to speak: you have to have a threshold of audience for it to even have any interest, to have critical interest or audience interest. And now a lot of those people are teaching out in Ohio, or Illinois or California. I think that’s going to have an eventual impact on the kind of work that gets taught. It has been more opened up to improvisational methods and to different ways of training the body.
BA: So you’re saying their students come to town?
SS: I can’t imagine that they’re not, that it’s not going to have some kind of influence.
BA: That could eventually have some change in the poetry world but it’s so slow, because the writing programs are generally dominated by really reactionary people, almost without exception.
ST: There was quite a range of ages of dancers participating last night. I don’t know how much that reflected a cross-section of activity in the city at the moment, but clearly there were different styles and approaches.
SS: I think that’s a reflection of Clarinda’s interest in alternative performance and the people that do that, as well as her age group and the people that she’s come up with. She feels — I think she makes a statement in the programme — that the people that were in this grouping of friends and community are people that have had a direct influence on her. So it wasn’t so much about their connection to Jackson or whether they knew Jackson or his work, but more how she felt they reflected her vision or look at the world that she came up in. So I think that was the criteria for selecting.
BA: The connections that we made when we were younger were partly geographic, people going to the same events we were — there was a lot more interaction. Now, it just takes so much time to arrange, partly because you get more and more into your own discipline and you don’t really know who’s doing what in these other fields to the same degree. They’re younger, and you don’t know them socially.
SS: Young people need to do their own thing. I mean Jackson actually was one person who stayed connected with a lot of younger poets, especially the Language poets.
BA: We kind of adopted him, gave him a life buoy really. He had very few connections in the poetry world. His world back from the early sixties — the Cage circle and all those performance things — that had [largely] dried up by then. That was a time when there was this organic, multi-disciplinary, social scene or community for people, but I think by the early seventies that had gone.
SS: I guess that’s about the age when people do disperse. They have families and they’re off and their artwork becomes more isolated. These communities become less accessible in some way and then the younger people are starting up their own things.
ST: Bruce, I was interested in asking you about the projects you did with Bob Cobbing. The first time I saw you read was with Bob Cobbing in London in about 1991, when you launched Voodoo for Anti-Communist Tourists.
BA: I probably proposed both of those books to him. Voodoo, which was a performance text from Barking and Both, Both.
ST: How did you become aware of Cobbing in the US?
BA: Before NY, before we started doing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, I don’t think I was much aware of Cobbing or the people around the Cobbing group. When the correspondence began to start among the people who then became the so-called Language poets, I don’t think that popped up. I think it was when we started to want to make the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project pretty comprehensive about what was going on. Our ears were wide open and we were looking to find things out and I’m not sure when that would have been — ‘76, ‘77. All of a sudden when you are aggressively looking to find simpatico things, you find, oh my god, there’s this whole scene in London...
SS: And then L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is English, so there’s going to New Zealand, Australia...
BA: I don’t even know how I could retrace that — when Ken [Edwards] started to do Reality Studios, when we became friends with Gilbert [Adair]. I’m not sure when that was, when I found out about Maggie [O’Sullivan]. That was a nice part of your interview about Maggie. The collaborations with Bob were really more like book project things — here’s some text, do you want to have some visual fun with this? So it wasn’t really like what I did with Maggie, it wasn’t a collaborative writing project. Maybe I could have done something like I did with Maggie, I don’t know if Bob worked quite that way.
ST: Robert [Sheppard] and he produced a collaboration which Robert and Patricia [Farrell] now perform. It’s called Blatant Blather Virulent Whoops!
BA: Has that been published? Is there a book of that?
ST: Yes, it’s a Writers Forum. I think it was one of the last things Bob did before he died.
BA: I think I also met cris cheek around this time, because he was friends with the young poets in Baltimore, who I got to be close with because I’m from Washington DC. cris was friends with Kirby [Malone] and Marshall [Reese]. I probably met cris before I even went to England for the first time. That might have been ‘75, ‘76.
SS: Once something becomes a relationship, then it’s hard to remember how it got started.
BA: Well, in poetry there’s a print aspect to it – when did that book come out? Did I see it then? When did he start that magazine? Because I was also aggressively sending work to magazines, right from the moment I started writing in 1969. I didn’t really know poets other than a few in the first half dozen years of my writing and publishing. I had people publish books of mine I never met, like the Waldrops. So that was my contact. I’m in grad school, studying to be an International Relations scholar, and my contact with poets is through the mail because I’m in towns where there’s little or no interesting poetry going on. And yet there’s all this stuff happening elsewhere that I was determined to aggressively find out about. I did this for the special issue of Toothpick, Lisbon and the Orcas Islands that I edited in 1973; it’s up on Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse site.
SS: You didn’t have any Brits though?
BA: I don’t think I knew about the Brits by then. I’m just trying to time it. I remember, when I first went to Canada in 1975 or 1976 to present a paper at an International Studies conference, I met Steve McCaffery. I remember sitting around Steve’s living room with his wife and Barry Nichol, b.p. nichol. Barry I think referred to ‘the day the letter from America arrived.’ I’d seen work of theirs in Open Letter from about ‘73 and wrote to Steve. They had no connection with their peers, my generation, in the US; I think that was the first. So, there were all these things just being pieced together in the mail. And only partly because we, and certainly that was true with Charles from the beginning, were just doing voracious vacuum-cleaning up of information, because we were going to front this journal which was just going to be about poetics, and almost nobody was doing this, and we just felt like we have to know everything. So then you just stick your head in the oven basically! And there’s time pressure — you can’t miss anything, you have to be in touch with everybody, you have to read everything. Because things were just popping up. It’d be like one person would have an interesting poem in a really conservative context. Almost all my work published back then was in conservative journals. You just would track — oh Clark Coolidge is published in this magazine, I’ll send them work. Or Larry Eigner or Mac Low — I did know about Jackson by the early ‘70s. There was just this aggressive hobby almost — it was all outside of academia too — of finding out about everything. Because it was on paper — it’s not like Sally wanting to find out about dance history or contemporary practitioners outside of town.
SS: There was no computer. Everything was in the mail. There was no YouTube. So you had to see things live to find out about them.
ST: Yes, although even now, I felt I needed to come here to New York to actually see some stuff. Because looking at it on YouTube I realized I’m missing most of it really. Well, you can get the idea, but then you need to see more to actually do something more substantial with it. Have you got any future plans to work together, is there anything that you’re working on at the moment?
SS: I’m starting a piece on Monday that’s a condensation of six Stephen Sondheim musicals that will have original music. I’m working with the Sondheim as a take-off point for relationships, themes and structures; inspiration basically. I’m using them as ways to look at the text and videos of what’s available in the public library of his work and trying to write down blocking ideas and movement choreography that other people have done. Then I’m going to go in the studio to make original movement material. Bruce will be in charge of the music and soundscape and there’s going to be some text.
BA: I’m generating text based on these musicals, which is kind of wacky!
SS: I don’t like it overloaded with text, but I find that when we collaborate one-on-one the overloading of text is not generally a problem because I can relate to it on levels that keep both things alive, instead of one thing overpowering the other.
BA: I can always hand out a booklet! To me, I like these collaborative situations partly because it gives me an excuse to generate a text. When I’m doing live-editing of a text, I’ll type that up afterwards, and I have a new text. I’m always very happy about that spur to productivity. I’m doing the music with Michael Schumacher, who has run Diapason, the sound installation gallery in New York, which is now out in Brooklyn. He’s a quite interesting composer. He has some CDs out on Phil Niblock’s label.
ST: I wanted to ask you, Sally, about your relationship to Simone Forti’s work.
SS: I think Simone is more of a catalyst for me as opposed to being directly influenced by her work. Taking that workshop with her on writing was a catalyst for me — compiling what I was thinking about becoming my choreography. I always admired Simone and thought she was an amazing performer. Some works of hers just blew my mind at the time and really changed my perspective on what could be a dance performance, but I don’t think that we share a sensibility in terms of what we’re interested in writing or how we’re interested in moving and the purpose of that.
BA: But Simone was still – at the time that Sally took this workshop with her before her first choreography – one of the only radical choreographers from the past left that was interested in non-dance movement.
SS: She’s really a torch-bearer I think for that.
BA: So, even though the non-dance-movement that you are each interested in is quite different, you both have the same lack of interest in modern dance vocabulary or ballet vocabulary.
SS: I don’t think she’s interested in doing dance. I don’t know what she feels about watching it, but she was never interested in studying it and becoming that kind of dancer, or training in order to become something other than the way her own body moved and interpreted. Anna Halprin was a big influence on Simone because she started the whole case for improvisation as a way to present work live. So that had a big influence on Judson altogether. But most of the original Judson people have gone on to their own more technical ways of moving or keeping a company together or retiring altogether. Steve Paxton is also one who’s still investigating movement.
BA: Because of the Contact thing?
SS: Yeah, but he also has other body studies that he does as performance that are beyond Contact.
BA: But he wasn’t in town. Simone was here. Trisha Brown had pretty much smoothed everything out and had a company. Lucinda Childs had gone away [SS: She was working with Robert Wilson.] and David Gordon was doing theater. Yvonne [Rainer] had stopped. So the whole Judson ethos was kind of gone.
SS: Well, Kenneth King and Douglas Dunn were still performing.
BA: Yeah, but King and Dunn were doing more and more balletic work, just like Cunningham was.
SS: Yeah, I think they were more influenced by Cunningham than by Judson in many ways, or at least the continuance of their work was more influenced by what Cunningham started. Judson gave them other ways to structure but I think they remained more interested in the technical body.
BA: I think Simone functioned for you in a similar way Mac Low would have for the Language poets. He was like the only old guy in town still holding the torch for extreme work.
ST: Cobbing was a bit like that in many ways. He left a big hole.
BA: Yeah, exactly. Very similar. We had a few more of us popping up at the same moment than Sally had the pleasure of, or the luxury of. But still Simone had that survivor radicalism thing.
SS: I’d say even though she lived in the city, she was more interested in the influence of nature in her work than what I was, or what Yvonne Rainer was interested in. She was interested in interpreting the world through movement and more natural sources like animal movement, sounds from nature.
BA: More like Maggie [O’Sullivan].
ST: That’s an interesting connection to make.
SS: Simone also had a place up in Vermont which was in the middle of nowhere – gardening and being outdoors and living very basically. So I think that has more of an influence on her interests – the natural world.
BA: And I think Pooh Kaye was like that too. She was one of Sally’s peers who worked with Simone and had a little bit more of that organic, quirky natural thing than Sally did.
ST: Although on the face of it Simone’s work is not quite where my poetics are at, it’s the process by which she’s working that really intrigues me.
SS: And writing has always been very important to her process. She really gathers her mind and where she is by doing a lot of writing. So that would be an interesting discussion as to how she relates those. She works with other people, but one of the great things about her is how she is able to improvise. She didn’t know what she was going to do last night. She was nervous.
BA: Just like Clint Eastwood! Let’s wing it!
SS: She comes up with much more than an empty chair though!
ST: She did have that text though which she’d written in the notebook. Talking to Simone after the performance, she said she’d written it earlier to prepare.
SS: I thought the text was from the original Pronouns material that she’d worked on with Jackson. But you might clarify that, because I didn’t really ask her that directly.
BA: I was just thinking that if she is used to having writing be this impetus for her choreography, it would be similar to you using movement as your impetus for writing poetry. You guys could have a lot to talk about on that.
ST: That’s what I’m hoping — that there’s going to be a way of really looking at that relationship through her practice.
BA: I don’t know what she thinks about the Five Rhythms!
SS: She’s probably never heard of them!
BA: I’m sure she would have heard of Gabrielle Roth.
ST: When Clarinda introduced me to Simone I mentioned I’d done Five Rhythms but I didn’t get a sense whether she knew it or not.
SS: I think it’s a good study for people who, like I say, want to feel less self-conscious. They want to move, they want to be physically active, but they don’t want to play basketball or go with the weights in the gym. They want to be more self-involved. They want to be creative physically the way they want to be creative mentally. But also to get over their self-consciousness that it has to be a performance, or that you’re supposed to look a certain way or have certain skills already.
ST: It’s given me a huge way in, in that regard.
SS: That’s what it looked like to me. As well as having people next to you that are in the same place.
ST: And being able to communicate in that way is what’s been interesting.
ST: I’m really grateful to you both for the conversation.
SS: It’s always good to revisit the archives in our head.
poetry, experimental, poetry and dance, Clarinda MacLow, collaboration