“KLS: What you’re saying suggests that, in much the same way as ‘writing,’ for Derrida, has come to mean something more complicated and broader than sitting down to scrawl a pro forma note to the landlord accompanying the rent check, so ‘reading’ for you has become a more complicated and broader process than running an eye over the list of contents on the back of the cereal box while waiting for the morning coffee to drip through.

SRD:Yes – or rather: for me, reading has expanded to include all we do in such a situation, from taking in the fact that it’s a cereal box at all and not a novel by Coover or Perec; that it’s breakfast time; that we pay a certain kind of attention to what’s written on that cereal box and not another kind; the ways we might put that information to use, in terms of diet or medical situations; how we remember those contents for so long and not longer – indeed, the set of material forces that constitutes, finally, ‘the contents listed on the back of the box’ as we read them.”

(K. Leslie Steiner, “An Interview with Samuel Delany”, pp. 98–99, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1996.)

i have had to find it out for myself

“I am a different person with everyone I know. I would never have met the Jolivet I am with Jonquille had she not created him. This is strange. I have had to find it out for myself. No one has ever explained so clear and obvious a truth about people and identity to me.

Jonquille’s Jolivet was a surprise to me. Michel’s Jolivet a delight. I like Michel’s Jolivet as much as Jonquille’s Jolivet. I like Victor’s Jolivet, a splendid person I could not otherwise have been, Maman’s Jolivet, an uncertain but confident son, and Papa’s affectionate Jolivet.

Marc Aurel’s Jolivet is an imaginary and improbable character I have never met, called into intermittent being by Marc Aurel. In Trombone’s presence I do not exist. With Tullio I have the feeling that I represent somebody Tullio mistakenly thinks is there by happy error.

Liking, then, is not only of the person liked, but of the unique and otherwise absent person the other develops in us, releases in us, creates of us. A friend is an engendering. We love those who make us lovable. A friend is the friend a friend finds and brings out in another.”

(Guy Davenport, from “On Some Lines of Virgil”, pp. 187–188 in Eclogues.)

musil & gadda

“For Musil, knowledge is the awareness of the incompatibility of two opposite polarities. One of these he calls exactitude – or at other times mathematics, pure spirit, or even the military mentality – while the other he calls soul, or irrationality, humanity, chaos. Everthing he knows or thinks he deposits in an encyclopedic book that he tries to keep in the form of a novel, but its structure continually changes; it comes to pieces in his hands. The result is that not only does he never manage to finish the novel, but he never succeeds in deciding on its general outlines or how to contain the enormous mass of material within set limits. If we compare these two engineer-writers, Gadda, for whom understanding meant allowing himself to become tangled in a network of relationships, and Musil, who gives the impression of always understanding everything in the multiplicity of codes and levels of things without ever allowing himself to become involved, we have to record this one fact common to both: their inability to find an ending.”

(Italo Calvino, “Multiplicity” in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh.)

the radio

This varnished box shows nothing that protrudes, only a knob to turn to the next click, so that quite soon many little aluminum skyscrapers light up weakly within, while savage shoutings spurt contending for our attention.

A little apparatus with a wonderful ‘selectivity’. Ah, how ingenious it is to have refined the ear to this point. Why? To pour into it incessantly the most outrageous vulgarities.

All the foment of dung of the world’s melody.

Ah well, that’s what’s best, after all. The dung must be brought out and spread in the sun: such a flood sometimes fertilizes . . .

However, with a hurried step, return to the box, to sum up.

held in high esteem in every house these last years – plonked right in the middle of the parlour, all windows open – the buzzing, beaming little second garbage bin!

(Francis Ponge, trans. John Montague.)

the pleasures of the door

Kings never touch doors.

They’re not familiar with this happiness: to push, gently or roughly before you one of these great, friendly panels, to turn towards it to put it back in place – to hold a door in your arms.

The happiness of seizing one of these tall barriers to a room by the porcelain knob of its belly; this quick hand-to-hand, during which your progress slows for a moment, your eye opens up and your whole body adapts to its new apartment.

With a friendly hand you hold on a bit longer, before firmly pushing it back and shutting yourself in – of which you are agreeably assured by the click of the powerful, well-oiled latch.

(Francis Ponge, trans. C. K. Williams.)

duchamp dream

Marcel Duchamp and I are collaborating on a giant wall painting. Duchamp’s part in this work consists of a talking portrait of himself – a profile which appears at the center of a brightly colored rectangle on the white wall. Using a long stick to push the colors around, I demonstrate the niceties of the composition to a large audience standing in a semicircle. “You see,” I say, “we (Duchamp and I) are much the same – but mostly at the edges!” Now the righthand edge of the rectangle explodes in a flashing white light which then “bleeds” into a field of dazzling pellucid orange. The room during this phase of the work has been almost totally in the dark – the only light source being the painting itself – its colors illumined from the inside. Now the room lights up and I am painting the four walls, running back and forth like crazy with my stick. In one corner I draw a huge black gorilla figure and pivoting to face the next long wall, I trace a black line punctuated with a thick gob of paint which sticks out like a fist. I pause, sensing this work is “a great success.”

(Bill Berkson, in Serenade.)

but rather to know these subjects by speaking of them with reverence

“. . . St. Augustine’s comment on his study of the Trinity (and in the awareness that if my subject is not so exalted as his it is perhaps of an equally baffling complexity): ‘Therefore I have undertaken this work . . . not for the sake of speaking with authority about what I know but rather to know these subjects by speaking of them with reverence.’ “

(Gabriel Josipovici, The Word and the Book: a study of modern fiction, p. xvii.)


“We must constantly remember that earlier, at the time of the Impressionists or of Cézanne, modern painting was something you never saw. Or else, when people did open their eyes to it, it caused a scandal . . . Today, provided it doesn’t look like anything that could really be called painting, everything is modern . . . and as soon as it appears it’s a work of genius, and all the rest doesn’t even exist. As though people had suddenly become so perceptive that they knew all about it as soon as it has even begun to take shape. Whereas in reality they see precisely as they always did or even worse. Because now they see in exactly the same way but they imagine they’ve learnt to see properly.”

(Pablo Picasso, 1966, unsourced epigraph to the preface of Gabriel Josipovici’s The World and the Book: a study of modern fiction.)

3. collage, or, the splice of life:


I turned to collage early, to get away from writing poems about my overwhelming mother. I felt I needed to do something “objective” that would get me out of myself. I took books off the shelf, selected maybe one word from every page or a phrase every tenth page, and tried to work these into structures. Some worked, some didn’t. But when I looked at them a while later: they were still about my mother. (As Tristan Tzara would have predicted. His recipe for making a Dadaist poem by cutting up a newspaper article ends with: “The poem will resemble you.”)

This was a revelation–and a liberation. I realized that subject matter is not something to worry about. Your concerns and obsessions will surface no matter what you do. This frees you to work on form, which is all one can work on consciously. For the rest, all you can do is try to keep your mind alive, your curiosity and ability to see.

Even more important was the second revelation: that any constraint stretches the imagination, pull you into semantic fields different from the one you started with. For though the poems were still about my mother, something else was also beginning to happen.

Georges Braque: “You must always have 2 ideas, one to destroy the other. The painting is finished when the concept is obliterated.”

(Barbara Guest would qualify that the constraints must be such that they stretch the imagination without disabling it.)

Collage, like fragmentation, allows you to frustrate the expectation of continuity, of step-by-step-linearity. And if the fields you juxtapose are different enough there are sparks from the edges. Here is a paragraph from A Key Into the Language of America that tries to get at the clash of Indian and European cultures by juxtaposing phrases from Roger William’s 1743 treatise with contemporary elements from anywhere in my Western heritage.


Flesh, considered as cognitive region, as opposed to undifferentiated warmth, is called woman or wife. The number not stinted, yet the Narragansett (generally) have but one. While diminutives are coined with reckless freedom, the deep structure of the marriage bed is universally esteemed even in translation. If the woman be false to bedlock, the offended husband will be solemnly avenged, arid and eroded. He may remove her clothes at any angle between horizontal planes.”

(Rosmarie Waldrop, from “Thinking of Follows”.)

the coming of the land of shades

“Paris is becoming fantastic. Those buses without horses . . . You seem to be living in the land of shades. And this thought comes back to me: ‘Aren’t we all dead without knowing it?’ In these sounds, reflections, in this mist, you walk in anxiety, less with the fear of being run over than with the fear of no longer being alive. The impression of being in an immense cave, and your head in a pulp from the noise.”

(Jules Renard, December 1905, p. 190 in The Journals of Jules Renard, ed. & trans. Louise Bogan & Elizabeth Roget.)