An Interview with Leslie Scalapino

‘standing’ ‘walking’ as present — huge crows loaded a tree

(past) by me — at night sleeping — yet the half-cracked black bud

(night: only) and thin blue sky, but as being oneself only, aren’t existing


single thin wall, waves thousands in the freezing sky and

empty fields — and loaded on tree by me — night is half-cracked black

bud in one: as, thin blue sky

the two single events at the present (only)

from New Time

In September 1997, poet and playwright Leslie Scalapino came to the University as a part of the Poetry Center Readings Series. The author of 18 books, the most recent of which are The Front Matter, Dead Souls (Wesleyan 1996), Green and Black: Selected Writings (1996), and The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion/ A Trilogy (1997), Scalapino has long been considered one of the most influential experimental writers of our time. In addition to her reading, Scalapino gave a lecture, and, with the help of local poets from the POG, staged part of her poem-play The Weatherman Turns Himself In. I managed to catch her between performances to talk with her about poetry, plays, art, and philosophy.

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MG: I wanted to start with something I read in the introduction to your work in the Before Columbus Anthology. David Meltzer writes about presence and absence in your work: “The absences announce the agenda of Leslie Scalapino’s intensely focused body of work. The absences are present. They are presences pushing against boundaries of private and public self.” I wondered if you could respond to that. Specifically, how does the position or elision of the personal inform your work?

LS: It’s as if we’re all making translations of things which we take in almost by a process of osmosis, and it becomes a from of ventriloquism. And writing is, in a way, a from of ventriloquism, where you’re reproducing things that are supposedly you and that are supposedly outside you, that are supposedly social, and you’re taking yourself for that and that for yourself. It is, in any case, something that is illusionistic, because it is a matter of your training and your being placed in a context that articulates it that way, a training from birth in terms of a construction of self. What I’m interested in in poetry is to try to get to what actually is there, so it does involve in a way deconstructing a sense of self, as not being real, as not being what is actually happening.

Frequently, when people make a dichotomy between these things, they are saying that one thing is social and one thing is personal. I tend to use the word individual or interior as opposed to external, or what we take to be external. It’s not that one wants to push the writing, or push one’s apprehension into a place that is only social, or only interior.

What I’m really interested in is contemplation, or observation or apprehension, in terms of the interior, and action, and to make these things come into the same space, so that they’re going on in the same time. There is something that is possible to occur in people’s understanding of what they’re reading, what they’re experiencing, something that is neither social nor private, that enters some other relam, that becomes itself, and gets past any of those kinds of categories.

MG: And yet there is a necessary intrusion of political event in much of your work. Often, an event taken from the news or an event you have witnessed enters into a work that does not seem to be centrally located in event.

LS: It might be that what [Meltzer is] referring to is the absence of things that we fail to observe that are these very important social contexts in which we live. To omit that from what’s occurring in writing, or in thinking, or in seeing, in being in the world, is an absence. One points out that these things are being omitted. You draw it in and you make a way of approaching it so you would see what is part of the conventional focus, or the focus we’re asked to have.

MG: What is your definition of a “poem-play”? How does a poem-play link human speech with the presentation of a poem?

LS: This relates to going past division of genre almost as an engagement in itself, and trying to deliberately transgress into both areas at once; and to have that be visible to the reader/viewer. You would suddenly see something—a visceral, sensual grasp you have—that you don’t bother to articulate verbally because it’s going on insides you; and furthermore, that you may not have time to do.

I wanted to find a way to have a language that would take in some of that kind of perception, and suddenly to place it in a sphere where it is being uttered out loud between people or people are uttering things besides each other, when they’re not engaging in conversation but speaking these things out loud which then becomes an actual social action because people are there listening to this.

So the way of moving between forms of writing becomes a demonstration of the connections between things, rather than being a form of saying “this is a play, so we’re going to have conversational language.” That would limit it to only what people actually supposedly say to each other, and that becomes a kind of stultifying convention of what is “conversational language.” Actually, we constantly bypass that convention, and mix up everything anyway.

MG: And conversation in “real speech” brings with it conversation in “real time” and in “real space,” or an inelastic time and space. I wanted to ask you about time in your work.

LS: I’ve had different kinds of engagements with time. In a work New Time which I read a little bit of last night, I was trying to push to a place where time would in a sense collapse on itself, that it would be all in the same time, and that one would be able to be in a moment that, in a way, is all times at once. It’s almost like a burst of a place that is complete attention.

And then I noticed also that in some of my work, The Front Matter/Dead Souls, or in Defoe, I was frequently using landscape, which would have a similar function as time. It would become a way of “doing time,” in a physical way, almost the way one would do it in painting, where I would use words like something being on the line or on the rim of concentration; what I meant by that was—it’s almost like looking at a horizontal line and lowering it, or, as if you could physically eliminate or expand space in between. It’s spatial, physical; but it’s also a way of conceiving, of narrowing time gaps, of concentrating, everything being in one time frame, so that action and apprehension or observation or contemplation take place all at once.

MG: You spoke briefly about memory. I am interested in the function of memory in your poems, in which memory does not seem linked to personality, or even to the personal; rather, it seems linked to time, or the equalization of time, that the present moment in which the memory is being recorded and the ten or twenty or thirty years from which the memory comes are “equalized,” or altered, by the text.

LS: We are banks of memory, and we tend to remember in certain patterned ways at different times in our life. That is, at a certain phase in your life you will tend to remember memories from a certain other phase, and that changes. So in other words, memory itself is not just one’s personality; it is also an apparatus this is what we are as biological beings. So one interesting thing about writing is to find out what memory is, what the mind is. It’s almost like an experiment to know, as memories come up, what are those things that we have constructed, and also how we change things, or how we make something fixed and always remember it the same way. It becomes a wooden, fixed thing that really has nothing to do with the past.

I noticed, for example, being around people who were extremely elderly, that they would tend to short-circuit their stories, that you had heard their many, many times, and that finally they too would decide, “Well, we can dispense with that part of the story; let’s just take the beginning words and the ending words.” Literally, they would have a shorthand, notational form of referring to a story. And we could carry on a whole conversation in these very elliptical references to things that we already knew about.

MG: In “Zither” you refer to an “immense, horizontal space,” which seems to again suggest that time and space become conflated, or certainly related, in your work.

LS: “Zither” did have to do with trying to unravel memories of childhood and of travel, and thus change them after the fact, but in a way that would be realistic. You can’t go back to anything, even if it was yesterday, except, I think, as the shape of the language that you are using, the form. That work is actually exploratory in its form, in that it started out in lines that are much like prose lines that have bits of fictional plot. Then I begin to see things that are reflected in that that are akin to other actual, realistic events that come up which may be widely different from, but somehow have a kind of reciprocal shape.

For me, writing has a shape internally, ways of rendering internal-configurations; I would remember then in that way. Some kind of emotional tangle, for example, could have a sculptural shape. In a way, I think that being a poet is like being a sculptor, and you are finding out something about the shape of the thought you had when you give it syntax, when you put it on the page.

MG: Do you see an ending from any given point in your process? How do you arrive at closure in terms of your writing? Jane Miller refers to the lack of the possibility of “easy” closure as a great dilemma for contemporary writers. How do you know when a piece is finished?

LS: I was just thinking, suddenly, of talking with a friend, Brenda Way, a choreographer, and her descriptions of how she works on a dance piece, and realizing the way she conceives of that is similar to my work on a poem. You’re wrestling with something that may be a rather inchoate set of configurations and concerns, a kind of investigation that’s a long a theme, some urgency that you’re working out. And when you get there you know it. It’s not as if you would have to put on some kind of fake ending, because you have a sense of “Ah, I get it, that’s where it is.”

In any conversation you have with somebody, you circle around to whatever is the subject, you mull something over, you throw it back and forth. And at some point, you have arrived at some kind of exchange where it resonates and you have actually spoken to each other. It’s the same with writing.


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This interview originally appeared in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter. It is republished here with the permission of Maggie Golston and the Poetry Center. The photo, taken in 2010 at the Desert Museum in Tucson, is by Barbara Henning.



Leslie Scalapino (July 25, 1944 – May 28, 2010) is the author of thirty books of poetry, prose inter-genre-fiction, plays, and essays. Recent works include The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom (The Post-Apollo Press), Flow-Winged Crocodile and A Pair / Actions Are Erased / Appear (Chax Press), two plays published in one volume, The Animal is in the World like Water in Water (Granary Books), a collaboration between Scalapino and artist Kiki Smith and Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows (Starcherone Books), which is a pair, or preceding volume, to The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom. A revised and expanded version of her essay book How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (originally published by Potes & Poets) was published by Litmus Press in 2011.   ________________________________________________________________

Maggie Golston is a writer, editor and musician who lives in Tucson, AZ.

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