Monday, November 24, 2008

Karla Kelsey, "An Introduction to 'No Sounds'"

Karla Kelsey

No Sounds of My Own Making: An Introduction

Postmodern theory has deeply enriched the creative and intellectual possibilities inherent in twenty-first century engagements with art. With the application of postmodern theory, readers, viewers, and listeners gain access to the assumptions and frameworks upon which pieces of art have been built. Such access presents us with the intertextuality that was always already part of the text, the already present aporia revealed by deconstruction. These revelations are possible because the lens of theory refocuses the object of art at a distance so that we can see the structure upon which it hinges. And as our vision achieves greater clarity, we are given to create ever more meaningful creative and intellectual connections with our world.

In many pieces of literary, visual, and sound art that have come after the birth and absorption of postmodern theory, artists build these sorts of revelations and clarities into the core of the work itself. For example, when considering Day—the conceptual writer Kenny Goldsmith’s project of retyping the September 1, 2000 edition of The New York Times word for word, from left to right—it is impossible to ignore theoretical questions surrounding the nature of language and texts.

Day necessarily engages its readers in issues surrounding the role context plays within the arena of language, for the language that Goldsmith uses works on two different ontological registers at the same time, each with their own unique context. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the text literally is exactly the language of The New York Times (it is The New York Times) but, because Goldsmith gives the language a new context and a new format, the same language also constitutes a book titled Day (published by The Figures with the ISBN: 1-930589-20-4 and for sale at a price of $20.00). This shift, due to a literal duality of language (the text literally is The New York Times AND it literally is Day) insists that readers (or anyone considering the concept of the project for that matter) reconsider timeless questions about the nature of language. The text asks that we rethink our assumptions about sense and reference,[i] the nature of authorship, mimesis, appropriation, copyright, etc. In other words, to consider the work at all—to interpret the work at all—requires an analytical inspection of the grounds upon which the artwork stands.

While there are fundamental differences between John Bloomberg-Rissman’s No Sounds of My Own Making and works of pure conceptual writing, such as Day, No Sounds carries a significant similarity in the way that its language often works on two different ontological registers at the same time, requiring readers to reconsider assumptions about the nature of language and the nature of a poetic text. On one hand, a reader could happily engage No Sounds as a long serial poem voiced by a single speaker. All the words in this version of the text seem to come pouring from the speaker’s lived experience, and the poem, read in this manner, deals with the speaker’s relationship with such subjects as birth and death; the organic and the machine; experience and memory and art-making. This is a text of subjectivity.

On the other hand, after reading the endnote and finding out that the text is a collage wherein the selection and ordering of most of the text’s language was decided upon by an algorithm, the text reads quite differently. Instead of reading as a work of subjectivity, it reads as a work of alterity, taking its title phrase to heart. The phrase “No sounds of my own making” evokes John Cage and indicates two important things about the piece. First, taken literally, the title reveals that the work was written out of any resource BUT the author’s subjective experience. There are, in this text, no “sounds” or words made by the author. This concept foregrounds issues of authorship, intentionality, and subjectivity. Second, the title leads us to John Cage, important across a range of disciplines for introducing a major shift in the nature of creating and receiving art. The title phrase reminds us that in Cage’s 4’33” silence stands-in for music, though in listening we come to realize that there is no such thing as the absolute absence of sound. In other works, Cage’s chance operations, via the I Ching, stand-in for compositional decisions, changing the artist’s responsibility from making choices about the piece to asking the right questions.

No Sounds of My Own Making further complicates these evocations and revelations in that the endnote indicates the personal nature of the relationships Bloomberg-Rissman has to his source texts. This intimacy infuses the work, built out of such alterity, with a strong flavor of subjectivity. For example, in choosing his title, Bloomberg-Rissman does not just quote John Cage, but, as he tells us in his endnote, he quotes his “brother Omo Bob” quoting Cage, leaving us with three iterations of the title: the name of the text, the use of the phrase “no sounds of my own making” as used by Omo Bob, and Cage’s original use of the phrase. In addition, Bloomberg-Rissman has not adhered to a strict application of his algorithm and sources in composition. Admitting in his endnote that “the title, like most other statements one makes in this world, is only more-or less-true,” he has varied his process, at times allowing experiences such as a high fever to shape the text. This is not a text built on the foundations of either subjectivity OR alterity. This is a text of AND. And part of what creates such a successful text of AND is the author’s use of the compositional process of collage.

The sheer variety of genres from which Bloomberg-Rissman culls his work conveys this spirit of conjunction. As you will see from the endnotes, No Sounds is collaged from a range of different types of texts: poetry (Robert Creeley, Cecelia Vicuña, Phan Nhien Hao, etc), theory (Walter Benjamin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, etc), writing by and about visual artists (Mona Hatoum, Antoni Tapies, Klee, Malevich, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Sam Francis Lesson of Darkness, etc), socially and politically oriented nonfiction (Peter Worsley’s Knowledges, Arturo Barea’s The Foraging of a Rebel, etc), and liner notes from music listened to during the process of composition (John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Erik Satie, Kronos Quartet, etc). Bloomberg-Rissman’s source texts are international and inclusive in scope and authorship. Furthermore, the “mode” of the collage reveals the work’s obsession with conjunction, for Bloomberg-Rissman employs both integrative and disjunctive modes of collage.

In terms of integrative technique, Bloomberg-Rissman weaves much of his source material seamlessly into the text, thus contributing to the reader’s sense that a unified speaker voices the entire work. For example:


Thought, body,

Senses, mind, emotions


The moment

Of transition from


To bodily

Sensation, the world’s


Replica of

A butterfly tongue,


World’s greatest

Greatest, that you


Constantly between

Contradiction and meaning . . .


Sense of

Beauty and anxiety.

These moments likely come from different texts: we are presented with an abstract thought about the nature of the transcendent in transition from “optical to bodily sensation”; we are presented with the image of a replica of a butterfly’s tongue; and we are presented with a “you” who wavers between “beauty and anxiety,” “contradiction and meaning.” However, by putting these moments together in a long syntactical string uninterrupted by periods and continuous in point-of-view and verb tense, the ideas and images unfold as if from one particular speaker. Even if they are taken from different sources, the “world’s largest replica of a butterfly tongue” functions as a concrete image illustrating the “transition from optical to bodily sensation” just as nicely as any that might come from the well of an individual soul.

This seamless stitching together of fragments hearkens back to the roots of the collage tradition, for, as Marjorie Perloff illustrates in The Futurist Moment, such use of collage as a means to create a smooth, integrated whole out of disparate fragments stands at the very origins of the form. Twelfth-century Japanese “pasted papers,” for example, were “sprinkled over with flower patterns or tiny birds and stars made from gold and silver paper and then brushed with ink to simulate the contours of mountains, rivers or clouds, and then covered with the calligraphy of appropriate poems” (47).[ii]

While the integrative tradition of collage holds strong in No Sounds of My Own Making, Bloomberg-Rissman also employs the opposite drive towards disjunction and juxtaposition, hallmarks we’ve come to expect of collage work ever since the first modernist collages, created in 1912, by Braque and Picasso (Perloff 45). For example, Bloomberg-Rissman writes:


Pacific is

64 million square


The final

Chapter, Saturday, is


Most mysterious.

Ernst labels it


Key to

Songs. The gesture


Fugues, amorous

As water-lilies,


The long

Stretches of murals.

Here we are presented with short, end-stopped phrases set side-by-side without conjunctions or enjambment to solder a connection. If we try to read the statements as analogy or illustration of one another (much as I read the “largest replica of a butterfly’s tongue” as a concrete illustration of “bodily sensation” in the previous example) we do not go far before we must turn to our own resources to map out the connection. What does the spatial area of the Pacific have to do with Saturday? What does the notion of Saturday as a “final chapter” have to do with “the key to songs?” What, even, is the key to songs?

Such moments of disjunction put the reader in the position of supplying connective tissue rather than having connections smoothed over by the author. In creating these connections we must leave the text to think our own thoughts, to gather ideas from the outside world, coming back to the text with our own connections. Connections can be made, but require the reader to shift out of the role of ‘reader’ in order to write those connections into the text. This mode of reading/writing differs from the mode that takes place in passages that use integrative collage wherein smooth surfaces absorb us and keep us inside the language standing before us.

By using both smooth and disjunctive collage methods, Bloomberg-Rissman not only requires us to employ multiple tactics of reading, but he also hi-lights the dual role that language plays in his text. As with a work like Day, language in No Sounds works on two ontological registers at once. The materials that constitute No Sounds create the very fabric of the text while, at the same time, remaining inextricably tied to outside contexts that can never be severed. In the passage quoted above, the language is at the same time an integral part of the poem (it is the very material that makes the poem) and an integral part of the poem’s source text. Bloomberg-Rissman further hi-lights this duality in specific places of the text where he explicitly indicates to the reader that he is using quoted material. For example:


This work

For solo guitar


Take from

An essay by


Benjamin which,

In Ferneyhough’s paraphrase,


About the

Essentiality of the


Of the

Experiential moment. He

There are several indications, here, that No Sounds employs language from different contexts. In the phrase “The title for this work for solo guitar” we find disjunction, for we are reading a poem, not listening to a work for solo guitar. Therefore, the “this” in the phrase does not refer to “this” text: the phrase has been put into a foreign context where the referents of “this” clearly do not align. In addition, we have a direct quote integrated into the passage, a paraphrase of Walter Benjamin by Ferneyhough. The use of quote marks not only draws our attention to the outside nature of the material, but the notion of a quotation of a paraphrase of another text speaks to the intertextuality coursing through the entire body of No Sounds.

A clean parallel can be made with visual collage to further clarify the nature of this simultaneity. In her analysis of Picasso’s 1913 Still Life with Violin and Fruit, Perloff points out the way in which the “real” items in the collage—“pages torn from newspapers, color illustrations of apples and pears taken from a picture book, the letters ‘URNAL’ (from JOURNAL) with half of the U cut off, and patches of wood grained or painted paper”—never cease to refer to their external reality even as they function, simultaneously, as part of the reality of the picture (48-49). Viewers of such collages not only have to supply their own connectives, but they have to contend with materials that are actively participating in two contexts at once.

In further expression of the poem’s emphasis on conjunction, these contextual and material shiftings, created by the collage form, are woven across the architecture of three-line hay(na)ku stanzas. The hay(na)ku is, itself, a form of integration and conjunction: the form of hay(na)ku was created by the poet Eileen Tabios by combining principles of counted verse and haiku. It takes from the haiku the form of tercet-sized stanzas composed of minimalist lines. From counted verse the hay(na)ku inherits the pattern of word count, repeated by each tercet, of 1-word, 2-word, and 3-word lines. While some of the stanzas of No Sounds are end-stopped, most of the text syntactically runs on while, at the same time, enjambing over the hay(na)ku’s discreet units of language.

By weaving the long poem continuously over this stanzaic structure, Bloomberg-Rissman creates a meditative, continuous experience of reading, a rhythm that gets into the body and stays long after we leave the text. This rhythm not only holds the collage elements together, but also gives the poem a pulse that works nicely in contrast to the mechanics of the algorithm underlying most of the composition. “Being,” to quote Bloomberg-Rissman quoting Aristotle at the end of his endnotes, “is said in many ways.”

Like many texts that hinge on the strength of “and” No Sounds of My Own Making eschews categorization. The work does not belong in a category of “pure” conceptual writing: Bloomberg-Rissman breaks his own rules too often to make a conceptual statement, and the text feels too much to be a member of what Craig Dworkin defines, in his introduction to the ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, as a pursuit of “meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process.” However, given that most of the subjective statements in No Sounds are gleaned from other authors via algorithm, the poem cannot read as a purely subjective baring of the soul in the tradition of Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow’. Perhaps the most apt category would entail Jack Spicer’s notion of dictation, where the ‘Outside’ constitutes a series of texts informing more texts.

This difficulty (all of it) is one of the many reasons we are so happy that Leafe Press, which first published the book in print form in September of 2007, has allowed us to present the work to you here, in Reconfigurations, Volume Two (2008).

While No Sounds maintains an unwillingness to slip into easy categories, the poem also offers a model for modes of responding to experiences of difficulty, textual or otherwise. In an essay on engaging with difficulty in poetry, Charles Bernstein suggests that difficulty often does not necessarily reside in the poem itself, or in the reader, but in the relation the reader has with the poem (150). Categorizing such a poem, or smoothing over its difficulties—ignoring the fact that it is a collage of both smoothness and striation, for example—will not get readers far. Instead, such a work asks that readers perform their own shift in consideration. For example, to really listen to Cage’s 4’33” the audience must give up preconceptions as to what one listens to when engaging with musical composition. We must reconfigure what it means to listen to a text, making a leap from listening for what we expect to hear to responding to what is given.

In this spirit, and in the spirit of Bernstein’s creative ‘wreading’ experiments, which offer an array of ways to forge new relations with texts, we present Bloomberg-Rissman’s work to you with a comment box. We would like to think that No Sounds might inspire readers to shift their relationship to the text from that of reader to writer and that—just as John Bloomberg-Rissman has created his poem out of other writers’ works—you might also create your own text out of the fabric of No Sounds.

We hope that you might undertake such transformations: rearranging, adding to, erasing, translating, and further processing No Sounds of My Own Making into new sounds, posting them here (on the journal’s site) for other readers to respond to and to use in their own interpretations, collaborations, adaptations, etc. To do so, please use the “post a comment” feature at the very bottom of the document page for No Sounds of My Own Making.

Works Cited:

Bernstein, Charles. “The Difficult Poem.” Poetry and Pedagogy. Ed. Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr. New York: Palgrave, 2006. 148-150.

Dworkin, Craig. The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Ed. Craig Dworkin. http://www.ubu.com/concept/index.html.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.


[i] Gottlob Frege’s 1892 paper “On Sense and Reference”,
http://philosophyol.com/logic/reading/On%20sense%20and%20reference.pdf, comes to mind here. Given all of the complexities brought on by the sentence “Hesperus is Phosphorus,” Frege would have gone wild with Day.

[ii] Far from constituting a tradition isolated in the past, this lineage of integrated, smoothed surface is alive and well in contemporary poets such as Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge,
http://jacketmagazine.com/27/hint-bers.html, where the process of the poem comes from cutting out and arranging fragments of text and then smoothing grammar and voice into a continuous whole. Digital artists like Siman Joahn, http://www.yossimilo.com/exhibitions/2006_03-sime_joha/, focus such integrative aesthetics towards creating seamless versions of reality.


Karla Kelsey is happy to be an Associate Editor of Reconfigurations. Recent reviews, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Book Review, Rain Taxi, Gulf Coast, Fence, Gut Cult, and Octopus. Her books—Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary (2006) and Iteration Nets (forthcoming)—are from Ahsahta Press.

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