The Eigner Sanction: Keeping Time From the American Century

Whoever dwells everywhere, Maximus, dwells nowhere at all.
—Martial, VII, Ixxiii.

Early in Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction, his character, Dr. Hemlock, an art historian, collector, and retired government assassin, is summoned to a darkened room to meet with Dragon, the albino mastermind of the secret government agency C2, who mentions that a rare Pissarro will soon go on the black market. When Hemlock fails to bite, Dragon turns on the pressure, reminding the underpaid professor that his phenomenal art collection—now 21 world-class canvases kept in a secret vault below his otherwise unassuming Alpine hut—would “make interesting material for the internal revenue people,” and walking him through an imaginary auction of his holdings in which a particularly thuggish C2 nemesis of Hemlocks’s, Mr. Pope, winds up with one of the connoisseur’s precious canvases. This cruel coming to the point is a carefully chosen payback for Hemlock who, on being explained initially that the darkened room was necessary because of Dragon’s medical condition, had cut short their conversation with a cruel rhetorical question, aimed at what he took as an embodiment of the lame and increasingly untrustworthy state, from whose Cold War imperatives Hemlock wished to disaffiliate himself: “Does your physical disability preclude you from coming to the point?”

Two years earlier Leonard Henry and Jan Boon produced “Getting it Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, Poet.” Because Eigner’s speech was affected by his cerebral palsy, the filmmakers decided to have Allen Ginsberg do most of the reading, in some cases followed by Eigner. After one poem and a brief scene setting on Eigner by the narrator, Ginsberg offers his own framing of Eigner’s work:

“Ah, obviously the form of the verse is dictated by his physical condition of slow hesitancy and difficulty in maintaining his hand steady to write words. And as the words come swiftly through his mind he has to stop his whole thought process to write down a word while thoughts are going on still.”

Two temporalities, then, in Ginsberg’s reading—a fast time of thought, and a slow time of difficult key pressing. Eigner’s particular aesthetic, his version of an open field poetics, is produced by the irreconcilable conflict between them. He cannot come fully to the point because the physical labor of registering a single word is so great, and the time of his thinking necessarily so much faster, that his forlorn lexemes, out in their vast expanses of white pages, will always remain but romantic ruins of the richer internal thought processes out of which they emerge. When the transcript of this film was later published, Eigner added a note to Ginsberg’s statement, hinged on the word “obviously.” “Obvious,” it reads, “but not too good a guess” (ibid.).

On September 22, 1965 Eigner, then living in his parents’ house in Swampscott, Massachusetts, started one of his over 1700 poems, beginning with the line “those planes were loud.” First published in the 1980 chapbook Flat and Round, by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, Eigner’s poem would thus travel both 3000 miles across the country to Berkeley and 15 years into the future—from the beginning of escalation in Vietnam to Reagan’s first year in office—before its odd, recalcitrant temporality would claim readers’ attention. References to the sonic dimension of air travel were a common feature of Eigner’s poems. He lived less than ten miles away from Logan airport in Boston and undoubtedly heard planes low in the sky on final approach and takeoff. We think of Eigner, perhaps, as the most minutely focused of the New American poets—the most attuned to his immediate environment, an environment that consistently includes the language of its description, doubling back and complicating easy picturing. Both these features of his poetics—insistence on the contingent surroundings and their reflexive unfolding in language—suggest that the larger, exterior world of airports and transcontinental flight might seem alien to the second-to-second unfolding of perceptual effects among the trees in Swampscott. But there is also an outside to Eigner’s poetry, and it can help give us a richer sense of why its inside was, and remains, so singular.

If not quite at the pitch of the Cuban Missile of 1962, the Cold War was in 1965 nonetheless beginning again to simmer. Air and space were the domain, even the medium, in which this agitation registered most clearly. On March 18, the first person to walk in space had been a Soviet cosmonaut. A month earlier, U.S. bombers from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin began operation Flaming Dart in Vietnam; a week later President Johnson authorized operation Rolling Thunder, an even larger scale bombing mission; then in April the U.S. began dropping napalm throughout Vietnam, where the Johnson administration now—that July—sent 50,000 additional troops, increasing the total to 125,000. In October, the U.S. would test a hydrogen bomb in the Aleutian Islands equal to 80,000 tons of dynamite. And, closer to home, on July 11, a U.S. surveillance aircraft crashed off Nantucket, killing 16 of the 19 crew aboard.

Developed in 1963, this plane, the EC121H Warning Star, was charged with monitoring the eastern seaboard; a sequence of the aircraft flew continuous missions over the Atlantic coast 24 hours a day for a decade. Producing photographic documents that would be beamed across the United States and interpreted by specialists at the North American Air Defense Combat Operations Center in Colorado Springs, the Warning Star sought out singularities in its assigned neighborhood, tracing in particular Russian aircraft and naval vessels cruising off the east coast of the U.S. While other jets of this same make provided surveillance for atomic testing in the Pacific, and for the war in Vietnam, this squad remained in a kind of permanent holding pattern whose center was less than 20 miles from Eigner at another local airport, Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts.2

“The plane sounds protective,” Eigner writes in a May 1960 poem. That October, an Eastern Air Lines flight landing at Logan airport crashed into the sea, killing 62 of the 72 passengers aboard. Eigner writes directly of the accident: “planes again hove by / the corridors light above / sirens, after the crash / this wall off toward the bay.”3 If Eigner’s house in Swampscott was nominally protected by the Warning Star, it was also, however, an around-the-clock center for a very different kind of information gathering. Connected by radio to the outside world, even introduced by radio to the field of poetry, news for Eigner both comes through the air and is often of the air: rockets and jets are launching satellites, dropping bombs, testing nuclear weapons, spewing exfoliates, and crashing into the sea close by. And yet “news” in Eigner’s poetry would seem to be a direct rejection of these kinds of drama, even when highlights of this drama occur within earshot. Rather, Eigner FM tended to register events that could not be noticed, let alone broadcast, by major stations, central among these what he calls “tides of the air” (419) or elsewhere “the inrolled / maps in the sky” (425). Eigner’s attention gravitates toward the air in part because it is an undomesticated, fluctuating space that will not permanently retain man’s physical or linguistic imprint: “no axiom exists / in the air” (428).4

But if air is the constantly mutating and refreshing medium of freedom, it is also the permeable membrane through which his research radio station gets linked to, even harnessed by, the rest of the world, which is why manned flight becomes such a crucial seam within Eigner’s poetics of air. Many of Eigner’s poems from the late 1950s and 60s explicitly reflect on space travel and the possibility of airborne nuclear destruction. But this engagement is typically understated, superimposed as one among several interpretive registers: “That the neighborhood might be covered / by one roof, occurred / this morning,” Eigner writes in a 1959 poem, morphing this image of a dome into a mushroom cloud with the lines, “And death when you don’t want it what you like / is a plain object // the long-trunked clouds / a weltered event” (305). Again, most long-trunked clouds and weltered events in Eigner’s poetry are less about singular tragic occurrences—like nuclear strikes—than about the ongoing perceptual possibilities of clouds transforming in time. But the fact that there is quiet commerce—or perhaps we should call it air loss—between the durational neighborhood diorama in which Eigner labors and the outer world of nuclear strikes and airline crashes helps us understand the degree to which the former is not so much a repression of the latter as it is a patient and radical re-modeling of it with the materials at hand. Or, to put it sonically rather than physically, the slow process poetics of air always available on Eigner FM was a dramaless, eventless broadcast that achieved its traction dialectically as a aural oozing below the frequency of administered news—even public radio.

Like Henry Darger taking daily meteorological data and comparing it to the weatherman’s predictions, or Georges Perec making the micro-occurrences of a single Parisian apartment building the whole story of a gargantuan novel, Eigner’s attention to his occasionally domed domain should also be understood as an intentional and carefully framed project. As Eigner himself put it: “In order to relax at all I had to keep my attention partly away from myself, had to seek a home, coziness in the world.”5 And yet this physiological constraint does not dictate the kind of attention Eigner will lavish on the surrounding world. And this is why he objects to a reading like Ginsberg’s that sees Eigner’s singular open field poetics as a direct mechanical consequence of his cerebral palsy. The type of exterior home Eigner will construct is not a given; nor is his patience, either in Swampscott or in Berkeley. The poem with which I began helps to draw all this out.

+++those planes were loud

+++++++the degree+++with my head down
++++++++half-way to my lap

+++++++what bird’s call
++++++++sounding close
+++++++I haven’t
++++++++learned+++a flute

+++++++++to match silence
+++++++and the sea’s sound

+++there’s nothing like music
+++++in the street

+++++++out the opposite window
+++++++++along through trees

+++++a piano hoisted up-
++++++level storey

+++fire sire
+++++the hot night
+++++++++still to draw

+++the passing earth
+++whirls out (671)

Here the external world of planes is a prompt—an alarm clock even—that as ambient sound often does for poets (think of Wordsworth) begins the focusing process: first, on a rare image of the speaker’s body, and then on a series of less dramatic, less loud, sonic occurrences that organize the neighborhood. The failed identification of a birdcall here is also a rejected identification with birds, say famously melodic nightingales, as idealized figures for poetics. Similarly, the role of the as yet unlearned flute would only be “to match silence / and the sea’s sound.” Another celebrated melody maker, producer of expressive musical figures, must for Eigner compete against the equally fascinating ground of silence (more Cagean than absolute) and sea murmur. Here as elsewhere in Eigner the received hierarchy of event over condition is first challenged and then exploded—as conditions themselves become micro-events. When Eigner writes that “there is nothing like music / in the street” he means not that literal music beyond his driveway would be the asymptote of excellence but that the actual sounds of the street—on which he’s just reflected—would be poorly described by analogies to music. And so flutes and bird songs are poor figures for the poet’s self-assigned role as reflexive transcriber of local audio effects. As he continues, the piano is similarly of interest not for the music that might come out of it, but for the sound its hoisting makes. In the distance fire fathers (or sires) a siren, and crickets fill the subsequent gap, as the poet both draws and draws from the earth, before drawing his poem to a temporary close, which the next poem of his street will quickly open again.

Eigner was not unknown at the time this poem was composed. And yet, his most sustained reception would occur at least a decade later, in the 1970s and 80s, when he was taken up by poets associated with Language writing. Barrett Watten published him in early issues of This, brought out a book of Eigner’s prose in 1978 (the long, elegant sentences of which casually explode Ginsgberg’s claim), and then wrote on Eigner in Total Syntax. Hejinian, as I mentioned, published her Tuumba press Eigner chapbook in 1980 and Ron Silliman dedicated his 1986 anthology of Language writing, In the American Tree, to Eigner. So there was both significant interest, and significant lag time: the odd temporalities of Swampscott in 1965 getting re-released, rebroadcast, in the atmosphere of Berkeley in the 1980s.

But it was not primarily time that caught the attention of the Language writers. Rather, Eigner was recuperated mostly for his rejection of a speech-based poetics. Following the blast of Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH,” the first line of Silliman’s introduction to In the American Tree, the rest of this essay proposed a re-reading of one wing of the New American poetry, now claimed as the radical wing, in which Creeley and Eigner became “two early ‘projectivists’ whose writing transcended the problematic constraints of that tendency.”6 But did the negation of speech in fact require 1777 poems over the course of roughly 50 years? Either it was a very eloquent and protracted renunciation, or speech kept breaking out, like small fires or insect infestations, on Eigner’s street, thereby requiring his continual attention, his patient acts of sequential shushing. Understood solely as the sanctioner of speech, then, Eigner’s poetics becomes that of the cranky octogenarian neighbor who has always just been woken up. And yet we see, even when he is actually woken up, as in the poem we just read, his poetry performs a range of far more specific sonic, temporal, and conceptual operations than can be conveyed by the raised finger to lips commemorative statue fashioned for him by Silliiman in his Language writing wax museum of literary history.

I’ve suggested some of these already; but by way of conclusion I’ll readdress this problem at larger scale by sketching, very roughly, another way of understanding Eigner historically, one in which his insistence on conditions rather than events might better register as the event it has already become in literary history. Eigner occupies an extreme position within New American poetry not just because he undermined a poetics of speech, but because, unlike Olson, the field of his field poetics was comparatively purged of diachronic references, of collage historicism, and was, instead, identified with an unfolding empirical situation—his Swampscott porch and the street scene beyond it over three decades—that he nonetheless refused to “capture” in pat vignettes. The project of his projectivism was at once to insist upon and destabilize this literal field, by testing relations between its fleeting effects—sonic, visual—and the field of the printed page, where Eigner’s lexemes invariably uncouple themselves from any simple, instrumental roll and begin to take on reflexive relationships only possible on this second field. But it is the dose of empiricism within this otherwise reflexive textuality, the continued, iterative framing in relation to the porch and its surround, that turns Eigner’s writing into such a conceptually unified and in fact singular project: an experimental research station, observation outpost, durational diorama.

What emerged from this diorama was, however, more than a subtly reflexive discourse on the depiction of space. Eigner’s attention to minor time, to “another / time / in fragments” (357)—to non-monumental unfolding, to a micro-temporality diametrically opposed to the would-be major events of Cold War time was in some ways the clearest and most compelling version of a larger project shared by most of the New American poets, in their various ways, through the poetics of daily life: O’Hara, Creeley, Olson, Whalen, Kyger, Baraka, Spicer, Mayer and, in fact, Silliman, among others. Silliman would put his and the larger project of Language writing negatively as the critiques of representation and speech rather than as the positive experimentation with the poetics of daily life because he saw the New American version of this later project as entailing a commitment to representation. But if daily life becomes not merely a spatial picture but a contestatory time, a time below the radar of history with a capital H, then we can begin to recognize a vast project of the New American poets that put them all, in different ways, in dialog with official modes of time keeping, and measuring more generally. More, and this is the rub for Silliman’s reading, we see a continuity rather than a break between New American poetry and Language writing. Both seek another time in fragments—a slowing down. If Language writing proposed a higher degree of reflexivity, still the implied liberation to be wrested from disjunction was not merely an anatomized space of representation, or the suddenly activated co-producer of meaning. No, disjunction was also a temporal project that sought authenticity in a micro-temporality of unfolding linguistic complexity that could be positioned against the rush of administered time.

We can see this now because for the last 25 years or so, since perhaps the late 1980s or early 1990s, since the end of the Cold War, let’s call it, experimental poetry has not been able to position the temporalities of daily life or disjunction as effective antidotes to administered time. While we can acknowledge that avant-garde devices of defamiliarization have half-lives, and thus cannot work their offices indefinitely, this process of exhaustion has been affected more radically from the outside—by the fact that time is now administered very differently from how it was from the 1950s to the 1980s. With the effective obliteration of the opposition between work and leisure, in short, the dialectical temporal frame that guided New American poetry and, yes, Language writing looses its traction. As bleak as this sounds, poetry’s just fine. I can’t tell you now how it’s survived and even prospered, which is another story; only that, with the temporalities of these now classic modes of daily life and disjunction now become the geologic recent past, it’s had to go in search of other times.

A Manifesto for Discomfortable Writing

(Outside, glorious illusions) – An Antena Collaboration


Dis-ease is useful to me, or the dis-abling of habituated practices of language. The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproducible, (re)printable, carries its own charge.
— Myung Mi Kim

Peoples who do not know each other should get to know each other in a hurry, like those who are about to struggle side by side.
— José Martí

What good is art when people everywhere don’t have enough to eat?
— M., member of Revolutionary Autonomous Communities,
a mutual aid food organization in Los Angeles

Seeing things, the alternative seeing of things, the seen and seeing alternative, which a certain deployment of crisis is meant to police, is the crisis of genuine disclosure and generative disruption.
— Fred Moten

• To make common currency uncommon.

• To make us strangers in a place we thought was home. To find spaces for listening inside strangeness.

• To refuse complacency and allow risk to alight inside our own bodies.

• Thinking is doing. Doing is thinking.

• We write discomfortably because we are probably wrong, yet compelled to learn. To learn from our errors.

• We are language workers in a workspace made of language. We are using language to push language into wild, unsettling, discomfortable forms. This process might be painful. This process might be joyous. This process will be infinite.

• Language and world are inseparable. Language and action are inseparable. We use language to think about the world: the world being language. We turn our minds and bodies to the language we are using: aware of the constant constraints and impositions of that language upon us. The language being the world, its multiple and multiplicitous brutalities. The perpetual brutalities of an unjust language. The perpetual possibilities of justice in language.

• We use the term “writing” to refer to a range of forms of aesthetic work and practice. If writing is a form of art, then we insist on the cohabitating inverse: art is a form of writing. We embrace the different materials and techniques that various forms of art-making and organizing entail: the discomfortable welcomes them all.

• Criticality is the seeing of the window and the frame and the smudges on the glass, as well as the landscape, cityscape, or humanscape outside the window. Criticality is the seeing of our own seeing, accounting for our own position, stance, perspective, history, infrastructure, substructure.

• Criticality is not optional.

• Discomfortable writing unsettles the complacent eye and opens it to the unexpected, the real and the hyper-real and the sub-real: the conditions of the world as it is and the potentials of the world as it might be.

• We reject the automatic. Automaticity is unquestioning acceptance of the conditions and brutalities of the world-as-it-is. To automatically act is to automatically collude.

• We embrace the everyday. Repetition, routine, and ritual also contain sparks of discomfortableness. The foundations of daily life are a springboard into the stratospheres of the discomfortable. The discomforts of daily life are the texture of our resistance.

• We are not averse to good rhythm, but we distrust language that is too fluid, too easeful, too smooth. Without the snags, the surface becomes slick and we slide into so-called comprehension without pausing to question or remember how much we do not know.

• Capital traffics in the smooth, the cool, the easy. Capital is not interested in reminding us that there is more to learn; in fact, capital colludes to soothe us into thinking we already know everything, to produce a sense of normality, expectedness, regularity in a world that is anything but.

• Capital is also famously obsessed with the new and the next. We insist that its aim is not learning, but consumption and assimilation, with its attendant leveling of difference. Discomfortable writing rejects assimilation, preferring to linger in moments of rupture, to dwell in the snags, seeing what we would not, could not see, seeing our own seeing.

• If our work does not question the terms of the status quo, it is the status quo. The murderous status quo. Our context is an avant-garde that has throughout history aligned itself with revolutionary political movements.

• It is our responsibility to make the world as we wish to experience it—to create the conditions of our resistance, our solidarity, and our irrepressible liberation even as we acknowledge the very real and concrete effects of living in a world where injustice is institutionalized and enforced via all kinds of subterranean and overt violence.

• We have no patience for the divide between art practice and political practice. We have endless patience for doing the hard imaginative and practical work of building a more humane and just world. We are here to dismantle the master’s house!

• Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Yvonne Rainer: “You can dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools, if you expose the tools.” Antena: “The master’s house began to collapse on its own long ago. Use any and all tools you can get your hands on and speed the process. Demolish the master’s house carefully enough to recycle the building materials and make tiny houses for everybody. With any leftover materials, we’ll make small books.”

• Discomfortable aesthetic work is necessary if we are to imagine and begin to build a new world. Art is more than graphics to accompany our slogans. Poetry can imagine new possibilities within language. Poetry and other non-conforming forms of writing can create discomfort, manifest expressions of our distress and dysfunction in the context of unjust structures. Our work is made of attempts and failures and further attempts: we will learn to think, dream, and imagine differently and it will not be easy. Our work is ongoing.

• All language is in conversation with other language. Writing is not a purely individual pursuit: it emerges out of communities, movements, relationships. We read and write in order to interact not only with other individuals but also with other formations, other systems of thought, other histories. We need to hear and experience things that are far outside our comfort zone. We need to question the very divisions between zones, between comforts, between persons.

• We want to invoke a curriculum of contemporary and historic discomfortable writing by people of color, feminist and queer authors, and by writers of all orientations and backgrounds who are queering language and dismantling systems of privilege. We believe in a pedagogy grounded in humility, open-source sharing, intellectual instigation and political activation.

• Our reading practices—and hence our editorial and programming and teaching practices—should reflect the demographics of the world. And if not the world, than at least our neighborhood, our corner of the world. Most corners of the world are more heterogeneous than might meet the unsuspecting eye.

• We advocate for books to be radically available: whether they live on the Internet, in libraries or bookstores, in homes, in kiosks on the street, in free boxes outside infoshops. Wherever. Whenever. For whomever.

• Discomfortable writing should exist in public. With bookstores closing their doors, and libraries shut down due to “austerity” measures, it is up to all of us to get these books into the world, where people can encounter them unexpectedly and be inspired by them. Make pamphlets! Write manifestos! Steal photocopies wherever possible and make books!

• Revolutionary rewritings need radical re-readers anywhere and everywhere. Open source is the only source.

• We stand (or sit resolutely) for the small, the tiny, the little, the under, the refused and the refuse, and also the oversized awkwardly gigantic in this svelte world of normalcies. We reject industrial, commercial models of literary production. We have an anti-industrial complex.

• While enthusiastically intellectual (and against rampant USAmerican anti-intellectualism), we are opposed to gates and their keepers and literary-academic elitism. We prefer to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

• We don’t accept or seek to proffer the same old definitions, strictures and restrictions of an inherited, white, USAmerican or European avant-garde. What constitutes “experimental” or “innovative” or “adventurous” work is structured by feeling, by sentiment, by history, by historical oppressions, by networks of communication and legacies of conflict. By place and time and context and the vastly textured skein of what it is to be a particular person in a particular place.

• There is no vacuum within which discomfortable practice can be judged. There is no judgment that can encompass the discomfortable.

• We use the term “discomfortable” to remind ourselves that this process might not feel good. Discomfortable writing makes us uneasy and functions in un-easy ways. Discomfortable writing makes demands, posits imperatives. To think differently, it is imperative that we find different language(s).

• We live in a slow space, an insistently snail’s pace. Our work with language is necessarily slow, effortful, considered, non-accidental, and not automatic. To work consistently in more than one language and between languages is slow and often awkward. To write something in one language and then take the time to translate it into another language means waiting, means collaborating, means multiple attempts. We believe in this slow process. Labor takes time and we believe in the time that it takes. Discomfortable time.

• We demand discomfortable time.

• Participation in a complex intellectual and political dialogue with many different kinds of readers/thinkers/speakers is a slower, less visible kind of change than other forms of agitation. We believe discomfortable language is its own form of activism or (dis)organizing—disorganizing the structures of institutionalized non-consensual domination and subservience that are embedded in the textures of our language.

• We believe discomfortable writing and speaking are in fact practiced all the time by all kinds of people. You don’t need a college degree to do discomfortable language. Often, the most discomfortable language has been marginalized for being “improper” or “lesser” or “slang.” All of these forms throw a wrench into the machine of language standardization and dominance.

• We reject the imperialism of English, its constructions and syntax. Discomfortable writing enthusiastically undermines the dominant structures of English and the structures of English-language dominance.

• Language justice work enables us to listen fluidly-not-fluidly to things we cannot readily hear: frequencies that are beyond our comprehension without the tools language justice provides. Discomfortable writing enables us to listen fluidly-not-fluidly to things we do not always attend: the scaffolding of the ways language functions to buttress ideology or silence dissent.

• The space of writing is a laboratory, a place to create unexpected combinations of like and unlike things and explore the results, a place to make attempts and embrace failures and extend investigations without regard to a clear sense of destination or outcome.

• We refuse to rest on our laurels. In fact, we don’t have any laurels! We have asses, and we are willing to work them off. We will be stubborn but not intransigent. We will be open to suggestion, persuasion, whim, and acceptance of the errors of our ways. We will look back and we will look forward.

• We are not post-anything. We are and we continue to be, without a clear break; we become complicit and resistant and insist on motion. We believe in interruption, stoppage, open-endedness. Nothing is over. Everything is over. We have barely begun. We are in the midst of the midst.


Myung Mi Kim, “Ear Turned Toward the Emergent,” Close Listening, Jacket2, February 19, 2012.

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984. Text of “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” is available at:

José Martí, “Nuestra América,” originally published in La Revista Ilustrada de Nueva York, January 10, 1891 and El Partido Liberal, Mexico, January 30, 1891.

Fred Moten, “necessity, immensity, and crisis (many edges/seeing things),” Floor Issue #1, 2011.

Revolutionary Autonomous Communities, conversation in MacArthur Park, June 16, 2013.

(Outside, glorious illusion)

A Collaborative Experiment in Discomfortable Writing


Original lines:

Virginia Lucas: Afuera la ilusión gloriosa cometa reventando el viento / diciendo en sacudidas; afuera la libertad

Rachel Levitsky: At the boundary / where they meet. // Rooms lost and stolen / dirty under the desk.

Improvised interpreted poem:

glorious illusion
a comet exploding
in the wind
shaken things—
out with liberty!
—lost things
under the desk.
Today I want
to feel. Today
I want to kill.
Outside. Outside
the prisoners
against the wall.
The repeated wall.
The wall
of repeated
action. The wall.
I want to get rid
of education.
I want to get rid
of bad manners.
a wall. Today
I would like for us
to share
that thing
that is
to flee.

This improvised discomfortable text-generating experiment is based on a repeating, spiraling practice of collaborative interpretation and addition, for which we invented a few key constraints to guide us. We began with one text fragment in Spanish, chosen by one of us without the other’s knowledge: in this instance, by Uruguayan poet and queer studies innovator, Virginia Lucas. This text was immediately interpreted into English by the listener, who then added one text fragment in English—in this instance, by New York poet and recuperative strategist, Rachel Levitsky. After the reading and initial interpretation of each of our “found” texts, every time one of us “interpreted,” we added a line or two of our own devising, for a total of five sets of improvised “interpretations.” Our rules were that we had to take new notes on a new sheet of paper or cover our old notes every time we were interpreting (to avoid simply transferring notes and/or memorizing text blocks) and that we could return to the same original text by Lucas or Levitsky if we wanted to include more lines of theirs rather than improvised lines of our own.

While this experiment is grounded in interpretation techniques, it differs significantly from professional interpreting and in fact violates many of the central guidelines of the practice. In our professional lives, we would never perform live interpretations of poetry—it’s just impossible. Rather, if a speaker is going to read a poem as part of their presentation, we request that they provide a translation of that material to us in advance. Additionally, in almost all instances of interpretation, we’d be aware of the context of the speaker’s comments, which would usually follow a basic logic and create a fairly legible linear narrative; context and logic are turned upside down when we oblige ourselves to interpret improvised lines that may or may not have some relationship (often neither logical nor linear) to the preceding lines. Finally, in our practice as interpreters, we would never, ever embellish or improvise based on what we are interpreting—quite the contrary, we would do our very best to transmit the message as directly as possible, and as closely to what we heard as possible, with no omissions and no additions.

We broke key rules of interpreting. We invented new constraints for the experiment. The process was eminently discomfortable. And the result: a discomfortable text.