On wanting to be Caroline Bergvall

For many years I have wanted to be Steve van Zandt, mainly because of the East Street band and The Sopranos but also because of the New York radio show and the bandanna and the fact that he’s actually uglier than me. I’ve been very comfortable with this aspiration because it’s never going to be achieved and it is far superior to being envious of him and what he does.

Over the past two days I’ve realised that the above may be in need of some revision because I now think that I’d rather be Caroline Bergvall. By this I think I mean that I’d prefer to spend the rest of my life doing Bergvall’s kind of language practice and feeling okay about it. I’d like to be able to do things with language and space and books and readings. It doesn’t matter whether I’d have her success and reputation but I would kill to be given a couple of rooms in a gallery to do language practice with. Nor am I suggesting that my practice would look or sound like hers but I think that she is more correct than most on a number of points.

I think I’d also like to be French-Norwegian.

On wanting to be in Caroline Bergvall’s gang.

The way this realisation came about is mostly due to my new-found interest in Middle English which I’m currently trying to learn and a specific interest in the period at the end of the 15th century when Middle English became early modern. Thinking about this whilst washing up yesterday, I remembered that I’d bought Bergvall’s ‘Meddle English’ and had put it aside until I was able to give it the attention that it deserved. So, I started to look through it and read more carefully the ‘manifesto’ at the front. It turns out strikes more than a chord with the way that I think about the doing of poetry which is why I want to be in Bergvall’s gang.
I’d like to give a few examples and then give some consideration to the poems. This is from p17:

I repeat what many have said, that poetic art language must not implicitly be held to account of identities and national language, the seductions of literary history, or the frequently fetishistic methodologies of art movements, but rather seek, far and close, the indicators and practices of language in flux, of thought in making: pleasured language, pressured language, language in heated use, harangued language, forms of language revolutionised by action, polemical language that propose an intense deliberate reappraisal of the given world and its given forms.

Many may have said this but I doubt if any have said it with such clarity and force. She is, of course, absolutely correct that the focus of our attention and practice should be on language in flux, subject to the many and various negotiations and deals that both traverse its surface and pierce to the core. If we think about language use as the manifestation of ‘thought in making’ then this frees up a wider range of dimensions that the current lit crit view. I also think we should think more about how language gets to be ‘pleasured’ (this nicely articulates a view of mine that Spenser and Milton are both supreme pleasurers of language). The notion of language development as a continuing and perpetual revolution is reasonably standard but it does make more sense than usual in this context.

Whilst I am personally fond of ‘polemical language structures’ I think I’d also like to see these balanced by practices that reflect (embody) notions of celebration and performance because I think these are essential if poetic language practices are to have any kind of relevance to the confused and conflicted world in which we live.

Most manifesto compilers tend to focus on the ‘broad sweep’ and hardly ever get to the detail of what needs to be done. Bergvall avoids this trap, the next paragraph is:

More often than not, we each use a voice that speaks for us before we get to speak. Quite apart from the ideological implications and beyond palliative arts methodologies, this is why so many of us spend so much of our lives and imagination working at the undoing of a voice or identity we do not wish to be tagged as and questioning the methods of environments we might not wish to represent. It is through this confusing, seemingly self-defeating process of dissociation, of “disloyalty” that other forms of allegiances are made manifest and other conductor-channels can be generated.

I had to read this a couple of times before I saw that it seems to catch the essential component of what a few of our younger poets might be up to. I could argue that a self-conscious awkwardness/discomfort might need to be added to “disloyalty” but this does seem to describe a lot of what’s going on in the ‘Better than Language’ anthology as well as with Bergvall’s own practice (see below). I think I might also detect a poetic articulation of what Foucault says about the mechanics of power in volume 1 of ‘A History of Sexuality’ but that might be wishful thinking.

The idea of ‘conductor channels’ seems to take us a little way into Prynne territory and this is underlined/heightened in the next wonderful paragraph:

To meddle with English is to be in the flux that abounds, the large surf of one’s clouded contemporaneity. It is a process of social and mental excavation explored to a point of extremity. One that reaches for the irritated, excitable uncertainties of our embodied spoken lives by working with, taking apart, seeing through the imposed complicities of linguistic networks and cultural scaffolds. One which is not only prompted to recognise what it wishes to fight against: what sedates, what isolates, what immobilises, what deadens, what perpetuates. But works at it tactically, opportunistically, utilising at will and with relish the many methods, tools, abilities and experiential attitudes it needs. Making a workshop of the surrounding world. Oiling creativity and artistry with critical spirit, since there can be no revolt nor renewal without creative impulse, without anarchic pleasure, without a leap in the dark.

For many months my personal notion of poetics has veered between Geoffrey Hill (‘a sad and angry consolation’) through to Philip Roth and Ezra Pound (it is what it is – read the fucking words) but now it is more than likely that these have been obliterated by a ‘seeing through’ of the taken for realities and an occupation of and working within a ‘workshop of the surrounding world’. There isn’t a single word that I disagree with or have quibbles about, in fact the above manages to articulate many of the things that I have ineptly tried to express in this blog. Having been even more enthused by typing out the above, I can only reiterate that I really do want to be in Caroline’s gang.

Meddle English

The proof of the manifesto pudding is to be found in the work and ‘Meddle English’ does contain a wide range of poetry for our consideration from the more or less straightforward to the experimental. I want to quote from two poems that I think give an indication of the strength of the whole. The first is the start of “Fried Tale”:

All juicit with an arseful of moola, wonga, clams & squids
doks stashed in identikit blakases hanging from ther hans
2 Suits, a mega pair of Smith, Blupils no dout,
viddying how they trading outa goodness welth stuporifik,
shake handes, hug n abuse ech othre on the bak.

This extends into a thoughtful consideration of matters economic primarily utilising the thoughts of J K Galbraith and glides wonderfully between the meddle english in use above and current standard English. There is an audio version on Bergvalls web site that I would recommend but I want to contrast this kind of language practice with the first two stanzas from ‘Utitled’ which has “Roberta Flack can clean your soul – out!” as a subtitle:

bass drums piano SAIDA LOVETHELIE bass LIETHELOVE bass HANGINON
bass WITH PUSH AND SHOV piano POSSESSION IS bass THE MO TIVATION
bass HANGIN UP bass THE WHOLE DAMNATION bass LOOKSLIKE piano
WE ALWAYS END UP piano IN A piano RUT bass TRYINTOMAKEITREAL horns
BUTCOMPAREDTOWHAT horns piano drums bass.

Normally this is the kind of conceit that would irritate more than impress me but it’s done with such confidence and flair that it makes me smile. Both of these occupy the ‘mid-range’ (in terms of experimentation) of the collection but I do think that they indicate a practitioner who is busy making her own workshop of the world.

Meddle English is published by nightboat and sells for $14.95.

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One response to “On wanting to be Caroline Bergvall

  1. Pingback: Sarah Kelly’s ‘cables / to the telescopes’ | Bebrowed’s Blog

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