Friday, May 02, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Ron Silliman

[photo credit: Jeff Hurwitz]

Ron Silliman has written and edited 30 books to date, including the anthology In the American Tree. Since 1979, Silliman has been writing a poem entitled The Alphabet. Volumes published thus far from that project have included ABC, Demo to Ink, Jones, Lit, Manifest, N/O, Paradise, â, Toner, What and Xing. Silliman is a 2002 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Arts Council and received a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 1998. His blog has had over 1.6 million visits as of May 1 2008. He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons, and works as a market analyst in the computer industry.

Silliman's Blog
Home Page at the Electronic Poetry Center:
Home Page at the University of Illinois' Modern American Poets' site:
Ron Silliman Archive at the University of California, San Diego:
Ron Silliman Page at the Pew Fellowship for the Arts:

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It worked in two ways. First, publishing Crow (Ithaca House, 1971) cured me of the dreamy notion that my first book would change my life. Second, and far more important, it helped to put me in touch with like-minded poets my own age. I met both Bob Perelman & Ray DiPalma as a direct result of that book, poets who have become lifelong friends. And Ray published my second book fairly soon thereafter.

2 - How long have you lived in Pennsylvania, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I accepted a job with Technology Service Solutions, a joint venture of IBM and Kodak, in May 1995, and in theory moved here June 1st. Actually, I spent much of the previous month staying with Bob Perelman & Francie Shaw, who live in Philadelphia proper, while I looked around for a short-term rental for the family.

Moving anywhere is generative for my writing, simply because I see new things, notice new phrasings. The move to Pennsylvania from the Bay Area was good for our family in that the cost of living is so much more rational here – or was 13 years ago. Where I had an 1100 square-foot home a half-block from the needle exchange program in Berkeley, I was able to get a four-bedroom house on four-tenths of an acre in the best school district in the state, really at no more money. Ironically, perhaps, my net worth on paper would be much higher if I still lived in that 1100 square-foot house by the needle exchange program.

Race & gender are always active in my writing, in that they're topics that I think about a lot. There are differences especially with regards to racial issues between the Bay Area and here. The black political community is far more deeply established in Philadelphia than in the Bay Area, there is a sensitivity to the history of slavery you never find in California.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Well, I've been working on the same poem now since 1974, so I begin with a lot of information. Ultimately, I tend to be driven with something like an itch toward something I want to do, either something I've never done before, or some variation on something I have played with in the past. Figuring out how I'm going to write this can take a lot of time. I keep a set of about 20 unused notebooks, ranging from simple ones that I was given at tech conferences to leather-bound journals that cost up to $100, and once I think a particular work might relate well to that journal, I start taking notes.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Yes, but very indirectly. Since it can take me a decade to finish a given project, I'm almost always reading from older work. Often, however, that will give me some new insights on what I'm working on at the moment. I must say that audience reaction isn't necessarily a big part of this – the practice readings I do before reading in public are at least as important to me, if not more so.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I'm thinking theoretically all the time, but none of my poems are proofs of a given position. I don't think I'm nearly so focused on answering questions as I am in posing them.

I think right now there is a huge transformation occurring between the number of publishing poets, which is rising dramatically, and the reading audience for poetry, which is growing much more slowly. I think it means that every young poet has to think very differently about what constitutes a career, what counts as success, how to sustain one's work against the depredations of the economy, all those very practical problems.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It totally depends on the editor. Some I've had have been utterly essential to my work, especially my critical writing. I must say I've made very few changes in my poetry as the result of working with an editor – less than 50 text changes in my entire life.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

After my fourth book, Ketjak, appeared in 1978, I became something of a brand in American post-avant poetics, so that since then it has been far easier. When Alabama publishes The Alphabet later this year, I will have all of my mature work in print in the U.S. That's almost unheard for a poet my age, at least without a collected edition, so I'm very aware of how fortunate I am.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

About two weeks ago. The first of the new year.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Two things that are implicit in Pound's writing, especially his letters. One is that the history of poetry is the history of change in poetry, and that it is change that matters most. The other is that the greatest work outside of the writing itself is basically social, putting this person in touch with somebody likeminded, whether you do it in person or via some channel like a blog.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical writing/reviewing)? What do you see as the appeal?

They're very different in my mind, so I do move back & forth with some ease. But a good rule of thumb is that I can't write much poetry after I've done any critical writing that day.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I have no typical process for writing my poems – it totally depends on them. But I do have something of a typical process for my critical writing, my blog, etc. I rise at 5 (or perhaps 7 on weekends) and work until, say, eight. This would include writing, posting the day's note, reading online newspapers (I read several), answering email. I try to sketch out what next week's blog notes will be on weekend mornings. And I try to stay a few notes ahead if at all possible.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Since I'm always working on multiple projects (currently on five different sections of Universe), I tend to find that being stalled on one does not equate with being stalled on them all, so I simply switch notebooks and work on another project for awhile.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My most recent book is The Age of Huts (compleat) from the University of California Press. It's the first book for which I've ever received an advance – modest tho it was – and the first from a major university press. It collects the Age of Huts cycle that begins my long poem and puts them together for the very first time. The poems included there were all written in the 1970s. I must say I feel that some of these texts are very present to me. They don't feel like "old" works in the slightest.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I started Ketjak, a work whose very title specifies a musical form, the same week that I first heard the West Coast premier of Steve Reich's Drumming at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I think about many of the arts a lot – I literally just curated a gallery exhibition of the paintings of Cynthia Miller for the CUE Art Foundation in New York. Her work and her uses of imagery, more how she places them on the canvas than what they are (tho she and I both like bird imagery), gives me a lot to think about in terms of how I build structures in my own writing. I've always done this and it feels completely natural to me.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

This would be a huge list. The poets with whom I am co-writing The Grand Piano, a collective autobiography of San Francisco language poetry of the 1970s, are undoubtedly the closest to me. Rae Armantrout and Barrett Watten have both been deep influences for decades, and still are. But there are others quite apart from language writing altogether – one would be Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Her work on the longpoem Drafts is the project that feels closest to my own poetry in terms of the challenges she poses for herself. I could read that work forever and still not reach all that's there.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Travel. I've only been to Europe twice, and never to Asia, Africa or South America. Not being an academic is a serious disadvantage in terms of the conference circuit.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

At one point, when I was in high school, I thought I might be a lawyer. Later, when I was doing community organizing, people tried to get me to go to law school. I had one of the regents of the Hastings College of Law tell me he would guarantee my acceptance. But then I would have had to have been a lawyer. I don't think I could have done it without the same level of commitment I've reserved for poetry, so ultimately I shied away from it.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Language was "in play," as they say, when I was very little. My grandmother had a deep chronic depression that showed up in a series of psychotic episodes in her life. When she had these "spells" (as my family called them in the 1950s), her language would change dramatically. She would start sentences, all with great urgency, but not complete them. Then later the same day, sometimes hours later, she would be able to get to all the predicates and my younger brother & I would hear all of that as well. We learned very early how to put these together, how to hear her. On top of this, my grandfather had a significant hearing loss, so my brother & I learned that we could talk "secretly" in front of him so long as we stayed in some squeaky pitch. He was afraid to get a hearing aide because he thought his employer would try to get rid of him if he was "disabled." Finally, during my grandmother's "spells," we would hire this woman, a German war bride whose husband was a janitor at UC Berkeley, to help clean the house and look after my brother and I. Gertrude Cabral was actually the woman who first taught me to read, simple things from the children's books she used with her own kids. Except that they were in German! Then when she stopped working for us, I didn't read German again until I got to college. But by the time I was in first grade, I knew that language was a very strange dimension. And by fifth grade, I knew I was a writer.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I've just read some 150 books for the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award and come across many great books there, just under 20 in fact. But I'll point to the winner, Aram Saroyan for his Complete Minimal Poems. Those are poems from the 1960s that have stood up very well over the thirty-some years since they were first written.

Last great film? I just saw Gone Baby Gone on DVD and was surprised at how well done it was, in terms of writing, acting, directing, cinemaphotography, the whole ball of wax.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Five sections of Universe. Proofreading The Alphabet, which is over 1,000 pages long. Starting to think about a manuscript of unrejected works that pre-date Ketjak and The Age of Huts. Wondering about a second volume of essays. Those will probably the major projects of the next several years.

12 or 20 questions archive

1 comment:

Geofhuth said...


Thanks, as always for the interview. One tiny note: the URL to Ron's papers is off by one letter. The b at its end should be an a, thus: