INTERVIEW WITH JED RASULA
Tony Tost: Imagining Language strikes me as a fairly unique approach to the anthology project, or at least compared to how it's often done in poetry (where anthologies as often as not are occasions for solidifying reputations and careers, leaving any and all underlying assumptions about notions like poetry, reputation and career unaddressed).
What were the circumstances that led to Steve McCaffery and yourself collaborating on this project? Or, to be a little more specific, what drew the two of you together as collaborators and/or what were the underlying motivations for doing this kind of project?
Jed Rasula: First, I'd want to correct the widespread perception that Imagining Language is a “poetry anthology.” I suppose that may be a helpless association, given my own protracted ruminations on poetry anthologies in The American Poetry Wax Museum. But despite the publication dates (Wax in 1996, Imagining Language in '98), the anthology had a much earlier inception. Believe it or not, Imagining Language started off as a projects file folder for television. From 1982-85 I worked for Ripley's Believe It Or Not, the ABC tv show hosted by Jack Palance. My job was to come up with story ideas, pitch them to the producers (mostly Mel Stuart—director of the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—but also Jack Haley, producer of That's Entertainment, son of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz …and at the time I was working with him he was recently separated from Liza Minelli, so theirs was a mismatch made in Oz heaven), and shepherd the stories through the production process. It was an interesting job, with extraordinary resources. The research support I had at Ripley's exceeded anything I've encountered in academia. My office mate there was an itinerant scholar named William Moritz, who died a few years ago but who was executor of the estate of filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, and also one of the premier authorities on the phenomenon of “visual music.” It was Bill who introduced me to the work of Fischinger and the Whitney brothers, pioneers of this phenomenon I've recently been writing about in my forthcoming book Oblique Modernism. Bill and I shared the same approach to the job, as we found that we could get most of our week's work done on Monday, and really only needed to be on call after that to respond to emergency (in Hollywood it's always emergency) script meetings, rush cuts, translation needs (Bill was enviably multilingual), and prepping documents for the network censors (one of whom, astonishingly, was Freud's great granddaughter). We therefore had lots of time, not to mention resources, to work on our own projects. Nearly all the articles and reviews I published during those years were written at my Ripley's desk, including a little diatribe called “The American Poetry Wax Museum” published by Lee Hickman in Temblor (and by Ben Friedlander and Andrew Schelling in Jimmy and Lucy's) a decade before it became a book.
Now, all this may strike you as anecdotally evasive. But, truthfully, Imagining Language wouldn't have happened without Ripley's Believe It Or Not. “Imagining Language” was the name I used for one of my project file folders (to give you a sense of scale, at any given time I had about fifty such file folders going). In the context of commercial television, the topic was the longest of long shots. I tried in vain to interest the producers in a segment on Finnegans Wake, for instance. But they did bite on the phenomenon of Boontling, an argot local to Booneville in northern California (see Imagining Language p. 50). They also did a segment on Benjamin Franklin's spelling reform proposals, unlikely as that seems. What really went over well, though, was sound poetry. In fact, Mel Stuart was so captivated by it that he went out to shoot the segments himself (normally, he dealt only with scenarios involving Jack Palace; all other footage was either stock or else produced as needed by hired “stringers”). These included George Quasha and Charles Stein, who didn't perform that much in public but had developed a striking buccal symbiosis. After that was broadcast, Mel went to Toronto to film the Four Horsemen, the seasoned sound poetry quartet that included bp Nichol and Steve McCaffery. It was filmed on the roof of the loft Steve was living in at that point on the east side of the city next to the Don Mills Parkway. The one other byproduct of my “Imagining Language” file at Ripley's came later, when Marie Osmond became co-host with Jack Palance. In the format of the show, little topic clusters (like “weird language”) were introduced by one of the hosts. In this case, the frame was Cabaret Voltaire. Marie was required to read Hugo Ball's sound poem “Karawane” and a few script lines. Much to everybody's astonishment, when they started filming she abruptly looked away from the cue cards directly into the camera and recited, by memory, “Karawane.” It blew everybody away, and I think they only needed that one take. A year or so after it was broadcast, Greil Marcus approached me, wanting to use Marie Osmond's rendition of Hugo Ball for a cd produced in England as sonic companion to his book Lipstick Traces; so I was delighted to be able to arrange that.
It was after Ripley's expired in 1985 that I applied to graduate school, ending up in the History of Consciousness Program at UC Santa Cruz. The “Imagining Language” dossier from Ripley's continued to haunt me—it was gradually swelling, like an accordion file, with new sightings—and I remember talking to my supervisor, Hayden White, about the feasibility of an anthology as a dissertation. Not possible, so that was that. Back into hibernation. By the same principle, I assumed, tenure and promotion would be insecurely grounded on an anthology, which is the main reason Wax preceded Imagining Language. But when I had moved to Canada in 1990 to teach at Queen's University I renewed contact with Steve McCaffery. We went back a ways: he'd stayed with us in Los Angeles in January or February 1977, and I remember how excited both of us were to find the new translation of Derrida's Of Grammatology in a bookstore out near UCLA. On that trip he also scored an armful of first editions of Gertrude Stein—my first intimation of his spectacular antiquarian library, which came in handy years later for the anthology. So, when Steve was hired as a sessional (or non-tenure track) teacher at Queen's, his proximity made me realize, with the force of that proverbial lightbulb in the head, that the only way I was ever going to move forward with Imagining Language was with a collaborator, and who better than him? The first thing we did was apply for a grant, which we didn't get. But the feedback was useful, so we succeeded the next year (1994), at which point we had to start work in earnest. By the time we got that grant we had no clear organization in mind, just a huge stack of photocopies, maybe 2,000 pages. Since Finnegans Wake had been at the center of the anthology concept since Ripley's, the timeliness of the grant enabled Steve and I to present papers at the International James Joyce Symposium in Seville that summer, launching ourselves into some of the writing that ended up in the Introduction and section prefaces to the anthology. I was also able to do some extensive research in London at the British Library, turning up things like the Chladni diagrams, and that curious Welshman Rowland Jones.
To speak to the “underlying motivations” of the project: I think what we shared was a long foreground of immersion in continental theory. That was evident from Steve's publications in the journal Open Letter (some of which were reprinted in his book North of Intention) which I discovered in 1974 at the time I was first reading Barthes, Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida. In retrospect, I imagine anyone reading Imagining Language now might feel put off by the heavy diesel odor of theoretical jargon in our prefaces. Steve was more of a tar baby in that respect than I was, as you can see by comparing his Prior to Meaning with my Syncopations (more or less parallel projects reflecting, to some extent, our work on the anthology); but that's an indelible material trace, I think, that communicates in the same olfactory/tactile way that the aromatic effusion of patchouli oil and hashish reanimates the Sixties. It's that aspect, curiously, which makes the fossilized exidua of that particular jargon somehow commensurate with Walter Benjamin's remark in The Arcades Project that the eternal “is far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea” (N3,2).
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