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2004 Writers' Forum
Ezra Mark

Ezra Mark is a signifying practice, as specific yet as general as the words "alone" and "bread." He is a dedicated walker and is given to negotiating the field of language in a similar manner. A co-founder of the Subtext Reading Series, he is the author of Intention, Narthex, and Two.
photo credit: dean wong
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 3, 2004, Ezra and Belle discuss: technology and writing, point of view, philosophy, genre, sound sense, music, and more.
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
29:48/11.8MB
EM




Dead Air. Actually I suppose that that’s one of the reasons that I was so attracted to do this, just the possibility of… silence. We’re so often presented with these very loud, crowded readings. And it’s the book, that is much more my concern.
So let’s—shall we—begin in the old fashioned way with an epigraph… from Maurice Blanchot. "Let us suppose that literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question." And, we talked a little bit about questions, and the role of journals and notes. And so I’ll read this little bit to get us going:
"I think that I should begin here or elsewhere, a series of writings on the fragment. ‘The fragment in my life,’ or ‘the fragment as I see it.’ I know that I am capable of writing an essay, a sort of memoir, a sonnet, a novel. Indeed I’ve done so, and torn up, or burned the results. I have kept single lines or short paragraphs from these works. Even a list of four words revealed through the agency or intercession of fire, the top page blackened, curling back, revealing, momentarily, the page beneath. To realize that this is quite as it should be, the discerning form of fire, revealing, obtaining, the content of the work. And the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."
BR




Thank you. I’m talking to Ezra Mark, and he’s talking about fragments. In preparing for this interview today, I was led to your blog spot on the internet, and I guess it’s not the usual blog, in that it’s more solitary than communal, and more of a notebook in which you jot down fragments—
EM That is correct
BR



…than a group conversation. But what struck me as most fascinating about it, is that it seems a place where publication and composition are simultaneous. Is that true? Or are you revising your entries before posting them?
EM













One rule I have about the blog, which I do break occasionally---instead of waking up and turning on the computer and starting to write, everything is written longhand. So I do have a chance to revise it before. But the thing that really intrigues me about an electronic publication in this way, is just a few people know about it. And it’s a notebook that’s totally incorporeal. I keep a very messy desk, I have several notebooks, and it’s the idea that somewhere out in the aether there’s this locus of notes. And also because of the way that a posting works on a blog, the most recent entry is always at the top, so there’s this, sort of like writing in reverse, that happens. And actually I think the epigraph that I use at the beginning of the blog begins, uh… "The central point from which the ruin takes its shape."
BR




And, is that the center of the fragments? They seem to cohere for me. I was really interested in what you said, on the blogs I read, but I didn’t bring the quote about naturalness and transparency arising from a blind spot. Claims to be natural or transparent or sincere in writing.
EM







Okay, actually, I think I might have that quote right here… Ah yes. Hidden in plain sight. "Hidden in plain sight. It is a fatal error to account for writing’s essential self-subversion, claims for naturalness and transparency, worse, taking these for granted as a given, relegate writing not to the margins where writing always exists were it possible, but places it firmly, irrevocably, in a virtual blind spot, not even hidden in plain sight. We’re all agreed upon the pleasure of ruins."
BR











This reminded me a lot of something that Sartre says when he’s talking about his concept of good faith and authenticity. And he says that you should never trust anyone saying ‘I am being sincere with you.’ Because, again, I don’t know if this is where your idea came from, but it’s interestingly similar because he says, it is a blind spot. You can watch yourself, or you can watch yourself watching yourself. Or you can watch yourself watching your self watching—you know, ad infinitum, but there’s always the watching self that isn’t watched. And that’s why he argues that it’s a blind spot, that you don’t know if you’ve been sincere until you look in retrospect.
EM
















And there is that sense of a remove. Something I’ve been toying with recently is the idea, I mean the solitary nature of writing. And that the other is a sort of withdrawing from the world. As Jean-Luc Nancy points out in one of his essays, that withdrawing, if you look at the word, also means to sort of, to withdraw, to re-draw, to re-inscribe. And what happens when I, or you, step back to negotiate the text, whether that involves writing it or reading it, and of course in the process of reading it we reconstruct or construct our own meanings. That is extremely important to me. And getting back to that transparency, this idea that I’m a poet, and how many poems have you heard that begin with this first-person I, and you just take it, ‘oh, this is this person’s natural voice.’ People make this great to-do about the natural rhythms of speech, but a lot of what I hear out there that I disagree with, it’s actually this sort of American poetic voice, natural speak-ease, that is not natural at all.
Solitude
















BR







It’s a set of conventions like every other voice… and, the 'I' in a poem is a construct. For me it’s always something created for the poem, not me Belle. But—and there always is this, no matter how self-conscious or self aware you become, there is always a self that is not negotiated until you get time to look back even further. That’s partly what this is about, right. So you can’t say ‘I am being sincere,’ without sounding and being fraudulent.
EM

















Getting back to the instance of the epigraph, that line of Blanchot and the questioning, that’s really all we have. There’s no—sense of warning signals for me, whether it’s politically or in the political arena of literature. When someone says ‘this is’ or ‘there is,’ that’s an extremely dangerous construction. Whereas, ‘seems to me,’ or ‘this might be possible….’ I don’t mess up space for the reader, and in a general sense of community and politics, I find that to be infinitely more preferable. The word ‘negotiation’ came up again too, and that was an interesting thing about writing this book Intention, is the various stages of going through that. And then having some time late January, before the final group of readings we’re doing to promote it down in Portland, and re-reading the book and actually having some of that distance to it and… thinking, reading, and at one point I said, ‘well I’m not sure if I agree with this Ezra Mark character,’ you know. There’s some… not contentious things but, it’s a very interesting place to be in.
BR





It’s a beautiful book. It’s a chapbook. Kind of—hand made… with care, it looks like. I mean, it’s sewn, rather than glued together or something. And even has –I just love this thing, I love finding one thing inside another—and it has a little book within the book. And would you like to talk about the meaning of that to you?
EM


































I had a sense… Intention almost was sort of a joke title. I decided that I was going to write this work of prose and there were several threads that I wanted to weave together. And one of those was, the idea was, to read Elizabeth Anscombe’s philosophical books, Intention, and see if that would work it’s way. And Anscombe does make some appearances here. There’s an essay, not in Intention… but when she was later on in years, was asked, what was it that brought her to philosophy, and she was talking about being an undergraduate at Cambridge. And I’ll read directly from it: "For years I would spend time, in cafés for example, staring at objects saying to myself, ‘I see a packet,’ but what do I really see, how can I say that I see here anything more than an expanse of yellow?" So that I found to be very useful. But in kind of, sussing out the form of the book, and how it was developing… I did have this sense that there should be some kind of interruption, and that there should be something that would just kind of, throw you up and… almost as if some severe sort of disjunction would happen. And I had also been doing a bit of studying on the 17th and 18th century English notion of the garden. And just what a bizarre construct that was, to try to create a more natural form of nature. And so, they’re… a garden or gardens do appear throughout Intention, and then that becomes the sort of the locus, of the center, the "Provocation of Gardens" which is the little book within the book. Which is sort of, paradoxically, it’s the most… politically direct section of the book, but it’s also the most abstract, there’s a very different language sense that operates within it. It’s also referred to in the text too, possibly, I think in the café, noisy and crowded, "I glanced through a small green book notebook-sized. The book’s an interruption, the writing’s fragmented, peripatetic, notational." And you could very well think, ‘well is that the little green book that I just found in this book?’ Maybe yes maybe no.
BR



You’ve talked about philosophers and you’re clearly very deeply interested in philosophy. Um… have you studied it formally, has it … been a competing interest with poetry? Why are you a poet and not a philosopher?
EM



Well I think they’re both equally pretentious appellations in many ways… I think studying both also prepares one to be a short order cook or something like that…. I’m collecting my thoughts….




































I suppose the quickest way to respond to that, because those are very, really big questions… somebody recently called me a "thinker". Which I found infinitely preferable to poet. And I suppose if I need to operate under a term it would probably be that of ‘writer.’ But I could even argue in its own way, yeah, the act of, getting back to the questioning. I don’t know exactly what drives me to do this. I don’t wake up in the morning and you know think, oh I’m a writer, I’m a philosopher, I’m a thinker—it just so happens that there are certain questions that do occur to me and they have been addressed by other people in the form of books, and so I read these. And, it’s reflected partially in the work but I find that my theoretical concerns and practical concerns of writing tend to work concurrently. And it’s sort of a… mutually informative process. On one hand I don’t start with this pre-ordained theory and say ‘oh well I’m going to write a poem to illustrate this.’ But clearly, especially in some recent work, which maybe I think there’s clearly the influence of Blanchot showing in it, in a certain way. And he’s a very interesting case in point, you know, is he a philosopher, is he a fiction writer? There’s a point in his writing career where the generic distinctions dissolve. Getting back—maybe talking more about Intention, the writer Hélène Cixous, there’s a book of hers called uh FirstDays of the Year, that’s fascinating because it goes from memoir to literary criticism, to its own sort of journal type writing, and it’s published by University Press and they like to put things into generic classifications, so you look on the back cover and it says "literature/literary criticism." And I find it fascinating that this book FirstDays of the Year, is in the collections of both the Seattle Public Library and the King County Library, and the Seattle Public Library has it in with French Essays and Literary Criticism, whereas over in Bellevue they have it shelved in Fiction… and I think she would love that. And it’s writing like that that does put one in a kind of dangerous, somewhat –contentious is perhaps too harsh a word, but— in a position of doubt….
BR








It can be very exciting when the expectations of a certain genre are surprised. I mean, even in something as frivolous as that movie, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, it starts out like another kind of movie and then turns into a vampire movie, in the middle of what you thought was a realistic story. But then, on the other hand, I know you’ve talked a lot about desiring to transcend the boundaries of genre. Do you ever worry that a kind of entropy will happen, and that instead of something different, one will wind up with a sort of alphabet soup? Do you understand what I’m saying?
EM Yeah, sort of an ideological muddle, in a way…
BR Something that’s shapeless instead of…
EM

Perhaps to illustrate your question, I might just—you want me to read what I read at the Jack Straw meet & greet—
BR Yes, I’d like to hear that again.
EM



-because this actually begins with a series of short poems and then it moves into some prose work that I’ve been working on. And the hinge when it switches into prose is when the epigraph is introduced.
Writing
The blank page beneath…
[reading follows]
BR




That’s interesting. Your work sounds intended to be read aloud, but it’s not in any obvious way performative—it’s not like the slam poets’ poetry. But what’s the relationship of it as sound, for you? Do you say it aloud when you’re composing these fragments?
EM














There’s a certain amount of pacing around the room … a certain level of attention to sound sense. But I think one of the main concerns is spatial. And, the fact that… in a live-type situation that you do have that, the presence of negative space, that you can actually, you can illustrate on the page with blankness, but then you can also pause, you can have silence, dynamic control. Here I’m not playing with that much. That really intrigues me. And I find that, just with work on text on a page it’s a little too easy to, just kind of gloss over it. It’s a little too easy to gloss over it quickly, as opposed to a live-type situation, to actually avail oneself of the space, and to extend a thought over several minutes. That’s something I think you can really only pull off in a live situation. And it’s something that this culture doesn’t really leave much room for, that sort of contemplation.
BR







That’s an interesting thing about reading aloud, because… it’s both as if you do have time, that is you’re completely embodying the thought, and hearing it in a way you don’t when you read silently. I at least notice myself being hurried, when I read to myself. But on the other hand it’s as if you don’t have enough time either, because you can’t go back, you know. It passes you, it’s… like a moving vehicle when it’s read aloud.
You’ve mentioned that among your influences on your work there are artists other than poets. I think you named Joseph Cornell, Bach, and Anton Webern, for example.
EM























Webern’s music, yes. And actually that follows I think quite well from talking about reading in a live situation. I grew up playing violin and I… recently in the past few days have been re-listening to Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas and… sort of that spacialization there too where that sound, like a low G that will resound, and that carries through and resonates, like a word might do—and then will articulate based on the tonal patterns. We’ll do arpeggios or whatever on top of that, and then we’ll dip down and hit another lower note which will continue to provide the bass. But I think it’s that attention to placement that one sees in Cornell and that kind of… evocativeness. And there are certainly other painters too, I mean just the gesture of Cy Twombly. But colorfield painting, also like Barnett Newman, some of Ellsworth Kelly’s works, I mean just the presence of being in front of that and being caught up in the present moment of the viewing and losing oneself in it. It’s just one of the most wonderful things in the world, to just sit down and just, to lose oneself in a book, or to be in a reading and suddenly a line catches you, and you realize that… half a minute or so has gone by—you don’t really know where you’re at but you’ve just been running this beautiful idea, or just part of an image—almost like the way after a dream that you might carry just a vestige, just a mood with you.
BR A passive but receptive, state of mind… or something.
EM






What’re the lines from [George] Oppen… "clarity and the sense of transparency. I don’t think that much can be said. Clarity in the sense of silence." And that’s maybe one of the fundamental—at one time it was a really frustrating thing for me to realize that I could perhaps not express myself as well as I would like, and I don’t think anyone ever can. We fall back upon these words like love or haigle.
But a lot of the writing that I’m interested in, and I’ve been involved with, like subtext, involves more of a negative aesthetics rather than one of positivity. Rather than "it is" it’s more "what it’s not." It’s a more arduous way of defining something. But it kind of brings to mind that famous justice’s line about pornography, he says, "I don’t know what it is, but I know what it is when I see it."
BR Mm-hmm.
EM





So I think a lot of claims are made for literature. Claims that I don’t think because of the way language works, it can deliver on. As Wittgenstein concluded the Tractatus with, you know the entirety of Chapter 7 is ‘what cannot be said must be passed over in silence.’ And that’s not entirely a bad thing. I think it’s a very good thing to realize.
BR Well … explain that a bit more.
EM

























… poetry. I mean certainly if there’s any market for poetry out there that’s what it’s there for. But what I take away from the reading experience—actually, I take a little bit of issue with the word "poetry". It does imply a certain, I mean certainly there’s an elevation of language in a poem, but I think there’s also an elevation and attentiveness to language in prose writing as well, and certainly in philosophy. And poetry, it just comes with this "capital P" baggage. Uh, and philosophy’s just, these days, somewhat laughable, or it’s completely within the province of the academics. I mean, going back to Montaigne, you know, he just talks about the delight of thinking and expressing ideas and getting to this point. And with philosophy too, as with poetry, as with negotiating one’s daily life, one always ends up with more questions than one has answers for. And it’s a slippery slope. And yes one can easily fall back into some kind of ideational morass, as you indicated earlier as a sort of problem possibly that happens with mixing genres. But it can also be a very fascinating space, it’s also a space that’s not without a certain element of care… that, I mean sitting with a piece of paper and… a blank piece of paper. There’s certainly worse things in this world, I mean you know, I’m speaking as a fairly privileged person living in the United States, I’m not living in a refugee camp somewhere, for example. And I have the time and space to wonder, to ask question about it… "well if I’m not actually writing, can I call myself a writer?"
There’s a… I looked this up, I copied this out into a notebook a couple of weeks ago, and it could be useful. This is from an essay called "Noli Me Frangere," which is co-authored by Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe . And the idea of a philosophoglace being coauthored by people, I find that to be absolutely a fascinating idea to, again to withdraw, to step back from your ego and to work with someone. But it’s a great quote and maybe this is where we could even end off, I’m not sure. In this magic way of radio, we can stick it on, tack it on at the end. They write, um, "what is indestructible is fragility itself. More attenuated, more tremulous, more untenable than any fragmentation. The fragility that dwells in speaking or in writing, in opening your mouth and tracing a word."
BR


Mm hmm. I think that’s a very strong quote. I like that. So, uh… Feeling totally vulnerable I guess, uh… we conclude—but thank you very much. It’s been good talking to you today.
EM Thank you very much.
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