Interview

Ron Silliman- Excerpt from an Interview

Sunset Debris is constructed on the same general principle as "Berkeley," which is in the Lally anthology, and Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps, where each sentence or line in the work displays the same grammatical feature. The suppression of any main verbs in Sitting Up displaces, but does not eliminate, one's sense of referential action. In fact, many readers do not even recognize that absence, and I was more than a little amused to see the piece reprinted in The Pushcart Prize IV under the heading of fiction. But, for me, the center of that work is in the discovery of where, sentence by sentence, that active or (literally) verbal function goes.

In "Berkeley," where every line is a statement beginning with the word "I," something very similar occurs. Most of the lines are found materials, very few of which are from any one source, and they're ordered so as to avoid as much as possible any sense of narrative or normative exposition. Yet by sheer juxtaposition these reiterated "I"s form into a character, a felt presence which is really no more than an abstraction of a grammatical feature, but which is probably as "obsessive" in its own way as anything in Sunset Debris. And this presence, in turn, impacts significantly on how a given line is read or understood, which can be vastly different from its meaning within its original context.

My idea with Sunset Debris was to explore the social contract between writer and reader. As sender and receiver do not exist in vacuums, any communication involves a relationship, an important dimension of which is always power. In writing as elsewhere, this relationship is asymmetrical -- the author gets to do the talking. The reader can shut the book, or consciously reject its thesis, but an actual response is not normally available. As advertisers have known for decades, the process of consuming information is an act of submission. To have read these words is to have had these thoughts, which were not your own.

Perhaps this is the shadow side of writing, but it's one I've long had a strong sense of and felt the need to explore. This dimension of intersubjectivity in writing is closely aligned with the same phenomenon elsewhere, which no doubt explains why writing can feel so intensely intimate and erotic. To write is to fuck. To read is to be fucked. There is a pleasure to be taken in each, but it is not the same. It was this aspect of intersubjectivity which caused me to introduce so much explicitly sexual language into Sunset Debris. It is not the sex that interests me there, but the dimension it shares with writing.

This combines of course with the constant punctuation of the question mark. Every sentence is supposed to remind the reader of her or his inability to respond. And, rhythmically, because it's so much more of a full stop than a simple period, it hammers this point home within a long textual body, 50 pages in manuscript, that, being one continuous paragraph, is a solid wall of words. I'm certain that the effect can be disturbing and felt as violent by some readers. Interestingly, both Michael Waltuch and Alan Davies have produced texts which "answer" every question. But, overall, I don't think that Sunset Debris is any more "violent" than any other work of writing. Rather, it is simply one of the few pieces that calls attention to that dimension of its existence.

The last time I read it in public, at New College in late '82, I was surprised at how light it felt. The work wasn't nearly as dark as I'd remembered it.

From The Difficulties (1985).

George Stavros: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

Q. Let me ask you about some of your poems that are in specific forms, however—sonnets . . . .

A. I like to refer to that series of soldier sonnets. 

Q. "Gay Chaps at the Bar." 

A. A sonnet series in off-rhyme, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation—I did think of that. I first wrote the one sonnet, without thinking of extensions. I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that title in what he was telling me; and then I said, there are other things to say about what's going on at the front and all, and I'll write more poems, some of them based on the stuff of letters that I was getting from several soldiers, and I felt it would be good to have them all in the same form, because it would serve my purposes throughout.

from "An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks" in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).