Thursday, July 30, 2009


cris cheek's Part: Short Life Housing is a curiously peripatetic selection of texts. Excessively so. The subsubtitle of the book tells us these texts are "poems performing thematic extraction." So the work walks and extracts through a process of distillation and reconstitution, circumambulating geographical spaces, poetic practices, and genres as they intersect with the active performance of recording, transcription and editing across three decades. Many of the poems have been revised and edited several times and in some cases the interval between one revision of a poem and the next is more than a decade.

Much of the work is grounded in the transcription of recorded utterances. From the preface:

Many of these pieces were initially spoken into a voice recorder. Often during one walk and sometimes a sequence of walks that went onto tape until it felt like time for another beginning.

I am reminded of Wordsworth — or more specifically Antin. Text as the reconfigured residual traces of a walking and talking. But what separates cheek's practice from both Wordsworth and Antin is his commitment to an ongoing reworking of his texts. For cheek no one piece appears to be closed in any way. The poems are not a Wordsworthian struggle to reimagine or construct the contours of an evening walk. Nor are they characterized by the directionality that characterizes David Antin's wonderful straight-from-the-Athenian-Academy talk poems (viz. recorded talk followed by heavily revised transcription = talk poem). In Wordsworth and Antin we see an underlying structure — orality and/or lived experience somehow precede the poem as text and are somehow prior to the poem as print object. cheek's work seems fluid and open to contingency in a way markedly different from Antin — somehow an extension of Antin's project.

Wordsworth travelling: "This is the spot." Or Susan Howe: "Historical imagination gathers in the missing." For cheek both are the case. Each poem as an event articulated through and constitutive of an overdetermined complex of other events.

Transcription as poetic practice. The first section of the book, "mud (and fluff)" is dedicated to Allen Fisher and includes an epigraph by Margaret Thatcher: "It is not enough to delve deeply / into the surface of things." There is no alternative. The poem "and fluff":

Crazy memory
Punches its way to me


Under snow
Bound lovers
Coding flow

Skimming through the interdisciplinary transcription number of Interval(le)s edited by Jot Cotner and Andy Fitch — a wonderfully curated and overwhelming constellation of writers and artists — I was surprised not to see cris cheek's name among the ninety or so contributors. I was just as shocked by the inclusion of other names, figures I don't typically associate with transcription (i.e. Zach Finch, Ammiel Alcalay, Richard Price). Here Cotner and Fitch seem to be working toward theorizing transcription in a way that widens the scope of the practice. Their introduction to the feature is itself a transcribed talk between the two editors that begins with a question:

J: Did you even bring a swimsuit Andy?

The feature is in excess of a thousand pages. The task of editing the work must have been grueling. To wade through the muck with or without trunks.

In an interview filmed sometime in the 1970s, no more than a year or two before his murder, Pasolini said, "I wish to do things with editing." When I first heard the statement it struck me. To do things with editing. Ronald Johnson's erasure of Paradise Lost came to mind — as did Antin's talks. Other things also came to mind: i.e. the bits of found Appalachian speech in so many of Jonathan Williams poems, the excavated fragments of fossilized language in Caroline Bergvall's work, Thomas Malory playing the role of author as collator, Plato's transcriptions of Socrates, Niedecker's redaction of Thomas Jefferson's life, the centrality of textual assemblage for Paul Metcalf in imagining a critical fiction, or the demoralizing return to transcription that signals the failure of Flaubert's copy clerks Bouvard and Pecuchet.

Intervalles. In Cotner and Fitch's Socratic-dialog-as-intro Fitch wonders what Eileen Myles' contribution to the feature might look like and says:

She writes in Chelsea Girls that a sloppy look always seems good to her, and I consider transcription inherently sloppy. I mean the meticulous itself gets messy — as soon as it becomes obsessional.

cheek's poems are messy — muddied by contingency and the material fragments of history and historical necessity that gather themselves in the missing. Bergvall remarks in her blurb for the book that cheek is "inhabited by Dicken's dark maze of industrial streets as by mind-altering years of activist art lodgings, smoggy thoughtful wanderings or the eerie shock of the thatcheritic city. That's at least two hundred years of grim and energy you'll find distilled in the celluar lines and in splashes of this great volume."

And it is this which I find most useful in the work: the unrelenting attention in the work to the determining conditions of its own production. commenting on the range of technologies that came together to make the work possible cheek notes in the preface:

Machinic interventions forcing amendments to a text have been those that interlinked considerations of spatiality and typography. Much of this writing maps an intricate conversation of anomolies between those writing technologies utilized in the process of the production of the writings and those reproduction technologies used for their further circulation. This conversation, whose elements are sometimes separated by several decades of technological modification, not only impacts the content of the practice in evidence, but also serves as a kind of parallel to the always changing domestic and public circumstances which frames it.

Attending to his own locatedness in the making of this edition, cheek closes this passage by noting that "the original texts have been changed to bring them into alignment with North American usage." Spellings have been Americanized so that a work like "Canning Town Chronicles" — first assembled through walks, talks and composition in what was "an industrial area on the edge of London during the reign of Queen Victoria" — carries ideologically charged fractals of its further editing and revision in North America. Or as cheek writes in the poem "Part: Short Life Housing":

Stitching market intertwines top sequit
Into stress, dredges the law
Down points where system
Instant replay

But for cheek technological, economic and ideological determinations don't appear to shut down the possibility of agency:

Draws its strength and resilience
Around itself throughout negotiations
Undermining the details with the straights inform
Belief pulls off road

Exeunt: Antin: "and schwitters was like a little rag picker going through the mess and / producing these elegant little works."