In the early 1970s, on opposite sides of the Cold War divide, and in complete ignorance of each other, Russian poet Lev Rubinstein and American poet Robert Grenier initiated a series of poetry raids on the fortress of the book: both began composing poems on small cards, a practice that would culminate in Grenier's Sentences (1978), a box of 500 such card-poems, and Rubinstein's own boxes of serial cards (beginning around 1974).
Rubinstein, born in 1947 in Moscow, came to the cards for three reasons: instrumentalism, avant-gardism, and undergroundism. The legend is that Rubinstein, a librarian for twenty years in the Soviet Union, lacked paper. But index cards abounded. Like William Carlos Williams' prescription pad, Rubinstein's library cards were handy and at hand when poetry called. And because, in Rubinstein's words, "poetry is everywhere, man," he didn't have time to choose. Card led to card, then a whole series would stack up like a little Tower of Babel. Sheer inertia set in, so even today Rubinstein composes by the card.
For my talk, I will focus on a single poetic text of his, "Farther and Farther On"—in its various print, audio, video, and installation iterations—to demonstrate the ways in which this sort of poetry signifies in multiple ways once it moves from script to performance. Like all of Rubinstein's poetic texts, beginning with the 1970s, "Farther and Farther On" was typed on the back of library note cards, and read by the poet using the card as a temporal space; I will discuss how the 2006 staging of the poem, and a 2004 and 2007 installation of the poem, embody and proliferate this generative poem's possible significations, and point to the limits of each iteration.
"Farther and Farther On": A Field Installation of Lev Rubinstein's note card poem from Catalogue of Comedic Novelties.
To create an installation of my translation of Lev Rubinstein's poem, in which anyone (conference attendees or passersby) would be invited to read the poem, written on small note cards and attached in the ground with temporary clips, and serially placed throughout a quad or open field. The whole "reading" takes approximately 20 minutes. It could be installed and taken down that same day. Each numbered entry would be included on a separate card in the quad.
In Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (1998), Charles Bernstein noted that "while the performance of poetry is as old as poetry itself, critical attention to modern and contemporary poetry performance has been negligible, despite the crucial importance of performance to the practice of poetry in this century" (3). Though some recent critical forays into poetry performance have begun to map the terrain, poetry performances/events/stagings are still mostly unexplored. (Consider, for example, the vast though incomplete archive available at ubu.com). Today, I'd like to elaborate on a talk and installation that I did last year in Louisville (2007) on a single poetic text, "Farther and Farther On," composed by Russian poet Lev Rubinstein—in its various print, dramatic, video, internet, and installation iterations—to demonstrate the multiple ways in which a "disembodied poetics" signifies once it moves through script to performance. By disembodied poetics, I mean to distinguish between two forms of poetry performance; in contrast to the slam trajectory of poetry performance, which demonstrates the vitality of the proximate and autobiographical body/text (body as text, text as body), the trajectory of "disembodied poetics" explicitly invites other bodies into co-authorship in ways that brings poetry into an active and changing multi-dimensionality.
Like all of Rubinstein's poetic texts, which date from the early 1970s, "Farther and Farther On" was typed on the back of library catalogue cards, and read by the poet using the card as a temporal space; I will discuss how various versions of the text—book publications, a 2006 dramatic staging of the poem, and my multiple installations of the poem in the new millennium embody and proliferate this generative poem's possible significations, and point to the limits of each iteration—shifting us both backward in time and forward again, into its multiple futures). Finally, I will make a brief proposal of how "Farther and Farther On" offers us a way of reading not only the Russian avant-garde of the 1970s, but the American avant-garde as well.
My first real experience of the avant-garde was through the Russian conceptualist movement, when I began reading and interviewing Russian poets in the early 1990s; Vsevolod Nekrasov, a leading conceptualist of the Lianozovo group in Moscow, told me stories of how they would get together and make "everyday life" the material of art:
A bunch of people could get together and drive to the countryside. Not because they decided to take a walk in the fresh air. And not because they themselves want to create some kind of work of art. And our motivation would be unclear like "hey let's go and see what happens." And nothing will happen. It'll be just a few people in a peaceful place.
So the object is an action”an attempt to create something. And the attempt is not premeditated, because if it is premeditated it will be boring. For example, there's a field about 300 meters across and a forest nearby. In the middle of the field is a table; on the table are ten poles, and on each pole is a spool; on each spool is a string. So we pull the string and go. And along the way unreel the string. Everyone goes like burlaki [boat haulers] pulling a boat over a dry river. In the forest there's less snow, you can go out onto some road. You see, there are no obligations. You can decide not to reel and go back to the station. I would rather go to the station because the road is already close. Some other people show up and other things happen. There's no artistic, esthetic, extraordinary moment. It's just something colloquial, constructed with natural curiosity. Unwind, unwind and see what will happen”
Another time we met at Sokolniki Park. We walked a long time and wondered: when will the action begin? The action actually already was happening. Behind us people were walking with tape recorders, taping our conversations, our passing comments. It turned out that we were the artists, we made something. In that way, reality is the most valuable, richest material. And at the same time, the most familiar”. Conceptualism is not the art of realism, but the art of reality.
What Nekrasov proposed was a kind of art that would be almost indistinguishable from life—an avant-garde not of provocation or agit-prop, but of the everyday. Still, in September 1974, the infamous "Bulldozer Exhibition" occurred, when an open air avant-garde exhibition of Lianozovo artists was literally bulldozed by Soviet police.
Around this time, Lev Rubinstein made his own leap through conceptualist practices to a poetry that has been called "postmodern Chekhov." Born in 1947, Rubinstein worked for many years as a librarian in Moscow's Lenin Library. The legend is that, like Dr. William Carlos Williams' prescription pad, Rubinstein just needed something to write on. Yet handling and cataloguing books for a living gave Rubinstein a keen awareness of the materiality of texts—their constructedness, their boundedness by genre, author, and geometry. In other words, surrounded by books, Rubinstein discovered a poetic method to release himself from the prison of the printed page.
When his generation finally emerged into the post-Soviet public eye, and the time came that publishers wanted to reproduce his work (in contrast to American "card" poet, Robert Grenier), Rubinstein allowed publishers to reprint his work in book form. In Rubinstein's preface to the first anthology version, Rubinstein asks the reader to recall that "the text in the form of note cards is the original, and its "flat" variant is closer to a copy, a reproduction. Or, more precisely, a photograph of a sculpture." In another introduction, Rubinstein writes that "the authentic—that is the "spatial"—variant of my text is related to its flat (book) version in approximately the same way as, for example, an orchestral score relates to a rendition for one or two instruments." In both introductions, though, he adds a tentative note, that "the author's version is itself just a version."
SLIDES THREE-SIX: You can see in these various book versions editors, translators, and publishers struggling with translating the material strangeness of the cards on the page, but almost always refusing to grant a whole page to each "card" no doubt because of the prohibitive cost.
In 2006, James Tyson, the Theatre Programmer of Chapter Arts (Wales), directed a dramatic staging of "Farther and Farther On" after reading the translation and, in his words, "was immediately drawn to it as a piece which spoke about the theatre, and the multiple voices, of past and present that can coexist within the theatre" (email 8/30/2006). Using the whole text, Tyson and the two performers wanted "that text, almost as an object, to coexist on the stage with the two performers." Tyson's staging proves the strengths of the stage in embodying voices and voicing embodiments. It is a fascinating piece which I've discussed in detail elsewhere. Still, it also shows the stage's limits for Rubinstein's disembodied poetics; since its generativity is grounded precisely in its lack of a singular locus of voice (or even two voices), and since it is at once a gathering and dispersal of voices, Rubinstein's "Farther and Farther On" on stage became literalized when the director chose to have all the lines read by two characters alone, thus limiting the chorale effect of the text.
Since "Farther and Farther On" invites spatialization, I've experimented with installing the poem in homage to the Lianozovo conceptualists. Concluding two courses on poetry in 2003 and 2004, I created an installation of "Farther and Farther On," consisting of small cards following Rubinstein's order, which I attached in the ground on an open grassy quad at John Carroll University. Beginning at a landmark—a huge bust of John Carroll—I invited students in small groups from the classroom to walk through the installation. It curved around the 3/4rds of the quad, not completing the circle, but ending close enough that they could return to the bust for the conclusion of class.
First, watching them go through the installation, and watching others watch them, I was struck by how creating the texts as small as they were, the students would have to lean over or even kneel in the grass, every ten feet or so, to read another card. It created this odd effect, whereby it looked as if they were bowing to the ground.
Second, I was happy that other things were happening on the quad—some duffers were hitting some golf balls, another class sat in a circle, etc.—which created this feeling of art and life existing simultaneously. Others, in fact, started reading some of the cards, at times midway through, which must have made little sense, or a completely new sense to the installation. Finally, what surprised me about the reaction to the text was how it resonated for graduating seniors, as a kind of invitation to think about what confronted them after the bounds of college.
In 2007, at the University of Louisville's 20th Century Conference, I had a chance to videotape my panel audience as they did a "reading" through the text in a chilly morning in February. Here are some corresponding pictures, thanks to Kaplan Harris. Some observations:
First, once the participants knew they were going to be reading, the whole landscape became charged with possible meanings.
Lynn Keller, gesturing to a tossed-away piece of paper on the ground said: "what's this?"
PM: "Just a piece of paper”.everything has significance, suddenly." Everyone laughed, and Alan Golding noted: "every sign is a sign."
There was general amusement, as people seemed to be enthused to move through the installation. Some didn't wish it would end. One reader, Chris Green, stopped for a moment, saying, "I feel so good”if I finish I might not feel so good."
SLIDE TEN: Mike Magee, bowing to the text”
Kaplan Harris noted during the middle of the text that there were "a lot of someones."
SLIDE ELEVEN: Watten photographing the installation:
Barrett Watten concurred, "it's getting pretty complicated. Someone's got to be doing a lot of work." I like having on videotape evidence that Barrett Watten is kvetching that someone's text is making him work.
Later, Watten waxed Marxist: "what is further? Communism is further. That's the point. It's not there yet. We're not at communism yet. We're being directed to it. Sure, we're going to communism."
Patrick Durgin was searching for a card that got lost when it was covered by some old winter leaves.
Lynn Keller, Carla Harryman, Alan Golding, and Dee Morris took the longest, and demonstrated what I noted to them as "obsessive close reader" habits. Alan Golding quipped, "close readers of a close reading."
Upon completing the 52 card series, Chris Green reflected: "here's the deal. I used to spend so many nights walking around the streets, without a reason to go anyplace, just to walk”these little cards are the voices I hear. Now, locked in a job, we have to have an impetus to find our voices again."
Jessica Lewis Luck liked how the installation made us "bring the brain and body around”the movement and the reading at the same time."
My own initial readerly experience of the text was of wonder and awe, much like the conceptualists inventing their new forms in the parks around Moscow. The poem "Farther and Farther On," in its parodies of public signage, felt both utopian and dystopian at the same time, as one shifts from the initial innocent desire to keep moving to set pieces in which "someones" find themselves in awkward or even terrifying spaces; here, the poem turns into a Dantesque rendering of the suffering of solitary individuals; then, the poem begins to hear and set voices against each other, followed by some rather Biblical pronouncements, only to end with stage settings in the mode of Chekhov. I'll save you the dramatic conclusion and invite you to take your own tour around the installation outside. Send me your feedback about the poem.
Watten's offhanded comment about the Soviet allusions of "Farther and Farther On" the piece became yet another layer to the poem, and one which would have been much more available and essential to its Russian audience. In the Soviet imagination, the language and iconography of forward movement, of progress, is so embedded that the early cards of the poem could not but evoke that cultural specificity, even as it challenged and evacuated it of its political meanings.
SLIDES SEVENTEEN-TWENTY SIX
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the "zastoi period," or Stagnation Period, when Rubinstein was writing, was at once a time of political cynicism and one in which the Soviet Union seemed as if it might never end. Exposing the emptiness of the language of progress was a deeply political gesture, even though the point, to my mind, was not resistance alone, but to create another way of being.
One of the most liberating aspects of "installing" "Farther" is that author and text were "freed," in a sense from their own triggering conceptions and cultural/historical matrices. In this sense, the work ultimately repels the author's own intentionalities. Which brings me to my final thoughts on the avant-garde of the American variety. The American avant-garde (in particular, language poets) in the 1970s and early 1980s struggled to articulate their goals through poetics statements and manifestos, they both crystallized and threatened to ossify the work itself and create new demands that younger generations of poets could not fail to resist. Re-staging Rubinstein offered, at least for this one critic, a way out of the poetics that have occasionally attempted to freeze the possible meanings of work. Perhaps, now, we ought to see such manifestos and poetics as "signposts" along the way to a heretofore incompleted poesis.
"The whole point now is that the avant-garde will not be afraid to work on ourselves, to change ourselves, to admit openly our lack of preparation and insufficient knowledge...
and once we understand this, we will reach our aim."
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Farther and Farther On
By Lev Rubinstein, translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky
Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein (Ugly Duckling 2004)
Here, everything begins.
Everything begins here.
However, let's go farther.
Here, no one will ask who you are and where you're from.
Everything is clear as is.
This is the place where you're spared persistent cross-examination.
But let's go farther.
Here, the atmosphere is congenial and free.
Here is where you can really relax.
But we should go further.
Here, whatever your eyes see is delightful, whatever your ears hear is sweet melody, whatever is said is truth.
But let's go farther.
Here, everything is entirely different.
It's not important how.
What's important is that it's different.
Here, nothing matters.
I only wish I could remember this forever.
Here, the sharpest bout of nostalgia grips you.
How it comes about is unknown.
Here, one shouldn't stay for too long. Later it will probably become clear why.
Here each has his own bottom and ceiling.
Each has her own borders of falling and soaring.
And not just here.
Here, everything reminds you of something, points to something, refers to something.
But as soon as you start to understand what's what, it's time to leave.
Here it's necessary to cope with the temptation to ask what will be farther on. But farther on, what's meant to be will be.
Here it's written: "Passerby: Stop. Think."
The next inscription reads: "Passerby: Stop. Try to think of something better than that."
Here we read: "Passerby: Sooner or later—well, you understand...So then—now you understand."
Here it's written: "Passerby: Consider this—you might end up understanding nothing at all."
Here: "Passerby: We never even knew each other. What should we talk about?"
And here: "Passerby: Don't stop. Go farther."
Let's go farther.
Here someone in the half-darkness decides to part with hope and cannot;
Someone, finding himself in financial difficulty, looks for a way out and cannot find one;
Someone tries to draw a distinct line between what is past and what is to come. He just isn't noticed;
Someone worked it out so that everything he says fits the situation. People like this. He is noticed;
Here someone over-attentive doesn't notice the most important thing. Concentrating on tiny details, he looks a little silly;
Someone striving for eternity slips and falls. A bright light falls on him. It's quite a pitiful sight;
Someone is unable to come to his senses from some dumbfounding news. So he just goes on living, stunned;
Someone loses himself in the crowd. They discover him, greet him noisily, almost by force drag him out to the middle. And there he stands;
Here someone with a frozen glance goes on and on, saying something completely inarticulate, then leaves, comes back, leaves again, and so on many times;
Someone with inveterate habits helps a lady into a train car and waves after her for a long time. His face shows affection;
Someone remains alone. He's totally confused. He has absolutely no idea what to do. His face shows the whole gamut of emotions;
Someone, doubting, wants very much to ask something, but can't bring himself to do it. An embarrassed smile;
Here someone in a quiet voice offers words of consolation;
Someone, inconsolable, does not accept the words of consolation. He says that he doesn't want anything from anyone;
Someone, burdened by the need to impart something extremely unpleasant to someone, delays his decision. It's easy to understand him;
Someone, considering it improper to get mixed up in others' affairs, constantly gets himself mixed up in them without so much as noticing;
Here someone, caught on the fishing rod of existence, cries about his fate and doesn't suspect anything;
Someone in a half-stifled voice talks about how happy he is. Everyone exchanges secret glances;
Someone begins talking about the distant past. It's useless to interrupt him;
Someone unsuccessfully tries to explain something to someone. Lack of understanding makes him crazy;
Here someone is depressed with what's happening. An attempt to find out what exactly depresses him leads to nothing. One feels sorry for him;
Someone consoles himself by waiting for something different. His path is despondent. Does he know this?
Someone doesn't see or hear his very self. He really should: he would begin to look at many things differently;
Here someone is unable to resist inertia. This does not bode well;
Someone is absolutely unable to control himself. That won't do at all;
Someone refuses to notice the obvious. He's probably doomed;
Someone looks straight ahead. His eyes are frozen in terror. He's not likely to be saved;
Someone is strolling God knows where. You can still make him out. There he is;
Here someone is trying to save himself without any help. He'll never make it;
Someone is trying as best he can to appear like an outsider. But he won't escape either.
Someone is focusing on the present with all his might. But he, too, will have to face the future;
Someone's on the threshold of a final decision. Let's wait and see what will happen;
Here someone literally withers without constant encouragement. Well, then let's support him;
Someone thinks it's inconceivable that all of this will end sometime. Lord, give him strength!
Someone has said something and now waits for what will come next. And what could be next?
Let's go farther.
Here it's said: "All those craving and lusting, those fighting in vain and those scrambling out of the filth, those half-deaf and those forever hoarse—well, what are we to do with them?"
Here it's said: "All those striving higher, those sliding into the abyss, those climbing on and out, those hurting and those living through uncontrollable passions, those accustomed to everything, those interesting in their own way—what do they want here? Why should they be here?"
Here it's said: "All those guilty without sin, those bitten and shy, those intently pondering and those attracted by a barely-audible voice of eternity, those stooped from the backbreaking puzzles of existence, those in undue agitation from God knows what news, those anxiously listening to what is said—where do they find themselves heading?"
Here it's said: "All those not guilty but confessing, those seemingly cheered up but every other minute falling into depression, those striving to beat their neighbor in grasping what's going on, but not understanding a thing, those dragging the baggage of their own hopes and those affirming that everything is lost, all those now too late, and now too early, those swaying in the weak breeze and those stubborn in their own delusions, those thinking that everything is passed, and those shifting from leg to leg waiting for changes—that's enough already—it's time to stop."
An entirely different voice: "After that he was a changed person. He would just walk around quiet and graceful, smiling at something..."
Another voice: "Well, that's it, now it'll begin. Just be quiet and don't get mixed up in this..."
Another voice: "Well just imagine, with that smile of his he just walked through all this hell. He's a very unique human being. I've never seen anyone like him in my entire life..."
Another voice: "By the way, he also can't stand her. So you really shouldn't..."
Another voice: "You're not bothering me at all, I assure you. Let me just put a full stop here."
Another voice: "'The modest tread of clouds is obtuse”'. What's after this? Can you remember? Yes... it was so long ago..."
Another voice: "Take a close look sometime at his usual facial expressions, at those forced grins. Listen to those pitiful words. Perhaps you'll understand then what I went through all those years..."
Another voice: "Here comes the most difficult part. Hold on, professor...There...You didn't hurt yourself? Well thank God. Well, then, where was I? Oh yes, that very summer has been accursedly hot, dusty, drought-ridden. In a word, a hellish summer. Not a summer, but a simmer, forgive the pun...So...And I've managed to hurt myself now..."
Another voice: "Listen, your satanic fantasies give me the creeps. To listen to you, one would think that there's no reason to live..."
Another voice: "If you want, you can accompany me. Well, at least as far as the station. I trust you're something of a gentleman?"
Another voice: "To start with, just look at yourself. Hey, you really look like hell..."
Another voice: "Listen up. First, you're not going anywhere, you'll take your coat off and return to the table. Second, don't let me catch any of those so-called "yearnings" in your face. Third, anyone who dares, in your presence, to even slightly hint—well, you know—will have to deal with me. You're all right with that, I hope?
Well, go ahead and take your coat off! Don't be naughty, old man!.."
Another voice: "So where can I go now? I've been kicked out everywhere. I've been nagged everywhere... Should I just hang myself?"
Another voice: "So what now? What can I do? There's no way back—it's clear. Stay where I am? Well, no, that's not for me. Should I go and face my fate? Okay, then, I'm ready. (To the audience). And why are you silent? Why aren't you stopping me? Or consoling me? Surely one human word can sometimes save you from ruin. But what am I talking about? Whom am I speaking to? Farewell..."
Scene: The dacha at night. The trains sound their horns, husky in the distance. It's very cold.
Another scene: The height of summer. Offstage—the songs of village girls.
Another scene: A table, set for tea. A samovar, ring-shaped rolls. On the backs of armchairs, quilts and coats carelessly tossed. A general air of light-heartedness.
Another scene: A dining room in a modest house. Through heavy blinds, a muted light. Vases of all shapes and sizes filled with flowers. The heroine rushes in, her palms pressed to her temples.
Almost unconscious, she falls into the rocking chair. Sobbing.
Another scene: A veranda, fragrant with flowers of fruit trees. Two swings. One swing lightly rocks: it's clear that someone just got off it. Offstage, voices: an agitated female one, a calming male one. No one has appeared on stage yet. Sounds of nearing thunder. It suddenly darkens.
An entirely different scene: From the arrangement of the scene it's clear that the weather since morning has been excellent, and yesterday's gusty wind has died away, carrying away the torn fragments of a continuously hopeless gloom.
From the lighting of the scene it's clear that the mood of the hero, whose steps are already audible behind the stage, is pure, light and a little sad, like in the best days of one's youth.
It's clear by the sudden silence that maybe the most decisive moment in the hero's life is coming.
However, a noise born in the bowels of absolute silence grows imperceptibly. It grows ever louder, until it gradually becomes intolerable.