Andrew Mossin (Rail): You and I have never met in person, which is funny when you think about the number of projects we’ve worked on over the last decade or so. But we’ve talked many times over email, often about your time in New York beginning in the eighties, the same period during which I was in the city, living on the Upper West Side and helping run the Writer’s Voice at the West Side YMCA at 63rd and Central Park West, while also serving first as Grants Coordinator for Poets & Writers and later as Publications Director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (formerly the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and Presses or CCLMP). You were, as you’ve told me, solidly below 14th Street in those days, whereas for me most of what I knew outside of work was located above 72nd on the West Side. So, while I was hanging out uptown in bars like Dublin House, you were downtown involved in that evolving scene of poetry readings, performances and happenings of one kind and another. It’s this history that I see partly reflected in the new film that you’re in directed by Patrick Pfister, Poetry, New York. Could you talk about this film in terms of what the film is trying to do, the geography of that film, and some of its historic back-looking as well as forward-looking aspects? I’m especially intrigued by the trailer that features a rain-soaked downtown street (it looks like Canal but I can’t be sure) and you walking with an umbrella through it and the accompanying voiceover, “Tod Thilleman is on a mission.”
t thilleman: Part of that “mission” is in my new book, Free Compositions. There’s a Nathaniel Mackey quote from Djbot Baghostus’s Run, one of the novels in his ongoing series of epistolary fictions, and it ends with the line, “Automatic alto had now come full circle, clearly come to be host of a circuitous muse.” That serves as the epigraph to the book’s third and final section, “I Talk With the Spirits,” which is all about the jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who played three instruments at once. But what was also very interesting was how he “talked” into his flute playing, and that live transmission, so important in improvisation, was at the germ of Patrick’s idea for the film. I said to him, “Look, I wrote this novel about KGB bar, which opened as a public reading events venue in 1993. And you know I was doing a reading series there.” And he wanted to film an actual portrait of a reading and then zero in on everybody's story at the poetry reading, and he thought KGB bar would be perfect. Patrick started by just looking at everything I had written and pulling out what he thought he could match a visualization to and so we just went into the city, walking around, and I pointed out some things I had mentioned to him. “Let’s go to St. Marks,” I’d say, or “Let’s call Anselm Berrigan.” I told him we could show the crypt of old Stuyvesant, and I read him my Peter Stuyvesant poem. And then the pandemic hit and …and things got put on hold for a while.
Rail: Who are some of the folks we get to meet in the film? It sounds like it captures a sense of the stuff happening in Brooklyn and other boroughs outside Manhattan, sort of decentering Manhattan in the process. While at the same the film brings to us longstanding members of the downtown poetry scenes in New York, e.g. Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, others we get to see in the trailer for the film.
thilleman: I'm actually working on a new poetics-memoir project now about going to readings, amazed, when I first got to the city, early eighties. But yes, you are right in that the city of NY is what all the poets are talking about in the film. The overriding narrator voice is from a poem that the poet, Heather Woods, and I put together with zips and zaps of city-like senses (in a bardo state); the poem talks while I am shown walking around the city. It was raining lots of the time, so I had an umbrella. Patrick also had me (and others) read pieces interspersing interviews and snippets from Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Pierre Joris was there, Rachel Levitsky, Matvei Yankelevich, Christine Stoddard, other folks as well. I read a piece about the St. Marks peg leg who is buried or was I think he still is in the vault below St. Mark’s Church. I had done a large book by the late poet Carol Bergéwhere she assembled photos and texts from all the principal people involved in the sixties coffeehouse downtown scene in NYC before St. Marks came about in ’66. But the film focuses particularly on the human stories of these people ‘surviving’ in the big city now. And it's different now, but it’s also the same because you know people just report, at a bar or whatever so that kind of thing is kind of the same. Where we are at, etc., hasn’t changed that much in the last forty years, which is kind of surprising but then again not. There’s that same excitement and uncertainty about what’s going to happen. When you show up and do something live you don't know what to expect. You never do—it’s theater.
Rail: That seems a central aspect of what we see to this day: the lived space of poetry in those venues like St. Marks, which bear all that history within them. And this aspect, too, seems a part of what Poetry, New York is getting at. I’m wondering what strikes you as new or notable in the poetry scenes that the film provides access to and that you yourself know well from your own time in New York, having lived there for more than thirty years now?
thilleman: Really, you’re talking here about the presentation of the human voice and person in an era that has seen us move almost completely into the virtual realities of the internet, social media, the like. That’s where the historic back-looking combined with present-day focus of a film like Poetry, New York reminds us of the continuities of this kind of work. Poetry readings take place in real time, in real spaces like KGB and St. Marks and numerous other bars, bookstores and galleries across the city. And each reading is populated by a real audience that’s come from wherever to hear and see poetry live. And the human voice is a remarkable instrument, you know. It registers what’s on the page but moves language out into this other realm where poesis exacts its real rewards. We get together to hear and see who we are and that’s the impressive and ongoing magic of poetry that’s moved off the page and into the ritualized space of the public reading.
Rail: What was it like later in the nineties, when you were running book launch parties out of the KGB Bar? Wasn’t the reading series there started by David Lehman and Star Black?
thillleman: Yeah, but theirs was a separate gig from the one I was running. The cool thing about KGB Bar was that it actually was just this little theater and then at some point it became a literary bar. You can read up on its history as a private social club of Ukrainian Socialists. But when it was converted in the early nineties to a theater space for public events, the place opened up into this amazing gathering spot, one that’s still active today. I would say, God, there were fifty-some odd readings and presentations that we did there. Four or five were blockbuster, like somehow the author got a lot of people to show up and it was just like, you couldn't even get in, it was so jammed. And those are fun because it's just mass mayhem, persons reading and everybody's kind of focused on that and everybody's drinking in the energy. And then there were some readings where there would just be nobody that would show up. [laughs]
Rail: Shifting gears here, I’m wondering what connections you see between your intent and intense period of doing readings and running a reading series and your recent work in Free Compositions. This work, as much of your recent poetry does, focuses heavily on music, the aspect of melos that we find in poetry but of course in composers such as Schoenberg and Mahler, two key figures in this work, becomes even more important and actualized through the interrelation of the musical score and its performance.
thilleman: There's the musical side of what I’m doing here, coming out of Mahler, but what was happening at the time, in Vienna around the turn of the twentieth century, was that everyone is wanting to do a cabaret thing, influenced by French Cabaret. And they want to do these very popular songs. There's a contingent, though, that wants to raise song up to the level of high art. “Can it be done?” they’re asking. There's a famous novel about it: Stilpe (1897), published by Otto Julius Bierbaum, which no one really knows or remembers these days but is important because it inspired the first German cabaret in Berlin in 1901. The novel includes all this dramatic play around cabaret, but Schoenberg was influenced by the space in the cabaret, in that very intimate setting but orchestrated it like a little mini opera. He chooses his five or six instrumentalists, and a voice; he's commissioned to do this by someone who is really trying to impress recitation, poetic recitation, upon the public. How would you present your work somatically at a poetry reading? It's the same quandary. The strict difference would be that Schoenberg is trying to compose a piece of music. What's interesting about him is the way he's referring to a specific text all along. The text itself, little symbolist poems, are the driving force for the music. So there's symbiosis between these little sonnets and how they would be sung through this musical sub-genre he created. That's where this idea of recitation and singing comes from. I wouldn't say they spar with one another but they're sparking things that were maybe left out of Wagnerian opera, say, or all these kind of real highfalutin’ presentations. How to present something on a more intimate level. The voice then becomes the full range of what a voice does because you're actually talking alongside singing; face to face with the audience. How to keep their attention too because they're all drinking—it's cabaret, after all. And I thought that was really interesting—just wondrous the way Schoenberg was able to put something like that together. He did it quickly. He's a genius, but really the thing that's very interesting is how the words drive the tune, not he's not going to compose a song and then fit words in there. The words themselves are steering and motoring the song along.
Rail: That’s interesting, especially in light of Free Compositions, because one of the things that you do in this text is exhibit that tension between the written text and its musical quality, and you do it in lots of different ways in the course of this three-part book. Could you talk about what that process was like and about for you?
thilleman: First and foremost, I guess I’d say it was manifestly a ‘spiritual’ thing. There's this undertone of awakening that can be somewhat deceptive, as if you’ve been slipped a mickey. You don't know exactly what's going to happen next. For me the writer and hopefully for the reader too, there's a magic that takes over, a spiritual thing that takes over. You can't quantify it totally although you know poetry is quantity. I mean it is counting syllables and making sure sounds of the words are present and accounted for. Right now, there's an economy to it in some way—you know the presentation has some kind of composition to it that's mindful. Schoenberg is known for expanding musical scale. The word scale means escalier: steps. So the stairs and steps one takes in music actively expands the music’s thematic orientations, and any good composer tries to expand their repertoire of themes, so to speak. This thinking in music holds a very close connection with John Cage’s work and how we consider sound AND music. When you're listening to sound as sound, as Jack Kerouac said, sound itself, if sound is all you're concerned about, then the next step would be noise. But in Free Compositions, I'm using Schoenberg's ideas concerning his Pierrot lunaire. I'm not trying to really understand it from a musical point of view. I'm very, very naïve; I don't really know any musical terms, but I adapt musical terms into the poem so that the poem becomes the music; and it's talking about music, and in this way becomes quite self-referential. As it's tripping into its self-referential reality, other gestures become present, and that's where the Buddhist themes come in and other subtexts. Then I riff on the idea of who Pierrot is; he is actually a kind of archetypal artist. Mime, primordially, representative of art in general. So Schoenberg has these two representations: the moon, representative of madness and then we've got Pierrot who's representative of art. Those two are mixing together as the poem, my poem, is being composed.
Rail: And that leads to the central problem you’re wrestling with here, doesn’t it, that question of representative madness on one hand and the tonality of expression on the other.
thilleman: Everything comes down to what those musicians were trying to figure out—how does one sing a speaking tone, sprechstimme in German, the word they use. So this becomes a central kind of preoccupation in the poem. As I'm writing I'm actually trying to do that with the words that link down the page or inside the notebook. My mouth is forming words. There are thematic tones coming in from other places so I'm trying to listen to what that means and obviously strict notation, almost lists of things, become the subject. It's not sexy; it's very matter of fact.
Rail: You tend to work on a big page, and here I have in mind the work of Charles Olson in Maximus or later Waldman’s IOVIS. That large page space provides your work a visual feel as well as a musical one. A sort of sculptural space in which words, signs, diagrams, all move together.
thilleman: I guess I see the page as a musical canvas, much like the writers you mention, but also like Barbara Guest, who in books like Fair Realism is actually working with a much smaller page. Sartre talks about the practico inert in his Search for Methodology. In other words, we're all involved, you know, like Vico wrote about the communis sensus in international law, for instance. Everybody's always coming up with this communal core we're operating within the practical floor, the “practico” inert. And Heidegger in philosophy talked about sharing thoughts, not arguing from outside the shared thoughts’ space. But you know how to organize the page. It goes to the left, and that voice goes to the right, connecting because you've given yourself the page as a terrain to use in that rugged way. When you're composing, you've used the entire page too. What impresses me about Robert Duncan's Passages, for instance, is how he kept trying to go even further in sound, where he's using silence a lot. You can kind of get that visualized on the paper a little bit by using lots of spaces within the line. But using a larger size—what's the biggest size book you could make—I mean, you know how you can put little things up into the corner and then in the middle because you're hearing things in that larger space.
Rail: If Mahler and Schoenberg are the key figures for Cut Time, the first section of Free Compositions, Yeats is clearly the central voice in Studio, the second section of this three-part work. How did Yeats get into your system the way he has and what’s his importance to you?
thilleman: I don't know where I had first heard about Yeats’s book, A Vision. Everybody hated that book. Because it's crazy; it's very difficult to understand. At some point he got into communicating with the dead. Séance is a huge thing with him, and I love his different ways of communicating through séance and through automatic writing. He's deep into Theosophy, like H.D. was, and all this otherworldly stuff. And you know what he's interested in is how that can actually be talked about as a literary genre. “So why dismiss it?” he's kind of saying. Everybody wants to talk about how fake séances are or how they pulled the gag off. What's the physical way they did this, and you know they had a voice somewhere behind this, and they shook a thing and tapped on the table, and it was like—who was the spirit that came in—you know. But Yeats is actually interested in what is materializing at the séance, whether hokey or not, and actually trying to read into it and find some textual meaning as well. Yeats is moving us here to consider a totalizing idea of (primarily European) human history and how this history is intricately related to a “philosophy of the mask.” This idea interests me from a paleo perspective as well. We're talking here about theatricality. He sees when something is not authentic, when someone is wearing a mask. And that these are actual cycles in human history, that we go from being very authentic, very live, to being recorded and not live; or doing things by rote. Yeats’s totemic person for this is Titian, a great painter from the Renaissance, who's known for his colors, his sensuality, and sexuality. Before, sculpture was the highest form in which humans could express themselves. As a paradigm of how history moves in cycles, wheeling about. It's a kind of Buddhist thing too, the wheeling. I started with his sense of moving from mask to no mask. (Strange too, since Titian was painting during the time of the plague that struck Venice.) And at the same time, because Titian is really the figure of that, I analyze Titian’s very last painting which everybody knows about: The Flaying of Marsyas—taking skin off the crucified centaur because of his too-lofty musical ambitions.
Rail: As with a lot of your work, I marvel at the multiple references, the depth and range of your reading in Free Compositions. Do you ever feel like the reader might be able to use a little help along the way with a glossary or list of references or the like?
thilleman: I’d say that my work differs from something like Pound’s Cantos or Zukofsky’s “A”, where you've got all these scholarly artifacts the poet is putting in the poem, where you do need some kind of glossary. I mean, sure you can read it and just hear the sound and there's a rhythm to the work, but I was very mindful of the fact that my project was about what is singing and what is talking and how the two come together. I was playing around with sounds, picking out of those transcripts or those letters from Titian and people writing about Titian; and then when I wrote about the paintings, I just wrote quick impressions one word at a time. I was emphasizing the act of séance, so to speak, with the canvas as I saw it in that moment. Those provide a relief; just like in Pierrot lunaire, there's a relief of this kind of nonsense where the speaking voice lays the song voice low and straight up. So the mouth gets a chance to take center stage. Everybody can be there.
Rail: So that what we get is a kind of synthesis, right?
thilleman: That’s the key word, yes. It's a synthesis. All the things in the mouth then being literally the mouth as the instrument that's being played. And this then goes in all different directions. Instead of just a beautiful text I mean, you could stop anywhere along the way and start to pick up some of the references and some of the ways in which you're taking us on this journey. I would hope that people reading it on the page and/or listening to it would sense there is a development happening, no matter where you started. So, you know, it's not just an idea that you shove away, but that you actually can take out and see it change in front of you, see the idea change in front of you. Like developing a photograph. And that’s more important, ultimately, than what category or pocket the subject could be put into and tucked away forever.