Leslie Scalapino Remembered
With the death of Leslie Scalapino on May 28, 2010, the world loses a writer whose visionary thinking provided her with a range of intensely experienced themes and images. It also informed the syntax of her language, which one might readily term experimental but which, more to the point, was a manifestation of the incessant vigilance she imposed on her mind and its articulations. The effort that her writing entailed was motivated by her conviction that action (e.g. writing, but also teaching, editing, publishing, insisting) and being (the present of anything or everything) are inseparable. One is one with the present. Everything is creative.
At the same time, the conditions for action/being are often beset by suffering, which was a persistent concern in Leslie's work. She can quite accurately be said to have been at work on the problem of suffering, a problem that is also always under scrutiny by Buddhist philosophy, which originates in pondering the causes, interior (in the mind) and exterior (in the world), of suffering.
Buddhist philosophy, which Leslie studied throughout her life in great depth and detail1, makes two observations of particular relevance to Leslie's: first, that pain and suffering are ubiquitous; and second, that empirical reality is solely phenomenal—a matter of appearances; we can never see anything as it is (or per se, to use Leslie's term). This is the case in part because reality doesn't show itself as it is, but also because, after an infinitesimal space of time, whatever perceptions we might have of reality are taken over by the distorting power of the mind, with its many preconceptions and fixations, and the conditioning force of the social sphere, which seizes, rather than observes, the world around it.
Leslie's work was a manifestation of what she termed "continual conceptual rebellion." "Continual conceptual rebellion" is a means of outrunning the forces that would re-form (conventionalize) one. If you stay in one place too long you'll be taken over—either by your own fixating ideas or by those of others. To survive one must always be outrunning what she called "the destruction of the world." This is a reason that travel is such an important motif in Scalapino's work.
It may also be what drew her so frequently to collaborations, especially with artists working in other media. These included visual artists Kiki Smith, Petah Coyne, and Marina Adams; musicians Larry Ochs and, most recently, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud; dancers Brenda Way, of the San Francisco-based Oberlin Dance Collective, and June Wattanabe; and with other writers, including Norman Fischer and myself.
Leslie was a close friend of the late Philip Whalen and of Michael McClure (and the editor of his Collected Poems, which the University of California Press is publishing). She had close ties to writers of the Beat movement, especially with those whose serious study of Buddhism influenced their writing and their vision of an ethical world. She also had numerous ties to the Language writers. But these were largely ties of community and friendship. In her writing, Leslie Scalapino's voice and vision were unprecedented, a product of her unique and rigorous intelligence and compassion. She belonged to no school; her engagement with continual conceptual rebellion would have prohibited that.
But her devotion to community was fervent. It was manifest in her dedication to the students she taught over the years at Mills College, at the Otis College of Art and Design, the San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts in San Francisco, San Francisco State University, UC San Diego, the Naropa Institute and, for 16 years, in the MFA Program of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard. It inspired the founding of O Books, which published over 100 books by young and emerging poets, as well as prominent, innovative writers. Scalapino also edited four O anthologies, as well as the periodicals Enough (with Rick London) and War and Peace (with Judith Goldman). And it sustained her work with Poets in Need, a non-profit organization that she co-founded and that, in the form of Philip Whalen Memorial Grants, provides emergency assistance to poets.
During her lifetime, Scalapino published thirty volumes of poetry, plays, fiction, and essays. And three new books are forthcoming this year: a pair of plays, Flow-Winged Crocodile and A Pair / Actions Are Erased / Appear (Chax Press), a new prose work, The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihredals Zoom (Post-Apollo Press), and a revised and expanded collection of her essays and plays, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (Litmus Press; originally published by Potes & Poets).
Leslie's generosity to poets (as a teacher, as an editor, as a publisher, and as an audience member at readings) was an expression not only of interest but of her ferocious persistence on behalf of something larger than art, though art was central to it. Leslie—in every facet of her complex and committed life—was engaged in a struggle for truth. It wasn't a transcendent truth but the truth of justice—particular and specific to the instant. She was an unprecedentedly original writer, because she was so very much an original thinker. She was also a fiercely compassionate writer. Suffering and injustices (of circumstance, of other people's thoughts as well as actions) were persistent themes in her writings, which sought (and spotted) alternative terrains for being, however fleetingly they could be glimpsed or said to exist.
Leslie's and my dialogue on the theme of seeing (published by Edge Books in a volume titled Sight) was intended as the first of five dialogues, one on each of the senses. We were working on Hearing at the time of her death. We thought to include some photographs we'd each taken in Hearing when it was published—because you can hear photographic silence (or at least Leslie could).
Our project was an experiencing of the senses, a foray into sensation. But it was also an investigation into shared time—what one might call our historical moment, postmodern and besieged by various forms of social violence. Leslie Scalapino could be infuriated by events but she was never abashed by them. She lived with ardor and honesty to the very end.
She also lived, and wrote, with fervent joy. Having received a new dictionary, Leslie embarked on a torrent of sound-based writings. Much of this work will appear in The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihredals Zoom. But it inspired some of her most gleeful contributions to the Hearing project. In one of the last passages she wrote for that work, Leslie says:
They sing. The mortar of speech plugged the butt-ugly rider who, buckjumping, changes horses mid-stream holding onto the neck of the ivory courser that breathing in pulls. Another horse crashes the water which shivers the air. Though the rider dipped in the icy drink this spurts bullocky briefly, a buckra. For above, a buckmoth, saturnid flits as a white band—that's a moon at once continually holding and receding, obscuring a minute buckpasser fleeing a city. War destroyed. The unplugged blowholes of spring icy pour the huge yellow spot of the sun on which are attached birds persons as the jeweled outside. As the man's seeing the horse's front legs crashing the water, and one's now saying this, the sound of rain is an end-blown here the other sounds come from it nothing visible. One can't say that, but it's heard there.
1 She states emphatically, however, "I am not writing a scheme (not writing 'according to' any philosophy, there's just the writing)." Letter to Lyn Hejinian, October 26, 2000.