DEREK HORTON: So, Richard and Michael, as you know, Soanyway is involved in a "scattered" third edition of Richard's A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, in which selections of his new entries will be published in various magazines, including ours. We want to mark this event in a special Soanyway issue that will include this interview. I’m looking forward to a free-ranging and fascinating conversation between you. The content and nature of the interview is up to you of course, but given your shared interests I imagine you might range over such subjects as: the nature of "avant-garde" and "experimental" writing today - what is its future do you think? …
RICHARD KOSTELANETZ: Mostly in media other than printed pages…
DH: … and I guess you might discuss the similarities and differences between both of your early experiences in the 1960's and now; and the relationship between your respective situations in the USA and the UK…
RK: I don't know the UK well enough to say. I don’t know who does. I haven’t been there since 1985 or so, and my books haven’t been published there for decades. …
DH: … the joys and tribulations of publishing "avant-garde" and "experimental" writing…
RK: … Did I have any choice, given that my creative work from the beginning was so different from what nearly everyone else was doing?
DH: … your current approach to publishing on "scattered" platforms and relinquishing control over the selection and presentational formats of your work…
RK: Two different issues here. The first reflects my decades-old interest in alternative publishing and the hope that publishers are as generous with me as I am with them; the second reflects anarchism…
DH: … and of course, I hope there will be as much anecdotal reminiscence as you are both prepared to engage in!
MICHAEL BUTTERWORTH: Richard, it's very nice to be speaking with you. We've corresponded briefly on a few occasions, decades ago, but we have never met. I published a great little piece of yours called Milestones in a Life in Corridor New Writings in 1974...
RK: Inexplicably perhaps, I didn't see this until discovering a decade ago on the Internet the existence of a reprint in your anthology …
MB: You mean The Savoy Book, which David Britton and I put out in the late 70's, for which we drew material from our pre-Savoy Books small press publications, thus Milestones was reprinted. Milestones was a human biography in minimalist form, a list of words connected to numerals signifying the years of a man?fs life, starting with the word 'birth' and ending with 'measles', a word that denoted the final milestone, death… The Savoy Book was seminal for us because it acted as a transition from the small press magazines David and I were producing to the large scale paperback publishing house we next became. But before that you chose an expressionistic prose poem of mine called Terminal from New Worlds magazine for inclusion in your astonishing collection of fictions, Breakthrough Fictioneers, published in 1973. By including writers like J G Ballard and John Sladek alongside conceptual artists like John Baldessari, Breakthrough Fictioneers was totally unique, and still is. I didn't appreciate this properly until recently when I saw the connections you had made between conceptualism and certain writers.
RK: Thanks for remembering that book, Michael! Need I claim that, as a collection of truly radical alternatives in narrative, Breakthrough Fictioneers has never been surpassed? Has any other subsequent anthology come close? Forty years later? Sometimes I suspect that it’s willfully ignored by beginners who’d like to claim they represent innovative/experimental writing but don’t even come close.
MB: It was totally groundbreaking in the same way that, for me, the 'new wave' phase of New Worlds science fiction magazine was, under Michael Moorcock's editorship. Michael consciously set out to make a platform for experimental writing and contemporary visual art, attracting luminaries like Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, and Christopher Finch . It occurred to me, re-reading Fictioneers that several of the writers in New Worlds, and I think I include myself, were actually frustrated conceptualists.... This connection between writing and art was something you, Richard, foresaw, and to suddenly see that New Worlds, which I was so much identified with at the time, and the American conceptualists might be bedfellows, running on the same creative and social currents, came as a revelation. The work of artists like John Baldessari or Bruce Nauman would not have seemed out of place in New Worlds; equally, the New Worlds writers John Sladek or Ballard, writing at the same time, would not have been out of place in a New York art exhibition of the 1960's.
A playfulness with concepts is something the contributors to both New Worlds and Breakthrough Fictioneers had in common. The collective world we construct - everything 'out there' - rests on an interconnecting web of language concepts that these artists and writers in their various ways were deconstructing and questioning. Concepts shouldn't be clung to or taken past their sell-by date, and this concern seems to be at the root of this tentative 'conjoining' of art and writing at this time, in the 1960's and 70's. … What do you think is the nature of avant-garde and experimental writing now?
RK: I think others could answer this last question better - I'm reluctant to do professionally anything that someone else could do better…
MB: What is happening today seems very similar to what was happening then. In both contemporary writing and art there does not seem to have been a development - New Worlds and Breakthrough Fictioneers could be published today and they would still seem bang up to date.
RK: Thanks for your assessment. Should I be flattered or disappointed by the absence of imitators?
MB: The only difference you could say is that today radical visual art and writing has become mainstream.
RK: Am I alone in finding it odd that the “art world”, as you call it, sooner reads thick pseudo-philosophical “theory” over advanced literary art?
MB: How did you come across New Worlds? Was it an influence on Breakthrough Fictioneers, or simply another resource you came across?
RK: The latter. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an issue of New Worlds as such – for one self-test, I can’t recall what it looks like. I can’t find any in my library, which has hundreds of literary magazines roughly alphabetized. Could I have found your contribution to Breakthrough Fictioneers in a secondary source? Could Charles Platt [designer and sometime editor of New Worlds] have given it to me? Don’t forget that all this happened not one or two or three but FOUR decades ago. Nonetheless, I do know that in my collection of cultural magazines’ self-retrospectives are the five ‘best of’ New Worlds volumes, in addition to both the British and American editions of Moorcock’s 1983 anthology from its pages... Perhaps SF became a more receptive terrain for innovative writing simply by escaping literary policemen some of whom moonlighted as professors. Samuel Delany once told me that SF was more receptive to very young writers, such as himself in 1962, than literary magazines were, and I suppose that might still be true. On the other hand, SF's origins in pulp printing predisposed readers to the most familiar, accessible forms of narrative....
I'd never been particularly interested in SF. I didn't read much as a teenager, while as an adult I seem to have more trouble than most in following plots. I can't read children's books, while even purportedly sophisticated comics strike me as simplistic. Detective fiction completely escapes me, and for decades now nearly all Hollywood movies have put me to sleep! … I could have learned about New Worlds through correspondence with Chip (Samuel R. Delany), though he didn't try to meet me until 1974. I was hard to meet in those days. (We'd gone to the same Commie summer camp two years apart, two decades before, though neither of us were what came to be called Red Diaper Babies.) When I tell you that I find his and his wife (Marilyn Hacker)’s Quark more radical than the New Worlds I know from its anthologies, am I risking entering an argument with people who know and care more than I do? …
MB: Hardly. Its combination of graphics, fiction, critical writing and design was not at all reflected in the various paperback reprise editions of New Worlds. They were repackaged for the science fiction market, which didn't like New Worlds, so they give an incomplete picture.
RK: I recall meeting Charles Platt here in New York around 1972. Though his work was included in Breakthrough Fictioneers, I doubt if I saw him again or if I could recognize him now. Is he the same Platt who writes strong articles for the computer magazines?
MB: Yes, and oddly he has just contacted me now, so I was able to ask him. He says, “Actually I think that I met Kostelanetz through Delany, although I can't be sure. Kostelanetz is right that it was in New York, maybe 1971 or 1972.” When New Worlds lost its newsstand distribution in 1970 and came to a temporary end, Charles left England and made America his home, and did a very courageous or mad thing. To reduce his fear as much as to familiarise himself with it, he made NYC his home city by traversing it on foot, including walking through the Bronx which was then a fearsome area for lone travellers.
… I wonder, did you know Michael Moorcock, and how did you regard him?
RK: No, we never met. I gather he moved to Austin well after I spent a semester there. I don't have any publishable opinion about him. Or about J G Ballard, or about other British writers no doubt important to you. I long dated the daughter of a famous Princeton arts professor who once commended me for refusing opinions about things I know nothing about. Everyone in her father's immediate circle had opinions about everything. I do recall that in the spring of 1965 I applied for a renewal of my Fulbright fellowship to King's College, London, with a proposal to do a book about the most innovative writing in Britain at the time. My radical thesis, which has since become more acceptable, was that it was produced by writers born outside Britain, beginning with the other British Isles, and then the colonies. I would feature Doris Lessing, a Rhodesian don't forget, whose Golden Notebook incorporates a formal intelligence probably absent from her other books; some Scottish authors such as Sydney Goodsir Smith; the Irish writers Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien; the Nigerian Amos Tutuola; and Edgar Mittelholzer, a Guyanese, whose Morning at the Office I still regard as the greatest novel about race prejudice as such, apart from distractions that undermined, say, James Baldwin and Richard Wright's fictions, purportedly about that subject. I don't recall reading Ballard at the time, though I suppose he would have fit my thesis, as he was born in China. However, my Fulbright wasn’t renewed for a second year. I suppose as much as you wanted to challenge complacency in British literature with science fiction, I wanted to remind everyone of aliens who wrote in English.
MB: It's an intriguing thesis, because arriving in the idealised Mother country for the first time had a powerful affect on young 'colonial' writers like Ballard. They would have experienced a radically unexpected culture quite different from the impressions they held, with ensuing literary innovations.
RK: On further thought, I could have added the critic Martin Esslin, who was Hungarian; and Michael Hamburger, who came from Germany, both of whom I met during my stay. Should I have included Clancy Sigal and Sylvia Plath, who were born and educated in “the colonies,” as I sometimes heard America called then? Curiously, the principal of King’s College today, Rick (now Sir Richard) Trainor, is an American who took his undergraduate degree from the same college as I did with the same major, which was called, no joke, ‘American Civilization’... I wrote instead in 1965 a long essay on “The British Literary Scene” that was reprinted in my Twenties in the Sixties (1980) and Home and Away: Travel Essays (2006, now on Amazon Kindle) in which I described a culture that seemed too limited both aesthetically and socially for an American. ... A favourite anecdote I didn’t include before has a London editor asking for my telephone number. It was Brixton 8014. After a pause, he replied something like never having any writer with a Brixton exchange in his telephone book before.
MB: Did you think of working class English writers like Anthony Burgess, because Harpurhey, North Manchester where Burgess grew up, was one of the most insular and deprived areas in England. It was like a foreign country to most 'polite' British….
RK: Class would have been less obvious to me as an American than birth and maturation outside of England, though Anthony, whom I met once, I'd rank among the best. … May I venture that someone has since perhaps written my book about innovative British literature, though I don't know about it? ... Had I included theatre, I would have written about Charles Marowitz, who had so much radical presence in London in the 1960s, though less visibility when he returned to his native America. His surname resembles David Zane Mairowitz, a little younger than I and another American radical writer who has remained in England, co-founding, I’m told, the International Times. I’d like to like his books more than I do..!
MB: You've said New Worlds wasn't a direct influence on Breakthrough Fictioneers. What was your reasoning behind the collection? What interests me in avant-garde writing is how it seems to be striving to become art, and vice versa. Certainly, in the 60's and 70's, in publications like New Worlds and Breakthrough Fictioneers, it seemed that art and writing were striving to become one. The very name Breakthrough Fictioneers implies that both writers and artists produce fictions. Was this something that interested you?
RK: My general thesis at the time, in the early 1970s, held that advanced writing reflected developments in the non-literary arts, rather than evolutions strictly within literature. That accounts for why Breakthrough Fictioneers included so many fictions by people initially recognized for work in other arts or, more specifically later, why my notion of "minimal fiction," say, was far more rigorous and thus closer to minimal art and minimal music than the epithet's use in literary criticism. I doubt if I've learned much from music or visual arts more prominent since 1970 or so. Even my current interests in finding poetry and fictions within familiar words or reworking classic texts had its origins back then.
MB: The minimal form has a vogue in contemporary condensed fictions, or “microfiction” - I helped judge a competition recently for the Ballardian website. My first publication was a broadsheet of condensed writing, called Concentrate, in 1968.
RK: Do you know of anyone else who is working with complete fictions in three words or less? I don’t. I once wrote that other writers don't steal from me because they wouldn't want to be caught dead doing what I do. It’s still too avant-garde. …
MB: The results of the Ballardian microfiction contest can be found here: http://www.ballardian.com/ballardiansavoy-microfiction-competition-winners
I'm afraid these examples may be more micro than really minimal…
RK: [After looking.] Quite the opposite, to me. These are more minimal than truly MICRO, which to me is three words and less.
MB: A minimal piece I wrote in the 80's is a 12-word alternation arranged into 4 lines, which I repeated and ran to bleed down the length of a page...
THE PAIN OF LIFE
THE PAIN OF LIFE
THE PAIN OF LIFE
THE PAIN OF LIFE
How were you able to draw on such a wide pool of artists and writers for Breakthrough Fictioneers?
RK: Belatedly I came to realize that, having been trained in intellectual history, even into graduate school, I learned early how to process large amounts of cultural materials effectively. That's still true of me. On the other hand, I can now identify some contributions to Quark that I should have included in Breakthrough Fictioneers, had I known about them in 1972. Chip Delany didn't get to renew our Old Camp Tie early enough!
MB: I can now see it's much more likely that you received my own contribution – and maybe other New Worlds writers also – from Charles who, after he moved to New York, acted as an unofficial American agent for several of us. I doubt whether it would have been Chip, whose short story Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious appeared in New Worlds. … To digress, Chip is another link between us, between you and I, as he featured strongly in our early Savoy Books paperback roster. David Britton and I gave his novel The Tides of Lust (a work that Wikipedia compares with William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys - later it was re-titled Equinox) its first and so far only UK publication, in 1980. As a companion to this, we also gave Charles' The Gas it's only UK release, and on publication both books were immediately seized by the police. We had taken the precaution of asking Philip José Farmer to write an introduction to The Gas, to show that it was an authentic work of the imagination, so the prosecutor took the view that a jury would not convict. But the police were determined to get us for something, so instead, we were got for some non-Savoy Grove Press readers that we had on sale in one of our bookshops and which the police had seized at the same time as the Delany and Platt books. Written pseudonymously by authors such as Alexander Trocchii they had been imported legitimately into the country and were on sale everywhere, and had been seized by the police on previous occasions but returned as not being of interest. This time we were charged, and when it came to court we underwent what was little more than a kangaroo trial. David was convicted, and jailed for a first offence. Fortunately the case against me, vividly there on paper, did not come to court. It was the beginning of 25-year years of police harassment. David was jailed again, ten years later when we published his first novel, Lord Horror, which I’d helped him write. I was lucky once again to escape... So Chip is notorious in our pantheon! Ironically, we never met him, but dealt through his agent. For some unaccountable reason I'm not familiar with Quark. Googling it now I see that New Worlds writers like M John Harrison and James Sallis migrated there, and also writers from Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies, which were the American counterpart to the UK New Wave of SF. So perhaps Quark was a kind of interesting bridge between the 'waves' within the 'wave'?
RK: Well yes, I emailed Chip Delany about this, and he, no less amazed than I am, sent this reply: “We [Quark] did, of course, publish Thomas M Disch, Christopher Priest, Hilary Bailey (Mrs Michael Moorcock), John Sladek, James Sallis, Sonya Dorman, Marek Obtulowicz, Josephine Saxton, M John Harrison, Brian Vickers, Michael Moorcock himself, and Charles Platt, all of whom were writers who also published in New Worlds or who were most definitely of interest to the New Worlds writers - as well as numerous others (Ursula Le Guin, Larry Niven, Kate Wilhelm…). Maybe that list will jar Butterworth's memory!”
MB: Tell Chip my memory is jarred!! An impressive list, and please thank him for the intervention... The New Wave had such striking origins, springing up as it did almost simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. The UK wave, as expressed through New Worlds, was more formalized, critical and perhaps more experimental in terms of its openness to other art forms. I don’t know whether Quark was more radical, but New Worlds was a breath of fresh air to writers who wanted to escape orthodoxy, and was an inspiration to several publications of the time, including Quark, my own Concentrate and Corridor magazines and also that wonderful one-off offshoot of New Worlds produced by Sladek and Pamela Zoline in 1968, called Ronald Reagan: The Magazine of Poetry, that included Ballard’s short story Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. … New Worlds was a once-only anvil for young writers and artists, but also for older hands like Ballard, Brian W Aldiss, and Moorcock himself, who proclaimed that the future had already arrived, and who were attempting to herald-in a science fiction of the present, or at least of the very near future, and exploring inner rather than outer space. Even pulp was radicalised in works like Moorcock's early Jerry Cornelius novels, serialised in the magazine. Its most radical moment dates from 1967 to 1970, after it transformed from a pulp paperback into a glossy large format A4. Also the sporadic small press large format 1970's editions that came out after the newsstand editions had finished, were full of experimental work and visual writing.
[Butterworth offers to send Kostelanetz some copies of New Worlds.]
RK: This interests me ENORMOUSLY, Michael, because I've noted that magazine self-retrospectives sometimes misrepresent, for one opportunistic reason or another, and I would love this example if I find it true after reading the issues themselves. Rest assured, it will be IMMORTALIZED here!
MB: As I have said, my own feelings about the avant-garde are that it has now mostly become mainstream. Few unbroken taboos or uncrossed boundaries remain. Its last golden age was probably the 60's and 70's, which is the time you also claim as being significant, where much of what seems radical today has its origins. We still have our radical moments, of course, but these usually happen in the technology of presentation rather than in content - for instance in the way you are presenting your Dictionary. But it loses its cutting edge almost as soon as it is made. You could once be famous for 15 minutes. Today you can be avant-garde for only 15 minutes. … Do you agree?
RK: Nope, because it's still possible to do work that is formally unacceptable - I know, because I’ve done it for decades and continue to do it and to hear objections, less directly than indirectly, perhaps because of the elite recognitions from strangers that have come my way. I so much love receiving dumb rejection letters that I published a selection of them in my Skeptical Essays (2011). The kinds of people who thought they might score points with literary powerhouses by dumping on me are now reluctant to do so. Those who don’t want to be embarrassed as jerks sooner keep quiet…
MB: Is the avant-garde dead?
RK: Nope! If only because reactionary antagonists survive, especially in positions of publishing, cultural power!
MB: As the radical publishers of Savoy Books for 40 years, the only new radical writers we have found are ourselves, that is David Britton and I. Despite putting out close to a hundred titles we have had to be content with either reprinting past works or creating books from scratch ourselves. There are no more William Burroughs's out there, and even the police have now stopped raiding Savoy Books.
RK: Police raids are no longer a measure of anything significant, alas.
MB: Shame! The police had an unerring instinct for the most radical works, and were the implicit saviour of many a good publisher!
RK: True. I've written about my disappointments in failing to get my works banned or denounced in Congress, though some of them should have been, not only for formal departures but objectionable content. To fulfill a government grant for radio art, I once did a wholly acoustic narrative based upon a woman’s orgasms and called it ‘Ululation’. Out of shyness perhaps, I didn’t flag the cassette I submitted as evidence of my completing the grant, and so no one in Washington DC noticed. Now that I’m putting this revelation into British print, may I again wonder if my transgression would be recognised?
MB: You have to be bold with your transgressions. Then you also have to be willing to take the consequences....
RK: Do raids still happen in England?
MB: Owing to the advent of the Internet and the reluctance of juries to convict, the police came to us at the end of 1999 to say there would be no more raids. To date they've been as good as their word, but it's still too early to say. After Last Exit to Brooklyn was banned in the UK in 1967, and then freed, people were saying that a novel would never be banned again -and then, just over two decades later, the police seized Lord Horror!...
RK: They happen here for banned substances, though never for cultural materials.
MB: Illegal substances they're still hot on!
In relation to your position on the persistence of the avant-garde, do you usually seek out formal habits or structures to 'break'?
RK: Not intentionally. I'm more likely to hit upon a radically alternative premise no one has used before, such as discovering if I can write complete stories with three words or less, create a narrative exclusively with line drawings, or publish autobiography in discontinuous fragments, and then pursuing it. The constraint behind Ululation, mentioned before, was telling a story entirely through non-verbal sounds. Needless to say, I must be breaking rules, because literary policemen have for decades judged my forays unacceptable. They still do.
MB: Do you look and when you've found something say, 'Ah, I could say something interesting here, move the art forward'? And what do you look for?
RK: In my creative work, I'm less interested in "saying something", which I do quite easily in expository prose, thank you, than in making discoveries within the traditions of language and literature.
MB: Do the ideas sometimes happen intuitively, as flashes of inspiration?
RK: Sometimes as flashes, though don't discount influences from non-literary arts as I mentioned before. My interest in really minimal fiction comes from minimal art. My novel exclusively of numerals, Exhaustive Parallel Intervals (1979), comes from serial music. I've been known to discover that some works of mine produced under one constraint really deserve another name. All through the 1980s, I produced ‘Epiphanies’, which were meant to be within a single sentence the climax moments in otherwise non-existent stories, ideally suggesting actions that might have followed and gone before. In the 1990s, I realized that some of these single sentences were really complete in themselves, and so deserved to be reclassified as ‘Complete Stories’. Once I acknowledged that constraint, I wrote yet more ‘Complete Stories’….
MB: Is humour a thing that strikes you, or an excitement for saying or doing something extreme?
RK: For comedy I have a taste, if not a weakness. … As for doing something extreme, I'm more interested in discovery, which might necessarily seem extreme.
MB: Subverting formality, then, in the sense of breaking down formal structures and subverting formal expectation, is one of the last bastions of radical writing, and the intersection between writing and art - at the common core of concept - is where this potential for true radicality lies. Is the formal separation between radical writing and art strictly necessary? And, leaving aside technical innovations in presentation, is so-called conceptual art, whatever form it takes - aesthetic, performed or written - the only 'art' today where genuinely radical intervention is possible? Formality constantly congeals, therefore the concepts that underlie it are always open to being subverted. Martin Creed's intervention at a recent Frieze art fair comes to mind, when he asked over the tannoy for a minute's silence to be held. He didn't say what the minute's silence was for, but reflexively the attendees fell silent...
RK: You could probably say that one theme of Breakthrough Fictioneers (and my own work) is that formal departures in writing and visual art resemble each other. However, the difference in their public presence reflects the difference in merchandising. Visual art is sold retail and thus needs a few serious customers willing to put down a good deal of money. Literature has traditionally been sold cheaply wholesale through intermediaries. The problem in my own economy is that I do work admired by a serious few, most of them people I've never personally met, who acknowledge me in histories and encyclopedias but don't plunk down much money.
MB: You mentioned anarchism in connection with the particular presentation of the new edition of your Dictionary....
RK: Notice that I’m conceding to Derek as my editor the opportunities to select from my text and to distribute it, even re-ordering if he wishes. I write; he edits and publishes.
MB: Derek called the process publication by “scattered platforms”. You mentioned you weren't a Red Diaper Baby, and I wondered whether there were familial or formal roots to your anarchism, or whether initially it was just in your nature as an anti-authoritarian thing, as you have just implied?
RK: I turned decidedly anarchist in college, thanks to the influence of Paul Goodman, Norman O Brown, and Henry Miller, on whom I wrote my BA Honours thesis. Only later did I discover that I was born the exact day that the great American anarchist Emma Goldman died - 14 May 1940 - whose life and writings I also admire. That fact of my birth may or may not be important. Yet later I became libertarian, which I regard as anarchism with different emphases.
MB: Your anarchist-libertarian productions have appeared in countless small press and libertarian publications. What magazines do you think have been important, and are important today?
RK: Only those that publish me, particularly when they are publishing me! I’m not joking, because I’ve been told that a magazine publishing me defines itself by that fact, and is different from those that don’t. I appear to be a weather-vane sort of writer. For a while, perhaps no longer, new magazines wanted to define themselves as avant-garde simply by publishing Richard Kostelanetz. There are others, though, defined in other alternative ways.
MB: Did you ever appear in the long-running UK writing and art magazine Ambit, edited by Martin Bax, for which Ballard was the prose editor for many years?
RK: Nope, though I suspect I tried them, more with poetry than prose; but I don’t keep track of rejections - finding everything of mine in print is sufficiently exhausting.
MB: Have you heard of International Authors? It's a rather interesting publishing experiment going on in Brookline, Massachusetts, headed by Carter Kaplan. They have just brought out an anthology called Emanations, which includes an unpublished story of mine from the 80's, together with some of my early unpublished poems. They publish English-speaking authors from around the world and all forms of writing seem to be welcome....
RK: Nope, Michael, though I shall now Google them.
[The copies of New Worlds sent by Butterworth arrive, and Kostelanetz has been reading them.]
Too bad no one ever collected the more experimental texts to appear in New Worlds. The knockout I should have reprinted (especially since I knew him) is Ed Emsh's visual self-retrospectives…
[Ed Emshwiller, visual artist and filmmaker published in New Worlds.]
Your Concentrates are special indeed. Were they ever collected into a book?
[Concentrate 1, 2 and 3, condensed fictions by Butterworth.]
MB: I wish! Ballard edited the original texts of these for me from larger and more stream-of-consciousness works that I had written, to show me how to condense text a la Burroughs. He underscored words and sentences that he thought stood out, and I typed them through.
RK: My very favourite text of yours is Circularisation - truly brilliant.
MB: Thanks, Richard. Coming from you I take that as big praise! It's been reprinted more often than my other works. The best time was when it was appropriated by Andy Martin of Academy 23 experimental music project, and published in one of his and Dave Fanning's 1990's editions of Smile magazine (Stewart Home's "magazine of multiple origins" first launched in 1984, that, in theory, anyone could take over and run). Martin reproduced the Circularisation poem frames, but what I found interesting is that he rewrote my accompanying text and made it far more effective. He credited my authorship, but by a kind of anarchistic evolution due to his appropriation it had grown. I wasn't told, of course. I just came across the magazine by accident some years later.
RK: Do you know what happened to Steve Dwoskin, who came to London with me in 1964 on the Fulbright Scholarship? A courageous guy....
MB: In 1964 Ballard used a still of a masturbating female nude from one of Dwoskin's films (Alone) for his advertisement Does the Angle Between Two Walls Have a Happy Ending? He also wrote the text for the film The Bathroom that Dwoskin made from stills in 1968. In the new Ballard biography by John Baxter – another synchronicity – I have just been reading it – it says that Dwoskin visited Ballard's exhibition of crashed cars around the same time, and tried unsuccessfully at first to climb into one of the exhibits on his crutches and calipers. He eventually succeeded, but had to be helped into position inside the car. Ballard was fascinated, and I think made use of this image for his novel Crash. I don't know what happened to Stephen after that.
… It's inspiring that you are able to continue to work as you do. My own writing voice started petering out in my mid-20s, and it seemed to have vanished altogether by my 40th year, but there are signs that it is returning.
RK: "Voice" you'll find in my essays. "Style" is perhaps a better epithet for my creative work, which is recognizable as mine less for what I say than for the formal moves I make, because they reflect a coherent vision of what literary art can be. I'm still inventing. … May I tell again the anecdote about Theodore Weiss, the self-consciously conservative Princeton poet and editor of the Quarterly Review of Literature being shown a new literary magazine that contained poems of mine with only four words to a page, one in each corner of the printed field. Even though the magazine’s publisher kept my name off the page (as an aesthetic distraction), he exclaimed, “You publish Richard Kostelanetz!” - though he probably meant with his remark to dismiss both me and the magazine, he was also acknowledging that my unique style had entered his memory bank.
MB: What do you think was the most exciting development in your lifetime, in literature, art or music?
RK: John Cage, who influenced my work and life in more ways than I know, and whom I regard as an advocate not of "chance," as others mostly do, but of alternative constraints. Note that once he hit upon an alternative constraint in his own composing, it became inspiring, enabling him to produce a wealth of radical work. Some of my constraints are likewise generative…
MB: When you talk about “alternative constraints” with reference to Cage, can you explain what this means in simple terms?
RK: Consider that for Indeterminacy, his first spoken-word record (1957), he wrote stories that he had to declaim in less than one minute. For I-VI, his great long poem, he wrote horizontally words where at least one letter coincided with a horizontal mesostic composed of words important to him.
MB: I understand constraint, having once committed myself to composing a 1,000-word story with a comprehensible narrative where every letter had to begin with a 't'.
RK: You've pursued an example in your own work, then. Perhaps the epithet incorporates redundancy, as all constraints incorporate an alternative, and thus the adjective should be dropped…
MB: With me, the most exciting development was undoubtedly the cut-ups of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin - Burroughs' novel Nova Express being the outstanding work in literary terms....
RK: They were too improvisatory, too unconstrained for me. I don't much like jazz either.
MB: Do you have thoughts on what is the most exciting development happening today? You say it is not in printed media.
RK: Correct, as I’m now more inclined to put my radical texts on Internet outlets or on videos with the hope that, much like books of mine that appeared from small presses, they will persuade strangers to recommend them to other strangers. Here’s what I’ve done, or what people have done with texts of mine, the sum of which make a collection I call Virtual Chapbooks (in progress):
ENDINGS: http://hotelstgeorgepress.com/2010/01/endings/ where the reader is invited to click his mouse to proceed to another story.
INFINITE APHORISMS: http://www.littleredleaves.com/LRL3/kostelanetz1.html In which texts appear as kinetic circles.
INSERTS: http://www.greatworks.org.uk/poems/rk/rk2.html in which images appear one at a time in succession.
LETTER LINKS: http://www.greatworks.org.uk/poems/rk/rk214.html in which the addition of a single letter radically changes a word.
MICRO STORIES http://textsound.org/index.php?VOL=1&ISSUE=8&TRACK=08nbspMicroFictions.mp3 which contain the composer Joel Chadabe’s realizations of my minimal texts.
MINIMAL AUDIO PLAYS
http://www.madhattersreview.com/issue12/drama_kostelanetz.shtml which contains my text of 15,000 words along with a portal to the editor’s selected audio recitations.
MORE PO/EMS http://www.ergarts.com/chaps.php, though this nicely designed text the publisher promises to put into print.
ONE-LETTER CHANGES http://www.actionyes.org/issue7/kostelanetz/kostelanetz1.html in which different texts appear in the same place on screen.
1001 STORIES (a selection in Swedish and English): http://www.actionyes.org/issue12/kostelanetz/kostelanetz1.html in which Swedish translations appear directly behind/under English originals.
VIDEO FICTIONS: http://seth.fineartstudioonline.com/other for which Seth Samuel composed musical settings to my kinetic video texts. …
I can’t say I’ve been a great success as a media writer, but I’m not failing – not at all. …
Remember that music and the visual arts world, even museums, have been far more receptive to computer-assisted art. Consider the exhibitions and attention devoted to Cory Arcangel and Ryan Trecartin. Before long, someone other than myself might notice that my work is establishing a comparable frontier for literature.
MB: I think people will, but it brings me back to my earlier contention that possibly this kind of work should not be regarded just as literature but also as art? … It's harder to make an impression with literary advancement or experimentation – Like you, David and I sometimes feel we have at most twelve readers globally who understand what we are about! ... I met Cory once at an exhibition of his multi-screen A Couple Thousand Short Films About Glenn Gould, in which he arranged selected sections of Johann Sebastian Bach's 1741 composition The Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) for online amateur instrumentalists.
RK: Interesting, because Gould, whom I knew, would have probably been impressed.
MB: I was impressed, but also intrigued, because Cory didn’t seem to have heard of Anthony Balch's cut-up films conducted in the 50's and 60's. Radicalness of content is now so ubiquitous and un-radical that these early experiments were not evident even to rising artists of his stature. The radical aspect of his work was the way he presented it, in the use he made of the computer and the Internet. This is not a criticism, just a sign of a dilemma I think artists are facing....
RK: We’re old enough to recognize that certain beginners get up thinking they’ve invented the lightbulb…
MB: In the use they made of Burroughs' and Gysin's written cut-ups, Balch's films were of course at the forefront of literary experimentation … There is one consolation, Richard - in a talk at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival, 'Are Books Dead, and Can Authors Survive?', Ewan Morrison asked the question, what will happen to authors and publishers as their industry becomes fully digital?
One scenario has it that very soon all writers will find themselves in the same boat as ourselves, regardless of former success in literary or public terms. The custom of paying large advances to authors will finish (it is already dying out), advertisers will become the new paymasters, there will be a few very large publishers such as Google, Amazon and Apple to whom culture is merely 'generic content'. The interesting bit is that Amazon will sell millions of titles each year by obscure authors, who each will sell only five or six copies....
RK: Value the Internet for overcoming censorship by commercial limitations or authoritarian gatekeepers—a censorship just as deleterious in the West as the more familiar government censorship prevalent in totalitarian societies. More power to Amazon that it can sell more copies than an author would solely by soliciting his friends. It seems to me that strong work survives as long as someone likes it enough to recommend it to someone else. Consider, by contrast, that used bookstores, which Germans quaintly call Antiquariats, are filIed with best sellers no one reads anymore—absolutely no one.
DH: I wonder if you might discuss in some more detail why, Richard, you regard the future for avant-garde literature as being primarily outside the printed page. Is this simply because the opportunities are greater in a practical and pragmatic sense, or because digital media open up new aesthetic and formal possibilities that in some way go "beyond" the material constraints of the printed page?
RK: Both, though in ways we can't imagine now….
DH: Another aspect, touched on in your brief mention of anarchism, is the political dimension of the avant-garde. In the visual arts, it has been for some time a widespread view that the avant-garde has "congealed into orthodoxy" - that the radical gesture is so readily absorbed, appropriated and commodified as to render it powerless if not pointless….
DH: The continuing popularity (certainly in the "academic" art world) of quasi-Marxist critiques informs much of this attitude of course, and perhaps this has something to do with what you describe, Richard, as the art world's propensity to adorn itself with "theory" (“thick pseudo-philosophical theory”, I think you called it earlier in the conversation) rather than paying attention to more literary writing? Is there more of a future for the avant-garde in literature than in visual art? Perhaps because there are more dominant structures remaining to be disrupted? Or because literary works are less readily appropriated into fashionable popular culture? What I’m trying to get at is that maybe literary works are less susceptible (in a good way) to commodification than visual works (given the vagaries of the art market) and so, arguably, might be more likely to retain a genuinely avant-garde impact and value?
RK: As I observed earlier, visual art – retail; literature - wholesale. … My problem is that though some people like my work a lot, there aren't enough to support commercial book publication.
DH: The visual art retail / literature wholesale distinction is an interesting one. … And presumably you would say that genuinely avant-garde artists (in all art forms) inevitably have audiences so small as to always be in an economically precarious position?
RK: Yes. … I've discussed this often…
DH: In relation to your earlier point about improvisation, I share Michael’s interest in the cut-ups of Burroughs and Gysin, and, unlike you, Richard, I also have something of a passion for improvised music (I recall mentioning Ornette Coleman in an earlier correspondence with you, and as you know I’ve recently been working with the legacy of Albert Ayler.) So, I wonder if you might say more about why you seem to dismiss improvisation as a strategy?
DH: Do you mean by this that improvisatory techniques are pointless as avant-garde strategies, or that improvisation is in itself inherently pointless?
RK: Neither - just that improvisation is usually heard by me as pointless doodling that goes nowhere…
DH: Would you say the same about procedures determined by chance? (Important to Cage at certain times, I think.)
RK: I've argued at great length that inventive constraints were more important to Cage, giving structure to chance details. …
DH: Structure is all-important then? … The best improvised music, I think, always creates an architecture within which spontaneous events occur, and without such architecture it falls readily into that aimless doodling you mentioned earlier....
RK: For instance…?
DH: Well, a few good “architectural” examples for me would be George Russell, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman's 1959 quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden & Billy Higgins, Ayler’s use of hymn and march tunes and, more recently, Keith Jarrett....
RK: Perhaps. … The most successful improviser ever heard by me was Terry Riley at the piano, mostly by weaving quotations from classical music, which became his architecture, as you call it. Keith Jarrett is pretty good.
DH: Yes! … I agree absolutely about Terry Riley. … At his best I think Keith Jarrett does something similar, though in a more romantic - and so, arguably, less avant-garde - way...