EXCHANGE WITH LEWIS FREEDMAN ON I WANT SOMETHING OTHER THAN TIME

by Thomas Fink

Thomas Fink: When it comes to innovative poetry, accounts of process sometimes provide readers with useful points of entry. In the Acknowledgments of I Want Something Other than Time (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021), you refer to the book as “primarily a handwritten manuscript until September of 2018,” and you speak of “a quite expansive explanation of the process of composition” that “accompanies the special handwritten edition…” (66). Since that edition is inaccessible to your reading public, can you bestow some of that explanation on us, or do you want to tantalize us further with this present absence?

Lewis Freedman: I have several narratives of the composition of this book, and I must admit that as I find myself telling one and then another I glimpse incommensurable intersections, points at which one narrative might preclude another. That said, one narrative of the book, the one I shall relay here, is that the book was begun by a conscious shift I made in my body position’s relation to the page. Instead of angling my body into and around the page as I wrote, which had been my practice in handwriting for as long as I can recall, I began to position the page in straight-on parallel relation to my body. And while I’ve long had a whole developed private intellectual history for how shifts in my different material practices of the notebook and pen have moved my writing, I had, to that point, paid almost no attention to some of the basics of my head/page/hand/body/mind relation in writing. So I started paying attention to this and tried out this straight-on page/body approach, and found that in this position I had the impulse to write in arcs across the page, beginning in the top-left corner and arcing into and away from the center of the page until one reaches the bottom-right. The feeling was as though I were transposing onto the page the angle at which I had previously positioned my body in relation to the page while writing straight across it. This in turn felt to me as though we were blind babies in some page whole, the hole of wishing for the disappearance into the thing radiating with a liminal ripple. I write babies here, I think, because the arced writing’s dimensionality resembles to me an ultrasound image, but what I’m trying to express is that this practice bore the sense that the reason I had always been arcing my body around the page, framing its surface as interior to mine, was to fall into its time of motion more quickly, smoothly.

Anyway, in the notebook where this shift occurred, where I suddenly had this, to me, new way of approaching the page, I also felt that I had a new practice of the page itself, and the poems of I Want Something Other Than Time kept appearing as a practice of this new relation, each poem a page. This was in early 2017 and these I Want Something Other Than Time pages fell out quite quickly, with versions of all the poems written between February and May.

Fink: One of the book’s three epigraphs, from Mishna Avos, suggests through rhetorical questions that it is absurd to eliminate thinking about the dynamics and representational status of individual existence: “If I’m not me, who is me? And when I’m myself, what am I?” However, in many of the poems, I read the speaker as lamenting some version of the insight that the constitution of a speaking subject as a self is oppressive and illusory: “a congealed posture” (1); “self-construction” being the sole accomplishment of “all communication” (5); it is as though narcissism must squelch what Levinas in another of the book’s epigraphs calls “the hope for a better society.” See, for example, one poem’s opening sentence that accuses “the need to feel satisfied” of spawning a refusal “to awaken an/ activism within me” (39). And some poems seem to suggest that self-loathing is the proper attitude: “I find only a renewed instruction/ to renounce myself” (59). Self-division—“I carried myself/ far off from myself” (38)—is depicted as enervating and debilitating, and imprisoning but inevitable self-consciousness, except perhaps in the potential for “revolution” raised at the end of this poem that begins with self-transportation:

      we hold revolution in an  
assumption of valor that,   
even in its command against us,  
gathers the self   
revived in recombination. (38)

Here is the self as flux, as process. I take this to suggest that the “command” against the self is a rejection of a current arrangement of elements of desire and that “revolution” could valorize a self that achieves satisfactory “recombination” of those elements.

After completing I Want Something Other than Time, do you find that the writing of the work clarified something about self/identity and its representation, or did it create new questions about this, or did it do some of both or neither?

Freedman: This is an astonishing question to receive, thank you for it, I shall try to address it bit by bit.

The epigraph I draw from Mishna Avos, oft-cited, written during the Tannaitic period of Classical Rabbinic literature, is unusually translated in this instance. This unusual translation feels quite important to me. A normative translation and understanding of this Mishna goes, “if I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am for my own self [only], what am I, and if not now, when?” (Soncino translation), and functions as a kind of personal empowerment, carpe diem thing, like advocate for yourself, the meaning of oneself is with others, act now. This is the translation / meaning of the maxim that I grew up hearing/reading. Now the crux of this normative translation is rooted in the Hebrew word “li” which usually functions as a possessive. While I was in the midst of composing I Want Something Other Than Time, I had the thought, quite out of the blue, not out of any intentional study, and just b/c this language is one of the discourses that moves through my language, to treat the word “li” as relational rather than possessive, and found that it considerably shifted the meaning of the phrase in ways that were consonant with what seemed to be arising in the poems. I haven’t ever read this new translation of Avos to be saying “that it is absurd to eliminate thinking about the dynamics and representational status of individual existence,” though I see clearly why you did and why I would. I read it as kind of a tripartite wisdom riddle formula (like the kind of formulations in Nagarjuna’s “Essay on Causality”) that points to the impossible condition, the contradictory position of holding subjecthood and the consequent distemporalization of experience. Like if I’m not me, which I sometimes obviously am, then who am I (?), but when I am myself, what is this me that’s sometimes not itself; and in this double-bind, this impossibility of shedding subjecthood as oneself and this impossibility of inhabiting subjecthood as oneself, a temporal displacement of the subject is conjured, the subject is fractured, distributed in time and so we ask if this isn’t presence, which it clearly is not, when is it? So, in my understanding, the epigraph itself is a sort of description of the disagreement which the beginning of your question points to (which is not to espouse this as an authoritative reading, but just describe how I experience it).

Perhaps as a continuation of the answer to your first question, and I think also here to our conversation on Residual Synonyms, in which we discuss some of the formal fragmentation of the subject in that text, I would say that one of the quite surprising byproducts of this new practice of the page for me, this new body position and scribal motion, was that my writing began to simulate a much more stable, continuous first-person pronoun and voice than it ever had before. This wasn’t/isn’t something that is/was aimed for or particularly desirable, and the formal methodologies employed in language composition are as artificial and intertextual in this book as they were in the prior; it just seemed to be what was transpiring. I thought as this voice was emerging in these poems that it was a voice from the early books of Artaud, books that made a huge impression on me, though also books that I’ve only partially read (that is I’ve read the translated selections of them in the Sontag Artaud Selected), Fragments of Hell, and Nerve Meter, relentless descriptions of mental suffering that reveled in, bragged about, how much they could catalogue, express, follow the traces of their own expression, around their own impossible psychic conditions. I experience the book not then as a philosophically consistent articulation from which I’ve learned how to stabilize anything in self-relation, but as, as you excellently put it, “an enervating and debilitating” performance of self-division and recombination, that elaborates the confusion of meaning-making for our subjects, its pleasures and agonies. 

Fink: While some poems celebrate, at least briefly, “this meaningless elation,/ moment of total joy, to/ arrive in the bad times when/ preference no longer feels actionable” (4), this constitutes a brief respite from an intense, abiding, frequently anxious concern—not only with the problematics of selfhood—but with measures of “consciousness” in general such as time. One of the most richly ambiguous sentences in the book opens the third poem: “Some thing that is/ no longer hears/ all that is told” (3). Not only does this sentence host a striking personification, but it either tells us that this “thing” is in the past but has some sort of posthumous auditory prowess or that it is (exists, is present, in the present) yet “no longer” has the capacity to hear “all.” As the poem continues, the derangements of ordinary conceptions of time keep making temporal matters (or perhaps space/time) tougher and tougher to sort:

Instead, a last convulsion is      
at work joining  
beginningless fragments at  
evanescent extremes.
Either it’s something which arrives from itself  
or it’s an inversion of that new spacing where   
we receive nothing from the past. (3)

The “last convulsion” could be apocalyptic, or “last” may simply signify “most recent.” The adjective “beginningless” suggests that the fragments comprising elements of the collage that is the dynamic play of consciousness—memory and current experience—at any particular juncture can’t be assigned a precise historical context. The “extremes” are “evanescent” because the current status of the collage cannot hold; un-joining and re-joining of these and other elements in new combinations will occur, and the finality of apocalypse, if that’s way it is, gives way to an after-history. The next sentence posits opposing perspectives on this “convulsion,” which might be self-generating and not reliant on material of the past, or an event that undoes the presumption of absolute newness and “receives” something “from the past.” Creation ex nihilo seems extremely implausible, given that the “fragments” of the previous sentence must be pre-existing in order to be “joined,” and they aren’t really “beginningless”; it’s just that their beginnings are not accessible to the speaking subject.

The poem continues with the assertion that “the past, R I P,” is “an obligation which will never take place, to restore” three things, including “the not-to-be,” “to uselessness” (3). The past is “not-to-be,” because it no longer is, but even if one is obliged to recognize its uselessness, in the sense that future effects spring from present causes, this will “never happen,” since people are programmed to believe that in any “new spacing,” that the past has valuable stuff to give them and lessons to impart. The poem concludes:

There is a leak in my consciousness  
so that the function of the present,  
to preside like some mantra over self-relation,  
only budges in the new spacing.  
Signs no longer 
experiencing the surface. (3)

To characterize the present’s function as “budging” suggests that it is unstable and does not “preside” over the understanding of one’s experience but is subject to an uncertain dynamics of relationality “in the new spacing.” And the poem’s second “no longer,” echoing the first sentence, seems to detach the “signs” of temporality from “the surface” of current experience, engendering the “leak” in “consciousness.”

I don’t know if you can retrieve the trajectory of the composition of this poem, but when you read it now, how does it speak to you about your (now past) efforts to come to terms with temporality?

Freedman: Tom, this is a really attentive and beautiful reading of this poem; I’m truly grateful to you for it. It makes me feel the work as actually read in a way that’s so useful to me, and which I don’t take for granted. After I initially wrote these poems, I had several months where I didn’t know what to do with them. I’d started typing them up and reordering them, but something was getting lost, and the new orders seemed to be detracting rather than animating the energy they were building. At some point I made a decision, influenced by something my friend the poet Tim Bradford had said to me in passing during this period, that this should be a handwritten book. I had this notebook that another poet friend, Hailey Higdon, had given me a few years before, and I decided I would make that notebook into a handwritten book of these poems. I’d recently moved to Oklahoma during that period of time and was researching the life of poetry in Oklahoma, and found myself particularly fascinated by the book Asp of the Age by the Oklahoma poet Merle Hoyleman who lived most of her adult life in Pittsburgh in the mid-twentieth century. Asp of the Age, which I’d learned about through both Nathaniel Otting and CAConrad, is a large handwritten book of Hoyleman’s poems (which are longish works), beautifully produced in facsimile in a green ink, and I became especially concerned with the poem “Mind Province of the Tenth Month” which is a poem whose high mythological, prophetic poetic register extends to its many footnotes that act as a subterranean commentary throughout, and I began holding that book open as a witness and guide while I rewrote the poems by hand again and again to go into the notebook Hailey gave me that was to be the book itself. Transcribing these poems again and again until I got the spacing and language right (often a dozen or more times), made me wear their grooves a lot, got me very close into their actions, and its hard for me to access moments of their first recording (with a few notable exceptions). When I read your description of the poem’s action now it feels right to me now, I remain I feel under the sign of this leak, compelled still to play with the simultaneous contingency and necessity of the subject (personal, collective, historical, and present) as the surface of experience, even to the sometimes rather terrible point of confusion, of distemporalization.

Fink: When I look at the shape of most of the poems on their pages, I notice that the first and last few lines tend to be the shortest, while the middle lines are often longest. Though few look precisely like a capital D, pot bellies are common. Was this kind of pattern deliberate, or was some other principle involved in the free-verse meter?

Freedman: Once I’d understood that the way to continue making this book into itself was to make it a handwritten book, a rewriting process which took six months or so (from the Fall 2017 into 2018), I had almost no thought of trying to type it up again, I felt it had found its form. I then started sending it in this form to various friends and asking about their experience of it. At one point I showed it to Peter Gizzi, a poet and friend whose poetry and poetics I’m deeply influenced by, and Peter expressed that he found it very difficult to read the arced handwriting. I really wanted to share the work with Peter so I thought I’d type it up for him. I wanted to do this quickly, and at that moment had a job that demanded most of my waking hours, so instead of trying to refigure the form as it moved into typeface, I more or less copied the same line breaks that the page had suggested in the arced handwriting. So this is why the poems seem to have this pot-bellied form, it is the form of the arced handwriting typed. After doing this primarily for Peter’s eyes, I saw that the poems still felt like themselves in this typed form, were in some ways clearer, and so I submitted them this way to Ugly Duckling Presse’s open reading period.

I should note also that, to my knowledge, though it’s printing has been quite delayed, the handwritten version of the book (and accompanying essay) should be out this year. I rehandwrote the entire book again last summer for the edition, which was itself a strange labor, in that the process was now reversed, I was using the typed, edited, final manuscript version and transcribing it into handwritten form.

Fink:  In putting this book together, was there a principle or set of criteria for determining the order of the poems?

Freedman: Oddly for me, as the reorganization of poems I’ve written into new orders has often been a productive method for keeping the process of making active, in the case of I Want Something Other Than Time the poems are in more or less the exact order in which they were first written. Before I understood the manuscript as a handwritten book and began to rewrite it, I was playing around with the order of the poems a lot, and one of the problems seemed to be that all the orders I was coming up with felt arbitrary, weren’t producing new coherences for me. Simultaneous to the decision to rewrite it as a handwritten book was the decision to reproduce its original order, and as I did this it became clear to me that it was, in a sense, a received serial poem, in which the parts seemed to fit as they fell out.

Fink: In this book of one-page poems, all the poems have the same name as the book’s title. This could signify a long poem divided into sections or a poetic sequence but not with numbers. You could be commenting on the arbitrary quality of titles. Would you like to talk about this?

Freedman: I do experience the repeating title as a refrain too, as much a language between the poems as the initiator or container of any one poem. One thing I’m curious about is the way in which such repetition of a title/refrain feels to me, in retrospect, to be some sort of response to the dire political circumstances in the US in late 2016 / early 2017. For example, right before I wrote these poems, I was compulsively writing these sentences, many dozens of them, whose only constraint was that each sentence contain some variation on both of the two words vary (variable, variety, variation, etc…) and appear (apparition, apparency, appearance, etc…). And then in 2019 I read Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin which was also composed during this political moment and like I Want Something Other than Time has the same title for each poem. Hayes’s book is, for me, a really powerful and beautiful book, and while there are obvious differences between the two books, I can’t help but feel something shared in the repeating title, the feel of the poems, the political moment of their composition, a frequency of that moment that we were both inhabited by. A theory of the relation of a repeating title to a moment of political exigency and to that particular moment of political exigency is unavailable to me as I write this, but I’m reminded of the ending to one of the poems in I Want Something Other Than Time which writes “We do not make things / appear or disappear / except by / repeating them.”   

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