It’s still hard to believe that Leslie Scalapino is gone. Although I was saddened by the news, the enormousness of the loss is only now starting to sink in. Over the years, she’s had a profound influence on my own writing. It was through her that I became interested in Buddhist thought, and in particular the writings of Nagarjuna.
I also admired her philosophical explorations of public and private spaces and actions, and her focus on stripping phenomena down to get as close as possible to the level of perception, to peel back the cultural, personal and political biases with which we habitually infuse events. This helped me to to have a more intense awareness of the deeply ingrained assumptions of our cognition. Her influence on my work is especially apparent (or so I’ve been told) in the title poem of Codes of Public Sleep
, an exploration, in part, of private and public space and behaviour in downtown New Orleans.
The reading that I organized for her in April 2002 at Cafe Brasil in New Orleans was one of the most memorable I have ever experienced. She read, among other things, from The Tango
, and the rhythm of her delivery was more than mesmerizing—it seemed to reveal the inner sense of the words and phrases in relation to the Buddhist thought in which she was so immersed. It revealed a splaying of consciousness with an intense awareness of the myriad perspectives that perception and cognition bring to phenomena—including the phenomenon of one’s own awareness. I will always treasure the copy of that book that she gave me and her description of Buddhist masters that she had witnessed in Tibet questioning the seated clusters of disciples in lightning-quick fashion, sometimes snapping their fingers for a response.
The workshop that she facilitated around my kitchen table for the privileged few who showed up was an eye- and mind-opener. One of the exercises was in three parts. First, we were to take a few minutes to pay close attention to what was happening in our minds, without trying to impose an agenda of topic or emotion, just to listen closely and write. As I remember, mine was pretty disjunctive, words and phrases that happened to surface into consciousness interspersed with what I can only describe as onomatopoeic noises, hummings and interjections.
For the second part, she asked us to describe an event that we had witnessed, one that made an impression on us, but to describe it as far as possible without imputing emotions or opinions about it, simply to describe, for example, the motion of someone’s leg kicking a chair. The event might have been laden with assumptions and biases at the time, but she instructed us to think about the event as being a phenomenon stripped of mental attributions—to the extent that this is possible—to get to the roots of the phenomenon itself.
What immediately came to my mind was a fight over a computer that I had recently witnessed in the New Orleans Public Library, where I was working at a reference desk. I remembered one man pushing the other man over a table, the grimaces on their faces, and so forth. I remember that it was revealing to see the event in my mind’s eye as an observer, not to focus on my own anxiety and revulsion at the time, but to focus on the event as event—not to react, but to see
and not to impute.
The first writing was a subjective inner flow of consciousness; the second was a recording of the out-there, stripped as much as possible of the constant commentary of the little evaluator and interpreter inside our head.
The third part of the experiment was to combine the two writings, to alternate between the inner consciousness and the event-phenomenon. I thought my attempt at the combination awkward, jarring, but Leslie reacted enthusiastically to it, and I then understood more about the point of the exercise. It wasn’t that what I had written was publishable or anything, but through the experiment I was made to think in ways that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, to show me something about habits of thought. And it helped me to understand better her own poetic project. And the more that I read of Nagarjuna, the more her writing experiment at the workshop made sense to me.
In my next post, I’ll reproduce an essay that was published in HOW2
a few years ago in a special critical feature on Leslie Scalapino. Alert: it’s on the longish side, but I hope that some parts of it are rewarding.