UbuWeb’s KENNETH GOLDSMITH Takes Us into his Personal Library of Babel
KENNETH GOLDSMITH is a poet and conceptual artist based in New York. He is also the founding editor of UbuWeb, an online source for historical avant-garde material that has become a virtual publishing house (via P DF), record company (via MP3), and film distributor (via Flash). While Goldsmith describes it as “unstable and cobbled together” the New York Times once characterized its content as “obsessional, paranoiac, splenetic, militant, millenarian, and just plain physically intense.”
Goldsmith’s own work is impure and biting. He once “printed out the internet” on 250,000 sheets of paper. While teaching “uncreative writing” for a decade at the University of Pennsylvania, he created a manual on how to be a “dumb writer.” Goldsmith utilizes contradiction and the mundane as a means for tearing back the slick curtain of media, revealing unwitting structures that are both radical and populist. An ardent supporter of copy-left, Goldsmith believes that the writers of the future will be information managers.
Upon a visit to his home, publisher Wes Del Val was treated to a tour of Goldsmith’s personal library of books and records.
WES DEL VAL:Charles Ives. It’s amazing how modern he still is.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: I love Ives. He’s so inspiring. His ideas of microtonailty seem to be one of the last truly unexplored possibilities for music. Atonality, as much as I adore it, turned out to be a dead end. Its only legacy is in horror film soundtracks. Like Fuller, Ives invented from the ground up, based on personal experience. His polyphonics came from him hearing two marching bands playing two different songs in two different geographical locations. He found that idea to be beautiful and made a practice out of that intrigue. I find that inspiring. I also love the idea that he was as outside as any starving artist, but was a millionaire insurance executive. There are some things that money truly can’t buy.
People are funny, sometimes they think UbuWeb is connected to Pere Ubu. I love Pere Ubu very much, but unfortunately we don’t share anything but the name. Pere Ubu blended pop with experimental electronics. Their record The Modern Dance (1978) is a masterpiece of propaganda and slogans détourned through pop music – Maoism as Pop, similar to Godard and Warhol. Smart stuff.
How often do you get into your country music?
I dip into it quite a bit. I love country music. I don’t read novels, but I love the stories in country music. I can turn on the worst pop country music and I’ll find a compelling narrative as well as a traditional instrument. Even in the most commercial country music, I can find a fiddle, or a pedal steel, or a banjo, and so I think that’s terrific. A funny story here. At the end of his life, Robert Ashley spent a lot of time in Arizona driving around listening to the radio. He once told me that his favorite music to listen to was country and that his favorite artist was Brad Paisley! That’s weird, but not unexpected – country music shows up in his work, in operas like Improvement, which are full-on narratives.
Let’s look at the soul and R&B. How important is it to you?
It was hugely important to me. Maybe not so much now, because I know it too well. There’s not a record here that I haven’t listened to a thousand times. I remember in the 80s when James Brown records were still hard to find and get. When I discovered Ray Charles, it felt like no one was listening to him then and it was still a weird thing. All the R&B was still underground, it still hadn’t crossed over in any kind of way like it has now. Now it’s on commercials, they make movies about it. Everything is known. Now when I go into Trader Joe’s, I’m hearing Wilson Pickett. So I can’t listen to it anymore.
How intriguing do you find Harry Partch?
I find Partch endlessly intriguing. I never finish with him. I think the music is extremely beautiful. He’s an American maverick, like Ives, or John Cage. I’m an American maverick. I consider myself very much in that tradition, outside of the mainstream pushing and pulling against things.
Tell me more about what being an American maverick means to you. How is it unique from the world’s other greats outside of the mainstream?
There’s something about American mavericks that’s about pure reinvention, severing our historical ties to the past. The mavericks in Europe are all steeped in tradition, whereas the American mavericks keep inventing themselves in the Buckminster Fuller-ian sense of the word. For example, Terry Riley, he came out of nowhere. There’s no history. He just had this idea and let himself see where it would go. Same with Cage, who purposely embraced an idea of Americanness to separate him from European academism. You know, it’s good old American manifest destiny, though in a positive sense as opposed to the normal exploitative and genocidal sense.
I know this is broad, but let’s talk about punk.
I always found punk to be liberating. I was always too arty and probably too bourgeois to ever really be a punk. I mean, it didn’t really fit an upper-middle class Jewish kid from Long Island. Now, I find the nostalgia for punk cloying because of its ties to authenticity – “It was the last time people really played their instruments.” Too much nostalgia around punk for me now, but I find people like Johnny Lydon to be more like a self-invented American maverick. It’s no coincidence that he – or someone like Werner Herzog or Morrissey – now lives in Los Angeles. I liked Malcolm McLaren for this reason as well as his ties to the Situationists, which I find inspiring. I love the way that they brought essentially art ideas into the pop realm. When that happens, it’s magic.
Let’s look at the opera.
I’m just an opera junkie. In fact, I have to stay away from it because once I fall into it I can’t listen to anything else. I’m afraid to put these records on.
Is the operatic text important to you as a writer?
Not at all. I love the idea that we sit through six hours of Wagnerian drama and don’t understand a word of it. And this is a wildly popular form. I mean, we’re so hung up on the idea of narrative, but then there are these broad patches where we throw away narrative. Baseball is another one of those places. Hours and hours go by and nothing happens. I find it amazing that it’s as popular as it is.
Let’s take a look at a look at your books. Here’s Vito Acconci.
At the end of his life, Vito is back to poetry. He began as a poet, and then he became a performance and video artist, and then a sculptor and an architect, and now, after all those endeavors, he’s returned to poetry. Poetry is a utopian space, the place we ultimately return to when we need unbridled freedom.
What about Adorno?
Adorno was so wrong in so many ways that it’s fascinating. He’s a relic of a sort of romantic modernism that has absolutely no bearing in today’s world. Of course, I’m a devoted modernist, but my modernism is an impure one, a messy one, a revisionist one. UbuWeb is the expression of my version of modernism, one where Samuel Beckett snuggles up against Captain Beefheart. Adorno would’ve hated that.
What does David Antin mean to you?
The idea that normative speech can be more complex and disjunctive than anything modernism ever dreamed of was manifested in Andy Warhol’s a and the talk poems of David Antin. We’ve received an enormous amount of permissions from David’s work – the idea that the creation of literature can be effortless, the idea that just by speaking we make poetry.
Am I missing out by not knowing Clark Coolidge? You have a lot of his books, and he’s new to me.
Coolidge is the most sensual of the Language poets, probably because he’s older than the hardcore didactic poets that came to define the movement. Coolidge is a bridge between people like Cage and the Language poets. He’s an apolitical formalist with deep ties to the music, sound poetry, and visual arts. His collaborations with Philip Guston are among the greatest visual poems ever made. In all, his is a very rich practice.
Do you want to talk about Derrida at all?
The book I love most by Derrida is this book called Glas (1974), which is Derrida dipping his toe into Joycean poetic experimentation. It’s his most explicitly religious text – mystical religion as poetic practice, not theory – riffing on the structure and glosses of the Talmud. There’s no one way to read the book, but it’s a great thing to dip in and out of, very much like the Talmud. I like to think of the Talmud as a template from which other books can be written. The structure is incredible. (Pulls out an old copy of the Talmud from his shelves.)
You have an important liturgical text in the center, and then surrounding it is a rabbi’s gloss on it. Then you have a tertiary gloss, and sometimes even a fourth one, and a fifth one. It’s really both a book of visual poetry and a book of philosophy, which is something I think that Derrida was picking up on. It says that no text has a single interpretation. No text is stable. (Pulls two oversized paperbacks off shelf.)
Speaking of visual poetry, have you seen these? I think of all the books I own, these are my very favorite. They’re called The Gates of Paradise (2000) and Years (2001) by David Daniels and they’re all concrete poems done in Microsoft Word, like 3.0. Look at this. Isn’t this exquisite? These are unbelievable pieces. He sent them to UbuWeb, and I was knocked out. It turns out he was an old man who, in a karmic boomerang through his own charitable giving, was set up by Silicon Valley moguls in his dotage to do nothing but to write these poems for the rest of his life. He was sort of a guru to these young Silicon Valley magnates – the poet as muse to technology. He died a few years ago, but these were written in the 80s and 90s. You can find them as PDFs on Ubu.
I’m so surprised to see Ogden Nash.
Oh, I love Ogden Nash. In the 80s, when I began transitioning from the visual art world to poetry, I was listening to a lot of rap. And when I started looking into poetry, I was sort of shocked that none of it rhymed at a time when rhyming and word play was slathered all over culture. The tradition of text art, too, looked staid and uptight – really dry and philosophical. Rhyme seemed to be a way out of all that, and in that light, Nash’s rhyming looked really radical and oddly contemporary. My first two books, 73 Poems (1994) and No.111 (1997) were both rhyme-based.
It’s so wonderful that you reference him. No one would ever think Kenneth Goldsmith and Ogden Nash in the same sentence.
Well, this comes back to the idea of impurity that I mentioned before when I was talking about Adorno. It’s possible now to embrace contradiction in ways that were unthinkable when I was younger.
Beckett is too obvious, same with Joyce. I don’t want to cover Warhol, or Stein. Do you want to talk about Arcades (2002)?
No. I’ll soon have to talk way too much about it.
Ok good. I don’t want to talk about Duchamp, everyone always talks about him. Tell me about your relationship with Wayne Koestenbaum.
Wayne and I fill each other in. In his work, he’s emotive and subjective. In mine, I’m conceptual and cold. He can never be me and I can never be him, but we admire those parts of ourselves which are missing, those parts which we see in the other. We have the exact same temperature except mine is in Fahrenheit and his is in Celsius.
Let’s talk about noise – noise in general, like when someone says “noise” to you.
Cage taught us that that the idea of “noise” is a subjective construct, that there is no such thing as noise, only sounds. How we choose to process those sounds determines our comfort or lack of comfort in the world. That said, I very much admire genres of Noise music or metal. I don’t have much use for them in my life, but I’m glad that they exist. (Pulls out small stack of titles published by RE/Search.)
These books are so important to me. Without RE/Search, UbuWeb would never exist. This book, The Industrial Culture Handbook, taught me in 1983 that the avant-garde can be both beautiful and challenging, sexy and difficult, smart and abrasive. Before RE/Search, the avantgarde was always ugly. But these books are so beautifully designed. The solarized photographs of Bobby Neel Adams were Ballardian, highly technical and beautiful images of disturbing subject matter. These books gave me permission to make UbuWeb what it is today.
How did you find RE/Search?
I was in art school in 1983 and the West Coast at that time was producing the most interesting new ideas – be it the new art coming out of places like Cal Arts (Mike Kelley, the Pictures Generation), or the post-punk bands with an intellectual and political bent coming out of the SST label like Minutemen, Husker Dü, and Meat Puppets. I found San Francisco bands like the Dead Kennedys inspiring as well, funny and biting. RE/Search was SF-based. All of this seemed like a perfect response to the Reagan years and the then-burgeoning consumer culture. You can’t imagine how alienating it was to be in your early 20s in the early 80s. We had been through the hippies and the punks, and then suddenly everything had changed. All of this culture was full of resistance that I very much identified with.
I see a number of books by Buckminster Fuller. I noticed one or two by Koolhaas, but otherwise Fuller is the only builder. What does he mean to you?
Fuller was so far ahead of his time. I don’t think we’ll ever catch up with him. He set out to do things conventionally and failed miserably at them. So he decided that from that point on, he would only believe what he himself had empirically experienced. If he hadn’t been able to verify it through living, it wasn’t true for him. And so he lived the world without received knowledge and came up with startlingly fresh answers. I think this is the way that every artist feels. Fuller is very inspiring for artists.
Uhhh, let’s see, was going to say Marinetti, but no. How about Ginsberg? Is Ginsberg too common? I adore Ginsberg.
How about Abbie Hoffman? I love him, he’s a hero.
In what way, because of Steal This Book (1971)?
Like the Beats, Hoffman was taking the piss out of everything anyone in America believed in. And he brought it onto a huge stage. Hoffman was a performance artist – the idea of throwing dollar bills on the floor of the Stock Exchange is right out of Futurism. He did politics with great joy and humor. The whole thing was right out of vaudeville and Lower East Side immigrant comedy. What a genius! (Looking at the books together again.) How about Joseph Mitchell?
Yes, a great New York writer.
I loved his profile of Joe Gould, who was very inspiring for my own work. Gould told Mitchell that he wrote a book called the Oral History, “One evening in June, 1942, for example, [Gould] told an acquaintance that at the moment the Oral History was ‘approximately nine million two hundred and fifty-five thousand words long, or,’ he added, throwing his head back proudly, ‘about a dozen times as long as the Bible.’” The book was comprised of blather, barroom talk, recollections of parties – stuff like that. But the whole thing turned out to be a hoax. After Mitchell published this profile, it turned out that Gould had never written a word! Brilliant! A great conceptual hoax, the inverse of Duchamp who had the whole world saying that “The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated” when in fact he was working every day in his studio for twenty years, meticulously constructing Étant donnés!
Let’s see, do you want to do any Schwitters, or no?
No, it’s a little close for me. Let’s talk about Zola instead.
Ok, yes. I see you have a lot of Zola and I know how much you like him.
His Rougon-Macquart series was a 360-degree portrait of a culture in the guise of a bunch of potboiler novels. Zola was really a philosophical documentarian, more like a Barthes or Benjamin than a Balzac. He gives permission for making the smallest and most commercial details fodder for art. In this way, you could say that Zola is a precursor to Warhol or Knausgård, which I’m reading and loving. I can’t stand fiction. I find it embarrassing to think that someone sits around inventing a world when the world we live in is so very rich, overwhelmingly so. I find fiction cringe-worthy. You’ll find very little fiction on these shelves. Instead, like Zola or Knausgård, you’ll find documentarian based literature posing as fiction.
Let’s end on Z with Zappa.
Zappa is an American maverick. He blended disparate genres – pop music, music concrète, free jazz, sound poetry, vocal, surf music, country and western – and he did it all so convincingly and so well. He’s right in line with all the people I’ve discussed in this interview: impure, playful, and able to fuse opposites. It’s the way I try to be in my own practice.
Interview WES DEL VAL, Photography SCOTT SCHUMAN