“Every single mark that you make on paper is an acoustic mark.”

An interview with Susan Howe and David Grubbs

(photo: Bradley Buehring)

By David Bernabo

The cover image of Susan Howe & David Grubbs’s new album comes from page 47 of the New Directions paperback version of Howe’s book (2020). The image, the poem is one of sixty new collage poems assembled through a process involving copy paper, scissors, “invisible” scotch tape, and a copier. Aside from posting a photo, it’s a text that I cannot reproduce here on my laptop keyboard. There’s no key for 15% of a “v,” let alone 15% of a “v.” The bottom half of “vegetation” sits atop “rywhere,” an intersection of word and font mutated through the process of copying and scanning.

Hearing these poems read aloud is an absolute joy where each reading provides one possible answer to a puzzle. Howe’s voice is clear and centered. The sound world that Grubbs pairs with Howe’s voice retains the piano from the pair’s previous collaboration, (2015), but omits the ambient sounds —the soft footsteps, whispers, and birdsong. There is a distinct lack of layered sound and voice that define earlier works like and It isn’t so much that is a simplification of previous records; more that each record envisions a space with a set of tools and sounds and approaches. Here, the result feels more akin to a continuous performance, an intriguing invitation given the physical disconnect of these COVID-19 years.

Via Zoom, Susan and David were kind enough to sit in their respective spaces for an interview to discuss their new album. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Photo: DB

David Bernabo: Going into a project like this, do you have an ideal outcome, meaning is there a particular result that you are looking for or are you open to a range of results?

David Grubbs: The first thing to say is that Susan’s reading and the recording of the piano part were done about nine months apart from one another. In some ways, the recording is a very deliberate construction, even as the relation of those parts seems to have a loose synchrony or sometimes a character of accidence of a musical phrase or a phrase of Susan’s either landing squarely together or like a missed collision. All of which is to say is that the recording is very different from a performance of the two of us in the same room.

Susan Howe: Working with David on the various performances or recordings that we’ve made have pushed my work in a direction I’ve always believed in exploring — the thin line between word and music.

Working with a musician who is also a composer and scholar has been a boon to me because he has introduced me to contemporary sound artists I didn’t know of before. For this particular recording I did the cut up fragments of text first and then David recorded it, but our work together on previous collaborations especially the recent where field recordings were done in the Gardner Museum in Boston influenced this. We recorded these word collages on the cusp of the pandemic. David, am I not right to say it was two months before?

DG: It was January of last year. [January 8, 2020 at Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT]

SH: There is a gulf between then and now. For me, my working progress writing these cut up works was psychologically pre-pandemic. I imagine many people feel this way. It’s like the transformational horror that happened with the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the election of Donald Trump was Prologue. Here is fall 2021 after years of sorrow and shock. The image on the cover of our recording has a magic aura from Spirits have come onto the space of a page — windblown and gone. The process of catching instant fragments on the fly I used then has flown away.

DB: Are you talking about the process of making the constructed pieces with scissors and tape?

SH: Yes. Within the space of three years so many Xerox machines are gone. At least the ones in a particular small printing store I used in Guilford [CT] now closed. Even in a large FED EX store on Houston Street where they had a way of leaving me alone to copy — I haven’t been there in two years now and wonder if it still exists. Even then it was pretty empty. I was subletting a loft space on East 6th between B and C. It was definitely unique. He had an enormous collection of nature books from all over the world. Guide books to flowers, rocks, and birds. Field guides so in a strange way it was another way of field recording — I would decide which ones to use that day — I already had many copies scanned from old Concordances I found while roaming the stacks at Sterling Library in New Haven, take the bus to the 7th Avenue subway go to Leslie Miller’s studio in a wonderful old building on West 29th. Nearby there was store that sold only scissors and knives. It was a magical place I bought two pairs there and have used them ever since. The whole thing was a process, repetitive, rather rigid, but wonderful in the sense of chance and telepath. Leslie had an excellent printer and scanner.

DB: Do you create different iterations of the collaged poems?

SH: Yes, it’s like making a watercolor — either it’s right or it’s not. I cut words and bits of sentences from the xerox copies scotch tape them to a page in various ways then run the result through a copier again. Leslie had a perfect printer/scanner. Then if the result works it works or if not I add and subtract. When I left the city I bought the same kind. I need to print out anything I write on the computer but that wonderful copier has broken since. A sudden power outage during a storm fried the inner workings and they don’t make that model anymore.

DG: No!

SH: Anyway, I don’t do any of this on the computer. I do have a computer and a printer, but I don’t do InDesign. So it’s definitely scissors, cut and paste. If it comes out and it doesn’t look right, that doesn’t work. Or if there’s something I could add or subtract, I add or subtract it with my scissors and the scotch tape.

Printed letterpress, edition of 46 numbered and signed copies. Handbound in Japanese Teachest by Claudia Cohen. The Grenfell Press, 2019. Pick one up.

DB: For the record, how do you decide which poems to use from the book and how do you devise the new order of texts?

DG: Why don’t you describe it, Susan, because when I came to the studio to record you, you had a text that you assembled from the original.

SH: Yes, right. I practiced at home. I thought I made something that I thought worked. You know, like the “Paradise Lost, Paradise Lost, Paradise Lost,” section here — obviously from a Milton Concordance. Word lists in alphabetical order from all his poems strewn through many of the collages but for a recording in 2017 considering where we were then it. Sound rules. It’s instinct and training.

There was an obituary in The New York Times today of the first Dub poet, Jean Breeze. I never heard of her before. But I should have.

“One of Breeze’s most vivid childhood memories was of her grandmother sitting in her bedroom and reciting poetry by heart to her every night. ‘So it came from a voice, not a page,’ she told in 1988. ‘The voice is as important as the poem because it brings life to the word.’” She also said, “I want to make words music, move beyond language, into sound.”

This is exactly what I have wanted to do. My mother, was Irish, born in 1905 in Dublin she had been an actor and an author during the early years of the Abbey. She used to read poems and ballads aloud to me. She believed in reciting from memory. She was fanatic about reading aloud well. I learned passages from from Shakespeare,

Working with David has pushed me in that direction which is where I wanted my poetry to go in the way of words as sound and syllables even single letters. I think this is the culmination for me. Concordance also means a summing up and of course the word Concord is embedded.

DB: I have more questions along those lines, but maybe I’ll jump over to David. Can you talk about the instrumentation choice and composing the music on this record?

DG: Sure, it’s ironic that Susan and I haven’t had the opportunity to perform this in front of an audience, because my decision to play the piano on this and have my contribution only be the piano really came from wanting to perform alongside in real time. A lot of the other pieces that we’ve done, most of my contributions have been, for lack of a better term, electroacoustic sound — acoustic sounds that are processed, that I’ve gathered and composed to go with Susan’s poem. In live performances, my task has generally been to trigger samples, to layer samples. It’s a pretty low stress operation [laughs] and it means that I can focus on Susan’s reading and enjoy that.

The previous piece was , which has a piano part, and I really just enjoyed the touch of an instrument. I enjoyed something other than unmuting a sample or enabling a sequence of prerecorded sounds. Just as Susan performs with her reading, I wanted to perform with an instrument.

DB: There is a really nice clarity about this record. It’s something that I could put on any time, whereas the previous records, I need to be in a more focused mindset.

DG: There is a certain simplification of materials. It’s just a voice and just a piano. It breathes quite a bit in my experience.

DB: Susan, I think you addressed this a little bit, but there’s the line, “differences between word and image is always present, if not invited.” Could you talk about the spoken word and the printed word and the relationship between those? Also, do you consider the performance of a poem when you’re devising the poem?

SH: Every single mark that you make on paper is an acoustic mark. Every dash, the shape of letters, let’s say, the violence of an “M” or a “V,” which is almost turned upside down, and in , another book, the relation between a lower case “d” and a “b.” I did do a lot of work on Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts for years — they hadn’t been transcribed the right way; now you can see the manuscript so it’s a different story. But what I realized in the end was I found that trying to make spaces between the letters and trying to make that right and work, what I actually loved was the typeface letters. It was the letters, not handwriting. I can always get an acoustic thrill from the look. The minute I see a poem, I know am I going to like this poem or am I not going to by how it literally looks on the page. There’s a kind of wild rigor. Rigor and freedom at the same time.

When I’m making these cut ups, the way I read them is not the way a reader is going to read them. There’s no real way, but when I read them aloud to myself, I only read them one way. I never vary. I don’t say that’s the right way or the wrong way, but that’s the way I have to read them. It is in my head. First, I make it. Visually, I like it. Then if I try to read it, I realized why I liked it visually.

DG: Susan, I was going to ask you this because I’ve never really asked you this. In recent years — and it’s more the scholarly response writing about the books from forward — are people relying on recordings for your own reading as a kind of integral part of interpreting these collage texts?

SH: I don’t know, I haven’t read that much. I mean, there isn’t much criticism on these. [laughs] Or if there is, I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know. Maybe [the poems] won’t work in the end, maybe they will be forgotten, but there’s a preface to my book. There’s a whole introduction section. I always include those at the end, and I end up caring about those deeply, passionately. That’s sort of me trying to explain myself.

DG: The prose introductions have always been really important to me. I remember the prose introduction for “Thorow” and , being the first thing of yours that I ever read. It welcomed me into otherwise perhaps forbiddingly difficult material. [laughs]

SH: But the thing is, I write prose in exactly the same way. I write line by line, paragraph by paragraph. Shifting, cut, erase, space. It’s basically all collaged. But in the end if a sentence doesn’t sound right I change it.

DG: The first time that I heard you read was from , which is a prose work. Yet the intensity that you brought to the reading and the care that you brought to the reading of that was very similar to the deliberateness and the care that you bring to reading your poetry.

SH: Well, I owe it to my mother in a weird way. It was droned into me that nothing was worse than reading badly. Don’t forget, I grew up in the age of radio, not TV. That made a big difference.

I was very inspired by John Cage, for instance. He reads aloud beautifully, because he knows how to use silence, how to use space and breath for his reading voice. I’m not even talking about his musical production; I’m talking about his reading voice when he gave a lecture or read. It was just perfect.

DB: Susan, has your relationship with your voice changed over time?

SH: Well, it’s sad. Now I have an inherited tremor. I said that, David, when we record together, you can now hear now in my voice, which I don’t like, but there it is.

DB: You are bumping together different references, quotations from different times and different writers. Do you feel like time is collapsible when you’re pulling from historical texts and figures?

SH: Yes. [laughs] I guess I do. I think it’s also telepathic. There is a message that comes out to you. I certainly felt that in . I’m not sure, is it me? Also, is it a picture or is it a poem or is it pure sound? But I don’t feel that I’m the author.

DG: Does that push your perception of your own authorship further to the background in that there are multiple voices present and multiple times present?

SH: In a way, I was inspired when I was writing by H.D. [Hilda Doolittle] and also by Virginia Woolf. There’s something about time I can’t explain. H.D. I got that, again, from Yeats and so does she. Spirit voices in the rustle of leaves. The Land of Heart’s Desire — Clairvoyance is dangerous if you go too far. H.D. writes about her analysis with Freud in Vienna in 1933 just before Hell broke loose. He warns her of the danger. Virginia Woolf’s last novel touches on the thin line between the Theater and Life. She wrote it during 1941 WWII the bombs over London. Time is a mystery, and where are we in it as our fragile planet begins to collapse around us. Where are we then? Touch wood. Superstition.

DB: I first came across your work, Susan, through these records with David and then doubled back and picked up a number of your books. So I was curious if either of you know what audience is listening to these records, and does that impact the format of the record?

DG: It seemed difficult financially to produce it both on LP and CD. LP was my preference for it. Ideally for me, the best way of engaging an audience with the work with Susan is in live performance. It’s funny, I feel like I’ve come around to view it very differently. I had a tendency when we started almost 20 years ago to think about the recordings as definitive. The recording is the publication, and the recording is something that can be accessed at any point in time. In the end, we’ve done dozens of performances, but they’ve been fewer and further between, so the recordings will be the things that people will access, like people will access the books. And yet, it’s been an education for me because the performances have been much more powerful to me than the recordings. The performances aren’t just playing concerts to sell records or anything like that. The performances have really been the intense experiences for me.

What would have been marvelous would be to present this recording together with performances so that the people have the opportunity to experience the both of them. To me, that’s been what I’ve kind of arrived at in terms of the recordings. They’re very different from the performances, and I would like for people to be able to experience both.

SH: I love performing with David, but I’m very nervous. I don’t travel well. He’s got a problem dealing with me. [laughs] But I agree with you about the magic of shared experience and the sound.

DG: Susan, I would say also that the quieter passages in a lot of these pieces are much more meaningful in performance. It feels like much more of a challenge or an engagement with the audience to ask people to be silent together rather than to have a recording that encompasses silence. They just seem like very different things.

But to me, this is an index of how meaningful these performances have been for me, that I approached it very much as a recording person, as somebody interested in the texture of recordings and in the experience of being able to listen to things repeatedly. In some ways that was the most meaningful thing about recordings for me, that you come to know them through repetition and that that’s not anything to apologize for, right, but it’s just a different experience. It’s akin to rereading. But these performances have been really tremendously meaningful.

Pick up a copy of Susan Howe & David Grubbs from the Blue Chopsticks imprint on Drag City or on Bandcamp.

Music | Performance | Art | Criticism