cris cheek in manhattan
Jeremy Harding, in a thoughtful review of Conductors of Chaos and other works (LRB, 3 July 1997), rightly pointed out the importance of Poundian Modernism and an American poetic tradition coming out of Objectivism as one context for a significant area of English poetic production over the last thirty years. However, despite noting that the Objectivist Carl Rakosi recovered 'the possibility of poetry' through the intervention of the English poet Andrew Crozier, Harding nevertheless managed to maintain the impression that relations between English and American innovative poetry have all been one-way, and he missed some of the dialogue that has actually taken place. For example, he suggested that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers 'won a hearing in Britain shortly after the launch of their journal in 1978'.
Not only does the statement occlude the 'hearing' that poets such as Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher and cris cheek had already 'won' from 'language writers' before L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was launched, but the metaphor denies the possibility of dialogue - indeed, the fact of dialogue - between English and American poetry. Ron Silliman, in his introduction to the anthology In the American Tree (1986), includes Raworth, Fisher, and cheek in the list of individuals who 'participated in the greater discourse of which this poetry is but a particular axis'. He might equally have mentioned Eric Mottram and Rod Mengham, for example, who also contributed to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, or the British-born Canadian poet, Steve McCaffery. Raworth and Fisher are excluded from the anthology on the interesting ground of 'working in other nations'.
In other words, this influential anthology, of what one might loosely term 'language writing' had (as its title suggests) a firmly national boundary: the effect of this decision (with its concomitant inclusions and exclusions) was to appropriate an international 'greater discourse' for a national agenda. It is also part of a process that has established 'language writing' as the dominant category - and, indeed, hegemonic term - for the range of poetic practice that constituted that 'greater discourse'.
Before the publication of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E becomes fixed as the moment of contact between 'language writing' and these shores, it is worth noting that some English poets in the area of production that Conductors of Chaos gestures towards were known to some of the American poets who were to become 'language writers', were present in some of the 'language writing' magazines that preceded L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and were, literally, in dialogue with 'language writers' from the mid-seventies. Ken Edwards, for example, had been in correspondence with James Sherry and Charles Bernstein since the mid-seventies; he published work by both Sherry and Alan Davies in Alembic 6 (Summer 1977); and he was to go on to publish work by Sherry and Bernstein in the first volume of Reality Studios in 1978 - as well as Lyn Hejinian's 'Wintermute' in Alembic 8 (Spring 1979) - not as a response to the launch of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E but as part of an already established exchange.
In the paper that follows, I want to consider the early career of cris cheek in the period up to 1980, since his work was (and continues to be) part of that 'greater discourse'. I have given the paper the title 'cris cheek in manhattan' to evoke narratives of the provincial in the big city: dick whittington coming to London or Crocodile Dundee in New York. But I will be trying to subvert that narrative, that colonial pattern of the metropolis and the periphery. I should probably also say at the outset that 'Manhattan', in my title, is being used very loosely to indicate a period that cheek spent in and around and about New York during 1978-80, during which he ranged between the catskills and Baltimore with passages through NYC making contact with a) Lango-po hard-core: such as Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews; and b) emergent performance people.
This period (1978-80) serves as the boundary for my narrative, while 'Manhattan' stands as a synecdoche for cheek's interactions with a North American art scene.
I want to start by saying something about cheek's most recent work. My guess is that cheek is probably less familiar to an English academic poetry audience than the American 'language poets' would be.
I want to approach cheek through Allen Fisher's necessary business (Spanner 25, July 1985), an essay on works by Prynne, Mottram, and cheek intercut with conversations with Mottram and cheek. Fisher discusses Prynne's Down where changed, Mottram's 1980 Mediate, and cheek's A PRESENT, published in 1980. I will then go on to discuss more recent works by cheek, skin upon skin and songs for navigation.
I want to begin with a distinction between different modes of reading that Fisher makes early in his essay: this is the distinction between what he calls 'float perception' and what he calls 'reading in'. The context in the essay is Mottram's custom (that Fisher has also followed) of listing 'Resources' with his volumes of poetry. The implication / involvement of sources in the text of the poetry is obviously part of the referential dimension of the text. It immediately raises questions about whether citation brings its original textual context into its new textual location, and, if so, how much of that context citation brings with it.
Mottram's preference is for readers to be aware of the 'ambient significance' of quoted phrases, to bring into the reading of his text an awareness of the original context and signification of the citation. Cheek, by contrast, prefers 'float perception'; 'which is to say that he is concerned with surface structures where immediacy from an attentive reader takes precedence over any deeper or wider meaning obtained through in-reading'. Fisher goes on:
the poetry works through fleets of only partially gathered references which contribute to an overall surface complexity that presents an ambience, a mood of the poet's topology (where the poet is) rather than a perspective of the poet's tropology (what the poet can know). (nb, p.185)
Cheek's work, A Present, presents shifting layers of semantic suggestion and interaction as part of a complicated surface; Mottram's work requires 'in-reading' to seek out coherences between informations at deeper structural levels. I will come back to this distinction between 'float perception' and 'in-reading', between 'surface complexity' and 'the reader's participation in the patterns of connectedness'. I want to suggest later that, in skin upon skin, because of its intertextual relationship with Robinson Crusoe, cheek combines 'surface complexity' with 'the reader's participation in the patterns of connectedness' - involving, for the reader, a constant or repeated movement between 'float perception' and 'in-reading' with surface complexity and intertextuality operating as a constantly shifting duck-rabbit figure-ground.
In the background to necessary business are clearly Pound, Olson and open field poetics. In Fisher's conversation with Mottram, for example, Mottram discusses the use of 'multiple margins' in textual layout, the page as 'a set of control measures which you invent' - and that takes him to 'the sheer process of continued invention of the page' (nb, p.198). Fisher himself, later in the essay, describes Mottram's page layout as 'a cartographic, yet discontinuous, rhythmic structure with deliberate emphasis on fracture' (nb, p.216).
Similarly, he describes cheek's textual presentations as 'facture' (text-making) that appears to be 'a fractured display'. Cheek uses open-field paradigms; internal spacing within the line; left-hand, right-hand and axial margins to articulate the page; but also breaks and shifts from horizontal alignment, erasure, over-writing, and reversed (mirror) printing. Cheek's inventive use of the page and typography can be compared with Ulli Freer's, who uses a similar range of textual presentations. In other words, in both cheek and Freer, we see that 'sheer process of continued invention of the page' that Eric Mottram referred to.
For cheek, the text is a 'reading score', but cheek also consciously works 'to make it difficult ... to read it the same every time'. The page layout is not simply the notation or registering of a reading but also builds in indeterminacies: 'because there are areas which are quite easily readable and there are one or two areas' where 'sometimes the words form up differently' (nb, p.202). Cheek describes his aim as 'to produce a text which I could read as a reading, but which would involve rediscovery every time' (nb., p.202).
Skin upon skin exists for me in three forms: a performance at the Albert Hall (16 October 1995) as part of The Return of the Reforgotten; a performance at the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry (CCCP6) (28 April 1996); and as a CD published by Sound & Language in 1996. As far as I know, no printed text has been published. These three forms immediately constitute three different versions of the text. The two performances obviously have a visual and spatial dimension that is missing from the CD - except insofar as the site of reproduction constitutes a new visual and spatial dimension. The two performances are different from each other because of the differing scale, dimensions and configurations of the two auditoria (the Albert Hall and the Keynes lecture theatre in Cambridge), without going into technological differences or textual variations. The CD has the potential for repeated reproduction which the performances lack: the potential for constantly new productions.
The source for skin upon skin was cheek's travels in Africa: in particular, the fact that he constantly came across copies of Robinson Crusoe in different parts of Africa. The procedure he adopted for the text was to take a word from each page of the novel (the word that summed up that page for him), and then use the words in that order. This procedure could be seen as a deconstruction of Robinson Crusoe. Certainly, in performance, the piece comes across as giving a postcolonial / gender studies / queer theory spin to the novel - eliding, for example, colonial power relations and sexual domination. In the Cambridge performance, as at the Albert Hall, cheek performed the piece in darkness, illuminated intermittently only by a small bedroom-light suspended from a pole which he carried over his shoulder, in a fusion of the iconically primitive and the banally domestic.
At the Albert Hall, this light was switched on and off by a voice-activated switch. For the Cambridge performance, this switch wasn't working, and cheek rigged up a pressure switch instead. The visual effect was like that of strobe lighting or time-lapse photography. With this lighting cheek's shaven head had the same kind of visual impact as Brando's in Apocalypse Now. At the same time, one unplanned side-effect of the manually-operated pressure-switch was an additional rhythmic element, a repeated tapping something like the effect of tabla or drums.
On the CD, cheek reads with an RSC actorly voice to a jew's harp / piano backing. He offers this treated text version of Robinson Crusoe as a fragmented, intertextual quasi-narrative with rhythmic use of phrases, with fluid syntax, and with slippery semantics. There is a constant shimmer of shifting sense, epitomised for me by the sentence: 'I had to work on Friday'. Insofar as it is an intertextual work, it requires a degree of 'reading-in', reading it as exploration and critique of Robinson Crusoe as a foundational cultural text. It explores Defoe's colonial text from a postcolonial perspective; Defoe's master/slave relations from a homoerotic perspective; it engages also with the free enterprise and Christianity, which are at the conflicted heart of Defoe's work.
At the same time, its semantically and rhythmically complicated surface also responds to float perception. The repeated refrain ('skin upon skin / kin upon kin'), for example, circulates notions of sexual contact; kinship (sameness and difference); race (sameness and difference again); mortality; dismemberment and cannibalism; while the rhythm of cheek's vociferation of the refrain is like the skitter of a tabla. These notions circulated through float perception of the refrain take on additional significance through the structural connection with Robinson Crusoe. At this level, for example, the refrain offers a multiple subversion of the civilised / savage binary that is so important for the source text ('thoughts of savages discomposed me'), while also suggesting Crusoe's construction of a house and making of clothes through the superimposition of 'skin upon skin'.
Desire is a major concern of the work. Homoerotic desire, in particular, constantly erupts through the shifting significations. The anatomising of Friday, for example, ('his body, his feet, his blood, his arms'), is both a loving cataloguing and a dismembering. In an earlier passage:
the ictus of the repeated 'gust' can be heard as the repeated blows of an axe, while desire is the motive of this labour of production. Later on, after Friday has been taught English and is being inducted into civilisation, we hear that 'Friday must kill Friday ' he must master desire'.
I have just discussed a work which exists not as a published text, but as a CD and through various public performances. I want to conclude this first section of my paper by glancing at songs for navigation (1997). Like skin upon skin, this work has its origins in a journey, this time the navigation of a lifeboat from Lowestoft to Barking Creek in the mid-summer of 1994. At the same time, it also has its origins in re-workings of a solo piece by Sianed Jones, The Bait (1995), a version of which provides the final track on the CD. In addition to this double narrative of origins, the text provides a careful description of the process of production through improvisation, including the generation of texts during recording sessions, with one writing or drawing while the other records, thus producing 'scores' for further performance.
Through this dialogic process, 'sound and language', oralities and textualities, are appropriately imbricated with each other. Like skin upon skin, this work exists as a CD and through public performances. Unlike skin upon skin, it also exists in print form, but the book is not the text for the CD and the CD is not a reading of the book. Book and CD follow different orders of material and have divergent contents. Thus book and CD begin with 'fogs', but the version on the CD bears no direct relation to the text - which is itself described anyway as a 'version'. The CD text makes use of sound-effects not available in the written text - seagulls, foghorns, wave-sounds. The printed text makes use of devices specific to print: the use of a grid underlying the spacing of letters (indicated clearly by the crossword effect of the initial play on 'same as') or the use of brackets to present simultaneous words ('di[re]ction'). Cheek and Jones are not only using different publishing formats, but also (as one would expect) exploiting the specificities of those different formats.
At the same time, because of the simultaneous (rather than alternative) publication of book and CD, the reader is invited and, indeed, required to produce their own production, to create their own intersection of book and CD formats, to navigate their own route through these divergent but related materials.
II. In and around and about London (1974-78)
Before attempting to trace cheek's development up to 1978, I want to provide some context. I could start with the Poetry Society in the period between 1971 and 1977. This marks the period, when a moribund society was taken over by poets of the British Poetry Renaissance of the sixties, which ended with the resignation of more than a dozen of these poets from the Society's General Council in March 1977 (and the subsequent boycott of the Society by many more), when the democratically-elected committee had forced upon it Arts council nominees.
This was the period when the Poetry Society was briefly a centre for the work of what Gilbert Adair later called linguistically innovative poets. During this period cheek was printshop manager at the Society; a regular attendee of the experimental poetry workshop there; and, through the Society's regular readings and Eric Mottram's 'Poetry Information' lecture series, had access to the work of English poets such as Allen Fisher and Lee Harwood as well as that of an older generation of American poets, Jerry Rothenberg, Robert Duncan, John Giorno, Ed Dorn.
Instead, I'm starting with 1974 as the year when the International Festival of Sound Poetry (founded in Stockholm in 1968) first took place in London, because what I want to emphasise is the European as well as the north American dimension of this area of poetic activity. There were two further International Festivals of Sound Poetry in London: in 1975 and in 1976. The move to London coincided with a change from a Euro-centred festival to the involvement of Canadian and North American poets. The 1974 Festival was the first to include a London-based Canadian sound-poet, Sean O'Huigin (who appeared at the next three festivals).
The second was the first to include a North American poet: Jackson Mac Low. bpNichol appeared at the 1975 Festival and two other Canadian sound-poets, Childe Roland and Bill Bissett appeared at the 1976 Festival. As Steve McCaffery records, the shift from Sweden to London also marked - or at least coincided with - 'a shift in emphasis away from technologically treated sounds towards an emphasis on live performance'.
The story of sound, visual and performance work, however, should be started much earlier wth the multimedia (or intermedia) career of Bob Cobbing. Cobbing's work uses typography, calligraphy, xerography, visual arrangement, sound and the various aspects of performance. In the same way as other twentieth century artists explore the materials of their art, Cobbing's work has explored the sound, visual and performance vectors of poetry - or, as Cobbing himself put it, 'the sign made by the voice, and the symbol for that sign made on paper or in other material and visual form'. According to Mottram, Cobbing's earliest sound poems date from 1954; by 1963, he was publishing permutational work and work using spatial layout as syntax (Second Aeon, 106, 105). Mottram also makes the point that sound poems, visual poems, and soundtext poems (compositions which take off from a text as the basis for performance) were not an invention of the 1950s and 1960s.
By the time of the eleventh International Sound Poetry Festival in Toronto (14-21 October 1978) a further shift had taken place. McCaffery notices 'the most singular feature' of this Festival was 'the prominence given to collective and group performance'. He notes not only 'the simultaneous work of Jackson Mac Low' and 'the multi-voice pieces of Jerome Rothenberg', but also the two Canadian groups, Owen Sound and The Four Horsemen; the American collective Co-Accident; and the two British groups,Konkrete Kanticle and JGJGJGJG ... (as long as you can say it that's our name). The first of these consisted of Bob Cobbing, Paula Claire, and Bill Griffiths; the second of Lawrence Upton, Clive Fencott, and cris cheek.
III. cheek to cheek
I want to begin my version of cheek's story in the Albert Hall in February 1969, when the 13 year-old cheek sees Hendrix burning his guitar on stage. This was the epiphanic moment, the moment of Pauline conversion. Cheek had trained as a classical clarinetist. Post-Hendrix, he becomes a drummer and later guitarist in various teen rock-bands - including a band with Jon Moss (later the drummer with Culture Club). He leaves school in 1971 and begins reading what school hadn't provided: the Shelleys, Peacock, Trelawny, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Jarry, Lautreamont, Huysman, Hans Arp and on into surrealism via Maurice Nadeau's history of the movement.
This was a conscious process of re-education: seeking out what formal education marginalised, and then trying to find common threads among these practices that might explain why they had been marginalised. Again, this development of an oppositional reading practice needs to be set in the context of an experience of the London music 'underground' of the late 60s (the Arts Lab and so on) - and the tailend of a counter-culture. Just as cheek's subsequent work needs to be set in the context of Fluxus, Situationism, Italian Autonomia, and Punk.
From another perspective, cheek's early development begins with a set of interlocking / intersecting institutions in London in the early 70s: the ALP; the London Musicians Cooperative; the London Film Makers Cooperative; the West Square Studio; the Acme Gallery; the PCL Poetry Conferences; the Sound and Concrete Poetry Conferences; the Poetry Society; and, later, Camerawork; Four Corners; Chisenhale Studios; the X6 dance space. In October 1974, he attended the second Modern British Poetry Conference at the Polytechnic of Central London. This weekend conference consisted of readings by 15 poets, including Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lee Harwood, Andrew Crozier, John James, Paul Brown, Bill Griffiths. The inclusion of Bunting and MacDiarmid (here and on the committee of the resuscitated Poetry Society) asserts a native British modernist tradition as the context for the different dialogues of (for example) Harwood, Crozier, James, with both American and European poetries.
As a result of this conference, cheek went, in early 1975, on an Arvon Foundation course at Hebden Bridge run by Mottram and Nuttall with Bill Griffiths as guest reader. This was one of the very few occasions when the Arvon Foundation has engaged with this area of innovative poetic practice. One effect of the 'takeover' of the Poetry Society was this brief moment of visibility in more official institutions. Here cheek met Paul Buck (then running Curtains) and Ulli Freer. He travelled back to London with Bill Griffiths, and was invited by Griffiths to attend the experimental workshop held every Tuesday at the Poetry Society. (This was effectively Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum workshop, which still meets every week, but no longer at the Poetry Society.)
Here, in the first week or so, he met Allen Fisher, Lawrence Upton, Sean O'Huigin, Clive Fencott. Here he also encountered an encouragement to write for more than 'voice', an inter-disciplinary practice partly rooted in music and, as he puts it, 'the inevitable ricochets between improvisation and composition, between controls and loosening of conventions, between oralities and literacies ..., between voice-body-spatial projections, between inclusionary and exclusionary strategies and implications out of that politically'.
Fencott and cheek almost immediately began writing and performing together (as Chencott and Feek). JGJGJGJG . . . . (as long as you can say it that's our name), which added Upton to Fencott and cheek, also grew out of Cobbing's experimental workshops at the National Poetry Centre, and made their first appearance at the International Sound Poetry Festival in London in June 1976. Jgjgjgjg had a workshop in Covent Garden, around the corner from the Acme Gallery and within striking distance of the Vortex. Punk London. Summer of 1976. Jamie Reid's design work put Situationism on the streets. cheek and Fencott saw most of the punk acts, and punk impacted on cheek's book design and performance work (in particular in the reaction against slick technologically-dependent practices).
Subsequent performances by jgjgjg included the International Sound Texts Festivals in Stockholm, Amsterdam and London in April-May 1977 and the Berlin Festival (September 1977), leading up to their final performance at King's College, London, in 1978. Cheek had helped out at the International Sound Poetry festival in 1976. He had also become printshop manager at the Poetry Society. Cheek had been printing since his schooldays. Working alongside Cobbing in the printshop was both the implementation of a politics of publishing and an effective school of practice. It can be seen as a taking over of the means of production and an attempt to empower others through a policy of teaching others to print their first books - through a transmission of skills.
The printshop involved designing, typesetting, collating and binding; exploring a range of approaches to book-production through low-tec means. At one stage there were 40 books a month being produced through the printshop. Working with Cobbing in the printshop also obviously involved watching Cobbing at work abusing print technology creatively: overscanning, destroying stencils, using discarded double-prints as source for further work. It was a training in working with found material, mining the everyday, which has remained central to cheek's work.
By 1978, cheek had a wide range of experience of performance and was also actively engaged in publishing through bluff books, shabby editions, and his magazine Rawz. Bluff books started in 1976 with cheek's first book, Abstract and Cumbersome: found texts and transformational navigations. The sub-title indicates the material, the method, and a controlling metaphor, indicative of a stance towards reality, that runs through cheek's subsequent work.
The passage I want to focus upon shows cheek handling language in such a way as to play down the semantic aspects and emphasise sound, rhythm and what might be miscalled morphic resonances. The passage disrupts readerly expectations and resists, or retards, any sense of continuity. It is articulated by - and derives an energy from - a constant shifting and re-doubling through the uncertain status of the repeated ampersand: are these disjunctive or conjunctive; do they link or do they separate?
At the same time as the passage resists semantic coherence, other kinds of patterning force themselves upon the reader's attention: runs of related sounds (lag, leak, lame, leg, lack, tack, lay, lake; fir, fit, fat, feet, fur, fed; cot, tot, ken, cap, can, cop; pay, pat, pain, pan, tan, tin tout; move, met, mean, mate, meat, mane) like a Saussurean demonstration of the systemic play of difference; constellations of related senses (lame, shod, toe, cap, leg, feet; leak, oar, tack, lake, hull). In other words, the reader is forced to find their own way through the passage, finding other kinds of patterning and meaning-production.
Lardhead (Bluff Books, 1976) is based on a character cheek used in performance with Fencott. The text is a kind of dramatic monologue, influenced by the contemporary work of Bill Griffiths. It takes the form of a disrupted narrative, grounded in sense impressions, with irruptions of repetition ('lost . . . lost', 'glow of a glow of a', 'chaos / chaos') and notations of stretched and distorted sounds. The layout on the page also makes clear the extent to which it is an experiment with rhythm, pace, timing. Sundance Kids of the Sickle Harvest Moon (Bluff Books, 1976) came fom teaching on the W H Smith's Poets in Schools scheme with Bob Cobbing and Peter Mayer.
This involved 3-voice pieces, concrete work, chant pieces and media riffing. One passage, for example, is clearly improvised from the word-source of television news broadcasts. As with Lardhead, the narrative drive is disrupted through excision, repetition, stutter. Through its syntactic disruptions, it activates the kind of 'float perception' that I referred to earlier: for example, the final line combines the completion of a local micro-narrative ('you here were . . . them there . . . you were here . . . you were . . . left') with an allusion to the marching orders given to soldiers ('left, left, left, left'). The micro-narrative involves the reader in situating themselves in relation to both the fragmented narrative of events and the address of the television broadcast, while the marching instructions present another kind of address, which is designed to produce obedience and conformity. The interplay of the two engages the reader in questions of address and language, power and domination.
The other two passages I want to consider are from First Body of Work (Bluff Books, 1976). This was a set of seven poems, one poem per page, each poem relating to a particular suburban space remembered from childhood. Again, the capitalization and the spaces within the lines and between lines, the pauses, show a clear concern with the voicing of the poems. The first poem overlays early infancy with schooldays. The child learning to walk and talk is presented through a sequence of words in which walking and talking gradually emerge from baby language: 'twiddlin / thwacky ta twalk twaddle todd l earn to train'. Schooldays are suggested by other voices entering into the poem: a dialogic element that, as we have seen with skin upon skin, becomes more important later.
The third poem derives from childhood play. As in cheek's first publication, Abstract and Cumbersome, there is an attention to the sound of words so that the text seems in part generated through consonant or vowel shifts and substitutions ('mud blood clod boot'; 'chickweed hide open wide'). At the same time, the reader is encouraged to attend to the connotations of words: there is a hint of 'clot' around in the first example; there is a play on the concealed and the open in the second. Elsewhere, the poem is generated through homophones ('dams genes thirsty // DAMNS'; or 'thriving thru leaf / an' jist leave us alone will ya' or the dismantling of words as in the case of 'BuRsTing' breaking to produce 'burrs' and 'sting'.
The first issue of Rawz came out in October 1977 with work by Fencott and Upton, but also Allen Fisher, Paul Buck, Ulli McCarthy, Paula Claire, Erik Vonna-Michell, Dick Miller and Marshall Reese. Rawz 2-, which came out in April 1979, marked some of the effects of cheek's time in the US. In addition to work by Allen Fisher, Ulli McCarthy, Erik Vonna-Michell, and Jeremy Adler's 'Calligraphics', there was also work by Bill Bissett, Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, and an early appearance by Maggie O'Sullivan, while the list of 'magazines received' included the 'politics of the referent' issue of McCaffery's open letter (Sept 1977), as well as runs of roof, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, tottel's and this.
2. In and around and about NY (1978-80)
In 1973, cheek makes a solo tour of North America. Taking the Greyhound out of New York down route 66, he sees Manson's Satan's Slaves cruising Ocean Boulevard in LA; he hitches up to Big Sur; he catches the Patty Hearst shoot-out in San Francisco, the Grateful Dead outside Reno, and the Toronto truck-divers' strike among other adventures.
He returned to North America in October 1978 for the Toronto Sound Poetry Festival (14-21 October). At the end of the festival, jgjgjgjg (under the new name of VOCS - Virgil, Ovid, Catullus and Sappho) went on to Baltimore with Co-Accident, where they worked together and recorded a number of improvised collaborative pieces. Co-Accident, which consisted of Alec Bernstein, Kirby Malone, Chris Mason, and Marshall Reese, was a poetry music collective founded in 1977. They worked with the interplay of live and taped voice, percussion and instrumentation. They used voices, texts, scores, traditional and homemade instruments, electronics, videotape, computers and improvisation to present, in performance, a variety of texts and sounds simultaneously.
This layering of information was a way of avoiding the dictatorship of the author and the restrictions of linear writing. Kirby Malone had been in London at the Poetry Society in the 70s (from late 1975 through to spring 1976) and had encountered the work of Chencott 'n' Feek and jgjgjgjg there. This experience of collaborative and interdisciplinary work in London seems to lie behind Malone's subsequent formation of CoAccident.
Co-accident were, at this time (October 1978), preparing a festival of Disappearing Art(s). Disappearing Art(s) had been '(re)discovered & (re)invented' by Co-Accident and jgjgjg during the Toronto Festival. The first festival of Disappearing Arts took place in Baltimore and Washington in April-May 1979. It presented performances by cris cheek, Co-Accident, Jackson Mac Low, Hannah Weiner, Steve Benson, Johanna Drucker. The second festival, which took place in 1980, included Co-Accident, Clive Fencott, the Toronto Research Group (Nicol and McCaffery), Ron Silliman, Tina Darragh, Half Japanese. Disappearing Art(s) was presented as 'a context for flexibility and multiple intentions that are conductive of perceptual and social change':
What we mean by disappearing art(s) involves intermedia(te) activity by arts workers engaged in presentations which generally occur specific to when and where. This leads to the view of a disappearance. Documentation of such an event usually becomes yet another disappearance in itself. Disappearing artists explore how we hear and see, and how we interact with our environments and each other. Disappearing art(s) function to counteract the detachment which leads to sameness and disinterest.
cheek went back to Baltimore in April 1979 and stayed until October effectively as artist-in-residence with CoAccident, with whom he worked regularly, often double-billed with Half Japanese. During this period, in June 1979, belongs 'Career Wrist', a collaborative piece by cheek, Malone, and Reese (under their performance name TV Trio), written for the festival of Disappearing Arts, which was published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. TV Trio later, in the autumn of 1980, appeared in Amsterdam at the One World Poetry Festival, in Brussels in the Refinerie de Plan K (alongside Steve Lacy, Joy Division, William Burroughs and Kathy Acker), and in Paris.
During this period (April-October 1979), cheek also had several visits with Charles Bernstein. One of these is memorialised in a recorded dialogue between cheek and Bernstein at the August Moon Arts Festival in Catskill, NY in Bernstein's essay 'On Theatricality' in Content's Dream. Bernstein responds to cheek's comments on improvised work by contrasting it with 'the theatre of representation' as 'the theatre that you consume'. By contrast, improvised performance art requires from its audience 'an active process rather than a consumptive process'.
Through Brecht, Bernstein then considers not just the theatrical situation but 'when you look at events in the street, when going to the supermarket, when you look at people that you are relating to'. In each case, 'it's something to read and to try to figure out what the formulations are at the same time as you experience them'. Bernstein had been at the final jgjgjgj performance at King's College in 1978. He and cheek had subsequently met up in London, and cheek had stayed with Bernstein in NY later in 1978. Immediate fruits of Bernstein's trip to London were the articles by Mottram and Peter Mayer that appeared in the August 1978 issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. (Interestingly, Bernstein's Poetic Justice and Bruce Andrew's Love Songs were published by Malone's Pod Books.)
What I have tried to do in this paper is sketch some of the personal, institutional and cultural contexts in which and through which cheek's work has developed. I have suggested how the work up to 1978 developed through dialogue with a range of cultural practices - across the arts - in Europe and North America. I have shown how, in London and North America, cheek's work was an equal partner in dialogue and collaboration with various North American artists. I have noted, in particular, the contact cheek made with Kirby Malone and Charles Bernstein on the basis of his own cultural activities before the publication of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978, and how that contact continued through 1978-80. (I am conscious that I have not attended sufficiently to cheek's involvement in dance, his ideas of spacial placement and calligraphics of space in relation to the body.)
I have suggested that cheek's work with Chencott 'n' Feek and with jgjgjgjg might have encouraged Malone in his subsequent collaborative and interdisciplinary work with CoAccident, but I am not really concerned to argue priorities or influence. I have rather wanted to suggest, through cheek's work and his career in the 1970s, the 'greater discourse'to which Silliman referred - a greater discourse which 'language writing' has gestured towards, has marked, in the way in which the visible part of an iceberg marks the submerged bulk.
1. In conversation with Allen Fisher, Mottram observes, somewhat problematically, 'providing the informational areas are there inside the poem, the poem starts to move and cohere' (nb, p.186). This begs the question what is meant by 'there inside the poem', which obscures what the reader brings to the poem.