The current issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter features a talk with Bruce Andrews & Sally Silvers. There was more great material than the allotted word count so we are pleased to be posting the rest of it here on our blog.
Ten Questions for Bruce Andrews & Sally Silvers.
Interview conducted by erica kaufman.
EK: In “Movement/Writing//Movement/Thrift”, you write, “Invention and critique; the inspiring of pleasure and the contesting of prefabricated imagery; cut across boundaries; refuse the limits: keep moving. The following material draws from B.A.’s text ‘Unit Costs (A Score for Movement),’ written in direct response to movement possibilities and ‘modern dance’ limitations and from S.S’s composition, Lack of Entrepreneurial Thrift , a movement performance piece informed in part by the varying possibilities of translation (or transformation) of parts of ‘Unit Costs.’” Can you each respond to this excerpt? I know that this piece is from Ex Why Zee , does this still describe current strategies for collaboration?
SS: This is a collaborative writing piece. We haven’t done that very much at all.
BA: The piece of mine, “Unit Costs,” I think from 1980, which I did before Sally started choreographing. It was a piece that I had made up from text that I had written mostly during dance concerts, so I would be going to dance concerts as always with a pile of cards jotting things down, making things up during the concerts and this text did have a lot of resonance with movement. I didn’t remember that Sally used that to generate Lack of Entrepreneurial Thrift.
SS: At least some of it. I’m not sure that the whole piece was that, but at least some of it, I remember doing these moves myself.
BA: One of the pieces in Give ‘Em Enough Rope actually was based on me describing to myself movements that I was doing based on watching a tape of yours and coming up with movement [descriptions]… that was from about ‘81-82.
SS; This piece is a combination of my descriptions of the actual moves that I did intertwined with Bruce’s “Unit Costs” text. Is that right or did you write something new based on what I came up with?
BA: Spine predates fellatio, there you go—rope a dope stolidity—so there’s a couple of quotes from that—we sort of layered that—she’d describe a movement, then there would be a quote, then she would talk about the quote then there would be a bit of theoretical footnote type material, and then that was all collaged together to make this piece.
EK: So that was a rare process for you?
SS: Yes, we haven’t done that that much if at all.
BA: Yeah, a collaborative writing piece. Let’s do another one.
SS: Back in the day, pre-video, I had to write things down in order to remember them since I don’t compose narratively, I compose more collagely, so I would write things down and that already generated some kind of text and I published some of those, but then when the video camera came I didn’t write as much, it took that back away from me.
EK: When did the video camera come?
SS: Probably around 1983.
BA: Sally also does a tremendous amount of writing with the same methodology that I do, which is essentially raw material for poetry that she never gets time to edit and to make pieces out of. She did a few short pieces that were published in poetry magazines in our community. I keep hoping that she will find the time to deal with her giant collection of cards with all kinds of fabulous material on them…
SS: I gave one reading at Segue once. Brian Kim Stefans invited me to read and I read a whole half of a program.
BA: In Sally’s choreographic concerts, almost none of the movement is improvised.
SS: Except for me
BA: Occasionally Sally will improvise on purpose or do a solo that is a structured improvisation or she’ll do a solo which she forgets part of and makes up.
SS: Most of what I did in that piece [Yessified!], except for the beginning with your ‘white dialect poetry,’ was set.
BA: That’s true. What she did with the dialect part was straight improv. But generally the choreography is not improvised, the music is pre-prepared or if there is text it is prepared. The timing of it and the spatial placement of it will be changed from performance to performance, but it doesn’t really count to call it improvised.
SS: But I have opened up a little more — so when the dancers fight over a spot on the floor or when they have to improvise in unison, they are making those decisions of how that will happen. I may decide that’s too long or don’t move so much, so I may direct it, but there’s a little more improvisation in some of the sections in this last piece.
EK: The reading out loud on site is not something you do all that often?
BA: Sally used to do that in her early concerts with her own poetry. I’ve rarely read straight poems or chunks of poems as part of her dance performances, so maybe because it followed on Yellin’ Gravy …
SS: But when we did HushHush , you read a poem. We did a piece on James Ellroy’s American Tabloid and you read a piece.
BA: That’s true, I had a two minute text [‘’Tabloid’’] that I just presented.
EK: Sally, I loved your closing performance from the Advancing Feminist Perspectives and Activism Conference last week. The way you shared your process (working with phrases and building phrases) was fascinating. It left me thinking about legibility—the body as legible, the text as legible, and ways that art forms can disrupt (productively) easy forms of legibility. And, this made me think a lot about Bruce’s The Millennium Project, his deft wordsmithing, colonizing the terms used to colonize, shifting and mocking the power dynamics always at play. I guess what I am trying to ask is, given both of your backgrounds in political science, how much does the artist consciously aim to subvert authority and authoriality?
SS: We do both have… Bruce of course teaches political science, I was a political science half major in college, and we do share political… —our politics are very similar as well as our aesthetic preferences. So that worked out very well.
EK: What I was thinking about was the experience of watching your process and then thinking about how it goes against normative reading of bodies in a way that I found to be productive. So I was thinking about legibility, and what do we do with legibility and what should we do with legibility? Then it shifted and then I was thinking about power and the way that if a text is a legible text or a linear text I personally tend to have the experience as a reader as coming into a text that has been colonized?
BA: Coming into a text where you’re colonized?
EK: The text has been colonized. Like just a linear fiction novel, a very narrative poppy fiction novel.
BA: I know for me, that type of writing seems colonizing of me, which is why I usually can’t stand it and don’t want to replicate that kind of experience. And that’s related to this issue of legibility. When I think of Sally presenting live choreography onstage, I am immediately reminded of what she was saying about composing in the studio for video and then editing it from video. It’s as if when you are choreographing you are always thinking of how it will look on video because that is what you’re using to work with, and that’s similar to the experience of presenting it onstage to an audience. In both cases, there is a distancing that takes place away from you as the creator. There’s a little bit of “subverting authoriality” in Sallys choreography that from the beginning was pretty distinctive because in the dance world at that point, the experimentalism of the 60’s had become almost a forgotten memory. There was a self-involved centripetal narcissistic preening quality to a lot of the choreography going on at the time — as if the audience didn’t matter, and what counted was the experience the dancer was having, the expressiveness of the dancer. People were using a lot of autobiographical materials, sharing something about themselves — and to me that was similar to this workshop poetry/creative writing ideology about what it is to write: that you are writing for yourself, you are writing as part of a self-empowerment project, you are accessing your memories of grandma…. Both of us were not interested in that. Sally thinking about legibility in her editing process, her composing process, making the body legible: it is always making the body legible for someone else and it’s for strangers, for someone other. And the basic tenet of the kind of so-called language writing I’ve been involved with all these years is always about the reader. And that’s why I edit the way that I do — I’m editing raw material that I wrote years ago, that I have no memory of, so I have little or no attachment to it. Similar to Sally editing video: she probably doesn’t remember her feelings doing a movement. Where a lot of what you get these days at dance concerts is a sense that the movements get chosen because of how wonderful they felt for the person doing them.
SS: It is also a display of already known information. Dance vocabularies I find become stale very rapidly. They become the thing that people think is transparent, and then you are getting to the meaning of the piece because of how well somebody completes a move or the emotion that is coming out. What they are really trying to get to is past what the movement is, and that is sort of the equivalent of narrative. You can take these vocabularies for granted and just look at atmosphere or the stories being told, the relationship being expressed, trying to bypass those vocabularies except that you want to see them done really virtuostically. You want to see the leg raised above the head. It is more the idea that the viewer can’t do it, so it is more circusy.
BA: But what’s being done is already done, the information is already completed. So that the audience member, the spectator, is not productive. They are just reproducing something, taking something that is already packaged, already done. And ideally then, if it is transparent they can get right to the past information without having all this materiality in the way. So, I think for both of us…. Sally either doing ‘live choreography’ or working with video as a way of editing or appropriating other vocabularies is similar to the way I work as well. We are trying to figure out ways of organizing the work so that it will be as lively and as open as possible for the reader or the beholder or the spectator. It is organized that way, it is designed to be that way, it is edited to be that way. The legibility is not so much the legibility of something that is already prepackaged and done, but [a result of] putting it in the form that is usable, so the reader and the spectator can make something of it, be the transformative agent. Maybe not subverting authoriality in some fancy way, but undercutting the usual power centeredness of the artist. So, a little less narcissistic.
SS: I often find that when I am trying to create the material, how I am feeling about it is completely unrelated to how it comes across. I can be having a bad day, feeling as though everything I do is uninteresting, like I am just a repeater pencil, but when I look at it, that is not happening at all. It is just my psychology that is in a bad mood and other things are happening that are more useful. I find that I can go back to old tapes from 10 years ago and find things that weren’t interesting to me then and I can find use for now. The distancing is important.
BA: In a certain way I think we both helped learn this lesson from Henry Hills and some of our filmmaking friends — who would go out and shoot film, and not have a clear preexisting idea of what they wanted, and get all this raw material and come back and put it on the flatbed and edit it and come up with all these elaborately collaged and layered pieces. And that was the methodology that I adopted right when I came to New York in the mid ‘70s and Sally too so there was that…
BA: I remember this coming up when I talked to poets who had writers block because they think they are not in the mood to write a poem — “I can’t just sit and write a poem, I feel blocked”. This is an experience I almost never have. I can always jot a few words down, I can always generate raw material, I can always be productive. So I have this giant body of raw material that I have no memory of or attachment to, and I can be ruthless in editing it and getting rid of it or changing it around… pile up some raw material, get those acorns ready for winter.
BA: Sally, I’m also curious about the conversation that gets created by how the body speaks and how the body moves, but I don’t know what Erica meant by that question.
SS: Well, I think she is talking about the fact that [in Yessified] I was improvising to the sound of speech. Out loud speech as opposed to words that are on the page. It has something to do with when people speak, they gesture too, and also some part of the body is there in conversation. We don’t even know the full extent of how we read each other when we are talking or when we pass each other on the street. You have no idea how many antennae you have operating at any point in observing or taking in another person. And I think that it is partly survival — that we make snap decisions about our personal safety or comfort zones or attractions or repulsions—all those things operate in a very swift amount of time. I think that actually luring them to that speech is acknowledging that hidden transmission, and trying to make some of that visible while still abstracting it.
BA: I think there is something interesting about the type of material that both of us are using that facilitates and enables the interaction. When you say the body speaks and the body moves — when Sally is moving she is also listening. So when we are interacting, she is the reader, in a sense, the listener/reader. And — to the extent I can if I am live editing — then my actual creation of language material in finished form will be affected by her movement: so that I’m composing material, if I am editing it live being a spectator of her. It is a little hard: mostly I get a sense of energy, texture, and pacing from the corner of my eye because I can’t really intently watch and do all of this other stuff at the same time, but I am being affected by it. If my work is centered around the reader, and Sally’s work is centered around the viewer, then when we’re working together I am the viewer, she’s the listener, she’s the reader. And then the question is: is there something specific about the kind of material we present that makes is easier for that to happen? And there I think it’s the fact that it is disjunct, is modular, is particle-ized, and that it’s based on collage, and it has a restricted or localized-only type of continuity, it has rapid shifts, it’s not anchored by a recognizable voice or autobiography or self-presentation thematically. In both cases it is designed to be maximally open to the spectator, to the productivity of the reader, so that any dance material she would present that was less like that would be a lot harder for me to deal with as a writer. Any kind of writing I did that is less like that would be a lot harder for her to deal with. The worst concerts we’ve ever seen where there was writing and dance were ones where the writing was very continuous and/or lyrical, autobiographical—hideous, you don’t have any freedom to move around and make changes.
SS: And also I think the forms start to compete with each other. You can’t really process certain kinds of meanings at the same time — when the meaning is coming at you already processed, you can only focus on one thing at a time. When you open things up, you can let things come in at the same time because you are summing it as you go along — it’s not something that has to be understood ahead of time.
BA: It’s the same with the music. When Sally first started working with music she didn’t start choreographing with one set piece of classical music, or a fixed folk song, or a fixed rock song, she started composing to unpredictable short little bursts or particles of strange sound materials put forward by some improviser with incredible extended techniques and not being anchored by any genre — that was the kind of material that fit what we wanted to do. I think there is something about the specific aesthetics that we had, not just that we shared one (which of course makes it easier to collaborate), but the fact that we had one modular disjunct collage base to what we do, and the same with the music that we were interested in, that makes it work.
EK: So, what are your top 2 musical interests right now?
SS: Right now I am very interested in Brazilian music partly because I got to tour there with Yvonne Rainer this summer. Joao Gilberto in particular is really haunting my airwaves; and I can really only take so much of him because he is both soft but really gets somewhere else. Even if you don’t understand the language there is something in his whole construction rhythmically that is a little disturbing and you don’t even know why.
BA: Both of us are coming off of a couple year intense obsession with black pop music which is what led up to Yessified! Since then I got to go to Brazil with Sally and Yvonne Rainer this summer so I am pretty elaborately dipping into the bossa nova or samba material as well, but the thing that got me a little bit obsessively interested right before that was black metal. One genre that I seemed to have missed in the 90s was metal so I am making a quick catching up.
SS: We are going to go see Lucinda Williams so I am listening to her as soon as I can.
EK: Hip hop?
BA: We were pretty ‘Harlemy connected’ in the very early 80s. I teach in the Bronx, just one zip code south of where I walk to work everyday was where hip hop started, literally the year that I started teaching at Fordham. After the early 80s we didn’t continue with that, something I never really pursued in a big way. I think Public Enemy was the last hip hop group we were really caught up in, maybe because they were more collagy—
SS: I really like OutKast. I’m not sure if they are so hip hoppy, but maybe I am wrong. There is more melody in them maybe.
BA: Sally’s been talking about doing something that has a relationship to musicals for her next project so that would probably get us back into another genre.
SS: Somehow, this summer, within a month of each other, the momma and the poppa of modern dance passed away —Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch — so I am thinking about somehow working those figures into a musical-influenced work.
BA: Not with black metal as the soundtrack.
SS: Just starting to churn a little bit.
BA: And one last thing I am working on right now: to try to contact the production team that is being assembled in Orlando, FL to get Sally a gig working on the new Broadway musical of The Nutty Professor which Jerry Lewis is going to stage in a couple of years. I think she would be perfect to work with Jerry Lewis type gestures with the main actors, I am trying to figure out how to do that.