Poet Leslie Scalapino passed away unexpectedly in 2010, a significant loss to American poetry. I had a good fortune some thirty-plus years ago to do a reading with her at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco at a task-organized by friend Steve Farmer, and I've been a fan of her writing ever since. Her particular genius brought the language to the forefront. It investigated how accounting for what one perceives isn't a cut-and-paste process as we would generally believe, but something actually more complex, elusive, and wonderfully confounding. There is a sense in her work of experiencing many emotions simultaneously, and the notion and well of feeling the various reasons fire up in sequence. She presented her poems as variations on the small things heard, seen, felt: it seemed that it was the most minor matters for her that evoked the most significant response. Coherence for her was more nuanced than what the mainstream culture would have us think. She was a poet of accumulating power. I am grateful to have read with her. I am thankful for the books she wrote and published.
Laying out a poem like a trail of bread crumbs, a reader would to the more enormous feast of The Point Being Made, is not how writer Leslie Scalapino writes. As we find ourselves in a time when the popular idea of the poet and their work they compose seems slanted toward the lightly likable Billy Collins and others writing poems that can be grasped, shared, written out in a delicate hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the more complex view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work. This sanguine yet interested intelligence is restless and dissatisfied with the seemingly authorized narrative styles poets are expected to frame their ideas with. The framing, so to speak, is as much the subject in her poems and prose. The attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception excluding other details that don't fit a convenient structure, Leslie Scalapino has produced a body of work of rare and admirable discipline; the writing is a test of the limits of our generic representations, and an earnest inquiry in how we might exist without them. In a series of over nineteen books over published since the seventies, she has been one of the most exciting poets working, an earnest inquisitor of consciousness and form, blurring and distorting the boundaries that keep poetry, prose, fiction, and autobiography apart. It's Go in Horizontal is a cogent selection from three decades of writing. The distinction blurring is not a project originating from her. Still, in Scalapino's work, the sense of a single voice rather than the expected “car radio effect,” the audio equivalent of Burroughs' cut-up method that would make a piece resembles an AM dial being moved up down a distorted, static-laden frequency. Leslie Scalapino's writing is one voice at different pitches responding to an intelligence aware of how it codes and decodes an object of perception. Her writing is a fascinating interrogation of intelligence that wrestles with an image that is received and with the act of witnessing itself.
Traces of Gertrude Stein at her most concentrated linger here. The beauty of the project is that the abstraction it produces in the work of the Cubists and with sympathetic experimental writers like Stein allows for things that are usually hidden or ignored in favor of more flattering detail to be brought to the forefront. The world is less smooth and elegant as the former restraints are removed, and it becomes a vast space filled with objects of infinite shape. Stein, though, was principally intrigued with the visual, and Scalapino's writing concerns itself with an investigation of one's own perception.
Scalapino's writing is a study of the mind conducting a habit as a device that forces order on an infinitely complex rush of details that would otherwise overwhelm the senses. There is a fracturing of narrative flow, a rephrasing of what was formally said, a studied trek through a temporal sequence of events full of random images, smells, and sounds, any of which trigger associations linking the speaker, the witness to the phenomenon, to personal history and future one speculates about in limitless wondering. Hers is poetry examining the canvas on which one draws their conceptualization of the world, a worrying presence on the margins of conventionally consolidated personality that is aware of the filters one applies over a phenomenon that occurs unexpectedly, and considers the concrete again and yet once more as the variations and tones of the details are exposed. I haven't excerpted any of Scalapino's work here because the formatting of this blog wouldn't do justice to the arrangements of her lines on the page; the spatial arrangements are crucial in many of her poems for each sliver and shaving of nuance to fully work. But there are some choice links here you can follow to some of her works online, presented, I assume, as the author intended them to appear.