Poet Leslie Scalapino passed away unexpectedly in 2010, a great 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 reading organized by friend Steve Farmer, and I've been a fan of her writing ever since. Her particular genius was bringing language to the forefront and investigating how accounting for what one perceives isn't a cut a paste process as we would normally believe, but something actually more complex,elusive, wonderfully confounding. There is a sense in her work of experiencing many emotions simultaneously, and the notion as well as well of feeling the varied senses fire up in sequence. She presented her poems as variations on the small things heard, seen, felt: it seemed to me that it was the smallest matters for her that evoked the largest 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 grateful for the books she wrote and published.
Laying out a poem like it were a trail of bread crumbs a reader would to the bigger 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 fine hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the harder view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work, a sanguine yet inquisitive intelligence that 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, and the attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception to the exclusion of 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 interesting 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 with her, but there is in Scalapino's work the sense of a single voice rather than expected "car radio effect", the audio equivalent of Burrough's cut-up method that would make a piece resembles an AM dial being moved up and 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 are fascinating, intoxicating interrogation of intelligence that wrestles with an image that is received and with the act of witnessing itself.
In the best sense of the comparison, her writing has traces of Gertrude Stein at her most concentrated, when she had considered the Cubism of Braque, Picasso, and Leger and sought an equivalent in writing of the effects they achieved in their painting and sculpture; a disassembling of the usual way that orders visual experience the effect of which reveals each perspective at the same time. This simultaneity of witness presents problems at first--head scratching isn't an unusual response to first timers even these days--but the beauty of the project is that the abstraction it produces in the work of the Cubists and with sympathetic experimental writers like Stein is that it allows for things that are normally hidden or ignored in favor of more flattering, svelte detail to be brought to the forefront. The world is less smooth and elegant as the former restraints are removed, and it becomes a huge 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. 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 incidental images, smells and sounds, any of which trigger associations linking the speaker, the witness to phenomenon, to a personal history and future one speculates about in limitless wondering. Scalapino's writing is a study of the mind conducting it's a habit as a device that forces order on an infinitely complex rush of details that would otherwise overwhelm the senses. Hers is a poetry examining the canvas on which one draws their conceptualization of the world, a worried presence on the margins of conventionally consolidated personality that is aware of the filters one applies over phenomenon that occur without warning, and considers the concrete again and yet again 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 are some choice links here you can follow to some of her works online, presented, I assume, as the author intended them to appear.