Thursday, August 11, 2016

More on Albert Saijo, from the archives

I was just visiting Volcano, staying quite close to Albert's old cottage, which looks quite different now--it's painted and has an overhang to protect the wood--and thought a lot about him and his influence on me and others. So, in the interest of keeping an archive, I'm going to paste in the talk I delivered on his notebooks last year in March in Hilo.

If you're interested in Saijo, simply type his name into the blog's search engine. You'll find another essay, or two, as well as considerations of the notebooks that include photographs I took of some of them.

A Few Propositions On Albert Saijo's Notebooks

--Albert Saijo, WOODRAT FLAT

Writing is such a “reportless” place—the word is Dickinson’s, and it comes from a poem—indeed, a manuscript—that I love and that begins: “In many and reportless places – one feels a joy….”
While writing or thought is reportless, the manuscript is the material trace of that process and, I believe, of the joy that attends it.
--Marta Werner, co-editor of Dickinson's envelope poems

Albert Saijo did not write poems, he wrote words, sentences, blocks of hand-written printing. His notebooks, some as small as a memo pad, others as large as a “utility notebook,” were full of pencilled words and sketches. Hardly anywhere was there an indication that what he was writing was “poem.” The poems came after, when Saijo or his wife or editor marked sections of writing that became poems. These were typed in manuscripts of capital letters, followed by the books and journal pages in all caps. His cottage industry of writing was transmuted (and diminished) into the mass production of type.

To write by hand or to speak out loud is to court the muse of dissolution. Saijo wrote in pencil, which can easily be erased. His notebooks reside in two or three plastic tubs, piled up in no particular order. Many of the pages are smudged (the page about having a shit is oddly besmirched by a brown stain: SLIDE). Not one of his pages looks like any other of the pages; each was composed as a separate field. In his essay, “Projective Verse,” Charles Olson writes in all caps: “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.” Citing his friend, Robert Creeley, Olson insists that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” If content is meaning, then Saijo's form was page and pencilled capital letters (at least after the 1970s, when he still wrote in cursive). Or do they work the other way around?

Olson and his friends loved the typewriter, because its mechanism could stitch words across the field of composition; the white space was more a canvas on which to draw than a parking lot where words get parked, left to right and then back again. My students tell me that a typewritten page feels more “personal” to them, and I suggest that's because it's an old technology more than that it's in any way “personal.” But if typing the score to a word-composition attaches the poet to the instrument of his or her voice, the typewriter is personal. Olson wanted writing to follow the breath, the poet to be attached to his voice. He was already one step further in technological time than Saijo was in later decades.

Saijo—always after and before his time—used the typewriter to institutionalize his poems. The typed page was a to-be-published poem. But the writing, that was done by hand. It is on his notebook pages, not on the typed page, that he most identifies with Olson's field of composition, often completely covered in black letters. The printed book is an after-image of his text, a translation more than a conveyance of his thoughts. How can anyone think that this poem is the same as this poem? [“Why not take the fun view?” in handwriting, and then in the book: SLIDES]

But what is different about the two versions of this poem? Is it simply that one is grandly messy, while the other is entirely too neat? Not so much. What's lost is process and, even more radically than that, the movement of time. There's a kind of sound in time's movement that is smudge, crossing-out, over-writing. The typed version of “having fun” is relatively no fun at all: its static and all its neatness suggests an antiseptic notion of nature and a perhaps appropriately clean view of what nuclear winter will bring. But the hand-written version, the original and authentic (though I dislike that word) one, that's kinetic. Charles Olson again: “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is the third term, will take away?” Well that's more abstract than a Saijo poem would have it. The kinesis is in Saijo's writing. The typo for “extremity” as “extemity” is not a typo at all, because it's handwritten. It marks the speed of his writing, perhaps, more than that of his fingering on a keyboard.

In her book of passionate criticism, My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe argues that editors ruined Dickinson's handwritten poetry by regularizing it in type, changing her idiosyncratic symbols and punctuation, putting all the words in lines from left to right. In their original, they looked like blocks, not the neat hymn-like poems we see in printed versions, even those more faithful to the original than the early versions. Howe's argument was and is feminist; male editors, she claimed, had “tamed” Dickinson's wildness and had organized them in a different order from that of the fascicles that Dickinson had sewn together like chapbooks. Dickinson had tried to get her poems published, but then turned away from the public form, holding them close to hand in her room. Because they are in her handwriting, Dickinson's poems are difficult to decipher. Albert Saijo's volumes of Dickinson's facsimile poems, which I recommended to him, contain a dog-ear. At that turned down page is this poem, in Dickinson's handwriting, decipher—or better stated, re-ciphered—in Saijo's handwriting. [Slide]

Howe is interested in the Thomas Johnson edition of Dickinson's poetry from the 1950s—not so long ago, in fact. The male editor has power over the woman writer, she argues. Far be it from me to make a similar claim about Tinfish's treatment of Albert Saijo(!) but much of the wildness of his work is best expressed in the hand-written versions of the poems. A lover of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, the American Transcendental tradition didn't work for the mid-20th century Japanese-American writer. While Thoreau installed himself in a cabin in the woods, Saijo and his family were shipped to Heart Mountain as internees during the Second World War. There can be no such thing as an interned Transcendentalist, at least not without a lot of grief. After the war, Saijo was harassed by police over his marijuana farming; his writing, while open to nature, is often paranoid about human nature. And for good reason. His hand-writing was one form of resistance to the documentation his family and he had been subjected to. It allowed him to be an individual in the world of type-cast others.

[SLIDE of Chuang Tzu poem] We saw a few minutes ago that Saijo had “typos” in his hand-written work. I found a typo in WOODRAT FLAT after it was published. As an editor, I have a good eye for typos, especially after the book has been published. So I notice that toward the beginning of the poem, Saijo has written, "THESE 2 TREES SURVIVED BECAUSE THEY WERE TOO ODD TO LOG," while at the end, the Tinfish version replaces "ODD" with "OLD": "CHUANG TZE YOU'RE RIGHT BE TOO OLD TO LOG." The editor has taken out some of the writing that wanders above and below the final lines. Did he change "ODD" to "OLD"? Did our scanner do it? Did we do it? The mysteriousness of the mistake is appropriate to any consideration of editing, especially when the manuscript is by someone so prone to over-writing, to self-editing, to making the reader's life at once pleasurable and difficult. The replacement does not ruin the poem: Chuang Tzu is, after all, quite old. Too old to log.

But why the poem about the tree, with a punch line about Chuang Tzu, a punch-line that seems to have turned into a title? Saijo refers to a Buddhist parable here. The tree, like Chuang Tzu's teachings, is "useless." Then, by way of a wildcat, a mouse, and a yak, the writer of the parable gets to his punchline, which is also a warning. "So for your big tree, no use?" The teacher advises his interlocutor to plant the useless tree in a waste land, and to walk around it, meditating. No one will ever cut the tree down. "Useless? You should worry!" concludes the teaching.

The oddness of Saijo's two old Douglas firs saved them. Saijo was himself an able carpenter. Many of his notebooks contain conceptual and more detailed drawings of houses and furniture, including his own house and chair. He knew use value. But he was also someone who knew non-value, the art of sitting around in front of the fire, sketching out his thoughts as they flickered by. Handwriting is nearly useless now. My kids have learned to write on computers; they text, they use Facetime, they write essays directly into the computer. You need a signature for your checks, if then, which monetizes handwriting in ways Saijo would have hated. What is original—the scratch of our writing implement on paper—is what can be cashed in, if our balance is good.

Marta Werner notes: “And we see new things—things we didn’t see before. Signs of speed and of slowness often appear on the manuscript of the draft. In Dickinson’s case, accelerations in thought are marked in the slant of the writing or the blurring of ink or graphite. And sometimes we can also see a slowing down of composition, as if she was making her way more uncertainly, moving like a 'stranger through the house of language.' There’s a beautiful draft of Dickinson’s poem 'As Summer into Autumn slips' in which she compulsively reworks a passage, repeating and substituting the words 'thought' and 'shaft,' and when I look at these marks on the page, I can almost see her trying to redynamize the trace of writing. Gabriel Josipovici said that writing is 'something that is happening … at the cross-roads of the mental and the physical.'”

In the introduction to Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism, Jerome McGann discusses the “misrepresentation” of Dickinson's poetry in the Thomas Johnson edition. “It has approached her work,” he writes, “as if it aspired to a typographical existence. On the contrary, Dickinson's scripts cannot be read as if they were 'printer's copy' manuscripts, or as if they were composed with an eye toward some state beyond their handcrafted textual condition.” Even though Dickinson wrote in an age of print, McGann argues, her poetry was not written for print. A similar case could be made for Saijo's writing, which cannot be accurately translated into type, even if we're grateful to have the messages he left us.

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