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How Phenomena Appear to Unfold

Leslie Scalapino, author

ISBN: 978-1-933959-12-2Cover art by Petah Coyne05 01 2011312pp$24

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Leslie Scalapino

Leslie Scalapino passed away on May 28, 2010 in Berkeley, California. She was born in Santa Barbara in 1944 and raised in Berkeley, California. After Berkeley High School, she attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon and received her B.A. in Literature in 1966. She received her M.A. in English from the University of California at Berkeley in 1969, after which she began to focus on writing poetry. Leslie Scalapino lived with Tom White, her husband and friend of 35 years, in Oakland, California.

In childhood, she traveled with her father Robert Scalapino, founder of UC Berkeley’s Institute for Asian Studies, her mother Dee Scalapino, known for her love of music, and her two sisters, Diane and Lynne, throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. She and Tom continued these travels including trips to Tibet, Bhutan, Japan, India, Yemen, Mongolia, Libya and elsewhere. Her writing was intensely influenced by these travels. She published her first book O and Other Poems in 1976, and since then has published thirty books of poetry, prose, inter-genre fiction, plays, essays, and collaborations. Scalapino’s most recent publications include a collaboration with artist Kiki Smith, The Animal is in the World like Water in Water (Granary Books), and Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows (Starcherone Books), and her selected poems It’s go in horizontal / Selected Poems 1974-2006 (UC Press) was published in 2008. In 1988, her long poem way received the Poetry Center Award, the Lawrence Lipton Prize, and the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Her plays have been performed in San Francisco at New Langton Arts, The Lab, Venue 9, and Forum; in New York by The Eye and Ear Theater and at Barnard College; and in Los Angeles at Beyond Baroque.

In 1986, Scalapino founded O Books as a publishing outlet for young and emerging poets, as well as prominent, innovative writers, and the list of nearly 100 titles includes authors such as Ted Berrigan, Robert Grenier, Fanny Howe, Tom Raworth, Norma Cole, Will Alexander, Alice Notley, Norman Fischer, Laura Moriarty, Michael McClure, Judith Goldman and many others. Scalapino is also the editor of four editions of O anthologies, as well as the periodicals Enough (with Rick London) and War and Peace (with Judith Goldman).

Scalapino taught writing at various institutions, including 16 years in the MFA program at Bard College, Mills College, the San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts in San Francisco, San Francisco State University, UC San Diego, and the Naropa Institute.

Of her own writing, Scalapino says “my sense of a practice of writing and of action, the apprehension itself that ‘one is not oneself for even an instant’ – should not be,’ is to be participation in/is a social act. That is, the nature of this practice that’s to be ‘social act’ is it is without formation or custom.” Her writing, unbound by a single format, her collaborations with artists and other writers, her teaching, and publishing are evidence of this sense of her own practice, social acts that were her practice. Her generosity and fiercely engaged intelligence were everywhere evident to those who had the fortune to know her.

Scalapino had two books released in 2010: a book of two plays published in one volume, Flow-Winged Crocodile and A Pair / Actions Are Erased / Appear from Chax Press; and a new prose work, The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihredals Zoom from The Post-Apollo Press. A revised and expanded collection of her essays and plays, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (originally published by Potes & Poets) was published by Litmus Press in 2011.

Her play Flow-Winged Crocodile was performed in New York at Poets House on June 19 – 20, 2010 by the performance group The Relationship, directed by Fiona Templeton and with Katie Brown, Stephanie Silver, and Julie Troost. Dance by Molissa Fenley, music by Joan Jeanrenaud, and projected drawings by Eve Biddle. This production was co-sponsored by Belladonna* and the Poetry Project.

       to make my mind be actions outside only. which they are. that collapses in

grey-red bars. actions are life per se only without it.

     (so) events are minute — even (voluptuous)

                                                    — Leslie Scalapino

This obituary notice was prepared by the family of Leslie Scalapino.

Praise for How Phenomena Appear to Unfold

In ‘Eco-logic in Writing’ one of many brilliant essay-talks in this volume, Leslie Scalapino asks, ‘Seeing at the moment of, or at the time of, writing, what difference does one’s living make?’ What more crucial question for those concerned not only with writing but with poethics: composing words into a socially conscious wager. For Scalapino the essay is a poetic act; the poetic act, essay. It’s in that combination that her textual eros—the lush beauty of it!—could reject aesthetic purity and risk the rawness of genuinely new thought, touching what she called ‘the rim of occurring.’ ‘Writing on rim’ is a celebration of the wondrous present, but requires agonistic struggle with the ugly—poverty, war, institutional brutality, racism, sexism, homophobia. Scalapino’s Steinian strategy of recomposing the vision of one’s times, ‘altering oneself and altering negative social formation,’ is her artfully problematized project of writing ourselves into a better future. With compassion and humor, Scalapino was indeed living on the rim of occurrence. That is the living in the writing that produced this work—its fundamental optimism and ebullient credo: ‘The future creates the past.

Joan Retallack

As always, Scalapino pushes beyond any easy sense of essay. What unfolds here is the startling unexpectedness of thought, articulated in visual and verbal forms that confound genre categories. In this book, Scalapino creates fields for thinking-as-perception, in which the poem emerges from the essay as counterpoint and newly forming foundation. The complex of disparate parts creates working models for a social formalism.

Charles Bernstein review for _Jacket2_, July 3, 2011

The expansive nature of the project, which could have broadened further over years, is only one of many regrets such a volume can’t help but contain, as well as an awe in the kind of work she’d been able to accomplish, adding further to the conversation of a number of writers and their works. When any writer dies, there is always the question of what we didn’t know about, what works might not have yet appeared in print, a natural impulse against the fear of never seeing new work by that writer ever again. Throughout these essays, explorations, poems and prose-works, Scalapino unfolds, appears to unfold, and perhaps unfolds, one layer at a slowly time.

Rob Mclennan review. August 30, 2011.

Excerpt from How Phenomena Appear to Unfold

Tracking of ‘being’ and the instant of occurrence

Author’s Preface to How Phenomena Appear to Unfold

Composition as Explanation:

Describing simultaneity as both the origin and the nature of event, Gertrude Stein imitates the relation of an event to streams of events—the relation of the inside to the outside—as parallel. The inside and the outside are creating each other, simultaneously:

But anything happening well the inside and the outside are not the inside and the outside inside.

Let me do that again. The inside and the outside, the outside which is outside and the inside which is inside are not when they are inside and outside are not inside in short they are not existing, that is inside, and when the outside is entirely outside that it is not at all inside then it is not at all inside and so it is not existing. Do you not see what a newspaper is and perhaps history. (Stein, Stein/Writings 346)

How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, first edition published in 1989 by the poetry press Potes & Poets, is conceived as an ongoing, flexible structure that incorporates demonstrations of its gestures, such as poem-plays and poem-sequences alongside essays, the essays also demonstrations—of my own poetics and of other poets’ works. I have expanded the first edition of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, omitting some pieces and adding by interweaving twenty-one new essays (only three of which had been published in previous books) and seven additional poetic works.

The intention in this book is that the unfolding structure of the book mime and demonstrate—be (and be seeing) the process and the instant of—the inside and the outside simultaneously creating each other.

Most of the essays in this book were originally talks, formed by first occurring as performances in a live, peopled setting. Those that were specifically essays tend to be synthesis as poetics and history. In the latter category are introductions, such as my introduction to Philip Whalen’s Overtime: Selected Poems and to his Collected Poems; and the introduction to a selection of Michael McClure’s poems, titled Of Indigo and Saffron, edited by myself.

The works included in How Phenomena Appear to Unfold were composed between 1983 and 2010. The earliest essays include “Re-Living,” a lecture on H.D.’s concept of vision in Helen in Egypt; the essay traces by imitating her poem’s structure as spatial relations. I gave this lecture while I was teaching at the New College of California in Robert Duncan’s Poetics Program. “Pattern—and the ‘Simulacral,’” and “Poetic Diaries,” were also talks delivered in the ’80s in San Francisco, both published in the Poetics Journal, edited by Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian, and in the first version of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold in 1989. The form of poets’ talks as part of the lively setting of discussion and theory that was the Language movement in San Francisco influenced my early development of talk-performance-essay, as did Robert Duncan, who was very actively present in the San Francisco poetry scene then. Duncan’s view was that young poets were not yet able to articulate a poetics because they were in the midst of doing the work/as the ideas; they were writing the work that they would later theorize. Giving talks was necessary to that dialectical process and he encouraged us to be free to appropriate (lift from) the entire range of literary history and to transform our sources. Thus from both of these sources, Duncan and the Language movement, younger poets like myself were encouraged to use the form of the talk/essay as a process of forming our poetry. My essays imitating the motion as gesture of poetic works as paratactic mode of comparison was particular to my own practice. Poets’ essays were not (and those here are not) academic in character or purpose; nor are they to assert the success of one’s own work, in achieving the ideas one is proposing as intention. They were tools for the forming of these ideas in a dialectical process as the poet’s work, the whole visible (to the poet and to readers) only later in the mature work.

The two sides, Duncan’s scene and the Language scene, conceived by many as—and in fact—different from each other poetically, were similar in the process of developing talks to theorize/problematize the gesture one is doing. Talks as developed in the Language setting tended to concentrate on fostering and projecting new theory of the movement, with the work of individuals or other movements as historical examples intended to lead to the poets creating current work. Barrett Watten’s seminal talk-essay on Surrealism is one example of such (published in his critical work, Total Syntax).

Thus I participated in this double setting developing the view not only that the essay is part of the poetic work, but the form of a book that is critical essay alongside poetry or plays is to dissolve barriers between the forms. In this collection, I include poem-plays as events as gesture such as leg, Sweet, and Fin de Siècle, placing an essay next to a poem-play to draw upon association with, and to reflect on, the gesture of other writers. Both ‘sides’ of the work are to become ‘visible’ as demonstrations of each other—as in my comment on Beckett’s fiction, “Reply to Larkin on Beckett:” “I had assumed that Beckett’s recognition that ‘we do not get into real-time, ever’” (my words describing Beckett)—“that his demonstration of this as puncturing fictional illusion—only occurs in (is) syntax that is that event, idea, syntax that is the presentation as (that is) a palpable space, the reader experiencing making seeing being puncturing fictional illusion.”

Conceiving of that which is sensational, in writing, I begin How Phenomena Appear to Unfold with “Elude” and “Note on Elude,” two pieces in which one is reading/is tracking the difference between one’s optical seeing, thought apprehension, and one’s experiencing of being in flesh.

As summary of the organization of this collection:

“Pattern—and the ‘Simulacral’,” given as a talk in 1985, is indicative of my mode of talk-essay (especially my early essays), a paratactic method which compares works by poets living in different periods and/or from different movements and poetics; their ideas, structures, and characteristics of syntax are compared in a non-hierarchical examination of thought and language. Comparison of radically different works is intended to form new connections.

“Pattern—and the ‘Simulacral’” compares Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Michael McClure, and Cindy Sherman (for the talk, I showed a few slides of her photos, which the essay describes). My essay in its process mirrored Ron Silliman’s concept (quoted in the essay) as simultaneous with his use of language “syntax mimes space.” My form was a non-hierarchical structure of the essay allowing similarities and distinctions to emerge as (in the process of being) scrutinizing entity: “Deciphering oneself entails what one is.” “Pattern—and the ‘Simulacral’” (written shortly after the publication of my poetry book, that they were at the beach, composed of sequences, writing miming event voiding real-time event) was a demonstration of its own subject: “If the simulacrum resembles anything, it is the Idea of non-resemblance.” The paratactic method of this mode of talk-essay was non-hierarchical based on there being “no independent perspective from which to make distinction—because all of reality has now internalized those distinctions.”

All of the essays, fictions, poems, and poem-plays, demonstration and examination of each other in a stream of comparisons, are tied to that concept (“no independent perspective from which to make distinction—because all of reality has now internalized those distinctions”) as also to the notion—a corollary/as the act of incorporating—of the outside and the inside simultaneously creating each other. The impression of the proximity of minute, individual occurrence being placed next to the large outside (the impression created of events in the world), as the context/text of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, is created to investigate this simultaneity.


*Further Notes on the Relation Between the Parts.

Performance as event:*

Interwoven at the time with giving talks and readings from the ’80s to the present, my poem-plays were being performed: Fin de Siècle 1, 2, & 3 (performed by the ODC Dance Company), leg (performed by The Poets Theater of San Francisco), The Present, also The Weatherman Turns Himself In (the latter two directed by Zack), scenes from Goya’s L.A., directed by Carla Harryman (the latter three plays are not represented in this book). Sweet, included here, was performed as a collaboration with poet Steve Benson. The poem-play sequence Fin de Siècle, its acts (as in the first edition of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold) interwoven amidst essays of the text, is to incorporate outside and inside as sound-shape of its language. In the midst of the stream of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, the poem-play leg, itself a performance within a performance, is intended as an action of the text. In leg, one walks on quiet neighborhood streets and simultaneously is also in the midst of war, women falling from burning walls (the poem-play incorporating being at a performance of The Trojan Women at La Mama’s Theater in the ’80s).

The poem-play Sweet is a translation of historical events (such as an event in Saudi Arabia) into written language—at the same time as translating a film (also imitation of movements: a Japanese film about peasants killing samurai) into written language’s medium of sound-shape-syntax. Rather than the poem-play describing or dramatizing these events, its language-motions are imitations of the flow, juxtaposition and minute movements of the film and of the world events happening at once.


The method of my essays and poetic works is to be new feminism as paratactic, non-hierarchical restructuring of thinking and being. phenomenal seeing:

Influenced by “The Floating Series” in my poem, way, artist Marina Adams did a series of drawings, imitations of Japanese erotic prints. She asked me to write something “like” “The Floating Series.” For “Elude” (a chapter in Dahlia’s Iris/Secret Autobiography and Fiction), I drew sketches that imitate several of Adams’ erotic drawings; the double imitations (mine and hers) I placed together with my imitation in prose that is “Elude”—as if the prose is the exterior, public manifestation of the interior of the sound-shape that’s my poem series, “The Floating Series.”

Nonlinear spatial scenes at once—in “Elude”—open How Phenomena Appear to Unfold.

Leslie Scalapino Oakland, CA April 2010