Yale Working Group in Contemporary Poetry

Gleaning the Cube

Posted in Events, WGCP Communications by beineckepoetry on September 25, 2010

Minutes of the WGCP meeting with Pierre Alferi, Friday, September 17, 2010.

On Friday, September 17, the poet, novelist, and filmmaker Pierre Alferi joined us for a discussion of his work, particularly his collection OXO (French title: Kub Or), translated by Cole Swensen.

Our discussion with Alferi began with a question to him about how he navigates his sense of the various media and literary forms in which he is invested.  Alferi responded, and in large part this speaks to his process as an artist is that he sees himself as a land surveyor rather than a geometrist.  The surveyor enters into a mapless space with no prior image of the territory.  Alferi believes that through writing he feels his way into the space.  Feeling his way, there is a trajectory for his thinking, but one without a map or without general knowledge.  There are techniques of orientation such as triangulating position by way of fixed stars, but there don’t predetermine what is actually to be discovered.

In some ways, constraints are like these fixed stars as they are the pretext for generating his own responses so he can sort through his experiences.  Alferi then shifted metaphors and suggested that form serves as a kind of sieve by which he can sift everyday experience for the moments of revelation, intuition and surprise that are part of daily life (and which too often go otherwise unnoticed).  Beginning a work is the opportunity to invent (or find) the most effective sieve to make these discoveries possible.

When asked if there were any models that he had in mind in terms of his approach to working with language and with images he confessed that he often desired to emulate scientists insofar as there is a precision to their experimenting.  In other words, his goal is not to arbitrarily play with language but to do things that produce new possibilities for insight and representation. In that way, we come to know the capabilities of consciousness that much better.

Alferi mentioned that when his work his characterized as “playful” it often seems that people feel the work lacks seriousness.  In reality, he hopes that the use of language through poetic operations yields a broadened sense of what it means that we are primarily linguistic beings. It also indicates how form and language are organic, living things, susceptible to change, evolution, and adaptation.  Poetry reveals the flexibility of language.

He discussed, for instance, the constraints of OXO—the seven lines of seven syllables across seven sections.  With a seven-syllable line, there can be no caesura that establishes symmetry within the line.  Any pause will group the elements of the line in odd patterns, resulting in a fundamental instability that appears line by line. The fact that Swensen’s translation breaks the lines in different places and places the caesuras in places different than in the French indicates how that instability is maintained across languages.  The cubic trope that develops also lends itself to compactness within the lines and across the poem that visually signals his work’s decisive split from a more classical line.  The difference is evident to the eye as well as the ear.

Alferi referred to this as a formless form, which sparked further discussion of what constitutes form. Alferi argued that poetry is not simply form but is the negotiation—and even the struggle–of an animating force with the plastic nature of linguistic form.  We might see this as some animus (perhaps we might call this consciousness) working with and against the limitations of language. This also goes beyond simply one’s ideas of the literary and engages with metaphysical concerns with what constitutes being itself.  This is another way, that the stakes of Alferi’s “playing” with language are revealed as being quite ambitious and profound.

In his films, which often incorporate linguistic tropes, Alferi feels he can represent the evanescence and ephemerality of language because time is such an essential part of cinema.  His use of soundtracks allows him to create rhythmic pulses that enable one to scan (as one scans a poem’s prosody) the visual images. The combining of cinema and poetry into a shared poetics represents the fact that the ordering of perception is constantly occurring no matter how conscious or unconscious that process might be.  Alferi’s work brings that process into view, makes it somewhat opaque is that we can be aware of the fact that the sieves we create to understand our experiences occur not just in the arts but in everyday life as well.

As is evident, the discussion of what constitutes form and the impact of aesthetic experience on one’s sense of the world was extremely generative and provocative.  All agreed that this was a thoughtful and at times profound conversation and set the bar high for the rest of the semester.  Our collective thanks to Pierre Alferi for his engaging thoughts and his willingness to join our group to discuss the issues arising from our reading of his work. (RD)