Sunday, August 26, 2007

Tina Darragh

Tina Darragh was the second DC poet I ever met. It was in London in 1972, when Tina came to London to record British poets for the Washington audiocassette poetry magazine, Black Box, as Andrea had done before her.

Peter, and Tina

That was the connection. Andrea and I were living in a 3-bedroom house in Clapton, and the room Tina stayed in was my former room, a tiny room, with collages still on the walls, and so on, and Tina would write a poem called "The Poet's Room," which she would show to me years later. Tina seemed to be a very gracious young woman, warm, considerate and intelligent. I didn't know. Of course, I had no idea that Tina was soon to become one of my closest and most cherished friends of the next 35 years and beyond, or that she would be one of the poets that I would admire and respect so very much. I didn't know.

I didn't see Tina again until October, 1974, when Andrea and I returned to DC after a year in Berkeley. By that time, Tina had hooked up with my friend Pete (Peter Inman), and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship (for me). I've been very gratified by the fact that Tina has received so much recognition in recent years. She deserves every bit of it. The magnitude of her achievements as a poet and of her generosity as a person warrant it.

Tina was born in 1950, and was raised in McDonald, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. She began writing when she was eighteen, and studied poetry at Trinity University in DC, where Michael Lally was teaching at the time. This lead to Tina's involvement in Mass Transit and the DC scene in general.

My sense of Tina's poetics reached critical mass during the readings that she and I did in Baltimore for a recording that was issued by Chris Mason on Widemouth Tapes under the title, Xa. Its's easy to recall the chant-like refrain, "just looking, just looking," and Tina's excursions into concentrated disassemblages of language. Tina's work is not a set of prescriptions for meaning, nor a set of designer accessories for your karma. It is more like a global weather system, complex. dynamic, multidrectional, unpredictable, a vast series of potential interactions. In that regard, her work is the opposite of P.'s work, to which it is connected in many ways. Tina's work is an open system, P.'s consists of closed systems. I don't know how true this is, in fact, but I'm going to do some reading and give it some thought.

Tina's first two books were sidestapled publications issued by Dry Imager, her own publishing venture. Both were roughly made collages. First came My First Play, published back to back with Michael Lally's Malenkov Takes Over. Here is a page:

The caption under the picture reads:
Parthenogenesis on the roof.
The other two pieces of text are, "Just Us Girls" and Labortory Cheese."

Here's another page:

and here is the text from that page, enlarged:

There were hints of things to come, both in the undermining of conventional language structures and in the global social and political consciousness behind the words and images.
The came Living, a collaboration with Tim Dlugos, photobooth images, a recaptioned frame from the Nancy comicstrip, more bits of language, funny stuff.

Tina's final 1975 publication was my hands……to……myself, another Dry Imager moment. There were no dots in Tina's title, it's the only way I could indicate Tina's spacing. Describing this work as innovative is like describing James Brown as funky. It is a question of magnitude.

I always liked D. H. Lawrence’s pronouncement, “Trust the art, not the artist,” as well as Jack Spicer’s idea of the poet as a kind of radio, able to receive transmissions from the “invisible world,” I think he called it, as opposed to writing being all about “self-expression.” I like these ideas all the more these days, when people in the arts are obliged to be at least as serious about their “careers” as they are about their work. As far as Tina is concerned, it’s clear that she was tracking the same lines as the other poets who came to be associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, or, were receiving similar transmissions. What is most compelling to me now, rereading my hands to myself for the first time in a long while, and listening to Tina’s Xa recording, is how amazingly self-expressive Tina’s work was. That is to say, a Tina poem was a well made object/system of enormous energy, and a perfect expression of her character and personality. When one reads the first poem in my hands to myself, beginning, “just lookin’, just lookin’,” the rhythm of play between the word pairings of which the lines consist creates a thoroughly persuasive structure, based on dictionary progressions:

Charlie Chaplin / charge-a-plate
oatmeal / objet trouve
dictaphone / different
pidgin / piggyback
(the slashes indicate spaces that can’t be reproduced here).

This is all Tina enough, but when you hear her read the poem on the Xa recording, she interpolates the “just lookin’, just lookin’” phrase between each pairing, creating a more infectious and even more playful rhythm. So, in this case, I would say, “Trust the art and the artist,” because it is a perfectly well made object/system, and it is totally self-expressive, down to the social and political rage that’s always been in back of Tina’s work, and the unique Tina humor. This book was truly her debut as a poet, which is not to discount My First Play and Living. It’s extraordinary. Peter (Inman) now disavows his first book, What Happens Next (although I am deeply fond of it), and moved through a brief period of transition (P. Inman USA) to what became his “identity” as a poet. And to choose another poet from among Tina’s associates, Terence Winch’s Boning Up contains somewhat more conventional poetry than his signature works, which quickly followed. Tina emerged fully formed and rockin’.

The other factor that is clear to me after rereading my hands to myself and listening repeatedly to Xa, is the extent to which Tina creates a multiplicity of potential readings of each work, visually on the page, and vocally when she reads, and these two systems are in some ways kind of divergent. Of course, this idea might be applied quite comfortably to the work of many; but in Tina’s case it is emphatically true.

The year after that, 1976, Tina and Peter got married in McDonald. A small contingent from DC made the journey to Pennsylvania in two cars. When we arrived in McDonald, one of the cars stopped and someone went into a store and bought some rolling papers. By the time we arrived at Tina's home, they had already gotten the call, "The drug-addicts have arrived." It was a fabulous, unforgettable wedding. On the left side of the aisle were the massed factions of the Darragh tribe. The right side was almost empty, save for the small, huddled group of DC bohemian wannabes up front.

Paul, Pete, Tina, Potsy, Doug
Wedding day, 1976

Next came Pi in the Skye (Ferguson & Franzino), in 1980. Material from this text was also included in the Xa reading. Another element of the Darragh/Inman poetics interface begins to assert itself in this text: page as field, a convention given formal status by the poets of Projective Verse. In particular, "fragment of P.'s work -- Number One Son," looks a bit like a Charles Olson text. The visual element gets a good deal of emphasis in both Tina's and Peter's work. What's more, the vocabulary of "fragment" often resembles that of a P. Inman poem. Pi in the Skye is dedicated to "P. Inman and his work," so that it is, in effect, an extension of their marriage into the realm of poetics, a well-made marriage in which their practices would merge and diverge over the next 27 years (this far).

Listening to the sections of
Pi in the Skye on Xa, you get a strong sense of Tina's expansiveness regarding connotation. She seems to be tripping through the linguistic mutations of the collective unconscious, like Deiphobe confronted by the spirits in Virgil's underwold, or like Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, rushing around the room, touching everything, so that she could install every object in her sense memory.

If the previous paragraph seems extravagant, or ridiculous, I don't mind. I don't mean to edit my thinking, looks like.

on the corner to off the corner was another debut for Tina, insofar as Douglas Messerli's Sun & Moon books were gathering prestige and Tina's publication in that series in 1981 was a step towards national recognition of her work. on the corner to off the corner was took its title from the Miles Davis recording, and has this inscription:

"in appreciation of Francis Ponge
for things that he has given us"

Here is a comment on Ponge's work, found at the library online:

"In the prose poems of Francis Ponge, coming as he does in an un-heroic age fashioned more by scientific than by classical studies, the direction is down rather than up, smaller rather than larger. The subjects of his allegories or fables belong to a lower world than that of the gods and heroes of antiquity, and are treated zoomorphically, as opposed to the anthropomorphism of an Aesop or a La Fontaine. However, like his Renaissance antecedents, he too is creating a new humanism. He states his purpose to be "a description-definition-literary art work" which, avoiding the drabness of the dictionary and the inadequacy of poetic description, will lead to a cosmogony, that is, an account - through the successive and cumulative stages of linguistic development - of the totality of man's view of the universe and his relationship to it."

The 26 sections of on the corner to off the corner was do fit with "a description-definition-literary art work," as Tina rambles more-or-less ecstatically through her alphabet as cosmology. And the zoomorphic / anthromorphic aspect speaks durectly to Tina's informed humanism. Peter and Tina have shown consistent vigilance in matters of social conscience throughout the time that I have know them, without piety, pomposity, or pc policity. on the corner to off the corner is as radical a book of poetry as any published post-The New American Poetry of which I am aware.

By the time Striking Resemblance was issued by Burning Deck in 1989, Tina's work had been included in two significant anthologies: In the American Tree, edited by Ron Silliman, and published by the National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine at Orono, in 1986; and "Language" Poetries: An Anthology, edited by Douglas Messerli, and published by New Directions in 1987. Tina was one of four poets associated with DC in In the American Tree (P. Inman, Lynne Dreyer and Diane Ward were the others); and she was one of three in "Language" Poetries (P. Inman and Diane Ward were the other two). Ron Silliman also cited five other names of poets associated with Washington as candidates for a "volume of absolutely comparable worth" -- Michael Lally, Bernard Welt, Joan Retallack, Tim Dlugos, Doug Lang. There were some other, strong candidates, too: Terence Winch, Beth Joselow, and Douglas Messerli, for exampe.

There was no such thing as Language Poetry, of course. Small press magazines such as This, edited by Barrett Watten on the West Coast, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein on the East Coast, had given focus to a particular set of poetics and particular concerns about theory and practice; and there was a more than sufficiently visible "movement" to deserve the name. The product of this movement was the focus of Douglas Messerli's anthology. While the value of that anthology was specific, the phenomenon it documented was too diverse to categorize, ultimately. (I'm not proposing that this was the purpose of "Language" Poetries -- just that what some took for a prescription was more of a lens, really.) The larger picture was that the movement was the epicenter of a continuing renaissance in American poetry that had been most recently documented at that time in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry. While In the American Tree gave full recognition to the movement, it also indicated an awareness of the larger picture, both in the breadth of its inclusions, and in its editor's introduction.

In the American Tree
and "Language" Poetries could easily be aligned with other anthologies, such as the earlier An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro (1970), and Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970, edited by Andrei Codrescu, and published in the same year as "Language" Poetries. It was all good, as they say. In fact, Up Late could have been regarded as the "volume of absolutely comparable worth" proposed by Ron Silliman.

The point is that Tina Darragh was at the center of the Language Poetry movement, and had been recognized as such. And that Tina and Language Poetry were both connected to an ongoing American poetry renaissance. It was very gratifying to see Tina get the recognition she deserved, along with her DC poetry associates. The publication of Striking Resemblance was just as gratifying. Issued in Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop's great Burning Deck series, published out of Providence, RI, it was Tina's first book to be published outside of the Washington area. It began with Pi in the Skye, and contained three other pieces.

I've always assumed that D. H. Lawence's, "Trust the art not the artist," was intended to address both the issue of meaning, that the meaning of a work of art was not necessarily what the artist intended it to be, and to the issue of control, i.e., the artit's desire to control the reader's experience of the work. These issues are addressed readily in Striking Resemblance, in which process is of absolute concern. As Rod Smith wrote:

"Darragh is investigating investigation. One isn't led to conclusions. The manner in which she constructs a context for the investigation is itself the investigation.... When we learn to inhabit [this process] we'll have learned a lot."

And here is Tina:

"You know, in relational database structure there's a whole thing about webs… as opposed to hierarchically structured data bases where you have where you have the primary information up top and then you have these little boxes of secondary information and then you could have comment and other kinds of information off them. But the relational database structure is supposed to open up the possibilities of being able to retrieve the data in different ways."
(my italics)
Tina Darragh interviewed by Joan Retallack, AERIAL #5

In her interview with Joan, Tina cites the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, the creator of fractal geometry, as a kind of model investigator, capable of looking at data and seeing entirely new patterns. Tina's intellectual generosity in Striking Resemblance is such that she creates all her readers mini-Mandelbrots. One could write a book about this book. There is the focus on Raymond Chandler (in "Raymond Chandler's Sentence") and on James M. Cain in the last piece in the book (the title of which Blogger formatting prevents me from reproducing with any accuracy); the achievement here in creating object/structure forms, combined with immensely self-expressive material; and more besides. Taking a Montessori course, studying statistics, reading a collection of essays (Demystifying Social Statistics, a collection of twenty-two essays written by social scientists and statisticians), all of these activities are subsumed into the process of an autiobiography as process.

There are several moments here. One of them is indicated by dedications in Striking Resemblance, one to Susan Howe and another to Joan Retallack. At this point in time, the history of close connections between the women poets of the DC scene had evolved into a kind of secondary community, involving Tina, Joan, Diane Ward (even though she no longer lived in DC), Beth Joselow, Phyllis Rosenzweig and Lynne Dreyer, in various combinations of interchange, collaboration, and so on, through several years. If one thinks of Douglas Messerli has having proposed a kind of deliberate coherence with "Language" Poetries, and Ron Silliman as having configured more of a working "coherence" with In the American Tree (the bigger picture), then you could say that the camera was panning back to reveal an even bigger picture; and in some ways, too, a separate picture, within the original bigger picture, at its edges, and on the outside. This would eventually lead to Margery Margaret Sloan's seminal anthology Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, which would include Tina, Lynne, Joan, and Diane.

Joan, Lynne, Tina

Another moment was indicated by the publication of AERIAL #5 in 1989, then in its third year, and clearly demonstrating the imminence of a second surge in the Washington alternative poetry scene. Aside from publishing younger poets such as Daniel Barbiero, Gretchen Johnsen, Joe Ross, Wayne Klein, and A. L. Nielsen, editor Rod Smith had published work by Terence Winch, Douglas Messerli, Joan Retallack, and Phyllis Rosenzweig, as well as Tina Darragh, and a connection between generations was made manifest. The Joan/Tina interview and work by both poets in the same issue all gave emphasis to this. What was more, Rod's publication (through several issues of AERIAL) of work by Rosmarie Waldrop, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Gi Ott, Peter Ganick, Keith Waldrop, Elaine Equi, Susan Smith Nash, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Alan Davies, Julia Blumenrich, Jackson Mac Low, Hank Lazer, Andrew Levy, Ray DiPalma, Eric Wirth, Loris Essary, Janet Gray, Sheila E, Murphy and Stephen-Paul Martin, refreshed and extended DC's connections to the larger scene.

end of part one


douglang said...

This is from Peter via e-mail:

Yeah, the open/closed thing is interesting. My own take on Tina's work is that there's always been a push-pull between openness & closure in it: with expressivity as a third, floating force--variously attached to one or the other of those forces, depending upon the work.

In the earlier work, e.g. "on the corner to off the corner," the pieces seem to tilt toward openness. They seem excerpted from a larger Darragh ur-dictionary (DUD). They could have gone on (forward or backward) into adjacent areas of DUD, or have stopped where they did (DID).

Whereas, the more heavily invested in information Tina's subsequent work has become, the more, for me, it has tended toward closure. I'm not sure where such closure might be located, or whether it has to be. Whether, that is, it would occur at the point of reception or at the point of production.

Having read & heard her current "Opposable Dumbs" project over an extended period of time, I'd want to see it as a piece at once, all-over, to weigh in on that. (Clunk.) At any rate, Tina might think that the distinction between points (of production & reception) is inapplicable to her work.

Tina's interest in the Commons as a venue for collaborative work might be an indication that she might want to move toward re-opening the work ; toward radically extending the participatory-centered work of a couple of decades earlier.

Lally said...

Doug, Great post on Tina, thanks so much for doing this blog and giving so many their due. You are absolutely correct that Tina began fullblown as the great "experimental" (as they used to call it) writer she remains. Way ahead of most of the pack that assumed that mantle back when. But also wanted to point out that you have the back to back book she did with one of mine correct in the biblio but mistaken in the text (it was MALENKOV TAKES OVER my own collage/early "language" book, not OOMALOOM).

tmorange said...

thankyou doug, once again for your insightful readings and fantastic photos! makes me wish i had those early books and recordings of tina's and that they could circulate widely and immediately.


buckd_dc said...

The recording of Xa is may still be available. Tentatively A Convenience had digitized several of the Widemouth Tapes a while back. He sent me a copy of Xa, and included what apears to be a copy of the original insert. b/c me if you want Tent's mailing addr.

Of course you could ask Chris M., too.

mark wallace said...

Suddenly I don't have a lot of time to get through all the detail of these posts, but I want to second the thanks of Mr. Orange and others. I feel like what's great about this post on Tina's work as just one for instance is that it's something I and others will be able to return to at a later time and still find greatly interesting.

Lally said...

Doug, Just wanted to add to the record that Tina was a major presence at Mass Transit and in Some of Us Press. She was a vital part of the poetry scene we were creating in the early 1970s in DC. S.O.U.P. should have published a book of hers but as I remember it the "editorial board" as newspaper stories called the collective that was S.O.U.P. had to agree unanimously on any ms. selected for publication, and the make up of the collective shifted over the years that the press existed, so it was often difficult to get a consensus. The standards we set for collectivity were sometimes higher than the ones we set for publication, so that sometimes compromises were made but stalemates were also sometimes unavoidable.

hema said...

أخبار مصر اليوم
فاتورة التليفون

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