Visiting Writer Gregg Bordowitz Discusses Poetry, Projects
On Thursday, September 13, Gregg Bordowitz — the English Department’s first visiting writer of the year — conversed with students about his work at Poetry Salon, with students and community members and faculty all in attendance. Ahead of his reading in Eliot Chapel, and following a series of lecture performances called Some Styles of Masculinity, the event provided a more intimate forum for interacting with Bordowitz, a poet, teacher, and performer, much of whose life work is compiled in the exhibit I Wanna Be Well in the Cooley Gallery, which will run until October 21.
“There’s no correct way to read these” Gregg Bordowitz noted before beginning his recitation of “Debris Field #5,” referring to the series of poems made of ten syllable lines composed entirely of neo-nouns. This entry begins with “ROMANCE.” He read each word into the tableaux slowly, in the style with which activists, including himself, used to read the names of those who had died of AIDS at meetings, each word weighted and considered. His experience living with AIDS works its way into all the media he uses, and when asked about the similarities between the themes of his performances and his poems, he explained that no matter the transmission, he is trying to address the same conflicts and tensions he experiences.
Musical influence is one such influence that appeared in both his performance “Rock Star” and in his poetry. He started out writing his “Debris Field” poems as fast as possible, writing each subsequent entry faster and faster. Dee Dee Ramone, he relayed, once told Joe Strummer, a member of The Clash, that “The [Ramones] show is 5 minutes faster.” “He wasn’t,” as Bordowitz put it, “worried about them getting better, at all, he was just really proud that they got the same amount of songs … faster. That always kind of stuck in my head.”
The poems Bordowitz read came out of a project about voice and his relationship to Other Countries, a poetry collective of African-American gay men writing about their experiences of the AIDS crisis in the late eighties and early nineties. All of the members he knew have since died from the disease. He approached them with resources from Gay Men’s Health Crisis and helped document their readings and performances and plays. Some of their poems are included in the project he created in collaboration with Other Countries, titled Taking Voice Lessons, which pushes against the contemporary historicization of AIDS as a “gay white man’s disease.”
As he worked to make a space with the project for their voices to be “unproblematically accessible” and recognized within a canon that had excluded them, Bordowitz’s mother lost a three-year battle with cancer. The event left him unable to write in prose and, wanting to continue working on the project, he created Debris Fields, an account of the forms of wreckage of voice with which the project contended, both his own voice and the largely unrecognized voices of the poets from Other Countries.
Bordowitz also discussed his writing habits more generally. He had never written daily until his forties, deciding eventually that he needed something “to wake up into,” and for the period of the project Debris Fields became a daily practice for him. Coinciding also with his second attempt at sobriety and the regularity of pills, they served as something that both helped his writing and fit into everything else. He feels that he’s in a rut with them right now, that he’s trying to get out of. His partner noticed that, in his sleep, he counts syllables on his fingers.
For the last question of the salon a student in the audience brought up a quote of Bordowitz’s that had resonated with her: “When I do a solo, I’m never dancing alone.” He responded with a rumination on the role of solitude in his creative process and what separates it from loneliness. For him, loneliness is being lost, not knowing your direction, feeling pain at the absence of others. And solitude is feeling full, the state of being both physically alone and in conversation with others, losing track of time, remembering conversations, with people who are no longer here, not extricating yourself from but connecting yourself with the relationships that have shaped you.
When Bordowitz was writing his first art history book, General Idea: Imagevirus, about a Canadian gay arts group of whom only one member was still alive, he spent two years visiting archives and trying to use primary documents to write it with methods that he didn’t know. In the end, writing it took ten days. On each one he’d imagine he was in a bar telling their story to a different person. Some days it was people he knew well, some days it was people who’d died, one day it was a total stranger. On a similar note, he explained that, in his work, he “narrowcasts” instead of “broadcasts,” because he believes that people are able to and do take an interest in the lives of others, even those who are unlike themselves. Whether with an audience in the chapel or a group of curious students, here at Reed or at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches, he is always in conversation. In his poetry, his films, his art, and his performances, he’s talking to you.