"I intended this work to be the repetition of historically real events the writing of which punches a hole in reality. (As if to void them, but actively)," wrote Leslie Scalapino in a "Note on My Writing," a widely quoted essay about her that they were at the beach — aeolotropic series (North Point Press, 1985). "...[In my writing] An event isn't anything, it isn't a person. No events occur," she wrote. "...The self is unraveled as an example in investigating particular historical events, which are potentially infinite. The self is a guinea pig..."
Scalapino died on May 28th in Berkeley, California after a battle with cancer. She was 65. Although she had long been associated with the West Coast wing of what came to be known as "language-centered writing" (or more simply "Language" poetry), the over thirty books that comprise her oeuvre defy any easy categorization as to genre and lineage. Those who would place her in the language writing camp will point out that her work challenges all the operative mechanisms of literary subjectivity and referentiality as consistently and successfully as any writer who ever sought to foreground the act of reading as constitutive and inherently political.
At the same time much of her work, while adopting the grammatical structure of narrative--i.e., the centrality of a unified subject even if merely as a placeholder--derives its sense of linearity from the serialization of phenomenal experience, and more particularly, the experiences of eroticism and suffering (not necessarily in that order). In this sense, it reflects certain concerns akin to the study of Buddhism and the West Coast iteration of the Beat movement. Scalapino edited The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (2007), a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and West Coast wing of the Beat generation, and was a frequent guest lecturer at The Jack Kerouauc School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Conceptualists and experimental writers of all stripes will also claim her as their own, and some have in fact suggested that Scalapino was to postmodernism what Gertrude Stein was to modernism: a writer whose language didn't attempt to "represent" some possible version of "reality," but invented a syntactic reality of its own.
True to the term"aeolotropic" she sometimes used to describe her work, Scalapino's writing displayed different qualities in different contexts or different algorithmic variations, a kind of radical contingency that exposed the operations of logic and rational thought as social constructions of the materiality of language. "I am concerned in my own work with the sense that phenomena appear to unfold.. (What is it or) how is it that the viewer sees the impression of history created, created by oneself though it's occurring outside..., she wrote in her 1989 essay "How Phenomenon Appear to Unfold."
Specifically, for Scalapino this meant a "multiple perspective (in these works), in which the viewer and speaker are 'within' (being its inside) the work, allowing reality to leak from many holes all around. As (spatially) infinity is all around one, it creates a perspective that is socially democratic, individual (in the sense of specific) and limitless."
Beginning with O and Other Poems (1976)--the book that lent its name to her Oakland-based small press O Books--Scalapino's key works Considering how exaggerated music is (North Point Press, 1982), that they were at the beach, the American Book Award winning long poem way (North Point Press, 1988), as well as the prose and mixed genre writings including The Return of Painting (DIA Foundation, 1990), Zither and Autobiography (Wesleyan University, 2003), and Dahlia's Iris — Secret Autobiography and Fiction (FC2), revealed what fellow writer Lydia Davis aptly described as "how far language--and therefore thought itself--can go beyond what we are accustomed to."
A considerable portion of Scalapino's essential writings were republished in It's go in horizontal, Selected Poems 1974-2006 (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008), which along with a companion volume Day Ocean State of Stars' Night: Poems & Writings 1989 & 1999-2006 (Green Integer Books, 2007), provide an excellent overview of her work. Her most recent volume Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows was published in March by Buffalo-based Starcherone Books. Based on the notion of "alexia" or "word-blindness (but not arising from a nervous disorder)," Scalapino generated a narrative in which "unknown words create a future."
How to describe the book? It's set in a kind of inchoate or apocalyptic continuous present in which strip miners, wounded soldiers, and dislocated polar bears wander across a deforested, animal and human corpse strewn landscape, orphaned girls are trafficked on the streets of Calcutta, insurgents sweep across the desert in Toyota pick-ups, a female detective named Grace Abe tracks a band of animal poachers across the hinterlands of Tibet, while elsewhere Venus and Serena Williams face off in a tennis match the main focus of which is Venus' "deconstructed forehand," an American president and his henchmen act to advance the interests of corporation named Haliburton, and poet named Creeley appears Virgil-like to a female narrator named One in her dreams.
It's a beautiful, horrible, synaesthetic vortex seemingly spun out of an intentionally disassociative lexicon the paradoxical end result of which is the tenuous possibility of freedom and social action. New York City based writer Douglas Manson, who read the book last year while living in Buffalo and working as an editor for Starcherone Books, recently wrote the following about it:
"I read the manuscript last year, and finally understood what she was trying to do--that the mind comes to recognize itself in the act of reading, with emphasis on "act". I've never read a book as difficult as that one, but also never read a book that made the activity of reading such a conscious, palpable one. She understood the way language structures thought so thoroughly that she could write both its trauma and apotheosis. It's not a book one likes or dislikes, but will show you, through your senses, exactly what the mind is doing when it reads."
As a tribute to Scalapino's life and work, her play Flow-Winged Crocodile will be performed at Poets House, 10 River Terrace in New York City on Saturday, June 19th at 7 p.m. and Sunday, June 20th at 2 p.m. by the performance group The Relationship, directed by Fiona Templeton.
There will be a memorial event for Scalapino at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, 131 East 10th Street in New York City, at 8 p.m.on Monday, June 21st. A Zen Buddhist funeral ceremony will be conducted in the San Francisco Bay area within the month at a time to be announced.
Those interested in learning more about Scalapino's life and work, or in revisiting it, may wish to read fellow poet and sometime collaborator Lyn Hejinian's Leslie Scalapino Rememberedat the Academy of American Poets website, visit the excellent author's page (http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/scalapino/)of links and information at the University at Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center, or visit the extraordinary archive of audio recordings featuring Scalapino reading from or talking about her work at The University of Pennsylvania's PennSound website.
An obituary notice (Leslie Scalapino 1944-2010) prepared by Scalapino's husband, Tom White, and the rest of her family can be found at UB's EPC site.