The Operating System

5th(!) Annual National Poetry Month 30/30/30 :: Nevertheless I Live :: Jay Besemer on Tristan Tzara

It’s hard to believe that today’s post marks the first of our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]

When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.

Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.

Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.

It seems apropos that we kick off this celebratory 5th season of series with Tzara — Dada was a huge inspiration in our original founding of Exit Strata and continues to inspire and influence our approach to being a community of making.

Enjoy! And share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

Nevertheless I Live:
My Life with Tristan Tzara

Tzara-jeune

“I am a horse I am a river
I go on clumsily nevertheless I live” 

When I changed my name in early 2015 as part of my gender transition, I chose the middle name Andrew. My partner commented that he was surprised I didn’t choose Tristan.

“That would have given too much away,” I said. “It’s too close.” My partner wasn’t off-base, though. I did seriously consider choosing Tristan as one of my names, but I didn’t want to make my complex relationship with the work of Tristan Tzara that obvious, that reductive. I didn’t want to wear him on my sleeve, or make that connection a bureaucratic matter, something to use in my encounters with the authorities of the state and of capital. It’s funny though—even there, in the area of legal name change, there’s a link between me and Tzara. Somewhere, there exists a piece of paper similar to the one in my own files, declaring that the former Samuel Rosenstock was from that day forward legally named Tristan Tzara. He did it too; not for the same reasons, but just as intentionally, he was also a self-made man.

Somewhere, there exists a piece of paper similar to the one in my own files, declaring that the former Samuel Rosenstock was from that day forward legally named Tristan Tzara. He did it too; not for the same reasons, but just as intentionally, he was also a self-made man.

Everyone knows Tzara as one of the original Dada bunch, and a few people know of his involvement in Surrealism. Fewer still know about his work with the French Resistance in the Second World War, and hardly anyone knows about the reams of poems, criticism and dramatic works  he wrote between the 1930s and his death from cancer in 1963. Those works are largely untouched by translators, and that neglect has fueled my lifelong investigation of his life and writings. This poetic detective story is too convoluted to convey in its entirety here, but do I hope to spark some interest in the brilliant, uncanny poems of this under-appreciated and prolific fellow.

I first encountered Tzara’s work at around the age of 15. I had a passion for Dada and Surrealism (which I still maintain, honestly) and had just begun to embark on my own poetic career—like Tzara, I was an early starter. General art-history coverage of Dada antics and disputes led me to the Barbara Wright translation of the Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries. From there I quickly discovered the critical volume by Mary Ann Caws, The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism, followed by the first edition of her translation of Tzara’s masterpiece, the book-length poem The Approximate Man. Caws’ version includes some additional selections from Tzara’s other books, including this:

SPEAKING OR INTELLIGIBLE WOOD SIGN OF EASTER ISLAND**

VIOLIN LAMPS A TAIL A WHITE LIGHT
VERY WHITE FLEE SUN AND STAR SNAIL OR
FLYING FISH IN THE STATION A HUMAN FOOT
WAITING ROOM DIFFERENT JARS OF EARTHEN
WARE TWO KNIVES ONE BIRD ON THE JAR OF
EARTHENWARE THE AXE 4 MEN IN DIFFERENT POSES
A LADDER
COLOR HERE
WATERJARS IN WALNUT A SHIP AND 3 PIGS
HATS CHICKENS SAILOR’S STRONGBOX DOG
MANDOLIN
DIFFERENT FISH THE TORTOISE ON PALM TREE
EMPTY CHEST A VERY LARGE WHITE HAND 28
DIFFERENT OBJECTS
AND THE WIDE SOUND OF SPEED IS SLOWNESS
FIXED IN THE HORIZON’S FRAMEWORK
WHISTLE WHISTLE BLUE OF MAN SEE THIS
PARAKEET ON SPRAY SOLIDIFIED WHISTLE
NAVAL OFFICER WHISTLE
THE CONTOURS MIX
WHISTLE IN THE WOUND THE GREAT
AUTUMNAL LIGHT WHICH SHRIEKS?
SHRIEK CROSSWISE (Caws 192).

**Actually, the title as given in the original French is “BOIS PARLANT OU INTELLIGIBLE SIGNE DE L’ILE DE PAQUES,” which is closer to “SPEAKING WOOD OR INTELLIGIBLE SIGN OF EASTER ISLAND.” The switch in word order in Caws’ translation is maintained in the latest edition of the book, re-released by Black Widow Press. 

This poem is from one of Tzara’s first poetry collections, Of Our Birds (De nos oiseaux), published in 1923 and including work written between 1912 and 1922, in the thick of Dada. I was blown away by it, and the others I read from that time. I had a very strange reaction to this work: anger, irritation, fascination and attraction, all at once. Looking back with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, I recognize this mishmash of feelings as the herald of a powerful and erotically-charged friendship, though this is more of a friendship with a body of work than an embodied person. At the time it was something I wasn’t used to feeling. I grew increasingly frustrated, and increasingly intrigued, because the more of him I read, the more unsettled I was—and more deeply hooked. That led me to exhaust all the then-available English-language translations of his work, eventually teaching myself to read French so that I could keep exploring.

This wasn’t a poetry of scenic description or elevation. There was no highfalutin assumption of moral authority; in fact it was the opposite. The block-cap loudness, the use of humor, all seemed very much in line with the need I sensed in myself to question and challenge everything.

The above poem contains a great deal that I can now see must have been both threatening and inspiring at first encounter. The inventory of stuff, all relating to a  colonial naval expedition to Easter Island, felt overwhelming and transgressive, violating what I had been told in classrooms about what poetry contained and did, and how. But that also made it very attractive, because it felt fresh to me, still stuck as I was in trying use my poems to “express” my teenage emotional mayhem, my personal impressions of things like ducks and trees, and my naïve political convictions. I wanted to write disruptive, disorienting poems like that! The content of “EASTER ISLAND” also makes use of  what seemed to me then to be a near-magical process of abstraction, in which Tzara’s own interests, mundane experiences and affections were made into something entirely other. This wasn’t a poetry of scenic description or elevation. There was no highfalutin assumption of moral authority; in fact it was the opposite. The block-cap loudness, the use of humor, all seemed very much in line with the need I sensed in myself to question and challenge everything. I also needed a poetry that could contain that questioning—but I wasn’t ready to write it myself for a long, long time. And the Tzara of the Dada project was the perfect role model for questioning and challenging the values of 1980s U.S.A.

One of my favorite Tzara poems comes from Terre sur terre (Earth Upon Earth), a later book published in Geneva in 1946 but written during the Second World War. This translation comes from the same Caws volume mentioned before:

Anecdote

giants of rain coolness of summer
oh vain sparkling depths
still I go tempting the most certain falls
do I not see from afar my own living and dying

so I go leafing through landscapes to come
tearing torn faithful
made of dead wood flesh earth
badly off persevering
from one halt to the next

I am a horse I am a river
I go on clumsily nevertheless I live (229).

Looking at it now I can see much that has resonance with my own work. For one thing, the mechanical choice not to capitalize initial words in each line is one that I have favored throughout the decades of my own poetic career (even down to the poems I wrote today). I actually favor the abandonment of capitalization entirely, including—perhaps especially—in my prose poems. But what stands out right now is the similarity in content between this poem and the ones I’ve been writing in the past two years.

Tzara was roughly my age writing this, mid-forties. Is it a middle-aged poem, emerging from the body and psyche of a man in crisis reaching beyond the midlife cliché? Is it something else, something only he (or I) could have written? In the second stanza it’s not clear if the “landscapes to come” or the narrator’s “I” may be “made of dead wood flesh earth.”  My bet is on the latter, because of what I know of his other work and his disguised presence in it, and because that’s how I would describe myself: made of dead wood, flesh, and earth. I once tweeted that I “still have trouble identifying as human.” I think, if Tzara had access to Twitter, he’d share something similar. After all, his narrator says, “I am a horse I am a river.” I get the sense he’s being only slightly metaphorical. He’s talking about the ways the land and what it holds become a part of the body, a part of identity. Land is, literally, part of his identity—“Tzara” is an adaptation of the Romanian ţara, “land.” And like the horse on the hilly earth, the river stumbling and swerving over the silt and rocks of its bed, he too moves about clumsily yet somehow keeps going.
Here’s a recent poem of mine, in which I recognize a substantial resonance with Tzara’s tone and themes:

day folded into itself frayed sweater crumbling into the drawer : a saucer
ringed with mice armature of soft bodies & words : imperative marked
with silence or wasteful knees : hose in hand making teams on the
window : many days are like this : keen eye in the mirror looking sensible,
looking on : looking out from the inside of a green-rimmed leaf hard &
brittle : the source of a wind that carries imps down from the mountains :
drops them on the doorstep ::

This poem, written about a year ago, is from an unpublished collection called A Kind of Word. It bears no title of its own, uses no capitalization, and belongs to the series of prose-poem projects beginning with my book Telephone (Brooklyn Arts Press) in which I devise my own alternative punctuation system. This experimentation would please Tzara, as he played with poetic form throughout his whole writing life. But what I notice here is my emphasis of the same kind of awkwardly-lived daily existence that we see in “Anecdote” above. This itself is a lifelong Tzara theme, present most extensively and deeply in The Approximate Man. I had a strange moment in re-reading my own poem above just now, because the cadence immediately reminded me of the opening stanza of Approximate Man:

Part I
sunday heavy lid on the seething of blood
weekly weight crouched on its haunches
fallen inside oneself once again
the bells ring for no reason and we too
we will rejoice at the clank of chains
that we will sound within us with the bells
(Caws 41)

Try it—read mine aloud, then read Tzara’s. Spooky! I wonder if that cadence comes partly from the way the English language itself is only a semi-functional container for the concepts and realities of awkwardness, approximation, failure and imprecision. My earliest years as a poet involved reading Tzara in English translation; it wasn’t until I was in my thirties, reading him in French, that it dawned on me how differently the two languages behaved, what they were good for. English is blunt. It’s good for data. French can meander and spread like a sleepy cat in a patch of sun, not sure where it is and not exactly caring. But the version of Tzara’s cadence that English was able to give me clearly sat deeply in my writing flesh, hiding under my tongue and soaking through my skin. And the cadence of French was not native in Tzara’s body either. What influence did the flows and wiggles of Romanian (and Hebrew) have on Tzara’s French poems? I can’t know. Somehow, though, all of it entered me—and comes out on my pages.

English is blunt. It’s good for data. French can meander and spread like a sleepy cat in a patch of sun, not sure where it is and not exactly caring. But the version of Tzara’s cadence that English was able to give me clearly sat deeply in my writing flesh, hiding under my tongue and soaking through my skin.

I still turn to Tristan Tzara in various situations, whether personal or poetic. I turn to the original French to see how he actually handled certain poetic issues, and increasingly to see how he approached various problems in criticism. The Caws translation of Approximate Man remains “comfort reading” to this day, and I’m always interested in new Tzara translations. There’s a slowly increasing interest among academic presses in producing new English translations and serious books about Tzara. For those wishing to learn more about him as a person, try the recent (and only!) English language biography by Marius Hentea, TATA DADA: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara, put out by MIT Press. DADA fans will also appreciate the English translation of Michel Sanouillet’s DADA in Paris (also MIT Press), which includes hundreds of complete letters drawn from Tzara’s extensive correspondence with both Francis Picabia and André Breton.  And French readers can move at leisure through the six thick volumes of Tzara’s Complete Works, all of which contain excellent notes by their editor, Henri Behar. Although I can be a little possessive of Tristan Tzara, I also know how rewarding a relationship with his work can be. Get to know him as he really was—a poet above all else—and see what I mean.

Jay Besemer is the author of many poetic artifacts including Telephone (Brooklyn Arts Press), A New Territory Sought (Moria), Aster to Daylily (Damask Press), and Object with Man’s Face (Rain Taxi Ohm Editions).  His performances and video poems have been featured in various live arts festivals and series, including Chicago Calling Arts Festival; Red Rover Series {readings that play with reading}; Absinthe & Zygote; @Salon 2014 and Sunday Circus. Jay also contributes critical essays to numerous publications including Rain Taxi Review of Books, The VOLTA, and CCM: ENTROPY. He is the co-editor of a special digital Yoko Ono tribute issue of Nerve Lantern: Axon of Performance Literature, and founder of the Intermittent Series in Chicago. Jay is a contributing editor focusing on multimedia for The Operating System, and co-editor of the forthcoming OS anthology IN CORPORE SANO :: Creative Practice and the Challenged Body with Lynne DeSilva-Johnson.

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  1. […] of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write? You already know of the influence of the whole body of Tristan Tzara’s work on my own work. I’ve mentioned a lot about my work processes, constraints/procedural writing, and hybridism. But […]

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