Peter Jaeger in Conversation with Chris Pusateri
Interview by Chris Pusateri
PUSATERI: It says in some of your bio notes that you were born in Montreal. Did you do your growing up there?
JAEGER: I lived in Montreal until I was fifteen, and then my family moved to Ontario. I mainly lived my adult life in Toronto, and though I lived in various other places for short periods of time, Toronto was the main place I came back to. And then I moved to England in 1999.
PUSATERI: Did you also grow up speaking French?
JAEGER: I was in an English school, but I had some contact with French-speaking people. And I did learn to speak French eventually, and I can speak French now.
PUSATERI: I’m curious to know how that sort of bilingual upbringing influenced or impacted your writing life. I’m thinking here of the argument made by Caroline Bergvall—and she forwards a sociolinguistic notion of the brain, of the multilingual brain as being wired a bit differently than a monolingual one—and I’m wondering if you’re able to talk a bit about how growing up in that multilingual environment influenced later compositions and writings.
JAEGER: I think it did. You know my father was Swiss and comes from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and my mother is English-Canadian. Although, I didn’t really learn Swiss German when I was growing up. It was heard around the house a little bit when he phoned, when we went to visit Switzerland and whatnot, so there were different languages going around in my family and in my experience growing up. My knowledge of German is rudimentary, really. I’m barely fluent in French, and I think it gives a different perspective because when I was living in Quebec and could speak French relatively well, I was thinking in French, and the language provided a very different way of thinking. Speaking another language also defamiliarized English.
PUSATERI: Right, I think it informs word choice and the granular choices that you make in language sometimes. You said that you’ve lived in the UK since 1999. Is your citizenship dual, or are you permitted residence on account of being a Commonwealth citizen?
JAEGER: I have dual citizenship because my grandfather was a Swiss businessman living in London in the 1920s, and my father was born in London of Swiss parents, although he went back immediately to Switzerland and grew up there. But because he was born in England, I got a British citizenship automatically. Ironically, I applied for my citizenship in the mid-80s, and I think at that time if it had been my mother and not my father who held the citizenship, I wouldn’t have been eligible. They didn’t recognize the validity of descent through the mother in the British system at that time. I really couldn’t believe it at the time.
PUSATERI: It’s completely absurd, I agree. On a somewhat related note, how has living as an émigré affected your writing and the politics that inform it? I think there’s sort of a built-in reluctance, at least in my experience, for émigrés to offer opinions on patently British subjects because where those things are concerned, they feel like they lack the proper background or don’t fully appreciate certain cultural aspects of “Britishness” (whatever that can be taken to mean) that would allow their opinions on political matters to be fully informed. In light of this, how has living as an émigré affected your thinking about politics?
JAEGER: It has affected things fairly significantly because when I initially arrived in the UK, I was relatively ignorant of English politics. I was also less invested in it than I was in Canadian politics because I hadn’t lived in the UK, but of course I was intrigued, and I began reading and talking to people and discovered various aspects of English culture and English politics. After I’d been in the UK for about two years, I thought I kind of understood what was going on, but about five years later, I began feeling like I probably didn’t really understand and probably never will actually understand what is going on.
PUSATERI: Right, you vacillate back and forth between thinking you’ve got a handle on it and feeling completely hopeless when it comes to the nuances of national politics.
JAEGER: Yeah. Literary politics are very interesting because there’s a real sidelining of any kind of innovative work in the UK, far more than in North America. And there aren’t the institutionalized structures for anything other than chapbooks and the occasional small-press publishers, so there’s not the same kind of collective energy there. And within those alternative poetry scenes, poets and publishers can be fractious. Just in the sense that they tend to ignore each other more than anything else. But I would say that [UK] poetry and poetics is primarily very left, very critical of the government and some English poets have been vocal with their politics. My work investigates how language and the social are so completely tied up with each other. I also tend to compose for the book rather than for the single poem, and my books take several years to write, and during that time, I travel quite a bit and draw from different source materials at different times. The new book I am working on is still very much in the formational phase, so I won’t say too much about it, but it has to do with the interface of the West with China and what’s going on in China politically and socially at the moment.
PUSATERI: I want to pose a related question about your relationship to the English language because, of course, the whole notion that there is a singular English language is a fallacy. There are a lot of different Englishes—Jamaican varieties of English are not the same as those found in Ireland, which are distinct from English spoken in St. Ives, Cornwall, which is different than English spoken in Earl’s Court, London. I was curious to know how your use of English has changed since you have been immersed in this linguistic environment where there are different forms of English spoken than the one you grew up speaking.
JAEGER: It has changed quite a lot, mainly in terms of inflection. Some of my phrasing is different than the more standardized Canadian phrasing. During my second year in England, I was finding it very difficult to make ends meet, so I spent a summer teaching English as a second language. Students came from various countries, and when they heard I was Canadian, they were a bit dismayed because they wanted to learn English from an English person. I said, “Do you want to learn English from someone who lives four miles that way or two miles that way?” because they speak in very different ways in different parts of London, and there’s lots of different accents within London itself. I tried to make the fact that there’s no “standard English” very apparent. But I think there has been a certain shift in the kind of inflections I use, and when I talk on the phone, for example, to Canadian friends, English people in the room say my accent becomes more Canadian.
PUSATERI: I taught ESL in Mexico City, and at that time, there was a transitioning from the traditional model, which had been to learn English from a UK citizen since the language itself had originated there, to students wanting to learn “American English,” which was important because so much international commerce occurs between the two nations.
JAEGER: Canada has always sat at the periphery. Nobody thinks about it really…
PUSATERI: Speaking of regional preference, I was reading in preparation for our discussion today when I came across an interview you did with Rob McLennan, where you were quoted as saying, “I seem to be far more drawn to North American poetry than English poetry even though I live and work in the UK.” I felt this statement to be quite provocative, but you didn’t elaborate on it very much, and I was interested in knowing which aspects of North American poetries made them more attractive to you than their UK counterparts?
JAEGER: Yeah, there’s a certain kind of openness to the language in North America. I find this characteristic in only a few examples of contemporary English poetry. But even among the innovative work that’s going on [in the UK], there is a tendency towards gloom and despair and a kind of misery.
PUSATERI: So the difference you’re describing is tonal in nature?
JAEGER: It’s the tone. Even among political works in North America or works that deal with difficult subjects, there’s a kind of openness that isn’t simply despair—I know I’m generalizing greatly. And there’s an aspect of glee with the language that comes into a lot of North American poetics, which you don’t find to the same extent in the UK.
PUSATERI: I’ve heard some UK writers talk about the generational gap being more pronounced in the UK, where the work of younger writers is often not supported by older poets, although one finds this problem elsewhere as well. Do you think this is one of the positive aspects of the professionalization of poetry in places like the United States, where a lot of writers go into teaching as a means of supporting themselves? In being so professionalized, perhaps they learn to become supportive because if you’re interested in not doing harm in the classroom, I think there has to be a certain amount of empathy and encouragement. You’re dealing with young writers who are still trying to find their feet and are learning how to work with the language, so you become adept at offering criticism that may actually serve the work.
JAEGER: Yeah, I think that’s very true. I think this is one of the side effects of professionalization, and there is a changing view toward teaching creative writing in the UK. It was considered a minor field until about ten, maybe fifteen years ago. When I was hired, it was right at the start of this boom where creative writing is still the flavor of the month.
PUSATERI: It really seems to have taken off in the UK. It’s surprising.
JAEGER: Yes, but there are very few departments that would offer the kind of modules or courses in what I would think to be the more interesting forms of poetic practice. I suppose that’s the way it’s going to be, that there’s a smaller interest in that kind of work. But there is a whole younger generation that is coming up with very interesting work now. In fact, London itself has a great poetry scene right now—it’s much more active and vibrant than it was when I first arrived in 1999.
PUSATERI: You’re not the first person to say that to me. I sensed that myself when I was living there in 2009—there was an important change happening in poetry at that time, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much interesting work I encountered. A lot of people had told me that it’s a very fractious environment where you have an older generation that’s very resistant to innovation and that kind of thing. But I didn’t see as much of that as I expected.
JAEGER: I think that the more interesting younger writers coming out of the UK also tend to be the ones who read a lot of American poetry.
PUSATERI: North American writing was more influential in Europe than I took it to be. I wanted to use this opportunity to segue into some of the work that you’ve done on John Cage. One of the things I noticed about Cage is that, particularly in places like academic conferences, Cage is often brought out to authorize academic statements. You see people quoting him, using his ideas and thinking to justify or buttress whatever argument they are trying to make. And it was a little surprising to me because in North America, I think Cage has been influential, but it’s a different kind of influence than in Europe. I was trying to think about possible reasons why people there might be so keen to use him as scaffolding.
JAEGER: You’re talking about at British conferences…
PUSATERI: And on the continent, too. I was just at a conference in France where Cage’s work was much discussed, and even papers that weren’t about Cage seemed to incorporate him, so it was surprising to see that he had a place in so much European research and scholarship.
JAEGER: Whereas here in the US, he’s important but not in the same way.
PUSATERI: Exactly. I think that poets don’t know how to treat him because he’s hybrid in the sense of having come to writing as a musician. But he talks in some of his writings from the 1950s and 60s about wanting to get away from music and feeling that music has a different range of possibilities than writing, and he moved more heavily into writing at that point. Americans are very fond of categories, and when they can’t assign things a place in the taxonomy, they get a little cantankerous.
JAEGER: Well, I suppose that’s a pretty universal trait, really. In Cage’s case, it was because he was a very well-known composer, controversial but also respected, and he had access to important cultural venues for his musical work. He was also published by mainstream presses such as Wesleyan University and Marion Boyars in the UK. That’s very different as a social circle, as a cultural context, than say a small poetry press in the Bay area or New York or Toronto for that matter, in which poetry tends to circulate among a smaller group of readers. Perhaps Cage was less interesting to North American poets because he wasn’t active exclusively in the micro-communities that grew up around poetry and poetics.
PUSATERI: It seemed like there was a bit of lag with Cage. I was re-reading Silence, which is a wonderful book, but some of the pieces from that book were written in the 1930s, which conflicts with my sense of his chronology. I think of Cage as more contemporary, and that’s probably a product of his not really having hit the big-time, as you say, until the 1950s and 1960s. This was the period when people started paying more attention to his ideas about music and so forth, so I almost think of him as having come from a more recent generation than the one he actually came from. Which is an interesting kind of temporal aphasia…
JAEGER: Well, his career spans such a long period of time, and it kept developing and changing, and the poem-lectures in Silence were all revised for that book’s 1961 publication. And Silence is polemical aesthetically in that it situates Cage in relation to other composers, while simultaneously setting up a kind of Zen quietude. But then Cage shifts focus in his next book towards a more politicized agenda.
PUSATERI: Yes, like in A Year From Monday and some of the later works.
JAEGER: Yes, indeed.
PUSATERI: This is off to the side, but I’m curious to know, since you’ve had such a long-standing interest in Cage, are you a musician yourself?
JAEGER: Yes, I am, but only a secret musician.
PUSATERI: Yeah, same here. I’m not good enough to be a public musician anymore. But now you’ve got a new book coming out from Continuum, and in my research, I wasn’t able to find a title. I thought maybe you hadn’t settled on one.
JAEGER: It was up for grabs. Originally I wanted to call it Nothing to Say: John Cage and the Performance of Nature or something like that, but the publisher wasn’t too keen on Nothing to Say. I also felt maybe that “nothing” title was a bit overdone for Cage. Plus, I was working with a constraint because the book is on Cage, Buddhism, and ecological concerns, and the publisher wanted all those terms in the title.
PUSATERI: That’s a mouthful.
JAEGER: So maybe it would be called Cage Buddha Nature, which is a pun on the “Buddha Nature.” In the end, we settled for John Cage and Buddhist Ecopoetics. I know that’s not the most elegant of titles, but it does represent the book’s focus. As a good friend of mine said, “It’s really what’s inside the book that’s going to matter.” I hope he’s right.
PUSATERI: I want to ask how you originally became interested in Cage, but I’m equally interested to know how you remained interested in Cage. When I think of influence, I think of it as a shifting surface. Influential figures cycle in and out of our experiences—some are situationally influential, where they have something to offer at a time when we need it, or the work of a particular artist is very important to a project that we are doing, but then becomes less important later. So, how was it that you became interested in Cage, and how did you sustain your interest in him through all these years?
JAEGER: Yeah, that’s a good question. I have stayed interested in Cage for over thirty years now. I met Cage in 1980 or 81, I forget. I was studying at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, in the now-defunct Experimental Arts Department, and there was a sound artist and musician/composer named Udo Kasemets, who was very close with Cage and who brought him to speak at the college. There were only a few people there—there couldn’t have been more than 20 people just sitting on the floor: students, a few staff members, and Cage. I guess he would have been in his seventies, and he had a wonderful manner about him. He was very gentle, and he laughed a lot. That evening he performed the Roaratorio—a reading through of Finnegan’s Wake accompanied by Irish traditional musicians who played snippets of traditional music at specific times dictated by the I Ching. Before the performance, Cage advised us to get up and move around and to listen from different angles. So during the concert, I went into the stairwell and heard a streetcar going by on College Street, and all of a sudden, I got this effect, this openness to sound, which struck me as very important. I then got a copy of Silence from the library and just devoured it. I found that Cage was very interested in Zen. At that time, I wasn’t practicing meditation regularly, but I’d read about Zen peripherally through being exposed to it from Beat writing and from a great little collection called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps, which was available in paperback at my public library. So in Cage, I found an artist who was interested in both Zen and “experimental” art—and that’s his term, experimental art. Following my time at art college, I started writing more than painting, and I eventually focused entirely on language and text-based art and poetry. I also met several people throughout the next decade who had been deeply involved with Cage. When I went back to do a PhD in university, I re-read Cage. It continues on and on. Most of my work as a poet has been involved in some way with moving away from, moving outside of intentionality and the ego. Trying to distance myself from that egocentric approach, trying to write something other than self-expression. And Cage has been foundational in that area too. At the same time, I have undertaken Zen training, so I can appreciate Cage from the perspective of a Buddhist practitioner as well as from the perspective of someone who is pretty well-steeped in contemporary art and poetics.
PUSATERI: Are any of the other writers who double as practitioners of Zen or Buddhism important to you: Armand Schwerner, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder?
JAEGER: Yeah, certainly, in very different ways, though. I mean, since you mention Whalen, he’s a good example. There’s a great poem in Whalen’s Every Day called Composition, and it’s useful because it’s such a contrast from Cage’s kind of composition. It included an image of Whalen looking in a mirror and trying on different hats and fiddling around and just kind of moving things around in a very haphazard way, as if that fiddling is a metaphor for his process of collaging bits together from his different notebooks.
PUSATERI: “A continuous nerve movie.”
JAEGER: Yeah, a continuous nerve movie. It’s very moment-by-moment, and the last line of the poem is, “Dear John Cage.” It has something to do with a prepared piano. And also I think within that poem, or certainly within the poems written within a few days of that one, there are references to Buddhist texts and Bodhisattvas, and so forth. So in Whalen, there was a Buddhist element that was very much about being present, but there was still a kind of intention involved. Critics have written about his approach, saying that he writes copiously in his notebooks, and then he chooses the best bits for his poems. Whereas in Cage it’s different: the primary choice is the type of constraint, and whatever comes up with that constraint offers both author and audience a means to observe their own likes and dislikes. Cage may have disliked the piece but that’s part of the process, part of the “result.”
PUSATERI: Maybe Cage took a different approach to honoring his own mistakes or including them as part of the process. And that certainly runs contrary from much of the formal training that we receive about how to revise a poem.
JAEGER: Certainly. I think that’s a good point.
PUSATERI: Would you say there are any aspects of Cage’s work that you strive to work against? Because influence, as I see it, can have a positive or a negative focus. Personally, some of the thinkers and artists who have been most influential to me are people with whom I’ve had some pretty serious disagreements. But they’re provocative in a way that forces me to account for what they are saying. With that in mind, are there any aspects of Cage’s work that you feel the need to resist?
JAEGER: Well, I’m not so attracted to Cage’s atomization of the word into tiny particles of phonemes, where words join together or split apart in odd places and are also produced in different type fonts. That work to me seems historically specific, something that had to happen in poetry at that moment. It doesn’t really move on from that context. It’s not a jumping-off point for me. When I was younger, I published a few things that had “atomized” word elements in them, but I don’t really follow that approach anymore. I’m more interested in appropriating larger bits of text, and using chance operations to organize and reframe those texts.
PUSATERI: Do you think it has to do with the notion of the linguistic unit, where you’re in fundamental disagreement with Cage about the unit that best accommodates poetry? Some people really do think it’s the phoneme, and how small we make the utterance, how far can we whittle it down. Others think it’s phrase-based or sentence-based, like Silliman.
JAEGER: Well, at this moment, I am working more with the sentence. I think my 2007 book, Prop, is much more phrase-based and is very concerned with sound patterns. But the last two books, Rapid Eye Movement and The Persons have worked at the level of the sentence. One thing I do get from Cage is the crucial importance of the spatial organization of the page. The other thing I find really interesting in Cage is the short narrative, the micro-fiction interspersed amongst more disjunctive bits of writing—a practice that I don’t find much in other writers.
PUSATERI: That’s something that I noticed going through his work, too. If you’re delving into the recent history of American poetry, somebody like Jack Spicer would make use of footnotes that would explain or not explain.
JAEGER: Or not explain. Spicer’s notes were also poems—part of the same series, but taken in another direction.
PUSATERI: Right. There might be a connection to the text above or it might be very tenuous. Or somebody like Nabokov. I’m thinking of a book like Pale Fire, where you have this dual narrative going on between Shade and Kinbote, who’s putting things in footnotes.
JAEGER: Yeah there is a dialogue there that goes on, but in Cage, it’s very pluralistic because there are so many different bits going off. I think Spicer’s Homage to Creeley does the same sort of thing…
PUSATERI: It does.
JAEGER: …and different lines from the top band occur on the lower band at another time. The novel Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow by the Canadian writer Brian Fawcett also consists of two different bands of text: one band is written in a journalistic register while the other is written in a more colloquial register from a first-person POV. And there’s also a great short poem by Charles Bernstein, called Lachrymose Encaustic, which includes lots of footnotes. I like that kind of inter-register dialogue within a text. Rapid Eye Movement makes use of it…
PUSATERI: It does, it’s got that upper and lower band that are derived from different texts. Now, to switch gears a bit, you’re also a teacher, and before we leave Cage, I wanted to ask whether there were concepts of Cage’s that you found pedagogically useful in the classroom? Was there any overlap there that you could discuss?
JAEGER: My approach is to find out what students are doing, what they want to do, and to help them do it in a more well-realized way. And I also find that my teaching is not highly-structured. I have a general idea of what I am going to do, but it depends on what we are reading and what the energy of the class is. What I get from Cage, as a teacher, is his desire to learn from his students. Jackson Mac Low, Dick Higgins, and others spoke about Cage’s desire to be a student while he was teaching so that the class was a process of mutual discovery. I’ve had several wonderful students who have gone on to do fantastic things, and I’ve learned a lot from them.
PUSATERI: I wanted to discuss specific work of yours and the poetics that surround the creation of those pieces. You’re both a scholar and a poet, and I’m interested in how scholarship nourishes your poetry and vice versa. In what ways are those two activities mutually reinforcing or mutually exclusive?
JAEGER: Oh, they certainly reinforce each other. I don’t see them as exclusive at all. I can go back to my first book of literary criticism, which was on the Toronto Research Group—bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, and their collaborations. In studying their work, I learned about a whole toolbox (to use a slightly clichéd creative writing phrase) of writing methods, and I spent a few years producing work that was derivative of one or the other of them. But that experience propelled my thinking about writing into a whole new area. So that was extremely useful for me. And since then most of the articles that I’ve written have focused on a writer whom I really like. I usually adopt and develop aspects of that writing and use it in my own writing in some way. So, poetry and scholarship have been intertwined throughout my experience, and I try to do hybrid things as well.
PUSATERI: There are formal procedures at work in books of yours, where you mine text from different sources and arrange them via parataxis. Rapid Eye Movement is one of those books that treats the phenomenon of dreams and dreaming, with each sentence taken from a different source, and despite the fact that there’s a common theme, dreaming, all the lines take such different views of the process and use such different concerns as points of departure that the placing of those sentences in relation to each other imports bits of disparate context and, for me, creates powerful and mystifying effects. Your use of this technique reminds me of that quotation by Pierre Reverdy that “the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true the stronger the image will be.” In my estimation, you were able to do something similar in Rapid Eye Movement, where the many ideas of dreaming, taken from the far reaches of human imagination, were joined together to great effect. And it also brings to mind a more recent book of yours, The Persons, written during the year of your 50th birthday, and you use the text of other people to tell a story of the first fifty years of your life. In light of this, could you talk a bit about the place of procedure in the work that you do?
JAEGER: That is also an area where Cage has been a significant influence on me. The use of procedure has always been important—although the procedures aren’t always Cageian procedures or the kind of procedures that you find in Oulipo or conceptual writing, but that’s where it’s all coming out of. Rapid Eye Movement began as an experiment with a single band of text [Rapid Eye Movement is comprised of two bands of text—one on the upper hemisphere of the book, another on the lower half]. I hadn’t even thought of the top half yet—I was just collecting sentences, which had the word dream or dreamer or dreaming, and writing them down whenever I came across them. Then I started seeing that the result was interesting as a piece of writing, and I began to seek out the incidences of those words more. But that wasn’t enough. The text needed something else. I wanted to tackle dreams from another angle, so I mined dream dictionaries and asked friends for written accounts of dreams. I refused to take spoken accounts because I wanted everything to be textually sourced. And the idea was to investigate. It’s a kind of a research project—to investigate how dreams operate in our culture at this moment. We all spend so much time dreaming, but dreams are also part of our lore—and not only the lore of commercial, everyday reality, but also of psychoanalysis, pop culture, marketing, etc. And then there’s the blank space between the two bands of text, and that middle space is intended as empty, non-dream space.
PUSATERI: It’s no surprise that someone with an interest in Cage would also be interested in using silence creatively. Cage believed that analysis relied on the ability of the subject to be divided, and he argued that duration became the basic unit of measurement. I was interested in that white space where there was nothing. But of course, there wasn’t really nothing. I’m sure there was something, just like in the work of Cage, where it’s not only the duration, but everything contained by the duration that counts.
JAEGER: Well, nothing is really never entirely nothing. I was reading the newspaper in the garden, and I started noticing more and more news stories beginning with a personal account so that the story was introduced by a character, often a minor character. For example, a news story on the Taliban would begin with a brief account of how someone named Mansoor is worried about his sheep because of the Taliban activity nearby and the American helicopters flying overhead. I started thinking about collecting all of these little leads that were about people without the attendant news stories, and that idea eventually became The Persons. But I wanted to have a kind of rhythm going through it, so I made all of the sentences grammatically parallel. I modified the sentences; I didn’t just take them and use them.
PUSATERI: So there would be a certain uniformity.
JAEGER: So they all begin with a proper name, verb, and then an action of some kind. And there are also chronological references going through the text, so on page 3, for instance, there will be contemporary references but also references to events that occurred in 1963. The book covers events written or translated into English from 1960–2010: it’s my 50th birthday book, an alternative form of life writing, or perhaps, life reading…
PUSATERI: There’s almost this sort of temporal slippage going on, then?
JAEGER: Yeah. The first piece I did of this kind is called Martyrologies. It was published in my book Eckhart Cars.
PUSATERI: Yeah, I remember that one.
JAEGER: I was reading through accounts of Christian martyrs who gained their subjectivity as martyrs by dying. So, in death, they earned an identity, and I found that an interesting concept, so I collected only the sentence in which the person…
PUSATERI: You collected the descriptions of the ways they died.
JAEGER: The descriptions of how they die. And I’d like to have that read, maybe on a tape loop or something in a church, playing all day in the background somewhere. It’s kind of gruesome.
PUSATERI: I found it extremely…maybe grotesque is a better word for my reading of it. I heard it as though each sentence was being spoken in a different voice, where each sentence is subvocalized a little bit differently than the next. And there’s the intimacy of it: that last moment, before death, is one of the most intimate and personal experiences a person can have. One could guess that many of these martyrs met with gristly and public deaths; so, you take this moment before death, which is usually very intimate and private, and you transform that moment into something public. That was another facet of Martyrologies that fascinated me.
JAEGER: That’s certainly there. No question about it.
PUSATERI: I wanted to take a moment to discuss the role of technology in your writing. We occupy a point in history where technological change is proceeding ever faster, and composition is being broadly influenced by that change. And I’m not talking simply about more common manifestations like texting abbreviations or multi-tasking, dividing attention in creative or detrimental ways. It seems that poets have always incorporated emergent technologies into their work. Frank O’Hara made use of the telephone, Kenneth Goldsmith has used the voice recorder in some interesting ways, and somebody like Tom Raworth uses a much older type of technology, the music box, as a means of musical accompaniment when he reads. There’s an American artist, a visual artist who also writes, named Lou Beach, who has a book called 420 Characters, where each short piece that comprises the book originally appeared as a status update on Beach’s Facebook page, where there is a 420-character limit to the field. I think that particular formal constraint would have been less compelling to me if Beach didn’t work so well in those short forms, in which pieces are almost like flash fiction. So I wanted to ask how you make use of technology in your writing and what aspects of it you might have reservations about.
JAEGER: I do make use of some technology, but only peripherally. The first thing that comes to mind is my Cage book, which is organized according to random integer generators online. More interesting from a technological perspective, I think, is a collaboration I did with a Japanese-British video artist named Kaz. We made a piece called Nozomi, which is the Japanese word for hope and which is also the name of the bullet train that runs between Kyoto and Tokyo. It consists of two simultaneous video projections, with the text scrolling along the bottom, out of sync with what’s happening in the video. The images show the landscape along the Kyoto-Tokyo route, whizzing by very quickly. There’s too much information to take in—it’s like a wave of information consisting of images and text. We made Nozomi before the Japanese tsunami struck, but the film had surprising visual resonances with news footage of the disaster. Nozomi was shown in the Museum of Transport as part of the Bury Text Festival, surrounded by old train engines.
PUSATERI: I’m sure that made for an interesting display space with the notion of travel being introduced by the surroundings.
PUSATERI: And because you were being bombarded with so much information, you had to select which information you would pay attention to. Direct your attention in some strategic ways.
JAEGER: Or perhaps just let go of any attempt to try and select. Just to kind of…
PUSATERI: Let it wash over you.
JAEGER: …let it wash, in a sense. The video projections are quite large, and there’s a droning soundtrack that comes from the sound of the train. In Japan, the high-speed trains are very fast, and they don’t click over the tracks like British trains or the Tube. It’s more like a drone with slight variations.
Aside from simply using a word processor, the first poem that I wrote using a computer was called A Black Tooth in Front. It collects a lot of material pertaining to nature and the body, ranging from romantic poetry to scientific treatises on quantum physics to yoga instruction—it draws from lots of sources and reframes them. And it’s organized alphabetically, so the basic sort function in Word was very useful. I use the most rudimentary functions, really.
PUSATERI: Just as tools essentially…
PUSATERI: …rather than as some organizing principle.
JAEGER: I don’t really foreground my work as a digital practice per se.
PUSATERI: I also wanted to ask you a few things about your teaching. You are a practicing Buddhist, and I was wondering how your practice influences your teaching. Do you attempt to introduce contemplative practices into the classroom?
JAEGER: Yes. I introduced an exercise from an organization in the UK known as the Triratna, formerly called the Western Buddhist Order. I went on one of their retreats, and one of the things we did after meditating was sitting and staring at another person’s face, just observing a stranger’s face…
PUSATERI: Almost like the performance piece “The Artist is Present” by Marina…
PUSATERI: Abramović, yes.
JAEGER: I had members of the class observe a partner for about five minutes, and then spend the next five minutes writing, remembering their observations. The exercise presented students with a very odd social situation because the close observation of a stranger is not something that frequently happens in our culture—perhaps it happens between lovers, but other than that, in our society, it doesn’t happen much.
PUSATERI: It seems that we’re encouraged to do the opposite. We don’t look at people for very long, for fear that it will be considered an aggressive gesture. Or maybe we’re uncomfortable with what we might see there.
JAEGER: Exactly. And that was evident from all the giggles and whatnot, and when I told them five minutes was up, they thought that a half-hour had gone by.
PUSATERI: You do lose all of your temporal markers because staring makes different demands on us, makes us explore topography in ways we’re unaccustomed to.
JAEGER: Yes. That exercise comes out of one pointed focus of concentration. But I don’t identify the exercise as explicitly Buddhist.
JAEGER: I also try to explore how Buddhist insight might offer students a leveling of hierarchies. Often students come to university with ideas that some things are really lofty and therefore fantastic. JK Rowling is at the top of the pyramid for them. Many of them don’t question much: English Literature, with its canonical texts, is all fantastic, unquestionably. But what they really like is TV—that’s what many of them are really into. They feel like they can’t bring pop culture and literary culture together, even in the 21st Century! I suppose that is a problem with our educational system. From a Buddhist perspective, we might look at the divide between pop culture and literary culture as a delusion. So one aspect of my teaching is to offer students alternative points of reverence and reference for writing.
PUSATERI: You can make more robust use of all those things without feeling ashamed or embarrassed or like you are violating some received tenet of how poetry is supposed to operate.
JAEGER: Exactly. There are contradictions because we tend to be drawn towards certain types of things more than others. What I find most interesting is the way that contradiction is really just one other aspect of that experience, that awareness. Contradiction itself.
PUSATERI: That’s a good point. Extending that concern somewhat, do you see teaching as having some kind of political agency or social function?
JAEGER: Certainly, because I see art and writing as integral, it’s a kind of food. It’s as important to us as humans as well, producing imaginative experience of the world. There’s no greater joy than learning and that is a really important aspect of teaching. There’s definitely a political dimension to this perspective, especially now that the arts are struggling so much in the university system. I imagine it’s somewhat similar in the United States, but in the UK, the arts are struggling because of higher tuition in the university system. Tuition’s skyrocketing, and people think twice about whether they want to go into huge debt to learn how to think about experimental or formally innovative poetry.
PUSATERI: That’s interesting. I know the coalition in Britain has drastically raised tuition prices and has reduced the number of spots that are available at university. Are you noticing a difference in the makeup of your classes on account of those changes? The model currently on display in the US—where we’ve made higher education a plaything of the rich—encourages prospective students to take on sizable debt and threatens to create a permanent underclass whereby students who want a university education must accept a semi-permanent condition of indebtedness in order to finance that education. Are you seeing those circumstances reflected in the kinds of classes or students that you teach?
JAEGER: This is a big worry that we all have—that education is being narrowed down. This is the first year where the cuts and extended fees have been in play. I think that our new student numbers are pretty much the same as they were last year. I’m on research leave this year, so I don’t know exactly how the shift is manifesting. But economic downsizing in the university remains a worry for many people. I think it’s likely that some UK universities will be forced to close or radically curtail their offerings. Students will eventually have to start paying the money back, so the cuts create a whole class of people who will have a lower standard of living because they carry so much debt. I think the UK government is really very shortsighted. There’s also been talk about cutting university degrees down to two years, when they’re already three-year degrees. That seems nonsensical to me, especially since BA students generally start to do their best work in their third year. The first two years are more preparatory.
PUSATERI: How to compress three years into two years? You make it more intensive; either that, or you just reduce the number of hours so that the degree is…
JAEGER: Students can’t digest. No time to digest and ruminate on things.
PUSATERI: It cuts down on reflection.
JAEGER: Yeah. And then it’s all about checking the boxes. Lots of departments have had to close over the past few years. One significant department to close in the UK was the Middlesex University Philosophy Department. It was a highly reputable department, one of the only places in the UK to specialize in Continental Philosophy and theory, which is politically critical for the most part. Interesting that politicized philosophy is the one that closes.
PUSATERI: Interesting choice.
JAEGER: Luckily another university picked up and hired a lot of the teaching and research staff. I don’t know how they could manage to do that, but Roehampton University, where I teach, has a lot of students who are the first people in their family to attend university. And maybe now we won’t see those people coming to university anymore, which would be a tremendous loss.
PUSATERI: It seems like a curious turn of events because up until World War II, the rate of college attendance in the UK was very, very low. I want to say it was something like 5%, but reforms put into place after the war resulted in increased access. More universities were built up and so forth. Now it seems like a reversal going on (and this is even more true in the US) where higher education is becoming something that’s inaccessible due to the prohibitive cost.
JAEGER: Well, the UK government is not subsidizing undergraduate teaching at all. Universities have to self-fund the entire thing. The government will still fund some research and some post-graduate work.
PUSATERI: Probably more in the moneymaking fields, where there’s a big return on investment?
JAEGER: Yeah, it’s really difficult.
PUSATERI: And there’s some sort of ongoing evaluation process that was recently implemented?
JAEGER: That’s been around for a while, but it’s just been changed to something called The REF: Research Excellence Framework. There’s a period of six or seven years when academics must submit what they think to be their four best papers, books, articles, or whatever. And that’s adjudicated and ranked in terms of whether it is world-leading, national-leading, or inconsequential and then…
PUSATERI: Everything I do is inconsequential, so I would never last in a place like that.
JAEGER: Creative writing has generally had a difficult time because the boards who judge often aren’t writers, and they don’t know how to see poetry or fiction as research. It’s relatively easy to see a monograph from Cambridge University Press on Shakespeare as research. But a fantastic book published by a really good small press, a book of poems that was doing really new and interesting things—that might be judged by Shakespearean experts or by people who don’t even read poetry at all.
PUSATERI: At least not any poetry written in the last two hundred years.
JAEGER: They say, “What’s this?” That’s been one of our problems, and we’ve managed to work through that by appending one hundred word narratives describing the projects in terms that literary critics could understand. So they got some idea…
PUSATERI: Appropriating the language of the evaluators.
JAEGER: Yeah, and providing some context for the work in their terms. That approach gives it a bit of cultural credence. Otherwise the work just orbits right off into oblivion, as far as the academy is concerned…
Transcribed by Rachel Abeyta Newlon