“Now that the audience is assembled,” a new book-length poem by musician David Grubbs, reminds us that listening can feel stranger than dreaming. The poem is a real-time report from an imaginary concert where “holographic feedback” clogs the mind’s ear, where sleeping audience members generate “two shades of melismatic snore,” where an arsenal of gongs erupts in “a shimmering both audible and visible” — but then a “dissident group favors melting down the gongs and starting again.”
As untethered as the poem feels, Grubbs is writing from experience. He got his start in the 1980s as a teenager in the Kentucky hardcore band Squirrel Bait, and eventually landed in Chicago where he formed the outstanding experimental duo Gastr del Sol with Jim O’Rourke. Since then, Grubbs has collaborated with visionary composers (Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros), deep-end songwriters (Will Oldham, Royal Trux) and, perhaps most notably, the great poet and scholar Susan Howe. In 2014, Grubbs published “Records Run the Landscape,” an illuminating book about John Cage and the 1960s avant-garde — and as soon as he finished it, he felt himself being pushed in an unexpected direction. He wanted to write the first poem of his life.
Grubbs visits Rhizome on Wednesday night to read from his new book and to perform music on guitar from “Creep Mission,” his 2017 solo album. “Separately,” he points out, an affable glint of Kentucky still in his voice. “The book is confusing enough as it is!”
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
I read this book as a present-tense poem about the breadth of experience — both real and imagined — that we can feel during a musical performance. Am I in the right neighborhood?
Present tense seems to be the key. I was really happy to write a book about live performance as it unfolds, without any jumping back and forth in time, and to write about in-the-moment performer psychology. As a performer, I’ve always wanted to stop time, and rewind, and revise. “Now that the audience is assembled” isn’t a concert. It’s a book about it. And it’s something that was written with careful, studied revision over the course of several years — even though it represents a one-way, vectored unscrolling of time.
The poem begins with the unveiling of a mysterious musical instrument. Do you still find music to be mysterious?
Oh, absolutely. Never more so. The closer you get to something, the stranger that it appears. And I think there’s a defamiliarization of the instrument that comes from a certain disconnect between hands and brain. The hands — and muscle memory — have a very unproblematic relationship to the instrument, but I think the brain is always finding itself in a different position.
We’re talking about how the poem starts, but I’m interested in how you started the poem. Musically, you got your start in punk, a culture that gives the young and untrained complete permission to go for it. Did you need to give yourself any special permission to write this poem?
No, I didn’t, but I feel that it’s really consistent with the lyric writing that I’ve done for a long period of time. When I was writing “Records Ruin the Landscape,” my lyric writing tailed off. All the words went into that book. And it continued like that. The impulse that would have found its terminus in a song became this long poem. So writing this book, it felt like writing a song that stretched on for dozens and dozens and dozens of pages.
Poems about music are automatically interesting to me because they activate the space between poetry and music — and I wonder if it helps when the poet knows both. Like, when I read a poet like Fred Moten, even if he wasn’t referencing Jay-Z or William Parker directly, you’d know that this guy understands music in a super-profound way, just through the sheer rhythm of his writing. Does this describe your situation at all?
I think so. With [“Now that the audience is assembled’], it’s prose that breaks down or splinters, but I could still imagine it as a long song lyric. So the sound of it and the kind of rhythmic choices — those seem very important to the composition. More so than the text on the page.
What did you learn about writing poems from your collaborations with Susan Howe?
One of my most profound experiences of Susan’s work was seeing her read “The Birthmark,” which was her prose book after “My Emily Dickinson.” And at certain points, “The Birthmark” crosses a threshold where the logic of the prose really loosens, and the grammatical constructions of prose are suspended. Crossing that threshold between prose and something-other-than-prose was deeply important to me. The other thing I would say is that working with her on performance versions of four of her long poems, I learned that the sonic dimension of a poem is all-important.
You joke in the book’s afterward that this is the first poem you’ve ever written and it may be your last. Do you still think so?
Definitely not because the next one is almost finished.
David Grubbs reads and performs on April 18 at 9 p.m. at Rhizome, 6950 Maple St. NW. www.rhizomedc.org. $10 suggested donation.