Two haiku from Gregg Bordowitz’s Pandemic Haiku, 2021

Pandemic Haiku by Gregg Bordowitz

The artist, activist, and writer talks with curator Peter Eleey about his writing habits over the past year and his current exhibition at MoMA PS1.

In connection with the MoMA PS1 exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, the artist published a small book of 52 haiku selected from a large number that he wrote in Brooklyn over the past year of isolation. (Pandemic Haiku was published by the Cooley Gallery, Reed College, where the exhibition originated.) Long active as a poet and essayist, Bordowitz uses language in much of his work. He spoke about his haiku and interest in language with Peter Eleey, former PS1 chief curator, who organized the exhibition.

The book is available as a free download, and additional poems are included throughout their conversation.

Wet leaves flick around
Waiting for the sniffing dog
Breath inside my mask

Peter Eleey: Why did haiku become your favored form during the pandemic?

Gregg Bordowitz: I think for the same reason as a lot of people. My concentration was compromised by the pandemic. I couldn't read whole books or long texts. I even found long poems to be difficult. And I also found it very difficult to write for long periods in a sustained way. So, the concision and brevity of the haiku enabled me to write and focus. It also works well for me because I write poems using constraints, and the syllabics of haiku were an interesting challenge in the same way that the syllabics function for Debris Fields.

Could you say more about your Debris Fields work and its constraints?

Yes. All the Debris Fields are composed of 10-syllable lines, all nouns. 10-syllable lines because, well, that’s a very traditional line that’s Shakespearean. Iambic pentameter is often written in 10 syllables. In Kabbalistic thinking there are 10 emanations of God. And 10 is also the basis of the metric system. So, there were a number of different ways that 10 made a kind of elegant and/or rational and spiritual sense to me.

A debris field is an area that you search if a plane has crashed or a tornado has hit. It’s a way to recover objects. And so, the notion of a debris field of objects being scattered due to some kind of powerful explosion or force was intriguing to me, and representative of how I felt somewhat undone and taken apart by life.

During that period after my mother died, I found myself unable to write essays, and I also found myself unable to write open verse, blank verse, rhymed verse. I actually found it impossible to write at all. So the only way I found my way back into writing was to write these 10-syllable poems and all nouns, which was about a kind of accumulation of loss, about a problematic relationship to objects.

What does that mean?

Loss problematizes our relationship to objects because of what objects mean to us. First of all, when you lose somebody, you are confronted with their personal effects and going through all of their objects, as I did my mother’s with my sister and my stepfather. And you have to weigh each object, literally, by holding it and packing it and deciding what to save and what not to save, or what you want or what you’re not going to hold on to. All the objects are voided of their relationship, their physical relationship, to the living person and become freighted, or weighed, with the gravity of the loss. More and more the nouns came to sound to me like proper nouns, which are names.

One of the other things about the Debris Fields is that I write them very fast. On average, it takes about 15 minutes. I try to write like a member of the Ramones. One, two, three, four! One, two, three, four! High velocity. But when I read them aloud at public events, I read them as I would read names from the AIDS Quilt—very, very slowly, pronouncing each noun and waiting a fairly long time before I pronounce the next noun. They take much longer to read than they do to write.

Gregg Bordowitz’s Debris Fields (2014), in the exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well

Gregg Bordowitz’s Debris Fields (2014), in the exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well

KN95
Colors pink purple blue
Twenty-five a box

When did you start writing haiku during the pandemic? Do you remember?

Yeah, about three months into the pandemic. I complained to my friend, the poet Joy Ladin, about my problems with reading and we were commiserating about the difficulties we were having. And she said she was thinking about turning to haiku, and recommended Robert Hass’s translations of Basho, Buson, and Issa, which I immediately ordered online to be delivered to my house. And then through some kind of algorithm I came across a recommendation of Richard Wright’s haiku.

I had no idea that Richard Wright, author of Native Son, wrote haiku in the last 18 months of his life. It’s a fascinating story. He wrote about 4,000 haiku and left behind a manuscript of 800. He was increasingly ill, but he could sit and write haiku anywhere. He was living in the south of France in exile at the time. And so he was able to write haiku when he was well enough to write, and he could carry around a notebook. Which is then basically what I just adopted for myself.

So, you started in June, roughly.

Yes. If you cling to the models of Japanese haiku, there is an imperative to always write a line that signifies either directly or obliquely the season in which you’re writing.

So actually, June lent itself well to lots of mentions of flowers and spring and heat. Actually, in the 52 haiku that we published to accompany the PS1 show, there’s a great deal of references to temperature, steam, fog. There are poems about flowers. But then I departed from that, too, into feeling states, which may or may not be associated with seasons. The last haiku of the 52 includes the line “As if seasons still exist.” The problem of writing a poem about nature is that nature is severely altered by climate catastrophe. If you read the traditional ancient haiku, there’s the presumption of a regularity and continuity of seasons.

Dwelling in sorrow
Not every day, some days
Today the sun’s out

Gregg Bordowitz’s Selections from Gregg Bordowitz’s library (1983-2013), in the exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well

Gregg Bordowitz’s Selections from Gregg Bordowitz’s library (1983-2013), in the exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well

Right. Reading your selection of haiku, I was led down the garden path, as it were, towards an expectation of external rhythm, whether through weather or seasonality. I didn’t feel the intimacy of daily time, I felt something closer to longer, seasonal, cosmological time. But that struck me as interesting against the fleeting immediacy of the kind of subjects that often feature in haiku.

Well, in the COVID pandemic in particular, nature was viewed through the steamy glass panes of my window, much of it. I wasn’t dwelling in nature and I was wearing a mask every time I went outside. Plus, the news feed that comes directly into my phone is part of my daily life, so some of the haiku actually are lifted from headlines.

Could you say a little about the actual book design?

The Pandemic Haiku booklet for PS1 was designed by Heather Watkins, who designed the two booklets that accompanied the previous iterations of I Wanna Be Well at Reed College and at the Art Institute of Chicago. I really enjoy working with Heather. The format was somewhat dictated by the dimensions of the booklets themselves. Stephanie Snyder, the director and curator of the Cooley Art Gallery at Reed College, has overseen the production of all three poetry booklets, as part of her continuing commitment to this show. We wanted to include as many haiku as we could, so Heather determined that 22 pages folded and staple bound would be the largest we could do without going to another form of binding and not having the book open on itself. Heather suggested 52, which I thought was interesting, why 52? And she said, “I don’t know, 52 cards in a deck.” I said, “Oh, yeah, 52 weeks.” She decided to distribute them using or borrowing the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern of a haiku in terms of numerically grouping them into two, threes, fives depending on the page but then that morphed into a way of distributing them that would be cloud-like, with a lot of space, which seemed to accord very well with our installation ideas for the show and the appearance of clouds in the show.

Pleased to see faces
Though some continue to mask
Many seem confused

Were you reading any other haiku while you were writing, other than by Richard Wright?

No. Now, I read Basho, Buson, and Issa. I’ve read other haiku that were influential. Keith Vincent is a very well-respected, renowned translator, working on a book of translating Shiki’s haiku, and he sent some to Douglas [Crimp] because Douglas had developed an interest in poetry during his illness.

Was haiku a favorite form of his?

No, actually we read widely and he was teaching himself poetry. Douglas felt like that was a blind spot in his early education, so we were reading poetry and he was kind of taking it on and enjoying it. He actually ended up loving Marianne Moore, in particular.

One funny thing is how much people have used the general short form of haiku as a kind of metaphor for Twitter.

I’m not a tweeter but I am aware that various social media platforms have produced their own genres, so I know that there are Twitter novels that were line by line in Twitter. I know there’s a genre of Twitter poetry. There’s a genre of poetry called flarf, which I’ve not practiced but I find very interesting: doing a google search and composing a poem from the results. There are all sorts of computer-generated, Internet-generated, cell phone and social media-generated poems at this point.

I was trying to write against the grain of an aha moment, although sometimes it just happens and you let it.
Gregg Bordowitz

I also think that the word haiku is a nice word for people to say. You know, you don’t have to say iambic pentameter...

Right, right. Although they’re very difficult to write. The hardest thing about writing poems in general—and haiku amplifies this problem—is avoiding false profundity. So the hardest thing about writing the haiku was the third line—that’s supposed to be the aha moment. I was trying to write against the grain of an aha moment, although sometimes it just happens and you let it.

A friend who wrote haiku told me they got around this problem by writing four lines and excising one. They would go 5-7-5-5, and then decide later which of the two fives to keep.

That’s nice. I’ll try that.

New York City laughs
Dancing along avenues
Familiar faces

Do you write any of them in type, or all freehand?

I write every day and I write in freehand because it slows me down. I am a deadline writer. I’m a frequent essay writer and I can actually type very quickly with a fair amount of accuracy, and I do so on deadline or when I’m writing an essay for a magazine or a journal. I find that it’s easier for me to write on the computer. I have terrible handwriting. The first edit of any text that I write by hand is transferring it to the computer. Often, I can’t read some of the words that I’ve written, so that’s an opportunity to make a new word choice. I like the transition from the notebook to the computer because it’s a first pass. I write every day and I don’t look back. I just fill notebooks. I have tons of notebooks.

And so, I’m curious how you see the daily practice of poetry in relation to the newer practice of meditation drawing that you’ve taken up, one of which is in the exhibition. When did that start?

That started this summer.

So a year after the haiku had started?

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my drawing practice is actually a writing practice in that my drawings are all Tetragrammaton drawings, which are made up of an accretion of writing out the four Hebrew letters of the unpronounceable name of G-d. It’s a calligraphic practice, it’s a writing practice. I like to kind of curl up in bed or sit at the edge of my bed and have my pad in my lap. I make all of the Tetragrammaton drawings that way for some reason. I am now making them at a larger scale than notebook size, so I do those on a table but I also keep a notebook by my bed and draw two to five Tetragrammaton drawings at various times of day, mostly late at night.

Since the Tetragrammaton drawings are in a sense layered and spatialized writing—albeit meditatively executed and constructed rather than artistically motivated—it makes me wonder if, when you’re writing haiku, whether you imagine them on the page?

No.

Not at all? They have no visual field for you?

Well, all poetry is visible. Writing is visible and I think the way a poem looks on a page is very important.

Gregg Bordowitz. Tetragrammaton. 2021.

Gregg Bordowitz. Tetragrammaton. 2021.

Viruses copy
Multiply and inhabit
Changing constantly

I see some relation to your early video work, which was in a sense a combination of personally diaristic footage and also equally improvisational material that you captured in conversation with others, and then later structured into video works.

Yes. The short answer to that is: I think everything is writing, which I actually got from reading the philosopher Jacques Derrida. My engagement with Derrida in the ’80s and ’90s, along with many of my peers, was through an article that art historian and critic Craig Owens wrote about the artist Robert Smithson, titled “Earthwords,” which used the Derridian argument to suggest that all of Smithson’s work was writing. Spiral Jetty was writing upon the Earth. And Derrida famously challenged the received idea that oral history came before written history; or, it depends on your definition of writing. If your definition of writing is a mental operation of the mind—metonymy and metaphor, syntax and grammar—then oral history is written history, or speaking is writing. It accords very nicely with the Jewish conception of the world, that the world’s written into existence: let there be light.

Gregg Bordowitz. Still from some aspect of a shared lifestyle. 1986

Gregg Bordowitz. Still from some aspect of a shared lifestyle. 1986

The Pandemic Haiku opened my awareness to the persistence of language as a through-line in all of the rooms of the exhibition.

Though I broke with my early identification as a Conceptual artist, I’ve thought a great deal about global Conceptualisms, not only one version of Conceptual art. But along with understanding Conceptualism from many places, one has to think about the pervasiveness of linguistic theory and the way that language enters into Conceptualisms, which largely has to do with modernity and the increased amount of signage that people experience all over the world. But also various theories of language. Some say that to enter a blank gallery room is to enter into a language. There’s a syntax to the architecture of a gallery space that is not neutral. There are blank walls. There are dimensions. It is a machine for viewing and, as such, has a set of codes and a syntax and even a grammar.

When you and I were hanging stuff in the gallery, we were always looking for lines, literally, looking for lines, walls, perpendiculars, floor lines, through-lines, sightlines, where doorways begin and end. This is the way in which we engage the language, if you will, of the space. The world is made up of language.

Gregg Bordowitz’s Drive (2002/2019/2021), in the exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well

Gregg Bordowitz’s Drive (2002/2019/2021), in the exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well