Hannah Weiner's Open House
Edited by Patrick Durgin
Kenning Editions, $14.95 (paper)
“They shut me up in Prose,” wrote Emily Dickinson, loudly and silently and privately and indelibly, and yet they didn’t—not in prose or otherwise. The same is true for Hannah Weiner, who, twenty years after the end of her schizophrenia-riven, psychic, art-committed life, continually exceeds well-meaning attempts to preserve her. Her own prose, occupied as it is by the voices of hallucinated “silent teachers,” continually tests and knocks against the visual boundaries of text as it attempts to create an audial-visionary experience no conventional prose could hold. The Internet, with its capacity for assemblage, co-authorship, and multiple media may be the best mode for hosting Weiner, who made the hosting of corporeal and non-corporeal collaborators the mainstay of her art. “We have unknown collaborators,” she wrote in an early piece.
Weiner’s ceaseless effort to find a format adequate to her experiences as a psychic medium resulted in the ever-changing forms and surfaces of her work. As a result, her friends’ and advocates’ efforts to build her a legacy make for a series of exhaustive, self-sacrificing labors that, while failing to fix a monument, create something better: a living zone in which Weiner emerges from between and among the Web sites, essays, and books assembled in her honor. Hannah Weiner’s Open House is the latest of these efforts, a labor of love on the part of Kenning Editions editor Patrick Durgin and poet-critic Charles Bernstein, Weiner’s close friend and executor who encouraged Durgin to take up this and earlier projects working with Weiner’s archival materials and published texts. For this new volume Durgin has assembled press releases, artist statements, early lyrics, and published texts, including the naval code-script for Weiner’s code poem performances, which were staged with the U.S. Coast Guard. Durgin also includes excerpts from her clairvoyant or “clair-style” journalistic poems in which she replicated via typewriter the commands and commentary she saw written on her body, clothing, walls, furniture, and other surfaces. While the book lacks much of the chronological apparatus and contextualization that a go-to introduction to Weiner would require, it enriches the collective multimedia work-in-progress that is Weiner scholarship.
The title of Hannah Weiner’s Open House refers to an early performance piece in which various artists and poets opened their homes to the public over two days in October 1969. In Weiner’s account of the event, “From 3 to 26 people showed up at different places. We sat around kitchen tables, or on the floor and talked and smoked or had a party. I met new friends.” As this project suggests, invitation is one of Weiner’s distinctive early modes, but invitation to what? What is an enclosure when it’s “open”? What is private space when it’s made public? Interestingly, although this piece involved such prominent figures as Vito Acconi, Bernadette Mayer, John Perreault, Abraham Lubelski, Marjorie Strider, and Japanese painter and performance artist Arakawa, it’s Weiner’s name that’s in the title. Its performance converts “Hannah Weiner” from a proper name, a signature, to something that does not refer to Hannah Weiner merely, but also to some 30 people.
The ways a name can become a term of ambiguity, the self an other in a spectrum of others, are also explored in the March 1970 happening “Hannah Weiner at Her Job.” In the event’s press release inviting the public to visit Weiner at her studio on New York’s West 33rd Street, where she designed underwear for the A.H. Schreiber Co., Inc., she remarked, “I am my object, a product of the process of self-awareness.” Similarly, the invitation puts in question whether “Hannah Weiner” or the “bikini pants” she is creating is in fact the “product.” These performance pieces, imagined retrospectively through text and from a distance of four decades, propose multiple Hannah Weiners—one as impresario, one as object on display, and any number of other witting and unwitting participants in the performance of Hannah Weiner. The pieces, apparently proposing personal contact with the artist, reconfigure personhood as a site one can visit.
Related to the motif of invitation in Wiener’s work is the motif of signaling; this, too, is apparent from her early performance pieces, the “Street Works,” and particularly “Street Works IV” (1969), about which Weiner writes:
I hired a frankfurter wagon to give away free “wieners.” This was a pun on my name. Anything or anybody can have anything or anybody’s name. Hot dog wagons are everywhere part of the street environment. Unfortunately wieners (and pastrami, bologna, preserved meats) contain sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate: one a coloring agent for otherwise gray meat, one an embalming fluid. Both have a depressing effect on the mind.
A sort of inside-out version of the later clair-style journals, this piece, with its occult puns and palindromic qualities (the perverse twins “nitrite” and “nitrate”), emphasizing the slipperiness of that supposedly most fixed species of language, the name, shows language as the site at which reality clusters, folds and intensifies. In “Streetworks IV,” the hashmarks of language are made visible in “the street environment,” rather than on the page.
Most luminous and suggestive amid these performance poems are the “Code Poems,” which Weiner created by limiting herself to the phrases allowed by the “INTERNATIONAL CODE OF SIGNALS for the Use of All Nations,” a “visual signal system for the ships at sea.” In this code, a set of three letters, signaled by flags, lights, or Morse Code, stands for an understood phrase, such as “PCF—The ice is so solid I cannot break through; send help” or “CST—Where are they?” By means not related in this volume (and one wonders!), Weiner was able to orchestrate performances of these striking poems in New York City with the U.S. Coast Guard providing the lights and foghorns. Such events are wonderful to imagine, but the page-bound versions of the poems are already quite animated, enacting as they do both literal dialogues and conceptual dialogues between letter and symbol, code and content, page and voice. In “QRD LIGHT”:
LRG Will you carry a light?
MPD Will you make land tonight?
LRM I will carry a light
GDW I see the land, land in sight
GDV I have just lost sight of the land or light
MQC Anything in sight?
The rhymes and lyric cadence of these questions and answers, as well as their non sequitur arrangement (the statements may answer the questions, but only after a delay or a remove) fascinates in itself, as do the three letter codes at the beginning of each line: are they to be read silently, providing an empty “beat” for the line, seen but not read, or read aloud as a kind of opaque aural symbol? The matter is complicated further by the fact that this text is accompanied by a visual representation of the light pattern corresponding with these letters; the poem, then, is a secondary “decoding” of the text of lights. In performance, the light signals would appear to be signaling an audience, and also to be signaling each other, multiplying the would-be “dialogue” of the poem. (The audience, presumably, would not be expected to signal back.)
The very term “audience” is something of a misnomer here, given that it refers to a group watching (rather than listening to) a system of silent signals. The problem of fitting aural into visual is itself signaled in the introduction to these pieces, in which Weiner notes “Although Morse and light signals were used in performances, only visual signals are included (we omit radio) in this book.” The book, then, represents only a partial version of the code poems. At the same time, by rendering itself back into page-bound visual media, the book version of the poems comes full circle back to the printed codebooks Weiner worked from to produce these texts. Unlike the performances, these written versions are fully de- and re-codable.
The problem of “Trans-Space Communication” continued to occupy Weiner. In a text of that name she articulated her interest in “exploring methods of communication through space: considering space as space fields or space solids; through great distances of space; through small distances, such as the space between the nucleus and the electrons of an atom” and invited the reader to “send replies” to her queries on the subject to a P.O. box. Where, when, or whether this statement was published anywhere is unclear from this volume, but at some point, perhaps in response to all this quandarying, the infamous “silent teachers,”—usually characterized as symptomatic of her schizophrenia—began signaling to Weiner. (Happily, we have Weiner’s own accounting and recounting of this experience in statement after statement as well as in the notebook-style volumes called Clairvoyant Journals.) She appears in a memorable photo by Tom Ahern with the phrase “I see words” written on her forehead (an approximation, presumably, of her visionary experience), and some version of this phrase became a tag surfacing in text after text, a descriptor Weiner applied to herself so often that it almost became her name—a sentence in motion, instead of a name.
Meanwhile, her own name was anagrammatized, visually broken down and pushed around by the spectral words, even as they continually addressed her. In Sixteen:
who is like me seen
on slant anyway
Hannah one sip put it in that you drank tasted a little
coffee saw oh juice oh boy one line below
Hannah that’s little book not mention names
significant prose write some lyrics for
us baby and
we’ll sung ya
This text, as in the even more visually haywire Clairvoyant Journals, creates the illusion of a kind of real-time, an act of writing wherein the words advise and revise ”Hannah” as she attempts to make her way to the bottom of each page. The text reads, rereads, spells itself, develops motifs, interrupts and revises itself, comments on the materiality of its writing, seems absorbed in its moment and yet refers to a whole complex world of people and events adjacent to its page. Weiner, for her part, tried to keep track of this streaming discourse by using the typewriter’s various capabilities. In a portion of the essay “Mostly About the Sentence” subtitled “A Short Interlude to Discuss Voices,” she recounts:
I bought a new electric typewriter in January 74 and said quite clearly, perhaps aloud, to the words (I talked to them as if they were separate from me, as indeed the part of my mind they come from is not known to me) I have this new typewriter and can only type lower case, capitals or underlines (somehow I forgot, ignored or couldn’t cope with in the speed I was seeing things, a fourth voice, underlined capitals) so you will have to settle yourself into three different prints. Thereafter I typed the large printed words I saw in CAPITALS, the words that appeared on the typewriter or the paper I was typing on in underlines (italics) and wrote the part of the journal that was unseen, my own words, in regular upper case.
It turned out that the regular upper and lower case words described what I was doing, the CAPITALS gave me orders, and the underlines or italics made comments. This is not 100% true, but mostly so.
The “mostly” of this and all her accounts—indeed, of the clair-style method of writing itself—reflects a grappling, a struggle, a volley of proximate activity that drives these poems forward, each day’s effort shuttling into the next. The effort is not merely a spiritual or philosophical one, despite the teacherly metaphors Weiner uses to describe her visions, but one of materials. Weiner almost has to sculpt the page with her typewriter, depressing it, inking it, rotating it, to create this poetry, which only “mostly” transcribes her vision. Indeed, the words that appear to her are entirely visual; her visions are in fact textual, and yet describing them she sometimes calls them voices. Here we have the reverse predicament of the code poems: rather than losing media, the text seems to have inadvertently gained an audial dimension when it entered the page, since the lyric page, ironically, is usually taken as a representation of speech. Our tendency to discuss the schizophrenic as “hearing voices” here colludes with literary habit to rewrite Weiner’s textual visions as aural—a rewrite she herself performed on the text in directing an electrifying audio recording of the work that included Sharon Mattlin, Peggy De Coursey, Regina Beck and Rochelle Kraut (excerpts of these recordings may be heard online at PennSounds). The contradiction between these different perceptual models is evident in the titles of her books such as Spoke, Silent Teachers / Remembered Sequel, and We Speak Silent.
In his fruitful if cautious introduction, Durgin takes pains to locate Weiner amid a pantheon of innovators, invoking David Antin, Scott Burton, Phillip Glass, Meredith Monk, John Perreualt, Carolee Schneeman, and Andy Warhol and to claim that her innovations were somewhat akin to those of Jackson Mac Low. At the same time, he carefully embeds his own editing projects within those that have preceded him, most directly Barret Watten’s original setting of the Clairvoyant Journals, and he presents his assertions about Weiner as in accord with an interpretive party line. Yet Durgin’s instinct to shut both Weiner and himself up in scholarly lineage, his admirable humility, seems well-intentioned but misplaced. Hannah Weiner’s Open House is a vital contribution to a lively, mixed-media conversation that in its multiplicity captures Weiner’s own indefatigable zeal for formal inquiry and her effort to reproduce in various media the many voices in her life.