The Operating System

5th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 28 :: Bob Holman on Bill Knott

[box]It’s hard to believe that this is 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.
Enjoy! And share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/box]


[script_teaser]In today’s special edition of our poetry month series we have a candid, unedited conversation between editor Lynne DeSilva-Johnson and Bob Holman, who wanted to share with us the great influence Bill Knott’s poetry — and approach to his craft — has had on his life. There’s a short piece on Knott’s work below, too – with links and text, so much more to explore.[/script_teaser][line]
To say Bill Knott was “not” is to say that Bill Knott was a complicated figure – perhaps understood (and remembered) best through the things he refused to do or be, and the actions taken on that behalf. For someone whose blog, where this series started, was called “The Trouble With Bartleby” because I felt akin to the figure who would prefer not to, and whose choices (including the OS) stem from creating alternatives that allow me to not, I feel a great affinity for this poet, for this man, and feel great gratitude for the opportunity to steep myself in his work, and talk for even a half hour with dear friend and co-conspirator Bob Holman about his impact.
According to…himself…(and Bob) Knott was both beloved and deplored, influential and forgotten, brashly outspoken and quite shy. He wrote copiously, and perhaps more than anyone in memory spoke directly to and about his outrage with a system that continuously rejected and belittled those efforts, including this experience not only in conversation and liner notes, but indeed in the work itself.
Thanks to the evergreen nature of the interwebs, at least for now you can still avail yourself of Knott’s multiple blogs: Knott ArtKnott Poetry, and Knott Blog.
I can say quite honestly that having never visited these sites before, I’m doubly grateful for Bob’s decision to draw our attention to Knott today. “Knott Art” is a remarkable archive of the poet’s prodigious visual output, in a wide variety of mediums, including quite early digital media explorations.
On “Knott Poetry,” the poet has created collages of his many rejection letters, as well as printing others in their entirety. Indeed, this sub-blog is not poetry, but rather quite a stark depiction of the experience of the poet’s life, for the majority who don’t find themselves and/or their work accepted remotely as frequently as they receive these letters. The title text reads:[line]
[articlequote]a few hundred of the thousands of rejection slips i’ve got over the years—why I spent so much time trying to do something which the 20-30 pages below show I had no talent for, is a mystery to me—just more evidence (if any were needed) to prove what a futile waste my life was—[/articlequote][line]
And, yet, on “Knott Blog”, with entries right up until the poet’s death in March of 2014, you’ll find poems in progress, no-holds-barred commentary on the publishing and literary community/industry, and also links to download pdf’s of two of his many, many self published books, Where Modern Poetry Began and Other Prose Conjectures, and Selected Political Poems (which you should go do NOW, while you can.) Bob has at least a dozen of these efforts, as you’ll see in our video conversation — and I think you’ll agree that this is only scratching the surface of a life that was anything but futile.
While the self-publishing conversation has gotten more and more press in recent years, and while of course there is a long tradition of poets and others self-publishing through printers or hand making chapbooks or other books, the singular thing about these books is that they don’t shy away from including in their pages the context and impetus of their making – a poet’s ongoing frustration with rejection and the ongoing commitment to keep producing in the face of not being recognized, not winning awards, being passed over time and again. Luckily he held a teaching position for many years at Emerson College which allowed him some security but his struggle is one so many of us share, and it’s extraordinarily refreshing to find someone who — while described as rather receding in public — quite boldly in his craft/practice was willing to not take no for an answer.
For someone born in 1940, it’s rather remarkable how unfazed he was by the notion of digital media, in his art practice, via his blogs, and via creating his own means of virtual distribution of his work (even posthumously), without help from the cooperative economy platforms with which we’re now familiar — I recognize in him something in myself: a determination that doesn’t understand ordinary dialogue around limitation. When possibility presents itself, you figure it out, because there isn’t another option – all strategies must be assayed.
Please avail yourself of the opportunity to read his words, check out his visual art, and consider how you can be more kNOTt in your life and practice. Below I’ll leave you with “Corpse and Beans,” from 1970, which Bob mentions early on in our interview. You can find the full text for “Ant Dodger,” which we’ve read in the video above, here, where you also get Bill Knott reading (and commenting) on the poem and its publication himself.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson
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Spoken-word poet and arts activist Bob Holman was born in Harlan, Kentucky, and grew up in Ohio. He earned a BA at Columbia University and also studied at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project with Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Bernadette Mayer.
A central figure in the New York City spoken-word poetry community, Holman founded the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002, served as slammaster at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe from 1988 to 1996, and coordinated the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from 1977 to 1984. With linguists Daniel Kaufman and Juliette Blevins, he founded the Endangered Language Alliance in New York City. Holman has also served as artistic director of the nonprofit Bowery Arts + Science. Founder of the spoken-word label Mouth Almighty/Mercury, Holman produced the PBS series The United States of Poetry and several audio recordings of his own work, including The Awesome Whatever (2007). He has taught at Columbia University and New York University.
In his work, Holman often explores sexuality and art with humor and boldness and writes with performance in mind. In an interview, he stated, “When you’re performing poetry, that’s also part of the creative process. It’s not just a presentation of a finished piece. … Writing a poem continues as you perform it.”
He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Picasso in Barcelona(2011), Bob Holman’s The Collect Call of the Wild (1995), and Tear to Open: This This This … (1979). He coedited the collaboration Crossing State Lines: An American Renga(2011, with Carol Muske-Dukes), The United States of Poetry (1996, with Joshua Blum and Mark Pellington), and ALOUD! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (1994, with Miguel Algarin). Numerous anthologies have included his work, including Spoken Word Revolution (2003), Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (2001), and Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970 (1988). He cotranslated The Book of Sana’a: Poetry of Abd Al-aziz Al-maqalih (2004, with Sam Liebhaber) and also translated poet Er Zhang’s Carved Water (2003).
Holman’s honors include the Elizabeth Kray Poetry Award from Poets House, the New York Public Library Minerva Award, Poets & Writers/Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, the Before Columbus American Book Award, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s Legend Award, and a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
A selection of his recordings is held at the Fales Library at New York University. Holman lives in New York City.[line][line]
Lynne DeSilva-Johnson is a slinger of image, text, sound, and code, a frequent collaborator across a wide range of disciplines, a community activist, and a regular curator of events in NYC and beyond. She has served as an adjunct in the CUNY system for a decade, and as a K-12 teaching artist around NYC since 2001. She graduated with a double BA in Fine Arts and Anthropology-Sociology from Swarthmore College, has a Masters Degree in Urban Design from CCNY and is ABD for her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the CUNY Graduate Center. As a social practice artist and poet, Lynne has appeared at The Dumbo Arts Festival, Naropa University, Bowery Arts and Science, The NYC Poetry Festival, Eyebeam, Poets House, Undercurrent Projects, Mellow Pages, The New York Public Library, The Poetry Project, Industry City Distillery, Independent Curators International, and the Cooper Union, among others. She began blogging in 2003 and has been deeply involved in citizen journalism initiatives both online and off since that time. Lynne serves as a contributing editor at the 23-year old, East Village based Boog City, and is the founder and managing editor of The Operating System, an arts organization and independent publisher based in Brooklyn, where her family has lived since the 1890’s.
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