Steve Benson and Jackson Mac Low

A collaborative improvisation for New Langton Arts
San Francisco, CA, 1/26/96


PROCESS NOTE: The transcript here titled as “HERE & NOW / KNOWAIR” represents the second of two collaborative improvisations Jackson and I performed orally at a reading in San Francisco early in 1996, at the invitation of Kit Robinson. (Jackson and I also performed a similar collaboration as part of a joint San Francisco reading thirteen years earlier; it is recorded on a videotape available through the San Francisco Poetry Center archives.) We had discussed once in late November 1995 at his New York City apartment how we might do something together as we anticipated the reading we were to give at New Langton Arts in January. We decided to do an improvisatory collaborative piece at the end of each set.
While I believe that Jackson’s set consisted entirely of poems from The Forties on that evening, my notes say only that I “read in a series of ‘clouds’ w/ 3 intervals of 5-min. taped material faded up + down behind me (a. world music, b. Southern women writers, c. my voice).” Of what these “clouds” consisted I no longer recall, but I remember being very doubtful of the quality of my presentation while it was underway.

Writing in a journal in an Albany, NY, airport, on the morning before the reading: “My fantasy and imagination for the reading I’ll do in S.F. tonight (11pm EST, when I’m usually well asleep, after rising as usual at 6 this morning) seem to me vaguer and less organized around a strongly charged wish than any I’ve done since the (to me) unfortunate Ear Inn reading (in 1993?) during my internship. However, the image of clouds bursting/shifting makes sense and connects with the ideas of free drift and discharge and of an activity-in-surrender-to (interpersonal and/or intrapsychic) conditions that informs my method persistently these days . . . always? This day’s flight sequence, in acceptance of transit and of herding beyond my control, is, I hope, going to serve as an occasion for meditation, rehearsal, and refinement of the evening’s plan.”
Unfortunately my notes don’t document clearly what each of us was reading or drawing on in our choice of words in this performance, but clearly we were either reading from our own manuscripts of the evening’s reading or from one another’s or from notes we may have taken while listening to one another (but no such notes survive in my files). What I do remember our planning and intending was that we would listen attentively for our separate voices and whatever sense of shared or congruent voicings might emerge.
In one of a sequence of letters between us months later, as I was preparing precise transcripts of these two collaborations (the other of which has appeared in print in the first issue of Crayon, under the title “KNOWAIR / HERE & NOW”) and Jackson was offering assiduous corrections to my mis-hearings of his words (e.g., “as they talk” for “in hedgehogs,” “avrezilian” for “of resilient” or “tacitae” for “Tasaday”), Jackson appeared convinced that the final one and a half pages of this piece included nothing he himself could possibly have said, because he did not find any of the words in searching through two merge files of Forties 60 through 120. He insisted that he “didn’t say anything that isn’t in those poems. Even the separated syllables and phonemes come from them.” Jackson’s own personal tape-recording of the reading ends about half-way through this improvisation. I wrote back that I recalled wondering at the time whether he was deliberately diverging from his manuscript (which, of course, at that time I knew only in a few sections), but that I myself had been “exhausted, nervous, and fairly perplexed” by that final presentation of the evening. He suspected that I had made errors owing to “the fact that—to [his] ears—we sound amazingly alike,” and he suggested we “just do away with the separation between our two portions of the speeches. . . . Or maybe you can keep the separations but make it clear in an introduction that I may not have said some of the words ascribed to me because ‘it’s nearly impossible….’” In any case, he urged me to proceed: “It’s a good poem, so try to save it. Maybe who said what is much less important than the text as a whole. Just view it as a ‘collective’ production [to use an archaic usage].”
From my review of our correspondence (which does not document any actual resolution of the controversy discussed above), both Jackson and I increasingly leaned toward wanting both voices to be transcribed in the same rather than different typefaces. This evening I have revised for this on-line publication the 1996 transcript manuscript in which Jackson’s words appear in a bold typeface and mine in a regular typeface, somewhat reorganizing their presentation in space and eliminating any difference in fonts between the two voices. In so doing, I have also corrected more mis-hearings, on my own authority. Listening to it again, I was more fully moved and grateful than ever for Jackson’s sharing with all of us assembled there and by the gravity and playfulness he embodied in relation to the interactions of the occasion of our being here and now, as then and there.
Now the reader may listen, and here the listener may read.
Steve Benson
Surry, Maine
January 2, 2006