Private Languages: David Melnick and Gordon Faylor in Conversation
Back in the late aughts, when Silliman’s Blog served as something of a hub for certain lineages of experimental writing that interested me, I stumbled across a mention of David Melnick, who Ron Silliman knew when they were both living in San Francisco. My burgeoning voraciousness for weird writing led me to the Electronic Poetry Center’s resource page for Melnick, where I found PDFs of several of his books, as well as essays by Silliman and Mark Scroggins on his A Pin’s Fee and Pcoet, respectively. I was awestruck; Louis Zukofsky was my gateway drug into poetry, and Melnick’s work captivated me with its combination of Zukofsky’s compression and a sonorous, jaunty incoherence that (partially) characterizes the Language poets.
Pcoet was published in 1975 by the San Francisco-based G.A.W.K.: nearly every word is of Melnick’s own devising (e.g. “gsoet p indl ieis grapce / cihechoi / biet weep…” “eapsuor thvlwodta / vweavpeb v, xif”), all the while avoiding the trappings of Russian zaum writings. Though sounding out these tiny poems proved challenging, it wasn’t hard to pick up the precise yet undulating patterns in play. The other works that comprise Melnick’s tiny oeuvre — among them Eclogs (Ithaca House, 1972), the first two volumes of Men in Aida (Tuumba Press, 1983; Uitgeverij, 2015), and A Pin’s Fee, which Melnick composed in 1988, marking the self-proclaimed end of his poetic endeavors, are exceptional. Over the years, I’ve returned to these works time and again, finding particular inspiration in their music, their wit, and — in the case of the third volumes of Men in Aida and A Pin’s Fee, both of which were written shortly before the death of his longtime partner — poignancy.
Melnick lives a quiet life in his Lower Haight apartment, where a disability has left him mostly bedridden. I met him there to talk about his life, his work, and why he stopped. To my knowledge, this is the first formal interview with Melnick to be published ever (at eighty-one years young!). Recently, there’s been something of a resurgence of interest in his work: Uitgeverij collected and reprinted all three volumes of Men in Aida in 2014, and the Philadelphia-based Hiding Press will be reissuing A Pin’s Fee later this year.
His only other extant publication is one I’ve neglected to mention thus far, and which is nowhere to be found online. In a 1973 issue of John Taggart’s Maps journal, Melnick performed a bit of metacriticism, writing an essay on Zukofsky’s appraisal of Shakespeare, Bottom: On Shakespeare. That essay, titled “The ‘Ought’ of Seeing: Zukofsky’s Bottom,” examines Zukofsky’s text through various philosophical systems, including those of Aristotle, Plato, and Wittgenstein. One line, in which Melnick describes the function of eyes in Shakespeare, strikes me as something of a statement on his own poetry: “They are proofs, not cures, of passion.” –GF
Gordon Faylor: You grew up in Illinois, correct?
David Melnick: No, I was born in Illinois, but I grew up in Los Angeles.
GF: How old were you when you moved there?
DM: I must have been around six or seven.
GF: Then you went back to Illinois, to Chicago specifically, for school?
DM: Yeah. My last year of high school my parents lived in Ann Arbor, so I went to a school in Ann Arbor, and then I went to University of Chicago for college.
GF: What did you study there?
DM: I started out in math, but I soon departed from that and by the time I graduated in Berkeley years later, it was in English. I completed the dissertation for a PhD at Berkeley and I did write something on Louis Zukofsky.
GF: Right — this is the essay that focused on Shakespeare and Zukofsky’s Bottom? At what point would you say you were drawn toward more experimental poets like Olson and Zukofsky; did you have a particular teacher, or was it just your own discovery of these poets?
DM: Yeah, it was on my own. My friends were influenced by Zukofsky, Ron Silliman and others.
GF: Right. And you met Ron in UC Berkeley —
DM: Early on, 1968. He lived with his wife, who was a student at Berkeley, but he went to San Francisco State and never graduated from there. And then he also attended some classes at Berkeley. I met him at a conference called COSMEP. It was a gathering of small press magazines, editors and contributors, and it was in Berkeley at Dwinelle Hall.
GF: I see. That leads me to a question: I had heard somewhere that you had done some typesetting for Robert Duncan?
DM: Well, I did some typing for Robert Duncan and I guess it amounted to typesetting because what he ended up publishing was a volume of his poems. I forget what the volume was called. But anyway, he used my typing as the typesetting. He published the typescript.
GF: Did you know other people involved in the San Francisco Renaissance?
DM: No, not really — well, now it’s called the San Francisco Renaissance of the ’50s and ’60s. I didn’t really get into the scene until the ’70s. But I knew all the Language poets from the beginning.
GF: Right, right. So Robert Grenier as well? I’m trying to think of who else was out here.
DM: Well, Lyn Hejinian. And many others. Ted Pearson, Tom Mandel, Kit Robinson, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman.
GF: And what was that scene like at that time? Was it mostly formal or informal readings, or more like casual gatherings?
DM: Parties and readings, and we didn’t know each other as the Language poets until the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. And then suddenly everybody was called a Language poet.
GF: Did you feel comfortable or uncomfortable with that term?
DM: I felt comfortable.
GF: Nice, as a means of connecting a scene, perhaps? I know that different people who are considered Language poets have different relationships with that classification, because it enfolds so many different types of practices.
DM: It did, sort of. But there was a common thread. The attention to language as opposed to content.
GF: Right, right. And I can see with a background in math how that might be helpful. Did you study linguistics at all?
DM: Only peripherally. I went to Berkeley (fall of 1963) thinking I’d continue in math, but the first year I took a Shakespeare course and was converted. I had enough math credits to be able to graduate the next year in math; I took a few grad courses in English, then started grad school in English in the fall at Chicago, graduating with an MA in 1966. I went back to Berkeley in 1967, getting an ABD for a PhD, then leaving Berkeley for SF in 1974.
GF: That’s a turn. Did you find the English program to be helpful in your growth as a poet? Or more the extracurricular activity of spending time with poets, or a combination thereof?
DM: Well, it’s the second of those. But I greatly enjoyed the English department at Berkeley, studying Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
GF: And you taught there as well, correct?
DM: Only as an instructor one semester. No, one year I think. I taught a couple of courses of English 1B.
GF: And did you enjoy teaching?
GF: I found a blog post by a former student of yours that sings your praises and says it really got him into poetry.
DM: Well, there were a couple of people I remember. Steve Lavoie, he became a poet. And Laura Leivick, she was very smart and was my teaching assistant.
GF: From what I’ve read, it sounds like your syllabus was quite different from other instructors’.
GF: And you were practically the only person at that time teaching Beat poetics and Olson and Zukofsky and so on.
GF: How did students respond to that?
DM: They liked it. They could look at a reading list while they were signing up — so some of them chose me because of the reading list.
GF: Thinking about this earlier period in your life too, I had a question about something that was in one of your biographies. You invented your own language when you were a kid, yes?
DM: Right. I first started using private language when I was six or seven years old. And then when I was thirteen or fourteen, I had a friend with whom I co-invented a language.
GF: Part of what I’m wondering with this invention of language — or of entire languages — were they meant to be private, a kind of hermetic language, or was there the sense that they could be learned by someone else and universalized?
DM: No, it was very much a private language. I repeated words that had no meaning, but my parents were indulgent and let me and my brothers too; they just kind of registered it and went on their own business.
GF: Do you remember any of those languages?
DM: Words, a few.
GF: Would you mind sharing a few?
DM: I remember “tanda” which was a word I used repeatedly. And then when I was thirteen and had a language with a friend, we had a whole grammar including a word that translated as “I want” or “I like,” quiero in Spanish and “koide” in our language. And “koides” is second person singular, and so forth.
GF: And was this something you practiced regularly with this friend, in school and everywhere?
DM: Yeah, we spoke it all the time to each other.
GF: I take it people must have been very baffled by that.
DM: They were.
GF: That’s great. There must be a certain pride one can take in inventing a language and having it as a secret among friends, like a code.
DM: Well, between friends. Two only.
GF: Was this a friend you kept in touch with?
DM: I saw him when I was twenty-one in Paris, but outside of that one encounter, not after high school.
GF: Speaking of Paris, you’ve done a lot of traveling. Was that during a specific period of time, or was it over the course of years at various times?
DM: Over a course of years starting when I was twenty-one.
GF: Mostly around Europe. How long were you in Greece when you were there?
DM: Well, I didn’t go to Greece until 1978 with my lover, David Doyle. His full name was David Nelson Doyle, born in February 1946, attended Kenyon College, died in July 1992. I met him in July 1974 and we lived together when we moved to the city later that same summer. And then we spent months and months, a total of maybe a year in Greece over the years.
GF: I’ve read somewhere that you picked up the language by way of reading the newspaper.
DM: Greek? Just very slowly, very few words. I didn’t really pick up the language as such.
GF: And when you were there, was that where the seed for Men in Aida came?
GF: And were you reading Homer at that time?
DM: No, that came in the ’80s with Robert Duncan’s little Homer group. We read The Iliad only phonetically. We didn’t translate it.
GF: Wow. What other kinds of things did you read in that group?
DM: Only Homer. We called ourselves the Homersexuals. [Laughter]
GF: Well that certainly describes the project [Men in Aida, which is a homophonic translation of The Iliad] that sprung from that, for sure. And how many people were in that group? Anyone else whose name I might recognize?
GF: Aaron Shurin was in it, wow. That’s great. So you were relatively close with Duncan then, it would seem.
DM: Well, I was a fan.
GF: And it sounds like he was generous with his time, in terms of allowing you to work with his own material, inviting you to this reading group —
GF: So I’d like to move on to a question about public or private readings of your poetry. Did you read or perform pretty regularly in the ’70s and ’80s?
DM: I gave poetry readings, pretty regularly — every couple of months.
GF: And were you mostly reading from Eclogs at that time?
DM: Yeah, although by the beginning of the ’80s I could read PCOET.
GF: I was wondering about PCOET as well, with respect to performance, and whether the words you invented in that book are meant to be pronounced in a very specific way?
GF: So they’re not open to interpretation.
DM: Acoustically, no. But inevitably so, because I don’t read it aloud anymore.
GF: Right, for sure.
DM: But in the first couple of years, I did. So there’s a group of people who can remember how it was pronounced.
GF: Wow. Are there any recordings of those readings?
DM: I doubt it.
GF: And when was the last time you performed?
DM: It has to have been in the ’80s.
GF: Wow, that long ago. Did you attend many poetry events in San Francisco after that?
DM: Yeah. Well, I went to readings continually until the end of the ’80s, the beginning of the ’90s.
GF: What changed that you stopped going in the ’90s?
DM: I just stopped going.
GF: You just lost interest in the form?
DM: No, not in the form, just in the group.
GF: I see. I have to say, it’s fascinating to me, in general, when poets cease writing. It happens occasionally — at a certain time in their lives, poets will just stop and say, “I’m finished with this.”
GF: And A Pin’s Fee is your last work, correct?
DM: A Pin’s Fee, yes. That was my last work, and it was published…
GF: Nineteen eighty-eight is what I have here.
DM: It was?
GF: Yeah, A Pin’s Fee, ’88. So I guess this raises the question for me of whether you see your canon, so to speak — your collection of books — as a kind of closed system? Do you feel like A Pin’s Fee brought some kind of finality that led you to want to stop?
DM: I didn’t want to write after that.
GF: Would you mind elaborating a little bit as to why? Was it just exhaustion or an intuitive decision, losing the feeling that drove the other works?
DM: That was a time when I became involved with my job at the Chronicle and as a copy editor and so I lost interest in my own work.
GF: Because you were dealing with text all day, perhaps?
GF: And how long were you at the Chronicle?
DM: From 1984 to 2000.
GF: Wow, that’s a long time.
DM: Well, there were a couple of gaps, but essentially.
GF: I wanted to ask as well about your relationship to music, which it seems, given the sonorous quality of your work, there is some connection. Is that so? During the ’70s and ’80s, what kind of music were you listening to?
DM: Classical music, as I had all my life.
GF: And which composers in particular were you drawn to?
DM: Just the basics, you know, the usual. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and others. Opera too, a lot of opera.
GF: Do you play any instruments?
DM: I played the violin from childhood through high school and beyond. But I gave it up in my twenties.
GF: To focus on poetry instead?
DM: No, just to give it up.
GF: Just to give it up. I see. Do you still listen to these works as well?
DM: Yeah, on YouTube.
GF: It’s a great resource for these things.
DM: It is. Do you listen to music?
GF: I certainly do, quite a bit of it.
DM: What kinds?
GF: A lot of contemporary music, but I try to listen to as much as I can. Were you an avid concert goer in the ’70s through ’90s?
DM: I was.
GF: Any stand-out performances that come to mind?
DM: Yeah, in the opera. Leonie Rysanek as Chrysothemis, and Danica Mastilović as Elektra. But also in symphony, Bruno Walter at the Hollywood Bowl. He was wonderful. I used to go back after the performance to say hello.
GF: In terms of reading, do you keep up at all with contemporary literature?
DM: No. No.
GF: You do have a fair number of books in your apartment. Do you return to people like Zukofsky and Olson, or the Language poets?
DM: No. What I read now is the news. I don’t read poetry.
GF: And do you watch much cinema?
DM: Cinema? Well, on TV from Netflix.
GF: So are you watching older films or newer things, or both? And do you have any favorite directors or films?
DM: Both. I loved Marcel Carné, who directed Children of Paradise and others.
GF: Yes, that’s a beautiful movie. And are you fluent enough in French to be able to watch those without subtitling? Do you speak any other languages somewhat fluently?
DM: I’m barely fluent enough in French to watch French movies without subtitles, but only barely, so I prefer them with subtitles. Spanish was my mother’s native tongue, so I learned it in high school, but not very well. I took two years of Spanish, to the point where I could get along in Spain as a tourist speaking tourist Spanish. I can conduct a more serious conversation in French. But not a very extensive one.
GF: Your mother was raised in Spain?
DM: No, she was born in Constantinople, Turkey, in a Spanish-Jewish quarter, and so she spoke Spanish only for the first few years of her life.
GF: I see. And did she meet your father here?
DM: In the United States. In Urbana, Illinois.
GF: What brought her out there?
DM: Well, her parents moved there when she was three. Her ancestors were Sephardic Jewish in Turkey for centuries and moved to America (in 1907?) as part of the huge migration of the first decade of the twentieth century. I didn’t ask my mother whether her parents considered staying in Turkey, though I’ve read that some did and still live there. Same with my father — born in Poland and his parents (Yiddish-speaking) came to America in 1903, when he was two years old.
GF: And were you raised Jewish?
DM: Oh yeah.
GF: Bar mitzah-ed and everything?
GF: Do you still have any attachment to the religion?
DM: Not really. I mean, culturally yes, doctrinally no.
GF: So you still keep in touch with Ron Silliman. You said that he visited you last year. Do you have a regular correspondence with him going?
DM: No, but when we do, it feels natural.
GF: Yeah, you guys go way back.
DM: Fifty years almost. No, more than fifty years. 1968.
GF: He’s almost been the most vocal advocate of your work as well. That’s how I originally discovered you.
DM: I think so.
GF: It’s great, I mean, he’s got a pretty sizable audience. I remember in the early 2000s, his blog was something of a connective tissue between different poetry communities. Are there any other people, any other language poets that you keep in touch with? Like Lyn Hejinian?
DM: I don’t keep in touch with her. But if she does write me, I write her back. Rae Armantrout also is a closer friend than Lyn.
GF: One thing I was wondering as well, because the third volume of Men in Aida was just published in 2015 and prior had not been published in print: Are there any other manuscripts?
GF: Not even single poems?
GF: So everything is in print now?
GF: Wow. And you feel that it’s complete in this way, to repeat an earlier question, I suppose. You feel that your work is complete.
DM: Yeah. I have no interest in writing anything else. I am eighty years old.
GF: It’s interesting to me, because I know quite a few poets my age — and younger — who are really enamored of your work.
DM: That’s wonderful.
GF: I think it has a kind of alien texture that holds up really beautifully and there is — like in Zukofsky, this kind of hardened, crystalline quality to it. When you were composing those works, did you see precision as being extremely important?
DM: Well, it came naturally, precision.
GF: But that was always in the background of your work, to some extent?
DM: I guess, I don’t think of it as a controlling goal. But it was — it happened as it happened.
GF: You said that you read a lot of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. What other poets from that time were important to you?
DM: Elizabethan poets: Spenser, Donne, Herbert. There are three. And Shakespeare, of course.
GF: Yes, for sure. Were there any Shakespeare plays, or sonnets, that were of particular importance to you?
DM: All of Shakespeare.
GF: All of Shakespeare, all of it.
DM: I ended up reading every play and every poem.
GF: And within the Language poet scene in the ’70s and ’80s, did you get a sense that your friends were also interested in that — in Elizabethan poetry?
GF: That’s the impression I got as well, which is why I ask. It seems that most of the poets were much more connected to experimental American writing from the early half of the twentieth century. Did you face any hostility on that front?
GF: So it sounds like it was a pretty accepting scene then, in terms of taste. Was there any writing or art at that time that you were working against in some way? A counterpoint?
DM: Well, the old-fashioned American poetry of the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s even was something to laugh at and take a different direction from.
GF: And that writing seems to have dominated a lot of journals at that time as well.
DM: Yeah. Well it still does.
GF: It’s true, yeah. Just in a different form.
I apologize if this is too personal, but it seems to me that David [Doyle’s] passing was incredibly difficult for you.
DM: At the time, yeah.
GF: I see. Through my work at SFMOMA, we recently published a series on New Narrative writers like Robert Glück and Bruce Boone and so forth, and it really deepened my sense for what a shattering time the ’80s was, especially in the gay community, especially in the Bay. Did you ever overlap at all with the New Narrative writers, are you friends with any of them?
DM: Well, not really under that name. But I knew Bruce Boone and Robert Glück.
GF: It’s interesting to compare your work to New Narrative, because New Narrative tends toward experimentation with autobiography. Would you consider your own work autobiographical in any way?
DM: Well, not really. Even the earliest. Not really, no.
GF: It’s much more about the formal quality of language.
DM: Well, also in the earliest work, romantic lyrics. But not autobiographically so. Heartfelt, but not autobiographical.