Twenty-Six Does Not Always Exist

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by David Pritchard, Hannah Brooks-Motl, Emily Hunt, Sarah Boyer, Ted Powers, Bryan Beck, Sara Majka, Leora Fridman, Ben Estes, Joanna Novak, Liana Quill, Stella Corso, & Michele Christle


In January 2008, Noah Eli Gordon entered the Denver Public Library and for 21 months read only page 26 of countless books, ultimately using the language he encountered to create his prose cento The Source(Futurepoem Books 2011). The only loophole Noah allowed himself was the freedom to replace any noun in the language he found with ‘The Source.’

In February 2012, we asked Noah 26 (or so) questions. We asked them independently of each other. We each wrote part of the following introduction independently of each other. We were each our own source. Noah graciously indulged us. Here is what transpired.

Here lies The Source.

To write The Source Noah celebrated

never allowing a line of inquiry regarding

his process or product on your shelf.

So too does Gordon cultivate,

between obligation and delegation,

a careful indeterminancy,

a door to close fully.

The Source, likes all sources

touches on multiple notes

and their smell and a tornado.

Just as The Source playfully inhabits

the authority to exhaust this very thing,

Noah answers is it writing.

Gordon making himself do something to exhaust it

should be revered, but also set to cool

in your pocket — on occasion, inappropriately.

Referenced often amongst its fellow sources,

here is a writer writing to readers regarding

a text he has read in order to write

(and which has now been read.)

We may have asked Noah too many questions.


Question: In an introduction to The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, (New Directions, 1954, 1966, revised, reset edition, 7th printing, translated by Jacques Barzun) you will find:

In working on Bouvard Flaubert consulted—-or had helpers abstract for him—over a thousand works of reference or instruction, from which he culled the enormities that enliven the pages of that novel and that were also to fill out its documentary sequel……But the systematic hunt………..became dangerous to the hunter and his plan.

Were you aware of any dangers as you built The Source?

Noah Eli Gordon: The main branch of the Denver Public Library, where I built The Source, can indeed be a dangerous place. It’s a beautiful building. The interior atrium has a series of paintings by Ed Ruscha that were specifically designed for the space. They’re amazing, and I got to spend day after day living with them. But there’s something about the spaciousness, about the inviting architecture and its cleanliness of form at odds with what you sometimes find inside: guys openly surfing porn on the computers, teenagers shooting dope, folks who you can smell from about 100 feet away.Yes, Denver’s already known for its problems with homelessness, but there’s another public dilemma that’s (for some reason) everywhere on display at the library: a big Juggalo scene.

Actually, one day there was a tornado emergency there. Everyone in the library had to move to the center of the building, away from the windows. They were even telling people outside to come in. It was sort of exciting. So that’s one facet of the danger, I suppose. And then there were the standard metaphysical dangers that accompany giving one’s self over to any project that more or less consumes a huge portion time—the dangers of waste and worth, those that bring on questions of doubt: Is there value in this? I mean, I was spending about four hours a day, every other day, for nearly two years, at the library. I’ve always thought that art is work, but this really started to feel like a job, like I was clocking in, like whomever I shared the library with were my co-workers. I suppose there was also the danger of being so completely immersed in one particular method that one wonders: will I be able to write in other ways after this? Is this even writing? Of course, some form of this kind of danger bores itself into most projects; no matter how porous they start to feel, I think the real key is simply finishing them. There were days when I just dreaded having to work on The Source, when I wanted to do anything but. And yet, even the fact that I say having to is telling, no? Did I really have to? Well, no. No, and yes. Okay, yes. Absolutely yes. Ah, and absolutes are always dangerous.

Question: Imagining you sitting down to write—-Did it feel different writing this book than your other books?  Did the creative moments feel similar to you?

NEG: No matter what I’m working on, an essay, a poem, a review, there’s this space of uber-thought I have to still my mind enough to curdle into, and it always feels the same, regardless of the scope of the work at hand. I think the real difference withThe Source was in the physicality of it, that it was something I also did with my body, walking to the library, moving through the stacks, cradling books by the armful—this was fun. Mostly, writing isn’t fun for me; I often dread it, feel like it’s a burden, and purposely construct in the form of unnecessary tasks barriers between myself and the writing I nonetheless want to do. I mean, painters and musicians get to stand up, move their arms around, dancers are all over the place, filmmakers are always pivoting themselves this way and that, even glassblowers arch their backs. But we poor lot? We’re condemned to the desk. Honestly, I think one of the major thrusts behind this book was that it gave me an excuse to get out of the house.

From book to book, I’ve made it a point to radically shift what it is I’m doing. There’s a learning curve with each of these shifts that lasts pretty much for the entirety of the project. This is to say, once I know how to do something, I’m no longer all that interested in doing it. I think I just feed off of the challenge of having to completely recalibrate my working methods; so yes, it felt different to write this book, but that feeling of difference is the same one I have with each new book.

Question: In the way you chose material only from the 26th page of each book, did you invent any strategies for choosing the books?  Was it according to aesthetic appeal, subject matter, favorite floor of the library…..or was it completely random?  How did you organize the gathering of your materials, did you read in sections (26th pages of all the YA, then the SciFi, etc.)?  How do you think the order in which you read the pages influenced the final product?

NEG: I wanted the vector of each sentence to carry simultaneously something of the ineffable, the epigrammatic, and the innocuous everydayness of the known and noun worlds. Although their methods diverge widely and wildly, the sentences in The Source aren’t all that different from those in, say, Novel Pictorial Noise, a book, incidentally, I wrote mostly in the Smith College library, but in what Peter Gizzi, quoting Ted Berrigan, calls the old fashion way: “one word after the other.” This is to say it’s not a sampled, constructed, or procedural text. Anyhow, with The Source, in order to get the sentences to take off, variation was totally vital.

I guess I should explain something else first though. Although here and there, a few complete sentences were taken from source material, for the most part, I’d pull out bits, phrases, half a sentence, a clause, three words in a row, so most of the individual sentences in The Source actually represent multiple sources; they’re pulled from three, four, or even ten different places. The Source was written by hand in a single notebook. I’d shoot for half a page to a full page per session, which meant I was reading through about one hundred or so books.

I’d walk the stacks at the library, run my hand along the books, pulling out four or five from the philosophy section, two or three from religion, a couple from literary theory, a manual on gun repair, a treatise on dryland farming techniques, a how-to book on fly fishing, someone’s collected letters, the biography of a president or two, a book on Bruce Lee, one on the L.A. riots, another on the history of the candy bar. Eventually, I’d wobble my way to a table, unload the pile, and set to work. This meant opening the notebook, finding the syntax I’d left off on—just to have it in my head, so I knew what I was hunting for (or at least knew what might match up with the pitch of the sentence I was looking to finish), and then I’d read. And read. And read. You’d be surprised how many books don’t have a page 26! Sometimes it’s a chapter break, sometimes a photograph (although I’m sure I used a caption or two). About 75 percent of the time, no matter how fascinating to move through, and how marvelously ambient to be in medias res ad infinitum, page 26—for the purposes of my project—was utterly useless.

But, yes, variation was really important. I always went to multiple sections, always wanted the thing to be saturated by a stylistic cacophony of both voice and content. And yet, perhaps not surprisingly, I ended up selecting language that really wasn’t all that different from what I’d write myself. I can’t help it. I’m drawn toward this sort of stilted, yet loopy and spiraling Heideggerian sytax; I like it when the sentence is crammed so full of clausal asides and additions that even at midday, in direct sun, the subject would be hard-pressed to cast a shadow on the predicate. And, as in other aspects of life, I steered pretty clear of the fiction section.

Question: Did you at any point consider maintaining or including a bibliography of all of your sources in The Source?

NEG: Oh yes! Good God yes! I really wish I had one. The problem is I thought of doing this only after I’d already written the thing. But I’ve discovered a sort of interesting game one can play with Google Book Search: plugging in a clause here and there will lead to The Source’s source texts; given the time (or inclination), one could reverse engineer the book this way. Michael Leong dabbled with this a bit in his very astute review here:

Question: Was there ever a point when you thought, I’m not sure I want to keep to the limits of the prompt I’ve assigned myself?  If so, what made you stick to it?

NEG: Yes, yes there was, but I (mostly) stuck to those limits. In fact, there’s a sort of irony in that term when it comes to artistic production, as “limits” are often the very thing able to launch one’s work into previously uncharted territory. You push against them and the sparks ignite something wholly new, something you were theretofore unable to accomplish.  The other day one of my colleagues, Cheryl Higashida, gave a fascinating talk that dealt with some of the early improvisational jazz recordings. She mentioned, via Benjamin, how the limits of the mechanical reproduction of these sessions (the duration of the performance was dictated by the amount of time a 78 rpm record could hold) not only impacted but pretty much sculpted what we know of as jazz today. So limits are sometimes liberating, no? Anyhow, with a project like this, what helped me was the fact that I was concurrently working on a memoir of sorts, another kind of source text, albeit one constructed from memory rather than trips to the library.

Question: The context of the source material for The Source has been so comprehensively removed that I cannot guess from where the language was originally culled.  Rarely, if ever, is a new concrete (which is to say narrative) context created with settings characters, proper nouns, etc. How important was it to you to cut the language from its roots, or did it happen naturally?  Was it a conscious decision to let the poems exist in a liminal space between the world of its original context and the world its ideas and abstractions implicate?

NEG: Yes, this cutting from the root was a conscious decision. I’m glad to hear that there aren’t too many tracks left by those original sources. I mentioned earlier that I avoided using straight ahead fiction while I was collecting and culling language, and think this is in part responsible for the lack of that narrative you mention. Instead, I wanted each sentence to impose a kind of will that would extend into and mesh with the sentence immediately following it but that would then pretty much dissolve. Thus, the will (the intention, the argument, the subjective underpinnings, etc.) of each sentence, in my mind, functions as a sort of equivalent of the terza rima stanza, interlocking with and then escaping from what comes afterward. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. It’s all evaporative.

QuestionThe Source seems to function differently from other found language collections, and a large reason for this seems to be that allowing yourself to insert ‘The Source’ in place of nouns gives you, as the author, more control over the intent and meaning of the found language.  When constructing The Source did you find yourself inhabiting the same mindset as you would were you writing a poem on a blank piece of paper?  Did you find yourself attempting to use the same mechanisms you might use in a poem built ‘from scratch’…were you trying to create the same relationships between sentences?  Conversely, how was the process unique?

NEG: That’s a thicket of questions in one, a cluster of questions—a pattern emerges; and here I thought I was only in for 26! The mindset, hmmm. Well, yes, I was in a sense inhabiting the same mindset. Sometimes one writes a line, waits, hopes the next will reveal itself, all the while rejecting dozens of possibilities. While working on this book, the same sort of process was at play, sort of. Instead of those things entering via some kind of internal, contemplative welling up, I simply looked for them in the pages I was reading. I’d leave the syntax of whatever phrase I’d just copied down totally open, maybe it would end with something like “the truth of what then” and so I’d search for the next ligament to the sentence. What can I fuse onto that final “then” that’ll really add some torque? Book after book, and one often finds—nothing; it was frustrating at times. And yet, what a gift to be able to sample so much! I do think that the more one reads, the more broadly one reads, the more one internalizes various sentence structures. That I was fulfilling the dream of reading and writing simultaneously felt alchemical, clandestine, liberating.

Question: Were any of the books sourced for The Source written by writers you despise? Did you “like” any of the voices/sources you were using better than others?  Hate any?  Why? What was it like to play with their work? Were there sources you threw out? Why?

NEG: I used to despise things, but that was when I was in my twenties and thought I knew something; now I know I know very little, can learn from everything, and, in fact, want to. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s some language from Mein Kampf in The Source! But yes, there were a lot of books that were wholly unfruitful. This was occasionally simply because I couldn’t link up whatever phrase I was searching to complete with the text at hand.

You know, there were some rich discoveries along the way, one of the real pleasures of making this book. Sure, I’d read page 26 of everything in front of me, but there were many many books that I’d continue reading, check out from the library, eventually buy a copy for myself. For example, before The Source, I was only vaguely aware of Marcel Bénabou, aware of him as one of the Oulipo crew, though I’d certainly never read any of his books. How beautifully serendipitous then to come across a book called Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books while I was, well, “not writing” one of my books! For the benefit of those who haven’t yet seen it, I ended up using this as one of The Source’s epigraphs:

They exist in libraries by word, by groups of words, by entire sentences in certain cases. But they are surrounded by so much empty filler and trapped in such an overabundance of printed matter that I myself, truth be told, have not yet succeeded, despite my best efforts, in isolating them and putting them together.

—Marcel Bénabou, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books

Question: Do you have a list of replaced nouns?  Could you tell us some of the ones that you particularly remember or which stick out to you?

NEG: Nope. I didn’t save anything like that.  For such a systematically constructed work, I was very unsystematic in a lot of ways.  Funny, though, when I asked Marjorie Perloff to blurb the book, she graciously did so, but also said, “I like the idea of your book very much, my one slight caveat being the transformation of nouns into the word SOURCE. Not sure quite what justifies that tampering with the texts.  But—it’s all very interesting.” I told her, as I’ll tell you, that the secret influence on The Source was a little book by Mark Strand called The Monument, where he weaves into the prose bits of quotation and continually references this enigmatic monument, something that is both the text at hand and some undefined, future translation of the same text. If I wouldn’t have changed the nouns, I don’t think the book would have held together in the way (I hope) it does.

Question: Do you think there is a relation between your very determined project and the almost determination-less surrealist modes?  i.e. Does chance still play a role in the poetics? Is surprise desirable or a conscious presence in the making of this?  & why?

NEG: Here I’ll point toward the book itself to adduce your question. Please turn to page 110. Okay, now, there—that last sentence, that one there, read aloud: “The Source has nothing to do with Surrealism.

Question: Do you have an awareness of a particular “voice” with which you write that shaped this process? e.g. if you do think in terms of voice, did you consciously try to shape these into that, or try to deviate from it?  & why?

NEG: Does one ever write with one’s voice? Isolated, examined, turned over, it’s such a weird word to be so ubiquitously deployed in the discourse around poetry, and yet, it is. It’s there, and, I suppose, one has to contend with it. I’ll operate, then, under the assumption that it means some sort of indelible mark upon one’s work that is unique and recognizable, yet subtle—something like a fingerprint, at once traceable and remotely mysterious.  That said, in hindsight, I suppose I did look for something familiar, something of my own, something that I myself might write, while pawing through all those library books. I don’t think, at the time, it was a wholly conscious search, but given the way a lot of the diction and syntax in The Source isn’t all that different from some of my other work, I’m sure I was invariable drawn toward this sort of familiar language. Talk about turning the write-what-you-know dictum on its head: read for what you wrote; repurpose (the fancy term for theft these days) what already fits perfectly in the palm of your hand. We’re all readers before we’re writers, right?

QuestionThe Source is, for all intents and purposes that I can discern, a collection of epigraphs that have shed the ties that usually bind them to the beginning of the book.  With that in mind, why did you include the more conventional epigraphs at the beginning of the book?  Why did you choose to present citations of those and not for the rest of the book?

NEG: I think the book is a lot more than that. I hope it is. I see your point if the work were simply pulling things wholesale from their original context and just changing a noun, but that’s not what I did. There are some sentences in The Source that have five, six, seven, ten different sources. I guess the note I appended in the back of the book isn’t totally clear about this. And I do hope that there’s a sense of inevitability to the forward thrust of the prose, that it reads with purpose, intention.

I should say that I’ve come to totally regret the framing of the book. I sent it to Futurepoem without any process note, without any indication of how I’d written it, and it was accepted like that for publication. When I met Kim Rosenfield, one of the board members that year at Futurepoem responsible for marshaling the book into the world, I told both her and Rob Fitterman about the process behind it. They convinced me to include a note stating as much in the book. I don’t mean to suggest that they were super adamant or aggressive about it or anything, rather they seemed genuinely excited, which makes sense, given their allegiance to and spokespersonship of the burgeoning field of conceptual poetry. I mean, here was more fodder for that, right? As much as I dig conceptual writing, and have done several projects in that vein, with several others still in the works, I’m also just as apt to write a sonnet, a laconic lyric poem, or an absurdist prose piece. I don’t believe in one steadfast approach to writing. My interests are too peripatetic for that. That said, the problem now with The Source, because of my note and the blurbs, is that it’s only discussed as an idea, not a text, and I think of it as very much a text, one I shaped incessantly. If I could go back, I’d ditch all the scaffolding.

Question: Did any sense of ownership develop as you were putting this book together?  How….what was the quality of that?

NEG: Yes, sure. It’s inherently an artistic and creative act to fuse together disparate fragments of the artistic and creative acts of others. The Source has an author, not an editor.

Question: In your note on process you state that you believe “that rigid and systemic modes of writing can embody an emotionally charged engagement with the world.”  Moreover, in the praises that open the book, Kenneth Goldsmith states that you have proven that “writing still has the potential to be personal, meaningful and spiritual without our ever having written a word of it.”  How do you go forward as a writer after The Source?  That is, can you be as enthused about the words you write yourself while also believing that existing texts can offer as much as anything you might individually—as much as possible—create?

NEG: Does a writer ever go forward? I’m not sure. Sometimes I think one simply moves sideways. I should say that I don’t believe that existing texts trump the need, desire, urge, use, etc. for new ones. The Source isn’t polemically claiming that its procedural foundation is somehow the blueprint for valid progressive literary works par excellence. It’s just justifying its own existence, like any animal crying out in the woods at night. I’ve written in all sorts of ways, and I’ll continue to do so. Right now, I’m trying to finish a long nonfiction book I’ve been working on for about five years.

Question: To what extent did your selection and arrangement of material “match” or “align with” or “mimic” or  “seem like”  the process or tone of your rather natural way of thinking or tenor of thought?

NEG: Does one think in language? I don’t. I use it to build thought, to mirror thought, to articulate a poor mockup of instantaneous, intuitive connections that inevitably fail to accurately encompass the range of what is essentially a pre-linguist, kinetic state. If forced to use language to describe thinking, I’d say I do so in non-visual, geometric patterns and associative rhythms. So it’s not that the language in The Source matches these modes, rather that it does—um, er, come to think of it—have something in common with the way I’d attempt to corral them and help them cross over.

Question: Did you merge/collage as you went along, or did you at first gather only?  And as you gathered, did you find the influence of your own idea of the project very prominent?  Did it become more or less so as you collaged/merged, either then or later on?

NEG: I merged as I went along, allowing the process of what I was doing to dictate the direction it would eventually take.  Although I’d settled on the parameters of the project before I started—the decision to cull work from page 26—I wasn’t totally sure in the beginning what it was that I was actually up to. I was already (sort of) familiar with some of the Kabbalistic significance of the number 26, but not much else. My process note, then, is something of an afterthought, a cork.

Question: What was your favorite source?  Least favorite?  Why?

NEG: Well, the Bénabou discovery was wonderful, but I didn’t have a favorite; it was the collision between sources that I was after. Although I did find some intriguing notes tucked into a few of the books while I was working, one of which read: “Vivian, doesn’t this fabric smell like gasoline?” I was amazed by its potency, the potential story behind it.

Question: When you posed questions within the text of The Source, were you encountering questions in the books which you were drawing from, or were you turning statements into questions?

NEG: Since most of my sentences contain multiple sources, I’d say no, but I’m sure the answer was sometimes yes.

Question: What is the role of questions in The Source?  Do these sources interrogate themselves? Were any of the questions inserted to increase feelings of dialog/speech?  Do you want a conversational feel in The Source, why or why not?

NEG: The role of questions is to ask questions. The whole book sort of interrogates itself. As for conversation, I’d find it difficult to talk with someone who spoke in a manner similar to that of The Source, but then I dropped out of religious studies pretty early in life.

Question: How true to the 26th page-language did you remain, or, put another way, how much freedom did you allow yourself?

NEG: Was Harry Mathews in the C.I.A.?

Question: How did you go about developing the speaker in The Source?  Did you want the speaker to be a static figure, or someone who changes over the course of the book?

NEG: I let the process of reading determine entirely the shape of the speaker with absolutely no forethought as to what that shape would eventually encompass.

Question: Having looked at so many sources……where/how they are now together……what do you think makes for an authoritative (capital S) Source?  What is the quality of that voice or form………gathered from what you’ve seen as you made The Source?

NEG: I’m not sure that I believe in an authoritative source; actually, I’m sure that I don’t believe in one, and I mean this authoritatively.

Question: From your prose note…….can you say more about what you mean by “emotionally charged”?

NEG: No.

Question: Devotional writing has been often associated with copying texts, devotional texts, litanies, prayers, song, theological treatises, all or part of sacred texts, so the act of copying can easily be equated with spiritual evolution…….however those texts were copied with their content’s purposes intact and not without grave concern to be true to the source of what was being copied.  Can you say something about both similarity and difference, on the one hand, on the other, etc..  V.V. Goldsmith’s remarks, possibly.

NEG: Again, no. Forgive me, just feel a little Bartlebyesque about the question.

Comment: In some ways you’ve constructed a fail-proof, foolproof narrative voice or character or stance or writing machine forThe Source, much of the book’s drama, which will cause much of its ability to be convincing (by which I mean compelling) derives from your saying how the book arrived, how the book’s composition tested your theory of the book’s “spiritual dimension.”  We read The Source next to St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle; sometimes intentions seemed wildly synchronized, while delivery couldn’t have been otherwise.  Your reader—You as reader of the The Source, reader as main character, reader as most important receiver and maker, etc., reader as The Source, these were strongly felt as the book sunk in more and more.

NEG: Thanks for reading!


Find The Source here.