A Q&A with Poet David Breskin on "DIRTY BABY," His New Collaboration with Ed Ruscha and Nels Cline

Nels Cline, David Breskin, and Ed Ruscha
(Courtesy Cryptogramophone)

Prestel will soon publish "DIRTY BABY," an innovative book-and-CD project billed as a "trialogue" between Ed Ruscha, poet David Breskin, and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. The beautifully designed and Senzo-wrapped book comes in aslipcase and includes a single dime that, while not valuable in its ownright,certainly adds to the package’s elegant and offbeat appeal. Breskin’s poems are in the form of the ghazal, which he determined would make "a really debonair fencing partner for these 66 Ruscha pictures... Super restrictive, super capacious." The text and images are fleshed out by Cline’s soundtrack: one long track for Side A and 33 short tracks for Side B.

We spoke with Breskin about the genesis of "DIRTY BABY" and he told us about eating Mexican food with Ruscha, imagining the mind of Donald Rumsfeld, and how each couplet in a ghazal can be "a necklace, love letter, or improvised explosive device."

How did the actual collaboration unfold?

I'd produced a book in 2002 called "RICHTER 858," which was a sort of curious exploration of Gerhard Richter's abstractions by way of detailed reproductions, poetry by a baker's dozen poets, a few texts, and music — Bill Frisell leading a string quartet. A mutual friend of Ed Ruscha and mine by the name of Chelsea Hadley, who now works at LACMA, gave it to Ed as a Christmas gift that year. Not long after, Ed called me up on the phone — I'd never met him — and said, "that book is a real beauty" and invited me to come to his studio next time I was in L.A.

After picking myself off the floor, I managed to visit the studio some months later and we started a dialogue about a possible collaboration. I let on that, at the turn of the millennium, I had three artists in mind with whom to do these sorts of oddball, head-scratching projects: Richter was one, and he was another. And then we sort of danced around the idea for a couple of years — during which time he'd read my poetry, heard some of the music I'd produced, and we talked about what this might be — before he sort of decided, over a Mexican lunch in his 'hood, to take the plunge. And then we celebrated by buying dog food for Woody, his pooch. The whole idea was to do a book, like the Richter, which opened out rather than closed down. Trying to get away from the forensic quality of so many art books.

I assume you started with Ruscha's imagery, but how did you pick which particular works would be included?

Well, the first decision we had to make was — would Ed make new work specifically for this book? I admit at the beginning that was my bias, but Ed said, "What happens if you're not inspired by what I make?" He also let on that he wouldn't feel so "pure" about making new work, knowing that I was going to "do something to it." As time went by, I really came to understand the wisdom of this decision. If he was to make new work for the book, he would have felt me looking over his shoulder — kind of the last thing any artist would want, especially at his stage.


Instead he made me an offer I could not refuse: he gave me free reign in his archive, letting me look at every picture he'd made since the late '50s. He only had one caveat and it was one with which I had complete sympathy — I would not focus on any already famous imagery. No Standard Stations, no Hollywood signs. I was down with that restriction. And so, with that, some months later I repaired to the Catalogue Raisonne office in Mar Vista and spent a week at a light table with a magnifying glass and a loupe looking at slides and transparencies of something like 2,400 drawings and 1,300 paintings.

After that week, I had notes and my own pathetic sketches of something like 330 Ruscha pictures: a 90 percent edit, not so bad, but still nothing like a workable book, and really no idea yet of where the book was or might be. So I set them on the back burner, on simmer, and started thinking about music, thinking I needed/wanted an L.A.-based singer/songwriter, someone who had a great visual sense, wit, a dryly ironic and yet romantic quality, a master craftsperson, and so on. Someone who would "rhyme" with Ed Ruscha. I had a long list of exactly one candidate: Jon Brion. Turns out he wasn't familiar with Ruscha, so I sent him a bunch of Ruscha books. In the end, his schedule was crazy and this was a reach that he didn't really feel and it was not meant to be — but a really good thing happened.


In the course of simmering the gigantic pot of 300-plus pictures, I'd figured out a way into the work which I thought might make an interesting idea for a Ruscha book — a book where there are no words to be seen. Having already 40 or 50 Ruscha books in my library, I wasn't interested in simply making another one, however classy or whatever. I'd always been interested in the "Silhouette" paintings of the '80s, and there were plenty of those which had censor strips in the place of Ed's more commonly "written" words or phrases. And then the "Cityscapes" of the '90s — almost nobody had even seen these wonderful, powerful little things, which have no image at all save for the censor strips themselves. They're probably Ed's most abstract work, and I think in a way he considers himself an abstract painter.


That was the blow-dart to my forehead, getting rid of the physical language. And with that, I no longer would need a lyricist for the music, and could turn to more abstract, instrumental music — more my home turf as a record producer — and again, I had a long, long list of exactly one L.A.-based dude: Nels Cline. I'd been mainlining The Nels Cline Singer's CD, "The Giant Pin" while I was writing my last book, "SUPERMODEL," and by the end of that the guy was sort of on my Mount Rushmore of living musicians. And then, just because reality is so relentlessly insane, Nels asked Jon Brion to play on Side A of "DIRTY BABY" and Jon ended up getting out of his sickbed to do it and made a fantastic contribution to the piece — so he's there after all, voice and all.

Did Nels write music after both the poetry and the images had been finalized, or did the process change and adapt as the project went on?

When I approached Nels, the image selection was finalized, but the poetry had hardly pecked its way out of its shell. With the idea that there would be no language visible, I'd already organized the book and decided on two sequences of 33 images, one for Side A and one for Side B.  Analog, but of course. Well, we're dealing with analogs anyway, are we not? And I'd structured Side A, largely through the Silhouettes (with two jarring exceptions) as a sort of shaggy-dog time-lapse history of Western Civilization and Side B, by way of 33 Cityscapes, as a kind of shooting gallery in which to set the Iraq conflict — back to the "cradle" of that civilization, the nearly-destroyed nursery.


Those pictures and sequences were in place when I approached Nels, but none of the poetry yet. And all I knew I wanted for the music was one long piece for Side A and 33 nanopieces for Side B. And even when he was ready to start writing the music — I think I'd written first drafts of eight ghazals by then — I wasn't sure I even wanted to show them to Nels, or risk him being influenced by them in any way. It turns out he wanted to read them, and knowing how independent-minded he is and what strong ideas he already had for the music, I thought there was no harm in sharing them. But just for scheduling reasons all the music was written and recorded before I'd had time to write anything more than that those first eight Side A pieces.

What drew you to the ghazal format in general?

Originally, I'd thought of the Ruscha book in the same way as the Richter, polyphonically — I would curate the work of a multitude of writers interacting with his work. But as I reflected on that, it just seemed wrong. Ruscha has such a distinctive, solitary voice, to be greeted by a diverse chorus seemed wrong. The book needed to have a more intimate and dogged pairing. So it was a matter of going one-on-one and, for better or worse, that meant me. I was just lucky that Ed liked my work and was really open and trusting in where I might take his.

The ghazal was a deliberate choice. I was sort of mesmerized by the form when I was in college in the late '70s, studying and writing poetry, though maybe too intimidated by it to try any of my own. I've always been attracted to highly restrictive forms; my poem for the Richter was a sort of sestina-on-steroids, and I've sometimes created straight-jacket forms of my own — happily twisted challenges I guess. "SUPERMODEL" was a one-sentence long epic poem in alternating couplets, and I've always loved the amount of air that couplets provide, which works well against density.


With Ruscha, I started by considering the fact that he's one of the most repetitive, formally-narrow, hyper-tight great artists of our lifetime or any lifetime. And inside this tightness, this narrowness, of course his genius is that he can go anywhere. And so I was also seeking a formally narrow, extremely tight form, and one that would accentuate not only the words but the sounds of the language, because one hears Ruscha as much as one sees Ruscha, if one is really with Ruscha. And this meant I needed rhyme in some way, or to say it less stressfully, that rhyme might really be useful.


I don't think I'd written a rhyming poem since about 8th grade, and I'm no fan of rhyme in and of itself. I was also worried that if I wrote 66 poems with rhymes at the ends of the lines — moon June spoon, clunk clunk clunk — I'd want to shoot myself by the tenth one, or the reader would want to shoot me by the third. The brilliant part of the ghazal is that the rhyme is there but it's not at the end of the line, it's always interior, right before the refrain.


So: song form, repetitions (all the refrains), modularity, linearity, tightness. The more I considered the ghazal the more right it felt, and I came to feel — however nutty it might seem — that it was nearly perfectly Ruschavian as a form: that the ghazal would be a really debonair fencing partner for these 66 Ruscha pictures. Super restrictive, super capacious. Juicy language on sale now.

Did you find that the formal constrictions of the ghazal inhibited or improved your writing process?

I think the formal constrictions were hugely constructive to the writing, and to the book itself. It just felt wrong to me that one poem might be a sonnet and another a haiku and another a ballad and another free verse and another a villanelle. That wouldn't be playing fair with Ruscha and his own formal, orthogonal rigor. So I had to put on the straight-jacket and pretend it was Hef's pajamas. And then I decided I would try, try, try not to repeat a rhyme scheme across the 66 poems. Also, I made up my own little rules to keep it fresh for the reader: no more than three poems in a row with perfect rhymes; no more than three poems in a row with slant rhymes or half rhymes. So in the end it was a hellacious kind of math problem, a story problem, and that made it a wicked challenge. When I was done, at one point Ed laughed, imagining what my office looked like, and said, "You must have had a war room!" That was about right.


The thing about a ghazal is that it takes you somewhere else, because you have to start with your word or phrase that functions as your refrain (the "radif") and your rhyme (the "qafia"), and then build the whole poem around that, and you have to use meter. Side A uses a fourteen-beat line and Side B a ten-beat blank verse line. And of course, zero enjambment, so each couplet has to float freely as a self-contained little jewel of a necklace, love letter, or improvised explosive device.


The other early rule I set was that the title of each poem would be exactly the title of the Ruscha picture. This was crucial because the titles of the pictures give you the way to "read" the censor strips, and I didn't want to compromise or cheat that experience, but rather to honor it. I originally thought I'd match the Side A pictures with ghazals and then use a different form for Side B — the Japanese haibun was the leading contender — but by then I'd figured out that Side B would focus on Iraq, and I thought, I'd be a real dufus if I had this ancient Arabic slash Persian form in play and didn't use it also to tell that story.

What other poets that you admire have tackled this form?

I think the good news for me is that none of my favorite poets had tackled the form, which probably would have left me quaking. Maybe some of them had been tackled by the form and so we never saw the poet, legs askew, lying on the floor, with the stuffing knocked out of him or her. It does feel like a 15-yard roughing penalty is about to be assessed when tackling or being tackled by it. And honestly, other than a warm-up sweep through the Agha Shahid Ali's compendium, "Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English," which I read to psyche myself up for the task, I intentionally went out of my way to read no ghazals from beginning to end of the project. My interest was more musical, in the sense that one of my musical heroes, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, routinely killed the form in the most swinging way imaginable, and it mattered not at all that I couldn't understand those lyrics and didn't need them translated into English.

What sources and inspirations did you cull for these ghazals, which are fairly broad in terms of style, varying formality, the use of vernacular, and so on? What aspects of the wider culture were you sampling in particular poems?

The first inspiration is directly from the Ruscha picture in question and Ed's language. But yes, I wanted the thing to have range and variety. I wanted it be lively and diverse, and to be like life, not like a semiotic inquisition to be parsed for some dreary doctorate.


I've never figured out why serious poetry has to be so serious all the damn time. So that meant doing here what I've done in the rest of my stuff: borrowing from science, the newspaper, culture high and low, language (its own sweet self), and as much humor as I can excavate from the topography, without much personal or confessional crap. I wanted to go from telescope to microscope, and back again, and to turn on a dime in doing so.


Like with Ruscha, within the restrictions, it felt fair and right to be able to use anything and everything to make it, and to just set down my bright yellow Dyson in these rigorous, righteously-metered, tucked-in couplets and let it cyclone up whatever takes pride of place in that space. In that, I kind of go with what the architect Louis Khan said about trying to make the building "what it wants to be."

A few examples of the kind of "sampling" you're probably referring to are, on Side A, track 5, "HOWL" which uses some of Allen Ginsberg's charged language from the famous poem of the same name, but in the "voice" of a wolf — by this time in the book human beings haven't even shown up yet. The next poem, "CRY BOX" does the same thing with some blues lyrics used by Sterling Brown in his great "Southern Road" collection from the early 1930s, and those pictures and poems are sort of paired — so yes I'm making the connection 'tween blues and the beats, and the whole oral tradition, in which ghazals take part.


Then there's something like track 13, "MAN, WIFE" which takes the funniest aphorisms I could find on marriage and presents them as kind of a reverse Bridal Registry of Horror. Side B has a poem, "HI THERE, MY OLD FRIEND" which is an imagined conversation between old buddies Don Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, and then track 15, "I'M GOING TO LEAVE MORE NOTES AND I'M GOING TO KICK MORE ASS" is mostly made up of what General Ricardo Sanchez called a "confused pep talk" by our dear departed president, George W. Bush, during a video conference with his military command in Iraq in 2004. So you have these kinds of things, and heaping helpings of slang — both contemporary and historical — and all sorts of "found language," because if you're living in Ruscha World for a few years, you start seeing and feeling all language as found language.


I've also made up a few words in my short stay on the planet, but really not very many, so it's really a matter of selection and ordering, no? And in all cases, I'm just trying to make the punishment fit the crime. Sometimes you gotta use a sledgehammer, and sometimes a stiletto.