THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH JOHN M. BENNETT
Started on: 4-7-1995
RJ : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on 27-7-1995
JMB: I got involved in mail art about the age of 8, in 1951, crossing the pacific on a ship from Japan to Oregon. I wrapped up little messages and drawings in many layers of tape and paper and tossed ’em overboard. After that my career went into a kind of lull, except for a brief period of sending poems I’d written to girls when I was in high school, until about 1974 when I started doing mail art at the instigation of a friend, the now-deceased painter Mr. Sensitive. It was great fun and still is. One of the earliest issues of LOST AND FOUND TIMES was a mail art project (copy is enclosed). Mail art delights continue to make their way into its pages.
RJ : Is it possible to describe what is so delightful about mail-art?
Reply on 9-8-1995
JMB: What’s delightful about receiving mail art is that it’s so full of people’s uninhibited expressions, off-the-cuff blurtings, or careful, lunatic constructions. It’s about as close as one can get these days to a “pure” art, one with no agenda, no career-building motives, etc. (This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have political or social messages – it often, even usually, does – but the functionality of that is impersonal).
Anyway, receiving mail art stimulates my own creative processes – it’s a source of contact with other artists which is most welcome to someone who lives a fairly routine life in a relative cultural desert.
What I like about making mail art is that it’s a medium in which I can either distribute my main work, poetry, and/or do completely spontaneous things that often surprise me and serve as a source of ideas for other projects. Do it, and put a stamp on it! What joy!
RJ : What joy! Is mail art only something positive to you? are there any negative sides to it too maybe?
Reply on 19-8-1995
JMB: Well, yes; I can’t bear throwing the stuff out, so I keep filling up these boxes I then have to move around and deal with. (Pile up around the bed, block the narrow aisles in my office, stumble over….) Fortunately, however, there are a couple of libraries who collect the stuff, so every so often I seal ’em up and ship ’em off, so long as they pay for the shipping, which they usually do.
Basically, if I didn’t enjoy doing it, I wouldn’t do it. I do find the rising postage rates distressing, though.
RJ : Like me, you probably get lots of mail art with invitations to projects, chain-letters, add-to projects, etc. Do you reply to all of those or do you select what you answer?
Reply on 2-9-1995
JMB: The add-to projects are among my favorites – little “brain cells” scurrying around the world acquiring more and more memory as they go. Those always get my full attention. I do reply to most of the project invitations. Some are more interesting than others, of course; though sometimes the truly dumb ones are an irresistible invitation to do something really nasty, eh?
Chain letters, however, are a different matter: I rarely respond to them at all, though I suppose my act of breaking the chain is a response of a kind. I don’t like doing mass mailings (I get enough of that sending out LOST AND FOUND TIMES when it’s published) and chain letters seem like I’m doing someone else’s mass mailing. Many years ago I responded to a few of them, but rarely got anything back – so I think there must be a lot of other chain breakers out there, bless their hearts.
RJ: Thank you, I am one of those collector of chain letters and today my collection is over 700….. You mention ‘LOST AND FOUND TIMES’. What is this publication about?
Reply on 18-9-1995
JMB: LOST AND FOUND TIMES is an avant-garde literary magazine (I’m sending you a copy via surface), that includes the occasional bit of mail art. It began in 1975 as a single-sheet publication of fake lost-and-found notices that was stuck under car windshields in parking lots. The first issues included notices by people we knew in the mail art network. When the other editor died suddenly in 1978 (Doug Landies or Mr. Sensitive) I continued to publish it, gradually expanding its literary aspect. It’s rather fat now, gets around a lot, and is collected in numerous major institutions, etc.
RJ : Are you a collector too? Do you keep all the things you don’t recycle?
Reply on 30-9-1995
JMB: I collect: skull rings, skulls in general, little cars, feathers, rocks, hot peppers, olive oil cans, old bottles, books, postcards, records, masks, rubber stamps, mail art (what I don’t keep is given to various libraries that collect such material), nude decks, photographs, flutes, other instruments, baskets, old tickets, socks, hats, bandannas, my own poetry, and shoes. Whew!
RJ : Why do you collect shoes?
Reply on 14-10-1995
JMB: They substitute for my hands, I don’t like to wear the same shoes 2 days in a row, I like to look at something different when I’m walking, they remind me of vaginas and dicks at the same time, I have wide feet and have trouble finding shoes that are truly comfortable, I have bursitis of the heel, they are like tongues.
RJ : And why do you collect skull rings or skulls in general?
Reply on 28-10-1995
JMB: So cute no hair no death I live inside the boney ring my skinmask itches likes to shine like plastic rubber potmetal aluminium silver wood I have a tiny plastic one with spring jaw holds the words “Time Release” a beetle glistens under maybe this provides the frame:
Spoke returned and animation stands of lettuce
driven over (somewhere else) I cancelled drains you
turned savored itching in the furnace ducts stinks
moon sizes closet lamp the corn regrooms shucks
shirt’s milk plate of horns and dribble gleaming
frown house, smiles, plate of skull collection
spotless wilk the shirt shucks moon field of ears
and hair silk waves long thought duct tape spilling-
ledges drains you moved or cancelled else, salad,
copulation in the passage air you spinning tire
without a spoke
RJ : Thanks for sharing this poem with me. When the interview is published at least this one will be shared with more readers. I have noticed that you mostly publish your visual poetry on small papers and postcards in collaboration with others, like Cornpuff, Hartmut Andryczuk, Al Ackerman, to name a few of the ones you enclosed with your latest answer. How do these collaborations come about?
(On 2-11-1995 the LOST AND FOUND TIMES booklet that John M. Bennett publishes arrived at my P.O.Box)
Reply on 10-11-95
JMB: Actually, a lot of my visual poetry is published in literary and/or art journals, and some of it usually is included in my books of poetry. I also exhibit a lot of it in art spaces; recently I had a number of pieces in what must have been an excellent show at the Musée de la Poste in Paris.
Anyway, the collaborations start in different ways – sometimes one of us just modifies or adds to a piece from the other; at other times one of us will propose doing a collaboration and start it. Most are done through the mail. Some are purely visual, some mixed visual and textual, some are purely textual.
One of the longest collaboration projects I’ve been involved with is a series of “chapters,” mostly textual, done with Robin Crozier – this has been going on for years. I’ve also been doing a long series of collaborations with Sheila E. Murphy: we plan a full-length book of these poems, which truly seem like they were written by a third person: they have a unique style all their own. I’ve collaborated with dozens and dozens of folks through the years, and I find it an extremely stimulating and valuable process, both in the doing and in the final results.
RJ : Your use of rubber stamps is quite interesting too. Some mail artists in the USA and Europe like to use several rubber stamps to make a (realistic) visual story out of them, but you like to combine rubber stamps which don’t fit together to give some kind of message. On your latest envelope for example, the head of a bald man with two nails stamped onto his ears. What is the story behind your stamp-work?
Reply on 29-11-1995
JMB: Why make something everyone expects to see; something they’ve seen already? I want to make something never made before, something I, and others, will see for the first time. This is my goal in all my art and writing. Rubber stamps are a quick way to achieve this: with a couple movements of the hand, you can make a bizarre combination of images and/or words and thus have an instant experience of seeing the world as if for the first time: the world becomes new and exciting, and one continues to learn about it.
On a less metaphysical plane, I enjoy rubber stamps as objects (they’re one of my “collections”) and for their potential to create works in multiples, a fascination related to my work as a writer, whose works are reproduced in books, which are the ultimate “multiple” art form. Perhaps this is a contradiction (or unity of opposites): I want to create things no one has seen before, but create them in many identical copies. Vive la contradiction!
RJ : There is another contradiction in connection to mail art. I’ve noticed that some say that mail art is more alive than ever because of the many participants and shows that there are today, while others say that mail art is almost finished because all things that are done nowadays have been done before. What are your views in connection to this?
Reply on 18-12-1995
JMB: Both groups are “right” in their own ways. The mail art world is made up of a great number of somewhat overlapping groups. Some groups fade back – like the one Ray Johnson was in – while others expand, to fade back later, etc. Mail, like any medium, will have art going on in it as long as it exists, though the people doing it and the styles they do it in will change, come and go, etc. As to everything having been done already, of course in a way that’s true, but it’s always been true. Everyone has to go through their own learning process and part of that process is to imitate what they’ve seen others do, so they can get it out of the way and go on to something else.
Mail art is no different from any other art form in this. I am not of the belief, by the way, that Ray Johnson was the “originator” of mail art. He was important in the fomenting of one particular circle of it, that eventually got a lot of attention, and spun off other groups. But people have been doing mail art since the postal service began in France in the 18th century, and even earlier, when “mail” was less institutionalized.
RJ : What do you think of the development of e-mail as a tool for communication? Have you tried it yet, or is a computer something you don’t connect to communication?
Reply on 9-1-1996
JMB: Email seems like a great thing to me, and I know a lot of fine stuff is going on there – Electronic Juxta just “published” an email chapbook of mine, in fact, and there are several fine email “magazines” and other projects going on. The impermanence of it, I suppose, frees people up to experiment pretty wildly at times (and at great length sometimes, too, I’m afraid).
I do have an email address at work, but I happen to have a complex and weird vision problem, and I myself can’t do much with a computer: I can’t do more than glance at the screen occasionally without getting severe headaches that last for days, so this means I can’t enter anything into one, or edit anything on screen. The most I can do is glance at what I think I might want to read, and then print it off to read it.
In order to reply to anything, I have to have a postal address. Anyway, I don’t see electronic media as replacing books, say, but as another kind of media with its own values. There’s something about a book, a physical object you can hold in your hands, completely self-contained, that you can deal with in your own time, that has permanent value.
RJ : You mention “your own time”….. Is it true that almost any mail artists I am in contact with, has a problem with finding time to do things? Are there some special things you still have to do?
Reply on 24-1-1996
JMB: Ah, so much to do: organize these files and stacks, compile books and such of so many joint projects, so much wonderful material just waiting for time and $$$ to put ’em together and publish them, so many books of my own work to organize, edit and hustle, so much art I’d like to do, like make a one-of-a-kind book every day, like fill my backyard with junk sculpture and towers, like make junk collages everyday to send out in the mail, oh so many secret projects to do in the mail that I can’t tell you about; oh for the time to contemplate daily for an hour some treasure received in the mail!
RJ : You mention secret projects and I am very curious on what that could be all about. Is it a secret for the network; would telling me about those projects spoil the project completely. Or even better, are they illegal projects, projects nobody ever would get to know about……. Tell me about those secret projects, I sure won’t tell anybody about it (only publish it….)
JMB: I will tell you about my secret projects,
RJ : Well, I never thought that something like that was possible. I am surprised that you are still able to send out mail at all! I just hope that the printer here in Tilburg won’t censor this part of the text. As I can see from your answers before, POETRY seems to be the most important art-form you use to express yourself. Why? What is so fascinating about letters and words?
Reply on 2-3-1996
JMB: If I knew the answer to that I’d have understood what consciousness is. I can say that the process of writing poetry seems to combine several interests, pleasures, needs; seems to satisfy them like nothing else I do: the need to know, the need to be learning, the need to know I know nothing, the need to know nothing, the need to see and know together, the need to hear what I haven’t heard, the need to read what I haven’t read, the need to be someone or something other than “myself”, the need to say what can’t be said, to think what can’t be thought, the need to be outside and inside knowing outside at the same time, the need to be inside and outside knowing inside at the same time. Language, used as an art, springs from, and addresses, several kinds of consciousness at once; it is the best way for me to attempt a totalizing awareness, to know it all and say it all; to be more than “who I am”.
It’s snowing heavily today, but soon I will head to the kitchen to prepare a nice paella, some gazpacho, and garlic bread. Yum!
RJ : So you like garlic! Do you like people who don’t like garlic?
Reply on 15-3-1996
JMB: Not only do I like garlic (as does the whole family – good thing, too, since I’m the cook), but I’ve been growing quite a bit of my own the past few years. It’s a garlic that grows wild around here that I’ve been cultivating in my garden, a stiff-neck variety, nice and strong with a great flavor. I preserve a lot of it by pickling it in olive oil. Some of my favorite high-garlic dishes are pesto (I grow my own basil, too), pasta with raw garlic and olive oil, pasta with clam sauce and lots of garlic, chicken or tofu marinated in various garlic-based sauces; oh the list is just endless!
Uh, about your question, I have known some folks who dislike garlic – I really do not understand that, it’s sort of like not liking sex, eh? – but whether I like them or not seems to have little to do with their garlic-blankness. Life is full of mystery.
RJ : Which mystery of life would you like to solve right now?
Reply on 2-4-1996
JMB: The mystery of mysteries, & suppose; though maybe I’m happier with such things left unsolved, and open.
(together with the retyping of the text and my next question I also sent a complete printout of the complete interview-text to John M. Bennett)
RJ : Well, time to end this interview I guess, unless I forgot to ask you an important question. Thanks for your time and energy!
Reply on 19-4-1996
JMB: In reading through this interview I realized that nowhere did I mention the most important mail art experience of my life; one of the most important experiences in my life in general, in fact. This was the “mail art romance”which brought me together with my wife, C. Mehrl, now C. Mehrl-Bennett. Around 1977, she, who was living in Dubuque, IOWA, saw some work of mine in a mail art show there, and, as she puts it, thought the work was the most “repulsive”thing in the show. So she sent me some mail, it had a nice sarcastic/ironic quality to it that I enjoyed, and we kept on exchanging mail art. It was at least a year before I even knew she was a she, since she gave her name only as “C. Mehrl”and what she sent was mostly visual. Anyway, our correspondence gradually gor more personal, and in 1979 she came down to Columbus for a visit. It was true love, we got married in 1980, now have 2 kids, and are very happy together. For our wedding, we solicited mail art contributions, which were incorporated into a film about us by John McClintock, called MAIL ART ROMANCE. The film was released in 1982. Lady C, as she calls herself, is a painter and assemblage artist, and her work is as beautiful as she is.
RJ : Well, this is certainly a lovely detail of your life, and you might guess that I am now quite curious about this film. Thank you again for this interview John!
John M. Bennett
Luna Bisonte Prods
137 Leland Ave
COLUMBUS , OH 43214 , USA
Ruud Janssen – TAM
4801 BB Breda
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