In the spring of 1981, New Wave group the Necessaries piled into their tour van and set out from New York City toward Washington D.C. to play a gig with R.E.M. At the time, they were signed to the Warner Brothers subsidiary Sire Records, had just finished their first studio album, and were well-received by the CBGB crowd who recognized a few of the members from their previous pop act, The Flying Hearts. They were arguably on the edge of a breakthrough into the mainstream. Yet all of this acclaim did not stop the newest member of the band, Arthur Russell, from nurturing a litany of doubts about the aesthetic viability of the group. As noted by biographer Tim Lawrence in his 2009 biography Hold on to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973–1992, Russell procured a position in the Necessaries through sheer, aggravating insistence and immediately catalyzed tensions in the group. His work up to that point was far more experimental than that of his bandmates, and the prospect of mainstream success with the Necessaries did not suit his radically obstinate sensibility. Their aesthetic tensions mounted at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel when Russell grabbed his cello and jumped out of the tour van. Ernie Brooks is said to have yelled after him, “Arthur, you can’t do this!”
I first heard of Arthur Russell in late 2019 while strolling through the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. I ran into my friend Andrew, who works as a gallery attendant in the museum, and asked him to send me music while I perused the new exhibition. He sent me the recently released Russell compilation Iowa Dream and explained that the work was produced in the ’70s and ’80s but had only recently accrued a cult following. The familiar yet strange folk-pop guided me through the museum’s imposing geometric halls. I liked it almost immediately, but I had trouble processing my friend’s comment that Russell was not a contemporary musician. Like any queer Gen Z-er from flyover country, I have spent my fair share of time listening to Alex G, Frankie Cosmos, and the like. The combination of folk chord progressions with unexpected variations, a mixture of cross-genre influences, and image-heavy lyrics that oscillate between irony and pathos is not foreign to most modern listeners—these components are central to the aesthetic of contemporary indie music.
On the walk back to my apartment, I listened to the compilation a second time and tried to reckon Russell’s multifarious and continually surprising sound with the idea that he made this music over 40 years ago. I sloshed my dirty boots through long-rotten ginkgo leaves and laughed as he—unmoored from time—sang from a microphone in New York into my earbuds while I meandered past Victorian-era brick houses in the Ohio Valley:
“I’m a wonder boy
I can do nothing
The forest was planted in rows
At least I think they are
But rows are straight as everyone knows
These rows don’t extend too far”
I forgot the album for a while after that. It wasn’t until a few months later in February of 2020 that I became singularly interested in Russell’s work. In a seminar on Music Scenes and Social Change taught by Luke Buckman, we were studying the history of disco, particularly David Mancuso’s Loft. Mancuso was a DJ and the host of non-commercial invite-only house parties. He provided music, food, and drugs in his Loft living space to a crowd of predominately gay, Black, and brown guests throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and he is often credited with the model that spawned a whole slew of popular New York disco clubs. To get a better idea of Mancuso’s cultural relevance, we watched a YouTube video called “David Mancuso Documentary,” posted by the channel alexeykh in 2020, which is not, in fact, a documentary at all. Instead, it is a charmingly disorganized compilation of snippets about Mancuso’s life, plucked from documentaries about other people. I find the decentralized, anti-capitalist, pro-queer model of early disco compelling. Like most white people from middle America, the story of disco I was spoon-fed is white-washed, straightened out, and ultimately converts the genre into nothing more than the butt of a joke. In contrast, the “David Mancuso documentary” depicts joyful rebellion of marginalized people—an unfettered, heart-throbbing, sweat-dripping invincibility; the kind of carelessness that is ecstatic and even erotic precisely because it is so hard-won.
I was struck particularly by the first song featured in the “David Mancuso documentary.” The piece begins with a tangle of reverb-soaked trombone lines over a straight-forward four-on-the-floor beat that seems to threaten collapse under its own abnormally trebly weight. This is followed by the drip of a descending and then ascending baseline and the maniacal holler of a man screeching “Bang!” The song is a Francois K remix of “#5 Go Bang!” by Dinosaur L. After a quick Google search, I discovered this was a pseudonym for Arthur Russell and thought, No way! That Arthur Russell? The honey-voiced, semi-experimental folk-rock musician from Iowa Dream with his acoustic albeit quirky guitar-driven tracks like “Words of Love” and “I Wish I Had a Brother”? I struggled to string together the flyaway threads into any façade of a solidified public identity. The moments before watching that strange David Mancuso video on YouTube were some of the last moments I was not trying to piece together some aggregate of ideas to explain Russell’s short time on this planet.
Russell was born in Iowa in 1951 to a relatively conservative corn-belt family in a conservative corn-belt town called Oskaloosa. He learned to play the cello as a child and struggled to make friends as an acne-pocked adolescent. When he was 16, he ran away to Iowa City and subsequently set out for San Francisco where—in 1969—he joined a radical fire-walking Buddhist commune called Kailas Shugendo. Here, he was encouraged to enroll in both the Ali Akbar College of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It was during this time that he began to practice and compose seriously. It was also during this time that he met Allen Ginsberg. He became Ginsberg’s music teacher and even accompanied him on small tours. In the 2008 documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, Ginsberg notes that he had a crush on Russell. Considering this comment, the age difference between the two artists, and Ginsberg’s fame in comparison to the young, emerging, and chronically broke Russell, it’s pertinent to acknowledge Ginsberg’s history of pedophilia and the potentially unbalanced or even abusive power dynamics that could have been at play in this relationship. That said, Russell’s engagement with Buddhist thought, Indian Classical music, Ginsberg’s poetry community, and the contemporary composition scene helped him to develop a songwriting and composition style that valued process over product, and he began to view music as increasingly central to his identity.
In 1973, Russell determined he’d have to move to New York City if he wanted to pursue music seriously. It was there that he found his home. Russell built creative relationships across music communities in downtown New York. He managed an avant-garde performance space called The Kitchen where he controversially booked rock band the Modern Lovers asserting that they were minimalist composers. He played pop music in a group called The Flying Hearts with his lifelong collaborator Ernie Brooks, cut disco tracks, and composed minimalist pieces that were beloved by the likes of Philip Glass. He worked in collaboration with Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, created ethereal solo cello projects, and ultimately teetered continually on the edge of widespread notoriety. Yet each time a breakthrough seemed imminent, he leaned obstinately into the integrity of his collaborative and eclectic aesthetic. Tim Lawrence writes:
“Russell spread himself across too many scenes and worked with too many musicians to build up a major reputation in a single genre, yet his lack of commercial success cannot be attributed solely to the music industry’s distrust of eclecticism. Russell’s perfectionism was peppered with obstinacy—on one occasion he spent a whole day fine-tuning the sound of a kick drum while his co-musicians waited to begin.”
His unexpected and unmarketable refusals prevented the funding overlords from putting their money in his hands for fear it wouldn’t multiply. The sense that if Russell had settled into one style, he would have hit it big—or at least made it out of financial precarity—hovers like a specter over the narrative posthumously projected onto his life.
At the age of 40 in 1992, Russell died of AIDS-related illness. His long-term partner, Tom Lee, discovered approximately 1,000 unfinished, unreleased tapes in his personal archive.
Despite this vast collection of work, Russell only released one full-length non-collaborative album during his lifetime, World of Echo. The album encompasses the wide array of his influences in characteristically unusual form. His distorted cello-playing pulses and explodes, simultaneously lulling and jolting the listener.
World of Echo got me through the first few months of COVID-19 shutdowns in the U.S. As the world experienced collective upheaval and the ground seemed to collapse beneath our fragile system of global capitalism, I took comfort in the reliably transcendent experience of watery reverberation and pulsation afforded inside Russell’s echo universe. On long walks, I imagined he inhabited a little space at the back of my shoe. His work accompanied the grief in those early days of the pandemic—the feeling that the world was mimicking its own history, pixellating and dissolving into a low-definition meme of itself, reflecting onto itself until the amplified repetitions of light turned into senseless nothingness. My thoughts returned repeatedly to the image of a whirring blender full of nothing as described by Lee in Wild Combination. Lee recounts an evening he came home from work to see Arthur had left the blender on in the background of his recording all day as a sonic anchor. World of Echo had become that empty ever-whirring blender for me.
Arthur is the president of rules and breaking them with his search for the center of anything: the thing whose face got taken off out of shame, the center of his lover who comes home from work, pays the electric bill, and says, “Oh, good. You left the blender on. You left the face of the center on. Or maybe you just left.” The untraversable rocking chair of his bow tears me open, splits me down some line ever so slightly to the midwest of my green. Ruptured by blue and green light that pulses through my wound, I can only abandon the last bow stroke for the next—an inevitable redirection. I can only abandon the last season to the next, the last heartbeat to beat the next. I turn attention to the course of breath as if this is the last moment. The last turkey tail plucked for broth, the last I am in love with you, moss-patch, the last time this waterfall was heard, and the final sound of me turning my hopes up as the folding path before me wears away. Russell sings:
“The place I know
Is several days away
What I say I’m bound to
Is try and beat my old score”
This is where I might lose you. My personal project to tie a web of logic to Russell’s curious aesthetic decisions and my feeling of secondhand loss at his fameless life came to a skidding pause upon reactivating the part of my brain that has been concerned with the life and work of Emily Dickinson since childhood. This isn’t to say that they are the same or even that I posit Russell spent any time reading Dickinson. There’s a possibility that he never read her at all, or only read the few domesticated edits of her poems that were canonized at that time. What I am trying to say is that I do not know how to think about the work of Arthur Russell without thinking about the work of Emily Dickinson.
When Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55 in the Amherst, Massachusetts, family home where she spent her entire life, her family found 1,800 poems (and 2,300 poem drafts or versions) in her room. Only twelve of these poems were published during her life. In her 1985 book, My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe writes of the safety and cultural acknowledgment Dickinson might have found if she had “altered the eccentricity of her poems to suit the taste of her time” (109), but recognition was not her goal. “Eccentricity” is central to her project. To sacrifice it would be to sacrifice her poetics entirely, and she knew this.
Anne Boyer takes a similar line of thought in her 2017 essay “No,” when she observes that Dickinson’s skill as a poet can be partially attributed to her position, “in that pantheon of ‘not this,’ who sometimes wore their laurels like a crown of thorns.” The work of both Dickinson and Russell is characterized by detailed analyses of canonized works—by the deep and almost ironic awareness of how other people do it. Yet while the how other people do it skeleton is unbothered by a little thorned-crown-scratching, the how other people do it flesh gets poked one time too many and storms out of the studio in a tizzy. There begins the refusal.
Dickinson’s thorny crown—her poetics of refusal—is part of what made her work so visionary. Her poems push against formal and social expectations. These social refusals quite famously manifest through the critique of gender norms and formal religion, while her aesthetic refusals include unconventional use of punctuation, syntax, grammar, and spelling, apophasis, refusal to provide closure, and depictions of suppression and explosive liberation. The symbiotic nature of her many refusals demonstrates Dickinson’s sophisticated understanding of the connection between linguistic and social implications of language as well as the importance of pushing one’s reader to collaborate with a text and bear some of the weight of producing meaning.
While one of Dickinson’s most notable posthumous editors, R.W. Franklin, attacked theories that attribute value to Dickinson’s strange capitalization and punctuation on the grounds that they were simply tics of handwriting that appeared even in arbitrary documents such as recipes, Kamilla Denman’s 1993 article “Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation” asserts that they were undeniably intentional. Denman argues that Dickinson’s use of uncommon punctuation in her poetry is “used deliberately to disrupt conventional grammatical patterns,” which mimics the eruptive qualities of a volcano and ultimately explodes normative expectations around language.
In Dickinson’s earlier writing, this abnormal punctuation often takes the form of superfluous exclamation points, which engender a sense of power or—in more Dickinsonian terms—sovereignty. There is something being pushed against, and space is filled with force and intensity. According to Denman, she increased the use of her signature atypical dashes drastically in and after the year 1862, and the tone of her poems grew solemn. This is evident in F517 “A still – Volcano – Life – .” In this twelve-line poem, sixteen dashes appear. Many of these dashes punctate line breaks, while others mediate tempo within a singular line or phrasal unit. The dashes are like the still volcano the speaker describes, “Too subtle to suspect,” yet drastically they reshape the environment of the poem by regrouping and reforming the connotation of words.
Rather than “A still volcano life,” Dickinson writes, “A still – Volcano – Life.” This accentuates the opening phrase “a still” and allows space for it to settle with the reader before “Volcano,” which is followed by a similarly capitalized “Life.” The unassuming dashes radically modify the line in “A quiet – Earthquake style – ” by fracturing the mass of the poem into isolated word groups. Rather than place phrasal units together to produce one clear, exact meaning, Dickinson allows the words to exist as islands that can be combined conceptually to produce a nearly endless list of possible meanings. This effect, as described by scholar Maria O’Malley in her 2009 article “Dickinson’s Liberatory Poetics,” “simultaneously lulls and jolts the reader.” It produces an eruptive quality and creates space between utterances that radically revise one another. The horizontal lines of dashes appear like flat silences or suppressions, followed by the volcanic eruption of language. Meanwhile, the “still,” “quiet,” “solemn” volcano stands in a state of suppression for years only to gush out hissing refuse, destroying cities in the space of two lines.
Dickinson’s formal and cultural refusals, coupled with the refusal to sacrifice experimental and volcanic explosions of traditional forms to gain notoriety, likely stem at least in part from her complicated relationship to the straggling Puritan ideals embedded in the cultural context of her Amherst upbringing. The Puritan concept of grace—the gift from God that might allow a mortal to combat sin, but never through material gain. “The gift of grace was never for sale,” Susan Howe observes in My Emily Dickinson, and, “Calvinist doctrine [ . . . ] found no path to eternal life through material success.” Although Dickinson did not participate in the revival meetings of the second Great Awakening and thus found herself quite disconnected from her community, it would be a mistake to assert that the cultural doctrine of Puritanism did not influence her. In fact, many of her poems were highly informed rejections of Christian thought, complex spiritual ponderings over the implications of an afterlife, or arguments about the relationship between religion and science.
A similar tension between spiritual rejections and acceptances exists in the work of Arthur Russell, who grew up in a relatively conservative Christian midwestern environment but later rejected these religious views for Buddhism. Much like Puritanism, Buddhism encourages followers to renounce worldly attachments. This tenant of Buddhism manifests itself in Russell’s tendency to prioritize process over product, which was often read by collaborators as procrastination. In Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, Allen Ginsberg notes that Russell’s “ambition seemed to be to write popular music, or bubblegum music, but Buddhist bubblegum.” Although Russell embedded unconventional spiritual messages in his work, he aimed to impart those messages by means of conventional forms and the disruption thereof. This disruption manifests in elliptical, volcanic lyricism, abnormal phrasing, unexpected musical variations, and the subversion of traditional notions of singular authorship.
Russell’s work also resembles Dickinson’s in that it attempts to create a space for new technological inventions and science within the lyric, the spiritual, the ethereal world of echoing eternity. In a live video of Russell’s “Soon-to-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See” recorded at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in 1985, Russell—a shadowed, swaying haint haloed by green light—whispers into the mic what I can only decipher to be, “As a scientist I find it very interesting/ I’m unplugging the hotline. I’m safe.” This is followed by sparing lines warbled over Russell’s characteristic see-saw of distorted cello:
“Every green hour
Will float in
When you see doubt
And see that, over and see that
The better of the center
The center of our
Soon-to-be innocent fun.”
Here, the separation of words and phrases at unexpected points through breath or instrumental interruption creates a similar effect to that of Dickinson’s F517 “A still – Volcano – Life – .” He creates visceral sensations and images through the use of elliptical, even vague phrases. As I sink into his “green hour,” I am set out to sea in a rickety wooden sailboat. On my back, looking skyward, my weight tilts the boat off-center, and water slops overboard. Soon, the waves lap over my ears as I listen to the sounds that mark the passage of time—punctuations in the space-time continuum. But of course, if I listened tomorrow I’d likely tell you a different story. He only creates the conditions, the constraints of “green,” “soon-to-be-innocent-fun,” and “the better of the center” in which the audience might produce their own meaning. His heuristic approach is quite the opposite of didacticism; it is a portal into a world that the audience must help to create.
If you have spent much time with Ginsberg’s poetry, you can see why he critiqued Russell for being “too general.” On the other hand, if you’ve spent much time with the work of Dickinson, you can just as easily see why each of them helps me to better understand the other. In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe writes:
“Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of Poetry […] Assimilation into civilization’s chronology, its grammatical and arithmetical scrutiny calls for correcting, suspecting, coveting, […] A poem is an invocation, rebellious return to the blessedness of beginning again, wandering free in pure process of forgetting and finding.”
This leads to both Dickinson and Russell’s most pronounced genre of refusal: the refusal to provide closure. Their open-endedness manifests in a number of ways. “Poetics of indirection argue,” Farnoosh Fathi remarks in her 2008 piece, “‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant -’: Dickinson’s Poetics of Indirection in Contemporary Poetry,” that “what is beyond our ability to know is not beyond our ability to imagine.” She relies on metonym, association, and compounded meanings to prompt the reader towards imagination. According to Fathi, Dickinson’s indirect, slant truth-telling is intended as a heuristic approach. She writes that Dickinson “believes that poetry can articulate truths, even if those truths are to be told ‘slant.” While I agree with Fathi to an extent, I argue that Dickinson’s indirection takes a more active role in refusal than she implies. In Rachel Zucker’s 2019 lecture “The Poetics of Unapoloagia: A Manifesto,” she argues that Dickinson’s proclamation to “tell all the truth but tell it slant” has been chronically misread. Zucker prefers to read Dickinson’s complex conception of truth and truth-telling “as a wittier, quieter, but no less powerful version of Jack Nicholson in ‘A Few Good Men’ shouting ‘You can’t handle the truth!’” In either case, Dickinson refuses to offer the truth to anyone who is not already prepared for it. She refuses to give the reader an easy way out. She does not spoon-feed the reader bite-sized truisms; she hands them the seeds of truth, a tiller, and an acre of top-soil and lets them choose whether or not to grab a hoe and get to work.
Refusal to provide closure most famously emerges through Dickinson’s use of word variants. In Susan Howe’s 1993 essay, “These Flames and Generosities of the Heart,” she outlines much of the posthumous editorial and critical history of Dickinson’s work. Posthumous editor Thomas H. Johnson argues that the words Dickinson places between lines and in the margins of the poems signify potential revisions or alternatives for denoted words within each piece, while Howe argues these words are meant to be a part of the poem, rather than an alternative to the poem. Howe views Dickinson’s crosses and marginal writings as a code embedded in the body of the poem and argues, “‘Authoritative readings’ confuse her nonconformity.” By incorporating variants into her poems, Dickinson allows many stages of revision to exist simultaneously with no clear gesture towards a final form—she refuses to choose. To choose any one of the suggested words over another would defy the purpose of Dickinson’s unconventional refusal of finalization. Dickinson does not deal in didacticism; rather, she opens little windows and doors—slivers of light for the reader to investigate at their leisure.
Indirection and continual revisions are also central to Russell’s work. His lyrical indirection, much like that of Dickinson, prevents singular readings and relies on compound meanings. In “I Can’t Hide,” Russell pushes even further into the realm of indirection traversed in “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See.” He sings as if to obscure the lyrics to his own song. It is nearly impossible to tell if he is saying “I can” or “I can’t” throughout the piece, until the very last line, when he reveals a clearly enunciated “t” on the end of “can.” In a song about the ability to hide, he obscures from his listener the very lyrical content at hand. Similarly, in “Answers Me,” Russell produces many possible meanings through visceral, elliptical, and compounded lyrics:
“Baby lion goes
Where the islands go
Coming where the main ties onto the sail
Better on sighting for astern, oh”
His nearly indecipherable croonings are sung over the choppy waves of trebly distorted cello and watery synth bubbling up from below. The sovereign island of each utterance splashes back at the lapping waves and demands of the reader an answer.
Russell’s continual revisions, on the other hand, speak for themselves: the hundreds of unpublished drafts found after his death, the chronic inability to live up to publishing contracts, and even the composition of his endlessly self-revising modular piece “Instrumentals.” “There was a compulsion,” Philip Glass says of Russell in Wild Combination, “to keep remaking this world, and this world was very complicated.” He was often so obsessed with making and remaking this world that his collaborators became frustrated and his work never reached mainstream viability.
The Puritan conception of grace, which “was never for sale,” the concept of creative practice for the sake of itself rather than that which it produces, the refusal of closure, the disruption of traditional forms, and the practice of study, imitation, allusion, and addition to both artistic forebears and contemporaries were all notions central to Dickinson and Russell’s work. Incidentally, all of these attributes are also wildly unmarketable and subversive to individualistic capitalist concepts of labor. Even across the temporal divide of more than a century, they understood that the meaning of their work would be altered beyond recognition without these values and daringly held tight to them regardless of the ramifications.
Unlike Dickinson, Russell was not in a financial position that allowed him both to create his work and maintain stable housing without monetizing his work to some extent. All the same, it was clear throughout his life that he was not going to stop working just because he did not achieve fame or financial stability. To any contemporary Dickinson reader, this behavior will sound familiar. She famously refused publication because of the limitations it would place on her creative choice. This resulted in a creative practice that was primarily shared via letters with poems often embedded therein directed to specific loved-ones. The collaborative process of responding to letters in well-thought-out prose and verse (that is highly informed by the works of other authors) mirrors Russell’s commitment to collaboration.
I do not mean to say that Dickinson and Russell are the same; rather, at the core of their similarities lies a toolkit for how one might maintain an artistic practice that is spiritually fulfilling and socially engaged regardless of mainstream recognition. In the contemporary artistic environment, the nonconformity of Russell and Dickinson provides a helpful radical, spiritual, and anti-capitalist framework to reformulate our relationships to artistic practice. The democratizing nature of the internet makes content accessible and self-publication easier than ever, which is wonderful. Yet the resulting endless stream of content is overwhelming, and the financial viability of a career in the arts has virtually dissolved. Records and literary magazines alike have moved online, which creates financial precarity for all parties, save streaming-platform executives and tech moguls. So now we are faced with the challenge of creating anti-capitalist artistic practices that are viable regardless of profitability. This isn’t—of course—to say that artists should not be compensated for their work, but rather to address the reality of the situation we find ourselves in and attempt to reframe the underpinning philosophies of our artistic practices accordingly.
All of this being said, to reconceptualize one’s creative practice as an ever-evolving, heuristic, spiritual process does not liberate them from the financial system. Russell’s lifelong financial struggle shows us that it would be foolish to imply such a thing. Yet, there is still something to be said for challenging the capitalist notion that artistic practices ought to be preserved and respected only for the (easily marketable) fruits they yield. How might our relationship to creativity change if we become comfortable taking risks that might not please our publishers? What would it look like to subvert notions of singular authorship and allow space for various readings by asking our audiences, our friends, and our beloveds to collaborate with us? How can we challenge the notion that our work must become static in a marketable form? How do we allow ourselves to continue to edit, change, and alter our art as we are altered through time? How do we take each day as it comes to us, recognize it for what it is, confront that, transmute that, subvert that, queer that? How do we—like Russell and Dickinson—allow the creative process to become just our daily lives, the sonic anchor that holds us to the world and allows us to wander, to blast off and know we will find our way back? Or, as Susan Howe asks in My Emily Dickinson, “What is the communal vision of poetry if you are curved, odd, indefinite, irregular, feminine?” I’d like to think that the life and work of these two artists answer all these questions.
GRACE ANN ROGERS is a musician and writer from rural eastern Kentucky. She has a BA in English from the University of Louisville. She was a summer resident at the Kentucky Foundation for Women in 2018, served as poetry and experimental/hybrids editor of the online literary journal Miracle Monocle from 2018-2019, and currently serves as a board member of Kentucky Old-Time Music Inc. She is also a recipient of the Leon V. Driskell Award for Creative Writing and her work was named honorable mention for Sarabande’s Flo Gault Student Poetry Prize in 2020. Grace’s poems have appeared in Lammergeier Magazine and The Uncommon Grackle and are forthcoming in Inverted Syntax.