The Checklist came to me in an unexpected way back in 1998 (1997?). The artist Daniel Kacyvenski (aka Daniel Joseph) gave me a painting. I asked him to sign it. He turned it over and started writing. 3 or 4 minutes later he handed it back to me. Along with his name he had written a checklist. It was not a list of things to do, or things to remember, but random, disjointed thoughts
Dan was a new friend. I hadn’t been in New York long. A painter myself, I began to frequent his apartment cum studio on Van Brunt St. in Red Hook. I was introduced to his friends: Brian Moran, Pete VonGauss, Jason Hooper, all artists themselves and the core of the would-be “Manipulationists” movement. The Checklist was the brainchild of Brian. One debauched evening he asked me if I knew about the Checklist, like it was some kind of password or essential text to a secret society. I had seen scraps of paper with Checklists around Dan’s Van Brunt St. apartment; I’d seen them scribbled on napkins at Sunny’s Bar where we would drink, or in the different notebooks of this group of artists. These odd, free-form poems seemed to be everywhere, and everyone seemed to be composing them, but I never inquired about them. Brian invited me to participate. He outlined the "rules" for me, which were just two: 1) the checklist must be 33 in length; 2) the last item in the list must be the word “degrees”. Brian had been reading about the Freemasons. 33 is a significant number for this secretive international order, being the highest “degree” or level one can rise to. I was never quite sure if Brian was taking the piss or if he too believed in the power of this particular number. In the 1950s, at the behest of Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac wrote a list: “30 Rules for Spontaneous Prose”. This may or may not have been the original inspiration for the Checklist.
Dan more than anyone adopted the Checklist as an essential element of his art. They appeared often in his paintings, drawings and writing. Brian put a moratorium on the Checklist when he left New York in 2004, though I don't think Dan or anyone else ever stopped writing them. I, for my part, must have written several dozen Checklists over the years and have introduced the form to people all over the world.
For me the Checklist is ephemera, little scraps of life that float into and out of ones mind. The items in a Checklist can come from anywhere. They may be thoughts that flash through ones head suddenly; they may be phrases from something one is reading; they may be dialogue or conversation one overhears. They can literally spring from any source. Wherever there are words there is material for a Checklist. One word. A sentence. A paragraph.
A Checklist need not make sense or have a logical chronology. It need not have a rhythm or flow. It need not be thematic. Think of the incalculable amount of thoughts, words and phrases that one is bombarded with in any given instant of ones day. It is impossible to process it all, to listen to everything. These itemized mental, written, verbal and aural scraps are what strike us, what make us stop. “What did you say?” Pause. Underline that. They are mental or written notes, before we continue on with our thoughts, with our activities.
Unlike, say a sonnet, the structure of a Checklist is quite simple and requires little or no craft to create. There is no laboring over iambic pentameter and such. A Checklist comes to you in the same way thoughts or other bits of text do: fragmented, broken, incomplete, disjointed, unrelated. A Checklist can be assembled in minutes, like the way Dan introduced it to me so long ago, a spontaneous list of thoughts transcribed as quickly as physically possible. Or they can evolve, as mine usually do, over weeks and months. When one re-reads a Checklist built over time it becomes a sort of catalogue or record of ones fragmented life. For me, these are the most successful/interesting, because they are so completely random and less prone to manipulation by daily emotion or fleeting mood. They are the most free and ultimately poetic.
In the end a Checklist is perhaps nothing more than a vain and futile attempt to capture in writing the tiny details of ones life as they speed by too quickly and in too great a volume to ever grasp.
Robert WallaceMay, 2012 (Brooklyn