Interview with Steven Zultanski
Over the past three years, I’ve been listening to Steve Zultanski read the poems that now comprise his new book Agony. I’ve loved these poems since I first heard him read one in Summer 2010 at an event curated by Danny Snelson at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. In addition to his work, I always like to hear what Steve is thinking, his analysis of what’s happening in poetry. He can be quite provocative on the subject, surly even. We don’t always agree but his ideas are important, especially since he has the ears of many younger writers working today. This column provided me an opportunity to sit down with him to discuss both—his new book and what he senses on the poetic horizon. On Monday, January 14, I met Steve at OST Café on 12th and Avenue A, where we recorded what follows.
KG: One thing I’ve been thinking about is how much Agony feels influenced by ‘pataphysics.
SZ: I don’t now how versed I am in ‘pataphysics. I’ve read some Jarry and Christian Bök’s book on the subject and lots of OULIPO — but I don’t have any French, and much of that work is untranslated…
KG: Well it’s OK if you don’t consider it an influence but I think somehow you’ve arrived at something that feels like it has a place in that tradition. Using the forms of logic and measurement against themselves. I wonder how you got into that, then? Maybe it comes from, maybe you have a relationship to logic, maybe you love it maybe you hate it…
SZ: I’m not sure I can narrate an origin story for Agony. Probably at some basic level the logical convolutions come from years of being in school and reading philosophy and theory, which is nearly always, if it’s any good, convoluted and paradoxical. And while I would never want to crib from those discourses to justify a poem, I do think there’s something to learn from the form of theoretical writing insofar as it structures itself around paradoxes and impasses: which is an interesting formal and stylistic problem. But those impasses aren’t anti-rationalist or anti-rigorous or unserious: they are inherent to rationality and logic and art, etc.
But to be clear: by discussing paradox as inherent to art and thinking, I’m not arguing for some wishy-washy “poetic thinking” that moves diffusively and openly and quote-unquote pleasurably in all directions, or something like that: that sort of thing is usually lazy and usually bad. On the contrary, one has to take logic and thinking completely seriously in order to arrive at a paradox or contradiction: in terms of literature, one has to follow the path of the form, style, and logic of the poem in order for these things to negate themselves. For example, one needs a semblance of a plot to find holes in the plot. The problem with a lot of postmodern poetry (of all sorts) is that it wants to highlight the absurdity of attempting to order the world, but one can’t find any holes in the writing itself, because it never creates the semblance of a whole which could then be contradicted.
KG: So Agony, structurally, is held together by the languages of logic, math, and measurement turning on themselves, but then most of what gets plugged into that structure is emotional language, or content that would register for most people as emotional, personal: lovers, parents, a dead pet. Did that come out of a sense that poetry about feelings was off limits in the contemporary avant-garde?
SZ: It was more impish than that. When I started it, four years ago now, it seemed counter-intuitive. I had not been working with any emotional or autobiographical material. It seemed like it would be the wrong move. And that’s why I did it. At this moment it doesn’t seem as contrary anymore, but three years ago or so… It seemed personally risky at first, but now that I’ve done it for awhile I’m used to it, which is a new problem.
At the time I felt like there were a number of new possibilities open to poetry, especially in light of Kenneth Goldsmith’s work and Rob Fitterman’s work, for example. And I wanted to do something with those possibilities: not just copy the work I really liked, but to fuck with it in some way, and also to fuck with my own comfort-zone. Of course the book doesn’t resemble those other writers’ work at all, but not because of the autobiographical or emotional content: that might have been a starting point, but in the end the poem concerns itself with different formal problems.
KG: Right, and so you didn’t want to be derivative.
SZ: Right. So, how to keep it interesting. I wanted to do something else. Also, I was never quite interested in information as inert material, which is sometimes how the discourse around Conceptualism ends up being framed: in terms of the objecthood of information, or something. I don’t think anything is inert and I don’t care about “materiality” in that sense: it’s a false problem. So I was looking for a way to measure or use measurement but not just measuring language.
KG: One thing that happens when you take the exactness or suggestion of exactness that you get with scientific language and mix it with language suggesting emotion or traumatic events is it ends up often being really funny. Maybe the absurdity of the measurements turns the tragedy inside out? Like now it’s not just tragedy, it’s this bizarre impulse to compare. And when I’ve heard you read from it, I always feel like some people in the audience are really moved by it. There’s a lot of empathetic poetry moaning. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the science and that language of precision and control, set against things that feel out of control like love and death, triggers something central in people, some central absurdity in the way we think? People want to think and figure things out and try to get things under control but of course nothing is under control.
SZ: Well, I don’t think the impulse to measure or quantify is about control. For example, when we have paranoid thoughts we seem to be putting our disparate thoughts and perceptions into relation, we seem to be systematizing social or psychical space, we seem to be attempting to control and measure the complex world: but on the other hand we totally spin out of control and hallucinate a fantastical order on top of what we know. In other words: measuring might be a way of submitting the order of the world to your own hallucinatory or fantastic world.
KG: Right. I may be throwing things off a little by my use of the word “control.” I’m thinking mostly about the way the audience responds to your readings of this material. I think there’s something in the language of measurement that really appeals to people and I think it’s something very deep and I’m wondering about it. I’ve heard language do that before, like readings and performances of those parts of Beckett where he does a lot of measuring.
SZ: Beckett does that a lot.
KG: Right and people listen so intently and silently at that part. There’s something very stimulating to people hearing that language alone, or maybe in the literary context. And then to mix a lot of common emotional triggers into it … I think it creates a tension, or maybe the emotion seems that much more vivid in contrast with logic because logic implies a certain rigidity or predictability. Whatever it is, it seems to move people.
SZ: Well I am interested in movement: not exclusively emotional movement, but really movement of any kind: just something happening, anything at all. I have no idea how people will respond, but if they respond in any way, I’m lucky.
KG: Ok, good. So I wonder, because I know avant-garde music and film have been important to you. Are there any technical devices, or apparatii or strategies from other art forms that you think have something to offer poetry, or that have influenced the way you think about writing?
SZ: I think I’ve been influenced primarily by the durational arts. I like long books and long films and long pieces of music because they evolve over time. They don’t just appear as an image or idea (not to knock the visual arts, which I also love, of course, and which move in different ways). But even the most structuralist film cannot appear as an idea because over the time of viewing the idea will change. There’s this completely obvious but kind of profound part of Genette’s Work of Art where he writes about how you can go stand in front of the Mona Lisa for 30 seconds and say you’ve seen the Mona Lisa, but you can’t go to 30 seconds of Don Giovanni and say you’ve seen it. It’s formal to the artwork that it unfolds over time. I think that’s what allows it to be contradictory with itself. I think some conceptual projects fail because they become identical to themselves, because they don’t happen over time, they just are what they are, and are too consistent with themselves.
I am especially drawn to things that appear to be conceptually coherent, but then deviate from their own rules or transform or repeat their constraints such that the original idea no longer matters or becomes irrelevant: Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet and String Quartet II; Eliane Radigue’s E = a = b = a + b and Triptych; Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rein; David Tudor’s realization of Cage’s Variations II; Florian Hecker’s new Chimerization. To give a few examples from music. But I think most narrative art does this “naturally”: film and fiction nearly always begin with premises that are then punctured or dissolved.
KG: I’m interested in what’s happening with genre right now, with traditional boundaries between the arts, and how certain technical apparatii have changed our relationship to making, to writing. All the available materials and ways to parse, sort and rebroadcast seem to be leading to lots of news kinds of making, making that crosses genres or blurs them.
SZ: In lots of these conversations the art world gets privileged but I don’t really see why we aren’t talking about music and fiction and film and so on, or even YouTube videos that teenagers are making, which are in some ways analogous to some contemporary writing.
KG: There’s so much going on in internet culture, crazy groups that emerge based on YouTube remixing styles or whatever and then disappear. Sometimes I wonder if those kids might understand what’s happening in poetry now better than some poets do.
SZ: But I’d also like to distinguish myself from that. It’s important to insist that what writers do is not identical to that.
KG: Sure, but there may be more similarities apparent, or different cross-overs than there used to be, too.
So where do you think poetry as a medium is going? I know that’s a big question but I know you think about it, so what are you thinking these days? Where’s the wind blowing? I’m thinking back to what you said earlier about learning from Kenny Goldsmith and Rob Fitterman but not wanting to be derivative. It seems right now like some people think poetry has moved in a whole new direction because of conceptualism and that we’re only just at the beginning of whatever that big change was, but then there are others who describe the current moment as a time where we will now fold what we’ve learned from the experiment back into good old poetry, whatever that is. Like, we get a few take-aways from conceptualism but ultimately go back to some kind of baseline, wherever that is.
SZ: I know that people probably think I’m a partisan (or footsoldier) for Conceptualism, and I guess I kind of am, but only kind of: I don’t think Conceptualism produces inherently interesting poetry, although plenty of the individual works are terrific, of course. What I do think is that it inspired a new moment of reckless experimentation, and it’s been permission-granting. Some writers now are less concerned with genre boundaries, yes, but not simply in a way that valorizes the hybrid: it’s no so much about blending as about testing what counts as poetry. All sorts of writers are making things under the sign of poetry that don’t necessarily resemble poetry and definitely don’t resemble each other. Ten years ago much of this writing wouldn’t have been signified under the name of poetry. It’s reckless and outlandish and often malformed. And exciting and invigorating. And because of this recklessness none of us have any idea what will happen ten years from now. The worst thing that could happen is that “Conceptualism” just becomes the name for anything weird, or un-poetic in certain ways, or unconcerned with the preciousness (or allusiveness) of the individual line or sentence. The best thing that could happen is that it functions as a spring-board for things we can’t imagine yet. Which is what I think is happening.