An interview with Andrew Maxwell
Note: To celebrate the recent release of Andrew Maxwell’s Candor Is the Brightest Shield, I interviewed Andrew by email at a thoughtful pace that extended from April to August 2015. As a frequenter of the Los Angeles–based Poetic Research Bureau, which he codirects, and as an avid reader of his work, I found the interview to illumine Andrew’s life and work: his philosophic dispositions, his recondite yet populist interests, and his consistent commitment to community through dissensus — a rare tolerance for disagreement. His works include: Candor Is the Brightest Shield (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), Peeping Mot (Apogee Press, 2013), and chapbooks published by PRB including Quotation or Paternity and The Coward Ecumenical. Not only is Andrew a poet, publisher, and convener of poetry readings and multimedia occasions; he is also a baseball sportswriter, musician, DJ, taxonomist, Google product manager, and translator, and has been involved in electoral politics. As for me: I’m Deborah Meadows, a poet and playwright whose latest two books areTranslation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems (Shearman Press, 2013) and Three Plays (BlazeVOX [books], 2015). — Deborah Meadows
Deborah Meadows: The Poetic Research Bureau has a long and beloved standing in the Los Angeles area, and with Joseph Mosconi (and formerly Ara Shirinyan), you have helped form a loosely structured community. Can you make a connection to those activities, or your work in translation, with Candor Is the Brightest Shield? The significance and often puzzling pleasures of human relations seem a significant presence in this work, as is the more recent experience of becoming a father and the embodied experience of growing children.
Andrew Maxwell: It’s a great question, really. I do think there is a continuum, and really no bright lines between the learning, conversation, and research at the PRB and what I might do privately in other settings. While there’s some fatigue lately with the terms ‘forum’ and ‘curation,’ forum-building and curatorial activities have long preceded my publishing activities, even if I’ve written consistently, albeit privately, since I was very young. I also have a bit of an antiauthoritarian and anti-institutional tic that makes me want to keep my fora porous, their boundaries soft and their missions portable. I feel the same about the book, as I try to test its conventions even as I participate in them (with suspicion).
On the topic specifically of the PRB, which has existed in some capacity for two decades now (as long as I have been a public writer in any sense), what I prize in it is its tendency to be slow, to be occasional, to be portable, to accommodate difficulty and disagreement, to be both independent and contingent simultaneously, which is to say, to be fundamentally adjacent. These are all values I cultivate in my writing. Portability and adjacency are two properties I think about a lot.
By adjacency, I mean, can I stand to the side and listen? Can I stand to the side and be productive that way? Even if it means standing to the side of my own voice, on the page, within verse, in the community. In service, sure, but also present, sentineling. (A word with an etymology that includes watching, feeling, protecting.) And can I make poetic statements that are portable, that can be taken into the lives of others, that may be dispossessed, happily?
Dispossession and disownership are abiding concerns for me, in literature and in community. These are of course human relations, and my custodial attentions to the PRB and its improvised community, no less to my family, reflect both my drive to come near and come apart at once. An astrologer would say this is explained by my strongly aspected Aquarian sun in the sixth house (the house of volunteerism, service, and nursing), making me an aloof community-builder with a mischievous fetish for dissensus. You won’t catch me insisting that that is the cause, but the description is apt.
Meadows: Interesting. I have to admit it took me a long time to realize that PRB has a predecessor in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that group also had an art and poetry publication named The Germ. Today’s PRB also has a sisterhood …
Maxwell: Yeah, I think at the time it appeared there was some impatience with the effete decorum of The Germ, which appeared out of touch in a time of great solution-seeking in poetry. But its untimeliness wasn’t accidental. Untimeliness is still something I attempt to elevate in literature. Literature in its most generous sense allows us not to ‘borrow from the past’ but to actively inhabit and live it. The best compliment paid to this recent book was from Aaron Kunin, who, perhaps just being kind, told me it was ‘timeless.’ For some, that could be a pejorative, but for me, who loves the idea of this, and who deeply admires Aaron, I’ll take that word into outer space.
Meadows: I admire Aaron Kunin’s work, too. We’re lucky to have him in the vicinity. Having reread The Germ (2001), I noticed Aaron’s early excerpt from The Sore Throat, and so many other carefully curated pieces: Georges Perec, Philippe Beck, Liliane Giraudon, Remi Giaccomotti’s “Portland” and “Cobain,” Peter Gizzi’s interview with Keith Waldrop, and so on — wonderful! You note that you resist the book form, its enclosure or forced stability in form that you phrase “version control,” yet Candor Is the Brightest Shield brings together work that offers what seems a careful arrangement. How did you arrive at this?
Maxwell: I’m a bit of a book skeptic. If we think of the book as a companionable form, it’s not an especially charitable one. It forcibly extrudes this exotic substance into a limited number of inherited templates — and these templates are rather indifferent to concerns, the shape and color of argument, its seasons, its cohort, its aches, its velocity. It’s easy to distrust the book! This may be why I’ve come to publication pretty late, somewhat reluctantly, and these first two traditional books — if they are indeed books rather than melancholy prototypes toward some intellectual protest — carry keys and directives for self-assembly and reassembly beyond what the shape of the book itself affords. Like whipped terriers, they still come to heel, though, carrying author’s name and copyright page and barcode. Anna [Moschovakis] and Ed [Smallfield] would confirm that I would’ve subtracted these too if permitted.
Each section of Candor roughly maps to a pamphlet or collection I’ve assembled and distributed by hand to friends over the years — in kind of a handicraft practice, as I would never print more than ten copies of a collection, and upon each subsequent reprinting would change the contents, and often the verse or aphorisms within. What survived were the concerns (or “keys”) listed at the footer of each section. The first arrangement collected roughly seven of these pamphlets, but on more consideration, we sampled from three of the oldest of them and placed them at back in the section “The Prior Art,” which might have been an alternative title for the collection as a whole, given how much it is preoccupied with intellectual property in its many senses. That section contains a style of long verse that I rarely pursue any more.
Meadows: Keys unlock, set experience of music, have an indexical relation to elsewhere. But do they also involve a possibility of succession in time? Or unlock an area of your thought? Here, some [keys] from Candor Is the Brightest Shield are:
In the section “Quotation or Paternity”:
KEYS: Version control. Invention. Prior art.
Attribution. Quotation. Pseudo-folk. Inventory.
Vernacular. Direct address.
In the section “Radiant Species”:
KEYS: Taxonomy. The visual intelligence.
‘Human interest.’ Porosity. The bounded society.
Models. Animal grief.
Maxwell: The dominant key conceits for me are from cryptography and music, both of which order the transmission of information, or order an addressed communication. I think of many poems as exemplars of book ciphers, poem codes of greater or lesser complexity, and I think a reader rarely possesses the precise key that the sender (poet) intended to share. Of course, many poets don’t intend to share at all, at least not universally or comprehensively, were it even possible, and it’s the play of disclosure and withholding that gives poetry its dynamic and often frustrating sociality. Some poems aim to confuse, to dazzle or suffuse, and as Caillois insisted some time ago, there’s pleasure in vertigo. And part of the joy of living in the literature is experiencing its occultation.
At risk of talking around the subject, here is a series of ‘suspended judgments’ from the ongoing Peeping Mot:
— That the occupation of literature is encipherment.
— That the poem cannot liberate the plaintext.
— That the poem clarifies and contaminates the plaintext at turns.
— That wonder is the ring of keys.
— That each syllable is a key, and each key a ravager.
— That if literature is encipherment, the dream of literature is agency and its nightmare, revelation.
— That the joy of literature is its occultation.
Though I’m persuaded that it’s a fairly recent development that we’ve attempted to make poetry more universally accessible, I’m sure it’d give any number of sincere poetry educators fits to revert to the old conceit of locked verse, awaiting some liberator or destroyer of sufficient genius to retrieve its urgent and tender messages. It’s not my mission, minor or otherwise, to perpetuate a mere fantasy of safes, spies, and heists. Though I do think, as in engineering, there’s a principle of ‘security by obscurity’ among poets. Each poem has its intimates, even those ostensibly addressed to anyone or everyone, and these intimates are those who will survive it, and the survivors are few.
It’s more crucial to me, as someone who wants to find poetry to be useful and livable, to produce a language of a sufficient difficulty commensurate with the perils of living. The voice is never calibrated. My keys invite transposition, and without doubt, the most interesting available readings will be themselves out-of-key.
Meadows: Here are a few samples from your work entitled Peeping Mot. From “Domains & Intents: 2”:
What publishing and poetry have in common, fundamentally?
It’s like a forced marriage of mathematics and cantaloupe.
And from “Peeping Mot p.5”:
Where is the entire interview? What is a mistaken belief?
Like at mid-evening, when it’s impossible to conceive of a solitary
failure, and unmarketability is an accommodating landlord.
“Chain of title.” “Talent agreements.”
Failure and marketability, interviewed, mistaken for brothers.
key: PEEPING MOT
And there are occasions of prolonged, witty barbs in the poem titled “The Conceptual Poet and the Hiring Committee” and others such as “This Time It’s for Real,” the first line of which is: “Against expression” in reference to a recent anthology by that title. Are these bemused takes on the incommensurable nature of art and the workings of a market economy? How, despite differences in power and sway, each intrudes on the other with errancy all around? Are “commons” creative?
Maxwell: Wry, maybe. The writing stands against literatures that are chiefly in service to movement or program and attempts to imagine a literature outside of academic and para-academic domains, as well as commercial publishing. This is the ‘career’ of the PRB, as well. It’s increasingly difficult to imagine a literature like this, at this peculiar historical time where most potentially interesting poetry is […] produced by those with academic appointments, or by those writing toward a next book. Many of the concerns and agonies of poets are those of academics in a system in crisis where humanities are increasingly devalued, and individuation proceeds via constructed innovations, minor scandals, and necessary professional publication.
If we think of the American moderns, from Whitman and Dickinson through the young poets active around when I was born, it’s easy to find nurse- and doctor-poets, engineer-poets, postman-poets, soldier-poets, linguist-poets, activist-poets, journalist-poets, insurance-agent-poets. Poetry is work done on the person and polycentric bodies of knowledge, to the side of the job. Canons and vanguards were less clear, and assembled less in service of the profession and pedagogy. I want to imagine a practice of writing that is agnostic to or discrete from the taxonomies and canons, especially the professional taxonomies and canons that precede literature or determine the act of writing — apart from those subsumptive movements and authorities that condition what the statement may mean. Instead creating a kind of process where the statement determines the taxonomy. It’s a type of utopian constructivism, I acknowledge — a sort of chasing after horizontalidad in literature. A contingent practice, but opposed to mere submission or attribution. And to evoke that kindred practice of horizontalidad: “Constructing freedom is a learning process that can only happen in practice.”
Can we imagine a writing that is not subsumed? Can we imagine a writing that is not effectively subscription?
Meadows: You reflect on as well as use the proposition as a poetic form, and it extends what might be a logician’s range in various ways. Can you comment?
Maxwell: There’s some adjacency to analytic philosophy and forensics, no question. I approach poetry as a space of value arbitration that is fundamentally undisciplined, but also unlike philosophy, which is a domain almost perfectly contained by the academy at this point. Do we speak of philosophy almost exclusively as a discipline now? I do, however, think writers continue to imagine a ‘total poetry’ quite often, and the total poetry is inevitably disciplinary. I act as an enemy of the total poetry.
A poem, if I am fortunate enough to make one, typically aspires to a free field of argument that tests a proposition that I don’t fully understand the implications of — a proposition that is difficult, but may be useful for living if posed carefully. At this point, I am more caught up in making propositions than verse, but when I do make verse, it’s what I might call ‘forensic verse’ — testing the livability of a given proposition. In many cases these propositions have been temporarily true for me, but poetry permits the possibility of them being very wrong — though perhaps right for a future receiver. They are tools that I hope will help someone down the line, in their own time.
Meadows: The aphorism? The epigram? Brief but resonant, often a form for philosophers (more often experienced outside the academy: barefoot, laconic, ancient), and often deflects the drive toward deductive logic. Here are examples from Candor Is the Brightest Shield, in the section titled “Life X”:
Quotation is the paternity of reclamation.
My generation is shy to talk of our generation, yet we continue to talk about reform.
One doesn’t seek explanation at the teat.
This love is a confirmation hearing, seeking ever clearer statements of intent.
Brainard said that “air is the only hope,” even as foreign matter is the first dilemma of negative philosophy.
Discourse of a breakfast companion: fart, grunt, raspberry, belch. Cartoon or no, Brainard was right when he said air is the only hope.
Maxwell: I admire the tradition of the aphorism as asytematic literature. What seduces me in the aphorism and poetry both is their utter lack of progress. Or at least, perhaps, the promise of that lack. The open laughter of the epigram in the face of a preemptive totality.
The models that tend to endorse my practice — that feel companionable to me — are largely French: Rene Char’s Leaves of Hypnos, both in the original and in Cid Corman’s beautiful translation, and also the notebooks of Joseph Joubert, who, lucky Joe, left no single book, but lived among smart, voluble people who brought him to pitched thought throughout his life. There are others: Lichtenberg, Cioran, Fourier, Pascal, Wittgenstein.
Meadows: Philosophic poetry has a long tradition: to give a rough line, one thinks of John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Jacques Roubaud, Clark Coolidge, among many others, and how philosophers such as Wittgenstein and John L. Austin have select portions of their works read as poetry. Another slanting line might move from a genre of apothegm in Diogenes’s Cynic philosophy to Adorno’s Minima Moralia (side stepping Plutarch’s Moralia) on to Rene Char, or … Where do you place your interests and concerns? Is there a tricky relation to moral philosophy?
Maxwell: Almost every name you mention has meant something to me at some point in my reading life. As a teenager, I also read into Emerson and Nietzsche heavily, the latter probably too much, and without conspicuous understanding. I read Marx early — I recall I took a medal at the state level in an academic decathlon in economics the year Marxism was the annual specialization. (Imagine that happening again in the US!)
My first contacts with poetry as an early teen were probably the metaphysicals, and oddly, Creeley, Dickinson, late Dylan Thomas. I took courses on the pre-Socratics. I came to university certain I wanted to study philosophy of language, and was inevitably redirected to linguistics and natural language study. I became distracted, perhaps unhealthily, by poetry and translation exercises, but the philosophic emphasis no question endured. I found a sweet spot in Lucretius and the Epicurean tradition as he preserved it, and later Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I suspect these are touch points for many who read enthusiastically into poetry and philosophy both.
I’ve been drawn to poets who tend to engage metaphysics and ontology freely: Ponge, Char, Moore. Agonists of the imagination like Williams, Stevens, Guest. At university, when I took literature courses, I studied alternately under Nate Mackey and a Marxist China scholar named Chris Connery who was certain literature was dead. He had me read thousands of pages of classical and medieval Chinese philosophy, along with a lot of materialist history and Frankfurt School writers. Meanwhile, under Nate, it was everyone from Wilson Harris to Susan Howe, Dogon mythology, Caribbean and Latin American literatures. It was a very eclectic literary education, heavy in various philosophical traditions, and I was attempting to pursue it while studying linguistics, Mandarin, French, and other languages for my official major. I became a very bad student, because I tried to read everything and had very little time to write papers. Half my course grades were incompletes, but I was frequently sought out as a teaching assistant, because I was a rare student who, though erratic and a little crazy, actually read the books!
Meadows: In Peeping Mot (and later in Candor Is the Brightest Shield) segments from “Life X” on father-son experience, that often feel startled and delighted, include these:
The father is a holdover. Tall, neutral angel, frequently lapsing into
That the inevitable parental subsidy to the child is chiefly a
To understand Char’s sense of acquiescence, one must understand
what he chose to sentinel: the sovereignty of the child.
The mot, mote, word, pithy aphorism, particle suggest many readings: that from which much (all?) can be made, or what might interrupt total assurance of smooth operation, be without anchor bolts. How might an undeniable creaturely growth shake up the staid social life that, too often, can […] swallow one into its grammatical patterning — yet language initiates each of us into community via deep structure, Chomsky-sort of grammar claimed here as a parental (or species) legacy?
“On the Partisan and Propositionality” relates that stutter itself is suspended with rote material such as a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but then we learn that stutter is exhibited when a stutterer speaks a proposition. To test an observed or unproven thought is a challenge to, or escape from, “unerring” enunciation? Or can be carried away through weeds in wild margins? The Rene Char quotation also opens your earlier chapbook The Coward Ecumenical.
Maxwell: There are a number of ideas to explore here, though I’m at a loss to solve for all these questions. Maybe we can start with language and Char first.
Personally, I’m marked by my own biography. I have an adoptive father, as did my mother, who had me out of high school, and her biological father was an orphan and a twin. Really we’re redneck gypsies — or to import a term from another domain, my ‘authority file’ is weak. (That may be why I took to Robert Duncan when I was eighteen or nineteen, another adopted autodidact from the San Joaquin.) My familial models are themselves weak, as much as my language modeling is frail. I’m testing both simultaneously, as person, as poet, as father. Because there is so much surrogacy and disappearance in my personal history, I’m a gross skeptic, hunting after tools to “speak to,” stumbling over language primitives, but frequently desperate to confide.
Both Peeping Mot and Candor Is the Brightest Shield worry over the inevitable indirection of language — the risk, the usefulness, the agony, the necessity of its concealments. Whether I am speaking to an ally, or speaking to a child, how do I convey my presence, my sincerity of effort, my charge of being? How do I confide without reducing my companions — to mere performers, to surrogates in some script or language game? Or reduce myself to a mere subscriber or underwriter of some preowned language? In this sense, the most critical idea I’m dogging is that of confidence. What is meant by ‘having every confidence’? Or a confidence in the language, a confidence in speaking, a confidence to speak? The plurality of the term is dazzling, and holds an unsteady mirror up to language, and, I think, to authoring or fathering. Its sense of trick or counterfeit, its sense of binding and contract, its urgent sense of passing on, through trust or pledge. The poet must be confident above all, but that’s a rather terrible curse, insisting upon any number of double agencies.
That’s why Char’s Leaves of Hypnos is such a powerful example for me — Char’s resistance war diary. Its war-born language of code-switching and disguises, that is still so needful for candor and transparency, and for a ‘society’ that will not murder itself. How do you recognize another bearing such a curse? How do you recognize a comrade? It cannot be through language expertise alone. You recognize the struggle via the stutter, the blush. We can admire experts, but we do not love them. And expertise and confidence are not the same thing.
Meadows: In Peeping Mot,you write in “Further Theories on the Graph”: “Beauty has too few concerns, whereas sadness is always evidential.” Does this aphoristic approach to aesthetic metatheory pursue a mischievous sense of affect?
Maxwell: You would hope for some mischief, right? That these statements I put there are something more than barefaced and platitudinous — not repetitions of some previous century’s arguments. But I try to purposefully avoid easy irony — which for me is a symptom of mere discomfort with being social in a manufactured present — and also to resist the notion that some statements are of this time, and others inapt, or obsolesced. Though ‘fat art’ is not for me, and I’m not overly preoccupied with escape, I’m sympathetic with Joe Gould when he writes to Pound: “You solve the problem of escape by being an expatriate — I am an extemporate.” I really do disdain the notion of literary progress. We should repeat with conscience and with care, but without fear.
If there’s any mischief involved, it’s often just the transposition of commonplace terms — terms that to me remain very mysterious, like beauty or sadness — into registers or domains where their meanings are more specialized, but where they still belong in an unusual way. In the example you mention, there’s an attempt to bring the affective and scientific senses of beauty into relationship through the field of graph theory. How does my or your notion of beauty evolve if we think about it in terms of the transactional, the relational?
I share the ’pataphysician’s enthusiasm for creating proofs for impossible subjects. But I don’t share the mathematician’s desire to see them to an end. It’s enough for me to start the thinker down the ‘wrong’ path, to make things delightfully difficult, to remind one how big and tough the world is, and how rebelliously structured.
My favorite models for thinking remain the nineteenth-century constructivist schoolbooks, like that of Lilienthal and Allyn, that build knowledge through ‘object lessons,’ and in the process demonstrate how knowledge is itself constructed, individually and collectively. The ‘things’ under my own scrutiny are often values, motives, affective relationships. But hopefully my compass is flexible enough to include discrete things too — like a child’s face, or the measure of a horse or dog. I struggle with the visual imagination, so I need to spend more time with discrete things.
Meadows: Do you refer to Fourier the mathematician or the expansive utopian writer? In your case, might both pertain? Or, with the example of the cover image for Candor Is the Brightest Shield “Zoological Times Table” by David Malki ! (altered detail) wherein hybridized animals — this year’s hippogriffs — are arrayed in a grid permutation that might flirt with Fourier’s series? Or in your “key” of animal grief, radiant species?
Maxwell: More Charles than Joseph Fourier. While there’s a kid math bowl contestant buried in me, and there are various math jokes embedded in many of my ‘published poems,’ Charles Fourier has certainly marked me more over the course of this life. Their concerns are not completely disjoint, however. They were both preoccupied with decomposition and numeracy, but Charles Fourier was obsessed with typologies, and though a fantasist, was also a great taxonomist. His Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy is pure ecstasy — a taxonomist’s Traumwerk. And I shared that vocation for over a decade.
Retrospectively, Fourier is a bit of a font for much of what I am and do. The first biographical essay of any length I can recall writing in late elementary school, perhaps fifth grade, was an extended book report on Horace Greeley, the Whig abolitionist who was also an American Fourierist. I wrote many little books and pamphlets when I was a child, and the first I can remember in detail was a small sketchbook of future discoveries of extinct animals with their descriptions and categorizations. A little revealing, right? It was a naturalist’s collection of animals that were, at [the] time of writing, not known now, but would be learned of at a future date — at which point they would be already gone. Fourier’s imagination is riddled with these paradoxes; this desire to conflate, as Jameson glossed it, ontology and utopia. To build elaborate systems of categorization that, in their scale and lack of mutual exclusivity, defeat themselves in their preposterous organization, let alone their application. For someone who rankles at notions of inheritance, of a lineage of influence, there’s some recapitulation of Fourier’s projects in my own.
The trajectory of Fourier’s social thought through Proudhon finds a sympathetic current in me as well. The paradoxical teloi of socialism and liberty, mutual aid and dissensus, and a conception of anarchy that means not an absence of social organization or structure, but an absence of sovereign or master. Because Proudhon’s solutions were under constant revision, the more dogmatic find him a failed thinker. Because Proudhon worked simultaneously within the government and without — prototyping an existential model of dual power — the less patient find him a failed revolutionary. But that’s good failure — his changeability and openness to revision, contradiction, and personal evolution is what I admire in him. I’m searching after a model of writing and a society of literature that respects the emphases that Fourier and Proudhon brought to political economy (without some of their prejudicial tics, of course). I consider poetry an “attractive work.”
So to loop back to your question, the hybridized creatures on the cover of Candor just provide a visual echo of that position: there are no sovereign or master copies (‘master copies’!), there are no patient zeroes, and version control is weak. All taxonomies are provisional, as is the work. Attribution will come only reluctantly, and does not carry the force of ownership. Again, this personal mania for disownership in literature.
Meadows: Your “daughter” poems in “Ottolineal” include:
Mischievous daughter — like the epigram, a portable form of life that
demands allegiance but not taxonomy.
That gender provisions for its handicaps with conventions.
Perplexity, to be neutral and do no harm, unruled but acknowledging her
The hyphenate power of the daughter.
Daughter and father play the soft sport of availability.
You talk about object lessons; I talk about animal grief.
The heart arrives as a coincidence.
There is much thought and varied feeling here: a deepened empathy, quizzical moments on structures of knowledge and gender dynamics, and what seems a renewed interest in how language (in all its forms) implies an interlocutor especially with a child, perhaps how a father has to be alert to “catch” the near-vocable, the gesture, the impulse for warmth and play from the baby daughter, that monologue is not of this moment.
Maxwell: These come out of a project, or self-study, where I attempted to write one statement or thought per day for each of the early years of my son’s and daughter’s lives, after birth. Both Peeping Mot and Candor Is the Brightest Shield sample from these projects. I had already been writing in a mode that was moving away from verse, or verse-like objects with typical titling conventions, toward frameless statements, or chains of statements, and I wanted to test for myself the idea that these modes of writing were interchangeable, or could be brought into easy relation. That my way of testing propositions about literature, ownership, or society was much the same as how I was testing my own assumptions about paternity or parenting.
I’m returning to these themes a lot, but disownership and adjacency are essential again to these projects. I want to be very near to these children, but I don’t want to call them mine. I am not their owner; I do not subsume them, but we cannot help but change each other. I can say […] the same of the statements that I read, and the statements that I make: I am not their owner; I do not subsume them, but we can’t help but change each other. We are intimate; we are in close relation; and we are not the same day by day.
There are musical precedents. Hoagy Carmichael anticipated this human question from another angle when he wrote: “It isn’t your sweet conversation / That brings this sensation / Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you.” Language offers some proximity, but how much?
Ottolineal specifically explores the relational nature of daughtering, and of the problem of authority in rhetorical conceits of the daughter. Historical literature is full of statements like Bacon’s “truth is the daughter of time.” Daughtering has a syntactical function that is variably troubling and exciting, and it’s also worth troubling or exciting its conventional senses. Some of these senses are awfully old-fashioned. The statements I’m testing reflect this, and also offer alternatives. I insist upon acknowledging the difference, but not on exact solutions.
Meadows: In Candor, the opening photograph with older and younger baseball-shirt-wearing players: A and asterisk, your baseball team the Angels(?), and the book’s author “Andrew” is whittled down to “A” …
Maxwell: It’s sourced from a photo archive of Californian amateur baseball history, roughly a century ago. Those are indeed California Angels, a half-century before the team came into being. I’m a native Californian, a partisan for California, and a baseball enthusiast. The Angels are my team — they are an unlovable team, and I find angels as a conceit tiresome and unlovable. Calling the father a “tall, neutral angel, frequently lapsing into the human” is a tiresome and unlovable statement, but I was reminded of Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire, and the struggle of the proximate to gain in confidence. The struggle to warm the hands, to refuse to be nonchalant, without determining the outcome of the human project. There’s a project of loving in this.
That photo was quite a find, with not a little Bretonian flea market magic to it, since the letter A and the asterisk otherwise appear throughout the work, as refrains, as totems, as passwords, as anonymizing agents. ‘A’ is also a nod in assent to the minor poetries I care to look after — like David Schubert’s Initial A and Wallace Berman’s lifelong project Aleph. These are works that are singular, and magical, but lack legacy. I want to be comfortable with that Epicurean mission to live unknown or to live obscure. If not to leave no trace, then to leave only traces, and to be sated in that. You may see the flashing banner, but a brand you shall not find.
Meadows: As an extension of your response on “adjacency”: in your work, a self is hinted at who is variously self-effacing, encoded, assured, “at argument,” exploratory, bemused, stubbornly “on the fence,” planted on the margin of self-aggrandizing culture projects, alert, observant of how democracy fell short of its ideals — its compromises or holding patterns — between the hero and the “coward ecumenical,” and resistant to fixing the human heart in names or categories. Can you comment?
Additionally, earlier poems hint at relational interests in long poems, such as “Collaborators,” dedicated to Philippe Beck. What do you owe to those literary conversations?
Maxwell: I think you capture that cranky, wobbly, ambivalent speaker better than I could!
I’m not sure I believe in literary debts, such that one might ‘owe’ something to be paid back — I go to the mat to resist the idea that poetry is a kind of money. But I do believe in literary friendships, and find that there is nothing more generative to writing. Friendships help me change my mind, and help me come to consciousness. Brief friendships that I had with Gustaf Sobin and Barbara Guest strongly impacted my notions of literary responsibility and fidelity to the imagination when I began to write in earnest in my twenties. Those friendships occurred at roughly the same time as when I was attempting to translate some of Beck’s early work. It made my mind active and gave me a sense of freedom, movement, and departure — and made me very certain that I wanted to enter into relation with voices outside my place and time. It made me certain that my fidelity is not to my contemporaries, but to my friends, wherever they may be. That Neverland of Whitman’s camerados.
You mention the human heart — that’s a conceit I don’t embrace much, but I know the poem you’re thinking of (“Letter to Peacemakers”), and it’s illustrative. The first real friendship that I had with a serious poet that wasn’t purely a teacher-student relationship — with someone who thought themself a poet, and who worked to be one — was my friendship with Peter Gizzi in my mid-twenties. I’d spend a lot of time in his apartment, and we’d read poems aloud late into the night, including some early versions of poems he was working on. One of those versions would become his poem “Pierced” in the collection Artificial Heart, which begins “The heart of poetry is fatigue …”
That line never sat right with me. I never questioned its sincerity, its coherence in the poem, or the seriousness of its implications — but I disagreed with it. It was not right for me; it might even be dangerous for me. That’s a difficult thing to say to someone a decade older than you, and someone who does this ‘for a living.’ But that was an important moment for me, because I came to consciousness in a number of ways, and it brought me to a [sense of] self-assurance about several things. One — whether it be a poem, a theory, a ‘work of art’ — what matters to me most is its argument, and the test of that argument’s soundness is its livability — its fitness for living. What are the implications for me in this life if I take this as true? Two, one can take the assertions of poetry seriously, and so I will try to wherever I find them. And finally, the strength of a friendship is measurable by how accommodating it is of serious disagreements. I really seek out disagreements in literature and think even provisional disagreement is essential for understanding anything in depth. Disagreement without animus, where possible! Disagreement can change and refine us, and that’s the sort of ‘collaboration’ I seek.
By the way, I think I’ve also come to terms with, now as then, not really having a strong desire to be a poet. “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” I’m not looking for a career or a name in poetry, and I am not eager to place a name on what I am becoming, have become, or will soon experience. I am a friend of the poets and to the poets; I do service in poetry. I hope to be known only enough to increase the number and note of those friendships: an “asterisk in thy region.” I have too many interests to say or be otherwise. I’m just as eager to be an impresario, a DJ, a drummer, an engineer, or a dragon, as Marianne Moore would have it. Faithful to the charged, observant mind — its “conscientious inconsistency.”
Meadows: Indeed, many interests. This has been intriguing, Andrew, and thanks for the sustained interview.
Maxwell: Thank you, Deborah. See you at the Bureau!
1. As in his books, Maxwell asserts the alternative convention of inverted commas over double quotations when speaking to key phrases or terms of art. The conflation of deixis and attribution in rhetorical and literary convention is also a central concern of both books discussed in this interview.
An interview with Craig Dworkin
Note: Craig Dworkin, author of Parse (Atelos, 2008), No Medium (MIT Press, 2013), and founding senior editor of Eclipse sat down with me on July 21, 2015 for a conversation in Salt Lake City as part of the one on one podcast series. Below, we discuss the origins of the Eclipse archive in terms of both its conception and how it was originally coded and put online. We discuss the given moniker “archive,” and Eclipse’s relation to databases, protocols, and algorithms. Through it all, we maintain an eye toward materiality — the relationship between those JPEGs of a scanned chapbook and its letterpressed, paper-and-ink sibling. one on one consists of conversations between myself and artists and writers working in, around, and through fields of digital technology. Listen to a recording of the interview here. — James La Marre
James La Marre: Hey, everyone, and welcome to another one on one. Today, I’m in Salt Lake City sitting with Craig Dworkin — poet, writer, and professor at the University of Utah. He’s also the founding senior editor at Eclipse, an online archive of poetry. How are you doing today, Craig?
Craig Dworkin: I’m doing great. Good to be talking.
La Marre: Really excited that you’re joining me today. The first thing I wanted to talk about was the Eclipse archive. Can you talk, maybe more generally, about its conception? How did it start? When did it start? What did it start with?
Dworkin: Eclipse started so long ago I don’t actually remember exactly when I began it, but I’d moved from the Bay Area [where I was] teaching at Berkeley with this fantastic library, with access to small-press, avant-garde, contemporary poetry, [and] fantastic bookstores in town where you could find things used, so teaching and researching about recent experimental writing was effortless and easy in terms of coming across material. And then I’d moved to Princeton [which had] a famed and fabulous library that had no contemporary avant-garde poetry in it whatsoever. I realized if, in this fantastically privileged position of teaching at this elite university, you couldn’t teach the history of twentieth-century poetry, no one, virtually, was going to be able to do it. And at the same time, there were scholarly articles starting to come out about the history of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, ’70s and ’80s avant-garde in America — and people were writing about it without having ever read the primary documents. In any other field in literary history [this] would be unthinkable; you’d never write a book about Renaissance poetry and say, “Well, yeah, I’ve never actually read John Donne, but let me tell you what I think about him.” And so I just wanted to make available to people who might be interested, who — it was very heated at the time — people who might be really opposed to that avant-garde — also people who were excited readers, poets who were looking for inspiration, and primarily people who might want to teach work. So [I] started this digital archive to make these works available.
La Marre: Was PennSound — PennSound being sort of the audio side of a poetry archive — were they established yet?
Dworkin: No, UbuWeb was the model, really directly. In fact, Eclipse came about over dinner with Kenny [Goldsmith]. He really gave me the encouragement to do it. I said I didn’t know anything about computers, I didn’t know anything about curating. Kenny convinced me that I could do it, that it was not that hard.
La Marre: Just put it online!
Dworkin: So I taught myself HTML. I got a book out of the library and went to it.
La Marre: Could you talk a bit about the process of getting works online? Is it all done basically by you? Or do you have regional pockets of people — you know, someone in New York does some chapbooks there that you can’t immediately get here.
Dworkin: No, most of Eclipse is me with my library after I’ve got my boy to bed, and I’m just staying up late and scanning a book off my shelf — often with really mixed feelings because I’m often destroying the binding of some rare and valuable book in order to make it more readily available. Some of the rest of the material, especially some of the runs of journals, of small-press journals, that we’ve put up, are done by my coeditor Danny Snelson. But it is essentially local in that sense that it’s just the two of us. Sometimes we have an intern who helps with things.
La Marre: In terms of permissions […], do you reach out to the authors before putting anything online?
Dworkin: Yeah, Eclipse, unlike some of the other online archives that I’ve worked with, is one hundred percent aboveboard, permissioned …
La Marre: I would wonder — since a lot of these pieces have such small runs — have you ever gotten denied putting something up online?
Dworkin: Interestingly enough, those are few and far between and mainly come from copyright holders who are not the authors themselves.
La Marre: Right, so you can’t get any Louis Zukofsky up online.
Dworkin: Gwendolyn Brooks’s estate … the widow of Joseph Ceravolo … I really wanted to have Fits of Dawn, a fantastically experimental, weird, unprecedented, unknown book that I was ready to destroy to put online, but she thought it was going to make her wealthy someday. We recently put on almost the full run of Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press chapbook series. And because it was technically published as a journal, it has ISSN numbers, it means that the copyright, if you reproduce the entire thing, is only with the editor. So, legally, all we needed was Lyn’s permission, but because of the nature of poetic communities, and because Lyn is such a nice person, she actually asked all the authors — must be about forty-five authors — individually if they would be happy with putting things on. Only three people said no: Richard Kostelanetz declined, and Carla Harryman and Barrett Watten both declined. But these are — for every person like that, twenty-five people say yes with enthusiasm and gratitude.
La Marre: I wonder — since these runs of these types of objects are so small — if there’s an aspect of fetishization that can occur with the materiality of these things. But it’s good that you don’t run up [against] too much of that, but since you’re, as you say, destroying some of these things — this is a pretty general question, but I almost want to ask what that feels like, to destroy the material [or] meatspace version for the online version, and what kind of relationship you see between that object in your hands and that object online.
Dworkin: So part of the impulse behind Eclipse is to — and the reason that the works are up there as image files — is that as a literary critic, I’m really committed to the semantic force, to the signification and the meaning of all of the material elements of a text; how it’s bound, and the kind of paper, and the typography are part of the work for me. So on the one hand, that’s it exactly — I’m destroying part of what I’m trying to make available to a viewer. But part of the argument of the site, in a slightly larger way, is also that the online edition — in bibliographic terms it’s just an edition — the online edition is in fact just as material as the letterpressed, hand-sewn book. In some ways, I think we’re coming out of an initial moment of rhetoric around the Internet and the digital, which imagined it as being disembodied, which we’ll shake soon enough. But also, I think we don’t get that it took literary studies a long time to develop the vocabulary for talking about the material specifics for the bibliography of the book. I think we just don’t have quite the vocabulary for thinking about how it is that digital editions are very embodied. But everyone who has tendinitis from dealing with the computer keyboard knows it is not disembodied. [listen]
La Marre: Totally. There is that kinetic aspect of actually being on the computer. I’m really glad we’re getting outside the fallacy that these things aren’t material, because these things do exist somewhere on a server; they’re just as material. This material might be smaller —
Dworkin: They’re using up a lot of fossil fuels, they’re using up a lot of resources, they get hot, things melt down —
La Marre: There was that one case where Facebook’s servers got so hot and were in a certain type of room that they actually formed real clouds and started raining down on themselves — which I thought was just a perfect image of how these things [can occupy space].
Dworkin: There’s the cloud for you.
La Marre: And there’s an example — of an archive like Eclipse — when Ubu’s server got hacked and they went down. That was an example of how easily these things that have this sort of illusion of permanence can suddenly be wiped away.
La Marre: I mean that has such synchronicity with the ephemeral nature of these —
Dworkin: Fugitive publications.
La Marre: — these other objects. I almost said “original objects,” but I worry about saying that. But that ephemerality exists in both spaces I think. I mean, it’s interesting, I think, a fetishization or an ephemerality of works online, I think, is — importantly, an aesthetics of that — is emerging as the vocabularies, as you said, are being built up for those things. Hito Steyerl has that whole text, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” more largely about cinema but at least —
Dworkin: No I think it’s entirely applicable, including to the lossy, bluntly filtered JPEG images that we have for the first books we have on Eclipse. Directly relevant.
La Marre: What do you use now to scan? Are you using your iPhone to scan or do you have a real scanner?
Dworkin: I have a not-very-fancy real scanner that is probably a ten-year-old, off-the-shelf Canon scanner. For large format things, we have a very fancy large-bed scanner that is a pain in the ass to use. I’m always grateful when poets publish things in small format trims.
La Marre: You mentioned Danny Snelson earlier. I remember speaking with him a bit about databases, and coming at things through a lens of that vocabulary involved in databases. Do you think of Eclipse through the term database?
Dworkin: Yeah, “database” is a much better term than “archive,” which I think is not really quite accurate for what Eclipse does, though it is the term that I use. Danny, in fact, just defended an absolutely brilliant dissertation, which has a chapter on Eclipse, as well as other big/small databases like PennSound, which you mentioned, and like UbuWeb. So a lot of how I’ve learned how to think about Eclipse comes from learning from Danny’s own work. And his practice also speaks to the materiality that we were talking about. He has a project forthcoming on Eclipse that is going to start from born-digital publications — works from platforms like Troll Thread and Gauss PDF. He’s essentially going to print out, then rescan, and put [them] back in as newly digital files on Eclipse. So I think that speaks better than anything to the materiality that is involved even with accessing born-digital documents.
La Marre: As an editor of Eclipse, is there any sort of curating that you do […], anything you try [to] bring to the archive? Or is it just, you put on what you’re able to come across?
Dworkin: One of the things that I’m always looking for are works that I think make a difference if they’re part of the consciousness of the historic record. Many of them are things that are in some ways unprecedented in their moment, but they maybe speak to contemporary practices, or are works that I think change our general sense of the map of what was done or what could be done. I tend to like all the stuff that’s on it. Since most of these books are just coming from my shelves, they’re things that I have because I like them and I read them. It’s not meant to be so much an archive of valuation — it’s not just stuff that I think is good. There’s some really bad stuff on there.
La Marre: You don’t have to say which you think are bad.
Dworkin: I’m not going to name any names, but just because I think something’s not a great book doesn’t mean that it’s not an important book because it showed someone doing something that hadn’t been done. In some ways, my imaginary audience is someone who’s maybe not an expert in small-press avant-garde of the ’70s, but someone who’s interested in contemporary poetry — maybe who’s teaching a class on contemporary poetry, and if they think, “Oh, James Merrill is really as experimental as it gets,” they can take a look at this and say, “Oh okay. I still want to be reading James Merrill, but it is not as crazy as it gets.” So, changing the sense of the landscape.
La Marre: Yeah, that was actually maybe the word I would use, too, getting as much of a textured kind of landscape as you can for these kinds of things. Do you do anything as an — you used the word “edition” before — would you say, have there been any releases on Eclipse as new editions of works?
Dworkin: Yeah. Not the main focus of the project, but a growing aspect of Eclipse, are new, born-digital works that I think of as the kinds of works that would be published by the presses that Eclipse features if they were still in production today. So if Sun and Moon, or if The Figures, were still as active as [they were] in 1980, what is the exciting work that would be coming from them? Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, for instance. Most recently, an absolutely brilliant reimagining of Clark Coolidge’s book Space, by a poet named Amanda Hurtado, who tracked down the specific model of typewriter that must have been used to set the pages for Coolidge’s book — it’s this work of media archaeology, abstracted language, and beautiful critical intervention that understands the body of the typist in relation to machine, in relation to the poem, and suggests all kinds of things about the myths and realities of Coolidge’s own prosodic, spontaneous work, shows that some of his poems are essentially left-handed poems, some are composed for the right hand. So works like this that are immensely exciting, and in some ways don’t have the range of small presses available today that they would have [had] fifteen years ago.
La Marre: That sounds awesome. We can sort of end — we can touch on No Medium for a bit, if you want to talk about how materiality, and your research on and interest in materiality through Eclipse, maybe influenced some pieces of No Medium.
Dworkin: Early on, from the very beginning, when I started first scanning books for Eclipse, I insisted that we scan every blank verso page — that we scan every blank flyleaf, and end paper — not because I could imagine what anyone would do with it, but I wanted all that material available to some future reader, some future scholar. It reveals things about printing method, and bleed-through, and binding — who knows what else. Part of the ideology behind Eclipse is that I don’t want to try and predict or imagine or limit what people will do with the materials. I want to make as much available as possible. This is why there’s no metadata; I’m not tagging. When I first set it up and worked with a consultant at the Princeton Library, they wanted me to have metadata tags for every metaphor in a poem. They said, “Well, you could tag every [piece of] water imagery.” [That] first showed that they did not understand Bruce Andrews’s poetry, but also that —
La Marre: Every leaf of grass —
Dworkin: I don’t want to imagine what people want to do. I want to make it as available as possible. But it also used to drive these initial consultants crazy that I was doubling our file size by scanning every blank page in this full beautiful 600-dpi, full-color scan of a blank piece of paper. That, in some ways, is also where No Medium originated — there, as a sort of challenge to myself as a potential scholar and critic, to kind of put my money where my mouth was and say, all right, if I really believe, if we really believe that all the material aspects of the book are significant, both in the sense that they’re important and also that they signify, that they’re meaningful — I wanted to write full-on, full-length scholarly, serious literary critical readings, art-historical readings of blank media, with the challenge being that I wasn’t allowed to say the same thing chapter to chapter and that I wasn’t allowed to fall back too quickly on the kind of lurid rhetoric of high theory. I was not allowed to get too soon to something about absence or aporia or the void or anything like that, but really to read it.
La Marre: I’m reminded of a way of writing through protocols — another thing I’m generally interested in, too, but that’s sort of where my fascination with these blank objects exists, is through the protocols of their creation, the protocols of the ream, the blank ream of paper. I wonder if you have any thoughts on protocols as they might relate to ways of writing. For example, you have Parse, your book of poetry that is very strictly — one of the most strictly written-by-protocol pieces of writing that I’ve ever come across. If you have any thoughts on how that kind of mode of writing relates to algorithms and the way that software, or projects that are pieces of writing that are built on those [coding] types of protocols, relate, and if you see — if the relationship [between protocols and algorithms] there is one-to-one for you.
Dworkin: Tell me more what you’re thinking because you’ve got a start on this, and I will follow.
La Marre: Kenny [Goldsmith] writes in Uncreative Writing, “The writing of the future will be done by robots” — that there’s all this writing going on right now by machines for machines, not for people, and that this way of writing could be just as interesting to read or look at through a lens of literary theory, and should be given that sort of rigor. Do you see an aesthetic relationship between that kind of writing — what I’ve called “dark writing,” writing that exists somewhere out there in the universe that humans do not ever see or can’t actually really read in a lot of cases?
Dworkin: As readers, and as the professional readers that literary critics are, we’ve not even begun to wrap our heads around the implications of the fact that the vast majority of writing today, by orders of magnitude, is by machines for machines. [listen] As you say, we’re not meant to read, we’re never going to read — if one takes a step back and is actually interested in writing today, most of that writing is machinic. I don’t know quite what to say about this except it strikes me as being a profound change in the state of affairs.
La Marre: Right, and especially in terms of “what can writing do,” it can make a billion dollars disappear because of a bug —
Dworkin: In less than a second. One way to get at this, then, is to come back to that creative writing classroom. One of the ways that writers tend to talk is about how to write more. That one of the problems of creative writing is the writer’s block. How can you generate text when we are drowning in texts that no one person could ever read? Even if you narrow it down to something like contemporary small-press avant-garde poetry, no one person can read all of it. No one can read what’s published this week. So the problem for creative writing is how to reduce what you’re writing. How to keep yourself from writing, how to know when to stop, and especially as we have an expanded sense of the tools available — which is to say both avant-garde techniques and also Perl scripting, the sort of things that can generate material for you — the trick I think is to figure out how to end a project, how to constrain it, and that comes back to algorithm in a certain way. They’re useful because they show you where to stop.
An interview with Amy Catanzano
Note: In May 2015 Jace Brittain and Rachel Zavecz interviewed me about my third book, Starlight in Two Million: A Neo-Scientific Novella (Noemi Press, 2014). The book combines narrative fiction — in which three characters, two of whom are named for Greek concepts, join forces to stop a war — with lyric poetry, visual poetry, and memoir. We discuss the book’s cross-genre form, ’pataphysics, quantum poetics, fourth-person narration and the fourth dimension, and more. In addition to talking with me about Starlight in Two Million, Jace and Rachel wrote a collaborative review of the novella for the online arts magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse. — Amy Catanzano
Jace Brittain: I think it’s fun to start with the book’s undercard: A Neo-Scientific Novella. Before I had delved into the context of Alfred Jarry and ’pataphysics, I just felt this wonderful compulsion to investigate my optimistic suspicions that “neo-scientific” meant that this wasn’t going to look like one’s average novella. Light skimming confirmed this, and later, when I was actually diving in, the sections that stuck out to me visually, like “Aftermaths/Beginnings” and “War Novella,” ended up being some of my favorites to encounter while reading straight through. And, ironically, I think these are the sections where the respective pulls of ’pataphysics and quantum theory begin tugging at the narrative strings, warping the reality of the story and the form of the novella. This is all to say, let’s talk a little about the undertitle!
Amy Catanzano: Thanks, Jace and Rachel.In some ways the subtitle is the book’s first hoax. Indeed, the book is not a standard novella, and like [Alfred] Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician: A Neo-Scientific Novel, I am aiming to hyperbolically interrogate genre. Ordinary narrative elements such as plot and point of view are constructed in the service of deeper explorations about language and spacetime. The “neo-scientific” section of the subtitle is meant to be interpreted more earnestly in that the book enacts some of the theories I explore in quantum poetics, where I investigate intersections between poetry, prose, philosophy, and science.
It delights me that you are gravitating to “Aftermaths/Beginnings” and “War Novella,” as they are the most blatant visual poems in the novella. Yes, I wanted them to warp the reality of the story, as you say. I think of them as visually subversive like Rachel’s wild “V” poems in Lac!/Lake that we recently discussed. I see “War Novella” as the novella’s wormhole. This chapter occurs after the authorial “I” comes into play in which I talk about rewriting the novella. That comes after Aletheia, Epoché, and the Enduring Karmanaut (the “visitor” at the beginning of the book) enter the war, which is an abstract war, an everywar. You may notice that the stream of capital letters spells out cries for war and no war, and what the novella is becomes a question. “War Novella” ends in the repeated letters, “IS,” which transforms into “ISIS” hissing the “S.” I wanted this to evoke the Egyptian goddess, Isis, the patroness of nature and magic, the protector of children, and the friend of sinners, slaves, artists, and the downtrodden. Today, of course, the term “ISIS” evokes something else.
“Aftermaths/Beginnings” ends on a square configuration that repeats the letters “l, o, v, e” but never spells out the word “love.” That was hard to do! This poem is partly an homage to bpNichol’s visual poem “Blues.” But the poem also privately speaks to a loss of love that occurred in my personal life, and if you decipher the disordered letters in the first few pages of “Aftermaths/Beginnings,” you’ll see an abstract narrative partly describing this loss. The book combines not only poetry and fiction but also memoir.
Brittain: I’m pretty taken with this idea of the subtitle as a hoax (one of many, perhaps!). In only a slightly different light, it might be seen as analogous to early mystery surrounding relativity at the quantum level […] with misbehaving molecules. Based on observations of the book from the outside — the subtitle, the approximate length and wordcount — this looks and quacks like a novella, but at molecular scales (and we should talk about what exactly that means), the novella isn’t behaving according to the rules we understand. And there’s where Jarry and his equation [an equation for the surface of “god” in Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, also appearing in Starlight’s front matter] come in for me … (∞ - 0 - a + a + 0 = ∞) … an unruly value there upsets infinity! Talk about hyperbole, everything ever is at stake. Like you said, narrative and plot are there, but they’re up to something else (there’s the hoax), a subversion that’s humorous at times and just as often points toward tough questions. There’s a very serious humor in Alfred Jarry’s work, and I think his gravity is very present in Starlight — the genuine curiosity and radical smirk it requires to ask, “What happens to our reality when a novella doesn’t act like a novella?” It’s a great jab at the serious and scared way some people discuss traditional forms, and then, in a very Jarry-like way, you ask, “but really, what does happen?” and poetry, philosophy, and theoretical physics get folded in.
Isis the goddess by design and now, unintentionally through current events: ISIS/ISIL. I remember reading “ISIS” in “War Novella” and trying to suss out the timeline in my head. Ultimately, I reduced it to coincidence while holding onto the thought that in human history, war is seemingly constant, dependable, so maybe this is a surprise/coincidence we should expect? Or maybe that kind of surprise is a product of the density of the referential web you’ve put in play, all the objects you’ve put into orbit (Jarry, Shanxing Wang, Martin Heidegger, and Laura Moriarity, for starters). With regard to authorial intent, in your Author’s Statement, you talk about “quantum jumping between intention and non-intention.” Can you talk a little about how your influences and intent (/non-intent) interact? And what happens to that after the book’s already out, in the reader’s hands?
Catanzano: I’ll start with talking about how I see the novella functioning at molecular scales. Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle claims that subatomic particles move by quantum jump rather than by cause and effect. Particles exist in states of superposition and can appear to jump into and out of existence. Position and momentum cannot be predicted with certainty and can only be measured in probabilities. Subatomic particles can occupy the same points in space at the same time, so time and space are reconceived in quantum mechanics. I wrote Starlight in a quantum environment. One aim was to quantum jump between intention — such as developing a question Shanxing Wang poses about fourth-person narration in his book, Mad Science in Imperial City (Futurepoem, 2005) — and subconscious or non-intention involving language play, intuition, and compositional experiments such as chance operations, collage, and more.
What does all of this quantum jumping mean for the reader is a great question. A reader can be thought of as an active observer, but we know from quantum mechanics that the observer is part of the observation, changing what is observed. I wanted to encourage the reader to creatively interpret the text, to go beyond and even oppose my authorial intent, but I also wanted to direct the reader through a quantum process.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” is a useful essay on traditional authorial intent and how some authors try to direct the interpretive process for readers. Poe’s ideas may seem old-fashioned, but there’s a reason why we are freaked out by that eye in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In the chapter of my novella with the title that spells out Aletheia and Epoché’s names in Greek, I write, “Our language is starlight. / We travel in all directions.” I didn’t write those sentences on Earth. Starlight travels in all directions outside of our relative position in space and time, and so does our language if we free it from Newtonian physics. I want the reader to quantum jump with me. Let us all be “misbehaving molecules,” as you say! Quantum mechanics, as a physics of dissent, challenges dominant notions of reality. These are some of the ways I see the book performing literary-scientific experiments in quantum poetics.
I’m not sure if the Isis/ISIS situation is a coincidence or a result of the referential web at play. In “Questionairre,” the characters come together in TAZ — Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Temporary Autonomous Zones — to enter the war (the “absolute system”) through a rigged telescope that Aletheia makes. In “Mock Heroic,” I show the war. Then comes the chapter, “The Novella,” where I talk about rewriting the novella. Next is “War Novella.” What I hope to subtly suggest is that Aletheia, Epoché, and the Enduring Karmanaut escape the war through Isis’s peaceful but powerful hiss. But now we see Isis as ISIS. Maybe my characters never escaped the war. Maybe the novella is still performing a quantum process, changing and being changed by changing circumstances. Maybe I need to launch a rescue mission.
Rachel Zavecz: I see Starlight as a complex experiment of inquiry, a multiverse of moving parts within the even larger multiverse that is literature as a whole. Within the neo-novella, every part on both a macro and micro scale has purpose; the overarching structure of poetry, prose, sentence, and the atomic vibration of letters. In “Aftermaths/Beginnings” we see the micro letter scale’s influence most clearly, the letters diffusing into new patterns and disrupting singular meaning.
In your last response you addressed the function of the reader, and I’m excited about the way that you encourage this reader to quantum jump with you through the process of such a complex experiment, the divergence in interpretation that really contributes to the multilayered density of the project. On a structural level, I wonder how the reader’s inclusion as part of the observed phenomena is benefited [by] or even depends on your use of the hybrid form, poetry specifically.
I focus most specifically on the poetics of the avant-garde. In your essay, “Quantum Poetics: Writing the Speed of Light,” you talk about the relationship between progressive art and science, poetry and quantum physics:
And like the relationship of the observed and the observer in quantum theory, the reader influences text through interpretation. It is also in this way that meaning, in both the new physics and poetic innovations, is a process rather than an end point.
Poetry seems to be a very important functional part of Starlight’s overall structure and hybridity. I wonder if you could talk further about this, and how you see other mediums (such as prose) functioning differently or the same in this regard.
Catanzano: Perhaps hybridity is a metagenre that surpasses what can be achieved in poetry, fiction, and memoir alone. But aren’t all of these literary categorizations like words on a map? North Carolina on a map is not the territory, North Carolina, where I am writing this; it’s a representation of a territory. Naming — a major theme of Starlight — is like a word on a map, a representation, but it is also political and carries power. At the subatomic level, what constitutes me in relation to my surroundings cannot be defined with certainty. The territory, what we often think of as the thing-in-itself or the physically “real,” cannot be defined without ambiguity. Likewise, what we mean by these literary genres is always in question.
In Starlight’s first chapter, “WMAP,” which I named after a NASA space probe, the authorial “I” says, “Love is the hybrid of us all.” Here I am trying to establish the breadth of the “us” in the book — the nameless “she” and “we,” the authorial “I,” and the three named primary characters, with one of them, the visitor/Enduring Karmanaut, giving itself a name. Inspired by the notion of fourth-person narration and Neoist practices where people make art under collective names and give themselves new names, I wanted to push narrative conventions for point of view and constructions of identity. But I encourage a sequential reading of the book, which I see as a traditional characteristic of fiction. There are characters and a plot. And I write mostly at the scale of the sentence. Sometimes I think of poetry as a U+F+O+L+A+N+G+U+A+G+E, an unidentified flying object that travels through unfamiliar territory — the text, our minds, physical reality — by way of warp drive. In Star Trek, warp drive is achieved not by making a starship fly really fast but instead by bending space and time around the starship. Warp drive is a lot like the concept of a wormhole, which Albert Einstein first introduced in 1935. He proposed that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a wormhole if spacetime between the two points was curled. A wormhole, like warp drive, is a shorthand, not unlike some forms of poetry. Physicists know that relativity is useful in exploring spacetime at cosmological scales, but it fails when thinking about subatomic scales of physical reality. This is where quantum mechanics is needed. Quantum mechanics redefines Newtonian conceptions of spacetime. This has significant yet mostly unacknowledged implications for poetry and other art forms, and my work in quantum poetics is an attempt to explore these implications.
“Aftermaths/Beginnings” challenges axiomatic notions of reading and interpretation, just as your poems do, Rachel, and as Jace’s typographically and visually complex pieces do in Lac!/Lake. In all of these works, words, letters, and/or pictures are encountered outside of ordinary constructions of spacetime such as linearity and cause and effect. Poetry, like quantum mechanics, can provide a counterpoint to thousands of years of received ideas from Aristotle, Euclid, and Newton about space and time. Aristotle was one of the first people to articulate linear time, and he based his ideas on Euclid’s notions of linear space in geometry. Newton was influenced by Aristotelian time and Euclidean space when he developed the laws of motion that led to classical mechanics. Quantum mechanics, which rejects these received ideas, has been the dominant theory in physics since the 1930s; our literature needs to catch up! Postmodernism has made a number of important strides in rejecting received ideas, but it still hasn’t rejected received notions about spacetime. That’s one of the things I’m working toward.
One of my claims in quantum poetics is that poetry is expanding along with the known universe, which scientists believe is not only expanding but expanding at accelerating rates. The space between galaxies is getting bigger, for example. Language is a hyperdimensional object within the multiverse, the wilderness of universes of which our known universe is a part. Poets could be asking, “What is the physics of my poetry?” Physicists could be asking, “What is the poetics of my physics?” Seeing poetry as a shorthand, a wormhole, a warp drive capable of moving space and time around it is one of my bolder claims in quantum poetics because I’m not just figuratively speaking.
Zavecz: In thinking about poetry as a kind of shorthand, a wormhole or warp drive, I wonder how this concept might relate to Joyelle McSweeney’s “Bug Time.” She describes it within the context of the necropastoral as a sort of time where linearity becomes impossible. Instead of moving in a unidirectional line, it is as if time explodes in all directions simultaneously; literature proliferates too quickly to allow for tradition or hierarchy. Connections between literature across time and space become a matter of two-way warp travel — it becomes possible to say that influence moves both backward and forward through time. And as our universe expands, literature correlates in its exponential proliferation.
I wonder how you might see Starlight functioning within the larger literary world — does it function similarly to poetry’s warp drive? You’ve talked about influence from past authors, but I also wonder if Starlight might also be reaching and connecting with literary influence that exists in our future. In a universe where expansion is inexorable, how might poetry’s warp drive mutate to accommodate the increasing distance? How might your next literary project address this increasing scope, and how different and/or similar might that look in comparison to Starlight?
Catanzano: There does seem to be a strong connection between Joyelle’s “Bug Time” (great concept!) and the lack of linearity in quantum mechanics and my novella. “Bug Time” seems to reveal how humans conceive of space and time through the subjectivity of their positions without considering the relativity of those positions. It is fascinating to think of influence occurring between texts across space and time in a two-way wormhole. Texts interacting across “space” and “time” expands the now (“time”) and the here (“space”) so that the “spacetime” or “now-here” combines into “no-where” (“now-here” mutates into “no-where” by repositioning the hyphen), which is a kind of “every-where.” Nowhere and everywhere happen in the now-here.
In some ways I am writing for a transhuman or posthuman readership. But I don’t believe in stable realities or linear conceptions of space and time, so rather than contextualizing my work as vanguard and futuristic, I view it more as functioning outside of “space and time,” where these words are separate concepts, and more in “spacetime,” where these words merge. As you mention in your collaborative review of Starlight at Queen Mob’s Teahouse(thank you, again!) in the chapter, “Under the Ocean Floor,” Aletheia writes to Epoché: “This is an allegory of space and time and how each word became one.”
Space and time are the same thing in the fourth dimension, where the three dimensions of space meet the dimension of time. On a piece of paper, zero dimension, 0D, can be exemplified by a point. 1D can be exemplified by a line, 2D can be exemplified by a plane like a square, and 3D can be exemplified by a cube. A cube drawn on a piece of paper is a 3D projection, unlike a square, on a 2D plane. 4D, the fourth dimension, is a temporal dimension, not a spatial dimension. 4D can be projected on a 2D surface or modeled in 3D as a hypercube or tesseract, which combines the three dimensions of space with the temporal dimension of time. I wanted to make my novella into a tesseract. Using spacetime as a literary device, I wrote in fourth-person narration by combining first-person point of view, second-person point of view, and third-person point of view with the authorial “I” and poetry. The fourth dimension can be seen as the narrative that results from my experiment. Plus, a literary work like my novella that is written in fourth-person narration can be conceived of as a projection of 4D spacetime on a 3D plane, the book. And if a book occurs in 4D spacetime through the interaction between the book as object and the reader and writer, fourth-person narration can be a projection of 5D or higher spacetime on a 4D plane. But on what plane does a book exist?
It would seem that the writer/reader determines the number of dimensions upon which a book is capable of interacting. I have discussed some of these ideas with Charles (Chuck) Stein. At one point he suggested that a higher dimensional consciousness in the fifth dimension could be imagined as time traveling by moving freely between the 3D spatial states in the fourth dimension. In some versions of string theory, the multiverse — a wilderness of universes in which our known universe is a part — is thought to exist in at least eleven dimensions. This is one way I see my novella conceptually operating within the contextual frameworks of the mathematics in string theory and beyond.
One cool thing is that I recently learned how to hand-draw a 4D tesseract. Chuck makes drawings with hundreds of interconnecting Necker cubes, ambiguous cubes that appear to shift orientation when you look at them. He became interested in Necker cubes because of the conceptual and Fluxus artist Henry Flynt. Some of Chuck’s drawings also contain tesseracts, and he taught me how to draw one. You draw one 3D cube inside another 3D cube and attach the corresponding vertices. Voila! From each face, there’s an inner distorted cube that is a cube, too. He has dozens of these drawings. They are quite profound. It is as if he is drawing a representation of the fourth dimension over and over, which makes the viewer perceive dimensions far beyond four. The drawings pulse. They look like hyperdimensional cities. Sometimes he draws little people in them. The people represent “the people” and first appeared when Chuck was active in the Occupy movement. Some of his drawings contain Roman letters and invented languages. Some include what look like organic, atavistic, scorpion glyphs.
Whereas in Starlight I was trying to enact fourth-person narration by using the fourth dimension as a literary device, in one of my new projects I am using the symbol of the tesseract — what I think of as the body of the tesseract or the mathematical image of the fourth dimension — in a serial visual poem titled, “Borealis: Time Signatures.” I may add a hand-drawn tesseract, but now I’m using a computer-generated tesseract that has different-colored sides, which highlights the tesseract’s multidimensionality. It’s very pretty. It’s like a jewel that plays tricks with the mind. Working from an idea Chuck had, I may assign vectors to the tesseract image to highlight its temporality. The poem in which this tesseract image appears has a word-cipher representing the names of my twenty-three favorite authors. I thread this cipher through visual poems that explore theories of time.
I’m also writing a hybrid critical-creative work on quantum poetics, which collects my speculative essays. And I’m writing a conceptual memoir titled “MEPO: A Conceptual Memoir from Loveland,” which argues that conceptual poetry and confessional poetry can exist in a quantum superposition.
Brittain: I always like finding out (often in interviews) what people are excited about, what they hope to do. And it seems especially relevant to discussing your work because even these different projects engage in similar conversations and build off each other, like iEpiphany and Multiversal in Starlight. It’s similar to the way we discussed influences earlier. I’m interested in the responses you’ve gotten from others, including students. I think you mentioned you brought quantum poetics into one of your classes. In what kind of directions did your students take these ideas?
This has been a blast and a very generative experience for both Rachel and me. Thanks so much, Amy.
Catanzano: Thanks, too, Jace and Rachel. Quantum poetics is one of many frameworks I explore as a writer. I started using the phrase around 2007 and soon discovered others using the phrase. For example, Stephanie Strickland uses the phrase to discuss digital poetics in her essay “Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts,” published in Media Poetry International Anthology (Intellect Press, 2007). Daniel Albright uses the phrase in his book Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2006). One thing that distinguishes my use of the phrase is my focus on quantum mechanics as well as my development of a criticism and poetics attentive to physics alongside my own creative writing and art.
There have been a number of encouraging responses to quantum poetics. Michael Palmer, in his foreword to Multiversal, mentions my experiments in time and physics in that book, and reviews of iEpiphany and Multiversal by Tina Brown Celona, Rebecca Porte, and others have responded to my ideas in quantum poetics, as have newer reviews and responses to Starlight in Two Million. Jerome Rothenberg was an early supporter of my critical/speculative work in quantum poetics, talking with me and publishing my first essays on Poems and Poetics, which was mentioned earlier.
I gave one of my first talks on quantum poetics when Anne Waldman invited me to chair a panel discussion on the topic of poethics and the environment in the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University, where I was working and teaching at the time. I remember a contentious comment from an audience member who claimed that incorporating science into poetry takes away something essential from poetry; he associated poetry with a typical Romantic antirationalism. That was the first negative response to quantum poetics I received. Soon after I participated in a discussion project for Jacket2 (“Like a Metaphor”) on poetry and science with nine other poets. There I shared early drafts of my “Borealis: Time Signatures” project. I received many encouraging responses.
More recently I wrote a series of commentaries at Jacket2 on quantum poetics, where I discuss and present work by writers such as S. S. Prasad, Jena Osman, Allison Cobb, Andrew McEwan, Bhanu Kapil, M. NourbeSe Philip, Adam Cornford, Adam Dickinson, Jennifer K. Dick, Will Alexander, derek beaulieu, and others. This gave me a forum to use quantum poetics as an interpretive framework. As part of this I published a series of written exchanges I had with Andrew Joron about science and poetry.
Earlier this year at Wake Forest University, where I teach, I was invited to give a lecture on quantum poetics as part of a colloquium series in the Physics Department. There were about sixty physics faculty and students at the lecture. I discussed, among other topics, the uncertainty principle and the role of ambiguity in poetry and quantum mechanics.
Ming-Qian Ma, a professor at SUNY Buffalo who specializes in innovative poetry and poetics in relation to philosophy, science, and art, discusses one of my poems in Multiversal, “Objects of the Visible Language,” alongside quantum mechanics in an essay that will appear in a forthcoming Northwestern University Press book, “Articulating Contemporary Poetics,” edited by Charles Altieri and Nick Nace.
One of the first times I taught through the context of quantum poetics was in a summer workshop at Naropa. In one exercise I developed, students read about Einstein’s theory of relativity and wrote poems that could “exist” in a rocket ship traveling at the speed of light where space compresses, mass increases, and time slows. The students experimented with literary strategies that can evoke these concepts on the page and in performance. One student was taking the class for noncredit. She was in a circus troupe coming through town. At a reading she recited her poem while juggling what looked like crystal balls, synching each word in her poem to when each ball hit its apex, which meant her juggling had to follow the varying tempos of her poem. It was amazing. I also taught a Naropa summer workshop where students learned about the history of imaginary and constructed languages and developed projects out of their own created languages. In my current courses I teach a range of approaches to reading and writing. Rae Armantrout has cotaught a course on poetry and science with a physicist at the University of California San Diego. I would love to coteach a course with a physicist someday.
Note: This interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone from a radio interview originally conducted on November 24, 2003 on Cross-Cultural Poetics, KAOS 89.3 FM, Olympia, Washington. In this episode of Cross-Cultural Poetics (Episode #8: The Inferno), Canadian poet Robin Blaser discusses Dante’s Inferno in relation to the American-made “inferno” in Iraq. The original audio recording of the interview can be found here. — Michael Nardone
Leonard Schwartz: Welcome to Cross-Cultural Poetics. Today’s guest, on the phone from Vancouver, British Columbia, is Robin Blaser. Robin Blaser was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1925. A key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance of the ’50s and early ’60s, he moved to Canada in ’66, where he joined the faculty at Simon Fraser University and is now a professor emeritus. In June 1995, for Blaser’s seventieth birthday, a conference was held in Vancouver to pay tribute to his contribution to poetry in Canada. The conference was named “Recovery of the Public World,” a phrase borrowed from Hannah Arendt, and was attended by poets from around the world. The 1993 publication of The Holy Forest, available from Talonbooks, stands as his master work. This year, Blaser’s essay on poetics in the age of Bush, “The Irreparable,” was published by Nomados Press in Vancouver.
Robin Blaser: Thank you.
Schwartz: Well, where shall we start? You have written so many great poems over the years, and your poetry remains so violent, so relevant. You have a poem, an early poem, entitled “Image Nation 13,” which is subtitled “Telephone,” and I thought that might be appropriate given the fact that we’re stuck on one here.
Blaser: Okay. I can go for that. “Image Nation 13: Telephone.”
[Reads “Image Nation 13: Telephone.”]
Schwartz: You’ve been listening to Robin Blaser read “Image Nation 13,” an early poem. Could you say a little bit about the poem, or, really, about the whole “Image Nation” series?
Blaser: Well, the whole “Image Nation” series runs and continues to run and, I suppose, will in my long life, as I quote from Gertrude Stein. [Laughs.] “My long life,” that’s Susan B. Anthony actually in her play, but it’s a wonderful line. The image nations work that way in that they come because they center upon image and move through. They are like threads of image that fold and fold and refold and refold. I like writing them when I can because they lead me to the unexpected, and I’m very much involved in the poetics of, well, we were there and we were here, now we’re where, because it’s particularly under our present political situation, the where is a big one, and it puts the lyric voice under incredible stress. The beauty of the lyric voice, the stress it has to get to be as good as Dante in order to hold on to what that lyric voice must say. Well, the image nations are my effort for the lyric voice to hold on to the biggest world I could get my mitts on, okay.
Schwartz: I understand “image nation” as a phrase, or as a neologism, suggests a deep connection between the poetic and the political for you. Is that correct?
Blaser: Very much so. The lyrical could no longer be simply personal.
Schwartz: This also connects up to, I think, your writing on your friend, the great American poet Jack Spicer, who certainly suggested the idea of a serial poem, right, a poem that, well, strings itself out — not strings itself out, that’s so pejorative — but, rather, continuously suggests its next possibility over an extended period of time.
Schwartz: Would that be accurate to describe “Image Nation” as part of an extended serial poem?
Blaser: Very much so, yes. The serial is a very interesting complex for a form, too, so that form is always alive, rather than form being a shape, the box that you stuck the thing in. It loves constant movement and life of form because if form is anything at all, it’s the life of the language.
Schwartz: “Image Nation” then leads us to your new book, or your new essay, “The Irreparable.”
Blaser: Oh, yes.
Schwartz: There’s a passage from that I’d like to read back to you, if I might, and then ask you to comment on it. You say: “Now, let us consider this current, world-wide war with its stunned vocabulary of sorrow (September 11) mixed with appetites for vengeance, oil, and money, and try to find the soldier who’s been sent there. First off, we run into a manipulation of language that is meant to shape a herd, an amalgamated voice, answered from the other side by a violent refusal to be subordinated. Whiffs of god on both sides of this ‘manifest destiny’ to found the good. The shepherds are many in this intermeddling tradition — Hebrew, Christian, Muslim — a clangour of splendours. The herds are obedient, especially since the media have been instructed not to show the mutual brutality and barbarism.” Could you comment on that?
Blaser: Yes. I think one thing I would like to pick up immediately is the following line: “Then the appropriation of this war and its leaders to God, verified predominantly in English, needs to be reminded that the words god and good are not etymologically related. So, what of the one who stands and sleeps alongside things, even you and me? Inside all of this? This war with its eyes out.” And further on in the paragraph: “Words become tears.”
I think the passage is taking homage, and it was written before the present circumstance of this outrageous war in Iraq, illegal and brutal and covered with a manipulated language that means we have a responsibility, a responsibility to know what’s going on, not to be fooled by the language, not to be passive in front of the word president. The president is only a presider, and he is supposed to preside over responsibility. What we need to do is watch carefully the prostitution of the intellect to messianic ideological ends. Very urgent, according to the recent essay I read by Mark Lilla. So, does that answer what I’m doing with that?
Schwartz: It begins to, that’s certain. It’s such a hard-hitting and important essay, “The Irreparable.” We see so little in terms of, well, a language that moves beyond the level of the bullhorn and the slogan in terms of countering the Bush Administration’s rhetorical strategies. My own view is that anything that is a bullhorn and a slogan mimetically reproduces what we’re up against, and that’s not what we want. So, what excites me about “The Irreparable” is the challenge you take on of investigating the under-thought in language, even what you just said about the etymology of the word “president.”
Blaser: I’m very concerned in “The Irreparable” because I think we’re inside a condition of the irreparable, and later on in the essay from which you just quoted, I put, “Therein, a record of the wreckage of the Transcendental — Absolutism — God — Ideology — dangerous drivers of these Powers along the aporia of Heaven.” — Aporia, for your readers, means an abyss, an abyss of heaven. — “Can it be that we are all forced to walk the aporia of spreading miasmata?” Miasmas are spreading all around us in the current absolute horror of the Iraq invasion and the total destruction between Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon of the Middle East, which then spreads all the way back into Afghanistan and so on and so on. We just watch it, and the words for it are not being given with honesty and directness, and all the media has been controlled in some way or another. To watch CNN on these subjects, you don’t even see the mutual brutality of the entire condition of things. There is no love here at all. No love of life, which is of course our fundamental responsibility. To ourselves, and to others.
Schwartz: I wanted to ask you a couple of things there as well. You’ve always been concerned about the ways in which language is a nexus for both poetry and power. We’ve discussed “Image Nation,” we’ve discussed “The Irreparable.” What are you working on now?
Blaser: What am I working on now?
Blaser: New poems. I have quite a few now that are gathering, so there will be another book of poems soon. I don’t write every day or enormously. I am not a professional poet. I am a poet when I am stricken by language in some way or another, or a condition of mind and heart that means I have to speak out. So I don’t have that business of, you know, one a day or one a month or whatever. So sometimes it can be a slow business, and I have been very much taken with right now the problem of the where. I mean, as I said earlier, we’ve been there, we’ve been here and now we’re where, and we don’t know where we are. And then I begin drawing to, in my poetics, a move to include my companionships, and right now I’m very busy with the great Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, with the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, because these people become companions of the destruction of experience in which we are caught when our language is as dishonest as it presently is across North America.
Schwartz: But I gather then that it’s possible to continue, or even there’s a greater imperative to continue, when language itself is in such peril.
Blaser: The public language in peril, yes. Well, I mean, you just don’t have the right to sit and sob. And it doesn’t work to attack the people, but you can attack the use of language. You can insist upon an honesty of discourse. You can insist that things be taken up that are the real needs and necessities instead of these dreams of whatever it is they have over there — Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon, and those who join them. I was very pleased when Canada did not join in the Iraq invasion, for example.
Schwartz: Can I ask you a question about that? I’ve always meant to ask you this: how is it that you were born in Colorado and are now a Canadian citizen?
Blaser: I have co-citizenship. I have dual citizenship in the United States and in Canada, by birth in Denver and my many years there, and then in Canada, I was asked here by the new university, then, Simon Fraser University here, and I came for a year. They asked me to stay two, and then they asked me to stay on, and they were generous and they gave me a great deal of freedom in what I could do and what I could teach, marvellous courses, and so I spent twenty years at the university. Now I’ve been up here over thirty years, and it does not seem to me that it’s quite right to live in a country and not participate in its political and social life, so I took out my Canadian citizenship alongside the dualism of the dual American citizenship. I have both.
Schwartz: That’s interesting.
Blaser: And I honor both, too. But I was very, very struck by a remark that I read recently by Mark Lilla, which I quote right now because I had written it down in case it was useful: “You may love America, yes, but you must hate cruelty, despise liars and value liberty.” And I add to that: This is justice and simple decency, which I call responsibility.
Schwartz: I have the sense of responsibility in language, which, in terms of reading or in terms of a philosophical source, from Emmanuel Levinas who suggests that language always implies an other, and therefore that as soon as one speaks, one implies another and therefore there is a responsibility, therefore there is an ethics to the very existence or being of language. Does that in any way correspond to your sense of what it is?
Blaser: Absolutely. I’ve read that Levinas. I’m very much on the Levinas and read him carefully because, yes, it speaks exactly and directly to me. What is sacred life? Now our condition is such that we have to ask such questions and we have to think of it, and then inside all that is that wonderful little word love, and that was very directly implied by what Levinas was saying. And that love is something that is in the very nature of language and the very nature of our relationship to it, and that the public space does not account for this is irreparable at the moment.
Schwartz: We met once, we met — we’ve only met once — years ago, not that long ago, it just seems so long ago because it was a much happier time in a number of ways, at a poetry festival in Coimbra, Portugal.
Blaser: Oh yes, I recall that meeting. I enjoyed very much being in Coimbra.
Schwartz: It was at a reading in Roman catacombs that had been recently uncovered underneath the city, and you read a poem then, which remains one of my highlights in poetry to have been present for, which seems to me even more true or even more important now. I wonder if you could read it for us?
Blaser: You mean “As If By Chance”?
Schwartz: “As If By Chance.” [Laughs.]
Blaser: Well, alright. Let’s do it. “As If By Chance.”
[Reads “As If By Chance.”]
Schwartz: You’ve been listening to Robin Blaser read his extraordinary poem “As If By Chance.” Sounded just as great the second time as the first, even without the catacombs. [Blaser laughs.] So, thank you for that. Privation and privies, as well. The private world and the world of privies. Could you say a little bit about how that poem comes about?
Blaser: Well, thanks for pointing out that, privy and privacy, because privacy can be something that can become a privy. The poem came about, as the title indicates, as if by chance. And trying to think through all those things that can be claimed, taken over, and so on, so what I did was, in that style, try to redefine in each time against the grain of anything that will make them simpler, less subtle, less profound to our nature; [I tried] to put them back where they belong. And that’s the way I started working at the poem.
Schwartz: Extraordinary. Who were you reading at the time?
Blaser: Well, I was reading Castoriadis. He’s a philosopher, French philosopher, now dead. And a very, very good one, and I quote him there at the very end and last sentences of the poem. That was the main source of reading there. The rest of it is just me meandering through the world that I like to live in, a world of talking and reading and listening, the very way in which we become honest people rather than dishonest people, poetically or otherwise.
Schwartz: I thought I heard Dante walking with you as you were reading that.
Blaser: Ah, you hit my, that comes so early in my life, I can’t even. It was Depression time, of course, when I was born, and there wasn’t much left but a few books, and one of them was the volume of Doré’s Dante, with those extraordinary illustrations of the text, especially the Inferno, which haunted me, and that face, that magnificent face, Doré’s imagination of what Dante looked like is in those books, if you have them. They’re wonderful. The books seemed to be about half my size, and I’m not reading yet. It’s before I’m four. I begin to read at four, but before that I was looking at these pictures. Dante has never left me since that time. And so, I’ve done everything I could to read him in the original, to think of him, to outline it and to be fascinated by the way in which the lyric voice there is constantly at stake in relation to every other kind of discourse. And Dante is the first poet in the Western tradition who could write and include the range of discourse so that the lyric voice was not always simply the impression of the I, but the I among things in the world, in meaning. Well, I worship Dante. I mean, he’s with me all the time. Yes! [Laughs.] He didn’t leave me from my childhood, from haunting me in picture books.
Schwartz: He certainly led you to some very intriguing and arresting worlds. Dante is sometimes a passive observer, I think, in the Inferno. Sometimes there’s nothing you can be but a passive observer, but he’s more than that as well, as are your poems, which seem to be so actively involved, and not so much manipulating their object as speaking to the object and changing it through a kind of process of language. Does that sound accurate to you?
Blaser: Yes. I would like that. Put that in print, will you? [Laughs.]
Schwartz: I just might, I just might have to or be compelled to. When you write, do you feel yourself to be the source? Do you feel the source coming from the outside? We spoke of the poem, or you spoke of the poem, as a lyric. At the same time, you are often associated with, with your essay on Jack Spicer, the poetry of the outside, and of course with Spicer. The poem comes from Mars, as he puts it. It comes from some place other than himself. Where do you situate your own work in that discussion?
Blaser: I share that with Spicer, with a different vocabulary, that I absolutely do not think that it is just mine. The first experience of that is the experience of language as being a grand otherness, and then of course the magic of finding your way in language, and it takes a lifetime to do that, really. You’re never, you’re never, at least I’m never, sure of myself in language. It’s always a kind of otherness that I am able to enter, if I’m careful. I suppose I’m always very aware of language as one of the stunning pleasures of civilization. Well, I started out with those phrases — “there,” “here,” “where” — and those are the words of lives and languages, whole languages, and one should gain as many languages as one can, because they speak back and forth to one another. And the great pleasure of going through a dictionary and finding all at once what the word comes from, it’s one of my constant pleasures. The conversation with language that makes me think what I’m always doing is that I’m in conversation in some way with this vast range of life that is language itself.
Schwartz: Robin, that’s so inspiring, frankly. I’ve always found it inspiring to both read you and speak with you. We’ll have to have you come back and converse more very, very soon. Thanks so much for being here.
Blaser: I’m delighted. Thank you.
Schwartz: You’ve been listening to Cross-Cultural Poetics.
Note: Emji Spero, an Oakland-based artist and poet exploring the intersections of writing, book art, installation, and performance, visited Philadelphia and the Kelly Writers House in April 2015 to talk about their book almost any shit will do, which uses found language from mycelial studies, word-replacement, and erasure to map the boundaries of collective engagement. Spero is a cofounder and editor of the “art-cult” Timeless, Infinite Light and has described their books as “spells for unraveling capitalism.” In this interview, Spero spoke with Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, a poet living in Philadelphia and author of the chapbooks JOGS (Lulu, 2013) and Nite [chickadee]’s (GaussPDF, 2015), about personal trauma, queer longing, surveillance states, public/private access, the Baltimore riots, and a new work on violence as the static and quotidian. The interview concludes with a ten-minute collaborative reading by both poets from almost any shit will do. The interview was transcribed by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague and has been edited for Jacket2. Listen to the recording of this interview here. — Gabriel Ojeda-Sague
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague: Hi! I’m Gabriel Ojeda-Sague. I’m here in the Wexler Studio with Emji Spero, coeditor and cofounder of Timeless, Infinite Light, and a poet and artist living in Oakland, author of almost any shit will do. Hi, Emji.
Emji Spero: Hi!
Ojeda-Sague: Thanks for being with us here. I want to start just by talking about almost any shit will do, which is out by Timeless, Infinite Light, the press you work with, and I want to start just by asking you in your own words — and for people who don’t know the project — to describe the form and maybe the process of how you created the work.
Spero: For almost any shit will do I feel like there are three threads mainly running through the text. There’s the series of prose blocks that are attempting and sort of failing at defining the terms “the individual” and “the movement.” And those are sort of — those were — that section was my attempt to inhabit or embody a particular point of trauma in my own life in which I was in the middle of an action when I was living in Olympia, Washington, and I was thrown onto the ground by the police during the course of the protest and suffered chronic pain as a result for, like, many years afterwards. So those are sort of an attempt to inhabit that one moment of being thrown to the ground.
The other threads in the piece come from texts on mycelial networks (and mycelium is the root structure that mushrooms grow out of). It exists, like, I think three inches below the ground, it’s one cell layer deep, and it just is like miles and miles long, and it’s actually the largest organism on the earth that we know of so far. And so there was this way, when I was living in the Northwest and doing a lot of radical organizing with people up there, that I would have the sense that I was simultaneously connected with them through our social engagement, but also connected by just standing on the very ground of the Northwest and being connected to people who are at great distances from me. And so I was thinking of that as a way — I started to think of nonhierarchical social organizing and radical politics, and so I started using found language from texts on mycelial networks, which are rhizomatic (any point can connect to any other point).
And I started, um, using language that felt salient to me, that felt like it really dug its feet into my experience of being engaged in those struggles. This was specifically during Iraq [and] Afghanistan where we were stopping shipments of Stryker vehicles, which were in the ports, through direct action, putting our bodies in the way of them. In the end it was an economic tactic: if you make it so expensive for the ports to keep shipping tanks out of them, they stop doing it because it’s not profitable anymore. So, like, I sort of created that connection between those two narratives, the rhizomatic root structures, mycelium, and the one of the organizing that I was doing by doing word replacement. So, replacing the phrase “mushroom” with the phrase “the individual,” and replacing the phrase “mycelium” or “mycelial network” or “structure” with the phrase “the movement.” Because I felt like it was a context-switching almost — not a code switching, but like a context switching, where it enabled me to pull that language out of its original context and use it to talk about something else.
Ojeda-Sague: So, from that biological language you get a certain kind of anatomy for thinking about movements, individuals, and that kind of connectivity that you are describing. And one of the things that struck me, even just in the back material of the book, there’s this, like, emphasis on “three inches under the ground,” and it comes up a lot of times and there’s obviously those almost euphemistic qualities of the word “underground,” and there’s something kind of utopian about that. And I wonder if you’ll speak about what that value you found in this organism that’s almost hidden is. You know, it comes up in certain ways like those mushrooms, but for us on a daily basis it’s not an organism that we are so in contact with because it’s always just right under us. It’s not deep under the ground either, just under the surface.
Spero: Yeah, I feel like this actually relates somewhat to the new work that I’m doing also. I’m working on this project where I’m sort of attempting to, like, really thoroughly write the most quotidian moments of my life, like taking the BART to work and then coming back and, like, buying a sandwich. Just these really sort of mundane moments and the sort of violence that is just beneath them, like always sort of just beneath the surface of that. So I feel like there’s a relation between that sense of … or maybe like [a] campy use of the phrase “the underground” which is, like, yes, it’s like a nod to a utopian gesture, but it also comes out of deep disillusionment and that sort of simultaneous like … I sometimes term this feeling as “as if,” so like “living as if” or sort of living in a sense of possibility “as if” the ways in which you’d like to see people relating to one another could be possible. So I feel like that aura of possibility is embedded in the work but not to the occlusion of the actual reality which we live in. I feel like there are the sort of violences and oppression that we are living in under capital. So I feel like there’s that sort of simultaneously longing for the sort of utopia and the acknowledgement that it is just this longing.
Ojeda-Sague: Right, and at one point you call it “not a trace but a map of what-could-still-be.” Is that a term that resonates with what you’re saying now?
Spero: Yeah, that phrase actually comes from A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari and, um, I feel like … that’s the attempt. I was trying to see how could we map our social relations or how could I map the social relations in which I am in and the multiple intersecting threads of relationality and oppression. And in the end I am failing at doing that. Or, like, that’s why I’m continuing to write because this book totally fails at that, so I have to try again. [Laughs.] I’ve just been reading Cruising Utopia by Jose Muñoz, and I wrote down this quote on my arm from it this morning where he’s talking about Warhol and utopia and the quote is: “the understanding that utopia exists in the quotidian.” So I’m thinking about that underground, right, or like if the surface is the lived daily experience (the microaggressions, the sort of static hum of precarity), then that possibility that is sort of beneath that, that keeps you continuing or that shows up in brief bursts, like in ruptural moments where [for instance] Freddie Gray’s neck is broken: there’s the ruptural moment and then suddenly all of that feeling rises to the surface, and it’s been there all along and then now it is visible. We only notice sometimes the moments of visibility and often pretend this isn’t happening all the time. And so I’ve been trying to think through the way in which the quotidian is also imbued with that violence.
Ojeda-Sague: One of the ways in which what you’re describing is happening in the book is in different kinds of spaces. There’s a lot of architectural spaces being described, a lot of public spaces and private spaces. And then there’s a lot of surfaces; like, I think the most obvious is the biological surface, that issue of just under the surface but also just being, as you described, knowing you are kind of on the same footing, on the same ground, as somebody else near you. And then there’s these totally intimate spaces and surfaces: there’s a lot of describing being with your head on somebody’s lap or, like, being with a lover or something like that. And I’m wondering if we can talk about these spaces, some of which are more quotidian than others, and how you might be finding a certain kind of politics in that. For example, there’s a lot of architectural spaces, which brings up issues of property, private property, personal property, how property gets distributed amongst movements, individuals, and certain capitalistic notions in that equation. Can you talk about why you were branching out into all different spaces and surfaces … to use a loaded term when we’re talking about mycelium?
Spero: [Laughs.] Yeah, my rooting tendrils. [Laughs.] I feel like it’s easier for me to talk about sort of like the permeable boundary between the public and the private spaces and the sorts of intimacies that happen in both of those spaces or the way they sort of blend into each other. You know, the way that you bring … the bedroom is not free of the structures of capitalism, or like the public space of the park or the plaza that so many radicals hold up as the utopian space is also entirely entrenched with[in] the systems in which we still maneuver. But also that like the intimacy of the bedroom can come into those spaces … that those things can be simultaneously present. I think that the sort of mapping of public and private in the work is sort of an attempt to undo both of those categories. Or to undo those sort of assumptions that come along with those categories.
Ojeda-Sague: Right, and there’s something kind of erotic about what you’re describing, like, knowing that your body is in the same space as somebody else. And that has its political and social connotations, but — as well as just being in the same area and having those bodies touching. And you’ve talked about the almost ritualistic return to the site of trauma as something that has a certain kind of erotic energy. Would you mind talking about that? Like, what is the motivating energy behind that?
Spero: I feel like at its very basic level it’s an attempt to process it honestly for myself, just like the trauma of that. But I feel like so often the sites of trauma in our bodies become our greatest focal points of desire. So during this period I would try to inhabit that moment of being thrown to the ground, of becoming unconscious, of being … suddenly not within my own control. Like, in that moment my hands were behind my back, and I was thrown into the concrete. And then, I remember sort of waking up across the parking lot, like not in the space where I landed. So it’s like this sort of attempt to not be dragged from that space. So, during this period I would lay on the ground a lot, because like just after this, six months after that time period, whenever I would lay on the ground and press every point of my body into the ground in like my friend’s living room or wherever I was, I would start sobbing. Like, I couldn’t lay on my back without sobbing. So that was the very act of, like we were talking about before, of performing the corpse, or performing the immobile, in the privacy — not like in a performance context — but just in the privacy of my own, or someone close to me’s, space. It became this very charged site, and so there’s that moment where traumas don’t leave your body.
So I kept returning to it. I kept returning to it by throwing myself to the ground or laying on the ground by processing that … to like, locate it within the map of my body, and it shifts. It shifts, and when you try to approach it, you slide away from the moment. The moment is inaccessible in this way. And so I was just trying to map the sliding away. But still like attempting … so going towards trauma in this way I feel like is similar to the momentum towards that utopian longing, like you move towards it and then it falls away and you move towards it and it falls away. And it’s this repeated exhaustion of that, which I think causes those lulls after, you know, a ruptural moment or after a series of riots or marches, that period of time afterward where it’s just, like, almost sort of hopeless and it feels like you are having to do the less glamorous structural work [Laughs.] that enables the next moment to happen.
Ojeda-Sague: It’s amazing how that gets replicated formally in the book. So, for those who aren’t familiar, there’s these … almost like streaming lines going between the text of the first three pages, and then there’s a prose piece, three pages, and then a prose piece. And there’s these lines that cut through the text on those three pages almost highlighting words or almost making new syntactic measures or making new realms of what those sentences can be. And it’s interesting to see how people navigate that issue because there’s no real clear way of reading it, and it sometimes comes up with really amazing results if you just read the things that are highlighted, almost new ways of thinking of whatever the text is there. And sometimes it’s more clumsy, and sometimes it can kind of falter and maybe I’m thinking: am I reading this the right way, am I not reading this the right way? And that makes me think so much of what you are talking about as this ritual where there’s something being embodied in the text in a very specific way, almost like a pathetic fallacy where it’s part of this fungal organism where it almost seems like this has been a quality of this fungal organism forever and you are tapping into it like a really primal energy. But there’s something so personal and private about that. And it’s on exposition as being a book or a text, so it seems like it’s blurring those same lines, where the trauma is not only embodied but becomes read in very specific and altered ways. Seems to blur those same lines.
Spero: Um … I feel like those threads that run through the book for me are … I usually, in my mind, call it “writing across.” And I think that also comes from Muñoz, honestly, like right out of Disidentifications and that sort of sense of like being both sort of enmeshed and in resistance to, at the same time, or being unable to extricate yourself from culture, liking certain parts of it, but also wanting to be in resistance to those very things that you are entranced by. And so I feel like there’s a way in which a lot of the process of the people I was organizing with during that time period and since are having to take what is … at some level you have to take what’s given to you, you know, the culture that you’re in. And then you have to write yourself across it, or aslant to it, or to create your own narrative within that that is in resistance to it. And so I think that was what that attempt is, you know, to have this sense of alternate possibility. You know, there’s the vertical text that you can just read top to bottom, and then there’s the horizontality of that other text, and that’s sort of what I was trying to evoke with that.
And in the original conception of the work, it was an artist’s book that we have … that there are copies of in the world. That has two spines so you can open it on the left and you can open it on the right, and those lines cut across the gap between those two connected texts. And any page can almost open to any other page or can be paired with any page, and that was the sort of, like, sometimes-clumsy-sometimes-working attempt of it so that it can be connected at any point, as a sort of nod to the mycelial form which does that much more elegantly. [Laughs.]
Ojeda-Sague: [Laughs.] Doesn’t nature always one up us all? What’s interesting is, like, what you are talking about (“writing horizontally”) also reminds me of “reading sideways,” which, honestly, I forget whose concept that is, but it’s a certain kind of reading at an edge. And it almost reminds me of when we talk about queer language, like speaking almost like “below the belt,” or speaking so others can’t hear you …
Spero: Oh yeah, codes!
Ojeda-Sague: Yeah, totally like codes! Or slang, or like a Polari almost. And so, it’s not only, like, a personal or social language between you and other queer people, but it’s almost constantly crafting its own secret language in, maybe, whatever pages you constellate or whatever kind of ways you move. And that is so much like this “beneath the surface” issue, so it’s so interesting to hear you talk about Muñoz now. [Laughs.]
Spero: I feel like one of my … okay, I feel like there’s this way in which queer coding in public space or flagging is very similar to my experience of coded language within radical organizing. During this time, the group I was organizing with was infiltrated by [military operative John Towery] and this came out on NPR. And it totally kind of ate away at our ability to trust and organize with one another. But there’s also this sense in which you are speaking in whispers and you are turning your phones off, and removing the battery when you’re having meetings. There’s all these ways in which you are also speaking in code, speaking against the normative, and have to be for safety or mobility … and … I think … what was I gonna say? [Laughs.]
Ojeda-Sague: [Laughs.] Well, so one of the things that struck me about what you are saying is … you have a lot of experience, or you have some experience in these radical communities coming out in protest. And right now our country is very populated by certain kinds of protests and certain political unrest that is coming out. And if you are comfortable, I wanted to ask you, maybe, how are you looking at these protests that have come out since August after the death of Mike Brown and most recently to when we are speaking now, the protests in Baltimore surrounding the death of Freddie Gray? I don’t want to talk saying “what is your project for them?” but, how have you been looking at it because so much of this book, almost any shit will do, is related to these protests, related to riots, and that scene?
Spero: Yeah, the context is different. I was involved in organizing against capital, against endless war. And that has intersections obviously with the sort of institutionalized systems of racism that are present in our country that are usually occluded unless you are subject to them. But as someone who is white and who is coming from a relative position of privilege, I’ve had to renavigate the kind of way in which I enter these marches, these riots. After the nonindictment of Darren Wilson, my friend contacted me and was like, “Oh, will you write a piece about the riots that have been happening in Oakland?” and I was like, “No.” You know, there are so many people of color who are writing about this right now who are doing such incredible work, and I don’t exactly know what I could say that they haven’t already said. I think there is something important about an accumulation of voices and that those voices happen across social boundaries, but also like …
You know, it was really fascinating to watch the way in which the discourse was rapidly shifting during those time periods. Like, the first march, everyone had their hands in the air. The second march, after that, everyone was like “white people, don’t put your hands in the air. These are not your hands in the air.” And that shifted. And then, sort of like, the third one, the next discourse shifted, and it was like “white people get in the back of the march.” And this is good: take up less space, don’t commandeer the microphone. You know, there’s this way in which I was participating in it and watching it shift at the same time in a way that was really, really rapid. And that wasn’t possible when I was organizing before because of the proliferation of the Internet. I don’t know, it was really fascinating to watch how quickly the discourse is shifting. So I feel like those ruptural moments finally have a response, you know, regular massive numbers of people are really upset, and that’s good.
I read this thing on Facebook today. It was Rebecca Solnit, and she was writing about how white people need to be educating themselves and not asking people of color to educate them about these things, and I was like, “Yeah, right on!” And then the next paragraph down she started talking about the riots in Baltimore as like “not nonviolent direct action” and that infuriated me. Right? Like it was so close. I was like, “You are so close!” To mark looting or to mark this form of self-defense or resistance as “violent” — she’s saying they’re not non-violent, which is to say they are violent — and to mark that as violence instead of the violence that this is in response to infuriated me. And it’s that sort of neoliberal move of completely eclipsing the actual circumstances under which these are a necessary, and sometimes the only, response that people have.
Ojeda-Sague: Right, and what’s interesting is, that this, what you are talking about, is maybe one of the great results of dialogue about these recent riots: an understanding of every individual’s place in them. So there’s what you are talking about with who can be in total solidarity; like there was that discussion of who can breathe in the Eric Garner protests, where maybe in the first few nights there was a lot of white people chanting “I can’t breathe” in the same way, which has a totally strange quality to it to hear, like, a mass of white people saying that. So it’s a question of understanding individual place in a movement and understanding how each person moves in that space. And there’s this issue now of privacy. I don’t know if you’ve seen this article, but I keep seeing it on Facebook of this, like … headgear or hairstyle that will eclipse …
Spero: Oh, the anti-surveillance fashion move.
Ojeda-Sague: Yeah, which like, not to comment on that specifically, but the idea that people are preparing and sharing these face-obscuring garments or hairstyles, or something like that. There’s an issue of personal privacy where you’re … part of that is an understanding of the surveillance state and knowing any time you can be arrested. But another part of that is, I don’t know if you would say, more understood, [in] relation [to] yourself in a protest or what an individual looks like inside of that movement, which is so much of what your book is.
Spero: I think there’s … the thing that has [been] felt, what I’ve been seeing in that move of the anti-surveillance hairstyle is a resistance of access, but it seems to be coming primarily from people who have had some level of privacy or whose bodies are not seen as fully accessible sometimes. And I feel like a lot of what is coming out in these protests, in these marches, riots lately is the refusal of the black body as being fully accessible, which it has been in the white mind since slavery. And so there’s a similar sort of like refusal of access happening there. Except I think, with the anti-surveillance hairstyle, I think that those are people who have had the privilege of not being accessed sometimes. I don’t know, I just — yeah.
Ojeda-Sague: And that’s a question also of how the body becomes private space and how it becomes utilized by the public … in general, like a public. And that is a construct of slavery and the idea of black bodies as property. And what’s so interesting about that is this issue of how that body resists being accessed, how that body resists being utilized as a public space or space that can be invaded in some way. And so much of that is about privacy in a more general, like, normative sense and a lot of that is about finding yourself in a community … I wonder if we can talk about what, um, what happens to the body of your book in the span of it. Because there’s a certain kind of direction that, at least, I think I see in it of what happens going to the end of that book. But you say — I just want to quote from your interview with Open House which says: “The book is a corpus. It’s a body. Trauma doesn’t just get struck from the body. It remains.” And so I’m wondering what you see as happening to the embodied text or the body that is in that text over the course of this book. Is there a direction it goes? Is this kind of like a repetition throughout the entire thing? Is it moving in some way?
Spero: I felt like the two threads of it were going sort of in different trajectories. I felt like the found language was moving toward the open or moving toward possibility, and the more embodied piece of it was, I guess, subverting the possibility of that by continuing to cycle back and reinhabit that trauma or those traumas. Like it wasn’t just the trauma of being thrown into the ground; it was the trauma of, like, the legal case that lasted for months afterwards and the fallout from the community after the initial period of support. And so I feel like [Laughs.] … I feel like there’s a way in which, sort of, the more conceptualist mode of the found language work is able to inhabit that less embodied sense of the possible. And then that is continually … the body continually reasserts itself in relation to that desire.
There was one reading that I did, I think my favorite reading that I ever did of this work, was where I read the prose pieces (the failed definitions attempting to define the individual and the movement through the body) …
Ojeda-Sague: Where was this?
Spero: This was at Evergreen State College. So I went and — this was with a class — and I did this reading where I like … whenever I would read the ones that were the movement, or defining the movement, I would read them out loud to everybody, like read them like a regular reading. And then whenever I would — I would sort of be moving, walking around the space as I did this, and whenever I would read the ones that were the individual I would go up and get very, very close to someone and whisper those in their ear … and it was really intense. It was just like really charged whenever I would do that, because it was creating these pockets of access, where I was refusing access to most of the room during those moments and only privileging it to the one. We had this discussion afterwards of, like, the effect of that and, like, I had been thinking of that in terms of that sense of public and private space or the kinds of organizing that you do in private, the kinds of organizing that you do in public, the kinds of organizing that happens behind doors, and the kind that happens in the plaza. And someone [poet d. wolach] at one point brought up that like so much of that sort of organizing or code has to happen in a whisper and that this is a necessary part of resistance. And I hadn’t considered that as part of the work at the time, and then through that discussion I was like, “Oh yeah! That’s totally there. Cool, I love seminar, ’cause I learn so much about what the hell I’m doing.” [Laughs.]
But, um, it made me sort of reconsider the work after that discussion. Just thinking in terms of access and who gets it and who doesn’t. And then, sort of that desire for total access to spaces. There’s two narratives from communities that are in resistance: there’s the narrative about, like, desiring access in disability studies, and then there’s also the problem of total access, which is access of the body and how those, in my mind, are coming at heads with one another, right now.
Ojeda-Sague: So, you end almost any shit will do with this line that says, “leave me here in the failure of my language.” And, in my eyes, it’s this totally, like, exhausted, just throwing … just like saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I just want to be left here.” And you’ve talked so much about failure now, in this session. The new work that you are doing now, which for now, I think, you’re calling “Exhaustion,” or you’ve described it as “writing from exhaustion,” is very much about that static state of being totally just washed out, just no energy left. And earlier you said it was about the quotidian. So, I wonder if you could talk about how those two ideas are connected.
Spero: You said the word static and that feels, like, entirely accurate to me. I feel like the new work I’m doing … if you were to hear it, the sound of it is the sound of static. There’s language there, but when I read it, it sounds to me like [Exhales slowly.] And I started writing this work immediately after finishing almost any shit will do. I read Reborn by Susan Sontag, which are her journals which were published posthumously, and I was just like, very overwhelmed by the way in which her journals were in the confessional mode, like, they’re in the “I” voice, but they’re somehow in resistance to that. There would be these lists of, like, what she wanted to read and, like, what movies she was going to and little jotted down notes, or, like, a grocery list. These ways in which … that felt … I guess I was overwhelmed by the fragments from her daily life that you are just sort of having to puzzle together this narrative. And you can’t ever really; you’re always creating it.
So I started writing in that mode, in the journal form with an attempt — sort of my constraint for myself was to resist confessionalism even while writing in the “I” voice, and to see what would happen if I was doing that. I think that the journal form, and the confessional mode, is often denigrated in contemporary poetic circles and that’s just another form of misogyny. And so I’ve been interested in documenting the static sound that is the sort of weather that is the violence in which we maneuver through on a daily basis. In a sense where even when you’re not writing about those violences and those microaggresions and the way in which capital crushes you … even when it’s not directly about that, it is in some sense in the context of that. And it’s omnipresent … and it becomes you, in a way. So I’ve been trying to document that, those very minute … the most minute forms of violence and the ways in which they are put onto the body and the ways in which you put them onto your own body.
Ojeda-Sague: It seems that there is a stream of thought that is connecting mostly to trans identity. There’s a lot of kind of quotidian stories of putting in T, or putting on a binder — things like that, you know, just the kind of daily things you need to do. And I wonder if … you’ve talked about some of the gendered aspects of that already with, um, journaling and how people mark that as a feminine form and often decry it in a misogynistic way. And it seems further that there is a trans aspect to the violence that you are talking about. Like, it’s a specific kind of violence, too. Do you want to talk at all about how that violence is specific in any way or how it seeps into the daily?
Spero: Um, I think that there’s a way in which I experience moving through the world as trans that enacts a distance. So I feel like a lot of this work has a flat affect, like the movement within it is so flat. It’s like a plane and … I mean, like, I guess in context a lot of it does sort of document injecting T, or um, a small thing that someone will say, a time I get she’d, or … but I feel like those experiences — they’re like blips. They happen with such regularity that they become, just sort of like, the background static of the other things that you are trying to accomplish or to do. In the same way that, like, in a lot of it I am going to work or getting coffee and, like, that is also the background static. There’s a way in which I think I’m maybe enacting a violence on my own experience in this work, and I’m not sure exactly what I’m doing with it yet by that flattening: by saying the microaggressions towards me as trans are in equal weight to me getting coffee, are in equal weight to me trying to write an essay on the term “already,” is in equal weight to, like, experiences of sexual assault in my community and the way I’m navigating that — there’s this way in which lived experience pushes everything like right … it equalizes in this way that I think is very violence — “is very violence” [Laughs.] — is very violent.
I feel like equivalency is a very dangerous tendency. And so I realized that I was doing this, or that this is a way of moving through the world and being able to cope is this form of leveling experience. And I’ve been thinking of it in terms of this piece by Lesley Anne Selcer, where she was doing sort of like a rewriting of Bataille’s The Solar Anus in which she takes every noun and connects them with an “is.” So like … I don’t know, I wish I had it in front of me. But just saying “all these things are equal to one another” is this very violent gesture. And I don’t exactly know what’s around that, like that’s still an idea I’m working through: the violence of equivalency. I feel like the public or experienced affect of that is of exhaustion, for me.
Ojeda-Sague: Is part of that violence when the static kind of explodes, like when … I guess my question is: if somebody is in that static environment, if somebody is reading that kind of stasis and they become aware of that — say if I read the project and I think of it as a static voice, does it become more dynamic? Does it explode because I am aware of it? Is there a way that we can identify it and then we know it’s violence?
Spero: That’s what I’ve been trying to get to with my second … when I say second I mean like twentieth rewriting of this piece. [Laughs.] I recently read this book called Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect by Mel Chen, who teaches at Berkeley. And Mel, in this work, is charting the sort of violences that are built into the very structure of our grammar, of English grammar. And after reading that I started really seeing that in my own work and trying to parse apart how my own language is enacting violences, because I don’t want it to be, but it’s going to be in the end always. But I wanted to pick that apart so I started … let me go back a second …
So, in categorical linguistics, the field Mel is writing within, there are certain hierarchies that are set up in language. Some of them are like “I” is greater than “you” is greater than “he, she,” is greater than “it.” So from the human to the animal to the immobile. And there are deep violences that come out of those categories and the ways in which those are happening in language mirrors the ways that [those are] happening in culture, maybe in sort of like a confused causality. Like, they work on each other. And then another one is that the individual is greater than a collective. So these are the normative frameworks for thinking through hierarchies within language. And those hierarchies are related to what is more or less alive, which is to say what is more or less deserving to be alive, or who is more or less deserving of life. And so those questions feel very necessary to be asking right now. I mean, always, but right now especially … in relation to what we were talking about earlier, in relation to racism in America and the ruptures, the riots that are happening out of that. As a white person I need to be really examining the way that I’m working, moving through the world, the kind of space I’m taking up, the ways in which my language is enacting those violences, also.
So, I started pulling apart my journals, grammatically, organizing them according to those hierarchies, so that I could see what is actually happening in the language that I’m using and where those violences are located. And that’s sort of the stage I am at right now: I have lists of every time there is an “I” and what that “I” is doing, every time there is a “you” and what that you is doing, or what is happening to that “you.” So, I have lists of “I,” “you,” “we,” “they,” “it,” noun phrases, so I’ve completely dissected the text at this point. And when I was reading those to my friend Angel Dominguez in Tuscon, he started pointing out that that reading undoes the static. The text suddenly sparks. The violences are apparent in that arrangement of the text, where it was occluded in the way that I was writing it before. So now I’m trying to figure out, like, how to pair those, what that’s doing, or for maybe the third layer of this how to undo those violences within my own language.
Ojeda-Sague: Well, I have so many more questions but that is probably the right place to end. That project sounds like it’s going to have a great future … after maybe twenty more edits, who knows. I wanted to close out by asking you to read something … from whatever you want.
Spero: Would you want to do a reading with me?
Ojeda-Sague: [Laughs.] Sure, what would you want me to do?
Spero: I think this will be more interesting. Okay, so we’re gonna read from … Gabriel and I are gonna read from almost any shit will do, and we’re gonna read two of the threads together, actually, just to hear what it’s like. Will you begin?