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?
An interview with Bob Arnold on Cid Corman’s ‘of’
Note: Cid Corman passed away in Kyoto on March 12, 2004. Although the first three volumes of his large book of were published prior to his death, the final two volumes remained unpublished until now. This interview with Bob Arnold, the executor of the Cid Corman estate, and the editor and publisher of these final volumes of the book, agreed to speak with me about the final two volumes (volumes 4 and 5) and his efforts to edit them and bring them forward. Our conversation was conducted through a series of email exchanges during the winter months of 2015. — Gregory Dunne
Gregory Dunne: I understand that you are bringing out the final two volumes of Cid Corman’s Magnum Opus of? When will they be published?
Bob Arnold: As of today, January 26, 2015 (the day of a Nor’easter blizzard), of is announced and out and already circulating with a reading audience that has been waiting. It feels very good to finally have the big book in hand.
Dunne: How will they be distributed?
Arnold: The book will be distributed from Longhouse — in house and humble, much the same way Cid distributed Origin publications straight from his own quarters, whether he was in Boston, or Kyoto, Japan. This is way we’ve been moving our publications for forty years.
Dunne: When were the earlier volumes published?
Arnold: of volumes 1 and 2 were published by Lapis Press in 1990. Volume 3, Cid took care of from Origin in 1998.
Dunne: Who is publishing and printing the book? Is there any special reason you chose this printer?
Arnold: We’re publishing of at Longhouse. Thomson-Shore takes care of all the books we publish. The special reason is that they get the job done with quality. None of our printing is POD — we start in small increments and build up.
Dunne: How many pages do each of the volumes contain?
Arnold: The first three volumes came in at approximately 750 pages each. I edited and designed volumes 4 and 5 (the final work) into one book at a little under 850 pages. If we could have afforded to, we would have also seen two volumes at 750 pages. Two books for each volume seemed unnecessary and extravagant in these times of an unpredictable readership, storage, expense, and we liked the idea of two books socked together. It holds.
Dunne: How much editing did you have to do on the latest volumes? Could you speak on the challenges of that? Did you find yourself struggling with decisions as to which poems to include and which not to include? What guided you in those types of decisions?
Arnold: A little background here might be appropriate. Cid, of course, was the longtime editor of Origin, and I am the editor at Longhouse, and in 1974 we joined up via a correspondence that took off. We came together through a mutual love for books, outcasts, publishing small press journals, and poetry. We were also working on the outer edges of recognition. Despite the fact of who Cid had published, by 1974, over a quarter-century — from Olson to Zukofsky, Bronk and Levertov, Creeley, Niedecker, Enslin, Samperi, international poets, etc., his own poetry and translations were living in the upper echelon of the smaller publishers: from New Directions, the Elizabeth Press, and his own Origin. He was a homemade pie, a homemade apron, a homemade entity, packed with a dynamo and reflexed intelligence. It was actually his strength and independence. He saw a similar driving wheel in me and I was coming to him as a very young poet and editor with a mimeograph magazine, “in a cabin, in the woods, a little old man (boy) by the window stood.” Cid would admit to me ten years later that for those first many years, he thought we were the same age and I must be his contemporary! That was always the charm of Cid — he didn’t care who you were, what you were, and what any of it was about; he just wanted to sense and feel the heat of poetry was involved. We immediately dug into what he was publishing and wanting and what I was publishing, and without batting an eyelash he sent me a group of his poems. Do with them as I wished. He trusted. What a marvel! So right out of the gate I was reading his poems (and had been since 1969), and we were in a conversation about his poems, others’ poems, what I was publishing, and eventually I got my own poems into his hands. He could be a brutal critic, many have whimpered and complained, but this didn’t last very long and it was all part of his getting adjusted, making his mark and setting up a code of behavior. There was a certain ethical and working-class hands-onto-the-poem craft that Cid lived by, and he quickly saw we were simpatico. And where we weren’t, and he adored opposites and differences that moved in positive ways, we could learn from one another.
Now jump forty years later, after a thirty-year relationship with Cid that took place each week writing and receiving from one another three to four letters each week between us, and we would meet only three times in our lives face to face: in Bennington, Vermont, in 1980, in New York City in 1990, and in Milwaukee in 2003, each visit grand and intense adventures, where I always had Susan with me, and Cid’s letters forever included Susan, and our son Carson, so it was always a family affair. By the way, Cid only met Lorine Niedecker once. It’s simply marvelous what we could do together by letter writing, and this was in full evidence between Cid and Niedecker. By the time I have the loose notebooks of of volumes 4 and 5 before me, I’m looking at the poetry that had already been sifted and strained and panned for its gold all through our correspondence. The letters and the poems and Cid’s life were all one. The entire time he was writing all five volumes to of he was sharing the experience in the letters with me and certainly to others. So when I have the notebooks to the complete of, I’m meeting the countryside he had been all this time describing. Here we were.
Bob Arnold (photo by Susan Arnold).
To begin with, Cid’s self-editing is impeccable. He knows what he wants. The only damage, such as it was, would be in the last two volumes where his health was fading and his prospects of having the last two volumes published was not showing forth, and he was still tinkering away at the notebooks. Corrections and squiggles had to be deciphered and decided upon. None of the pages were numbered, they didn’t have to be, since the texture and pattern of the poems stitched one to the next. Just pay attention, trust yourself and trust Cid. Get away from time to time from the poetry doctrine and listen to the outdoors, the trail, the seasonal, and detect how these volumes all do the same. The observant eye will sense this as the reader goes along in this new big book. I may have axed out a half-dozen poems, at the most, from 1,500 poems, due to them being unfinished, shaky, and unsure. The rest of the time I was looking at work and territory I had been told about as if from storytelling. Cid wasn’t pointing specifically at of every time in the letters, but he was. He was also sharing with me portions of the big work that I elected to design and publish over years and years as small booklets from Longhouse. I was well warmed up by the time the complete notebooks of the books reached me. Remember, we’re talking about 1,500 poems or better in this last book holding both volumes 4 and 5. Emily Dickinson’s complete poetry comes to 1,800 poems. The whole of of is double that. If there is anyone matching Dickinson’s oeuvre right out of New England, or anywhere else for that matter, it’s Cid Corman in the complete of.
Dunne: In your estimation, how important is it that these volumes be published?
Arnold: For Cid’s literary history, the long-work tradition, poetry from an American expatriate (home life for all of of’s creation is Japan), and the big book completed extravaganza, it’s essential. Unavoidable. Ignore the volumes at your own peril. It’s been places where you’ve been, it’s been places where you haven’t been, may never be, it’s our good fortune to be aboard. The volumes encompass both a poet’s worksheets and underbelly within the confidence of a polished work. It truly hums. It might scare you.
Dunne: I once asked Cid about volume 3. I hadn’t read that volume — it was on its way into the world. I asked him how it contributed to the overall sweep of the work. He told me that it was “central,” and then he went on to explain to me why it was so central. He said it would — would give me “the scale of the whole thing,” that it was “autobiography actually, all poetry,” about his life before he began writing poetry. I was wondering how you see volumes 4 and 5 fitting in with the earlier volumes? In other words, how do you see volumes 4 and 5 contributing to the whole of the work? What do we get there that we don’t get earlier?
Arnold: There is nothing earlier and later in of. It’s one whole. That’s its magnitude and strength. When Cid was alive and actively the maker he could speak to a duration of time and stages and what may be “central.” He was in the matrix. He was learning, prodding, even improvisational as he was going. He knew what he wanted and he went for it, but his poetry has always had the outstanding quality at being transparent while searching and so being right with the reader as the reader was in the midst. Cid’s present. He means to be. Often he is talking right at the reader, asking us questions, his own questions. There isn’t a frame. He’s breaking frames. If he were alive today my bet would be he would speak at this point as volumes 4 or 5 were “the core,” or the closure to the central. Each volume as he worked — and this was a man who never had a child — each book was his child. The book he was hip-deep in love with was the one he was working on. By the time the reader is within volumes 4 and 5 there is no mistaking the connective threads back through each previous volume. He continues to penetrate as he goes without losing his grip. There are myriad voices and musics. They’ve always been there shimmering the edges, but with the last volumes he reveals the mysteries. The concentration is riveting and relaxed. You’re in the hands of a master — just don’t swell his head by telling him. We can now.
Dunne: What surprised or delighted you as you read through these volumes and began to ready them for publication?
Arnold: Cid has the delight ready for the reader and it comes through as sunlight past the curtains in the Valery quote he uses: “The diamond of sincerity.” This is the hallmark of the last two volumes — sincerity — and Cid steers this imaginative machine by way of a ton of other authors’ works and translations that all come unaccounted for — at great gripes from his critics — watching Cid sculpt and form and pay homage to the many Grand Works he borrows from and in this case frames into poems of his making, so we receive a tremendous anthology of works, all as poetry, mined with his own poems. A Corman Reader. Every sized poem imaginable. He’s doing as he pleases, and he’s pleasing. Again, it is all one. The poet here is showing us his education, and it’s vast: from the cinema, baseball, sumo, literature, television, the street, media, politics, history, philosophy, psychology, other poets left and right of him, music, utterings, animal life, mystical life, no life, noh. You had best be ready. In these last two volumes there is a porthole to an animated and spirited world, much like the ancient sutras, which this transplanted soul of the Far East was well acquainted with. As in the ancient sutra caves where one shouldn’t focus on individual murals and isolated creations only, it’s all the same in Cid’s case, where one must see the entire body of pictures and poems, translations, private readings, borrowings, and all the homages (prayers) — this visual mapping of the Corman world. This is the seasoned and maturing and in fact true living/dying (Cid will pass) history and backbone of the Corman imagination. Instead of pouring everything right out of the gate in of volumes 1 and 2, we now see that we have a woodworker knowing his tree, his wood, grain, and tools, and he has always planned to build a ship, stem to stern.
Dunne: That is a wonderfully rich background on your relationship with Cid. Thank you for that. It helps a great deal in understanding the relationship that you two shared and what you bring to the task of editing these volumes. Can I press a little further on your editing work in order to clarify? When you received volumes 4 and 5 in draft, what state were the volumes in? You felt a need to remove a few poems out of the 1,500 because they were “unfinished, shaky, and unsure”? What about the arrangement of the poems? Did you have to rearrange the sequencing of the poems or had Cid sent that in place prior to his passing?
Arnold: “Unfinished, shaky, and unsure” meaning — Cid was rarely any of these when it came to his poems. Most often they were set in place square and tight, maybe like a stone mason himself with poems. So when I did come across any of the poems (and there were very few) that were unfinished, incomplete, hopeless to decipher since Cid was in a tangle himself with the delivery and the poem was obviously not addressed and finished, I set that poem aside. Knowing him well enough in our past together and what other work we developed as mutual editors, I had confidence he would agree.
The notebooks came to me in looseleaf binders, neat, no pagination, but again, I knew the mapping Cid wanted as soon as I dug in and started to read. I was reading both a finished manuscript as Cid wanted, plus running across an interesting open-thought process Cid had kept in place that showed some of his notes about individual poems, and remember he is using a wide range of other poets and translators in the full batter of the manuscript. One minute you’re with Corman, the next you’re with Emerson, Dickinson, Chaucer, Valery, Issa, then back to Cid — and much of it undocumented. A quilt. Crazy quilt. A knowing quilt. I not only didn’t touch the arrangement, I kept as much of it in the finished two volumes as possible just as I found it. It was the last of Cid, the final notebooks he worked in. I’ll elaborate on this as we go along.
Dunne: You have mentioned, “the notebooks to the complete of.” They sound fascinating. Could you describe them a little more? What do they look like physically, and what do they contain?
Arnold: First off, Longhouse released the two volumes of of in one big book. The reaction has been exciting. Some readers believe they are looking at typos in some of the poems, but there aren’t “typos” in the book or any “mistakes” or even “mishaps,” the word I have even used. The book is Cid’s notebooks as I found them and shaped them for publication, not wanting to touch a hair of the natural ingredient. So I didn’t. Where he had duplicate poems (very few), I kept them. Where one long poem gets divided in this book between a few other pages, the reader gets that, too. The entire stack of loose-bound notebooks were, like I said, not paginated. Where a word suddenly doesn’t make any sense, right: be as confused for a moment as Cid. Where a “hut” should be “but,” blame the smear of his typewriter key. Where a word like “both” may be floating there as not at all making sense, in the notebook it probably did to Cid: “both” perhaps meant as a note to himself he wanted to use “both” poems? Or quotes he worked into place in the finished of. It comes with the tour de force. I wanted the whole of Cid, no sanding and preening, but the raw maximus, to come with this edition. How can anything be a bother or in the way from a poet working over his saw horses such as Cid did? Only fifty books were made in the first edition of this fullest notebook/finished quality. Since that first printing, Susan and I have already been adjusting things, along with the very generous John Phillips, a close reader of Cid as well, who has been kindly taking a great deal of time to read throughout the almost 850 pages of this Cid forest. It’s a team effort. Again, all Cid. He loved his poetry families.
Dunne: Do these volumes include any new poems?
Arnold: For heaven’s sake, both these volumes, and the other three volumes in the set, are all new poems! To correct a misnomer — of isn’t a “selected poems” of Cid’s — it’s all new work written over two decades. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find him slipping in, as he wishes, from his cabinetry and drawers. Clever fellow.
Dunne: Yes. But “by slipping in” from the “cabinetry and drawers,” don’t you imply that on occasion, at particular moments, he may use a poem, or a translation, that he may have previously published?
Arnold: For sure. That’s Cid’s ways and means — and in fact his playfulness to do as he pleases, with due diligence, not ego. He’s already formed this immense study of his own poems, along with dozens and dozens of other writers and poets down through the ages into all five of these volumes, but it is most pronounced in volumes 4 and 5; and by the way, Cid has taken it upon himself to form the other writers, say Bonhoeffer or Lewis and Clark, Vallejo, into his own shape and style. There is a great deal of old hipness and be-bop about Cid, improvisational skill and devil-may-care at creating a total reading — both his influences and his influence are in evidence. The heady influence from Ezra Pound’s Cantos is inescapable here, or what he learned working through the passages of Williams’s Paterson, Zukofsky and the barnyard of A. So while we may find a standard Basho and Sengai poem translation of Cid’s — and what is “standard” in Cid’s hands remains fresh — or one of his familiar poems, the overall reading of the huge set reads new, surprising, the combined poet and legendary editor up to his fullest potential. We are receiving the poet Corman and the editor of Origin at once, in full blast, and it’s relentless. Cid’s skill is also knowing these are books, a reader may take their time at how he has shaped the surroundings — hike his trails and go at their own speed, their own medium, volume to volume to volume looking around, soaking in. He’s been very careful at playing his hand while inviting us in. He’s always been a generous host.
Dunne: How difficult has it been for you and Susan personally to edit and publish these volumes? What was the greatest obstacle for you in bringing these volumes out?
Arnold: As we worked through this geography and mapping of the notebooks I started to see an odyssey of wanting to pay attention to the original as a found art piece. All the found pauses, fragments, spastic spacing at times, no spacing, titles crowded, some titles being the first line of a poem — all Cid’s. Even the blurt of a lonesome “1” just standing there naked and stupid and unwanted, hit by Cid’s typewriter key. Left by him for later, kept in the pages of the published book. Part of the mixup and mash of Cid organizing his notebooks, making his poems, gel gel gel.
And to be clear — I didn’t simply lump the notebooks into a digital package and print. It took a solid year of deciphering Cid’s handwritten notes, changes, alternations, and since he showed he wanted those to be included, I put them in for him. But I didn’t touch the smell or the lay of the book because I wanted as-found-Cid to be there for this initial edition. A great deal of the book was mastering a design for all the poems and the hulk of the poet’s identity. It was to be spare elegance. Like a footbridge, like a wheelbarrow, like a bucket in the rain.
I always work with my hands directly to the paper, like tools, old fashioned, that won’t change, and I would work all my own notes and design schemes toward Susan who would set all of this blueprint of mine onto digital transfer so we’d have it properly set up for the printer. The only obstacle at bringing the books out was funds. We had none, but we had the desire and labor in us — so I went about on a short campaign canvassing a few of Cid’s heavy-hitter supporters, true diehards, each a poet, and asked just enough to get this first edition printed in the fifty initial copies. Not a penny more. I begged low, and I hate to beg, Cid was better at it. It worked splendidly.
Dunne: Do you have any regrets? Anything that you would have liked to have done with the volumes that you were not able to do?
Arnold: Not a thing. It’s like the desert warriors and desert fathers say in the film Lawrence of Arabia. “It is written.” After two sets of the first three volumes were presented in black slipcase and costing dearly to print — fabulous editions all around — I wanted to make a reverse on the definitive black color scheme by changing to a white volume, with matte cover, as stout and the same size precisely as the other three volumes, along with Cid’s photograph on the spine. If Cid had a pen handy he would sign most anything with his name so that’s his first name etched over the photograph on the spine of the book. Fit together the finished books make an impressive set, I think.
Dunne: When Cid asked you to be his executor was there any requests that he asked of you? Why do you suppose he asked you to be his executor? Why did you accept? What responsibilities do you feel in this role? How many Cid Corman books do you keep in stock?
Arnold: Long ago David Wilk from Inland Books — a heartfelt distribution center for poetry and many other great titles of once upon a time (now defunct), brought up from Connecticut to us in Vermont a funky old van filled to the brim with Cid’s books. Hundreds and hundreds. They weren’t selling there, and I guess David’s business was breaking up and Cid needed a place for his poetry household to go. He told David to bring them to me. David can maybe tell you what Cid told him as to why he chose Bob. David has the secrets, not me! I don’t have a number answer to how many books of Cid’s we keep in stock, but it may be the most extensive on the market. My executor role just slipped into place as Cid, and I worked over the decades and then his wife Shizumi approved and moved it to my benefit after Cid’s passing. There was no thought to not accepting the position; I was already there. My role as executor is to guide the household, welcome suitors, do my best at seeing things are carried out properly and fair. Whether Cid’s work, or Lorine Niedecker’s, which came along with Cid’s. I also feel a strong obligation to publish their work where I can, and often, sometimes through Longhouse, or another press calling. Obviously I want to keep the work available and at the same time sheltered from misuse.
Dunne: In addition to being an editor, a publisher, a bookseller, a stonemason, and the executor of the Cid Corman estate, you are a poet in your own right. In the context of your own vocation as a poet, how crucial a figure would you say Cid Corman has been to you?
Arnold: As a young poet, and as a young editor and publisher, since I started in on both at the same time, I already had my sights on particular poets who were zenith editors and certainly Cid Corman was at the top of the pile with his books of poems stemming from his own press at Origin and his two mainstay books at the time Living/Dying and Sun Rock Man both from New Directions. As a teenager in high school holding these books, and knowing there was a Cid Corman somewhere out there, made my head reel. You have to understand how important, in fact essential, coming to these poets and their books was for a young writer like myself stuck away in the hinterlands. I’d never been into any city. So the writers weren’t abstract to me, nor were their books, it was all food, nourishment, better than food. So by the time I met them personally I felt like I knew them, there was no hemming or hawing, we began. And this isn’t an exercise of name-dropping — I was in love. Cid was right there for me with Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, James Koller, Walter Lowenfels, James Laughlin, James Weil, Jonathan Williams, Ian Hamilton Finlay as poets and gardeners of great small press journals, or magazines, books published — activists each and every one of them, really — and one way or another I sought them out, made contact, some became very good friends. Another editor/activist was Joy Walsh from the Kerouac newsletter Moody Street Irregulars; Joy was from a working-class neighborhood with high spirit and she was then in the early stages of evolving her Kerouac plan. In more ways than one, as a young reader, Cid’s translations took me by the hand into Far East. His own poems would match the masters. Now, young poet, set your own sights.
Dunne: What might younger poets glean from such a book as of?
Arnold: More than likely what is possible, and how nothing is impossible. The book is massive and yet still a book, fully a book; not a techno-trap, not a lot of poems spinning their wheels. Cid is building page by page like a carpenter proceeding with joinery — the handcrafting is wildly evident and yet Cid keeps it all clean, down to earth, spacious, mountainous. He’s the ultimate pencil pusher who had the eye and the grit to publish Gary Snyder’s first book, Riprap, homesteading Ted Enslin’s poetry (and fostering a lasting friendship), Vietnam veteran George Evans’s riveting poems, Vermont Lyle Glazier’s lyrical farm gems, and my stone building book On Stone. Young poets may see straight through Cid’s poems into this locus of substance and wonder.
Dunne: After Cid’s passing some of his ashes were brought here to you. Could you explain how that came about?
Arnold: From what I understand someone snitched a cigarette-size packet of Cid’s ashes at the crematorium memorial, and I don’t believe it was as snitchy as it was described to me since Shizumi knew it was taking place. The cigarette packet owner, an American friend living in Japan, brought the ashes to me this way when he visited with his family. This is a religious family, and we would all perform our own service to Cid in the glade of our Vermont woodlot where I have been cutting narrow roadways and far trails fetching firewood and stone for all these years, and up from one of those trails we all hiked one summer day to bring Cid’s ashes home to America onto a stone cairn I had built with the assistance of fellow travelers to the cairn. It started with Susan and me hiking the trail daily and on each hike lifting one or two stones off the trail where we hiked. We brought those stones to a summit spot and there started to lay up this cairn. After a year we had it built. We climbed to the spot year-round, every day. When I told my friend about the cairn that was made, and how it was made, I might have asked or he offered to bring some of Cid’s ashes to us. We would set the ashes during this private ceremony onto the cairn and leave them to let the rain and weather soak them in around the stone. The very same thing I did when I built Janine Pommy Vega’s much larger stone cairn in the same woodlot, but not as far away as Cid’s. Cid’s we climbed to and kept the trail open and brush cut and maintained for five years. You remember you visited and hiked up there with us when we were still maintaining the trail. After awhile something nudged me or said to me, but not with words, “enough on this trail … let it pass.” And we have. Watching the woodlands regain and leaf out and having the trail almost disappear (but I can find it) seems absolutely all of Cid. He’s up there.
Dunne: How much will the new volumes cost? How can they be ordered?
Arnold: The first edition of two volumes in one book is $50. As an excited reader said to me, “That’s only $25 per volume.” I guess so. The books can be ordered straight from us at Longhouse. We’re in the yellow pages. Interested parties can find us on the web — the new yellow pages — and order from our website. We like to keep it simple, charmed.
Dunne: You have known of Cid’s work for forty years. You are intimate with his work and you knew the man better than anyone; how do you assess his legacy as a poet, or, if I were to ask the question as I imagine Cid would like to have me ask the question, how do you assess the work, is it work of lasting value and quality? If so, why do you think that is so? What is it about the work that makes it so?
Arnold: I have no idea how a legacy is made, and I don’t want to know. Bad luck. From what I see and hear Cid has already entered legend. He was caterwauled by some of his own generation, praised by others, pissed on by even more, and rediscovered almost every ten years by one more younger generation sweep-of-the-hand who came to him with their poems, and often got creamed! And if they were still standing afterwards, many became lasting friends, some devotional. They’d visit his modest abode in Kyoto — from Ginsberg to some young wanderer — and Cid accepted them into his house each and all the same. If that isn’t legendary, I don’t know what is. As a mutual acquaintance of Cid’s once said to me, “His poems will last the next one thousand years.” At least. I agree with that, and I don’t want to know why that is so or even argue the point. I want to be reading Cid. I’ll wait for the boldest academics to assess his work, but I won’t be waiting for it, even though some of it will be important. I’ll like to be in the cellar of some floundering bookshop getting by on selling college text books and insisting on having used books down in that cellar, just out of old habit and not knowing yet how to destroy books, so they harbor them, in the thousands, and one lucky day I’ll be in there when a young reader, or old, comes across a copy of this black-and-white elegantly natured of and opens it up and starts to read. Then I get to see the expression on their face.
You know, I woke up this morning thinking about how you have four children. I come from a family of four children. Cid came from a family of four children, and I met them all.
An interview with Linh Dinh
Note: This interview was first published in Arabic on March 15, 2015 in Al Arab and Al Jadeed, both of London. Among American poets, Linh Dinh is unique in that he writes regularly for several political webzines and also appeared regularly, for a few years, on Iran’s Press TV as well as Russia Today. His primary audience, then, is a non-poetry one, and he reaches them through an active blog that features photos, essays, and poems. — Tahseen al-Khateeb
Tahseen al-Khateeb: Though you were born in Saigon, you spent most of your life in the US. Do you consider yourself as an American poet?
Linh Dinh: Yes, very much so. A writer is defined by his language, above all, so anyone writing in English already belongs to that tradition of Skelton, Clare, and Stevens. Although also important, subject matters come second. Though many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories take place in America, for example, he wrote exclusively in Yiddish, so he’s seen as a Yiddish author. Yiddish was his mental universe. Having said all that, I can also claim to be a Vietnamese writer, since I also write poems, stories, and essays in Vietnamese, and I speak Vietnamese daily. I’m two writers sharing one brain, which is probably a very dubious, if not catastrophic, proposition, but I would like to think it has actually helped me. Not entirely at home in any language, I can see how tenuous my claims to writing, thinking, and even life are. I’m a very desperate person, frankly, but who isn’t? Already an American poet by virtue of my shaky, shaking, and shook-up English, I’m also very much a part of this appalling socialscape because of what I write about. I’ve learnt how to become more of a hands-on, down-in-the-slush kind of writer. I get out there to see everything firsthand and to hear people speak. I eavesdrop or strike up conversations — and sometimes barge into them — all in order to hear everyone’s farcical, heartbreaking or blood-chilling anecdotes. I’m also out there to soak up their language — that is, their English — because this besieged, yet cocky English is most fascinating. Also, for the last several years, I’ve become much more invested in writing that addresses issues that affect everyone and that anyone can read, and since I live here in the United States, this reorientation has made me even more of an American writer.
al-Khateeb: How is it possible for you to freely separate between those “two writers sharing one brain”? How (and when) do you decide to write “this” in Vietnamese and “that” in English? The “brain” decides, or the poem itself chooses its tongue, cadence, and transformations?
Dinh: I became reacquainted with the Vietnamese language by reading its literature and translating it. While living in the US, I translated and published Vietnamese folk poetry and a book of new Vietnamese fiction. In 1999, I returned to live in Vietnam for two years and a half, and so I became very comfortable with Vietnamese, and yet, even then, I continued to write in English. It was during my time in Vietnam that I felt challenged to write in Vietnamese, but this did not happen until I left. In fact, I wrote and published my first Vietnamese poems while living in Italy, where I stayed for two years. As you well know, each language has its unique shades, hues, quirks, wickedness, and sense of humor, and so a man who switches from one language to another becomes, essentially, a different actor. The Vietnamese language accentuates some of my emotional tendencies, but so does English. One language may be snarkier, starker, drier, more morose or abrupt than another, and syntaxes vary considerably, so a man who’s familiar with at least two languages will inflect or contaminate each with the other. Since my Vietnamese writing shows American influences, both emotionally and linguistically, the reverse must be true also. Before I could write directly in Vietnamese, I merely translated my English language poems into Vietnamese. Later, though, some of my Vietnamese writing was so immersed in the language, it couldn’t even be translated into English. The subject matters of some of these poems or essays would not be of much interest to an American audience anyway. For the last six years, however, I’ve been so preoccupied with my Postcards from the End of America project that I’ve written nothing in Vietnamese except for a poem and, for the occasion of the Vietnamese new year, three disquieting essays for a high-circulation Vietnamese-American journal.
al-Khateeb: You talked about your “reacquaintance” with the Vietnamese language by reading and translating its literature. And also about the “return” or “the coming back” to live again in Vietnam, when you “felt” yourself challenged to write in your own mother tongue, but you couldn’t write any, until you left, and were living in Italy. Does that mean that you could find your own “Vietnamese literary voice” — if I may say — only in exile? Especially when we read that your first book, Fake House (2000) was confiscated at Saigon’s post office when you went to pick up an author’s copy! Was that “switching” point between the two languages you talked about — between their unique shades — needed for you to be far away from the land where you were born, the land that “confiscated your first book,” to achieve that “point of departure” from one tongue to another?
Dinh: My graduation into writing in Vietnamese was a gradual, natural process, and not subjected to any design. I returned to Vietnam to get away from the United States, then came back to the US to get away from Vietnam, only to end up in Italy, thanks to the intercession of my New York publisher. I do want to say something about writing from the outside. As an immigrant, I had to learn English from scratch, and to this day, I’m liable to make a basic mistake at any moment, but this precariousness is actually good, since it forces me to watch my step at each moment. As I’ve said to novelist Matthew Sharpe in an interview, “I’m a hyperconscious writer.” That said, all writers are already hyperconscious, or at least much more paranoid about language than your average person. If you tussle with language at all, you know how tough, slippery, and devious it is, and can make you look ridiculous at any moment. Further, any writer knows that language is an extremely malleable conceit, and its naturalness is merely a goofy illusion. Each word is bizarre, much less a bunch of them strung together, and it is often the native speaker who butchers his language worst of all, yet is quite gleeful and insolent about it. Commenting about one of my postcards, a reader suggested that I should “ingrate” myself into more communities. Of course, he meant “ingratiate,” but even that is wrong, for I’m just observing and talking to people, and not trying to kiss their asses for ulterior gains. Thinking of the wrong word, he confused it with another that’s even more inappropriate. Of course, everyone makes linguistic mistakes nearly constantly, but since a writer is always dealing with language, he has many more chances to mess up.
With so many mind-scrambling gadgets, comprehension is more elusive than ever, but this doesn’t prevent the sloppy reader and thinker from having vehement opinions on just about everything, and he’s not shy about spewing his malaprop, off-the-cuff gibberish. If this was relatively rare, it could be laughingly dismissed, but one sees it everywhere now, so it has become a societal handicap, no less, and one that greatly assists the criminal elites in their husbandry of the bleating flock.
Getting back to the theme of writing from the outside, I published this in the American Poetry Review in 2004: “I’ve come to realize that I much prefer to live on the periphery of the English language, so that I can steer clear of the tyranny of its suffocating center. In this sense, I am a quintessential American. A Unapoet, I like to homestead just beyond the long reach of Washington […] Hearing the rapid syllables of a foreign language, a bigot is infuriated because he’s reduced to the status of an infant. Poets, on the other hand, should welcome all opportunities to become disoriented. To not know what’s happening forces one to become more attentive and to fill in the blanks. Hence, poetry.”
al-Khateeb: Please explain what you mean by Unapoet?
Dinh: Though highly educated, the Unabomber lived in a primitive shack in Montana, away from mainstream society, so by calling myself a Unapoet, I was pointing out my existence away from mainstream America, which in that sentence is depicted as “the long reach of Washington.” There is an American phrase, “the long arm of the law,” meaning law enforcement can get you anywhere, and Washington, as “the world’s police,” can harass or even kill people worldwide. American culture also distorts one’s perception, so by living outside of it (at the time), and away from its media and language, I could see the world (and America itself) more clearly. Though I’m back in the US now, I exist on the fringe and am connected to no institution. Like the Unabomber, I try to maintain my mental independence.
Though I don’t send bombs to people, like the Unabomber, I understand his frustration with mainstream society.
al-Khateeb: Are you familiar with Arabic poetry and literature?
Dinh: I must admit to knowing next to nothing about Arabic literature. Nevertheless, I’ll attempt a few observations about Mahmoud Darwish, since all writers can learn much from his life and work. First off, it is instructive and inspiring to see a poet who was deeply engaged politically, his entire life, without compromising his creative development. In fact, it was precisely his courageous willingness to grapple with the gravest crises affecting his community that gives his work such gravity. Though he tapped into timeless themes such as loss and homelessness, he never lapsed into a philosophical resignation, but struggled for justice, meaning, and his people until the very end. He believed that words, and thus poetry, must matter. Though he didn’t always write for the masses, he could reach them at will, and this achievement has become so rare that I can’t think of a contemporary example. Although Darwish wrote many private poems that drew strictly from his personal life, he never forgot that poetry’s most challenging and noble task was to give voice to an entire people. “A nation is as great as its ode,” Darwish claimed most interestingly, because the implication is that a people’s greatest canto, song, or poem is its highest achievement, and not its pyramids, cathedrals, skyscrapers, or aircraft carriers. Now, of course a poet will say that, you snicker, since it inflates his own status, but since words can survive even when bricks and stones have been pulverized, or when the country itself has been disfigured or dismantled, Darwish’s assertion rings truer than ever.
In the early twentieth century, when the French had already colonized Vietnam for sixty-odd years, a Vietnamese intellectual, Pham Quynh, pronounced that as long as the nation’s epic poem Truyen Kieu survives, the language and nation survive. This statement echoes, somewhat, Darwish’s claim, but a people can’t merely settle for a linguistic home. It can’t feed and clothe its children or have a proper, dignified place in the world with just a song, no matter how great, so it’s essential that the Palestinians, like the Vietnamese, regain their territory. Although there are ambiguities in Darwish’s work, its overriding statement is abundantly clear, and that’s that Palestine has been stolen from the Palestinians by the Jews, to which he famously addressed:
From you the sword — from us the blood
From you steel and fire — from us our flesh
From you yet another tank — from us stones
From you tear gas — from us rain
It is time for you to be gone
Live wherever you like, but do not live among us
It is time for you to be gone
Die wherever you like, but do not die among us
For we have work to do in our land
In this entire poem, there is no bloodthirsty vengefulness, but merely a logical and quite restrained request for the invaders to get out!
al-Khateeb: As you have been lately involved in politics, how do look at the horrors done by the American administration(s) to other nations: the invasion of Iraq and of Afghanistan, for instance? And what about their endless support for the Israelis despite their shameless war crimes against the Palestinians, whether in Gaza, or elsewhere?
Dinh: Oil and Israel are the two reasons for American criminality against the Muslim world. Without these factors, Muslims would not be so demonized and attacked by Americans, and this pattern will continue as long as Israel and oil remain. Israel is an unprecedented historical mistake, for it makes no sense to claim a right of return for Jews after 2,000 years, but deny the same to Palestinians after six decades, though many have lost their homes much more recently, for this landgrab is an ongoing process that won’t end until all Palestinians disappear from “the Jewish homeland.” It’s tragic and farcical that a Chinese Jew can move to Jerusalem tomorrow, but not an exiled Palestinian who still has the key to his ancestral home. Israel is a violent concept that is executed and maintained with terror, and by this I mean American-sponsored Jewish terror, though these world-class terrorists are so relentless with their propaganda, they have made “terrorist” nearly synonymous with their enemy, the Muslim. There is hope for Palestinians, however, for as the USA implodes, Israel will also go up in smoke. Working in tandem, the US and Israel have collapsed several Muslim governments and generated millions of refugees. The same fate awaits Israel, though its dissolution should be permanent, for only then will peace come.
Those living outside the US can’t fathom the American media’s extreme bias towards Israel. During the 2014 attack on Gaza, for example, American television viewers were only shown images of Palestinian buildings being blown up from afar, as if there were no people working or living in them. No corpses were seen being pulled from rubbles. While Palestinian victims stayed invisible, a single missing Israeli soldier had stories about him, with his portrait featured to emphasize his humanity. Unlike Palestinians, this Jew had a face. Female Israeli soldiers were shown sobbing over their fallen (male) comrades. When the massacre of Palestinians was finally over, there were articles about how quickly Gaza had gotten back to normal, so it was no big deal, you see, this butchering of 2,192 people (as compared to seventy-seven deaths on the Israeli side). As if to prove this point, photos were shown of bustling Gaza streets, with kids happily playing.
On American television, there’s a peculiar show called “Inside Israeli Basketball.” Since the level of hoops in Israel is not particularly high, and its b-ballers are entirely unknown to an American audience, there is no sporting reason for this program, except that basketball is only a pretext to display Israel in a banal, and hence benign, light. Game footage and practice scenes make up only a small part of this show, for the camera often follows the players or coaches of Maccabi Haifa, the featured team, all over Israel. (Everywhere, of course, except Gaza and other troubled spots.) In one scene, one might visit a lovely beach, while in another, enter a Palestinian restaurant. Here, two teammates, an Israeli and a black American, enjoy camel rides, and one can see that they’re very chummy with each other. The American, Ike Ofoegbu, gushes, “Here in Israel, the guys are very nice. They speak English, first of all, so they can interact with you. They’re really friendly […] To finally be here in Israel is very exciting. I’m just blessed to be here.” Highly unusual for a reality show, there is no rancor or argument in “Inside Israeli Basketball,” and no trashy behavior at all. Here, you won’t find any screaming, backstabbing, jealousy, or drunkenness, though these are the staples of just about every other reality show on American television. Always depicting Israel in an idyllic and harmonious light, this show is no more than propaganda, then, a carefully crafted mask to hide the endless violence needed to maintain this sham nation.
al-Khateeb: Though your poems were anthologized in the Best American Poetry series 2000, 2004, and 2007, and two of your prose poems were included in David Lehman’s groundbreaking book Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present (2003), and though Village Voice selected your short story collection Blood and Soap as one of the best books of 2004, I sense, in one way or another, that your are still “away” of the mainstream literary scene. Is it so?
Dinh: Yes, I’m only a tiny blip on the American literary scene, a barely noticed writer. My ten books of all types have gotten only a handful of reviews. A writer’s only task, though, is to become a better writer, and since this is a lifelong, all-encompassing quest, it should leave him no time to worry about his career. Instead of schmoozing and networking with other writers, I’ve been getting drunk with plumbers, roofers, cashiers, jailbirds, and cops, etc. If given a choice to spend an afternoon with a National Book Award winner or a manicurist, I’d choose the latter. Once a year, professional American poets attend a convention where they can suck up and screw down. Craig Santos Perez sums it up, “you get to travel to a fun city, you get to hear / meet many poets, editors, and publishers, you get to learn many things at panels, you get discount books, you get to eat at new restaurants, you get to dance, you get drunk, you get laid — what’s not to like?” While that may sound terribly exciting to many poets, I’m not at all interested. Moreover, my politics, dozens of appearances on Iran’s Press TV, and opinions about Israel don’t make me any more popular among my American peers, but, again, a writer should just concern himself with thinking, seeing, and listening a whole lot better, and not fret about his professional standing. Instead of ingratiating, he should just hone his chops. I do care very much about making sense to everyone who’s not a writer, however, and in this regard, I’ve made progress, for many ordinary people have sent money to support my Postcards from the End of America project. As a reader, I have to go way outside the mainstream to nourish my mind and spirit, so I don’t mind being on the periphery as a writer.
al-Khateeb: Publisher’s Weekly — in their review of your poetry collection, American Tatts (2005) — described you as “the rising star of the small-press world,” and talked about your “acrid ironies, [and] unmitigated disgust,” saying that “exploring disgust while toying with frames and assumptions, [you] become in one sense a real heir to Charles Bukowski.” To what extent do you think that those “acrid ironies” and that “unmitigated disgust” make you a “real heir to Bukowski”?
Dinh: I haven’t read a whole lot of Bukowski and, frankly, don’t see him as an inspiration. I do admire very much, though, his working-class existence, and his deep sympathy for bottom dwellers of all kinds. He was comfortable around struggling people or outright losers, but along this line, American literature also has Jack London and William T. Vollmann, and Mark Twain also knew how to get down and dirty. The notion that literature wells up from the bottom I also got from reading Vietnamese folk poems. Along with what’s beautiful or transcendent, there’s plenty that’s foul, alarming, or disgusting, so one must examine the whole gamut to have a balanced view of humanity and life. Cesar Vallejo urged, “doubt your feces for a moment,” but the implication here is that shit often weighs on our minds. As a young man, I was also exposed to that crazy lineage of French writers which sprung from Rabelais and peaked with Artaud. From Louis-Ferdinand Celine, I learnt that a writer should never flinch.
al-Khateeb: You translated Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into the Vietnamese, and the same work was also translated by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh. Why Eliot? And why “The Waste Land”?
Dinh: When I was in Saigon in 2000, poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh asked me to look over his translation of “The Waste Land,” and I made so many corrections, I figured I should do my own version. I didn’t want to steal from Chanh, however, so I said that no line of mine would match his, and this is no easy task, considering there are 433 lines in that poem. Chanh ended up publishing his version in Vietnam, and mine appeared a little later in Vietnamese American venues. Chanh is Vietnam’s foremost contemporary poet, by the way, and he’s the star of The Deluge, my anthology of new Vietnamese poetry. In any case, the decision to translate “The Waste Land” was made by Chanh because this major modernist landmark wasn’t available in Vietnamese. Readers are entirely indifferent to our two versions, however, and I can’t say this surprises me. All the exotic cultural references make no sense to them, and I’m sure many are also annoyed by “The Waste Land”’s meandering and its footnotes. I’ve introduced a few American poets to the Vietnamese audience, but always only through a handful of representative poems. The first to translate Wallace Stevens, a personal favorite, I transposed “13 Ways of Looking at Blackbird” and a few others. Sometimes I translate a poem from an English translation, as in Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living.” I did Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around” while looking at both the original and different English translations. As you well know, the best poems are not always translated, and often it’s simply because they’re too challenging for a translator. A while back, I was asked about my opinions on translation, and below are some of my observations:
The best way to criticize an imperfect translator is to do a better translation.
Doing this, you’ll make the imperfect, offensive translation, which you’ve sucked on and tweaked only slightly, disappear forever from the face of this earth.
The many resistances in the source poem force the translator to compensate and invent, enriching the language he is translating into.
In both cases, you have one culture or language trying to accommodate another. This meeting point, this border, this collision of avant-gardes, is where the new, improvised and unexpected can happen.
I’m not a translator so much as a tightrope walker between two unreliable dictionaries.
The worst translators are parasites and conmen, the best ones are parasites and pimps. I tend to think of myself as an honest and totally selfless charity worker.
al-Khateeb: Some of your short stories were published in anthologies and magazines as prose poems? First of all, do you believe in a “borderline” between prose and poetry? Then, is there any difference between prose poems and short stories? And, finally, what makes a “piece of writing” a good prose poem?
Dinh: There is definitely a border between prose and poetry, but the two forms do blend into each another. Most people think of a poem as having line breaks, and these dictate how a poem is read, but when there are no line breaks, can it still be a poem? Of course. Take Rimbaud’s “Phrases,” for example. Its absence of a narrative, ecstatic cadence and abrupt shifts within a sentence, and between sentences and paragraphs, all mark it as a poem. In fact, this is poetry at its purest:
“Should I have realized all your memories,— should I be the one who can bind you hand and foot, — I shall strangle you.”
It takes a poet to come up with “realized all your memories,” and to make the leap from “bind you,” in a love poem, mind you, to “strangle you.”
A similar passage might appear in the middle of a novel, and if it does, that’s also poetry.
Conversely, many poems may have line breaks and rhymes, but contain only a minimal amount of poetry, if at all.
Though written in prose, Kafka’s beautifully compact “The Wish to be a Red Indian” is also poetry. Since there’s no story there, it can’t be a short story.
Generally speaking, poetry is more tightly wound than prose, so you should get more protein with each bite. If this doesn’t happen, you must promptly spit it out, demand a full refund (even if you didn’t pay anything) and curse the fake poet, if not beat him up!
al-Khateeb: In your poems, you depict the “borderless body,” not only as a naked existence where the “soul blossomed” — an existence that is open wide, “cleaned from all obsolete and labored presumptions”; the body “blends into all humans, animals and things” and “naked, walks through the street as the very first human,” but also as an “erotic” existence that tends to free the body from its own “chamber music,” from its own “language and meat,” from its “obsolete maps”: to overflow and seep into a “defiant puddle.” Do you think that one can never be a true poet without celebrating the “body electric”?
Dinh: This borderless body suggests the immigrant, a child in the womb, rapists, spouses, sitting in a bar, and empathy. Human bodies are really one continuum that has been tragically yet mercifully broken up. If you’re cut, I should feel pain, and vice versa, and when we’re at our best, that’s exactly what happens. Too often, though, people derive an orgasmic pleasure from watching another body being violated by a drone missile or a bomb. Excited, they cheer. Elias Canetti talks about how instinctively humans laugh at seeing somebody falling, and he traces this to our days as flesh hunters. Since a fallen body represents meat, we laugh out of joy. Beside this atavistic impulse, however, we also rush to help the fallen because we recognize the body in distress as our own. The American entertainment industry, though, is relentless in pushing the fantasy of the super predator, somebody who’s capable of destroying countless bodies “of the bad guys.” With its mesmerizing war and “action” films, Hollywood has amplified, to an insane degree, all of our worst sadistic tendencies. Sex, too, has become a matter of body count, but this is perfectly in line with the American obsession with numbers. As for your question about being a “true poet,” there are so many types of poets out there, but I’d say the majority of them are not about grappling with the body’s hidden logics, but smothering these with verbiage, for language, after all, is most often used to dissimulate and disguise everything, and not just the body. Having said that, neurotic poetry has its place, so a poet who always sidesteps the many bodies lying all around him, some smiling, some freshly killed, also has his place. Just days ago, a Vietnamese poet asked me to translate something, and so I did, “I’m aroused. I’m horny. I’m a whore. I’m an aroused whore. I’m an extremely horny whore.” I’m not sure if she needed that for her Facebook page, or if she was communicating directly to me, but it was clearly her body starting to speak. Not one to be rude, my body spoke back to her, but alas, only by email. Such is our postmodern world.
al-Khateeb: You spent the last seven years photographing the homeless, the angry, the “rebels” of America — or what I might call “the borderless bodies,” borrowing the title of one of your books. Can you elaborate more on this “journey of the soul,” if I may say? What things, in the first place, moved you to do such a thing: to document the other/the real/the outrageous face of America? And to where, through those photos, do you want us to go?
Dinh: Actually, it has only been six years. I started this photography project in 2009, when I got my first professional camera. At the time, I was making these art videos that incorporated poetry and still photography, but with my new camera, I started to roam the streets. Years before, I had been a housepainter, so had known my city fairly well, but by 2009, I had become too alienated from it. I was staying home too much and sitting in front of the computer. It’s telling that the last two major movements in American poetry, Flarf and Conceptual Poetry, are both media-based and inspired. Like everybody else, many poets are enthralled by the Internet. What you have, then, is language feeding on itself. Gleefully recycling its own waste, it stares at its flabby folds in the mirror.
Any important shift in society will show up in art, so if you have a blossoming bourgeoise, you’ll see more middle-class images, and the advent of the newspaper, with its odd juxtapositions of serious news with ads, will usher in the collage. By the early twentieth century, the newspaper had become a part of daily life in modern societies, so people were conditioned to seeing, say, a story about a murder or a rape next to an advertisement for shoes or candies. On a single page, you will see tragedies mingling with the ridiculous or trivia. These common yet jarring juxtapositions in low culture triggered similar strategies found in collage artists, surrealists, Dadaists — then, later, pop artists, etc. What’s often lauded as radical art, then, is no more than an echo of a larger societal change, so it’s really conformist in the extreme, and not radical at all. In a hypermediated culture, the most radical act is to say no to all buffers and regain, touch by touch and one face-to-face conversation at a time, a more tactile reality, for it is, after all, your naked birthright.
Here, I’m talking about a resistance to media, not just its contents but its forms, and to clarify, I’ll give you an example from my own life. In my late twenties, I decided to stop listening to recorded music. First off, it’s highly unnatural and, I contend, even a sign of madness to subject oneself to endless noises that interfere with one’s thinking and perception of the world. Music should be occasional, and by this I mean triggered by a very specific occasion, and not something kept on constantly to make its listeners deranged. Remove this buffer of recorded music and everything in the room becomes instantly more intense. Having said all this, I’d occasionally check out a song on, say, YouTube, just so I’d know what’s happening in the culture. After reading about Miley Cyrus’ supposed twerking, for example, I watched her performance on YouTube. Also, in my daily life, I can’t help but hear recorded music, but when I’m at home, I function completely in silence.
With this conviction, I’ve walked out my door much more often, and just about everything I’ve seen contradicts what’s broadcast relentlessly through the mainstream media, for daily, we’re being told that the economic recovery is on course and unemployment is down, all positive news, but these are all lies, for if you’d walk down American streets and talk to ordinary Americans, you’d know how bad the situation is. Also, the parts of America that are most often seen by visitors are also extremely misleading, for Manhattan, Northwest Washington, DC, or Miami Beach, etc., are but a glossed-up façade to hide the rot that’s spreading across this country.
For a while now, I have been aware of this nation’s downward trajectory. In 2005, I taught a class called “State of the Union.” In it, I asked students to pay attention to their country’s political, economic, and social unraveling, and I challenged them to write politically relevant poetry. Though I’ve taught this writing workshop at various universities, I’ve pretty much stopped getting invitations to teach or even to read, and part of this is because of the deteriorating economy, but the bigger reason, I suspect, is because of my politics. You can’t expect the academy to embrace you when you keep calling it a Ponzi scheme!
Gouging students, American universities send young people to banks for loans that many can never repay, and it is the professors’ job to hypnotize them into thinking they have a bright future. Saddled with terrible, sometimes suicidal debts, many will be stuck with low paying jobs that don’t even require a college education, and even those with “practical” degrees will tumble into this abyss, for a collapsing American economy can’t absorb its many college graduates. As if this isn’t bad enough, foreign professional workers, as in engineers, doctors, and nurses, etc., are also being imported to knock wages down. Though this is done deliberately to benefit employers, it’s cloaked as a benevolent immigration policy so that anyone who questions it is accused of being a racist.
A huge pool of desperate graduates will also keep professors’ wages down and render them dispensable, so what you have are all these docile and conformist intellectuals who are terrified of losing their jobs. The academy, then, is not a hotbed of debates but a padded playpen that delimits the terms of the discussion. There, only the more superficial or privately indulgent kinds of radicalism will be tolerated, for these don’t upset the status quo or alarm the moneyed interests that are wrecking not just this country, but the entire world.
In sum, my project is a diary of America’s ongoing collapse, and I’ve learnt much from roaming around. Before I started, I had never been to a tent city, for example, nor had I seen Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Although Camden is only across the river from where I live, I didn’t know it because, like most people, I had no reason to go there. With its absurdly high crime rates, it’s also considered off-limits. Now, I have a much better understanding of Camden, as well as dozens of other cities I would not have visited. I’ve talked to hundreds of people I would not have approached.
It is ironic, though, that the Internet provides me with a platform to report what I’m seeing and hearing. A rationale for this project is a rejection of media, of living life through a screen, but I’m only reaching you via a screen. For those living in the States, though, my images and words can only confirm what many are already experiencing, and if not, my project is an invitation to go out and see for yourself what’s happening. For those outside the US, my project can be a window into an alternative America, one that’s almost never seen. Mentally trapped in a virtual reality dished up daily by the mainstream media, even many Americans are not aware of how destitute or squalid huge swaths of their country have become. American poverty, though, is not the same as, say, the Vietnamese kind, and having lived in four different countries as an adult, and traveled to a few more, I do have some perspective on this.
America’s relative affluence, though, is a direct result of her status as a super power. Running up the largest trade deficit ever, she is worse than broke, but merchandises continue to flow in thanks to the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, but this arrangement is unsustainable. Soon enough, Americans will wake up to their true poverty, but in the meantime, the image that’s still projected to the rest of the world is a USA that’s obscenely rich, confident, fun, and free of worries. As Harold Pinter said, “As a salesman [America] is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It’s a winner,” so there’s a widening gap between the virtual America and the real one. When I posted a couple images of my own kitchen recently, a reader responded:
This might sound weird, but the photos of your kitchen are sort of reassuring. I live in the UK, and my kitchen is pretty much like yours, maybe a bit bigger but everything is from the 1970s and just staggering along. No dishwasher, etc. My US friends look aghast at me — “no dishwasher? how do you survive?” And I think, “What planet are you visiting from?” The advertising pics of America show huge kitchens, even the sitcoms of supposedly “poor” people show incredible kitchens, and meanwhile there’s a hugely populated layer of people in the US (and the UK) that live on microwave meals or fast food because there’s no place for them to cook anything. And then they get fat (and malnourished) from eating crap, and rich folks like my hedge-fund brother say “look at that fat bastard, I’m not paying my taxes to support that.”
The aim of my project, then, is to document the more hidden aspects of this country and also, through my political writing, to attempt to explain why it has become this way. Personally, this has resulted in my becoming more in touch with my city, country, and time. I was tired of being in the poetry ghetto.