Cyborg voice, collage joy
An interview with Tony Trigilio
Note: I first met Tony Trigilio when we read together at the Sunday Salon, at Black Rock Pub in Chicago. The reading was held on a November evening after tornados had swept through the state. I bring this up because Trigilio’s White Noise, a pseudo-Flarf response to DeLillo’s White Noise, transforms the language of search engines — like the kinds we were obsessively checking that afternoon for information about storm systems and tornados — into the language of poetry. Trigilio’s White Noise is a multilayered project that renders loss, paranoia, and confusion with humor and grace. Our correspondence occurred over email in January 2014. — Tyler Mills
Tyler Mills: After you read from this collection, I remember I asked you about the process of creating White Noise. What you described to me seemed reminiscent of a kind of meditation. This interested me because at a glance, one could assume that the way you produced White Noise was automatic, even mechanical: it might seem as though once you chose which search phrases from DeLillo’s White Noise to plug into the Usenet search engine, the poems would create themselves. (As Goldsmith writes in his “Paragraphs of Conceptual Writing,” an appropriation of Sol LeWitt’s 1967 Artforum manifesto, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” “In conceptual writing the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an author uses a conceptual form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”) However, as you mentioned to me at the Sunday Salon, your White Noise project doesn’t exactly engage with conceptualism in this way. Could you say more about the idea behind your project, as well as your process?
Tony Trigilio: Meditation has been an important part of my daily life for twenty years, and I can understand how the book’s method can evoke something like a meditative practice. I came up with the idea for the book when my cousin Michael Trigilio and I began collaborating on The Starve Site back in 2000. Michael is a multimedia artist who works primarily in film, sound, performance, and tactical media. He’s a dear family member. We both share a desire to make art from what might look like the mundane and mechanical-seeming aspects of everyday life, and we both are hugely drawn to the generative potential of chance operations. As we were planning The Starve Site, I talked to him about how I wanted to make some kind of new text — in a form I couldn’t imagine yet — from the relentless wash of Internet discourse. It’s hard to imagine in 2014 that I could have felt saturated with online language back in 2000 — I want to say instead that we’re actually saturated now. Anyway, back in the early days of The Starve Site, I was planning an online project that would push Internet language further than I imagined it could go, and this is where White Noise came from. I made a few experiments with the method in 2003, and actually started the appropriation process from DeLillo’s White Noise in 2004.
One of the most important influences on the book was Bernadette Mayer’s procedural poem, “X on page 50 at half-inch intervals.” Bernadette drew an “X” on page 50 of a book and copied the words that intersected the lines of the “X.” Her poem is just this: words that randomly intersect the “X.” At one level, this could seem to be nothing but arbitrary transcription — something that just defies meaning-making. But the seemingly arbitrary words open up new pathways for meaning, and, in doing so, they elevate chance operations to the level of craft. Inspired by this, I created my procedure for generating my White Noise collection, drawing an “X” in the middle of a page of Don DeLillo’s White Noise every Monday, and then feeding the first three to four words that intersected the “X” at its cross into the Usenet bulletin board search engine (originally, this search engine was Deja News; a year or two into my project, Google bought Deja News). DeLillo’s White Noise was my choice for a source text for a couple reasons. I wanted a writer whose engagement with surveillance is sophisticated — I couldn’t possibly work with online language and ignore that it’s under surveillance all the time, especially as our daily lives became conditioned by post-9/11 paranoia, which is so important to my White Noise. I wanted a writer who is deeply invested in popular culture, especially pop consumerism. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a DeLillo fanatic, too. I experience him as a poet as much as I experience him as a novelist (especially his more recent, non-narrative work, which reads for me more like prose poetry than prose fiction).
Mills: I’m especially struck by the way that your collection appears to filter a mind through the information culled from Usenet. The mind that moves the material through the poems of your collection is the result of a strange conglomeration of intimate, but public, selves — always open to surveillance (especially post-9/11). Anyone can pull up these quotations, questions, illusions, and disillusions. In your collection, the mind becomes this information. I’m struck by the parallel in DeLillo’s White Noise: I keep thinking about what happens when one continually takes the pill Dylar — how it supposedly protects you from a fear of death. And what replaces one’s sense of mortality is a kind a psyche that becomes unified with the medium of TV. What happens in DeLillo’s White Noise is that the mind loses its sense of personal history. It’s a mind that functions like a search engine that cannot organize or control its own information. It’s horrifying, especially the way that these glimmers of information pervade, perhaps infect, DeLillo’s text. It’s an incredible critique of the barrage of information produced by the TV culture that pervaded the ’80s psyche. Such a barrage of information has been magnified exponentially, as you’ve said, between the early 2000s and today. I think that is especially why your use of DeLillo’s White Noise to guide your own post-9/11 Usenet collage is ingenious.
What would you say your goal is for the speaker of these newly made poems that have been adapted from the language of Google discussion boards? (I think it’s interesting that you’ve adapted both the newest and the oldest archived discussions into the new “utterance” context of these poems.) Are you in part striving to mark out the kind of obsessive discourse that occurs in these public online spaces? Or do you think that the poems in White Noise are instead activating a new kind of lyric speaker, one whose consciousness is pervaded — even (in)formed — by Google?
Trigilio: Your questions are right on the mark. I was excited when the Usenet discussion voices started to sound instead like the voices of the book’s quasi-narrative. That is, I was excited when the Usenet voices really started to sound like they belonged in this new utterance context. (By the way, this has a fascinating effect on the sense I have of my own writing voice. I realized I had an intellectual and emotional connection to the voices in the book, but it was a kind of ghostly connection because I didn’t actually generate the words. The reshaping and collaging I did for the book definitely produced the intellectual/emotional connection, but it’s not the same connection I’ve felt in any other book I’ve written. I’m fascinated by how the voices in the book are simultaneously distant and intimate for me when I read from it.)
I think I was trying to both replicate the obsessive context of the original postings and suggest a new kind of speaker. For me, both efforts happened simultaneously, though I realize this might not be the same for the reader. Actually, let me correct myself a little bit. When I say “both efforts happened simultaneously,” I’m referring only to the period after 2009, when I started collaging and shaping the appropriations. Prior to 2009, when I was still marking an “X” on DeLillo’s book every Monday and working the Usenet postings into my website, I was only marking out the obsessiveness of public online discourse. (Looking back on my original notes for the book and seeing the kinds of bulletin boards I pulled material from, I remember even more clearly how I obsessed on the obsessiveness of public online discourse. The range of Usenet bulletin boards that I drew from still kind of makes my head spin. Just a few examples: rec.pets.cats.health+behav; alt.religion.scientology; sci.med.diseases.lyme; rec. sport.pro-wrestling.fantasy; rec.games.chess.politics; alt.christnet; alt.support.anxiety-panic.moderated; alt.philosophy; alt.sailing.asa; rec.equestrian; rec.arts.tv.soaps.cbs; rec.gambling.misc; and so on.)
But as I was collaging/shaping the material, I did find that a new kind of lyric speaker was emerging — one that was pervaded not so much by Google but by the wild zone of public online discourse (and the obsessiveness that’s almost inevitable with such discourse). This new kind of lyric speaker felt very much to me like (for lack of a better word) a cyborg voice: a hybrid of the biological organism and the electronically generated space that gave the organism room to speak (and room to speak obsessively). I want to emphasize, though, that this hybrid/cyborg voice was not something I intended consciously. I noticed it in the back of my mind as I was collaging/shaping the book.
Mills: What you call the “cyborg voice: a hybrid of the biological organism and the electronically generated space that gave the organism room to speak” makes me think immediately of Flarf poetics (such as Sullivan’s “WC+WCW”), where language is culled from Google searches. I’m fascinated by your White Noise collection because in one sense, it very much falls under the definition of Flarf poetics, but in another sense, the language itself actually behaves very differently from Flarf. The speaker of your project, created from the obsessive online public discourse, breaks through what I often find in Flarf to be a stiff emotional plane (the flat, newly stitched text functioning as a site where prior texts have been joined). Your interaction with search engines seems very different from this — as do the poems that result from these searches. I keep wondering if somehow your project is mimicking the way we turn to Google for answers at crisis points in our lives. Flarf can evoke the absurdity of this kind of search — which I think your poems do wonderfully. But your project pushes past this absurdity and actually transforms the culled language into meditations of a single mind, a represented consciousness that is perhaps even lyric, as in the following passage:
And as I stood there staring at the sky, the clouds merged together, forming a huge face. I ran all the way home in a panic.
Maybe he can walk through solids, but not see through them. This would limit his movement without interfering with his insubstantiality (13).
Yet moments of the project remind us of the function of the text as a text, and of language’s propensity to cite itself. Footnotes interrupt the text — breaking the spell that makes us believe in the unified voice in the first place. For instance, the footnote for the line, “I’ve come to question just about everything” is “It seems from now on I’ll be baking my own cookies. I’ve used it to induce more vivid dreaming for years and have seen strong effects in many people” (7). How did you envision the role of footnotes in your collection? Are they, in effect, meant to be a way for the text to reflect its own citational process? Are they a way of providing contrapuntal movement, almost as a kind of harmonizing thread to the main voice?
Trigilio: I like to think that, yes, the book’s procedural constraint enacts the absurdity of our constant need to go to Google for answers. I also hope the book honors our desire to go online and find community. This is why the book is, for me, as ironic as it is earnest. I was drawn to Usenet bulletin board material because Usenet was an electronic gathering place for the mundane and the arcane. You could have the most arcane, specialized interests — in a particular religious sect, TV star, artist, hobby, and so on — and instead of feeling isolated, you could commune with others who share these interests. There’s nothing radical about this today, I know — it’s pretty much the essence of social media. But back when the Internet was a nascent medium, these possibilities for community felt almost utopian to me. When I first started going online, in 1994, these bulletin boards were more important to me than anything else that the new digital medium offered. I take this for granted now, but when the Internet was still new, I was stunned by the potential beauty of online discourse as a communal enterprise. (Of course, in 2014, one glance at the troll-filled comment fields of most websites is enough to remind me how incredibly ugly online discourse often is.)
Flarf is one of the closest conceptual aesthetic contexts for the book, and I totally understand that readers come to this as a Flarf-like book. I learned about Flarf during the early stages of this project, in 2004, and I immediately felt a sense of kindred spirit between this project and what the Flarf writers were doing.
But White Noise, I think, is guided by an aesthetic that’s different from Flarf. In White Noise, I’m trying to do more than ironically replicate the condition of language-saturation created by Internet discourse. In an essay introducing the special Flarf and conceptual poetics section of the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry, Ken Goldsmith writes of Flarf and conceptualism: “This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve … yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it.” I had just begun collaging White Noise when I read this — I spent 2004–2009 gathering appropriated material for the book, and I began the actual collaging process in 2009. It was clear that I truly wasn’t writing a word of White Noise. I always describe the writing process of the book as I did earlier in our interview — as “collaging.” And I often begin readings from the book by saying to audiences, “I didn’t write a word of this book.” (I think I said this when we read at Sunday Salon.) I wholeheartedly share with Goldsmith the desire to take the archetypal heroic author out of the equation, and, in doing this, to disrupt the traditional relationship between subjectivity and authorship. But I get stuck on the part where Goldsmith says “no one means a word of it.” This is where White Noise significantly diverges from Flarf, I think. Most of the folks who wrote the original Usenet postings I used for White Noise seemed to mean what they were saying — and I like to think that their voices remain as important traces in the book. Like with any book, I wasn’t really sure what vectors of “meaning(s)” were developing as I wrote it. But I did operate from a sense of sincerity: 1) a sincere effort to explore our relationship to Internet discourse by actively immersing myself in the discourse — not just appropriating the language, but sculpting it and paying very close attention to the new ways of thinking about language and community that emerged from the sculpting; and 2) a sincerity in the sense that Objectivist poets like Zukofsky, Oppen, and Niedecker, among others mean the word — as a sincerity to my materials, to my methodology, to the clarity of what I’m seeing, and to the clarity of the language for what I’m seeing.
That’s great what you’re saying about the footnotes. In one respect, I thought of them as mocking our desire for explanatory footnotes and endnotes in research prose. I love to include footnotes/endnotes in my prose — sometimes I think I love using them too much (I saturate myself with language, I guess), and I think the footnotes in White Noise were partially an effort to mock my own obsession with explanatory footnotes. Stylistically, I heard the footnotes as contrapuntal, definitely, and I’m glad you mentioned this. I was guided by a call-and-response feel when I crafted the footnotes. At times, too, I wanted the footnotes to mock the desire for hyper-rational mastery and control of language and thought that helps make the national security state possible. In this way, the footnotes heighten, I think, the post-9/11 paranoia that permeates the book.
Mills: As a reader of your project, I can certainly say that for me, the footnotes do “mock the desire for hyper-rational mastery and control of language” (especially in our era of NSA surveillance). Infecting the post-9/11 paranoia in your collection is also this incredibly obsessive illogic that masks as a scholarly means of controlling meaning. As I was reading your collection, I was struck by this question: where do clarifications and explanations end, in our Internet-driven textual landscape? When entering language into a search engine, one can fall down the “Google” rabbit hole, where you keep searching for one thing to explain another thing, until you wake up and realize you’re reading about rockhopper penguins.
I think that the anxiety that drives the footnotes in your collection is an anxiety that comes from relationality: how a Google search can bring such disparate things together into a strange kind of logic. It’s an odd, impossible promise. I think that Flarf mimics this, at its most cold level of appropriation — where the artist has a minimal hand in guiding the juxtapositions the search engine creates. But I agree with you that while your collection might look like Flarf poetics, it is departing greatly from it in terms of the “sincerity” you mention — which has a large part to do with the artist’s relationship to the materials of language, as you said. You’ve chosen to “sculpt” the language a certain way, to guide the mind that is simulated by these poems. There’s also an effect of sincerity in the collaged language that looks a lot like the believable emotions we turn to in traditional lyric poems: there’s a sincerity to the paranoia, and in the necessity of explaining one’s sense of self in relation to (or even as being part of) the textual landscape which is now part of our twenty-first century human experience:
To say that someone who died last week might get out of purgatory next week, while someone really bad who died a month ago still has another year left, is to be too simplistic.
It confuses a bad person with a saved person who still needs a longer spiritual journey than some other saved people.xxiv
xxiv The balloon is the narrator’s soul going up into heaven then vanishing (38).
We’ve been talking about the mind that appears through the collaged, appropriated language as a kind of speaker. But I would also like to ask you about the moments in your collection where three distinct characters break through this utterance: a “He,” a “She,” and a “Grandmother.” It’s like you’ve interspersed dramatic scenes, each with their own name, into the larger meditation. I would like to reproduce “We’re Still in the Office, I Bet. Also in Somebody’s Mind” below, in full:
There is absolutely nothing you can do to launch me in a state of depression. Absolutely nothing.
Explicitly he rustled across no argument. We slung neither popped seeing you were roughly ransacked, and every raving including us braced unqualifiedly simpler.
I was a gangster for Wall Street. I made Mexico, and especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. Made Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in.
It then becomes like driving back and forth between two gas stations.
I purified Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909–12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I made Honduras “right” for the American fruit companies in 1903 (22–23).
Could you talk about what motivates scenes like this one? How do you see these mini-plays working with the appropriated material differently from the otherwise driving mind of the collection? How did these three characters in particular become apparent to you as you were working with their voices?
Trigilio: The mini-plays were an effort to heighten the polyvocal feel of the book. I wanted something in the book that would work against the human tendency to consolidate multiple voices into one voice. I hope the mini-plays heighten the conflicts and tensions of dialogic speech in White Noise.
My idea for the mini-plays came from reading Lorine Niedecker’s surrealist poem-plays, “President of the Holding Company” and “Fancy Another Day Gone.” I don’t appropriate any language from Niedecker, but the “He,” “She,” and “Grandmother” characters in White Noise are inspired by characters of the same name in “Fancy Another Day Gone.” Niedecker’s poem-plays work against linear, rational thought, while at the same time they maintain the illusion of linear discourse — with characters who speak to each other in a back-and-forth dialogue that, at least in form (but not in content), appears to move the so-called narrative forward. But the actual speech of Niedecker’s characters is anything but linear, which makes traditional narrative momentum impossible — and, for me, hilarious. My hope is that readers feel the same disjunction, and humor, in the mini-plays of White Noise.
I took only the names, not the characters themselves, from “Fancy Another Day Gone.” That is, the personalities of the “He,” “She,” and “Grandmother” characters were really just blank ciphers when I started putting together the mini-plays. As I assembled the mini-plays, my characters immediately started taking on their own personalities. And as their voices became more distinct, this began to affect the Usenet material I gave them to say. This is going to sound really strange, but as I was collaging the book, the “Grandmother” began to sound to me like the late actress Irene Ryan; the “He” character sounded more and more like the actor Kyle McLaughlin; and the “She” character began to sound like the actress Chloë Sevigny. From the time I composed the first mini-play, these were the performers I envisioned playing these three characters, and this guided the language I appropriated for them. It would’ve been a dream for me to watch the three of them act out each mini-play.
I was glad you mentioned relationality earlier as an important effect of the footnotes, and I also hope that relationality is significant to the experience of reading the mini-plays. The mini-plays are part of the book’s larger strategy to explore, as you put it so well, “how a Google search can bring such disparate things together into a strange kind of logic.” I feel a mixture of awe and anxiety from this kind of logic. I’m thinking of your earlier example in which a person rides an associative train of Google searches and eventually lands on “rockhopper penguins.” At this point in a Google search, you often can’t even remember where you started: all you know is that you’re now looking at a list of rockhopper penguin sites (and maybe you’re saying “rockhopper penguin” in your head over and over because the phrase sounds so crisp and musical and quirky). I did a Google search for rockhopper penguins as I was responding to this interview question, and I fell straight into a Google rabbit hole that enacted your earlier remarks on the strange logic of Google searches. As I fell into the rabbit hole, I read about how rockhopper penguins are indigenous to the Falkland Islands, which then led me to memories of the 1982 Falklands war between Argentina and England (the first time I’d ever heard of the Falkland Islands) — and I remembered how the Falklands war solidified Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity and power base. I always associate Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 with Thatcher’s Falklands War, because Grenada was for Reagan a war like the Falklands — a political conflict that deployed chest-thumping patriotism and jingoism to elevate Reagan’s popularity during a terrible recession. How did I get from rockhopper penguins to Ronald Reagan? I’m awestruck by how this kind of Google searching leads to canyon leaps from one subject to another. At the same time, it can provoke anxiety, I agree, because of the way you can simply lose yourself in this kind of Google treadmill, and eventually it can create bizarre equivalences that actually seem perfectly normal, as in: rockhopper penguins = Falkland Islands = Margaret Thatcher = the invasion of Grenada = Ronald Reagan.
But if we have no stable “self” that can be “lost,” then these equivalencies are not really bizarre. They actually might be perfectly “normal” functionings of the mind (specifically, of the unconscious). As I was collaging White Noise, I was struck by how many times seemingly accidental collisions of Usenet excerpts made their own “sense.” This is no major revelation, I know: collaging always produces “sense” from random collisions, and the more you trust your unconscious, I think, the more you realize these collisions often aren’t even random. But I did feel a fresh kind of “collage joy,” for lack of a better phrase, when I saw that the machine-language situation of Internet discourse-appropriation — especially a machine-language situation governed by such a complex chance-operations procedure as I was using in White Noise— could produce what is, for me, such warm, human (and often loopy) kinds of sense.
To say a little more about loopy kinds of sense, I’d like to linger for a second on the example you quoted earlier, from page 38. The material on purgatory came from an entirely different Usenet posting than the footnote about “the narrator’s soul going up into heaven and vanishing.” The purgatory discussion was from the “alt.religion.christian.methodist” newsgroup (a discussion titled, “Is Gandhi in Heaven?”). The remark about the narrator’s soul ascending into heaven was from “alt.music.dave-matthews” (a discussion titled, “My interpretation of ‘Spoon’”). Gandhi and the Dave Matthews Band; rockhopper penguins and Ronald Reagan! I was so thrilled when this cacophony of Gandhi, Methodism, and Dave Matthews occurred that I can still remember the moment it came together. I was sitting in a café in San Diego, during a visit with Michael Trigilio and his partner Trish Stone. This trip to San Diego helped me assemble the first rough working draft of White Noise. A woman was ordering a breakfast sandwich at the counter. A man was trying to get the attention of the barista so that she could buzz him into the bathroom. I was drinking an espresso, and, eureka, “the balloon was the narrator’s soul going up into heaven then vanishing!”
Mills: Fabulous. It’s this single voice, in your project, that is able to speak simultaneously through all of these contexts: Methodism, Dave Matthews, purgatory … and in the context of creation, for you, as the artist in the café, the “cyborg voice” ends up becoming a kind of epiphanic “collage joy.” It’s bizarrely wonderful. It would be amazing if someone could sample the voice of Kyle McLaughlin in Twin Peaks, Chloë Sevigny in American Psycho (and/or Big Love, and Portlandia) and Irene Ryan from the Beverly Hillbillies and collage them into the “He,” “She,” and “Grandmother” of White Noise. (I wish I knew someone who could do that.) I have one final question: who do you envision speaking the “cyborg voice” of your collection, that meditative, existentially befuddled, graceful speaker that surrounds these Niedicker-esque stagings? Is there a particular poet whose voice you would resurrect from the archives of the Smithsonian, or Jacket2, or UbuWeb?
Trigilio: I feel like so many voices are speaking that I don’t know if I could isolate one particular person speaking the “cyborg voice” in between the mini-plays. But if I had to pick one, it might be David Lynch, who has a remarkable ability to be, as you wonderfully put it, “existentially befuddled” while also voicing his befuddlement with grace and equanimity — as if he can really appreciate his own bewilderment at the same time that it makes him anxious. To think about this voice some more, it actually feels like a fragmented consciousness. The consciousness comes to me as a cacophony, though. It’s a layering of multiple voices, like I’m eavesdropping on everyone who is, say, riding the subway with me on a particular day, while I’m also having my own conversation with the person sitting next to me.
1. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Kenneth Goldsmith, 1994–2014, Electronic Poetry Center, University at Buffalo.
2. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Flarf Is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing Is Apollo. An Introduction to the Twenty-First Century’s Most Controversial Poetry Movements,” Poetry (July/August 2009).