Really doing contemporaneity
David Buuck on 'Tripwire,' poetics, and politics
Note: Tripwire is a journal of radical poetics and politics founded in 1998 by Yedda Morrison and David Buuck. After it halted publication in 2002 (a brief supplement appeared in 2004), the journal was relaunched by Buuck in 2014. The journal presents critical and creative work within a loose rubric, carrying issue titles such as “Cities,” “Work,” “Transnational/Translational,” “Pop,” and 2018’s “The Red Issue.” Tripwire is archived both at the Tripwire site and at the Eclipse archive. Exchanged over email, this interview explores Tripwire’s aesthetico-political engagement and counterinstitutional practices, as well as what affordances print can bring to the digitally inflected poetics scene. It has been lightly edited for readability. — Aaron Beasley
Aaron Beasley: Hi, David. Can you give a brief history of Tripwire for the less acquainted?
David Buuck: Sometime in 1997, Yedda Morrison suggested the idea. We were both coming out of the MFA program at San Francisco State — her in poetry, myself in fiction — and into the Bay Area scene, which at the time contained a fairly large number of writers in their twenties engaged in various poetic debates, traditions, experiments, etc. Folks were starting zines [and] reading series, and there were frequent debates at the bar pre- and postreading. There was an energy, let’s say, not just in terms of the number of poets and poems but in the debates, the hashing out of a poetics in a fairly (for the Bay) multicultural, post-Language landscape (and I mean “post” socially, too as a lot of the Bay Area Langpos had actually left the Bay around then, too — Bob [Perelman], Ron [Silliman], Barrett [Watten] and Carla [Harryman], Steve [Benson] — so there was, let’s say, more oxygen in the room, especially for non–cis white dudes, to experiment and air out differences and new theorizations [and nothing against those writers/personas, all of whom have been extremely important to my own work and thinking as writer and editor]). Another way to say this is we were young, “emergent” (LOL), and it all certainly felt like the stakes were high both politically and aesthetically, in a scene that (cue nostalgia music) did not seem particularly worried about professionalism or “career.” I’d have to check the archives, but off the top of my head those years saw younger poets in the Bay start the presses Krupskaya, idiom, and melodeon, as well as the journals Shark, Outlet, Interlope, Leroy, Clamor, Stilts, Mike and Dale’s, Explosive, and, honestly, at least a dozen more I’m now forgetting.
Yedda basically schooled me on the history of the small magazine, the role of communities and coteries in shaping the art and framing the debates (as opposed to the academy or New York publishing world, let’s say, not to mention the fiction world I was more attuned to at the time), and discussions with our friends (Hung Q. Tu, Rodrigo Toscano, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Noah de Lissovoy, Elizabeth Treadwell, Sarah Marie Cox, Steve Farmer, and many others) and mentors (Myung Mi Kim, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Norma Cole, Leslie Scalapino, et al.) helped shape the animating concerns of what would become Tripwire. We felt that with all the journals devoted to publishing newer poets and poetry, there was a space/need for a platform to focus more on poetics per se. The initial research, solicitation (by snail mail, no less), and editing then helped forge broader connections and friendships with non-Bay poets in New York, DC, Vancouver, and other areas as well. Then we had to learn how to use Quark and Photoshop and find a local printer and then take the guts to the bindery and then carry the copies to the bookstores and all that IRL stuff. I still remember visiting the bindery and watching the first issues go through the conveyer belt and then fishing out the copies that were cut diagonally or chewed up. And then realizing I had misspelled the title of Yedda’s contribution to the first issue, d’oh.
Beasley: Re: “poetics per se,” I wonder about the distinction to be made, if any, between poetic work and its interpretation (as in the study of poetics). Experimental writing from the last century so often combined or conflated theory and practice, vouchsafing the accessibility of the work through manifestos, talks, and interviews that often — especially in academic settings — demonstrate or stand in for the work itself. As an editor dedicated to “radical and experimental modes” of poetic(s) practice, do you see this distinction coming back into focus? a continued blurring?
Buuck: When Yedda and I started the journal we spent a ton of time reading and discussing other models, from Alan Golding’s From Outlaw to Canon to older models like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, This, Hills, Poetics Journal, West Coast Line, Open Letter, Soup, Sulfur, etc., to then-new/current mags like Chain, Raddle Moon, Shark, XcP, Aerial, Outlet, Object, Interlope, the Gig, the Impercipient Lecture Series, the “Writing from the New Coast” special issues of o-blek, The Poetics of Criticism,and many, many others. We were interested in the traditions of poet-criticism, the kind of work historically done outside the academy that engaged with poetics as a mutable form that could cross genres and manifest — if not outright argue for — new modes of writing. At the time, we were engaged in all sorts of conversations and debates with our peers in the Bay Area scene and — more or less pre-internet, remember — wanted to provide a platform that could both gather and reflect some of that thinking while also curating our own interests, politics, aesthetics into something not programmatic but partisan in its own explorative way. I don’t recall us ever being interested in simply publishing poems or work by “our friends,” (even as we made many close friends through the magazine and the discussions it provoked).
Beasley: You keep a limited social media presence. I kind of envy anyone who forewent the experiment, who doesn’t share my fear of missing what seemed like necessary and inexhaustible debates about poetics or literary “community.” Often it seems unrelated to any actual poetic work, more like a powder keg of personalities. What seems useful about these platforms is the frame they give — a literacy, really — for navigating contemporary poetry: knowing why a work “failed” or succeeded in this or that way, or why this journal or that conference fell apart, or whether a writing method is in fact “dead” (and who gets credit for killing it). The avalanche of takes can stagger the attention. A fine detail, if it doesn’t dictate the conversation, can get lost in the ebb. Does the print journal offer something practical or still necessary as a frame for poetic discussion today, or is it just a supplement to the digital?
Buuck: Well, there is a Tripwire Facebook page but I don’t have the password — honestly, I’m scared of getting sucked in, and have had to just sacrifice “missing out” for some small iota of mental health and less time in front of a screen. Of course, friends can send me screenshots and/or rundowns of the debates, and these things do spill over, in different ways, into the culture outside of social media(ted) platforms. But I still have yet to hear any poet say, “Hey, remember that complicated issue that we all figured out via FB and everyone felt good about each other?” It really does seem designed to bring out the ugly feelings …
A print journal has such a different temporality. And I’m tempted to argue it has a different scale as well — if only because the work can stretch out beyond the tweet or status update or comment. I don’t want to suggest that makes it better, just that it’s different, and I suppose I’m simply more interested in and engaged by the more rigorous or “deeper” kinds of inquiry and experiment that can happen in a print journal (while also wanting to resist fetishizing some academic mode of gatekeepy discourse or privileging conventional poetic criticism over other kinds of interventions and networking that platforms like FB might be more effective at). But I am also very aware of how I am personally missing out on newer modes of critical discussion and debate by not participating in SM outside of Instagram (which I generally only use to post pix of recommended books and my dogs, LOL).
I’m also lucky to have been active in a complicated but dynamic social scene here in the Bay that for generations has modeled a kind of sociality wherein these kinds of debates can manifest and proliferate in ways that social media can’t replicate. (Not that such IRL milieux aren’t also consistently and deeply fraught and problematic!)
Beasley: In its mission statement, Tripwire frames its critical space by three similar adjectives: counterinstitutional, radical, experimental. How do you compare these descriptors? Do they announce a progression from one end to the other? Do they evoke disparate or overlapping sites of inquiry?
Buuck: Well, if someone can come up with a better word than “experimental” to describe the kinds of nonmainstream work “in the avant-garde tradition” (another problematic category), I’m all for it. I would like to argue that while overlapping, these are distinctive terms. “Radical” can mean content as much as form. “Counterinstitutional” to me is shorthand for nonacademic and (ideally) not about or in service of professionalism (in the realms of both the academy and the “poetry world”). Ultimately, the magazine and its contents have to make the arguments; mission statements can become mere cheap signaling if the work ends up being more of the same.
Beasley: I assume (without evidence) that developments in mass computing and digital sharing have made it easier to find and publish a greater diversity of work beyond the kind of social relationships that, prior to the current decade but still operative, characterized a locale coterie or geography-based sensibility. Not to suggest these zones as aesthetically homogeneous, but to make the obvious point that it seems easier to access different kinds of work from today’s means than from those of, say, twenty or thirty years ago. Has this accessibility posed any technical challenges for your work as an editor of a print journal? Has any work that you’ve published required substantive changes to Tripwire’s editing protocols or formatting constraints?
Buuck: Not really, beyond the obvious advantage that the internet allows for a much greater reach for discovering new and different writers and kinds of writers, and better facilitates transnational exchanges. That said, one challenge is that while it’s easier to find and publish writers from around the world, it does mean that I don’t always know the local/regional contexts and histories informing the work and debates in scenes, traditions, and locales different from my own. This of course entails the kind of education and research that makes such work rewarding, but I worry that one can easily fall into a kind of weak pluralism, and/or a kind of Western connoisseurship that can favor a blasé liberal multiculturalism — or, worse, individual “taste,” however well-intentioned — over a more rigorous engagement with the particular contexts out of which work new to me — and hopefully, Tripwire’s readers — emerges.
Beasley: Does this worry always go hand in hand with the task of editing? Setting thematic parameters for an issue, defining a particular context of poetic production — these seem like the privileged laboring of one who knows (connoisseur), seem to have a specialist or pedagogic function even if, as you say, much of this information is new for you. And yet you do balance this with a measured reconnaissance that steps back, looks at a wider horizon, takes account of its limits. I’m thinking of the two recent-ish Tripwires that, in lieu of aesthetic schools or generic classifiers, play host for exchanges of varying proximity: “Transnational/ Translational” (no. 9) and “Dialogues” (no. 13). Can you say something about the decision to devote entire issues to these forms/contents?
Buuck: Well, on one hand they are very loose themes that provide some kind of container/constraint for looking at a “problem” — in a productive sense, and opposed to “topic,” I’d like to think — with varying fidelity. When Yedda and I started the journal, it was helpful to articulate our interests while trying to find a balance between discovery/taking-inventory and “argument” — after all, themes can suggest “what’s important” (for poets?) — and at least in those initial pre–social media issues we were also responding to conversations and debates within our milieu that felt pressing and heightened in part by the fuel of face-to-face engagements with our peers and “elders” in the Bay and elsewhere. Changes in US poetry were afoot in the late ’90s, as what a (poetic and critical) post-Language landscape might look like was still very much up for debate and felt highly political for us. The “Work” issue, for example, came in part from discussions around how class was showing up in and through US poetry, while no. 5 came directly from the “Expanding the Repertoire” symposium on African American poetries that Renee Gladman and giovanni singleton had organized for Small Press Traffic.
Since I’ve rebooted Tripwire it might be more of a personal project in curiosity and self-questioning — by which I mean not questioning myself but a set of beliefs and opinions about contemporary poetics that without rigorous “testing” (against other tendencies and debates) can quickly become stale and/or self-congratulatory. At the same time it’s not (I hope) just a hobby horse for displaying my tastes and interests but a project that might contribute in some way to a more expanded field of inquiry into how poets and thinkers from different positionalities might approach similar issues, in order to agitate our thinking, even as I still hope to push at least some kind of aesthetic and political … well, I don’t want to say agenda or program, but I’m certainly not a Fence-sitter in re political and aesthetic debates, so I aim to create constellations that might shift (or, well, nudge) the field, if only by putting in conversation writers and aesthetics that might not normally “meet” in the usual suspects or “everybody’s great!” or capital-A Academic models of literary journals.
Beasley: Along these lines, what exactly is the translation microgrant? Do translators apply to be considered for one before submitting to Tripwire? Or does it sneak up on someone who has already had a piece accepted? Does it depend on the quality or value of a translator’s particular act of treason?
Buuck: Either/or. It’s designed to pay translators for new work that gets published in Tripwire. So it wouldn’t be work I’d otherwise not publish. At this point it’s not a lot of $, but despite the fact that Tripwire loses $ every issue and I don’t otherwise pay contributors (though I do pay the editorial assistants and designer) I wanted to at least make a gesture towards crediting the work that translators do, especially in the worlds of more experimental, contemporary, and marginalized literatures, where translators almost always work for free and are all but erased from (co)authorship. It has led to more translators submitting work I’d otherwise never know about, which has been great. I also just feel like US poetry remains so provincial, even if/as there’s increased attention to inclusiveness and diversity, that it just makes no sense to not make translation and internationalism a priority. How can we be against walls and borders and yet only read US poetries?
Beasley: Tripwire seems unique in its focus on poetics developments beyond the merely geopolitical or tacitly national. More than most American poetry magazines it answers, in advance of the resurgent nationalisms, the question of what’s happening beyond our here and now (rigorously, as you say) without necessarily diminishing the importance of where we are now. As an editor who reads a lot of new work from within and without our terrifying borders, have there been any marked shifts that you’ve seen in poetic work since cheetoh’s election, in content, or form, or both?
Buuck: I’m not sure I can say that I’m that up to snuff on the most current work since I’m not on Fuckbook but I’m instinctively wary of any overtly anti-Trump poetry since it just seems a bit fish in the barrel, you know? I do think however that we could trace shifts in the political tendencies of poetry in the US and elsewhere (post-Occupy and anti-Olympics Vancouver, post-Duggan riots and anti-austerity UK, post-crisis Greece, etc. etc.) and since Occupy, Ferguson/Baltimore/Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, etc. Different in ways from the anti-war poetries of the Bush years, or the kinds of one-off, properly-liberal “current-events” poems and anthologies that show up after things like oil spills. (The exception that comes to mind is ecopoetics, which has evolved into a dynamic investigation of anthropocene poetics beyond the merely human, at the level of both form and content.)
Focusing just on Trump seems to require a blindness to what’s been going on the last several years, especially when you see poets add their names and verses to the Harvard Review’s “Renga for Obama” to celebrate and mourn someone who oversaw a massive, violent internment and expulsion of millions of immigrants alongside the expansion of the US war and surveillance machine, and then uploading some “I’m shocked!” social media #resistance. I tend to be more interested in work that examines/articulates/reveals/ornaments the contemporary through historical and geopolitical contexts and forces (which is really what contemporaneity is, at least from a historical-materialist sense) — though not in some didactic or obvious sense. Another way to put this might be: I like to read things that don’t tell me what “we” already know, even if I agree with the political opinions being “expressed.” Easy virtue signaling does not make for great art (or even useful propaganda, for that matter, since such moves tend to be more about the writer/artist than a broader movement).
That said, poems “from the frontlines” of antifascist, antiracist, antipatriarchal, anti-etc. struggles can provoke interesting questions of formal strategies, especially in the multi-ideolect era of social media, memes, etc. The Yerbamala Collective, for instance, has been producing anonymous antifascist meme-poems that fuse anger, militancy, witchiness, and humor in a giant font; it’s great stuff that is both poetry and more than poetry. Work coming out of presses like Commune Editions and Timeless Infinite Light feel immediate to anticapitalist and radical-QTPOC+ struggles. Black Poets Speak Out is a fascinating archive of POC poets reading work (both their own and poems from the black radical tradition, which is another way of articulating the present through counter-traditions) within a BLM context. There are of course many other such efforts that feel fresh and attuned to the historical moment, especially if we look beyond the US borders. (Though I’m less sure about how much has changed formally within US poetics; it seems as though it’s more at the level of content, at least in the US …)
I also of course am attentive to the extrapoetic (if that’s really the appropriate term anymore) interventions and debates within the “poetry world,” from the Enough Is Enough protocols to early Mongrel Coalition to ALLCAPS social media protests to other, more diffuse (and often offline and near-invisible) efforts at addressing inequities and oppressions within literary communities and institutions. It feels like those efforts will also change poetry and poetics, though hopefully not to the point that we see hundreds of handwringing white-guilt books by apologetic liberals, “LOL.”
Beasley: A friend was showing me such a book the other day, actually. But I want to re-pose my earlier question in light of these developments that have an immense purchase in online publishing, distributive channels, memes, feeds, etc. You mentioned the temporality of the print format, and the historical conditions of the contemporary. Considering the way social network platforms (for better or worse, how most online content gets shared today) deal in an attention economy dominated by dopamine-hit immediacy, it seems the temporality of Tripwire could more carefully shape the pan-out or archival residue of these more moment-focused, sometimes flickering formations. I have a faint memory of an online poetry mag (I forget the title now) that, in the wake of its editors’ fallout, went completely offline taking a lot of new and now inaccessible work with it into the dark. At least one online book review I’ve done is no longer visible. I can’t remember articles I read last month. #deletefacebook was a thing. What does the closed circuit of the print journal offer to engaged poets, activists, witches, anticapitalists, gender abolitionists, tragedians, in the now, if not then?
Buuck: Oh man, I don’t think I can even hazard a guess given the changes in reading practices and their attention-temporalities you outline here. Perhaps I will have been of the last generation (at least in the global north) for whom print culture is still the dominant media of knowledge production, storage, and distribution, and new modes of reading — scanning, gazing, clicking, etc. — will no doubt change how we think in and through language, discourse, memory, and certainly sociality itself. I’m no luddite and don’t fetishize the book by any means; it’s just that my body-brain has been pretty intensively trained/wired to read-think in certain ways, and online platforms aren’t my “natural” habitus at this point. And that absolutely limits a deeper understanding of the contemporary, so there’s that.
Re: the archive and temporalities of a print journal in the attention-economies of, say, US poetry orbits, I can’t really say, though I do recall when I was starting it up again five years ago or so sending an email around to some of the “regulars” and fellow travelers of the first series to gather input on whether or not I should just go full internet magazine (cheaper and much wider distribution), or stick to print. And the vast majority said print, which is probably more about our generational habits, but Sianne Ngai did make the claim that counter to the assumption that things online will be archived and easy to find forever (versus trying to track down an out-of-print small-press zine in some archive somewhere), print still was a better resource, at least for scholarly work. Which is not to say I don’t archive everything as free PDFs online (at Eclipse as well as the Tripwire site), I just don’t know who downloads a three-hundred-plus-page PDF and reads it “like” one might read an object that at the very least one can leave in the bathroom and “peruse,” LOL.
Beasley: As a last word (for now), can you tell us what’s to come for Tripwire?
Buuck: We’ve just released issue no. 14, “The Red Issue,” with 350-plus pages of more politically inflected work (including a section on postcrisis Greek poetry), and I’m gathering material for the following two issues, one on narrative/prose and the other on performance/writing. I’m hoping to set up a Vimeo page, as well, that will feature readings, performances, and short interviews from/with Tripwire contributors and fellow travelers. Beyond that, who knows, though I would love to host a forum on “poetics today” — as in, what the hell is poetics now, at least outside of the academy, if the majority of discourse about poetry and experimental literature (at least among US poets) seems to happen via social media or short-form online (often “thumbs-up”) book reviews? How do practitioners interested in questioning and challenging the status quo (aesthetically, institutionally, politically) critically reflect on and debate the (always historical and geopolitically situated) literary politics and formal strategies of our moment and the future if not in sustained and rigorous engagement with literary history and cultural politics both on and off the page? Or am I just an aging cis white male grad-school dropout nostalgic for modes of critical writing whose time and import has passed?