Caleb Beckwith and Suzanne Stein in conversation
Note: Caleb Beckwith and I have been corresponding about poetry, poetics, and poetry community since becoming friends sometime in 2015, shortly after he moved to the Bay Area from Philadelphia. Late in 2018, I suggested we have a more formal conversation about his new book, Political Subject, recently released from Roof Books. Political Subject was begun not long after Caleb made that cross-country move, and the poems, in part, reflect his grappling with local political-aesthetic constructs and the differences between his East Coast and West Coast environments, as well as broader themes of how a poet is or is not an agent of political change. The spare, dry-witted poems take aim at a number of closely held conventions about what makes a poem, or a subject, “political.” Among other things, our conversation unpacks some of the background setting of the poems, touches on whether or not “political” and “conceptual” poetic practices are mutually exclusive, and raises questions about audience, generational and other. I hope you enjoy it. — Suzanne Stein
Suzanne Stein: Caleb, I’ve been saying for several years that your collection Political Subject is my favorite new poetry book “of the year” — i.e., it’s been a multiyear favorite. Finally it’s out, from Roof Books (September 2018). It has a lot of what’s been missing for me in much of recent poetry: a sense of humor, first of all, with an unflinching self- and social awareness, but, refreshingly, without any of the leaden moralizing that seems so popular of late. With wit and precision you deftly let the hot air out of some particularly turgid political (poetry) balloons. The punches the book delivers are dastardly sharp, but the poems are also sympathetic to the objects (and subjects) of their critique. It’s a pleasure to enjoy a laugh along with a twinge of schadenfreude, while still having to swallow that pinch of self-recognition. I want other people to be as excited about this book as I am.
Let’s launch in and talk about the poetical-political climate of the Bay Area and California, in which the poems in this book were written. If you don’t mind talking first about politics by way of process, let’s do that: I seem to think that many of these poems were written and sent to friends in a kind of daily way, making commentary on the scene and scenes around you. Can you say a little bit about that?
Caleb Beckwith: Even with friends, I tend to be pretty insecure about work in process, so I mostly didn’t share drafts until they’d been obsessively edited on my phone during screen time at work, on BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit], wherever. I definitely had certain readers in mind when writing, though, which is why the book’s dedication is an obscure reference to a group chat that still occupies a lot of my daily attention. By the time Political Subject came out, I’d lived in Oakland for about three and a half years. This was long enough to feel at home in the East Bay poetry scene, but not without considerable adjustment. I lived in Philly prior to here, and the friends I naturally gravitated toward mostly had East Coast connections of some sort or another. I can only speak for myself, but I wonder if it was a shared sense of alienation or loving disidentification with West Coast mores over which we bonded.
It wasn’t long after announcing my intention to leave Philly that I heard nearly every stereotype about the Bay you can imagine: that my barely-audible Southern drawl simply “wouldn’t fly,” or that I’d somehow become an overbearing free love evangelist within in a year’s time. Turned out neither of those happened. Despite the Bay’s reputation as a hotbed of inflexible tankie groupthink, I found the scene mostly amenable to my Southern-by-way-of-East-Coast sensibilities. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a “political imperative” in the air here, just that I found the environment mostly hospitable.
Then again, I had also just dropped out of a PhD program that I naively thought would land me an academic job and was now waking up at 4:00 a.m. and riding the day’s first BART train into San Francisco to serve coffee to Googlers biking thirty-nine miles to Mountain View on an “optional” trek with their boss. I was mostly grumpy and exploited for my first year and a half in Oakland, during which time I worked, did my best to make friends, and developed something resembling a class consciousness. It worked — as much as reading Verso books on ten-minute breaks in the basement of a specialty coffee shop can teach one about political economy. So, kind of?
Then came the 2016 election. I remember biking home from my then-new cushy office job as a twenty-nine-year-old editorial assistant, hoping that Clinton didn’t lock things up so early that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the drama with my friends. Looking back, the sliver of a class consciousness I’d developed working service labor seemed to have dissipated pretty quickly. Despite growing up in what they now call Trump country, I sputtered in disbelief until my partner put me to bed, she being less surprised at the results because her experiences with Occupy, not to mention living in the world as a woman, had taught her to expect the worst from American politics. In the morning, like a lot of folks, I knew I’d been pretty wrong about a lot of things, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Or how. To quote my friend Brian Ang, I sincerely wanted to find a “poetics adequate to the present,” and that meant developing a political consciousness that wouldn’t evaporate as soon as I caught hold of the bottom rung on the professional ladder.
Political Subject was written from January to December 2017, and it more or less documents my engagement with the political and emotional upheaval of that year, which led to a deeper reckoning with West Coast values than I had allowed myself at first. I found myself increasingly interested in the politics of many radical writers, but also alienated by what seemed like a house style for acceptable political writing. Aside from Brian, I didn’t know any political writers whose work looked or sounded at all like mine, and the book was a pretty sincere attempt to see if my interests in so-called innovative writing and internet humor could say something meaningful about our ongoing crisis; or, as a lot of political writing seems to suggest, are these times simply so dire that we don’t have time for anything other than writing one’s convictions in a direct way? I think of the book as experimental in that it very honestly asks this question, though a thing that I really value about the work is that the answer seems to be different depending on whom you ask.
Stein: How would you describe those different takes people offer, with regard to the “experiment” of the book, and what would you say are the assumptions or positions driving those different readings? You do seem to have written successfully through those questions, keeping your own sense of poetics intact, perhaps flavored by the local water. Clearly, although the book was written in, and therefore inevitably responds in many ways to your new environment, its aims are not only within the narrow scope of the Bay Area and its poetics (or California and its plentitudes and foibles). There’s a much broader temperature-taking, for example in this pair:
And in the amused-at-the-gallows glance at the always-arriving soul-death brought on by (everyone’s favorite phrase) “late capitalism,” infinitely repeating:
failing upward (70)
Still, I wonder if there isn’t something to be described about some of the situations the poems take aim at. For example, these read as highly scene-specific to me:
MUSEUM OF CAPITALISM
Beckwith: Since we’re talking about the actual poems, I should acknowledge Robert Grenier, whose form and to some degree style I’m biting in this book, as well as Craig Dworkin, who transmutes Grenier in a way that I’ve tried to re/undo to some extent. After these two, the book is in a lot of ways straightforward. The process of writing the disjunctive poems was usually as simple as recording 2–6 different pieces of language that struck me, and putting them in an order that worked for my ear. The title usually came after the fact and framed the poems in whatever political discourse seemed to me to be operating in the background of my consciousness that day. The longer, more narrative poems that close the book, on the other hand, usually started with a title, which I’d meditate on until I felt like I had something worth saying on the subject.
There were exceptions, of course, but these were more or less the rules for composition. The title “SHADE,” for example, came after looking back and seeing that I had articulated a pretty sincere reflection on the failures of Occupy, while “MUSEUM OF CAPITALISM” was a direct response to the Museum of Capitalism exhibition held in Oakland last summer. The show asked artists to imagine a future after capitalism by presenting it as a retrospective museum exhibition (much like we might find for past civilizations at your local history museum), but, to my mind, it did little to trouble the commodity form of the art objects it presented. That’s to say I liked a lot of the work a great deal, but felt the conceit was only half-realized.
As for how folks have actually responded: I’ve honestly been shocked that more people haven’t hated it! My close friends would tell you that I worry about seeming like a poetry edgelord or something. A lot of these poems in Political Subject grew out of a dissatisfaction with the self-seriousness with which I usually hear politics discussed, so they do attempt to push boundaries to a certain extent. A thing I went back and forth about, though, was how much I should clarify my intentions (i.e. virtue signaling) and how much to ride with the indeterminacy that I know is the motor of the poems. On the one hand, I’d be super bummed if someone misunderstood the loving nature of the critique I’m trying to level, but, on the other, there’s no misunderstandings in poetry. Only readings. It’s that anxiety, I guess, that leads people to be more straightforward when talking about politics, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t rein in the work myself once I found out that it was going to be published as a book.
Stein: I would love to hear more about some of the ways you reined the book in! Can I persuade you to say a little more? If not about what got left out of the book, then perhaps the interior monologue or exterior environment that encouraged that withholding. That is, who or what were your ghosts? I agree: it’s plausible that anxiety about how one’s politics will be read if one doesn’t belabor the point leads away from more slippery, more unkempt, political-poetical explorations. More, one could say, nuanced endeavors.
The short poems in Political Subject have a light touch but don’t lack density, and because of their punning quality they are delightfully “slippery” but still open up to deep reading. As I said, I laugh a lot while reading. (“READING // is / it / over / yet?”  Or: “RENT CONTROL // the new / life sentence”). Some of them I can’t believe haven’t been done before (“SUPER duper structure”). The title poem (“POLITICAL SUBJECT / matter / of / fact” ) is pitch-perfect in the double or triple duty it is doing: that the poems in the book are “matter of fact,” that to be a political subject is a matter of fact, that to write at all is to write a political subject. Too, the different rhythms created by the short and shorter poems; the surprise of the changing stanza structures; that some poems are more dependent on the page than others (“GOBBLE / gobble” ), and, finally, that the suite of the last three long poems, which differ in temperament, tone, and structure — for me, all of this goes a long way to kick the dust off of the lethargy with which I often face the glut of politically aggrieved contemporary poetry. (So much chorus with no surprise in the structure of the plot.)
This is an overlong way of getting to my next question, which is to ask you to say a bit more about your background, first I think in performance, and second about your context or “coming up” in and via conceptual poetry practices, and the way those have both informed this book. Perhaps you’ll also want to speak to the various ways you feel “conceptual” practices are perceived or received in the contemporary writing circles you interact with.
Beckwith: My partner Kate Robinson is a book artist with ties to conceptual writing and she’s fond of the maxim that a book object should be the “appropriate container” for the work. To me, this idea rhymes with a broader ethos that I picked up from conceptual writing.
In an interview that we conducted about his publishing project Gauss PDF, Gordon Faylor describes how he categorizes works “by file type” instead of relying on more subjective determinations of genre. When Gordon offered to publish my work Heat Win in 2014, my mind was pretty thoroughly blown after learning that the piece could include audio recordings of the performance element — not as supplementary material, but a part of the project proper. On a similar note, I recall a Poetry and Poetics talk at UPenn featuring the editors of Troll Thread. During the Q&A, I asked why TT works always seemed to experiment with form more than content, and I recall one of the collective reciting that Creeley maxim that I knew all too well — form is never more than an extension of content. I didn’t quite know what to make of this response in the moment, but in time it’s come to rhyme with the lessons that I’ve also learned from Kate and Gordon (among others): just as a poem’s form on the page can be an extension of content, so should its format.
When these poems started coming out regularly, I figured that I’d send them to Gordon/Gauss to see if they’d be a good fit there, or maybe I’d ask Kate to help me self-publish them if I wanted a handmade book object. These were the only two options I’d ever considered, which meant that the first draft of this manuscript assumed a benefit of the doubt afforded to works that circulate primarily among friends or on social media. In my opinion, this benefit of the doubt stopped being a fair ask when the work became a book that entered Roof’s distribution channels. Though publishing with Gauss in particular would have yielded a wider net readership (GaussPDF is online, it’s free, it has an international readership of poets and nonpoets), publishing with Roof struck the former grad student in me as official or institutional in a way that made me feel that I had to first pass as “serious writing” in order to seriously trouble. This meant that I couldn’t rely on my friend network or Gauss’s cultivated, web-fluent readership to necessarily catch certain tone-based references, the bulk of which were rooted in the way politics are talked about online.
This shift in mindset created the “ghosts” you mention, a few of which actually appear in your question because it draws on our email correspondence about an earlier draft of this book. A part of me really loves the dumb new sentence joke at the end of RENT CONTROL, for example, but I felt uncomfortable after realizing that this version effectively compares my position as a white occupant of a rent-controlled apartment in West Oakland to indefinite incarceration. So the last couplet now reads “terms / of surrender”(55), which is an honest description of what it feels like to live in this financially privileged yet liminal space in which I’ll most likely be able to stay in my apartment, but could never consider owning it. I also like the way this final stanza turns prior lines into terms of surrender themselves. Similarly, the superstructure poem now reads “SUPPER / structure”(68), which is a kind of overwrought joke conflating the way food can take over your life if you make most of your meals at home with the totalizing tone of most left cultural analysis. I’m less happy with this revision, to be perfectly honest, but I knew the original poem had to change after it synced in my head with the Super Duper Burger restaurant chain. All of the sudden the poem started feeling like it joked from the perspective of capital, which was just grody.
In general, though, the ghosts haunting this book were some of the easiest punchlines, the lowest hanging fruit, or what I came to call “the pot shots around the edges.” Your affection for the earlier drafts makes me wonder if I sacrificed too much of the playful quality of the work in an attempt to seem grown-up in my first book, but there are a few poems in particular that I’m so happy to have laid to rest that I’ll take an occasional overcorrection over a couple outlier poems that played it too fast and loose in their offhandedness.
Stein: I so much appreciate your directness here about what can happen in the editorial process when one confronts concerns about what a “real” public is. So there are coterie poetics and practices, and coterie in the face of the … expanded coterie. We all negotiate this, of course. I’m also interested, perhaps from a Gen-X perspective (so impatient with what can look like the over-carefulness of our younger counterparts) in what happened with RENT CONTROL. What you don’t say above is that, not only are you unlikely to ever own your place in Oakland (or one like it anywhere in the Bay), but you also are unlikely to be able even to move to another spot nearby — rent control famously, of course, does keep us where we are. So the joke about the “life sentence” played in a lot of ways: it is a kind of trap — which, of course, is simply not remotely like the trauma of incarceration — but you are stuck where you are.
I like the new iteration, it’s more sensitive to the problem, and to the way some of us are enfranchised to make this capitulation to being “stuck”; without what might have been seen as a gross comparison. It was a good joke though, tight and multidirectional. I’d say the jury is still out on whether or not that comparison was as odious as you have worried. (Can I say “the jury is still out” or does that reveal an overt bias of trust in a system of justice that fails and fails again?) I do appreciate the trade-off I see operating here (if not in the poems, per se, but in the ethos underlying them): what we lose in punch is made up for with a kind of expanded vulnerability. And you’re open about your process here in this interview as well, and therefore perhaps more vulnerable, again, to critique.
Beckwith: I’m curious about the generational frame that you bring to the table with regard to “over-carefulness.” Anecdotally speaking, younger millennial readers have been among the most excited by the less-than-reverent treatment of leftist themes, just as Gen-X readers — especially those engaged in more traditional forms of political writing — have understandably been among the most skeptical. The reverse, of course, has also been true, and same goes for level of political engagement. Some of the most politically active folks I know have found the call to laugh at themselves a welcome reprieve from the tone of most political conversations, while other just-as-active folks simply aren’t laughing. For as different as I tried to make this book, ultimately it’s subject to the same rules of taste as any other collection of poetry, which is to say there’s no accounting for it.
I don’t actually know which version of RENT CONTROL is stronger, though the final version is much more in-line with the work I want poems to do these days. That said, in addition to the reading you help unpack — a good place is hard to find, and almost as hard to leave — I think there definitely was some value to taking a very clear jab at language writing in the earlier draft, given my debt of influence. A premise underlying my experiment in this book is that the political project of language writing, to a certain extent, failed. Or, phrased more generously, it only partly succeeded. If the desire was to create a horizontal, nonhierarchical relationship between reader and writer that would open the political imagination to one day manifest similar egalitarian structures in the world, it worked, just not for everyone. And obviously those structures didn’t manifest — neither in the realm of literature nor in politics.
I’m definitely not of the school that thinks disjunctive writing is only accessible to specialized readers, but I do think that anyone working in disjunctive forms has to deal with the fact that this has been a really effective critique. By loading these poems with political jargon and internet language from left meme world, I hoped to marry the affective appeal of language writing’s nonsemantic, so-called “total syntax” with the demand in today’s climate for direct political speech. I also think it’s notable that the final acts of writing this book — revisions — erred toward the style of political writing that this project started out wanting to trouble. Obviously the end product still looks very different from most sanctioned so-called radical poetry, but I ended up being more influenced by that style of work than I expected. I can only hope that this influence runs both ways, making my use of disjunction and humor similarly accessible to a more overtly politically interested readership.
Stein: Let’s talk about those “more narrative” poems you referred to earlier. There’s a sequence of longer poems that close out the book, gathered together under the section title “California,” which are clearly trying to make sense of place and psychology of place. Each of these long poems has a place title that is iconically Californian in some way — DEATH VALLEY, PLANET FITNESS, TREASURE ISLAND, GRASS VALLEY, and then, finally, simply … CALIFORNIA,. The poems share the same ultra-short lines (often only one word, often in couplets) the other poems exhibit, but, as you say, their ways and ends, if not their means, are quite different.
There’s a short-lived privilege of voyeuristic acclimatizing that one experiences when one moves to a new place, that sweet (or discomfiting) spot where the habits and assumptions of the local culture, invisible to the people there, are in plain view. This view fades eventually as one becomes accustomed to them. It strikes me that Political Subject, and especially this last section, is negotiating that transition, is in some ways a form of expatriate literature, looking at this place first through the lens of myth and mystique that the East Coast (especially East Coast intellectual culture) still persists in applying to its view of California. For me to suggest that you’ve “expatriated” isn’t entirely metaphor — the California imaginary is constituted and constructed so otherwise that the warp and woof of its intellect sometimes appears exotic, primitive, absent to the untrained, unsympathetic, or hostile observer. This occasionally includes our East Coast friends! But California works its magic; the sharp (and quite funny) lens of this sequence of poems includes a pleasing admixture of tenderness, affection, and bemused critique. If I’m on the right track here, tell me a little bit more about what these poems are uncovering, and more about the ways they are like and unlike the rest of the book.
Beckwith: I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to move to California. Growing up, I regularly heard that California would one day separate from the continental US in a tectonic shift of divine justice; that narrative must’ve been what sold me. Come high school, this obsession found me in an online relationship with someone from Los Angeles, visiting a few times and being more over the moon with the place than with the relationship. By the time I found myself actually moving to California, almost a decade later, my naivete was largely still intact, which meant that I had to reckon with it.
“CALIFORNIA,” (comma included) is the final poem in the book, the title of the last suite of poems, and the first poem from the entire book that I wrote. It’s also the stupidest, which is saying something in a book full of punchlines straight out of “post-ironic” memes and “anti-comedy” influence. After reading the poem the other day, a friend grilled me about whether I actually valued the very special place that I now live. I do, but also totally get where they were coming from. That poem, as they say, has no chill.
Maybe it’s because I come from a large family, but I’ve always believed that real intimacy comes from a radical openness — to both positive and negative affects, including but not limited to conflict. The tension with the West Coast in “CALIFORNIA,” comes from a sincere and vulnerable openness to California as both a place and idea, which for me comes as a healthy dose of disidentification. When I sent the book to a former teacher of mine living in Georgia, he remarked that this last poem felt like a bon voyage to my hometown, meaning that it’s also a naive hello.
Whenever anyone asks about this poem, my response has been to double down on the poem’s tone and playfully vouch for my Californian conversion: explaining how my hair is now the longest it’s been since I removed the Jim Morrison poster from my wall, showing off my hemp necklace from the Big Sur jade festival, and explaining how much I’ve benefited from being in therapy for the past year-and-change. I understand how equating these clichés with California might seem like a diss to someone who’s actually from here, but to me these changes have all been part of a deeply healing process of psychic integration over the past few years. I honestly don’t think this process, nor growth, could’ve have happened anywhere else, even if that’s only because of the stereotypes about California that came with me.
When I finally lived here long enough to get over that sense of exoticism that you mention and settle into my surroundings, well, that’s when the rest of the book started to come together. I feel like it’s easy to assume that everyone automatically knows the difference between socialism, communism, and anarchism, for example, or how colloquialisms can be an expression of privilege. I encountered a lot of these ideas for the first time in grad school, and even writing a thesis on queer theory did little to curtail my very real blind spots because that knowledge was theoretical and encountered as an intellectual commodity, rather than a lived set of values. So when I finally got over my initial bout of culture shock and found my understanding of theory interacting with actual practice (both mine and others’), I knew I’d be foolish not to document this process of transformation. Political Subject, as the title suggests, is that record.