Enframing the Brink: Fuck the Police and Fuck the Avant-Garde Too, Part I

by Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown

Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown promise to dive deep into the realms of literary theory and leftist politics in their epistolary exchange. In this first of several dialogues, they share mutual adoration and opening provocations.

Brandon Brown, photo by Alli Warren. Thom Donovan, photo by Dorothea Lasky.

Enframing the Brink is an ongoing exchange of letters between poets Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown. Check BOMBlog every Thursday for the latest entry.

Hi Brandon,

These past few weeks I have been living with your books that came out this past fall: The Persians by Aeschylus (Displaced Press) and The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (Krupskaya). It’s been a marvelous time, especially listening to your prosody in tandem with certain rap albums (Biggie, Wu Tang Clan, Jay Z), hearing the immense resonance with your own lyric. Persians and Catullus turn the heat up on quite a few recent conversations about “avant-garde” and “experimental” writing, while returning to some pretty f**king ancient sources. Likewise, the books have a pretty unorthodox outlook on the “task of the translator,” where translation issues not just from the faithful comparison of two (or more) languages (etymologically, philologically), but through bodily exigencies. The way the translator’s embodiment and their surrounding circumstances (social context, love interests, friendships, diet) shape any work of translation. How you have chosen to make procedures for translation out of your own, and others’, daily lives.

Would you care to talk briefly about how you see these books in a larger discourse? Both within the history of other translation practices, but particularly in terms of the point we have come to with a “post avant” poetics that is trying to grapple with larger political and social practices?

Then again, maybe it might be better to simply talk about “life.” The way your books address life is perhaps the way that our friend Dana (Ward) means it in his book that just dropped this past week, This Can’t Be Life (Edge Books). (Michel) Foucault says (and Fred Moten quotes him in his book, B Jenkins) that “life escapes; it steals away,” and I keep thinking about that phrase with regards to what you, Dana, and a number of other poets are up to right now. What is fugitive in that constant movement that takes place between our resistance to late-capitalism (expropriation of our “flexible” labor, systemic devastation of the ecosystem/local ecologies, subjugation of others’ bodies through war, incarceration, and immiseration) and our participation in consumption, the pleasures that consumption offers?

In a recent recourse to disclosing life practices, and foregrounding their contradictions as they intersect with politics, economics, our social efforts, etc.—I hear the clamor of an emergent (poetic) aesthetic politics that also folds back onto Beat and New York School poetry, the New Narrative, Language Writing, and a number of other poetic practices and genealogies that have attempted to radicalize the correlation of person and the public, subject and object, interior and exterior, singular and collective. I wonder what you might also hear in that clamor?

Anyways, I realize this post is a mouthful. Feel free to just focus on a small part of it (we can always edit!).

SO SO SO looking forward to this conversation with you!


Hi Thom,

Thanks for these incredibly rich opening provocations, and allow me to also share that I love your book The Hole and think, if it’s not too repetitive or hollow-sounding, that it has helped determine my orientation to some of the very aporias concerning the avant garde and “life” you raise in your note.

I’ll try, in the spirit of fleshing out a response, to approach several of the issues you raise, peppered with questions of my own. I think that one of the supreme triumphs of the formal structure of The Hole is its portrayal of woundedness. This wound doesn’t formally capitulate to categorical “self-loathing” and turns instead toward the problem of “salvaging the unredeemable,” to refer to the book’s epigraph from Agamben, which I read as absolutely one of the book’s key themes: how, in the face of the unredeemable crisis to salvage? What can be salvaged and are those things objects? What does “salvaging” mean anyway?

The answers seem numerous and, as they take form in lyric poetry, sometimes aspire to the only semi-discursive state of rhythm. But one of the answers seems to be that the salvageable is illuminated and made possible by friendship and collaboration. It’s a somewhat ugly word, collaboration. And I’m not trying to glorify travail like this e-mail is the Salon of 1853. And yet the way “con” and “labor” live together for a moment approaches what you described on Facebook the other day as a “poetics of political form” to accompany its more clichéd obverse.

So I think collaboration is essential to both your Hole and the sense of translation I’ve been working on for the last few years. How terrific is it that, despite of course the many many structural differences in our approaches, we both invited our friends to literally appear in the book! In the Catullus book my thought about collaboration was a logical one following an assumption about translation itself being a kind of collaboration between two writers resulting in a new text, the translation. I love the sense you describe in The Hole of a subject desiring to amputate her own voice—the conventional story of translation masquerades a figure in which one subject empties everything out except the voice, which is where the language lives, so that another subject (the text being translated) can enter and occupy, if I can use that word. It’s been key to me to not only try and expose this as a rhetorical or literary lie, but to try and consider how to play, or co-labor, in the wake of its exposure. If the resulting text is already, then, a polyvocal document fabricated by a plurality of subjects in intense political relation, the next step seemed to me to actually invite other bodies into it.

You know, one of the really troubling things about the book to me (okay, there are many troubling things as pertains to its content, eesh) is that it risks replacing one heroic narrative (the persistent text which survives its transformation into another tongue) with another (the dreaded “rogue translator” who makes a display out of what is after all perhaps only literary disobedience.) Like the many troubling points of content in the book, I want to let that problem linger, be available for the next work, be something else to trouble forward in the future.

So perhaps a way of starting here is to ask you to expand on the role of the other in The Hole, how “collaboration” relates to this very strategic lyric that maintains in your book?

As a final note, and again I want to almost just ask you your own question concerning how you see The Hole in a larger discourse of contemporary poetry. I am almost totally uninterested in the avant garde as it currently obtains. I hope that doesn’t come off as some dumb conservatism on my part. I mean, I like art. But I have feelings of disaffection for the military metaphor. I mean, I know this is a little crude, but our “amputated voices” still for the most part comply inside a culture tantamount to a massive war and violence machine, and thus bringing military ontology to poetics seems irresponsible or irrelevant at best.

If the general tendency of “experimental” or “new” American writing since the ’70s has been largely oriented as against the lyric (a tendency I think re-upped and reasserted in the Telling It Slant generation of the 1990s, with “narrative” replacing the identity-based “lyric” of the ’70s as villain), the writing in this moment that means the most to me (including your work, Dana’s who you mention, Julian Brolaski, Stephanie Young, Ariana Reines, Alli Warren, many others) is a sloughing off of this particular antagonism. Not to resurrect an antiquated and no longer viable or pure subjectivity of personal expression or anything like it—but an affirmation that narrative as such and lyric in some form are possible modes of salvage and repair in the catastrophic locus. Moreover, these forms, which take so many different routes to sensibility in the writers I mention, often have recourse to some of the techniques which the avant garde, in typical avant garde fashion, lays claim to, from appropriation (an important aspect of my work) to the even more exciting tendencies towards collaboration, maximalism, and expansion that manifest in these writers.


Brandon, hello!

I have been looking forward to starting this email to you all week (and I’m not sure I can finish it now, late at night before a new work week). I had this experience today that reminded me of you. Going to a friend’s house, a friend who is a painter, ostensibly for a “studio visit” but really just to hang-out. After I visited his studio/apartment, we stepped out for a drink down the street. When we arrived at the bar, he noticed he had a message on his phone from my number. I guess when I arrived at his studio/apartment, I had called him but forgotten to hang-up, so the phone left a message of our greeting each other and starting to get settled in his studio. I was thinking how much maybe the phone was performing something similar to what you call “preceding/proceeding” translation, which I could quote you on from your wonderful Catullus, but the book being out of reach, I will just say I understand to be any act of translation which makes visible the translator’s embodiment and their situatedness within a set of life circumstances as a vital aspect of the translation, if not the very content of the translated work itself. As if those voices return to us more real through their framing in a just-left voice message, or through translation works which, as you say at the close of your Persians, always depend on a re-translation by others who will make the work matter through their own performances, a performance by their future bodies. It makes me think that when we talk of “life,” or a radical autobiographical practice, which is something I have been thinking about quite a bit, we are talking about how artifice and mediation can register these delays that make us feel as though we have lived or are living more acutely while also framing, to use your phrase from Catullus, an “anxiety about the destruction of the present.”

To get to the matter of the “return of lyric” with regards to our contemporaries, who are obviously the handful of people you mention and more, I think that we return to lyric problems with a sense of having absorbed the deconstructive discourses of our parent generation and the generation(s) just before us. The problem Language writing (or Spicer or Oppen and any number of poets before them) had with “lyric” being really a particular kind of lyrical writing that bore too innocent a relationship to language’s questionable relationship with power, and to the way it tended to naturalize certain devices—the use of “I” to claim authentic experience or essential identities being one of the major ones. I won’t rehearse that discussion right now. I don’t think we really need to, it being all so obvious, the air we breathe.

There is a lushness, even an ornateness, about your language and Julian Brolaski’s in particular that I think our parent generation rarely touched in their tendency to want to be ironic, and cool, and critical, the New Narrative and latter-New York School notwithstanding, which often tends towards this opulence. Julian once described his work as a series of arabesques, and I think that’s an accurate description of it. Maybe it comes out of the atmosphere at Mills College, where I know a lot of you studied. Or just San Francisco/Oakland at that time (Julian’s and Michael Cross’s New Brutalism?). I think there is a certain return, as well, of a desire for certain forms of intimacy and address that I associate very much with the idioms of Hip-Hop, which is where I locate so much of your idiom and prosody—in that swagger. I don’t know if any of this is helpful. Your work in particular sites pleasure and embodiment in very particular ways, in which consumption and pleasure are both affirmed in a certain aspect, and in which they are cited (and sited) for their complicity with systemic violence. Capitalism, over-consumption, way uneven distribution (duh).

The image of foie gras in Persians really brings this home: geese being bound and force-fed, the image of this on the front cover. And yet these are the conditions out of which we are making this writing, which are so rarely foregrounded through a politics of the poem. CAConrad, Rob Halpern, Bhanu Kapil, Dorothea Lasky, Alli Warren, Anne Boyer, and Dana Ward always strike me as being completely vulnerable to these relations, which, as Dana says, demand that one be willing to appear foolish, a brute or naif. I am so fond of the way you are able to enfold an intellectual content very subtly within the more lush and playful lyricism, not an easy thing to pull off at all. I hope I can clarify anything I’m saying here and talk more about our contemporaries because you know contemporaries are important for me. I can’t imagine what I’m doing without them. And I think there needs to be more public conversations among younger and emergent contemporaries about their practices.

Thank you for what you say about The Hole. If I could speak briefly to your question about collaboration, I think actually that the “solution” I provided to the book was a somewhat inadequate one. Though I could not think of a better one at the time, nor at this time. What I wanted was this book that would foreground the collaborative nature of making a book; or simply the fact that my book was an act of discourse extended by multiple communities and friendships. Something I love about that section of the book, in which the dedicatees of the poems produce 40 plus pages of new content in response to those poems, is the way everyone approached it differently, and how the results tend to reflect very much my relationships with those people, just as I believe that the collaborative poems in Catullus reflect your relationship with those people, albeit mediated by previous translations of Catullus.

The fact is, when I was working with the manuscript of poems, I felt that something was missing. There had to be a way of framing the fact that those poems were so much conceived in an intense community dynamic. After thinking about it for about six months, the letter of solicitation, which basically gave the addressee permission to write anything in response to the manuscript of poems, was the best I could come up with. In the “prefaces” included in the book I talk quite a bit about how a projected book (and not the one that was eventually published necessarily) would like to dereify my relationships with dedicatees through the book’s form. As I have said to Brian Whitener (publisher of Displaced Press) I think one could spend their whole life trying to discover the form for such a book, and maybe it’s impossible after all. Maybe there isn’t a form (or not one form) that can successfully address this aesthetic problem. But I like to think that a number of us are attempting this now in very different ways. And with the current immersion of our culture in social media and Web 2.0, it is a timely problem to pursue.

I guess the other problem for me, one that I address in one of the essays contained in The Hole, concerns my/our relationship to appropriation, something you also make reference to in Catullus. I refuse to take a moral stance on appropriation (I think that has been a mistake in the way people have tried to critique the writers identified with Flarf, Conceptualism, etc.), but am rather interested in how different writers and artists choose to use different techniques of recontextualization. In The Hole it was important for me not to use appropriation because I wanted to see what a prosody could do which took a community and particular relationships as its muse (as Robert Kocik points out, the prosody of The Hole evolves through idiolect). Nor did I want simply to take things people gave me and make new poems out of them, though I realize such a thing is easier said than done, and it would certainly be interesting if more poems were written this way. Perhaps it was the archivist in me (I am currently an archivist by profession) that wanted to collect and catalogue those responses, knowing how quickly they become lost to a semi-public, semi-communal memory. And this is precisely the contradiction the book contains, I think, that it risks entombing or reifying relationships, the very thing that I say I am trying to work against in the book. Catullus’s anxiety, again?

But there is a kind of appropriative writing that I think gets us closer to the dereified life writing that interests us both. I tried to teach some of this last spring, in a class about appropriation at School of Visual Arts. Dodie Bellamy, Robert Gluck, and Bhanu Kapil, and very recently Brandon Shimoda get close to this through their use of questionnaires to collect private information from friends and acquaintances. Rob Fitterman’s “This Window Makes Me Feel,” Andrew Levy’s The Big Melt, Judith Goldman’s The Dispossessions, and Rachel Zolf’s Neighbour Procedure are also important for me, in the way they would attempt to enframe and sculpt collective effects through assemblage, collage, and cut & paste. The Hole is definitely a response to these trends/accomplishments in contemporary writing. In a book I am starting to work on I will use some appropriation techniques, if only a good deal of self-appropriation/quotation, as I had always imagined a fourth part to The Hole that would document some of the correspondence taking place during the writing of the poems in the book. I am now imagining this e-mail/archival sifting as part of a much longer appendix to The Hole, which may also in some ways address the emergency of our present—the occupations in particular.

I hope we can talk about the occupations, and your new book coming out with Roof this year, which takes us back to the barricades of 19th century France as I understand it. In the meantime perhaps you would also like to talk a bit about the decision to proceed through collaborative translations? I would also be very curious to hear more about how you would think about our moment beyond the tradition of the “avant-garde,” a term I often feel is inadequate, or just kind of silly in the way it serves as a shibboleth for the kinds of community-based writing practices that currently exist at the margins of official writing cultures and practices. I mean, is Paul Chan avant-garde and not Jay Z? What about your girl, Taylor Swift? Or the many popular cultural materials your work is in dialogue with? (Last night I told someone that I thought popular culture was your muse, just as Kevin Killian once remarked, during a lecture about Jack Spicer, that he was dictated to by the Ted Turner Network). So much seems a matter of reception and rarefication in your work, which is why I am so fascinated by your blogging, and Facebooking, and the way this blends seamlessly with the poetry because it is so much about radicalizing reception, and redistributing cultural production through the occasion of the poem.

Following something Anne Boyer wrote to me recently, framing takes precedence over craft (though there is a good deal of craft in your writing, too); effects over style (though there is also a good deal of style).


Hi Thom,

First of all, happy New Year. It’s a supreme pleasure to take up our correspondence again as a way of assuaging the unknowability of the coming year.

I love this image of your phone recording the visit with your friend, which, yes, is something like a translation or perhaps the “recontextualization” you allude to as a major mode for contemporary writing and art. I think where the image comes extremely close to what I’ve been interested in translation is that because you forgot to turn the phone off, you then encountered a song as a result of that error. I think this is in miniature the story of what reading is or can be. And in the reiteration of the encounter, what I’m calling here “the song,” all of these terrific architectural elements are added: the fabric of your pocket or bag, the transformation of your voice waves as it filters through that cloth, the beautiful alienation coming to bear on anyone hearing their own voice.

I like “recontextualization” better than “appropriation” actually because it is so obviously about the desire for another world, which can include a desire for the same stuff, just in another and better world. I guess if I’ve expressed an indifference about the avant garde, it’s perhaps because much of that practice orients itself against that sort of desire, determined as it is to agonize over the denigrated present. As if simple agony was all there could be to feel.

Which is partly to return to this question of the salvageable in The Hole. I’m really interested in your sense that brutality and naiveté in part make up the vulnerability which marks the politics of the writing we’ve been discussing. The Hole is obviously full of brutalities—and the tenacity of its refusals is one form of (cherishable) brutality. I mean, something stinks on our lips—and the idiolect it writes through is attuned to the very abjected present I mention above. The capitulation to that ravaged fact does not affect, however, a monochromatic nihilism. “Death doesn’t happen in the present,” after all! In the present, which smells like trash and abused bodies, there’s another world, a more permeable world, writ large as possibility itself. Now, I am curious about “naiveté.” The term is too potent for me to reduce right now, which I know is cowardly, but I’ll admit it as such and hope to be schooled. I just started to worry that there are two kinds of naiveté in my own works, one of which I’m profoundly conscious of and use to manipulate my readers into being utterly seduced. But does a simultaneous naiveté elude me and make that very attempt at seduction obvious and sloppy? Eek.

I was thinking about your worry that the book risks entombing or reifying relationships. I actually don’t think that’s Catullus’s anxiety, exactly, but that’s partly because I don’t think Catullus is interested in working against entombment or reification. In fact, perhaps quite the opposite. For Catullus, one of the potencies of lyric is its power to estimate, evaluate, glorify and preserve glory. Including the “glory” of making someone else infamous. That very first poem formulates a prayer for his affirmations and negations to survive a century, and it’s a prayer undertaken with a kind of confidence in writing’s endurance. Of course, it’s also true that Catullus is a translator and knows very well that the survival of lyric is a survival which is subject to constant recontextualization! For me, one of the achievements of The Hole is that it admits its own time. Does that make sense? And maybe that is relevant to a Catullan anxiety. It is contemporaneous. I might be hasty to consider the contemporaneity of The Hole as a failproof remedy for reification or entombment, but the being-hasty is also to the point.

I loved your sketch at an idea for an e-mail/archival sifting as pertains to a new project. Partly because I think, if it were me, there is such an almost burdensome hoard of content that returning to it is critical—it’s the only way I could possibly remember anything. So returning to the archive of improvised content, of which this discussion you know is a part, is almost itself like an act of translation also: returning to a text to see if something new is there, or something that had always been there but escaped detection, or something in you that’s changed in the return. Very Heraclitean I know. Pathetic. But I liked the idea of your email box—mine, really—as an archive of the unknown.

About the occupations—we’ve had only sketchy conversation about our individual involvements, which I gather drastically differ. If it seems apropos, Thom, I would love to hear how you represent your commitment to the OWS in general and of course in its particulars, what your effort has been, and how you think that effort relative to your project. I mean, all kinds of obvious things seem to arise to me. That the in-gathering impulse which manifests in The Hole, or the sublime co-laboration that takes place there, might be said to cohere in the Occupied sensible in a whole new range of (exciting) forms.

And yet, part of me wants to say that the poetic politics of The Hole are themselves part of a rich tradition of strategic resistance that doesn’t exactly match up with “the movement,” if Occupy is indeed a movement. I’m skeptical of that and some of the other broad particulars of the propaganda. Which is not to say, of course, that I don’t stand in absolutely solidarious relation to the occupations and occupiers. I don’t like capitalism. I think it stinks. And if I hate anybody in this world, it’s the cop. But when I try to understand what “the movement” is, which is to say how it represents itself aesthetically, I’m often stumped. Which is, again, not to decry or denigrate any particular occupation, set of principles or actions, etc. etc.

For example, the heterogeneity of occupations leads me to wonder what “the movement,” if it absolutely has to be insisted on as such, is really about. Is it about the creation of more jobs or the refusal to work? Is it about the fundamental structure of capitalism? If so, in what form? And is it always so? This is obviously the risk of the demand-less protest, and I am as far from pretending to provide an answer to these questions as I am grateful for all of their being-asked.

Of course, there’s less ambiguity with my particular local, i.e. Occupy Oakland. But even as OO obtains very closely to how I might paint my own politics, I’ve largely stayed away from somatic action. Partly for very practical reasons: I live in San Francisco, work a day job which is pretty inflexible when it comes to getting to Oakland for port shutdowns and the like, and I don’t want to fight cops because I’m afraid of them. But there are some other reasons why I’ve been living in the confusing state of being-in-solidarity-with, but physically absent, from the activity here in Oakland.

So, for instance, I’m careful about my own vulnerability to euphoria. I engage OO as an addict. Which is to say that I fear the euphoria and the symptoms of euphoria, which can cause among other things, really awful hangovers. Reading Bifo’s work this year has been particular influential—I use the word carefully, and I don’t mean it “academically.” When it came time to decide whether or not I was going to put my body in Oscar Grant Plaza at certain times, I recalled Bifo’s warning about activism and depression. Although let me just stress again that these are FAR from closed questions for me.

You know, just to say a little bit about the book that’s forthcoming from Roof, Flowering Mall. The book is a translation not of Fleurs du Mal but sort of . . . does it make sense to talk about a translation of a whole oeuvre, which includes not just texts, but a whole milieu, a milieu which includes . . . the history of money? But the major concern of the last poems in the book, the last poems written, is “the future,” all of which I wrote before the occupations started and which, undoubtedly, will really, really betray the time of their writing.

I’m sending this today and leaving off a statement concerning the extremely provocative question you ask about Jay-Z not being AG and popular cultures—with the promise of more to come in coming days!


Dear Brandon,

Sorry for being a bit M.I.A. this month. Work has been busy, and I was set back by the flu and the untimely passing of a friend. The friend who passed away worked the good part of his life as an archivist and was a mentor to me in the profession. I think “the archive” relates to this discussion we’re having, inasmuch as it is so much about time, presence, reification. And maybe it relates to this way we can oppose our books to the Catullan desire for “glory”—being immortalized by one’s deeds or through proclaiming the infamies of others. Of course archives are so much about this immortalization. But they are also so much about an inevitable and anticipated ruin. Their very existence implies the reverse of posterity. It’s working with materials, many of the most beautiful of which are fragile and brittle, marked by Benjaminian auras—the blemishes and beauty marks of their history, encounters with people of the past, etc. Working in an archive changes one’s sense of time. As if all you can do is be a little bit better organized, or up with the latest gear, to get a jump on eternity. I think that’s one way to look at it anyway. And this is not to even get into the politics of archives, which is so much about what is worth preserving, what is culturally valued, who gets to work in these places and gain access. A huge conversation. One rarely brought up in poetry or art, at least not in any really public kind of way. At least until public resources are supporting something cultural conservatives don’t like.

So on the one hand there is this genuine desire to preserve (entomb, reify, make retrievable). And I think that The Hole really is partially about that, some kind of dialectic or relationship between preservation and entropy, or simply forgetting. But then, of course, there is a feeling that I wanted to preserve too, which a new book of poems starts with, that as Adrian Piper says after her studies in Kant and transcendental philosophies: “everything will be taken away.” I think one can start to imagine the world this way—and maybe The Hole looks at the world this way—which is a little bit morbid. That the person is a virtual corpse (which is the way Jalal Toufic teaches us to think of the mortal throughout his books); but also, to quote [Robert] Smithson, that buildings and other human endeavors constitute “ruins in reverse,” that all things contain this inevitable potential for their decay and disappearance (man, is this sounding morbid). And maybe this is too easy an escape/alibi, but I think that’s where a sense of potential comes in, just at the brink of despair, or an infinite resignation that things can’t get any worse, knowing full well they can. A lot of the poems of The Hole evoke a feeling for that despair, while also maintaining a very different feeling towards a kind of community that one maintains/imagines for one’s self amidst pervasive despair. Partially what the book’s epigraph refers to is that the point is our unredeemabilty: this part of ourselves or the world that we retain or hold-up (to get all Hegelian about it) in order to keep doing what we think is right or making an effort towards a world that would be the way we would want it. I hope that structure of feeling comes across against the morbidities that also maintain vision. I hear it cleaving “naivete” and “brutality” (and just this week do you know I read in Larry Eigner’s Areas Lights Heights [Roof Books, 1989] something like, I know just enough to recognize my naivete—a Socratic trope I guess, about knowledge production).

Staying on the subject of feeling and anticipating wanting to get to all of your great questions and ambivalences about OWS and your engagement with Occupy Oaklnd specifically, part of my desire to go back into email accounts is to re-enact or re-encounter what is to be found there. Maybe it is a kind of belated response to that comment [Frank] O’Hara makes in Personism “manifesto”—that one day he realized he could just as easily write a poem by picking up the telephone and calling a friend or lover. Returning to that piece via a class on “creative speaking” I am teaching this semester, which traces composition practices using orality, transcription, scoring, and conversation, it strikes me that that remark has been a little misunderstood. Because it is obviously not just about using the telephone—transcribing one’s conversation (though one could certainly do that, and it would probably produce a fairly interesting set of effects)—but recognizing that the point of “technologies of presence” (Michael Davidson’s term), or a poet’s use of those technologies anyhow, is that you can trick yourself into these certain forms of address and exchanges that are as impassioned and linguistically consequential as any poem one might try to write starting from the page or word processing document. And so that’s what a lot of email is for us now, it seems; transcriptions of these feelings that we may have long forgotten about but may now have something to teach us, or if they aren’t didactic or edifying are at least vital, stuff that can sustain future work. But it is also about something else, and this brings us back to your Catullus and the work of contemporaries. How to frame a set of feelings that constitute a social material? How do feelings of friendship or intimacy become art? What O’Hara teaches us, but I think even more so a work like Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds (and I am grateful for conversations with Brett Price over pizza and beers the other night for these realizations) is that these feelings don’t become art until they are re-felt in the form of narratives or within the framework of a book. What Bruce is so good at, and this is so easy to forget, is how he keeps feeling just enough at arm’s length, in this mediated way, so that he can look at it clearly, and what’s more allegorize it. All of his digressions and apologetics often seem like scaffolding to me, the very framework through which we can start to feel what he has felt through a set of social relationships and a micropolitics that extends from actual social and political commitments/experiences.

I think of Bruce’s Century of Clouds again when I think of my own ambivalences around OWS. Because for me what is most exciting about OWS—beyond the fact that people are en masse actually taking action effectively against banks, and the housing foreclosures, and cynical/fascist political discourse—is that OWS is trying to practice an alternative set of political techniques, modes of gathering but also means of procedure. At some point it got in my head that one day we could have this whole generation of people internationally who were raised on taking agenda and calling for points of procedure among working groups, that a working group/GA could be the fundamental unit of our democracy. That devotion to process is something I really want from poetry community and something rarely achieved. I often wonder, in fact, if that should not be the poem we are trying to write collectively. To account for a much larger process beyond writing and criticism and book making and all that goes along with poetry culture. This will never happen through existing institutions, even the most radical. It won’t happen by pouring a lot of money into Poetry Foundation, nor through very exciting poet-intellectuals storming the gates of blue chip universities. It is also what is forgotten in the kinds of canon wars that you see among avant-garde (or “post-avant”) poetries. Community-based processes that might undergird another world seem like the first thing to go—always—when it comes to canonization (who gains posterity, prestige, authority). It becomes more about branding or at least a power grab that is real and pervasive. My own way of working, I’d like to think, is to simply keep moving, trying to find places where new gathering possibilities and processes can take hold. OWS was attractive to me for this reason. And it still is. I wish I could be more involved in it, as I have been distracted by a number of editorial projects that are very important to do right now, and since I work full-time I can only devote time to on nights and weekend. Maybe this spring, when I suspect there will be more actions than there have been during the winter. The American Spring!

As I have written to you before, I relate to your own ambivalences (fear of cops, manic depression). And I don’t know if the initial work of OWS is for everyone (I definitely think activist work is not for everyone, and this is something to keep in mind: difference). Also, of course a lot of bad stuff tends to emerge that wants to appropriate the energies of social movements/struggle. I remain suspect for instance of the many artists and celebrities who have tried to lend occupiers their support. (Did you hear about the fiasco with DJ Spooky and the People’s Library at this New York club; that the club wouldn’t admit occupiers because they “smelled bad?” There was also that incident with Jay Z and the t-shirts, as if an uber-capitalist like Jay Z wouldn’t see an opportunity to make some extra money?) But the larger problematic that you are identifying, which BIFO is also addressing, has also to do with rethinking activism and social action as a means towards liberating ourselves from certain ways that we have been conditioned to work. (I think of that book The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune by Kristin Ross in this regard, where Rimbaud’s poetics is so much a reading of the importance of withdrawal, not working in certain ways, re-mains [attention to hands]). I don’t have too many details about it—you can check the NYC GA website, but I know there are working groups that exist specifically for care and health, including mental health, recognizing that the kinds of work people are committing themselves to can take a huge toll. My own sense is that people should do what they can and be critical of the ways that political organizing reflects behaviors and ways of being that we’d like to transform. More so, I think we need to keep in mind—as you and Dana and others do so effectively, and as you say in your previous post—the need for translating certain things from this world into another. As Dana says in a recent piece he wrote for a feature I am editing for Rethinking Marxism on “poetry during OWS,” tweaking [Louis] Zukofsky’s famous equation from “A – 12”: “upper limit utopian desire :: lower limit everyday life.” Now that’s a fucking phrase to live by, both in our culture work and in our conduct as citizens. Perhaps you could now speak to Jay Z, Taylor Swift, and the (post-) avant garde? Seems like I have given you a perfect point of departure . . .

Love and apologies again for the lapse,


PS: hey B, hope I haven’t overwhelmed with that last one. Or worse yet, underwhelmed.

I realize I didn’t convey a few things that I meant to convey. First of all, excitement about your Roof book and about your engagement with the Baudelaire materials in general, which will be such an amazing extension of your translation output, but which I am also looking forward to because the historical materials you are dealing with seem so prescient, given similarities between occupations and the Paris Commune (just today I saw a photo of Oakland occupiers holding banners while being tear-gassed and fire-bombed, “welcome to the commune.”) Leaving off with “the future” seems the perfect end, and one my projects/poems roughly contemporaneous to your own may also evoke it (such poems as “I just want to be in a band” and “The New Us” in particular, which are kind of grasping towards more collective forms of action just before and during the Arab Spring). I would love to know specifically how the Baudelaire book extends your previous ones, if that is fruitful place for your next post to go.

It occurs to me as well, I just want to say how much your reading of The Hole means to me, especially locating it in the “present”/contemporary the way you do, and your discussion of the terms “naivete” and “brutality” with regards to a paramodernism (just read this term in BOMB this morning actually, in an interview conducted with Jimmie Durham, which seems fitting . . . against avant-garde master narratives, etc., notions that modernism is over, but also that there are worlds to discover beside the ones offered by those narratives). Both of these books seeking a different form of present, a different way of present, that may be grounded in affective engagement, prioritizing the subjected body as the site of these engagements, the complicities they shore up and do not often resolve. Your notion of providing a “toxological report” through translation rhymes with my own sense that you are writing through embodied conditions to offer a record of barbarism (Benjamin again). Barbarism being so written on our bodies, as well as in the language. Conditions of resistance exist in those materials which, also in Benjaminian fashion, offer images of our/their redemption, however much they would seem destined for history’s compost heaps. In Persians you include a play with Benjamin’s “Angel of history” (though I believe you write “angle”). This cameo seems significant, as if a wink at what the prosody will do, confronted with detritus, or objects of culture that we can only imagine now will soon be detritus, because they are part of a culture of commodity. Brad and Angelina, and so much more. Maybe what I’m saying is too obvious or overstated, but it also folds back on my previous questions about the status of commodity culture in your work, hip-hop and Taylor Swift, fashion and lifestyle magazines being paramount. Against Adorno’s snobbery, it begs the questions, who would want an anti- or non-capitalist world without these products of a culture industry? When these things have made us what we are. They are part of the toxicology, if not the cure. When what we want are a better set of symptoms anyway, right?

Love and praise to you!

Hi Thom,

I love your thought that “a sense of potential comes in, just at the brink of despair, or an infinite resignation that things can’t get any worse, knowing full well they can,” I really feel like I live there, in that affective station. On the “brink of despair” of course implies living in a liminal space. The “brink” corresponds to the precarious nature of our social and political existences and interventions—and it’s right there on the brink that one gets to experience proximity of the most brutal facts of our lives under dominion, as Dana might call it.

To return to the contemporary writing you and I have discussed already in this exchange, I think so much of it is written right out of this affective space. I’ve been writing a review of Marie Buck’s new chapbook Amazing Weapons, a marvelous text that directly engages the (non)site that drifts in and out of (over)charged expression and plundered patiency.

I also really valued your sense that, on the brink of despair, you feel this simultaneous and “very different feeling” towards the community that one defines oneself in. I mean, I think this is a truly perverse orientation, although I’m not versed enough in psychoanalysis to say that precisely. But the hedonia, the ecstasy that we both experience in our relations (along with the hells of them, of course) does seem impossible with the unbelievable derangement of current conditions. There is perhaps nothing more important to me than this pleasure, and I too think of it as a real balm against realistic morbidities.

So speaking of morbid reality and ecstatic hedonia, thank you too for all your insightful reflections about OWS/OO. I’m writing of course from a time and place of recent defeat concerning the experimental nature of the activism. That’s the part of it I value most too, actually, the “devotion to process.” And yet, part of devoting oneself to the process might be the willingness to admit the failure of parts of that process. That seems to me to have a generic and specific form. After the events of this weekend I fantasized about making a private call to those I love the most to put certain forms of experimentation on hold for the time being. And I mean the one where you fight the pigs and they batter you, injure you, and put you in jail. I think there’s a risk of complicity in all of this too. Even my use of the word “pigs” is complicit in a miniature war-machine. The writing we’ve been talking about, the writing in our books that “seek a different form of the present” do, I think, try to embody a refusal of those complicities. Obviously they’re imperfect efforts.

Speaking of imperfection and efforts, I’m also interested in the appropriation of the “Commune” for the “Oakland Commune.” One of the initial interventions Occupy Oakland made was to rename Frank Ogawa Plaza “Oscar Grant Plaza.” For BOMB readers who want to know, Frank Ogawa was a 20th century Oakland Republican who was interred in concentration camps by the USA in World War II and later served as a city councilman in Oakland. By all accounts he was quite congenial. Oscar Grant was a young African American man who was murdered by a transit police officer on New Year’s Eve 2008, shot in the back while handcuffed on the train platform. This murder, and the predictably easy sentence handed down to the white cop, provoked huge civic protest in Oakland; these were the major city protests in the oughts, prior to Occupy. Grant’s image saturates city walls in Oakland. Paintings, rap music, and dance performances have been composed in his memory, and as an effort to keep the truly abject corruption of the Oakland Police Department in the public discussion.

Which is all to simply say that psychogeographic intervention was a priority for OO and remains one. And I find the renaming of Frank Ogawa Plaza to be quite powerful, even if not (yet) sanctioned by the regime running Oakland. Yet I find something discomfiting about the “Oakland Commune.” Maybe that’s the point. I guess I’m trying to understand what the consequences of the appropriation are and then wanting to point to two historical facts as particularly troublesome. For one thing, it’s critical to recall that the Paris Commune, while the Communards also focused on halting the violent force of gendarmes and police, actually seized state power for the city over those 73 days. And that that was their intent, and that they were successful, whereas OO makes no such claim (in fact, OO is for the most part totally unconcerned with liberal reform, a difference that challenges, to my mind, the coherence of an “Occupy Movement.”) Secondly, it’s our responsibility to not forget that the historical Paris Commune was destroyed by revanchist troops who massacred 25,000 mostly working class Parisians in the streets in order to retake power.

I don’t know, I know that there’s a spiritual appropriation at work in resurrecting the name, and I know that’s important. I’m fleshing out my conflict here. It’s conflicts like this one that I think are totally pertinent, as you suggest, to Bruce Boone’s writing, among others. There’s a line in Century of Clouds that I constantly think of—it is probably the talismanic line for the Catullus book—that I can also never quite remember exactly, but it’s something like, My socialist utopia includes Sachertorte and Kaffee mit Schlag.

Conflicts like this, that take shape libidinally and aspire to the dialectical almost, seem to mark the contemporary writing we’ve been discussing, and also the response to some of the aesthetic strategies of Occupy. And so I’ll try to say a few things about pop music. A few weeks ago my dear friend Ted Rees posted on Facebook a critique of the use of Rihanna’s work at protests. He pointed out the undeniable fact that Rihanna’s music is the product of major corporations, corporations which are owned by bigger corporations, which are run by the very select group of finance barons who make up the dreaded “1%.” He might have said too that Rihanna herself belongs to this group. It would be true! I love Ted. He’s so fucking punk. You know? And then Jasper Bernes said something like, Well, yeah, but don’t forget that a lot of people actually like Rihanna. Their debate was fierce and complex, undertaken with respect and love, and was not finally decidable. But I can’t help swing towards Jasper’s sense that “despite” the economic facts of these productions, one’s devotion to them can be more or less total. Oh hell, when I say “one’s” I mean my own, of course!

What’s sad is that I don’t have a complex sophistic defense of pop music to share with you. I trace my own devotion to an originary fealty to melody which was seconded in the semiotic sphere by a very early attraction to rap music. I’ve said before that Ice Cube is the main reason I think I became a poet. And I really believe it. Even from a cognitive behavioral standpoint—I mean, what else is going to happen when you subject yourself to endless, I mean endless, repetition of such compressed poetry? And I still think that rap is producing more or less the greatest linguistic artworks in the United States at least—with poetry flailing about in the distance, tripping over some very real political anxieties about language which rap ignores—not always to its betterment.

As for pop figures in general—do you know that Baudelaire poem “Reve Parisien?” Anyway, I think a real encounter with pop is a reckoning with real contemporary divinity. Even if that divinity turns out to be satanic, it’s not very realistic to ignore it.

A final note here about the Baudelaire book—I think it marks a departure from the Persians and Catullus projects. For one thing, after finishing the Catullus book I was determined to make something that wasn’t a conceptual translation of an ancient text—preferably not a conceptual translation at all. At the time I was reading Baudelaire for the first time, and also Baudelaireana, Benjamin above all. I was also watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer at Dana’s instigation and studying the traditions of vampire literature in the West. Translation crept up on me, via the “Gothic Marx,” Baudelaire’s poem “Le Vampire,” and my own sense that my work was going to try to talk about evil. Sometimes on Buffy you have to translate an evil text in order to know how to fight evil in the present.

I’m not sure that was accomplished. My tendency in the Baudelaire translations was to write that which I would immediately regret, whatever I least wanted to write or say or even think. To be shameless about sentences that were utterly, completely shameful. That constitutes the poetics of Flowering Mall, something very much like the anxious shamelessness of embracing whatever Katy Perry’s up to at any given moment. It felt to me, writing that work, like the truest picture of my life in current conditions—even though, to clarify, not all of the details narrated in the book are “true” or whatever.



Brandon Brown’s first two books were published in 2011, The Persians By Aeschylus (Displaced Press) and The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (Krupskaya.) Poems and prose have recently appeared in Postmodern Culture, Model Homes, Poetry Project Newsletter, Swan’s Rag, Try!, and Art Practical. He has programmed literary series at New Langton Arts, 21 Grand Gallery, several consecutive living rooms, and published small press chapbooks under the imprint OMG! He lives in San Francisco.

Thom Donovan edits Wild Horses of Fire. His criticism and poetry have been published in BOMBlog, PAJ: performance + art, Modern Painters, and at the Poetry Foundation. His newest book, The Hole, is available for purchase at SPD.