Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown continue to dive deep into the realms of literary theory and leftist politics in their epistolary exchange. In the second of several dialogues, they delve into the archive of the unknown.
Enframing the Brink is an ongoing exchange of letters between poets Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown. Check BOMBlog every Thursday for the latest entry. Read the previous entry here.
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. 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. 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).
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!
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.