Literature

Enframing the Brink: Part III

by Thom Donovan Brandon Brown

Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown dive deep into the realms of literary theory and leftist politics in their epistolary exchange. They continue their conversation in the third of several dialogues.

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 entries here and here.

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,

Thom

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.

Xoxo

BB

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.

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