Poet Andrew Durbin on celebrities, the real, and living online.
At the release party for his latest chapbook Believers (Poor Claudia, 2013), in the strategically darkened basement of a gallery in the Lower East Side, Andrew Durbin sported a modest gold chain. Close to the neck, partially hidden by a shirt collar, it was the brightest thing in the room. “I got this chain on Canal Street,” the young poet announced to the crowd, masking excitement over his book with excitement over knockoff jewelry. This exuberance—riding the edge of irony and sincerity, at once a comment on and a participation in consumer culture—is unmistakably Durbin.
With another chapbook forthcoming, followed by a full-length collection from Nightboat books, and a handful of media essays sporadically appearing online, Andrew Durbin is establishing himself, not only in the poetry world, but in the world at large. The long poems in Believers put him in conversation with everything from Justin Bieber to Paula Deen to the Tamagotchi, and are at turns both essayistic and chatty. He feels a responsibility to put pop culture under the microscope, but this isn’t necessarily a poet’s responsibility—it’s his imperative as a consumer.
In his poem “Landscapes Without End,” he considers his own digital citizenship, and wonders how the world can be navigated once it is fully mapped.
Sometimes I daydream about merging my body with my computer so that I can more fully enter the landscapes of Google Earth, lush surface world without pollution or traffic, planet seen from the vantage point of space and roving surveillance vehicles, a motionless field, magnifying the normal imperfections and irregularities of the earth so that the planet is rendered transparent, misshapen and yet intoxicating in its languishing differentiation from the real.
Shortly after the release of Believers, I met Durbin at a bar on the rapidly gentrifying margin of Chinatown to talk about how he engages with landscape, celebrity, and art. One-on-one, he was just as engaged, dynamic, and exacting as he is in public readings. Halfway through our conversation, I noticed that he had his chain on, an accessory that tags him as both implicit and literate in American consumer culture.
Jacob Severn I wanted to start off by talking about landscapes. Is there a landscape—physical or otherwise—where your poems occur?
Andrew Durbin I don’t know if there’s any specific landscape, but there is the suggestion of specific landscapes. I write about urban experience but ultimately try to explore the fantasies we have of these places, including my own. There’s imaginary landscape, continuously evolving as a result of cultural production, and I’m interested in that space, the one we lower on top of an actual one.
JS In speaking of specific landscapes in your poems, is there an East Coast / West Coast beef? Specifically, a New York / Los Angeles beef?
AD There’s no beef. California exists as this multi-form fantasy for me, which, of course, doesn’t relate very much to how California is actually lived and felt. But I’m interested in how California can take on certain utopian characteristics, especially since the idea of the West is compromised by several hundred years of racist ideology. Hollywood and its glamor seem like a culmination of those ideas.
JS What do you think the objectified New York fantasy is for Angelinos? Does New York have the same kind of façade that LA has?
AD The cliché of Los Angeles is that it’s only façade, nothing behind it, but that’s probably true of every place to a certain extent. That’s what I feel, at least, about the places I go, including New York. I prefer the surface.
JS In your work there is a sort of poetics of hanging out, but in opposition to the exuberance of The New York School, it seems sort of regretful of New York and it’s current economic moment. Would you apply regret to your engagement with New York, and particularly the art world?
AD Last night I went to the opening of a new show at Untitled called Trending, which is a group show of these young artists whose work I like [Artie Vierkant, Brad Troemel, Parker Ito, Halley Mellin]. I think I stood there for twenty minutes and didn’t say a word or have a thought. That is what I like. At those moments, which are the blank moments I want to live in, and where my poetry tries to live, I’m in the back, blanking. I don’t know if that puts me in the so-called New York School or not.
JS I’m interested in how your poems engage with celebrities and celebrity culture. Do you think the nature of celebrity makes anything more or less real or worth writing about?
AD Their reality—the way in which they are bodied and exist and have an emotional life and interiority—versus how they are transfigured by “celebrity,” makes them no more or less real than you and me. It’s just that their reality has a character to it that suggests things other than our reality can. There’s this sense of unreality, where everything they do gets rezoned into public interest. But social media seems to be an attempt to democratize celebrity and grant us all access to that experience of being watched and noticed by an audience, however small. The celebrity of Paris Hilton, the famous for being famous, seems to pre-figure that experience many of us now have. Are you asking me why I write about them?
JS Well, is your engagement with celebrity culture an engagement with “the real,” or a kind of fantasy, or something else entirely?
AD Well, you can’t talk about reality without talking about fantasy. I’m interested in the way that poetry or art or movies or celebrities help us to develop a tolerance for reality and can manufacture, disrupt, change, subvert, regenerate, or create fantasy. I think that’s what celebrities do. The illusion is that they are radically original, or separate and above, which isn’t to say that they’re not, but they’re no more radically original than the rest of us. They—and their PR teams—are just better at creating a narrative of their own originality, or their own difference. They identify very quickly what it is about our fantasy of the world that can be harnessed—or, really, made into a product that they can then sell back to us.
JS How does someone like James Franco fit into that? Lou Reed, David Bowie—they all construct this mythos. Franco—who is also a poet—
AD And a novelist.
JS Exactly. He sort of treats his celebrity like he can do whatever he wants with it, and he obviously can. He’s a very smart guy. But do you think that celebrity is dependent on building this immalleable statue of yourself, or can you change up any time you want? Does being a poet allow James Franco the freedom to change?
AD Your metaphor of the statue seems dated to me. He’s a brand. He created this brand based on the idea that he’s a “smart actor.” Not to say that actors haven’t been smart and with a diverse practice before, but he’s just branding it in a way that makes him seem like the actor of that type. He’s a professor, he’s taking all these classes, he’s a novelist, he’s a poet. He’s received institutional backing by publishers and arts organizations and museums. He’s made them agree to the terms that he has set for how he sells himself much like corporate brands do when their logo or product appear in a movie or at an event. I’m interested in Brian Droitcour’s writing about this, about branding. He recently gave a talk at the New Museum (where Franco has performed, actually) that was in part about branding. He spoke about how, for a long time, the audience for art was straight white men, and that everyone who made art and thought about art replicated or appealed to the politics, aesthetics, and preferences of those men. Now, we have a situation where even the straight white male has been displaced in some ways, and the central figure of our culture is the corporate subject (still male, yes, but different). We use the language of corporations all the time: my “brand,” I’m “marketing” myself. I’m paraphrasing Brian, but that was the gist of it. Franco has done a very good job at imitating the corporate subject. A corporation, like Pepsi, is always interested in increasing its presence in various fields to improve the perception of the diversity and quality of its product, its life-styling ability. Pepsi makes t-shirts, the drink appears in movies, they sponsor events, but ultimately, it's a drink.
JS I wonder about James Franco abstractly, but I probably won’t read his novel.
AD Well, you probably don’t need to read it. It’s beyond even some of Kenneth Goldsmith’s ideas about reading. He likes to say something like: “You don’t have to read my book, you just have to know the idea of it.” You don’t even have to know the idea behind a James Franco project. You just have to know that he wrote a book. That he made a movie. That somewhere, there’s a book or a movie by James Franco.
JS So, that’s ultimately your goal right? People just have to know that you wrote a book? (laughter)
AD (laughter) Why not? Most of us don’t interact with an author through their work, but through their public persona on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr. That’s how a lot of writers throw out their ideas—that’s where the work lives. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. As a culture we demand, and always have demanded, access, as much of it as we can have. The illusion of social media is that it grants or increases that access. This was something of an issue recently with Josef Kaplan’s Kill List. The response to that poem happened almost exclusively in social media and was about social media—about what we know about one another, what we can say about one another.
JS In your work, in engagement with online culture, are you a writer who goes onto the internet, or do you exist there simultaneously? Does your poetry have an online face or is it all part of the same body of work?
AD If I’m not online, I’m nothing. Even right now, while I’m with you and we’re having a conversation “in real life,” people are presumably writing on my Facebook wall or sending me messages or emails or responding to a tweet. Whoever that is on the Internet, myself but also an image of myself, is more me than any other me. Some of the most interesting writers I know, like Marie Calloway or Steve Roggenbuck, have harnessed the power of this divided self and its platforms in compelling ways that highlight shifts in how and what we read. I think that freaks a lot of people out.
I like Steve Roggenbuck because it’s hard to identify what of him and his output “is” “poetry”—he seems to collapse the distinction between text, performance, and social life while at the same time declaring everything to be within the (textual, visual, emotive) space of poetry. There’s a certain affect to his writing, his videos, his Twitter and Facebook, of course, but it’s motivated by a poetics of engagement with the social—on and offline—that is both strange and beautiful. I think that the problem is that a lot of people—“high” literary circles—are incapable of loosening up and seeing Steve’s work for what it is.
JS What’s so interesting is that he roots himself so solidly in a romantic tradition of poetry. He locates himself in poetry, as opposed to video or something else. But he’s also staunchly outside the poetry world, or at least outside the way in which poetry is currently being consumed, and that seems deliberate.
AD He does seem to borrow from a Romantic tradition. It’s the cult of personality as poetics. That’s not to say that “the work” isn’t there, but it manifests in a different way from other poets I know. That confuses people. As soon as you say, “this is not poetry,” like people did about Josef Kaplan’s Kill List, and they say about Steve, you become yet another idiot in the history of idiots in art and poetry.
One thing I like about both of them is that they are such great performers, which you rarely see now.
JS Would you like to see more poets cross into the realm of performance, at readings or in other situations where they’re sharing their work?
AD I think poetry readings are often a waste of time. They can be a great venue for meeting people and seeing friends, but often the experience is of hearing someone else mumble through their work—and that’s excruciating. So few people treat readings like actual performances, with any sense of the question, What does it mean to perform my work aloud? What does it mean to take up someone’s time with my poetry? And so you end up embedded in a seemingly inescapable situation for two hours, listening to six people attempt to hold your attention for a few minutes and none of them can do it. And what’s worse is they are all writing the same poem.
JS Is the idea that we have more freedom online complicated by the current culture of surveillance? Does the fact that online text is monitored complicate the poetry world online?
AD It certainly complicates everyone’s lives, poet or not. Anyone is capable of using the language or to have certain associations that the NSA likely “flags” for review. What’s interesting to me, right now, is how we talk about and think about the NSA’s programs and their relationship to social media, since it is social media (and email) that they seem to draw so heavily on. Our overheard language becomes retroactively hash-tagged, its metadata stored for review—for later reading—and what they essentially create for us is a social media profile. This idea was parodied by a website I saw that was a promotion for a new social network called PRISM. If I remember correctly, when you clicked the join button, you were informed that you already had an account, only you couldn’t access it.
JS There’s an article I read in which a lawyer set up an email on a dummy server that could be linked to Al Qaeda, and on this email address began sending back and forth lines from Finnegan’s Wake and Gerard Manley Hopkins poems, and he totally got pulled into this long process of interrogation over it. And the idea was that he thought it would be funny to force the NSA to read these works, but the reality of it was that he just got busted.
AD The idea of reading in the context of these surveillance agencies like the NSA is fascinating because it has become an entirely different act from what we do. PRISM and the like “reads” things, but it only reads language for a literal meaning of the words. It can’t make sense of tone, context, or any of the other modes available to us. But meaning—and life—rely on those nuances. This is the case for our drone program, too, where machines (or people who now function like machines) surveil language for “threats” and act based on the most basic interpretation of a sentence, which leads them to send a drone to a wedding party or a caravan of school children because they’ve misunderstood a phone conversation. And now we’re realizing how this surveillance works here in the U.S.—and it seems (I haven’t read enough) that the same mistakes of understanding and reading plague PRISM and the NSA’s other programs, naturally. There aren’t drone attacks here, but maybe those aren’t so far off. Misreading is the organizing principle for our entire culture.
JS In your poem “Landscapes Without End,” you discuss Google Maps, and it got me thinking about Borges—the story of the empire that wants to map itself so accurately that it creates an exact representation that is laid on top of the actual territory. Then, in the “Precession of the Simulacra,” Baudrillard wrote about the eventual point at which empire erodes and the map is what remains. Similar ideas pop up in other pieces as well. Is that something you were engaged with when you were writing this?
AD I hadn’t thought of Borges and haven’t read him in a long time, but there is definitely an echo of that in my work. For some of the time I was working on it, I was reading Houellebecq’s The Map and The Territory, which opens with the artist Jed Martin reprinting details of Michelin maps. That early work ultimately leads him to make a film about nature. I think that trajectory of Jed Martin’s work, was more the model for how this piece came about. As for Google Maps, I’m interested in the politics of the map broadly speaking and how those politics manifest in something like Google Maps, which often invades space, selectively censors, concedes to blankness (at the request of governments), and so on. And how Google Maps photographs disasters like Hurricane Sandy.
JS So it’s not idealism for you, it’s just how it is. Where were you when that all went down?
AD In the West Village. I was on the 11th floor, staying in a room at a friend’s. When the power plant exploded, it lit up the whole apartment. It was an intense moment of vulnerability that culminated, for me, when the eye of the storm passed over lower Manhattan. I opened a window and it smelled like we were at sea. After that, I rewrote “Landscapes without End” to address that experience.
JS Yeah, and our attempts to preserve everything online becomes so meaningless when the levees break.
AD Exactly. My phone died and I had no way to reach anyone, my friends or family, and I was there for two days without anything besides the people that I knew in the area (no one). That release from the Internet felt terrible—and like a vision of the future.
JS Something that you never directly engage with, but which I feel skirting your work—with these ideas of mapping and preserving and communication and legacy—is the concept of the alien. Do you believe in extraterrestrials?
AD What a turn at the end here.
JS Do you think about the potential for life elsewhere in the universe, in relation to how it might perceive us?
AD I think it’s an a safe assumption to make that there are living things not on this planet. In “Landscapes Without End,” there’s that moment where I return to A.I.—at the end, the moment where the aliens are excavating a frozen New York. That doesn’t seem to be a stretch at all. I'm not sure how much I think about them on a day-to-day basis. There's the theory of the "greys", which I like, and that argues that a significant part of the planet's population isn't human, even if they appear to be human. They're "grey." Wouldn't that be interesting? I think, like a lot of people, about whether or not I would leave if offered the choice. I used to think I wouldn't, but now I probably would.
JS Yeah. Goodbye LA, hello Universe.
AD Of course. Los Angeles has always felt like the last stop before outer space. It evokes, in a way, an off-world colony or station. I love the idea of the off-world colony that’s way off world, maybe even at the “edge” of the known territory. I like the idea of being on the cusp of a presence, right next to something beyond that’s not necessarily better but just different. And that the station is there, at its edge. It’s not something to be colonized, not even something to be sought after necessarily, but something out there that might eventually offer us a choice.
On January 30, at 3:40PM EST, Andrew Durbin's work will be included in Poetry Will Be Made By All!, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Simon Castets, and Kenneth Goldsmith at LUMA/Westbrau Exhibition Space in Zurich. A full program and webcast can be found here.
Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat Books, 2014) and several chapbooks, including Believers (Poor Claudia, 2013). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB, The Boston Review, Conjunctions, Fence, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. Beginning Fall 2014, he will be the Talks Curator at the Poetry Project. He co-edits Wonder, curates the New Agendas reading series at Macie Gransion, and lives in New York.
Jacob Severn is a writer and editor living in New York.