I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Chilean American poet Daniel Borzutzky and I have known each other for more than ten years. As both of us have pursued our lives as poets and teachers, we’ve also collaborated on the international press Action Books, which has brought out three of Daniel’s translations, two of which are by Chilean poet and activist Raúl Zurita. Daniel’s body of work is a continuously unfolding organism in which translation and poetry, politics and aesthetics, Chile and Chicago, Latin America and the US, become uncertainly and convulsively layered and conjoined. In The Performance of Becoming Human, for which he won the 2016 National Book Award, we can see the way all these dark and interlacing tides rise together.
Joyelle McSweeney Well, first of all, congratulations on winning the National Book Award for The Performance of Becoming Human. It must be very strange and antithetical to win it for a book that seems so plainly anti-national—not just anti-nationalist, but one that literally sets itself against the idea of the nation.
Daniel Borzutzky It is a completely anti-national book. So it’s funny to think about how it is linked to the nation. There’s the question of how much the National Book Foundation sees itself as being linked to the nation-state.
JM Probably not much.
DB No, probably not. But their use of the term national award is still a choice, though I think that the fact that an anti-national book can somehow be recognized as representative or illustrative of what’s important for a country is more interesting—I won’t say for the nation—for the country.
JM How would you describe the territory or geography of this book? It seems to me that it’s twofold—Chile and Chicago, the desert and the lake.
DB That’s right—it’s at least twofold. There are separate locations we could point to: Chicago, certainly, and Chile, the desert in Chile, but also the desert in Arizona. And Cuba is in the book in certain ways, as is Mexico and the US-Mexico border. There is even an attempt at troubling the concept of borders as they exist between US states like Indiana and Illinois. Chicago is the most often named: the beaches of Lake Michigan and Montrose Avenue, a not particularly important street I drive down every day on my way to work, where there are often police pulling over and arresting young men. On Montrose Avenue, a giant mountain forms a kind of refuse dump for children discarded by the economies of the city. But I’m hoping the effect is one where the separate spaces don’t really remain separate, and where the experience of absorbing what we know about those spaces happens all at the same time. One of the poems is titled “Lake Michigan Merges into the Bay of Valparaiso, Chile.” In this piece, there’s an imaginary prison camp on Lake Michigan—with some relation to actual prisons—and it exists simultaneously with the prisons on the Bay of Valparaiso under Pinochet’s Chile. When the Arizona desert comes up, it exists in a kind of simultaneity with the Atacama Desert in Chile. Although there is no denying that the scale of their atrocities and histories are quite different, both deserts are the sites of disappearances that are directly linked to the brutal and lethal policing and militarization linked to extreme global neoliberalism.
JM I agree. This book does not promote the binaries of the domestic and the foreign, the US and Latin America, before and after—or even Chile and Chicago. We’re in this space where things blur into one another, a zone where we have absorption instead of separation.
DB Yeah, there’s a moment in one of the Lake Michigan pieces where the police in Chicago are wearing jackets that say “POLICIA” on them—”POLICE” in Spanish. That’s the idea that I’m trying to underscore: that Latin American policing practices live in Chicago and vice versa, that Chicago is itself a Latin American city. By this, I mean that policing in Mexico has a direct effect on Chicago and vice versa. At this moment, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the US may very well be knocking on doors with orders to detain as many undocumented people as possible using policing practices that are definitively not specific to countries or nations.
JM One obvious connection between Chile and Chicago comes via the Chicago school of economics. Under Pinochet, the junta enforced privatization and the free market ideology championed by Milton Friedman and the “Chicago Boys”—Chilean economists who had studied under Friedman and Arnold Harberger at the University of Chicago. You’ve voiced the idea that, ironically, the economic policies that were used punitively in Latin America in the ’70s and ’80s are now being used in Chicago. That idea has been part of your thinking for a while, so I’m wondering how the revelations about the black-site police facility at Homan Square in Chicago affected the writing of this book. According to the Guardian’s reporting, the Chicago police’s own documents reflect that they used a warehouse to detain as many as 7,000 people, most of them black, without access to lawyers and without anyone knowing where they were. This began in the early 2000s but only came to light in 2015. When did you become aware of those particular abuses? Did that punctuate the work that you were doing?
DB You can see it toward the end of The Performance of Being Human, but the book I’m finishing up now, called Lake Michigan, deals much more with the Homan Square revelations. The book is composed of scenes from the shore of Lake Michigan, and the premise is that each of the pieces is located at a prison camp on the beach in Chicago. I’ve been very much thinking about Homan Square as I have been writing this book.
Toward the end of 2013, I started writing about the links between Chile and Chicago. At the time, I was thinking about this in economic terms. In 2012, Chicago experienced a public-school teacher strike. Many public schools closed and private charter schools opened. There was a massive privatization movement under the Rahm Emanuel administration that still continues today. In 2012, there were also enormous student strikes in Chile that shut down schools and universities. And the issues were the same. During the Pinochet administration, Chile essentially destroyed its public school system and replaced it with an inequitable voucher system, where all students get vouchers depending on their family income to help them pay for private school. The vouchers don’t get families very far and so they go into debt to pay for elementary and high school. The voucher system is a love child of the conservative school reform movement in the US, and we now see it making a return under Betsy DeVos, our new secretary of education. So that’s one example of how neoliberal economic and social policy developed at the University of Chicago traveled to Chile and is now ramping up again in Chicago and the US.
JM It really has come full circle.
DB When the Homan Square revelations came out in the fall of 2015, my thinking started to change. The economic violence in Chile was tied to state violence. In order to enact brutal privatization measures they needed to first scare the shit out of the population so that nobody would be in a position to protest. I think we were starting to see something like this in Chicago. Extreme policing, especially of minority communities, has been working hand in hand with radical privatization policies. It’s a weapon used not just to kill and oppress communities of color, but also to enact economic policy. I’m certainly not the only person to have noticed this, but I don’t think it has been written about a lot. Pauline Lipman, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been writing about neoliberal urbanism and public education. She has been drawing the connections between police discrimination, the overpolicing of black and Latino communities, and the economic and educational desolation of those same communities.
JM It seems to me that another way of describing the territory of The Performance of Becoming Human is as a black site. That is, the book itself is somehow issuing from this black site. It seems like a really powerful image because of how fungible it is. A black site is such a dire and absolute location. And I know that you’ve spent a decade translating Raúl Zurita, and I know the power of Song for His Disappeared Love, in which the song rises out of a mass grave. In that poem, the mass grave is the site where bodies, voices, experiences, and historical eras all commingle. It’s a place of absolute grief and yet it’s presented lyrically and tenderly. What do you think of the idea of the book as a black site?
DB I prefer thinking of it as many black sites, and here the racialization of the language coincides with the reality that over eighty percent of the people detained at Homan Square were black. I think the book is often speaking to the experience of people who are affected by these sites from the outside. As I’m talking about Chicago and Chile, I always try to be careful not to say that they are the same thing. The numbers of the disappeared who were killed are in the thousands in Chile, so I’m definitely careful about how I’d characterize that. But the book is trying to come out of experiences that the larger society wants to make disappear, and I think that’s actually a better way to talk about it.
JM There’s a lot in The Performance of Becoming Human that one might call negative. The speaker’s tone has a degree of dark humor, as well as disgust, desperation, and anger, while the content itself is about often cartoonishly plausible acts of erasure, destruction, or violence. At the same time, there’s a certain amount of possibility. There isn’t a sense that all that awaits is extinction, that the lights will go out and that’s it for this speaker. Instead, many poems configure or point toward a next moment, or what will come next but will require the total destruction of the place that the book speaks from.
That ambiguous sense of possibility in which destruction is the route to reinvention comes via your use of the image of the mouth. This image is important because there’s an ambivalence about writing in this book. On the one hand, there are neat self-contained lines that report acts of writing, speaking, or seeing: “Revolutionary violence disgusts me, the voice said”; “The bankers sang: We are your brothers”; “Sorry, sing the bankers to the proletariat, you don’t really exist right now.” But we also have this runaway voracious leaky mouth motif. It’s present in so many of the poems and doing things that are unregulated and lawless. Sometimes, the mouth has other mouths inside of it; at other times, it’s eating itself. For example: “There is a machine in my mouth that spits and eats and spits and eats”; or, “It wants to exterminate its empire”; or, “it will lick every crack on your skin.”
So, there’s a lot of writing and speaking and singing in this book, but also this uncontrollable mouth that seems to exist apart from mundane human activities—a devouring mouth that’s going to be a site of consumption. To me that’s actually a hopeful thing!
DB The other day someone asked me about the way I use the word body. I think it’s probably connected, for me, to the mouth, which I see as the site of multiple traumas and infections. The mouth is eating, is force-fed, is being gagged, is spitting out bricks. There’s a machine inside of it. It made me think about how the book has changed. In the poem “The Private World,” it spits out bodies that are replicas of bodies of people who were killed in the coal mines in different countries. I think when I originally wrote it, the mouth was an anus. I substituted the mouth for the anus when I edited the book, but the function of the image remained the same. So, for me, the body is a unit of measurement, the most objective way to describe human atrocity and state-sponsored violence. But I refer to people as bodies, I think, in order to illustrate how personality and personhood are erased when we come to talking about deaths and disappearances. We report these as numbers, but those numbers are real human beings whose lives are turned into abstractions.
JM I thought the mouth was glamorous. I mean, it’s deadly, the site of coercion. The speaker is being coerced because he or she is not consenting to the things happening around the mouth. At the same time, the mouth is a total site that can regurgitate and consume everything. When you end a poem:
A glitch in the system
Nothing that can’t be fixed
By a full-scale overhaul
Of absolutely everything
I feel like you leave me looking into the maw of that gigantic mouth, and that this full-scale overhaul is somehow going to come via that vehicle, that portal.
It made me think of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, and how he’s always trying to isolate a pivotal moment in which the people can rise up, “Au bout du petit matin…” as he says, at the edge of dawn, that moment where everything shifts. I don’t think your book presents that moment explicitly, but I see it in moments when the mouth is a machine eating and spitting everything:
Cadavers, chickens, olives, Easter eggs, bones, blood, words, sand, teeth, children, mountains, deserts, leaves, ghosts, sewers, rivers, mouths, humiliations, calloused hands, sperm, bubbles, wind, blood, rain
This total list describes the destruction and reinvention of the world that encapsulates an occasional vision of total revolutionary consumption. It also implies that the world will be regenerated by regurgitation. Your book offers no horizon line, yet it presents a vision of this omnimouth that knows how to devour and regurgitate, and might be an engine for the people, eventually, because it’s in the pit with them—it is them. It’s a little different from invoking terms like writing, text, or language.
DB One thing that was important to the idea of the mouth in my book was Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” where he pays a lot of attention to the gag put into the prisoner’s mouth as he is placed into the machine that will inscribe his punishment on his flesh. There’s a strange doubleness to the fact that the prisoner is being silenced with a dirty gag while his punishment is written onto his body. That sort of doubleness has been on my mind a lot. It has to do with being silenced while being punished by both machines and humans. The gag has multiple functions: It prevents speech; it prevents the prisoner from being able to scream; and it prevents the authorities from having to hear the screams of the prisoners. It makes it impossible for the mouth to eat, bite, or chew, and, given the filthiness of a recycled gag, it is a conduit for infection and disease.
JM I thought a lot about Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari after reading your book. In their reading of Kafka, the difference between sound and language is crucial to their idea of becoming-animal. Sound is powerful, it’s essential; it can act on all the other terms in an organism, pushing it toward escape. In the notion of becoming-animal, there is the powerful idea that we are capable of breaking away from oppressive or coercive regimes of signifiers, or from formal languages and expressions. There is the idea that we are breaking through to something composed of vibrations and thresholds, something that moves toward intensities rather than preserving fixed rules, boundaries, and binaries.
Your use of language is precise and there’s something very sculpted about the way you use sentences. There’s a type of intensity to them that breaks away from what American poetry is usually authorized to do. It made me think about other migrant or immigrant writers such as Feng Sun Chen and Johannes Göransson. The intensity in their work is due, I think, to the fact that they have to find new forms for themselves. What they make has intensity because it’s not an approved, official verse form. The reader isn’t protected from the language.
DB There are two parts to what you’re saying. The first is about who holds and grants literary authority; the second is about where intensity comes from. Authority and who gets to institutionalize a literary work—these questions are not as simple as they may seem. After winning the National Book Award, I may have a different understanding of how these awards legitimize writers for those who are less familiar with specific communities of them. But to your second point about where intensity comes from, I don’t think it comes from not being granted literary authority. I think that gives the so-called authorities too much power. The writers you mention have intensity because what’s in their language, what they’re writing about, and where they’re writing from has intensity. I could write in an unapproved, unofficial verse form, and do so without intensity, right? So intensity isn’t just a question of literary politics, or of writing verse that is or isn’t sanctioned by power brokers. On the contrary, for me at least, intensity is a question of being concerned about actual politics as something that is inseparable from literature.
In the aftermath of the National Book Award, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about why I write political poetry or why a poem should be the vehicle for communicating political critique. And this question is difficult to answer because it asks me to separate politics from poetry as if politics were merely a trope that one could tack on to their poetics. For me, it’s inseparable from my writing. It’s not like you flick a switch and start writing in a political mode, or with the intensity you are referring to. The intensity comes from a sense of desperation inseparable from the one I have felt while living through and observing the last ten years of life in the globalized US. But it’s also a desperation to articulate this mess so as to not fall into an even deeper despair.
JM The Performance of Becoming Human is a wordy title. I’m wondering what it says about the human. Is “the human” one more state-valorized concept that must be performed within sanctioned and official boundaries? What’s the status of the human in this book?
DB In my The Ecstasy of Capitulation, which came out in 2006, there’s a poem called “The Performance of Becoming Human,” and I wanted to keep with that idea. Again, it comes out of Kafka. In his story “A Report to the Academy,” an African ape named Red Peter is captured and imprisoned on a ship by European soldiers who sit around being vulgar. The ape decides that the way out of his torture and imprisonment is to become human, which he does by imitating these guys who are sitting around belching. The ape refers to the moment he breaks into human speech as a performance, as something that was done with artistry.
I’ve always thought that the story of that ape is emblematic of how one fits into a community, and somehow transcends one’s own imprisonment and moves toward something that is, if not liberating, at least more free. There’s this recognition and deep analysis in the story of one’s confinement and limitations. For me, that’s an essential part of being able to understand one’s humanity and the environment we live in. Perhaps becoming human is a constant state tied not just to how you behave but how you understand your own behavior and situation in relation to the community or communities confining you. Maybe what it means to be involved in a community already requires a sense of balance between sacrificing your individuality and having your individuality noticed.
JM So this isn’t an antihumanist book then. Would you call it a humanist book?
DB Does antihumanist mean I’m against people?
JM No, not against people. The title qualifies the word human in more than one way, and seems to devalorize it as a category. Of course, it has always been the ultimate category of Western thinking and humanism, but the way you describe it in the book, the human is not an undesired category. On the contrary, it’s a human—and even humane—book.
DB Yeah, performance isn’t a bad thing. Failure to perform in order to be a part of whatever community you enter can often be a disrespectful and ignorant thing to do. So no, I don’t think it’s antihumanist. On the one hand, I think of performance as being artificial, that is, as artistic artifice; and, on the other hand, as totally necessary. Maybe that connects to why we care about art to begin with.
JM You and I have a professional relationship as well as a friendship built around your translation of Chilean writers like Jaime Luis Huenún and Raúl Zurita, so I probably read this book as happening very intensely in the zone of Zurita. I don’t mean to suggest that it was a rewriting or a translation of his work, or even in conversation with it. But it shares some of the same landscapes and intensity. As a result, I read this book as also having to do with themes of spectrality and afterlife, the posterity of a voice. The voice lives on, but it speaks from the grave. In keeping with Zurita, to be posthumous does not mean to be at the end of anything. It actually means another kind of expanse, another futurity, really, and, perhaps, a black-site futurity. So I’m wondering what voices, authors, artworks, or soundtracks were with you as you wrote and revised this book?
DB Zurita is always an influence on me, and I don’t shy away from that. More than providing a linguistic model, his work is a model of how to write lyrically and politically about one’s moment, and do so without any sense of contradiction or feeling that you are sacrificing your art to politics.
There are others, too. Writing “Eat Nothing,” I was very influenced by a 1914 essay by Djuna Barnes called “How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed,” about her experiences with hunger-striking British suffragettes. I read that around the same time that we were learning about Guantánamo Bay. Also, the 2010 film Memories of Overdevelopment, by Miguel Coyula and the 1968 novel Memories of Underdevelopment by Edmundo Desnoes. That film is very much present in that poem. The Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya’s book Senselessnesswas also important to my thinking. It’s about somebody transcribing a truth and reconciliation commission document in Central America, but it ends up being less about the testimonies in the book and more about the construction of those testimonies. It’s not just about the histories of those who were abused by the military, but rather about how history gets written, especially when those writing the histories of the victims are so culturally, economically, and socially distant from the victims themselves. I’d also been looking at early images of and ethnography about Mexicans in the United States, at figures such as Speedy Gonzales and the Frito Bandito, who serve as some of the early representations of Latinos in American popular culture. But there are many influences and references in the book. Allen Ginsberg, Paul Celan, and César Vallejo. And there are writers who are always important to me: Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, and Juan Rulfo.
JM It seems to me that this book also indexes your earlier books, and I think that’s exciting. It implies that you’re writing a kind of codex, and that all of your books are part of a longer, ongoing book that we’re moving forward and backward in. As a fellow resident of the Rust Belt, I’m excited to read your Lake Michigan book and see what comes next.
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction, plays, and essays, most recently The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults (University of Michigan Press, 2014). With Johannes Göransson, she edits the international press Action Books, which publishes works from the US, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Africa. She teaches at the University of Notre Dame.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee