A Coherent Organism of Cravings and Fears: Daniel Tiffany Interviewed by Madison McCartha

When spectral voices, across time and place, meet in poetry.

Cover of Cry Baby Mystic by Daniel Tiffany

I first came to know Daniel Tiffany, like many of you, as a prolific critic. His books of critical theory include My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, and Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric, among others. Our conversations felt most grounded, however, when circling around Tiffany’s work as a poet and literary citizen, points of departure for his distinguished and persistent career. Some of this work includes The Dandelion Clock, Privado, and Neptune Park. The Work-Shy is a series of documentary projects produced by the Blunt Research Group—an anonymous collective of poets, artists, and scholars of which Tiffany is a member.

His most recent book of poetry, Cry Baby Mystic (Parlor Press, 2021) recalls Hannah Weiner’s visionary writing practice—where she would record the many voices of her spectral addresses. Weiner was an experimental poet affiliated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry, but whose writing practice becomes, in the surrounding critical discourse, inextricable from her history of psychotic episodes. Weiner herself, it should be said, also refused to separate her illness from her writing. And, so, as I read Cry Baby Mystic, it was hard not to see a connection between Weiner and the central, historical figure in Tiffany’s book—a 14th-century mystic named Margery Kempe.

Kempe’s voice, however, becomes difficult to locate in the text itself, and Tiffany’s many unnamed speakers eschew any easy historical or biographical rendering. Instead, Tiffany’s book seems to hold a “jynx” which cannot be dislodged, whose many spectral voices don’t just interrupt but bend the poem’s path into an arc—careening, almost spinning away endlessly. The cinquain—a strict syllabic pattern invented by Adelaide Crapsey—becomes the most recognizable formal strategy guiding the poem through the end. As with Weiner’s Code Poems, which were written with The International Code of Signals, Tiffany’s procedure pulls us through—each stanza seen hazily through “a key-/hole”; a process by which the poem’s meticulous constraint might disappear, endowing the poem’s flickering site with rough, at times geometric edges; this is a poem where scraps of detective fiction and erotica form a generic and material pulp—a textural quality that recalls the remarks of artist and critic Hito Steyerl in defense of “the poor image”:

The poor image is a copy in motion, Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image…a rag or a rip…It often defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright…the poor image is the contemporary Wretched of the Screen.

While I do not intend to rehearse Tiffany’s scholarship on lyric obscurity, this curious synchronicity between Steyerl’s and Tiffany’s writing endured for a while as an unignorable ringing in my ear.

—Madison McCartha

Madison McCartha Could we start with Jack Spicer, whose language surrounding the serial poem teaches me something about the work in Cry Baby Mystic? Personally, I’ll admit his description of a poem as “something from the outside coming in,” as transmissions received from “little green men,” resonated with me as a younger poet. Whether or not Spicer really believed he was clairaudient, there’s something unruly about this idea, to which I doubt many poets would subscribe. What do you think this model might show us about poetry? Both as a practice and as a form of attention to the world?

Daniel Tiffany I love the silliness of describing one’s citational (or mystical) sources as “little green men.” With tinfoil spacesuits (thinking of Warhol’s Silver Factory), no doubt! But the phrase that really captures my attention in your query is the notion of language as “something from the outside coming in”—though I’m not sure this counts as a form of attention to the world. For me, the precondition of feeling your language as something alien—as something kitschy and strange—would be that one does not “have” a language of one’s own in the first place! The shame (for a writer) of not having a language, properly speaking, has always been true for me, personally: I don’t seem to have a style, a voice, or even words, of my own. And when one persists in “writing” for years without having words of one’s own, it’s not surprising that one might develop a fear of language, or even a hatred of language. 

Approaching this condition from a very different perspective, there are certain historical contexts—not my own—which could be associated with a fear or hatred of language: the forced acquisition of English (the master’s language) in the US by African slaves; Paul Celan’s writing as a Jew in German (the language of the perpetrators of the Holocaust); even the acquisition of English by Arabic-speaking prisoners at Guantanamo (learned from their guards and tormentors). I’m wondering about a more generalized alienation from language, where the use of one’s own native language—and the failure to write, to possess words of one’s own—induces a condition of estrangement, repeatedly, which then generates habitual feelings of hatred or fear towards language in general. One then writes, or attempts to write, from within an experience of dread and revulsion towards language. The new project I’m working on now, which involves burrowing into texts and becoming trapped in one’s efforts to escape or exterminate language, is called Logophobe.

MMYour book opens with an epigraph from The Book of Margery Kempe. At the release reading for Cry Baby Mystic you explained that Kempe was an illiterate 14th-century mystic whose spiritual practice became “synonymous with her bouts of weeping,” which for Kempe was “an endless ordeal.” Kempe isn’t the one speaking in Cry Baby Mystic, though. Could you tell me about this poem’s “I” and its connection to Kempe’s visionary practice?

DTConcerning who is speaking in Cry Baby Mystic, the words of the historical Margery Kempe do appear in a number of places in the poem, because I sampled passages from her autobiography (The Book of Margery Kempe). But certainly, it makes sense to start with the question of whether the poetics of Cry Baby Mystic—and specifically the notion of hearing or recording voices—might correspond in some way to the mystical practice of Margery Kempe, who claimed to have visionary conversations with Jesus Christ (who appeared on her bed and eventually became, she believed, her “spouse”). I must acknowledge, however, that I was not drawn to the eccentric figure of Margery Kempe by the spiritual thrust of her mystical experience—her other-worldly visions of Christ—but by the personal suffering which accompanied her visions. What first grabbed my attention when I read The Book of Margery Kempe was that she referred to herself in the third person as “the creature.” I knew then that I wanted to write “through” or “across” her existential and emotional experience.

This volatile experience includes Kempe’s sense of furious inadequacy in relation to language, as I mentioned earlier: the frustrations she felt in attempting to record in a text—she could neither read nor write—what she sees and knows to be true about her visions. Kempe’s text—the first autobiography in English (composed in the 1430s, late in her life)—thus came into being as a document of illiterature, and Cry Baby Mystic seeks to retain and even amplify her sense of verbal disorientation.

My orientation to Kempe may sound peculiar, but the primary outward symptom of her mystical consciousness was her tears and profuse sobbing—the very substance of emotional anguish. The reality, or unreality, of her altered mind thus showed itself principally through her notorious weeping. But she was also heckled and condemned for her fashion choices: the crime for which she was ultimately tried (and nearly burned as a heretic) targeted her insistence on wearing white, a sign of spiritual virginity. Can you imagine, being put to death for your wardrobe choices? Returning, though, to the question of affect and unreality, one could also say that extreme feeling, as Eva Hesse once noted, induces a sense of the absurd. More specifically, the emotional climate of Cry Baby Mystic veers between anguish and farce, despair and nonsense. Bearing this in mind, I could say that the mystical and emotional planes converge for the poem’s garbled speakers (and perhaps for its readers as well) in a continuous state of bewilderment.

Photo of Daniel Tiffany by Molly Bendall

Photo of Daniel Tiffany by Molly Bendall.

MM What are the stakes, for you or for the poem, in framing the book this way?

DT Well, on a personal note, the poem found its secret compass in my mother’s experience of Alzheimer’s—and in my own experience of her disease. Parallel to Kempe’s particular appeal to me, my absorption in my mother’s experience and derangement over the last decade has been centered not in the alteration of her memory and consciousness—the usual focus of public anxiety about the disease—but in the emotional and corporeal aspects of her dementia. Could this poem be a portrait of my mother? Yes, in a sense, but the poem emerges, without question, from the complex of the “we position” (that is: from the expression of combined sympathies and suffering). Perhaps then the poem is also a private emblem of becoming identified, in my own person, with the cognitive, emotional, and social reverberations of the disease: sometimes it feels like I’m the very first member—and maybe the only member—of the Alzheimer’s-Identified Club! 

But if the poetics of seemingly extraterrestrial communications, or Kempe’s mystical cognition, are not sufficient to explain the tenor of Cry Baby Mystic, then what might serve as a model for its poetics? There could be some aspect of Spicer’s garbled dictations—a sense of coercion or helplessness—that might be relevant to the predicaments of Cry Baby Mystic. Certainly, Kempe’s own text is quite literally a work of dictation (to her several scribes). Is my book then a translation, a restaging, of Kempe’s? Hardly. Ghosted autobiography (to use Kempe’s example)? Fictive confession? Or a “found” manuscript?—like the manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe itself, which was only rediscovered in 1934 (after centuries of neglect) in a cabinet in a private estate by guests playing a game of table tennis, looking for an extra ball!

One thing, though, is certain about the example or impact of Kempe’s text on my own: unlike her contemporary, Julian of Norwich—another female mystic—Kempe was not an anchorite; her visions and dementia invariably took place amidst the public spectacle and instability—a kind of modernity?—of her own age.

MM Interesting that you use the word confession; do you think that’s what this speaker wants? I’m reminded of The Work-Shy, a book of documentary poems by The Blunt Research Group—an anonymous author collective. There’s a self-reflexive section called “The Book of Listening,” where the authors describe the poem as hovering “between [an] obligation to seek permission to listen and the impossibility of obtaining it from a voice that cannot be reached.” I think there’s more to be said about the power-dynamics—between listener and speaker—inherent in documentary poetics, as important as that work is, but Cry Baby Mystic seems less interested in the kind of hearing or vision this might entail. Would you agree?

DT Let me try to answer your questions here by, first, noting that there are many “speakers” in Cry Baby Mystic—not a single speaker. At the same time, even though the poem draws on disparate sources, it tends to synthesize these elements, producing a kind of synthetic voice, if you like, which veers towards a coherent organism of cravings and fears. Concerning the relevance of confession to the impulse of Cry Baby Mystic, I’m not sure I see the poem as confessional if that implies catharsis, or disclosing long-held secrets to another or others. Only, perhaps, in terms of the “hydraulics” of confession, as an event of speaking under compulsion, or a pressurized burst of language, could it be described as confession. In that sense, because Kempe did endure an actual trial (which is evoked explicitly in Cry Baby Mystic), the term “ordeal”—as an event designed to force confession—might be more apt in discussing the poem.

Nor do I regard Cry Baby Mystic as subscribing to the methods, or dangers, of documentarian and archival poetics. The poem is not reliant enough on archival sources or historical incident to be characterized as documentary. On the other hand, your model of the “imperceptible witness and their unwitting speaker” could certainly be mapped onto Cry Baby Mystic, but only, as the poem repeatedly discloses, if the poem’s synthetic voice occupies the position of an “unwitting speaker” in an “ordeal” designed to force confession. I do find, however, the aphorism you cite from Blunt Research Group to be helpful in characterizing a model of textual relations between my/their text and Kempe’s, or other, anonymous texts: the predicament of seeking permission to overhear or to imprint (as in a gravestone “rubbing”) a source of wisdom or provocation (as a precondition of writing), but never actually receiving consent from that source to “lift” the voice or listen in.

MM Thought-provoking. I’d like to talk more about this process of transposition which “draws on disparate sources.” I’m curious about these seemingly isolated voices embedded as paragraphs of italicized text: “…the security detail is still in place. Nothing can see you. I promised / to be only what she would want me to be.” Here the “I” and the “you” feel unstable, while the discursive gestures have recognizable edges. I’m reminded of this term, the “surveillant assemblage,” describing the process by which surveillance technologies break down and abstract our bodies and lives, before reassembling them elsewhere as virtual data doubleslike a credit score or a urine test. The data, in other words, takes our place, and so I wonder if Cry Baby Mystic, as an archive of “gravestone rubbings” and “imprints,” might produce a similar effect?

DT The instability of the “I” and “you” in those brief italicized prose segments is a translational disruption that came about through repeated Google translations. I conducted this procedure on various source texts (Vivant Denon’s 18th-century libertine text, “No Tomorrow,” for example), running them back and forth through several languages. 

I’m grateful for your notion of “surveillant assemblage” as a way of thinking about transpositions, or translations, since I seem to be having such a hard time articulating a poetics suitable for Cry Baby Mystic! What interests me especially in your model of assemblage is the principle of abstraction at the heart of these transpositions: the creation of “doubles” (or replications) which bear no resemblance, strictly speaking, to the original subject. To my mind, this model of sensuous (or leveraged) abstraction offers a potent way of characterizing the proliferation of “voices” in Cry Baby Mystic, all of which could be sourced to a singular, vanishing subject (which nevertheless haunts the endless chain of predicaments advancing the poem). And if we circle back to the expressive knot of writing and grave-rubbing, your model of real abstraction might lead us towards a possible correspondence between handwriting and confession, orthography and forensics (as a genuinely materialist paradigm of confessional poetics).

There’s one hitch, though, with regard to mapping your model of surveillant assemblage onto the proliferation of voices in Cry Baby Mystic: surveillance implies power, as you say, a locus of coercive power, and the dynamic of power relations is highly unstable in Cry Baby Mystic. The poem is bookended by impersonations of the actual trial—the ordeal—endured by Kempe (at the start of the poem, but also more forcefully in its final twenty pages or so). And we are confronted directly, at times, by the institutional voices of her tormentors. It’s not clear, however, whether the operations of the poem itself might somehow be implicated in the powers seeking to shame and extinguish her.

The poem’s glimpsed personae, which shuffle hurriedly between gender, person, and historical moment, almost always appear in the context of intimidation as “unwitting speakers” consumed by feelings of bewilderment, fear, shame, outrage, and exhaustion. (Brecht’s troubled heroine, Grusha, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, looms large in these scenes of Cry Baby Mystic.) Still, the pressure of surveillant power, as you call it, builds and subsides repeatedly in the poem—but incoherently. It’s dispersed. From this perspective, the difficulty of identifying the sources or affinities of oversight and punishment in the poem may be faithful to the mingling of coercion and subjective accord in contemporary experience.

Photo of Madison McCartha by Serena Greenwood

Photo of Madison McCartha by Serena Greenwood.

MMThank you, that’s a generous answer. Let’s change our ground a bit. I’m moved by the way these errant, spectral speakers seem to occupy the same space as music; e.g. “We shoo / away the songs, / they crawl back into us,” like one gaseous form slipping into another. But this doubly occupied space seems to be a longstanding concern for you. Would you like to say more?

DTYour reference to “music” (loosely speaking) gives me a chance to note that the first and last stanzas of Cry Baby Mystic portray Kempe’s mystical experience quite deliberately as a function of the ear (“pitched to the ocean floor”), of hearing what you can’t unhear. Being compelled to listen pertains directly to the possibility of making a book-length lyric poem. If such a task is even possible—speaking of Cry Baby Mystic—it begins with the rhythms induced by the ragged syllabics of the five-line cinquain stanza (with syllable counts of 2—4—6—8—2).

The cinquain is quite literally the engine of the poem, which could never have reached the length it does without the propulsive effects of the cinquain. After a while, the stanzas began to write themselves—not without difficulty, of course—but in the sense of a form so rooted in my ear at a certain point that I couldn’t hear language in any other way. At the same time, I still had to keep counting—but sometimes I couldn’t hear that the syllable count in a line was off. Occasionally, a journal editor would help me out, noting that the count in a certain line was off—as if they were helping to write the poem. And they were!

One presiding model in particular arose from the torque of the cinquain: Eric Dolphy’s horn solos (circa “On Green Dolphin Street”), careening slightly out of control, like a fast car “terrorizing the corners.” The “solo” becomes a site, a track, an occasion, where motifs and voices vanish as quickly as they appear. The cinquain trained “my” language, the language I scraped together, to do something like that. Until it couldn’t stop. Weirdly, Cry Baby Mystic may be the longest single poem in syllabics (excepting Robert Bridges’s moth-balled battleship) ever published in English. On this question, I want to draw attention to Stacy Doris’s extraordinarily beautiful (and sad) final book, Fledge, written entirely in syllabics. 

MMI’ll have to read it, and love thinking about this careening sound, from Dolphy, as a way of describing the logics of a poem. I understand you collaborated in 2008 with composer Daniel Rothman and sculptural artist Andrea Loselle; do you want to talk about that project? I’m wondering if your experiences with collaboration have carried through to this one.

DTThe social acuity and improv of collaboration goes right to the heart of making Cry Baby Mystic. There is the noneuclidian space of collaboration between artists, as in the distanced constructions arising from my work with composer Daniel Rothman, violinist Ted Mook, and Andrea Loselle’s mise-en-scène; or, more intimately, as a member of Blunt Research Group—an anonymous collective of poets, artists, and scholars. But collaboration of a kind can also occur, I want to suggest, at a molecular level within the confines of work made by an individual, using the materials at hand. 

Collaboration may in fact be one of the best ways to describe the contagion and relays occurring between the different voices and sources bleeding into Cry Baby Mystic. For me, it begins with a rack or “palette” of different textual sources which I assemble before the process of composing begins. Each of these sources metabolizes a distinct tone, which can be “patched” at varying intervals into a kind of verbal automaton which is continually turning, accelerating, or breaking, allowing certain tonalities to repeatedly surface and recede. And from this constant motion arises the need to control the pace of the onrushing and halting events of the poem. At some point in the process, then, the tonalities begin to function rhythmically and even emotionally like distinct characters, persisting in a chain of episodes or predicaments. 

MMYour process makes a scary amount of sense to me. And what stays with me about this book is the way these flickering tonal patches can create dizzying, at times strobe-like effects. Just now, your poem is helping me think about Stan Brakhage’s short films, like Stellar (1993) and Night Music (1986). Before we finish, I wanted to talk about texture, and about these moments in the text where the language starts to undulate between procedural drama (as in “the novice detective”) and erotica (“A good piece / of eating stuff”…”hanging between his / legs”), and hope you might talk more about your chosen materials.

DTWell, now that you mention it, Cry Baby Mystic does tread the theatrical borderlands between mysticism and sexual tourism, I guess you could call it—without, admittedly, any of the genuine hotness of Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe. In its helpless, strobe-like fashion, the text of Cry Baby Mystic—a gadget spinning out of control—throws to the wayside a few clips of vintage (that is, pre-queer) porn and distressed (as in 18th century) scenes of libertinage and noirish scheming at parties in the canyons of Los Angeles. A box of yellow Polaroids and rotting Super 8s left behind. A found manuscript. I once thought about calling the poem, My Clarissa.

Cry Baby Mystic is available for purchase here.

Read more about Daniel Tiffany on his website.

Madison McCartha is a Black poet, critic and multimedia artist whose debut book of poetry, Freakphone World, is forthcoming from Inside the Castle Press in 2021. Their second book, The Cryptodrone Sequence, is forthcoming from Black Ocean. McCartha holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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