Cecilia Corrigan and I share a whirlwind of coincidental positions—wanting to perform and wanting to retreat into writing, hovering around the academy but insistent on humor, both of us in drag but unwilling to say what we’re dragging. And a whirlwind of skepticisms—of the homogeneity of queer theory and Conceptual poetry, the cliquish mediocrity of global art and Facebook poetry worlds, and the compulsive sucking up that the blonde girl and gay boy in their twenties are expected to relish. While rehearsing for Cecilia’s theatrical book launch at Artists Space, we talked over our bones of contention until we cut all our personae to bits and finally felt some relief.
Felix Bernstein Titanic is a poetic novel that includes bits of analytic philosophy and biography and pop culture and queer politics, plus bits of Conceptual poetry, Language Poetry, Flarf, New York School, and Gurlesque. But as a whole, it doesn’t really add up to any of those things. Are you suspicious of those labels and categories? At times, you speedily run through their conventions, shifting in pastiche form from one to the other. Are you making fun of them—poking at their instability?
Cecilia Corrigan I don’t know that I’m making fun of them or critiquing of them. It’s a different relationship with those forms; it’s friendlier. I’m interested in having these different styles and rhetorics play characters that the reader can watch talk to each other and form partnerships, then watch those partnerships fall apart, all the while retaining their particular syntactical watermarks and other secondary qualities. In the world of the book, these qualities operate as personalities.
CC Yes, I believe that ideology is actually wrapped up in rhetoric, that the way information is communicated says something about the “speaker.” I chose texts that had an opaque quality, that engaged cultural objects with a certain honesty and directness. Like, I grabbed a fansite’s transcription of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, or the private correspondence between William and Alice James, or an opening monologue from a 1986 episode of Late Night withDavid Letterman, or an article from a peer-reviewed behavioral science journal. I tried to let these different discourses retain their boundaries and play out a dialogue with each other. The completely dissimilar formal standards for the various pieces plays as almost camp when laid on top of one another in a book, like they’re the characters from Clue or something. What’s dry feels drier, what’s wet feels wetter.
FB Who are these characters? You said “speaker.”
CC There are many different voices, but I think the two main speakers are Alan Turing, standing in for sentient beings everywhere, and his artificially intelligent conversational partner, standing in for Turing’s lover. I wanted Titanic to cover Turing’s life as a biography, so a lot of the language comes from my research into the problems that were the main concerns of the intellectual climate in which Turing lived and worked. I ended up reading biographies of other people whose stories overlapped in some way with Turing’s, including Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and Hedy Lamarr. I also looked at funny corners of the Internet (which arguably is another extension of Turing’s story, as that whole world wouldn’t exist without him). This book is largely concerned with how media interfaces change the meaning of our language, specifically our emotionally expressive language. One of the questions that Titanic is asking is whether typing “I want to be with you” over iMessage is semantically different than saying “I want to be with you” at a payphone booth, or in person.
Anyway, about all those categories: it’s not meant to be mocking—but okay, I won’t pretend I don’t mean it to be funny. Of course I want it to be playful and antic, but to me it was more like slapstick comedy à la the Marx Brothers than parody or arch-irony. I’m also really indebted to the kind of flat-but-broad comedy in something like Arrested Development or Robert Altman’s films.
FB So, you don’t want to make fun of, to be mean to, your subject matter.
CC No I don’t, but do you? Because you can be super harsh! I guess you’re really just mad at yourself, aren’t you? Like the fun thing about Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry is that you’re attacking the mechanics of canon formations, but, in doing so, you’re producing a canon of your own, almost against your own will. I think doing a kind of “survey of the practice” piece has always been difficult, but I don’t know, maybe it’s an even bigger problem now?
I feel like if you look at many recent attempts at canon formation across the board, from Against Expression to the most recent Norton Anthology (or you know, any of those top ten lists), it’s really hard for the editor or critic to live with the haunting presence of the “arbitrary.” So many of these articles on the best of and/or state of poetry are just a laundry list of the writer’s friends … and Notes certainly doesn’t avoid this! But I do love how you acknowledge that, and also how your writing embodies the violence behind the impulse to construct organizing edifices and display mastery and control. You self-consciously acknowledge your own nepotism and compromised, embedded position, as the writing becomes more neurotic and claustrophobically personal. Then the piece dissolves into your family history, it gets intensely personal—you talk about your sister’s death, and you write about your dad in this very open way. I got a strong “fuck you all” vibe. It undermines the structure of such an essay, and also claws at the coddling tone behind a kind of “family friend” politesse. The anger becomes very visible.
FB Maybe we should just use this as a forum to talk about each other’s anger?
CC Why not?
FB Yeah, I’m angry. Okay … I admit it. It’s an angry piece. And whenever I’m angry at someone else, once I start to put it into writing, as critique, it becomes autobiographical. And I think that we both have a rage against the frames. Not to self-indulgently self-bill us as iconoclastic, but I think we have both taken pains to avoid the frame of Flarf, Internet art, Alt Lit, Conceptual poetry, Post-Conceptual poetry, etcetera. It’s not necessarily even about being suspicious or critical. It’s just a way of operating. Probably as annoyingly clichéd as any other but there is still some there there: an avoidance of naïve attachment to coterie or kinship, mean being, in fewer words, a diva. I think we’ve both been careful to push back against the wide-eyed personae of youth entering a scene, taking it all in, worshiping the masters. We both seem to adamantly want to point to the strategic payoffs involved in such so-called innocence. That’s what a lot of Notes is taking aim at. Also, my Leopold Brant character takes aim at the Ashbery cult. And you immediately get denied entrance to certain scenes when you take this route.
CC Yeah, though, you’re right that the reflexivity itself can become cliché. If you’re constantly deconstructing your own contexts, you’re in danger of just getting too paralyzed to make work, freezing up, becoming a jaded know-it-all.
FB An academic?
CC (laughter) Maybe.
FB Right, I suffer this gladly. Though, it’s always interesting to shift gears and perform at a drag show or something, to reinsert myself in the very context I have spent months and months deconstructing. That’s thrilling for me. But it can also bring with it a lot of disappointments. Often, I’m just disappointed in the level of anti-intellectualism that pervades most of the worlds where one can functionally make art and/or perform for an audience. It’s much more about kumbayas, hand-holding, getting drunk, partnerships, networking, and sex than one would expect, even in the “radical negative queer” worlds. I think of the way that people can’t handle Vanessa Place, who I have a long conversation with in my book. I think a large part of that has to do with a disgust with the very sort of critical intellectualism that people love in the first-wave avant-garde, or when it’s being done by artbros generating tons of cash, but they don’t want it in their feminist, queer, online poetry community.
I don’t think being a cynical, academically oriented deconstructor should stop one from being a wild and crazy performer. In fact, I think the two should go hand in hand. But the boundaries are heavily policed once you enter group situations, where people tend to feel that one spoils the other, unless it is brought in one at a time in a sanitized way: one theorist is brought in at a time to the art world; one artist is brought in at a time to the academy.
CC Yes, the boundary between criticality and performativity is socially policed, particularly in a context like poetry where the audience is usually one’s social group as well. The reading is followed by drinks, and the two events bleed into each other. This is part of what makes poetry a dynamic form, but it can make the idea of taking on a performative persona somewhat difficult: the work is seen as occurring in the space of the social. Poetry relies on the idea of community in order to generate an audience, because the means of distribution are so financially limited. I also think that this issue manifests a lot in terms of gender. I experience it a lot in people’s reactions to my work, and to the way I present it.
FB You mean your kind of “floor-show entertainer” persona?
CC Yes, you could call it that. For women, there’s an imperative to take on a flat affect if they want to be “taken seriously,” and expressivity is seen as a sign that you must not be concerned with your intellectual impact. You’re seen as an irresponsible mother to your ideas, or something. I often perform as a character struggling to be taken seriously, but can’t overcome her fundamental dumb-blonde expressivity. I ask a lot of the audience, I guess; I ask them to understand my role as an auteur in the composition of these pieces, especially at the level of the writing, and to notice the contradiction between their content and my performances of a manic, bubbly, expressive girl. I know I’m taking a risk by choosing to present my ideas this way, and for many people it’s very either/or: either I really am dumb and it’s purely a party trick, or this is all cynical parody.
FB Who in particular misunderstands your work, do you think?
CC A lot of people have surprised me, people I wouldn’t necessarily expect to enjoy my work. But in terms of the reaction I’m describing, I’ve particularly seen it from older male poets who seem to know something is going on but are not really sure what. Sometimes they say things that remind me of an ex who saw me perform and said, “But you’re so smart, why aren’t you doing serious work?” It’s almost as if people feel insulted by how I’m choosing to present my ideas, and the way I emphasize humor and broad pleasure in the work, especially. Other times, they’ll categorically dismiss my performances and won’t acknowledge that the feelings they are having watching me perform serve any sort of intellectual or aesthetic purpose.
FB I’d think most older male poets would be at least sexually intrigued by a ditzy blonde as a fan girl of sorts. But perhaps he would want the female poet, as poet, to be one of the guys?
CC Sure, that ’90s flat-affect thing has been de rigueur for too long. It’s what people expect from Women in Serious Literature. It creeps me out the way it can sometimes look like the 1960s intellectual’s wife type: scholarly, mousy, and de-sexed. But, of course, it’s not just a phenomenon in literature. In most established high-culture and art-world scenes, female sexiness is snickered at if it’s allowed at all, and even then it’s only okay if it’s overtly traumatic and self-abnegating. Sex appeal has to be problematized and confessed to. A woman expressing her sexual drive, particularly if she presents herself in a so-called traditional mode of attractiveness, is only accepted if she frames this drive as a source of inner strife. One cannot appear sexy and evidently enjoy the attention that comes along with it.
FB Do you think you could have angled your work as Conceptual poetry, since it shows an obsession with algorithm over and against a seamless expressive voice?
CC I wouldn’t reject that label, though I don’t feel that many people would categorize my work that way. Conceptual writing has become so loosely interpreted that the only real requirement for making that kind of work seems to be being prepared to explain your methods of text assemblage in conceptual terms. I should also say that I do use a lot of the techniques that are associated with that category in Titanic, particularly appropriation. There’s also some throwback stuff that would be seen as conceptual by some people, like Oulipian experiments, homophonic translations, etcetera. The reason that Titanic wouldn’t be “angled” as Conceptual poetry is that I privilege narrative and entertainment value over adherence to an initial guiding concept that informs methodology. Ultimately, I don’t like fretting over the question of what is or isn’t conceptualism very much—it always becomes such a painful bore, like filling out tax forms. I just don’t care. On the other hand, a lot of people who I respect very much take this question very seriously.
FB Couldn’t you just say that you are coolly appropriating the mechanisms of entertainment and narrative?
CC I couldn’t. I mean the idea that entertainment is intrinsically not about appropriation, or that appropriation is inherently “cool” is a version of the very dichotomy I’m trying to sidestep. There’s nothing cool about my work. My friend Jocelyn Spaar described Titanic as “a grand sandwich” and that’s as accurate a description as I can think of. If there’s a coldness in my intention here, it’s in the impulse to experiment on an audience of living subjects, to Turing-test the reader. I’m using a variety of forms, but the main interest is the latent psychological need for narrative. I mean a number of different things by narrative myth in the psychoanalytic sense, but those personal myths are also informed by the overarching structures of things like mass culture, media distribution, scientific discourse. When we engage with a familiar or intuitively relatable set of narrative and syntactic expectations, there is a greater capacity for surprise or disorientation, a possibility of a sort of Brechtian fourth-wall-breaking moment. Personally, I feel the pressure to affect coolness, or coldness, very professionalizing and restrictive in the wrong ways.
FB But wouldn’t you rather be thought of as doing some sort of negative, cynical, hyper-critical, deconstructive Conceptualist than just a dumb blonde having fun?
CC The stuff I like best is from a lot of different “schools”; I respond to the spirit of tomfoolery and romantic ambition, which is found in how something is done, not which week it will be taught on a syllabus. In terms of being thought of as being blonde, having fun, and being dumb—one of them is objectively true, I can’t deny it. The notion of being dumb is incredibly rich, when you think about it. It’s the position where people tell you their secrets, and the most obvious tell is falling for a two-dimensional act. It is difficult, though, for everyone involved. I was watching a Marilyn Monroe movie the other day and was thinking about this very question. She moves in complete alienation from her body. That’s the reason people found her so magnetic: because she wasn’t present, she was elsewhere. She’s detached from her own body; her breasts and ass are tacked onto her like balloons, she doesn’t seem to know what’s happening in the physical world. That embodied detachment is complex, it’s athletically impressive, it’s unsettling. If there is a note of irony and drag in my performances, it’s a necessary drag. It’s not that I’m completely detached; I know my body parts perform a symbolic function. It’s not that I’m making fun of the audience or of myself when I’m performing; it’s outside of a binary of intentionality, not quite readable as sincere versus ironic.
FB Are you acting like a child?
CC Well, I don’t find the state of being a child and entering into Wordsworthian nostalgia very generative, but the intellectual and aesthetic state of world building involved in thinking like a child is very interesting to me.
FB You’re interested not in the child but in the interest in the child.
CC Yes, I’m interested in performing a lack of awareness, a guileless quality. In my performance work with Cammisa Buerhaus, I often take on the role of an overenthusiastic attention-hungry girl, who doesn’t understand the way her body or actions are perceived. In one of our pieces I play Jon Benét Ramsey. It’s a kind of entrapment of the audience; like catching a predator—but don’t worry, just the aesthetic kind. Then the denouement is in revealing an awareness of my own complicity, and revealing my resentment. That’s usually the turning point in my performances, when the anger becomes visible. I get to switch from passive flirtatious bottoming to topping through violent expression of interior frustration at having to play the part.
FB That sounds hot. Something intangible happens when you perform. It’s clear that, at first, you seduce the audience by being childlike and passive. You invite some to really get off on this (it’s like a cutting-edge permission slip: poetry readings can be sexy) or else really get bothered (female sexiness and bawdy humor are not fit for a poetry reading). But then, afterward, something ineffable happens: the audience falls into your rabbit hole; you earn our trust, or at least our attention, and we now dip into your refined and intense world. So the switch isn’t from passive to active or empowered, since it’s not political or didactic. It’s more from the banal experience of watching sexiness to the engaging experience of watching artistry.
CC Well, you always have to trick people into having a transcendent experience, right? Especially in spaces (like the art world or the poetry world) where people are educated to resist a transcendent experience that isn’t specifically brainy, from prefabricated abstractions. I think that contributes to my resistance to explicitly aligning myself with communities or certain contexts. Also, group activities make me anxious. I’m not interested in creating an aesthetic experience that knows its purpose, but in one which knows its content. I like the idea that an artwork can belong to the viewer/reader, that the flesh of the work is kind of ready to hand. I guess I’m saying the same thing as when people who are very strict conceptually say that their writing is opaque and empty, except without the self-seriousness I associate with that way of talking. That anti-aesthetic aesthetic feels kind of Middle Age-y to me, like they’re all trying to paint the best Christ. Maybe I’m just revealing my, like, Ruskinite tendency toward believing in transcendent beauty. I know there’s a lot of talk about getting away from the age of genius and beauty, and I understand the sociopolitical and gendered reasons why that’s good, but I kind of like it.
FB Oh yes, and those are fair reasons, but they reinforce a type of genius with its own beauty. One can, of course, be very successful at the queer art of failure: one can get a mid-career retrospective from it, a tenure-track job from it. I don’t think emphasizing queerness/failure in the art world or the academy has really changed the basic hierarchical structures, though they did broaden the candidate pool for who could be on the so-called top. There is something to be said for that.
CC Yeah, it’s curious how even though everything is becoming more incorporated, including cultural critique, people stretch to occupy a position of cultural alienation. Ambition is ambition, even if you call it critique or failure, and the hierarchies that tend to emerge, and how they’re gendered, are pretty impenetrable. I remember noticing when I started working in the other creative culture industry, in entertainment, how similar the writing room was to a graduate seminar. It was after college—where I’d studied poetics, a bit of that queer art of failure you mentioned—that I realized it’s always the same scramble to be the loudest. And although the two industries don’t imagine themselves to have much in common, both rooms are full of the same type of guy—all just want to have the biggest dick, and be on top, and be the cleverest. They want to be the guy who has all the answers and knows all the right people. Now, one major difference is that, well, in one industry, there’s shit tons of money. Not that that necessarily makes them happier. But these literary bros claim to be presenting an alternative to that kind of hierarchy but, really, they want the same thing, and maybe they go for the alternative culture because they don’t really want to compete with these other men in the mainstream. I don’t blame them for that, but I wish they wouldn’t pretend that showing solidarity with their small empires is an act of political resistance. It’s essentially the same structure. The idea of community is deceptive because it’s the same alpha male at the top, and it’s always the same clique of bros—cismales, gay bros, or occasionally a cismale performing woman. It’s just dishonest. I also think a lot of the work in Titanic comes from wanting to find a way to bring two different approaches to language: the philosophical and poetic approach, which looks at language and character and dialogue as representative of ideas, and the screenwriting approach, in which one’s written language exists in a screen as only one part of a field which also contains a set, actors, sound, etc.
FB Yes, and I think what we are getting at, to talk in the terms of mainstream entertainment, is also two different types of performers. There’s Elaine Stritch—every time she performs it’s like the first time: she constantly checks the context she’s in. And then there are performers for whom every time is exactly the same; they’ve committed themselves to training, and that’s fine. They shouldn’t sing Sondheim, for example, but they can sing ….
FB Cats, yeah. I mean, that’s an interesting skill, to be able to sing “Memory” over and over.
CC They can sing Verdi, but not Wagner.
FB Yes. I try not to do the same thing twice, though I am guilty of singing “Jelicile Cats” for three hours with Gabe Rubin. But I don’t think it was ever really done the same way twice.
CC No, don’t worry, it’s not banal!
CC The sensation I get from that piece is sort of an aesthetic hiccup; a double take. The performance is framed as a sort of avant-garde experiment but it’s also got this big, broadly funny quality. Notes had that quality too, because there was that goofy messiness, but in the context of a sort of guided tour through twentieth-century poetics and literary theory. The appearance of ease can look like irresponsibility sometimes, and there is an ease with which you access these critical codes and forms of discourse. They seem to come naturally, they avoid the very controlled, packaged tone that many people rely on in order to produce that kind of discourse. Especially in the academy, there’s great emphasis on the final touches and making sure they meet the approval of the standard form or the scholarly journal editor.
FB Yeah, I see that. And I think that also comes with the territory of being seen as a kind of “Machiavellian prince,” and having a famous father, that Trisha Low touches on in her preface to Notes.
CC Right, but when you’re an Elaine Stritch type, you have the ability to meet any expectation of quality, but never with the exact proper content: then there’s always this tendency toward frenzy and messiness, or “unprofessional-ness” when it comes to execution. Maybe it’s just hard for us to put the final gloss on, in terms of determining what style or even form to embrace. I think people can feel this pressure pushing toward disorder through your work.
It’s like your ultimate purpose is to hide from yourself what it is that you’re doing with your materials. If I wanted to read you into analysis, I’d say you tend to let things skew messy and distracting so that you don’t have to take complete responsibility for the content.
FB (laughter) Fair enough.
CC Anyway, on this issue of professional versus unprofessional, I want to talk about, for instance, that video where you and Gabe animated and played Bjork and Kate Bush. That facile setup, as an interview show, is very funny. I was watching that piece, and thinking about the style it’s using, and why it wouldn’t be in an art museum.
We’re both making work that kind of creates a sense of aesthetic uncanniness, at least in terms of appropriate platforms. Because it’s like, this couldn’t be on Funny or Die, but it almost could—what is it that prevents the content from being on one of those comedy sites? The same with your narrative film Unchained Melody. Is Unchained an avant-garde film? Is the celebrity drag parody stuff fan fiction?
FB I don’t know. I’m going for that sort of playing that borders on the autistic in its indifference to the apparatuses that ought to house it (the meme to be popular, the gallery to be rich, the poetry community to be political). I’m working on an anthology with Vanessa Place called Killing It that chronicles this type of stuff by other artists of all ages. It’s comfortable to show; like, “Look! I have this skill set (be it wit or animating), but I didn’t do something for a gallery, and I didn’t do something that would go viral.” It still plays by some set of rules and logics, of course, everything does.
CC Yeah. It’s not parody. It’s not the drag thing where I’m gonna “do Tina Turner” so hard that we’re all ultimately going to think she’s ridiculous. It’s more like an actual repurposing of real world objects and characters as, like, dolls—it’s playful. It’s play in the intentional sense, actually playing with objects, thinking, This thing actually is going to contain what it is and what I know about it from world building, but also what I want it to be and what I’m feeling. Imbuing them with depth and power in order to play with them in a more fulfilling way. Like your drag of Minnie Mouse—it’s ridiculous and funny, but it’s also clearly you doing idiosyncratic world building with and for yourself. You project your own interior into the object in order to have a mirror, an other that understands you completely. But it’s all kind of lonely.
FB Yeah or solipsistic. I think that’s what makes the work unlike a lot of post-camp/hyper-camp art that has been made at the same time. My work isn’t about community building or partying and it’s not moving toward some sort of DIY dubstep queer rap thing. Which is totally fine! It’s just not what I’m doing; I’m not trying to please the depersonalized ketamine mob. I think Alt Lit is, for the most part, pornography. I like pornography, but I just don’t want to make it. So even if I’m aestheticizing loneliness and trauma and solipsism, that doesn’t mean I’m trying to make it sexy. You can aestheticize the personal and the solipsistic in a way that doesn’t become a Semiotext(e) brand of sexy smugness or neurotic self-absorption. Or, for instance, Lena Dunham’s trauma; I just don’t think it’s necessarily interesting trauma, in and of itself. And EDM and queer rap, it’s all the trauma of this particular group of people being converted into sexy ambience or a new canon. It could be pushed aesthetically to the limit, but I want something different. I want to point out structural problems, not just indulge personal traumas, or even engage in complicit and cruel optimisms. Negative or positive, optimistic or pessimistic, affective or ironic, lyrical or conceptual, it doesn’t make a difference. I am more interested in parodying the alleged perpetually traumatized ego than merely dancing to the beat of the trauma. Which doesn’t mean simply pointing to Marx or Freud, or a combo, to provide a “base” with which to understand the individual. I’m all about that baselessness, no treble.
CC And yet, even with that intellectual caveat, your work is richly aesthetic in a traditional sense: colorful, crafty, and complex. I definitely feel aligned to the part of your work that is exploring the kind of lonely but energized and beautiful imaginary. In a lot of ways, Titanic is about a process of exploring through an imagined other, here a chatbot, that the sentient narrator keeps Turing-testing to see if she is truly “real.” The narrator goes from feeling vulnerable, to making the leap into virtual reality so that they can spend time with their loved one, and then to feeling disappointed and lonely when they realize the differences are too great to overcome. The book ends with the narrator “destroying” their loved other. In many ways this idea of testing for the real is simply the experience of falling in love, and the sense of enchantment one experiences with this other person, as if they hold the key to a new reality, which you secretly worry might just be a virtual reality.
FB Sure, even you as the author are kind of a chatbot whose reality we have to test. And maybe that’s the gig for us all now, on social media. Though for so many poets working under the Conceptual or Alt Lit rubric right now the promotion, the buzz, and the tweets is of central importance. Then you actually look at the work and you realize it’s all buzz and no sting, which can definitely be defended as a kind of ironic statement: that all art is all buzz and no sting. But this isn’t what you’re doing, right? The book or the performance is still the primary thing. The promotional tactics and the networks and cliques and schools and blurbs, those are all much more secondary.
CC Oops, your cult of romantic genius is showing again. I mean, really, I believe just putting work of quality into the world and getting people interested in it is enough; it’s great. I love putting on a show as well, but I suppose, if anything, I have a sort of precious relationship with the book, a protective one. When I was writing Titanic, I vanished down the rabbit hole, sort of reliving the story of the book itself. So I guess I just take the book too seriously to promote it in a way that feels gimmicky: I feel like Liberace about it, the book deserves the star treatment; too much of a good thing is wonderful!
FB What about the people who have no rabbit hole, only persona?
CC Well, I don’t know what that’s like, but in a way, I suppose I’d envy those people who aren’t consumed by their imaginary space. It seems less painful: not having your energy leeched off by consuming fantasy, treating one’s public image as a game or something. Self-promotion is one thing—it’s silly and can be fun, or it can feel sexy—but promoting the work itself is something with which I have a more contentious relationship: I have more investment in saying things that I believe are actually true.