Last month, at the Poetry/Performance symposium at Amherst College, Jena Osman was scheduled to perform a poem/lecture called Public Figures which ruminates on public sculpture in Philadelphia. The preceding lecture, “The Unbearable Politeness of Poetry Readings,” painted a dismal portrait of the current state of the live poetry reading. As the Q&A began, Jena chimed in from the audience, asking if the presenter had seen Susan Howe read, or Kamau Braithwaite read, and rattled off a rolodex of memorable readers and poets who blend mediums to create an engaging live experience. Following a short intermission, she took the stage, and proved her point. Public Figures, begun in 2003, originally presented as a slide lecture in 2006, and released in book form by Wesleyan this fall, melds poetry with history, found material with observational humor, lecture with political activism, and whets these disparate elements to arrowhead sharpness. On December 15, she read at PeopleHerd’s Readings at Milk&Roses, and we spoke in the days leading up to the event.
Patrick Gaughan The book features a second vocabulary running across the bottom of the page like a news ticker, which reads as radio communications by soldiers during field operations. These fractured conversations function as a constant hum of muffled war under your excursions in Philadelphia, and eventually competes and merges with the body of the text, a hum we can no longer ignore. This aspect is absent from the original lecture, so how did the typographical demonstration of this idea come about?
Jena Osman When I started to adapt the piece for the page, I found that part of the liveliness of an informal presentation suddenly got very still. I couldn’t include most of the news photos and photos I had taken of people on the street because of space concerns and permissions issues. The piece started to feel linear and stodgy, and I wanted something to add dimensionality and complicate the ideas further. I kept thinking about modes of looking, and at the time I was obsessing over the mechanics of drone warfare. It still seems so unbelievable to me that someone can sit at a screen and “play” war like a video game, even though concepts of warring and gaming have always been intermixed. So that voice running along the bottom of the pages functioned as a stand-in for the remote pilot looking at infrared aerial images on his screen and then aiming and killing with a series of keystrokes. The text is transcribed from YouTube videos—missions where there is video of night combat being narrated by remote pilots conducting the action. Since I had to let go of the news imagery I was using in the previous version of the piece, this transcription is what puts present-day soldiers in proximity to the historical depictions of war heroes.
PG Could you expand upon these “modes of looking?” By giving eyes to inanimate objects, your project calls attention to personal vantage points, how trusting the eye limits perception, even in mundane activities such as newspaper reading or walking a city block.
JO Our ways of seeing are just as varied as our ways of saying. There’s the viewpoint of the tourist, the narrator/framer, the “protagonist,” the scholar … To these more familiar frameworks, I’ve added the conjectural points of view of figurative statues in public places and drone pilots in front of their screens. The idea is to suggest that vantage points have serious consequences—for how we understand the facts of our past and present, and for how we treat the object or person who is subject to our gaze.
PG If our ways of seeing and saying are so various, how could this idea apply to the concept of reading, what we read, how we read? My grandmother reads constantly, mostly Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts novels, most likely not your book. How could we recontextualize language for her?
JO Can you elaborate on what you mean by “recontextualize?” Do you mean that you want her to be thinking about language as well as plot? Or is your question actually about why certain kinds of writing are considered accessible/pleasurable as opposed to others? On a side note, I believe all grandparents have earned the right to read whatever gives them pleasure!
PG Oh, I agree. I wouldn’t change a thing about her. I’ll frame this in relation to the goals of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and the intention to rescue language from the jaws of media and war and the novel, the ability to see the text as text, not as a series of words designed to conjure images in the reader’s mind. Do you think of your work (or Juliana Spahr’s or Claudia Rankine’s) as a way to inject the ideals of L=A=N=U=A=G=E into a format more familiar to the readership of novels and non-fiction? (Put very simply: baking spinach into the chocolate chip cookies, baking Hejinian into creative journalism?)
JO L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry has certainly been important to me and taught me to appreciate the cultural dramas (and tragedies and ideologies) that words hide and reveal. And it also taught me that there’s a rich conversation to be had between verse line and prose. The poets that have been most key to my particular obsessions aren’t “technically” L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, although they are certainly affiliated with their concerns: Susan Howe and Leslie Scalapino—and then later Charles Reznikoff and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. I was drawn to them because of their interests in history, their use of documentary materials, and their experiments with narrative and essay forms. And I’m a big fan of Rankine’s and Spahr’s work for similar reasons, so thanks for bringing them into the conversation.
PG Public Figures seems to trouble the idea of perspective and narration (as do some of these poets you mentioned above). Though you were the one taking photos around Philadelphia, the narrator speaks in the second person (“When you are out there” in “your city”), projecting the action onto the reader, washing away personal context. Yet in a statement such as “You yourself are a patch-wearer,” the “you” does not feel like a stand-in for the writer, but an incrimination of the reader. Could you speak to the role of the “you?”
JO The second person shifts a lot. Sometimes the “you” is a soldier; the patch being worn is a military patch (see Trevor Paglen’s I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me). At one point it’s Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman) in the movie The Conversation. Sometimes it’s the reader. Or one of the statues. The hope is that it’s rarely singular, that it can multi-function. That multi-functioning isn’t always comfortable. It can implicate; it can cause “you” to say “that’s not me,” to try to distinguish your “you” from someone else’s. I once presented this project in Athens, Georgia. There’s a line in the piece about how “you” walk around these public monuments not noticing them, as if they were invisible or large pieces of furniture. Someone in the audience mentioned that in the South, which is still populated by statues of confederate soldiers, this isn’t necessarily true; if you’re African American, it’s impossible to walk by these monuments without feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut.