Dora Malech & Michael Leong
discuss experimentation, loneliness, and play
Dora Malech: I believe that Laurel and I share overlapping obsessions in art and life (and art as life and life as art). I certainly wouldn't presume to speak for her (though there are some great interviews with her in The Believer, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, in which she speaks for herself), but I relate to the balance she strikes between humor and heartbreak, as well as her returns to the tensions between observing and being observed, and the body as locus (of power, betrayal, pleasure, strength). I had an amazing conversation with my friend (and wonderful poet) Marc Rahe a little while back about the "gaze" and the "stare." I think of the gaze and the stare quite often.
As far as visions of contemporary society, I could go on and on, but in relation to Nakadate's work, I think an element of our work certainly explores a media-saturated culture. We're really in a constant state of rubber-necking, gaping at the catastrophe(s) on our televisions, our computers, our phones. "Smart" is a kind of phone. "Reality" is a kind of television. What effect does this have on the contemporary "gaze," the contemporary "stare"? How does this constant attention (or inattention) bring us closer or pull us apart? As for the heart, I certainly return again and again to that unfashionable site of unfashionable sentiment. My consciousness is located in the body as much as the mind (or the body as mind and mind as body).
My writing is quite informed by the visual arts and non-literary sources. I make visual art (painting, drawing), and I'm currently engaged in a project in which I'm trying to bring my poetry and my drawing into conversation on the page. I feel like my poetry (or really poetry in general) is a conversation, whether that's a conversation with the self, with an imagined reader, with a beloved, with another text, with ghosts and demons, or all of the above. I'm glad you brought up Laurel Nakadate's work, because she's both a good friend and an artist whose work I respect. I love that I look at her work and I can experience it aesthetically, but it also feels a little bit like a family photo album. Why should life and art not blur together like this, and become a back-and-forth conversation? I wrote poems in Say So that, while not directly addressed to Laurel, certainly incorporate moments of our shared life. Choosing a photo of hers as cover art seemed like a natural choice. And then she made a video piece that features poems of mine from Say So, so the conversation continued and continues. Lately, I've been engaged in a number of collaborative projects (with poet Kristin Kelly, filmmaker Jason Livingston, composer Jacob Cooper) and I find that I always return from my work with them with a different perspective on what poems can be and why I try to write them.
Thinking about poetry as conversation makes me want to ask you about your new book Cutting Time with a Knife, which uses T.S. Eliot's seminal essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" to begin its conversation, "etherizing" (as you say, echoing Eliot), the text and grafting on text from articles about the chemical elements. You call this work an "experiment," and I love that you're playing with our (I believe overly binary and reductive) literary distinctions between "experimental" poetry and "traditional" poetry by creating an actual "experiment" with the essay as your Frankenstein and you as the literary mad scientist. I'd love to hear your thoughts both on "experimentation," as it relates to your work, and also the question of "poem as conversation." With whom (Eliot?) or what (the "tradition"?) do you see this book as being in conversation?
ML: Great response. The gaping at mediated catastrophe reminds me of Claudia Rankine’s hybrid text Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, which begins with Césaire’s powerful admonition that “life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium.” Certainly the rampant proliferation of monitors (on TVs, on computers, and on phones) has raised spectatorship to a new level. And your question of whether our hyper-attention to mass and social media “bring[s] us closer or pull[s] us apart” makes me think of the title of Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle suggests that new media technologies (such as smart phones) and social networking tools (such as Facebook) are creating the illusion of constant connectedness, though, in actuality, they are inducing a kind of computerized autism, a withdrawal from meaningful social relations. As a consequence, our media-saturated culture and the virtualization of our social lives are eroding what Turkle calls "the rewards of solitude." Such rewards are, of course, connected to play and to artistic activity. The capacity for play--in D.W. Winnicott’s somewhat paradoxical formulation--is predicated on “being alone in the presence of someone else.” It seems to me that writers, poets, and artists are exactly in this (more rewarding) position of aloneness-yet-togetherness. And even though writing tends to take place in isolation, language is a resolutely social and collective medium. Writers, in this sense, are always already participating in some kind of collective conversation whenever they put one word next to another. I’m thinking about how your writing plays with and transforms idiomatic phrases in such an interesting and clever way—to take up your notion of poetry as conversation (which I like very much), it seems to me when you say something like “K.O. to my O.T. and bait to my switch, I crown / you one-trick pony to my one-horse town,” you’re not only in conversation with the poem’s specific addressee but with the delicious demoticism that keeps language fresh. I would be interested to hear you say more about the various idiomatic registers and idiomatic torquings that are possible in poetry when it is in conversation with the self, with an imagined reader, with a beloved, with another text, with ghosts and demons...
My publisher, John Yau, wrote an interesting (and creative) review of Laurel Nakadate’s 2011 “Only the Lonely” show that was at PS1; he said, "By and large, Americans cannot stand solitude, which is why they hate people who are obviously misfits and most likely deeply lonely. We prefer narcissists, people who overcome their emptiness by being self-serving, ambitious, and obsequious. They can only be productive if they are around people. We like greasy palms rather than the dirty hands of those who spend most of their time alone (artists and poets, for example).” It seems to me that the fun part about collaboration is that you are able to get your hands dirty, as it were, with someone else and that the “presence of someone else” (in a Winnicottian conception of art-making as play) is more specified and delineated. It sounds like you’re involved with a lot of wonderful-sounding collaborative projects…do say more about those if you want, about the different perspectives that collaboration affords.
I actually see all writing as collaborative. In a talk I gave last spring, I said, “whether we like it or not, before we open our mouths to speak or put pen to page, all of us are already caught up in a vast tissue of intertextuality, in shifting networks of discourse. This is to say that all writing is fundamentally collaborative whether or not such writing is explicitly imagined as an intentional act of multiple authors.” I think Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was groundbreaking in its acknowledgement that texts are better understood not in themselves but intertextually, and he anticipated Bakhtin, Kristeva, Barthes, Bloom et al in significant ways.
Cutting Time with a Knife started simply as a conversation with Eliot. I was thinking, late at night in bed, about Eliot’s phrase “the mind of the poet is the shred of platinum”—it occurs in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” at the point when Eliot reaches for a chemical analogy to explain his famous theory of impersonality. Just as the catalyst platinum is able to effect a tremendous reaction (the creation of sulphurous acid) when in the presence of oxygen and sulphur dioxide, the poet’s mind, so the logic goes, should be able to spark a unique fusion of feelings and emotions yet remain unchanged. I had thought: “Why just the poet’s mind?” and “Why just platinum?” So I started to create those variations: “The heart of the poet is the honeycomb of hydrogen,” etc. But the cutting up of the Wikipedia articles about the chemical elements put me in dialogue with a variety of traditions—not only the legacy of avant-garde appropriation (from Tzara to Burroughs) but to our general culture of remixability, which includes (obviously) DJ remixes, YouTube mash-ups, and pulp parodies like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And because of its typographic play and mise-en-page, CTWAK is in conversation with traditions of visual and concrete poetry.
I wholeheartedly agree that the binary between "experimental" and "traditional" poetry is a reductive one (Eliot, after all, taught us that the old and the new, the traditional and the innovative, exist in a dialectical relationship). I tend to enjoy and seek out poetry that’s labeled as “experimental,” though “experimental” is a tricky word in terms of literary history—I’m less interested in, for example, Zola’s appropriation of “experimental method” than in traditions of modernist experimentation. My own sense of experimentation has to do with putting things together that shouldn’t go together…or things that go together in odd and oblique ways—like mixing Eliot with the periodic table, mixing the language of literature with the language of science. I’m interested in what we can call a practice of radical concoction and a certain aesthetics of extremity.
I’m also struck by the various synonyms for the term “experimental” that currently circulate—“innovative,” “avant-garde,” “postmodern,” or “post-avant.” All of these terms have particular contexts whether they are scientific, literary historical, political, or sociological. “Experimental” certainly applies well to CTWAK because of the scientific connotations of the term, though I, in general, like “innovative” and it’s meaning of “to alter or renew.” I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts about the matter of experimentation/traditionalism as it relates to form. You use, for example, the sonnet, one of the most traditional of forms, but in your hands, it seems like a great vehicle for linguistic experimentation.
DM: The capacity for "play" that you brought up earlier ("predicated on 'being alone in the presence of someone else,'" a turn of phrase I love), and the erosion of "'the rewards of solitude'" are definitely ideas that dovetail with my concerns right now. It made me think of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's idea of "flow"; I've noticed that I can let the constant state of plugged-in so-called "interconnectedness" really affect my writing process, and usually not for the better. Rather than immersing in a state of creative flow, I can end up in a kind of holding pattern, refreshing my browser, both literally and figuratively. In my own process right now, form--both "received" form and nonce form--can be a way for me to move through the electronic noise and tap back into a state of flow. It's form as a way of combating my own frayed attention span, as a return to immersion and obsession. For example, right now, I'm working with anagramming in my poems, finding lines inside of lines and phrases inside of phrases. It's definitely a kind of "play," but I hope to enact a kind of "alter[ing] or renew[ing]." I love form because it lets me tap into language; I'm not trying to "say something," I'm just talking to language and letting language speak back.
I've been reading Franco "Bifo" Berardi's new book The Uprising, and it seems related to some of what we've been discussing (although I do have a tendency to relate whatever I'm talking about to whatever I'm reading right now!). He's discussing the global economic crisis, and calling for a kind of linguistic revolution, calling for "poetry" (I think he's using the word more broadly than we usually do): language that "cannot be reduced to information." I remember a Q&A I attended recently, at which Kenneth Goldsmith said that he doesn't have a "readership," he has a "thinker-ship." I think that Goldsmith's position is really interesting and provocative, but I can't help but feel more affinity with the somewhat romantic (Romantic?) sense of poetry as an irreducibility. (That said, I think that Bifo's scope is much broader than any one "poet"; I don't want it to sound like I think that I personally am taking up the charge!) Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you're defending (or just defended?) for your PhD. Orbiting around these questions of the irreducibility of poetry vs. the "thinker-ship," can you talk a little about how your critical work or thinking relates to your "creative" work? If this is all too nebulous, let me know and I'll clarify.
ML: Yes--I defended my dissertation (at long last!) in October and just had it accepted, in fact, by the graduate school today. My critical work relates to my creative work in various ways...sometimes both endeavors don't match up easily and seem antagonistic, but my creative work is definitely informed by the vast and diverse amounts of reading I do as a literary scholar. I've learned a lot of different ways to read (and interact with) texts and that has really broadened my conception of what's possible when fashioning a literary artifact.
The Berardi sounds interesting. I like the idea of language that "cannot be reduced to information." It reminds me of a quote from Wittgenstein that Marjorie Perloff likes to cite: "Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information." And, of course, the very notion of a "language-game" is what allows Goldsmith to present a work such as Day, which is composed completely in the language of a newspaper, as poetry, as literature. It's interesting that you bring up Goldsmith--not too long ago I published a somewhat polemical piece on conceptualism in Modern Language Studies that engages with some of his ideas. I agree with you that Goldsmith is a great provocateur, and he's right to challenge the cult and ideology of creativity. But I think what he means by "thinkership"--and "thinking" in general--is quite narrow. What Goldsmith calls "thinking" (which is linked to his "non-interventionist" conceptualism) is in actuality a version of critique--and critique is only one aspect of thinking. I like how Rodolphe Gasché, who works in the tradition of continental philosophy, conceives of thinking as a variegated activity that draws on not only critique but theory and philosophy as well. My ideal version of reading involves not so much a clear-cut critique ("critique" comes from the Indo-European root "skeri-" which means "to cut, separate, or sift") but a more polymorphous thinking. I also think appropriation and conceptualism can coexist with a kind of Romanticism (which is why I'm interested in surrealism, which Breton called the "prehensile tail" of Romanticism)...I'm interested why you have the question mark after the term "Romantic" ... And I love anagramming as well, by the way...
I like what you said about "flow"--I was thinking about that longer piece that you read at Studio One earlier this month and if you wanted to talk about your "frayed attention span" in relation to sustaining a more extended form.
DM: Congratulations on your successful defense! And I'll have to check out your piece on conceptualism. The longer piece I read at Studio One felt like it pointed me in a direction that I'm still pursuing in some of what I'm working on now. I wrote that poem over a long stretch of time by a kind of process of accretion, collecting fragments of language and images without pushing them to be in conversation. I just collected. Then, I ended up finishing the poem in a really concentrated few days staying at a friend's house. I became totally immersed in introducing these bits and pieces of language to each other, and trying to find the order in the chaos, without forcibly imposing some arbitrary order. I felt like I learned a lot and stretched myself when I stopped trying to make my language "be a poem" too soon. So the process of sustaining that more extended form seemed to let me tap into two different kinds of flow. There are so many more directions I could take this conversation, and I've really enjoyed talking with you, but it's probably about time to wrap it up. Could you talk a little bit about what you're working on now? I was curious as to whether you're working on another book-length project like CTWAK? Thanks again for your insights.
ML: I’m a collagist by nature so I tend to write even short poems by a similar process of accretion and collection. I have a student right now who is very good at this method that you’re describing…I think it’s a good way to go. Certainly it can be inhibiting to sit down and try to self-consciously write “a poem” or to want certain language to “be poetic.” I had another student last year that accidently submitted several pages of notes to the workshop instead of the actual poem but that wound up being a fortuitous mistake since the notes were actually more compelling than the poem itself, precisely because the notes drew on a looser, aleatory energy and allowed the reader to discern the order in the chaos; that made for a richer aesthetic experience. I recently finished putting together a new poetry manuscript so right now I’m more focused on my critical writing (I’m working on some scholarly articles and revising my dissertation into a book project, and I also write book reviews for Hyperallergic). But I have a new poetry project that’s in the germination stage. In my mind I’m calling it “Li Po meets Oulipo.” It involves taking English translations of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Po and running them through Oulipian procedures. It’ll be book-length or chapbook-length. It was very nice talking about these issues with you, Dora…thanks to you as well!