Thursday, January 15, 2009
Some New Multiplicities: A Conversation
This is the first round of a conversation with myself, Joseph Mosconi, and K. Lorraine Graham about new directions and multiplicities in poetry and related arts among younger writers.
Joseph lives in Los Angeles, where he works as one of the co-organizers of the Poetic Research Bureau and co-edits the literary and arts journal Area Sneaks. Lorraine lives in Carlsbad, California, about two hours south of L.A., and not very far away from where I live at all, as it turns out. Her book of poems Terminal Humming is forthcoming from Edge Books in 2009, and she’s one of the co-organizers of the Agitprop Literary Series in San Diego.
Mark Wallace: Joseph, in a conversation we had a few weeks back, you claimed that one of the things that was interesting about poets of your current, up-and-coming generation is their use of multiple artistic traditions and cultural contexts. I wonder if you could elaborate on that point. Whose work in particular were you thinking of? Did you mean poets specifically in L.A., or elsewhere as well? The point is similar to one I made in my article "Towards A Free Multiplicity of Form" which discussed among other issues the way poets of our present moment seem to think of themselves as working in (or playing around with) multiple literary traditions rather than belonging in a singular lineage of poetic practice. But my sense was that you thought that this issue was being taken up in new ways at the moment among a crowd of younger poets whose writing you're perhaps more familiar with than I am. Can you give me some examples of how this issue is working itself out at the moment?
Joseph Mosconi: My sense is that there are a number of poets and prose writers from my generation for whom literature, and poetry specifically, is one among many disciplines from which one might seek to build a poetic practice. In this sense we are un-disciplined. I do not use this term pejoratively. It is not an extravagant and promiscuous practice. It is deliberate, considered, and partly a result of our media literacy. Our books are only one form of media. Many poets are well-read in classic, modern and contemporary literature, but some may be even more literate in cinema history, art history or perhaps even (due to the way we were raised) television and Internet history. These various media disciplines inevitably find their way into our work. In Los Angeles there are several young writers whose work crosses these various disciplines. Marcus Civin is a poet who has transcribed Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy's War and Peace into extremely detailed visual poems. The poetry and essays of Stan Apps draw as much from the bathos of television sitcoms as the speculative prose of Montaigne. But I don't think this is necessarily a Los Angeles phenomenon. Poet David Larsen's neo-benshi performance Paris of Troy (in which the poet reads an original text over an excerpt of Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 film Troy) might be his greatest triumph so far. New York poet Brandon Downing's book Dark Brandon is categorized as Poetry/Cinema Studies.
But perhaps, in our original conversation, I was remarking on a phenomenon I've observed in the fields of both poetry and visual art. The installation artist Stephanie Taylor works with a variety of materials and media, but one of her greatest influences may be the OuLiPo and their predecessors, such as Raymond Roussel. She has even begun to give readings at poetry events. Artist Marie Jager appropriated some aspects of a late Victorian science-fiction novel by M.P. Shiel called The Purple Cloud in order to create her beautiful collage video The Purple Cloud (2006). The Orange County Museum of Art even published a poem-sequence by Jager to accompany the video; it is a work of erasure drawn from the Shiel novel, similar to Ronald Johnson's Radi Os.
How all of this differs from previous generations' engagements with various disciplines—what this phenomenon means today, how poets and artists conceive of their influences and traditions, and why they've turned away from "pure" disciplinarity—remains to be theorized. It's not as if this phenomenon is new, exactly. Many of the Surrealist poets were integral to the development of avant-garde film. Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers famously cast his final book of poetry in plaster and exhibited it as a sculpture in 1964. Then he turned to film. "For me," said Broodthaers, "film is simply an extension of language. I began with poetry, moved on to three-dimensional works, finally to film, which combines several artistic elements. That is, it is writing (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film). The great difficulty lies, of course, in finding a harmony among these three elements." Maybe younger poets today are looking at the freedom of form, discipline , and materials that visual artists have enjoyed for so long and are saying, "Hey, why can't we do that." Whether this is harmonious for poetry or not remains to be seen.
MW: What’s fascinating to me about your response is how you highlight mainly though not exclusively what used to be called “multi-media” work, and especially work that crosses text with film, TV, internet and related influences, that is, artistic media that, visually, moves. Certainly, as you point out, this confluence is hardly new in avant garde contexts, and in fact it’s right at the historical heart of the emergence of avant garde practice in the early part of the 20th century. And it’s absolutely true that such work is hardly localized only here in Southern Calfornia, with Hollywood and that history close at hand. I’m thinking for instance of New York City filmmaker and poet Abigail Child and her genre-crossing work and interest in feminist theory. Still, I wonder whether your focus on those particular kind of multi-media or multi-disciplinary (and we’ll have to talk about the ramifications of multi- vs. un- more in a moment) forms, as opposed to say, work that crosses into realms of music or works with multiple linguistic traditions, does highlight something specific about the nature of current developments in poetry (or work, let’s say, that calls upon poetry in some degree) in this part of the world.
Lorraine, as a poet and visual artist who has recently relocated to Southern California, how do you see these kinds of multi-media, multi-disciplinary approaches in relation to the work of writers “in your generation”? If it’s even relevant to put the question that way. And what do you see as the value of this kind of crossing? What are some of the advantages or pitfalls, in your work or that of others?
Lorraine Graham: Hi Mark and Joseph. My response to you both is now so late that it is absurd, maybe, but I still feel this conversation is relevant, so I hope you're still interested in talking. I've just emerged from a fairly significant period of general malaise (don't call it depression) initially brought on, I think, by not just our no longer recent move to San Diego but also a feeling of frustration when interacting with writers in “my generation.” I love the fact that there is a proliferation of form, discipline, and materials in contemporary poetry right now, but I also feel that having a satisfying and productive conversation about contemporary poetic practice with my peers is incredibly difficult: such conversations require all the participants to have a certain degree of shared interests and the ability to agree on terminology. I guess I mean a discourse.
Obviously, no discourse (especially an interesting one) is static. Shared interests and terms shift and change, participants come and go. I'm certainly not arguing that everyone should refrain from making poetry or talking about it until they are familiar with every element of all poetic traditions. That would be ridiculous and very uptight. But I do think that the agreed meaning of certain terms I was accustomed to using in conversation like "avant-garde," "language poetry," "form," and "content" are a bit more up for grabs.
That's exciting, but it's also confusing. Certain conversations are probably perennial: I'm tempted to see the recent interest in procedural work and Oulipo as well as continued debates about Flarf as part of a fairly constant debate over the relative values of form and content in experimental poetry.
Joseph, I'm struck by your use of the phrase "media literacy" to describe the fact that some poets are perhaps more literate with cinema, art, television, and the Internet than classic, modern, and contemporary literature, or the fact that many are literate in all these media. I spent a substantial part of my life overseas or in Maine with access to only two TV channels, one of which was French-Canadian, so it's not surprising that TV used to freak me out or that my interest in film has come late. I'm literate in new media, certainly, as is most of my (our) generation, but I suspect that this literacy is uneven. While I'm increasingly comfortable participating in conversations about poetry via virtual networks, I'm still getting used to it—especially the pace at which such conversations move and the way they expand horizontally. My point, which is obvious, is that in order to become literate in any form of media, you need to have access and exposure to it so you can develop or become part of discourse about it. It s a cliché to think about New York and LA as a print versus celluloid dichotomy, but I think there is something to that. Perhaps it's not a dichotomy, but more of a continuum that could be useful for thinking about the history of innovative art and media discipline in the United States. What I mean is that geography still does matter, and art and writing communities function differently in different places.
In LA, the visual art community really does feel like it’s the center of the entire art and writing community. In San Francisco, for example, the feeling is completely different—there are plenty of visual and multimedia artists and writers doing interdisciplinary work associated with the Bay area, as you’ve noted. However, the art community there just doesn’t have the history and international reputation and connections that the writing community does. So, given the history of art and media in LA, it’s not surprising to me that so many writers in LA might feel a kind of kinship with Oulipo or conceptual writing.
Mark, I’m still not used to being called a visual artist, but it’s true that I’ve been making and showing visual work for a while now, in addition to making poems. I started making visual pieces shortly after I started teaching at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The first college class I ever taught used the anthology Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, edited by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, as a textbook. That course as much of an introduction to post-WWII art for me as it was an introduction to critical reading and writing for my students. I started making doodles and reading responses and other visual pieces for the reasons that Joseph suggested—it seemed fun. There was indeed a certain "freedom of form, discipline, and materials" that did make me think "hey, I'm going to try that." It's been relatively easy for me to share and publish my work in the context of visual poetry. That's been great, but at the same time I feel like I don't get the same quality of feedback on my visual work as I do my other work. Maybe that's because I haven't been doing it long, but it's also because, I think, editors are so happy to publish visual work by a woman. I haven't tried to share or show my work in any visual art networks because I wouldn't know where to begin—I'm not at those parties.
I think I've been talking about and conflating at least two different discourses relevant to me and my peers. These categories are inexact and too general, but bear with me for the sake of dialogue. 1) The multi-disciplinary or "un-disciplined" discourse that Joseph described. 2) A discourse that is primarily focused on innovative poetry without necessarily having shared definitions of what innovative poetry is, can be, or should be (Absent magazine and H_NGM_N magazine come to mind). OK, this response is long enough for now!