Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Off The Dome

Over the past several months, The Conversant has published a series of sound triptychs by Ronaldo V. Wilson. These impromptu audio recordings or Solo-Dialogues were all recorded on an iPhone and vocalize questions related to race, representation, selfhood and place. This month, we’re pleased to present all three triptychs in Wilson’s album, Off the Dome: Rants, Raps & Meditations, with liner notes by Frances Richard.

Hover your cursor over the embedded album cover and press “expand” to view the cover and liner notes full size. It may take several seconds to load.

Listen to Off the Dome: Rants, Raps & Meditations

For readers who want to keep a digital copy of this album cover or who are reading on iPads, feel free to download this PDF

Introducing HER KIND: Rosebud Ben-Oni and Arisa White

Rosebud Ben-Oni and Arisa White

Starting with our May 2013 issue, The Conversant will be publishing excerpts from HER KIND, a digital literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. In order to introduce that series, we have asked HER KIND’s editors, Rosebud Ben-Oni and Arisa White, to answer the following question:

Could you describe your goals for HER KIND (the publishing context out of which it comes, its relation to VIDA, the types of discussions you seek to promote, people you hope to publish, etc.)?

Arisa White: I wanted HK to be a container—a space where we were creating a literary community of sorts. So VIDA is known for The Count, for the hard numbers that show the gender disparities in the literary world, and I wanted HK to be a counterpoint to that. For myself I need to see solutions to the things I find unjust—alternative visions for thriving that are not rooted in an oppressive paradigm. Because what that tells me is that we are creatively and resourcefully using our imaginations to bring about change.

Here is space for women writers to express themselves and their relationship to the written word, the written world, to articulate the textual bodies that we are.

While developing HK with Rosebud and Cate, my goal was to create a literary environment for play, spontaneity, and intellectual curiosity, where speaking freely is welcomed. Rosebud and I come up with crazy-interesting, and sometimes off-the-cuff themes, to let people know we want to be surprised and shaped by the content that comes our way. And for me it was a matter of how to do that without making anyone feel like they had to have a degree, a book, an award, a particular hue, or know someone in order to be published.

Rosebud Ben-Oni: Working with Arisa is half dance-party and half reflecting out on a sea of all seasons—HK has put a weight on my shoulders that I like. I want the kind of discussions that I at one time or another could not initiate or even join. On my mother’s side, which is Mexican, there is mostly oral history; listening to my mother and her 6 other siblings tell me of the things that happened to them, I’ve found if I put it all together that, rather than straight history, I know more about each individually. Contradictions burst with their own truths. My father’s side, which is Jewish, might come from a written-word history, yet due to his personal history, a lot has been lost. When I was a child, I could not initiate a conversation with him, or my mother, whom he’s entrusted with the better part of his life, his childhood. I knew there was a war (the Shoah), that my paternal grandfather had been married before, that he was much older than my grandmother and died while my father was a child. That my father grew up in hospitals watching him die. That he was poor. He told these things to my mother, and only her; I had to respect that she is his keeper. But I felt very incomplete, like I would never know my father, that he’d remain a mystery. For a long time I walked around with that burden on my shoulders. In college I discovered other young women who could not initiate or join certain conversations, for similar or different reasons.

Martha Nussbaum with Jeffrey Williams

Martha Nussbaum. Courtesy of Sally Ryan for The New York Times.
Martha Nussbaum. Courtesy of Sally Ryan for The New York Times.

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Martha Nussbaum took place July 8, 2007  at Nussbaum’s office at the University of Chicago Law School. Transcribed by Heather Steffen and David Cerniglia.

“Philosophy should not be written in detachment from real life,” Martha Nussbaum declares in her 1997 book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard UP). One of the most prolific critics of her generation, with over thirty books, three hundred articles and fifty reviews in prominent journals like The New Republic, Nussbaum bridges the divide between specialized and public philosophy. She has drawn especially on the Stoics to reinvigorate moral and political philosophy, and she investigates the import of literature and the emotions in books ranging from The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 1986) to Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge UP, 2001).

John Giorno with Michael Nardone

John Giorno. Courtesy of Shawn Océan Dogimont,
John Giorno. Courtesy of Shawn Océan Dogimont,

Poet, performer, and media provocateur, John Giorno has been one of the most consistently provoking of New York artists since his works first debuted in the early 1960s. Never settling on a single mode or method, Giorno’s early poems emerged in response to relationships with Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, then later with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and explored the use of found images, appropriated language, and collage. Giorno then began to explore the possibilities of recorded sound, establishing entire Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments, in which poems could be listened to and simultaneously experienced by all the senses in multi-media atmospheres. These experimentations continued with the Dial-A-Poem installations at the Museum of Modern Art, and with the Giorno Poetry Systems LPs that brought the poet’s voice to record players around the world. Giorno, in his mid-seventies, is now known for his outstanding, high-energy performances of his own work.

John and I met on a springish morning in late February at his home, a series of loft studios in a former YMCA building on the Bowery. We toured the building, talking of his selected poems, Subduing Demons in America, edited by Marcus Boon, and the wealth of Giorno Poetry Systems recordings that Kenneth Goldsmith has again made available on UbuWeb. Over tea, we continued to talk.

John Giorno: So, this is where I live. There are three lofts, but this room is where I write, so I spend most of my time here. But I also do art pieces, so I have the studio downstairs. Then there’s The Bunker, William Burroughs’s former residence, which I look after, where there’s the guest room and shrine.

Michael Nardone: How long have you been here?

Lia Purpura with H.L. Hix

Lia Purpura
Lia Purpura

This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Lia Purpura’s Rough Likeness (Sarabande 2011). 

H. L. Hix: I am repeatedly drawn in these essays to the lists they contain. (As for example the lists on pages 29-30, 43, 67, 73-84 [the essay is structured as a list], 86-87, 147-48.) To what extent, or in what way, is the list a synecdoche (a microcosm? an analogy?) of the essay? In asking the question, I have in mind places at which you may already imply an answer, such as at the end of “Gray”: “And here I am, outside, giving thanks. I’m starting by noting every gray thing” (96).

Lia Purpura: A list is a savory thing. In a hearty list, objects mingle and bump up against: think winter soups, not consommé.

Brian Teare with H.L. Hix

Brian Teare
Brian Teare

This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini-interviews.”  To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Brian Teare’s Pleasure (Ahsahta, 2010).

H.L. Hix: As I was reading “To Other Light,” I stopped short at the lines, “not to suffer / more, but finally to suffer a clarity in language sufficient // to pain.” I wanted to steal that as a way of stating an ambition for my own work! Is it a way of stating an ambition of your work?

Brian Teare: The short answer: yes, absolutely.

Zach Savich with H.L. Hix

Zach Savich
Zach Savich

This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Zach Savich’s The Firestorm (Cleveland State University Poetry Center).

H. L. Hix: The formulation “I suppose I do believe in nothing” is repeated several times in your book (for example, as part of the first line of three poems in a row on pages 26-28). For me, the word “do” stops me, and makes me think about the formulation, asking myself whether this is an affirmation or a negation. Consequently, I want to ask you, about the whole book: are these poems affirming or negating? (Obviously, this is a false dilemma, so feel free to reject the very form in which the question is asked.)

Zach Savich: False, perhaps, but fair to ask. I ask it of many books: what world do they posit, what do they leave out. Do they do what I, lover of TV and walks and coffee, believe only books can do and expand from that? And I ask it, foolishly, of my life, while knowing that, you know, the tomato sauce may negate the recipe but affirm the wine: the coin has two sides one spins among, so Washington appears to eat the eagle eating him. . . I hope my poems posit knowledge that is similarly spun, aglint, in motion, not of balance but of exchange; not of a position but of positioning. As, in one’s emotional life, contradictions do not necessarily conflict but gesture toward a self that’s odd, but not at odds. The self less a character than a setting. Today I felt at home in the afterlife. Today I felt suspiciously alive! Me: the setting where such weather blew; I hope my poems also are. . .

Julie Carr with Andy Fitch

Julie Carr
Julie Carr

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Carr’s book Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive Press). Recorded June 20th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: Could we start with the concept of surface tension, as borrowed from physics and applied to Victorian-era poetry—specifically in terms of how a purported aesthetic of surface can be read for its participation in broader political discourses?

Julie Carr: Surface tension explains why molecules at a liquid’s surface bond with stronger energy. They do so because, with no molecules on top, fewer molecules surround them. This creates a horizontal surface density, which became a useful metaphor for describing what can happen in a poem when you read for (let’s say, just using familiar terms) content. You’ll try to understand a sonnet’s argument, but various sound associations play out among the words as do visual patterns. Surfaces also can become dense with invented languages, or borrowed languages, or pastiche, or collaged language. This density at the textual surface complicates our absorption of narrative or message. And of course these issue arise often in contemporary poetry or in modernist poetry, but most readers of Victorian poetry don’t understand the work that way. Specialists do. But for the average, semi-informed reader, if you ask about Victorian poetry they’ll think of somebody like Robert Browning or Tennyson. They’ll recall some long narrative poem or poem of deep feeling—one which doesn’t seem to engage language’s materiality. So reconsidering the Victorian-era interest in surface, especially amid a poetics engaged with ideals of transformation or sudden ruptural change, drives this book. Here I focus on three poets invested in the aesthetic surface as a redemptive space but for different ends. They are not, all three of them, Marxist or revolutionary poets. William Morris does engage a Marxist discourse. But Gerard Manley Hopkins remains focused on some kind of conversion or Christian ontological . . .

Rob Halpern with Andy Fitch

Rob Halpern
Rob Halpern

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Halpern’s book Music for Porn (Nightboat). Recorded July 1st. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: As I work through these interviews I’ve found myself tracking a resurgent interest in New Narrative—a sense that New Narrative poetics have not received their fair share of critical attention, have not been thought through sufficiently by a broad enough range of contemporary poets. You of course have helped to encourage this interest. Can you place Music for Porn in relation to several exemplary New Narrative poets, texts and/or concepts? Does it make sense to speak of a second-generation self-consciously consolidating inherited insights, experiments, practices? Or do New Narrative’s deft evasions of conventional literary categorization preclude such distinctions in the first place?

Rob Halpern: Where to begin with my relation to New Narrative? I’d been out of school seven years before I found myself in Dodie Bellamy’s writing workshop in 1996. One crucial forum for nourishing young Bay Area writers is this network of writing workshops that take place in writers’ homes. Finding myself in Dodie’s workshop (with Kevin Killian participating) allowed me to realize that my writing actually might be legible. After the death of my first love, James, in 1995, I’d lived in a state of terrible doubt and uncertainty—not only about the readability of my work but whether a writing community existed for me. Yet by then, forces of attraction already had taken over. In the late ’80s, when I arrived in San Francisco, I’d looked up three writers who I knew lived here and with whom I felt a sense of affinity and desire for apprenticeship. I actually looked up, in the phone book, Robert Glück, Aaron Shurin and Kathy Acker, and just by way of a cold call I sent them each a naive fan letter, together with what must have been a crappy piece of writing. I dropped these cold calls into the void of the U.S. postbox. After several months, I received generous, encouraging responses from both Aaron and Bob. Never heard from Kathy. Perhaps she’d already left San Francisco. But the fact that I received positive responses from Bob and Aaron was incredibly important. It offered a departure point of sorts, a permission-giver, though it would take five more years before I’d actually meet Bob through Dodie’s workshop (I met Aaron sooner). Bob also ran a workshop out of his home, and I began to attend that in 1997. He became a crucial mentor, a teacher and now he’s a dear friend, as is Bruce Boone, who makes a cameo early in Music for Porn, in the first sentences of “Envoi,” which serves as a kind of introduction to the book. Bruce’s Century of Clouds and My Walk with Bob remain classic New Narrative works, and my “Envoi” invokes Bruce’s writing, in part because I fear Music for Porn betrays New Narrative values. So “Envoi” rehearses a moment from a walk I took with Bruce, when he asked about my book’s obsessively recurrent figure of the male soldier. For Music for Porn to pass as New Narrative, that soldier would need to be a person in my life with a nameable name. Instead, the soldier feels more like a negative imprint of all my social relations—a feeling I announce by citing this conversation with my friend Bruce. Of course the soldier, sadly, will never become my friend, which helps suggest the stakes in this book, and why friendship remains so crucial to its structure. In “Envoi” I write, “This would be the place in the story where Bruce asks me about the figure of the soldier in my book, and whether it has some bearing on my intimate life, or whether the soldier is merely an abstraction is the flesh real? and I’m struck by his manner of asking.” Bruce’s question contains serious implications for my writing, and I want to foreground this while simultaneously introducing the soldier as a cornerstone in the architecture of a fantasy. This departs from early New Narrative works such as My Walk with Bob or Robert Glück’s Elements of a Coffee Service, both of which were formative for me. I can’t imagine myself as a writer without that work. At the same time, I feel as though I’ve departed from both texts’ writerly values, insofar as Music for Porn privileges a critical fantasy over the narration of living relationships. That said, Music for Porn’s soldier fantasy seems inseparable from my lived social relations. And here I could point to a tension I feel I’ve inherited between New Narrative practice (developed among primarily gay writers in the early ’80s) and a politics of form that one might say characterizes Bay Area Language writing, if not Language writing in general, whose rigorous critique of conventional narrative values also has shaped my poetics. I don’t want to reproduce familiar generalizations, though. New Narrative shares an equal investment in form yet proceeds from a different political stance and probes distinct formal problems. In my own talks and essays such as “The Restoration of [Bob Perelman’s] ‘China,’” I’ve attempted to rethink this relationship between New Narrative and Language, for example, by way of Soup magazine’s second issue, edited by Steve Abbott, who christened the phrase “New Narrative.” That prescient journal issue articulates and illustrates what this “New Narrative” project might look like. Most impressive about that issue of Soup is Steve’s decision to include a wide range of writers representing divergent literary practices—creating conditions for what Jacques Rancière calls “dissensus,” or the perceptible presence of two worlds in one. Steve’s expansive editorial vision provides new possibilities for presenting tensions among various poetic approaches within a complicated early ’80s Bay Area writing ecology. Similarly, in early issues of Poetics Journal, Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian adopt practices of inclusion, again to make legible productive tensions and differences. Only in the afterlife of such projects, amid what often go by the name of the “poetry wars,” do we think of these dynamic, syncretic, symbiotic writing communities as discrete, segregated, sectarian schools. So here I’ve offered a circuitous response to your question. I too find those historical tensions outlined above quite productive. I’d like to think that my work engages and complicates the relationship between both projects—through its movement toward narrative, certainly, but a narrative as indebted to Lyn Hejinian’s and Carla Harryman’s mode of distributive narrative (or non/narrative) as to forms of storytelling that I learned through my apprenticeship to Bruce’s and Bob’s work.

Dorothea Lasky with Andy Fitch

Dorothea Lasky
Dorothea Lasky

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Lasky’s Book Thunderbird (Wave). Recorded June 22nd. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: Your title could seem goofy, but doesn’t. That poise amid potential vulnerability makes it smart and charming. And you’ve never been shy about your admiration for Plath. So can we start with this title, Thunderbird? Do you enjoy picturing thunderbirds? I personally do.

Dorothea Lasky: A confluence of ideas made me decide on that title. First, I tend to write from the ground up. I finish individual poems without necessarily possessing some book-length idea. Then as I collected these poems, I noticed themes of airplanes, flight, large mechanical birds and different demonic forces—also death and the transference between life and death. My mom’s a professor of Native American art, so I grew up around Native American imagery. The thunderbird of course connects to a Plath poem. But once I decided to call this book Thunderbird, many thunderbirds started popping up. A murder story happened at the Thunderbird Motel. My parents drove Thunderbird cars. There’s the liquor. And some readers make comparisons to the search engine, though that seems less of an inspiration.

Daniel Tiffany with Andy Fitch

Daniel Tiffany
Daniel Tiffany

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Tiffany’s book Neptune (Omnidawn). Recorded June 13th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: In Neptune Park’s epigraph, Strabo, the Roman geographer, declares, “I shrink from giving too many of the names, shunning the unpleasant task of writing them down—unless it comports with the pleasure of someone.” I’m interested in the role preemptive or productive apology plays in your poetics. Who are some of your favorite apologizers? Robert Walser comes to mind, perhaps Joe Brainaird.

Daniel Tiffany: I haven’t thought this through carefully, whether Strabo’s statement suggests strategic calculation or an embarrassed admission. I like the way he doesn’t just apologize for the obscurity of certain names and places but acknowledges his hope of “comporting” with someone’s pleasure. I appreciate an apologetics qualified by the hope that someone out there just might want to hear terribly dull things. I also love Strabo’s way of cataloging obscure places, tribes, peoples he has heard or read about—almost as an obligation, from a sense of duty.