I was invited to talk with Daniel Owen for The Conversant upon the occasion of his recently published book of poems, Toot Sweet (United Artists Books, 2015). I love talking with Daniel Owen. We met on January 15th at an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen where we talked for an hour and thirty-nine minutes. Following are excerpts from that conversation, which took place on a couch, in an elevator, and on the street. Dan and I had both recently seen Mac Wellman’s new play, The Offending Gesture, as well as the Findlay//Sandsmark piece o’death, which was visiting New York from Norway. We started our conversation by talking about language and nonlanguage in both those pieces.
DO: Because it was so bright and big and the way the space kept changing as newer things entered into it, and your vision, your sightlines were totally obscured and then other things became more noticeable and then other light, ’cause the light was so significant all the time that other shadows would all of a sudden develop, and everything kept changing and the way the leaves were moving would be different, and the sound, and it was pretty loud most of the time, I don’t know if it got much louder at the end because it was so loud throughout, but there’s the sense of it being louder, even if it wasn’t actually, just because it was denser.
KK: Another thing about o’death that I loved that may lead into a question about your writing is how everyday the materials were. That we were sitting on milk crates, that the structures were built out of discarded styrofoam, that the branches were branches that clearly they had just picked off the trees on 2nd Avenue, that the branches were tied to the microphone stands with zip ties… I was going to ask you about your materials as a writer.
DO: Materials, huh?
Well one thing I think is that everyone has their own relationship to language and their own experience of language. I remember talking to James Hart in Detroit about language, poetry, people’s writing. He talks about their experience of language being manifest in their writing, which I think is interesting and sounds fairly accurate to me. Which means that the materials will be different for any language user. They would have slightly different materials but then they would also have all the shared material.
But one thing, I always think about this one thing about how I use some Yiddish and some Jewy kind of language sometimes. And I remember that Lewis [Warsh, poet and publisher of United Artists Books] often wanted me, sometimes when there was a Yiddish word in one of my poems, he would be like, “I think you should cut that.” And I would be like, “But there’s no word in English for yahrzeit.”
KK: What does that mean?
DO: Yahrzeit is the anniversary of a death on which you remember the person. You light this candle every year and you say a prayer for them on the date of their death. There’s one word in Yiddish for that. (Now I want to look up the meaning. Where that came from.) But then I was thinking, was wondering why Lewis wanted to cut that. And, you know, Lewis is an amazing writer, amazing publisher, amazing person. And with this one word he’s just like, “I don’t like the way it sounds.” And I’m always like, “Why? Why?” And he’s like, “It just doesn’t sound right to me.” And I’m like, “Hm.”
KK: And do you always take his advice, never take his advice, sometimes take his advice?
DO: I sometimes take his advice. With Toot Sweet he didn’t really give me too much advice. He was just like, “This is good. I think you should cut the asterisks. And add page numbers.” And I’d be like, “Okay, do you think I should change anything in the text?” And he’d be like, “I think maybe you could cut this comma here.”
KK: This comma.
DO: And then I sent it to other people who were like, “Do this. Do that.” And I was like, “Thank you!” I don’t know. I like to be edited. And everyone edits differently, thinks of editing as something different.
KK: I want to go back to this idea of the materials you work with. Are you writing voices that you hear outside yourself, or are you writing voices that you hear inside your brain? And if you’re hearing— or are you even hearing? And if you’re writing from inside your brain, which part of your brain is it? Is it your memory of more or less realistic conversations, or is it your deepest, most contemplative or almost subconscious sound of thought? Are you recording thought or are you recording voices, and if so, from where? Are you assembling information from the world outside, or from inside your brain or your imagination? Which part of the inside of your brain or your imagination and also, where is your vocabulary mostly rooted?
DO: Oh I see. That’s a really good question.
KK: That’s a lot of questions.
DO: I like to discover, to try to figure out what the materials are. I don’t think I’ve thought about it that consciously.
KK: “Catawampus” [a poem published as a broadside by Mondo Bummer] seems so different from Toot Sweet, and in a way it seems like it was made with a whole different set of materials.
DO: That makes sense.
KK: And I’m curious about that and if you’re aware of —
DO: Definitely. It’s interesting you’re thinking about materials. Talking about syntax makes that question easier for me than the actual individual words. Vocabulary and diction wise, “Catawampus” is much more conversational and much more in this mode of identifying. The kind of identification that I find in the New York School poetry of “I’m walkin’ around and lookin’ at stuff and oh I hear this thing going on and oh I’m in the city and here’s some dialogue I’m overhearing and here’s a perception that is turning into language as I’m looking at this tree and here’s something totally different that seemed to feel like in the way of a city.” Things just kind of come up and your attention shifts, and that’s more like “Catawampus.” It’s also really simple and compound sentences that, even though the lines are broken up, it’s still very conversational syntax. Also maybe “Catawampus” is more interested in the speaking subject disclosing its perceptions. Whereas in Toot Sweet there’s a lot more stuff from overheard and overseen language that enters in.
KK: Overseen language.
DO: Well, like signs. I compulsively read everything. Do you? If any text is in front of you, can you not read it? A sign on a business walking down the street or whatever. Or in some magazine that I’m waiting somewhere and there’s something to read there and I’ll pick that up.
KK: I love calling that overseen. But go on.
DO: So I think a lot of the questions I was inquiring about in Toot Sweet, and in general, are in the way that the sound of language, and the relationship of sound to syntax, creates meaning. Particularly I guess in a somewhat mournful— well, somewhere in between mournful and celebratory relationship. So, I don’t know, is that the material?
KK: I think what I mean is what do you write with?
DO: Well I started thinking about the material as being a nonlanguaged kind of emotional experience, a space of feeling that does not have language. So then the material would be the feeling. And then what you do with that, or how you make language into forms that— I don’t know if the intention is to express that feeling (because what does it mean to express it?), or to make it occur in someone else.
KK: I wonder if you think of writing as recording.
DO: I think of writing as many different things at the same time. And one of those things is recording. What exactly is being recorded though…
KK: That’s what I was gonna ask you.
DO: The first thing I think of is time.
Or the experience of time. Or one possible experience of time.
I try to make poems that have many possibilities for making meaning from them. So it’s not fixed. Hopefully there are many ways things can mean in different contexts with different people. But there is actually always the time of writing. That happened. As much as anything in writing is a verifiable fact of anything that happened in the world, this was written.
Which is a fascinating thing about editing. Because it was written, so there was this compounded time in it. And there was also the way it gestures off all these other times, and is actually read, or is recreated in the reading through all these other times that are completely unknown to me.
As far as a record, the experience of time is to me the most basic thing recorded. Because so many different thoughts and feelings and experiences are informing the writing, but really it’s the time of all that information forgetting itself in language which would make me say, “Oh. That’s like a poem. I wrote a poem. Because it’s doing that now.” You know what I mean? It’s forgetting. It’s where the language forgets all of my experiences and all of my feelings. Hopefully. That’s just an ideal. I don’t think it’s actually doing this most of the time. But at the end of the day, you’ve gotta write something, and you can’t always do it right.
KK: I think if anybody is enacting their ideal, their ideal is probably not ideal enough.
DO: I have this tendency to, as soon as I’m noticing that I’m doing something, to mock it or satirize it immediately.
KK: Do you ever catch yourself doing that and then allow yourself to not do that?
DO: Definitely in Toot Sweet. It was much longer. There were many more poems in it, and I think I cut out most of the things like that. Except for a couple. There’s all this stuff about having your cake and mocking it too. Or there’s another line: You can have your cake and eat bricks.
KK: Another question I wanted to ask is do you prefer writing that transports you or that brings you into the present moment?
DO: Those distinctions make me really confused I think. I think the experience of being transported and the experience of being present— I’m not sure I can tell the difference. Maybe because I’m so used to not feeling present, that when I am the feeling of being transported and the feeling of being present are almost identical. Like I’m being transported to the present, away from where I usually am, wherever that is.
KK: That’s awesome.
DO: I guess. Really it’s not so awesome in some ways but. Time is confusing as we always talk about.
Also, when I’m writing, or when I’m reading, I never do it one word at a time.
KK: What do you mean?
DO: I write a lot through hearing. I’ll hear a movement that often isn’t contained within one word. Either a movement in signification, or a movement in sound. It’s never just one word and then the next word comes next. It’s always a phrase, phrase by phrase. Thinking in music makes more sense to me than thinking in language in some ways.
All the feeling registers are so much more available. I rarely think about music note by note, which is maybe why I love listening to drones, which are just one note for a long time. It’s also amazing how one note, because of time, is never the same note as time goes on. Because your perception of it, your relation to it is always shifting. But words are like that too, right? The same word doesn’t mean the same thing. So how can you use words so that they mean something? There is the thing that is being meant over here somewhere, especially anything of complication—
Well that’s an interesting question. I was just thinking about this the other day. Is it harder to mean something, or is it more desirable to try to make or to write something— ugh, “more desirable,” “harder,”— I don’t know if these are the right terms to use— but is it more desirable to mean something simple or to mean something complex? Is it easier or harder to mean something simple or to mean something complex using written language or spoken language?
DO: What do you think Kristen?
KK: I think I think it’s harder and more desirable to mean something—
I think I have a preference for simplicity. Well, apparent simplicity. Because I have a feeling that everything actually is complex. Being with one thing that seems simple for a long time allows its complexity to reveal itself and then there’s gain there, or deepening.
Something I often suspect is that people complicate things that are in fact simple, and something about that frustrates and saddens and disappoints me. I feel like, “Just say it. I know you could have said that more simply but you didn’t think it was ‘interesting’ enough to just plainly state.”
DO: If this is what you mean, and if what you mean could be said simpler, that seems like a good practice, a good way of doing something, right?
KK: Yeah. But I am definitely not practicing that myself! Or maybe I am.
I also find it very, very difficult to put things into words or to put things simply because I don’t think I think in language. I’m going through a very elaborate translation process to put things into words. And sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn’t.
The feeling of trying to, for whatever reason, record this moment or translate this moment into writing— the way the experience is registering for me is matched in how convoluted or dense or impacted the text comes out.
And sometimes I refine and refine and refine and refine passages like that in my writing to make them simpler and clearer, and sometimes I don’t.
So I guess it has to do with knowing whether or not I wrote this part to create the experience of impossible to explain or describe or bear, or if I’m trying to say something and I want it to be clear.
KK: So in the battle of simplicity versus complexity, was there a winner? For you?
DO: Oh no. Not at all. If there were a winner then what would be the point in trying to figure it out? Although recently I’ve been inspired to try to tone down the vocabulary a little bit.
DO: I think it’s very particularly because I’ve been reading this George Oppen book. Do you know the poem “Of Being Numerous”? It’s really great and the vocabulary is really very direct and simple in a lot of ways, although it’s still a very mysterious poem. It’s very focused on the world and especially the city experience, which I found really interesting. Other parts that are less focused on the sensory experience of the city stayed with me more the last time I read it. This time, they’re hitting me more. I wonder why that is. Something else I’ve been reading or thinking about has a lot to do with the sensory experience of cityness.
KK: The sensory experience of cityness?
KK: That is a thing I think you are recording.
DO: That makes sense.
KK: One of my other questions was where do you stand on the metaphor issue?
DO: There’s an issue?
In some ways I can’t help but experience almost anything as a metaphor. The same way that everything is translation. Everything is also metaphors. I can’t help but feel inundated by metaphor all around. But there’s also something I really love about that. That something can just be itself but also be a metaphor. For me that’s where it’s at. I love that experience of this means only this but also could mean this. It just keeps going. And that possibility to keep creating meaning, even with the limited means of materials, is part of what makes it so exciting— writing, reading, listening, talking, listening to people talk. The potential for quantitatively expanding meaning that metaphors are is really exciting.
KK: It seems to me that some people feel metaphors are cheap.
DO: Everything’s cheap. You know what I mean? Trying to make experience intelligible or communicable and then to make a new experience for other people is cheap almost also. Everything’s cheap, kind of, when it comes to art and literature.
DO: There’s something you were saying a while ago about being stupid.
It had something to do with Mac Wellman’s show and o’death.
A certain kind of stupidness seems really vital, and really important, particularly in a lot of the contemporary discourses in which we find ourselves. There’s a strong argument to be made for certain kinds of stupidity. Not willful ignorance, but effacing the move toward self-seriousness and allowing oneself to be in that indeterminate space of not knowing. Feeling stupid and expressing something stupidly feels closer to reality to me than other ways of trying to get something across to somebody.
KK: That feeling of not knowing, is that one of the experiences that you record?
DO: Yeah totally. That might be one of the main things I am trying to deal with.
But also how do you deal with it? Because it’s not like you’re trying to know more in order to silence that not knowing. It’s really helpful for me to almost expand, and attempt to make communicable, that not knowing. Because I feel like so much of the really fucked up things in the world come out of knowing, or a perception of knowing. And to unknow or to unarticulate and to be unreal— the possibility for making possibility seems very ripe in that space to me. Because when you know something it’s like, you’re done. And being done is not very interesting or exciting I don’t think.
KK: Can you say anything about moments of inspiration?
DO: Really strong emotion, which is always really confusing, is a fertile place from which to write for me. Even though I write more frequently than I feel strong emotion. Which is weird. Maybe sometimes I’m trying to create strong emotion in myself through writing?
KK: I love that you’re even talking about emotion because it seems lately to be very uncool to talk about.
DO: I really distrust information a lot of the time. Although I read news, online, and I read theory, everything is always more complicated and particular and precise in real life than it is in theory. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with theory, but just that as a way of discoursing about art, it doesn’t seem the most accurate to me. And as a way, as a place from which to make art— although I do like a lot of art that its makers say comes from that place— for me that would only lead to feeling stupid in not the way that generates potential. Feeling stupid in a way that closes things off for me.
One thing, which is probably related to this, is the promotional language for o’death. It was something like, “This is a multidisciplinary performance that attempts to prove that death does not exist and that all you’ve ever loved is not enough.” And I was like, Yeah! I wanna see that. This is our intention with this piece. Fuck yeah. That’s a great intention. To prove that death does not exist and that all you’ve ever loved is not enough. All we’ve ever loved is not enough is I think what it might have been. That’s an even better pronoun I think, we, in that case.
KK: Yeah. That’s good.
DO: Isn’t that good?
KK: Yeah. That’s pretty great.
Finally, I asked DO: the questions I had prepared for our interview.
Some of them were:
How do you feel about aboutness?
Do you think it’s more important for a writer to know the words for everything or to have a vivid and active imagination?
Who or what gives you the most permission to write?
Have you ever had anything stolen?
Where are you from?
Has anyone ever shared with you a radical but totally confident misinterpretation of a piece of your writing? If so, what was it, and what was that like?
DO: Those are good questions.
KK: Are they?
DO: Yeah. They’re difficult questions. There’s a lot of them too. Some of them seem like they’d be fun to talk about for a while.
KK: Well I have them written down so we can talk about them another time.
Daniel Owen is a writer and member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective. He is the author of Toot Sweet (United Artists Books, 2015); the chapbooks Authentic Other Landscape (Diez, 2013) and Up in the Empty Ferries (Third Floor Apartment Press, 2016); and the Mondo Bummer broadside “Catawampus.” His writing has appeared in Hyperallergic, Elderly, Lana Turner, A Perimeter, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.
Kristen Kosmas is a writer and performer. Her play Hello Failure was published by Ugly Duckling Presse; her multi-voice performance text This From Cloudland appears in the latest issue of “PLAY A Journal of Plays”; and Anthem, The Mayor of Baltimore, and There There were published by 53rd State Press. Kristen is an Assistant Professor of Theater at Whitman College and a member of New Dramatists.