Thom Donovan with David Buuck

Thom Donovan and David Buuck
Thom Donovan and David Buuck

Thom Donovan: From the very first text of SITE CITE CITY, you offer an investigation of time as a category and as a kind of material with which the artist/writer can work in the interest of activating revolutionary change. To perform this investigation, you explore and sometimes invent novel verb tenses and grammars, such as those you deploy in “Buried Treasure Island” in order to invoke a temporality of the “pre-enactment,” that which you would rehearse in anticipation of an era in which it “will have been.” There is something very sci-fi about this book, perhaps in the way Robert Smithson, Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, and Frederick Jameson have all shown duration to be a key battle ground for the reappropriation—the liberation, I should say—of bodies and landscapes captured by the forces of modernity. Perhaps we could start by talking a bit about the time-senses of this book, and if you also wish to, any connections you may wish to draw between the Left historically and sci fi as a genre.

David Buuck: While I’d like to think that the bulk of the collection emerges from questions of site and spatial practice, one certainly can’t escape questions of time, especially as different times (from historical narratives to on-the-ground research to personal experience and memory) are overlaid and deeply sedimented in social and material space, place, and environments. From site to situation is a question of entering into duration as a material practice, no?

On the one hand there is the duration of the body in public space, or what one might think of as ‘lived experience’ scaled to the time-space of bodies (since there is no one ‘the body’ but bodies always unevenly-figured in gendered, racialized, and abled ‘scapes). Many of the works in the book attempt to document the off-page ‘research’ I conducted, from performance in public space to solitary drifting in the no-go zones. Add to this the narrative-work of ‘memory’ as well, which has a durational rhythm that is hard to articulate, especially as it is wrapped up in psycho-emotional figurations easily loosed from material sites or particular ‘past times’.

Pressing against the scale of the individual/subjective/embodied is what I might think of as the scale of the historical which, even for a historical materialist such as myself, seems to require a degree of abstraction in how we conceptualize its durations and rhythms, especially in the realm of narrative representation (cf Hayden White, etc). And of course prose itself (especially when loosed from conventional plot-based narrative) deals with duration as well—what after all is the ‘time’ of a sentence? (cf Renee Gladman, Gail Scott, Bhanu Kapil…), of thinking-acting-in-writing? (“It’s our duration that thinks” — Virilio)

Such time-scales, among many other durational vectors (including live performance in front of an audience—which has its own situational compressions—as well as other constraint-based timeframes) demands some kind of praxis torqued once more when attempting to find form for its representation in language. (Which for me are political questions as much as aesthetic.) Thus the experiments in various forms of narrative, documentary and documentation, fiction and prose-poetry, the guidebook or ‘report’, the appropriated, the song, etc., as I’ve yet to find a clear path from content to form, especially when ‘content’ in much of my work is not simply ‘subject matter’ but multi-modal research and its manifold mediations.

As for the question of sci-fi, while I certainly find resonance in the works that work in/against genre such as Smithson and Kenji Yanobe and Renee Gladman as much as LeGuin and Butler, it’s not a central touchstone for me. (Though sci-fi inflected work from afro-diasporas have been influential—if in less obvious ways—works like John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, Kojo Laing’s Major Gentl and the Achimoto Wars, Anthony Joseph’s The African Origins of UFOs, David Huffman’s paintings, the African Space Project, etc). Counter-futures all, if not necessarily utopic.

I have, however—especially in my BARGE[1] work (which extends well beyond the page)—begun to think about “speculative nonfiction” as a possible (if still uncooked) genre I might be exploring. The ‘knight’s-leap’ from the sedimented histories of site and political struggle to various forms of investigatory poetics and speculative narratives. Trying to shunt the site-cite pun with some kind of rigor, perhaps. Or to post it as a thought experiment: perhaps spec-fi (in the broadest sense of the genre) is the new social realism. Or could be. Or ‘will have become’.

TD: Much in the way of Smithson’s prose, this book to me would seem sedimented (or sentimented, as I recently mistyped). The titles of the works indicate that they were worked on for sustained durations, as much as 6 years in the case of “The Treatment.” So I guess I wonder to what extent a time period (and the temporality of your evolving political consciousness) is also documented through this book. Something I have often admired about your process is that you always seem to be recalibrating ideas and terms based on events—something that we all do obviously, but which seems particularly dramatic in your work. For instance, at the beginning of SITE CITE CITY there is this language of “narrative theory,” but that shifts to the site-specific performance work, and I feel by the end of the book that you have returned to narrative or genre theory, but with an important difference: perhaps the difference of having passed through the trials of Occupy Oakland and other events local to the Bay Area? Certain ways that you use repetition also speak to this difference; where you will vary certain sentences, replacing or reordering key phrases—these modulations forming a certain rhythm for the book as a whole. Perhaps you could speak to the evolution of works in the book, if not your writing and performance processes as they relate to your sociopolitical thought and activism more broadly.

DB: Well the works aren’t ordered chronologically so I’d have to think about what shifts may have occurred over the dozen or so years the book covers—years during which I also wrote the poems in The Shunt (2001-2008), a book more overtly engaged with then-current events, at least in a more legible way. I also began working on what would become An Army of Lovers with Juliana Spahr in 2008, I believe, which of course works through its own set of narrative concerns, more occupied with questions of “realism” and burlesquing affective experiences of political/aesthetic impasse (that book was literally finished one month before the Occupy Oakland camp was established in October 2011). And beginning in October of that year I returned to poetry for the first time since 2008, in response to—and engagement with—#OO and its related tendrils. The turn back to poetry during and post #OO certainly had to do with questions of time, spatial practice (specifically viz occupation and street battles with the cops), and trying to explore how to ‘capture’ (not the right word) or represent the new forms of duration unleashed in the insurrectionary moments occasionally erupting from those struggles (I’ve tried to write a bit about method & space re #OO elsewhere[2]).

Back to Site: I sometimes want to half-seriously reduce the book (or at least most of the pieces in it) to an experiment in combining New Narrative with the New Sentence. Parataxis, serialism, repetition and variation, etc., while also attempting to narrate ‘events over time’ (from the time of the writing/reading to history’s times). Which is why I call these prose works rather than stories or prose poems or essays. Another vector in a lot of these pieces is the relationship between the sentence and paragraph or prose bloc as compositional/phrasal units with their pulses and rhythms, prose blocs as fluid containers for content loosed from strict narrative expectations. Two of the pieces could be read in any order, ie you could shuffle the prose blocs without upsetting narrative ‘coherence’ (since they are attempts at a kind of ‘all-over painting’ of accretive information to be assembled like memory or experience into pseudo-legible ways-of-telling.) The first piece is in one way backwards (the sections count down from ten to zero) while in forward-time it builds a kind of entropy machine for its own collapse. The Buried Treasure Island project is constructed as a guidebook, one that you could read on the island itself, thus organized by cartography rather than time, though its sections include futural sites and events that are not yet “on the map.” The private detective piece narrates the on-the-clock time of the hired PI, so that it’s the duration of his gaze that constructs the narrative (which of course is mostly vacant of ‘interesting’ content, and thus ends up being a description of a a body in empty time, which I think makes for a nice ‘alibi’ for the figure of the use[value]less poet). “Market St Detours,” though at one level an historical (de)tour of San Francisco’s original econo-genocidal artery from the Spanish missions to the port, is organized spatially rather than chronologically, so that each bloc/block is indeed ‘sedimented’ with the layers of history both visible and invisible (and in some cases, yet to have become) in the material landscape. So perhaps sediment can become sentiment, as affect is wrung from the buried histories and stunted futures-past (without, one hopes, dead-ending in nostalgia or the museum vitrine). Another primary mode of narrative inquiry for that piece was grappling with this provocative formulation by Leslie Scalapino (writing as Dee Goda): “Place as memory is thought-shape; written, it is language-space”. Four dimensional psychogeography, that!

Re: narrative theory/ies: The first two pieces, written ten years apart, are twinned in their thinking through narrative as a form of world-building. (or rebuilding in the use of memory-as-material in “The Side Effect.”). The first piece is concerned with landscape and its social bearings, whereas the 2nd piece is concerned more with the personal and the problem of memory and thus wishes to reject “narrative theory” as a too-clinical mode of inquiry. I call “The Treatment” a novelization, because I wanted to think about that narrative genre, which most often is turning a film into a novel (thus one way to think of the ‘treatment’ as a genre as well). What would it mean to ‘novelize’ the political-economic environment of San Francisco in the 2000s, without resource to journalistic nonfiction or conventional storytelling? How does one novelize (which is distinct from merely fictionalizing, I want to believe) documentary materials? The gambit in that piece was to think of each section as a shipping container that could be stacked like the containers at the port of Oakland. (“The material becomes the container” — Smithson) Thus a 3D modular novel, specifically constructed at a hinge-point of global capital, the port. Another way of thinking about cognitive mapping what are increasingly abstract political and material relations, actualized as capitalist ‘signs and wonders’ in the built environment. (I’m not saying any of this ‘works’, just that that was the concept.)

I’d like to argue that the above methodological and compositional strategies/experiments are for me closely connected to pressing political questions, but I would make no claim that the formal choices are in and of themselves political. I almost always ‘start’ with content (even if the ‘content’ is a proposition or a question about the social, like, say, what it might be like to walk backwards down Market Street, pointing at things and telling stories—some true, others speculative—while strangers begin to follow and listen because a white guy walking backwards down a central street talking “confidently” and pointing must be a well-informed tour guide, no?) (Perhaps that piece would now be called “the man(splainer) in the street”). Formal strategies emerge from the ‘research’ (which can range from pressing up against a shuttered building to search engineered drifts into the archives) but are of course never one-way streets but always-already dialectical. “Landscrapes of dissensus,” to torque Jules Boykoff & Kaia Sand.

TD: One of our ongoing conversations has been about the history and appropriation of Conceptual and post-Conceptual art works. It has always been compelling to me how you engage with this history, which is never really festishey like the majority of 1st gen. ConPo practitioners, but leveling — in the sense that post/conceptual art becomes just another set of cultural products to make use of, and redirect/detourn through their reuse. Similarly, in your puns on modern and “New American” poems and subsequent poetry movements in the US, I sense a playfulness, but also a leveling. This is very different than the way Language Writing, say, relates to the NAP, which remains fairly Oedipal. I think it’s interesting that Site Cite City, as referential as it is, may actually be anti- or non-Oedipal. The category of aesthetics, or formalism as you say, becomes subsumed by social investigation (content, commitment, praxis).

DB: I guess I would want to unpack what we mean by ‘leveling.’ On the one hand, I do think of different methodologies and formal strategies as a set of tools to bring to whatever social/political/aesthetic questions I’m grappling with, without prioritizing one over the other on some scale of aesthetic value or political effect. On the other hand, I want to resist the idea that such an approach can necessarily ‘level’ all forms or styles, as in 80s-era postmodern pastiche. I certainly use a pastiche of styles at times if the material seems to warrant it, but I’m skeptical about the continued relevance and usefulness of this kind of flattening, especially as forms are always historical and have very different affective registers once taken out of the dustbin of art history and applied (ideally without nostalgia or fetishism). (and I’d add here that I don’t actually think most conceptual poets are fetishistic, or at least no more than a million lyric poets are about the power of the lyric!).

Certainly since the late 90s, when Iowa-(post)Langpo hybridism emerged out of the MFA industry, anthologized and theorized as ‘new’ (Burt’s ‘elliptical’ poets, Cole Swenson’s ‘hybrids’), and now firmly established in universities and a house organ literally named after its own ideology (FENCE), I’m not particularly optimistic that a leveling of formal approaches will necessarily lead to an interesting politics or aesthetics, nor lead us out of the institutionally rewarded or fetishized. (And we can trace this in the trend towards post-studio practice in the art world, where the artist becomes the CEO of a managerial approach to the neoliberal market and its post-critical values).

I do find the conceptual turns in writing over the past several years as providing a helpful corrective to the continued valuation of conventional notions of poetic craft (and thus authorial ‘skill’): prosody, virtuosity, style, emotional fervor, personal/authorial expressionism, etc. Such value-categories are also historical and ideological and have been invoked for centuries in order to more deeply entrench and enforce Eurocentric institutionalized values, even within various avant-garde traditions. When you have both hard-core lyric poets and anti-lyric language poets (and most academics, it should be noted) in alliance against a new set of poetics values (or more accurately in the case of ConPo, the transvaluation of conventional Western poetic values), then we have entered a moment where hardened notions of poetic ‘talent’ are really being challenged. (and it’s important to note here that challenges to these norms are not only coming from ConPo but also from radical feminist, anti-racist, and anticolonial critiques as well, as they have been for decades.) It becomes harder and harder to defend the entrenched values of the Anglo-American avant-garde in an expanded field of aesthetic pluralism with or without an overtly political program without continual and rigorous self-critique.

Loosed from such hierarchies of value, perhaps we might be able to better see poetic forms as historical and socially-contextual, rather than a pre-fab set of ‘properly’ avant-garde moves or just a grab-bag of poetic effects to be casually tossed together in order to approximate the contemporary. The key, then, for writer and/or critic, is how to forge a praxis that does not simply approach our now enormous reservoir of formal tools as a means of crafting stakes-free mash-ups, as if decorating one’s apartment with a set of market-tested colors and trendy furniture, regardless of context, solely to demonstrate one’s cosmopolitan tastes. I would like to think, to use your words, that one could find a place where the “category of aesthetics, or formalism as you say, becomes subsumed by social investigation (content, commitment, praxis)” without ever deluding oneself into thinking that ‘investigation’ isn’t also always ideological and aesthetic in practice.

TD: I agree with much of what you say here, David, and if I could only clarify a few points, and offer my two cents on ConPo in relation to your work—for whatever it’s worth… I also want to think about “leveling” against a hierarchy of values that maintains the hegemony of “craft” and “post-craft” (“hybrid,” “elliptical,” FENCE) poetics or a radical separation between “lyric” and procedural forms of writing, of which I consider ConPo to be an outgrowth. That said, something I have always found attractive about your work, which differentiates it from that of the 1st wave Conceptual Poets, if they should be called that at this moment in their institutionalization, is that you take things that are useful from Conceptual Art but maintain a crucial distance from the ways that this work has been capitalized upon and absorbed by both art and poetry discourses. I don’t think that you are being merely “pluralistic” in this regard, or using these techniques without a sense of their history or value. In fact, I think that your work maintains a more critical and historically-minded disposition towards their value insofar as SITE CITE CITY in particular offers a complex reappropriation of and dialogue with Conceptual Art, employing its most well-known authors and reference points plastically in relation to an evolving sociopolitical landscape. The critical-historically minded disposition you bring to Conceptual Art is also a means of problematizing aesthetic autonomy, which Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent performance at Brown University and Vanessa Place’s resurrected Twitter minstrelsy underscore pointing at the racial/racist dimension of ConPo’s valorization and institutionalization. One might even say—through your use of puns and your reconstitution of Conceptual Art tactics—that your work provides an immanent critique of the disconnect between ConPo and a field of radical sociopolitical engagement, rendering Goldsmith’s progressive ideology that poetry should be brought up-to-date with what artists have been doing senseless and academic. (I could say a lot more about this subject, but want to get back to your book/work). What would you like to take away from Conceptual Art, that hasn’t been absorbed by the art world dynamics you identify through your reference to corporate managerial culture? Besides offering a “deskilling” of aesthetic (and poetic) labor, what uses can we make of the techniques and practices of Conceptual artists to facilitate, if not accelerate, revolutionary social change?

DB: I find that the legacies of conceptual and post-conceptual art continue to be useful in that they can help reframe social, cultural, and political material that too often can remain trapped by conventional discourse and ways-of-seeing. Of course, saying ‘conceptual art’ is no more useful than saying ‘lyric poetry’—there’s a wide range of practices in those traditions, as well as contexts and fields in which they might be leveraged toward various ends.

I’m particularly drawn to the moment in the early 70s where Euro-American conceptual art moves from language games and institutional critique to broader social and political questions that spill out beyond the museum. Artists such as Adrian Piper and Lynn Hershman Leeson not only brought questions of race and feminism into the realm of conceptual practice, but also demonstrated how such issues necessarily needed to push out into public space, exploring the ways bodies and their representations were not just discursive sites of aesthetic inquiry but also urgent political questions of the highest order. And beyond the Euro-American orbit we can track the wide array of politically-inflected conceptualisms that come out of Latin America from (at least) the 50s onward, from which we can learn much as to how the political stakes of artistic practice can manifest in ways that move well beyond the museum or the anthology and more directly (and materially) against repressive institutions and state regimes.

Of course many of these artists are now institutionalized as well, not only in the academy and art-critical discourse but often in the moneyed world of commercial galleries and global festivals as well. And I would in no way want to make any claims as to how my own work is in conversation with those legacies, as if one’s literary politics were as simple as picking and choosing one’s favorite icons.

At the same time, perhaps a narrative of conceptual art that tracks the more politically-inclined interventions into cultural and social spaces beyond the gallery and institutional critique can help remind us how the many reductive critiques of ConPo often contain their own blindspots, both to writers and projects that differ from the more well-known practitioners as well as the possibilities for what conceptual writing could offer as models for new forms of radical cultural politics. Conceptualism, like documentary poetry, can also bring ‘non-literary’ materials into the sphere of the aesthetic, which can have a political dimension depending on how it’s done, as well as providing ways of intervening in the new platforms of mediated web-life. Think of Keith Obidake selling his blackness on ebay, or Lucky Pierre’s crowd-sourced “Actions for Chicago Torture Justice.”

To suggest that ConPo has been institutionalized and thus exhausted as a radical project or inherently anti-political only limits the possibilities for writers looking for new ways to escape the dominant discourses of literary value and reframe the pressing social and political questions we face today. We need to also recognize that outside the parochialism of US Poetry Inc. there are writers and artists experimenting with form in ways that might not look like ‘our’ ideas of avant-gardism, if only because we’ve yet to learn how to recognize them as such. As Susan Schultz said about experimental writing in the Pacific in a recent issue of the Capilano Review, “Writing by members of those groups [LangPo & ConPo] seems to question language from a position of owning it, not of having been broken by it.” I see this as another helpful reframing of what we consider avant-garde—we need to question language from all positions—but I do think the radical potential of conceptual writing will only be realized as its methods and modes of inquiry aim themselves at targets beyond the aesthetic. Which, I might add, is already happening, especially once we delink postConPo from its figureheads (similar to how different poetic traditions have tried to do with fascist Pound, homophobic and misogynist Beats, etc)

To return to my own attempts in Site, I think also about unlearning as much as deskilling, to let go of mastery as the threshold of the literary and let the materials and questions lead the work. Kaia Sand & Jules Boykoff have written about inexpertise as a method—“inexpert investigation” is one way they phrase it—and I find their line of thinking about research and poetics compelling. At the same time, it’s a delicate balance between forging forms of politically committed work through methodologies of deskilled inexpertise (‘rigorous amateurism’ I’ve called it elsewhere) and simply half-assing a bunch of genres/media one has only half-studied & calling oneself a cross-genre performance artist or whatever. And of course to then try to corral everything into a book, when so much of the work exists off the page, either at/on specific sites or in/as time-based performances, means that failure is inherent in the book form. Could we unlearn the book?

TD: I am very drawn to your articulations in this last paragraph, David, which resonate with a phrase I have returned to repeatedly from Rachel Zolf’s Neighbour Procedure, what she calls the “progress of [her] naiveté” in relation to her research and unlearning of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” How do we begin such a process as a way of beginning to understand and imagine the limits of what we know—or, the fact that we know so little? Aristotle imagined this as the origin of epistemology itself. In a manner perhaps similar to Sand/Boykoff’s “inexpert investigation[s]” and your “rigorous amateurism” I am also reminded of Claire Pentecost’s figure of the “public amateur”—one who, like herself and her collaborators in the Critical Art Ensemble, perform the work of learning about occulted scientific and technological processes in public spaces in an attempt to make those processes more available for scrutiny, debate, and contest. Part of this unlearning—a very large part of it—involves the somatic inasmuch as social and ideological relations actually subtend our bodies compositionally, through the various substances that comprise our bodies elementally and toxicologically, and through the different processes of discipline and training that occur within and upon the body. Can you talk a bit about how somatic practices and dance—particularly dance after Judson and concurrent movements in the United States—inform the works collected in SITE CITE CITY? In what ways are these works sited (and cited) by your body and the specific embodiment of others? How might somatic and/or choreographic practices, largely unexplored by poets, also trouble distinctions between literary genres and between the space of the page and the space of a counter/public? How may they help us to “unlearn the book” and revitalize the relationship between the space of literature and that of our political commitments?

DB: Well, to begin with I want to make sure we don’t fetishize the ‘somatic’ as some realm of mystical contact with, I dunno, a deeper, more meaningful art or politics. Cuz as with any other form or method, there can be a lot of lazy thinking & crap produced under the banner of ‘the body’. I’ve thought a lot about how the turn to the ‘embodied’ in recent US poetry/poetics may have to do with a response to social-media(ted) life, whether via a nostalgia for some fully sensate (& therefore ‘authentic’?) IRL praxis, or a commitment to thinking through pressing cultural, political, and aesthetic questions via the flesh and its unpredictable analog glitches. There’s no reason, however, that one can’t make the most brilliant radical art without ever leaving the chair in front of the screen (which of course is also a somatic proposition); I just don’t buy that because I ‘felt something in my body’ while I wrote or translated a poem or ‘really suffered physically while writing’ or whatever necessarily makes one’s poetry better. At the same time, I’m all for extending the field of methodologies and praxis and anything that gets practitioners aware of the (personal and social) sensorium (in the sense that the Marx uses the idea in the 1844 Manuscripts, let’s say); no matter how cyborg, intra-species, or differently abled, the better for art.

That said, I am clearly influenced by, and committed to, a set of practices and methodologies for which the conscious use of one’s body is paramount, especially both off-page and off-stage. When I started doing little walkabouts under the rubric of BARGE I didn’t initially connect the tours and drifts as part of my writing (though I did write ‘reports’ on some BARGE activities). In 2007 I did some writing for a project by artists Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather that led to a public tour that led to more research and writing and eventually that in SITE became “Market Street Detours.” There was definitely something about burlesquing the ‘public tour’ on San Francisco’s Market Street, where tourists would mix into the crowd to listen to a man walking backwards, pointing at stuff, and talking with a confident voice that led me to want to sharpen the bullshit, if you will, to fine-tune the politics of what could be done within the critical-fictive umbrella of performance and documentary. Only in 2008 with the Buried Treasure Island project did it really start to come together in terms of a site-specific project that combined writing with somatic research and performance, which I think was much more a result of the scale and the time of research and composition than simply deciding to go all multi-disciplinary or ‘embodied’ just because. Rather, as research in all its meanings became the primary modality of the work, without thinking of writing as simply the summing-up or making-into-poetry of the findings, it became a matter of spending as much time there as possible outside of work, at all times of day or night: go, leave, return, get lost, go to the archive, sleep in my truck outside the poisoned well, wander, talk to strangers, follow the cops on their nightly rounds, experiment, invite collaborators, order some Hazmat suits, eat the dirt I’d dug up, etc. So, sure, somatic, but perhaps more as a mode of I dunno, ‘listening’? Like, putting myself and my questions into different kinds of relation to the site(s) and wait for the materials to come into collaboration?

That sounds too mystical for my taste, so I guess I’d add that all such methods are always ideological, in that the training (including the training of our senses, “theoreticians in practice”) and positionality of the practitioner is part of what ‘the body’ carries with it, to each encounter. Which is why I cringe at phrases like “the body” or “the somatic” as if bodies are not already overwritten with millions of raced, gendered, abled, etc etc limits/privileges/traumas/discourses/histories/etc. Some of the things documented in Site are certainly enabled by my gender, race, and class privilege. I imagine, for instance, that the private detective I hired might describe someone other than a WM quite differently. And the more recent work I’ve done on public revolt, affect, and poetics since Occupy Oakland would be very different from the position of, say, a young black man or a single mom.

My work in dance—as opposed to ‘somatic poetry’ and/or performance art ‘in general’—is very recent, only as of 2010 or so, and has helped push me even further out of the author-function, if only by following others’ scores and prompts and getting well out of my body’s (and my mind’s) comfort zone. I’ve been fortunate to forge connections with the vibrant Bay Area dance and performance scene, which has for decades provided a compelling contrast/dialectic to the downtown New York dance world (to make a huge generalization). As someone ‘untrained’ (to say the least) in even the most basic dance (I dropped out of intro ballet in college after an appendectomy and never went back), it’s been compelling to enter into dialogue with dancers, choreographers, and fellow writers about how performance might thrive when we rethink the form to include everything from ‘rehearsal’ to documentation. Working with Abby Crain and her crew has been super helpful for my writing, not least in terms of helping me rethink method and composition, since so often dancers and choreographers will approach certain questions from ‘the body’ (vs language, let’s say, not ‘the mind’!)—thinking through movement—while at the same time being absolutely engaged with how the language arts can spark new modes of somatic practice and cultural politics, from the prompt to the score to the discourse to the grant application.

TD: I appreciate the skepticism that you’ve shown in this interview, David, especially towards various terms that I and no doubt many others deploy all-too-frequently and thoughtlessly as a shorthand in our current milieu: “conceptual art,” “somatics,” “lyric,” “the body,” et al. It shows a welcome impatience with our chosen format—the interview—which in my experience lends itself to both glibness and pat answers. Since we started this interview, so much of the discourse among poets has visibly shifted towards an interrogation of white supremacy with regards to the institutionalization of poetry, academically and otherwise. This long overdue/suppressed interrogation has occurred in tandem with the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists to resist the burgeoning prison complex in the United States and denounce the routine murder of Black bodies by police. I wonder what, if any, projects might be (or have) emerged for you through this shift that brings us full circle with many of the preoccupations of the Black Arts Movement and Black Radical Tradition?

DB: I believe that as vexed and painful the various struggles and arguments have been around questions of race (not to mention gender and the broader categories of ‘identity’), the interventions into the various institutions of poetry-inc are absolutely necessary. Such critiques and interventions have also produced fundamental resistance and challenges to not just the bigger institutions but down to individuals who might wish to think of themselves of outside of those structures, from small-press editors and reading series curators to specific poets, critics, and self-styled ‘commentators.’ We’ve all been given an opportunity to engage in rigorous self-criticism and pursue alternatives to the deeply embedded status-quos, hopefully beyond hand-wringing white guilt or simple ‘compensatory’ gestures towards diversity and ‘inclusion’ (e.g., more POC and women in my series, but I’m not going to interrogate my aesthetic tastes, cultural capital, or political practices that undergird such structures in the first place). I wouldn’t pretend to have figured these questions out for myself—as an editor or a writer or a privileged USAmerican SWM—though the militancy of activism in Oakland has certainly provided models for radical praxis aimed well-beyond liberal platitudes about culture and moralist beliefs.

The historical resonances between the current moment and the energies that come out of the 60s are important, especially in the relationship between more militant political struggles in the broader culture that effect the poetry world, but I’m not sure that coming ‘full circle’ is the way I’d frame the ways in which poet-activists draw upon those traditions and historical contingencies, especially given how social-media networks and the growth of numerous alternative cultural practices have proliferated since the 60s and 70s social movements have fundamentally changed the field, even if with profound limitations. It feels equally important to trace the ways in which, at least in this country, the mainstream multiculturalist discourses of the 80s and 90s (and their support by the liberal state and nonprofit industry) both expanded opportunities for POC and women in the arts, while at the same time re-orientating oppositional energies towards representational cultural politics, which while important often came at the expense of more radical structural changes. What feels at stake in the current moment—among many other sites of struggle—is how battles in and against PoetryInc manifest in new forms of cultural practice and politics, given the enormous resources power has at its disposal to redirect militant energies into compensatory/corrective gestures, where ‘good intentions’ (backed with funding) provide more opportunities for individual POC and other marginalized voices without deeper structural revolutions. I’m not suggesting that most partisans are going to be satisfied simply with a more diverse table of contents in Poetry magazine or more diverse panels at AWP (not that those reforms don’t matter!), but I’d like to hope that the radical movements against the “new Jim Crow”, gender violence, and other structural oppressions begin to further push poet-activists to rethink the limits of representational politics as the only/primary horizon of change. Then we’re only looking at numbers, in which case the Obama administration might be considered a ‘success’ for POC, for instance. What, instead, would the conditions need to be to say fuck reform and instead work to completely destroy and abolish Poetry and the AWP in toto?

TD: I couldn’t agree with you more about all you say here, David. Especially that the past year has provided many of us with an opportunity to “interrogate [our] aesthetic tastes, cultural capital, or political practices that undergird [structural oppression].” Perhaps as a way to conclude, we might talk just a little bit about what is on the horizon for you, especially with regards to the ample and quite urgent work that you produced around Occupy Oakland. Do I understand that a collection of texts from this period is coming out soon? If so, perhaps you may speak to how it elaborates upon SITE CITE CITY and looks ahead to more recent projects and conversations.

DB: I stopped writing poetry on or about October 31, 2008, when I finished final edits on what would become The Shunt. Since then I’ve remained primarily interested in prose, with the relationships between the sentence as phrasal unit and the paragraph or prose bloc as container, and how narrative might ‘carry’ historical and political energies the central formal concerns (in addition to those we’ve discussed specific to SITE). The collaboration between myself and Juliana Spahr that would become An Army of Lovers, which was composed from 2008-2011, was initially going to be some kind of poetry, or so we thought, but ended up not only in narrative prose but somewhat realist (if absurdist) fiction at that.

It sounds cheesy, but I began to return to verse as a direct result of my participation in Occupy Oakland and its later aftermaths and intenstifications, certainly in part because of the way in which the experience of time—both in terms of the heightened and compressed durations of the kind of militancy and oppression specific to Oakland as well as a felt need for a compressed ‘time of composition.’ Grabbing language on the fly, charged missives from the motley assembly and the streets, “spatial practice” as counter-kettling meets impromptu intersection(al) dance floor meets asymmetrical chess match, etc. How to counter/preempt the future-time of “emotion recollected in tranquility” if one neither experiences nor perhaps even desires tranquility? How to write both during and after ‘event’, without ‘recollection’ leading to nostalgia?

What would become the “#OO” manuscript (currently titled A Swarming, a Wolfing) is also driven by the question of how to represent militant social movements and their affective energies without simply repeating calcified forms of “movement poetry” or merely dumping “Occupy” into existing forms and branding it “Occupo”. Another concern for me in this book is the pronoun WE, one whose use (outside of some radical anticolonial and revolutionary movements) has always troubled me, from its sloppy or ‘unearned’ invocation ‘on behalf of’ complex collectivities to the cosmopolitan ‘tone’ of a we (almost always white Euro-American) that often seems to merely signify something like ‘me and my friends/contemporaries that think like me’—where you get lines like, oh I dunno, “we entered the garden of late modernity as detourned Gang of Four records played over speakers gilded with artificial flowers,” lol. And, to return to your question, questions of urban space and their political antagonisms (certainly made more visible by Occupy Oakland, especially in terms of property, policing, and race), as well as the embedded histories of struggle and oppression (both erased and rearticulated in current movements, whether professionalized into nonprofit liberalism or anarchist militancy) became central sites for praxis as well as method. I am not embarrassed to say that the movement (& its social configurations, where instead of friends one finds comrades, instead of poets, pirates) has been transformational for me as a political activist, thinker, and artist.

Current/next writing projects include a novel that I suppose I could tentatively say is about war, simulation, and subversion, as well as a manuscript in progress looking at modes of insurrection and how they might be processed and/or activated in and through language. I also have an off and on BARGE project sited at and around the military bunkers and former Nike missile site in the Marin Headlands, but who knows if and how the scale of that project might be realized. Oh, and working on the next issues of Tripwire, which has been a productive challenge to try to cultivate a non-academic and internationalist constellatory poetics that might, I dunno, suggest/model something beyond being just ‘one more poetry magazine.’ (This is not to suggest that I think I’ve succeeded!) Affective energies (beyond the daily lived experience of permanent war & political-economic-ecological crises, personally administered in every cup of coffee, every psychotropic, every status update) are at present invested in the adjunct union movement and related issues of collectivity and precarious pedagogy as one might try to work through the constraining matrices of (waged) work::career::(unwaged) work (art?). How to achieve a “bit of paradise in hell,” as Jeroen Mettes puts it? Easier said than done, especially when that hell includes hella debt, but as Don Mee Choi phrases it: “writers should insist on staying amateurs to keep our freedom.”

[1] the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics.


David Buuck is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA. He is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics, and co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics. Recent publications include SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, co-written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013). A Swarming, A Wolfing is forthcoming from Roof Books in 2016. /

Thom Donovan is a poet, editor, curator, and teacher. His first book, The Hole, appeared with Displaced Press in 2012. He is the co-editor and publisher of ON Contemporary Practice, and recently edited Occupy Poetics(Essay Press, 2015), Supple Science: a Robert Kocik Primer (with Michael Cross), and To Look At The Sea Is To Become What One Is: An Etel Adnan Reader (with Brandon Shimoda). Since 2006 he has edited the weblog Wild Horses of Fire. He currently teaches courses in poetics and visual art at Parsons, Pratt Institute, and School of Visual Arts.


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