Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press and included work by poets Andrew Durbin (from “You Are My Ducati”) and Cecilia Corrigan (from Titanic). They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to talk about “fantasyscapes,” collective thinking, and the power of communities.
Michael Martin Shea: Hi Andrew! Hi Cecilia! I’m stoked to have the opportunity to chat with the two of you. So let’s get to it: both of your pieces in BAX 2015 explicitly incorporate lines from other texts: for Andrew, it’s Ciara’s “Ride,” while for Cecilia it’s, among other things, Robert Frost’s “Birches” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers. What sort of relationship does your writing have with other texts?
Andrew Durbin: Mostly, I just absorb what’s around me, particularly the memes, language, and pop culture that circulates in the media ecosystem I live in. If you look at how we use social media, we’re often defined by what we “share,” “retweet,” and “favorite”/“like” (which becomes, on Twitter at least, part of our profile). I think of my work as borrowing on those (not new!) strategies, which allows me to throw in all kinds of things into a poem, like I did for “You Are My Ducati.” In the case of that text, though, it was slightly more personal because my interest in the song, which was pretty old by the time I wrote about it for Triple Canopy, began after a good friend of mine had a lengthy, painful breakdown. During that time, he used to text me phrases from Ciara’s “Ride” several times a day, especially the phrase “you are my Ducati” over and over again. I couldn’t understand why—and nothing I could say to him would get a response other than another line from the song. Writing that poem was a way to work through his obsession by making it my own. I thought it would bring me closer to his own thinking. It didn’t, but it brought me somewhere.
Cecilia Corrigan: That’s a very moving story—it’s so interesting how people get hooked into certain phrases or songs. Repetition is the father of learning, as Lil Wayne says. I listened to a lot of music when I was writing Titanic, certain songs over and over: songs which gave me a specific feeling or called to mind a particular moment in my life. I like to bury myself in text, music, and images when I write, which for Titanic was a lot of disparate things that, for whatever reason, I felt related to my fantasyscape about Alan Turing, Snow White, an alternate reality behind my middle school, whatever. I especially listened to rap and hip-hop, because the lyrical and rhythmic dexterity reminded me what I was sort of aspiring to in calling what I was writing poetry. Words on the page are always equal when you take them out of their original context: you can see how universal certain things are, like lyrical flourish, rhetorical devices, storytelling techniques. I liked taking the words of Kate Bush, Lauryn Hill, Lil Wayne and Blink 182 and putting them alongside Keynes and Frege, then polishing it all off with some David Letterman monologue and an ADD medication label. All these textual sources come from different forms of media, too: language ties it all together, it’s the DNA in all the different monsters.
There’s a whole bibliography in the book where I, self-mockingly, tried to cite everything that went into my mental digestive system as I was writing. It was such a strange exercise, but in part at least I think it is meant as an Easter egg hunt: find the quote, find the lyric, find the 2004 Buffy fan forum entry. One of the things poetry is especially good at is showing the way images and objects are stolen or expropriated, how language is the virus that carries things across space and time. I think that when people are really passionate in their intellectual beliefs, it can hold the same kind of fetishistic, idealized space as a celebrity obsession, which is why I put Selena Gomez in an SUV having a conversation with two actual analytic philosophers. Maybe I want the people who fetishize these respective things to realize they are looking for the same experience: escape, and transcendence. People express themselves through what they value: when it comes to culture, you are what you eat, and when I was writing Titanic, I guess I chewed with my mouth open.
MMS: Both of you have been mentioned as poets who write about celebrities and celebrity culture. What role do you see poets (or poetry—or maybe just your poetry) playing in our national discussion of celebrity? What is the point of this discussion (whether it includes poets or not)?
AD: Realistically, poets don’t play a role in the national conversation around celebrity, except when they do, as in oddball instances like James Franco and Shia LaBeouf, I suppose. But I don’t think of myself as someone who necessarily writes about celebrity culture anymore than I write about other parts of what’s going on today, like climate science and American politics and neoliberal economics. If celebrities crop up often in my work, I think it’s because celebrities are a way we collectively think through Big Questions—and I find that pretty compelling. Maybe. Also, it’s just common ground that I like to stake. I’m interested in those moments where a celebrity can become a flat signifier. That was the case in the piece “Prism” from my first book. In that, Katy Perry attends a dinner and is forced to defend her then-current album Prism, which her host says is propaganda for (may even be the musical form of) the actual PRISM program.
CC: I like the idea that a reader might feel more at home in the text if there’s a name they recognize, or feel a personal connection to the object. Titanic is set during puberty, the epoch of crushes and celebrity-worship. I think celebrities are almost like meaning-making dolls, symbols we use to communicate, which carry their own little sets of associations with them. I relate to what Andrew said about “thinking collectively.” There’s such an excess of conversation and information on these public figures, but it isn’t really about the individual connected to the image, it’s about the significance people bring to these figures. It’s what attracts people to fandom, the idea that you can find a community around an imaginary world, sometimes literally a virtual reality. Celebrities, in Titanic, are part of the whole collage, referents for our 21st century tongue-in-cheek Greek Gods on Mount Olympus. Their presence adds to the whole strange universe I wanted to build for the play of the reader.
MMS: Cecilia, your piece especially rips through various linguistic registers—it would be possible, though reductive, of course, to say that the primary experience of the poem is the linguistic experience, prior to any outside referents. With regards to this poem as well as your larger writing project—and this is a false-binary, but hear me out—do you think language is primarily immanent or transcendent?
CC: As you imply in your question, I see language as neither immanent nor transcendent, but as material: real physical stuff that can be molded sculpturally. Although we aren’t taught to think or read it this way, language can affect us at a more ambient level than we usually let it, the way music can. I would love to make a book with music that actually plays as you read—that would be dope!
In Titanic, I want people to choose their own adventure: we’re smarter about recognizing tone than we typically think, and better at code-switching too. I think that your brain needs to be relaxed in order to recognize unconscious patterns, which is why some of the sections of the book are sort of repetitive, found or detourned text that most people will skim or surf through. I hope some of the contrasting jumps from one tone to another do make people laugh, as comedy often comes from a predictable pattern suddenly being disrupted. Humor is the most important thing to make any of this worthwhile, in my opinion. If you can’t laugh, where are you, you know?
MMS: Andrew, one of the things I love about your piece is that, in the middle of this extended meditation-cum-dream-sequence on Ciara and expensive motorcycles, we find ourselves in the midst of an Occupy Wall Street protest. To me, this feels like a collision that’s both surprising and natural, in the face of the conspicuous consumption the piece performs up until this point—as in, of course the Ducati is political. And yet you’d be hard-pressed to call “You Are My Ducati” a political or protest piece, in a traditional sense—it doesn’t have any solid position, any rallying cry. Can you talk a little bit about the intersection of writing and the political, or of—perhaps especially experimental—writing and social upheaval?
AD: I definitely don’t think “You Are My Ducati” articulates any kind of meaningful protest or rallying cry, but I agree that it describes an ugly politics that’s meant to draw out a response in the reader, probably a nostalgic response given that it “takes place” at the time of Occupy. While those political concerns remain relevant, they’ve changed a lot, especially now that Black Lives Matter has significantly broadened the national conversation around the look and shape of racial, financial, and cultural inequality. I wish I could say what it does. I’m not convinced contemporary poetry is an effective instrument of meaningful political change in the U.S., though—and here I’ll riff a bit off my friend Josef Kaplan—I do think it can be an effective space for imagining alternative politics (and polities) that could be used to map and describe another world, if that makes any sense. That’s not to say that I don’t think protest poetry—or poetry that protests—can’t be valuable, can’t be a tool for changing people’s minds or the institutions that cater to and affect poetry, even if it’s only valuable to a small set of people: just that I don’t think poetry is very useful as a revolutionary tool for actual systemic change.
CC: I think that groups in the poetry community have emerged in the past couple years to voice a frustration with the ways politics, particularly racial politics, have been dealt with in poetry (or haven’t been dealt with sufficiently.) I think that one of the results of this is that whether or not someone believes their work to be political, they can’t deny that there is a desire from many, many people to question the politics of the work, to ask political questions about the work, to answer for the work. I think this desire is important. In many ways I think that questions about whether poetry (or any other art form, for that matter) is a useful tool for revolution are secondary to a question about what you do after you’ve written a poem. We can explore our desire for an imaginary space, perhaps a better political space, and finding ways to express that desire will hopefully strengthen and clarify it. I do think that making art can be radical at the level of the individual, in the sense that it can be a way of staking out mental, social, and emotional territory, a space which can potentially resist the crushing pressures of inadequacy and powerlessness that dominate so much of life.
MMS: You both had your first books come out relatively recently—did that experience change the writing process for you?
AD: Yes. Once I published Mature Themes and left the fog of its production, I was able to see the book more clearly, both sympathetically and critically. I spent (am spending) a lot of time rethinking my work in terms of the failures of that first book. I’m happy with it, but I want to do better, like anyone does.
CC: Definitely agree with seeing what I want to do differently next time, now that I have some distance on the project, which felt so consuming while I was working on it. I’m glad I wrote Titanic, in part because it felt like a book I had to write once and get it over with: a big, ambitious, leaky boat. Now that it’s been out for a while, I also have a sense of how weird it is to actually have what feels like a piece of my brain out in the world that people can just have for their own. Sometimes it feels like they know all my secrets or something, which is obviously a fantasy that gives me the feeling of a goose walking over my grave.
MMS: When we pitched the idea of interviewing the two of you together, you both noted that you’re friends with each other. How does friendship with other writers (or the friendship between the two of you, specifically) affect your writing? Does writing need writing communities to survive?
AD: On a basic level, friends introduce me to other friends’ work. Poetry (and the larger “experimental writing” world) is very small and has much fewer distribution resources than mainstream publishing, so friendship is an important way to stay in touch with what’s happening, since so many of the best things appear in little pamphlets, in samizdat PDFs, etc., that you just have to know about or else know someone who does. But also, my friends, especially poets and artists, help me to develop my ideas, my feelings; they introduce me to concepts and theory that I wouldn’t otherwise know since I work outside of academia. They shape my concerns. But the history of poetry is, in part, the history of friendships, alliances, communities. Without that, there wouldn’t be much.
CC: My poetry frequently looks a bit like a script on the page: it feels like a conversation when I’m writing. Sometimes it’s all overlapping voices, the babbling groups of people you overhear on your way to the kitchen at a party. Maybe a party is the best way to think about it. When I host parties, I tend to invite broadly across social groups, so they end up being full of a lot of different people who don’t know each other, thrown together for one moment. I think of poetry as a transitional space. Sometimes poetry feels more like travel than a party: in Andrew’s work I sometimes get the feeling of airports or hotels, a lonely but sweeping clarity of distance. A different kind of transitional space, but an equally encompassing one.
One of my ambitions is to get better at giving readers many ways into the work, to enable people to read with confidence about whatever tools or lenses they bring to the work, what they recognize in it, rather than seeking a correct answer. I think poetry can encourage us to let our awareness of atmosphere overtake our need to categorize or label. Your question about whether “it” needs writing communities to survive is interesting, as writing is fundamentally a communication tool. There’s got to be, at least, a community of two: a writer and a reader. I guess maybe you’re asking about who we’d want to speak to, or with, and whether they will listen.
Cecilia Corrigan is a writer and actor based in New York. She was recently selected as one of Issue Project Room’s Artists in Residence for 2016-17. Her first book, Titanic, won the Plonsker Prize in 2012. Upcoming projects include a new book, Cream, for Capricious 88 (illustrated by Jocelyn Spaar), and the short film Crush, co-created with Katherine Bernard. You can find her work in such publications as n+1, Joyland, Capilano Review, Prelude, Lumina, and Adult, or at ceciliacorrigan.com
Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat 2014) and the chapbook MacArthur Park (Kenning Editions 2015). His work has appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, Flash Art, Poetry London, Text Zur Kunst, and elsewhere. A contributing editor of Mousse, he co-edits the press Wonder and lives in New York. His first novel, Blonde Summer, is forthcoming from Nightboat in 2017.
Michael Martin Shea is the managing editor of Best American Experimental Writing. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.