To celebrate The Conversant’s evolving relationship with The Volta website collective over its five year run, Senior Editors Ching-In Chen and Caleb Beckwith have selected pieces from our archives which exemplify that relationship for our October issue. This conversation was originally part of our April 2014 issue. Enjoy!
Along with Andy Fitch, Cristiana Baik is assembling the Letter Machine Editions Book of Interviews, which also includes interviews conducted by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. This talk will be published in that collection, due for late 2014 release.
Cristiana Baik: When introducing your work, Noah Eli Gordon evoked Keats’s negative capability, the idea that “man is capable of being in uncertainties.” Would you describe your work and poetics as reflective of and shaped by negative capability?
Farid Matuk: I would, yes, to the extent that I try to court a space in the poem where contradictory impulses, perspectives, discourses and images can play together.
CB: In what ways does displacement and being displaced impact your work?
FM: Displacement, I think, helps to complicate the idea of negative capability. I’m interested in conditions, circumstances and context—the terms we’re dealt and from which we make up a (provisional, protean) consciousness and art. Accordingly, for my purposes, I’d revise Keats’s term from negative capability to negative condition, from “being in uncertainties” to simply “being uncertainties.” I mean the ways in which, if we’re attentive, many (all?) of us find ourselves displaced from various identities and narratives and yet firmly ensconced in others. So, in terms of autobiography, I can tell you I’m displaced many times over in relation to ethnicity, language and nationality—born as I was to an ethnically Syrian mother who herself never learned Arabic from her parents, and assimilated into the complex social and racial caste system of her native Peru quite nicely, given her fair skin. In my father’s story, I find the hybrid identity of a guy whose parents were mestizos from the small town of Puno in the Andes, and who himself identified with a pretty cosmopolitan life in Peru’s capital, Lima. The displacements continue for me in that my mother preemptively kidnapped me in the midst of an ugly custody battle and took me to Southern California. I grew up in a trailer park in Anaheim, and that was a big step up from the neighborhood we first settled in. My mother had never finished high school; she and her sister raised me on little more than the minimum wage they collected from the convalescent hospitals where they tended to the earliest wave of elderly from the Greatest Generation. So there’s a sense of displacement in terms of class for sure, particularly now that I work at a public university with severe wage stagnation. It seems we’re funding higher education with the expectation that the professoriate is for the rich or comfortably middle-class.
I could go on: I identify as bisexual; I was undocumented for several years until Reagan’s amnesty gave my family and I the chance to naturalize, and so on. Ultimately, though, I don’t think displacement is a perverse privilege of the disenfranchised or non-normative or of those with seemingly unique life circumstances. Certainly, most anyone living in a first-world, free-market obsessed node of the global economy such as the United States is displaced from their own food, from the earth, from a clear sense of how we fit into systems of power and privilege, from the processes that manufacture the stuff we consume, from our bodies in their diversity and failings, and one could go on. Again, not necessarily interesting or unique. Nonetheless, it seems to me a worthy goal to trace our own displacements and find there some fissures through which we might look toward, if nothing else, a more complete view of our circumstances. I always tell my students that cracking open ideology may be an ever-receding goal, but one worth our reach.
CB: I was interested in the ways that perception and perspective often overlap in your work (for example, as in “Maybe Go to Sea” and “An American in Dallas”), and how descriptions of landscapes often embody the integral relationship between the two. Could you talk a bit about this relationship, as reflected within your poems?
FM: Maybe I should answer this question by first saying I may not be interested in writing poems as such. In a recent and overly-zealous takedown of Paul Hoover’s Post-Modern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, the poet Michael Robbins complained that Hoover’s editorial eye could not see beyond the battle between the mainstream and the avant-garde, the raw and the cooked. As an alternative binary, Robbins cites the critic Oren Izenberg’s take on Harold Bloom’s notion of “poetry” and “non-poetry.” I’ve been meaning to read Izenberg himself but haven’t gotten to it yet, so Robbins’ piece is all I have to go off of. In any case, Robbins assures us that in Izenberg’s hands, this binary only describes difference, and eschews Bloom’s hierarchical ordering of things. Robbins offers this fundamental understanding of Izenberg’s argument: “for the poets of ‘non-poetry,’ the most important commitment is to a conception of poetry that is much broader than the one whose aim is to compose verse that pleases and instructs. These poets—‘insofar as [they] intend poetry’—do not intend ‘to produce that class of objects we call poems, but to reveal, exemplify, or make manifest a potential or ‘power’ that minimally distinguishes what a person is.’”
I’m unclear as to how Izenberg’s binary is not a double pejorative. What poet, regardless of aesthetic tendencies, would not want their work to at least minimally “distinguish what a person is”? And what poet, regardless of aesthetic tendencies, would not want to write poems? Still, if the matter is one of degree, I gleefully admit to tuning my work toward revelations of what a person is, and sensory impressions are absolutely necessary in my approach to that work. In this I think my poetics are also very old-fashioned. My teachers in attending to the senses are Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tu Fu and Basho. A more contemporary but equally important triumvirate for me in this regard is James Schuyler, Philip Whalen and Joanne Kyger. I should add John Wieners here for good measure. For all their stylistic differences, the poems and notebooks of these writers reveal to me a trace of their respective consciousness as they made themselves receptive and pliant, ready to receive sensory information and register it in the briefest and most vivid language they could muster.
I guess I also believe attending to sensory impressions can be part of a continuum of attention that regards the outside world with equal interest and distance as it does the changing weather of affect and argument that marks most interiority. The meditative strategy of slackening intention’s hold over attention comes into play here. My sense is that poems can simply be records of an attention still willing to be surprised—a formulation from the painter Philip Trussell, an old friend and mentor from my time in Austin. But I would also welcome finding in that record some trace of the circumstances (social, political, spiritual, what have you) that give that attending consciousness its shape.
CB: How and when were you first introduced to Daniel Joseph Martinez’s work (the title of your collection, This Isa Good Neighborhood, was also the title of an art project Martinez co-created)? What themes from his work do you connect to your own?
FM: Daniel is a brilliant multi-media conceptual artist, and I’m still trying to catch up to things he was doing back in the ’90s. Back then I had seen him around UC Irvine when I was an undergrad studying comparative literature. He was and is still on the faculty there teaching in the visual and conceptual art MFA program. My correspondence with him didn’t begin until 2010 when I approached him, asking to use an image of his for the cover of my Letter Machine book. I’m very grateful he contributed images for the book’s interior as well as for the cover.
I’ve had the opportunity to write about Daniel’s work, specifically the piece from which I borrowed my title, quite a bit. I can say more broadly that I’m drawn to his ability to explore language in context. I think Daniel may be the first person who got me thinking about rhetoric as this really capacious mode of art, a view that complicates rhetoric’s supposed function as, primarily, a persuasive tool, a means to a pre-figured end. Daniel situates language in specific sites to instigate friction between ways of seeing and thinking that lay just below the surface—literally just below the surface layer of construction on a given landscape sometimes. From within the literary world, rhetoric scholars Dale Smith and Jeffrey Walker talk about a “transpersonal lyric,” which seems a good way of figuring Daniel’s site-specific conceptual poetics in a more traditional page-grounded mode. For Smith and Walker, the trans-personal lyric runs counter to Romantic-modern notions that perceive the lyric as a state of feeling emanating from a unified subject. Smith and Walker emphasize the ceremonial staging of ancient Greek rhetoric, with its attendant dynamic between an unstable speaker and audience, and so edge the lyric toward performance. I want the poem to be a performative argument of sorts that advances by inviting readers to give voice to a protean array of proposals and ellipses, activating assumptions and responses that exceed anything the poet or reader could anticipate.
Aside from this thinking about rhetoric, I’m drawn to Daniel’s ability to create incredibly layered compositions across media, which “activate” the multiple displacements I was mentioning earlier. Also, as I was trying to get at in talking about sensory impressions, Daniel’s attention to the senses only amplifies that sense of displacement. The sensory doesn’t work to bring you back into an integrated and singular subjectivity in Daniel’s art—it works to pull your attention in different directions simultaneously.
For example, in 2006, he did this piece for the Cairo biennial in which an animatronic sculpture (a self-portrait, really, as it was an exact likeness of Daniel’s, with Hollywood-quality special effects used to render his face and body) was laid on a gallery floor. Spectators came in to see the body on the ground convulse in the same way that replicants “died” in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner. There are a lot of layers there of recursion, with a “life-like” three-dimensional sculpture “dying” in reference to filmic images of “life-like” robots whose convulsions are read as a sort of “dying.” The violence of the convulsions exists simultaneous to our knowing and our knowledge’s ability to domesticate that violence. Both those forces float there in that piece at the same time. But what really gets me about this project is that the animatronic Daniel wears is a huge, gaudy belt-buckle that forms the name “Ishmael” with diamonds (zirconia?) on a platinum base. So Daniel takes the name that designates this ancient figure who exists in three utterly different narratives (since each of the three major monotheistic religions see that character in their own ways), and implicates those histories of belief into this recursive, technologized death scene—not to mention that the buckle’s “bling” adds a uniquely U.S. pop-culture, consumerist take on identity as commodity. All of this conceptual energy also knowingly drags onto the gallery floor the complicity of a U.S. artist aligning these recursive representational, narrative and technological “deaths” together in Cairo, a “site” that plays no less pivotal a role in geo-politics and U.S. aggression today than it did in the histories of those three monotheisms. I’d rather offer my “thinkership” (to use a U.S. conceptual poetry buzzword) to Daniel’s work any day over that of Vanessa Place or Kenneth Goldsmith. I think current debates about conceptual poetry waste energy pitting the lyric against the concept, the affective self against the cool intellect, when really we should just be asking for more rigorous conceiving in exchange for our attention.
It’s ultimately difficult to do Daniel’s work justice without having some of it in front of us. I hope anyone who reads this interview will go out and seek his work immediately. The best place to start is in the recent book Daniel Joseph Martinez: A Life of Disobedience, published by Hatje Cantz.
CB: Landscape plays a prominent role throughout your work (various landscapes of Southern California and Arizona, such as Orange County suburbs, California “scrub brush,” freeways, Arizona deserts). Is there anything particular about these landscapes—physical and/or experiential—that makes you revisit them in your poems? Do the geopolitics of these places lend themselves to broader subjects/themes, which you then explore in your work?
FM: The most direct answer I can give is an extension of my earlier note on sensory attention. Landscape is what’s there, in front of me, and it’s going to show up in the poems simply because I’m trying to let it make its impressions into my perception. More specifically, though, Southern California (the suburbs of Orange County especially) are like some of John Ashbery’s work, because you’re in a world, but you start to realize very quickly you’re in a made thing. Maybe the greatest effect Anaheim had on me is that it taught me to love artifice as an extension of whim—but also to see artifice, in its degrees of refinement, as a trace of social privilege.
CB: You co-dedicate This Isa Nice Neighborhood to Lindon Barrett, a scholar who was teaching at UC Riverside at the time of his tragic death. Would you mind talking about the ways that he impacted your own work?
FM: I don’t think I can talk about Lindon’s influence on me fully, at least not here and maybe not yet. I’m still reflecting on our time together, particularly now that I’m four years older than he was when we were close, and now that I have my own undergraduates to mentor. Lindon was at UC Irvine before he went over to Riverside, so I had the privilege of developing a relationship with him there when I needed it most. He was a brilliant scholar of African-American literature and a rigorous theorist of subjectivity and difference. His first book focused on slave narratives in the 19th century, and he was engaged in a multi-book project studying the shaping of Western subjectivity backwards through time. He was working on an ambitious project looking at the trans-Atlantic slave trade, economic theory and material economic practice in the 17th and 18th centuries when he was killed.
You can still find memorial pages on the Internet that sprang up after his death. There you’ll see scores of testimonies from students who thanked him for breaking down boundaries in scholarship and in life, for modeling for us what a fearless and free life might look like. I think of Jean Genet and James Baldwin when I think of Lindon. Imagine being best friends with Baldwin and Genet for a time in your youth and you get a little bit of what I mean. It was poetry in life, truly moving out and onward without fear. That kind of force scares everyone, though. His life was filled with professional and personal conflict, and I was so happy for him that he seemed in the last years of his life to cultivate more joy than anything else. There’s a story there to tell about the racism and psychological conditions of some academic institutions, but that’s too much to get into here. The point is that Lindon showed me what it was like to just go on your nerve, as Frank O’Hara said, but in your real, material life. I actually don’t live like Lindon at all. My mental scripts are all about fear. The best I can do to honor his memory is to try to make poetry where imagination and attention advance together without fear of losing themselves.
CB: Can you talk about how you came to title your chapbook, My Daughter La Chola?
FM: “La Chola Martina” was the derogatory alias bestowed on Martina Espinoza, a woman believed by white Angelinos to be an acquaintance of the bandit Juan Flores. In 1857, Flores and his men killed Sheriff Barton and most of Barton’s posse in the countryside outside Los Angeles. The accusation that Martina Espinoza tampered with the Barton posse’s guns fueled a wave of retaliatory lynching and murder targeting Hispanic men.
I came across this history in photographer and historian Ken Gonzales-Day’s book Lynching In The West. Gonzales-Day writes that photographic archives can hardly tell us the difference between a Californio condemned to death by vigilante squad or kangaroo court and a Californio member of the landed gentry. Conventions of 19th-century portraiture were such that all came to be dignified by the lens. And all came to be subsumed under the label of “Mexican” and its variants by archivists who valued neither the rectitude of a high-collared shirt nor the specificity of a death.
Some of the poems in that chapbook, with their mash-up syntax, try to offer a reading experience akin to the recuperative act of searching through photographic archives of racial violence—in that the poems simultaneously obscure and reveal narratives, characters and lyric observation. As a sequence these poems also sustain a meditation on the birth of my daughter, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic American of the 21st century, who is revealing herself and claiming herself even as she contends with the ways her body makes a ready screen for the shifting projections of a dominant culture that has hardly resolved systemic and interpersonal race-based, and sex-based violence.
CB: In many of your poems, the themes of “race” (specifically, how “race” informs or shapes identity and identifications), masculinity, sexuality and the various disruptive forces of capitalism intersect. For example, in “History As a War of Poses,” you write: “I know something about race and something about sex and I obey / the market imperative / to keep things moving.” Could you talk about these multiple intersections within your work?
FM: The word race can sometimes freak people out, to put it mildly. So I’ll start by shooting past the intelligence of your question to first repeat a more broad point about poetry and race that I’ve made in other interviews. If we come to poetry to learn that racism (or any other form of oppression) is wrong, or just plain unhealthy for both oppressor and oppressed, then I think we have problems so deep poetry cannot really hope to fix them. So, if that’s my stance, what am I doing with my explorations of identity in poetry?
I think it goes back to your earlier question about displacements. All of these identity categories are contingent on local or regional histories; they’re contingent on historically evolving ideas about who we are and how we’re categorized. I assume this is why you place quotation marks around the word race, to signal that it’s a construct and a shaky one at that? It’s that tension between the artifice of identity on the one hand, and the material effects of that artifice on the other, that keeps me exploring identity and its relation to language. Critic Kobena Mercer has approached the intersection of discursive indeterminacy, politics and subjectivity perhaps more directly. While reassessing representations of black male bodies in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Mercer writes that “in contrast to the claims of academic deconstruction, the moment of undecidability is rarely experienced as a purely textual event; rather it is the point where politics and the contestation of power are felt at their most intense.”
All poems presume connection, don’t they? “I’ll make a poem for you which holds locked up a living voice — / the key’s on your own tongue —” writes Alice Notley in her beautiful poem “1992.” But the ethic I’m interested in may necessarily be first an ethic of withdrawal even as it beckons toward connection—one that occurs prior to any thinking about a commons. I’m interested in an ethic that constructs the poem as an opportunity or invitation for the reader to exercise a protean slip beyond the claim of the address, no matter how friendly or cooperative the address may be. To bring it back to Lindon Barrett, he claimed, “the market depends foremost on simplifying and exploiting virtually all orders of the imagination.” While I want the poem to be an argument, at the same time I try to respond to Barrett by making with the lyric a space where the vagrant imagination can range. What I want to know in a poem is how the poet got over, from one precarious moment of being in the world to the next, and how the poem can help open spaces for the imagination that are fugitive but resistant, and maybe free.
CB: What are current and/or new projects you’re working on?
FM: I’m currently composing poems that will form a second part to the My Daughter La Chola project. Where the focus in Part One was on the silenced figures and silencing power of a dominant culture’s projected narratives and representations, these new poems explore some pretty bold exercises in agency by 19th-century stage performers of color. These poems are trying to ask how subjects might take up the very narrative structures and visual and linguistic codes used to discipline them, in order to negotiate their way into moments of agency. But I emphasize “trying.” I mean, those are the general questions I’m bringing to the work, but I don’t know what they’ll help me make.