Rob Halpern with Andy Fitch

Rob Halpern
Rob Halpern

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. Enjoy!

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

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

AF: Here could you clarify whether it makes sense, within this intimate poetic community, to distinguish between generations?

RH: I’ve thought about that question a lot recently—specifically the fact that we often need a so-called “third generation” to work through all the obstacles at play in a second generation’s inadequate grasp of a specific cultural phenomenon (in this case New Narrative). One obstacle for me concerns the relative reticence of New Narrative, compared with the volubility of Language writing, when it came to theorizing and historicizing itself. Even while attending Bob’s workshops, right there at the movement’s hearth, so to speak, “New Narrative” felt like something of a rumor, a secret still waiting to be discovered. My generation—and here I think of writers with whom I formed important friendships while attending Bob’s and Dodie’s workshops, such as Jocelyn Saidenberg, David Buuck, Dana Teen Lomax, Yedda Morrison, Robin Tremblay-McGaw—had to work through what often seemed, to me at least, like illegible tensions and contradictions that we’d unwittingly inherited. Our work struggled to metabolize all this, though I suppose I only can speak for myself. At the level of affect, let’s say, I could perceive the stakes attached to certain writing practices, but couldn’t interpret those affective qualities, even as I worked to embody them as living feeling. So while I tried to stay faithful to New Narrative’s apparent commitment to storytelling (where the narrative stakes hangs on specific bodies, often abject and marginalized, in specific communities whose boundaries often get delimited by scandal and gossip), I also needed to make sense of Bay Area Language writing. I felt caught inside a set of aesthetic and social conflicts whose terms I hadn’t quite grasped—in part because those terms still were shaking themselves out. Without consciously understanding it, my writing wanted to give form to these tensions, to resolve what remained unintelligible contradictions. While I’ve since done my best, through critical and editorial projects, to help make New Narrative legible for others, it will require a younger generation to achieve the distance necessary to see the terms, the histories and the stakes as if for the first time. And I think we find this now in the work of some younger writers who have conscientiously apprenticed themselves to New Narrative.

AF: As you outline your own “apprenticeship,” could you give some concrete sense of how you and your workshop peers, whether intentionally or not, have revalued or repositioned characteristic gestures from both poetic communities? Does an initial New Narrative emphasis upon storytelling subsequently allow for unsuspected forms of syntactical and discursive intervention (of the type we expect Language to produce)? And in terms of the reductive scholarly take, the differential narrative in which Language and New Narrative define themselves oppositionally (all of which ignores a much stronger legacy of shared and overlapping commitments, exchanges—both interpersonal and poetic), what do you think of critical projects such as the CUNY “Lost & Found” series, which adopts archival research practices in order to return us to the lived social context for work often categorized entirely according to aesthetic or theoretical considerations?

RH: I think you’ve done a great job answering your first question by way of your second. And yes, I think we’ve grown accustomed to something like an official set of groupings based on recognized affinities, and lost the more nuanced, more complicated, more fraught and certainly more interesting engagements that many of these writers have had—across what we only now perceive as hardened boundaries. Granted, you read a book by Bruce Boone or Robert Glück or Dodie Bellamy, and it doesn’t sound anything like work by Lyn Hejinian or Carla Harryman or Charles Bernstein. Still New Narrative and Language writers share a complex ecology of friendships and genealogies.

AF: I want to make sure we get back to your book as well. Can I steer us that way?

RH: Absolutely.

AF: Here could we start with porn? Could you characterize the various valences porn picks up? Of course one could conceive of porn as analogous to our safe, sanitized, solitary removal from the scene of contact or conflict—foregrounding exploitive dynamics between exposed and unexposed bodies. Music for Porn does speak of activating a “pornographic imagination.” Yet it seeks to position this imagination “against the militarized common sense that has otherwise fully harnessed it and to unbind those affects otherwise sclerotically bound to the nation’s ends.” Subsequent passages suggest that this book’s “I,” its shifting poetic-subject, cannot determine precisely how/where such a threshold lies—what precisely it would mean to activate this pornographic imagination against militarized common sense. So to start, could you describe some liberatory implications or potentials for social engagement that get allegorized in your book’s treatment of porn? What otherwise unspeakable intimacies can porn help us to realize? How and when does porn become abstract, avant-garde, utopian? If poetry can become a form of porn, can you describe porn’s poetics?

RH: That huge set of questions might offer a nice segue from our discussion of New Narrative. Works by Bob Glück, Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy respond to porn. In many ways, porn is just another genre, and thus a way of codifying and policing the visible and the invisible, the sayable and the unsayable, the licit and the illicit. Market-driven pornography manifests a strict set of protocols, reinforcing predictable expectations that attend gender and sex roles. New Narrative often seeks to manipulate or explode such expectations. I’ve often referred to porn as a regime of representation in which one’s most intimate relations—be they to one’s own body, or to bodies of others—get mediated by the most impersonal images and discourses. As I write in the book, “Under current conditions, common sense itself becomes a kind of pornography (expropriation of my most intimate relations) just as pornography becomes a kind of common sense (everything bearing visible value, everything erasing the relations that produce it).” But just as porn polices the divide between the licit and illicit, the perceptible and imperceptible, it also can challenge and reconfigure these divisions. My book aims to do this. I want the poems to make perceptible an otherwise imperceptible tension between my most intimate and most abstracted relations. And as I pursued it, this tension materialized in the figure of the soldier. So I return to Whitman’s Civil War poems and explore my fraught relationship to them. Whitman’s “Drum-Taps” sequence remains seductive and moving but also deeply problematic—as it transforms the soldier’s historical body into the eroticized, sacrificial figure around which Whitman shapes his vision of post-Civil War democracy. The eros of Whitman’s project fascinates me, an eros we can’t separate from his ideological vision, from his own forms of militarized common sense. This eros has nothing liberatory about it. For Whitman, the soldier offers a kind of sap, a binding agent for a divided nation. Whitman gives us this metaphysical soldier, whose eros the poems arouse, to heal a damaged history. Is it too strong to characterize this as a militarized ideology inseparable from homosexual desire? Today we see an extension of that: homosexuality gets increasingly normalized while at the same time national borders get further militarized to protect us from other others. I don’t consider such phenomena unrelated. So the broader question arises: if one’s erotic life remains deeply implicated in precisely the social structures one seeks to resist, how can bodies and pleasures become scenes of resistance? My book’s obsessive relationship to the soldier’s body does not promise liberation but rather further scenes of contradiction and obstruction. The soldier becomes an embodied location, a figural site where my own libidinal intensity emerges to block the realizations of my utopian social desire.

AF: Throughout Music for Porn, I wondered about the how these eroticizations of the soldier parallel Whitman’s eroticizations of the slave’s body. Did that potentially problematic precedent help prompt your own investigations? And in terms of a broader democratic discourse. How does Whitman’s rhetoric of camaraderie (his embrace or construction of his era’s affectionate male-male norms) correspond to the more fraught power dynamics implicit in his relation to the soldier’s body?

RH: For Whitman, libidinal desire always contains the potential to activate what we might think of as real social agency. Yet Whitman’s discourse around a democratizing camaraderie never adequately maps onto the social material the Civil War presents to him. And it interests me how Whitman’s semantics of camaraderie transform from the period of “Calamus” to the period of “Drum-Taps.” A profound shift occurs in the way eros functions. The pre-Civil War problem of democracy differs drastically from the post-Civil War horizon. On the eve of the Civil War, Whitman seems somewhat flummoxed. The democratic promise that Leaves of Grass elaborates as a vista of future possibility for this “great nation” has collapsed into a scene of profound failure. This amounts to a huge crisis for Whitman, both as citizen and as poet. He needs the fallen Civil War soldier to serve as a redemptive figure. Whereas the comrade represented the agent of a virile democracy, the soldier becomes a sacrificial figure for democracy’s redemption. It’s on this dead soldier’s body that the obscure promise of post-war democracy hangs. But other equally important intertexts also shape my book’s concerns, including George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” and Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites (Genet’s baroque attempt to mourn the loss of his lover, a resistance fighter, without contributing to post-war nation building). As for Oppen, I take seriously the first lines of “Of Being Numerous”: “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves’.” Whitman factors prominently into Oppen’s poem, too, but the broader problem that interests me, and this gets back to your questions concerning porn, is what happens when the things I need to see in order to know myself are bodies—fallen bodies in zones of militarized catastrophe halfway across the world, dead bodies from a conflict I can’t witness but for which I bear some intense responsibility? Here perhaps I can unpack the pornography of that relation. Of course these dead bodies never become available to sensory perception. Our government has, until recently, forbidden photographs of these corpses. Even the language of the autopsy report remains taboo. Whatever representation might exist to denote those bodies gets banished from the public sphere, removed from circulation, as a matter of state suppression. A blackout occurs at every level of representation. Something at the very core of militarized common sense—a dead soldier—can’t be assimilated except through forms of disembodied public mourning, which assist the reproduction of our militarization. Music for Porn tries to probe such contradictions by insinuating inassimilable bodies and pleasures into orders of invisibility and surveillance, even while transforming the sanctioned affects that typically attend those bodies (like sorrow and grief) into affects the system can’t legitimately avow (like longing and arousal). So if we think of porn as a self-policing regime of representation, positing boundaries between the visible and the invisible, the licit and the illicit, then we move a bit closer to how I’ve attempted to activate porn in this book. Its final section, “Obscene Intimacies,” for example, draws on the unavailable language of the soldier’s autopsy report. I appropriate material from the relatively few citations of these reports that have found their way into media, yet the actual documents remain inaccessible and withdrawn from circulation. I don’t seek to liberate myself from the shadow of wartime carnage by illuminating it, but rather to situate my body’s affective life within that shadow.

AF: Could we then close with you placing, amid the broadest affective context, Music for Porn’s insistent liberatory/nonliberatory examination (again through the figure of the solider) of a conflicted yet conflated “Longing, shame, fear, tenderness, rage, sorrow”?

RH: Rather than lament that no liberatory politics seem possible, this book wants to make perceptible those structures that actively constrain utopian possibilities. Here I hope to have stayed faithful to a type of utopian negativity. For example, when you rehearse my list of affective responses (rage, tenderness, longing, shame, sorrow) my mind again returns to “Drum-Taps,” to how Whitman arouses and stimulates all these same affects—homoerotic affects in which a whole contemporary history of queer liberation remains invested. He saturates those poems with affect, which the poems simultaneously lubricate and bind. As a result, the poems become incredibly manipulative as they mobilize a homoerotic network of stimulating (erotic) and constraining (ideological) impulses. Now, if Whitman’s poems arouse all this affective material prosodically, while making it function in the interest of an ideological vision that, despite its “democratic vista,” is nonetheless statist, expansionist, militarized, then what might it sound like at the level of song to unbind those affects, to make them useful again by making them useless for the state? Amid my attempts to hear that sound I encounter the depths of its unsoundability. The obsessive return to the soldier figure foregrounds a relentless desire to feel what I can’t feel, the feeling of unbound affect. Or less abstractly, it’s like I’ve beaten my body against the obstacle to whatever affective transformation I long for. And this obstacle—the soldier—is also the limit of my potential for embodied relation under current conditions, in other words, the limit of friendship. How far does Music for Porn’s language need to go in order to sense that limit? What place does fantasy hold in our militarized world? What might it mean to undo the terms of such fantasies? My book can’t resolve these questions, but perhaps it allows us to feel the emotional architecture that haunts them.


Rob Halpern is the author of several books of poetry including Rumored Place (Krupskaya 2006), Disaster Suites (Palm Press 2009), and most recently, Music for Porn (Nightboat Books 2012). Halpern’s critical essays appear in Journal of Narrative Theory, Modernist Cultures, ON: Contemporary Practice and The Claudius App. His writing on Georges Perec, including translations of Perec’s early essays on aesthetics and politics, can be found in Review of Contemporary Fiction and Chicago Review. A founding participant in the Nonsite Collective, he lives in San Francisco and Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he teaches at Eastern Michigan University.

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