The following exchange is on Andrew Levy’s Nothing Is In Here (EOAGH, 2011).
Thomas Fink: Among the various chunks of texts lifted from sources in Nothing Is In Here is House Resolution 847, aiming to recognize “the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world” and to support “Christians in the United States and worldwide” (65), but including a section featuring very orthodox language about the behavior of believers that does not appear in the Congressional document online. Another fascinating passage is from a New York Times Business section article: “Some analysts are predicting that just as the Japanese popularized kanban (just in time) and kaizen (continuous improvement), Indians could export a kind of ‘Gandhian engineering,’ combining irreverence for conventional ways of thinking with a frugality born of scarcity” (68). Could you speak to the similarities and differences in what you’re doing with the collaging of found material and what various Language poets, Flarfists, and proponents of conceptual poetry have done?
Andrew Levy: Thomas, I’ve needed time to think on your question, and I admit to having felt a bit stumped by it. I hadn’t thought about what Language poets, Flarfists or conceptual poets / plagiarists had done or were doing when composing and assembling the materials in Nothing Is In Here. At first, the phrasing of your question made me feel that my sense of chronology was out of sync with what you were interested in. Maybe it’s the weight of the “have done” which ends your question; as if to suggest that the three coteries mentioned preceded or somehow had first tilled the ground for working with found materials in the way that I do. But then that may not be what you have in mind at all.
TF: No, the ground was tilled before then by Modernists, right? They are just contemporary points of reference, even if the grouping “Language poetry” makes less sense in the last ten or fifteen years than it once did.
AL: That said, you have got me to thinking. My sense of conceptual poetry is that the strategy or technique of appropriation is made to be the significant content, making the work of collage an act of irony. My interest is not about privileging a poetics of appropriation—a word I’m uncomfortable with, thinking that’s something corporations excel at, as in appropriating publicly shared resources for private gain—but to bring attention to the content of what is said in the quoted material. From what I’ve read of conceptualist poetry and its theorization, it seems to promote a sort of innovation as commodity ethos motivated by a kind of academic taste-making that is supported through reason/critique. As a writer friend mentioned in an email, speaking on the recent Yankelevich & Perloff “open letter” exchange at the Los Angeles Review of Books, it is “a sort of return to the poetry of reason from the enlightenment.” I’d say that “decontextualization” or “displacement” of “found” material is an instrument in my box of improvisatory writing techniques; the writing is not conceived as a showcase for technical or formal devices. I’m interested in exploring duration and distance–rhythmic variations in subjectivity and time–and giving the mic to dissident voices. Regarding Nothing Is In Here, a difference between it and most but not all Language poetry and conceptual poetry, for example, is that it’s a work of fiction, a novella. I have the desire to tell stories– Nothing is a parable that’s set in today’s America.
TF: Could you give examples of what you mean by “duration and distance—rhythmic variations in subjectivity and time”?
AL: Thomas, do you mean the above question not as a lead in to what I’d written earlier in response to your first question but as a request for a more specific reflection on the idea of “duration”?
AL: I write to get things out of my mind so there’s room for the things other people have written, or for the images others have made. As writers we record things and whether in print or electronically we remember them. The mediums of memory have a role in duration, in the sense of how much time and what degree of attention we bring to bear on something. You’ve noticed that there are certain images, motifs, lines and phrases that recur throughout Nothing Is In Here, sometimes exactly as they appeared pages earlier and at other times with variations made to them. I would like to distribute the form of the work across the entire duration of the book so that form and content are integral to one another, in the reader’s experience and as they appear to be in mine. Rhythmic variations in subjectivity and time–listening to Miles Davis’s A Silent Way, On the Corner, Bitches Brew, for example. Also, the duration of a thought, of a memory, a plan of action, of an intention. A movement, a conversation, the taste of something, a smell, sex. Reading a poem, writing something. Being with someone’s birth, being with someone as they die. There is nothing in our hands, which is why its potential is so immensely useful.
When does it start to matter? There’s the scene in the book that finds the narrator visiting his father’s graveside, standing there, reflecting. How long does that visit endure? If certain experiences assert themselves in one’s memory, perhaps that is because they reside beside something golden, another object of memory, an idea or perception that casts a very strong light. I suppose my interest lies in the tension between presence, what we can call to mind, and absence, those things we cannot willingly call into being. I’ve thought to explore that tension by creating subjects that function as lines of flight toward both what’s present and what cannot be named, that create the line that moves toward something rather than following it. I’ve dreamed of making something, earlier as a drummer and today as a poet, that moves forward in a changing, variable curve, never ending–until it ends. What happened 15 pages ago (in the book) could be something else, looked at in a different way at another time.
My family lives in a 33rd floor two-bedroom apartment in Tribeca; our tenant association has been in a lawsuit against the developer/owner for seven years following the removal of the IPN complex from Mitchell-Lama affordable housing. Over the past twelve years, I’ve seen the increasing appropriation of real estate and skyline by unfettered wealth and political power. I’m concerned about the social and cultural consequences that such large scale economic and social inequity, and environmental degradation, delivers to the public against its consent. I’ve seen park space eaten by “luxury” developments then displaced to the rooftops of private ownership; small patches of nature become the play-space of the well-to-do—damn the asphalt, failing infrastructure, and the people left below. These are forms of appropriation which celebrate appropriation for the sake of appropriation, consumption for the sake of consumption, and ownership for the sake of ownership. It’s the politics of winner take all.
The conceptualist appropriation of text would seem to take texts not as representations of human experience and thought but as actual coat hangers upon which one may hang minor emendations and claim that something new has (not been) created in the world. It’s analogous perhaps to the idea of primary and secondary texts. Conceptual writing seems tertiary in the way it might transcend an aesthetic and historical particularity. I’m not interested in transcendence. I think we live in darkness in a dark time, and that many people, artists and poets too, share a desperate wish to reestablish a center within which they can safely position themselves. I get that, that’s understandable. But I think that at the center of any bureaucracy—artistic, educational, financial, governmental, military, scientific, and theological—there is nothing. Centers collapse. If you’re inside them when they do, you’ll be crushed. Institutional safety nets and manifestos propagate attempts to control, command, and consecrate. I find forms of governance antithetical to what drives me to return to poetry for what a friend has called “something beyond meaning—above or below articulation.” Otherwise, we arrive with an empty speech. I’m seeking, as is my friend, “models that are not clearly polemical or argumentative.”
TF: If the models aren’t “polemical,” are they dialogic? Bakhtin often characterizes heteroglossia as a clash of those with differing ideological positions. Are there also possibilities for adversaries, listening carefully to one another, acknowledging what can be valid in the analyses of their “opponents” and then locating the degree, however small, where they can agree enough to modify an aspect of existing social relations?
AL: Yes, I hope there are more and more such possibilities for listening. Bakhtin, I’m sure, would be useful in that regard, but I’ve not read enough of his work to speak with any authority about it. My model for dialogue that could modify existing social relations in healthy ways would be David Bohm, who instructs us to begin the dialogue without any leader and without any agenda.
So, Nothing as parable of our contemporary world of work, of individuals living in a communications media saturated environment. The content of the mediums such media communicate is the reader of the book, that is, the message he or she makes of the stories. The heteronymic is something that I employ though in a mode apart from Pessoa and different from that, as far as I can tell, of my contemporaries.
TF: “In a communications media saturated environment,” it can be hard to listen carefully. But also those competing for discursive space can demand attention, even stridently, rather than dialogue: “Nothing is there. This nothing appears most bold. I keep coming back for more of it distracted by the lives of everyone around me. You’re not listening to me. Is it that I want something that I can’t have?” (1). Then, “you’re not listening” is repeated twice more in that first long paragraph, and in the second paragraph, the motif is placed into a quotation without quotation marks: “It’s too much, you’re not listening to my unhappiness, he said.” So it’s not that you, Andrew, are hectoring the reader, but you are thematizing such hectoring. And 43 pages later, there’s a sequence of paragraphs where the speaker states: “There is no longer the slightest doubt that you have read Nothing Is in Here” (45), and then he speaks of the beginning intention of the book as “talking to [himself]” and not opening his “heart to another person.” Several brief paragraphs later, the speaker makes it clear that he has not read and will not read the addressee’s work, as though it would be a favor to that person: “No matter what you do, I want you to know that I am definitely not reading your work. You ought to realize that I’m very old-fashioned, and I wouldn’t dream of infringing on anyone’s privacy” (46). There are many possible unstable ironies here that may gesture toward the “nothing is in here” of missed opportunity for dialogue because of rationalization. I’d like to hear something about your take on these kinds of passages in the book.
AL: What skill I have as a listener comes from my years as a musician. Being a good musician, particularly in improvisatory music, is all about hearing the people you’re playing with. You can become distracted, but it is a form of controlled risk or creative distraction that allows the dissonances to create new directions in the improvisation. The thematizing you’ve described via “you’re not listening” suggests a level of meta-discourse on fiction and reality you feel the work uses to “hector” the reader. But who is the reader you’re referring to? I read those passages as yes, directed to an imagined reader of my book, but also to the ghosts, so to speak, of other characters who occasionally visit in the evolving narrative.
I like what you say about the writing’s “many possible unstable ironies” regarding missed opportunities for dialogue. I’m reminded again of Bohm’s brilliant On Dialogue. In the chapter “The Observer and the Observed,” he talks about “listening” as “gathering with the ear,” and that the observer is what gathers. But he also carefully thinks about the assumptions in thought, and that “the assumptions are functioning as a kind of observer.” When we observe, we forget that. And what we observe, what we see or hear, is often wrong “because the assumptions are looking.” He examines the implications of such an observer in some detail before continuing in the next chapter, “Suspension, the Body, and Proprioception,” to examine the idea that “if there is listening through a ‘listener,’ then we are not listening.” To go deeply into observation, which is what I think the best musician, for example, is capable of doing, is to “listen to yourself, or other people, without a ‘listener.’”
TF: Could you elaborate on your distinctive use of the “heteronymic”?
AL: I mean heteronym in the sense of letting characters, characterizations and subjects grow out of the materials that fit with the writing, out of the function they need to serve, without imposing a design; rather, letting the design of the book create itself. Heteronyms are things, things themselves begin to proceed from generals to particulars–they begin to build of themselves, to develop, emerge, and take inevitable form, forcing nothing. To find a form that in a way is a formless form of life.
I enjoy “variety,” heterogeneity and the non-heterogeneous, and pleasure; I am interested in working, and labor and class in my work. I’m trying to shine a light on nothingness. “‘Nothing’ is the force / That renovates the World”–Emily Dickinson. I’m not in thrall of microprocessors (maybe a little) or technique, and I resist the idea of the human subject becoming a marginal figure. As noted in an interesting Spiegel Online article, “Competing Visions of a Computer-Controlled Future,” “Digitization isn’t just changing work; it is also profoundly altering the way people think, act and live in their daily lives.” Digitalization accomplishes that profound change by “eliminating society’s inefficiencies,” which includes, apparently, the employed.
I think that the writing in Nothing addresses both the affect of textual manipulations and real world situations of living and dying people. It’s a celebration of inefficiencies, and remains open to varying inputs and influences, changing across the duration of the book. The form of the work, its content and effects fluctuate–the conceptualist and Flarf poetry I’m familiar with maintains by and large a traditional consistency or constancy of form from beginning to end, not unlike most lyric poetry.
I’m fascinated by stories of transformation, in the metamorphosis of bodies, souls, circumstances and situations. I love the way they are told. Particularly the ones into which my substance does not penetrate but slips in, out, and around. I’ve loved Poe, Kafka, O’Connor, Dos Passos, Chandler, Bowles, Geisel, Tanizaki, Lispector, Davis, and Markson. Stories in Nothing Is In Here change themselves.
TF: I’d argue that the concept of “efficiency” is bastardized by corporate culture, and I’d like to stick up for the word. For the one or two U.S. car companies that have conducted the wonderful experiment of making the major shareholders the autoworkers themselves, layoffs as a cost cutting measure were perhaps the ultimate inefficiency. Efficiency would mean creating a work environment in which non-alienated labor, long careers (reducing the need to train so many new workers), reduction of the environmental footprint, etc. were the highest priorities. All of these things take planning and continual adjustment to cut out inefficiencies caused by distraction and frissons of greedy or selfish thinking. Even if the UN Millennial Fund is imperfect, their goals are much more efficient than those of corporate mega-polluters, who, if they continually get their way, will ensure that they have no market for their products, since the biosphere will become too toxic for human survival. So if you call your book “a celebration of inefficiencies,” I might be so bold as to claim that you are celebrating the disruption of problematic pseudo-efficiencies, and such a disruption permits openness “to varying inputs and influences” that could lead to salubrious efficiencies.
AL: I feel at home with everything you say.
Nothing Is In Here, it means nothing is in here; life is outside the pages of the book. The novella is a work of art, there’s nothing behind it, it’s mimesis as a delayering, a transitive poetry that assembles and reassembles material situations. It’s situationist. To quote A.L. Nielsen in his wonderful book of poetry VEXT (1998), “The map shows everywhere / A collage of geographies / Everywhere it touches the world / Bits of colored paper.” Or perhaps as Kevin Killian says in his blurb for my book, “the young screens that carry the news.” Regarding your two examples of lifted “chunks of text” in Nothing, House Resolution 847, aiming to recognize “the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world,” and the passage from a New York Times Business section article… I think the definition of the noun transitionin music and physics, from the World English Dictionary, is of interest:
- 1. change or passage from one state or stage to another
- 2. the period of time during which something changes from one state or stage to another
- 3. music
- a. a movement from one key to another; modulation
- b. a linking passage between two divisions in a composition; bridge
- 4. physics
- a. any change that results in a change of physical properties of a substance or system, such as a change of phase or molecular structure
- b. a change in the configuration of an atomic nucleus, involving either a change in energy level resulting from the emission of a gamma-ray photon or a transformation to another element or isotope
Here’s an intellectual explication of the collage of texts:
Conceptually, both chunks of text produce a kind of mental astigmatism; meanings temporarily blur, lose definition, appear distorted, and are resolvable only with some sort of conceptual retraining or adjustment. They require us to do conceptually, it seems, what lenses would do optically: refocus, reimage, reintegrate. But just as the lenses may enable us to see the world, they also transform the world we see. And so too with these chunks of text. To correct the astigmatism or resolve the various conceptual distortions they present initially requires a reassembling of images and familiar categories; however, the ordered, coherent world we then “retrieve” is one we are also, through this process of reassembling, engaged in constructing. The materials do not simply present a world that we passively perceive and assimilate, they also and significantly engage us in the making of one.
I’ve slightly amended the above paragraph from an essay in Technoculture, edited by Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (1991). The essay is “Containing Women: Reproductive Discourse in the 1980s,” by Valerie Hartouni. Her piece is a close reading of “newspaper headlines”; it does not include the phrase “chunks of text.” I’m attracted to the idea of “Gandhian engineering,” combining irreverence for conventional ways of thinking with a frugality born of scarcity. In a way I think Nothing Is In Here is a work of Gandhian engineering. Regarding House Resolution 847, the passage/paragraph that immediately precedes it reflects on “the time it takes to read in a culture ensconced in language diets of implemental efficiency”–a concept of productivity the writing in the book hopefully subverts–and the guilt our popular culture imposes on the heretical act of making “something that takes time to read.” I think it’s of great interest to read the kind of text our House of Representatives is spending its time on!
TF: I agree that HR Resolution 847 is definitely worth reading. Tell me more about the “scarcity” that Nothing Is In Here adapts to; I’m not sure if you’re referring to a material scarcity of resources (as in the crisis regarding water rights and the kinds of hoarding appropriation to which you referred earlier) or something related to language and aesthetic culture, or both. Also, I want to hear more about how you believe the text is performing “Gandhian engineering”?
AL: Scarcity is created by conflicting interests…The adaptation I’d formulate this way–imaginative writing, “an island of difference,” is threatened by a “rising sea of technologically facilitated sameness.” Maybe adapts to isn’t right. It’s more that the writing I’m interested in hears and speaks its own truth. I think the following excerpt, from a rigorously thoughtful op-ed by Philip Green titled “Farewell to Democracy,” speaks on a form of the scarcity Nothing Is In Here addresses, from the standpoint of somebody else, several some bodies:
…it doesn’t cost anything (anything immediately evident, that is) to deprive people of rights, to refuse to govern, to lower taxes so much that nothing different can happen. Along with the psychic income (and access to necessary raw materials) of empire and war, that is what plutocracy promises authoritarian populists: a cheap obedience to their self-assertive and disdainful rage, of whom the already downtrodden are the most immediate target. And since the immediate material costs of contemporary warfare are borne only by a volunteer armed force and mercenary private contractors, widespread disillusion about particular conflicts–even among some on the Right–has not yet translated into a general repudiation of imperial nationalism and a significant reordering of the place of “defense” in budgetary priorities.
My answer to your question on scarcity is that the work refers to both material deprivation and aesthetic culture’s one-joke Beckettian take on the transgressive in our information-centric world.
Gandhian engineering. The marble walls and floors of Goldman Sachs look like they’re about to dissolve into dust. I owe my association to Gandhi to my friend Vijay, in whose memory Nothing Is In Here is dedicated. He was himself an engineer, a metallurgist, in addition to being a poet. Vijay was fond of quoting Gandhi. The central concept of Gandhi’s philosophy of life, as I understand it, is that one cannot disentangle the form of the life one lives from what one does–whether an engineer, poet, and or a political philosopher activist. I can’t disentangle the form of life I live from the way I write, by shaping constellations, and I resist making a center–from this perspective, the human form of life seems to be both one and many (perhaps for this reason hayim, the word for life in Hebrew, is both singular and plural). A way of life is always shared (apology for the cliché), and that means that forms of life (and texts) are not evenly spread out but tend to create clusters of intense interactions–along with dispersed offshoots which fail to coalesce into new lines of thought (life). A Gandhian practice of engineering is one that partakes in a form but never possesses it the way one does a personal identity, or a simple private property. I think of the form in Nothing Is In Here as an ecopolis that is continually generating itself, where economic, political and poetic forces operate as a single field of tensions, completely interdependent on one another. In an ecopolis one may take one’s own ideas in unforeseen directions, to run up against their limits. At which time readers can abandon the text and proceed on their own. All we’ve got are trail marks; the rest is an open field.
Andrew Levy is the author of Don’t Forget to Breathe (Chax Press), Nothing Is In Here (EOAGH Books), Cracking Up (Truck Books), The Big Melt (Factory School), Ashoka (Zasterle Books), Democracy Assemblages (Innerer Klang), Values Chauffeur You (O Books), and seven other titles of poetry and prose. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous American and international magazines as well as anthologies including Writing from the New Coast, The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets, The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry, and Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. He was co-editor with Roberto Harrison and publisher of the poetry journal Crayon 1997-2008.
Thomas Fink is the author of seven books of poetry. Read more about contributors here.