Brandon Brown with Andy Fitch

Brandon Brown
Brandon Brown

Over the summer, Andy Fitch  interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Brown’s book Flowering Mall (Roof). Recorded June 21st. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: I’ll want to discuss why the Baudelairean emphasis works so well, but could we start more broadly, perhaps with New Narrative? What about past or current New Narrative projects most informs this book? Does Kathy Acker provide an important point of historical reference? Do you consider Flowering Mall to be in conversation with recent poetry/prose, memoir-/research-based, lyric/anti-lyric projects by Rob Halpern, Dana Ward, Thom Donovan?

Brandon Brown: Absolutely. I’ll start with Kathy Acker, who is extremely important for me, especially for the book’s vampire piece. That piece, which I wrote first for this book, came out of a sustained reading through Acker’s writing. I crib some forms of horror and violence and abjection from Acker. But then more broadly: I moved to the Bay Area at 19, in 1998, and have lived here since. And the work of New Narrative writers from this immediate milieu: Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, Camille Roy . . . nobody seems to me more relevant for a sense of politics, for a sense of the social as it intersects with politics, for a sense of experimental care. All of that shapes this book and the Catullus book I wrote just before it. As for Rob and Dana and Thom, besides being close friends, their work and influence and dozens of hours of conversation have meant more than I possibly could say.

AF: I’ve interviewed all three, and you come up in each of their books. But who else should we add as important figures in this exchange?

BB: Judith Goldman’s work is critical to me, as is Julian Brolaski’s, David Brazil’s, Alli Warren’s, Anne Boyer’s, countless others’. A particular social milieu lurks behind the pain and glory of this writing.

AF: Baudelaire has his own specific milieu at a particular point in Parisian history. Did that offer one point of correspondence between your project and his?

BB: Yeah. I won’t want to insist on it, though you’ve suggested an interesting parallel. Baudelaire’s poetry emerges from a milieu of revolution, and his response to that revolution’s failure fascinates me. Not just Baudelaire—the whole 1850s in France and what happened to poets, to visual artists and political figures and activists, deserves endless attention. But Baudelaire seems to offer an initiating point of modernity, as New Narrative does for post-modernity.

AF: Do particular studies of 1850s France appeal to you? T.J. Clark? David Harvey?

BB: Yes and yes. Of course Walter Benjamin. And then from a slightly later period, though harkening back, Kristin Ross’ work on Rimbaud, which returns us to unresolvable strains of utopian hope and capitalist domination.

AF: Could you likewise introduce your broader translation practice? Which languages, which periods or texts or authors receive attention? Do your various projects propel each other? How does Flowering Mall sit beside your other recent translations? Did it offer a break from those projects? Did it extend them?

BB: Flowering Mall contains my third large-scale work of (I’ll say, but won’t want to say it fully) conceptual translations.

AF: Interesting phrase.

BB: I should be careful with the C word, though it’s finally an accurate description of these three books. But the first two projects engaged classics. I’ve studied Greek and Latin for 12 years. And both books (one translates Aeschylus’ play The Persians, the other Catullus’ oeuvre) cover quite different bodies of work and approaches to translation. Still all three record my dissent from the text.

AF: D-I-S-S-E-N-T.

BB: Right, though either spelling could work. Edward Said’s Orientalism cites The Persians in its opening pages as a starting point for the West’s nightmarish perception, cultural appropriation and misappropriation of the East. I was working on this in 2005, at the apex of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Guantanamo Bay, that whole disaster. So to find a Greek describing the Persians as effeminate, luxurious, weakened . . . the play dramatizes Persians learning their friends and family have been killed. That seemed impossible to translate in 2005. So I wanted to enter this impossibility and dwell there. Catullus presented a literary corpus much more beloved and better known. Though again, inside Catullus’ work, I found extremely violent, hateful responses to his social group and erotic relationships. I’d tried to dissent from all that. Anyway, that book tracks a failure to dissent enough. The climax of the book narrates my body-meld with Catullus, which produced all these unfortunate (real) social effects. That provided still another way to stage and maximalize my disgust with Catullus’ forms of disgust. So after writing this Catullus book, the last thing I wanted to take on was another large-scale conceptual translation. Here I probably should mention that Flowering Mall doesn’t deliver a full translation of Fleurs du Mal. It takes a couple poems and elongates them, or in the case of the vampire poems, slows them until they become unrecognizable. Of course Baudelaire gets threaded through the book but more as a nauseating initiation moment for modernity, now viewed from inside its ruins—the contemporary. Flowering Mall tries to analyze everyday life from a Baudelairian perspective, which by definition sounds problematic, fraught. The book’s integral social voice comes from this abject, self-hating and hateful place.

AF: Whenever you translate, does your world pick up the palate of this translated author? Did that phenomenon seem specific to Baudelaire? To return us to New Narrative: I love how Flowering Mall tracks transformational processes taking place within the translator as much as the translated.

BB: Well I’d wanted to respond to the historical convention that erases the translator as a lived body. This reinforces a gigantic lie. All three books emphasize intense focus on the translator’s life, at the level of what I eat or drink or what happened that day in Egypt. These events enter the translation process. Still I hope my world didn’t take on Baudelairean hues. Almost everything I say in this book sounds the opposite of what I’d ever want to say out loud. It feels vile and horrible and of course filled with lies, too. That becomes rather Baudelairean—this glorification of the grotesque both real and imagined, the grotesque of the real and the grotesque of fantasy. I didn’t actually eat five bagels, you know?

AF: Can you here discuss how Flowering Mall came together? Did you start with the overall concept? It doesn’t sound so from what you’ve said. Could you also keep disentangling ways in which you’ve embraced a Baudelairian spirit or sensibility, and ways you’ve departed from?

BB: The book’s seven pieces got written separately, one at a time. Each originates from a different text. The vampire section borrows from Baudelaire’s “Le Vampire,” though it ultimately takes more from Nick Pittsinger’s slowing down of Justin Bieber’s work, from vampire cinema and TV. “Correspondences” obviously responds to Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” then repeats it, a total of 15 times. “Fusees 22” comes from a late, dark, end-of-life prose piece which borders on all kinds of hysterical fantasy and frightening racist motifs. I imagine my overall project more as an encounter over a couple years reading Baudelaire, or reading about Baudelaire, thinking the spirit of Fleurs du Mal. But Fleurs du Mal remains only one of many intertexts. In fact, the “Future Perfect” and “Pig Cupid” parts present less a direct engagement with Baudelaire than with texts about futurity. To me that seemed the critical question for 2011. But then when I’d return to Baudelaire, I’d find all this stuff about the future. So he stays contemporary, and so this peculiar act of translating through a quotidian life brought motifs from Baudelaire’s own work into relief.

AF: I’m trying to grasp the relationship, if you think one exists, between futurity and translation. Does the curatorial nature of translation imply that the translator identifies some present void to be filled? Do translation’s curatorial aspects foreground this basic element of any poetic practice—however unselfconscious we wish to remain regarding the intentionality of what we write, how we write, where we desire to place this work?

BB: Well, along those lines, I’ve always appreciated Benjamin’s point (from “The Task of the Translator”) that translation constitutes the afterlife of a text. This concept emerges in the vampire piece, which thematizes afterlife, an afterlife that feels kind of gaudy and horrible and endless. I sense we could say the same about our incessant reiteration of certain translations. So again, translation that prompts a powerful denial of the embodied text does not interest me. In some ways Zukofsy’s Catullus offers a good counterexample by how it self-consciously plays around with 1960s decadence. Then for futurity, although it remains hard to articulate what I want to say, I love Frederick Jameson’s description of futurity as a trace from the other end of time. That trace, in a Deconstructivist sense, lingers from the past. This relates to translation. Because translation’s first step of course involves reading. But as you read, you also live, and exist as a political subject, a social subject, which might seem the most banal story about reading, yet to me something remains mysterious and compelling about reading and life, like when you learn a new word then spot it 15 times that week. In a way, I want to take this lovely banal example from everyone’s experience and sublimate that or maximalize it to include: I stay home reading Baudelaire all day then head to the bar . . . how have I made my night different? How has the text inflected my experience? How does the syntax of social life get conditioned by my attentions? Flowering Mall raises such questions as much as possible.

AF: Your “Correspondences” embrace the metaphor of cannibalism in relation to Benjamin. Than an inverse analogy throughout the book emphasizes constraint, almost as in constraint-based writing: not you ingesting/regurgitating Baudelaire, but you exerting yourself to produce fantastic formulations within a Baudelairian vein. So maybe Baudelaire ingesting you. Or you’ll introduce the trope of the piñata, which again raises questions of inside and outside, of who’s the consumer and who’s consumed. And in case it becomes relevant, I had these thoughts while encountering some of my favorite lines: “In the rich, mealy, Burgundian / shadow of an ass that has never known paper, / look at me now.” And I think I remember the phrase “whiff of an ass” from an earlier version. I’ll try to outline a question. Can you sketch some ways in which cannibalism gets thematized here, in terms of appropriation, translation, capital, work, sex, consumerism, vampirism, “art” and “life?” But can you also situate the translating/poetic subject of this book (the “I”) both as cannibalizer and cannibalized?

BB: How interesting. I have no recollection of a piñata.

AF: I could try a word search.

BB: I don’t doubt you.

AF: “Recapitulated piñata interior.”

BB: Sure, that seems to fit. It reminds me of a tremendous spectacle in Oakland around May Day, when people brought out what they’d called a “pigyata” full of fake money, then battered this into shreds surrounded by a ring of crazy cops.

AF: “Pigs” factor prominently into the book.

BB: The recapitualted interior may relate to cannibalism. Cannibalism became especially important because I’d wanted to foreground the body of the translator, which seems sort of porous at two ends, alimentary in a way.

AF: Did you want to develop that?

BB: The translator ingests, cannibalizes the material then recapitulates it like shit. Still translation conventions remove precisely all arbiters of the body and intestines and the whiff of the ass. So I guess, in some simple sense I try to leave all that in and more. I definitely maximize and exaggerate some hyperbolic drive to consumption. This starts with the vampire figure for whom consumption becomes the totalizing urge of . . . Marx develops this through his great image in Capital, which provides an epigraph for my piece: “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” You know someone (i.e., a book) told me that Capital, in translation, contains the first English reference to the real-life Count Dracula.

AF: It demystifies Dracula as some legendary, ahistorical monster.

BB: Right, with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Capital sort of written in the same London building. Anyway: those exaggerated urges and needs for consumption of course get intensified going to the mall. Such tropes get keyed throughout the text, just as they get keyed through our whole lives.

AF: Still in “Pig Cupid” you compare yourself to baloney. Or the “I” compares itself to the “erased birthplace” of baloney. Here I thought of Roland Barthes describing his prose as an act of corrected banality. Traces of corrected banality seem to recur throughout this book. Post-provincial identity, queer identity, the dandy comes up—also the drunk, the flâneur, the vampire, the translator. Overall, de Certeau’s concept of la perruque keeps getting echoed, as though you sat in an office writing this book.

BB: That’s exactly where I wrote it, donning la perruque, wearing the wig, which depicts the translator’s constant condition.

AF: Like the endless drag of Baudelaire’s whole process.

BB: Exactly. Baudelaire glorifies this more than anything. “The Painter of Modern Life” celebrates cosmetics. What’s most natural and authentic strikes Baudelaire as most evil, whereas the most artificial, the most costumed, most dissimulated—whatever joy he finds in life lies there. This conflux of the eternal and the transitory provides his definition of modernity. But this also hints at broader historical discussions about contemporaneity, right? If we adopt a Nietzschian and Agambenian sense of the contemporary as the untimely, then the contemporary always remains inarticulate, perched beyond the boundaries of discursivity. And amid our own particular contemporary, with technology we use, with how we’ve incorporated social networking as a literal prosthesis, we truly have no idea what’s happened to our bodies and our social lives. We have no idea what kind of havoc we’re wreaking—in the most glorious way. I don’t mean that pejoratively. I want to think through this present’s real unknowability, instead of avoiding or skirting around it. So Facebook’s social logic seemed integral to the book.

AF: Severed heads kept arising amid this undisclosed contemporaneity.

BB: Yes. Although I think more often this book tries to represent wild vacillations of affect implicated in that encounter.

AF: Well when you mention the untimely, and in relation to your book, I’ll think of punk—specifically how punk relates to Midwestern identity. Punk still can seem legitimate there, perhaps since the Midwest provides for untimely experience.

BB: Punk could not be born in the Midwest. Though I agree that now it probably lives more vividly there than anywhere.

AF: And just to explain: I’m from Milwaukee. But it interests me that several other books I’ve read for this project also consider Malcolm McLaren or Joe Strummer. I can’t remember if they both died.

BB: They did.

AF: Still does punk provide a timely poetic topic because of parallel correspondences and/or tensions between artistic production and community engagement? Because of anxiety about how this community get defined in fluid or static relation to other communities, particularly in an Occupy-inflected historical era? Anything about punk and the politics of this moment, specifically in relation to poetry?

BB: This whole talk could address that question, but I’ll constrain myself to a few observations. One is personal. I’ll often forget this about myself, but I moved to the Bay Area as a 19 year-old punk rocker much more than a poet. I came to do a zine and go to shows, not to fall in with swarthy poets. Have you seen Drew Barrymore’s film Whip It?

AF: I don’t think so.

BB: It presents this girl who lives outside Austin and starts taking the bus into the city to play roller derby. I cried my eyes out watching because it portrayed exactly the misery of rural, provincial, white life—then getting to go to the city. I attended high school in Kansas City and stayed after classes and went to shows. I soaked up the enormous liberation of that community. Also from punk comes this tried and true message: if you want to have a show, you just have it. If you want to write a magazine, you write it. Again, I couldn’t feel more grateful for having encountered that mode of autonomy and generosity, which informs everything about my life as a poet. And I also should say something without getting too essentialist about the contemporary Bay Area. It does seem, as I travel a bit and see other poetry worlds, pretty unique. That’s not necessarily valorizing. It’s not all good. An important Bay Area magazine over the past three years has been a bi-weekly, photocopied zine called Try! You could ask a lot of poets here, where do you read your friends’ work? Where do you want to publish your poems? And they would say this magazine. Or the best readings really happen in people’s living rooms. So again, that sort of punk training enabled me to feel at ease with being 22 and introducing myself to my heroes in art—feeling I could do that because, in fact, I’d been doing that since I was 14 and had found such generosity and grace.

AF: Does the assumption hold that if they deserve the punk heroism you’ve granted them, they should want to talk to you as much as you want to talk to them?

BB: Well, you often get heartbroken by divas. That’s just being a bit snarky. But poetry offers a pleasant contrast to the visual-art world let’s say, with its rigid and robust hierarchies—all tied to the object as a valuable commodity. Can I say one more thing about punk?

AF: Please do.

BB: For this book’s final three sections, those focused on futurity, punk became central, partly because of that late-70s historical moment, which is when I was born, and which we now see as the start of this radical Global West shift to the right, with Thatcher and Reagan. Of course The Ramones and Sex Pistols get caught up in that.

AF: “No future.”

BB: Precisely. And finally I should say, in relation to Baudelaire: traditionally people describe Baudelaire as a “soft” thinker. His work remains full of paradox. He’ll say something then take it back ten lines later. But we also could call this process a dialectics, right? And for me, that’s what hearing “God Save the Queen” feels like. This upset young person yells “No future”—but with such intense glee you immediately know, just by how your body responds, that that’s not the full story.

AF: More generally, in terms of convoluted affect, I do hear more and more from people collecting, developing, writing about mistranslation. We didn’t fully cover this. Do you want to suggest some poetic-critical-punk context from which that impulse comes?

BB: What do you mean by “mistranslation?”

AF: I’m thinking of projects like Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl and a broader continuum of retrospective poetics on which your book could fit—especially in terms of modernist reference, from John Beer’s The Waste Land to the appropriative rewritings in Vanessa Place’s new Boycott series, then back to Acker in some ways.

BB: I paused on “mistranslation” because (and this is one of the first translation problems that got me hooked) translation’s history gets dominated by two tropes: fealty and treason. This always fascinated me. Why adopt such an accusatory metaphor for something that seems pretty benign? And like you, I would emphasize the continuum. Strict rewriting seems as mimetic as one could get. My own work, especially this book, strays far from that. Only a little Baudelaire gets in.

AF: Am I right that Baudelaire often appears at the center of this treason/fidelity discourse?

BB: Well the trope has stayed in consistent use since ancient Rome.

AF: But aren’t there very loose Robert Lowell translations, versus Roy Campbell, then Philip Larkin?

BB: You’ve got me on that. Still returning to Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator”: people forget that this essay serves as preface to Benjamin’s own translations of Baudelaire. He didn’t do these comprehensively, and they don’t get remembered that much in the German, but for this Baudelairian project to provide the centerpiece of modernist translation theory becomes a fun trivia fact.

AF: Last question. Because it’s one of my favorite endings to a book in many years, I’m just going to read your lines: “A laundry list of things in this book that beg me to cross them out. With glitter lipstick on, bragging at a mirror. But I’m going to leave all this error in the book. Smeared all over its pages, wet with Satanic fizzy water. All the monsters and lies and horny swans with booger-capped talons. Because I want to set an exact date to my sadness anger.” Anything you want to say about that last sentence?

BB: I’ll say two things. First, this actually replicates the historical text of Fusées 22, in Baudelaire’s manuscripts, which gets written precisely as such.

AF: With the cross-out?

BB: “Tristesse,” or whatever, crossed out with “colère” after it. But I also think this book affirms two operative extremes of emotional experience. Two affects get bound with how futurity administers our desires or manages our desires. This optimistic attempt to consider futurity, if only to replicate one’s sense of despair and outrage at present conditions . . . my own bodily experience offers a pretty wild vacillation between those affective extremes. And Flowering Mall amplifies or even lies about how extreme they are. Which is why it contains a lot of errors, what makes it so disgusting, what makes me sick. To think of this book’s contents horrifies me. But I also felt a countervailing urge to leave that all in.


Brandon Brown is the author of The Persians By Aeschylus, The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, and Flowering Mall. Recent work has appeared in The Berkeley Poetry Review, Art Practical and on the Harriet blog. He publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG! and lives in Oakland.

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