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 Kim Stefans’ book Viva Miscegenation (Make Now). Recorded June 25th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: For readers most familiar with Brian Kim Stefans the practitioner of digital poetics, could you outline your early development as a poet—specifically in relation to this manuscript’s playful, art-savvy, personal-without-the-person aesthetics reminiscent of the New York School? Reading Viva Miscegenation I thought I recalled the jocular tones of some John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett maybe; the sentence-based propositions of Lewis Warsh; the serial constructs of, in different ways, Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan; and then the subsequent, reconstructed lyricism of Eileen Myles, John Yau, David Trinidad.
Brian Kim Stefans: I’ve certainly read most of those poets. The younger poets you mentioned, such as John Yau or Eileen Myles, have interested me, yet none of them captivated me the way Ashbery and O’Hara did. Those two, like Ezra Pound among the modernists, presented this fantastic way to learn about an era’s artists. Reading Ashbery’s art criticism, you discover a bunch of authors and painters and cracked idealists you might not otherwise have come across. But I first began writing poetry very much under the sway of Pound and Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. Prior to coming to New York I’d read anybody—both Robert Creeley and Robert Lowell, for instance. Language poetics didn’t stand out until I’d moved to New York. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein baffled me at first, but soon I was drawing quite a lot of ideas and inspiration from their work. When poets first got to know me that’s the kind of writing I seemed to do. Nobody sensed how much I borrowed from Lowell or Philip Larkin or John Berryman. Viva Miscegenation does have one poem that I consider “after” Elizabeth Bishop. I try to remain open to all writers I’ve engaged with some seriousness in the past (Hopkins is another example). And now that I’ve moved away from New York, I’ve started to see my poems as texts that circulate in a broader culture with no idea who I am or what my literary circles are. Though part of why I took to Language poets was they appeared to follow through on what most interested Pound—innovation. Pound categorizes (I can’t remember exactly) three or four classes of poets. After innovators come those that exploit the innovations, say Robert Browning.
AF: The consolidators or something.
BKS: The worst stage, the last, consists of the dilutors—I certainly didn’t want to become one of those! Of all the poets I came across in New York, certain Language poets seemed most invested in innovation. Of course you could argue that they exploit a broad range of projects picked up from modernists. But much of what they did no one had tried in English-language modernism. So at least from an American viewpoint, we can call them innovators. And then for me, in the ‘90s, I worked hard to absorb and perhaps exceed what felt like the forefront of poetry. That led into my digital stuff, by which people know me best (at least in other countries and the academy). I see Viva Miscegenation as my return to engaging with the lyric, with the. . . I don’t want to say more conventional poetry, but I wanted to write poems that stand on their own, that can circulate in the culture the way a good pop song might. “Accessible” doesn’t seem the right word, since even what you and I consider a terribly accessible poem still would baffle most people. But I do want these poems to present many points of access—similar to a Radiohead song that we could characterize as “experimental,” yet that somehow offers everything you need to know. You don’t need any special awareness of Erik Satie or Ligeti or the dozens of people I think Radiohead draws from. That’s how I want the poems to feel.
AF: While we discuss your formative years, could you sketch your studies at the CUNY Graduate Center? When was that? Who was there? How did it shape your poetics?
BKS: As an undergrad at Bard, I got acclimated to the idea that an educated life meant to continue discovering new interests and integrating them into your mind. T.S. Eliot wrote that for John Donne an idea or thought was an experience. I still aspire to that. But after several years in New York I sensed myself missing a more intellectual climate. I’d read Milton in high school, though had no real grasp on the history of English poetry. In college I mostly took German and Latin, and then film and acting and other stuff. So I decided to enter a graduate program, but didn’t realize people went to grad school essentially for training to become a professor. I just had no idea that to become an academic means to write a book that appeals exclusively to specialists (with wider appeal considered bad). I’d expected to continue my education in this weird, improvised way. So at the Grad Center I took classes in Old English and Chaucer. I took one Mary Ann Caws class, basically an art and literature course, which I loved because it seemed kind of crazy. Yet most students hated it because it didn’t fit their professional trajectory. I took a great class on Blake and became obsessed with Blake for a short period. But when it came time to do my exams, I just recoiled. I puttered around for a year then quit. Still I liked learning all this stuff nobody could call au courant in the New York literary world. When I went through my Blake period, for instance, I couldn’t talk to friends about Blake.
AF: They didn’t know Blake well enough, or just didn’t care?
BKS: Largely the latter, though some Language poets take pride in not knowing the history of English-language poetry—equating it with oppressive “tradition.” But during this point in my mid-20s, I also had moved back to New Jersey. My life seemed divided between two worlds. Eventually I got into computer programming, so I tried a class on hypertext with this Victorianist, Gerhard. . .
BKS: Then when I dropped out of grad school, I moved into computer programming and sensed I’d found my way to make a real contribution. I began writing programs and getting into graphics, all on this (by our standards) crappy Windows 2.0 computer my uncle gave me. I don’t consider, let’s say, my translations from the Anglo-Saxon totally brilliant, but using a visual (as opposed to sonic) metrics did overcome some basic hang-ups in typical Anglo-Saxon translation—such as the attempt to reproduce Anglo-Saxon alliteration in modern English, which often seems artificial. Or on the other hand, translators will adopt straight prose, as if we only care about a poem’s literal meaning. My translations rely on the number of characters and width of the letterforms, rather than on syllables, to determine the linebreaks and stanzaic shapes. They read fast like prose, yet contain irregular alliteration and a certain rhythm you associate with verse.
AF: And then, just completing this biographical trajectory, you seem, over the last several years, to have embraced life in Los Angeles—as evinced by your teaching topics and critical prose, or your investigations of L.A. poetics, punk, theatre. Your poem “Terrible Poetry Jokes” concludes with the line about Brian Kim Stefans entering a Los Angeles bar and ordering a Manhattan. Does it sound too optimistic to read this as you striking some satisfying balance between each city’s supposed sensibility? Has settling in L.A prompted a return to perhaps less timely interests?
BKS: New York does like its own history. And a place like the Poetry Project started with this rich poetic community in the ‘70s, with so many fantastic poets. I’ve developed the theory that, in certain great literary periods, even the minor poets are quite good. If you read a good anthology of 17th Century poetry, you’ll of course encounter classics by John Donne or Ben Jonson, yet even a person like Herrick (still often considered minor) writes terrific poems. Traherne or one of the lesser visionary writers might be better examples, or even Edward Taylor in America. Similarly, 1970s New York includes figures such as Jim Brodey, who don’t end up in the anthologies, but if you get a good Jim Brodey book you’re reading great poetry. Now though, that whole New York or Lower East Side history offers both a blessing and a curse. You find many poets still under the sway of these projects from the past. L.A., on the other hand, doesn’t care much about its history.
AF: About literary history, or history in general?
BKS: For instance, I know a fellow professor writing the first sustained history of black culture in L.A., which seems weird, since African Americans have played an important role here for a long time. Will Alexander points out, in interviews, that people don’t recognize L.A.’s working-class history and how it remains a working-class city in many ways. Histories of L.A. music culture have just started coming out. Of course Stravinsky and Schoenberg lived here many years, so histories of German émigrés (Thomas Mann and Rudolph Schindler among them) have begun appearing recently. We just had something called “Pacific Standard Time”—this huge, two-year project in which galleries and museums did shows focusing on L.A. artists, stretching back at least to the ‘40s. But less has happened in terms of literary culture, especially for poetry. No historical anthology of L.A. poetry exists. Bill Mohr now has written a book centered around what he calls the Los Angeles Renaissance (basically a period from the late-‘60s to ‘80s, that includes a lot of poets he engaged through his praiseworthy work on Momentum Press). Nobody else has tried to put that all together. Thomas McGrath, for example, lived here during the McCarthy era, circulating amid a group of lefty poets which produced a substantial body of work. A rich left-wing tradition exists. It surprises me most poets my age or younger just don’t know about any of that stuff or don’t care. I share with John Ashbery and a broader French tradition this desire to look at the past and find strange little moments that never got assimilated into the main narrative. You see that with Lautréamont, for instance. Everyone from Alfred Jarry to André Breton to the Situationists claims to have discovered Lautréamont (or at least to have rediscovered him for themselves). This obscure guy published one-and-a-half books, yet becomes the 19th century’s most important poetic figure. I like that idea. I dove into Los Angeles poetry, trying to find those forgotten, quite interesting individuals who just fell off the map. I found a few, not a huge number, enough to keep going. I’ve slowly begun an Ashberian “other traditions” account of American poetic history. L.A. seems hospitable to this embrace of minor, forgotten poets with weird life stories.
AF: Again in terms of L.A. poetics, and given your history of digital production, I would assume you often get placed among conceptual or proto-conceptual discourses. Yet with Viva Miscegenation’s first poem, “Daschle Denounces Bush Remarks on Iraq as Partisan,” which comes from your New York Times project appropriating Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, I couldn’t detect any obvious constraint or computer program splicing together the Times and Vaneigem passages. This text doesn’t feel automatic, but rather painstakingly put together word-by-word. Presumably, any self-assured conceptualist would not face the same problem of sustaining reader interest, since no one would need to read the book anyway. Could you give some sense of the role readerly engagement plays in your work?
BKS: Initial ideas for the “Vaneigem Series” came from The Pornolizer, this program that replaced the text of any website with goofy old-fashioned porn language. The Shizzolator did the same with the idiom of Snoop Dogg. That algorithmic rewriting of text did intrigue me on a conceptual level. But I never got around to programming the Vaneigem project such that the quotes could be automatically inserted into the news articles. Basically, at my 9-to-5 job, I’d read some New York Times story about the second Iraq War, then open my Revolution of Everyday Life PDF, and combine these pieces. This happened back when you could just download a webpage—all the images and everything. So I began “Daschle Denounces Bush” more in the spirit of classic détournement. In terms of conceptual writing, I’ve never done one of those massive projects Kenny Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin do. I’ve never devoted six months or three years of my life to some constraint-based enterprise. My conceptual works get quickly executed. And I do appreciate how computer programming removes or obscures the poet’s hand. But I still remain an aesthetic polyglot. I like to explore a wide array of approaches. This may seem a huge contradiction (to write lyric poems while also putting out conceptual, computer-generated texts) but that’s the challenge I would throw to anyone who cares about my work—somehow to resolve that.
AF: Well with Viva Miscegenation I’d wanted to ask about the manuscript’s generous horizontal formatting, which seems the opposite of a boxy computer screen. Instead of quickly scrolling down, the reader encounters this lateral spread.
BKS: I’ve typeset all my books. Some, like Fashionable Noise, got re-typeset, but according to my parameters. And strangely, as I did more digital work, my books began to look more “bookish.” Both What Is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers and Kluge foreground this quasi-Victorian feel, perhaps as a defense mechanism. Here I come back to my foundational definition of digital text as text vulnerable to an algorithm. Anything thrown on the web can get repurposed, screwed up, misdelivered through little tiny algorithms. A book, for me, even a poem, presents a work that resists these problems of the algorithm. For instance, if you ran an algorithm on a Shakespearean sonnet, the integrity of the lyric would seem to resist this entropic breakdown. We still might hear the sonnet, as we do with Harryette Mullen’s reversionings in Sleeping with the Dictionary. Then in Viva Miscegenation, as I tried to construct poems resistant to algorithmic operations, I recognized the need, ironically, to provide something more like conventional lyrics (containing aphoristic lines or a close equivalent). With this overall manuscript I still might change the format. I really want to do a small book of poems you could carry in your pocket. Since these lyrics mostly contain short lines, I could try some trade-paperback dimensions. I would love to produce something that feels durable and yet, through damage or decay, makes you aware of the vicissitudes of our physical existence.
AF: You’ve mentioned the potential durability of poetic lines. Here, as in some of your Anglo-Saxon translations, I sensed more of an alliterative, syntactical thrust—privileging the grammatical sentence, rather than the discrete or autonomous poetic line, as the basic unit of composition. Feel free to differ with me on that. But have particular prose writers provided a good model?
BKS: Well this actually ties into why lyrical writing interests me. In Charles Bernstein’s “The Klupzy Girl,” let’s say, a single sentence can drip down 10 or 12 lines. Perfectly disjunctive verse doesn’t allow for that particular pleasure. Then in terms of classic prose writers, I’ve thought much about Henry James. After one course on The Ambassadors I couldn’t stop writing sentences filled with qualifiers and semi-colons—carrying this heft and sense of capaciousness. Ashbery sometimes works this way, again weaving a sentence over 10 or 12 lines, diffusing the syntax, which I just love. But both with Ashbery and a poet like Milton, even as they build these vertiginous sentences, each individual line still provides a plateau or distinct unit. I love to read them aloud because your voice gets challenged to make such a sentence hang together.
AF: We haven’t yet discussed miscegenation. You’ve noted how nonliterary enterprises informed your early writing. Here ekphrasis comes up in any number of contexts: related to visual art, TV, film, theatre. Do you consider this intermedia approach inevitable given your digital practice? Does it come more from your classical interests and education? And what about the unacknowledged citational motifs circulating throughout this manuscript? The phrase “six long years of my life” comes to mind. Your “Fairgrounds” piece seems to channel “Rusholme Ruffians.” What makes Morrissey an avatar of miscegenation?
BKS: At Bard I got interested in dance and theatre. I’d watch everybody’s senior projects and so forth. I really wanted to participate (and did a bit towards the end), but at first in New York mostly stuck with poetry. Right before I left however I did start getting involved in theatre. Actors and playwrights associated with, say, Richard Foreman and Mac Wellman, or younger people like Madelyn Kent and Young Jean Lee, seemed more exciting than what I saw happening in poetry. And going back to Pound, I’ve always tried to integrate different sensory experiences and means of artistic perception into my poems. Though of course this can lead to problems—like why not just make a film? Why convert this vision into poetry? I still face that problem. I still write songs and do many different things.
AF: What makes this a problem?
BKS: Because you only have so much time to do any one thing. When you start dividing your attention you run the risk of making mediocre work in a variety of forms, rather than excellent work in one form. Yet I feel I’m always trying a thousand different things. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t have to write poetry every day. And in fact I do not, by any means, write poems every day. Then to get to the whole Morrissey topic: as I said, I still write songs. At some point in the early 2000s I rediscovered Morrissey. I’d loved The Smiths in high school. I always considered Morrissey an influence on my poetry. He could craft this single line that contained such complexity: “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” That baffled me as a kid in working-class Jersey and always stuck in the back of my mind. Then at some point I read an article about Morrissey, the 45-year-old singer headlining Lollapalooza. I couldn’t believe he’d grown that old and just started paying attention to him again and became pretty obsessed. I listened just to The Smiths and Morrissey for half a year. I must have been depressed or something. Now I want to write a book on Los Angeles post-punk bands, which seems more useful.
AF: Again with that sequence “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job and Heaven knows I’m miserable now,” we get both a sentence-based propulsion and these short, clipped lines. Here I wonder if Oscar Wilde lurks in the background for you, as he does for Morrissey—with “Oscillate Wildly,” with that fluid alternation between elaborate, dandy-ish sentence constructs and lyric concision or brevity.
BKS: The Picture of Dorian Gray is a marvel. I love the plays. His poetry never appealed to me, as much as I wanted English decadence to rival French decadence. But I do appreciate, both in Morrissey and, say, Philip Larkin, this British aphoristic streak which combines negative and positive sentiments, which celebrates being abject.
AF: Well your play Being John Malkovich (aka, Gandhi Groans) thematizes what Screamin’ Jay Hawkins refers to as the constipation blues. Your script reminds me of some Gertrude Steins plays, with their closet-drama embodiments of shit and orgasms—in the form of Alice’s “cows.” I also thought of Frank O’Hara’s and Kenneth Koch’s theatrical larks that end up producing quite engaging texts.
BKS: At Brown I took a playwriting class with Paula Vogel. I planned to complete a whole series of plays with the great Wooster Group actress Katie Valk as star. I only finished a few of those, yet one did get performed at St. Mark’s with Kate Valk starring as Kate Valk! Tony Torn directed it. But the play you read came from constraints Paula had assigned in class. Le Pétomane, the farting Frenchman, actually did exist in history. And I do love Kenneth Koch’s plays. At Brown the playwrights had this weird idea of avant-garde theatre, which they desperately tried to pursue. I actually knew avant-garde theatre (at least of a different, perhaps more extreme flavor), so felt drawn to try conventional theatre. But here we return to the Viva Miscegenation title—which refers to Morrissey’s first solo album, Viva Hate. Traditionally “miscegenation” has carried quite ugly connotations. Though given my own origins, I have to celebrate the fact that a lousy event such as the Korean War allowed a mutt like myself to appear. Of course this also extends to the aesthetic realm. When you open Viva Miscegenation you find a mish-mash of styles beyond the somewhat stupid conversation about these two traditions in American poetry—the School of Quietude or the “mainstream,” and then the real stuff, the “avant-garde.” Still I’ve always agreed with an idea you find in the Rimbaudian tradition, from O’Hara for instance: that poetry advertising its position on the side of the “good,” of justice, of guilt-free middle-class existence, gets terribly boring. Cultivate the poisons. I’ve tried to read every poet I could, mostly just to see what I can steal from them, but also to enjoy their work. That’s how I’ve always felt a poet should read.
Brian Kim Stefans teaches literature and new media studies at UCLA. His current projects include a theory of digital textuality based on his series Third Hand Plays (written for the SFMoma blog), a tentative foray into Speculative Realist poetics, an historical anthology of Los Angeles poetry and Scavenged Luxury—an online “freeware” anthology of Los Angeles post-punk from roughly 1977-87. Recent books of poetry include What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers and Kluge: A Meditation. He lives in Hollywood.