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 Tiffany’s book Neptune (Omnidawn). Recorded June 13th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: In Neptune Park’s epigraph, Strabo, the Roman geographer, declares, “I shrink from giving too many of the names, shunning the unpleasant task of writing them down—unless it comports with the pleasure of someone.” I’m interested in the role preemptive or productive apology plays in your poetics. Who are some of your favorite apologizers? Robert Walser comes to mind, perhaps Joe Brainaird.
Daniel Tiffany: I haven’t thought this through carefully, whether Strabo’s statement suggests strategic calculation or an embarrassed admission. I like the way he doesn’t just apologize for the obscurity of certain names and places but acknowledges his hope of “comporting” with someone’s pleasure. I appreciate an apologetics qualified by the hope that someone out there just might want to hear terribly dull things. I also love Strabo’s way of cataloging obscure places, tribes, peoples he has heard or read about—almost as an obligation, from a sense of duty.
AF: That structure of thinking interests me, the clearing of space for a reader’s potential pleasure. Your epigraph seems almost an invocation or its opposite.
DT: Again this epigraph comes from a treatise on geography. And the book explores questions of place and placelessness, home and homelessness, what street kids call “housed thinking” (in contrast to ephemeral or abandoned spaces). Strabo’s reference to remote places and tribes comes in his description of Lusitania, the Roman province corresponding to present-day Portugal, and my manuscript contains a poem (“Lost Liner”) that alludes to another Lusitania—the British passenger liner sunk in 1915 by a German U-boat. Ezra Pound sailed from Venice to New York on the Lusitania in 1910. I also remember an obscure theoretical journal by that name from the 1980s, which lasted for only an issue or two.
AF: Your recent collection Privado adopts the “jody,” cadences chanted by soldiers—or maybe dreams up this ballad form in its masterful self-mythology. What sorts of reading projects inform this new book’s idiom? Neptune Park doesn’t feel like the hard camp of David Trinidad’s Plasticville, let’s say. It’s not so explicit in its appropriations. Or it seems less schematic than Flarf’s trollings.
DT: I’m not a constructivist in the sense that I don’t have much interest in exposing appropriation or imposture (impostor, imposition, etc. are related terms, so to “impose” means to swindle or cheat, to execute some kind of imposture). What we now call appropriation occurs as one particular variant of practices stretching back forever. Today this gesture typically suggests a constructivist practice, often used as a form of critique—a desire to expose the social context of certain vocabularies or discourses, to turn them inside out. As a pose, this could demystify and disenchant—functions that do not play much of a role in my poetry. Still, the way these practices can remain cloaked or veiled excites me, especially their relation to other veiling processes such as Sedgwick’s notion of the epistemology of the closet, which provides a kind of halo of gossip and rumor that hovers around things, leaving their precise identity uncertain. Are such phenomena legitimate, stolen, queer? I prefer to raise these doubts and questions around concealed or borrowed texts, rather than exposing their procedures. Forms of social realism or pragmatism interest me less than the history of textual clouds and disguises and masks.
AF: The Gurlesque foregrounding of affect, the contemporary interest in fairy tales, come to mind when you describe processes of remystification—as does some less canonical John Ashbery, such as his Darger-esque Girls on the Run. Kitsch, of course, but again your own distinct conception of kitsch which still sounds somewhat private until it appears in your next critical book, My Silver Planet. Neptune Park seems to construct, quite deliberately, the supposedly unintended, un-selfconscious syntactic lilt of camp, kitsch, uncanniness.
DT: It’s definitely not about camp—nor specifically related to kitsch. Audiences orient themselves quite differently to kitsch and to camp. Critics spend much time trying to sort through differences between objects of kitsch and objects of camp. To me that difference tells only part of the story. What does differ more consistently is how people orient themselves to such objects. As for the relation between a theoretical discourse about kitsch and the substance of these poems: it’s a little like musing on different words for the same thing in separate languages (the difference between the words for “bread,” say, in Italian versus German). Perhaps some correspondence exists between the terms, but I tend to approach each experience in discrete ways—as a poet, as a theorist. It spoils the relationship to press too hard.
AF: Could we consider a couple specific sequences, some of my favorite lines?
DT: Sure, making things concrete—so we don’t float away too far.
AF: Well this might make us float away, given its title “How Many Days Can You Live on Vicodin and Frosty?” But could we look at the lines: “A lion is in the streets, / there is a lion in the way. // My niece, the little siren / taught her the slang: / mad married fiancée. // Dido has a quiver, / she wears a spotted lynx // skin and a belt. / My undefiled is not herself”?
DT: That picks up on the Virgilian Dido (queen of Carthage and lover of Aeneas, who kills herself after he abandons her). I saw a Wooster Group performance called La Didone a couple years back, which combined scenes from an early Cavalli opera about Dido with dialogue and décor from a ’60s Italian sci-fi TV show. I found it stunning, thrilling, filled with lyrical moments against a crazy Pop background—yet all synthesized in some way, not simply a juxtaposition. I can’t say these poems come out of that, though they try something similar, positing Virgil and Warhol as points of reference, veering between various shades of literary diction and Warhol’s blasé descriptions of his superstars.
AF: I love the seamless synthesis or synthetic in your work, as different from the fake—as a deliberate diffusion of tonality. Placing oneself amid this tonal efflorescence felt liberating, for me at least, getting to experience so much at once. Could we talk a second more about Dido, queen of the classical grotesque? Dido seems terrifying both for the self-destructive, erotic pull she represents, and (as I read your book I thought) for the potential pomposity of that representation itself, which has sustained readers’ interest throughout the ages. Dido endures, your poem “Neptune Fix” declares, because the “human torch” remains the “main attraction.”
DT: I hadn’t thought of her for that poem, actually. But Dido is certainly no figure of the grotesque in my book. She appears in various guises as the woman, or girl, whom Aeneas abandons in his journey toward the founding of Rome—an event which leaves an indelible stain on epic. That hitch in the narrative momentum opens up a world of feeling.
AF: It’s just this reference to the “human torch.”
DT: I’d thought of mass spectacle and contemporary forms of desensitizing, which Neptune Park seeks to embody—desensitized sensibility as an affect, listening to how desensitized people talk. It’s a bit like Seidel in that way.
AF: Like what?
DT: Frederick Seidel—the flat register and diction he’ll use to describe horrifying or troubling scenes. He has a great ear for transcribing certain dead registers of contemporary American English. And tone of course can get commodified. Particular registers of diction fascinate me because they present language’s poetic dimensions receiving their widest circulation. Speech-writers or advertisers cultivate and exploit tone quite sensitively and knowingly. It hovers between pure music (similar to the poetic line’s musicality) and meaning. Diction is a funny thing: not just music, and not just meaning, somewhere between. So this part of language always remains susceptible to commodification, to public enchantment. It gets a rise out of people. They want to use certain kinds of words, to adopt the features of a certain diction and identify with its sensibility. This can be regional, tribal, anachronistic—often an imaginary projection of class identity. Still, this powerful dimension of language has disappeared from the vocabulary of criticism for some time. Poets and critics speak exhaustively about form or experimentation with form. When one wants to discuss the material qualities of poetic language, one frequently resorts to vocabulary involving aspects of form. Some writers want to address questions of tone or diction but fall back on formalist vocabulary because the ways of talking about poetics have become so narrow, so clichéd. It’s like trying to describe a vampire bat’s physiology with terms developed for a tree or wrist watch. Crazy, crazy ferocious debates used to circulate concerning the types of language appropriate for poetry. Questions of tone get addressed best these days, usually inadvertently, in debates about sampling and appropriation.
AF: I’ve read different drafts of your manuscript and noted the sudden appearance of “totally.” This adverb’s complicated tonal vectors make your work all the more pleasurable for me. As we address concepts of idiom, tone, I’m curious how these relate to gender—especially within the cramped/capacious confines of Neptune Park. If we could start with “girls,” what’s the place of, what’s your place. . . this book mentions a “girls-only evening.” Could you describe your place at a girls-only evening? Or could you describe the types of imitation, identification, affect at play in “Blow Pop”?
DT: That title “Blow Pop” has changed—now the poem’s called “ Neptune Society.” I guess the adolescent, girlish voices produced by certain Japanese fairy or YA novels intrigue me. To place a simple, straightforward, declarative statement in that voice seemed to offer a powerful counterpoint. Its flavor has an immediate, dramatic effect on nearby tones and registers. It makes you pay attention. It makes somebody listen. It could cut through posturing, aggression, cleverness. It provides a verbal palate I can mix. I can accelerate a poem’s movement by changing tones more quickly, or doing that more slowly.
AF: Does the function or impact of this girly diction differ when it comes from a man? Does the performance of authorship help to structure the tone?
DT: Yes, some kind of transvestite moment occurs at times in Neptune Park, which you can amplify or constrict, but toying with gender masks does not necessarily become a dominant impulse in the book.
AF: As we discuss aspects of performance, of obfuscation, could you describe your interest in Japanese lost-roof technique (which I know as roof-off technique, from Tale of Genji paintings, where we see an interior scene as if from above)? What desire does that concept hold for you? Do the vaguely pornographic vantages suggest analogous triangulations of a commodified tone? Does this mediated deployment of diction personalize the market processes of kitsch? What can lost-roof perspective reveal about such interplays among gender, idiom, identity, sexuality?
DT: I like that question. These poems each posit some predicament, which appears vaguely alarming, unresolved or incomplete. Exposure prompts a sort of voyeurism, a glimpse, pulling you in. And here I might note that, in terms of straight male sexuality, one doesn’t find much of it, certainly nothing very sexy, in contemporary American poetry. The poets I could imagine responding to this aspect of my book (at least in terms of their public personae) are gay or gay-identified. So the lost-roof technique comes from wanting to engage normative masculinity and heterosexuality but to write new sexualities (forgeries really) across straight male identity, to construct something about sexual experience and sex that recommodifies the sweetness of the old ordeals, but under very different conditions—in the light of shipwreck, you might say. As that sexuality gets named and framed, the lost-roof vantage provides this peeping quality.
AF: Also, in terms of this lost-roof impulse, how about your characteristic italicization of faux lyrics and nursery rhymes? Do such formatting gestures likewise open up a lost-roof glimpse on a poetics of citation, transcription, imitation—what you’ve called modernist parasitism?
DT: Yes. I’ve been thinking recently about this Ben Jonson play called The Poetaster. I’d always thought the word was “poet-taster,” when it’s actually poet-aster—where the suffix functions as a diminutive. That suffix denotes a minor figure of one type or another: derivative, marginal, childish, stereotypical.
AF: “Aster” does?
DT: The play presents this poetaster and plagiarist in ancient Rome, who writes what Jonson calls “worded trash.” But Jonson tracks what he calls “gnomic pointing”—the way texts identify borrowed material through italics, quotation marks, underline. A big part of my new critical book on kitsch considers poetic forgeries and all the fascination/anxiety with these practices in the mid-18th century. People wondered which documents were real. Ballad anthologies attempted to identify which parts of ballads were fabricated or original. Questions hovered around problems of exposure, ownership, possession, privacy, possible disclosures. But apart from denoting a phrase as borrowed, italics also can connote a private comment, an aside. The discourse suddenly can slip into a kind of private register like a whisper. Some sort of secrecy can shroud the voice. So italics function many different ways. Some instances indicate the subjectivity of another character, speaker, commentary, confessional. Something doesn’t belong to me, or seems different from everything else, or comes in a whisper not meant for public consumption. Format can help to structure a text’s different voices. In Neptune Park, sometimes it felt necessary to set off this alternation between different voices, then sometimes it didn’t.
AF: Again, for how formats create rhetorical texture, I very much enjoy what you’ve described as the feigning of flat affect. Neptune Park provides depth to the way this flatness gets picked through—sifted from any number of discrete vantages. Here I think of your peculiar-seeming constellation of section headings: “Correction,” “Industry,” “Haven,” “Anniversary,” “Nemesis,” “Friends.” That’s a great magic circle of terms. It also could seem a forged blueprint for this book. Neptune Park can correspond to those section headings if one wants it to, but they also could provide a provocative false lead, a commentary on conventional modes of poetic demarcation, as performed by the multi-part poetic collection.
DT: Here again, a tonal impulse predominates. Language and circumstance within certain poems become heated. So I want the section titles to sound much flatter, more neutral, less remote. These titles function as space holders, while providing a kind of counterpoint. What would it mean to read the first section’s poems through the concept of “Correction?” How does this filter alter the local affect? I wanted to introduce the poems through an indeterminate perspective, to alienate the text. Still I don’t mean to provide a false or generic or arbitrary lead. I chose titles carefully for each section. They couldn’t possibly be swapped.
AF: You mentioned a potential alienating effect, but it seems an elective alienation. The reader’s mind has to decide whether he/she will read a discrete poem in relation to its global grouping around an abstract title. This reader could feel all the less or all the more alienated when faced with such decisions. I appreciated that.
DT: Yes you realize you can discard the affect associated with these titles, though that rejection of course prompts its own affect. Choreographing trajectories of affect perhaps most interested me.
AF: One affective register we haven’t discussed: after admiring the song-like constructions in The Dandelion Clock and Privado, it pleased me to encounter here the occasional interruption of sonic outburst, incantation, unmoored chorus, abstracted nursery rhyme. Clipped utterances puncture this text. I’m thinking of sequences such as “then, too, then, too, then, too.” Or “Bo Peeper / Nose dreeper / Chin chopper.” Could you contextualize these passages amid your broader interest in toy media, riddles, argot, slumming, forgery, spying?
DT: For me as for many others, Mother Goose nursery rhymes sound at once cooked up (from some ancient English vernacular), pedagogical, yet somehow impenetrably strange, sinister. Terrible situations not only get described, but also illogically juxtaposed with scenes of happiness. Or descriptions offer details so obvious you can’t understand why they’ve been included. Those “Nose dreeper / Chin chopper” lines evoke the milieu of a horserace track as well, so eventually these phrases became horses’ names. Though I guess nursery rhymes often evoke punitive scenes—somebody punished or receiving their just desserts. Nursery rhymes coerce and instruct that way. This experience of scaring oneself provides an important pedagogical and poetic principle.
AF: The relationship between an innocent tone and a violent (potentially sexualized) scene seems crucial here, in lines like: “The ‘bears’ stopped at my house first, / done me all the harm they could.” Some of my favorite passages offer this seamless amalgamation of a light, friendly idiom and then potentially disconcerting events: “To the south, to the south: / outlines of figures running for cover, orchards // aflame and conjurings in green ink.” Or: “My sister threw a lit / candle at me for I had lingered // a moment too long.” Have we sufficiently addressed these dramatizations of violence?
DT: Neptune Park contains an apocalyptic aspect, but more in a suburban than a futuristic sense, more banal than sublime. I guess I finally figured out a way to present this book as an allegory of dissolution, a descent narrative related, perhaps, to Alice Notley’s framing of The Descent of Alette. You could describe Neptune Park as a graphic novel minus the pictures, an infidel pamphlet, a series of predicaments stirring up the kitsch of our own apocalypse. Its archive assembles a garbled voice, a verbal tranny—culled from a lost world of suburban squats, keyhole sex, teenage millionaires, queer idylls, and public shame. A space once occupied but now vacant.
AF: A space that your Strabo-esque pursuits serve to demarcate, or to excavate?
DT: Well for me, fear or fright remain extremely receptive states. They also could become transformative. Scary scenes can place you in a different world. The world suddenly might reverse itself, which I find alluring. Although of course, as a reader, one remains sheltered (a key to the experience of the sublime). I don’t offer a response to literal violence. I seek to investigate a specific state of poetic consciousness, related to aesthetic experience. Pushing beyond realist dramatizations, I’d point to a different notion of Pop—cult Pop, or subliminal Pop, or Pop without popularity, categories that embrace Pop’s striking accessibility, yet directed toward some internalized investigation. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles had a fabulous show of the Polish-Jewish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, a post-war figure whose family died in a concentration camp. She did something I’d never seen an artist do, making reference to the Holocaust through Pop materials and affect. She produced these amazing lamps where she used transparent acrylics for lips and cheeks, very sexual, very erotic, in a Pop idiom, yet they evoke the ordeal of the body in the death camps. I guess Maus brings together Pop and the Holocaust. Still Szapocznikow’s embodied pieces seemed much more grave and elliptical—more corporeal, but also whimsical. I found that incredibly moving, the prospect that arcane Pop or deviant Pop could toy with Pop’s lyric interiority.
Daniel Tiffany is the author of six books of poetry and literary theory. He has several new books coming out in 2013, including chapbooks from Capsule Editions and Oystercatcher Press (both in Great Britain), along with full-length books from Johns Hopkins University Press and Omnidawn. His poems have appeared in Tin House, the Paris Review, Lana Turner, Conduit, jubilat, Fence and other magazines. In addition, he has published translations of writing from French, Greek and Italian. He was a recipient of the Berlin Prize in 2012 from the American Academy.