Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on de la Torre’s book, Four (Switchback Books). Recorded July 10th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: When FOUR came I tried to slip a booklet from the pack, but couldn’t do so without breaking the seal.
Mónica de la Torre: Oh no. The seal broke?
AF: I liked that. Something irreversible had happened. Then flipping through the booklets, I soon lost their original order. This raised questions about the booklets’ status. You had called them booklets, so that word stayed in my head. But how does a booklet differ from a pamphlet? How does it relate to, say, Renee Gladman’s sense of a poetic “installation”? Does the booklets’ serial formatting imply that all these parts should fit together? Or does it deliberately provide dissimilar doubles? Did FOUR ever exist as a single project, on a single computer file?
MT: I’d hoped for readers to slip each booklet out of the case. In fact, I worried about it breaking when discussing options with the designers. You’ve just redeemed the worst-case scenario. Thank you! FOUR gathers four projects I undertook separately—each occasional in its own way. One provides an elegy. One long piece I delivered for a festival of collaborations curated by Jen Bervin and Rob Fitterman at the Zinc Bar in 2011. “Photos While U Wait” takes its model from a photo album. Then “Lines to Undo Linearity” I wrote in response to the work of Gego, the German artist exiled in Venezuela who died during the ’90s. Her penname combines the opening syllables in her first and last names: Gertrude Goldschmidt. Years ago Poets House invited me to respond to an exhibit of hers at The Drawing Center, and I never knew what to do with the resulting piece. I find it productive to write in response to a particular occasion, because I have a goal and endpoint in mind. Yet even in these more directed instances, something accidental or chance-driven shapes the process. The occasions that gave rise to particular pieces occurred unexpectedly but also became meaningful. I wanted to avoid erasing those meanings by developing a streamlined book-length project. I didn’t want to impose an overall structure on the works either. Even a partitioned, modular manuscript imparts its own structure. Still I didn’t want to publish four separate chapbooks, because some conceptual content does tie the texts together. So I like that you could forget their initial order, since that confirms the integrity of this project. Once you’ve pulled out the booklets, you can re-assemble the whole any way you choose. The reader’s ability to reformulate this collection interests me more than any fixed sequence. Similarly, for the title, I tried for the most descriptive, neutral thing I could find. I’d delayed going to press because we couldn’t nail the title down. We at some point considered Photos While U Wait, then Shift and then You’re Presence is Requested, which is a line in “Shift.” Each of those overemphasized one section. But FOUR felt alright in part because Roberto Bolaño has a book called Tres, a triptych written in 1987, ’93 and ’94—put together much later as publishers tried to rescue the poetry for which his fiction brilliantly created a demand.
AF: Well FOUR also echoes F-O-R, each piece’s dedicational nature, generated by and for the world in some way.
MT: Absolutely. I hadn’t thought of that.
AF: I’ve recently talked to several poets about how a book’s sequencing imposes its own logic, tone, hierarchies. I love your ability here to make that logic coherent but elastic, because occasional pieces quickly could offer a chronology of your life. The overall project could become about you. Here a disrupted chronology keeps us more engaged with provisional social contexts than with the poet behind the pieces. And then the beautiful fonts produce this salad-bar effect, forcing us to pick and choose and blend the bright, vivid colors—foregrounding processes of desire that prompt us to read in the first place.
MT: Which did you pick first?
AF: “Shift” slid first out of my pack. “Shift” gets dedicated to Richard Maxwell. Could you briefly describe his Theater for Beginners, so we can discuss elements of contemporary theatre that provide compelling overlap or provocation to contemporary poetry (or that should, if poets paid enough attention to theater)? I’ve been away a couple years, but along with Richard Maxwell, do Nature Theater of Oklahoma, ERS, Young Jean Lee, 53rd Street Press still produce good work? And what can poets learn from them?
MT: All those people come from the same generation, yet remain totally diverse in approach. Let’s start with Nature Theater of Oklahoma. My work may not resemble what they do, but I’ll think about one particular play I loved, Romeo and Juliet, which speaks so eloquently to appropriative and conceptual poetics. For that piece they called up relatives, friends (whom they had warned, not completely out of the blue), and asked them to retell, over the phone, Romeo and Juliet’s plot.
AF: They did something similar with Rambo, I think.
MT: For Rambo Solo this guy compares the film version of Rambo to the original novel. So these various participants actually write the plays. The people retelling Romeo and Juliet of course introduce wild variation. Nobody seems to have consulted Wikipedia and got their details straight. Then the transcriptions retain all their ums, ahs—all the signaling of giant memory voids traced by their retellings. Juliet’s stories get delivered by Juliet, and all the Romeo stories by Romeo, both with dramatic hand gestures which perhaps come from Elizabethan theatre. Yet this total disconnect occurs between their diction, which sounds contemporary (like: “The Capulets— / And the—? / [And I can’t remember the other guys]”) and their faux Shakespearian delivery. This takes me to Rich Maxwell, who seeks to foreground, first and foremost, the text.
AF: I loved Henry IV, Drummer Wanted, Good Samaritans, Joe.
MT: People have this caricature of what a Richard Maxwell actor does, what a New York City Players actor does—presenting no display of emotions, no affectation, just a deadpan, machine-like delivery of text.
AF: Until each figure belts out some song or does an abstract dance.
MT: Right. Critics focus less on that part of the work, though it’s essential. But I especially take from him this idea that the text does it all. When you deliver a text, you don’t need to emote it, or justify it, or believe it, even. That just gets in the way of the text and a listener’s immediate reaction to it in a given moment. You can skip the story behind the poem. That takes you out of a text. But what does the language do? What experience does it elicit through this particular moment of delivery? What charge does it have there and then? So Rich’s stagings become quite lyrical. Though the piece you asked about, Theater for Beginners, is not a play, but more a book-length manifesto. I had read the manuscript and offered some comments here and there. Then I got invited to produce something for this collaboration festival at the Zinc Bar, and thought Rich and I could work together. A lot of “Shift” responds to what he says in Theater for Beginners. For instance, that the performer ought to stay in the present moment. I start with a daydream. I want to tackle this question: Where are you when you write? You can inhabit many places at once. You can imagine delivering your piece at a distant time and place, yet still construct it in the present tense. I wanted to track discrepancies between these moments of composition, revision, delivery.
AF: Well your acknowledgements describe “Shift” as a site-specific poem but don’t fully specify its status as a performance text. So I thought of how “Shift” theatricalizes being, speaking, typing.
MT: That’s key: the theatricalization of writing poetry and reading it in public.
AF: Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room” came to mind, as one description built upon another. Then Vito Acconci and Kenny Goldsmith’s weather-report transcripts got echoed in the repetition-heavy finale. So here’s my question: Let’s say “Shift” investigates a particular downtown location, addressing itself to a collective, imminent audience. How do such constructions of conceptual theatre then get imported into FOUR’s elastic structure? How, if at all, does your writing change when pitched to the assembled audience, rather than the solitary, removed individual? What does the closet drama stand to learn from the live performance piece, and vice-versa?
MT: Everything. I think a lot about the reading situation. But I also know that, among my peers, I probably have more listeners than readers. Readings have become such a prevalent mode of disseminating work, that to disregard this mode of delivery means to miss an opportunity. So I care very much what poems do on the page, yet most of my projects end up being performative. I’ll sense myself creating a persona in front of everybody. Here I very much relate to Rich Maxwell, since people expect poets to stand up and emote and reveal their interiority.
AF: When a reading only offers further mediation. Why attend a reading if you don’t want that?
MT: Yeah. Just buy the book. But in any case, I’ve learned from performers, and absorbed the highly specific set of expectations that structure a poetry reading. And so I’ll try to provide some form of institutional critique—not dismantling, just playing a bit with our idea of the poetry reading’s conventions. Ultimately, for the actual performance of “Shift” (though I never say so in the printed text), I’d placed a Bose CD player onstage, with a recording of myself reading. The mic got angled toward the sound system.
AF: Probably creating some feedback and reverb.
MT: While I actually sat in the audience.
AF: So it did resemble a reading experience, where the poet disappears, like a waiter dropping off the dish then leaving. And “Shift’s” pacing seems based on the sentence as much as the line. Again I wondered about your own auditory experience of contemporary theatrical productions, if that provides a pleasing or stimulating sonic environment as much as a visual one—not just in terms of rhythms, cadences of speech, but discursive social exchanges happening among multiple voices. So let’s say you sit down to edit this piece, how does your mind replay the drafted material? Does it resemble hearing voices? Does it feel like talking? Do you see images or text?
MT: I’ll hear myself delivering the text as I revise what I’ve already written and add new stuff. I hear a cacophony of past voices and voices projected into the future. Add to this cacophony thoughts bouncing back and forth from English to Spanish, or vice-versa, searching for the right words. As a writer I’ll return to the very beginning of a piece before inserting anything new, so by the time I’ve finished I might have read it to myself a hundred times. Not only do I have an inner dialogue that I’ll often make transparent in my poems—the poem’s idiom always stays subject to the logics of a verbal exchange. Sometimes I’ll wish I had the soaring lyricism some poets have. I’ll wish I could free language from this dialogic structure.
AF: Like a projected narrative scene or something?
MT: My language can’t get absolutely hermetic since the utterance serves as point of departure, perhaps more than the sentence. Instructions or adverts, all those rhetorical forms designed to convey specific information to the reader, fascinate me. Still the utterance need not remain regimented or instrumental. I want to deinstrumentalize, here by playing with forms of instrumentality, subverting them. Or to put it in more straightforward terms: to use language unconventionally within the frames of conventional exchanges.
AF: This goes back to Nature Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, and how the ums and ahs perhaps tell their own love story, just about the body and bodies communicating—about parallel tracks of momentum. That brings me to “Lines to Undo Linearity,” the second piece from FOUR I read. “Lines to Undo Linearity” points to a wide range of source materials, such as Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, Francis Ponge’s lateral extensions (in a work like Soap), Gertrude Stein’s or Nietzsche’s or Wittgenstein’s accumulative aesthetics and serialized prose installments such as Sol LeWitt’s conceptual texts. Reading “Lines,” and recalling your book Public Domain, I sensed how important an elegant synthesis of preceding interdisciplinary models becomes in your poetics. I’ll miss many non-Anglo references here, but could you begin to describe how and why that assimilatory process takes place? Do you consciously make art- or literary-historical points by intertwining your predecessors’ experimental modes? Does that combinatory process draw you?
MT: It does draw me. You brought up Ed Ruscha. At a recent New York Public Library talk, apropos of his process, he said, “It all goes into the Mixmaster. . . I guess, my brain.” Same for me. Processing the strategies of others gets me going. In that sense, perhaps art especially stimulates me, because it tends to expose its strategies and the ways it handles its materials. So in “Lines,” for example, I tried to match my utterances to Gego’s artistic use of nuts, bolts, wires—all these found, instrumental scraps derived from engineering and architecture. She’d been an architect by training but used these bits to compose lyrical drawings without paper. Light hits them and traces drawings on the wall, but the bolts and wires always float. The art comes from shadows they cast. As a German living in Venezuela, her writing sounds a little stiff. Her syntax suggests someone who first mastered another language. The printed materials for the Drawing Center exhibition includes translations that retained some of this awkwardness. The following aphorism, for instance: “A line is an object to play with.” I thought OK, if a line is an object to play with, what kind of lines should I use? That led to my list of idioms includingcredit lines, party lines, laugh lines.
AF: I love how “lines” could suggest appropriated, canned speech (similar to a pick-up line), but then you also address the line as a fundamental unit of drawing or the line as historical lineage. So again, “Lines to Undo Linearity” foregrounds composition, tradition, even as it claims to undo linearity.
MT: Linearity gets undone since I don’t believe in the teleologies that modernism and the avant-garde bequeathed us. Then back to your point about a combinatory process—I take from John Cage these ideas about paintings to be read and poems to be seen.
AF: To move on to “Mariposa Negra,” with its postscript instructions that we should write the phrase, “I am not here anymore,” have you read Andy Warhol’s Popism? Doesn’t it end with Billy. . .the guy who’s stayed in an alcove the last three years. . .
MT: Billy Name.
AF: Of course. Billy Name. Doesn’t Warhol open up the curtain one day, because he’s never known if Billy’s still there, and the wall just says, “Andy—I am not here anymore”?
MT: Oh my god. I’ll have to look that up. My own line came from a Latin adage: “Nemo hic adest illius nominis” (There’s no one here by that name). The word “nemo” means no one; its reverse is “omen.” “Mariposa negra” in Spanish means black butterfly, and at least in Mexico, where I grew up, a mariposa negra remains a harbinger of death. If you see a black butterfly you know someone close will die soon. But “I am not here” also echoes Heraclitus. Did I say that right? I struggle with the Greek because I learned them in Spanish.
AF: I can’t pronounce. I can’t speak English in English.
MT: Or “I’m not here” takes me back to Magritte’s, “This is not a pipe”—to language as absence, as index.
AF: In those terms, “Mariposa Negra’s” aphoristic sequence works so well as an elegiac mode. But more generally, in your reading of aphoristic forms (perhaps the prose form most inclined toward silence, blank space): Do aphorisms often prompt such meditations on prediction, loss, absence, haunting, fulfillment, residue? In “Mariposa Negra,” does mortality gets figured not just as death but as our inability to avoid taking presence for granted—as a dramatization of the fact we soon will die and yet consistently fail to live up to this circumstance? Does the history of the aphorism, for you, provide one of our most compelling efforts to counter that tendency, to counter our forgetfulness about the present?
MT: Aphorisms almost seem predictions. A good aphorism, a memorable one, keeps unfolding. You think you got it the first time. You go: Whoa, that’s so true. But really it presents this retro-futurist device that activates meanings in the future more than the past. In that sense it counters mortality—a prescient utterance only gains full meaning later. Yet, strangely, this whole process relies on the workings of memory. You have to remember the aphorism to remake its relevance. And by doing so you change the aphorism.
AF: We always can see an aphorism’s end. We sense the blank space coming soon. Everything feels more charged for that reason. But as you say, a lot of the meaning only occurs once you’ve reached that blank space. That’s part of the aphorism.
AF: So the aphorism, the elegy, stretch beyond corporeal limitations. Now could we move on to “Photos While U Wait”?
MT: Go for it.
AF: “Photos While U Wait” celebrates spare-time production. It also presents an apparently faulty second-language grasp on clichés as, in fact, a discrete, distinctive subject position worth pushing to the foreground.
MT: Yes. Sort of as we said with aphorisms, clichés provide endless potential for micro-alterations. And I loved how, with Flaubert’s clichés, when you read blurbs from people commenting on his “Dictionary of Received Ideas,” the standard, clichéd knowledge about them, what most surprises readers is how they still hold true. One-hundred fifty years later these clichés still circulate! That realization itself has become commonplace. But actually, when you look at Flaubert’s clichés, many are not clichés.
AF: Interesting. Can you explain?
MT: For instance: “Our country’s ills are due to our ignorance of them.” I wish that was a cliché. Or “Domesticity: Never fail to speak of it with respect.” People berate domesticity nowadays. We don’t respect it. We consider it bland, pathetic, to be avoided. “Artists express surprise that they dress like everybody else.” That’s a beautiful notion. I grew up with that. Artistic people were supposed to enact artisticness by dressing poorly. Now hipsters dress like artists. It’s the norm in Williamsburg where I live. I find these clichés fascinating because despite their alleged inanity, they remain points of contention. So I’ve tried to construct a piece that takes its poetics from the cliché. Lines might seem obvious, but then you look again and they’re not quite so.
AF: This recalls Emerson’s description of language as fossil poetry—that to think we could escape clichés by refining our language might be the biggest cliché of all.
MT: Borges makes a similar point in “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader.” He describes all language as metaphor. No “metaphorical language” exists, because everything is metaphor. That takes me back to “I am no longer here.” “I” can’t help becoming a metaphor. “I” never was there in the first place.
AF: Well in terms of spatial presence, could you discuss “Photos While U Wait’s” grid/box structures placed opposite its modular prose units?
MT: Those boxes contain whatever you imagine them containing. If you go along with the conceit that this booklet provides poetic snapshots, or perhaps captions to photos you never get to see, then the boxes present a little prompt for you to wonder what each poem. . .what clichéd image they possibly could describe.
AF: The boxes foreground textual/material presence, just as your varied colors do. And your modular booklets seem like stackable boxes.
MT: They invite you to do whatever you want with them. So you end up seeing yourself reflected just by giving these booklets a particular order or projecting what images might fit in the boxes.
AF: That takes me back to cliché, to “Dial a Cliché,” to Morrissey. Could you comment on his presence here?
MT: He endlessly fascinates me. I love his lyrics. They resemble great aphorisms.
AF: That’s what I wondered.
MT: You remember them. You can apply them later. And they also serve as mirrors. They say so much about him, yet say just as much about the person who chooses to remember them.
AF: I’d forgotten until just now how Morrissey puts himself in a Wildean tradition. So you’ve got the mirror; you’ve got Dorian Gray; you’ve got the aphorism. Though are we talking about his new stuff, or old Smiths songs?
MT: I like some of that new stuff, but I stopped paying attention maybe two records ago.
AF: I feel bad. I think everyone stopped at the same time.
MT: He had a great solo album. What was it called?
AF: He had several. Viva Hate is one of my all-time favorite albums.
MT: Can you believe people categorize him as a mediocre lyricist? Some listeners I know (even my husband!) consider the songs too obvious.
AF: I never knew anyone had that thought.
MT: Really? It might be generational. Did you grow up in the ’70s?
AF: No, no. Or did I?
Mónica de la Torre is the author of five poetry books, among them Four and Public Domain. A native of Mexico City, she writes in Spanish and English and has translated numerous Latin American poets. Her work is included in the anthologies Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. She is BOMB Magazine’s senior editor.