Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! –Rusty Morrison.
The subject of this interview is Daniel Tiffany’s Neptune Park.
Rusty Morrison: The paragraph that you wrote for us about Neptune Park begins: “Some might call Neptune Park a graphic novel—minus the pictures: mumblecore, infidel pamphlet, lazy cento.” Your prose has a beguiling dazzle. A luster plays over this paragraph’s meaning, which both lures and taunts, tempts and briefly blinds with its brightness. I find this an excellent entry into poems that are “graphic” in all the ways one might read meaning into that word, including alluding to the intersection on the “graph” of language’s two axes (selection and combination), which, at the point of encounter, make a little emptiness, according to Roman Jakobson. Can you talk about how (or why, or when) you construct, in your poetry, predicaments that are never predictable as they move under a reader’s eye (little “action figures of speech,” I’d call them)?
Daniel Tiffany: I would say the predicaments emerging in many of the poems are, in fact, predictable in some way, which may also mean that they are “graphic” (though not pictorial)—something like the familiar predicaments associated with caricature (an excess of realism). The emptiness you say Jakobson attributes to the dissonance of figurative language should be viewed in my poems, by contrast, as an effect of poetic redundancy (of phrases and sentiments). The dramatic predicaments in the poems are therefore always also, as the word indicates, verbal predicaments. Nearly all of the lines in Neptune Park are, in fact, sampled from various non-lyrical sources, if not always in their original form. As verbal predicaments, these poems could be associated with flarf, for example, but in the presentation of the book I decided not to foreground the mechanism of sampling, or the particular sources I used (as is often the case in flarf or conceptual writing). In fact, this is the first time I have exposed the methodology of Neptune Park—in part to ensure that the book is not being misread simply as a deliberate production of lyric poems. At the same time, Neptune Park is not an exercise in constructivism or code-breaking. The submerged artifice of the writing, and the uncertainty surrounding it, function in part to heighten the aesthetic, or lyrical, dimension of the text. My efforts to produce a synthetic whole that is essentially a kind of fake, a forgery composed from disparate sources, could not have been accomplished without concealing the role of sampling in the book’s presentation. I did this in order to suppress the effects of montage or collage, in favor of something like the contemporary form of aggregation (like aggregated websites). I aimed to retrieve a sense of the wholeness of the artifact, to reverse the common spectacle of disintegration and decomposition. In this sense, the poems of Neptune Park are counterfeit lyrics seeking to craft the experience of inwardness. More specifically, I wanted to see if it would be possible to use the techniques of flarf in a minor key, so to speak, rather than the more typically antic mode of appropriation—to use echo (as Craig Dworkin dubs the work of conceptual writing) to manufacture melancholy, to build a verbal platform of fugitive feelings. Though the manuscript of the book is indeed thoroughly corrupt, it does not, I hope, merely produce the impression of a mash-up. The integrity of the synthetic voice in the book casts an unverifiable shadow—it holds together, yet sounds faintly bogus: lying under oath, flickering between testimony and fabrication, between poèsie pure and the mumbo-jumbo of public intimacy.
RM: How/why did you begin Neptune Park? Which poem or poems were the first you wrote?
DT: It began, predictably, with my own notebook, a commonplace book of “notions” (like those collected in a sewing basket)—various textual sources—that provided the matrix for a personal and cultural “mood” encompassing the poems looming ahead.
RM: Would you talk about the relation of the title (Neptune Park) to the text?
DT: “Neptune Park” is a name affixed to several places in the United States (including a neighborhood where my mother spent summers in New London, Connecticut). In this sense, it resounds with those names—a bit old-fashioned—assigned to neighborhoods by realtors and commercial interests. Closer to home for me, it evokes several vanished, seaside amusement parks near where I live in Venice Beach. At the same time, it sounds like the name of a place that is nowhere in particular, a placeless place.
RM: Manuscripts often undergo revision before reaching their published form. Would you discuss your relationship to revision? What aspects of this manuscript became the gravitational forces that could not be disrupted, and what aspects were most eruptive?
DT: Revision for me usually concerns, initially, achieving the right tone and sonic texture, which includes making minute adjustments in pacing, or tonal shifts, from one element to the next in a poem. I think of my poems essentially as tonal compositions, as experiments in diction that yield echoes of submerged social formations. In the case of Neptune Park, this process involved arranging and re-arranging the samples used to construct the poems—and submitting them to various treatments.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself and your publications?
DT: I was born in Akron, Ohio, but grew up in the Bay Area, near San Francisco, just before Silicon Valley replaced the shrinking patchwork of plum and apricot orchards on the peninsula. In college, I read Greek with Norman O. Brown at UC Santa Cruz, ending up with a major in Translation Studies (later publishing translations from French, Italian and Greek). I lived in Europe (Paris, the Engadine region of Switzerland and the island of Skopelos in Greece) for four years, before I returned home to go to graduate school at the University of Chicago. I have been very lucky to publish collections of poetry with distinctive presses (Parlor Press, Action Books, Tinfish Press, Omnidawn), as well as four volumes of literary criticism, including My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch, which has just been published by Johns Hopkins University Press. In addition, two short books of mine (In the Poisonous Candy Factory and Brick Radio) appeared in Great Britain last year from, respectively, Capsule Editions and Oystercatcher Press. My poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Poetry, Tin House, jubilat, Verse, Boston Review, Fence, Conduit, Lana Turner and elsewhere. In the fall of 2012, as a recipient of the Berlin Prize from the American Academy, I spent some time in Berlin, which has become a place I return to now with some regularity.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?
DT: My sense of my own writing is continually (and perilously) touched by the work of many different kinds of contemporary poetry. I tend not to be very schoolish in my tastes, finding value in many kinds of innovative writing, from lyric to the most stringent form of conceptual writing, as well as the recent combine of British and American poets rethinking Marxist principles in light of the Occupy movement and other sites of protest. In fact, I feel very lucky to be writing (as a poet) in a time of wide-ranging experimentation—in form, production, performance and the sociality of poetry. More specifically, Neptune Park owes a debt, like much of my poetry, to John Berryman (and to Susan Wheeler’s early books), but also to innumerable vernacular sources, from nursery rhymes, blues songs and biblical proverbs, to jargon of all kinds: surf, finance, soap operas, academic theory, eighteenth-century epistolary novels, self-help pamphlets and so on.
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Would you be willing to describe your affinities to the artist and/or to this particular photograph?
DT: The photograph was taken by John Divola, an artist based in Los Angeles, who is best known for images of suburban ruins in Southern California. He has a career retrospective up currently at the LACMA museum in Los Angeles. As part of a series he made in 1974, Divola took the particular image I used for my cover, in a neighborhood of vacant (and derelict) tract houses near LAX (the major coastal airport in Los Angeles)—houses that had been condemned because of their location under the flight paths of aircraft at LAX. For a period of years, until they were actually torn down, the houses were used for various improvised and illicit activities. Private homes thus became sites of public obscurity, a refuge of infidel culture. These now-vanished neighborhoods lie a short bike ride from my house in Venice. I see the empty grid of streets overlooking the coast almost every day. Divola’s photograph evokes the furtive and lonely events that could have taken place in these empty rooms—a dismal, furious and weirdly ceremonial vision of personal revolt.
Daniel Tiffany’s latest collection of poetry, Neptune Park, appeared on lists of “Notable Books of 2013” compiled by the Poetry Foundation, Verse magazine and The Volta. He has published five books of literary criticism and translated texts by Sophocles and the Italian poet Cesare Pavese, as well as Georges Bataille’s pornographic tale, Madame Edwarda. He is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and has been awarded a Whiting Fellowship, the Chicago Review Poetry Prize and the Berlin Prize in 2012 by the American Academy.