In the fall 2013 semester, Jack Kerouac School graduate students in my Text & Image workshop read Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s The Collage Poems of Drafts. To prepare us for the book, we read DuPlessis’s conversation with Maria Damon, “Desiring Visual Texts: A Collage and Embroidery Dialogue” and attempted our own experiments, including knitting, cross-stitch, crochet, doodles, scribbles, and collage.
Interviewed by Betty Sparenberg, Genelle Chaconas, Joseph Navarro, BZ Zionic, Kat Fossell, Melissa Barrett-Traister, Sarah Richards-Graba, Peggy Alaniz, and Hannah Kezema
The Class: If you had full control of all marketing for The Collage Poems of Drafts, under what genre/category would you sell it, and in what section would you place it in the bookstore? Similarly, who is your intended audience?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Since you have read “Desiring Visual Texts,” you might find that some of these answers connect with the dialogue between Maria and myself. I don’t know whether your question about marketing comes about because you are genuinely concerned with this book’s reaching an audience, or because of the mixed genre of this book. Both of these concerns are about categories: category in bookstore and category of audience.
I would put the book under poetry if it were categorized in a bookstore. That’s because these works are part of my long poem, Drafts. They are a move into a mixed genre from a work done over 26 years that has always been very engaged with multiple genres and their implications and “feels”—aesthetic, affective and social “feelings” evoked by the genres I use. It would be a rare bookstore that would put such a book under two categories, but in an ideal world, this book is also categorizable as an artist’s book.
There is something amusing about this question, as the publisher, Salt Publishing, uses an entirely publish on demand (POD) model and does not even pay the fee to a warehouse/catalogue/mail order institution like Small Press Distribution (SPD). I wish it did, but their financial plan precludes this. Hence, this book is mail-order only from Salt and, interestingly, from Amazon.
My intended audience is whoever wants to read it. I don’t think of an audience when I write or make mixed works, not much and not particularly, and I’ll admit that when I began to want to do these two works, it was so odd—such a departure—that thinking about who would receive it or read it was pretty far from my thoughts. I just wanted to DO it.
TC: Do you feel your work is a specific indictment of the consumption of the art object and the artist’s or gallery’s profit from this consumption? Or do you consider your work a critique of our use of language as pre-made abstract symbols for real objects in the world? Is it actually a combination of these two?
RDB: This is a pretty theoretically involved question. I want to say that these works (the two collage poems) were done playfully, stubbornly, and for the pleasure of doing them.
I am an untrained artist with a serious aesthetic “eye.” Even trained and highly skilled artists of great intelligence can be iced out of the gallery system and not be able to find an adequate or appropriate home there. However, I am not in that system. So it is hard for me to comment on whether I am indicting that system by making these home-grown works! Do I seek to be in such a system? I don’t know. The advantage is the work is shown; the disadvantage is that you may be implicitly asked to repeat things that work for the gallery—that are saleable—a kind of “mechanical reproduction” using the artist as the mechanism. But since I am primarily a poet and writer, I like to think of this work as related to my collage ethos in writing and not worry about the institutional system of selling visual art.
As for the second part of this question. I do not consider language to be “pre-made abstract symbols for real objects in the world.” Language is an incredibly elastic and synthetic (synthesizing) social and epistemological system of such complexity that terms like “pre-made” and “real objects” don’t really cover the territory with enough subtlety. Language is only “pre-made” in the sense that it is historical (we did not invent it, this minute, although new words crop up all the time: “selfie”); however, language is also social, mobile, enrichable, and vast. Yes, it uses “abstract symbols” (the alphabet), which are also (like all writing systems) an invention of great human depth and thus constitute an almost sacred gift of the past to us. The tone of the question seems to posit that language is kind of a nasty, creepy thing that deserves the “critique” of my visual texts.
These art works or visual texts use visual allusions, conventions, interesting combinations of words and of shapes put together. They are a kind of “double your pleasure” move. An enhancement.
TC: How influential is the Marxist critique and/or proletarian aesthetic to your work?
RBD: As we say in Philly—YO! I am hardly against critique! I have been very influenced by Marxist critique of social and aesthetic relations (mainly Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson and Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin) and have engaged in feminist critique, mainly by studying gender relations as they are presented and represented in fiction and poetry (and in the relations around production—coteries, friendships, literary activities). I’m deeply interested in what is sometimes called “outsider art.” However, I am not a proletarian in class position, just a cultural worker. To the degree that sometimes Marxist thinking, feminist thinking and a “proletarian” attitude ask for affirmative, uplifting works as a way of instigating utopian attitudes—I simply shrug. This is not my sense of why a person makes art. It is not my sense of what critique is, either.
TC: Do you believe your work to be art, poetry, or a symbiotic combination of the two?
RBD: I believe these collage poems are a symbiotic combination of the two modes of practice.
TC: Why are these poems presented in the form of a book rather than as art pieces?
RBD: Because they are each a serial poem (a sequenced work, in each case), and they are in a project (Drafts as a whole) that is (grosso modo) a large-scale set of serial works. Thus they belong in a book, one of the volumes of Drafts. Since they do also exist as free standing pages, it might be possible to have a gallery show or exhibit of the collages. However, I originally made them as a visual-text work to go in my long poem as an integral part of that poem.
TC: We’re interested in the use of text alongside the pieces. Is the text meant to be disruptive? Informative? Playful? Can the text sometimes get in the way of the audience’s experience with the collage, and/or how do you think readers manage these impositions of meaning?
RBD: This is a really interesting question about reading and reception. These acts are learned behavior, fundamentally—like picking up a book and knowing that in our culture you read it in a certain direction. Much of your schooling has been devoted to instilling in you ways of reading, ways of perceiving, ways of interpreting and to modes of exclusion (“inappropriate” ways of reading or questions). (Note I put “inappropriate” in scare quotes because I think of so-called error or category shifts as very creative and generative, not pieces of “wrongness.”) This said, these learned practices are generally helpful, but they may also impede your emotions or excitement or judgments—thus, the reading practices have to be revised to account for your sense of an artwork. There might be as many ways of text and image going together as there are pieces and pages. So any of your adjectives might work for a specific collage-poem as read by a specific person: “disruptive,” “informative,” “playful,” “text in the way,” etc. How readers “manage” to read anything is a fascinating question—the more you are open to pleasure, but also are very informed about art and poetry moves of the past, the more tools you have for taking in works new to you.
TC: Could you speak about the disjunction in these pieces, if the experience created by them—wonderfully disorienting—was intentional. If, as we suspect, it was intentional, then what did you really want to highlight with that disjuncture of space and words and images?
RBD: This is not my question to answer—except what I said, above. “Disruption” because of collage edges and juxtapositions is a very central modernist and contemporary strategy for artworks and visual texts. So I am in a long, fruitful tradition of collage in both poetry and art. The more you know about these traditions, the more you can get a handle on these works. There is no work ever done without some “tradition” behind it, and choice of traditions is actually a way of framing intentions. What did I “really want to highlight”? Relationships between things—perhaps different in each case? This is an interpretive question, best considered by any individual thinking about these works, one by one.
I have to say one more thing about your question. When you use the word really, you imply something like “you, the artist, have a secret, a deep and single, mono-causal, mono-ocular model for what you are doing—this is what you ‘really’ mean, and if you would just give us that secret of what you wanted to highlight, we could go away with that nugget of wisdom.” Acts like interpretation luckily don’t work that way.
TC: Do you think there is a way to write yourself out of the normal territory of language?Or, in other words, can you use language to escape language, can media transcend itself? We ask because you use both image and text and, therefore, transcend language. What are your thoughts about art transcending itself: how can one escape culture?
RBD: This question involves two (possibly three) different questions, and they are very complicated ones. I will say some very brief things about this, but full consideration would take at least one full essay.
The issue with writing too far out of language is, if you go too far, who will read it? So it is a judgment call how and whether to use many tactics available in (for example) a dada-surrealist and combinatoire mode to “get out” of language. It’s also true that what is “normal” changes from era to era. So you are, as a reader or writer, participating in a complex system that is perpetually in motion. As a writer, you have to evaluate your own dialogue between the same-old and something so new that it can’t be assimilated. This calls for a real and serious critical judgment on your part as an artist.
The issue of transcendence—we often use that sense of transcendence to praise art works that seem just terrific, or sublime in some way, thinking that the medium (or media) has transcended itself. Another way to say this is that the medium has fulfilled its potential. Transcendence is a critical term for the feeling of being very uplifted and changed by art.
Can a person “get out” of or “escape” culture? Well, I’d have to say two things, here. Of course, one is saturated in one’s own culture—or really, one’s cultures, in the plural. But such a culture will have many contradictions in it—between your ethical sense and what you see in reality, for instance. Contradictions are places where there is friction and destabilization. You “get out of” one set of cultural assumptions that way, via that clash. Further, all culture is hybrid and all culture has the potential for contact zones and places of contact, for border crossing and boundary drawing. A person can find those places in one’s own culture, can seek to know about other cultures, can be a combination herself of several cultures, can revel in new knowledge (via reading, visiting, learning languages). One might call this cultural growth, not cultural escape (which is sort of “escapist” in its feeling.) If we could not step out of what we were born into, no one could read a book or a poem at all, much less a book by a person of another culture! Reading and interpreting and trying to understand are the acts by which a person might not be doomed to be a clone of the culture she was born into. We all make new combinations—even (paradoxically) by insisting on sameness; even any thing called the “same” is never quite “the same.”
TC: What advice do you have for young writers who want to engage with the technology of language to create a more honest, less pre-packaged work?
RBD: Interrogate what you mean by the terms. Like, “more honest” than what? What’s the implied less honest work? Create and maintain your own internal shit-detector—that is, create and maintain an empathetic skepticism and an attitude of curiosity and critique.
TC: How has being a woman and a feminist changed your creative work?
RBD: Well—feminist struggle enabled me to be a person and professional in the real world—that is a baseline. It’s not so much that these social positions did change all of me in every which way, as recognizing that both gender and my consciousness of gender and the struggle against strictures were very important to me. I think you’d best read my “feminist trilogy”: The Pink Guitar, Blue Studios, Purple Passages. This question is too long to answer in general except by saying “yes—being a feminist has been defining,” but there are a few essays in these books that might help expand this point. About my creative work—this is also very important. There is production, dissemination, reception. Production was (without a doubt) compromised for me for some years—some of the problem was my sense of being correct (rather than non-compliant) in the world. Thus, somewhat the problem of “being a woman.” Dissemination—as a fact with which an artist has to cope—was uneven in my case, but I had more tools (stubbornness, for one!) to deal with it. As for reception—there is again a lot to say from a feminist perspective. Historically, women’s cultural work has been occluded, lost, dismissed, treated without respect or understanding. Thus, the necessity for criticism aware of such attitudes in reception, which continue, in clear, but pock-marked and uneasy ways, even today. But to be clear about these terms and my own position: I have a personal disinterest in a feminism of production (producing explicitly politically feminist works), my interest instead lies in language and genre and cultural exploration—which, to me, is feminist innovation. And further, I have a strong critical interest (that is, as a literary critic) in a feminism of reception—looking at the marks of gender and other social locations in works.
TC: Can you speak on your “Drafts” series and the serialization of these poems—or the “poem of a life”—and how The Collage Poems of Drafts fits into this project?
RBD: The two collage poems “fit” where they are numbered to fit in the grid of “Drafts.” One—Draft 94: Mail Art—is in the book called Pitch: Drafts 77-95 and is in the “line of 18″—meaning works in odd genres that aren’t generally thought to be part of normal literature (like Doggerel, Index). The other is in the book called Surge: Drafts 96-114 and, as “Draft CX: Primer,” it occurs on the line of 15, seen through the lens of the first poem in that line (“Draft 15: Little”). A primer is something through which you learn the alphabet. There are many orientations to smallness in this line of “Drafts.”
TC: What project(s) are you currently working on?
RBD: I am working on several books of poems, each quite different from the other, but all under the rubric of interstices (the between). Most of these will contain short poems (shorter than “Drafts”). The first one of these called, in fact, Interstices, was recently published by Subpress. Working in my own interstices, I have completed several more shorter books that incorporate a collage sensibility. One is Graphic Novella that has (in art world terms) a “trash book” feel; Xexoxial Editions will publish this collage work with prose-poem gloss. Second, I completed Days and Works which is prose, poetry, and inserts from newspaper articles—the crises and the strangeness of current existence are pointed to. Ahsahta Press will publish this. And my newest visual text is a poem with collage called Churning the Ocean of Milk, a kind of chapbook size. Although they are “technically” difficult to disseminate—more difficult than a straight poem—it’s clear that collage works with text have been something quite important to me in these years.
Recent work by Rachel Blau DuPlessis includes the “last” volume of “Drafts,” Surge: Drafts 96-114 (Salt Publishing, 2013); a new volume of poetry, Interstices (Subpress, 2014), and the critical book, Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2012), from her trilogy of works about gender and poetics. Forthcoming books are Graphic Novella (Xexoxial Editions) and Days and Works (Ahsahta). Forthcoming publications of poetry include Conjunctions, Po&Sie, Cordite Poetry Review and Golden Handcuffs Review. DuPlessis edited The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990) and has written extensively on objectivist poets.