In January 2015, I sat down with Tom Comitta in Oakland, CA to discuss the role of performance in his poetics as well as contemporary poetry at large. Over this thirty-some minute conversation, we make repeated to reference to Comitta’s vocal project WARMUP and The City of Nature (Make Now 2015) as well as Philadelphia-based readings that serve as reference points for us both. An excerpted transcription is below (beginning with a discussion of Nature), and the featured audio clips include our full conversation, excerpts from both Comitta projects, and a January 2015 off-site reading for LA’s Poetic Research Bureau.
This is the first in a series of conversations concerning performance and contemporary poetics.
PRB Off Site Reading, 1.15
Tom Comitta: Currently, the idea is that the titles are structured in the exact same way as the narrative flows, which is kind of sequential loop, so that the first source book, the first chapter is The Waves by Virginia Woolf, the second one is The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, the third one is The Far Shore by some guy—it’s a World War II book, the fourth one is Aldous Huxley’s Island—so we are looking across the sea [to an] island, and it’s The Clouds Above [then] Big Sky by AB Guthrie Jr., which is this horrible pioneer novel.
Caleb Beckwith: Oh no, that’s really good. The sourcing is fantastic, like this variety of things because when you’re like isolating the language even these really hackneyed bits can seem really sublime.
TC: …and the idea would be, like…for this text to really evacuate, like, easy, kind of metaphorical readings, I think it needs these super structures—so it loops in the titles too, and loops back to The Beach at the end so that the last source book will be The Beach because of The Waves [at the beginning]. And the actual text will loop.
CB: No, that will be nice. And it’s like a really good joke too, like the illustrations of the water cycle.
CB: So it’s like seventh grade environmental science, which is awesome because it’s a super sophisticated—you know—technical project that comes down to evoking a really simple image. So that structure is like super performative, like, it’s doing a ton of work, but then, your actual body when you read it was doing—you were doing all sorts of other things….How [does] that text change when it’s preformed for you?
TC: Well, I think I kind of oscillate between taking on a voice that’s very authorial. I kind of—I mean—the text will be printed in a nice serif, novel looking text—so, how do you sound, like, performing a novel I guess? But, but then also, you know there’s a lot of rhythm built into it, so I could hear it in my head as I’m writing it—but how does it change?
CB: Or it does it change?
TC: Right. Well actually there was this great—I did it in, the first time I [read] it in the total darkness, and it’s actually the only time I have ever done the entire first chapter, which is about twenty-five minutes—also when I did it, the gallery was right next to a highway, so you’re kind of hearing the whoosh of cars.
CB: Oh, that’s nice—that’s really good, yeah.
TC: Oh yeah, but one of the people in the audience, he observed that the spoken text was kind of really pointing at a kind of time that’s very un-human, which is the passing of time like the universe, I mean our perception of time is always limited a lifetime, right, or like, not even just lifetimes, but centuries.
CB: I mean, we’re definitely not thinking in geologic time, which is by absenting humans from literature, what we can see are these descriptions of these things that we know exist outside of our timeline—the ocean and the waves, the things that are going to be going a lot longer than us. So that, yeah—which expands the scope a great deal.
TC: Which brings me to another thing that’s interesting to observe, which is—uh—that at this time it takes a very long time to write, especially having a day job…and just trying to get it to be smooth, you know—so, I said before that it would take twenty years [to write] because I just haven’t written anything new in a couple of months it could take thirty—I might never finish it. But, uh, but I do think I will keep working on it, like, every year. Oh—but the thing that I observed was that does happen with how things are going, like, nature will end up looking different by the time it’s done in a variety of ways, but mine is kind of maintaining this un-scary, un-, there’s no weather—it’s just, like, sunny. I mean there will be night – I think it will transition to night at some point, but um, but part of the idea is also just to remove anything that is threatening.
CB: What do you mean?
TC: Well, like, there are no—there are bees in The Waves, but in mine there are just flies. Like anything that could potentially—like—harm you.
CB: [Laughs] This is really good because it’s actually performative in a way that I wasn’t thinking about because I didn’t know this backstory, but like yeah – I’m imagining, like, you writing it over thirty years as if, like, ecological catastrophe just starts rolling in, and you’re still looking back at these, like, kind of idyllic descriptions of nature and, like, pacifying tem even more. So it’s like before we just had the waves and it was able to, you know, be this symbol of interiority or whatever—you know, maybe someone writing at that time might be into, not now of course—but um, yeah, twenty years from now waves might be a very different thing.
TC: But even last November I had a very literal concern—a very real concern—that my house would flood. Actually it was December, I guess. There was this ridiculous…CBS San Jose posted these pictures of cars being flooded up to their windows, and I live on the first floor, and everything I have, like, including the notes for this book are just in my house, and I spent like eight hours before this rain came biking around trying to find sandbags, and like, getting waterproof stuff, and I literally—it was the first time I was faced with the fact that I could lose everything, because it looked like it could have been horrible. Nothing ended up happening, but—
CB: But no, you’re running into a picture of nature that one would not really imagine at that time, even though there were, of course, floods, it’s very different to like—you know, you’re living in Oakland, where I actually just found out on this trip that it’s soon going to be illegal not to compost, where, like, your ecological awareness is a little different than say like Virginia Woolf’s would be, or definitely a pioneer writer—totally different models of nature. So do you think if you keep writing this for, like, ten or twenty years you’ll like bring in this other text that has this contemporary view of nature, or are you especially interested in working with older texts [in order] to look back?
TC: Well, yeah—because I am still, well I have only finished chapter one—
CB: Oh right, but you have realized the conceptual project.
TC: At least I have figured out the first six chapters, but um—I guess I think why not, right? I mean but at the same time, I’ll only include the stuff that is—I’ll only include passive cartoonish—it is kind of a cartoon, I mean nothing is a round as a cartoon, but it’s absurdly like…
CB: Defanged, or declawed, it sounds like.
CB: You’re like taking nature—or whatever we call “nature”—red in tooth and claw and you’re just taking the pretty sections, and presenting that, like, over and over and over again. So often nature in literature, especially novels, punctuates something—like, even in gaging things like the prophetic fallacy where they are totally participating in it or undermining it very purposefully, it’s like often times a one-to-one relation to what’s going on in the characters’ lives.
CB: But then, like, completely absent the characters—yeah, you’re taking the background and making it not only the foreground, but the whole thing.
TC: Yeah—but it’s even—it becomes super complicated when you try to do this because also—I mean nature is used so much. I mean, of course it’s being exploited for the sake of the narrative, but—you know—it’s actually kind of difficult to get sometimes a sense of the constraints I have, because personification is everywhere when you’re using nature, it’s always the build up, or—
TC: There’s always conjecture, or affect, or opinion, attached to it, and I think this text is trying to just see what happens when affective bodies engage with this text that is just like doing its thing. It’s not really like—you know—asking much.
CB: No, no totally. So that actually gets back to what I am most interested in asking you about this book, which is how do you negotiate the affects that are ascribed to—well, for this project—ascribed to nature, like, with your body when you are reading it. Is it just trying to mimic, like again what I heard—the easy motion of the waves and then recklessness somewhere else, or—like—how do you deal with that? Or how do you address it?
TC: How do I deal with my body in relation?
CB: Yeah, you say that there’s an affect attached to nature in these texts, so when you’re reading and vocalizing, how do you engage that affect? Do you convey it? Do you ignore it? What’s your strategy?
TC: I think I try to—well, it’s related to kind of an approach I have to a lot of performance stuff, which is just trying to be like—how do I say it—unambitiously ambitious, which is an oxymoron, but… You know I have been doing performance stuff since I was pretty young, but a few years ago I was a part of a Tino Sehgal piece, and uh, it was kind of like a dance sculpture—yeah—and, um and to do this piece we were pretty much, like, laying on the ground and moving in different positions, but to do it we were asked to only use our breath as a motor. Like, literally, if you’re going to like move your arm, you’d like breathe into the motion.
CB: Oh fantastic.
TC: And, it was a loop piece where there were thirty position we had to hit—but going from position one to position two could take you a half-hour if you wanted it to, just based on, like, if you can get to it. But the idea was that you were supposed to hit each position, but in an unambitious way. So you had to achieve something, but you couldn’t be ambitious about it. And I think that’s related to—I think I’ve kind of internalized this to a point, but sometimes I’m preparing or I’m like reading something, I’ll try to think about how can I reach that—where I am not pushing, I’m not trying, I’m just letting, like, my organism do its thing, you know?
CB: Yeah, like, how can you be present in a moment without trying to. Is it about time in that way? Is it a sense of embodied presentness, or would you say that it’s something else? Is it just, like, being present in a body and then doing the piece with a lack of self-consciousness, or is it going somewhere else?
TC: I guess I just kind of use it, like, expelling air and like—
CB: Oh, that’s even better. Right, just expelling.
TC: But of course, and maybe it’s that combined with rhythms I hear in my head. With the WARMUP thing—that’s a whole other idea about rhythm—but even the in the nature texts, I just feel like I know the rhythm—like expel the air and annunciate. And annunciation is a big part of it. I feel like in trying to perform, like, the voice of a novel narrator, like, or just like the voice of the sound of narration—I feel like I am interested in embodying those words in full articulation. Also so that it’s like nature is being pointed at, but it’s super, like, articulation is so annoying sometimes.
CB: You’re incredibly precise. You know, we all know someone who speaks too well—maybe not in terms of vocabulary, but when they say a word you can just hear every sound and there’s no trace of slang in there somehow—that’s very much how you read that project, which I am super into.
TC: Well, one thing I can say about that is that’s me kind of doing a bit of an ekphrastic, like pulling from Kota’s piece, because the thing I really liked about it was that I’m watching this piece and I’m like, “Oh, this is Kota’s nature piece,” which was very different from a lot of his work which is usually about, like, violence, or some pop thing going on, but this one because it was nature, I didn’t really have much to focus on all the time—so you start to notice that you’re just looking at a screen, obviously—so in a way, the articulation maybe is that though I keep talking about nature that the attention is then drawn to my mouth.
CB: Well yeah, and then drawn to the words because you are saying them so precisely that we’re aware that they are letter formations that are being vocalized, it’s not actually—you know, you’re not actually signifying the concept, those words become self-referential as you are saying them so precisely, which is a really nice thing.
Tom Comitta is the author of ◯ (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), SENT (Invisible Venue, 2014) and ___ _____ __ _______ (Aggregate Space/Featherboard, 2014). From 2011-12, he co-wrote and co-conducted nine operas with The San Francisco Guerrilla Opera Company. In 2012, he staged National Novel Writing Night Month (NaNoWriNiMo), a futurist improvement on the write-a-novel-in-a-month contest, in which he composed and published novels written in a night. That same year, Comitta began offering multimedia writing workshops at elementary schools around the Bay Area. Forthcoming work includes The City of Nature (Make Now Press, 2015) and Collected Books: 2011-2014 (Gauss PDF, 2015).