Housten Donham with Josef Kaplan

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For 2015, The Conversant is partnering with Open House, a new online journal of poetry and poetics. This interview concerns Josef Kaplan’s Kill List (2013). Visit Open House for more interviews and contemporary poetry.

Housten Donham: I think that I’m just going to ask you some stupid questions, if that’s alright, because it seems to me that stupid questions might be the most important questions to answer, if questions are going to be answered, when it comes to engaging with the “around” of your work.

For example, usually when I explain Kill List to people who aren’t poets, they almost always immediately ask, “How did he determine whether the poets were rich or comfortable?” Which may be a stupid question, and yet, when I asked you that a few months ago, I found the answer quite interesting: you based the qualifications solely on rumor, on what poets you had talked to had told you. Which is great because that seems to coincide with many of the larger concerns that I personally, at least, read in Kill List, around the social network of contemporary poetry. I see it as a kind of coterie poem, but one which breaks down or at least threatens the social fabric of the coterie. Do you think it is productive to read Kill List in this light, as a kind of social document of contemporary poetry, as something that records, reflects, and reduces the social network and the concerns and interests that make up much of the poetry community?

Josef Kaplan: Sure, though I’d be careful about claiming what, exactly, the piece records/reflects/reduces. It’s a social document in a very limited sense – what it documents is a few compositional decisions, only one of which was how to collect and catalogue those names. I don’t think I’d describe that process as a breaking down… the breaking down maybe came later, amidst some of the more complicated reactions people had. So the poem is a bit a priori, even though, it’s true, you could map back onto it some of what that process came to represent for people.

I think Joey Yearous-Algozin’s Real Kill List can be read as the social document you mention, if we’re talking about the public expression of concerns and interests. Kill List is more of a trigger.

HD: Does Kill List participate in (or coerce participation into) a kind of radical transparency? Do you think it’s important for individuals to be honest and open about their personal relationships to wealth and to privilege? Or, to put it another, even stupider way, how much money do you have in your bank account?

JK: Well, for me the point of Kill List wasn’t to pull back the curtain on the fact that rich poets exist. It’s not, like, an exposé. I see it as a poem. The hope was to present a number of interpretive problems whose circumstances could extend beyond the simple formal life of the piece, and connect it to the world at large: to wealth and privilege, and bank accounts. I’d say that, within the poem, wealth and privilege, and even individuals don’t function in a precisely logical way, as part of a single, coherent argument – instead, they function as the context against which an argument for the piece must be wagered.

HD: One of the things that seems to piss people off most about Kill List is that it’s thought to be too personal. This seems to be Barrett Watten’s problem, for example. Do you think Kill List is too personal? What do you think about distinctions between the personal and the political?

JK: I like the question of whether a poem could be too personal. It’s easy to write something that’s overtly too personal, something that’s totally ad-hominem and belligerent. You could just call people names, you know, or throw some epithets around. That’s not my thing, really. It’s harder to effectively confound that distinction between the partial and impartial, so that the reader has to resolve it themselves and therefore bring some set of ideals into the open. There’s a long tradition of this in avant-garde writing: Amiri Baraka, Brecht, Valerie Solanas, Chris Kraus. Barrett read it as an attack. That’s fine. The work risks that – that’s a kind of entropy the work risks in order to give contrast to other, more critical readings. It’s something to work against. What worth is writing that doesn’t put its own disaster on the line? Poets always say that, I guess, but maybe this is one way that question could look in practice.

HD: In a similar vein, what about the personal and the poetical? Much of your work fucks with ideas of the author’s voice, and maybe even ideas about personal responsibility. Do you feel personally responsible for your work?

JK: In some sense… but I try and not make too much of it. You can’t help how somebody’s going to react to something, and I’m not about to argue for or against the validity of anyone’s experience of a poem. And really, if it’s a good poem, you don’t have to, because any one reaction exists in the same way the poem does: borne out alongside other experiences, some of which might contradict, or at least complicate, that initial one. This is for me the more compelling narrative to pay attention to, rather than some imagined compact between writer and reader that either has to feel indebted to. I’d rather talk about the development of a larger, contested arc of experience, and how that process reflects back on the poem. What the character of combined interpretations means for the piece itself.

Like, how earlier you described Kill List as documenting certain social anxieties within contemporary poetry, and I noted that a lot of these anxieties were more accurately documented in the aftermath of the piece’s publication, in the host of responses it provoked. It’s not that the poem didn’t have a hand in motivating those responses, but the fact of its having done so can make the terms of that provocation seem inevitable, which alters what it means for the poem to have been written at all.

It’s all just to say that this is more involved than just one person’s tweet, or blog post or whatever. It’s a whole dynamic. I’m more interested in the dynamic than any one individual, personal component.

With authorial voice, it’s a similar issue. The big debate always seems to be “personal expression” versus “poetic formalism,” or “veneration of the subject” versus “abolition of the subject.” Everyone knows that it’s really neither – you can’t, on one hand, excise the subject from poetry. That’s just not what “poetry” means right now. Accomplishing that would need to happen through some other register. But everyone also knows that identities are mediated, received, and executed in different ways at different times, and those variations have real, material consequences for how we encounter ourselves as subjects, in our actual lives. This is why self-righteously “sincere” work is as obnoxious as anything similarly smug in its “insincerity”; the best writing takes a more difficult position with regards to either notion.

HD: Do you have any ideas about why Kill List inspired so much anger? What was different in the reaction toward that book than that toward many of your other pieces which are similarly aimed at provocation?

JK: I don’t know. It seemed like people had a bunch of reasons. And, again, I don’t want to get caught up trying to explain away any individual reaction, but the whole thing did make me think of this, as a kind of background: poets are perhaps very good at parsing linguistic complexity, and they can write thousands of words on the intricate inner-workings of whatever dense or fragmented thing is going on in a poem, which can be cool, but for some that stops when the relationship between that language and its ideological or social context becomes unstable. Most people like the idea of indeterminancy as long as they can be sure of its conceptual purpose, so even if a poem like Kill List uses language simply, the inability to parlay that simplicity into a similarly apparent expression of principles creates at least the possibility for some disagreement – which, I’ll also say, is never bad for a poem.

HD: Moving on to more stupid questions, what are you working on at the moment?

JK: I have a new book-length poem coming out with Wonder in the fall, so I’ve been mostly working on that.

HD: What are some things you’ve read lately that you especially liked?

JK: Oh, so much. Diana Hamilton’s Universe and Some Shit Advice; Joey Yearous-Algozin’s Holly Melgard’s Friends and Family; Rob Fitterman’s No Wait, Yep, Definitely Still Hate Myself; Corina Copp’s The Green Ray; Steve Zultanski’s Bribery; Anne Boyer’s recent communiques; Mark Johnson’s After Such Knowledge Park; Ana Božičević’s Rise in the Fall; Brandon Brown’s Top 40; Andrew Durbin’s Mature Themes

HD: In another interview you offer a critique of radical consumerism, of the stupid idea that by buying the right things, we’re engaging in some kind of political work. This is a critique I whole-heartedly agree with. But obviously capitalism doesn’t stop at the simple point of buying and selling. Nor is art, and poetry, independent of this consumer exchange. Poetry, even poetry that is given away, is still part of the system, just as much as—in most cases more than—organic apples. Which sort of explodes the idea of the possibility for a radical “politically-engaged” art, doesn’t it?

JK: I don’t think so. I mean, it might explode the idea of a poetry whose political engagement entails transcending the historical conditions of its time? But that doesn’t sound like a very politically engaged poetry to me. Or even a possibility. All art is of its time, in whatever way – but an engaged art tries to find and exploit the paradoxes within that inevitability, in order to act as a countervailing or incommensurate tendency within the reproduction of culture. Like, art isn’t a way out of anything, which is what I was trying to say with that apple analogy. But if it’s good, it’s a way of fucking up the way we think about this shitty world we live in; it can be a way of pushing ourselves towards crisis, even if it’s only this one, particularly discursive way. You know, sharpening the contradictions.

HD: But does this critique of radical consumerism itself gesture toward some kind of imaginary outside where things occur, where exchanges are made, independent of the system? A beyond-consumerism? Do you believe in this space, or in its possibility? Is there any transcendental escape?

JK: I think collapse is inevitable. There will be an outside to this world whether we believe in one or not. The more important questions are: how do we get there, and what will be left when we do?

HD: What’s your favorite movie of 2014?

JK: Edge of Tomorrow.


Josef Kaplan is the author of All Nightmare: Introductions, 2011-2012 (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), Kill List (Cars Are Real, 2013), and Democracy Is Not for the People (Truck Books, 2012). A new book-length poem, Shoot Kids in the Head, is due out from Wonder in fall of 2015.

Housten Donham is co-editor of Open House.

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