This interview concerns Christopher Vandegrift’s new book Policy Pete’s Dream Book out from Make Now later this year.
Caleb Beckwith: I’d like to begin with a talk that I saw you give at the University of Pennsylvania a few weeks ago. Could speak to this performance, how it informs the premise of the book?
Christopher Vandegrift: Sure. I think a good way to frame things is to say that the overall project is one of two related, yet independent parts. First, there’s the book and, second, there’s the performance that you saw, which contextualizes the book but also functions as its own thing. The book is a really good entry point though, so maybe I should start with that. So, the book – Policy Pete’s Dream Book – is an appropriation and reworking of a cheap paperback by the same title, which was originally published in Harlem in 1933 and sold as an aid for gamblers who played the numbers—that is, for individuals who engaged in numbers gambling. The way that numbers gambling worked was very much akin to a daily lottery. Players could bet on any three-digit number between 000 – 999 and the winning numbers were chosen by methods that, although they varied depending on the particular locale and racket, were usually wholly random. Dream books, of which Policy Pete’s was just one title out of many, catered to individuals seeking an easy means to beat the randomness of this system: “mystical” means by which they could win it big.
CB: Oh, do you want to read a few of the passages from the original book?
CV: Sure. I should preface by saying that, in the main, the original book is just an alphabetic list of various objects and events. So, just to pick a random selection from the A’s, we have: “Apple 088,” “Apple Jack 195,” “Appliance 140,” “Appointment 085,” and so on. Or, jumping ahead to the O’s: “Overweight 125,” “Overworked 423,” “Owl 163”… As you can see from these examples, the listed items are all paired with corresponding “lucky” numbers, which gamblers could then use for playing the rackets. And, that’s all the book is – 100 pages, with two columns of entries per page.
CB: So, we can imagine a world in which heavy people are all betting the same number?
CB: This is the sort of advice that you’re getting.
CV: Well, really, the idea was more that if a person dreamt of an owl, they could look up “Owl,” find the associated the number, and then gamble on that number. Or, if they had a dream about being overweight, or perhaps if they themselves were overweight—I guess one could be overweight and play the number listed for overweight, but I think one would want it to be a dream because dreams—
CB: Well, sometimes dreams come true.
CV: Exactly. I should mention that, in addition to the generalized primary list I just read from, the book also contains several shorter supplemental lists that are focused on more specific topics. So, for instance, there is a list of holidays, a list of male and female names, a list of horoscope signs, and so on. Again, the items on these lists are all paired with corresponding lucky numbers. One of these supplemental lists, entitled “Dreams and Happenings,” is of particular note for the light it sheds on the social realities of the period, as well as the everyday life of the book’s assumed audience. So, just to use a few items as an example, this list includes: “Your Apartment Robbed 513,” “Gas Shut Off 499,” “A Murder Committed 217,” “A Cutting Affair 801” (a reference to knife crime), “A Dead Horse 419,” “A White Man and a Colored Woman 234,” “A Colored Man and a White Woman 197,” “A Car Hitting a Person 251,” and “A Gang Fight 389,” among other entries.
CB: So, with that being a good overview of the original book, can you discuss how your book reworks the material of those lists?
CV: Sure. With my book, I have aimed to reproduce the original Policy Pete’s as accurately as possible – fonts, spacing, cover image, items listed, etc. The sole difference is that in my version, rather than alphabetic order determining the order of items, items are instead arranged according to the numerical order of their corresponding lucky numbers. So, for example, to start from the beginning, my version reads: “Baritone 000,” “Chains 000,” “Cook – Female 000,” “Dilly-dally 000,” “Immaculate 000,” “Filth 000,” “Flames 000,” “Foolishness 000,” “Light-weight 000,” “Patterns 000,” “Blaze 001.” Although, in a reading scenario, I find it more effective to leave off the numbers and let the entries flow into one another. So, to return to the passage I just read, “Baritone Chains Cook – Female Dilly-dally Immaculate Filth Flames Foolishness Light-weight Patterns Blaze.”
At any rate, setting aside certain specifics of layout and design, that’s more or less the book, which is very much intended to stand on its own. My research on number gambling and on dream books in general, as well as the narrative of how this particular dream book intersects with my family’s personal history – material that I’m deeply invested in and that I find really rewarding to explore – that’s left for the performance part of the project to cover.
CB: I wanted to ask about that material, and also about the function of performance: what’s revealed and what’s not. So much of this context isn’t present in your book. You construct this almost inaccessible subsystem of meaning. As you group these topics by numbers, you’re reverting to alphabetical order as you re-order within each alpha-numeric set.
CV: Well, because the lists in the original book would reuse numbers for different words, a numerical ordering of the content could never be wholly straightforward. That is, a procedure was required to further order sets of words associated with the same number. Arranging these sets alphabetically just seemed to me like the right choice. I suppose I could have given myself the freedom to choose any order I wanted for like-valued words, but—I don’t know—that just seemed “arbitrary” and I like things [to be] more structured than that.
CB: Absolutely, this works for the ear while also saving a bit of a headache.
CB: So, when did you say that the original Policy Pete’s was published?
CV: It was originally published in 1933 out of Harlem. An “L. Hartmann” is named as the copyright holder, but it is unclear if he is the author or simply published the book. In my research for this project, which is still ongoing, I found real-estate transaction records from the period that list an L. Hartmann as a confectioner operating in Harlem. This fits, because typically dream books were sold as “lucky products” in spiritual stores and these stores were sometimes labeled as “confectionaries” in business filings. But, I’ve yet to pin down any solid details on the original publication of the book beyond that. I first came across the book in the form of a bootleg copy, which was published by a Philadelphia lucky products store in 1956. And, as I discussed in the talk you saw, there’s a really interesting story behind that edition.
CB: In terms of this context, this is where I think it might be interesting to defer to you in terms of what—regarding this extra content—you want to talk about. Because, again, so much of your book’s context doesn’t appear at all in the material object, and I’m really taken with the way this seemingly essential knowledge for understanding the historical—maybe conceptual—project going on here isn’t present. So much of the “book” becomes a performance by either the reader or by you, totally off the page. What’s the function of this nonexistent paratext for your printed book?
CV: Early on in the project, I definitely wrestled with the question of whether to include contextualizing material within the book itself. Ultimately, though, I felt it important to preserve the initial inscrutability of the artifact, as this inscrutability seemed an essential part of the material I was working with. For instance, to take just the title, what is the meaning of “Policy”? And, for that matter, why “Pete”? Was there an actual “Policy Pete”? Et cetera. In researching these questions, I found that backstories were more common than definitive answers. And, these backstories were often inscrutable in their own ways. I thought it better to let the book function itself as a further node on this chain of inscrutables.
CV: Also, I think it’s best that the lists in the book are left alone to speak for themselves. The idea of tacking a bunch of explanatory back-matter onto the end just seemed gauche and cowardly to me on a number of levels.
CB: It ends up being a super elegant product, which I’m most into as a sort of a contrarian piece. There seems to be this tendency in terms of essay-inspired and other innovative contemporary poetics to just throw all of the paratext into it and try to make the argument as explicit as possible. This seems to be so that one cannot be misunderstood, especially when working with a heavy topic like yours, which uses super dated, highly problematic language as a matter of course.
CV: Oh, absolutely.
CB: So there’s this tendency in all writing, but especially as of late, to play things really safe when it comes to the politics of one’s work. For this book, it would be to make your argument undeniably explicit, but you don’t do this. You leave the argument behind the book, and it’s this being outside the frame of the book that I find so interesting. Like, when you were giving the talk, you were explaining how this is about number-running, and of course people end of losing all of their money, and these numbers are sort of as empty as the numbers that go into it. So there’s a really sleek Marxist argument that you could be making about the emptiness of capital, etc., but it’s not there. What you do get is a really nice looking book and a completely conceptually “pure” project, which is really refreshing from my perspective..
CV: Right. I mean, look, I’m fairly Leftist in my thinking. But, as an artist and writer, explicit politicking just doesn’t really interest me. Even with the performance part of the project, where I lay out historical material that could be easily bent in that direction, my interest is much more in exploring the various overlapping frameworks and systems that were at work in shaping that history. So, to pick up on an example I mentioned earlier – the use of “Policy” in the book’s title – the reference there is to a form of numbers gambling that predated the three-digit system developed in the 1920’s. What’s interesting to me is that the contents of Policy Pete’s Dream Book would actually have been useless to a policy gambler – three-digit combinations were not used in policy gambling – yet the influence of that older system was such that it lived on as a misnomer in the vernacular. And, of course, that’s just a very small example, but hopefully it gives some sense of my approach to and interest in this material, which is – on the whole – far more concerned with examining how systems interact with one another and evolve messily over time.
CV: In the performance component of the project, I talk about an older piece of mine – one that I spent a great deal of time developing but ultimately abandoned – where I was working with Morse code messages as the starting point for a series of musical compositions. Basically, I was using various numerical procedures to transform the rhythm and pitches of Morse code messages into more complex musical forms. By extensively elaborating and building on these procedures, I was able to eventually arrive at music I was satisfied with. By that point, however, the system I had developed was something that, on first and second glance, would have seemed to someone like a very inscrutable thing. At the time, I was unable to reconcile myself to that level of conceptual messiness. Yet, the decisions that led me to that point – that process of development – stuck with me as something I wanted to explore in a more general sense. Policy Pete’s, in part, became a vehicle for that.
CB: Well, you can always write the formula for the line you want, it’s just going to be unbearably long when all you want to look at is an enjoyable shape. What’s great, to me, about this project is you’re just refusing the mandate to show your work.
CV: Yeah . . .
CB: And you know it! It’s like you have the proof, but you’re asking: ‘why do I need to show this?’ With the lecture, there’s this nice added dimension. It’s showing that you could show your work. You could tell us all about history of “Policy” behind this book; you could track the many bootleg editions of these books that circulated, one of which you’re using; you could outline the many different currencies in which this gambling occurred and how these numbers were chosen, which refracts on currency speculation in manifold ways. So, you can show your work in a number of ways, all of which end up being maybe as sleek as the book when we put them all together. Yet your book is completely refusing to do this, not finding it interesting as an artistic project.
CV: Right. In the end, if all of that was there but the book looked ugly – if the words weren’t interesting – what would be the point?
There’s a sense in which the more I explain the work, the more it becomes a dull morass of cliché proceduralism and historical tidbits. In a way, it would almost be more honest to just present the book by saying, “I rearranged the words according to their numbers, alright?”
Christopher Vandegrift is a Philadelphia-based writer and new media artist whose practice spans film, experimental music, and poetics. His work has been presented at conferences across the U.S. and exhibited internationally. His debut book, Policy Pete’s Dream Book, is forthcoming from Make Now Press.