Andy Fitch with Daniel Borzutzky

Daniel Borzutzky
Daniel Borzutzky

After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. Nightboat will publish this interview collection late next year. This interview focuses on Daniel Borzutzky’s books, The Book of Interfering Bodies and In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy. The interview was recorded March 24, 2015 and transcribed by Nicole Monforton.—Andy Fitch

Andy Fitch: As I read In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy, immediately following The Book of Interfering Bodies, recurrent motifs or scenes struck me. Both projects seem haunted by specific familial and historical traumas. The oppressive Pinochet regime repeats, but so do certain nightmare scenarios, furtive perspectives, glimpses through a crack in the wall. Both books appear likewise haunted by contemporary journalistic anecdotes. In both, we encounter a 90-year-old woman who shoots herself as her house gets foreclosed. From Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene, I here would borrow the principle of mutation to describe how Carcass Economy emerges in relation to its predecessor. Perhaps we could say something similar about how your “solo” projects emerge amid translation projects. And we might want to address the intercultural grafting that takes place when you present tragedies of twentieth-century Chile to a contemporary U.S. audience. But could we start with how mutation plays out across your texts, from translations to texts, across historical moments?

Daniel Borzutzky: I think your observation that the books are interlinked is perfectly correct. There’s a phrase in Interfering Bodies, in the poem called “The Book of Non-Writing,” which comes in capital letters: “FALSE CARCASS ECONOMY!” At some point, I read a review of the book, and it highlighted that phrase, which was capitalized in that manner. I had never thought about why I capitalized it. But I kept that phrase, and certainly carcasses and economies appear throughout Interfering Bodies, but then the actual title of the second book comes from that first book. Then the book that will be published next has this notion of the rotten carcass economy all through it. So if the carcass economy originally was about bodies and a sense of corpses and bodies mutilated and spread throughout the U.S., Europe, and South America, then that same focus on actual bodies and violence done to bodies comes into play in the new books. The notion of actual fiscal economies is also much more central to what I’m now thinking. Reference points throughout both books (namely Marguerite Duras, in particular her essay “The Death of the Young British Pilot”) remain central. There’s also a repetition of the title “The Smallest Woman in the World.” There’s a piece in Interfering Bodies called “The Smallest Woman in the World,” and there’s a piece in Carcass Economy called “The Smallest Woman in the World.” Both of them are written in response to, or in dialogue with Claire Lispector’s short story called “The Smallest Woman in the World.”

Then various references to Chile, certainly, such as bodies being dropped from airplanes, appear in both books. That continues into the book I’m currently writing. So the word “mutation” is correct. I’m kind of writing one book that keeps taking different forms.

AF: I sense an anthological quality to this work, with you collaging together what begin to feel like prefabricated narratives, or nonexistent narratives that someone should have spoken, or that we now could speak. And the confluence of translated and ostensibly original projects suggests a broader sense of mutation both within and beyond the impending trilogy.

DB: Sure. Both books were written as I was translating Raúl Zurita, but I don’t necessarily think that I write like him in any way. Still, he has opened approaches for me to think about violence and state violence and how one can really not dodge it, how one can make one’s culture and political points of view as central to one’s writing as possible. In December, I was blogging on Harriet. I wrote about this new book of Don Mee Choi’s, where she talks about how her translations of Kim Hyesoon are motivated by desire—not necessarily by any kind of linguistic or cultural desire, but by a very political desire to expose what she calls a neo-colony.

Choi writes about how her translations of Kim Hyesoon are not motivated by some sense of wanting to expose a new culture, or to provide some kind of bridging together between languages and societies, but by a very political motivation to expose what a neo-colony is. Choi is saying that it’s easy enough to situate the writer you are translating as a dissident, but she and I are also perhaps both suggesting ways in which translation is itself a site of dissidence. I want to embrace that space as a translator, and say that my translation impulse is motivated by, among other things, the desire to expose a destructive neoliberal parallel that exists between the U.S. and Chile.

I also think this has fused into my own writing in a very different way—in a way that I’ve negotiated in my life as a Chilean and as somebody from Chicago. I see those identities as being very fused and very interconnected. So in translating a text about Chile in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and perhaps even now, I see that Chile and its economic and political policies looks a lot like Chicago in terms of Chicago’s approaches to privatization, police torture, and a destruction of the notion that governments should exist to provide services to the public. On top of that, a kind of silencing happens in both places. The work that I have been translating and my own work as a translator (not so much the writing that I’m translating, but the context and the cultures) have become integrated through different forms of neoliberal critique.

AF: I love this idea of what beyond verbal equivalence can get transferred through the translation process. I want to bring that back to your two Nightboat books. Your response recalls to me one line that stood out from Carcass Economy: “I am curious about aesthetics and revolution and whether or not aesthetics can only exist in the absence of revolution.” And perhaps most politically engaged writers have to pose and strategically parse the questions you ask later: “Should I write frantically or quietly … talk frantically or calmly … sit by myself and think frantically or calmly.” So here could we discuss some formal elements in the new book, obviously without fully separating them from content? Though this formulation will suggest a reductive binary, it does seem that certain elements you aestheticize in Carcass Economy you had thematized in Interfering Bodies. In Interfering Bodies, for instance, a body can split open. It might contain multitudes of individuals or nations within. We also see how nations themselves get comprised of teeming bodies. But in Carcass Economy, I can’t help noticing how the prose itself will present this clipped, controlled, modular Gertrude Stein-ian or Thomas Bernhard-like syntax. I’ll give some examples. In “The Immigrant, Vanishing Sun” we find repetitive, insistent structures like this:

The quantifiable bodies are shrinking. The data is shrinking. The ability to feel another body is disappearing. The ability to know another body is disappearing. The ability to speak is disappearing. The ability to violate is shrinking. The ability to own one’s own body is shrinking. The border is growing.

Then in “The Flesh-Murmurers,” we come across:

Other bodies pushed out of the noses of the dead bodies and in the background the river disappeared, and I came to be buried beneath it said one flesh-murmurer to another, and the bank collapsed and the world that was made of mud collapsed and the river swallowed itself and found inside itself other rivers and other flesh-murmurers and other bodies it did not know it had swallowed but some say it was the bridges that fell first and then the vehicles sank to the bottom and the dams imploded and there was a flesh-murmurer in a window painting all this for another flesh-murmurer who said let me see your best images of mutilation, pity and horror.

Given, let’s say, Carcass Economy’s emergent compulsive/propulsive prose constructions, could we discuss these two books in terms of your own questions about aesthetics and revolution? Can we find an “aesthetics of crumbling buildings” that pours out from the previous book and gets consolidated in this new book?

DB: Yes, I think so. Those touch points of Stein and Bernhard are certainly right. At one point, I probably read every single Bernhard novel. If we’re talking about form, the sentence is the important thing to me. I’m not really interested in how poems look on the page. I’m much more interested in how language and words build and excessively accumulate, and how this relates to an aesthetics of destruction or as you mentioned an “aesthetics of crumbling buildings.” Reflecting on that, I think maybe the book is positioning itself in relationship to all these different types of economic and political violences. There’s this drive that doesn’t stop. The book’s sentences don’t stop. The line has to continuously keep going in order to represent the ways in which those types of political and economic violence are still deeply infused—both in terms of the damage they do to bodies and to cities, and in terms of data-fascism.

Then to separate something else you said about a continuation of theme between the books—that’s right too. Internationalism or transnationalism and those notions of crossing borders and of immigration became much more developed ideas that I couldn’t avoid in this new book. Carcass Economy seems built on this sense of disappearance that links Chile and the U.S. For me, the Arizona desert becomes a really important place. I formulate the Arizona desert and the Atacama Desert in Chile as both being sites of mass disappearance. In the past few years, there have been hundreds of anonymous and unclaimed bodies of immigrants from Mexico and Central America left in the Arizona desert. I think about the linkage between that and the hundreds or thousands of unidentified bodies in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It’s my need to contextualize and think about borders—the violence of borders and the violence caused by borders. Immigration, language, and the treatment of immigrants are much more present in the new book as well.

AF: I felt a sense of escalation. The “Flesh-Murmurers” passage I cited, with those insistent “and” constructions, immediately evokes Katrina, Sandy, Fukushima, Pinochet-era disappearances, Pinochet-era neoliberalism, the current economic crisis in the United States. Interfering Bodies seems to offer almost a theatre of cruelty, a Sadean elaboration of plot twists, whereas Carcass Economy provides this dense, compacted, almost stately prose style, so that disaster or destruction seems inevitable from the start. Bureaucratic overwhelm sweeps across the book.

You brought up the desert, both the U.S. and the Chilean desert. You’ve quoted Zurita on the absorptive potential of the Chilean landscape—arguing that ultimately the desert or the ocean have reabsorbed Chilean bodies which the Pinochet government had sought to expel. So I wondered about the absorptive, elastic, expansive quality of your own prose in Carcass Economy. The prose provides an overwhelming bureaucratic push, but also an inclusive absorption. Did you want to conflate those two tones or processes?

DB: The new book begins with a kind of essay. This question of absorption is one that I consciously try to tackle, beginning with Zurita’s statement, which came up in a Q&A. I had to pause, because I was live-interpreting what he was saying. I had to pause as I was saying it, to absorb the words. The questioner had asked why he writes so much about nature, and why nature becomes such an important means for him to depict the political and the historical. His response was something like: because the sea and the mountains and the desert have been so much kinder to the bodies thrown into them than the military has been.

On the one hand, for a long time I’ve been obsessed with the notion of how death and the dead become part of the landscape. I think that’s true in any place where there is war or massive violence. There’s a passage in one of the poems you mentioned from Carcass Economy: “I slept in a fancy hotel across the street from an enormous hole where the skin and the hair of the fallen bodies were drilled into by bulldozers. This thing called love.” I was thinking about all of this when Interfering Bodies came out. There was a Nightboat reading for my book, Dawn Lundy Martin’s book, and Caroline Bergvall’s book. When I went to New York on that trip, I was staying on Wall Street, essentially right across from the site of The World Trade Center. This relative of ours who used to work in the hotel industry used to get us really nice rooms in the hotel chain where he used to work. I was thinking about the dissonance between being in a fancy hotel right across the street from the site where there are thousands of dead bodies. There’s that level of absorption, the dead being absorbed. And then there is the consumer’s absorption of that space.

Then I think there’s the larger question of how a culture chooses or chooses not to absorb the varieties of peoples that pass through it. I’m thinking in particular about the ways in which cultures don’t absorb. There’s constant reference in the new book to “early Americans” guarding the borders—my code phrase for The Minutemen and their usage of early-American iconography to oppose immigration. So there’s that. Also, there’s a contemporary Chicago in the mix, which essentially chooses to not absorb, in many ways, the majority of the city’s residents. The economic segregation in Chicago is so massive that it feels like there is a real separation between those who get to be absorbed and those who do not.

AF: For this topic of absorption, we also could return to the data-fascism you’ve mentioned. In “Data Bodies,” I love that whole “Data Harbor” section, how the term “data” becomes something like a cypher prompting endlessly hilarious syntactical arrangements. And The Book of Interfering Bodies presents “book of” pieces, which, taken together, suggest the fiction of some utopian or dystopic encyclopedic interconnectedness. So both projects hint at this consolidating explanatory network in which everything will have its place (that could be good or bad—remains unclear). Could you contrast what happens with “book of” sections in Interfering Bodies to what happens with data in Carcass Economy? Here data seems to empty the prose of meaning. It doesn’t offer much to us. It takes away.

DB: I think there’s a real time-shift in my life in what’s going on between those two sections. Right around the time that The Book of Interfering Bodies was published … I work at the City Colleges of Chicago, and we went through this “reinvention.” It began with consultants from McKinsey coming in and identifying all of the ways in which the schools needed to be reformed. They had lots of data on hand to illustrate and provide evidence. This is all being driven by the much larger process that makes public education quantify absolutely everything—from the micro level of what happens in a department, to the macro level of graduation numbers and numbers of credit-hours students take before they end up dropping out, to much more refined bits of data.

To me, all of it seems driven by the fact that the state has constructed this need for public universities to continuously quantify everything in order to prove their worth. So we need to continuously prove that we are worthy of the money that the state gives to public education. You do that by having data on everything. But this is a losing game, a losing proposition. The state comes up with these impossible metrics. Once you meet the metric, there are newer metrics to quantify.

It’s this culture of continuously using bureaucratic nonsense language in order to find data points. It starts from the top and it trickles down to faculty members embracing this language. It somehow has sunk into the culture that everybody needs to be quantifying all of the time. We can all relate to the notion that data can be manipulated to prove pre-existing theses, rather than the other way around. It seems to me that the better we get at being able to refine data and make it smaller and more specific, the greater the possibilities for misuse of that data. That’s the life I’m living as a public educator.

AF: Well, in terms of empirical proof and our desire sometimes for it, does it seem corny to discuss images here? Carcass Economy says early on, “This is a story that consists not of words but of images.” Near the book’s end, the narrative “I” claims it cannot control the images evoked. But also much earlier, in the “Judgment” section, we encounter lines such as:

And more tasks appeared and the bodies brought him chains and nails and needles and pins and brushes and bandages and scissors and pencils and books and hats and handkerchiefs and reams of paper and bread and wine and honey and salt and sugar and soap and cake and metal pipes and scalpels and spears and razor blades and musical instruments and alcohol and string and yarn, wire, sulfur, grapes, vegetable oil, and apples.

At least for me, when I read something like this, saturation arrives quickly—an eclipse of images. Blurring begins. The individual body, by analogy, starts getting lost in the crowd or the country. Perhaps my own blurred perception goes bureaucratic. When the presentation of images attains a certain density, they almost disappear for me. And Interfering Bodies seems to foreground a Jabèsian approach, an avowal not to say, not to see certain things. Carcass Economy mentions, early on, nightmares that created the book but that the book could not contain. You tell us somewhere that film images would have worked better, that they would have stuck. So could you discuss the status of images in your work: how they reach us, how they sometimes overwhelm us, how they might point to, trace or conceal the invisible and the unspeakable?

DB: In relation to data, the images become the things that the data cannot contain. They become analogous to the defenses that we are continuously using. Or returning to my life as a public educator: we have these massive conglomerations of numbers about what students look like, but none of these actually capture the transformation that we believe happens at a very individual level. So I think there are these two forces coming up against each other. One is data as this means of not allowing us to see the specific image, and then the image as being this force that doesn’t let itself be contained by the data. The image is rebelling against the data’s ability to take away its meaning, which I think is what data-fascism does. It makes what is right in front of you, what is human, become nothing but a subset of some larger category. I felt like I kept needing to push. There are things in poetry that bother me. One general category is containment. I find that I’m not attracted to poems that are very controlled and that leave so much unsaid. There’s some drive in my writing to do the opposite and to say as much as I can.

AF: Maybe here we could bring in the comic. You have described Interfering Bodies as more serious, more grave than your preceding work. To me, Carcass Economy has those two strains fused. By “comic,” I mean something along the lines of Kafka, who becomes a point of reference here. Comedy remains an ever-present possibility, but amid the horror. The horror stays there the whole time. Or with Donald Barthelme, the comic might remain an ever-emerging phenomenon, but amid the lyrical. Here, I’ve offered only authors familiar to Anglo readers. You certainly can add your own. But how precisely do you see yourself engaging an audience through passages such as: “I would like for you to sanitize me in a bathroom in a building filled with bureaucrats and I would like for you to turn me into a sterile piece of art onto which the bureaucrats might gaze as they calculate and analyze their data”?

Of course Johannes Göransson has written smartly about the “political grotesque” that manifests in your work. But I can’t tell if that concept fully extends to these newer, weirdly elided scenes (another: “We kissed them and they paid us and we praised them and they paid us and they struck us and they shackled us in the back of a pickup truck that drove into the mountains”), which leave us feeling both giddy and menaced, which offer a sense of the absurd and a sense of oppressive real life, all at once.

Interfering Bodies offers those strange totalitarian-state intimacies. One boy must ask another for his blanket, which will kill this second boy, but the first boy gets it. Somebody climbs into a rat’s mouth to reunite with his/her parents. Or electrocuted bodies try to sneak in affectionate words to each other. You talk about certain experiences remaining beyond the pale, excluded from collective memory, too traumatic for us to assimilate. Can the comic help point us toward those unspeakable traumas? How/when does the comic give us courage to ask Carcass Economy’s understated (but grave) question: “is life ugly, useless, or unsolvable”?

DB: This is sort of a non-answer, which is that while I guess I can recognize moments in the book that make people laugh, I’m always a little struck by them. I don’t know that I have a lot to say about how conscious any of that is. I don’t have any sense that I’m going to write a funny line. I doubt I could even do that. I think what maybe happens is that the scenarios become themselves sites of absurdity, and then something happens with the language and the timing of image and silence and the response to those absurd situations. And it’s clichéd to just say “Oh that happened in real life.” But one of the “Data” sections is really sort of … I worked at this place called Data Harbor in the late 90s, where we were entering data in this way that wouldn’t exist two years later. It just became completely computerized.

Then for the constant repetition of hand sanitizer: I’m always struck by where you see hand sanitizer. I have this memory of this work-place scene where we were in the midst of this big data project where I was working with this guy who happened to be an economist. We were in the bathroom and he asked me if I sanitized or used soap. I think when people talk to you when you’re going to the bathroom, that’s already a situation that’s uncomfortable and potentially comedic. But the question of the choice of things that you would use to protect yourself—that question has never left me.

I think the context creates the humor. I think if there are funny things they happen in the combination of narrative and voices and scenarios. I can talk about this more as it happens in other people’s writing. One recent and very political book that’s been really important to me is Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. The premise of the book is that there’s a narrator who has been expelled from his country for political speech, and he’s in a new country (modeled after Guatemala). In exile, he has picked up a part-time job editing the truth-and-reconciliation committee report, and has become a cog in the strange activist bureaucracy of church and foreign-aid workers. As he’s editing the report, he’s privately recording the lines of the indigenous testimonies in order to find their poetic quality and to keep those lines for himself. He’s doing this and at the same time the character is completely shameless. He uses these “poetic” lines to try to pick up women and socialize. He’s continuously being crass and misogynistic and awful while he is involved in an incredibly important act of historical and political activism. He’s completely real in this manner, a real asshole with leftist politics when it comes to state critique, but who is completely fucked up and backwards in his gender and race politics, and who has no qualms about exploitatively appropriating found text pertaining to the destruction of real, actual bodies. Senselessness leaves us with the impression that history get written by a bunch of racist, misogynistic assholes who are trying to make jokes and poems out of the most horrible things that have happened. Perhaps Moya understood what Kenneth Goldsmith would ignorantly do with Michael Brown’s autopsy report before it even occurred to Goldsmith. Moya understood that when the “documenters” of history (conceptualist or otherwise) are so distant from the bodies whose deaths they are documenting, the documenters will feel entitled to do as they please with other people’s pains and words and lives—that they will feel no qualms about, for example, exploiting them for the sake of comedy and art.

AF: Well, I wonder if that empathic wall also can become a point of access—a demonstration of the denial we had embraced. Early in The Book of Interfering Bodies, a boy jumps into a PowerPoint presentation, then into a river of flesh in his own leg, then into the word “power” itself. These endless inversions of inside and outside, of reference and referential language, keep playing out. Often in your work I see this abiding interest in porous thresholds of the real and realism, of lyric subjectivity and literary signification. As soon as you start representing something, you kind of destroy it too, and that sequence becomes thematized in the work.

On related topics: I wonder, when I mention the lyric here, if that sounds overstated. Could you explain (and perhaps no answer exists for this beyond a banal sociology of our literary present) why these books get classified as poetry? Maybe we can return to Duras, to conceptions of literature as the pace of the written word passing through one’s body. Does Duras’s designation fit better for you? Does it overlap well enough with contemporary considerations of poetry?

DB: In the title poem “Carcass Economy,” I use an epigraph from Nathanaël’s We Press Ourselves Plainly, which is a really amazing book. I do that in part because I’m borrowing this syntactic structure she uses in one piece where she consistently begins sentences with “There is.” I do that a bit toward the end of one poem. I’m thinking about her in the context of your focus on Nightboat because she adamantly defines her books as being inter-genre, or as not fitting into genre, and, without speaking for the publisher, this seems representative of one aesthetic priority of the press.

Again, in the context of Nightboat, Bhanu Kapil’s books come to mind, for being in this sort of unlocatable genre zone. And yet I think poets, and not novelists, tend to be the audiences for these books. For Interfering Bodies, I was really trying to write a novel at the beginning of the process. I failed at writing that novel. So what I started to do was create all of these pieces, poems, texts (whatever we want to call them) that were about invented novels, summaries of impossible novels that I couldn’t actually write. The poems became a way of writing the novel I wanted to write. In many ways, I am much more interested in novels. I’ve been much more influenced by novelists, I should say, than I have been by poets. And without pushing the point too hard, I’d say that Nightboat has been a good home for my work both aesthetically and politically, and Nathanaël’s books, Dawn Lundy Martin’s books, Bhanu Kapil’s and Rob Halpern’s have all been really important to me in the past few years.


Daniel Borzutzky’s books and chapbooks include, among others, The Performance of Becoming Human (2016); In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy (2015), Bedtime Stories For The End of the World! (2015), Data Bodies (2013), The Book of Interfering Bodies (2011), and The Ecstasy of Capitulation (2007). He has translated Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Planks (2015) and Song for his Disappeared Love (2010), and Jaime Luis Huenún’s Port Trakl (2008).  His work has been supported by the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pen/Heim Translation Fund. He lives in Chicago.

Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Talks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. Ugly Duckling soon will release his ebook Sixty Morning Wlaks. With Cristiana Baik, he is currently assembling the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.

 

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