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 Andrew Durbin’s book Mature Themes and was recorded March 23, 2015 and transcribed by Nicole Monforton.– Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: Since most interviews I’ve seen focus on your relationship to non-literary or non-poetic cultural projects, I wondered if we could start with literary topics. Even statements prioritizing, let’s say, “the importance of resolution over craft” still echo Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” or related statements. And Mature Themes presents any number of small, subtle narrative dislocations reminding me of a prose piece like Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls.
I know you have acknowledged an affinity in the past to New Narrative, to Language poetics, to conceptual poetries. You’ve said smart things about looking at our distance from a particular historical moment, at the erosion of cultural texts and where we now stand in relation to these. Obviously we’ve left the historical moment in which early works by Kevin Killian and Bruce Boone and Dodie Bellamy and their peers emerged, but could you describe your, perhaps our, collective, evolving relation to New Narrative? What about it most interests you right now?
Andrew Durbin: New Narrative is still current because a lot of the questions these writers raised in the ‘80s remain open, on topics from biopolitics to how identity is formed and performed. In many ways, New Narrative predicted how writers who have grown up with the Internet are thinking about the convergence of so many different parts of culture that only 30 years ago might have seemed a bit disparate and separate.
One way that the New Narrative writers innovated was to bring critical theory, fiction, poetry, nonfiction under the big umbrella of narrative, which they then challenged the idea of. This relates to what we do on Facebook or Twitter, which represents a frenetic narrativizing process, a process of building stories for the production of “personality.” But for me as a writer, it’s bit more personal than that. When I look at the history of experimental literature, it’s difficult for me to find things in which I see myself or my experiences. John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara (O’Hara in particular), of course, but with a lot of Language poetry (the dominant historical poetics when I was first encountering poetry), I don’t really see myself. Whereas I see a lot of my experiences in Bob Glück or Bruce Boone or Dodie Bellamy.
AF: Along those lines of what interests you, what about a slightly later, desire-infused, pop-cultural, fantasy-inflected poetics, perhaps associated with Dennis Cooper, David Trinidad, Bruce Hainley’s Foulmouth?
AD: Bruce Hainley fits into this conversation on one level because he knows these writers. He was friends with (and remains friends with) Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Dennis Cooper, particularly during the ‘90s, around the time of Against Nature, the famous show of queer art that Richard Hawkins and Dennis Cooper curated at LACE. On another level, Bruce writes in such a way that allows his particular, peculiar relationships (between artists and artists, friends, lovers) to be reflected directly in his writing. If you look at the way he approaches a painting or a text—like his article that I talk about in my book, his piece about Monica Majoli, who actually became a friend of mine after she read my response online—it’s interesting because he flits between very different cultural registers. For example, he begins with the discussion of Michael Jackson’s face. When you first see Monica’s work, you don’t immediately think of Michael Jackson’s face. At least I never did.
Likewise, if you look at Kevin’s work, particularly the new books, he rapidly goes back and forth between so many different registers of metaphor and pop. It’s definitely not unique to New Narrative, but I think it’s one of the hallmarks of that kind of writing.
AF: Last year when I interviewed Brandon Brown, Thom Donovan, Rob Halpern, Dana Ward, extended conversations about New Narrative arose. I don’t mean to mention only guys here, but those four in particular prompted these conversations. The interpersonal sharing of New Narrative texts among coteries of younger writers interests me. Do you find friendships through your affinities to certain New Narrative authors?
AD: I think so. When you begin to read this older generation of writers, or any writers, really, you begin to identify your contemporaries who are referencing or working in a similar mode. I do feel like I’m in conversation with Dana Ward and Brandon Brown especially, and that an interest in and affinity for New Narrative has brought us closer as writers.
AF: Closer as friends, too?
AD: Yeah, I would say so.
AF: Then for questions of audience, of readership: most of the writers we’ve discussed circulate within relatively intimate and informed literary/artistic communities. But do you have any fresh vantage on what happens when such formal and critical tendencies start to move to broader mainstream audiences? What gets gained and what gets lost? When your book gets plugged in Vogue, what from this New Narrative set of concerns still crosses over?
AD: Whenever I receive that kind of attention, I notice that the only thing that translates is my interest in pop culture. On the surface of the book, there are all these narratives about encountering and interacting with celebrities, and it seems that, for these media outlets, that’s very exciting—this idea that a young person associated with art and poetry is writing about famous people, and not even the really glamorous famous people. It’s content they’re familiar with. With something like Vogue, nothing of my interest in New Narrative or the history of experimental literature gets through, if you look at what they write about me. Interview was the same way. Their review mostly talked about me trying on Jil Sander at a vintage clothing store in the East Village, where their writer (who is a sweet and smart guy) interviewed me. I do like Jil Sander.
AF: Well, in terms of what gets across, I can quote one line from Mature Themes that struck me: “LA translates today into tomorrow by noon.” In part, I recall Malcolm McLaren saying the opposite about Paris on his album of that name. I always loved McLaren’s fusion of punk-prophet and shameless-charlatan status. Similarly, I wondered, for your Vogue-directed readers, which lines they might decontextualize and treat as pop maxims. But more broadly, can you describe the experience of popular audiences or outlets picking up decontextualized “truths” or “themes” from your book while missing the intertextual textures we’ve discussed? Did you deliberately include extractable one-liners? Does investigating these social/rhetorical processes appeal to you? Or did they just arrive as an unexpected byproduct once the book came out?
AD: When I was writing this book and I first showed it to Stephen Motika at Nightboat, I really thought it was going to be unpublishable, so no, my concern wasn’t really about having any extractable parts. I was nervous people would just hate it. But Stephen saw something in it and guided me toward its final form. Through that process, up until the launch even, I had nothing but anxiety that people would think that this was stupid, or obtuse, or not really relevant. Trendy.
I write quite quickly, then I spend months doing what everyone does: revise, revise, revise. I get tunnel vision when I’m editing and writing, so it’s actually hard for me to see…what it is, actually. I just do it. And what I like about each piece has almost never been touched on in any review I’ve seen. When I see a line quoted somewhere, I usually had forgotten that I had ever written it.
AF: What components from the book which don’t get addressed seem most crucial?
AD: Well, for me, the book is about climate change.
AF: Sure, that totally stood out.
AD: Some people have said that to me lately, but almost none of the reviews I saw touched on that. Or they would hint at it, because there are a few moments when it’s pretty explicit. For me, the first few pages begin with questions of climate—with talking about whether or not there will be clouds anymore. It moves from there, to this riff on the end of Houellebecq’s dystopian Possibility of an Island, by imagining the narrator in a tub of vitamins in a climactically ruined Earth. I always thought that was the book I was writing, but I’m happy that it ended up being more diverse than that. I had really thought that the second half of the book in particular would be read as a very dark, dark condemnation. “Condemnation” is too strong of a word. Maybe a darker reflection on contemporary culture.
AF: Again, on these questions of audience reception, could we consider your process of writing about subjects you don’t know well (a film you haven’t seen, let’s say), and how this allows you to pursue (more directly perhaps) the project of appealing to your reader’s fantasy? Could you place, I guess, the authorial-subject of Mature Themes? I get the sense, for instance, from some reviews I’ve read, that you have tapped readers’ fantasies of what youth culture has become. By “youth,” I don’t mean teenagers or something. I mean adults not yet 40. Do such readings feel constructive to any extent, in terms of having tapped readers’ desires—in the way that your book investigates its own desires? Or Brian Eno did a great interview, I think, with Hans Ulrich Obrist, in which Eno presents pop as a cultural form that extends halfway, that waits for audience desire to meet the work, and to make it happen. Have you experienced the same?
AD: It’s been irritating, actually, because I didn’t see it coming. I mean, of course I’m a young person (I wrote the book in my early twenties), and I’m inevitably going to write about issues and experiences that young people are going to be concerned about. But I had never anticipated the word “millennial” being thrown around as much as it’s been thrown around in how people describe my book and me. It’s frustrating.
AF: Well, more generally, in terms of how you tap a wide array of registers, and going back for a second to John Ashbery, I appreciate the interlacing of lines like “The lake a lilac cube,” the Ashberian way in which tangential-seeming descriptions from Mature Themes can double for self-disclosures of the writing process itself. In your post-Sandy musings, for instance, you veer to the Mount Tambora eruption, when Byron writes Darkness and Shelley writes Frankenstein. You’ll bring in these pre-existing narratives, but they’ll foreground the writing of your own book at the same time. So could we begin to address your relation to source texts? Do you rely heavily on overhearings or on some sort of Internet-based intuition? Do you value Warholian social groupings? Where do Mature Themes’s appropriated idioms come from, and what draws you to them?
AD: I’m gossipy. I love gossip. But I love to overhear things, too. I’m interested in what is whispered and exchanged in public or on the border between the public and the private.
I love taking a narrative that’s not necessarily mine but filling it with me. That might result in an Ashberian effect in some sense or another. Generally, I’m the kind of person who wants to be there but not be the center of attention, which also seems to be true of the Ashberian “I.” I want to be in the room in which things happen, but I don’t need to make them happen.
AF: Do similar self-positionings play out in how you read? Do you like the backgrounded ambience of texts you read? Do you not feel so centrally involved sometimes? I always admire, for example, Roland Barthes’s ability to demonstrate his capacious familiarity with Sade. I’ve always wanted to get around to reading Sade. Did Sade provide an atmospherics you wanted to explore? Or did you actively engage in Sade in whatever way a “serious” reader might?
AD: I dip in and out of books all the time. I try to read in full as many books as possible, but I also try to just glance at, skim books that I might not want to get into all the way. I think it’s a wonderful experience to start a book and not finish it. Or start halfway through or whatever. To sample. As a reader, I’m interested in the atmospherics of a book and in literary history. Someone like Sade is a really great example, because so few people have read him but so many people talk about him.
AF: Similarly, this could seem off-topic, but I read somewhere that you studied the classics. Here I can’t help wondering about that early crowd-sourcer Homer, and the deft distribution of divergent idiolects that appears in epics. Or we could discuss choreographies of communal composition. You’ll combine a Wikipediaesque set-piece component on chlorophyll with impromptu, improvisatory reflections on/while running. That seems to recall epic performative structures of having prefab material ready to go, but then adding extemporaneously to the text as you produce it. Of course, you also mention pervasive tracksuits in Greece, so maybe that just made me think “epic.” But even the description of GG Allin’s dead body, the way you present it, reminds me of scenes when “hateful darkness” falls over someone’s eyes on an epic battlefield.
AD: I did study classics in college as a fluke. I didn’t really do any intensive studies on Homeric epic, but I read it. I primarily focused on Virgil. But yes, I always loved those moments in Homer or Virgil that you just had to skip, the long lists of names, of battles, ships and so on. But I had a wonderful professor who used to argue that those moments, the moments that seem most alien and difficult, are the ones that tell us the most about those poems—that we should look closer at the unfamiliar in order to understand our own position in relation to those texts.
AF: As far as I understand, those moments would give a live performer a lot to fall back on, so he (I’ll assume all male performers here) could rest intellectually, and then re-insert himself into the text. In Mature Themes, I sensed those sorts of lulls and re-entries into individual subjecthood engaging me throughout.
AD: It’s the banality of information, which we like to talk about today, but it was true then too. Epics reflect on that banality—the idea that you would need this moment to rest on, and the moment of “rest” being a litany of ships or whatever. I used to really love to read Nietzsche’s first lecture on Homer, where he talks about how Homer wasn’t really thought of as an author, but rather as a category, as a signifier of quality. In the ancient world, there were like 11 or 12 (I’m probably getting these numbers wrong) different epics attached to Homer’s name. It was only later, with the development of literary criticism, that scholars began to prune away some of those lesser epics and define “Homer” as an author. In a sense, this relates to how I think about celebrities in Mature Themes.
AF: I wonder too (for instance, amid the Justin Bieber monologue, or the spam celebrating our recent lottery triumphs) about the pleasure you receive as a writer working in dialogue, dialect, ventriloquism. Both Freud and Barthes refer to a classic rhetorical constraint (paralipsis), according to which anyone who says “anyone who says the king is an idiot is going to have to deal with me” could face a death sentence, because ultimately such a speaker has uttered an insult against the king. You, by comparison, provide many divergent messages without an obvious, fixed subjectivity attached to them
AD: I love Hito Steyerl’s essay “The Wretched of the Screen,” which deals with spam bots, especially those that appeared on-screen as people. It happens less now, but in the early Web (mostly on porn sites) you would see little chat windows of dancing people that would pop up. Hito asks: Who are those people? Where do those images come from? Those are the questions that I’m obsessed with.
I’m always thinking about how text and how human speech is mimicked and corrupted by bots and the Internet, and how that flows back to us—how we interact with that. I think it’s a bit of a cliché to be obsessed with spam, but I can’t get over it: the imitation of a real person, a real thinking mind.
AF: Here could we bring in what people refer to as the theoretical components of the book, the theory passages? Ventriloquy appears here as well. In a dialogue you did with Kate Durbin, Kate describes how examinations of pop culture become at the same time examinations of our blindness—of our limited subject-position within a given culture. That seemed connected to how theory plays out in Mature Themes.
I can use Lacanian logic, let’s say, to ask more profound questions than Lacan ever did about Lacanian thought. Theory can work that way. But I also can do what people call a “Lacanian analysis,” where I discuss a contemporary film, don’t really interrogate theory much, but deliver a purportedly Lacanian perspective. Mature Themes seems to traffic in that second, paraphrastic kind of “theory,” perhaps as a performance, as gesture. Could you place Mature Themes’s relation to theory alongside this line from the book: “Above all else, the critic desires to appear sophisticated, savvy, and in on the joke”?
AD: I think about it all the time, the ways in which theory becomes canned speech, a rehearsal. As you mentioned, you could perform a Lacanian analysis on a film or something like that, use that particular language, and really go through a specific set of motions in order to come to a conclusion. My work doesn’t contain serious theory, only canned speech. I know a lot of poets include elements of theory in their work in order to make an important statement. I think of it more as just another discourse that people constantly deploy to say something intelligent.
I think the quote you bring up gets at that, because that particular piece is just copied in whole from a comment on the poem “Smile on a Jet,” from when it appeared on the Boston Review website. I thought that was really great, because it dismisses my writing as mimicry. So I have introduced quotes from that criticism into my own text earlier, so that you start to get quotes like, “The pure sociopath desires to tell a joke that ends in the death of the entire world external to himself/herself.” And these start to appear before the actual text in which I had originally encountered them.
AF: We’ve discussed literary points of reference, your relation to theory, but I do want to include other art forms that shape your work maybe even more so than writing. For the longish, modular or multipart, heterodox pieces that appear throughout Mature Themes (with dystopic digressions that suddenly spill into a Katy Perry dinner party), I could think of epic, of New Narrative compositional processes, but what have you learned specifically from the narrative syntax of art-world film, rather than contemporary commercial film? What do you learn about prose volume, prose proportion, from certain favorite art projects?
AD: I like art that is concerned with systems and how those systems are complicated by misinformation. Or how those systems privilege and exchange certain kinds of information versus other kinds. This isn’t necessarily net-art or anything like that, but I’m thinking about artists like Sam Pulitzer or Stewart Uoo, two people I’m close with who often refer to the eccentricities of subcultural genre, from science fiction and fantasy to anime and gay erotica. That, I think, is reflected in my work in the sense that I like to work with subcultures and see how those come up against one another, against popular culture, in different ways.
AF: When, amid these elaborate constructions, does Stephen come in to edit? At what stage does Stephen first see them?
AD: I wrote a version of the book that was very bad. It was a lot longer than the final version. Almost half the pieces in Mature Themes hadn’t been written yet, and the pieces that would end up in the final version were nowhere near complete. The other half, that which I left out, was just simply terrible—a lot of cheese. Anyway, Stephen read that book and saw a lot of potential. He said, “I want to do this book but you need time.” He gave me a few notes and said, “This, this and this aren’t really working.” Then he said, “You should just sit down and think about it yourself.” After that, we agreed to talk about the manuscript in eight or nine months. I sat back and just redid the whole thing. Like I said, I cut about half of it and I added another seven pieces or so. I completely revised all of the pieces I kept, and rearranged the order.
When I came back to Stephen, he said the book was done. In terms of editing, I would say the two most important voices in the book were Lucy Ives and Ben Fama. They looked at it in its early version and its middle version and gave me the most advice—particularly Lucy Ives. Stephen is a generous editor because he knows where to push and when to step back and let you handle it. But Lucy is meticulous and her brilliance comes in part from her attention to detail.
AF: Separate perhaps from the longer, complex forms, could we also approach the prose on a syntactical level? I’ll give you a sentence to start: “The procedure that envelops us culminates in a disavowal of the system we benefit from more substantially than we know.” Obviously an ambiguous “we” appears here, but I can’t even tell if “we” benefit from the system, or if “we” benefit from the system’s disavowal. That sort of localized ambiguity amid the composite stitcheries of multiple narratives occurs throughout the book.
AD: I’m a writer who deals primarily with slippage, thematically but also linguistically and syntactically. When I write these things, sometimes I look at particular sentences and I know that it will read a bit confusing. It’s not always clear who or what the subject is and what is going on at the sense-level. This goes back in some ways to the rehearsal of various critical discourses or modes or criticism. I like how those things can be sort of hollowed out.
AF: I often encountered a disarming slippage. You don’t seem afraid of us finding it there, but you don’t foreground it for us and make it one-hundred-percent clear that you deliberately have presented this ambiguity. You provide a less apologetic or defensive or didactic form of slippage.
AD: I think that kind of slippage you’re talking about is truer to the way we think and talk out loud. On one level, I think the book comes off as polished, but I really like that it’s maybe a little bit unpolished. Sentences stick out, come off as awkward, or maybe a little unclear as to what they are doing. I love awkwardness.
AF: Still the last poem, “You Are My Ducati,” closes on a tonic, lyric flourish. How did writing those lines differ from writing other parts of the book? Did you find yourself anticipating future projects? I sense an explosive crescendo, perhaps borrowed from Ciara, though I myself heard the Clash song “Broadway.”
AD: When I started writing it, which was about halfway through the entire project, I knew it would be the ending of the book. I wanted to end with a gesture toward a dark future that was maybe a little more explicit than I’d been elsewhere in the book. I knew before I started that I wanted to begin with a pop-culture item like a song, move through that (in terms of the technology that’s referred to within the song), then slip out into a quiet, lyrical-poetic moment. I’ve always been obsessed with the end of Ariana Reines’ book Mercury. It ends with her talking about how she’s going to Haiti and how that sort of predicts the next book. In many ways, I did actually think about her ending:
I was born with two eyes facing inward
Now I am a woman with one eye facing upward
One time my third eye burned until it hurt, but only once
Then a truck drove into me
It happened in Haiti
It started me
Seeing the sky to lie back and say I volunteer
In another world
It happened in Haiti
But that is another story
AF: Do you often write as a form of gesture? Did those seem most important when putting together the book—the types of gestures that certain lines would make, rather than you feeling some deep investment in the expressive content that a line delivered?
AD: I am interested in gestures, but I did think about the emotional arcs of the book before I began to write it. With that particular piece, I knew that I needed to convey the feeling of not only narrowing in, but also of slipping into an unspecified and unclear future. I guess that’s a bit vague. I don’t know the answer.
AF: To close, it interests me that you explicitly said this book has an expansive climate-change focus, yet I still haven’t formulated questions related to that topic, though it stood out to me. I went to Florida last week, thought about permanent summer in relation to your book while there. But anything else to add about why climate change doesn’t come up much in discussions of this book?
AD: Culturally, we talk about climate change in terms of science, numbers, high-water marks. Through images too we recognize that nature is changing, but not so much as it is perceived on the periphery, in everyday experience. I didn’t want to write a book that would directly talk about climate change, but rather talk about the feeling of it, the feeling of extinction and the sense of things slipping away—what is, for me, impossibly sad and impossibly difficult to fully process. One reason why it’s probably difficult to talk about climate change in this book is because it was very hard for me to write about it. So I deliberately tried to make climate change almost an atmosphere, so that it would be something you recognize throughout the book as a reader, though you don’t necessarily walk away thinking, This book was about climate change.
Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nighboat 2014) and the forthcoming novel Blonde Summer (Nightboat 2017). A chapbook, MacArthur Park, is forthcoming from Kenning Editions in Fall 2015. He writes about art for Mousse and elsewhere. He co-edits Wonder and lives in New York.
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.