Caleb Beckwith with Danny Snelson

Danny Snelson and Caleb Beckwith
Danny Snelson and Caleb Beckwith

This interview concerns Danny Snelson’s Epic Lyric Poem (Troll Thread 2015). It was conducted in person and transcribed by Christy Davids. It is part of the interview collection Reconfiliating: Conversations with Conceptual-Affiliated Writers (Essay Press 2015), which also includes interviews J Gordon Faylor and Divya Victor, as well as an afterword by Joseph Mosconi.

Caleb Beckwith: I’d like to talk about Epic Lyric Poem as well as some related practices in so-called conceptual writing. This may sound heterodox, but I read ELP as a narrative in which the lyric plays the central character. The book opens with an incantatory proem, which it follows with an invocation of the muses and a rising sense of conflict that ultimately resolves. I may be reading too closely here, but I want to ask about the role of narrative in this book. The first word in the title is “Epic,” a highly established form—maybe we can begin there.

Danny Snelson: I love this question, and, in fact, maybe the title is wrong. Perhaps it should have been “Epic Lyric Narrative Poem,” which might have been a fine revision, though not nearly as felicitous. Of course the epic has its own mode of narrative written into the genre, and I think that’s very clearly written into the piece, with the evocation of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock at the beginning of the poem, and with various markers of the epic as a genre throughout. For example, the invocation of the muses, armaments for battle, long lists of names and lineages of the people who transcribed these lyrics. In this way, the work is structured both to mirror and to mock, while also aiming to consider the epic format as a functional genre—and as a genre that was, you could say, the original narrative. That would be one starting point. With regard to lyric as the “central character,” given the process of the poem, I might suggest that lyric is not a single character, but rather five sequential characters: L, Y, R, I and C. These characters combined as a string enable the Python script to grab the lines with which the poem was then sculpted. So l-y-r-i-c is literally the character, but because of its recurrence and continued presence in the poem, it is also the string around which everything else circulates and constellates. In that regard, I completely agree about the idea of narrative in the poem. I’m not sure if that got to your question or is already spinning off of character and lyric toward points elsewhere.

CB: This is spinning off in a productive direction, but I feel we should talk about the process by which this text was arranged before going any further. All of the language in ELP was drawn from a database listed in the subtitle: “167121 Songs, 257.8 MB File Draft Version 0.3.” But how was it arranged? Would you call it a conceptual procedure?

DS: From the beginning I would resist, in certain senses, the idea of the conceptual, though I think the work is engaged with a history of conceptual practices. I would instead mark this as a kind of editorial poetics, in that the work is more about selection, emendation, distribution, and publication than any single “concept.” For example, the project began within a particular context given a concentrated set of interests. The composition began by downloading a torrent file that contained a plain-text file with an SQL extension that offered a 167,121 song database as a resource for others to create a lyrics website. These kinds of websites typically make ad money by way of people searching for, say, Ke$ha or Taylor Swift lyrics on the Internet. Imagine someone seeking to find the song they’re listening to. They type in a snippet and land on one of these pages, where you would make ad revenue based on each of these hits. This is the kind of database that the poem draws from, and I am very interested in the way that database was constructed (primarily ripped from amateur transcriptionists, who themselves misrecognize the lyrics they transcribe), the way that database was distributed (via torrent file on the Pirate Bay) and then later used (in the construction of lyric websites for commercial interests). So ELP attempts to engage these disparate elements simultaneously.

For my own part, I used it not to make one of those websites, but rather to make this poem, which was first derived by a Python script that Alejandro Crawford helped me write. This script drew out every line that had the strain “lyric” in it, and I put each into a raw text file. I then recomposed each of those lines into a standardized 55 characters per line. Finally, these lines were arranged into 55 twenty-line stanzas to tell a kind of narrative, an epic narrative that centers around the character of the lyric and the way that popular musicians speak about the lyrics (the lyric) in their own work.

CB: Right. So when I talk about a narrative and you talk about a database, we’re actually talking about the same thing: that so much of the narrative comes from the found language.

DS: Yes, and this is one of the fundamental questions of new media scholarship. The media scholar Lev Manovich, in particular, is known for parsing the relation of narrative to database (of course, there are many justified detractors to his formulation, but his work remains functional at a basic level for thinking about ELP). In his take, narratives are bound to a kind of linear reading process that we are accustomed to, that is itself bound to the codex, a relatively stable cultural form. Then, there emerges popular access to the database, which Manovich recognizes as a “new cultural form,” primarily defined by the potential for sorting and searching. The database offers a variety of modes for navigating any set of data, but, naturally, it’s always in tension with narrative forms. Take any incursion through a database—say you Google seventeen different topics in the course of thirty minutes—your navigation through that database is a singular narrative. As humans, we read narratively, in a kind of zig-zag line, and I was interested in constructing a new line through this particular database and thinking seriously about the supposed opposition (or, better, as Hayles suggests, the symbiotic) relationship of “database” and “narrative.” I like those two terms as replacements for epic and lyric, actually.

CB: We’re used to reading through narrative (as you mentioned with Google searches, where we’re imposing a narrative), but there’s also a critical narrative at play here. On the one hand, there is something inherently narrative about the contemporary lyric, despite the fact that it is commonly thought of as a historical replacement of the epic form, which is very narratively driven. ELP, however, also seems to replace the lyric with…something else. As much as we’re talking about the lyric, your project is arranged through this other practice. I don’t think I’d be the only reader to read the possibility of a teleology in this book, one in which epic leads to lyric and lyric leads to something…else. Maybe that something else isn’t so-called conceptual writing, but something affiliated with it?

DS: I think I both adore and despise that question. Of course, I’m very interested in what forms poetry might take today (tomorrow). I mean, we’re at an unprecedented moment of technological transformation. It’s a shift on the level of the emergence of the codex. As a media scholar I am very interested in these changes, and, as a poet, I’m interested in how they might create the conditions of possibility for new modes of creative expression. I think that the turn to algorithms and databases, to networked databases and digital communications, is fundamental to understanding “poetry” or “writing” more generally in our present moment. This poem tries to explore some of that. It attempts to engage with what’s changed (and what remains) in our access to language, knowledge, and culture through the technologies that have become pervasive in our present situation. This reminds me, I think the only term we haven’t discussed yet is poem—what is it that a poem does and what might it do today?

CB: That’s the word I attempted to avoid.

DS: Hah, fair enough. However, I should add that ELP is structured as poem (as po-em) in the most classical sense, and does try to think about what a poem can do: how an antiquated and unpopular form like the poem can engage with culture, with technology, with writing systems. How it might address the contemporary.

CB: This might be a good time to highlight the profoundly human elements of this book. I’m thinking about the function of repetition and your use of paratext. The most common paratext in ELP is digital detritus: user emails, autogenerated content from lyric sites, and even Yahoo Answers-style chatter. These appear a lot, and they often dovetail with the literary device of repetition. I think about the line “when it comes to blood and rap it’s lyrical combat,” which repeated five times. How do these human element differ? How does the decision to include them get made, and what function do you see them having?

DS: I think there are two questions here. The first is the question about the human, and the second concerns repetition. First, regarding the human, this is a question I am intensely concerned with in all of my works: what is it that a human can still do that an algorithm can’t do? Unlike certain strains of conceptual poetry, I have no interest in becoming a machine. In many ways, algorithms can already write beautiful lyric poetry; algorithms can write convincing articles increasingly well; algorithms can write beautiful, touching novels increasingly well. So I am interested in isolating what it is that humans can do well, and I think that revolves around choice—something like a classic idea of agency. In poetry I see this as the realm of diction and editing, including modes of selection, choice, and agency. In this instance, I am very interested in what acts I can introduce into this database, this archive of song lyrics, how I might function as a human (writer) within the bounds of a specified system.

That’s on one side of the human question. On the other side of this particular work are questions about the act of transcription. This particular database, which I downloaded as a torrent file, was compiled by many independent users. We don’t have algorithms that can listen to, say, a country song or a hip-hop lyric or especially a death-metal song and be able to parse that into intelligible language. Siri and YouTube still fuck up. That’s why these texts are still written by fans who transcribe the lyrics of their favorite artists and upload them onto various forums on the internet, which can then be gathered and aggregated together to produce a massive SQL file like the one I downloaded for ELP. It’s a collective effort with a huge number of actual humans trying to express their fandom (their feelings) by transcribing the lyrics of their favorite artists. ELP splices many technical and user-based errors, which is why it retains so many artifacts. These are artifacts not just from encoding errors, but also from the ways in which different users (a very heterogeneous set of people) transcribed music that was deeply meaningful to them, and that’s one very big part of the poem.

Now to address repetition: repetition is one of the fundaments of poetry, so now we’re getting back to questions of poesy. As we discussed earlier, the repetition of sound (whether it’s rhyme, alliteration, consonance, or meter) is built into the idea of what poetry does. It’s also one characteristic that poetry shares with popular music. Poetry, by definition, pays attention to the formal qualities of language. In this work, I’m trying to invent a new form of repetition. Iterations of the word “lyric” are both constructive and concentrating elements in this project. Obviously it’s what culled the lines, but what may not be so obvious is that from the 167,000 songs, there are at least 10-30 times as many lines that could have been used. In the end, I decided on a very concentrated set of lines built around the repetition of the word “lyric.” The word obviously carries a multitude of meanings, but for this work, I found that when musical artists or lyricists talk about their lyrics—explicitly—they express certain things not mentioned elsewhere. There is a kind of self-reflection to the utterance. Lines with “lyric” then express a certain set of emotions, affects, arguments, and positions. I wanted to explore what different writers meant when they use the word “lyric.”

This is, coincidentally, where I found the alignment between the epic and the lyric. Lyrics in hip-hop are typically boasting (for example, “they call me lyrical champion”). With death metal it’s often a kind of anachronism (as in “ye old lyrics of fire”), while in emo it’s often one’s most heartbroken, self-reflexive moment. The fact that all of these are self-reflexive moments forms another layer of interest for me. You know: “I wrote these lyrics to you from my lonely bed”—this kind of expression. Across the board there is a self-awareness when one uses the word “lyric” while writing lyrics, and that leads to how you rhyme with “lyric.” How do you place a sentence that has the word “lyric” in it within your song, and then what role does that play in the larger idea of music and songwriting in general? All of these things are at play in the work.

CB: Maybe now we can talk about the way that this very large database compresses into a relatively small book. When I heard about the project, I honestly expected it to continue the conceptual trope of unreadably large books, but I was able to read this book twice within an hour on an airplane. It seems like a really concentrated selection of lyrics in which the lyric is referenced. Clearly hip-hop belongs here because of the boasting trope you mentioned—same for emo or also death metal. So along what lines did these lyrics fall, and how does that inform the construction of the poem in your mind? Obviously there’s a ton that gets left out (i.e., when lyric is talked about and when it’s not). How did that come to shape maybe not narrative, but the poem at large?

DS: To begin with, this was composed over the course of five or six years, and a great deal of time was put into writing this relatively small book. This is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the conceptual pattern of enormous books being produced with a minimum of labor. This is a labor-intensive, tiny poem, which is (like all the poems that mean anything to me) largely historical. I mean, I’m trained as an English scholar. I like my Keats, I like my Pope, and they’re not long, you know? Rape of the Lock is not a really long poem, but, well, it is epic. An obvious joke in the title plays on the dual meaning of “epic” in contemporary parlance. There was a lot of time and thought given to each word placed in its particular location. This is the tradition I wanted to tap into—akin to No. 111 instead of, say, Soliloquy, where a single day can produce a massive book that is impressive in the sheer weight of its pages.

CB: We’re also talking about genres, how/why certain genres keep popping up. I find myself very interested in the intersection of rap, emo and death metal on display here. I wonder about the function of self-reflexivity in these different genres, and how they might interact with ELP’s interest in the poem and, as you say, what poems can do. I think about the ways that those popular genres inform the specialized field of poetry, and therefore the way we receive ELP in this conversation. Let’s say you’re working with primarily hip-hop, emo and death-metal songs to make a statement about Pope, Stein, Laura Riding and the contemporary poet Herbierto Yépez. I wonder how those things dialog—what you make of that disjunction.

DS: That’s really beautifully put. I love that you brought Stein, Riding, and Yépez into the conversation. I would also bring in Charles Bernstein. It would be interesting to compare the number of times Bernstein, or any of the poets you mention, use the word “lyric,” as opposed to, say, Billy Collins.

CB: Who writes lyric poetry . . .

DS: . . . in the colloquial sense, yes. I would be very interested to know how many times Collins mentions lyrics while writing them. I would imagine it’s very few. There are also genres of music that use that particular string more often than others, which was immediately apparent in writing the piece. It might be interesting to think about what genres are not represented. How many punk-rock songs sing about their own lyrics? Punk lyrics are not a facade, typically, not a mediating force, but a direct address. However, there are also instances when the fourth wall gets broken. This is what the work that the poets you mention do. And what Pope did, I think, in his work as well. I probably keep insisting on Pope because I was trained to think of his poems as essays on how to write poetry. There’s a pedagogical function that happens as they enact language in the expression of an argument. The lines about lyrics in the pop music database seem to come nearest to addressing that same property.

CB: I immediately start wondering about the persistence of the lyric when faced with the contemporary glut of language made available by Internet technologies. Despite the supposed death of the lyric via conceptual and other innovative writing practices, the lyric not only survives, but thrives. You don’t even have to write the lyrics included in this book to make money off of them. One could simply download the database you use, create a Google-indexed lyric site, and rake in the advertising revenue. I wonder, then, about the persistence of the lyric as a popular genre in the environment of late-late capitalism.

DS: Exactly, and here are some of the provocations, right? I think it’s both incredibly fascinating and, in many ways, sad that songwriting is not part of the discourse of poetry. I know you and I both work very intensely on sound, and sound poetry is, in some ways, a kind of strange bridge. This is a bridge that Tracie Morris perhaps walks better than anyone, this bridge between popular forms (in, say, songwriting and slam poetry) as well as experimental poetics and experimental sound art? But those lines of connection are not made very often, even though we all listen to music and we all have our favorite songs. I want to think about the right word for how music and language merged together in the development of poetic forms. As Zukofsky said, “An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music.” This is the realm in which poetry should play, and had played back with bards singing the epic poems, right? These poems were sung. They were not spoken in, hah, the poetry voice we hear today. I’m trying to see how these things might interface more productively, and how we might think about an expanded idea of a poem or poetry that includes not just our small little pocket of language and letters, but the very large and expanded world of language in the service of art, language in the service of music, language in all instances not in the service of communication and speech or as an instrumental function. That’s what really interests me.

CB: When I think of ELP and engagement, I think about how it pushes against the traditional binary constructed between the human and paratextual. Some of the paratextual moments in this text remain the most human. Whereas I earlier joined the paratext with repetition, I now want to talk about the way it often appears as digital debris like broken HTML tags and dead URLs. I guess I think of this digital trash as profoundly human texture—as the digital footprint of the transcriber’s affection for a song. How does this trash (this digitally produced material) mesh with the commodity of these highly stylized lyrics?

DS: I spent a lot of time working over each one of these lines, and it was a very pointed decision not to get rid of the detritus. In addition to the email addresses of the people who wrote these lyrics, there’s also a long section of thanks. “Thanks to So-and-So…” occurs a number of times. There is also significant attribution to the people who originally wrote the lyrics, in addition to the transcribers. Let me see if I can find one really quickly because I think that would be useful.

CB: I have some: “Music lyrics Barry, Buck, Stipe,” “Lyrics Scott Engold,” “Music Richard Thompson,” “Music Ministry,” “Music Lou Reed.”

DS: That’s great. So these are the people who wrote the lyrics to the original songs getting some attribution, but that’s not all. There are also lines that are like: “Thanks to for these lyrics,” “Thanks to for correcting this lyric,” “Thanks to for these lyrics,” “Thanks to for these lyrics.” I had to edit the email addresses. These are not actually their email addresses because I had to make them the right length, so I just put in whatever I wanted for those.

CB: You also don’t want to insert real people into a poem.

DS: Well, but these are real people here, despite the masking. These are real people who wrote the lyrics that countless others used, freely, in any number of ways. They were part of the database that I downloaded, but I see this also as the listing of the lineage. So if “lyric” is a character, this is a character not borne of gods, nor of a king and a queen, but rather borne of the efforts of an unknowable set of individuals. It’s borne of email addresses, people who are only recorded as an email address. This is where I think these long, traditional genres and forms of poetry intersect with contemporary technology. It’s also why there is so much detritus. I wanted to preserve the sense that while there are humans working at this interface, this is an interface that’s driven by machines. This is ASCII. This is plain text. There are tons of errors and artifacts, and it seems important to preserve them. In this way I’m very much inspired by the work Tan Lin has done in Heath and other places, where he tries to navigate between these various reading systems: human beings that exist on networks, that feel within an overwhelmingly deterministic technological network for expression. So another character in this poem is the character of distortion, the character of noise within the fluid mechanisms of information capital. Which might be another name for the human?

CB: So if all of this has so much meaning . . . I wonder about the end of the poem. The last section begins “These lyrics are frivolous, they really have no meaning.” I wonder about this negating gesture, which I can’t read as only ironic effacement given all of the sophisticated work that’s gone on before it. This is another incredibly human moment in the text, and not just a human moment for the people who submitted, but also for a de facto speaker. Throughout ELP we get a picture of the lyric as a mode of human expression being transformed, though not effaced, by technology. Not effaced, because there are all these confessional moments in these lyrics, their URLs. If this is the case, what happens with the appearance of a subjectivity at the end of ELP—one that I hadn’t sensed since, maybe, the beginning?

DS: Hmm. That’s really interesting. I think it’s part of the heterogeneity. The next line is, “Sit down and tell me about your last lyrical meltdown,”

CB: And then we get “Lyrical Voltron.”

DS: Yeah, and it continues to think about witness, right? “These lyrics were taken from an edition of The Witness / Deep like the bottom of a pit, lyrics I spit like grit / Messages as well as lyrics to all the top songs,” which clearly is indicative… “I said my lyrics is my testimony that’s how I live need.” The arrangement of witness and testimony is an important one to me, and I think as writers we are witnessing the Internet in the same way that artists and writers might once have witnessed the industrial revolution or any other paradigm shift. We’ve spoken about the role of historiography in the past, about the idea of archeology, between scholarship and an editorial poetics. In this position one is not just reconstructing the narrative as it was, but is always constructing something new—a new artifice for the telling of history, for the witnessing of history. And this was the role of epic poetry. Epic poetry was the record of the people, and it was told by the same kind of massive redundancy that currently sustains Wikipedia. It was told by a massive redundancy as a way to remember, even if it was just through the oral transmission of voices, to write the histories that might otherwise be forgotten. This is a thought in which I remain invested, and I think there are the conflicting ideas of frivolous (and in many ways a lot of these lyrics are really frivolous) and everlasting lyrics. One of my favorite lines is “Korn appears here instrumentally only, not lyrically.” These are some frivolous lines! I don’t want to be too grandiose about the poem, but there is something about the frivolous that also taps into the idea of witness, that taps into the idea of recording one’s place in time, history, and genre—particularly in the tiny world of contemporary poetics. Every single one of these lyrics made thousand of times more money (and reached untold figures of audience) than any poem written at the same time.

Despite this seeming futility, I still think of the poet as a kind of witness to the present. I remain invested in the traditional idea of the poet as someone who sets in language, in a way that reflects on form and language, the way in which stories are told for the future. There seems to be a story to tell the future from within this particular moment, which is so technologically and politically vexed. We have all these new forms that we have no clue what to do with. Everything on the Internet right now shows that we don’t know what to do with our platforms. We don’t know how to express ourselves with algorithms. We don’t know what the role of the human is in a technological network that appears so overwhelmingly powerful and deterministic. We are figuring that out, and I think the more reports from that field, reports as witness, as testimony the better (and, if I may take an aside to be specific, I’m thinking of testimony as a statement of belief rather than knowledge). I think that leap of faith (to use still more religious language here at the end) is something that the poet is obliged to do, and is one of the more vital roles that the poet can play.

CB: I think so. If this book is a document of something for me, it’s the problem that our most moving collective moments are almost always commodities (like the lyrics you use), yet affectively bonding nonetheless. I think of the way these events have been conformed in a contemporary setting, all the more moving because of their deep entrenchment. I think of watching the NBA finals with a group of radical poets.

DS: This is the difficulty of the contemporary, and I think a poet’s duty is to not shy away from these questions or discard these cultural practices—but to think alongside them. If I may cite the mock-epic epigraph: “In tasks so bold, this little Poem engages.”

Caleb Beckwith is a Senior Editor at The Conversant. His interview collection, Reconfiliating: Conversations with Contemporary Conceptual Writers, was recently published by Essay Press. He lives in Oakland, CA.

Danny Snelson is a writer, editor and archivist currently residing in Chicago. He is the publisher of Edit Publications and founding editor of the Reissues project at Jacket2. Recent books include EXE TXT, Radios, Epic Lyric Poem and, with James Hoff, Inventory Arousal. With Mashinka Firunts and Avi Alpert, he works as one-third of the academic performance group Research Service. He currently works as the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities in the English Department and the Alice Kaplan Institute of the Humanities at Northwestern University.

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