Russell Stephens: On the Reception of Photography: Between Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin

In November of 1977, a French translation of Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography was included in a special issue of the prominent Parisian magazine, Nouvel Observateur. Re-titled Les analphabetes de l’avenir, the essay was only the second translation of Benjamin’s Kliene Geschitchte der Photographie to appear in French (Iversen 71),with the original 1931 German version having been published in the Berlin periodical Die literarische Welt during the last years of the Weimar Republic (Benjamin 528).

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Mauricio Kilwein Guevara with Dawn Tefft

Dawn Tefft and Mauricio Kilwein Guevara
Dawn Tefft and Mauricio Kilwein Guevara

I’ve known Dawn Tefft for about a decade, first as my student in the doctoral Creative Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. After she graduated, she returned for a while to UWM as a professional organizer with the American Federation of Teachers. We did organizing visits on campus to discuss labor issues and unionization during one of the most difficult periods in the history of the University of Wisconsin System. Under the banner of austerity and reform, Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature were dismantling a century of progressive gains for public and private sector workers. The assault continues. Funny thing happened, however: my former student became my sister and good friend in the long struggle for equity and social justice. Our conversation focuses on Dawn’s new chapbook, FIST (dancing girl press). There are five questions or prompts. They represent the digits of the human hand, curling in on itself, in resistance and solidarity. —Mauricio Kilwein Guevara


Rosebud Ben-Oni with Diego Báez, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales and Octavio Quintanilla on {Power} Ballads

Darrel Alejandro Holnes (photo credit: Hope Thompson), Octavio Quintanilla, Diego Báez, Rosebud Ben-Oni,  J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales
Darrel Alejandro Holnes (photo credit: Hope Thompson), Octavio Quintanilla, Diego Báez, Rosebud Ben-Oni, J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales

This conversation began quite organically: at CantoMundo 2014, with J Michael’s Martinez’s sonic-powered laughter ringing through Opening Circle. Over the course of the next few days the six of us—Diego Báez, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales, Octavio Quintanilla, and yours truly ended up talking about hair metal, thrash metal, the marriage and funeral in “November Rain,” this funny take on “Sweet Child of Mine,” Keanu Reeves in that Paula Abdul video (more on that later), and the intergalactic strangeness of Gwar. (Remember Gwar? Remember the nightmares you had because of Gwar?) In one way or another, our poetry has been influenced by power ballads, and we decided to explore this relationship in more depth. We hope, by the end of this conversation, you’ll find your own inner power chord…—Rosebud “7TrainLove” Ben-Oni

That’s My Tattoo: a Poetic Conversation with Elisa Gabbert and Chris Tonelli

Elisa Gabbert and Chris Tonelli
Elisa Gabbert and Chris Tonelli

Elisa Gabbert and Chris Tonelli met in graduate school at Emerson College in 2002. This conversation took place over email between March and July of 2015. Topics discussed: The writing habit, notebooks, public transportation, clouds, Frank Gehry, being boring, the anxiety of influence, AWP, readings and performance, irony, failure, epiphany, and the “perfect poem.”

Chris Tonelli: I was recently thinking about what you said in your post a while back about our work since our first books: “We both used to be more verbose, more prolific, not just in language but in feeling. Now I think there’s evidence of writing as practice, versus writing as necessity. We’re older, more settled, more content … and the poetry now is more distilled, and more a form of philosophy than a series of bursts of emotion, masquerading as objective correlative.

Claire Raymond: Roland Barthes, Ana Mendieta, and the Orphaned Image


Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.

-Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

With thanks to the estate of Ana Mendieta for their kind permission to show the images in this essay.

The photograph, Roland Barthes reminds us, is invisible: all that we see in it depends upon an image that reminds us of a displaced plenitude (material, pastoral, maternal). Where is the Winter Garden Photograph? Look for the Winter Garden Photograph, in Camera Lucida, and one finds an elision that keeps it elsewhere, never seen (Camera Lucida 73). The unseen core of Barthes’ Camera Lucida is this photograph never shown. Around this not-shown garden Camera Lucida spins a compelling theory, analytical and ontological, of the photograph. In the Winter Garden Photograph, Barthes seeks his dead mother, and this configuration of a connection that cannot be severed and also cannot be fulfilled governs the book, Camera Lucida. The photograph’s connection to its referent, as Barthes argues, makes it a signifier of a singular kind, a signifier that is “never distinguished from its referent” even as it may convey, along with other information, a “message without a code” (Camera Lucida 76; Rhetoric of the Image 120) A photograph records a physical space or object at a point in time: that is its referent, from which it cannot be divorced (Camera Lucida 80). Yet the image’s lamination onto its referent both causes and elides that aspect of the photograph which Barthes calls “the melancholy of Photography,” this quality of bearing meaning that exceeds code, showing the very ground that is gone in the presence of the image (Camera Lucida 79). It remains ambiguous, in Camera Lucida, whether the Winter Garden Photograph consoles or only obsesses.

The Poetic Research Bureau

Joseph Mosconi, Andrew Maxwell, Ara Shirinyan
Joseph Mosconi, Andrew Maxwell, Ara Shirinyan

The Poetic Research Bureau, a California-based publishing collective, hosts one of the longest active reading series in Los Angeles, based in Chinatown’s Arts District. Its publishing emphasis is on ephemeral and short-run books and folios, and its directors seek to cultivate composition, publication and distribution strategies that enlarge the public domain. The Conversant has invited the Bureau’s co-directors Joseph Mosconi, Andrew Maxwell and Ara Shirinyan to engage in an ongoing discussion concerning the Bureau’s various activities.

Joseph Mosconi: People may know the Poetic Research Bureau as a reading series in Los Angeles. But we are also a fledgling publishing collective and have tried to forge an identity through various essays and shared statements. So I’d like to start off by addressing the tangled topic of our poetics, shared and unshared, the different assumptions each of us hold about poetry and aesthetic practice and perhaps loop back to how coterie may or may not play a part in this.

Ara, you identify strongly as a conceptual writer. Your imprint Make Now Press has published what many consider to be landmark books in conceptual poetry by Kenneth Goldsmith, Yedda Morrison, Rob Fitterman and others. You were even included in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing.

Andrew, in your poem “The Conceptual Poet and the Hiring Committee,” you seem to criticize the figure of the conceptual poet as a careerist “open to traveling for panel appearances” and “envious of painting’s egress.” Elsewhere you write: “Against Expression. Really?” and describe it as “A hold-back project, as nostalgic as self-loathing, even where the self is accidentally yours.” And yet you are no enemy of proceduralism and “historical thefts and pastiche.”

Andy Fitch with Aaron Kunin

Aaron Kunin
Aaron Kunin

Along with Cristiana Baik, Andy Fitch is assembling the Letter Machine Editions Book of Interviews, which also includes interviews conducted by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. This talk will be published in that collection, due for late 2014 release.

Andy Fitch: Could we start by contextualizing Grace Period amid your broader literary output? Some readers may assume that an author’s notebooks only could supplement his/her “serious” work. Some aphorists, some masters of the portrait or miniature or serial poem, may consider the notebook a genre like any other—with its own literary pedigree, rhetorical conventions, inherited formal or interpretive or theoretical problems. And especially since your first two poetry collections offer a circumscribed idiom, a quasi-conceptual resonance not extractable within any straightforward confessional or lyric utterance, I wonder if you see Grace Period as a real-time complement and/or extension of these poetic projects, as a fellow traveler, as a willed divergence or desecration.

Jeffrey Williams with Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt

In 1981 Stephen J. Greenblatt coined the phrase “the new historicism” to describe the practice of a rising group of critics with whom he was affiliated. Against the narrow focus on language of both the New Criticism and deconstruction, they emphasized “the embeddedness of cultural objects in the contingencies of history.” And against conventional history, they stressed that history was a discourse rather than simply a recounting of objective facts. Using anecdotes and other sources to animate old texts, Greenblatt himself has become the leading commentator on Shakespeare of our day, with books such as Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (University of California Press, 1988), The Norton Shakespeare (1997), for which he serves as founding editor, and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton, 2004), which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. 

Born in the Boston area in 1943, Greenblatt is the son of a lawyer and grandson of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, as he recounts in some of his essays. He attended Yale, where his undergraduate thesis won a Yale College Award and was published as Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley (Yale University Press, 1965). After spending two years in England at Cambridge University, where he studied with Raymond Williams and George Steiner, he returned to Yale to finish his PhD in 1969. His book, Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (Yale University Press, 1973), expanded on his dissertation and discussed how authors fashion their personas—but it was with his next book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (University of Chicago Press, 1980; new ed. 2005), that he captured wide attention in literary studies. Beginning in 1969, he taught at the University of California-Berkeley, and while there he co-founded the journal Representations, from which he edited two collections: Representing the English Renaissance (University of California Press, 1988) and New World Encounters (University of California Press, 1993). He has also edited Allegory and Representation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), with a lead essay by Paul de Man, mentioned below; The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), which introduced “the new historicism”; and Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (with Giles Gunn; MLA, 1992). 

After visiting intermittently, in 1997 he moved permanently to Harvard University, where he holds a vaunted University Professorship. In the meantime, he has continued his survey of Renaissance culture, with Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (Routledge, 1990; new ed. 2007); Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (University of Chicago Press, 1991); Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton University Press, 2001); and the more programmatic exposition, with Berkeley colleague Catherine Gallagher, Practicing New Historicism (University of Chicago Press, 2000). In 2006, he replaced M.H. Abrams to become general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (8th ed. 2006; 9th ed. 2012). Since the time of this interview, he has published the co-written play, Cardenio (2007), The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton, 2011) and Shakespeare’s Freedom (University of Chicago Press, 2012). 

Greenblatt has received a good deal of critical attention, including a selection of his writing in The Greenblatt Reader, ed. Michael Payne (Blackwell, 2005); a volume in Routledge Critical Thinkers, Stephen Greenblatt by Mark Robson (2008); and a New York Times Magazine profile, “The Tempest around Stephen Greenblatt,” by Adam Begley (28 Mar. 1993). For interesting accounts of his position and method, see also James J. Paxson, “The Green(blatt)ing of America,” minnesota review 41-42 (1994) and Ivo Kamps, “New Historicizing the New Historicism; or, Did Stephen Greenblatt Watch the Evening News in Early 1968?” in Historicizing Theory, ed. Peter C. Herman (SUNY Press, 2004). On Greenblatt’s roots at Yale addressed in the second question, see Jeffrey J. Williams, “Prodigal Critics,” Chronicle of Higher Education 11 Dec. 2009. 

This interview took place on 8 December 2008 in Stephen Greenblatt’s office in Widener Library at Harvard University. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Gavin Jensen. 

Jeffrey Williams: You’re known especially for the new historicism, which by my surmise is the dominant mode, even if in a dispersed way, of contemporary literary criticism. Many of the younger people I see coming up do new historicist projects, like “The Eighteenth-Century Novel and English Gardens” or “The Eighteenth-Century Novel and Vacation Culture at Bath.” Can you give a capsule definition of what you think the new historicism is?

H.L. Hix with Sue Sinclair

Sue Sinclair
Sue Sinclair

In the hopes of encouraging a broader exchange among U.S. and Canadian poets, H. L. Hix has designed a series of one-question “mini-interviews” for his Canadian peers. A selection of these interviews will be incorporated into his forthcoming book Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2015). The subject of this interview is Sue Sinclair’s Breaker.

H.L. Hix: I am struck by the ambiguity of the book’s very last poem, “Asleep,” especially its last line. “We sleep side-by-side with eternity, and never touch” might mean that we two humans (the speaker and the particular person being addressed by the speaker) sleep, both of us alongside eternity, and we two humans never touch one another, or it might mean that we humans each of us individually sleeps alongside eternity, and we never touch eternity. (The line might sustain other meanings as well.) No doubt the ambiguity is intentional, so I do not ask you to “settle the matter” by removing the ambiguity, but I do ask: How does the line’s ambiguity cast back over the poems that preceded it in the book? Does it magnify other ambiguities?

Andy Fitch with David Lazar

David Lazar
David Lazar

As The Conversant continues its merger with Essay Press, we offer a 2012 conversation between Andy Fitch and Essay board member David Lazar concerning nonfiction publishing. This interview first appeared in Bookslut.

Andy Fitch: Amid the ongoing economic crisis, one neglected tragedy has been the postponement (?) cancellation (?) of your Transgenre series with University of Iowa Press. Can we start with you describing the types of work you’d hoped to include in this series, the creative/critical/hybrid discourses in which you’d hoped to make an intervention?

David Lazar: That experience was terribly disappointing for me. I had worked with editors at the press to create a series that would publish projects difficult to publish, works that didn’t have any obvious generic category, that perhaps included elements of clearly defined genres (prose-poem, essay) but also combined elements from other genres: fiction, poetry, any kind of nonfiction. Writers I’d talk to, whose work I’m especially interested in, were frustrated that, with manuscripts that weren’t easily identifiable, publishers (even small publishers) were loathe to take a chance. So I put together a board of writers who represented the full scope of what I was interested in doing: Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Phillip Lopate, John D’Agata, Wayne Koestenbaum, and set out to identify works that I thought might be an amenable first group in the series. I was also interested in re-publishing work by women, especially essays that had disappeared or were absurdly out of print. I had been working, in the magazine I created and edit, Hotel Amerika, to publish works I call transgeneric. I’d hoped that the Iowa series would help such works see the light of day. I’ve always promoted work that I thought represented exquisite displays of writing from clearly defined genres as well, especially prose-poetry and essays. In any case, it didn’t happen. I’d be happy to re-locate.