Caleb Beckwith: I’ve always been curious about what new Timeless authors make of their publisher’s promise to publish books that are “spells for unravelling capitalism.” I read The Easy Body (forthcoming this Spring) as a text with resistance at its core. And resistant to specific political forces: capitalism and patriarchy are both named explicitly, and, as usual, white supremacy is never far from two closest companions. Yet The Easy Body is not the jargon-filled peon to solidary that some have come to expect of political writing, especially coming out of the Bay Area.
I wonder: do you consider The Easy Body a book of “political poetry?” Is that term too crowded with other dissimilar works? And regardless, how do you see The Easy Body functioning in context with other political writings: on Timeless, in the Bay Area, and abroad?
Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta:The Easy Body is absolutely a political poem. I began writing it the night I went to see Olive Blackburn read from her Timeless tract Communism is up there and we are down here but it is happening now at Amy Berkowitz’s reading series in May of 2014. I was pregnant and confused and angry, but hearing Olive read “the inevitable moment has come: pick sides or perish” set something alight within me.
Caleb Beckwith: I’m eager to dive into individual poems from your new collection, I Love It Though (Nightboat 2017), but I thought it might be helpful to open our conversation with some reflections on the genre and conventions of book-length poetry publications. I think we’d all agree that poetry is not measured in volume, but, nonetheless, we’d probably also agree that the book-length manuscript functions as the dominant unit of measure (not the line, poem, series, etc.) among many poets today. This decision makes a certain amount of sense; for example, the publication of I Love It Though is the occasion for this conversation between the two of us. However, I notice a tendency among many writers (myself included) to aspire towards the book-length benchmark at the expense of the work it contains: expanding projects that feed on brevity, sustaining prompts long after the writer tires of them, or simply instituting an organizing concept upon of series of poems that are, in truth, only yoked by the writer’s life.
I Love It Though seems different. Rather than changing its content to suit the book form, your book modifies the book-length form to fit its content—as if book-form were never more than an extension of content. At 5.5 x 6.75 inches, its dimensions are remarkably smaller than most book-length poetry collections, which tend to range from 6-7 x 8-9 inches. The abstract figures of this difference may seem negligible, but it results in approximately 20-25 pages worth of material spread out over the course of your book’s 112 pages, rather than vertically on the page. While I know that design decisions often lie with the publisher and book designer, I can’t stop thinking about how the formal dimensions of your book frame the poems inside.
Caleb Beckwith: “desire for a poetics adequate to the present, the world since the 2008 economic crisis . . . construction of a network of practices adequate to writing the present, the post-crisis period in progress.” These are the opening and closing statements from your recent essay on Post-Crisis Poetics, written for the University at Buffalo’s Poetics: (The Next) 25 Years conference and your magazine ARMED CELL. In that essay, you define these broader strokes in contrast with brief close readings from ARMED CELL, defining post-crisis poetics by way of a family resemblance. Before discussing that family, could you tell me more about ARMED CELL, its history/founding, and how you see the magazine as helping to define what exactly you mean by the term “post-crisis poetics.”
Brian Ang: I launched ARMED CELL in 2011 at the Durruti Free Skool, convened by Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr in Berkeley. Our projects shared a desire for a social poetics, a poetics resonant with social struggles. The magazine’s first poem, David Lau’s “Communism Today,” takes as its context the California anti-austerity university struggles that began in 2009, the first significant resistance to the 2008 economic crisis in the United States, as Jasper Bernes has argued. Joshua, David, Jasper, and I were participants in those struggles; responding to the crisis was central to participants’ practical understanding, that the crisis crystallized the secular stagnation of systemic capital accumulation projecting an absent future of exacerbated dispossession, exploitation, and unemployment, and we extended our investigations through poetry. My editing has emphasized a multiplicity of writing attuned to senses since the crisis; I first named “post-crisis poetics” in my analysis of “Communism Today” and extended the term in my essay analyzing writing from every issue to date. My essay closed with an invitation to readers for further views for a series that I’m editing in order to continue developing this historical perspective’s suggestiveness for writing.
Caleb Beckwith: First of all, congratulations. Your first full-length poetry collection, Oil and Candle (Timeless Infinite Light 2016), has gotten a significant amount of attention lately. I truthfully can’t remember the last time I was able to talk to a young writer about their first book with so much of the foundational critical apparatus already in place. Thanks to places like Entropy, Adroit Journal, and Apiary, we can cut right to the chase.
In another recent spotlight from Philly Mag, you describe writing Oil and Candle “during and after the climax of controversies around race in poetry in late 2014 and throughout 2015 . . . These debates were about white poets who were using the bodies of people of color, especially black people, for their art and poetry in violent and racist ways.” I think we all know to which controversies you’re referring, but could you unpack your involvement in a bit more detail? How did these controversies affected you as a QPOC attending a university in many ways at the epicenter of these controversies? And how do they continue to inform your creative practice?
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague: Well, let’s name them. We’ve got: Kenny Goldsmith’s performance and edit of the autopsy of Michael Brown, Vanessa Place’s Gone With the Wind twitter, Marjorie Perloff’s defense of KG, Ron Silliman’s defense of VP. More recently you’ve got those two poets making Mexican jokes and a Fence editor projecting the n-word at a reading. The list obviously goes on but that’s what I can remember right now. You are right that the University of Pennsylvania was sort of an unspoken hub for these controversies and debates. KG is a professor there, several of the Language poets (Ron included) are professors there. And a lot of those Language poets there were professors of mine. Some I’d even be willing to admit are the reasons I became committed to poetry. So yeah it was an awful time. Awful because what I saw then were people that I respected and even admired vehemently defending each other’s racist practices and performances. And then also many of my colleagues and current or former students of those teachers defending them by saying “Oh! But they’re such amazing teachers! I learned so much from them!” And I guess you could say the book starts from the realization that those things aren’t mutually exclusive, that the different mentor systems, support systems, and more generally poetic networks can also be toxic, discriminatory, racist, violent, elitist, etc.
Bay Area Poet? asks what it means to be a Bay Area Poet. In the first episode of this series, Kate Robinson and Caleb Beckwith introduce the topic with the help of questions from an unnamed Bay Area Poet.
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.
This interview concerns Christopher Vandegrift’s new book Policy Pete’s Dream Book out from Make Now later this year.
Caleb Beckwith: I’d like to begin with a talk that I saw you give at the University of Pennsylvania a few weeks ago. Could speak to this performance, how it informs the premise of the book?
Christopher Vandegrift: Sure. I think a good way to frame things is to say that the overall project is one of two related, yet independent parts. First, there’s the book and, second, there’s the performance that you saw, which contextualizes the book but also functions as its own thing. The book is a really good entry point though, so maybe I should start with that. So, the book – Policy Pete’s Dream Book – is an appropriation and reworking of a cheap paperback by the same title, which was originally published in Harlem in 1933 and sold as an aid for gamblers who played the numbers—that is, for individuals who engaged in numbers gambling. The way that numbers gambling worked was very much akin to a daily lottery. Players could bet on any three-digit number between 000 – 999 and the winning numbers were chosen by methods that, although they varied depending on the particular locale and racket, were usually wholly random. Dream books, of which Policy Pete’s was just one title out of many, catered to individuals seeking an easy means to beat the randomness of this system: “mystical” means by which they could win it big.
In January 2015, I sat down with Tom Comitta in Oakland, CA to discuss the role of performance in his poetics as well as contemporary poetry at large. Over this thirty-some minute conversation, we make repeated to reference to Comitta’s vocal project WARMUP and The City of Nature (Make Now 2015) as well as Philadelphia-based readings that serve as reference points for us both. An excerpted transcription is below (beginning with a discussion of Nature), and the featured audio clips include our full conversation, excerpts from both Comitta projects, and a January 2015 off-site reading for LA’s Poetic Research Bureau.
This is the first in a series of conversations concerning performance and contemporary poetics.
Caleb Beckwith: In a recent interview with Tan Lin over at Harriet, you give a helpful account of Gauss PDF’s founding. Would you mind recapping this for readers unfamiliar with your practice? Maybe you could also expand a bit here on the site’s editorial agenda and explain how this changed over GPDF’s now four-year history?
J. Gordon Faylor: GPDF was catalyzed by a desire common to many small publications/presses: wanting the work of friends and others made more readily available. I find problematic the vetting processes and sometimes latent conservatism promulgated by publications/labels as a means of caching a curatorially-determined set, and wanted to enable a more open platform for various cultural productions not limited to, but including poetics. Having spent a few years in New York and Philadelphia, I was fortunate to find overlapping groups and networks sufficient for getting a little Tumblr thing off the ground.
Conducted via email from August to October of this year, this interview with William V. Spanos discusses the long political and personal histories of the academic journal boundary 2, of which Spanos is a founding editor. It pays particular attention to the editorial shifts leading to Spanos’s ultimate dissociation from the journal as well as the evolving function of radical literary criticism within a contemporary political landscape.
Caleb Beckwith: For readers who may not be fully familiar with boundary 2, would you mind speaking to its founding and early years to start? And also, how would you say this focus has shifted in recent years?
Over the summer, Caleb Beckwith and Ching-In Chen will be joining The Conversant’s editorial team. Here Beckwith interviews Jena Osman about her new book Corporate Relations.
Caleb Beckwith: Hey Jena, I was wondering if you could start by speaking to the book’s origins. Clearly Citizens United plays a pivotal role, but was the book a direct response? And if so, what sort of response is it?
Jena Osman: Yes, the 2010 Citizens United case was definitely the starting point for the work. I’ve had a longstanding fascination with objects being granted humanity (see my poem “Dead Text” in The Character), as well as an equally longstanding obsession with Supreme Court argument transcripts (“A Real Life Drama” in The Character, “The Astounding Complex” in An Essay In Asterisks), and that case spoke to both of those interests. The perceptual swing between subject and object (seeing a subject as object, seeing an object as subject) has always struck me as a source of violence and political wrongdoing, but can also be a source of critical thinking and empathy.