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Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Donna Haraway took place on July 6, 2009 at Donna Haraway’s house in Santa Cruz, California. Transcribed by Heather Steffen.
Jeffrey Williams: The first question I want to ask is about the “Cyborg Manifesto,” because that’s how many people know your work, and also because this year is its twenty-fifth anniversary. It was a different moment to be doing theory in the eighties. Could you tell me about the situation then and how you reflect back on it?
Donna Haraway: The “Cyborg Manifesto” grew out of a number of political connections and deep intellectual interests. The immediate occasion for the “Cyborg Manifesto” was that I was asked by the Socialist Review collective in Berkeley to be a representative at a conference in Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian left was no longer quite as radical as the immediately preceding generation because of repression but still a very vibrant political intellectual formation of international Marxists, and the Socialist Review collective sent representatives. I came out of the Baltimore Marxist-feminist union when I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and had just moved to Santa Cruz and to the History of Consciousness department. The kind of Marxist-feminist that I was, was very latitudinarian, but that was true of most of us of that period. And it was also the early years of the Reagan presidency. So I went to Cavtat, now in Croatia but then Yugoslavia, and I had a little paper that I was going to read on reproductive technologies and reproductive freedom. And there I met an extraordinary group of people. The women in particular were very alert to the kinds of sexism that were practiced in the international Marxist scene in those years, partly by younger men but mainly by an older generation of men, from North Korea and East Germany and the rest. Feminism had no cultural purchase in their practice. Continue reading
This interview series began with graduate work I am undertaking at the University of Illinois at Chicago on aesthetics, labor, contemporary poetics, and the 20th-century history of the professoriate within the American university, an institution that neoliberalized following wholesale privatization over the last 30 years, and the financial crisis of 2008.
Today, market exchange is commodity exchange: the prices fixed by the neoliberal market on intellectual capital (DNA, art, patents), human beings and human capital (a system subtended by unpaid domestic labor and exploited wage labor) must be reevaluated, beginning with an alternative structure to aesthetic/commercial production beyond corporate creditism, and a return to a labor theory of value. Institutional critiques and conversations across artistic disciplines are necessary, lest enthusiastic rhetoric surrounding the mass democratization of education, cyberspace and literary publishing drown out awareness of the profiteering models of the corporate state, as well as intellectual property-rights issues of increasing salience in a tech-driven culture of citizen-consumers whose increased investitures of time, labor and cultural products (what Rodrigo Toscano calls “aesthetic volunteerism”) yield steadily diminishing returns.
Virginia Konchan: In your essay “I am a poet and I have” in the Poetic Labor Project, you compare the American university system to a sharecropper estate whose laborers are either tenure-line teacher-scholar-writers or “sharecroppers” (adjunct teachers and graduate teaching assistants).
The working conditions of sharecroppers are horrific as you say: an adjunct teaching three sections of a course at $2,000 each earns $6,000 a semester. Spread over 15 weeks this equates to $375 a week, and when factoring in course preparation, teaching, grading and student conferencing, adjunct professors’ hourly rate is far below the national minimum wage and rarely includes health insurance or retirement benefits: graduate TA’s often make even less.
Context is everything, relativistic linguistic and cultural theory remind us, and yet contemporary poets continue to be exploited by corporatized structures in which the “investment” of a degree or two in poetry is bought, after which many work as contingent faculty for less than a living wage. Public forums (e.g. The Adjunct Project) and unionization efforts name many culprits (the corporatization of higher ed; wage-labor capitalism; neoliberalism).
What larger system in your opinion undergirds the sharecropper estate?
Cathy Wagner: I had a long talk with a taxi driver, an Ethiopian-born US citizen, as he drove me to the Denver airport last January. He had lost a sales job in the downturn in 2008 and after nine months, he found work as a taxi driver. His cab license costs $600 a month. He rents the cab itself from Yellow Cab, which is a huge French company (all those yellow cabs, one company). He and his fellow drivers are not employees of Yellow Cab; they are independent contractors. Yellow Cab offers drivers no benefits, and the fees the drivers pay the company rise all the time. The law says that taxi drivers must take breaks but if my cabbie does not drive twelve hours a day he cannot afford to live and pay for his license and cab. It’s an exploitative situation, and dangerous for drivers and passengers because the drivers are overworked and tired.
This situation — laying off permanent employees, making employees into independent contractors — has repeated itself in every industry including university education, where adjuncts now teach 70 percent of credit hours as you know. Obviously the practice has led to worse conditions for workers (the lack of bathrooms for truckers working out of the Oakland port is one example). It’s made a nonsense of the eight-hour workday. It also makes it difficult to organize activism: everyone is an independent contractor, atomized, out of touch. Continue reading
Cross Cultural Poetics Episode #254: Commonwealth. This interview was transcribed by Holly Melgard
Leonard Schwartz: Great to have you back on the program and to have your new book Commonwealth (published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) and your soon to be published new text with Antonio Negri entitled Declaration also in hand, about which I hope we can speak. As I mentioned, this is a kind of trilogy. Your first work was Empire, the second was Multitude and now the third is Commonwealth. I wondered if you could say a little bit about the underlying architectonic of the three and where Commonwealth fits in the structure as far as your thinking is concerned?
Michael Hardt: Well, you know in some ways, calling it a “trilogy” for ourselves was a way of stopping us from writing more books like this. So unless we start something like prequels—like Star Wars would do—at least we have an end to it. But once we started calling it a “trilogy,” like you say, we did sort of create in our minds an architecture of the whole. In some ways, we considered Empire, the first of the three, to be focused primarily on the characteristics of the new global power structure. Multitude in many ways was both inspired by the alter-globalization movements and following new possibilities in the era of globalization—new possibilities of democracy, of alternatives.
As a final piece, Commonwealth is trying to articulate the notion of the common as both a perspective and an alternative, really, to the current economic and social possibilities. In some ways, “common” can be understood here as being something outside of alternatives we are otherwise presented with, which are these alternatives between private property and public property. You might say Neoliberalism focused on the role of “private property,” and some sort of Keynesian and/or Socialist solution focused on “public property” (meaning, property controlled and regulated by the state). We think of “the common” as something which is neither of those two, and which is, instead, characterized by open-access and self-management. So this might find a way outside of what seems to us to be a restrictive binary, which we’re often faced with (especially in these moments of economic crisis like we’ve had since 2008). Continue reading
Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Reddy’s chapbook Readings in World Literature (Omnidawn Books). Recorded June 5th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Appropriated text has become a familiar part of your poetic practice. In Voyager, this takes a form resembling erasure poetry. For Readings in World Literature, something closer to citational practice appears. As in Craig Dworkin’s prose text Dure, citational processes arise amid an investigation at time whimsical, at times more grave, but consistently an investigation of pain, wounds, human frailty. Do these excerpted quotations in Readings take on the status of lacerations, scars (though those two themselves seem quite different)?
Srikanth Reddy: Well many people make a powerful case for those two phenomena, textuality and embodiment, being metaphors for each other. I don’t know that that’s the way my literary imagination works right now. But citation and quotation do interest me as practices arising out of a kind of woundedness. These wounds may be more psychic than physical or corporeal. So the speaker of this poem kind of shores up fragments against his ruins, though not ruins of the body so much as ruins of . . . an inwardness he tries to negotiate by consulting other works as a means of reconstituting identity for himself. Probably you could connect this process to scarring or lesions. But I have enough difficulty conveying a sense of my own embodiment as speaker without treating the poem itself as embodied presence. Continue reading
Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Shockley’s book Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (University of Iowa Press). Recorded August 6th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Renegade Poetics outlines what “black aesthetics” might mean amid the ongoing legacy of the Black Arts Movement. I notice a basic tension in your book between wanting to confirm that the BAM’s reductive tendencies have had a constrictive impact on both creative and scholarly production and wanting to assert that our own conception of the BAM itself is a reductive one—this movement remained much more multifarious, complex, and diverse than subsequent critics have assumed. Could you provide a brief summary of current critical approaches to the BAM? Then could you point to common limitations in our conception of the BAM’s ideological or aesthetic range?
Evie Shockley: You’ve given a good sense of two of this book’s main goals. I guess they might seem in tension with each other, though I’d like to think of them as complementary. Continue reading
Nature Theater of Oklahoma talks to performer Kate Valk, one of the founding members of the Wooster Group, about her sustained commitment to the company and her evolution and transformation as an artist within it.
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This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Julie Carr’s 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta Press, 2010).
H. L. Hix: Re. § 31: Why must? Why here? (I don’t mean this only/primarily as an interrogation of the particular words in this sentence, but as one way of enriching my sense of the whole book’s structure.) The contrast between what “we” were (truthfully?) told and what the boy was (deceptively) told also seems significant and “structural.”
Julie Carr: While writing this project I found myself avoiding (out of fear) certain stories that felt too close to home. The story of the Capitol Hill Rapist was one such story. I knew I had to confront it/him because my intention was precisely to confront fears and to examine the violence that was nearest to me. “Here,” had to be placed 1/3 of the way into the book because it was there that such avoidance became obvious. But it also has to be “here” in the sense that my challenge in this book was not to pretend that violence is always elsewhere but to see into the ways in which it is always right “here.”
Throughout the process of writing and then constructing the book I tried to balance the lyrical with more objective and descriptive moments. I did not only want to “tell it like it is,” I also wanted to explore the inner-states of the person who I attempted to see and to describe. And I wanted to write from the particular music of the states of mind or emotion that arose. Some sections demanded a narrative or more flatly descriptive mode while others needed to remain lyrical and open, even fragmentary.
The boy in this poem is a real boy and what his parents said was also real. Obviously, any child would know that “she had an ow-y and she fell down,” was not an accurate way of describing what he saw. The utter failure of the parents to explain what he saw speaks to me about one of the central and anguishing aspects of this project. We do not want our children to know what they know. We do not want to tell them what we cannot help but tell them. And thus, protection fails; innocence is false. Something else must be taught to them, which is to say, something else must be taught to us. And that something else, I think, is that we must live within the paradox of our awareness of suffering coupled with our experiences of pleasure, hope, even joy. This is not an easy or even stable realization. The parents lie to the child in order for him to go on living. He knows they are lying, but he knows also that they are lying out of love and that love is powerfully contrasting and coexisting with the woman’s death. Continue reading
This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Noah Eli Gordon’s A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow (New Issues, 2007).
H. L. Hix: The explicit subject of “An exact comprehension of the composer’s intent” (12) is music, of course, but I am inclined also to take “not by voice / but what precedes it” as one formulation of an aesthetic ideal that the poems in your book pursue. Is that too great a liberty to take with the poem?
Noah Eli Gordon: Explicit subject: music; implicit subject: poetry. I like that you say “one formulation” rather than the formulation, as I believe in the total liberation of the poem as well as the poem of total liberation, but not in the liberty of the poet’s relationship to the poem. Poems govern poets through control and restriction; even the poem trumpeting radical liberation is restrictively fascist. It might love you, its reader, but it doesn’t believe in any god other than itself. It doesn’t understand that there is such a thing as the poet, which means, effectively, there isn’t. I don’t really believe this, yet I’m irrelevant: the poem thinks authorial intention is a nonsense phrase. If I weren’t already completely disenfranchised here, I’d nod my head in disagreement. This is all another way of saying: take whatever liberties you like with the poem; it certainly wouldn’t grant me any.
That said, this ideal might be the question: does thinking occur before one is able to find the language with which one might house it? And if so, is this language then continually playing catch-up and merely a poor substitute or false approximation of thought? And is the poem what arises from the lag time between thought and its articulation? Or is the poem a constructivist attempt to simulate this space? These questions seem to hover over this particular book for me, which I think of as an homage not to the instrument or the amplifier but to the cord connecting the two. Continue reading
This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Eileen Myles’s Sorry, Tree (Wave Books, 2007).
H. L. Hix: The only intervention into otherwise “normal” typesetting is the circle around “why” in the very first poem. I took this as a clue that the poems would be asking questions, and as a suggestion that I do the same, though I have no real reason for interpreting it that way. I wonder how you yourself meant that intervention.
Eileen Myles: I felt there was no punctuation that adequately stopped in the splashy way a handwritten circle around a word does. I wanted a real sign, like STOP on a street. I wanted to push through the limitation of the page and be in another medium. I wanted to be standing on a stage. It felt like a performative punctuation. I’m always thinking about the depth of the page, its way of holding more than it generally is assumed to be doing. The circle was throwing its hands up somehow. Continue reading
Scrub was my contribution to a downtown gay zine scene that I found seductive and sexy, but was also conflicted about. So much of it seemed self-promotional and insular. I wanted my version to tell the stories of an underrepresented New York, whose stories are just as fabulous if one takes the time to listen. Scrub ended up being a one-off response. There was only one issue printed, mostly because I didn’t have a business plan. Printing is costly but I wanted the satisfaction of having a tangible artifact. Now, seven years later, I’m happy The Conversant has resurrected these interviews in an online format. It’s interesting so see how they hold up in a new context.—Justin Yockel
Rubén Espinosa: In 1971 I was going to enter university to be an architect but then I decided to move to New York. Nobody could take it out of my mind. My family thought I was crazy because—
Justin Yockel: Everyone in Ecuador?
RE: —because they have money. They’re rich. So when you have a good economic position there, you have no absolutely interest in coming here, except for vacations. By the ’70s there was a lot of news, not only about the hippies, but also about the blacks. There was a lot of unrest going on in Harlem. I don’t remember very well, but I used to read a lot about that up there. So for me, I wanted to be in New York, no matter what. So they sent me here to go to New York University and when I came here I got caught up in the whole scene right away and they kept sending me money. They thought I was going to school but I didn’t.
This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). During a year living in Moscow, I pursued an independent research project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Response to Historical Change,” which involved meeting poets, translating and living through the tumult of post-Soviet economic “shock therapy.” My interviews have continued in subsequent visits to Russia and with Russian poets over the past twenty years. In the introduction to my original Watson Fellowship statement, I quoted the following: “Once Alexander Blok quite rightly stated that at a time of historical storms and alarms, the most intimate recesses of the soul are also filled with alarm. Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: ‘That’s how it was with the soldiers, or perhaps with the country, or maybe that’s how it was in my heart.’ The indivisibility of the macroworld of ideas and the microworld of the emotions, this merging of the interests of society with the individual’s private interests is reflected in our art not as mere declarations by as the norm in our way of life (Fifty Soviet Poets, 14).” These interviews were conducted in Russian and in person, and later translated by me—with just a couple exceptions. Thanks in particular to Dimitri Psurtsev, not only for his mentoring and friendship, but also for helping me connect with some of these poets; his tireless enthusiasm for Russian poetry in its rich diversity, its mysteries, and intoxicating musics helped deflect my initially sociological approach (which included a survey of undergraduate students about their relationship to poetry), and complicate my initial desire to read easy equivalences between societal events and a poet’s work.
Philip Metres: When did you begin writing poetry, and can you remember why?
Dimitri Psurtsev: I wrote my first poem when I was seven or so. It was about an old man in a country house attacked by winds. Now I think I was trying to write “A Winter’s Tale” by Dylan Thomas, but I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t know English. As for my first real poems (“real” in the sense that I knew they were mine and nobody else’s and had the right to be), I wrote them when I was about thirty, the age many people stop writing poems. I almost avoided writing up to the moment when I knew I would express something of the Inexpressible, that mystic domain where all real poems seem to come from and where each poet has a place and doesn’t have to fight for it. Also, we have a rich literary tradition in Russia, and you should be terribly sure you have something to say before you just open your mouth.
Anyway, to answer the “why” part of the question, I wrote my first poems at the same time as a very close friend of mine emigrated to the U.S., which made me realize why I was not going to emigrate, what Russian history and just living in Russia meant to me, what was the focus of living. And a lot of things that had been dormant came to the surface in the form of poems. Continue reading
Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Thom Donovan’s book The Hole (Displaced Press). Recorded July 5th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with a brief chronicle of this book’s making, which doesn’t describe necessarily its present function? Can we track how its structure and identity have changed over time? Of course The Hole presents its own narrative on both accounts, but I’d like to hear your own in case that’s different.
Thom Donovan: The first hundred pages or so (the book runs about 160 pages) originally appeared as individual poems with titles, often dedications, on a weblog I’ve edited since 2005, called “Wild Horses of Fire.” Many occasional poems directly engaged with some cultural phenomenon or particular group of people. An event often triggered the poems. Over time I assembled a manuscript, circulating it in various forms, less to find a publisher than to receive feedback from friends and peers. As far back as 2008 or 2009 Brian Whitener, who publishes Displaced Press, approached me about doing a book. But his commitment to publishing The Hole came gradually. I started to revise the poems, to think about design questions, still uncertain whether or not it would happen. Then in the summer of 2010 I drafted an email in order to address how these poems had emerged amid this very rich constellation of people and events, here inviting addressees of the poems to produce something, some kind of response, to my manuscript. After lots of hesitation and conversations with Brian, finally in December 2010 I sent this letter. The published book presents about 40 pages of facsimiles from those solicited contributions. Again, after I’d received them, an intervening year occurred with this publishing project still up in the air. Scheduling issues arouse and further questions. During that period I began to write what I came to call the “prefaces”—essays about the state of the book, the status of a poetry book after social media, theorizing in some ways the manuscript, its conditions of production. That accounted for an additional 20 pages. The remaining material consists of low-res facsimiles from email exchanges with Michael Cross as we designed the book last summer and also an envoi, which I composed at the tail-end of this design process. Continue reading
Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Yankelevich’s book Alpha Donut (United Artists). Recorded May 8th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: You’re the first poet I know to have a selected shorter works published. But why selected “works,” not “poems”? Does “works” suggest something more constructivist, less lyrical? And to what extent have you stitched together a coherent book-length project out of these shorter works?
Matvei Yankelevich: I call a few pieces a “Poem,” but it doesn’t feel like a collection of poems. Many prose fragments come from a series called “Writing in the Margin.” Then the book culls from another series and miscellaneous projects. I was wary about assembling a collection. So I took this idea of the collection, of disparate parts, to its extreme—placing beside each other various rhythms and visual designs. The book doesn’t cohere the way a conventional poetry collection might, with each section offering specific types of poems. I wanted to resist the process where you submit a manuscript for a contest or something and think about . . . people suggest a certain sequence will grab the reader from the start and announce a basic structure. This book runs counter to that. So “selected works” of course sounds ironic, though it also makes clear you won’t find a book of self-contained lyrics. Alpha Donut coheres through typesetting, not content. Continue reading