Category: J Gordon Faylor

Caleb Beckwith with J Gordon Faylor

gpdf-cCaleb Beckwith: In your recent interview with Tan Lin over at Harriet, you give a really helpful account of Gauss PDF’s founding. Would you mind, in few sentences, recapping this for readers not familiar with that piece? And maybe also expanding a bit on the site’s editorial agenda—that is if gauss even has one? Also, how as any of 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 still find problematic the vetting processes and sometimes latent conservatism promulgated by publications/labels as a means of iterating 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 venture off the ground.

The initial fantasy was GPDF would function as a hub specifically for audio—readings, studio productions of published works (i.e. audiobooks). However, it quickly became clear that by loosening these strictures and including any kind of filetype, the site could feasibly encourage unexpected results.

The name is a pun on Gaussian probability distribution functions—a type of dither—and Adobe’s popular Portable Document Format filetype. Moreover, “dither” also means indecision, which pairs well with the indeterminate issued by GPDF.

No agenda, but maybe a haphazard pendularity between a perceived ideal—i.e., that GPDF has nothing to do with my preferences and serves as a kind of infrathin platform for the staging of submitted works—and the messy reality of taste, limitations, rejection emails, interviews, and so on. That said, I like to support work that doesn’t have an outlet elsewhere, as well as ‘entities’ that haven’t yet been published or made known. Maybe this inclination comes from spending time on Tumblr and Twitter, where the boundaries between ‘artist’ and ‘non-artist’ are unclear. GPDF welcomes the difficulties and challenges unusual or unprecedented work can reveal.

This approach has changed very little, fundamentally. I think. I feel very fortunate that the site has garnered support (and consequently, momentum) from individuals and organizations, via social media and conversation—all of which in turn has brought it to an international audience.

Also, the cover image changed once, and I started using Typekit for some of the fonts. We moved to San Francisco.

CB: Thanks for bringing up this lack of an agenda—and also the limits that such an ideal can’t help but encounter. The sheer variety of pieces housed on Gauss remains, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the site. Looking now, around 3pm Eastern on Friday, September 5, the first three pieces I see are Aidan Holmans’ video piece “Sometimes I leave my house and feel like I’m still at home.”, Leopold Brant’s (aka Felix Bernstein) book of poems “Dandyisms,” and Rocksteady mix by Bloodfaceman. Scrolling further, I see Eric Laska’s conversation before leaving “Acting on Impulse” in Los Angeles this summer and Anna Crew’s “Smart Casual,” which I might call a “catalog” first and “poem” second. You’ll have to excuse the list here. The most recent publications just exemplify this “perceived ideal” without running into it—something that, I imagine at least, might crash the site with infinitely large files.

I guess I first wonder how you see these pieces interacting with each other? And if you even think about this at all? And I now have a better way of asking my first two questions: has the variety of material received by GPDF changed over time? And more importantly, how? Clearly exposure has broadened both your reader and contributor list, but do you feel that you’ve noticed any distinct aesthetic shifts among the Gauss pool of writers/artists that you’d feel comfortable attributing to larger cultural/aesthetic phenomenon? I imagine the sample size might simply prove too simply large/diverse here. Yet I’ve heard mention of a “Gauss aesthetic” in conversation before, and, somehow, felt that I maybe understood the statement—even though I couldn’t come close to defining its terms.

As you might imagine, the obligatory question concerning “conceptual writing” lies behind this previous one. I’ve found that GPDF—along with TROLL THREAD—inevitably comes up in conversation about that seemingly controversial topic. I guess I’m interested in knowing how, if at all, you see GPDF engaging with conceptual writing practices, and whether that terminology is even valuable for the work GPDF does?

JGF: The catalog’s progression is predicated on a rather subjective and unreliable notion of sequence. It’s unclear if this approach is legible to others or in fact goes some way toward synthesizing the catalog, but it’s been quite helpful to me in terms of plotting out a loose or obscure narrative thread between the divergences of the hosted works.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of room for interaction between the publications, whether explicit—as in the case of Tonya St. Clair’s two published works, or Feliz Lucia Molina and Reynard Seifert’s upcoming collaboration, sections of which remix some of Molina’s already-published writings—or implicit, and so resulting from social contingencies and shared compulsions.

Given that the quantity of submissions GPDF receives from ‘new’ contributors (i.e. those who have not yet appeared on the site) exceeds that of multiple submissions from single contributors, it becomes especially difficult to trace an evolutionary (or retroactive) pattern. Even more so for me because I’m ‘in it’.

I referred to a narrative compulsion above, but again, this is more the product of a temporal aesthetic or thematic resonance—a quiet strategy—than an attempt to foster ideological coherence. It seems like some other small presses/publishers take on, say, a ‘personality’ when communicating through social media; this is something I want to avoid, though maybe that is impossible.

Additionally, I will say that it seems as though the the boundaries of certain media are thankfully becoming less and less clear and cross-pollinate on a more regular basis, both on GPDF and elsewhere—the concern being not whether we might call something an “image” or “poem”, but where and how those terms might vanish into or mutate one another, or what might be gained from obfuscating quotidian reference points for such productions. A side note: in my Harriet interview with Tan Lin, I think I was a little wanton in my employing the term “genre”. While I’d still argue that genre is a helpful concept for delineating or even isolating a certain practice, I no longer think that (for instance) file type is commensurate with genre, though I’m open to that notion being challenged.

Besides, so much is out of ‘my’ control: these austere, managerial inclinations and terminological/genre-prone scramblings remain helpless against the processes of historicization, academic or otherwise. GPDF, like TROLL THREAD, has a complicated relationship with “Conceptual writing” and other strains of contemporary art, and some contributors (myself included) are socially entwined with it. This has obvious benefits, and in some way it has helped to legitimize the site in an unwieldy and densely packed American/international poetry/art milieu.

But it goes both ways: there’s always the chance for crass reductionism, and people are always ready to make assumptions based on affiliations. Differentiation drives GPDF, but such attempts at nuanced distinction may end up folded into themselves by a larger and more established enterprise. I have a lot of admiration for Felix Bernstein’s Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, which situates GPDF as a kind of ‘post-conceptual’ publication, but still admittedly do some hand-wringing over the designation.

This is all to say that, basically, I’m not sure what the GPDF aesthetic is; maybe you could elaborate? In any case, it’s important that we continue questioning the formal models that belie apparently unconsidered productions.

CB: I totally feel your first point about genre distinctions. This may prove a product of the communities I run in, but it seems like nearly everyone I know who produces writing of some sort inevitably produces pieces containing more than. Of course, the focus on writing with a particular media itself presupposes a particular attunement of attention—i.e. that we focus on the text, rather than the codex if it happens to appear in a book. or the computer a pdf, etc.

What I mean is that, as a writer working in a contemporary moment, the bounds of writing and poetry proper seem not only profoundly limited, but very quickly eroding across the board. Things like art books, websites and whatever have all contained super interesting language for a really long time, but the cool thing is that I am now noticing a critical mass of “writers” across various traditions (“conceptual” or otherwise) viewing these media as another layer of their piece. Its as if the frame has expanded not only from the stanza to the page, but the page or whatever to the desk, etc.

This is, of course, all old news to folks used to reading not only works housed on sites like Gauss/TT, but also the latter twentieth’s century’s history of innovative writing. That said, I can’t reiterate enough how much I’ve seen the influence of that supposed “Gauss aesthetic” all over the place. I think of a workshop with a poet writing about traditional concerns of the self in a way that I’m not particularly into, but incorporating things like IP address histories and email patterns as a matter of course. I’d say this sort of technological intervention leads out of where said writer wanted to go and into some—for me, at least—much more interesting places, but, the point of it is, this sort of fissure seems to be spreading across  something we might call “poetry proper.” As a writer with neither interest nor place in “the proper” (not to mention “poetry”), I find this very exciting.

I wonder, do you notice these things? And is GPDF even invested enough in subjects like the definition of something called “poetry” for you to consider it? And would elaborating on F. Berstein’s Notes get us closer to that question?

JGF: Your zoom-out (poem-to-page-to-desk) is a particularly helpful move re: the development you discuss, though it may risk ‘mere’ philosophizing (e.g. existentialism, OOO); it’s an outward grappling that emphasizes context and the incidental aspects of production, possibly a way to suggest non-production. Given the largely unexplored quality of this approach, what eventually matters is the interpositioning of a figure within a larger set of environments and concepts. And to avoid phenomenology.

This also begs a kind of negative of the holistic or recuperative reading of impelled ‘poetic’ production (i.e. the ‘poem’ absorbs or becomes ‘life’): rather, we might ask, what refuses the work? By dint of the technological framework through which a human’s poem functions, there are technical/biological/ecological limitations as well as surreptitious legal backdrops. Google owns this correspondence, to name one (though it has also been edited in Word). These questions have helped me get through this lurid swamp of so much essentialist and/or metaphysical shit related to art, much of which posits art as a kind of Romantic Dominance over world and identity, whereby conditions of reciprocal ecological conditions are subjugated to the poet’s processing technique and style. The Great Pacific garbage patch is like ‘our’ selfie against the ocean; it exhibits a very real will to power over one’s environment. On a much smaller scale—and more pertinent to this ‘scene’—consider the constant hyperbolics and flimsiness of blurbs, the purpose of which is usually to translate thematics into sales. Distinguishing releases by filetype allows GPDF in some small way to sidestep this inclination via its ostensible ‘neutrality’, though of course there is no real escape.

Also, something that pleases me about this approach is the degree to which it allows for a multiplicity/confluence of identities, as well as accident or automation. To resign oneself to an agora as expansive as the Internet may compel approaches like appropriation and duplication—if only, say, as self-immolating critique of its military-industrial origins. And these are modes that haven’t even really been formally conceptualized so much as attitudinally deployed, anyhow.

So these unexplored means of differentiation are what excites GPDF, apparently, as they dispute the mire of personality and aesthetic that constitutes so much ‘poetry discourse’ and other interfacing tactics. I’m not interested in a definition for poetry so much as the tensions its many definitions exhibit when in the midst of other forms, or when placed in a more general complex of disciplines and approaches.

As for Notes, it does seem to register these categorical breakdowns. When I first read it, I couldn’t tell whether I should be reading it as performance or criticism or memoir. Felix also really covers a lot of ground and speaks effectively to an impulse that may be fictionalized enough to run through a number of ‘younger’ writers, though I’m not sure I can verify that in any substantial way.

There is as well the consequence of staking territory that accompanies any inaugural critical investigation of a largely untouched group of writers and artists, i.e. generating academic capital. Felix is aware of this or at least makes that difficulty palpable and ironizes it. I’m not sure how much more I can say, regretfully, as I hesitate to suggest that GPDF publications (in general) are exemplary of any mode, let alone the ‘post-conceptual’. Rather, it’s like situating ‘reporting’ against ‘curation’—to err on the side of presentation rather than hermeneutics.

CB: I totally feel your imperative to “avoid phenomenology.” It both says and does a ton in the context of our conversation about the supposed challenges brought to categories like “poetry” by GPDF and others. Having mentioned it, I can’t help but also ask about GPDF’s function within a larger literary landscape. I’ve found that readers typically find a great deal of permission in the array of works hosted by GPDF, manifest in their categorization by file type, among other things. I think its wise to avoid complicating that with any direct comments on their functions for you as an editor—especially for the weighted category of “exemplary” works and the like.

I’d like to ask you, then, as a reporter, about another work. I originally conceived this interview around the time that Gauss released Steve McLaughlin’s fantastic Puniverse. For those not familiar with the work, Puniverse is a fifty-seven volume work described by Steve as:

  being the ingenuous
  crossing of an idiom set
  and a rhyming dictionary

Outside of mentioning that I have seriously considered buying all 57 material volumes from lulu, I’ll avoid getting into that work any further to avoid the common conflation of example and exemplary. However, I will ask what, if any, weight you give that work as GPDF’s 100th release?

Or, if you’d prefer, maybe just anything on that work in general. I’m currently revisiting it in all three file formats (57 pdfs, on massive txt doc and web 1.0 page labeled “nfo” that I’d somehow missed until now), and its more striking than ever. I have to admit that, upon its release, I did feel a pull towards viewing this work as not so much exemplary as exhausting the perceived trope in conceptual writing as categorically large works. Its as if Puniverse almost exhausts exhaustion, a gesture I can’t help but appreciate both as a reader and writer. But my response to Puniverse feels almost idiosyncratic at this point.

JGF: I can’t deny subjectivity outright. But I guess I also like to be dazzled sometimes. There is—I confess—a celebratory-strategic purpose in placing a work as unwieldy and beautifully executed as Puniverse in the 100th slot, but I guess it shouldn’t be construed as ‘representative’ beyond a basic grab at fleeting publicity. GPDF also gets into a kind of oblique numeromancy or numerological recurrence once in a blue moon, though this may not be the best example.

Puniverse does engender some concerns related to Conceptual writing (e.g. textual automation, poetry as informational output), but beyond the relatively simple premise that spurs the algorithm, I’d say that it manages to generate humor (macro/micro), as well as a narratological mystery, consequent to the unclear pairing of an image from Shiv Kotecha’s stunning Instagram account with each volume. Where the algorithmic output will ‘unquestionably’ perform its function across the 57 volumes, the implications of Kotecha’s images encourage questions or inferences of ‘some’ narrative, of entangled modes of expressivity and inexpressivity. Anyhow, I love Puniverse, and Steve is great in general. What’s up Steve.


J. Gordon Faylor’s work has been published by TROLL THREADbas-booksOrWorse, and Cordite Poetry Review, among others. He edits Gauss PDF.