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You Take Your Love Where You Get It: An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith and Seth Abramson via @ParisReview #metamodernism

The Paris Review: Since your practice emphasizes the value of the selection process over the creation process, how do you choose what to include and exclude from a book like Seven American Deaths and Disasters?

SA: We should consider acts of deletion every bit as creative—and in the conventional sense of that term, too—as acts of addition. And we can, if only we permit our definition of poetry’s unit of measure to evolve. Poetry’s units of measure are commonly said to be linguistic units, but if instead we regard the chief unit of a poem as a phenomenological one—that is, if we can accept discrete realities as instrumental units of measure—creativity can just as well be engaged with the placement of new text into a previously bare compositional space, the juxtaposition of original and found texts in a networked intertextual space, or (perhaps less interestingly than this latter option) the deduction of extant texts into new art-objects.

Choosing what to include or exclude from any collation of language is merely a question of which phenomenologies one wishes to privilege. I think a reader can read a poetry collection that selects, edits, frames, and markets certain perspectives on reality and ask exactly the question you’ve asked: How was this particular reality constructed, and why? So answering the question as you’ve posed it really would be as gauche as a poet explaining ad nauseum every linguistic election he made in a poetry collection that took the act of addition as the only creative act available to the poet. No one needs a transcript of anyone’s poetic process. Obviously to the extent any such process is made readily available to anyone, it should be encoded somehow, first. There are ways to do this that transcend the act of transcription.

KG: I do have a great transcript from the shooting of Ronald Reagan, but it’s mostly Secret Service men talking to each other in numerical code, which just didn’t fit in well with the other, more transparently textual pieces.

PR: This book feels both like an important historical document and a beautiful example of what the Great American Novel might look like today. Yet you identify it, and much of your other work, as poetry. I’m curious why that particular genre is so important to you?

SA: Well, the reason I suggest that many more tools are available to the poet than we normally account for, and the reason I say this of poets much more readily than I would of writers in other genres, is that I agree with the many theorists who have termed poetry a “meta-genre”—a series of variously abstract and tactile gestures that can be made manifest in conventional verse forms or (equally) in other spheres like fiction, nonfiction, or journalism. All it takes for us to accept poetry as a meta-genre is to say that poetics is the defining feature of poetry, finally, rather than aesthetics. If it’s the former, we are compelled to whittle down all possible compositional gestures into a series of agreed-upon or in any case “possible” ones in order to determine what poetry is. But if the idea of poetry as “meta-genre” is indeed made possible by the infinite spatial interactions that can occur between a single consciousness and all others (whether these interactions are encoded in language or non-verbal), we begin to see why it’s absolutely vital that we speak about poetry in these terms. 

KG: You take your love where you get it.

PR: As with many of your projects, I notice that time, duration, and history seem rather significant to this book, especially in terms of the tension created between our personal and cultural experiences of chronology. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how Seven American Deaths and Disasters intersects these issues.

SA: All possible perspectives on the past, present, and future are always-already historical and historicized, so history—the ontological process, not necessarily the specific submissions of the thing—is the motive engine of every text.

When we speak of “duration” we are trying to express in the fourth dimension (time) what really the poet is called upon to consider in the fifth dimension. That is, the poet sees duration as a three-dimensional space, not a straight line, and the phenomenological poet therefore travels through this space with language as an instrument but not (as the Language poets once had it) a limitation or series of exclusions. We are constructed not by language, but by shifting phenomenologies of which language is only one facet.

KG: But it’s curious to see who is moved differently when I do readings of this work. For younger people, the Kennedys are cold, distant historical figures while Michael Jackson grabs all the heat. 

PR: Following Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s claim in Notes on Conceptualisms that “failure is the goal of conceptual writing,” in what ways do you see Seven American Deaths and Disasters succeeding in failure?

SA: I think many people are starting to reject this idea of “conceptual writing” as a movement, mode, school, or even practice—which is why speaking of conceptual writing as having a “goal” is as incongruous as would be asking passersby about the “point” of Life itself. We create the spacetime we individually and jointly call Life by networking all perceivable “points” via the network culture all of us are daily suffused in. Writing that uses concept (whether an ideology or a praxis) as its motive engine networks its necessarily multidirectional ethos by contemplating multiple end-games at once.

I don’t know, as a poet, what “failure is the goal” could possibly mean. It’s a nonsense because it treats a five- or even six-dimensional artform as less than three-dimensional. That decision to collapse rather than network and fold (and thereby transcend) dimensions is endemic to the late postmodernism that birthed the narrow ideology Place and Fitterman inaptly call “conceptual writing.”

So, can a book “succeed in failure”? I think the real question is, what sort benighted dialectic born of a bygone philosophical age even speaks seriously of “failure” with respect to poetics? Poetics is an idiosyncratic act of networking that transcends all polar spectra and “fails” only if it collapses its natural multidimensionality into movements, modes, schools, practices, or poles like “success” and “failure.” It’s no more complicated than Stevenson: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labor.” There is only the labor of a lifetime; success is measured by the continuation of purposeful movement in any direction against an accumulation of recognized environmental obstacles.

KG: I’m not sure I agree with this statement. I prefer the definition made by Peli Grietzer, when he claimed that conceptual writing can be evaluated by an “aesthetic of sufficiency.” In order to succeed, a book must simply fulfill its requirements—no more, no less. 

SA {shaking head}: Jesus Christ.

PR: Regarding your aversion to “getting creative with the text,” could you clarify what you mean in terms of your perspective on the boundary between “creative” and “uncreative” writing?

SA: There is no such boundary. Poetry is “creative meta-writing”—the discovery of a relationship between author, language, genre, and environment(s) that is transdimensional and therefore beyond “boundary.” There is no inside or outside, no mainstream an avant-garde could push off from, no readily measurable points of deviation. The map is the map, and it’s larger than a spaceship. Sorry, spacetime.

KG: …

SA: …

KG: That’s Bernstein. And you took it wholesale. At least say so. And your preceding answer was a paraphrase of Wittgenstein. In fact, none of these thoughts are originally yours.

SA: Oh?

I’ve noticed that you often cite Brion Gysin’s quip about writing being fifty years behind painting. If it’s safe to say writing is now in its conceptualist stage, what can we expect next in terms of postconceptualist poetic practices? 

SA: Writing never entered or left a conceptualist stage. Writing is always conceptual, the question is only its dimensionality. We are moving from a time of purposeful four-dimensionality in meta-writing—a time that began with Apollinaire and is now in its death throes—to a time of transdimensionality informed by network culture and metamodern theory. But to call anything “postconceptual” would be a misnomer; poets are still, as ever, laboring in and under concepts (which aggregate into “poetics”) as well as aesthetics. They’ve merely expanded their investigations, of late, into the sort of juxtaposed four-dimensional realities the Internet performs untold millions of times per millisecond. 

If I were to say, instead of all this, that we were entering a time of—I don’t know—say “kitschy” or “ironic” poetry—I’d be merely re-entrenching the same late postmodern dialectic that Apollinaire and Reznikoff investigated shortly before and shortly after (respectively) WWI, and that others have aped (albeit with much better marketing campaigns) in the decades thereafter. I don’t think we can afford to make that mistake.

KG: We see younger writers melding rigorous strategies with kitschy and ironic texts in works such as Andy Sterling’s Supergroup, which is 426 pages of nothing but listings of sidemen and engineers from forgotten LPs.

SA: Oh, I disagree with all of that. Supergroup is neither kitschy nor ironic, nor can we in any sense say it is “nothing but listings.” It’s a credible and deeply committed affirmative submission: that what’s superlative in music is not its product—sales, figureheads, consumers, rainmakers—but its compositional process. A process impossible, for much of rock music’s history, without session men and engineers. It’s Gertrude Stein—plus hopefulness.

KG: I said “sidemen,” not “session men.”

SA: Well, the point remains.

Any idea what’s next or where your work is headed?

SA: I hope not.

KG: Reading through the entire corpus of literature written about New York in the twentieth century, I have taken notes and selected what I consider to be the most relevant and interesting parts, sorting them into sheaves. The idea is to rewrite the words of Walter Benjamin as a way of interacting with his ideas.

We may, as an act of wish fulfillment, believe we’re interacting with someone when we read a book of their poems and think, “Ah, but I might have written…” or when we read an interview with them and think, “Ah, but I would have responded…”, when in fact this illusion of interactivity, certainly born of the Internet Age, is—while generative as a process and temperamentally optimistic—easily misunderstood by others and even we ourselves as merely an act of egotism rather than a grasping for intertextuality.

By contrast, when we alter the words themselves, we cast aside even the thin veneer of dialectics any enactment of intertextuality leaves behind; we say instead that persons are words and equally words are persons—that is to say, discrete realities—instrumental in and of themselves as building blocks of Truth. Sorry, not capital-t “Truth,” obviously. I meant Truth. Sorry—misspoke again. Truth. What the… Truth. Truth. Truth. Fucking odd… Truth. Truth. Truth. Truth. Fuck me. Truth. Truth.

Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth Truth.

The Truth will set you free. I want Truth for breakfast, mommy. Jes—Truth. Truth Truth. TruthTruthTruthTruth. Okay, this is kitschy. This is like bad kitsch. This is what I’m talking about. Someone is fucking with me here. I am definitely being fucked with. Vanessa’s behind this somehow, bet on it. Maybe if I do it qui Truth. TruthTruthTruthTruthTruth Truth t-r-e-Truth. ’sTruth. Vanessa’s behind thisTruth. Truth. Shit. I mean honestly, this is so ham-fisted. Truth. Son of a bitch. Okay—whatever. Fuck it. 

Posted 11/28/14
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